Dear fellow travellers
"What do Vatican City, Canterbury, Boston (Massachusetts) and the Ukrainian village of Bila Krynytsya have in common?" It was with this intriguing query that we were introduced to the Russian Old Believers. Most of us would recognise the Vatican and Canterbury as being home to the mother church of the Roman Catholic and Anglican communions respectively. From there it might be just a short leap to identifying Boston as the focal point for the Christian Scientists.
But Bila Krynytsya? It turns out that this small village in southwest Ukraine, just a stone's throw from the Romanian border, is a household name among many Russian Old Believers. From Alaska to the Danube Delta the name evokes important religious images and associations. For Bila Krynytsya, a community of no more than a couple of hundred people, most of them very elderly, is where the most widely accepted religious hierarchy of the Old Believers is nominally based.
The head of the church has the splendidly resounding title Metropolitan of Bila-Krynytsya and All Old Orthodox Christians, and he presides over an episcopal see that spans several continents - truly a dispersed convocation of the devout. The current incumbent, Bishop Leonty, about to celebrate ten years in office, actually discharges his pastoral duties from Braila, a river town on the lower Danube, which is conveniently close to the many Lipovan Russians, known as Lipoveni in Romania, whom he numbers among his flock. The Lipoveni live in remote villages of the Danube delta region. As with many other Old Believer communities, isolation has been the very key to survival.
However, there are also many Old Believers who are utterly non-conformist and will have nothing to do with priests, bishops and the whole business of hierarchy. These latter are religious conservatives, clinging dearly to the old traditions of the Russian Orthodox church which were officially eclipsed by the changes ushered in by the Nikonite reforms in the second half of the seventeenth century.
Bila Krynytsya turns out to be rather down-at-heel and not at all easy to reach. A network of rutted roads criss-cross land that slopes down from lush forests of beech and fir on the eastern Carpathians towards the Siret valley. Strips of carefully cultivated land delimit the boundaries of the village; just one field away to the south runs the Romanian border, a reminder of the time in 1940 when the former Austro-Hungarian territory known as Bucovina was crudely divided in two.
Borders do not always make a whole lot of sense in the way that they cut through communities. Even sixty-five years after the division of the Bucovina region, the village of Bahrynivka, just east of Bila Krynytsya and also on the Ukrainian side of the border, is still almost entirely Romanian speaking. There is a lot of hassle over schooling in these villages, and whether tuition should be in Ukrainian and Romanian. But the one village which scarcely figures in the news is Bila Krynytsya, a remarkable ethno-confessional island of Old Believers who keep themselves to themselves.
Many are the foreign travellers and tourists who visit the southern Bucovina (ie. the Romanian part). On both sides of the border, this is a landscape of tantalising beauty. The painted monasteries on the Romanian side are justifiably celebrated, but few venture north of the border to Bila Krynytsya. It may not quite be the Vatican, but a visit to this remarkable religious outpost is a pilgrimage beyond compare.
We feature the Old Believers in the September 2006 issue of hidden europe, when we trace the background to these curious communities, and report from Old Believer villages in Estonia and elsewhere across Europe.