Realised portrait of Olga by Mikhail Nesterov (1892). Image Credit: WikiCommons.

By Gabby Storey

Little is known of Olga’s early life, including her birth date, which is speculated to have been between 890 and 925. She was married to Prince Igor I of Kiev, and the area known as Kyivan Rus’ is a conglomeration of local regions which now covers Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.

The Drevilians, a neighbouring tribe, had paid Igor’s predecessors tribute, however upon his father’s death they did not pay tribute. Igor confronted the Drevilians and received tribute, however he returned to demand further tribute and was murdered by the Drevilians.

Olga acted as a female regent on behalf of her minor son Sviatoslav Igorevish from 945 to 960/961, upon the death of her husband until Sviatoslav reached his majority. She is named as the archontissa or female ruler of Rus’ in contemporary Byzantine accounts.

The Old Slavonic title of k”nęgnyi is the female version of the male title of rulership, k”niaz’, which is often translated as regina or rex respectively in Latin sources. The translation of k”nęgnyi as princess should not understate the power a woman could hold in Rus’.

Olga’s title is an indication of the extent of her power, and upon her accession as regent she massacred the Drevilians who had murdered her husband. After this, she governed and effectively centralised rule across the Kievan Rus.

In the 950s, Olga converted to Christianity and was baptised in Constantinople. Upon her return, she worked to convert her son but was unsuccessful. However, Sviatoslav agreed not to persecute Christians, which was a major turning point.

Olga died from illness in 969, and was buried according to Christian practices. Her tomb was destroyed in 1240. She was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1547, and is also venerated as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church. Her feast day is July 11.

Recommended Reading

Barbara Hill, Imperial Women in Byzantium 1025-1204: Power, Patronage and Ideology (Abingdon: Routledge, 1999)

Francis Butler, “A Woman of Words: Pagan Ol’ga in the Mirror of Germanic Europe,” Slavic Review 63 (2004): 771-793

Natalia Pushkareva, Women in Russian History: From the Tenth to the Twentieth Century, ed. and trans. Eve Levin (Abingdon: Routledge, 1996)

Talia Zajac, “The Social-Political Roles of the Princess in Kyivan Rus’, ca. 945-1240,” in A Companion to Global Queenship, ed., Elena Woodacre, 125-146 (Leeds: Arc Humanities Press, 2018).

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