Editor’s note: In the summer of 2016, Emile Ducke traveled (with the help of local fixer and fellow journalism student, Alina Pinchuk) into the Siberian plain east of the Ural Mountains in search of a small enclave of Russians who still practice a 17th century version of Russian Orthodox Christianity. Here is what he found.

In the West Siberian Plain is the isolated village of Aidara. Only reachable by the river Ket, passage to the village requires attention and experience, as fallen trees from the surrounding forest often create obstacles under the water’s surface. The next biggest settlement is about three hours downriver. The village’s 150 inhabitants mainly consist of Russian Orthodox Old Believers, a sect of the church that follows strict rituals that predate 17th century reforms.

Old Believers see themselves as the preservers of original Orthodox traditions. They separated from the main church as a protest and continue liturgical practices that the Russian Orthodox Church had before the implementation of reforms made by Patriarch Nikon in 1652 in an effort to align closer to Greek Orthodox churches.

The Old Believers endured severe punishment until the beginning of the 20th century. To avoid persecution, Old Believers settled mostly in isolated locations. There was a short “Golden Age of the Old Faith” between 1905 and 1917, after Czar Nicholas II signed a measure ending persecution of all religious minorities in Russia. But the Old Believers were again marginalized by the Soviets.

During the Communist era, the village of Aidara was turned into a kolkhoz, a collective farm, and Old Believers, living there at that time, could not practice their faith openly, but they remained in the village. With the fall of the Soviet Union, more Old Believers came to settle in Aidara, one even returning from exile in South America.

Today, several big families in Aidara keep the pre-reform traditions. Because there is no church in Aidara, relatives and neighbors gather in prayer rooms at their homes, to read the sacred scriptures in Church Slavonic language. On some occasions those services take place several times per week, especially on feast days; sometimes lasting all night.

Beside practicing their faith, the lives of Aidara’s inhabitants consists of exhausting work in the farm fields and gardens. Their sustenance is almost self-sufficient. A helicopter delivers whatever else is needed, along with the mail, every two weeks. On mail days, the inhabitants gather at the landing spot, awaiting their connections to the outside world.

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