Before invading Ukraine, Russia’s President Putin laid out his justification for military action in long, angry speeches. Among false claims about Ukrainian atrocities against Russians and his well-worn lament about encroaching Western influence, he invoked a past “since time immemorial” when the people living within what he considers the artificially drawn borders of Ukraine “called themselves Russians and Orthodox Christians.” Seven months into the invasion, after some 13 million Ukrainians had been displaced and thousands of civilians and military personnel killed, the Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, blessed Putin’s war. “Sacrifice in the course of carrying out your military duty washes away all sins,” Kirill said. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church, long under the Moscow Patriarchate’s jurisdiction, declared independence, part of a major schism in the Orthodox church.
As the war stretched on, I read from the writings of a 17th Century Russian archpriest named Avvakum, who lived during another time of great upheaval in the Russian Orthodox church. In 1652 a newly installed patriarch in Moscow, Nikon, enacted a litany of reforms. Many seem trivial in retrospect: how many fingers should be used to cross oneself, pronouncing Hallelujah three times instead of two during service, allowing parishioners to bow rather than prostrate themselves. Nikon also made uniform ecclesiastical books and aligned them more closely to their Greek counterparts.
The idea was to centralize and standardize Russian liturgical practices while bringing them closer to the Greek rituals from which they originated. It was also a power-seeking move, for Nikon personally and for the Church more broadly. Nikon wanted the Church to be as powerful as the Tsar. For Avvakum, and his followers, the reforms were, in his words, “venom” that brought Russia one step closer to the Antichrist. Though the Tsar seemed to initially harbor warm feelings for the rising archpriest, Avvakum’s stubborn and public resistance to the changes was chaotic and untenable. The conflict between reformers and Old Believers, as Avvakum’s followers came to be known, led to a major Schism in the Church and Tsar Alexey banished the archpriest to Siberia.
It was there that he wrote his autobiography, The Life Written by Himself. The Life is sodden with suffering. Avvakum describes an official who “raged savagely” against him: he rushed into Avvakum’s house, “and having beaten me he gnawed the fingers of my hand with his teeth like a dog. And when his throat filled with blood, he loosed my hand from his teeth, and leaving me he went home.” Avvakum wrapped his hand and went to Vespers, only to be attacked by the same official once more, this time with a pistol. Another official threw him from a ship into the Volga River when Avvakum refused to bless his son, who had a “lechery-loving countenance.” Reassigned to a new parish, his new subjects rioted. Some 1,500 of them dragged Avvakum out into the street to beat him with clubs and stove hooks, howling, “Kill the crook, the son of a whore, and we’ll pitch his carcass in the ditch for the dogs!”
I initially picked up The Life around 2015, as research for what became my debut novel, Lost Believers. Like Avvakum, a main character in my book is an Old Believer. Since their emergence as a sect, Old Believers have been persecuted in Russia for maintaining ancient liturgical rituals. The archpriest, who paid with his life for fighting the reforms, was a hero to his people. On my first reading, his autobiography struck me as bombastic, almost gothic.
The Life was unusual for its time. Avvakums account was written under his name, rather than anonymously, and in Russian vernacularperhaps so more people could read his story, or perhaps, as some scholars have suggested, because of his limited education. Whatever the reason, the result is a voicey, colorful text: “The rigid norms of the Church language had long had a leveling effect on individual style, reflecting the value placed on Truth expressed rather than on authorial individuality and originality,” writes translator Kenneth N. Brostrom. Avvakum’s text had authorial individuality and originality in buckets. In other words, the unyieldingly conservative priest was an innovator in his writing.
In Siberia, Avvakum snuck his papers out of his cell. After a lengthy and degrading imprisonment, he was burned at the stake in 1682. The Life circulated among Old Believers until a historian published it in the mid 1800s and it found a wider audience. Today, The Life is considered the first instance of Russian literature. According to Brostrom, it influenced Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Gorky, Goncharov, and Grashin. It is also, perhaps, one of the first Russian accounts from a political prisoner of imprisonment, a notoriously thriving genre (see: Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Maria Alyokhina’s Riot Days.)
I read Avvakum because I wanted to understand faith. I was writing about devout Old Believers in my novel, but for me religiosity was a conceptually incomprehensible organizing principle for one’s life. I grew up in the Soviet Union and, though I left in the second grade, I had absorbed a godless education: despite the fact that it was my family’s Jewishness that allowed us to emigrate to the United States, we led stubbornly secular lives. Passovers at my aunt’s house transpired without a single mention of God. My mom sent me and my brother to an Orthodox Jewish camp that gave us scholarships and it didn’t occur to her to not pack us ham sandwiches.
It is family lore that upon arrival in the U.S. my mother, in an effort to embrace the freedom of her new homeland, asked whether we’d like to attend a religious institution and, if so, which one. We could choose from a church, a synagogue, or a mosque. The results were unanimous: none of the above. But I’d remained curious and confused about the mix of casualness and fervor around religion in the U.S., particularly Christianity. Whenever I saw a guy on a busy corner preaching for hours on the weekend, my first thought was always: but does he really believe? What does that feel like?
Today, The Life is considered the first instance of Russian literature.
This question became more pressing as I began my novel. I thought the Old Believers must have really believed. They were tormented by the state, so much so that at times they resorted to isolation in increasingly peripheral parts of Russia or abroad, and, in the past, even communal self-immolation. I wanted to be able to understand those actions as reasonable, at least in that historical context, to understand the importance of preserving the use of two fingers during prayer, rather than three. And so, I turned to literature.
Nevertheless, my first attempt at The Life was a slog. Avvakum described so many miraclesthe pistol that didnt fire and the mob that didnt kill him, lunatics returned to health, tongues regrowing after excisionand though this made sense as a hagiography, as a narrative it felt frantic and removed from real human lives, which are rarely shaped by miracle after miracle. His motivationto preserve old traditions in the face of basic amendmentswas bewildering. Enough! I thought.
Avvakum did not enjoy the suffering he endured in his various posts or in Siberia, either he complained about it quite a bit but his faith gave him a buoyancy, an assuredness that it was not for naught. The only moment in the memoir where he questions himself occurs while journeying back to Moscow from his first stint in Siberia, when he encounters the mountains:
Along their summits are halls and turrets, gates and pillars, stone walls and courtyards, all made by God. Onions grow there and garlic, bigger than the Romanov onion and uncommonly sweet. Hemp grows there too in the care of God, and in the courtyards are beautiful flowers, most colorful and good-smelling. There’s no end to the birds, to the geese and swans like snow they swim on the lake.
Avvakum despairs that God has made all this for people, and yet man does not acknowledge it as a miracle. Perhaps it is time to give up and think about his family, he thinks, rather than proselytize. “What shall I do?” he asks himself, and his wife. “Preach the Word of God or hide out somewhere?” Its moving and human. More of that, I thought. But his wife assures him hiding out is not an option, and he resumes his preaching against the reforms.
When my parents decided to leave the Soviet Union, they came to the opposite conclusion: save the family, don’t try to convince the state of its wrongdoing. They didn’t have any faith, of course in a god, in a just state. I wondered: did faith just mean endurance? How did that help me understand Old Believers, and the characters in my novel?
Through contemporary historical texts, I learned that Old Believers were adaptable people who established communities that survive and practice today in New Jersey, Oregon, Alaska and, of course, different parts of Russia. These insights helped me build my characters. But my questions about faithWhat is it? How does it feel? remained an open inquiry, and I returned to The Life once more, years later. Books can hold particular meanings when read in a specific time and place, and on my second reading, while Russias invasion of Ukraine raged on, I gleaned a different history.
The Old Believers in Avvakum’s time thought that Russia was the third Rome, after the fall of ancient Rome and Constantinople, and as such would lead the world to salvation. At one point, Avvakum is questioned by a council of Patriarchs about why he refuses to accept the reforms. “Teachers of Christendom!” he exclaims. “Rome fell long ago and lies never to rise. By the grace of God, we have autocracy. In our Russia before Nikon the Apostate, the Orthodox faith of devout princes and tsars was always pure and spotless, and the Church was not mutinous.”
Russia’s self-image as savior survived the Schism. It is a perpetually expansionist nation and has been so in various forms since before the Schism; its imperialism remains deeply intertwined with its Orthodoxy, even as both have evolved. There was just a brief break in the link between church and state, when the Soviet Union was ruled by officially atheist regimes (and killed thousands of clergy). But the Russian Orthodox Church came roaring back after the USSR’s dissolution. Indeed, Orthodox institutions throughout ex-Soviet states, including in Ukraine, continued to answer to the Russian Orthodox Church. The church was a way for Russia to maintain cultural influence and promote the idea of Slavic unity in the face of growing nationalist movements in post-Soviet nations, even as the Russian State lost its grip on those nations.
Ukraine had three Orthodox arms, two of which were subservient to Russia. Since invasions started, in 2014, both have declared independence from Moscow, angering Putin. This schism makes sense to me how can one worship at a church that condones the killing of your people? Indeed, I thought, one could ask the same question in Avvakum’s time. Faith, back then, however it felt, seemed beside the point, though I’m sure Avvakum would disagree.
The Life no longer felt dated and unapproachable to meinstead, it was too present. Why do historic Russian texts always feel so pressing, so current? As if time there is on a slow loop, washing upon that land over and over with the same stories, just like Avvakums endless parade of abuse. These days, a miracle wouldn’t be so bad.
Irina Zhorov’s novel Lost Believers is available from Scribner.