Olga of Kyiv

Viking Queen & Patron Saint of Widows and Converts and OG Boss Queen of Ukraine

This week, Sara brings back the story of Olga of Kyiv: The Viking Warrior Queen who orchestrated one of the most prolonged, bloody revenge strategies of all time before expanding trade (putting the Kyivan Rus on the map), tricking Emperor Constantine VII, converting to Christianity and spreading the faith so successfully that she was canonized the Patron Saint of Widows and Converts.

This is the OG Boss Queen of Ukraine and her story is so epic that it served as a basis for some of your favorite moments on Game of Thrones. If you haven’t heard of Olga, or even if you remember her from when this episode first aired in 2020, listen again and be transported to one of the most spectacular origin stories of Ukraine.

Episode Transcript

(please excuse any errors, spelling or otherwise – audio transcription is tricky)

Sara Gorsky 0:50
Hello this is BROADS YOU SHOULD KNOW, the podcast about amazing and noteworthy women from history. I am Sara Gorsky.

Sam Eggers 0:58
I’m Sam Eggers

Justin Xavier 0:59
and I’m Justin Xavier,

Sara Gorsky 1:01
And today I’m going to be talking about Olga of Kiev. You guys ever heard of Olga of Kiev?

Justin Xavier 1:08
I have not.

Sam Eggers 1:09
She sounds awesome.

Justin Xavier 1:10
It’s a great name.

Sara Gorsky 1:12
I think you ought to buckle your seatbelts. Okay, because she is a BROAD unlike any other.

Justin Xavier 1:18
Why do you know about her?

Sara Gorsky 1:19
Why? You know what? It was another one of those passing MEMES! I don’t why – I shouldn’t get so many of my broads from memes that I see, but then you look and you’re like, “Wow, that’s a weird and crazy story. Is that true?” And then I did my research and was like, “oh, wow, that IS true! Plus more that wasn’t even in the meme.” So I had to bring her to you guys because I think she’s just pretty incredible. So we’re going back in time, a little time machine… We don’t know her exact birthday, but it’s sometime between 890 and 925 AD. So can you know big throwback there way back there way back when. And there’s not very much known about her prior to her marriage to Prince Igor I except that she was of Viking origin. She was a Viking babe.

Sam Eggers 2:07

Justin Xavier 2:08
Igor and Olga was the couple.

Sara Gorsky 2:11
And because I’m a nerd who studied in Russia, I say ‘yay-gore’ instead of ‘ee-gore’ just so the audience knows what I’m talking about. Igor was the son and heir of Rurik and the Rurik Dynasty and under Rurik, and Oleg, who was his guardian, Igor’s guardian. A ton of power had been consolidated in the region, conquering a bunch of tribes and forming what they call the Kieven Rus Empire and their capital was Kiev. So that today that’s like part of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, that’s the area of the world we’re talking about. And so Olga, and Igor to get married, and one of the tribes next door in this time period was called the Drevlians and…

Justin Xavier 2:56
That a great word.

Sam Eggers 2:58
Yeah, the Drevlians.

Sara Gorsky 2:58
Yes, I know. You don’t hear very much about them… And there’s a reason. So one of the tribes, the Drevlians, they were sort of friends with the Rus, the Kieven Rus they like fought the Byzantine Empire together, and they pay taxes to Igor’s dad and to Oleg because his dad died before you were was old enough. So Oleg was kind of the guy who kind of held power until you grow old enough. But when Oh, like died, they were like, we’re not gonna pay our taxes anymore. We don’t really care for that. And so Igor was pissed. Igor was like, “What the fuck, dude?” So he took his larger army – his army was considerably larger than the Drevlian’s army, brought them over and was like, “you guys, you have GOT to pay the rent” and the Drevlians were scared of their bigger army so they paid up, it SHOULD end well. Like, the strike should be over.

In what I can only describe as one of the most dude moments in history – halfway home Igor decides that they hadn’t paid him enough money. So he rides back with a smaller party since it takes a long time to turn the army around. So he goes back with the smaller party. And the Drevlians were like, “Oh, no”, and they murdered him. I have trouble like comprehending like, what was the main thing that was gonna be successful? But you know, that is – that WAS his choice, and you know, he did that.

Side note, Olga and Igor had a son Svyatoslav, but he was only three years old at this time when he was murdered, murdered. So Olga assume had to assume the throne until he came of age in the same way the previous old leg had to so Olga’s running shit while he while Igor is gone, and then the Drevlians have successfully killed Igor. And they’re like, “Oh my god, we’re SO GOOD at killing. We’re SO GOOD.” And they were like feeling really proud about their murdering. So they send 20 negotiators in a boat to Olga’s Court to negotiate.

Sam Eggers 5:01
I’m doing air quotes, yeah “negotiators.”

Sara Gorsky 5:04
The send them to Olga and they tell her first of all, her husband is dead. And second of all, she needed to marry their Prince, Prince Mal.

Sam Eggers 5:12

Sara Gorsky 5:12
Prince Mal.

Justin Xavier 5:16
So that means bad. Prince bad, he’s a bad Prince bad and you’re gonna marry him. This feels like a fairy tale…

Sara Gorsky 5:24
It does. Kind of. So Olga responds to them. And this is a quote I think from the history book. “Your proposal is pleasing to me. Indeed, my husband cannot rise again from the dead. But I desire to honor you tomorrow in the presence of my people. Return now to your boat and remain there with an aspect of arrogance. I shall send for you on the morrow and you shall say, we will not ride on horses nor go on foot, carry us in our boat and you shall be carried in your boats.”

The negotiators are Like, “Honors?! they’re gonna carry us through the city??” They’re like, “Wow, this is going really well for us. ” We have accomplished all this and more. Prince Mal is going to be so excited. So they go back to their boat

Justin Xavier 6:14
Good thing we didn’t pay up that second time.

Sara Gorsky 6:17
Yeah, right? The Drevlians made a lot of great decisions. So they so they go back to their little boat and then the next day they come back and their boat, and the people literally, like, lift their boat up and carry the whole boat through the city to Olga’s court, and they drop the whole boat into a ditch that had been dug in the middle of the court and Olga buried them alive. All 20 negotiators and their boat, alive.

Sam Eggers 6:46
That’s an extreme choice.

Justin Xavier 6:48
Yeah, was it like it was like a trap door like they didn’t see it coming or they just were like, “Well, let’s get in this pit and wait”?

Sara Gorsky 6:56
My only assumption can be – they’re being carried through the city. They’re like, “Oh my god, this is the best day of my life. Look at all these people worshipping me. I’m gonna get laid tonight, like, so much is going well for me. I’m going to get the promotion and all of them are like, woohoo!!!” And then…

Justin Xavier 7:11
…and then they just threw the boat into a pit

Sara Gorsky 7:13
Yeah, because the people are obeying. Olga, who is now kind of their Queen Regent.

Justin Xavier 7:17
That makes a little more sense of what I was picturing. Yeah, them carrying their own boat and then getting to a pit.

Sara Gorsky 7:24
So the Drevlians, so don’t actually don’t know anything that has happened. So Olga sends them a message, she she sends a message and says, “You need to send me your most distinguished men, to me in Kiev so that I might go to their Prince with due honor.” And they didn’t know what had happened to the previous party. They didn’t know anyone was buried alive. And they were like, “Oh, that sounds great! And so they, like, send a party, a new party, to Olga in Kiev, and when they arrive, Olga invites them to appear before her after they have bathed and she has people prepare like this huge spa experience for them. She, like, has them drop these baths with scented perfumes and she like ushers them into the bath house and they’re like, “wow, wow!”

Justin Xavier 8:08
“We’re so special.”

Sara Gorsky 8:10
“Really special.” And Olga has the doors locked and burns the bath house down.

Justin Xavier 8:17
Oh man,

Sam Eggers 8:18
Right?! The Drevlians!

I thought you’re gonna say like she makes them bathe and then she puts them in a pit and buries them alive. So at least she’s expanded her repertoire here.

Justin Xavier 8:26
I mean, I can’t save it. I don’t understand why the Drevlians were upset. She’s just taking it to the biggest extreme.

Sara Gorsky 8:35
She is pissed that they killed her husband. This is like the ultimate revenge story. P.S., now that you’re seeing parts of it. We’re not to the end yet…

Justin Xavier 8:41
He was stealing from them.

Sara Gorsky 8:45
Okay, so they’re burned to death in the bath house. And Olga sends ANOTHER message to the Drevlians telling them, quote, “prepare great quantities of mead in the city where you killed my husband that I may weep over his grave and hold a funeral feast for him.”

Justin Xavier 9:01
They fall for this, too? How come our other 40 guys haven’t come back?

Sara Gorsky 9:04
And she brings a small – this, like, humble party with her to visit Igor’s tomb and they weep and weep and they hold this big funeral feast. All the things you’d expect to the time period, right? Of this great king who has died and all the javelins join in with the feast and they’re all hanging out. And they’re drinking

Justin Xavier 9:24
Some Red Wedding shit.

Sara Gorsky 9:25
Yeah, and they’re drinking and they’re drunk as fuck. And Olga gets up and she orders her peeps that she brought to start massacring the fuck out of them. And supposedly, obviously, we can’t prove such things that happened long ago, but supposedly that night 5,000 people are massacred at this at this funeral,

Justin Xavier 9:44
How many people does she bring?

Sara Gorsky 9:45
It all it says is a small party. So I’m guessing that’s like 100 or 200 as opposed to a full army which would have been thousands, right?

Justin Xavier 9:52
So everybody had to kill like 10 guys.

Sara Gorsky 9:55
Yeah, and, AND apparently…

Justin Xavier 9:57
10 super drunk guys…

Sara Gorsky 9:58
While all her a while all her people are massacring people she’s, like, running around and, like, egging them on like, “Oh, you’re doing a great job you can do more murders. You can do it.”

Justin Xavier 10:08
That the most Viking thing I’ve heard.

Sara Gorsky 10:11
It is. This is ultra Viking. She is ultimate Viking Queen, I feel. And so then they finish their massacre for the night and they all run back to Kiev to assemble the full army and march on the city where Igor was killed.

Justin Xavier 10:23
There’s more!

Sara Gorsky 10:30
There was a lot of people think there at that time period was not like sparsely populated. They had like these cities that were forming, not very well managed, but they were there and all these tribes had kind of combined. This is like the coming together of, like, organized civilization sort of, so there was a lot of people I guess. So they come to the city and they lay siege on it for a year. A YEAR. And it wasn’t successful and Olga is like “Ughhhh this is so boring. This needs to be OVER!”

Justin Xavier 11:03
I got over my husband already. This isn’t even worth it for me anymore.

Sara Gorsky 11:07
So she sends the Drevlians a message and her message was, “Why do you persist in holding out. All your cities have surrendered to me and submitted to tribute (which is the taxes) so you had the inhabitants now cultivate their fields and their lands and peace, but YOU had rather died of hunger without submitting to tribute.” And the Drevlians were like, “Dude, okay, we’ll pay the tribute. We’ll pay the tribute, except that we’re still afraid that you’re still avenging your husband.” Which was like the smartest thing they’ve said in the story. And she’s like, “No murder of the negotiators boat and the feast night massacre…It’s enough for me. I’m done. But listen, I got one request for you. Give me three pigeons and three sparrows from each house.” And the Drevlians were like, “Oh my God, thank God. That’s so easy. We can do it and we’re happy you’re finished revenging. Here’s the all the pigeons and sparrows. You’re the best. We’re going to pay our taxes on time from now on. Thank you so much. We’re so relieved. This is over.”

Justin Xavier 11:53
That’s a lot of birds. How did they have that many birds? Everybody has three pigeons and sparrows.

Sam Eggers 12:10
Yeah, pigeons I feel like you would see but sparrows…

Sara Gorsky 12:13
I mean they use them for messages and stuff, right?

Justin Xavier 12:16
I don’t know if everyone would have three

Sara Gorsky 12:18
But I think that at that point, you’re like, your neighbor has extras and they’re like “here, no take them we need this to be over.”

Justin Xavier 12:22
Yeah, head to the aviary.

Sara Gorsky 12:25
So Olga takes all these birds because she has tiny pieces of cloth with sulfur on them tied to their feet, and she likes the fabric on fire. And because the sulfur is on the cloth, it burns really slowly, and she releases them and they all fly back to their homes…

Justin Xavier 12:41
And set all the houses on fire?

Sara Gorsky 12:43
…And burns the city to the ground. This entire city is burned to the ground. According to history books, quote, “there was not a house that was not consumed, and it was impossible to extinguish the flames because all the houses caught fire at once and the people that were fleeing the city were either killed or made slaves to her followers and she left a couple alives so she could still get tributes.

Justin Xavier 13:06
Oh my god, oh my god this is horrible.

Sara Gorsky 13:09
And that, my friends, is the origin story of Daenerys Targaryen.

Sam Eggers 13:12
Exactly. Olga!

Sara Gorsky 13:15
And then her revenge was done because the Drevlians were…

Justin Xavier 13:17
Decimated. There was a genocide.

Sara Gorsky 13:19
They were destroyed it was a genocide.

Sam Eggers 13:20
So what does Olga do after this? I mean, like on a weekend when she has some spare time, what does she do now?

Sara Gorsky 13:27
Well, I have more.

Justin Xavier 13:28
You can never top that.

Sara Gorsky 13:29
There’s more. That’s the end of the revenge story though. That’s the end of the Daenerys Targaryen origin story, which you can’t deny, like she locks the people in the the temple, remember? In what was that, season three or four? And then burns it – locks the doors and burns it all down and

Sam Eggers 13:45
Oh, right

Justin Xavier 13:46
Oh, yeah,

Sara Gorsky 13:47
Like she did it all.

Justin Xavier 13:48
That was like season six?

Sara Gorsky 13:50
I cannot think George RR Martin was not aware of not aware of Olga.

Justin Xavier 13:56
I mean, it sounds like almost every part of that story was used as plot point in Game of Thrones at one point or another

Sam Eggers 14:02
I mean that bird war stuff is good.

Yeah, bird wars yeah.

Sara Gorsky 14:04
That bird war stuff is sick. Okay, so anyway, she destroys the Drevlians, and they’re all finished and she remained Regeant while her son was still a kid, and then he became the king and it was always like, great and fine, but during her rule, and while she was in charge, and helping – her son went to – also was at war for like, like – he was just always at war, it sounds like, so she basically ruled in his stead while he was gone. And under her, she changed the system of tribute gathering, which was technically the first legal reform recorded in Eastern Europe. And basically what she did is she assigned her own reps to gather the tributes, the taxes in each area, rather than relying on the local Lord to do it. So she basically like had ambassadors and representatives in all the cities that collected the money and then got it to her instead of the people themselves, which is interesting.

Justin Xavier 14:53
Mm hmm.

Sara Gorsky 14:53
And she would establish…

Justin Xavier 14:54
There were the Lords like siphoning some off of themselves or something?

Sara Gorsky 14:57
I mean, probably.

Sam Eggers 14:58

Sara Gorsky 14:58
But you have to imagine that happened all the time. Yeah. I mean, that was the reason that that I mean, that’s the reason the Drevlians stopped paying in the first place. And she established all these trading posts and hunting reserves and towns that are still in existence today.

Justin Xavier 15:11
Like, were they doing anything with the taxes to like benefit those communities? Like that’s not the point of taxes is to like…

Sara Gorsky 15:18
Well, I think the general point of the taxes is to protect people in war. So, like ,if you pay tribute…

Justin Xavier 15:22
So she just took all the taxes and put them into the military to kill the people who paid the taxes.

Sara Gorsky 15:27
Well, the Drevlians were the exception, right? So, like if the, you know, they were at war with the Byzantine Empire, and when they came in, those were technically protected lands, right? So essentially, you’re kind of paying for your army in the same way – like not too dissimilar from today…

Justin Xavier 15:42
I mean, yeah no, that’s true today, it’s like 80% of our taxes go to war.

Sara Gorsky 15:45
Yeah, absolutely true. And the people didn’t have a say in what the money was spent on, right? If they wanted…

Justin Xavier 15:51
and if they didn’t pay it, they’d be killed. So…guess we’re gonna do it.

Sara Gorsky 15:54
If they wanted to be part of the protection ring, you know, they had to kind of comply. And so all of the work that she did there basically kind of centralized state rule. And she like built this network of administrative centers they called pogosti. And they brought kind of a cultural unification to the Russian nation at that time. That kind of didn’t exist before that.

Justin Xavier 16:14
Well that’s nice. Some good can come out of all of the…

Sara Gorsky 16:17
And then in the 950s, she travels to Constantinople, and the reigning emperor was Constantine VII, and the source I was reading said that “Olga came before him, and when he saw that she was very fair of countenance and wise as well the Emperor wondered that her intellect. He conversed with her and remarked that she was worthy to reign with him in his city. When Olga heard his words, she replied, she was still a pagan, and that if he desired to baptize her, he should perform this function himself. Otherwise she was unwilling to accept baptism.” So, the Emperor’s like “Well, alright, we can do that. That’s great. Like, you’re converting to Christianity. That is, that’s pretty rad.” And so with the help of the Patriarch, which is the highest ranking Bishop in Eastern Orthodoxy at the time, the Emperor Constantine and the Patriarch baptize her and she becomes Christian. She’s like the first Rus to ever do it, and VIKING for that matter. And it was it was kind of like a BIG moment, for Christianity, at least. So they baptize her but then Constantine’s like…

Sam Eggers 17:22
Got our first Viking!

Justin Xavier 17:23
Got our first mass murderer!

Sara Gorsky 17:27
I mean, that’s how I knew she was smart. She had like defeated all these people and like put the unrest down and like managed the mischief, right? But after her baptism, Constantine’s like “But listen, dude, really, though, why don’t you marry me because you’re pretty well suited for it?

Sam Eggers 17:44
Don’t do it.

Justin Xavier 17:45
Uh oh.

Sara Gorsky 17:45
So here’s where our girl comes through, guys. She does not kill him, he’s the Emperor, okay?

Justin Xavier 17:51
All right, I just wouldn’t be surprised, you know.

Sara Gorsky 17:54
So, and this is all sort of speculation, but I believe it…

Justin Xavier 17:57
You can always go to the pigeon strategy.

Sara Gorsky 18:00
But, you know, we’ve like, deduced that she’s a hottie and that she’s super smart and strategical, strategical? Strategic. And so it makes her a huge catch for marriage right? But marrying her would also have secured Constantine’s relationship and power over Rus. And Olga knows this. And supposedly – this is why she was baptized because in the church, the person who baptizes you becomes your baptismal sponsor, and THEN to have a relation- to marry them would be considered incest – spiritual incest. So Olga’s like, “Oh, you can’t marry me because that’s not allowed. These rules of Christianity say that you can’t do that.”

Sam Eggers 18:45
Slick, Olga, very slick.

Justin Xavier 18:47
That’s a great move.

Sara Gorsky 18:48
So she basically she just outwits the fuck out of everybody, including the Emperor, including like, more or less their Pope. She gets about…and then the Emperor was like, super impressed. And he says the the quote from the book is “Olga, you have outwitted me. And he gave her many gifts of gold and silver and silks and vases and dismissed her still calling her his daughter”

Sam Eggers 19:12
You’d think he’d be a little offended.

Sara Gorsky 19:13
So she did it, but she did it so subtly and so smartly like that they didn’t know that it was their… that they were manipulated, right? They were like, “Oh, you’re right. That IS a Christian rule.”

Justin Xavier 19:24
We forgot about that.

Sara Gorsky 19:26
“Well, you’ve been a good Christian, go home to Kiev.”

Justin Xavier 19:29
You’re better than all of us.

Sara Gorsky 19:31
So she maintains the power of the region. Right? So that’s like the bulk of the story. Her son was not a fan of Christianity, he would not be converted, which was like a huge disappointment for her. But she did convert a lot of people. And she managed to build a whole bunch of churches in Kiev and she also had her husband, even though he wasn’t going to convert he agreed not to kill people, but DID convert which was, turns out, another HUGE win for Christianity because at that point, people who converted – the pagans would just kill them. So a bunch of people got to live. She built a bunch of churches. And then, despite her failure to convert her husband, her grandson, Vladimir the Great officially converted in 988, So he was the first king of the region to convert. So she like really came through and she was sainted by the church. She was Sainted for bringing Christianity to the region that previously was all pagan. So like 600 years after her death, the Russian Orthodox Church sainted her and she is the Patron Saint of Widows and Converts. So she has our first BROAD who’s a saint.

Justin Xavier 20:44
That blows my mind. Considering how hard it is for them to saint anyone let alone women.

Sara Gorsky 20:51
Well, that was in 1547 when the sainting happened, so I don’t know if that’s…maybe it was easier back then?

Justin Xavier 20:56
600 years after she was dead. Yeah.

Sara Gorsky 20:58
But her deeds were in bringing, you know…in the eyes of church when she’s baptized she’s cleansed ever since. Right?

So killing like a million Drevlians…

Justin Xavier 21:08
Yup, that’s ture.

Sam Eggers 21:10
Yeah. Whatever. When they say to her they’re like Drevlian and schmenvlian.

Sara Gorsky 21:14
Dude, can you believe her?

Justin Xavier 21:16
That’s an incredible story

Sara Gorsky 21:19
Olga of Kiev, our first Saint broad and the original Daenerys Targaryen.

Sam Eggers 21:24
She’s the patron Saint of what…?

Sara Gorsky 21:26
Widows and converts.

Justin Xavier 21:28
Which makes sense. Those are the two things we heard about a lot and that story

Sara Gorsky 21:32
And she was Sainted not just by the Russian Orthodox Church, but like ALL of the orthodox churches.

Justin Xavier 21:35
What is… That’s… they’re even like calling out that she was a mass murderer, patron saint of widows like you killed all those men, and created all those widows therefore,

Sara Gorsky 21:45
She was forgiven. Guys, CHRISTIANITY.

Justin Xavier 21:47
I know. You can do anything. All you have to do is say sorry, one time to God and maybe pray a bunch of times, and you’re…

Sam Eggers 21:54
…at least in THAT church.

Justin Xavier 21:55
Right? Right. Right, right. Yeah. I’m raised Catholic. So I can speak against it.

Sara Gorsky 22:01
Well, that wraps up Olga of Kiev. Thank you for listening everyone.