Russian Old Believers: Genetic Consequences of Their Persecution and Exile, as Shown by Mitochondrial DNA Evidence


In 1653, the Patriarch Nikon modified liturgical practices to bring the Russian Orthodox Church in line with those of the Eastern (Greek) Orthodox Church, from which it had split 200 years earlier. The Old Believers (staroveri) rejected these changes and continued to worship using the earlier practices. These actions resulted in their persecution by the Russian Orthodox Church, which forced them into exile across Siberia. Given their history, we investigate whether populations of Old Believers have diverged genetically from other Slavic populations as a result of their isolation. We also examine whether the three Old Believer populations analyzed in this study are part of a single gene pool (founder population) or are instead derived from heterogeneous sources. As part of this analysis, we survey the mitochondrial DNAs (mtDNAs) of 189 Russian Old Believer individuals from three populations in Siberia and 201 ethnic Russians from different parts of Siberia for phylogenetically informative mutations in the coding and noncoding regions. Our results indicate that the Old Believers have not significantly diverged genetically from other Slavic populations over the 200–300 years of their isolation in Siberia. However, they do show some unique patterns of mtDNA variation relative to other Slavic groups, such as a high frequency of subhaplogroup U4, a surprisingly low frequency of haplogroup H, and low frequencies of the rare East Eurasian subhaplogroup D5.