Close-Up Visiting the Old Believers on Lake Peipus

“No,” says Anastasia, “I will not return to my village.” She comes from Mustvee, a town on Lake Peipus where there are five different faiths. Anastasia comes from a family of Old Believers. Her grandmother still practices her faith intensely, Anastasia’s mother less so, and twenty-year-old Anastasia herself says she does not believe in anything. She is tall, slender with long brown hair and has lived in Tartu, where she is training in the tourism sector, for two years.

It is a mysterious region on Lake Peipus, at the outer border of the EU; a forgotten world in which time seems to have stopped. The lake is wide, two ships bob on the hazy horizon. The Russian shore cannot be seen, so it feels as if we are on the seashore. In November, the sky hangs low and an icy wind sweeps through the small villages that line the banks like pearls on a string. An old man in a fur hat cycles past and a cat darts into a barn. Wooden houses in the Russian style with their small front gardens alternate with brick buildings.
 
In Varnja, one of the parishes of the Old Believers, the large church is located directly on the water. On the spire of the tower, the cross of the Old Believers towers defiantly into the sky. With eight ends, Irina Külmoja, professor emeritus of Slavic Studies at the University of Tartu explains later, it differs from that of the Orthodox cross, which has only six ends.
 
The mass begins at eight o’clock in the morning and lasts two and a half hours. Six women in full-length black coats, their heads properly covered with large scarfs, stand in front of the iconostasis, pray, sing, cross themselves and prostrate themselves on the ground. Only one lamp illuminates the lectern, otherwise the approximately eight-metre-high and thirty-metre-long nave is illuminated by many candles. Two chandeliers, also with flickering candles in them, hang from the ceiling. In the middle of the room a large tiled stove emits heat. The floor is covered with carpets, but my feet still get cold very quickly. A priest rarely comes to Varnja. Usually, the women hold the mass themselves.
 
It is touching. The old women sing vigorously, they read aloud unerringly, following a ritual that secludes outsiders. It is this blend of chanting and speaking, candlelight and the glistening icons that spreads an atmosphere you cannot escape. One, two or three hundred years ago the services would have been similar. A deep faith and traditional rituals have carried the Old Believers through times that were often marked by persecution and oppression. Now that they are able to practise their religion freely, the greatest danger to this religious community is the modern age with its mobility. For the middle generation, finding a livelihood in the desolate region of Lake Peipus is difficult, while young people are impelled out into the world. The old ones stay behind.
 
“We do not know how it will continue,” Zoja says after the service. “Maybe the church will be closed. It’s all in the hands of God.” She is 83 years old and has always lived on Lake Peipus except for her student days in Tartu. For many years, she worked as a doctor in one of the neighbouring villages. Varnja is the centre of her life. It is where she raised her sons and where she still lives with her husband. He does not go to church. Because the men are always fishing on the lake, Zoja explains.
 
 Photo: Argo Ingver/Ekspress Meedia It is a good five kilometres from Varnja to Kolkja, another town on Lake Peipus. Most places seem a bit Russian. They do not have a real town centre; the one-story wooden houses line the street to the right and left. Many are painted yellow, ochre or blueish-green, many are also abandoned and decayed. Every now and then, a church, a petrol station or one of the few schools still open provide some variety. The information centre in Kolkja has closed as well as the restaurant, which advertises fish from Lake Peipus. Shops are not to be seen, a bus presumably supplies the people with bread, meat, vegetables and the essentials.
 
The Museum of Old Believers in Kolkja is also actually closed in the winter, because in this inhospitable season hardly any visitors find their way to Lake Peipus. But today Lili Tarakanov has unlocked the door. The tiled stove in the corner of the entrance room exudes a pleasant warmth. Embroidered table and bed linens, an icon, a samovar with tea cups, never missing in any household here: The Museum of Old Believers is a museum of local history, founded in 1998 by Lili’s predecessor. She collected the objects from the inhabitants of the surrounding villages. Lili shows us a device that was used to cut chicory over a hundred years ago – a peculiarity. “There was also a chicory museum here,” she says.
 
Lili is in her early forties and practises numerous vocations. She is a museum director during the season, then distributes cosmetics as an Avon sales rep, is involved in community politics, helps where she can, promotes courses on the Old Believers’ kitchen and also tries to teach her three daughters the traditions of that faith. There are quite a few. Nowadays, the solemn festivals of the Church are celebrated once more – in Soviet times it was difficult – and the sign of the cross is made with two rather than three fingers (one of the eleven things that distinguish the Old Believers from the Orthodox). Guests are given their own dishes, and Lili’s husband, who works in Sweden, has also brought his own dishes there. He used to have to spend two weeks in quarantine on his return before being allowed to eat from the family dishes. Originally, this had hygienic reasons to prevent spreading diseases.
 
Lili Tarakanov’s oldest daughter is named Getter Suup. She is twenty years old and is not married, as her name suggests. Lili did not pass her Russian surname on to her children to prevent them from any disadvantages, so she gave them her Estonian maiden name instead. Like 20-year-old Anastasia from Tartu, Getter does not want to return to her village. She is religious, but does not like to talk about it. “It’s a private matter.” When she has children, she plans to baptise them according to the ritual of Old Believers. Right now, she dreams of going very far away for a few years – to New Zealand.
 
Getter does not consider the situation of the Old Believers so hopeless, for young people have begun moving back to the countryside. Thanks to mobility, you can live here and work in the city. Jobs are also being created by tourism, adds her mother Lili, and tells of plans to develop a spa on Lake Peipus. But this is still all up in the air for a region that has so far lived mainly on onion farming, berries and fishing.
 
According to a 2011 study, 12,600 people in Estonia claim to be Old Believers, explains Irina Külmoja, a researcher at the University of Tartu on the culture and language of Old Believers, but there are probably more. Most of them live on Lake Peipus, but also in Tartu and Tallinn, says the academic. When asked what their future be like, she shrugs her shoulders. “If I only knew!”
 
 Photo: Argo Ingver/Ekspress Meedia Meanwhile, tourism has even reached this lonely region where the Old Believers lived for centuries largely isolated from the outside world. Compared to the other sleepy places, in Nina, a small fishing village north of Kolkja, there is life on the street. In front of the church, a man dumps earth into a wheelbarrow, a young woman rakes leaves together and in the lovely cemetery on the waterfront overlooking an old lighthouse, several people are busy caring for the graves. For the first time today, the clouds open, the wind subsides and the sun sends down a few rays.
 
I am told that a Dutchman operates a bed and breakfast and bike rental here with his Estonian wife. Outside the village, I am told with gestures and a finger points at a rough track with huge potholes.
 
After a good kilometre, a modern house appears on the shores of the lake, quite unlike the characteristic houses of Lake Peipus. There are also three bungalows with large windows overlooking the lake and each has a small terrace with inviting chairs – despite the cold season. They are obviously holiday homes. Two blond children open the door. They look like children from a book by Astrid Lindgren. No, they are neither Swedes nor the Dutchman I am seeking, explains their mother, but Estonians. The pretty cottages are for rent all year round. But the Dutch-Estonian couple live in the middle of Nina.
 
There you have to ignore the sign and simply drive into the village centre to “Nina Kordons Külalistestemaja.” The large, white-stuccoed house, formerly a school and then border guard building, was renovated a good ten years ago and furnished in part with old furniture. There is a sauna and a restaurant; one overnight stay costs between 45 and 60 euros. The front door is open, but despite repeated rings at the reception counter no one comes. It’s not the season. But it will come.