The Old Believers of Riga

Arnold Podmazov

Schism and “Old Belief”

In Russian the word starover like in many other languages (in Latvian vecticībnieki, in English Old Believers, in German Altglaubigen) is etymologically related to the words “old” and “belief”, but more precisely it points at the concept of ‘Old Belief’ that, in turn, refers to the events in the history of the Russian Orthodox Church in the middle of the 17th century.

Unification of the liturgical practices of the Russian Orthodox Church with the liturgical practices of the Greek Orthodox churches, as well as sprava (‘correction’) of the church books initiated by Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich (1629–1676, reigned 1645–1676) and Patriarch Nikon of Moscow and all Russia (1605–1681, Patriarch since 1652), was met with opposition from the educated part of the clergy, as well as from many common believers.

Differences that had formed historically up to the 17th century between the Russian Church and the Greek Church were caused, first of all, by the changes in the practice of the Byzantine liturgy that took place in the 14th–15th centuries. After the fall of the Byzantine Empire (1453), during the times of Muslim power, the service books for the Church of Constantinople were printed in the Catholic-owned printing-shops of Venice and other cities, which led to the emergence of differences from the Old Orthodoxy. Lacking the knowledge of the history or of the causes of these differences, Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich and Patriarch Nikon initiated the reform without guidance from ancient Byzantine and Russian manuscript sources, but rather on the basis of contemporary printed liturgical books, including the Slavonic books issued for the Uniate churches of Rzeczpospolita.

The actual starting point of the reform was March 1653, when Patriarch Nikon sent out to eparchies and monasteries his Ukase (Decree) where he abolished most of the prostrations during one of the prayers, and ordered from then on to use three fingers to make the sign of the cross, instead of two. The Ukase was met with protests by many educated priests, who were well aware of the reasons behind the differences in the liturgical typical of the Russian and Eastern Churches. Hard punitive measures were taken against them: priests were arrested, tortured, and deported (in 1656 Bishop Paul of Kolomna was killed). After the arrest and deportation to the secluded Kola Peninsula prison one of the most respected opponents of reforms Ioann Neronov, the struggle was led by Archpriest (protopop) Avvakum who was also arrested and deported to Siberia.

The Nikon reforms were finally approved by the Moscow Council of the Russian Orthodox Church (1666–1667). The Council condemned pre-reform church rituals and their practitioners. From this point onwards the Russian Orthodox Church became split into two parts: the official Orthodoxy that accepted the Patriarch Nikon’s reforms (in the Old Believers’ terminology “Nikonian” or “New Ritualism”) and the Old Believers (or “Old Ritualists”) who rejected the church reforms and retained the traditions of the pre-reform Russian Orthodoxy (in the terminology of Old Believers’ – “Ancient/Old Orthodoxy”). Only in 1971 the Local Council of the Russian Orthodox Church officially revoked the condemnations imposed by the Council of 1666–1667.

The reform prescribed to use the three fingers for the sign of the cross instead of two fingers, as well as to change the normative pronunciation and writing of the name “Jesus” from “Isus” (with one “I”) to “Iisus”. Instead of the double “alleluia” after the psalmody, the triple “alleluia” was required and instead of the sun-wise movement of the procession, the direction against the sun was prescribed. Likewise, the liturgy of the new-rite Russian Orthodoxy requires the use of 5 prosphora instead of 7, as it was performed previously. The large part of the Orthodox believers perceived these and other changes not only as an attack on the customary rituals, but also as a breaking away with the ecclesiastical tradition, with the apostolic succession within the Church. Even more, the reforms were regarded as a sign of the end of Christian history, of the departure of divine grace and the coming of the kingdom of the Antichrist. The fact that according to the Orthodox tradition ritual and dogmatic aspects are inseparable is of great importance, for the believers perceived any changes in the exterior aspect of religion as altering the inner content of the faith itself.