Women in Church History, Part 3: The Complex Picture of Saint Olga of Kiev

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I wanted to get back into my “women in church history” series as well as blog about the ongoing situation in the Ukraine. The situation there is quite complicated, with the native Russians and pro-Moscow groups in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine opposed to the more Europe-friendly Western half of the country. I did some research about the origins of the country and Christianity in the region, and I found a story about Olga of Kiev in a couple of books: Princesses Behaving Badly by Linda Rodriguez-McRobbie (Quirk Books, 2013) and How the Barbarian Invasions Shaped the Modern World by Thomas J. Craughwell (Fair Winds Press, 2008).

She was a queen of Kievan Rus, a Viking settlement, during the 10th century C.E. Her story is quite interesting for those of you unfamiliar with it (as I was just a few days ago). Her husband was killed by a Slavic tribe (the Derevlians) leader who then immediately sent envoys to convince her to marry him. She accepted it but had her servants dig a large trench and in the morning when they returned for her, had the envoys pushed into the pit and buried alive. She then hosted the most noble of the Derevlians in Kiev, urging them to use the bath house after their journey. She promptly ordered the bathhouse locked and burned to the ground with them inside. Finally she visited the Derevlians and had them drink the point of drunkenness, after which her men slaughtered over 5,000 of the drunken soldiers.

So how did this woman become a saint? Well, she actually converted to Christianity during a trip to Constantinople in 955 (Barbarian Invasions, 237). The violent story above (it is uncertain how much of it is actually true and how much of it is Viking legend) occurred before her conversion. She was baptized (a fun story in and of itself) and afterward, she attempted to bring Christianity to what is modern day Ukraine and Western Russia. Her efforts failed largely, but her grandson Vladamir helped to bring about Olga’s vision, bringing Christianity to the region. Olga’s desire for Christianity in Kievan Rus, although unfulfilled in her own lifetime, was realized just two generations later. Christianity in this area was Byzantine, “aligned with Europe rather than Asia,” and seen as an “heir to the legacy of ancient Greece and Imperial Rome” (Barbarian Invasions, 248).

Olga’s missionary efforts in Kievan Rus largely were to “unify her people” and to “strengthen their ties to the wealthy and powerful Byzantine Empire” (Barbarian Invasions, 247). She became a saint for her efforts in both the Catholic and Orthodox faiths. I think the message of Olga’s later life as a Christian seeking to unite her subjects has ample messages to the current crisis in the Ukraine. While I am not trying to advocate that the Ukraine should unite and side entirely with Europe, I do think that unity could serve the people well. It seems as though the numerous groups in the country disagree with foreign policy and internal government. The fractured identity of the Ukranian people is one of the causes being thrown around by the media. What if the whole of the country united as Ukranian instead of “Native Russians” versus “Western-leaning Ukrainians?” The legacy of St. Olga of Kiev, a very savvy ruler and a woman of faith, might just be applicable to the modern day crisis.

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