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Will Alaska Old Believers sign-on for reality TV series?

Many of Alaska's Old Believers reside around Homer on the Kenai Peninsula. Loren Holmes photo

When a pair of directors from the National Geographic Channel visited the Old Believer village of Nikolaevsk Tuesday evening, only about a dozen people attended. Word had gone out that even though it is Nat-Geo, the producers' aim may be to sensationalize Old Believer lives, as had been done with another religious group, the Hutterites of Montana.


Nikolaevsk, population just under 350 according to the last census count, sits at a high elevation on North Fork Road between Homer and Anchor Point. It is a private Old Believer village established in 1967. The travels of the group from Russia, as well as the story of the founding of Nikolaevsk, is told in a 1972 National Geographic article.
Two of those in attendance at the Nikolaevsk school during the casting call, one who works at the Homer Tribune and one covering the event for the Homer News, were asked to leave the meeting early on.


Four Old Believers' villages

Sam Kuzmin, raised in Nikolaevsk, is the Homer Tribune designer.
 “They said they don’t want the press there – they wanted the casting call to be more intimate,  without the press,” Kuzmin said. “They wanted it to be confidential, talking to them -- which makes no sense for me to leave, because half of them were my family.”

Lisa Blake, one of National Geographic’s producers, had given interviews to the media while still in New York City and planning her trip to Homer. She put out an announcement for Russian Old Believers to attend the casting call and wanted news accounts to explain plans for the show’s series. It is to run for three seasons and the intention, Blake said, is to tell the Old Believers’ stories while being respectful of their beliefs.

Homer has four primary Old Believers’ villages, all in remote areas: Kachemak-Selo, Voznesenka, and Razdolna are located 25 miles down East End Road, overlooking the Fox River Valley and the hay flats that long served cattlemen in the region. The fourth village is Nikolaevsk. Blake sees Homer as something of a “hub” for Old Believers.

“We’re looking for families with big personalities and an interesting story to tell. There’s no preconceived story line – it is documentary style. We are not creating anything; it is simply to learn about and explore the people in Homer,” Blake said at the time.

Not 'Jersey Shore' 

The idea came from National Geographic Channel researchers in New York City. The show would follow the format of depicting other private religious communities that National Geographic did in the past on the Amish, Mennonites and Hutterites, Blake said.

“Because it’s National Geographic, our approach is very respectful – this is not “Jersey Shore.” The National Geographic Society would never let that happen,” Blake said.

But according to Maryland-based journalist Alan Marison, there have been published complaints about the show’s treatment of the Hutterites, and Marison said that’s exactly what lies ahead for the Russian Old Believers who agree to take part in any future show aired nationally and internationally. Marison wrote a public letter to the residents of Homer warning that the Hutterites have complained abour their treatment to National Geographic Channel President David Lyle. As yet, they have received no apology and no response. Producers staged scenes that embarrassed and gave false impressions of the Hutterites, Marison said.

There are other discrepancies as well.

“Every TV production has a ‘show runner,’ who is the person in charge. The dictator of the production. The show runner for National Geographic’s TV series about the Old Believers will be a guy named Jarrett Lambo. That’s why it’s troubling to discover that Jarrett Lambo was one of the producers of “Jersey Shore”.   

Why hire Jarrett Lambo if the production is to bear no resemblance to Jersey Shore, he asks.

Nikolaevsk postmistress filmed before

The postmistress of Nikolaevsk, Kira Tipikin, a member of the Old Believers, said the production team was asked about the Hutterites at the Tuesday night casting call.

“Those two said they never saw the show. We said well ‘You do work for National Geographic and that show aired.’ They said ‘We never seen it and never heard about it,’” Tipikin said. “They seemed to be more interested in us.”

Tipikin occupies a high profile position at the Nikolaevsk Post Office. She’s been filmed many times through the years, most recently by a group of California college students working on an school assignment, she said.

“They filmed me in the post office. I have a sewing machine set up and in my free time I pull out my sewing,” Tipikin explained. “They liked to watch what I do throughout the day. They like our dresses and clothing. I don’t mind if they take my picture.”

After attending the meeting with National Geographic, Tipikin said she isn’t opposed to the idea of interviewing for the show but she wants time to ponder the idea.

“I’m still thinking about the show, but I’m still not sure. They interviewed some people and will take that back to do the final call to see if that’s what they want to do.”

Of the dozen who attended Tuesday’s meeting, a few of them were non-Russians who live among the Old Believers, Tipikin said.

“We asked them if they were expecting more people from the other Russian villages, since no one showed up from there. They said they would like to hear from them.”

A snowstorm that blew in made driving hazardous hit Monday and Tuesday. National Geographic Director Blake did not respond to questions from the Homer Tribune.

Naomi Klouda is a reporter at the Homer Tribune. Used with permission.