Old Believers - Settlements

By 1700 Priestly Old Believers had established colonies among the Don Cossacks, on the Kuban River in the Caucasus, in the Kerzhenets forests near Nizhnii Novgorod, in Starodub'e (near the Polish border), and in Vetka (in Poland itself). About the same time, the Priestless also founded colonies in Poland and in the northern and northwestern parts of Russia. Old Believers also fled to Siberia, where they became particularly numerous in the diocese of Tobol'sk and in the present-day Buriat Republic.

The reign of Catherine II (1762-1796) witnessed the birth of a number of new colonies. After the Russian armies had destroyed the Priestly settlement of Vetka, the refugees regrouped to form a new community on the Irgiz River in Saratov Province in 1762. To speed Moscow's recovery from the bubonic plague epidemic of 1771, Catherine allowed the Old Believers to open their own communities in the city. The Priestly center of Rogozhskoe Cemetery on the east side of Moscow and the Priestless communities of Pokrovskaia and Preobrazhenskoe grew increasingly important; today Rogozhskoe and Preobrazhenskoe continue to function as centers of Old Belief.

The Bolshevik Revolution drove many Old Believers west into the Baltic states, the western Ukraine, Poland, Moldavia, Romania, Bukovina, and Bulgaria.

Typically, Old Believers built their settlements along rivers (such as the Chika River in the Buriat Republic). They designed their streets to run parallel to the river. A typical cottage consisted of three chambers: a covered shelter ( sen '); the main room of the cottage ( izba ), which contained the stove ( pech '); and a separate, brighter, adjoining room with larger windows ( gornitsa ). Because the gornitsa was expensive to heat, nineteenth-century peasants used it only during the summer. A wooden fence enclosed the cottage courtyard. Unlike their Russian Orthodox neighbors, who built their homes directly overlooking the street, Old Believers often hid their houses behind a fence and courtyard so as to escape "worldly blandishments."


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Many Old Believers grow vegetables, berries, and nuts in their personal gardens. The Wanderers of Tomsk District, for example, earn their living by selling berries and nuts. Old Believers in Moldavia and the Far North supplement their diet with fish they catch themselves.

To escape from Stalin's campaign to collectivize the countryside (a nationwide effort that began in 1929), some Old Believers moved entire villages to remote areas in Siberia or the Altai region. Until 1950, for example, a colony of Old Believers lived almost completely isolated from the world near Iaiurevo in Siberia. Only the village headman ventured occasionally into town to trade for metal fishing and hunting gear, salt, and iron for tools. These Old Believers spun their own cloth, made their own boots and clothing, and remained secluded until 1950, when the Soviet secret police (called at that time the Ministry of Internal Affairs) discovered and arrested them for belonging to an "anti-Soviet organization." Ethnographers from the Soviet Academy of Sciences continue to discover isolated settlements of this type in Siberia and the Far North.

Not all Old Believer communities were so isolated, of course. The more moderate groups had urban centers in Moscow and the Baltic republics. Yet even in the city, where they of necessity participated in the Soviet economy, Old Believers tended to be a marginal element of that economy. Housewives, pensioners, and unskilled workers were overrepresented among the Old Believers. Antireligious prejudice, discriminatory state policies, and the Old Believers' own desire to maintain a community separate from the world combined to marginalize the dissenters' contribution to the Soviet economic system.

Industrial Arts. Before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Old Believer families played a dominant role in the Russian economy. Under Peter the Great (1689-1725), the Pomorians of the Far North and the Demidov family in the Urals mined iron. As a widely dispersed minority within the Russian Empire, the Old Believers used their religious connections as a commercial network. The Old Believer ethic also encouraged the accumulation of capital, since it discouraged the use of alcohol and often encouraged or required celibacy. By 1917 families such as the Riabushinskiis and the Guchkovs manufactured everything from textiles to automobiles.

In 1918 the Bolshevik state nationalized private industry, forced many of the Old Believer capitalists into exile, and permanently ended most of their economic influence. Some Old Believer communities, however, struggle to remain self-sufficient and produce their own clothing, houses, and books.

Old Believers tend to be very conservative in the clothes they produce and wear, although styles differ from region to region. Many women among the Siberian Old Believers, for example, continue to wear sleeveless tunic dresses ( sarafans ), even though most other Siberian Russian women have switched to a more fashionable combination of skirt and blouse. The traditional costume for Old Believer women in the Bukhtarma River valley included the sarafan, a knee-length blouse ( rubakha ), an apron, a wool belt, and a bonnet ( shamshura )—the prescribed style of which differed greatly according to the age and status of its owner. Their male counterparts wore wide bloomers called chembary and a knee-length, collarless shirt (rubakha). In the summer, both men and women wore shoes ( chirki ) of soft cow leather, which they tanned and dyed themselves; in wintertime, they donned fur coats and fur-lined boots of deerskin. For holidays and weddings, the Old Believers donned special clothes decorated with glass beads; as part of their dowry, young women prepared several such holiday dresses. Traditionally, Old Believers preferred a mix of bright colors, especially red.

Old Believers decorate their homes with elaborate woodwork. The Old Believer village of Shul'gin Log in the Altai region, for example, was famous for the carved ornamentation on the roofs of its houses as well as for its decorative paintings. Fish, dragons, snakes, and roosters were common motifs. Old Believers also made practical household implements such as distaffs and spindles. These they decorated with elaborate geometrical patterns.

Old Believers have always been justly famous for their love of books, in which they preserve their religious teachings as well as their own history. From the mid-1960s to the present, archaeographical commissions of the Academy of Sciences have discovered isolated Siberian workshops in which Old Believers copy, recopy, bind, and repair books of their own making.

Trade. The government of the former USSR had outlawed most forms of private capital since 1929, and this severely restricted private trade. Until the reforms under Mikhail Gorbachev, farmers' markets ( rynki ) were one of the only places where such trade was permitted. Today Old Believer peasants continue to sell their produce in such markets throughout the former USSR.

Division of Labor. The antireligious policies of the Communist party and the Soviet state severely limited educational and economic opportunities for Old Believers, who tend to work as unskilled or semiskilled labor. The Old Believers' desire to maintain a separate identity from that of the atheist state accentuated this process. Contemporary changes in the division of labor remain to be ascertained.

Land Tenure. Land in the Soviet Union was collectivized in the 1930s. Old Believer peasants who did not flee into isolated communities in the Soviet wilderness lived and worked on collective farms, which were dominated by the atheistic Communist party. Without an independent economic base, Old Believers found it difficult to maintain their separate religious culture in such an ideologically hostile environment. Nevertheless, there are still some villages, especially in the Buriat Republic, that are primarily dominated by Old Believers or Old Believer ethnic groups. Because Soviet authorities tried vigorously to suppress Old Belief in these regions, very little information is available about these communities. A Soviet antireligious work published in 1976 noted that between 32 and 36 percent of the residents of the rural areas around the city of Ulan-Ude, the capital of the Buriat Republic, were observant Old Believers. Despite their large numbers, these Old Believers had no open church and so had to resort to meeting illegally in their priest's home.

Also read article about Old Believers from Wikipedia

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: