Starovery, or “Old Believers,” are Russia’s version of the Amish – and they’re dying out. Trekking into remote Siberia, a joint Russian-American research team rushed to preserve a folk legacy that predates Peter the Great.
TO MANY, THE VERY WORD SIBERIA evokes gulags, half-starved prisoners and their hatchet-faced guards. Yet it is also the Wild East, a place that has for centuries attracted dreamers, adventurers and renegades of all stripes. As locals say: “the Czar is far away.” Moscow is six time-zones distant; there’s a freedom in the steppes.
Once the Klondike of Russia, Siberia is a vast land. Larger than Europe and the United States combined, it represents one-twelfth of the Earth’s land surface and one-fifth of its forests. Mile-deep Lake Baikal alone contains one-fifth of the world’s freshwater, as well as 1,200 species found nowhere else. Scattered across this immense land are people just as unique to their niche.

Ukir’s retired priestess, Popka Yevka. Semeiskie traditions will likely die out with the old women who still practice them.

Here dwell communities of Starovery, or Old Believers – dissenters who broke away from the Russian Orthodox Church 300 years ago, over changes introduced by 17th-century religious leader Patriarch Nikon conforming Russian practice with the Greek.
Centuries later, a contemporary group of USC explorers – lured by the romance of families “lost” in the taiga,living out their days in a self-imposed exile not unlike that of Oregon’s and Alaska’s insular Old Believer communities – set out for Siberia with a group of Russian scholars to visit Starovery villages and document a disappearing way of life.
In June, Slavic languages expert Marcus Levitt and music professor Richard McIlvery trekked to the Zabaikalie region in southeastern Siberia. The expedition’s primary goal: to record the oldest, most genuine versions of distinctive Old Believer songs and to collect materials about religious and folk rituals.
Joining Levitt, who is chair of Slavic languages and literatures in USC’s College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, and McIlvery, who is chair of music industry and recording arts at the USC Thornton School of Music, were three undergraduates: music industry major Amy Deng, art history and business major Camille Perkins and cinema production major Natalie Ross. When not assisting Levitt and McIlvery, the students pursued research of their own.
The expedition was organized by Vladimir Klauz, a folklorist from the Russian Academy of Sciences. A native of the Siberian town of Chita, Klauz had first met and befriended Levitt at a 1998 international conference on Russian pornography held at USC. Before long, the two were collaborating on projects, including this joint Russian-American expedition to pursue ethnographic research on Old Believers, sponsored by Moscow’s Cultural Heritage Institute, the USC Provost’s Undergraduate Research Program and the Albert and Elaine Borchard Foundation.
A faction of the Russian Orthodox religious community, Old Believers were officially excommunicated in 1666 and persecuted up through the Stalinist era. These nonconformists hold to old Muscovite traditions predating Peter the Great and the Europeanization of Russian culture.

From Irkutsk, the research team traveled by train to Petrovsky-Zabaikalsky and, thence, by bus to several Old Believer villages in the Siberian taiga – or swampy, boreal forest.

Old Believers divide further into groups that have preserved the priesthood and those that have rejected it, ministering to themselves instead.
The Semeiskie (literally “family”) community that the expedition studied and whose singing they recorded is among the priestless. Driven from Poland to Siberia in the 18th century by Catherine the Great (who recognized their value as settlers), the Semeiskie community has a long history but a spotty historical record. Much of its manuscript documentation was destroyed in Stalin’s regime. The expedition team’s work supports a recent scholarly attempt to piece together the Old Believers’ past.

THE TREK BEGAN IN MOSCOW. After a four-day orientation in the capital, the American group flew overnight to Irkutsk. From there, they began a 10-hour journey by train to remote Petrovsky-Zabaikalsky, where the 14-member party (evenly divided between Russians and Americans) assembled. The USC contingent consisted of Levitt and his son Jesse; McIlvery and his wife Mary; and students Deng, Perkins and Ross. The Russian group included Klauz, his wife Maria (“Big Masha”) – a professional psychologist who speaks English and who, along with Levitt, served as translator – and their son Sasha; Liubov Iliushenkova, a folklorist, musicologist and Chita cultural affairs officer; and master of odd jobs Oleg Nazarov and his 14-year-old daughter, Maria. (Oleg proved helpful in everything from patching impassible pot holes to smoothing wrinkles with bureaucrats.) Rounding out the group was Yuri, the bus driver.

A group of Ukir villagers pose in a yard; behind them is a primitive outhouse and one of the free-ranging dogs that survive largely on human leavings.

Joined by a common bond of adventure and motivated by an array of research agendas, the expedition team members climbed aboard the bus they would occupy for the next three weeks and headed for their first stop – the Old Believer village of Ukir, 12 dirt-road hours away.
A remote town about 6 miles from the Mongolian border, Ukir has more a historical than religious identity. Ukir was wiped out during the Civil War, its church destroyed. The village’s defining moment came not during the 17th-century schism or the 18th-century exile, but in 1921, when Bolshevik-siding Ukir was embroiled in armed conflict against neighboring Cossack-populated Menza.
Rivalry between the two riverfront villages remains, but it is considerably milder these days, usually confined to an occasional hunting-ground dispute. Last summer the villagers squabbled over the Americans’ swimming habits. During June’s dry heat, the people of Menza noticed that every time the Americans took a dip in the Ukir end of the river, rain would follow. After it happened three or four days in a row, the jealous villagers asked that the rain-making Americans perform their ablutions near Menza too.

A HARDSCRABBLE PLACE TO BEGIN WITH, Ukir has been battered by the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The airport is closed. The bridge over the river is washed out. Though villagers have TVs and refrigerators, the electricity needed to power them trickles in only once a day for an hour, from 9 to 10 at night.
The visiting researchers hustled to adapt. Even for McIlvery – an expert at recording music in the field and a self-described “easy sell for challenge and adventure” – this project held some heretofore unencountered hurdles.

Lean, weathered and tattooed with religious symbols, this villager is a rarity – an old man. Wars and alcohol have taken their respective tolls: Ukir’s residents, for instance, are mostly old women and their middle-aged sons.

Besides the once-a-day availability of electricity (posing obvious difficulties for electronic equipment), the singers themselves – almost exclusively women – proved difficult, not due to any obdurate character traits, but rather as a result of their spontaneous singing style.
McIlvery describes a typical scene, which reminded him less of a religious happening than a social event: The choristers gather around a table spread with tea, jam and wine. They begin their call-and-response singing. One singer starts a tune, and the group responds. Soon someone stirs her tea, breaks in with a comment or a joke, and the singing stalls.
Because the researchers asked to hear the oldest songs that the oldest women knew (the songs at greatest risk of dying out), and because the majority of women were more familiar with more recent and more popular songs, the singing would often degenerate into a debate over forgotten verses.
On the other hand, scheduled five-minute breaks were often shortened, without warning, to two minutes by an eager vocalist.
“It was very natural, without artifice,” says Levitt. “They weren’t putting on a show for us or for posterity. They were doing what they do.”
But what delights a scholar of Russian culture is cause for consternation to a recording professional.
“We decided eventually, at the risk of running out of battery power or disk space, just to record everything – with clinking spoons, debates and all,” McIlvery says, knowing all the while that he was setting the stage for an editing nightmare. “How do you figure out, for instance, where one song ends and another starts?”
Thankfully, recording technology is now at a point where, difficulties notwithstanding, the project was feasible. “We could bring the highest state of the art to the middle of nowhere,” McIlvery says. Fifteen years ago, he had needed three trunks full of heavy equipment to record a choir in Salzburg. In Siberia, McIlvery’s gear consisted of a laptop computer and a few peripherals.

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“The traditions are disappearing. The villages have been Sovietized. These people lived through collectivization, through World War II. This group was subject to the same apocalyptic forces of modern Russian history as any other.”
Photos by Marcus Levitt

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