The Russian Warrior-Princess Who Captured a City With an Army of Birds
Meet the Kievan princess who saved the very name of Rus'
When you think of a great Russian military leader, do you imagine a princess warlord? If not, why not? Were it not for Saint Olga of Kiev, there may not be a Russia today. This Warrior-Princess conquered the tribe that killed her husband, enamored the Roman Emperor so much he wanted to marry her, burned a city to the ground using only birds, established one of the earliest tax systems, and is single handedly responsible for saving the very name of Russia.
Had it not been for her, what we call Russia today could be called Drevlia. Known as Helga in the Old Norse sagas, she was born in Pskov in the year 879, and is the grandmother of the greatest Russian leader in history. Her grandson Vladimir the Great, baptized the entire nation in the river Dniper, but before his baptism, she became the first Russian ruler to convert to Christianity, and she was a great inspiration to him not only in her faith, but because of her legendary skill in battle strategy.
Let's take a look at Olga the Wise of Kiev, Sovereign and Defender of Rus’, Lady and Harbinger of Fire, Mother of the Motherland and all the Russias.
According to the Primary Chronicle, Olga was a daughter of one of the minor Kings that dotted the Russian lands. Their kin were called Varyagi, or Vikings in Russian, as they were originally of Scandinavian decent, though quickly assimilated to the Slavic culture. The greatest amongst them was Rurik, Russia's founder, who landed at Novgorod, and sent his son Igor with his brother Oleg to Kiev. Kiev was the center of a major trade rout from Scandinavia to Constantinople, which brought early Slavs and Vikings as far as Baghdad. Igor took a wife from one of these lesser rulers - the future Olga of Kiev.
Igor went to collect taxes from one of the Slavic tribes, the Drevlians (forest dwellers), and in return, they brutally killed him. They tied his limbs onto two birch trees that when released, tore him asunder. With the assassination of her husband, the Drevlians sought to force Olga to marry their prince, not only for her great beauty, but in order to conquer Russia. She had no choice but to defend herself. They would not only force her into marriage, and destroy her people, but likely murder her children to prevent her husband's dynasty from living on; her young son was only three years old. By murdering her husband, they awoke a dormant fire in the princess, though she herself still a pagan, these men worshiped only fire and the sword, and so Providence ordained that the future Saint Olga began her rule of Russia, by avenging her husband with fire and the sword.
Please understand the actions which you are about to read about, were in an attempt to save her people from absolute destruction. These were brutal times, and actions we consider horrifying where common practice in the ninth century. All of the fighting occurred before she became a Christian, it is not the reason for her canonization. Though she was at this time a pagan, her fiery victory was a victory of the early seeds of Russian Christianity over dark and destructive paganism
The Drevlians underestimated her, because she was a woman, and they paid dearly. She entrapped their envoy in a sauna, and burned it to the ground, but then sent word to their Prince that she accepted his offer. She demanded he send his best advisers and officers to escort her to him. Incredibly, they fell for the same trap, not knowing their predecessor's fate, and met the same fiery end.
Later in what would be a Russian red wedding, as bloody as the episode of Game of Thrones, she and 5000 of her soldiers destroyed a great host of Drevlians whilst they were drunk, and with their army weakened, and leadership crippled, she was ready to march on them, and she laid siege to their capitol.
In what may have been the most brilliant siege tactic in history, Olga said she would leave if they paid her tribute in all their birds, which they accepted thinking her a fool. Legend has it she then set the birds on fire, and they flew back to the city, burning it to the ground.
Her skill in battle was not her only talent, that would make her like her son Svyatoslav, who won every battle but lost every war. She was called Olga the God-Wise for a reason, whilst her military strategy preserved Rus', it was her administrative tenacity that secured it as a great power. As she fought to unify the Russian lands, she simultaneously raised tribute and taxes among them. She understood the importance of peace, and only waged war in order to obtain it.
Her pogosts, became state owned trading stations, where local princes would pay taxes to Kiev, allowing them for the first time, to receive regular, predicable income based in law, not Viking style raiding. She learned from her husband's mistakes. He failed to realize a true king doesn't come down to his subjects making demands, he demands that they come to him. Igor personally traveled to collect tribute, and thus he was killed, but Olga the Wise understood that you don't go take money from people, you establish the law so they must come pay taxes to you. Every pogost she built was marked with a symbol called the trizub or trident, which is the basis for the Ukrainian coat of arms, though each prince slightly modified it.
By spreading the influence and dominance of Kiev, she unified the Russian lands. Using her new income, she minted their first coins, ensuring they were marked with this symbol. Soon all that she owned from inns, to hunting grounds, to animals, and every last grivna (coins) was marked with it. She was brilliant, her plan was to use this revenue to build new infrastructure, some of which could generate sustainable income paying for itself. She would then ensure all infrastructure built was permanently associated with the state in people's hearts and minds. She ensured everyone from the nobles counting their coins, to the peasants working the land never forgot who built their walls, filled their towers with grain, and who owns everything in Russia, by putting the symbol of Kiev always before them. She established the rule of law, and the power of the state, she made sure everyone knew that everything you can see is property of the State of Rus'
Later in life she traveled to Constantinople, and accepted orthodox faith, having impressed the emperor so much he wished to marry her. Wishing to be married only once, she tricked the Emperor into baptizing her, thus becoming her Godfather, saying she would marry him afterwards.
She returned to Kiev living out her days in penitent piety, trying hard to evangelize, and to established orthodoxy in Rus'. Unfortunately, her son Svyatoslav, like his father, remained a pagan and attacked Constantinople. He fought in many wars, but for as many Viking shield-maidens he brought with him, he ignored the council of his mother, and was slain. In her final years, she tearfully accepted God's will, as nothing is harder than seeing the ones you love choose the wrong path.
Nothing is harder than trying prevent them from making the wrong choice, and being unable to stop them, knowing they are blind, and they go to their doom, and being unable to save them. But she never gave up hope that Russia would one day become Christian, even if she would not live to see it. She ended her life in a Christian way, blameless and peaceful saying
“God’s will be done! If it pleases God to have mercy upon my native Russian Land, then they shall turn their hearts to God, just as I have received this gift.”
Though she never saw all of Rus' become Christian during her life, her dream was fulfilled by her grandson Vladimir the Great. With him, she shares possibly the highest honor of sainthood "Equal-to-the Apostles" counting Olga and Vladimir among the likes of Mary Magdalene, Emperor Constantine and Helen, and Cyril and Methodius. Through the blood and tears of Saint Olga, a red sun finally dawned over Kiev, dispelling the primordial darkness, and her grandson, Vladimir the Bright Sun, baptized Rus' in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Topiarian Hymn to Saint Olga:
Giving your mind the wings of divine understanding,
you soared above visible creation seeking God the Creator of all.
When you had found Him, you received rebirth through baptism.
As one who enjoys the Tree of Life,
you remain eternally incorrupt, ever-glorious Olga.
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