In this excerpt from the documentary film Birds Way, the reader, a Russian-speaking Old Believer in the Romanian Danube delta, recites a passage from Paul’s first letter to Corinthians (IV 9-16) where the apostle urges those who call themselves Christians to imitate Christ even if this may look foolish in the eyes of outsiders. The book he holds while reciting is not the Bible, but a nineteenth-century book of needs (trebnyk) containing the most important liturgical services for this community of Old Believers. The book itself is quite new if we are to consider that some of the liturgical books they use are from the seventeenth century, the time of the liturgical reforms that led to a schism in the Russian Orthodox Church. However for them all the books are “old,” for the books are the only carriers of the theology and ritual of the pre-reformation Orthodoxy. These books together with the literacy practices create the textual community that makes Old Belief. It is the apparent immutability of liturgical form and language maintained in textual form that generates the sense of continuity and authenticity of their faith in the face of others.
Old Believers are socialized into this textual tradition from early childhood, as the old books are present in their churches and homes. In church the books are placed behind the wooden screen that separates the readers from the community in close proximity to the altar icons, and used on a daily basis for liturgical services and collective worship as is common in Orthodox churches. But the books are also found in almost every Old Believer home, inherited from parents together with the family icons. Inscribed by those who wrote themselves in as copyists, readers, or lifelong owners, the books often recreate spiritual or family genealogies and mark essential moments in their individual biographies. In homes they are most often hidden from view or covered with some clothing and are “activated” once a person literate in Church Slavonic engages with them—which some say needs to be done regularly. Similar to an icon placed in the house, the book constitutes a salient presence that puts the reader, the book, and the text in a particular relationship, prompting an act of prayer associated with specific practices: when taking the book in his hands the reader crosses himself, opens it deferentially and starts reciting from it. This action is as much a recited prayer as it is an occasion to commemorate those inscribed in the book and evoke the broader community of Old Believers.
Forged early on, the Old Believers’ relationship with the books persists throughout a lifetime even though few literate people turn out to become priests, deacons, or readers in church. Young children start learning to read and write with the azbuka, the primer in Church Slavonic, then slowly progress towards the proper service books (chasovenniks and kanoniks) and liturgical singing (znamenny chant), which in itself requires serious training. Since Church Slavonic literacy is the basis of religious authority and the books are authoritative references in religious matters, religious education aims to form skilled readers by emphasizing precise repetition and correct reading. Thus the efficacy of prayer comes to depend on the correct, fluent recitation of liturgical texts with no engagement with or reflection on the content. This passive literacy has turned reading into a powerful act of prayer and the old books into objects of visual piety. The film reveals how the reader’s gesture goes beyond the act of reading to become a spontaneous recitation from the heart, which acknowledges the sacredness of the old book. Similar to an icon, the book refers the reader to a reality beyond itself and at the same time it retains its distinctive historicity and presence, generated at the intersection of materiality, sociality, and transcendence. More so than in other branches of Eastern Christianity, the old book is a privileged semiotic form that constitutes the very means through which the Old Believers’ relationship with God is defined and lived out.