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The Worlds of Russian Village Women

Tradition, Transgression, Compromise

Laura J. Olson and Svetlana Adonyeva

Publication Year: 2013

Russian rural women have been depicted as victims of oppressive patriarchy, celebrated as symbols of inherent female strength, and extolled as the original source of a great world culture. Throughout the years of collectivization, industrialization, and World War II, women played major roles in the evolution of the Russian village. But how do they see themselves? What do their stories, songs, and customs reveal about their values, desires, and motivations?
    Based upon nearly three decades of fieldwork, from 1983 to 2010, The Worlds of Russian Rural Women follows three generations of Russian women and shows how they alternately preserve, discard, and rework the cultural traditions of their forebears to suit changing needs and self-conceptions. In a major contribution to the study of folklore, Laura J. Olson and Svetlana Adonyeva document the ways that women’s tales of traditional practices associated with marriage, childbirth, and death reflect both upholding and transgression of social norms. Their romance songs, satirical ditties, and healing and harmful magic reveal the complexity of power relations in the Russian villages.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-5


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pp. v-7

List of Illustrations

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

This project could not have been completed without the financial assistance of several organizations. The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) awarded me a Collab - orative Research Grant, administered through American Councils for International Educa - tion, which enabled me to travel and collaborate with many institutions and individuals in Russia in 2004–5, the main period of research...

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Note on Transliteration and Translation

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pp. xiii-17

For Russian words and names we have used the Library of Congress system of transliteration, modified to remove diacritical markings. We changed certain spellings in the main text to make reading easier for English speakers: we removed apostrophes and shortened iia to ia; in certain names, such as Adonyeva and Gorky, we used y. Proper (modified) Library of Congress transliteration has been...

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Introduction: Tradition, Transgression, Compromise

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pp. 3-22

Casual visitors to post-Soviet Russia encounter the subjects of this book at open-air markets and the street corners of major cities. They are babushki: stout middle-aged or elderly women wearing kerchiefs and selling knitted socks, crocheted rag rugs, flowers, or baskets of apples. Entering into trade with these women, the tourist often receives more than simply the proffered wares: the buyer is typically blessed, complimented, told to “eat/wear it in health.” The exchange can feel...

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1. Traditions of Patriarchy and the Missing Female Voice in Russian Folklore Scholarship

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pp. 23-43

We begin our study by investigating a question that absorbed us for many years as we studied Russian rural women’s culture. As fieldworkers in Russian villages, we were constantly learning from the misunderstandings that arose between ourselves and rural women. We wondered how those gaps in understanding had affected the conclusions of previous generations of scholars of Russian folklore...

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2. Age and Gender Status and Identity: Structure and History

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pp. 44-91

In anthropology the concepts of age and gender are usually used in describing traditional societies in which they serve as defining factors of social hierarchy. In fact, all societies (those with which we are familiar, at any rate) use age and gender as markers of social status; there may be varying degrees of differentiation between groups marked by age and gender (age-gender groups), and age-gender groups may perform various functions and have various responsibilities in society. In...

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3. Subjectivity and the Relational Self in Russian Village Women’s Stories of Courtship and Marriage

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pp. 92-129

In the traditional understanding of the contours of a woman’s and man’s life story, marriage is the summit. It permits the continuation of the rod (clan), which is essential for the survival and health of the community and the abundance of crops (Paxson 2005). In addition, prior to collectivization, marriage had important economic functions for the family and community. A man’s family gained a worker (the bride); the woman’s family lost a worker but also lost responsibility...

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4. The Pleasure, Power, and Nostalgia of Melodrama: Twentieth-Century Singing Traditions and Women’s Identity Construction

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pp. 130-165

Group singing is one way that Russian rural women construct identities, both public and private. On the one hand, folk singing is a public activity that has been encouraged by the state and its various organs, both during the Soviet period and after. It is a way for women to participate in the discourse of the world beyond their village. On the other hand, in their singing at home, at parties with friends, or in their handwritten notebooks, many rural women have chosen individual repertoires...

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5. Transgression as Communicative Act: Rural Women’s Chastushki

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pp. 166-194

If the melodramatic mode in singing, gossip, and television-watching expressed women’s relationship to community and addressed the clash of tradition and modernity, the singing genre of chastushki allowed rural women to be actors in dramas or comedies of their own creation. These individually composed ditties comprised a speech genre in which people could express publicly what was otherwise...

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6. Magical Forces and the Symbolic Resources of Motherhood

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pp. 195-220

In this section of the book we move from investigation of the discourses of musical texts to the discourses of the spiritual. Women had limited knowledge of and access to the world of spirits until they became mothers. The birth of an infant signaled the first time that a woman would need the magic rituals surrounding care of a new mother, and the birth and care of the infant. The mother’s acquisition of this knowledge prepared her to become a bol’shukha and to possess corresponding....

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7. Magic, Control, and Social Roles

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pp. 221-254

The magical healing and medical practices associated with birth and child-rearing discussed in the previous chapter were located specifically within the provenance of women. In prerevolutionary times women also predominated in other healing practices, such as bone-setting, bloodletting, toothache treatments, and herbal medicine. The different types of specialized practitioners used various means to facilitate healing, but all used magical rituals such as incantations. These znakharki or babki were older women, often widows, who sought a livelihood through...

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8. Constructing Identity in Stories of the Other World

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pp. 255-276

The previous two chapters examined the discourse of magic as a reflection of a woman’s position in society: her social power. Here we take a step back to pose a different question: how is knowledge about the other world framed discursively and transmitted, and when and why do people speak about their interactions with spiritual forces? Here (as we did in chapter 3) we focus our attention on the storytelling itself, in addition to the content of the stories. In what ways...

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9. Death, the Dead, and Memory-Keepers

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pp. 277-305

Death, and one’s attitude toward it, is a prime motivator of religious belief (Malinowski 1954). We take that profound and complex connection between death and religion as the subject of this chapter. Religion was very much a part of the worlds of our interlocutors when we visited them: we have characterized it (in chapter 7) as a rich folk Orthodox spirituality. It was difficult to imagine how we would write about their spirituality, until we realized that all..

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pp. 306-316

Who are Russian village women, and how can one know them? We have tried to know them through their conversations with us and others, and through their rituals and practices as we experienced them. We have tried to tell our readers about these women by retelling, translating, and contextualizing their stories, by explaining the coherence of their worlds (Asad 1986, 150). We have tried to deconstruct fixed notions of who they are, both by suggesting that ethnography...


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pp. 317-320


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pp. 321-332


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pp. 333-352


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pp. 353-368

E-ISBN-13: 9780299290337
E-ISBN-10: 0299290336
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299290344
Print-ISBN-10: 0299290344

Page Count: 368
Publication Year: 2013