Central and Eastern Europe, Tourism

Onion Route in Estonia and the Old Believers

By Beata Bruggeman-Sekowska

Lake Peipsi/ Peipus is the largest trans-boundary lake in Europe, situated on the border between Estonia and Russia. Along the shores of Lake Peipsi in the eastern part of Estonia you can visit the Onion Route. It is here where the Old Believers – religious refugees who opposed the official teachings of the Russian Orthodox Church settled in the seventeenth century.

Lake Peipsi/ Peipus ©communications-unlimited.nl

Old Believers are the descendants of religious exiles who left Russia since they were facing persecution. The Old Believers did not recognize the liturgical reform of Patriarch Nikon of 1652–1656, making the rituals of the Russian Orthodox Church similar to the Greek ones. In their opinion, any changes to typically Ruthenian liturgical traditions were heresy and a renunciation of the only true faith.

In 1652, numerous reforms were introduced to the Russian Orthodox Church. The numerous changes in both texts and rites occupied approximately 400 pages. Some of them applied to the ceremonies and religious texts that were altered. For example, the sign of the cross was supposed to be no longer made with two fingers but with three. Praying with low sweeping bows was banished. Old Believers refused to change the direction of the procession from the clockwise into anti clockwise and accept any changes of liturgical texts and rituals. They still continue to use the previous Church Slavonic translation of the Greek texts, they refused polyphonic signing and any other baptism rites than performing baptism by three full immersions.

The old believers protested, but the reforms were ratified, leading to a division in the Church. Old Believers were persecuted, tortured and even executed. Some were burned alive, had their hands and tongues cut off. Many Old Believers fled.

Varnja ©communications-unlimited.nl

Today there are about 15,000 Old Believers and 11 registered parishes in Estonia, along the road going from Mustvee to Varnja. The Old Believers still maintain customs and traditions dating back hundreds of years. They attend houses of worship decorated with icons and being the center of their religious life. The services there during which old Slavic choral singing is performed are conducted by a church elder, both a man or a woman. However, ceremonies such as for example confession or baptism can be only performed by men.

Old Lada at the Onion Route ©communications-unlimited.nl

Nowadays you can enjoy tea brewed in a samovar or for example buy onions. The sandy soil is not good enough for various plants except for onions. Today onions grown by Old Believers are the best — and most expensive — in Estonia. While visiting the villages along the Onion Route you can see older ladies selling onions they grew themselves nearby the houses. It is the reason why the road connecting their villages is called the Onion Route.

Do not forget to visit the samovar museum! You can find here a collection of various samovars being used throughout the centuries by the Old Believers.

Samovar museum in Varnja ©communications-unlimited.nl

Author: Beata Bruggeman-Sękowska is an award-winning international journalist, TV correspondent, author, chief editor of international journalism centre, Central and Eastern Europe Centre, board member and a sworn translator. She was born in Warsaw, Poland and has also Armenian blood and roots in Lvov, which is part of Ukraine. She has been living in Heerlen, the Netherlands since 2005.

Beata Bruggeman-Sekowska at a Samovar museum in Varnja ©communications-unlimited.nl

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