Moscow (AsiaNews) – A special anniversary was commemorated a few days ago. Some 350 years ago, at the beginning of August 1667, the "Great Council of Moscow" came to an end with the excommunication of a schismatic group, the ‘Old Ritualists’ (staroobryadtsy), the followers of Protopope Avvakum Petrov, the leader of those who saw themselves as ‘Real Russians. The group remained illegal until 1905. Then, under Soviet rule, its members were subjected to persecution like other religious groups. At present, after years of religious freedom and ‘renaissance’, the community of Old Believers appears to be enjoying new opportunities thanks in part to the patronage of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The 17th century schism is a revealing episode of Russia’s deep religious soul and its contradictions. Avvakum and his follower refused to accept the liturgical reform of Patriarch Nikon (born Nikita Minin), who wanted to bring the rituals back to their original Greek roots. Oddly enough, Nikon used that version of the books printed by Aldus Pius Manutius (Aldo Manuzio) in Venice, which were actually full of "Turkish" customs incorporated by the Greeks under Ottoman rule. The Russians thus adopted an Ottoman-esque fashion, with rigid collars on the vestments and bundled pony tails for the hair, unlike, for example, Ukrainian Greek Catholics who maintained more traditional customs. What is more, the Russian schismatics rejected the reform as a form of "Western heresy" of the Greeks whilst holding onto their view of the ancient Russian devotion as the authentic one.
The sign of the cross with two or three fingers
The crux of the schism was a very symbolic detail: the ancient Russian sign of the cross with two fingers (in which the third trinitarian person is the believer's forehead, in which the Son of God is incarnated), versus the sign imposed by Nikon with three fingers (the "rationalist" trinity). Because of this gesture, there were wars and persecution (in one monastery 2,700 people set themselves on fire so as not to fall into the Nikonian heresy), including the rarest case of de-canonisation of the late Anna Kashinskaja, who died in the 14th century, whose body had been laid in a funeral urn with "two fingers". Since then, schismatics, the so-called raskolniki consider themselves as the "true believers" of Russia against the ‘Nikonian Church’.
Nikon, the last true patriarch before Peter the Great's "synodal" reform, also had exaggerated ambitions, and in the same Council of 1667 he was deposed by Tsar Aleksey Mikhailovich for claiming greater authority for the Church over the state. Exiled to a monastery, he attempted to return after the tsar's death with the intention of getting himself proclaimed "Pope of Moscow", the only true Rome for Christians, but died before returning to the Kremlin. The raskolniki remained the precursors of Russian dissent and the sense of guilt towards the universal Christian vocation of the Russian people, as Fyodor Dostoyevsky noted in his famous novel, Crime and punishment, whose main protagonist is called Raskólnikov.
A 'not obscurantist' Church
The current leader of the old Russian Ritualists, the metropolitan of ‘Moscow and all Russias’ Korniliy (born Konstantin Ivanovich Titov), who wears the same white headgear like Patriarch Kirill, recently gave an interview to the Kommersant newspaper. Openly claiming that his Church was the only true Russian Orthodox Church, the head of the staroobryadtsy said that his community was undergoing a renaissance, with nearly 300 parishes in Russia, Ukraine and Moldova, as well as many in the countries of emigration, such as Uganda and Pakistan, with members from the local population. Kornilij rejected the view that Old Believers are an obscurantist medieval bunch. Instead, he said, these are ordinary people who live a modern life, with technology and computers. Noting the entrepreneurial energy of members of his Church in recent Russian history, the metropolitan thanked the government for helping many Old Believers come home from exile to contribute to the rebirth and development of contemporary Russia.
After centuries of Tsarist and Soviet persecution, the community finally enjoys freedom of assembly and freedom of religion, and does not fear the restrictions that have been recently imposed on other faiths like Jehovah's Witnesses and the Church of Scientology. Indeed, President Putin's visit last 31 May to the centre of the Old Believers in Moscow, the Church of the Protection of the Mother of God, seems to have given a new impetus to the life of the community, as if Putin himself had acknowledged their authenticity, even with respect to the Patriarchal Church. Speaking of spiritual compensation designed to bear "good fruits" to the entire Russian people, the president stated that "the state must pay the Church's debts". Only time will tell if these fruits will concern the religious freedom of everyone, or the claim of the "true faith" against all.