Old Believers

[by Glynnis Stevenson]

The history of the raskol’niki, or Schismatics, who came to be known as Old Believers (starovery or staroobriadtsy), began in the tumultuous mid-seventeenth century in the reign of Tsar Alexis.  Alexis had ascended to the throne in 1645 at the age of sixteen and soon fell under the sway of a monk, Nikon.  By 1652, Nikon had made such an impression on the tsar that he was appointed Patriarch of Moscow, the highest position in the

Vasily Surikov's painting of the Old Believer Boyarina Morozova shows her at the moment of her arrest. In Surikov's sympathetic depiction, Morozova defiantly gives the two-fingered sign of the cross in direct opposition to the authority of the state church.

Russian Orthodox Church.  Nikon was not the first major reformer of Russian liturgy and ritual—Tsar Ivan IV had called together the Stoglav Council in 1551 to amend the impious practices of the church (Cherniavsky, 6)—but his radical ideas incited a mass movement.  In the context of the mid seventeenth century, the backlash against Nikon’s religious reforms is understandable. In the wake of the Time of Troubles (smuta), the power of the gentry was firmly established and the Russian peasantry became more firmly tied to their land.  Furthermore, the secularization that was spreading from an influx of Western ideas was a threat to Russian piety (Cherniavsky, 5).Tsar Alexis strove to minimize future unrest with his Ulozhenie (Legal Code) of 1649 (Cherniavsky, 5).  This controversial document legalized serfdom throughout the Muscovite Empire.  Despite these efforts, peasant and Cossack rebellions continued.  The tsar’s acceptance of Nikon’s drastic changes to religious practice further angered an already discontented populace.  Mass discontent manifested itself in the periphery of the Russian Empire, where government control was weakest (Cherniavsky, 5).  Northern Russia, Siberia, and the Urals became strongholds of the Old Believers (Cherniavsky, 4).  The Old Believers rejected Nikon’s reforms of church liturgy and practice. Where Nikon strove to bring Russian Orthodoxy more in line with the practices of the Greek Orthodox Church, the Old Believers sought to protect the autonomy of the Russian Orthodox Church.This resistance to the authority of the Muscovite state was met with extreme brutality. The state now defined Old Believers as heretics and enemies of the state (Crummey, 39).  Tsar Alexis’ daughter, Princess Sophia, strove to crush Old Belief in a way her father had not dared to (Crummey, 40).  Having come to power amidst intrigue and revolt, Sophia was determined to crush any opposition to her rule (Crummey, 40).  Sophia’s government made no distinction between religious purists and seditionists; all opposition to stability would be met with destruction (Crummey, 40).  Sophia set out her plans for rebels in her instruction (ukaz) of 1684 (Crummey, 41).  Old Believers were hunted down, tortured, and burned at the stake as heretics (Crummey, 41). They could be spared execution only if they acknowledged the new church and its ritual (Crummey, 41). Reformed Old Believers were given a supervisor, something like a modern-day probation officer, who would oversee their religious activities; any lapses into Old Belief would be met immediately with execution (Crummey, 41).

Sophia’s harsh policies led to a great demographic shift as Old Believers left urban areas for the periphery of the Empire (Crummey, 42). They found like-minded groups in the Don Cossack region and on the Polish border; they took refuge with other “enemies of the state” (Crummey, 42).  The Old Believers joined with the Don Cossacks in their rebellions against the Muscovite state (Crummey, 43).  In their militant campaigns against the state and the new church, the Old Believers were not able to defeat Muscovite forces, but they preferred martyrdom to capture and execution. Before they could be dragged back to Moscow, the Old Believers would light themselves on fire as a group—some groups were as large as 1,500 (Crummey, 51).

In 1689, Sophia’s reign came to an end, bringing a gradual end to the mass persecution of Old Believers (Crummey, 56).  Unlike his half-sister, Peter the Great strove to differentiate between enemies who posed a threat to his reign and religious purists (Crummey, 56). The militancy of the Old Believers subsided as they were not prepared to die if they were not being attacked (Crummey, 57).  Old Believers turned from self-destruction to self-creation; they strove to create their own culture and lifestyle within the bounds of Russian society (Crummey, 57). In 1702, Peter issued an edict of religious toleration, seemingly ushering in a new era of internal stability (Crummey, 62).  But some other aspects of Peter’s reign were worrisome to Old Believers.  Like many other Russians, Old Believers did not trust Peter’s foreign associations nor did they wish to don western dress and customs (Crummey, 63). Peter’s subordination of all religiosity to the well being of the state frightened the Old Believers, who believed Peter to be the Antichrist (Crummey, 63).  Old Believers settlements far from St. Petersburg became increasingly attractive places to live. In his efforts to gear all aspects of society towards the preservation of the state, Peter the Great enlisted the help of the Old Believers in extracting iron ore for the state (Crummey, 69).  In exchange, Peter granted Old Believer communities complete freedom to autonomy and to practice their religion (Crummey, 69).  Far from being pariahs, Old Believers were an integral part of the state economy.For the most part, Peter’s legislation concerning Old Believers was flexible and tolerant—they only had to pay a punitive tax for sporting beards if they chose to live in or visit towns (Crummey, 80).  In the later part of his reign, Peter determined that there was no conceivable way to completely isolate Old Believer’s religious practices from potential political deviancy. Peter began to regard Old Believers as inherently subversive and dangerous (Crummey, 80). Peter’s ukaz of February 8, 1716, made the Old Believers pay for their distinct place in society. Old Believers would now have to register with the government and pay double the head tax for their social class (Crummey, 80).  After the death of his son, Alexis, under torture in 1718, Peter knew he could not take any risks concerning potential enemies of his policies. Peter took several measures against the Old Believers involving condemning dissenters to hard labor and forcing those who lived within society to wear a special badge (Crummey, 81). Outsiders had to be recognizable even from a distance. Old Believer priests were banned, on pain of severe punishment, from practicing and proselytizing by order of the Holy Synod (Crummey, 81). Peter hoped that his policies would, in the long run, destroy the Old Believer faction (Crummey, 81). Old Believer parents had to baptize their children in the state church in the hopes of quickly eradicating Old Belief (Crummey, 81).

Yet Old Believer numbers continued to grow in the face of persecution; Peter’s legislation cost more to carry out than the state was bringing in from the double head tax and Old Believers tended to live far from St. Petersburg (Crummey, 82).  With the ascension of Empress Anna in 1730, Old Believers hoped in vain for some reprieve from persecution (Crummey, 159). Peter the Great’s niece showed no signs of granting clemency. She vigorously enforced her predecessors’ legislation and ramped up attacks on dissenters (Crummey, 159). Her officials were even more virulently opposed to Old Belief. Orthodox clergymen were sent to preach in Old Believer strongholds in the hopes of quickly eradicating Old Belief (Crummey, 160). While previous rulers had exempted Old Believers from military service and the ensuing requirement of providing horses for the military, Anna repealed this exemption as it only allowed Old Belief to spread (Crummey, 160).  Anna did not change much of her uncle’s legislation; she served to enforce it more vigorously.

Anna’s successor, the Empress Elizabeth, took an entirely different route when it came to dealing with Old Believers. She simply preferred not to acknowledge their existence (Crummey, 185). While her government took no action against Old Believers, they also did not repeal any of the legislation of her predecessors (Crummey, 185). In the decree of the senate and the synod of May 13, 1745, Old Believers were declared “enemies of the secular arm” (Crummey, 185). This legislation was simply reinforcing the Empress’ right to collect the double head tax that Peter the Great had imposed on the Old Believers, it was nothing revolutionary. Only the most active Old Believer missionaries were arrested and any infiltration of Old Believer territory by imperial advisors set of a wave of mass suicides (Crummey, 188). As these mass martyrdoms were embarrassing in an increasingly enlightened Europe, very few advisors wished to act as a catalyst (Crummey, 188).  Attempts at dispersing groups of Old Believers were met with self-immolation. Oddly enough, it was Elizabeth, arguably one of the rulers least invested in matters of state, who had to deal with this second round of mass martyrdoms (Crummey, 189).

Peter III succeeded Elizabeth in 1761 and put an end to the harassment of Old Believer communities, believing the infiltration of Old Believer communities to be a principle catalyst in their mass suicides (Crummey, 194). In the wake of past persecution, many Old Believers had fled to the Polish side of the Russo-Polish border where there were large refugee camps that cared for Old Believers (Crummey, 194).  Peter III aimed to win the Old Believers back with new policies of non-aggression in 1762; the state needed the revenue the tax on Old Believers provided and it was embarrassing for the state to appear that it could not control its populace (Crummey, 194).  More importantly, the Old Believers could not justify their suicide as anything more than vanity if imperil forces had not harmed them (Crummey, 195).  But conciliation could not buy the trust of the Old Believers, who remained in their Polish settlements through the reign of Catherine the Great and beyond (Crummey, 196).  Catherine, unwilling to accept their refusal of her offer at resettlement in Siberia, sent armed troops over to reclaim her subjects (Crummey, 196).

Once she had reclaimed her subjects by force, Catherine repealed Peter the Great’s punitive legislature, including the double head tax (Crummey, 196). Old Believers could no longer be referred to by the pejorative term raskol’niki and were treated as regular citizens (Crummey, 196).  Without the fear of persecution, Old Believer communities grew large and wealthy and heralded Catherine’s reign as “a peaceful and golden age” (Crummey, 197). Catherine’s successors, Paul and Alexander I, made very few changes to existing legislation. Alexander I reinstated the use of the term raskol’niki, not too threatening in and of itself, and persecuted only the most radical sects (Crummey, 199).  The end of Alexander’s reign saw increasingly stringent laws against Old Believers. Increasingly skeptical of dissent in any form, Alexander I revoked the right of Old Believers to vote in local elections in 1820 as a consequence for their refusing to pray for the emperor (Crummey, 199). Old Believers could be exiled to Siberia, forced into the army, and could no longer build chapels (Crummey, 199). In 1825, Alexander created a committee on raskol’niki to gather information about all sects of Old Belief and to keep the tsar informed of all “un-Russian activity” (Crummey, 199).

In the early years of his reign, Nicholas II destroyed Old Believer chapels that had been built illegally and would not allow the construction of new ones (Crummey, 208). In this sense, he did not differ drastically from Alexander I’s legislation. Much of Nicholas’s early legislation surprisingly protected Old Believers from harassment. Edicts in 1827 and 1834 banned imperial officials from ransacking Old Believer homes and from crashing bespopovsty (“priestless”) private services (Crummey, 208). For the time being, Old Believers were mostly safe. Once Nicholas began looking into Old Believer settlements, he saw his citizens committing a great transgression. While the Old Believers praised the tsar and his family as pious, they also prayed that he return to the “right-believing” path (Crummey, 211). In 1836, they were forced to sign a warrant stating that they would grant full prayers to the tsar and his family; the Old Believers submitted without resistance (Crummey, 211). A decree in 1854 denied access to merchants’ guilds to those who were not members of the state church and this legislation prompted a wave of conversions (Crummey, 215). Old Believer’s churches were rededicated to the state and monks and nuns were exiled (Crummey, 215). When the last settlements within reach of the capital were destroyed, Old Believers either converted or fled to the far reaches of the empire. The reign of Nicholas I effectively destroyed Old Believer culture within the reaches of the major cities (Crummey, 218).

These policies of religious persecution remained on the books until Tsar Nicholas II granted a decree of religious toleration in 1905 (Robson, 713).  Until the October Revolution of 1917, Old Believers enjoyed religious freedom and published many books explaining their rites and rituals (Robson, 715).  There is no underestimating the power of literature as a tool for establishing a group identity; the Old Believers believed in an unadulterated faith that predated the Nikonian reforms of the seventeenth century (Robson, 715).  Old Believers openly established the differences between their separate sects, the popovtsy, or those who followed “priests”, and the bespopoovtsy, or the “priestless” (Robson, 715). This open sectarianism would have been unheard of in an earlier period. They openly argued that Old Belief could weather modernity and revolution while the state church shifted and swayed (Robson, 716). The truly radical amongst the Old Believers argued that the fathers of the state church changed ritual “at whim” (Robson, 716). All semblances of western ideas, with its hints of secularization, was rejected by Old Believers (Robson, 717). To thank the tsar for his kindness, Old Believer leaders deemed praying for the safety of the tsar and his family to be pious in 1906 and in 1909, published a prayer for the tsar (Robson, 718). But comingling with members of the state church could draw Old Believers from the true faith and was therefore forbidden by elders (Robson, 718).  After the Bolsheviks took control in 1917, many branches of popovtsy and bespopovtsy were successful in becoming registered and officially recognized groups under the Soviet Union. Some less successful groups emigrated, though little has been written about Old Believer communities in Kazakhstan, Siberia, the Urals, the United States, and Brazil (Encyclopaedia Britannica). In 1971, the Council of the Russian Orthodox Church officially apologized for their persecutions of Old Believers and legitimized their rites and rituals (Encyclopaedia Britannica).


Works Cited:

  • Roy R. Robson, “Liturgy and Community among Old Believers,” 1905-1917,” Slavic Review 52, no. 4 (1993): 713-724.
  • Michael Cherniavsky, “The Old Believers and the New Religion,” Slavic Review 25, no. 1 (1966): 1-39.
  • Robert O. Crummey, The Old Believers and the World of the Antichrist (Madison, Milwaukee, and London: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1970).
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Old Believer.” Accessed February 19, 2012. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/426794/Old-Believer.