Studying Peasant Life in the Late 19th Century

Shanskaia’s Village Life in Late Tsarist Russia, an ethnographic study of peasant life in the late 19th century. Yesterday, we discussed some of the book’s major themes, namely, gender, marriage, and childhood.

Here, I want to focus on religion. Semyonova writes, “Among the mass of peasants, there is nothing mystical about their relationship to the tsar or to God, just as there is nothing mystical about their idea of an afterlife. They simply give no thought to an afterlife, just as they give no thought to the coming year. It is amazing how essentially irreligious they are! …Can they really be considered Russian Orthodox? Not at all” (136). This observation does, it certain respects, derive from Semyonova’s observations of peasants. She writes that they do not worry about the future, and nor do they think about God. Moreover, peasant religious rituals vary greatly from the nobility and clergy ones to which Semyonova is likely accustomed.

However, I think that Semyonova’s claim that peasants are “irreligious” and not Russian Orthodox is too simplistic. Earlier in the book, she explains how all baby girls and boys are baptized, a process which is grossly expensive for families which have virtually no income. Baptisms must have been important.¬†Although one could argue that all children are baptized simply because of tradition, I think it’s impossible to claim that those baptisms had absolutely¬†no faith backing them up. Rather, peasants simply regarded religion and God different from the nobles. Their lives were much harder; therefore, they could not devote as much time to daily rituals or even just “faithful thoughts.” Possibly, Semyonova did not recognize their religiousness because it differed so much from the precise rituals which she witnessed among the nobility. She writes that “heaven and hell are understood purely in material terms”; however, those “material terms” do not make the understanding of heaven and hell irreligious. The peasants understood these concepts based on the world which they saw every day. Semyonova over-simplifies peasant life when she claims that they cannot be considered Russian Orthodox.