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The Russian Orthodox Old Believer Church

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Spiritual centers of the Old-Rite Church

All Orthodox Christians who disagreed with the innovations and continued to pray according to the old books were put in a position that in many ways resembled the lot of the martyrs of the Roman Empire in the first centuries of Christianity. The persecutions were extensive, total and brutal. In order to preserve their lives and faith, Russian Christians were forced to flee far from major cities and roads, to settle in secluded, remote places and establish churches and everyday life there. As a result, entire centers of Old-believers’ culture are gradually emerging in Russia. Today they are the historical and national heritage of the Russian homeland. Here are some of them.

Spiritual centers of the Old-Rite Church
Kerzhenec river

In the Nizhny Novgorod oblast flows the river Kerzhenets, the left tributary of the Volga. Already from the 17th century, settlements and monastic sketes of Old-believers existed in the extensive and dense forests of this area. The most famous of them is the Komarovsky Skete. Books were manuscribed here and priests converting to the Old Belief were received. Kerzhenets is the source of a beautiful composition defending the Old-Rite, known as the “Deacon’s Answers”, which was written by hierodeacon Alexander (1674 – March 21, 1720), who was subjected to a cruel martyrdom at the hands of his persecutors.

The Kerzhenets sketes began to be systematically destroyed by Peter the Great at the instigation of the New Orthodox archbishop Pitirim, the then ruling bishop of the Nizhny Novgorod diocese. Several of the hermit monks were slain, others were sent to penal servitude. The remainder dispersed to various places.

The devastation of the Kerzhenets sketes once again proves that it was the New Orthodox clergy who were the true initiators of the persecutions of Old Orthodox Christians. Subsequently, the secular authorities gradually began to understand the economic benefits for the state from the agricultural activities of the Old-believers. But the constant incitement of such figures as patriarch Joachim of Moscow, archbishop Pitirim of Nizhny Novgorod, metropolitan Dmitry of Rostov, metropolitan Philaret Drozdov and others like them, ensured the incessant persecution of the Old-believers throughout the so-called “synodal era of the New Belief”.

Starodub is a geographical region of modern Chernihiv and Bryansk oblasts. The wetland covered with dense forests, as well as the abundance of rivers, made Starodub one of the places where the Old-believers could escape from persecution. Another favourable condition – its proximity to Poland and Lithuania resulted in tolerance from local authorities and diminished persecution. The relatively quiet life here continued until the end of the 17th century, after which the Christians living here went to Vietka, which then belonged to the Polish kingdom.

The descendants of the Old Orthodox Christians of Starodub today live compactly in the cities of Klintsy, Gomel, Novozybkov and upon the lands accosting these cities.

Vietka is an Old-believers’ spiritual center located on the territory of the Gomel oblast of modern Belarus. Being at the time on the territory of another state (Poland), Vietka’s Old-believers did not fear persecution from Moscow. When the Polish state weakened, in the middle of the 18th century, the so-called “first expulsion” of Old-believers took place. The “second” and “third” expulsions followed thereafter, however Vietka was again and again settled by Old-believers.

It is noteworthy that in 1734, in accordance with the second order (of receiving converts), Vietkan priests through chrismation received bishop Epiphanius from New Orthodoxy, who managed to ordain fourteen priests. Ordinations of bishops, unfortunately, did not take place.

Irgiz is a fairly large and full-flowing tributary to the Volga River, carrying its waters through the expanses of the Saratov and Samara provinces. The humane policy of the enlightened Empress Catherine II contributed to the creation of yet another Old-believers’ center. The empress’ manifesto on the occasion of her coronation from 1762 provided for a more humane attitude toward the Old Orthodox Christians. The appeal of Catherine II for the Old-believers to return to their homeland from abroad found a worthy response in the hearts of Christians who yearned for Russia, but were forced to flee beyond the borders of the state to escape persecution.

Irgiz, as an Old-believers’ center is interesting in that, it was appointed by the authorities as a place for the settlement of Old-believers who had returned from abroad. Over time, numerous Old-believers’ villages, churches, monasteries and sketes appeared on Irgiz. The relative freedom of the Irgizian Old-believers made it possible to actually transform it into a canonical church center, from which spiritual leadership was exercised over the Old-believers’ parishes of the Russian Empire.

The cruel and treacherous ruination of the Irgizian monasteries and parishes occurred during the godless and tyrannical policies against the Old-believers by the emperor Nicholas I, who was aptly nicknamed Nikolai Palkin (from ‘palka’ – stick) by the people.

Spiritual centers of the Old-Rite Church
Rogozhskoe

The Old-believers’ Rogozhskoe cemetery in Moscow likewise bears its history from during the reign of Empress Catherine II. Cemeteries are considered special places in Old-believers’ religious culture as being secretive locations where the faithful could gather together for communal prayers without significant impediments.

In Moscow in 1771, the plague epidemic reached its apogee, to the extent that there was no one to bury the people who died from the disease. For the burial of their fellow faithful, the Old-believers were given a place outside of Moscow, near the Rogozhskoe settlement. Gradually, monks and worshippers began to settle near the Old-believers’ cemetery. A chapel was built in the name of the Myra-Lycian hierarch Nicholas the Wonderworker. A homeless shelter and an almshouse were also erected in the Rogozhskoe settlement.

Today, the Rogozhskoe Sloboda (Settlement) is the spiritual and administrative center of the Russian Orthodox Old-Rite Church. The current flourishing of the Old-believers’ church construction and the more detailed, amazing history of this corner of the Russian Old Belief – Rogozhskoe Sloboda – will be described in subsequent articles.

Guslitsa is a geographic area of the Old Belief, distinguished by its cultural specificity, which found its embodiment in the icon painting and design style of religious manuscribed books. Guslitsa is situated on the territory of modern Orekhovo-Zuyevsky and Yegoryevsky districts of the Moscow oblast – places of compact residence of Old-believers accepting of the priesthood. Consequently, the very appearance of the original Guslitsan culture was possible

only thanks to the Old-believers who lived here from the end of the 17th century. The most famous Guslitsan settlements are Orekhovo-Zuyevo, Yegoryevsk, Kurovskoye, Shuvoye, Ustyanovo, Selivanikha, Belivo and others.

Before the revolution, especially in the golden age of the Old Belief, Guslitsa was a large industrial center, the production facilities of which were under the jurisdiction of well-known Old-believing entrepreneurs and patrons including the Morozovs, Soldatyonkovs, Kuznetsovs and others.

Large Old-believers’ centers with liturgical life and Christian enlightenment were also found in other districts of the Moscow region, such as Vereya, Lytkarino and Glazovo. Not far from the picturesque town of Vereya there is the historic town of Borovsk, renowned for its rich history, spiritual and cultural traditions. The established God-protected Old-believers’ cities Borovsk and Vereya have their own separate history.

Vygovsky Hermitage owes its origins to the activities of Andrew Denisov (1674–1730) and his brother Simon Denisov (1682–1740), descendants from the well-known Myshetskiy princes. On the territory of the Olonets province (between Petrozavodsk and Arkhangelsk) on the Vyg River, which flows into Vygozero, the Denisov brothers founded the Vygovsky hermitage, following the example of a monastic commune (kinovia). Life in this hermitage was distinguished, on the one hand, by its zeal for regulated worship and large-scale management of the monastery, which resembled the activities of Venerable Joseph of Volokalamsk. On the other hand, the deepening of culture, the development of literacy and icon-making, which was sourced from exalted prayerful vigil, make the Vygovsky hermitage the co-heir to the tradition of Venerable Nilus of Sora.

To the quill of Andrew Denisov belongs one of the most popular dogmatic compositions of the Old Belief “Pomorsky Answers”, which should be discussed in more detail.

In 1722, Emperor Peter I issued a special decree, which provided the application of a “violent missionary activity” policy, with regards to the inhabitants of the Vygovsky Old-believers’ commune, in order to convert them to “official Orthodoxy”. In the same year, to fulfill the imperial edict, a missionary group was sent to Pomorye led by Synodal hieromonk Neophyte, who composed 106 questions of a religious-polemic nature, intended for the Old-believers living there to respond to them in writing. The hard work of the Vyg Old-believers resulted in the publication in 1723 of the “Pomorsky Answers”.

Andrew Denisov was the first in the history of national science to use the paleographic method for his research. Possessing a deep intelligence and extensive knowledge of history, philosophy, religious studies and linguistics, Denisov compiled a fundamental systematic theological work that defines the doctrinal foundations of Russian Old Belief – the Old Orthodox dogma.

“Pomorsky Answers” is a distinctive Old-believer attempt at the systematisation and research of the foundations of the Orthodox Faith, which has not been matched throughout the entire history of Russian religious thought.

The writing style of this work is characterised by the complete absence of journalistic subjectivism, which the main leaders of the early Old-believers — Avvakum and Neronov, andalso the renowned Old-believer historian and theologian of the 20th century Feodor Melnikov — were not always able to disassociate with. On the pages of the “Answers” we will not encounter sharp attacks towards the opposing religious group. Throughout the book, Denisov managed to maintain a moderate and delicate polemical tone, step by step examining controversial ecclesiastical issues.

If Andrei Denisov had released his intellectual creation today, it would have been one of the best doctoral theses in religious studies.

The “Pomorsky Answers” are one of the most theologically developed and fully completed primary sources in defense of the Old Faith. The significance of the “Pomorsky Answers” remains relevant within the midst of Old-believers to this day. This monument of religious thought, born in the ideological world of Russian Old Belief, is an invaluable source for the historical study of the Old Belief and of Russian religious thought as a whole.

Old Believers abroad. Inhuman survival conditions and the policy of eradication based on religion led to the mass emigration of Old Orthodox Christians from the Russian Empire abroad. Thus, there are numerous diasporas of Old-believers outside the Russian Empire.

One of the brightest examples of the preservation of the Old Faith beyond the borders of the homeland is the Lipovan Old-believers’ culture, which is distinguished by numerous unique original traditions.

The exact origin of the name “Lipovans” is not established. There is an assumption that these Old -believers take their name from the village Lipoveni. Another version tells us that these Old-believers lived in a huge linden tree (lipa) forest, from which the name originated.

The historical roots of the Lipovan Old-believers come from the resettlement of Orthodox Christians who did not agree with the “reform”. Today, Lipovans are the descendants of foreign Russian Old-believers who returned to their homeland after the revolution. They live on the territory of modern Romania (Dobrudja, Iasi, Braila, Tulcea, Jurilovca, Lipoveni, Slava Cercheza, Slava Rusa) and Ukraine.

Lipovan communities are also found in some cities of Moldova (Chisinau, Cahul, Orhei, Balti) and Kuban of the Krasnodar Territory of the Russian Federation (Primorsko-Akhtarsk, Sochi, Novopokrovskiy, Nekrasovskaya, Brinkovskaya, etc.).

In Romania, during the reign of Nikolae Ceausescu, the state policy of “Romanisation” of Lipovans was carried out. Old-believers in Romania were assigned Romanian surnames and the Romanian language was purposefully and methodically taught in schools.

The formation of large spiritual centers of the Old-believers, along with the wide and diverse activities of the communities, all testified to the optimism of Orthodox Christians who rejected the church “reform” of the 17th century. Despite the persecutions and all kinds of harassment from the synodal and secular authorities, the existence of the Old-believers’ Old Orthodox Church of Christ continues, despite all the obstacles permitted by God and invented by the enemy of the human race.

The Church of Christ continues to live.