I just finished reading an excellent collection of essays, The Peasant in Nineteenth-Century Russia (edited by Wayne Vucinich and based on papers from a conference held in December 1966); the amazingly detailed entry by Mary Matossian on the peasant’s way of life introduced me to plenty of new vocabulary, and Donald Fanger’s “The Peasant in Literature” made sense of the development of literary representations of peasants (as well as emphasizing that they are only that, and cannot be taken as reflecting the actual lives of peasants). I wanted to quote this passage from his discussion of Radishchev:
When the peasants gathered to see off the conscripts in “Gorodnya” speak in a language as elegantly artificial as that of the cultivated narrator, it is not because Radishchev was unaware of the way they really spoke, but because eighteenth-century literary decorum required a lofty style for the expression of serious sentiments. So when a peasant mother apostrophizes her departing son in phrases full of Church Slavonicisms, inversions, parallelism, and chiasmus, her language is no more than a sign that she is to be taken with full seriousness; the apparatus of elegance is in effect a democratic cue, signifying that her feelings are universal human ones, independent of class.
A good and subtle point. Later on, when literature turned to naturalism, Grigorovich, in “the first ‘inside’ account of peasants to be written by an outsider,” “offered conversations whose authenticity seemed guaranteed by their frequent unreadability (thanks to the proliferation of peasant dialect terms.” Obviously these are two extremes, but on the whole I think it’s better to err on the side of minimizing the difference of “quaint” local speech and maximizing the likelihood of winning the reader’s respect for the character.