Old Believers are members of a conservative and rebellious group within the Russian Orthodox church. Also widely known as the True Believers, they trace their origins back to a revolt over religious reforms made by Patriarch Nikon in the mid 1600s. Other names used for Old Believers or sects of Old Believers include: Beglopopovtsy, Belokrinitsy, Bespopovtsy, Chasovennye, Diakonovtsy, Edinoverie, Feodoseevtsy, Filippovtsy, Onufrievtsy, Pomortsy, Ppvtsy, Spasovtsy, Staroobriadtsy, Starovery and Stranniki.
Old Believers are found throughout Russia and the former Soviet Union. Concentrations of the groups are also found in Poland, eastern Germany, Romania, Bulgaria, Brazil, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Canada. Many have traditionally lived in the remote parts of Russia or practiced their beliefs in secret. Some Old Believers live around Ulan Ude near Lake Baikal. There are several large Old Believer communities in the mouth of the Danube area of the Ukraine.
It is difficult to determine how many Old Believers there are, in part because they were persecuted and even killed for their beliefs and practiced in secret, . But is believed that their numbers are sharply declining. There were about 20 million of the time of the Bolshevik Revolution, and maybe less than a million today, with many of them pensioners.
Great Schism and the Old Believers
In the 1650s, the Russian Orthodox Church experienced its own Great Schism. In 1653, the autocratic Patriarch Nikon tried to bring Russian Orthodox church rituals, liturgy and texts in line with those of the 'Pure' Greek Orthodox church. He ordered rituals changed and Biblical text retranslated to correspond with the Greek versions. The direction of priestly processions was changed. The number of bread loaves used in liturgies was reduced. Followers were required to say a different number of Hallelujahs at services and cross themselves with three fingers (representing the Trinity) instead of two (the traditional Russian way).
Although many of these changes seem superficial, the reforms outraged traditionalists, who believed they attacked essence of Russian Orthodoxy, and undermined the principal of Russian cultural and religious superiority that earlier religious leaders and tsars had carefully cultivated.
The dispute over the reforms led to a schism between Nikon's New Believers and the Old Believers. Old Believers regarded the changes as blasphemy and believed Russian Orthodox should serve as model to Greek Orthodoxy not the other way around. They tried but failed to reverse the reforms. In the end Nikon was sacked by Tsar Alexey for his intrusions into Ukrainian territories. Later Peter the Great upheld the reforms.
Growth of the Old Believers
By 1700, there were Old Believer colonies in Cossack areas in the Kuban River near the Caucasus, in Kerzhenets forest near the Polish border and in the Vetka in Poland itself. Beginning around this time, large numbers of Old Believers fled to Siberia and became particularly numerous in the Tobolsk area and the Buriat republic. Under Catherine II (1762-1786) a number of new colonies sprung up, including some in Moscow.
The Old Believers gained support from settlers on the edges of the Muscovite state in the frontier areas. Many Cossacks who had escaped the rigid stratification of the Muscovite state became Old Believers. Northern Russian peasants who resented efforts by Moscow to manipulate them also became Old Believers. The movement was not unified and a number of different sects and denominations emerged. The most radical was a group called the Priestless, who equated the reforms with the emergence of the Anti-Christ, rejected many of the church religious sacraments and demanded their members be celibate.
Persecution of the Old Believers
Old Believer were condemned to anathemas by an international Orthodox church council that met in Moscow in 1667 and subjected to waves of persecution. They have been imprisoned, exiled, and killed. They endured unspeakable tortures. Thousands were burned at the stake or burned themselves to death in mass suicide rather than make the sign of the cross with three fingers.
Persecution was greatest under Czarta Sophia (1682-168), Empress Anna (1301740), Empress Elizabeth (1741-1762) and Nicholas I (1825-1855). Old Believers resorted to armed struggle in the Vulvavin Mutiny in 1707-8 and mass suicides in the Pugachev Uprising in 1773-75. Entire communities of Old Believers fled into the remote Ural Mountains and Siberia to avoid being forced to accept the "reforms” introduced by Patriarch Nikon. Other sought refuge among the semiautonomous Cossack bands on the steppe.
The Old Believers have been able to practice their religion with out being persecuted from 1771 to 1827 and 1905 to 1918 and today. During these periods they prospered as an economic community. In the Far North and around the Urals they mined iron and made tools and used connections in the Old Believer networks to sell their goods.
After the Bolshevik revolution many Old Believers fled to the Baltic states, western Ukraine, Poland, Moldavia, Romania and Bulgaria. The Soviets fiercely persecuted all branches of Old Believers until the German invasion in 1941 when they needed support from all sectors of the population. The Soviet government tried to undermine the Old Believers by passing out pamphlets that accused them of being reactionary and feudal.
To escape collectivization under Stalin, Old Believers moved entire villages to remote locations. Some had no contact with the outside world except periodic trips to town to purchase fishing and hunting gear and salt. Some village managed to escape detection until the 1950s when they were discovered by the KGB and arrested for belonging to an “anti- Soviet organization.” In 1971, the anathemas of 1667 were lifted. In 1990, the Supreme Soviet passed laws guaranteeing greater degree of religious freedom for believers.
Discovery of Isolated Old Believers
The book Lost in the Taiga, by Vasily Peskov, is based on the discovery of an Old Believer family living in remote region of the Altai mountains, 150 miles from the nearest settlement, in 1978 by a group of Soviet geologist doing surveys in a helicopter.
The widower and his four adult children had not had contact with anybody since 1945 and ate potatoes and other vegetables they grew in a garden plot. They spoke their own dialect, made fires with flints and wore clothes they wove from homegrown hemp.
The Altai family could not comprehend of radios and apartments and refused to use matches, pills and canned food because they regarded them as sinful. There are reports of some Old Believers that have never heard of Lenin, World War II, electricity or the Communist revolution.
Old Believer Sects
Priestly Old Believers are led by ordained priests. Priestless Old Believers are led by a preceptor elected by the community. Seminaries and other religious centers were illegal under the Soviets. Some groups founded underground schools to teach pastors and missionaries.
The Priestless community includes six major denominations: 1) the Pomorians, the most moderate of the group, and allow marriage; 2) the Theodosians (Feodoseevtsy), who still insist on celibacy; 3) the Filippites; 4) the Chapellers; 5) the Wanderers; and 6) the Saviorites. The latter three are the most radical sects, They have traditionally been very secretive especially under the Soviet regime, which they accused of being part of a kingdom of the AntiChrist.
The so-called Priestly sects are regarded as more moderate. They rejected the Nikon reforms but still respected the church itself and did not reject the sacraments. They had problems ordaining priests because they had no bishops. There were many splits because of problems creating a valid hierarchy. The three major Priestly denominations today are the Belokrinitsy, the Edinoverie and the Church of the Fugitive Priestly Accord.
The Belokrinitsy is the largest Old Believer church. It had around 800,000 members in the 1970s but is believed to have significantly less than that now. It traces its origins back to 1846 when a group of Priestly Old Believers persuaded a Bosnian Orthodox bishop to join them and consecrated an Old Believers hierarchy. In 1853, they established a diocese in Moscow. As of the early 1990s the Belokrinitsy, the Fugitive Priestly and the Pomorans were legally recognized.
Old Believer Customs
Old Believers don't drink or smoke. Men have long beards. Women dress modestly. Followers say a different number of Hallelujahs at services and cross themselves with two fingers rather than three as regular Orthodox Christians do. Old Believers are buried with a cross at their feet while Orthodox Christians and are buried with the cross at their head.
Old Believer services often last for five or six hours and members are required to stand the entire time. Old Believer women must enter church wearing a head scarf. This is not necessarily true with the Orthodox. Many Old Believer religious texts are manuscripts. The have a rich oral tradition of songs and folklore. and valuable icons. Medical care is often provided by folk practitioners.
One of the most important events for the Old Believers is their Transfiguration Feast. Describing such a feast, Christina Ling of Reuters wrote, "A golden-robed priest strides through the churchyard, fringed banners on poles, wobbling precariously before him while flocks of brightly kerchiefed pensioners hobble valiantly in his wake.'...'O Lord, bless these grapes and apples," intones Batyushka Father Andrei solemnly, slowing his pace to flick holy water over the rows of fruit laid out neatly in baskets and scrubbed plastic bags in the yard...Clouds of incense waft through the trees,"
Old Believers follow the 12 traditional feast days and four annual fasts of the Orthodox church. Observing Orthodox fasts is was of upmost importance. Outside the church they celebrate Christmas holidays and Butter Week, which precedes Lent, with folk dances, organized fist fights and elaborate costumes. During the Pentecost a meal of eggs is eaten at the graves of deceased relatives.
Old Believer Marriage and Family
Even the Priestless groups that rejected marriage as a sacrament now have some form of marriage, which includes the mutual consent of the couple, a parental blessing and a prayer by the preceptor. Couples who marry outside the Old Believer community run the risk of being excommunicated. There also rules that state that no individual can marry more than three times in his or her lifetime.
Large households made up of extended families are common. It is not unusual for three or even four generations to live together in one house. In the 19th century it was possible to find household wish 50 or more members but these are rare now.
Religious training has traditionally begun at an early age. Children were expected to start fasting when they were three. Children are expected to follow the rule of the parents even after they had long been grown up.
Old Believer Life
Old Believers mostly speak Russian or some other Slavic language and have traditionally lived in village communities in cottages that, unlike traditional Russian houses, were built behind a fence and courtyard to escape “worldly blandishments.” The interior of their homes are often decorated wish elaborate wood carvings. Old Believers are famous for making their won books. Many earned money by selling vegetables and berries they grew in household gardens.
Old Believer communities have traditionally been very self-sufficient. They spun their own cloth and made their own clothes and boots and forged their own tools from iron. This was especially true in remote villages in distant locations, Even the few urbanized ones had little contact with the local economy or their non-Old Believer neighbors.
Many Old Believers still dress much as their ancestor did in the 18th century. Many Siberia Old Believer women wear a sleeveless tunic while those in the Buktrama River valley wear a knee-length blouse, an apron and bonnet. The men wear wide bloomers and a knee-length collarless shirt. For weddings and major holidays Old Believers sometimes don clothes decorated with glass beads.
Because of their history of persecution, the Old Believers are known for being very secretive. Even in places were they exist in relatively large numbers, they have no church’ and meet quietly at a priest’s or member’s house. They also have secretly opened unofficial seminaries and monasteries and engaged in clandestine propaganda.
Fyodorovsky are another conservative Christian sect, sometimes regarded as Old Believers . They dress conservatively, don't drink or smoke or watch television. They believe that Christ returned to earth in the early 20th century in the form of a Russian peasant named Fydorov Rybalkin. One of their key belief s is that suffering purifies the soul. [Source: Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times, August 15, 2000]
Fyodorovsky are against having sex and regard getting married as a sin. This combined with the disdain of proselytizing and encouraging new people to join has caused the sect to decline in numbers as its older members die off.
Many of the older married members converted to the religion after they were married and had children. They say they feel great anxiety every day for the sins they committed on their youth.
Fyodorovsky practice their religion in their homes. They sing songs from a communal book and have discussions about psalms and scriptures. When they die they are buried under a simple wooden cross without their name.
Fyodorovsky in the Gulags
Many Fyodorovsky were sent of gulags in the Soviet era. The refused to cooperate with authorities, sign any official documents. work on their holidays and participate in Communist work schemes. They condemned the Russian Orthodox church because it cooperated with the Soviets.
Some imprisoned Fyodorovsky gave their name as "Christ" during interrogations and closed their eyes when they were photographed. One elderly Fyodorovsky told the Los Angeles Times, he walked a hundred miles over stones to his gulag, ran through a gauntlet of flailing batons, and walked past piles of frozen corpses of other Fyodorovsky who died for their beliefs.
The Skoptsu were a fanatical Christian sects exiled to Olekminsk in Yakutia in the 19th century. They believe to in sexual abstinence. To reduce temptation, males were castrated.
Text Sources: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia, China, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company, Boston); New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2016