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The separate living quarters of women in Muscovite Russia; also, the upper story of a palace, often with a pitched roof, as in the Terem Palace in the Moscow Kremlin.

Historians have generally used the word terem to denote the room or rooms to which Muscovite royal and boyar women were confined to separate them from men, both to underpin the custom of arranging marriages without the couple meeting in advance and to preserve women's chastity before and after marriage. The Mongols are said to have introduced the terem between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, but this theory is questionable: The practice of female seclusion reached its height in the seventeenth century, long after the Mongol occupation of Russia ended. Recent reassessments also argue that the terem in the sense of apartments where women were imprisoned like slaves is partly a construct of foreign travelers, who were unlikely ever to have seen or entered one. It matched foreign expectations concerning Muscovite orientalism and servitude. Revisionist historians perceive the royal terem not as a sign of women's helplessness and marginalization, but rather as the physical representation of a separate sphere of influence or power base, with its own extensive staff, finances and administrative structure. From within it, royal women dispensed charity, did business, dealt with petitions, and arranged marriages. These arrangements were replicated on a smaller scale in boyar households.

This does not mean that Muscovite elite women were not subjected to restrictions when compared with their Western counterparts. With the exception of weddings and funerals, they took no part in major court ceremonies and receptions, which were all-male affairs. Balls, masques, and other mixed-sex entertainments were out of the question, and the Muscovite court knew no official cult of beauty. Women used curtained recesses in church, traveled in carriages shielded by curtains, and wore concealing clothing. Married women always covered their hair. Girls were not to be seen by their fiancés until their wedding. The taboos extended to portraits from life. Portraits of Muscovite men are rare, but those of women almost nonexistent. In the Kremlin the sense of exclusiveness and mystery cultivated by the tsar naturally extended to the women, whose quarters were out of bounds to all except designated noblewomen, priests, and family members. Attached to the terem, the Golden Hall of the Tsaritsy, decorated with frescoes featuring women rulers from Biblical and Byzantine history, provided a space for female receptions. Outside the Kremlin, in the few surviving boyars' mansions, it is difficult to identify rooms specifically designated as a terem, but noblewomen were expected to behave modestly. Lower down the social scale segregation was impractical, but at all levels marriages were arranged by parents.

Peter I (r. 16821725) is credited with abolishing the terem, to the extent that he forced women to socialize and dance with men, take part in public ceremonies, and adopt Western fashions. Even so, as elsewhere in Europe, Russian royal palaces preserved the equivalents of the king's and queen's apartments, while in the provinces older traditions of female modesty survived.

See also: muscovy; peter i, westernizers


Boskovska, Nada. (2000). "Muscovite Women during the 17th Century." Forschungen zur osteuropäische Geschichte 56:4762.

Kollmann, Nancy S. (1983). "The Seclusion of Elite Muscovite Women." Russian History 10(2):170187.

Thyret, Isolde. (2001). Between God and Tsar: Religious Symbolism and the Royal Women of Muscovite Russia. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press.

Lindsey Hughes

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