Folkstreams | Contexts | Teacher Guide for Old Believers

Teacher Guide for Old Believers

Teacher Guide for Old Believers


The name Old Believer is derived from the name that most of the Russians in Marion County, Oregon, use for themselves—in Russian, Starovery.  In the 1960’s the Russian Old Believers came to settle in the region of French Prairie, bounded by the Willamette and Pudding rivers.  They brought with them a culture rich in religious and folk tradition, whose expression takes form in chants and folksongs, in the calligraphy of ancient liturgical books, in handiwork—the richly embroidered curtains of icon corners, prayer mats, woven belts, and colorful dress, in foodways, and in language.  Church services are conducted in Church Slavonic, the language of religious texts that the children must learn.  These elements of an old Russian way of life are now better preserved in Oregon than in many parts of the USSR.

Origin of the Old Believers in Russia

The Old Believers of Marion County are descendants of Russian Christians who chose to retain the old rituals when reforms were introduced in the Russian Orthodox Church in the 1660’s.  Though Patriarch Nikon, who initiated these changes, was later deposed, the schism remains to this day in the Orthodox Church in Russia.

Some differences in practice that separate the Old Believers from the main group of Russian Orthodox are the number of fingers used when making the sign of the cross (the Old Believers use two fingers rather than three) and the spelling of Jesus’ name (Isus versus Iisus).  More significantly, the revisions made in liturgical texts in the seventeenth century to bring them into line with contemporary Greek books and manuscripts were unacceptable to the Old Believers for whom such alterations indicated a change in faith.

They were excommunicated and suffered persecution from political administrators and official church leaders.  In resisting attempts to change their ways, some Old Believers burned themselves in their own churches (this does not apply to the ancestors of the Oregon group).  Many of the dissenters fled to adjacent countries and to Siberia.  Largely because of this history, the Oregon Old Believers have retained a strong sense of cultural and religious identity.

Migrations to Oregon

The community of Old Believers living in and around Woodburn, Oregon, consists of three separate groups, and their informal names refer to previous places of settlement.  Two groups moved to China from Siberia after the Socialist Revolution of 1917.  The Sintzyantsi lived in the Sinkiang province after leaving Semipalatinsk; the Harbintsi settled around Harbin (then in Manchuria, now China), having crossed the border from the Spassk-Dalnyi area.  Living in isolated rural villages, the people farmed and hunted.

However, when the Communists came to power in China in 1948-49, both groups were forced to emigrate again.  The two groups met for the first time in the early 1950’s in Hong Kong, where various charitable organizations aided their resettlement.  Most families moved to Brazil and Argentina, with major settlement on land provided for them at Curitiba, 200 miles from Sao Paulo, Brazil.  But poor soil and near famine conditions compelled them to move again, this time to Oregon in the 1960’s.

A third group of Oregon Old Believers, the Turchane or “Turkish” group, originated in Southern Russia in the seventeenth century and, after various migrations, settled in Turkey in the eighteenth century, in villages along Lake Manyas.  In 1963 the Tolstoy Foundation responded to their appeal for help and, aided by Attorney General Robert Kennedy, arranged for their resettlement in New Jersey, near Paterson and Milville, and in New York.  Some of this group came to Oregon in 1967 and joined the other two groups.

In 1981 an estimated 5,000 Old Believers live in Oregon, with the largest concentrations in Woodburn, Mt. Angel, and Gervais.  Estimates of the number of Old Believers in the Soviet Union range as high as three million, but a fairly reliable estimate is around one million.  Many of the Oregon Old Believers still have relatives in the USSR, and some have visited there.  Old Believers are also located in Romania, Bulgaria, Poland, East Germany, New Zealand, Australia, Brazil, Argentina, Canada, and Alaska.

 The Religious Calendar

The Old Believers preserve a religious calendar that holds deep significance for them in ordering their lives and yearly activities.  The Julian calendar that they use is now thirteen days behind the Gregorian calendar in general use throughout the world.  During each year they observe numerous religious holidays; on these days they must not go to work or attend school.

Easter is the most important of the religious holidays for the Old Believers; there are also twelve major holy days known as Great Feasts, which honor Jesus Christ and Mary, and in addition many other holy days.

The Old Believers fast on almost every Wednesday and Friday throughout the year.  Also they observe four periods of fasting: Great Lent, Advent Fast, Apostles’ Fast, and Assumption Fast. The strict observance of these fasts requires an Old Believer to refrain from eating dairy products, meat, eggs, fish, wine, and oil.  On Feast days, however, the celebrations compensate for the self-denial with an abundance of food and braga, a home-made fruit wine.

The religious calendar also determines the naming of children.  Each day of the year commemorates the deeds of several saints, and when a baby is christened, usually within eight days after birth, a name is chosen from those of the saints whose days are within that period.  A child’s birthday is then celebrated on the name day, which is more important than the actual birthday.

According to ritual, at baptism each child is given a shirt, a belt, and a cross.  These items have a significance that can be traced to the Scriptures and to other religious writings that guide every aspect of daily living.  For the rest of his or her life, an Old Believer is always to wear a shirt, woven belt, and cross.

 Preservation of Folk Culture: Wedding Traditions

In this community marriage is an important event not only for the two individuals involved but also for all the relatives and friends, as it provides a significant social occasion.

Old Believers have retained many wedding traditions from centuries past.  Today the unchanging religious rituals are intertwined with many folk traditions that are an integral part of the culture of Russian peasantry, and not limited to the Old Believers.  Also some new traditions have evolved with life in the United States, such as the building of a temporary shelter of wood and plastic for the wedding guests.

Traditionally the preparation and celebration of Old Believer weddings have followed a ritual sequence, theatrical in quality, with many people participating in well-defined roles.

Once formal agreement to the marriage is reached, the engagement ceremony begins a time of preparation (the devichnik), usually lasting a week.  During evening parties (also called devichniki), the bride and groom sit together at a table with their single friends; the girls sing folksongs which the boys pay for with money and kisses.  A tone of sadness runs through the Russian devichnik songs, reflecting the theme that the bride, often very young, is leaving her relatively carefree life as a single girl to move to her husband’s home and take on the responsibilities of wife and mother.

On the Saturday afternoon before the wedding, the bride’s friends meet and go po venik (meaning literally “for a bunch of leafy twigs”).  In former times this was a prelude to the bride’s ritual bathing in the bathhouse before the wedding ceremony.  In the bath the bride was switched with the small branches, decorated with the ribbons of her headdress.  Today the young people go by car to the groom’s house where they receive gifts of combs, soap, and towels to be used in bathing the bride.

The final act before the marriage is the “selling of the bride.”  The bride’s younger brother represents her in bargaining with the groom’s party.  In the film we see the placing of paper money over a cup of braga, symbolizing the building of a roof for their new home; when no more “chinks” are left, the price is right.  The spirited jesting is an expected part of the entertainment, which in the past helped to relieve the sad farewell to the bride who was leaving her family and friends.  At this event the “chain” forms, consisting of bride, groom, best man (tysyatsky, who used to function as director of ceremonies) and two women attendants (svashki).  They are joined in holding a long scarf as protection for the bride against evil spirits as she changes households.

The wedding ceremony is held in the groom’s church with much solemn ceremony.  Only married people may attend.  After the couple has exchanged rings and received the blessing of their parents (because of the Schism, these Old Believers have no priests), the bride is led to the back of the church where the women attendants rebraid her single braid into two, and cover her head with a shashmura, to show that she is a married woman.  The bride bows to her husband, to signify obedience; finally instructions on marriage are given from the church books.

One of the high points in the wedding celebration is the spiritual breakfast after the ceremony.  In past centuries the feasting and celebration could last as long as six days, but now the couple soon resumes normal activities.

 Accommodation to American Lifestyle

In Oregon many Old Believers continue to lead an agricultural way of life.  It is common for them to own farms and to harvest crops, especially berries, in the summer.  However, since their arrival here a trend has been to take up modern, urban occupations.  Many Old Believers work in furniture factories in Portland, and sewing is a frequent occupation for women.  Like other Oregonians, some Old Believers work in the timber industry, often as tree thinners.  In general, the people are most prosperous now, and have more material possessions than before they moved to Oregon.  These changes have had the effect of helping transform their primarily rural, village-based society into one that is more urban.

Because the Old Believers had an effect on the communities where they live, adaptations have been made by Oregonians as well.  Instructions in driving manuals and for court procedures are printed in Russian language versions, as well as directional signs in local businesses and banks.  The school district also now recognizes religious holidays and makes accommodation for Old Believer children.

 Difficulties in Maintaining the Culture

Largely because of the transition from a rural to an urban society, Old Believers find it increasingly difficult to maintain their culture as they would like.  When they lived in isolated regions in China, Brazil, and Turkey, they were able to preserve their way of life to a great extent, though some accommodation had to be made, including learning the local language.

In Oregon, however, the “temptations” and pressures of the surrounding culture are strong.  Here the incentives for maintaining a strict, spiritual way of life are in conflict with the availability of cars, television, movies, and other elements of contemporary American life.  Moreover, the better economic conditions contribute to the weakening of the Old Believers’ cultural traditions, as people find less time and inclination for keeping up their folk arts.  (For example, relatives still living in Brazil are better able to maintain traditional activities and sometimes send handiwork to Oregon).  The younger people especially are attracted to the modern lifestyle, and they often find it difficult to reconcile the belief systems of the old and the new.

The older members of the community are concerned and advocate the return to a simpler life style.  Some families moved from Oregon in 1968 to establish a settlement in Nikolaevsk, Alaska, on the Kenai Peninsula (see Bibliography), and another group migrated in 1973 to the Province of Alberta in Canada.

In Oregon one of the main areas where problems occur is education.  Some public schools in Marion County have developed bilingual programs designed to help the Old Believer children by starting their lessons in Russian, then gradually introducing English so they can continue in English-speaking classrooms.  The programs are fairly successful and to some degree help the Old Believers to maintain their language and cultural identity.

The parents, whose former lives usually did not include formal education, are eager to have their children learn basic skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic.  On the other hand, they are fearful that too much exposure to the school system can be harmful because the schools—a means of socializing as well as educating—can have the effect of drawing the young people away from their traditional way of life.  At present, however, more young people are continuing their education longer, and some parents are studying to become citizens.

Ronald E. Peterson, Occidental College

Topics for Discussion

Relate the experiences of the Old Believers to those of other ethnic and religious groups who have come to this country (and to one’s own region).

What difficulties arise in a community when languages are different?  What are possible solutions?

Consider the influence of public schools on the Russian community.  Is this influence positive, negative, or mixed?

What should be the role of the school as an agent of cultural change?

What are the difficulties of preserving religious and folk traditions in a larger society which has a different way of life?

What have Americans borrowed from other cultures?  Of what value is exchange between cultures?

To what extent is a ceremonial event such as a wedding of importance in maintaining a culture?

Compare and contrast the values of the Russian Old Believer culture with those of American society.

What will be the future of the Russian Old Believers who continue to live in Oregon?



General Works

Avvakum.  The Life of Archpriest Avvakum, by Himself.  Trans. Jane Harrison and Hope Mirrlees.  Hampden, Conn.: Archon, 1963.

 Crummey, Robert O.  The Old Believers and the World of Antichrist: The Vyg Community and the Russian State: 1694-1855.  Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1970.

 Dunn, Stephen and Ethel.  The Peasants of Central Russia.  New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1967.


Specific Works about Old Believers in Oregon and Alaska

 Brother Ambrose.  The Oregon Old Orthodox and Their Faith.  St. Benedict, Oregon: The Old Ritualist Society, 1978.

 Clymer, Martha Bahniuk.  Radical Acculturation Patterns in a Traditional Immigrant Group.  Project No. BO-123, U.S. Department of Health, Education & Welfare, Office of Education, January 1970.

 Colfer, Arthur M.  Morality, Kindred and Ethnic Boundary: A Study of the Oregon Old Believers.  Ph.D. Thesis, University of Washington, 1975.

 Hall, Roberta Louise.  Population Biology of the Russian Old Believers of Marion County.  Ph.D. Thesis, University of Oregon, 1970.

 Morris, Richard A.  Three Russian Groups in Oregon: A Comparison of Boundaries in a Pluralistic Environment.  Ph.D. Thesis, University of Oregon, 1981.

 Reardon , Jim. “A Bit of Old Russia Takes Root in Alaska,” National Geographic, September 1972, pp. 401-424.

 Sabey, John.  Staroveri and School: A Case Study of the Education of Russian Immigrant Children in a Rural Oregon Community.  Ph.D. Thesis, University of Oregon, 1969.

 Smithson, Michael J.  Of Icons and Motorcycles: A Sociological Study of Acculturation among Russian Old Believers in Central Oregon and Alaska.  Ph.D. Thesis, University of Oregon, 1976.

Filmmaker’s Note

 During the three years of making the Old Believers film, a great many people have helped in ways large and small, and I would like to thank them all—especially the Old Believers who were able to assist, with sensitivity, in documenting their traditions for the understanding of others.

 As an accompaniment to the film, this booklet is designed to provide further background information about the culture of the Russian Old Believers.  Ron Peterson has been a former teacher in the Woodburn Public Schools; he is now on the faculty of the Languages and Linguistics Department at Occidental College.

                                                                                    Margaret Hixon

                                                                                    Project Director

                                                                                    July, 1981