Russian Orthodox “Old Believers” in Alaska

1831 map of North America cropped to show Russian Alaska. Original map bought from Dee Longenbaugh, ‘The Observatory Antiquarian Books, Maps and Prints,’ Juneau, Alaska (Please click on it)

Alaska was once the major part of Russian America, along with the coastal regions of North America to the south.

There are a great many place names in Alaska recognizable as Russian. In Sitka, the former capital of Russian Alaska, an annual celebration includes the symbolic changing of the Russian imperial flag for that of the USA. Sitka is on Baranoff Island, named after Alexander Andreyevich Baranov, chief manager for the Russian-American Company.

My wife, Eva, and I visited portions of South-Central Alaska in the Summer of 2010─thus this report.

There are a great many place names in Alaska recognizable as Russian. In Sitka, the former capital of Russian Alaska, an annual celebration includes the symbolic changing of the Russian imperial flag for that of the USA. Sitka is on Baranoff Island, named after Alexander Andreyevich Baranov, chief manager for the Russian-American Company.

More to the point of this article is the presence of at least 25 Russian Orthodox churches in Alaska, all named after St. Nicholas.

Interior of St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, Eklutna, Alaska, 2010

Eva and I visited St. Nicholas Church and cemetery in Eklunta, Alaska, where we took several pictures, all of which can be seen here.

We didn’t have time enough to visit the Old Believer village of Nikolaevsk on the Kenai Peninsula, but I was able to point out to Eva a few Old Believers in the City of Homer, about 20 miles further south on the Sterling Highway. They are distinctive, primarily, because of their traditional dress.

These Old Believers in several settlements on the Kenai Peninsula did not arrive directly from Russia, or the Soviet Union. Theirs is a history linked with many other groups of Old Believers who have been leaving Russia and the Soviet Union for more than 200 years, due to a schism in the Russian Orthodox Church.

About 300 Old Believers left Siberia in 1945 to take up residence in Manchuria, China. When that country fell to communism, the group sought a new home. Several South American countries took in the Old Believers. In Brazil, the government did not interfere with their religion, but many of the families found it difficult to make a living. Next, they came to the United States, establishing themselves primarily in Woodburn, Oregon in the early 1960s.

As several years passed by, young people in the community were beginning to fall away from the old ways. A few community elders began considering other more isolated locations for their parishes. One of them discovered that government land was available in the Kenai Peninsula area of Alaska, where the fishing was reputed to be outstanding. The first Old Believer settlers on the Kenai Peninsula received a grant from the Tolstoy Foundation in New York and purchased 640 acres on the peninsula in 1967. Initially, five families moved to Alaska and began building a community there in the summer of 1968. Ten adults, twelve children, eight cows and four calves started Nikolaevsk.

This community of expatriate Russians is descended from ancestors who refused to conform to changes in their traditional Orthodox religion. After almost 16 generations of seeking places to live where they could preserve their culture, they started anew, and called their settlement Nikolaevsk in honor of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of the town’s church.

Old Believer Dress (http://www.sras.org/)

Old Believer Dress (http://www.sras.org/)

Russian Old Believers from China, Brazil, Iran, Turkey, Australia and other parts of the United States moved to Nikolaevsk. By the second year, homes had running water and electricity. When the growing season in the Alaskan summers proved too short for the production of various favorite vegetables, the Old Believers built greenhouses with wood-fueled stoves in them to extend the season.

On June 19, 1975, fifty-nine Old Believers successfully obtained American citizenship. A ceremony for their naturalization took place in the Anchor Point School gymnasium. In 1979 a second group of Old Believers took the oath of citizenship and became American citizens. Since then, religious and cultural concerns prompted some families to fight against assimilation and leave Nikolaevsk to form new communities.

The initial settlers tried to limit their interaction with outsiders so they could better keep the old rites, even using separate dishes for outsiders who dined with them. They erected a sign that stood at the end of the dirt road: “Village of Nikolaevsk. Private Property. Road Closed.”

Today, the sign is gone, the road is paved and the village is more welcoming to outsiders. The town has modernized. Economically and politically, the residents are integrated. Socially, however, although polite and highly hospitable, they still maintain a sense of social separatism…

Old Believers are having to adapt their culture to their surroundings in order to survive. Many residents are employed in the Anchor Point and Homer areas. A majority of the Russian Old Believers depended on commercial fishing as an income while many of the women worked in the fish processing plants. Uncertainty in the fishing industry, however, with its feast-or-famine price fluctuations, has caused a growing number of Old Believers to seek other jobs, such as construction, and move to new communities outside their Russian village (source).

A more comprehensive history of the Old Believers can be found here.

For readers who have an interest in old maps, here is the full image of the map of which only part is seen at the beginning of this article:

Map of North America, 1831. You have permission to download and copy it if you give credit to me as http://pavellas.com

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