Raskol: The Schism of the Old Believers

The raskol, or great schism, of the Old Believers, or Old Ritualists, from the Russian Orthodox Church in 1666-7 is one of the most important events in the history of the Russian Orthodox Church. As the only major schism in the history of Russian Orthodoxy, the raskol has had a significant effect on the self-image of the Russian Orthodox Church. In addition, a study of the history of the schism is also helpful in illuminating certain aspects of the nature of faith and worship in Eastern Orthodoxy as a whole.

Beginning early in the 17th century, leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church recognized the need for a reform of morality and liturgy in Russia. Just as in most of Europe, in spite of “the political successes of Christianity and the Church … the inculcation of Christian belief among the people” remained incomplete in Russia throughout the Middle Ages.1 This incomplete Christianization, according to historians Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg, led the “the often less than knowledgeable laity” in Russia as elsewhere in Europe “to mix Christian and traditional folk beliefs and practices.”2

In attempts to address this problem, reformers such as the Archpriest Avvakum “sought to improve the celebration of the liturgy and to bring a higher moral and spiritual tone to parish life.”3 Known as “the Zealots of Piety,” “they advocated better preaching, proper celebration of the liturgy, and bringing the moral teachings of Christ into everyday life.”4

To this end, the Church began to use the new technology of the printing press to print and disseminate educational materials for Russian Orthodox Christians, including prayer manuals and service books. A concern developed, especially in the light of certain differences between the Russian and Greek practices, that these new printed books be as accurate as possible. As historian of Russia Bernard Pares points out, if there were any errors in the Russian practices these “errors would become far more harmful from the moment when they were widely circulated in print.”5

“The matter” of correcting the service books “was taken up … with great vigour by the Patriarch Nikon.”6 In 1653 and 1654, Nikon led the push to correct the Russian service books, bringing them into conformity with contemporary Greek Orthodox practice. Among the changes made were altering the way the sign of the cross was performed by a believer from using two fingers to using three, changing the number of loaves of bread used for the Eucharist from seven to five, changing the way that bows and prostrations were done during prayers, and altering the Russian spelling of the name of Jesus.

These changes in important and common Orthodox practices such as the sign of the cross and the sacrament of the Eucharist caused a major backlash among many Russian Christians. Reformers like Avvakum, who had formerly seen Nikon as an ally, now turned against him and particularly against his heavy-handed implementation of the new practices. Finally, in 1666 and 1667, church councils were called to consider the matter. While ruling against Nikon, they ruled in favor of his reforms. Simultaneously, Nikon was deposed from the Patriarchate and the schism of the Old Believers, those who refused to accept the new service books, was solidified. A widespread and harsh persecution of the Old Believers promptly followed the decisions of the councils; even Avvakum himself was burned at the stake in 1682.7

“The raskol,” because it “constituted the only major schism in the history of the Orthodox Church in Russia,” has had a profound impact on the self-image of the Russian Orthodox Church.8 A clear example of this impact can be seen in a passage from the still widely popular early 19th century Russian spiritual novel The Way of the Pilgrim. In the passage, the anonymous pilgrim encounters a Raskolnikov, a member of one of the Old Believer sects who launches into a criticism of the mainstream Russian Orthodox Church, alleging that their liturgy is filled with distractions, distortions, and disorder, concluding that “in your Church it is not clear whether one is in the house of God or at a market!”9 The pilgrim’s response is, interestingly, not to argue; instead, he writes,

When I heard all of this, I realized that the man was an Old Believer, but because he spoke to the point I could not argue with him or try to convert him. I only thought to myself that at this time it is impossible to convert Old Believers to the true Church. First we must improve our church services, and the clerics especially should take a lead in this. The Old Believers are preoccupied with the external aspects of worship and they don’t seem to be aware of the interior man, while we are careless about the externals.10

This new self-awareness following the raskol allowed the Old Believers, in the eyes of Russian Orthodox, to act in a manner similar to the “virtuous pagan” in medieval Christianity, as a source of inspiration through shame which should prompt the Christian to better behavior.

That the Old Believer could be seen in such a way is due to the peculiar nature of their schism, a nature which also highlights important aspects of Eastern Orthodox faith. In contrast to Christians “in the West” at the same time as the raskol who “turned against their ecclesiastical authorities because they wanted changes; in Russia, believers revolted because they refused to accept even minor modifications of the traditional religious usage.”11 In other words, the Protestant schism from Roman Catholicism was a schism of those who wanted significant changes in their Church’s beliefs and practices, whereas the schism of the Old Believers from the Orthodox Church was a conservative one in protest against changes; they held “that it was the Church which had departed from them and not they from the Church.”12 This difference in the nature of two contemporary Christian schisms highlights the conservative nature of Orthodox belief as one that intrinsically resists change. In another example of the kind of self-awareness fostered by the schism of the Old Believers, and still present today in the Orthodox Church, Timothy (now Metropolitan Kallistos) Ware uses the example of the Old Believers as a warning against allowing conservativism to lead to stagnation in his book The Orthodox Church, stating that they “fell into an extreme conservativism which suffered no change whatever in traditions” that were of relatively little importance.13

That most of the changes against which the Old Believers caused a schism in protest were so apparently miniscule is another element of the raskol which helps to shed light on Eastern Orthodoxy as a whole. The importance of liturgy and ritual can be seen throughout the history of Russian Orthodoxy and of Eastern Orthodoxy in general. The root words for the Greek word “orthodox” are “orthos,” meaning “right,” and “doxa,” which can mean both “belief” and “glory.” This latter meaning of the word “doxa” is reflected in the Slavonic translation for the word “Orthodox”: “pravoslavie,” meaning “right praise.” Similarly, it is significant that the story most commonly told about St. Vladimir’s decision to convert Kievan Rus’ to Orthodox Christianity is a story about Orthodox worship.

This focus on correct worship in Orthodoxy, and especially in its Russian tradition, seems also to be reflected in the schism of the Old Believers. If theirs was indeed pravoslavie, right praise, then these changes must of necessity, they thought, be wrong praise. Any of even the slightest change in the manner of worship is ultimately a change in the faith itself, hence why they called themselves “Old Believers” rather than “Old Ritualists” as their opponents referred to them. A passage from Avvakum’s autobiography demonstrates this understanding; according to Avvakum, he was brought before a group of bishops who appealed to him:

“Why are you stubborn? All our people of Palestine, and the Serbs, and the Albanians and Valachians and Romanians and Poles, all cross themselves with three fingers. You alone in your obstinacy cross yourself with two fingers. This is not fitting.” And I, miserable wretch, how bitter I felt! But I could do nothing. I reproved them as well as I could, and my last word was: “I am uncorrupted, and I shake the dust from my feet, for it is written: ‘Better is one that feareth God, than a thousand ungodly.’”14

It is only with an awareness of the profound importance with which the act of worship is regarded by Eastern Orthodox believers that passages like this and the raskol as a whole become understandable, and the raskol in turn highlights this aspect of Eastern Orthodox faith just as it highlights its essentially conservative nature. The Old Believers, in all of this, have been able to act as a mirror for the mainstream of the Orthodox Church by which it has been able to measure itself in comparison. Their continued existence in Russia and elsewhere to this day continues to allow them to be seen this way by the mainstream of Orthodox Christianity.


1 Andrew Sorokowski, “Christianization, De-Christianization, Re-Christianization,” RISU, 20 January, 2011 (accessed 18 February 2012) http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

2 Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg, A History of Russia, Eighth Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 196.

3 Ibid., 197.

4 Ibid.

5 Bernard Pares, A History of Russia (New York: Dorset Press, 1953), 164.

6 Ibid.

7 Riasanovksy and Steinberg, 199.

8 Ibid., 200.

9 Helen Bacovcin, trans., The Way of a Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way (New York: Doubleday, 2003), 112.

10 Ibid.

11 Riasanovsky and Steinberg, 200.

12 Pares, 167.

13 Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church: New Edition (New York: Penguin Books, 1997), 198.

14 Thomas Riha, ed., “Avvakum’s Autobiography,” Readings in Russian Civilization, Volume 1: Russia Before Peter the Great, 900-1700 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1969), 139.


Bacovcin, Helen, translator. The Way of a Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way. New York: Doubleday, 2003.

Pares, Bernard. A History of Russia. New York: Dorset Press, 1953.

Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. and Mark D. Steinberg. A History of Russia, Eighth Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Riha, Thomas, editor. Readings in Russian Civilization, Volume 1: Russia Before Peter the Great, 900-1700. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1969.

Sorokowski, Andrew. “Christianization, De-Christianization, Re-Christianization.” RISU. 20 January, 2011 (accessed 18 February 2012) http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

Ware, Timothy. The Orthodox Church: New Edition. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.

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