Old Believers

views updated May 17 2018

Old Believers

ETHNONYMS: Beglopopovtsy, Beguny, Belokrinitsy, Bespopovtsy, Chasovennye, Diakonovtsy, Edinoverie, Feodoseevtsy, Filippovtsy, Onufrievtsy, Pomortsy, Popovtsy, Spasovtsy, Staroobriadtsy, Starovery, Stranniki


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 empireabout ten times the official figure. A census in 1912, by contrast, reported only 2,206,621 Old Believersa 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. 15421563) 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 worldnot 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 worldRussian Orthodoxyand 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 movementsthe Chappellers, Wanderers, and Savioriteshave 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 Beliefthe Belokrinitsy, the Fugitive Priestly, and the Pomorianshave 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 sumswithout interestfrom 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 groupsthe Belokrinitsy, the Fugitive Priestly, and the Pomorianshad 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.

See also Old Believers in Vol. 1


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.


Old Believers

views updated May 29 2018

Old Believers

ETHNONYMS: Old Ritualists, Raskol'niks


Identification. Old Believers are a religious group of People who pattern their worship and way of life on the Old Rite of the Russian Orthodox church. The vast majority are ethnic Russian. In North America, there are two independent groups of Old Believers: a "priestless" group (Bexpopovtsy ) centered in the eastern part of the United States, and a "chapel" group (Chasovanniye ) in the western United States, with kin groups of the latter also in Canada and Alaska. The two groups tend to be mutually exclusive, which stems from the particular characteristic of Old Believers. Even at its inception in the seventeenth century, Old Believerism was not, and indeed has never been, a coordinated movement or a cohesive, consolidated religion, although all advocates observe the same religious rite. Instead, the term Oíd Believerism refers to large numbers of Russian peasants and many of their village priests who, on a person-to-person and family-to-family basis, refuse to conform to the church reforms of the mid-seventeenth century. Characteristically, various groups agree on doctrinal decisions in order to cope with their existing realities. The variations in doctrinal practices ("agreements") give rise to differing branches of Old Believers. Often groups of differing agreements do not consider themselves "in union," which is to say they do not recognize the doctrinal validity of each other. This article refers mostly to the Chasovanniye, Old Believers in the western United States, inasmuch as they are recent immigrants to North America and more closely portray the original ethic of Old Believers.

Location and Demography. The "priestless" group that settled in the area of Erie, Pennsylvania, arrived first in North America around 1913. They number approximately fifteen hundred. In 1964, quite independently, "chapel" groups of Old Believers settled in Oregon. Originally three thousand, they now have grown to some five thousand. Several families of the Oregon group moved on to the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska in 1969 to establish a more remote village. There are now a number of small villages in that area, with an overall population of some seven hundred. Several years later, another group of families established a village near Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. The population there is about three hundred. In addition, there are families and small groups of Families affiliated with one or the other of the above groups who live separately but maintain contact on principal religious holidays.

Linguistic Affiliation. Old Believers speak a fairly Standard Russian, a Slavic Indo-European language. Their Religious services are read in Church Slavonic, an early version of Russian, but differing to the extent that special training for the young is required in order to master the orthography as well as differences in pronunciation and some word usage. With the extended residency in North America, however, there has been a tendency among the Oregon group to use English more and more in everyday conversation. In Pennsylvania, conversion to English is complete; services are, for the most part, in English.

History and Cultural Relations

The historical event that gave rise to the Old Believers is known in Russian history as the Great Schism, or Raskol. At root in the schism was the introduction of church reforms during the period 1651-1667. The patriarch of the Russian Orthodox church, Patriarch Nikon, assumed the responsibility for revising the church books in use at the time. The reforms transcended the written word, for Nikon extended the reforms to include matters of the service ritual. Large segments of the populace, deeply offended by being told they must change aspects of their traditional ritual, rebelled and remained faithful to the Old Rite. Of the items reformed, one in particular became an identifying symbol of Old Believers, namely, crossing oneself with two fingers instead of the reform-mandated three fingers. Peasant attitudes were strong in opposition to other issues of the reforms as well.

This quickly led to social strife that was so serious that Tsar Alexei exiled Nikon. Nonetheless, in one of history's ironic twists, the tsar approved the reforms. Refusal to accept the reforms became a violation not only of church law but also of civil law. Those refusing to adopt the reforms were considered separatists (raskolniki ). Priests who refused were arrested and often executed. The Old Ritual became synonymously referred to as the Old Belief. Hence, adherents called themselves and became known as Old Ritualists or Old Believers, and the reformers called them raskolniki.

Old Believers, fleeing persecution, established themselves in remote areas, and they still tend to eschew contact with surrounding populations. After the communist revolution in Russia, many escaped over the border into China where they settled in remote areas of Manchuria and Sinkiang. Some years after the communist revolution in China, Old Believers were able to escape to, or received permission to exit to, Hong Kong. The vast majority went on to South America, principally Brazil. After four discouraging years of poor agricultural conditions, many were able to secure voluntary passage to the United States and eventually settled in an ever-growing community of Old Believers located in Oregon. Here they were joined by another recent Immigrant group of Old Believers who had been residents in Turkey and Romania for some two hundred years.


Old Believers prefer to build a typical Russian village, with homes along each side of a long street and a prayer hall in the center of the village. Villages in Alaska and Canada, and one location in Oregon, are of this type. But for the most part, Old Believers in Oregon have purchased farms and other real estate in towns. They gather in several prayer halls for worship and meetings. Composition of congregations reflect the different points of origin of Old Believers before they came to North America.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Old Believers are principally oriented toward agriculture but are also interested in marketable activities to earn money to buy materials, needles, and other essentials, now including homes and automobiles. The commercial activities vary widely from area to area. While living in China, groups of Old Believers learned how to catch live tigers for zoos. They also hunted deer and sold the horns to the Chinese. These activities alternated with farming. In Oregon, the farms are devoted to the Commercial growing of berries, fruits, and nuts. Individual farms also keep beehives and cattle for their own use. During the off-season, they form teams of workers to do preindustrial thinning in the woods. Others take jobs in furniture factories, men serving as carpenters and the women applying their sewing skills. When they found that factory work paid well, they decided to keep their jobs while continuing to operate their farms full time as well. In Alaska, Old Believers learned the trades of fishing and boat building and in a few years began building boats for themselves and others. Their off-time is spent in maintenance of equipment, some farming, and hunting. Old Believers are normally diligent and hard-working folk. All members of the family assist in the domestic chores as well as gathering the harvest.

Industrial Arts. Many people engage in part-time craft work, either sewing or carpentry, as stated above.

Trade. Old Believers prefer to be self-sufficient in terms of food products and domestic items, but during scarcities, they buy fruits and vegetables in stores. As the traditional ways give way to convenience, more and more items are bought from stores, and they are not reluctant to acquire technological items that make work lighter and more efficient. The Communities in Oregon, Canada, and Alaska trade among themselves, sending berries and nuts north to Alaska and fish and caviar to Oregon. Also, the white honey produced in Canada is highly prized in the other locations.

Division of Labor. Labor is divided in accordance with traditional patriarchal family rules, with domestic tasks done by women. They prepare all meals, keeping track of the church calendar to ensure that fasting is observed. They also produce, through skills in sewing and embroidery, much, if not all, of the clothing for the family and decorations for the home. Girls are encouraged to begin sewing and weaving while young, in order to accumulate a trunkful of decorations and presents for their wedding dowry. Older children look after the younger. Women also do many of the chores on the farm like milking and feeding cattle. The men farm, build, and work outside the home. Young boys usually accompany the older men to learn what is to be done.

Land Tenure. Each family strives to own its own home or farm. In several of the remote settlements in China and Brazil, the land was free. On this land they built their homes and considered it their own. Today, kin groups often pool money to assist a family in purchasing a home or farm in order to become self-sufficient.


Kin Groups and Descent. The family forms the basic unit, with kin relations of the extended family an important adjunct. Kinship is traced through the male family name, with a version of the father's name used as the middle name of all children. In accordance with their church writings, People closer than eight steps of kinship are not permitted to marry. Since few records are kept, a young couple deciding to marry must seek out elder members of their families to determine if the proper distance exists. The family of a godparent is also considered kin, hence ineligible for marriage. Therefore, Old Believers assign actual kin, often brothers or sisters, to be the godparents of the young. Living memory of the ancestors usually extends back at least three generations.

Kinship Terminology. Since the extended kin of the Family are important in work teams and cooperative efforts, the kinship terminology is specific and intricate. One set of terms is used for consanguineal kin, and another set for all inmarrying members. The latter also differs depending on whether the relative by marriage is male or female.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage in the Russian Orthodox Old Rite is meant to be permanent. The age at marriage has traditionally been seventeen or eighteen, with males usually a year or two older than the females. But in an effort to preserve their traditional ways in a modern setting and to protect the young from becoming attracted to an outsider, the adults have tended to have the young drop out of school after learning the basic educational skills of reading, writing, and figuring. They are often encouraged to marry early, at fourteen to sixteen. The competition for eligible brides in a kin-restricted environment also encourages early marriage. Confronting the young with the adult responsibilities of marriage had the result at first of keeping them traditionally oriented in the faith for the blessing of their marriage and the baptism of their children. Initially effective, it later became a factor in a rise in divorce, a phenomenon for which there is no ready answer in a patriarchal and traditionally religious society. There has been a subsequent effort to discourage early marriage and encourage Instead educational achievement in school. Newlyweds remain in the home of the groom's parents until a child arrives. The new family then builds its own home on the father's land or seeks to buy a home elsewhere.

Domestic Unit. Each family member shares in the Domestic operation of the family and usually contributes money earned from outside work, as long as they are active members of the household. It is common for kin to assist each other within the extended family.

Inheritance. Land is divided among the males of the Family as they acquire families of their own. The youngest male characteristically stays in the parental home, takes care of the aging parents, and inherits the parental home with remaining land. Females of the family may receive livestock, beehives, and so on, but usually not land. In contemporary times, money has become an acceptable form of inheritance or gift.

Socialization. Emphasis is placed on domestic activities, skills, and respect for work ("It is better to work for free than to sit idle for free"). By their early teens, girls are prepared to cook, sew, and rear children, and boys are skilled with tools and machinery. All can read Church Slavonic. Discipline is a domestic and religiously respected virtue. It is authoritatively maintained by denial and punishment of improper behavior. Good behavior is evidenced by proper activities and humility. Television and radios are discouraged. The young, especially males, are allowed some discreet deviations in the larger Society before marriage. But once married, they must assume the traditional way of life.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. While the Old Believers are scrupulous in paying taxes and strive to obey laws, they are not interested in becoming involved in local or regional affairs. Many seek U.S. citizenship out of a sense of respect and a desire to belong. Citizenship also allows them easier travel to overseas kin and the ability to register commercial equipment, such as fishing boats. Children attend public school but rarely finish. Only a few have chosen to go on to higher education.

Political Organization. The congregation of the prayer hall or church remains the central focus of community Organization. The lay leader (nastavnik or nastoiatel' ) and his assistants are chosen by unanimous consent of the congregation. Leaders from all the congregations counsel on larger questions that affect the overall Old Believer community.

Social Control. Improper social behavior automatically violates one religious sanction or another. The violator is "separated" from the congregation and must ask forgiveness to Return. This entails a penance and a forty-day period of purification to rejoin "in union." A person not in union is prohibited from eating or praying with those in union. Unrepentant or serious violators can be excommunicated. At death, those not in union are buried in the Old Believers cemetery separately from those in union. In recent cases where the religious sanctions were slow or ineffective, Individuals turned to the agencies of the host society for more immediate help.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. An Old Believer considers Eastern Orthodox Christianity as expressed in the enculturated Russian Old Rite to be the true religion. It is a solemn obligation for a man and his family to preserve the faith as they await the end of the earth. Those who practice other religions, other rites, or other versions of the Old Rite must be avoided as ritually unclean. One cannot eat or drink from the same bowl or cup with unclean outsiders or pray with them. Services approximate the Orthodox monastic schedule. The faithful abstain from all animal products, including milk and eggs, usually every Wednesday and Friday and during long fasts throughout the year before the holidays of Christmas, Easter, Peter and Paul, and the Dormition of the Holy Mother. No celebrations or entertainments are permitted during fasting periods. Old Believers shun tobacco and may not drink tea, coffee, or any hard liquor. Instead, they make their own braga, either from bread or from fruit and berries. Men wear their hair shorn, but their beards untrimmed. Women do not cut their hair, and after marriage, they bind and cover it. Many of the Oregon kin groups prefer to wear the old-style Russian clothing: tunic shirt for men and shirt with sarafan jumper for women, both with a mandatory woven belt. Men don black prayer robes for services.

Ceremonies. The Orthodox church calendar requires frequent holidays, some major, some minor. These are celebrated at early morning services (from 2 to 8 A.M.). Later in the afternoon of the holiday, family and friends pay social visits to other in union friends. Christmas and Easter are celebrated in this manner for an entire week after the actual holiday. Baptism occurs within the first eight days of life, with the lay leader and the chosen godparent administering. Marriages are blessed in the prayer hall or church and celebrated for two to three days at the home of the groom's parents. The bride's trousseau and dowry trunk contains embroidery and woven presents for the new family, as well as embroidery decorations for the in-laws' living room of her new home.

Arts. For their own purposes, Old Believers have often had to copy church books, paint icons on wood, or cast metal icons. These activities are performed in a posture of prayer. For domestic decoration, men are skilled at carving and women at weaving and embroidery.

Medicine. Old Believers prefer to receive care in the following hierarchy: herb medicines and the healing touch of one of their own who is thought to have special competence; a chiropractor; and last, a physician with medicines. Old Believer midwives attend at the majority of births with complicated births referred to a hospital.

Death and Afterlife . Burial services occur within a day after death, attended by the congregation and all who wish to say farewell. The burial is followed by a funeral dinner at the home of the family which has been prepared by the kinfolk. Upon departing, each guest is given a gift (milostinya ) with a request to pray for the salvation of the deceased. Characteristically, memorial services are held again on the third day after death, the ninth day, the fortieth day, and the year anniversary. The first forty days after death are considered a time of intense prayer in behalf of the deceased. It is on the fortieth day that they believe the soul is given final judgment and, if deserving, enters into heaven.


Billington, James H. (1966). The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Crummey, Robert O. (1970). The Old Believers and the World of the Antichrist: The Vyg Community and the Russian State, 1 664-1855. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Fedotov, G. P. (1966). The Russian Religious Mind. 2 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Morris, Richard A. (1990). Old Russian Ways: A Comparison of Three Russian Groups in Oregon. New York: AMS Press.

Robson, Roy R. (1985). "The Other Russians: Old Believer Community Development in Erie, Pennsylvania." Unpublished manuscript, Allegheny College, Meadville, Penn.


Old Believers

views updated Jun 11 2018


The term Old Believers (or Old Ritualists) includes a number of groups that arose as a result of Russian church reforms initiated between 1654 and 1666. Old Believers desired to maintain the traditions, rites, and prerogatives of Russian Orthodoxy, whereas Nikon, patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, wanted to make Russian practices conform to those of the contemporary Greek Orthodox Church. Nikon's opponents, conscious of both a departure from tradition and an encroachment of central control over local autonomy, refused to change practices.

origins of the movement

The reforms took two general formstextual and ritual. In the first, a group of editors changed all Russian liturgical books to conform with their contemporary Greek counterparts, rather than old Russian or old Greek versions. The most famous of these was the change in spelling of "Jesus" from "Isus" to "Iisus." While the Old Believers rejected all innovation, the symbolic centerpiece of resistance was the sign of the cross. Traditionally, Russians put together their thumb, fourth, and fifth fingers in a symbol of the Trinity. The second finger was held upright, to confirm Jesus' form as perfect man; the middle finger was bent to the level of the second, symbolizing Jesus' Godly form that bent down to become human. These two fingers touched the body during the sign of the cross, showing that both natures of Jesus (human and divine) existed on the cross. In Greek practice, the fingers were reversedthumb, second, and third fingers were held together and touched the body, while the fourth and fifth fingers were held down toward the palm. When Nikon obliged his flock to change their hands, it seemed that he wanted them to discount the icons in their churches and the instructions in their psalm books, which explicitly showed the old Russian style of the sign. In fact, the Stoglav Council, convened exactly a century earlier, had condemned anything but the "twofingered sign."

The implementation of reforms were draconian. Ivan Neronov and Avvakum Petrovich, who had been part of Nikon's circle, challenged the patriarch. Sometimes left alone, at other times persecuted, Nikon's opponents included some of the most respected churchmen in Muscovy. In an unusual move, Neronov was finally allowed to continue using the old books for his services, but Avvakum was exiled to Siberia and finally burned at the stake for his extreme antireform posture. Even women were not sparedthe boyarina Feodosia Morozova was carried out of Moscow to the Borovsk Monastery, where she perished in jail.

For each of the famous antireformists, thousands more pious Russians simply paid no heed to the calls for reform and continued to pray according to the old style. Their existence underlined the limit of Nikon's other goal, which was to limit the expansion of central control of religious affairs to the patriarch alone, taking away local prerogatives. The vast majority of Old Believers simply refused to accept either the reforms or the centralization that Nikon imposed on his flock. The traditionalists, of course, perceived themselves as true Orthodox, and called followers of the reformed ritual "new believers" or "Nikonians." Much of this early history, however, is still poorly understood. Recent scholarship has shown that the Old Belief did not coalesce into a movement until perhaps a generation after the schism. Because local concerns tended to override any broader organization of Old Believers, the leadership of the Old Belief probably had only limited authority over a small core of supporters.

organizational structure

For the Old Believers, the possible loss of sacramental life splintered the movement shortly after the 1666 schism. Since no bishops consecrated new hierarchs according to the old ritual, Old Believers quickly found themselves bereft of canonical clergy. Old Believer communities solidified into a number of soglasiya, translatable as "concords." The differences among the concords lay not so much in doctrinal issues as in sacramental procedures and interaction with the state.

Old Believers developed a spectrum of views on the sacraments. HalfOld Believers, for example, accepted some Russian Orthodox sacramental life but prayed regularly only with other halfOld Believers. Many such halfOld Believers never openly aligned themselves with any specific concord but instead maintained a secret allegiance to the Old Belief. Although scores of small, locally formed groups sprang up, they tended to wither and die, leaving few traces of their history.

The priestly Old Believers (popovtsy ), on the other hand, at some point in their history came to accept clergy from new-rite sources. These priestly Old Believers included the Belokrinitsy and the beglopopovtsy (fugitive-priestly), the latter accepting clergy consecrated in the state-sponsored church. Furthest from the church were the priestless Old Ritualiststhe Pomortsy, Fedoseyevtsy, Filippovtsy, and Spasovtsyall of whom firmly believed that the sacramental life had been taken up into heaven, just as Elijah had ridden his fiery chariot away from a sinful world, only to return in the last days. Priestless Old Believers were more likely to reject accommodation with the state than their priestly coreligionists, sometimes even eschewing the use of money or building permanent homes. While some Old Believers lived openly in their communities, others traveled from place to place, preaching and living off alms.

In broad terms, Old Believer communities on the local level were organized according to similar patterns, regardless of concord. Clergy (priests, preceptors, and abbots) usually came from within the community or from one nearby, and all members of the concord elected the group's clerical leadership. Democratic management of religious affairs found precedent in both the autonomous organization of pre-Nikon parishes and in the monastic rule maintained at the Solovki Monastery in Russia's extreme north. This monastery, a dramatic holdout against the Russian Orthodox church, saw its continued expression in the Vyg and Leksa monastic settlements that, in turn, established the Pomortsy concord.

legal and social status in imperial russia

Reaction against Old Believers emanated from both the Russian Orthodox Church and the secular state. In pushing through his ritual and textual changes, Patriarch Nikon relied heavily on his relationship with Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich to suppress popular opposition. The history of the Old Belief's early years tells of numerous confrontations between agents of the state and Old Believers. At times, they were subjected to corporal punishment such as having a tongue cut out, being burnt at the stake, or even being smoked alive "like bacon." Sometimes, however, death came at the hands of Old Believers themselves. On some occasions, Old Believers burned themselves alive in their churches rather than accept the ritual changes of the revised Russian Orthodox Church. Although this was the most extreme form of resistance and did not happen often, it did provide an effective and surprisingly frequent deterrent to state seizure of Old Believer groups. Self-immolation continued even into the period of Peter I, a whole generation after the first reforms.

Peter I's position regarding the Old Believers was mixed. Old Believers were not tolerated as political opponents of the state, especially of Peter's

Western-looking reforms. He implemented a double poll tax on Old Believers and even imposed a tax on the beards that Old Believers refused to shave, as well as the traditional clothing that they would not exchange for Western European dress. In matters advantageous to the state, however, Peter I allowed Old Believers to live as they wished. For example, he refused to persecute Old Believers in the Vyg community while they were producing ore.

Even when allowed to exist, Old Believers often suffered under separate laws and governmental decrees, some of which were secret and therefore not published. The situation of the Old Believers improved dramatically, however, during the reign of Peter III, who tolerated them. During the rule of Catherine II, the great Old Believer centers of Preobrazhenskoe and Rogozhskoe were founded. In these centers, curiously known only as "cemeteries," Old Believers created large complexes of chapels, churches, bell towers, and charitable institutions, such as hospitals and almshouses. Preobrazhenskoe and Rogozhskoe became the focus of Old Believer merchant and industrial development for succeeding generations.

Meanwhile, the church itself had softened its attitude about the Old Ritual. In 1800, it created the edinoverie, an arm of the official church that continued to use the old rite. Although initially successful, the edinoverie never swayed the majority of priestly Old Believers, and even fewer of the priestless Old Believers, who had become convinced that priesthood would be lost until the Second Coming of Christ.

With the succession of Nicholas I to the throne, Old Believers once more found their legal status eroded. Even by the end of Alexander's reign, the state had already begun again to refer to Old Believers as raskolniki (schismatics). This name had earlier been dropped as too judgmental. As Nicholas worked out a new relationship between church and state, he began to close the Old Believers' places of worship, seize their property, and harrass the faithful. By 1834, the gains made by Old Believers before 1822 had been completely lost.

The policy of the next tsar, Alexander II, toward Old Believers proved much more liberal than that of his father. Although laws from Tsar Nicholas's period curtailing Old Believer freedom stayed on the books, the state generally stopped enforcing them. Old Believers again flourished both in Moscow and in the far reaches of the empire. The Russian Orthodox Church remained an adamant opponent of the schism but began to pursue expanded missionary activity to the Old Believers, rather than engage in direct persecution.

The succession of Alexander III further revised the Old Believers legal status. Study of the Old Ritualist question increased during the early years of Alexander III's administration and culminated in the law on Old Believers of May 1883. This new law served as the capstone to imperial policy on the Old Belief until the revolutionary changes of 1905. At that time, against the wishes of the Russian Orthodox Church, the emperor granted full toleration of all religious groups through his edict of April 17, 1905. In the late imperial period, this date would be celebrated by Old Believers as the beginning of a silver age of growth and wide public acceptance.

No one knows how many Old Believers lived in Russia. The first census of the empire had convinced Old Believers that to be counted was tantamount to being enrolled in the books of Antichrist. Moreover, Old Believers realized that being counted made them more easily subject to the double poll tax. Thus, Old Believers rarely cooperated with imperial authorities during enumerations. The Old Believers could hide from the authorities simply by calling themselves members of the Russian Orthodox Church, especially if they had bribed the local priest to enroll them on parish registers. The question of numerical strength in relation to gender remains sketchy at best. The figure of ten percent of the total population, however, has been regarded as authoritative for the imperial period.

Old Believers tended to live either in Moscow or on the outskirts of European Russia. Often far from imperial power, Old Believer communities tended to include active roles for women and devised self-help programs to insure economic survival. The wealth of Old Believer merchants and industrialists has been noted many times, but even the most modest Old Believer communities usually made provisions for mutual aid, rendering their settlements more prosperous-looking than other Russian villages. Old Believer industrialists were also widely reported to give preferential treatment, good benefits, and high pay for coreligionists working at their factories. Russian Orthodox authorities even claimed that the Old Believers lured poor adherents of the established church, including impoverished pastors, into the arms of the schism.

old believers in the soviet and postsoviet period

The situation for Old Believers in post-1917 Russia has not been thoroughly studied, though some generalizations can be made. In many cases, churches were closed and their believers persecuted, especially in the period of the cultural revolution. Activists were jailed or sent to the Gulag camps, as were many other religious believers. In other cases, Old Believers followed a path of partial accommodation with the state, much like the practices of some Russian Orthodox. Taking advantage of Soviet laws, some Old Believer communities used their previous history of persecution and tradition of communal organization to appeal for churches to stay open. This strategy had mixed results. A few major centers were allowed to exist in Moscow, for example, and, after World War II, in Riga, but others were closed or destroyed.

Old Belief was weakened significantly during the communist period. Ritual life regularly became covert, rather than public. After having been baptized as children, Old Believers often ceased to take part in church rituals as they grew older. Some, especially in the urban centers, became Communist Party members, perhaps to revive their religious life in retirement. Older women, with little to lose politically or economically, attended churches more openly and frequently than working men and women.

Many Old Believers, however, retreated into their old practices of secrecy in worship, use of homes instead of officially sanctioned churches, and even flight into the wilderness. Rural Old Believers continued to be skeptical of outsiders, especially communists, and tried to retain ritual distance between the faithful and the unbelievers. Sometimes, illegal or informal conferences debated the problems of secular education, military service, and intermarriage. In the most extreme cases, Old Believer families moved ever farther into Siberia, sometimes even crossing into China. Notably, Old Believers also emigrated to Australia, Turkey, the United States, and elsewhere, continuing a trend that that had begun in the late nineteenth century.

The period of glasnost and perestroika created significant international scholarly and popular interest in the Old Believers, though that has waned during the years of economic difficulty following the breakup of the USSR. In post-communist Russia, Old Believers have become bolder and more public, reviving publications, building churches, and reconstituting community life. They have fought to have the Old Belief recognized by the government as one of Russia's historical faiths, hoping to put the Old Belief on par with the Russian Orthodox Church as a pillar of traditional (i.e., noncommunist) values. Old Believers have continued to struggle with the demands of tradition in a rapidly changing political, social, cultural, and economic environment.

See also: alexander mikhailovich; avvakum petrovich; church council, hundred chapters; nikon, patriarch; old believer committee; orthodoxy; russian orthodox church


Cherniavsky, Michael. (1996). "The Old Believers and the New Religion." Slavic Review 25:139.

Crummey, Robert O. (1970). The Old Believers and the World of Antichrist: The Vyg Community and the Russian State, 16941855. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Michels, Georg Bernhard. (1999). At War with the Church: Religious Dissent in SeventeenthCentury Russia. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Peskov, Vasily. (1994). Lost in the Taiga: One Russian Family's Fifty-Year Struggle for Survival and Religious Freedom in the Siberian Wilderness, tr. Marian Schwartz. New York: Doubleday.

Robson, Roy R. (1995). Old Believers in Modern Russia. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press.

Scheffel, David Z. (1991). In the Shadow of Antichrist: The Old Believers of Alberta. Lewiston, NY: Broadview Press.

Roy R. Robson

Old Believers

views updated May 17 2018


OLD BELIEVERS. Also known as Old Ritualists (staroobriadtsy), the Old Believers (starovertsy) constituted Russia's principal movement of religious dissent in response to liturgical changes imposed by Patriarch Nikon (reigned 16521666). Faced with brutal persecution, the first Old Believers established an underground church that grew into a popular alternative to the Russian Orthodox Church during the eighteenth century. Old Believer communities defined themselves by a number of distinctive tenets and practices, including ritual conservatism, apocalyptic theology, and a strict moral code.


Shortly after Patriarch Nikon embarked on the revision of Russian liturgical books in 1652, he clashed with a group of educated churchmen over the sacred traditions of medieval orthodoxy. Nikon's opponents rejected the new three-finger sign of the cross (instead of the old two-finger sign), the four-ended shape of the cross (for the traditional six- or eight-ended crosses), the new spelling of the name Jesus ("Iisus" for the old "Isus"), five loaves (instead of seven) at the altar, processions against (rather than toward) the sun, the deletion of traditional prayers and prostrations, and many other changes. According to Old Believers, the Russian Orthodox Church had inherited Christ's original forms of worship from Byzantium, and even the slightest interference with this ancient legacy would lead to the destruction of Holy Russia. Evoking the imminent end of the world, they condemned Patriarch Nikon as either the precursor of the Antichrist or the Antichrist himself.

Prior to the introduction of liturgical reforms, the first Old Believers had held influential positions within the Russian church, and some had even been close associates of Patriarch Nikon and Tsar Alexis Mikhailovich (ruled 16451676). Prominent among the Old Believer founding fathers were the abbot Feoktist, the archimandrites Nikanor and Spiridon Potemkin, the bishops Aleksander of Vyatka and Pavel of Kolomna, the archpriests Ivan Neronov and Avvakum Petrovich, the priest Nikita Dobrynin, and the deacon Fedor Ivanov.

These first Old Believers, who saw their role primarily as instructing ordinary Russians in the essentials of ancient Christianity, established lay conventicles and hermitages as alternative structures of worship. The church and state assaulted most of these communities with military campaigns. Entire congregations sometimes immolated themselves in dramatic attempts to escape capture. Only a few isolated Old Believer communities in frontier areas survived this persecution. Some of the founding fathers were excommunicated and ended up in exile; others suffered martyrdom and became popular Old Believer saints.

A common Old Believer identity emerged only gradually, and due to two principal developments: first, the copying and dissemination of pastoral letters and treatises penned by the founding fathers; second, the composition of hagiographic vitae devoted to martyred heroes. During the last two decades of the seventeenth century, Old Believers began to define themselves as a textual community that shared a body of sacred writings.


During the reign of Peter I (ruled 16891725), tens of thousands of peasants joined Old Believer communities in order to escape the newly imposed army recruitment levies and heavy tax burdens. By 1800 Old Believers numbered several million. An effective school system taught the peasant majority of Old Believers to read and write. A new generation of intellectuals sought to distinguish Old Belief from Russian Orthodoxy. Liturgical books, bells, icons, and crosses from the pre-Nikonian period (or meticulous reproductions thereof) as well as church services using the old liturgies were central features of community life. In addition, powerful elders (nastavniki) enforced stringent discipline and ascetic habits. Contacts with outsiders were severely limited; traditional, simple dress was uniformly imposed; alcohol, tobacco, and tea were prohibited, as were most meats and certain vegetables, such as potatoes and lettuce. Drunkards, fornicators, and other troublemakers were punished or expelled.

Despite their conscious separation from society, Old Believers often became involved in industry and commerce. This seeming paradox can be explained by a number of factors: the necessity of material survival, the effective sharing of resources, and the emergence of a strong work ethic and a disciplined labor force, as well as the state's growing recognition that Old Believers played a crucial role in Russian economic development.

The Old Believer movement failed to develop overarching institutions and soon split into a number of concords (soglasiia) that disagreed over sacraments such as priesthood, baptism, and marriage. The central dilemma remained the sustenance of a church without an episcopal hierarchy. The Priestly (popovtsy), who predominated in Russia's southern and western borderlands, accepted fugitive priests consecrated by the Russian Orthodox Church. By contrast, the Priestless (bespopovtsy), who lived mostly in the Russian north and Siberia, were led by hermits and abolished priestly sacraments such as communion and marriage.


Most historians have focused on the first Old Believers and concluded that the founding fathers were charismatic leaders of a popular movement that pitted Russia's masses against the church. According to this standard interpretation, Old Believers' opposition to liturgical changes precipitated a dramatic confrontation usually referred to as the Russian Schism (raskol). Old Believers are perceived to have rallied powerful resistance to the forces of modernization and Westernization unleashed by the Romanov dynasty. This interpretation is supported by polemical texts that depict Old Believers as the principal protagonists in an apocalyptic struggle against the forces of the Antichrist.

Recent studies of Russian archives, however, have shown that conflicts between church and society were far more complicated. Resistance to Nikon's liturgical reforms was not the result of Old Believer propaganda but reflected age-old fissures in Russia's religious geography. Many parishes and monasteries had never been integrated into the institutional structure of the church, and countless peasants, merchants, and lower clergy lived independent lives without conforming to church regulations. When church agents attempted to enforce the Nikonian reforms as signs of obedience to church authority, they failed to break traditional autonomies. Powerless to bridge the gulf between local cultures and the administrative center, the Russian Orthodox Church declared the outbreak of a schism. Old Believers were certainly the church's most visible and outspoken opponents, but they did not attract large popular followings before the eighteenth century. The most remarkable achievement of the Old Believer movement was its subsequent transformation from an underground diaspora into a powerful adversary of the Russian Orthodox Church.

See also Alexis I (Russia) ; Avvakum Petrovich ; Morozova, Boiarynia ; Nikon, patriarch ; Orthodoxy, Russian ; Russian Literature and Language .


Bubnov, N. Iu. Staroobriadcheskaia kniga v Rossii vo vtoroi polovine XVII veka: Istochniki, tipy, i evoliutsiia. St. Petersburg, 1995.

Cherniavsky, Michael. "The Old Believers and the New Religion." Slavic Review 25, no. 1 (March 1966): 139.

Conybeare, Frederick C. Russian Dissenters. Harvard Theological Studies, vol. 10. Cambridge, Mass., 1921.

Crummey, Robert O. "Old Belief as Popular Religion: New Approaches." Slavic Review 52, no. 4 (Winter 1993): 700712.

. The Old Believers and the World of Antichrist: The Vyg Community and the Russian State, 16941855. Madison, Wis., Milwaukee, and London, 1970.

Michels, Georg. At War with the Church: Religious Dissent in Seventeenth-Century Russia. Stanford, 1999.

. "The First Old Believers in Tradition and Historical Reality." Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas 41, no. 4 (1993): 481508.

Smirnov, Petr S. Istoriia russkogo raskola staroobriadstva. St. Petersburg, 1895.

Zenkovsky, Serge A. Russkoe staroobriadchestvo: Dukhovnye dvizheniia semnadtsatogo veka. Munich, 1970.

Georg Michels

Old Believers

views updated Jun 27 2018

Old Believers. Dissident groups of Russian Orthodox Christians. Because they have been in schism (raskol) since 1666, they are known also as Raskolniki. The schism began when Nikon, patriarch of Moscow, introduced reforms of ritual. Penal laws remained in force until 1903. Under such continuing pressure, there were several divisions, but two main groups: the popovtsy (those with priests) and the pezpopovtsy (those without priests who resorted to less formal organization).