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AVVAKUM PETROVICH (16201682), Russian Orthodox archpriest who fought against the liturgical reforms of Patriarch Nikon. Avvakum is usually considered the principal leader of the early Old Believers. The apocalyptic teachings he developed in numerous writings formed the core of Old Believer ideology, and his strong moral convictions provided a heroic example for future generations of Old Believers.

Born into a family of village priests in a hamlet close to Nizhniy Novgorod on the Volga River, Avvakum became a church deacon in 1642 and a parish priest two years later. He quickly became known as a religious zealot for demanding moral discipline and regular church attendance from his parishioners. Avvakum's sermons against drunkenness, gambling, and fornication as well as his attacks on minstrels and dancing bears brought him to the attention of Archpriest Stefan Vonifat'ev, confessor to Tsar Alexis Mikhailovich (ruled 16451676). Despite the Kremlin's support (after 1647) for his campaigns, Avvakum suffered brutal assaults, and finally expulsion, at the hands of his angry parishioners. In 1652, the Kremlin rewarded Avvakum for his loyalty by making him archpriest of the unruly Volga town of Iurevets. He again fell victim to popular revolt and had to seek refuge in Moscow.

Avvakum quickly antagonized the newly elected Patriarch Nikon (reigned 16521666). Avvakum's vita emphasizes that he opposed Nikon's introduction of the three-finger sign of the cross (replacing the old two-finger sign) and other liturgical reforms, but his only surviving letter from this period (dated 14 September 1653) reveals that he primarily resented the patriarch's secular priorities. On 16 September 1653 Avvakum was sent to Siberia after denouncing Patriarch Nikon as "a great deceiver and the son of a whore" in a public sermon. In the Siberian capitol of Tobol'sk, Avvakum implemented rigorous disciplinary measures and continued to fight ecclesiastical corruption. In 1656, he joined a military expedition sent to convert the natives of Dauria (now the Lake Baikal region) to Russian Orthodoxy. After enduring many hardships, Avvakum returned to Moscow in 1664 as a fervent enemy of the established church, and only then did he begin to polemicize against the liturgical reforms of Patriarch Nikon.

Most of Avvakum's polemical writings are dated after 1667, the year in which he was excommunicated and exiled by a church council to a remote prison colony beyond the Arctic circle. Glorifying the old Russian Orthodox rituals, his letters and treatises (including the Book of Sermons and Book of Commentaries ) condemned the new sign of the cross, the new liturgical books, and many other innovations (such as three hallelujahs instead of two and changes in the wording of the Lord's Prayer) as signs of the approaching apocalypse.

Avvakum was responsible for developing some of the principal ideas of the Old Believer movement. These included a belief that Russian society must be reshaped according to Orthodox moral teachings, and that all secular and foreign influences on the church should be rejected. Avvakum upheld the image of a mythological Russia that was holier than other world cultures. He condemned Patriarch Nikon and his successors as minions of the Antichrist but promised the coming Kingdom of God to those who remained loyal to pre-Nikonian Orthodoxy.

After Avvakum was burned at the stake in April 1682, his writings were carefully preserved and transmitted to later generations of Old Believers in widely copied manuscripts. The authenticity and originality of Avvakum's work has yet to be fully investigated. Many scholars have assumed that Avvakum had a remarkable memory, because he quoted long passages from medieval church texts during his imprisonment without having access to book collections. However, there are significant similarities between Avvakum's writings and those penned by other Old Believers, such as Deacon Fedor Ivanov and Archimandrite Spiridon Potemkin. A handful of scholars have therefore suggested that some of the writings attributed to Avvakum may, in fact, be forgeries. Scholars have also pointed out that Avvakum left almost no trace in documentary records. Other early Old Believers, such as the now largely forgotten Nikita Dobrynin, left significant archival trails, since they were under constant surveillance by the authorities. It is also curious that Avvakum's writings provoked no response in the form of an official church polemic, whereas Dobrynin's Supplication generated several book-length rebuttals.

There is little doubt that Avvakum's vita (in its numerous redactions) became one of the most popular Old Believer texts, and no work of early Russian literature has been more frequently translated and published. Nineteenth-century Russian writers such as Fyodor Dostoyevski and Nikolay Leskov further popularized Avvakum's image, and Avvakum has remained the dominant focus of Old Believer studies to this day.

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


Borozdin, A. K. Protopop Avvakum. Rostov-na-Donu, 1898.

Demkova, N. S. Zhitie protopopa Avvakuma: Tvorcheskaia istoriia proizvedeniia. Edited by V. P. Adrianov-Peretts. Leningrad (St. Petersburg), 1974.

Michels, Georg. "The Place of Nikita Konstantinovich Dobrynin in the History of Early Old Belief." Revue des Études Slaves LXIX, no. 12 (1997): 2131.

Pascal, Pierre. Avvakum et les débuts du raskol: La crise religieuse au XVIIe siécle en Russie. Paris, 1938.

Scheidegger, Gabriele. Endzeit: Russland am Ende des 17. Jahrhunderts. Bern and New York, 1999.

Georg Michels

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(16201682), one of the founders of what came to be called Old Belief.

Avvakum was a leading figure in the opposition to Patriarch Nikon and the program of church reform he directed. Nikon's removal from his post did not placate Avvakum. He continued to agitate against the program of church reform and its supporters until his execution.

Avvakum was born on November 20, 1620, to a priest and his wife in the village of Grigorovo in the Nizhny Novgorod district. In 1638 he married Anastasia Markovna, the daughter of a local blacksmith. She was a devoted wife and true companion to Avvakum until his death. Following in the footsteps of his father, Avvakum entered the secular clergy. In 1642 he was made a deacon at a village church in the Nizhny Novgorod district. Two years later he was ordained a priest.

Avvakum was appalled by the ignorance, disorderliness, and impiety of popular religious practices and early in his career manifested a zeal for reform. By 1647 Avvakum was associated with the Zealots of Piety, a Moscow-based group led by Tsar Alexis Mikhailovich's confessor, the archpriest of the Annunciation Cathedral, Stefan Vonifatiev. Avvakum's enthusiasm for religious and moral reform was not matched by that of his provincial parishioners and soon brought him into conflict with the local authorities. His house was burned, and he was compelled to flee with his family to Moscow. There he found refuge with Stefan Vonifatiev. Avvakum returned to his parish in the Nizhny Novgorod district to continue his work, but by 1652 was obliged to flee to Moscow again. Avvakum soon was assigned to Yurevets-Povolsky and elevated to archpriest, but by the end of 1652 he was back in Moscow, serving at the Kazan Cathedral with Ivan Neronov, a man Avvakum recognized as his mentor.

Avvakum was an ardent supporter of religious and spiritual reform, but not of the liturgical reforms advocated by other members of the Zealots of Piety. In early 1653 Avvakum joined Neronov and others in protest against some changes and simplifications made in the Psalter, recently printed under the direction of Patriarch Nikon. Vocal and adamant in opposition, Ivan Neronov was arrested on August 4, 1653. The arrest of Avvakum and other supporters followed on August 13. Thanks to the personal intervention of the tsar, Avvakum escaped defrocking and exile to a monastery. Instead he and his family were transferred to the distant and less desirable post of Tobolsk in Siberia, where he served as archpriest until the end of July 1655. In Tobolsk, despite the support and protection of Governor Vasily Ivanovich Khilkov and Archbishop Simeon, Avvakum's abrasive approach ignited conflict and contention. In 1656, to remove him from the scene of contention, the tsar ordered Avvakum to accompany an expeditionary force led by Commander Afanasy Pashkov, intended to pacify and bring Christianity to the native tribes of northern Siberia. The assignment was not a success. Avvakum's religious zeal alienated many of the soldiers and enraged the commander. In his Life, Avvakum vividly recounted the multiple humiliations and torments inflicted upon him by Pashkov. In 1657 Pashkov sent a petition to Moscow, ostensibly written by several of the soldiers, accusing Avvakum and his supporters of fomenting rebellion and requesting that the archpriest be condemned to death. Once again, Avvakum's friends in high places came to his aid. Archbishop Simeon of Tobolsk intervened, and in 1658 Pashkov was replaced as commander of the expedition.

In the spring of 1661 Avvakum was directed to return to Moscow with his family. Difficulties along the way and a stop in Ustiug Veliky slowed the journey. The family did not arrive in Moscow until the beginning of 1664. Much had changed. In 1658 Patriarch Nikon had quarreled with the tsar and abandoned the patriarchal throne. The unprecedented act caused consternation and confusion, but it did not shake the commitment to church reform, including liturgical reform. The tsar and his closest associates received Avvakum graciously. The zealous archpriest met and conversed with the leading figures behind the continuing reform program, including Simeon Polotsky and Epifany Slavinetsky. He debated changes introduced into the rituals by the new liturgical books with Fyodor Rtishchev, arguing that, among other things, the sign of the cross must be made with three fingers, rather than two. The three-fingered sign of the cross would become a visible symbol for those who opposed the so-called Nikonian reforms. Further, Avvakum challenged the assertions of Rtishchev and others that "rhetoric, dialectic, and philosophy" had a role to play in religious understanding. In this period, Avvakum was even offered a post as corrector (spravshchik ) at the Printing Office, the center of activity for the revision and printing of the new church service books and other religious works.

If such efforts were intended to mollify Avvakum, bring him back into the circle of reformers, and gain his talents for the ongoing process of church reform, they failed. Avvakum remained intransigent in his opposition to all changes introduced in the religious rituals and in the printed service books, petitioning the tsar to intervene and preaching his dissident views publicly. In this same period he became the confessor to the noblewoman Feodosia Morozova and her sister, Princess Yevdokia Urusova, convincing them of the correctness of his position. Both sisters accepted Avvakum's views and in 1675 suffered martyrdom rather than recant.

In August 1664 Avvakum and his family once again were dispatched into exile in Siberia, arriving in Mezen at the end of the year. A year later, Avvakum was recalled to Moscow to appear before a church council (1666). At this important council Nikon officially was removed as patriarch, but the reform program itself was affirmed. Those who actively opposed the reforms, including the revised service books, were tried. Some, such as Ivan Neronov, recanted. Others, led by Avvakum, stood firm. Following the council, Avvakum was defrocked, placed under church ban, and imprisoned in chains in a monastery. Subsequent attempts to persuade him to repent failed. In August 1667, Avvakum and his supporters were sentenced to exile in Pustozersk in the remote north. Two of Avvakum's friends and supporters, Lazar and Epifany, also exiled, had their tongues cut out; Avvakum was spared this punishment. By the end of the year the prisoners reached their destination.

Exile and prison did not deter Avvakum from indefatigably petitioning the tsar and communicating with his followers. In the 1670s repression of religious dissidents increased. Avvakum, his family, and the small band of prisoner-exiles in Pustozersk were subjected to new afflictions. Moreover, the colony increased with the addition of those seized after the suppression in 1676 of a rebellion at the Solovetsky monastery, ostensibly against the new service books. In the meantime, religious dissenters incited disturbances in Moscow and other towns and villages. Frustrated in all attempts to silence the dissidents, in 1682 the church council transferred jurisdiction to the secular authorities. An investigation was ordered, and on April 14, 1682, Avvakum was burned at the stake, "for great slander against the tsar's household."

Avvakum is remembered primarily as a founding father of the movement known in English as Old Belief, a schismatic movement that assumed a coherent shape and a growing following from the beginning of the eighteenth century. In Avvakum's lifetime, however, he was engaged in a relatively esoteric dispute with other educated members of the clerical and lay elites. He attracted a circle of devoted disciples and supporters, but not a mass following. His position as one of the founding fathers of Old Belief rests on the lasting influence of his writings, which were collected, copied, and disseminated. Avvakum was a prolific writer of petitions to the tsar, letters of advice and exhortation to his acquaintances, sermons, polemical tracts, and pamphlets. All contributed to the shape of Old Belief as an evolving movement. An important example of Avvakum's dogmatic and polemical work is The Book of Denunciation, or the Eternal Gospels (c.1676). Written by Avvakum as part of a dispute with one of his disciples, this tract clarified his position on several dogmatic issues. This work continued to be a focal point of criticism for spokesmen of the official church into the early eighteenth century.

In addition to their religious significance, Avvakum's writings are of considerable interest to linguists and literary historians. His writing style was forceful and dramatic. He juxtaposed great erudition with penetrating direct observation and mixed the tonalities and phraseology of the popular spoken Russian of his day with the traditional ornate and formal rhetorical style. Perhaps Avvakum's best-known work is his autobiographical Life. Three versions were written between 1672 and 1676. Of the two later versions, the copies written by Avvakum himself, along with numerous others, are preserved. Building on traditional genres such as hagiography, sermons, chronicles, folk-tales, and others, Avvakum created not only a new genre, but a new mentality that, according to some scholars, manifests the seeds of modern individual self-consciousness.

See also: nikon, patriarch; old believers; orthodoxy; russian orthodox church


Avvakum Petrovich. (1979). Archpriest Avvakum: The Life Written by Himself, with the Study of V. V. Vinogradov, tr. Kenneth N. Brostrom (Michigan Slavic Publications). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Lupinin, Nickolas. (1984). Religious revolt in the Eighteenth century: The Schism of the Russian Church. Princeton, NJ: Kingston Press.

Michels, Georg B. (1999). At War with the Church: Religious Dissent in Seventeenth-Century Russia. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Zenkovski, S. A. (1956). "The Old Believer Avvakum: His Role in Russian Literature," Indiana Slavic Studies, 5:151.

Ziolkowski, Margaret, comp., tr. (2000). Tale of Boiarynia Morozova: A Seventeenth-Century Religious Life. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Cathy J. Potter

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AVVAKUM (1620/11682), Russian Orthodox arch-priest; founding father of the Old Believers; martyr. Avvakum was ordained to the priesthood at the age of twenty-two, serving in the area of Nizhni Novgorod; eight years later he was promoted to be archpriest. By then he had amply demonstrated his zeal as a reformer. Following in the wake of the Muscovite "God-seekers," an influential group of scholarly zealots, he sought to revive liturgical life and public morality. The resentment which this provoked led to his displacement and his first visit to Moscow (1652). There he was welcomed by the leading God-seekers and introduced to the tsar.

The election of Nikon as patriarch of Moscow later that year promised to confirm and revitalize the God-seekers' reforms. However, Nikon proceeded arbitrarily to reform liturgical phraseology and practice, particularly concerning the sign of the cross. Avvakum vociferously objected to these reforms, which he saw as a challenge to the true faith. For if even minor rituals were to change, the whole edifice of related doctrine would be undermined. He was arrested and exiled to Siberia (1653). After many tribulations he was permitted to return to Moscow (1664), but his insistence on the validity and importance of the pre-Nikonian liturgical norms led to renewed exile.

Avvakum and his companions were brought back to Moscow and anathematized at a church council of 16661667; he in turn anathematized the council. Thus was confirmed the existence of the Russian church schism, which was to have a decisive influence on the ordering of Russian society over the centuries to come. Avvakum was sent to the arctic outpost of Pustozersk from which he and his companions issued tracts and letters. More important than these was Avvakum's apologetic autobiography composed in 1672 to 1673. It is a masterpiece of Russian literature and one of Europe's great confessional texts.

The accession of a new patriarch of Moscow (Joachim) was probably a decisive factor in taking the state's campaign against the Old Believers a stage further, and Avvakum, together with his three companions, was sent to the stake in April 1682. Avvakum had persuasively presented himself as confessor and prophet in defense of the sacred Orthodox heritage delivered to Moscow, the "third Rome," and he is remembered as a martyr of the old faith.


Avvakum's autobiography has been reedited from the manuscript by Andrei N. Robinson, Zhizneopisaniia Avvakuma i Epifaniia (Moscow, 1963). The most scholarly edition and translation of the text in a Western European language is by Pierre Pascal, La vie de l'archiprêtre Avvakum écrite par lui-même, 2d ed. (Paris, 1960). Even so, Robinson utters words of caution about the redaction on which the translation is based. It was also Pascal who provided a magnificent treatment of Avvakum and his times in Avvakum et les débuts du Raskol : La crise religieuse au dix-septième siècle en Russie, 2d ed. (Paris, 1963).

Sergei Hackel (1987)

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Russian archpriest and author; b. Grigorovo, Province of Nijni Novgorod, 1620; d. Pustozersk, April 24 (N.S.; April 14, O.S.), 1682. The son of a village priest, he received a wide ecclesiastical and secular education. He was involved early in a movement for church reform, and, first as pastor in a small town and later as archpriest of Iourevets on the Volga, he ruled his flocks with a vigorous hand. After exile because of his reforming zeal, he went to Moscow to serve as archpriest at Notre Dame of Kazan; he was a member of the Friends of God, a group protected by Czar Alexis and his confessor Stephen. When Nikon was elected patriarch (1652) and reoriented the reform toward adopting the customs of the Greek Church, the group refused to follow him (see nikon, patriarch of moscow).

The conflict grew worse under the violence of Nikon. Avvakum was exiled to Siberia in 1653 as assistant to the Pashkov expedition, organized to gain control of regions along the Sakhalin River. For protesting this shameless adventure, he suffered the knout and several times narrowly escaped death. Nikon was deposed in 1662 and Avvakum was recalled to Moscow, only to be exiled again (to Mezen) for denouncing the growing abuses of the official church. He was repatriated and again exiled by the Synod of Moscow (1666) to Pustozersk on the Arctic Ocean. Though confined (1670) in an underground prison, he stayed in contact with the Old Believers throughout Russia: he was their spiritual director from afar, their consoler, and their prophet. In 1672 he wrote his Life, which, particularly because of its deep and pure religious inspiration, is a masterpiece of 17th-century Russian literature. Under the harsh decrees against the Old Believers passed by the council of 1682, Avvakum was burned to death in Pustozersk Square. His memory has remained sacred to the Old Believers and his works were collected and handcopied until the end of the 19th century.

Bibliography: Collected Works. Russka[symbol omitted]a istoricheska[symbol omitted]a biblioteka, 39 v. (Leningrad 1927); Zhitie protopopa Avvakuma, im samim napisannoe i drugie ego sochineni[symbol omitted]a, ed. n. k. gudzi[symbol omitted]a (Moscow 1960). Autobiography. The Life of the Archpriest Avvakum by Himself, tr. j. harrison and h. mirrlees (London 1924); La Vie de l'archiprêtre Avvakum, tr. p. pascal (Paris 1961); Vita dell'arciprete Avvakum, tr. l. radoyce (Turin 1962). Literature. p. pascal, Avvakum et les débuts du Raskol (new ed. The Hague-Paris 1964).

[p. pascal]

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Avvakum (1620–82). Archpriest of the Russian Church, leader, and eventually martyr, of the Raskolniki, or ‘Old Believers’. As archpriest of Our Lady of Kazan in Moscow, he opposed the liturgical reforms of Patriarch Nikon, while establishing the ascetical and highly moral group of ‘The Old Believers’. For his opposition, he was exiled to Siberia in 1653. He returned on the death of Nikon (1664), but was again exiled, imprisoned, and punished for refusing the continuing reforms. Finally he and his companions were condemned to death at the stake. He wrote a fine autobiography.

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