Old Believers

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Detail of the painting Boyarynya Morozova by Vasily Surikov depicting the defiant Boyarynya arrested by Tsarist authorities in 1671. She holds two fingers raised: a hint of the old (i.e. "proper") way of cross-signing oneself: with two fingers, rather than with three.

In the context of Russian Orthodox church history, the Old Believers (Russian: старове́ры or старообря́дцы) became separated after 1666-1667 from the hierarchy of the Church of Russia as a protest against church reforms introduced by Patriarch Nikon of Moscow.

Old Believers continue liturgical practices which the Russian Orthodox Church maintained before the implementation of these reforms. Because of the use of these older liturgical practices, they are also known as Old Ritualists.

Russian-speakers refer to the schism itself as raskol (раскол - etymologically indicating a "cleaving-apart").

Introductory summary of origins

In 1652, Nikon (1605–1681; Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church from 1652 to 1658) introduced a number of ritual and textual revisions with the aim of achieving uniformity between Russian and Greek Orthodox practices. Nikon, having noticed discrepancies between Russian and Greek rites and texts, ordered an adjustment of the Russian rites to align with the Greek ones of his time. According to the Old Believers, Nikon acted without adequate consultation with the clergy and without gathering a council. After the implementation of these revisions, the Church anathematized and suppressed with the support of Muscovite state power the prior liturgical rite itself as well as those who were reluctant to pass to the revised rite. Those who maintained fidelity to the existing rite endured severe persecutions from the end of the 17th century until the beginning of the 20th century as schismatics. They became known as "Old Ritualists", a name introduced during the reign of Empress Catherine the Great. At the same time they continued to call themselves simply Orthodox Christians.

Baptism of Kievan Rus'

Although a portion of the population of Kievan Rus' (Ruthenia) was Christian by 944, Knyaz Vladimir of Kiev, impressed by the Easter rituals of the Byzantine Church, embraced Christianity in 987. In doing so he not only formed a politically expedient alliance but invited the adoption of Greek learning and book culture. Along with the baptism, Ruthenia took all Gospel, apostolic and patristic traditions sacred to the storied Eastern Church. Close connections were established between the young Russian church and the Constantinople Patriarchate. The first Russian metropolitans were Greeks. As the representatives of the Patriarch of Constantinople, they oversaw the piety of the newly installed customs and practices, and this patronage ensured that the church regulations, divine services, sacraments and rites were borrowed from the Orthodox Church of the East.

Revision of the Church Books

In 1551, the Moscow Stoglav Church Council declared in favour of revision. The council's purpose was to regulate the church's relationship to the state, reform its internal life, strengthen the authority of the bishops, and eradicate non-Christian folk customs from among the populace. It would not introduce anything new but would purify the Russian church of irregularities. The council called for many irregularities in church life to be corrected. Among other things, drunkenness among the clergy was to be eradicated, parish priests were to be better educated, and priests and laity alike were to be protected against rapacious episcopal tax collectors. "Pagan" and foreign practices popular among the laity were prohibited, such as minstrels playing at weddings and the shaving of beards. Patriarch Philaret (Romanov) of Moscow, during the reign of his son Tsar Michael, took part in abortive attempts to reform the church books; and under Tsar Alexis, the second of the Romanovs, in 1654, a council of thirty-six bishops assembled at Moscow, over which the Pat. Nikon presided, and earnestly recommended the long-contemplated project to the attention of the Tsar. Macarius, the Patriarch of Antioch, with his archdeacon, Paul of Aleppo, and the head of the Serbian church, were present upon this occasion. At length, under the auspices of the Moscow Sobor of 1667, attended by the Patriarch of Alexandria and the Patriarch of Antioch, with delegates from both the Patriarch of Jerusalem and the Patriarch of Constantinople, the revision of the liturgical books of the Slavonic church was effected; and the revised texts were formally declared to be the only true, lawful, and authorised copies. Alexis in person presided over this conclave. By its voice the ambitious and turbulent Patriarch Nikon was deposed from the Russian patriarchate and the canon against shaving was repealed.

The effect of the above salutary measure in the Russian Orthodox Church, and that of the nearly contemporaneous Act of Uniformity in the Anglican Church, was in some degree similar. Dissent arose on an extensive scale, and persecution was vigorously applied to reclaim or crush the nonconformists.

Internal dissensions troubled the Russo-Greek communion at an early period, leading to separation Russian Orthodoxy from the Greek. The earliest controversies referred to trifling or ridiculous points of difference, yet were none the less furious on account of the causes being trivial. There was warm contention whether the hallelujah should be repeated two or three times at the end of the psalms, and whether the sign of the cross should be made with three fingers, symbolising the Trinity, according to the Byzantine Rite, or with two fingers, in allusion to the two natures in the person of Christ, as prescribed by the Armenian Rite. But in 1375, Karp Strigolnik, a citizen of Novgorod, touched upon topics of greater moment. Accusing the clergy of simony and abuse of the rite of confession, he raised a violent outcry against them, and proclaimed doctrines in which the fanatical blended with the sober.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the Russian Orthodox Church realized that the forced introduction of the so-called "new rite" was carried out in a violent and uncanonical way, and that the old rite kept in Russia is actually a historic rite of the ancient Antiochian Patriarchate. At least three Fathers of that Patriarchate (namely, Meletius of Antioch, Theodoret of Cyrus and Peter of Damascus) had given homilies on the sign of the cross being made with two fingers, in the manner of the Russian Old Believers. Perhaps the fact that Michael I of Kiev, the first Metropolitan of Kiev, was possibly of Syrian origin, can explain how this tradition arrived in Russia. What cannot be understood is how the tradition was lost in Antioch itself. However, St. Nicodemus, in the Rudder also mentions that Christians made the sign of the cross with two fingers, in honor of the two natures of Christ, and that the current custom is now to use three fingers, for the Holy Trinity.

Church Regulations

In the early days, services in temples and monasteries of the Russian church were conducted according to the Studite liturgical typikon. This statute received wide acceptance because of the high importance of the Studion Monastery founded in the year 463 in Constantinople at the Church of John the Forerunner. This monastery in the course of short time became one of the main spiritual and liturgical centers of orthodoxy. This monastery acquired singular value during the epoch of the Iconoclasm, when the monks of monastery were the most zealous defenders of icon veneration. Studite regulations prepared by Constantinople Patriarch Alexius were brought to Russia in 1065. He also glorified the renowned Old-Russian St. Theodosius Pecherskiy as a saint. From Kiev, the Studite regulations were extended along other cities and abodes of our country.

In the 14th century during the service of the metropolitans of Fotiya and Cyprian of Moscow, the Russian divine services began to gravitate towards another eastern regulation - Jerusalem. It, first of all, reflects the liturgical practice of the ancient monastery of the Holy Land. The authors of the Jerusalem typikon are considered to be Saints Savva Osvyashchenny and Efim Velikiy. In the 15th century, the Jerusalem typikon obtained a certain advantage in the Russian church. One of the first translations of the Jerusalem regulations into the Slav language was completed at the end of the 14th century by the student of St. Sergius of Radonezh - St. Afanasy Vysotsky, the founder of the Vysotsky monastery in Serpukhov. This regulation obtained the designation “eye of the church” [“oko tserkovnoe”].

The co-existence in Russia of two regulations not only did not interfere with the order of divine service, but even enriched the liturgical life of our church. Especially important is the fact that the all ancient typikons, in contrast to contemporary ones, completely preserved the early-Christian dogmatic, symbolic and ontological sense of divine service. Well-known scholar academician E. Golubinskiy believes that the Jerusalem and Studite regulations are only variations of general ancient-orthodox regulations, and “are characterized by not so much chinoposledovaniyami [??] themselves, as by the time and manner of their accomplishments”.

Church Singing

Along with the transfer of liturgical regulations into the Russian church from Byzantium passes the ancient tradition of liturgical singing. In the 10th century a Greek Osmoglasie style developed in the form of monotone or unison singing which defined the entire style of Christian hymns. In Russia, the Christian monotone Osmoglasie is called “cherubic”, according to the legends of the saints hearing the holy angels singing. In the course of a short time Christian church singing penetrated all corners of our country. Already in the 11th century in Russia appear raspevy songs dedicated to the native saints. Unknown Russian authors by the 15th- 17th centuries create the huge amount of forms of pesnopeniy [??]: travelling, stolpovoy [??], large and small sign demestvenny [??], Novgorod, Pskov and many others. Possessing significant variety, Russian sacred music nevertheless remained for hundreds of years in the present Christian church, distant from the influence of fashionable secular trends.

The Publishing Business

In the life of the Old-Russian church the book occupied an especially significant place. Before the invention of printing, the liturgical books, the works of holy fathers, lives of the saints, theological and other spiritual literature were valued by their weight in gold. The contribution of the book to the monastery or the temple frequently was equal to the cost of land it was put on. The high craftsmanship of the ancient manuscript and the uncommonly deferential attitude to the book by the people, made its production an extremely honorable occupation. Books were even written about princes. So for example, it is established that liturgical books were copied that dealt with Prince Vladimir Galitsky, and several liturgical texts rewrote the life of Tsar Ivan IV of Russia (the Terrible). Each page, each paragraph, each proposal, each letter of the book was thoroughly compared during a census. In the Old-Russian manuscript books there were many less errors than in the contemporary book of misprints. To spoil the book for the Old-Russian rukopistsa [copyist?] would tarnish all their activities. In the 18th-19th centuries, church and secular historians formed a theory about the allegedly blatant illiteracy which prevalied in Russia in the 10th-16th centuries. The overwhelming majority of the population of Kiev, and then Moscow Russia was illiterate according to the opinion of such “scholars”. A small quantity of semi-literate people were occupied by written office management, and simultaneously copied spiritual literature. In this case into the liturgical books fell many errors, errors and even fabrications of these ignoramuses.

Today this pseudo-scientific opinion is completely disproved. In the course of impartial historical research in the 20th century, it was established that the very substantial part of the population of ancient Russia was literate. Archaeologists could find on the site of ancient cities and populated areas, thousands of birch bark certificates with records belonging to commoners. After the philological analysis of Old-Russian liturgical texts, the scientists drew the conclusion that their translators and compilers know the wide layers of the literature of the Christian east. The academician of RAN (Russian Academy of Sciences), V. Kirillin, conducted a tedious study of some canons of lenten and colored Triodions of the first half of the 15th century. It turned out that many texts of that time were philological more competent than contemporary ones, are more transparent for the perception and are theologically reconciled. A scientist characterizes the Old-Russian compiler of Lenten Triodion thusly: “There is an obvious and striking theological and philological culture, and a deep (Christian) understanding of unknown editor”. Sometimes the literary achievements of the ancient Russian church proved to be unprecedented throughout entire orthodox east. So in 1490, Novgorod archbishop Gennadiy's efforts for the first time in the history of eastern Christianity created a manuscript bible.

Contemporary scientists have proved also that discrepancies found in the ancient manuscripts were produced not by the ignorance of compilers and by their supposed fraudulent intent, but by the extraordinary complexity of the book, and by the absence of the possibility of rapidly checking out one questionable place or another. However, concerning differences in the ancient divine service, their reason was the co-existence of the Studite and Jerusalem regulations, which were discussed above. Let us note, however, that all this was not a special concern. The correction of errors, and the considerable improvement of various controversies took place gradually, publicly and only after serious study of the problem. In certain cases such questions were solved in the course of local church councils. Thus, for instance, the sobor of 1551 decided to correct punctuation marks, and at the sobor of 1619 after a thorough study it was decided to withdraw from holy-water prayers at Epiphany the incorrect addition “and by fire”. The appearance of a first-printed “apostle” Ivan Fedorov became a landmark stage in the life of the Russian state. The book became more accessible and available. Printed matter especially bloomed strongly with the Patriarchs Philaret and Joseph. Tsars and pious patriarchs, worrying about the completeness of divine service, generously sent the books to churches without any commercial benefit. The old publication books to this day remain the standard of publishing quality, a model for the font and artistic imitation.

A new phenomenon in Orthodoxy was the appearance of a printed bible in 1581. The so-called Ostrog Bible became the first printed bible in the entire orthodox eastern world. A Greek printed Bible appeared only in 1821, was even then it was printed in Moscow. The first-printed bible was created because of the efforts of pious prince Constantine Ostrozhskiy, who was patron of the printing affair of Ivan Fedorov. The composition of the Ostrog Bible used a huge amount of resources brought from Russia, Greece and other countries. The text of this Bible was a close as possible to the original Greek, and the division into chapters of the Old Testament corresponded to ancient Jewish models.


The ancient Russian church preserved intact, up to the middle of the 17th century, orthodox sobornost, the basis of evangelical democracy. A truly Christian sobornost penetrated, it is possible to say, all areas of church life. Researchers give a whole series of similar evidence, beginning from the selections of parochial priests, and ending with discussion of spiritual questions at the local sobors. So for example, it is established that in the 12th century the laity played a significant role in the election of candidates for Archbishop. In the Novgorod chronicles it explicitly states: “Novgorodians with Prince Yaroslav, and with the father superiors, and priests, find it is the will of God to elect Morturiya”. A Rostov chronicler condemning the simonial attempt to place the bishop in Rostov writes: “it is more worthy to be born to the saintly rank… but it is God's will and that of St. Bogoroditsa [the Mother of God], Prince Voskhochet and the people”. However, the election of parochial priests was a commonplace matter. The democratic special features of the rituals of the Old-Russian church in the course of hundreds of years supported the integrity of the church body, spiritual peace, and also to a considerable extent the union of laymen and the priesthood.

Local sobors played an enormous role in the life of the Russian church. These singularly canonical organs of spiritual authority were called to solve the vital problems of church life on the basis of the Holy Scripture and sacred tradition. In the Old-Russian sobors, besides the bishops, the representatives of the secular clergy, scholar monks, princes and other high ranking laymen always participated.

The description of the entire history of the local sobors of Russian church can engage tens of volumes. We will name only the most important of them.

Vladimir Sobor of 1274

During the Mongolian- Tatar invasion the Russian lands were devastated in a significant manner, some churches were ruined, and the priests killed. This led to a specific point of spiritual decline. Metropolitan Cyril during a journey to Russia noted such sentiments and initiated a large church sobor. The sobor examined the existing problems and published the appropriate decisions. Among them were such:

  • Bishops, when they want to place a priest or deacon, but did not know his life experience, will call the neighbors, who knew him from childhood.
  • The diaconate should be aged 25 years, and priests - 30 years.
  • Baptism to be performed only with three dunkings. Pouring is not allowed.

The decisions of Vladimir sobor played a significant role in the strengthening of church piety.

Sobor of 1441

This most important sobor was convoked on the initiative of the great prince Vasiliy Vasilyevich. Pious princes, boyars and Russian bishops were outraged by the behavior of the first-hierarch of the Russian church in those days, Metropolitan Isidor. He participated in the Greco-Latin Council of Florence of 1439 that together with Greek hierarchs signed the union of the Orthodox Church with Catholic Rome. It is notable that Metropolitan Isidor was one of the main actors of the Florentine sobor. He among the first to sign the union and persuaded the remaining orthodox bishops to sign.

Returning to Moscow, Isidor gave orders to carry in front of the procession a Latin cross, and during the first liturgy, he mention in the first place the Roman Pope Eugene. After a few days, a church sobor was called which condemned Metropolitan Isidor as a heretic and rejected the Florentine union. From this point on, in Russia, the relationship to the Greeks changed because they changed the faith of the fathers.

Sobor of 1448

At this sobor was interrupted the dependence of Russian church on the Constantinople patriarchate. At it, the bishop of Ryazan, later known as St. Jonah of Moscow, was solemnly proclaimed the Russian metropolitan. The sobor took place in the church of the St. Archangel Michael and was characterized by special solemnity. Many bishops, father superiors, priests and laymen were assembled at the sobor.

The Sobor of 1492

The Sobor of 1492 was convoked on the matter of the composition of a new Paschalion. At it were present all Russian hierarchs. The sobor determined to continue the Paschalion to eight thousand years.

The Sobor of 1503

This Sobor took place in Moscow under Metropolitan Simon's chairmanship. It was attended by the father of St. Nil Sorsky, Joseph Volokolamsky, the Grand Duke John III and his son Basil. The sobor settled questions of debauchery in priests and piety of the monastic life. The sobor of 1504 finally condemned the heresy of the sect of Skhariya the Jew.

The Sobor of 1547

The history of the long and pious life of Russian church gave to the entire Christian world an example of many ascetics of God. The need for their canonization, the establishment of special holidays and days of remembrance led to the convocation of a special sobor. Under the chairmanship of St. Macarius at the sobor were glorified numerous Russian obsequious men, saints and miracle workers. Among them were canonized John archbishop of Novgorod, St. Prince Alexander Nevsky, Nikon abbot of Radonezhsky, St. Jonah Metropolitan of Moscow, Zosim Solovetsky, Makarius Kalyazinsky, St. Arseny bishop of Tver, St. Prince Peter and Princess Fevroniya Muromskaya. Following the sobor, by Metropolitan Macarius were comprised “the great Cheti-Minei” [?].

The Stoglavy Sobor of 1551

The Stoglavy sobor (also known as the Council of the Hundred Chapters) became perhaps the brightest phenomenon of the history of the ancient Russian Orthodox church. At this sobor were present Macarius, Metropolitan of Moscow, Philip, the future prelate of Moscow, Maxim the Greek, Gury and Barsonofius of Kazan, Akaki the bishop of Tver and others. Many of these persons have been proclaimed saints later on. Tsar Ivan IV actively contributed to the convocation of the sobor. More than 70 questions regarding all aspects of church life were examined by the sobor: divine service, piety, spiritual instruction, church control and law court, the rules of Christian behavior and the relations between the spiritual and secular authorities. At the sobor were confirmed many orthodox traditions including the sign of the cross with two fingers and especially the haleluias. In the course of the sobor a committee drew up a collection of acts with 100 chapters. Specifically, on the basis of this collections, the sobor of 1551 obtained the name “Stoglavy” or “Stoglav”. Issues developed at this sobor became a set of laws for the entire church life in the course of the subsequent 100 years. And today, after 450 years of its solution they have great authority among the Russian Christian Old Believers.

The Sobor of 1581

The Sobor of 1581 was convoked in Moscow and was chaired by Metropolitan Job. At it were present Tsarigrad [Constantinople] Patriarch Eremius, Tsar Fedor Ioannovich, and Boris Godunov. The sobor was dedicated to the establishment in Russia of the patriarchate. The first Russian patriarch proclaimed was Metropolitan Job.

The Sobor of 1619

The Sobor of 1619 was dedicated to questions of printing and to correction of the various liturgical books. At it were present Russian Patriarch Filaret and Jerusalem Patriarch Theofan.

The Sobor of 1620

At the Sobor of 1620 were newly raised a question about the oblivatelnoe [?] baptism. The sobor again affirmed pogruzhatelnoe [?] baptism as an undoubted apostolic tradition. At the sobor they also confirmed the need for baptizing latins and all other heretics who were not enlightened by triple immersion.

The reforms of Patriarch Nikon

By the middle of the 17th century Greek and Russian church officials, including Patriarch Nikon, had noticed discrepancies between contemporary Russian and Greek usages. They reached the conclusion that the Russian Orthodox Church had, as a result of errors of incompetent copyists, developed rites and missal texts of its own that had significantly deviated from the Greek originals. Thus, the Russian Orthodox Church had become dissonant from the other Orthodox churches. Later research was to vindicate the Muscovite service-books as belonging to a different recension from that which was used by the Greeks at the time of Nikon, and the unrevised Muscovite books were actually older and more venerable than the Greek books, which had undergone several revisions over the centuries and ironically, were newer and contained innovations (Kapterev N.F., 1913, 1914; Zenkovskij S.A., 1995, 2006).

Nikon, supported by Tsar Alexis I (r. 1645-1676), carried out some preliminary liturgical reforms. In 1652, he convened a synod and exhorted the clergy on the need to compare Russian Typikon, Euchologion, and other liturgical books with their Greek counterparts. Monasteries from all over Russia received requests to send examples to Moscow in order to have them subjected to a comparative analysis. Such a task would have taken many years of conscientious research and could hardly have given an unambiguous result, given the complex development of the Russian liturgical texts over the previous centuries and an almost complete lack of textual historigraphic techniques at the time.

The locum tenens for the Patriarch, Pitirim of Krutitsy, convened a second synod in 1666, which brought Patriarch Michael III of Antioch, Patriarch Paisius of Alexandria and many bishops to Moscow. Some scholars allege that the visiting patriarchs each received both 20,000 roubles in gold and furs for their participation (Zenkovskij S.A., 1995, 2006). This council officially established the reforms and anathematized not only all those opposing the innovations, but the old Russian books and rites themselves as well. As a side-effect of condemning the past of the Russian Orthodox Church and her traditions, the messianic theory depicting Moscow as the Third Rome appeared weaker. Instead of the guardian of Orthodox faith, Russia seemed an accumulation of serious liturgical mistakes.

Nevertheless, both Patriarch and Tsar wished to carry out their reforms, although their endeavours may have had as much or more political motivation as religious; several authors on this subject point out that Tsar Alexis, encouraged by his military success in the war against Poland-Lithuania to liberate West Russian provinces and the Ukraine, grew ambitious of becoming the liberator of the Orthodox areas which at that time formed part of the Ottoman Empir. They also mention the role of the Near-East patriarchs, who actively supported the idea of the Russian Tsar becoming the liberator of all Orthodox Christians (Kapterev N.F. 1913, 1914; Zenkovsky S.A., 1995, 2006).

Traditions before the Reform (c. 988 to mid-1600's):

  • A compete cycle of services is served strictly according to the St. Savas (or "Jerusalem") Typicon, in monasteries and parishes alike.
  • No abbreviation of the services is allowed.
  • In the appointed psalmody (stichologia), the complete text of psalms is read, with the chanters responding with selected psalm verses.
  • Some (if not all) of the liturgical homilies are read at their appointed places at Matins.
  • The Sign of the Cross, bows and prostrations are done at their appointed places during the services, according to a strictly disciplined tradition of performing such actions all together as a single body of worshippers (and without variation in the manner in which they are done).
  • The Sign of the Cross is done with two fingers while saying the Jesus Prayer, and is a Christological symbol.
  • There is a great focus on communal prayer (sobornost'), with the individual losing his/her "separateness" during the public worship services. During the services we partake in the "Mystery of Unity" and experience the fullness of being members of the Church as the Body of Christ.
  • Good order (blagochinie), discipline and decorum are maintained during the services, and distracting behavior is not tolerated. Children are taught to adhere to this ordered behavior from the time they are able to stand in church with their parents.
  • Old Ritualists seek their path to Salvation through conformity to well-established "iconic" method of living, especial family life or monasticism -- both methods of living focusing upon taking one's place in a unified community. Orderly, obedient and humble ways of thinking are emphasized. Practical vocational skills are valued above theoretical knowledge.
  • All children are taught (usually at home) to read Church Slavonic as soon as they are able to read.
  • Traditional liturgical singing consists of unison (monophonic) chant.
  • No compositions are allowed – only ancient traditional chant melodies.
  • Singing is done by two antiphonal choirs, each under the leadership of a "golovshchik" (cantor or "starter"). The cantor tries to lead the singing solely by means of his voice, as arm movements are considered distracting to the congregation. He does not turn his back to the altar and iconostasis, and occasionally makes discrete use of hand signals to correct singing that has become too slow or fast, or to indicate phrasing.
  • Congregational singing is included as part of the singing tradition
  • The two choirs are always at the front portion of the church, in front of the iconostasis on the right and left sides.
  • There is an abundance of ritual, including processions, alternating of choirs, the choirs coming together in the middle of the nave, etc.
  • The use of specific kinds of readers has been maintained in our rituals, especially the Canonarch and the Psalmist.
  • Readers always get a blessing before reading, and ask forgiveness of the priest and congregation when finishing their duties.
  • The ambon, a slightly raised platform, is used by the Canonarch (as well as by the bishop during hierarchical services).
  • Chant melodies are preserved in books with "Znamenny" (neumatic or symbolic) notation, derived from the ancient Byzantine Chant; the interpretation (exegesis) is fluid and open to a bit of interpretation.
  • There is an elaborate system of hymn genres within a single unified "Znamenny" chant tradition. Demestvenny Chant is used for hierarchical and festal services, while Put' Chant melodies are used for lengthy hymns which must cover long liturgical actions.
  • Znamenny Chant preserves the use of true Idiomela (unique, individual) melodies for stichera for Sundays and Feasts. The Prosomoia (Podobny or Special Melodies) singing tradition continues to thrive as an integral part of Vespers and Matins hymnody.
  • Many of the appointed readings are done with a melodic reading style called "poglasitsa", which is similar to "cantillation".

Traditions after the Reform (mid-1600's to the present)

  • Only basic services (truncated Vigils and the Hours & Divine Liturgy) are served in ordinary parishes, at the discretion of the priest; some parishes in modern times omit Vespers, Matins and the Hours altogether.
  • A considerable amount of abbreviation of services is standard practice.
  • The choir sings only selected psalm verses of appointed psalmody. The proper performance of stichologia is rarely done even in New Rite monasteries.
  • The patristic liturgical homilies have been abandoned altogether, with the single exception at Paschal Matins.
  • The Sign of the Cross, bows, prostrations, kneeling are done whenever (and wherever) people want to do them, and according to numerous individual methods – all in a free-willed manner.
  • The Sign of the Cross is done with three fingers while invoking the Holy Trinity (often using the Latin formula "In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit").
  • During the public worship services the individual members of the congregation may run around and perform their private devotions, venerate icons, light candles, read from prayer books, chat with friends. Furthermore, the priest may even hear private confessions during parts of the Vigil or Hours.
  • There is a great laxity of church order. Members of the congregation may tolerate someone's distracting behavior and take no steps to bring it under control. Children are frequently left on their own and thus do not acquire personal discipline.
  • New Ritualists often seek their path to Salvation by "striking out on one's own", and many people stand out as intensely individualistic. Free-thinking and self-sufficiency are valued, as is a higher academic education.
  • Reading Church Slavonic is a skill that is not widely taught, and is usually only acquired by men readers who attend a seminary program.
  • The modern musical tradition consists of choral (polyphonic) singing.
  • Choirs sing composed music and harmonized arrangements (often simplified) of melodies from the 17th century.
  • All the singers are grouped into a single choir under the leadership of a modern-style choral conductor ("dirigent" or "regent"). Some conductors make use of a baton and stand with their backs to the iconostasis, making full use of their arms in modern conducting techniques.
  • Congregational singing is discouraged, and singing is done only by a trained choir.
  • The choir is located in any number of places, including in a western-style choir loft in some churches.
  • There is a great loss of ritual; much of this is due to the loss of antiphonal singing, as there is no ability to maintain liturgical actions without the interaction of separate choirs.
  • The offices of Canonarch and Psalmist have been absorbed into the duties of the readers, and some of their unique liturgical actions have become obsolete.
  • Readers frequently do not get a blessing to read on the cleros (choir), except to read the Epistle in front of the congregation.
  • The ambon is no longer used, except by the bishop during hierarchical liturgies.
  • Music is notated with the Kievan square-note notation or modern western round notes; the notation is not conducive to freedom of interpretation.
  • Modern Russian Chant is a "mixed bag" of hymn tunes from various traditions, combined in any number of local traditions without much cohesion or consistency. (The inclusion of composed works makes this situation even more chaotic.)
  • All stichera are now sung only to generic formulas, and a small repertoire of "Podobny" (Special Melodies) are usually heard only in monasteries and a relatively few parishes with well-trained choirs.
  • A plain monotone style of reading is the accepted style of reading in the New Rite; the dramatic "deaconal style" of reading the Epistle and Gospel (raising from a low to a high pitch) is promoted in most parishes as a "sophisticated" manner of reading the Scriptures. (This is considered very inappropriate in most Old Rite communities.)

Main alterations introduced by Patriarch Nikon

The numerous changes in both texts and rites occupied approximately 400 pages. Old Believers present the following as the most crucial changes:

Old Practice New Practice
Spelling of Jesus Ісусъ Іисусъ
Creed рождена, а не сотворена (begotten but not made); И в Духа Святаго, Господа истиннаго и Животворящаго (And in the Holy Ghost, the True Lord, the Giver of Life) рождена, не сотворена (begotten not made); И в Духа Святаго, Господа Животворящаго (And in the Holy Ghost, the Lord, the Giver of Life)
Sign of the Cross Two fingers, straightened Three fingers, straightened
Number of Prosphora in the Liturgy Seven Prosphora Five Prosphora
Direction of Procession Sunwise Counter-Sunwise
Alleluia Аллилуїa, аллилуїa, слава Тебе, Боже (Alleluia, alleluia, glory to Thee, o God) Аллилуїa, аллилуїa, аллилуїa, слава Тебе, Боже (thrice alleluia)

Notes on other differences have been mentioned above. Some modern readers may perceive these alterations as trivial, but the faithful of that time saw rituals and dogmas as strongly interconnected: church rituals had from the very beginning represented and symbolised doctrinal truth (see the section on Backgrounds below). Furthermore, the authorities imposed the reforms in an autocratic fashion, with no consultation of the people who would become subject to them, and the reaction against the so-called Nikonian reforms would have objected as much to the manner of imposition as to the actual alterations. In addition, changes often occurred arbitrarily in the texts. For example, wherever the books read 'Христосъ' ("Christ"), Nikon's assistants substituted 'Сынъ' ("the Son"), and wherever they read 'Сынъ' they substituted 'Христосъ'. Another example is that wherever the books read 'Церковь' ("Church"), Nikon substituted 'Храмъ' ("Temple") and vice-versa. The perceived arbitrariness of the changes infuriated the faithful, who resented needless change for the sake of change.

The Schism or "Raskol"

Opponents of the ecclesiastical reforms of Nikon emerged among all strata of the people and in relatively large numbers. Even after the deposition of patriarch Nikon (1658), who presented too strong a challenge to the Tsar's authority, a series of church councils officially endorsed Nikon's liturgical reforms. The Old Believers fiercely rejected all innovations, and the most radical amongst them maintained that the official Church had fallen into the hands of the Antichrist. Under the guidance of Archpriest Avvakum Petrov (1620 or 1621 to 1682), who had become the leader of the conservative camp within the Old Believers' movement, the Old Believers publicly denounced and rejected all ecclesiastical reforms. The State church anathematized both the old rites and books and those who wished to stay loyal to them at the synod of 1666. From that moment, the Old Believers officially lacked all civil rights. The State church had the most active Old Believers arrested, and executed several of them (including Archpriest Avvakum) some years later in 1682.

After the schism

After 1685 a period of persecutions began, including both torture and executions. Many Old Believers fled Russia altogether. However, Old Believers became the dominant denomination in many regions, including Pomorye (Arkhangelsk region), Guslitsy, Kursk region, the Urals, Siberia, etc. A compact 40,000-strong Lipovan community of Old Believers still lives in neighboring Kiliia raion (Vilkov) of Ukraine and Tulcea County of Romania in the Danube Delta. By the 1910s, about 25% of the population in Russia said that they belonged to one of the Old Believer branches.

Government oppression could vary from relatively moderate, as under Peter the Great (r. 1682-1725) (Old Believers had to pay double taxation and a separate tax for wearing a beard), to intense, as under Tsar |Nicholas I (r. 1825-1855). The Russian synodal state church and the state authorities often saw Old Believers as dangerous elements and as a threat to the Russian state.

In 1905 Tsar Nicholas II signed an Act of religious freedom, which ended the persecution of all religious minorities in Russia. The Old Believers gained the right to build churches, to ring church bells, to hold processions and to organize themselves. It became prohibited (as under Catherine the Great (reigned 1762 - 1796)) to refer to Old Believers as raskolniki (schismatics), a name they consider insulting. People often refer to the period from 1905 until 1917 as "the Golden Age of the Old Faith". One can regard the Act of 1905 as emancipating the Old Believers, who had until then occupied an almost illegal position in Russian society. Nevertheless some restrictions for Old Believers continued: for example, they had no right to join the civil service.

Modern situation

Old Believer church outside of Gervais, Oregon.

In 1971 the Moscow Patriarchate revoked the anathemas placed on the Old Believers in the 17th century, but most Old Believer communities have not returned to Communion with other Orthodox Christians.

Estimates place the total number of Old Believers remaining today at from 1 to 10 millions, some living in extremely isolated communities in places to which they fled centuries ago to avoid persecution. One Old-Believer parish in the United States has entered into communion with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia.

Old-Believer churches in Russia currently have started restoration of their property, although Old Believers (unlike the nearly-official mainstream Orthodoxy) face many difficulties in claiming their restitution rights for their churches. Moscow has churches for all the most important Old Believer branches: Rogozhskaya Zastava (Popovtsy of the Belokrinitskaya hierarchy official center), a cathedral for the Novozybkovskaya hierarchy in Zamoskvorech'ye and Preobrazhenskaya Zastava where Pomortsy and Fedoseevtsy coexist.

Russian Old Believers in Woodburn, Oregon. Photo by Mikhail Evstafiev.

Within the Old-Believer world, only Pomortsy and Fedoseevtsy treat each other relatively well; none of the other denominations acknowledge each other. Ordinary Old Believers display some tendencies of intra-branch ecumenism, but these trends find sparse support among the official leaders of the congregations.

Nowadays, Old Believers live all over the world. They scattered mainly due to persecutions under the Tsars and due to the Russian Revolution of 1917. Significant Old-Believer communities exist in Plamondon, Alberta; Woodburn, Oregon; Erie, Pennsylvania; Erskine, Minnesota and in various parts of Alaska including near Homer (Voznesenka, Razdolna, and Kachemak Selo), Anchor Point (Nikolaevsk), Willow, the Palmer/Wasilla Area, Anchorage, Delta Junction, The Anton Larson Bay Area, and on Raspberry Island; Both near Kodiak. A flourishing community also exists in Sydney, Australia.

Old Believer groups

Although all Old Believers groups emerged as a result of opposition to the Nikonian reform, they do not constitute a single monolithic body. In fact, the Old Believers feature a great diversity of groups that profess different interpretations of the church tradition and often are not in communion with each other. Some groups even practice re-baptism before admitting a member of another group into their midst.

The terminology used for the divisions within the Old-Believer denomination does not always make precise delineations. Generally, people may refer to a larger movement or group — especially in the case of such major ones as popovtsy and bespopovtsy — as a soglasie or soglas (in English: "agreement" or more generally, "confession"). Another term, tolk (English: "teaching") usually applies to lesser divisions within the major "confessions". In particular it can characterize multiple sects that have appeared within the bespopovtsy movement.


Since none of the bishops joined the Old Believers (except Bishop Pavel of Kolomna, who suffered execution), apostolically ordained priests of the old rite would have soon become extinct. Two responses appeared to this dilemma: the “priestist” Old Believers (поповцы (Popovtsy)) and the non-priestist Old Believers (беспоповцы (Bespopovtsy — literally "priestless ones")).

The Popovtsy represented the more moderate conservative opposition, those who strove to continue religious and church life as it had existed before the reforms of Nikon. They recognized ordained priests from the new-style Russian Orthodox church who joined the Old Believers and who had denounced the Nikonian reforms. In 1846 they convinced Amvrosii Popovich (1791-1863), a deposed Greek Orthodox bishop whom Turkish pressure had had removed from his see at Sarajevo, to become an Old Believer and to consecrate three Russian Old-Believer priests as bishops. In 1859, the number of Old-Believer bishops in Russia reached ten, and they established their own episcopate, the Belokrinitskaya hierarchy. Not all priestist Old Believers recognized this hierarchy. Dissenters known as беглопоповцы (beglopopovtsy) obtained their own hierarchy in the 1920s. The priestist Old Believers thus manifest as two churches which share the same beliefs, but which treat each other's hierarchy as illegitimate. Popovtsy have priests, bishops and all sacraments, including the eucharist.

  • Belokrinitskaya hierarchy - The largest Popovtsy denomination. One can refer to the Russian part of this denomination as the Belokrinitskoe Soglasie (the "Belokrinitsky Agreement") or as the Russian Orthodox Old-Rite Church.
  • Okruzhniki (extinct)
  • Neokruzhniki (extinct)
  • Luzhkane, also known as Luzhkovskoe soglasie (extinct). In some places, they had no priests and so belonged to Bespopovtsy.


The Bespopovtsy (the "priestless") rejected "the World" where Antichrist reigned; they preached the imminent end of the world, asceticism, adherence to the old rituals and the old faith. The Bespopovtsy claimed that the true church of Christ had ceased to exist on Earth, and they therefore renounced priests and all sacraments except baptism. The Bespopovtsy movement has many sub-groups. Bespopovtsy have no priests and no eucharist.

  • Pomortsy or Danilovtsy (not to be confused with Pomors) originated in North European Russia (Russian Karelia, Arkhangelsk region). Initially they rejected marriage and prayer for the Tsar.
  • Novopomortsy, or "New Pomortsy" - accept marriage
  • Staropomortsy, or "Old Pomortsy" - reject marriage
  • Fedoseevts] – “Society of Christian Old Believers of the Old Pomortsy Unmarried Confession” (1690s- present); deny marriage and practise cloister-style asceticism.
  • Fillipovtsy.
  • Chasovennye (from a word chasovnya - a chapel) - Siberian branch. The Chasovennye initially had priests, but later decided to change to a priestless practice. Also known as Semeyskie (in the lands east of Baykal Lake).

Bespopovsty: Minor groups

Aside from these major groups, many smaller groups have emerged and died out at various times since the end of 17th century:

  • Aristovtsy (beginning of 19th to the beginning of 20th centuries; extinct) - from the name of the merchant Aristov;
  • Titlovtsy (extinct in 20th cent.) - emerged from Fedoseevtsy, supported the use of Pontius Pilate's inscription upon the cross (titlo), which other groups rejected;
  • Troparion confession (troparschiki) - a group that commemorated the tsar in the hymns (troparia);
  • Daniel’s confession of the “partially married” (danilovtsy polubrachnye);
  • Adamant confession (adamantovy) - refused to use money and passports (as containing the seal of Antichrist);
  • Aaron's confession (aaronovtsy) - second half of the 18th century, a spin-off of the Fillipovtsy.
  • “Grandmother’s confession” or the Self-baptized - practiced self-baptism or the baptism by midwives (babushki), since the priesthood — in their opinion — had ceased to exist;
  • “Hole-worshippers” (dyrniki) - relinquished the use of icons and prayed to the east through a hole in the wall (!);
  • Melchisedecs (in Moscow and in Bashkortostan) - practiced a peculiar lay "quasi-eucharistic" rite;
  • “Runaways” (beguny) or “Wanderers” (stranniki);
  • “Netovtsy” or Saviour’s confession - denied the possibility of celebrating sacraments and praying in churches; the name comes from the Russian net "no", since they have "no" sacraments, "no" churches, "no" priests etc.


Edinovertsy (Russian: единоверцы -- 'people of the same faith', as opposed to староверы -- people of the "old faith", i.e., Old Believers) - Agreed to become a part of the official Russian Orthodox Church while saving the old rites. First appearing in 1800, the Edinovertsy come under the omophorion of the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate or of the Russian Church Abroad. They retain the use of the pre-Nikonian rituals.

Validity of the Reformist Theory: sources of Russian traditions

Vladimir officially converted the Eastern Slavs to Christianity in 988, and the people had adopted Greek Orthodox liturgical practices. At the end of 11th century, the efforts of St. Theodosius of the Caves in Kiev (Феодосий Киево-Печерский, d. 1074) introduced the Studite Typikon to Russia. This typikon reflected the traditions of the urban monastic community of the famous Studion Monastery in Constantinople. The Studite Typikon predominated throughout the western part of the Byzantine Empire and was accepted throughout the Russian lands. In the end of 14th century, through the work of St. Cyprian of Moscow], metropolitan of Moscow and Kiev, the Studite liturgical practices were gradually replaced in Russia with the Jerusalem Typicon or the Typicon of St. Sabbas - originally, an adaptation of the Studite liturgy to the customs of Palestinian monasteries. The process of gradual change of typica would continue throughout the 15th century and, because of its slow implementation, met with little resistance - unlike Nikon's reforms, conducted with abruptness and violence. However, in the course of 15th-17th centuries, Russian scribes continued to insert some Studite material into the general shape of Jerusalem Typicon. This explains the differences between the modern version of the Typicon, used by the Russian Orthodox Church, and the pre-Nikonian Russian recension of Jerusalem Typicon, called Oko Tserkovnoe (Rus. "eye of the church"). This pre-Nikonian version, based on the Moscow printed editions of 1610, 1633 and 1641, continues to be used by modern Old Believers.

However, in the course of the polemics against Old Believers, the official Church of Russia often claimed the discrepancies (which emerged in the texts between the Russian and the Greek churches) as Russian innovations, errors, or arbitrary translations. This charge of "Russian innovation" re-appeared repeatedly in the textbooks and anti-raskol treatises and catecheses, including, for example, those by Dimitri of Rostov. The critical evaluation of the sources and of the essence of Nikonian reforms began only in the 1850s with the groundbreaking work of Nikolai F. Kapterev (1847-1917), continued later by Serge Zenkovsky. Kapterev demonstrated—for the first time to the wider Russian audience—that the rites, rejected and condemned by the Nikonian reforms, were genuine customs of the Orthodox Church which suffered alterations in the Greek usage during the 15th-16th centuries, but remained unchanged in Russia. The pre-Nikonian liturgical practices, including some elements of the Russian typicon, Oko Tserkovnoe, were demonstrated to have preserved many earlier Byzantine material, being actually closer to the earlier Byzantine texts than some later Greek customs (Kapterev, N.F. 1913; Zenkovsky, S.A. 2006).

Remarkably, the scholars who opened the new avenues for re-evaluation of the reform by the Russian Church — Kapterev and E.E. Golubinsky — themselves held membership of the "official" church, but took up study of the causes and background of the reforms and of the resulting schism. Their research revealed the official theory regarding the old Russian books and rites as unsustainable. Zenkovsky has described Kapterev's as [...] the first historian who questioned the theory about the “pervertedness” or incorrectness of the Old Russian ritual and pointed out that the Russian ritual was not at all perverted, but had on the contrary preserved a number of early Old Byzantine rituals, among them the sign of the cross with two fingers, which had been changed later on by the Greeks themselves, in the 12th and 13th century, which caused the discrepancy between the Old Russian and the New Greek church rituals. — Zenkovsky, S.A., Russkoe staroobrjadčestvo, 1970,1990, p. 19-20. </blockquote>


Old Believer Church in Ulan Ude, Buryatia, Russia

As Sergej Zenkovsky points out in his standard work "Russia's Old Believers", the Old Believer schism did not occur simply as a result of a few individuals with power and influence. The schism had complex causes, revealing historical processes and circumstances in 17th-century Russian society. Those who broke from the hierarchy of the official State Church had quite divergent views on church, faith, society, state power and social issues. Thus the collective term “Old Believers” groups together various movements within Russian society which actually had existed long before 1666/1667. They shared a distrust of state power and of the episcopate, insisting upon the right of the people to arrange their own spiritual life, and expressing the ambition to aim for such control.

Both the popovtsy and bespopovtsy, although theologically and psychologically two different teachings, manifested spiritual, eschatological and mystical tendencies throughout Russian religious thought and church life. One can also emphasize the schism's position in the political and cultural backgrounds of its time: increasing Western influence, secularization, and attempts to subordinate the Church to the state. Nevertheless, the Old Believers sought above all to defend and preserve the purity of the Orthodox faith, embodied in the old rituals, which inspired many to strive against Patriarch Nikon’s church reforms even unto death.

In the past the Old Believers' movement was often perceived as an obscure faith in rituals that led to the deaths of tens of thousands of ignorant people. Old Beliers were accused of not being able to distinguish the important from the unimportant. To many people of that time, however, rituals expressed the very essence of their faith. Old Believers hold that the preservation of a certain "microclimate" that enables the salvation of one's soul requires not only living by the commandments of Christ, but also carefully preserving Church tradition, which contains the spiritual power and knowledge of past centuries, embodied in external forms.

The Old Believers reject the idea of contents a priori prevailing over form. To illustrate this issue, the renowned Russian historian Vasily Klyuchevsky (1841–1911) referred to poetry. He argued, that if one converts a poem into prose, the contents of the poem may remain intact, but the poem will lose its charm and emotional impact; moreover, the poem will essentially no longer exist. In the case of religious rituals, form and contents do not just form two separable, autonomous entities, but connect with each other through complex relationships, including theological, psychological, phenomenal, esthetic and historic dimensions.

These aspects, in their turn, play a role in the perception of these rituals by the faithful and in their spiritual lives. Considering the fact that Church rituals from their very beginning were intertwined with doctrinal truth, changing these rituals may have a tremendous effect on religious conscience and a severe impact on the faithful.

Nevertheless, centuries of persecution and the nature of their origin have made some Old Believers very culturally conservative. Some Old Believers go so far as to consider any pre-Nikonian Orthodox Russian practice or artifact as exclusively theirs, denying that the Russian Orthodox Church has any claims upon a history before Patriarch Nikon.

However, Russian economic history of the late 19th and early 20th centuries reveals the Old-Believer merchant families as more flexible and more open to innovations while creating factories and starting the first Russian industries.

Old Believer churches

References and select bibliography

  • In English:
    • Cherniavsky, M., "The Reception of the Council of Florence in Moscow" and Shevchenko I., "Ideological Repercussions of the Council of Florence", Church History XXIV (1955), 147-157 and 291-323 (articles)
    • Crummey, Robert O. The Old Believers & The World Of Antichrist; The Vyg Community & The Russian State, Wisconsin U.P., 1970
    • Gill, T. The Council of Florence, Cambridge, 1959
    • Meyendorff, P. Russia - Ritual and Reform: The Liturgical Reforms of Nikon in the 17th Century, St Vladimir's Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY, 1991
    • Zenkovsky, Serge A. "The ideology of the Denisov brothers", Harvard Slavic Studies, 1957. III, 49-66
    • Zenkovsky, S.: "The Old Believer Avvakum", Indiana Slavic Studies, 1956, I, 1-51
    • Zenkovsky, Serge A.: Pan-Turkism and Islam in Russia, Harvard U.P., 1960 and 1967
    • Zenkovsky, S.: "The Russian Schism", Russian Review, 1957, XVI, 37-58
  • In Russian:
    • Зеньковский С.А. Русское старообрядчество, том I и II, Москва 2006 / Zenkovsky S.A. “Russia’s Old Believers”, volumes I and II, Moscow 2006
    • Голубинский Е.Е. История русской церкви, Москва 1900 / Golubinskij E.E. “History of the Russian Church”, Moscow 1900
    • Голубинский Е.Е. К нашей полимике со старообрядцами, ЧОИДР, 1905 / “Contribution to our polemic with the Old believers”, ČOIDR, 1905
    • Каптерев Н.Ф. Патриарх Никон и его противники в деле исправления церковныx обрядов, Москва 1913 / Kapterv N.F. “Patriarch Nikon and his opponents in the correction of church rituals”, Moscow 1913
    • Каптерев Н.Ф. Характер отношений России к православному востоку в XVI и XVII вв., Москва 1914/Kapterev N.F. "Character of the relationships between Russia and the orthodox East in the XVI and XVII centuries", Moscow 1914
    • Карташов А.В. Очерки по иситории русской церкви, Париж 1959 / Kartašov A.V. “Outlines of the history of the Russian church”, Paris 1959
    • Ключевский И.П. Сочинения, I – VIII, Москва 1956-1959 / Ključevskij I.P. "Works", I – VIII, Moscow 1956-1959
    • Мельников Ф.И., Краткая история древлеправославной (старообрядческой) церкви. Барнаул, 1999 (Russian) / Melnikov F.I., 1999 “Short history of the Old orthodox (Old ritualist) Church” Barnaul 1999


External links