Linda Ivanits' Russian Folk Belief is a foundational and possibly one of kind work exploring concepts of Russian culture that have previously been unknown and would probably have remained so had Ivanits not seen fit to document them. The oral tradition is a largely challenged historical source as it is so difficult to both document and record in an accurate and scientific manner. The bedrock themes that are present within Ivanits work are continually demonstrated within her text through real memories and experiences of Russian people.
Ivanits clearly demonstrates how a tradition associated with eons of standards and cultural practices has evolved through more modern times, into the age of Christianity. Each section of her book weaves the roots of Russian folk belief with the dominance of the Christian ethic and practice.
In Part I Folk Beliefs About the Supernatural Ivanits demonstrates how the historical folk entities of the Russian culture have developed through the years and how they prove formidable to the ideas of a modern age. Clearly, the idiosyncratic manner in which the beliefs of the supernatural have a tendency to superimpose the characters and standards of the Russian Orthodox Church, is present, through this recounting of beliefs. Initially Ivanits sets the standard for the belief system by interpreting the stories and tales of the subjects of her research. "If one facet dominates this abundant and varied material surely it is the archaic quality: one can only be astonished at the degree to which the Russian peasant succeeded in preserving his ancient pre-Christian customs and world view." (Ivanits 3)
Ivanits give and initial account of the Pagan history of many supernatural beliefs and identities all of which are rich and varied and inclusive of the Russian peasant lifestyle. Ivanits then moves on to introduce the reader to the themes as they associate to the names and faces of the Christian personages. Superimposition of the personification of the saints and characters of the past in Russian Orthodoxy is proven without a doubt to be associated with the foundational personifications of historical supernatural pagan identities.
At its basis lies not only the religious predisposition of the commentator, but the crucial issue of the balance of Christian and pagan elements in the peasant's "double faith." In his own eyes, the peasant was an Orthodox Christian and believer in the only true faith; to the eyes of an outsider, that faith differed dramatically from official Orthodoxy.
In the third subchapter on the devil Ivanits continues to demonstrate the concepts associated with the devious and human nature that drives the characters of the pagan past, as they apply to the one true evil, the devil much more closely associated with the Christian faith. According to Ivanits the devil, though associated with the one evil force at least in nomenclature is given to characteristics that are very similar if not equal to those of the nature spirits, which were believed to plague the peasants in pagan times:
Like the forest spirit (leshii) and water sprite (rusalka), he leads travelers astray, abducts children, and is connected with the impious dead. Like the water spirit (vodianoi), he often resides in deep pools. Such an apparent blurring of distinctions between devils and nature spirits, together making up the "unclean force"...is due in part to their long centuries of coexistence in the lower mythology of the peasant; over the years, traits of one tended quite naturally to be applied to another.
For the most part this concept of the application of traits of older models upon the newer ideas of Christianity is a standard that can be seen as a constant theme within both the work and the believable representation of history provided by Ivanits.
The fourth subsection part one demonstrates the long standing Russian Folk tradition of believing in and worshiping or at least giving acknowledgement to the spirits of the home or farm. These protectors and/or deviants (domovoi) became one of the most enduring of the Russian traditions, surviving even up to the present as a part of the out of hand daily practices of the peasants. Ivanits makes very real in her descriptive and illustrative tone the ways in which these small deities play a large role in life and luck and un-luck of the family.
Probably the most fascinating aspects of the Ivanits folk history have to do with the natural spirits of the Russian Folk tradition. In the fifth subsection of the fist section of Ivanits work is the descriptive interpretation of fairies and lesser daemons that have command of the natural world. Living within a climate that is largely unpredictable the lesser daemons command the fear needed to maintain taboos associated with being unprotected in the elements. Ivanits describes the fairy folk as the Russians see them and as they are described in the later oral recounting in the second part of the book.
Like the domovoi, the spirits of the forest, waters, and fields of Russian folk imagination had their origins in pre-Christian times, but unlike the rather good-natured house spirit, the nature spirits were considered basically harmful to man and were generally regarded as manifestations of the unclean force.
The general representation is weaker here but as Ivanits explains the related data on these spirits is much smaller in size than that of the house spirits.
As Ivanits demonstrates sorcery was a well-accepted concept within many cultures and regions. Yet, unlike the spirits people often at the urging of the spirits practiced sorcery.
The range of misfortunes that the peasants attributed to sorcery was wide and included crop failure, drought, the drying up of milk cows, family discord, infertility, epidemics, and various illnesses. Numerous judicial documents, newspaper reports, and ethnographic materials paint a vivid picture of this facet of Russian village life and testify that scenes of mass hysteria and mob violence were not uncommon.
The witch like tradition Ivanits describes is parallel to many much older stories in the western tradition and is fascinating and varied.
The final subsection of Part of this work is associated with the ways in which sorcery was used for both good and bad, "spoiling" and "healing" and often depending on the relative popularity of the individual who was believed to be the sorcerer consequences for the positive or negative doings could be swift and dangerous. Yet, it is also made clear by Ivanits that the sorcery of "spoiling" and "healing were often associated with the same persons, and they were considered a necessary burden within almost all communities. They could do the good or evil bidding of those villages that asked for it, paid for it and were most convincingly in need of it. They were also; like in other witch traditions often associated with the only medical care afforded some.
In the second part of the book, Folk Narratives About the Supernatural, Ivanits uses the traditions, as they were told, recanting the stories of all of the different phenomena generalized and commented upon in the first part of the book. It is within these pages that the stories of the folk history begin to take on life and generate a real psychological image of the level to which many of them must have been believed.
The very notion of "double faith" presupposes an outside perspective; for the peasant, who insisted on his identity as an Orthodox Christian, the crucial opposition was not between Christian and pagan, but between beneficial and harmful, "clean" and "unclean." Russian folk narratives about the supernatural give us an inside view of the peasant's spiritual world. In these little stories we enter a realm in which the intrusion of supernatural beings -- be they positive and beneficent (saints, angels, and, sometimes, the domovoi) or malicious (the devil,…