Kiev, the city of Saint Olga

by Cristina Siccardi

The history of Russia and the history of Ukraine not only have always been intertwined, but Russia’s origins are rooted in none other than Kiev, amid struggles of sovereignty and identity.

Slavic peoples were living in the forests of northern Ukraine by the 6th century. Around the middle of the 9th century the Slavs merged with the settlers of a Scandinavian people, the Rus’, belonging to the large group of Varangians from which other Norman stocks also descended. A kinsman of Rurik (798-879), Oleg, unified all the Rus’ lands in 882 and established the capital of his kingdom in Kiev. For a long time the Rus’ constituted the military and political elite of the region, but the remarkable thing is that they became Slavicised very rapidly, acquiring the same traditions as the rest of the population. The unification of such a vast territory under a single authority brought two centuries of great prosperity to the region of Kiev, which became an obligatory point of passage for trade along the river port of the Dnieper (the third largest in Europe, after the Volga and the Danube: 2,201 km long, its basin encompasses an area of 516,000 km²), which lies between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea.

Kiev is also the heart of the Christianisation of all Russia. It was there that the two pillars of Russian evangelisation, considered saints by both the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches, originated: Olga (c. 905-969) and her grandson Vladimir (c. 958-1015). Olga, who after her baptism took the name of Elena, was princess of Kievan Rus’, a member of the Varangian aristocracy, and also the consort of Igor (877-945), ruler of Kievan Rus’ from 912 to 945, son of the aforementioned Rurik. On the feast of St Benedict, patron of Europe, the Church also commemorates Olga, one of the first Russian saints included in the Catholic calendar. She is considered the link between the pagan and Christian eras.

The sources of biographical information on her are the Elogy of the monk Iakovla and the Chronicle of Years Past by the monk Nestor of Pečerska (c. 1056-1114), which contains the history of Kievan Rus’, the oldest eastern Slavic state, a primary source for information on the history of Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages, as well as being fundamental for the historiography of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.

Daughter of a Varangian nobleman (of the Scandinavian Norman peoples) of the Izborsk family, Olga was born around 905 in a village near the Velikaja river, a few kilometres from Pskov, where her father was involved in trade along the Volga, Black Sea and Caucasus. She married Prince Igor, Grand Prince of Kiev, but when her husband was murdered by the Drevlian tribe in 945 she became regent until her son Sviatoslav, who was three years old at the time, should reach adulthood. It was at the very beginning of her rule that a violent vendetta was unleashed against Igor’s murderers. The Drevlians were eager for a marriage between Olga and their prince, Mal, which would make him lord of Kiev, but the regent was not only determined to hold on to power for the sake of her son but was ready to defend it with intrepid and bloody acts, real massacres that followed one after another, with heavy tributes imposed on the survivors until this population disappears completely from the Russian chronicles.

The Teutonic blood and culture of the Varangians were clearly manifested in Olga, and some characteristics of that bold and warlike lineage would persist among the Eastern Slavs over the centuries. In 955, leaving the rule of Kievan Rus’ to her son, Olga went to Constantinople, where with her forceful temperament she experienced a dramatic conversion to Christianity, taking the name of Elena. From this moment on her life was rich in mercy. Both the Chronicle of Years Past and the Elogy agree in describing the sanctity of the first Christian ruler of Russia. She was baptised by the Byzantine bishop Polyeuctus (?-970), ecumenical patriarch, while her godfather was the emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (905-959). Patriarch Polyeuctus hailed her in a prophetic tone: “Blessed are you among Russian women, because you have loved the light and driven the darkness away. Therefore the children of Russia will bless you down to the last generation” (cf. F. Gumilevskyj, Lives of the Saints, July, Petersburg 1900, p. 106).

Olga had departed for Constantinople to forge an alliance against the peoples of the steppe, in particular the Bulgars and Khazars; but there she found the Faith and embraced it to the full. After returning to Kiev she was quite active in spreading Byzantine rite Christianity in Rus’. The Elogy describes her as intent “on destroying the altars on which sacrifices were made to the devil and on devoting herself to charitable works on behalf of the most indigent of her people” (cf. F. Chiti, Santi dell’antica Russia, Milan, Gribaudi, 2001).

It was very difficult to convert those tribes, especially the elite boyars and druzhinas, who remained pagan. So in 959 Olga, undaunted, sent an embassy to the Germanic emperor Otto I of Saxony (912-973), to ask him to send a missionary to Rus’ to evangelise those peoples. After a dispute between the archbishops of Hamburg/Bremen and of Mainz over the selection of the missionary, in 961 the monk Adalbert of Trier arrived in Kiev, staying in Rus’ for only a year: in 962, in fact, he was forced to go back home on account of the unrest that arose in the population of Kiev. Not even Elena’s son, now grand prince of the sovereign city, decided to convert.

Let us carefully reread a passage from the 1988 apostolic letter Euntes in Mundum, which Pope John Paul II released on 25 January, the feast of the conversion of St Paul, to celebrate the millennium of the “Baptism of Kievan Rus’”, a powerful and significant document:

“Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (cf. Mt 28:19; Mk 16:15).

From the tombs of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul in Rome, the Catholic Church desires to express to the One and Triune God her own profound gratitude, because these words of the Saviour were fulfilled one thousand years ago on the banks of the Dnieper, in Kiev, capital of Rus’, the inhabitants of which – in the footsteps of Princess Olga and of Prince Vladimir – were ‘grafted’ on to Christ through the sacrament of Baptism.

Following my predecessor of venerable memory, Pius XII, who wished to solemnise the 950th anniversary of the Baptism of Rus’, (cf. Pius XII, ‘Epistula ad Cardinalem Eugenium Tisserant, Sacrae Congregationis pro Ecclesia Orientali Secretarium’ [12 May 1939]: AAS 31 [1939], pp. 258-259), I desire with this letter to offer praise and gratitude to the ineffable God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – for having called to faith and grace the sons and daughters of many peoples and nations who have accepted the Christian heritage of the Baptism administered in Kiev. They belong primarily to the nations of Russia, Ukraine and Byelorussia in the eastern regions of the European continent. Through the service of the Church, which began with the Baptism in Kiev, this heritage has reached beyond the Urals to many peoples of northern Asia, as far as the coasts of the Pacific and even beyond. Truly, their voice has gone out to the ends of the earth (cf. Ps 19:4; Rom 10:18). […] The Baptism of Kievan Rus’ therefore marks the beginning of a long historical process of development and expansion for the original Byzantine-Slavic profile of Christianity in the life both of the Church and of society and the nations that have found in it, through the centuries and still today, the foundation of their own spiritual identity.”

In the course of history, when stormy events broke repeatedly and heavily on the Slavs of this land, it was precisely the Baptism and the Christian culture drawn from the universal Church and developed on the basis of its spiritual riches that became the decisive forces in the creation of a dynamic and enduring Russian identity, so robust as to withstand even the Soviet totalitarianism that tried to wipe out, but in vain, the Tsarist tradition and religion.

The Baptism of the entire population came in 988, by order of Grand Prince Vladimir, Elena’s grandson, who had done all he could to sow the first seeds of the Good News, which took root above all in the Rus’ Khaganate. The chronicles of Halyč and Smolensk attest that even before Vladimir, in fact, there were wooden churches, traces of which have been found during archaeological excavations carried out in the Minsk region: they were churches laid out in the form of a Greek cross.

The veneration of Olga-Elena began with Vladimir the Great, who in 966 had his grandmother’s body moved to the Church of the Dormition of the Virgin, the first stone church in Kiev, which he had ordered built between 989 and 996 by local and Byzantine labourers to commemorate the Baptism of Kievan Rus’. At first it was called the Church of Our Lady, in honour of the Theotókos, the Mother of God. The grand prince allocated a tenth of the state revenues to finance the construction of the sacred place, and because of this it acquired the nickname “Church of the Tithes”. Later it would be burned down by the Mongols. Some experts maintain that the Saviour-Transfiguration Cathedral of Černihiv, which dates back to 1036 and is still standing today, reflects the dimensions and original outward appearance of the Church of Our Lady.

In the first half of the 1600s, the wooden Church of St Nicholas was built on the Dormition Church’s foundations at the behest of Metropolitan Petro Mohyla. Between 1828 and 1842, by order of the Tsarist government, a new stone Church of the Tithes was erected, based on a plan by the architect Vasilij Stasov. However, in 1935 this too was destroyed by order of the Soviet authorities, who were following an absolute commandment: to wipe out religion with prisons, torture, abuse, asylums, gulags, death sentences, producing martyrs upon martyrs. The Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church was covered, as the unforgettable metropolitan and cardinal of the Catholic Church Josyp Ivanovyč Slipyj (1892-1984) declared, “by mountains of corpses and rivers of blood”, but this is a history that in school, in the media and from the ambo [pulpit], is not told…