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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Old Believers

  • Author(s): Loughlin, Ryan
  • Jonassen, Wendi
  • et al.

Surrounded by glaciers and untamed wilderness on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula lies the village of Nikolaevsk, an insular community of 350 Russian Orthodox Old Believers. Still donning traditional attire, they speak a dying Russian dialect and follow strict rules dating back to medieval times.

They've been here since the 1960s but their story begins in the 17th century when they began protesting controversial church reforms proposed by the state. During this period self-immolation was a common form of protest, and some Old Believers burned their own villages to the ground, sacrificing friends and family rather than accepting change. Others chose exile in Siberia. As communism took hold after the Russian Revolution, 300 Old Believers escaped and embarked on a journey across the globe in search of a new home.

After trying to live in China, Brazil and Oregon, the Old Believers traveled north and in 1968 settled on the Kenai Peninsula in southwest Alaska in an effort to distance themselves from the sinful temptations of modern life. Thousands of miles and three continents later they are still struggling to preserve their culture. The younger generation is reluctant to hold onto the older traditions, calling them “old-school”, while eating at McDonalds, going to movies, playing basketball, and moving to big cities like Anchorage to attend college. The most punctuated example is the gradual loss of the Slavonic language, which is best seen in their schools and during English sermons at the local church.

Even after finding a new home on the edge of civilization, their faith continues to divide them. In the late 1970s, four families split from Nikolaevsk to form a more conservative settlement, afraid that the local church was becoming too progressive.The Old Believers is a 25-minute documentary that explores their extraordinary history and the internal religious conflicts that continue to shape their future.

Until recently, the Old Believers were wary of media attention and outsiders. Thanks to the filmmaker’s unprecedented access, this will be the first documentary that is able penetrate this isolated religious community. The film will combine historical analysis and archival materials with an intimate portrait of the Old Believers’ lives in contemporary Alaska.

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