The Return of the Molokans

By Galina Koval’skaya*New Times**, Special Report. 1993. Pages 14-15.
Several years ago, when nobody knew they would soon have to flee from their homesteads, a team of psychologists arrived from Moscow to show the locals two pictures, one of mountains and a waterfall, the other of woods, field and a river flowing through the plains. They were asked to say what they thought nicer. Replies differed, but most preferred the woods as being lovelier and more peaceful. However, they also said they found the mountain more habitual. In the upshot of their survey, the psychologists found that subconsciously Armenia’s Molokans still hankered for the scenery common to Central Russia.

Yet other Molokans, who in the 1960s had resettled from Armenia in the neighborhood of Penza, or rather had returned after some 150 years away, today sing nostalgically of their Transcaucasian home?

Where, indeed, is one’s real home?  [Also see: Question 1 — Comment: Where's the "Holy land"?]

Taking the rap

Photo #3: The History of Caucasian Molokans and Doukhobors, by Ivan Semyonov, 2001 Aug.

Currently 32 Molokan families from the Armenian village of Krasnoselsk which stands on the boarder with Azerbaijan have resettled in a former Young Pioneer summer camp near Kaluga. Since August 1992 their village was shelled. The shelling because particularly furious after December. Whether day or night houses were wrecked and cattle crippled. Then a 32-year-old paterfamilias [male head of household] was slain and could not be buried in keeping with Molokan rites because of bombardment, the locals decided that they had to move. [Chambarak is in Armenia. Founded in 1800s as Mikhailovka, in 1920 became Karmir gyugh ("Red village"), then in 1972 Krasnoselsk.]

A their request, the truck convoy bringing in humanitarian aid took out into Russia 92 souls who had with them nothing more than a valise of kitbag, and very little money.

They were deeply worried about all staying on. Their very first plan was to help them get out. Another 44 somehow made their way to that place outside Kaluga, bit in a manner one would not wish upon one’s worst enemy. They had to pay a fortune to hire a truck, needing therefore to par virtually with everything which the few luckier ones had manages to secure for a house sold. Further they were robbed blind on their way through Georgia and Ossetia, while many women were raped.

Many families left the men behind for them to somehow bring out their belongings with them. But as they now have no contact with the theatre of hostilities, they have no notion of their lot.

What also alarms them is that on the other side of the border, in Azerbaijan proper, are another two Molokan villages. Namely the communities had been friends for generations, with many related by marriage. Only two years ago Armenians and Azerbaijanian frontier posts let the Molokans through to attend weddings, baptisms or funerals. In recent years ties have been cut and nothing is known now as to what may have overtaken the two villages across the border.

Listening to these jeremiads, one finds oneself wondering why all talk about the lot of Russophones abroad should focus on linguistic and citizenship problems and Russophobia at the everyday level. Though this is all important, aren’t we losing sight of Russophones victimized by a war that is not theirs? Has anyone ever tallied their number? Isn’t it absolutely obvious that they should be resettled first?

“We always visited one another, Armenians visited Azerbaijanians. So why all this? And who shoots most, the Azerbaijanians or others? That’s hard to figure. Now our Armenian neighbors fire first, and the Azerbaijanians fire back. Or it might be the other way round. Meanwhile we’re on the very border, and it all goes over and through us. After all, bullets and bombs do not discriminate whether Russian, Armenian or Azerbaijanian.”

Russia’s Protestants?

The Molokans comprise a rather late Russian sect that emerged at the close of the 18th century. Like other anti-clerical movements in Russia and in Europe, Molokan preachers focused on immediate personal contacts with God, refuting ritual and reverence for saints and icons as idolatry. They recognize as the sole fountainhead of truth the Holy Scriptures, emphasizing that both Old and New Testaments are to be viewed metaphorically not dogmatically.

Basic is meeting for prayer which reduce to hymn singing and the joint reading and interpretation of Scriptural texts. There is no hierarchy, with the congregations chaired by an Elder, usually one of the older and better educated members of the community. They resemble more the western Quakers and Baptists.

Incidentally, at closer look, one realizes that this is more than a simply superficial resemblance. What Max Weber sees as the crucial elements of Protestant ethics, the factor responsible for the west’s present prospering society, enrichment by honest labour coupled with  readiness to help the poor and the unfortunate, is well nigh the core of Molokan ethics too. “How are you fixed up here?” ”Thank God, under Christ’s wing with roof and food. Our only trouble is that it is high time to start sowing but we have no land. Are we to sponge on Russia?”

They always lived richly, true, never saying so, preferring to emphasize that they were “more solid than neighbours.” Almost as Abalkin put it “As they worked so did they live.”
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[Photo is not clear in fax of article provided via inter-library loan. If anyone can send a clear scan of this image, please do.]
Vladimir Stupishin (left), Russia’s Ambassador to Armenia, in the Molokan village of Krasnoselsk, with Afanasy Malashikhin, a Molokan (right). The ambassador had to curtail his visit because of the shelling.

In the early 1830s the tsarist government decided to shift all non-Orthodox communities to the Transcaucasus, to thus accomplish the two-fold task of ridding Central Russia of troublemakers and of colonizing with Russians. The newly annexed Transcaucasus. Though this was not fully implemented, in the 1830 and 1840s, in the reign of Nicholas I, many migrated. They were granted land and, more important, were allowed to conduct religious service in their own fashion without fear of reprisal. [See Breyfogle's thesis and book for details.]

At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Molokan villages were the more prosperous and cultured. Practically everyone could read and write and abstained from liquor, families were large. In the event of ill luck mutual support was always forthcoming. Further, the Molokans were more amenable to sundry technical and agronomical novelties. Archival testimony shows that early in this century Molokan communities subscribed to special agronomical literature.

How did they survive [forced] collectivization? They meekly accepted it, faithfully heeding Apostle Paul’s verdict that all authority is God-ordained. The kolkhozes and sovkhozes the Molokan communities set up soon developed into prospering model establishments. The Molokans proudly note that they had no informants among them and so repression passed them by.

Russia needs them

These refugees are totally unlike other refugees. The do not complain. They speak of the shootings and their anxieties when asked, but do not blame or curse anyone. I never heard them repeat that traditional refrain that Russia has deserted them. They are most grateful for any help give. That Russia or Armenia owes them anything is not part of their mentality.

Parting, my companion, an MP [military policeman], wondered how he could help. Came the reply:

“Forgive us, but we’ve got to live somehow and hope you won’t take it aback. But if you could see your way to giving us bedding, a sauce pan of sorts, and cups and  spoons as we’ll be reporting to the sovkhoz for work and will probably get a cot, although if not that, we could make do with plain boarding, but we do need some bedding plus a sauce pan to cook. But if you can’t see your way to that, perhaps you could give us a little money to by a few thins to start with?”

These people who had left behind brick houses and cattle asked not for compensation, but just for a spoon and a saucepan! Really and truly, not of this world are they, of this present world of ours!

The Molokan community of Armenia has many well-educated folk – a schoolmistress, a vet, several engineers, and a trained librarian. Generally, they all want a college education for their children. Does that mean they want to urbanize? Not at all. They want to work the land, and as soon as possible, as it is high time to plant potatoes, for otherwise there’ll be nothing for next year. For that reason they are amenable to what is not very convenient. Thus, some sovkhozes around Tula have said they are willing to accept several families. However, the Molokans can’t understand why they want childless families. Only because there are not schools there? However, they agree, provided they take them with their children as well. They are tired of the uncertainty and are willing to undertake any job. Thus, that trained librarian said she could do a milkmaid’s job and one old granny added that she could do the same despite age. 

It is more customary to hear people groan about their living conditions. But the Molokans, on the contrary, are happy though their large families have been crowded into just one room each, which they had not anticipated. All that they want now is work.

The Molokans never lose hope. They are prepared to take any job. They are good, sober workers. It is rather more to Russia’s advantage than to their in fact, for their community to keep going. So why not settle them all together in one or another deserted village around Tula or Kaluga?

To invest in reviving a Molokan village fundamentally contrasts to granting empty credits to enterprises operating at a loss. The Molokans have brought in with them something more than a willingness to work and the know-how. They have brought with them to Russia the culture and ethics that we, alas, have lost.

The Molokans from Armenia are not hot fanatically religious, like Dukh-i-zhizniki. Young women wear kerchiefs only when gathering for prayer. The menfolk smoke, and now and again, may take a tot or two. For that matter only the elderly systematically attend prayer meetings. But they strictly observe their moral principles, regarding drunkenness as shameful and adultery, cheating and thieving completely out of question. Which means that if we split the community today in one or two generations from now their current codes of behaviour and work will go, engulfed by our chaos and lawlessness. Surely we should take good care of this wealth that offers. 

* In May 2003, journalist Galina Iakovlevna Koval’skaya died in an accident. There are many tributes and a book about her excellent work: 
  • “Galina Koval’skaya was one of the best reporters of our time.” — "A Tribute to Galina Kovalskaya, The Moscow News
  • “On May 3 [2003] as a result of a helicopter crash several people died, including a journalist, political observer, deputy editor of «Journal» weekly Galina Koval’skaya. She was a prominent journalist, … for the persecuted on national principle, refugees, all those who has tried living in accordance with duty and consciousness.” — "We Will Remember", The Chechen Times №10, May 14, 2003
  • Details of the accident: RUSSIA: Four journalists die in helicopter crash
** New Times is a monthly digest of the Russian weekly news Novoe Vremya.

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