Those of you who’ve been following me, especially on Pinterest, know that I love traditional Russian village windows, which sometimes are not just ornate, but garish. I’ve long thought of incorporating some details from this tradition in my novels, specifically to demonstrate differences in social caste. You know, the “garisher” you are, the “richer” you are.
Apparently, some Russians are even willing to ascribe great symbolism to their windows. I found an article in Russian that’s almost comical in its insistence on Russian windows being a sign of cultural superiority over the West, and over England specifically. So, that being said, I like the idea of “the symbolism of windows,” but in no way am I advocating the position of the author of this article. But it’s curious reading. Enjoy!
Windows: The Eyes of the Soul?
In what ways do Russians differ from, say, the English? Well, there are many. Language, anthropology, culture, etc. But there’s one difference, little noticed perhaps, that’s key. A difference of windows. Would you believe that something seemingly so trivial could say so much about two very different peoples?
In Russian, the word “window” (okno) comes from the word “eye” (oko). Basically, the window is a kind of visual sense organ of the house. The English word “window” is connected with the idea of “wind”. If we’re going to be super-scrupulous, then this means that the English window is primarily a source of fresh air. That is, the visual aspect is lost. Basically, if the Russian window is an eye, the English window is a nose.
At least, until the Puritans came along. With the coming to power of the Puritans in England, the English window also became an eye. But not the eye of the house. Instead, it became the eye of society on those in the house. Everyone knows that the Puritans liked the idea of transparency (completely) in one’s private life, and so it was actually forbidden to put shutters on windows. Any honorable Christians, in an upsurge of suspiciousness, should be afforded the opportunity to check if his brother in Christ is living properly.
The English barely managed to get rid of the Puritans, sending them off over “the pond,” and soon English windows once again got shuttered. Interestingly, though, the habit was a hard one to break. In some villages in Scotland, it’s still considered “bad form” to shutter your windows. And in formerly Puritan Amsterdam and Lutheran Stockholm, until very recently, there were strict prohibitions on shutters.
The Russian Window
Now, back to the traditional Russian window. The interior of the Russian house symbolized the inner world of the human being. It was basically considered a blasphemy to peek into this inner world without invitation. After all, the role of “watcher” was more than ably managed by the icons, which mobilized people to live righteously far better than the peeking eyes of their neighbors.
The doors of a Russian village house were always open for visitors. This, in the mind of the peasant, was connected with the Biblical story of Abraham’s hospitality. This is also why, traditionally, the Russian hut always had three windows facing the street.
Russia windows were not there to peek in, but rather to gaze outward onto the world created by God. In other words, windows, in the Russian tradition, are the “eyes” of the people living in the house, not the eyes of society looking in.
The Puritan spirit of watchfulness over others did have its influence on today’s English political tradition. The roots of liberal ideology—the transparency of citizens, an “open” society, all kinds of “watchdog” organizations that do everything from monitoring elections to ostracizing entire countries—all this comes from the habit of looking into others’ windows.
If you like this article, find out how the Russian cradle has unexpected symbolism.
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