Old Believers in Estonia and Ukraine: On the Borders Between Tradition and Modernity

Over the past few years, I have had the opportunity to visit two communities of Old Believers: the villages along the western bank of Lake Peipsi in Estonia and the village of Bila Krynytsya in southwest Ukraine. Despite being geographical far apart, I was struck by a similar juxtaposition which occurs in both communities regarding notions of tradition and modernity, periphery and centre.

Old Believers (in Russian, Староверы / starovery) separated from the official Russian Orthodox Church in 1666 as a protest against reforms introduced by Patriarch Nikon of Moscow between 1652 and 1666. They objected to the changes introduced which were designed to bring the rituals and doctrines of Russian Orthodoxy in line with the Greek Orthodox Church. Old Believers wanted to continue their traditional liturgical practices. Consequently, many Old Believers fled westward in the late 17th century to escape persecution.

One group crossed Lake Peipsi into Swedish Estonia in the late 17th century. Settling on the western shore of the lake, they began to establish villages and small wooden prayer houses. Following the Great Northern War, the region was capitulated to Russia in 1710. Under tsarist rule, many prayer houses were closed after the 1840s, but the Old Believers were not persecuted. After Estonian independence in 1918, the Old Believers were allowed to practice their religion and during the interwar period, many prayer houses and churches were constructed and reconstructed. Following World War II, the Old Believers were persecuted by the Communists and several prayer houses were burnt down. In Estonia today, there are around 15,000 Old Believers who are members of 11 congregations. They are mainly concentrated in the villages of Raja, Kükita, Tiheda, and Kasepää in small wooden houses spread out along a 7-kilometer road following the lakeshore.


Church Slavonic Prayer Book from the Prayer House in Varnja, Estonia (Catherine Gibson, October 2014).


Old Believer Prayer House in Varnja, Estonia (Catherine Gibson, October 2014).

Another group of Old Believers left the Russian Empire altogether to settle in Bukovyna in the Austrian Empire. Due to the more liberal climate of religious tolerance, they were able to establish a monastery in the village of Bila Krynytsya in 1783 and in 1844 the Habsburg government gave the Old Believers permission to found a bishopric. During the 20th century, the Old Believers of Bila Krynytsya were persecuted in interwar Romania and in Soviet Ukraine after the annexation of Northern Bukovyna in 1940. Today, the village lies on the relatively new border between Ukraine and Romania. The monastery has closed now, but the beautiful Assumption Cathedral still stands, rising up above the tree line like something from a fairytale.


Erzherzog Rudolf (ed.), Die österreichisch-ungarische Monarchie in Wort und Bild: Bukowina, Band 20 (Vienna: 1899).


Assumption Cathedral today, Bila Krynytsya, Ukraine (Catherine Gibson, July 2015).


In both places time seems to stand still. The inhabitants are mostly devout and elderly members of the congregation who have preserved their traditional way of life. Old Believers use two fingers for making the sign of the cross (those professing reformed Orthodoxy uses three fingers), continue to use Church Slavonic sacred texts and old Byzantine-style iconography. They do not use polyphonic singing, typical of Orthodox liturgy, and perform many bows and prostrations during their religious services that last for many hours.

Yet at the same time, while these communities seem rather cut-off from the contemporary world, they live in regions where the modern state is very present. Both these traditional religious communities live a stone’s throw from borders, which are both international and EU frontiers. The border between Estonia and Russia runs through the middle of Lake Peipsi and border guards patrol day and night. During the summer, the boundary line is demarcated by buoys floating in the middle of the lake; during the winter, by fir trees drilled into the ice. Bila Krynytsya is located just several hundred metres from the Ukrainian-Romanian border where border guards are stationed on the lookout for cigarette smugglers. A watchtower peeps over the tops of the wooden houses, serving as a constant reminder of its proximity. Many border guards live in the village, creating clouds of dust as they speed through the unpaved roads of the village in their cars.


Old Believer villages along the shore of Lake Peipsi (Catherine Gibson, September 2014).


Shore of Lake Peipsi looking towards Russia (Catherine Gibson, September 2014).


Ukrainian border guard observation tower on the Ukrainian-Romanian border, Bila Krynytsya, Ukraine (Catherine Gibson, July 2015).

By living in rural and sparsely populated regions, the Old Believers remained in relative isolation from the centralising tendencies of the modern state and have been able to preserve their traditional religious beliefs and practises down the centuries, despite different waves of persecution by political regimes. At the same time, these traditional religious communities are today located at the centre of intensive activities by the Estonian and Ukrainian states to safeguard territorial sovereignty and control borders.

Catherine Gibson is a doctoral researcher in the Department of History and Civilization at the European University Institute in Florence. Her research focuses on ethnographic cartography in the 19th century in the north-west Russian Empire. She is a co-editor of The Palgrave Handbook of Slavic Languages, Identities and Borders (Palgrave 2015) and maintains a website of ethnographic maps of the north-west Russian Empire. Catherine has a MA in Baltic Sea Region Studies from the University of Tartu, an International Masters in Economy, State and Society of Eastern Europe and Russia from the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College London, and a MA in English Literature and Modern History from the University of St Andrews.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s