On Saturday, December 10, Dr. Peter De Simone presented “Old Believers in Imperial Russia” as a part of the Russian History Museum’s Second Saturday online lecture series.

Who are the Old Believers? And what is their role in Russian history?

Following the raskol, or schism, of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1656-1666 over Patriarch Nikon’s ritualistic reforms to Russian Orthodoxy, those who adhered to the pre-Nikonian, old rites collectively became known as staroobriadtsy – Old Ritualists. They are more commonly known today by the anglicized term “Old Believers.”

Over the following centuries and through their history, the Old Believers spread throughout Russia and its immediate borderlands as both a means to maintain their way of life and escape persecution. Yet, even while facing constant threats and persecution for their faith from their oppressors, the Old Believers found numerous opportunities to flourish and establish thriving communities in the Russian wilderness and major urban centers. Ultimately, they built some of imperial Russia’s most influential and wealthy entrepreneurial and industrial dynasties.

Dr. De Simone explored the “whys” and “hows” of the Old Believers, their place within Russian history, and the role they played in shaping tsarist Russia. In his lecture, he discussed the paradoxical existence of the Old Believers in Russia as both an oppressed and opportunist religious minority. He also examined how viewing the Old Believers’ history has often led to it being continuously unknown, misunderstood, or intentionally misrepresented. Particularly, the Old Believers collectively represented direct challenges by “official” authorities in both the church and state to define the very concepts and definitions of “Orthodox” and “Russian” in the imperial era.

About the Speaker

Dr. Peter T. De Simone is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Utica University in Utica, NY. He specializes in Russian and East European History, Ancient European History, and the History of Christianity. His primary focus is on community and identity formation among religious minority groups in Imperial Russia with special focus on the groups known as Russian Orthodox Old Believers. His work, The Old Believers in Imperial Russia: Oppression, Opportunism and Religious Identity in Tsarist Moscow (I. B. Tauris/Bloomsbury, 2018), is the first extensive history (and first history written in English) of the Old Believer community founded at Rogozhskoe Cemetery in Moscow and the role its members played as a religious center for the Old Rite and major influence in the growth and economic development of Moscow from the late eighteenth to early twentieth century. Dr. De Simone’s current research is studying the history and spread of Old Believer communities in the Great Lakes and Easter United States.