Russian Old Believers Seek Rehabilitation – Part I

Dear Readers:

Today I found a story which will be of interest to those studying Russian history.  The authors are Yury Zainashev, Mikhail Moshkin, and Marina Baltacheva.

The lede is that a historic meeting took place between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the head of the Old Believer sect of the Russian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Korniliy.  Such a high-level meeting has not occurred since before the Schism of the 1660’s.

Kornily, whose official title is “Metropolitan of Moscow and All Rus” for the Russian Orthodox Old Believer Church, was enthused by this opportunity to meet with the head of state.  “And not just to meet in person,” he told the VZGLIAD reporters, “but to discuss our needs, our problems, possibilities of cooperation on certain issues.”  The main theme of the meeting was to discuss plans to celebrate the 400-year anniversary (in the year 2020) of the birth of Protopop Avvakum, a martyr of the Orthodox faith.

Patriarch Nikon introduces changes in the liturgy.

Quick backstory:  The Schism dates back to the second half of the 17th century.   Patriarch Nikon of Moscow, who led the Russian Church from 1652 to 1666, enjoyed close political ties with Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich.  When Nikon introduced liturgical reforms, a faction within the Church, which came to be called the “Old Believers” (Russian Старообрядцы from стар – “old” and  обряд – “rite”) objected to the changes and split away to form their own sect.  They continued to practice the older rites, hence the name.

This wiki page  lists some of the religious differences between Old and New rites:


  • spells “Jesus” as Ісусъ (“Isus”)
  • Creed:  “begotten but not made…”
  • Sign of the cross:  Two fingers, index finger straight, middle finger slightly bent


  • spells “Jesus” as Іисусъ (“Iisus”)
  • Creed:  “begotten, not made…”
  • Sign of the cross:  Two fingers joined with thumb, held at point

Since the Russian Orthodox Church has always been closely affiliated with the government (except in Soviet times – it goes without saying), the Old Believers, by splitting away, marked themselves as political, as well as religious, dissidents, within the Tsarist and Imperial system of rule.

Rebel Stenka Razin engaged in a game called “Girl-Tossing”

Tsar Alexei’s history shows that he was a man who did not tolerate dissent.  He was a good ruler and expanded Russia’s borders; but at the price of having to put down numerous rebellions, both rural and urban.  In 1648 he suppressed the so-called Salt Riot.  Two years later (no rest for the weary), he was forced to put down rebellions in both Pskov and Novgorod.   In 1662, as part of a series of “Mineral Revolutions”, Moscow erupted in the Copper Riot.  Which was also put down violently.  In 1669 a big huge rebellion erupted along the whole of the Volga River, led by Don Cossack Ataman Stenka Razin.  Razin, whose friends called him “Stinky Raisin” was known for inventing a game called “Girl Tossing”, the aim being to take a girl onto one’s boat and then toss her overboard while vigorously belting out a song.  In between rounds, Stinky managed to capture the city of Astrakhan.  His rebellion continued for a couple more years, but started to wind down when he failed to capture the town of Simbirsk, which he besieged in 1670.  Numerologists will be fascinated to learn that exactly two hundred years later, in 1870, was born in Simbirsk, as noted by poet Mayakovsky, a normal little boy named Lenin, who also grew up to become a noted rebel, but more successful than Razin:
в глуши Симбирска
обыкновенный мальчик

Stinky, by the way, was eventually captured by Russian army troops, dragged to Moscow in chains, then drawn and quartered in front of an engaged crowd.  In any case, the point I am trying to make about Tsar Alexei is that, in all of these worrisome mutinies, Color Revolutions and Mineral Revolutions, revolting peasants, and a multitude of other riots which he was forced to put down, he was assisted at every step by his good friend Metropolitan Nikon who, in 1651, became the Tsar’s Chief Minister.  Nikon being the one who introduced the liturgical “reforms” which provoked the big Schism; and so we have come full circle.

Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich – was cruel but fair.

But at this point one thing should be obvious to the discerning reader, namely:

The alliance between Church and State, in the Russian Orthodox context, meant that Good King Alexei was not going to feel much sympathy for the Schismatics, who are now regarded as political as well as religious dissidents.

And before Westies jump in with their usual mantras about Russian tyranny and its relationship to the Church, one need only mutter the words “nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition” to remind that collaboration of Church and State for nefarious purposes of suppressing the population, was not a unique phenomenon in the nations of Europe.  In fact, it was the norm, and Russia was no different from Western Europe, except just had a different brand of Church.

And thus it came to pass that the Schismatics were separated from the Trough of Power and pined in their proud solitude for 350 years…

[to be continued]

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5 Responses to Russian Old Believers Seek Rehabilitation – Part I

  1. Lyttenburgh says:

    The differences between the Old Believers and the Mainstream Eastern Orthodox Christianity (that’s right – not just with the ROC) are much, much more numerous, and, frankly… toxic. In Alexei Tolstoy’s “Peter the Great” magna opus there are several chapters dedicated to Staroobrayadci, the life in their skeets, basic beliefs and… sordid practices.

    I’m talking about the practice of massive self-immolation, to “escape the Devil’s servants clutches”. The fact that during their existence a lot of prominent Starovery did commit a mortal sin of the suicide or led a Waco-style assisted suicide of their followers paints them as, well, hardly innocent lambs.

    And that’s not touching upon numerous other controversial points between them, the ROC, the Power and the Society.

    The changes of Nikon had nothing to do with doctrine, they were purely about rite. His changes were rather abrasive, but rites change plenty over time: more hymns are written, new saints are canonized, etc. There is no one, static Orthodox rite, and never has been, there was a diversity even before Christianity was legalized. The Old Believers were fanatics who not only burned their whole families alive to “purify” them of sins (in the past – or so we are told), they also don’t have any sacraments, worship without the altar, they have no Baptism or Communion Sacraments. From the Christian (virtually – any Christian) POV they are completely heretical.

    Also consider the class aspect. Yes, the nobility, for the most part, rejected the Old Believers out of political convenience. But the merchant class (rus. “купечество”) as well as several Cossack hosts retained sympathies to them. Come the Bolsheviks, who, while were no friends to the ROC, were equal opportunity anti-theists – and the enemies of the burjuys and the White Cossacks. When the (obligatory:) Bloody Ghoul Stalin lessened the pressure on the established religion, the deal covered only the “established” part of the religious specter – not cults, sects or cult-like organizations. Russian state (and the Russian public, thanks to the 90s) reacts very badly to any cult-like non-established religious organization.

    “Since the Russian Orthodox Church has always been closely affiliated with the government (except in Soviet times – it goes without saying), the Old Believers, by splitting away, marked themselves as political, as well as religious, dissidents, within the Tsarist and Imperial system of rule.”

    Boyaryinia Morozova – 17th c. Navalny!

    “Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich – was cruel but fair.”

    Ahhhh!.. But I like him! His sobriquet “Тишайший” should be translated as the “Sneaky Git”!


    • yalensis says:

      Thanks for historical background, Lyt.
      I never knew any of these things.
      In fact, this creeping into religion is a new thing for me, I just thought it would be interesting topic.
      It is shocking that Old Believers would commit suicide and kill their families. Why would anybody do that?
      Well, like I have said before, I have no religious “gene” in my body, so it is all just boogedy-boogedy as far as I am concerned. Still, I try to “report” on it objectively, like some natural phenomenon.


  2. Lyttenburgh says:

    About Razin’s revolt.

    It’s actually much, much deeper than just an ordinary revolt – also, very illustrative.

    As you all probably know ™, both Russia and the PLC had their Cossack issues Hosts – Don and Zaporozhiyan respectively. How they dealt with them – here we see totally different approach. The Poles employed as the “Carrot” the official “Rejestr”, and only Cossacks lister therein received funds, fodder for the horses, arms and ammo. But: a) Rejestr was for just a few thousands, and never exceeded 10K even in the times of war, while the total amount of Cossacks was c. 50K. b) All forms of autonomy (read: raids for the plunder) were seriously curtailed. c) The Orthodox fait was actively on the receiving end of discrimination in the PLC and there was no talk about the equality in the privileges for the Cossacks.

    We know how “well” it ended in 1648. The kunnin’ Polish plan on keeping the top-tier Cossacks “bought” didn’t succeed, because, as Bohdan Khmielnitsli’s case against Chaplinsky demonstrated, it wasn’t really sincere in the first place.

    Russian Czardom approach was different. First of all – Don was granted unprecedented level of autonomy. There was, indeed, “No handing back from Don”. Moreover – Don was “administered” via Posolskiy Prikaz (i.e. Ministry of the Foreign Affairs) which had to send an ambassador (!) here, who was just that – a diplomat, relaying Czar’s wishes, but not a viceroy or something.

    Next – Don Host received bread, fodder for the horses, guns and gunpowder from Moscow. The only condition was – do not attack us. Seeing, as they were surrounded on all sides to the hostile (not potentially – actively!) hostile forces and states, the Don Host could conduct their raids with no concern that they might upset the applecart of Moscow’s diplomacy. Privileges of the Cossacks were documented, they were recognized as the distinct soslovie, that could send delegates to the Assembly of the Land (“Zemsky Sobor”). There was some issues of religious matter, i.e. the area of the Don Host lacked many priests, and so they had to… improvise. Thus their custom (absolutely scandalous for the “Mainland” Russia) when the wedding required no priest, just a bunch of Cossack relatives from both sides and ataman gathered in the church. Little wonder, that the Old Believer’s sympathies were strong among them.

    This nice and dandy theory, of course, was bound to come crushing down every time Murphy had a say. One of the biggest crisis happened in 1640, when the “volunteer formations” (rus. “охочие люди”) from the Don Host decided to capture Turkish fortress of Azov, and then asked the Czar Mikhail Fyodorovich to “accept them under his high hand”. That day upon reciving this message about this fait accompli Boyar Duma crapped enough bricks to build several palaces. Russia could not possibly lend assistance to them at the moment – there was a constant “Mexican Standoff” with Poland, Sweden could go adventurous, and the Ottoman Empire was ruled by Murad IV, a talented and absolutely ruthless warrior-sultan (albeit, an alcoholic). And so, Mikhail #SlilAzov. Cossacks fought off Turko-Tatarian zerg rushes for 2 years, then evacuated the city looting and blowing shit up, so that enemy won’t use it.

    Next time it happened when “volunteer formations” from the Don Host decided to join Khmielnitsky revolt early in 1649. Naturally, there was hue and cry from the Poland, about Moscow’s meddling into the inner affairs of the peaceful and always friendly to Russia neighbouring state. While the limit of Russia’s interfering was only in the decision to: A) Send a special Duma Commission to determine “Who is Mr. Khmielnitsky?” and whether the revolt has any chance of success. B) Sending caravans of humanitarian aid (grain mainly) to the “Separatist Hold” voivodates of the Eastern Ukraine. Moreover – impressed by Khmielnitsky’s success, ordinary peasants rose up against their masters and fought on, not knowing, that there won’t be any help sent to them. They were crushed, most ruthlessly in the voivodates that make up the modern age Byelarus. This produced a wave of refugees, who streamed to Russia and settled, mainly, in the so-called “Slobodskaya Ukrajina” on the South-East of the country. PLC pans saw this as yet another perfidy, because now Russia was “robbing” them from their serfs! And some of these serfs were joining Cossack volunteers who were going to fight in the Ukraine…

    Hmm… Does it remind you anything?!

    The last straw, that convinced Moscow To Do Something, about Cossacks was Sten’ka’s Razin raid against Persia. Frankly, no one thought he could pull it through – but sure he did, attacking and plundering Russia’s nominal ally in the confrontation with Turkey. So, the question of, well, “questionable” matrimony in which he lived with either Persian, or Azeri princess (Razin was already married and with kids by this moment) was secondary as to how resolve this diplomatic clusterfuck he just landed into Moscow’s lap.

    One important not should be said about the Don Host at that point of history. Because it wasn’t as involved in the rebellions (predictably – unsuccessful) there were consequently a “purge” of the failed rebel leaders. This allowed for the much more quickier process of stratification within the Cossack Host, with nearly hereditary “Elders” (rus. “Старшина”) and basically anyone else plus new recruits from newly arrived escaped serfs aka “Golyt’ba” (rus. “Голытьба”). Moscow just delivered supplies to the Don Host, but it was “democratically elected” colonels and atamans, who distributed it as they saw fit. Naturally, not everyone got enough. And as the first and oldest principle of Russian military dictates: “If the Soldier lacks something, then he should acquire it – aka “give birth” to it if he must”. And the same Wisdom also dictates that “Тихо с3.14здил и ушёл называется – “нашёл”!”. Tl;dr – Golytba were basically told to go and find loot and supplies by themselves, if they are so pricky. And they just did that, joining someone like Razin. In the process a lot of them will die, but the rest will be rich and famous!.. And objects of “Elders” envy.

    Razin’s revolt failed all for the reason’s why all such revolts fail. It began on the periphery (“old periphery”, but not the “Mainland” still) of the country. Naturally, they were immediately denied the supplies from the Center – and the Don host relied on them completely. Revolting peasants joining his army were ill substitute for the fallen comrades. Don Cossacks Elders, naturally, allowed themselves to be bought and betrayed Sten’ka. Finally, the Czar’s Army sent crushing the Rebellion were at its core a New Line Regiments, some of them veterans of War with Poland.

    As for the gruesome death of Razin – there was a reason for that. He was tortured before that to learn about the location of his treasure hoarde, which every respected pirate must have. He didn’t say a word to the torturers (well, we can speculate about the profanities). So they decided to have a nice psy-op against Stenka. Besides him his younger brother was captured as well and they were to be executed together – one by one. Knowing his younger brother to be made from less sterner stuff, both the executioners and Stepan knew he might start to talk. And sure he did. Seeing his brother’s limbs chopped one by one, Frol Razin cried for mercy and said that he will tell the location of the hoarde. Stenka’s last words to his sissy little brother were: “Quite, you, dog!” and then executioner’s axe made him silent forever.

    They didn’t found the treasure of Razin. Some claim, that there was a spell put on it and some Dark Magick performed, including a human sacrifice of several either captives, or fellow Cossacks, whose spirits still guard the spot and drive away all unworthy. And Frol? Failing to deliver “slovo i delo” he was executed 5 years later.


    • yalensis says:

      Fascinating story, thanks, Lyt!

      I wonder if Stinky’s Treasure Hoard will ever be found?
      Maybe he dumped it to the bottom of the Volga River, along with his Persian princess?
      She could have been the human sacrifice needed, with her skeleton guarding the treasure from interlopers.

      That would be similar story to when Gunther and Hagen stole Kriemhild’s treasure hoard which she was gifted (as wedding gift) by Siegfried, and they hid it at the bottom of the Rhein River, in a little underwater grotto. (In Nibelungenlied.)

      Scuba divers should search the bottom of the Volga, maybe there is a similar grotto containing Razin’s pirate treasure!


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