COLONIA RUSA: Vestiges of Russia fade in Baja village

Click to ENLARGEBy Karen Kenyon (free-lance writer)  The San Diego Union   July 7, 1988 Map and 5 photos.

Interview with 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.

COLONIA RUSA, Baja California In this tiny village, 18 miles northeast of Ensenada, Therese Adams Muranaka can see Mother Russia.

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 Samarin, Pedro 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 Molokans, Spiritual 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 Molokan 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 Russian 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 Molokans. 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 Spanish.

The Pryguny Molokans 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 Leo Tolstoy 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 Russians 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.

Today, Colonia 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 Russians, she said, "You can tell the depression is there. You don't see the pride anymore."

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 white-washed cottages."

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 assorted archaeologists.

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 Zarate-Loperena (1943-1994), 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 Molokans  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 Russians, 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 Molokans, 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 father has."

Pryguny in Mexico
Spiritual Christians Around the World