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Interview of Metropolite Korniliy about the state of our Church today

Exactly 350 years ago the Great Moscow Council finished work; it imposed anathema on the old church rites and condemned the opponents of the ecclesiastical reform conducted by Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich and Patriarch Nikon. From that moment, the adherents of the old, or rather, pre-reform Orthodox faith were for centuries deemed outside the law. The primate of the Russian Orthodox Old-Believer Church, Metropolite of Moscow and all Russia, Korniliy spoke to Pavel Korobov, a correspondent of Kommersant, about how old-believers live in Russia today and about their relationship with the secular authorities and the Russian Orthodox Church.

Interview of Metropolite Korniliy about the state of our Church today

— How many parishes of the old-rite (old-believer) Church are there in Russia today?  How many old-believers live in the country?

— First, I wish to note that, after all, our Church is not “the old-believer church,” but is, Orthodox, primarily. Although it is true that we have been called, old-believers, since the schism of the 17th century. The key word in the title, Russian Orthodox Old-Believer Church, is, Orthodox, though we are commonly called, old-believers, to distinguish us from other church denominations.

Today, we have approximately 200 parishes in Russia, 50 in the Ukraine and about 30 in Moldova. There are also numerous more distant congregations.

Today, old-believers are divided into two main branches — those who recognize the modern priesthood, having a three-tiered church hierarchy, and the bezpopovtsi, who have no priests.  Before the Revolution, the number of adherents to the old faith was estimated at about 10 to 20 million. Yet some say that there were many more — for a long time, old-believers did not advertise their faith, fearing persecution. Today, after the daring soviet era, according to various estimates, we are numbered at one to two million. But these are approximate statistics, there is no official data.

— Do new congregations outside Russia appear?

— A few years ago, Orthodox Christians from Uganda asked to be received into the midst of the Russian Orthodox Old-Believer Church. It must be mentioned that these are not Russian emigrants, but the native inhabitants of that country.  According to them, they have long studied the various religions and have concluded that the most salvatory church is that of the old-believers. We talked with them at a Metropolitical Council and at a general Church Congress, and, as a result, they joined us. Now we have several parishes there, and an ordained priest.

Recently, we received yet another appeal, this time from Pakistan. Their situation is a more complicated one, because it is a Muslim country, where Christianity is persecuted — it is not safe to be Orthodox there. A priest came to us from there, expressing a desire to transfer to the old rite. We examined his request and decided to accept him into the bosom of our Church. He recently returned to his homeland and is actively preaching Christianity. I hope that this will inaugurate the salvation of many Pakistani residents.

— What is the difference between the Russian Orthodox Old-Rite Church and the official Russian Orthodox Church?

— Differences began after the rueful church schism of the 17th century. For seven centuries subsequent the christening of Russia, our ancestors lived according to the canons passed down to them by their fathers and grandfathers. Faithfully the Church preserved these laws. Then, suddenly, in the 17th century, it was decided by the authorities to change everything, and to justify the reform by saying that, in the West they pray differently. At the time, there was a scheme to liberate Byzantium from the infidels, for Alexei Mikhailovich to become an Orthodox tsar-liberator, and for Patriarch Nikon — the universal patriarch. As we know, this did not materialize, but, while the plans were considered, it was resolved to reform the Church according to Western pattern. Forcibly they began to introduce the three-finger sign of the cross, as Patriarch Nikon ordered that the two-finger sign of the cross, firmly established a hundred years previous, at the Stoglav Council of 1551, (under Ivan IV), must be replaced by the three-finger sign. But the Russian saints who were canonized at the Stoglav Council prayed using the two-finger sign exclusively, because thus Christ gave the blessing and thus, according to tradition, the apostles prayed. This very tradition was broken in the 17th century. In addition, in the course of the reform, certain prostrations were abolished. Generally speaking, a great volume of observances, or rites, that the Church always held essential had been changed. Perhaps these are not as important to today’s general population: now they often say: as long as there is faith, as long as there is love in the heart. But this is not a perfectly true interpretation, because faith is the totality of all traditions, customs, foundations of the Church. The Lord says: “He who loves Me lives by my laws. ” The ability to lawfully do this was eliminated. Therefore, our ancestors, after the schism, decided that they would not accept these reforms and alien Western practices, especially given that they were forcefully imposed. They understood that the reforms were carried out without the approval of a general council. Our Church retains the true, unreformed Orthodoxy, a saving Orthodoxy, with the true sign of the cross, that existed previous the 17thcentury in Holy Russia. 

— A modern person may get the impression that old-believers are people from the Middle Ages, who do not use mobile phones, computers, live according to the laws of the 17thcentury and use burning splinters for lighting at prayer. Do old-believers use modern technology?

— That old-believers do not use technology is a myth. In fact, old-believers of all eras used cutting-edge technology. For example, wealthy old-believer businessmen, at one time, bought and imported advanced European technologies. They travelled for study to Western countries, and set up technologically-intensive production facilities in Russia. The Ryabushinski family, for example, built the first automobile plant in Russia. Old-believers not only always used advanced technologies, but manufactured them themselves. They were generally an educated, learned and business-minded people.

As for today, old-believers use all types of modern technology. There is no ideological rejection of technology by old-believers. Our metropolia, seminary and dioceses have websites. We use mobile communication and all types of equipment, as long as it is beneficial and not harmful to our souls. 

— Are there philanthropists today among old-believers, such as Savva Morozov or Ryabushinski, who help the Church?

— The fact is that the twentieth century was not conducive to facilitating the business interests of the Savva Morozovs, Ryabushinskis, Kuznetsovs and other entrepreneurs. Everything was obliterated and at root eradicated in the 20’s and 30’s of the last century, when the “golden age” for old-believers ended. As historians say, before the Revolution, somewhere around 60-70% of Russia’s total movable capital was in the hands of old-believer entrepreneurs. Before 1917, most Cossacks were old-believers. Prosperous merchants and those well-off villagers who were later called, kulaks, were also mostly old-believers. They were honest people who knew how to work not out of fear, but in good conscience. They helped each other, which is very important. It is also important that old-believers were patriots, in the good sense of the word. For example, the motto of the Morozovs was “The good of Russia is our good.” It would be most desirable if today as many people as possible, especially entrepreneurs, understood that they live in the country where they were born [that bore them] — that their Motherland is here, not abroad, where they are exporting capital. The Morozovs and Ryabushinskis never did this; they were different, they did everything to support the country’s cultural heritage. For example, Pavel Tretyakov collected paintings and built his own gallery — he did all this for his country. And, they did not request anything from the tsar, in return — they believed that this should be done to ensure that our Homeland be firm and powerful, thus ensuring the public weal. And God helped them in this important pursuit. I would like to see this perception come back — today, we do not have many people who believe the good of Russia to be their personal good.

So far, Russia had not created the conditions for the emergence of new Ryabushinskis, Morozovs, Kuznetsovs, but I think that eventually they will appear. Now the government is helping us resettle old-believers from abroad in the Far East. I think if this resettlement takes place, there would be good potential for the emergence of new philanthropists. We talked about the resettlement of old-believers with Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin when he visited us in May of this year.

— And where are these settlers from?

— Now we are talking about immigrants from Latin America — hundreds of people are ready to move and a special program had been developed to facilitate normal conditions for them; initial settlements will be established. I hope that, in time, those wishing to move to Russia will see support from the Russian Government, will start resettling and will become a good model for our fellow citizens, since they [the former] do not drink or steal. Today, old-believers can serve a positive example, as they did at all times. I think the president understands this. Nowadays, honest work is very much in demand. If the resettlement program of old-believers is put into effect, it would undoubtedly produce positive results. 

— So you think old-believers can heal the moral aspect of the economy?

— The main thing here is faith. Old-believers can improve our society and can accomplish much else. To start a fire one need first blow on a bit of coal, only then do the flames proceed thereof. Old-believers could easily become this spark, this coal. Of course, God’s help in the improvement of society is essential. I actually think that the Lord preserved old-believers only that we may pray in true Orthodox fashion for Russia today, as does Agathia Lykova (a scion of our Church). I think that her prayers proceed directly to God, because she is a holy hermit. It is miraculous that old-believers exist today, because, from that terrible persecution under Alexei Mikhailovich until the reign of Nicholas II, the entire dynasty of the Romanovs — some more, some less — did everything to extirpate old-believers in Russia. And, in soviet times, in the 30’s and 40’s, the old-believer church hierarchy might have ended, but the Lord miraculously preserved us. And now, thank God, there is a positive outlook for the future of old-believers.

— What means does the old-believer Church have?

— The church is the body of Christ, whose head is Christ. When we live according to the commandments of the Lord, He cares for us. Christ says that we must first care for the spiritual salvation of our soul, and everything else will follow, that is, He will take care of us. Yes, the majority of Russians today live modestly — we do not have marble floors, or some gilded chandeliers. But old-believers always lived modestly, without claim to affluence. The Lord never encouraged personal enrichment and accumulation. Simplicity and modesty is the lifestyle to which a Christian must aspire, and, to an extent, we do live thus. Thank God there is no persecution now. True, today the authorities do not help us much, but they do not interfere — do not destroy temples, do not imprison, as they did before and after the Revolution. This is very important. Old-believers are self-sufficient, having survived because of their interaction, mutual help, support and brotherly love.

— What is the relationship between the Russian Orthodox Old-Believer Church and the Moscow Patriarchate, today?

— I would style them, peaceful coexistence. One may also call them, neighborly.  If before the Revolution the state participated in the confrontation between us, today, thank God, it had distanced from this activity, treating everyone equally, which is very good. I am a member of the President’s Council for Interaction with Religious Associations. This means that the state recognizes old-believers on par with other traditional denominations. Although the authorities realize that we are not as numerous, according to statistic, nonetheless we are respected equally with the other traditional confessions, because we are a true, traditional Orthodox Church. The neighborly relations that have been established between the Moscow Patriarchate and us help facilitate that people not become embittered and live in peace; they help society combat drunkenness, drug addiction, abortion et cetera, which is now being done, thank God.

— In your opinion, is it possible in our time to overcome the split of the 17th century, uniting your church with the ROC?

— No, because the wounds from the split are too deep. We are very different in essence, in rites, in spirit. We will never be able to accept their ritual and they are unlikely to desire to return to the old faith in the near future. 

— What is the attitude of old-believers toward secular power? 

— Under the Romanovs and under Soviet rule we were persecuted. The attitude towards us began to change after the celebration of the thousandth anniversary of the Christening of Rus (in 1988) when the reinforced-concrete Soviet atheistic ideology began to collapse. However much we abuse perestroika, the most important thing is that it gave us spiritual freedom. Freedom to believe and freedom to preach is very important to anyone who has faith. Old-believers have been deprived of this for a long time. We are grateful to God that now we have freedom. Today, the secular authorities treats us with respect.

On May, 31st of this year, a historic event took place in the life of our church — Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin visited our spiritual center in Moscow (Rogozhskoe). In bygone days we could not dream of tsars or secretary generals visiting our Moscow spiritual center. For the first time in 350 years (ever since the schism, the beginning of which may be reckoned the Council of 1666-1667), a head of state visited us.

— How did the meeting go? 

— Vladimir Vladimirovich visited our Pokrovskiy Cathedral and reviewed the exhibition named, “Willpower and Fidelity to Tradition.” This exposition tells of the traditions and life of old-believers from the 17th to the 20th century. We may say that the president opened this exhibition. He met our youth — singers performed for him chants in an ancient Byzantine style that we, old-believers, have preserved.  In my opinion, the greatest thing that impressed him was that same church singing.  He saw actual people who adhere to old-Russian tradition: men in caftans, wearing beards, women in sarafans. He saw that old-belief is alive. I think it is truly important for the president that the old-belief populace lives and progresses today. 

— Do you pray for Putin? 

— Yes, we pray “about the health and salvation of those in power.” I know that the old-believers prayed for Peter the Great, who oppressed them, because Apostle Paul said that we must thank God for all authorities. All authority is given to people from God. Sometimes, this is a chastisement, sometimes, a boon for those living according to God’s commandments (as we now see), but, regardless, praying “for those on power” is in the tradition of the Orthodox Church.

— Can the President’s visit be interpreted as a reconciliation of the Church and the State that for centuries had been oppressing old-believers?

— Vladimir Vladimirovich himself said at one time that the state would return the debts to the Church. This is a very important statement. I think that the president understands that the Church is a spiritual foundation for the people, especially the common people. Today it is very important for us to preserve religious traditions and customs. We are grateful to the authorities for their support. It can be stated that we already have good and fruitful relations with the state. For this, we are very grateful to God and the government.