Who are the Old Believers?

What do Old Believers believe and where do they come from? A historical reference

Old Believers today

In the last few years more and more people become interested in healthy way of living, sustainable forms of agriculture, survival under extreme conditions, ability to live in the harmony with nature and spiritual development. In this connection some of them turn to the thousand-years-old experience of our ancestors, who managed to colonize the vast territory of present-day Russia and created agricultural, commercial and military outposts in the most remote corners of our Motherland.

Not the least of these ancestors are the old believers — people who not only populated the territory of the Russian empire, but brought Russian language, culture and faith to the shores of Nile, the jungle of Bolivia, the deserts of Australia and the snow-covered hills of Alaska. The experience of the old believers is unique: they managed to preserve their religious and cultural identity and not to lose their language and customs in the most difficult natural and political circumstances. It is not accidental therefore that the desert-dweller Agafya from the Lykov family is famous all around the world.

However the old believers are not well known. Some consider them to be people with primitive education who stick to the outdated ways of agriculture. Others think that old believers are people professing paganism and worshiping ancient Russian gods, like Perun, Veles, Dazhdbog etc. Still others ask: If there are old believers, there must be some Old Faith, right? Our article will try to answer these and other questions about the old believers.



Old and new faith

One of the most tragic events in the history of Russia of the 17th century was the Schism of the Russian Church. Tsar Aleksey Mikhailovich Romanov and his closest collaborator Patriarch Nikon (Minin) decided to conduct a global church reform. It started with the changes, which seem insignificant from the first sight: changes in the composition of the fingers for the sign of the holy cross (the composition of the two fingers was replaced with the sign made with three fingers) and the abolition of the prostrations. But soon the reform touched upon all sides of the Divine service and the Typicon. That reform continued and developed in different ways until the reign of Tsar Peter I. Many canonical rules, spiritual regulations, customs of church administration, written and unwritten traditions were changed during the reform. Almost all aspects of religious and then also cultural and everyday life of Russian people were subject to change.

But after the reform began it became evident that many Russian Christians perceived it as an attempt to change the doctrine itself, to destroy the religious and cultural way of life, which was formed by Russian people during the centuries after its baptism. Many priests, monks and lay people opposed the plans of the Tsar and the Patriarch. They wrote petitions, letters and appeals denouncing the innovations and defending the faith which had been observed for hundreds of years. In their writings the apologists pointed out that the reforms reshape traditions in an arbitrary way and touch upon the most important — they destroy and change the Christian faith itself — not just under compulsion, but under the threat of capital punishment and persecution. Almost all defenders of the Ancient Church Tradition characterized the Nikon’s reform as apostasy, changing the faith itself. Thus, Holy Hierarch and Martyr archpriest Avvakum wrote:

They have gone astray and apostatized from the true faith with Nikon, the apostate, insidious blighter and heretic. They want to strengthen faith by fire, whip and gallow!

He also encouraged his followers not to be afraid of the torturers and to suffer for “the old Christian faith”. A famous writer of that time and the defender of Orthodoxy Spiridon Potyomkin spoke in the same spirit:

They attempt to distort the true faith by heretical additions so that faithful Christians do not understand and follow the deception.

Potyomkin condemned the Divine service and the rituals conducted according to the new books and orders and called them an “evil faith”:

Heretics baptize into their evil faith, they baptize blaspheming the One God in the Holy Trinity.

Confessor and holy hierarch and martyr deacon Feodor also stressed the necessity of the defense of the tradition of the Fathers and the Old Russian faith, citing numerous examples from the history of the Church:

A heretic denied food to the exiled pious people, who suffered for the old faith from him… And if God fixes the old faith by one priest before the whole kingdom, the authorities will have shame and disgrace from the whole world.

Monks-confessors of the Solovetsky monastery refused to accept the reform of Patriarch Nikon. They wrote to Tsar Aleksey Mikhayliovich in their 4th petition:

Order us, Sire, to be in the same our Old Faith, in which your Father and all pious tsars and great princes and our fathers have passed away, as well as the most Godlike fathers Zosima and Savvaty, and Herman, and Philipp, the metropolitan of Moscow and all the holy fathers have pleased God.

Thus gradually it became usual to say that there was one faith in Russia before the reforms of Patriarch Nikon and Tsar Aleksey Mikhaylovich, and the other faith after the Schism. The pre-reform doctrine was called the old faith and the reformed doctrine was called the new faith. Such opinion was not rejected by the supporters of Patriarch Nikon’s reforms. Thus, Patriarch Ioakim said during the famous dispute in the Faceted chamber of the Moscow Kremlin:

The new faith was introduced before me; according to the counsel and blessing of the Most Holy Universal Patriarchs.

While still being an archimandrite he claimed:

I don’t know the old or the new faith, but I do whatever the authorities order.

Thus gradually the notion of “old faith” was introduced and the people professing it started to be called “old believers”. So the old believers are the people who refused to accept the church reforms of Patriarch Nikon and adhered to the church regulations of the Ancient Russia, i.e. the old faith. And the ones who accepted the reform were called “new believers” or “the lovers of the innovations”. However the term “new believers” was not so broadly used as the term “old believers”, which is still in use in our days.

Old believers or old ritualists?

For a long time the Orthodox Christians preserving the ancient orders of the Divine service, old printed books and customs, were called schismatics in the government and church documents. They were blamed for their faithfulness to the church tradition, allegedly the reason for the church schism. The “schismatics” were repressed and persecuted for decades, their civil rights were violated.

However during the reign of Catherine the Great the attitude towards the old believers started to change. The Empress decided that the old believers could be very useful for the colonization of the uninhabited areas of the growing Russian Empire.

Upon the suggestion of Prince Potyomkin Catherine signed a number of documents, granting the old believers rights and privileges to live in the certain areas of the country. In those documents the old believers were renamed “old ritualists” from “schismatics”. If it was not a sign of benevolence from the side of the state, then at least it indicated the improvement of its attitude towards the old believers. However, the Ancient Orthodox Christians — the old believers — did not agree to that new name immediately. The apologetic literature and the decrees of some councils pointed out that the term “old ritualists” is not quite appropriate.

It was written that the name “old ritualists” implied that the reasons for the church division of the 17th century consisted only in church rituals and the faith itself remained intact. Thus, the Old believers’s council of Irgiz of 1805 applied the title of “old ritualists” to the edinovertsy — Christians, using the old rituals and old printed books, but submitting to the Synodal Church. The decree of the Irgiz Council stated:

Some have apostatized from us to the renegades, called old ritualists, who adhere to the old printed books and follow them in their divine service, like we do, but they have communication with anyone without any shame, in prayer, as well as in eating and drinking.

In the historical and apologetical works of the Ancient Orthodox Christians of the 18th — first half of the 19th centuries the term “Old Believers” continued to be used. It is used for instance in “The History of the Vyg Desert” by Ivan Filippov, the apologetic work “Deacon’s Answers”, etc. This term was also used by many authors who were new believers themselves, such as Nikolay Kostomarov, Sergey Knyazkov and others. Pyotr Znamensky writes in his “Manual on Russian History” published in 1870:

Peter became much stricter towards the old believers.

At the same time with years passing by some of the old believers started to use the term “old ritualists”. As a famous old believers’ writer Pavel Lyubopytny (“the Curious”, 1722–1848) points out in his historical dictionary, the name “old believers” is more applicable to the non-priested old believers, and the term “old ritualists” — to the people, who belong to the groups accepting the fugitive priests. Indeed, the denominations (called “agreements”), accepting the priests who left the new-rite church and joined the old believers, as priests, started to use the term “old ritualists” by the turn of the 20th century instead of “old believers” more and more often. Soon the name “old ritualists” was enshrined at the legislative level by the famous decree of Emperor Nicholas II “On Strengthening the Religious Tolerance”. The 7th paragraph of that document stated:

To assign the name of “old ritualists”, instead of the currently used term “schismatics”, to all the followers of groups and denominations, who accept the main dogmas of the Orthodox Church, but do not recognize some of the rites accepted by it and follow the old printed books in their Divine service.

However even after this event many old believers continued to adhere to this name. the non-priested denominations were especially careful in preserving this tradition. D. Mikhaylov wrote in the magazine “Our Own Antiquity” (“Rodnaya Starina”) published by the old believers’ Circle of the Zealots of Russian Antiquity in Riga (1927):

Archpriest Avvakum speaks of “the old Christian faith” and not of “rites”. This is why nowhere in the historical decrees and epistles of the first zealots of the ancient orthodoxy the name “old ritualist” is never met.


What do Old Believers believe?

Being the heirs of the pre-schism and pre-reform Russia, the old believers try to keep all the dogmas, canonical norms, orders and rites of the ancient Russian Church.

It concerns first of all the main church dogmas: profession of the Holy Trinity, incarnation of God the Word, two natures of Jesus Christ, his redemptive Sacrifice on the Cross and Resurrection. The main difference of the old believers’ profession of faith from the other Christian denominations is that they use the forms of worship and piety which were characteristic for the ancient Church.

Among these is the sign of the cross made with two fingers, baptism by immersion, monophonic singing in the church, canonical icon painting and special prayer clothes. For the divine service the old believers use the books, published before 1652 (mostly under the last pious patriarch Iosif). However, the old believers do not constitute one community or church; during hundreds of years they divided into two main groups: priested and non-priested old believers.

Priested Old Believers

In addition to other church norms and regulations the Priested Old Believers accept the three-level Old believers’ hierarchy (priesthood) and all the church sacraments of the ancient Church, among which Baptism, Chrismatin, Eucharist, Ordination, Marriage, Confession (Repentance) and Anointing of the sick are the most well known. Along with these 7 sacraments there are other, less known sacraments and holy rites, such as Consecration (equal in honor to Marriage), Great and Small Blessing of water, Blessing of oil during the Polieleos and Blessing of a person by a priest.

Non-priested Old Believers

Non-priested Old Believers think that after the church schism perpetrated by Tsar Aleksey Mikhaylovich, the pious church hierarchy (bishops, priests and deacons) disappeared. Therefore it became impossible to perform some of the church sacraments in the form in which they had existed before the Schism. Today almost all non-priested old believers definitely recognize only two sacraments: Baptism and Confession (Repentance). Some of them, like the Pomortsy, also recognize the sacrament of Marriage. The Old believers “Chapelites” also admit the Eucharist (Comunion) with the Holy Gifts consecrated in the old times and preserved until our days. They also practice the Great blessing of water: on the day of Theophany they pour the water blessed in the old times, when, according to their faith, pious priests still remained, into the new water

Old believers or old ritualists?

From time to time the old believers of all denominations start to discuss whether it is allowed to be called Old believers. Some prove that it is only allowed to be called Christians because there is no old faith or old rituals, as well as there is no new faith and new rituals. According to their opinion there is only one true faith and one set of true Orthodox rituals and all the rest is heretical and unorthodox confession and thinking.

Others, as was mentioned above, consider it necessary to be called Old Believers, professing the old faith, for they think that the difference between the Ancient Orthodox and the followers of Patriarch Nikon consists not only in rituals but in faith itself.

Still others think that the word “Old believers” should be substituted by the term “Old ritualists”. According to their opinion there is no difference in faith between the Old believers and the followers of Nikon (the “Nikonians”). The difference is only in the rituals, which the old ritualists have preserved in their right form, while the Nikonians have them in a defective or altogether wrong form.

There is also the fourth opinion about the notions of “old believers” and “old faith”. It is shared mostly by the children of the Nikonian church. According to this opinion there is no difference between the old believers/old ritualists and new believers (new ritualists) — neither in faith, nor in the rituals. Old and new rituals are called equally saving and worthy of honor. Following one or the other is just a matter of taste and historical-cultural tradition. This is the formulation of the decree of the Local council of the Moscow Patriarchate from 1971.

Old believers and pagans

In the end of the 20th century religious aтв quasi-religious cultural associations started to form which professed the religious views, not connected to Christianity or to the Abrahamic Biblical tradition. The followers of some of these associations and cults proclaim the revival of the religious traditions of pre-Christian, pagan Russia. To distinguish their views from Christianity which was received by Russia during the times of Prince Vladimir, some neo-pagans started to call themselves “old believers”.

Christians and pagans

And although the application of this term in this context is wrong and mistaken, the views, according to which the old believers are pagans, reviving the old faith in ancient Slavonic gods — Perun, Svarog, Dazhdbog, Veles etc — have spread throughout the society. It is not accidental therefore that such religious communities as “The Ancient Russian Ingling Church of Orthodox Old believers-Inglings” appeared. Its head, Pater Diy (Alexandк Khinevich) was called “the patriarch of the Ancient Russian orthodox Church of Old believers” claimed:

The old ritualists are the proponents of the old Christian rite and the Old believers is the old pre-Christian faith.

There are also other neo-pagan communities and Native Faith cults which are mistaken by the society for old believers’ and Orthodox, such as “Veles’ Circle”, “Union of Slavonic Communities of the Slavonic Native Faith”, “Russian orthodox Circle”, etc. Most of these communities are based upon pseudo-historical reconstruction and falsification of historical sources. In reality almost no reliable data on the pagans of pre-Christian Russia is preserved.

At some moment, in the beginning of the 2000-ies the term “old believers” was very broadly perceived as a synonym to pagans. However due to the broad explanatory work and a few serious suits against the “old believers-inglings” and other neo-pagan extremist groups the popularity of this linguistic phenomenon decreased. In the last few years most neo-pagans prefer to be called Native Believers.

Gleb Chistyakov