The Old Believer


IN the famine year, Kvalinsk bazaar was a place of the dead. The black log elevators stood empty-bellied as the people, the last grain blown from their cracks. No cattle, no dogs, no cats, no pigeons — all had been eaten. In the Bread Row the corpses were corded like wood.

That was five years ago. To-day the bazaar is stacked with food. Green piles of watermelons, yellow pyramids of millet, golden mounds of wheat and rye. Most gay the red and rose mountains of the Apple Row, and moving among them a huge mountain of flesh on two short legs of enormous girth.

‘How are you, Vlas Alexsevitch?’ I called to him.

’ I’m two hundred and eighty pounds — five pounds gain this week,’ he replied exultantly. ‘ Slava Bogoo! Glory to God! I’m recovering.’

By ‘recovering’ the old man meant getting back the three hundred and sixty pounds that hung upon his fourand-a-half-foot frame in the days before the Revolution. Then he was a veritable behemoth. But his was not the fat of sloth and indulgence, for, from the days when he went barefoot in winter, Vlas never spared himself.

A big wheat harvest across the Volga? There was Vlas, buying early, rushing it across steppe and up river to Kazan. Horses to buy from the Kirghiz, a thousand versts away? There was Vlas, waging war on the natives who stole the laggard ones from his drove, stealing twice as many in revenge. A caterpillar raid on his orchards? No sleep or rest for Vlas until the last pest was gone. A big wall-on-wall light on Maslenitza? Vlas was in the thick of it, his great ham fists swinging till the last man was down. Vlas carried the scars of battle. ‘My left ear knocked deaf by a whaling blow on my right ear,’ as he proudly explains.

No, Vlas’s immense diameter was not the fat of inaction. He got it by taking to the table the same enterprise he took into work and business and fighting. In normal times his zest for food is quite abnormal, but on saints’ days, surrounded as he is by his ikons and his dowager daughters, swathed in his Old Believer caftan, waited on by his wife Shura, it passes all degrees of abnormality.

‘Come on Saint John’s Eve,’ urged the old man, ‘and bring your baba.'

We came at six to find Shura, majestic in a green sarafan with silver buttons reaching to her feet, bringing on the piroghi, a kind of pastry. A peculiar Slav failing is the pirog. No Russian housewife can rest easily with a plain piece of dough. She is impelled to wrap it round something — rice, liver, cheese, cabbage, fish, anything she can lay hands on; this, baked, becomes a pirog. There were five kinds around the samovar, and over all the fragrance of cherry tea.

‘Fill the glasses to the brim,’ said Vlas.

‘The intelligentsia don’t do that any more,’ corrected Shura, passing the tiny morsels of sugar through which the Russians usually suck their tea.

‘The intelligentsia don’t do that any more,’ snorted Vlas gleefully. ‘They put the sugar, not in their mouths, but in their glasses.’ He ran our glasses over with three splashing lumps and piled our plates with herring, sterlet, caviar, red and black, and eggs; then sweets to satiation, brined apples, pickled preserves, all-flower honey, and four sorts of spicy jam.

This, I presumed, was the supper. It proved to be but a preliminary skirmish to a long series of soups, tongues, hams, fish, joints. Crowning all, the great pies, — ten American pies in one, — almost rivaling Vlas in circumference, and following one another down into his enormous maw. Vlas’s stomach was a lineal descendant of Gogol’s Aphanasy Ivanovich, who after eating all day would get up at night to eat more; who found the cure of all diseases, including indigestion, in more abundant eating, and gorged himself to the glory of God and the Ancient Faith.

I paid my compliments to Vlas’s food, his great capacity, and his size.

‘Huh!’ said the old man, shaking his head sadly. ‘What I might be now if it had n’t been for the Revolution!’

This pre-Revolutionary papasha — as he was called by daughters and sonsin-law — became the subject of halfboasting, half-bantering comment.

‘Luckily papasha did n’t fall in with Brikovka peasants in the hunger year,’ said son-in-law Lukas, the tar-and-rope trader; ‘he would have made a month’s meat supply for the village.’

‘Or turned into candles he would have lit the churches till Ilya’s Day,’ said son-in-law Feodor, the cloth merchant.

‘Papasha does n’t like the Revolution, but he might have died long ago if there had been none.’ This from younger daughter Lina.

To her remark I gave point by citing cases of people saved from untimely graves, thanks to the work, hunger, and rigors imposed on them by the Revolution. There was Madame Rimsky Korsakova of S—. In the old days she rose at noon, full of ailments, to walk around her boudoir a hardship. The Revolution took away her money and gave her six people to help support. Now she is up before dawn, dragging great sacks of black bread and potatoes back from the bazaar, four versts away. The troubles of others give her no time to dwell on her own.

Then the old epicure, the landlord I met on a Volga steamer. In the old days of high living he had catarrh of the stomach, and half the doctors of Germany prescribing for him. The Revolution took away his delicacies and put him on a diet of black bread and cabbage soup — when he could get them. ‘The best specialist was the Revolution,’ said he. ‘It gave me a stomach that digests nails.’

Vlas, it would seem, was another example of the saving power of the Revolution, fear and famine frying off great slabs of the fat that was smothering and choking him. All this to Vlas, of course, was sheerest nonsense, as ridiculous as making the sign of the cross with three fingers instead of two. To him food and fat are good things in themselves — the more the better.

Indeed, his chief grievance, it seems, against the Revolution was not for the six expropriated datchas, the three hundred poods of tallow, the six hundred poods of salt beef it took out of his cellar, but for the four poods of fat it took off his belly. His set aim is to win it back, and the old man beams satisfaction at his growing circumference, marking progress on the road to recovery.


‘ More vodka! ’ cried Vlas. Out of big jorghums he kept the red and white vodka gurgling, drinking with each guest in turn and, when he had drunk everybody full, drinking by himself — twenty tumblers. The only apparent effect of it all was to liven up his legs and set him capering across the floor, snapping his fingers.

I complimented him on the nimbleness of his legs.

‘Yes,’ said Vlas, slapping them. ‘Woolen stockings on them all summer, and they never sweat or stink. I got them as captain of my ship on the Volga.’

‘You mean your uncle’s old barge,’ scoffed Shura.

Passing this over, Vlas resumed: ‘My grandfather lived to be a hundred and sixteen years.’

‘One hundred and six,’ put in Shura.

‘Well, one hundred and ten,’ conceded Vlas.

‘Hundred and six — and not a year more.’

Vlas sullenly capitulated. Shura always puts a blight on his stories. When she is absent, his grandfather grows to be one hundred and twentysix. His own thousand-verst journey to the Kirghiz becomes three thousand. Ten thousand horses were frozen to death before his eyes. His broken leg hung by the skin like a hinge. As with ‘Lightnin’,’ who boasted that he drove a swarm of bees across the American continent without losing a bee, Vlas’s tales have sweep and imagination.

But none of this when Shura is around. Besides an irritation arising from a too close and constant conjugal life, Shura harbors against Vlas an incident of long ago. She was not consulted about her husband. He was picked up by her father, as was the procedure in those days. Not on that score does she base her grievance; but on her wedding night someone, knowing Vlas’s weakness, came and cried into the bedroom window: —

‘Eh, Vlas! A big wall-on-wall fight in the next village!’

‘And the good-for-nothing,’ said Shura with terrible venom, ‘jumped into his clothes, fought all night, and did n’t come back till morning.’

‘Yes,’ said Vlas sheepishly, ‘and it’s been eating her for forty-two years. When she’s buried she’ll still be talking about it.’

‘I ran home,’ continued Shura, ‘but my father beat me with a halter and drove me back. If I had said anything my husband would have beaten me with his fist. But those days are over. They don’t dare do that any more.’

‘More’s the pity,’ commented Vlas gloomily. ‘The Revolution has spoiled everything — even the women. In the old days women used to weep at weddings. Now it’s the men.’

But Vlas’s rancor against the Revolution for putting rebellion into Shura is softened by the fact that at the same time it has made her an economic asset. In the new land code the wife has equal claims to the land with the husband. To Vlas’s two dessiatines of orchard are added the two that are Shura’s in her own right.

This orchard is Shura’s great, wide terem. Majestic, strong-featured, with a soft cashmere shawl pinned under her chin, she looks the boyarina one sees so often in the Moscow opera. Here all summer from dawn to dark she is pruning and scraping and spraying her beloved trees.

’Mamasha is so much in the orchard,’ said daughter Lina, ‘that she looks like it. Her hair is as white as the spring blossoms and her cheeks as red as the autumn apples.’

‘She does n’t ever go to the theatre,’ said Vlas approvingly; ‘the nightingales and cuckoos are horns and balalaikas to her.’

This was Vlas’s one poetic outburst. His own approach to the orchard is highly practical. Pulling down a branch, he counts the little green knobs, calculates the number of poods the tree will bear, and puts a corresponding number of leaves in his pocket. At last, the leaves all laid out and counted, he announces, ‘As she stands, two hundred barrels, one thousand rubles.’

A record crop this year. But apples are an uncertain quantity. Next year there may be none at all. So Vlas does n’t depend only on his apples. He is a cereal expert. His season begins when the first wagons come creaking in from the villages, laden with the first offerings of the grain fields.

Along the long lines of peasant wagons moves Vlas. Down goes his arm, deep dredging into the open sack. Up it comes with a bursting handful. He sniffs it, hefts it, tosses it, sifts it, then cries out, ‘One hundred and sixteen,’ ‘One hundred and thirty,’ or ‘One hundred and thirty-two.’ These are zolotniki, the amount of flour a pood will grind into. He can do it with his eyes shut and never make a mistake.

‘I never cheat a peasant, and they never cheat me,’ Vlas asseverates solemnly.

‘How is that?’ I ask him.

‘I knock them down when they try it. Or, at least, I did before the Revolution.’


In those days Vlas was a buyer for private traders, speculators, and merchants. Now individuals have been replaced by institutions. Now the log elevators, standing like blockhouses along the river front, flaunt the signs, ‘Bread Products,’‘Gosbank,’‘Goob Coop.’ Now Vlas is a ‘red merchant’ buying for the Coöperative — a huge, impersonal corporation. He can’t bargain with it, nor joke, nor drink vodka with it as he did with his former masters. Vlas misses that. But it does n’t affect the zeal and energy and conscientiousness of his work.

He is the oldest buyer in the market, but the most active. When the grain sledges cross the frozen Volga, Vlas is up before dawn to meet them. When the red flag goes up on the central kiosk, announcing the opening of the market, Vlas, with all the gusto of an old wall fighter, plunges into the thick of the buying, his great globe body rolling in and out among the sledges, puffing, shouting, scolding, joking, chiding. This is Vlas’s element — food in the raw, food in abundance, mountains of it, chuting into elevators, filling the barges — food going out to feed the world. And Vlas is part of the process. The joy of it shines in his face. It exalts. It intoxicates. It transfigures him.

On these big grain days a veritable revolution is wrought in his propertyloving soul. The crass old individualist is socialized. ‘My’ orchard, ‘my’house, give way to ‘our’ wheat, ‘our’ Russia, ‘our’ coöperative.

‘Look what our coöperative has given me!’ he cries, digging a paper out of his pocket and reading: ‘In recognition of faithful services performed by Vlas Alexsevitch Podkletnov/

‘See!’ says the old man. ‘There’s the seal. There’s the sickle and hammer.’ The same pride as a Red-Armist in his service medal.

’You know our country is great,’Vlas goes on. ‘In the Kuban the crop ripens a month earlier than here. They talk of ordering me down there this season. Anywhere they send me I ’ll go, even to America. But they would n’t let me in, would they? They would say I’m a Bolshevik.'

Old Believer Vlas, arrested as a Bolshevik! His great carcass heaves with laughter. Suddenly he stops, saying: —

‘But I’m just like a Communist. I’ve got a red card. I’m a Union man.’ He shows me a tiny red book, certifying his membership in the Union of Soviet Employees, and recounts its privileges: nine rubles out-of-work benefit; forty rubles at the birth of a child; free medicine.

‘But what good is that to me?’ says Vlas regretfully. ‘I’m never out of work, never sick, and my baba is too old for babies.'

Vlas, however, is a good Union man. Dues paid to date, not a black mark on the pages for reprimands and reproofs, and on Soviet holidays Vlas always in the front ranks near the tribune, his good right ear glued to the speaker.

Maybe he can get a clue as to what the Revolution was about: to what purpose it took away his datchas, beef, and tallow, his Falstaffian figure, and the spirit of obedience that once was Shura’s. Another grievance against the Revolution is that it loosed on him bandits and bourgeois-baiters. Though he tried hard to make himself inconspicuous, his nine poods too magnificently incarnated their conception of a ‘bourzhuey,’and made him the target for their terror, rapacity, and humor.

One night robbers came, demanding five thousand rubles. On his refusal they led him down to an ice hole in the Volga, saying: ‘Pray your prayers, old man, then down the river under the ice to Astrakhan!’ A hundred times he crossed himself; then turned to find the bandits had vanished.

Another time a sabre was flashing above his head. ‘Shall I carve him?’ asked the swordsman. ‘No! He’s a full-blooded old devil. Too big a mess he would make.’

Again he was whisked away from his samovar to run the gauntlet of the Red Chambers. Four rifles blazed at him in the dark and he fell unconscious. Coming to, Vlas felt about for blood and holes in himself. There were none. It was a hoax with blank cartridges.

Naturally enough, these memories rankle in his breast, and occasionally smouldering resentment flashes into fire. But he tries valiantly to let bygones be bygones, to forget and forgive. All in all, the old man is a remarkable case of adaptation to the new system of life and ideas.


One thing that helps reconcile Vlas to the new order is that to Vlas, as to all sectarians, the Revolution means freedom in religion, a release from the persecutions with which the State Church had hounded them since 1665. It had exiled them to the far-off forests and wastes of Russia. It had confiscated the treasures of their churches. It had broken up their monasteries on the Irtysh River. It had closed their asylums and divinity schools. It had fallen on them with fire and sword.

It is noteworthy that the Communists have used no measure against the Orthodox State Church which that Church has not used for centuries against the nonconforming faiths. In fact, it went far beyond anything the Communists ever attempted. No slanders were too base, no cruelties too vicious.

The Old Believers were declared a menace to the State and put outside the law. Their nostrils were ripped by pincers. Their children were made bastards and torn from their parents. Seals were put upon their altars and gates. Their clergy were forbidden to perform their offices. More than once Vlas has brought a priest at night, disguised as a merchant, to conduct worship. And to ward off a raid on his church Vlas often carried hush money to the police.

One time the procurator charged ‘a serious crime’ against Old Believers of Kvalinsk for ‘the ringing of bells from their belfries, thus luring and tempting citizens to attend their services, a scandal not permitted in Saratov or Kuznetsk.’ Orders were issued by the Governor to muffle the bells.

The Revolution of 1905 took the seals off their altars. The Revolution of 1917 gave them equal rights alongside other faiths. The right of assembly they used to convene in Kvalinsk a unity council of three branches of the Old Believers. Hither came three hundred delegates out of old Moscow, out of the forests of Archangel, the valleys of the Caucasus, the Caspian steppes — out of the Russia of far away and long ago. Had I not known Vlas, I should have wondered how this strange, weird assembly of figures could have survived the Revolution. Big, hulking merchants who might have stepped out of the marts of old Novgorod. Gaunt, hollow-eyed monks who might have stepped out of the ikon frames. Priests with fanatic devotion to the ancient ritual, like their forefathers, ready to be burned to death for it — and equally ready to burn others.

‘A foreigner! A spy!’ thundered at me a giant virgin-bearded Cossack of the Don. ‘Put him out!’

They put me out. But old Vlas smuggled me in again. And in course of time they grew tolerant of me. I even lured one of them, a Siberian priest, to my house. Five goblets of wine, and the pent-up hatred against the old State Church broke out in a flaming tirade: —

‘Snuff-pinchers! They make the sign of the cross with thumb and two fingers! Cowards! They could n’t compete with the true faith and they put seals on our altars. Liars! They founded their religion on deceit. So they betray everybody, even those who confess to them. Why, if someone confessed to me that he killed the Tsar, it would be my secret forever. Police spies, charlatans, wolves—’

In contrast with such extremists Vlas is a modernist and has departed far from the faith of his fathers. The strictest Old Believers will not touch tea and sugar, nor potatoes, for they were unknown before the days of Nikon. But to Vlas all food is good. The strictest Old Believers, holding that false religion defiles a man in body and soul, keep themselves sternly aloof from the ‘worldly’ as unclean. In the villages zealots often refused to shake the hand I proffered, and the bowl I ate from — as I found later — was the one from which the cat was fed. Any other dish I defiled would have to be broken or thrown away. When I told Vlas of this, he only laughed, and to prove that he had no such prejudices made me drink from the same bowl with him.

The Revolution has done much damage to Vlas’s observance of the ancient customs and conventions. Even for those to which he conforms he gives secular and not religious reasons.

The strictest Old Believers lay no razor to their face, for the beardless may not enter Heaven. Bandits once waylaid Old Believers with the demand, ‘Your money or your beard!’ If the beard was severed, it was gathered up to be buried with its owner lest at the gates of Paradise he be unrecognized. When I asked Vlas why he does n’t cut his whiskers off, he shook his head and said: ‘Do I want to look like a dog?’

The strictest Old Believers use no tobacco. It was unknown before Nikon, and the Scriptures say: ‘Not what entereth into the mouth, but what cometh out, defiles a man.’ Vlas bases his abjuration of smoking on purely physiological grounds: it would cut down his weight. ‘Do I want to look like a weasel?’

To Vlas sheer size and bulk arc virtues in themselves. He is proud of his big self, his big daughters, his big ikons, his big cross with the legend, ‘Vladika! Ward off my enemies.’ Proudest of all of his enormous Nomakanon, the Laws and Scriptures in archaic red and black Slavonic script. To Vlas a magic spell lies in its great dimensions and in its great age — more than three hundred years, he boasts. The very reading of it has healing power.

This Vlas was doing in a loud voice when I went to say good-bye. The room oven-hot, the ikon lamps alit, a sizzling samovar, haunches of pork and beef and pies on the table; and the old man, barefooted, in his black caftan, vodka pouring into him, sweat pouring out of him, was singsonging a prayer out of this holy book.

‘Just curing myself of a cold,’ said Vlas apologetically.

Good health to Vlas! Hoch to Vlas!

Maybe, long after the ascetic Bernard Shaw has finished his meatless, wineless days, this voracious, flesheating, vodka-drinking, Bible-reading, Union-carded Old Believer will continue to stand, a bulwark of his ancient faith, refuting all the laws of physiology and hygiene and some of the tenets of Marxism.