Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part story about how a group of Russian religious dissidents became Kenai Peninsula residents and U.S. citizens. This week, part one describes the around-the-world trek these dissidents embarked upon in order to find religious freedom and escape persecution. Next week, part two will reveal how Kenai Peninsula Community College and a retired brigadier general helped the Russians become naturalized citizens in 1975.
By Clark Fair
In the pages of the September 1972 edition of National Geographic, the founding of the tiny, 4-year-old village of Nikolaevsk was documented by the words of Homer resident Jim Rearden and photographer Charles O’Rear. The photos especially — depicting a rough-hewn rural existence that seemed nearly to be an anachronism — belied the turmoil behind the village’s very reason for existence.
The oldest of the villagers had, at that time, traveled more than 20,000 miles across three continents since the 1920s, hoping finally to find a safe, productive and permanent home. In truth, however, their long exodus had its beginnings more than 300 years earlier, when the ancestors of these villagers had refused to accept the religious reforms of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Only three years after the magazine article, nearly 60 of the village adults would be swearing an oath of allegiance to the United States and receiving hearty congratulations from Alaska dignitaries, as well as U.S. President Gerald R. Ford.
Nikolaevsk sits about nine road miles due east of Anchor Point on the southern Kenai Peninsula and is populated largely by Old Believers, adherents to the path set forth by their dissident ancestors. Currently, its population is about 300, but at its peak it contained about 500 residents. In more recent decades, some of the Old Believers have left village life behind completely, some have moved to other Old Believer communities in the Lower 48, and some have splintered off into even smaller and more remote communities of their own on the southern peninsula — Voznesenka, Razdolna and Kachemak Selo.
In the 1650s, the Russian Patriarch Nikon attempted to reform the rites of the Russian Orthodox Church to bring them back into line with the Greek Orthodox tradition, from which Russian Christianity had originated nearly 700 years earlier. The Orthodox who refused to conform to Nikon’s edict called themselves the Staroviertsi, or “Old Believers,” but Nikon called them heretics. Peter the Great excommunicated them from the church.
The Old Believers spent generations being persecuted and worshipping in secret, and in 1907 about 40,000 of them moved into the more isolated countryside of southeastern Siberia. For a decade, they lived in relative peace, working on homesteads and farms, until the rise of the communist revolution in 1917 forced the concept of collectivism upon them and drove them into further isolation.
Some of the group settled in China’s undeveloped frontier in Manchuria, where Pimen Yakunin, one of the early residents of Nikolaevsk, captured or killed Manchurian tigers in order to eke out a living.
In the 1972 National Geographic article, Rearden records one of Yakunin’s exploits: “‘There were wild boars, deer, bears, and tigers,’ he said, rolling up his sleeve to show me vivid scars left by the claws of a young tiger he captured. ‘My dogs cornered it, and I was clawed while pinning its head down with a big forked stick. After the capture I sold the animal to a zoo. I caught or killed about 40 tigers, altogether. Once a tiger stalked me; I turned and shot him just as he leaped at me.’”
Yakunin sold the parts of dead tigers as ingredients in Chinese medicine, and he did the same with the body parts, such as antlers, from other animals in the region.
It was not an easy life, but the Old Believers prospered for about a quarter-century until the communist takeover of China. Over the next decade or so, about 2,000 Old Believers moved to Hong Kong with aid from intergovernmental agencies and the World Council of Churches. From there, in 1958, the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration helped resettle them in Brazil, where the World Council of Churches provided 6,000 acres of land at Curitiba, about 200 miles southwest of Sao Paulo.
But life in Brazil — although relatively free of persecution — did not suit the Old Believers well. The soil was difficult, many crops failed, and some of the Old Believers worried that the political tide in Brazil was on the verge of turning against them.
With the help of the Tolstoy Foundation — established by Alexandra Tolstoy, daughter of the famous Russian novelist, for the preservation of Russian culture in America and the broadening of cultural awareness among Russian youth — many of the Old Believers settled next in the Woodburn area of Oregon, about 30 miles south of Portland.
Again, however, the cultural fit was a poor one. Old Believers don’t smoke, don’t shave, don’t drink hard liquor, don’t use birth control, and don’t drink tea or coffee. They also have dietary restrictions, and they live with numerous cultural practices that are far different than those of the “outside” world. In Oregon, surrounded by modern American temptations, they “found their cherished convictions under assault,” according to Rearden. And so they began to look elsewhere again.
One small group, consisting mainly of a few large families, decided to explore Alaska for a new and more remote area in which to resume their “old way” of life.
Rearden picks up the story here: “In 1967 four full-bearded Russian expatriates arrived on the Kenai, seeking land for their people and information on Alaska living. They [were] looking for a way to escape the temptations and distractions of modern America … . The four inspected and bought a square mile of wilderness from the state. ‘They walked every foot of that section,’ a farmer who accompanied them told me. ‘They found the springs, the best places to build, and located the best timber.’
“The first four houses were built in 1968 — lonely, raw cabins in a vast spruce forest.
Electricity was brought in by the local cooperative, and more families arrived.”
They dubbed their community Nikolaevsk, after St. Nicholas, the patron saint of their church.
Four years later, the Old Believers were featured in National Geographic, and three years after that, most of the adults were citizens of the United States.
At the end of the magazine article, Rearden quoted 83-year-old Grigory Martushev, who posited a final comment on the achievement of the Old Believers finally finding a permanent home:
“I have been running for 40 years,” he said. “At Nikolaevsk I stop.”