Estonia’s Onion Route & The Old Believers

| Last Updated on November 8, 2021 | , ,

The Onion Route & the Flight of the Russian Old Believers

The history behind the chief crop on the Russia/Estonia border has roots in religious reforms.

According to more than one study, Estonia is the second-least religious country in the world following China. Yet in 1653, it became safe haven for a contingent of Russians fleeing persecution for their faith. With a history that has seen its share of tears, perhaps it is not surprising that onions are the chief crop of the people known as Old Believers.

On what is known as the “Onion Route,” a stretch of gravel road that strings together several small villages, I met the ancestors of these 17th century exiles who settled along the western shores of Lake Peipsi on the Russian-Estonia border. Amidst green garden plots and brightly-painted houses, each fronted by humble stands overflowing with onions, I learned the story of these refugees, and why it’s said that every Old Believer household has a spade and an icon for each member of the family.

Anna Portnova of the Kolkja Old Believers Museum offered insight into the religion’s symbolism and a history lesson that explained the community’s historically reserved attitude toward outsiders.

In the mid-17th century, a leader of the Russian Orthodox Church came to power and initiated reforms that included changes to the sacred texts, rites and practices, including the abolition of low, sweeping bows and changing the manner of crossing oneself from using two fingers to three. The government persecuted those who resisted the changes with imprisonment, execution and exile, spurring the creation of the Lake Peipsi Old Believers community. While the isolated borderland between Russia and Estonia along Europe’s fifth largest lake offered safe haven, the Old Believers didn’t escape the later mass deportations and burned churches that occurred during the occupation of Estonia by German Nazis and Soviet Communists.

Anna Portnova from the Kolkja Old Believers Museum

During the Communist era, eight of the 31 square kilometers inhabited by the Old Believers along Lake Peipsi were cultivated as onion fields; today that’s down to two. Under the Soviet regime, the Old Believers did a booming business selling onions at the Leningrad market. Today, with relations between Russia and Estonia less cozy, the market for onions is mainly tourists.

Old Believers Traditions

Anna said that according to traditional beliefs each house has a “clean” and “dirty” side. The front rooms, used for special purposes such as prayer and hosting visitors were considered the “clean” side. On this side of each home is an icon station, always located in the east corner of a front room, facing Jerusalem and the rising sun. Prayers are said here every morning and evening and before and after meals. Anna told me that family prayers are led by whoever is deigned within the family to be the more spiritual member–on one side of her family, her widowed grandmother read the daily prayers, on the other side, her grandfather.

The other side of the house where the everyday “blood, sweat and tears” business of life took place–such as the kitchen and the bedrooms– was considered the “dirty” side.

Tea-drinking is a traditional ceremony here. Sugar is never put into the cup instead people eat sugary home-made cream candies to sweeten their tea brewed in the Russian samovar, a heating container, the noise of which cheers the company round the table.

Victoria Gonadze (right) and her aunt Zoya Bashmachnikova

While at the Museum, I met Victoria Gonadze, a woman in her twenties from London visiting her aunt Zoya Bashmachnikova. Zoya’s great-grandfather owned the house during the time of the Russian Empire, about 130 years ago. He had a successful business buying local products such as onion and fish and exporting them to other countries. After six years living in the residence, the fishing business dried up and he lost the house. The building then was used as a school, and during the Soviet period, as a post office.

When asked if she is a practicing Old Believer, Victoria said “You believe what you believe in your heart and that is all that matters. Heritage is important–it’s family.”

The Old Believer heritage includes a rich tradition of symbolism in all facets of their lifestyle, including attire. Anna said her grandmother wore a belt all the time as a form of protection against devil, only taking it off in the sauna.

At the Peipsi Visitors Center, Leelo Eha explained that symbolism is very significant to Old Believers. A star pattern means good luck. The rooster is another much-used symbol. When depicted standing in line facing in the same direction, the bird connotes a spirit of wildness and restlessness typical of a young man. When the roosters are positioned nose to nose, it conveys peacefulness in life, harmony, love and a wish to stay together in life.

“People used to be able to tell someone’s whole life story by the patterns woven into their shirt, but now much of the meaning of the symbols has been lost,” she said. “When people do not have time to devote to it, or the handiwork is not valued, the patterns, symbols, meanings disappear. The new era of mass media has had a devastating influence on this kind of activity.”

Old Believer Symbolism: Grave Markers & Slavonic Texts

The name of my guest house, Nina Kordon, means “house of the border guardians” and indeed, from 1990-1998, the building housed Soviet military who kept an eye on comings and goings from the structure’s watchtower. The next morning, I walked along the shores of Lake Peipsi, coming to an Old Believer cemetery. Amidst a grove of aspens, evergreens and birch, sunlight streamed down on grave markers below, constructed in a distinctive style. The markers are crossed with not one but three crossbars, each with their own symbolism.

The use of the top crossbar is unique to the Old Believers and inscribed with the deceased’s name and often his or her photograph. The third crossbar is diagonal and the tradition, shared with Russian Orthodox Christians, is said to have its roots in icon painting, which requires the two-dimensional perspective the angle provides. Another custom says the diagonal crossbar is meant to depict good–pointing toward heaven–and evil–pointing downward to hell.

In the neighboring village of Varnja, rich symbolism in vibrant hues emanated from the five-tier iconostasis of the Old Believers chapel, built in 1903. Zoja Kutkina, age 77, is in charge of leading the weekly services, an unusual situation in the normally male-dominated hierarchy of the Old Believers church. She assumed the role when the last local preceptor–akin to a priest or minister–died in the late 1980s.

The service is sung by Zoja or another church leader from the book of richly-designed text—most of the parishioners cannot read the ancient Slavonic script. The manuscript is illustrated with dots that tell how long to carry a note, whether to sing high or low, and when to “vibrate” and when to be silent.

The majority of Varnja’s parishioners are women. Last summer the Old Believers hosted fellow members of the faith from Lithuania, Vilnius and Kaunas who came to learn about Old Believers life in Estonia.

Example of ancient Slavonic script and The Old Believers Chapel in Varnja

“When we heard the men singing the walls trembled,” Zoja said. “It is so rare to hear men singing here and therefore it was very, very impressive.”

As a woman, Zoja is unable to conduct four of the church’s main ceremonies–baptism, confession, weddings and reading the gospel. In nearby Kasepää there is a male elder of the parish who can perform the sacraments. His summer was busy with many baptisms–conducted in the waters of Lake Peipsi during the warmer months.

“The Old Believers will gladly accept someone who has not been part of a religion to become a member, someone just has to be willing to come to services, pay five euros annually and participate in the divine life,” said Zoja.

There have been two major thefts of icons from the church, once in the 1970s and another in the 1990s. Members of the church donated their own personal icons but for a period of time there were gaps in the iconostasis where images were missing. In 2008, the iconostasis underwent a major restoration project with the colors returned to their original vibrancy, thanks to funding from the E.U., local municipalities and tourism organizations, and the parish.

“Life among the Old Believers has become more transparent and liberal,” said Elina Aro, a guide who specializes in the culture. “When I came to Estonia in 1995 this area was still quite closed. It has slowly started to become more open. The public funding for projects like the restoration of the Varnja church has been an impetus for the Old Believer society to become more accessible. On the other hand, the Old Believers themselves realize that they are a minority and if they do not open up, their community will disappear.”

That new spirit of openness is paying off–according to the Society of Old Believer Culture and Development, there are now there are almost 15 thousand Old Believers by birth in Estonia.

Today, visitors to the Old Believer communities founded by those 17th century exiles can peel back the centuries and experience a flourishing society that cherishes a simple existence, celebrates a religion of rich tradition and symbolism and has a legacy of not only tears but miracles.

“Life is like an onion: you peel it off one layer at a time, and sometimes you weep.” – Carl Sandburg, 1878-1967

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