Bad Decisions in History: featuring Olga of Kiev

Olga of Kiev is one of those historical figures whose fascinating legacy almost seems like the stuff of fiction, and while it’s possible that her tales of her exploits have been slightly exaggerated over the centuries, her life was still remarkable and, frankly, crazy. Olga’s ruthless decimation of a rival tribe left her a dark reputation as a vengeful and cunning warrior, but her later strong support of Christianity means that she’s also considered a saint.

Born to a family of Varyag (Viking) origin, Olga of Kiev co-reigned over Kievan Rus (part of modern day Russia, the link has a picture of the map) during the 900s. Her husband, Igor of Kiev, was killed around 945 by the Derevlian tribe, a neighbouring Slavic group who had been forced in the past to pay tribute to the Kievan Rus. When Igor rode out to collect tribute, the Derevlians revolted and instead killed him.

Bad decision: Angering Olga of Kiev

Since Igor and Olga’s son, Svyatoslav, was still a young child, Olga ruled Kievan Rus as regent until the time he would come of age. Though this gave her increased power within her realm, her husband’s death was a personal tragedy, and his murder by the Derevlians threatened the stability of the Kievan Rus rule. Olga plotted revenge.

This icicle isn’t as cold as Olga’s revenge

The perfect opportunity came when Prince Mal of the Derevlians approached Olga with an envoy of matchmakers, proposing an alliance of the two kingdoms through marriage. Feigning interest, Olga insisted upon honouring the envoys through a public ceremony, during which they would be carried in their boats into the city. She also quietly ordered for deep trenches to be dug within Kiev. When the Derevlian envoys were paraded into the city, carried in their boats, she had them thrown into the trench and buried alive.

Next, acting quickly enough that news of the envoys demise had not yet reached him, Olga sent a message to the Prince Mal, requesting a group of his best warriors to escort her back to Dereva. When the Derevlians arrived, they were directed to the bathhouse to clean up from the journey before being invited to meet her. Once they were inside, Olga had the bathhouse locked and burned to the ground.

Next, Olga herself went to Iskorosten, the capital of Dereva, on the pretext of holding a funeral for her late husband before she could consider moving forward with remarriage. Apparently the murder of Derevlian envoys was either still unknown, or explained away as a terrible accident, because she was welcomed with a grand feast that included lots of drinking. Once everyone was good and drunk, Olga ordered everyone killed. Presumably her own men had stayed sober, because around five thousand Derevlians were slaughtered while they slept it off. This scheme is a bit reminiscent of the fall of Troy, isn’t it?

Don’t trust that seemingly innocent face

By now, Olga had exacted a harsh toll of revenge, but she wasn’t finished yet. She declared war the following year, and laid siege on the city of Iskorosten. Eventually, the Derevlians tried to surrender, but Olga was not appeased by the tribute offered, since they were starving by now and had little to offer. As well, it seems tribute was not her ultimate goal, for she had other plans in mind. According to the tales, she asked for three sparrows and three pigeons from each household, which must have seemed like a random but ultimately harmless request.

It wasn’t though, because by now we know that Olga was outrageously cunning and ruthless. She had rags dipped in sulphur, lit on fire, and tied to the birds. Being released back to the skies, the birds flew home to their nests, dragging the burning rags (presumably on long enough strings that they could manage the journey back home) with them. The city burned like tinder under the rain of bird-brought fire, and Olga reckoned her revenge complete.

She continued to hold power even when her son came of age, holding Kiev while he was on military campaigns. She also turned her attentions to spreading Christianity after she converted sometime in the mid-900s. For her efforts, she was eventually canonized as Saint Olga.

Outcome: Revenge involving traps, murder, sieges, the obliteration of a city – and then religion.

 

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