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.

von Herder: Materials for the Philosophy of the History of Mankind

In his “Materials for the Philosophy of the History of Mankind,” von Herder writes about the importance of cultural nationalism and the value of local culture. A German scholar, he believes that the people of Germany are brought together by their shared language and customs, and that these attributes make the nation unique to other countries. He compares a nation-body to that of a family and believes that the two are inherently the same because they are both natural. Von Herder also believes that nature creates families and the most natural state is a group or body of people who share a national character and come together as one. He also deplores the concept of a the expansion of states that create a “a wild confusion of races and nations under one scepter.” He states, “An empire made up of a hundred peoples and 120 provinces which have been forced together is a monstrosity, not a state-body.” Von Herder emphasizes the importance of a shared cultural tradition. “Has a people anything dearer than the speech of its fathers? In its speech resides its whole thought-domain, its tradition, history, religion, and basis of life, all its heart and soul. To deprive a people of its speech is to deprive it of its one eternal good…” Von Herder believes in the idea of a community of people united together through their shared practices, values, common language, and history.

It is apparent the von Herder relies on language as a source of German community, but also as a key aspect of the nation’s culture, tradition, and history. He states, “The best culture of a people cannot be expressed through a foreign language; it thrives on the soil of a nation most beautifully, and, I may say, it thrives only by means of the nation’s inherited and inheritable dialect.” Here, von Herder is implying that the best culture of people cannot lack a traditional and historical common language, which would mean that the inclusion of any foreign or external language would be a threat to this cultural well-being. He has also explicitly states that the best culture thrives only by the means of ancestral dialect.

If we take the United States, for example, which has been infused with a plethora of languages and cultures and has even been dubbed as a cultural “melting-pot,” I would presume that von Herder would consider this a nation lacking what he would consider a “national character.” Do you agree?