Village Life in Late Tsarist Russia

Village Life in Late Tsarist Russia

Village Life in Late Tsarist Russia

Village Life in Late Tsarist Russia

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

Russia in the late nineteenth century was a society in crisis. For some, the pace of development was too slow. Germany, France, England, and the United States—the countries to which most educated Russians instinctively compared their own—were well ahead of Russia in industrialization and urbanization, and they had a far higher level of general education and culture. For others, change was too rapid. They blamed the government's drive to catch up with the West for the increasingly deep fissures in society, which seemed to threaten the country with revolution. Yet, however educated Russians may have viewed the sources of the crisis, most believed that its resolution depended ultimately on the attitudes and actions of the common people, the peasants, who constituted about 85 percent of the nation's population. Peasants not only were rural dwellers, but they also, as migrant laborers in the cities and factory towns, made up the majority of the industrial working class. As peasants in uniform, they composed the bulk of the armed forces. Curiously enough, both radical critics of the established regime and its conservative defenders, despite their differences with one another and their shared ignorance of village life, were convinced that they knew what the common people wanted and needed and could speak in their name. As a consequence, discussion of peasants and of Russia's future, an important part of public discourse in late tsarist Russia, was filled with a great many myths and misconceptions.

The study that follows was undertaken by its author, Olga Petrovna Semyonova Tian-Shanskaia, and her collaborator, K. V. Nikolaevskii, in the late I890s in order to meet the need for information about the actual life conditions, attitudes, and aspirations of the peasantry. The two best-known accounts of peasant life then available (both imprints of the I880s) were A. N. Engelgardt's From the Village: Twelve Letters, 1872-1887 and A. Yefimenko's Studies of Peasant Life. The first was a literary work, a series of . . .

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