Alaska’s Russian Old Believer community

В декабре Рикардо Янг взял интервью для ГР у д-ра Джека Коллмана из Стенфордского центра русских, восточно-европейских и евразийских исследований. Тема их беседы — русские старообрядцы.

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17 December 2013, 14:52

Russian Old Believers community living in Alaska

A conservative Russian Orthodox community has been living in Alaska, trying to keep the old ways and traditions of their 16th century conservative faith alive in 21st century America. The Voice of Russia talked about this community with Dr. Jack Kollman, Lecturer in Russian, East European & Eurasian Studies at Stanford’s Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies.

Often characterized as anti-modernization, in both technological and doctrinal terms, they call themselves Old Believers. The Old Believers left the Russian Orthodox church in 1666, in the face of state-issued church reforms.

Kollman has made 40 trips to Russia/the Soviet Union over the last five decades. He has studied the 17th-Century Russian sect and the community which ended up in Alaska after travelling from Russia through China, Brazil, and Oregon. He says the best American group to which to compare them is the Amish.

Doctor, give us an idea what the Old Believers believe?

The Old Believers go back to the 17th century when Russia went through cultural upheaval mainly by contact to Poland and Lithuania, new ideas came in about religion. And the tsar at the time and the patriarch of the Church were interested in reforming the faith and correcting the beliefs and practices of Russian Orthodoxy and in looking for experts who could translate from Old Greek, Latin and Hebrew sources they turned to Ukrainians basically who newly joined the Russian Empire. And the people who resisted the changes, resented outside foreign alien influence and at the same time it was not just a religious based resistance and that is important to understand in the origins of reaction to the Church’s changes.

Overall, this group is not just in Alaska, there are others around the world, right?

Yes, there are millions of the Old Believers around the world and this group in Alaska is themselves travelled to several places around the world seeking refuse, seeking isolation where they could practice their own beliefs. I think it’s important to understand that the changes in the Church in Russia in the 17th century were opposite to the protestant Reformation in West Europe. The protestants reacted against certain practices of the Church. In Russia the Church itself made changes in the faith and reactors, or the Old Believers, who refused change – so it’s kind of a mirror image of the protestant revolution. These are not people who were protesting against traditional belief, they were protesting against changes in the official Church. And I think it is also important to u understand going back to the origins that in many respects this was a social resistance and a political resistance. The basic culture of Russia at the time was 90-95% peasant living in rural communities rather isolated from any direct control from Moscow. And in many respects the representatives who came from Moscow and announced changes for the priest and how they practiced liturgy were outsiders and the people who came to announce changes in practice of the faith were the first representatives from Moscow that anybody had ever seen. And these traditionalist communities resisted not just religious grounds but simply objected the outside interference. And indeed the group in Alaska like many other Old Believer’s communities is in a sense still replicating that original resistance: ‘Don’t tell us how to live’. As I said it is a more just religious based set of beliefs.

Would you compare them to the Amish here in America?

Yes, I’m glad that you brought that up. I think for Americans that is a good analogy. The Amish were the Mennonites. The situation is a double dilemma not only did their differences go back to the 17th century, but they have these increased challenges – the world changes around them and they are trying to live as in the 16th century. And that is not easy in the modern world. You see that in the tensions of the communities in Alaska, for example, as they seek employment to make a living, they enter a secular non-Orthodox, non-Old Believer world. It is a tremendous challenge, just as it is to the Amish.

This one clan near Homer, Alaska I think has about 350 residents. As you mentioned they tend to copy or to continue the more peasant lifestyle but they have quite a journey, they have been almost all over the world in finding the right place to stay.

Yes indeed, and there are Old Believers in Canada and Oregon and all around the world as they seek to practice their own ways. And the group in Homer, Alaska has itself undergone one of the basic splits that occurred historically within the Old Believer Movement, between the so called ‘priestly’ and ‘priestless’ Old Believers. And more radical Old Believers are ‘priestless’ that is to say they feel that the Church made improper changes in the practice of the faith in the 17th century and so disqualified itself as the religious authority for them. And therefore they cannot accept priests in the Church. And at the time in the 17th century no bishop went over to the Old Belief. But eventually a bishop or two out in East Central Europe converted to the Old Belief and was able to start priestly movement. The group in Homer as I understand has a split over this very question.

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