May 8, 2013

Another errand into the wilderness

A very American story about a group of people who probably don't think of themselves as American at all: The Old Believers of Russian Orthodoxy.

At the Atlantic Monthly, Wendy Jonassen and Ryan Loughin report:
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.
Minus a turkey or two and a friendly native who happens to know how to speak the newcomers' language, the travels and travails of the immigrants at Nikolaevsk, Alaska could be the story of the Pilgrims and the First Thanksgiving. What they've done at this outpost in Alaska follows the form of a deep American myth. Even as -- but also sort of because -- it involves resistance to American culture, a passionate desire to be separate, seek a better country, go on an errand into the wilderness, build a city on a hill, and these sorts of things.

It's not just the ur-myth of the Pilgrims, either. As T.C. Boyle ably illustrated in Drop City, where a group of utopian-dreaming hippies move to Alaska and live side-by-side with utopian-dreaming right-wing survivalists, this idea and ideal re-emerges in many ways across American culture and history. Whether it's 16th century Puritans or the Mormons walking to Utah, the Free State Project or the leftist utopians who moved into the California redwoods in the 1880s and named the largest tree in the world the Karl Marx tree, the vision persists, and persists with such strength that people are compelled or inspired to try again what's been tried before. But different this time.

So these Russians in Alaska are reenacting an old, old story, one that's a deep part of the identity of the outside culture they're resisting:
Slight signs of assimilation had begun even in the community's shorter stops elsewhere in the globe, for example in Brazil. 'In Russian, beans is frazol,' Vasily says. 'But we say fijon. That is the Portuguese word for beans.' Yet a century after they left Siberia, many Old Believers still speak Slavonic, an old peasant dialect that dates back hundreds of years. The four to five hour long church service in Nikolaevsk is still completely in Slavonic. And in many homes, the elders only speak Slavonic and children are scolded when they slip into English in the wrong setting. 
But for the first time in Nikolaevsk the majority of the younger generation speaks English as their first language. While many of them can speak Slavonic conversationally, it's only a matter of time before the language dies out completely [....] 
The Slavonic church services may even be in danger. 'I am looking down the line, maybe not in my lifetime, but whoever is going to be the priest after me, is going to have to really consider incorporating more English into the services,' Father Nikolai says.
It's a fear that, at root, John Winthrop wouldn't have found strange.