Russian Old Believers in the USA: Language and Belief


Russian Old Believers from all over the world came to the United States for various reasons and in various ways. This article is dedicated to the Old Believers' preservation of the Russian language and their beliefs in North America in the 21st century. It also provides an overview of the measures taken for the preservation of the Russian language in the state of Oregon.


(1970s). Harbin Old Believers and Prof. Richard Morris [Image].

Tamara Morris,

 Courtesy Professor of Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies

 University of Oregon, Eugene, OR

 Translated By:

 Yelena Muratova

 University of California, Los Angeles

Photo Credits Translated by:

Heleana Melendez

University of California, Los Angeles

Russian Old Believers in the USA: Language and Belief

 Russian Old Believers from all over the world came to the United States for various reasons and in various ways. This article is dedicated to the Old Believers’ preservation of the Russian language and their beliefs in North America in the 21st century. It also provides an overview of the measures taken for the preservation of the Russian language in the state of Oregon.

Because Old Believers are a special ethno-confessional group, this article will cover several concepts necessary for the understanding of their confession and provide a short history of their migration to the United States. This article will illuminate the interaction between the economic changes happening in the lives of the Russian Old Believers during a half-century of their residence in the United States and their preservation of their native (Russian) language.

Who are the Old Believers?

The middle of the 17th century was a tragic time in the history of the Russian Orthodox Church.i During this period, the idea of Moscow as the Third Rome—that the Moscow sovereigns inherited the Orthodox Christian Empire from the Byzantine emperors—was popular in Russian society. To many, Russia seemed like the only country that had preserved true Christianity. Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich was convinced of his calling to create a panorthodox tsardom with its center in Moscow, which required the complete unification of the practices of the Russian Church with the modern practices of the Greek Church. Also necessary was the concordance of the ritual practices of the Russian Church with the church practices of Ukrainians and Belarusians, in order to facilitate their unimpeded absorption into the Russian state.

Starting in 1653, Patriarch Nikon, with the support of Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich, began church reforms of a predominantly political nature. The reforms were carried out under the banner of a return to Byzantine roots, but they were not based on ancient Greek or Russian texts, as was declared, rather on the Greek texts published in the 17th century.

The scale of the reforms and the, unusual even for that time, brutality with which they were enacted led to the split of the Russian Orthodox Church into two groups: those who accepted the church reforms and those who refused to recognize them. The former were called the Novoobriadtsy [New Ceremonialists] or Nikoniany [Nikonians], and the latter were called Raskolniki [Schismatics], Starovery [Old Believers], or Staroobriadtsy [Old Ritualists]. The Old Believers were subject to persecution, which was officially legalized during the Synod of 1666–1667.

By the end of the 1660s, in an effort to escape persecution, the Old Believers began to leave the central regions of Russia and to migrate to the outskirts of the country—northward to the Pomor’e, southward to the Don, eastward to the Urals and Siberia, and westward, beyond the borders of Russia.

A Short History of Old Believer Migrations to the United States

Russian Old Believers appeared in the United States at the end of the 19th century. The first migrants were mainly Bezpopovtsy [priestless] from the Pomor’e.ii They arrived from the Suwalki and, later, the Vilna provinces.iii These groups settled in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Michigan and started to work in mines and factories. Some of them quickly began to assimilate, while others reunified with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia [Robson 1992]. The majority of the Old Believers who lived in Erie (Pennsylvania) converted to Edinoverie [Coreligionism], but some of them (approximately 25%) refused to do so, and created their own Pomorian Bezpopovtsy parish. The Old Believers of Pennsylvania lost practically any fluency in Russian. Today, their church service still follows the old rituals, but in English, while some of their religious books have also been translated into English. This use of English does not contradict the general policy of the Eastern Orthodox Church of holding services in the local language [Holdeman 2002].

The largest compact settlement of Old Believers in the United States is located in Oregon [Morris 1991; Morris, Morris (Yumsunova) 2007]iv. There are approximately ten thousand Old Believers residing in Oregon, many of whom migrated there from around the world in the 1960s. They are called and they call themselves harbintsy, sin’tsziantsy, and turchane.

The name harbintsy refers to the Russian Old Believers who escaped to China from the Russian Far East and established villages in Manchuria.v They are named harbintsy after the main city of Manchuria, Harbin, close to where they established villages on unsettled lands. For information on such a village, see: [Dni v Romanovke 2012]. Sin’tsziantsy are Old Believers who escaped from the Russian Altai to the Chinese Altai and settled in the Xinjiang province (an autonomous region in northwestern China). In Oregon, all of the Old Believers who arrived from Turkey started to be called turchane. However, in Turkey the Old Believers lived in two different places and were either kubantsy, whose ancestors came directly from Kuban, or dunaki, because those Old Believers had first moved to the mouth of the Danube and then later moved to Turkey.

Russian Old Believers emigrated to China between the end of the 1920s and the start of the 1930s primarily to escape religious persecution by Soviet authorities and also to escape forced collectivization. After the Cultural Revolution occurred in China from 1940 to1950, the Old Believers began to look for ways to leave the country. Their first opportunity to leave communist China appeared in the mid-1950s, with many informants pointing to the year 1957. With the help of international organizations—the International Red Cross and the World Council of Churches—they first emigrated to Hong Kong, which at the time hosted refugees. From there, groups of Old Believers migrated to countries in South America and to Australia. These people could not migrate to North America because their passports stated that their nationality was Chinese, and, at the time, North America did not accept Chinese immigrants.

(1950s). Sintszyantsev family before departing from China. End of 1950s [Image]. 

The Old Believers first heard of Oregon en route to South America in the summer of 1958, when they had a layover in Los Angeles, California. The Molokans (Spiritual Christians) of the city heard of their arrival from the newspapers and came to welcome them. They initially invited the Old Believers to have lunch in their house of worship [sobranie]. Over the course of several days, while the Old Believers were still in Los Angeles, the Molokans invited them to their houses, generously gave them gifts, clothing, money, and, most importantly, their addresses, which began the exchange of correspondence.

Life in Brazil turned out to be difficult for the Old Believers, many of whom desired to move to North America. The Molokans helped them in this regard by sending the families affidavits for work in the United States, which permitted the Old Believers to immigrate there. The first harbintsy came to Oregon in 1962, followed by the sin’tsziantsy at the end of the 1960s. However, a good number of Old Believers still reside to this day in South America (Brazil, Bolivia, and Argentina).

When and how did the Russian Old Believers get to Turkey? After the Schism in the Russian Orthodox Church (in the middle of the 17th century) many Old Believers, mainly from the western, southwestern, and central parts of Russia escaped to the Don River. A part of them joined the Cossack-peasant revolt led by Kondratii Bulavin (1707–1709). When the revolt was suppressed, Ataman Ignat Nekrasov was able to lead a small group of Old Believers from the Don River to the Kuban, which then was part of the Crimean Khanate. The Old Believers went in two flows from Kuban to Turkey: some of them travelled there directly, while others migrated first through the Danube. Once settled in Turkey, they remained there until the 1960s.

The Russian Old Believers had several reasons to emigrate from Turkey. First, their children had reached the age of marriage, but they did not have enough fit partners. In order for Old Believers to marry, they were expected to determine their family trees up to eight degrees of consanguinity, and not simply of relatives by blood, but also of relatives by “god,” i.e. those relatives who were related because one of their ancestors had been a godfather or godmother of the other’s ancestor. Next, the large Old Believer families had continued expanding and, as a result, started to run out of land in Turkey. In addition, there were cases of persecution and killings of Christians by the Turks, which further prompted the need to leave the country. Finally, the Turkish army’s mandatory draft became a pressing issue.

The emigration of the Old Believers from Turkey was supported by the fund of Lev Tolstoy, who had appealed to the United States’ Congress for help. In 1963, under a special authorization by Congress, a small community of Old Believers (173 persons) from Turkey arrived in New Jersey. A year earlier, another group of 1000 persons emigrated from Turkey to Russia and settled in the Levokumsky District of the Stavropol Krai, where they live to this day and are known as kazaki-nekrasovtsy. The Oregon turchane and kazaki-nekrasovtsy still maintain contact with each other.

It is interesting that, before their arrival in the United States, all three groups of Old Believers (sin’tsziantsy, harbintsy, and turchane) lived far away from each other and did not have any connections. The first sustained contact of the sin’tsziantsy with the harbintsy happened at the end of the 1950s in South America, although some of them had met prior to this in Hong Kong and even in China, right before they left the country. These two groups met the turchane once they were in Oregon.

Presently, the older generations still separate themselves by the place from where they emigrated, i.e., sin’tsziantsy, harbintsy, and turchane, and their children, the first generation in the United States, are also familiar with these terms. However, the third and fourth generations of Old Believers no longer see these divisions as relevant, because intergroup marriages (for example, between a harbintsy father and a turchane mother) started to become prevalent within the religious communities. It is worth noting that marriages between representatives of the various groups were allowed soon after the Old Believers’ arrival in Oregon, because almost all of the Old Believers in the state at that time belonged to the same confession, to the Chasovennye

By the 1970s, the older generation began to become concerned about the increasing influence of American culture, especially on the youth. Some leaders started to look for more isolated and remote places in which to live in order to preserve their religious principles, their traditional way of life, and to remove their children from the temptations of civilization in Oregon. Moreover, the Old Believers “started to feel crowded [stalo tesno]” in the state.

(ca. 1970). Group of Russian immigrants go on a ride at the State Fair in Salem, Oregon, ca. 1970 [Online image]. Oregon State Archives Collection. Retrieved August 8, 2016 from

In 1968, four harbintsy families moved deep into Alaska, to the Kenai Penninsula. They bought land there and established the settlement Nikolaevsk, which was named after Saint Nicholas.vii Afterward, two villages developed around Nikolaevsk—Nakhodka and Kliuchevaia. In the 1980s, after the split of the Old Believers’ confession into Popovtsy and Bezpopovtsy (see below), the Popovtsy stayed in Nikolaevsk, while the Bezpopovtsy preferred to leave the settlement. New Bezpopovtsy settlements appeared on the Kachemak Bay—Kachemak selo, Voznesenka, and Razdol’noe. A few families live in Homer—the main city in the mouth of the Kachemak Bay, on Afognak Island near Kodiak. Old Believers also live 40 miles to the north of Anchorage, in the vicinity of the city of Wasilla. There is also a small community near the city of Delta Junction, not far from Fairbanks.

In 1975, another group of Old Believers found a secluded location in Canada and the settlement, Berezovka, formed near the village of Plamondon in northern Alberta. Currently there are approximately 1000 people residing in Berezovka and the settlement has four Bezpopovtsy houses of worship.

The Old Believers of Oregon gradually spread across the various states of the USA. In 1995, they bought land in Minnesota, where they currently have two settlements. In addition, there are small villages in the states of Washington and Montana. All of the members of these communities who had lived in Oregon and moved away maintain constant contact with each other based on familial and marital ties.

The Language of the Old Believers and The Economic Lives

When the Old Believers came from around the world to Oregon, they all spoke Russian and did not speak any English. In both China and Turkey, the communities lived in separate settlements and preserved a traditional way of life, which helped them preserve their Russian language fluency. In the United States, the Old Believers stopped building villages and started living on separate farms, which distanced them from each other. The exception is Bethlehem Village, a small settlement of turchane near Woodburn.

The newly arrived Old Believers spoke the dialects of Russian that their ancestors had spoken when they left Russia. Their dialects had been left practically untouched by the influences of Russian literary language. The dialects of the sin’tsziantsy and harbintsy are similar and share a Central and Northern Russian foundation, whereas the turchane dialect’s foundation is Southern Russian, see: [Biggins 1985; Kasatkin 1999]. The similar sin’tsziantsy and harbintsy dialects share many words that are familiar in Northern Russian, Ural and Siberian dialects; for example: mezenets ‘mizinets’ [little finger], popirat’ ‘nosit,’ nesti tiazhesti’ [to carry], buksinovyi ‘purpurnii’ [purple], nevperenos ‘nevynosimo,’ svyshe sil; nevmoch’’ [unbearable], among others. The turchane dialect has typically Southern Russian vocabulary: krinitsa ‘kolodets’ [well], zaslukhat’sia ‘zaslushat’sia’ [to become engrossed in] trokhi ‘nemnogo’ [a little], among others; for more details, see: [Morris 2013].

(2005). 50 years of living together. Old Believer Sintszyantsev family [Image]. 

One of the particular features of the Russian language of the older generation of Old Believers is that, as a result of their conservatism, they were able to preserve a series of ancient linguistic features which had disappeared long ago from other Russian dialects in both Russia and abroad. For example, in turchane speech, there are only sibilants [svistiashchie] and no hushing [shipiashchie] consonants in the present or past tense [Kasatkin 1999: 328–361].

At the time when the older generation of Old Believers moved to Oregon, they were very literate in Church Slavonic. Having arrived in Oregon, as was traditional, they continued to teach their children Church Slavonic (the Old Believers call it ‘slavianskii iazyk [Slavonic language]’) in their homes, and then, once they were built, in their houses of worship [molennaia]. A high level of literacy in Church Slavonic is still highly valued by the community.

Before they moved to America, Russian Old Believers were subsistence farmers that followed traditional Russian farming practices. The sin’tsziantsy and harbintsy engaged in agriculture, animal husbandry, hunting (especially the harbintsy), fishing, and beekeeping. The main occupations for the turchane were agriculture and fishing.

Having arrived in Oregon (in the first half of the 1960s), the Old Believers settled in Willamette Valley, where, thanks to the state’s mild and rainy climate, the earth is fertile and good for agricultural purposes. Because the members did not have education and did not speak English, at first they could only do low-paid work. They were hired by farmers and worked as a family unit, including the men. Now, the Old Believers own their own farms [farmy], where they commercially cultivate berries, including strawberries [glubenika], blueberries [bluberi], and blackberries [ozhina], which they have recently started gathering at night with the help of a combine harvester.

It should be said that many Old Believers who had moved to Oregon also knew, to a greater or lesser extent, other languages aside from Russian. Those who had lived in South America had, out of necessity, learned to speak Spanish and Portuguese. Knowledge of Spanish turned out to be in demand once more in Oregon, because the seasonal farm workers were usually migrant workers from Mexico [meksikany], many of whom did not speak English. Those of the older generation, who lived in China, still remember separate words and phrases in Chinese, Kazakh, or Mongolian, while those who resided in Turkey remember words and phrases from Turkish. For this reason, in the course of several centuries of travel around the world, the original lexicon of Russian Old Believers was topped off by a number of other lexical layers.

Almost right after their arrival in Oregon, the main occupation for the men was forestry, planting fir trees and woodcutting. Some Old Believers also worked in factories, mainly in the furniture industry: the men worked as carpenters making soft furniture, and the women sewed the upholstery. Since the Old Believers worked for years in teams composed only of Russians, the men of the older generation tended to only acquire conversational levels of English proficiency. They understand English fairly well and can converse, for example, with their employers. However, they need help when they need to fill out various official documents or visit medical offices or other establishments. Those who do not yet have U.S. citizenship prefer to take the exam with the help of a translator. It is still possible to meet members of the older generation who read not only religious, but secular books, and who are interested in the history of Russia and its current state of affairs, but the number of these people is down to single digits. 

Certain women of the older generation still practically do not understand English, which is due to the fact that, traditionally, the Old Believer woman was engaged in housekeeping and raising children. Each family usually had on average ten to fifteen offspring (now the number is around five children). There are women of the older generation who have acquired literacy only in Church Slavonic. While Old Believer couples from the older generation speak Russian exclusively at home, they actively use outdated vocabulary in their speech: ashche ‘esli’ [if], glava ‘golova’ [head], sostiazanie ‘spor, prenie’ [argument], glagolit’ ‘govorit’ [to say], zret’ ‘smotret’ [to watch], among others.

Morris, T. (2014). Help yourself to shangi! Prof. Richard Morris with Xinjiang Old Believer [Image].  

The influence of the English language (the Old Believers call it Amerikanskii) on the speech of this age group is only evident in borrowed words; for example: nius ‘novosti’ (from the English news), saina ‘znak’ (from the English sign), pikap ‘malen’kii gryzovik’ (from the English pickup). The older generation pronounces English words according to (dialect specific) Russian norms and they are used in accordance with the rules of Russian grammar: Teper’ do samogo domu nichego ne obriashchesh’ (ne naidesh), net rest eriev (from the English rest area); Cherez Monitor blizhe, no stapov mnogo (from the English stop); On zalil polnuiu tanku gazu (from the English tank), etc.

That the older generation has acquired these borrowings from English is evident in the fact that their Russian lexicons now have derivatives of these words. For example, from the English boss are formed bosikha ‘female boss’ and bosit’ ‘to command’; from the English field are formed fil ‘field’ and its derivatives filok ‘small field’ and filishche ‘large field’; from the English to markmarkovat’/namarkovat’ ‘to mark something with a marker’; from the English to spellspelovat’/ sospelovat’, sospelit’ ‘to pronounce, to write.’

The written language of the older generation of Old Believers preserves all of the dialectical characteristics that are present in their verbal speech. The older generation writes in the usual Civil Type Cyrillic, and some of them also add particular letters from the Church Slavonic alphabet. The sin’tsziantsy are considered to be the most literate, because many of the men finished four to five years of public education in China.

Morris, T. (2014). Harbin Old Believers examining a book about Romanovka [Image]. 

The middle generations of Old Believers do not have problems with English fluency because they are required by law to go to American schools. By the second generation, they start to have problems with Russian fluency. Many of the Old Believers from the middle generations still understand and speak Russian, but they prefer to speak English at home. Some of them already do not speak nor write in Russian or they can read, but not write it. It is possible to meet Old Believers from the middle generations who only write in Russian using the Church Slavonic Cyrillic alphabet. Many members of the middle generations prefer to think in English (‘it’s faster that way [tak bystree]’). In the written Russian of the middle generation of Old Believers it is typical to see whole insertions in English: On skazal, chto etot barn stoit postroit’ around $10,000.00, we paid over to you $2,900.00, kak my i dogovarivalis’. Za ostol’noe insurance ne zakhoteli platit’: za zabor, remove starogo barn, potomu chto tebe zaplatili top praise for build a barn.

The process of Russian fluency loss is particularly evident in the case of third and fourth generation Old Believers, who were born in the United States. English became their native language and many of them speak practically no Russian. The influence of English on the Russian speech of the youth who still speak some Russian is evident. For example, they mix the letters of the English and Russian alphabets; they pronounce hard consonants, most often [l], [n], in place of soft consonants bo[l]shoi ma[l]chik [big boy]; they add [s] to the plural forms of nouns: volk – volks [wolf–wolves], slon – slons [elephant–elephants], and others. For more details, see: [Yumsunova (Morris) 2011].

The younger Old Believers were also motivated to develop their fluency in English in order to expand the nature and range of their employment opportunities. In the 1990s, the construction industry was booming in America and many young males, who had mastered the American techniques for building residential houses, started to enter the residential construction business, which quickly became a profitable enterprise for them.

At the same time, many Old Believers are engaged in commercial fishing in Alaska. Following the example of Americans, they build their own fishing boats and equip them with the latest technology, while the women care for the elderly and the sick, clean houses, often those of the Americans; and cook for sale on the free market, among other endeavors. Teenage boys actively help their fathers build houses and fish with their fathers in Alaska. Teenage girls help their mothers clean houses, babysit children, often the children of their relatives, etc.

Morris, R. (2008). Grandmother and granddaughter. Turchan Old Believers [Image]. 

Gradually, the Old Believers have started to create their own businesses, such as construction companies, mineral spring resorts, tailor shops, and plant nurseries. While some have become rich, they and their children continue to work hard. In this way, the Russian Old Believers have fit surprisingly well into the economic life of North America, which, undoubtedly, has contributed to the development of market relationships and stimulated industrial labor and free enterprise. An important part of this local economic model is the ownership of private property, as well as the requirement for people to have the initiative to attain personal wealth [Morris 1988]. The attainment of personal wealth is a priority for the Old Believers. For many of the younger members, it becomes normal to own a television, computer, have access to the Internet, have the latest phone model, have satellites, GPS, modern cars, homesteads with large houses built by the Old Believer owners themselves, vacation with their families near the seaside, and travel the world. However, the more actively they seek the benefits of civilization, the faster they lose their Russian language fluency.

During a half century of Old Believers living in the United States, the state of their Russian fluency has changed. Currently, the level of Russian fluency of different generations in Oregon varies. Only the older generation and a certain part of the middle generation is highly fluent in (dialects of) Russian, whereas the children prefer to speak English. While there are still young Old Believers who can speak Russian, others only understand spoken Russian, but cannot speak it themselves. In addition, a large portion of the children already speaks only English. A tendency towards the loss of Russian fluency in the population of Old Believers is evident.

What is Done in Oregon for the Preservation of Russian

It is worth noting that there are attempts being made in the state of Oregon to preserve the Russian language.viii The first secular school for children of Old Believers was started in the mid-1970s by Pentecostal Iosif Terent’evich Loktev, who, by that time, had already had experience establishing a Russian religious school in San Francisco. At the time, the Pentecostals were hoping that the Old Believers would convert to their religion. However, they very quickly found that this was impossible. At first, the Russian classes (from the first to the fifth grade, including kindergarten) were held in the American Elementary School №91, where they ran for three to four years. Lessons were held once a week in the evenings. At the time, there were only five teachers who used simple alphabet books and textbooks from the Soviet period with the political material removed. They also found interesting material in English, which they translated into Russian. After this, the Russian classes were moved to the Woodburn Community Center. Each class at that time had around twelve to thirteen students. In sum, at the end of the 1970s and the start of the 1980s, sixty to seventy persons were learning Russian in Oregon.

In the 1990s, there was a notable decrease in the interest of the second generation of Russian Old Believers to learn Russian and an increased interest in the study of English. The schools switched to electives starting in 1995. Students in the fifth through seventh grades could choose four electives a year, each of which lasted nine weeks. Those who chose to study Russian studied it every day for forty minutes.

In the first years of the Old Believers’ residence in Oregon, the federal government subsidized bilingual programs in schools, so Russian was taught in elementary school. The point of this program was to teach Russian-speaking children in Russian until they reached a level of fluency in English where they would no longer lag behind in academic subjects. In this way, they created a smooth transition from Russian to English. This program was shut down in the 1980s, when the children started enrolling in school with a sufficiently high level of English. The Old Believers were unhappy with the cancellation of the bilingual program and some of them started teaching their children Russian at home. However, their main goal was, like before, to teach Church Slavonic, not normative Russian, to their children.

It should be said that the Old Believers’ first reaction to American schools was positive; they understood that adaptation was necessary in an absolutely new environment. However, the parents soon noticed changes in the behavior of their children. The goal of American schools was to develop children’s initiative, self-expression, and creativity, and to liberate them and help shape their identity, while the Old Believers’ approach to child raising was based on obedience and discipline. Due to these differing views, there occurred a culture clash. In order to keep their children within the religious community, many Old Believers stopped their education after the sixth or seventh grades. In the first few years, the children were perfectly satisfied with this arrangement since, without a knowledge of English, they found school to be boring. They eagerly went to work with their parents in order to earn money themselves [Morris 1992: 18–19].

Kasatkin, L. L. (2004). Name Day at the Old Believers' [Image]. 

Although the older generation continues to think that it is enough to have a minimal education and that “education leads one astray from religion [uchenie uvodit ot religii],” the majority of young Old Believers finish high school or attain its equivalent, the GED. The time when teachers would go house to house trying to convince parents to let their children go to school has passed. Currently, schoolteachers observe young Old Believer parents expressing much love for their children and using positive reinforcement. They tend to attribute this change to the influence of American culture on the young Old Believers’ mentality.

It should be said that in Woodburn and its surrounding areas, aside from the Old Believers, there also reside Molokans (who arrived in 1951–1952), Pentecostals (who arrived in two flows in 1975 and in 1991–1992), and other Russians. In the past few years, Woodburn’s population has grown considerably due to a contingent of “new” Russian immigrants and Spanish-speaking Mexicans. Russian can be heard in churches and social spaces.

In 1996, Old Believer parents insisted that Woodburn’s Heritage Elementary School, which already had a program for Spanish-speakers, offer a Dual Russian Immersion Program focused on the parallel development of two languages: English and Russian. The dominant language of study is English, while Russian is studied as a foreign language. This school currently offers English, Spanish, and Russian classes. At the moment, it is the only school in Oregon with a Russian program attended by children of Old Believers. At the same time, the education process is built on American teaching methods. There is a similar elementary school with a Russian immersion program in the city of Portland, but it, to the extent of our knowledge, is not attended by children of Old Believers.

If, in the 1990s, there were still children of Old Believers who spoke Russian well, then the situation has since changed. Today, many of the children attending school speak practically no Russian, even though the number of children of Old Believers attending Heritage Elementary School has increased significantly in the past twenty years. In 1996, there were eighteen Russian students in preschool, out of whom seventeen were the children of Old Believers; while in 2016, the Russian program had 220 children enrolled, 75% of whom were children of Old Believers who made up approximately 10–13% of the total number of students (905 persons) at the school.

Currently, approximately 70% of the teaching time in kindergarten is spent on Russian and 30% is spent on English, a change from the original 85% and 15%. In the first grade, 10% more time is spent on English, and in the second grade another 10% is added on top of that. Afterwards, from the third through fifth grades, the proportion of teaching time spent in English to Russian is 50% to 50%.

The teachers of this school remember how they started teaching classes by using Russian fairy tales, because in the 1990s, there were not enough Russian books on other topics available. Then the teachers came up with the idea of buying regular picture books in English, translating them into Russian, and then pasting Russian text over the English text. There are currently many books being published in the original Russian or as Russian translations of American or international authors. The teachers must also adapt some of the material to the children’s comprehension levels. The school prefers books written by American authors, which are then translated to Russian, because many Old Believer children find American culture to be more familiar and easy to understand than Russian culture. Almost none of the children in Heritage Elementary School have ever been to Russia. Children mostly speak English during recess and the majority of them think in English. Even if they do speak Russian at home, they only speak about domestic subjects. Generally, Old Believers do not discuss any political news, books they have seen, or films that they have watched with their children.

After Heritage Elementary School, the children continue in the Russian program at Valor Middle School, where two out of seven classes are taught in Russian. The program then continues in Woodburn High School where the curriculum allocated an hour a day to the study of Russian. Because these are all public schools, none of them provides a religious component. In recent years, part of the students has chosen to attend community college. However, the number of students attending a university is in the single-digits, because Old Believers continue to avoid encouraging the pursuit of higher education.

Literally, in the last few years, the Old Believers have started working in the social sphere: in banks, various offices, as teachers’ aides, etc. It is easy to recognize them by their traditional clothing and especially by their shashmura (a headpiece worn by married Old Believer women). The nursing profession is particularly popular among women. It should be said that Old Believer men are also easy to recognize, since they do not shave their beards.

Morris, T. (2016). At work in the office [Image]. 

In 2007, at the request of the Old Believers, Professor Richard Morris and I opened a private school in our home for their children and grandchildren. It exists to this day. This is the only school in Oregon that combines a secular and religious education. There is a strong belief among the Old Believers that children now need to learn Russian so that they can better understand Church Slavonic. If the children do not understand Russian, then they do not understand the Church Slavonic of their services either. They tie the preservation of their language to the preservation of their faith.

The number of students at our school fluctuates from five to twenty-two, and their ages range from five to forty. Currently, some of the children’s mothers have started to study with their children, which is very important. The Old Believers attend classes in family groups. Each family gets two to four hours of class a week, with breaks for religious holidays and the summertime berry harvest. Our school is supplementary, though. Either the children study at an American school, a school with a Russian program, or they are homeschooled. According to the Old Believers, homeschooling protects their children from contact with other people and helps preserve their faith and discipline, but the teachers in these cases are the mothers, who have no special training.

Our school devotes 50% of our attention to secular topics; the other 50% of our attention is devoted to religious matters. We try to teach Russian on a broad foundation of world and Russian history, culture, and literature. We have familiarized the children with the works of A. C. Puskin, M. Iu. Lermontov, L. N. Tolstoy, A. P. Chekhov and other classic works of Russian literature, as well as with the work of modern writers and poets.

At the same time, since the Old Believers organize their entire lives around religious holidays, we speak in detail about each religious holiday or event. In class, we work on analyzing biblical stories, study the hagiographies of Russian saints, commentate prayers and psalms, and familiarize the students with the history of iconography, etc. Generally, the children arrive already learning to read Church Slavonic. The problem is that they do not understand what they are reading, which is a primary focus of ours.

Morris, T. (2012). Students from Morris' school [Image].

In sum, the decline of Old Believers’ religious literacy is apparent. Generally, the children of Old Believers rarely read, because they do not have enough time. Their parents teach their children to work at a young age because they see work as the path to salvation. In addition, we trace the ancestries of all of our students in our school, and we have discovered that there are almost no families where one of the members has not left the faith for various reasons, with marriage to a non-Believer being the most common.

The Problem of Preservation of Faith

As they live surrounded by a foreign language and culture, the Old Believers continue to identify as Russians, remain physically and psychologically tenacious, and do their best to preserve their faith. The members, especially the older leaders, cannot help but notice that, in America, everything old begins to get lost and disappear, primarily among the youth. This evokes much concern and they look back to the past, before the church reforms of the 17th century, when, in their opinion, everything was proper and stable. They seek answers to their modern questions in the past.

When the Old Believers immigrated to Oregon, almost all of them were Bezpopovtsy of the chasovennye confession. The first 20 years of life in the Old Believer communities in Oregon were calm and peaceful. However, even then the Old Believers started to worry that their faith was “starting to get lost [nachinaet teriat’sia].” Some of them started to look for a way to preserve their religion and started to seriously think about priesthood. In the 1980s, after lengthy discussions, the first split occurred within the community of Old Believers: between those who accepted and those who did not accept priests. A small part of the Old Believers from different groups (sin’tsiantsy, harbintsy, turchane) accepted priests from the Belokrinitskaia Hierarchy, the center of which is located in the city of Braila, Romania. That is how the Popovtsy originated.

Recently there occurred a second split within the Bezpopovtsy, see: [Yumsunova 2013]. The main conflict related to the position of the three lower (“non-main [neosnovnykh]”) fingers, which symbolize the Holy Trinity. There are no arguments over the correct prayer hand; rather, the arguments surround the position of the fingers on the blessing hand in icons. Some Old Believer accept not only the blessing hand, where the tips of the thumb, ring, and pinky fingers are touching, but also the blessing hand where the thumb may be attached to the side of the fourth. For this reason, all of the icons started to be sorted into “correct” and “incorrect,” “true” and “not true” categories. Iconographers started to “fix” the finger positions in old prayer icons. Recently they have started fixing not only old icons, but also old books: inserting their own “additions” or deleting whole phrases from the text.

Unfortunately, the leaders of the two opposing groups could not come to an agreement over the different conceptions of the “right” finger positions on icons and chose different paths in order to preserve their faith. As a result, the religious communities also divided: before there used to be six houses of worship around Woodburn, now there are eleven. The Old Believers who could not make sense of the conflict started to pray at home. The disagreement within the older generation negatively affected the youth. Some young people started to leave the faith or switched to another confession. The young Old Believers understand English better than Russian, so in some cases, they joined American evangelical churches, where the service is held in English. The conflict has spread to all of the states where Old Believers live, as well as to the settlements in South America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Russia.

Additionally, Old Believers, especially the youth, have expressed an interest in the Old Believer texts: liturgical texts before and after Nikon, the correct daily prayer rituals, Kormchai, Stoglav, as well as modern books on the Schism. As the older generation says, “the books used to get dusty, but now everyone wants to read them [knigi pylilisia, a schas vse chitat’ brosilis’].” Interest in the study of Church Slavonic and the preservation of their spiritual heritage has also increased.

In the past half century in the United States, significant changes have occurred in all of the spheres of the Old Believers’ lives. These changes started with their appearance and clothing (it is now possible to say that all of the Old Believers in Oregon have one costume) to the character and range of their labor, and now to their language and mentality, see [Crummey 2011; Мorris 2013; Мorris R., Мorris Т. 2015]. Additionally, the Old Believers in the United States identify as Russian, try to preserve their old faith, the particularities of their national character, the main characteristics of their traditional culture, and the Russian language. Even though almost 350 years have passed since the time of reforms in the Russian Orthodox Church, the Old Believers still agonizingly seek the past in the future. They want to preserve the purity of Old Believer teachings and understand how difficult this is to accomplish in 21st century America.

Morris, T. (2016). Group of Old Believers [Image].

Bog v pomoshch’! (God speed!)



Biggins 1985 – Biggins, Michael Edward. “A South Russian Dialect in Oregon: The ‘Turkish’ Old Believers.” PhD diss., University of Kansas, 1985.

Crummey 1970 – Crummey, Robert O. The Old Believers & The World of Antichrist. The University of Wisconsin Press, 1970.

Crummey 2011 – Crummey, Robert O. Old Believers in a Changing World. Northern Illinois University Press, 2011.

Holdeman 2002 – Holdeman, Jeffrey D. “Language Maintenance and Shift Among the Russian Old Believers of Erie, Pennsylvania.” PhD thesis, Ohio State University, 2002.

Morris 1991 – Morris, Richard A. Old Russian Ways: Cultural Variations Among three Russian Groups in Oregon. AMS Press, New York, 1991.


Dni v Romanovke 2012 – Дни в Романовке. Японские фотографии, запечатлевшие русское старообрядческое село в Маньчжурии на рубеже 1930-х – 1940-х годов, из собрания Приморского государственного объединенного музея имени В. К. Арсеньева во Владивостоке. Москва, программа “Первая публикация”, 2012.

Kasatkin 1999 – Касаткин Л. Л. Неразличение и мена свистящих и шипящих согласных в говоре русских старообрядцев, живущих в США в штате Орегон, и в языке их предков // Современная русская диалектная и литературная фонетика как источник для изучения истории русского языка. М.: Наука; Школа “Языки русской культуры”, 1999.

Morris 1988 – Моррис Р. Старообрядческие общины в Северной Америке // Гуманитарный симпозиум. Открытие и сообщаемость культур. Москва: Институт гуманитарного партнерства “Путь”, 1988.

Morris 1992 – Моррис Р. Мир молодых старообрядцев в Орегоне // Традиционная духовная и материальная культура русских старообрядческих поселений в странах Европы, Азии и Америки. Новосибирск: Наука. Сиб. отд-ние, 1992.

Morris, Morris (Yumsunova) 2007 – Моррис Р., Моррис (Юмсунова) Т. Б. Русские староверы Северной Америки: история и современность // Старообрядчество: история и современность, местные традиции, русские и зарубежные связи: материалы V Междунар. науч.-практ. конф. (31 мая – 1 июня 2007 г., г. Улан-Удэ). – Улан-Удэ: Изд-во Бурятского госуниверситета, 2007.

Мorris 2013 – Моррис Т.Б. Изменения в языке русских староверов за полвека жизни в Северной Америке // Региональные варианты национального языка: материалы всероссийской (с международным участием) научной конференции / науч. ред. А. П. Майоров. – Улан-Удэ: Издательство Бурятского госуниверситета, 2013.

Morris R., Morris Т. 2015 – Моррис Р., Моррис Т. Староверы Орегона: экономика, религия, язык // Старообрядчество: история и современность, местные традиции, русские и зарубежные связи: материалы VI Междунар. науч.-практ. конф. (7-8 августа 2015 г., г. Улан-Удэ). – Улан-Удэ: Изд-во Бурятского госуниверситета, 2015.

Robson 1992 – Робсон Р. Культура поморских старообрядцев в Пенсильвании // Традиционная духовная и материальная культура русских старообрядческих поселений в странах Европы, Азии и Америки. Новосибирск: Наука. Сиб. отд-ние, 1992.

Samoilova 2000 – Самойлова Ю. В. Русский островной говор старообрядцев села Николаевск (штат Аляска, США). М., 2000

Yumsunova (Morris) 2011 – Юмсунова (Моррис) Т. Б. Язык староверов Орегона (сопоставление устной и письменной формы) // Язык, книга и традиционная культура позднего русского средневековья в жизни своего времени, в науке, музейной и библиотечной работе XXI в.: Труды II Международной научной конференции (Москва, 30-31 октября 2009 г.). М., 2011 (Мир старообрядчества. Вып. 8).

Yumsunova 2013 – Юмсунова Т. Б. Раскол в общинах староверов-беспоповцев Северной Америки и его последствия (взгляд лингвиста) // Судьба старообрядчества в XX – начале XXI вв.: история и современность. Сборник научных трудов и материалов / Отв. ред. и состав. С.В. Таранец. Киев, 2013. – Вып. 6.


iFor the history of the Schism in the Russian Orthodox Church and the fate of the Old Believers, see: Melnikov F. E. Kratkaia istoria drevlepravoslavnoi (staroobriadcheskoi) Tserkvi. Barnaul, 1999; Nikol’skii N. M. Istoria russkoi tserkvi. Мoscow, 2004; Zen’kovskii, S. A. Russkoe staroobriadchestvo. Dukhovnye dvizhenia XVII veka. Moscow, 2006; Kramer, A. B. Russkoi tserkvi v seredine XVII veka: prichiny, nachalo, posledstviia. Barnaul, 2013; Robert O. Crummey. The Old Believers & The World of Antichrist. The University of Wisconsin Press, 1970, etc.

iiWhen all the priests who were ordained before the Schism died, there occurred a fundamental split of the Old Believers into two groups. Those who accepted priests started to call themselves Popovtsy, while those who preferred to stay free of the church hierarchy were called Bezpopovtsy. The Bezpopovtsy only preserved the minimal number of sacraments necessary for salvation—Baptism and confession. In the 17th century, part of the Bezpopovtsy added a third sacrament—marriage. Pomortsy are one of the largest confessions of Bezpopovtsy today.

iiiThe Suwalki Province was a province of the Kingdom of Poland and the Russian Empire (1867–1917) and the Vilna Province was an administrative-territorial unit of the Russian empire.

ivSee also the online article of Iu. V. Argudiaeva “Russkie staroobriadtsy v shtatakh Aliaska I Oregon” and the site:

vToday, the name “Manchuria” has disappeared from maps of the world. Manchuria consisted of the lands of North-Eastern China and parts of Inner Mongolia, currently an autonomous region in the People’s Republic of China. Since 1945, this territory has been the northeastern part of the People’s Republic of China.

viChasovennoe soglassie—one of the largest out of the existing confessions of Bezpopovtsy. The confession formed in the Ural at the start of the 18th century. At the time, the Chasovennye were Beglopopovtsy, i.e., they accepted priests who had fled the official church. Upon conversion from Nikonianism without a repeat baptism, it was necessary to preserve a successional baptism: this means that not only must the one converting into the Old Believer faith be baptized by immersion, but also the person who baptized them and so on; the chain must continue back to the pre-Schism period. When they ran out of bishops who had been baptized through successional immersion baptism, the acceptance of fleeing priests became questionable. In the 19th century, the Chasovennye practically became Bezpopovtsy.

viiIn regards to the language of the Old Believers of Alaska, see: Samoilova 2000.

viiiInformation on schools was gathered by way of interviews with Pavel Vygovskii, former teacher at Elementary School No.91 (March 29, 2016), Aleksandra Temoshenko – former Russian language teacher (April 8, 2016), Ulita Selezneva – Literacy coach at Heritage Elementary School (April 15, 2016), and Aleksandra Kichatova – teacher at Heritage Elementary School (May 2, 2016).

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Published: Friday, August 19, 2016