Alexander B. Dolitsky

Alexander B. Dolitsky

Opinion: Russian Old Believers in modern Alaska

America is the sunrise for the Russian Old Believers in Alaska.

  • By Alexander B. Dolitsky
  • Wednesday, January 5, 2022 11:32pm
  • Opinion

Profoundly religious, the Russian people were shaken to their core by the Russian Orthodox Church liturgical reforms introduced by Patriarch Nikon (1666–1667) who had dared to correct the mistakes in the manuscripts of the holy books. Many devout believers refused to renounce the errors of their fathers, consecrated by tradition. Subsequently, numerous rural settlements of Russian Old Believers were established almost everywhere in Russia and, eventually, abroad.

The dissenters did not want to base their faith on anything new except the old texts from centuries ago; and they would observe only old traditional customs and worship practices denounced by the present Russian Orthodox Church.

Eventually, persecution by the Russian tsarist government and aggressive treatment by their hostile neighbors and the State Orthodox Church forced Orthodox Old Believers into remote and undeveloped rural areas, where they quietly continued to practice their old rituals, periodically moving when threats of persecution by a hostile regime and intrusion by outsiders of different faiths and beliefs caught up with them again. Several of these groups migrated to the United States in the 1960s, settling in rural areas of Oregon and Alaska.

History of the Russian Old Believers is the most dramatic and vivid example of a large segment of people who opposed new liturgical and worship changes and managed to preserve their 17th-century religious practices, national traditions and core cultural values, despite constant exposure to various geographic, religious, ideological, economic and social challenges to which they have been subjected for the past 355 years.

Drawing on historical accounts and ethnographic research since 1983, I posit that the cultural persistence evidenced by Old Believer settlements in Alaska is due to the cognitive conservative rational preselection and/or rejection of culture traits and adaptive strategies that have demonstrated their survival value, cultural continuity and “living memory” during lengthy periods of religious persecution and geographical relocations.

Since the mid-17th century, the core cultural values and ancient Orthodox institutions of Old Believers have changed very little, despite exposure to a multitude of different socio-physical environments over the course of 355 years. As such, Russian Old Believer culture in Alaska remains little changed from its earlier heritage.

Of course, Old Believer culture has evolved somewhat in the past 355 years. Life in close contact with aboriginal populations of China, Brazil, Australia, the United States, Canada and the former Soviet Union, and the influence of modern technologies and cultural values of the United States and Canada have led to disobedience of traditional ways among Old Believers’ youth. Despite a value structure strongly favoring cultural persistence and stability, they have gradually institutionalized practical ideas and elements of modern technologies (e.g., telephones, automobiles, home appliances and even televisions among some families) into their social structure.

Certainly, Old Believers in Alaska have changed in some ways since the 1960s. The greatest changes have been in matters of material, technological and secular culture and social life, and those reflect adaptation to circumstances rather than fundamental alteration of their cultural identity.

Religious matters and values have been the most stable elements of their culture. To Old Believers, religion is not an institution parallel to economics, politics, or kinship, but it is the soul of their society; it is more fundamental than other elements, and permeates all of them. For Alaskan Old Believers, religion is not limited to a particular sphere of life; it is all pervasive and dominates everything. Religion determines their moral values, appearance, eating habits, the roles of children, women and other adults of their society; it shapes their social behavior and subsistence practices.

Their insistence on preservation of the 17th-century pre-reform rituals of the Russian Orthodox Church has resulted in persecution and constant dislocation during the past 355 years. In Alaska, they have found religious and traditional freedom, economic survival, a sense of belonging, and state protection of their cultural values.

In June 1975, 59 Old Believers of Nikolaevsk village in the Kenai Peninsula became citizens of the United States. The naturalization ceremony took place at the Anchor Point school near their homes. After the ceremony, Kiril Martushev spoke for all of the villagers: “For a long time, we have looked for a place in the world where we could live our own lives and be free in our beliefs in God. We have found what we were looking for here, and that is why we decided to become citizens of this great United States.”

There was scarcely a dry eye in sight when Kiril sat down.

The darkest time of the day is before the sunrise. America is the sunrise for the Russian Old Believers in Alaska.

Alexander B. Dolitsky was born and raised in Kiev in the former Soviet Union and settled in Juneau in 1986.

More in Opinion

Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo
Lt. Gov. Nancy Dahlstrom addresses the crowd during an inaugural celebration for her and Gov. Mike Dunleavy at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall on Jan. 20, 2023.
Opinion: The many truths Dahlstrom will deny

Real conservatives wouldn’t be trashing the rule of law

Gov. Mike Dunleavy discusses his veto of a wide-ranging education bill during a press conference March 16 at the Alaska State Capitol. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Governor, please pay more attention to Alaskans

Our governor has been a busy guy on big issues.

A roll of “I voted” stickers sit at the Alaska Division of Elections office in Juneau in 2022. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)
Strengthening democracy: Native vote partners to boost voter registration

GOTNV and VPC are partnering to send over 4,000 voter registration applications this month to addresses and P.O. boxes all over Alaska

Priya Helweg is the acting regional director and executive officer for the Region 10 Office of Intergovernmental and External Affairs, Office of the Secretary, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Health and Human Services)
Happy Pride Month

This month is dedicated to acknowledging and uplifting the voices and experiences of the LGBTQI+ community

Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times
Former President Donald Trump arrives at Trump Tower after he was found guilty of all counts in his criminal trial in New York on May 30.
Opinion: Trump’s new fixers

Fixers from Alaska and elsewhere step in after guilty verdict

Ballot booths are set up inside Kenai City Hall on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Perspective from an election worker

Here is what I know about our Kenai Peninsula Borough election system

Apayauq Reitan, the first transgender woman to participate in the Iditarod, tells the House Education Committee on March 30, 2023, why she opposes a bill restricting transgender rights. (Mark Sabbatini/Juneau Empire file photo)
Opinion: The imaginary transgender sports crisis

House Bill 183 is a right-wing solution to a problem that doesn’t exist now and never will.

Sen. Jesse Bjorkman, a Nikiski Republican, speaks in favor of overriding a veto of Senate Bill 140 during floor debate of a joint session of the Alaska State Legislature on Monday, March 18, 2024. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Sen. Jesse Bjorkman: Session ends with budget, dividend and bills passed

Capitol Corner: Legislators report back from Juneau

The Alaska State Capitol. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire file photo)
Listen to PAs; support Senate Bill 115: Modernizing PA Practice in Alaska

Health care is rapidly evolving, demanding a more flexible and responsive system

Mount Redoubt can be seen across Cook Inlet from North Kenai Beach on Thursday, July 2, 2022. (Erin Thompson/Peninsula Clarion file photo)
Opinion: Hilcorp Alaska: Powering Southcentral Alaska — past, present and future

Hilcorp Alaska has and will continue to fully develop our Cook Inlet basin leasehold

Sen. Jesse Bjorkman, a Nikiski Republican, speaks in favor of overriding a veto of Senate Bill 140 during floor debate of a joint session of the Alaska State Legislature on Monday, March 18, 2024 (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Sen. Jesse Bjorkman: Collegiality matters

Capitol Corner: Legislators report back from Juneau