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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

A faith for enduring believers

Ukrainian village of Pylypy-Khrebtiyivski is home to 806 Old Believers
18 October, 2005 - 00:00

The village of Pylypy-Khrebtiyivski lies on the edge of Novoushytsk raion, 100 kilometers from Khmelnytsky. Men with beards and women in headscarves stroll unhurriedly through the village streets. Everybody speaks Russian. “Pylypy-Khrebtiyivski is the biggest community of Old Believers,” says Ivan Yahodin, the village mayor.

“Our day begins and ends with devout prayer,” 75-year-old Havrylo Povoznikov said piously and hospitably invited me to his house for a glimpse of an Old Believer’s daily life and household. There is an iconostasis in the holy corner. The icons, portraying the faces of saints painted on wood, have been handed down from generation to generation. Handwritten books contain verses that Povoznikov sings every morning and evening during his prayers to God.

It pleases him to see his ancestors’ customs endure. They are manifested in heartfelt faith and respect for elders. One of his sons is addicted to tobacco, but he never lets his father see him smoking, even though he himself has been a father for many years. Smoking is strictly forbidden among Old Believers, and they are only allowed to drink a toast to health or for the repose of the deceased.

Povoznikov does not blame his sons for not growing beards. He thinks this shortcoming will disappear over the years. Still, the Old Believers’ faith has undergone certain changes. “Whereas before we would painstakingly wash the jug after a person of a different faith drank water from it, this is no longer done,” says Mayor Yahodin. Locals no longer marry exclusively within their faith. To resolve this religious conflict a special procedure has been introduced for the bride and groom. “My wife Yevheniya Antonivna is of Ukrainian nationality. She adopted the Old Believers’ faith,” Yahodin says.

The village mayor represents one of the most respected clans in Pylypy- Khrebtiyivski. He has a thorough knowledge of the village’s history. For example, in 1835 Pylypy-Khrebtiyivski was home to 121 Old Believers, 380 in 1857, 402 in 1864, and 770 in 1868. Today there are 806 Old Believers in the village.

Unfortunately, the population of Pylypy-Khrebtiyivski and neighboring Sokolivka is shrinking. In 2005 there was only one birth for seven deaths in the Old Believers’ community. “One hectare was allocated for burials, and more than half of it is already filled,” the mayor says. The mayor says that Old Believers do not fear death, but prepare for their journey into eternity well in advance. The Old Believers’ cemetery is unlike any other. It features distinctive grave crosses chiseled out of granite slabs. “It is hard work to secure a stone and ensure the correct proportions,” says Yahodin, adding, “The first settlers in our village were religious zealots. They built a church before anything else. In fact, it was a chapel for observing rites that were indispensable for their life. Long ago there was conflict with the authorities that lasted a decade. The chapel had a thatched roof that was starting to fall apart. When the authorities learned that it had been repaired, they closed down the church. We have the text of a letter dated October 11, 1857, which the Old Believers of Pylypy-Khrebtiyivski sent to Tsar Nicholas II, who then ordered the chapel reopened,” says Yahodin.

Meanwhile, the Bolshevik authorities, whom the Old Believers of Pylypy- Khrebtiyivski served conscientiously and faithfully, were immune to religious fear. The village mayor recounts, “In 1929 the church was torn down, but the church decorations were saved. Old-timers recall that the bell was also hidden. Its hiding place is still a mystery. The priest was deported to Siberia. The rites endured, however. My grandfather, Ivan Aristarkhovych Orlov, was a deacon and celebrated Mass in his own home. He had a well-stocked library of holy books and a large iconostasis. He did not join a collective farm. He was an independent farmer and paid a fair amount of taxes. He raised six children, one of whom was my mother. A tragic fate befell him. One day a brigade of local activists arrived at his home on orders from the village council head. They loaded the iconostasis and books onto 15 horse-drawn carts and burned everything. My grandmother rescued four books by hiding them behind the stove.”

A new church was built in Pylypy-Khrebtiyivski in 1990, which was a milestone for the local community. “Every Sunday I attend Mass and sing,” says young Khrystyna Hazina. “Our faith is strict and special. It demands humility. We are not allowed to watch television or listen to music. Girls must wear long sarafans and headscarves. Few of my peers observe these regulations.” Khrystyna plans to continue her education in Kyiv. She is diligently studying English. She thinks that even though the younger generation is breaking the established customs, the young people are still Old Believers at heart.

In all other respects this village is like any other. Despite their common faith, the villagers lead different lives. Those without private businesses farm independently or work on the collective farm. The Old Believers of Pylypy-Khrebtiyivski are known as skilled well diggers far beyond their village. They can strike water in the most unlikely places. “Until late fall they dry fruit in special ovens and in wintertime travel with their produce to the edge of the world. They load them into containers and journey all the way beyond the Ural Ridge. They did this under the Soviets and still do today. But it is more difficult today because of the border and customs crossings,” says the village mayor. Gardens and farmland that once belonged to collective farms have been divided up and parceled out. Everyone who was entitled to a share received 2.13 hectares of farmland and 0.45 hectares of gardens. Sadly, not all Old Believers have found a place in the new life, and some of them are trying to find happiness in the bottle.

By Mykhailo VASYLEVSKY, The Day, Novoushytsk, Khmelnytsky oblast Photos by Mykola VELYCHKO