Father Dorofei Dmitrievich Emelianov (1797-1845)

First edinoverie priest in the baltic

The burning of the Old Believer leader Avvakum (Petrov) in 1682.

The burning of the Old Believer leader Avvakum (Petrov) in 1682.

Before the 1840s, the Russian Church was not the main representative of the Orthodox tradition in the Baltic region: this role was played by the Old Believers. Expelled from the official church because of their opposition to ritual reforms introduced in the 1650s and 60s, the Old Believers were extremely numerous, with estimates suggesting that they made up as much as 20% of the Russian population in the early eighteenth century.

Persecuted and repressed for their beliefs and adherence to the old ritual, Old Believers fled both into the depths of Russia and across borders. This is how several groups ended up in the Baltic, which was only annexed by the Russian Empire in 1721: even after the conquest, Peter the Great’s provision of local autonomy to the German elites meant that the Old Believers were mostly left to themselves. Consequently, their communities acquired a degree of public prominence undreamed of by their brethren in Russia proper. This was especially true of the Riga Grebenshchikov community, whose merchant elites profited from the city’s international trade.

Nicholas I (1825-1855)

Nicholas I (1825-1855)

This all changed with the accession of Nicholas I in 1825. Regarding loyalty to the state and membership in the Orthodox Church as almost one and the same thing, Nicholas launched the most sustained persecution of Old Belief in the movement’s history, either seizing or destroying countless Old Believer books, chapels, prayer houses, churches, and monasteries and arresting Old Believer clergy and leaders. The assault on Baltic Old Belief began by targeting the school of the Grebenshchikov community, which was closed by the government in 1832.

A key tool in Nicholas’ persecution campaign throughout Russia was edinoverie. Created in 1800, edinoverie attempted to lure Old Believers back to the Orthodox Church by allowing them to keep their adored old rituals and liturgical books upon conversion to Orthodoxy. However, it had proven monumentally unpopular with all parties concerned: the Old Believers regarded edinoverie as a duplicitous trap while the Orthodox Church thought of it as little more than a fifth column. Nicholas transformed its fate when he turned it into a mechanism of state coercion: offered a choice between losing their property and their priests or joining edinoverie, Old Believers chose the latter option in droves, thereby establishing scores of edinoverie parishes across the empire.

The Riga community and its members were offered a similar choice: convert to edinoverie or face the consequences. One of the first to choose edinoverie was Dorofei Dmitrievich Emelianov. Born in 1797 to an Old Believer townsman, Emelianov had been educated in one of Riga’s secular Russian schools: upon completing his schooling, he opted to become a teacher. After several years teaching in secular schools, he was hired to work in the Grebenshchikov school in 1828: from this time, he also worked as the community’s secretary. However, in 1835 he endured a dispute with the community’s elders and was removed from his position: this, it would appear, drove him to convert to edinoverie.

The Riga edinoverie church of Archangel Michael: this church was constructed in 1895-96 following the closure of Emelianov’s wooden church due to dilapidation.

The Riga edinoverie church of Archangel Michael: this church was constructed in 1895-96 following the closure of Emelianov’s wooden church due to dilapidation.

The Orthodox Church, backed (if somewhat lackadaisically) by the local police and governor, had already dispatched a Pskov missionary, Archpriest Kuzinskii, to promote edinoverie among Riga’s Old Believers in 1832. He had little success: community debates and private meetings led to evasion, stonewalling, and even violence from Old Believers. However, he eventually persuaded one such representative, the rich and influential merchant Kozma G. Zheltov, to consider edinoverie: Zheltov argued that he would join when, and only when, a edinoverie church had been constructed. His co-religionists, Zheltov postulated, probably felt the same way. A series of personnel changes in the Orthodox Church (Kuzinskii’s recall to Pskov and a new bishop in that diocese) delayed this step from being taken until 1836, when Nicholas I intervened personally to push matters along: the Old Believers were ‘persuaded’ to cede their new prayer house to become the first edinoverie church. Around four families joined this new parish, including Zheltov’s: he became the church’s elder and principal financial backer. Inspired by this success, Nicholas also decided to create a new diocese in Riga to further supervise the mission against the Old Believers.

As of yet, however, there was no permanent priest in the new church, only a priest-monk on secondment from Pskov who wielded such little popularity among the Old Believers that his exhortations to join edinoverie caused public disturbances. Emelianov, well-educated and respected, was thus a perfect candidate: he joined the edinoverie priesthood in 1838. He was perhaps persuaded to take holy orders by the opportunity to pursue his true calling, that of education: a parish school was opened up almost immediately after his appointment. Besides the school and its 57 pupils, he was now in charge of a parish with 108 members, making it extremely small when compared to most urban Orthodox churches. Equally, few of these parishioners were convinced converts: in 1842, he reported that 25 of them had not taken the sacraments once since joining edinoverie. One such individual, Shelukhin, was sentenced to a penance in a Pskov monastery for his recalcitrance.

As the only edinoverie priest in the young diocese, Emelianov was also required to undertake missionary work. In 1840, he was called to the prison cell of one Kirill Grinkin, an Old Believer peasant from Mustvee (Estonia) who had been sentenced to a year in prison for blaspheming against the Orthodox Church. A deal was struck: Grinkin would be released if he agreed to convert to edinoverie and propagate the cause when he returned home. Shortly afterwards, Emelianov was sent to Mustvee to convert Grinkin’s family and another which had agreed to join. However, lacking either a permanent priest or a church, edinoverie did not immediately prosper in the Estonian village: only when the local Old Believer prayer house was seized and transformed into a edinoverie church in 1848 did it enjoy any real success.

Grebenshchikov community prayer house in Riga.

Grebenshchikov community prayer house in Riga.

Missionary activities were ultimately the reason for Emelianov’s downfall. In 1841-42, a large number of Latvian peasants attempted to convert to Orthodoxy, hoping that doing so would push the Russian state to intervene in their economic and social struggle with the German landowning aristocracy. Furious at the public disorder, Carl Magnus von der Pahlen, governor of Livland province, heaped blame on the Orthodox Church, accusing Bishop Irinarkh (Popov) of provoking the conversions by offering the Latvians material benefits like land. After heated arguments, Irinarkh was moved to another diocese, but not before Emelianov was caught up in the scandal. In 1841, he had been asked by Irinarkh to help accept petitions from Latvian would-be converts and test their sincerity. Von der Pahlen thus identified Emelianov as a culprit in provoking conversions, an opinion which was transmitted to the Holy Synod in Petersburg: it, in turn, passed the affair to the Ministry of the Interior for further investigation. Although he was ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing in March 1844, it was rumoured that the stress of the proceedings led to Emelianov’s death on 6 April 1845 at the age of 48. He was survived by his wife and two daughters.

Edinoverie never really prospered in the Baltic provinces. A further parish was founded in the village of Raksala (now in modern Latvia) in 1848, but this was the last one to be created in the diocese. Although all three parishes (Riga, Mustvee, and Raksala) survived the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the declarations of independent Estonian and Latvian republics, they were tiny: the highest number of parishioners reported by the Riga church was 422 people in 1860. Old Belief remained strong in the region, not least because of its considerable wealth and friends among the local authorities. Nonetheless, Baltic edinoverie (and Father Emelianov’s part in founding it) helps demonstrate the diversity of the Orthodox tradition on this imperial frontier: it also played a vital role in the establishment of the Riga diocese, the first step towards the institutionalisation of Orthodoxy in the Baltic.

Author: J. M. White

Source: F. Kiprianovich, ‘Ocherk istorii edinoveriia v g. Rige. (Po povodu semidesiatipiatiletniago sushchestvovaniia edinoveriia v g. Rige)’, Rizhskie eparkhial’nye vedomsti, nos. 1-21 (1913) and nos. 2-7 (1914).