Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Old Believer Games (1976 Edition)

Today I would like to continue with my series looking at archival evidence I've uncovered in my ongoing dissertation research project centered on Old Believer migration to Oregon in the mid 60's.  (See my previous post, Fragments of the Gaze, for the first installment.)  Up for examination: "A Manual for Educators of Russian Old Believer Children in Oregon", produced by the Marion Intermediate Education District in November 1976.

(Editors Note: A reader kindly pointed out to me that there exists an online viewable copy of the document I examine in this post- view it here.)

The document totals 49 pages and covers a diverse range of topics.  Marion county teachers could read about Old Believer history, marriage practices, holy days and additional summaries of cultural information that would not have been widespread knowledge at the time.  Since my topic is primarily concerned with how Americans 'viewed' the Old Believer immigrants, this education manual makes for very interesting analysis.  While I found only the 1976 edition, evidence in other documents suggest that the manual went through several earlier revisions and I would be most interested in charting the change occurring between the various editions.  For this post, I want to look at one particular portion of the education manual: games.

Among the various sections covering cultural awareness, the games section is perhaps the most informative as to the ability of the Old Believer populations to integrate cultural elements from their previous homesteads outside of the United States.  Beyond the more standard games of 'Marbles' and 'Football' (Soccer), more esoteric titles are discussed- 'Lopta', 'Nitochka, Igolochka, and Uzelochek', 'Gusi', 'Krug', and 'Djonza'.  Of all the games noted, only 'Djonza' is identified as distinctly foreign to Old Believer culture as its origin, noted by the manual, hailed from Central Asia.

This brings up some questions I have with the text- there is no indication as to who or what group provided the cultural information contained within the manual.  I can distinctly attribute parts of the manual to a Catholic monk, trained in the old rites, named Brother Ambrose, who was a noted personality in the documentary evidence.  (Ambrose was a staunch advocate of the Old Believers, although his true motivations for assistance and his general presence among the community is still unknown to me- hope to remedy this when I visit the abbey where he served.)  Yet the larger question of who put together the manual- who decided what should be included and the veracity of the information contained- begs answering, as that would be very key to my larger dissertation thesis.

Even with those concerns in mind, the manual section on games provides tantalizing evidence.  I want to focus on one particular game explained- 'Gusi', or Geese.  This game involves a group of children who divide themselves into distinct groups- one boy/girl becomes the shepherd, one girl becomes the 'farmers wife', two boys become 'wolves' and the rest of the children are designated as 'sheep'.  The game begins when the shepherd chases the 'geese' into the field, whereupon the shepherd and wife engage in a dialog:

At this point the shepherd attempts to chase the geese back 'home', while the two wolves also chase the geese and take them back to their 'den'.  Once the geese have returned home, another dialog ensues:

This process is repeated over and over until all the geese are caught by the wolves, at which point the final dialog is voiced:

Now the geese decide, via raised hands, who they want to stay with- the farmer's wife or the wolves.  Then the farmer's wife and wolves face each other and the geese are asked again what side they have chosen to remain.  Standing on one leg, each goose individually goes between the farmer's wife and the wolves and faces the side they desire to join.  Having gone through two rounds of sorting, the geese who sided with the farmer's wife form two rows, while the geese who sided with the wolves are made to walk between the rows, one by one, three times in succession.  As walk between the two rows, the farmers geese chastise the other geese's decision to side with the wolves- all while slapping them on the back as they pass.

Of all the games described in this portion of the education manual, 'Gusi' contains the most curious mix of traditional Russian cultural elements and foreign influence.  Some aspects of the game immediately tie themselves to traditional Russian folk culture.  The relationship between the 'lazy' shepherd and the more active, diligent wife is a motif found often in peasant folklore.  Of broader note, the use of the Shepherd as a main character possessed a deeper meaning than what is, on a surface level, immediately evident.  Traditionally, the Shepherd occupation was seen to possess a closer connection to the spirit world as they held the responsibility of keeping the herds and flocks safe from threats, both natural and supernatural, that lie outside the defined borders of the village.  It was often assumed that the Shepherd maintained the safety of the animals they kept via agreements or contracts with forrest (Leshii) or water (Vodyanoi) spirits who, if displeased, could either lead their animals into danger or kill them.

Yet there are some elements of the game that indicate integration and assimilation of cultural elements outside the traditional Russian experience.  The reference to the geese desiring 'Toosie Rolls' and the wolves response to the clapping noise as 'Old ladies making tortillas' are immediately recognizable as foreign to the larger 'geese-wolf' themed background.  While the source of the Toosie Rolls comment is more difficult to define, as the candy was widely and perhaps globally distributed, the tortillas reference most likely came from the years the Old Believers spent in Brazil.  Since I know that the two colonies of Old Believers came from wildly divergent sources- one lived in Turkey for a few hundred years, the other bounced from Hong-Kong to Brazil to the United States- I can make the statement that this game most likely originated from the Brazilian group.  

If this is true, it could have impact on my larger analysis of the manual as a whole.  Did this mean that the Brazilian group possessed special access to the writers of the manual?  What were some of the other cultural differences between the two Old Believer colonies?  From the reports I've read there is a tendency by observers to lump the two groups together, despite their largely separate experiences and settlement patterns.  Clearly there are tantalizing clues in a subject most would completely overlook.  

(Note- I realized, after thinking about this document a bit more, that the tortilla reference discussed above could have originated from the Woodburn area itself, as there was a large hispanic population centered there, and that the manual, dated 1976, was published years after the arrival of the Old Believer colonies.  Thus, until I can look at previous editions of the manual published, I cannot make assertive claims on the possible knowledge origin of the game and its influences.)


  1. AnonymousDecember 17, 2011 at 12:50 PM

    As a former Old Believer, I find your take on the culture really fascinating. I'm actually learning a lot, thank you.

  2. Great !!