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Old Believers

Dissident groups of Russian Orthodox, in schism (raskol, hence called also “Raskolniki”) since 1666, when Nikon, patriarch of Moscow, introduced reforms of ritual in line with Orthodox practice elsewhere, but declared heretical at a council of 1551. The dissidents adhered to the older practices calling themselves staroveri, adherents of the old rite, misrendered “Old Believers.” Avvakum,* their leader, went into exile from 1664; others were exiled, and fierce persecution led many to flee to remote parts, e.g., Siberia and Karelia. Monks, peasants, Cossacks, and townfolk were among them. They regarded the official apostasy and their persecution as works of Antichrist. They were brutally treated and many suicides—e.g., self-immolation of whole groups by fire-are known, to escape their certain fate.

Persecution lasted until the end of Peter the Great's reign; Peter III and Catherine II were more tolerant, but Nicholas I (1825-55) renewed efforts of coercion. Penal laws persisted until 1903 when alleviations were introduced. Their lot since the Revolution has been that of all religious communities, yet some of their remoter strongholds still succeed in retaining a vigorous life. There are two main groups: the popovtsy, i.e., with priests, were first supplied with priests leaving the Orthodox Church, but a hierarchy was established in 1846 by Ambrose of Bosnia at Bielo-Krinitz in the Austrian Empire. The second group, pezpopovtsy, i.e., without priests, evolved new ways of organization in the remoter places, sometimes with extravagances. They are both said to maintain a movingly sincere manifestation of traditional Russian Christian piety.

F.C. Conybeare, Russian Dissenters (1921); P. Pascal, Avvakum et les débuts du Raskol (1938); R. Janin, églises orientales et rites orientaux (1955), pp. 196-201; W. Kolarz, Religion in the Soviet Union (1961), chap. IV; M. Bordeaux, Opium of the People (1965), pp. 27-31; R.O. Crummey, The Old Believers and the World of Antichrist (1970).