About the author: For lovers of Russian culture, folklore, and history, Kotar’s work is a treasure. The grandson of White Russian immigrants, the 34-year-old is an author of epic fantasy novels inspired by Russian fairy tales. You can see his four books here on Amazon.
He is also a deacon of the Russian Orthodox Church, a professional translator, and choir director at the Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, NY, where he lives. Here is his bio from his blog, where he writes about many aspects of Russia. We highly recommend following it and subscribing to his email list to get exclusive material.
As I mentioned in a previous blog post, I’ve been slowly hammering away at a screenplay based on the life of St. Olga of Kiev. There aren’t many historical records about her, but the ones that we have paint the picture of a complicated, strong, self-willed woman who was ultimately remarkable not for her manly strength, but for her wisdom.
As I was writing the first scene, I got a little hung up on showing all this in as direct a way as possible, so that the viewer could at least get the hint of what’s to come. Without getting too far into the details of it, I basically fell into a cliché set by contemporary pop culture. The “warrior babe who swoops in at the last moment to save the day.”
My fellow writer read it and said, “You’ve got such a compelling character here. Why reduce her to a caricature?” And he was right. As much as people rightly complain about the damsel in distress trope, just flipping the roles isn’t all that satisfying either. Turns out, there’s a rich tradition of warrior women in Russian folk tales and epic poetry. And what’s so amazing about them is that they’re as comfortable in the kitchen as in the battlefield. Though they often have the strength to defeat ten men, they are just as likely to win a battle of wits or refrain from fighting at all.
I’m fascinated by the idea of the warrior woman, not least because I think every Russian woman (no exaggeration) is a warrior at heart. They’ve had too difficult a history, and too often they’ve had to take up a sword to protect the hearth. But they never lose their femininity either, befuddling many Western-style feminists, especially when they write articles like this.
Anyway, if you’ve read my books you know that I don’t write about domesticated women. Even though one reviewer called me a sexist pig once and recommended I get sensitivity training, the fact remains that strong women fascinate me. The source of that strength and the many ways that strength is expressed—that’s great fodder for stories.
So today I’ll share my translation of an article about the most famous warrior women from Russian tales and epic poetry. You can find the original Russian article here.
RUSSIAN VALKYRIES: MORE THAN A MATCH FOR THE LEGENDARY BOGATYRS
It wasn’t easy for Russian bogatyrs to get married. Not every young maid could stand having a hero around. And so, it was often women warriors who captured their hearts. Except, more often than not, these women demanded a wooing equal to the bogatyrs’ most difficult labors.
Women warriors were such typical characters in Russian folklore that the word “bogatyrka” (woman warrior) is even included in the definitive 4-volume dictionary of the Russian language compiled by Vladimir Dal’. The folklorist Afanasiev includes in his collection a story that sounds like Wonder Woman—a garden filled with apples of youth is defended by a nameless druzhina of women warriors. But not all of them were nameless. Here are some of the most famous.
Dobrynia Nikitich, one of the legendary “three warriors,” is famous for his defeat of the giant dragon Zmei Gorynich. But what happened afterward was less glorious for him. He met his future wife, Nastasya Mikulishna, on the way home. She challenged him to a battle and beat him soundly. It’s not enough that she beat him, but she even grabbed him by his golden curls, pulled him off his horse, and stuck him in… her pocket!
Only later did she decide what to do with him. She pulled him out again and decided to see what he looked like. If he was pleasant to look at, she’d marry him. If he was so-so, she’d chop his head off. Lucky for him, he passed the test, and they got married.
In another of the tales, Dobrynia was called to join an embassy to the Golden Horde. Nastasya waited for him to return for twenty years, then received a false report about his death. Prince Vladimir forced her to get married again, this time to Aliosha Popovich, the youngest of the three warriors. She reluctantly agreed. But during the wedding, Dobrynia returned, dressed as a jester, and she recognized him and ran into his embrace.
Nastasya’s siter Vasilisa was no less impressive. She was married to a boyar of Chernigov named Stavr. In a scene reminiscent of The Taming of the Shrew, during a feast, Stavr started to boast about his wife’s many talents. The problem was that he unfavorably compared Prince Vladimir and his warriors to his much more impressive wife. The prince got angry and imprisoned him.
Finding out about this, Vasilisa came up with a cunning plan. She pretended to be a Tatar youth, brought her warriors with her to Kiev, then demanded the payment of tribute and a princess as her bride. The last was a barb directed at Vladimir, for whom it would be shameful to give a Christian princess to a heathen.
The princess in question suspected that the youth was no youth at all, and she expressed her doubts to Vladimir. So the prince arranged a test of strength, wit, and bravery. Of course, she bested everyone, forcing Vladimir to go through with the marriage. But during the pre-wedding feast, the Tatar “youth” sat gloomy at the table. Remembering that the boyar Stavr was an excellent musician, Vladimir called him to perform. AT that point, he recognized his wife. Vladimir was forced to admit that all Stavr’s boasting about his wife was nothing short of the truth.
The story of Nastasia Korolevishna, the wife of Dunai Ivanovich, is especially dramatic. Dunai traveled to Lithuania with Dobrynia Nikitich to arrange a marriage between Apraksa, daughter of the Lithuanian king, and Prince Vladimir. Dunai, a hothead, said something rude to the king during their time there, and the king imprisoned him. But Dobrynia gathered an army and threatened the kingdom, at which point the king was forced to give him both Apraksa and Dunai.
Apraksa had an older sister, Nastasya. A while before, Dunai had wooed her and nearly paid for it with his life, but she bought the executioners off, giving him time to run away. However, when he returned to take Apraksa back to Kiev, he paid absolutely no attention to Nastasya. She was so mad, she decided to make him pay.
Finding him on the way back to Kiev, she challenged him to single combat, dressed as a foreign knight. Dunai defeated her soundly and was just about to finish her off with a knife when he recognized her. He was so impressed, that he took her back with him to Kiev, where they got married.
The end of the story is pretty horrible, as such tales often are, so I won’t translate it here. If you’re curious about it, email me and I’ll tell you.
THE FAIRY TALES
The most famous woman warrior in Russian fairy tales is Marya Morevna, whom Ivan the Prince wooed after being impressed with her military prowess. Interestingly, though she was probably the better warrior, he still had to rescue her from Koschei the Deathless. Still, this had less to do with his fighting ability, and more with the fact that he needed to atone for his mistakes.
Many historians think that the image of the warrior woman in Russian tales has to do with the early battles between Rus and the Polovetsians. All Polovetsian maidens had to be good with the sword, and their wedding rites included single combat between the groom and the bride. As I mentioned in a previous article, Russian princes often took Polovetsian maidens as their brides, first getting married in the Polovetsian style, then baptizing their brides and getting married the Russian way.