Sometimes, when I get stuck in my writing, it helps to take some time to study the visual arts. The amazing flourishing of serious folk art in Russia at the end of the 19th century produced some amazing examples that always help focus me and give me new ideas about setting or character. One of my favorites to return to is Vasnetsov’s now immortal painting of the three Bogatyrs: Alyosha Popvich, Dobrynia Nikitich, and Ilya Muromets.
Here’s a short article I found in Russian and translated.
The Three Warriors: Who Were They?
All Russians know them from childhood from the epic poems (bylini) of Russia’s mythologized past. All Russian boys want to be like them. After all, they’re the original superheroes, these warriors from Russian epic poetry. Their labors may be superhuman, but even so, these Russian bogatyrs had their historical models.
He is the youngest of the three. He looks the least like a warrior, his gaze more bored than fierce. That’s understandable—he is bored without battles, without adventures, though he beats his enemies more with cunning than strength. He is the least typical of the bogatyrs, not least because he is not all that virtuous, being a boaster with a weakness for the fair sex.
There are two major labors for which Alyosha is famous—the defeat of Tugarin Zmei (that is, Tugarin the dragon) and the abominable Idolishche (literally, “Great Idol”). These are mythologized historical events that probably occurred around the tenth century.
According to the Chronicle of Past Times, a son of a nobleman in Vladimir Monomakh’s court named Olberg Ratiborovich killed the Polovetsian Khan Itlar during peace talks by shooting at him through a hole in the roof. The name Itlar, when hyperbolized to indicate his horribleness, becomes “Itlarishche the Abominable” which is very close to “Idolishche” (Great Idol). This also fits, because Alyosha kills within the walls of a palace, not on the field of battle. This is the only time an enemy is thus dispatched in the epic poems.
Alyosha’s second great labor is the defeat of Tugarin zmei. The prototype of this “dragonish” enemy is also a Polovetsian khan, named Tugorkhan, from the dynasty of the Sharukhans (a name that means “serpent” or “dragon” in Polovetsian). So it all fits. Olberg (a pagan name) was softened to the Christian “Olesha,” becoming, eventually, Alyosha.
The name “Dobrynia” indicates a kind of “warriorly soft-heartedness.” The Dobrynia of the epic poems is often called “young,” with a soft spot for women in trouble, widows, and orphans. He is also artistic—he plays the harp and sings. He is hot-tempered, always up for a gamble. At the same time, he is prudent and conscious of the rules of etiquette. All this makes it clear that he is not from the common people. At the very least, he is a prince, a leader of a druzhina (war band).
The historical chronicles do mention a Dobrynia, an uncle of Prince Vladimir. This historical Dobrynia had a different patronymic, not Nikitich, but the very Hollywoodish Malkovich. The Malkovichi hailed from the village of Nizkinichi, which was probably transformed by the oral storytellers into “Nikitich”.
The historical Dobrynia played an important role in the history of old Rus. According to the Chronicle of Past Times, it was he who encouraged Novgorod (a very independent minded city) to accept the lordship of Grand Prince Vladimir. He was also instrumental in the political marriage of Vladimir to the Polovetsian princess Rogneda. He was also instrumental in the baptism of Novgorod.
I’ve already written about Ilya Muromets before in this blog post. He is the quintessential Russian hero. He is a peasant who rises up the ranks. He is a defender of truth not afraid to stand up to princes when they are wrong. He abandons the worldly at the end to seek the haven of monasticism.
Interestingly, there were some tests done on the relics of St. Ilya Muromets in the Kiev Caves Lavra in 1988. His height was 177 cm (70 in), which for that time would have been quite tall. The tests also confirmed that the monk used to be a warrior, because he had a great deal of scar tissue in his ribs from breaks and stabbing wounds. There were many other wounds found on the relics, one of them likely fatal.
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