How Russian Peasant Families Lived as Christians in Centuries Past

Originally appeared at: Global Orthodox

Our ancestors are distant and at the same time very close to us today. Their life is hidden in old manuscripts and documents, but they are alive in diverse phenomena of our days. And even though in the past century desperate attempts have been made to wipe off their memory, they are still alive in our hearts.

The foundations of morality are formed in every nation over a long time, and the results of this process constitute the most important and extensive part of spiritual life. Moral values, being closely connected with other aspects of culture, served as a necessary basis for many, many ideas and actions, relationships and creativity. This basis of popular culture includes respect for the seniors and care for the elderly, children, helpless relatives; mercy in its various manifestations, help and mutual assistance; diligence and responsibility for one’s job; honor, duty, fidelity and much more.

Everything is interconnected in a single, integral system of moral foundations. The integrity of moral principles was solidified in the Russian countrymen by their Orthodox faith. All assessments and assertions in this field have come directly or indirectly to it. The concepts were passed down from generation to generation. But in addition, they were re-strengthened in each generation due to the perception of the basics of Christianity. Moral teachings were continually proclaimed in church sermons, the instructions of parents, were explained by teachers who taught children to read using the Holy Scripture.

The countrymen, with a few exceptions, did not write special treatises on morality, but we can judge what concepts they were guided by, by their real life, by the characteristics of external observers and by their own testimonies contained in letters, rulings of community assemblies, appeals to higher authorities, in the records of side observers.

An indispensable property of a person who met the moral ideal of the overwhelming majority of countrymen was faith. A countryman definitely linked a person's behavior to his state of faith. Faith was judged by careful visits to church, by observance of fasts and rites, by going to pray, but especially by the degree of fulfillment of moral standards in general. "There is no cross on you!” – they would say to a person who committed an unscrupulous act. Conversely, "lives in God's way", "lives in a Christian way" – these expressions applied to those kind merciful.

Not only did the family make sure that the young ones did not miss particularly important Church services, but the whole community watched them. Neighbors reprimanded mothers if the son was "lazy to go to lunch."

In the petitions of the countrymen addressed to the Church authorities for the construction of new churches (and these petitions were adopted by the community even in cases when the church was to be built by a well-to-do sponsor), there are statments about the duty of the community to take care of the religiosity and morality of its members.

In the program of the Ethnographic Bureau of Tenishev there was a question about the visit of countrymen to the church. Almost everyone who wrote to the bureau from different parts of the country responded to it. Countryman F.F. Shutov from the village of Pesyi-Veretya in the Vologda region (Velsky district) reported that on the holiday his fellow villagers get up at five o'clock in the morning and go to church - for matins and lunch. The church was three versts from the village. Everyone dressed festively, despite the early hour.

Sermons delivered in rural churches every Sunday, and on feast days after matins and during the liturgy, had a significant moral influence on the parishioners. By the time of the sermon, everyone was moving closer to the to hear better. There was complete silence. After the service, parishioners would discuss the contents of the sermon they had heard.

Church Sacraments of confession and Holy Communion had particular significance, as attested to by a XIX century report: "Local people have good qualities. Their piety in the simplicity of faith and hospitality are worthy of emulation. Not to mention going to church, about the diligent partaking of the Holy Sacraments - confession and communion, the piety of the countrymen is also visible in their private lives. They will not sit down at the table without praying, will not begin and finish any business without making a sign of the cross; at the end of the harvest season, almost everyone is careful to express diligence and piety, inviting a priest with holy icons to his home for a thanksgiving prayer".

Countrymen attached great importance to daily prayers. "Home prayer in the morning and evening, as well as before meals, is considered mandatory… In every family a prayer is made in front of icons in the morning, evening, before and after dinner". This was written not by a priest, but by a teacher of a local school.

A correspondent noted differences in home prayers depending on the seasons, on the work load. In Summer prayers were shorter. But for the holiday, young men "would wash themselves first, and then sit down at the table, read the Gospel aloud, and after dinner they would pray diligently to God, having lit a lamp and candles in front of each icon. Women would kneel down and the children are ordered to pray harder". In Summer, some would go outside and pray in the direction of the village church, or to the East. Old women in the warm season prayed mostly in the yard between household chores, and finished prayers in the home. "Many old women still rise at midnight to pray to God," the teacher wrote.

Characteristically, countrymen would pray so that no one would see them at that time. At the heart of this was the Gospel instruction that he whoever receives a reward in praise from men will not receive it in heaven. When it was cold to pray in a secluded place outside the home, the adults would wait until their children to fall asleep and then begin their prayer.

There are hundreds of similar reports from all over the Russian land. Of course, the countrymen were hardly versed in theology, but their home prayers and Church services naturally enriched their spiritual and moral life.

Some would claim that illiterate countrymen were bad Christians since they did not read the Holy Scriptures. This is wrong, since the Church service includes regular reading from the New Testament, and partially from the Old Testament. Those who regularly attended church for many years knew these texts well. Of course, the degree of attention, perception, memory varied among the parishioners, but illiteracy per was not an obstacle for the faith.

Reading lessons were based on the religious books, primarily on the Book of Psalms; that is, instruction in literacy and basics of Christianity went hand in hand. This was especially evident in the so-called free schools, organized by the countrymen themselves by hiring a teacher for their children for a few months to teach them necessary skills.

By the end of the XIX century, contemporaries noted the rising demand for icons among the countrymen. Any new icon would be brought to the parish priest for the rite of blessing the sanctuary. For the newlyweds, a new icon was considered appropriate. At the same time, very ancient icons were preserved and passed down from generation to generation in families. Some countrymen commissioned icons from local rural or urban craftsmen. In the works of country iconographers, there was often an exposition of the lives of the saints in a simple graphical format.

The countrymen closely followed the observance of fasts, the terms of which were known to everyone from young to old. Thus, the answers of local residents of different districts to the polls of scholars were unanimous: "countrymen observe fasts strictly." A few reports, however, noted that by end of the XIX century the violation of fasts began to be treated more leniently. Given the general Christian attitude towards fasting, there were many local customs, gender, age and social differences in the practical observance.

Even such a cursory overview of different aspects of the Russian countrymen’s life opens up a complex world of ideas, customs, relationships. Unfortunately, we have almost completely forgotten about it, about this world – about the moral foundations of people's life. Having admitted the lack of their savvy in political discourse, we have arrogantly shunned the deep, subtle and eternal truths, those realities of the everyday life that the countrymen experience was so rich in.

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