Old Believers - Marriage and Family



Marriage. Among the Old Believers who accept marriage as a sacrament, the Orthodox church's canonical rules against incest ensured exogamous marriage: at least seven degrees of consanguinity must separate an Old Believer couple. Under pain of excommunication, Old Believers must marry within their own religious community. Fictive kinship also restricts the number of an Old Believer's potential spouses; a man cannot marry the daughter of his godfather or godmother, for example. A person can marry no more than three times during his or her life. Marital residence is virolocal.

Although the Priestless initially rejected marriage, most groups now observe some form of marriage, which includes the mutual consent of the couple, a parental blessing, and a prayer by the preceptor. Today only the Theodosians, the Saviorites, and some of the Wanderers continue to oppose marriage.

Domestic Unit. Old Believer households consist of a linearally extended family and can include three or even four generations. Large households were more common in the nineteenth century; some even contained as many as fifty members, but these became increasingly rare in the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. Ideally, the authority of the male head of the household was unquestioned. Under Soviet rule, however, the state and the Communist party tried to undermine the traditional authority of the Old Believer elders. Antireligious books and pamphlets presented the traditional Old Believer household as a stifling, reactionary vestige of Russia's "feudal" past. New sources of authority challenged the religiously observant Old Believer on every front; Old Believer peasants had to conform to the Communist leadership on their collective farms, Old Believer children were expected to ignore their consciences and join the atheistic Young Pioneers, and Old Believer workers were subordinate to the factory committees of the Communist party. These rival authorities, which represented the dominant power in the former USSR, vigorously competed against the religious and patriarchal authority invested in the head of the Old Believer household; nevertheless, as Soviet antireligious literature shows, some Old Believer patriarchs, especially in the Far North (around Arkhangel'sk) and Siberia, continued to exercise their customary supervision over their families.

Inheritance. Inheritance is through the male line.

Socialization. Old Believers require their children to observe the Orthodox fasts by the age of three. In observant families, the religious value of the fast outweighs all other considerations; parents, for example, ignore the bitter complaints of their children, who are forbidden to eat meat or drink milk during the fasts. In cases of disobedience to family elders, Old Believers resort to corporal punishment to maintain their authority.

Even grown children are expected to obey and respect their parents, especially in their choice of a spouse. Children who marry outside their faith often face excommunication and social ostracism.


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