- Old Believers in a Changing World by Robert O. Crummey
In the middle of the seventeenth century a small group of Russian priests and laymen refused to go along with the changes in ritual and liturgy mandated by Patriarch Nikon, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church. Their resistance was the beginning of a split that has lasted to the present day. The resistors, who have come to be known as Old Believers or more properly, Old Ritualists, soon argued among themselves and split into a multitude of “accords.” Some tried to maintain the old rituals and liturgies conducted by priests, others believed that apostolic succession had ceased with the split, and evolved forms of worship led by laymen. These groups were not marginal. In the first half of the nineteenth century Tsar Nicholas I’s Ministry of the Interior believed that some twenty percent of the Russian peasantry openly or secretly espoused the beliefs of one or the other accord. The Old Belief communities in the city of Moscow included the core of the emerging Moscow business elite, whose mansions can still be seen in central Moscow today.
Robert Crummey has been the principal Western historian of Russian Old Belief for more than a generation. His 1970 monograph, The Old Believers and the World of Antichrist; the Vyg Community and the Russian State, 1694–1855, remains the most important Western study of the movement since Pierre Pascal’s Avvakum et les débuts du Raskol: la crise religieuse au XVIIe sie?cle en Russie of 1938. The present volume incorporates all of Crummey’s articles on Old Belief from 1988 to 2011, a period of rapid change in historiography that reflected changes in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but also changes in the understanding of what use to be called “popular religion” throughout the world.
The result is somewhat unexpected. Most volumes of this sort either make more accessible articles published in hard to find journals and conference volumes or simply represent an attempt to assemble the product of a [End Page 257] distinguished scholar’s career. Both are the case here, but there is more. Crummey’s collection forms the best introduction to the history of Old Belief and the disputes surrounding its history now available. Chapters three to six cover essential aspects of the seventeenth century origins of the movement. Chapters seven to eleven chronicle the fate of various Old Believer communities from 1700 until the Russian Revolution. The first and last chapters present the author’s reflections on the problems involved making sense of the Old Believers, as well as a fascinating and often moving account of the group of scholars in the Siberian academic center at Novosibirsk, led by N. N. Pokrovskii, who have been intensively collecting manuscript materials and studying the history of the Urals and Siberian communities since the 1960s. There is little that is not covered, at least briefly, and supplied with an extensive bibliography.
Crummey started his work on the Old Believers in the 1960s as a graduate student, when the predominant approach was to mine the texts for evidence of “political theology” that justified the actions of a movement seen as social protest in religious form. That view was not just Marxist, for it had a long history going back to the Russian populist movements of the 1860s. It meant that the actual religious beliefs and practices were not considered proper for historical analysis, an attitude that bothered him from the start. His early work on the Vyg community also made him skeptical of the sharp distinctions then assumed between elite and popular religion. In the intervening decades he has profited from the work of historians of religion and society in Western Europe, who largely substantiated his skepticism. For Crummey, “popular” is a problematic category. On the one hand, the Old Believers were certainly plebeian, in the sense that their ranks included no one (after the first decade or so) from the landholding gentry or aristocratic elite. Perhaps for practical...