In the course of investigating marriage patterns among Russian peasants in the 18th and 19th century, Northwestern University history professor John Bushnell
discovered an unusually high rate of unmarried women in particular parishes and villages with high populations of Old Believers. In Russian Peasant Women Who Refused to Marry: Spasovite Old Believers in the 18th-19th Centuries
(Indiana University Press, 2017), Professor Bushnell explores the paradoxical practice of widespread marriage avoidance among Spasovite women after the acceptance of marriage by the previously celibate covenant. Professor Bushnell contextualizes the practice of marriage avoidance within a peasant culture in which universal marriage was vital to collective survival and women were understood as a communal resource to fulfill the imperative of procreation and the maintenance of the labor force, pointing out that the practice lead to community collapse after several generations. He hypothesizes that marriage avoidance constituted an unusual case of female agency in Spasovite communities as compared to traditional peasant norms – one which extended beyond the unmarried, making free choice of partner a community norm – and that the practice ended due to the economic and social instability which it created. An analysis of a previously understudied phenomenon, the book constitutes a significant contribution to the study of Russian peasant, religious, and matrimonial history.
Diana Dukhanova holds a PhD in Slavic Studies and an MA in Religious Studies from Brown University. She is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of Russian in the Department of Modern Languages at the College of the Holy Cross.