Story by Ben Stone
Photo by Andrew Seng
Design by Lauren Beauchemin
“Gospodi! (Oh my God!)” An old woman whispers sharply in Russian from the back.
The door of the Old Believer Orthodox Church has cracked open, sending a rectangle of light down the center of the floor.
“Zakrii dvyer! (Shut the door!)”
The two young boys poking their heads through the gap look over at the woman and grimace, closing the door softly behind them. She exhales loudly and refolds her hands, turning back to the front of the room. The main hall of the church is dark and warm, smelling of smoke from the hundreds of candles lit around the room. At the front stands a tall nastavnik (pastor) dressed in all black, reciting his sermon so soft and fast that the hundred people standing still in rows and lining the walls lean forward to listen. Behind him is a solid gold wall—a glowing patchwork of painted religious icons. At points in the sermon, every Old Believer in the room jerks upright to cross themselves while bending up and down rapidly, sometimes dropping to their knees and touching their heads softly to the floor.
A girl and a boy walk up to the woman in the back and smile at her.
“N-uuu… (Well…)” She says, raising her eyebrows. She reaches deep into the pocket of her jacket and pulls out a bag of M&Ms, pouring a few into each kid’s hand. A man walks around with a long candle extinguisher and slowly snuffs out the flames. The nastavnik says his closing words, bows slightly, and walks away from his podium. The boy turns around to watch and drops an M&M on the floor. The old woman looks down in horror.
The Old Believer Diaspora
The Old Believers are a group of Orthodox Christians from Russia who have come to live in countless remote communities around the world. Since settling around Woodburn, Oregon nearly 50 years ago, this group of Old Believers has largely managed to maintain 17th century Russian traditions. As the generation gap has grown larger between the founders of the community and younger Old Believers, however, it has become considerably more difficult and confusing for young Old Believers to reconcile their heritage with their modern American lives.
Walking around the grocery stores and tacquerias on the east side of Woodburn, Oregon on Sunday afternoons, you will see them. They are impossible to miss—bearded men in loose-sleeved, high-collared tunics and women in dresses and shashmuras the color of flowers and sunsets. On Sundays, when Old Believers are out in their best clothes after church, they are the most visible, radiant people for miles, and the plain-clothed residents of Woodburn regard them with looks of wonder.
They call themselves Starovyeri (“Old Believers” in Russian), but they are also called raskolniki, or “the schismatics”: the people who broke away. Some Old Believers consider this to be a fundamentally inaccurate term—in their eyes, Old Believers were the only ones who didn’t break away from the “way of grace”—but it does a little to describe how they came to live alongside us.
The name raskolniki originated in Russia during the 1650s church reforms, when Patriarch Nikon mandated serious changes to Russian Orthodox Church ritual. One particularly offensive change to traditionalists was the order that one cross oneself with three fingers rather than the traditional two. Refusal to adopt the practices of the reform was criminal under both church and state law, and Tsar Alexei’s government began to arrest Russians and execute priests who refused to change. In protest, some killed themselves by setting themselves on fire. To save their way of life and themselves, many Old Believers fled Russia to the west and to the east.
“They would always say, ‘nam nado spasatsya’—we need to go save ourselves,’” says Alex Snegirev, who grew up in an Old Believer family in Canada. “So they would move to these remote areas to be away from people, to retain their customs, retain their faith, and not be bothered.”
Old Believers being forced to flee and resettle without priests is key to understanding the theologically literal nature of their lives—they never had biblical authorities to ask for interpretations of the Bible, and so their practices remained strictly aligned with the text. Partially because of this, cultural anthropologist Richard Morris said in a 1997 conference in Perm, Russia, Western Old Believers “represent a relatively untainted type of archival reference to an earlier Russian ethic. In many respects, their way of life remains intact, displaying references to 17th century Russia.”
The Old Believers in Woodburn hail primarily from Old Believer communities that formed in Harbin, in northeastern China, the Sinkiang region in northwestern China, and Turkey. When the Chinese Revolution ended in 1949, Old Believer communities in China found ways to immigrate to Brazil and Argentina. A few years later, due to difficulties farming in the South American environment, many continued on to the small farming community around Woodburn around 1965, joined soon after by a group from Turkey.
Arriving in the States with the help of local farm-based sponsors, Old Believer families often slept in barracks owned by sponsors, working in the fields during the day and saving their wages to buy farms and homes of their own. Throughout their travels, the Old Believers had mostly remained in clans, resulting in three distinct communities when they finally settled around the eastern edge of Woodburn city limits: the Sinziyantsi, from Sinkiang, the Harbiintsi, from Harbin, and the Turchane, from Turkey.
Coming into the Country
An assistant Old Believer pastor named Makar, a slim man with a long white beard and wide glasses, has been around for it all. He was born in Sinkiang, China in 1938, moved to Argentina when he was ten, and to Woodburn in 1971. Arriving with no knowledge of English, interactions between the Old Believers and Americans were initially channeled though a small group of Russians fluent in English.
Although Makar now understands English well enough to carry out basic transactions around Woodburn, Russian is his language.
“Xarosho, vsyo vremya (It’s been good, the whole time),” Makar says of his community’s relationship with other Americans over the years. “Nothing bad has happened. We haven’t fought with anyone.”
What this means exactly is unclear, however, given the limited contact older Old Believers have with other Americans. “Nu, gavorim (Well, we talk),” Makar says. “But for many, they can’t speak, they don’t know much English.”
What it means to communicate with Americans is a bit more complex for Old Believers who were born in the United States. Alex Martushev, an animated, bear-like 30-year-old whose parents emigrated both from Brazil and Argentina, was born in Oregon, and remembers it being hard to reconcile being an Old Believer with his personal history.
“I’ve had these talks with my parents,” Martushev says. “I’m like, look, I’m an American with Russian heritage. We’re actually not Russian. And they have a hard time with that, because their whole identity’s wrapped up in being Russian.”
Pieces of Russian culture have been frozen in time within the homes and churches of Old Believers—traditional dress, religious rituals, social customs—generally no longer exist in Russia. And although some Old Believers like Makar have traveled to Russia since settling in Woodburn, many Old Believers have no desire to travel to a country that they believe was rendered ungodly during the Russian Revolution. Snegirev, whose family ended up in Canada after living in China and New Zealand, grew up in an Old Believer family that considered the only true Russia to exist within the homes of Old Believers.
“They see Russia at large as a communistic country that became atheist,” Snegirev says. “My mom would always tell us growing up, ‘now remember, you’re a white Russian, you’re not a red Russian. Mi byelie russkie (We are white Russians).’”
Identity was more complicated than being Russian or not, however, for Old Believers in Woodburn. The Sinziyantsi, the Harbiintsi, and the Turchane, having lived and developed their own rituals in the hundreds of years before they gravitated to Woodburn, remained very aware of group distinctions. Among Old Believers, families from Sinkiang became known as the “fish”, families from Harbin were known as the “monkeys”, and families from Turkey were known as the “turkeys”.
“My mom is a sinziyantsa, she’d be a fish,” Marthushev says. “My dad is a harbinyets, which is a monkey, so two different cultures came together. I’m a mutant.”
Particularly in the early years of the Old Believer community in Woodburn, these group identities became critical to how they regarded each other. Groups became known for certain personality traits and cultural peculiarities. Turchane families, for example, had lived in the coastal region around Izmir, Turkey, had long been keen on crab. The Old Believer families from China thought crab was forbidden.
The Turchane were the force behind the most conspicuous evidence of Woodburn’s Old Believer community—the Turkish Village. It’s a neighborhood visible from the South Pacific Highway skirting Woodburn’s east side, made up of several parallel streets shooting south into long fields of boysenberries and hops. Bisecting the Village is a street called Bethlehem Road, modeled after a road from a traditional Russian village. Two molenas (prayer halls) mark the ends of the street—a sage-colored building with a shiny bronze cupola on the north end, and a white hall with a muted golden cupola to the south. In between, the road is lined with small houses and fruit trees and patrolled by chickens, goats, cats, and Old Believers. At the heart of Bethlehem Road is the only Old Believer church in the area with an ordained priest, the Old Believer Orthodox Church, a long, cream-colored building topped with 7 brightly reflective gold cupolas.
From birth, the lives of Old Believers revolve around their church and molenas, those on Bethlehem Road and those scattered around the east end of Woodburn. When an Old Believer child is born, he or she must be baptized within 8 days, during a water service in which the child is fully submerged three times. Often, an Old Believer child’s real birthday will be forgotten and the day of baptism will take its place. From then on, the child is spiritually clean, at least until he or she does something that makes them otherwise. This concept of spiritual cleanliness, or duxovnii chistoti, divides the Old Believer community from other Americans even more than the language barrier.
Standards of cleanliness mean there is a logical limit to how close Old Believers can be with other Americans who are unclean. They cannot eat from the same silverware and dishes and they cannot eat food prepared by non-Old Believers. Working primarily in construction and berry farming, some Old Believer families manage to sustain themselves mostly off of food they prepare themselves from their farms and gardens.
“We get along with the American population, we do business, but that’s where it ends,” Snegirev says. “Some will invite you to their home and stuff like that, but most won’t. They will keep that relationship a work relationship and they won’t cross those barriers.”
Of course, interactions with Old Believers can be as casual as any other. When I was allowed to visit an Old Believer named Stepan, he spoke in English with no hesitation as he served goat meat and poured us Dixie cups of his homemade braga, a sweet, dry berry wine made from blackberries and boysenberries. With a grin and a dramatic voice, Stepan recounted tank battle scenes from World War II, referring to the Americans as “we”, and laughed at the thought of his country wire-tapping Angela Merkel’s cell phone. “Hey, na nogi (On your feet),” says Stepan, motioning a friend to help him retrieve more braga from the garage.
As second and third generation Old Believers are born and raised in America, it is harder than ever to instill lasting Orthodox values in their children. Though Old Believers drive, many try to keep other absorbing technologies at an arms length.
“My parents were so strict that I didn’t even have a TV ‘til I was 13 years old in the house,” says Marthushev.
Strictness is relative, though, to those related to a group of Old Believers who left Woodburn. In 1968, they agreed that modern Oregonian culture was too corrosive, and moved to a remote area in southern Alaska to settle a new town called Nikolaevsk. Alaskan Old Believers, according to Martushev, make Woodburn Old Believers seem liberal by comparison, something he discovered years ago on a trip to Alaska to visit some Old Believer relatives.
“I was doing a lot of running, so I’m like, when I go visit, I don’t want to stop my training,” Martushev says. “I put my shorts on, my running shoes, and I go running and my aunt is all, ‘Are you crazy? Put your pants back on!’”
Old Believers in Woodburn attend public school with other Americans and other immigrant children, but there remains a wall between institutions like school and the home. Because of cleanliness issues, American children and Old Believer children cannot enter each other’s homes, so Old Believer children are simply taught to play with other Old Believer kids.
“Its this idea of isolationism,” Snegirev says. “This is our little community. Why are you gonna go dabble in the world?”
Russian is not taught in school, so Old Believer children become conversationally fluent in Russian by talking with their parents and grandparents. Many take private lessons to learn to speak and write and Russian and to read in Church Slavonic, the holy language of Slavic Orthodox churches. Slavonic is also the language of the only translation of the Bible that Old Believers accept and trust, as it was the text that Russia was given in the 10th century when it accepted Christianity. But while vernacular Russian is something that Old Believers maintain every day with their family and friends, Slavonic is a dead language, and no longer spoken. Communal knowledge of Slavonic has faded so much that Old Believer boys who are taught how to pronounce Slavonic text are often not taught the meaning of the words.
“I’m reading, chanting and memorizing—I don’t know what the heck I’m saying,” says Martushev of his experience in church. “So I would ask my dad, I’d go, ‘I don’t know what this is.’ And he would say, ‘You’ll understand it eventually, one day.’”
When Old Believers have significant gaps in their comprehension of Slavonic, the meaning of church services that they ritually attend, often deep into the night, can be lost in translation.
“Here we are, a Christian church, where there’s crucifixes everywhere in the church, but we didn’t know what he did for us,” Snegirev says. “We knew he was crucified, but we didn’t know he was crucified for us.”
When he was 19, Martushev and his girlfriend began to read the English bible to make sense of things they hadn’t understood from their Slavonic bibles. They became moved by what they felt was a powerful new connection to their religion, and the two of them began to attend a local Protestant church. The day that Martushev told his father about his decision was the last time he talked to him for several years.
After years of attending Protestant church, Snegirev was finally encouraged by some fellow former Old Believers to start a service for other Russians in Woodburn. The result is the Russian Outreach Ministry, a weekly sermon that Snegirev delivers out of an English Bible to an audience of Russians. To gain the trust of attendees who consider the English translation corrupt, Snegirev prepares handouts of his selected texts, printed in English, Russian, and Slavonic.
“My heart is to share the good news, the gospel, to the Old Believers,” Snegirev says. “And that sounds so strange, because they’re Christians.”
For the ten years after Alex Martushev began to attend the Protestant church, he talked with his father on the phone four times. They would hear things about each other that trickled down through the community, through family and friends, but they didn’t see each other. This year, though, a string of unfortunate events finally brought them together. Martushev and his wife found themselves scrambling for new income, and Martushev called his father, who travels up to Alaska every year to fish commercially.
“I called him up, and I explained it to him— do you think I could get a seat on your boat?” Martushev says. “He goes, ‘Well, give me two weeks. I’ll call you back.’ Okay. Click.”
In two weeks, Martushev’s father called and offered him a spot on the boat. Before the two of them left for Alaska, Martushev and his wife and children went over to his father’s house, and Martushev’s father spoke during dinner. He said that, although they had had their differences, from then on they would simply be a family. Martushev and his father spent the next six and a half weeks on a fishing boat together in cold water, making up for lost time and filling in the blanks for a decade of their lives.