The Subbotniks of Zima want to emigrate to Israel

During the tsarist regime, this Russian sect was called the "Jewish Heresy"

June 9, 2005  —  Irkutsk — The Newspaper "SM Number one" — The Baikal Institute of Social Research

By Julia Ulybina; Sergey Ignatenko's photos

In the city of Zima (Зиме)1  in the Irkutsk region circulate the legends about the old  residents they call Solomony. The stories indicate that these people adhere to a strange faith. On one hand they are Russians, but they practice circumcision like the Jews. Solomony do not work on Saturdays. They bury their dead in a separate cemetery. And in earlier days, they had a large round prayer house which was called molel'nym. The Solomony lived in the old part of Zima essentially on two streets located along the banks of the Oka River. There are a lot of people of this faith living in Zima, only about 500, yet they are all of only three surnames: Potapov, Shishlyannikov and yes, Pyatigorsky.

The square round house2

Riverfront Park Stages
Grandfather Jacob Pyatigorsky was exiled to Siberia from Poland.
Zima - wooden city. Among the neighborhood of not so remarkable structures sits an ancient mysterious house which is now deserted and locked. This is the sectarian [non-Orthodox] prayer house, only it is not round, but quite square.

The casual passer-by confirms:
“Yes, this is the large round house.”
“But it square?!”
“Well yes, square. But in general it is round.”
“Do Solomony live around here?
"I do not know of any Solomony, but there are Subbotniks here.”

Riverfront Park Stages
The prayer-house  (molel'nyy) house of the Subbotniks has been empty for a long time.
History does not tell us who began to call Subbotniks Solomony; Subbotniks themselves consider this nickname insulting. The name "Subbotniks" is a more appropriate in describing their religious practice: People who regard Saturday as the Sabbath - therefore Subbotniks.

Yakov Pyatigorsky, an old resident of Zima, is from a Jewish family while wife his Nina is from a Subbotnik family. His grandfather Yakov Davidovich was a Polish Jew who was banished to Siberia for being a participant in the Polish Revolt. 3

In those times, thousands of Poles were exiled to Siberia, and those Polish Jews who settled along the Moscow-Siberia road brought with them the beginning of the appearance here of Subbotniks.

Yakov Pyatigorsky says that the exiled Jews were concerned about the well being of the other shackled prisoners they met on their journey, so they shared extra food, drink and clothing with them. As a result of their kindness, some of these {non-Jewish} exiles converted to Judaism.

However, this account of the appearance of Subbotniks in Siberia is not unique. Russians, who accepted Judaism, existed even during Ivan the Terrible’s lifetime. They were severely oppressed by the Orthodox Church for thinking differently, but they were not completely eliminated. Later under Tsar Alexander I, the adherents of the Jewish Heresy (as it was called in those days) were also exiled also to the Caucasus and into Siberia.

According to Irahmielja Nemzer, the representative of the Congress of the Jewish Religious Communities and Associations of Russia, the Jewish Heresy has always been present in Russia but has very little in common with Judaism in this context - in essence the members of the sect did not work on Saturdays but did not observe other Judaic laws.

They wished to fight the Kolchaka4  in Zima

The exiles of Zima sided with the Red Army during the Russian Civil War. According to Jacob Pyatigorsky, his grandfather was given a staff position in a local army group, and his father, Moisey, became the deputy commander.

“Kolchak wished to come here, in Zima.” tells Jacob Davidovich. “We tried to remove him from his train and shoot him. But Kolchak's command arrived from Irkutsk to protect him. Then the commander of this rebel group, Novokshonov, placed a guerrilla in the dome of the train car that followed Kolchak and protected him all the way to Irkutsk. And now there is a monument to this enemy of the Russian people — the people who made it have no conscience.”

With the establishment of the Soviet regime, the prayer house of Subbotniks in Zima was closed. It became too complicated for them to observe Saturday Sabbath.

“They worked on Saturday so as not go against the system.” says Yakov Pyatigorsky. “The no longer held any services in the prayer house. I have dedicated my life to sports. I was the coach of the hockey and football teams. In 1966 our team became the champion of region having beaten all the others from Slyudyanka up to Taishet. During Soviet times, it was difficult to observe our traditions, but we tried. We did not got to the cemetery or bury our dead on Saturday. New Years was always observed in September and Parents Day in July. There was a separate cemetery for us - Jewish. There it is pure. It was kept clean, and it had a watchman.

Whether Subbotniks can emigrate to Israel

Recently, the Jewish Agency began to process any emigration applications from Zima. And during June of last year, a special commission was directed to the Siberian city.

After securing use of a movie camera, the representative of the Jewish Agency, the envoy of Jewish Agency in Israel and the representative of the Congress of Jewish Religious Communities were directed to Zima with the mission to find out what relationship Subbotniks have to Judaism and how they observe Judaic traditions.

Irahmielju Nemzer, a participant in the expedition, does not know what conclusions were made by the Jewish Agency. However from her understanding of religious law, it was not possible to prove that these Subbotniks are a part of Judaism.

“We have collected information from the old men, looked around the payer house and cemetery and made an entire film about the life of Subbotniks. All of which were sent to Moscow. But we have not found any hard evidence of the existence of a Jewish culture in Zima.” says Nemzer. “Neither marriage contracts nor letters about the divorces nor prayer-books. Nothing. Old men said that this existed once but had disappeared during the Soviet time. The only proof so far that the Subbotniks of Zima belong to the Jews is that their burial places are in the Jewish cemetery.

In the entire Irkutsk region there is a total of nearly nearby 7000 Subbotniks (or those who consider themselves as such) according to Irahmielja Nemzer. The primary surnames of there people are Shishlyannikov and Potapov.

Translator's notes (WAA Mar 9, 2006)
  1. Зиме or Zima means winter in Russian. This Siberian city of 42,000 was founded in 1743 as "Staraya Zima." The town lies about 155 miles to the northwest of Irkutsk near the world's largest fresh water Lake Baikal and is a stop on the Trans-Siberian Railroad about 3050 miles or 80 hours from Moscow. Local industries include lumber-woodworking, plastics, and anthrax production. It is the birthplace of the renowned poet, novelist, essayist, film director, movie actor, photographer Yevgeny A Yevtushenko - a fourth-generation descendant of Ukrainians exiled to Siberia. In 1961 Yevtushenko published “Babi Yar,” a poem against anti-Semitism, which inspired the great Russian composer Dmitry Shostakovitch to write his Symphony No. 13.

  2. Perhaps this paradox can be explained by the fact that traditional Orthodox places of worship with round yet this sectarian prayer house was not.

  3. The Tsar saw it as a duty to protect the Slavs against all external threats. The effect of Western liberalism and nationalism which resulted in the Polish revolt 1831 is an example of this. It was ruthlessly suppressed and resulted in the abolition of many important elements of Polish national identity. The Polish constitution was withdrawn, the universities closed and the Russian language was more vigorously imposed in Polish public life.

  4. Aleksandr Vasiliyevich Kolchak (Александр Васильевич Колчак) 1874- 1920 a Russian naval commander during the Russo-Japan War and later head of part of the anti-Bolshevik White forces during the Russian Civil War which was fought between 1918 and 1922.

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