Folklore Traditions Modernized: A. Shevtsov's Academy of Self-Knowledge


V.V. Maliavin

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A few years ago in the abandoned summer camp for schoolchildren not far from the city of Ivanovo in Central Russia a man named Alexander Shevtsov, an ethnographer and psychologist by training, established what he calls “The Sanctuary of Folk life” (Заповедник народного быта). Usually the Russian word “zapovednik” which comes from the expression “zapovednoe mesto”, i.e. a sort of a sacred place, a place for performing holy and magical rites, is translated into English as “national park”. I prefer the word “sanctuary” because we are dealing not with an ecological reservation or tourist attraction of some sort but with the attempt to bring back to life and develop further a variety of local folk traditions and even to restore material and spiritual dimensions of folk life in their pristine and, most importantly, living integrity. In fact, it is more an educational center with conference halls, gymnasiums, workshops and its own museum. Its territory is marked by the wooden watchtowers in traditional style. As the founders of the sanctuary put it, “we want to preserve the very spirit of the people (narod) who was aware of greatness of the former Russia… That is why we have started not with history, antique objects or even nature reserve. We have started with the psychology of Russian folk soul. For it is impossible to restore and preserve the folk life without knowledge of the people’s soul…”

It is only to be expected that Shevtsov’s sanctuary is focused on restoring local, in many ways most peculiar, traditions. For many centuries this territory was a part of Vladimir-Suzdal state which flourished in the 12-15th centuries and later was closely related to Moscow rulers. Already in the 12th century many craftsmen came to Suzdal from Kiev. Interestingly enough, this part of Rus maintained close cultural ties with Byzantine empire. Perhaps for this reason many Greek monks, scholars, icon painters and other craftsmen who came with Greek princess Sophia Paleologue to Russia after her marriage to Ivan III in 1470 settled down precisely in this region. Since that time in Shuya and later other settlements to the East, notably Palekh, Mstera, Holui, there emerged famous centers of icon painting that produced icons for the whole Russia. These “Suzdal icons” have obvious affinities with the Greek traditions of icon painting.

The mentioned centers are located in the swampy lands along Kliazma river, densely populated but somewhat off the main trade route linking Moscow with Volga river. It looks like these geographical and economic factors coupled with demographic pressure were beneficial to the growth of crafts as well as trade. They were favorable to the spread of oppositional religious movements too. A special group of merchants  who were selling mostly books and icons along with other small items came into being. They were called “ofenia”, офеня or “afenia”, афеня – a word strangely similar to the name of Greeks in ancient Rus – afiniane. In the eyes of the villagers there were simply “walkers”, hodebschiki (ходебщики). By the 18th century afenia’s trade empire expanded to the natural borders of European Russia its nucleus being the territory between Ivanovo region, Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod with Suzdal as its capital. Hence one of ofenias popular name: suzdala.

The obscure relation of those inhabitants of Suzdal land to Greeks notwithstanding it is quite safe to assume that ofenia’s professional slang later became the basis of the criminal slang “fenia” which spread, it seems, from the famous central prison in Vladimir. Another name of this social group is “mazyki” or “masygi”, (мазыки, масыги) which also bears evident resemblance to the word “mazurik” , мазурик (a thief as member of the criminal world) in criminal slang. Some say it means just “one of us” because in ofenia language the word “self” (mas, мас) was the result of reversal of its common counterpart sam. But mazyki themselves claimed their nickname came from the word “muzika” (music) because mazyki were heirs to the musical and performing arts of skomorokhi – folk musicians and actors in ancient Russia who were prosecuted by the Church. In the 17th century many of them settled down in Shuya region.

Now these ofeni or mazyki has evolved a rich variety of cultural practices, notably techniques of martial combat (not infrequently badly needed in their life of wandering salesmen) as well as dancing and singing. They often had some knowledge of magic and healing. No less helpful in their wandering life was their secret language. They even invented various individual nicknames for themselves. Mazyki’s manner of speaking had a lot in common with balagurstvo – a play of words, often with magical connotations, based on phonetic similarity. For instance: the term gamukha, which designated the inner obstacle to self-knowledge was explained in mazyki tradition as mukha, a fly which flew into head; luchina, a split used for lighting fire could stand for lichina, deceiving appearance, etc.

Russia’s modernization and the communist revolution were a deadly blow to ofenia tradition. Most, if not the overwhelming majority of ofenia were imprisoned and exiled (that is why their language was adopted by the criminal world). By now ofenia culture is virtually dead. So long live mazyki’s legacy!

A. Shevtsov is a native of this Suzdal land and a descendant of the skomorokh family. According to his family’s legend his ancestor  whose family name was just Skomorokh joined the Pugachev rebellion and later changed his name. Shevtsov’s attempt to restore “the spirit of the people” is motivated also by the desire to reveal his own historical roots. It is a formidable task since we possess virtually no written sources on mazyki’s life and mazyki themselves though living among the common people led pretty much isolated life hidden from the outsiders – an attitude necessary for the survival in the first place. So we are dealing with an obscure, multi-faceted, diffused and ephemeral tradition with no clear cut premises and boundaries. Moreover, this tradition had also a religious dimension: most ofenias were old-believers of various kinds, i.e. religious opposition. Their wandering life was their way of hiding.

Mazyki’s legacy embraces an amazing variety of customs, rites, skills and spiritual practices and it is not easy to define – in spite of mazyki’s deliberate isolation – what is peculiar to this tradition and what belongs to the general folklore. This legacy presents itself as the inchoate, ever-changing yet highly creative activity of human spirit that boosts cultural change. Being a peripheral and clandestine phenomenon it is nevertheless asserts the continuity of cultural tradition and opens new directions of culture’s change.

For the Taiwanese audience, let me note in passing, mazyki’s legacy surely bears a striking resemblance to the legacy of the so called “people of rivers and lakes” (jianghu zhi ren) with their wandering life, martial skills , secret slang or, to use Chinese expression, “black speech” (hei hua), peripheral position in society which paradoxically at first glance but in fact quite naturally is coupled with the central role in disseminating new cultural practices.

A small community of Shevtsov’s followers and disciples in his sanctuary is engaged in various activities. Many more people – sometimes up to 500-600 persons – come to participate in the regularly organized workshops and seminars. Perhaps, the most popular are the classes of martial arts. As a rule these combine learning traditional martial arts technique with the exercises of self-cultivation leading to the capacity to subdue the enemy without physical fighting, just through controlling his consciousness (once again, something very akin to the most advanced forms of the Taijiquan martial art in Chinese civilization).  There are also workshops for producing traditional toys (mostly dolls stuffed with fragrant grass) as well as clothing etc. Sanctuary museum of the folk toys possesses already about 150 items and has acquired a popularity in Europe. Folklore wisdom related to the child bearing, family counseling and other aspects of everyday life are also explored and taught.

Shevtsov’s sanctuary is, however, quite different from actual mazyki’s tradition in one important regard: it is a conscious effort to restore or better say establish the integrity of tradition which has always lacked organization and public identity. In other words, it is a remaking or, perhaps even re-inventing of the former folkways. Within the time span allotted to me it is impossible to describe all aspects of this restoration. I will confine myself with only one, but important issue: a brief introduction of mazyki’s view of man, in many ways quite original.

In his description of mazyki’s folklore anthropology A. Shevtsov underlines that human being throughout her life creates for herself multiple personalities to cope with various situations, in other words each personality corresponds to a definite world and together these personalities constitute a sort of the “personality tree” with a common root. The latter corresponds to “the primordial knowledge of being in the world” and also one’s genuine Ego. Spiritual progress requires the capacity to leave behind, let go the personalities or life-worlds that have become obsolete. Otherwise we cannot achieve a peace of mind. Our soul needs forgiveness which comes with the self-knowledge[1].

In mazyki’s worldview body and consciousness form a continuity. Man’s most material substance is called tel (тель), a version of the common word telo, i.e body, corps. Consciousness in its primordial state is called stikh (стих), a word absent in literary Russian. It suggests, I believe, the notions of stikhia (elementary force) and simultaneously stikhi – verse. Stikh is both the awareness and a sort of a subtle substance serving as a living environment of the soul. The contents of consciousness or mind is called para, a word of obscure origin, most probably related to the word par, steam.

According to mazyki, human being in general includes the following components:

  1. Lukhta, лухта – body as liquid, something like porridge, a general condition of corporeal presence before the body acquires some image.
  2. Sob, собь – body’s aura around 1 cm in height that serves as an external cover of the soul;
  3. Perovy, перовый – substance, related to the word pero, feather. An extremely but still material cover for the soul, its dwelling place. The name seems to be derived from the idea that the soul can only fly (compare the image of the feathered soul widely spread in the ancient world.
  4. Mostoshi , мостоши – a term related, it seems, to the word most, bridge. It refers to the combination of forces which supports body in space. It is essentially a flow of microscopic movements mirroring the external world. Mazyki distinguished the focus of this supporting system – vikhtora (вихтора), the supporting constructions of shoulders, plakha (плаха) and spiral like system of the torso, ramenie, раменье.There exist also mostoshi of consciousness. This view in many ways resembles the perception of the body in Chinese martial arts.

Mazyki use concepts of soul (душа) and spirit (дух ) and attach to them a variety of meanings. The soul constitutes the emotional content of inner life. As an essence of life it is called zhiva (жива). It is tied to the body through specific joints called volokhi (волохи) and these joints sometimes produce certain vibrations. The spirit is the highest level of consciousness, the medium of contemplation aimed at “seeing oneself through”, i.e. self-knowledge. The most efficient control over others is achieved through influencing one’s mind or through genuine understanding. This is the secret of mazyki’s “spiritual” martial art, the capacity to strike or immobilize people through taking hold of their consciousness. This is one more striking similarity with the highest skills in Chinese Taijiquan.

One of the achievements on the way to inner purity was the absolute naturalness and spontaneity of speech (samokat). But the final goal of self-cultivation in mazyki’s tradition is “removing all obstacles to one’s contemplation and the discovery of one’s authentic Ego”[2].  Mazyki had a special term for the process of self-purification named kresenie, кресение or revival (similar to voskresenie – resurrection). They developed a rich variety of means serving self-cultivation and self-knowledge such as:

Gudenie, гуденье – humming: letting sound go through the body;

“soul-ful” singing (dushevnoie penie);

“soul-ful” talk (dushevnaya beseda);

These initial forms of kresenie can have only temporary effect and are aimed at disclosing the source of one’s nervousness or sadness, the so called “stone of soul”. The radical phase of purification is confession (ispoved) which can be addressed not only to the understanding person but, as was the custom among followers of strigolniki sect or old-believers, to Heaven, Earth and various natural objects. In many cases it borders on the folk magic rites. A special role is assigned to boasting as a means to set an ideal goal and stimulate spiritual concentration need for achieving it.

Kresenie is essentially “burning out” (dulit, дулить) of evil influences which infected the soul from outside, or, simply speaking, possession (oderzhanie, одержание). These influences, or porcha, as well as various auto-generated obstacles (gamukha, гамуха) must be “burnt” just like the litter in Russian peasant’s house had to be burnt in the oven. There exist malicious fixations that can, so to say, mentally imprison a person (so called zapadki, западки which were imagined as a bulb in the steam – para, пара), or some malicious being which dwells in our memory (larva), or deeply rooted resentments having big extensions in the external world, spaces of hard feelings (kosmy, космы) etc.

There is also a group of special terms related to the burning of soul’s deceases: troplenie (finding a path to the source of sickness), rosstan (the place where one has lost the path). The essence of kresenie was called Skuma, скума (related, I think, to the colloquial “kumekat”, understand) which culminates in the knowledge of one’s destiny. The highest form of knowledge that allowed the direct contemplation of Skuma was “mirroring”, the capacity to see something without evaluating it (one more analogy to the Taoist image of enlightened mind as a mirror).

So mazyki created their own methods of self-cultivation which aimed at recognizing one’s deep identity, a supra-individual genuine Self. It was a way of liberation as well culminating in the capacity to speak absolutely at ease (samokat) and to control other people’s consciousness through giving free reign to one’s spirit (so called “non-stop attack” – nakat).

Today methods of self-knowledge invented by mazyki are used as a spiritual corollary to various folk practices from fist combat to toy making. The author once witnessed how the workshop for making the toy horses in Shevtsov’s sanctuary suddenly lapsed into a sort of psychedelic session aimed at revealing the obstacles to self-knowledge of two of the participants responsible for filming the class.

A very interesting theme is the cultural significance of Shevtsov’s Sanctuary. The latter’s activities are so unique that it is hard to find for it a conventional cultural niche. We are dealing, let me repeat, with a peripheral, even deliberately isolated and, moreover, devoid of any confessional or public identity cultural movement. This is exactly what zapovednik-sanctuary, a place for exercising ancient and mysterious practices and experiencing the un-common truths should be.

Generally speaking, self-knowledge implies the interaction of the two divergent tendencies in mental life. One of them is striving for self-determination, recollecting oneself. It presupposes the sense of loss, being detached from the source of one’s experience. Another is dissolving oneself in the creative excess of life, in the plurality of self-differential powers. The zero point in the intersection of these tendencies is precisely one’s real Self which can only be hinted at. It is to be confirmed through self-estrangement , even a playful mystification consistently employed in mazyki’s culture both on individual and communal levels. This in-determinate “zero-point” of one’s existence is the most powerful source of cultural creativity.

To a large extent mazyki’s culture fits well into the concept (popularized mostly by J. Deleuze, G. Agamben and others) of “minor people”, “community to come” who are eager to know their destiny, to create their own future and yet retain their anonymity. Shevtsov’s sanctuary offers more than just self-making. It promises the attainment of meaningful, intensively lived, thoroughly conscious life – a life of bliss experienced right in its transitory nature. Shevtsov’s educational project stops just at that: on the highest point of life in the fullness of its creative power and hence a source and a promise of self-liberation. No doctrine or even ideal are presupposed here. This life justifies itself without proofs.

Finally, this project, I believe, can show how the anonymity of the “coming community” can be preserved against the state’s demand for all-embracing classification and bureaucratic routine. The secret is exactly that elusive plethora of human practice, a fusion of thought and action, speech and silence, play and work which contains the way of self-perfection based on the transmission of a pure awareness as an inner conviction in the reality of life. And this self-perfection is precisely contrary-wise movement in comparison with ordinary ways. This is what makes this internal kernel of cultural practice unattainable for analytic reason so enduring and efficient.


[1]  А. Шевцов. Учебник самопознания. Иваново: Роща Академии, с. 47.

[2]  Ibid., p.230.

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