At the outskirts of Aidara village, in Russia’s Krasnoyarsk krai (territory), a seemingly endless forest spreads out, reaching deep into the Siberian wilderness. In the summer the ground dries out, and forest fires frequently arise. In July 2016, the largest fire in recent years broke out — it took the community several days to bring it under control. (Emile Ducke)

Alexandra Lobanova, Sergey Lobanov and their daughter, Katya, pose in front of their house in Aidara on July 28, 2016. Katya finished all four classes in the school of Aidara, where education is a challenge due to the village’s isolated location. The family now faces the decision whether to teach her at home or to send her to a boarding school. (Emile Ducke)

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.

Stepan Borisov and his son Maxim work together in the fields during the hay harvest. The cut grass is pulled together and held in haystacks to feed the cows during the winter. (Emile Ducke)

Borisov and his children Andrey, Ustina and Maxim take a break in the hay fields. (Emile Ducke)

Alexandra Lobanova works in the garden of her home. She is growing potatoes, onions, radish and other ground vegetables. (Emile Ducke)

Every two weeks a helicopter delivers freight and mail. On those dates Aidara’s residents gather at the landing spot. (Emile Ducke)

Children get early education in the Church Slavonic language to participate in services. (Emile Ducke)

Antonina Borisova and Stepan Borisov, dressed in their traditional praying clothes. They host services in a special room at their home for family members and neighbors. (Emile Ducke)

The Aidara cemetery is located a somewhat outside the village. The three-barred cross of the Russian Orthodox Church marks the graves. (Emile Ducke)

Dmitriy Polevchuk in the morning after five hours of night service. For the religious service relatives and neighbors gather to pray together and to read sacred scriptures. (Emile Ducke)

Inhabitants of Aidara put a boat in the water to travel down the river to get supplies from the next settlement, which is three hours away. (Emile Ducke)

During the 2016 forest fire, Aidara’s residents use controlled backfires to bring the fire under control and defend their village. (Emile Ducke)

Alexandra Lobanova and her daughter Katya watch the wildfire coming closer. (Emile Ducke)

The villagers make sure that the laid backfire doesn’t change direction. It took the residents of Aidara several days to bring the wildfire under their control, but not before parts of wood stocks for winter were destroyed. (Emile Ducke)

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