by Alexander Burtin, Moscow News No. 27, 18-23 July 1996, page 13

I wake up in a simple peasant's room where there is nothing but beds and icons. Shyly smiling, a rosy-cheeked gray-bearded old man stands over me. It s six o'clock in the morning; as always my host s family got up at four but let me sleep on . I'm in Staraya Tishanka, 140 kilometers southeast of Voronezh in the Fyodorovtsi community.

"Tishanka," they tell me, "is a huge village - 10 kilometers long and five wide add one more telegraph pole and it's as big as Moscow." A big place indeed, with Lombardy poplars here and there and a dozen impassable streets where big, gray ducks bask in the sun. Beyond the village: fields, empty farms, and, an unusual sight for a Muscovite, oak groves. In the middle of an endless kitchen garden an old woman, bundled up in a down wrap as if it were winter, very slowly breaks up clods of black earth with a hoe. A gray-bearded muzhik spots an approaching bus, jumps off his bicycle, and squinting from the sun and dust, greets the new arrivals, "Christ is risen!"

Of the 2,000 families in Staraya Tishanka, 30 make up the Fyodorovtsi community. A quarter of a century ago, those returning from the GULAG gathered here, one after another, paying off low wattle huts and earthen and straw covered barns. Nothing has changed since then. White walls, small windows, wide, uneven floorboards (green or bright red), long benches, heavy prerevolutionary New Testaments, an open prayer book, and somebody's glasses. In the "holy corner" the rows of icons reach almost to the floor; old and faded, mainly cheaply and crudely painted, brought from Siberia and the Don area, with homemade frames of colored foil decorated with flowers and Easter eggs suspended on threads.

The Camps

During forced collectivization they refused to join the kolkhozes or receive Soviet passports. Some wouldn't touch the new money. Old-timers who met them in the camps and in internal exile did carpentry work with them and would buy their food for them. In the 1930s and 1940s there were still a lot of the Fyodorovtsi in prison: the "hidden ones" (those who used to hide in cellars) and the "silent ones" (those who refused to answer investigators' questions). In the 1950s the survivors were sometimes cheered by infrequent encounters with kindred spirits, and sought out their own on every island of the GULAG Archipelago, but by the 1960s there was no point in looking.

In Stalin's time, the Fyodorovtsi were sentenced under Article 58 (anti-Soviet activity) and for non-payment of taxes. Those who refused to join collective farms were taxed into destitution. Then the parents were taken away and the children turned to begging, stealing grain from kolkhoz fields and eating maple shoots in the spring and wormwood kasha in the summer. During the war they were shot for refusing to serve and after the war the boys reaching draftee age were sent to the camps.

In 1955 the first Fyodorovtsi were released from prison They returned to their villages, once again taking up their saws. They wouldn't have anything to do with the kolkhozes: they celebrated all the major religious festivals and at the kolkhoz you were chased out into the field even during Easter holiday. They did carpentry on contract. Then, in May 1961, during Khrushchev's "campaign against parasitism", thousands of hard working pcople were once again sent off to internal exile in Siberia. At their trials it was explained frankly: "We don't have a problem with your work; we're packing you off because of your religious beliefs." "Well, if it's for our faith, then go ahead."


In 1972 the decree on parasitism was canceled and those who were still living came back. Before long they began to settle in Tishanka, a big village where there were many empty huts. They sent out letters - all in vain - using old addresses collected in the camps and met their children who returned from the boarding schools where they had been sent (in 1961 they had been denied parental rights). After a few years the population of their community was over 100.

The local authorities were horrified and resisted as if they were being personally violated. At first from inexperience, they used all kinds of nonsense: refusing to certify their home purchases, cutting down their gardens, forbidding the kolkhozes to give them building contracts, having the police break up their Sunday meetings, etc. Then they realized they were being senseless: there was nothing they could deprive their kindhearted enemies of--they didn't even receive pensions. Several times local KGB officers would burst into someone's home and levy a 50 ruble fine for "holding an illegal meeting," but the owners obediently paid up and very quickly they ran out of money. Then the "guests" carried off a shawl but, apparently realizing that if they continued in that vein, they would end up in total ignominy, they gave up and left the poor people alone.


Before the war the Fyodorovtsi had been called the "non-remembering" for

refusing to remember the powers that be in their prayers. They stuck to Orthodox Christianity, but they didn't trust the priests who followed Sergiy - the patriarch who made peace with the Soviets. Thus by the 1930s, when all the clergy that followed Patriarch Tikhon and never succumbed to the Soviets had been shot, they were left without priests, although they never doctrinally rejected priesthood. Some conducted underground services as best they could; others, like the Fyodorovtsi, refused to hold divine services at all.

They didn't perform the rites - baptism, marriage, extreme unction- and didn't go to church, though in Tishanka there was nowhere to go: the local church was being used as a warehouse. However, on Sundays and holidays the whole community would assemble in someone's hut, in synod" as they have it, to talk, to read from the Bible, and to sing psalms and home-made spiritual verses collected in the camps and copied by hand into thick frayed notebooks.

Three years ago, having heard of the canonization of Tikhon, the community began to seek out contacts. All their lives they had considered themselves to be part of the church and still hoped to hear a service. When the Tishanka church opened and a "Sergian" priest appeared in the village, the men went to have a talk with him, but old women at the gate told them that the priest forbade any contact with the Fyodorovtsi. The men went away and after six months heard that the priest had drunk himself to death. A new man had replaced him, but this failed to awaken any enthusiasm in any of the Fyodorovtsi.

When the "synod" ends we go to the hut where four old women live. Brother Georgy offers me a stool by the bed of one of them who is half paralyzed by stroke and tells me that she had been their best singer. The old woman smiles and silently looks at me. She is serenely quiet, the way the others are when they talk. Usually, having quickly expressed their thought, they wait while the correspondent, a child of the tongue-tied TV-ridden times, mumbles the next question. But now I too am silent.

One of fate's ironies is that having spent half their lives in the camps for refusing to join the kolkhoz, the Fyodorovtsi have formed something like a commune themselves in Tishanka. It came about spontaneously without any decision about collectivizing hens, like it was in the 1929 kolkhoz drive; without discipline or leaders. They have lived outside the law for so long that they have managed to forget about property relations They were flustered when I asked them whether all their possessions were held collectively. "Is it mine, you ask? Is it the community's? Who knows?"

MN File

The Fyodorovtsy are one of the branches of the "True Orthodox Tikhon Christians," followers of the Patriarkh Tikhon, who never recognized the Soviet authorities. Named for Fyodor Prokofievich Rybalkin, a peasant from the village of Novy Liman of the Boguchar distnct, Voronezh gubernia, who in 1921 turned "God's fool," proclaiming the advent of the Antichrist. Winter and summer Fyodor went barefoot in nothing but a shirt embroidered with blue crosses, sprinking anybody he met with water from a bottle or setting a child on his shoulders for a piggyback ride. According to Voronezh secret police documents, Fyodor produced a number of "rigged miracles," healing the old and the sick, opening the heavens before a crowd, making a withered apple tree bear fruit, feeding 700 people kasha from a single pot, etc. Rumors about the miracles that circulated throughout the Voronezh province, as well as the Rostov, Belgorod, and Lipetsk provinces, brought large numbers of pilgrims to Novy Liman—up to 300 a week. In 1926, Fyodor and dozens of his followers were arrested on charges of organizing a White Guard conspiracy. Nine were shot and God's Fool himself was confined to a psychiatric hospital in the village of Orlovka. By that time Fyodorovism represented a widespread movement whose main ideas were a life of voluntary poverty and nonviolence. In 1929 alone, more than 2,000 adherents were sent to the GULAG. After the arrest of Rybalkin, the idea emerged within the movement that the miraclemaker was Christ in the flesh and his whole story was the Second Coming. This corresponded with the belief that the Soviets were the incarnation of the Antichrist. Inasmuch as Fyodor never claimed to be Christ, his followers decided that Fyodor is known to them as the Son of Man by his deeds alone. Part of the Voronezh Tikhonovtsi, while not believing in the divinity of God's Fool, continued to believe in his saintliness.

from Moscow News, copyright 1996