Russia Ethnography and Folklore Part 1

By | February 16, 2022

Over the centuries, the Russian people have suffered far from negligible upheavals, especially in the south-eastern regions. A flourishing and varied popular culture developed in the rich agricultural territories of Ukraine, influenced by Eastern and Western civilizations. The Great Russians during the Middle Ages extended from the territories of Moscow and Novgorod to the north and south, from which they were sometimes repelled by the warlike nomads of the steppes and by the pastoral populations of Asian origin. In these regions which, with the milder climate of the steppes and bare plains, offered the residents conditions of life different from those of the White Russians or northern residents of wooded areas, penetrations of oriental and Byzantine civilization are particularly noticeable. Furthermore, the northern regions from Novgorod to Archangel were under the political and cultural influence of the Scandinavian Varangians. Forms of Finnish folk culture have also been preserved in the Volga territory, while other Finnish groups underwent a process of almost complete Slavicization.

According to Thefreegeography, the most primitive form of civilization is encountered in wooded areas. Hunting, however, having been a feudal privilege since the Middle Ages, is not of great importance for popular culture. On the other hand, the production given by the breeding of wild bees is still remarkable. By introducing an ax or a cap into the tree in which they are collected, or by carving said tree, the property of honey is established. Artificial honeycombs are also placed on the trees, dug out of a stump, reachable by rope ladders. An intoxicating drink is made from honey (med). With incisions made in spring in birch and maple trees, the sap used as a medicinal drink is obtained in large quantities; the rind of the lime trees is used to make sandals, containers and objects of all kinds. Fishing in large rivers is practiced with large wooden locks, on which traps are fixed, with nets, in which the fish are hunted by frightening them with noises, and also with the harpoon. The fish are dried in the air, but preferably placed in brine in large barrels. The preparation of the cultivated fields is obtained by cutting down the trunks and burning the branches and herbs, while the stumps are not removed and the soil is scratched with wooden tools in the shape of a hoe or with a hooked plow. When the stumps throw back after a few years, a new tillage is prepared. The forest has little livestock and often herds become wild there, especially pigs. The shepherds, who are generally strangers to the locality, are regarded as experts in the magical arts and in close contact with the forces of nature.

Things are quite different in the forestless plains of Ukraine and southern Russia. There in the century XV, following an ancient type of collective economy, probably inspired by German models, a rural community was established with a regularly repeated drawing of the land to be cleared. The three-year rotation is in use. Here, too, a hoe-shaped plow with two or three pointed scrapers is used for tilling; the coulter, which deeply affects the soil, has only spread to the heavy soils of Ukraine. Since the cattle were not very vigorous, up to 16 oxen were attacked, partly lent by the neighbors. The cutting of wheat with the sickle was replaced since the century. XIX, also in Greater Russia, from the cut with the sickle, according to the Lithuanian custom. To dry the grain, dryers similar to those used in the Canton of Ticino were used in the north. In the swampy and wooded northern districts, on the other hand, underground ovens are built to dry the grain, covered by a conical superstructure, and on this, in a wooden cage or a rough hut of beams, the ears are brought. Animals are used a lot for threshing and in the winter, when the rivers are frozen, these ice surfaces act as farmyards. In the middle of the day, carriages, sledges or threshing tables armed with sharp stones are dragged over the wheat, as in Mediterranean countries. In the Löss region of Ukraine, underground pits (silos) are used to store grain. In addition to the water mills, considered with a certain preconception by the peasants who consider them inventions of the West, numerous windmills; in many places hand mills still exist. Barley and oats are also pounded in mortars and flat troughs, the pestle being moved with the foot. In the north, bread is generally made with black rye flour; in the regions where wheat is grown, even with white flour. Kneading tools and festive breads are of great importance, especially in weddings, where they symbolize female work and household prosperity. Porridges of corned flour and pieces of bread put to macerate in salted water, sometimes malt, fermenting to give a light beer (kvass) which is an important food of the people. Tea, always taken with bread, serves as breakfast. Alcoholic beverages are also obtained in Ukraine by fermenting dried wild fruit. In the south, pumpkins and melons grow. In the north, especially in spring, there is a large consumption of fresh legumes; Various species of garlic, sorrel, etc. were sometimes eaten raw. The fresh shoots and roots of horsetail and other plants serve as makeshift food for entire families. Sour soups are made with ramsons, with cabbage and, in Ukraine, with beets. All these soups, kvass and even bath water are often still heated with hot stones. The fire is preferably kept burning all year round and was once renewed with a ritual ceremony. To protect cattle from epidemics, ritual fires are lit by rubbing two pieces of wood or by rubbing a log with a string. In the wooded northern Russia the house built in truss dominates. It includes a substructure, used as a warehouse or even as a bedroom, which is descended from the main living room through a trap door. This is accessed through an unheated atrium; first of all there is a huge brick stove, in which one does the cooking and on which one sleeps. There is also a mezzanine placed about one meter below the ceiling. The painted furniture reveals western stylistic influences. Outside the house, the solid beam granaries, raised on poles, as in the Alps, and the steam bath huts are characteristic. The steam is obtained by throwing water on hot stone stoves: followed by scourging with birch brooms, after which the bathers cool off by jumping into the river in summer and on the snow in winter. These baths, which in certain festive circumstances have a ritual character, also have a hygienic purpose. In the south the steam baths are taken in the house. In Ukraine, houses generally have wooden armor and walls of latticed, clay coated, or are all built of clay. The roofs are covered with thatch, only in the northern wooded territories with boards or shingles. In these latter regions, resinous splinters of birch and poplar are still used for lighting. A thriving household industry is that of turned wood containers, among which the glasses for alcoholic beverages hand down prehistoric representations in their bird-like shapes. Containers for liquids are also prepared with tree bark and thin wood chips; the cooper’s art, introduced from the West, follows German models. In ceramics, Ukraine produces various glazed pottery, much higher than that of Great Russia where nothing but black pottery is produced. The pans are smoked outdoors or blackened on the outside with flour water or tar.

Russia Ethnography and Folklore 1