Polish Old Ritualists: God's Bearded Fools Among the Lakes
small, Polish Old Ritualists: God's Bearded Fools Among the Lakes, Gabowe Grądy, Suwalszczyzna region (near the town of Suwałki), the 1940s. A nastavnik with his wife. Photograph from the family archives of Grzegorz A, starobrzedowcy_dawna_fotografia_rep_andrzej_sidor_forum.jpg
The heirs of bearded radicals who fled from Russia to the Polish republic to avoid religious persecution are in fact the longest-residing Russians to the west of the Bug river. Let us introduce you to the fascinating story of the Old Ritualists from the north-eastern parts of Poland.
Also known as the Old Believers and Raskolniks, Old Ritualists are an ethnic-religious group which emerged following a schism within the Russian Orthodox Church. In the 17th century, the Old Ritualists were those who rejected reforms implemented within the Orthodox liturgy. This protest brought severe and bloody repressions onto the group, forcing them to emigrate. They settled in the area around Suwałki and Augustów and in the Mazury region, in the north-east of present-day Poland. Their settlements have survived to this day, with a few thousand Old Ritualists still calling Poland their home. In the past, these numbers were much higher – the 1st Polish Republic was home to some 100 thousand Old Ritualists, and inter-war Poland hosted about 50 thousand of them.
With time, many of the Old Ritualists became assimilated, while some even changed or abandoned their faith. Many were also affected by 20th-century migrations and re-settlements. But a few villages still survive in present-day Poland where one can encounter the true Old Believers.
The Russian Orthodox Church in the Claws of the Antichrist…
In Florence in 1439, the Byzantine emperor and patriarch signed a union with the Catholic Church and only 14 years later, the Ottoman Turks put an end to the Byzantine state as such. For the inhabitants of Ruthenia, this was a consequence of betraying the Greek Orthodox Church. Since Greeks were considered apostates, the Ruthenian resistance against Patriarch Nikon's reforms comes as no surprise. These were changes which sought to dissipate the differences between Greek and Ruthenian liturgy. Among them was a transformation of the way of making the sign of the cross (with three fingers, as opposed to to two), a cross that now bore four arms instead of eight, a new way of writing icons, and a 'corrected' missal, based on Greek books.
Even if today, such changes may seem merely cosmetic ones, back in the day they constituted an upheaval, and, as a consequence – raised a storm. The effects were all the more dramatic, since the 17th century was a period when peasants' living conditions severely deteriorated, along with that of the rural clergy. A feudal system had been introduced shortly before, and the sons of the lower clergy were not admitted to any administrative posts. The ways in which the new reforms were implemented were certainly not the most subtle ones, either – as they included gouging out the eyes of old icons with a knife. And, since an apocalyptic mood had been in the air for some time, it was easy to come to the conclusion – the Russian Orthodox Church was in the hands of Satan, and Nikon was the Antichrist himself.
Those who opposed the reforms in Ruthenia faced repression, with a culminating moment in 1689. It was then that Tsarina Sofia decreed the death penalty against anyone who upheld the old beliefs. Then, when Pyotr I forbade Russians to wear beards, many of the Old Ritualists decided that nothing good could ever happen to them in Russia. Some of them were convinced that the end of the world was near, and committed mass suicide inside Orthodox churches, where they were burned alive defending old books and icons. Others chose to emigrate to the borderlands of the country, or even outside the Russian Empire. As a result of this, the Old Ritualists are presently the most dispersed religious group in the world, with residents scattered from the modern-day United States, Japan, and even New Zealand.
Exile and settlement
In the early 18th century, the Old Ritualists first appeared on territory that belonged to the Polish Republic – the lands of Livonia and Courland. After the first partition of Poland, they began to move further westward, to Kovno, Vilnius, and the Suwalszczyzna region. Another exodus in the 19th century resulted in conscription and the introduction of birth records. Some of the Old Ritualists considered these to be in conflict with their religion. It was then that they moved to the lake region of Mazury, in the north-east of contemporary Poland. Melchior Wańkowicz described this process in a reportage about Wojnowo, one of the villages founded by Old Ritualists:
The Germans observed them like a curiosity. These newcomers did not posses a single button, for example, as they considered buttons to be the devil's invention. But, since virgin forests surrounded the area, no one interfered with the newcomers' life, and they turned out to be a peaceful and very hard-working people, who bonded with the earth and their neighbours. They began to specialise in certain skills, such as fruit trading, for example, across all of East Prussia. They raised many buildings in the Moscow style, and a whole array of houses also popped up on the banks of the Krutyna river, where they raised Russian bathhouses.
russian artists in poland
Old Ritualists became famous for their solid and resourceful characters, as they followed the principle that honestly acquired and properly used property cannot be sinful. This is how Jędrzej Giertych wrote about the Raskolniks in inter-war Prussia, already part of the Third Reich at the time:
The Russian colonies (
…) are spoken of across all of Mazury, all of East Prussia, and even in Germany. Tourists arrive there from across the entire Reich, in order to see the "russische Dörfer". The money made from tourism makes a significant contribution to the colonists' wealth. The German popular interest in the Russen, who are treated like a touristic oddity, has even resulted in a strange thing: (
…) their ethnic separateness is not persecuted within the ordinary German system, but it is treated with kindness, and even supported.
Early in the 20th century, many Old Ritualists were perceived as Germans of the Old Slavic faith, and after the war they often shared the fates of their evangelical neighbours from the Mazury region, and left, resettling in West Germany. In the Suwalszczyzna region, many took up the Soviet proposal for resettlement and moved to Lithuania, which was annexed into the USSR.
Spiritual and laymen's life
Differences in religious belief among the Old Ritualists also led to the surfacing of separate groups. The main dividing line was a conflict to do with the so-called popovtsy and bezpopovtsy. The popovtsy Orthodox priests had no one to administer the sacrament of priesthood, as the only bishop who sided with the Old Ritualists was soon burned at the stake. One group within the Old Ritualists, which was attached to the sacraments, decided to recruit churchmen from a milieu of orthodox clergy, with a new ceremony of baptism. The more radical ones among them broke with the church hierarchy altogether, believing that Christ himself was the only way to salvation, and not the corrupt priesthood. The vast majority of the Polish Old Ritualists are the latter bezpopovtsy ('bez' signifying without, as those who decided to part with the popovtsy priests).
The bezpopovtsy gather in religious communities under the guidance of a nastavnik, a democratically elected spiritual leader. A nastavnik bestows the two sacraments preserved by the bezpopovtsy: baptism and confession, albeit done in a group. He also celebrates marriage, serves at funerals and is the only one allowed to read aloud from the Gospels during mass. He is required to be in impeccable standing in the local community and also know Old Church Slavonic, the language of bezpopovtsy's religious books. This is due to the fact that Old Ritualists only ever acknowledge those religious books which were created before the reforms, or faithful copies of them.
The house of prayer of the Old Believers is called a molenna. Its architecture very much resembles that of Greek Orthodox churches. To date, there are four active molennas on Polish territory, three of which are located in the Suwalszczyzna region: Gabowe Grądy, Suwałki and Wodziłki. Wojnowo, the fourth molenna location, is a village within the region of Mazury to the south-west of Suwalszczyzna. The molenna in Wojnowo is an architectural rarity, as the only brick structure of its kind. It was built as a copy of a Protestant church in the neo-Gothic style. Wojnowo, once an important centre of the bezpopovtsy community, is also home to a 19th-century monastery. With the death of its last nun, it ceased to serve its religious function in 2006, and has since opened to tourists.
Connoisseurs consider the Old Ritualists’ icons to be among the most beautiful. Their cult is very important, as the Old Ritualists believe that they reflect the image of God on Earth. The only worshipped icons are those which have been created in accordance with the old pre-reform canon (while the Orthodox church is known to have drawn on various elements of Western religious art). The icons of the Old Ritualists can only be inscribed on wood, and cannot be either hanged or nailed. Nails were associated by the Old Ritualists with the martyrdom suffered by Christ as he was nailed to the cross, while the act of hanging was an echo of the knots with which Judas took his own life. The writing of the icons itself not only required mastering the skills, but also ascetic preparations, filled with prayer and fasting. A very rich collection of Old Ritualist icons is on display at the Museum of Icons in Supraśl and the Museum of Warmia and Mazury in Olsztyn.
The Old Ritualists were also known for their pursuit of a very severe lifestyle. They were once forbidden to smoke tobacco and abuse alcohol, and they also could not drink tea. For a long time, they lived in isolation from neighbouring faiths, and inter-religious marriages were forbidden. Three to four times a week, they also used to observe periods of fasting, during which they did not eat meat, eggs, or dairy.
The old prohibitions are now often taken with a grain of salt.
This does not mean, however, that the Polish Old Believers have completely broken with their old traditions. The molennas function, as well as various cultural associations, and the Gabowe Grądy village near Augustów continually hosts performances by the Riabina folk music group, who have performed old Russian songs and dances since 1988.
Author: Patryk Zakrzewski, March 2015
Translated by Paulina Schlosser, 07/04/2015
Patryk Zakrzewski used the following sources:
- E. Iwaniec - Z dziejów staroobrzędowców na ziemiach polskich XVII-XX w, (From the History of Old Ritualists on Polish Territory, 17th-20th century) Warsaw 1977
- I. Grek-Pabisowa - Staroobrzędowcy (The Old Ritualists), Warsaw, 1999