In 1968, the first five families arrived at the site of what would become Nikolaevsk, Alaska’s first Russian Old Believer village. One of those settlers, Vladimir Prohorovich Martushev, 70, died Oct. 21, 2017, at Providence Alaska Medical Center.
“He left a legacy for his children and his community,” said Roman Martushev, one of 10 children of Martushev and his wife, Tatiana Martushev.
“He was definitely a leader and a strong personality, a good dependable man,” said Bob Moore, former principal of Nikolaevsk School.
Born July 15, 1947, in Harbin, China, to Prohor Martushev, Vladimir Martushev later escaped with his family from Communist Chinese oppression — another cycle in centuries of persecution, including religious genocide, first by the Czar and the Orthodox Church, from which the Old Believers split off, and later by the Soviets. The Old Believers briefly found refuge in China until the Communists took over. Vladimir and his family then escaped to Sao Paolo, Brazil.
“Millions of them were killed by their own countrymen. The Communists said there is no God, the government is going to be your God,” Moore said. “They said, ‘We can stand your persecution but we can’t stay in a place where there is no God.’”
In the 1960s at the height of the Cold War, President John F. Kennedy allowed Russian dissidents, including Old Believers, to settle in the United States. The Martushevs emigrated to Gervais, Oregon.
“For 70 years he had a tougher life than we can imagine,” Roman Martushev said of his father.
While the Old Believers found refuge and religious freedom in Oregon, their children attended school with people outside their faith and culture.
“They came home doing their jive walk, their jive talk,” Moore said. “The parents said they wanted to have a place where they could have an island of their faith.”
The Old Believers found that on a square mile of state land off of North Fork Road near Anchor Point. With a grant from the Tolstoy Foundation, they bought the land for $17,000 and also leased land nearby for cattle grazing. According to a May 1968 Homer News article, the first five families, including Vladimir and his brother, Kiril, and members of the Kalugin family, arrived on the plot. They lived in tents, paving the way for other families to arrive.
“To take a risk, going from Oregon … They drove up with nothing and slept in tents for the winter, not knowing where you were going to live, just start your life,” Roman Martushev said. “There was some struggle. Now it’s a community that got incorporated.”
Moore said the first building was constructed in December 1969. The town got its name, Nikolaevsk, because it was founded about the time of Dec. 19, Saint Nikolai’s day.
Vladimir helped build Nikolaevsk into a town with a school, a water system, a fire hall and good roads.
“They were really pioneers coming in. They didn’t have a road, they didn’t have a water system, they didn’t have a sewer system. They had to walk a mile and a half in the woods from the intersection of Poppy Lane and the North Fork,” Moore said.
Moore said Vladimir was one of a succession of mayors who led the community under a system where the town selected a mayor and an assistant mayor. The mayor served a year and then the assistant mayor took office and a new assistant mayor was elected.
Vladimir also helped build the first Old Believer fishing boats in Kachemak Bay and was one of the first commercial fishermen in what’s now a thriving fishing community.
“A lot of Russians are fishing because of them,” Roman Martushev said of his father and other craftsmen. “He impacted the whole Russian community and got them into fishing. People followed him when they realized there was work there.”
Vladimir worked in Prince William Sound, Kodiak, Cook Inlet and Bristol Bay, fishing for salmon, halibut, black cod and Pacific cod on boats named Almaz (the first Russian boat), Kazbek and Avenger.
In 1974, Moore said Vladimir and four others asked him to teach a citizenship class. Out of that class, 59 became the first Alaskan Old Believers to gain U.S. citizenship. Three groups took classes over the years, with eventually about 200 citizens from the first group of settlers gaining citizenship.
Martushev was preceded in death by his wife, Tatiana.
He is survived by his ten children: Anisifor, married to Lidia, George, Dimitri, married to Evdokia, Roman, married to Michelle, Domnin, companion to Christina, Taisia, married to David, Varsonoffy, married to Polly, Yalerian, Larisa and Kazdoya; three siblings, Josiph, Anton and Gavril; as well as grandchildren, Zoya, Dracida, Arianda, Domnica, Elizabeth, Christopher, Antonina, Cleopatra, Anastasia, Lukiana, Solomon, Nikka, Isaac, Mariamiya, Cameron, Aquillie, Liam, Nicholas, Isaiah, Akulina, Elizabeth, Logan, Zion, Savva and Christina; and six great-grandchildren.
He was buried in the Nikolaevsk Cemetery.
Reach Michael Armstrong at firstname.lastname@example.org.