The Old Believers of Riga

Arnold Podmazov

Beginnings of the Old Believers on the territory of Latvia

The appearance of the Old Believers on the territory of Latvia was caused by the intensification of social tensions in Russia in the middle of the 17th century, by the struggle concerning the reform of the Patriarch Nikon and harsh repressions directed against the supporters of the pre-reform Orthodoxy. These repressions were especially harsh after the Council of 1666–1667. The well-known supporters of the Old Belief were tortured and executed. In 1682 Protopop Avvakum and his prison mates were burned at a stake. After the publication of the “Articles” by Sophia Alexeyevna (1657–1704, Regent of Russia 1682–1689), the Old Believers’ faith was entirely outlawed: each of the twelve articles called “to execute” and “to burn at a stake those apostates who had broken away as a result of the schism”. All this caused the mass flight of Old Believers to the most remote parts of the Russian state – to the North, to Siberia, to the river Don, as well as abroad – to Turkey, Poland, Sweden, and Prussia.

The territory of Latvia in the second part of the 17th century was under Rzeczpospolita, Sweden, and the Duchy of Courland (the protectorate of Rzeczpospolita). As the result of several wars and plague epidemics, the territory was devastated. This had caused a sharp decrease in the number of people, neglect and waste of lands. Under these circumstances the landowners were interested in attracting workers to their estates.

One of the most comprehensive sources containing data about Old Believers’ settling in Latvia in the middle of the 17th century is the so-called “Degut Chronicle” (found in the manuscript-anthology dated to 1842–1851). It is believed that the author of the Chronicles is an Old Believer Vasily Zolotov (1786 – approx. 1856). According to this document, the first organized groups of Old Believers appeared in the Duchy of Courland in 1659. In 1660 a prayer house was built in the village of Liginishki, near Dinaburg (Daugavpils). This was the first church of the Old Orthodox Christianity. At present this site is located within the limits of Daugavpils and in 2003 a memorial cross was erected there. The Chronicle, point out religious persecution (“flight from the Patriarch’s anger”) as the reason for the Old Believers’ moving to the territory of Latvia. At about the same time Old Believers appear also in Latgale. According to some historical sources, already in 1659 Old Believers were present in the village of Voinovo (today in the Rezekne District; this community exists until now, being the oldest community in Latvia). In 1673–1675 a community in the village of Loma (now in the Preili District of Latvia) was founded. From this time on, the Old Believers gradually settled in Latgale and in the Duchy of Courland.

There is no written record of the first Old Believers in Riga. It is possible, however, that Old Believers could live among other Russian residents on the outskirts of the city, including the territory of so-called “Russian Compound”, that in the second half of the 17th century existed outside the city walls in the district called Lastadia. In any case, according to the census documents, during the first decades of the 18th century there was already a substantial number of Old Believers in Riga.