The Old Faith and the Russian Land — From the Introduction


NO ONE could say with much certainty when Sepych’s town library first opened its doors. No anniversaries had been marked in the past, at least as far as anyone could recall, and neither the librarians’ consultations with elderly townspeople nor their archival inquiries had yielded any conclusive evidence. Nevertheless, state workers in cultural affairs jobs, local dignitaries from in and out of town, and a smattering of interested townspeople gathered in late November 2001 to celebrate what would be, it had been estimated after some discussion, the ninetieth anniversary of the Sepych Rural Library. As it turned out, some of the anniversary events juxtaposed very different perspectives on Sepych’s past and present, on the founding of the town and the kinds of people who had walked its roads and plowed its fields over the past three centuries, and on how best to uncover and represent knowledge about both past and people. This book is also about these topics, so I begin on the stage in Sepych’s club–once a Soviet House of Culture–in a celebratory atmosphere oriented, however uncertainly and tentatively, toward the town’s history.

As at so many similar club gatherings, both Soviet and post-Soviet, gifts and certificates of achievement changed hands, schoolchildren recited poetry, and Sepych’s folk ensemble performed. Among the out-of-town dignitaries in attendance that day was Father Vasilii, a priest from the district center of Vereshchagino and a moving force behind the new Old Believer church in the center of Sepych. Invited to say a word or two about the importance of books on the anniversary of Sepych’s library, Father Vasilii delivered a nearly twenty-minute extemporaneous address that ranged in some detail over several periods of Russian history, contemporary regional politics, Orthodox theology and doctrine, the alarming decline in Russian birthrates in the 1990s, and the thriving Muslim population of the Perm region. Introduced as the folk ensemble completed its first number, Father Vasilii elected to speak from the floor rather than the stage, his booming voice easily filling the club without a microphone. He began by picking up a local history album the librarians had recently completed, entitled Chronicle of the Town Sepych:

Before I begin to talk about books, I would like to draw serious attention to the relationship of a book to a chronicle, [because a chronicle] can leave an incorrect perception of past events. Today, literally a few minutes ago, I opened this Chronicle of the Town Sepych, and immediately ran into a very significant departure from historical truth. So [reading from the first page], “The town arose in 1665.” I can’t dispute that date, and can’t say whether this is the way it was or not, but as to whether the first Russian residents of Sepych appeared in that year. . . . It’s possible to argue with this assertion. Why? Because the first [Russian] residents of this town were . . . garrison troops [strel’tsy] who fled Moscow as a result of the uprising in 1698. And they didn’t immediately flee here, to the town of Sepych, but to the river Kerzhenets. At first to Guslitsa, in the Moscow region, and then from Guslitsa to Kerzhenets in the Nizhnyi Novgorod region, and after Bishop Pitirim of Nizhnyi Novgorod chased them out with a detachment of troops in 1720, only then, maybe in 1721 or 1722, did they appear here in this region, populated by Komi-Permiaks.

Father Vasilii went on to correct other assertions on the first page of the Chronicle, backing up his counterclaims with a torrent of dates, statistics, names, and linguistic etymologies. Sorting out and explaining all the Chronicle’s errors about precisely which factions of Old Believers had arrived in Sepych, when, and what had happened since then would, he concluded, “take a whole day.”

Father Vasilii’s remarks went on to link this narrative of historical events in Sepych–and Russia more broadly–to a particular variant of Orthodox Christian morality. He suggested that both proper history and proper morality were attainable through a specific way of apprehending the past, a historical consciousness that departed in important respects from the remainder of the anniversary celebration. Putting down the Chronicle, he picked up a thick tome, its aging covers held together by leather and metal clasps, and introduced it as “the main book of Old Believers, by which those who call themselves Old Believers lived and live every day–the Kormchaia Kniga.Father Vasilii spoke first not about the contents of the Kormchaia Kniga but about the materiality of the book itself and, more generally, about old religious books as a privileged route into proper conceptions of history and morality. He recounted that this particular Kormchaia Kniga had been passed down through many generations in a family of Old Believer clergy, repeatedly underlined, annotated, and inscribed along the way. With a glance over his shoulder toward the stage, he emphasized that the book was actually used–by him, most recently–rather than gathering dust on a shelf as books in a library do. To relate to this book, Father Vasilii suggested, was not just to read it but to understand oneself as connected to a past and a way of being through the book’s physical characteristics.

Only as his allotted word or two stretched past the fifteen-minute mark did Father Vasilii take up the moral codes and regulations of old Russian Orthodoxy that comprise the Kormchaia Kniga:

This is a book that tells us literally everything. How to marry. How many marriages are permitted. What sort of marriages. How to baptize. How to receive someone from a heresy. What these heresies are. Literally everything is listed. For our society, this book is a distinctive means of revelation. Why? Because, if you open it and start to read, every one of us will start to think, “Look how far I have moved away from God and how hard it will be to return to Him, because I’ll have to give up this, that, and the other thing.” Some will say, “Why give these things up? Maybe we’ve gotten so used to all of these things that it’s possible to live without these ancient books and without these ancient rules.” It turned out that no, without them we can’t get by.

Father Vasilii’s remarks, which none too subtly challenged rather than praised the work of the library, created a decidedly uncomfortable atmosphere in the club. Townspeople I talked to later were impressed to the point of being overwhelmed by the priest’s erudition, his command of history and current events, and his forceful speaking style. Yet they also found his sermon and polemics–not to mention the length of his comments–somewhat out of place at the event. This discomfort was not lost on Father Vasilii himself, who actively cultivated such moments and saw his ability to disrupt and impress at the same time as a potential prelude to winning new converts to his group of Old Believers. Despite his growing congregation in Sepych, however, he and his fellow clergy had stirred only a few to begin reading the Kormchaia Kniga or monitoring their lives in the rigorous way he advocated.

As I show in some detail in my discussion of the postsocialist period, Father Vasilii’s address at the library’s anniversary celebration was but one salvo in a decade-long struggle for religious, political, and economic supremacy in and around post-Soviet Sepych. For the moment, however, I want to emphasize that by forging a historical narrative, a moralizing vision, and a brand of historical consciousness into a combined critique and exhortation, Father Vasilii joined a centuries-long string of powerful outsiders who had come to Sepych with the goal of remaking its people. Indeed, many such visitors had lectured or preached from precisely the spot on which Father Vasilii stood that day. For much of the Soviet period, Sepych’s House of Culture was home to Communist Party lectures and socialist holiday celebrations; before the revolution, the same building was a Russian Orthodox mission church built to proselytize Sepych’s recalcitrant Old Believers. Still other unfamiliar histories and moralizing discourses have been far less explicitly propounded than the Kormchaia Kniga or the Moral Code of the Builder of Communism. The capital markets of the late nineteenth and late twentieth centuries, for instance, and the informal sector of the rural Soviet economy were no less transformative for townspeople in Sepych for not always having clearly elaborated guidelines preached from the center of town.

The chapters that follow explore the ways in which residents of Sepych have encountered histories and moralizing discourses that were, like those so forcefully set out by Father Vasilii in the club, unfamiliar to them–at least initially and at least to some degree. These encounters have usually featured multiple, often conflicting, views about the very categories through which everyday interactions can be comprehended, reproduced, and potentially transformed: proper and improper, insider and outsider, past and present. At stake, again and again, have been the kinds of people the residents of Sepych should and could be. What relationships should they have to one another? To themselves? To larger institutions such as markets and states? To inhabitants of another, invisible world? A cacophony of shifting answers to these questions will emerge over the long view I adopt. And yet, cacophony notwithstanding, generations of townspeople in Sepych have oriented themselves with remarkable frequency by elements of what I will suggest is an “ethical repertoire”–a protean set of sensibilities, dispositions, and expectations often overlooked or grasped only fleetingly and obliquely by outsiders.

I certainly came upon this ethical repertoire fleetingly and obliquely myself at first, understanding it more fully only as my time in Sepych passed a year and as, at the encouragement of townspeople and Russian colleagues, I began to read back through archives and manuscripts into three centuries of Sepych’s history. In contrast to the articulated, abstracted moralizing codes of the Kormchaia Kniga or the one-size-fits-all guides to entrepreneurial success offered by economic reformers, I came to see a fluid and often debated ethics: refracting differently through lenses of gender and generation; encompassing yet dividing activities of work and prayer; moving along material vectors of food, drink, money, and labor; and sunk into the very landscape of Sepych and its environs. Embodied and tacit, this ethics was only rarely articulated in anything approaching an easily explicated quotation or comment. The opening scene at the Sepych Rural Library’s ninetieth-anniversary celebration, however, came close.

As the house lights dimmed and the preshow audience buzz faded, one of Sepych’s three librarians emerged and took a seat on a chair at stage right. The head scarf and apron she had donned for the scene lent her a grandmotherly air. As she spoke, her hands were busy with knitting needles. Whereas Father Vasilii would soon speak easily and confidently in his preacher’s voice, the librarian stumbled and paused tentatively at several points as she opened the celebration:

How did the soldier serve! Twenty years he served. Twenty years and then another five. He returned, he returned, to his native home. He looked around. [There were] people from elsewhere, unfamiliar people. And he asked, “Where have you come from?” An old man took off his hat and said to him, “We have come from far away, from the river Kerzhenets. We have brought with us the Russian faith, the old faith, and we have also brought chests with wit and reason [sunduki s umom-razumom], and the ability to cultivate the Russian land.

With this, she abruptly stopped and called upon Sepych’s folk ensemble to perform its first number.

The librarian’s opening lines, I suggest, covered grounds quite similar to those in Father Vasilii’s sermon but in a very different way. In contrast to Father Vasilii’s presentation, based on expert knowledge about the past uncovered through historical research and backed up with intricate detail, the librarian’s brief scene presented an imagined historical conversation recounted by an old woman. To know history here was not to study the materiality and contents of old books with the goal of establishing incontrovertible truth (and assertively correcting less accurate, less expert accounts) but to hear the past recounted by the eldest generation of one’s own townspeople, perhaps by one’s own grandparents. By placing the audience in the position of younger generations listening to a grandmother tell a story about the first residents of Sepych, this opening scene conjured an intimate way of encountering history familiar to everyone in the crowd. It was, in fact, most often in the moments of intergenerational conversation evoked by this scene–moments of dialogue rather than monologue–that I glimpsed the distinctive contours of ethical dilemmas and sensibilities in Sepych.

Delivered within the trappings of a historical consciousness that differed from Father Vasilii’s, the librarian’s lines also hint at the ethics I trace through the centuries in Sepych. The old man in her story describes the kinds of people who have resided in Sepych by enumerating what the town’s early settlers brought with them from far away, including “the Russian faith, the old faith” and “the ability to cultivate the Russian land.” Indeed, one of my early lessons in Sepych was that when it comes to questions of history and ethics, the old faith and the cultivation of the land have never been as far apart as might be suggested by the abstract terms “religion” and “rural economy.” Thinking of the residents of Sepych exclusively in a religious vein misses the importance of townspeople’s shifting relationships to the cultivation of the land as serfs, free peasants, collective and state farmers, and, most recently, shareholders in a post-Soviet commercial farm. Conversely, many who have aggressively preached the worldly tenets of socialism or capitalism have not accounted for the role of the old faith in informing townspeople’s expectations about the flow of life and death, gender and generation, or worldly and otherworldly powers.

Focusing too narrowly on external categories like religion or rural economy thus effaces the ways in which the residents of Sepych have so often attempted, sometimes even with a measure of success, to find their place in the world by managing and reconfiguring the ever-shifting relationships between the old faith and the cultivation of the land. The librarian’s lines are again instructive: between faith and cultivation, the old man of the grandmother’s story lists “chests with wit and reason” among the things that Sepych’s early Old Believers brought with them. The placement of the inherently situational exercise of wit and reason (um-razum) between the old faith and the cultivation of the land is significant. Again and again, townspeople’s attempts to resolve ethical dilemmas have entailed the practice of wit–the Russian um conveys a combination of cleverness and intelligence often lost in English–and reason at the points where the old faith, the cultivation of the land, and the unfamiliar yet often seductive projects of powerful outsiders like Father Vasilii have met and clashed. My aim, then, is to follow the practical sensibilities conveyed by the librarian’s formulation of wit and reason through the centuries in Sepych and, in the course of doing so, to account for and reflect on their continuities and discontinuities. This, too, was a familiar project to everyone I knew in Sepych.

It is just this issue that confronted the soldier in the librarian’s opening story upon his return to Sepych. What does it mean to return to a native place after a quarter century away? What combinations of familiar and unfamiliar does one find? What new people? What new kinds of faith? What new relationships to the land? Is it still the same place? The scene of a soldier coming home to an uncertain welcome is well known across a range of Russian artistic genres. Indeed, the first part of the librarian’s lines closely mimics the opening phrases of the popular Russian poem/song “Kak Sluzhil Soldat” that is itself about the ways in which the passing of time threatens to upend the most familiar of relationships. In the song, a soldier returns home after twenty-five years of service and mistakes his daughter for his wife, who has died. In the librarian’s very composition of a scene in which a soldier returns home to find Old Believers, then, we find an instance of what I argue has been a quite common phenomenon: townspeople in Sepych adopting widely circulating Russian discourses or practices and infusing them with their own sensibilities and modes of historical consciousness.

THE earliest Old Believers of Sepych were Christian ascetics of the most resolute sort, intent on isolating themselves–geographically, ritually, economically, and politically–from a world in the clutches of the Antichrist. These early Old Believers’ elaborate efforts to attain Christian salvation by shunning a sinful and tempting world influenced the ethical sensibilities of their descendants without fully constraining them or providing incontrovertible guidelines for new sorts of dilemmas. Variants of old dilemmas thus required new deliberations, a process significantly complicated by encounters with new ways of organizing work and prayer. For example, by the mid-nineteenth century, a modified version of the early Old Believers’ efforts to flee the world emerged in Sepych. Likely in response to the increased state regulation of the Russian countryside, local Old Believers removed the active practice of the old faith to the oldest generation of townspeople; only late in life would they withdraw into heavily ritualized and nearly monastic seclusion. By contrast, younger and middle generations remained free to cultivate the land “in the world” of serfdom and postemancipation agrarian capitalism without provoking their serf masters or agents of the state hostile to Old Belief. At other times, new resolutions to old dilemmas have been deeply gendered. In the late Soviet period, after decades of engagements with the ideologies and practices of rural socialism, it was almost entirely women who aspired to the austere ideals of Old Believer elders, even as their husbands and children often continued their association with the local Communist Party or State Farm Sepych.

Each of these provisional arrangements of the old faith and the Russian land emerged from and depended upon the ongoing working out of intricate and intimate ethical dilemmas. In both generational and gendered examples, for instance, the partitioned relationships of worldly work and otherworldly prayer often struggled to coexist under the same roof. What happens when elderly parents attempt to withdraw from the world, not even touching worldly food or drink, yet their children continue to live very worldly lives in the same house? What is to be done when a wife summons the elders to pray in the main room while the husband is a devoted member of the party and quite convinced there are no such things as inhabitants of another world toward which to direct prayers? In attending to these kinds of concrete dilemmas at multiple historical junctures, I chart the specific ways in which townspeople have sought to fashion ethical lives even as–precisely as–the very categories informing their conceptions of proper relationships have themselves been so frequently on the move.

The uneasy juxtapositions of the library’s anniversary celebration are thus but one particularly illustrative example of townspeople’s long-running efforts to bring a set of diffuse, malleable, recombinant, and very local expectations about the proper constitution of people and relationships–an ethical repertoire–into tentative conversation with powerful outsiders who have usually been better at preaching than at listening. In more fully rendering this ethical repertoire in the chapters that follow, I adopt and reorganize some of the conventions of both the priest’s sermon and the librarian’s lines. As will become abundantly clear in the next section, I, not unlike Father Vasilii, frequently make use of sources, styles of argument, and “expert” language not directly familiar to many in Sepych. In my overall analysis, however, I seek to channel these approaches through the librarian’s quite different historical and ethical epistemologies. For this reason, rather than summing up the library’s anniversary celebration with a desiccated list of ethical principles guiding life in Sepych, I prefer to let townspeople’s ethical repertoire unfold slowly over the course of this book’s substantive chapters–in all of its lived indeterminacy, its latent embodiment in people and landscapes, and its shared and disputed sensibilities about what makes a human being. To be gained in this approach, I believe, is a more faithful portrayal of townspeople’s historical and present-day experience in their own terms. This kind of understanding is, in turn, a precondition for more fully comprehending the larger, at times global, processes from which Sepych has never been as isolated as some, including many of its own residents, have considered it to be.

From The Old Faith and the Russian Land: A Historical Ethnography of Ethics in the Russian Urals, pp. 1-8 © Cornell University Press 2009. Reprinted with permission; not for further reproduction.


For a brief summary of The Old Faith and the Russian Land in Russian, see this chapter from The World of Old Belief, volume 8.


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