Startsy are not appointed by any authority; they are simply recognized by the faithful as being people "of the Spirit". A starets, when not in prayer or in voluntary seclusion, receives visitors (some who travel very far) and spends time conversing with them, offering a blessing (if the starets is an ordained cleric) and confession, and praying. People often petition the starets for intercessionary prayers, believing that the prayer of a starets is particularly effective.
Personal confessions to startsy are encouraged, although not all of them are formally ordained to priesthood. Many of them have a reputation amidst believers of being able to know the secrets of a person's heart without having ever previously met the visitor, and having the ability to discern God's plan for a person's life. This, as all of the startsy's gifts, is believed to come from the Holy Spirit acting through the starets.
The Optina Pustyn near Kozelsk used to be celebrated for its startsy (Schema-Archimandrite Moses, Schema-Hegumen Anthony, Hieroschemamonk Leonid, Hieroschemamonk Macarius, Hieroschemamonk Hilarion, Hieroschemamonk Ambrose, Hieroschemamonk Anatole (Zertsalov)). Such writers as Nikolay Gogol, Aleksey Khomyakov, Leo Tolstoy and Konstantin Leontyev sought advice from the elders of this monastery. They also inspired the figure of Zosima in Dostoyevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov. Grigori Rasputin was styled starets by his followers, although he was not generally recognised as one. A more modern example of a starets is Archimandrite John Krestiankin (1910-2006) of the Pskov Monastery of the Caves who was popularly recognized as such by many Orthodox living in Russia.
The concept of the starets may be familiar to many Western readers through J. D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey. In the novel, one of the characters refers to the 19th century anonymous Russian work, The Way of a Pilgrim. The title character of The Way of a Pilgrim (ostensibly, the author) is advised in the progress of his spiritual life by a starets, who uses the Jesus Prayer as a starting point for spiritual discipline.