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Time takes its toll on Latvia’s ‘Old Believers’

An Old Believer’s house-museum in Slutiski, eastern Latvia, a hamlet where a dozen residents live in what is the Baltic state’s poorest region. Photo: Ilmars Znotins/AFP

An Old Believer’s house-museum in Slutiski, eastern Latvia, a hamlet where a dozen residents live in what is the Baltic state’s poorest region. Photo: Ilmars Znotins/AFP

There are little more than a dozen residents left in as many wooden homes in the hamlet of Slutiski, tucked away from civilisation in eastern Latvia. All are Old Believers, a faith struggling to survive.

“The young people are leaving,” said Aleksejs Zilko, newly-elected head of the Latvian Old Believer Church. “To whom shall we pass on our faith?”

Followers of the Christian denomination that split from the Russian Orthodox Church in the 17th century migrated to escape persecution, building tight-knit ethnic Russian communities around the world, secluded from the mainstream.

Today, they face new challenges as a less-religious generation heads to the cities in search of work, leaving the old behind.

Elderly men with beards gathered alongside women in traditional costumes and long shawls at a recent celebration near Slutiski of the 350th anniversary of their first prayer house built in Latvia.

“The new era has set us serious tests,” added Zilko. “The villages become desolate, and our prayer houses too.”

Residents of Slutiski, located in the Baltic state’s poorest region, get basics such as bread, sausages or smoked fish from a minivan that rolls in only once a week.

In their homes, floors are covered with handmade carpets, furniture is decorated with fretwork, and each boasts a huge traditional stove, along with a worship corner of painted copper and silver icons passed down the generations.

Widower Mihail Gavrilov, 80, has lived in Slutiski since birth.

When he was much younger, Gavrilov would trek for hours to reach the nearest prayer houses. Now he rides a bus – still a rare sight in these parts. “It’s more fun in the summer,” he said.

Taking their icons, holy books and little else, Old Believers fled their native land over three centuries ago, said Aziy Isayevich Ivanov, 75.

They considered themselves the keepers of the original Orthodox tradition spread from Byzantium to what is now Russia and Ukraine at the end of the 10th century.

Because they refused Church reforms introduced in Russia at the end of the 17th century they suffered waves of repression.

“The violent reprisal forced people to leave the Russian state and move to outskirts of the empire or to other countries,” said Mr Ivanov. The east of present-day Latvia was at the time ruled by a Polish-Lithuanian kingdom known for religious tolerance.

The Communist Revolution of 1917 turned atheism into official policy. Those Old Believers who did not flee faced renewed persecution by the Soviets.

Overall, millions of Old Believers moved anywhere where they could worship as they saw fit – as far afield as South America and Australia.

But despite Latvia’s tortured 20th-century history, its Old Believers managed to preserve their faith.

Some 62,000 Old Believers remain today – a tiny minority in the country of 2.2 million and a small part of Latvia’s largest ethnic minority, the Russians, who form 28 per cent of the population and mostly declare themselves Orthodox.

But since Ukraine regained its independence in 1991, the Old Believer villages have emptied out.

When the country joined the EU in 2004, many emigrated to other member states of the bloc to work.

Others moved from the countryside to Latvia’s cities, where it is easier to find work. Some have converted to mainstream Orthodox Christianity.

That has left many prayer houses empty in the region.

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