By Kendra Remsen Walking through the grocery store in Homer, Alaska, you may encounter a woman and her daughter wearing long, silk dresses with matching bonnets while they pick out bananas in the produce section. Turn a corner, and you overhear two bearded men having a conversation; you understand the dialogue to be a blend of Russian and English. They don’t appear to be tourists, and no, you haven’t suddenly traveled through time or space – they are Russian Old Believers, a small but prominent population of the Southern Kenai Peninsula. Old Believers have lived on the Kenai Peninsula for almost half a century. A common question of many other Kenai Peninsula residents is, “How did they end up here?” In this presentation, I will explain the following aspects of Old Believer history and culture on the Kenai Peninsula: The Russian Orthodox schism Old Believer movement and migration Kenai Peninsula settlement Living on the Peninsula Adaptation to the 21st century To explain the existence of Russian settlement on the Kenai Peninsula, we must go back - way back – to a schism that rocked the Russian Orthodox Church in the 1600’s. An Old Believer priest disputes with the Patriarch over matters of faith in this painting by Vasily Perov In the 1650’s, the Russian Orthodox Patriarch, Nikon, wanted to reform the rites of the Church to realign them with the Greek Orthodox Church from which Russian Christianity had originated 700 years earlier. Those who refused to conform to Nikon’s edict became known as Staroviertsi, or “Old Believers.” In the 1700’s, Peter the Great excommunicated them from the Church. For generations, Old Believers were forced to worship in secret. Over the years, they migrated to Siberia and other secluded areas of Russia to escape persecution. Finally, the communist revolution of 1917 drove many Old Believers out of Russia. In 1671, Feodosia Morozova, an Old Believer, was arrested by Nikonians. She holds up two fingers (instead of three), referring to a major dispute between the two groups over how to properly make the Sign of the Cross on oneself. Old Believers first fled to China. They found some financial footing there, but when China turned to communism, many left for Brazil. However, many found it difficult to make a living and were ready to move on. In the early 1960’s, Old Believers moved to Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Elders soon began to feel that the community was being negatively influenced and tempted by modern American society and decided to seek out a more isolated location. When it was discovered by an elder that there was government land available for purchase on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, many Old Believer families were intrigued. With a grant from the Tolstoy Foundation in New York, five families were able to purchase 640 acres of land on the Kenai Peninsula in 1967. Ten adults, twelve children, eight cows, and four calves started the community of Nikolaevsk. Nikolaevsk Village, as it appeared in National Geographic Magazine in September 1972. The village was four years old. Nikolaevsk is located near Anchor Point, about fifteen miles north of Homer. Old Believers came from China, Brazil, Turkey, Australia, Iran, and other parts of the United States to settle in Nikolaevsk. Within two years, the community had running water and electricity. Several men bought into the thriving commercial fishing industry. From 1975 to 1979, many Nikolaevsk residents became American citizens. Russian Old Believers take a U.S. Naturalization course in 1975 from Kenai Peninsula Community College. As Nikolaevsk grew, so did animosity within the Church. Prompted by cultural and religious concerns, some families left Nikolaevsk to form new communities. Razdolna Voznesenka Kachemak-Selo Despite living in close proximity to American culture, Old Believers have kept many of their customs and values in tact to this day. Most wear the traditional dress on a daily basis, don’t smoke or drink hard alcohol, avoid tea and coffee, and men don’t shave. Graduates of Kachemak-Selo School wearing traditional clothing. ---------------------------------------------Clothing is colorful and handmade, with men and boys wearing embroidered shirts and hand-woven belts, and women and girls wearing ankle-length dresses. Three elements given at baptism must be worn at all times by followers of the Church – the shirt, belt, and cross. Many Old Believers are bilingual. Most families speak Russian or a Russian-English blend at home. In village schools, students learn both English and Russian. Village schools run on an alternative school calendar. While most Kenai Peninsula Borough School District schools run on a calendar much like those from around the state, village schools run according to the Old Believer religious calendar, which includes several holidays. Village schools open in early August and close for summer at the end of May, with Saturday School compensating for days missed for holidays ------------------------------------------------------To see the full Village School calendar, click here: http://www.kpbsd.k12.ak.us/WorkArea/Download Asset.aspx?id=22807 Old Believers are very family-oriented and self-sufficient. Old Believer families are typically very large, with 8 to 12 children. Many families raise small livestock and grow garden vegetables. Women sew and embroider shirts and dresses for their families, and men fish and hunt to stock freezers for the winter. An Old Believer woman hays a field above Nikolaevsk in the early 1970’s A main source of income for many Russian families is the commercial fishing industry. Many Old Believer men hold permits for halibut fishing in Kachemak Bay, and the Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound salmon industries. While proving to be very lucrative for many, the boomor-bust industry does not appeal to all. Some Old Believers have started small businesses in the Homer area, while others work in construction. Cultural integration has had a profound effect on the way Old Believers have lived for centuries. While preserving their lifestyle has always been very important to the Old Believers, a concern has arisen that their culture will be lost as the younger generations take on American ways and adapt to the 21st century. School has played an important role in these changes. While village schools have made a point of teaching Old Believer students the archaic dialect of Russian, other provisions like technology use and extra-curricular activities have challenged the old ways. As seen here, Voznesenka School has infused new technology like Smart Boards into their classrooms. A decade ago, village parents were hesitant to allow their students to use computers, but the students in school today have grown up with technology. In years past, many Old Believers would leave school after the 8th or 9th grade to begin their adult lives. However, as they adapt to American customs, students are postponing marriage and adulthood to graduate high school and in many cases, attend college. Kachemak-Selo School has a 100% graduation rate. The unique history and culture of Old Believers have been celebrated on the Kenai Peninsula since they arrived in 1967. After their centuries-long road to find a permanent home, the Old Believers of the Kenai Peninsula have been warmly welcomed by the community of Homer. The Homer High School Hockey Team poses for a picture on Senior Night 2013. They all wear traditional Russian shirts, made by an Old Believer team mother.