Ural Federal University: University Completes Project on the Study of Old Believers in the Urals


Employees of Ural Federal University’s Academic and Research Laboratory of Archeographic Studies are completing a three-year project entitled “The Regional Identity of Russia: Comparative Historical and Philological Studies”. The project was funded by the state assignment of the Ministry of Science and Higher Education of the Russian Federation. Under this project, the research team of the Laboratory headed by Irina Pochinskaya studied the history and culture of Old Believers in the Urals. The university’s specialists studied Old Believers in the context of all-Russian processes, but with a special focus on the influence of Old Believers on the development of the Urals region.

Origins and Sources

The diversity of research topics and works confirms that the Urals as a transit territory attracted the particular attention of Old Believers. From the end of the 17th century, Pomor Old Believers missionaries flocked here. Migration processes intensified in the early 18th century, when the imperial authorities eliminated a major center of Old Believers on the Kerzhenets River in Nizhny Novgorod region. From there, the main current of Old Believers, called Kerzhaks, rushed through Vyatka and the Perm region to the mining and industrial Urals, Siberia, and the Far East.

“The owners of the Ural plants were eager to attract Old Believers. Adaptable, industrious, literate, and able to establish relations with local authorities, they eventually took key positions as miners or factory clerks and helped their fellow believers to settle in the Urals. Some became wealthy merchants. Thus, gradually, the Old Believers and their communities became a significant economic and social force. As a result of the first Russian revolution of 1905, Old Believers secured equalization of their civil rights. In particular, they were allowed to publish books,” explains Irina Pochinskaya.

Old Believers’ book culture, in fact, is a continuation in New and Newest times of the Old Russian book and hand-written tradition. That, in turn, was formed on the basis of Byzantine, took root and spread in Russia with the adoption of Christianity. The musical culture of Old Believers, which has survived to this day, also borrowed from Byzantium, where notes were written with the help of hooks. This books, adapted to local conditions and reinterpreted by the Russian world, formed a new cultural tradition, which in its early stages of formation began to create its works within the framework of the Russian version of orthodoxy.

Not only Orthodox, but even Catholic translated literature, being processed, also organically entered the traditional reading material of Old Believers and became its integral part. That is why nowadays researchers often have to do a lot of work in order to establish the origin of this or that Old Believer work. In addition, Old Believers’ writings contain works by Western European and Russian philosophers and writers.

At the same time, in the book graphic art, signs are recorded which are similar to the artistic elements of early Western European manuscripts, which are not present in the Russian Pre-Schism (or Pre-Raskol) monuments of writing. Moreover, it was the Old Believers who first illustrated on Russian soil some works that go back to the Byzantine tradition, such as The Passion of Christ, The Life of Basil the New and Gregory’s Vision. This was done to facilitate the assimilation of the contents of the books by the illiterate and the illiterate.

In Their Own Way

This entire literary complex was not only preserved but also reinterpreted, interpreted, and commented upon by Old Believers as applied to the new socio-political conditions.

“The authors of Old Believers’ manuscripts manifest themselves both as independent personalities and as representatives of Old Believers’ currents, the so-called conciliarities, which differed in the degree of radicalism in their attitude to the official secular and church authorities. The literary monuments reflect the authors’ reaction to the relationships within and between Old Believer communities, to the events of public life in Russia and abroad. Interpretation of historical events is stated, the attitude of the Old Believers to the authorities is recorded, and their emotional experiences are reflected. In Old Believers’ books, we encounter numerous philosophical reflections on existence, on the fate of humanity as a whole and of the individual,” clarifies Irina Pochinskaya.

Pochinskaya gives the example of several written monuments from the collections of the Academic and Research Laboratory of Archeographic Studies. This is the Ushenikov Cosmography from Pomorye in the second half of the 18th century, which is replete with striking details about various countries of the world and about Russia, including a description of the Land of Siberia with a detailed account of the Ural factories.

According to Irina Pochinskaya, an extremely interesting work is Tsvetnik, created in the Urals and devoted to the theme Napoleon the Antichrist, which is popular among Old Believers in the 19th century. It shows the level of Old Believers’ involvement in modern life. Tsvetnik contains interpretations of information on the history of Russia and the tsarist dynasty with numerous references to a wide range of sources and literature, from books of Scripture to contemporary periodicals. Among the literature used, in addition to traditional Orthodox reading, are, for example, Gavriil Derzhavin’s poem Hymn dedicated to the victory over Napoleon, historian and publicist Nikolai Polevoy’s five-volume History of Napoleon, the materials of Severnaya Pchela and Syn Otechestva magazines.

Printed Progress

The book tradition of Old Believers consists not only of a handwritten, but also a printed component. The history of Old Believer printed books goes back to the beginning of the 18th century. At first books were printed mainly in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and illegally imported into Russia. Since the middle of the 19th century, the Old Believers’ books were printed in Russia in underground printing houses, and only after 1905, the possibility of legal printing appeared. The publications of the Old Believers, like their manuscripts, contain many original works or writings that before them existed only in the manuscript tradition.

The placement of orders in Uniate and Catholic printers was reflected in the design of the books. Religious content was combined with baroque and rocaille decorations: angels with lyres, doves, vases with flowers and ribbons, etc.

“Thus, through book printing, Old Believers adopted modern artistic styles and technologies. This demonstrates that, despite the Old Believers’ declared commitment to the past, they were one of the most progressive and enterprising groups in Russian society,” stresses Irina Pochinskaya.

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