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13895Time takes its toll on Latvia’s ‘Old Believers’

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  • Bill Samsonoff
    Aug 31, 2010

      Tuesday, 31st August 2010
      Time takes its toll on Latvia’s ‘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
      state’s 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.
      “It’s 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 Latvia’s 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 Latvia’s 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 Latvia’s
      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.