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Modern technologies have had an impact on the lives of the Russian Old Believers in Alaska

At home in the (almost) unchanged world of 18th-century Russia

Image credit: ALAMY

Our columnist recalls his visit to one of the world’s most reclusive communities, made prosperous by modern technologies.

The travel industry is one of those that’s been hit hardest by the pandemic. For obvious reasons, it was the first to wrap and is likely to be the last to bounce back. The fact that most of us won’t be able to wander around freely for a long time does not mean, however, that we cannot travel vicariously, with the help of technology.

Lately, my omnivorous email inbox has been ingesting many techno-travel solutions, from free virtual tours of different cities and countries to – wait for it – no-less-virtual Zoom sessions on ‘rum and chocolate pairing’ and ‘chocolate yoga meditation’ as parts of the Virtual Chocolate Festival on the Caribbean island of Grenada which took place in May. And even if the idea of a virtual chocolate may sound like an oxymoron to most, a Zoom leap to an exotic island cannot fail to quench one’s wanderlust, even if for a short while.

However, a lot of ‘After All’ readers seem to agree that the best technology for virtual travel is that of the mind. In my previous columns, I shared a couple of my favourite techno-travel adventures from the past and invited readers to respond in kind. The reaction exceeded my expectations, and I am now planning to introduce the best stories in my next ‘After All’.

But today, I want to invite you to Alaska, where I enjoyed one of the best travel adventures in my life, an experience that has also demonstrated technology’s unlimited power to transform even the most reclusive and conservative communities.

Some years ago, I was invited to spend three days in Nikolaevsk – a remote Russian Old Believers’ village in the south-west of the Kenai Peninsula, Alaska. The villagers, who – in a ‘Jurassic-Park’-like scenario – still resided by all criteria (apart from geographical) in 18th-century Russia, did not welcome visitors. They made an exception for me due to my Russian/Ukrainian origins.

The road to the village was overgrown with fireweed, an endemic bright-red wild flower. In vain, I was trying to spot a sign for Nikolaevsk: there were none. Following the instructions given to me in Homer, the nearest town, I turned onto an unpaved dirt track and was soon overtaken by a battered old Rover with a bearded man behind the wheel. A woman in strange Mennonite-style headwear was sitting next to him. It was my first glimpse of Nikolaevsk residents, the Russian Old Believers – a much-persecuted and therefore extremely reclusive religious group.

The origins of the Old Believers’ movement go back to the so-called Great Schism of the 1650s, when Nikon, a Russian Orthodox Patriarch and a strict disciplinarian, decided to revise the Church-Slavonic holy texts and the method of worship practised by the Russian masses. His reforms were opposed by a section of the Orthodox church, who accused Nikon of heresy and vowed to stick to the old ways. Organically opposed to any reform, the Old Believers (as they came to be known) suffered severe persecution under Peter the Great, whom they saw as the Antichrist. As a result, many had to flee.

The majority of Nikolaevsk residents came to Alaska from Brazil, via Oregon, where they survived by growing wheat and corn. Father Kondratiy Fefelov, with whom I spoke inside the village church of St Nicholas, told me they left Brazil because of its poverty (“We couldn’t sell our crops”) and Oregon in fear of the “corruptive influence” of American technology, mainly television, on their children.

“How come you allow this?” I asked the Batiushka (‘Little Father’), pointing at a satellite dish on the roof of a nearby house. The priest waved his hand nervously: “We had to slacken up eventually. You ban television – and the kids run to our American neighbours, or go to the cinema, which is even more dissipated...”

And yet, the feared Western technology had crept its way into this closed anachronistic world, for even the most conformist of the Old Believers couldn’t dismiss all the fruits of Western civilisation as harmful. The Batiushka himself was telling me with pride about the villagers’ small fleet of ultra-modern fishing vessels, with latest electronic equipment (fishing consitutes their main source of income). Nikolaevsk boasted an excellent secondary school, one of the best in Alaska, where all the subjects, except for Russian, were taught in English. No wonder the village teenagers preferred communicating in English, although most of them retained a reasonably good command of their melodious old-fashioned Russian language.

While in Nikolaevsk, I was made to wear a traditional Russian ‘rubakha’ (a collarless silk shirt) and a ‘kushak’ (sash) – a ridiculous outfit (from my point of view) now only worn on stage by Russian folk dancers.

One evening, I was invited to watch the traditional Old Believers’ technology of fish-canning, in the courtyard of Feopent Ivanovich Reutov, a thick-set elderly man who grew up in Brazil. Unlike the fishing, the canning was done in a traditional way: tins of pink salmon were placed into a capacious iron barrel with water and boiled for four hours on a powerful bonfire – “to kill all the microbes”. Two youngsters, Iona and Flegon, both duly bearded (the Old Believers’ men are not allowed to cut their facial hair) and wearing baseball caps, came to help.

I felt at ease in the company of my fellow outcasts. Their Russian speech was amazing: it was the language of Tolstoy and Turgenev, free of foreign borrowings and clumsy modern abbreviations. The Old Believers’ mother tongue was frozen in the time-warp, just like their lifestyle and customs – all with the exception of the new technologies that, while still being frowned upon by their elders, had helped to make their villages prosperous.

I came to understand why, after centuries of wanderings, those people chose to settle in Alaska, which looked so deceptively similar to their homeland – a country that most of them will never see. Like Russia, Alaska had willows above creeks, snow-covered plains, and birch groves. It used to be a part of Russia and, in a sense, it still was, for the genuine Russian spirit, destroyed by the Bolsheviks, had been smuggled out and kept intact there by the Old Believers. 

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