13895Time takes its toll on Latvias Old Believers
- Aug 31, 2010http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20100831/world-news/time-takes-its-toll-on-latvia-s-old-believers
Tuesday, 31st August 2010
Time takes its toll on Latvias Old Believers
Aleks Tapinsh, AFP
There are little more than a dozen residents left
in as many wooden homes in the hamlet of
Slutiski, tucked away from civilisation in
eastern Latvia. All are Old Believers, a faith struggling to survive.
The young people are leaving, said Aleksejs
Zilko, newly-elected head of the Latvian Old
Believer Church. To whom shall we pass on our faith?
Followers of the Christian denomination that
split from the Russian Orthodox Church in the
17th century migrated to escape persecution,
building tight-knit ethnic Russian communities
around the world, secluded from the mainstream.
Today, they face new challenges as a
less-religious generation heads to the cities in
search of work, leaving the old behind.
Elderly men with beards gathered alongside women
in traditional costumes and long shawls at a
recent celebration near Slutiski of the 350th
anniversary of their first prayer house built in Latvia.
The new era has set us serious tests, added
Zilko. The villages become desolate, and our prayer houses too.
Residents of Slutiski, located in the Baltic
states poorest region, get basics such as bread,
sausages or smoked fish from a minivan that rolls in only once a week.
In their homes, floors are covered with handmade
carpets, furniture is decorated with fretwork,
and each boasts a huge traditional stove, along
with a worship corner of painted copper and
silver icons passed down the generations.
Widower Mihail Gavrilov, 80, has lived in Slutiski since birth.
When he was much younger, Gavrilov would trek for
hours to reach the nearest prayer houses. Now he
rides a bus still a rare sight in these parts.
Its more fun in the summer, he said.
Taking their icons, holy books and little else,
Old Believers fled their native land over three
centuries ago, said Aziy Isayevich Ivanov, 75.
They considered themselves the keepers of the
original Orthodox tradition spread from Byzantium
to what is now Russia and Ukraine at the end of the 10th century.
Because they refused Church reforms introduced in
Russia at the end of the 17th century they suffered waves of repression.
The violent reprisal forced people to leave the
Russian state and move to outskirts of the empire
or to other countries, said Mr Ivanov. The east
of present-day Latvia was at the time ruled by a
Polish-Lithuanian kingdom known for religious tolerance.
The Communist Revolution of 1917 turned atheism
into official policy. Those Old Believers who did
not flee faced renewed persecution by the Soviets.
Overall, millions of Old Believers moved anywhere
where they could worship as they saw fit as far
afield as South America and Australia.
But despite Latvias tortured 20th-century
history, its Old Believers managed to preserve their faith.
Some 62,000 Old Believers remain today a tiny
minority in the country of 2.2 million and a
small part of Latvias largest ethnic minority,
the Russians, who form 28 per cent of the
population and mostly declare themselves Orthodox.
But since Ukraine regained its independence in
1991, the Old Believer villages have emptied out.
When the country joined the EU in 2004, many
emigrated to other member states of the bloc to work.
Others moved from the countryside to Latvias
cities, where it is easier to find work. Some
have converted to mainstream Orthodox Christianity.
That has left many prayer houses empty in the region.