A Brief Introduction: The Russian Zagovor

Zagovory have been a fruitful scholarly topic in Russia for the last two decades, even as scholarly interest in Russian rural life has grown in the West. In their 2003 publication Polesskie zagovory [Zagovory from Poles’e], Tatiana Agapkina, Elena Levkievskaia and Andrei Toporkov suggest that almost everyone in the village knew a few zagovory, while a specialist would have from 30 to 60 in memory, sometimes supported by writing.[1] Indeed, as soon as literacy appeared, zagovory began to be written down as amulets for individuals (especially before going to court, to war or to prison[2]) and also as parts of collections of magic texts; manuscript copies show traditional Russian zagovory side by side with spells of clearly foreign prove- nance.[3] By the middle of the 19th century in the Russian empire, zagovory were being collected alongside other folk verbal artifacts, and many were published in late 19th and early 20th century, in editions priced for libraries and scholars rather than for villagers. In 1906, Russian poet Aleksandr Blok wrote about the poetics of the zagovor in a way that presumed great mental and cultural distance between the “we” of the educated, reading classes and “primitive” peasants who continued to employ zagovory in their everyday lives.[4]

In the Soviet period, zagovory were suppressed both because of their magical character (as part of a peasant culture stigmatized as backward) and because of their reflection of Orthodox Christianity. (Several zagovory in this collection too refer to religious figures.) Anyone caught using folk magic for household or healing purposes was liable to be fined or even arrested;[5] such outcomes actively discouraged public use of folk magic. Meanwhile, Soviet ideology prioritized science and technology over a “backwards” traditional worldview, as if opposing lampochki [little light bulbs] to be lit by electrification of the countryside to the “darkness” of traditional rural culture. At the same time, many small villages, condemned as maloperspektivnye [not very promising] were abandoned during dekulakization or left with insufficient resources to empty gradually. Nevertheless, to the extent that modern medicine was unavailable in far-flung rural areas, or clinics and hospitals were undersupplied, folk healing would remain attractive, even if it could not be practiced openly. Moreover, for Soviet citizens disenchanted with the official discourse traditional culture and folk healing in particular could offer appealing alternatives. The Soviet era kept zagovory in a kind of “deep freeze,” as outdated or even dangerous discourse, but the ban quickly lifted in the glasnost’ years. The late 1980s saw an upsurge in interest in folk healing, along with all sorts of other occult and esoteric discourses, as well as in traditional Russian Orthodoxy. Folk culture may exert a particularly nostalgic attraction in any modern industrial society, and all the more so after the traumas of the twentieth century in Soviet Russia.

Numerous zagovory were collected in the Soviet period and preserved in archives, ready for publication under new circumstances. The timing of collection and publication is indicative: zagovory brought back from decades of fieldwork expeditions in Karelia became fewer and briefer from year to year, and they languished in archives for years (with a few more years spent waiting for post-Soviet government funding).[6] The 1500 zagovory in Polesskie zagovory were collected during fieldwork seeking material for an ethnolinguistic atlas.[7]

Besides this kind of scholarly publication, pre-revolutionary editions have been reprinted en masse (sometimes with credit to the earlier editions, more often without), supplied with new introductions, and posted on web pages. Russians who utilize these sources today may or may not hold old kinds of belief about interacting with magical forces. Now that they have become so widespread and available, there is considerable cross-contamination with other materials and kinds of healing discourse: zagovory available on the internet are often posted on “women’s” sites adjacent to horoscopes and the like, with no indication of their provenance. It is unlikely now that anyone strongly interested in folk healing would limit his or her practice to a limited set of texts; even village dwellers saw the psychic healer Anatoly Kashpirovsky on television in the late 1980s. One New Age healer commented that the old traditional healers had limited themselves to zagovory, whereas she uses zagovory along with newly composed spells, manipulation of the joints, references to Chinese energy meridians, and so on.[8]

Zagovory were (and are) often written down, whether to support memory, in recognition of their value by newly literate carriers, or to ensure preservation of a spell that may be needed at some point in the future. The formal features of the zagovor are clear to anyone who works with them: particular opening formulae, closing formulae, and “nuggets” of plot or character inside that frame that address certain illnesses or other concerns. The “container” and the “contents” are usually equally formulaic, which makes it tempting to approach zagovory as oral folk compositions, shaped by rules like those discovered by Milman Parry and Albert Lord (for epic songs) and Vladimir Propp (for wonder tales).[9] For some lengthy zagovory recorded in the oldest publications, it seems implausible that their illiterate speakers would not have produced them using oral compositional devices familiar from other genres of expression, but there is no way of knowing. Shorter zagovory collected in the 20th century, such as those below, could plausibly be memorized word for word, and word-for-word memorization is certainly more characteristic of literates. Walter Ong suggests that knowing something “by heart” well enough to reproduce it identically from one performance to the next is understood differently in an oral society: “There can be little doubt, all in all, that in oral cultures generally, by far most of the oral recitation falls toward the flexible end of the continuum, even in ritual. [...] Statements, made in good conscience by oral persons, that renditions are word for word the same, as we have seen, can be quite contrary to fact.”[10] The “oral” individual is not lying, but simply understands word-for-word sameness in a different way; there is no way to evaluate the claim of sameness without written versions to compare. For information about the place of folk magic in Russian traditional society, readers who do not read Russian will wish to consult W. F. Ryan’s The Bathhouse at Midnight,u Linda Ivanits’s Russian Folk Belief,12 and Olga Semenova Tian-Shanskaya’s Village Life in Late Tsarist Russia,[11] while Galina Lindquist’s Conjuring Hope and Margaret Paxson’s Solovyovo show the continuing presence of folk magic in different parts of contemporary Russian society.14

  • [1] Polesskie zagovory (v zapisiakh 1970-1990-kh gg.), ed., comp. and commentary byT. A. Agapkina, E. E. Levkienskaia, A. L. Toporkov (Moscow: Indrik, 2003), 14.
  • [2] Court trials, war or prison would represent a situation where the need for a zagovor wasclear though it had not yet arisen: to deal with a situation expected to arise.
  • [3] Russkie zagovory iz rukopisnykhy istochnikov XVII-pervoi poloviny XIXv., comp., ed., andcommentary by Andrei L. Toporkov (Moscow: Indrik, 2010).
  • [4] Aleksandr Blok, “Poeziia zagovorov i zaklinanii,” Sobranie sochinenii, vol. 5 (Moscow-Leningrad: Gosdarstvennoe izdatel’stvo khudozhestvennoi literatury, 1962), 36-65; seeesp. 36-37. Blok’s examples seem to be based on published sources.
  • [5] Interviews with AR and EP, April and June 1998, Petrozavodsk, Karelia.
  • [6] T. S. Kurets and N. A. Krinichnaya, interview in Petrozavodsk, May 1998. The eventualpublication is Russkie zagovory Karelii, ed. and intro. Tamara S. Kurets (Petrozavodsk:Izdatel’stvo Petrozavodskogo gosudarstvennogo universiteta, 2000).
  • [7] Polesskie zagovory, 8.
  • [8] NF, personal interview, Petrozavodsk, May 1998.
  • [9] Albert B. Lord, The Singer of Tales (New York: Atheneum, 1965); Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folktale, translated by Laurence Scott (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968).
  • [10] Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London andNew York: Methuen, 1988), 64 and 66.
  • [11] u) William F. Ryan, The Bathhouse at Midnight: Magic in Russia (University Park, PA:The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999). See especially 164-216. 12) Linda Ivanits, Russian Folk Belief (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1992). 13) Olga Semyonovna Tian-Shanskaya, Village Life in Late Tsarist Russia, ed. David L. Ransel,trans. David L Ransel with Michael Levine (Indianapolis and Bloomington: IndianaUniversity Press, 1993). 14) Galina Lindquist, Conjuring Hope: Healing and Magic in Contemporary Russia (New Yorkand Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2006); Paxson, Margaret. Solovyovo: The Story of Memory in aRussian Village (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Indianapolis andBloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005).
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