Friday, September 19, 2008

Alaska's Old Belivers

Alaska's 'Old Believers' frozen in time

Sept. 19: TODAY's "American Story With Bob Dotson" looks at a remote village in the Alaska wilderness, where the way of life hasn't changed much since 1650.

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From the World Encyclopedia of Culture

Old Believers


Identification. The Old Believers include all those groups that trace their origin to the religious revolt against the liturgical reforms that the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Nikon of Moscow (r. 1652-1658) introduced in the seventeenth century.

Location. The Old Believers live in all parts of the former Soviet Union and have colonies in Poland, eastern Germany, Romania, Bulgaria, Brazil, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, the United States, and Canada.

Demography. From the time the Old Believers first appeared in Russia, there have always been great difficulties in determining the Old Believer population. Religious persecution, which included imprisonment, exile, and even death for religious dissenters, naturally discouraged them from honestly answering the questions of census takers.

In 1859 the Ministry of Internal Affairs concluded, after an intense, secret investigation of Old Belief, that there were some 9.6 million Old Believers in the empire—about ten times the official figure. A census in 1912, by contrast, reported only 2,206,621 Old Believers—a definite undercount. Old Believers probably numbered between 15 and 20 million immediately before the 1917 Revolution.

Soviet persecution of religion (especially intense between 1928 and 1941 and between 1959 and 1964) decreased the number of Old Believers; in the 1970s, the Belokrinitsy, the largest Old Believer church in the former USSR, had about 800,000 members. There may be as many as 5 million Old Believers worldwide.

Linguistic Affiliation. Most Old Believers speak Russian, an East Slavic language of the Indo-European Family.

History and Cultural Relations

Old Belief arose as a protest against the liturgical and textual changes that Patriarch Nikon introduced. In 1653 Nikon began to revise the Russian Orthodox liturgy and service books to make them conform to Greek practice. In particular, he replaced the traditional Russian two-fingered sign of the cross with the Greek three-fingered sign, changed the direction of the priestly procession around the altar, and reduced the number of loaves of altar bread used in the liturgy.

Although they apparently consisted of mere external rituals, Nikon's reforms attacked the very essence of Orthodoxy in the view of many of his contemporaries. By subordinating the Russian liturgical practice to that of the Greeks, Nikon denied the principle of Russian cultural and religious superiority that Metropolitan Makarii (r. 1542—1563) and Czar Ivan IV (r. 1547-1584) had so carefully cultivated in the church councils, canonizations, and religious publications of the mid-sixteenth century. Nikon's opponents, such as Archpriest Avvakum Petrov (1620-1682), pointed to the unbroken line of Orthodox rulers who had governed Russia since 988; as the only independent Orthodox power in the world since the Muslim Turks had conquered Constantinople in 1453, Russia, Avvakum and his followers argued, should serve as the model for the rest of the Orthodox world—not vice versa. The opponents of the new reforms claimed to stand for the old faith and took the
name "Old Believers." Despite their efforts, they failed to reverse the reforms. An international Orthodox church council met in Moscow in 1666-1667 to confirm the Nikonian reforms and anathematize the recalcitrant Old Believers.

Old Belief gained some support from settlers on the periphery of the Muscovite state. Many of the Don Cossacks who had fled to the southern frontier to escape the rigid stratification of the Muscovite state became Old Believers. Likewise, in northern Russia, where the Orthodox church had never had much influence, the peasants resented Nikon's efforts to extend his control over them; they supported Old Belief as well.

With no single organized center, the Old Believers quickly split up into many different denominations. The most radical movements, known collectively as the Priest-less, contended that Nikon's heretical reforms had actually destroyed the one true church that remained in the world—Russian Orthodoxy—and had heralded the reign of the Antichrist. The Priestless denied the validity of all sacraments save those which a layman could perform (baptism and confession); the strictest groups demanded that their members remain celibate, since the sacrament of marriage no longer existed. Over time, some Priestless Old Believers modified this doctrine to regularize family life among their followers, but others continued to insist on celibacy.

Today the Priestless community includes six major denominations: the Pomorians (Pomortsy), the Theodosians (Feodoseevtsy), the Filippites (Filippovtsy), the Chapeliers (Chasovennye), the Wanderers (Beguny), and the Saviorites (Spasovtsy). The Pomorians, the most moderate of the six denominations, permit marriage and have a Higher Ecclesiastical Council in Vilnius, Lithuania. The Theodosians, who still insist on celibacy, maintain the autonomous community of Preobrazhenskoe in Moscow, whereas the Filippites, who originated in a schism with the Pomorians in 1739, have nearly disappeared. The most radical movements—the Chappellers, Wanderers, and Saviorites—have no single center and usually gather illegally; in general, they rejected the Soviet regime as part of the kingdom of the Antichrist. Although they insist on radical separation from the world, the Wanderers in particular, grew during the Soviet period, despite intense persecution, because of
their missionary work. The Chappellers have important émigré colonies in the United States (including Alaska) and Brazil. Old Believers are today benefiting from the general growth in interest in religion.

The more moderate brand of Old Belief, the Priestly, also condemned the Nikonian apostasy but held that they, as defenders of the ancient faith, continued to constitute the true church, complete with sacraments and holy orders. Unfortunately, because they had no bishops, the Priestly could not ordain priests of their own and had to persuade Orthodox priests who had been ordained in the official church to convert to Old Belief. From their method of obtaining priests, these Old Believers were known as the "Fugitive Priestly" (Beglopopovtsy).

Splits among the Priestly occurred most often as a result of their efforts to create a valid hierarchy. In 1800 the Russian church, in an effort to bring the Old Believers back into the Orthodox fold, created a uniate movement (the United-in-Faith or Edinoverie), which permitted certain Orthodox priests to conduct the liturgy according to the pre-Nikonian service books. But because it refused to lift the anathemas pronounced on the Old Believers in 1667, the church gained few willing converts with this maneuver. Today the three major Priestly denominations are the Edinoverie, the Belokrinitsy, and the Church of the Fugitive Priestly Accord.

The Old Believer Church of the Belokrinits Accord traces its origins to 1846, when a group of Priestly Old Believers convinced Ambrosius, a Bosnian bishop, to join them and consecrate an Old Believer hierarchy. In 1853 they established a diocese in Moscow, which serves as their present headquarters; today, with about 800,000 adherents, they represent the largest single group of Old Believers allowed to practice their religion in the former USSR.

The Church of the Fugitive Priestly Accord refused to accept the validity of Ambrosius and his hierarchy but later obtained bishops of their own when Archbishop Nikolai (Pozdnev) of Saratov and Bishop Stefan of Sverdlovsk converted from Russian Orthodoxy to Old Belief in the 1920s. The archdiocese of Novozybkov in the Briansk District serves as their main center.

The Soviet government severely persecuted all branches of Old Belief until the German invasion of 1941 forced the state to seek support from all sectors of the population. In 1971 the Russian Orthodox Church lifted the anathemas that the 1667 council had pronounced upon Old Belief and its adherents.

Today three branches of Old Belief—the Belokrinitsy, the Fugitive Priestly, and the Pomorians—have legally recognized national organs.


By 1700 Priestly Old Believers had established colonies among the Don Cossacks, on the Kuban River in the Caucasus, in the Kerzhenets forests near Nizhnii Novgorod, in Starodub'e (near the Polish border), and in Vetka (in Poland itself). About the same time, the Priestless also founded colonies in Poland and in the northern and northwestern parts of Russia. Old Believers also fled to Siberia, where they became particularly numerous in the diocese of Tobol'sk and in the present-day Buriat Republic.

The reign of Catherine II (1762-1796) witnessed the birth of a number of new colonies. After the Russian armies had destroyed the Priestly settlement of Vetka, the refugees regrouped to form a new community on the Irgiz River in Saratov Province in 1762. To speed Moscow's recovery from the bubonic plague epidemic of 1771, Catherine allowed the Old Believers to open their own communities in the city. The Priestly center of Rogozhskoe Cemetery on the east side of Moscow and the Priestless communities of Pokrovskaia and Preobrazhenskoe grew increasingly important; today Rogozhskoe and Preobrazhenskoe continue to function as centers of Old Belief.

The Bolshevik Revolution drove many Old Believers west into the Baltic states, the western Ukraine, Poland, Moldavia, Romania, Bukovina, and Bulgaria.

Typically, Old Believers built their settlements along rivers (such as the Chika River in the Buriat Republic). They designed their streets to run parallel to the river. A typical cottage consisted of three chambers: a covered shelter (sen'); the main room of the cottage (izba), which contained the stove (pech'); and a separate, brighter, adjoining room with larger windows (gornitsa). Because the gornitsa was expensive to heat, nineteenth-century peasants used it only during the summer. A wooden fence enclosed the cottage courtyard. Unlike their Russian Orthodox neighbors, who built their homes directly overlooking the street, Old Believers often hid their houses behind a fence and courtyard so as to escape "worldly blandishments."


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Many Old Believers grow vegetables, berries, and nuts in their personal gardens. The Wanderers of Tomsk District, for example, earn their living by selling berries and nuts. Old Believers in Moldavia and the Far North supplement their diet with fish they catch themselves.

To escape from Stalin's campaign to collectivize the countryside (a nationwide effort that began in 1929), some Old Believers moved entire villages to remote areas in Siberia or the Altai region. Until 1950, for example, a colony of Old Believers lived almost completely isolated from the world near Iaiurevo in Siberia. Only the village headman ventured occasionally into town to trade for metal fishing and hunting gear, salt, and iron for tools. These Old Believers spun their own cloth, made their own boots and clothing, and remained secluded until 1950, when the Soviet secret police (called at that time the Ministry of Internal Affairs) discovered and arrested them for belonging to an "anti-Soviet organization." Ethnographers from the Soviet Academy of Sciences continue to discover isolated settlements of this type in Siberia and the Far North.

Not all Old Believer communities were so isolated, of course. The more moderate groups had urban centers in Moscow and the Baltic republics. Yet even in the city, where they of necessity participated in the Soviet economy, Old Believers tended to be a marginal element of that economy. Housewives, pensioners, and unskilled workers were overrepresented among the Old Believers. Antireligious prejudice, discriminatory state policies, and the Old Believers' own desire to maintain a community separate from the world combined to marginalize the dissenters' contribution to the Soviet economic system.

Industrial Arts. Before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Old Believer families played a dominant role in the Russian economy. Under Peter the Great (1689-1725), the Pomorians of the Far North and the Demidov family in the Urals mined iron. As a widely dispersed minority within the Russian Empire, the Old Believers used their religious connections as a commercial network. The Old Believer ethic also encouraged the accumulation of capital, since it discouraged the use of alcohol and often encouraged or required celibacy. By 1917 families such as the Riabushinskiis and the Guchkovs manufactured everything from textiles to automobiles.

In 1918 the Bolshevik state nationalized private industry, forced many of the Old Believer capitalists into exile, and permanently ended most of their economic influence. Some Old Believer communities, however, struggle to remain self-sufficient and produce their own clothing, houses, and books.

Old Believers tend to be very conservative in the clothes they produce and wear, although styles differ from region to region. Many women among the Siberian Old Believers, for example, continue to wear sleeveless tunic dresses (sarafans), even though most other Siberian Russian women have switched to a more fashionable combination of skirt and blouse. The traditional costume for Old Believer women in the Bukhtarma River valley included the sarafan, a knee-length blouse (rubakha), an apron, a wool belt, and a bonnet (shamshura)—the prescribed style of which differed greatly according to the age and status of its owner. Their male counterparts wore wide bloomers called chembary and a knee-length, collarless shirt (rubakha). In the summer, both men and women wore shoes (chirki) of soft cow leather, which they tanned and dyed themselves; in wintertime, they donned fur coats and fur-lined boots of deerskin. For holidays and weddings, the Old Believers
donned special clothes decorated with glass beads; as part of their dowry, young women prepared several such holiday dresses. Traditionally, Old Believers preferred a mix of bright colors, especially red.

Old Believers decorate their homes with elaborate woodwork. The Old Believer village of Shul'gin Log in the Altai region, for example, was famous for the carved ornamentation on the roofs of its houses as well as for its decorative paintings. Fish, dragons, snakes, and roosters were common motifs. Old Believers also made practical household implements such as distaffs and spindles. These they decorated with elaborate geometrical patterns.

Old Believers have always been justly famous for their love of books, in which they preserve their religious teachings as well as their own history. From the mid-1960s to the present, archaeographical commissions of the Academy of Sciences have discovered isolated Siberian workshops in which Old Believers copy, recopy, bind, and repair books of their own making.

Trade. The government of the former USSR had outlawed most forms of private capital since 1929, and this severely restricted private trade. Until the reforms under Mikhail Gorbachev, farmers' markets (rynki) were one of the only places where such trade was permitted. Today Old Believer peasants continue to sell their produce in such markets throughout the former USSR.

Division of Labor. The antireligious policies of the Communist party and the Soviet state severely limited educational and economic opportunities for Old Believers, who tend to work as unskilled or semiskilled labor. The Old Believers' desire to maintain a separate identity from that of the atheist state accentuated this process. Contemporary changes in the division of labor remain to be ascertained.

Land Tenure. Land in the Soviet Union was collectivized in the 1930s. Old Believer peasants who did not flee into isolated communities in the Soviet wilderness lived and worked on collective farms, which were dominated by the atheistic Communist party. Without an independent economic base, Old Believers found it difficult to maintain their separate religious culture in such an ideologically hostile environment. Nevertheless, there are still some villages, especially in the Buriat Republic, that are primarily dominated by Old Believers or Old Believer ethnic groups. Because Soviet authorities tried vigorously to suppress Old Belief in these regions, very little information is available about these communities. A Soviet antireligious work published in 1976 noted that between 32 and 36 percent of the residents of the rural areas around the city of Ulan-Ude, the capital of the Buriat Republic, were observant Old Believers. Despite their large numbers, these
Old Believers had no open church and so had to resort to meeting illegally in their priest's home.


Kin Groups and Descent. Descent is patrilineal and agnatic. Kinship groups provide an important matrix of social ties that an Old Believer can rely upon for material help; the Oregon Old Believers make substantial purchases of property by borrowing large sums—without interest—from their relatives. The fictive kinship of the godfamily (kumstvo) also provides an important social network. Lineages, too, are important; Siberian Old Believers, for example, retain oral traditions about their immigrant ancestors who initially settled in the east.

Kinship Terminology, Like other Russians, Old Believers use lineal terminology for the first ascending generation. Kinship terminology reflects the structure of the traditional Old Believer household with its extended family and practice of exogamous, virolocal marriage. In the nineteenth century these households contained three or four generations and included up to fifty members. After marriage, the son brought his wife into his father's household, where she became an integral part of the domestic unit. Kinship terminology indicates the crucial importance of the assimilation of the new member. For example, the word for "bride" (nevesta) and the very similar word for "brothers wife" (nevestka) are etymologically related to the Russian "unknown" (nevedomyi). Both a bride and a brother's wife were strangers who had to be assimilated into their father-in-law's household. In the same spirit, both the sister's husband and the daughter's husband, who each
remove a woman from the home, are referred to by the same term: ziat'. Even today the Oregon Old Believers repeat the old proverb the "ziat' loves to take" (ziat' liubit brat').

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Among the Old Believers who accept marriage as a sacrament, the Orthodox church's canonical rules against incest ensured exogamous marriage: at least seven degrees of consanguinity must separate an Old Believer couple. Under pain of excommunication, Old Believers must marry within their own religious community. Fictive kinship also restricts the number of an Old Believer's potential spouses; a man cannot marry the daughter of his godfather or godmother, for example. A person can marry no more than three times during his or her life. Marital residence is virolocal.

Although the Priestless initially rejected marriage, most groups now observe some form of marriage, which includes the mutual consent of the couple, a parental blessing, and a prayer by the preceptor. Today only the Theodosians, the Saviorites, and some of the Wanderers continue to oppose marriage.

Domestic Unit. Old Believer households consist of a linearally extended family and can include three or even four generations. Large households were more common in the nineteenth century; some even contained as many as fifty members, but these became increasingly rare in the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. Ideally, the authority of the male head of the household was unquestioned. Under Soviet rule, however, the state and the Communist party tried to undermine the traditional authority of the Old Believer elders. Antireligious books and pamphlets presented the traditional Old Believer household as a stifling, reactionary vestige of Russia's "feudal" past. New sources of authority challenged the religiously observant Old Believer on every front; Old Believer peasants had to conform to the Communist leadership on their collective farms, Old Believer children were expected to ignore their consciences and join the atheistic Young Pioneers, and
Old Believer workers were subordinate to the factory committees of the Communist party. These rival authorities, which represented the dominant power in the former USSR, vigorously competed against the religious and patriarchal authority invested in the head of the Old Believer household; nevertheless, as Soviet antireligious literature shows, some Old Believer patriarchs, especially in the Far North (around Arkhangel'sk) and Siberia, continued to exercise their customary supervision over their families.

Inheritance. Inheritance is through the male line.

Socialization. Old Believers require their children to observe the Orthodox fasts by the age of three. In observant families, the religious value of the fast outweighs all other considerations; parents, for example, ignore the bitter complaints of their children, who are forbidden to eat meat or drink milk during the fasts. In cases of disobedience to family elders, Old Believers resort to corporal punishment to maintain their authority.

Even grown children are expected to obey and respect their parents, especially in their choice of a spouse. Children who marry outside their faith often face excommunication and social ostracism.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. According to the few Soviet sociological studies of Old Belief, about half of the Old Believers in the highly urbanized Baltic were workers; the other half were invalids, pensioners, and housewives. In remote rural areas, such as the Komi and Buriat ASSRs, three-quarters of the Old Believer population were pensioners.

Political Organization. The former USSR, where most Old Believers live, was a Socialist, atheistic state in which, until 1990, the Communist party was constitutionally guaranteed the leading role. Since atheism was a prerequisite for membership in the Communist party, Old Believers were effectively excluded from exercising political power. The Council for Religious Affairs, a state organ, regulated all officially recognized religious communities. Historically, it severely restricted the practice of religion and completely forbade religious proselytism. Only the most moderate groups—the Belokrinitsy, the Fugitive Priestly, and the Pomorians—had national centers. More radical groups, which regard the world as the kingdom of the Antichrist (such as the Wanderers and the Saviorites), maintained illegal, unregistered congregations.

Social Control. The Old Believers employ public censure and excommunication (expulsion from the community) to ensure adherence to their canons.

Conflict. Since their condemnation in 1667, Old Believers have struggled against the state and its established ideology. State persecution was particularly severe under Czaritsa Sophia (r. 1682-1689), Empresses Anna (r. 1730-1740) and Elizabeth (r. 1741-1762), and Emperor Nicholas I (r. 1825-1855). Old Believers resorted to armed revolt (as in the Vulavin Mutiny of 1707-1708 and the Pugachëv Uprising of 1773-1775) and to mass suicides to protest this persecution. In the Soviet period, Joseph Stalin (during the 1930s) and Nikita Krushchev (from 1959 to 1964) presided over the cruelest antireligious repressions in Russian history, yet Old Believer protest took less violent forms; they formed secret communities, engaged in clandestine propaganda, and opened unofficial seminaries and illegal monasteries. After the fall of Krushchev in 1964, the state gradually relaxed its persecution of religion; in 1971, the Russian Orthodox Church (the largest religious
organization in the former USSR) lifted the anathemas against Old Belief, and in 1990 the Supreme Soviet passed a law guaranteeing a greater degree of religious freedom for believers.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Practitioners. Among Priestly Old Believers, an ordained priest is the primary religious practitioner; Priestless communities elect a preceptor (nastavnik) to lead their services. The Soviet government did not permit Old Believer communities to open seminaries or academies to train their religious leaders, but some groups (especially the Wanderers) founded underground schools to teach pastors and missionaries. Before the Revolution, Old Believer missionaries were in contact with the Tatars of western Siberia and the Finno-Ugric peoples, especially the Cheremis and the Mordva.

Ceremonies. Priestly Old Believers continue to observe the liturgy of the pre-Nikonian Orthodox church. Priestless Old Believers, on the other hand, celebrate as much of the old service as they can; because they have no priests, they simply omit those parts of the Orthodox liturgy that the priest must recite.

Old Believers observe the twelve traditional feast days and the four annual fasts of the Orthodox church. Outside the church, they celebrate the Christmas holidays (24 December-6 January) and Butter Week (which precedes Lent) with folk dances, organized fistfights, and elaborate costumes.

Arts. Old Believers have for centuries copied and recopied religious manuscripts that predate the Nikonian reforms and record their own history. They also have preserved a rich oral tradition of songs and folklore as well as valuable icons and other religious objects manufactured before 1653.

Medicine. Most Old Believers have access to modern medicine but may choose instead to consult a folk practitioner. Many groups maintain a rich oral tradition that includes information about medicinal herbs as well as charms and prayers designed to ward off or heal disease.

Death and Afterlife. Old Believers have traditionally held that only those who accepted their faith could enter heaven after death. Old Believers express their continuing kinship with the dead on Pentecost, when they eat a meal of eggs on the graves of their ancestors. They also revere the graves of those coreligionists they consider to have led particularly holy lives.


Colfer, A. Michael (1985). Morality, Kindred, and Ethnic Boundary: A Study of the Oregon Old Believers. New York: AMS Press.

Conybeare, Frederick C. (1962). Russian Dissenters. New York.

Crummey, Robert Owen (1970). The Old Believers and the World of Anti-Christ: The Vyg Community and the Russian State, 1694-1855. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Milovidov, Vladimir Fëdorovich (1979). Sovremennoe Staroobriadchestvo (The contemporary Old Believers). Moscow: Mysl'.

Pokrovskii, Nikolai Nikolaevich (1984). Puteshestvie za redkimi knigami (A journey after rare books). Moscow: Kniga.

Pospielovsky, Dmitry (1988). A History of Soviet Atheism in Theory and Practice, and the Believer. Vol. 2, Soviet Anti-Religious Campaigns and Persecutions. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Smirnov, Pëtr (1895). Istoriia russkogo raskola Staroobriadchestva (History of the Russian Old Believer schism). Moscow: Tipografiia Glavnogo Upravleniia Udelov.

Solzhenitsyn, Alexander (1978). The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation. Vol. 3. Translated by Harry Willetts. New York: Harper & Row.

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