Alaska's Russian dissidents integrate with American life

Group moved every time they felt their 17th-century way of life was threatened

Posted: Tuesday, July 06, 2004

NIKOLAEVSK - Kondraty Fefelov traveled more than 20,000 miles to lay claim to a patch of earth here at the end of North America's roadway and keep the world at arm's length.

He and several hundred religious dissidents known as the Russian Orthodox Old Believers had spent decades moving, picking up stakes each time they felt their 17th-century way of life threatened.

"We run from the communists, from Stalin," said Fefelov, 67. "We keep moving, moving, moving. Nobody helped us. (We had) no money. We just worked and found a good place."

Thirty-six years after settling Nikolaevsk, the Old Believers no longer fear persecution. But other factors - cultural integration, internal divisions an ailing fishing industry - are changing the way they've lived for centuries.

The Old Believers split from the church in the 17th century when Patriarch Nikon ordered a number of reforms to Russian Orthodoxy. Many of the changes were minor - the number of fingers used in the sign of the cross, the spelling of Jesus' name, the number of times "hallelujah" is said in prayer - but the Old Believers considered any change to the rites heretical and refused to go along.

The Russian Orthodox Church excommunicated them and the czars persecuted them. Many left Russia or moved to the Siberian taiga where they could pass the old rites down to their children in peace.

But the Russian revolution forced many of the remaining Old Believers out for good, as the Soviets tried to squash their religion and the collective farms threatened their livelihood.

Fefelov and about 300 Old Believers left Siberia in 1945 to become big-game hunters in Manchuria, China. That country, too, became communist, and after some time they sought a new home.

Several South American countries took in the Old Believers. Fefelov moved to Brazil, where he said the government did not interfere with their religion, but many of the families found it difficult to make a living.

They came to the United States, establishing themselves mainly in Oregon's Willamette Valley in the early 1960s. After about six years there, some came to feel that American culture was having too much influence on their children, so they looked north to Alaska.

Fefelov and other pioneer families came to Nikolaevsk on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula in the late 1960s. They built the village themselves and worked in the lucrative commercial fishing industry.

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. There is a bed and breakfast and a café that serves hot borscht and sells nesting matroyshka dolls to tourists. Plans are being made to build a fire station and an assisted-living home.

"It's just a regular town. It's not like it used to be," said Greg Yakunin, a fisherman and lifelong Nikolaevsk resident. "Things are modernized, Americanized.

"To me, I'm just an ordinary, American guy."

This new openness was sped by a religious schism in the village about 20 years ago. Fefelov and some of the villagers decided to reinstate the priesthood into their religion, a major change by the Old Believers, whose priests had died out centuries ago. With Russian Orthodox bishops practicing within the reformed church, there was nobody to ordain new clergy according to the old rites.

But Fefelov's group found an Old Believer bishop in Romania in the early 1980s and brought back the priesthood, a move that created a rift within the community.

Having clergy to provide spiritual guidance has helped in their integration to an extent, said Richard Morris, a research professor in the University of Oregon's Russian and East European Studies Center.

Others rejected the return of priests. Many of these priestless Old Believers, called bezpopovtsy, moved away from Nikolaevsk to establish new communities deeper in the Kenai Peninsula. One such village, Kachemak Selo, can be reached only through a harrowing series of switchbacks down a cliff and a hike across the beach of Kachemak Bay.

"It got to the point where it was pretty emotional, where even fights would break out," said Alex Basargin, a 29-year-old bezpopovtsy who teaches at Nikolaevsk's school. "So many of the bezpopovtsy decided it was best to just move away."

It's hard to pinpoint the number of Old Believers in the United States, Morris said. Through research and visits to the different communities, he estimates there are 6,000 to 7,000 living in Oregon, about 1,500 in Alaska, 500 in Canada and about 50 families in Minnesota.

There also are communities and individuals in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York.

The populations are fluid, as families have gone back and forth among Alaska, Oregon, South America, Russia and Australia. Young people often visit other Old Believer communities to find spouses.

Nina Fefelov, owner of Nikolaevsk's Samovar Cafe and a part-time teacher, is a Russian from Khabarovsk who came to the United States to marry Kondraty Fefelov's son Dennis.

Nina Fefelov teaches Russian to a new generation of Old Believers in Nikolaevsk who have known nothing but the United States. She says she is afraid the village will lose the Russian language and culture as the children take on the ways of their adopted home.

"The students just don't want to learn Russian," she said.

Kira Tipikin, a worker in Nikolaevsk's post office, has two children, a daughter in high school and a 10-year-old son. She said they won't speak to her in Russian and have no interest in church because they don't understand the Old Slavonic read at the services.

"If it gets lost, oh well, what can you do?" Tipikin said. "But we're going to try to hold on to it as best as we can."

Uncertainty in the fishing industry, 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 Alaska cities.

That uncertainty has also led parents to keep their children in school longer. More students are finishing school instead of leaving early to begin working, as their parents did.

"Parents' ideas and perceptions of education have been changing because of what's happening to the fishing industry and whatnot," Basargin said. "To get a job, a decent job, you need a high school diploma, and they're realizing that. So they're letting their students go at least through high school."

Even the more isolated bezpopovtsy are feeling the pull of economic forces drawing them closer to the world. Several bezpopovtsy are moving near cities for jobs. The Kachemak Selo school graduated its first class this year, and allowed teachers to have computers on their desks, although students are forbidden to use them, said principal Randy Creamer.

"I think the economy is driving them into education," Creamer said. "They've got to be more marketable."

Morris said the Old Believers are adapting their culture to their surroundings in order to survive, but that does not necessarily mean they'll fade into the American population.

"A lot of them keep a sense of differentiating between integration and acculturation," Morris said. "Economically and politically, they are integrated.

"Socially, however, they have very long fasts. They have the whole idea of ritual cleanliness. Although polite and highly hospitable, they still have the sense that they are socially separated."

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