Russian: Алё́ша Попо́вич, Alexey, Son of the Priest
In Russian folklore, Alyosha Popovich is an epic hero of the Kievan Rus era. He was a mighty warrior and a trickster; one of three well known bogatyrs, similar to other medieval knight-errants. Alyosha Popovich is considered the youngest of these three bogatyrs. The other two are Dobrynya Nikitich and Ilya Muromets. All three bogatyrs have been portrayed in Vasnetsov’s famous painting called Bogatyrs.
Where many bogatyrs are known for their physical might and prowess in defending the borders of old Russia and fighting various monsters, Alyosha did so by the use of trickery and outwitting his foes. He is best known for his agility, ingenuity, cleverness and resourcefulness. Alyosha Popovich is portrayed as fun-loving with his cheerful, talkative manner and something of a lady’s man with how he could woo women.
Alyosha was always ready to play mischievous pranks on his friends too. Once, when Dobrynya went away on a quest, Alyosha began spreading rumors of how Dobrynya was dead. The people eventually came to believe this and Dobrynya’s wife, Nastasya was expected to marry someone of Prince Vladimir’s choosing. Dobrynya managed to return from his quest to find his wife’s wedding ceremony in progress. Interrupting or stopping the wedding, Dobrynya gave Alyosha a sound beating for this stunt.
Birth of a Legend
According to legend, Alyosha was born to the sounds of thunder and the next day he jumped into the saddle to go off and see the world, all the while bragging of his accomplishments and victories. It’s mentioned in the story of Alyosha’s fight with Tugarin, that his father is Pope Leon of Rostov.
Alyosha Popovich and Tugarin
This story is perhaps the best known of all of Alyosha’s exploits and adventures. In this story, Alyosha Popovitch and his servant Yekim, went to Kiev in order to meet Prince Vladimir. When they arrived, Prince Vladimir was holding a feast and he offered Alyosha a seat next to him at the head of the table. Alyosha declined this offer and chose to sit at the lowest, social hierarchal spot next to the stove.
At the feast, the monster Tugarin came and insulted Prince Vladimir by sitting between him and his wife at the head of the table. Some versions of this story suggest that this is because Tugarin and Vladimir’s wife were having an affair. Tugarin failed at other social protocols such as refusing to say prayer and instead, started right in on the feast, gorging himself.
Disgusted by all of this, Alyosha proceeded to insult Tugarin first with a story about a dog that kills itself by eating too much. Then Alyosha tells Tugarin another story of a cow that kills herself by drinking too much. Both of these stories were commentaries on Tugarin’s table manners. Recognizing the insults for what they are, the monster throws a dagger at Alyosha Popovich which his servant Yekim catches.
Still enraged, Tugarin proceeds to threaten Alyosha with strangulation, with smoke, fiery sparks, charred logs and bolts of fire. Accepting the challenge, Alyosha told Tugarin to meet him out in an open field near the Safat River.
When Alyosha arrives, Tugarin is already up in the air flying, flapping his paper-like wings. Alyosha then prays for rain and in the ensuing rainfall that happens; Tugarin falls to the ground as his wings are too wet and unable to support him for flight. At this point, Alyosha Popovich is said to have knocked Tugarin’s head off with a staff and sticks it on a spear. He then cuts up Tugarin’s body into small pieces and presents it to Prince Vladimir’s court. When Vladimir’s wife hears of Tugarin’s death, she becomes sad and reproaches Alyosha Popovich for the death of her “dear friend.”
Did Alyosha Popovich really exist?
It’s known that Vladimir the Great, a Grand Prince of Kievan Rus’ from 980–1015 C.E. did exist and lived at the time, unifying the area and protecting it’s borders from invading Mongols and other nomads. Vladimir converted to Christianity in 988 due mainly to political motivations and Christianized Kievan Rus. This helps to explain the nature of some of the stories like Alyosha Popovich and Tugarin as the older Pagan traditions and religions giving way in favor of Christianity.
The existence of Dobrynya Nikititch and Ilya Muromets as historical people has also been proven by scientists and scholars. Some historians certainly think there is merit to the stories of Alyosha Popovich having come from Pyriatyn. The evidence for this comes from surviving stories where Alyosha’s mother watches her son march against the enemy in the market square of Pyriatyn. In that story, Pyriatyn is a border city of Old Rus and could easily be a place where many nomads would have been fought off. Literature also places Pyriatyn as Alyosha Popovich’s home town. What’s also considered interesting is that the surname of Popovich is still found among families living in present day Pyryatyn.
Different chronicles also record Alyosha’s exploits. Such as the Nikon Chronicle where he distinguishes himself again the Polovtsy, killing the Polovtsian Khan and his brother. Around 1201, Alyosha Popovich is mentioned again in the fight against Pechenegs. In the Tver Chronicles, it’s recorded that Alyosha fought at a famous battle on the Kalka river in 1223 and it is there that he is killed along side seventeen other champions.
This monster from Russian bylinas and folktales is known by many names such as Zmey Tugarin, Zmey Tugaretin, Zmeishche Tugarishche, the Worm’s Son and others. Worm, for those who don’t know is an archaic term and name for dragons and can also be spelt Wyrm to distinguish it from earth worms. This monster has come to personify evil, cruelty and appears in the form of a bogatyr with draconic features and temperament.
Tugarin is often described as hissing like a snake and wearing numerous deadly and fiery serpents on him. He is capable of choking people with smoke and throwing bolts of fire at his enemies in order to burn them to death. Some folklore sources say he is also able to take the form of a dragon and fly, but when it rains, his paper-like wings are unable to support him aloft in the sky. Tugarin’s horse is also described as sounding like a beast instead of neighing.
For Folklorists, Tugarin is a clear chthonic symbol of the ancient dragon slaying myths and the dangers of the steppes that show the transition from older Pagan religions to Christianity. The name of Tugarin is also decidedly Turkish in origin and would easily explain how some myths and retellings of the story of Alyosha Popovich and Tugarin Zmyevich, that Tugarin changes from a dragon to a Mongol Khan.