Siberiaki - Religion and Expressive Cultures



Religious Beliefs. Siberiak religion is a mixture of Christianity, Slavic folk beliefs, and Siberian native shamanism. Focus is on spirit helpers and the power of icons and miracle-working saints such as the healer Saint Nicholas. A few Siberiak communities base their religion on sects that split from the official Russian Orthodox church. Historically, those who fled to Siberia to practice their religion included Old Believers, Dukhobors, Molokany, Khysty, and Pentacostals. Some were known for their esteem for celibacy, whereas others were orgiastic.

Religious Practitioners. Monasteries and a Russian Orthodox clerical hierarchy were established in Siberia well before the Russian Revolution. Yet religious authorities often were avoided, since many believers were fugitives. Religion was parish church-or homestead-oriented, led by local priests and family heads. Examples include the Old Believers of Lake Baikal or the Orthodox of Russkoe Ust'e in Yakutia. One Old Believer family was so isolated in the Altai Mountains that when geologists found them in the 1970s, the family had not heard of World War II. Many religious communities lost their group identities during the Soviet era, although a few priests continued to function secretly.

Ceremonies. Saints' days linked to the Slavic agricultural calendar (such as Saint John's Eve at summer solstice), major Christian holidays such as Orthodox Christmas and Easter, and important family holidays all served as ritual expressions of intense belief. The scale of celebration depended on the official legitimacy of a given group's religion, the availability of a church, and the weather. Religious weddings, burials, and calendrical observances revived somewhat in the 1980s, despite decades of antireligious propaganda and hundreds of church closures since the 1920s. Historically, the most covert ceremonies practiced by Siberiaki were those involving shamanic sacrifices and séances.

Arts. Traditional Slavic laments, songs, and epics were preserved better in a few Siberiak villages than in European Russia. A rich store of Siberian conquest legends added to the folk legacy. Decorative textile arts and basketry were augmented by the new genre of fur working. Wood carvings endowed with symbolic meaning flourished on distaffs, homes, and churches. Each generation of folklorists has lamented the demise of these arts, some of which have lived on in adapted forms with new meanings through the twentieth century.

Medicine. Far from hospitals, medical points, or even traveling rural doctors, Siberiaki traditionally sought solace not only from elderly, often female, folk curers ( znakhari ) but also from native medical practitioners, shamans. Siberiaki attended séances in native settlements, sent for local shamans in emergencies, and learned shamanic incantations. Limited herbal medicine was supplemented by shamanic cures and animal sacrifices. Belief in the power of shamans and znakhari lingers in Siberian villages, but Western medicine is now relatively accessible and predominant. Childbirth usually takes place in rural clinics, if not hospitals. Helicopter ambulance services are available.

Death and Afterlife. Belief in spirits of the dead guides burial rituals, performed on the third or fourth day after death. Heaven, hell, or a spirit limbo are alternative fates. Even family members who were benign in life are believed to be dangerous after death if not treated to graveyard feasts and supplications, which are held forty days and one year after death and on annual remembrance days. Dead ancestors can also be conjured for consultation, according to some Siberiaki.


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