Much as the original Christian Church had suffered a dramatic schism, the Russian Orthodox Church underwent a split of its own in the seventeenth century. When the Church’s Patriarch advanced liturgical reforms but a movement of Orthodox worshippers resisted. They believed Russia’s traditional forms of Christian worship were correct in the eyes of God.
These “Old Believers,” as they would come to be known, would face both church and state persecution for the next three hundred years. Yet their communities survived tsarist rule and the birth and collapse of the Soviet Union.
Prelude to the Russian Old Believers: Nikon’s Reforms
The Great Schism of 1054 had permanently divided medieval Christianity into the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. Over the centuries that followed, the Eastern Orthodox Church splintered even further. Eastern Orthodoxy has no centralized structure akin to that of the Pope in Roman Catholicism. Geography, local political concerns, and language all led to the formation of separate Orthodox churches across Eastern Europe. Many of these churches only had limited contact with each other until modern times.
By the 1650s, the Russian Orthodox Church’s liturgy and rituals differed from those of the main Orthodox Church in Constantinople. The Russian Patriarch at the time, Nikon, decided to bring his church’s practices in line with the rest of Orthodoxy. Using contemporary Greek Orthodox texts, Nikon altered a number of traditional Russian Christian practices. These included the spelling of Jesus Christ’s name and — more egregiously — how believers make the sign of the cross. The traditional Russian use of two raised fingers was officially replaced by the Greek Church’s use of three.
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A number of the Russian faithful, including some of Nikon’s former associates, were outraged. They saw the Greek rituals as deviant from true Christianity. They would come to form the core of the early Old Believer movement. Russian historians today call this schism the Raskol — literally meaning “schism” or “split.”
Objections to Nikon: Avvakum and the Beginnings of Old Belief
Despite their name, to historians, the Old Believers did not significantly diverge from the mainstream Russian Orthodox Church theologically. Their differences pertained to ritual instead. A more accurate translation of their Russian name (starovery) would be “Old Ritualists.” For the sake of familiarity, however, this article will continue to refer to their communities as the Old Believers.
Objections to Nikon’s reforms arose quickly. One of the most vehement criticisms came from the Orthodox Archpriest Avvakum — a former colleague of Nikon. Avvakum completely rejected the Nikonian reforms, preaching a return to the previous Russian rites. In his mind, following the Greek rites was blasphemous. After all, he reasoned, Constantinople had fallen to the Ottoman Empire in 1453 for a divine reason. Why should Russian Christians follow others who had departed from the word of God?
Avvakum’s autobiography, The Life Written by Himself, has survived to the present day. In this treatise, the rebellious priest went into great detail describing his Arctic imprisonment and steadfast belief in the Russian Christian tradition. He wrote in vernacular Russian, rather than the elite literary language of the time. An English translation of The Life was published in July 2021 by Columbia University Press.
The Role of the Tsars
The Russian Orthodox Church’s persecution of the Old Believers could not have happened without the backing of the tsarist state. In early modern Russia, it was this close church-state relationship that enabled the Romanov dynasty to hold onto power.
The first Tsar of the Raskol, Aleksey Mikhailovich, was originally a close associate of Patriarch Nikon. He shared his conviction that Russia was the new center of Orthodox Christianity and wanted to expand Russian state influence in Eastern Europe. By 1658, however, the Tsar had soured on the Patriarch. The Great Moscow Synod in April 1666 saw the removal of Nikon, but the Old Believers were not welcomed back into the Russian Church. In fact, their leaders lost their liberty to preach and remained imprisoned. Avvakum’s refusal to recant ultimately led to his execution by burning in 1682.
Successive tsars after Aleksey Mikhailovich upheld their ancestor’s persecution of the Old Believers. The severity of the crackdowns varied based on which tsar was in power at any time. Persecution was especially intense under Tsar Nicholas I (r. 1825-1855). Yet from Aleksey Mikhailovich through the reigns of Peter the Great and beyond, the Russian Church and state alike designated the Old Believers as heretics. Old Believers either fled or were exiled across Russia and Eastern Europe, from Lithuania and Belarus to as far east as Siberia.
The Twentieth Century: Continued Repression and Relocation
The Old Believers would not see any true relief until 1905. During this time, Tsar Nicholas II, the final emperor of Russia, issued an edict of toleration for non-Orthodox religions. Was the situation for the Old Believers finally changing for the better?
Unfortunately, Nicholas’ edict would only offer a little more than a decade of peace. In 1917, a transformational wave would sweep across the Russian Empire — the Bolshevik Revolution. The following summer, the rebels murdered the captive Nicholas II and his family. A chaotic civil war lasted until 1923, when Communist leader Vladimir Lenin emerged dominant. The Old Believers’ newfound peace was thrown out the window.
Scholars have not yet examined the relationship between the Old Believers and the newly formed Soviet Union. What we can infer, however, is that the Communist regime did not treat the Old Believers well. Lenin and other leading Bolsheviks despised Russian Christianity. Periodic propaganda campaigns sought to uproot Russia’s major religions. From the 1920s until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, many Old Believers continued to escape from Russia. Some communities did remain behind, but others fled far beyond the Soviet Union’s borders.
Global Bastions of Old Belief
Today, the Old Believers have scattered across the globe. The largest communities exist in Eastern Europe and Siberia. Their Siberian settlements tend to be rather insular, existing near indigenous towns but retaining a separate character. The Old Believers largely kept to themselves, distinguished from the locals by their religion and conservative Russian clothing.
Additionally, thousands of Old Believers have made their homes in the United States, particularly in the states of Oregon and Alaska. These communities didn’t originally have the United States in mind as a destination. Some had first gone to northeastern China. Others went to Brazil or Turkey to escape Soviet persecution. None of these destinations were particularly to their liking, however, so they relocated to North America. In the United States, Oregon has the largest number of Old Believers, with almost 10,000 in 2002.
Old Believer Art and Icons
In Orthodox Christianity, icons occupy an important place in rituals and worship. An examination of Russian iconography reveals how the Old Believers sought to preserve their traditional artistic expressions in the face of drastic change.
Patriarch Nikon had taken a harsh stance against medieval-style icons during the early years of the Raskol. He even ordered the destruction of icons in Moscow in 1655. In their place, Nikon promoted a newer Russian iconography, inspired in part by contemporary artistic currents from Europe. This iconoclasm was unthinkable to the Old Believers. Avvakum denounced the new icons as pagan-derived and overly sensual in appearance. To the archpriest, the Patriarch had turned his back on both Russian Orthodox tradition and the image of God itself.
To modern historians, Old Believer works largely fall under the category of domestic icons. Migrating Old Believers took their icons with them wherever they settled. Yet the Old Believers themselves don’t seem to have drawn a line between the domestic and the public (or church-based). They went to painstaking lengths to maintain medieval artistic techniques. Common motifs included the Virgin Mary and Christ, angels, and the saints (especially Russian ones).
The Russian Old Believers Today
Old Believer communities continue to uphold many of the practices of their ancestors who escaped persecution. The older generations largely kept to themselves and married within their own communities. They spoke only Russian and passed the language on to their children. However, in the United States, some English-language influence has crept into aspects of Old Believer vocabulary.
Middle-aged and younger American Old Believers do not speak Russian as much as their elders. Fueled by educational requirements and economic integration, the younger generations have lost much Russian literacy. There is an educational gap between older and younger Old Believers, with younger community members having higher levels of education. Younger Old Believers are also more likely to engage with modern technology, such as cars and television.
Regardless of generational differences, many Old Believer families continue to farm and own small enterprises much as their ancestors had. Distinguishable by their style of dress and men’s long beards, the Old Believers have undoubtedly maintained their differences from the wider population. Yet there is no denying the dynamic history of these religious refugees who braved intense persecution to carve both a new and traditional path for their successors.