Today I resume my story on the Russian Old Believers, based on this piece in the VZGLIAD newspaper.
As we learned last time, the great Schism in the Russian Orthodox Church occurred in the mid 1600’s. Since that time, the Old Believers have been considered outcasts, and nobody in any position of power in the Russian (or Soviet) government has ever met with them, or even showed them the time of day.
That changed a few days ago, when Old Believer Metropolitan Kornily met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin. Here is the official website for the Old Believers Church. This milestone meeting between Church and State involved plans to celebrate the 400th birthday of Archpriest (Russian Protopop) Avvakum.
Who is this Avvakum, you might ask? Well, he is the main hero of the Old Believers. He was the founder of their sect and a martyr for their beliefs.
According to his Russian wiki entry, Avvakum (pronounced with the stress on the second syllable: Avv-A-kum), whose last name was Petrov, was born in 1620 (hence the 400-year anniversary which will take place in 2020), in the town of Grigorovo, in the Nizhniy Novgorod region of Russia. It’s out there on the Volga, a river which breeds rebels, as we saw in our last installment. When we mentioned Stenka Razin and Vladimir Lenin, as two notable anti-authority figures who hailed from this region.
Avvakum Petrov was a prolific writer and polemicist. He was like the Lenin of his time, except his ideology was religion. In the 1640’s and 1650’s Avvakum rose in the clerical ranks, he was promoted to Archpriest in the town of Yuriev-Povolsky. At that time he was good friends with Nikon, the future Patriarch of Moscow. We talked about Nikon in our last segment, how he became almost like the Consigliere of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich (Alexis I); and how he (=Nikon) introduced a wide selection of liturgical reforms. Well, this is the part where Nikon and Avvakum part ways. Avvakum was fiercely opposed to Nikon’s reforms and went into opposition. Actually, my Lenin analogy is a good one: Just as Lenin split the Russian Social-Democratic Party on the issue of the War; so too did Avvakum split the Russian Orthodox Church on the issue of the liturgical reforms. I leave it to the discerning readers to decide which issue is more important: a bloody world war which destroys Europe and kills off a generation of young men; or whether to make the sign of the cross with a straight, or a crooked, finger.
Oh well, I guess those issues seemed important at the time. For his Oppositionist efforts, Avvakum (according to his bio) was deprived of his job, exiled, subjected to gross indignities, imprisoned, and eventually executed. This last bit is what makes him a martyr for the faith in the eyes of the Old Believers.
In his discussion with the VZGLIAD reporters (Yury Zainashev, Mikhail Moshkin, and Marina Baltacheva), Metropolitan Kornily was asked, was it not surprising that the Russian head of state should show such an interest in the historical figure of Archpriest Avvakum? Kornily replied that Avvakum is an important figure in Russian history: “Avvakum Petrov showed himself to be a cultured individual; many people know of him as a writer who stood for the purity of the faith, and for family values. This is how we want to position this jubilee. Not in any attempt to split society, but rather trying to find common ground…”
Which begs the question: What does the official Russian Orthodox Church have to say about all of this? After all, there was a line of blood drawn between the two Orthodox factions. Is reconciliation really possible?
Iosif Diskin, the Chairman of the Committee (in the Upper House of Parliament) for Harmonizing Inter-Ethnic and Inter-Religious relations, stated to the VZGLIAD reporters, that the meeting between Kornily and Putin bears a great symbolic importance:
“This speaks to the fact, that the President respects all traditional religions. The Old Believers are also a traditional confession within the framework of Orthodoxy, therefore are to be considered meaningful and to be respected. The President appeals to all the patriotically inclined elements of civic society who represent high moral values. We are well aware that from the ranks of the Russian Old Believers, there emerged some of the most outstanding Russian entrepreneurs.”
For American readers: I think it would be fair to say, that Russian Old Believers are somewhat analogous to American Mormons. Completely different spiritual beliefs, of course, but in terms of social attitudes and niche occupied in society. Like Old Believers, Mormons are industrious, good at business, and generally have large tight-knit families. That great photo which I found, by the way, is of an Old Believer family in Ukraine, not Russia; but I think that matters not a whit to the point I am trying to make. The only important difference that I can discern between Old Believers and Mormons (other than the religion itself) is that Mormons are prominent in American show business; whereas, to my knowledge, Old Believers are not that much into singing and dancing and putting on Broadway shows.
Further: Decoding Diskin’s utterances (from a cynical Marxist point of view), it seems that it’s not really about crooked vs straight finger after all — it’s all about creating a new social consensus and “harmony” (in the Chinese sense of the word) around issues of Russian patriotism, morality, traditional family values, and capitalist entrepreneurship. The Russian government is serious about eradicating socialist ideas and returning to the traditional values of the past: God, Tsar, and Family. But, in order to accomplish this, they feel that they have to return to the source of the Troubles, i.e., the Schism. They want to go back in time and heal that ancient rift between Nikon and Avvakum.
[to be continued]