Alfred, an Aleut Native, is the title character of “The Prince of Kodiak,” the third story in Halibut Rodeo. Alfred is a large guy, the type of dude, as my father pointed out, that you want on your side in a bar fight. In the story he falls for an Old Believer named Anneke. Anneke wears a brightly colored skirt and blouse to work, even though that work entails the gutting of fish. She never works on Sundays, even though it would pay overtime. In “Breaking the Halibut” Leo, one of the supervisors, is expelled from Anneke’s village for listening to the radio and smoking hash.
Early drafts of these stories were workshopped by other MFA students during my time at Wichita State. One student cried foul for Leo’s expulsion, because he didn’t find it believable. Bob Shacochis, the leader of the workshop, asked what the class knew about Old Believers.
Nothing, it turned out. The student who didn’t buy Leo’s expulsion assumed I had made then up.
No, I didn’t make them up. There are about 1,500 Old Believers in Alaska. Their founders were part of a splinter group that left Oregon in the 1960s because they feared the influence of American culture on their kids. Like so many other characters in my book, they rejected a life in the Lower 48 to pursue a new existence in America’s Final Frontier.
Old Believers don’t originate in Oregon, however. In the 17th century Nikon (no relation to the camera), the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, instituted a number of changes to church ritual to bring it closer to that of the Greek Orthodox. Most of these changes were minor: the number of fingers used to make the sign of the cross, for example, or the proper way to spell “Jesus.” As is usually the case with the religious, not everyone went along with it. (Religious history is filled with these traditionalists. A few survive, like the Coptic Christians of Egypt. Most don’t.) The Czar adopted the changes, though, so those who didn’t were first excommunicated by the Church, and then persecuted by the Russian government. These Old Believers fled, some going to the outskirts of the Russian Empire, like Siberia, or modern day Bulgaria. Eventually a number of them ended up in Oregon.
Like the Amish and the Mennonites, Old Believers are very protective of their heritage Purveyors of American culture (radio, television, computers) are often banned in Old Believer towns. Until recently, teachers in some Old Believer schools were not allowed to have computers in their classroom. Now some have them on their desks, but the students are not given access.
But times are a’changin.’ Alaskan Old Believers have traditionally made their living in the fishing industry. But fishing is a feast or famine occupation. There have been bans on fishing King Crab in Alaska, and the Exxon oil spill wreaked havoc on the salmon and halibut populations in not only Prince William Sound, but also in the waters around Kachemak Bay. More Old Believers than ever before are finishing high school and looking for work in places like Anchorage.
This “modernization” will certainly lead to more fracturing of the community. Periodic schisms seem to be the norm amongst Old Believers. In Nikolaevsk, an Old Believer village on Kenai Peninsula, not far from Homer, the powers that be decided to reintroduce priests to their church. Formal clergy had been banned in the past. They even found a priest in Romania and brought him to Alaska. (Kinda like Joel, the doctor from New York, in “Northern Exposure.”) But just like before, not everyone embraced the change. The bezpopovtsy, or “Priestless Old Believers,” left Nikolaevsk and started their own community out in the middle of nowhere. Talking about Going Rogue…
Which reminds me: I wander what Alaskan Old Believers think of Sarah Palin?
I like to think they’ve never heard of heard of her.