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In the context of Russian Orthodox church history, the Old Believers (Russian: старове́ры or старообря́дцы, starovery or staroobryadtsy) separated after 1666 from the official Russian Orthodox Church as a protest against church reforms introduced by Patriarch Nikon between 1652 and 1666. Old Believers continue liturgical practices that the Russian Orthodox Church maintained before the implementation of these reforms.
In 1652, Nikon (1605–81; Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church from 1652 to 1658) introduced a number of ritual and textual revisions with the aim of achieving uniformity between Russian and Greek Orthodox practices. Nikon, having noticed discrepancies between Russian and Greek rites and texts, ordered an adjustment of the Russian rites to align with the Greek ones of his time. In doing so, Nikon acted without adequate consultation with the clergy and without gathering a council. After the implementation of these revisions, the Church anathematized and suppressed—with the support of Muscovite state power—the prior liturgical rite itself, as well as those who were reluctant to pass to the revised rite. Those who maintained fidelity to the existing rite endured severe persecutions from the end of the 17th century until the beginning of the 20th century as schismatics (raskol'niki, Russian: раскольники). They became known as "Old Ritualists" (staroobryadtsy), a name introduced during the reign of Empress Catherine the Great. They continued to call themselves simply Orthodox Christians.
By the middle of the 17th century, Greek and Russian Church officials, including Patriarch Nikon, had noticed discrepancies between contemporary Russian and Greek usages. They reached the conclusion that the Russian Orthodox Church had, as a result of errors of incompetent copyists, developed rites and liturgical books of its own that had significantly deviated from the Greek originals. Thus, the Russian Orthodox Church had become dissonant from the other Orthodox churches. Later research was to vindicate the Muscovite service-books as belonging to a different Greek recension from that which was used by the Greeks at the time of Nikon, and the unrevised Muscovite books were actually older than the current Greek books, which had undergone several revisions over the centuries and ironically, were newer and contained innovations. Nikon wanted to have the same rite in the Russian kingdom (tsardom) and in western Russian lands (current territories of Ukraine, Belarus, Poland) owned by the Polish-Lithuanian kingdom to attract local Orthodox rebels, whose rite was more close to the Greek one than that in the Moscow kingdom, as Nikon did not want to adopt two different rites in the same church.
Nikon, supported by Tsar Alexis I (reigned 1645–1676), carried out some preliminary liturgical reforms. In 1652, he convened a synod and exhorted the clergy on the need to compare Russian Typikon, Euchologion, and other liturgical books with their Greek counterparts. Monasteries from all over Russia received requests to send examples to Moscow in order to have them subjected to a comparative analysis. Such a task would have taken many years of conscientious research and could hardly have given an unambiguous result, given the complex development of the Russian liturgical texts over the previous centuries and the lack of textual historiographic techniques at the time.
The locum tenens for the Patriarch, Pitirim of Krutitsy, convened the 1666 Great Moscow Synod, which brought Patriarch Macarios III of Antioch, Patriarch Paisius of Alexandria and many bishops to Moscow. Some scholars allege that the visiting patriarchs each received both 20,000 rubles in gold and furs for their participation. This council officially established the reforms and anathematized not only all those opposing the innovations, but the old Russian books and rites themselves as well. As a side-effect of condemning the past of the Russian Orthodox Church and her traditions, the messianic theory depicting Moscow as the Third Rome appeared weaker. Instead of the guardian of Orthodox faith, Moscow seemed an accumulation of serious liturgical mistakes.
Nevertheless, both Patriarch and Tsar wished to carry out their reforms, although their endeavours may have had as much or more political motivation as religious; several authors on this subject point out that Tsar Alexis, encouraged by his military success in the war against Poland-Lithuania to liberate West Russian provinces and Ukraine, developed ambitions of becoming the liberator of the Orthodox areas which at that time formed part of the Ottoman Empire. They also mention the role of the Near-East patriarchs, who actively supported the idea of the Russian Tsar becoming the liberator of all Orthodox Christians and who suggested that Patriarch Nikon might become the new Patriarch of Constantinople.
The numerous changes in both texts and rites occupied approximately 400 pages. Old Believers present the following as the most crucial changes:
|Old Practice||New Practice|
|Spelling of Jesus||Ісусъ [Isus]||Іисусъ [Iisus]|
|Creed||рожденна, а не сотворенна (begotten but not made); И в Духа Свѧтаго, Господа истиннаго и Животворѧщаго (And in the Holy Spirit, the True Lord and Giver of Life)||рожденна, не сотворенна (begotten not made); И в Духа Свѧтаго, Господа Животворѧщаго (And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life)|
|Sign of the Cross||Two fingers, pointer finger straight, middle finger slightly bent||Two fingers joined with thumb, held at point|
|Number of Prosphora in the Liturgy and Artoclasia||Seven Prosphora||Five Prosphora|
|Direction of Procession||Clockwise||Counterclockwise|
|Alleluia||Аллилуїa, аллилуїa, слава Тебѣ, Боже (twice alleluia, glory to Thee, o God)||Аллилуїa, аллилуїa, аллилуїa, слава Тебѣ, Боже (thrice alleluia, glory to Thee, o God)|
Notes on other differences appear below. Some modern readers may perceive these alterations as trivial, but the faithful of that time saw rituals and dogmas as strongly interconnected: church rituals had from the very beginning represented and symbolised doctrinal truth. Furthermore, the authorities imposed the reforms in an autocratic fashion, with no consultation of the people who would become subject to them, and those who reacted against the Nikonian reforms would have objected as much to the manner of imposition as to the actual alterations. In addition, changes often occurred arbitrarily in the texts. For example, wherever the books read 'Христосъ' [Christ], Nikon's assistants substituted 'Сынъ' [meaning the Son], and wherever they read 'Сынъ' they substituted 'Христосъ'. Another example is that wherever the books read 'Церковь' [meaning Church], Nikon substituted 'Храмъ' [meaning Temple] and vice-versa. The perceived arbitrariness of the changes infuriated the faithful, who resented needless change. "The incorrectly realized book revision by Nikon, owing to its speed, its range, its foreignness of sources and its offending character was bound to provoke protest, given the seriously assimilated, not only national, but also genuine orthodox identity of the Russian people. The protest was indeed global: the episcopate, the clergy, both regular and monastic, the laity and the ordinary people."
Opponents of the ecclesiastical reforms of Nikon emerged among all strata of the people and in relatively large numbers (see Raskol). However, after the deposition of patriarch Nikon (1658), who presented too strong a challenge to the Tsar's authority, a series of church councils officially endorsed Nikon's liturgical reforms. The Old Believers fiercely rejected all innovations, and the most radical amongst them maintained that the official Church had fallen into the hands of the Antichrist. Under the guidance of Archpriest Avvakum Petrov (1620 or 1621 to 1682), who had become the leader of the Old Believers' movement, the Old Believers publicly denounced and rejected all ecclesiastical reforms. The State church anathematized both the old rites and books and those who wished to stay loyal to them at the synod of 1666. From that moment, the Old Believers officially lacked all civil rights. The State had the most active Old Believers arrested, and executed several of them (including Archpriest Avvakum) some years later in 1682.
After 1685 a period of persecutions began, including both torture and executions. Many Old Believers fled Russia altogether. However, Old Believers became the dominant denomination in many regions, including Pomorye (the Russian Far North), Kursk region, the Urals, Siberia, and Russian Far East. A compact 40,000-strong Lipovan community of Old Believers still lives in neighboring Kilia raion (Vilkovo) of Ukraine and Tulcea County of Romania in the Danube Delta. By the 1910s, in the last Imperial Russian census, just before the Bolshevik Revolution, approximately ten percent of the population of the Russian Empire said that they belonged to one of the Old Believer branches (census data).
Government oppression could vary from relatively moderate, as under Peter the Great (reigned 1682–1725) (Old Believers had to pay double taxation and a separate tax for wearing a beard)—to intense, as under Tsar Nicholas I (reigned 1825–55). The Russian synodal state church and the state authorities often saw Old Believers as dangerous elements and as a threat to the Russian state.
In 1905, Tsar Nicholas II signed an Act of religious freedom, which ended the persecution of all religious minorities in Russia. The Old Believers gained the right to build churches, to ring church bells, to hold processions and to organize themselves. It became prohibited (as under Catherine the Great—reigned 1762–96) to refer to Old Believers as raskolniki (schismatics), a name they consider insulting. People often refer to the period from 1905 until 1917 as "the Golden Age of the Old Faith". One can regard the Act of 1905 as emancipating the Old Believers, who had until then occupied an almost illegal position in Russian society. Nevertheless some restrictions for Old Believers continued: for example, they were forbidden from joining the civil service.
Although all Old Believers groups emerged as a result of opposition to the Nikonian reform, they do not constitute a single monolithic body. Despite the emphasis on invariable adherence to the pre-Nikonian traditions, the Old Believers feature a great diversity of groups that profess different interpretations of the church tradition and often are not in communion with each other (some groups even practise re-baptism before admitting a member of another group into their midst).
Since none of the bishops joined the Old Believers (except Bishop Pavel of Kolomna, who was put to death for this), apostolically ordained priests of the old rite would have soon become extinct. Two responses appeared to this dilemma: the Popovtsy (поповцы, "with priests") and the Bespopovtsy ("priestless").
The Popovtsy represented the more moderate conservative opposition, those who strove to continue religious and church life as it had existed before the reforms of Nikon. They recognized ordained priests from the new-style Russian Orthodox church who joined the Old Believers and who had denounced the Nikonian reforms. In 1846 they convinced Amvrosii Popovich (1791–1863), a Greek Orthodox bishop whom Turkish pressure had had removed from his see at Sarajevo, to become an Old Believer and to consecrate three Russian Old-Believer priests as bishops. In 1859, the number of Old-Believer bishops in Russia reached ten, and they established their own episcopate, the so-called Belokrinitskaya hierarchy. Not all priestist Old Believers recognized this hierarchy. Dissenters known as beglopopovtsy obtained their own hierarchy in the 1920s. The priestist Old Believers thus manifest as two churches which share the same beliefs, but which treat each other's hierarchy as illegitimate. Popovtsy have priests, bishops and all sacraments, including the eucharist.
The Bespopovtsy (the "priestless") rejected "the World" where they believed the Antichrist reigned; they preached the imminent end of the world, asceticism, adherence to the old rituals and the old faith. More radical movements which already existed prior to the reforms of Nikon and where eschatological and anti-clerical sentiments were predominant, would join the priestless Old believers. The Bespopovtsy claimed that any priest or Hierarch who has ever used the Nikonian Rites have forfeited Apostolic Succession. Therefore, the true church of Christ had ceased to exist on Earth, and they therefore renounced priests and all sacraments except baptism. The Bespopovtsy movement has many sub-groups. Bespopovtsy have no priests and no eucharist.
Apart from these major groups, many smaller groups have emerged and became extinct at various times since the end of 17th century:
Edinovertsy (Russian: единоверцы, i.e. "people of the same faith"; collective, единоверчество): Agreed to become a part of the official Russian Orthodox Church while saving the old rites. First appearing in 1800, the Edinovertsy come under the omophor of the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (churches under the Russian Church Abroad "ROCOR" have come into communion under different circumstances and retain being old believers in the traditional context), and retain the use of the pre-Nikonian rituals. They can be regarded as "Old Ritualists", but they do not count as "Old Believers" in the traditional context.
Vladimir officially converted the Eastern Slavs to Christianity in 988, and the people had adopted Greek Orthodox liturgical practices. At the end of 11th century, the efforts of St. Theodosius of the Caves in Kiev (Феодосий Киево-Печерский, d. 1074) introduced the so-called Studite Typicon to Russia. This typicon (essentially, a guide-book for liturgical and monastic life) reflected the traditions of the urban monastic community of the Studion monastery in Constantinople. The Studite typicon predominated throughout the western part of the Byzantine Empire and was accepted throughout the Russian lands. In the end of 14th century, through the work of St. Cyprian, metropolitan of Moscow and Kiev, the Studite liturgical practices were gradually replaced in Russia with the so-called Jerusalem Typicon or the Typicon of St. Sabbas—originally, an adaptation of the Studite liturgy to the customs of Palestinian monasteries. The process of gradual change of typica would continue throughout the 15th century and, because of its slow implementation, met with little resistance—unlike Nikon's reforms, conducted with abruptness and violence. However, in the course of 15th—17th centuries, Russian scribes continued to insert some Studite material into the general shape of Jerusalem Typicon. This explains the differences between the modern version of the Typicon, used by the Russian Orthodox Church, and the pre-Nikonian Russian recension of Jerusalem Typicon, called Oko Tserkovnoe (Rus. "eye of the church"). This pre-Nikonian version, based on the Moscow printed editions of 1610, 1633 and 1641, continues to be used by modern Old Believers.
However, in the course of the polemics against Old Believers, the official Russian Orthodox Church often claimed the discrepancies (which emerged in the texts between the Russian and the Greek churches) as Russian innovations, errors, or arbitrary translations. This charge of "Russian innovation" re-appeared repeatedly in the textbooks and anti-raskol treatises and catecheses, including, for example, those by Dimitry of Rostov.
The critical evaluation of the sources and of the essence of the church reforms began only in the 1850s with the groundbreaking work of several church historians, byzantologists and theologians, such as SA Belokurov, AP Shchapov, AK Borozdin, N Gibbenet, and later EE Golubinsky, AV Kartashev, AA Dmitriyevsky and Nikolai F Kapterev; the latter four were members of the Imperial Academy of Sciences. Research was continued later mainly by Serge A. Zenkovsky (1907–90), a specialist on Russian ecclesiastical culture. Golubinsky, Dmitriyevsky, Kartashov and Kapterev, among others, demonstrated that the rites, rejected and condemned by the church reforms, were genuine traditions of the Orthodox Church which had been altered in the Greek usage during the 15th–16th centuries, but remained unchanged in Russia. The pre-Nikonian liturgical practices, including some elements of the Russian typicon, Oko Tserkovnoe, were demonstrated to have preserved earlier Byzantine practices, being closer to the earlier Byzantine texts than some later Greek customs.
Remarkably, the scholars who opened the new avenues for re-evaluation of the reform by the Russian Church themselves held membership in the official church (A.V. Kapterev, for instance, was a professor at the Slavic Greek Latin Academy), but took up study of the causes and background of the reforms and of the resulting schism. Their research revealed that the official explanation regarding the old Russian books and rites was unsustainable.
As Sergey Zenkovsky points out in his standard work "Russia's Old Believers", the Old Believer schism did not occur simply as a result of a few individuals with power and influence. The schism had complex causes, revealing historical processes and circumstances in 17th-century Russian society. Those who broke from the hierarchy of the official State Church had quite divergent views on church, faith, society, state power and social issues. Thus the collective term "Old Believers" groups together various movements within Russian society which actually had existed long before 1666–67. They shared a distrust of state power and of the episcopate, insisting upon the right of the people to arrange their own spiritual life, and expressing the ambition to aim for such control.
Both the popovtsy and bespopovtsy, although theologically and psychologically two different teachings, manifested spiritual, eschatological and mystical tendencies throughout Russian religious thought and church life. One can also emphasize the schism's position in the political and cultural background of its time: increasing Western influence, secularization, and attempts to subordinate the Church to the state. Nevertheless, the Old Believers sought above all to defend and preserve the purity of the Orthodox faith, embodied in the old rituals, which inspired many to strive against Patriarch Nikon's church reforms even unto death.
In the past the Old Believers' movement was often perceived as an obscure faith in rituals that led to the deaths of tens of thousands of ignorant people. Old Believers were accused of not being able to distinguish the important from the unimportant. To many people of that time, however, rituals expressed the very essence of their faith. Old Believers hold that the preservation of a certain "microclimate" that enables the salvation of one's soul requires not only living by the commandments of Christ, but also carefully preserving Church tradition, which contains the spiritual power and knowledge of past centuries, embodied in external forms.
The Old Believers reject the idea of contents a priori prevailing over form. To illustrate this issue, the renowned Russian historian Vasily Klyuchevsky (1841–1911) referred to poetry. He argued, that if one converts a poem into prose, the contents of the poem may remain intact, but the poem will lose its charm and emotional impact; moreover, the poem will essentially no longer exist. In the case of religious rituals, form and contents do not just form two separable, autonomous entities, but connect with each other through complex relationships, including theological, psychological, phenomenal, aesthetic and historic dimensions.
These aspects, in their turn, play a role in the perception of these rituals by the faithful and in their spiritual lives. Considering the fact that Church rituals from their very beginning were intertwined with doctrinal truth, changing these rituals may have a tremendous effect on religious conscience and a severe impact on the faithful.
Nevertheless, centuries of persecution and the nature of their origin have made some Old Believers culturally conservative. Some Old Believers consider any pre-Nikonian Orthodox Russian practice or artifact as exclusively theirs, denying that the Russian Orthodox Church has any claims upon a history before Patriarch Nikon.
However, Russian economic history of the late 19th and early 20th centuries reveals the Old-Believer merchant families as more flexible and more open to innovations while creating factories and starting the first Russian industries.
In 1971 the Moscow Patriarchate revoked the anathemas imposed on the Old Believers in the 17th century. In 1974, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia issued an ukase revoking the anathemas and asked forgiveness from the Old Believers for the wrongs done to them. Under their auspices, the first efforts to make the prayer and service books of the Old Believers available in English were made. Nevertheless, most Old Believer communities have not returned to Communion with the majority of Orthodox Christianity worldwide.
Estimates place the total number of Old Believers remaining today[update] at from 1 to 2 million, some living in extremely isolated communities in places to which they fled centuries ago to avoid persecution. One Old Believer parish in the United States, located in Erie, Pennsylvania has entered into communion with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, after a split in the congregation. The remainder have continued as Old Believers.
Old Believer churches in Russia currently[update] have started restoration of their property, although Old Believers (unlike the nearly-official mainstream Orthodoxy) face many difficulties in claiming their restitution rights for their churches. Moscow has churches for all the most important Old Believer branches: Rogozhskaya Zastava (Popovtsy of the Belokrinitskaya hierarchy official center), a cathedral for the Novozybkovskaya hierarchy in Zamoskvorech'ye and Preobrazhenskaya Zastava where Pomortsy and Fedoseevtsy coexist.
Within the Old Believer world, only Pomortsy and Fedoseevtsy treat each other relatively well; none of the other denominations acknowledge each other. Ordinary Old Believers display some tendencies of intra-branch ecumenism, but these trends find sparse support among the official leaders of the congregations.
Modern-day Old Believers live all over the world, having fled Russia under tsarist persecution and after the Russian Revolution of 1917. Some Old Believers are still transient throughout various parts of the world today. Significant established Old Believer communities exist in the United States and Canada in Plamondon, Alberta; Woodburn, Oregon; Erie, Pennsylvania; Erskine, Minnesota and in various parts of Alaska including near Homer in the Fox River area villages of Voznesenka, Razdolna, and Kachemak Selo, Nikolaevsk, Beryozovka, Delta Junction, and Kodiak, Alaska (the Anton Larson Bay Area, and on Raspberry Island). Two flourishing communities also exist in Sydney, Australia and in the South Island of New Zealand. Communities also have been established in many parts of South America, including Brazil, Uruguay, Bolivia and Argentina.
Small hidden communities have been found in the Russian Far North (specifically remote areas of Arkhangelsk Oblast and the Komi Republic) and various regions of Siberia, especially concentrated in the areas between the Altai Mountains and Tuva Republic. Perhaps the highest concentration of older established Old Believer communities, with foundations dating back hundreds of years, can be found concentrated in Eastern Siberia, specifically the Transbaikal region in desolate areas of Buryatia and Zabaykalsky Krai.
Conservative Old Believer population stands at some 3,000 in Bolivia, while that in Alaska is estimated at 2,500.
N.B.: All these works come from scholars and scientists, none of them Old Believers, except for Melnikov (an Old-Believer apologist) and Urushev (a religious historian).
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