Preserving Traditions: Russian old Believers Hang on in Oregon

Kramer, Andrew. "Preserving Traditions: Russian old Believers Hang on in Oregon." Minot Daily News, 5 January 2002, sec. B6.

WOODBURN, Ore. – An old woman wearing peasant clothes and a kerchief stands in front of a Russian church topped by gilded cupolas.

The scene could be out of a distant century if not for the Ford pickup parked nearby and a TV antenna sprouting from a house.

This is “the village,” a row of houses and churches in the heart of Oregon’s community of Russian Old Believers, descendants of dissident Christians who split from the Russian Orthodox Church in the 17th century, then fled to the United States to escape persecution.

Struggling to preserve traditions dating back to medieval times, they cling to strict rules: No meat on Wednesdays or Fridays. Peasant-style clothing must be worn with a belt. Followers cannot eat off the same dishes as nonbelievers, so some Old Believers eat out only as fast-food restaurants where meals come in disposable containers.

“It’s never been easy to be an Old Believer,” said Brother Ambrose Moorman, an Old Believer monk and curator of a Russian museum at the Mount Angle Abbey.

On Jan. 7, the sect will celebrate Christmas according to the Russian Orthodox religious calendar, which runs two weeks behind the Gregorian calendar used in the West.

While most American decorate for Christmas, Old Believers do the opposite: All ornaments, such as religious icons, are taken down and the house is cleaned and made as bare as possible before the holiday.

Old Believers must fast for periods of time and abstain from alcohol leading up to Christmas. They celebrate the holiday with an all-night Mass ending with a festive breakfast and a return of the decorations.

“We would go to church on Christmas Eve and Mom would stay home and put up the decorations,” recalled Ulita Seleznev, a first-grade teacher at Heritage Elementary School in Woodburn.

Trivial issues
The Old Believers split from the Russian Orthodox Church when the institution enacted reforms to reconcile differences between Russian religious texts and Greek originals. The Old Believers chose instead to adhere to traditional rituals.

On the surface, the schism concerned seemingly trivial issues as how many fingers should be extended while making the sign of the cross: The Old Believers use two, modern Russian Orthodox three.

On a deeper level, the split seemed to reflect different visions of Russia’s future. The Old Believers, whose faith developed in the forests and swamps of Russia’s hinterlands, opposed the subordination of religion to the increasingly powerful secular government in Russia as the country became an empire.

Many Old Believers fled the country over the years. Those who remained stayed on the fringes of Russian society, typically living in remote villages in the far north or in Siberia. About 3 million people are of Old Believer descent in Russia today.

The 10,000 Old Believers in Oregon are the largest concentration of members of their faith living in the United States. Some were directed to the state by charities that helped Christians migrate from communist countries during the Cold War.

Yavhori Cam, the founder of the Old Believers’ village, carved the subdivision from verdant farmland about 30 miles south of Portland in the 1960s.

On a recent Sunday service inside Pokrov Church, men in dark robes chanted as women crossed themselves and genuflected before icons illuminated by candles.

After a Sunday church service, girls and boys scampered out onto Bethlehem Road in the village in pink and red embroidered clothes, with kerchiefs and leather boots and belts, giving the quaint expression of an Old World peasant festival.

Traditional Attire
Old Believers get their fashion sense at baptism. Eight-day-old infants are dressed in an embroidered shirt, or rubashka, a homemade belt called a poyas, and a cross, and are expected to wear the same style for the rest of their lives.

For girls, a flowing dress, or platya, extending to the ankles must be worn tied with a belt.

Maintaining such traditions continues to be a challenge.

Old Believers have to observe 40 annual religious holidays, and the religion’s strict rules make employment with businesses in the community at large all but impossible. About half are farmers – one of the few occupations that meshes with their lifestyle.

Limited education
Many Old Believers don’t believe in education past eighth grad, and send their children to work on farms or construction jobs with friends and relatives.

Still, Seleznev said she sees more and more Old Believers making compromises. All drive cars and most these days watch television.

“Ten or 15 years ago people were more worried about the outside. Now you hear less about the outside” because Old Believers are becoming more a part of it, she said.

Kalin Ayhan, a Woodburn police officer and Old Believer, had to decide whether to shave his beard, an act the sect considers an insult to God, or be fired from his job. He decided to shave.

Community leaders allowed him to continue attending church, but barred him from chanting the liturgy with the men and made him stand in the back with the women. He split from the community soon after.

“They came over here and put us smack in the middle of the United States of America but say, ‘Don’t take part in anything,’ ” he said.

Different path
His cousin, Filip Ayhan, took a different path. He grew up in the village and spoke only Russian until first grade then quit school after seventh grade.

Ayhan began working as a painter with family members or other Russians who are contractors. He vows he will stay and raise his children in the same fashion.

“We’re still closely knit, but not reclusive as before,” Seleznev said. “The kids are more American growing up than when I grew up.”

Reprinted with permission of the Minot Daily News.

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