Village Life in Late Tsarist Russia is an ethnographic account of Russian peasants around 1900. The author, Olga Semyonova Tian-Shanskaia (“Semyonova” for short), spent four years researching in the villages—one of the first to study a people through prolonged direct observation and contact with them.

Olga Semyonova Tian-Shanskaia

I was interested in the subject as part of learning, concretely, about the quality of life for people in various places and times and at various stages of development. Although material progress was advancing rapidly at the end of the 19th century, much of that progress had not yet reached the province of Riazan where Semyonova did most of her studies. What was life like there?

In brief, I went in expecting poverty, which I found. I did not expect to also find a disturbing degree of cruelty and abuse.

First, let me share some passages from the book that I highlighted, roughly organized by theme. At the end I’ll discuss how to interpret this and what to make of it.

In the block quotes that follow, brackets indicate insertions by the editor of the volume, David Ransel, not by me. Photographs are all taken from the Kindle edition (and presumed to be out of copyright).


Brick masonry home, presumably in the village of Muraevnia

Here is the typical peasant diet:

Dinner consists of cabbage soup, porridge (kasha), or, again, potatoes and bread. The soup, of course, has no meat in it, just cabbage, but occasionally sour cream is added. Potatoes are mixed with kvass and onions. The porridge—usually millet—is eaten either with milk, in what is known as the thin form (kulesh), or in a thicker form made with hemp-seed oil. After dinner, the peasants take a rest and then return to the fields. They take along some bread for an afternoon snack sometime between three and five o’clock. When the sun sets, the peasants go home, and at about nine in the evening they eat their supper, which is warmed-over dinner, with the possible addition of skim milk.

You get a better sense of the standard of living from the foods that they consider special treats:

Foods that can be found on a peasant’s table only during the annual festival, or during a wedding or baptismal dinner, include pancakes (bliny), meat (veal designated for holidays—uboina), potato fritters (drachena), buns (pyshki), salamata (a kind of thin gruel), kalinnik (a kind of cake), fritters (olad’i), and cabbage soup with corned beef (solonina).

That, of course, is during good times. In bad times:

During a famine, peasant meals consist of stale bread moistened in water and mixed with goosefoot. The men make extra efforts to find any type of work, and sometimes the entire family goes out to beg. As soon as the snow melts, hungry children pick roots and herbs to eat, such as sorrel and clover. Peasants also make soup with goutweed (Aegopodium podagraria).

Another hallmark of poverty is the burning of solid fuels inside the home. Here’s a visualization of the problems that causes:

Stoves with chimneys are called “white,” while chimneyless stoves are referred to as “black.” When a “black” stove is being lighted, the door from the main room into the entryway is left open so that the smoke up to the level of the door is drawn out, but above that level it forms a blue and white blanket through which nothing can be seen. The top of the door is no higher than a rather short person, so that one has to stoop to enter the house (the ceiling itself is only 5’10” high). A good-sized man finds it difficult to stand up when the stove is being fired, because his eyes will be in the caustic cloud of smoke. Even when seated on a bench, one feels the acrid smoke in the eyes.

It’s bad enough to burn wood and coal; these peasants often had to burn straw, or worse:

Peasants bring straw in at night to sleep on, and then in the morning they feed this straw into the stove. The use of fresh straw each day provides reasonably hygienic bedding for the peasants. But this is so only in years of abundant harvest. In a bad year, whatever little straw they have is given to the livestock; sometimes even straw roofs have to be pulled down to save the animals from starvation.

The shortage of straw forces peasants to use their clothes for bedding and to heat the house with dried manure or weeds such as burdock, thistle, and nettles. Accordingly, illnesses increase in such a year. The lack of fresh bedding is one cause. The poor fuel likewise does much damage to the eyes. In the drought years of 1891–1892, around ten people in two of our small villages (each containing about fifteen households) lost their eyesight temporarily or permanently from the smoke of their stoves. The smoke, which was produced by burning dried manure and weeds found on the roadside and in ravines, was so acrid that the victims (mostly old people and children) developed cataracts. All of them were admitted to the regional hospital in town, but three of them never got their eyesight back.

Unfortunately, the peasants were also ignorant of basic hygiene—in the Tsarist era, the germ theory had not yet made its way from the Institut Pasteur to the Russian peasantry:

If a mouse falls into a tub of pickles, sauerkraut, or pickled apples, the woman of the house will nearly always summon the priest to perform a cleansing ritual. The mouse is plucked from the tub, and the priest proceeds to say a prayer over the tub, pass a cross over it three times, and then bite into a pickle or apple or try some of the sauerkraut. After this, the contents of the tub are again regarded as clean.

And the combination of this ignorance with poverty resulted in health disasters:

In the work season, peasants often catch colds and lose their voices (“My whole chest is blocked up,” they report) because they drink cold water when they are overheated. Flushed with heat and “assaulted by thirst,” as the peasants say, they cannot seem to get enough to drink and will take water from any source available. They drink from a roadside ditch, from a muddy puddle, from a swamp, wherever they can find some water to quench their thirst. Tapeworms and roundworms are common among peasants. In the fall, the water in the river is literally poisoned by hemp that is soaked there until the first frosts. There are cases of poisoning with this water.


Peasant man making barrel hoops, Riazan province. Riazan Museum

Semyonova is very unimpressed with Russian peasants’ work ethic:

… peasants give no thought to saving for the future. If a peasant has a good harvest that will keep him until the next year, he will stay at home and loaf and cannot be enticed to take an extra job at any price. Peasants hire themselves out as farm laborers only when driven to it by dire need, when they have, so to speak, a knife at their throat. [Then they will do] the most arduous work imaginable.

The peasants’ lack of respect for hard work is remarkable. “Him? He digs in the field like a beetle from morning till night!” They often say this with scorn.

She also saw resentment and envy:

The better-off peasants are bitter about the attitude of their poorer neighbors. “They hate and envy us constantly, saying things like: ‘What makes you think you’re so much better? Just wait, you’re going to be as poor as us.’ If you plant an apple tree, they resent it, saying: ‘Now that big shot is planting an orchard! We are starving while he is putting in an orchard, and fencing it off at that!’” And they think nothing of breaking down the fence and uprooting the tree. If the tree happens to survive and bear fruit, they feel it is their duty to raid it. “That’s how much hate they have! And if some misfortune should befall you, they’ll make sure to finish you off.”

True to the Russian stereotype, the peasants drank a lot:

Prodigious amounts of alcohol are consumed at wedding parties. I myself have attended weddings at which nine-and ten-year-old girls were made to drink so that they would dance for everyone’s entertainment.

The best occasion for young people to get drunk for the first time is the annual festival, which in this region takes place in connection with St. Michael’s Day. On that holiday, every person in the parish is drunk. In a good year the festival lasts for a week, but even when the crops are poor, people manage to go on a spree for three days.

Accidents abound in the springtime [as a result of drunkenness]. Some people drown in water-filled ravines. Others are crushed under falling wagons; a drunken peasant will have a wagon tip over on him, and that is the end of him.

Another occasion for general drunkenness is seasonal field work for the landlord (usually mowing and transportation of produce to town), who by way of payment treats the peasants to refreshments. On these occasions dreadful fights break out and can result in maiming or even killing with a scythe.

After the [church] service, abstemious peasants go home, while others head for the tavern, where everyone gets drunk. The more sober peasants eat dinner at home, rest, and then “just sit” till the evening, talking about their affairs and discussing the harvest and related subjects. Yet even back in the home village, there are opportunities to have a drink, and it is unlikely that a peasant will let a Sunday go by without having one. In the evening, women get a feeling for the amount of alcohol consumed by their husbands by the intensity of the beatings they receive.

Also true to the stereotype:

Fistfighting and swearing are learned quite early. As soon as Ivan began to walk, he started fighting with other children. He was actually encouraged to do this, especially if he was able to best another small child. Ivan learned swear words from his older brothers and sisters, even before he could put together a complete sentence. He started to call his mother a bitch whenever she denied him something, much to the delight of the whole family, even the mother herself. They would actually encourage him on such occasions.

(“Ivan” here is a composite figure representing the typical Russian peasant child.)

Theft was common:

When a group of young horseherds includes a few older boys, say about age sixteen or seventeen, they instruct the younger ones to steal liquor from home when their parents are away. The loot is then shared by all, not infrequently including boys ten to twelve years old.

Theft between the spouses is not uncommon. It may be the husband who steals money from his wife’s trunk for some “need” of his or just to enjoy himself at a tavern. Or the wife might take some flour or grain from her husband and use it to pay for soap or some satin cloth at the store. When a husband is drunk, his wife will slip his wallet out of his boot. Children, too, steal eggs or anything handy from their mothers. Wives swipe wool from their husbands.

In one incident, Semyonova hired a peasant woman to cook, and gave her flour to make bread. The woman used some of the flour to bake cakes for herself and her husband. Semyonova talked to another of the servants, Katerina, about this:

Katerina: “That’s not stealing! She just baked and ate it. She didn’t take the cakes to her room or hide them in the storeroom.”

I: “But she took the flour, and as a result the laborers had less bread. What’s the difference if she stole it and took it home or ate it right here? It’s still robbery.”

Katerina: “But she ate the cakes right here in your house, together with her husband; that’s not robbery. If she had stolen the flour from a locked cupboard or saved it for the future, that would probably be a sin.”

Try as I might to explain to Katerina that unauthorized appropriation of another person’s property, whether consumed immediately or saved for future use, is still a theft, she would not agree with me.

Semyonova notes that “the very same elder” who turned in the flour thief, “when he is guarding the landlord’s apple trees against raids by the boys hired on temporarily as shepherds, fills his pockets with apples every time he makes the rounds.”


Peasant girls from the village of Kultuki, Kasimov district of Riazan province. Riazan Museum

Warning: from here on out, this post may be difficult to read.

The peasants had no regard at all for animals:

Cats and dogs are also less useful than other animals, and peasants will torture them just for the fun of it, just to see what will happen. Little children like to throw cats and puppies, when they can catch them, into the water to see if they can swim. When I ask, “Don’t you feel sorry for them?” the children respond: “Why feel sorry? They’re not people, just dogs.”

I cannot say that peasants treat their livestock especially well. Horses are routinely beaten. Yet a peasant feels very upset if a horse dies, because this is a great financial loss. A woman reacts the same way to the loss of a cow.

Worse, they also abused their children:

Punishment for mischief consisted of beatings administered by the parents. They beat Ivan for screaming, getting covered with mud, or stealing a piece of food. They did not beat him for fighting, lying, or using foul language.

We also continue to see cases of sons being flogged for insulting their parents. These disobedient children (who may be as much as twenty years of age) are taken without trial to the township office for their punishment. In response to a complaint by the parents, the township supervisor summons the son and turns him over to the office guard for flogging. The culprit is stripped from the waist down, placed on the floor in the township office, and beaten with willow rods. Admission to the spectacle is open to all residents of the village.

There was even mention of a case of child rape:

There was a case this summer in which a twenty-year-old guard at the apple orchard raped a thirteen-year-old girl. The mother of the girl—a very poor woman, it is true—agreed to forgive the offender in exchange for three rubles.

I’m not sure which is more shocking: that the offender got off with a fine, or that whether to forgive him was the mother’s decision.


A group of peasant women. Library of Congress

More generally, women at all stages of life seemed to be treated very badly—starting from birth:

But when a girl was born, the grandparents stopped thinking about her as soon as she was baptized. They did not even express any sorrow about her death. The young father, too, did not feel much regret over it.

If the first child is a girl, the feeling in the family is mostly one of disappointment. One of the women might remark: “Oh well, at least she can be a nursemaid.” By the following day, no one gives a thought to the baby girl.

Here, for instance, is what happens at the “bride-show,” which happens one to two weeks after a marriage proposal:

The bride is now standing in front of the groom. Her head kerchief is tied in such a way that her face is shaded. The groom’s family inspects the bride closely. “Perhaps she is lame?” they may inquire. Her sister or sister-in-law then has her walk around the room. Other questions are asked, for example, about whether she may be deaf. Then her future parents-in-law approach the bride and ask: “Why is she wrapped like that so we can’t see her eyes; is she possibly blind in one eye?” The bride’s sister uncovers her face for inspection. If the bride is pale, the groom’s family will want to know the reason, asking whether she is sickly.

If you are thinking that this does not augur well for the marriage, the bride and her family would agree with you: later, back home, the bride “pounds her head on a bench while crying out a lamentation or, as it is known here, ‘the scream.’ Her mother and sister join in:”

My father, my provider,
My dearest mother,
I’ve been given away, miserable and hapless,
And giving me away they washed it down with vodka
And a burnt bread crust.
How will it turn out for me going to live with strangers,
To a new father and mother.
I will have to please these strangers,
To be pleasing and obedient to them all.

Indeed, the marriage does not get off to a good start. After the wedding:

In the morning, the best man and the godmother wake up the bridal couple. The godmother orders the young wife to sweep the floors. Copper coins have been tossed around on the floor beforehand, and the wife is told to give her mother-in-law any coins she finds. This is done to find out if the young wife is a thief, and also to see how well she sweeps the floor.

Nor are women supported well in pregnancy:

During pregnancy, a woman continues to be responsible for all her usual chores, both in the household and in the field—including binding the sheaves, weeding, threshing, gathering in the hemp, planting and digging potatoes—right up to the onset of labor. Women frequently give birth while performing a domestic chore, such as kneading bread, or even when they are at work in the field; others do so riding in a bumpy wagon as they are hurrying home after being prompted by the first pangs of the approaching birth.


Young mother holds her swaddled newborn in the Sapozhok district of the Riazan province. Riazan Museum

But most shocking to me—again, this will be difficult to read—was the treatment of infants:

Mothers who are concerned about neatness put straw into the cradle and change it every day or two. More often, though, the baby is placed into a dirty cradle lined with its mother’s soiled old skirt: “He can just as well lie on the skirt, no better than anybody else. Others didn’t seem to die; they survived.”

Up to the time Ivan takes his first steps, he is looked after by his sister, a girl of nine or ten years of age. She has difficulty carrying him around and often drops him, exclaiming: “Oops, my goodness! How did I let go of him?” Sometimes Ivan tumbles headfirst down a hillock. When he cries, his baby-sitter uses her free hand to slap him on the face or head, saying, “Keep quiet, you son of a bitch.”

Mothers sometimes sang cruel lullabies, such as:

Hush, hush, hushaby my baby,
I’ll give you spankings,
Twenty-five of them,
To make you sleep better and deeper.

Hush, hush, hushaby my baby.
A man lives at the end of the village.
He’s neither poor, nor rich,
He has many children,
They sit on a bench
And eat straw.
I’ll make you suffer even more.
I won’t give you anything to eat.
I won’t make a bed for you.

And some were even worse than these; a footnote added by the editor says:

A Russian folklorist found that about 8 percent of her collection of thousands of lullabies were songs wishing death on babies, presumably weak infants like those mentioned here whose survival was uncertain and who may have been in pain.

Indeed, it seems that the death of a child was not always considered a tragedy:

[The death of an infant in a poor family that could not support another child was evidently regarded as a blessing, as Semyonova recorded in one of her unpublished field notes.] When a poor family’s child dies, people say: “Thank goodness, the Lord thought better of it!”

And child mortality was high. Some deaths were the result of poverty and lack of hygiene:

The rate of child deaths is highest in the summer during the fast of St. Peter [in June], and especially during the field-work season, when unattended children eat anything they come across: cucumbers, sour apples, and any other vegetation. Diarrhea is the chief cause of child death. As for the death rate, in a majority of homes more than half of all children die. Most women bear from eight to ten or twelve children, of which only three or four survive.

Some were due to smothering in bed, which was claimed to be accidental, but which happened so often that many observers believed it to be deliberate infanticide:

Moreover, young mothers very often smother their children accidentally in their sleep. The mother sometimes places her infant between herself and her husband to give the baby her breast, goes to sleep, rolls over on the baby, and smothers it. A good half of the women have overlain at least one child in this way—they do it most often in their young years when they sleep soundly. For overlying a child, the priest imposes a penance.

(A penance!)

And in the case of illegitimate children, even the pretense of accident was dropped:

Cases of infanticide of illegitimate babies are not at all rare. A married or unmarried woman gives birth alone somewhere in a shed, smothers the baby, and dumps it into the river (with a rock secured to its neck) or leaves it in a hemp thicket, or buries it either in the yard or somewhere in the pigpen.

The parents of a young woman who had gotten pregnant out of wedlock married her off to hide her sin. When the woman gave birth, her husband’s family [with whom she was then living] turned against the child. Although her husband was a peaceful, simple-hearted fellow who did not reproach his wife for her youthful indiscretion, his family was relentless and eventually demanded that she “get rid of the little bastard.” This demand was so insistent, the poor woman being continually beaten and persecuted by her in-laws, that she gave in. She filled the infant’s pacifier rag with sulfur scraped off matches, placed it in the baby’s mouth, and it soon died. The mother was taken to court but was acquitted.

Not all babies are subject to killing, but illegitimate ones are very likely to be. A weak baby that is a burden to its mother is not killed, although its parents will grumble at its existence and constantly express a desire for its death.

Older women are very ruthless and cold-blooded about the killing of an illegitimate “whelp,” whom they view as a nuisance and a burden. Young women anguish over such a decision and force themselves to kill their babies only when shame or fear causes them to lose their senses, or when they can no longer bear their own and their babies’ suffering. Men, from what I could observe, often simply do not know about such killings, even when they occur in their own families, or, if they figure out what is going on, they look the other way.

The editor adds:

Semyonova’s observations are disturbing to modern readers, but there is no reason to doubt their accuracy. My own recent researches on this question suggest that in many parts of Russia, children, unwanted because of illegitimacy, physical malformation, or apparent weakness, met their deaths either quickly through infanticide of the kinds described by Semyonova or more slowly by a reduced level of care and feeding.

What to make of all this?

First, note that this book is not entirely the work of Semyonova or even of her collaborator, K. V. Nikolaevskii. She left the work unfinished when she died, and her notes were put together into a coherent form by Ransel, the editor.

Second, Semyonova was not an entirely neutral observer. As Ransel says in the introduction:

She clearly sensed the otherness of the peasant world and regarded the peasants as different from educated, urbanized Russians in fundamental ways. … Her stance was that of a progressive, westernizing member of the Russian intelligentsia. She wanted the peasants to share her respect for private property, her values of thrift and hard work, and she believed that without these values they could not become enlightened and productive citizens of a modern society. … To sum up, even though Semyonova renders marvelously detailed and striking portrayals of peasant behavior, she makes little effort to enter the peasants’ cultural frame. She remains outside and is entirely confident of her superiority to the peasants.

Further, she had an agenda, or at least a specific cultural purpose. Ransel quotes a 1906 letter from her collaborator Nikolaevskii: “The political and social climate of that time (as is still true today) was such that everyone expected that the peasant alone would be able to bring about a new order in Russia, and the pace of this change was also entirely dependent on the peasantry.” Ransel says, “Clearly, a central purpose of her study is to counter naive views of the peasants as naturally cooperative, communitarian beings who will provide the foundation for a new order of social peace and harmony.”

All that said, my estimation is that the specific incidents and at least the first-level generalizations are true, even if they have to be interpreted from Semyonova’s “progressive, westernizing” frame.

The question for me is how much these observations apply to peasant life in other places and at other times. I’m hesitant to generalize, since this is the first book-length work of ethnography I’ve read in the context of this project, but for me it opens questions. Is cruelty towards animals and children, and an almost slave status for women, the norm? If Russian peasants were more cruel than average, are they far worse than average? If this kind of cruelty is common, is it inherent to poverty, including the lower levels of education that necessarily accompany poverty? And if so, does increased wealth and education alone lead to a more humane society, or did the transition to more equal rights and status also require a change in morals and other ideas that is not a natural or inherent consequence of material progress?

The main reason this matters is that equal rights and humane treatment are part of human well-being, and therefore how those things were achieved is part of the story of progress. But a secondary reason I am interested is that one criticism of modernity claims that today we are more “disconnected” from our families and our communities. In the case of Russian peasant women in particular, their “connection” to husbands who beat them, in-laws who scorned and humiliated them, and a community that offered no support, was not enriching but immiserating. The escape from those “connections,” provided by wealth, education, and opportunities for jobs and migration, would have been a boon.

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The question for me is how much these observations apply to peasant life in other places and at other times.


Most of this sounds a lot like my dad's life in China in the 1970s. I don't know about infanticide or some of the other things, but the impression I get from my dad's stories is of a dirty, lawless village dominated by horrible people. The following is mostly based on my memories of stories my dad told me when I was younger, so I will definitely get some details wrong, but the basics are true.


Food: Many days out of the year, my dad's family ate nothing but rice. They raised livestock (my dad had to share his room with a pig for a while), but as far as I know they only ate meat at spring festival (and much of this was left out for the ancestors). They also ate eels and frogs that they caught in the river — where they also bathed, washed their vegetables, and dumped their chamber pots — and presumably ate vegetables when they were in season. One time my dad cooked me and my sister the 'soup' he used to eat when he was a kid, which was just boiled water with a bit of soy sauce.

Illness: One time when he was very young my father got a horrible fever, and people thought he might die... but his grandmother scooped water from a muddy puddle into a bowl, and showed him a bubble resting atop the water. She told him that the bubble contained his spirit, and had him drink the muddy water to heal him. (Obviously he survived.) Also, my grandfather had bronchitis for about sixty years, and one of their neighbors had a persistent cough for years on end that would drive everyone crazy.

My dad has an anecdote:

One day when I was 4 years old (1971), I fell and cut my forehead on the stone door step of my house and needed to be stitched up. My grandmother wrestled and carried me, with the help of a neighbor, to the village “clinic”, which was staffed by the one and only “barefoot doctor” in my area. A barefoot doctor was a hygiene worker sent down from an urban city to rural areas during China’s Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976). The entire medical supply in the village (of more than 1,200 people) fit in a wooden box the size of a small countertop microwave. The supply did not include numbing gel or anesthesia of any kind. It took four adults to pin me down on a wooden board over two workbenches to sew up my wound.

Jealousy: This is maybe a bit different, but ever since my dad moved to the US (even when he and my mom were on foodstamps and raising a kid with no income), ~100% of his interactions with his family back in China include them asking him for money, often in the $10,000+ range. And not even for necessities, but for things like funding a new (doomed) business venture, or buying an apartment for his nephew so that his girlfriend would marry him.

Morals / cruelty / women

Cruelty to animals: At least my dad definitely didn't see animals as worthy of compassion — they were either wild or livestock. Dogs were generally wild (I don't know of people keeping them as pets), and it was normal to throw rocks at them to shoo them away. My dad hated his family's pig (which smelled terrible, was loud, and ate so much that sometimes there wasn't any left over for the humans), and even today he has no interest in pets whatsoever.

Cruelty among kids: My dad has a memorable story about chasing a rival gang of boys from a neighboring village into the village's waste pit (i.e. a giant pile of shit). I get the sense that at least in my dad's experience, kids were cruel to each other in general — he had maybe one friend, and he has no warm feelings towards either his older or younger brother, and most of his childhood stories involve rivalries or fights.

Cruelty among adults: Physical fights among adult men also weren't uncommon. When the village's harvests were pooled by the government and each family was allowed to take a share, people would fight each other for the best melons. Sometimes people fought in the street for other reasons as well.

My dad's dad was an embezzler, and was verbally and physically abusive to both his wife and his children — he beat my dad for things such as using his writing paper to fold boats, accidentally cracking one of the chamber pots, and not going to school, at least as young as the age of five. He beat his wife all the time, and I think she often took beatings for her children, and he raped her with their children in the room.

My dad writes:

On days my mother didn’t cook enough for everyone, my father would yell at my mother for being a stingy bitch. On days my mother prepared too much food, my father would accuse my mother for being a wasteful idiot incapable of planning ahead. Sometimes my mother found her life too hard to bear and wanted / threatened to end it. She would reach for one of bottles full of pesticides on the living room floor. When fights broke out between my parents, I usually wanted to run away but almost always ended up sticking around to watch for dangerous moves. Quite a few times I had to wrestle that pesticide bottle out of my mother’s hands.

The women of my grandmother's generation were tasked with spraying the fields with pesticides, and most of them (including my grandmother herself) consequently died young due to ovarian cancer. Also my great-grandmother had bound feet; not sure how that factors in but it's horrifying.



If this kind of cruelty is common, is it inherent to poverty, including the lower levels of education that necessarily accompany poverty? And if so, does increased wealth and education alone lead to a more humane society, or did the transition to more equal rights and status also require a change in morals and other ideas that is not a natural or inherent consequence of material progress?

I'm much less sure about anything here. But my dad's family seems to have stayed pretty terrible despite the changes of the last fifty years (they now have plumbing, electricity, and plenty to wear and eat). His father never stopped being cruel, his brothers never stopped trying to guilt him into giving them money, and his younger brother's wife divorced him for being his terrible self. Then again I guess despite their rise in material wealth, they probably still never got anything beyond a middle school education, so maybe just not a relevant example at all.


Hope this was helpful! Clara had already showed me some of the Semyonova stuff so I had already been thinking about this a fair amount and I'm glad to have a reason to write it up.

Super interesting. I am extremely curious if your dad has data on how things were different before and after the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. Mass starvation and deliberate government disruption will fuck up a lot of social norms in ways I don't want to overgeneralize from... but I don't immediately see an in-living-memory event in Russia that would explain similar behavior around 1900. 

But my dad's family seems to have stayed pretty terrible despite the changes of the last fifty years

Maybe it is difficult to change your habits when you are older, but in childhood you are more flexible. The question is, how can children of terrible parents become less terrible? Not just today -- the usual answer for today might be "education" -- but generally, in history, how did non-terrible behavior even start, given that the first non-terrible generation was brought up by terrible parents (and terrible institutions)?

I could make up some stories myself, but I wonder what the actual answer is.

The peasants’ lack of respect for hard work is remarkable. “Him? He digs in the field like a beetle from morning till night!” They often say this with scorn.

Caveats: I think this ethnography is likely to be biased for the reasons Jason lists, I haven't read the work I'm about to quote in years, and I thought it had problems at the time. Nonetheless...

Farewell to Alms looked at European vs East Asian folk sayings around farming, and concluded that Asian sayings tended to emphasize the rewards to hard work, whereas European sayings tended to be closer to "I sure hope it rains", emphasizing luck and deemphasizing personal effort. He attributes this to the fact that European farming results were based much less on hard work and much more on luck, whereas rice farming in east Asia had a much stronger correlation between effort and reward. 

(I low-confidence think Farewell to Alms underestimated how much effort European farming was, but maybe not the relative amount of work compared to Asian rice farming)

The question for me is how much these observations apply to peasant life in other places and at other times. I’m hesitant to generalize, since this is the first book-length work of ethnography I’ve read in the context of this project, but for me it opens questions. Is cruelty towards animals and children, and an almost slave status for women, the norm?

The modern Western notions of classifying certain behaviors as cruelty, dishonesty, abuse and so on emerged from the life of surplus, when you could afford this luxury. Morals emerge from the need to survive, or are tailored to that need, so I expect that most societies at the level of poverty similar to that of Russian peasantry look roughly the same, even in the modern times. Should be easy to look up.

There's something to what you say, but at the same time, it sounds like you're suggesting that the morals of the peasants in question were well-adapted to their situation. But it seems hard to imagine that e.g. frequently stealing from each other, or jealous neighbors uprooting the trees of their slightly more well-off neighbors, would have been particularly adaptive in the long run - it's setting up for the community to stay poor and miserable indefinitely, even if it occasionally benefits individuals. 

Of course there's a sense in which the situation can be described as "adaptive" in that once things have declined to this point, any single person's incentive may be to continue to steal from and abuse others, so adopting that strategy is the best they can do - which is adaptive in the sense that Bostrom's dictatorless dystopia is adaptive.

Bostrom makes an offhanded reference of the possibility of a dictatorless dystopia, one that every single citizen including the leadership hates but which nevertheless endures unconquered. It’s easy enough to imagine such a state. Imagine a country with two rules: first, every person must spend eight hours a day giving themselves strong electric shocks. Second, if anyone fails to follow a rule (including this one), or speaks out against it, or fails to enforce it, all citizens must unite to kill that person. Suppose these rules were well-enough established by tradition that everyone expected them to be enforced.

So you shock yourself for eight hours a day, because you know if you don’t everyone else will kill you, because if they don’t, everyone else will kill them, and so on. Every single citizen hates the system, but for lack of a good coordination mechanism it endures. From a god’s-eye-view, we can optimize the system to “everyone agrees to stop doing this at once”, but no one within the system is able to effect the transition without great risk to themselves.

I would be quite surprised if it turned out that the culture and morality adopted by these peasants really was the best possible, or even a reasonably good culture and morality to have in response to extreme poverty. At the same time, I would not be very surprised to find out that it was regardless a relatively common local optimum to hit upon, because there's no rule saying that cultures would need to hit upon particularly good local optimums.

It sounds like you're thinking about "adaptivity" in terms of what's good for the group, not the individual. In a malthusian equilibrium, the world is largely zero-sum, so uprooting the trees of slightly more well-off neighbors could plausibly increase the odds of survival for one's own offspring. It's the next best thing to eating the neighbor's babies, as far as evolutionary fitness goes. And over time, it's the families with the most individual fitness which will dominate the constituency of the group.

(On the other hand, the fact that there was space to plant more apple trees indicates that the world was not perfectly zero sum; there were nonzero gains to be had from tree-planting. But the broader idea still applies: the culture can be a Nash equilibrium without being particularly good at the group level.)

It sounds like you're thinking about "adaptivity" in terms of what's good for the group, not the individual.

The phrase "good for the group, not the individual" feels ambiguous to me; I usually interpret it to mean something that hurts some individuals while improving the group's chances to survive (e.g. norms that make some individuals sacrifice themselves to make the rest of the group better off). That at least wasn't what I meant; by "more adaptive" I meant something like an approximate Pareto improvement (in the long term) for the people adopting it. 

E.g. if everyone - including spouses! - is stealing from each other all the time, then it seems hard to believe that it's advantageous for people to marry while it not being advantageous to commit to a no-theft policy at least when dealing with your spouse. Even if the village was largely zero-sum, it still seems like being able to reliably cooperate with one person would give you an advantage in trying to steal things from everyone else. Or if things are so zero-sum that it's not even beneficial to cooperate with your spouse, why is there still an institution of marriage?

the fact that there was space to plant more apple trees indicates that the world was not perfectly zero sum; there were nonzero gains to be had from tree-planting

I would think that the fact that people are socially interacting in a village in the first place implies that the world is not perfectly zero-sum and that there are gains to be had from cooperation. If that wasn't the case, I think the optimal strategy would be for one family to try to murder or enslave everyone else?

the culture can be a Nash equilibrium without being particularly good at the group level

I read this as indicating disagreement with my comment, but isn't it expressing the same thought as the dictatorless dystopia example and my remark that no rule requires cultures to hit particularly good local optimums?

Maybe in given culture the idea of not stealing from your spouse is so counter-intuitive that...

  • most people don't even get the idea, ever;
  • those who do, find it extremely difficult to convince their spouses that it is a good idea;
  • even those who agree, usually succumb to the temptation, because they have spent their entire life building an opposite habit.

In other words, cooperation is actually so hard, that it is almost impossible even for two people to cooperate unless their culture has already provided them some basic training in this skill.

Yeah, this sounds much more like the kind of thing that I'd expect to be the cause, as opposed to mutual theft being somehow a beneficial/adaptive response to poverty.

One of the consequences of being in stressful circumstances is that it makes you less open to trying out new things - understandably, given that if resources are sparse, it makes sense for the brain to stick to tried and true behaviors for extracting those resources rather than risk trying a novel behavior that might extract nothing. (And in a village where you've grown up treating all social interactions as more or less adversarial, someone suggesting something new is probably just trying to trick you somehow.) So once a culture hits this kind of a situation, it may become stuck there and be incapable of evolving anything better unless the material situation gets somehow drastically better.

The post contained material that seemed to suggest, some of the behaviors may have caused poverty.

It is a stable equilibrium, where the poverty causes the behavior, and the behavior causes the poverty. If most people changed their behavior at the same time, they might have reached a new equilibrium; but one person unilaterally changing their behavior is only going to hurt that person.

When people don't steal from each other, the society becomes richer than when they steal from each other all the time. But if you decide that you are not going to steal anymore, but everyone else keeps stealing (from each other and from you), it will not make you richer.

The new equlibrium is not just "(most) people don't steal", because that would be too fragile; the thieves would have a clear advantage. It must be like "(most) people don't steal, and the thieves get punished". Even that is too simple, because who is going to punish the thieves? The thieves are probably going to fight back, so punishing them will be costly. So it must be like "(most) people don't steal, and the thieves get punished, and the punishers get rewarded", but then again, who is going to reward the punishers? And so on... Getting to the stable equilibrium is more difficult than it may seem.

When people don't steal from each other, the society becomes richer than when they steal from each other all the time. But if you decide that you are not going to steal anymore, but everyone else keeps stealing (from each other and from you), it will not make you richer.

Only because of, and to the extent that, the 'richer are robbed more' part has that effect. But yes.

I spent around 1½ months volunteering in a very rural Nepalese village in 2017, and some things in this post reminded me starkly of that. (Others were quite different, always in the "better" direction). For context, Nepal is one of the poorest Asian countries (150th out of 192 in the list of all countries by GPD per capita).

Things that were similar:

  • Cruelty towards animals. While I did not observe cruelty to the same extent as in the post, villagers were remarkably unconcerned about animal well-being, and would e.g. throw stones at the basically stray dogs in the village for fun when drunk. I was sleeping in the same bed as an educated man from Kathmandu, and one evening at cat was lying on his side of the bed, causing him to hit the cat so hard I feared it had suffered fatal injuries (I saw the cat later and it seemed fine). Fights between animals were a curiosity. I think this is not too surprising: People were used to slaughtering animals such as chickens with their own hands. I also saw children playing with young animals, so it wasn't as clear cut as in the post above.
  • Hard work by pregnant women. I was told that one woman who was working with us digging out the foundation of the house we were building had a few months prior worked up to the day before going into labor, and then picked up the shovel/pickaxe the day after giving birth. She had apparently also carried 60kg bags with stones on her back while pregnant.
  • Cooking with smoke inside the house. In one house, the woman was cooking while the smoke was escaping only through the windows and the door, resulting in me (who was sleeping on the veranda) having headaches when I woke up. I can't imagine how bad the air was inside. On one occasion a kid started burning plastic waste, without much regard for the fumes, and wasn't stopped by the parent nearby.
  • Alcohol consumption. I don't think it was as extreme as in the text above, but in the village I stayed in, there were no weekends, but instead holidays every ~4 days, during which the main source of entertainment was getting drunk. This resulted in cruelty towards animals, but not towards each other (afaik).
  • General poverty. I guess the villagers were maybe twice as rich as the peasants described in the post. I found it quite stark how the family I was staying with were sleeping mainly without blankets, warmed only by sleeping next to each other, even at temperatures near zero degrees. There was access to electricity, which was (exclusively?) used to power the light in the hut we were sleeping in.
  • Work ethic. This one is an ambiguous case: The people in the village were (of course) much more proficient at hard physical work than I was, to a sometimes embarrassing degree. But there was no regular schedule, and work was interrupted by long irregular breaks.

Things that were different:

  • Cruelty towards each other. Everyone was quite nice to each other, as far as I could tell. (This might've been confounded by the fact that people were especially nice to me, since I was a rich foreigner). I didn't hear of cases of infanticide, rape, murder or even accidental death (apart from the earthquake a few years earlier).
  • Respect for property rights. There was no or very little stealing going on, at least from what I could observe. (One exception being some young kids stealing chocolate I'd brought for them and wanted to give out incrementally, but I'd expect a bunch of western 7-year olds to do the same thing).
  • Children drinking alcohol. I didn't see this happening.

"the first book-length work of ethnography I’ve read"

Somewhat uncharitably, I'd suggest that you still have the first work of ethnography to read. I think the key feature of any ethnography since about 1920 is the search for meaning rather than superficial features of the observed. It's not what sense the observation (no matter how accurate) makes to you, it's about what sense it makes to those described.

The question of whether you can generalise these observations is really the wrong one to ask in this sense. The things Semyonova describes are commonly found across cultures but they do not necessarily  'mean what you think they mean'. You should really be asking, can I particularize my assumptions about what the 'good life' is?

An example of this is conflating rituals with their surface meanings. For instance, the examples of brides wailing at their wedding or mothers insulting their children are not particularly disturbing if you think of them as conventionalised expressions. Many cultures will be hesitant to compliment children lest they attract attention of evil spirits. The idea of children being constantly told that they are being loved or they will be forever scarred is a recent American invention. Sure, the children's lives were pretty miserable because of the poverty and disease but gruesome lullabies are not an evidence of this. Neither were 9-year olds taking care of younger siblings. Semyonova didn't have the advantage of reading other ethnographic accounts, so her observations were colored by assumptions about normative families. I recommend David Lancy's "The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings" - the subtitle says it all. 

Also, it is dangerous to equate ritual humiliations to real ones. Many cultures will sanction vicious practical jokes while at the same time placing great value on individual dignity. They just differ on what constitutes such dignity. The conditions of brides in patrilinear societies were often ritually very degrading but the actual conditions were more complicated. The women were not be brides forever.

The question of gender is always a complicated one. You will notice that women were as much perpetrators as victims of the oppression of women. While domestic violence would have been rampant, it is hard to know the extent of it compared to other cultures just based on Semyonova's account. It would probably not have been that unusual even in the cities of her time.

Of course, Semyonova had a point. The Russian peasant or the Kalahari bushman (of Sahlin's 'original affluent society') are not some noble primaeval exemplars unspoilt by modernity's alienation from what it means to be a true human being. If you want many more much worse examples, go to Robert Edgerton's 'Sick Societies'. (Pinker mentions some of those.) But even Edgerton cannot help but acknowledge that individuals can and do find personal happiness and fulfilment even in these contexts.

In the case of Russian peasant women in particular, their “connection” to husbands who beat them, in-laws who scorned and humiliated them, and a community that offered no support, was not enriching but immiserating. 

This is where Semyonova fails you the most. Those people were connected in myriad of ways which made any survival at all possible. She essentially treated everyone as little middle class nuclear family units - but the peasants would have been a part of much wider kinship networks which is what would have ensured survival. A modern ethnographer would have started with outlining kinship networks and their interconnectedness. At least from your account, she did not do that. 

The peasants would have also been involved in a lot of religious observance with a political dimension. I can't find the reference, but there was a lot of turmoil even in the 1700s to do with religious reform and the politics of baptism. These were not just stereotypical wife-beating drunks, who ate gruel and kicked their children when they annoyed them. 

It is also important to note that East European peasantry of that time were less than 2 generations away from the abolishment of serfdom - so essentially dealing with the legacy of conditions that were only marginally different from that of slavery. Those conditions would have also imposed limits on social structure and organisation that were to persist until collectivisation and mechanisation - when they came to be seen as 'the good old ways'.

The escape from those “connections,” provided by wealth, education, and opportunities for jobs and migration, would have been a boon.

This is a very ahistorical statement. To escape to the opportunities provided by wealth in the last 40 or so years, perhaps, when it is backed by socialist state capacity (and America is socialist in this sense). But to escape to the cities of their time, particularly women, would have been much more exposed to exploitation and most would have found it very psychologically stressful. Accounts of the urban poor are, after all, not any more difficult to find or less harrowing to read.

There are no easy conclusions here. It's hard to imagine living in those conditions and find any sense of thriving or wellbeing. But people did. Not all, not all the time. There was no inherent virtue nor nobility in those conditions, but there was humanity - in all that it involves. I think any notion of progress needs to start with the acknowledgement of that complexity. 

Opponents of progress make the opposite mistake because they see themselves as defending some imaginary romanticised essence of humanity. But progress studies, should take contextual meaning more seriously. Because without meaning, what are we?

There's a thin middle ground between imposing your values and meanings on another culture's customs, and thinking a culture hold all the keys on interpreting their own customs (positively, of course). There is as much disregard for reality in both cases. For an obvious example of the latter in Semyonova's report, the babies who were euthanised soon after birth failed to get any benefit from their culture. Where is their happiness?

I agree that we should start by acknoweledging the complexity of human cultures. But we shouldn't stop there. We shouldn't use "complexity" as a thought-terminating cliché. Not that I accuse you of doing so, but I wanted to make that point clear.

Since Semyonova did not care to look at things from the peasants' point of view and mixed her research with attempts to convert, I wonder how many of the things she recorded were directly intended to shock her.

That's possible, although she had ways of getting information. For instance, she would stand outside at an easel, painting, and eavesdrop on conversations.

If Russian peasants were more cruel than average, are they far worse than average?

This is also interesting to me because most of the historical evidence of "how Communism actually turned out" we have is from Russia and China. One could imagine that communism won in Russia (as opposed to Germany or Britain or various other countries) because there was an unusually high level of this sort of peasant envy, and that this then made it more horrific than it otherwise would have been. [The main info I'd look for here is if we have this sort of ethnography about peasants in China before 1930 or so.]

[My guess is that Russian peasants were not outside of distribution, tho they might have been on the cruel end of the spectrum. In particular, Malthusian logic of the sort that applies to agrarian peasant societies suggests that there should always be marginal people on the edge of subsistence, and the question is just how densely packed they are.]

I would be really hesitant using these findings to frame Russian Communism, especially if we conclude that 'peasant envy' was a contributing factor in how horrific the Stalinist regime was. The Russian Revolution was won by workers in major industrial cities, whilst peasant uprisings, whilst present, had nowhere near the same effect as working class militancy on the Soviet Government and the state of Russian Society.

The wretched state of the peasantry and their attitudes toward another, if anything, evidence that the early Russian Marxists were right in dismissing the peasantry as an ineffectual instrument of revolutionary change (which was the opposite of the leftist mainstream at the time). As the support and participation of the peasantry in the revolution were far less important than that of the fledgling working class, and  because the collectivisation measures were imposed on the peasantry by foreign actors (and not a product of their own self-emancipation), I don't think the peasantry had that big of an influence in how horrific Communist rule was. 

That being said, I really agree that comparing the state of the Russian Peasantry and Revolution to China's peasant society and their revolution would be a really fruitful task. To my understanding, the Chinese Revolution was based almost entirely in peasant struggle, so the sociological factors in the frame of that class would be especially pertinent. 

Good to know! [I was mostly working off of remembering kulak as a term of abuse, rather than a detailed knowledge of how the Revolution went down.]

A Russian folklorist found that about 8 percent of her collection of thousands of lullabies were songs wishing death on babies, presumably weak infants like those mentioned here whose survival was uncertain and who may have been in pain.


I am not sure that this should be taken at face value – death lullabies can be interpreted as a sort of protection ritual, aiming to ward off the actual danger to the child. See, for example,

Strongly upvoted! I found this to be very informative, if disturbing in places. Thank you for putting this together, and I look forward to any future posts looking at the questions you outlined. 

It's rare that I encounter a lesswrong post that opens up a new area of human experience - especially rare for a post that doesn't present an argument or a new interpretation or schema for analysing the world.

But this one does. A simple review, with quotes, of an ethnographical study of late 19th century Russian peasants, opened up a whole new world and potentially changed my vision of the past.

Worth it from its many book extracts and choice of subject matter.

Some interesting counterpoints to a common view that cold climates drive more cooperative behavior.

From my own reading I have found the ubiquity of child abuse to be fairly shocking (frequency and severity) amongst all times and places.

The question for me is how much these observations apply to peasant life in other places and at other times.

These observations would apply to Polish peasants at around the same time as well. A good way to summarize this, I've found, is that the polish word for peasants--"chłopi"--is likely rooted in the old-slavic word for slaves, which they were, albeit not in the American sense because they could not be bought or sold as individuals. Instead, peasants were assigned to parcels of land, so when land was bought or sold, the peasants were transferred with it.

There were also different sets of laws for peasants and nobles. For example, a peasant hitting a noble would be punished severely, perhaps by cutting of his hand or even executing him. A noble hitting a peasant would commonly not merit any punishment unless he killed the peasant, which may entailed paying a tiny amount of money to the dead peasant's family (if lucky).

I think it's also worth adding that peasants were not considered Polish for a very long time, at least until the 19th century by those who we would label as progressive and well into the 20th by those we wouldn't. Peasants spoke ultra-local dialects (their families usually stuck to a piece of land for centuries and they were completely an oral culture), which made it difficult for them to even communicate with nobles or city-dwellers. This probably contributed to the feeling of Otherness around them and made it easier to be cruel to them.

Poland makes for an interesting case because it was partitioned by Russia, Prussia, and Austria in the 18th century remained that way until WW1, so it didn't exist as a uniform state at that time. How Polish national identity coalesced is a story for another time, but this setup created a sort of natural experiment: the lands belonging to the Prussians and Austrians developed the partitions they ruled over: they build railroads, schools, and functioning bureaucracies that helped usher these parts into modernity similar to what Western Europe looked like. The Russian partition, however, was kept in an almost unchanged state, and was a picture of misery that Semyonova describes.

But Poland's history is close to Russia's history because these places and peoples are so close geographically. It would be most interesting to learn how peoples fared in places farther away.

(My source for all of the above is Norman Davies' "God's Playground")

When I was younger I was quite interested by Lloyd deMause's psychohistory, a fringe theory of history that draws causal connections from chilrearing to culture. Regardless of the theory, in those works you can find chilling accounts of child mistreatment in various cultures, among which this one would fit right in.

If I had the choice to be born as a random human who has existed at some point in our evolution, I would absolutely say no.

To be born as a random human in 2021, probably still no (not even considering the risk of misaligned AI).

I know this is tangential but it's the kind of thing that makes me wonder if I'm missing something fundamental or if I should see it as reason to doubt other aspects of this book...

During a famine, peasant meals consist of stale bread moistened in water and mixed with goosefoot. 

During a famine, why would there be stale bread lying around, let alone more of it than during good times?

I don't think there's more of it than in good times—there's less. But you don't need to get all the way to zero bread for a famine.

Seems like a society stuck in a Nash equilibrium. Perhaps every society that reaches their malthusian limit invariably does so as zero sum games predominate.

You might be interested in mabiki, an infanticide practice that was most popular during the Edo period of Japan.

Punishment for mischief consisted of beatings administered by the parents. They beat Ivan for screaming, getting covered with mud, or stealing a piece of food. They did not beat him for fighting, lying, or using foul language.

Stealing a piece of food from whom? Is the distinction about a locked cupboard or is stealing 'okay' if someone else does it from someone else, but if they steal it from you, you beat them up? What's the way?

(If you didn't read the post, then read the section starting with "Theft was common:" before commenting.)

I've no real insight to add, but would just like to comment that this generally lines up with the picture Steven Pinker paints in books like "Better Angels of Our Nature" and "Enlightenment Now".