Almost hidden under great roofs of straw, mud plastered houses of Russian muzhiks huddled like chicks with their mother hen around rickety wooden churches topped by onion domes. Far from Moscow and Kiev, but within easy reach of heaven, those who lived under bunches of dried pears hanging in semidarkness from their beams called on the name of Christ. And as they did so, what Christ wanted became more and more important to them -- while the demands of Russia's church and state took second place.
As far back as they could remember, the muzhiks had lived in distrust of what happened at Moscow. "Live, live, until Moscow gets a hold of you!" their parents and grandparents had said. So now, when many of them got separated from Moscow's state church, they felt no remorse. Called Raskolniki (separatists) or "nonconformists" by other Russians, they began at once to live like they thought Christians should. That, in every place, was not the same. But in every place it drew the wrath of Moscow's authorities upon them, and by the mid-1660s, the "year of the beast," the tsar's men were torturing and publicly flogging Old Believers from Kiev and Smolensk to Ryazan, Kazan, Yaroslavl, Saratov, Novgorod, Pskov, and Tver. Everywhere, they tore up homes and villages and drove families to Siberia. But such persecution only confirmed what many believed: The state church had become an institution of the Antichrist.
Many, but not all, Old Believers were uneducated country people. An outstanding exception was Avvakum Petrovich, an ordained leader in the Orthodox church, who had been Nikon's companion and fellow-worker. Avvakum grew up in the village of Grigorovo, near Nizhny Novgorod (Nikon's home area), and with Nikon, he became a member of the Guardians of Piety. But whereas Nikon sought earthly power and prestige, Avvakum sought to please Christ no matter what it cost.
Before his first ordination as a dyachok when he was twenty-one years old, Avvakum chose Nastasya Markovna, a poor orphan, to be his wife. She became his faithful and patient companion, supporting him no matter how badly his non-conformity to the world brought him into conflict with it.
An early occasion for conflict arose when Vasily Sheremetev, a high-ranking boyar, came down the Volga. The people of Grigorovo, including Avvakum, went on board his ship to greet him. Seeing that he was a religious man, Vasily ordered Avvakum to bless his son Matvey. But Avvakum could not obey. "How can I pronounce a blessing on a man who has shaved off his beard, deliberately changing the way God made him?" he asked.
Vasily Sheremetov was stunned. "You take it upon yourself to disobey me?" he thundered. "For this you shall be thrown into the river!"
Fortunately, no one carried out the boyar's orders. But within a few years Avvakum found himself imprisoned, then exiled with his family to Tobolsk in Siberia for withstanding Nikon's reforms. When they detected his influence even from there, Russian authorities sent him as far away as they could-to Dauria, on the border with Mongolia. There, the district governor, Afanasy Pashkov, did what he could to make the lives of Avvakum and his family miserable. He tortured Avvakum, often keeping him in chains in the prison and severely beating him. Two of Avvakum's children died from hunger, but he did not give up in his struggle to walk the narrow way. Everywhere, he warned the faithful not to have anything to do with Nikon's fallen church.
"When the priest comes to sprinkle your house with holy water," he told them, just follow him around and sweep it out with a broom. And if they drag you into church, keep right on whispering your prayer to Jesus!"
"I Kept On Preaching"
In an attempt to reconcile Avvakum with the Orthodox Church and rid himself in this way of a formidable adversary, Nikon recalled him to Moscow in 1663. While travelling through the country toward the capital, Avvakum could not help but notice the state church's reforms being carried out with great vigour. He wrote in his diary:
In sadness I wondered if I should keep on preaching or if I should escape somewhere for the sake of my wife and children to whom I was intimately bound. Then my wife came up to me and gently asked, "Why are you so sad?" I explained what I had been thinking and asked her in turn, "What shall I do? Shall I speak or keep silence?" She replied, "How strange you talk! Do not the children and I bless and support you? Preach the Word of God and stop feeling sorry for us. We will stay together until God wishes. If we get separated, only remember us in your prayers. Christ is strong enough to take care of us!" I thanked her and, as having my eyes opened from blindness, I kept on preaching in towns along the way, denouncing Nikon's heresy. [Zhitiye Protopopa Avvakuma (Autobiography of archpriest Avvakum).]
About his arrival in Moscow Avvakum wrote:
The tsar and the boyars accepted me as an angel of God. ... They offered me any position I might like ... providing I would unite with them in faith. I regarded all this as refuse, however, to remain with Christ, remembering death and that all worldly things pass away.
When his attempt to win Avvakum to his side failed, Nikon exiled him and his family to the far north, to the Mezen region, where they remained until 1666. In that year (the "Year of the Beast"), Avvakum appeared for the last time in Central Russia. Nikon called him before a council that condemned him and all Old Believers with him as the worst of heretics. Then he sent Avvakum and three other nonconformed believers, Lazar, Yepifany, and Fedor, who already had their rights hand cut off and their tongues cut out, to the dreaded underground prison at Pustozersk. Avvakum wrote:
It is strange how little they [of the state church] think of discussing things. No, all they think of is using fire, the whip, and the gallows to bring us to their faith. Who of the apostles ever taught such a thing? I would not know. The Christ I know never taught that fire, whips, and bonds are educators in faith. ... It was the Tatar prophet Mohammed who wrote: "Our duty is to strike off with the sword the heads of those who will not submit to our tradition and rules."
During the fourteen years Avvakum and his friends languished in the Pustozersk prison, Old Believers from all over Russia travelled the long road to see him. Then, in 1682, after admonishing a great crowd that had gathered to weep and pray, Avvakum allowed his guards to chain him to a stake. Lazar, Yepifany, and Fedor suffered the same treatment, and they died together shouting encouragements one to another in the flames.
The Antichrist in Person
Eight years after Avvakum's death, Tsar Aleksey's son Peter took charge in Moscow. Only eighteen, he had grown into a six-foot-seven-inch giant. Fascinated with ships and exploration, he fidgeted when he talked. His eyes darted about and his big hands appeared always itching to land on something.
Newly married and with his servants in tight control, Peter enjoyed being tsar. But he saw his position as far more than an opportunity to lead a comfortable life. He aspired to personal greatness and wanted to make Russia great too. In 1697 he travelled with two hundred and fifty "Grand Ambassadors" to western Europe to see how modern people lived. In disguise, he worked in the shipyard of the Dutch East India Company at Saardam. He visited doctors and lawyers, looked through telescopes, listened to musicians, attended lavish receptions (shocking a German girl in one when he lifted her up by the ears to see her better) and a session of Parliament in London. Then during his visit to Vienna, he learned of a revolt in Russia and hurried home.
Peter did not come to Moscow as travellers usually did. He visited no churches and said no prayers of thanksgiving for his safe return. The people were shocked. They were even more shocked to hear him curse and swear, laugh at holy traditions, and seize respectable men to cut off their beards (on his trip west, Peter concluded it was necessary and important for men to shave).
It did not take the Old Believers and the "underground" Christians of the northern forests long to reach a firm conclusion. The Antichrist had come in person!
Success for the Antichrist
Nothing worried the Old Believers more than Peter's rapid takeover of Russia and seemingly unlimited success. With a mug of beer in his hand, wearing shoes with holes and a sloppy hat, Peter appeared everywhere. Sometimes he marched with his soldiers. Sometimes he worked with his shipwrights swinging a hammer or wielding an axe.
Peter always carried a club and no one dared get in his way. He used it freely, even on his best friends. But he knew a clever person when he saw one and promoted only those who deserved it. "Necessity drove away sloth and forced me to work night and day," he wrote. Peter was Russia's best carpenter, a blacksmith, a printer [One of the first books he had Russians print was a translation of Johann Arndt's Wahres Christenthum.], a horse breaker, a soldier, and a tsar at the same time.
In 1703, after winning a twenty-one year war with Sweden, Peter began the biggest project of his life: building a city. On the marshy banks of the Neva, a desolate northern river flowing into the Gulf of Finland, he built Saint Petersburg on innumerable wooden piles pounded into the bog. Perhaps as many as one hundred thousand workmen died from the cold, disease, overwork, and accidents at the job site.
Peter's family, however, had little praise for his success. His timid and refined wife, Yevdokiya, never got used to the way he acted after his return from the West. He resented her criticism and shut her up in a convent. Their only son grew up in the care of others, and when he ran off to western Europe, Peter had him brought back and executed in jail.
The poor people of Russia, the muzhiks, did not think much of Peter's success either. For the first time they became "individual serfs." That meant the boyars could take anyone out of any family and buy or sell his labour at will. This brought division to old village communities and sorrow to families that got scattered.
Even the Orthodox church had second thoughts. Peter got rid of the Patriarch at Moscow and put a "Holy Synod," monitored by an Oberprokuror (an official who served as the tsar's "eye on the church"), in his place.
The Agent of All Wickedness
Of all Russians, however, no one suffered more under Peter's successful rule than the "underground" believers. Peter could not tolerate dissent. The very idea that anyone would dare to oppose him made him furious. The worst floggings and the slowest or most painful tortures could not do justice to his revenge.
At the same time, under Peter's rule it became much harder for the Old Believers and their sympathisers to hide. He tried to take a census and register all Russians. He made a law that births, marriages, and deaths had to be legally reported. But many refused to comply.
Thinking of King David's census and the fact that Peter quite likely was the Antichrist, Old Believers feared eternal damnation should they become registered. "The Tsar," one of them wrote, "has become an agent of all wickedness and of Satan's will. He has raised himself on high above all false gods."
The situation, particularly after Peter ordered everyone to pay a poll tax and carry a passport, became one in which compromise was unthinkable. An Old Believer tract written in the early 1700s stated:
Christ has instructed us and given us his law. We keep his commandments and our faith in him. For that reason we will not submit to the false Christ [Tsar Peter Alekseyevich] and obey him. We will not let ourselves be inscribed in his books, taking part like that in the sins of the godless. Instead, we will tell everyone who wants to be saved not to do so by any means. ... We are seeing the mystery of the Apocalypse revealed in our time. The reign of the first and greatest beast is established among us. He is making the earth and all that live in it to bow the knee to Satan and say, "Settle our account; we humbly beg you to grant us passports." Then Satan answers, "Out with your poll tax for the new year! Are you sure there is nothing else to pay? Remember you live on my earth!" Here you see the great pit that stands open to swallow the human race. [Coneybeare, Russian Dissenters (remaining citations in this chapter are from this work unless identified otherwise).]
Wickedness and Steadfast Faith
Among the first to fall into the tsar's "pit" were the celibates of Solovets on the White Sea. Five times they had asked for permission to conduct services like the Old Believers. Their answer came in a contingent of troops sent north to "convert" them. The celibates, living in their stone community buildings, locked their doors. But the soldiers would not go away. They stood guard for several years until someone betrayed the brothers' way of entry and the soldiers rushed in to hang, stab, and drown around four hundred believers. Only fourteen escaped.
Even after the tsar removed Nikon from the patriarch's office, the Old Believers' situation did not improve. Nikon's successor, the Patriarch Ioakim, issued twelve articles against them. Under his severe laws, those who as much as gave food or drink to Old Believers had to be publicly flogged. Those who went so far as to join them, make converts, or baptise others subjected themselves to an unconditional death penalty -- even those who recanted.
In just the first decades of persecution under the state church, it is estimated that more than one hundred thousand Old Believers died martyrs' deaths. But the greater their trials, the more the Russians took note. Even families of the wealthy and those in government positions did not remain untouched -- as in the case of Feodosiya Morozova and Yevdokiya Urusova.
From their childhood, Feodosiya and Urusova enjoyed the luxuries of a noble upbringing. Both of them spent time in the tsar's court. But when faced with the issue of supporting the state church or the cause of the Old Believers, they let go of their wealth, respect, and honour to suffer affliction with the people of God.
After their arrest, the sisters survived incredible torture before landing in the dungeon of the Borovsk prison near Kaluga. There they lay without food (the authorities expected to force them through starvation to recant) until Yevdokiya died. After fifty-one days, Feodosiya also died, triumphant in the faith she had chosen, as well.
Baffling the Antichrist
As the arrests and executions of Old Believers increased, about three thousand of them took refuge on the island of Pal in Lake Onega. In this remote place, far from Russia's cities, they hoped to avoid attention by hiding in the buildings of an ancient monastery. But they hoped in vain. Tsarist troops surrounded them, setting fire to the buildings, and all of them perished in the flames.
Was it this incident or simply mass terror when the soldiers came that convinced many Old Believers the only way to escape the Antichrist was through death? After what happened at Lake Onega more and more fires blazed throughout Russia. Hundreds of Old Believers, men and women with their children and aged parents, would crowd into a large straw-roofed house or shed when they saw the soldiers coming. Then, before the "powers of Antichrist" could do anything to them, they would light the straw. Amid roaring flames and fiery beams crashing around them, they sang their last songs and prayed to Christ as soldiers looked helplessly on.
"Baffling the Antichrist," they called it, and by the end of Tsar Peter's reign, thousands of Old Believers had died in these dreadful fires. But throughout his rule, others were already choosing a better way of escape.
They escaped, as always, to the wilderness.
The Dispersion of the Old Believers
East and southward from Moscow, Old Believers fled through Voronezh, Saratov, and Tambov, down the Don River and into the Kuban and Terek areas on the border with Persia. They fled into the deserts of Kazakhstan and the Crimean peninsula held by the Turks. But nowhere did they find a better refuge than north of Novgorod and east beyond the Ural Mountains in seemingly endless birch and pine forests, brambles, and mosquitoes under a pale grey sky -- in Siberia.
Fleeing into the North and East meant fleeing from all earthly comfort -- something that did not matter much to Russia's believers. Sleeping on moss, eating wild roots and berries, even the sorrow they felt when they buried their little ones along the way drove them further from a wicked world and into the arms of Christ.
Many of the Old Believers were simple people. "No learning, no heresy," they said. No doubt for this reason they misunderstood some Scriptures and made mistakes in their prophecy. Along with them, into the wilderness, they also took what may seem like useless traditions (if not traces of fanaticism) today. But even their opponents had to admit they gave everything up for Christ. They called on Christ's name to be saved and he blessed them.
He even blessed them with fellowship.
Teachers in the Wilderness
Old Believers in Arctic forests soon found what remained of Nil Sorsky's disciples and the Strigolniki who had survived there for centuries "underground." [After Nil's death, some of his disciples founded communities apart from the Russian church. For that reason, they, the "nonchurch disciples" lived in areas where Russian law was weakly enforced.] Rapport was immediate. There can be no doubt that the nonchurch disciples helped an ever growing number of Old Believers to feel comfortable without "apostolic succession" and the rites of the Orthodox Church. Like them, most Old Believers, the Bespopovtsy (priestless ones), took to confessing their sins one to another instead of to a priest. Family heads began to perform simple communion services and baptisms, and in some areas it became common for converts to baptise themselves by trine immersion.
The Church of the Old Believers
Far removed from religious institutions, the Old Believers became what they had always envisioned as the real church. A 1723 statement from the Vygovsky Raskol community near the Arctic Ocean describes it:
All [Old Testament] assemblies and rituals, feasts, celebrations, and sacrifices were established to purify men from their sins so God could come in. But now, the one who carries God [the Christian] does not depend on visible buildings and sacrifices, on assemblies and human feasts. He does not worship God on this mountain or in Jerusalem. He has God within himself. He worships in the true spirit at his pure altar within: his conscience. He weeps, not naturally with the eyes, but inwardly to the purifying of his soul. Going up to his inner Jerusalem, his spirit rejoices. His soul, being spiritual, offers up the sacrifice of spiritual praise. [Answers from the Shore Dwellers.]
When asked where they went to church, Old Believers typically answered, "I am the church." Pointing with their fingers to their chests, some would add, "Here in my heart is the true church. The true church is not found within timbers and wooden walls. It is found within ribs and human flesh."
New Testament references to Christians being the temple of the Living God, to Christ dwelling in us, and to all believers being kings and priests became particularly meaningful to the Old Believers. Their slogan, one scholar wrote, could well have been Revelation 5:10: "You have made us kings and priests unto God, and we shall reign on the earth." [Frederick C. Coneybeare, Russian Dissenters.]
An Old Believer from Pskov wrote: "Melchizedek's priesthood exists among us today. Every believer is a priest." In a tract Against the Ritualists of the Church Hierarchy another one wrote: "The spiritual sacramental priesthood of Christ belongs to every Christian-that is, to everyone who has become holy through the gift of the Holy Ghost."
With every man a priest, the Old Believers (the Bespopovtsy) took a dim view of authoritarian church government. In a book they published in secret, The Christian Teaching About the Keys, they explained how the keys Christ gave to Peter belong to the whole church, not just to its leaders. Nikifor Petrovich, an Old Believer, wrote in the early 1800s:
We are all on the same level. We need no clergy. We have all received the same cheirotonin (laying on of hands). We make our confession to Christ in our hearts and receive our ablution directly from him.
In another writing from the Novgorod wilderness, the Old Believers gave their reasons for having nothing to do with the Russian state church:
The tsar has enslaved the church, and when people speak of the church they mean the clergy rather than the community of believers.
Communion, the Old Believers taught, is a daily constant experience, not just a service with bread and wine. "A man who lives by the sweat of his brow has communion every day of his life," they said. "And if a man loves Christ and his words, Christ will love him and come to live with him."
Communion took place in any common activity -- eating, drinking, or working-done in full awareness of Christ. A Russian official reported a conversation between an Orthodox priest and an Old Believer in the nineteenth century:
Old Believer (leading the way to his cabin): "Here you see my church."
Priest: "And how do you take communion in this supposed church of yours?"
Old Believer (pointing at his rough table): "There we have our altar at which we take communion every day."
Priest: "But how can you communicate at this table?"
Old Believer: "How? In what? Surely in the bread of Christ. Look at the bread Christ gave us today!"
The Saviour's People
Among the Bespopovtsy, one group living deep in the Siberian taiga stood out for its radical Christocentrism. They spoke of themselves only as Spasovtsy (from Spas for "Saviour"). They neither had nor desired duly ordained leaders, church buildings, written liturgies, or lists of saints. [For this reason people ordinarily called them Nyetovtsy (from nyet, no).] They said, "Our hope is in the Saviour alone, and in these difficult and confusing times, we cannot rely on human opinion. We cannot argue about details nor involve ourselves in theological discussion. Christ alone is able to save us!" The Spasovtsy accepted converts from other Christian groups without rebaptising them (a practice unique among Old Believers), because they believed that Christ Himself, not rituals, will save his own.
Old Believer Families
Old Believer parents married their young people one to another, often in their early teens, in utmost simplicity. They asked the boy and the girl a few questions in the home and gave them their blessing. In some cases there was even less formality. This horrified the Orthodox. "You are living in sin," they insisted. "How can you call yourselves married without having received the sacrament or even having seen a priest?"
"How did Abraham and Sarah get married? Or the rest of the patriarchs?" the Old Believers asked in return. "Were their children illegitimate?"
Noting their lack of legal contract and the fact that their wives easily could have deserted them, Russian scholars observed that Old Believer men treated their wives with special care. Their marriages seemed happier than ordinary. The Old Believers saw other reasons for that. A writing from the 1700s states:
The infidels [rich, high-class, people] look on a woman as just another luxury to enjoy. They see only her beauty and lust after her. The religious people [poor Orthodox Russians] look at a woman as a beast of burden. They only put her to work and keep her to raise children. But for true believers, the woman is the other half of the race. We must treat her with respect and reverence. We look at her inner beauty.
Even though many of them were happily married, Old Believers considered celibacy a higher calling, and recommended it if at all possible. [With no ordained men to perform the ceremony, several Old Believer groups did not want their young people to marry. But the rest insisted that marriage was God's first commandment to men and women: "Be fruitful and multiply" (Gen. 1:28). Therefore, to them it was not subject to the rites of the church, but to the common desire of the couple involved and the consent of their parents.]
Old Believer Communities
Tsar Peter's reforms included much more than the registration of individuals with their births and marriages. They included the partitioning of land into private property, the accurate surveying of claims, and the registration of deeds. All this, the Old Believers also took as the "work of Antichrist."
Ever since early Slavic times, Russian communities had held their land in common. All the boyars could claim was the right to production and labour. Land itself was seen as belonging to everyone, like air and water, and ultimately to God. The Old Believers settling in Arctic regions and Siberia kept on thinking this way.
On virgin land, particularly along the Vyg river flowing north through the taiga between Arkhangelsk and Finland, they built rough log homes. In ever widening clearings, they planted wheat and vegetables. Under the direction of Danilo Vikulin, Andrey Denisov, and others, Old Believer communities on the Vyg River grew to include thousands of souls. They fished in Lake Onega. In the winter, when the Arctic Ocean froze, their hunters reached the islands of Spitzbergen and Novaya Zemlya. For more than a hundred years they prospered like no one else in Arctic Russia before or since, until Tsar Nikolai I scattered them in 1855. Other Old Believer communities flourished in Siberia and among the Altai Mountains along the border of China.
In most of their communities, the Old Believers held what was indispensable to all in common. That included the land, fisheries, pastures, and salt deposits. Things for personal use such as houses, furniture, tools, or animals they bought or sold. Because the Antichrist's number, 666, is contained in the Russian word employer, they shrank back from hiring or working for wages. In one community, dependent on making leather boots, they arranged to have all who helped make them share the profit. In other communities they lived from a common purse. [Some Old Believer leaders, including Antip Yakovlev of Plyosovsk, Vasily, and Ivan Petrov, taught that all possessions should be held in common. They said: "The words mine and yours are curse words. They are the source of all evil in the world." Considerable numbers joined them.]
A hundred years after the founding of the Vygovsky communities, Yefim Pereyaslavsky, a convert from Poltava, decided that the Old Believers there [Usually known as "shore dwellers" because they lived along the Arctic Ocean.] had grown too comfortable. Taking on the rule of the Rechabites and John the Baptist, he called for a total forsaking of houses and lands. This began an exciting movement. All over Russia Stranniki, (wanderers) began to appear, carrying nothing but bread, salt, and water.
When they entered the Strannitchestvo (the wandering life), men and women gave up everything, including their family names. Even selling one's Bible to give the money to the poor was not considered extreme.
For practical reasons, the Stranniki divided themselves between "house Christians," those who took care of houses and crops, and "road Christians," those who went about warning the unbelievers. The house Christians did not own their houses. At any point they would get up and leave them behind. Even while they lived in them, they lived without locks, and anyone "from the road" was free to enter and go as he pleased. In some places, hidden in the forest, the Stranniki kept communities for the road Christians' children.
In many ways the Stranniki kept themselves even further from the world than the rest of the Old Believers. Because of the Antichrist's image (the tsar's likeness) on money, most of them refused to touch or carry it. They believed that praying for the Tsar, as required by Russian law, was the worst form of blasphemy (asking God to save the Antichrist) and worthy of excommunication. Before they read from a Bible or sang from a hymnal, they tore out the title page with the imprimatur carrying the tsar's name.
Thanks to their constant missionary activity, the Stranniki gained followers all over Russia. Entire villages got converted and became communal hiding places. Secret entrances led to cellars, attics, closets, and compartments under staircases, in cupboards, behind the walls, among the eaves, or under the stove. In some "house Christian" villages, all buildings were connected by tunnels with hidden escape routes.
No less amazing than their hiding places was the communication system invented by the persecuted Stranniki. Moscow authorities knew that no matter what law they passed or what pronouncement they made in the capital, news of it spread through all Russia by the "Stranniki grapevine" long before it arrived through official sources.
One of the Stranniki's most carefully guarded rules was to not die under a roof. All "home Christians" promised to take up the Strannitchestvo at some point, and to die on the road was an honour. [ If disaster or sickness struck a home Christian, he would still ask to be carried out, at least into the garden, to die.]
The Testimony of the Old Believers
The Old Believers studied the Bible and taught their children from it. Some of them also wrote tracts and books. Timofey Bondarev wrote A True and Faithful Way to Salvation in the eighteenth century. Pavel, a monk who became an Old Believer, wrote The Royal Road. In a book from the late 1700s, A Testimony From the Holy Writings, an anonymous Old Believer explained how the Antichrist was a system, not just an individual. Men and women may indeed become "Antichrists" in their own way, but the real Antichrist is the world -- everything that opposes Christ.
The Old Believers published and distributed their books with great success. But even much more widely known than their writings was the testimony of their lives.
The Old Believers, even though many saw them as die-hard traditionalists, did not fear to make changes if necessary. In fact, they made such drastic changes in their way of worship and church structure that the Orthodox were horrified (it soon became apparent who had been "stuck on insignificant details"). Traditions that reminded the Old Believers who they were and who they served (Christ) became yet more precious in the wilderness. At the same time, they developed new traditions and adjusted others to fit their circumstances. This selective and highly creative -- if unplanned -- process did much to keep them civilised and together as a people.
The Old Believers wore colourful but very modest and old-fashioned clothes. The men wore loose shirts that fell over their pants. They never shaved nor trimmed their beards, not even when they had to pay the heavy "beard tax" introduced by Peter the Great. From the least to the greatest, all women and girls wore large headscarves all the time. They sewed ample skirts and blouses for themselves, and in the winter bundled up in furs. During the day, the Old Believers prayed many times, falling on their faces before Christ. If their contacts led them outside their communities, they avoided social intercourse, including eating, with others, but spoke freely of what they believed.
New things, particularly tobacco, but even potatoes and tomatoes (Eve's apples), they looked at with distrust. [Catherine the Great introduced these vegetables to Russia.] Because they refused to register deaths as well as births, many of them got buried at night in ploughed fields or in lonely forests with nothing to mark where they lay. But peculiarities notwithstanding, even their enemies knew they could trust them. Drunkenness, laziness, and begging were virtually unknown among them. Toward the middle of the nineteenth century, a government inspector reported:
When I entered a peasant's house and asked them what they believed they would often tell me quickly, "We are not Christians."
"What are you then?" I would ask. "Infidels?"
"No," they would tell me. "We believe in Christ but we belong to the church because we are worldly, frivolous people."
"Why do you say you are not Christians if you believe in Christ?"
"Christians," they would tell me, "are those who stick to the old beliefs. They pray differently than we do, but we have no time to imitate them."
What Became of the Old Believers
Even though the Old Believers would not have a thing to do with it, tsarist officials taking a census calculated their number at more than eight and one half million by 1859. Then, after the freeing of the serfs three years later, when muzhiks could move freely from place to place for the first time, thousands more united with the "nonconformity."
Statistics show that during the 1860s twenty-five thousand people joined the Old Believers in only the Simbirsk (now Ulyanovsk) area. In 1867 half the population (five thousand people) of Petrovsk near Saratov joined them. In 1879 a reported eight thousand converts -- from Orthodox, Muslim, and indigenous pagan tribes -- united themselves to Old Believer congregations in Orenburg and Perm. By 1880, they numbered around thirteen million altogether, and by the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, there may have been as many as twenty five million. Without a doubt, the attraction of Christian "nonconformity" pulled on the inner feelings of many seeking Russians.
Harassed -- and fiercely persecuted at intervals -- the Old Believers eventually gained a measure of freedom simply by their numbers. The tsars wearied of trying to subdue them, and to get rid of them all, a significant percentage of the population, looked impossible.
At the same time, what persecution could not do, inner decay and apostasy did to some degree. Two hundred and fifty years after the "year of the beast," observers reported as many as one hundred thirty different movements or groups among Old Believers. In a sense this was a strength as much as a weakness, inasmuch as most of them did not think of themselves as a denomination. The Bespopovtsy and the Stranniki in particular had little use for officially ordained men, central authority, and organisational ties linking communities one with another. While communities in one place apostatised or got strange ideas, others improved and drew closer to Christ.
In 1905 a new constitution drawn up under Tsar Nikolai II finally stopped the Orthodox church from persecuting Old Believers. But with the communist dictator Yosef Stalin's new registration laws in the 1930s, their troubles returned. This time even the North offered them no refuge and only a few escaped through China into Hong Kong where they startled British officials. Tall bearded men, their wives wrapped in colourful home-made skirts and scarves, with blond-haired children minireplicas of themselves, they seemed to come walking straight out of the Middle Ages. From Hong Kong they found their way to Brazil, Argentina, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Oregon, and some to Alaska.
Wherever they settled, core groups and continual renewal movements among them have kept the Old Believers from losing themselves in the world. In free countries they have identified the Antichrist not so much with rulers and political systems as with television, movies, drugs, tobacco, shameless immodesty, and birth control.
Old Believers still refuse to shave or drink coffee. They do not use musical instruments and stand segregated to worship. They still resist legal involvement as much as they can. Most people see them as impossibly "legalistic" and opinionated Russians, some of the unhandiest people governments have to confront. But their clear testimony for Christ and against the Antichrist, even in great weakness and sometimes error, inspired untold numbers in Russia. Without them, the story of all Russians who followed them on the narrow way (Spirit Christians, Stundists, and Evangelicals) would be unthinkable, and things would have turned out differently even for the people whom Russians called ...
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