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Schismatics revolted. They said that religious rituals held holiness within them. Modifying them was the equivalent of turning a poem into prose. The meaning may still be there but the poem essentially no longer exists. 

Calling themselves the Old Believers in the true faith, they refused Peter's reforms. The Russian state persecuted them ruthlessly. Thousands torched themselves in their wooden churches rather than convert. They splintered into dozens of rival clergies and the most radical — the priestless — made do without one altogether. 

On the eve of the revolution the Old Believers made up maybe 20 per cent of Russia's population. It was said that if the anathemas on them were ever lifted, half the peasantry would convert to this anarchic, priestless village faith which ruled itself through meeting halls. Today there are only about two million — mostly in exile. And of the priestless a few tens of thousands live out in the most remote forests of Siberia. 

Places like Tuva. This country is like a cowboy movie where the white man has lost. This was once the most remote state in the world — annexed by the Soviet Union in 1944 and forgotten by everyone. The natives are Asians, closely tied to neighbouring Mongolia but speaking a Turkic language. 

There were great red plans to modernise Tuva. But today there is neither a railway nor a flight to Moscow. On the road south you pass burnt-out teepees and drunk Tuvan horsemen accosting passing cars. The one city, Kyzyl, is mostly wooden shacks and teems with witchdoctors and shamans. Slavs number less than 20 per cent of the population, and are shrinking fast.       

Out in the wildest areas live the Russians — a thousand or so of the priestless Old Believers. There is no road to these hamlets. You drive south for five hours. Then down a mountain track. To get farther you have to cross the winding River Yenesei twice. The Old Believers like it this way. They control the barge and it keeps the Tuvans out.  

That night we crossed the Yenesei on a small raft through rough winds. I woke up in a time capsule. The village of Erjei. It is one of the four Old Believer villages in the curling valley of the lower Yenesei. There are no roads linking them, only the water, and the farther up river you go the more fundamentalist they become until you reach the scattered homesteads that refuse to touch many aspects of the modern world. Erjei has no television, no internet, no postal service, no sewerage and no newspapers. It had come to terms with a few technologies — mobile phones, tough old Soviet jeeps and electric lights. But the villagers had not meaningfully changed their lives. 

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February 26th, 2014
2:02 AM
An astonishing bit of writing. Very, very evocative. A tour-de-force.

January 22nd, 2014
5:01 PM
There are so many subjective opinions, no research behind, if there was then it was very basic. I am very disappointed to read only onesies story. No history of Tuva and. Tuvans who have suffered a great deal and have survived all these Chinese and Russian empires to still come out with their language and culture. This is just a shallow non objective description. A waste of time.

January 21st, 2014
11:01 PM
I am Russian. It is completely outrageous to read things like this: "While Peter the Great was building St Petersburg, his Patriarch Nikon set out to reform the Russian Orthodox Church, to purge it of paganism and inconsistency with Greek Orthodoxy. Rituals and the spelling of Christ were modified. The way men crossed themselves was changed". Dear author: before writing something, it'd be good to learn a thing or two about the subject. To look at Wikipedia, for example. While Peter the Great was building St. Petersburg (1703), Patriarch Nikon was 22 years as dead. He died in 1681. Patriarch Nikon reforms were made in 1654, when Peter the Great wasn't even born yet. He was born in 1672, nominally became a Tsar in 1682, while being a 10-years boy.

Victoria Peemot
January 21st, 2014
7:01 PM
The author is a narrow-minded racist. Demonizing one ethnic group and pushing it down several times in one text. Remains Douglas Carruthers who visited Tuva 100 years ago, had Russian guides and made same conclusions.

Vladimir Ivanov
January 21st, 2014
9:01 AM
so beatiful places, I know. Last summer I and my friends have made a rafting through this river. It was fantastic. We have visited Erjei also, but only for a few hours.

William MacDougall
January 3rd, 2014
12:01 PM
Patriarch Nikon was not Peter "the Great's" Patriarch; he pre-dated Peter's rule, and Peter abolished the Patriarchate..

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