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Alexander Dolitsky: Worldwide migration of Old Believers in Alaska

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By ALEXANDER DOLITSKY

The darkest time of the day is before the sunrise. America is the sunrise for the Russian Old Believers in Alaska.

Within a few decades of the schism, many Old Believers escaped Russia to densely wooded areas of Belorussia and northern Ukraine, southward to the Don and Kuban Rivers, northward toward the Baltic Sea and Arctic shores and, beyond the boundaries of the state—to neighboring Romania, Turkey, and Poland. Others settled in southern Siberia (Altay Mountains), the Far East and Central Asia. 

Through the centuries, these remote groups, not necessarily in contact with each other, and, in spite of minimal levels of modernization, acculturation, and adaptation to new climates, not only survived but also preserved and maintained their religious form of worship and their cultural ways.

All of the Old Believer groups that settled east of Lake Baykal in the 17th and 18th centuries, maintained contact with the Buryats, Evenks, and other neighboring ethnic groups who were engaged in hunting, reindeer breeding, fishing, and raising sled dogs. 

Trans–Baykalian Old Believers, whose ancestors were banished to eastern Siberia from the Chernigov Province of Ukraine and Vetka of Poland in the 18th century, moved with their families and are known, therefore, as semeyskiye (of the family)—from the Russian word semya (family).

The Russian newcomers found themselves in conditions radically different from their customary life. Long winters, bitter frosts, harsh physical and social environment, and a shortage of Russian women—all these necessitated urgent acculturation in line with the centuries–old experience of the aboriginal population in economic activities and in coping with the severe natural conditions. 

Although Old Believers of the Trans–Baykal fanatically followed the patriarchal traditions of the pre-reform Russian Orthodox Church, their members, including women, were better educated than their neighbors. Many of them were kuptsy(traders), kazaks (free peasants and border guards), remeslenniki (craftsmen), or farmers.

Many Trans–Baykalian Old Believer communities moved to Manchuria (China) during the construction of the East Chinese Railroad (1897–1902) and the city of Kharbin. They subsequently gave rise to the Old Believer community of Kharbinskaya; residents are called Kharbintsy

After the eruption of the Socialist October Revolution in 1917, Russian Old Believers faced the atheistic Soviet government. During the 1920s, in desperation, many of the Siberian Old Believers escaped over the border to China, where they once again lived in isolated and remote areas of Manchuria, in the cities of Kharbin and the Sinkiang.

As a result of the Chinese Communist Revolution of 1949, many of them were forced onto collective farms, provided a meager food allowance, and given mandatory work requirements. Many, eventually, were sent back to the Soviet Union. Finally, after 10 years, a minority of them—as families, groups, or single individuals—either escaped or received permission to leave for Hong Kong; then a territory under jurisdiction of the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom, the Red Cross, and the United World Council of Churches provided them assistance in Hong Kong while arrangements were being made for emigration to other regions of the world. 

Later, in 1958–59, they relocated from Hong Kong to various immigrant–seeking countries under sponsorship of the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration. In Hong Kong, they were given the choice of countries they could go to, including Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia and Uruguay; the largest groups went to Brazil and Australia.

The majority of Old Believers arrived in Brazil between 1959–61. There, the United World Council of Churches provided 6,000 acres of land at Curitiba (about 200 miles southwest of Sao Paulo) and promised to provide them with the means and assistance necessary to get started in farming their land. Life in Brazil appears to have been difficult from the start. The soil and climatic conditions were vastly different from anything Old Believers had known in Russia and China. 

After several discouraging years of attempting to adapt to a new bio–physical and socio–cultural environment, some were able to voluntarily leave for the United States and Canada, with the help of the Tolstoy Foundation in New York and the personal intervention of the U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. Most Old Believers began their migration to North America between 1964–69. 

Eventually, most of them settled in Oregon, where an existing community of Old Believers continues to prosper. The population has since increased to approximately 10–12,000 within a two-county area. Today, there are eleven sobors(prayer halls) in Oregon, reflecting the community’s internal social division into three principal sub–groups that migrated from their former residences—Kharbintsy from Manchuria and Sinkiangtsy from Sinkiang in China, and Turchany from Turkey.

The Turkish group left Russia about 230–240 years ago and lived in Turkey until 1963. In 1963, some of them immigrated to the United States. The three groups settled in the same area of Woodburn, Oregon in the 1960s. Although there are minor differences in dialects and customs, they share common cultural traditions, customs, and beliefs.

Within KharbintsySinkiantsy and Turchany divisions, they are further subdivided on the basis of kinship groups. Although the Oregon contingent is no longer located in a cohesive village, the Old Believers continue to congregate in prayer halls (molelnyy dom) for worship and gather at kin homesteads for marriages and other major socio–cultural events. To attend any of these activities is to re–live aspects of the historical accounts of pre–revolutionary (October 1917) peasant Russia.

The most orthodox group, recoiling under the threat of cultural erosion resulting from the compromises necessary to co–exist with the host culture, exercised the ultimate strategy of exodus to a more remote and isolated region. Eventually, in 1967, five Old Believer families (10 adults and 12 children) from Woodburn, Oregon, purchased 640 acres of land and leased an additional two and one-quarter acres of adjacent land on the Kenai Peninsula, along the Anchor River, in Alaska. 

They began building a community near Anchor Point in the summer of 1968 when the vanguard of families arrived from Oregon. They named this community Nikolaevsk. Two smaller satellite villages in the vicinity were named Nakhodka and Klyuchevaya. In 1969, the community installed a water system in Nikolaevsk, and connected electricity from the Homer Electric Association.

The group constructed a sawmill to produce the lumber needed to construct houses, barns, sheds and boats for drift fishing. In 1971, 15 of the Old Believers formed the Russian Maritime Company, built a shop in Nikolaevsk, and by 1975 had produced sixteen 34–foot fiberglass, diesel–powered commercial fishing boats; at least 35 of the villagers became successful commercial fisherman.

In the early 1970s, other families from Oregon split off to form new settlements in northern Canada, near Edmonton, Alberta, and on the Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak Island in the state of Alaska. The Alaskan communities have prospered and grown in the last 54 years from 70 residents in 1970 to a few hundred residents in 1975 and today’s population numbers about 2,000 statewide. 

The Alaska settlements attract families from Oregon and other locations world–wide. Initially founded in 1968 by five families, the village Nikolaevsk has become the largest Old Believer settlement in Alaska. As of June 2015, the village had a population of nearly 400, or about 70–80 nuclear families and 100 households. The village has a public school that is managed by the state of Alaska and that is attended almost exclusively by Russian–speaking children from Nikolaevsk. The advantage of a cohesive community eased the strain of continual enforcement of traditional cultural norms, values and behavior.

In the summer of 1983, when I visited Nikolaevsk for the first time, I noticed an emerging controversy in the village between two factions of its residents—priestly (popovtsy) and priestless (bespopovtsy). Two years later, the Anchorage Daily News (January 27, 1985: A1, A9–10) reported about the confrontation among Old Believers on the Kenai Peninsula. The conflict centered on differences in religious conduct: some Old Believers, led by Kondratiy Fefelov, who had studied in a monastery in Romania, “uncorrupted,” as he stated, “by religious reforms,” favored ordaining priests.

Many of the villagers, however, refused to accept Fefelov as a priest and denounced his idea. During 1983–84, as a result of this dilemma, five priestless (bespopovtsy) nuclear families left Nikolaevsk to establish a new Old Believer settlement, Berezovka (birch tree in Russian), in a rural area of interior Alaska near the existing community of Willow.

A while later, on July 6, 1984, the prayer hall (molelnyy dom) of the bespopovtsy (priestless) in Nikolaevsk burned to the ground under suspicious circumstances. Kondratiy Fefelov and his nephew Paul were accused by several villagers in this action, but Anchor Point Fire Chief Bob Craig reported that no conclusions were reached on this matter.

A few days before the old church (praying house) burned down, a priestly grouping (popovtsy), led by priest Kondratiy Fefelov, completed construction of a new church, the Church of Saint Nikolas, according to the theological principles of the Belokrinitsky Hierarchy tradition. The new priestly church was built across the street from the original priestless prayer hall that burned down. 

The “schism” (raskol) of the 1980s in Nikolaevsk has been settled. In protest, the most traditional Old Believers left the estranged community and moved to other remote regions of Alaska.

As Andron Martushev (priestless) once told me during my visit to Berezovka village in May of 1986, “I want it to be the way it was before the split in the community, I don’t want to live near evil.”

Today, although priestly and priestless groupings’ interactions are limited to occasional acknowledgements on the streets of Nikolaevsk and other Old Believers villages in the Kachemak Bay (e.g., Voznesenka), people have learned how to coexist as neighbors and live in peace.

For the Russian Old Believers in Alaska, “…the darkest time of the day is before the sunrise.” America is their sunrise!

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 www.aksrc.homestead.com) 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

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Latest comments

  • Very interesting, thank you for the article.

  • Thank you for the history lesson Mr. Dolitsky. Also, thank you for providing links to the other articles. Happy New Year and welcome the sunrise!

  • A very interesting article about the Old Believers. I’m glad there is a trend toward peacefulness when there are differences between groups.

  • I appreciate these “neighbors.” They understand the precarious place that America is in right now. Freedom vs. tyranny. Sadly, the school district hired a couple of leftists for Nikolaevsk School who have the opposite worldview, and that has caused a schism of a different sort. Schools can strength a community or weaken it. Niko had been a strong, vibrant school, but after their core of well-loved, teachers retired, it is a shell of its former self. The district needs to practice culture sensitivity when hiring.

  • They remind us that America was founded on fervant puritan principles a fact incorrectly denied by liberal history rewriters. In early America Christians wanting pure religious practice would pray all night long for God’s guidance and protections. It took two hundred years of prep work to get “this Constitution” which protects our pursuit of happiness which gives us the absolute right of personal religious conscience not an externally applied one like marxism.

  • Thank you for this interesting history. I also appreciate the inclusion of the Russian words. Всего наилучшего.

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