Russian Summer Folk Rituals Yesterday and Today:
Eroticism, Cult of Ancestors, and the Soviet System Yelena V. Minyonok, Read on December, 1, 1999 at the University of Colorado at Boulder
Eroticism, Cult of Ancestors, and the Soviet System
Yelena V. Minyonok, Read on December, 1, 1999 at the University of Colorado at Boulder
From the end of spring till the middle of summer, a period of nearly two months, there are several summer holidays (holy days) that are traditionally observed in Russia. These summer holidays (holy days) are the following: Ascension Day (the sixth Thursday after Orthodox Easter), Semik (the seventh Thursday after Orthodox Easter), Trinity (the seventh Sunday after the Easter), John the Baptist Day (July 7), Stt. Peter and Paul Day (July 12) and from this day (Stt. Peter-and-Paul) fast starts.
These summer holy days were not observed in the course of just one day. Usually they were understood more like seasons, with the duration depending on local tradition. For example, the ten days between Ascension Day and Trinity, or the days between Trinity and John the Baptist Day, or the days between Trinity and Stt. Peter-and-Paul's fast can be considered as holiday periods. Ritual activities on the first and on the last days had the specific function of demarcation. For example, making wreaths on the trees signified the beginning of a ritual period, but destroying of them had the meaning of the end of it.
It is obvious that the sense of the all summer rituals was neatly connected with the time when they took place. It was a time of the culmination of nature's blossoming, and what is most important for the agricultural economy - it was the time of the blossoming of the rye, the grain which was the basic food of Slavs for centuries.
All these summer calendar rituals have a common ritual structure, which preserves a set of archaic pre-Christian features. The ritual structure is this: women make some ritual object from greenery, later the same women terminate this object. They drown it or bury it, burn it up or tear it in pieces, leave it on a tree or in the cemetery, symbolically slaughter it, etc. This object can be a ritual doll, a decorated tree (usually a birch) or a real woman decorated with leaves and branches. This object is the semantic center of the whole summer ritual. All collective emotions are addressed to it exclusively. People communicate with this object as with a living creature, dance with it, sing for it.
It is important to point out that greenery in general - trees, branches, grass, flowers - are the main attribute of any summer ritual. People plug birch branches in the graves of their relatives on Trinity Sunday; ritual wreaths and dolls are made from grass, branches or even whole trees; on Trinity week doors and windows (i. e. entrances to a house) are decorated with birch branches. This action has the meaning of magical protection against witches and sometimes against forest nymphs. At the end of the summer holiday all types of ritual greenery should be terminated also. People burn them up, give them to the cattle, throw them on the roof, drown them, etc.
The summer rituals take place during the time of the summer solstice. This is a crisis time. In other words, this is a transitional time when there is no border between the world of living and the world of dead. That is why during this time people can encounter forest nymphs. This is also the time when dead relatives are welcome in the houses of the living. Witches roll themselves on the dew before the dawn and gather the energy from blossoming rye and flowers for the following year of witchcraft.
There are several bans which people observe during this period. No pregnant woman should sew, knit, or use scissors. According to folk belief a baby is inside his mother's body only physically. Spiritually he still belongs to the world of dead and may be flying somewhere close to his future mother with other souls of dead people. She could wound her future baby by the sharp scissors or the tip of a needle. For the same reason future fathers should not chop wood or saw or use any sharp tools.
The sense of summer rituals is to open the invisible border for some short period and then tightly close it. As we mentioned before, to make a ritual object or to decorate a tree means to open this sacred period and to totally terminate all ritual greenery is associated with the process of closing the entrances to our world. Let us pay attention to an interesting fact. Summer holidays are celebrated on the days of Christian holidays (John the Baptist Day, Stt. Peter-and-Paul Day), some rituals even have the names of Christian holidays but as we can see the essence of summer rituals was not influenced much by Christian ideas. For clear understanding of the dynamics of these rituals during the XX-th century let us analyze their performers.
Who is in the generation of current performers which preserves for all of us these pre-Christian rituals? Most performers are women in their sixties and seventies. They were born between the late twenties and late thirties. These women were born in the years when collective farms appeared. What happened in the Russian village at this time? Collectivization comes to a Russian village! What does it mean? The Soviet government decided to totally change the agricultural policy in the country. To be exact, the Soviet government decided to terminate private farms. Before, Soviet officials took away the grain harvest paying nothing or very little, but peasants still had their private land. Now the government had to forbid them their fields. It took nearly 12-13 years after the October revolution to gain the courage to take such a step.
Why did Soviet officials do it? The October revolution was supported by peasants because Bolsheviks leaders promised to give them land. And they did. Just after the revolution the land was divided quite fairly between all peasants. The communist leaders believed that this measure would once and for all eliminate social inequality. Every household would work its own land and everybody would be rich.
But what happened in reality? After ten years rich people and poor people appeared in the Russian village. For example, in one family there were seven sons, the head of the family did not drink, and after ten years of hard work the whole family became rich. The sons married girls from wealthy families and received good dowries. All of them built their own houses and were able to hire additional workers for working their fields. Another family consisted of a widow and three under-age daughters. To feed them this widow hired herself out to a rich neighbor and sold her own land. In the third family the head was a drunkard and did not work on his land at all. So again the peasants were divided into socially unequal strata. The main goal of collectivization was to cancel the private use of land and give it to the collective use of those who would become members of the collective farm.
At the very beginning the idea of collectivization had a benign character. Naturally the idea of collectivization was supported by the poorest members of peasant societies and those who understood that working on the collective farms would not demand as much responsibility and energy as running a private farm.
It was the time of the first Great Temptation of freedom. But this freedom was understood as freedom from the traditions of family standards. In a traditional peasant family, the younger generation was under the strict control of older people and young people did not have their own income - they contributed everything to a common family budget which was under the control of the eldest members. Working in the collective farms, the young peasants still did not receive money but they had a guaranteed payment of grain and some goods. But what is more - henceforward they would not participate in traditional rituals. The collective farm took the place of family law and village traditions.
So during the first years of collectivization a small number of peasants gave up their private farms. Most of them were very poor families and members of the younger generation for whom working on a collective farm was more attractive than working on private land. As a result, the collective farms sold grain to the state at a very low price while private farmers kept the price much higher using the rules of the free market. In the cities there was a lack of foodstuffs. Towards the end of the 20's the Soviet government started to use measures of repression against the private farmers. The most prosperous of them were proclaimed "kulaki" ("fists") and were shot or sent to Siberia. Their property became the property of the collective farm. The peasants with middle income (which comprised the majority) had no choice either. They were strongly pressed to join the collective farm and to bring their land and cattle with them. Otherwise their property would be taken by force.
At the same time the government implemented a policy of enlarging villages. Before the revolution, there were plenty of very small villages which sometimes consisted of 2 or 3 families. (But keep in mind that in those times families were much bigger then nowadays. On average there were ten children per couple). So these families were forced to move somewhere else to create a new living place - a big village. If the head of a family refused to move, the local communist came and simply destroyed the chimney of his house. And without a stove peasant could not survive the long Russian winter. The stove was everything for a peasant family. It was a cooking place, a healing place, and a sleeping place. It was a center of the peasant's universe.
One after another the peasant families joined the collective farms. During the next three years of the reforms (i. e. to the early thirties) the whole of Russia was totally collectivized.
The first years of collectivization were an economic success. But the drastic changes in the peasant's everyday life dealt a serious blow to folklore traditions. First of all the ravaging of private peasant farms and establishment of the seven-day work week led to the disappearance of the natural division of time between working days and holidays. The peasants had neither the time, nor the energy to maintain their traditions and, most important, to transmit their folklore heritage to the next generation.
Second, any kind of religious activity was open to old people only. (The oldest generation was not considered to be re-educable). The majority of churches were blown up. The essence of summer holidays had a pre-Christian character but they were celebrated under the names of Russian Orthodox Christian holidays. Third, the traditional structure of the peasant family was destroyed. Running their private farms, men took the main part of the agricultural work on their own shoulders. Men ploughed and sowed fields, made hay. During the winter time when they were free from fieldwork, men went to the cities to make some income as builders, carpenters, tailors, etc. Women reaped the harvest, but their main working activities were behind the walls of the house and the fence of the yard. They were responsible for homework and cattle. They made clothes and raised children.
After the completion of collectivization, women continued to milk cows, but instead of milking two or three of their own cows they milked twenty or thirty cows on a collective farm. The labor did not have any gender features. At the same time other labor at the collective farms sometimes ceased to have gender features. Strongly supported by the communist leaders, women became tractor drivers and combine drivers. Equality between men and women was proclaimed as one of the basic slogans of the new ideology. Women went out from the house's walls. But despite many positive benefits which women derived from this situation, children had limited personal contacts with their mothers, and could not learn their mothers' songs and dances. The mechanism of transmission of folklore knowledge was destroyed.
It is interesting to notice that singers who were born before 1930 keep the whole corpus of complicated features of singing technique, including special singing phonetics in their songs. Singers who were born after 1930 sing songs using the same phonetics as they speak. However, summer rituals survived. First of all this was because traditions were still strong enough and the directors of collective farms were elected from local people. Even if they renounced the private farms and served the ideals of communism, they still were under the power and fascination of the folklore tradition. Unlike contemporary life, traditions gave a sense of stability to peasants. At the same time faith in magic was still strong. People were afraid that if they did not make a ritual doll and did not throw it in a river there would be no rain and no new harvest - only starvation. We can clearly see that one generation can not destroy the tradition.
Ten years after collectivization the Second World War started. There were three long years of German occupation (1941-1943). Nazi troops burned villages down to the black earth. After the victory peasants came to the empty places that had been their villages and found their land filled with countless bombs and mines. Out of ten men who went to the front, only one came back. It took ten years to restore the system of collective farms.
After Stalin's death (1953) Nikita Sergeievich Khrushchev came to power. And he started to reform agriculture again. Now collective farms became state farms. People received days off. First - only Sundays, later Sundays and Saturdays. People received passports which they did not have before, pensions which were guaranteed by the state, and what is most important – regular salaries. Now peasants had extra money and free time.
It was a time of the second Great Temptation of standardized life. No longer did they need to grow flax, work up it and weave it to make a couple of new shirts. Women could buy standard blouses and skirts in every village store. But it meant also that people with extra free time had to have something new to fill it. At the same time the strongest flight of young people from Russian villages began. A city needed young working hands, and a city suggested bright lights, high speed cars and the whole set of modern entertainments and flats with modern conveniences. You could work ten years in one place and the Soviet government would give you free a real flat with running water and a toilet inside.
It was the third Great Temptation of a village by city life. The main population of villages became middle-age people and old people. A village immediately started to grow old.
What happened to summer ritual holidays in the sixties? In 1967 we celebrated fifty years since the Great October revolution. The totalitarian ideology tried to eradicate
many folk customs, asserting that in the Russian past there were no cultural and historic values to be preserved. Therefore, folk rites and beliefs were regarded as foolish superstitions of our ancestors. Communist leaders proclaimed an internationalist ideology, and any display of national consciousness such as folk culture was repressed. In their opinion folk songs and customs were incomprehensible and senseless activities, which distracted Soviet peasants from building communism.
Newly invented Soviet holidays were substituted for the folk rites. Official State power simply ignored the traditional tenor of life and peasants' moral ideals, and therefore, ignored folklore culture.
At the same time amateur folklore performances were cultivated and popularized on stages in popular clubs and by mass media everywhere. The flood of such substitutions in broadcasts and telecasts led to the loss of the authentic folklore culture of our past.
From a rich variety of folklore rituals the most emotionally colored survived. People needed a holiday; they wanted to dance together, to sing together, and to drink
together, but the deepest wish was to be together and share collective emotions. The old people were still alive who were born before 1930 and who remembered the songs of their grandparents.
What was the attitude of local officials to the summer holidays? In sixties there was a new agricultural policy. The directors of state farms were not elected but were appointed. Most of them were born in villages but they were raised in different provinces, and as a result they did not know any local traditions. Additionally, they received higher education. So the situation with summer rituals depended on a private attentions of the directors of individual state farms.
In one place there was a tradition to celebrate the chasing out of the forest nymphs. Women made a doll with exaggerated woman’s body parts and sang very erotic,
obscene songs. The director had never seen such a ceremony. He stopped his car on the state farm field and started to observe the ritual. Then he listened carefully to the words of ritual songs. When he understood the real meaning of the songs he was seized with laughter and said that from that year hence all women who work in that state farm will have one more day-off for such a ritual. But in many other places the situation was not so supportive. Many directors simply forbade summer rituals.
So we come to the eighties. This was a golden time for state farm workers. They received quite high salary irrespective of the economic results of their labor. Peasants bought TVs, VCRs. People started to spend more and more time at individual entertainment. The old people kept gathering together for the holidays, but mostly because of the inertia of tradition. The middle-aged people felt that they belonged to another generation. They did not understand the words of the old songs, did not understand the meaning of the rituals and their order. At best the middle-age people could dance to accordion accompaniment and sing chastushki (short improvised songs on some current topic). The younger villagers formed a passive audience.
Now we are in a modern village. Collective farms and state farms are far behind. Russia has a choice. Nobody knows what will be her choice. But the tradition of summer rituals is still alive. Why? The analysis of all types of summer rituals shows that in many respects they are addressed to the world of dead. Thus on Trinity Saturday villagers visit the graves of their dead relatives. "The cuckoo's funeral rite" is a parody of a real funeral ritual; and before Stt. Peter-and-Paul Day villagers prepare a steam-bath (banya) for the dead and prepare dinner for them inside the bath house as well.
In modern Russia, as in previous centuries people practice rituals to remember the dead. Usually they visit cemeteries with the full family and bring ritual food and drink. The villagers put an embroidered ritual scarf on a grave as a table cloth. To eat together, to drink together and sometimes to lament is the essence of a ritual of remembering the dead.
In Russian villages the cemetery took the traditional place of a church. People visit the graves for not communicating with the dead but for communicating with one another. This is again a strong wish, hidden deeply inside to share collective emotions. At a cemetery people can chat, share their problems, complain of a bad neighbor, and make a deal. It is amazing that visiting a cemetery during summer rituals became even more popular then participating in the joyful part of the holidays.
Do people still believe in the forest nymphs? Usually not. We still record a lot of stories about forest nymphs. But one of the main motifs of these stories is to deny the existence of forest nymphs: "There are no forest nymphs any more. During the war our forests were heavily bombed, so many of the nymphs were killed and those who survived escaped somewhere. Instead of forest nymphs our forest began to spread. We have no power or technology to cultivate the ploughed fields". In almost every village old
people say: "With every year our forest is closer and closer to us, the forest is stepping on us and in the end the forest will capture us".
But the tradition of summer rituals is still alive. Why? Because in many respects the rituals are addressed to the world of living human beings. Just a few old women sing traditional erotic songs. Nobody is afraid of the forest nymphs and witches who are supposed to be active during the time of summer solstice. But we can see how the culture resists oblivion. Instead of the old ritual songs people have started to sing modern songs. People forgot how to draw a doll's face - so the women prepare a piece of fabric with a doll’s face already printed on it. Women allowed to men to carry a ritual doll, which was absolutely impossible in the old times. And nowadays it is even more fun than when women carry the doll. But the most important is the great power of love which rises in every living creature when spring comes. This great power is concentrated in eroticism of summer rituals and it still affects people. What will happen with this ritual in the future? Today we hear: "While we are alive we will throw this doll in the river".