ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) – Alaska’s Old Believers are accustomed to struggle. But even for them, these are the most trying of times.

Five followers of the Christian sect, which broke from the Russian Orthodox Church in the 17th century and has been persecuted since, were killed along with their pilot when their small plane crashed Saturday as they returned to Homer to celebrate the Russian Orthodox Christmas.

Ivan Basargin, 38, a married father of five, lost two brothers and two cousins. Instead of celebrating the holiday Monday, he was preparing for the four funerals that will be held Tuesday in his village of Razdolna.

“We are getting coffins ready,” he said. “It is difficult, but what can we do? It is part of life.”

His brother Stefan, 36, was married with nine children, and the newly married Pavel, 30, had one. His relatives were going from one side of the village to the other to visit and grieve the loss of Basargin’s brothers and his cousins, brothers Zahary Martushev, 25, and Iosif Martushev, 15.

The other two victims were passenger Andrian Reutov, 22, and pilot Robin Starrett, 50.

They were returning from fishing near Kodiak Island. Four people survived the crash Saturday, and one of them told investigators that the door to a baggage compartment in the nose of the small plane had popped open.

Alaska has between 1,500 and 3,000 Russian Orthodox Old Believers. Their sect broke from the Orthodox Church at a time when its patriarch wanted to standardize rituals and consolidate power within the church.

“The Old Believers are those believers who said no,” said Roy Robson, a professor of history at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, who grew up in an Old Believer family in Erie, Pa. “We want to make decisions about our religious lives ourselves.”

Alaska’s Old Believers live in several small communities on the Kenai Peninsula, about a four-hour drive from Anchorage. Most of them make a living by commercial fishing.

Basargin said when his father died in 1985 he took over the family fishing operation.

“My younger brothers were my skippers. They helped me to build my boat. When they were ready, I helped them,” he said. “We were all together until this tragedy happened. I still have three more brothers. We are kind of trying to hold together.”

Old Believers were persecuted in Russia for hundreds of years. They reacted by first moving to the outskirts of the Russian empire and then to points beyond – including Alaska.

“In doing so, they became famous for being sort of a tough guy … being able to live through a lot,” Robson said. “They also became famous for their ability to work together.”

Old Believers initially either settled into big cities in Russia, where they could hide in plain sight, or went as far away as Lithuania, Siberia and China. Some even went to Brazil.

In the 1960s, they came to the United States, where some settled in New Jersey and New York. They eventually established themselves in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

The Old Believers that moved to Alaska near Homer represent the ones that chose to distance themselves from the outside world, Robson said.

Basargin said at least 15 Old Believers had arrived from Oregon and Washington to lend support and prepare for Tuesday’s funerals. Friends from Anchorage were arriving. Help was coming from Canada, too, he said.

Robson said Old Believers rely on rituals from the 17th century to bring real meaning to their lives. When his own father died, each of the children took part in the ritual washing of the body that included washing his hands and combing his hair. That helped the children understand the finality of death and the importance of it, he said.

Basargin said the Old Believer rituals that are part of the burial process will be a comfort.

“Our hopes are that they rest in heaven,” he said.

AP-ES-01-08-08 1456EST

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