The Semeiskie communities are formed by a group of so-called “Old Believers”, a confessional community originating from the time of the Instigation of the Russian Orthodox Church in the seventeenth century.
Their history is marked by repression and exile. During the reign of Catherine the Great, believers in the “old system” from various regions of Russia had to move to the Transbaikal region in Siberia, where they still live today. In this remote area, they have preserved elements of their respective culture, forming a distinct group identity.
The cultural space of the Semeiskie, east of Lake Baikal, represents a remnant of cultural expressions from pre-seventeenth century Russia. The community, totalling around 200,000 persons, speaks a south Russian dialect featuring borrowings from Bielorussian, Ukrainian and Bouryat. The Semeiskie still practised ancient orthodox rituals and perpetuate everyday activities mainly based on the cult of the family - the term Semeskie refers to “those who live as a family” - and strong moral principles.
They are also characterized by their traditional dress, handicrafts, dwellings, paintings, ornaments and food as well as their music. Also noteworthy are their polyphonic choirs, which perform traditional songs at family celebrations and popular festivals. These songs are known as “drawl” singing and are rooted in the Russian liturgical music of the Middle Ages.
Marginalized until the end of the Soviet period, the communities have had to adapt to the socio-economic transformation, including pressures from new technologies that are tending to standardize a number of elements of this culture.
The population of “Old Believers”, regarded as the custodians of the traditions, is in constant decline. However, a real willingness to protect this heritage is shown by various initiatives, in particular the creation of the Semeiskie Cultural Centre in the village of Tarbagatay.