Russian Peasant Women Who Refused to Marry: Spasovite Old Believers in the 18th-19th Centuries

Russian Peasant Women Who Refused to Marry: Spasovite Old Believers in the 18th-19th Centuries

Russian Peasant Women Who Refused to Marry: Spasovite Old Believers in the 18th-19th Centuries

Russian Peasant Women Who Refused to Marry: Spasovite Old Believers in the 18th-19th Centuries

Synopsis

John Bushnell's analysis of previously unstudied church records and provincial archives reveals surprising marriage patterns in Russian peasant villages in the 18th and 19th centuries. For some villages the rate of unmarried women reached as high as 70 percent. The religious group most closely identified with female peasant marriage aversion was the Old Believer Spasovite covenant, and Bushnell argues that some of these women might have had more agency in the decision to marry than more common peasant tradition ordinarily allowed. Bushnell explores the cataclysmic social and economic impacts these decisions had on the villages, sometimes dragging entire households into poverty and ultimate dissolution. In this act of defiance, this group of socially, politically, and economically subordinated peasants went beyond traditional acts of resistance and reaction.

Excerpt

This study of Russian peasant women who would not marry emerged from two simultaneous, wholly unanticipated discoveries that raised a tangle of questions I could not answer. the discoveries came in a set of confession registers—household lists of parishioners who had and had not made the annual confession required of all Orthodox Russians. These particular registers were from Kuplia parish, a cluster of villages near the very small city of Gorokhovets in eastern Vladimir province. One discovery was demographic: in some of those villages in the late eighteenth century, a very high proportion of adult women never married. It is not uncommon to find one or two unmarried adult women in an eighteenth- or nineteenth-century Russian village, but it is just as likely that every single adult woman had married. the consensus among Russian historians and ethnographers is that Russian peasants practiced close to universal marriage. in Kuplia parish that was extravagantly not so. As of 1795, 44 percent of women twenty-five and over in the village of Sluchkovo had never married. Even that figure grossly understates the resistance of Sluchkovo women to marriage; tax census returns reveal that, of all the women born in the village who turned twentyfive between 1763 and 1795, fully 70 percent never married. the overwhelming majority of Sluchkovo wives had been imported from other villages by Sluchkovo men, almost all of whom married. Further investigation revealed that while Sluchkovo women almost certainly refused to marry at a higher rate than women in other villages in the area, a 20 to 40 percent rate of abstention among women native to their villages was common in that part of the Gorokhovets district in the late eighteenth century. Nothing that I had ever learned about Russian peasant marriage, or Russian peasant culture, anticipated or explained what I had discovered about marriage in Kuplia parish.

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