Faithful Return from Exile Russia Woos Orthodox Sect to Repopulate Siberia

Not many people want to live in the isolated tracts of Siberia, where temperatures can fall to minus 40. But for the Old Believers, members of an offshoot of the Russian Orthodox Church who were persecuted by the Soviets, it's paradise. Now Moscow is trying to lure the deeply devout ethnic Russians back out of exile in a bid to repopulate the region.

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With his white beard and felt jacket, Fjodor Kilin looks like he has stepped straight out of an oil painting by an old Russian master. The 70-year-old stands in front of a plain icon of the Virgin Mary. His melodious voice fills the farmer's cottage. He is speaking a soft Old Church Slavonic that few Russians know anymore, tinged with a Spanish accent.

A year ago, Fjodor and his wife Tatjana packed all their worldly belongings and their passports, which were issued in the Uruguayan capital Montevideo, to journey to the land of their forefathers, a country they had never seen before. From the subtropical lands on the border with Argentina, they traveled to Siberia in Asia.

The Russian government helped them start a new life. In June 2007, Moscow set up a program designed to lure exiled ethnic Russians scattered around the globe back to their homeland, particularly to Siberia, which is becoming increasingly depopulated.

All manner of people are required in Siberia, even those like Fjodor and Tatjana. The two are Old Believers, members of an offshoot of the Russian Orthodox Church who were persecuted by the Soviets. The Russian government hopes to attract 300,000 returnees by 2012. However, only 20,000 have come home so far.

'The Fewer the People, the Stronger the Faith'

The deeply devout parents of Fjodor and Tatjana fled the taiga and Communist Russia in the 1920s. They went to northern China, then Hong Kong, and finally to South America, gradually distancing themselves from modern life and the hustle and bustle of the city.

For Fjodor, therefore, the village of Dersu is both the start and the end of a global odyssey. The couple has 12 children, 59 grandchildren and 43 great-grandchildren. About two dozen members of Fjodor's family left Uruguay with him. Some came to Dersu, which was down to 10 inhabitants before they arrived. Now the village's population has more than doubled in size. Having reached the end of their journey, they can now celebrate their true Russian heritage, happy that they are even further from civilization, yet closer to God. "The fewer the people, the stronger the faith," Fjodor says.

China lies just 150 km (90 miles) west of Dersu. Moscow, by contrast, is a five-hour drive, a seven-hour train ride and then an eight-hour flight away. The last remaining Siberian tigers wander through the pine forests. Snowflakes dance in front of the windows, the temperatures will soon plummet to minus 40 degrees Celsius (minus 40 Fahrenheit).

There's a muffled knock at the door, and Alexander stomps inside. Alexander is a neighbor, or what passes as such in a region in which fewer than 20,000 people are spread across an area about the size of New Jersey. It has taken Alexander two hours to drive to Dersu. He crossed the first river in his pickup truck. The second river he traversed on a rickety barge.

"I'm an atheist, but I'm fascinated by their pure faith," Alexander says of Fjodor and Tatjana. "Perhaps exile has made them more Russian than those of us who stayed." In Dersu, the girls have their hair plaited, while married women cover their head with a bonnet or a scarf. "Photography is a sin," Fjodor says.

The Work of the Devil

When Patriarch Nikon reformed the Russian Orthodox Church in 1653, many people considered it the work of the Devil. A group of them split off from the mainstream church and continued to practice their old rites -- even when their priests were hanged and their places of worship were burnt down. A few hundred thousand Old Believers still exist, scattered around the globe.

Their clear view of the world and strict customs have now made them attractive again to a country still searching for an identity almost two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Most importantly, Old Believers don't mind living in isolated places like Siberia, unlike many modern Russians. On the contrary, they seek secluded areas. The governor's wife received them, while the speaker of the regional parliament praised them.

Tatjana, the lady of the house, serves homemade smetana, a kind of sour cream, and pickles. Last winter they drilled holes in the ice through which they fished to supplement their meager diet of cabbage and potatoes. "Mother Russia looks after us," Tatjana says.

Fjodor has tied an elastic band around his head to stop his glasses sliding down his nose. Before dinner he reads a chapter about St. George from the "Book of Martyrs."

Vision of Paradise

Fjodor says he thought about Russia throughout all the decades he spent in Uruguay. He had long yearned to return home, so when the government offered financial assistance, he knew the time had come.

Fjodor's ancestors lie beyond the reeds on the edge of Dersu. The Old Believers call the promised land "Belovodye" ("white water"). And Fjodor considers Dersu to be as close as you can get to this Garden of Eden. His paradise has neither televisions nor flushing toilets. A diesel generator supplies electricity for only a few hours a day. It is the only high-tech device in Dersu apart from a chainsaw, which Fjodor refers to using the Spanish word "motosierra" because he can't recall the Russian term.

The faithful live in accordance with their own rules and in their own time-frame. They follow the Julian calendar, which was abandoned in Russia in 1918, and cover their crockery with dishcloths "to prevent evil from sticking to them."

Powerful Spirits

Fjodor pours some brashka, a home-made alcoholic drink. He makes the sign of the cross to ward off "the Devil, who wanders around our homes every day," then drains his glass in a single gulp. The fermented drink brings color to his cheeks, and loosens his tongue. Fjodor speaks of the suffering of Petro, one of his sons-in-law, who recently drank too much brashka and raised his hand in anger against Fjodor. Petro grabbed him by the collar so tightly that the old man's shirt ripped.

Fjodor admits there are spirits in Russia that even his prayers are powerless against.

Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt

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