Alexander Dolitsky: Traditions of the 20th Century Russian Old Believers in Alaska




From the religious point of view, Russian Old Believers represent the pre-17th-Century reform Russian Orthodox. They are broadly divided into the popovtsy (priestly) or those who recognize priests and have retained the priesthood, and the bespopovtsy(priestless), who have no priests.

They also are divided into numerous concords, sects, persuasions, ethnic enclaves, and tendencies. In the 18th Century, the number of Old Believer sects known to authorities reached around 200. 

Presently, lack of field research and available information precludes documenting all of these factions in any meaningful and complete list. Nevertheless, according to a prominent Russian historian of the 19th Century, Sergey Stepniak, the priestless Old Believers in the 19th Century could be grouped into four distinct persuasions or branches:

  1. The Pomortsy, or the sea-shore sects of the northern sea-coast is the oldest and most moderate branch of the priestless, which originated in the 17th Century in North Russia (East Karelia and Arkhangelsk District); 
  2. The Fedoseevtsy, separated from the main body of the Pomortsy in the beginning of the 18th Century, formed another concord of the priestless;
  3. The Beguny, or Wonderers, is the youngest branch of the priestless, and by far more conservative than the first two;
  4. The Filippovtsy, named after their founder, the monk Filipp, originated in the middle of the 18th Century. They share much in common with Fedoseevtsy, but are somewhat more conservative.

In modern Alaska, Oregon, and Trans-Baykal, there are no priests left in the bespopovtsy and Temnovertsy (Dark-believers) concords. Instead, a nastoyatel (layman), who is elected as a spiritual leader, nastavnik (mentor), ornachyotchik (a person well-read in Scriptures) leads the community. The nastoyatel substitutes for a priest by conducting church services, baptisms, and marriage rites, and by teaching Church Slavonic grammar and reading to village youth. He is also consulted about spiritual questions and holds confessions. 

Semeyskiye-popovtsy of Trans-Baykal, popovtsy in Oregon and Alaska, and the Austrian faction of the popovtsy, however, do recognize the author­ity of priests. Old Believers, especially bespopovtsy concords, strictly adhere to rituals and church writings of the pre-17th-Century reform of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Prior to the mid-17th Century, religious conduct was developed and taught to the Russians by ascetic Greek monks who emphasized austere deprivation, prolonged worship services resembling all-night vigils, and long, strict fasting periods. Such is the case with Old Believers today. They are left, essentially, with monastic rites. Old Believers greatly cherish their religious rituals and are completely subordinate to their nastoyatelnastavnik, or starets (elder), who can read Church Slavonic and knows Holy Scripture.

Generally, 44 religious holidays may be celebrated. Thus, Old Believers spend many days out of the year in church for at least a few hours each day. Service begins at 2 am on Sundays and frequent holidays, and it lasts 6-8 hours; the people attending, except those who are very old, stand through most of the service. The Easter service can last up to 15 hours.

The week after Easter is celebrated by all men and women by going from house to house singing in praise of Christ, Slavit Khrista, and enjoying the abundant delicacies of homemade food and braga (homemade wine) from which they have abstained during the Long Great Fast. 

The fasting requirements are very long and quite severe. With Wednesdays and Fridays as fasting days, and 44 religious holidays on the church calendar, in addition to four prolonged fasting periods during the year, Old Believers abstain from all animal products, including milk, eggs, lard, butter, cheese, together with wine and oil, a total of over 200 days a year.

Discipline within the family is strict and under the consensual influence of the sobor, a church group elected of adult men of the congregation. The sobor also elects other church officials and follows traditional rules in making decisions on both spiritual and secular matters. The sobor has political power. It approves or denies all suggestions and issues that are brought by residents and that affect the whole community. 

There is a political hierarchy among Old Believers that constitutes the political aspect of the semi-autonomy of their local communities. On the one hand is the local community, hostile to the outside, sharing certain common rights in land and governed by local, often informal, mechanisms of social control; and, on the other hand, is the hierarchy of patrimonial relations of personal superiority and responsibility, and subordinate dependence, that links the local community with the wider polity.

Obedience to the startsy (elders) is a virtue, and the ancient standards and norms define and measure it. When interacting with outsiders, Old Believers are careful not to violate the rules of sacred cleanliness. Most of the time, they do not allow outsiders or those not in the “union” to eat at the same table with them in their homes. Similarly, the most conservative members do not accept food from outsiders. The non-believer guest is treated very hospitably, but is fed separately and served in dishes kept separate and washed separately — often under an outside faucet. 

During my many visits to Old Believer households, whether priestly or priestless, my assistants and I were served meals and drinks with disposable paper plates and plastic utensils. On one occasion, when we were called to the supper table, one of the young women said to my assistant Miriam Lancaster:

 I hope this doesn’t offend you but we will be serving your meal on separate plates. They are perfectly fine plates. There is nothing wrong with them. We just believe that because we are baptized we are cleaner than you. I hope this doesn’t make you feel bad. Some people don’t understand and are offended. It’s hard for me to say this.

Miriam assured the young woman that she understood, and not to worry, for she had not been offended.

Although there are strict religious prohibitions against the consumption of alcoholic beverages, Old Believers prepare their own home-made wine or braga — an alcoholic drink made from raisins, yeast, sugar, and berries. Most Old Believers eschew alcoholic beverages avail­able in the market, but are very generous with their own braga. In the home, every meal and often the preparation of various foods and other household tasks must be blessed. 

Church-related ceremonies mark various important parts of an individual’s life cycle. At birth, for example, the primary event is the christening. The baby is expected to be delivered by an individual who is among the faithful, which makes many Old Believers apprehensive of delivering their babies in hospitals. There are midwives among Old Believers who usually perform this service for the expectant mother. If these rules are violated, it is believed that an unchristened baby will not see the face of God. The baby is usually christened within eight days after its birth. The ceremony is performed on a holiday or Sunday, whichever occurs within the 8-day limit. A name is chosen for the baby from a list of Saints’ days; the parents choose the most suitable name from within the 8-day period. The day of the Saint for whom the child is named becomes the name day of the child.

Many Old Believers (e.g., the Pomortsy and Fedoseevtsy groupings in the Baltic States) communicate with the Old Orthodox Church of Pomorye, the maritime region in the Baltic Sea. Russian Orthodox Old Believers in Alaska, however, have no dealings with other branches of the Orthodox Church and do not proselytize. They are unconcerned about whom the world sees as “Real Orthodox.” They are solely concerned with their own salvation and believe that God regards them as the “True Orthodox,” true believers. There is no hostility on their part toward other Orthodox Christians, or other world religions. 

Presently, in modern Alaskaalthough traditional religious rules strictly forbid Old Believers to smoke, drink hard liquor, use drugs and birth control, to have a childbirth in a public hospital, or for women to use makeupthey are not always in compliance with these religious restrictions. 

My assistant, Miriam Lancaster, herself a registered nurse with a public health focus, talked to several women on the subjects of pregnancy, childbirth, and birth control during the August 1989 visit to an Old Believer village. Names of the village and interviewees have been removed to protect their privacy.

During interviews in 1989, interviewees explained that, “…there is a lady in the village who helps the women to deliver babies, but she’s not a nurse or midwife. She’s good about knowing if there is any trouble and sends us to the doctor when necessary. In the village, many babies are born at home. It’s so expensive to go to the hospital.” When asked, “Does the church believe in birth control?”

One woman answered, “No, not at all, but many women in our village use birth control. And I don’t care, I’m going to use it, too!” The young woman, who was most vocal during this interview, already had three children. “I almost died during my last pregnancy,” she said, “and I still have not regained my health.”

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 1976; 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.

A few of Dolitsky’s past MRAK columns:

Read: Neo-Marxism and utopian Socialism in America

Read: Old believers preserving faith in the New World

Read: Duke Ellington and the effects of Cold War in Soviet Union on intellectual curiosity

Read: United we stand, divided we fall with race, ethnicity in America

Read: For American schools to succeed, they need this ingredient

Read: Nationalism in America, Alaska, around the world

Read: The case of the ‘delicious salad’

Read: White privilege is a troubling perspective

Read: Beware of activists who manipulate history for their own agenda

Read: Alaska Day remembrance of Russian transfer

Read: American leftism is true picture of true hypocrisy

Read: History does not repeat itself

Read: The only Ford Mustang in Kiev

Read: What is greed? Depends on the generation

Read: Worldwide migration of Old Believes in Alaska


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