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Izba is the Russian word for "peasant hut."

The East Slavic (Russian, Ukrainian) izba remained fundamentally unchanged as the Slavs migrated into Ukraine sometime after 500 C.E., then moved north to Novgorod and the Finnish Gulf by the end of the ninth century, and finally migrated east into the Volga-Oka mesopotamia between 1000 and 1300. Primarily the Slavs settled in forested areas because predatory nomads kept them north of the steppes. In forested regions the izba typically was a log structure with a pitched, thatched roof. The dimensions of the huts depended on the height of the trees out of which they were constructed. In the few non-forested areas where East Slavs lived prior to the construction of fortified lines (especially the Belgorod Line in 16371653), which walled the steppe off from areas to the north of it, people inhabited houses constructed of staves, wattle, and mud. From time to time people also lived in semi-pit dwellings, dugouts in the ground covered over with branches and other materials to keep out the rain and snow.

The interiors of the izba were fundamentally the same everywhere, though the precise layouts depended on locale. In the North and in central Russia, when one entered through the door, the stove (either immediately adjacent to the wall or with a space between the stove and the wall) was immediately to the right, and the stove's orifice was facing the wall opposite the entrance. In southeastern Russia the stove was along the wall opposite the entrance, with the orifice facing the entrance. Other variations could be found in western and southwestern Russia. Because the fundamental problem of the izba was heating it, conservation of heat during the six months of the heating season (primarily October through March) was the major structural issue. There were several solutions. One was to chink the spaces between the logs with moss and mud. The second was the so-called "Russian stove," typically a large, three-chambered object made of various combinations of stone, mud, brick, and cement. Its three chambers extracted most of the heat before it reached the smoke hole and radiated it out into the room. The third solution for saving heat was not to have any form of chimney (and only a few small windows), because typically eighty percent of the heat generated by a stove or an open hearth in the middle of the room will be lost if there is a chimney venting the stove or a hole in the roof to exhaust the smoke. Such a large percentage of heat is lost because of the requirement of a "draw" to pull the smoke upward and out of the izba.

The consequences of this third form of izba heating were numerous. For one, there was soot scattered throughout the izba, typically with a line around the walls, about waist-high, marking where the bottom of the smoke typically was. The smoke had two basic harmful constituents: carbon monoxide gas and more than two hundred varieties of particulate matter. The harm this did to peasant health and the amount by which it reduced residents' energy have not been calculated. Government officials beginning at least as early as the reign of Nicholas I were concerned about the health impact of the smoky hut, and by 1900 most were gone, though some lingered on into the 1930s. That peasants thereafter were able to afford the fuel to compensate for the heat lost through chimneys indicates that peasant incomes were rising.

The other features of the izba were benches around the room, on which the peasants sat during the day and on which many of them slept at night. The most honored sleeping places were on top of the stove. These places were reserved for the old people, an especially relevant issue after the introduction of the household tax in 1678, which forced the creation of the extended Russian family household and increased the mean household size from four to ten. This packing of so many people into the izba must have increased the communication of diseases significantly, another consequence of the izba that remains to be calculated.

The Russian word for "table" (stol ) is old, going back to Common Slavic, whereas the word for chair (stul ) only dates from the sixteenth century. These facts correspond with historians' general understandings: most peasant izby had tables, but many probably did not have chairs. Ceilings were introduced in some huts around 1800, pushing the smoke all the way down to the floor. Before 1800 the huts all had pitched roofs and the smoke would rise up under the roof and fill the space from the underside of the roof down to where the smoke line was. With the introduction of the ceiling, that cavity was lost and the smoke went down to the floor. Goods were stored in trunks.

See also: peasantry; serfdom


Hellie, Richard. (2001). "The Russian Smoky Hut and Its Probable Health Consequences." Russian History 28(14):171184.

Richard Hellie