The name of the future enlightener of the Russian Land and of her native region is first met within the “Tale of Bygone Years,” in the phrase where it speaks about the marriage of Igor, “and they brought him a wife from Pskov, by the name of Olga.” She belonged, so specifies the Joakimov Chronicle, to the lineage of the Izborsk princes, - one of the obscure ancient-Russian princely dynasties, of which in Rus during the 10th-11th centuries there numbered no less than twenty, but who were all displaced by the Rurikovichi or merged otherwise with them through marriage. Some of them were of local Slavic descent, others - Varangian new-comers. It is known, that the Scandinavian Viking “koenigs” (kinglets) called to become princes in the cities of Rus - invariably assimilated to the Russian (Slavic) language, and often, they soon became genuinely Russian with Russian names and lifestyle, world-outlook and even physical appearance of attire.
Thus, Igor’s wife also had the Varangian 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 and Olga the Wise shows the spiritual significance of names.
The beginning of the independent rule of Princess Olga is connected in the chronicles with the narrative about her terrible revenge on the Drevlyani, who murdered Igor. Having sworn their oaths on their swords and believing “only in their swords”, the pagans were doomed by the judgment of God to also perish by the sword. Worshipping fire among the other primal elements, they found their own doom in the fire. And the Lord chose Olga to fulfill the fiery chastisement.
The struggle for the unity of Rus, for the subordination to the Kievan center of mutually divisive and hostile tribes and principalities paved the way towards the ultimate victory of Christianity in the Russian Land. For Olga, though still a pagan, the Kiev Christian Church and its Heavenly patron saint the holy Prophet of God Elias stood as a flaming faith and prayer of a fire come down from the heavens, and her victory over the Drevlyani - despite the severe harshness of her victory, was a victory of Christian constructive powers in the Russian realm over the powers of a paganism, dark and destructive.
The God-wise Olga entered into history as a great builder of the civil life and culture of Kievan Rus. The chronicles are filled with accounts of her incessant “goings” throughout the Russian land with the aim of the well-being and improvement of the civil and domestic manner of 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 the year 946 she went with her son and retinue through the Drevlyani land, “imposing tribute and taxes”, noting the villages, inns and hunting places, liable for inclusion in the Kiev great-princely holdings. The next year she went to Novgorod, establishing administrative centers along the Rivers Msta and Luga, everywhere leaving visible traces of her activity. “Her hunting preserves were throughout all the land, the boundary signs, her places and administrative centers, wrote the chronicler, and her sleighs stand at Pskov to this very day, as are her directed places for snaring of birds along the Dneipr and the Desna Rivers; and her village of Ol’zhicha stands to the present day.”
Being first of all, and in the actual sense of the word, centers of trade and exchange gathered together and became organized around the settlements (and in place of the “humanly arbitrary” gathering of tribute and taxes, there now existed uniformity and order with the “pogosti” system). Olga’s “pogosti” became an important network of the ethnic and cultural unification of the Russian nation.
Later on, 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.
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. Only two European realms could compare with it during these years in significance and might: in Eastern Europe - the ancient Byzantine empire, and in the West the kingdom of Saxony.
The experience of both empires, connected with the exaltation in spirit of Christian teaching, with the religious basis of life, showed clearly, that the way to the future greatness of Rus lay not through military means, but first of all and primarily through spiritual conquering and attainment. Having entrusted Kiev to her teenage son Svyatoslav, and seeking grace and truth, Great-princess Olga in the Summer of 954 set off with a great fleet 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, which would remind the haughty Byzantine Greeks of the victorious campaigns of Askold and Oleg, who in the year 907 advanced in their shields “to the very gates of Constantinople.”
The result was attained. The appearance of the Russian fleet in the Bosphorus created the necessary effect for the developing of Russo-Byzantine dialogue. In turn, the southern capital struck the stern daughter of the north with its variety of beauty and grandeur of architecture, and its jumbled mixture of pagans and peoples from all over the world. But a great impression was produced by the wealth of Christian churches and the holy things preserved in them. Constantinople, “the city of the imperial Caesar,” the Byzantine Empire, strove in everything to be worthy of the Mother of God, to Whom the city was dedicated by Saint Constantine the Great in 330. The Russian princess attended services in the finest churches of Constantinople: at Hagia Sophia, at Blachernae, and others.
In her heart the wise 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 (933-956), and her godfather was the emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitos (912-959). At Baptism she was given the name Helen in honor of the holy Equal of the Apostles Helen, the mother of Saint Constantine, and she also had been the discoverer of the Venerable Wood of the Cross of the Lord.
In an edifying word 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,” says the Monk Nestor, “bowed her head and stood, literally like a sponge absorbing water, listening to the teaching, and 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 Saint Olga is depicted on one of the frescoes of the Kiev Sophia cathedral, and likewise on a Byzantine miniature contemporary to her, in a manuscript portrait of the Chronicles of John Scilitius in the Madrid National Library. The Greek inscription, accompanying the miniature, terms Olga “Archontissa (i.e. ruler) of Rus,” “a woman, Helga by name, who came to the emperor Constantine and was baptized”. 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 Saint Vladimir.
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 churches: of Saint 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. Pskov from that period has been called in the chronicles the Domicile of the Holy Trinity. The church, built by Olga at the River Velika at a spot pointed out to her from on high, according to the chronicler, by a “light-beam of the Thrice-Radiant Divinity”, stood for more than one and an half centuries. In the year 1137 holy Prince Vsevolod-Gabriel replaced this wooden temple with one made of stone, which in turn in 1363 was rebuilt and replaced finally with the presently existing Trinity cathedral.
Another very important monument of Russian “Monument Theology”, as Church architecture frequently is termed, connected with the name of Saint Olga, is the temple of the Wisdom of God at Kiev, which was started soon after her return from Constantinople, and consecrated on May 11, 960. This day was afterwards observed in the Russian Church as a special Church feastday.
Olga did much to memorialize the first Russian confessors of the Name of Christ: over the grave of Askold the Saint Nicholas church was built, where according to certain accounts, she herself was afterwards interred. Over the grave of Dir was built the afore-mentioned Sophia cathedral, which stood for half a century and burned in the year 1017. On this spot Yaroslav the Wise later on built a church of Saint Irene in 1050, but the sacred items of Olga’s Sophia temple were transferred into a stone church of the same name now standing as the Kiev Sophia, started in 1017 and consecrated about the year 1030.
In the Prologue of the thirteenth century, it says about the Olga Cross: “for It is now at Kiev in Saint Sophia in the altar on the right side.” The plundering of Kiev’s holy things, which after the Mongols was continued by the Lithuanians who captured the city in 1341, did not spare even this. Under Jagiello in the period of the Liublin Unia, which in 1384 united Poland and Lithuania into one state, the Olga Cross was snatched from the Sophia cathedral and carried off by the Catholics to Lublin. Its further fate is unknown.
But even in Olga’s time there were at Kiev among the nobles and retainers no few people who, in the words of Solomon, “hated Wisdom”, and also Saint Olga, for having built Wisdom’s temple. Zealots of the old paganism became all the more emboldened, viewing with hope the coming of age of Svyatoslav, who decidedly spurned the urgings of his mother to accept Christianity, and even becoming angry with her over this. It was necessary to hurry with the intended matter of the Baptism of Rus. The deceit of Byzantium, at the time not wanting to promote Christianity in Rus, played into the hands of the pagans.
In search of a solution, Olga looked to the west. No contradiction here yet existed. Olga (+ 969) belonged still to the undivided Church (i.e. before the Great Schism of 1054), and she had scant possibility to study the theological points involved between the Greek and Latin Creeds. The opposition of West and East presented itself to her first of all as a political rivalry, of secondary importance in comparison with her task, the establishment of the Russian Church and the Christian enlightenment of Rus.
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. By order of Svyatoslav, Olga’s nephew Gleb was killed and some of the churches built by her were destroyed.
The collapse of the mission of Adalbert had providential significance for the future Russian Orthodox Church, escaping papal dominion. Olga was obliged to accede to the humiliation and to withdraw fully into matters of personal piety, handing over the reigns of governance to her pagan-son Svyatoslav. Because of her former role, all the difficult matters were referred over to her in her wisdom of governance. When Svyatoslav absented himself 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 for a while taken off the agenda, and this was ultimately bitter for 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 army of Rus were a consolation for her. A subsequent powerful 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 in worry: it was as though, absorbed by military matters in the Balkans, Svyatoslav had forgotten about Kiev.
In the Spring of 969 the Pechenegs besieged Kiev: “and it was impossible to lead out the horses to water, for the Pechenegs stood at the Lybeda.” The Russian army was far away, at the Danube. Having sent off messengers to her son, Olga herself headed the defense of the capital. When he received the news, Svyatoslav rode quickly to Kiev, and “he hugged his mother and his children and was distressed, with what had happened with them from the Pechenegs.” But after routing the nomads, the warrior prince began anew to say to his mother: “It does not please me to sit at Kiev, for I wish to live at Pereslavl’ on the Danube, since that is the center of my lands.”
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 (Azov region), and extend his borders to those of Constantinople itself. Olga the Wise understood however, that all the bravery and daring of the Russian companies could not compare against the ancient Byzantine Empire, and that the venture of Svyatoslav would fail. But the son would not heed the admonitions of his mother. Olga thereupon said, “You see that I am ill. Why do you want to forsake me? After you bury me, then go wherever you wish.”
Her days were numbered, and her burdens and sorrows sapped her strength. On July 11, 969 Saint 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 anew her former firmness and resolve, she forbade them to make over her the pagan celebration of the dead, and she gave final instructions to bury her openly in accord with Orthodox ritual. Presbyter Gregory, who was with her at Constantinople in 957, fulfilled her request.
Saint 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.”
Saint Olga glorified God with good deeds in all things, and God glorified her. Under holy Prince Vladimir, ascribed by some as occurring in the year 1007, the relics of Saint Olga were transferred into the Desyatin church of the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos and placed within a special sarcophagus, such as was customary to enclose the relics of saints in the Orthodox East.
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 Saint Olga with the remarkable words, “The sons of Rus bless you, and also the generations of your descendants.”
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.
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.