About a year ago, I started following the tragic case of an Alaskan charter flight that crashed near Kodiak, killing six. What caught my attention was the fact that the starcrossed passengers were said to be members of an “Old Believer” community near the remote hamlet of Homer. The victims were flying back home to celebrate Russian Orthodox Christmas.
The Servant Air crash spurred me to delve into Old Believers’ history, which dates back to an esoteric 17th century schism. The residents of the Homer-area settlement trace their roots back to the the reforms of Patriarch Nikon in 1653. The Old Believers resisted the liturgical changes, leading to decades of bloody conflict with the mainstream Russian Orthodox Church. Despite frequent persecution, small clusters of Old Believers persisted in Russia until the Communist revolution. Since then, the Old Believers have been wandering quite a bit:
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.
More on the violent 17th-century persecution of Old Believers here. And here’s a quick travelogue from Nikolaevsk, an Alaskan Old Believer community that features the famous Samovar Cafe (as well as a pretty decent high-school basketball team).