St. Olha (Olga, Ol'ha)



On this day, July 11, our Church and Nation celebrates the memory of the Hly Equal-to-the-Apostles Princess Olga – “Ol’ha”.  Given the popularity of the name in our families, and the importance of the saint in the history of our Ukrainian nation, I offer to you this rather lengthy depiction of her life.  It is taken from the material as found on the Internet offered by the Orthodox Church of America.  In the original, the term “Russia” is often used in place of “Rus’” and “Kiev” the spelling for the capital of Ukraine, “Kyiv”.    I have taken the liberty of changing them to present-day Ukrainian versions.  Those of us with Ukrainian ancestry should know the story of Ukraine.  Indeed, those attending worship at St. Elias will benefit from a reading of the story…..

St. Olga the Princess of Kyivan Rus’, in Holy Baptism Called Helen

Commemorated on July 11

Saint Olga, Equal of the Apostles, was the wife of the Kyivan Great Prince Igor. The struggle of Christianity with paganism under Igor and Olga, who reigned after Oleg (+ 912), entered into a new phase. The Church of Christ in the years following the reign of Igor (+ 945) became a remarkable spiritual and political force in the Kyivan realm. The preserved text of a treaty of Igor with the Greeks in the year 944 gives indication of this: it was included by the chronicler in the “Tale of Bygone Years,” under the entry recording the events of the year 6453 (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 (July 20); “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 are included in the document in the first place, indicates their significant spiritual influence in the life of Kyivan Rus.

Evidently at the moment when the treaty of 944 was being drawn up at Constantinople, there were people in power in Kyiv sympathetic to Christianity, who recognized the historical inevitability of involving Rus into the life-creating Christian culture. To this trend possibly belonged even prince Igor himself, whose official position did not permit him personally to go over to the new faith, nor at that time of deciding the issue concerning the Baptism of the whole country with the consequent dispersal throughout it of Orthodox Church hierarchs. The treaty therefore was drawn up in the circumspect manner of expression, which would not hinder the prince to ratify it in either the form of a pagan oath, or in the form of a Christian oath.

But when the Byzantine emissaries arrived in Kyiv, conditions along the River Dnieper had essentially changed. A pagan opposition had clearly emerged, at the head of which stood the Varangian voevoda (military-leader) Svenel’d (or Sveinald) and his son Mstislav (Mtsisha) to whom Igor had given holdings in the Drevlyani lands.

Strong also at Kyiv was the influence of the Khazar Jews, who could not but be displeased with the thought of the triumph of Orthodoxy in the Land.

Unable to overcome the customary inertia, Igor remained a pagan and he concluded the treaty in the pagan manner, swearing an oath on his sword. He refused the grace of Baptism and was punished for his unbelief. A year later, in 945, rebellious pagans murdered him in the Drevlyanian land, cut down betwixt two trees. But the days of paganism and the lifestyle of the Slavic tribes basic to it were already numbered. The burden of government fell upon the widow of Igor -- the Kyiv Great-princess Olga, and her three-year-old son Svyatoslav.

The name of the future enlightener of Rus’ and of her native region is first to be met with in 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-Rus’ princely dynasties, of which 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 Rus’ cities -- invariably assimilated to thelanguage, and often, they soon became genuinely enculturated with names and lifestyle, world-outlook and even physical appearance of attire.

Thus, Igor’s wife also had the Varangian name “Helga,” which is pronounced Olga. The feminine name Olga corresponds to the masculine name “Oleg” (Helgi), which means “holy” [from Germanic “heilig” for “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.

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 (Mt. 26: 52). 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 Kyivan center of mutually divisive and hostile tribes and principalities paved the way towards the ultimate victory of Christianity in Rus’. For Olga, though still a pagan, the Kyiv Christian Church and its Heavenly patron saint the holy Prophet of God Elias [in icons depicted upon a fiery chariot] 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 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 Kyivan Rus. The chronicles are filled with accounts of her incessant “goings” throughout the 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 Kyiv 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). 

Being first of all, and in the actual sense of the word, centers of trade and exchange (the merchant as “guest”) 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 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. 

Princess Olga exerted much effort to fortify the defensive might of the land. The cities were built up and strengthened, Vyshgorod (or Detintsa, Kroma) they enclosed with stone and oak walls (battlements), and they bristled them with ramparts and pallisades. 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 Dnieper, behind the trusty battlements of Kyivan Vyshgorod (“Verkhna-gorod” or “Upper-city”), surrounded by her faithful retainers. Two thirds of the gathered tribute, as the chroniclers testify, she gave over for the use of the“veche” (city-council), and the remaining one third went “to Olga, for Vyshgorod” -- for the needs of building fortifications. And to the time period of Olga, historians note the establishment of the first state frontiers of Rus’ -- to the west, with Poland. Heroic outposts to the south guarded the peaceful fields of the Kyivans from the peoples of the Wild Plains. Foreigners hastened to Gardarika (“the land of cities”), as they called Rus’, with merchandise and craftwares. Swedes, Danes, Germans all eagerly entered as mercenaries into the army. The foreign connections of Kyiv spread. This furthered the developement of construction with stone in the city, the beginnings of which was initiated under Olga. The first stone edifices of Kyiv -- the city palace and Olga’s upper enclosure -- were discovered by archaeologists only but in this century. (The palace, or more properly its foundations and remains of the walls were found in excavations during the years 1971-1972).

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 the wise princess. Even more urgent for her was the fundamental transformation of the religious life of Rus’, the spiritual transfiguration of the 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 Kyiv 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 “Romaioi” [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 Olga’s fleet in the Bosphorus created the necessary effect for the developing of Rus’-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 (May 21) in 330 (see May 11). The Kyivan 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 (May 21), 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 the women of Rus’, for you have forsaken the darkness and have loved the Light. The Rus’ 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 Kyiv 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 Kyivan Church.” Beside her in the same attire of the newly-baptized -- is Malusha (+ 1001), the future mother of the Equal of the Apostles Saint Vladimir (July 15).

For one who had originally so disliked the Rus’ as did the emperor Constantine Porphyrigenitos, it was no trivial matter for him to become the godfather to the “Archontissa of Rus’”. In the Kyivan chronicles are preserved narratives about this, how resolutely and on an equal footing Olga conversed with the emperor, amazing the Greeks by her spiritual depth and wisdom of governance, and displaying that her nation was quite capable of accepting and assimilating the highest attainments of the Greek religious genius, the finest fruition of Byzantine spirituality and culture. And thus by a peaceful path Saint Olga succeeded in “taking Constantinople”, something which no other military leader before her had ever been able to do. According to the witness of the chronicles, the emperor himself had to admit, that Olga “had given him the slip” (had outwitted him), and the popular mind, jumbling together into one the traditions about Oleg the Wise and Olga the Wise, sealed in its memory this spiritual victory in the bylina or folk-legend entitled “Concerning the Taking of Constantinople by Princess Olga”.

In his work “About the Ceremonies of the Byzantine Court,” which has survived to the present day in just one copy, Constantine Porphyrigenitos has left us a detailed description of the ceremony surrounding the stay of Saint Olga at Constantinople. He describes a triumphant reception in the famed Magnaura palace, beneath the singing of bronze birds and the roars of copper lions, where Olga appeared with an impressive retinue of 108 men (not counting the men of Svyatoslav’s company). And there took place negotiations in the narrower confines of the chambers of the empress, and then a state dinner in the hall of Justinian. And here during the course of events, there providentially met together at one table the four “majestic ladies”: the grandmother and the mother of holy Equal of the Apostles Saint Vladimir (Saint Olga and her companion Malusha), and the grandmother and the mother of Saint Vladimir’s future spouse Anna (the empress Helen and her daughter-in-law Theophano). Slightly more than half a century would pass, and at the Desyatin church of the Most Holy Theotokos at Kyiv would stand aside each other the marble tombs of Saint Olga, Saint Vladimir and “Blessed Anna”.

Saint 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 Kyiv, 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 (February 11) 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 “Monument Theology”, as Church architecture frequently is termed, connected with the name of Saint Olga, is the temple of the Wisdom of God at Kyiv, which was started soon after her return from Constantinople, and consecrated on May 11, 960. This day was afterwards observed in the Kyivan Church as a special Church feastday.

In the Mesyatseslov (calendar supplement)of a parchment Epistle-book from 1307, under May 11 is written: “On this day the consecration of Saint Sophia took place at Kyiv in the year 6460.” The date is indicated in the so-called “Antiochian” rather than generally-accepted Constantinople chronology, and it corresponds to the year 960 from the Birth of Christ.

It was no mere coincidence that Saint Olga received in Baptism the name of Saint Helen, who found the Venerable Wood of the Cross at Jerusalem (March 6). The foremost sacred item in the newly built Kyiv 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 Rus’ Land, Received by Noble Princess Olga.”

Saint Olga did much to memorialize the first Rus’ 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 Kyiv 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 Kyiv in Saint Sophia in the altar on the right side.” The plundering of Kyiv’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 Kyiv 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, Saint Olga looked to the west. No contradiction here yet existed. Saint 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 KyivanChurch and the Christian enlightenment of Rus’.

It turned out that after the passage of years, as Olga indeed had foreseen, matters at Kyiv had twisted ultimately in favor of paganism, and Rus’ having become neither Orthodox nor Catholic, had second thoughts about accepting Christianity. The pagan reaction thus produced was so strong, that not only did the German missionaries suffer, but also some of the Kyiv Christians who had been baptized with Olga at Constantinople. By order of Svyatoslav, Saint Olga’s nephew Gleb was killed and some of the churches built by her were destroyed. It seems reasonable, that this transpired not without Byzantium’s secret diplomacy: given the possibility of a strengthened Rus’ in alliance with Otto, the Greeks would have preferred to support the pagans, with the consequent intrigues against Olga and various disorders.

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 Saint 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 were a consolation for her, particularly the destruction of an old enemy of the Rus’ state—the Khazar kaganate. Twice, in the years 965 and 969, the armies of Svyatoslav went through the lands of “the foolish Khazars,” forever shattering the might of the Jewish rulers of Priazovia and lower Povolzhia. 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 Kyiv military forces. Olga was alone and in worry: it was as though, absorbed by military matters in the Balkans, Svyatoslav had forgotten about Kyiv.

In the Spring of 969 the Pechenegs besieged Kyiv: “and it was impossible to lead out the horses to water, for the Pechenegs stood at the Lybeda.” The army was far away, at the Danube. Having sent off messengers to her son, Saint Olga herself headed the defense of the capital. When he received the news, Svyatoslav rode quickly to Kyiv, 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 Kyiv, for I wish to live at Pereslavl’ on the Dunaj (Danube) since that is the center of my lands.”

Svyatoslav dreamed of creating a vast 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 armies 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. Saint 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 and, 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 Rus’, by means of miracles and incorrupt relics. Yakov Mnikh (+ 1072), a hundred years after her death, 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.”

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. “And hear ye concerning a certain miracle about her: the grave of stone is small in the church of the Holy Mother of God, this church built by the blessed Prince Vladimir, and in the grave is the blessed Olga. And an opening was made in the tomb to behold Olga’s body lying there whole.” But not everyone was given to see this miracle of the incorrupt relics of the saint: “For whoever came with faith, the aperture opened up, and there the venerable body could be seen lying intact, and one would marvel at such a miracle -- the body lying there for so many years without decay. Worthy of all praise is this venerable body: resting in the grave whole, as though sleeping. But for those who did not approach in faith, the grave aperture would not open up, and they would not see this venerable body, but only the grave.”

Thus even after death Saint Olga espoused life eternal and resurrection, filling believers with joy and confounding non-believers. She was, in the words of Saint Nestor the Chronicler, “a precursor in the Christian land, like the dawn before sunrise or the twilight before the light.”

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.”