Who Was Princess Olga of Kiev?

Portrait Olga of Kiev by Bruni Nikolai Alexandrovich.

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Princess Olga of Kiev, also known as St. Olga, is sometimes credited as founding, with her grandson Vladimir, what has come to be known as Russian Christianity (the Moscow Patriarchate within Eastern Orthodoxy). She was the ruler of Kiev as regent for her son, and she was the grandmother of St. Vladimir, great-grandmother of Saint Boris and Saint Gleb.

She lived about 890 to July 11, 969. Dates for Olga's birth and marriage are far from certain. "The Primary Chronicle" gives her birth date as 879. If her son was born in 942, that date is certainly suspect.

She was also known as St. Olga, Saint Olga, Saint Helen, Helga (Norse), Olga Piekrasa, Olga the Beauty, and Elena Temicheva. Her baptismal name was Helen (Helene, Yelena, Elena).

Origins

Olga's origins are not known with certainty, but she may have come from Pskov. She was probably of Varangian (Scandinavian or Viking) heritage. Olga was married to Prince Igor I of Kiev in about 903. Igor was the son of Rurik, often seen as the founder of Russia, as Rus. Igor became the ruler of Kiev, a state which included parts of what is now Russia, the Ukraine, Byelorussia, and Poland. A 944 treaty with the Greeks mentions both baptized and unbaptized Rus.

Ruler

When Igor was murdered in 945, Princess Olga assumed the regency for her son, Svyatoslav. Olga served as regent until her son was of age in 964. She was known as a ruthless and effective ruler. She resisted marrying Prince Mal of the Drevlians, who had been the killers of Igor, killing their emissaries and burning their city in revenge for her husband's death. She resisted other offers of marriage and defended Kiev from attacks.

Religion

Olga turned to religion — specifically, to Christianity. She traveled to Constantinople in 957, where some sources say that she was baptized by the Patriarch Polyeuctus with Emperor Constantine VII as her godfather. She may have converted to Christianity, including becoming baptized, before her trip to Constantinople (perhaps in 945). There are no historical records of her baptism, so the controversy is not likely to be settled.

After Olga returned to Kiev, she was unsuccessful in converting her son or many others. Bishops appointed by the Holy Roman Emperor Otto were expelled by Svyatoslav's allies, according to several early sources. Her example, however, may have helped to influence her grandson, Vladimir I. He was the third son of Svyatoslav and brought Kiev (Rus) into the official Christian fold.

Olga died, probably on July 11, 969. She is considered the first saint of the Russian Orthodox Church. Her relics were lost in the 18th century.

Sources

Cartwright, Mark. "Constantine VII." Ancient History Encyclopedia, December 6, 2017.

Cross, Samuel Hazzard. "The Russian Primary Chronicle: Laurentian Text." Olgerd P. Sherbowitz-Wetzor (Editor, Translator), Paperback, Medieval Academy of America, August 10, 2012.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. "St. Olga." Encyclopaedia Britannica.