"Silent as Waters We Live." Old Believers in Russia and Abroad: Cultural Encounter with the Finno-Ugrians. Edited by Juha Pentikainen. Studia Fennica Folkloristica, no. 6. Helsinki: SKS, 1999. 139 pp. B/W illus. 175 Finnmarks. ISBN 951-746-034-1
"Silent as Waters We Live" is a collection of eight essays on the Old Believers in Russia and beyond. Juha Pentikainen additionally provides a preface, introduction and summary, which give basic information on who the Old Believers are, their history, and the history of researches into them and their way of life. The Old Believers, as their name suggests, represent that constituency within the Orthodox Church in Russia that did not accept "reforms" enacted during the mid-seventeenth century which rendered the liturgy less Russian and more Greek or Byzantine in style. As well as the sobriquet Starovery (Old Believers), they are sometimes called Staroobryadtsy (Old Ritualists), due to their adherence to the old liturgical forms. Some of these reforms included the new Patriarch's ruling that the sign of the cross should be made with three rather than two fingers, and that processions around churches or around graves should henceforth go anti-clockwise, or as the Russians have it, "against [the direction of] the sun," instead of clockwise, "with [the direction of] the sun." The Old Believers suffered a campaign of persecution from both Church and state for their pains (during which significant numbers of people burned themselves to death), and those who survived fled central Russia for the extremes of the Empire, where they survive to this day, having undergone another more violent period of persecution under Tsar Nicolai I in the nineteenth century, followed by repression in the twentieth under atheistic Communism. They survive thanks to their quietism and strict social regulation as "small islets," in Pentikainen's phrase, "of Russian ethnicity in the peripheral rural areas at the most remote edges of the huge empire."
"Silent as waters we live" is a remark made by an Old Believer to Pentikainen, expressing how (partly to avoid repression) they have lived "as if they did not exist." The degree of existing ignorance of contemporary Old Believers in the English-speaking world, perhaps largely due to such a "semiotics of silence," can be illustrated by the following anecdote. When studying Russian at university in the early 1990s, I was told there were no longer any Old Believers. So, when living on the edge on the former Soviet Union as part of the compulsory period abroad, I was astonished to discover not only that there were still such people, but that there was an Old Believer church in the road behind our student hostel. Nowadays, in fact, according to the book, there are, very approximately, three to ten million Old Believers in Russia, and additional numbers in the countries of the Far East, in Australia, and in Brazil. There are also settlements in the USA (Oregon). Recently, some Old Believers have even found their way to that old Russian territory, Alaska, "to become Pacific fishermen and to save their children from the sinful habits so common among the young people in Oregon since the 1960s."
Finno-Ugric and Samoyedic nationalities who have had some degree of contact with Old Believers and who, despite this, have maintained their own ethno-religions to this day include the Khanty and other peoples in north-west Siberia, and the Eastern Mari and Southern Udmurts in the southern Russian steppes. And while we are given discussions by the contributors, Andrei Vlasov, Juha Pentikainen and Taisto Raudalainen, of how and why other such nationalities, like the various Komi groups, the Karelians, and the Mordovans, accepted the ways and culture of the Old Believers (albeit in a mode "more oral in its language and more gestural in its ritual code"), it would surely have been more interesting to have had an examination of how and why the few nationalities that held out did so. It may be the case, of course, that it is this very holding-out that means there are not enough written sources to permit this. But one does detect a note of slight romanticisation of the Old Believers in this volume, which may, following centuries of repression, be only fair enough. A romanticism of an obverse, Fennicising kind is found in the dubious remark that the Old Believers beside Lake Peipus are "descendants of an ancient Finno-Ugric fishing culture in northeastern Europe."
One minor gripe is that a map showing where the runo songs on which the Kalevala was based were recorded is strangely left unkeyed and unexplained on p. 83. This could have been the basis of an interesting discussion of how marginal or central such songs were to Finland. However, taken as a whole, Pentikainen is certainly right to say that this fascinating volume "will surely fill a gap." And yet, this work, which can be considered a starting point for English-speakers interested in the phenomenon of the Old Believers, must also be considered only a starting point. The model questionnaire, the plan for "historico-cultural maps of the Old Believers" and the contact details of the various researchers, all of which are to be found at the end of the volume, are an implicit recognition of the future work to be done, as indeed is the shortness of the book itself.
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