hidden europe 57

In Search of the Old Believers Today

by hidden europe


The Old Believers fled from the tsarist heartland into the remotest corners of the Russian Empire. Some went to Manchuria, moving on to South America and then to Oregon and Alaska. Others found refuge back in Moscow, practising their faith in the city's cemeteries. We go in search of the Old Believers.

There are few surviving priestless Old Believer communities. And over time the social and cultural habits of Old Believers have become less distinctive. No-one nowadays suggests that self-immolation is a sane way to resist the authority of the Church. But many Old Believer communities outside Russia do preserve in aspic some elements of pre-Revolutionary Russia.

Many remain faithful to pre-Nikonian religious literature, refusing to use the new translations of sacred texts which were introduced in the mainstream Orthodox Church in the 17th century. Oddly, one of the places where casual travellers encounter Old Believers today is in Moscow. A dispensation by Catherine the Great allowed fugitive Old Believers to return to Moscow, but on the condition that they build no parish churches. Creatively abiding by Catherine’s decree, the Old Believers focused on cemeteries, building within their confines some of the largest churches in Moscow. The priestless faithful gather in the Preobrazhensky Cemetery. A rival group who have priests favour the Rogozhsky Cemetery, where the Belaya Krinitsa hierarchy holds sway.

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