Consider the image above.
I discovered this image while reading the recent Smithsonian.com article, widely circulated on Twitter and Facebook, about a Russian family that fled deep into the Siberian wilderness in the late-1930's, only to be 'discovered' by Soviet geologists in the 1970's conducting aerial surveys in the remote, Soviet hinterland. It's a fascinating story, and what especially appealed to me was that the family discussed were Old Believers, a religious group that split off from Russian Orthodoxy in the 17th century over doctrinal and ritual changes made by, then, Patriarch Nikon. Old Believers are often marked by their sometimes strict adherence to the traditional means, rituals, and accouterments of Orthodox worship.
Yet even that description of Old Belief is rather cursory, as the raskol (translated into English as 'schism') of the Russian Orthodox church was about more than making a three-fingered sign of the cross or changing the religious books used for the services; it was about the changing nature of the state, the increasingly centralized trend of concentrating power under the Tsar and the corresponding decline of local authority that steadily occurred after rule by the Golden Horde had been forcibly cast off by the Grand Princes of Moscow. Old Belief is a tough subject for many to comprehend, its incarnation in historical and contemporary sources alike often relying on cliched or simplistic understandings in order to convey meaning about this religious group to modern audiences. The Smithsonian article is no exception, and that's why the image above struck me with such poignancy.
It's not so much that the image, or the caption contained underneath, is wrong or misleading. If you read the article, you understand that 40 years in the wilderness left this Old Believer family with little more than handmade hemp cloth for use in making clothes. What is striking about the image is that you, the reader, can choose to 'Pin It', or add it to your Pintrest wall of images. In a subtle way, the Smithsonian's use of the 'Pin it' button on these images helps reinforce the notion that Old Believers are stuck in time and full of a sort of noble backwardness that both grotesquely fascinates and reinforces the primacy of the modern viewer. As is so often the case with documentary sources on Old Belief, there is a tendency of the contemporary viewpoint to see these religious practitioners as a sort of distant mirror of the modern, a distance whose measurement soothes the modern psyche in affirmation that the progress of life is truly that- progress. The very fact these religious practitioners appear to be outside the modern makes them an intense focus of the modern.
For Imperial, and later Soviet, authorities and functionaries, this sort of intense focus is nothing new. Douglas Rodgers in his excellent book, The Old Faith and the Russian Land: A Historical Ethnography of Ethics in the Urals, describes two groups of Old Believer communities in the town of Sepych that maintained their religious traditions even as they consistently updated their ethics and interpretations of belief in the face of changes brought about through Soviet and post-Soviet rule. While his in-depth study provides many points that would fit the theme discussed here, I want to focus on one particular historical episode described by Rodgers- that being the emergence of a textual community in the 1960's between the Old Believers of Sepych and Soviet archaeographers (those who study the practice of publishing written sources) seeking out traditional religious books and manuscripts.
While discussion of religion was generally considered taboo for Soviet scholars, archaeographers claimed that analysis of traditional religious texts, often found in Old Believer communities due to their reverence for pre-Nikonian sources, could be used to uncover a "nation-based critique of of the visions of socialist modernity." (166) Rogers notes that,
"Finding these original manuscripts, scholars hypothesized, could revolutionize the study of Russian history, language, and literature in the post-war, post-Stalin years, when it was becoming politically possible to talk about Russian national history and traditions." (166)
Scholars would pour into Old Believer communities like Sepych every spring, looking for and sending back to their home institutions any sufficiently old religious texts or books various families or elders in a community willingly handed over. Some elders, initially wary of the Soviet scholar invasion into their often private and secluded lives, turned this relationship to their advantage, collecting names, calling cards, and patronage with a zeal equal to that of the book collecting Scholars that sought their texts in the first place.
Yet, as Rogers notes, "the textual community that grew up between archaeographers and Old Believer elders was laced with inequality and power relations." (169) Some elders told Rogers of their purposeful avoidance of the scholars, hiding in their houses and refusing to answer the door when they knocked. One woman even produced for Rogers a shrill impersonation of the scholars and their constant demands of 'Give us the book! Give us the Book!' Ultimately Rogers concludes,
"…early field archaeography's focus on finding and preserving national tradition- born of a particular moment int eh Soviet academy, crystalized in unexpectedly close relationships with Old Believer elders, and exemplified in the material durability of 'book culture' (knizhnost')- does not capture central aspects of the Old Belief as lived practice in the twentieth century." (172, emphasis mine)
Roy Robson, one of America's top Old Belief scholars, sounds a similar note in his book, Old Believers in Modern Russia:
"Consequently, we can understand the Old Belief as an ongoing relationship between the symbols of pre-Nikonian Orthodoxy and the lives of the old ritualist faithful." (9)
Even though the tendency for outside observers is to see Old Belief as essentially trapped in a bygone era, the real crux of Old Belief is reconciling the needs of the ever-contemporary community with that of the rituals and beliefs that form the core of their religious expression. Old Belief is constantly adaptive, even as it holds dear those elements that mark it as antiquated and distinctly anti-modern to those looking from the outside in.
Keeping this point in mind, let's return to the Smithsonian article introduced above.
In framing the setting of this tale of rediscovery, the article opens with a depiction of the Siberian forest as "the last and greatest of Earth's wildernesses." This puts the reader in a mindset to accept that what they will read occurs beyond the frontier of modernity, in a place untouched by roads, factories, and electricity. When the Soviet geologists initially encounter the 'lost' family, the focus of the narrative centers on their disheveled appearance and clothes made of patches and sacking material. Here the family in question is revealed to be Old Believers, members "of a fundamentalist Russian Orthodox sect, worshiping in a style unchanged since the 17th century." Already, the family in question acquires a patina of backwardness not solely dictated by their impoverished homestead.
For entertainment, they would recount for each other their dreams. Having long ago lost their only metal kettles to rust, the family was forced to utilize birch-bark baskets that could not be placed on a fire thus severely limiting their ability to cook food. One member of the family, a son named Dmitry, is hailed as the workhorse of the family, possessing "astonishing endurance" and the ability to "hunt barefoot in the Winter, sometimes returning to the hut after several days, having slept in the open in 40 degrees of frost, a young elk across his shoulders." For American audiences, parallels to the noble savage ideal of Native Americans is easy to grasp and, indeed, the article implicitly makes this connection through its depiction of the primordial forrest and the family that struggled mightily against the forces of nature, all the while maintaining surprising ability to survive and even keep track of complicated phenomena like time despite the lack of modern technology.
This last point is especially important, as the American cultural context heavily pervades the Smithsonian article. Philip Deloria has a fascinating introduction in his book, Indians in Unexpected Places, about the 'Expectation and Anomaly' photographic depictions of Native Americans possessed in American cultural identity construction. Opening with a picture of 'Red Cloud Woman in Beauty Shop', Deloria notes, "even in the wake of decades of stereotype busting, a beaded buckskin dress and a pair of braids continues to evoke a broad set of cultural expectations about Indian people." (3) He later adds, "broad cultural expectations are both the products and tools of domination and…they are an inheritance that haunts each and every one of us." (4)
We could stop here, declaring that this article is simply a 'one-off' occurrence of the American audience being introduced to such a strange and foreign group. However, my own research into the immigration of Old Believers from Turkey to Oregon in the 1960's suggests this viewing of Old Belief as a distant mirror of the modern possesses a lasting and enduring legacy, albeit one with an interesting twist.
On 3 September 1959, the famous Icon painter Pimen Sofronov sent a letter to Tatiana Alexeevna, then a member of the Tolstoy Foundation, regarding the plight of Old Believers living in Turkey and seeking relocation to the West. The Tolstoy Foundation was known for it's dedication in helping groups of Russian emigres receive safe passage to Western nations in order to escape the clutches and propaganda efforts then being waged by the Soviet government. During the late 50's and early 60's, the Soviets put increasing pressure on the Turkish Old Believers (a group that originally immigrated to Turkey during the 17th century) to 'Return to the Homeland' with lavish promises of land and the freedom to worship as they chose.
The Turkish Old Believers reached out to Sofronov mainly because the pressure to return to Soviet Russia was compounded by their need for additional marriage partners. With their numbers dwindling, the Turkish Old Believers could no longer find suitable candidates for marriage, their beliefs having severe restrictions on the blood relation of potential couples. In his letter, Sofronov states, "They are the oldest emigrants. …Their "stanitsa" is like a small island of ancient Russia which remained unchanged since the days preceding the era of Peter the Great. Nothing similar to this group of people can be found anywhere else, neither in Russia, nor abroad."
He ends his letter with a curious statement regarding the gullibility of the Old Believers: [They] are completely unaware of the Soviet reality and therefore can be deceived more easily than others." Quite literally, they are so distant from the modern forces embodied in Soviet propaganda that they will easily fall prey to their machinations. It is no longer a question of measuring modernity through the distant presence of Old Belief- it is now a battle between two nations in the assertion of the modern on this "small island of ancient Russia."
Made aware of this situation, the Tolstoy Foundation began petitioning US authorities for a special allowance to let these Turkish Old Believers immigrate to the United States, despite the fact their total numbers exceeded the, then, established quotas of allowable immigrants from Turkey. In a 21 March 1963 memo to Abba Schwartz, senior administrator for the Bureau of Security and Consular Affairs in the State Department, the Tolstoy Foundation framed the Old Believers as "an ideologically strong and firm group of 250 persons in their rejection of any Communist offers and promises continued to await assistance from the West," before ending with a 'throwing down of the gauntlet' to American authorities:
"It seems in the U.S. interest- if only in counteracting Soviet propaganda and one of the USSR strong cold war weapons that 'the West does nothing to help effectively human beings in distress'- to authorize the admission of this group of 250 persons…"
Here we have a subtle twisting of the 'distant mirror' portrayal found in both the Smithsonian article and Soviet archaeographers quest for Old Believer religious texts. The Turkish Old Believers are definitely 'pre-modern' in their way of life, even to the point of being incapable of seeing through Soviet deceptions targeted towards them, yet the West can act as a modernizing force for this timeless group through demonstrating their willingness to assist them in immigration and placement into the 'correct' modern setting. In the face of impending Soviet repatriation, on 12 April 1963 Attorney General Robert Kennedy authorized the admission of the Turkish Old Believers into the United States under 'parolee' status.
The New York Times ran a front page story on 27 April 1966 about the Old Believers with a focus on their adjustment to American life in New Jersey. (While the Turkish Old Believers were initially settled in New Jersey, later that year most of the group would immigrate to the Woodburn area of Oregon in order to live a more secluded life, away from the Westernizing influence of the heavily populated East Coast) Compared to the images found in the Smithsonian article above, these Old Believers look to be well-adjusted to the modern lifestyle, even as they still possess beards 'in accordance with Old Believers' tradition.' With the subtitle 'Old Believers Leaning to New Ways', one can tell that the acculturation process is far from complete, even as the article would have the reader believe that the modern influence of America is pulling this distant group from the past and into the present.
Whereas the Smithsonian 'Pin it' photo acts as an assuaging force depicting the modern lifestyle as truly progressive, the New York Times photos represent the other end, or result of this assuagement, depicting the distant Old Belief as catching up, even though their distinctive qualities remain. Despite these differences, both sets of photos present the same 'Expectation and Anomaly' discussed by Deloria with his 'Red Cloud Woman in Beauty Shop'. We see the Old Believer as modernizing, yet the expectation of their backwardness makes their acculturation process all the more strange, all the more anomalous. Even with the distance removed, the Old Believer still acts as a measuring stick by which the modern can judge itself. The gaze may soften in a modern setting, but the intense focus remains.
Obviously, the depiction of Old Belief through outsider accounts is a complicated matter that could take up far more space than afforded here. Yet it is worth noting that American cultural attitudes, despite their seeming modernity, possess powerful influence over our conception of the other in relation to ourselves.