Family conflict, authority, and patriarchy in Russian history

In contrast to Nordic societies, Russia has always been portrayed as a hierarchical, authoritarian, and patriarchal society that resorted to violence in cases when hierarchies were not respected. Scholars assert that relationships within the Russian family, especially among peasants, were patriarchal and strictly hierarchical in which collectivism and inequality were widespread. Across classes, children were expected to obey their parents unconditionally. However, some scholars note that these relationships had been changing during the eighteenth century towards limiting parental authority, but generally children depended on their parents even after they married and had their own households.33

Family conflicts and attempts to prevent them from happening indicate deep gaps between normative understandings of the family and family relationships and de facto interactions between family members. For an early modern society, these conflicts also endangered political and social order as the family was seen as the foundation for both, as we have shown in Chapter 3. Absolute monarchies proceeded to construct the ideal of the family based on strict hierarchy, obedience, and discipline. However, with the development of natural law and social contract theories in the seventeenth century, the discourses of mutual duties and rights gradually emerged, so the eighteenth century spoke of rights and duties of those in power to ensure well-being and secure respect and obedience from those in submissive positions.34

Russian authorities paid as much attention to supporting and protecting the patriarchal family organisation as other European societies at the time. They dwelt on Christian didactic thought, which provided all the necessary rules and norms as to how this family ideal should function.

‘Honour thy father’: ideal parent–child relationships and reality

Every item of Russian didactic and legal literature contributed to shaping the ideal family model to teach the tsar’s subjects from early on how to respect the authority of the elders. Numerous homilies (such as St. John’s famous homily on honouring parents)35 and sermons insisted that love and respect of one’s parents came naturally as a part of God’s order and natural law. Similar to other European contexts, various moral guidance manuals produced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the most famous among them the Domostroi (the Domestic Order), constructed the ideal family as a Christianunion living in fear of God, in which the head of the family (the father) teaches his wife and disciplines his children and servants. This union is strictly hierarchical - the father answers to God, his wife to him, their servants to both of them respectively, depending on their gender, and their children to their parents. The father is also the only one with the right to discipline and punish everybody in his household, his wife, children, and servants. In return, children should love and obey their parents unconditionally, which is the premise for their long life and well-being.36 To ensure the ideal stands, Russian authorities entrusted the Orthodox Church to police family behaviour by means of confession and penitential discipline; it was, moreover, its natural jurisdiction to take care of observing Christian norms of everyday behaviour.

Legally, any disrespect towards parents was severely punished. The main legal code of the country - the Sobornoe Ulozhenie (the Conciliar Code) of 1649, which was an acting code until 1833 - stated that if children killed any or both their parents, the authorities were ‘to execute such children without any mercy’ (chapter XXII, art. 1). In addition, if children disrespected their parents, stole from them, or complained about their parents to any court, such children should receive severe corporal punishment and were to be handed over to their parents to be placed under ‘obedience’, that is, in slavery until death (XXII, art. 4-6). This system of close policing by the means of law and spiritual control worked to the benefit of the state.

In reality, according to surviving trial records, children insulted their parents, stole from them, wasted their money and estate, publicly disrespected them, and exhibited other unchristian behaviour. Parents complained about their children’s improper behaviour, disrespect, swearing, drinking, debauchery, and moral decay. Complaining to the authorities became one of the forms of family conflict resolution and prevention of possible escalation to physical assault. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, sons who drank heavily emerged as a homogeneous group that caused much trouble to their parents, both mothers and fathers. They were mostly single, often lived with their parents, led a disgraceful life abusing alcohol, engaging in lewd behaviour, and stealing to support their way of life.37 These narratives are very similar to contemporary parents’ complaints and profiles of male offenders in violence against parents’ cases.

The authorities often reflected upon and responded to parental complaints. As we have pointed out in this book, any statistical assessment of parent abuse or parricides is problematic. In Russia, criminal statistics were virtually non-existent before the beginning of the nineteenth century, so calculating incidents of non-fatal violence against parents and parricide rates and frequencies could only be done based on surviving sources. There are 104 cases of parricide detected in the various archives and printed sources for the period 1600-1800. Only 11 cases come from the seventeenth century due to the state of the records, while 61 cases belong to the period 1761-1800, when the survival rate of records happened to be much higher due to reforms in record-keeping, the preservation of archives, and the emergence of a separate

European parricide and parent abuse 161 judicial system with its own regulations for record preservation. The increase in the number of cases in the second half of the eighteenth century could also be attributed to the expansion of the Russian Empire and the fivefold increase of the population (from 7 million in 1646 to 37.4 million in 1796).38 However, despite this increase in absolute numbers, one to four parricides took place every year, which is rather a small number compared to, for example, spousal killings, which amounted to 10 to 20 or even more a year.39

Although parricides were rare, each time a case came to trial the authorities responded accordingly. The government’s concern grew with what they saw as an increase in cases of disrespect towards the authorities. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the family became a battleground for conflicting attitudes on the permissibility of discipline and the reconfiguration of the borderline between discipline and abuse. Peter I (reigned 1682-1725) attempted to bring a more mutually responsible approach to parent-child relationships, probably due to his own very problematic experience with his son. Peter consistently emancipated children from parental authority by allowing them more autonomy in making their own choices, either to marry or to choose their profession. The idea of mutual responsibilities of parents and children received its full realisation in Catherine H’s Police Regulations (1782), which stipulated:

X. Parents are masters of their children and their natural love towards them defines their duty to provide food, clothes and good and honest education appropriate to the social status for their children.

XI. Children have an obligation to pay their parents wholehearted respect, obedience, humility and love... and suffer parental correction and admonition patiently...40

Both Peter I and Catherine II, who ironically both had strained relationships with their sons, based their reforms on creating a new hybrid of citizens and subjects who were enlightened but obedient and respectful to any type of authority, starting with parents at the lower level of this hierarchy. The idea of an enlightenment monarchy very much involved the metaphor of family values and natural family hierarchy: children respected and obeyed their parents ‘wholeheartedly’, knowing that their parents wanted the best for them and, therefore, suffering from parental correction was to be received happily.

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