Inside the Hidden Lives of a Centuries-Old Religious Community in Siberia

These Russian Orthodox Old Believers live a life occupied by religion and nature.

Photograph by Emile Ducke
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In addition to faith, daily life in Aidara, a remote village that lies on the plains in Western Siberia, is connected to nature. Stepan Borisov and his son Maxim work together in the fields during harvest season, cutting the grass and pulling it together in haystacks to feed their cows during the winter.
Photograph by Emile Ducke

One of the things he remembers most is the services: small, intimate gatherings of no more than 15 people, standing together united in prayer. There was no church in Aidara, a tiny, remote village in Western Siberia, so families and their neighbors worshipped together in a dedicated prayer room in someone’s home. Services took place in the evening, and while some lasted only a couple of hours, others lasted up to seven, unfolding into the early morning. Religious icons decorated the corners of the room. Burning incense and candles cast a warm glow on the focused faces of Russian Orthodox Old Believers as they embraced the divine moments of their deeply embedded faith.

“I think that had the heaviest impact on me,” says Emile Ducke, a photojournalism student currently based in Moscow.

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Children in Aidara study the Church Slavonic language, essential to participating in the Old Believer prayer services.

In the summer of 2016, Ducke spent time documenting the lives and rituals of the Russian Orthodox Old Believers, a sect of the Orthodox Church guided by traditions that predate the church’s 17th-century reforms. German-born Ducke was studying abroad in Tomsk, Siberia, at the time and says he became interested in the region’s more remote and isolated communities, particularly those in the northern region along the River Ket. Together with a fellow student, Ducke spent time traveling through villages near the river, learning about people’s daily lives and the obstacles they faced. It was then that they heard about the Old Believers in Aidara.

“We immediately caught interest, because [the Old Believer’s] history is deeply connected to Siberia and to the wider story of communities living there,” Ducke says.

The Old Believers separated from the Russian Orthodox Church following a set of reforms introduced by Patriarch Nikon in 1652. The changes, which were made in order to more closely align with the Greek Orthodox churches, included the spelling of Jesus' name in the prayer books and the number of fingers used to make the sign of the cross. Unwilling to accept the revisions, Old Believers were imprisoned or persecuted. Many went into exile and moved to the isolated plains of Siberia.

Though there are populations of Old Believers living today in Moscow and parts of the Americas, those who remain in Siberia, particularly in Aidara, fascinate Ducke.

“We’re talking about this region where everything is already cut off,” Ducke says. “And going three hours by boat [to Aidara] means they are even more cut off than most.”

The village seems to exist in a world all its own. “Arriving there is something special,” Ducke says. The only way to reach the town was to travel three hours along the Ket. A relative of one of the Aidara villagers took Ducke and his colleague upriver by a small motorboat to the settlement. From there, a nearly two-mile walk landed them in hayfields at the village’s edge. Aidara was practically hidden.

Ducke had little idea what to expect when he reached his destination, both from the landscape and from the people he’d encounter.

“Visually, it reminded me of the pictures of Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii, who 100 years ago had been on assignment for the Russian czar,” he added. Tsar Nicolas II commissioned Prokudin-Gorskii to document the Russian empire, and the photographer produced the first color photos of Russia in the early 20th century.

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Dmitriy Polevchuk, who has a long beard traditional for Russian Orthodox Old Believers, relaxes for a moment following a five-hour prayer service the night before.

Ducke and his colleague stayed in an empty house owned by one of the families. It was fascinating to see how structured life was, Ducke says.

“There’s the religious life and the working life, and there isn’t so much in between,” he explains.

The Old Believers kept aspects of their religious lives out of focus. Eventually, though, some families invited Ducke and his colleague to their prayer services—a massive honor and a sign of trust, Ducke says, though they asked that he leave his camera behind.

“There are no pictures of the religion directly,” Ducke says. “I think the biggest challenge for me as a photographer is not being able to photograph such an essential part [of their world].”

He found other ways to translate their religious identities: photographing some of the children as they learn the Church Slavonic language from their prayer books; creating images of the Aidara cemetery, where the three-barred cross of the Russian Orthodox Church marks each grave; and making pictures of the Old Believers in their prayer clothes.

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Dmitriy Polevchuk collects blueberries from a swamp next to Aidara. To avoid getting lost, Polevchuk leaves a trail of broken branches.

Though Ducke admired the community’s connection to nature, he could see the challenges that came with their chosen lifestyle. The Old Believers don’t have televisions or internet, but there are power stations that generate electricity during the day and people use tractors and motorcycles to carry out their daily tasks. Still, there are obstacles. Post is delivered by helicopter every two weeks, and summer brings the threat of forest fires in the woods that trace Aidara’s borders.

“There was a forest fire in the first days, and it was basically the whole community of Old Believers in the forest trying to lie down counterfires to cut off the fires,” Ducke says.

Alongside prayer services, witnessing the community come together to fight the fire was among the most moving experiences for Ducke during his time with the Old Believers. He believes it helped set the foundation for the bond he came to form with the community.

“We shared a lot of these moments, intense moments together, and I think this helped open the trust for [documenting] Aidara.”

Emile Ducke is a photographer based in Moscow, Russia. See more of his work on his website and on Instagram.