USC Scholars to Spend Summer in Siberia in Russian-American Expedition

Spending a summer in Siberia may not be your idea of fun, but 20 undergraduate students who applied to accompany faculty researchers Marcus Levitt and Richard McIlvery on their expedition to Zabaikal’e, a region near the Mongolian border of Siberia, would disagree.

Levitt, associate professor in Slavic languages and literatures, and McIlvery, chair of the music industry and recording arts department of the USC Thornton School of Music, will be traveling in June and July to “Old Believer” villages to record the group’s distinctive folk songs and to document a disappearing way of life. They will take three students with them: Amy Deng, music industry major and business minor; Camille Perkins, art history and business major; and Natalie Ross, cinema production major and fine arts minor.

Originally, only two students were sought, Levitt said, “But we had such amazingly good students apply – I would have been happy to pick the names out of a hat – that we really made an effort to take more than two.”

Sponsored by the Provost’s Undergraduate Research Program along with the Borchard Foundation, the students will not only assist the expedition leaders but each will also conduct research of his or her own.

The expedition, organized by Vladimir Klauz, a folklorist at the Institute of World Literature in the Russian Academy of Sciences, will begin in Moscow. Participants will then fly into the city of Ulan-Ude and from there spend between three and four weeks traveling by car into neighboring towns and villages, staying primarily with families of Old Believers.

“Old Believers” refers to a faction of the Russian Orthodox religious community. Officially excommunicated by the church council of 1666 and persecuted up through the Stalinist regime, Old Believers hold to “old Muscovite” traditions, which predate Peter the Great and the Europeanization of Russian culture. A fair, if not entirely accurate, comparison is that Old Believers are a Slavic version of the Puritans or the Amish.

Old Believers divide further into groups who have preserved the priesthood and those who have rejected it altogether, choosing instead to minister to themselves.

The “Semeiskie” (literally, “family”) community that the expedition will study and record is among the priest-less. Sent from Poland to Siberia in the second half of the 18th century by Catherine the Great, who recognized their value as settlers, the Semeiskie community has a long history in the region, but a spotty historical record, since much of its manuscript documentation was destroyed in Stalin’s time.

This joint Russian-American expedition, which will at minimum result in an annotated set of high-quality folk music CDs, should go a long way toward helping the recent scholarly effort to piece together the Old Believers’ past.