Old Believers in Latvia

In 1600s, Russian patriarch Nikon wanted to reform the Russian Orthodox Church. In his attempt to turn the Russian church into a center of the world orthodoxy — as the Third Rome — powerful patriarch Nikon commenced the reform of unification of the church’s customs and instituting a single order of a church service, based largely on the Greek customs. Nikon was an impatient man who ignored the stubbornness of the Russian Orthodox Church. Nikon also wanted to see church’s authority above the czar’s. Because of the conflict with the czar, Nikon had to resign as the patriarch in 1658.

Tsar of all Russia, Alexei Romanov created a church council — the Synod — in 1666 to evaluate such a church reform. The church council supported the czar and patriarch Nikon was condemned and sent into a monastery as far from Moscow as possible. However, all Nikon’s reforms have been accepted: New orthodoxy required to say “Hallelujah” thrice, cross oneself with three fingers of the right hand and others. At first, most of the opponents of the church reform were sent to harsh exile. Tongues were cut. People were killed. Families ruined.

Peter the Great’s decision of 1685 ordered public burning of the opponents of the reform, punishment by death of those who re-baptized people into the old faith, and exile for secret supporters of the old way of life. Those who refused to change and adopt new practices became known as the Old Believers, or “splitters,” or raskol’niki

Government oppression could vary from relatively moderate – Old Believers had to pay double taxation and a separate tax for wearing a beard under Peter the Great — to intense, under czar Nicholas I. The Russian state church and the state authorities often saw Old Believers as dangerous elements and as a threat to the Russian state.

Some “splitters” ran away from the persecution mostly to the northern Russia, which at that time, was barely populated. Novgorod and Northern lands became a shelter in the time of storm.

What is today’s Latvia was also a shelter where Russian Old Believers found a new home. In a way, as the Pilgrims came to the New World in search of freedom from persecution, so did the Old Believers fled to Latvia.

At the time of the religious reforms in Russia, Latvia was partially Polish, partially Swedish. But both parts needed a strong new labor force pretty badly. It is said that Jan Sobesski, the Polish king, who at that time, ruled over the eastern Latvia, issued an order to allow the Old Believers freely live in the Polish domain.

It is safe to assume that at that time in history my own ancestors settled in Latgale, in eastern Latvia, running away from the persecution in Russia. At times, uneducated and severely conservative, Old Believers lived in a tight community, close together, offering support to each other in a new found home.

In many towns and settlements, Old Believers erected their temples, some of which no longer have a priest assigned nor the people attend. The first organized group of Old Believers in Latvia was formed in 1660 in Courtland Duchy in the village of Liginishki. There, a temple was built. The temple became the first temple of the Old Orthodoxy. The village is now a part of the city of Daugavpils in Latgale. The city still has a street named after the village.

The second wave of new settlers came to Latvia during the reign of Peter the Great, who imposed some drastic sanctions on Old Believers. Old Believers were double taxed. Men had to pay a beard tax, the money for a permit to wear a beard. Old Believers were also required to wear special clothing. So it’s no surprise that the church equated Peter the Great with the Antichrist in its literature.

In Riga, Latvia’s capital, the Old Believers worshiped in various buildings. It is assumed that Old Believers gathered in businesses or in people’s homes until a temple was built in the capital city. The wooden temple of Trinity appeared only in 1760s. It was appropriately built in the Moscow District, which is south of the Riga downtown center and Open Air Market. A rich businessman, a member of the predominantly German Big Guild, S. Diakonov erected the temple.
Old Believers church in 1860
The Grebenschikova Old Believers church in Riga in 1860

In 1796 avoiding the legality of the process, the Old Believers raised a new building. The Temple was not built according to the plans and documents, but with the oral permission of the general-governor.

What set apart the Temple was that unlike other buildings in the vicinity, the Temple was made out of stone. It seems Old Believers had some power in the city. Then, a school, a hospital, a men’s monastery, and a library have been added to the structure.

During the fire of 1812 in Riga, all three temples of the Old Believers in Riga were destroyed. Usually stingy Old Believers found the needed means and two years later, they erected a new Temple, much more glorious than its predecessor. In 1823, a Jelgava tradesman Alexei Grebenschikov donated enough money which affected the name of the congregation and the temple. Russian writer Nikolai Leskov whom Russian government commissioned the study of Old Believers, said, “The Strength and prosperity of the Russian congregation of Old Believers was surprise for all. Its hospital, factories, schools at the time when none of those were in Moscow are nothing short of amazement.”

At the time of the First Independence in 1918, Old Believers received a right to worship God freely and even were allowed to teach God’s Law in primary schools where Old Believer families were dominant, such as in the city of Rezekne. In the 1930s, there were several magazines printed for and by Old Believers.

Today the Grebenschikov congregation whose temple now fits more than 5,000 believers is considered one of the largest congregations among the Old Believers. The congregation owns the land — from Krasta iela on the shores of Daugava to Purvciems — whose cost is estimated at 5.235 million lats (USD 13 million) and is by far the largest private landowner in Riga.

Categories: Society


  • Nil Ushakov says:

    Btw, do you know that there are 4 old-belivers MPs now? All of them are in SC

  • Aleks says:

    I didn’t know there were 4 Old-Believer MPs now. Couldn’t tell by their beards or lack thereof.

    Seriously, though, Old Believers, though illiterate and closed to the community, managed to preserve their faith and traditions in spite of all occupations, changes in governments, and political life. If Russians in Latvia believe their language is under attack in this country, I think they ought to mobilize themselves into preserving their own language and heritage without demanding the government recognizing Russian as another state language.

    Just a thought. And thanks for stopping by, Nil.

  • Irena says:

    Paldies, Aleksej, for the info on the Old Believers, their part in the history, culture, religion in Latvia. Quite some time ago, a friend recommended the book, ‘Old Believers in Modern Russia’, by Roy R. Robson (in English), which delves further into this subject for those who may be interested.


  • Jon Sedgwick says:

    I am interested in information on how the Old Believers in Latvia are organised – what is teh structure? Are there bishops, ministers and so. Can anyone direct me to this information – I cant find it on the web.

  • Aleks says:

    Jon, unfortunately all sources I could find were in Russian. This site for example tells you about the way the Latvian Old Believer churches are structured. I’m not well-versed in church bylaws, but I presume that the so-called Old Believer Soviet, or board, is the main governing body. At least in Latvia.

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