Written by Taylor Thomas, PhD student in the Department of Religious Studies with a minor in Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures.
Black chai with fresh mint. Bliny with smetano and jam. A trip up the mountain alongside a procession of cows to gather berries for kompot or pierogi. Three shots of something very strong but, “It’s not alcohol – it’s herbal!” A banya so hot that you have to run outside in your towel to suck up some cold air in between getting beaten with a birch branch and bathing yourself.
My days as of late have varied a great deal (and quite unpredictably so!), but these details have remained constants as I’ve been experiencing life in a Siberian village. With the help of RSW, I’ve been able to spend my summer in Topolnoye, a small village in the Altai region that was settled by seven families of Old Believers following their persecution in central Russia after their resistance to the Orthodox reforms of Patriarch Nikon. Working alongside Dr. Alevtina Dmitrievna Tsvetkova, a folklorist from Pavlodar State University in Kazakhstan, I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to engage with the local community, made up of the descendants of the original Old Believer settlers and folks with sympathetic worldviews who gathered there after the initial agricultural success of their predecessors, conducting interviews, learning local song and dance, and breaking bread – especially the latter.
It’s no mistake that four out of the five sentences I used to set the stage for narrating my time in Topolnoye were related to food and drink. Traditional Russian meals are central to local folklore and customs in the village, and much socialization happens around the table. Sitting in a gazebo outside of our guesthouse, we’ve spent many early mornings and many late nights sipping tea made from locally gathered herbs while we wait out a hail storm, sneaking “just one more” verenik before heading back to work, going around the table one-by-one and offering the quintessential, long-winded and heartfelt Russian toast to one another.
My aim in coming to Topolnoye was to study specific rituals related to the day of Ivan Kupala (from which images are included!), as well as the role of and relationship between text and icon in the local community. These endeavors, along with formal interviews, were certainly very fruitful for my pre-dissertation research, but perhaps what will stick with me the most are these meal times. It is here that I got a real sense for the daily lives and interactions between the people of the village.
Much has changed since their ancestors first arrived in the Altai – most of my informants would not refer to themselves as Old Believers, for instance, but say something along the lines of “My father was an Old Believer; I am not.” Children from the city who come to live with their babushkas in the village during the summer, when asked about Old Belief in their family would often simply offer a shrug or say “No, not in my family,” only to be corrected by a neighbor who’d overheard: “Your grandma’s an Old Believer!” (I don’t know if I’ve met that child’s babushka – though odds I have – but none of my informants have self-identified as Old Believer). Old Belief then, perhaps unsurprisingly, is an elusive concept. Always there, never here, casting its shadow on the present but never being present.
Yet, from the outside at least, there does not appear to be any sort of explicit generational fracturing in belief or practice. Mothers pass down traditional food preparation practices to their daughters-in-law and their daughters. At the celebration of the day of Ivan Kupala, at least four generations are present, leaping over an open fire together, dancing in a large circle, singing folksongs over bowls of kvas. When discussing particular ways of doing things, the answer is unfailingly, “This is how my babushka did it.” When telling a folktale or biblical story or singing a song, there’s always care made to appeal to the authority of the past—situating it in its social context (specifically that of Old Believer ancestors) and relevancy for today, while simultaneously identifying with an (at least) nominal break in tradition with that past.
My understanding of these relational dynamics is certainly limited by several things (not least of which the short time I’ve spent here thus far, the fact that almost all of my informants are women, and Russian not being my first language), but all of this begs the question of what Old Belief in the modern world (at least in Siberia’s Altai region) really is for those who see it but don’t identify with it, and how this perceived split informs perception of generational, local, Siberian, Orthodox (or not), and Russian place in the modern world. And it seems that I’m closest to observing these dynamics when I’m sitting around a table, laughing loudly over zakuski with the women who invited a stranger into their home and made her feel welcome.