The figure of the holy equal-to-the-apostles princess Olha is shrouded in glory – folk, church, and historical. She is one of the most famous women in Ukraine’s history. Princess Olha (in Holy Baptism – Olena) was the first Christian on the Grand Throne of Kyiv, wisely ruled a powerful state for 17 years, and became a saint of the Church of Christ.
She lived more than a millennium ago, so, unfortunately, much of her life story remains unknown to us. We learn about her Varangian origins from the chronicles, so the name Olha is an adapted Scandinavian name Helga (Helga), which translates as “holy.” Saint Demetrius of Rostov (Tuptalo) in the Lives of the Saints tells how she became a princess: Prince Ihor once saw a beautiful girl on the hunt and sought to seduce her, but she acted with dignity, so he wished to marry Olha legitimately. So in 903, Olha became princess.
She entered the historical arena in 945, after the tragic death of her husband. As the heir – their son Sviatoslav – was only 3 years old at the time, Princess Olha became his regent and took the helm with the power of the Grand Princess of Kyiv. She became famous for many decisive, bold, and wise state decisions, with her glory shining on far beyond Rus-Ukraine.
But Princess Olha’s greatness manifested itself the most when she accepted the Christian faith, thus significantly raising the prestige of her state in the eyes of Byzantium and the then rulers of Europe. Olha’s baptism is celebrated as a significant event not only by domestic chronicle sources, but also by foreign ones, although even today, historians argue about the specific date and location. Most likely, she was baptized no later than 955, in Rus or in Constantinople.
In the icons, the equal-to-the-apostles Olha is traditionally depicted standing up. In her right hand is a cross, a symbol of the preaching of Christ, done by all saints, and in her left hand – a symbolic image of the temple. According to legend, she built many churches in the Kyiv state, with the first one being the St. Nicholas Church on Askold’s grave.
According to the chronicles, Princess Olha “traveled across towns and villages throughout the land of Rus, preaching the Gospel as a true disciple of Christ and equal to the apostles” and that “many people gladly accepted the word of God and got baptized.” Christianity had a profound effect on her personal life – she pursued acts of charity, remained kind, generous, fair, and kind to people.
Having become a Christian, the princess showed the people a new type of worldview. She could not convert her son Sviatoslav to the true faith, but generously sowed the seeds of Christian faith in the soul of her grandson, Prince Volodymyr. Princess Olha passed in 969, commanding not to commit pagan delusion over herself, but to bury her according to Christian custom in the Kyiv church of St. Nicholas, on Askold’s grave. The princess’s body remained incorruptible, and later her grandson Volodymyr transferred the relics of the saint to the Tithe Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin.