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. 1542—1563) 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 world—not 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 world—Russian Orthodoxy—and 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 movements—the Chappellers, Wanderers, and Saviorites—have 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 Belief—the Belokrinitsy, the Fugitive Priestly, and the Pomorians—have legally recognized national organs.