A modern interpretation of Dobrynya and Zmey Gorynych by AlexanderYatskevich.
When Dobrynya was still a young man, his mother gave him four pieces of advice. ‘Don’t ride to the Saracen Mountains. Don’t trample baby dragons there. Don’t rescue Russian captives, and don’t bathe in the Puchai River.’ Of course, being a valiant young man and a seeker of adventure, that’s exactly what he did. Slipping away from home one day, Dobrynya walked up into the craggy peaks of the Saracen Mountains. During his trek, he went out of his way to stamp on any baby dragons that he passed, ensuring that they would never grow up into monsters. He also moved a boulder away from the mouth of a cave, releasing some travellers who had been captured there by a dragon. Finally, Dobrynya made it high into the mountains, near the source of the Puchai River. Tired from his excursions, he decided to take a bath.
While Dobrynya was bathing naked in the river, he felt a rush of wind and looked up to see a mighty three-headed dragon swooping down upon him. In a panic, he swam to the shore and cast about for a weapon. There was nothing there but an old hat of the type worn by Greek pilgrims. He snatched this up as the dragon landed in front of him. As the dragon’s middle head reared back, preparing to belch fire, Dobrynya ducked around its heads, leapt upon its back, and used the old hat to clamp its mouth shut. Man and dragon wrestled hard, until they rolled over Dobrynya’s clothes that were laid out by the riverside. In that instant, Dobrynya grabbed hold of his knife and put it to the dragon’s throat.
‘Hold Dobrynya, Nikita’s son,’ said the dragon. ‘Let us make a pact! You will not come into the Saracen Mountains, nor trample baby dragons, nor rescue Russian captives, nor swim in the Puchai River. In return, I will not fly to Holy Russia. I will not take any Russian captives. I will not carry away any Christian people.’
Dobrynya lowered his knife and rolled away from the dragon. ‘I will hold you to this, Zmey Gorynych. Now go and keep your promises.’ With that, the dragon beat its mighty wings and leapt into the sky, flying out of sight.
Several years passed. The story of Dobrynya’s fight with the dragon had spread around the country. The young man had become a regular at the court of Prince Vladimir, who ruled from his capital at Kiev. Although still not officially honoured as a bogatyr, the prince often called upon Dobrynya to serve as his messenger, especially when courtesy or cunning was required.
Then one day, while Vladimir’s niece, Zabava, was out walking in the garden, the three-headed dragon, Zmey Gorynych, swooped down from the sky and grabbed the princess in his claws. Before anyone could react, the dragon was gone, flying home to its lair in the mountains. The court was in uproar. Many brave bogatyrs rushed for their arms and clamoured for the honour of rescuing the princess, but Prince Vladimir went first to Dobrynya.
‘The stories tell that you have bested this dragon before, Dobrynya Nikitich. Go now to the mountains and bring my niece and the dragon’s head. If you succeed, you’ll be made a bogatyr and greatly rewarded. If you return in cowardice without her, it will be your head that is mounted over the city gate.’
So Dobrynya left the court, weighed down with responsibility. He went first to see his mother and told her of his plight. His mother, that wise woman, said he must have a horse. So she gave him the horse, Burko, who had carried both his father and his grandfather on many adventures. She gave him also a whip of seven silks, and told him to use the whip to drive Burko forward. Finally, she gave him a Tartar spear with which to fight. Thus equipped, Dobrynya set off to face the dragon.
He rode up into the Saracen Mountains, and as he rode, the baby dragons attacked Burko’s legs. The poor horse trampled them into the dirt, but more and more emerged from the rocks to snap at his fetlocks. When it appeared that Burko might be pulled down by the nasty little creatures, Dobrynya took out his whip and snapped it on the horse’s flank. Burko sprang forward, shedding the baby dragons and charging up the slopes.
Near the mountaintop, by the banks of the Puchai River, Dobrynya found the dragon once more.
‘Hail Dobrynya, Nikita’s son,’ spoke the dragon. ‘You have failed to keep your promise. You’ve rode in to the Saracen Mountains, and you’ve trampled baby dragons. No doubt you’ve come to rescue Russian captives here.’
Dobrynya responded, ‘Hail Zmey Gorynych. Was it I or you who broke the faith? Did you not swoop down and take the princess, a virtuous Christian woman, and carry her away as your captive? For this treason you must die.’
Without further words, the battle was joined. For three long days the brave warrior and the mighty beast battled. The dragon blew fire and bit with its three snake-like heads. Dobrynya dodged and parried, looking for openings to drive in his sharp spear. On and on the battle raged, around the River Puchai, through the rocks of the mountains, and even into the caves underneath it. Both man and monster received and dealt many wounds, until both were covered in bloody cuts. Dobrynya began to despair of ever defeating the dragon, until a voice, carried by an angel from heaven, spoke into his ear. ‘You have fought for three days, Dobrynya, fight for three more hours and you will have victory.’
So the fight continued for another three hours, until Dobrynya found himself unhorsed and battling the dragon in a small crater on the mountainside. There, the dragon finally made a mistake. Rearing up in its anger, the dragon exposed its soft underbelly. Dobrynya took his chance and drove his Tartar spear deep into the unprotected flesh. The dragon cried out in pain, as Dobrynya ripped the spear free in a spray of blood. The dragon staggered and then collapsed, its weight falling upon Dobrynya and pinning him to the ground.
Dazed, Dobrynya looked about and saw that everything below his waist was pinned under the dragon. All around, the dragon’s blood flowed from the monster’s many wounds, filling the shallow crater. Over three more days, the blood came up to Dobrynya’s ears. Bereft of strength after his long battle, he knew that he would soon drown in his enemy’s blood. He laid back and prepared for his own death.
Then the angel’s voice came to him again and said, ‘Do not give up Dobrynya. You have won a great battle. Drive your spear into the earth and go free.’
In that moment, energy once again filled Dobrynya’s limbs. With a prayer, he drove his spear down into the earth, allowing it to soak up the dragon’s blood. With the spear firmly planted, he used it to pull himself free of the dragon’s corpse. Covered in blood, he staggered up from the crater and saw the princess, Zabava, standing by the mouth of the dragon’s cave, surrounded by numerous other captives that he had rescued.
Courteous knight that he was, Dobrynya checked upon the captives to make sure that they were well. Then he did one more thing. Removing his blood-soaked armour and clothes, Dobrynya bathed in the waters of the River Puchai one more time.
Dobrynya Nikitich and Zmey Gorynych is one of the most popular Russian byliny, the traditional folk songs of medieval Slavic culture. Thanks to a major cultural conservation effort in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Russia has preserved a huge body of byliny, including over seventy versions of the Dobrynya and the dragon story. This story is only one of the many tales to include Dobrynya, who is considered one of the ‘big three’ bogatyrs (knights-errant) of Russian folklore, the other two being Ilya Muromets and Alyosha Popovich.
While the stories of the bogatyrs mostly exist in the land of fairytale, there are some who argue that both Dobrynya and his confrontation with the dragon have a historical basis. Dobrynya was the name of the uncle of Vladimir I, who ruled as Grand Prince of Kiev from 980–1015. It was during this reign that much of the population is thought to have been Christianized, and this may have included a mass baptism in the Pochaina River. Thus, some argue that the story is a metaphor for the rise of Christianity against the pagan dragon, which also explains why the story contains a Greek pilgrim’s hat and the voice of heaven. However, it is just as possible that these Christian elements were later additions to an older, pagan tale.
While Dobrynya remains relatively unknown in the west, he is still a popular hero in Russia, where he continues to serve as the subject of numerous artworks. In 2006 an animated movie, Dobrynya Nikitich and Zmey Gorynych, was released in Russian cinemas.