Avvakum Petrov was a priest in the Church of Russia during the seventeenth century. He was a leader in the opposition to the reforms instituted into the Russian Church by Patriarch Nikon. For him, his opposition resulted in imprisonment, exile to Siberia, and numerous other hardships that continued even after Patr. Nikon was deposed as patriarch and culminated in Fr. Avvakum being burn at the stake. His life of opposition in recorded in his autobiography. The opposition groups that he led become known as the Raskolniki or Old Believers.
Avvakum was born on November 20, 1621 in the village of Grigorovo, near Nizhni Novgorod, into a priestly family. His father Peter was a priest and his mother, Marija, after being widowed became a nun under the name Marfa. His mother was very pious and and impressed this piety upon Avvakum. He married a blacksmith’s daughter, Anastasia. After his mother died he moved to another village. He was ordained a deacon at the age of twenty one. Two years later was ordained a priest and then eight years later raised to archpriest.
Fr. Avvakum was a man of spiritual intensity and was very active as a priest, with many spiritual children and traveled extensively, even to Siberia preaching and teaching the Word of God. In the 1640s he joined the Russian revival movement, Zealots of Piety, but on the ascension of Nikon as Patriarch of Russia in 1652, Avvakum and his followers turned against the revival movement as they felt Patr. Nikon’s policies and actions were undermining the authority of the Church hierarchy. Then, in 1653, Fr. Avvakum with Ivan Nernov and others, including his wife and family, were deported to exile in Siberia by the patriarch for their opposition to his policies and in particular the changes in the ancient rites and practices.
In 1658, Patr. Nikon left the office of patriarch and entered the Ascension monastery as he was pressured about his assumption of sovereign styles. He was finally deposed by a council that included representatives of the other patriarchates in February 1666. While ‘out of office’ and deposed his reforms remained, being enforced vigorously by the State.
Fr. Avvakum was allowed to return to Moscow in 1662, but his continued opposition to the Nikon reforms and his vigorous defense of his principles resulted in deportation again, the time to northern Russia. In 1666, the same council that deposed Nikon affirmed the reforms Nikon instituted and condemned Fr. Avvakum’s opposition. Then the council anathematized and deported Fr. Avvakum and his followers to Pustozersk in the extreme northeastern part of European Russia. Over the next fifteen years with the presence of Fr. Avvakum and his followers Pustozersk became the spiritual center for what became the Old Believer movement. At Pustozersk, Fr. Avvakum remained relatively free for the first three years, but in the following years he and his followers came under increasingly harsh treatment and imprisonment including torture and mutilation. It was also during this time that Fr. Avvakum wrote his autobiography and many epistles and treatises as the movement continued to grow. His autobiography, The Life of Archpriest Avvakum by Himself, remains a masterpiece of 17th century Russian literature.
Then in 1682, the government, unable to control the growth of the Old Believer movement, sentenced Fr. Avvakum and his three followers, Deacon Fedor, monk Epiphany, and Fr. Lazar, to be burned at the stake. Fr. Avvakum died on April 14, 1682.