Spring 2012

 Vol. 20, No. 2


Russian Molokans: Their Roots and Current Status

J. Eugene Clay

 Spiritual Christians

Russian Spiritual Christianity first appeared in the historical record in the 1760s when a group of Russian Orthodox Christians in Tambov and Voronezh provinces broke away from the state church, rejecting its icons, fasts, church buildings, sacraments, clergy, and hierarchy. Following their understanding of the Slavonic Bible, these “spirituals” [dukhovnye] refused to kiss icons or bow before them; instead, they kissed and bowed to one another, for human beings—not painted boards—were the true image [ikona, obraz] of God. Church buildings were not necessary for those who worshiped God in spirit and truth, as Christ had taught. Likewise, they held that the sacraments should be understood in a spiritual, rather than a literal, sense. The Orthodox Eucharist was mere bread and wine and provided no salvation; the true Christian fed on spiritual bread, the Word of God. Rather than baptism in water, these early Spiritual Christians believed in baptism by the Holy Spirit. Marriage did not require a priest, but simply the mutual consent of the bride and groom. Spiritual Christians gathered for their religious meetings in private homes where they sang biblical psalms as well as hymns of their own composition. They refused to make the sign of the cross, rejecting both the three-fingered cross of the official state church and the two-fingered cross of the dissenting Old Believers. In obedience to the commands of Moses, Spiritual Christians also gave up pork.1

Dukhobors and Molokans

Within a generation, Spiritual Christianity had split into two major movements: Dukhobors, who came to place more emphasis on the direct leading of the Holy Spirit than on the Scriptures, and Molokans, who insisted on the authority of the Bible, the written Word of God. Orthodox detractors invented the names for both movements: Dukhobor (dukhoborets, spirit-wrestler) was a direct translation of the Greek pneumatomakhoi (those who struggle against the spirit), the fourth-century heresy that had denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit, and Molokan (molokanin, which came from moloko, milk) referred to anyone who consumed dairy products on fast days when milk was forbidden to Orthodox Christians. Semen Matveev Uklein, a state peasant from Tambov province who, according to oral tradition, worked as an itinerant tailor, emerged as an important Molokan leader. He traveled along the Volga River and throughout southern Russia spreading the Molokan faith and organizing congregations until his death in 1809.

Under Alexander I

Under the relatively tolerant reign of Alexander I (1801-25), Dukhobors and Molokans were allowed to move to Tauride province in Crimea, where they formed colonies along the Milky Waters in Melitopol’ district. In their own manuscripts, Molokans preserve an imperial decree, issued in 1805 by Alexander I, that granted them limited recognition and protection from interference by Orthodox clergy.2 In 1905, 1955, and 2005, Molokan congresses celebrated the centennial, sesquicentennial, and bicentennial anniversaries of the decree.3 Under Alexander I, Molokans wrote several creeds and ritual manuals in an effort to standardize their belief and practices.4 They cooperated with the Russian Bible Society, which existed from 1812 to 1826, and promoted the reading of the scriptures. With no central ecclesiastical authority, Molokans began to develop doctrinal and ritual innovations. For example, beginning in 1823, the Don Cossack Andrei Salamatin led some Crimean Molokans to reintroduce some sacraments, including infant baptism and a form of the Eucharist, while remaining independent of the Orthodox Church and its clergy. Although most Molokans strictly rejected all sacraments, Salamatin’s sacramental followers came to be known as Molokans of the Don Persuasion [molokane donskogo tolka].5

Under Nicholas I

When Nicholas I (1825-55) ascended the throne he ended his brother’s policy of relative religious toleration and instead turned to active persecution of Spiritual Christianity. Beginning in 1830, Molokans and Dukhobors were exiled to the Caucasian frontier in an effort to separate them from Orthodox peasants who might prove vulnerable to their proselytizing efforts. The authorities also hoped to help pacify the Caucasus by settling these ethnically Russian sectarians among the hostile indigenous population.6

The policy of persecution and forced deportation failed to eliminate Spiritual Christianity, but seemed rather to intensify Molokans’ commitment to their faith. In the 1830s, many Molokans experienced a major revival in which the Holy Spirit manifested Himself through inspired prophecy, glossolalia, and ecstatic dance. Some Molokans predicted that the advent of Christ was near and, drawing on the popular writings of the German Pietist Johann Heinrich Jung-Stilling (1740-1817) and the Baltic Baroness Juliane von Krüdener (1764-1824), began to preach that this blessed event would occur in 1836 at Mount Ararat. Excited by this eschatological vision, some Molokans voluntarily undertook the difficult trek to the Caucasus in the hope of meeting the returning Christ. Constant, Leaper, and Jumper Molokans

Not all Molokans accepted these new manifestations of the Holy Spirit, and the revival in the 1830s split the movement. The more conservative majority held to the traditions of Semen Uklein, who had emphasized the authority of the Bible and had established norms for congregational singing. These Ukleinites [ukleintsy] or Constant [postoiannye] Molokans predominated especially along the Volga. The more radical Leapers [skakuny] and Jumpers [pryguny] embraced the new prophecies and the ecstatic dancing, singing, and glossolalia that accompanied them. Calling themselves “Zion,” after the sacred location of the Jewish temple, these Leapers and Jumpers followed new prophets, including Fedor Osipovich Bulgakov (1809-76) who took the messianic name of David, the son of Jesse, and Luk’ian Petrov Sokolov (1753?-1858), who encouraged his listeners to move to Ararat to build the New Jerusalem. As the more radically apocalyptic branch of the Molokans, Jumpers tended to go to the Caucasus, either voluntarily or by forced exile.

Followers of Rudometkin

By the 1850s, Molokan settlements in the Caucasus had become a cauldron of new spiritual movements. Some known as Communalists [obshchie] experimented with the reintroduction of the early apostolic practice of holding property in common. Others became followers of another radical millenarian prophet, the peasant wheelwright Maksim Gavriilovich Rudometkin (ca. 1832-77), who declared himself to be the King of Spirits. Arrested in 1858 for his radical prophecies, Rudometkin spent the rest of his life in monastic imprisonment. (Although most historians hold that he died in 1877, Rudometkin’s most devout followers to this day believe that he is still alive and is waiting for the right moment to return to establish his terrestrial kingdom.)7

With his radical prophecies of a millennial kingdom that would be populated and enjoyed by his followers, Maksim Rudometkin split the Jumper community to create a third great branch (along with Constants and Jumpers) of Molokans that is active today—sometimes called Maksimists [maksimisty] by their detractors. In his prophecies, written in tiny notebooks that were smuggled to his followers from his monastic prison, Rudometkin bitterly attacked the Russian Orthodox Church and its tsar, comparing them to the apocalyptic beasts of Revelation. He broke with other Molokans by rejecting the Christian holidays that they shared with the Russian Orthodox Church, instead insisting that his followers observe the Old Testament feasts, including Trumpets, Passover, and Tabernacles. While many other Molokans, especially Ukleinites, sought accommodation with the imperial government, Maksim bitterly rejected such efforts and denounced the Russian state in apocalyptic terms.

Molokan-Baptist Connections

In the late 1860s, German Baptists began attracting many Molokan converts to their faith. The very first Russian convert to Baptist faith was the Molokan preceptor Nikita Isaevich Voronin (1840-1905). On 20 August 1867, Baptist preacher Martin Kalweit, a Baltic German living in the Caucasus, baptized Voronin in the Kura River near Tiflis, Georgia. Baptists and Molokans shared much in common. Both held a commitment to the supreme authority of the Bible. They also rejected the clergy, hierarchy, sacraments, and icons of the Orthodox Church. Molokans and Baptists were both led by lay elders, and they both believed in a form of congregational polity. The main division between the two movements lay in their conflicting understanding of baptism and communion. Baptists believed that Christ himself had ordained these specific rituals. Although baptism and the Lord’s Supper were not sacraments that could convey saving grace, obedient believers had to perform these ordinances in accordance with the literal commands of Christ and his apostles. For Baptists, an adult believer who confessed faith in Christ was required to follow him in the ritual of holy water baptism. For Molokans, baptism and communion were spiritual realities, not physical rites. As a Molokan statement of faith from the 1890s put it, “We do not perform baptism by water on persons of any age. Our baptism consists in worship and in turning away from sin, in accordance with the testimony of the Gospel.”8

Under Baptist influence however, some prominent Molokans adopted Baptist ideas or converted to Baptist faith altogether. In the 1860s, affected by a spiritual revival among German Mennonites, Molokan leader Zinovii Danilovich Zakharov (b. 1840) introduced believers’ baptism among his co-religionist Molokans of the Don Persuasion, thus creating a new movement of evangelical Molokans. In addition, many early Russian Baptist and Evangelical Christian leaders were converts from Molokan faith. Dei Ivanovich Mazaev (1855-1922), one of the founders of the Baptist Union in 1884, was from a wealthy Molokan family in the Crimea. Born in a Molokan family in Vorontsovka, near Baku,Vasilii Gur’evich Pavlov (1854-1924) became a Baptist in 1871 and actively proselytized among former co-religionists in the Caucasus. Ivan Stepanovich Prokhanov (1869-1935), founder of the All-Russian Union of Evangelical Christians (1909), also came from a Molokan family, although his parents converted to Baptist faith while he was a child.9

Under Nicholas II

In the last years of the old regime, Molokans enjoyed greater freedom. Constant Molokans formed a wealthy community in Baku. With Tsar Nicholas II’s decree of religious liberty in 1905, Molokans were able to legally publish their own journals (including The Spiritual Christian, The Sectarian Herald, The Molokan, and The Molokan Herald), hold congresses, develop national denominational structures, and create civic organizations. Some sources suggest that Molokans in Russia numbered as many 1.2 million at the beginning of the twentieth century.10 An official 1912 government census, however, found only 133,935 Constant Molokans [molokane-voskresniki] and 4,844 Jumpers [pryguny], which probably included Maksimists.11 Despite the greater toleration they enjoyed, many of the more radical Molokans, especially Jumpers and Maksimists, began to emigrate to the United States beginning in 1904. In part, these emigrants sought to escape the burden of military service in the Russo-Japanese War. Approximately 5,000 Molokans (primarily Jumpers and Maksimists) moved to the U.S. before the outbreak of the First World War. ♦


1 Svetlana A. Inikova, “The Tambov Dukhobors in the 1760s,” Russian Studies in History 46 (Winter 2007–08): 10–39.

2 A. Vysotskii, “K voprosu o polozhenii molokan v tsartsvovanie imperatora Aleksandra I. (Proshenie na vysochaishee imia molokan Tambovskoi i Voronezhskoi gubernii ot 22 iiunia 1805 g., s prilozhennym k nemu molokanskim obriadnikom),” Izvestiia Tavricheskoi uchenoi arkhivnoi komissii, nos. 32-33 (1902):18-47. An English version of the decree can be found at http://www.molokane.org/molokan/History/Bi-centennial/1805_Petition.html.

3 Otchet o iubileinom s”ezde dukhovnykh khristian molokan, 1805-1905 (Tiflis: 1907); Nikolai Kastriulin, “Dukhovnye khristiane molokane v fotografiiakh,” 8 August 2009, http://h.ua/story/217597/; Ivan Aleksandrov, “’Vozliubivshie slovesnoe moloko’: Molokane otprazdnovali iubilei darovaniia svobody veroispovedaniia,” NG-Religii, 5 October 2005.

4 [Grigorii Pokrovskii], “Istoricheskie svedeniia o molokanskoi sekte,” Pravoslavnyi sobesednik (September 1858): 51-57.

5 Vasilii M. Skvortsov, ed., Deianiia 3-go Vserossiiskogo missionerskago s"ezda v Kazani po voprosam vnutrennei missii i raskolosektantstva, 2nd ed., rev. (Kiev: I. I. Chokolov, 1898), 156-57; Istoriia evangel’skikh khristian-baptistov v SSSR (Moscow: Izdanie Vsesoiuznogo soveta evangel’skikh khristian-baptistov, 1989), 53-54.

6 Nicholas Breyfogle, Heretics and Colonizers: Forging Russia’s Empire in the South Caucasus (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005), 1-83.

7 Aleksandr Il’ich Klibanov, Narodnaia sotsial’naia utopia v Rossii, XIX vek (Moscow: Nauka, 1978): 140-210; Nikolai Aleksandrovich Dingelshtedt, Zakavkazskie sektanty v ikh semeinom i religioznom bytu (St. Petersburg: Tipografiia M. M. Stasiulevicha, 1885), 61-76; A.F. Wren, True Believers; Prisoners for Conscience : A History of Molokan Conscientious Objectors in World War One; The Absolutists of Arizona : “You Shall Not Lose One Hair on Your Head” ([Australia?]: A.F. Wren, 1991), 20; Selections from the Book of Spirit and Life: Including the Book of Prayers and Songs, ed. and trans. J.K Berokoff (Whittier, CA: Stockton Trade Press, 1966), 18.

8 http://www.moscowseminary.org/sannikov/ 2tambovotolk.htm.

9 Heather Coleman, Russian Baptists and Spiritual Revolution, 1905-1929 (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2005), 15, 18, 30, 38.

10 Dar’ia Okuneva “Poslednie iz molokan,” Novye izvestiia, no. 220, 4 December 2007, p. 7.

11 Statisticheskie svedeniia o sektantakh (k 1 ianvaria 1912 g.), Izdanie Departamenta dukhovnykh del (St. Petersburg: Tipografiia MVD, 1912); cf. Aleksandr Il’ich Klibanov, Istoriia religioznogo sektantstva v Rossii (60-e gody XIX v. – 1917 g.) (Moscow: Nauka, 1965), 181.

Editor’s note: The concluding portion of this article will be published in the next issue of the East-West Church and Ministry Report 20 (Summer 2012).

J. Eugene Clay is associate professor of religious studies, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona.