Fedoseevtsy

A dissident religious movement from Imperial Russia, known for its initial opposition to serfdom and rejection of marriage, evolving over time within the Old Believer tradition.


Introduction

Fedoseevtsy, also known as Fedoseyans or Theodosians in some anglicized texts, emerged as a distinct religious movement in Imperial Russia. It represents one of the factions within the larger context of the Bespopovtsy, or priestless Old Believers. The foundation of this movement is attributed to an ex-deacon named Feodosy Vasilyev in the late 17th century, primarily involving peasants and posad people in Northwest Russia.

Origins and Early Beliefs

The movement’s inception dates back to the late 17th century, with Feodosy Vasilyev (1661-1711) being recognized as its founder. The Fedoseevtsy branched out from the Old Believers, differing significantly from another group within the Bespopovtsy, the Pomortsy. The fundamental divergence was over the Pomortsy’s practice of praying for the Tsar, which the Fedoseevtsy initially rejected.

One of the hallmarks of the early Fedoseevtsy was their staunch opposition to serfdom in Russia and their commitment to a life of strict asceticism. This ascetic nature included the negation of marriage, positioning them in stark contrast to mainstream religious and social practices of the time. During its formative years, the movement was characterized by a strong element of social protest.

Shift in Practices and Beliefs

By the late 18th century, the movement witnessed a centralization around the leadership of Ilya Kovylin (1731-1809), establishing their all-Russian “headquarters” at the Preobrazhenskoye cemetery in Moscow. This period marked a significant shift in the movement’s practices and beliefs. As social inequality began to permeate the group, elements of their initial social protest doctrine diminished.

In 1848, a notable change occurred when the Fedoseevtsy adopted the custom of praying for the Tsar, a practice they had previously opposed. This alteration indicated a softening of their earlier rigid stances. Furthermore, the second half of the 19th century saw the emergence of a subgroup within the Fedoseevtsy, known as the “newlyweds” (новожёны), who began to recognize and accept the institution of marriage.

Contemporary Presence and Practices

The Fedoseevtsy continued to exist into the Soviet era, albeit in smaller groups. These modern iterations of the movement showed a gradual departure from the earlier strict religious intolerance and asceticism that had defined them.

Notably, the Fedoseevtsy, like other Old Believer groups, maintained certain practices such as strict family discipline and adherence to traditional customs. They often formed self-governing communities, led by a sobor (assembly) of adult men, which made decisions on both spiritual and secular matters, indicating a blend of religious and political autonomy within their communities. The sobor’s role extended to electing church officials and overseeing the adherence to ancient standards and norms.

Their interactions with outsiders were cautious, especially in maintaining rules of sacred cleanliness. This caution extended to dining practices, where non-believers were often served food separately, using distinct utensils. Despite strict religious prohibitions, like those against the consumption of commercial alcoholic beverages, Old Believers, including Fedoseevtsy, were known to prepare their own home-made alcoholic drinks like braga.