Kinship Relations and the Russian National Character

Reading “Village” by Ivan Bunin (1870-1953), I came across a remarkable passage. Voiced by a provincial anti-Slavophile, Kuzma Krasov, it uses relations between kin and affines to illustrate the peculiarities of the Russian national character. Kuzma Krasov thinks Russians are a “wild nation” exceeding others in brutality. His great-grandfather, a Gypsy, was mauled by his master’s hunting dogs for having eloped with his master’s paramour. Kuzma Krasov cites (Bunin I.A. Derevnia. Moscow, 1981, 72) passages from Russian epics (byliny), Russian village lore (songs and sayings) and various historical writings to show how relationships between parents and children, husbands and wives, brothers- and sisters-in-laws, parents-in-law and daughters-in-law were fraught with perfidy, backbiting, mud-slinging and direct violence.

In the discourse of Slavophiles, on the other hand, the same Russian village kinship relations were used as an argument for the purity of the Russian soul serving as an antithesis and a potential savior of the Western civilization. In both cases, kinship is treated as the central locus defining the meaning of an ethnic character (comp. the use of Indo-European kinship terms as proving the kinship of Indo-European languages among such Neo-Grammarians as the Grimm brothers), but its interpretation by Slavophiles vs. Westernizers is diametrically different. In one of my papers published in Russian, I argued for a close connection between kinship and ethnicity. This stands unchanged. But it’s important to think about both not as the celebration of sameness, homogeneity and amity, but equally as schismogenic (Pace Gregory Bateson) social structures capable of manifesting themselves as social conflicts.

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