Feb 262012

It’s not just foreign envoys and travelers who kept notes and made commentaries on Muscovite Russia. The new state, with its new system of government, and its newly-acquired vast territories, needed greater control and coordination between the capital and the far-lying borders. Many of the tools that helped build and maintain the Russian empire were first created by the Moscow princes.

A relay system connecting the main cities was quickly established, paid by the Prince, then the Tsar, It consisted of inns with horses and various vehicles (coaches, sleighs) according to the demands of the season and landscape. Each inn supplied authorized travelers with food, lodging, and assistance, and of course horses vehicles. The Habsburg envoy Sigismund von Herberstein reported that the system allowed him to travel some 500 kilometers (over 300 miles) in 72 hours, much faster than he would have been able to travel elsewhere in Europe.

Organizing such a system required more than word of mouth. This introduces another new facet of the Muscovite era – the advent of bureaucracy, with its attending record-keeping and hierarchy of clerks assigned to manage it. The Muscovite ruler thus extended his power beyond his immediate reach. Whereas before, the Rurikid princes had governed directly, by their presence, and commanded a small group of retainers, now Moscow needed to be able to delegate its power through appointed representatives. This, in turn, required that rules be set forth and established by which all such representatives could act properly.

Records of the activities of the government clerks were cherished by the clerks themselves, for these books were the source of their advancement and therefore their power and wealth. Laws were codified and recorded as well in 1497 (under Ivan III) in the Sudebnik, or “book of judgement” – the first national law code. The laws address everything from the punishment of thieves or murderers for their first, or their second offense, to relay-coach fees, to dealing with bribery. A system of payments and fines was described in the Sudebnik, instead of prison terms, but public flogging and other punishments were also included.

During the reign of Ivan IV, a similar book describing the duties and obligations of family and household members in their daily life appeared. It was the Domostroi, or the “household rulebook”. It detailed the ideal way of life of a well-to-do Muscovite family, with a household full of servants, but probably not a noble family, as it described the mundane duties of the wife, as she went about her daily chores of making sure meals would be prepared in the proper amounts, and therefore that food would be handed out as needed to the cooks and servants, but also accounted for in order to prevent theft.

The Domostroi emphasized discipline, authority (especially that of the male head of household), advised on punishments to be meted out for disobedience and laxity. The life portrayed by the Domostroi was austere, controlled by an authoritarian male head of household, where games, song, and especially dance were discouraged. For instance:


How to Teach Children and Save Them Through Fear

Punish your son in his youth, and he will give you a quiet old age, and restfulness to your soul. Weaken not beating the boy, for he will not die from your striking him with the rod, but will be in better health: for while you strike his body, you save his soul from death. If you love your son, punish him frequently, that you may rejoice later. Chide your son in his childhood and you will be glad in his manhood, and you will boast among evil persons and your enemies will be envious. Bring up your child with much prohibition and you will have peace and blessing from him. Do not smile at him, or play with him, for though that will diminish your grief while he is a child, it will increase it when he is older, and you will cause much bitterness to your soul. Give him no power in his youth, but crush his ribs while he is growing and does not in his wilfulness obey you, lest there be an aggravation and suffering to your soul, a loss to your house, destruction to your property, scorn from your neighbours and ridicule from your enemies, and cost and worriment from the authorities.

The Domostroi stressed not merely obedience to the head of the family, but also an obligation from the head of the family to insure both physical (secular) well-being, and spiritual salvation.

The role and place of women is also well defined:

The Wife Is Always and in All Things to Take Counsel with Her Husband

In all affairs of everyday life, the wife is to take counsel with her husband, and to ask him, if she needs anything. Let her be sure that her husband wants her-to keep company with the guests she invites, or the people she calls upon. Let her put on the best garment, if she receives a guest, or herself is invited somewhere to dinner. By all means let her abstain from drinking liquor, for a drunk man is bad enough, but a drunk woman has no place in the world. A woman ought to talk with her lady-friends of handiwork and housekeeping. She must pay attention to any good word that is said in her own house, or in that of her friend: how good women live, how they keep house, manage their household, instruct their children and servants, obey their husbands, and ask their advice in everything, and submit to them. And if there is anything she does not know, let her politely inquire about it…. It is good to meet such good women, not for the sake of eating and drinking with them, but for the sake of good conversation and information, for it is profitable to listen to them. Let not a woman rail at anyone, or gossip about others. If she should be asked something about a person, let her answer: “I know nothing about it, and have heard nothing of it; I do not inquire about things that do not concern me; nor do I sit in judgement over the wives of princes, boiars, or my neighbours.”

It’s difficult to judge how much the Domostroi was read or even known or acknowledged in its own time, or at least when it was first compiled. The fact that several editions followed seems to indicate that it did become a popular resource at some point. Certainly, the text never disappeared, and remained a familiar reference, even today. The modern reference to the Domostroi and its rules has taken on a mocking slant, as to something that promotes an archaic mode of life and archaic views of human nature, or else to refer to someone who espouses antiquated values. Yet the principles of austerity, obedience to parents, and utter respect of elders, either reflected some core cultural elements, or else seeped into the cultural consciousness, because it certainly echoes the mindset and worldview of pre-Revolution peasants.

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