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Olga Prekrasa ( 0890 - 0969 )  Category ( women_in_history ) [suggest a correction]
 

Saint OlgaOlga, widow of Prince Igor of Kiev, is an early and vivid example of an empowered female. She was born c. 890 C.E., of Varangian extraction. When her husband was murdered by the Slavic tribe known as Drevlians, she assumed the throne of Kiev (a city in what is now Ukraine) as regent for her minor son, Svyatoslav. Furious and heartbroken, Olga undertook an extensive, elaborate, and cruel scheme of revenge against those who killed her husband. Her plots were so successful and shocking that the Primary Chronicle virtually ignores her husband, the prince, in favor of detailing Olga’s revenge.

As was considered typical for the times, the leader of the Drevlians strongly suggested that Olga marry him and unite the two peoples. She was cleverly vague in her answer and demanded that she could not marry the enemy without great ceremony that pointed to her own nobility and that of her late husband. She requested that her husband be given a ship burial, with the ship supplied by the Drevlians. Their leader obliged, but when the deep hole had been dug to hold the ship, Olga had the party buried alive. Later she staged a complex scenario where more Drevlians were scalded to death. This was still not enough to satisfy Olga’s revenge. She is said to have requested a dove from each household in a Drevlian town. Upon receiving the birds, tiny smoldering papers were tied to the legs of each dove, and then they were released as a group to fly back to their homes. As the birds landed on the thatched roofs, much of the Drevlian town burned to the ground.

Once her need for revenge was exhausted, Olga set to reforming Kievan government and society. Most significantly, she changed the tribute payment system more equitable to both parties in such agreements. She was the first ruler of Rus to convert to Christianity. Her conversion ceremony took place in Constantinople and was detailed in the writings of Emperor Constantine VII. Olga took the Christian name of Yelena, and returned to Kiev, where she encouraged her subjects to convert to Christianity. She failed in convincing her son, Svyatoslav, to convert, but she was a strong influence to her grandson, Vladimir I. He made Christianity Kiev’s official religion in 988, and Olga was one of the first people of Rus to be proclaimed saint, for her efforts to spread the Christian religion in the country. Olga continued to rule in Kiev, as her son’s frequent military campaigns took him away from the capital. In 968 Kiev fell to the Pechenegs, and Olga died shortly after the siege.

Image: Saint Olga by Mikhail Nesterov, 1892.


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