Schism and Russia's Old Believers

By Druzhelyubov, Vladimir | Contemporary Review, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Schism and Russia's Old Believers

Druzhelyubov, Vladimir, Contemporary Review

IN 1682, in a far-off Siberian settlement, the Alternative Pope, or Protopope, was burned at the stake. He was Avvakum, aged 62, the first apostle and chief campaigner of the Russian Schism. His terrible death came after his fifteen-year incarceration in a damp, earthen-floored, log hut in that stockaded settlement. During those fifteen years Avvakum wrote all his main works. This was the beginning of the Schism which still affects Russia's church.

The Old Believers appeared in the seventeenth century, in what was, for Russia, a new period of political centralization. The subordination of the Church to the Monarchy had begun then, in the time of Alexei Mikhailovich. In the 1640s, there was formed a pious group of followers of the Old Belief. Why was this? Extortion, parasitism and depravity of manners were at that time common among the clergy. Owing to this, true piety had almost ceased to exist; substituted for it was a kind of ceremonial observance, consisting of performing as punctiliously as possible the outward forms of ritual acts which were said to have symbolic power. The observance of these often perverted rites lay like a stone crushing Russian spiritual life. Church services at the time frequently ended in fights, even in kicking and beating the priest himself.

The Russian Church, as a consequence of national self-importance and historical isolation, had reached a condition which the Greek supporters of the Eastern Orthodox religion frankly called 'heresy'. In Russia, a circle of pious adherents called for a transformation of the Church into a more effective influence on the congregation by implementing church reform from above, thus preserving the basic tenets of Orthodoxy. And into this group came the Protopopes, Ivan Neronov, Daniel, Avvakum, Loggin and Nikon, who was then the Archimandrite. In the circle were also several representatives of the secular Court nobility, headed by the Tsar's spiritual director, Stefan Vorifatyev. They demanded such measures as shortening the prayers, the appropriate simplification of some of the rites and they insisted on the necessity of allowing priests to preach sermons, written by themselves, on important questions of life.

Although all the members of the group were agreed, as they said, 'to rectify church books', they differed on how to do it. Thus, Nikon insisted on bringing the books into conformity with Byzantine practices and asked advice from Paisii, the Patriarch of Constantinople. Avvakum himself, though he took the view that they ought to purify the books from the mistakes of translators and scribes, protested against blindly following the Greek forms.

In 1652, at the age of 47, Nikon was elevated to Patriarch. In March of the following year, he sent to the bishoprics and monasteries 'A Reminder', a document which prescribed: 'according to the legends and the fathers of the Church, you should bow not to the floor but only to waist height. You should also cross yourself with three fingers'. We may think such reforms minor but they had spiritual significance. The old form of crossing yourself with two fingers, the first outstretched and the second bent, symbolised God the Father and God the son made man. The use of three fingers stood for the Trinity, and those who opposed Nikon thought his reforms were to draw the Orthodox Church closer to Catholicism. Some Old Believers now say all practices and rituals from before Nikon's time are theirs alone, and the present Orthodox Church has no history from before the Schism.

To his friends in the faith, true traditionalists, this act of Nikon's came as a thunderbolt out of a clear sky. In answer to Nikon, Avvakum and his followers wrote a message to the Tsar, quoting old books about the way one should cross oneself and bow. They sent it to the Tsar, expecting his support. The reply was unexpected. The Tsar supported the Patriarch. Nikon heaped repressions on his opponents and former friends. …

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