Princess Olha of Kyiv: a golden page in Ukrainian history

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2016/11/05 • Culture, History, Ukraine

Princess Olha’s origin and chronology remain a mystery. Historians are only sure of the date of her death, recorded in ancient church chronicles. Several versions of her ancestry have been put forth by different scholars: Bulgarian, Varyngian, Kyiv, Halychyna, Pskov, Tmutarakan and others, but none of them have been historically confirmed.

In the “Tale of Bygone Years” (Primary Chronicles), chroniclers write that a woman named Olha was brought from Pskov in 903 to be married to Ihor, son of Rurik (first ruler of Kyivan Rus-Ed.). She must have been about 14 years old at that time, so it allows scholars to suppose that Princess Olha was born somewhere between 889 and 891 years. Olha and Ihor lived together for 33 years, and when their son Svyatoslav was born, she was approximately 36 years old.

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First meeting between Ihor and Olha by Vasyl Sazonov

In the last years of Ihor’s reign, Kyivan Rus was engaged in a war against the Drevlians [Early East Slavs between 6th and 10th century, which inhabited the territories of Polissia and right-bank Ukraine-Ed.], a  tribe that refused to pay tribute to the Grand Prince of Kyiv. According to chronicles, the Drevlians massacred Prince Ihor and his troops near the city of Iskorosten [modern Korosten in Ukraine] in 945. The Byzantine chronicler of the second half of the 19th century, Leo the Deacon outlined a detailed picture of this terrible massacre. He described that Prince Ihor was tied to the branches of two bent birch trees, and when they were released, his body was torn apart… [In 945-946, Ihor’s widow Olha avenged her husband’s death in an extremely harsh manner, killing Drevlian ambassadors and nobility, burning their capital of Iskorosten to the ground and leveling other towns. After having subjugated the Drevlians, Olha transformed their territories into a Kyivan appanage with the center in Vruchiy-Ed.]

Kyivan Rus 980-1054

Kyivan Rus 980-1054

Olha was left to reign as regent with her young son Svyatoslav. The reign of Grand Princess Olha of Kyiv marks a decisive turn in the history of Kyivan Rus.

After subjugating the Drevlians, Princess Olha did not engage in further wars like her husband Ihor and ancestor Oleh, but devoted her time to internal affairs of the state. She visited the entire kingdom, from the Desna River to Pskov and Novhorod.

Princess Olga first set to cleaning up the tribute system: she established certain norms for taxes and brought in new terminology and practices, such as “устави, уроки, дані” (statutes, classes, data) that were recorded by chroniclers. Tribute collected from the Drevlians and other tribes was divided into three parts: two went to Kyiv, and the third – to Vyshhorod, where Olha had her residence.

In 957, Princess Olga visited Constantinople, where she signed an agreement with the Byzantine emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus. It was during this royal visit that she adopted Christianity in the night of October17 to 18, 957. Ancient Rus chronicles write that as soon as Olha returned to Kyiv, she began to demolish pagan temples. However, she was not able to impose Christianity throughout the kingdom.

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Baptism of Princess Olha by Serhiy Kyrylov

Princess Olha introduced laws for industrial hunting of fur-bearing animals and specified which areas were to provide fur to the state treasury. Subordinated tribes also gave fur as tribute to the central state, and was in great demand in other European countries.

Grand Princess Olha of Kyiv was also renowned for building many important edifices. The Joachim Chronicles mention the construction of the wooden church of St. Sofia in the Kyiv Acropolis. The “Tale of Bygone Years” also refers to the great Kyiv Palace of Princess Olha.

Princess Olha died in July, 969. Prince Svyatoslav buried his mother according to Christian tradition in the Church of St. Nicholas near Askold’s grave.

Askold's Grave by Vasily Sternberg, 1837

Askold’s Grave by Vasily Sternberg, 1837

Her grandson, Volodymyr the Great [Christianization of Kyivan Rus in 988-Ed.] transferred her remains to the Desyatynna Church of the Assumption of the Virgin in Kyiv. During the Mongol invasion of Rus in the 13th century, Olha’s relics were hidden under the ruins of the church. When Metropolitan Petro Mohyla started building a small church on the site of the ancient Desyatynna Church in 1635, he discovered her relics, which he left in place; they were preserved there until the 18th century. They were then reburied by order of the Moscow Synod, but no one knows exactly where.

Grand Princess Olha of Kyiv was a wise, strong, and charismatic ruler, and her story marks one of the golden pages of our long history.


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Translated by: Christine Chraibi
Edited by: A. N.
Source: Vsviti

Tags: , , , , , ,

  • Turtler

    I see we’re overlooking some of the less savory parts of her crushing of the Derevlians, such as a massacre of them *during their surrender ceremony* at her husband’s funeral where they would make amends. And then going off to murder the remainder and reacted to another surrender and beg for mercy by another massacre (this one involving wanton cruelty to animals) before going through the few remaining prisoners, murdering and enslaving most, and leaving the rest as basically paying off tribute for all of it. In wanton and quite blatant contravention of the norms of Blood Gold that dominated.

    And this is by far the most notable part of her rule.

    So let’s be blunt here.Olha was a genocidal warlord with a significant sadistic streak, even if we overlook some of the issues with internal organization (and some of the resulting repression).

    Is she a saint? Perhaps. But I highly doubt it is because of conduct like this. Was it a golden age for Kyiv? Certainly. But let’s look what it was built on.

    Olha is an example off how despotism, absolute monarchy, and state terror in the land of the Rus did not begin with the emergence of Moscow and the likes of the Muscovite Ivans (including the Terrible). Even her hagiographies described it.

    And by whitewashing this we do ourselves no favors. Be it as Christians, as Ukrainians (or friends of Ukrainians), or human beings.

    • Alex George

      “And this is by far the most notable part of her rule.”

      I suppose it is, if one is only interested in warfare in the history of a nation and ruler.

      Is it true what the article says, that other than this campaign she didn’t engage in warfare? If so, then what is the basis of concentrating on her one campaign?

      And is it true that they killed her husband by tearing him apart? If so, it might have been an idea to make sure that they didn’t lose any subsequent confrontation.

      • Turtler

        “I suppose it is, if one is only interested in warfare in the history of a nation and ruler.”

        Not really, it’s something that really dominates most histories of her, even those that go into the details about her statecraft and the rest. Heck, even Hagiographies focus on it.

        I do not mean to deny her poltiical or religious influence, but when the stuff focusing on your life as a saint largely talk about this, it’s worth noting.

        “And is it true that they killed her husband by tearing him apart?”

        As far as we can tell, yes. Though with the caveat that he was apparently trying to make them pay twice the tribute that was custom.

        But even given that I do not mean to be an apologist for assassination during a meeting, if I give Olha flack for it I certainly am not going to let her enemies get away with initiating it. So I can certainly understand that they Drevs shed first blood.and in a way that more than invited violent retribution. Killing those that committed the crime and their loyal servants fit in.

        The issue I have with it is not the violent retribution in and of itself, it was the degree. Especially since from what we can tell the most (in)famous bloodletting happened AFTER they had been defeated and were desperately suing for peace. Heck, the final episode (and the burning of a civilian target) can’t even be justified by repaying perfidy with perfidy because virtually everyone involved in the murder of her husband would’ve been killed already. And any survivors could have simply been demanded as one of the prices for peace (what were the Drevs going to do? Refuse?).

        And this isn’t me going back and looking at Medieval politics through the eyes of a mushy hearted 21st century international law stickler; this stuff would have been jaw-dropping even at the Time. In particular the Kyivans’ cousins the Scandinavians (of Vikingr, pillaging, and blood eagle fame) would have been utterly mortified at a ruler conducting such an utterly tyrannical and savage action. Say what you will about weregeld and blood-for-blood, but that was supposed to be levied on the person or at most the clan/locale that had actually done the deed, not everybody living in the general area of their zip code.

        (Compare/contrast the response of Ragnar the Great’s sons to the execution of their father and other prisoners , for instance).

        “If so, it might have been an idea to make sure that they didn’t lose any
        subsequent confrontation.”

        Perhaps, but the issue I have with this is that imposing a garrison on the Drevs or forcing them to relocate to Kyiv or be scattered around the realm (and thus be of little harm) would have probably served at least as well. The Rus had been doing this for at least a century (igor himself- the assassinated guy- had done it when he conquered Lyubech and his and Vladimir would ultimately do it in the Volga and the area around Novgorod).

      • Nowhere Girl

        There was definitely something sadistic about Olga. She took revenge on the Drevlans four times. The last time was the one when she marched on their burg and demaned tribute in form of domesticated birds, which she later used to set the city on fire. Definitely an important historical figure, but hardly a saint.

  • Thomas

    Interesting story. The top portrait isn’t of princess Olha though. It’s a painting depicting princess Irina Volodarovna (daughter of Volodar Rostislavich). There ought to be other paintings/pics to use. Snap a photo of her statue at St Michaels if nothing else… :)

  • zorbatheturk

    Gonna show that interesting map to Vladimir Putin…