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Old Ritualists

As President Vladimir V. Putin asserts Russia’s position in the international community, the leadership of Russia’s dominant Orthodox Church has allied itself with his government, resurrecting hopes (and fears) that a reinvigorated Orthodox Church aligned with a burly government will forge a more cohesive “Russian” nation.

But Russia’s population of 143 million includes an array of distinct ethnic, linguistic and religious groups, and Russia’s Orthodox Church — which seeks to restore what the Communists had tossed — is not the sole guardian of the country’s Russian legacy. Russia’s Old Believers (or Starubryadsty, meaning Old Ritualists) once preferred imprisonment, exile or even death to the liturgical reforms initiated by Russian Orthodox Patriarch Nikon in the 17th century.

Today, perhaps as many as 10 million Old Believers — scattered throughout European and Asian Russia as well as the Balkans, the Baltic states and North America — safeguard the cultural and spiritual heritage of Russia’s pre-westernized civilization.

Background. The raskol, or schism, that cleaved Russian society in the middle of the 17th century had complex causes. In 1598, the last tsar of the ancient Rurik dynasty died without issue. His death marked the beginning of the “Time of Troubles,” a 15-year interregnum marked with usurpers, famine, civil war and foreign (namely, Polish Catholic) invasion. Remarkably, the Orthodox Church managed to keep the fledgling Russian state of Muscovy from collapse, even as the Poles occupied Moscow’s Kremlin.

In 1613, a zemsky sobor (or grand council) that included nobles, clergy, merchants and peasants elected as tsar Mikhail Romanov, the son of the powerful Metropolitan Philaret of Rostov. Later enthroned as patriarch in 1619, Philaret actually governed Muscovy as “Great Sovereign.” He consolidated his son’s realm, bound peasants to the land and enriched his son’s treasury, effectively subordinating the state to the church until his death in 1633.

Mikhail’s son and successor, Tsar Alexei the Pious, while not as acquiescent as his father, also entrusted authority to the church, especially to Patriarch Nikon, who dazzled the tsar with his learning and eloquence.

Alexei was a man of contradictions. Conscious of his neighbors’ development of armies and navies, their subordination of the church to the state and the growing complexity of national economies, Alexei initiated economic and political reforms. His son, Peter the Great, later took these reforms further. The patriarch’s drive to reform the church, which Alexei encouraged, had a greater immediate impact on Russian society.

Reform. Convinced the liturgical texts of the Church of Moscow deviated from those found throughout the rest of the Orthodox world, Nikon in 1652 invited liturgical scholars and theologians from elite Orthodox academies in Constantinople and Kiev to Moscow. There, they compared the service books of the Russian Church with those in use in Kiev and Constantinople, finding numerous variations. To establish uniformity, Nikon called two sobors (1654 and 1656) that accepted the “corrections” and anathematized those who refused to accept them.

These revisions — which included changes in the Typicon, Euchologion and other service books; the spelling of Jesus’ name; and how to make the Sign of the Cross (with three fingers instead of two) — brought Russian practices in line with contemporary Greek and Kievan customs. Ironically, the older texts of the Russian Orthodox Church preserved liturgical customs and translations that predated those used by the Orthodox churches of Constantinople and Kiev. Modern Orthodox scholars have suggested these texts featured innovations influenced by 16th-century Catholic and Protestant theology.

Schism. A significant number of clergy, nobles and peasants denounced Nikon’s reforms: Led by the tsar’s confessor, the archpriest Avvakum Petrov (whose letters and autobiography are masterpieces of Russian literature), opponents of change saw Nikon’s liturgical renewal as a betrayal of Orthodoxy, which the Russian Church had upheld as opposed to the Greeks, whom they believed compromised the faith during the Council of Florence. The defenders of Old Belief also resented Nikon’s centralization of patriarchal authority, which they likened to the contemporary exercise of papal authority.

The Moscow sobor of 1666 deposed Nikon for his heavy-handed use of authority, but, with the support of the tsar, upheld liturgical reform. The council fathers excommunicated those who denounced the reforms, thus depriving the raskolniky, or schism-makers, of any legal standing. Church and state officials sacked and imprisoned Old Belief leaders. Official acts of persecution escalated; bishops, nobles, monks and priests, including Avvakum, were tortured, exiled and burned at the stake. Entire communities committed suicide by fire rather than submit to error.

These persecutions left surviving Old Believers (who fled from the reaches of tsar and patriarch) without bishops, priests and, consequently, the sacraments. Thus denied a hierarchy, these bezpopovsty (priestless) believers organized themselves into self-sustaining but isolated lay communities that elected their own nastavnik, or teacher.

As the tsars extended their reach beyond the Ural Mountains, consolidated their realm, eliminated the patriarchate and subordinated the power of the clergy and nobility, they escalated their persecution of Old Believers, who may have composed as much as a quarter of the Russian population.

Isolated and spread over vast areas of two continents, Old Believers consequently split into many fiercely independent groups. Each community developed its own peculiarities and characteristics. Nevertheless, they all retained traditional Russian iconographic forms, rejecting westernized icons; preserved traditional church architecture and church appointments, even though they lacked priests and sacraments; upheld the language and theology of the pre-reformed Orthodox Church of Russia; and defended the pre-westernized civilization of Old Russia.

Sacraments restored. Over the centuries, two groups of Old Believers developed: Bezpopovtsy rejected the validity of the sacraments of the “Nikonian” bishops of the official Russian Orthodox Church while the popovtsy (priestly) accepted them.

In 1846, Amvrosy of Sarajevo embraced Old Belief. An Orthodox metropolitan removed from his episcopal see by the Turks, Amvrosy consecrated several bishops for those Old Believers who remained loyal to priesthood and sacraments. From this group descends the largest Old Believer community, which is today based in Moscow’s Rogozhskoe cemetery, the spiritual center of Old Belief since the 18th century.

After Tsar Nicholas II issued the Edict of Toleration in May 1905, Old Believers were legally recognized and permitted to practice their faith openly. Soon after the tsar’s decree, the altars of the Old Believers’ chapels were “unsealed” and a “golden age of Old Belief” flowered, coinciding with the rise of Russia’s merchant princes, many of whom belonged to prominent Old Belief families. These merchant princes commissioned the nation’s leading architects and artists to design new churches and encouraged a revival of pre-Nikonian chant and scholarship.

This golden age ended abruptly with abdication of the tsar in 1917 and the subsequent Bolshevik coup d’état in 1918. These militant atheists saw the Old Believers as capitalists and defenders of an older order. They ruthlessly persecuted Old Believers as they did all believers. Little is known of Russia’s Old Belief communities between 1918 and 1991.

Modern developments. “The old saying that ‘schism breeds schism’ is without a doubt true,” wrote Russian Orthodox Father Pimen Simon to his parishioners last Easter. In 1983, Father Pimen and his Old Believer parish in Erie, Pennsylvania, entered into full communion with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia.

“I have prayed since the first day that priesthood was restored to our parish and I became an Old Rite priest rather than an Old Believer nastavnik, that unity might be restored to the church inside and outside of Russia, and that the Old Believers could then be reconciled to [the] one, Holy Russian Orthodox Church. ”

“Certainly, false unity must be avoided, but let us be careful not to reject a healing of the divisions of the Lord’s Body when possible.”

At the end of the 19th century, the tsar’s government imposed restrictions limiting the Old Believers’ cultural and religious endeavors. Whole communities migrated to China and the Americas. Many flocked to the iron and coal regions of western Pennsylvania, where they worked the mills in the winter and migrated north to build ships in the summer. They established churches, including Father Pimen’s parish dedicated to the Nativity of Christ.

Though many Old Belief communities remain hostile to the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow — the “government church” — others are working to heal the raskol that has divided a nation and a church for centuries.

Executive Editor Michael La Civita is CNEWA’s assistant secretary for communications.

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