Saint Olga of Kiev: The Patron Saint of Vengeance

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Podcast Transcript

Princess Olga of Kiev was a 10th-century woman who was born to a royal family and married to Igor, Prince of Kiev. 

She led a fairly unnoteworthy life until her husband was murdered by a neighboring tribe. After that, her life took a turn and she became the patron saint……of vengeance.

Learn more about Olga of Kiev, how she brought Christianity to Russia, and how she wreaked vengeance upon her enemies, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The woman who would become known as Olga of Kiev was born sometime around the year 900. The estimates range anywhere from the year 890 to 925. She was born in the town of Pskov, which is in modern-day Russia, not far from the border of Estonia. 

Little is known about her early life until her marriage to Prince Igor, the heir apparent of the Kievan Rus. If the word “Rus” sounds familiar it is because the Rus people were the ancestors of the people who would become the Russians. 

Olga was married young, probably at the age of 15. Igor’s father was Rurik who founded the Rurik Dynasty. When he died Igor ascended to the throne, but he was underage, and the regent was a man named Oleg, who united many of the tribes in the area now known as Belarus, Ukraine, and western Russia. 

One of the nearby tribes was the Drevlians. The Drevlians fought with the Kievan Rus against the Byzantines. They also gave tribute to the Kievan Rus while Oleg was in power. 

When Oleg died, Igor took power in his own name. The Drevlians thought he was a pushover, so they stopped paying him tribute. 

Igor, needing to show the Drevlians’ who was the boss, went over with a full army and demanded payment. Given the threat of an army, the Drevlians’ paid up and Igor left. 

However, Igor wasn’t quite satisfied. He went back to the Drevlians to demand more money, however, this time he went with only a small escort of personal guards. 

This time the Drevlians weren’t going to pay. Instead, they captured everyone and killed them. 

They didn’t just kill Igor. They killed him in a pretty gruesome fashion. 

They tied each of his legs to two birch trees that had been bent over. Then they released the trees and as they snapped back into place, they ripped Igor in two. 

Yeah, it was pretty nasty. 

With the death of Igor, his young son Sviatoslav took the throne, and his mother Olga became the regent and ruled on her son’s behalf….and it is Olga that this episode is about.

Having killed just Igor, the Drevlians thought this would a great opening to try and take control of the Kievan Rus. They proposed that Olga marry the leader of the Drevlians and the man responsible for her husband’s murder, Prince Mal.

They assumed that Olga would be a pushover. 

Oh, how they were going to find out just how wrong they were. 

The Drevlians send 20 men via boats up the Dneiper River to Kiev where they told Olga about the murder of her husband and delivered to her the message of marrying Prince Mal. 

Upon hearing the news of her husband’s death and hearing the proposal of marriage, she supposedly said the following:

Your proposal is pleasing to me, indeed, my husband cannot rise again from the dead. But I desire to honor you tomorrow in the presence of my people. Return now to your boat, and remain there with an aspect of arrogance. I shall send for you on the morrow, and you shall say, “We will not ride on horses nor go on foot, carry us in our boat.” And you shall be carried in your boat.

So, the Drevlians went back to their boats so they could formally seal the deal the next day. 

Olga had something very different in mind. 

That night, while the Drevlians were on their boats, Olga had a long trench dug.

The next day when the Drevlians showed up and waited outside the doors, Olga gave the word, and the people of Kiev mobbed the Drevlians and dragged them to the ditch where they were buried alive. 

Supposedly, she got down to the edge of the trench as they were being buried and asked them if they found the honor to their taste. 

Burying 20 people alive and then taunting them is pretty stone cold.

Olga, however, was just getting started. I’d say she was about to go medieval on the Drevlians but it was the medieval era so that is what everyone did. She was about to go on a rampage of revenge that would do Quentin Tarantino proud. 

Having buried the 20 messengers, she then sent word back to the Drevlians that she agreed to the proposal, but she wanted an honor procession to take her to her new prince. 

Prince Mal, thinking his plan is going pretty well, sent all of the chieftains of the Drevlian tribe to Kiev to escort Olga back to him. 

When they arrived in Kiev, Olga and the people of Kiev greeted them with an outpouring of support. She then invited the chiefs to bathe before meeting with her, so they were escorted to a bathhouse. 

While inside the doors were locked, and the building was set ablaze, burning them all to death. 

She had now eliminated the top tier of Drevlian, but she was nowhere near done yet. 

Her next ploy was to send word to the Drevlians that she was going to visit the place where her husband was murdered and hold a funeral feast at the site. 

Her message said, “prepare great quantities of mead in the city where you killed my husband, that I may weep over his grave and hold a funeral feast for him.”

So, she and her army go to attend the funeral, and they have an actual funeral and a feast. The Drevlians joined in and started drinking heavily. After a while when they were good and drunk, Olga gave the world and the Rus started slaughtering the Drevlians in attendance. 

..and of course, she got very personal with the whole affair and “went about herself egging on her retinue to the massacre of the Drevlians.”

According to the records, about 5,000 Drevlians were killed, taking a page from the Treachery of the Long Knives, doing the old “get your enemies drunk and then kill them” routine. 

Now, at this point, you might think that Olga’s thirst for revenge had been quenched, but you would be wrong. She still had more in store for the Drevlians. 

Having pretty much incapacitated the Drevlians she and her army then went to every Drevlians town and village demanding tribune. Given the news of what she did before, everywhere she went they gladly turned over gifts of honey, furs, and other valuables. 

That was however until she got to the Drevlian capital city of Iskorosten, the place where the drunken massacre originally took place.

They refused to give her tribune and she laid siege to the city for a year. 

She eventually sent them a message saying, “Why do you persist in holding out? All your cities have surrendered to me and submitted to tribute, so that the inhabitants now cultivate their fields and their lands in peace. But you had rather tide of hunger, without submitting to tribute.”

They responded by basically saying that they were worried that she was still sore about the whole splitting-her-husband-in-two thing, and that she still wanted more revenge. 

She was like “Nah. the burying people alive, and burning people alive, and drunken massacre of 5,000 people was enough for me. I’m good. In fact, I tell you what. You don’t have to give me an expensive tribute. Just gather three pigeons and three sparrows from each house and bring them to me. Then we’ll be good.”

The Drevlian were ecstatic that they were getting let off the hook with such a small tribune, so they gathered up the birds and delivered them.

That night, Olga’s army attached strings to the legs of all the birds and tied small bits of cloth and sulfur to them. Then when the command was given, the cloth and sulfur were lit and the birds were released. 

They all flew back to their nests in the city, subsequently setting the entire city on fire at the same time. 

As the city burned, residents fled through the city gates. Those who fled were either killed or captured and turned into slaves, leaving only a small population behind to continue to pay tribute.

However, this isn’t the end of the Olga saga. 

Today, Olga is best known as Saint Olga. 

You might be wondering how is it that someone who conducted her own Russian dark ages version of Kill Bill managed to become a saint? It would take a lot of Hail Mary’s to make up for the stuff she did.

Well, Olga and everyone else in this part of the world at this time was still pagan.

Sometime about five to ten years after the death of her husband, Olga traveled to Constantinople to meet the Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII.

While she was there, she converted to Christianity at the urging of the Emperor and the patriarch and was baptized. 

When she returned to Kiev, she tried to spread Christianity, but ultimately wasn’t successful. Her son, Sviatoslav never converted to Christianity but agreed not to persecute those who did.

Ultimately, her grandson Vladimir the Great did convert to Christianity and Christianized Kiev Rus. 

Today Vladimir and Olga are considered the founders of the Russian Orthodox Church for their role in bringing Christianity to Russia. She is honored in the Eastern Orthodox Church with the Greek title of Isapóstolos which means “Equal to the Apostles”. She is one of only five women in history to have been bestowed that title. 

It is hard to find a plan that had backfired so catastrophically than the Drevlian plan to kill Prince Igor and marry Olga of Kiev. 

It was all because they had vastly underestimated the woman who was perhaps the one saint you didn’t want to mess with. 

Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast. 

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett. 

Today’s review comes from listener Funbobby1976 at ApplePodcasts in the US. They write:

The best podcast bar none

I have been formulating this review in my head for about a year now and after the accounting episode, I’m finally pulling the trigger. Having been a CPA for twenty years I sometimes question what is important about my job, and frankly, it’s a bit depressing. The best way to kill a party conversation is when someone asks what I do for a living. After listening to ten minutes of Gary’s wisdom I now not only realize how important accounting is, but I can tell people that we accountants are responsible for the rise of civilization as we know it. This is what Gary brings to any topic. Whether it’s disseminating information on a topic so complex I never thought I could hope to understand (eg- nuclear physics), taking a topic that seems mind-numbingly dull and bringing it to life (eg- accounting), or expanding my knowledge on a topic I thought I already knew about (hello internal combustion engines), Gary’s clear and concise delivery makes every episode something to look forward to. Not only that but I’ve found his content to be almost completely fact-based and devoid of personal opinion which is hard to come by in this extremely polarized world we live in. Even if it is a controversial subject such as the electoral college, his content is just the facts. Informative and noncontroversial. The times he does drop in a personal opinion it’s having to do with the terribleness of the Chicago bears, which, if you have any doubts, one need to look no further than a YouTube video of the Super Bowl Shuffle which is sure to offend any rational human being’s sensibilities. Finally, I love humor. Not overt and in-your-face humor, but clever humor that is subtly dropped in at the most unexpected moment. Gary is an absolute master of dropping in a gem in a calm, deadpan delivery when I least expect it. I almost shot coffee all over my windshield at the end of the James Garfield episode. I stumbled onto Gary’s podcast while doing searches for podcasts about microstates and island nations, a personal obsession of mine. Not only did I get some great content on virtually every island nation (still looking forward to Palau), but I’ve opened myself up to a world of knowledge I never knew I cared about. Thanks for making me look forward to my commute every day Gary. Every commuter should do themselves a favor and make this podcast part of your daily drive. But brace yourself for the end of the Garfield episode.

Thanks, Funbobby! I confess that is the longest podcast review I have ever seen. Not just for my show but for any show. I honestly didn’t even think you could leave a review that long. I figured there must have been a character limit or something. 

I am happy to inform you that you have earned a place in the review Hall of Fame. 

Remember, if you leave a review or send in a question, you too can have it read on the show.