A 17th-Century Russian Community Living in 21st-Century Alaska
2013-05-03 0:00

By Wendi Jonassen and Ryan Loughlin | The Atlantic

This clan has traveled from Russia through China, Brazil, and Oregon to make a home in the remote north, struggling to avoid modernization.


Father Nikolai says that candles represent a little sacrifice. They cost the members of the congregation a dollar, which goes to the upkeep of the church.

On a Sunday afternoon, in the middle of a cold winter, members of Father Nikolai’s congregation and family gather in his living room for fish pie, salted salmon, and shots of Jose Cuervo 1800. But before sitting down to eat they stand up as a group to face an icon corner adorned with gold laden paintings of patron saints, candles, and old Russian jewelry. They pray in unison, singing an ancient Slavonic chant, before falling silent and crossing themselves, bowing twelve times.

The Yakunin clan was much smaller in 1968 when they started building a Russian Orthodox village called Nikolaevsk in an isolated corner of Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. Members of the Old Believers--a Russian Orthodox sect that left the church in 1666, in the face of state-issued church reforms--traveled more than 20,000 miles over five centuries in the search for the perfect place to protect their traditions from outside influences.

The women wear teal, pink, red, and purple satin dresses, all made with the same basic design that covers their bodies down to their ankles. Married women cover their hair with scarves that match their colorful gowns. Father Nikolai has a full red beard that reaches the top of his round belly and his hair is in a ponytail that runs down his back over a traditional Russian shirt.

A thick-cheeked baby dozes off in a rocker next to Father Nikolai’s son, Vasily Yakunin, who most people think will become the next priest in the community. Nikolaevsk instated their first priest in 1983 after centuries of living without clergy, which created a rift that divides the community to this day.

Vasily slouches in a leather chair, playing a space shooting videogame on his iPad, while the rest of the guests crowd around the lunch table, laughing and passing around a plate of jam-filled pastries for dessert. The only person over twenty-one who is exempt from the occasional shots of tequila is Efrosinia Yakunin, who is four months pregnant with Father Yakunin’s fifteenth grandchild.

"If we stopped believing and stopped going to church and observing the orthodox way of life," Father Nikolai says, "we would cease to exist."

On a journey back through time that touches some of the most remote corners of the globe--a generation ago, Oregon, before that Brazil, China, and Siberia--the Yakunin clan emerges out of history as a family in search of a way to live without compromise. But even at the end of the world it’s impossible to resist change forever.

***

Before starting on this 20,000-mile hopscotch across the globe, the Old Believers lived peacefully in a remote part of Siberia for nearly 200 years. The turmoil started around 1666, when Patriarch Nikon, the head of the church, altered the Russian Orthodox prayer books and traditions. "What happened was it was forced on people, you know, people were forced to accept it," Father Nikolai says. "And if, there should be no questions at all. If anybody brought up a question, he was beat. His fingers were cut off or something like that, tongues cut out."

The changes that Patriarch Nikon introduced--like the spelling of Jesus’ name in the prayer books and the number of fingers used to make the sign of the cross--seem trivial, but caused intense turmoil. "For us moderns, it’s hard to understand," says Jack Kollman, professor of Russian studies at Stanford. "But it’s rather like Shakespeare, the magic is there, the purity is there. You don’t change a poem into prose without losing the magic of it. And for a Russian Orthodox peasant...the way you make the sign of the cross...as far as anyone knew was the way that God taught them to do it. And [their] father and grandfather and ancestors got to heaven because they practiced the faith as we were taught it," he explains. "You don’t rephrase Shakespeare."

[...]

Read the full article at: theatlantic.com




Related Articles
For 40 Years, This Russian Family Was Cut Off From All Human Contact, Unaware of World War II
Religious sect found after living underground in Russia for nearly a decade


Latest News from our Front Page

Your Smartphone Could be Tracking You Every 3 Minutes, Study Says
2015-04-01 2:24
Your apps want to know where you are Smartphone apps regularly collect large amounts of data on users’ locations, sometimes as often as every three minutes, new research suggests. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University conducted a study where they asked 23 people to use their Android smartphones normally, and tracked location data requests from each device with specially designed software, the Wall ...
Facebook accused of tracking all users even if they delete accounts, ask never to be followed
2015-04-01 2:14
A new report claims that Facebook secretly installs tracking cookies on users’ computers, allowing them to follow users around the internet even after they’ve left the website, deleted their account and requested to be no longer followed. Academic researchers said that the report showed that the company was breaking European law with its tracking policies. The law requires that users are ...
'Gay cake' bakery discriminated against client over sexual orientation, court told
2015-04-01 2:37
David Scoffield QC, acting for the bakery, said if Lee’s argument was right, a Muslim printer could not turn down a contract to print leaflets about the prophet Muhammad, an atheist could not turn down an order saying God made the world and a Roman Catholic printer could not decline making leaflets calling for the legalisation of abortion on demand. Judge ...
Gay rights groups criticize Indiana religious liberties law
2015-04-01 0:10
Editor's note: Would it be ok if a court forced a bakery operated by homosexuals, to make a cake for a Christian that says: "Homosexuality is a sin"? What would the reactions be? One way tolerance? Respecting peoples beliefs extends in all directions or in no direction. Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) signed a religious liberties bill into law Thursday that has been ...
Daily Show's Trevor Noah under fire for Twitter jokes about Jews and women
2015-04-01 0:01
Trevor Noah – the surprise choice to succeed Jon Stewart as high-profile host of satirical news program The Daily Show – has come under fire for a series of controversial tweets he posted before his appointment. The South African comedian – son of a Swiss-German father and half-Jewish South African mother – was criticised for having made tasteless jokes about Jews ...
More News »