Cablegate: Old Believers in Latvia

DE RUEHRA #0812/01 3030513
P 300513Z OCT 07




E.O. 12958: N/A
SUBJECT: Old Believers in Latvia

1. Summary: Latvia is well-known for its large Russian community,
mainly the large number of non-citizens and claims that they are
discriminated against, especially on language. However, it would be
a big mistake to perceive Russians in Latvia as a homogenous
religious community. While the majority are orthodox, significant
numbers are Catholic, evangelical, or Old Believers. Old Believers
are a relatively small community with strong historic and cultural
roots in Latvia. Almost all Old Believers are Latvian citizens.
However, they make few political claims. The state recognizes Old
Belief as one of Latvia's seven traditional religions and provides
some support for preserving and maintaining their cultural and
historical heritage. End summary.

2. Most international and even local actors are used to making very
general conclusions about Russians in Latvia; they are non-citizens,
they do not know Latvian, etc. However, a closer examination of
Russians in Latvia - their history, sociological profile, and
attitudes - suggests caution in using convenient generalizations. It
is true that the majority of Russians arrived to Latvia during the
Soviet period, however, there are groups within the Russian
community that have deep roots in Latvian society. Russians were the
biggest minority already in inter-war (1918 - 1940) Latvia, though
at that time they constituted about nine percent of population, vice
today's nearly thirty percent. Diversity also exists in their
religious affiliation and observance: about 70 percent indentify as
Orthodox, 15 percent - Old Believer, and seven percent - Catholic.
There is also a sizable number in the evangelical movement.

3. What is Old Belief
Old Believers have a unique faith, culture and history. Some
representatives of Latvia's Old Believers even claim that the
community (about 60,000 - 80,000) are a distinct ethnic-religious
group and should not be treated the same way as "other Russians."
The term 'Old Belief' refers to the churches and religious
communities that do not recognize the reforms launched in the
Russian Orthodox Church in the 17th century by Patriarch Nikon. From
the established Russian Orthodox Church it differs not so much in
its doctrine as in its rites and observances. The Old Believers also
have peculiar ecclesiastical structures of their own as well as
their own interpretation of certain elements of the Holy Writ and
the Tradition. The Old Believers traditionally cross themselves with
two fingers, and they recognized only pre-reform icons, liturgical
books and observances, and the eight-armed cross. The majority of
Old Believers have no regular clergy (and no three-level hierarchy
as the Orthodox Church has), and their liturgies and religious
observances are conducted by 'spiritual fathers' elected among the
parishioners themselves. The early Old Believers were characterized
by their hostility to all things secular, especially the State and a
society ruled, as they thought, by the Antichrist, their refusal to
entertain any contacts with 'worldly people' (with whom they would
not eat, drink or pray together), their anxious expectancy of the
'world's end', their rigid asceticism, their abidance by old
traditions, rites and lifestyles, etc. Estimates place the total
number of Old Believers remaining in the world today at from 1 to 10
million, some living in extremely isolated communities in places to
which they fled centuries ago to avoid persecution.

4. History of Old Believers in Latvia
The first records of Old Believers settlements in Latvia can be
traced back to the 17th century, when hundreds of Old Believers
from neighboring areas of Tsarist Russia settled in the eastern part
of Latvia seeking refuge from persecution as a result of their
unwillingness to accept reforms in the Orthodox Church. Also
nowadays the biggest Old Believers communities are to be found in
the eastern part of Latvia (Latgale), as well as in the capital
Riga. In Latgale, there are villages where the number of Old
Believers reaches 80 - 90 percent of the population, for instance,
Silmalas in Rezekne's district. Similarly to other religions, there
are a number of splinter groups within Old Belief. In Latvia the
dominant majority are Pomorsky Old Believers (main distinction: no
priesthood), however, some attempts to establish other groups have
been made.

5. Today's situation in the community.
Today the older generation of Latvia's Old Believers continues to
observe their religious rites and traditions. For a broader public,
they are mainly known for their attempts to maintain their unique
religious heritage and low political profile. In private
conversations, they claim to be a distinctive group within Latvia's
Russian community since, in contrast to Russians who came to Latvia
in the Soviet period, they have Latvian citizenship. A few ethnic
Russian politicians and MPs claim to be Old Believers, however,
according to leader of one of Old Believers' communities "that has
not resulted in any profit" for the community.

6. Official stance. The official government policy towards Old
Believers in general could be characterized as supportive or
neutral. The leader of Jekabpils' Old Believers' community claimed
that Latvia is among a very few places where Old Believers may
practice their religion freely. Their attempts to preserve Old
Believers historical heritage (churches, graveyards) are very often
funded by government and individual municipalities. Besides, Old
Belief, along with seven other religions designated by law as

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"traditional", has been given particular rights by Latvian law.
Despite the overall positive or neutral attitude towards Old Belief,
Latvian legislation has legal norms which are discriminatory against
Old Believers: since Old Believers' faith does not allow taking
oath, it would not be possible for a fully-observant Old Believer to
take positions in government which require taking oath. However,
there is no information on real cases and the representative of the
Old Believers community hardly doubted such possibility, since Old
Believers who observe the rites also prefer to abstain from state

7. Comment: Though Old Believers are not granted specific political
and social rights by the official policy, Old Believers are
recognized by the Latvian state, can freely practice their religion
and receive some support for the perseverance of their unique
cultural heritage. Individual objections against equalizing Russians
who are Old Believers with other Russians are made in private and
most likely will not become official demand to recognize the Old
Believers as a distinct ethnic/religious group since the community
does not have strong political lobbies and is more concerned about
the perseverance of its cultural and religious heritage. The future
of the community is endangered not so much by official policy as
lack of members of new generation who follow and observe rites and
traditions of Old Belief.


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