From A Journey into Russia, by Jens Mühling (Armchair Traveller series; Haus, 2015), Kindle Loc. 176ff.
In the not exactly bloodless history of Russia, the 17th century was one of the bloodiest. A bizarre religious controversy divided the country: people argued over the question of whether to make the sign of the cross with two fingers or with three. The Moscow Patriarch, who advocated for the three-finger cross, persecuted the followers of the two-finger cross viciously; he had unruly believers’ hands chopped off, and their priests’ tongues ripped out. Many rendered the mutilations unnecessary by simply chopping off their own thumbs in order not to have to blaspheme God with three fingers. Whole communities barricaded themselves in their churches, set their altars on fire and watched as the flames ate away at their hands, two fingers outstretched to the very end.
The conflict had been sparked by one man who exerted all of his dubious ambition to rectify the course of history. Around the middle of the century Patriarch Nikon, head of the Russian Orthodoxy, introduced a church reform. He invoked the origins of the Orthodox faith: the Russians had adopted Christianity from Byzantium in 988, when the Grand Duke of Kiev baptised his subjects according to the Greek rites. Over the centuries the inevitable happened: little by little, the Russian Orthodoxy developed its own, non-Greek traits, arising partly as a result of incorrect translations of Greek liturgical texts, but more often through the everyday practice of the faith. No Russians considered these characteristics to be a betrayal of their Orthodox roots. Patriarch Nikon alone was embarrassed when he received Greek dignitaries in the Kremlin, whose astonishment at the customs of the Russians did not escape him.
With his reforms, Nikon attempted to rectify the most obvious deviations of the Russian liturgy from the Greek. At first glance, they were trifles: the Trinity was no longer praised with two hallelujahs but with three; one letter was to be added to the name of the Lord, ‘Iisus’ instead of ‘Isus’; there should be not seven loaves but only one on the altar during the Eucharist; finally, the sign of the cross would no longer be made with two fingers but with three, the way the Greeks did it.
These interventions might have been accepted without complaint if at the same time much more drastic changes had not been overtaking Russia. The long isolated country was opening up to the West. Things appeared that had never been in Russia before; tobacco, tea and coffee; trimmed beards; sacred images with saints barely recognisable, so outlandishly were they depicted; foreigners, summoned by the Tsar to modernise the country, brought foreign manners to Russia, foreign languages and foreign gadgets. On the main tower of the Kremlin wall a huge mechanical clock from England appeared, the first in all of Russia. Its message was unmistakable: the times were changing.
All of these upheavals had one thing in common with Nikon’s reforms: they made Russia look bad. Many Russians did not want to admit that the traditions of their fathers should suddenly be worth less than the inventions of foreigners, be it English clocks, Dutch paintings, German books or Greek church rules. The Old Believers, as the opponents of reform were soon called, rejected Nikon’s heresies as vehemently as the ever-advancing West. Their two-fingered cross became a gesture of resistance against a Russia that was betraying its roots in every respect.
The times were changing. And perhaps, as the Old Believers in fact suspected, the world was actually approaching its prophesied end. There was evidence. As the religious controversy reached its bloody climax, people in Russia wrote the year as 7174 – their calendar started with the creation of the world. But in the West, where the years were numbered from the birth of Christ, a different number appeared on the calendar, a terrible one: 1666. There could be no doubt: the foreigners were messengers of the apocalypse.
While Russia drifted towards the west, the Old Believers fled towards the east. Persecuted by the Patriarch’s henchmen, they withdrew to the sparsely populated, peripheral regions of the Russian Empire. They founded communities where time stood still, where nothing diluted the spirit of old Russia, no tobacco and no coffee, no razor and no clockworks, not one hallelujah too many, not one altar loaf too few.