Christine D. Worobec, Possessed: Women, Witches, and Demons in Imperial Russia, DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2001. Index, 288 pp. Hardcover, $36.00 US.
A historian and scholar of Russian peasantry, Christine Worobec delves into the world of Russian popular Orthodoxy in order to shed light on the cultural perceptions of a Russian peasant woman in Imperial Russia. The scholar focuses her attention on female demoniacs, or klikushy (Pl. from klikusha), who were allegedly possessed by demons implanted in them by witches.
     It is a noteworthy-and revealing-fact that the Russian term klikusha does not have any English equivalent, yet it can be rendered as 'shrieker' or 'hysteric.' While linguistically such a rendition almost works-it identifies the afflicted subjects by their behavioral characteristics-it by no means has the same resonance in the perception of the foreigner as klikusha does for the natives of Russian culture.
     Klikushestvo is a truly complex phenomenon that readily defies one's attempts to fit it into any succinct definition. Yet Worobec handles this challenge with ease as she begins her study with a detailed description of a well-documented legal case, which took place in 1895-1897 in the Smolensk village of Ashchepkovo. As the scholar introduces its participants, she illustrates the phenomenology of klikushestvo through their behaviors, testimonies, and attitudes. Gradually, Worobec unfolds a panoramic picture of the peculiar religious drama of Russian klikushestvo with its numerous primary and secondary participants. The scholar meticulously discusses the complex of the klikusha's behaviors and their perceptions by subscribers and non-subscribers to the possession myth. The former are represented by the peasant community and Russian Orthodox Church, while among the latter are the Imperial judicial system and Russian intelligentsia, including literati, ethnographers, and psychiatrists. In the course of her discussion Worobec addresses questions that intrigued them all: is this phenomenon genuine or false? are its practitioners malingerers or victims? and what are the underlying causes of this peculiar condition? Four chapters of the book show different approaches to these issues, bridging popular Orthodoxy and secular rationalism and offering a truly versatile reading of the phenomenology of klikushestvo.
     The first chapter concentrates on the official state and Church attitudes towards and dealings with klikushestvo. Beginning with the eighteenth century, the state started putting in place legislation which targeted klikushestvo as one of the popular superstitions and persecuted klikushy on a par with their alleged wrongdoers: sorcerers and witches. Above all, the eighteenth-century advocated reason, casting doubt at the very possibility of possession. Klikushy were pronounced frauds and malingers and feigning possession became a punishable crime. The Church, on the other hand, was reluctant to actively participate in dismantling the myth of possession, miraculous healings of the possessed being one of the major topoi in saints' vitae and one of the most important prerequisites for canonization.
     Yet another outlook on the phenomenology of klikushestvo and witchcraft is discussed in the chapter "Peasant Views," which is devoted to popular Orthodoxy. Here Worobec scrutinizes the system of popular beliefs regarding demonology and demonic possession, paying particular attention to the views of all the participants in the klikushestvo drama-the afflicted, her family, the alleged wrong-doer, the community, and the healers. The scholar concludes that accusations of witchcraft and of "implanting demons" were often directed against women who were misfits in their community and that such charges testified to social tensions in the Russian countryside.
The third chapter discusses a variety of perceptions of klikushestvo, demonology, and witchcraft by the Russian intellectuals vis-a-vis their artistic, cultural, and socio-political agendas. The scholar posits that despite the Russian intelligentsia's keen interest in popular demonology, nineteenth-century artistic accounts of klikushestvo and demoniacs are limited. Thus, Romantic writers were mostly interested in witchcraft lore. After discussing their tribute to this theme, Worobec turns to the views of the literati who belonged to the realistic trend and discusses portrayals of klikushy by Pisemsky, Leskov, and Dostoevsky. The scholar concludes that despite their different political and religious views, for all of these writers the figure of klikusha symbolized the victimization and brutalization of a Russian woman. Quite in line with these views were those of ethnographers who saw the causes of klikushestvo in women's oppressed social position and suggested emancipation and enlightenment as remedies.
In the fourth chapter Worobec considers perceptions of klikushestvo by the Russian psychiatrists and neurologists, whose inquiries present, in her opinion, an important source for our understanding of nineteenth-century social dynamics. The scholar argues that the representatives of medical science approached klikushestvo both as a mental condition and as part of an all-national debate over the Russian peasantry. The majority diagnosed the afflicted women as hysterics and explained their condition in terms of female biological makeup. Along with other representatives of Russian intelligentsia, medical specialists regarded klikushestvo as the epitome of Russian backwardness. Worobec posits that the struggle fought by scientific rationalism against klikushestvo was primarily a struggle against the control that Orthodoxy had over peasants's minds.
     The monograph indicates that the history of klikushestvo can be traced back to the very dawn of Kievan Christianity, yet the actual exploration of its phenomenology is rather strictly confined to the last two centuries of Imperial Russia. The further confines of the research are defined in geographical terms: the scholar underscores that klikushestvo was characteristic only of Russian countryside and was not common to Ukraine, which comprised a part of Imperial Russia. Yet another idiosyncrasy of klikushestvo is its sensitivity to the gender. Worobec points to the feminization of Russian Orthodox demoniacs and asserts that if in medieval Russia male demoniacs constituted the majority, in the nineteenth-twentieth centuries the overwhelming majority of the possessed were women. Worobec concludes that klikushestvo was a "spiritual and cultural outlet for women whose emotional burdens needed release" (205).
     In her study Worobec often uses the terms 'possession' and 'possessed' which actually refer to klikushestvo and klikushy. At the same time, the phenomenology of possession figures in the study only as a peripheral issue. Possession is a broad subject, which includes under its umbrella a great number of rubrics: possession in the Judeo-Christian world, its developmental history in Orthodox Eastern and Western Christianities, the myth of possession in Russian literature and culture, the history of Russian demoniacs, their textual and behavioral models, madness in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, the textualizations of possession in hagiographical and other sanctified literature are just a few of them. While comprehensive explorations of these topics are still to come, the study by Worobec is an important step towards placing possession into the Russian cultural context. Her research is narrowed to the phenomenology and cultural perceptions of klikushestvo and it is a thorough research indeed.
The monograph contains databases of Russian klikushy/klikuny and of witchcraft cases, tables, bibliography and index.
Svitlana Kobets
CREES, University of Toronto
© 2024 by Svitlana Kobets. All right reserved.