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Making friends with Old Believers

April 7, 2009 at 11:11 am
By Andy Shenk, Shane Auerbach

"Make new friends, but keep the old.

One is silver and the other gold."

I had to sing that in school. We figured, by that logic, that we needed to make friends with an Old Believer. I think that's what the song was referring to.

Jenny, Nikki, Brian and Megan were not the only ones to visit the cemetery this week. We also visited the Rogozhskoe Old Believer community located several kilometers to the east of downtown Moscow.  After getting off our trolleybus, we walked through a typical Moscow neighborhood, but were soon greeted by four imposing Orthodox churches, on the other side of which lies the cemetery.

Rogozhskoe Cemetery in Moscow 

To reach the cemetery we had to pick our way through the reconstruction work of the churches.  (The workers were less than concerned by our wandering through their worksite. Apparently liability laws aren’t the same in Russia as they are in the US. Who would have guessed? ) At the far end of the religious complex was a beautiful 18th century church lying directly opposite from the cemetery.  Built in the Russian baroque style, the church originally served Old Believers, but in the 20th century was converted into an Orthodox church.

After a few minutes we crossed the street and entered the densely-packed Rogozhskoe cemetery.  Bumper-to-bumper graves interspersed with trees, which had found unoccupied ground both between the plots and sometimes on top of them, jumped out at us immediately.  The cemetery represented the eclectic tomb preferences that Russians have embraced over the last 200 years. It was immediately obvious which graves were from the Soviet era and which predated it. As in many cemeteries, there was also an element of one-upmanship. Rich merchant families clustered their family graves together under stately roofs, sometimes surrounded by cages, while others had chosen to risk the threat of Russian hooligans – Diane tells us that some graves are defaced with soccer slogans and Yulia mentioned that some tombstones had simply been taken by thieves during some of the more dire years of the USSR.

While Soviet and contemporary Russian tombstones most frequently featured engraved pictures of the deceased, we were surprised to learn that traditional Old Believer graves, particularly in the pre-Soviet period, did not list the date of birth, but rather the angel-day on which the deceased was named.  This is reflective of Old Believer traditions, which are extremely strict and emphasize the spiritual over the earthly.

Rogozhskoe Cemetery in Moscow 

Old Believers received their name in 1666, when they refused the reforms of the Russian Orthodox patriarch Nikon, who attempted to return Russia to more authentic Byzantine rituals.  Since that time they have maintained ancient Orthodox practices, despite suffering intense persecution through the ages.  Nonetheless, it does seem paradoxical that many of Moscow’s Old Believers in the 19th and early 20th century became extremely prosperous merchants and in the case of the Morozov and Kuznetsov families, buried in Rogozhskoe, helped underwrite Moscow’s art and theatre.  Diane mentioned the appropriate parallel between Old Believers and Europe’s Jewish community, both of which accumulated great wealth despite persecution.

Diane had given us a list of some graves that were worth looking at. We found some rather easily, but others were more difficult. Soon the excursion became a scavenger hunt of sorts as we tried, and failed, to find the remaining graves. I (Shane) wandered off at the end with a large tombstone in sight. I was so sure that it was the tomb of Shelaputin family.  I spent sometime navigating the dilapidated muddy sidetrails to get to it only to discover that it was not one of our targeted graves. Then Andy called me and asked where I was. They were waiting at the exit for me already.  Failure.

Our final stop on the excursion was a visit to another of the cathedrals located next to the cemetery. Given the scaffolding covering the exterior of the church, we assumed that it was closed, but after Yulia asked an elderly lady entering the building if we could come in as well, she said we could, but only if Yulia put on the skirt that was kept in the foyer of the church for such occasions.  Inside the church we were blown away by the extravagance of the sanctuary, the beautiful singing emanating from the inner sanctuary and mystical aura of the vast, dimly lit chamber. The lady who had let us in, while reluctant at first to allow us to walk around the sanctuary, quickly took a liking to us and gave us a royal tour of her favorite icons.  And what a royal tour it was! Yulia had one icon, supposedly from the 14th century, in mind that she wanted to see. The woman, however, had decided that a full tour was necessary and she led us around explaining many elements of the cathedral as well as some differences between Old Believers and standard Orthodox believers.

Rogozhskoe Cemetery in Moscow 

Andy understood pretty well (again, Shane is at the keyboard), but I had more trouble understanding. My fantastic Christian Living classes in a Christian school in New Zealand had mostly revolved around episodes of Veggietales, a Christian cartoon series – there was no mention of Veggietales anywhere in the entire cathedral. I was obviously shocked by this. I could never be an Old Believer. There was also the fact that she was speaking very quickly in Russian. Sometimes she even stared directly into my eyes like she knew I didn’t understand.  It was intimidating – Andy points out that I was good at nodding and agreeing with everything she was saying. Thanks Andy! – but interesting nonetheless. Now I’ll give the computer back to Andy so he can tell you what the nice woman actually said.

Besides several retellings of key Biblical stories represented in the church’s icons, I was struck by several of our tour guide’s comments.  Well, first of all, after inadvertently pointing out one of the icons we were interested in with her finger, she hastily apologized and grabbed an unlit candle from nearby to point out icons the rest of the way. 

Later, poor Shane got caught with his hands in his pockets—he wasn’t doing anything—for which this devout Old Believer quickly reprimanded him.

Another religious faux pas occurred when a lady tried to enter the sanctuary, most likely just to look around, but wearing jeans and without a headscarf.  Our guide reacted very sharply, and told her to leave, saying “women should wear women’s clothes.”  We heard a little more about this topic while studying an icon of Adam and Eve in the Garden.  Our guide, off to the side to Yulia, noted that women have a long history of tempting men, and thus have to dress conservatively.  Shane and I found this point valid and nodded in agreement.  Yulia was less amused. 

Finally, after about twenty minutes with our guide, we were allowed to inspect the ancient icon that Yulia had been so interested in at the beginning.  By this time we were quite friendly with our guide, most likely because we had swallowed without protest all of her rants against the current Orthodox church and exposition of biblical theology.

We did enjoy our time in the church very much, and on the way out were warmly invited to please come back, especially for the Easter service, when the singing is reputed to be wonderful.  If anybody is interested in learning more about the Old Believers, or perhaps becoming one, please contact us and we’ll introduce you to our new friend.