During the waning years of Nicholas I’s reign (1825–55), D.G. Bibikov, then Russia’s Minister of Internal Affairs, marshalled the forces of his powerful office to eliminate what he perceived to be a threat to empire, autocracy and a more nebulous thing called the Russian people (narod). The target of Bibikov’s campaign was a group of dissenters from the Orthodox Church collectively known as Old Believers or, more pejoratively, schismatics (raskol’niki). Initially persecuted by both church and state after their formation in the mid- to late seventeenth century, Old Believers enjoyed a degree of tolerating condescension for much of the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth centuries. Despite increased restrictions after 1826, Old Believer communities even enjoyed favourable status among some high-ranking government officials for their apparent industriousness and moral probity—something that seemed to be lacking among lay...

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