As Vladimir V. Putin asserts Russia’s position in the international community, the leadership of Russia’s dominant Orthodox Church — the Moscow Patriarchate — has allied itself with his government, resurrecting hopes for many and fears for some that a reinvigorated Orthodox Church aligned with a burly government will forge a more cohesive “Russian” nation.
Yet Russia’s population of 143.5 million includes an array of distinct ethnic, linguistic and religious groups, and the Moscow Patriarchate — which seeks to restore what the Communists had destroyed — 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 of the 17th century that were initiated by the confidant of the tsar, Patriarch Nikon of Moscow.
Put to the sword for their rejection of these reforms, surviving Old Believers fled the reach of tsar and patriarch, settling in the isolated steppes or tundra of the vast Russian empire. They fled without bishops, priests and, consequently, the sacraments. Thus denied a hierarchy, these bezpopovsty (priestless) believers organized themselves into self-sustaining 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 by the late 18th century.
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; preserved traditional church architecture and church appointments, even though they lacked priests and sacraments; and upheld the language and theology of the pre-reformed Orthodox Church of Russia.
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 industrialists commissioned the nation’s leading architects and artists to design new churches and encouraged a revival of ancient 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.
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, holding dear the “true” traditions of Russian Orthodoxy, free of the influences that came to dominate the Russian state in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Click here to read more, and of the recent developments to heal this breach in Russian Orthodoxy.