Are you impressed that the Amish can keep their seventeenth-century lifestyle in modern-day America? Well, today I learned about a group that’s even more amazing. At the end of Alaska’s Kenai peninsula, there is a village of 400 Old Believers, followers of a banned Orthodox Christian sect that fled Russia more than 300 years ago, and still live without too many changes from those days. Equally astonishing, they weren’t left behind when Russia sold Alaska to the United States, but moved there in the 1960s or 70s, after life in China and Brazil didn’t work out for them. I guess those countries were too different; at least Alaska looks like Siberia. Finally, they managed to escape attention until recently; the rest of America simply didn’t know they were there.
By the way, I think the black-and-white footage of churches being desecrated came from Bolshevik persecutions of the twentieth century, not from Peter the Great’s campaign.
To understand why the Old Believers left Russia in the first place, here’s what I wrote about them in my Russian history papers:
Finally, mention should be made of an important controversy in the seventeenth-century Church. It all began in 1652 when the patriarch Nikon, perhaps the most brilliant man who ever led the Russian Church, declared he would reform its practices; he had been to the monasteries of Greece and was appalled at the divergences between Greek and Russian Orthodoxy. This was not a reformation in the sense of the one that created Protestantism; beliefs were never an issue here, only the way in which they were expressed. Among the changes Nikon proposed were:
1. Making the sign of the Cross with three fingers, instead of two.
2. Having outdoor processions face towards the sun, instead of away from it.
3. Spelling the name of the Savior Iesus in Cyrillic letters, not Isus.
These differences may seem trivial to us, but to the Russian who lived by ritual, they put one’s salvation on the line. Most Russian Christians refused to accept these changes, feeling that it was the Greek Church that was in error, not the Russian; furthermore, many felt that it was a sure sign that the Second Coming was near if the "One True Church" fell into error. Those who opposed Nikon’s reforms found a leader in the extremely pious archpriest Avvakum. The tsar, who favored the reforms, struck back savagely, equating resistance with both heresy and treason. Avvakum was exiled to Siberia, and later burned at the stake; his memoirs of his experiences are still emotion-gripping today. Nikon’s reforms were imposed upon the Church by force, but eventually Nikon himself was exiled because he was too independent-minded for the tsar’s liking. Those Christians who never accepted the reforms are called "Old Believers", and they can still be found in parts of Russia today.