St. Olga, Princess of Russia


Commemorated on July 11

St. Olga, Equal of the Apostles, was the wife of Kievan Great Prince Igor. The struggle of Christianity with paganism under Igor and Olga, who reigned after Oleg, entered a new phase. The Church of Christ in the years following the reign of Igor in the 10th century became a remarkable spiritual and political force in the Russian realm. The preserved text of a treaty of Igor with the Greeks in 944 gives an indication of this: it was included by the chronicler in the “Tale of Bygone Years,” under the entry recording the events of the year 945.

The peace treaty had to be sworn to by both the religious communities of Kiev. “Baptized Rus”, i.e. the Christian, took place in the cathedral church of the holy Prophet of God Elias. “Unbaptized Rus”, i.e. the pagans, in turn swore their oath on their weapons in the sanctuary of Perun the Thunderer. The fact, that Christians were included in the document in the first place, indicated their significant influence in the life of Kievan Rus.

However, Prince Igor remained a pagan and concluded the treaty in the pagan manner, swearing an oath on his sword. He refused the Sacrament of Baptism and was punished for his unbelief. The following year, pagans murdered him in Drevlyanian. The burden of government fell upon the widow of Igor –Kiev Great-Princess Olga, and her three-year-old son Svyatoslav.

Olga belonged to the lineage of the Izborsk princes, one of the obscure ancient-Russian princely dynasties. She also had the name “Helga,” which in Russian is pronounced Olga. The feminine name Olga corresponds to the masculine name “Oleg” (Helgi), which means “holy.” Although the pagan understanding of holiness was quite different from the Christian, it also presupposed within a man a particular frame of reference, of chastity and sobriety of mind, and of insight. The fact that people called Oleg the Wise-Seer (“Veschi”) and Olga the Wise (“Mudra”) shows the spiritual significance of names.

She was a native of a village named Vybuta, several miles from Pskov up along the River Velika. The Olga Bridge, where she was met by Igor, is still there, along with several other geographic names – the village of Ol’zhinets and Ol’gino Pole (Olga Field); the Olga Gateway, one of the branches of the River Velika; Olga Hill and the Olga Cross near Lake Pskov; and the Olga Stone at the village of Vybuta.

Olga’s rule began with her revenge on those pagans who had murdered her husband, Igor. Having sworn their oaths on their swords and believing “only in their swords,” the pagans were doomed.

Olga entered into history as a great builder of the civil life and culture of Kievan Rus. She extensively traveled throughout the Russian land with the aim of the well-being and improvement of the civil and domestic manner of the life of her subjects. Having consolidated the inner strengthening of the might of the Kiev great-princely throne, thereby weakening the influence of the hodge-podge of petty local princes in Rus, Olga centralized the whole of state rule with the help of the system of “pogosti” (administrative trade centers).

In 946, she traveled with her son through the Drevlyani land, “imposing tribute and taxes,” noting the villages, inns and hunting places, to be eventually included in the Kiev great-princely holdings. The following year, she went to Novgorod, establishing administrative centers along the Msta and Luga Rivers, everywhere leaving visible traces of her activity.

Olga went on to establish financial and legal centers, along with those of trade and exchange, all known as “pogosti.”

Later, when Olga had become a Christian, they began to erect the first churches at the “pogosti”; from the time of the Baptism of Rus the “pogost” and church (parish) became inseparably associated.

Princess Olga fortified the defense of Russia. Cities were built up and strengthened, enclosed with stone and oak walls, and bristled with ramparts and palisades. Knowing how hostile many were to the idea of strengthening the princely power and the unification of Rus, the princess herself lived constantly “on the hill” over the Dneipr River, behind the battlements of Kiev’s Upper City, surrounded by her faithful retainers. Two thirds of the gathered tribute was given by her for use at the Kievan city counsels. The remaining one third went “to Olga, for Vyshgorod” – for the needs of building fortifications.

Under Olga’s leadership, the first state frontiers of Russia were established – to the west, with Poland. Heroic outposts to the south guarded the peaceful fields of Kiev from the peoples of the Wild Plains. Foreigners traveled to Gardarika (“the land of cities”), as they called Rus, with merchandise and crafts. Swedes, Danes, and Germans all eagerly entered as mercenaries into the Russian army. The foreign connections of Kiev spread. This furthered the development of construction with stone in the city, the beginnings of which was initiated under Olga. The first stone edifices of Kiev – the city palace and Olga’s upper enclosure – were discovered in the early 1970s.

But it was not only the strengthening of the civil realm and the improvement of domestic norms of the manner of life for people that attracted the attention of Princess Olga. Even more urgent for her was the fundamental transformation of the religious life of Rus, the spiritual transfiguration of the Russian nation. Rus had become a great power. The future greatness of Rus lay not through military means, but first of all and primarily through spiritual conquering and attainment.

In the summer of 954, having entrusted Kiev to her son Svyatoslav, Princess Olga traveled to Constantinople. This was a peaceful “expedition”, combining the tasks of religious pilgrimage and diplomatic mission, but the political considerations demanded that it become simultaneously a display of the military might of Rus on the Black Sea.

The appearance of the Russian fleet in the Bosphorus created the necessary effect for the developing of Russo-Byzantine dialogue. A great impression was produced by the wealth of Christian churches and the holy things preserved in them throughout Constantinople. Princess Olga attended services in the finest churches of Constantinople: at Hagia Sophia, at Blachernae, and others.

Princess Olga found the desire for holy Orthodoxy, and she made the decision to become a Christian. The sacrament of Baptism was made over her by the Constantinople Patriarch Theophylactus, and her godfather was Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitos. At Baptism she was given the name Helen in honor of the holy Equal of the Apostles Helen, the mother of St. Constantine. In edifying words spoken at the conclusion of the rite, the Patriarch said, “Blessed are you among Russian women, for you have forsaken the darkness and have loved the Light. The Russian people shall bless you in all the future generations, from your grandson and great-grandson to your furthermost descendants.” He instructed her in the truths of the Faith, the churchly rules and the rule of prayer, he explained the commands about fasting, chastity and charity. “She, however,” said the Monk Nestor, “bowed her head and stood, literally like a sponge absorbing water, listening to the teaching.” Bowing down to the Patriarch, she said, “By your prayers, O Master, let me be preserved from the wiles of enemies”.

It is in precisely this way, with a slightly bowed head, that St. Olga is depicted on one of the icons in the Kiev Sophia cathedral. The princess is depicted in special head attire, “as a newly-baptized Christian and venerable deaconess of the Russian Church.” Beside her in the same attire of the newly-baptized -- is Malusha, the future mother of the Equal of the Apostles St. Vladimir.

Thus, by a peaceful path, St Olga succeeded in “taking Constantinople,” something that no other military leader before her had ever been able to do. According to witnesses, the emperor himself had to admit, that Olga had given outwitted him.

As for the immediate diplomatic outcome of the negotiations, there were basic matters for St Olga that had been left unsettled. She had been successful concerning Russian trade within the territories of the Byzantine Empire, and also the reconfirmation of the peace accord with Byzantium, concluded by Igor in 944. But she had not been able to sway the emperor on two issues of importance to Rus: the dynastic marriage of Svyatoslav with a Byzantine princess, and the restoration of an Orthodox metropolitan in Kiev. The evidently inadequate outcome of her mission is detected in her answer, when she had already returned home, which was given to emissaries sent out by the emperor. To the emperor’s inquiry about promised military aid, Olga curtly replied through the emissaries: “If you had spent time with me, as I did at the Court, then I would send the soldiers to help you.”

Amidst all this, in spite of her failed attempts at establishing the Church hierarchy within Rus, Olga, after becoming a Christian, zealously devoted herself to efforts of Christian evangelization among the pagans, and also church construction: “demanding the distressing of demons and the beginning of life for Christ Jesus”. She built the churches of St. Nicholas and the church of the Holy Wisdom at Kiev, of the Annunciation of the Most Holy Theotokos at Vytebsk, and of the Holy Life-Creating Trinity at Pskov. The church in Pskov, built by Olga at the River Velika at a spot pointed out to her from on high by a “light-beam of the Thrice-Radiant Divinity” stood for more than one and an half centuries. In 1137 Prince Vsevolod-Gabriel replaced this wooden temple with one made of stone, which in turn in 1363 was rebuilt and finally replaced with the presently existing Trinity Cathedral.

Another very important monument of Russian “Monument Theology” that is connected with the name of Olga is the Temple of the Wisdom of God at Kiev, which was started soon after her return from Constantinople, and which was consecrated on May 11, 960. This day was afterwards observed in the Russian Church as a special Church feast day.

It was no mere coincidence that Olga received in Baptism the name of St. Helen, who found the Venerable Wood of the Cross. The foremost sacred item in the newly built Kiev Sophia temple was a piece of the Holy Cross, brought by this new Helen from Constantinople, and received by her in blessing from the Constantinople Patriarch. The Cross, by tradition, was hewn out from an entire piece of the Life-Creating Wood of the Lord. Upon the Cross-Wood was inscribed: “The Holy Cross for the Regeneration of the Russian Land, Received by Noble Princess Olga.”

It turned out that after the passage of years, as Olga indeed had foreseen, matters at Kiev had twisted ultimately in favor of paganism, and Rus having become neither Orthodox nor Catholic, had second thoughts about accepting Christianity. The pagan reaction was so strong that some of the Kiev Christians who had been baptized with Olga at Constantinople began to suffer. By order of Svyatoslav, St. Olga’s nephew Gleb was killed and some of the churches built by her were destroyed.

In the aftermath of these events,. Olga was obliged to accede to humiliation and withdraw into matters of personal piety, handing over the reigns of government to her pagan-son, Svyatoslav. Because of her former role, all difficult matters were referred over to her in her wisdom of governance. When Svyatoslav was away from Kiev on military campaigns and wars, the governance of the realm was again entrusted to his mother. But the question about the Baptism of Rus was taken off the agenda, and this was ultimately bitter for St Olga, who regarded the good news of the Gospel of Christ as the chief matter in her life.

She meekly endured the sorrow and grief, attempting to help her son in civil and military affairs, and to guide matters with heroic intent. The victories of the Russian army were a consolation for her, particularly the destruction of an old enemy of the Russian state – the Khazar kaganate. Twice, in 965 and again in 969, the armies of Svyatoslav invaded the lands of “the foolish Khazars,” forever shattering the might of the rulers of Priazovia and lower Povolzhia. A subsequent blow was struck at the Mahometan Volga Bulgars, and then in turn came the Danube Bulgars. Eighteen years were spent on the Danube with the Kiev military forces. Olga was alone and worried – it was though, absorbed by military matters in the Balkans, Svyatoslav had forgotten about Kiev.

In the Spring of 969 the Pechenegs besieged Kiev. The Russian army was far away, at the Danube. Having sent off messengers to her son, Olga headed the defense of the capital. When he received the news, Svyatoslav rode quickly to Kiev, and greeted his mother with open arms. But after defeating the nomads, the warrior prince informed Olga that he no longer wished to live in Kiev, but instead on the banks of the Danube.

Svyatoslav dreamed of creating a vast Russian holding from the Danube to the Volga, which would unite all Rus, Bulgaria, Serbia, the Near Black Sea region and Priazovia (the Azov region), and extend his borders to those of Constantinople itself. Olga, however, understood that all the bravery and daring of the Russian armies could not compare against the ancient Byzantine Empire, and that Svyatoslav’s dreams would fail. But her son would not listen.

Olga’s days were numbered, and her burdens and sorrows sapped her strength. On July 11, 969, St. Olga died: “and with great lament they mourned her, her son and grandsons and all the people.” In her final years, amidst the triumph of paganism, she had to have a priest by her secretly, so she would not evoke new outbursts of pagan fanaticism. But before death, having found her former firmness and resolve, she forbid pagan celebrations of the dead, and gave final instructions to bury her openly in accord with the Orthodox ritual. Presbyter Gregory, who was with her at Constantinople in 957, fulfilled her request.

St. Olga lived, died, and was buried as a Christian. “And thus having lived and well having glorified God in Trinity, Father and Son and Holy Spirit, having worshipped in the blessed faith, she ended her life in the peace of Christ Jesus, our Lord.” As her prophetic testament to succeeding generations, with deep Christian humility she confessed her faith concerning her nation: “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.”

God glorified the holy toiler of Orthodoxy, the “initiator of faith” in the Russian Land, by means of miracles and incorrupt relics. One hundred years after her death, Yakov Mnikh wrote in his work “Memory and Laudation to Vladimir”: “God has glorified the body of His servant Olga, and her venerable body remains incorrupt to this day.”

St. Olga glorified God with good deeds in all things, and God glorified her. In 1007, under Prince Vladimir, the relics of St Olga were transferred to the Desyatin Church of the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos and placed in a special sarcophagus.

The holy Equal of the Apostles Great Prince Vladimir, himself giving thanks to God on the day of the Baptism of Rus, witnessed before his countrymen concerning St. Olga with the remarkable words: “The sons of Rus bless you, and also the generations of your descendants.”

Troparion (Tone 1) –

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.

Kontakion (Tone 4) –

Today let us praise God the Benefactor of all,
who glorified divinely-wise Olga,
that through her prayers, He may grant our souls remission of sins.

By permission of the Orthodox Church in America (www.oca.org)