Old Believers

From Academic Kids

Missing image
Fragment of painting "Boyarynja Morozova" by Vasily Surikov depicting defiant Old Believer arrested by Czarist authorities in 1671.

The Old Believers (старове́ры or старообря́дцы) are a schismatic group of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The schism itself is known as staroobryadchestvo (старообрядчество).



In 1652, Patriarch Nikon of the Russian Orthodox Church introduced a number of reforms aimed at centralizing his power and bringing Russian Orthodox ritual and doctrine in line with those of the Greek Orthodox Church. Old Believers rejected Nikon's reforms (see Raskol). One of the main figures in the movement was Avvakum Petrovich. Even after the deposition of Nikon (1658), who broached too strong a challenge to the Tsar's authority, a series of church councils officially endorsed Nikon's liturgical reforms. Old Believers rejected the innovations and maintained that the official Church felt into the hands of Antichrist. Followers of the Old Believer movement were anathemized at the synod in 1666–67 and several, including Avvakum, were executed. The Old Believers faced heavy persecution from then until the reign of Peter the Great, when they began to be tolerated as an extra source of tax revenue. An attempt to make the Old Believers obey the Church was the creation in 1801 of the uni-faith (единоверчество) church.

After the 17th century schism Old Believers were divided into two main groups. The first one known as Popovtsy believed in the necessity of priests to perform sacraments according to the old ritual. They sought to attract ordained priests and in 1847 they convinced prelate of Orthodox Church of Bosnia Metropolitan Ambrose to consecrate three Russian Old Believers as bishops, who later appointed further bishops. In 1859 the number of Old Believer bishops in Russia reached ten and they established their own episcopate.

Second group known as Bespopovtsy (the "priestless") was characterized by rejecting "the World" where Antichrist reigned; they preached about the imminent end of the world, asceticism, adhering to the old rituals and the old faith. Given a lack of Bishops and priests, the laity became predominant. The Bespopovtsy renounced priests and all sacraments, except Baptism.

For some time Old Belief was associated with a strict asceticism that could sometimes be taken to extremes. In the 17th century some groups in Karelia that belonged to the sect committed suicide through self-immolation. However those who survived the 17 century became much more "life-willing", probably because the suicide of the most fanatical adepts of the movement served as a kind of self-purification and self-elimination of the most marginal views.

The Old Believers had no official toleration until 1905, so they had to hide from police and to pass themselves off as mainstream Orthodox. However, Old Believers became the dominant denomination in many regions: among them were Pomorye (Arkhangelsk region), Guslitsy, Kursk region, Urals, Siberia etc. By the 1910s about 15% of population in Russia said that they belong to one of the Old Believer branches (census data).

In 1971 the Russian Orthodox Church revoked the anathemas placed on the Old Believers in the 17th century, but most Old Believer communities have not returned to Communion with other Orthodox Christians.


Despite the fact that the Old Believers movement was created as an 'answer' for a reform, not as a 'reform' itself, the views and the philosophy of the movement in some aspects strongly resembles Protestant philosophy (mainly Amish, Hutterites, Mennonites and some other 'strict' denominations). That makes some people argue that Old Believers' appearance can be treated as a part of the pan-European Reformation processes. The similarities between Old Believers and Protestants are the following:

  • Both Old Believers and early Protestans positioned themselves as an alternative (right alternative) for the official church.
  • Since Old Believers treated Orthodoxy as a heretical church, they rather quickly developed a feeling of themselves as the only confession that can provide salvation to its adepts. This feeling later was transformed to a practical philosophy and theology very similar to that of Calvinistic theory of predestination. However, predestination never was proclamed officially among the Old Believers.
  • About half of the Old Believer currents had no priests in that sense that every educated person can be chosen by a community to be a priest.
  • Those branches of Old Believers movement that rejected priests appeared in the north parts of Russia (mainly near Novgorod and Pskov) where even pre-reform Orthodoxy developed into a rather 'democratic' form, opposite to the highly centralized and ceremonial Orthodoxy of the southern regions.

Centuries of persecution and the nature of their origin, have made them highly culturally conservative and mistrustful of anything they see as insufficiently Russian. Some Old Believers go so far as to consider any pre-Nikonian Orthodox Russian practice or artifact to be exclusively theirs, denying that the Russian Orthodox Church has any claims upon a history before Patriarch Nikon.

However, the late 19 century - early 20 century history shows that the Old Believer merchant families were more flexible and more open to innovations while creating factories and creating the first Russian industry. This observation is in an apparent contradiction with the official doctrine of the Old Believers' faith, but apparently centuries of sruggle developed in them a habit working and living without great concern for the state and mainstream cultural influence. Old Believers also lent money to each other with a much more lower interest rate than any financial institutions and individuals did, which helped them to arrange a cross-financing net and to accumulate capital.

Break-off sects

The Old Believers movement also gave birth to several marginal break-off groups, such as:

and others. However, these break-offs were always considered heretical by all the 'mainstream' Old Believer groups.


Among the main modern denominations and church bodies are:

Modern situation

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Traditional Russian Old Believer family in Latin America

Approximately one million Old Believers remain today, some living in extremely isolated communities in places to which they fled centuries ago to avoid persecution. A few Old Believer parishes in the United States have entered communion with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia [1] (http://www.churchofthenativity.net/index.html).

Old Believer churches are currently restored in Russia, although Old Believers (unlike the nearly official mainstream Orthodoxy) have no restitution rights for their churches. In Moscow there are churches for all the most important Old Believer branches: Rogozhskaya Zastava (Popovtsy of Belokrinitskaya hierarchy official center), a cathedral for Novozybkovskaya hierarchy in Zamoskvorech'ye and Preobrazhenskaya Zastava where Pomory and Fedoseevtsy coexist.

Only Pomory and Fedoseevtsy treat each other relatively well; all the other denominations don't acknowledge each other. Among the ordinary Old Believers there are some trends for intra-branch ecumenism, but these trends find sparse support among the official chiefs of the congregations.

External links

no:De gammeltroende pl:staroobrzędowcy


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