Russian Peasant Beliefs and Practices concerning Death and the Supernatural Collected in Novosokol'niki Region, Pskov Province, Russia, 1995. Part I: The Restless Dead, Wizards and Spirit Beings

Article excerpt


Fieldwork in a remote area of rural Russia, a rare opportunity for an ethnographer from western Europe, provided the basic material for this article. Its findings, presented in a historical perspective, reveal a significant degree of continuity with beliefs and practices of the past in spite of the pressures of an official ideology opposed to all aspects of the supernatural.


This is the first of two articles on the contemporary state of customs and beliefs concerning death among the Russian peasantry. It deals with attitudes towards untimely death and various aspects of the "unclean" dead and associated spirit beings. The second article will examine some aspects of mortuary practices and the customs and beliefs associated with death in normal circumstances and with the afterlife.

The material for these articles was collected during a two-week stay in villages of the Novosokol'niki region of Pskov province in the summer of 1995, when I took part in an expedition organised by the University of St Petersburg. [1] I have been working for some time on a monograph about Russian peasant beliefs and practices associated with the dead, spirit beings and the afterlife in the nineteenth century and my purpose in Pskov province was, in the first instance, to provide a contemporary point of reference for the historical material.

Traditional culture is always in a state of change and development. For a variety of reasons, social and economic as well as political, during this century Russia has witnessed an accelerated decline and abandonment of a number of traditional customs and folklore genres, particularly since 1917, and even more since the collectivisation of agriculture in the 1930s. Epic chants (byliny), the stately figure-dances known as khorovody, the "religious verses" (dukhovnye stikhi) with their intertwining of religious and folk motifs, even the wonder tales (volshebnye skazki), may all be said to have passed, with rare exceptions, from living tradition.

As far as traditional social organisation is concerned, the Russian village knew two complex ritual events, the wedding and the funeral. Both represent a symbiosis of Orthodox Christian and pre-Christian belief systems. Given the campaign by the Communist regime to destroy the influence of the Church and at the same time to eradicate pagan superstitions and the outmoded social models which they often accompanied, one might expect to find, some eighty years after the Revolution, the disintegration and disappearance of beliefs and customs with a "supernatural" dimension. Indeed, as early as 1926, D. K. Zelenin, one of Russia's most distinguished ethnographers, wrote regarding the state of material and spiritual culture in the Russian village at that time that "today's peasantry is experiencing a radical turning-point in its worldview" (Zelenin 1991, Preface). I was curious to find out, therefore, on this my first visit to a remote region of rural Russia, to what extent Zelenin's prediction had proved accurate in respect of traditions, both material and metaphysical, concerning the dead.

My approach to the material in this article is a combination of the synchronic and diachronic. Since my objective was to examine an existing situation within a specific region and at a specific point in time, my material is presented, by and large, in a descriptive form. Where I have introduced historical material, this has not been to show that a contemporary belief is a relic of an older one or to suggest that the earlier material explains the later, but rather to reveal an underlying framework of belief which supports today's perception of the supernatural in much the same way as it did that of the past.

Over the past two centuries numerous studies of different aspects of funeral customs, and the beliefs in the supernatural associated with them, have been published in Russia. Among the more important earlier works, one might mention studies by A. …


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