Face Music - Old Believer
  • Old Believer - Raskolniks

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P & C December 1998
- Face Music / Albi

- last update 03-2016

more information: Old Believer in German

- Reform of the Church

In 1667 the conservative faithfuls, who rejected church reforms, were declared heretics by the Russian Orthodox Church. Persecuted conservatives were brought to the region of the Don Cossacks, and there they established some retreats in the 70's and 80's, especially at the river Medveditsa. Soon a major part of the cossacks was seized by the conservatives' propaganda campaign. Plans for a revolt in favour of the old belief arose; connections to the Yaik-Cossacks in the Ural area were knotted. By means of troups from Moscow, sent to the Don in 1688, Ataman Frol Minayev put an end to these plans. The conservative cossacks were expulsed. May of them were banished to the Siberian area. A part of them attempted to settle to the sovereign territory of the Polish-Lithuanian Kingdom (Belarussia, Central Ukraine and Carpathians). Another part of them moved on the Crimean area under protection of the Tartarian Khan, or onto the area of Kuban; on their way, however, they were exhausted by the south Caucasian Tcherkesses; others found a refuge at the Terek (north Caucasus). In consequence of these turmoils, the cossacks lost the right to vote for the local clergyman. The religious life in their force communities was no longer under the rule of a patriarch, but of the bishop.

The church reforms initiated by Tsar Peter could be continued under Alexei I., the Quiet One (1645-1676). Patriarch Nikon (1605-1681) had tried to clear the lithurgy from infiltrated contradiction and and to re-integrate rites of the Byzantine Church, which was met by strong resistance on the side of the Old Believers, the "Raskolniks". Thus the tasks Peter I had to face were not chosen arbitrarily, they were rather based on history and pre-designed in its development since the Russians got free of oppression by the Tatars and since their appearance in Europe as a superpower. It was, however, unusual how extremely consistently and unconditionally Peter I, the Great, pursued his aims.

- Upheaval in Russia under Tsar Peter I, the Great

Enthusiastic European friends from Nemézkaja Sloboda, a district in Moscow, very soon, actually when he was only twenty years old, gave Tsar Peter I the epithet "the Great". When they put him so enthusiasticly on a pedestal, this was partly because they had been excluded from the Russian society as heretics and considered him who maintained free and frequent contact with them to be one of their fellows; the other reason was that they admired the thirst for knowledge with which the Tsar tried to penetrate into European culture, science and technology. He was praised by his admirerers but, on the other hand, strongly condemned by his enemies, the representants of the old, Greek-Orthodox Russia. They saw him as antichrist who abolished the holy traditions of the church, who made fun of the respect for the clergy, who cleared the way for the destructive influence of Western ideas and who preferred secular endeavours to religion. Also future generations were divided into two parties in regard of the evaluation of Peter the Great: one group sees him as the original creator of Russian culture, whereas the others make him responsible for the destruction of it. Peter, nevertheless, definitely was responsible for the fact that under his rule Russia did undergo a considerable change.

His victories would not have been possible without the complete re-organisation of army and administration according to European examples. Peter pushed his reforms through with the greatest ruthlessness and despotism possible so that the people who had been exhausted under his reign by wars, their preparations and forced deportations became rather discontented. Especially the poorer classes grumbled about the reviver who wanted to change their way of living ruthlessly. The fight against the old Russian traditional costume, the caftan and the beard, which had been introduced by Peter in 1700, constituted only a symbol of the harsh intervention into daily life in Russia. The long sleeves and the impractical design of the caftan required a slow and immobile behaviour, when Peter attempted to abolish the traditional costume directly after his visit in Western Europe, he intended to turn his subjects into a working population in the sense of a nation. The bitter battle his enemies fought for the traditionall way of dressing was not futile at all: everywhere in cultural history it is documented that the eradiction of local costumes finally results in the extinction of the traditional way of thinking and local mentality. It shows a lack of historical understanding when Peter made fun of the representatives of caftan and beards. The old Russian costumes constituted an effective symbol of orthodoxy for them.

Peter, on the other side, would be understood wrongly if his attempts were compared to the standards set up today. As a human being of the 17th century, he had no sense of the organic element of historical development. He destroyed those who opposed him. He weakened the Orthodox Church, the strongest opponent of new elements, by abolishing the patriarch office (1721) and substituting it by the "most holy synode", an assembly of the highest church dignitaries. He lured his own son Alexei back home from abroad, took him to court under invalid pretext and had him executed without mercy, as he was a defender of the old system.