Regional Cultures: Old Believers
The Old Believers are a religious group originally from Russia that came to Alberta mainly during the 1970s from Oregon and New Zealand. The community has its roots in three separate groups: the Turchany who lived in Turkey until the late 1960s, the Harbintsi from Harbin, China, and the Sinziantsi from the Sinkiang (Xinjiang) region of China. Funds were pooled together to purchase land in Plamondon for 32 families in 1973. This area is informally known as Berezovka (Березовка, “birch tree”), or the Russian Village.
“The rest of the community here in Plamondon, they came here primarily because of farming. Lots of property, lots of land and open spaces, and they thought it wouldbe a good place to continue practicing the tradition of farming and live quietly with no outside influence.”
While they are from a close-knit community, Old Believers do not have a communal society, favouring hard work and the accumulation of wealth. Many work in the trades sector, enjoying the fresh air and working with one’s hands. Traditionally self-sustaining, a good portion of food, clothing, and commodities are made at home.
Religion can be said to define the Old Believers, who belong to an old sect of Russian Orthodoxy. They have been heavily persecuted for their beliefs in Russia after they split from the Russian Orthodox Church in 1666 due to a series of reforms created by Patriarch Nikon of Moscow (who was later stripped of his rank). Important religious symbols worn every day include the poyasok (поясок, “belt”) and a cross worn around the neck to indicate their bond to Christ.
The Old Believers follow the Julian calendar for their holy days. Forty holidays are celebrated, ranging from minor holidays to major ones that require everyone’s attendance at church. There are four periods of Lenten fasting where all animal products are avoided and fasting during certain days of the week as well. A great number of holy days are celebrated, ranging from minor holidays to major ones that require everyone’s attendance at church. There are four periods of Lenten fasting where all animal products are avoided and other days require fasting as well.
Old Believers often prefer to simply be called “Christians”. Their source of Christian law is tradition written in the “Old Books”, старый книги (stari knigi). The people in Plamondon are Bespopovtsy (Безпоповцы, “priestless ones”), priestless Old Believers that believe apostolic succession ended in 1666. In communities without a priest, a nastavnik (наставник, “mentor”) or nastoyatel (настоятель, pastor or church leader) leads religious services. Church Slavonic is the only language used in Berezovka to address God, although Russian is spoken at home and in public. Many speak an older Russian dialect that sounds slightly different to speakers of modern Russian. Some describe it as “the Russian [their] grandparents used to speak”.
The visual appearance of the Old Believers is tied to their religion. Women don’t cut their hair and wear a long surufun (сарафан, “sarafan”), a full dress that fits over a long-sleeved blouse and slip. An apron is fitted over the dress and a poyasok (поясок, “belt”) is tied around the waist. Unmarried women wear their hair in one braid down their back, while married women wear two braids crossed over their head covered with a headscarf called a shashmura (шашмура). Women also do large amounts of sewing and embroidery, necessary for married life. Men do not shave, believing that men must have a beard as Christ did. Men wear a roobushka (рубашка, “shirt”), a tunic with embroidery down the front with a high collar. Men also wear a poyasok around the waist.
“We’ve learned to adapt our expectations and our lifestyles. It’s a struggle, it’s hard. It’s a fight to continue reinforcing in our children, in our youth, how important traditions are. They do change and some are being eliminated now because they’re not practical or they’re being replaced by other things.”
Due to the high number of Old Believers that wish their children to learn Russian, children attending Ecole Plamondon School can take Russian as a second language course, although it has been a full immersion program in the past. The school is also accommodating of the many religious holidays the children must observe.