OLD BELIEVERS. The name given to the schismatic group that separated from the Russian Orthodox Church at the time of the great religious schism that occurred in the seventeenth century during the reign of Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich.

The Old Believers (Starovery), or Old Ritualists (Staroobriadtsy), were officially known as Raskol'niki (schismatics) until 1905. Although there were many variations among them, they constituted the adherents of a sect which broke with the established Russian Orthodox Church, ostensibly over liturgical reforms imposed in the mid-seventeenth century. This schism (Raskol) in Russian Orthodoxy has been interpreted at least at three levels: as a socio-political revolt against the centralizing authority of the Tsarist government and Church, as a bona fide split in Russian Orthodoxy over profound matters of faith and piety and as a superstitious response to changes in what had become traditional, albeit corrupted, religious forms. The Raskol was perhaps all of these things and more.

The backdrop for the Raskol was the evolution of Russian Orthodoxy through the sixteenth century. By that time the Josephite ideology with its conservatism and Great Russian chauvinism dominated the Russian Church. The doctrine of the Third Rome taught that Muscovy was the final bastion of true Christianity on earth. Since the essence of Russian Orthodoxy was to be found in the act of worship, i.e., worshipping God in the right spirit (pravoslavie), the forms which had become traditionally associated with Muscovite worship were seen as primary symbols of hope for God’s saving grace. The Stoglav Council of 1551 confirmed this ideology of religious nationalism and belief in Russian Orthodoxy’s messianic role in history.

The following century was one of profound social tension and upheaval, compounded by growing Western influences. Popular reaction to these influences was narrowly nationalistic, one facet being a renewal of religiosity. The leadership for this revival came from the parish clergy, not the monastic hierarchy, and the zealots were not amenable to criticism of Muscovite Orthodox traditions.

Errors in copying and translating Orthodox Slavonic texts were recognized as a problem in the fourteenth century. The Council of 1551 addressed the problem of errors but did not resolve it. Traditional practices were confirmed, and future correctors usually incurred the wrath of the traditionalists. The unity of Russian Orthodoxy remained, but the Council endorsed the considerable local option in rites and customs which had come to characterize Muscovite Christianity. Nevertheless, systematic correction of texts began perhaps as early as the 1620s or at the latest in the 1640s. Upon his accession Tsar Aleksei supported the corrections and emendations initiated by Greek and Kievan scholars. These reforms soon converged with efforts to complete the integration of the Russian Church into the jurisdiction of the Tsarist state and the moral and spiritual revival of the Zealots of Piety (Revniteli blagochestiia).

The elevation of Nikon to the Patriarchate in 1652 was the catalyst for the schism which followed. Under the influence of monks from Kiev and the example of Philaret during the previous reign, he sought to centralize his office and to increase its influence in Church and state affairs. The following year he began to introduce liturgical reforms, especially the use of three fingers instead of two in making the sign of the cross. The zealot leaders Bishop Paul of Kolomna and Archpriests Ivan Neronov and Avvakum protested, appealing to the Tsar, which further irritated the Patriarch. Neronov was sent to the far north and Avvakum to Siberia. Nikon agreed to refer the two-finger issue to a council in 1654, but in the meantime he ordered other corrections and dispatched searchers for ancient Greek liturgical books and a mission of enquiry to Constantinople. The Council of 1654 turned out to be a clash of authority between Nikon and Bishop Paul, the latter losing his see and being imprisoned. Patriarch Paisius of Constantinople counseled compromise and tolerance of local variations “as long as fundamental Orthodox dogma was preserved,” but Nikon was determined to assert his authority and did all he could to standardize Russian practices in the name of ecumenicity and to condemn those who opposed his corrections of traditional ways. The councils of 1666-67 confirmed the reforms, revoking the actions of 1551, but they also sought to reorganize the Church. Hierarchical authority was centralized and parish democracy undermined, which ran counter to the efforts of the zealots to reinforce the influence of parish priests.

On the surface the issues seemed trite: the way of making the sign of the cross, whether processions should march west or east, an additional letter in the name of Jesus, the repetition of “Alleluia” twice or three times, the number of loaves on the Holy Table. But for Muscovite Christianity religious ceremony symbolized dogmas of faith. Those who would be known as Old Believers felt tradition had sanctified the Muscovite forms of worship. Muscovite Russia was the “Third Rome,” the sole custodian of true Christian faith, and differences with Greek practices simply signified the heresy of the Greeks. In their eyes condemnation of traditional practices and the decisions of the Stoglav Council, canon law for more than a century, sought to destroy Muscovite Orthodoxy and the state ideology of Orthodox tsardom. Especially for the zealous revivalists, acceptance of Nikon’s reforms meant damnation.

Thus, what began as a dispute between a few priests and the authorities of state and Church spread over much of Russia. Somehow the protest of the Raskol fathers merged with the broader ideological issues in Russian society. At the heart of the original protest was the arbitrary authority with which Nikon enforced his often inconsistent reforms. Once the problem of Russian “errors” was identified, the justification for reform was authority, if not the ambiguous authority of ancient Greek Orthodoxy, then that of living patriarchs. Constantinople had announced that no issue of dogma was involved, but this response was unacceptable to Nikon. His ambition led to his being deposed by the same council that confirmed his reforms. But there was still the issue of the authority of the centralized state and the monastic ecclesiastical hierarchy over against the tradition of popular parish democracy and the interests of the parish priesthood. Both antagonists fused ritual and dogma in their struggle over authority, thus tapping a well-spring of popular piety that swelled the ranks of the schismatics.

The schism in the Russian Church occurred in an age in which apocalyptic ideas and writings were already popular. After their break even Nikon began to portray Tsar Aleksei as under the influence of the Antichrist. From the perspective of many Russian chiliasts Muscovy’s denial of its traditional Orthodox past was a signal of the apocalypse. The Raskol'niki believed that the Church had separated itself from them, not vice versa, and that they remained the sole custodians of true Christian faith. A certain logic led some Raskol'niki to prepare for the Last Judgment. The Third Rome had become heretical, corrupted by the Antichrist, and everything associated with the Tsar and the established Church was to be avoided while waiting for the end. The Book of Faith (1648) had prophesied great peril for the Russian Church in 1666, the year the Raskol was condemned. This fulfilled prophecy was linked to the apocalyptic forecast of the advent of the Antichrist. Fields were neglected, villages abandoned and, especially in 1669, many literally waited night after night for the trumpet call of the Archangel Gabriel. Optimists glorified the survival of the old faith past the fateful year, while pessimists recalculated the date to be 1699. The extreme millenialists among the schismatics reasoned that their own salvation would be jeopardized by contact with the heretical church and state, so when approached by the authorities they chose self-immolation rather than submission in order to die without contamination.

The schism might have died out had Nikon remained Patriarch and been supported by the Tsar. But his fall from favor encouraged the Raskol'niki. Neronov resumed his opposition and Avvakum returned from Siberian exile, gaining many followers in the condemnation of Nikon’s reforms. Initially there was little inclination to blame the Tsar for what was amiss. Aleksei found Avvakum intransigent in his defense of the old ritual, so he was dispatched to exile in northern Russia. When the Tsar imposed harsh measures upon the defiant Raskol'niki, they did not repent. Their leaders continued to propagandize, even from prison, and the movement received support from notables in the court. The Solovetskii Monastery in the White Sea was one of the earliest centers to reject Nikon’s reforms and to challenge imperial authority. For eight years it was be. Sieged by Tsarist troops until it fell in 1676 and its inhabitants were massacred, while fugitives spread tales of the martyred Raskol'niki defenders throughout the White Sea region. The government’s awareness of the broader implications of the Raskol can be seen in its belief that the Solovetskii Monastery harbored refugees from Stenka Razin’s rebellion. The political connection of the religious dissenters was not overt at the time, but in 1682 the petition of the rebellious strel'tsy was essentially an Old Believer tract. After the rebellion was suppressed, the Regent Sophia made adherence to the Raskol a state crime.

The association of the Antichrist with the Tsarist government, as well as with Nikon, now became increasingly popular. The harsh punishments imposed on even those who harbored dissidents drove many Raskol'niki to the remote regions of Muscovy’s authority and beyond its frontiers. From the beginning the extreme northwest corner of Russia provided ideal refuge for opponents to Nikon’s reforms. During Aleksei’s reign enforcement of the vague laws against the Raskol was lax, and most refugees in this area were hermits. But the greater precision and vigor of Regent Sophia’s stand against them forced these northern fugitives to coalesce into monastic communities. The hopes of the millenialists rose again as 1699 approached.

Initially, all Old Believers viewed their situation as temporary. Either the end of the world was at hand or the true faith would triumph over the heretics. With the passage of time each Raskol'nik community began to adjust to an uncertain future. The schismatics had no bishop within their ranks, no link to Christ through apostolic succession. Extreme schismatics believed that, regardless of the failure of their prophecies, the Antichrist ruled, Orthodoxy was lost, there could no longer be a true Church or true sacraments, so the only efficable religious practices left were those which depended on neither Church nor clergy. They became known as the “priestless” (Bespopovtsy), but their response was too extreme for most Old Believers, who were not prepared to spend the rest of their lives without the benefit of the traditional means of communion with God. They prepared for a life as a separate religious community with the necessary means for continuity from one generation to another: a leadership hierarchy in the tradition of apostolic succession. As “priestists” (Popovtsy) they sought to regularize the ordination of priests and the administration of the sacraments, initially relying on those priests ordained before 1667. They argued that Nikon’s heresy had not necessarily denied the established Church its sacred character, that its ordination was still valid, so all that was needed was the conversion of its priests to the Raskol. Still, the time came when all those claiming ordination before 1667 died out. The Popovtsy then accepted priests who had been baptized under the old rites, regardless of the time of their ordination. The ultimate crisis came with the death of those priests born before the anathemas of 1667. For Popovtsy a Church without priests was inconceivable, so they undertook a desperate search for old Orthodox bishops.

At the beginning of the Raskol the majority of schismatics were so conservative that they could not envision the creation of new forms in order to perpetuate their religious life away from the established Church. Imbued with chiliastic expectations, they shunned rationalizing the implications of their rebellion and awaited the apocalypse. The most zealous lost their patience in waiting for the end and sought it through suicide and martyrdom. With Tsarevna Sophia’s threats of the stake there seemed to be little choice. This period saw self-immolation reach its apex; more than 20,000 Raskol'niki resorted to suicide before the end of the century. But then Peter I moderated the treatment of Old Believers. Moderate voices rebuked suicide unprovoked by persecution and declared that avoiding the world was enough.

Peter I’s policies allowed the Bespopovtsy to organize and to establish centers in northern Russia, where the Church had always had to accommodate to clerical shortage. For those who rejected the Church and its sacraments, flight to this region where Church and sacraments were frequently dispensed with was natural. The Bespopovtsy established themselves in areas where religious deviation was common. Their organization was totally independent of the established Church and essentially monastic. They varied their worship activities considerably and wrestled with the dilemma of living without the sacraments. Laymen baptized; marriages were often civil, although some monks sought to dispense with marriage entirely and to segregate the sexes. The Popovtsy gravitated to the southern and western borderlands, where the established Church forms were customary.

Without an established tradition of leadership the Bespopovtsy experienced numerous divisions and subdivisions. Their scattered communities represented untold variations that characterized their religious life. They showed particular agility in defending their positions through allegorical interpretations, and their predicament naturally led them to insist that ultimately individual conscience was the final religious authority, rejecting historical and literary authorities in favor of personal beliefs.

The various Raskol factions constituted politico-religious societies which maintained internal connections depending on their nature and circumstances. The most tightly-knit and ascetic held almost everything in common, while some held in common only land, buildings and whatever was essential to the community, allowing private ownership of furniture and personal items. Other sects allowed considerable private property, as did loose-knit communities. Old Believers also tended to manage their own affairs, often dealing with crime and litigation internally.

The leading center of the Bespopovtsy in the north among the Pomortsy (shore-dwellers) was established on the Vyg River about 1695. Led by two Denisov brothers, Andrew and Simeon, this settlement grew and prospered from its original 40 men and women to a complex of self-sufficient communities deeply involved in agriculture and commerce and numbering some 3,000 inhabitants by 1800. However, a Vygovskii monk, Philip, founded a splinter settlement in 1741 when the Vygovskaia Pustyn’ was coerced into praying for the Tsarina. Legend has it that Philip and 50 of his followers burned themselves to death when the authorities approached their hiding place. Other followers survived him and proliferated. Another Bespopovtsy sect which had split with the Vyg community earlier, the Theodosians, known for its strict discipline and dietary rules, was also critical of this concession to Tsarist authority.

Perhaps the most extreme Bespopovtsy sect was the Stranniki (Wanderers), founded late in the eighteenth century by Evfimii, an army deserter who found refuge in a Theodosian convent. He became a monk; but when he lost an appeal in a dispute with his superiors, he announced a new creed based on the renunciation of all social ties and obligation. Evfimii’s disciples became wandering pilgrims, dependent upon the alms of others. Eventually a second order of hospitalers arose to provide a network of hostels for the Stranniki, with the expectation they would enter into full communion with them before death.

The apocalyptic visions of the Old Believers climaxed in the early eighteenth century, and Peter I became the most widely accepted Antichrist. Yet, it was Peter I who proclaimed religious toleration the law of the Russian state. Old Believers could live openly and practice their faith if they registered and paid double taxes, although they were not to preach their doctrines or hold any public office. Still, it was the emergence of the secular absolutist state that marked Peter I’s reign above all and signified to many Old Believers that he was the Antichrist. The Vyg community enjoyed a special status during the years of Tsar Peter’s wars as the result of its deep involvement in the iron industry. Thus, it enjoyed a degree of state protection at the same time it was under attack by the Holy Synod. The primary tactic of the Synod was a mandatory challenge to Old Believers to debate. Andrew Denisov composed the Pomorskie otvety (Pomorian Responses) as the basis of the Vyg community’s position in these debates, and it became the seminal Old Believer document. In order to justify defiance of Tsar and Church it argued that the true faith was communicated through the Russian saints and people as a whole, a defensive variation on the doctrine of the Third Rome.

Tsarina Anna Ivanovna wished to win the Old Believers back to the state church by persuasion, but she viewed those who would not listen to reason as subversives. Her legislation sought to increase the burdens of stubborn Old Believers by removing the loopholes in Peter’s laws, by prohibiting all Old Believer missionary work, even among their own children, and by imposing full civic responsibilities on Old Believers, even if their loyalty was suspect. Of particular concern was the existence of Popovtsy settlements just over the Polish frontier, especially the Vetka complex, which threatened to establish its own episcopate. In 1735 a carefully planned Russian expedition sallied across the border and drove 13,000 Vetka inhabitants back into the empire. Tsarina Elizabeth took no initiatives against the Old Believers, but she maintained all the onerous and confusing legislation of her predecessors.

Peter III planned to treat the Old Believers like any other legal non-Orthodox cult and invited those who had fled to Poland to return and to settle freely in Siberia. The Tsarist government had finally realized that self-immolation could be stopped only when it no longer used force against the Old Believers. Catherine II followed this line and repeated her husband’s invitation to Raskol'niki living abroad to return home, even promising certain indulgences. Refusal to accept her invitation taxed the Tsarina’s patience, and she dispatched her troops to herd the final 20,000 Vetka residents back into the empire. After that she treated the Old Believers liberally, releasing those who had been confined to monasteries, restoring judicial protection in 1769 and discontinuing the double tax in 1782. By 1785 all civil disabilities were lifted.

Even Catherine II maintained the laws against Orthodox clergy joining the Old Believers, yet the Popovtsy were dependent upon such renegades, plus those fugitives returning from abroad. Dissatisfied Popovtsy petitioned the Synod to reenter the Russian Church on the condition they could retain the ancient rite. The authorities acknowledged the pre-Nikonian liturgy as canonical and repealed the 1667 decree of excommunication, allowing for the return of such Old Believers through Edinovertsy parishes. A continuing obstacle to reunification nevertheless remained in the fact that the Raskol had become a rallying point for resistance to the combined authority of Church and state and especially the subordination of the former to the latter. Restoration of the Old Belief was a demand of eighteenth-century popular uprisings through that of Pugachev.

At the same time Catherine’s greater toleration allowed for the establishment of Old Believer centers in the heart of Old Russia. During a widespread plague and in response to the Tsarina’s appeal for general aid, in 1771 the Theodosian sect, joined by the Popovtsy, offered to create hospitals and to provide burials for the dead. Acceptance of this offer allowed the establishment of substantial compounds in the Moscow suburbs of Preobrazhenskoe and Rogozhsk. The Preobranzhenskoe Kladbishche became the primary center for most Bespopovtsy communities, supplying them with liturgical texts and icons, while the Rogozhskoe Kladbishche served the Popovtsy. The two centers also received expanding commercial privileges and became the city’s industrial nuclei in the nineteenth century. Under Alexander I they both entered the textile business in a substantial way, building upon their monopolies of producing religious objects for the Old Believers. Conversion to the Theodosian sect entitled one to large loans, although bequest to Preobrazhenskoe was sometimes a condition. Thus, several Preobrazhenskoe millionaires were created. The textile factories were staffed by free laborers, sometimes fugitives, who enjoyed the protection of the Old Believer community. Both centers maintained huge compounds in which members lived and labored.

The reign of Nicholas I ended the degree of toleration the Old Believers enjoyed under his immediate predecessors. Alarmed by its growth, the Tsar renewed persecution of the Raskol, and it lost its legal status. Particularly threatening to Nicholas I’s absolutism were the Old Believer monastic communities, with their inner lives outside the Tsar’s bureaucratic controls. Monasteries were closed, priests exiled and precious books and icons burned, but the sect survived. The Old Believers suffered the Tsar’s repressions, and few defected to the established Church. These pressures convinced the Popovtsy of the absolute need for their own bishop, and an 1832 council at Rogozhsk committed itself to the task. Many wealthy Raskol'niki were willing to lend their fortunes to this goal. By 1846 Bishop Ambrose, the deposed primate of Bosnia, agreed to accept the Old Believer creed and was established as metropolitan in the emigré Popovtsy settlement of Belo-Krinitsa in Bukovina.

Nicholas I’s reign also had economic ramifications among the Old Believers. By the 1830s the communal spirit of Preobrazhenskoe and Rogozhsk began to give way to capitalist individualism and the beginnings of disintegration. Theodosians split off to join sects allowing marriage. Others even joined the Westernized society of the capital. The second generation of the Moscow communities were more businessmen than religious leaders. Finally, the Tsar nationalized the asylums of the two communities, closed their churches and forced some leaders to marry. Instead of resisting, many joined the Edinovertsy movement of the Orthodox Church or became secularized.

Alexander II repealed most of the civil restrictions on the Old Believers, but he continued to proscribe the propagandizing and publicizing of their faith. At the time it was estimated that from one-fourth to one-third of the Great Russians in the empire were Old Believers, i.e., over one-sixth of the Tsar’s Orthodox subjects. The Polish insurrection of 1863 cast suspicions on the Old Believers again, and a whole new set of laws related to the Old Believers was drafted but not promulgated until 1883 under Alexander III.

Until the death of Holy Synod Procurator Pobedonostsev the Old Believers continued to suffer various overt and covert discriminations. At that time Nicholas II proclaimed liberty of conscience and called for new laws governing the Raskol. The Old Believers immediately demanded the removal of all discriminatory provisions, and an imperial decree of April 17, 1905 (O.S.) met most of their demands. Old Believers received the legal status of a corporate church, enjoying the rights already extended to Lutherans and Catholics, although efforts to convert regular Orthodox Christians were still punishable by a year’s imprisonment.

A division remained within the Popovtsy between those seeking reconciliation with the state Church and those opposed to it, but both factions survived the 1917 revolutions almost as well as the Orthodox Church. As was the case under the last Tsars, a majority of Old Believers after the Bolshevik Revolution belonged to the Church of the Old Believers of the Belo-Krinitsa Concord. Its successive heads, the Metropolitans of Moscow and all Russia, were harassed during the early decades of Soviet rule. After the death of Metropolitan Meletii in 1934 only a locum tenens succeeded him, but when Metropolitan Irinakh was consecrated in 1941 he began to enjoy the reversal of state religious policies characteristic of the war years. Old Believer churches were reopened, and three new bishops and 50 new priests and deacons were named in 1942-47. The Belo-Krinitsa Concord continued to be particularly nationalistic, with its Moscow headquarters remaining at the Rogozhsk cemetery. In the 1960s it administered five dioceses, with 300 parishes and about one million adherents, and it remained strong in its traditional provinces of Nizhnii-Novgorod and Kostroma. Another faction of the Popovtsy (the Begolopopovtsy), refusing to recognize the jurisdiction of Belo-Krinitsa, survived the revolution with its headquarters in Kuibyshev and centers in Siberia.

From Moscow the Bespopovtsy have maintained a loose organization under the Soviets, keeping contact between the communities of their sect. The annexation of the Baltic states and eastern Poland brought other Old Believer communities into the USSR, but the Latvian and Lithuanian centers remain distinct. Bespopovtsy settlements in Kazakhstan and the Irtysh River region continued to exist into the second half of the twentieth century, some tracing their ancestry there back two centuries to the refugees from Vetka. There have also been reports of Old Believer communities in the Soviet Far East as late as the 1950s. Recent Soviet cartography raises questions regarding the continued existence of some of the remote Old Believer villages in Asia. In general Soviet Old Believers make no effort to propagate themselves save among their own families. They are passive in their anti-social activities, seeking to live like their ancestors as best they can.

The same Lithuanian Bespopovtsy communities later annexed to the Soviet Union sent the first Old Believers to the United States in the 1890s. More came in 1904-14, settling in western Pennsylvania. By 1913 they numbered about 3,000 and spread to Detroit and Millville, N.J. They registered their first parish in Erie in 1916. After the Bolshevik Revolution Popovtsy emigrés began to arrive, including members of prominent Old Believer families. Other groups came in the 1960s, settling in New Jersey and Oregon, some coming by circuitous routes via Turkey, Manchuria and Brazil. In 1968 a group from Oregon moved on to Alaska, founding a new settlement called Nikolaevsk. The number of Old Believers in the United States totals several thousand. There are also settlements in Australia and Argentina.

Bibliography: Frederick C. Conybeare, Russian Dissenters (Cambridge, 1921), provides a fairly detailed introduction to the Old Believers in a digest of the secondary works available at the turn of the century. The fruit of more recent scholarship includes: Serge A. Zenkovsky, “The Russian Church Schism: its Background and Repercussions,” Russian Review, XVI, no. 4 (1957), pp. 37-58, and Michael Cherniavsky, “The Old Believers and the New Religion,” Slavic Review, XXV (1966), pp. 1-39. The latter also contains an important bibliography and traces the major historiographical developments in the treatment of the subject, as does George Vernadsky, Russian Historiography (Boston, 1978). Other basic works include: Pierre Pascal, Avvakum et les débuts du Raskol: la crise religieuse au XVIIe siècle en Russie (Paris, 1938 and 1963); N.I. Subbotin, Materialy dlia istorii raskola za pervoe vremia ego sushchestvovaniia (9 vols.; Moscow, 1874-90); and P.1. Mel'nikov, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii (2nd ed.; St. Petersburg, 1909). Mel'nikov also wrote novels about the Old Believers based on his studies of their way of life: V Lesakh (Moscow, 1955) and Na Gorakh (Moscow, 1956). Soviet scholarship includes N.M. Nikol'skii, Istorija russkoi tserkvi (2nd ed.; Moscow-Leningrad, 1931), Vols. V-VI.

Robert O. Crummey, The Old Believers and the World of Antichrist: The Vyg Community and the Russian State (Milwaukee, 1970), places the experience of this major community in the context of the greater Old Believer movement, while P. Kovalevsky, “Le Raskol' et son rôle dans de développement industriel de la Russie,” Archives de Sociologie des Religions, III (1957), pp. 37-56, and William L. Blackwell, “The Old Believers and the Rise of Private Industrial Enterprise in Early Nineteenth-Century Moscow,” Slavic Review, XXIV (1965), pp. 407-24, examines the special economic role of the Old Believers. Avvakum’s autobiography The Life of the Archpriest Avvakum by Himself (London, 1924 and 1963) is a classic piece of Russian literature from that period.


Nicoll, G. Douglas. “Old Believers,” The Modern Encyclopedia of Russian and Soviet History, vol. 25, pp. 228-37.

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