It's a place few people ever find: a remote village in the Alaskan wilderness, a couple of hundred miles southeast of Anchorage. A moose munching lunch by the side of a bubbling stream looks up as we bounce down a dirt track.
Our four-wheel drive waddles across the creek and continues up the mountain.We are taking the back roads to Nikolaevsk, Alaska, to meet people whose rhythm of life has not changed since 1650.
How they got to this distant corner of Alaska reads like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book. The people on this mountaintop date back to a great split in the Russian Orthodox Church.
In the 17th century, reformers changed the holy texts and the method of worship. Old Believers who vowed to stick with the old ways were persecuted. The Russian tsar, Peter the Great, ordered them to pay double taxes and a separate tax for wearing beards. They couldn’t hold government jobs, and many were beaten and burned.
The Old Believers fled to remote parts of the vast Russian Empire, searching for places so isolated they would go unnoticed.
300 years of wandering
After the Russian Revolution in 1917, a considerable number escaped over the border to Manchuria in China, where they stayed until another Communist takeover — this one in 1949 — forced them even farther away from home. Some settled two hundred miles southwest of Sao Paulo, Brazil.
In 1963, after Old Believers had wandered the world for some three centuries, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy helped them come to America. A few stayed in Oregon, while others pushed on to Alaska. In 1968, six families punched through a thick forest and hacked out Nikolaevsk — a new town a mile square in a high mountain valley on the Kenai Peninsula, north of Homer, Alaska.
Today, four hundred people still live here. Their houses are modern, but custom dictates that women wear long skirts and cover their heads with a scarf. Men wear shirts similar to those worn by 18th century Siberian peasants.
“You’re a fisherman for God?” I ask Father Nicholas. He smiles.
“I try to be, but I have better luck catching the real fish than being a priest.”
Frozen in time
He pauses to listen to a teenager’s question, asked in an archaic form of Russian. Like their lifestyle and customs, the Old Believers' mother tongue was frozen in the time warp back in 1917, when their grandparents fled the Soviet Union.
Father Nicholas and I sit in front of the village’s onion-domed church, whose entry is covered with ancient icons. I ask him, “How can you balance the need for change with the things that need to be kept constant?”
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Father Nicholas smiles: “I live in a remote area!” But not even these vast mountain ranges could keep their kids corralled if Father Nicholas ruled with an iron hand. Instead, he encourages them to start businesses that could be run from Nikolaevsk.
Father Nicholas speaks with pride about the villagers’ small fleet of ultramodern fishing vessels, all with the latest electronic equipment. Fishing is their main source of income. We find his oldest son, Nick Jr., replacing a computer monitor aboard his 56-foot commercial fishing boat.
There is nothing 17th century here.“It’s not the same anymore,” Nick Jr., insists. “I believe in the advancement of man.”
Nick Jr.’s mother, Masha, believes in the advancement of women, too. She raised eight children and now owns a daycare center outside the village.“It’s tough,” she admits with a laugh. “But I’m a driven person.”
Masha put her first four babies aboard her husband’s boat in orange crates so she could fish alongside him. Now, she cares for 38 children in Homer, Alaska.
It is a break from Old Believer tradition of which her husband, Father Nicholas, approves. “What's tradition?” he says. “There's always been progress going on.”
Something old, something new
There's progress even in a church that never changes: Father Nicholas has agreed to let us bring our cameras to record an Old Believers wedding. He had never allowed that before.
Katalia, the bride, was born an outsider in Anchorage. She had to study church customs and
She and Anecta fell in love at a gas station 90 miles from the village. Katalia’s mom had married a Native American and left the Old Believers. A cousin convinced Anecta to give Katalia a call. Eight months ago they decided to meet at the pumps half way from her home.“I liked his eyes!” she says with a giggle.
“Anecta, what did you think when you first saw Katalia?” we ask him.
“I got lucky. Really, really lucky,” he gushes.
Custom requires that the bride and her friends sew wedding outfits for the groom's extended family; his is a large family. Men and boys sport richly decorated shirts and hand-woven belts. Women and girls wear colorful ankle-length dresses (talichkas) and kerchiefs, which they exchange for a cap covered with a scarf (shashmura) once they are married, making them khoziaiki — “house hostesses.”
There's a reason these large families stay knotted together. Before the honeymoon, couples endure a sort of newlywed boot camp. They move in with the groom's parents to learn what the community expects of them in married life. On their wedding day, the bride and groom must hold tight to a scarf, connecting them to others, a symbol of their lifelong commitment to their neighbors.
The wedding celebration will last a week, but now the groom’s family, all dressed in green, and the brides’, wearing gold, gather for pictures. Digital cameras pop out of all those 17th century pockets.
The outside world may be creeping closer, threatening to change all this, but the community keeps attracting new people to their old ways. Naturally, the lure is old-fashioned — families that enjoy being together.
Here’s where to contact the subjects in this American Story with Bob Dotson:Masha Yakunin
P.O. BOX 5043
Nikolaevsk, Alaska 99556
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