Identification. The Old Believers include all those groups that trace their origin to the religious revolt against the liturgical reforms that the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Nikon of Moscow (r. 1652-1658) introduced in the seventeenth century.
Location. The Old Believers live in all parts of the former Soviet Union and have colonies in Poland, eastern Germany, Romania, Bulgaria, Brazil, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, the United States, and Canada.
Demography. From the time the Old Believers first appeared in Russia, there have always been great difficulties in determining the Old Believer population. Religious persecution, which included imprisonment, exile, and even death for religious dissenters, naturally discouraged them from honestly answering the questions of census takers.
In 1859 the Ministry of Internal Affairs concluded, after an intense, secret investigation of Old Belief, that there were some 9.6 million Old Believers in the empire—about ten times the official figure. A census in 1912, by contrast, reported only 2,206,621 Old Believers—a definite undercount. Old Believers probably numbered between 15 and 20 million immediately before the 1917 Revolution.
Soviet persecution of religion (especially intense between 1928 and 1941 and between 1959 and 1964) decreased the number of Old Believers; in the 1970s, the Belokrinitsy, the largest Old Believer church in the former USSR, had about 800,000 members. There may be as many as 5 million Old Believers worldwide.
Linguistic Affiliation. Most Old Believers speak Russian, an East Slavic language of the Indo-European Family.