Wendi Jonassen and Ryan Loughlin – 4/5/13
This clan has traveled from Russia through China, Brazil, and Oregon to make a home in the remote north, struggling to avoid modernization.
On a Sunday afternoon, in the middle of a cold winter, members of Father Nikolai’s congregation and family gather in his living room for fish pie, salted salmon, and shots of Jose Cuervo 1800. But before sitting down to eat they stand up as a group to face an icon corner adorned with gold laden paintings of patron saints, candles, and old Russian jewelry. They pray in unison, singing an ancient Slavonic chant, before falling silent and crossing themselves, bowing twelve times.
The Yakunin clan was much smaller in 1968 when they started building a Russian Orthodox village called Nikolaevsk in an isolated corner of Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. Members of the Old Believers–a Russian Orthodox sect that left the church in 1666, in the face of state-issued church reforms–traveled more than 20,000 miles over five centuries in the search for the perfect place to protect their traditions from outside influences.
The women wear teal, pink, red, and purple satin dresses, all made with the same basic design that covers their bodies down to their ankles. Married women cover their hair with scarves that match their colorful gowns. Father Nikolai has a full red beard that reaches the top of his round belly and his hair is in a ponytail that runs down his back over a traditional Russian shirt.
A thick-cheeked baby dozes off in a rocker next to Father Nikolai’s son, Vasily Yakunin, who most people think will become the next priest in the community. Nikolaevsk instated their first priest in 1983 after centuries of living without clergy, which created a rift that divides the community to this day.
Vasily slouches in a leather chair, playing a space shooting videogame on his iPad, while the rest of the guests crowd around the lunch table, laughing and passing around a plate of jam-filled pastries for dessert. The only person over twenty-one who is exempt from the occasional shots of tequila is Efrosinia Yakunin, who is four months pregnant with Father Yakunin’s fifteenth grandchild.
“If we stopped believing and stopped going to church and observing the orthodox way of life,” Father Nikolai says, “we would cease to exist.”
On a journey back through time that touches some of the most remote corners of the globe–a generation ago, Oregon, before that Brazil, China, and Siberia–the Yakunin clan emerges out of history as a family in search of a way to live without compromise. But even at the end of the world it’s impossible to resist change forever.
Before starting on this 20,000-mile hopscotch across the globe, the Old Believers lived peacefully in a remote part of Siberia for nearly 200 years. The turmoil started around 1666, when Patriarch Nikon, the head of the church, altered the Russian Orthodox prayer books and traditions. “What happened was it was forced on people, you know, people were forced to accept it,” Father Nikolai says. “And if, there should be no questions at all. If anybody brought up a question, he was beat. His fingers were cut off or something like that, tongues cut out.”
The changes that Patriarch Nikon introduced–like the spelling of Jesus’ name in the prayer books and the number of fingers used to make the sign of the cross–seem trivial, but caused intense turmoil. “For us moderns, it’s hard to understand,” says Jack Kollman, professor of Russian studies at Stanford. “But it’s rather like Shakespeare, the magic is there, the purity is there. You don’t change a poem into prose without losing the magic of it. And for a Russian Orthodox peasant…the way you make the sign of the cross…as far as anyone knew was the way that God taught them to do it. And [their] father and grandfather and ancestors got to heaven because they practiced the faith as we were taught it,” he explains. “You don’t rephrase Shakespeare.”
The Old Believers rejected the reforms and Patriarch Nikon, deciding that the government was the antichrist and the end of the world was surely coming soon. The state retaliated by imprisoning or killing those who wouldn’t adapt. Many Old Believers either practiced their faith underground or moved to Siberia to live in isolation. The Old Believers stayed in Siberia for a couple of centuries, but many, including the Yakunin family were forced to leave after the communist revolution in the beginning of the century. “If they had been left alone without the threat of being arrested, they would be still over there. They would have stayed [in Siberia],” Father Nikolai says of his family. Instead, “they were informed that there was orders for…my grandfather’s arrest.” The family chose to flee.
They left their village in Siberia in a hurry, Father Nikolai recalls. They walked only at night and followed a compass by striking matches every so often. The journey took place in the middle of winter. Father Nikolai is sure of this because they crossed over a frozen river into Manchuria.
Of all their stops around the globe, China was the place they called home the longest. They lived near a city called Harbin until just after the end of World War II, when the Japanese occupation of China ended. They quickly adapted to their new environment in China and made a living hunting elk for their antlers, capturing baby tigers for zoos, and killing man-eating tigers. “My father, in his lifetime, shot 36 tigers,” Father Nikolai says with a smile, holding up a sepia-toned photograph of five bearded Russians and one Chinese man standing over a tiger corpse.
But once the Japanese left China in 1949, the Chinese government told all foreigners to leave the country. The Old Believers didn’t have documentation to defend their residency. “We don’t have anything,” Akati Kalugin, a member of the community today in Alaska, recalls. “We don’t have any books, certificates. We was like ghosts.” Kalugin doesn’t remember if he was born in China or Russia, though he remembers most of his childhood in Manchuria.
So when China gave all foreigners five years to leave the country, the Old Believers had a choice: go back to Russia, where they would be punished as deserters from communist Russia, or try their luck in another country. Those who returned to Russia were immediately arrested and sent to jail.
“My father was taken away when I was two years old,” Kalugin says, recalling a time when the community says the Soviet army crossed into Chinese territory to round up Old Believers. “They load them up in the train and took them back to Russia.” Kalugin didn’t see his father again for fifty years, when they were reunited in Alaska.
With the Cold War setting in, many countries wouldn’t take religious refugees. The Old Believers scattered across the globe into Turkey, Argentina, and Australia, while the Yakunins and the Kalugins formed part of a group that went to Brazil.
Just outside of Sao Paulo, Father Nikolai Yakunin’s family and Akati Kalugin worked as subsistence farmers, living in three makeshift Russian Orthodox villages in a rural community. While Brazil was the first place they lived where they could practice their faith freely, it was hard to make a living in South America.
“We [had] two or three cows, I think. [We] milked the cows, and made cream and butter and go to town and sell that. It was a meager existence,” Father Nikolai says.
In addition to the tropical climate, the Old Believers found it difficult to adapt to the new calendar, which dictates when their holy days are. “Brazil is on the other side of the equator and so Christmas over there is in the middle of the summer,” Father Nikolai says, with a chuckle, “…hot.”
Father Nikolai was only nine when he left Brazil, but Akati Kalugin was already raising a family. With several mouths to feed, he had a hard time making a living and keeping his family together. One day, his kids were playing outside when he heard his children screaming. He ran out to find his infant son foaming at the mouth. “It was in a village in Brazil. He was crawling everywhere and he saw something and he grabbed it. Kids can be kids,” Kalugin says. “A snake or a scorpion bit him in the mouth, just 3 marks in the lower lip. That’s how I lost the first one.”
This time, when the Kalugin family decided to move again, it was not to escape religious persecution, but for better economic opportunities. In the middle of the Cold War, then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy offered them asylum. Some Old Believers settled in New Jersey, but many ended up in Woodburn, Oregon, hoping to find a place to permanently call home.
“My brother was telling me just recently that in the first day…in Oregon, there was work already available for them,” Father Nikolai says. “Him and Dad went and worked. They got paid the same day in cash. And they went and they bought a sack of flour, a sack of potatoes. And Dad says, yep, we can live here. We can make a living here.”
But after only a few years, the elders began to fear that the younger generation was becoming too Americanized, drinking too much and hanging out with the wrong crowd. “Some of my family ended up working in the forest, logging and planting trees, and working for different companies,” says Akati Kalugin. “Then we all realized that it’s not going to last long [in Oregon] because the city started growing too fast. Older folks realized they have to go somewhere more remote.”
With help from the Tolstoy Foundation, five families continued their migration up to a small piece of land just outside of Anchor Point on the Kenai Peninsula. They lived in tents the first few months, while everyone pitched in to build the first few homes and buildings. In the beginning, the community tried to live a subsistence lifestyle, harvesting their own vegetables. There was a gate to the community that reinforced the self-isolation they were seeking.
Now, in 2013, Nikolaevsk remains a small village in Alaska of about 350 people. Eligible bachelors must leave the tiny village to look for a bride. “My wife, we met at parties in Oregon,” Vasily says. “A lot of us younger men that are single, we like to go to Oregon to look for a bride because [there is] more of a chance to find a woman, a bride in Oregon, and we have family there so it made it a lot easier.”
Because of fishing and their ability to adapt, the Yakunin Clan lives comfortably in Alaska, able to afford large boats and trucks. Though Vasily Yakunin says his father and uncle knew nothing about fishing when they came to Alaska, the Russian fishing fleet today has a reputation for aggressive tactics and self-policing. Americans in the surrounding communities can share stories about the Russian fleet setting nets too close to other boats, ignoring calls from the Coast Guard, and only responding to help if it comes from another Russian.
That’s not to say there haven’t been some fractures among the clan beneath the surface. The community didn’t have a priest when the Yakunin clan arrived in Alaska in 1970. They had lived without clergy since the reforms in the Russian Orthodox Church. “If you set your mind back to the 1660’s, and if you reject the official church, you cannot accept newly ordained priests because the only people who can ordain them are bishops of the church,” says Professor Kollman. “And no bishops in the 17th century went over to the Old Belief.” So for centuries, while the Old Believers traveled the globe, adapting and preserving, they all generally agreed to accept that there were no longer any genuine priests.
But with their newfound freedom in the United States, this community had the means to look for a priest and Father Nikolai says they were longing for a leader. In 1983, they traveled to Romania, found a bishop, and deemed him worthy to ordain the group’s first new priest in over 300 years.
“This created a huge controversy, another split,” says Father Nikolai, within their small society.
The new priest and his followers built a traditional onion-domed church across the street from the more humble priestless church in Nikolaevsk, where those suspicious of the blasphemous ordaining continued to congregate. In 1985, the priestless church burned to the ground, leaving nothing but a mound of ash.
Akati Kalugin, who belongs to the priestless group, grows so animated every time he talks about the incident, that he begins to lose his already slippery grasp of English. “They said that the fire started from attic, from electrical. Guess what? They don’t have any electrical in the church. How in the hell does it start? There was no electrical? So that’s the question mark: who start the fire?”
After the fire, several families moved away from Nikolaevsk to form new priestless villages in even more isolated parts of the Kenai Peninsula. The only road to Kachemak Selo, is a steep switchback that is covered in ice in the winter and slippery with mud in the summer. “It used to be that they coming in by the boat or helicopter, when they start out this village here,” Kalugin says. Once safely down the switchback, Kachemak Selo is still about half a mile down a beach that is pushed up against a mountain. In the winter, mattress-sized pieces of clear ice, tinted with neon blue, wash up on the beach, littering the entrance to Kachemak Selo with more obstacles.
Outsiders are not welcome in the community. The priestless village is quieter and more traditional than Nikolaevsk. There are two no-trespassing signs pinned side by side on trees at the entrance to the village. It feels like a ghost town. There are no stores or restaurants, just a school, a prayer house, and a few dozen homes.
“I think from an Old Believer point of view, the world is a hostile place. Their experience, their history, their ‘betrayal,’ as they say it,” Kollman says. “They have no idea where we are coming from what our ideas are, why we might be curious about them.” Comparing them to the Amish, Kollmann says that more conservative priestless communities may make it impossible for outsiders to witness how they live their lives.
That’s a plus from some standpoints. “In my opinion I think [the priestless community] do a lot better job,” says Vasily Yakunin, son of Father Nikolai, “because of the fact that they don’t like outsiders coming in, affecting their way of life, introducing more English and stuff like that.”
Though Kachemak Selo and Nikolaevsk have theological disagreements today, they have been through the same struggles, trying to preserve the Old Belief and traditional Russian way of life. The unifying challenge for both is to hold on to their traditions they carried across the globe.
But even at the end of the line, in Alaska, when there is nowhere else to go, American culture and modernization are still seeping in. It seems that no matter how far they run, they can’t escape the future.
Bea Klauch, the coach of the girls’ basketball team at Nikolaevsk’s K-12 School, has seen these changes in the twenty-three years she has been in there. “The parents no longer deny their girls to go to higher education,” she says. “They encourage that. But the problem is we’re sending the children out to get educated and they go off and sometimes they don’t return to build their homes here. Enrollment in the village school constantly drops every year.”
Slight signs of assimilation had begun even in the community’s shorter stops elsewhere in the globe, for example in Brazil. “In Russian, beans is frazol,” Vasily says. “But we say fijon. That is the Portuguese word for beans.” Yet a century after they left Siberia, many Old Believers still speak Slavonic, an old peasant dialect that dates back hundreds of years. The four to five hour long church service in Nikolaevsk is still completely in Slavonic. And in many homes, the elders only speak Slavonic and children are scolded when they slip into English in the wrong setting.
But for the first time in Nikolaevsk the majority of the younger generation speaks English as their first language. While many of them can speak Slavonic conversationally, it’s only a matter of time before the language dies out completely.
At Nikolaevsk Elementary School, there is still a Russian language class. The teacher, Luba Dorvall, who has been there for twenty-seven years, started as an interpreter for the children who didn’t know English. But now in 2013, Dorval teaches Old Believer children who can’t speak Russian. She has them write in large-lined ledgers, repeat words when she flashes a laminated note card at the front of the class, and sing Russian songs in a circle, the same way a teacher would introduce Spanish to a group of American kindergarteners. But she says it is getting harder to keep the children passionate about the language.
“[I am] trying to get [the kids] interested, interested to learn the language, and keep [it] going. We have the program up to the sixth grade. And that is where it stops.” Dorvall says in broken English. “We don’t have it through the high school. But some of them, like my daughters are taking Russian online on Rosetta Stone.”
The Slavonic church services may even be in danger. “I am looking down the line, maybe not in my lifetime, but whoever is going to be the priest after me, is going to have to really consider incorporating more English into the services,” Father Nikolai says.
Despite the inevitable threat of modernization, Nikolaevsk maintains many of its traditions, and still finds time to celebrate. Every December 19, the village celebrates its patron saint during a big community-wide feast following a five-hour long church service. All the women cover their heads and wear long satin gowns. The children are corralled at their own table in the back, while the teenaged boys sit together, the young woman sit at one table, and the older Russian women have their own section. Father Nikolai, Vasily Yakunin, and the deacon sit at the front of the hall in front of a colorfully adorned alter. It is a rowdy, celebratory scene filled with chatter and laughter. The hall grows quiet when people give speeches, some in Slavonic, some in English. Everyone feasts on halibut chowder and salmon burgers, and the adults wash it all down with Coronas and shots of vodka.
Occasionally, Father Nikolai will stand up and begin a prayer. The entire hall stops laughing and eating and stands to join him, singing in Slavonic, crossing themselves and bowing. The chanting dies off, as if someone suddenly hit mute, and the entire hall bows and crosses themselves for several minutes without saying a word.
“No compromise any place. But that is how my fathers, forefathers were,” Father Nikolai says. “And we’ve kept that tradition.”
All photos in this article are stills from Wendi Jonassen’s and Ryan Loughlin’s forthcoming documentary, The Old Believers. All photos are credited to Adam Grossberg, Ryan Loughlin, and Wendi Jonassen.