«Работа с сознанием — это прагмема»
М. Мамардашвили

Svetlana Adonyeva. Remembering Rituals and Social Cohesion: Russian Traditions in 20 − 21st centuries

This talk was presented in November 2014 at the Dashkova Open Seminar (The Princess Dashkova Russian Centre, The University of Edinburg)


I want to talk about modern memorial rituals in Russia. I suggest that investigation of remembering practices and rituals can help us to understand something about social rules and orders as well as the common values on which Russian social life is based.


As is well demonstrated in the ethnographic literature, a characteristic feature of Russian rural culture was the view that life has a predestined length. Anyone who died a natural death in old age was viewed as having died at the “correct” time. According to one proverb “One does not die when old, but when ripe” [umiraet ne staryi, a pospelyi.] (Bernshtam 2000, 180).  Russian rural people often refer to those who have died a natural death collectively as “roditeli” (parents, ancestors). These ancestors, it is believed, must be honoured by the living if the living wishes to avoid serious consequences, such as emotional upset, visitations by the dead, and illnesses.

By contrast, a person who does not live out his or her allotted time is said to die a “bad” or “incorrect” death. The Russian ethnographer Dmitrii Zelenin calls such deceased zalozhnye, the “set aside” dead, in the sense of a body that is placed separately from others (Zelenin 1916; Warner 2000a and 2000b). Among such “incorrect” deaths were those of murder and suicide victims and victims of accidents. Those who died in this way were subject to different funeral practices: they were buried outside the boundaries of the cemetery, or the funeral procession took a different route.  I want to underline that those who fell in battle (soldiers) and died far from their native places were viewed as having had a bad death. So they had to have different memorial rituals.

We’ll return to this theme later, but now I want to make one comment. Contemporary Russian commemorative traditions follow different memorial scenarios for those who fell in battle far from home,  on the one hand, and for the ancestors who lie in cemetery graves on the other. In every Russian town and village, we can see the same picture: the old cemetery is situated near the church, the modern cemetery is at the boundary of the settlement, and the memorial obelisk is in the centre. The latter is visited every year on the same day when the soldiers who died in the Second World War are commemorated. So the term “incorrect” death does not mean that the dead are bad or unclean, it means that they are out of the norm like the hero, the victim or the villain.

The correct death is associated with a person’s readiness to die. Preparing one’s own death clothes in advance, for example, which is still practiced today, is a gradual mental and practical preparation for death. That one is able to choose one’s own time of death is a belief we often hear in our interviews.  One woman told us, “This year I’ll live, and next year I’ll depart [go on a journey / uedu], either to the town or to the cemetery” (Roksoma, Vologda oblast, 2001). And she did: when we came to the village the following summer, we found out that she had died in the spring. According to the discourse of death, she had gone on a journey.

The following conversation about the preparations that individuals make for their own deaths shows the difference between the urban and village understanding of death. One can see that for the interviewer being ready for death is a new idea: she asks whether her informant is not afraid to think about death. In the city culture, people avoid thinking about the things that will happen after they are gone. The rural dweller in this interview does not understand what can be scary about preparing a dress for her funeral. She must look respectable in her coffin, and to prepare for that is a normal part of life.

Here is the transcript of the conversation:

<You prepare the funeral clothes yourself?>

Who else? All of them.

<So, you know when it's time?>

[laughs] Of course. I bought a sarafan, too. And everything’s ready.


Yes, everything.

<Aren’t you afraid?>

No. I bought the shoes and all, the boots, the pants and the shirt. What’s scary about it! I keep it out there in a cupboard.

 (Woman b. 1929, Kolmogora, Leshukonskii region, Arkhangel’sk oblast, 13 July 2009 [Lesh 17-22])

For many dwellers of large cities in post-Soviet Russia, death has become more removed from the family, while in the village, it is accepted as part of daily life. In the city, the family uses a service to take care of the body and organize the funeral, while in the village everyone is involved in every funeral. Children are not excluded but are taken to the home to say farewell to the deceased – even if the deceased is only a neighbour, not a relative. They see the dead body, and their parents take them to the cemetery for memorials and funerals.

In the village, the dead need certain services which can only be provided by community members: the neighbours (not the family) must wash the body and dress it in its death clothes. Every member of the community must say farewell and must accompany the body on the initial part of its journey. This is a duty to the deceased, more than to the living. The sense of connection with members of the community referred to by the Russians as “svoi” (literally ‘one’s own’) extends to them after death. The dead -- those who die a natural death -- are still svoi. They do not become alien or unclean as is commonly believed of the dead in urban centres.  

Because death is a public matter in the rural community, it is important what one wears when one is publically displayed after death. But what one wears is also important because life does not end at the moment of death. Death is an experience, not a lack of being. The myth of life after death underlies the practice of preparing the funeral clothes. Old women desire to look good and to feel comfortable in the future life.

Through practical preparations for death, our rural informants ready themselves for the rite of passage which is death itself. They gain control over their future existence in the new place to which they are going, the land of death or the Other World. They believe that they will join the roditeli, their honoured ancestors. They live and die with the certainty that their memory will be preserved via numerous community practices designed to keep the deceased peaceful and happy in their new state.  

The practice of remembering the deceased at specific times is a duty the living perform for their deceased relatives, to make their existence in the Other World easier, and even to remove them from a bad place (Hell, for example). The forms and times of these memorial practices vary in different areas, but all over Russia, the principle is the same: to remember the deceased is a duty of the living. The simplest act, which many of our village interlocutors perform daily, is remembrance while drinking one’s morning tea. In the Orthodox tradition, remembrance is included in the morning prayer ritual. 

 Mandatory visits to the cemetery take place on particular ancestor/ roditel’skie days. Depending upon the local tradition, they may include the following dates: 1) The Saturday before Maslenitsa (Butter) week, before Lent; 2) the second, third, and fourth Saturdays of Lent; 3) the Saturday before Troitsa, the ninth day after Ascension day; 4) Radonitsa or Radunitsa, the second Tuesday after Easter; 5) Dmitriev Saturday, a kind of Veterans’ day, the first Saturday of November; and 6) Veterans’ Day, celebrated in Russia on the ninth of May.

 Memorial communication with the ancestors of the clan (rod) becomes one of the ways in which people express their unity with each other. Relatives come from other villages and cities, and all join together in a common meal at the gravesite and accept some food from neighbours who are doing the same thing at the same time − so there is a kind of communion of relatives and neighbours on the one hand and of the living and the dead on the other.  So, remembering the dead is one of the rituals that construct social cohesion in the village community.

Many times we observed women taking meals to graveyards to be shared by the family on remembrance days. The meals contained special foods, such as kisel’, a sweetened grain and/or fruit jelly, and often vodka. The food would be eaten by the family and any passersby; then part of the meal would be left on the grave, and the vodka poured onto the grave, for the dead.

What is the idea that is symbolized by the partaking of a common meal at the gravesite?

On the one hand, the implication of a funeral is that the deceased physically leaves the community. On the other hand, the goal of the memorial rituals is the reincorporation of the dead into the community. Although the deceased are bodily located in a new place (underground in the cemetery) and spiritually occupy a new space (the Other World), they are still part of the extended community of the living. In order to maintain this contact, the living must accommodate the deceased by moving to “their” space (the space of the cemetery), by speaking to and about them.

And now I want to return to the differences between commemorative rituals in cities and villages. For city dwellers death has become removed from the family, special services take care of the body and prepare funeral rituals. Funeral processions are only seen in the case of celebrity deaths. Death as a normal event, as part of everyday life, has moved away from the public space. So one can say that the urban community does not have a symbolic language with which to express cohesion in the face of death. However, there is one kind of death that is accepted as a part of city public life. I mean the death of soldiers far from their native places and the erection of obelisks in their memory. Such monuments occupy central places in cities and, like village cemeteries, serve as places for public gatherings on the 9th of May, a day of commemoration which marks the end of the Second World War.

So, how are we to interpret all this?

 It would be helpful here to introduce the concept of a sacred–profane dichotomy as was first proposed by Émile Durkheim. He considered this to be the central characteristic of religion: "religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden." In Durkheim's theory, the sacred represented the interests of the group, in particular the feeling of unity, which is embodied in sacred group symbols. I argue that the dead themselves remain sacred objects for contemporary Russian society as a whole. This value has not changed. However, the social order has changed. As far as state memorial events are concerned social cohesion is provided only by accidental death or heroic death. Rituals dedicated to such deaths were intended to import a sense of the sacred and the metaphysical into the public life of Russian society. However, they do not make use of the whole gamut of sacred values available to memorial tradition as a whole. It is particularly noticeable that although these military heroes are honoured, for example by gifts of flowers or wreaths, no-one shares a meal with them. The only people who may share food with the dead are those who are part of the same mystical ‘communion’. It is self−evident that the ‘holy’ heroes, who are remembered in the public arena are not part of this ‘communion’/’community’.  They do not determine how relationships among the living are organized− they are outside the community of ‘one’s own ’people (svoi). By contrast, social inclusiveness is created out of the public gaze, by private groups of citizens through their gatherings on commemorative days, when they break bread both with the living and with the ancestors and in this way construct and preserve the community’s sacred values. Unlike the exclusivity of state memorial occasions, these private memorial gatherings are inclusive. They honour all the dead. The sharing of food between the living and the dead establishes the order of inter−relationships among the living members of the community. These include the notions of mutual support and help, both emotional and physical, which are understood by the expression ‘one’s own − svoi.