Old Believers

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Old Believers

 

(Russian, staroobriadtsy or starovery), the adherents of the religious and social movement that arose in Russia in the mid-17th century as a result of Patriarch Nikon’s consolidation of the official, state Orthodox Church and his reform of church ritual.

In the Schism (raskol), the Old Believers broke with the official church, doing so, they proclaimed, in order to preserve the old rituals, the old beliefs, and the “ancient piety.” They formed their own communities, separate from the “Nikonites,” and refused to acknowledge the new icons, the liturgical books revised by the official church, and the new rituals, such as making the sign of the cross with three fingers instead of two. Some Old Believer communities founded their own schools, called gramotitsy.

From its inception, the movement of the Old Believers was far from homogeneous. As early as the late 17th and early 18th centuries, it broke up into many diverse currents—known as tolki and soglasiia—which differed substantially from one another. The Old Believers split into Popovtsy (those groups with priests) and Bespopovtsy (those without priests). The Popovtsy acknowledged the need for a clergy and all the sacraments; their communities were located primarily in the Kerzhenets Forests, the region around Starodub, and the areas around the Don and Kuban’ rivers. The Bespopovtsy rejected the need for a spiritual hierarchy and denied certain of the sacraments; their communities were found primarily in the north of the Russian state.

As the Old Believer communities were drawn into market relationships, they developed entrepreneurial skills, and an Old Believer merchant elite emerged. Gradually, most of the Old Believer soglasiia dropped their opposition toward tsarist authority and the official church. This was especially true of the Popovtsy, from whom came many a merchant and entrepreneur. In 1800 some of the Popovtsy came to an agreement with the official church: while preserving their own rituals, they acknowledged the authority of the local eparchial bishops.

The Popovtsy who refused reconciliation with the official church founded their own church organization. In the mid-19th century, they recognized Ambrose, an archbishop in Bosnia, as their head. Ambrose made the Belaia Krinitsa Monastery—then in Austria, now in Chernovtsy Oblast, the Ukrainian SSR—the center of the Old Believer organization. In 1853 the Moscow Old Believer archbishopric was founded, thus becoming a second center for the Old Believers of the Belaia Krinitsa hierarchy.

Other Popovtsy, who came to be known as the Beglopopovtsy because they acknowledged fugitive priests from the official church, did not acknowledge the Belaia Krinitsa hierarchy.

Among the Bespopovtsy, as the various communities grew increasingly diverse, extreme tolki arose side by side with more or less moderate soglasiia. In the late 17th century, the Pomorane (Dwellers by the Sea) emerged near the Vyg community in the north. The Fedoseevtsy, who from the 1770’s had had their center at the Preobrazhenskoe Cemetery in Moscow, broke away from the Pomorane and spread throughout the northwest. In the first half of the 18th century, the Filippovtsy, preaching the need for self-punishment and self-immolation, also broke away from the Pomorane. The Netovtsy, or the Spasovo soglasie, held aloof, rejecting all the sacraments and urging self-immolation. At their extremes—for example, among the Beguny (Runners, or Wanderers)—the Bespopovtsy were barely distinguishable from the sectarians.

In 1971 a council of bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church adopted a resolution calling for a more benign and tolerant attitude toward the Old Believers. However, this measure brought no reconciliation between the Old Believers and the Orthodox Church. In the USSR there are three principal branches of the Ancient Orthodox Old Believers—namely, the Belaia Krinitsa hierarchy, the Beglopopovtsy, and the Pomorane, or Bespopovtsy.

REFERENCES

See references under SCHISM.

V. S. SHUL’GIN