Self-Immolation of the Old Believers

Under a mandate from the Russian church and state to accept revised religious practices and rituals, thousands of conservative Russian Christians took their own lives, often by burning themselves in their churches, rather than desert their traditions.

Summary of Event

The Old Belief was a response to efforts by the Russian church and state to change traditional religious practices and rituals. By the seventeenth century, the belief that the end of the world was close at hand had spread through many parts of Russian society. An effort at union between the Greek Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, followed by the fall of the Byzantine (Greek) Empire to Turkish invaders in the mid-fifteenth century, had convinced many Russians that Russia remained alone as the only true Orthodox Christian nation. Rapid social change encouraged Russians by the late sixteenth century to believe that the end of the world, a time of struggle between good and evil, was close. [kw]Self-Immolation of the Old Believers (1672-c. 1691)
[kw]Old Believers, Self-Immolation of the (1672-c. 1691)
[kw]Immolation of the Old Believers, Self- (1672-c. 1691)
Religion and theology;1672-c. 1691: Self-Immolation of the Old Believers[2460]
Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1672-c. 1691: Self-Immolation of the Old Believers[2460]
Social issues and reform;1672-c. 1691: Self-Immolation of the Old Believers[2460]
Russia;1672-c. 1691: Self-Immolation of the Old Believers[2460]
Old Believers
Russian Orthodox Church

In the middle of the seventeenth century, a group of church reformers, led by Nikon Nikon , patriarch of Moscow, attempted to change Russian religious paintings, texts, and rites so that they reflected original Greek forms more closely. In particular, the reformers replaced the Russian method of crossing oneself with two fingers by a three-fingered crossing, ordered that alleluias be sung in threes rather than in the customary twos, and changed the prescribed manner for bowing in church. Those who rejected these changes as evil, foreign corruptions of the true faith became known as the Old Believers, and they were condemned by church councils in 1666 and 1667. The Old Believers organized their resistance under the guidance of Avvakum Petrovich Avvakum Petrovich , a priest, and of other clergy, who aided the movement as leaders.

The Russian church and government began actively persecuting the Old Believers to make them conform to the new rites. Although officials tried persuasion and propaganda, they also turned to brutal attacks on those who refused to abandon the old ways. After the council of 1667, Czar Alexis Alexis commanded that all Russians swear they would be faithful to the new rites. Under Czar Alexis’s son, Czar Fyodor III Fyodor III , soldiers tried to force rebellious believers into following this command. The boyarina, or noblewoman, Feodosiya Morozova Morozova, Fedosiya became one of the most famous of the persecuted. She was arrested in 1671 by troops under the leadership of Ioakim Ioakim , who was then the archimandrite of the Chudov Monastery and later patriarch of Moscow. She was taken to prison and tortured for four years in an effort to get her to renounce her faith. At the end of 1675, she starved to death. Martyrs;Russian Orthodox Church

Initially, the Old Belief was concentrated mainly in monasteries; however, it soon spread to peasants. Discontentment with their oppressed position in Russian society led many peasants to see the Old Belief as a rejection of the entire political order and as a rejection of religious change. The czar’s government, official church hierarchy, landowners, and new cultural influences from western Europe were perceived as evidence of an Antichrist taking over the worldly affairs of Russia, as the end of the world approached.

Old Believers dispersed into the remote areas of Russia to escape official pressures. For many, suicide became a means of rejecting the influences of the Antichrist. Apparently, the first suicides occurred in 1665 and 1666. A hermit known as Kapiton Kapiton preached that the Antichrist was already ruling the world. Small groups of Kapitonists Kapitonists , as his followers were called, began practicing purification by fire, burning themselves to death. The year 1672 marked the beginning of large-scale self-immolation, when peasants locked themselves in churches rather than surrender to besieging authorities. The practice spread rapidly. In 1679, a priest by the name of Dometian Dometian in the region of Tiumen organized his parishioners into a self-sacrifice by burning. Rather than surrender to the czar’s soldiers, seventeen hundred of Dometian’s followers locked themselves in their church and burned to death after setting fire to the building.

The persecution intensified after Czar Fyodor’s death. His sister, Sophia Sophia , managed to seize control of the state in the name of her brother, Ivan V Ivan V , and her half brother, Peter the Great Peter the Great , both of whom were minors and were declared co-czars. Queen Regent Sophia relied on elite army corps, known as the streltsy, to take power. However, many of the streltsy, including their popular commander, Prince Ivan Khovansky, Khovansky, Ivan sympathized with the Old Believers. Sophia realized that a rejection of the reforms sponsored by her father would raise doubts about her father’s virtue and, by extension, about her own right to rule. She had Khovansky arrested, flogged, and then executed after she became regent.

The persecution of the Old Believers intensified in 1682, and self-immolations increased. Persecution, religious;Old Believers in Russia In that year, Patriarch Ioakim issued his spiritual decree, which condemned the Old Belief. In that same year, under Ioakim’s guidance, the church completed a new council, which had begun in 1681. The council laid down a new set of measures designed to combat those who did not follow the revised rites. These measures prohibited Old Believers from gathering to worship, even in their own homes, and it required priests to report Old Believers to the government so that the government could take action. As a result, even more of the religious dissidents killed themselves. According to one estimate, about two thousand people burned themselves to death between 1676 and 1687 in one district of Iaroslavl alone. Nearly three thousand Old Believers locked themselves in the Paleostrovsky Monastery on Lake Onega and died by fire in 1687. A commonly cited figure holds that twenty thousand people had put themselves and their churches in flames by 1690.

After 1690, the mass suicides by burning became much less common, although they did not disappear completely. In part, self-immolations may have subsided because some Old Believer leaders argued against the practice. The monk Evrosin Evrosin , in 1691, published an influential tract against suicide called Otrazitel’noe pisanie o novoizobretonnom puti samoubiistvennykh smerti
Otrazitel’noe pisanie o novoizobretonnom puti samoubiistvennykh smerti (Evrosin) (refutation of the newly invented system of suicides) to persuade people that killing themselves was not religiously sanctioned or justified.


The suicides of the Old Believers illustrated the depth of the division between conservative Russian believers and the Russian church and state. For much of the history of Russia, from the seventeenth century onward, a substantial minority of the Russian population rejected the existing political, religious, and social order.

The memory and legend of the self-immolation of the Old Believers became a lasting part of Russian culture. The nineteenth century Russian composer Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky drew on the story of Prince Ivan Khovansky and his reported connections to the Old Believers for the opera Khovanshchina (1886). After the character of Khovansky has been executed, Old Believers gather at a hermitage in a forest outside Moscow and set their hermitage and themselves on fire, anticipating the approaching government troops.

Further Reading

  • Crummey, Robert O. The Old Believers and the World of Antichrist: The Vyg Community and the Russian State, 1694-1855. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1970. One of the most influential and widely cited books in English on the Old Believers.
  • Kliuchevsky, V. O. A Course in Russian History: The Seventeenth Century. Translated by Natalie Duddington. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1994. A translation of a classic work by one of Russia’s most eminent historians. Chapter 15 examines the church schism.
  • Kotilaine, Jarmo, and Marshall Poe, eds. Modernizing Muscovy: Reform and Social Change in Seventeenth Century Russia. New York: Routledge Curzon, 2004. A collection of articles providing an encyclopedic account of politics, society, and religion in seventeenth century Russia. Includes helpful references in footnotes of each article, and an index.
  • Michels, Georg Bernhard. At War with the Church: Religious Dissent in Seventeenth Century Russia. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1999. A study of the religious dissenters involved in the schism of the Russian church. Attempts to reconstruct popular culture to understand the behavior and thoughts of the dissenters.
  • Millar, James R. Encyclopedia of Russian History. New York: Macmillan, 2003. A comprehensive four-volume source that includes entries on Avvakum, Alexis, and Nikon.
  • Robbins, Thomas. “Apocalypse, Persecution, and Self-Immolation: Mass Suicides Among the Old Believers in Late-Seventeenth-Century Russia.” In Millenialism, Persecution, and Violence: Historical Cases, edited by Catherine Wessinger. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2000. A good discussion of the cultural attitudes that played a part in the Old Believer suicides. Makes some comparisons with mass suicides by members of modern cults.

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i><br />

Alexis; Avvakum Petrovich; Nikon; Stenka Razin; Sophia. Old Believers
Russian Orthodox Church