Psychological Responses to the Black Death in Russia


By Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D., Purdue University

The Black Death produced all kinds of psychological responses. Some were understandable—a turn toward religion or abandonment of one’s friends and loved ones in the face of death. There were others, such as engaging in hedonistic activities like drinking, gambling, and sex.

Two medieval doctors standing next to each other
The Black Death devastated not only the economy of communities but also their mental state. (Image: illustrissima/Shutterstock)

Plague Doesn’t Differentiate between Rich or Poor

As was the case in every other country or community that was hit with plague, the losses were devastating. From Russia, we get the by-now-familiar stories of plague sparing no one, whether peasant or noble. 

A medieval city on a mountainside
The plague killed rich and poor alike, including many top officials. (Image: Natalia Golovina/Shutterstock)

The Archbishop of Novgorod was called upon by the citizens of Pskov to come to their community and perform some religious services in the hope that this might appease God and that he would have mercy on them. The archbishop granted their request, traveled to Pskov, performed the services, and then died of the plague on his way back to Novgorod. And it was all for naught, as the plague continued to rage in Pskov.

Most of the ruling elite in Moscow also succumbed, which in the short term appeared to cause a serious destabilization of the political infrastructure. Within one week of the plague’s arrival in Moscow in 1353, the metropolitan of that city—this is a rank somewhat akin to bishop—was dead, and so was the Grand Prince Semen Ivanovich, and his two sons, and then his brother and successor, Andrei. In the countryside agricultural practices were severely disrupted by the sudden population loss.

This is a transcript from the video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Plague-Induced Physiological Response in Russia  

A medieval church in Russia
People in Russia needed to believe that they could do something about the plague, so they built one-day votive churches. (Image: Ivanov Oleg/Shutterstock)

In many parts of Russia, there was a psychosocial plague response called the one-day votive church, and it’s one which has been encountered nowhere else. Although these are documented as being constructed during outbreaks of plague that were slightly later than the initial wave of the mid-14th century.

Mass graves became the norm, as there was no time to give all the victims a proper burial. Having tried everything else, many Russian communities came together and decided that they would build structures that have come to be called Obydennye Khramy. 

What’s really interesting is that although there’s clearly a religious impulse behind their building, it’s usually the secular community leaders who organized the building effort. 

We have documentation that at least 19 of these wooden structures were built—most of them in Pskov and Novgorod, with a few in Moscow and some in other cities. They were all constructed within the space of 24 hours, and what is most important in terms of the psychosocial aspect is that they were built with communal labor.

Learn more about literary responses to the Black Death.

Building a Church in 24 Hours

There were some fascinating conditions—one might rightfully call them superstitions—attached to the building of these structures. First, the community would choose a location on which no structure had ever existed prior to that time. Then they gathered all new materials—the idea was that this building would be completely new from the ground up. All the able-bodied people of the town arrived at the designated site in the predawn hours on the appointed day. Because it was still dark, they would set up numerous torches around the work site so that they could get started before the sun was properly up. Then, everyone labored until midnight, hauling wood, putting up walls, constructing a roof, and so forth.

The idea of performing a remarkable feat in a single day is attested in much of the folklore tradition of Eastern Slavic peoples, and this is probably the source of this impulse. Also implicit in the act of building was that there would be no pause in labor—it had to be continuous, all day long, with no breaks. 

Learn more about artistic responses to the Black Death.

The Work Must Go On

Certainly, some of the individual laborers might pause for food or to rest for a bit, but the labor focused on the Votive church itself could not stop. The idea here was that the continuous activity prevented Satan and other demons from finding a way in to contaminate the holy structure. 

As long as pious people labored on it without pause, Satan was held at bay, and, then, when it was completed, there was no way for him to access it or defile it because consecration would happen immediately.

You can imagine how attractive the idea of building this structure might be for those people suffering from the plague. There was no way to stop it; it was killing nobles and archbishops, so what could they do in the face of such an implacable enemy? 

It’s human nature to want to do something, and the one-day Votive church, the Obydennye Khramy, provided exactly the kind of psychosocial outlet people were desperate for in the face of the Black Death.

Learn more about the economics of the Black Death.

Common Questions about Psychological Responses to the Black Death in Russia

Q: What was the purpose of the one-day Votive church?

One fascinating point to it was that they were trying to achieve a dramatic feat so they could get the attention of God. It was an understandable psychological response to the situation at hand.

Q: What were the conditions under which the one-day Votive church was built?

They were quite dramatic, considering it was part of people’s psychological response to the chaos around them. As the name goes, it had to be completed in one day so they would start before the sun came up and continue right until midnight without any stoppages.

Q: Why did people participate in building a church in one day during the plague?

In those times, it’s easy to understand people’s psychological responses to the black death. They didn’t know what was effective in stopping it, and at the same time, they wanted to do something about it.

Keep Reading
The First Wave of the Black Death: The Plague in Sicily
Caffa, the Black Death’s Port of Entry into Europe
The Black Death: Europe’s First Contact with the Plague