Preserving Traditions: Russian old Believers
Hang on in Oregon
Kramer, Andrew. "Preserving Traditions: Russian old Believers Hang on in Oregon." Minot Daily News, 5 January 2002, sec. B6.
WOODBURN, Ore. – An old woman wearing peasant clothes and
a kerchief stands in front of a Russian church topped by gilded
The scene could be out of a distant century if not for the Ford
pickup parked nearby and a TV antenna sprouting from a house.
This is “the village,” a row of houses and churches
in the heart of Oregon’s community of Russian Old Believers,
descendants of dissident Christians who split from the Russian Orthodox
Church in the 17th century, then fled to the United States to escape
Struggling to preserve traditions dating back to medieval times,
they cling to strict rules: No meat on Wednesdays or Fridays. Peasant-style
clothing must be worn with a belt. Followers cannot eat off the
same dishes as nonbelievers, so some Old Believers eat out only
as fast-food restaurants where meals come in disposable containers.
“It’s never been easy to be an Old Believer,”
said Brother Ambrose Moorman, an Old Believer monk and curator of
a Russian museum at the Mount Angle Abbey.
On Jan. 7, the sect will celebrate Christmas according to the Russian
Orthodox religious calendar, which runs two weeks behind the Gregorian
calendar used in the West.
While most American decorate for Christmas, Old Believers do the
opposite: All ornaments, such as religious icons, are taken down
and the house is cleaned and made as bare as possible before the
Old Believers must fast for periods of time and abstain from alcohol
leading up to Christmas. They celebrate the holiday with an all-night
Mass ending with a festive breakfast and a return of the decorations.
“We would go to church on Christmas Eve and Mom would stay
home and put up the decorations,” recalled Ulita Seleznev,
a first-grade teacher at Heritage Elementary School in Woodburn.
The Old Believers split from the Russian Orthodox Church when the
institution enacted reforms to reconcile differences between Russian
religious texts and Greek originals. The Old Believers chose instead
to adhere to traditional rituals.
On the surface, the schism concerned seemingly trivial issues as
how many fingers should be extended while making the sign of the
cross: The Old Believers use two, modern Russian Orthodox three.
On a deeper level, the split seemed to reflect different visions
of Russia’s future. The Old Believers, whose faith developed
in the forests and swamps of Russia’s hinterlands, opposed
the subordination of religion to the increasingly powerful secular
government in Russia as the country became an empire.
Many Old Believers fled the country over the years. Those who remained
stayed on the fringes of Russian society, typically living in remote
villages in the far north or in Siberia. About 3 million people
are of Old Believer descent in Russia today.
The 10,000 Old Believers in Oregon are the largest concentration
of members of their faith living in the United States. Some were
directed to the state by charities that helped Christians migrate
from communist countries during the Cold War.
Yavhori Cam, the founder of the Old Believers’ village, carved
the subdivision from verdant farmland about 30 miles south of Portland
in the 1960s.
On a recent Sunday service inside Pokrov Church, men in dark robes
chanted as women crossed themselves and genuflected before icons
illuminated by candles.
After a Sunday church service, girls and boys scampered out onto
Bethlehem Road in the village in pink and red embroidered clothes,
with kerchiefs and leather boots and belts, giving the quaint expression
of an Old World peasant festival.
Old Believers get their fashion sense at baptism. Eight-day-old
infants are dressed in an embroidered shirt, or rubashka, a homemade
belt called a poyas, and a cross, and are expected to wear the same
style for the rest of their lives.
For girls, a flowing dress, or platya, extending to the ankles
must be worn tied with a belt.
Maintaining such traditions continues to be a challenge.
Old Believers have to observe 40 annual religious holidays, and
the religion’s strict rules make employment with businesses
in the community at large all but impossible. About half are farmers
– one of the few occupations that meshes with their lifestyle.
Many Old Believers don’t believe in education past eighth
grad, and send their children to work on farms or construction jobs
with friends and relatives.
Still, Seleznev said she sees more and more Old Believers making
compromises. All drive cars and most these days watch television.
“Ten or 15 years ago people were more worried about the outside.
Now you hear less about the outside” because Old Believers
are becoming more a part of it, she said.
Kalin Ayhan, a Woodburn police officer and Old Believer, had to
decide whether to shave his beard, an act the sect considers an
insult to God, or be fired from his job. He decided to shave.
Community leaders allowed him to continue attending church, but
barred him from chanting the liturgy with the men and made him stand
in the back with the women. He split from the community soon after.
“They came over here and put us smack in the middle of the
United States of America but say, ‘Don’t take part in
anything,’ ” he said.
His cousin, Filip Ayhan, took a different path. He grew up in the
village and spoke only Russian until first grade then quit school
after seventh grade.
Ayhan began working as a painter with family members or other Russians
who are contractors. He vows he will stay and raise his children
in the same fashion.
“We’re still closely knit, but not reclusive as before,”
Seleznev said. “The kids are more American growing up than
when I grew up.”
Reprinted with permission of the Minot Daily News.