Old Believers making a comeback in Russia

Old Believers making a comeback in Russia

A professor and a Russian village native tells about the revival of ancestral spirituality and his fellow Old Believers making a comeback in Russia

By Dr. Victor A. Pogadaev | New Straits Times, January 22, 2022

I was born and grew up in the village of Sakmara [Orenburg Region, Russia], where the majority of the population profess not official Orthodoxy, but a religious stream called “Old Believers”.

Let me explain. In the 17th century, the Russian Orthodox Church suffered a split — raskol in Russian — over reforms by Patriarch Nikon (1605-1681) who strived to standardize church ceremonies.

Some followers didn’t accept the reforms. They didn’t recognize the new icons or the holy books which were changed by the official church, including new ceremonies. (For instance, replacing the two-finger cross sign with the three-finger cross sign.)

The side that opposed the official church is known as staroobryadchestvo (Old Believers). The opposition was very fierce and bloody, some opposition leaders were even sentenced to death.

Old Believers believed in the purity of death, which was among the pillars of “true beliefs”.

Up to the 1690s, more than 20,000 people had burned themselves. Many Old Believers fled to the northern part of Russia, to Ural and Siberia. Among them were my ancestors.

In everyday life, they follow quite tight rules — abstinence from liquor and cigarettes, and men must have mustaches and beards, while women wear veils.

In church, they use a small carpet for prayers, similar to Muslims when they pray in the mosque.

A famous painter, V.I. Surikov, in 1887 drew one of the episodes of the split — the arrest of Boyarinya Morozova.

Morozova was an Old Believer who refused to make the sign of the cross with three fingers as required by church reform. She was seen as a martyr after she was arrested and later died in prison.

After the 1917 Communist Revolution, religion, in accordance with Marx’s teachings, was declared an “opium for the people” and was not encouraged. Communists tried to replace it with atheism.

Although many churches were destroyed and a lot of priests were killed or exiled to Siberia, religion could not be eliminated.

During the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945), Stalin himself had to ask the church to help his regime against the advancing Nazi Army.

The collapse of the communist system in Russia in 1991 resulted in the revival of the Russian Orthodox Church. Many churches and monasteries were reopened.

The people could freely perform their religious worship. Changes reached my village, too.

In the 1990s, Orthodox believers returned to their church. But Old Believers still did not have a place of worship as one of their buildings had been used as a cinema since the 1940s.

But justice triumphed recently. They got a prayer house that belonged to them in the past.

On their own, they succeeded in restoring it. There is no permanent priest yet. One comes to manage prayers from the city of Orenburg only on Sundays.

One can see in the photo how women dress to attend prayers in their new church. They follow the advice of the ancestors.

Clothing should be modest, simple and not emphasize the shape of the human body to avoid looking seductive or voluptuous.

In this regard, tight clothing, shorts, short skirts, short sleeves and other clothing that reveal the chest, abdomen or back are not allowed. Only the head and hands remain open.

Married women should have their heads covered. For girls, this is mandatory only in the church.

Thus, old traditions are revived. Now, Sakmara has two churches. And a mosque, too.


The writer, writing from Russia, is a former lecturer of Malaya University

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the New Straits Times


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