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University of Toronto · Academic Electronic Journal in Slavic Studies

Toronto Slavic Quarterly

Natalia Fedorovskaya

Piotr A. Bessonov and his collection
Kaleki Perekhozhie

(On the 180-th anniversary of his birthday)

Piotr A. Bessonov,[1] Slavist, folklorist and ethnographer, collector of folk verses and songs, author, active editor and publisher was born in Moscow on June 4 (16 on New Style), 1828 in the family of Moscow priest. His first education he received from Moscow theological seminary. In 1846 he became a student of the History-Philological faculty at Moscow University. His professors were K. A. Kossovich, P. Ja. Petrov, S. P. Shevyrev, O. M. Bodianskii. After graduation in 1851, he dedicated all his life to the publishing and popularization of works of Slavic folk culture.

From 1855 to 1857 he served as assistant at the Moscow Archive of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Since 1858 he was a secretary at Moscow Synodal typography. In the 1950s, he taught Slavic languages at Moscow University, where he delivered free lectures all comers.

At the suggestion of Ivan P. Kornilov, the curator of Vilno Educational Okrug (district), in spring 1865 Bessonov was appointed principal of both the Real School and First Gymnasium of Vilno town (now Vilnius, the capital of the Republic of Lithuania) and became Chairman of Archeological Commission. In Vilno, he collected and actively studied local folklore, traditions, and rites.

In 1866 he returned to Moscow and served almost 12 years as a librarian at Moscow University. He received a doctorate in Slavic philology from Kazan University and a professorship at Kharkov University in 1878. From 1879 until his death on February 22 (March 6 on New Style), 1898, in Kharkov, Bessonov was Chairman of the Slavic Dialects Department at Kharkov University.

In addition to his academic and scholarly work, Bessonov was an impressive public figure. He was full member of the Society of Admirers of Russian Letters (SARL) and the Russian Geographic Society (RGS), and a correspondent member of the Serbian Scientific Society. Together with V. I. Dal' and K. S. Aksakov served on the Editorial Board of the SARL and from 1869 to 1878 was its Secretary.

Bessonov's interests to Slavic studies had already been formed at Moscow University. During those years he was greatly influenced by the lectures of O. M. Bodianskii, a personal acquaintance with V. I. Grigorovich, and a proximity to Slavophile circle of M. P. Pogodin.

For many years Bessonov collected, investigated and published numerous materials on Slavic history, folk culture, and ethnography. In this sphere he collaborated with a number of newspaper and magazines, including Russkaia beseda [The Russian Talk], Molva [The Rumour], Moskovskie vedomosti [The Moscow Bulletin] and others. He discovered and published a manuscript of Czech Bible, the works of Croatian priest and thinker Iurii Krizhanich and other treasures of Slavic culture.

In 1855, under his editorship, two volumes of book Bolgarskie pesni iz sbornikov Iu. I. Venelin, N. D. Katranov i drugikh bolgar [Bulgarian songs from the collection of Iu. I. Venelin, N. D. Katranov and other Bulgarians] came out. In this issues, in addition to the songs of mentioned authors, works collected by V. Aprilov, A. Kapilovkii, Z. Kniazheskii, N. Gerov, G. Peshakov as well as songs published in magazine Moskovitianin [The Muscoviter] and other publications were included.

The second volume of Bulgarian songs contains his noteworthy article dedicated to the grammar of New Bulgarian language. It was one of the first practical manuals for Bulgarian. The article shows the features of Bulgarian grammar and facilitates the correct reading and translation of songs and other works of Bulgarian folklore. Bessonov considers the manner of Bulgarian spelling which is a result of influence of different orthography schools, gives a characteristic of main Bulgarian dialects (Eastern and Western) and a short description of phonetics and morphological structure of Bulgarian language in relation to the Church Slavonic and Serbian languages. It was a most complete collection of Bulgarian songs with articles and detailed notes, and for many years it remained the main source of Bulgarian folklore in the world.

He published two works of Jurii Krizhanich: a two-volume edition, Russkoe gosudarstvo v polovine XVII veka. Rukopis' vremen Tsaria Alekseia Mikhailovicha [The Russian State in the middle of the 17th century. A manuscript of the times of the Tsar Alekseii Mikhailovich] in 1858 - 1860, and Ob promysle [About Providence] in 1860. In 1870 he published a short book, Katolicheskii sviashchennik serb (khorvat) Jurii Krizhanich - revnitel' vossoedinenia tserkveii i vsego slavianstva v XVII veke [The Catholic priest and Serb (Croat) Jurii Krizhanich - ardent supporter of the unification of churches and all the Slavs in the 17th century] dedicated to the creativity of this Croatian priest.

Between 1860 and 1874 he published a ten-volume edition, Pesni sobrannye P. V. Kireevskim [Songs collected by P. V. Kireevskii]; a biography of K. F. Kaliadovich, in 1861-1862; and, in collaboration with O. F. Miller, a four-volume collection Pesni sobrannye P. N. Rybnikovym [Songs collected by P.N. Rybnikov], from 1861 to 1867.

In 1864, in Pravoslavnoe obozrenie [The Orthodox Review], he published an article "Sud'ba notnykh pevcheskikh knig" [The destiny of song books with musical notation"]. In 1868 his book Detskie pesni [The children's songs] appeared, the first collection of Russian children's folklore. This work is of interest to researchers and lovers of folklore who collect and study folklore creativity for children; it established an original direction of folklore research.

One of the results of Bessonov's activity in Vilno (see above) was a book, Belorusskie pesni [Belorussian songs] that came out in 1971.

However, what brought him worldwide fame was his a two-volume edition of folk verses and songs, Kaleki<2> perekhozhie [Itinerant cripples], which came out between 1861 and 1864 in Moscow and was reprinted in 1970 in England (Bezsonov, 1970). This collection was a first-rate collection of Slavic spiritual verses of the second half of the nineteenth century and was awarded, in due time, the Russian Demidov Prize.

Kaleki perekhozhie is a collection well-known among a wide circle of specialists but still insufficiently explored. The prominent Slavist G. Fedotov was one of the early scholars who studied the collection. He used this collection as a main source of texts for his Stikhi dukhovnye [Spiritual verses], (Fedotov 1991). Among the subsequent researchers are S. Hackel, N. Murashova, S. Nikitina, L. Petrova, N. Seregina, L. Solostchenko, and others.

For the most part, however, the collection is only mentioned in passing, whereas the voluminous and interesting materials remain practically unexplored. Even Fedotov studied Russian texts of collection; the verses of other Slavs disappeared from his view. Such a selection of the texts was determined by his goal: "iskat' v dukhovnykh stikhakh vyrazhenia glubochaishikh podsoznatel'nykh stikhii religioznoi dushi russkogo naroda" [to seek out in spiritual verses an expression of the deepest subconscious elements of religious soul of the Russian people].[3]

Bessonov dedicated his work to Empress Maria Alexandrovna, the Society of Admirers of Russian Letters and the memory of its Chairman, A. S. Khomiakov. He tried to bring together as many verses and songs as possible for that time, including texts from eighteen-century manuscripts, some of which he purchased individual collectors. Another part of the texts were published with the permission of the owners.

Bessonov's collection was enriched by materials from the archives of the Rumiantsev Museum and Public Library, Tolstov's and Pogodin's book depositories, the collection of V. M. Undol'skii, the Rostov and Iakovlev Monasteries, and private collections of individuals: T. Bolshakov, I. Fedorov, T. Gavrilov, V. Dolzhikov. The author of Kaleki perekhozhie had received a permission to use the archive of the Ethnographical Department of the Russian Geographical Society and to reproduce verses collected by the members of the Society. Some texts from published collections of P. Kireevskii, P. Iakushkin, and V. Varentsov also were included. Bulgarian, Serbian, and Bosnian verses existed in the eighteenth-nineteenth centuries, Polish and Czech psalms and "kantychki" (Chants) were added to the collection to present to lovers and investigators with materials for comparative analysis and a more complete notion of Slavic folk creativity.

If the compilation of verses was his only work, even then it was would have been an important contribution to the Slavic folk culture. In addition to his editorial and publishing activity, he was an organizer of and participant in broad scientific studies. Under his leadership were organized ethnographical expeditions and a registration of folklore in Simbirsk, Perm, Novgorod, Olenetsk and other provinces [gubernia]. He personally recorded texts and melodies of spiritual verses and songs and became the author of scientific articles which were included in his collection.

Six issues of Kaleki perekhozhie are bound into two volumes, with three issues in each one. The volumes comprise texts of verses with introductions called "Preuvedomlenia" and notes which contain the place in which the texts were recorded (gubernia, selo [village]), a verse or song performer (kaleka, krestianin [peasant] and so on), a name of collector and other information, Bessonov's articles "To Readers" and "Two words", a letter of V. F. Odoevskii "About native Russian music", notes of melodies, and drawings.

Formally, the work includes 675 verses with a through numeration for all issues, but really it contains many more texts owing to including into collection its regional variants marked by letters. For example, the Bosnian verse "Sudac gnevan hote priti" [Wrathful Judge want to come] (468) is followed by Polish kantychka "Dzein on, dzein gneiwn" [Day of wrath, day that] with the same subject. At the end of the sixth issue, under number 675, appear four variants of the verse "Vy pridite bratia" [You brothers, come] recorded in different villages.

To underline a variant of reading, for example, after the grace-verse "A my nistchaia bratia" [And we are beggary] (14) follow three fragments of a Belorussian verse with the same subject from the Varentsov's collection. The verse "Idut leta sego sveta" [Years of this world passes] (471) is compared with the verse "O gore vam okaiannyi" [Oh! Woe are you, cursed] from the collection of P. Shein, and the verse "Prepadobnogo otsa nashego" [Of our Reverend father] (478) is contrasted with similar texts published by P. Kireevskii and V. Varentsov. It is obvious that the presence of regional variants of verses enriches Bessonov's collection dramatically.

In the collection, verses are ordered in accordance with their subject. Taking into account Bessonov's long-standing interest in Kaleki, the first issue presents verses characterizing this phenomenon of the Slavic culture.

The issue begins with thematic group "S kakikh por poiavilis' kaleki perekhozhie" [From what time did kaleki perekhozhie appear] with verses "Voznesenie" [Ascension] and "Ivan Bogoslov" [John the Baptist], and "Kakovy byli kaleki perekhozhie v starinu na Rusi" [What kaleki perekhozhie were like in Rus' in ancient times] with variants of verse "Sorok kalikov" [Forty kaliki]. Then the theme entitled "Kakovy byli kaleki perekhozhie do sikh por i kak oni prosiat milostyniu" [What kaleki perekhozhie were like to this day and how they beg for alms] is discovered by the verse "Siduchi pri torgu, v khramovye prazdniki" [Sitting near market at Wakes]. After that follows "Kak blagodariat kaleki perekhozhie za milostyniu i kormy" [How kaleki perekhozhie are grateful for the charity and food]. Here the verses are: "Stikh zazdravnyi" [The grace-verse], "Pesn' bogonostsev" [The song of godlike], and "Stikh zaupokoinyi" [For the repose of the dead verse]. The first issue is finished by thematic group "Kogo berut primerom kaleki perekhozhie" [Who is an example for kaleki] which comprises verses "Lazar Ubogii" [Lazarus poor], "Alexei chelovek bozhii" [Alexis man of God], "Iosif Prekrasnyi" [Joseph beautiful], and others.

The second issue commenced with a thematic group "O chem escho poiut kaleki perekhozhie" [What else the kaleki sing about] which includes such verses as "Kniga golubinaia" [A dove book], "Evangelistskaia pesn'" [An evangelical song], "Egorii Khrabryi" [George courageous], "Egorii i Elizaveta Prekrasnaia" [George and Elizabeth the beautiful], "Egorii i trista startsev inokov" [George and three hundred monks], "Dmitrii Solunskii" [Demetrius of Salonika], "Tsar' Diokletian i Krestitel' Ioan" [King Diocletian and John the Baptist], "Varvara Muchenitsa" [Barbara the martyr], and others. Then, in the second and following issues, Bessonov classifies the verses into the more common types: "Stikhi Starshie, Bylevye" [Oldest verses, true stories]; "Stikhi Starshie Mirovye" [Oldest secular verses]; "Stikhi Bylevye Mladshie, Psalmy" [More recent secular verses, Psalms]; "Bylevye Bibleiskie (Mladshie i Starshie)" [Secular biblical verses (More recent and older)]; "Bylevye Evangelistskie (Mladshie i Starshie)" [Secular evangelical verses (More recent and older)]; "Obriadnye" [Ritual verses], and "Prazdnichnye"[Festive verses]. After that he returns to the thematic grouping: "Egorii Khrabryi" [George the courageous]; "Voskresenie" [The Resurrection]; "Strashnyi Sud" [Day of Judgment]; "Rozhdestvo" [Christmas] and the like.

In the sixth issue, in addition to common numeration, a range of verses from "Day of Judgment" also marked the capital letters of Russian alphabet.

Despite a conditional character and heterogeneity of texts classification, it could be considered as an early stage of the modern approach to the typology of spiritual verses: chronological, genre-stylistic, functional, and thematic.

In "Preuvedomlenie" [Introduction], Bessonov informs the readers about the goal of edition, lists sources used, outlines a main structure of the edition and elements which will be included into each issue (verses, notes, pictures, tunes and other supplementary).

In "K chitateliam" (To Readers), in the fourth issue, and "Dva slova" (Two Words), in the sixth issue, Bessonov lists the names of collectors who have offered him new manuscripts and separate verses and points out to difficulties arising during editing and printing; he also includes two detailed notes on the sources of the Slavic spiritual verses, their types and features. In the introduction to the fifth issue he includes a letter of prince V. F. Odoevski "Ob iskonnoi velikorusskoi muzyke" [About native Russian music] in which he argues his understanding of the nature of Russian folklore singing. Including these articles makes Kaleki perekhozhie not only an ordinary, even rich, collection of texts but an important piece of scientific research.

In the supplement, the musical notes of melody to some verses are presented, since Bessonov understood that melody in a spiritual verse is an important thing as well as a poetical text. Thereupon, he invites musicians having the skill to take part in recording melodies. For instance, a registering of some melodies for Bessonov's collection was made by prince V. F. Odoevskii himself.

However, as in the case of other collections that time, the main part of verses was published without tunes. Pointing to this weakness of his collection, Bessonov writes:

"Mezhdu prochim inye vyrazhali zhelanie, chtoby my prilagali pobol'she not: smeem uverit', chto my zhelali by togo zhe samogo. No vo pervykh, za otsutsviem notnykh znakov pri tipografiiakh vyrezyvanie dosok i pechatanie imi obkhoditsia kraine dorogo. Vo vtorykh, i glavnoe, my mogli by napolnit' tselyi tom notami Psalm i Kant, gotovykh pod rukoiu: no my predpochitaem predlozhit' snachala napevy chisto-narodnye, beziskustvennye. A verno zapisat' ikh i vyrazit' muzykoiu, pri nyneshnikh gospodsvuiustchikh eia priemakh, delo daleko ne legkoe" [Among other things, others desired us to include a few more musical notations: we dare assure you that we would desire the same. But in the first place, printing houses are not equipped to print musical notation, and it is extremely expensive to engrave galleys and print with them. Second, and most important, we could fill an entire issue with the notes of Psalms and Chants we have ready at hand: but we prefer to offer first purely folk and ingenuous melodies. And, to record and then express them in music under the today's techniques it is not an easy matter].[4]

For the verses "Otsy nashy, nashy batiushki" [Our fathers], "Alexeii, Bozhii chelovek" [Alexis, man of God], "Kniga Golubinaia" [A dove book], "Doch' tysiachnika" [The daughter of a tysciachnik], "Milostliva Zhena Miloserdnaia" [Gracious merciful wife], "Khozhdenie Sviatoii Devy" [The Passing of the Holy Virgin], "Smert', Pogrebenie, Plach'" [Death, Interment, Weeping], "Strashnyii Sud" [Day of Judgment] one melody is given. The verse "Boris i Gleb" [Boris and Gleb] is accompanied by two melodies, and the verse "Egorii Khrabryi" - by four melodies.

To provide a broader view of the environment in which spiritual verses existed, drawings and photos of Kaliki and other performers are introduced. These are two sketches of N. N. Korneev entitled "Kaleki perekhozhie, slepye pevtsy s povodyriem, iz Orlovskoii gubernii" [Itinerant cripples, blind singers with a leader from the Orlov's district] and Berger's photo "Belorusskie slepye pevitsy s povodyrkoiu" [Belorussian blind singers with a leader] prepared for print by Ergott in a technique of lithography. In addition to lithography, a technique of engraving of images on a wood plate (xylography) was used. In this technique K. Rikhau printed two pictures of K. A. Trutovskii "Lirnik, Malorusskii slepoii pevets Stikhov" [Lyric poet, Little Russian blind singers of Verses] and "Malorusskii slepoii pevets Dum"[Little Russian blind singers of Dumy].

The publishing of Kaleki perekhozhie made a deep impact on society. Issues sold out very quickly. A successful preliminary subscription for issues was partly responsible for this. At the same time, some issues of collection were criticized.

Bessonov himself points out a critical attitude by his contemporaries. In "To Readers," he writes that he succeeded in a preliminary subscription for a continuation of the publication "ne smotria na molchanie bolshei chasti gazet i zhurnalov, ne pozhelavshikh dazhe vkratse perepechatat' moie "Priglashenie k uchastiu v izdanii pamiatnikov russkago narodnago tvorchestva"" [despite the silence of the greater part of newspapers and magazines that did not wish, even in brief, to reprint my "Invitation to collaboration in publishing of monuments of Russian folk creation"].[5] However, on the whole the society had highly regarded the striving to bring together and publish spiritual verses, and therefore a critical attitude of separate researchers was not sufficient to interrupt the publication. In "Two words" Bessonov notes ironically that during "pechatania 5-go i 6-go vypuskov, k velikomu priskorbiu nekotorykh kritikov, moie sobranie dukhovnykh Stikhov uvelichilos' protiv prezhnego" [the 5-th and 6-th issues, to the great regret of some critics, will be in even greater numbers than the previous ones].[6]

Bessonov was reproached for the haste in which the issues of Kaleki perekhozie were printed and for the absence of proper editorial processing in it. P. Iakushkin, one of Bessonov's main opponents, in "Some things about Mr. Bessonov's publication of folklore verses and songs" dedicated to the appearance of collection, wrote about that.[7] Also, including to his collection of older published verses and songs by other researchers was considered to be a mistake. As a result of criticism, the collection was considered by some researches as an unoriginal, compilation work (Hackel 1970).

Time clears all things up. Bessonov's collection, as a product of collective efforts of numerous collectors and lovers of Slavic culture, has more then hundred-year history and has become 'classical' for Slavic spiritual verses and popular poetry researchers. Noted but still insufficiently explored Kaleki perekhozie is a most complete collection of Slavic spiritual verses in the nineteenth century. The scientific survey included here makes an important contribution to the history of genre; it reveals a contemporary who personally saw the widespread phenomenon of spiritual verses as a type of Slavic folk creativity; and it encourages researchers to study carefully the texts it contains and to revaluate their significance.


    Bessonov, Piotr A. Kaliki perekhozhie. Sbornik stikhov i izsledovanie P. Bessonova. v.1-2, Moscow: tiporgafia A. Semenov, 1861-1864 / reprint: Bezsonov, P. Kaliki perekhozhie. Sbornik stikhov i izsledovanie (Itinerant cripples. A collection of verses and study). Westmead: Gragg International Publishers Limited, 1970.

    Fedotov Grigorii. P. Stikhi dukhovnye (Russkaia narodnaia vera po dukhovnym stikham). Moscow: Progress, 1991.

    Hackel, Sergei. "Introduction." In Bezsonov, P. Itinerant cripples. A collection of verses and study. Westmead: Gragg International Publishers Limited, 1970.

    Iakushkin, Pavel I. "Koe chto ob ozdanii g. Bezsonovym narodnykh stikhov i pesen. " The library for Reading 10 (1863) / reprinted in Collected works of P. I. Iakushkin. St. Petersburg: (1884): 462-480.


  1. The author follows an existing tradition of spelling this family name with "s" - Bessonov, although in the original nineteenth-century texts and in his books his family name is spelled with "z" - Bezsonov.
  2. Along with a term "kaleki" (plural) or "kaleka" (singular) [cripple] there is also a term "kaliki". In the Kievan Rus', Kaliki denoted palmers and wanderers who traveled to Saint Earths; sometime, there were cripples, and beggars among them. Kalika were taken as a hero and had been a personage of Russian epic (bylina) very often, for instance, the bylina "Forty kaliki." Using a term "kaleka", Bessonov underlined that in the nineteenth-century Russia spiritual verses were often performed by blind men or women, cripples, and beggars.
  3. Fedotov, 16.
  4. Bessonov vol.2, xlviii.
  5. Bessonov vol.2, i.
  6. Ibidem
  7. Iakushkin, 462.
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