Princess Olga (also known as “Olha” – Ukrainian, “Ольга”) is a revered historical and legendary figure among Eastern Slavs. Much about her exact history is debatable and unknown, due to the imprecisions of the Primary Chronicle, the source from which most of Princess Olga’s history is derived. The medieval Slavic matriarch was born in 890, supposedly in the city of Pskov. She is revered in Slavic history for her unique leadership as royal sovereign of the Kyivian Rus’, the powerful medieval Slavic state that ruled much of Eastern Europe from the 9th to 13th century. At its height, the Kyivian Rus’ state that Princess Olga and her dynasty built spanned the land between the Baltic and Black Seas. The modern states and peoples of Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus can trace their origins back to the Kyivian Rus’, and thus all three nations have historically significant ties to Princess Olga.
Princess Olga’s story begins with her infamously brutal avengement of the death of her husband, Ihor, Grand Prince of the Kyivian Rus’, who was killed by the Drevlians (from “Древляне” – “the forest dwellers”) who inhabited the right bank of the Dnieper river. According to the Primary Chronicle, Princess Olga’s vengeance knew no bounds; she slaughtered Drevlian ambassadors and nobility, burned their capital of Iskorosten to ashes, and leveled numerous other towns in her path. Because Princess Olga’s son, Sviatoslav, was only three years old when his father died, Princess Olga decided to assume full power of the throne and became the head of the Kyivian Rus state. She reportedly was admired and respected by her subjects and army who supported her this supreme leadership position. When Princess Olga’s son Sviatoslav became old enough to take over rule, he ended up spending most of his time aboard waging military campaigns to expand the size and power state. His frequent vacancies left Princess Olga once again in charge of ruling Kyiv and being the primary domestic policymaker for the Kyivian Rus’.
Princess Olga’s most famous policies as a ruler of the Kyivian Rus’ was the promotion of Christianity and she herself was the first East Slavic ruler to convert from paganism to Christianity. In 957 Princess Olga traveled to Constantinople, and her meeting with Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII was recorded in De Ceremoniis aulae Byzantinae. Some historians argue that it was there, in Constantinople, that Olga was first baptized. When she returned to Kyiv, she began demolishing pagan temples, but did not manage to convert the entire state. Olga’s grandson, Volodymr the Great, would go on to complete the process Olga started, by embracing formal Christianization of the Kyivian Rus’ in 988, making Eastern Orthodoxy the official religion of Eastern Slavs.
Princess Olga died on July 11, 969 shortly after the Pechnegs’ siege of Kyiv 968. In 1547 the Eastern Orthodox Churched canonized Olga as a saint ranking “Equal-to-the-Apostles.” Only four other women have been granted this honored status in Christianity.
Monument to Princess Olga at Mykhailivs’ka Square in Kyiv, Ukraine.