I was lucky to be born into a family of dissident Old Believers. Therefore, my perception of the freedom of religion is not a theoretical abstraction, but a fruit of personal experience.
Old Believers have been the most persecuted religious group in the history of Russia. Even the horrors of the oppression against Jews in the Middle Ages often pale beside the stories of oppression against Old Believers in the Russian Empire where they have never been neither the “aliens” nor immigrants.
In the late 17th century the burning of villages of Old Believers with all their inhabitants, including women and children, was routinely practised by the authorities. The official state-controlled Orthodox Church also took part in those atrocities: documents signed by Patriarchs Nikon and Adrian contained the demands to execute Old Believers.
Up until the February 1917 Revolution, the Russian Old Believers were deprived of their civil rights and liberties. They were allowed to live and have their prayer houses only near plague pits and any public confession of faith on their part immediately entailed punishment, i.e. arrest and imprisonment in labour camps. For this reason, Old Believers, on one hand, had gone into self-isolation that enabled them to work out an efficient economic model and establish capitalism in Russia. By 1917, 70% of Russia’ capital was controlled by Old Believers. The generally hostile environment, however, forced them to finance the revolutionary processes in 1905 and 1917.
According to their concept, the victory of a democratic revolution was a guarantee of religious freedom in Russia. However, soon after coming to power in February 1917, Old Believers, represented by their public leaders, such as Alexander Guchkov, Pavel Ryabushinsky, and Alexander Konovalov, had lost their grip due to the absence of political experience and, as a result, Russia immersed itself into the sanguinary Soviet era.
In Soviet schools, neither I nor my numerous brothers and sisters were never members of the Pioneers or the Komsomol, the Soviet Union’s Communist Youth League. It was an exceptionally rare occasion at that time -there were only one or two cases in the history of the school – when asked by the teachers why I don’t want to become a Pioneer I always answered, “because of the atheist propaganda of the Communist Party” and also, “because the members of those two organisations were not allowed to believe in God.”
Now I would rather avoid talking about the humiliation I was subjected to by the schoolteachers and fellow classmates due to the crucifix I wore instead of the red Pioneer neckerchief. My profound disaffection with the Soviet regime was rooted in these childhood memories. In spite of all the bans on the wearing of a crucifix, I have never taken it off…
When I read the manuscripts written by the Old Believers of the Russian Empire, I can see the same resentment towards the tsarist regime as the one I had towards the Soviet authorities. And this resentment was caused not by any “class antagonism” or the serfdom law, but only by the persecution of Old Believers and the absence of religious freedom.
The struggle for this freedom was the keynote of the Old Believer policy for centuries. Old Believers were a progressive stratum of Russian society because it was the very stratum that generated the understanding of the importance of the religious motivation of social and economic behaviour of individuals and communities.
The religious freedom, and not the imposition of a “universally binding” model of religious behaviour, is the basis of genuine, and not banally false, patriotism. A true believer in God, regardless of his or her religious affiliation, is a patriot of the country he or she lives in, provided that religious freedom is not suppressed there.
Old Belief is a complex ideological and social structure where specific communities and their interests dominate over the hierarchy principle. One community may accept a hierarchy whilst the other may not; one community may have the “Austrian” clergy whilst the other may accept priests from the Established Church, and the third community may deem a hierarchy to be unnecessary and consist only of the laity.
All these communities may regard each other as heretics, but there has never been a single case in history when one community of Old Believers sought to close temples or to ban the activities of another community. Even now any demand to close a temple of another religious group or any struggle against the communities of another faith is the absolute taboo for Old Believers. I was born and grew up in the city of Rostov-on-Don where we had two Old Belief temples and two synagogues on one street.
The presently banned Jehovah’s Witnesses and Pentecostals visited us sometimes. As far as I could remember, some of our parishioners left us to join the Buddhists, but I have never heard any Old Believer calling the state to limit the activities of other religious groups or even expressing an internal desire to urge the state to take such actions.
I trust in competition. Healthy competition underlies the divine macrocosm. A believer must be able to compete and prove his or her usefulness and indispensability for society.
In my opinion, the history of Old Belief has been the “alternative” history of Russia which almost became reality in February 1917. Had the Old Believers retained power in 1917, we would have been living not only in another Russia but in another world – the world of freedom and mutual respect. However, I am confident that the Old Believer approach towards the freedom of worship is indigenously Russian.
This is what our Russian identity is all about and the history of the Old Believers is the genuine history of Russia.