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‘Old Believers’: A World Out Of Time

The clip above, from the Czech filmmaker Jana Ševčíková 2001 documentary Old Believers, is one of the most captivating, mysterious pieces of filmmaking I have ever seen. It is near the very end of the film, and you really can’t appreciate it fully without having seen the whole thing. Nevertheless, please watch that clip, which lasts just short of two minutes. It depicts a church bell-ringer in a Russian Orthodox exile community of peasants living in a rural Romanian village. Watch his ecstasy, and observe his exhaustion when he finishes. It’s uncanny.

This nine-minute “trailer” [1](as they call it) gives you more of the film. I couldn’t find the whole thing anywhere online. I ran across a DVD copy in my local library, and checked it out because I was interested to know more about the Old Believers [2], a schismatic Russian Orthodox sect that broke away from canonical Orthodoxy in protest of 17th-century reforms. They were horribly persecuted by the Church and the State. Many of them went abroad into exile. The film profiles the descendants of Old Believers who settled in the Danube River delta in far eastern Romania.

Shot over five years in the late 1990s, the black-and-white film looks and sounds like a camera crew was sent back centuries through time. These people are poor and primitive — really and truly peasants. Their religious faith is everything to them. You watch and listen to them sharing their crude cosmology and almost superstitious beliefs with the director — some of them don’t even believe man has been on the moon — and if you’re me, you realize how much you appreciate modernity. This is how most people in Christendom have lived throughout its history, I imagine. There’s probably not much difference between how these modern Old Believers live and your average French peasant in the 18th century, for example. These are rough people. To live in an impoverished village so immersed in tradition and religion seems utterly suffocating. At least it did for most of the film.

But at some point, I’m not sure when, I realized the power that their simple but fiery religion gave to these people, and the dignity. They live lives harder than most of us Americans can imagine. Their faith is the greatest treasure they own. It raises them up, and allows them to experience the transcendent, even though they are filthy and culturally backward and wear clothing that’s a few popped stitches away from rags. When one man says that they have been given their tradition by their fathers down through the centuries, and their duty is to uphold it, it was hard for me to decide if this is a curse or a blessing. It’s probably both at the same time.

Then you get to the end of the film, and you see the rapture of the bell ringer, and you wonder if that pious peasant is one of the richest men on the planet. What would people like us give to experience that man’s ecstasy? Would we be willing to take on the agony of life in his Romanian village?

What does God see when He looks down on those peasants? How does He compare them to us?

Here is a 2009 story by Elif Batuman [3], writing in the New Yorker about Russian church bells. Excerpt:

In the Russian Orthodox faith, bells are widely considered to be “aural icons,” symbolizing the trumpet calls blown on Mt. Sinai and the sounding of the trumpet for the raising of the dead before the Last Judgment. Just as painted icons are not intended to be mimetic representations of a spiritual object but magical windows into the world of the spiritual, a Russian bell is not a musical instrument but, as Father Roman puts it, “an icon of the voice of God.” A Russian bell, he said, must sound rich, deep, sonorous, and clear, for how can the voice of God be otherwise? It must be loud, because God is omnipotent. Above all, Russian bells must never be tuned to either a major or a minor chord. “The voice of a bell is understood as just that,” he said. “Not a note, not a chord, but a voice.” Whereas Western European bells are tuned on a lathe to produce familiar major and minor chords, a Russian bell is prized for its individual, untuned voice, produced by an overlay of numerous partial frequencies, with only approximate relations to traditional pitches …. Where Western European bells play melodies, Russian bell ringing consists of rhythmic layered peals.

That’s what you hear in the clip from the documentary. The aural icon of the voice of God. What a world of wonders we inhabit.

21 Comments (Open | Close)

21 Comments To "‘Old Believers’: A World Out Of Time"

#1 Comment By William Murphy On September 4, 2017 @ 4:02 am

Rod

Many thanks for drawing attention to the sad and complex story of the Old Believers. I visited an Old Believers church in Daugaupils in Latvia in 2015. It is one of 4 churches on a hilltop in that fascinating city. A Catholic, a Lutheran and a Russian Orthodox church are within 100 yards.
The original break with the Russian Orthodox church arose paradoxically from the efforts of the Russians to align more closely with Greek Orthodox practices. The Old Believers refused to accept changes to the way they made the sign of the Cross and some other innovations. They were brutally persecuted and scattered to remote regions such as Sibe ria and the Danube delta. Later it became clear that the Greek inspired changes were newer than the Old Believers long established ways.

There is an even more incredible story of an Old Believers family who fled Stalin era persecution to a remote mountain in Siberia. When they were accidentally found in the 1970s they had no idea that WW2 had happened.

#2 Comment By Jonathan On September 4, 2017 @ 4:18 am

If you ever got the time to read them, you might appreciate anthropologist Juliet Du Boulay’s two books about the Orthodox villagers she lived among in Greece in the 60s and 70s. Had something of the same effect on me as this film has had on you. Du Boulay is a trained anthropologist but also an Orthodox convert from Britain.

#3 Comment By Khalid On September 4, 2017 @ 5:20 am

Thanks for that, Rod. Will certainly look out for it!

By sheer co-incidence I’m reading a chapter from Ronald Blythe’s ‘Akenfield’ on bell-ringing. The book, so far, is really good on old England and the difficult, constrained lives people once lived. A hard life but, one suspects, one of pathos, beauty and silences. As Thesiger would say: the more difficult the circumstances, the better the people.

The first scene from this clip reminded me of Tarkovsky’s wonderful ‘Solaris’..

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.’
—Leonard Cohen

#4 Comment By Philly guy On September 4, 2017 @ 5:25 am

Sanctuary!

#5 Comment By EG On September 4, 2017 @ 5:51 am

Dear Rod:

Fascinating!

#6 Comment By Pat On September 4, 2017 @ 6:33 am

That was a fascinating way to start the week, and reminded me that I don’t understand traditional church bell ringing at all. Where did the patterns come from, and what are they supposed to convey?

[NFR: Read the New Yorker piece to which I linked. It gives a basic explanation. I had no idea that Russian church bells are fundamentally different from Western church bells, and serve a different function within Orthodox church culture. — RD]

#7 Comment By bmj On September 4, 2017 @ 7:52 am

I believe this has been posted around these parts before, but [4] about a family of Old Believers living in taiga who had been cut off from humanity long enough to be ignorant of WWII.

#8 Comment By Milan On September 4, 2017 @ 7:53 am

You can watch the whole movie for a share on Facebook (or small monthly subscription fee) here: [5]

#9 Comment By Jonf On September 4, 2017 @ 8:29 am

RE: In the Russian Orthodox faith, bells are widely considered to be “aural icons,”

And for this reason I am glad my church has a real honest-to-God bell, not some new-fangled electronic carillon as so many churches do nowadays.

#10 Comment By AubreyMaturin On September 4, 2017 @ 9:25 am

Imago Dei. Despite all of our filth, ignorance, and evil, we were made for eternity.

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which,if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations…There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”

– CS Lewis

#11 Comment By Adamant On September 4, 2017 @ 11:18 am

Very interesting story about one of these communities in Alaska, and how they adapt to the challenges of modernity.

[6]

#12 Comment By Joan On September 4, 2017 @ 11:32 am

Just to cement your contempt for the Ivy League, I’m going to repeat what I heard from a friend who used to work for Harvard. The dormitories at Harvard are called houses, in the British tradition, and many have anachronistic features such as towers. In one of those towers is a set of bells looted from a Russian Orthodox monastery and sold west when the Soviet Union needed hard currency. The administrator in charge of the house when my friend worked there tried to play the Harvard football team’s fight song on the bells. After that failure, he blamed the bells, comparing their sound to that of banging pots and pans together. So far as my friend knew, they were never used again, but after the Soviet Union fell, when the monastery was revived and asked for its bells back, Harvard refused to donate them, insisting on being paid their full market value, which the monastery didn’t have. That was a couple of decades ago. Whether the bells eventually made it back to Russia or are still gathering dust in Massachusetts, I can’t tell you.

[NFR: The New Yorker story to which I link in this post tells that story. The bells are back in Russia now. — RD]

#13 Comment By charles cosimano On September 4, 2017 @ 12:09 pm

“Would we be willing to take on the agony of life in his Romanian village?”

NO. Next silly question?

What does God see when He looks down on those peasants? How does He compare them to us?

He thinks we are a hell of a lot better. Last time we talked he said, “I gave men brains. I rather appreciate it when they use them.”

What does God see? Something that disgusts him and makes him wonder if evolution is working. They should all have been wiped out by recessive genes by now and it is terribly confusing that they have not been.

Oh and God hates bells. He really hates bells. They give him headaches. One of the interesting things about Heaven, other than the really big hot tub and huge bar, is that there is not a bell in the place.

Nor is there a single peasant. They have to reincarnate until they make the cut.

I’m having fun but Rod, you got it right in the beginning. No one in their right mind would trade modernity for them.

#14 Comment By AnnaH On September 4, 2017 @ 12:28 pm

Yeah, that is Tarkovsky all the way. Andrei Rublov, anyone?

#15 Comment By AnnaH On September 4, 2017 @ 12:30 pm

Rublev in English, sorry.

#16 Comment By Jon On September 4, 2017 @ 2:20 pm

Fascinating. The bell ringing reminds me of Indonesian Gamelan music as I heard it when I traveled there some years ago. Thank you for sharing this.

#17 Comment By EngineerScotty On September 4, 2017 @ 3:41 pm

Oregon has three distinct Old Believer communities, all centered around the Willamette Valley town of Woodburn.

[7]

One interesting thing about some old Believer communities is that many have existed, for a long time, without suitable bishops. Unwilling to abandon either apostilistic succession or laying on of hands, these communities evolved Protestant forms of ecclesiastic organization as their priests died off. A few have since imported priests from elsewhere, but a few others have declined to do so, practicing essentially a priestless form of Orthodoxy.

#18 Comment By John Brady On September 4, 2017 @ 3:55 pm

You’d appreciate Vasily Peskov’s Lost in the Taiga. He was one of a crew of engineers who stumbled on an Old Believer family in Siberia who’d been cut off from the rest of the world for decades. He struck up a friendship with them that continued for years. Fascinating.
[8]

#19 Comment By Bob Taylor On September 4, 2017 @ 5:22 pm

I wish every column of yours were as grand as this one. I realize they can’t be, because you’re a general commentator, and so much of what you deal with must be grubby if not revolting.

The video of the bellringer evokes the supernal. Thank you.

To Mr Cosimano, I recommend Charles Addams’ cartoon in which hell is a landscape of caverns, with neutered men and woman, who are aching for a drink, standing on footpaths across from a particularly deep one, and the Devil, with a fully stocked bar, is on the other side, whistling nonchalantly as he waits for the customers who can never arrive.

#20 Comment By Sliwka On September 5, 2017 @ 1:13 am

This reminded me of this interview from Werner Herzog’s Bells From The Deep of Yuri Yurivich Yuriev. This clip [9] and the whole documentary are also worth a watch. [10]

I’ve said many times with my coreligionists that I want to cultivate the mindset of a “peasant Catholic” meaning the sacramental view of the world; not worrying about whether the world is a 4B year old ball bc everything we generally experience feels like a 10000 year old disc. When I look at the stars on Christmas Eve I can imagine the angelic host that really is bursting into sight. It is being outside and looking at chickadees and magpies and how God does care for them recalling the words of Christ. I may not have all the correct theological or apologetic verbiage but I can correctly order my understanding of the universe.

That was incredibly ineloquent. Apologies

#21 Comment By dfb On September 5, 2017 @ 4:52 pm

“I was interested to know more about the Old Believers, a schismatic Russian Orthodox sect that broke away from canonical Orthodoxy in protest of 17th-century reforms.”

Under the leadership of Patriarch Nikon, the 17th-century reforms in Russian church customs that led to schism included, but were not limited to, singing Alleluia three times at certain points in the liturgy, instead of two; the substitution of bows for prostrations; the written spelling of the name Jesus; and most importantly, the requirement that one cross oneself with three fingers (symbolizing the Trinity) rather than with two fingers (symbolizing the two natures of Christ: true man and true God).

“They were horribly persecuted by the Church and the State.”

Archpriest Avvakum, an important spokesman for the Old Believer traditionalists who did not want to diverge in any way from the old customs, was, after a lengthy trial, sentenced to death at the stake in 1682. Avvakum asserted that Constantinople fell to the Turks because the Greeks had earlier adopted the practices adopted under Patriarch Nikon. The only bishop to join the Old Believers, Paul of Kolomna, was killed in 1656.

The subsequent lack of a hierarchy meant that ordained priests of the “Old Rite” would soon become extinct, which led to two responses among Old Believers. Priested Old Believers (the Popovtsy) recognized the validity of the priesthood of clergy ordained by the Nikonian, state supported church and received them into their fold. Priestless Old Believers (the Bezpopovtsy), ultimately rejected priests and eventually the Eucharist, as they believed any priest using the Nikonian rites forfeited apostolic succession.

Interestingly, the lack of priests eventually affected the sacrament of marriage. The group known as the Pomortsy, the largest priestless group, believed the nastavnik (teacher and leader) had the right, together with the parents of the bride and groom to perform marriages. The Fedoseyevtsky, on the other hand, rejected marriage on principle, which required the begetting of children “in sin.”

According to the German Lutheran theologian, Peter Hauptmann, “If the majority of the Fedoseyevtsy adhere to the original view of all Bezpopovtsy that there can be no more marriages following the apocalyptic extinction of the Old Orthodox priesthood and thus strictly speaking all Christians are pledged to celibacy, at the same time the traditional church penalties for unmarried couples living together after the birth of children are light, and thus family and church life in both groups [Pomortsy and Fedoseyevtsy] is not all that different.”

One offshoot of the Bezpopovtsy were the “Christ-believers,” Khristovshchina or Khlysty (“scourge”), a group that rejected alcohol, sex, marriage and bad language, gathering for secret meetings where they prayed, sang, danced, hoping that Holy Spirit would descend upon them. They believe that anyone can became a “Christ” through ascetic methods. One offshoot of the Khristovshchina were the Skoptsy, or castrati, who practiced “fiery baptism” – castration for men and the cutting off of breasts for women. The founder of the Skoptsy sect was Konndratii Selivanov, who believed he was the reincarnated Christ and later assumed the name of the late Tsar, Peter III. Rejecting the Bible’s authority the Skoptsy believed in the Holy Spirit only. As the primary source of evil in the world is rooted in bodily beauty and sexuality, what they called the lepost, the only way to God was to eliminate the cause of lepost, via castration.

“Then you get to the end of the film, and you see the rapture of the bell ringer, and you wonder if that pious peasant is one of the richest men on the planet. What would people like us give to experience that man’s ecstasy? Would we be willing to take on the agony of life in his Romanian village?”

Given the foregoing history of the “Old Believer” option, which (1) was born in reaction to what the bulk of the Orthodox hierarchs, priests and believers apparently viewed as minor changes in ritual, (2) apparently results, at best, in the profound ignorance of an 18th Century peasant, or (3) at worst, in bodily mutilation for the sake of salvation, I’ll pass on Old Believer ecstasy. As corrupt as the hierarchy and clergy of my (Roman Catholic) Church may be (as befits the corruption of humans in general and Catholic laity in particular), I’ll avoid small groups seeking greater purity as defined by the group.