Village Life in Late Tsarist Russia

Village Life in Late Tsarist Russia

by Olga Semyonova Tian-Shanskaia, David L. Ransel

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<P>"... a marvelous source for the social history of Russian peasant society in the years before the revolution.... The translation is superb." —Steven Hoch</P><P>"... one of the best ethnographic portraits that we have of the Russian village.... a highly readable text that is an excellent introduction to the world of the Russian peasantry." —Samuel C. Ramer</P><P>Village Life in Late Tsarist Russia provides a unique firsthand portrait of peasant family life as recorded by Olga Semyonova Tian-Shanskaia, an ethnographer and painter who spent four years at the turn of the twentieth century observing the life and customs of villagers in a central Russian province. Unusual in its awareness of the rapid changes in the Russian village in the late nineteenth century and in its concentration on the treatment of women and children, Semyonova’s ethnography vividly describes courting rituals, marriage and sexual practices, childbirth, infanticide, child-rearing practices, the lives of women, food and drink, work habits, and the household economy. In contrast to a tradition of rosy, romanticized descriptions of peasant communities by Russian upper-class observers, Semyonova gives an unvarnished account of the harsh living conditions and often brutal relationships within peasant families.</P>

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253013330
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 05/22/1993
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 855,413
File size: 2 MB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

<P>DAVID L. RANSEL is Professor of History at Indiana University and editor of the American Historical Review. He is author of Mothers of Misery: Child Abandonment in Russia and editor of The Family in Imperial Russia: New Lines of Historical Research.</P>

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Village Life in Late Tsarist Russia

By Olga Semyonova Tian-Shanskaia, David L. Ransel, Michael Levine

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 1993 David L. Ransel
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01333-0



Semyonova begins her story with a description of the peasant Ivan's parents at the time they married and began their family. By contrasting the customs at that time (about 1863) with the time of her observations of Ivan the adult (about 1900), she is able to illustrate the rapid changes that were taking place in Russian peasant society in the late nineteenth century.

* * *

Ivan's parents were known as Stepan and Akulina. Stepan, a peasant of average means, was born under serfdom. Ivan was his third son and was born a year or two after the emancipation of privately owned peasants in 1861. Stepan and Akulina's livestock at the time of Ivan's birth included three horses (one of which was a yearling), fifteen sheep, one cow, a heifer, and a pig. Their hut, which was wooden, had three windows and an enclosed entryway (sentsa). Nearby were a workyard, a small granary, and a threshing barn.

Farm tools included two wagons, two wooden, wheelless plows, one harrow, two types of harnesses, two scythes, two rolls of sackcloth (veret'ia), a sleigh, an ax, two spades, and two flails.

Household utensils consisted of a cabbage cleaver, four castiron kettles, seven tubs, two buckets, a ladle (korets), a churn, six earthenware pots, four dishes, a trough, a lamp, one size-four bottle, a scutch (for flax and hemp), two spinning wheels, two hackles with boards (dontsa) to brace them, two hand grinders, one table, two regular benches, a sleeping bench and a counter, a washtub, oven prongs (which are called a "stag" [rogach] because of their resemblance to antlers), a loom, three frying pans, two rakes, a sifter, and two sieves.

The young married couple harvested eighteen shocks of rye from their acres of land, or about twenty-six hundred pounds of rye. In addition, they produced about six hundred pounds of millet (proso), thirty-five hundred pounds of potatoes, and eight shocks of oats.

When Stepan and Akulina married, Akulina's family had to provide a trousseau. In those days, a dowry of money was never used. It was customary to supply the bride with clothing: linen cloths (from five to twenty pieces about twenty-five yards each), two to five checked skirts, four to six shirts, one or two cotton sarafans, bedding (a feather pillow, a thick unquilted coverlet, i.e., a blanket). Other types of women's household goods were accepted, such as a spinning wheel or a hand grinder — although in general the dowry was a minor consideration. The groom's family focused mainly on the physical characteristics (health) and aptitude for work (abilities) of the prospective wife.

The groom would give his bride-to-be a brideprice, which consisted of about ten or fifteen rubles, a sheepskin coat, a light coat made from coarse peasant cloth, fur slippers, felt boots, between 75 and 150 pounds of flour, a measure of groats, and several gallons of vodka.

Nowadays linen cloths are no longer included in the dowry. As the people explain, "The flax crops have been poor in recent years," and brides "are not the good spinners they were in the old days." Instead people focus mainly on whether the bride is well dressed, whether she has woolen sarafans, a shawl, shoes, a coat made from fine cloth, and the like. (In some villages, shifts and woolen skirts of the old type are going out of style and being replaced by sarafans. In these villages, women's everyday apparel consists of skirts, stockings, tight-fitting long-waisted jackets, sheepskin coats, and shirts made from homespun cotton; the rest of their clothes are made from manufactured cloth.) Villagers demand just as many shirts for the trousseau now as they did previously, and the bedding is better than it used to be: two pillows, one made with feathers, the other with cotton wadding; two blankets, one an unquilted coverlet filled with wadding and one a quilted cotton blanket. The groom's family gives less and less for the brideprice. Sometimes only one fur coat, sometimes only about seven rubles — and that is all.

In recent times, a money dowry has been given to the groom (about five to ten rubles), especially if his betrothed is known to have some failing, such as being hard of hearing or cross-eyed, or being "oldish" (i.e., considerably older than the groom), or if a rumor has spread that she has been "fooling around."

When Stepan and Akulina married about thirty years ago, the average age of marriage was sixteen to nineteen years for girls, eighteen to twenty for boys. In relatively rare exceptions, a family might ask the bishop for permission to marry a boy not quite eighteen years of age. Even more rarely were fifteen-year-old girls given in marriage. Although it was considered dangerous for a girl to stay unmarried until she was twenty (because eligible bachelors would start to pass her by), a girl's family viewed her as a source of labor and consequently valued her, and they were not in a hurry to get rid of her. Yet they were eager to marry off a boy young and thereby obtain his wife as an additional worker for the family. As a result, marriage between an eighteen-year-old male and an eighteen-to-twenty-year-old female is not uncommon even today. There are still cases of seventeen-year-old boys marrying. Every married woman eagerly awaits the opportunity to be relieved in her work by a young daughter-in-law. [Mothers express this wish in the lullabies they sing to their infants.]

I'm rocking my son
I hope for a better life for myself.
I'm rocking my daughter
For her, I hope but for a kind household.

About fifteen or twenty years ago, a man with a mustache and beard was considered old. A girl who married such a man would be a laughingstock. Of course, people also made fun of a man who married a spinster. Women over twenty frequently married widowers, although in general it was considered more suitable for widowers to marry widows. Such weddings took place very simply; they were small family affairs without much merrymaking and were jokingly referred to as "cuckoo's weddings" (a widow is known as a "bitter cuckoo"). People would say, "Our widower is taking in a housekeeper for the work season."

Now women marry in the age range of sixteen to twenty-five, and men from age eighteen to twenty-seven. More commonly, women marry in the seventeen to twenty-two age range, and only rarely at sixteen and at twenty-three to twenty-five. Men very often marry only after completing their military service.

It is also considered no disgrace for a widower to marry a girl "with a past," as we say.



This chapter begins with the grim subject of infant death. It was an everyday occurrence in Russian villages at the time Semyonova was writing. Nearly half of Russian babies failed to survive to age five, an infant mortality rate among the highest ever recorded anywhere. Most of these deaths were caused by diarrhea and respiratory illnesses, but the lying-over deaths that Semyonova reports here also made an important contribution. These were deaths caused by mothers who, presumably in their sleep, rolled over on and smothered the babies they had placed in bed with them during the night for convenience in breastfeeding. In Europe generally at the time of rising fertility in the eighteenth century, these lying-over deaths became epidemic, so much so that it is difficult to believe that they were wholly accidental. Although Semyonova seems to say here that the deaths were accidental, at another point in her notes she asserts that some babies were purposely killed in this way (see below, p. 98). At this time, Russian villages were experiencing very high fertility, and youthful clumsiness alone seems an inadequate explanation of why more than half the mothers were lying over their infants. More likely, the women were asserting control, with the limited means at their command, over a chaotic and dangerous population growth. We will see other examples of their efforts at control later.

The third and fourth paragraphs of the chapter contain a description (found among Semyonova's notes) of an actual couple, Vasilii and Akulina, on whom the composite picture that follows of "Ivan's" parents, Stepan and Akulina, is based. (I use the name "Stepan" throughout, however.) It is interesting to see how closely the composite fit the real case, and also to observe the more natural feeling Semyonova has for the actual Akulina. Farther on, I include another paragraph from Semyonova's field notes about the calling of the midwife, again to show its role in the building of the composite picture. In both representations, emphasis on the intervention of the birthing mother's natal family at a time of personal crisis underlines the continuing deep affective bonds among these women, in contrast to the practical, and sometimes exploitative, relationship of the husband's family to the young wife.

* * *

Young people at the time of marriage frequently are not fully mature in their physical development. There is a saying that "the young start developing from the time of the wedding," i.e., they are still maturing after their wedding. As a consequence, the first two to three children are born weak and usually do not survive. Sometimes this is also a result of the total lack of experience on the part of the young mother in caring for a baby. Moreover, young mothers very often smother their children accidentally in their sleep. The mother sometimes places her infant between herself and her husband to give the baby her breast, goes to sleep, rolls over on the baby, and smothers it. A good half of the women have overlain at least one child in this way — they do it most often in their young years when they sleep soundly. For overlying a child, the priest imposes a penance.

When Akulina married Stepan and joined his family, Stepan's parents were still fairly young, the father forty and the mother forty-two years of age. Stepan also had a brother who was around sixteen, a thirteen-year-old sister, and another brother two years old.

[Here begins the description of the actual couple.]

At first, Stepan and Akulina were rather shy toward one another. Stepan's mother bossed Akulina around. The first child, a weak, emaciated girl, was born a year and a half after the wedding. The young mother did not know how to care for her, and the baby girl died after a few weeks. After her death, Akulina was still in the process of growing up and filling out. Soon she became fairly rosy-cheeked and plump. A year after the death of her first child, she gave birth to a second, and two years after that a third one arrived. Both were boys. The second one died from diarrhea by the time his mother became pregnant again, this time with a third son (Ivan). This third son was born right in the middle of the summer field-work season.

The family of Stepan and Akulina looked forward to the first child. Stepan's father even joked that "my daughter-in-law is going to provide me with a grandson." But when a girl was born, the grandparents stopped thinking about her as soon as she was baptized. They did not even express any sorrow about her death. The young father, too, did not feel much regret over it. When the second child was expected, no one said anything about it. But they all were happy when they saw that a boy was born. In contrast, when the second boy came along, the father paid almost no attention to it, and when the third child (Ivan) was expected, even Akulina herself was distressed. "There's just going to be too many kids," she complained. She lost weight, because at the time she was still nursing her second son. Dark spots appeared on her face, and she aged so rapidly that no one would have guessed that she was only twenty-two years old. It was with a feeling of relief that she buried her second son, who died of diarrhea at the time of the St. Peter's fast in June.

[The composite picture resumes.]

[The attitudes of parents toward the birth of children vary according to sex and birth order.] The first child is awaited with a certain degree of excitement. Sometimes the husband will tease his wife: "You just might bring me a son, mother." She might reply: "Whomever God wills, I might even have the good sense to bear a daughter for myself." (A daughter is a help to her mother, a nursemaid to the children.) The husband's mother announces to the neighbors with satisfaction that "our young one is certainly putting on weight." They all discuss whom to ask to be godparents. The father, naturally, expects a son. There is even a saying: "A son is for the father, a daughter for the mother." A mother is not much concerned about the sex of her first child. A father will, however, behave with complete indifference toward a daughter, as well as toward a second and third son. Mothers usually begin to feel burdened by the third child. A father may express his satisfaction with the birth of his first son, reporting to his neighbors: "My Aniutka after all brought me a son." Or when inviting someone to be godfather: "My wife did not let me down; she delivered a son." Yet in the family they say [more crudely]: "Our gal dropped a boy." A mother, when cuddling and kissing the child, may be told by those present to "rejoice in your first-born!" A mother commonly uses pet words in addressing her child, such as "my little sonny (or girlie), my beauty, my golden darling, my berry, my dear little baby."

If the first child is a girl, the feeling in the family is mostly one of disappointment. One of the women might remark: "Oh well, at least she can be a nursemaid." By the following day, no one gives a thought to the baby girl. The friends and acquaintances of a man whose first-born is a girl, and in general the other men in the village, have the right to beat the young father when he appears at work. "Why did you have a daughter?" they say. They often thrash him soundly, and he has to keep quiet about it, for this is a well-established custom.

If a woman happens to give birth often, members of the family naturally respond disapprovingly. They do not hesitate to make crude remarks in this regard: "Ugh, you fertile thing, you surround yourself with children like a rabbit. Better that your puppies died off. Here you are with a litter every year; look here, the bitch has a litter again," and the like. These remarks often come from a woman's mother-in-law.

During pregnancy, a woman continues to be responsible for all her usual chores, both in the household and in the field — including binding the sheaves, weeding, threshing, gathering in the hemp, planting and digging potatoes — right up to the onset of labor. Women frequently give birth while performing a domestic chore, such as kneading bread, or even when they are at work in the field; others do so riding in a bumpy wagon as they are hurrying home after being prompted by the first pangs of the approaching birth. Some women, when they feel labor pains, run toward home "like a newborn lamb," as it is said. When the pains increase, they lie down on the ground, and then they run again when the pains subside, yelling at the top of their lungs, "like a helpless trembling lamb."

At the onset of labor pains, the midwife sometimes tries to drag the laboring mother into the stove and steam her there in order to speed up the childbirth. It is the job of the mother-in-law to fetch the midwife. She tries to haggle a bit with the midwife about the usual fee. The customary payment for the delivery of a baby, or "receiving," as the peasants say, would be a loaf of rye bread, plus another bread made of sifted flour and called "pirog," a cotton shawl worth twenty kopecks, and ten kopecks in cash. If the midwife living nearby does not want to agree to such an unprofitable arrangement, the mother-in-law will go to another village or to the far end of her own village to summon another midwife, a woman from her own kin who charges a smaller fee. Frequently, at this time, the young, inexperienced mother is left in pain completely unattended. It is a good thing for her if her mother or sister lives in the vicinity. They can step in and will not begrudge the midwife her usual fee in kind. And so the midwife appears. When summoning the midwife, women usually avoid direct reference to the birth, so that no one except the midwife will know that the labor pains have begun. This secrecy is believed to make things easier for the laboring mother. So they say something like: "What's this, old woman, you promised to look at my cow and you aren't coming?"

[Here begins the description of the real Akulina.]

On the eve of the birth of Akulina's third son, Ivan, Akulina had been weeding a field of millet. After returning to the field the following morning, she felt the initial labor pains. At first she thought that the work had given her a severe backache. Her mother-in-law went to get a village midwife (babka). The women she approached were reluctant to come, however, because the stinginess of Akulina's mother-in-law was well known. They haggled over the price. The mother-in-law wanted to pay them only "a pie," which meant wheat bread made from sifted flour. (A midwife is normally offered one loaf of rye bread, one loaf of wheat bread, a cotton kerchief, and ten kopecks.) The women did not agree, and Akulina's mother-in-law said she would go to another village instead. During this time, Akulina lay without any assistance. Finally, Akulina's own mother intervened and promised to give a midwife wheat bread. The midwife arrived at the home not long before Akulina gave birth.


Excerpted from Village Life in Late Tsarist Russia by Olga Semyonova Tian-Shanskaia, David L. Ransel, Michael Levine. Copyright © 1993 David L. Ransel. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1. Ivan's Parents,
2. Childbirth, Christening, Wife Beating,
3. Childhood,
4. Courtship and Sexual Relations,
5. Ivan Prepares for Marriage,
6. Pledging the Bride, the Bride-Show, and Marriage,
7. Infanticide, Emotion, Sexual Disorder, Drink and Food,
8. Housing, Property, Trades, Budgets, and Religious Belief,
9. Peasant Ideals, Work Habits, and Causes of Poverty,
10. Court Cases and Political Structure,
Suggestions for Further Reading,

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