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The Status of Russian Women

In Russia, the husbands and wives of common people were closer than were the husbands and wives of the upper-classes. Christian tradition among the Russians held them to the belief that a husband had authority over his wife, and it was common for a religiously devout husband to discipline his wife by beating her. But among common folks a husband and wife were likely to be friends, and to remain friends despite the beatings, and a husband who beat his wife might ask for her forgiveness. A husband and wife were in need of each other, struggling as they were to survive. They laughed and cried together. They bathed together, and they ate together with other couples of their small community – especially in winter, when they entertained themselves by getting drunk together.

The upper-classes were more inclined to follow a cultural tradition inherited from the Eastern Orthodox Christianity of Constantinople. Boys and girls in the family were segregated. The tradition from Constantinople held women inferior, as more childlike and inclined more toward the wickedness of the original Eve. Girls were kept locked behind doors and taught prayer and household skills such as embroidery. While still adolescents, girls might be married to someone the father had decided was appropriate – after negotiations involving dowry size and assurances that the girl was a virgin. The father would order the girl to stand with him and be introduced to her husband-to-be. It was common for a little ceremony to follow. The father would touch his daughter's back with a coiled whip and say that she would now be free of his authority but that he was passing that authority to her future husband who, in his stead, would admonish her with this same whip, which he then gave to the husband-to-be. Continuing the ritual the husband-to-be declared that he believed that he would have no need to use the whip, and he attached it to his belt.

In the wedding ceremony, the young bride pledged fidelity to her husband. They exchanged rings. They were blessed by the Church, and the bride touched her forehead to her husband's shoes as a gesture of her subjugation. Then the groom covered his bride with the hem of his coat, symbolizing his obligation to support and protect her. Immediately they went to a nuptial bedroom while the wedding guests partied. The groom was given two hours. Then the guests, in accordance with tradition, burst into the bedroom, and upon hearing confirmation that the girl had been a virgin all cheered and continued their celebration.

The bride then went on to a life without rights except through the husband, just as she had had no rights except through her father. It was her duty to see to her husband's comfort and to bear his children. If the wife of an upperclass man was disobedient he might beat her. A work dating back to 1556, called The Household Management Code, attributed to a monk named Sylvester, advised that a disobedient wife should be whipped, with politeness rather than anger, and in secret. If a women turned on a husband she might try to kill him to protect herself, and if she succeeded and was prosecuted for it punishment was commonly burial up to the neck and being left to die.

An exceptionally strong woman with an exceptionally weak husband might dominate her husband. Some upper-class wives might play an active role managing the family's servants. But often upper-class wives were merely hidden away. Generally they dressed well, in brightly colored robes with golden threads and billowing sleeves, and they might wear glittering bracelets, but they were not likely to be seen in their glorious clothes except by the servants and her husband. Shopping was done by servants.

The daughters of a tsar led the most isolated lives. They were not allowed to marry beneath their rank, and they were forbidden from marrying foreign royalty, considered by the Church to be heretics or infidels. And marriage to a brother as among ancient Egyptian royalty was out of the question. This often left the tsar's daughters to a life of prayer, embroidery and gossip among other women. They would attend church via secret passage ways, where they would be shielded by a red silk curtain. If they were in a procession they would be behind a wall of canopies. Or if traveling over roads they would be out of sight in a specially designed carriage, sitting next to their maids and escorted by men on horseback who cleared the roads before them.

A husband divorced his wife by sending her to a convent. The Church allowed each husband two divorces. A woman sent to a convent had her head shaved and she was dressed in a long black gown with hood. Also in the convent might be widows driven there by greedy relatives wishing to avoid sharing an estate, or wives who had run away, preferring anything to going back to their husbands. These women were expected to die in their convent.

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