Reading Russian Fortunes: Print Culture, Gender and Divination in Russia from 1765

Article excerpt

Faith Wigzell. Reading Russian Fortunes: Print Culture, Gender and Divination in Russia from 1765. Cambridge Studies in Russian Literature. New York and Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1998. xi, 250 pp. Illustrations. Notes. Select Bibliography. Index. $64.95, cloth.

Opening the book with the old Soviet joke that in Russia "the future is certain, only the past is in doubt" (one of two epigraphs), Faith Wigzell makes fortune-telling the main subject of her study. She seeks to analyze both its domestic and professional practice in Russia "as reflections of the processes of cultural transmission, assimilation and rejection" (p. 1). In her Introduction, the author points to the previous neglect of the topic by contemporary observers as well as by current scholarship. In this respect, her book is the first detailed study of the history of publishing, readership, and social acceptability of fortune-telling books (dream interpretation books, in particular) from their first appearance in Russia in 1765. Intended as a contribution to the debate about the nature of popular culture, the study focuses on "fortune-telling among the urban and literate population rather than on rural peasantry" (p. 2). The gender approach is prominent throughout the whole investigation, for fortune-telling is primarily considered in the book as part of women's culture (p. 8).

The book consists of an Introduction, eight chapters and a Conclusion. Chapter I presents the evolution and different types of dream books and other fortune-telling guides, from the earliest, directly translated from Western sources, to later editions adapted to specifically Russian circumstances. Chapter 2, "Divination in Russian traditional culture," analyzes divination as an important social function in traditional rural communities and traces the paths it took into modem society. Wigzell distinguishes two types of rural divination: calendrical (Yuletide and alike) and noncalendrical (such as predictions about a new baby's future or dream interpretations). Calendrical divination was the first to suffer in the urban context and became reduced to harmless fun (p. 53). In contrast, non-calendrical divination found easier ways into urban life, but its village forms "were rapidly replaced by books" (p. 53). As a result, Russian "[o]ral divinatory tradition and fortune-telling books therefore lived largely separate lives" (p. 56).

In chapter 3, "Readers and detractors," Wigzell investigates by class and social groups the readership of fortune-telling books and points out that social attitudes towards divinatory guides evolved in Russia along the same lines as in Western Europe but in a more compressed form. While, at the beginning, fortune-telling books gained some popularity as entertainment among the Russian nobility, by the 1820s they had mostly lost their respectability among the intellectual elite and became the field of other literate and semi-literate social groups (p. 86). The impact of the changing readership upon the publishing of fortune-telling books is subjected to analysis in chapter 4, "Printers and publishers." Showing the emergence of the commercial publishing industry in Russia at the end of the eighteenth century, Wigzell convincingly proves the more active role of Moscow publishing houses in fortune-book printing in contrast to the general domination of St. Petersburg in overall totals for book production and distribution. Finally, she presents the history of different publishing houses and publishers in Moscow and St. Petersburg up to the beginning of the twentieth century.

The different gender roles in divination are the focus of chapters 5, 6, and 7, entitled, respectively, "Women, men and domestic fortune-telling "Fortune-tellers and their clientele," and "Sages and prophets." Wigzell states that domestic and professional fortune-telling was considered to be mainly women's sphere, which very fact was viewed as the reflection of their ignorance and irrationality. …


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