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Old-Russian villages in Alaska


It's really a beauty, this wooden orthodox church on the mountain in Nikolaevsk.
People dressed as nineteenth century koelaks are celebrating mass. Women and girls colourful in ankle-length dresses, men and boys in richly decorated shirts, handwoven belts around their waists. Softly they speak old russian, reluctant to visitors.

Nikolaevsk. But also Razdolna and Voznesenka. Eerie sounds of the past. Are we in a remote part of Lithuania, Belarus or the Ukraine where there are still and again such archaic communities? Not exactly. The inhabitants of Nikolaevsk and five other villages speak fluently English to 'outsiders'. No wonder, most of them are born and raised here, in the United States.
This is the Kenai peninsula in Alaska, not far from Homer and Anchor Point. This is the region of the Russian Old Believers, or 'Staro-Obrachestvo' as they call themselves.

The history of the Russian Old Believers is caught in persecution and diaspora, just like their baptist counterpart the mennonites (named after Menno Simons from Witmarsum, three miles from Tseards home). Though from the same religious zeal and devotion as the mennonites, the story of the Old Believers started quite the opposite.
In 1652 Nikon, a Russian Orthodox Patriarch, imposed a series of seemingly minor reforms which led to the Great Schism in Orthodox Faith. Some protested vehemently, saw those 'corrections' as heresy and kept to the old ways.

Since Church and State in the tsaristic era were closely intertwinted, persecution and torture followed. Especially under Tsar Peter the Great. The Old Believers fled Russia and settled in remote regions all over the world. There they could practice their religion in peace, away from so-called Western civilisation with its all-invasive media - television - drugs and sexual abnormalities. Alaska was such a place.

And now our challenge: has western civilisation something to do with climate change? Can we come at terms with nature by religion? What do the Old Believers have to say? It's not a far-flung question: pretty much of them are succesful fishermen. And fishermen do have to follow the seasons, their senses, and their hunt...



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2006 Jan van der Woning
Tseard Zoethout