In the Russian folk ballad epics, called bylini, Dobrynya Nikitich is one of the most important of the bogatyri, the knights of Prince Vladimir of Kiev. He is an epic hero—a mighty warrior who is second in might and power, after Ilya Muromets.

Dobrynya Nikitich was probably based on areal prince, who was the uncle to the historic Prince Vladimir. As a member of the nobility, Dobrynya Nikitich was more sophisticated than the other bogatyri. He was able to read, sing, and play chess, and he served as a diplomat as well as a warrior. In one bylina, Dobrynya Nikitich went on a diplomatic mission for Prince Vladimir that turned into a battle with a Mongol tsar, Batur. He won the battleand forced Tsar Batur to pay tribute to Prince Vladimir.

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Dobrynya Nikitich’s most famous feat involved the flying, fire-breathing dragon called Zmei Gorynytch, who had been warned by an omen that Dobrynya Nikitich would be the one to kill him. On a warm day, the hero decided to cool off by bathing in a river. Zmei Gorynytch attacked Dobrynya Nikitich while he was separated from his sword. The hero fought the dragon, using only his bare hands and a sand-filled hat as weapons.

After a great struggle, Dobrynya Nikitich won. As he was about to grab his sword and cut off the dragon’s head (or heads, in some variants), Zmei Gorynytch begged for mercy, swearing never to hurt another Russian. Dobrynya Nikitich’s heart softened, and he let Zmei Gorynytch go.

The evil dragon had lied to Dobrynya Nikitich. Upon being released, he flew directly to Kiev, where he snatched up Zabava, the niece of Prince Vladimir. Dobrynya Nikitich went after the dragon to rescue Zabava. This time, Dobrynya Nikitich showed the dragon no mercy. He killed Zmei Gorynytch and brought Zabava safely home.

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In another adventure that celebrated Dobrynya Nikitich’s diplomatic skills, the hero set off to negotiate with another ruler for a bride for Prince Vladimir. While Dobrynya Nikitich was away, another bogatyr, the nasty-tongued Alyosha Popovitch, started a rumor that Dobrynya Nikitich had died during the journey. Everyone believed the gossip, and Prince Vladimir promised the hero’s wife, Nastasya, to someone else. Dobrynya Nikitich returned when the wedding was in progress, stopped the ceremony, and “thumped” Alyosha Popovitch thoroughly for causing trouble.