Life is like an onion: you peel it off one layer at a time,
and sometimes you weep.
~Carl Sandburg, 1878-1967
According to more than one study, Estonia is the second least religious country in the world following China. Yet in 1653, it became safe haven for a contingent of Russians fleeing persecution for their faith. With a history that has seen its share of tears, perhaps it is not surprising that onions are the chief crop of the people known as Old Believers.
On what is known as the “Onion Route,” a stretch of gravel road that strings together several small villages, I met the ancestors of these 17th century exiles who settled along the western shores of Lake Peipsi on the Russian-Estonia border. Amidst green garden plots and brightly-painted houses, each fronted by humble stands overflowing with onions, I learned the story of these refugees, and why it’s said that every Old Believer household has a spade and an icon for each member of the family.
Anna Portnova of the Kolkja Old Believers Museum offered insight into the religion’s symbolism and a history lesson that explained the community’s historically reserved attitude toward outsiders.
In the mid-17th century, a leader of the Russian Orthodox Church came to power and initiated reforms that included changes to the sacred texts, rites and practices, including the abolition of low, sweeping bows and changing the manner of crossing oneself from using two fingers to three. The government persecuted those who resisted the changes with imprisonment, execution and exile, spurring the creation of the Lake Peipsi Old Believers community. While the isolated borderland between Russia and Estonia along Europe’s fifth largest lake offered safe haven, the Old Believers didn’t escape the later mass deportations and burned churches that occurred during the occupation of Estonia by German Nazis and Soviet Communists.
During the Communist era, eight of the 31 square kilometers inhabited by the Old Believers along Lake Peipsi were cultivated as onion fields; today that’s down to two. Under the Soviet regime, the Old Believers did a booming business selling onions at the Leningrad market. Today, with relations between Russia and Estonia less cozy, the market for onions is mainly tourists.
Anna said that according to traditional beliefs each house has a “clean” and “dirty” side. The front rooms, used for special purposes such as prayer and hosting visitors were considered the “clean” side. On this side of each home is an icon station, always located in the east corner of a front room, facing Jerusalem and the rising sun. Prayers were said here every morning and evening and before and after meals. Anna told me that family prayers are led by whoever is deigned within the family to be the more spiritual member–on one side of her family, her widowed grandmother read the daily prayers, on the other side, her grandfather.
The other side of the house where the everyday “blood, sweat and tears” business of life took place–such as the kitchen and the bedrooms– was considered the “dirty” side.
Tea-drinking is a traditional ceremony here. Sugar is never put into the cup instead people eat sugary home-made cream candies to sweeten their tea brewed in the Russian samovar the noise of which cheers the company round the table.
While at the Museum, I met Victoria Gonadze, a woman in her twenties from London visiting her aunt Zoya Bashmachnikova. Zoya’s great-grandfather owned the house during the time of the Russian Empire, about 130 years ago. He had a successful business buying local products such as onion and fish and exporting them to other countries. After six years living in the residence, the fishing business dried up and he lost the house. The building then was used as a school, and during the Soviet period, as a post office.
When asked if she is a practicing Old Believer, Victoria said “You believe what you believe in your heart and that is all that matters. Heritage is important–it’s family.”
The Old Believer heritage includes a rich tradition of symbolism in all facets of their lifestyle, including attire. Anna said her grandmother wore a belt all the time as a form of protection against devil, only taking it off in the sauna.
At the Peipsi Visitors Center, Leelo Eha explained that symbolism is very significant to Old Believers. A star pattern means good luck. The rooster is another much-used symbol. When depicted standing in line facing in the same direction, the character refers to the spirit of wildness and restlessness typical of a young man. When the roosters are positioned nose to nose, it conveys peacefulness in life, harmony, love and wish to stay together in life.
“People used to be able to tell someone’s whole life story by the patterns woven into their shirt, but now much of the meaning of the symbols has been lost,” she said. “When people do not have time to devote to it, or the handiwork is not valued, the patterns, symbols, meanings disappear. The new era of mass media has had a devastating influence on this kind of activity.”