Russian Old Believers of the Kenai Peninsula

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
 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
 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
------------------------------------------------------To see the full Village School calendar, click
 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
 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.