Rethinking the Technophobia of Old Believers

Kriistina Pilvet (EHI, Tallinn Univ.)

This posting deals with the Old Believer’s congregation of Piirissaare — a little island situated in lake Peipus which makes up part of the Russian-Estonian border. The main focus of this case study is the interaction of their identity and the modern technology they use in order to perform their culture in the peripheral region of one of Europe’s more avant-garde ICT countries.

Normative discourse on Old Believers, especially in Estonia, has often presumed some insularity, un-moderness and technophobic behaviour from the representatives of the given congregation. This narrative is so embedded in the representation of Old Believer’s that it has become a ‘norm’. Several different sources starting from academic publications in anthropology (Dolitsky & Kuzmina 1986; Vorontsova 2000; Filatova ; Ziolkowska 2011) and ending with different travel agency brochures and web sites (www.puhkaeestis.ee, www.estravel.ee) as well as ethnographic films (Brummend 2011) tend to associate Old Believers with traditionalism and a restrained way of life. Such sources thereby contrast this situation with what the modern audience may call “nowadays modern lifestyle” which involves several different interactions with the material world in a most contemporary manner. It has thus been assumed that technology in its digital and industrial manifestation has been prohibited in the vastness of the current field.

The boundary between traditional and modern has been clearly lined in the context of the given field. But if to look deeper into the subject, we realise that those binary oppositions are actually creations of the modern world itself which attempt (via those imageries) to contrast themselves from the Old Believers, thus expanding the gap between the rest of the world and the Old Believer congregation. These actions manage to work as constant hints for the ‘otherness’ of the community. My observations of the field in the given congregation has lead me to alternative conclusions; it is that Old Believers have always interacted with the modern world in the terms of the values and technological innovations which progress may offer. Moreover, they have never denied the usage of technology within their everyday doings.

Technology in the given congregation has become a part of their culture, since it serves as a means of reproducing their traditional actions. In the ceremonial life of the Old Believers, they have preserved many elements of an older time. However, in the modern areas of their living, some innovations in the rites of their life cycle together with the local specificity have appeared. It is that technology does not contradict the traditional in the given example because those seemingly binary opposites manage to work hand in hand by complementing each other. Technology is seen as a highlighter of the true Old Believer identity since it improves their traditional practices. Roughly speaking, technology may function as a method of becoming a ‘better’ Old Believer.

Fishing is considered by me as the most characteristic features of the complex ‘identity-set’ for the Old Believers of Piirissaare. The geographical location of the island has contributed to their everyday-life. Today, even the most ‘old school’ inhabitant of Piirissaare accompanies his fishing practices with several technological innovations such as GPS devices, motorboats, motorbikes, mobile phones (Horst & Miller 2006) and so on. It is perceived as an inherent element of their everyday-life doings since it manages to improve the practices and simultaneously reproduces the identity of Piirissaare’s Old Believers.

Peipus pier

Fig. 1 Piirissaare pier (Lake Peipus 2013, photo by the author).

The island’s overall appearance constantly alludes on their traditional practices, demonstrating its most commonly used facilities within the main landscape of the place (Fig. 1). By walking along the closely pressed houses that are traditionally lined up in the row, creating the long and narrow street, you can find numerous stakes that are covered with the fishing nets which have been put up there in order to get dry or in some cases to get fixed. The overall action usually takes place in front of the house, rarely if ever the requisite is situated behind the house.

This is the place where also the disassembled motors of the boats and old motorbikes are often ‘presented’, thereby not allowing to forget the true essence of the island (Fig. 2). The smaller technological devices used in fishing (GPS devices, mobile phones) are revealed solely in the lake, during the fishing procedure, when they are used for the initial purpose. At that same time as their usage, technology adopts its meaning. It becomes one in the case when it is used – outside of the human context it stops to function as a technology. “It is a system that contains itself a technological device and a human who uses it, maintains and repairs it” (Dusek 2006: 33). Despite the picturesque view of the technological devices in the front yard of their houses, they start to function as one only within the lake when they are used.

Peipus boats

Fig. 2 Old Believer boats (Peipus 2013, photo by the author).

GPS devices manage to designate the location of fish, whereas mobile phones serve for the designation of the fisherman themselves. One of my informants once claimed: “ I don’t even remember when there was a last time when I went fishing on the lake without the GPS device with me, it has become so normative.” Thus, usage of those devices together with the motorboats that allow them to move faster and the motorbikes that are used for transporting the heavy engines to the pier, have become normative for the Piirissaaare’s Old Believer’s due to their auxiliary factor within the system of their working habits.

Work (fishing in particular), as one of the defining elements of the Piirissaare’s Old Believer’s identity is improved by the means of modern technology. Taking this into consideration, the initial boundary that was set up between the traditional and the modern fails to work as confronting in the given case, since ‘oppositions’ are working in a reciprocal relation. Modern, in the face of technology, manages to highlight traditional (fishing) and thus reproduces the characteristic features of Old Believer identity. They do not suspend themselves from the modern world and the innovations that this world may offer. On the contrary, they manage to carry their values through life, simultaneously adapting in the modern world.

References:

Brummund, Marc (dir). 2011 Film: Fish and Onion. Doco film.

Dolintsky, A. & L. Kuzmina. 1986. Cultural Change vs. Persistence: A Case from Old Believer Settlements. Artic. 39(3): 223-231.

Dusek,V. 2006. Philosophy of Technology. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Horst, H. & D. Miller 2006. The Cell Phone: An Anthropology of Communication.Oxford: Berg.

Vorontsova, L. & S. Filatov 2000. “Paradoxes of the Old Believer Movement”. Religion, State & Society. 28(1): 53-67.

Ziolkowska, M. 2011. “Anthroponynmy as Element Identificational Minority. The Characteristics of Polish Old Believer’s Names”. ESUKA – JEFUL. 2(1): 383-398.

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