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Collection Meeting of Frontiers

Religious Flight and Migration: Old Believers

This essay was published in 2000 as part of the original Meeting of Frontiers website.

Porog Baibalyk.Tuva, 1966 - 1975. Old Believers lived on the frontiers of Russia having been driven to the edge of the empire by state authorities. Their hermitages typically were located in very remote areas, requiring a wilderness trek to reach them.

In the second half of the seventeenth century, several trends in Russian history coalesced in the form of a great religious schism that has lasted to the present day. Reformers who hoped to revitalize Russia focused in part upon the theology and liturgical practices of the Russian Orthodox Church that they considered archaic and that had seen few revisions in centuries. In many ways, the reformers were anticipating the broader sociopolitical changes associated with modernization and Westernization that followed under Peter the Great (1682-1725). Those who resisted the ecclesiastical reforms became known as Old Believers, or followers of traditional religious rituals.

Although this clash between reformers and Old Believers had diverse roots, the essence of the dispute revolved around the incompatibility of the conservative, superstitious culture of the Muscovite state with the Western and rationalist influences beginning to affect Russia. Patriarch Nikon, who rose to power in 1652, became a polarizing figure after he introduced ostensibly minor changes in church practice. In particular, he sought to institute the use of three fingers rather than two when making the sign of the cross and to correct long-standing errors in the translations of Orthodox Slavonic texts from their Greek originals. Although these issues seemed trivial, such alterations became a lightning rod for deep-seated tensions in Russian society. The church councils of 1666-67 nevertheless confirmed these and other reforms that led to the historic rupture of Russian Orthodox unity.

View of Father Palladii's hermitage from the South. Tuva, 1966 – 1975. Monastic communities of Old Believers often built hermitages in remote areas.

Zealots such as the Archpriests Avvakum and Ivan Neronov, avatars of the Old Belief, tapped into a deep vein of nationalism and thundered against the perceived slight to Russian customs. As a result, they were exiled to Siberia and the Far North. For many people, Patriarch Nikon (and later, Peter the Great) represented the Antichrist; his reforms signified the apocalypse. As had so often happened in Russia's past, the nation split into implacable camps. Ultimately, the tsars supported the reformers while the illiterate peasantry often violently opposed them. Major rebellions of the time, including those led by Stenka Razin (1670-71), Kondratii Bulavin (1707-09), and Yemel'ian Pugachev (1773-75), tapped into these resentments and altered the political landscape. Although this conflict proved nearly intractable, modernizing influences persisted in Russia and continued to clash with traditional elements.

Mentor of pomorsk community. Rudnyi Altai, 1970-1971. Local Old Believer from a village in the Altai. Beards were a typical sign both of tradition and defiance, since Peter the Great forced men to shave as a part of his plan to Westernize and modernize Russia.

The Old Believers were driven to the fringes of the Russian Empire, including the Far North (near the White Sea), southern Ukraine, and Moldavia. Wherever they went, most endured persecution--both at the hands of the tsars, including Nicholas I (1825-55) and Aleksandr III (1881-94), and under the Soviet authorities, especially Stalin (1929-53). Others fled modernity into the frontier expanses of Russia, where as late as the second half of the twentieth century some Old Believers continued to evade Soviet power. Siberia became a noteworthy outpost of Old Believers, especially the Altai and Tuva regions and the area east of Lake Baikal.

In spite of their struggles, the Old Believers survived in various forms. Some communities (popovtsy) retained the structure of the Orthodox Church and maintained an order of priests, while others (bezpopovtsy) rejected all priests and hierarchy. In time, Old Believer communities moved to Manchuria, Australia, Turkey, South America, the United States, and elsewhere. Today, there are prominent Old Believer villages in Oregon and Alaska, including Nikolaevsk, south of Anchorage near the town of Homer.

Old Believers of the Tuva Region

Photographs from Archeographic Expeditions to the Schismatic Monasteries on the Upper Malyi Enisei River (Tuva, 1966-75). Institute of History of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

In order to escape persecution and oppression, some Old Believers moved to the Tuva region near the Mongolian border. In February 1917 a splinter group from the well-known monastery of Father Nifont in the Urals arrived in Tuva, and established the first Old Believer monastery in the region. Located along the headwaters of the Little Yenisei River, this monastic community had a succession of fathers superior in the twentieth century: Nifont, Sergei, Ignatii, and Palladii.

Father Palladii, a skilled transcriber and binder of manuscripts and early printed books, owned a large library of these materials. In 1966 he introduced Novosibirsk archeographers to previously unknown and unstudied literary works composed by Old Believer writers in the Urals and Siberia from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries

Old Believers in the Altai

Photographs from Archeological Expeditions to Old Believer Monasteries (Rudnyi Altai, Headwaters of the Uba River, 1970-71). Institute of History of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Some Old Believers evaded state persecution by fleeing to the Altai, a very mountainous region of Russia near its border with Mongolia. Old Believer monastic orders and peasants lived alongside each other in this area. The convents of the Pomorskii (shore-dwellers) group were the successors to the Pokrovskii convents built in the Altai at the beginning of the twentieth century with the financial support of Savva Morozov, a well-known textile mill owner and member of the Pomorskii community. Old photographs of the nuns at these convents have been preserved. They traditionally maintained close religious and economic ties with the local peasantry and the wealthy Old Believer farming families in the Altai. The prosperous peasantry offered stiff resistance--including armed opposition--to Soviet rule and the policies of “war communism” and collectivization. This resistance met with harsh repression that took a toll on the Altai Old Believer communities and their collections of books.

When Siberian archeographers began traveling to the Altai Old Believer communities in the late 1960s and early 1970s, they found the former prosperity long gone and the valleys that had flourished before 1917 nearly depopulated. The area had become an ideal location for the secretive settlements of hermits, many who had once been nuns in the Pokrovskii convents. Other inhabitants had come from all parts of the country, for example Kuban', where a remnant community had long maintained intensive correspondence with the Pomorskii group.

The Dubches Hermits in the Stalin Era

Photographs from the Trial of the Dubches Hermits. Institute of History of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Persecution of religious minorities intensified in the Stalin era. Between 1937 and 1940 the remnants of a few noteworthy Ural Old Believer monasteries that had managed to escape destruction by the Soviet government secretly relocated from the left bank of the Ob' River to the left bank of the Lower Yenisei River as well as to the Dubches River and its tributaries. The monastery of Father Simeon played a major role in this relocation. The writings of the monastery's hermits traced its history to the eighteenth century, when it was led by Father Superior Maksim.

In 1951 the Dubches monasteries were spotted from the air by Soviet authorities and subsequently demolished. The hermits and the peasants who had supported the monasteries were arrested and all the buildings, icons, and books were burned. The Krasnoiarsk Office of the Ministry of State Security conducted an investigation and tried thirty-three persons. All those indicted were convicted under Article 58-10, Part 2 and Article 58-11 of the Soviet Criminal Code to prison terms ranging from ten to twenty-five years. Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn wrote about these events in his Gulag Archipelago. Two of those convicted perished in Soviet concentration camps: Father Simeon and Mother Margarita. After Stalin's death, the other persons convicted were granted amnesty on November 12, 1954.