COLONIA RUSA: Vestiges of Russia
fade in Baja village
By Karen Kenyon (free-lance
writer) — The San Diego Union
— July 7, 1988 — Map and 5 photos.
Therese Muranaka (photo) about her research of the Prygun
Colony in Mexico and museum exhibit. In 1988 Dr.
Muranaka was a Research Associate, Department of
Anthropology, University of San Diego, and an associate state
archaeologist for California State Parks' San Diego Coast
District, Old Town San Diego. A version of this article appeared in Westways,
Volume 81, Automobile Club of Southern California.,
1989, pages 35+, with photos.
Baja California — In this tiny village, 18 miles northeast of
Ensenada, Therese Adams Muranaka can see Mother
The old country is seen in the barns, whose thatched roofs are
steeply pitched to keep off the Russian snow.
And in the sauna [banya] that
survives within one of the 30 remaining Russian-style cottages.
And in the village
cemetery, whose tombstones are inscribed with Cyrillic and
Roman letters, the names spelling out the merger of cultures: Juan
Filatoff, Pedro Samaduroff Pavloff.
"These people were an important part of the history of this area,"
said Muranaka, 37, an archaeologist, "and we want to tell their
story." Their ancestors were a mixture of Caucasian
and Asiatic peoples, not practicing Orthodox, from Russia.
The history of the Pryguny
Christians from Russia who a Russian sect
that fled to Mexico to escape religious persecution, is
part of the Museum of Man's "Saddles and Samovars: Diverse
Cultures of Baja California," on display through March 26, 1989. A booklet was published for the exhibit:
Muranaka, Therese Adams. Spirit
Jumpers: The Pryguny Russian Molokans of
Baja California, San Diego Museum of Man, Ethnic
Technology Notes No. 21, 1988.
The exhibit covers a variety of Baja settlements. The section on Colonia Rusa
includes historical photos, a video of a traditional Prygun
wedding, a recording of Molokan
hymns, a wedding dress, lace cloths, and other memorabilia
gathered by Muranaka.
From four sites near the cottages, she uncovered 4,000 artifacts —
buttons, lotion jars, a child's metal truck, pottery, teacups,
thin tea glasses.
"The relation of the object helps tell the story of how the
culture from Russia was maintained,
and the pattern of gradual blending with the Mexican culture,"
said Muranaka. "A piece of earth-tone Mexican pottery next to a
fragile piece of Russian china shows the way Mexican items
gradually became part of the Prygun Molokan household."
But time is running out for the Pryguny
Where 500 Spiritual Christians from Russia
Russians once farmed wheat and raised geese, only
seven Russian households remain — 14 people,
ages 15 to 100, among a population of 2,000. Children with brown
skin and blue eyes run and play, calling out to each other in
— the word means "jumpers milk
drinker" in Russian — organized
about 1833 in came from the Milky River region of New
Russia, now south Ukraine. Pacifists whose meeting houses churches
are simple buildings without statues or decorations, the Pryguny Molokans, like all Spritual Christian faiths,
split with the Russian Orthodox Church in the 18th century.
Presecuted by the czar's police, a minority
of these sects
were was encouraged by many factors
to come to America. In the early 1900s, about ~3,000 10,000 Spiritual Chrsitans Molokans
came to the United States, many of them settling in Los Angeles.
But the Pryguny Molokans
found it difficult to maintain their communal lifestyle there. In
1905, 105 Prygun Molokan
families purchased the land in Guadalupe Valley for $50,000. A few Orthodox Cossak and familes joined them.
The majority of Spiritual Christan immigrants from Russia stayed
in the city, eventually attracting those from Mexico.
They built cottages side by side along a single street — the backs
of the houses to the road, as in pre-revolutionary Russia.
Outlying plots of land were farmed in common.
They learned to be Skilled farmers, and
the Russians soon
produced 90 percent of all the wheat in Baja,
due to the failure of wheat
farmers in the San Quintin valley, 100 miles south
of Ensenada, in 1900. Later, the settlers switched
to grapes and continued their centuries-old custom of keeping bees
and geese. Those who made wine were
scourned for apostasy
by their more zealous Dukh-i-zhiznik
relatives in California.
During the week, the colonists wore simple work clothes — the
women wore long dresses and scarves, the men, overalls. On
Sundays, holidays and at weddings, the women wore delicate lace
shawls called kosinkas [triangles], while the men dressed in
Cossack-style shirts and boots with belts and braids.
Every family member used a samovar for tea, Muranaka said,
and most had saunas in their homes.
Over the years, second and third generation Pryguny
moved away or intermarried. In 1937, Mexican peasants descended on
the village and took 7,500 acres. President Lazaro Cardenas
visited the colony and assured the Pryguny Molokans
the village would not be broken up, but many sold their lots.
Rusa is deteriorating.
"Now the thatched roofs are replaced by tin," said Muranaka, "and
though some cottages are still white, others are painted pink,
green or turquoise — whatever color is available."
Of the remaining residents
she said, "You can tell the depression is there. You don't see the
With her English-Irish roots and Japanese surname, Muranaka may
seem an unlikely expert on a Russian-Mexican village. In fact,
Therese Adams studied in Romania on a Fulbright scholarship.
Embarking on her Ph.D dissertation at the University of Arizona,
she was determined to continue studying Slavic cultures while
living in the Southwest.
In San Diego's Old Town one summer, she had two fateful
encounters. She met her husband-to-be, Jason Muranaka, and she met
Elena T. Orozco, an older woman who had traveled through Colonia
Rusa as a young child.
Orozco's tales captivated the archaeologist. "It was fascinating
to me," Muranaka said, "out there in the middle of nowhere. I had
seen the poor shacks in Mexico, and here were these beautiful
Two-and-one-half years ago, Muranaka began her dig. Eight months
pregnant, she was helped by a diverse cast of characters — her
husband, a U.S. Postal Service employee; a private detective; a
former priest; a park ranger; an antique dealer; biologists; and
According to Muranaka, the dig is building bonds of goodwill
between the Mexican government and U.S. scientists. The items
displayed at the Museum of Man will be returned to Mexico.
"Most Americans come down, take what they want," said David
an anthropologist with the Association of Cultural Affairs in
Ensenada. "It's not that much — but they take it all to the
States. But Therese came in the proper way — asked for all the
right permits. ...
"Baja hasn't many archaeologists, anthropologists and historians.
We are interested in joint ventures with French and American
scientists — and other serious scholars. We want to help in
the proper way."
The Colonia Rusa artifacts, said Zarate-Loperena, will eventually
be housed in Ensenada's old jailhouse, which is to become a
museum. The state museum moved to a house donated
by Rogoff on the west end of town. By 2000, three Spirtual
Christian museums and a restaurant compete for tourists.
Dr. H. Leland Fetzer, a San Diego State University professor who
teaches classes on Russian civilization, said the excavation may
have been approved in part because the artifacts are from the 20th
century, and are not antiquities.
Still, getting permits is difficult. Muranaka's work "is a triumph
of persistence and hard work," Fetzer said. Many
of the locals, especially the chief of police, believed Muranaka
was searching for buried money, and spied on her work.
"Therese's work in the village is significant. She is fixing in
time that colony which is disappearing. She is preserving for
history and creating a written record of the only available
evidence of that group."
Even the existing Pryguny
are dispersing. On a recent Sunday, Andre Samaduroff rode his
bicycle to Colonia Rusa's cemetery. A red- haired fourth
generation Prygun Molokan,
Samaduroff cares for the grounds — at the request of his uncles.
Surrounded by the graves of his ancestors, he spoke in Spanish of
his hopes to go to Tijuana in the fall to study.
Samaduroff's family is among the few Rusos puros, or pure immigrants from Russia
left in the village. Some of his older brothers and sisters have
already left home. His younger sister, Sonya, 15, is the youngest
Russian in the village.
Down the wide dirt road, Dunya Babishoff, the oldest member of the
village, sat at her kitchen table while sacred Dukh-i-zhiznik
Molokan music played on a small tape recorder.
She is known as viejita,
the little old one. No one knows her exact age, though she is
believed to be 100. Her back is bent and she shuffles painfully
when she walks. Born in Russia, she responds to Russian and
Spanish, though she does not speak. Her
funeral in 1992 was the last time the meeting hall was used for
a religious service attended by many from California, according
to George Mohoff about 2000.
Judy Dolbee, an Encinitas resident who is descended from Pryguny
recently visited the village after meeting Muranaka.
"When I saw Dunya," said Dolbee, "she walked out, all stooped
over, and then she looked up at me. She had the same eyes that my