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Marriage Customs Of Russia

( Originally Published 1897 )



THAT Russians do not esteem women highly is clearly shown by their proverbs. " There is only one soul," they say, " between ten women." A husband declares, I love thee as my soul, and I beat thee as my cloak." In country districts they marry early, but the sons do not quit their father's house. This arrangement is found to be very profitable, for the daughters-in-law not only all work, and so increase the wealth produced by the family, but also bring a portion of land with them as dowry. Boys are now forbidden to marry until they attain the age of seventeen, but it is not very long ago that grown-up women were to be seen carrying about boys of six to whom they had been betrothed.

Kovalevsky has well shown that many of the marriage customs of this country are survivals from a primitive and prehistoric age when the woman ruled the household and had more than one husband. The tie between brother and sister is very strong, the brother being her guardian and protector. He plays a very important part at the wedding. Thus, in accordance with old custom, when the bridegroom has arrived at the bride's house her brother sits down by her side with a naked sword, or a stick in his hand, and, on being requested by the bridegroom to surrender his seat, replies that he is there to keep ward over his sister, and will not move unless he is paid for it.

" Dear brother, don't give me away for nothing ; ask a hundred roubles for me, and for the veil which covers my head a thousand roubles. Ask for my beauty, God alone knows how much." Such is the tenor of the songs composed for the occasion. This shows that brothers had the power of selling their sisters in marriage, and it all points to a distant age when the matriarchal system prevailed, and the brother was his sister's guardian. In Little Russia the brother's sword is decked with the red berries of the rowan tree, red being the emblem of maidenhood.

The Bride-show," another ancient custom, is no longer kept up. Youths and maidens of the trading class used to assemble in great numbers, some to admire, others to be admired. The girls stood in a row, arrayed in their best dresses, their mothers keeping guard behind. Speaking of one of these shows, an English traveller relates that one of the mothers, being at a loss to think of any fresh charm for her daughter, made a necklace of six dozen silver-gilt spoons, a girdle of an equal number of tablespoons, and fastened a couple of silver ladles behind in the form of a cross. The young men walked up and down like inspecting officers, but were not allowed to express their admiration. If a youth found a maiden to his fancy, he could arrange for the betrothal through a match-maker. The embassy or party which, among the peasants, goes to the girl's house always starts at night, and tries to avoid meeting any person, for that would be a bad omen. Having knocked at the cottage door and asked permission to enter, they are politely received and requested to take seats, which they refuse to do until the purport of their visit has been declared. " We have a brave youth," they say, " you have a fair maiden. Might not the two be brought together ? " The parents of the girl acknowledge the compliment, and then all sit down to a meal. When this is over the embassy ask for a final answer, and the parents, having first pleaded for delay, give their consent. Then follows the "hand-striking," or first ceremony, before the betrothal, which cannot be broken. A candle is lighted and placed before the holy picture ; the youth and the maiden utter a prayer and strike hands over the bargain. As with the Chinese, the Jews of old, and other peoples, so here the girl must bewail the change that is in store for her, and continue to do so up to the time of the actual marriage. Her companions, on the day before the wedding, express her feelings in many poetic forms, while she undoes her long single plait of hair, the badge of maidenhood, and distributes the ribbons and flowers thereon.

In old days a betrothed maiden, by way of expressing complete submission to her lord, presented him on the wedding-day with a whip made by herself, and he went through the ceremony of giving her a gentle stroke on the shoulders, to show that he intended to be master. Another custom, now changed, had the like significance ; after the marriage ceremony the bride used to knock her head on her husband's shoe in token of obedience, and he cast the lap of his gown over her in token of his duty to protect and cherish her (compare Ruth iii. 9). But at the present day the bride need only make a show of prostrating herself at his feet.

The betrothal is a ceremony performed with the rites of the Eastern Church, and takes place eight days before the marriage. During the interval between betrothal and marriage the bride's girl friends endeavour to amuse her and keep up her spirits (for she is supposed to be in a state of lamentation and grief) by singing to her, and their songs tell of the happiness of married life. On the day before the wedding they conduct her to the bath (as among Arabs and others), where much time is spent in dressing her hair, while she listens to their songs.

Russian marriages are attended by a great deal of ceremony. In middle-class life there are a great many " assistants " to be invited. These are the " witnesses " to the register, being the nearest relatives of the pair the " ladies of honour " who accompany them to church ; the bridesmen " acting as stewards ; and the boyarin, who carry the sacred pictures. Among nobles the wedding takes place in the evening. Both bride and bridegroom receive a solemn blessing from their parents before leaving their houses, and even the wedding garments are blessed by the priest. The boyarin carry the sacred picture in procession before the couple to the church, where a lighted wax taper is given to each, and the belief is that the one whose light goes out first will be the first to die.

The marriage service is divided into three parts, once celebrated at different times, but now all taken together. The first is the office of Espousals, in which gold rings are exchanged. Secondly, the office of Matrimonial Coronation, in which bride and bride-groom are crowned with crowns of silver filagree (or garlands). Thirdly, the office of the Dissolution of the Crowns. It has been well pointed out that all these ceremonials are so exactly like those of the old Roman nuptials that they would appear to have been derived therefrom. Roman poets and historians allude to them all.

The giving of wine mingled with water is an allusion to the marriage of Cana, and takes place after the last of the above ceremonies. Then the pair, following the priest, walk three times round the small movable altar on which the cross and the Gospels are placed, listen to exhortation, kiss one another three times, and receive his benediction. They also kiss the holy pictures.

One of the many superstitions still prevailing among the peasant population of Russia is that, on the occasion of a marriage, the happiness of the newly-married couple is not assured unless the parents of the contracting parties are soaked with water from head to foot. When a marriage takes place in summer this is easily accomplished by ducking the fathers and mothers in the nearest river, but in winter they are laid on the ground and rolled in the snow. According to the Moscow correspondent of The Daily Mail, the observance of this curious custom has recently caused the death of a bride's father in the village of Sysertsky, in the Upha province. In this case the wedding guests were all drunk, as is usual on these occasions, and, instead of simply rolling the man in the snow, they brought water out of the house in a bucket and threw it over him. Now the temperature was far below the freezing point, and consequently it is not surprising to read that the unfortunate man took a severe chill from which he never recovered.

The following account of a marriage in middle-class life is chiefly derived from a detailed description, given many years ago by Dr. Granville in his book on St. Petersburg. At the appointed time a large number of friends of the parties, having previously assembled in the church, attended by a deacon, proceeded down the church from the altar to the door, where he received the candidates for matrimony. After he had delivered to each a lighted taper, and made the sign of the cross three times on their foreheads, he conducted them to the upper part of the nave. The bride was attended by young ladies in splendid dresses, and incense was scattered before them as they advanced. The priest, as he went, recited a litany in which the choristers assisted, and, at its conclusion, halted before a table, on which the rings were deposited ; then, turning towards the altar with the bride and bridegroom behind him, he repeated a very short and impressive prayer, or invocation. After this he turned round to the couple and blessed them ; and then, taking the rings from the table, gave one to each, proclaiming in a loud voice that they were married to each other " now and for ever, even unto ages of ages." This declaration he repeated three times, the bride and bridegroom exchanging rings at each declaration. The rings were then again surrendered to the priest, who, after having crossed the foreheads of the young couple with them, placed them on the forefinger of the right hand of each. He then again turned towards the altar and read another impressive part of the service, in which allusion is made to all the passages of the Bible in which a ring is mentioned as the symbol of union, honour, and power.

After this, the priest took the young couple by the hand and led them towards a silken carpet which lay spread on the ground. This is to the mass of spectators a moment of great interest ; for it is firmly believed that the one who first steps upon the carpet will have the mastery of the other throughout life. " In the present instance," says Dr. Granville, " the bride secured possession of this prospective advantage with modest forwardness."

Two silver imperial crowns were then produced by a layman, and received by the priest, who, after blessing the bridegroom, placed one of. these ornaments on his head ; the other was merely held over the bride's head in. order that the superstructure raised by a fashionable hairdresser of St. Petersburg might not be deranged. After the crowning, a cup was brought to the priest, who after drinking from it himself, gave it to the bride-groom, who took three sips, and then delivered it to the bride, by whom the same ceremony was repeated. After a short pause other prayers were recited, and, these being concluded, the priest took the pair by the hand, and walked three times round the desk, reciting some sentences. Then, taking off the bridegroom's crown, he said, Be thou magnified, 0 bridegroom, as Abraham ! Be thou blessed as Isaac, and multiplied as Jacob, walking in peace, and performing the commandments of God in righteousness." In removing the bride's crown he said, And be thou magnified, 0 bride, as Sarah ! Be thou joyful as Rebecca, and multiplied as Rachel ; delighting in thine own husband, and observing the bounds of the law, according to the good pleasure of God."

After this the tapers were extinguished, and taken from the bride and bridegroom, who were then dismissed by the priest with his blessing, and received the congratulations of the company, and saluted each other. Dancing and feasting continue for three days after the wedding, and on the eighth day, the parties again repair to the church, when the priest performs the ceremony of " Dissolving the Crowns " with appropriate prayers. Things have changed since Dr. Granville saw this wedding, and now the " dissolving of the crowns " is part of the actual marriage service.

Marriages sometimes take place among the poor convicts in Siberian prisons. According to law, the woman must follow her husband, and therefore the wives and fiancees of the condemned must ask and obtain permission to follow them into exile. When husband and wife are both prisoners, the man being condemned to exile in Western Siberia, while the woman must go to Eastern Siberia, the position is reversed and the husband follows the wife. How sad and strange are these marriages, performed by consent of the Minister of the Interior, before a temporary altar in the Director's office, or in one of the cells, all wearing grey cloaks and sometimes chains ! The unhappy pair cannot live together until after arrival at their destination.

Among the Koraks of Siberia a young man seeks for a maiden with considerable dowry in the form of rein-deer which are the most valuable kind of property in these parts. As in all eastern countries, the marriage is arranged with the young woman's parents. Should they be satisfied with his position and prospects in life, the would-be husband is allowed to propose matrimony to the girl herself. On being accepted, the lover takes up his abode in the home of his future wife, but he must not be afraid of hard work ; for a young man in this position is expected to be a hewer of wood and a drawer of water, and generally to contribute to the interests of the family who have adopted him. These people have an interesting survival of the ancient institution of marriage by capture. The game, as played by the lover and the betrothed, somewhat resembles the well-known hide-and-seek " so popular with children in all countries. It appears to be the chief ceremony at a wedding, and doubtless affords endless amusement to the assembled guests. The family dwelling-place is a large tent, with many compartments, separated off by hanging curtains of reindeer skins. Some contain as many as twenty-six compartments ; all arranged in a circle around the open space in the centre. Here the assembled guests are crowded together to witness an amusing and highly exciting scene. Points of matrimonial etiquette are keenly discussed as they stand round the fire that lights up the tent, or regale themselves with the good things served up for the feast. Much hot tea is drunk on these occasions. There is plenty of noise too ; for a drummer is employed who vigorously beats a native drum. Soon a tall, elderly Korak enters, bearing under his arm a bundle of willow-shoots, which he distributes throughout the tent, leaving one in each compartment. We shall see presently how these are used. The drummer now adds to the noise and excitement by singing a loud and barbarous chant. Then the bride and bridegroom are brought forth in the company of an old man.



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