Russian Etiquette
in the Reign of Peter I

At the court of Peter the Great. Artist: K.V. Lebedev

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In the turbulent 18th century under the rule of Peter the First Russia’s traditional mode of life underwent significant changes, moreover, not always for the best.

In 1697 Czat Peter went to Europe to get acquainted with the European way of life. The Czar returned to Russia with a host of ideas for reforming the country. They pertained not only to the military-industrial development, but the people’s everyday mode of life, too. Peter I was feverishly adopting western mores and introducing new forms of politesse. The many-centuries old, measured patriarchal mode of life in Russia was convulsing under the overwhelming, relentless onslaught of reforms. Thus, on August 29th, 1699 a decree came out ordering the male population of the country to shave their beards off and adopt the European dress code - something that could not fail to sow resentment among the Russian folk, brought up in patriarchal traditions. Since the boyars had no other option, they quickly started adopting the European manners, all the while holding onto the traditions of old when it came to everyday way of life.

Peter’s reforms changed the status of Russian women. Prior to that they had led a secluded way of life, rarely putting in an appearance in male society. However, from now on it was prescribed that they appear in society – a fact that many historians believe led to a subsequent tempering of the prevalent at the time coarse manners of the stronger sex.

The lifestyle of the younger generation – the offspring of the Russian aristocracy - altered as well. From now on they were sent to study at educational establishments where they mastered not only the sciences, but society manners and etiquette as well; they learned fencing, rhetoric, dancing, and so on.

Special publications came out, containing instructions aimed at the young people – teaching them the accepted behavior patterns in society and in specific situations. The most successful of these was “Youth’s honest mirror, or Instructions of civil bearing”, which came out in 1717 at orders from Peter I. The book had been noticeably impacted by the etiquette system of King Louis ХIV, developed on the basis of miniature cards – "etiquettes", which contained rules of conduct for courtiers at the royal balls and receptions. Possibly, that is how the word “etiquette” got its modern meaning. True, the etiquette was not copied blindly, but adapted to suit the lifestyle and mores of the Russian people. The book stressed that Christian ethics formed the groundwork for good upbringing: cordiality, humility, gallantry, respect for the elders, and not just noble rank. The moral core remained pivotal and retained traditional features.

As far as table manners went, it was a veritable treatise which has lost none of its actuality today. It read: “When you are seated at table with others, maintain certain rules: firstly, pare your nails, so they do not offend others with their black fringe of dirt; then wash your hands thoroughly and seat yourself with propriety, maintaining straight posture, do not slouch or dangle your feet; never be the first to grab food off the platter, do not slurp like a pig, do not blow at your soup to cool it as you might spatter those seated near you; do not sniffle or wheeze when eating; do not be the first to drink, show restraint and moderation, avoid drunkenness. Be the last to take something from the platter. When drinking, do not wipe your mouth with your hand, but use a napkin, and do not drink before you have swallowed your food. Likewise, do not speak until you have swallowed. Do not lick your fingers or gnaw at bones but rather use your knife to cut the meat. Help yourself to what is laid out in front of you, instead of grabbing pieces from all over the table. Do not soil the table cloth; do not build a heap of bones, or crumbs or suchlike by the side of your plate. Once you are through eating, thank the Lord, wash your face and hands, and rinse your mouth.”

So that is how future rules of etiquette were taught in Peter’s epoch. Already then the spoon, fork and knife were used as a kit.

And so, starting with the 18th century, there existed two approaches to upbringing in Russia: the first, traditional, was rooted in Ancient Rus’, and the second – contemporary – was molded along the typical European norms. This ambiguity couldn’t but negatively impact Russian society, resulting in increased severity of serfhood on the one hand, and extended liberties for the aristocracy – on the other.

After the death of Peter I there dawned the epoch of palace revolutions. This was a time when all things French were all the rage – something that left a negative impact on the mores of Russian upper aristocracy and Russian culture in general. Outward etiquette form became the priority. In a bid to provide their offspring with the best European education, the upper classes invited French tutors, who more often than not possessed neither adequate knowledge, nor particularly admirable spiritual qualities. The result – upper class offspring ceased to speak their own native language, everything Russian was sneered at, despised, and cast aside in favor of French. It was only in 1812 that society woke up to reality, when Napoleon’s army invaded Russian lands. The patriotic war ended with a resounding victory of Russian weaponry. From that moment on, society revised its attitude to finally give preference to Russian national culture.

At the time here in Russia, just as elsewhere in the world, the imperial court served as a model of proper upbringing and strict etiquette. Future heirs to the throne were raised from infancy in the spirit of Orthodoxy and Russian national traditions. The child was entrusted to the care of a Nanny from among the ranks of peasant women, since it was believed only a common Russian woman could inculcate a love for traditional national values and lay the necessary moral groundwork for a proper upbringing. An elite European education was secondary, since it chiefly came down to outward behavioral patterns. It helped master foreign languages, become acquainted with European culture, develop refined taste and good manners. An essential must were lessons in dancing, music, painting, other forms of art. Children in upper classes were given a similar rearing.

Thanks to a synthesis of two cultures there developed a whole new type of genteel person in Russia – a comme il faut Russian-style.However, the Russian culture of the first half of the 19th century not only absorbed elements of European culture, but, in turn, left its own impact on it. Thus, the Russian system of table layout was more convenient, practical and aesthetic as compared to the English and French.

The table setting “а la russe” only made use of fruits and floral arrangements; the courses were never set out in advance.

And they were brought out pre-carved, in order of agreed priority. The Russian table layout system found its rightful place in the diplomatic protocol and has been acknowledged classical.

In the second half of the 19th century Russia stepped onto the capitalist road of development. The merchantry, which had chiefly emerged from the peasant ranks, upon rising to affluence, did not immediately appreciate the importance of culture, upbringing and society etiquette. It was too caught up in flaunting its undue wealth, in a parade of tasteless apparel and ostentatious jewelry. Some time passed and entrepreneurs came to realize that morals sans inner and outward grace were like… kindness performed with a sullen expression on one’s face; that an excessive striving for profit in the Russian milieu came across as unseemly, having a negative effect on business affairs. The young Russian bourgeoisie began to eagerly learn from the aristocracy, which, in turn, generously shared with it its secrets that no money could buy: on how to cultivate outward and inner culture and bearing. Thus, there emerged a new class of entrepreneurs, for whom notions of “honor” and “dignity” in the business world had no less importance than for the aristocracy – in high society.

There emerged the motto: “Merchants’ honor!” Thus, one of the characters of the play by Alexander Ostrovsky “Without a Dowry” likens the merchant’s word of honor with leg irons, which firmly bind business ties. On one’s honor merchants concluded multi-million transactions. Anyone who went back on their word went bankrupt – they were simply «forced out» of the merchant milieu.

As of 1880 and right up until the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 Russia published a newspaper of the business circles “Stock-exchange bulletin (Vedomosti)”, the principal motto of which was: “Profit comes first, but honor comes before profit”.

The culture of the entrepreneur class flourished, first and foremost, in Moscow. Unlike Petersburg, heavily influenced by European fashions and trends, it preserved the national customs, a custodian to Russian values of old. To a great extend this was due to the Moscow merchantry, distinguished for its devoutness and high morals. Among the new generation of entrepreneurs there was no end of striking, highly individual people, who put their wealth to charitable use. Such names as Tretyakov, Ryabushinsky, Bakhrushin, Schukin and Mamontov, and others – all went down in history for their efforts towards development of education, science and culture in Moscow.

Thus, the notion of “etiquette” crossed over from high society circles and, penetrating ever more strata of society, became an asset of general Russian culture. Thus, great Russian writer Anton Chekhov, who was of peasant origins, was noted for outstanding inner culture.

“To a great extend Chekhov was a self-educated man,” said Doctor of Philology Mikhail Dunayev. “He was an amazing individual, and this was reflected in his art. Chekhov’s code of a well-bred person contained rigid requirements of imperative. Here are some of its provisions:

“Well-bred people respect another’s individuality, and as such show indulgence, are invariably courteous, gentle and acquiescent…

They display compassion not only towards beggars and stray cats.

They respect another’s property, and accordingly pay all their debts.

They are honest and forthright, with an aversion for falsehood. They never stoop to lies even in minor matters.

They do not abuse another’s heartstrings, just to be coddled and sighed over in response.

They are not vain. They are impervious to such false diamonds as acquaintance with celebrities…

They cultivate in themselves an inner aesthetics. They cannot fall asleep in their outdoor garments, calmly gaze upon wall cracks seething with bedbugs, inhale stale, disgusting air, step on a filthy floor..

They try to curb and control their sexual appetites. Never guided by base carnal lusts, they seek in a woman freshness, purity, elegance, humaneness, the ability to be a mother.

Source & Copyright: The Voice of Russia
3 February, 2012