Although most of my blog posts are light-hearted, this one delves into an exceptionally unsavory aspect of peasant Russia.
You may recall from Who Is to Blame that a peasant household was composed of as many as two dozen people. Males were born and lived their entire lives in a single-room izba (hut). As patriarch of the family, the eldest male held all authority tightly in his grasp. At the bottom of the hierarchy was the young bride, dictated by tradition to live with her husband’s family. The snokha (daughter-in-law) gained a modicum of clout only after she’d proven her worth for a decade or two in the izba as well as in the fields, plus added sons to the household.
Imagine a lithe, 17-year-old female and a 40-year-male, no blood kin to each other, living in the tight quarters of a single-room izba. Although the cramped hut was also occupied by other family members, plenty of opportunities existed for the patriarch to be alone with his daughter-in-law (not only in the izba , but also the barn, woods, etc). If her father-in-law asserted his demands, the young woman had no choice but to submit.
Snokhachestvo (the illicit sexual relations between the patriarch and his daughter-in-law) was so pervasive, the peasants referenced it in a riddle.
I poke and poke.
At night I can’t see.
Daughter-in-law, let me
Try in the daytime.
Answer: Lock & Key
A man who made sexual advances toward his son’s wife committed a crime in the eyes of both the government and the Russian Orthodox Church. Punishment (if administered) was fifteen to twenty lashes.
The patriarchal power structure of the peasants made the behavior difficult to curtail. Barbara Apern Engle gives the following account in her book, Between the Fields and the City: Women, Work, and Family in Russia, 1861-1914.
After learning of his father’s actions, the son had hesitated for over a year before he brought his case to light, and when he did, it was to charge his wife with adultery. “I didn’t want to disgrace my father,” was how he explained his delay.