Three centuries on, Russian Old Believers hang on in Oregon

By Andrew Kramer, The Associated Press
Saturday November 24, 2001

WOODBURN — An old woman in peasant clothes and a kerchief around her head stands in front of a Russian church that’s topped by gilded cupolas. The scene could be out of a century in the distant past — if it weren’t for a Ford pickup parked nearby and a TV antenna sprouting from a house. 

This is “the village,” a row of houses and churches that is the heart of the Russian Old Believer community in Oregon. It is where 17th century Russian traditions meet rural America. 

The Russian Old Believers have survived persecution from the czars, decades in exile and other hardships. 

They follow strict rules contained in religious books dating back to medieval times in Russia. They can’t eat meat on Wednesdays or Fridays, they wear peasant-style clothing with a belt, they can’t marry people outside the faith — among other restrictions. 

“We have always been in a hostile society. From day one in the 17th century,” said Father Ambrose, an Old Believer monk and curator of a Russian museum at the Mount Angel Abby. 

The 10,000 Old Believers in Oregon are the largest concentration of members living in the United States. They are managing to keep their customs and traditions alive, but not without difficulty. Compromises are necessary. 

Many refuse to eat at restaurants because of a religious ban on using the same dishes as heretics. But all drive cars and most these days watch television. 

Old Believers have to observe 40 religious holidays every year. That makes employment with businesses outside the faith all but impossible. 

About half of the Old Believers are farmers — one of the few occupations that meshes with their lifestyle. But farming becomes harder each year because of competition from imported produce. 

Many Old Believer families don’t believe in education past eighth grade, and send their children into their fields to work or into jobs with friends’ and relatives’ construction businesses. 

Those teen-agers who go to high school are often prohibited from dating non-Old Believers. 


Yavhori Cam, the founder of the Old Believers’ village in Oregon, sliced the subdivision from verdant farmland about 30 miles south of Portland in the 1960s. 

On a recent Sunday service inside Pokrov Church, men in dark robes chanted a deep-voiced a capella choir as women crossed themselves and genuflected before icons illuminated by candles. 

The journey to America for most of the residents in the village began in northern Turkey, where an Old Believer community had fled to escape czarist persecution more than 200 years ago. 

That group decided to relocate to Oregon because the number of marriageable young people had fallen to a low level that could no longer sustain the community, according to accounts in the village. A mere 42 families remained. 

They came to Oregon through the intervention of then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in 1963. They joined two other Old Believer groups that had migrated to the United States by way of Manchuria, Hong Kong and Brazil after Russia’s 1917 revolution. Those groups were helped to Oregon by charities with a Cold War-era agenda of helping Christians migrate from communist countries. 


Forty years on, Old Believers still get their fashion sense at baptism. Eight-day-old infants are dressed in an embroidered shirt, or rubashka, a homemade belt called a poyas, and a cross. They are expected to wear the same thing for the rest of their lives. 

Mara Cherepanov, 17, a senior at Woodburn High School, admitted she sometimes eyes with envy other girls’ store-bought clothes. 

The problem is not purchasing clothes, she said. The problem is that Gucci or Gap don’t make lines for teen-agers that meet Old Believer standards. 

A dress, or platya, must be tied with the belt. It must be flowing rather than shear and extend to the ankles. After a Sunday church service, girls and boys scampered out onto Bethlehem Road in pink and red embroidered clothes, with kerchiefs and leather boots and belts, giving the quaint impression of an Old World peasant festival. 


Ulita Seleznev, a teacher at Heritage Elementary School, said she sees more and more Old Believers making compromises. 

“Ten or 15 years ago people were more worried about the outside. Now you hear less about the outside” because Old Believers are becoming more a part of it, she said. 

Old Believer rules forbid eating off the same dish as someone who’s not of the faith. Many keep special dishes in their houses for non-Old Believer guests when they come to dinner. 

The only restaurants Seleznev frequents are fast-food joints — where meals come in disposable plastic and paper containers. 

Some Old Believers rationalize they can “use the drive-thru because nobody has touched the dishes. Everything is throw away. I see more people doing that,” she said. 

“But before Lent they will repent and do their Hail Marys.” 

“We’re still closely knit, but not reclusive as before,” she said. “The kids are more American growing up than when I grew up.” 


Filip Ayhan, 25, a cousin of Kalin Ayhan, grew up in the village, spoke only Russian until first grade, and vows he will stay and raise his children in the same fashion. 

Like many Old Believers, he quit school after seventh grade. Ayhan began working as a painter with family members or other Russians who are contractors. 

Old Believers have the highest dropout rate at the Woodburn School District, said Sherrilynn Rawson, a program analyst with the district. Old Believers account for about 20 percent of dropouts but 15 percent of the school population. 

She added cheerfully: “It’s not nearly what it was 20 years ago. (Russian) kids didn’t drop out of high school because they didn’t go.” 

Interviewed standing beside his Chevrolet truck on Bethlehem Road, Ayhan fondly recalled Easter and other holidays in the village. The Old Believers eat homemade dumplings and drink braga, a home brew of raisins, berries, yeast and spices. 

Another favorite pastime was firing the “potato shooter.” 

This was a length of plastic pipe plugged at one end and filled with explosive fumes from cans of hair spray or WD-40. He would jam a potato in one side and apply a match to a small hole in the other. That sent a potato mortar shell sailing toward the greenhouse of a non-Russian neighbor. 

“Oh boy, we had lots of fun,” he said. 


In the early 1970s some Old Believers decided to leave Oregon’s Willamette Valley because of unwanted modern influences. 

Twenty-four families left the Woodburn site and moved to 240 acres they bought on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska. They created the log village of Nikolayevsk, where peasant-clad Old Believers are the only residents. 

In a letter to the Kenai Borough government at that time, the group explained they were leaving Oregon to “protect the integrity of our faith and to raise our children with a minimum of risk of contamination from modern temptations.” Families there set up halibut fishing companies. 

For Old Believers who remained in Oregon, it’s becoming harder every year to make a living with farming. 

Josef Cam, a grandson of the founder of the village, said next year he’s “getting out of farming.” 

He said he failed to sell a bumper crop of strawberries this summer after imports from Mexico flooded the market. By the end of the June harvest, about 100,000 pounds of berries were rotting in the summer heat on his 12-acre patch outside a yellow farmhouse. 


At Mount Angel Abby on a crisp fall night, Father Ambrose sat in his room lined with leather-bound books with Cyrillic writing on the spines. The walls were hung with tapestries and icons depicting saints and martyrs in yellow and ocher tones. 

The windows of his residence overlook the Willamette Valley and the twinkling lights of farmhouses below in Old Believer country. 

“It’s never been easy to be an Old Believer,” he said.