If the Cossacks were the cowboys of Russia’s Wild East, the Old Believers were its Mennonites or Mormons. In time they split into sects or were joined by others yet more extreme. All were marked by ascetic simplicity or violent self-deprivation. They rejected baptism, churches–even prayer. The depraved ‘Wanderers’ cursed the Czar as Satan, baptised their babies in lakes and buried their dead in forest glades. There were literalists who became herdsmen in obedience to holy writ, and milk-drinking Molokans thirsty for the ‘milk of the Word’. There were self-baptisers and non-baptisers, ‘Sighers’ who prayed breathily in honour of the Holy Spirit, and the ‘Prayerless’ who abhorred any outward observance at all. There were the pious Stundists and the Dukhobor ‘Spirit-wrestlers’, pacifists, who believed in the primacy of an indwelling spirit, turning even the Bible superfluous. There would even be a sect that deified Napoleon.
Later Sergei and I went on to the hills and gazed down. ‘It’s beautiful, my village!’ It was. It shone foreshortened through his field-glasses, like a painted land: a horseman herding his cattle, a cart gliding over snow. Yet the place fell oddly into two halves, with pasture between, and long tracks lay empty which had once been bordered by houses.
‘Those farms fell into ruin. Hundreds of them. Their owners were shot or exiled in Stalin’s day for being too rich. There were twelve hundred houses in my village then, and now only three hundred!’ Their vacant spaces disturbed him. They were the village which should have been: the homes of the diligent and frugal. As we walked they took on a sad presence round us. He remembered their dates and names like a personal hurt.
A modest opulence had followed the Old Belief wherever its people settled. In 1917 they had numbered fifteen million–one tenth of Russia’s population–and owned more than half the country’s capital. Newly tolerated, they had prospered among the merchant-industrial class, the Cossacks and wealthy peasants. (Sergei himself came from the Don Cossack Pahle family.) They were ripe for Stalin’s sickle.
Inside a broken corral two men asked us for cigarettes with the fawning of the chronically drunk. Sergei steered me away. ‘Yes, they were Old Believers.’ We were wading fast through shin-deep snow. ‘Things here aren’t like they were. There are five village families who are total drunkards. People are starting to live just for themselves. Our collective for livestock and wheat is falling to bits. We used to have seventy tractors, but now there are only sixteen. Its workers hardly ever get paid, so they pilfer. As for drink, if they can’t afford official vodka, they make their own–just sugar, yeast and water mixed. It can kill you.’ His eyes lifted to heaven. ‘More than half our villagers are pensioners. Young people have gone away to the cities, to Ulan Ude, hoping for work. We’re becoming a village of the dead.’
07 October 2015
Demise of Russia's Old Believers
From In Siberia, by Colin Thubron (HarperCollins, 2009), Kindle Loc. 3063-3070, 3254-3269: