Russian Orthodox believers can range from the liberal to the ultra-conservative — the latter being essentially Fundamentalists with robes and incense and icons. And there are the Old Believers that went their own way when the Russian Orthodox Church split in the middle of the 1600s.
I always find it peculiarly amusing that icons painted in the traditional stylized manner are so popular today. That manner was — after the middle of the 17th century — kept alive largely by the Old Believers, and most people have no idea how very ultra-conservative the Old Believers were. They were (and generally are), in modern terms, radical fundamentalists. Their world view was largely medieval, and they became stuck, mentally, in the middle of the 17th century.
Some might liken them, in certain respects, to the Amish of the United States, who like to keep themselves separate from “the world.” Old Believers traditionally consider those not of their belief system to be part of the evil world, and that extends even to the Russian Orthodox State Church, which caused the schism when Patriarch Nikon began “reforms” that changed Orthodox Church rites and symbols and texts to fit what he thought were the “correct” forms of the Greek Orthodox of the time.
To Old Believers, changes that we would consider unimportant today were a horrifying sign that heresy had entered the Russian Orthodox Church. After Nikon’s changes were pushed through against Old Believer protests, they did not immediately give up hope of returning Russia to the old ways. And because there was no real separation of Church and State in the Russia of those days, the Old Believers were terribly persecuted, and had their martyrs. The leader of the anti-reform movement — the Protopop (Archpriest) Avvakum — was eventually burnt at the stake.
After Nikon was deposed, his “reforms” were carried on.
Here we need to pause and look at the succession of Patriarchs of Moscow and All Russia from Nikon:
Nikon: Patriarch from 1652-1666
Pitirim: Temporarily filled the duties of office after Nikon voluntarily left Moscow:
Ioasaf II: Patriarch from January 1667-February 1672
Pitirim: Formerly temporary, appointed as Patriarch July 1672-April 1673
Joachim: Patriarch from July 1674-March 1690
We also need to know what was going on in the Tsarist regime:
Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich: July 1645 – January 1676
Tsar Feodor III Alekseevich: January 1676 – May 1682
Tsar Peter I Alekseevich (Peter the Great): May 1682 – November 1721
But in the reign of Peter, there is a complication. There was a regency controlling Russia. That took place thus:
Tsaritsa Dowager Natalia, Regent: 7 May – 2 June 1682
Princess Sophia, Regent: 8 June 1682 – 17 September 1689
There was also a co-ruler: Ivan V, Peter’s half brother: from 26 May 1682-8 February 1696
Now there was lots of political and religious (which also tended to be political) jockeying for power in this period, both in the Patriarchate and in the Tsarist regime. If you read the history of the times, it is full of “Byzantine” intrigue and political murders and conspiracies.
For now, however, we need to know that In July of 1682 Princess Sophia was Regent — for all practical purposes, though not officially — Tsaritsa — “Empress.”
In the time from Nikon’s patriarchate to that of Joachim, these significant events happened:
The uprising of the Old Believer monks of the Solovetskiy Monastery, supported by the workers and peasants of the region (yes, that is the monastery associated with Sts. Zosima and Savvatiy), and the siege of the Monastery by Tsarist forces from the summer of 1668-1676. In January of 1676 a monk named Feoktist betrayed the monks, and the Tsarist forces entered the monastery with great violence. Out of some 600 monks, only 50 were left alive.
The Boyarina Morozova, a wealthy advocate of Avvakum and the Old Belief, died of starvation in prison with her sister and fellow noblewoman Maria Danilova.
1682: Protopop (Archpriest) Avvakum Petrov, the chief opponent of Nikon and his “reforms” after years of exile, imprisonment and suffering, was burnt at the stake April 14, 1682.
Along with other tortures and executions, these were just the tip of the iceberg of the persecutions of the Old Believers by the joint actions of the State Russian Orthodox Church and the Tsarist regime.
There was an attempt on July 5th, 1682 by the Old Believer leader and priest Nikita Dobrynin to argue the Old Belief against the Nikonian reforms supported by the new Patriarch Joachim. It took place in the Imperial Chambers of the Faceted Palace in Moscow, and it appeared for a brief time that the Old Believers had been successful in gaining the upper hand; but this was not just about religion. It was also about power and politics, and though quite a number of the Streltsy (the Russian firearm infantry) had supported Nikita and his Old Believer views, there was heavy bribery of both officers and soldiers by Princess Sophia, backed by the nobles. The Streltsy changed sides, and betrayed the Old Believers.
Here is a later painting depicting the confrontation in the Faceted Chamber between the fervent Old Believer advocate Nikita Dobrynin and Patriarch Joachim. Accounts of the event say that Nikita became rather violent, and in a rage hurled insults at the Patriarch — but it is not easy to tell what is historically factual, and what is State Church/Tsarist propaganda about the confrontation.
(Artist: Vasiliy Grigorevich Perov, 1834-1882: Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)
On one side we see Patriarch Joachim and Princess Sophia with nobles:
And on the other we see Nikita, being held back in his fervent advocacy of the old ways. Note that Nikita — with his wild and intent look — holds the “eight-pointed” cross that Old Believers consider to be one of the marks of the true belief. The fellow with ragged garments and a long beard beside Nikita wears the lestovka — the Old Believer prayer rope — at his waist.
Behind them are even more supporters of the old ways, holding icons and a very large processional “eight-pointed” cross. And we see one of the Streltsy in his red cape and helmet, his rifle in his left hand:
The Old Believers read their petition concerning the changes made in the liturgical books, though Princess Sophia kept interrupting with negative remarks. Then when the matter of the position of the fingers in blessing was raised (remember that this position is a key characteristic of Old Believer icons), the Old Believers all simultaneously raised their right hands in the old blessing position and shouted “Сице, сице…” — “Thus, thus,” which startled the opposition.
The ultimate result of the palace “debate” was that Nikita Dobrynin was beheaded on July 11, 1682, for his attempt to restore the old ways; his remains were thrown to the dogs. Other supporters were sent into exile. Prince Ivan Khovanskiy — who had also favored the Old Belief, was also executed. The Old Believers — having neither political sophistication nor strong support among the nobility — recognized that they had failed. A new law instigated by Princess Sophia in 1685 severely punished those who dared hold to the Old Belief with whippings, imprisonment, and confiscation of their goods.
It was at this time the Old Believers saw clearly — in their way of thinking — that the Russian Orthodox Church and the Tsarist regime had fallen to the Antichrist. Old Believers regarded themselves as the last true Christians in the world. They left Moscow and other major cities where they were in danger of arrest, and fled to regions where they might be safer from the persecutions of Church and State. Some went deep into the Russian forests. Others began communities in the far northwestern Pomore (“On the Sea”) region, where a community of the Old Belief was founded on the Vuig/Vyg River. Other communities were formed, as readers here already know because of their icon painting, in places such as Nevyansk in the Urals, and Starodub in what today is Belarus, as well as the many other settlements extending even into the wilds of Siberia.
In spite of centuries of persecution, the Old Believers still survive today, both in Russia and outside it. I am in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, and there is an Old Believer community about a 45-minute drive south of where I live. There they still speak Russian and wear old-style Russian garments, and preserve the old rituals and preference for the old manner of icon painting.