A Look into Peasant Life in Tsarist Russia

After reading Village Life in Tsarist Russia by Olga Semyonova Tian-Shanskaia and edited by David L. Ransel, one has gains new insight into what the world of a peasant in tsarist times looked like.  For instance, as they lived in the countryside and were not a part of urban society, their views on religion were much different than citizens living in cities.  While in the city, people were practiced Russian Orthodoxy quite strictly; however, in the countryside, peasants did not receive formal education when it came to religion, and this led to an odd mixture of paganism and Orthodoxy.  Semyanova recounts that children would learn eventually that the icon in the corner of their huts was God, and would imitate family members in crossing themselves, learning especially to do so upon hearing thunder so “Elijah Thunderbolt” would not strike them dead.  Additionally, as was the norm in peasant society, much of a child’s education was from oral tradition.  They would simultaneously learn about Elijah the prophet and “changelings, witches, house-spirits [known in Russian as domovoi], and wood-goblins.”

Something else that was fascinating in Semyanova’s findings was the medicinal practices of the Russian peasantry.  For instance, because Russian women were almost immediately called back into the fields for hard labor after childbirth, uteral prolapse was quite common.  Midwives in the villages had a few remedies for uteral prolapse, but perhaps the most bizarre remedy for “fixing the stomach,” as it was called, a midwife would soap her hands, manually push the uterus in place, “then [push] a peeled potato into the vagina and [bind] the lower abdomen tightly with a kerchief.”  While some medical advances had made their way to Russia even in the times of Catherine the Great, it seems as though much like other aspects of society, advances in the field of medicine were not reaching the peasants, making quality of life in the villages extremely challenging.  This speaks volumes about the resilience of peasants who survived such harsh conditions.


One thing that struck me in the reading was the language the peasants used to talk about themselves.  They always compared themselves (and especially women) to animals.  Why was that so?  Was it a matter of the peasants not understanding the concept of humanism, or was it that they held such little value to their own lives?

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