We left last week’s Trans-Siberian ramblings with a mass exodus into the Siberian countryside, and away from the bright lights of European Russia. Who’d have thought it? It’s akin to the UK’s Great Northern Line allowing Londoners an escape to the provinces! Freedom! Let’s go!
This migration was largely driven by the medieval tyranny of serfdom (there was none in Siberia), and here lies the lesson: “civilisation” means nothing without freedom.
Another group that joined the flight were a group of Orthodox devotees who would become known as the Old Believers, though as with most things that I discover: it’s considerably more complicated than it first appears.
Their split from the main body of the Russian Orthodox Church had its root in reforms introduced by Patriarch Nikon from 1652 to 1666, well before the era of the Trans-Siberian railway. By the end of this period, a sub-section of the church had had enough with the 400 or so pages of modifications that were designed to bring Russian and Greek Orthodoxy into line.
It’s hard as an outsider to appreciate the minutiae and significance of these changes. Three fingers to make the sign of the cross as opposed to two? Unison singing as opposed to Polyphonic? Three immersions during baptism but now, pouring or sprinkling is acceptable? There’s many, many more.
In the inevitable period of persecution against those who rejected the reforms; the now “Old Believers” were subjected to double the rate taxation and even an additional beard tax! They retained no civil rights and were even executed if they proved particularly troublesome. Just resembling an unshaven Old Believer was enough to arouse suspicion, as Alison Smith illustrates in her Russian history blog:
“In January 1750–after Nikifor Prokofiev had petitioned, but before his petition had been granted–he was spotted by a local official “at the bazaar in a beard and in unlawful dress.” Called before the chancellery, Nikifor Prokofiev did indeed turn out have “beard and whiskers unshorn and unshaved” and to be dressed in “a fur, a caftan, a Russian shirt and with no tie.” This was counter to the laws then in force, which stated that anyone unshorn and dressed in Russian clothing was suspected of Old Belief and thus liable to prosecution”.
In return, the most vociferous of their number proclaimed that the church had fallen into the hands of the antichrist!
This latest “schism” (one of several) appeared intractable and many Old Believers fled Russia, for those that stayed, the Trans-Siberian railway could not come soon enough. Incidentally, in 1905, Tsar Nicholas 2nd banned persecution through religious intolerance, but this did not see a mass return. Some remained within the jurisdiction of Western Russia, but the new lives of many Old Believers had already taken root elsewhere.
One aspect that ‘K’ (my knowledgeable interviewee) brings to light is the mass re-shuffling of civil infrastructure and relative logistical importance that came with the introduction of the Trans-Siberian Railway. It’s a fascinating subject that seems rarely explored. The pre-railway Siberia had been traversed via establish tracks, either on horseback or by foot. By carriage too, if the relatively well-heeled occupants fancied something of a mini roller-coaster adventure. It was also an era of rivers as roads (even by ice-sledge in winter), used for the slow passage of trade and travellers, as with all ‘developing’ cultures.
Such connections favour the growth of certain locations and meeting places, allowing the establishment of markets, villages and greater settlements that a rudimentary infrastructure facilitates.
This changed with the arrival of the railway. Suddenly, the place to be was alongside this new river of iron, allowing for greater, faster trade and a speed of travel previously impossible. Old routes and centres of importance withered and died, business was relocated, people migrated and towns flourished at the sites of new stations. Siberia was re-plumbed, re-shuffled and re-connected into a greater system of communication. Some individuals and institutions won financially and logistically, some lost and others just changed to fit the burgeoning new era.
In the meantime, Siberia’s general populace (comprising of approximately 130 native tribes, plus European Russians) generally just wanted to get along for most of the time, which reflects badly upon the historical treatment of first nations by interloping Westerners. “There was no reason to fight” ‘K’ tells me, Siberia was abundant with enough resources for all, and didn’t suffer socially from the same kind of grotesque racial/cultural discrimination that we still endure.
So the railway largely allowed these residents to keep doing what they were doing, only more so and with the introduction of fashionable European furniture from the West and precious tea from the East (providing you could afford either), with greater social, professional and educational opportunities thrown into the bargain. A decided win, then.