Old Believers in Karelia in the 17th Century: 
The Early Years
Occasionally as you approach a place, the very earth on which you stand, the outline of trees against a sunset, even the scent of meadow flowers, fill you with a foreboding of human tragedy.
So it is when approaching Paleostrov, one of the myriad islands in the northern reaches of Lake Onega near the ancient settlement of Tolvuja. According to tradition as long ago as 12th century, though research based on recently discovered documents suggests the 15th century, a priory was founded on the island. Over time the wealth of the priory grew. The monks worked the land but more importantly received patronage from Moscow. From the middle of the 17th century, according to the manuscripts the priory held many lands, forests, lakes, villages and peasants’ cottages.
There are many deeds for the priory together with the monasteries of Khutynski, Muromski, Tikhvinski and Vjazhitcki for various land holdings. Towards the end of the 17th century, in 1687 and in 1689 several thousand Old Believers perished by fire (Russ. – «gari») in acts of mass suicide. These sacrificial fires occurred at the approach of troops sent to put down perceived heresy and disobedience.
The facts of the Schism (Russ. — «raskol») are well known. Beginning in the second half of the 17th century the schism spans the centuries to the present day. At the start of the 21st century many communities of Old Believers, both large and small, keep their traditions alive in many parts of the world.
About fifteen years ago a party of Soviet geologists made a remarkable discovery in the Siberian taiga. They came across a family of Lykovy whose forebears had gone to live in the impenetrable forest to escape persecution for their adherence to the old faith. They and their children, now adults, knew nothing of world events from the beginning of the 20th century. Incredibly, Old Believer communities are able to thrive in total isolation, in a world where much cultural identity is blurred by globalisation.
 Why was it so important to maintain this religious isolation in the early days of the schism?
 Why were the early Old Believers prepared to kill themselves for their beliefs?
 What was the importance of their beliefs?
 Who were these people?

To answer these questions let us remind ourselves of the history.

An Ancient Orders at the Russian Church and New Ideas. The Reformers and Their Opponents.
In the seventeenth century Moscow was greatly exercised with ideas of centralisation of power. The union of Ukraine with Russia was seen as a first step toward this end. The Ukrainian church adhered to the Greek rites but uniformity of belief and ritual were important for the stability of the essentially medieval society, which existed in Russia at this time. Commonality was seen as vital.
Until the mid 17th century only Moscow, Novgorod and very few another centres had scholars able to copy liturgical and theological books to supply the needs of newly built churches. More often than not these were monks. Inevitably errors crept in and by the time of the schism service books were full of mistakes.
The church hierarchy in Moscow decided that the creeping inaccuracy must be stopped. Uniformity throughout the church was essential. To this end service books were to be standardised with their Greek originals. In 1649 three scholarly monks from Kiev: Jepifani Slavinetcki, Arseni Satanovski and Damaskin Ptitcki were called to Moscow and set to work on this task.
Even while the work was progressing a faction in the hierarchy has voiced opposition. This group was led by Archpriest Stefan Vonifatiev, abbot of the Cathedral of Our Lady Annunciation in the Moscow Kremlin and confessor to Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich and calling themselves «zealous supporters of piety» (Russ. — «revniteli blagochestija»). The size of the faction was significant and the essence of their complaint was that uniformity must be brought about in accordance with Russian books and canons rather than Greek. To begin with, Nikon, archimandrite of the Novospaski priory and future patriarch, a man influenced by the Greek Church was with them. The group placed much emphasis on the sermon and looked for educated better priesthood who would conduct services with unhurried dignity. An unseemly practice had crept into church services where the priest, the sexton and the choir would sing or say their parts of the liturgy at the same time in order to take as short a time as possible. This resulted in a dreadful cacophony of sound, quite incomprehensible to the congregation. This practice was known as «simulspeak» (Russ. — «mnogoglasie»)
Patriarch Iosif, the head of the church himself did not fully support the reform of the liturgy and called a Church Synod (Russ – «sobor»), which met in February 1649. Although to the delight of the «revniteli» group the synod did not approve the reforms, Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich did, for although generally he supported the best minds in Russia, on the question of uniformity with Greece he held the contrary view. The Tsar was an apologist for the idea of Moscow as a «Third Rome». Moscow had been confirmed as the «deposit of orthodoxy» in a special council of the church (Russ. — «Stoglavyi Sobor») in 1551, some hundred years after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks. The Byzantine ideal was of a «political accord» between church and state. The Tsar favoured of the total subordination of the church to the authority of the emperor. He was jealous of his secular and spiritual power, which he did not wish to share. After discussions with the Tsar in 1646, Archimandrite Nikon became a supporter of the return to Greek customs in the Russian church. Born into a peasant family he was an ambitious man with an iron will. As such the Tsar saw him as the right man for the job, a strong man who would defend the need for change in long established traditions.
The first upset, to the old ways, in March 1653, was to change the bow of prostration to a bow from the waist only and also to make the sign of the cross with three fingers rather than two.
This caused immediate protest to which the powerful patriarch reacted aggressively. Archpriest Avvakum, Ivan Neronov, deacon Fedor and others were exiled or sent to remote monasteries.
Soon, there was mass resistance in the church at all levels of society, which developed into a schism. At the same time there was a desire to see the church preaching certainty.
Whilst stressing the extremes, which the protests took it is important to remember that the 17th century was a time of great upheaval. Rebellion was closely followed by many executions and the imposition of an unbearable tax burden.
Many new cities were founded which were largely serviced by a displaced rural population. There was a great yearning amongst these people for their previous lives, which were remembered as idyllic.
The plague of 1654 took many lives. The wars, which had raged since the beginning of the century deprived many families of breadwinners and consigned them to a nomadic life on the edge of starvation. Family farms failed and their owners fled from the intolerable tax burden to the far north where it was possible to hide in the boundless forests and in secluded monasteries.
Many people saw their troubles as stemming from the church reforms. Central government was unrelenting in its pursuit of its strident critics and dealt with them by imprisonment. But the ideas and writings of the rebels were spreading throughout the land, bringing about a great commitment to the old faith. Archpriest Avvakum played an important role in leading the rebellion. Using the language of the people he preached the coming apocalypse, and thus led some into martyrdom through a literal baptism by fire.
These events were particularly significant in Siberia and Karelia in the far north of Russia.
Let us now look at events in Zaonezhie. Here two thousand people chose death by burning in the wooden church at Paleostrov. Neither was this event unique. Similar horrors were repeated nearby over a period of two or three years. So why did they do it? What were their thoughts? What were their hopes? What sort of lives had they led hitherto? These are questions, which require answers. What are out starting points?
We sometimes read in the literature that the reformers were concerned over indifference among the people to the faith in the seventeenth century. This is seen as one of the reasons for the necessity of reforming the service books of the church.
A study of the documents concerning Karelia suggests entirely the contrary.

Parish Community in the Peasant World and Its Meaning
Here, by long standing tradition there was a degree of democracy in church affairs. The congregation decided such things as the appointment of a priest, which of the widows would bake the communion bread, the treatment of the old and the destitute poor, even when to build a new church.
Church building could be for many reasons, the church may have burned, it may have become old and dilapidated or the next newfounded settlements may have moved too far away from the old church. In any of these circumstances the members of the community would meet and after maybe lengthy discussions would reach a decision in accordance with local tradition. A special application, settled local community’s requirements in definite terms (Russ. — «chelobitnaya») was should be carried to the archbishop in Novgorod by a local representative whose expenses the community would pay. The envoy would explain that the community had moved from the centre of the parish and they would therefore like to build their own church and appoint a priest. They would also propose a dedication for the new church. Having received the archbishop’s approval and permission for the felling of wood and so on, the congregation would proceed with the planning of the building project. A reliable master builder, who would usually be known to them, would be appointed. This was the generally accepted way of proceeding.
On the completion of the new church, the messenger would return to Novgorod, in order to bring from the archbishop a sanctified antiminsion (the special cloth to put on the altar under the tabernacle) and a letter of permission to the priest to sanctify the church. The Archbishop of Novgorod thus took an active part in events, which were important for (sometimes tiny) parishes among the lakes and marshes of Karelia.
In the case of a new church as a replacement for an old one the Archbishop’s interest may have been somewhat greater. For example he may stipulate that some of the old material be reused and that the remainder be disposed of decently, perhaps by burning. During the 17th century about one hundred new churches were built in this way on local initiative on the shores of Lake Onego. (Pict. 1.)
The affairs of the church were close to the life of everyone in this peasant society. Even secular transactions would be concluded in church.
Part of every parish church was set aside for a special meal (Russ. — «trapeznaya»). The people came together in the church not only for the sacraments but for the secular affairs of the community, the discussion of taxation, budgetary matters, even the settlement of disputes. The church was the very centre of the community.
The appointment of a parish priest involved a special agreement, a so-called «record» (Russ. — «zapis’») drawn up locally. The community had the right not only to appoint but also to dismiss the priest or sexton if they had violated the terms of their contract. The church and its contents were the property of the community (Russ. —  «mir») and regularly recorded in the scribe books (Russ. —  «pistsovye knigi»).
Copyright © Irina Chernyakova & Oleg Chernyakov,2007
Irina Chernyakova
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Ch. I
The pictures cited may be seen in: Starovery Old Believers: Studies on Old Ritualism in Eastern Christianity. Ed. by J. Pentikainen. London, Hisarlik Press, 1998
Ch. IIOldBelievers_II.html
Text in English is friendly edited by Paul Bush 
(Glossop, England)