Domestic Violence – Peasant Russia: Wife-Beating Was a Common Form of Physical Abuse in Rural Villages

"The Bargain" by Nikolai Nevrev (Sale of a serf girl)

The culture of the peasantry in Russia made the practice of wife-beating expected. Domestic violence was a normal way of subjugating household members.

Domestic violence in peasant Russia is well-documented. In fact, physical abbuse was expected and accepted in the Russian peasant household. To be considered a “good” husband by members of the community, a man only had to refrain from beating his wife; if he also treated with her with respect and occasionally did what she asked, he was a rare specimen of the Russian peasant class indeed.

Domestic Violence in Peasant Russia – The Culture of Wife-Beating

Wife-beating in peasant Russia was the most prevalent form of domestic violence, although other members of the household could abuse their son’s bride, and the children produced by any marriage were often punished physically. Culturally, wife-beating was seen as natural, healthy, and necessary. Peasants even exchanged adages about the advantages of beating their wives, which described how physical abuse would make a woman work harder, speak less, and tolerate more from her husband. Moreover, during the Russian peasant wedding ceremony, the groom often held a whip to symbolize the wife-beatings that were to come after he brought his bride home to his family.

Domestic Violence in Peasant Russia – Alcoholism and Wife-Beating

In peasant Russia, vodka was a staple, especially among peasant men. This alcoholic beverage was so highly valued that it was often used as payment for goods and services. The consumption of vodka, however, increased the instances of domestic violence in peasant Russia. Beatings were often expected by wives upon the arrival of a husband who had just stumbled home from the village tavern. These beatings could be even more relentless than when the man was sober, and a woman could “trigger” a beating for any minor or imagined trespass.

Domestic Violence in Peasant Russia – Punishment and Escape

Most peasant women bore the abuse of their husbands as a matter of course. Some women ran away from their husbands, secured divorce, or sought aid from relatives. Relatives could intervene if the abuse was too excessive – clergymen or local officials might be petitioned in order to gain reprieve for the abused woman. Unfortunately, these cases were rare. The husband’s family could then succeed in filing a counter-suit against his wife’s family in such an instance, whereby the bride might be returned to her husband only to bear the abuse indefinitely.

Domestic Violence in Peasant Russia – Wives Beating Husbands

While wife-beating was the more common form of domestic violence in peasant Russia, peasant women were not completely free of blame. Wives beating their husbands was not unheard of. A peasant women was also equally able to became drunk and unruly or take advantage of the weaknesses of her spouse.

Children in peasant households were not free of physical abuse themselves, and even if they got less severe punishment than did their mothers, they were ultimately normalized to this way of life. Children often fought among themselves, hit or kicked their mothers (as they had seen their fathers do), and grew up to mete out physical punishment upon their future spouses. In this way, the culture of domestic violence continued for centuries in peasant Russia.


  1. Figes, Orlando. Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia. New York: Picador, 2002.
  2. Levin, Eve. Sex and Soviety in the World of the Orthodox Slavs, 900-1700. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989.
  3. Semyonovova Tian-Shanskaia, Olga. Village Life in Late Tsarist Russia, ed. David L. Ransel, trans. David L. Ransel and Micahel Levine. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993