The killing of Prince Igor of the Kievan Rus empire would come to be the biggest mistake of the Drevlian tribe. They had no idea that Igor was married to one of the most cunning, ruthless, and vengeful women in their empire. Olga would put the Drevlian tribe through years of pain and torment, and despite her bloody and brutal revenge, she would eventually become the first Russian saint of the Orthodox church.
The killing of Igor
Igor was away on a campaign for over 30 years, and in that time, many tribes decided to stop paying tribute to the Kievan Rus. Well, when he returned, he decided he wanted them all to start paying tribute once again. While many complied and began to repay the Prince, some refused.
In particular, the Drevlians refused to pay, seized the Prince in an ambush, and had him publicly murdered in the capital city of Iskorosten. They had bent two birch trees down to the ground, tied his legs to either tree and released them so that when they straightened up, the Prince’s body was torn in two.
Normally, the crown would have passed to the Prince’s son, Sviatoslav, but he was only three years old when his father was killed. Instead, the crown was passed to his wife, Olga, who would spend the next few years absolutely destroying the Drevlians who made her a widow.
An indecent proposal
Assuming Olga was weak and easily manipulated, the Drevlians offered for her to marry their prince, Prince Mal, so that they could quickly gain control over the Kievan Rus empire. With no intention to actually marry their prince, Olga said yes to the proposal and saw this as an opportunity to seek her revenge on Drevlians. What would happen next is nothing short of a bloodbath.
Step 1: Bury them alive
After agreeing to marry the prince, Olga asked that the Drevlians chieftains come to her and demanded they be carried by her people into the city while they remained in their boats. At the same time, Olga had her people dig a massive ditch just outside the city. When they arrived, her people carried the chieftains in their boats but carried them straight to the ditch where she had them buried alive.
Step 2: Burn them alive
Before word could get back to the Drevlians of what she had done to their chieftains, she had sent a request for them to send all of their governors to accompany her on her trip to Iskorosten. They agreed and made their way to the queen. When they arrived, she insisted they wash up in her bathhouse, and when they were all inside, she had the doors closed and all the men were burned alive.
Step 3: Get them drunk and attack
Again, completely unaware that Olga was killing all of their upper-class citizens, the Drevlians were happy to answer her next request. She had asked the Drevlians to prepare a funeral feast in the city where they killed her husband, so that she may pay her respects and then marry Prince Mal. They did just that and at the feast, she encouraged them to drink until they were drunk.
Now that they were thoroughly intoxicated, Olga had her soldiers march in and kill approximately 5,000 Drevlians. Following this, Olga had her soldiers lay siege on the Drevlians for an entire year. You would think that would satisfy her need for revenge, but there’s more.
The cherry on top
Olga reached out to the decimated Drevlian people and told them she was done with her revenge and asked only for them to pay tribute to her in the form of three pigeons and three sparrows from every household. They happily agreed, hoping this was the end of their torment. Unfortunately, this would be their ultimate end.
On every bird that she received as tribute, she attached sulphur with a piece of cloth tied to their legs. She then had them set on fire before releasing the birds. All of them returned to their homes and set nearly every building on fire. Most of the Drevlians died in the massive blaze, while others were either killed or taken as slaves.
A peaceful Christian
So how can Olga be considered a saint after brutally destroying an entire group of people? Well, Olga was one of the first Kievan Rus to convert to Christianity and she spent the rest of her life converting her people and establishing churches all around the empire. Her efforts earned her the title of “Equal to the Apostles” and she ruled peacefully for the remainder of her reign.
When her son was of age, he took over ruling the Kievan Rus empire, remained a pagan, but allowed his mother and those who chose to practice Christianity to do so without opposition. Olga died of illness in 969 CE but her legacy, and brutal revenge, are still remembered today.