The Old Believers are religious refugees from Russia who in the 17th century settled on the banks of Lake Peipsi on the Russian border of eastern Estonia. Members of this Eastern Orthodox Christian sect are renowned for a particularly pungent species of onion they have cultivated for centuries. Hence, the scattering of Old Believe villages that stretch along the forested shoreline of Lake Peipsi have become known as "the Onion Route".
Estonia is the world's second-least religious country, after China, according to several studies. In 1653, however, it became a safe haven for a group of Russians fleeing religious persecution. 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. I learned the narrative of these migrants amid green garden plots and vividly painted cottages, each fronted by humble stands overflowing with onions, and why it's stated that every Old Believer household has a spade and an emblem for each family member.
Old Believers Museum Offers History Lesson
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-seventeenth century, a Russian Orthodox Church leader rose to power and instituted reforms that included alterations to sacred texts, ceremonies, and practices, such as eliminating low, sweeping bows and switching from two to three fingers when crossing oneself. The government used jail, execution, and exile to punish anyone who opposed the changes, prompting the formation 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.
Eight of the Old Believers' 31 square kilometers along Lake Peipsi were grown as onion farms during the Communist era; currently, only two remain. The Old Believers made a brisk business selling onions at the Leningrad market during the Soviet era. With relations between Russia and Estonia deteriorating, the onion market is now dominated by visitors.
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. Every morning and evening, as well as before and after meals, prayers are said here. Anna explained to me that family prayers are led by whoever is designated as the family's spiritual leader—on one side of her family, her widowed grandmother read the daily prayers, and on the other, 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. Instead of putting sugar in the cup, guests eat sugary home-made cream sweets to sweeten their tea, which is brewed in a Russian samovar, a heating device whose noise enlivens the conversation around the table.
Old Believer Descendents Visit to Reconnect with Heritage
While at the Museum, I met Victoria Gonadze, a woman in her twenties from London visiting her aunt Zoya Bashmachnikova. The house was owned by Zoya's great-grandfather some 130 years ago, during the Russian Empire. He had a successful business buying local products such as onion and fish and exporting them to other countries. After six years at the house, his fishing business stopped up, and he lost his home. The structure was utilized as a school and a post office during the Soviet era.
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 Believers have a long history of symbolism in many aspects of their lives, including their clothing. Anna claimed that her grandmother always wore a belt as a type of devil protection, only taking it off in the sauna.
Peipsi Visitors Center Reveals Old Believer Symbolism
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. The bird connotes a sense of wildness and restlessness typical of a young man when represented in a line looking in the same direction. When the roosters are placed nose to nose, it symbolizes peace, harmony, love, and a desire to remain 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. “Patterns, symbols, and meanings vanish when people don't have time to commit to them or when their labor isn't valued. The new era of mass media has had a devastating influence on this kind of activity.”
Old Believer Cemetery and Distinctive Crossbar
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.
Ole Believer Chapel in Village of Varnja
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.
“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.
An Invitation to Participate in 'Divine Life'
“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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Publisher and editor of People Are Culture (PAC). This article was created by original reporting that sourced expert commentary from local cultural standard-bearers. Those quoted provide cultural and historical context that is unique to their role in the community and to this article.