A 17th-Century Russian Community Living in 21st-Century Alaska

This clan has traveled from Russia through China, Brazil, and Oregon to make a home in the remote north, struggling to avoid modernization.

Candles.jpgFather Nikolai says that candles represent a little sacrifice. They cost the members of the congregation a dollar, which goes to the upkeep of the church. 

On a Sunday afternoon, in the middle of a cold winter, members of Father Nikolai's congregation and family gather in his living room for fish pie, salted salmon, and shots of Jose Cuervo 1800. But before sitting down to eat they stand up as a group to face an icon corner adorned with gold laden paintings of patron saints, candles, and old Russian jewelry. They pray in unison, singing an ancient Slavonic chant, before falling silent and crossing themselves, bowing twelve times.

The Yakunin clan was much smaller in 1968 when they started building a Russian Orthodox village called Nikolaevsk in an isolated corner of Alaska's Kenai Peninsula. Members of the Old Believers--a Russian Orthodox sect that left the church in 1666, in the face of state-issued church reforms--traveled more than 20,000 miles over five centuries in the search for the perfect place to protect their traditions from outside influences.

The women wear teal, pink, red, and purple satin dresses, all made with the same basic design that covers their bodies down to their ankles. Married women cover their hair with scarves that match their colorful gowns. Father Nikolai has a full red beard that reaches the top of his round belly and his hair is in a ponytail that runs down his back over a traditional Russian shirt.

A thick-cheeked baby dozes off in a rocker next to Father Nikolai's son, Vasily Yakunin, who most people think will become the next priest in the community. Nikolaevsk instated their first priest in 1983 after centuries of living without clergy, which created a rift that divides the community to this day.

Vasily slouches in a leather chair, playing a space shooting videogame on his iPad, while the rest of the guests crowd around the lunch table, laughing and passing around a plate of jam-filled pastries for dessert. The only person over twenty-one who is exempt from the occasional shots of tequila is Efrosinia Yakunin, who is four months pregnant with Father Yakunin's fifteenth grandchild.

"If we stopped believing and stopped going to church and observing the orthodox way of life," Father Nikolai says, "we would cease to exist."

On a journey back through time that touches some of the most remote corners of the globe--a generation ago, Oregon, before that Brazil, China, and Siberia--the Yakunin clan emerges out of history as a family in search of a way to live without compromise. But even at the end of the world it's impossible to resist change forever.

***

Before starting on this 20,000-mile hopscotch across the globe, the Old Believers lived peacefully in a remote part of Siberia for nearly 200 years. The turmoil started around 1666, when Patriarch Nikon, the head of the church, altered the Russian Orthodox prayer books and traditions. "What happened was it was forced on people, you know, people were forced to accept it," Father Nikolai says. "And if, there should be no questions at all. If anybody brought up a question, he was beat. His fingers were cut off or something like that, tongues cut out."

Slavonic.png

The changes that Patriarch Nikon introduced--like the spelling of Jesus' name in the prayer books and the number of fingers used to make the sign of the cross--seem trivial, but caused intense turmoil. "For us moderns, it's hard to understand," says Jack Kollman, professor of Russian studies at Stanford. "But it's rather like Shakespeare, the magic is there, the purity is there. You don't change a poem into prose without losing the magic of it. And for a Russian Orthodox peasant...the way you make the sign of the cross...as far as anyone knew was the way that God taught them to do it. And [their] father and grandfather and ancestors got to heaven because they practiced the faith as we were taught it," he explains. "You don't rephrase Shakespeare."

The Old Believers rejected the reforms and Patriarch Nikon, deciding that the government was the antichrist and the end of the world was surely coming soon. The state retaliated by imprisoning or killing those who wouldn't adapt. Many Old Believers either practiced their faith underground or moved to Siberia to live in isolation. The Old Believers stayed in Siberia for a couple of centuries, but many, including the Yakunin family were forced to leave after the communist revolution in the beginning of the century. "If they had been left alone without the threat of being arrested, they would be still over there. They would have stayed [in Siberia]," Father Nikolai says of his family. Instead, "they were informed that there was orders for...my grandfather's arrest." The family chose to flee.

They left their village in Siberia in a hurry, Father Nikolai recalls. They walked only at night and followed a compass by striking matches every so often. The journey took place in the middle of winter. Father Nikolai is sure of this because they crossed over a frozen river into Manchuria.

***

Of all their stops around the globe, China was the place they called home the longest. They lived near a city called Harbin until just after the end of World War II, when the Japanese occupation of China ended. They quickly adapted to their new environment in China and made a living hunting elk for their antlers, capturing baby tigers for zoos, and killing man-eating tigers. "My father, in his lifetime, shot 36 tigers," Father Nikolai says with a smile, holding up a sepia-toned photograph of five bearded Russians and one Chinese man standing over a tiger corpse.

Presented by

Wendi Jonassen and Ryan Loughlin are writers living in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The Blacksmith: A Short Film About Art Forged From Metal

"I'm exploiting the maximum of what you can ask a piece of metal to do."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

Video

An Ingenious 360-Degree Time-Lapse

Watch the world become a cartoonishly small playground

Video

The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."

Video

The Rise of the Cat Tattoo

How a Brooklyn tattoo artist popularized the "cattoo"

More in National

Just In