Russian Etiquette
in Early Russia

Merchant Family in the XVII century. Artist: Andrey Ryabushkin

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Etiquette is an important part of the traditions of a people’s external culture. It is a behavioral model that reflects the epoch, molds samples and patterns of refined style and superior taste. But most importantly – etiquette is always closely connected with national customs of a people, their spiritual outlook.

The word etiquette came to the Russian language from French. It has a Greek root: “etos” - custom, character, just as the notion “ethics” - a system of standards of morality, moral norms of behavior. However, in Russia etiquette was never deemed just a form, a manner, an outward manifestation of aristocratism. It was invariably rooted in the spiritual norm, on the basis of which all of Russian etiquette culture evolved through the centuries, filtering all the best that came from without.

“Partaking of food and drink should be without undue noise, in the presence of elders – silence be maintained; the wise – be listened to and heeded with all due attention; one’s seniors are to be obeyed; with all equals and juniors – abide in love and accord; converse without cunning implications, indulging in more reflection; there should be no raging and fuming in speech, or undue recrimination; laughter should be indulged in sparingly…” – these were the edifications that Grand Prince of Kievan Rus’ Vladimir Monomakh wrote for his children. Dating back to the 12th century, undoubtedly, today they sound just as timely. Vladimir Monomakh’s treatise “For the edification of Children” one could confidently dub a Code of Conduct, that formed the cornerstone of Russian national etiquette.

Good upbringing, with due respect for the code of conduct, has always been based on continuity of traditions. Since infancy Monomakh was brought up in the spirit of Orthodoxy and the best traditions of Byzantine culture.

Vladimir Monomakh’s grandfather - Grand Prince Yaroslav the Wise in his rule established dynastic ties with many European countries. Moreover, at the time Rus’ was noticeably superior to western European countries in its level of culture in general, and in behavior norms, specifically. Thus, Yaroslav the Wise’s daughter, Anna, married King Henry I of France (who reigned from 1031 ‘till 1060) and gave birth to King Philippe, in whose infancy she ruled France. She became the epitome of perfect upbringing for the French court of the period. Unlike the King himself and his entourage, who could not even sign their name, putting a cross in its stead, Anna signed her name “Queen Anna” in Russian. The French preserved her signature on one of the state charters.

Vladimir Monomakh owed his parents a great deal. His father Prince Vsevolod – was well-versed in foreign languages - Greek, Latin, German, Czech and Polish.

Domostroi (The Household Book).

His mother – Princess Anna, was daughter of the Byzantine Emperor Konstantin Monomakh. She received an excellent education and was considered highly educated for those times. Princess Anna promoted traditional Byzantine ceremonials and traditions at the Russian royal court, helping them set down roots. All this was inherited by her first-born, whom she surrounded with a batch of top-class tutors. The young prince was told: “Why do you dress up so? If people cannot recognize you when you are wearing commoner’s dress of coarse fabric, then what kind of prince are you?” Vladimir’s tutors humbled his pride, inculcating in him the notions that a prince is distinguished not by his fine dress and regalia, but by upbringing and high moral standards. A true prince of the blood is recognized by the nobility of his spirit, lofty stature and facial expression, wisdom, foresight, kind and generous heart, exquisite manners. In that case, even when dressed in commoners’ garb, he shall be recognized for who he truly is.

An upbringing in the spirit of piousness and pure-bred aristocratism put down deep roots, only to yield glorious fruits. Having become a father, Vladimir Monomakh instructed his own offspring in the best traditions of his parents’ edifications. Thus, his famous treatise emerged – Vladimir Monomakh’s Instruction: An Old Russian pedagogic treatise, that we mentioned above.

“Upon learning much that is useful and good, you must remember: what you do not yet know – you must learn,” instructed the Prince.

He called upon the children to fight off idleness and always be usefully employed: “Man must always learn and better his mind, no matter where he might be – on the road, on one’s mount.”

According to Vladimir Monomakh, “Every person should take pains to try and do everything by himself, without resorting to servants or inconveniencing others unduly.”

He wrote: “At all times honor a guest, no matter where he might be coming from; be he a commoner or of noble origins, or an ambassador; if you cannot honor him with a gift, then do so with food and drink, and a sincere kind word”…

He called on his sons to forge the unity of the Russian land, and readied them for state service. Upbringing was based on cleanliness of the spirit. And thus etiquette was not just an outward form, a manner of behavior, acceptable in certain elite society; it embodied profound spiritual and moral values.

Vladimir Monomakh’s principles of upbringing were pertinent not only to the nobility, but aptly applied to all of Russia’s population. Despite the over two centuries’ long Tatar-Mongol yoke, that had significantly rusticated, coarsened the mores of our ancestors and impacted Russian culture, it was nonetheless powerless to eradicate the many-centuries old system of upbringing prevalent in olden Rus’. The Orthodox faith and mores, bequeathed by Vladimir Monomakh, remained inviolable.

We have already mentioned that Russian culture was significantly impacted by Byzantium, and after the decline of this one-time powerful empire, the second Rome, Russua inherited together with the imperial set-up a great many diverse Byzantine customs and traditions, and behavioral patterns. A very significant role in this was played by Sofia Paleolog, niece of the last emperor of Byzantium, Constantine ХI, who arrived in Russia in 1472 and became wife of Moscow Grand Prince, Ivan III.

Their marriage was conducive to proclaiming Rus’ a successor to Byzantium, something that was acknowledged in Western Europe as well. Byzantine empire passed on to Russia not only the monarchic state setup, but the state etiquette as well: its diplomatic rituals were noted for lofty and pompous splendor.

Under Ivan III evolution of etiquette continued. The Russian Grand Princes’ court, and later – the czar’s court, just like the court of Byzantine Emperors, began elaborating and regulating norms of social behaviorial patterns (with strict respect for rank).

There emerged such a concept as “noblesse oblige”, which became one of the fundamental principles of nobility etiquette.

In 1480 Ivan III succeeded in finally shaking off the Tatar horde’s hateful yoke. He secured himself the title of Grand Prince of All Russia. That moment marked the start of the Russian culture resurrection. The country’s international authority soared, its foreign ties flourished, and, consequently, a growing rapprochement began with cultures of European countries, their customs, traditions and mores. Certainly, there were considerable changes in the mode of life, but they applied only to the outward aspects, never affecting the inherent traditional culture layer, bequeathed by Vladimir Monomakh. As Russian historian Nikolai Karamzin wrote: “Ivan, incorporating Russia into the realm of European states and zealously adopting from the arts of educated nations, had no thought of introducing new customs or altering the moral outlook of his subjects.”

In the 15th-17th centuries Russia was becoming increasingly more open to the European world, eagerly acquainting itself with its culture, art, science, technical novelties. However, by far not everything that infiltrated from Europe was beneficial for the country. Which is why new mode of conduct rules was long overdue – reflecting the new times. That is how the Domostroy, the “Household Book” appeared, edited by an expert on court etiquette, clergyman Sylvestre, adviser to Czar Ivan IV dubbed the Terrible.

“The Household Book” - was an encyclopedia of domestic life of the upper layers of Russia’s society in the 16th century. It gave detailed guidelines on bringing up children, conducting household affairs, cooking food, greeting guests, etc. Here are a few excerpts from it.

“Never do unto others what you do not want for yourself.”

“When summoned to a feast, do not rush to claim place of honor: what if there are others more worthy of it among the guests, and the host shall approach you to utter: “Surrender your place to them!” And, shamed, you shall be forced to change over to the lattermost seat. If you are invited, upon entering, take the lattermost seat, so when the host comes to you and says: “Friend, come, seat yourself higher up!” then the other guests shall honor you.”

“As they place diverse viands afore you, but there is one more worthy and loftier among you, do not proceed to partake until they have done; if, however, you are the guest of honor, then you may rightfully partake of the offered viands first.”

“The bread should be broken into small pieces and placed in one’s mouth; chewing is done with one’s mouth closed and silently.”

These instructions clearly defined the future norms of diplomatic protocol. Its slogan is: “Know one’s place”, - and each person is prescribed to observe it in accordance with one’s rank at all official functions.

“Servants during a feast, as they served the assembled guests, changed their attire thrice (on particularly solemn occasions – more often – almost for every new dish they served).”

“The Household Book” reads: “The host must insist the guest be seated in place of honor.”

“A guest cannot refuse offered viands without offending the host. In turn, the host was to wine and dine the guests, in a display of respect.”

Since olden times, the etiquette of Slav peoples required that the guests wait until the hosts twice or even thrice requested them to try their viands. A specific feasting ritual was formed. After taking a sip and a few mouthfuls of the proffered beverages and dishes, the guests set it aside, as though having finished with it. After another insistent request from the hosts, they would resume the dish. Once again, they would halt, and so it went to the end of the feast. There was even a special word to describe the ritual: ponukat’, in the direct sense meaning ‘spurring on’ by the hosts.

“The Household Book” became a symbolic milestone between old Rus’ and the new Russia, since it not only enforced, but developed moral and aesthetic traditions of the Russian people.

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