Traditional Russian Tools and Activities

by Lisa Kies, Aka Sofya la Rus

Updated 13 May 2005

The activities of village life centered around raising grain, vegetables, and livestock, preparing food, making and caring for clothing. The tools for these tasks were made to be rugged and practical, but with great care and attention to beauty as well.

Most activities were, obviously, seasonal. Festivities connected with St. George's Day (the first day of taking herds to pasture) and the beginning of the first grain harvest (around St. Peter's Day) required specially decorated garments and tools, and ceremonial bowls for the feasts.

Winter was the time for handcrafts to make objects to support the household and also for sale. It was a wearisome time in the Russian winter. Peasants could be isolated for days in smoky rooms with little light and many children. The seasonal handcrafts were most important in villages along the major trade arteries.

Farming tools were made for the peasants by the village blacksmith. A light wheel-less plow with iron share, a sokha, was used in the northern forests. Heavier, wheeled plows pulled by teams of horses or oxen were used for fallow fields or virgin soil, especially in the south. Hand tools included the scythe (kosa), the sickle (serp) and the flail (tsep). These were rarely decorated, nor were the winnowing baskets, troughs and barrels.

The yoke, duga, however, could receive special attention. It was tall and bow-like, for one or two horses, and brightly painted, carved, or hung with small metal bells. Representations of such yokes appear on distaffs and other utensils. An ordinary, every-day yoke would not be decorated this way, however. A decorated yoke from Russian Folk Art.

Many food utensils used the forms of ancient ceremonial vessels, and even the poorest households had some that were richly decorated and highly cherished. The oldest forms are found used for serving and drinking beverages on important occasions. Large vessels, kovshy, served mead, beer and kvass. Dippers, nalevki, were used for ladling drinks into individual cups. Dipper shaped cups for drinking were made from earliest times (a Ural peat bog find may date from 2,000 B.C.).

Each region had its own shapes and styles. One type of kovsh, or skobkar', was shaped like a swimming bird with head and tail forming handles and probably originated in the north, Volgda and Archangel'sk. Sometimes the head and tail of a horse replaced the bird. A deeper, more massive form of skobkar' was made in Yaroslavl. Moscow dippers were broader with shorter handles and called sudy in 17th cent documents. The long handles of ladling dippers were often treated more elaborately than the skobkari. Kozmodemiansk dippers had architectural forms of towers and archways surmounted by horses and birds. Some dippers from Kostroma were brightly painted rather than carved. A type from Tver', the koniukh or horse dipper, had 2 or 3 horse heads extending upward from steeply sloping sides. Surface ornament include abstract rosettes, wavy lines, stylized sun, wind and water symbols. A skobkar' and kovsh from Russian Folk Art.

Other early vessel forms were the bratina and the endova. Bratina derives from bratchina or bratovshchina, a feast of brothers. These large, spherical vessels often had inscriptions referring to reunions of relatives. Endovy are deep spouted vessels that appeared later but were widespread by the 16th century. They were made of fine wood and were ornamented with carving (around Tver') or painted (around Northern Dvina).

Everyday serving and storage vessels were simpler in shape and decoration. The main serving dishes were large bowls, up to 50 cm in diameter, from which the whole family would eat. Individual serving bowls, stavi, had lids that could also be used as dishes. And all were designed so that the smaller lidded cups, stavtsi and stavchiki, could fit inside the larger stavi for storage.

Wooden storage containers were lathe-turned or coopered. A special type, buraki, were canisters of birchbark, made double-layered to hold liquids. Those made along the Northern Dvina were brightly painted, while those from Velikii Ustiag were decorated with birchbark lace, sometimes backed with colored tinfoil or mica inserts. Another technique was plaiting or weaving narrow strips of birch bark to form a watertight surface. These forms were unique to the north of Russia.

Bread and salt have great ritual importance in Russian hospitality, so salt cellars and bread boxes were made and decorated accordingly.

Two main forms of saltcellar were developed long ago: the chair and the swimming bird. The chair was shaped like a princely throne and was most common in central Russia. The rectangular or polygonal base contained the salt and was covered by a flap lid and attached to an upright back. All surfaces were decorated with paint, intaglio or openwork designs, usually abstract and symmetrical. Duck-shaped saltcellars had a sliding lid in the form af a duck's back and wings. Some carried ducklings on their backs, others were modeled on geese, swans, horses or rams instead of waterbirds. One peasant so prized her saltcellar that she refused to sell it to a museum saying "Without her, the house would be impoverished."

Bread boxes were made of bast or thin wood, steamed to form curved sides, with lids made to fit tightly. The uniform ovoid shape provided better areas for painting than carving. One popular design featured a large fish on the lid surrounded by small figures eating and drinking. Other designs were similarly appropriate, or symbolic.

A bread box and salt cellar from Russian Folk Art.

The textile arts were also important in village crafts. Flax was harvested in late summer, the fibers were soaked and beaten, and then in the autumn and winter spinning, weaving, sewing and embroidering took place.

Tools included distaffs, looms, and scutchers, and were used in spinning, weaving, sewing, and laundering. These often were personalized to suit the needs and desires of the particular woman who would be using them everyday. Distaffs were especially decorated. They were often used at social gatherings and so were a good place to "show off" a little. Many have survived because they were cherished for these reasons.

like the beams of the houses, though the carving was a bit less abundant and was shallower. The design of the loom changed little from 13th century examples from Novgorod. The shuttles (chelnoki), pulleys (bloki) for lifting the thread, prtuzhalniki for stressing the warp and nabilki for fixing the thread, were often carved in the form of ducks, geese, horses, or horses' heads.

Many of the tools used to work with the woven textiles received such hard use that few have survived in good condition. The survivers have demonstrated regional variation in ornamentation and a common preference for forms such as horses and birds.

Distaffs consisted of an upright blade (lopastka) usually topped by a comb to hold the fibers, and a base (dontse) that the spinner sat on to hold it steady. Nearly 40 distinct regional variations of this simple construction have been identified. The variations in form derived from the proportions of the blade, whether it was flat or columnar, whether the decoration was openwork or chip carving or contour carving, and whether painting was applied to carving or used alone as an ornament.

One of the most ancient forms from Iarolslavl' was a columnar distaff with a small comb on a tall stem with a hollowed out interior and a pierced, faceted surface. Such a distaff is depicted in an icon of the Annunciation in the Trinity Monastery at Sergiev-Posad. Another early form was the tower-shaped terem type also found in Iaroslavl' and in the neighboring districts of Griazovets and Bui. The stem was a wide board that narrowed gently toward the top and was finished off with a elaborate stepped comb to resemble a palace, terem, in shape. The chip carving of the body would suggest architectural forms, while the countour carving on the upper part might depict tea drinking, dancing or weddings.

Certain districts of the Vologda and Archangel'sk regions were characterized by freely painted foral designs similar to those on cupboards and interior walls along with geomatric patches of color painted over chip carving.

In the Mezen' River area of Archangel'sk region, only painting was used with parallel friezes of running horses or deer with long galloping legs or branching antlers combined with patterns of triangles and linear hatching on a vivid gold-orange background.

Northern Dvina River villages had bright colorful paintings of peasant life with specific details of costume, furnishings and facial expressions.

Distaffs could be made of a single piece of wood or of two joined pieces. One-piece distaffs were carved from the lower part of a tree trunk with a root projecting at a right angle. These tended to be made in the heavily forested north. Two-piece distaffs consisted of a base with a socket for attaching the upright blade and comb. These tended to be made in the Volga region, near Nizhnii Novgorod and Gorodets. Some distaffs from Russian Folk Art.

Spinning was a constant task for women and the distaff was easily portable for use in evening gatherings, besedy or posidelki, where women sat together to spin, talk and sing, sometimes accompanied by men with musical instruments. Such gatherings were often depicted on the distaffs, as well as tea parties and sleigh rides. Distaffs with wedding scenes were often the most splendidly painted since it was a customary gift from a young woman's fiance or her parents for her betrothal or marriage. Even in areas of the country that used floral or abstract patterns more than figural, many distaffs bore inscriptions and forms appropriate for this type of gift.

The blade-shaped scutcher, trepalo, was used for beating the flax fibers to break them down before spinning. It was made lightweight for practical reasons and decorated simply with openwork carving or painting, while the handle was often shaped like a horse.

The battledore (valek) was used to beat fabric against stones for laundering.

The rocker (rubel') was used to roll and smooth out the linen after washing. It was made with a grooved convex bottom to rock over the cloth to flatten it and this motion may have suggested a galloping movement to complement the handle carved like a running horse.

The shveika was a sewing implement that stood on a bench to hold a cloth in a clamp-like jaw or with pins. It was often carved with a horse at the top.

Kikliushki are small, simply decorated wooden pins used for lacemaking.

Nabivnie doski are carved boards used for printing cloth. (See chapter 6 in Hilton's book).

Many of the textiles themselves had ritual significance, such as the embroidered towels used in greeting ceremonies or to embellish the icon corner, and garments worn for the first day of harvest.

Carvers followed the grain of the wood, often used the tree root, and were economical with adze-strokes in forming the designs.

Horse forms have been related to ornaments found in women's graves with a suggestion of an ancient origin and perhaps a symbolic protective function for these forms.

References: Frank, Nancy Cooper. "IZBA: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE RUSSIAN PEASANT HOUSE". Russian Life, Apr.-May 2002.

Gies, Joseph and Francis. Life in a Medieval Village. Harper and Row, New York, 1990.

Hilton, Alison. Russian Folk Art. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1995. [NK 975 H55 1995, Art] (based largely on traditional peasant life in the 19th and early 20th centuries.)

Novgorod Wooden Architecture Museum

Rabinovich, M.G. Ocherki Material'noj Kul'tury Russkogo Feodal'nogo Goroda. "Nauka", Moscow, 1988.

Rural Wooden Architecture of the Russian North.

Russian Folk Art.

Types of Peasant Architecture

Ukrainian Folk Architecture Museum.

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