Russian Old Believers in Canada

Сайт «Мультикультурная Канада» перепечатал сведения о русских старообрядцах, живущих в Канаде, из энциклопедии «Народы Канады» (под редакцией Paul Robert Magocsi), изданной в апреле 1999 года. Кстати, сейчас эту книгу можно приобрести на Амазоне всего лишь за CDN$ 217.35 (первоначальная цена по каталогу —  CDN$ 345.00, экономия — CDN$ 127.65 (37%).

Раздел о старообрядцах в этом издании подготовлен известным исследователем старообрядчества в Канаде Д. Шеффелом. Сведения о вере, культуре, экономике, семейным связям и быте представлены и по поповцам (Creek/Fairview, Alberta) , и по часовенным (Berezovka), живущим в Канаде. Сведения, конечно, кое в чем устарели, но, в основной своей части, они вполне достоверны и сейчас.





From: The Encyclopedia of Canada’s Peoples/Old Believers/David Scheffel

The Old Believers are a fundamentalist Orthodox Christian religious group who trace their origins to Russia, where the Orthodox Church was traditionally closely linked to the state. During the mid-seventeenth century, church leaders adopted a series of liturgical reforms which a certain number of the faithful refused to accept. That refusal led to the raskol, or schism, within Russian Orthodoxy. Backed by the state, the official church excommunicated the schismatic nonconformists or raskolniki, a pejorative designation for what came to be known as the Old Believers.

The Old Believers feared that the changes in liturgical practices which had been sanctified by centuries of usage would lead to a radical Westernization of Russian society and religious culture. Hence, they accepted their expulsion from the state-supported Orthodox Church as a badge of honour and began to create their own institutions to preserve what they believed to be authentic Russian culture and spirituality, including a strict adherence to using the Russian language.Russia’s tsarist government undertook ruthless persecution of the Old Believers. They were periodically banished to the frontier areas of the Russian Empire (the Don Cossack region, Siberia, the Far East) where they attracted new adherents. At the outset of the twentieth century, there were an estimated 15 to 20 million Old Believers living in all corners of tsarist Russia.

Persecution forced Old Believers to conduct their religious activities in secret. They were able, however, to turn their marginal status to advantage. The Old Believer ethic encouraged hard work and the accumulation of wealth; drinking was frowned upon and celibacy was favoured. The group’s religious connections also became the basis for a closely knit commercial network, so that Old Believer families played a dominant role in the Russian economy and by the nineteenth century had become some of the leading merchants and manufacturers throughout the entire empire.

The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the creation of the Soviet Union led to the nationalization of private industry and thereby brought an end to Old Believer economic influence. Both Old Believer capitalists as well as large numbers of the faithful were forced into exile, and during the inter-war years they settled in the neighboring Baltic states, Poland (present-day western Ukraine and western Belarus), Romania, Bulgaria, and China (Manchuria) or emigrated to North America. Their numbers were further reduced by Soviet persecution of religious groups, so that today there are about 800,000 Old Believers in the former Soviet Union out of about 5 million worldwide.

Migration and Settlement

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada’s Peoples/Old Believers/David Scheffel

The first Old Believer parishes on North American soil were founded towards the end of the nineteenth century in the eastern United States. The consecration in 1908 of a “bishop of Canada” by the Moscow-based Old Orthodox Church of Belaia Krinitsa provides the earliest documented evidence of the Old Believers’ interest in Canada. It seems virtually certain, however, that this event involved political considerations which had little to do with Canada. The man for whom the title was created never arrived in this country, presumably because it had, at the time, no Old Believers to speak of.

The first documented arrivals can be traced to the so-called White Russian refugees, that is, Russians opposed to the Bolshevik Revolution and the new Soviet state. Documentation kept by the Canadian Pacific Railway – the company that sponsored and carried out the resettlement project – suggests that approximately 100 of the 635 Russian refugees admitted into Canada between 1924 and 1928 were Old Believers. They had been displaced by the revolution and the civil war and, like many other refugees, had escaped to Manchuria. The influx of Old Believers would have been considerably larger had it not been for discriminatory government regulations which dramatically curtailed Russian immigration to Canada. In 1930, for example, the handful of Old Believers admitted between 1924 and 1928 appealed to the government on behalf of 650 relatives left behind in Manchuria. The appeal was rejected on a technicality.

A similar appeal was made in 1962 and again in 1964 when the Tolstoy Foundation of New York enquired about the possibility of resettling over 1,000 Old Believers from Turkey and Brazil in Canada. The deputy minister of citizenship and immigration foresaw “interminable problems” with respect to the potential immigrants’ prospects of assimilation, and he turned down the request. The foundation then approached the U.S. government instead, and in due course the bulk of the applicants arrived in Oregon. With a population of well over 5,000, this state has become the most important centre of North American Old Believers.

Soon after their arrival in Oregon, a conservative faction wanting to live in a more isolated region spearheaded the establishment of several frontier communities in Alaska. En route to Alaska, Old Believer scouts earmarked sparsely populated areas of north-central Alberta for potential future settlement. The actual move to Alberta began in the fall of 1972, when eight couples accompanied by forty-one dependants arrived in Canada as independent immigrants. Suspecting the likelihood of a future group migration, government officials conducted an investigation which indicated the possibility of 2,000 Oregon-based Old Believers seeking entry in the immediate future. Although the preparations for the planned mass exodus were conducted within legal parameters and with the approval of local and regional immigration officials, Ottawa, once again, quashed the scheme. In the spring of 1974, the acting director general of the home services branch drew attention to the Old Believers’ determination to live as an “anachronistic element” in the general population and ordered that only “individuals … willing to separate from the group” be considered for immigration permits.

The insistence of senior government officials on dealing with the Old Believers on a case-by-case basis stemmed from the fear of potential adverse consequences of allowing yet another ethnic bloc settlement on the prairies. Apparently convinced that the newcomers would establish colonies similar to those of the Hutterites, and fearful of the potential of such an undertaking to generate friction with the majority population, senior immigration officials reduced the anticipated stream to a trickle. The largest influx occurred between 1973 and 1977, when 227 persons were granted permanent resident status. The next five years saw a sharp reduction to a mere forty-two immigrants, followed by another decline between 1983 and 1987 when only thirty-six persons were admitted. The bulk of the Old Believers arriving in Canada since then have been spouses and dependants sponsored by previously admitted relatives.

Although there are well-established urban communities of Old Believers in Russia and some parts of eastern Europe, the traditional tendency to segregation has, on the whole, favoured homogeneous and isolated rural settlements. This pattern prevails in Canada. The fifteen Old Believer families that comprised the first wave of immigration in the 1920s settled down, side by side with the other White Russian refugees from the Far East, on CPR land at Homeglen, a now abandoned hamlet near Wetaskiwin in south-central Alberta. In the summer of 1928, eleven families moved to homesteads located between Fairview and Hines Creek in the Peace River district of northwestern Alberta. As a result of accelerated culture change since World War II, most young members of the community have left for urban centres in Alberta and British Columbia.

The second wave of immigration, in the 1970s, also aimed at the countryside. The first settlers established an isolated community at some distance from Lac La Biche in east-central Alberta, informally referred to as Berezovka. A second, smaller, settlement sprang up along the banks of the Peace River near Watino as a result of internal divisions. This community was dissolved in the late 1980s. In recent years, a growing number of young residents have settled in Lac La Biche, Edmonton, and Chilliwack. Because of a strong preference for marital partners from within the group of North American Old Believers, there is a constant exchange of young people between the Canadian settlements and their counterparts in Oregon and Alaska. Altogether, there are some 700 practising Old Believers in Canada.

Economic Life and Community Life

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada’s Peoples/Old Believers/David Scheffel

Traditional occupations include farming, hunting and fishing, cottage industry, and trade. Historical sources portray the Old Believers as cunning merchants who monopolized some domains of Russia’s trade. Although this is an exaggeration, there is evidence that, like other marginalized minorities, the Old Believers in some parts of Russia did use trade to gain control over a hostile society.

Trade is of little importance today. Most households pursue a diversified economic strategy in an attempt to maximize local opportunities. Each family keeps a few cattle, pigs, and chickens to satisfy its own need for meat and dairy products. Large-scale farming is rarely practised, but the growing of vegetables and fruit for domestic consumption is virtually universal. Cash derives primarily from seasonal work in the forest industry, which employs most men and adolescents. Rural crafts, such as spinning and weaving, used to be pursued widely but are in decline today. Contrary to stereotypes held by their neighbours (and government officials), the Old Believers do not constitute a colony in the economic sense of the word. Land, cattle, and machines are owned individually, and the concept of communal property is rejected as Communist-inspired.

Each settlement constitutes an autonomous entity whose residents show little interest in unrelated Old Believers living elsewhere. Differences of religion and geography account for much of this lack of interest. The people of Hines Creek/Fairview, Alberta, and their more recently arrived co-religionists belong to two different and historically hostile factions whose members subscribe to opposite views on the role of clergy. This cleavage has stood in the way of any lasting relationship between the two waves of immigrants. Although the residents of the two settlements founded in the 1970s subscribe to the same religious beliefs and practices, their interaction is hampered by differences in geographical origins. The smaller community near Watino traces its roots to the Sinkiang region of China, which served as an important location for central Asian Old Believers between the 1930s and 1950s. Berezovka, near Lac La Biche, is inhabited by people whose roots extend to three separate regions: Sinkiang, Manchuria, and Turkey. This geographical diversity at times accounts for rather pronounced differences in language, appearance, and behaviour.

Tensions stemming from these differences have had an adverse impact on the ability of local Old Believers to articulate their needs vis-à-vis the surrounding society. The informal leaders elected to represent the community in the outside world can rarely count on widespread support beyond their own regional faction. Schemes agreed to in principle by the residents at large falter on account of suspicion that they benefit one group more than another. Because of this fragmentation and also for religious reasons, the community life of the Old Believers remains introverted.

Family and Kinship

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada’s Peoples/Old Believers/David Scheffel

Kinship is extremely important to Old Believers. It compensates for fragmented community life and also sustains it. Marriage is expected to be universal and early in order to foster individual responsibility and minimize acculturation during adolescence. A valid union must involve members of the same sect who ideally also belong to the same regional group. Great care is taken to avoid incest, and the closest relatives allowed to marry are third cousins. In most cases the bride follows the groom to his community and parental household. After the birth of their first child, the couple set up house on a piece of land nearby. As more children mature and marry, all the daughters eventually move out to join their husbands while the sons remain in the vicinity of the parental home with their respective wives and children. This residence pattern can be detected in the layout of the settlement where clusters of agnatically related households are grouped together. It also reinforces the Old Believers’ attitudes to and treatment of women. In accordance with traditional biblical precepts, women are viewed as subordinates who should defer to men in all matters of importance. As they are usually strangers in the community into which they marry, young women often find themselves isolated and unable to form networks of mutual assistance; however, this situation normally changes as the women mature and assume responsibility for their own households.

Culture and Education

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada’s Peoples/Old Believers/David Scheffel

All the Old Believers who arrived in Canada as part of the second immigration wave have maintained Russian as their first language. Communication at home is conducted exclusively in this language, and most older people have little more than a superficial knowledge of English. For generations, Russian has been transmitted orally, and hence the version spoken locally is not standardized. In addition to Russian, every person must possess some knowledge of Church Slavonic, which is a liturgical language employed exclusively in worship.

The cultural expressions of the Old Believers are determined to a large extent by religious norms. They proscribe entertainment and conduct deemed unchristian, such as dancing, music making, watching films, and wearing clothing that reveals too much of the body. These restrictions have traditionally counteracted assimilation and encouraged the development of an idiosyncratic folk culture. Its main ingredients are the sewing and embroidery of female and male dress, preparation of dishes that conform to biblical standards of ritually correct diet, an extensive repertoire of spiritual songs, and, on the wane today, calligraphy and iconography. The consumption of tobacco, commercially produced alcohol, and, in many households, coffee and tea, is banned.

The Canadian Old Believers have had a relatively short exposure to formal education, which began only with their arrival in North America. Prior to that, all education was imparted at home and consisted mainly of rudimentary lessons in reading and writing. The role of the teacher has been fulfilled by women rather than men with the exception of semi-formal Church Slavonic lessons, which are usually offered by a male church elder. This division of labour still endures today for the two ancestral languages. English and an almost complete range of other subjects are delivered through the public school system, in which all Old Believer children participate. At the insistence of their parents, they have been exempted from music, and a voluntary Russian-language program has been set up by the Lac La Biche school district. Although most children complete only the compulsory years of public education, a growing number of students attend high school as well. Several adults have attended technical colleges, and a few are enrolled in university programs.


From: The Encyclopedia of Canada’s Peoples/Old Believers/David Scheffel

The Old Believers see themselves as the last legitimate heirs of the Byzantine traditions introduced to Russia a thousand years ago. They argue that the continuation of this religious culture was threatened by the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Russian raskol of the seventeenth century, and Tsar Peter the Great’s reforms. As a result of these developments, it became their responsibility to carry on the legacy of “holy Russia” and Orthodox Christianity in its original state. This manifest destiny is expressed in their preferred self-designation as “Christians.” As in Byzantium and Muscovy, the defence of Orthodoxy is seen as a struggle against heretical tendencies emanating from the West.

While the aversion to Western ideas and values has served as a unifying force, disagreements about theological issues have caused fragmentation. The main bone of contention between the various factions concerns the role of clergy. The so-called  popovtsy or priestly Old Believers use clergy ordained by bishops who belong to one of several Old Orthodox churches. These uphold most of the dogmata of mainstream Greek and Russian Orthodoxy but reject liturgical books and practices introduced during and after the seventeenth-century raskol. Priestless Old Believers, known as bezpopovtsy, also reject the reformed liturgy and ritual, but they go farther and dispense with clergy and some sacraments.

The Old Believers of Hines Creek/Fairview, Alberta, belong to the priestly faction. They arrived accompanied by a priest, Artemy Soloviev, who ministered to the small congregation until his death in 1961. A splendid log structure erected in 1933 became the first Old Believer church in the western hemisphere. Since Soloviev’s death, problems with finding a qualified priest have hampered the spiritual life of the few remaining parishioners. A Russian Orthodox priest sympathetic to the Old Believers occasionally comes from Edmonton to celebrate Mass, but this arrangement is not to everybody’s liking.

The more recent immigrants of Berezovka are former members of the priestly faction whose ancestors adopted, in the course of the nineteenth century, many of the practices associated with priestless Old Believers. Known in the literature of chasovennye (from the Russian chasovnia, chapel), they rely on lay elders –  nastavnik or nastoiatel – for the conduct of abridged liturgical services in chapels which lack the status of proper churches. These congregations have retained a great deal of traditional Russian folk Christianity, such as a strong fear of the pollution believed to be transmitted by intimate contact with outsiders and food products prepared by them. The ritual cycle follows the Julian calendar, and public worship takes place every Saturday and Sunday. Fasts are kept on Wednesdays and Fridays, during Lent, and in preparation for Christmas. The highlight of the year is Easter.

Intergroup Relations

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada’s Peoples/Old Believers/David Scheffel

On the whole, the Old Believers try to maintain distance from the rest of Canadian society. Centuries of persecution, a religious ideology that defines excessive contact with the outside world as a source of defilement, and a patriarchal authority structure that bestows authority on elders who have little knowledge of the language and culture of the surrounding society are all in some measure responsible for the arm’s length relationship which prevails, especially in the two more recently founded communities. Most of the contact that does take place with the outside world is either purely functional or with relatives in other Old Believer settlements. As the proportion of Canadian-born and relatively well-educated Old Believers rises, however, the intergroup barriers are beginning to be lowered. A number of young people, especially women who object to the subordinate status accorded to them, have altogether abandoned the communities, and some have even married outsiders.

Further Reading

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada’s Peoples/Old Believers/David Scheffel

The classic works on the origins and early history of the Old Believers are in Russian, with Serge Zenkovsky, Russkoe staroobriadchestvo  (Russian Old Ritualism; Munich, 1970), being the most comprehensive. Two general works in English that deal in part with the Old Believers are Walter Kolarz, Religion in the Soviet Union  (London, 1961), and the monumental study by James Billington, The Icon and the Axe  (New York, 1970).

The only monograph dealing specifically with Canadian Old Believers is by David Scheffel, In the Shadow of Antichrist: The Old Believers of Alberta  (Peterborough, Ont., 1991). The same author has written several articles on the same topic, including “Russian Old Believers and Canada,”  Canadian Ethnic Studies / Études ethniques au Canada, vol.21, no.1 (1989), 1–18, in which archival materials are utilized for a reconstruction of the conditions under which the Old Believers arrived in Canada. “Russische Altgläubige in der Mandschurei” [Russian Old Believers in Manchuria], Kirche im Osten,  vol. 32 (1989), 109–19, describes the situation among the Old Believers in Manchuria prior to their immigration to Canada, and “Der altgläubige Bischof Michail Kanadskij und sein Bistum” [The Old Ritualist Bishop Michael of Canada and His Bishopric], Kirche im Osten, vol.34 (1991), 92–100, addresses the question of why the Old Believers of Moscow in 1908 decided to consecrate a Canadian bishop in their faith.

Archival documentation on the first wave of Old Believer immigrants can be found in the CPR papers held by the National Archives in Ottawa, especially in RG 76, vol.223, file 111908. Information on the second wave is preserved in RG 76, file 5760–16. Additionally, John Paskievich directed a documentary film produced by the National Film Board of Canada about the group in Canada titled The Old Believers  (Winnipeg, 1989).


Об авторе old believers

Old Believers and Old Ritualists Join us if you want to make our Old Believer and Old Rite Church pure! Paul, Max and all our faithful team
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Один комментарий на «Russian Old Believers in Canada»

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