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Richard Pipes in The Russian Revolution remarks:

The peasantry was hardly affected by the westernization which had transformed Russia's elite into Europeans, and in its culture remained loyal to Moscovite Russia. Russian peasants spoke their own dialect, followed their own logic, pursued their own interests, and viewed their betters as aliens to whom they had to pay taxes, deliver recruits but with whom they had nothing in common.

The existence of a peasant Russian dialect comes to me as somewhat of a surprize, as I generally believed that:

  • by the beginning of XX-th century Russian has become essentially a modern literary language (see also this question From Russian/Slavonic diglossia to modern Russian (via French/Russian?))
  • Russian is remarkably uniform throughout the territory of Russia (or even URSS) - the dialectal differences concern mainly pronunciation, and occasional lexical elements (lastik/resinka, trotuar/porevrik) but otherwise do not hamper understanding.

The existence of a distinct peasant dialect (or dialects) is however corroborated by Wikipedia:

Prior to the Bolshevik Revolution, the spoken form of the Russian language was that of the nobility and the urban bourgeoisie. Russian peasants, the great majority of the population, continued to speak in their own dialects. However, the peasants' speech was never systematically studied, as it was generally regarded by philologists as simply a source of folklore and an object of curiosity.

[...]

Nakhimovsky quotes the Soviet academicians A.M Ivanov and L.P Yakubinsky, writing in 1930:

The language of peasants has a motley diversity inherited from feudalism. On its way to becoming proletariat peasantry brings to the factory and the industrial plant their local peasant dialects with their phonetics, grammar, and vocabulary, and the very process of recruiting workers from peasants and the mobility of the worker population generate another process: the liquidation of peasant inheritance by way of leveling the particulars of local dialects. On the ruins of peasant multilingual, in the context of developing heavy industry, a qualitatively new entity can be said to emerge—the general language of the working class... capitalism has the tendency of creating the general urban language of a given society.[48]

By the mid-20th century, such dialects were forced out with the introduction of the compulsory education system that was established by the Soviet government.[citation needed] Despite the formalization of Standard Russian, some nonstandard dialectal features (such as fricative [ɣ] in Southern Russian dialects) are still observed in colloquial speech.

The citation points to book The Language of Russian Peasants in the Twentieth Century: A Linguistic Analysis and Oral History by Alexander Nakhomovsky, to which I have no access.

I would appreciate a short (but not necessarily technical) summary of the principal features of the peasant dialect(s), and whether it could be a barrier for understanding between peasants and non-peasants or between different peasant communities.

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    Aren't you Russian? In any event, I doubt there was only one...Russia is a very big place.
    – Lambie
    Oct 2, 2023 at 15:19
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    @Lambie Geographic size is a poor guide in such matters. Russians do speak the same Russian language everywhere in Russia, from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok, while Chinese or Arabs, separated by smaller distances do not. It was until recently also the case in places like Italy and Germany. And in Switzerland German varies greatly from a canton to another.
    – Roger V.
    Oct 2, 2023 at 16:08
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    Is that so? The US is smaller than Russia (or is it the former Soviet Union), anyway, even in the US we have a bunch of dialects. I'd guess that until the complete Sovietization of the entire expanse, there were tons of dialects. There was surely a Soviet effort to wipe out peasant-speak. Frankly, I know of no country that didn't have dialects in the early 20th century. Italy still has strong ones. Swiss German, afaik, is a homogeneous dialect.
    – Lambie
    Oct 2, 2023 at 16:11
  • Oh right. So what you say is not cluttering but what I say is? I don't think expressing surprise about a fanciful question is cluttering. Also, the existence or not of dialects is not specifically linguistics.
    – Lambie
    Oct 2, 2023 at 16:44

2 Answers 2

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As with most languages that cover a large area, there are numerous dialects of Russian, see here for an overview. They are primarily divided into northern, southern, and central subgroups, then there are various isoglosses that crosscut that grouping. There are myriad links and references that allow you to learn of such features.

Also true is that regional dialects have been supplanted by the standard national language – just as regional dialects of English in the US are slowly (maybe quickly) being replaced with "Standard American", and Standard Italian is replacing the myriad local Romance languages like Sardinian, Calabrian, Lombardi etc.

It has been a reasonably true truism of historical dialectology that language changes most rapidly in the city, so if you want archaic features from an area, you leave the city. Whether or not people living in the countryside self-identify as peasants, presumably you are asking about dialects spoken away from major population centers.

The main problem with asking whether dialects of a national language "differ substantially" is that by naming them dialects, you presuppose that they are not substantially different. Norwegian and Swedish are deemed to be different languages, and are not substantially different. Cantonese and Mandarin are deemed to be dialects of Chinese, and are substantially different. Without a metric of difference, we can't measure the degree of difference.

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  • What you say is true... but the question is specifically about the dialect/sociolect spoken by Russian peasants in the early XX-the century. Could you address that?
    – Roger V.
    Oct 2, 2023 at 18:15
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    The above dialect sources are weighted in favor of older distribution, this is not exclusively the result of contemporary sociolinguistic surveys.
    – user6726
    Oct 2, 2023 at 18:31
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    Chinese politicians may say that Cantonese and Mandarin are dialects of Chinese language, but many western linguists consider them to be languages within Chinese / Sinitic family (within larger Sino-Tibetan or Sino-Tibeto-Burman family)...
    – Arfrever
    Oct 2, 2023 at 22:30
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Dialects don't necessarily imply mutual non-understanbility. In the XIX century most Russians were peasants, village folks, 95% illiterate, everyone spoke the way their village fellows spoke. Just read Chekhov to see how the speech of common people differed from the one of the nobility and state officials. In the Russian linguistic tradition the common speech is called просторечие, the colloquial speech, with differences on all the speech levels, from phonology to syntax. Still, it was the same Russian language and everybody understood it then, although not everybody was able to switch between the two.

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