Abstract

SUMMARY:

This article tackles the surprising evolution of one of the most radical groups of Russian Old Believers: the so-called Wanderers (beguny). Formed in the late eighteenth century, the Wanderers completely rejected any interaction with social institutions, whether that meant the political authorities or regular economic activities. Constantly on the run from the world, to survive they had to rely on financial and logistical support from sympathizers who pursued conventional socioeconomic strategies and only at the end of life "disappeared" from the world by joining the Wanderers and beginning their own "getaway." Paradoxically, around 1909, a group of Wanderers in Yaroslavl province under the leadership of Alexander Riabinin started several legal commercial enterprises. After a few initial failures, they launched a successful steam mill. The double transgression from the vantage point of some Wanderers – an activity that was both legal and for-profit – caused a split within their community. However, Riabinin and his followers claimed that they remained true to the ideals of their creed and were acting in accordance with its spirit. The article explores this conflict and the arguments of the two sides.

Departing from the mainstream historiographic interpretation, the author does not perceive the Wanderers' millenarianism as a fanatic determination to exist in isolation from the larger society. Except for rare cases of Old Believers living in seclusion in the Siberian wilderness, most of them lived the same lives as millions of Russia's "professional believers" – pilgrims who wandered from one sacral site to another for several months or even for their entire lives. They occupied the same socioeconomic niche as vagabonds and beggars, which was quite normal in the society's eyes, even if deemed marginal and undesirable by the authorities. Of humble, mostly peasant social background, the Wanderers were doing what many Orthodox believers of lower social status did, and in this sense they did not occupy an isolated underground. As demonstrated in the article, the true identity of the Wanderers and their whereabouts were well-known to peasants and local authorities alike.

The 1905 imperial decree of religious toleration was a gamechanger for the Wanderers: the partial liberalization of the imperial regime and legalization of the Old Believers prompted a fierce competition for the flock among its various strains. The Wanderers faced the dilemma of dying out as a congregation by losing the younger generation to other, more visible and energetic religious groups, or accepting the challenge. To Riabinin, the steam mill probably symbolized his community's presence in the society, serving as a beacon to attract followers to be educated in the religious school opened at the mill and financed by its revenues. Paradoxically, to remain true to their millenarian religious ideas, the Wanderers had to adapt to the changing world. For Riabinin, this was not a betrayal of their ideals, because the old life of vagabond pilgrims was as typical of the low-class Russians in the nineteenth century as were entrepreneurial activities during the post-1905 period. Moreover, the Wanderers attempted to adjust to the early Soviet regime after the Revolution, this time institutionalizing their community as an agricultural artel, essentially an Old Believer kolkhoz. They apparently did not see the Bolshevik ideology as a kindred form of millenarianism and just followed the path of other low-class Russians who tried to reconcile their own interests with the socioeconomic niches legally available to them under the ruling regime.

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