Vanishing lives: Descendants of 17th century bearded radicals who fled to Poland from Russia to avoid religious persecution are now facing a new crisis as their numbers slowly dwindle out

The dwindling religious group known as Old Believers is a group of Orthodox Christians who separated from the Eastern Orthodox Church after a schism in the 17th century. There are currently around 1,000 left in Poland. Pictured the gate and gatekeepers house at the Monastery of the Savior and the Holy Trinity in Wojnowo. Kalbar /TFN

With his lush beard, warm eyes and stiff military posture, Mieczysław Kapłanow looks like a typical Orthodox batiushka, or priest.

Except, he’s not. Instead he is the elected nastavnik (community spiritual leader) of a dwindling religious group known as Old Believers, a group of Orthodox Christians who separated from the Eastern Orthodox Church after a schism in XVII century.

And as leader of the Gabowe Grądy parish, one of just four remining in Poland, he is struggling to keep their faith and traditions alive.

Mieczysław Kapłanow, the elected nastavnik (community spiritual leader) of the dwindling Old Believers, sprouting the traditional beard they are not allowed to cut, says he is struggling to keep their faith and traditions alive.Kalbar/TFN

“We are regular people with regular problems, civilization affects us just like everyone else,” he told TFN. “A long time ago the local villagers would say that there were devils living beyond the forest and people would be afraid to approach us. Now it’s different.

“Once people were perhaps less enlightened but more believing.”

Their story is not dissimilar to those we see on the news today; a religious minority, persecuted in their home country and forced to flee. The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth was one of the places where they were allowed to settle and practice their religion in peace.

According to the Central Statistical Office, there are around a 1,000 Old Believers living in Poland today. Kapłanow, a formidable man and former colonel in the Polish Army with over 29 years of service, turned to the traditions of his forefathers when he neared retirement.

Molenna, Old Believers’ prayer house, in Gabowe Grądy. It is one of four still actively used in Poland. The community is reluctant to let strangers inside, worried about the safety of precious icons placed there.Kalbar/TFN

He grew a beard and started learning the Old Church Slavonic language, in which all their prayers and rites are written, as well as the complex succession of holidays (around 80 per year), fasts and laws Old Believers are supposed to follow.

The process took two years and several visits to Latvian parishes before the community’s council approved his candidacy. Not that Kapłanow had any competition.

But despite his appearance, the Polish Old Believers are mostly Bezpopovtsy (without orthodox priests) and reject the institution of priesthood and the sanctity of all those ordained after discordant reforms.

In 1652, Patriarch Nikon of Moscow introduced a number of changes to the Orthodox practice, which were supposed to bring the Greek and Russian rites closer together. While the move was dictated by the idea of revitalizing the church and enforcing moral conduct, it served also to strengthen the Patriarch’s power and even overshadow Tsar Alexis of Russia.Public domain

In 1652, Patriarch Nikon of Moscow introduced a number of changes to the Orthodox practice, which were supposed to bring the Greek and Russian rites closer together. While the move was dictated by the idea of revitalizing the church and enforcing moral conduct, it served also to strengthen the Patriarch’s power and even overshadow Tsar Alexis of Russia.

To many of his faithful, the changes were unacceptable – akin to plain heresy. “There are 17 differences,” explains Kapłanow. “You need to imagine, that in the 17th century a priest comes and tells you that now we will do the sign of the cross differently. Perhaps today people would laugh, but back then they treated it very seriously.”

The other reforms included new spelling of the word Jesus, from Isus to Iisus, changing the direction of procession’s from clockwise to counter clockwise, and the words ‘and in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life’ in place of ‘and in the Holy Spirit, the True Lord, the Giver of Life’ in the creed.

Icons are central to the Orthodox traditions, representing the biblical people and places. The Old Believers took them, when escaping the tsarist persecution. Their icons are closest to the traditional canons, when it comes to precision, attention to detail, decorativeness, intricate lettering and color sophistication.Kalbar/TFN

What seems trivial today, the reforms led to vicious bloodshed among people who perceived rituals as a symbol of truth and their connection to God. Those who protested the reforms saw Nikon as the Antichrist, while the Patriarch anathematized all who opposed him. To the Russian Empire the rebels were enemies of the state.

The schism, known as Raskol, had a grisly aftermath. The state systematically hunted down, tortured and executed the dissidents. Many of the Old Believers turned to self-immolation to preserve their faith. The rebellion culminated in the siege of the Solovetsky Monastery, later an infamous Soviet prison and labour camp, where tsarist soldiers brutally murdered 500 insurgents, leaving only 60 alive.

Those who managed to escape the persecution and torture fled to Poland, Lithuania and the Russian Far East. The Old Believers’ communities kept mostly to themselves, valuing hard work and self-sufficiency. For a long time marrying with Catholics or those of other faiths was almost unheard of, while now it has become an everyday occurrence.

There are only five Old Believers families left in Wojnowo. Several more live in Gabowe Grądy, others in Suwałki and Wodziłki (pictured in 1976) close to the Polish-Russian-Lithuanian border. The families descend from Russian refugees, who settled in the northern parts of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.Longin Wawrynkiewicz/PAP

Tomasz Ludwikowski, the owner and keeper of Monastery of the Saviour and the Holy Trinity in Wojnowo, another Old Believers centre in Poland, sees the origins of this seclusion in the persecution they experienced after Nikon’s reforms.

“They would even resort to self-immolation in the name of God and their faith. Then they were robbed, had icons and holy books taken from them. They were precious, since after the changes those books were unique, all the others were burnt or destroyed.” The bible and prayer tomes are still valuable to the Old Believers, who watch over them closely to this day.

Ludwikowski, together with his wife Urszula and 20-year-old son Kacper can also call himself a guardian of the Old Believers faith. Although he is a Catholic, he inherited the Monastery in Wojnowo, together with two cemeteries and 30ha of land. He now boasts being the only private owner of a monastery in Europe.

Tomasz Ludwikowski inherited the Monastery in Wojnowo, together with two cemeteries and 30ha of land. He now boasts being the only private owner of a monastery in Europe.Kalbar/TFN

The convent consisting of a church, house, farm buildings and gatehouse was built in XIXth century, first for men and later on for women, after young Sister Eupraxia (Jelena Pietrowna Dikopolska) bought it in 1885. The sisters adhered to rigid rules, but also helped and interacted with the local community. In those years, Wojnowno, called Eckertsdorf, was located in East Prussia. Apart from Old Church Slavonic, the sisters were fluent in Polish, Russian and German.

The Ludwikowscy family came into the Monastery’s possession, when Sister Superior Antonina Kondratiewna decided to trust Tomasz’s grandfather Leon with their care and upkeep. She signed the estate to him, on the condition, that he would tend to it and ensure the well-being of the remaining sisters. With the passing years there were no new novitiates and the family took over the estate.

Tomasz Ludwikowski remembers the last sisters perfectly: “Sister Lena and Sister Fima. I called them grandmas, because I lived here from when I was three to 13 years old, and later I came to stay all the time.

The Monastery in Wojnowo was first a male Old Believers' convent, in the years 1848-1884. In 1885 the sisters led by sister Eupraxia. They stayed there until 2006, when the last sister, Afimia Kuśmierz died.Kalbar/TFN

“The last sister, Afimia Kuśmierz, she was 13 years old when she came here. She would come to the monastery to help, do something and eventually she stayed. She was 91 years old when she died.” Afimia Kuśmierz, affectionately called Sister Fima died in 2006, closing a chapter in the Monastery’s history.

Convent life was arduous, even more so considering the radical principles of the Old Believers. The sister’s life consisted of work and prayer, even three of four times a day. “Today, the services are on Saturday, lasting 1.5 hours and on Sunday up to 2.5 hours. We don’t repeat the same words, each time there is a different tone of singing, and there are eight, so there are no two identical prayers,” explains Kapłanow.

The services and prayers were held in molennas – Old Believers’ churches, that from the outside are so simple they seem protestant. No dripping gold, or bulbous domes, but wood and rows of holy icons blackened by the candles produced by the members of the community. It was forbidden to hang the icons with nails, as it would be like nailing Christ to the cross.

Tomasz Ludwikowski and his wife Urszula turned the Monastery into a museum, working closely with antique restorers and historians. Now they are expanding it with memorabilia left by the Sisters and hope to exhibit more priceless icons and books, some dating back to XVIIth century and the rebels’ flight from Russia.Kalbar/TFN

The faithful were expected to observe 260 days of fast a year and abstain from alcohol, smoking, coffee and tea. Still, to Ludwikowski, the sisters were very much human, warm, welcoming and with their own vices. “Perhaps I shouldn’t say this,“ he reveals. “They fasted and sometimes they didn’t. Grandma Fima always fasted, but she also liked to eat a lot. So she was breaking this rule, coming out from the back and telling me ‘Tomeczku, open a can or tin for me here so that nobody sees’.

“She didn’t like the hard work in the fields, she’d do it, but we all knew she didn’t like it. As soon as a little bit of rain started to fall, she’d thank the Lord and we’d leave.” Prayer was the one thing she never dodged, spending countless hours hunched over the yellowed tomes. They also stayed faithful to the Old Believers’ creed.

“My father told me how the Monastery was once was visited by Patriarch Alexy II. He came out of his Volga and gave his hand to Sister Afimia to kiss, since this was the Orthodox way, but she said ‘ja nie budu’ and refused.” The hierarchy was unacceptable to her.

There are only five Old Believers families left in Wojnowo. Several more live in Gabowe Grądy, others in Suwałki and Wodziłki, close to the Polish-Russian-Lithuanian border. Some families stay in cities, such as Białystok or Augustów and are just as likely to visit a regular Orthodox church, rather than travel to a molenna, an act of heresy in the eyes of their ancestors.

The nuns who bought the convent in 1885 adhered to rigid rules, but also helped and interacted with the local community. In those years, Wojnowno, called Eckertsdorf, was located in East Prussia. Apart from Old Church Slavonic, the sisters were fluent in Polish, Russian and German.Kalbar/TFN

Ewald Makarowski, born in 1957 and Friedel Jorroch born in 1941 came to Wojnowo for vacation and to visit their family graves. Both have German citizenship, even though they come from these parts and have Russian origins. At first the Old Believers who found themselves in East Prussia refused to become citizens, but after several generations passed they relented, which led to many Old Believers relocating to Germany after World War II. Other big communities are still present in the United States, Canada and former Soviet republics.

When asked about the traditions they used to follow, Jorroch has trouble remembering. “In every house you had to have an icon facing East. In a corner, you had several icons to pray to.

“We had to go to molenna and study the language and prayers, but I don’t remember it, I learnt regular Russian.”

They don’t have beards, remember only some of their Old Church Slavonic lessons, in Dortmund they’re just as likely to go to a Catholic church, due to their spouses or a reformed Orthodox one. Their children will barely know the Old Believers’ rite, expelled once again, first from Russia and then from Poland by historic events.

Friedel Jorroch among his family's graves. Since his family lived in the area which used to be East Prussia, after the World War II they relocated to Germany.Kalbar/TFN

The Prussian Old Believers were lucky in a way, as during World War II the Germans left them alone, since they were German citizens, while Russians perceived them as one of their own, becasue they were Orthodox. Their brothers on the Polish side were less lucky, but still they weren’t actively persecuted as other religious groups were at the time.

Agafia Herwin’s family hails from Gabowe Grądy and while she herself lives in Augustów, she still visits regularly. She spent her youth alongside neighbouring children from other religions, though she heard stories how her ancestors would live separately, working the fields and cutting wood with enormous saws made for at least two people.

Herwin remembers how strict the Old Believers faith was and how many things were banned. “A woman cannot enter the church in trousers, she hast to wear a long skirt, longer sleeve and a headscarf. Modesty applies.”

Urszula Ludwikowska recalls, that back in the day, when someone led a religious life, they would be given a wooden cross as a tombstone. If they sinned, the cross would be stone or metal. When the wooden cross collapsed, it was a sign their soul reach heaven. The tradition is forgotten now, and the families prefer stone tombs, so that they can visit the graves.Kalbar/TFN

The traditional clothing couldn’t have buttons or knots, as they were the work of the devil. Men weren’t allowed to wear ties, since that would require tying them. Shoes were made of wood and the left and right ones looked the same. Apart from Kapłanow’s beard, the customary attire is all but gone. Only Tomasz Ludwikowski wore a folk-inspired shirt, especially for our interview.

While Urszula Ludwikowska recounts a legend which led to tea and coffee being prohibited (those where the only plants that flowered after Jesus was crucified, clearly the work of the devil), Agafia Herwin has another explanation. “We didn’t have teas at home, we just made kompot and drank it. No one paid attention to it, since we simply didn’t have those things.”

Ewald Makarowski, now living in Germany, comes to Wojnowo for vacation and to visit family graves. Old believers were buried with their feet placed on the side of the cross, so that when they rise again at the end of times, the first thing they see is the cross. Kalbar/TFN

Thinking about the future of his community, Mieczysław Kapłanonw counts that in the last 13 years he has conducted 100 burials, 13 christenings and about six or seven marriages. ”In old age people start thinking where their bones will be laid, they come and renovate their family homes. However a person who hasn’t participated in religious life at all comes to the molenna and stands like a pillar of salt, not knowing what to do. As people bow, he also bows, but services are held in the Old Slavonic language, so he doesn't understand a thing,” he laments.

The Gabowe Grądy nastavnik hopes open borders and contact with foreign Old Believers communities will help preserve their culture. But lack of interest from the younger generation, which moves to bigger cities, doesn’t fill him with optimism, even though they come to the village for the most important holidays – Easter, Christmas and Saints Peter and Paul Day.

Agafia Herwin’s family comes from Gabowe Grądy and while she herself lives in Augustów, she still visits regularly.Kalbar/TFN

Tomasz and Urszula Ludwikowscy, while not Old Believers themselves, are committed to keeping their memory and organizing a museum and cultural centre in their Monastery. Thanks to EU grants and their own funds they have invested over a million zlotys into renovating the icons and structures.

This year they held a first series of lectures on Old Believers’ customs and history in partnership with the University of Warmia and Mazury. During the summer season between 500 and 1,000 tourists, mostly German, visit them each day. They are expanding their little museum with memorabilia left by the sisters and hope to exhibit more priceless icons and books, some dating back to XVIIth century and the rebels’ flight from Russia.

The origins of the beautiful silver chandelier was discovered when Tomasz and Urszula found an old journal in the attic. A Russian widow donated her wealth to the Monastery after her husband died and moved there to live out her days in prayer and seclusion.Kalbar/TFN

Still, for Tomasz the most exceptional time in the Monastery is at night, without the bustling noise the daily string of visitors. “I come here at night, around 2am with my friend and we just sit down, don’t talk to each other. The candles are lit and the old Russian prayers are playing,” he says. At night, the Monastery once again becomes a place of reflection and peace, removed from the changing world outside of its walls.