J. Eugene Clay
Editor’s note: The first portion of this article was published in the previous issue of the East-West Church and Ministry Report 20 (Spring 2012): 1-3.
The Soviet Era
During the Soviet period, Molokans, like other religious groups, suffered official persecution and discrimination. Although in the 1920s the Soviet government initially tried to court Molokans, offering them conscientious objector status, permitting them to hold congresses, and encouraging them to create their own communal farms, by 1929 such privileges were rescinded. Molokans ceased to hold congresses, and registration of religious communities became more difficult. The Union of Spiritual Christian Molokans founded in 1921 was dissolved in the 1930s.1 Molokan leaders were imprisoned and suffered and died in Stalin’s camps. Collectivization and de-kulakization (Stalin’s campaign against successful peasants orkulaks) also hurt Molokans who were predominantly rural. Despite all of these disadvantages, in 1962 one group of Molokans living in Kars, Turkey, decided to return to Russia, the land of their ancestors, where they settled in Stavropol’ district.2
Mikhail Gorbachev, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1985to 1991, ended religious persecution in the USSR. Molokans were quick to take advantage of the new freedoms. They reestablished a congregation in Moscow, and their elder, Ivan G. Aleksandrov, worked to revive the movement. In 1990, he began publishing a new version of the pre-revolutionary journal, The Spiritual Christian [Dukhovnyi khristianin], created a Union of Spiritual Christians-Molokans [Soiuz dukhovnykh khristian-molokan], later called the Union of Spiritual Christian-Molokan Congregations, and prepared for a new congress of Spiritual Christians, held in Moscow in June 1991. Attended by delegates from over 60 communities, the congress was able to persuade only 40 of those congregations to join the new union. The Union also failed to unite the various branches of Molokans; only Constants agreed to participate in the Union. The Congress adopted constitution and elected Aleksandrov senior presbyter.
With many important Spiritual Christian communities in the volatile Caucasus, in 1991 the new union created a Committee to Aid Molokan Settlers [Komitet sodeistviia pereselentsam-molokanam] to help find land for those Spiritual Christians fleeing from the growing conflicts in the Caucasus. Substantial number of Molokans and Dukhobors fled to Tula province, where a series of newspaper articles bemoaned the inadequate help they received from thegovernment.3
In 1992 another Molokan congress was held in Astrakhanka, a village in the Melitopol’ region of Ukraine that Molokans had settled under AlexanderI. Molokan representatives from the United States as well as the former Soviet republics participated.4By the fall of 1993, however, other Molokans held two rival congresses: one led by Timofei Vasil’evich Shchetinkin (1938-2011) in Kochubeevskoe village, Stavropol’ district, the other led by Ivan Aleksandrovin Moscow. Soon Aleksandrov was accused of mishandling funds that he had received from sympathizers abroad, and in 1994 he was removed from the Union’s leadership altogether. Shchetinkin, the presbyter of Kochubeevskoe, was elected senior presbyter of the Union, and the Union’s headquarters effectively moved from Moscow to Kochubeevskoe.
In 1997, a Molokan congress celebrated the opening of new thousand-seat prayer house in Kochubeevskoe.5Eight years later, in 2005, an international gathering of Molokans celebrated the bicentennial of AlexanderI’s 1805 decree with a major successful congress in Kochubeevskoe. In the wake of Shchetinkin’s death in2011, the council of the Union elected his son, Vasilii Timofeevich Shchetinkin, to serve as interim senior presbyter until the next congress.6
Molokans face many difficult challenges. Over the course of the twentieth century, the number of Molokans has dropped precipitously from 1.2 million to about 40,000. Many Molokans have returned to Russia from Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, but they do not always receive a warm welcome. In Moscow, local municipal authorities prevented them from constructing a prayer house.7 Many Molokans have left the movement to join more aggressive Baptists, Pentecostals, or Jehovah’s Witnesses. Molokans remain a small movement, often reluctant to undergo the burden of registration. As of 2006, Molokans had registered a single centralized religious organization, the Union of Spiritual Christian Molokan Congregations, and 26 local congregations, scattered across Russia.8 The Union, however, maintains significant web presence at its official site, http://www.sdhm.ru. Sergei Petrov in the city of Tambov also provides important Molokan documents on his webpage at http://molokan.narod.ru. In other republics of the former Soviet Union, Molokans also maintain important communities, often preserving Russian traditions (such as oven-building) that have been lost elsewhere. In Armenia, the villages of Fioletovo (the former Nikitino, home of the prophet Maksim Rudometkin), Lermontovo (the former Voskresenka), and Tashir (the former Vorontsovka) retain a significant, although declining, Molokan population.9
In 2006, the Union of Spiritual Christian Molokan Congregations sent a missionary delegation that visited and encouraged ten Molokan congregations in Azerbaijan (Baku, Sumgait, Ivanovka, Chukhuriurd, Kirovka, Kyz-Meidan, Chabany, Khil’mili, Marazy, and Altyagach). In Ivanovka, Molokans run one of the last remaining collective farms in Azerbaijan.10
Molokans in the United States, who have prospered economically, face other challenges. Unlike their brethren in Russia and the Caucasus who were primarily constant or Ukleinite Molokans, immigrants to the U.S. were overwhelmingly Jumpers and followers of Maksim Rudometkin. From 1910 to1928, Maksim’s followers in California succeeded in publishing the writings of their prophets in several editions; the 1928 version, known as Spirit and Life [Dukh i zhizn’], published in Los Angeles, has become the canonical text for Molokans who accept Rudometkin as an inspired prophet.11 Although Spirit and Life includes the work of three prophets beside Rudometkin, his 14 notebooks of prophetic writings comprise the major portion of this sacred book, which is placed beside the Bible in worship services.
Today American Molokans are divided over Rudometkin’s role and message. His revelation includes many passages that are difficult to reconcile with contemporary Evangelical Protestant Christianity: himself as King of Spirits, the Son as subordinate to the Father in the Trinity, and extra-biblical stories of creation, demonic rebellion, and the fall. Some Molokan communities, such as the Christian Molokan Church of Woodburn, Oregon, reject Rudometkin’s prophecies as heretical or even demonic; while keeping Russian food, singing, and clothing, they prefer American Evangelical Protestant theology to that contained in the Spirit and Life. On the other hand, other Molokans, such as members of the Old Molokan Spiritual Church at Clark Avenue and 9thStreet in Hacienda Heights, California, jealously guard Rudometkin’s legacy and authority. American Molokans debate these issues in print and online in forums such as http://www.molokan.net and Andrew Conovaloff’s site: http://molokane.org.12
The Russian Molokan Directory of 2000 listed23 Molokan churches in the United States and Australia. The major American Molokan community organization is the United Molokan Christian Association of Los Angeles, 16222 East Soriano Drive, Hacienda Heights, CA. Although most American Molokans descend from the Jumper branch of the faith, Constant Molokans, who rejected Jumper prophets, established the main Molokan church in Los Angeles, the First Russian Molokan Church on Potrero Hill.
Russian-U.S. Molokan Comparisons
With the collapse of the USSR in 1991,Russian and American Molokans have had greater opportunities to contact and support one another. Molokans from the United States and Australia have participated in Molokan congresses in the former Soviet Union, visited relatives, shared histories and genealogies, and found spouses among their coreligionists. However, denominational differences present a significant challenge to increased cooperation between the Molokans of the former Soviet Union and those abroad. Rudometkin’s legacy in both Russia and the United States remains controversial. Most Molokans in Russia, Armenia, and Azerbaijanare Constants who reject Spirit and Life, whereas most Molokans abroad descend from Jumpers and Maksimists who are strongly committed to Rudometkin’s prophetic vision and his Spirit and Life where that vision is most fully expressed. In the former Soviet Union, Rudometkin’s followers have refused to join the Union of Spiritual Christian-Molokan congregations. Often stricter than their American co-religionists, Maksimists in Russia and the Caucasus reject television and photography—the making of images—as a form of idolatry.13
Myriad Issues under Discussion
Now a global phenomenon, Russian Spiritual Christianity is being rethought by its adherents. Through their congresses, web sites, journals, and electronic forums, Spiritual Christians across the world are discussing both practical and theological questions, ranging from congregational registration, Molokan immigrant aid, prayer house construction, eschatology, the authority of the Bible, and the gift of prophecy. Should Molokans be pacifists? Was Maksim Rudometkin a divinely inspired prophet? What is the proper relationship of a Christian to the state? How should Molokans relate to Orthodox and Evangelical Protestants? Through their answers to these questions, Molokans will shape Spiritual Christianity in the twenty-first century.♦
1. Ivan Aleksandrov, “ ‘Vozliubivshie slovesnoe moloko’: Molokane Op Molokane otprazdnovali
iubilei darovaniia svobody veroispovedaniia,” NGReligii, 5 October 2005.
2. T. Vardanian, “40 let na rodine,” Stavropol’skaia Pravda, 29 January 2002.
3. Arnol’d Pushkar’, “Molokane vozvrashchaiutsia na zemliu predkov,” Izvestiia, 11 April 1992, p. 2; Vagif Kochetkov, “Anglichane inspektiuiut tul’skikh molokan,” Novye Izvestiia, 14 July 1999.
4. Irina Malakhova, “Chaepitie molokan bliz Melitopolia,” Izvestiia, 21 July 1992, p. 8.
5. Svetlana A. Inikova, “The Dukhobor and Molokan Ethnodenominational Groups,” Russian Studies in History 46 (Winter 2007-08): 78-96.
6. “Izbranie i. o. st. presvitera SODKhM,” 14 January 2012, http://sdhm.ru/news/.
7. “Molokane - russkii’ faktor,” Zavtra, no. 27, 4 July 2007, p. 6.
8. "Svedeniia o religioznykh organizatsiiakh, zaregistrirovannykh v Rossiiskoi Federatsii po dannym Federal’noi registratsionnoi sluzhby, dekabr’ 2006,” http://www.religare.ru/2_36302.html.
9. Sergei Bablumian, “Poslednie iz molokan,” Izvestiia, 24 October 1997; Ida Karapetian, “Molokane uidut oni, i nasha kul’tura stanet bednee,” Respublika Armeniia, 14 September 2001, p. 26; Iuliia Grishina, “Pro zhizn’ na Pogrebal’noi’ ulitse, kapustu I semei’nye sunduki molokan,” Novoe vremia, no. 118, 9 November 2010, p. 5.
10. “Otchet o missionerskoi poezdke v resp. Azerbaidzhan, iun’ 2006,” 24 April 2008, http://sdhm. ru/sous_v_russian/_; Evgenii Krishtalev, “Zdes’ russkii dukh, zdes’ Rus’iu pakhnet,” Izvestiia, no. 75, 27 April 2006, p. 7.
11. Bozhestvennyia izrecheniia nastavnikov i stradal’tsev za slovo bozhie, veru Iisusa i dukh sviatoi religii dukhonykh khristian molokan-prygunov, ed. Ivan Gur’evich Samarin, 2nd ed. (Los Angeles: ”Dukh i zhizn’,” 1928).
12. Elders of the Church of the True Spiritual Molokans, “A Letter to You from the Holy Spirit,” 22 August 1998, http://www.molokane.org/molokan/Dogma/ Clark_Ave_Letter.htm; Michael Lediaev, “Open Letter,” 15 September 1998, http://www.molokane. org/molokan/Dogma/Clark_Ave_Reply.htm. 13Grishina, “Pro zhizn’ na Pogrebal’noi’ ulitse,” p. 5.
J. Eugene Clay is associate professor of religious studies, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona.