Part 3 – Molokans and Old Believers
While in the past two weeks, we have covered the East Slavs in the series on ethnic groups in Georgia, today we feature the Molokans and the Old Believers, two small communities of Russian religious sub-groups. The materials on the ethnic groups are provided by the European Centre for Minority Issues (ECMI) and the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) and are extracted from the volume, Georgia – An Ethno-Political Handbook by Tom Trier & George Tarkhan-Mouravi, which will be published by the end of the year.
Who, What, Where
The Molokans are a community of Russian religious dissenters, which emerged in the late 18th century in Central Russia and was exiled to the South Caucasus starting from the 1840s. Presumably, there were several thousand Molokans in Georgia in the late 1980s, while today – due to emigration and assimilation – there are only around 300 persons left.
The Old Believers, another religious minority that emerged in the 17th century in opposition to the reform of the Russian Orthodox Church, was quite numerous in Georgia in the late 19th century but has practically vanished from Georgia today.
A Bit of History of the Molokans
Facing the choice of accepting Orthodox Christianity or being exiled, Molokans from Russia started to arrive in various part of the Caucasus in the 1840s. Unlike the Dukhobors, Molokans mostly arrived as families rather than as whole communities (see the article on the Dukhobors in last week’s edition of the Georgian Times for more on the background of the exiling of religious dissenters in Russia in the 19th century). Molokans mainly found refuge in villages in Kakheti and in the regions today constituting Kvemo Kartli. Agriculture was the mainstay of early Molokan settlers, as they cultivated crops, planted fruit trees, and maintained bee colonies for honey production. Molokan blacksmiths designed new advancements in plough technology and were also actively engaged in Russian military campaigns during the 19th century. Like the Dukhobors, moreover, the Molokans found a niche in the provision of transportation services.
In the Soviet period, relations between the Bolsheviks and Molokans were quite friendly early on. The Communist leaders saw remarkable similarities in their own political and social ideas and those of the Molokans. The group was given considerable freedom in the early years of socialism to maintain their historical communes, and the Molokans themselves voluntarily contributed financially to the communist experiment. However, by the late 1920s, Molokan communes were deemed inefficient in comparison with the Soviet collective farms, into which they were eventually incorporated. As a result, the community’s self-imposed segregation declined rapidly, and the Molokan religious and cultural practices lost much of their vitality in later Soviet years. However, the prized labour productivity of the Molokans came to fruition in the Soviet kolkhozes, distinguishing Molokan farmers by their impressive output.
From the late 1980s, Molokans from Georgia departed in large numbers, similarly to other East Slavs, mostly to Russia. Only three villages with compact settlement of Molokans still exist in Georgia, all within the Kakheti region – Krasnogorka (35 Molokans), Ulyanovka (100), and Svobodnoye (80). The houses of emigrating Molokans have largely been bought by Georgian villagers or by urban population as summer houses. A small number of Molokans also live in Tbilisi, amounting to no more than 100 people. Hence, only around 300 Molokans remain in Georgia. The remaining Russian Molokan villagers - as often the case with Russians and other persons belonging to national minorities in rural areas - do not know the Georgian language well enough, which complicates their efforts to find substantive employment in the country. The once esteemed Molokan kolkhozes have now all been shut down and villagers struggle to find subsistence elsewhere. Although a few Molokans have returned to Georgia after unsuccessful attempts to find work and integrate into Russian society, the harsh economic conditions of the post-Soviet period have far from created good perspectives for the Molokan community in Georgia.
Molokan Religion and Community
The Molokans evolved out of the Dukhobor community in the second part of the 18th century. The name means ‘Milkdrinker’ and is thought to have appeared in 1765 due to the fact that Molokan believers drank milk during fasts. Formed like the Dukhobor community as a protest movement to the institutionalized and hierarchical Orthodox Church, the Molokans rejected the use of liturgy, sacraments, icons and rituals as sources of religious authority. An individualized approach to the faith was adopted - one that opened God’s spirit to each person equally. However, unlike Dukhobors, Molokans have historically scorned individual leadership of the community, preferring an egalitarian approach to the running of communal affairs.
This altered treatment of Orthodoxy also has consequences for the social structure of the Molokan community. Formed as a leaderless commune, any member has the right to address the congregation and interpret the Bible as he/she sees fit. Although this democratic nature gives some esteem to sectarian elders, all believers are established as ‘spiritual equals’ without any authority over one another. The Molokans fits many characteristics of ‘utopian’ communities in its self-imposed segregation as a way to achieve the creation of God-given principles through purely human efforts.
A declining and elderly population has resulted in the disappearance of religious traditions among Molokans in Georgia, although some elderly members, especially in Tbilisi and the Kakhetian village of Ulyanovka, do continue to attend religious ceremonies every Sunday to sing psalms and pray. Intermarriages between Molokans and adherence to other religions have also risen considerably since the end of the Soviet period. In Tbilisi, the Molokans are spiritually guided by the octogenarian Head Presbyter, Fyodor Neudakhin (see picture).
The future of the Molokans in Georgia does not look bright. The number of Molokan villages has been reduced, the younger generations have emigrated, the remaining population is ageing, and the religious heritage has no or very few heirs to carry it on. The development through the past 20 years makes it hard to believe that Molokan traditions in Georgia will exist in another 20 years. The heritage is more likely to be continued in Russia. The village of Kochubeyevskoye in Stavropol krai in recent years has become a centre of the Molokans in the Russian Federation. It should be emphasized that these dark perspectives are neither caused by violations of religious rights nor by discriminating and hostile attitudes from Georgian citizens.
Another group of religious dissenters that was exiled to Georgia in the 19th century is the Starovery, or Old Believers, a group formed in the mid 17th century in opposition to the ecclesiastical reforms of the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Nikon. Old Believers consider themselves to be the true practitioners of Orthodoxy and preserve the pre-Nikonian rituals, such as the two-fingered signing of the cross. Also called Old Ritualists (Staroobryadtsy), very little is known about the history of this group in Georgia, although they settled in the Caucasus in quite significant numbers. Unfortunately, very little historical information exists to assist the tracing of Old Believer settlements. The Russian census of 1897 included statistics on confessional belonging, and listed over 16,000 persons in Tiflisskaya Gubernia and around 250 persons in Kutaisskaya Gubernia (Western Georgia) in the category “Old Believers” – but this category also included Dukhobors and Molokans. There are no data as to the breakdown into separate confessional sub-group of sectarians, but there must have been at least a few thousand Old Believers in the second part of the 19th century.
Presumably, Old Believer communities were strongly affected by the secularization of the Soviet regime, and by the end of the 1980s, Old Belivers had almost fully disappeared from the country. Today, only one village partly inhabited by Old Believers still exists, the village of Grigoleti near Poti on the Black Sea coast. Roughly 50 descendants of what historically used to be an Old Believers community currently live there. A few Old Believers also live in Tbilisi. However, most members of this community have assimilated into Georgian society or have left for Russia in recent years.
Copyright by Tom Trier & George Tarkhan-Mouravi.
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