The peasant art of great Russia
Russian folk costumes
BY PRINCESS ALEXANDRE SIDAMONERISTOFF AND MLLE. N. DE CHABELSKOY.
Russia is an immense territory, parts of it unknown even in our own day, embracing every kind of climate and many latitudes. The country; is inhabited by people of different origins, amongst whom; the Slavs predominate, and whose manners and customs are of the greatest antiquity.
Situated on this vast plain are splendid cities, but, though sometimes monotonous, it has delightful scenery, immense forests and lofty mountains, rich in precious stones and all kinds of minerals. Such is the country which stretches from the Arctic Ocean to the Caspian Sea, with the Crimea and the Caucasus Mountains in the south, vast Siberia on the Asiatic boundary, and Great Russia, White Russia, and Little Russia (the Ukraine) in the centre.
Glancing back over the manners and style of living of the Russian people, one recognises that from most remote times they loved to decorate all objects among which their lives were passed beginning with the Church, the house, vehicles, sledges, boats, clothes, even down to -the smallest'. household bowl. In this decoration their artistic tastes - at times naive - their religious feelings, and their deep imagination are expressed.
The long-drawn-out winter, when the peasant is obliged to cease from work in the fields, helps to develop these tastes still more. During the long evenings the family meets by the stove, each one engaged in making some object either for the house 'or for sale. - At the time when factories 'did not exist, and even later when the number of them was insufficient for so large a country, the difficulty of communication, caused by the long distances and the poor roads, contributed largely to each district producing for itself most , of the necessary objects. For the same reason these objects were stamped with a character and originality peculiarly local. Some few places specialised, indecd, according to the natural characteristics of the district.
Thus the northern provinces, so rich in forests, produced all kinds of articles in wood, among- other things plates, carved and painted. In the villages situated beside rivers or lakes, boats and all the necessary appliances for fishing were made. The Government of Riazan was noted for its pottery, its clay vessels, and its enameled bricks; the latter being used in the decoration of churches and other buildings and for stoves. The Government of Vladimir possessed craftsmen skilled in metal-work and enameling, as well as engravers and painters who produced popular pictures, illustrated books and manuscripts, and fashioned icons (holy images). The Government of Tula was renowned for its arms of tempered and embossed steel, jewellery, and all kinds of articles in metal. The Government of Yaroslavl, so rich in flax, furnished many different textiles, from the simple household cloth to that of the finest quality. The Government of Archangel has always carried on a large trade in furs, and been famous for its boat-building; also for clever workmanship in walrus ivory.
The wool of domestic animals is used everywhere to make clothing materials, as well as a kind of thick felt for winter shoes. The technical knowledge has been transmitted by one generation to another, and by the custom of the family working together. So that every peasant is not only a cultivator of the soil, but also a craftsman.
Besides the various necessary domestic articles, the Russian women excel in the making of lace, and, above all, in embroidery, which plays a great part in the life of the people. The largest number of designs and the most important characteristic motifs are found in the embroidery, and these especially help in the study of the national art. It is in a great measure due to the ingenious work of the Russian women that this art is preserved to our time.
Russian decorative art dates from very early ages. In spite of the successive influences of contact with Asia, with Byzantium, and with the West, modified by the requirements of native customs, it yet retains its national character and diversity of form, and has had the advantage at all times of exponents possessing great skill and ability. If amongst the mass of designs a certain number are found to proceed from individual inventiveness and imagination, yet the greater part have a particular or emblematic significance, which '-although dimmed and lost with the passage of time, yet preserves the traditional forms. Besides numerous geometrical patterns and conventional floral motifs, these designs represent sacred and decorative , trees, fantastical, flowers, symbolic `animals 'such as lions, unicorns, horses, stags, birds, .&c., often facing one another, and having between them a tree or a sacred vase. Many examples represent people with- raised arms and outstretched hands signifying a gesture of religious adoration, habitual to heathen as well as to Christian people; sometimes complete compositions, such as religious processions, scenes of sacrifices, of temples, and of idols, are depicted. Among the most general subjects are the fabulous birds called Sirin and Alconost, who assume woman's form, and who, according to the legend, live in Paradise and delight the saints with their songs.
One of the symbolic signs very much in favour was the svastika, known in the most remote period of ancient India, a sign of good augury and especially of good luck. It was freely employed in the decoration of all kinds of articles. Later on the Czar Peter the Great, with his reforms, had a marked influence on design, and the subjects became more realistic. Attempts were made to represent whole landscapes, with palaces, festivals, and people in the costume of the time.
The conditions of family life, which dedicated woman entirely to the home, not allowing her to take part in social affairs, contributed still more to interest her in handicraft. In pagan times the personality of the woman was held to be equal to that of the man. She had not only her rights in the family-life, but she possessed also her social rights. She had control of her property, and she joined in the chase just as a warrior took part in battle. All was changed with the advent of Christianity. The literature and ideas of Byzantium had more effect on the women than on the men, and consequently on home life. The ascetic teachings of Byzantium, based on the complete perversity of Byzantine society, were transported with the religion into Russia, when the social life was still young and scarcely formed, and served as a base for a monastic life, as well as for the ideas of seclusion and retirement from social intercourse. Thus were created the austere conditions of the life of the terem, a part of the house reserved for women and exclusively for family life. This retired existence became more and more strict in proportion to the social position. Except for a few very simple pleasures, which enlivened the monotony, needlework was the favourite occupation as well as amusement. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in the houses of the noblemen and the Czars, one or more rooms were always reserved near the terem for needlework, thus farming ateliers where the women ,in the service of the family worked under the direction of the mistress of the house.
The mass of the people came less strongly under the, influence of these teachings, and, while they accepted Christianity, they retained the advantages of pagan, rule, which explains the presence in the ornamentations of the many subjects which bear, traces of earlier belief.
Among the numerous embroidered articles, it is on the borders of the bedcurtains and towels especially that the most interesting and characteristic designs are to be found. The bedcurtains were used to decorate the bed and the bedstead as well as the backs of the sledges and wedding conveyances, or on the occasions of the traditional carnival processions, and in this case the decoration was completed by towels attached to the dougas (bow of the shaft).
Towels, in addition to their customary use, served from the earliest times as adjuncts to religious worship, when they were employed to decorate the temples of the idols, or were hung from the sacred trees as votive offerings. We still see, as a relic of the same custom, images and crosses thus decorated, and the people bring their towels as offerings to the church. At the present time towels are used also to decorate the izba (peasant homes), for draping mirrors and images or, spread out along the walls, they form a kind of simple art gallery for the Russian peasant.
Unfortunately all these practices are dying out more and more every year, in proportion to the increase in the number of factories, the products of which are causing the hand-made articles to quickly disappear, making them dearer and more difficult to obtain.
Thanks to museums and private collections, which have been established just in time, a great number of the most varied articles belonging to the household have been preserved, and they throw a light on life in past centuries and reflect the qualities peculiar to Slavo-Russian art. Many governments and towns now have museums containing antiquities of the particular district. There is the Alexander III. Museum at St. Petersburg; the Imperial Historical Museum at Moscow, to which has been added the Schoukine Museum; while the Stroganoff Arts and Industries School contains real national treasures. Moreover, there are numerous private collections, the most striking of which is that of the Princess Sidamon Eristoff and Mlle, de Chabelskoy, from which most of the illustrations to this article have been taken.)
However, even now there still exist in the vast districts of Great Russia many out-of-the-world spots, especially towards the north, far from the railways. In the heart of these huge forests, and away from all contact with civilisation, the life still retains its primitive and local character, and continues in accordance with the rites and traditions of the past. Here the peasant has not yet abandoned his picturesque costume, and in his typical izba a. corresponding interior is to be found. Here, too, may still be seen the old churches of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, with their many cupolas, still preserving the old images adorned with silk and gold work, or painted by a master hand, and covered with splendid chasubles embellished with precious stones and real pearls. The sacristies of these churches often contain real treasures of art and
archaeology among the priestly vestments.
In these places the, people still use in their daily life many original articles which, although of more recent execution, are made in accordance with the old traditional forms. The Russian people are carpenters by instinct; every peasant is accordingly able to build his izba, which for centuries has always been constructed in the same way, occasionally of brick, but generally of large, rounded beams, thanks to the proximity of the forest. These izbas, with their slight roofing, have for exterior decoration carved wooden cornices; the chief beam which supports the roof often ends in the form of a rose, a horse's head, or a conventional bird. All these decorative portions are usually painted in various colours, which give a bright appearance to the cottages.
The simple furniture consists of seats, either fixed or movable, a few tables, a sideboard for the display of plates and dishes, and some chests embellished with metal-work or painting. The peasants delight to decorate the under sides of the lids of these coffers with popular engravings. A great oven in stone is built in such a way that one part forms a large flat surface on which the whole family sleeps in the depth of winter. In the right-hand corner of the wall, called the krasni ugol (the beautiful corner), are placed one or more holy images or icons before which wax tapers or little oil lamps burn, forming a family altar. Sometimes there are a few engravings either of - religious subjects or representing popular heroes, a loom for weaving, and a few household utensils. This is the usual simple appearance of the generality of the houses, with a barn or stable, and a Iittle enclosure round. For fear of fire the houses are placed good distance apart from each other, but are grouped in large villages with a wide road running through the centre.
Old customs are kept up in their entirety in many of the villages, and religious and civil ceremonies are still carried out, according to the ancestral traditions, sometimes so full of meaning and simple poetry. The people still retain the many observances in all the important events of family life - birth, marriage, and burial - as well as the different customs incidental to Christmas, Easter, &c.
But especially are ancient ceremonies adhered to on the occasion of weddings, such as the use of the great loaf, a kind of decorated and sometimes gilded cake, a symbol of prosperity, as well as many gifts which the maiden is obliged to offer to her fiance, and to all the relatives and guests according to the degree of relationship or to their social position. Tradition exacts that all these presents should be the actual work of the bride, as a proof of her ability and industry. This is why provident young girls prepare their presents a Iong time in advance. For this purpose the young maidens in every village meet together at one another's houses in turn to work. These little gatherings, much resorted to by the young people, end with songs, games, and dances. The wedding presents consist chiefly of towels with wide borders, with a woven or embroidered design, and chirinkas (a kind of pocket-handkerchief made from a square piece of material em-broidered handsomely either at the corners or all round).
The custom of giving wedding presents was very widespread in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, not only among the peasants, who still preserve it, but also among the noblemen and even the Czars, only in this case the chirinkas were more handsome, being of silk or muslin, richly embroidered in gold, and decorated with fringes and tassels. Sometimes, instead of embroidery, they were embellished with wide gold lace, interwoven with real pearls. The chirinka was both an object for display and one of the indispensable adjuncts of the Russian woman's wardrobe, the most obvious and the favourite article and it was, moreover, the custom always to hold it in the hand when going to church, or on visits, or during all ceremonies.
The national costume varied greatly in different governments, nearly every district and village having its special dress. The women particularly displayed their clothes, and whether they were handsomely decorated or made in the simplest manner they were always covered with a profusion of embroidery. The indoor dress consisted chiefly of the paneva, a skirt of thick check woollen material, and the sarafan, a kind of skirt with or without a bodice, pleated or gathered and buttoned in front, but always sleeveless. That is why in their lingerie the women included short bodices with sleeves of a different colour to the sarafan, very much decorated, and forming one of the principal articles of the wardrobe. The peasants generally made these in white linen with an embroidered neckband, as well as with wide embroidered trimmings on the shoulders, or in linen printed by hand. When means allowed the sleeves were made of silk, brocade, or velvet, and were sometimes' covered with heavy gold embroidery. Different in shape, these sleeves were of very fine material, sometimes four or five metres long, and were then worn gathered up on the arm. The women often wore wide aprons, with or without sleeves, and generally of linen, sometimes entirely covered with embroidery.
But it was on the head-dress the kokochniks, the kikas, the pavoiniks, the crowns and the diadems - that most thought was bestowed, and, this was distinguished by the greatest abundance of embroidered designs. These head-dresses were extravagant, even amongst the peasants, and were made in cloth-of-gold, in damask, in velvet embroidered with gold, and sometimes ornamented with real pearls and precious stones. Those of the young girls, in the form of a crown or a diadem, were worn so as to show the hair. This was considered as a beauty and a right belonging exclusively to the maidens, whilst married women were obliged to hide their hair under the head-dress. A married woman who wore her hair uncovered was considered to be lacking in modesty. Native pearls were generally much sought after in Russia, both Eastern and freshwater' pearls being found in the great rivers and lakes, in the north. Mother-of-pearl, either, carved or rounded, was also popular, and in some villages pearls were used with coloured glass.
For out-of-door garments the women wore fur capes in the winter, and in the summer short coats, or capes without fur, made of plain cloth, damask, or cloth-of-gold. Over the head-dress were worn long and wide veils (fatas) of white muslin, interwoven with silk floral designs or embroidered in gold, which fell partly over the face. Sometimes they were made in heavy silken material, embroidered in gold and ornamented with lace and gold fringe. In some villages they were made of linen, embroidered at the edges, just like the towels, but distinguished from them by the embroidery on the forehead. `
Amongst the wearing apparel of daily use, mention should again be made of the little coats, embroidered in gold or made in rich materials; the head-shawls, often embroidered, and the slippers and gloves, as well as the waistbands woven in silk or embroidered with gold. In many districts waistbelts, woven by hand in wool of varied colours, were worn, in the fringes of which were fastened chicken bones. Young girls put these belts under their pillows, and at the first cock-crow the bone began, they declared, to twitter like swallows, thus warning the sleepers that it was time to begin work. Small articles of dress, such as chains of filigree work with crosses, which were worn as an ornament round the neck, all kinds of collars, rings, earrings, in gold or silver, or sometimes made of real pearls threaded on ' hair and arranged in different ways by the women themselves, all these things were quaint and much prized.
The men's costumes, duller and more uniform, consisted, among the peasants, of caftans of different kinds and of quiet colours, and of capes of fur or of sheepskins, made in such a way that the fur was on the inside and the skin on the outside. In the house they wore trousers of linen printed by hand, or of homespun cloth; shirts either coloured or of white linen, embroidered at the edge as well as on the collar - and sIeeves; tall felt hats or round fur bonnets and
caps. For footgear, in addition to boots of feather and felt, the usual article was the lapot, a kind of shoe made from the inner bark of the birch and lime trees, cut into thongs, and which each man cut for himself. This kind of bast-work was used to make a large variety of baskets, salt-cellars and other small articles, as well as large pans in which to keep flour and bread. Milk-pans and earthenware vessels were covered with strips of bark, and by placing these strips very close together the vessels were made almost unbreakable.
Amongst the materials made in the homes must be mentioned figured and dyed cloths, as well as the "naboika " cloth, hand printed by means of small wood-blocks with designs cut in relief, which were coated over with vegetable colours, very fast and blending harmoniously. The cloths are of great interest owing to the designs being very old, for the "naboika" was known in Russia as early as the twelfth century. It was used not only for clothes, but also for religious garments, flags, pavilion curtains, table-covers, and even for bookbindings. The first to use it were probably the painters of the icons, as being the most expert in the mixing of colours and in ornamentation; but later on it was employed by craftsmen who went from village to village. The designs on these cloths, in addition to the subjects and decorations already mentioned, reproduced the motifs employed in the more handsome materials, in the decorations of books, and in popular engravings. But all the subjects were adapted to suit the demands of the district, giving them the special characteristics of the productions of the Russian people. It is because of the national spirit embodied in these designs carved in the wood (sometimes faced in metal) that these blocks for printing cloth are so much appreciated by archaeologists, as also are the carved wooden moulds for gingerbread, which are also worthy of study.
Gingerbread was largely used in the sixteenth and seventeenth, even the eighteenth, centuries not only as a national article of food, but also as a much appreciated gift. According to the meaning and subject off the design, it was offered at birth, wedding, and even at funeral feasts.' There were also gingerbreads "of honour" which, made to order and of exceptional size, were sometimes more than a yard wide, and weighed as much as 150 lbs. They were offered as a welcome, a gift of honour, by workmen to their patrons, by the young to the old as a sign of humility and respect. Thus, on the occasion of the birth of the Czar Peter the Great, many huge gingerbreads of different designs were presented to his father, amongst them one bearing the arms of the city of Moscow; two others, each weighing 100 lbs, with enormous double-headed eagles; one in the form of a badge, weighing 125 lbs; and others in the shape or a duck, a parrot, or a dove; and great decorative gingerbreads representing the Kremlin, with its turrets, surrounded by horse-soldiers, and so forth, Altogether there were offered to him on this occasion more than one-hundred-and-twenty gingerbreads and other sweet dishes. This same custom was also very widespread among the nobles and among the peasants.
All the illustrations which accompany this article are well worthy at more serious study than the space available here allows, but we have endeavoured to give a general idea of the national art of Russia and the character of the country. The original form and the beauty of Russian decoration have, indeed, attracted attention and interest all over Europe, and at the same time there has become manifest in Russia a very strong desire to revive the national art, so long abandoned and kept in subjection by Western imitation.
The last fifteen or twenty years have seen a new activity spring up, the object of which is to revive the old rural industries in the villages where the peasants still preserve the ideas and methods or the old craftsmen, and there is growing up from this movement a new branch of industry which is becoming more important year by year.