In 2006, while searching the remote Maksimovka River floodplain for Blakiston’s fish owls, I was surprised to stumble upon a vast, grassy clearing cut from the forest. A weathered grey house, nestled among the bright green grasses of spring, stood at the center of this expanse. My local companion explained that this clearing was once filled with houses—the village of Ulun-ga—and the structure before us was its last vestige.
I learned that Ulun-ga had been a community of Old Believers; followers of a branch of Russian Orthodoxy that moved to the remote forests of Primorye from western Russia to practice their religion unimpeded. Scores of Old Believers settled these hills in the first decades of the 20th century; at one point there were at least thirty-five Old Believer settlements in northern Ternei County alone.
What happened to them, and what happened to Ulun-ga?
Old Believers are unflinching in their piety and independence; it was this unwavering belief in what is true and good that drove them to these forests to begin with. So it was without surprise that Old Believers vehemently resisted Soviet calls to assimilate into collective farms during the 1930s; edicts that were not voluntary. Ulun-ga, along with most other Old Believer villages, was liquidated in response. Arrest, execution, or deportation awaited any Old Believer who refused collectivization.
By the 1950s, most Old Believer settlements in Ternei County had been reduced to lonely clearings like this one at Ulun-ga. Eventually, nurtured by soils soaked in blood and enriched by the charcoal remains of burned homes, grasses grew thick in these fields. The only evidence of tragedy at Ulun-ga was this single house, kept now as a cabin by a hunter from a village twenty kilometers downstream.
In 2008, a violent feud erupted between local hunters of the Maksimovka. Most cabins along the river burned to the ground before tempers waned, and now nothing of this Old Believer village remains.
The ancient logs that formed Ulun-ga’s last house are now clutters of charcoal; blackened crusts enriching the soils of this quiet field along the beautiful Maksimovka River.
See Dash for a compelling story of an Old Believer family who hid for forty years from the Soviets (in English), and Panichev and Kobko or Shebnin for more on the history of Old Believers in northern Primorye (both links in Russian).