Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Russian Alaska

If Sarah Palin, when asked about her experience in international affairs, had talked about her state’s Russians, rather than the view she had of Russia from her backyard, she might have gained a bit more credibility. This is, after all, a state that’s been influenced more than any other by that foreign power. Russia once owned Alaska, the Russian Orthodox Church still plays a crucial role in the lives of many residents, and emigrees from our neighbor across the Bering Strait continue to stream in.  

Homer, for example, is home to a large community of  so-called “Old Believers”. A breakaway, fundamentalist sect of the Russian Orthodox Church, they moved to the US just about a decade-and-a-half ago, and to this region even more recently. A good explanation of their history, which includes migrations from Siberia to South American to Oregon and finally Alaska, can be found here.

I did not take the pictures of the “Old Believer” men and women I saw as it was clear they didn’t want to be photographed but learned about them from other locals I chatted with. An insular community, they speak Russian among themselves, marry in their teens, and have large families that are managed among traditional gender lines (the men work, many in the fishing and oil industry while the women take care of the kids). They are far from the simple lifestyles one usually associates with this type of sect, however. The women wear head coverings and long dresses, but the dresses are made of very shiny, garishly colored, patterned fabric. Imagine an Amish style dress of royal blue, with baby blue teddy bears all over it (yes, that’s one I saw) and you’ll get the pictures. Other parts of their lives are also far from old-fashioned: their rides are SUV’s and their homes are apparently also kitted out with all the modern conveniences.

The graveyard at the Ninilchik Russian Orthodox Church
But they do have restrictions on what they do. As I was returning to my campsite one night with supplies, a tow haired little boy, of about 4 years of age, came up to me and asked why I was carrying marshmallows. I told him it was to make ‘smores and at his puzzled look, explained what they were. He then said to me in the most solemn tone of voice imaginable. “I’m not allowed to eat chocolate. I’m Russian.” And then he sprinted away.

Apparently, there’s a restaurant in their community (right outside Homer) called “The Samovar” that serves excellent borscht. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to try it.

I encountered the older Russian heritage farther back on the peninsula. As we were driving from Homer to Seward, I happened upon a sign for the Niniltchik Russian Orthodox Church, and veered off the road to investigate. Inside I met Paul (pictured), a “reader” whose job it is to sit here every day singing the scriptures.

A lovely, open man, he responded when I asked if he was a priest “No, you have to be married to be a priest. Hey, are you single?”

Paul is Klinket, divorced, and a father of seven. He served in the army as well as working as a long-distance truck driver for many years before becoming a reader. He spoke of the history of the Russian Orthodox Church with evident pride explaining how the missionaries who brought the faith here did so with respect for his ancestors and the other native Alaskans they converted. Early priests translated the bible into a number of different native Alaskan languages (and he then pulled out out several bibles as examples); and the tones he was sinking as a reader were also re-worked so that they echoed Native Alaskan music.

He allowed me to take these two pictures and then went back to his singing which was transfixing, and carried with it the echoes of the centuries. Do stop in to talk with him if you’re ever in that region of Alaska.


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  2. This church is my home church. The Transfiguration of our Lord Russian Orthodox Church. The building is 111 years old. A small chuch community compaired to most, but a loving chorch all the more.