CLICK for MOREWaking the Tempests

Ordinary Life in the New Russia

by Eleanor Randolph — Simon & Shuster, 1996 — 431 pages

After serving as the Moscow correspondent for the Washington Post (1991-93), Randolph became the national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and wrote this book about life in Russia after perestroika. While researching her chapter on Russian religion, she attended the Molokan sobrania in Moscow in 1993, interviewed 2 women and the presbyter, and wrote this brief impression. In 1998 she joined the New York Times. See book reviews in Business Week, Current History, and Foreign Affairs; and a PBS NewsHour interview; and more at

[Molokans are on pages 325-50] [page 325] ... Russia had entered the free world of the twentieth century, where religions could sprout strange offshoots and rebellious renderings of the old faiths. If these groups existed elsewhere, they would certainly thrive in this new Russia, a continent inhabited by people with a proud traditon of spirituality.

I wanted to see one of the native religions of Russia that had sprung from the riral past and managed to survive the years of communism. The Molokans, whose name is derived from the Russian word for milk, had appeared as a tiny percentage on the Soviet lists of registered believers in the late 1980s, and their presence in this official toll put them somewhere between a religion and a cult in the eyes of the state. I did not meet Ivan Grigorievich Aleksandrov, the head of the Molokan church in Moscow, until 1993, when his church had become one of many groups that operated in Russian homes and makeshift churches around the country. Aleksandrov first invited me to his apartment to talk about his church and then to a service a few days later.

The flat, two well-organized rooms in one of Moscow's hundreds of [page _] grim apartment towers, smelled faintly of spices the day I arrived — cinnamon and nutmeg. They were the first delicious hints of a warm apple cake that would appear a few minutes after Aleksandrov had taken my coat and positioned me in his small living area. He began by explaining that he was a professional baker [earlier he was an aviation magazine photographer] and that the Molokan faith, which could not provide food for his family, was simply his "true life." I wondered as I stared at this man, with his red hair and warm red checks, with his Western-style crew-neck sweater with its alligator logo, how he could fit into Russia's new religious landscape. He did not act strangely. He did not show signs of being a man caught in some deep charismatic trance. In fact, Aleksandrov seemed oddly modern for someone professing a faith with its roots so deeply in a period of spiritual upheaval more than two centuries earlier. It was a time when Russia was flooded with different cults, sects, and schisms — a time of troubles, much like the periods at the beginning of the twentieth century and now again at the end. [Randolph did not probe enough to learn that Aleksandrov was not a practicing Molokan until 1991, after the first convention in Moscow. His parents attended sobrania in their village in north-central Azerbaidjan where he grew up, but he married out, moved into Russia, and had no interest in the faith until his father died. He was inspired by the funeral and the promises of perestroika to try to rekindle the religion. About 1990, it was announced on national radio that a meeting was being held for all religions. Aleksandrov was the only one who attended for the Molokans. He hoped to meet some Molokans at the meeting and became worried that Molokans would become extinct if he did not take action. He joined the council of religions, got some funds and help to invite by radio all Molokans in Russia to a meeting in Moscow in 1991, not knowing if anyone would show up. 100s came from all over Russia and one, Vasili Ivanich Sissoyev, from America. They registered the faith, and established a church in Moscow. The 1992 convention was held in South Ukraine again attended by 100s from Russia and 30 from the US. Molokan congregations began to register with the new Union of Communities of Spiritual Christians-Molokan, in Russia. In 1993 when this interview was conducted, about 30 congregations had joined. By the next convention, Aleksandrov lost a sort of political tug-a-war, and due to slander and greed, the UCSCM had moved to Stavropol', its current location. Aleksandrov then moved to Tula province, where he is presbyter of a thriving Molokan congregation which has succesfully recieved grants from European charitable organizations for a tractor, and a computer with Internet connection to help their school with education during the winter.]

The Molokans began their communal brand of worship in the 1760s and 1770s, making it a relatively new sect by the standards of Russian Christianity. The name of their sect, according to most histories of Russia's religions, means "spiritual milk" and comes from the Bible (I Peter 2:2), "As newborn babes desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow I thereby."

The Molokan faith began in a time of spiritual experimentation, as disenchanted churchgoers found solace in the strange movements pursuing religious ecstasy through mortification or simple faith. Flagellants [Khlysti] became a staple of the time as some groups practiced the circle procession, whipping themselves into a frenzy of godliness, chanting, "Khlyshchu, khlyshchu, Khrista ishchu" (I whip myself, whip myself, searching for Christ).29 Soon came other mortifiers — the self burners (who appeared during a particularly violent and cruel time) and the self-castrators [Skopsti] (who appeared during Catherine the Great's era of sexual promiscuity.30

The Molokans tended to demand far less perverse forms of showing one's dedication to the religion. When I saw a service in 1993 — which the participants said was much the same form that caused them to suffer persecutions not only by the communists but earlier by the Russian Orthodox church and the tsars — it was more like evangelical Christianity practiced in the backwoods of Southern America in my youth thirty years [page _] earlier. Full of song and scripture, it was designed to bring believers into periods of religious rapture — a brief moment when a mortal human being is supposed to be open to the awesome Spirit of God and to feel his powers to heal, enlighten, and, best of all, obliterate the miserable world outside.

The living room where the service was held, on virtually the opposite side of the city from Aleksandrov's apartment, was large for a Soviet building, even one on the outskirts of Moscow, where the chances of space were exchanged for the distance from the center. The floors were covered with linoleum, all done in a woodenlike pattern.The benches were hardwood, and a few chairs, lined against the wall, seemed perilously frail. A large picture window was covered with a green flowered curtain to block out the winter sun, and the chandelier, a Soviet model much like the type found in any Kmart or Bradlees in America, shed its spare light dimly over the congregation.

As I arrived, six very old women sat rocking silently, their heads covered with shawls or scarves. One middle-aged woman — a newcomer, we would learn later — began crying softly as she sat among the women, holding their hands. By the time the service started later, there were fourteen women and two men, both dressed in their best city suits, both smiling serenely. This was a church for elderly women, it seemed, where there was an odd division of labor. The men seemed in charge of the speaking of words; the women ran the singing. In the beginning, it seemed an equal contest — talk versus song — but by the end, the singers had taken control, especially one particularly forceful woman named Raisa Ignatievna Spitsina. Old and tiny, she weighed no more than eighty-five pounds, I guessed, but she sang with a voice that seemed always to be stronger than the others. No matter how loudly or passionately they sang along. Raisa Ignatievna had a regular job, which she dismissed later with a wave of the hand, but mostly she had the role of head singer. When the group tried to sing along, she sternly corrected them, adjusting the rhythm and the strange melodies in ways incomprehensible to almost everyone but herself.

The music, in fact, would be the key to the Molokans, and I would later learn that the chanting would sometimes continue for hours until the singers, having worked themselves into a cacophonous bliss, were spent and satisfied from their consummation with the Spirit of God. At a break in the session and long before anybody seemed close to such [page _] a moment, I talked with Raisa, a woman named Nadezhda, and Aleksandrov. It was a conversation that reminded me of the music, full of strange detours and interruptions. Raisa had come from Tambov, she said, the city where the Molokan faith started. Tambov (some two hundred fifty miles southeast of Moscow), had been considered a spiritual place for almost three hundred years. It was the fountainhead for many faiths, a Jerusalem for the smaller cults and sects in Russia. The reputation for Tambov's abilities to create spiritual beings is so widespread, in fact, that the city is sometimes called Tambog, which means, "God is there".

The songs, which to my ear sounded unstructured, were passed from generation to generation, Raisa said. She knew them by their tunes; the music was simply handed over from one believer with a good ear to another.

Raisa told her story in the way that many Russians did in this period — personal agonies first. She had a difficult life, she said. Her mother died in 1935, when Raisa was fourteen, the oldest of six children. "As she died, she made me sing the sixth psalm," Raisa sighed. They decided to have a meeting in her memory, the way people did then, after forty days. "But the authorities came, and they began shooting" she said. For a fourteen-year-old, it was hard to know exactly why they were shooting, but she knew only that it was a time when such things happened with a cruel regularity. Just as Raisa was moving into the more recent decades, Nadezhda Petrovna Bolotina, age seventy-four, came over to interrupt and tell her own story, but instead of beginning a personal tale, she began two hundred years earlier, with the Pugachev uprising in 1773. Nadezhda then rambled back and forth in time telling stories of Jesus' crucifixion and the persecutions of Peter the Great as if they were part of some strange bouquet of facts, gathered haphazardly from her memory.

Raisa tried to coax Nadezhda into the twentieth century, and Aleksandrov took a seat nearby to explain how the Molokans had always been quiet and industrious — they do not drink, smoke, or swear, he said. They stick to the "ten commandments of Christ" as Raisa put it, "the way it's written in the Bible." Such industry meant that only a few years into freedom, there were Molokan families in Tambov now who "have already built a house. Two stories." And they had animals, the sign of wealth in the countryside. "The Molokans have always had a good attitude to animals" Raisa said. "If one's animal is calving, a friend comes to help. We don't eat pork, so we [page _] have to have twenty-five sheep. If you eat one per month, it takes twelve sheep, and you keep twelve for the next year. We now grow cereals, potatoes, seeds. We make this year work for the next year," Raisa said.

Nadezhda, perhaps tired of being silenced, finally broke into the twentieth century to tell her part of her story. "My father was in prison," she began. Then she continued a long, elliptical tale that was basically about how he died in prison because he was a quiet Molokan farmer.

Other Molokans survived the communist years, as it turned out, not because they became part of the system or because they worked only underground, but because they did not proselytize, especially among the young.

"We cannot go out and preach to others. They must come to us," Ivan Grigorievich had said when I visited him that day in his apartment. He had shown me a film of a 1993 meeting of Molokans, a historic gathering of people who did not like any formal organization, even their own. What was most striking about the film was that the believers were virtually all elderly. Their children, if there were any, were not in sight.

"Where are the young?" I had asked Raisa.

"They don't like to come" she said. "They aren't interested in these things now."

The Molokans, at least these Molokans, were barely surviving in the new world of the faithful. Perhaps their own faith had allowed them to obey the rules of Soviet life too well by restricting their beliefs to the elderly and refusing to sneak children into their apartments each week to hold Sunday school like the other religions. Perhaps it was the religious version of what was happening in other parts of the society — that this old Russian sect had not kept up with what was happening in the rest of the world, where even in religion some Russian groups were adapting to the high-profile methods of American Pentecostals.

The Pentecostal faith, in fact, was booming in the early 1990s. Tucked into the Baptist category of believers during the Soviet years and often forced to use the same meeting halls, many Pentecostals opted instead to go underground, where they were a quiet but obdurate force of dissent. Vasily Ryakhovsky, an aged bishop from Kiev who served eight years in prison for his refusal to register with the state as a believer, told a writer in the early 1990s that the KGB tormented his circle, spreading the word that Pentecostals like him were child murderers. His son Sergei, who was president of a  [page _] council of Pentecostal bishops, explained that some made alliances with other persecuted religions like the Jews. "Pentecostals weren't allowed to get together [alone], so many went to Jewish synagogues in Moscow on the Sabbath and prayed in tongues."31

The Molokans, who also made some associations with Jews and others who suffered in the Soviet years, did not spring to life so easily once those sufferings ended. Their view seemed to be that converts would arrive automatically once the KGB stopped blocking their way. What they did not count on was how much the huge bazaar that Russia had become would invade their private, religious world. Theirs was a native Russian faith losing ground to the allure of Western missionaries; their potential converts had strayed elsewhere.

I felt that in some ways these Russian Molokans were similar to the Russian entrepreneurs, like Olga Romashko, who found that her home-made face cream would have to compete with something that was called Revlon or Rocher and was produced somewhere, anywhere, outside the country. For all the talk about how Russia was turning inward, in many ways it was also reaching outward, and only a true seer would be able to tell which force would prove to be the stronger.

Indeed, within two years, the curiosity about outside religions appeared to be diminishing, and the Russian government had begun quietly restricting religious groups that had once enjoyed free access, not only to people walking along the streets, but also to public buildings and even schools. Some groups by 1995 were banned from classrooms both in Russia and Ukraine.32

Even the big revivals did not have the pull that they once did. When American evangelist Jerry Falwell tried two years later to repeat Graham's 1992 Pochemoo campaign — flooding Moscow's streets with almost 3 million books and about eighty thousand flyers — Falwell was far from successful by comparison. The crowd of about eight thousand one September evening at the Olympic stadium had come mostly to hear other speakers and to pay their respects to the memory of Aleksandr Men, the Russian Orthodox priest who was murdered in 1990. Falwell, who spent eighteen months and several hundred thousand dollars advertising his arrival in Moscow, spoke for about ten minutes in front of a screen that said simply "an American evangelist" without saying which one exactly.33     [End of chapter about religion.]

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