At the far northern tip of Poland you will find several isolated villages where time has not so much stopped as fled far back in time. Their inhabitants – the Old Believers – are religious refugees from Russia that profess a specific variant of Orthodoxy. Bearded men and headscarf-wrapped women shunned the comforts of civilization and civilization in general, living in small, clinging communities. There are very few “Polish Amish” left today, the villages look extinct, but there is no shortage of people who cherish the memory of their traditions.
The Old Believers are a faction of Orthodox believers who did not accept Patriarch Nikon’s reforms of the 17th century. Fleeing persecution in Russia, they found asylum in Poland, then known for its atmosphere of religious tolerance. They established several isolated villages in the charming wild region around the city of Suwałki, building in them simple wooden cottages. Next to each of them they erected a Russian banya – a Russian variant of a wood-fired steam sauna, which they ritually used every Saturday, leaving the cares of the entire week there. Their lives were filled with work, and they adhered to the belief that idleness and lack of movement is a state in which dark, devilish powers get to a person. The story of the Old Believers inspired Olga Tokarczuk – the 2018 Polish Nobel Prize winner – to write her novel “Flights” (Bieguni), for which she won the prestigious International Booker Prize.
In picturesque Wodziłki – one of the villages founded by the “flights” – you can see an old historic molenna. This is what Old Believers call their temples – austere, mostly wooden structures without a bell tower, much more modest than a typical Orthodox church. Wodziłki is ideal for a bicycle trip – the surrounding hilly terrain abounds in scenic routes just right for a mountain bike.
The other Old Believers’ village worth visiting is called Buda Ruska and is situated on the Czarna Hańcza River, so you can visit it while kayaking down this wild river. At number 16 you will find a beautiful, blue-decorated Old Believers’ cottage, which today houses a cafe and gallery run by Piotr Malczewski – a traveler and ethnographer, a lover of the local area. For a small fee, you can visit the gallery, located in the attic of the barn, where the host has collected numerous souvenirs from his trips to Mongolia. In the summer, an intimate literary festival called “Patrząc na wschód” is held in the farm’s backyard.