Old Believers - Sociopolitical Organization



Social Organization. According to the few Soviet sociological studies of Old Belief, about half of the Old Believers in the highly urbanized Baltic were workers; the other half were invalids, pensioners, and housewives. In remote rural areas, such as the Komi and Buriat ASSRs, three-quarters of the Old Believer population were pensioners.

Political Organization. The former USSR, where most Old Believers live, was a Socialist, atheistic state in which, until 1990, the Communist party was constitutionally guaranteed the leading role. Since atheism was a prerequisite for membership in the Communist party, Old Believers were effectively excluded from exercising political power. The Council for Religious Affairs, a state organ, regulated all officially recognized religious communities. Historically, it severely restricted the practice of religion and completely forbade religious proselytism. Only the most moderate groups—the Belokrinitsy, the Fugitive Priestly, and the Pomorians—had national centers. More radical groups, which regard the world as the kingdom of the Antichrist (such as the Wanderers and the Saviorites), maintained illegal, unregistered congregations.

Social Control. The Old Believers employ public censure and excommunication (expulsion from the community) to ensure adherence to their canons.

Conflict. Since their condemnation in 1667, Old Believers have struggled against the state and its established ideology. State persecution was particularly severe under Czaritsa Sophia (r. 1682-1689), Empresses Anna (r. 1730-1740) and Elizabeth (r. 1741-1762), and Emperor Nicholas I (r. 1825-1855). Old Believers resorted to armed revolt (as in the Vulavin Mutiny of 1707-1708 and the Pugachëv Uprising of 1773-1775) and to mass suicides to protest this persecution. In the Soviet period, Joseph Stalin (during the 1930s) and Nikita Krushchev (from 1959 to 1964) presided over the cruelest antireligious repressions in Russian history, yet Old Believer protest took less violent forms; they formed secret communities, engaged in clandestine propaganda, and opened unofficial seminaries and illegal monasteries. After the fall of Krushchev in 1964, the state gradually relaxed its persecution of religion; in 1971, the Russian Orthodox Church (the largest religious organization in the former USSR) lifted the anathemas against Old Belief, and in 1990 the Supreme Soviet passed a law guaranteeing a greater degree of religious freedom for believers.


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