Monday, March 14, 2011

Russian History: Old Believers

Having just finished a rather lengthy post on Board Games, I decided it might be time to update the Muse with something, well, Russian related.  I've been busy working on my portfolio and dissertation project over the past few weeks, and my posting here has suffered accordingly.  Part of the reason I don't post more is that I tend to write rather long pieces, and these take time to produce.  Yet Russian history is a very big part of my life, so I've decided to spend a little more time here at Peasant Muse describing what exactly I'm studying now- first up, Old Believers.
Old Believer Church in Tomsk
via Vladimir Pletenev

If you are not a student of Russian history or culture, you may be asking yourself, "What is Old Belief?"  It is a question not easily answered due mainly to the sheer variety of movements found under the large umbrella heading of Old Believers.  Yet we can begin to understand the movement by looking at the time and milieu from which it sprang- the mid seventeenth century of Muscovite Russia.

In order to comprehend the foundations of Russian culture, you must first acknowledge the immense presence the Orthodox Church possessed in the period before the ascension of Muscovy.  Prior to the rise of the Russian state as we know it today there existed Kievian Rus, a territory that centered around the present-day Ukrainian town of Kiev with extensions as far as the Novgorodian territories in the north and eventually stretching to the shores of the Black Sea in the south.  Reaching the height of its power and territory during the early 12th century, Kievian Rus' became the primary progenitor for many aspects of Russian culture that developed in later periods.  One major contribution was the Orthodox religious belief, brought by missionaries from Constantinople to the Slavic peoples beginning in the 10th century.  While the invasion of the Mongols in the 13th century brought an end to the rule of Kievian Rus', the legacy of Orthodoxy remained, its cause taken up later by a new power in the North that emerged free from Mongol rule in the 14th century- the Muscovite state.  

Following the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in the 15th century, religious leaders in Muscovy began to articulate the new idea of Moscow being the 'Third Rome' and last bastion of true, Orthodox belief.  Aligning itself with the rise of the Grand Princes, and later Tsars, of Moscow, the Russian Orthodox Church became a major pillar of state power and helped to solidify a presence of rule among the various peoples then being incorporated, generally via conquest, into the Muscovite state.  (If you haven't guessed, this is quite the short summary- a reading list for further information will follow)

Zoom forward to the middle of the 17th century and the arrival on the scene of a rather charismatic and forceful personality of the Orthodox Church- Patriarch Nikon.  His emergence came at a time when traditional Russian institutions and cultural beliefs were being questioned against the backdrop of rationalistic and scholastic influences emanating from the Western European nations, then engaged in the bloody process of Reformation and Counter-Reformation.  While Nikon did not want to embrace Western ideals and traditions outright, he did seek to use the power of Western innovations- like the printing press- to help solidify changes to Russian Orthodoxy that would tip the balance of power from the state towards that of the ecclesiastical.  This was a period in which the absolute power of the Tsar was not yet assured, and while Nikon never succeeded in establishing theocratic rule many of the changes he implemented brought dramatic changes to the Russian religious landscape.  

What did Nikon change?  Here is a summary from James Billington's seminal work on Russian culture, The Icon and the Axe:
Between his deletions from a new psalter in October, 1652, and the appearance of new service books in 1655-6, Nikon sponsored an extensive and detailed series of reforms.  He changed time-honored forms of worship: substituting three fingers for two in the sign of the cross; three hallelujahs for two; five consecrated loaves for seven at the offertory; one loaf rather than many on the altar; processions against rather than with the direction of the sun.  Nikon eliminated some practices altogether (the twelve prostrations accompanying the prayer of Ephrem the Syrian during Lent, the blessing of the waters on Epiphany eve); introduced textual changes affecting all three persons of the Holy Trinity.  He altered the form of addressing God in the Lord's prayer, the description of the Holy Spirit in the creed, and the spelling of Jesus' name (from Isus to Iisus) in all sacred writings. 
At the same time, Nikon tried to impose a new, more austere artistic style, ordering the elimination of florid, northern motifs from Russian architecture (tent roofs, onion domes, seven- and eight-pointed crosses, and so on).  In their place he introduced a neo-Byzantine emphasis on spherical domes, classical lines, and the use of the plain, four-pointed Greek cross. (133)  
Needless to say, these changes provoked responses from the far-flung and varied populations of Russian Orthodox believers.  Many saw Nikon's reforms as an affront to true Orthodox belief, an invading force from the West that would corrupt and destroy the sacred mission of the church.  It is this period and these changes that prompted the 'schism' of Russian Orthodox belief- while the Russian state largely acknowledged and accepted the Nikonian reforms, those who resisted and continued to use the previous rites and traditions of the church came to be known as 'Old Believers'.  Despite the singularity of terminology, Old Belief encompasses a diverse set of views; some embraced a 'priestless' way of practicing their belief, while others sought to bring in 'fugitive' priests from the 'official' Church in order to continue taking the sacraments using the old rites.  Others engaged in a quasi-mix of accepting some rites from the established church while keeping other beliefs separate.  Yet, no matter what form of religious practice 'Old Believers' engaged in, their presence, until the 1905 edict on Religious Toleration, alternated between quasi-acceptance and impermissibility.  

Old Belief is a fascinating aspect of Russian culture.  While my summary above is strictly that- a very quick and dirty surface level look at a complex movement- if you want to know more here are some authors to check out:


Robert Crummey- The Old Believers and the World of the Antichrist

Roy Robson- Old Believers in Modern Russia

Journal Articles:
Irina Paert- "Preparing God's Harvest: Maksim Zalesski, Millenarianism, and the Wanderers in Soviet Russia" Russian Review 64 (2005): 44-61

John Sullivan- "'Dukhovnye Stikhi' among Twentieth-Century Old Believers: Song Books of the Kilin Family" The Slavonic and East European Review 75 (3): 422-438     

1 comment:

  1. AnonymousMarch 15, 2011 at 11:25 AM

    Nice overview! - Dez