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Old Believers Churches

The community of Old Believers is one of the most integrated religious and ethnic groupings in Latvia.  In the course of centuries it has enriched Latvian culture and created indissoluble connection between the people of two nationalities. Old Believers are sincerely called as Russians of Latgale or Latvia. Therefore small, old wooden churches built in sincere gratitude to the God for the given opportunity to live in peace and harmony, is an integral part of Latgale cultural scenery.

Persecuted by faith

After the split of the Orthodox Church in Russia in 1666 many believers were dissatisfied with the reforms that not only affected the formal manifestation of belief, but significantly changed the views of the patriarchal authority (for instance, created the institution of bishops, which by the majority was considered as an artificial formation). These believers continued living in communities and indulging their previous liturgical practices, i.e., old belief and unity in closed communities. however, Old Believers or ‘staroveri’ were savagely persecuted by the Orthodox Church, as well as the Russian secular power (until 1905 in Russia they were officially referred to as schismatic and subjected to repressions, only in 1971 the Moscow Patriarchate officially abolished the curse of Old Believers as “non-existing”).

Persecution and terror made the Old Believers to look for shelter further away from the eyes of the father-tsar and patriarch, therefore these people looked for their new homeland mainly in Siberia or the Baltic. The first congregations of Old Believers started to live in Latgale, former Polish-Lithuanian territory in the 17th century. The first church of Old Believers was built in Liginiski village on the bank of the river Daugava (near Daugavpils). The first Latvian ‘staroveri’ were Fedoseyans, successors of deacon Fedosay, mainly refugees from Novgorod and Pskov areas, which propagated the dogma about the near end of the world and arrival of antichrist. The majority of Latvian Old Believers attribute themselves to the Pomorian branch, which on contrary to the radical Fedoseyans, recognize the necessity of marriage.

There were 87 Old Believer congregations in the pre-war Latvia and more than 100 000 people in Latvia considered themselves Old Believers. Currently, 46 Old Believer congregations are registered in Latvia, as well as one Fedoseyans congregation still exists in Vilani area. Congregations have united into Latvian Old Believers in Pomorian Church.

The most impressive in the world

The biggest Old Believers’ Temple of God is situated in Riga, Moscow Suburb – its gold plated „onion” at the top of Art Nouveau spire is well seen when driving across the Salu Bridge from Pardaugava. The “ideological foundations” of the white, lofty Riga Grebenschikov’s Old Believers Preaching House and monastery were laid in 1760...as a shed. Throughout the centuries it has transformed and acquired Byzantine appearance and four levels, yet the slender bell tower, built in 1905/06 with gold–plated art nouveau dome. During the soviet times the monastery was transformed into flats, nowadays the house has a large preaching hall with iconostasis, several ceremony halls, flats for the clergymen and church services, as well as facilities for Old Believers’ culture and history studies. Grebenschikov’s congregation is the biggest in the world, approximately 25 000 ‘staroveri’ attribute themselves to it and they serve the God and still exercise the old traditions, perform the old cantos. The Preaching House owns a rich collection of icons, books and manuscripts of the 15-19th centuries. A magnificent book and photo album in four languages has been published in the honour of the 250th anniversary of the establishment of Grebenschikov’s congregation.

Latgale temptation

Latgale has the biggest number of Old Believer preaching houses. Considering the historical situation the majority of buildings are very small – in villages they could not differ from the residential houses, therefore usually they have no bells and spires. However, regardless of their modest exterior some of them are real artistic pearls. Unfortunately, the small Old Believer preaching houses which are situated aside from the main roads and in old peoples’ villages are popular among thieves, thus not always it is possible to view all the treasures and original works, for instance some icons, the most valuable sacral paintings and items are replaced by copies or photos. One should also consider the fact that ‘staroveri’ are traditionally closed community, therefore the temples of God are not open daily or accessible to anyone interested. Yet, if the visit is arranged or the ‘aunties’ (the most active members of the congregation which are selflessly taking care of the churches and comfort of their ecclesiastical leaders) – you will be surprised by the view.

We recommend some temples of God: not far from Preili one can find Moskvinas (Maskjanu) Old Believers Preaching House, which was built in 1873 in the honour of the virgin conception of Mother of God and St Nikolajs. Once it was the most famous in the Baltic due to its prominent cantos, one can enjoy them during the services on Saturday evenings and Sundays. The Church has two-hundred-years-old icons, chandeliers and two-hundred-years-old bells. But Old Believers congregation in Stikani, Rezekne district was founded already in 1700, when the biggest part of the villagers had the surname Stikani. The first church was a small wooden masterpiece, but due to candles which were left burning at night the fire broke out and it burnt down. The new building was erected by brothers Uljans and Epifans Rogozini. The turquoise-blue temple of God treasures protected piece of art – the Gospel.

The whole village

In order to get more closely acquainted with the way of life of the Old Believers one can also visit the Open-air Ethnographic section of Naujiena Local History Museum – „Slutiski Old Believers House”. Slutiski village is situated on the right bank of the river Daugava, Naujienes distric, Daugavpils region. In historical sources Slutiski as a village was mentioned already in 1785, therefore this is the best place to see the traditions of building farmer houses – the foundations of all buildings are made from wooden logs covered by two or four slope roof. The finishing touches and decorations are similar to the building traditions of the Slavic nationalities and find their representation in facades, splendid window finishings, decorated doors and pediments the choice of which was a reflection of the rich fantasy of carpenters: splendid window trimmings and ledges are never the same, when creating the window decorations carpenters always considered the individuality of the houses.

Old Believers in Kurzeme

Old Believers are not only a part of Riga, Daugavpils and Latgale, their congregations are functioning in many towns and villages in Vidzeme and Kurzeme. For instance, Liepaja Holy Trinity Old Believers Church is included in the list of monuments protected by the state. This building erected at the beginning of the 20th century is the only one in Kurzeme which has maintained its original mission – it was originally built as Old Believers preaching house. It is also the only Old Believers Church with seven domes.