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Russia: Old Believers Struggle To Keep The Faith Amid Isolation

Last month, UNESCO added 28 traditions to its list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in an effort to prevent their extinction. Russia does not appear on this year's list but was represented on the original 2001 proclamation through the Semeiskie. The Semeiskie have preserved their unique folkloric singing, costumes, and rituals that go back to the 16th and 17th centuries. While the UNESCO designation brought the isolated community much-needed international recognition, the Semeiskie haven't been able to wipe away the social ills that threaten their way of life.

Moscow, 1 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The Semeiskie are a community of Russian Old Believers, or "starovery," who settled in Buryatia, an isolated region south of Lake Baikal, almost 250 years ago. The music, dress, rituals, and religious beliefs of the Semeiskie were named by UNESCO as one of 19 Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2001. Their unique haunting music is created by nine or 10 voices, each singing a different musical part.

Galina Chebunina is the head of the Semeiskie Cultural Center in Tarabagatay, a Siberian village of a few thousand inhabitants. Chebunina talks about the community's choral music, for which it is best known.

"The manner comes from medieval times, from the old Russian church singing. It's the importance of polyphony. It means adding a number of inserts in words to the extent that it doesn't sound like Russian anymore, and that the singing sounds like another language, because we add so many syllables. Why is this done? So that the melody stretches out and acquires more melodic colors," Chebunina said.

The Semeiskie are one of many communities of Old Believers living in remote parts of Russia. The Old Believers got their name from their belief that they practice the real Orthodox faith. They broke away from the Russian Orthodox Church in the late 17th century, opposed to reforms in the liturgy.

After the schism, the tsar's authorities began persecuting dissenters. Some fled to the region of Gomel -- now Belarus, but part of Poland at the time. One century later, there were 100,000 living in Poland. Then, Catherine the Great came down hard on the Old Believers. Many community members preferred to burn themselves alive -- setting fire to meeting houses packed with men, women, and children -- rather than convert.

The Semeiskie were handed another fate, however. They were exiled from Poland to Siberia to help settle the conquered but empty lands and set up farms to feed the local Cossacks working in the silver mines.

In some ways, Chebunina says, Semeiskie singing is a form of Siberian protest song.

"To protest against, let's call it 'traditional' Orthodoxy, the Old Believers began singing religious hymns and songs in one voice and transferred the polyphony to everyday songs -- about love, about evil. Because our village is on the road from Moscow, the Decembrists -- members of secret revolutionary societies whose activities led to the uprising of 1825 against Tsar [Nicholas I] and other exiles spent the night here and left, of course, an enormous number of songs," Chebunina said.

One popular song of their deportation to Siberia goes like this:

"Why have you, cruel fate, brought us to Siberia?

"Not for drunkenness and not for brawling,

"Not for robberies at night.

"We lost our home for being honest Christians,

"We lost our home for being honest peasants."

Despite internal conflicts, the Semeiskie prospered. Until 1950, the local religious school graduated 35 young men every year, experts in the Old Believers' traditional singing. The women passed on from generation to generation the tradition of typical dress and embroidery -- a rich mix of cloth, often from China and India, sable furs, velvet. The men's clothes integrated elements of Polish costumes, such as colorful ribbons.

But then, Soviet atheism destroyed much of the culture. Later, economic hardship further isolated the community.

"Within 10 years, more than 1,000 people have left our village. These are our children who graduate from university and then don't come back," Chebunina said.

Chebunina says the 2001 UNESCO award was a "life saver." She says the first money received through UNESCO channels -- $5,000 -- was invested in an effort to literally break the Semeiskies' isolation. They bought a bus to take the local choir on tour.

With the help of the Russian Culture Ministry, one of the community's 18 choirs is soon to record a CD.

While Chebunina admits the financial contributions are crucial, more importantly, she says, the international recognition helped instill a sense of identity and pride in the community.

"Fifteen years ago, people would hide the fact that they're Old Believers, that they're Semeiskie. They would even be ashamed of it. But now there's a wave of self-identity and of respect for the elders who kept the culture. People now know about it and are proud of it. And in this [respect], of course, [the award] is important because it's one thing to talk about this by ourselves and another thing when there's recognition from a respected international organization like UNESCO," Chebunina said.

Ultimately, however, Chebunina says she doubts this new boost will help stem the community's moral and social erosion.

"I remember that houses didn't have a lock. A stick or a broom in front of the door meant that no one was home. There was no theft. Before, no one drank. There was no drinking, even at weddings. There were no orphanages because people would take the child in. All the problems that society suffers from as a whole also exist among the Old Believers because when people are open to the [outside], they are open to the good and to the bad," Chebunina said.

She says at the very least, families should try to pass on the credo of this hard-working community: "It's shameful to live badly, it's shameful to live in dirt, it's shameful to live poor."

(RFE/RL's correspondent in Ulan-Ude, Alesandr Maltsev, contributed to this report.)