The History of Oregon's Old Believer Community

Compiled by Paul J. Wigowsky

Much more information on the Oregon community and its traditions can be found at, from which I have copied the following information.



In order to fully understand the nature of Staroveri (Old Believer) society and the reasons behind the Oregon group's migrations, it is necessary to become acquainted with their basic history. Although Russia dates its conversion to Christianity from the year 988 A.D., the Orthodoxy did not begin to establish itself as a church in its own right until a few centuries had passed. Up until about 1440, Russia received much of the impetus for its faith and the operation of its church from the Byzantine Orthodoxy in Constantinople. In 1443 the Tsar declared the Russian metropolitanate independent of the Byzantines, and shortly thereafter a long era of reform among the clergy was initiated. Several councils were held to set matters straight among the clergy and laity, the most influential of these being the Stoglav (One hundred Chapters) of 1551, in which some 100 chapters of reformation were laid down with the provision that disobedience would result in transgressors being forever accursed. By 1589, the patriarch in Constaninople acknowledged the fact of Russian separation by himself declaring the Russian patriarch as separate and the See for that patriarch as being located in Moscow.

Despite these efforts and the recognition of the Russians as a third center of Christianity, by the beginning of the seventeeth century there was still a widely felt problem with the clergy. (Moscow as the third Rome was a popular theory at the time.) In the reign of Patriarch Joseph (1642-1652) there arose a reformist group of clergy whose aims included the restoration of the purity of the service books and stricter observance of various matters of spiritual discipline among the clergy generally. This movement was headed by the priest and confessor to the Tsar Stephan Vonifatiev, and the Archbishop of Novgorod Nikon. Even though the Russian metropolitanate had nominally been independent of the Byzantines for two centuries, many of the clergy had been educated in Greece, and Nikon was one of these. One of the splits which developed among the reformists concerned the extent to which the older Greek customs and rites should be adhered to in the new reforms.

Upon the death of Patriarch Joseph in 1652, Vonifatiev was lawfully elected Patriarch, but refused the position. The Tsar Alexei then put Nikon in his place, contrary to the Church Canons, which forbade the Tsar to have such influence over the appointment. Apparently no one actively contested the appointment and Nikon commenced his reign with several reformatory measures. In 1653, he sent a memorandum to the churches in the land which instructed them in various revisions of the services and the books. These reforms met with opposition from many of the clergy. Among the major points which were contested were: (1) how many fingers would be used to make the sign of the cross; (2) the spelling of Jesus' name; (3) whether "Alleluia" should be sung two or three times; (4) the retention of certain words and phrases in the Creed; (5) the number of hosts to be used in the liturgy; and (6) whether the priests should walk around the altar with or against the passage of the sun. These matters of ritual, seemingly unimportant in themselves, nevertheless were the embodiment of certain theological precepts and ideological alliances, and hence stirred considerable controversy upon their arrival. For example, the conservatives maintained that the sign of the cross with two fingers rather than three (the latter being the proposed reform) signified the dual nature of Christ, with the first finger representing the divine nature and the bent second being a symbol of Christ's descent to Earth for the salvation of humankind. They cited many old icons to support their position on this matter, in which some of the saints and Christ could be seen using the two-fingered sign. The three-fingered sign, on the other hand, was intended as an acknowledgment of the Trinity. But this was considered by the conservative dissenters to represent Greek heresy. To make matters worse, many of the clergy felt that strict observance of the most minute details of the dogmas and disciplines of the church were necessary to salvation. This was a direct result of the reformatory efforts of the group in Moscow.

Even so, the disputes might have been settled in the course of a few councils, had not Nikon pressed his hand too early and forcefully. He had his opponents flogged, exiled and even burned at the stake. Among the exiles was the arch-priest Avvakum, who had been one of the more prominent among the younger members of the reformatory circle in pre-Nikonian days and had spearheaded the conservative opposition to Nikon's edicts. He was eventually burned at the stake in 1682 and until then continued to serve as a spiritual leader for many of the dissenters. The result of these measures was such a storm of protest, that Nikon was himself forced to resign his office by 1658.

However, his compatriots continued to wield official power, and the persecutions went on in his absence. The Tsar was on the side of the would-be reformers and began to openly wage campaigns against the conservatives. After the Council of 1666, in which the Stoglav of 1551 was declared a forgery and heretical, the Solovetski Monks of the White Sea formed a bastion against the new tide of reform, and were promptly excommunicated and eventually replaced with monks from Moscow.

Because of actions like the above, some of the dissenters believed that the age of the Anti-Christ had come and that the end of the world was near. In the years 1666-1668 numerous fields throughout Western Russia were neglected while the faithful adorned themselves in burial clothes and awaited the end of the world in their cemeteries at night, singing hymns and sitting in wooden coffins. Others set buildings afire where they waited inside to be cleansed and to perish in the flames so that they might join Christ before the Judgment Day. Between these and the others who were burned to death by persecutors, it has been estimated that more than 20,000 Old Believers died between 1672 and 1691 alone.

Partly because most of the prominent conservative clergy perished early in the movement, and partly because there were not many others who were courageous enough to risk stepping into their places, the conservatives began to run out of higher-level clergy, particularly bishops. This posed a problem because without bishops, there could be no ordained priesthood. Without priests, most of the sacraments could not be administered and believers were faced with the prospect of not being able to marry or receive communion. There were two kinds of solutions to this problem. One was to accept fugitive priests from the ranks of the Nikonians, and groups which did this became known as the "Beglopopovtsy." Some of these groups in various regions even eventually obtained bishops of their own in the nineteenth century. The other solution was to reject the notion of a true priesthood and to form the community around a lay-priest. Perhaps the most famous example of such a community was the monastic order at Lake Vyg, headed by the Denisov Brothers. The Denisovs were responsible for several influential writings on the dissenting movement, and their community became an example for many others throughout Western Russia. These groups became known as the "Bezpopovtsy" (priestless).

From those days on to the Revolution of 1917, the Old Believer sects suffered varying amounts of persecution at the hands of henchmen either of the Orthodoxy or various Tsars. Under Catherine II, Paul and Alexander I, they were tolerated and thrived in some areas, but under Peter the Great and Nicholas I, they often had to flee to outer regions of Russia or to other countries to avoid death or imprisonment. During the last half of the nineteenth century, the position of the Orthodox Church softened with regard to the Old Believer question, and the 1909 Council made the first official conciliations by restoring a few of the decanonized saints which were among the Old Believer favorites and by 1929 the old anathemas had been officially removed. However, another potent socio-political force came in the Revolution of 1919 and, later, in Stalin's measures against religious adherents of all stripes.


The Staroveri (Old Believers) were originally separated into three groups: (1) one group migrating to an area around Kuban, Turkey; (2) another group migrating to an area in Manchuria near Harbin; and (3) the third group migrating to an area near Kulja and Altai in the Sinkiang Province. Most of the discussion will be centered around the two groups scattered about in communities in China: the Harbintsi (Harbin people) and the Sinziantsi (Sinkiang people).

Most of the Harbintsi did not meet each other until they came across the border into China during the Twenties and Thirties. Many of them hailed originally from the vicinity of Moscow and Kiev, their families having moved out to the east because of the persecutions under Nicholas I (1825-1855). They settled in the areas of Primorsk, Khabarovsk, Sakhalin and even northern Japan. Most of them lived in small village communities and either farmed or operated small-scale industries such as cloth manufacture or flour mills. Some of them had become fairly well-to-do landholders by the time of the Revolution. A few male interviewees recall seving in the Tsarist army during the first World War.

It was several years after the dawning of the Revolution before the consequences could be felt as far as the souther reaches of Siberia. Many of the landholders were victimized by the seizures of property which resulted from takeovers of vast villages by the Red Army during the last years of fighting the White Army remnants which were at that time retreating into China, or from peasant-inspired uprisings in the villages themselves.

Most of the Sinziantsi came originally from the Russian-Polish border area and migrated to the Siberian regions because of persecutions in the mid-1700's. They settled in the areas of Semipalatinsk, Kamchatka in Kazahstan, and Tashkent. When they decided to move south to escape the Revolution and later Stalinization of the regions, the Sinkiang Province was the closest point of entry. Small groups came, mostly by foot, over the Altai Mountains. Some of them settled near Altai itself (a bitterly cold area), or eventually moved further south to form villages near Kuldja and Urumchi (in northwestern China, west of Mongolia). They gradually clustered in the various river valleys of the region, where they found the soil to be the most fertile. The city of Kuldja was another center of expatriate Russian population during this time, as many soldiers and religiously inclined Russians followed the passes down into the Sinkiang Province during the Twenties and Thirties.

For a decade or more, particularly throughout the Thirties, the Harbintsi and Sinziantsi lived relatively peaceful lives. They farmed primarily on a subsistance basis, and sold wheat and honey to the local urban centers or to Chinese villages in the area. They also hunted various animals whose skins or other parts were prized by locals for medicinal or other purposes. The Harbintsi in particular became famous, to some extent, for their ability to hunt and capture live tigers to supply zoos in Harbin and nearby cities. Other commonly hunted animals included boar, bear, elk, squirrel and various birds.

Their primary contacts with other people during this time came through trading or chance meetings with nomads in the area. Some Sinziantsi communities struck up friendly relations with nomadic Mongol tribes which toured their regions, and in one case a tribe camped the winter in the Old Believer village in trade for their animal skins and some meat. They would also hire out to Old Believers as farm workers for planting in the early spring, before starting off on their migrations for the summer. The Harbintsi did not have friendly nomads, but did have occasion to meet with the notorious bandit gangs which roved northern China at that time. These gangs, often initially formed by village peasants to protect them against the gnetry of late feudal China, would resort frequently to sacking villages for supplies and women.

However, the Old Believers could hardly have chosen a worse spot to which to migrate in their attempt to escape the influences of Soviet rule. During the Thirties and Forties, both the Harbin and Sinkiang regions became the primary areas of Soviet dominance in their dealings with the fledgling Chinese governments of the period. Additionally, the Japanese overran the Manchurian region and set up their own government there. These events and their consequences caused the Old Believers plenty of problems.

Soviet interests in both the north China and Sinkiang regions were primarily economic. Historical accounts point to the Soviet use of Port Arthur and Darien as warm-water ports for the east, their interests in the construction of railroads throughout the region, and their mining and refining activities in the northern area of the Sinkiang Province. In Sinkiang, the Soviets established consulates there by 1924, and when the warlord of the area was assassinated in 1928, the Soviets were quick to move in on his successor to establish a puppet government there during the Thirties. Harbin served as the center of Soviet diplomatic activities during the Thirties as well, with a consulate and a special Russian muncipality established there up to the time of the Japanese take-over. Up to this point, however, Soviet activities did not often spread to the rural areas and the Old Believers seem to have been unaffected by their presence in the cities. The Twenties and Thirties were mostly characterized as a very peaceful, "free" era, during which the villagers of both the Harbin and Sinkiang groups were left alone for the most part and simply worked whatever piece of land in the area took their fancy. They traveled freely and hunted where they chose. Many of them married people in other villages and moved there. Most of them had little cause or opportunity to visit nearby towns unless they were male and wished to trade or sell. They made most of their own clothing and other implements, with the exception of metal objects.

For the Harbins, the first problems arose with the takeover of the Manchurian region by the Japanese, who in 1932 established the notorious "Manchukuo" regime. One of the primary early tasks the new government undertook was the extension of the railroad system, and workers from various provinces were expropriated for this purpose. Even the Old Believers worked for the Japanese on the railways. Usually, they were returned to their families without incident when the work in that area was completed, but stories were told of individuals being transferred to other projects and never being seen again. There were also some deaths and injuries from accidents. The work was not done voluntarily; the individuals involved were rounded up and marched off by Japanese soldiers for forced labor. The Japanese never reached Sinkiang, so the people there were largely unaffected by the invasion and the events leading up to World War II.

When the Soviets began to actively aid the Chinese in fighting the Japanese, the Old Believers found themselves affected in several ways. First, their villages were occasionally raided by Soviet troops passing through the area. In Sinkiang, this occurred because some of the settlements were apparently in the path of a major Soviet overland route for supplying the soldiers at the front. In Harbin, where much of the fighting was taking place, the villagers were frequently bystanders on the front itself. Raids on villages usually were for supplies only. Troops would take the food stores and animals, leaving the villagers with whatever they could get out of the ground between the raid and that winter. Occasionally, however, all the men over sixteen or seventeen would be taken and marched off either to become soldiers or to work on repairing and extending the railway system, which was also crucial for maintaining the supplies for troops. Even those whose villages were not hit by the Soviets encountered difficulties when they ventured near the cities of Harbin or Mutankiang for supplies, only to find the cities in shambles because of the war.

Sinkiang also had a few battles during the late Thirties and early Forties, but these came mostly from Mongol and Moslem uprisings, and were centered around Urumchi. Thus, only an occasional Old Believer had anything to do with such conflicts. A few of them, however, served in the area's White Army for short periods of time.

As the war progressed, some of the Harbintsi attempted to move further south in the Manchurian region, hoping thereby to escape Soviet raids and the ravages of the conflict itself. As they did so, however, they found themselves in the midst of the so-called "liberated areas" and faced a different problem in the form of the Draft Agrarian Law of 1947 and its consequences. This law was the center of a political offensive on the part of the Chinese revolutionaries in their efforts to attain full control over China, and is principal purpose was the abolition of the feudal landholding system. Typically, the law was enforced or implemented through the incitement of peasant uprisings against the local landlords and gentry by revolutionary cadres. These uprisings, once they got going in earnest, were often quite violent and many beatings and murders took place in the name of land reform. Thus, when the movement to expropriate property gained momentum in their area, various Old Believer villages came under attack for the possession of "more than their share" of property. This was somewhat ironic, because the Old Believers did not participate at all in the Chinese landlord system. In fact, their Mir system of distributing land among themselves in their own villages closely approximated the Draft Law ideal of equality in both quantity and quality of land. Nevertheless, the attacks between 1947-1951 in both areas came without warning, were violent, and left the Old Believers without their property.

Another event at the end of World War II which affected the Old Believers was the Soviet post-war cleanups in both Manchuria and Sinkiang. In Manchuria, this took the form of a move to dismantle the captured Japanese industrial centers and ship the parts back to the Soviet Union to aid Soviet rebuilding efforts in their own country. The Soviets also lacked manpower during this time, and most of expatriate Russians in the urban centers in northern China were either persuaded or coerced to join the troops and their technicians in the march back to the homeland. Some Old Believer villages were again raided during this time, both in the Harbin and Kuldja regions. This was the time when the Soviets came in trucks with films and speeches about how wonderful life was in the Soviet Union and promises that they would be allowed to worship as they wished when the returned. People who continued to the homeland went there to work on a collective farm and to see their icons and prayer books destroyed.

Those that stayed in China began to plan their escape from China. They did not want to return to Russia and conditions in China were becoming intolerable for them. Some of them had heard of the United States and Canada and wished to go there. Getting the documents necessary for that kind of travel proved difficult, however, because not only were most of the Staroveri illiterate, but Moscow and Vladivostok held some of those documents and were loathe to give them up for the purpose of aiding the escape of religious exiles from the Soviet Union. The consulates in Harbin and Kuldja were not helpful either. In fact, some Old Believers claim that they or acquaintances of theirs were jailed for their attempted contacts with the British Consulate in Hong Kong, on orders from the local Russian consulates in Harbin or Kuldja.

In the period 1957-58 the local officials and the people in Hong Kong suddenly relented and they found themselves with permission to travel to Hong Kong, thence to prepare for departure to another country. The only event which seems to hold any possibility of explaining this change in policy is the visit of Khrushchev to Peking in the mid-50's which coincided with a shake-up in the Soviet diplomatic corps assigned to China. The consulates at both Kuldja and Harbin were replaced in 1954, with the Harbin consulate being replaced again in 1957.

In any event, the remaining Old Believers from Manchuria and Sinkiang traveled to Hong Kong around 1958-59. Some of them had escaped in the mid-50's, usually making their way by hired truck, foot or horseback to the nearest train station where they could safely board a train to either Shanghai or Hong Kong. Most of them, however, even when they escaped illegally, wound up in Hong Kong about the same time their legitimate brethren did, in 1958-59.

There, the Old Believers from Manchuria and Sinkiang met for the first time. The Red Cross and the United World Council of Churches assisted both groups while they were in Hong Kong, putting them up in hotels and arranging for their passage to a new country. Most of them spent months in the city while the consulates debated their fates. They were enjoined not to work while they were there, but some of them found short-term jobs anyway. The majority of them had been forced to give up all they owned in the way of valuables in order to make the trip, and they were understandably insecure without some money or belongings of their own, despite the assurances of the charitable organizations that their needs would be provided for. In all, out of the uncounted thousands of Old Believers who apparently at one time populated the rural areas of northern China and Sinkiang, less than 1,000 made it to Hong Kong. Some of the families claim to be the only ones from their entire village who made it out of China without going back to the Soviet Union.

In Hong Kong, they were given several choices among the countries to which they could go: Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. The largest groups went eventually to Brazil and Australia, with smaller groups ending up in the other countries. To date, there are still some Old Believers left in each of those nations.


Our narrative narrows at this point to those Old Believers who went to Brazil. The number which arrived there seems to have been near 200 or even more. There were apparently two boatloads of them, one of which went to Brazil by way of Los Angeles and the other which headed in the opposite direction by plane, eventually passing through Rome and then taking a boat from Italy. The group which stopped in Lost Angeles found their arrival heralded by the American newspaper Novoye Slovo (The New Word), and they were met by some Molokans who resided at that time in the city. These Molokans were members of another conservative sect from the days of the Schism of 1653, and this particular group had immigrated to the United States in the early Twenties. Some of their relatives had moved to central Oregon and were farming in the Willamette Valley near Salem and Woodburn. In the course of conversations between the members of these two groups, the Molokan hosts told their Old Believer guests about the productive farmland and peaceful countryside their relatives had written them about in "Voodburn." It was this name that the Old Believers were later to give their American sponsors when asked in what part of the country they would like to settle.

The majority of the Old Believers arrived in Brazil in 1959-61. They had been provided with land by the United World Council of Churches, and this organization further promised to provide them with the means and assistance necessary to get them started in farming their land. The Sinziantsi and Harbintsi requested to be settled on separate pieces of land, despite their friendly acquaintance during their stay in Hong Kong. This factional loyalty showed up in family lines as well. Within each of the two groups, small viallges were formed principally on the basis of family membership or village alliances as they had existed back in China. Both groups were settled nearby each other, about eight miles or so from the nearby town of Ponta Grossa, in the state of Parana. The Harbin group split into three villages, with the Sinziantsi forming five.

Life in Brazil appears to have been difficult from the start. The soil and climatic conditions were vastly different from anything the Old Believers had known. They were used to fertile deposits from the river valleys of China's northlands, a cold winter and temperate summer. This was the kind of climate they had known in Russia also. In Brazil, the soil was barren and the climate dry and hot, except for seasonal torrents of rain which washed uselessly over the land and quickly evaporated in the sun. Several of them told of first harvests which were total losses, which no food to eat for the coming rainy season and no seed to plant the next time. They had to borrow money from the banks in Ponta Grossa for machinery and fertilizers without which they were told they would not be able to farm there. They began growing rice and watermelons for cash crops, because they had been informed by the locals that there were outlets for those products in Ponta Grossa and they grew well in the soil of that region.

Unfortunately, although many of the Old Believers became proficient farmers under those conditions by the second or third year of their stay there, two factors prevented all but a few from making a livelihood of their work. One of these was the depressed state of the local economy and the fact that there was not enough of an outlet to provide sales for all the rice that the Russians would produce. Thus, they found that during good harvest years, the market would quickly become glutted and the prices would fall so drastically that only a few could make any money at all. One way which some individuals tried to circumnavigate this difficulty was by hoarding as much rice as they could until the market had unfrozen, and then strategically leaking their supply onto the market to cash in on the resultant price increases. Other considered this dishonest, but competed for the purchase of land from indebted brethren so that they could absorb their losses through multiple or even staggered harvests. The end result of this system of "free enterprise" under restricted market conditions was a fierce competition between Old Believers which began to undermine community solidarity and in a few instances caused some violent feuding among families or village groups.

The second factor which intervened between the Old Believers efforts and the prospects of a decent living was the highly corrupted local system of government and the tax system in particular. It was common for an Old Believer, driving his produce to market, to be stopped by a man in the road who posed as a tax collector. This man would overestimate the amount of produce and charge taxes accordingly. He would then pocket the money and provide the farmer with no receipt or document of the "transaction," thus leaving him open for the next man in the road. Tax collectors also frequented the pubic marketplaces and streets of Ponta Grossa, so that an individual farmer coming into town for a day of selling and trading could have taxes charged as many as four or five times. One protective (aside, perhaps, from learning to swear effectively in Portuguese) adopted by some of the Old Believers was to take their produce to the local governor and hve him or a deputy sign a paper indicating that the bearer had paid his taxes for that load in full. However, this took time and was not always dependable, since the appropriate officials might not be available at the time the farmer came to call.

Once again, the literate among the Old Believers began appealing for assistance from various nations. It was obvious to them that they could not make a living for themselves in Brazil. Many of the families were already heavily indebted to the banks, and a few of them were close to starving. Even the relatively well-to-do were not secure in their comparative wealth, for a couple of disastrous crops could bring them down as well.

The Tolstoy Foundation in New York found out about the group, and agreed to sponsor the majority of them in a move to the United States. A few other Old Believers were sponsored by acquaintances of theirs from days in China who had already moved to the United States and become citizens. Most of them began their migration in the mid-60's, from about 1964 to 1969. They moved when they could afford to pay at least part of their plane fare and still have a small savings to tide them over in America while they searched for work. Of those who made the move, most of them came to Oregon, beginning in the early Sixties. A handful of families went to New York where their sponsors were, but most of these eventually came out to Oregon to join the others. Some remained in Brazil and are there to this day, but have moved to another location at Mato Grossa. Some say that all of the remaining Old Believers in Brazil would like to come here but are too poor to manage it, while others have indicated that some of them have become well-to-do there and enjoy their lives.

While the Tolstoy Foundation was making arrangements with the Russians in Brazil for their migration to the United States, the plight of another group in Turkey came to their attention. Through a series of misfortunes, this community's numbers had been reduced to the point that they could no longer support themselves nor could they provide sufficient marriage partners within their own group. The Tolstoy Foundation advised them to come to America and live with the Old Believers who were arriving from Brazil. This community came all together in 1963, consisting of 60 households with 250 individuals all told. They were settled at first in New Jersey and for a time were scattered around that area so that they could not continue their existence as a community, but after a couple of years, they managed to move out to Oregon, where they settled on a large plot of land near Gervais, which they had collectively purchased. This has since become known to the community at large as "Turkish Village." Although this group was found to be coreligious with the Brazilian Old Believers in a joint council meeting (sobor) held between the two groups, relations were slow in building between them for a few years. To this day, there is some prejudice among the Sinziantsi, Harbintsi and Turtiantsi against one another, even though by now there has been plenty of intermarriage among the three groups.

The Brazilians never did get the money or the land together to purchase a large plot on which to establish a village. When the first families arrived in Oregon, they had large degts to pay the airline companies and banks in Brazil for past loans. Furthermore, they had to send money back to less-well-off relatives who wanted to make the trip to America as well. Lack of proficiency in English and the absence of "marketable" job skills for all but a very few meant that they had to compete with the local Chicano (Mexican) population for the farm labor jobs. They did so successfully, but at the cost of any amiable relations with the Mexicans.


As several years passed by and some of the families began to establish firm financial footing for themselves, another problem drew their attention. Young people in the community, through a combination of influences from American schools and society and the restrictiveness of the Staroveri traditions, were beginning to fall away from the old ways. A few community elders viewed the situation with sufficient alarm that they began seriously considering other more isolated locations for their parishes. One of them latched onto the information that government land was available in the Kenai Peninsula area of Alaska, where the fishing was reputed to be outstanding. After initial investigations by four men, five families moved up to a jointly purchased section of land (640 acres) and began building a community there in the summer of 1968.

During the first summer, the families camped in tents on an "oil pan," which is a bed of gravel about a hundred yards in diameter, originally laid down in preparation for drilling on the spot. The men began constructing an access road to their village from the nearby roads leading inland from Anchor Point. They then began laying out the plan for the village itself, and logged out an area for it in the spruce forest. From the wood they cut, they built the first five cabins of the village, put in power lines by the next summer and were able to spend the first winter there. There was a tent fire, in which one girl was burned to death and her mother scarred for life. Some of the families which came later were unable to withstand the cold winters and had to return to Oregon.

However, the majority prevailed and the village continued to grow each year, with the population stabilizing to some extent in 1974 or so. Most of the men have found work as commercial fishermen or construction workers, while the majority of the women work at a cannery in nearby Homer. By the second year, the homes had running water and electricity. Some of the men constructed their own fishing boats after working at a Homer marina where they learned the trade. They set up their own shop in the village by 1972. When the growing season in the Alaskan summers proved too short for the production of various favorite vegetables, the Old Believers built greenhouses with wood-fueled stoves in them to extend the season. In 1974-75, through the cooperative efforts of retired Army Brig. Gen. B.B. Talley, some 59 Old Believers prepared for and successfully obtained American citizenship. On June 19, 1975, a ceremony for their naturalization took place in the Anchor Point School gymnasium, with Judge James A.. von der Heydt presiding.

Although some of the Russians in Oregon were encouraged by reports of events in Alaska, they did not want to move there themselves, even though they wished to find a more isolated spot in which to live and raise their children. Reasons commonly given among the Oregonians included the harshness of the climate, the lack of available fishing permits and the inability of the Alaskans to farm for money because of the long winters. Thus, 45 individuals purchased a quarter section of land near the Alaskan settlement, but after further consideration of the matter, gave up the notion of settling there and resold the land.

One other colony has been established as of about 1973 in Canada, near Edmonton, Alberta. This community currently houses some 20 families, primarily of the Harbintsi, although several Sinziantsi indicated that their relatives or friends had also purchased land up there and were planning to move in the near future.


Religion is clearly central to the Old Believer society and world view. It permeates virtually every major portion of their social and inner lives. They base their interpretations of the Word of God on a number of books which tell them in considerable detail how to live for virtually each day of the year. An adult Old Believer is above all conscious of the immense number of rules which must be observed in every waking moment. Some of the more prominent among these rules will be referred to in conjunction with work, eating and dress. In order to understand the books, the Old Believer must be able to read Church Slavonic, the dialect in which the Bible was translated by Cyril and Methodius for their missionary work in Moravia in the mid-800's. Included in these books are such comprehensive rule-systems as the Canonical Laws formulated in the Seven Ecumenical Councils from 325 to 787 in Nicea.

Among these laws are those which regulate the observance of the Holy Days and the four Lents which are to be observed each year. The Old Believers use the Julian calendar for the reckoning of their dates, so that, for example, their Christmas and Easter are always out of phase with our own (by thirteen days). Holy days are usually marked by special services which begin late at night and continue on through the eary hours of the morning. Ordinarily, there is an evening service each weekday beginning at 5:00 and and ending at about 9:00, and then a longer service on Sundays which may run from about 1:00 A.M. until 8:00-10:00 in the morning. Since there are some thirty-eight Holy Days which may be celebrated thus, the Old Believers spend many days out of the year in church for at least a few hours each day.

Churches in Oregon have often consisted of the elder's home (or that of a relative) which is large enough to be used for the purpose. Only two of the six operable church districts in Oregon have church buildings as such. Apparently, this was also often the case back in Brazil and China. Although the buildings are typically unadorned on the outside, they are heavily decorated on the interiors. In addition to embroidered hangings on the walls, there are various icons, some of which reputedly date as far back as the Seventeenth Century. Most of them are cast from bronze and then enameled according to strict rules of iconography, while others are painted in an egg-tempera-based paint on specially gessoed board. The churches usually have a simple layout, consisting of a large standing area in the center of the floor for the worshippers, who must stand through most of the services. At the front is an altar and repository for the service books and other necessities for the conducting of services. The altar and the shelves above it which house the icons also are laden with beeswax candles made by qualified older community members. These are kept burning throughout the service. Near the front of the room is a stand which can be moved to the center of the floor when necessary, and which holds the book of hymns and chants used by the Old Believers.

The service itself features four individuals: the nastayatyel, the ustavnik, the naspevnik and the pomoshnik. The nastayatyel is the elder of the church districts, which is the primary governmental unit above that of the family in Old Believer society. There is no higher authority than this position, although it does not include with it much in the way of power over others' affairs. The nastayatyel is primarily the presiding head over church services, and he also has the additional function of an ad hoc canonical lawyer. The ustavnik is also a law keeper of sorts, as it is his job to keep track of the forms which the service must take according to the books. The naspevnik is the cantor, and leads the hymnal singing and chants. The pomoshnik is an assistant to the elder. In recent years, the nastayatyel has been increasingly called on to administer punishments and other forms of discipline to miscreant young people. These punishments usually consist of a public announcement of the individual's sins to the congregation at the end of the service, whereupon the transgressors may be compelled to perform several prostrations before the congregation, or some other act of contrition and penance.

There are several aspects of the services which should be particularly noted. First, the congregation stands during the entire service, except for certain times when they are to prostrate themselves on the floor. Children are expected to do this along with the adults, although the very young may be excused to go to the bathroom or to step outside. Babies are usually laid to rest in a back room, and mothers may leave periodically to check in on them. The men stand as a group in front of the women, and they participate much more actively in the services than do the women.

Most of the service consists of readings aloud from appropriate texts for the hour, with the readings being done by men as appointed during the service by the nastayatyel. Often, a young man who is just getting the hang of the Slavonic will suddenly find the finger pointed at him, and with a shove from his father or an uncle, he is belly-up against a prayer book and has to begin reading, lest the continuity of the service be broken. Readers who err are usually quietly prompted or corrected by knowledgeable members of the congregation. The chanting or hymns of the Staroveri are sung only by the men during the services. They have their historical and musical roots firmly embedded in the Byzantine chant of Tenth Century vintage. The pitch is relative rather than absolute, but the scale consists of 12 notes lying roughly in the tenor register. The hymns often contain two closely harmonized parts, with intervals consisting mostly of major and minor thirds and fifths.

Church-related ceremonies and sacraments mark various important parts of the individual's life cycle, in addition to the variety of Holy Days and fasts. At birth, the primary event is the christening. First, the baby is to be delivered by an individual who is among the faithful, which makes many Old Believers understandably resistant to the idea of having their babies delivered in hospitals. There are several Old Believer midwives who were educated by older female relatives, and they usually perform this service for the expectant mothers. Another reason given for the home deliveries is that, in the event of complications with the birth, the baby can be christened then and there, for it is believed that an unchristened baby will not see the face of God.

If there are no complications, the baby is usually christened within eight days after its birth. The ceremony is usually performed on a Holy Day or Sunday, whichever appears within the eight-day limit and is the most convenient. A name is chosen for the baby from a list of Saints' days, and there is a Saint for nearly every day of the year. The parents choose the most suitable name from within the eight-day period. In the baptismal ceremony, the nastayatyel dips the head of the infant in a large container of water and prays over it, names it and then hands the baby to a waiting godparent, who then dresses it with the nastayatyel. The two items of clothing which are crucial in this instance are the woven belt and a cross on a chain or thong, which is placed around the baby's neck. The belt is not to come off except for bathing, and the cross is not to come of at all except perhaps in the event a longer chain is needed when the individual grows up.

The acquisition of godparents is an important event also. Godparents are enjoined to teach the child right and wrong and to consider themselves responsible for the child on the same level as the child's biological parents. The godfather in particular is to serve as a father-confessor to the godchild, and the child is instructed later in life to confess all his sins to the godfather at least during each Lenten period. Many of the Old Believers refer to their godparents as "relatives," or even state that they were "related" to those families containing the godparents of siblings. Further, there is a marriage taboo which forbids the child to marry a member of the godparents' families.

The day of the Saint for whom the child is named becomes the name-day of the child, and this is used for the yearly celebration of that individual's birth, much as the American-European birthday is observed. On the morning of or the evening before the name-day, the family of the child (or adult) gives out treats to their friends in honor of the individual. These friends then say a special prayer for that person along with the rest of their day's prayers. If a name-day falls on a Sunday or major Holy Day, then the person may take a beeswax candle to church, and the congregation will say a prayer for her.

In the home, every meal and even the preparation of various foods and other household tasks must be blessed. In a prominent corner of the front room of each Old Believer home stands a small altar with the family icon sitting in a small shelter, curtained with an embroidered covering. Whenever a visiting Old Believer enters the home, he is ordinarily to bow three times from the waist before the icon (which is usually at about eye-level) and say a prayer which translates approximately: "O God be merciful to me, a sinner. You, O Lord who created me, have mercy on me. I have sinned without number, O Lord, have mercy on me and forgive me, a sinner." The entering person usually does this before even greeting the individuals whom he has come to visit. This obeisance is also the first act performed upon entering a church.