ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Old Russia Transplanted

A community of Old Believers in Erie, Pennsylvania, maintains its unique Russian culture.

There is a positive side to the Soviet Union’s “dark night of the soul.” Soviet citizens – frustrated by want and political unrest – are seeking to fill the void left by the erosion of the Soviet myth. New political parties are forming throughout the union. While nationalist movements threaten to fragment the empire, churches, mosques and synagogues are filled as in former times, especially with the young. Looking inward, Soviet citizens are searching for their severed roots.

With those roots in mind I traveled not to the Soviet Union, but to Erie, Penn., a once-prosperous Great Lakes industrial city. For a few hours on that crisp day in late October, I was transported from both the 20th century and the New World, carried back to a land of czars and boyars, priests and monks – back to 17th century Russia.

Erie is home to a Russian community known as Starubryadstii, or Old Ritualists, better known as Old Believers. Historically described as reactionaries who preferred death rather than conform to 17th century Russian Orthodox liturgical reforms, Old Believers are the guardians of pre-Westernized Russian civilization.

At the turn of the century, Russia’s czarist government imposed restrictions limiting the Old Believer’s cultural and religious endeavors. Whole communities migrated to China and the Americas. After World War I and the revolutions which followed, many Old Believers flocked to the iron and coal regions of western Pennsylvania. It was during this turbulent period that Al Yokoff, the patriach of the Erie community, was born to Russian emigre parents.

“We prayed together, going from house to house until we could afford to build a church,” he reminisced. Though born in Pennsylvania, Yokoff’s English is peppered with a heavy Russian accent.

“Our fathers were tradesmen, they worked in the steel mills of Pittsburgh in the winter, then migrated to Erie in the summer to build ships,” he said, rekindled by these memories. “We lived as a group, as a community.”

Yokoff is a nastavnik, or teacher-church leader. When I first met him more than two years ago, it was hard for me to disguise my disbelief. Before me sat a patriarch dressed in a black peasant tunic, wool pants and well-worn hoots, his flowing white beard and multi-colored waist sash the only hints of color. He was seated on a black easy-chair surrounded by his wife and daughters. From his lips came not the powerful voice I expected, but a kind call to sit and have a cup of tea.

He began to speak of his community, their faith and their hardships. “Scores of my forefathers were hunted down like dogs and murdered,” he said.

Yokoff’s persecuted ancestors have been dead for more than 350 years, yet he spoke with feeling and remorse: “We must hold on to the traditions that we were born with, that our forefathers died for.”

For many in the West, these grievances are unknown. But Russians are particularly devoted to the memories of those who have gone before them.

For example, newly-married Soviet couples traditionally visit a local World War II memorial to remember their nation’s war dead. Their bridal portrait is then taken at the site. To understand the tenacity and devotion of the Old Believers, an appreciation is needed of Russian Christianity and its impact on history.

When the ancient Rus’ adopted Christianity in 988, they retained many of their pagan practices. The names for the deities changed, but the personal relationship between the worshipped and the worshipper did not. God the Father, Jesus, the Virgin Mary and the saints (especially St. Nicholas) were assigned distinct human personalities. Personal successes and failures were attributed to what were often perceived as mischievous characters. Magnificent stories and tales were memorized and passed from generation to generation. Thus, the intimate link binding God and humanity was never severed, nor the past from present.

Always Russians have endearingly referred to their country as Holy Mother Russia. With politics and religion as one, her leaders endeavored to become the protectors of Orthodox Christianity and the heirs of Byzantium. According to Philotheus of Pskov, a 15th century monk:

The Church of old Rome fell for its heresy; the gates of the second Rome, Constantinople, were hewn down by the axes of the infidel; but the Church of Moscow, the Church of the new Rome, shines brighter than the sun in the whole universe… Two Romes have fallen, but the third stands fast; a fourth there cannot be.

Meanwhile, Russia’s western neighbors ushered in a new age; modern armies and navies developed, stable economies ripened, secularism permeated society and the concepts of nationhood were redefined. Yet the Russian trinity of czar, church and nation stood firm.

Czar Alexei Romanov (1645-76), surnamed the pious, initiated reforms that his son, Peter the Great, would further virgorously, opening a window to the West. In 1652, with the support of Alexei, Patriarch Nikon of Moscow pushed through a series of liturgical reforms with little regard for the feelings of the people and clergy. These changes, which included simplification of the divine liturgy, revisions in the psalter and instruction to make the sign of the cross with three fingers instead of the traditional two, sought to codify Russian practices with Greek and Ukrainian customs.

Nikon’s means of implementing these changes alienated more people than the reforms themselves. Those who opposed the patriarch were tortured, exiled and, in some cases, burned at the stake. Even bishops and nobles suffered such fates.

This poignant period in Russian history became the subject of many paintings, novels, poems, even operas. In Moscows Tretyakov Gallery hangs Vasily Surikov’s monumental work, The Boyarina Morozova, 1887. The painting depicts the defiant 17th century noblewoman Feodosia Morozova as she is carted away to eventual martyrdom. With a sweeping upward gesture, she asserts her unrepentant loyalty to Old Belief. Her gesture, the sign of the cross with two fingers, became the unequivocal symbol of the resistance.

These persecutions left the Old Believers without bishops, priests and, consequently, the sacraments. Thus denied a hierarchy, these Bespopovstii (priestless) believers organized themselves into self-sustaining lay communities which elected one of their own as nastavnik. In reference to his selection in 1943, Yokoff laughed, “You are more or less drafted!”

Yokoff begins each day praying in his dimly lit chapel, the walls covered with icons and banners. He recites prayers in 15th century Slavonic (the liturgical language of the Russian church), prostrates himself and silently reflects. He does not celebrate the Eucharist.

“Like the early Christian desert hermits, we do not receive communion,” he said. “Instead, we try daily to open our hearts and minds to receive Jesus.”

My October visit to Erie coincided with a rare event, the baptism of Yokoff’s second grandchild. The ceremony began in the early hours of the morning with the lighting of the incense burners, candles and votive lights. Prayers were chanted and responses rejoined by the small community. The baptismal font was then blessed and the godparents instructed.

A visiting nastavnik then clasped his large hands around the bewildered baby’s face and bottom. He plunged the three-month-old child into the frigid water – not once but three times. A laughing Yokoff said afterwards, “We grab them by the head and stick them in the water!”

At the reception which followed, a sense of excitement filled the room. Family members chatted about past baptisms, children were eager to feast and the kitchen buzzed with activity. The drowning shock for the child proved exhausting; he lay asleep in his bassinet.

The Old Belief community in Erie is far from asleep. Though its numbers are dwindling – many are moving south for jobs – the community is as active as it was in the beginning. Five years ago, a younger nastavnik petitioned the Russian Orthodox Church in Exile to ordain him as a priest, and permitted to retain the ancient rites, he and half of the community were reunited with Orthodoxy. But Yokoff and the others remain steadfast in Old Belief.

Meanwhile, as Erie’s Russian-American community seeks to preserve its unique culture, Soviet Russians are aspiring to revive these same traditions and beliefs.

“God has arranged this,” Yokoff said quietly. “I have lived to see Christianity return to Russia.”

Michael La Civita is CNEWA’s vice president for communications.

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