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1666: A Time of Troubles

April 7, 2009 at 10:01 am
By Megan Milligan, Nikki Reich, Jennifer Hightower, Brian Kilgour

In 1666, the Russian Orthodox Church experienced a schism, leading to the formation of an exiled segment of the church population - known as the Old Believers.  The Old Believers refused to accept the changes that were introduced by Nikon, the patriarch at the time.  Some of these changes included the method of conducting the liturgy, the way to cross oneself, and how religious figures were portrayed in icons.  As a result of their refusal, the Old Believers were exiled and not considered worthy members of the Church and general population.   To read more about the origin of this devastating schism, visit Wikipedia.

The Old Believers were only allowed to settle in Moscow once again during the plague, which reached Moscow in 1771, because of their willingness to care for the sick.  Furthermore, they were restricted to certain areas of Moscow, one of which we visited this past Sunday.  Rogozhskoye Kladbishye, a cemetery traditionally for Old Believers, is located in the southeast of the city which was, perhaps not so coincidentally, located in the path of the invading Tatars. 


 We visited the gravestones of several prominent Old Believer merchants.  These included Morozov, Shelaputin, Rachmanov, Ryabushinksy, and Kuznetsov.  The Old Believers were well-known for their wealth, which they accumulated in exile, working on the major trade routes to Asia.   The Old Believers were also deeply involved in the arts.  Famous art collector Pavel Tretyakov is just one example of an influential Old Believer.  Others established and gave to public charities.


The cemetery was imposing and seemingly haphazardly constructed, its mystery only more accentuated by the overcast sky and drizzling rain.  The cemetery differed from a traditional American one – each grave was surrounded by a cast iron fence.  We learned that this was because the Old Believers wanted their relatives’ remains to be surrounded by a protective “house” of sorts.  Hence a fence was needed.

Little Gates

Below is the winter church of the Old Believers that was located nearby the cemetery.  Two churches, a summer and winter one, were typically established, as heating was not available (interestingly, two churches are still needed as Old Believers do not accept modern technology within the Church).  One of the many differences between the New and Old Believer Churches was that the icons for the Old Believer churches have darker tones, more oval-shaped faces, and more elaborate facial features. 

Winter Church 

Today, a great divide still remains between the Old Believers and the rest of the Orthodox population.  Efforts are being made to reconcile the two, but the suffering and isolation the Old Believers experienced throughout history remains.