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Russian Culture Still Alive in Rural Alaska

2017-8-23

Alaska is the largest state in the United States. It is also one of the least populated. The state is home to 741,000 people. Among them are Native Alaskans, immigrants, adventure-seekers and oil industry workers from other parts of the country.

The state is also home to a community known as the Russian Old Believers. They came to Alaska from Russia nearly 50 years ago. They built a village on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. The village is called Nikolaevsk.

Splitting from Russia

The Old Believers split from the Russian Orthodox Church in the 17th century. They separated to protest changes in the church imposed by the patriarch. The patriarch is the highest-ranking Bishop in the Russian Orthodox religion.

Later, political changes in Russia forced many of them to flee the country.

Mother Irina Fefelova is a member of the Old Believers church. She is the widow of Kondrat Fefelov, an Old Believers priest.

She said the introduction of communism in Russia made it difficult for the Old Believers to continue their traditions and lifestyle.

"With the arrival of communism, at first it was fine, but then they just started coming to the huts and taking everything. Our people were used to having big families, the same as we do now. But, you need to feed the kids – and they’d just come in and everything…and people had kids, mothers were crying – how we are supposed to feed the kids? And they go: “Throw the kids to the dogs, they’ll eat them...”

At the time, Old Believers feared arrest. Many left Russia and crossed the border into China. Fefelova herself was born in China.

Members of the Old Believers community, wearing traditional clothes, in Nikolaevsk, Alaska.
Members of the Old Believers community, wearing traditional clothes, in Nikolaevsk, Alaska.

“We lived there for a while. And then life turned bad again with communists. Our parents escaped from communists – ran from Russia to China, and then we left China for the same reason."

Fefelova’s family then went to Brazil. Later, they moved to the northwestern U.S. state of Oregon.

Some members of the Old Believers settled in Oregon. Others, like Fefelova, continued on to Alaska. At that time, the Fefelova family already had seven kids. Four more were born in Alaska.

For Mother Irina, Alaska was a good place to call home.

Keeping their traditions

In Alaska, the Old Believers still pray in an ancient language called Old Church Slavonic. The older generations speak Russian. But, Fefelova says the younger generation prefers English.

"Our kids speak Russian well, we spoke good Russian in the family. But their kids do not speak Russian – they come to the grandma, and can’t tell me, what they need. It’s hard. It’s such a pity for the grandchildren. Now, when they finish praying, Father starts reading them stories – all in American. Because the kids…don’t understand a word."

Today, about 300 people live in Nikolaevsk. The men in the village earn money by fishing, and sometimes by building fishing boats. The village was once famous for these boats.

Denis Fefelov is the son of Mother Irina and Father Kondrat, the late priest.

“We’ve built over 100 boats… And now the boats are barely worn out, they stay functional. Instead of ordering new ones, people just sell them on. But we still build some…”

Fefelov was born in Brazil. He came to the U.S. with his family when he was three years old. He speaks fluent Russian and Old Church Slavnoic, and teaches children church songs. He also watches the evening news in English, however, and considers himself an American.

Women in Nikolaevsk wear sarafan – a traditional Russian dress. They make the dresses themselves. The men have long beards and wear Russian shirts. Denis says people in nearby towns are used to seeing the Old Believers dressed in their traditional clothing.

"We are here for 40 years. Maybe some tourists that visit think it’s weird clothes. But the local people, they know us."

I’m Phil Dierking.

Natasha Mozgovaya wrote this story for VOA News. Phil Dierking adapted this story for VOA Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.

Are there small communities from other countries where you are from? We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section or on 51VOA.COM.

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Words in This Story

cellar - n. the part of a building that is entirely or partly below the ground

communism - n. a way of organizing a society in which the government owns the things that are used to make and transport products (such as land, oil, factories, ships, etc.) and there is no privately owned property .

patriarch - n. an official of very high rank in the Orthodox Church

pity - n. a strong feeling of sadness or sympathy for someone or something