Alexander Dolitsky: Old Believers preserve faith in the new world



(Illustration: Vasily Surikov’s Boyarynya Morozova (1887), depicts the defiant Feodosia Morozova during her arrest. Her two raised fingers refer to the dispute about the proper way to make the sign of the cross.)

Profoundly religious, the Russian people were shaken to their core by the Russian Orthodox Church liturgical reforms introduced by Patriarch Nikon (1666–1667), who had dared to correct the mistakes in the manuscripts of the Holy Books.

Many devout believers refused to renounce the errors of their fathers, consecrated by tradition. Subsequently, numerous rural settlements of Russian Old Believers were established almost everywhere in Russia and, eventually, abroad. 

The dissenters did not want to base their faith on anything new except the old texts done centuries ago; and they would observe only old traditional customs and worship practices denounced by the present Russian Orthodox Church. 

Eventually, persecution by the Russian tsarist government and aggressive treatment by their hostile neighbors and the State Orthodox Church forced Orthodox Old Believers into remote and undeveloped rural areas, where they quietly continued to practice their old rituals, periodically moving when threats of persecution by a hostile regime and intrusion by outsiders of different faiths and beliefs caught up with them again.

Several of these groups migrated to the United States in the 1960s, settling in rural areas of Oregon and Alaska. 

History of the Russian Old Believers is the most dramatic and vivid example of a large segment of people who opposed new liturgical and worship changes and managed to preserve their 17th-century religious practices, national traditions, and core cultural values, despite constant exposure to various geographic, religious, ideological, economic, and social challenges to which they have been subjected for the past 355 years.

Drawing on historical accounts and ethnographic research since 1983, I posit that the cultural persistence evidenced by Old Believer settlements in Alaska is due to the cognitive conservative rational preselection and/or rejection of culture traits and adaptive strategies that have demonstrated their survival value, cultural continuity, and “living memory” during lengthy periods of religious persecution and geographical relocations.

Since the mid-17th century, the core cultural values and ancient Orthodox institutions of Old Believers have changed very little, despite exposure to a multitude of different socio-physical environments over the course of 355 years. As such, Russian Old Believer culture in Alaska remains little changed from its earlier heritage. 

Of course, Old Believer culture has evolved somewhat in the past 355 years. Life in close contact with aboriginal populations of China, Brazil, the United States, Canada and the former Soviet Union, and the influence of modern technologies and cultural values of the United States have led to disobedience of traditional ways among Old Believers’ youth. Despite a value structure strongly favoring cultural persistence and stability, they have gradually institutionalized practical ideas and elements of modern technologies (e.g., telephones, automobiles, home appliances, and even television among some families) into their social structure.

Certainly, Old Believers in Alaska have changed in some ways since the 1960s. The greatest changes have been in matters of material, technological and secular culture and social life, and those reflect adaptation to circumstances rather than fundamental alteration of their cultural identity. 

Religious matters and values have been the most stable elements of their culture. To Old Believers, religion is not an institution parallel to economics, politics, or kinship, but it is the soul of their society; it is more fundamental than other elements, and permeates all of them. For Alaskan Old Believers, religion is not limited to a particular sphere of life; it is all pervasive and dominates everything. Religion determines their moral values, appearance, eating habits, the roles of children, women and other adults of their society; it shapes their social behavior and subsistence practices.

Their insistence on preservation of the 17th-century pre-reform rituals of the Russian Orthodox Church has resulted in persecution and constant dislocation during the past 355 years. In Alaska, they have found religious and traditional freedom, economic survival, a sense of belonging, and state protection of their cultural values. 

In June 1975, fifty-nine Old Believers of Nikolaevsk village in the Kenai Peninsula became citizens of the United States.

The naturalization ceremony took place at the Anchor Point school near their homes. After the ceremony, Kiril Martushev spoke for all of the villagers: “For a long time, we have looked for a place in the world where we could live our own lives and be free in our beliefs in God. We have found what we were looking for here, and that is why we decided to become citizens of this great United States.” There was scarcely a dry eye in sight when Kiril sat down.

The temptations of the modern and secular world, however, are a constant threat to the discipline and religious loyalty of the youth. In response, in early 1980s some members have moved to more remote locations of the state—Voznesenka village in the Kachemak Bay area and Berezovka village in the south-central Alaska. Old Believers feel that as long as they can stay together as a cohesive community, they will be able to protect their religious freedom and their religious and ethnic identity, to strengthen their economic security, and continue to maintain control over the direction of their lives. 

Consequently, the Old Believer system of communication with each other and with outsiders, and their strategy of conservative rational preselection and boundary maintenance may present lessons and alternatives to other ethnic minorities or isolated communities in Alaska, across the United States and around the world, increasingly being subsumed by the encroachment of urbanization, rapid modernization, and global leftism.

Alexander B. Dolitsky was born and raised in Kiev in the former Soviet Union. He received an M.A. in history from Kiev Pedagogical Institute, Ukraine, in 1977; an M.A. in anthropology and archaeology from Brown University in 1983; and was enroled in the Ph.D. program in Anthropology at Bryn Mawr College from 1983 to 1985, where he was also a lecturer in the Russian Center. In the U.S.S.R., he was a social studies teacher for three years, and an archaeologist for five years for the Ukranian Academy of Sciences. In 1978, he settled in the United States. Dolitsky visited Alaska for the first time in 1981, while conducting field research for graduate school at Brown. He lived first in Sitka in 1985 and then settled in Juneau in 1986. From 1985 to 1987, he was a U.S. Forest Service archaeologist and social scientist. He was an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Russian Studies at the University of Alaska Southeast from 1985 to 1999; Social Studies Instructor at the Alyeska Central School, Alaska Department of Education from 1988 to 2006; and has been the Director of the Alaska-Siberia Research Center (see from 1990 to present. He has conducted about 30 field studies in various areas of the former Soviet Union (including Siberia), Central Asia, South America, Eastern Europe and the United States (including Alaska). Dolitsky has been a lecturer on the World Discoverer, Spirit of Oceanus, andClipper Odyssey vessels in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions. He was the Project Manager for the WWII Alaska-Siberia Lend Lease Memorial, which was erected in Fairbanks in 2006. He has published extensively in the fields of anthropology, history, archaeology, and ethnography. His more recent publications include Fairy Tales and Myths of the Bering Strait Chukchi, Ancient Tales of Kamchatka; Tales and Legends of the Yupik Eskimos of Siberia; Old Russia in Modern America: Russian Old Believers in Alaska; Allies in Wartime: The Alaska-Siberia Airway During WWII; Spirit of the Siberian Tiger: Folktales of the Russian Far East; Living Wisdom of the Far North: Tales and Legends from Chukotka and Alaska; Pipeline to Russia; The Alaska-Siberia Air Route in WWII; and Old Russia in Modern America: Living Traditions of the Russian Old Believers; Ancient Tales of Chukotka, and Ancient Tales of Kamchatka.


  1. Interesting article until it lames blame on ‘Global Leftism’. That’s a point not substantiated in the article. Progressive policies have been the one to support and protect minorities, their lands, culture, language etc.

  2. James Sanders, If writer did not put in at least one slam on the left in the piece it probably won’t be printed. Must Read Alaska rarely if ever put in a opinion piece that does not support the radical right view point.

    But the author of this opinion piece is not actually a Old Believer. Let’s hear from one of those folks.

    Everyone from Anchorage to Seldovia has had some contact with the Old Believers if you did any commercial fishing.

    Back in the late 70’s we had contact with the early Old Believers out fishing on the Flats and when we would get in a shouting match with them they would always act like they could not understand English. They didn’t fool us because we knew all them were from the Oregon colony and all born in the US. Too funny.

  3. The inference is Old Believers’ cultural persistence is due exclusively to rational preselection.
    Old Believers flourish in America crucially because Americans fought and died protecting their (and others’) right to preserve their faith, and because America’s Founding Documents continue to recognize and protect that right.

  4. James Sanders, please read about “progressive policies” in Russia, before a Soviet Union. Lenin, his Bolsheviks, Stalin, and the rest of those progressives are the reason for the migration from Russia. The author’s bona fides speak for themselves.

  5. James Sanders must be a UAA zombie. I’m sorry you can’t think for yourself and that you are only capable of regurgitating communist lies. Harborguy must have given you some pointers on harassing and abusing conservatives. Good luck Sweet Baby James.

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