Transplanted Sakhaliner: Cheurniy Kleb* in Baja, Mexico

The Sakhalin Times — Oct 9, 2004, Updated Aug 24, 2005

 * Russian: black bread, chiornyi khleb, чёрный хлеб
Losha was one of the first Russian students to study in Anchorage, Alaska. He left Sakhalin in the early 90s and has never come back. He prolonged his studies in Alaska and got a job in San Diego, where he lived till 2000. Like most Russians abroad, he felt homesick, but didn’t “want to go back to the hardships.” His life changed for the better when he came to know about the Molokhans [Molokans].

The Molokhans [Molokans] are a Russian community settled in the Guadalupe valley in Baja California, Mexico. Their origins can be traced to Kars in ancient Armenia near Mt. Ararat, on which, according to Holy Writ, Noah's Ark rested after the deluge of forty days and forty nights. In Kars were a people who loved peace and who detested war. Yet they long had been plagued by wars, which took from them their men, many of whom fell in the line of battle. And their lands had been laid waste, only to be rebuilt, and to become impoverished again. This had been the story for countless generations.

This community of Russian Christians decided to migrate to greener more peaceful pastures. These intensely religious people prayed to God that they might be delivered from further warfare and somewhere in the world find a refuge where they could reside in quietude and simplicity, cultivate the soil and live in contentment.

It was in 1905, near the dose of the Russo-Japanese War, that the Molokans received permission from the government of Czar Nicholas II, to leave the land of their birth and migrate to some far corner of the earth. Thus started the voyage of exploration of three community leaders to the New World, to determine where a suitable place for colonisation could be found, and in due course to report back to the homefolk.

In Los Angeles, the trio met a banker, who informed them that a large tract of land, owned by the bank in the Guadalupe Valley of Baja California, could be purchased and on easy terms. The three advance men inspected the property, found it suitable, and reported to their people in far-off Kars.

They accepted the offer, the deal was closed, and 200 Russian men, women and children said goodbye forever to their homeland, to its wars and persecutions, to its troubles and sorrows, and removed to the beautiful valley, first settled seventy years before by the Dominican friars, who had established a mission there. The valley, fifteen miles inland from the Pacific Ocean, is reached by a road that leaves the Coast Highway about fifteen miles north of Ensenada.

Losha moved to Baja for a holiday and to learn about these Russians. Fascinated by what he saw, he decided to stay back. The village has about 100 persons, comprising twenty five families. Many of the younger generation have left for the United States, or for other places in Mexico, in the belief that better opportunities exist elsewhere than in the beautiful Guadalupe Valley. And besides, the little graveyard on a hillside gives mute evidence of death's inroads on the settlers.

All the people in the village are tri-lingual and can speak Russian, Spanish and English. “Many people here even know Turkish,” remarked Losha. “It’s simply amazing that these farmers seem more educated than the most polished folks in Sakhalin.”

The colony gives the impression of a tiny part of the Old World transplanted to the New. The dwellings mostly face a single street, about a mile long. The houses are generously spaced, allowing for large yards which are fenced, usually with woven wire. A few houses are on side streets. Each place has a garden patch. The one-story dwellings are built of adobe or wood and the newer houses are faced with stucco.
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While the farming lands lie outside the village, at virtually every homestead is a windmill that pumps water for household use and for the domestic animals and gardens. Much of the agricultural land consists of vineyards. Some wheat is raised and cheese is made for market.

The only business establishment is a small store. There is neither a hotel nor a restaurant, nor is there a cantina in the village. A traveler who is hungry or who is overtaken by night- fall in Guadalupe would be dependent upon the hospitality of householders for food and lodging. The wants of these people are few and they are supplied to a remarkable extent by the farms they cultivate.

Losha feels completely at home and is well settled here. He feels that this place is a complete re-creation of ancient Russia. The women cling to the cheurniy [chiornyi: чёрный] bread, which they bake in large round loaves in ovens made of brick. Some of the ovens are outdoors, others inside the houses. While the dwellings are plain and the furnishings simple, the interiors are immaculate, for cleanliness is a virtue of these people. Kerosene lamps are used for illumination at night.

“They are honest, hard-working, frugal, peaceful, God-fearing people, who have been through numerous hardships and who do not expect rewards except those that come from toil. Simplicity is the keynote of their lives,” says Losha. “This place is like a Russian version of the movie ‘The Village’”. The people freely offer information on the history of the colony and the ideals for which they strive, and invited the visitors to return.

With a Christian religion not linked with any denomination, they have a new church, the exterior of which resembles a dwelling. The clergyman serves without pay. Sunday is a big day for the colonists. Dressed in their go-to-meeting clothes, they assemble for an hour or more of religious services, after which they adjourn to a sort of town meeting, in which the problems of the colony are freely discussed and solutions reached. This meeting often lasts for hours.

Members whose conduct has not been in accord with the strict self-imposed rules of the colony are called to account in open session and commanded to mend their ways. Under the watchful eyes of a small community joined in bonds of righteousness and peace, few are those who dare stray from the straight and narrow path and escape detection.

Once each year, Justice Day [Judgement Day] is observed, when those who have trespassed upon their fellow colonists are forgiven and a fresh start is made by all. [Celebrating this holiday indicates they are/were Jumper/Maksimists, an offshoot of Molokans.]

In the village are abandoned adobe houses, tumbling in ruins, for they are not needed, now that the population is dwindling. The principal street is little travelled, except by those afoot or on horseback. The Russian language is in general use among the colonists in conversing among themselves, but most of them also speak Spanish. The Mexican government operates the public school at Guadalupe and the children are required to attend. The school is conducted entirely in Spanish. In order that the children also may learn Russian, they are taught that language in their homes.

In spite of the fact the colony was founded almost one hundred years ago, the traditions are well preserved. “I feel like I am the future of this place,” adds Losha. Losha has invited many old friends from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk to come and settle in the colony, which he feels is the only piece of the “good old Russia” on earth.
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