Life Without 'Sin' May Spell Death of Sect

Russia: The Fyodorovtsy, who are forbidden to marry or proselytize, risk extinction

Los Angeles Times/July 30, 2000
By Robyn Dixon-Times Staff Writer

TISHANKA, Russia--The fresh-faced Shestopalov sisters of Tishanka are keeping their lives simple. No makeup or miniskirts, no alcohol or cigarettes, no complications like romance that could lead to the sin of marriage.

Olga, 23, Nadezhda, 22, and Tatyana, 17, gaze out on their small world in central Russia, their clear blue eyes blazing with the certainty of youth.

They are members of the Fyodorovtsy sect, which believes that Christ returned to Earth early this century as a Russian peasant named Fyodor Rybalkin. The Fyodorovtsy have another belief: that after the Second Coming, marriage is prohibited by God.

Through a lifetime of celibacy, the siblings must suffer for their faith. Suffering, the Fyodorovtsy believe, purifies the soul. Yet because of its very beliefs--that both marriage and proselytizing are sins--the sect seems destined to die out.

A similarly self-denying sect, the Shakers, arrived in America in the 1770s and practiced celibacy, but the group augmented its population by converting people and taking in orphans. For about 60 Fyodorovtsy in Tishanka, it seems that only an outbreak of sin or a miracle can save their population.

Without a new generation on the way, these believers hope only to care for one another in life and bury one another simply in death. The size of the sect at its peak in the 1920s is unclear, but according to Russian news reports, about 2,000 Fyodorovtsy were sent to a gulag in 1929.

The Fyodorovtsy saw Soviet power as embodying the antichrist, and they vilified the Russian Orthodox Church for cooperating with the authorities. They refused to sign any Soviet documents, serve in the army or work on their religious holidays. In prison, they stubbornly resisted the authorities. Some closed their eyes when they were photographed or gave their patronymic name as "Christ" during interrogations.

One of the sect's bearded elders, Alexander Perepechyonykh, 77, walked a hundred miles over stones to his gulag, ran through a gantlet of flailing batons, passed the piled-up bodies of dozens of other prisoners and persevered in a freezing punishment cell, all for the sake of his Christian beliefs.

With their noble prison records, the older members expect the young to suffer--leading celibate lives--in a way that they themselves have not experienced. Most of the older members became followers--and celibate--after they married and had children.

Waiting Tensely for Judgment Day

The Shestopalov sisters, who follow the religion of their parents, are less concerned about the prospect of lives devoid of romantic love and motherhood than the fear of being caught reading light literature or watching television at the moment when Judgment Day suddenly arrives.

"That would not be good," says Olga, who avoids TV and reads only religious tracts, just in case. "We have to be vigilant. We have to think about eternal life all the time.

"Marriage is a sin. Whether you want to or not, you can't get married. In our position, it's best not to think about it. We hope we won't do it. We hope we will stand firm."

The sisters' clothes and deportment convey their asceticism. Crisp scarves, knotted sternly at their chins, cover their heads. Their long skirts whisk and swirl with each brisk step. In the plain front room of their family cottage, they sit with ramrod spines, never once fidgeting.

They hope for strength. So did Sergei Shilov, 33, but he weakened, moved in with the woman he loved and had two children. Now his daily companions are not only his family but also his sin, guilt and repentance. If anyone asks about following his example, Shilov says, he would sincerely advise them not to.

"The feeling of sin is always with me. It was my weakness. I couldn't cope with my feelings," he mumbles humbly.

It is Easter every day for the Fyodorovtsy, who greet each day with a sense of celebration and resurrection.

Tishanka's plain wooden cottages are strung along a wide, rutted dirt road that turns into a slippery bog with every summer rain. The Fyodorovtsy live in polite separation from several thousand other villagers, with little contact between the two groups.

The Fyodorovtsy live frugally and embrace visitors with joyful hospitality, opening their homes without suspicion or defensiveness. Their meals are simple: soured goat's milk and cucumber soup, mashed potatoes, sweet buttery pancakes with honey, fragrant summer strawberries, crunchy baby cucumbers and fresh farm eggs.

Before each meal, Perepechyonykh bows deeply to the icon in the corner and crosses himself three times. His beard is long and white, his eyes are soft, and peeking out from a top pocket is an old plastic comb that he occasionally pushes distractedly through his hair.

In 1967, when he and about 130 other sect members came to settle in Tishanka, 325 miles southeast of Moscow, the Fyodorovtsy were refused registration, ordered to leave and denied their pensions. The villagers refused to sell them bread and threw rocks through their windows. The village children teased and beat up the strangers' children.

When men from the group sought work under contract at a nearby collective farm, the Communist Party representative said there was no room, although the manager begged to accept them. As late as 1986, a local newspaper ran a series of 40 articles about the sect with headlines such as "Aliens!" "Wolves!" and "Doomed!"

The Shestopalov children grew up in the village of Volya, 95 miles from Tishanka, where the teacher told the class that Christians believe in blood sacrifice.

"She turned the class against us. We were not human beings in that class. We were just rubbish. It was considered shameful to socialize with us," Olga says. The family moved to Tishanka 10 years ago.

Murky Accounts About Russian Peasant

The Fyodorovtsy willingly endure their hardships, all for the peasant named Fyodor Rybalkin.

To the Soviet authorities, Rybalkin was a counterrevolutionary from the village of Novy Liman, near Voronezh, who faked miracles and stirred up trouble. In 1929, 16 of his followers were given sentences that afforded "the highest level of social protection": They were shot.

To the Russian Orthodox Church, Rybalkin was a false god whose followers allowed themselves to be led astray.

With these murky, competing accounts, tracing the real history of Rybalkin and what he did is difficult. His dates of birth and death are unknown. He was a peasant who fought in World War I, returned and took to preaching. He was tried in Voronezh, reportedly in 1926. His fate is unclear, but according to some reports, he was sent to a lunatic asylum.

To the Fyodorovtsy, however, Rybalkin was Christ who walked barefoot in the snow and performed miracles. They say he was jailed by Soviet authorities and disappeared, but they believe that he will return to Earth soon, to resume his Second Coming and conduct the Day of Judgment.

"We're expecting him any day now," says Yegor Lepyokhin, 62. Only one inhabitant of Tishanka, Arseny Ivashenko, who is now dead, claimed to have met Rybalkin and seen his miracles. The survivors all got the word of the Second Coming through Ivashenko, and the sect's existence today is partly attributable to his conviction and charisma.

The room where the Fyodorovtsy gather for prayer and song is adorned with icons; hand-painted pink, red and green Easter eggs trimmed in gold; and festive Easter bread.

Their songs are neatly written into a communal exercise book. With no recognized priests to carry out the highly stylized Orthodox service, the meetings are casual and homey, ambling free-range through various psalms and discussions.

The Fyodorovtsy see themselves as true Orthodox faithful but believe that all the true priests died in the early years of Soviet rule--another reason there can be no legal marriage ceremonies.

The women sit at the back of the meeting room, and the men sit at the front. Here, women mildly accept their role--to serve and obey the men. When three elderly women venture an opinion during an interview, two senior men, Perepechyonykh and Lepyokhin, glaringly cut them off with sharp words and an impatient gesture of the hand.

At mealtimes, the women stand respectfully back from the table, ladling out food to the men and guests.

For Lyudmila Yevstigneyeva, 20, the day begins at 5 a.m. with prayer. Since the age of 17, she has not only been serving the men in the communal house where she lives but also caring for a group of frail elderly women, whose numbers have dwindled to five.

"It's physically hard, but it's satisfying helping people," she says. Like the Shestopalovs, she unquestioningly accepts a life without marriage. "I prefer to live here with some suffering to be safe in the next life."

One woman, Agafya Volchkova, 73, left her husband and three grown children in Siberia to join the sect in 1970. "And to think at the time I felt sorry for that!" she exclaims.

In the communal house, the oldest woman is Vera Shabelskaya, 98. Questioned proudly by her religious brothers about a virtuous life, she mutters repeatedly, "Nothing to be proud of. Nothing to be proud of."

Her temporary life of suffering is nearly over. One day, in her memory, they will plant a plain wooden cross over a grass plot, with no name, no epitaph, no adornment that might damage her soul on its way to a higher place.

Several dozen wooden crosses are huddled at one end of the village graveyard. In coming decades, it seems, the number of crosses will grow like a forest, and the survivors coming to tend the graves will decline.

After the last cross is planted there, the world will go on. "But it will be the end of the spiritual world," Perepechyonykh says. "If there's no belief in God, it means there is no world, because God is the world."

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