Today I conclude my 4-part series on the Russian Old Believers, based on this story in VZGLIAD. Recall that Old Believer Moscow Metropolitan Kornily (=Father Cornelius) met with Russian President Vladimir Putin – gasp! It turns out that the two men have met before, but always informally, or in the context of group meetings between, say, the President, and the representatives of various religions operating within Russia. This recent meeting is considered much more significant, however, as it more like an official summit between the Head of State and the Head of a real and legitimate religion. It was considered the first real meeting of this type in over 350 years, not since the Schism itself, which is called “Raskol” in Russian. From the verb “kolot” meaning “to cut” and the prefix “ras” meaning, in this context, “all the way through”, i.e, “to cleave”. From the word “raskol” we also derive the name of Dostoevsky’s hero, Raskolnikov. Who has a split personality, not to mention a Superman complex. But whose main characteristic is that he is a complete social outcast.
Recall that Patriarch Nikon, in 1653, was just trying to get the Russian Orthodox Church more in line with the Greek Orthodox Church practices and rites. Which actually makes perfect sense, since Russia (in fact, all the Slavs) were converted to Christianity by the Byzantine Greeks, in the first place. So, why not try to be more like the Greeks? Unfortunately, Protopop Avvakum and his followers would have none of these reforms and wanted to keep their own, uniquely Russian, rites and practices. They reckoned that the Greek Church, based in Constantinople, had made a series of incorrect decicions which led to God’s wrath and the fall of Constantinople to the Turks. With this fall of the Second Rome, the source of the True Faith transferred to Moscow (aka the “Third Rome”) and became embodied in the Old Rites. Patriarch Nikon begged to disagree and insisted that Avvakum and his followers get with the program. Their stubborn refusal to comply made them persecuted outcasts for 350 years.
But now all of that has changed, everything is hunky dory, and the Old Believers are back on track to full rehabilitation. Quoting Valery Korovin, a member of the Upper House of Parliament: “The meeting of the President with the Old Believer Metropolitan signifies the full legitimization of the Old Believer sect, from the point of view of the government. It signifies the return of the Old Believers as full members of Russian society — without any second-guessing, insinuations, or any kind of negative connotations or misunderstandings.” As one can see from Korovin’s bio, he himself is an Old Believer, as well as a political activist in the Russian “Eurasia” movement which, in the past, has been associated with Alexander Dugin. I don’t have time here to go into the details of the “Eurasia” political movement; suffice it to say that they are socially very conservative in their views; they are Russian patriots, and are anti-Westie, but sometimes for the wrong reasons.
By the way, it is easy to spot Russian Old Believers, at least the male of the species: They all wear long beards! These guys stand out on a Moscow street the way Osama bin Laden would stand out on a street in Boise, Idaho. Apparently these chaps never got the memo, when Peter the Great strode around with a pair of scissors, ordering them to “clip it or ship it”. Maybe Peter should have hired Figaro, the Barber of Seville, who was known as un barbiere di qualità. Or perhaps even the English barber Sweeney Todd.
Korovin went on to exult: “No longer are the Old Believers to be regarded as second-class citizens, some kind of lesser part of society, as was the case earlier. Especially on the part of certain, shall we say, over-zealous representatives of the ruling Church. (….) I am talking about those who, by inertia, continue to fight against the Old Believers, calling them names such as schismatics and even enemies of the State. Notwithstanding the fact that the anathema was removed as far back as 1971!”
Korovin is talking about the anathema (Muslims might call it a “fatwa“) which was laid on the Old Believer followers in 1666-67. This mean that they could not be baptised or take part in Communion. This anathema in effect turned all the Old Believers into social and political outcasts. Being stubborn, however, the Old Believers continued on in their ways and survived into the 20th century. By that time, things being more modern, the Moscow Patriarchate began to soften its views. At a grand conclave in 1971, the curses and anathemas were removed from the Old Believers. Coincidentally (or not), that same period of time, the early 1970’s, saw a similar “softening” of political power in the post-Stalin Soviet context. Ordinary people felt freer and more at ease. The government was still officially atheist, but with strict separation of Church and State, ordinary people were free to practice religion, if they chose.
Korovin himself makes the point that post-Soviet Russia can no longer be considered a secular regime, and he provides an uncanny insight into the Kremlinological meaning of the recent meeting between Cornelius and Putin:
“The Schism within the Church was a drama which undermined Russian statehood for several centuries to come. It created an atmosphere of tension and mutual reproaches. This wasn’t all that important to the State in the atheistic period, but nowadays, as the Orthodox tradition is becoming the foundation of society itself, then such unresolved misunderstandings, half-resolved misunderstandings, stretching back to ancient times, must be once and for all resolved. And indeed, with the recent meeting, these past grievances have been disavowed. At this point we can say that there are no remaining contradictions in our Russian Orthodox majority.”
Riffing on Korovin’s point, Old Believer publicist Mikhail Tiurenkov, who is an exception to the rule I stated above about all Old Believers having long beards — he has just a short a goatee — makes even clearer what he sees as the religious foundation of Russian society: “Although the [official] Russian Orthodox Church does not follow the same liturgy as we do, it is only in meaningful dialogue between our two [sects] that I see the fundamental basis of the rebirth of Russian national unity, which was destroyed not even by the tragedy of 1917, but by the Schism of the 17th century.”
To Old Believers, even the Russian Revolution and ensuing 70 years of atheistic socialism, was just a blip on the radar. In their minds, the real Russia is the Russia of Archpriest Avvakum, the Russia of 1650, and that is the Russia to which they seek to return.