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Old Russia Transplanted

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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There is a positive side to the Soviet Union’s “dark night of the soul.” Soviet citizens – frustrated by want and political unrest – are seeking to fill the void left by the erosion of the Soviet myth. New political parties are forming throughout the union. While nationalist movements threaten to fragment the empire, churches, mosques and synagogues are filled as in former times, especially with the young. Looking inward, Soviet citizens are searching for their severed roots.

With those roots in mind I traveled not to the Soviet Union, but to Erie, Penn., a once-prosperous Great Lakes industrial city. For a few hours on that crisp day in late October, I was transported from both the 20th century and the New World, carried back to a land of czars and boyars, priests and monks – back to 17th century Russia.

Erie is home to a Russian community known as Starubryadstii, or Old Ritualists, better known as Old Believers. Historically described as reactionaries who preferred death rather than conform to 17th century Russian Orthodox liturgical reforms, Old Believers are the guardians of pre-Westernized Russian civilization.

At the turn of the century, Russia’s czarist government imposed restrictions limiting the Old Believer’s cultural and religious endeavors. Whole communities migrated to China and the Americas. After World War I and the revolutions which followed, many Old Believers flocked to the iron and coal regions of western Pennsylvania. It was during this turbulent period that Al Yokoff, the patriach of the Erie community, was born to Russian emigre parents.

“We prayed together, going from house to house until we could afford to build a church,” he reminisced. Though born in Pennsylvania, Yokoff’s English is peppered with a heavy Russian accent.

“Our fathers were tradesmen, they worked in the steel mills of Pittsburgh in the winter, then migrated to Erie in the summer to build ships,” he said, rekindled by these memories. “We lived as a group, as a community.”

Yokoff is a nastavnik, or teacher-church leader. When I first met him more than two years ago, it was hard for me to disguise my disbelief. Before me sat a patriarch dressed in a black peasant tunic, wool pants and well-worn hoots, his flowing white beard and multi-colored waist sash the only hints of color. He was seated on a black easy-chair surrounded by his wife and daughters. From his lips came not the powerful voice I expected, but a kind call to sit and have a cup of tea.

He began to speak of his community, their faith and their hardships. “Scores of my forefathers were hunted down like dogs and murdered,” he said.

Yokoff’s persecuted ancestors have been dead for more than 350 years, yet he spoke with feeling and remorse: “We must hold on to the traditions that we were born with, that our forefathers died for.”

For many in the West, these grievances are unknown. But Russians are particularly devoted to the memories of those who have gone before them.

For example, newly-married Soviet couples traditionally visit a local World War II memorial to remember their nation’s war dead. Their bridal portrait is then taken at the site. To understand the tenacity and devotion of the Old Believers, an appreciation is needed of Russian Christianity and its impact on history.

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Tags: Cultural Identity Russia Emigration Soviet Union