Olga and Anna,
and the Christianization of Rus' [1]

Alan Kimball
University of Oregon

Table of Contents

Ten centuries ago two women played key roles in the Christianization of Russia: Kievan Grand Princess Olga ["Ol'ga" in Russian transliteration; Helga or Helgi in the Scandinavian tongue of her ancestors] and Byzantine Princess Anna, who became wife of Russian Prince Vladimir. Historical accounts do not always do justice to the legacy of these two figures.


Olga [ID] was "wiser than all other men" who had ruled Rus', says the old Russian chronicler [ID], and the great nineteenth-century Russian historian S. M. Solov'ev agreed [2]. The Orthodox monks who composed the chronicles remembered Olga fondly because she became a Christian in the Byzantine imperial capital Constantinople in 957 A.D., thirty years before the wedding of Anna and Vladimir. But the historian Solov'ev was quick to add that, "as a woman, Olga was more given to domestic affairs, internal matters. Similarly, as a woman, she was especially inclined toward Christianity" [3]. A man, by implication, is better suited to the rough and tumble of diplomacy and war, while a woman is more susceptible to Christianity. Olga ruled Russia even as her son, the official Prince Sviatoslav [ID], galloped over the land breaking heads with nomadic neighbors.

Yet Solov'ev seems to accept the story which portrays Olga handling herself with dignity and adroitness in the biggest diplomatic league of all: the court of the Byzantine Emperor. Indeed, Olga saw beyond the derring-do that so occupied son Sviatoslav. She saw through to essential problems of good rulership, trade and administration, these the real Unterbau of Kievan history.

Thinking of religion, trade and diplomacy, not warfare, Olga embarked on the perilous journey to Constantinople. She traveled with an embassy which consisted of nearly two hundred notables, officials, and merchants, not counting military escort. One half of Olga's diplomatic party was made up of merchants [4]. They traveled down the Dnepr River, past the cataracts where fierce nomadic bands often waited in ambush. They crossed the Black Sea (probably hugging the western shore) and arrived at the gates of the great city.

Olga appeared before the Emperor with a retinue of women in the forefront. The men marched in the rear. Constantine sensed the importance of this innovation, so he replicated his initial personal reception with a second in which the Byzantine Empress Elena and her retinue received Olga. Then he scheduled a third reception in which all the Porphyrogeniti [the royal family, those "born in the purple"] met with all the Rus' together in two great halls. Olga's diplomatic delicacy was noted with appreciation. The Emperor Constantinus VII Porphyrogenitus, Emperor of the East, left a detailed description of her visit [5].

Olga was "the first woman barbarian ruler ever to behold Byzantium" [6]. She had apparently never before pursued a diplomatic initiative of quite this magnitude, nor was such a reception an everyday occurrence in Constantinople [7]. But Olga showed little of her inexperience. She understood that this state visit bore heavily on the future of her warrior-merchant principality and on the complex diplomatic and military network which Byzantium maintained. She also had a personal objective, to be baptized (or to be baptized a second time, now in the most elevated ceremonial spot, the Patriarchal See in Constantinople). The Emperor sought to help Olga become a Christian in a most visible, diplomatic setting. And this was not against Olga's own inclinations. Furthermore--so says the chronicler (somewhat unbelievably)--Constantine sought a marriage alliance, but in this case not with Olga's full concurrence.

In this connection it was important to the Russian chronicler that Olga "outfoxed" [perekhitriaet] the old fox, the Emperor, himself. Olga is made by the chronicler to insist that the Emperor serve as godfather at her Christening. Afterward the Emperor renewed his proposal of a marriage alliance. Olga, now christened Elena (after the Empress), reminded him that according to Christian teaching a godfather cannot marry a godchild. The Emperor was forced, in apparent good humor, to withdraw his proposal [8].

Upon her return to Russia, Olga prayed as Elena, but she ruled as Olga. She did not impose her Christianity on her subjects. It was thirty years after her personal conversion that her grandson Vladimir forced the faith on the whole realm.


But here another woman played a central role, perhaps the central role. That woman was Anna, Empress of Byzantium [ID], who became Vladimir's wife in 989. Anna was born in March of 963, six years after Olga's visit and six years before Olga's death. Anna's father, the Emperor Romanus II, died just two days after her birth, leaving her and her older brothers Basil (5 years) and Constantine (2 years) orphans [9]. At the time of her marriage to Vladimir, Anna was thus twenty-six [10]. Her elder sister had already been given in a major marriage alliance to Otto, Emperor of the West [ID].

These two royal sisters caught the attention of the famous 18th-century Enlightenment historian Edward Gibbon. Gibbon described how, after Otto's death, Anna's sister ruled as regent in the restored Western Empire in Rome, Italy and Germany. Gibbon's historical instincts were excellent. He devoted particular attention to the marriage or nuptial diplomacy of the Byzantine Empire in these years, particularly as it related to barbarian disorder in the territories north of Constantinople [11].

Later historians sometimes write in ignorance of this vital diplomatic practice. They often describe the wedding of Anna and Vladimir as if Anna were little more than moveable property, offered in a gentleman's agreement between the Byzantine emperors and the barbarian Prince Vladimir [12]. In some accounts Anna remains unnamed, as if to suggest that this was a simple two-way conversation between the emperors and Vladimir. Evidence suggests that this was not the case at all.

In a bold military move, Kievan Prince Vladimir had just taken from Byzantium the Black Sea coastal city Kherson. He opened negotiations with the Byzantine emperors with an eye to withdrawal from this strategic city if arrangements could be made which were favorable to him. A marriage alliance was part of the discussion, but Anna resisted the simple exchange, her troth for her brothers' temporary diplomatic advantage. "I'm being sent as nothing other than a hostage," she is reported to have said.

Between the lines one might read that Vladimir had surprised and shaken Anna's brothers. From Kherson he was a real threat to Constantinople. Vladimir sought by swift and unexpected military victory to pressure Constantinople into a hasty and one-sided alliance sealed by marriage. While Basil and Constantine were inclined to accept Vladimir's terms, Anna balked.

She apparently took the position that, rather than wed a heathen prince simply to gain a moment's advantage, "it would be better to stay here and die." Anna apparently sought a third alternative, and in this she appears to have been guided by a strategic grasp of the situation which was superior to that of her brothers. For one thing, she insisted on Vladimir's personal conversion to Christianity. She was also attracted to the possibility that her efforts might bring the whole heathen nation to repentance [pokaiane], i.e., that she might become the agent of Christianization in these northern regions beyond the coastal city Kherson, a vast region even more vital to the strategic position of Byzantium. She was eventually convinced that she could avoid either of the two prospects presented by her brothers. She could do more than serve as hostage to the pagan prince or remain in Constantinople and die. Instead she left for Kherson to meet her groom, with some prospect of a vast and visionary third alternative in mind [13].

There is more than a suggestion here that Vladimir sought something like the opposite of Olga's objectives thirty years earlier. Olga embraced Byzantine Christianity but resisted a marriage alliance with Byzantium. Vladimir sought a marriage alliance, but does not appear to have had a natural inclination toward Christianity. That was before Anna's intervention. Anna put her foot down. Gibbon has it just about right: "the conversion of Wolodomir was determined, or hastened, by his desire of a Roman bride" [14].

We can add much to the old Gibbon's account, but we should probably heed Gibbon's Enlightenment skepticism about the causal power of divine agencies. In Kherson--so say the chroniclers--Anna found Prince Vladimir stricken blind. Anna warned him that his sight would not return if he did not immediately accept baptism. He consented, and, as the story goes, his sight returned immediately. He was convinced beyond any doubt of the wisdom of accepting Christianity. Anna persuaded or compelled Vladimir to become Christian; then she accepted him as husband [15]. That was step one in her ambitious plan: personal conversion of the prince.

Step two was the conversion of all Rus', and that was a more complex and less documented episode. It did not happen immediately, though we sometimes conflate the personal conversion of Vladimir with the national conversion that followed. Vladimir's personal conversion might have ended the religious story right there in Kherson for the time being. But after returning to Kiev, some time after the personal baptism and wedding, Vladimir embarked on the Christianization of all Rus' [16]. What was first a family drama became a national drama when Vladimir forced all of Rus' to undergo baptism. Anna was the sixth wife of Vladimir. He had about a dozen children by the earlier marriages. One of Anna's first jobs back in Kiev was to convert Vladimir's children [17]. And she continued the effort beyond the walls of the princely domicile, outward to all Russia. A contemporary of these events, Ditmar von Walbeck [Thietmar, Bishop of Merseburg], stated explicitly that Anna was responsible for the Christianization of Russia. Ditmar doesn't grant much to Vladimir; he had views on the Rus Prince, labeling him nothing more than a "fornicatur immensus" [18].

Many factors entered into the conversion of Rus', and we cannot discount the contribution of Anna. We cannot forget the long-term spread of Christianity in Russia in the decades prior to Anna's marriage to Vladimir. The causes of Christianity's success there are multiple. But we cannot escape the sense of historical bump and jolt in this previously slow process, first with Vladimir's own earlier intensification of pagan observances [EG] in Kiev, then the Kherson wedding. Swiftly there followed dramatic events. The huge statue of the pagan god Perun was dragged from its high pedestal through the streets of Kiev and the population herded into the Dnepr River for mass baptism.

We can well imagine, on the basis of what we know about her character and her later accomplishments, that Anna played a role, not only in the personal conversion of Vladimir, but also in the decision to convert all of Rus'. She was active as adviser to Vladimir and managed considerable lands and a large retinue on her own authority as Princess [19]. Nearly all sources agree that it was largely due to her effort that the construction of the original Christian churches in Kiev got under way [20].

Anna was not simply a bargaining chip in the dealings between Byzantium and Rus'; she helped decide the fate of her adopted homeland. And Anna was responsible for a certain amount of reciprocal Rus' influence on Constantinople. Anna worked to maintain and strengthen ties between her adopted homeland and her motherland, Byzantium. She dispatched a retinue of Rus' warriors to serve at the side of her brother Constantine [21].

Anna's daughter, Mariia, extended the tradition of marriage diplomacy when she became the wife of the Polish king Casimir [22]. That tradition was yet further extended when in 1051 the great-granddaughter of Anna, daughter of Kievan Prince Yaroslav Mudryi [the wise] [ID], became the wife of French King Henry I. Mariia signed the nuptial vows in Cyrillic and Latin script while the Frenchman scrawled his illiterate "X" [23].

Anna apparently was the mother of Boris and Gleb [ID], the first great Russian martyred saints [24]. Vladimir supplied the fist behind the Christianization of Rus', but it seems that it was Anna who supplied the will and the spirit. And yet how little credit she receives on the pages of history [25]. As Gibbon remarked so well, "Wolodomir and Anne" are saints of the Russian Church, "yet we know his vices, and are ignorant of her virtues" [26].

The documentation of this early era is thin and frequently of questionable veracity, so our ignorance of Anna's virtues cannot be fully dispelled. In his old-fashioned way of expressing himself, the influential Russian historian Nikolai Karamzin concluded that Anna "was an instrument of Heavenly beneficence, who brought Russia out from the darkness of idolatry" [27]. Anna not only helped Christianize Russia, she also gave Russian rulers their first real claim to imperial descent. Some early documents refer to Anna as "tsaritsa" (wife of a Caesar or tsar), rather than "tsarevna" (daughter of a Caesar) [28]. Patriotic tradition in Russian historiography sought to employ the solid fulcrum of Anna's pedigree, heightened by these terminological slips in the documentation, to lever Vladimir into the exalted title "tsar" long before history was ready yet to grant Russian princes such stature [29]. The memory of the union of Byzantium and Russia, through Anna, was important also in Byzantium. It guided a future Byzantine Emperor Manuel II to give his son John in nuptial diplomatic union to the granddaughter (also named Anna) of Prince Dmitrii Donskoi [ID] [30]. By the time of Ivan IV [ID], the descent of Russian tsars from the purple of Anna had become stock in trade of Muscovite pride and pretense [31].


Insofar as the actions of leading individuals can shape history, Russian Christianization may be said to have unfolded from the critical initiatives of women: Olga's diplomatic innovation and Anna's strategic boldness. We might call Olga the "grandmother" and Anna the "mother" of Russian Christianization. Olga and Anna are thus critical participants in the creation of what Dimitri Obolensky has called "the Byzantine Commonwealth", even though Obolensky was unwilling to grant them quite this role. He concluded his discussion of Russian Christianization with the observation that "missionaries and diplomatists had gained for the Byzantine Commonwealth and for Christendom a territory which in size exceeded the empire itself" [32] Olga and Anna, neither of them a missionary or, strictly speaking, diplomatist, should be recognized for their contributions to this momentous achievement.



1. This article first appeared in a somewhat different form in Millennium:2-11

2. S. M. Solov'ev, Istoriia Rossii s drevneishikh vremen v piatnadtsati knigakh (Moscow: 1959), vol. 1, p. 156. For a translation of the chronicle, see S. H. Cross and O. P. Sherbowitz-Wetzor, eds., The Russian Primary Chronicle: Laurentian Text (Cambridge MA: 1953), p. 111.

3. Solov'ev,1:157.

4. S. D. Skazkin, et al., Istoriia vizantii v trekh tomakh (Moscow: 1967), vol. 2, p. 232. Apparently Skazkin & co. did not count the women, since the statistic "one half" can be derived only from Constantine's account of how many men were with Ol'ga and her women: just over forty of the eighty-plus men in Ol'ga's party were merchants.

5. De ceremoniis aulae byzantinae..., vol. 1 (Bonn: 1824), pp. 594-98. A description of the visit in English may be found in Arnold Toynbee, Constantine Porphyrogenitus and His World (London: 1973), pp. 504-6.

6. Charles Diehl, Byzantium: Greatness and Decline (New Brunswick NJ: 1957), p. 57.

7. George Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine State (New Brunswick NJ: 1969), p. 382 considers Ol'ga's visit a very significant diplomatic moment.

8. For a translation of the chronicle account, see Serge Zenkovsky, ed., The Nikonian Chronicle (Princeton NJ: 1984), vol. 1, pp. 55-56. See also Cross:82.

9. Skazkin,2:211.

10. Sigfús Blöndal says Anna was "a mature spinster", The Varangians of Byzantium, translated, revised and rewritten by Benedikt S. Benedikz (Cambridge, England: 1978), p. 44.

11. Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (New York City: Modern Library, n.d.), vol. 3, pp. 281-4 & 316.

12. Here is a sample. A. A. Vasiliev, in his celebrated History of the Byzantine Empire, 324-1453 (Madison WI: 1961), vol. 1, p. 323; and Norman Baynes and H. Moss, Byzantium: An Introduction to East Roman Civilization (Oxford England: 1948), p. 357. Joseph Fuhrmann says that Anna was "sacrificed on the altar of political necessity" ["Anna of Byzantium," Modern Encyclopedia of Russian and Soviet History, vol. 2, pp. 7-8].

13. Russia's own Enlightenment historians of the late 18th and early 19th centuries do not equal Gibbon's insight. V. N. Tatishchev doubted Anna's real historical identity, but he followed Nestor's chronicle account of the nuptial negotiations, placing main accent on Anna's misery and reluctance [Istoriia rossiiskaia, 7 volumes (Moscow-Leningrad: 1962-1968), vol. 2, pp. 61 & 227]. Nikolai Karamzin [ID] refuted Tatishchev's views on Anna's historical identity and asserted her authenticity, but conceded that the question was a puzzle [Istoriia gosudarstva Rossiiskogo, 12 volumes, 5th edition (Saint Petersburg: 1842-1843), plus Kliuch ili alfavitnyi ukazatel' k Istorii gosudarstva Rossiskogo N. M. Karamzina, P. Stroev, ed., with "Dvadtsat chetyre sostavlennye Karamzinym i Stroevym rodoslovnye tablitsy kniazei rossiiskikh" (1844), vol. 1, pp. xv, 130-31 & footnote 464].

14. Solov'ev,1:183. English translations of the chronicle accounts supply Anna's words, and they can be found in Cross:111 ff. and Zenkovsky,1:99-102.

15. Gibbon,3:341.

16. Ibn al-Athir says that Anna refused the wedding alliance until and unless the Rus' king converted to Christianity. This story is suggested in the Russian chronicles and is corroborated in the sources cited in William E. Watson, "Arabic Perceptions of Russia's Christian Conversion," in Millennium:33-40. Watson has augmented V. R. Rozen's insightful analysis of Arabic sources published over one century ago, Imperator Vasilii Bolgaroboitsa: izvlecheniia iz letopisi Iakh"i Antiokhiiskogo (Saint Petersburg: 1883) [Variorum reprints, with introduction by Marius Canard (London: 1972)], see especially pp. 217 & 224. I have followed Rozen's interpretation of Vladimir's capture of Kherson (pp. 216-17). I have also been emboldened in my reading between the lines of these accounts by Rozen's insistence: "Nuzhno tol'ko chitat' mezhdu strok" (p. 219).

17. Levchenko:364.

18. Tatishchev,2:61-2; and RBS,2:154-5

19. Thietmari Merseburgensis Episcopi, Chronicon (Berlin: 1962), p. 432. Anna receives credit: "christianitatis sanctae fidem eius ortatu suscepit."

20. Shul'gin, V. Ya., O sostoianii zhenshchiny v Rossii do Petra Velikogo (Kiev: 1850); Solov'ev,1:287.

21. Levchenko:365. For deviations from this view, cf. Dimitri Obolensky who gives exclusive credit to Basil II for sending clerics to Russia and refers to "Byzantine architects" who built the first stone church in Kiev [Byzantium and the Slavs: Collected Studies (London: 1971), sect. VI, p. 24]. B. D Grekov gives credit here, not to Basil or Byzantine architects, but to Vladimir, who "was concerned to build churches to give Rus the appearance of Christianity" [Kiev Rus (Moscow: Foreign Language Publishing House, 1959), p. 498]. Neither Obolensky nor Grekov mention Anna in this connection.

22. Skazkin,2:348.

23. RBS,2:154-5.

24.  George Majeska relates this story in Millennium:28-9.

25. Solov'ev,1:321; and RBS,3:235. Fuhrmann:8 says that "Russian sources are silent concerning Anna's life and role at Kiev. She died there in 1011, apparently bearing Vladimir no children."

26. Sovietskaia istoricheskaia entsiklopediia has an article on Olga, but none on Anna. Entsiklopedicheskii slovar' (Brokgauz-Efron) also has no separate article on Anna.

27. Gibbon,3:284. In all likelihood Gibbon was referring here to Ditmar Walbeck's account, which is so hostile to Vladimir.

28. Karamzin,1:138.

29. For example, Tatishchev,2:70.

30. For example, Levchenko:367.

31. Karamzin,5:130

32. Karamzin,8:58

33 Dmitri Obolensky, The Byzantine Commonwealth: Eastern Europe, 500-1453 (NY City: 1971), p. 201.