Though most of Olga’s early life is undocumented, she left behind an enduring — though likely embellished — legacy. Her husband, Prince Igor, was killed by the Drevlians, a tribe who had joined with the Rus’ against the Byzantine Empire in exchange for giving the Rus’ tributes. Though the Drevlians stopped paying the tributes for 33 years, Igor attempted to begin collections again. He was met with hostility. According to Leo the Deacon, a Byzantine chronicler, The Drevlians “had bent down two birch trees to the prince’s feet and tied them to his legs. They then let the trees straighten again, thus tearing the prince’s body apart.”
After Igor’s murder, and with her son being only 3 years old, Olga became regent to her son. The Drevlians, now believing they were no longer bound to tributes, attempted to bring Olga into their tribe by marriage. They sent 20 men to persuade Olga to marry their prince, though upon their arrival Olga requested they remain in their boat overnight. She then had a ditch dug and, in the morning, had the emissaries buried alive.
Olga sent a message back to the Drevlian prince Mal, saying she agreed to his proposal. But, only on the condition he send his best men to escort her between their territories. Prince Mal agreed, and Olga met the delegates warmly before offering them the use of her bathhouse to relax. Once the men were inside, she had the doors locked and the bathhouse burned to the ground.
Olga then sent a request to the Drevlian capital of Iskorosten, asking for a funeral feast to be served in her late husband’s honor. Though the two groups of delegates had failed to return from Kiev, the Drevlians remained unalarmed and proceeded with the feast. After the Drevlians were drunk, the Rus’ soldiers killed approximately 5,000 of them.
The remaining Drevlians begged for Olga’s mercy, offering their previous tributes and more. She seemingly accepted their bid for leniency and requested each house provide her with three sparrows and three pigeon, telling them she did not “wish to impose a heavy tribute, like my husband, but I require only this small gift from you, for you are impoverished from the siege.”
The Drevlians agreed. Olga instructed her soldiers to attach a piece of sulfur by a threat to each of the birds, then at night, the birds were released and flew back to their nests, kept in the houses of the Drevlians. The entire city was burned. Soldiers captured any citizens fleeing; some were killed, some were enslaved, and others were left alive to continue paying tribute.
Olga later converted to Christianity and helped spread the religion to the area, and so has been venerated as a saint. Her feast day is the same as the day of her death, and she is considered the patron saint of widows and converts.