Olga of Kiev was one of the most vicious and vengeful rulers in the history of the Kievan Rus, the principality that would eventually give birth to modern Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, stretching at its height from the Baltic Sea in the North to the Black Sea in the South.
Princess Olga was born around 900 CE, give or take a decade. Aside from the bit about her being a princess, history doesn’t pay much attention to Olga for the first 45ish years of her life.
Kievan Rus’ was a growing empire in the mid-10th century, but you don’t grow an empire without putting the squeeze on all your neighbors, and you don’t squeeze your neighbors without making them resent you so bad they can’t even sleep at night.
When Olga was a young woman, she hit the jackpot and married Prince Igor I of Russia’s Rurik dynasty. But how does a girl who isn’t a princess net such a royal match? Well, Olga’s dad may have been Oleg Veshchy, who was King Rurik’s highly respected kinsman. As such, even though Olga wasn’t a technical princess, she was a very well-positioned young lady. When Igor was still technically a prince, his father tragically died. The weight of the kingdom now rested on the young man’s shoulders.
Igor knew it was his responsibility to stop the Drevlian threat and make sure Kiev kept receiving those sweet tributes. He marched to the Drevlian tribe’s capital Iskorosten, in what is now Ukraine, and intimidated the townspeople with his imposing, bloodthirsty army. The Drevlians backed down and got right back to paying their regular tribute.
Before Igor even got back to Kiev, he changed his mind. It turns out that he was not impressed with what the Drevlians had to offer. After accepting their money and even riding away with his army, Igor decided to give them a piece of his mind. He turned around and headed back to the tribe. Little did he know, this would be an enormous—and painful—mistake.
According to the historian Leo the Deacon, Igor died an absolutely brutal death. The Drevlians didn’t just behead him. They tied the King’s legs and feet to bent birch trees, then released the pressure from the trunks. As the trees sprang back into their usual stance, the force tore Igor in half. Ouch.
When Igor’s wife Olga heard about her husband’s violent death, her profound sense of grief transformed into bloody vengeance. She sprung into action, taking over the kingdom in place of the heir Svyatoslav, who was just three years old.
One day, Olga was a beloved queen, wife, and mother. The next, she was a heartbroken widow, single mother, and new regent. And things were not about to get any easier: The Drevlians, who killed Olga’s husband, taunted the grieving woman with a cruel offer.
After Igor’s death, 20 smug Drevlians rode into town, attempting to intimidate Olga with their might. They saw her at court and proposed an utterly horrific idea. The tribe asked Olga to marry Prince Mal—the same man who had murdered Olga’s husband.
The day after the Drevlians asked Olga to marry her husband’s killer, they returned to court to receive their honors. As Olga had promised, her people began to carry the Drevlians back to their boat as a show of respect. Or at least it seemed like a show of respect until Olga’s forces threw the Drevlians into a trench.
It turned out that the night after Olga heard the Drevlians’ twisted offer, she ordered the people of Kiev to secretly dig an enormous grave for her “honored” guests. As her forces threw the 20 Drevlians into the pit, Olga leaned down and watched her vengeance unfurl. She ordered her people to bury the Drevlians alive.
Despite all the darkness, Olga eventually became a saint who protected widows and Christian converts.
Olga wasn’t finished. Shockingly, the buried alive Drevlian ambassadors never sent word back to Prince Mal, but Olga did. She would marry him, but she wanted an escort: Mal would need to send some of his most important people to travel with her to Iskorosten. It would serve as an act of goodwill that would acknowledge the importance of a union with the Kievan Rus’.
Mal was thirsty to be king, so he obliged and sent a group of Drevlian chieftains to Olga. She rolled out the red carpet and took her guests in, offering them some bathhouse time to clean up after their journey. If you can’t guess what happened next, here’s a hint: the bathhouse doors locked from the outside.
You gettin’ it? She locked those poor bastards in the bathhouse, then set it on fire, burning all the chieftains alive. It just wouldn’t be a Russian revenge story without any bathhouse murders.
After the bathhouse burning, Olga sent Mal a request: marriage still sounded good, but she’d like to visit Iskorosten to hold a funeral feast and proper burial for her deceased husband, Igor. Mal still didn’t know what happened to his last two diplomatic parties, so he figured why not? Whatever greased Olga’s wheels and got him on the Kievan Rus’ throne.
Olga and her soldiers arrived for the funeral feast and the mead was flowing. But, while the Drevlians were blacking out, Olga’s men had been ordered to teetotal and keep their wits. When the time was right and the Drevlians were good and sloshed, Olga brought down the hammer, killing 5,000 of the Drevlians. Well, 5,000 might be a bit of hyperbole, to tell the truth, but she killed a bunch of Drevlian revelers.7 8
This final step was truly Olga’s crowning achievement. Olga had gathered an army to wipe the Drevlians out, once and for all. The surviving Drevlians—those whom Olga hadn’t buried, burned, or put to the sword at the funeral feast—begged for mercy.
The Drevlians made good, but Olga didn’t. The birds were given to Olga, and she gave each of her soldiers a pigeon or sparrow, along with an order: tie a thread to each bird’s feet. On the end of that thread, tie some cloth-bound sulfur.
Once it was dark, Olga’s soldiers released the pigeons and sparrows, who naturally flew back to their nests in the houses, coops, and haystacks of Iskorosten. The whole city was set aflame at once and the Drevlians fled. Olga’s army captured the survivors. Some she killed, some she kept as slaves, and the rest she left to pay tribute.