A 17th-Century Russian Community Living in 21st-Century Alaska
On a Sunday afternoon, in the middle of a cold winter, members of Father Nikolai’s congregation and family gather in his living room for fish pie, salted salmon, and shots of Jose Cuervo 1800. But before sitting down to eat they stand up as a group to face an icon corner adorned with gold laden paintings of patron saints, candles, and old Russian jewelry. They pray in unison, singing an ancient Slavonic chant, before falling silent and crossing themselves, bowing twelve times.
The Yakunin clan was much smaller in 1968 when they started building a Russian Orthodox village called Nikolaevsk in an isolated corner of Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. Members of the Old Believers–a Russian Orthodox sect that left the church in 1666, in the face of state-issued church reforms–traveled more than 20,000 miles over five centuries in the search for the perfect place to protect their traditions from outside influences.
The women wear teal, pink, red, and purple satin dresses, all made with the same basic design that covers their bodies down to their ankles. Married women cover their hair with scarves that match their colorful gowns. Father Nikolai has a full red beard that reaches the top of his round belly and his hair is in a ponytail that runs down his back over a traditional Russian shirt.
A thick-cheeked baby dozes off in a rocker next to Father Nikolai’s son, Vasily Yakunin, who most people think will become the next priest in the community. Nikolaevsk instated their first priest in 1983 after centuries of living without clergy, which created a rift that divides the community to this day.
Vasily slouches in a leather chair, playing a space shooting videogame on his iPad, while the rest of the guests crowd around the lunch table, laughing and passing around a plate of jam-filled pastries for dessert. The only person over twenty-one who is exempt from the occasional shots of tequila is Efrosinia Yakunin, who is four months pregnant with Father Yakunin’s fifteenth grandchild.
“If we stopped believing and stopped going to church and observing the orthodox way of life,” Father Nikolai says, “we would cease to exist.”
On a journey back through time that touches some of the most remote corners of the globe–a generation ago, Oregon, before that Brazil, China, and Siberia–the Yakunin clan emerges out of history as a family in search of a way to live without compromise. But even at the end of the world it’s impossible to resist change forever.
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