Russian Peasants - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The formal religion of the Russian peasants was traditionally Russian Orthodoxy. There was a marked social distance between the peasantry and the Orthodox clergy, however, who functioned in the countryside as officials and were regarded as such. Russian Orthodox observance was for most peasants largely a formal matter, confined to certain festivals during the year and certain important life transitions. The pre-Christian Slavic folk religion operated as a substrate; its observances were given Orthodox form and tied to appropriate occasions in the Orthodox calendar.

Throughout the Soviet period all forms of religious observance were actively discouraged, although the degree and kind of antireligious activity varied over time. Late Soviet policy changes led to a decrease in the pressure against religious observance in general and against individual religious believers. The number of functioning Russian Orthodox churches has increased somewhat, and new churches are being built. At present Russian Orthodox observance is characteristic primarily of some members of the older generation, although, depending on the demographics of the area, more young people are participating than was previously admitted—in part because Russian Orthodoxy is regarded by many as an expression of Russian ethnic allegiance. Pre-Christian rituals have died out except in extremely remote places.

Super naturals in the folk religion included a wide variety of nature spirits—the domovoi (house spirit), the leshii (wood goblin), and the rusalka (water sprite)—most of whom were considered malevolent, although they could be mollified by proper treatment. These beings, except for the house spirit, were subsumed under the general heading of "unclean power."

Certain individuals had the reputation of being skilled in dealing with these folk supernaturals and were consulted on an informal basis. Some of them also functioned as medical practitioners, herbalists, and the like and, in some cases, possessed actual knowledge of effective remedies.

Folk Ritual. There was an elaborate complex of rituals tied to the various stages of the agricultural year and, more generally, to the succession of the seasons. By tying the more important of these festivals, which retained significant pre-Christian elements, to Russian Orthodox festivals, the church attempted to co-opt and control them. For example, Trinity (Troitsa), celebrated in early spring, was marked by cleaning and decoration of the homestead area with flowers and cut grass. Maslennitsa (corresponding to the European Mardi Gras) featured feasting, pagaentry, and the setting up of traditional straw and wooden figures carried on carts. Most of these rituals have now died out, but certain traditional elements were incorporated into Soviet civil observances in an attempt to give them ethnic coloration and a more festive character. The observances of the traditional agricultural cycle show clear connections with those that are typical of the Indo-European peoples generally and clear signs of belief in sympathetic and imitative magic.

Arts. The tradition of Russian decorative folk art is extremely rich and has given rise to an immense literature. Its most prominent practices are wood carving (both in relief and of freestanding figures), embroidery, decorative painting on trays and other household articles, and architectural decoration. Many of the typical motifs of Russian folk art derive from the pre-Christian religious system. The tradition of folk decorative art has now lost much of its vitality, except in those instances in which it was deliberately cultivated by the state and placed in the hands of specialists. On the other hand, Russian folk music, which also has an old and rich tradition, still enjoys great popularity and is cultivated on many levels, from professional ensembles to local amateur groups.

Death and Afterlife. Funerary ceremony was in the hands of the Russian Orthodox clergy. However, certain features of the handling of the dead—particularly those who for one reason or another were not considered eligible for Christian burial (suicides, chronic alcoholics, and those who during life had been known as sorcerers)—show traces of the influence of pre-Christian religious cults.

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