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Old Ritualists

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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As President Vladimir V. Putin asserts Russia’s position in the international community, the leadership of Russia’s dominant Orthodox Church has allied itself with his government, resurrecting hopes (and fears) that a reinvigorated Orthodox Church aligned with a burly government will forge a more cohesive “Russian” nation.

But Russia’s population of 143 million includes an array of distinct ethnic, linguistic and religious groups, and Russia’s Orthodox Church — which seeks to restore what the Communists had tossed — is not the sole guardian of the country’s Russian legacy. Russia’s Old Believers (or Starubryadsty, meaning Old Ritualists) once preferred imprisonment, exile or even death to the liturgical reforms initiated by Russian Orthodox Patriarch Nikon in the 17th century.

Today, perhaps as many as 10 million Old Believers — scattered throughout European and Asian Russia as well as the Balkans, the Baltic states and North America — safeguard the cultural and spiritual heritage of Russia’s pre-westernized civilization.

Background. The raskol, or schism, that cleaved Russian society in the middle of the 17th century had complex causes. In 1598, the last tsar of the ancient Rurik dynasty died without issue. His death marked the beginning of the “Time of Troubles,” a 15-year interregnum marked with usurpers, famine, civil war and foreign (namely, Polish Catholic) invasion. Remarkably, the Orthodox Church managed to keep the fledgling Russian state of Muscovy from collapse, even as the Poles occupied Moscow’s Kremlin.

In 1613, a zemsky sobor (or grand council) that included nobles, clergy, merchants and peasants elected as tsar Mikhail Romanov, the son of the powerful Metropolitan Philaret of Rostov. Later enthroned as patriarch in 1619, Philaret actually governed Muscovy as “Great Sovereign.” He consolidated his son’s realm, bound peasants to the land and enriched his son’s treasury, effectively subordinating the state to the church until his death in 1633.

Mikhail’s son and successor, Tsar Alexei the Pious, while not as acquiescent as his father, also entrusted authority to the church, especially to Patriarch Nikon, who dazzled the tsar with his learning and eloquence.

Alexei was a man of contradictions. Conscious of his neighbors’ development of armies and navies, their subordination of the church to the state and the growing complexity of national economies, Alexei initiated economic and political reforms. His son, Peter the Great, later took these reforms further. The patriarch’s drive to reform the church, which Alexei encouraged, had a greater immediate impact on Russian society.

Reform. Convinced the liturgical texts of the Church of Moscow deviated from those found throughout the rest of the Orthodox world, Nikon in 1652 invited liturgical scholars and theologians from elite Orthodox academies in Constantinople and Kiev to Moscow. There, they compared the service books of the Russian Church with those in use in Kiev and Constantinople, finding numerous variations. To establish uniformity, Nikon called two sobors (1654 and 1656) that accepted the “corrections” and anathematized those who refused to accept them.

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