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When the ancient Rus’ adopted Christianity in 988, they retained many of their pagan practices. The names for the deities changed, but the personal relationship between the worshipped and the worshipper did not. God the Father, Jesus, the Virgin Mary and the saints (especially St. Nicholas) were assigned distinct human personalities. Personal successes and failures were attributed to what were often perceived as mischievous characters. Magnificent stories and tales were memorized and passed from generation to generation. Thus, the intimate link binding God and humanity was never severed, nor the past from present.

Always Russians have endearingly referred to their country as Holy Mother Russia. With politics and religion as one, her leaders endeavored to become the protectors of Orthodox Christianity and the heirs of Byzantium. According to Philotheus of Pskov, a 15th century monk:

The Church of old Rome fell for its heresy; the gates of the second Rome, Constantinople, were hewn down by the axes of the infidel; but the Church of Moscow, the Church of the new Rome, shines brighter than the sun in the whole universe… Two Romes have fallen, but the third stands fast; a fourth there cannot be.

Meanwhile, Russia’s western neighbors ushered in a new age; modern armies and navies developed, stable economies ripened, secularism permeated society and the concepts of nationhood were redefined. Yet the Russian trinity of czar, church and nation stood firm.

Czar Alexei Romanov (1645-76), surnamed the pious, initiated reforms that his son, Peter the Great, would further virgorously, opening a window to the West. In 1652, with the support of Alexei, Patriarch Nikon of Moscow pushed through a series of liturgical reforms with little regard for the feelings of the people and clergy. These changes, which included simplification of the divine liturgy, revisions in the psalter and instruction to make the sign of the cross with three fingers instead of the traditional two, sought to codify Russian practices with Greek and Ukrainian customs.

Nikon’s means of implementing these changes alienated more people than the reforms themselves. Those who opposed the patriarch were tortured, exiled and, in some cases, burned at the stake. Even bishops and nobles suffered such fates.

This poignant period in Russian history became the subject of many paintings, novels, poems, even operas. In Moscows Tretyakov Gallery hangs Vasily Surikov’s monumental work, The Boyarina Morozova, 1887. The painting depicts the defiant 17th century noblewoman Feodosia Morozova as she is carted away to eventual martyrdom. With a sweeping upward gesture, she asserts her unrepentant loyalty to Old Belief. Her gesture, the sign of the cross with two fingers, became the unequivocal symbol of the resistance.

These persecutions left the Old Believers without bishops, priests and, consequently, the sacraments. Thus denied a hierarchy, these Bespopovstii (priestless) believers organized themselves into self-sustaining lay communities which elected one of their own as nastavnik. In reference to his selection in 1943, Yokoff laughed, “You are more or less drafted!”

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Tags: Cultural Identity Russia Emigration Soviet Union