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Hangin' with the Peasants

Russian peasants had no need for well-meaning city-slickers.

On the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution, the narod, or "dark people", were four of every five people in Russia. Less than two percent could read, one in three of their children died in their first year, and their wretched, miserable lives were not due for improvement for another half century. It had, in theory, been worse.

Before 1861, the majority of Russian peasants had been serfs. The visitor to a larger Russian town could expect to see placards like "For Sale: two plump coachmen, two barbers, one knows how to play musical instruments."[1] Declaring punishments into the hundreds of lashes was not uncommon when one's property misbehaved. The Emancipation of 1861 seemed at first to be a success: the freed serfs received about 80% of the land they had tilled. Heartened by this turn of events, however, the peasants proceeded to embark on a breeding spree and managed to promptly double the number of people trying to live on the already crowded land. This did little to improve their lot.

Personal Liberation

The same liberalizing forces that made Emancipation possible also created a revolutionary movement known as the "generation of the sixties", men and women who rejected authority, and "sought a freer, simpler life for all, as well as personal liberation."[2] "Personal liberation" indeed. Anticipating this century's "generation of the sixties", these revolutionaries decided the path to true understanding was to head out to the countryside, away from the corrupt society of the cities, to mingle with the true People of Russia, her peasants, "whom they idealized as a fount of moral purity and untainted simplicity." We wonder how many young male revolutionaries were in fact more eager to try some "personal liberation" with the peasant's daughters. What on earth were they expecting? Literate Russians apparently had quite fanciful notions about the peasants in their midst.

They envisioned peasant women working in humble, but always clean [huts], their strong hands and dimpled white arms kneading dough, churning butter, or spinning flax, while their equally vigorous husbands bent their backs to the tasks of cutting wood, reaping grain, or working in the smithy. In their imaginings, the lives of such rural folk were clean and pure, made healthy by the clean air and fresh food that lords and ladies enjoyed in such plenty during infrequent summer visits to their country estates.[3]

Some rhapsodized at length about "rustic beauties... round, firm, well-shaped, and unblemished", in comparison with "vain city women who sickened themselves with rich foods and tortured their bodies with laces, corsets, and shoes made only for fashion."[4] Any reader who has seen a real peasant community must by now suspect that our young idealists were in for a bit of a rude awakening.

You May Dispense With the Peasantries

With these expectations in mind, Vera Figner set out for the country in the summer of 1874. She later wrote, "until that point, I had never seen the true ugliness of peasant life at first hand... Under those horrible impressions that I drew from seeing the material side of the people's daily life, those three months [in the village] were for me a terrible experience." One agronomist dejectedly intoned, "every peasant, if circumstances permit, will in the most exemplary fashion, exploit every other."[5] Rather than joyous villages of buxom beauties and philosopher-farmers, these would-be terrorists and politicians found pathetic hovels filled with people wasted from malnutrition, disease, ignorance, and crushing poverty. Plans for personal liberation probably went right out the window.

The narod lived in small houses, called izby. Built of loosely fitting logs, with brush and straw for roofs, these huts had no chimneys lest escaping sparks ignite an entire village. A common sight in the winter was a peasant izba with acrid smoke streaming from ill-fashioned windows and cracks around the door, family inside smoking like so much meat. Window is a generous term, of course. Most 'windows' were merely holes in the wall covered with something vaguely translucent like stretched and dried bulls' bladders, allowing "only the faintest amount of light to penetrate into the izba's murky, grimy interior at midday."[6] Ironically, one of the harshest forms of torture practiced by the Imperial government was kopchenie -- being smoked to death like bacon.[7]

Coprophagia Recapitulates Diptheria

The izba was crowded as well. Long wooden benches served double-duty as tables and beds. In the winter, wrote one visitor, "together with the peasant in his hut... live from ten to fifteen lambs with their mothers, two or three pigs with piglets, two or three calves, and sometimes a young colt."[8] While these menageries no doubt served to keep peasants warm during the long Russian winters, there can be no doubt they stunk like hell. Adding insult to injury, the narod were woefully ignorant of sanitation, and the excrement of all inhabitants, man and animal alike was left inside the house. The animals were usually as hungry as their owners, and devoured it with glee. In these conditions, it should be no surprise that infectious diseases were as familiar -- and predictable -- as the sun and the stars.

The new year usually found a typical peasant village in the grip of an influenza outbreak. In May, malaria usually struck, soon to be followed by cholera. In the late fall and early winter the annual wave of diphtheria arrived and, as the year closed, the village once again fell victim to influenza, which carried over into January to begin the cycle anew.[9]

The Devil You Know...

While the radical students and idealists could abandon this cruel reality by simply trekking back to the cities, the narod villages offered no such escape. Peasants, then as now, made do with religion and vodka. The religion of the peasant was a bizarre mix of Orthodox Catholicism and ancient pagan tradition. While peasants always paid homage to the ikons kept in one corner of the izby, and were careful not to commit sins in front of them (covering them in cases of adultery, for instance), in one common narod ceremony,

... peasant women were known to assemble in the dead of night and parade half-naked around the outskirts of their village. At the head of their procession they bore ikons, while they chanted folk incantations and spells in an effort to keep the demons who bore the disease from crossing a furrow that two maidens harnessed to a plow traced around the village's perimeter.[10]

Not surprisingly, the Devil figured just as prominently as God did in this mythology. "Light a candle to God," went one saying, "but light one to the Devil, too." One famous account tells of a peasant at the Festival of St. George who lit two candles. Upon asking why he lit two, his innocent response was, "One for St. George, and one for the dragon." All narod housewives knew well the tricks of the domvoi, little prankster demons that populated every izba's oven and caused the bread not to rise and the food to burn. Literary critic Vissarion Belinskii summed it up best when he said, "Mystical exaltation is not in their nature, they have too much common sense." On the promised Christian afterlife? Not impressed apparently, for the peasants had a saying, "Life on earth may be unbearable, but death is not so pleasant either."

Get Ploughed

After religion came vodka, and plenty of it, as anyone who as ever attended a Russian wedding knows well. One folk saying proclaimed, "It is a sin to come home sober from a wedding," a philosophy, we should note, whose universality seems to qualify it as one of the fundamental truths of human existence. Nothing official happened without the fiery stuff: funerals, plantings, meetings, births, business transactions. Just as the Eskimos have many words for different kinds of snow, we should not be surprised to find that the hard-drinking Russians have several names for different states of intoxication. Most peasants tried to accomplish zapoi--a "euphoric state of drunken stupor." In pursuit of zapoi peasants would sell their clothes, their animals, and even their land. This destructive addiction moved the great Russian author Dostoevskii to say, "I believe that no one will deny that we have started our civilization directly with debauch!" Those few peasants who after emancipation found factory jobs in the cities fared no better. A census taker in 1864 documented the atmosphere: "Drunkenness is unprecedented, even for Russia. Everywhere, drunken folk wander in crowds through the streets, loll about and huff like cattle."[11] We note that at least in the pursuit of zapoi the narod were not alone -- their beloved Czars were also experts.

What came of the young idealists, hoping for enlightenment? The peasants had no time for such foolishness: the lucky radicals were ignored, while the rest were turned into the authorities as pests and troublemakers, usually ending up in jail... where they no doubt experienced a very different kind of personal liberation.


  1. Thompson, 121
  2. Thompson, 153
  3. Lincoln, 37
  4. Lincoln, 37
  5. Lincoln, 37
  6. Lincoln, 45
  7. Cherniasvksy, 25
  8. Lincoln, 47
  9. Lincoln, 53
  10. Lincoln, 62
  11. Lincoln, 107


  1. W. Bruce Lincoln. In War's Dark Shadow: The Russians Before the Great War. Oxford University Press, 1983.
  2. John M. Thompson. Russia & the Soviet Union: An Historical Introduction from the Kievan State to the Present, 3rd ed. Westview Press, 1994.
  3. Michael Cherniasvksy. "The Old Believers and the New Religion". Slavic Review, 25. 1966. p.1-39

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