This Is What 19th c. Russian Families Were Like Before the Devastation of Communism

Great insights into 4 social classes: the nobility, the merchant class, the clergy, and the peasantry.

The Nobility. Duty and Honor

As soon as he was born, the Russian nobleman already had a purpose and destiny. He was destined for service, specifically for government service. Moreover, this child had a particular lineage, and from the moment of his birth, he was embedded in a genealogical chain, making him not simply a private individual, but a continuation of his family. He had ancestors, whom he doubtlessly knew and honored, and his behavior had to maintain a standard that would not possibly stain the family’s honor, but instead would increase it as much as possible.

Family Portrait Indoors, 1840s (Unknown Artist)

Peter the Great reinforced the obligation of a nobleman to serve his monarch, while also essentially making the noble ranks accessible to non-nobles (through education or service). For the Russian nobleman—who was most often not very well-off—the very idea of nobility was tied to education, upbringing, and duty. “He who receives much may be asked of much”—such was the unwritten credo of the nobility.

An uneducated nobleman was a barbarian. One who rudely broke the code of conduct could lose note only the respect of those around him, but his very status as a nobleman.

Patriarchal noble families did not dispose one to sensitivity and tenderness. The father was considered a demigod and absolute ideal; he controlled everything in the house. Noble families generally did not spoil their children or bend to their wishes. Much the opposite: children were harshly disciplined. Parents took care of their education and upbringing, but they regarded them as little grown-ups, without making allowances. Emotions weren’t regarded as a good reason for choosing a model of behavior—if anything they were seen as the opposite. The primary traits to be instilled were bravery, perseverance, having a place in the hierarchy, and the ability to control oneself with dignity in any situation.

From a very young age, noble children were obliged to learn how to control their impulses, bad moods, fears, and desires. They were expected to unwaveringly fulfill their duties. Thanks to their physical exertion—walks in all kinds of weather, exercise, and a Spartan way of life—a young nobleman developed not only bodily (which was necessary for military service), but also spiritually.

Hired specialists, who were usually foreigners, were in charge of their early home education. They taught languages, etiquette, and good manners. Music and dance were required subjects. Balls weren’t simply evenings of dancing but one of the ways in which noble society was organized. For this reason, balls were considered to be less a form of entertainment than an obligation, and the nobility were taught to fulfill their obligations faithfully. Parents primarily played the role of moral examples for their children, and their authority was usually very great.

A nobleman’s whole life was permeated by a network of written and (mostly) unwritten rules, which bore a high cost if broken. Children could internalize these rules by watching their elders; they would consciously or unconsciously adopt their manner of conduct—and with it, their worldview.

At a certain age, young men were sent to study in the institutions of higher education, and then they would enter into state service (which could be civil or military). After the “Decree of Noble Liberty” was enacted, noblemen had the right to refuse state service and tend to their estates—a task that also required extraordinary effort and substantial knowledge.

A young noblewoman was expected to marry; otherwise, she would be in the sad position of an old maid. It happened occasionally that one sister would remain unmarried in order to live with her aging parents and ease their old age. If a young woman had the honor to be a lady-in-waiting in the imperial court, she would fulfill these obligations until she was married, and then, as a rule, she would be let go.

Young women had no freedom before marriage. Their reputation and honor were vigilantly preserved. A young woman who cast doubt on her own reputation would bring shame not only upon herself, but also upon her family—and she wouldn’t be the only one to lose a chance at family life, as her sisters would also fall under suspicion. After marriage, her status would change: she would be considered a grown woman and gain much greater freedom—although her husband would have no less authority over her than her father had before.

In contrast, the subjugation of sons to their fathers didn’t end with marriage or the birth of children. The reason for this was simple: the noblewoman’s sphere of service was the family, while the nobleman mainly served society. Incidentally, marriages (or at least, first marriages) were primarily arranged by the older generation. Widow and widowers were allowed to follow their hearts, but parents chose brides for their sons’ first marriages, even if they were relatively mature.

In Russia, women enjoyed a certain amount of economic freedom in comparison with Europe. Thus, a bride maintained a right to her dowry without exception. If her husband was a spendthrift and conducted his affairs unreasonably, his wife could file a complaint against him to preserve her own and her children’s interests. Divorce was very complicated: a marriage could be annulled under certain conditions, but the party judged to be guilty would lose the ability to marry again. The only exception was if one of the parties (in a childless marriage, or if the children had grown up) expressed the intention of entering a monastery. It was more common for couples to separate while formally remaining married. In this case, the husband was obligated to maintain his wife and pay alimony, assuming, of course, that the separation wasn’t caused by inappropriate conduct on her part.

Naturally, it’s not possible to idealize this whole social stratum—and there’s no need to do so, since the Russian nobility, with its poetics of duty, service, and honor, has remained a unique phenomenon by Russian and global standards. Sadly, it can never be reinstated insofar as it’s impossible to recreate the environment that nourished it. We only have memoirs and Russia’s great literary tradition (which was for a long time written exclusively by nobility) to preserve for us the spirit of the Russian nobility.

The Merchant Class. Archaism and Pragmatism

Popular consciousness in Russia associates merchant families with the values recorded in the Domostroy and the plays of Alexander Ostrovsky. As a result, the lives of merchants are often thought to be behind the times and overly calculated. There is certainly some truth to this: However much the merchant class contributed to the development of Russian society, it always preferred stability and respectability as the guiding principle for its own affairs.

The lifestyles and habits of the nobles and intelligentsia changed with the times and fashions, but merchant families were able to maintain the order instituted by their ancestors—and they didn’t tire of it.

A. Riabushkin. A 17th-century Merchant’s Family, 1896

Merchant wives and daughters were eager to keep up with fashions, especially since they had the money for it. Fancy dresses made from brilliant, finely knitted fabrics; expensive shawls (which would be valued by noblewomen about twenty years later), massive jewels—all of this was intended to show that the family’s business was doing very well (making it a more or less necessary expense).

The merchants’ way of life was guided by society, and their conduct needed to be approved by respected people—either representatives of the government or elite merchants. They needed to walk a fine line between chic and showing off (the latter being strictly looked down upon)—and only then they could count on having a certain amount of respect and honor within their class.

Merchants preferred to live in an insulated environment: the vast majority of merchants’ wives were also the daughters of merchants, who had grown used to calculations and imbibed the spirit of commerce since a young age. They were able to stand in for their husbands if he needed to leave on business. A merchant’s widow would have been entirely capable of conducting business on her own until her children were old enough to take over. Merchants had sons in order to continue the family business—and they didn’t ask for the child’s opinion in the matter.

As a rule, they taught their children management and bookkeeping right in the shop beginning at school age. Boys were then sent to a technical school, but merchants were reluctant to send their kids to preparatory schools for fear that they would be tempted to ditch the family business. Incidentally, the merchant class gradually accepted the idea that higher education was a virtue rather than a temptation: in the beginning of the 19th century the Moscow Commercial School and Moscow Commercial Academy both opened. A girl’s education wasn’t limited to sewing, weaving, worship, and keeping after the house. No one would be surprised to see a literate daughter keeping the books for her father. But of course, women in merchant families were also obligated to please their masters by keeping up the house in such a way that it would impress others.

Merchant dynasties brought many benefits to Russia. It was precisely the wealthy, God-fearing, and knowledgeable merchants who sponsored the construction of hospitals, conservatories, schools, and museums. They generously gave money for a variety of projects that didn’t benefit them directly but were essential to society as a whole.

The Clergy. “Church-Tower Nobles”

The clergy has long been a respected part of Russian society. Family life and family ties were especially important in the lives of the clergy. (Naturally, we are talking about the married clergy; the monastic clergy isolated themselves from the world and could not have attachments such as familiar ties.) For the parish priest, the family was one of the most important parts of his life.

Just as the priest was supposed to be a moral compass for his parishioners, his wife was supposed to provide a model for women. Mistakes, bad habits, and personal failings transformed the priest’s family into a shameful parable. Every aspect of the lives of a priest’s family was attentively and scrupulously analyzed—in the country this was accompanied by envy (since the priests were generally better off and had more authority than the typical peasant), and in the cities it was accompanied by derision.

Portrait of a Priest and a Deacon (Deacons. Reception), 1907

The family life of priests was strictly regulated by canonical rules. Divorce and remarriage were allowed to the layperson (although not without difficulties), but it was unthinkable for a priest. What’s more, a second marriage was impossible, since a priest was considered a widower for his whole life. A priest could not marry outside his religion, just as his children could only unite themselves with other Orthodox Christians. The priest’s house was to be a hearth for Orthodox culture. A priest could not marry a widow or an actress. If a priest’s wife conducted herself in an inappropriate way, he was expected to leave her or become a monk.

Since the clergy were encouraged to have children, a priest’s family, as a rule, would have several of them—and each would have to be educated, raised, and prepared for future service. It was entirely natural for a priest’s son to proceed to a seminary and then to become a priest, while a daughter would eventually marry another priest. As a rule, a son would inherit his father’s parish: when he had finished his education and was ordained, he would return home with a young wife and continue services in his home town.

Another way of acquiring a parish was to marry a priest’s daughter. A priest-to-be only had the short period of time before taking vows to get married—and since these young men spent ten years in seminary, the search for a future companion was a serious problem. After all, they had to find not just wives, but companions, who thought the same way and could be trusted with their futures and those of their children—someone who would help build a “domestic church.”

If the representatives of other social groups had plenty of time and opportunity to find and get to know a bride, the clergy were deprived of this possibility. Those future priests who couldn’t bring themselves to take monastic vows, but also couldn’t find a wife, could put off their consecration, though not for long. Meanwhile, they were helped out by special diocesan schools for priest’s daughters, where young women not only received a general education, but also learned Old Church Slavonic, singing, and the rules and history of the Church. Most often, the priest’s wife organized the parish’s charitable efforts. Women came to her for advice and compassion. At the same time, she was obligated to run the household irreproachably in order to free her husband from all concerns and allow him to fully devote himself to his profession.

In general, there were fewer parishes than potential priests. Also, not all children of the clergy wanted to have the same fate as their fathers. Those who didn’t go to seminary, or were expelled from there, were excluded from the clergy. So were those who stayed with their father until the age of 15 without receiving the required education. They could then enter the petit bourgeoisie, peasantry, or merchant class. If a priest’s son didn’t have any other prospects, he was sent into the army.

Upon joining the civil service, children of priests had the same rights as nobles. The children of clergy made up a large portion of the so-called raznochintsy, a social group that had a great influence on Russian history and culture, which was made up of educated individuals who lacked either nobility or sufficient material means from their families. They could depend only upon their hands and head.

The Peasantry. An Ancient World in a New Time

Among the peasantry, the concept of “family” extended beyond a married couple and their children. As a rule, their families were very large, with several generations living in a single hut: the elderly parents, their sons (both single and married), the sons’ families, and any unmarried daughters. This meant that, discounting young children, there might be 12 to 20 people in a hut. This family was built on the principle of strict hierarchy and patriarchy. The domestic work in the house was directed by the “mistress”—usually the mother-in-law, who ordered about the women in the house, especially any young and inexperienced daughters-in-law. After the mother-in-law’s death, her title and responsibilities would pass on to the wife of the eldest son.

This set-up led to a whole range of family conflicts, but it was very often impossible to leave and live on one’s own for economic and administrative reasons. (Sometimes a landowner would directly forbid such moves. This made it easier to conduct a census and gather drafted soldiers, while also avoiding the need to divide the livestock.) No one gave a thought about the psychological problems that could result from this overcrowding, and peasants virtually spent their whole lives being watched by other people, including children. This meant that the adults’ sexual lives, their arguments, and difficult moments were not hidden from the children.

A peasant’s life depended on the yearly cycle of farm labor. Every family member, including the youngest, had household obligations, which they needed to perform to their fullest abilities. During harvest times, during times of sowing or reaping, only very young children or enfeebled old folks stayed home, even on the hottest days.

Children learned to work from a very early age. The Russian peasant household could not afford to feed someone who didn’t work, so everyone labored. Little girls began to weave and spin at the age of six, and by the age of ten or twelve they were capable workers and began to amass a dowry of linen, towels, shirts, and dresses.

 
I. Kulikov. In a Peasant’s Hut, 1902

Young boys learned to control an axe, to work the land, and to handle horses. If a village was known for one industry or another, the children learned it from a young age: it never hurt for the household to have an extra kopeck.

Education in peasant families was primarily devoted to professional habits, to religious studies (the most widespread prayers and stories from Scripture), and to the ethical norms of peasant life.

Village life was based upon unwritten laws—a large number of customs and superstitions that were regarded seriously. Old men and women told their children fairy tales, local stories, interesting anecdotes, and various legends; they taught them how to act in the most varied situations. Virtually every event or activity in the lives of villagers was accompanied by a whole range of superstitions, folk sayings, and relevant stories—and in this way, the children took in the organic, half-Christian and half-pagan, worldview that characterized the Russian peasantry for centuries.

When bathing their children, feeding them, massaging their limbs, or rocking them to sleep, mothers, grandmothers, and older sisters always recited poems or sang songs and lullabies, and so they would have to remember and repeat rhymed lines. Literacy was not widespread in the villages, but all necessary information was communicated from generation to generation, so that it would be wrong to call peasant children uneducated.

Unfortunately, childhood mortality was extremely high in peasant families. Overcrowding, the lack of sanitation, the absence of proper medical help, and poor supervision of children—all these things contributed to the fact that on 3 or 4 out of the 8-13 children born to a peasant family would survive to adulthood. Death was not something at all unusual in peasant existence, and they mostly responded to it with total equanimity. Sudden or unnatural deaths frightened them, but they didn’t perceive death from illness or old age as a tragedy.

Village women were married off at a young age—they could be betrothed at the age of 16. Grooms were generally a couple years older than the brides, but they could also be younger if the marriage were in the interest of the household (for instance, if it could make a tie to a rich family).

In comparison to noble daughters, young peasant women enjoyed unlimited freedom. Gatherings with young men, strolls, conversations—even premarital relations were not seen as especially sinful; they were even accepted in some areas on the condition that the traditional wedding “crown covers everything.” But women, and only women, were punished harshly for marital affairs. Fathers and husbands had complete control over their wives and children; their word was law. Nonetheless, societal powers could interfere in family affairs if a man terribly abused his power or neglected his responsibilities as head of the family.

The well-balanced structure of the peasant world was based on deeply archaic principles: it would be very difficult for someone of today to understand how it was possible to live in a19th-century village, just as a peasant who made his way into a major city would have been at a total loss for how to live in this giant anthill. If the nobles and landowners knew the common people and could come to an understanding with them, many intellectuals and populists were completely unfamiliar with the real Russian peasantry.

Everything changed after the October Revolution. But that’s a whole other story.


Source: Russkiy Mir

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