Russian Old Believers in Estonia

11 communities of Russian Old Believers (starovery) remain within the borders of modern Estonia. Nine of these are situated around the lake known in Estonian as Peipsi järv and to the Russians as Chudskoe: Kallaste, Kasepää, Kolkja (two parishes), Kükita, Mustvee, Piirissaar, Raja and Varnja. These are the Prichudie (“by Chudskoe”) parishes (there are, in addition, smaller settlements without a parish church). The other two communities are in the Estonian capital Tallinn and in the university town of Tartu.

Like the Amish in America, the Old Believers are a throwback to an earlier age, maintaining a life of simplicity and religious observance. Those in Estonia arrived in the late C17th, from cities such as Moscow and Novgorod, following persecution in the Russian heartland. An early monastery was established at Räpina but was destroyed in 1719. Persecution sought out the Old Believers again during the reign of the reactionary autocrat Tsar Nicholas I (1825-1855) and there was pressure to conform to the Russian Orthodox Church: Old Believers were forbidden to baptise, marry or bury according to their own rites. They were not officially recognised and tolerated until a religious freedom act of 1905.

The Prichudie communities were largely self-contained but had connections with co-religionists in, for example, Pskov and Moscow, and in Rīga and Vilnius. The inter-War independence of Estonia, and the drawing of an international border north to south bisecting Peipsi, made communication with communities in Soviet Russia difficult. The annexation of Estonia into the militantly atheist USSR created greater problems – for example, many Old Believers were deported to Siberia in March 1949, although some were able to return after the Thaw following the death of Stalin in 1953. Yet the Old Believers and their customs survived the turmoil of C20th and remain largely intact today in their fishing and onion-growing villages on the edge of Lake Peipsi in re-independent Estonia.

There is of course, as well as a population in Russia, an Old Believer diaspora abroad, in Canada, USA and Australia, established in the C19th and C20th. However, because of the various doctrinaire schisms within the starovery themselves, it is not clear how these often discrete communities are inter-related in family history terms and how many, if any, of these have direct kinship with the Estonian population. Records in state archives in Tartu and Tallinn appear to be extensive and there would seem to be good prospects for family history research for anyone knowing or believing themselves to have roots in this small but fascinating community.

The Google Map shows both the parishes and the Old Believer settlements without parish status.


The original version of this blog appeared on the bluebirdresearch site in 2010.