Old Believers


No sooner did Nikon become Patriarch in Moscow than he brought about reforms quite different from what the "Guardians of Piety" had expected. He took Greek texts, recently printed in Italy (in Roman Catholic publishing houses), as the pattern for his reforms. [The Greek Orthodox Church, by now under Muslim rule and deprived of its privileges and power, had began to seek union with the Pope at Rome-the very symbol of heresy for Eastern Christians during previous centuries.] Then, with the long arm of Russian law he tried to force everyone to accept them.

Some of Nikon's reforms no longer seem important to us-singing three hallelujahs instead of two or spelling Jesus' name with an extra vowel-but the reason many Russians opposed them was real, and resistance to them quickly grew as large as Russia itself.

Those who defied Nikon and kept to the old way believed his reformswere an accommodation to Roman Catholicism (that is, to the "world"). They saw his enforcement of them as just another example of the state church corrupting itself through political affairs.

Across Russia, millions of impoverished and poorly educated farm workers, celibates in remote communities, and local church leaders with little responsibility, dared to rise up and declare that what they believed and how they believed was no one's matter but their own -- that belief was a matter of conviction, not legislation. They dared, at the price of their lives, to challenge Moscow, Constantinople, and whatever civil authorities or means of repression would fall upon them.

The Price of Conviction

At the very meeting where Nikon announced his plans for reform, Pavel the presbyter of Kolomna calmly said he could not comply. Nikon removed him from office and had him beaten before the council. He sent Pavel into the far north, where he died after repeated tortures. Then Nikon pronounced the anathema on all others who refused to obey his orders to change, and by 1666, the year of the beast, several hundred thousand "Old Believers" found themselves outside the Orthodox church. In great suffering and weakness they learned that one can walk with Christ and survive persecution only in nonconformity

Almost hidden under great roofs of straw, mud plastered houses of Russian muzhiks huddled like chicks with their mother hen around rickety wooden churches topped by onion domes. Far from Moscow and Kiev, but within easy reach of heaven, those who lived under bunches of dried pears hanging in semidarkness from their beams called on the name of Christ. And as they did so, what Christ wanted became more and more important to them -- while the demands of Russia's church and state took second place.

As far back as they could remember, the muzhiks had lived in distrust of what happened at Moscow. "Live, live, until Moscow gets a hold of you!" their parents and grandparents had said. So now, when many of them got separated from Moscow's state church, they felt no remorse. Called Raskolniki (separatists) or "nonconformists" by other Russians, they began at once to live like they thought Christians should. That, in every place, was not the same. But in every place it drew the wrath of Moscow's authorities upon them, and by the mid-1660s, the "year of the beast," the tsar's men were torturing and publicly flogging Old Believers from Kiev and Smolensk to Ryazan, Kazan, Yaroslavl, Saratov, Novgorod, Pskov, and Tver. Everywhere, they tore up homes and villages and drove families to Siberia. But such persecution only confirmed what many believed: The state church had become an institution of the Antichrist.

Avvakum

Many, but not all, Old Believers were uneducated country people. An outstanding exception was Avvakum Petrovich, an ordained leader in the Orthodox church, who had been Nikon's companion and fellow-worker. Avvakum grew up in the village of Grigorovo, near Nizhny Novgorod (Nikon's home area), and with Nikon, he became a member of the Guardians of Piety. But whereas Nikon sought earthly power and prestige, Avvakum sought to please Christ no matter what it cost.

Before his first ordination as a dyachok when he was twenty-one years old, Avvakum chose Nastasya Markovna, a poor orphan, to be his wife. She became his faithful and patient companion, supporting him no matter how badly his non-conformity to the world brought him into conflict with it.

An early occasion for conflict arose when Vasily Sheremetev, a high-ranking boyar, came down the Volga. The people of Grigorovo, including Avvakum, went on board his ship to greet him. Seeing that he was a religious man, Vasily ordered Avvakum to bless his son Matvey. But Avvakum could not obey. "How can I pronounce a blessing on a man who has shaved off his beard, deliberately changing the way God made him?" he asked.

Vasily Sheremetov was stunned. "You take it upon yourself to disobey me?" he thundered. "For this you shall be thrown into the river!"

Fortunately, no one carried out the boyar's orders. But within a few years Avvakum found himself imprisoned, then exiled with his family to Tobolsk in Siberia for withstanding Nikon's reforms. When they detected his influence even from there, Russian authorities sent him as far away as they could-to Dauria, on the border with Mongolia. There, the district governor, Afanasy Pashkov, did what he could to make the lives of Avvakum and his family miserable. He tortured Avvakum, often keeping him in chains in the prison and severely beating him. Two of Avvakum's children died from hunger, but he did not give up in his struggle to walk the narrow way. Everywhere, he warned the faithful not to have anything to do with Nikon's fallen church.

"When the priest comes to sprinkle your house with holy water," he told them, just follow him around and sweep it out with a broom. And if they drag you into church, keep right on whispering your prayer to Jesus!"

"I Kept On Preaching"

In an attempt to reconcile Avvakum with the Orthodox Church and rid himself in this way of a formidable adversary, Nikon recalled him to Moscow in 1663. While travelling through the country toward the capital, Avvakum could not help but notice the state church's reforms being carried out with great vigour. He wrote in his diary:

In sadness I wondered if I should keep on preaching or if I should escape somewhere for the sake of my wife and children to whom I was intimately bound. Then my wife came up to me and gently asked, "Why are you so sad?" I explained what I had been thinking and asked her in turn, "What shall I do? Shall I speak or keep silence?" She replied, "How strange you talk! Do not the children and I bless and support you? Preach the Word of God and stop feeling sorry for us. We will stay together until God wishes. If we get separated, only remember us in your prayers. Christ is strong enough to take care of us!" I thanked her and, as having my eyes opened from blindness, I kept on preaching in towns along the way, denouncing Nikon's heresy. [Zhitiye Protopopa Avvakuma (Autobiography of archpriest Avvakum).]


      from The Russiansí Secret by Peter Hoover