Home    Number 2, 2023

Peasants, Icons, and Obscenities

[Krest’iane, ikony i maternaia bran’]

DOI: https://doi.org/10.31857/S0869541523020021


Type of publication: Research Article

Submitted: 24.11.2022

Accepted: 15.03.2023

About author(s)

Alexander Panchenko | http://orcid.org/0000-0002-7292-0303 | apanchenko2008@gmail.com | European University at St. Petersburg (6/1a Gagarinskaya Str., St. Petersburg, 191187, Russia) | The Institute of Russian Literature of the Russian Academy of Science (Pushkin House) (4 Makarova Emb., St. Petersburg, 199034, Russia) | The University of Tartu (18 Ülikooli Str., Tartu, 50090, Estonia)


Russian obscenities, mat, blasphemy, sacrilege, history of Russian culture, disciplinary revolution, miracle working icons, sacred places, eschatology, moral panics


The article examines religious, ritual, and moral contexts in the history of semantics and social trajectories of the Russian obscene vocabulary and phraseology known as “mat”. Transhistorical representations of the “Russian mat” as a steady set of lexemes and formulae do not seem to be correct. Moreover, it is possible to discuss not only historical transformations of the concept, but its genealogy and, so to speak, invention. One of the few concepts explaining religious and mythological meanings of “mat” was formulated in the 1980s by Boris A. Uspenskii who argued that pre-Christian Slavic obscenities were related to agrarian magic of fertility. This article presents an alternative hypothesis and argues that the “invention” and religious interpretation of the “Russian mat” as a specific and blasphemous type of obscenities took place in Muscovy in the 16th and 17th century as a part of attempted “disciplinary revolution” aimed at popular religious and ritual culture. Local “visionary epidemics” in the 17th century that involved condemnation of “mat”, tobacco, and drunkenness can be viewed as moral panics stimulated by the state and church elites. At the same time, the panics led to the establishment of new cults of miracle working icons and sacred sites. Popular beliefs and prohibitions related to “mat” in the 19th and 20th centuries were informed by a number of different factors and did not go back to any single pre-Christian source

Funding Information

This research was supported by the following institutions and grants: Russian Science Foundation, https://doi.org/10.13039/501100006769 [grant no. 21-18-00508]


Panchenko, A.A. 2023. Krest’iane, ikony i maternaia bran’ [Peasants, Icons, and Obscenities]. Etnograficheskoe obozrenie 2: 21–51. https://doi.org/10.31857/S0869541523020021 EDN: QOPPRX

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