A Traveler’s Tale: Hear the Songs of Siberia’s Old Believers (VIDEOS)

A Traveler’s Tale: Hear the Songs of Siberia’s Old Believers (VIDEOS)

In looking back, many travelers who ride the Trans-Siberian Railway or take a tour to Siberia say that listening to Old Believers singing is a top – if not the top – highlight of their journey.

Galina Chebunina (right) and a respected elder greet visitors to their Old Believers village in Tarbagatay, Siberia
Photo credit: Helen Holter

BelievingCenturies-old choral and folk polyphonic music resounds throughout the villages and hamlets of Old Believers (Staroverie), descendants of 17th century Orthodox Christians who rebelled against Patriarch Nikon’s liturgical and doctrinal reforms. 

Excommunicated, executed or exiled for holding fast to their religious beliefs, some were sent to the far side of Lake Baikal in Siberia, where they became a community of Old Believers known as the Trans-Baikal Semeiskie. (Semeiskie refers to living as a family.) Here their isolation allowed them to preserve their language, clothing, crafts, architecture, religious beliefs – and singing.

SingingIt’s easier to understand and appreciate Old Believers by first listening to their haunting music, as I did at a dinner and concert with them in Tarbagatay, Siberia. On a simple stage Galina Chebunina – the lead singer adorned in her bejeweled headpiece (kichka), colorful apron (zapon), and chunky amber necklace (ozherel’ye) – as well as other Old Believers performed as I videotaped them with a hand-held camcorder. 

Old Believers have a sense of humor, especially in sharing their wedding traditions with visitors. In this song Galina drafted a woman from our group to play a young bride preparing for her wedding while older women sing to her, encouraging her to weep copiously as her carefree single life ends and her new life begins as a wife and mother. In theory it’s a serious song, but you can see everyone had a good laugh!

Today Siberia’s Old Believers number more than 200,000. In villages around Ulan Ude, the Trans-Baikal Semeiskie’s polyphonic singing, culture and way of life have been added to the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage for protection and preservation.

Recognized by its crooked steeple, this Old Believers church is the heart and soul of Tarbagatay, Siberia <br>Photo credit: Helen Holter

Recognized by its crooked steeple, this Old Believers church is the heart and soul of Tarbagatay, Siberia
Photo credit: Helen Holter

(click on photo for larger version)


MeetingTheir singing helps us enter into the lives and religious struggles of Old Believers. Entering their village in Tarbagatay, Siberia is like entering into the 17th century, save for modern-day electrical poles: tidy, brightly painted houses with carved wooden fretwork; local women specially dressed in vibrant floor-length dresses and jewelry with headpieces denoting their marital status; organic gardens crowded with well-tended vegetables and flowers; massive woodpiles, outdoor saunas (banyas), and simple outhouses.

Although most Old Believers work at mainstream jobs, drive cars, and use computers, their tight-knit communities are a reminder as well as a reinforcement of their cultural identity.

Galina Chebunina (left) has championed local efforts to preserve and share the Old Believers' way of life in Tarbagatay, Siberia <br>Photo credit: Helen Holter

Galina Chebunina (left) has championed local efforts to preserve and share the Old Believers’ way of life in Tarbagatay, Siberia
Photo credit: Helen Holter

(click on photo for larger version)


EatingSiberian food is intended to be hearty and substantial, a key element in surviving harsh winters. Yet, even in the heat of summertime our gracious Old Believers served us a filling meal: home-grown organic vegetable salad sprinkled with berries, cabbage soup (shchi), a stew of meat and vegetables, chicken with rice, filled buns (piroshki), fruit-filled cake, tea with berry jam, and plenty of vodka. (Our vodka was the store-bought kind, but sometimes samogon, or home-made vodka, is served.)

Our meal with the Old Believers is made from scratch, with fresh produce from their organic gardens Photo credit: Helen Holter

Our meal with the Old Believers is made from scratch, with fresh produce from their organic gardens
Photo credit: Helen Holter

 (click on photo for larger version)


PreservingThe Old Believers’ past is preserved in Tarbagatay’s museum, curated by the son of the village priest. On display are old bibles, samovars, embroidery, farming equipment and tools, traditional clothing, religious icons, even a coffin – often made by the one who will one day be buried in it.

Tarbagatay's Old Believers Museum of History & Culture opened in 2001 <br>Photo credit: Helen Holter

Tarbagatay’s Old Believers Museum of History and Culture opened in 2001
Photo credit: Helen Holter

(click on photo for larger version) 


In preserving their past, the once-isolated Old Believers are ensuring that visitors today and in the future will remember their ancestors’ religious persecution, respect their traditions, and appreciate their heritage by sharing their culture, meals, and songs with the world.

A Russian Orthodox cross tops the Old Believers'  church in Tarbagatay; each bar with its own significance <br>Photo credit: Helen Holter

A Russian Orthodox cross tops the Old Believers’ church in Tarbagatay; each bar with its own significance
Photo credit: Helen Holter

Travel to Siberia with MIR

There are many ways travelers can visit a Siberian village to meet Old Believers, enjoy a homegrown lunch or dinner, and listen to an unforgettable performance of their polyphonic singing.

 

 

  • A Personalized Trip – Your Dates & Your Interests

MIR can also create a hand-crafted custom, private journey that includes meeting Old Believers, learning of their culture and traditions, and enjoying a concert of their sacred songs and folk tunes.

Why MIR?

MIR has more than 30 years of Russia travel experience, with affiliate offices in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Irkutsk and Ulan Ude offering on-the-ground support. Our full service, dedication, commitment to quality and destination expertise have twice earned us a place on National Geographic Adventure’s list of “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.”

 

Contact MIR today at [email protected] or 1-111-111-1111.

 

 

 

(Top photo: Galina Chebunina leads singing at an Old Believers concert in Tarbagatay, Siberia.  Photo credit: Helen Holter)

PUBLISHED: May 5, 2015

Related Posts

Share your thoughts