The Old Believers of Riga

Arnold Podmazov

Old Believer Churches in Riga

At present there are two functioning Old Believer Churches in Riga: the church consecrated in the name of Christ’s Nativity and of the Dormition of the Theotokos which serves the Riga Grebenshchikov Community (73 Maza Krasta Street), and the Church of Theophany, Annunciation of the Theotokos and St. Nicholas in which serves the Riga Theophany Pomorian Old Believer Community (142 Maskavas Street).

The Church of the Dormition of the Theotokos is the largest Old Believer church in Latvia. It can accommodate around 5000 believers at once. The ensemble of the Grebenshchikov Community church has a status of a national monument of architecture.

The ensemble of the Grebenshchikov Community church acquired its present appearance at the end of the 19th century, when reconstruction works of the almshouse and the oratory were finished (architects J.F. Baumanis and R. Schmeling, 1883–1888) and the bell-tower was erected (A. Schmeling, 1906). Although architectonic adornments of the building facades are laconic and modest, the church makes a monumental and grand impression. The tradition and innovation coexist harmoniously in its architectural forms: the silhouette of the bell-tower with gilded cupola echoes forms of the Bell-tower of Ivan the Great in the Moscow Kremlin, while at the same time there are elements that are characteristic of the Riga Art Nouveau style.

The interior of the church was significantly changed in the course of renovations at the end of the 1880s. A seven-row iconostasis made of oak-wood was built according to the design of J.F. Baumanis, and today it occupies the whole eastern wall of the church. The composition of the iconostasis is extremely austere, lacking any excessive decorative elements, while the icons in their rich, splendid cases stand out. The iconostasis contains a number of very rare 16th–17th century icons, while in the church of the Grebenshchikov Community there are found the icons painted by the Old Believers’ 18th–20th century artists, which the faithful donated to the church. All in all, about fifteen hundred icons are found in different rooms of the church ensemble, some of which are unique monuments of iconography.

Apart from the main prayer hall, there are many other spaces: the small church, where the funeral rites take place, a so-called “refectory” with the iconostasis, a place for the fraternal meals for the participants of the Old Believer church events (councils, congresses, conferences) as well as for liturgical services. There are also four cells for the spiritual fathers, the baptistery with fonts of different sizes for full immersion of both children and adults. There is also a special space for the library which is open to the public. Its funds include more than 6000 books and periodicals. Next to the library, there is the Book Depository and the I.N. Zavoloko Museum. Several rooms are given to the Sunday School for children, which, since 1990s, enrolls more than 20 children between 7–15 years of age every year. The church offices are situated on the second floor, where it is possible to order church services for private needs, to purchase books, icons, candles and other ecclesiastical objects. One section of the church ensemble is occupied by a sewing workshop and a candle making workshop that produces candles only for the Grebenshchikov Community but also for the Old Believer communities in Latgale and Kurzeme.

Continuing the Old Believers’ literary traditions, the Grebenshchikov Community is very active in publishing. There is a Publishing Department, as well as the one and only Old Believers’ printing-house in the Baltic States and Poland. The community issues Lestvitsa (The Ladder), a spiritual and educational publication and Nastavnik (Spiritual Father), a journal devoted to ecclesiastical and canonical topics. The community also publishes calendars, prayer books, the lives of Saints, as well as the books on the history of the Old Believers’ Church.

The church of the Grebenshchikov Community is currently served by three spiritual fathers – Trifon Kustikov, Mikhail Alexandrov, and Feodor Bekhchanov – and by more than fifteen highly qualified lower clerics. Liturgical services are held every morning and evening, and the Psalter is read continuously.

Special attention is paid to training of church clerics, as well as teachers in the matters of faith. The Old Believers’ Pomorian Church Grebenshchikov Theological School functions since 2006 (the rector is Dr. Eng. Nikolay Ivanov). In August of 2009, the first twenty graduates received their diplomas with the qualifications of “church cleric” and “teacher of faith”.

Throughout the last decade the Grebenshchikov Community is upkeeping the Old Believers’ practice of spiritual care, providing material and spiritual assistance to small Old Believers’ communities that do not have their own permanent spiritual fathers, such as, for example, the communities in Liepaja, Kalnciems, Venstpils, Jurmala and elsewhere.

The Riga Theophany Old Believers’ Pomorian Community exists since 1995, when due to tensions within the Grebenshchikov Community a large part of parishioners stopped attending the Church of the Dormition. The new community was forming gradually. In the beginning believers gathered for prayer in a modest private home. However, in 1999, thanks to solid support of church clerics and parishioners, enough funds were raised to buy a small wooden house (142 Maskavas Street) which, due to joint effort of the community, was renovated to be suitable for worship. The prayer house was consecrated in the name of Theophany, Annunciation of the Theotokos and of St. Nicholas. Morning and evening services are held in church every day. At different times, daily and festal services in church were led by spiritual fathers Alexiy Karataev, Feodor Bekhchanov, and Tikhon Osipov. In 2009 the building was completely renovated and the surrounding territory was landscaped.

The Theophany Community has a small Sunday school for children that was operating intermittently. The well-known Riga icon painter Semyon Bykadorov is now associated with this community.

All important issues regarding the life of Riga Old Believers is resolved by a general assembly of each community. The highest executive body is the Community Council, elected for three years. Alexander Lotko chairs the Council of the Riga Grebenshchikov Community, while Alexiy Karatayev is the Chair of the Council of the Riga Theophany Pomorian Community.