Waiting to die? Old age in the late Imperial Russian village

by | Sep 28, 2023 | General, Guest Posts, RHS Publications, Transactions | 0 comments


What was daily life like for old people in Russian villages at the turn of the twentieth century? In this post, Sarah Badcock (University of Nottingham) considers the lives of non-able elderly people in late Imperial Russia; drawing on accounts of real lives and representations of old age in art and literature.

This post introduces and accompanies Sarah’s research article, ‘Waiting to Die? Old Age in the Late Imperial Russian Village’, which was recently published Open Access on FirstView for Transactions of the Royal Historical Society.



Are older people valued in their communities? Do they retain power and authority in everyday life? Who cares for old people if they become frail and vulnerable? These fundamental questions speak to contemporary discourses around ageing in modern society.

Old people are not a uniform category- their experiences are gradated by gender, by wealth and privilege, by race and ethnicity and cultural norms, and by the individual circumstances of their lives.


Ilya Repin, Tolstoy ploughing (1887, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)


An old peasant man toils behind the plough alongside his two unprepossessing peasant nags. This painting offers a vision of virile and functional old age alongside a simple, timeless impoverished rural life- the wooden plough, the pony’s rope halter, the homespun cloth worn by the ploughman, and the cloying black earth rolling before and behind. In fact, Ilya Repin, the brilliant painter who created this image, was tricking us: our ploughman is the noble, wealthy and extremely famous Count Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy, who liked to don peasant garb and practice agrarian labour.

In literary and in scholarly accounts of late Imperial Russia, old people are an integral part of rural family life. Levin, a key protagonist in Tolstoy’s great novel Anna Karenina was, like Tolstoy himself, prone to rolling up his sleeves and labouring alongside the peasants on his estate, in labour that he regarded as purifying, wholesome, and which enabled him to quell his self-doubt and anxieties. In this account, the well fed and robust Levin mows alongside a group of peasant men, and ends up settled behind an elderly man, who Levin described admiringly:


‘The old man, holding himself erect, went in front, moving with long, regular strides, his feet turned out and swinging his scythe as precisely and evenly, and apparently as effortlessly, as a man swings his arms in walking.’


(Levin mows Mashkin Hill in Lev Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina)


Tolstoy’s positive constructions of rural old age are undermined when we consider the place of older people when their capacity to work and care for themselves declined. The veneer of authority for older people presented by patriarchal and matriarchal family and community power structures obscures the position of those old who were no longer able to work and to contribute economically to their family and community.


Ilya Repin, The academic watchman Yefimov (c. 1870, Tretyakov Gallery)


What roles were taken by older people within rural communities in late Imperial Russia, and what values were accorded to them? To what extent did families, communities and legal structures intervene in the private sphere? We can see old age in two distinct phases. The ‘third age’ refers to the stage of life for those older people who were still physically active and engaged in the community’s economic, social and cultural life. The ‘fourth age’ or the ‘oldest old’, is a term coined to describe the combination of chronology and chronic illness that betokens the terminal phase of people’s lives.


Spinning yard in Izvedovo, upper Volga region, 1910. Color rendering by Walter A. Frankhauser for the Prokudin-Gorskii Collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division” [reproduction number LC-DIG-ppmsc-03941]


In their ‘third age’, older people played important roles in their communities, as workers, as moral and religious leaders, and as ‘placeholders of the past’. In rural economies, work was integral to everyday life. Those who could, worked, and older people were critical workers within rural communities. Their experience in agriculture and specific industries meant that they could contribute beyond their individual strength to the success of the household and the community.

Old people performed an important cultural role that combined nostalgia and knowledge of the past, manifested in storytelling and anecdote, with moral waymarking, highlighting aspects of change in everyday life. This moral role could highlight anxieties about modern life and intersected with constructions of the elderly as repositories of superstition, and as arbiters and leaders of religious practice.


Vasily Maksimov, He survived his wife (1896, Lviv National Art Gallery)


The care of old people at the end of their lives allows us to explore and to test the final frontiers of attitudes towards older people. People ailed and died primarily in village domestic spaces, cared for by their relatives and neighbours. My new article,’Waiting to Die? Old Age in the Late Imperial Russian Village’, explores the mechanisms that older people used to try and ensure that they were cared for in their ‘fourth age’, the extent to which the village community intervened in care for older people, and the lived experience of frail elderly people within their family homes. While individual circumstances differed, the overarching sense was of a philosophical lack of solicitude towards the frail elderly.

For those old people who became incapable of work, their status and value within the community and within the family collapsed. While elder men had power over their families and access to formal village power structures, this study indicates that their authority and power was eroded by frailty and old age. Hierarchies of ableness, or capacity to work, superseded generational hierarchies.




About the Author


Sarah Badcock is Professor of Modern History at the University of Nottingham. She is the author of multiple books and articles on various aspects of late Imperial Russian history.

Her most recent book, A Prison Without Walls? Eastern Siberian Exile in the Last Years of Tsarism (Oxford University Press, 2016) won the BASEES Women’s Forum Prize in 2018, awarded by the British Association for Slavonic and East European Studies. She spent several years researching ordinary people’s experiences of the Russian revolution. This research culminated in the book published by Cambridge University Press in 2007, Politics and the People in Revolutionary Russia: A Provincial History. 

Sarah’s latest article, ‘Waiting to Die? Old Age in the Late Imperial Russian Village’, is published in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, and is now available Open Access.





Transactions is the flagship academic journal of the Royal Historical Society. First published in 1872, Transactions has been publishing the highest quality scholarship in history for 150 years.



The journal welcomes submissions dealing with any geographical area from the early middle ages to the very recent past, and is interested in articles that cover entirely new ground, thematically or methodologically, as well as those that engage critically on established themes in existing literatures. Recently published articles are available on Cambridge UP FirstView.

Transactions welcomes proposals from all historians. If you’re currently working on a research article or a think piece, please consider Transactions as the journal in which to publish your work.

For more posts introducing recently published Transactions articles, click here.


HEADER IMAGE: Ilya Efimovich Repin, ’The watchman Yefimov’ (c. 1870, Tretiakov gallery), public domain



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