Sunday, September 13, 2015

Defeated People: The Old Believers

 Church of St. Nicholas, Old Believer (with clergy) church in Nikolaevsk Alaska.

As the very few readers of this blog know, I was recently in the Homer Alaska area, and I happened to enter one of the small communities there made up of Old Believers.  That there even were Old Believers in the area came as a surprise to me, so being curious of mind I looked some stuff up about them.

Not that I wasn't previously aware of them, or unaware that there were some in Alaska.  They fit this category nicely.

So, who are the Old Believers?

To understand this story requires some familiarity with Russian Orthodoxy. Given as this isn't a theological article, and as even it were it would have to be written by somebody other than me, I won't discuss that at length, but what I will simply note is that Russia was Christianized by the Eastern Christianity.  That isn't, I'll note, the same thing as saying that it was Christianized by the Orthodox, as that was prior to the Great Schism.  The Russian branch of the Eastern Church became autocephalus in 1589, however, which was after the Great Schism had occurred, and after the periodic efforts to repair it ultimately failed.  It's a complicated story, and it wouldn't be true that all Russian bishops have always been outside of communion with Rome, but most have been and that is all a separate story.

Anyhow, between 1652 and 1658, the  Russian Orthodox Church made a number of reforms, most of which, quite frankly, seem quite valid as they corrected errors between Greek and Russian translations, and the like.  Some of the differences in practices changed were so slight, that modern readers can hardly believe that they would have caused a schism, but they did, and the Old Believers were having none of it.  They were fairly immediately repressed with their refusal to go along declared an anathema.  

Now, to many in the western world today this story would seemingly play out with this group causing a splinter, but that being principally the end of the story, except of course to them. But, in 17th Century Imperial Russia, this could not have been the case, so they were accordingly repressed.

"Vasily Surikov - Боярыня Морозова - Google Art Project" by Vasily Surikov - ogHGQgd1Ws9Htg at Google Cultural Institute. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.  Created on 31 December 1886.  Published before 1923 and public domain in the US.  T his work depicts noblewoman Boyaryna Morozova at the time of her arrest, depicting in her hand the old way of giving the sign of the cross, rather than the new way, one of the sticking points of the Old Believers.

So there were arrests and repression.

But they kept on keeping on, and in fact, although a minority of Russian Orthodox, they kept on keeping on all the way up to the Russian Revolution.  And this in spite of the fact that no bishops went with them, which meant  that what clergy that did go with them died off within a relatively close time to the schism, leaving them it what would seemingly be a true crisis for a member of any of the apostolic churches.

They even kept on after the Russian Revolution during which time the Russian Orthodox Church was enormously suppressed.  At that point, some fled, going to China, and ultimately from there to South America.  While some remain in South America, many later relocated to the United States, with some subsequently relocating to Alaska.

Cafe in Nikolaevsk, Alaska, an Old Believers village.

They're still around, although this story has evolved a bit in the last forty years.  Some groups around the world have reincorporated clergy, being satisfied, in their view, with the orthodoxy of at least some bishops.  The Russian Orthodox Church has, for its part, issued an apology for the early repressions of them, although that has not served to bring them back into the Russian Orthodox fold.  But the modern world has been a challenge for them, in retaining their ongoing viability.  Some villages remain extremely isolated and exclusive, while others do not.  It'll be interesting to see what becomes of them.

Be that as it may, if the much more numerous Amish have managed to remain a distinct group, one would suppose the Old Believers will as well, unless the solvent of modern western life, combined with a reproachment with Orthodoxy, causes things to slowly break down, and perhaps even provide redress, for their complaints.

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