Lost in Time - Old Believer Russian Orthodox Communities Migrate Back to Motherland

Old Believers, the strictest adherents of ancient Christian traditions, are finally returning from 100-year exile in the West to Russia

This fascinating news story offers an update about the Old Believer communities that have been steadily returning to Russia from an almost 100-year exile in Alaska, Uruguay, Bolivia, Brazil and Argentina and setting up communities in Russia's Far East. 

Old Believers are Russian Christians who did not accept the reforms of the Official Russian Church in the 1600s. Since then, they have retained strict staunch loyalty to old traditions. They live in communities, farming the land, have traditional large families, don't send their children to school, strictly limit the use of technology and maintain a strict discipline of prayer. They were forced into immigration throughout the 20th century when religious persecution made it impossible for them to maintain their vibrant religious and cultural identity in Russia.

In the past few years, however, the Russian state has been offering them support and land, in an attempt to convince them to return to Russia. Old Believer religious leaders have come to agreements with the state and local officials even try to support the building of schools and churches for the community, so many Old Believers have left the West and migrated back 'home.'

Of course, these traditional Russians who were born and bred in foreign lands, continue to face hardship after their return to their historical homeland such as lack of land and machinery. They often settle in remote areas, with no cell phone connection, no hospitals, schools or stores. 

Yet they seem to be thrilled to have returned to the country where there are 'real forests' and which they always instinctively gravitated towards. 

They are eagerly waiting and hoping for all their family and community members from other countries to join them so that their vivid, colourful communities can flourish and multiply again. 


Lets return to a theme which our channel has covered previously. Let's recall what was covered by our correspondent, Alexander Rogatkin. The theme of resettling Old Believers to Russia from abroad. It was interesting to see their lives in Alaska, Bolivia, and Brazil. I visited them in Colonia Fir in the mid-90's, with my Uruguayan colleagues from the channel Sodri. But when these bearded men started their own trip, the adventurers didn't always know what awaited them in their historical homeland.

But this spring the metropolitan Old Believer, Cornelius became the first. Cornelius, the leader of an Orthodox Old Believer Church, who was officially received by a Russian leader for the first time in 350 years, received assurance that the state will try to do more for the Old Believers wishing to return to Russia.

Ksenia Kolchina will tell us more about the Old Believers who returned from abroad to Primorye, which has a new governor.

Here people bake bread themselves, although in an electric oven. A brand new sewing machine sews a line on future shirts and sarafans. And the women, having only stepped away from the oven and the crib, tucked in their long skirts and sat behind the wheel.

Glafira Muracheva: "Again there's no men who have licenses, they don't have time, so we have to go trade and sell."

This is how the Old Believers live, preserving their way of life, but also accepting the rules of the modern world.

The village of Dersu in the Krasnoarmeisk district of Primorye is located in the taiga wilderness. Now, when the river is frozen, you can get here by car, at other times, only on foot across a suspension bridge. There's no cellphone reception, no shops, no schools, no hospitals.

The Old Believers came to the seaside village from South America, where they found shelter during the persecutions after the revolution. They were born in Brazil, Uruguay, Bolivia, and Argentina, but Russia remained their dear homeland.

Ivan Murachev: "We love Russia—it is our country, our fatherland. We came back to live here, our life is only here. Our life is here."

In the neighboring village market, the Old Believers sell crops, dairy products and meat. Everything is their own, but it seems that they have not yet become their own for the local residents. It's too early to talk about neighborly relations, they are only getting used to each other.

Ulyan Murachev:They say "Old Believers are lazy and don't do anything" Well, who feeds hundreds of cows, who prepares the hay?”

Ulyan Murachev, the head of the community, gets agitated when he starts talking about the problems. There's not enough land, there's not enough agricultural machinery. There is not enough large cars. After all, for them, "7 to a bench" is not a saying, but a reality. Just Ulyan alone has 12 children and 20 grandchildren.

Ulyan Murachev:As they say, "Once bitten, twice shy." But when we will be asked, what are we going to brag about?”

This is Ulyan being worried about what their relatives on another continent will think about their life in the village of Primorie. The Old Believers are hoping that with time all the "bearded barbudos," as they are called in South America, will move to Primorye soon.

The new region head, Andrei Tarasenko, suggested that the Old Believers create a farm cooperative, and is even ready to build an Old Believer temple in Vladivostok.

During the registration for citizenship it will be possible to receive hectares in the Far East. For the Old Believers land is the most important thing. They don't call themselves farmers, or peasants, but agriculturists, in the Spanish manner.

Evstafy Murachev: "Here, life is real, the forest is beautiful, you can see far, far away, and there it's not like this, you have to crawl into the woods, crawl on all fours, tear through the vines, it's impossible to get through."

Old Believers' speech is a strange mix of languages. Almost everyone knows Spanish and Portuguese. They have forgotten a lot of the Russian they use. Children are taught letters from Aze to Izhitsa.

Education is a whole separate issue. In South America, they avoided public schools. Back in Russia, so far, they have only accepted the primary school program, but not the school itself.

Ivan Murachev: "If we let them go to public schools, to study in the city, we will lose our faith and traditions, everything will be lost, this is how we saved our Russian Christian faith and traditions abroad."

Now a teacher from a neighboring village is coming to teach math and grammar. A ten-year-old child is already a helper in the field, and they believe he shouldn't be in a classroom.

But the Old Believers are asking to build an elementary school directly in Dersu.

Ulyan Murachev: "This is from China, it's my great-grandmother."

On the wall of Ulyan the Elder's cottage are family photos. They were taken in China, Alaska, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, and Bolivia. No group photos from Russia yet.

They can't wait for relatives to move here. To stop wandering around the world and settle here, even if at the edge of the earth, but at home.