American Story with Bob Dotson
Town clings to customs despite external influences For Old Believers of Nikolaevsk, Alaska, life has changed little since 1650 By Bob Dotson (Abridged) It’s a place few people ever find: a remote village in the Alaskan wilderness, a couple of hundred miles southeast of Anchorage. A moose munching lunch by the side of a bubbling stream looks up as we bounce down a dirt track.
Our four-wheel drive waddles across the creek and continues up the mountain. We are taking the back roads to Nikolaevsk, Alaska, to meet people whose rhythm of life has not changed since 1650. How they got to this distant corner of Alaska reads like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book. The people on this mountaintop date back to a great split in the Russian Orthodox Church. In the 17th century, reformers changed the holy texts and the method of worship.
Old Believers who vowed to stick with the old ways were persecuted. The Russian tsar, Peter the Great, ordered them to pay double taxes and a separate tax for wearing beards.
They couldn’t hold government jobs, and many were beaten and burned. The Old Believers fled to remote parts of the vast Russian Empire, searching for places so isolated they would go unnoticed. 300 years of wandering After the Russian Revolution in 1917, a considerable number escaped over the border to Manchuria in China, where they stayed until another Communist takeover — this one in 1949 — forced them even farther away from home. Some settled two hundred miles southwest of Sao Paulo, Brazil. In 1963, after Old Believers had wandered the world for some three centuries, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy helped them come to America. A few stayed in Oregon, while others pushed on to Alaska. In 1968, six families punched through a thick forest and hacked out Nikolaevsk — a new town a mile square in a high mountain valley on the Kenai Peninsula, north of Homer, Alaska.
Today, four hundred people still live here. Their houses are modern, but custom dictates that women wear long skirts and cover their heads with a scarf. Men wear shirts similar to those worn by 18th century Siberian peasants. A fisherman leads them. Eleven years ago, village elders asked Nicholas Yakunin to give up his business and begin studying Christianity’s oldest texts. Now he is their priest. “You’re a fisherman for God?” I ask Father Nicholas. He smiles. “I try to be, but I have better luck catching the real fish than being a priest.” Frozen in time He pauses to listen to a teenager’s question, asked in an archaic form of Russian. Like their lifestyle and customs, the Old Believers ‘ mother tongue was frozen in the time warp back in 1917, when their grandparents fled the Soviet Union. Father Nicholas and I sit in front of the village’s onion-domed church, whose entry is covered with ancient icons.
I ask him, “How can you balance the need for change with the things that need to be kept constant?” Father Nicholas smiles: “I live in a remote area!” But not even these vast mountain ranges could keep their kids corralled if Father Nicholas ruled with an iron hand. Instead, he encourages them to start businesses that could be run from Nikolaevsk. Father Nicholas speaks with pride about the villagers’ small fleet of ultramodern fishing vessels, all with the latest electronic equipment. Fishing is their main source of income. We find his oldest son, Nick Jr., replacing a computer monitor aboard his 56-foot commercial fishing boat. There is nothing 17th century here.
“It’s not the same anymore,” Nick Jr., insists. “I believe in the advancement of man.” Nick Jr.’s mother, Masha, believes in the advancement of women, too. She raised eight children and now owns a daycare center outside the village.
“It’s tough,” she admits with a laugh. “But I’m a driven person.” Masha put her first four babies aboard her husband’s boat in orange crates so she could fish alongside him. Now, she cares for 38 children in Homer, Alaska. It is a break from Old Believer tradition of which her husband, Father Nicholas, approves. “What’s tradition?” he says. “There’s always been progress going on.” (…) There’s progress even in a church that never changes: Father Nicholas has agreed to let us bring our cameras to record an Old Believers wedding. He had never allowed that before. (…)
Father Nicholas Yakunin leads Old Believers wedding procession. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/26574964/#storyContinued