Dear participants of the Council!
Let me, on behalf of the Russian Orthodox Old-Rite Church, welcome the participants of the 15th World Russian People’s Council. The theme of this present meeting, “Basic Values — The Basis of the Unity of Nations”, raises questions about the true foundations of a peaceful and creative life in our multi-ethnic and multi-religious country.
The Old Belief has more than 350 years of experience of coexistence with a variety of religions and nationalities. After the schism of the Russian Church in the 17th century, hundreds of thousands of Orthodox Christians of various social groups and strata were forced to flee from the stake and the rack to the outskirts of the Russian state and beyond.
Settling on the outskirts of the state, the Old-believers did much for the peaceful Russian colonisation of lands. Sincerity, fidelity to the word, spiritual and physical purity of the Old-believers allowed them to live side by side, without conflicts and especially hostilities, with the small groups of people inhabiting the endless expanses of the Russian Empire.
Russian Old-believers living abroad is also not something new. For more than three centuries, Russian Old-believers have been successfully living and preserving the faith of their fathers in foreign settlements, having stable and closely knit communities in Europe, North and South America and in distant Australia.
The experience of the Old-believers showed that even in the most alien and hostile civilizational environments, they could not only survive and create isles of the abandoned Motherland, but also establish normal relations with representatives of various nationalities and religions. Old-believers could live for a long time in such autocratic states as the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. Preserving their faith, language and culture, they were able to establish peaceful relations with both the common people in these countries and local authorities. This experience of the Old-believers is unique and is clear evidence of the possibility of the peaceful coexistence of the most diverse national and religious groups in the same territory.
So, why did the Old-believers succeed for hundreds of years, in peaceful ways, without conflicts and upheavals, in preserving their religious and national peculiarities, while many other national and religious groups lost their identity, and some turned out to be assimilated or disappeared into the depths of wars and international conflicts?
There are several reasons for this.
First, the Old-believers throughout their history showed a high degree of religious toleration. While preserving ancient Church traditions and legends, testifying to anyone seeking to the truth of the Orthodox faith, they, nevertheless, did not resort to aggressive spiritual proselytism or public denigration of another’s faith and they did not seek to frighten or destroy their opponents. Even in the most difficult moments of their history, the Old-believers did not take up arms and did not take revenge on their offenders and persecutors. Therefore, the Old-believers could live quietly alongside pagans, Muslims, Catholics and other denominations for hundreds of years. Old-believers were always tolerant and respectful of others. The Lord calls us to this, saying: “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:43). The Old-believers, who endured persecution for the faith for centuries, were executors of this Divine command, when, in the words of the apostle, “in much patience, in tribulations, in needs, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments” (2 Cor. 6:4), endured torment for the name of Christ, not responding with hatred and evil to oppression.
Patience and condescension to something is expressed today by the modern word: “tolerance”. Unacceptable for us is such tolerance, that is the basis of ecumenism, leading to indifference in faith, and ultimately to faithlessness. But if by this term we mean mutual respect, peaceful coexistence, which excludes extremism and spiritual aggression, then this tolerance has always been inherent among Old-believers.
The second reason for the peaceful life of the Old-believers in a foreign cultural and religious surrounding is their upholding of a high level of morality. People interacted very respectfully with Old-believers, seeing how in their midst, vices and sinful habits are not dispersed.
Another valuable feature of the Old-believers’ experience is their excellent work ethic. On the outskirts of Russia, a surprising phenomenon, by modern standards, was observed, when the Old-believers, while maintaining their unique national-religious culture, had stable trade, business and public relations with representatives of different religions and ethnic groups. In all countries of residence, Old-believers are known as honest, law-abiding workers who successfully compete with the surrounding population. Today, the principles of work ethic developed by the Old-believers’ merchants in the 19th – early 20th century are especially interesting.
In the present time, oligarchs, feeling themselves alien to millions of their fellow countrymen, are seeking immediate momentary profits and exporting capital abroad. This is unlike an Old-believers’ entrepreneur, who felt himself above all as a steward, the executor of certain affairs entrusted to him by the Lord. Charity was not viewed as a burdensome business makeweight, but as an honourable duty, pleasing to God. Vladimir Pavlovich Ryabushinsky, an industrialist Old-believer, calling the Orthodox businessman “God’s ruler”, wrote: “The founder of a company, having arisen from the mass of the people, preserved until his death that way of life in which he grew up, despite the fact that he was now the possessor of significant fortune. Of course, in his life everything was better and more abundant than before, but was essentially the same. The owner did not himself feel different either in everyday life or in spiritual things compared to the workers of his factory. He was very proud that around him “many people are eating.” In this understanding of his position, the former serf, and now first-class merchant, did not at all diverge with the environment from which he had left. Everyone around him, the poor and the rich, the surrounding men and his factory workers, respected the old man precisely because he is the owner, who gives his wages to hundreds and thousands.”
And finally, another indisputable value of the Old-believers’ experience is the preserved Russianness. When, after his expulsion from Russia, Alexander Solzhenitsyn in America met the local Old-believers, he was amazed at his discovery. He was glad to “see how their national image, national character were upheld, and to hear their preserved speech. Nowhere in the whole West and far from anywhere in the Soviet Union will you feel so much in Russia as among them.” Many descendants of Russian émigrés of the 20th century hardly remember Russia; a significant part of them have long lost their faith, culture and even their language, although less than a hundred years has passed. But in the communities of the Old-believers, founded outside the Homeland 200 and even 300 years ago, old Russian traditions and customs are still preserved.
All of the above leads to a hopeful conclusion. If the Russian people, not only in individual prominent personalities, but in the millions of their sons, managed to reveal the best features and original values that became the basis of their well-being and good relations with the peoples living next to them, then they have a great future.
But this future will become possible only if they return to their roots, to the faith of their fathers, to those values and traditions, the basis upon which the great civilization of Orthodox Russia was created.