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The Russian Orthodox Old Believer Church

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Old-believers in China

From the mid-19th century, the lands in the Far East began to be actively settled. Most of the settlers were Old-believers, including the popovtsi (those with clergy) of the Belokrinitskaya hierarchy. The government of the empire supported the process of migration, and the opening up of distant lands, believing that the Old-believers were the most suitable colonists, promoting the development of those regions.

Old-believers in China

Church of the Kazan icon of the Mother of God in Ust-Kuli, China. Priest – Father John Starosadchev. Photo taken around 1952.

Gradually, with the resettlement of people to the Far Eastern lands, a community of Old-believers was formed. The entire migration process was accompanied by the desire to convert others to their faith, along with the splitting of large communities into smaller ones. For example, in the village of Krasny Yar a community of Old-believers formed, which broke away from a large chasovenni (a denomination of bespopovtsi, i.e. Old-believers without clergy) community. The reason behind the split and who contributed to this is not known for certain. It is also important to note that, despite the open protest and obstacles set up by the local population in the village, the settlers quickly erected a church. In all likelihood, Peter Maslennikov was invited to serve as a priest. The local residents, the settlers and their descendants often mention him, when speaking of the events of those days.

From the recollections of Solomonia Gumenna of past times, as a member of the Bortnikov-Nikolayev family, who remained as bespopovtsi, her forefather as well as his descendants once lived in the same village where the split occurred. After that, a man with the surname Maslenikov or Maslov came to Krasny Yar, who converted others to the Belokrinitskaya faith. Although her forefather was not eager to join them, he still came to him with his children in tow. His son Timothy even later became a clergyman. Anna Ivanovna Spiridonova, one of the residents of the village of Krasny Yar, recalled that the clergyman in the Old-believers’ church was Peter Maslenikov, who served there until 1912. After that, he apparently migrated to Vladivostok; he is mentioned in some books of the Vladivostok city government.

In 1910, key decisions were made by meetings of Old-believers. They mainly concerned the organisation of regular meetings and the placement of the bishop’s cathedra (the episcopal see) in the village of Bardagon of the Amur oblast (region), if a diocese is organised. At the First Convention, they spoke of the need to organise similar meetings in the Far Eastern lands each season.

The following year, the second Eastern-Amur meeting was held, in the village of Bardagon. Those present expressed their opinion of the necessity to make a petition directed to the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Old-Rite Church (RPSC) in connection with the current situation. The appeal contained a petition regarding the organisation of the bishop’s cathedra. As a justification for this need, it was argued that at the time of the appeal, twenty parishes with a large number of parishioners and ten clergymen were already operating in the area, on the territory under their jurisdiction. For the local region, such indicators were quite adequate, as all of this allowed for their own bishop to be maintained at a sufficient level, which meant the Old-believers could count on the satisfaction of the petition.

Less than a year from the date of the appeal to the RPSC, they received a satisfactory answer to their request. The Amur-Irkutsk diocese was established on the Far Eastern lands. This name is not considered to be the only correct one, but it is the one mentioned most often. Differing names can be encountered within different literature. For example, there is a mention of such dioceses as the diocese of Eastern Siberia or the Irkutsk-Amur diocese, although both referred to the one organisation. It included several neighbouring regions for convenience. They encompass the territories adjacent to the city of Yakutsk, as well as Transbaikal, the Amur region and Primorye.

The need to ordain bishop Joseph Antipin was discussed at the next Holy Council. It was decided there that it was necessary to undertake an ordination soon. This occurred on December 18th, 1911 at the Church of the Nativity of Christ. Bishop Joseph was very diligently suited to his duties. Despite the difficult weather conditions, the harsh climate of the region, impassable jungles and bad roads across which he had to travel, for many months he visited even the most remote corners of his diocese, not abandoning those that needed him. It is worth noting that some areas of this region are impassable even for experienced explorers and local residents, but this did not stop him.

In 1913, the bishop decided to settle in one city or area, and the one decided upon was Bardagon. There he devoted maximal time and energy into studying church singing. He was aided in this good deed by V.T. Antonov and John Shadrin. John was sent to this area from Barnaul at the very request of the bishop himself.

The construction of churches and the development of distant lands of the country by Old-believers and other settlers continued for nine years. Despite such a short time, a lot of work had been done. Churches and prayer houses were erected and consecrated in large cities such as Vladivostok and Irkutsk, and, of course, in the provinces of Transbaikal and the Amur oblast. Gradually, the communities strengthened and grew.

From the 1920s onward, when the threat of the establishment of the Soviet regime, and its spread to the farthest corners of the country, became obvious to all, the Old-believers and community representatives decided to flee to the nearest geographically adjacent country. This turned out to be China. This was done together with the last supporters of the empire. Subsequently, several communities of Old-believers appeared in a foreign country. They settled in the city of Harbin and in Tryokhrechye (Three Rivers).

All people living in the city, professing one faith, gathered in one community, united to support the faith and spirit. As a result, the community of the apostles Peter and Paul was established in China. This occurred in a city where a large number of immigrants from Russia resided, which is why most of its inhabitants spoke Russian. With the growth of the parish, the need for a parish priest grew as well, and so the parish was forced to petition the bishop of the Far East, Joseph, to send them a clergyman. The answer was positive, and soon the priest of the Nikolo-Aleksandrovsky parish, Artemius Soloviev, was sent to these lands. He was tasked with a rather large responsibility, since he was required to perform spiritual duties not only in the city of Harbin, but also in Manchuria.

The beginning of revolutionary actions did not pass unnoticed even for such remote places of the country as the Far East. They particularly affected the priests of the church, since the government was quite antagonistically disposed towards them. Bishop Joseph was forced to leave the village that he had settled in. The unfolding events had an impact on other clergymen, as they began to leave en masse for very distant cities or even out of the country. Philaret, bishop of Kazan, and Alexander, bishop of Vyatka, moved to Vladivostok. The latter was of great help to bishop Joseph so that he could safely arrive in Harbin. He did not migrate alone, but with a group of ordinary people. Into this same city, it was subsequently decided to move the bishop’s cathedra.

Other members of the clergy were forced to migrate to China, due to the increasing persecutions on the territory of their native land. Bishop Joseph was helped by John Kudrin, who after the formation of the Soviet regime was forced to travel to Harbin and take upon himself the leadership of the local parish.

The surviving materials of the Holy Council speak of the events of 1926. At the subsequent meeting there was a consideration of an appeal from the bishop of Tomsk and Altai regarding the return of bishop Joseph to the territory of his native land. Otherwise, it would be necessary to abandon a number of parishes. Unfortunately, he was no longer in a position to lead a full diocese, so it was imperative to come to a decision. But bishop Joseph did not consider splitting the diocese to be a good resolution, despite the difficult situation in the country with the establishment of a regime hostile to the church. But since he himself would not have been able to cope with the task before him, he asked for an assistant to be appointed to him. This was archpriest Alexis Starkov. Bishop Joseph was asked to come as soon as possible, otherwise it would be divided into two parts: the Amur and Irkutsk; the second would be located in Northern China, and it would require the ordination of another bishop.

On the submitted proposal to return to the territory of his country, bishop Joseph answered affirmatively in order to preserve a united diocese, the administration of which he subsequently took over. He coped with his duties until 1927. He passed away in China, and was buried near the Peter and Paul Church. After his death, the Old-believers of the village of Pokrovka submitted a petition for the blessing to create a new parish. With their community continuing to grow, this was becoming a necessity. Practically, and in their own time, almost all of them came from Western Siberia, as well as Transbaikal and the centre of the country. A church was erected in the name of the Protection of the Most Holy Theotokos, headed by John Starosadchev. The hill on which the church was built is the highest in this area and is visible several hundred kilometres away.

The next meeting discussed the need to consider the problems in Harbin. In the minutes there are a number of notes about the problems under consideration. It was decided to send a specially organised commission that would be able to investigate the situation in more detail and, after the inspection, to report back to the meeting. The question of a ban on John Kudrin serving, based on political views, was considered. The latter deemed such actions to be inadmissible by established canons and appealed to the highest authority to resolve the conflict.

The Amur-Irkutsk cathedra for a long time remained without a permanent leader, and the temporary fulfilment of duties was transferred to bishop Clement. The issue of transfer was considered in 1927 at the next Holy Council. In the year of his appointment, he sent a letter to John Kudrin in Harbin. This letter contained a direct ban on the accomplishment of religious rites.

The conflict that arose was considered at the next main meeting in the fall of 1927. The surviving minutes mention the consideration of the conflict that had arisen with John Kudrin, who was forbidden to perform the duties of a priest. After all the circumstances were considered, it was decided to allow further ministry of John Kudrin. It was also decided to consider the expression of bishop Philaret about John Kudrin as those of a former priest and that his interference in the affairs of another diocese are inadmissible. Also considered at the same meeting was the refusal of bishop Clement to conduct the affairs of the Amur-Irkutsk Diocese; the reason being the opposition to this of some parochial communities.

Bishop Athanasius in 1929 was elevated to the Irkutsk-Amur cathedra, after which he was given the title of Amur-Irkutsk and the entire Far East. Into his jurisdiction were transferred parishes, geographically located throughout the territory of the Soviet Union and the Republic of China.

Bishop Athanasius, in the world known as Ambrose Theophanovich Thedotov, was born on November 30th, 1979 in the Irkutsk region to a peasant family. His spiritual ordination took place in the village of Tarbagatai, in the local church. Before the revolution, the family of the future clergyman consisted of a mother, a father, and three children. In addition to Ambrose, the family also had two girls, Catherine and Anna. Their mother died when the children were under the age of 18.

Ambrose was ordained as a priest in 1923, in Harbin, when he was 44 years old. This happened at a time when the Far Eastern Republic lost its status and the borders with Manchuria were closed, and agents of the OGPU were practically everywhere. Before receiving his rank, he served in the parish of his birthplace for six years. In 1929, the hieromonk Athanasius was ordained as a bishop by bishop Tikhon (Sukhov) and bishop Amphilochius (Zhuravlev). This occurred in the spring in the city of Tomsk, in the Church of the Dormition of the Mother of God. As soon as bishop Athanasius returned to his village, he actively began to work on the complex life of the diocese throughout Eastern Siberia, as well as in Primorye and Transbaikal. There were difficult times, but this did not stop the clergyman, and he actively corresponded with John Kudrin, and also tried to direct the spiritual life of the parish of Old-believers in Harbin.

The main residence of the bishop was considered to be a house in Transbaikal, in a village near the town of Verkhneudinsk in the Buryat-Mongolian Republic. At the same time, the administration of the diocese remained in Harbin; there were kept the seal, important administrative papers, consecrated myrrh and antimins, relics of Persian martyrs, the bishop’s cap and staff. For many years the parish of Harbin maintained contact with bishop Athanasius, and clarified all questions concerning spiritual life and regulations in the church. This continued until 1937; it was at this time that the final letter from bishop Athanasius arrived.

In the 1930s, a wave of collectivisation swept across the country, which did not bypass even the distant Transbaikal. The bishop’s two daughters suffered dispossession. The bishop himself was also arrested. Even prior to his incarceration, he lived alone and suffered from various ailments. As one of his female relatives recalls, he suffered various torments during his arrest. It should be mentioned that the bishop was already quite old and at the same time endured mockery and torture. All these actions were carried out for the sole purpose of forcing him to deny God. Of the cruellest torments were the singeing of his hair, along with cigarettes being extinguished on his face. The bishop endured all mockery with dignity, responding to his tormentors on all actions equally: “With my body, you can do whatever you want, but my soul will remain inaccessible to you.” Despite all the physical torments, the bishop tried to maintain his fortitude and display the power of his faith. But it was not only by physical torture that they tried to persuade him to renounce the Creator; they also resorted to persuasive and to flattering speeches. They urged him to write an official statement, to be published in a printed publication, that religion is a false doctrine. The bishop refused this and said that they should give up their own ideas and declare them false. All the temptations along his path, the bishop endured with great courage.

The bishop’s arrest did not pass without consequences, not only for his parish, but also for the entire diocese, which was liquidated almost immediately after the tragic events. Erected churches and prayer houses suffered as they were repurposed for various social needs. For example, in a local church, after redevelopment and renovation, a rural doctor’s surgery was established. You may see it with your own eyes even today, as it still continues to function. Despite all the efforts of the totalitarian regime to destroy the outlines and any reminders that it used to be a church, even today you can discern the location of the holy altar. Documents from state security agencies indicating that the bishop was sentenced to death in 1938 were preserved. He was accused of anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda. He was sentenced on 15 March, and a month later, he was executed. Where they buried the bishop is still undetermined. He was only rehabilitated posthumously, after 51 years; after the investigation, it was determined that there was no evidence of the crime.

John Kudrin constantly corresponded with the bishop, trying not to lose his connection with him, even in particularly difficult times. Therefore, after losing contact, when the final letter came from him, he tried to contact metropolitan Paphnutius of Belaya Krinitsa. When he was informed of the metropolitan’s death, he sent a petition to metropolitan Silvanus of Belaya Krinitsa. The petition stated that during the establishment of the Soviet regime, it was necessary to transfer the Peter and Paul parish to the office of the metropolitan of Belaya Krinitsa. In those difficult times, only the bishop of Kaluga and Smolensk, Sava, was not arrested.

In 1939, the metropolitan of Belaya Krinitsa received a letter from the Council of the Old-believers’ parish. In it was mentioned that bishop Joseph of Irkutsk-Amur and the entire Far East, had given up his soul to God in 1927 and was interred on the territory of the church in Harbin; and after his departure to a better world, leadership of the parish was transferred to bishop Athanasius, who lived on the territory of the Buryato-Mongolian autonomous Republic; correspondence with him had broken off, and it was uncertain whether he was still alive or not. Therefore, the letter contained a petition for Harbin’s St. Peter and Paul parish to be taken under his leadership and direction, until their native land is free from the tyrannical regime, and he can meet bishop Athanasius and communicate with him not merely via correspondence. In 1940, John Kudrin received a positive response from metropolitan of Belaya Krinitsa Silvanus. He agreed to take the St. Peter and Paul parish under his leadership.

In the summer of 1940, Belaya Krinitsa was captured by the Red Army. In Romania, a regular Council was held at the Monastery of Slava Rusa, where a number of important issues were considered. One of them was the question of transferring the administration of the diocese in Manchuria to Titus Deevich Kachalkin, who was recently widowed. He went a long way from his tonsure (taking the name Tikhon) to the clerical ranks, after which he was ordained and received the rank of bishop. Since he could not go to China, he lived in the Romanian Republic for a long time, where he was elected as the metropolitan of Belaya Krinitsa in 1943. The spread of the communist regime did not bypass China, where in 1949 serious reforms began, as well as repression for political reasons. This led to mass migrations of Old-believers outside of China. South America, Australia and nearby islands were chosen as new places to settle. The migration was planned through Hong Kong, which was controlled by the UK.

Migration was not easy for all. On the journey to Australia, the wife of archpriest John Kudrin died on the ship and she was buried at sea. After arriving in Sydney, a parish was formed, where for several decades the seal of the diocese of the Far Eastern lands was preserved, as well as archival documentation of the diocesan administration, sacred objects and valuables from the Far Eastern diocese. After migration to Australia, parishioners and clergymen began to improve their lives. Konstantin Kudrin, the firstborn of John, bought a plot with a building in Auburn. The size of the plot allowed for the construction of a church there, which was dedicated to St. Peter and Paul. It was consecrated by the antimins bishop Joseph brought to Harbin.

A cultural revolution took place in the Republic of China, which led to serious consequences for churches throughout the country. The churches of the Old-believers, which were located in the north-eastern district of the country, were also affected. These include the churches dedicated to the Protection of the Most Holy Theotokos and Saints Peter and Paul. Many New Orthodox churches were also destroyed. But during the period of Soviet repression, not only popovtsi, but bespopovtsi were also forced to migrate to the Republic of China. They settled in Harbin, formed their communities, built churches and prayer houses. Just like the rest of the people who professed a religion, they too were forced in the 1950s to seek a new refuge and mass migrated to the United States of America, as well as to the territory of Turkey.