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Destinations \ The Staroveri (Old Believers)

The Staroveri (Old Believers)

Old Believers at Malinovsky Monastery, NovgorodIn 1443, the Tsar declared the Russian Church independent of the Byzantine Orthodoxy in Constantinople, and shortly thereafter a long era of reform among the clergy was initiated. By 1589, the patriarch in Constantinople acknowledged the Russian separation and the Archbishop of Novgorod, Nikon, began implementing the reforms. In 1653, Nikon sent a memorandum to the churches across the Russian State, which instructed them in various revisions of the services and the books. Among the major points contested were: (1) how many fingers would be used to make the sign of the cross; (2) the spelling of Jesus' name; (3) whether "Alleluia" should be sung two or three times; (4) the retention of certain words and phrases in the Creed; (5) the number of hosts to be used in the liturgy; and (6) whether the priests should walk around the altar with or against the passage of the sun. These reforms met with opposition from many of the clergy, which lead to the raskol (split) of the Russian church on many branches. However, common attitudes and practices united the scattered branches of Old Belief, who rejected the reformed service books introduced by Patriarch Nikon. The disputes might have been settled in the course of a few councils, had not Nikon pressed his hand too early and forcefully. He had his opponents flogged, exiled, and even burned at the stake. Among the exiles was the Arch-priest Avvakum, who continued to serve as a spiritual leader for many of the dissenters and was eventually burned at the stake in 1682. For Old Believers, the defense of the old liturgy and traditional culture was a matter of primary importance; for all, the old ritual was at least a badge of identification and a unifying slogan.

Many Old Believers had to flee their homes into Siberia and abroad, with the largest groups settling in China, North and South America. Some of the dissenters believed that the age of the Anti-Christ had come and that the end of the world was near. In the years 1666-1668, numerous fields throughout Western Russia were neglected while the faithful adorned themselves in burial clothes and awaited the end of the world in their cemeteries at night, singing hymns and sitting in wooden coffins. Others set buildings afire where they waited inside to be cleansed and to perish in the flames so that they might join Christ before Judgment Day. Between these and the others who were burned to death by persecutors, it has been estimated that more than 20,000 Old Believers died between 1672 and 1691 alone.

BabushkaFrom those days on to the Revolution of 1917, the Old Believer sects suffered varying degrees of persecution at the hands of henchmen either of the Orthodoxy or various Tsars. Under Catherine II, Paul and Alexander I, they were tolerated and thrived in some areas, but under Peter the Great and Nicholas I, they often had to continue fleeing to outer regions of Russia and other countries to avoid death or imprisonment. During the last half of the 19th century, the position of the Orthodox Church softened with regard to the Old Believer question, and the 1909 Council made the first official conciliations by restoring a few of the decanonized saints which were favorites among the Old Believers. However, another potent socio-political force came in the Revolution of 1919 and later, in Stalin's measures against religious adherents of all stripes.

Religion is clearly central to the Old Believer society. It affects virtually every major portion of their social and inner lives. They base their interpretations of the Word of God on a number of books, which tell them in considerable detail how to live virtually each day of the year.

In the many general histories of Russia, the Old Believers, like a river in the desert, appear at their source, the great church schism of the Seventeenth century, then go underground and thereafter appear only intermittently on the surface of national events. Their numerical strength makes the Old Believers a significant element in the history of Russian society and culture.

The spirit world of the Old Believer is an active one, populated with angels and demons, which constantly engage themselves in an every-day tug-of-war for the souls of people on earth. Demons are said to be particularly sneaky and insidious; they can turn up anywhere. There are specific practices, which the individual is supposed to use for his/her protection against invasion or temptation at the hands of demons. For example, all open dishes should be covered so that a demon cannot hide there and be eaten by the next person to take a meal from that dish.

In the home, every meal and even the preparation of various foods and other household tasks must be blessed. In a prominent corner of the front room of each Old Believer home stands a small altar with the family icon sitting in a small shelter, curtained with an embroidered covering. Whenever a visiting Old Believer enters the home, he is ordinarily to bow three times from the waist before the icon (which is usually at about eye-level) and say a prayer which translates approximately: "O God be merciful to me, a sinner. You, O Lord who created me, have mercy on me. I have sinned without number, O Lord, have mercy on me and forgive me, a sinner." The entering person usually does this before even greeting the individuals whom he has come to visit. This obeisance is also the first act performed upon entering a church.

The chanting or hymns of the Staroveri are sung only by the men during the services. They have their historical and musical roots firmly embedded in the Byzantine chant of Tenth Century vintage. The pitch is relative rather than absolute, but the scale consists of 12 notes lying roughly in the tenor register. The hymns often contain two closely harmonized parts, with intervals consisting mostly of major and minor thirds and fifths.

Upon the death of an individual, the body is washed and prepared for burial by an older man or woman, usually a close relative of the deceased. A few male relatives then build a coffin and cross out of wood, if this has not been done already (some people build the coffins for their parents when they see that their parents have few years left to live). In the meantime, a dinner is prepared and relatives and friends are summoned to the house of the deceased for evening services there. There is then a processional with the coffin to the cemetery, where more prayers are said as the coffin is lowered into the ground. Everyone present has to pitch some dirt over the grave.

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