Alaska’s Old Believers

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Russian culture in this place was once again ignited by the Old Believers, who came here from South America. Their ancestors fled Russia over hundred years ago, however,  they still consider themselves Russians. Russian prominent travel blogger Alexander Belenkiy visited Nikolaevsk, Alaska and has documented how the Old Believers live.

All photographs are courtesy of Alexander Belenkiy. Please don’t use them without his permission.

Old Believers never had it easy. In Russia, they were pursued and persecuted. They were forced to leave their homeland and wander around the world. Before the Revolution of 1917, Russian Orthodox church didn’t favor them, so many moved to China. After the Soviets came to power, Bolsheviks started going after the Old Believers, so they had to flee again. Some of the Old Believers went to Brazil and Argentina. They didn’t not like it there. Therefore, forty years ago, the community of Old Believers from the South America raised enough money to buy an inexpensive land in Alaska. And moved once again, this time for good.

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Welcome to the town of Nikolaevsk, Alaska. As of the 2010 census, the population of Nikolaevsk is 318, and most of them are Old Believers.

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Alexandr was welcomed by Nina Fefelova. Prior to his journey, they had arranged the meeting via email. She was happy to help and to show around the town. Without her guidance, the photo tour wouldn’t be possible. Community is very closed, so they don’t accept strangers.

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Typical road in Nikolaevsk.

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Some of the houses look like they were built in Russia.

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Besides Russian immigrants, some Americans live in Nikolaevsk as well. It’s difficult to guess who lives where. Houses look alike.

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House with a strangely painted wall belongs to an American. The truck with the sticker “Master” is parked next to a Russian’s house.

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Nina shows the home of one of the neighbors, who has invested into construction of decent road pavement.

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This looks like a typical Russian built greenhouse.

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Dogs on a chain, just like in a Russian rural village.

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The outdoor toilet is typical to a Russian village.

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Nikolaevsk residents use wood heaters. This is the cheapest way to stay warm in cold Alaskan climate. Old Believers were not willing to invest into installation of the fire hydrants. The state helped. Now, locals humorously call fire hydrants “shishki” (“pine cones” in Russian).

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When Nikolaevsk was founded, Russians tried themselves in the construction of fishing boats. They were very successful, and soon local fishermen went to the sea by boats built in Nikolaevsk. Old Believers don’t make boats anymore. It’s now cheaper to buy a boat in other places. On the outskirts of the city, you can still find them. This used to be the base for manufacturing boats.

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One of the first houses in Nikolaev vaguely resemble Russian rural architecture, although the shape of the building is completely different.

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There is a hill on the outskirts of the town with a stunning view. And again, deja vu, Nikolaevsk looks like a Russian dacha village.

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And, it’s amazingly beautiful.

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Nykolaevsk cemetery: not many graves of those who died before the age of forty years old.

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Alexandr went to visit Matushka Irina. She is the widow of the former priest, father Kondrat. This is his grave a couple photos above. Like most of Nikolaev residents, Irina had never been in Russia. She was born in China and as a child moved with her family to Brazil. However, she speaks fluent Russian, although with a quirky accent.

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Her house looks like a typical Russian village house. That’s her handmade embroidery. The kangaroo is not accidental. The Old Believers live also in Australia. They communicate with distant relatives and send souvenirs to each other.

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Traditionally, each room is required to have a corner with icons.

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Old Believers wear traditional clothes daily. And all of the dresses they sew themselves.

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Grandchildren and great-grandchildren send photographs to Irina. They have long been dispersed to different parts of America.

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Occasionally, they come to Nikolaevsk for the family reunion.

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In the garage, there is embroidered rug with a portrait of Kennedy. After all, they are Americans.

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In the kitchen, ancient holy books are kept. Religious books are very important, because the new ones are almost impossible to find.

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As centuries ago, Old Believers copy books by hand. This thick book was copied by Kondrat’s father when he and his family fled from China.

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Next, Alexandr went to see Anton, who looks like a typical Russian priest, an animated illustration of the Pushkin’s fairy-tales. His house looks like a typical redneck’s place: baseball hats for everyday wear and pizza leftovers in the kitchen. However, the religious icons and the church calendar on the wall still remind us that we are in a house of the Old Believer.

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Anton drives an old pick-up truck and makes boats. Well, he used to do when he was healthier. Over embroidered shirt he wears a sports jacket. Notice the “God Bless America” sticker. Anton is the Russian Old Believer, but he is an American as well.

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They have never lived in the Soviet Union, yet names of these fishing boats speak for themselves.

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Finally, Alexey has visited the house of Nina. Nina runs a gift shop from her house. It’s the only business place in Nikolaevsk.

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Inside, Nina keeps her treasures.

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When the summer season starts, Nina arranges Russian style dinners. She feeds visiting tourists with the Russian spirit. For Alexandr’s arrival, she’s cooked borscht and baked cakes.

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By the way, Nina is the only “foreigner” of all the inhabitants of the city. She was born in the Russian city of Khabarovsk and has worked in the “Aeroflot”. In 1991, she came to visit this place for a week and fell in love with Ivan, the son of a priest. So she stayed.

The Church in Nikolaevsk. Soon, they will build a new one, and this will be dismantled.

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Old Believers don’t allow others in the church. Fortunately for us, Nina liked Alexandr, so she persuaded her husband to let him in.

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Ivan is no longer young and not very healthy, but his look: its still kind, and even somewhat naïve. How does one manage to carry it through years of difficult but simple life?

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They live according to their traditions for hundreds of years, in spite of oppression and persecution. Not many Eastern Orthodox believers know what Irina Fefelova holds in her hands. These are not beads. These’s lestovki, a special type of prayer rope made of leather.

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Old Believers from Nikolaevsk never have been to Russia, have not seen their historic homeland. But they carry the Russian culture, the real, genuine, not diluted or perverted by the Soviet revolution and communism. They are the real Russians.

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One Response

  1. John September 11, 2016

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