Short Description and History
Molokans, like the Doukhobors, are sectarian Bible-centered Christians who evolved from Spiritual Christian Russian peasants who refused to join the Russian Orthodox Church in the 1600s. A Russian who was not Orthodox was "sectarian". During the 1800s both sects became widespread in Southern Russia. For insisting on religious freedom, many were persecuted by the Church and State, and many expelled to the Transcaucasus. By 1900, Molokans numbered over 100,000 in Russia. About 2,500 migrated to America just before the Russian Revolution.
In a sense Molokans are Protestants for rejecting Orthodoxy, but more like
Presbyterians in that they have lay-ministers and a loose council of dominant
elders. They share historical similarity to Quakers, Mennonites, and, especially, Doukhobors in their
pacifism, communal organization, and spiritual meetings. Today the majority of
Molokans in Russia and in America have melted into their host cultures being
indistinguishable from their neighboring citizens except for a few who adhere to
Old Russian customs and their unique forms of religious worship and rituals.
Summary of Sections in this Document:
In the late 1800s, estimates for the Molokan population ranged from 100,000 to half a million. Less than 3% (about 2,500) joined the migration to America. Since then Molokan identity has dwindled, in Russia because of Stalin's purges and ban on religion, and in America because of many influences, such as language, cultural clash, intermarriage, competing religions, etc.
Today, approximately 20,000 people ethnically identify themselves as Molokans. They are equally divided between Russia and America, with a few in Australia. In Russia, almost all of the over a million descendants of the Molokans know very little about their past. Mainly elderly women (babushki) persist to revive the religion. In America, about one-third of the descendants of the migration claim ethnic identity, and fewer regularly associate with Molokans other than close relatives.
(Map to be added. Check later)
Over 200 active Molokan churches exist worldwide. In Russia, most Molokan churches re-appeared due to laws now permitting religious freedom. The 150 Russian Molokan communities are mostly in the south, concentrated in the Northern Caucasus, throughout the Stavropol'skii krai, and the eastern Rostov oblast, Tselinskii raion. Since the reorganization of the former Soviet Union, almost all Russians, including Molokans, have been driven from the Caucasus. Of those who weren't resettled with existing Molokan communities, many were resettled throughout the Krasnodarskii oblast and Chernskii raion in the south Tula oblast.
In America, 30 churches currently exist on the West Coast, most on the East Side of the Los Angeles area, where 60% of American Molokans reside. After immigrating, numerous agricultural communes were started in Central California, Arizona, Mexico, Washington, Hawaii, New Mexico, and Idaho. The end of the WWI and the depression cause most to return to the Los Angeles area. Today the descendant population of Molokans in America numbers an estimated 20,000. About half have married within the Molokan community, but not all maintained church membership. Of those perhaps as many as 5,000 attend church gatherings at least annually, and an estimated 2,000 are regular worshipers.
The "milk drinkers"
A complete description of the Molokans is as complex as their various factions and sub-factions. In their 400 year history, the Molokans have developed diverse traditions, songs, and philosophies, all reflecting the impact of influential members and differing socio-political environments. (See the near-comprehensive reading list). The following is a brief history.
The Molokans trace their roots back to a seventeenth century movement among the Russian peasantry away from the tsarist-dominated Russian Orthodoxy. Known as Spiritual Christianity, it was one of the many sects that arose, and it soon proliferated into numerous branches.
The name Molokan was first applied to a group of Spiritual Christians in the Tambov province of Voronezh Guberniia around 1765 (see map). In general, Molokans followed the Bible literally -- "they were Bible centered" opposing the religious leadership of the tsar or pope. By ignoring fasting days designated by the Russian Orthodoxy Church (approximately 200 days per year), those who drank milk were labeled "molokane" ("milk drinkers"). Instead of rebuking the label, leaders of these Spiritual Christians embraced it with the spin that "Molokani" were "drinkers of the spiritual milk of God" (Bible quote).
Similarly the Spiritual Christian Doukhobors (Section to be added. Check later.)
In time, Molokanism and Doukoborism spread widely in central and southern Russia, but the burdens of religious intolerance and pressure to enter military service, which violates their religious principles, forced them to accept internal exile to the outlying regions of the Empire, where they gained a measure of religious toleration.
In the Far East, South Ukraine, Caucasus, (Section to be added. Check later.)
In the beginning of the 1800s when Russia conquered the Caucasus (Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaidjian) large numbers of sectarians, mostly Molokans, and later Doukhobors and "Khlysti", were resettled in the undeveloped areas of Transcaucasia, where they remained until the first decades of the present century, and where many relatives of the American Molokans remained up to the recent repatriation of Russians. In the Caucasus, where the groups that were later to come to America had resettled, many Molokans exchanged draft exemptions for services as unarmed border guards, carriers of mail and freight, and travel guides. Beginning about 1905 and continuing to about 1912, Molokans in the western Caucasus, mostly the Kars oblast, migrated to Los Angeles. Some were inspired by their prophets, young men were threatened by the military draft, and all were encouraged by the example of the Doukhobors who had proceeded them to Canada.
Molokans in America
Culturally surviving American Molokans have evolved into a tightly-knit, ethnic community that resembles, in some ways, the communal religious societies of America's early history, such as the Moravians, Shakers, Harmonites, and others. Contemporary descendants of the Molokan migration to America express a full spectrum of characteristics, attitudes and beliefs stemming from old and new worlds. Some members strongly adhere to traditional values, dress, language and lifestyles, but most are indistinguishable from ordinary Americans.
(Section to be added. Check later.)
After glasnost, Molokans in Russia quickly formed a central organization, the SSCM (Society of Spiritual Christian Molokans), but Molokans in America, due to their individualism and fractured organization, have no one official central church or leader or newsletter. To contact the American Molokan church, one must contact all 30 churches and all social organizations. One American Molokan elder jokingly summarizes his frustration with trying to rally the community: "Molokans are the most democratic people in the world. Every one does what he damn pleases!"
In spite of their overall structure, many Molokans in America live by a rich tradition of folkways that retains its vitality through the strength of Molokan religion. The most pervasive feature of this religion is the communal singing of spiritual songs and verses from Scripture in Russian. The songs and psalms are sung in the context of domestic and community gatherings, during the Sunday and holiday services, at weddings, child dedications, funerals and memorials, prayer meetings and on other occasions.
See references for much more on the American Molokans.
Jumpers and Constants
Two major subgroups of Molokans migrated to America. The Postoiannye (Constant or Steadfast, i.e., unchanged or original) Molokans were, and remain, centered around Potrero Hill in San Francisco (south of downtown). The Pryguny (Jumpers, also called Leapers, Skippers, Prancers, or Dancers), settled in Los Angeles and Central California. Although the Pryguny were a much smaller group in Russia than the Postoiannye, they were more severely persecuted and consequently migrated in larger numbers. The two groups differ in some points of doctrine, domestic custom and ritual.
Almost all of the descendants of the Molokans who came to America reside along the West Coast, except for about one hundred families who moved to two areas of Australia in the early 1960s, and a few families who moved to South America. About two-thirds live on the East Side of Los Angeles, where they have nine churches -- or more properly, gatherings: Molokans use the Russian word sobraniia. Most of the Molokan churches look like quite ordinary buildings, not unlike Quaker meeting houses. Prayer meetings can be and frequently are held in private homes since it is the gathering and not the building that is sacred.
The largest community outside of Los Angeles and San Francisco is near Kerman, west of Fresno, in central California, and other live mostly in communities with churches in central California, Arizona, Oregon, and Australia. See map.
American Molokan Church and Service
The typical American Molokan church in urban areas is a plain building on a residential street with a parking lot. Rural churches are usually isolated on a country road. The Steadfast churches are clearly identified with signs, while only few of the Jumper churches are labeled.
Molokan religious dress has evolved from that of the Russian peasant. Men wear a kosovorotka, pullover shirt (rubashka) worn over the trousers, which has a high straight buttoned collar and a row of buttons running half way down the left chest, and is tied with a tasseled cord belt (poyas). Full beards are common on the elders, particularly among the Jumpers. Women are more fully costumed with a fancy lace head shawl (kosinka), and layered long dress with an apron, both often adorned with lace. In America, this peasant style has evolved from the multicolored original peasant clothes to fancy costumes in pastel, or white for solemn occasions. Often couples will wear outfits of the same color. The Steadfast are less uniform in dress than the Jumpers in that a shirt and tie is accepted by the men and the women often wear a plain dress but always have a head covering.
Upon arrival at the church for service, members typically wait outside until a small group gathers. By custom, a woman must be escorted in by a male. When the group decides to enter, the men proceed women, with the eldest male or a visiting guest elder at the head. They usually pass through a small entryway containing a coat rack before entering the main assembly room. The group pauses after all have entered and are facing the congregation as it stands, acknowledging their arrival. After the lead-entering male quietly recites a short prayer, the new arrivals seat themselves.
Recognized Molokan guests, especially ranking elders, are offered priority
seating. Outsiders are usually seated with the congregation. Except at funeral
and weddings, uninvited outsiders rarely attend a typical worship service. The
Steadfast are more cordial to outsiders than the Jumpers, and the Jumpers vary
widely in their reception of outsiders.
The service is divided into two sessions: the first seated while verses are chanted and religious thought shared, and the second standing for prayers and singing of songs. Plain, backless, wood benches, skameiki, provide traditional seating for the first part of the service. The first arrivals will arrange the benches and table if necessary. If many guests arrive additional benches are moved from a stack, usually along the wall, as needed. The congregation is arranged with the women to one side and the men around a table located toward one corner of the room away from the entry. The elders who sit in the front row around three sides of the table are called the pristol (literally: "at the table"). They are arranged in five groups (four for Steadfast) by their functional position: (1) the presviter, presiding elder or minister, sits at the end of the table facing the congregation, and at his side, if the congregation is large, is a pomoshchnik, helper; to the presviter's right are (2) the besedniki, speakers, and (3) the pevtsy, singers; and to the presviter's left are (4) the skazateli, readers, and, in Jumper churches, (5) the proroki, prophets. There are usually more singers than any other group. Male members and guests with no rank will sit in rows behind the readers and prophets. Some elders like to sit along the wall for back support.
Women sit facing the presviter and a few feet from the men. Leading women singers sit in their front row closest to the male singers. In Jumpers churches, prophetesses sit in their front row opposite the lead women singers near the male prophets. Other women and female guests sit behind these. The table is rectangular, of dining room size, and covered with a fine white cloth. On the table, before the presviter, lay open the books for worship all in Russian. In order, they are the Bible with Apocrypha, a collection of prophetic writings (The Spirit and Life), only in Jumper churches), a collection of song texts (The Sionskii Pesennik), and the book of prayers (Molitvennik).
The presviter coordinates the service and recites the prayers. He rarely conducts a sermon. That function is performed by the speakers who usually read from and elaborate on the Bible in Russian. Jumpers also use the Spirit and Life. The use of English varies within and among congregations. Because few youth understand Russian, it is increasingly tolerated, especially during an occasion when a speaker feels that English is appropriate for the audience, or the speaker is not fluent in Russian.
The worship service usually starts at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays. During the first
part of the service the presviter will direct the head singer to
coordinate the singing of verses. The head singer may start a verse himself of
call upon another singer. When called upon, a singer will begin a verse from
memory leaving it to the reader to locate and recite lines ahead of the singers.
As fewer youth learn the rituals, increasingly this process requires singers to
call out the location by page or number of the verse they are starting. After
several verses are sung, the head speaker is asked to coordinate the religious
The benches are stacked to the sides by the men at about 11:30 a.m. for the second part of the service, prayers and songs. The presviter stands to the readers' side of the table, where the men have cleared a large square area. The men stand on three sides, and the women stand opposite the presviter. The presviter, after listing dedication and intentions for prayer, recites the Lord's Prayer (often with vestigial Old Slavonic words, as he learned it from his grandfather) followed by other prayers appropriate to the day or occasion. Some parts of the ritual require kneeling which varies among congregations. After prayer, the singers are instructed to begin. Songs are sung from memory or increasingly with the aid of songbooks brought from home or provided by the church. There is usually a corner shelf near the table for storing church songbooks. The shelf is remnant of the corner shelf seen in Old Russian peasant cabins and in Old Believers churches and homes but instead of displaying icons, Molokans use it to store religious texts. A few Molokans have installed similar corner shelves in their homes.
All members may sing. Readers do not recite for songs as they do for verses. Although songs and verses are often categorized by how appropriate they are for different services and occasions, a seasoned singer can creatively select a message in a song for an uncommon situation. Often younger singers are amazed when a head singer will select a song that has not been sung for years, because he considers it the right song for that moment.
As singing begins among the Jumpers, in an orderly fashion beginning with the men, the congregation will place an offering (melosteniia) on the table (in Russia money is placed under a towel), and later, perform a greeting ritual in which members give each other a "holy or brotherly kiss" (archaic: lobzaniia). In Russia the kiss greeting varies widely from one to three kisses, holding or not holding hands as if shaking hands, and bowing from a head nod to three complete kneelings placing the head on the ground. Selected songs accompany the offering and kissing.
Among Jumpers, occasions arise when members will jump (in Russia: leap, dance, prance, skip, etc.) and one or more may dictate or speak in Russian "in the spirit", or decreasingly "in tongues". Although any member may deliver a prophecy or spiritual message during any part of the service, this function is usually carried out by the anointed prophets in a ritualistic manner. The Steadfast profess the Holy Spirit but not in such an overt fashion as jumping, and they have limited "kissing" to the greeting of guests and high holidays. The service usually ends with a prayer at noon.
The youth usually take back rows and have little or no responsibilities in the service. Practice participation in the service ceremony is provided to the youth in a few churches on Sunday evening or during the Sunday Night Young Church in Los Angeles or Wednesday Night or Sunday Morning services at the United Molokan Christian Association (UMCA) near Los Angeles for the Jumpers, and the Sunday School in San Francisco for the Steadfast. Singing practice is provided and encouraged for the youth in song classes (spevki), conducted on week nights by accomplished singers throughout the communities.
Each church has a large kitchen to prepare obedy, meals, for special occasions. Sawhorses and tabletop planks stored to the side in the church are assembled with the benches into rows of tables for these meals. A typical meal consists of four courses: (1) chai, tea, with sugar and sweets (pastries, dates, raisins, nuts, etc.) and a salad (cut lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers); (2) borshcht, usually a beef broth vegetable soup, without beets as in the South Russian style, or lapsha, thin egg noodles in a beef broth; (3) miaso, meat, usually boiled then broiled beef, but sometimes chicken or lamb (in Russia, meat is so expensive that this course is skipped); and, (4) fruit in season (in Russia kompot, rehydrated dried fruit is last). Except for the soups, which are ladled into individual bowls and eaten with traditional wooden Russian spoons (loshki), the meal is eaten with the fingers. This manner of eating is a carry over from the old country. At home, except for the traditional elderly, most American Molokans eat the typical American diet with popular settings and flatware. Cultural vestiges such as wooden spoons and familiar Russian dishes remain popular and distinguish a meal in a Molokan home. The elders remember when each family would bring their own samovar to a meal. Now each church boils water in caldrons and distributes the hot water in kettles to the tables.
Obeying the Old Testament food laws, Molokans prepare all church meals "kosher style" (see OT Leviticus 23). Meats are home grown and slaughtered or purchased from a kosher style butcher, preferably a Molokan. Vegetarian options are provided for courses (2) and (3). Breads, pastries, and noodles are homemade or custom ordered. In Los Angeles, one remaining Molokan butcher supplies almost all church orders.
After the meal is served and prayed for, and the elders have begun eating, all serve themselves. Women traditionally pour the tea and provide food preparation help and serving at their seat, particularly among the elders.
During each course, when the congregation is eating, a speaker is called. After the speaker, when most have finished a course, and before the next course is served, songs are sung. Some singers may temporarily leave their seats to stand near groups sitting together who have been asked to start a song to add more voices to that group. In Jumper churches, usually during the meat course just before singing ends after the table is set, it is not uncommon for a prophet to deliver a prophesy, a timely message.
The meal is prepared and delivered to the tables by a partiia, party or work group. Every paid-up church member belongs to a work group and is expected to attend when it is their day to work in the kitchen, beginning at 5 a.m.
Besides restrooms, the church may also have a small nursery. Large congregations may have an adjacent building for funerals (a few congregations still prohibit coffins, considered "unclean", in the main assembly hall), classes, and/or meetings.
For more descriptive details of the Molokan church, liturgy, and singing, see References.
When asked: "What is a Molokan?", a prominent American Molokan elder, stated: "A Molokan is a person who sings the psalms." When asked to elaborate, he added that when the Molokans no longer sang the psalms in their services, they would cease to be Molokans (1).
Molokan services and socialization traditionally revolved around singing. For the illiterate Russian peasant convert, it was the primary religious educational tool. Spiritual Christians adapted traditional Russian folk melodies into their religious repertoire. The music of both Steadfast and Jumper Molokans is entirely vocal, consisting of stikhi (verses) and pesni (songs) or dukhovnye pesni (spiritual songs). Texts of stikhi are taken verbatim from Old and New Testament scriptures in Russian, and, among Jumpers, from the writings of their prophets contained in the Dukh i Zhizn' (Spirit and Life). There are more than a thousand stikhi texts and an equal number of texts for pesni, but the number in current usage is somewhat smaller. Jumper Molokans sing both pesni and stikhi in worship, but pesni are in general regarded as less solemn, and are not usually sung during the most sacred part of worship services. Steadfast Molokans, more Bible-centered than Jumpers, sing only stikhi in worship, allowing pesni or other hymns during memorials for the dead, wedding showers, or other non-worship occasions. Musically, the stikhi constitute a single style. Pesni melodies, however, are varied in both style and origin. The collection of songs is published in the Sionskii Pesennik (Songbook of Zion) collection, which is updated and republished about every decade.
The melodies of the Molokan Sionskii Pesennik are remarkable for their retelling of the history of Russian song, from its peasant roots up to the early nineteenth century, when Molokans departed from Central Russia. Many of the melodies and styles contained in it are ostensibly unique survivals of Russian songs, which have disappeared from other known traditions. The melodies once sung to text identifiable as stemming from the oldest traditions of Russian folk song have in many cases been forgotten. For the survival of those that are still sung we must thank the strongly conservative religious tradition of this community that considers its Russian roots a God-given source of its vitality.
For much more about Molokans singing see Dr. O'brien-Rothe's The Molokan Heritage Collection, Volume IV: The Origins of Molokan Singing, and other references.
American Molokan Homes
Though most all Molokans in America are indistinguishable from their neighbors, a few traditions prevail from the old country. The most common domestic displays are a samovar (metal urn for boiling water, see photo), wooden Russian spoons (loshki), and the open Russian Bible and other sacred books on a table. Early photographs of the family in traditional dress are common, particularly of a married couple. Cassette tapes, or CDs, of Molokan singing, Molokan history books, and issues of Molokan newsletters are also usually easily found. The more active the family members are in the study and practice of the faith, the more likely these items occur. Ernest Molokans will play church songs in their car stereo player to learn while driving.
The most traditionally orientated families still practice formal traditional Russian Molokan greeting of guests, prayers, songs, and meal service at home. Ideally they actively teach these customs to their children.
Ideally the Molokan home will be "clean" in the "kosher-style". From oral history, the lesson that "pork is not meat" is embedded in the cultural fabric of American Molokans who adhere strongly to religious tradition. Many American Molokans have evolved to somewhat tolerate pork, shellfish, etc, at home; or they will eat in a restaurant were it is served but they won't order it. Many liberal American Molokans, believing that the New Testament supercedes the Old Testament law and that a kosher diet is for the Jews, have no dietary restrictions. In Russia, ethnographic surveys conducted in the 1980s of Molokan eating habits show that many Molokans in the Caucasus will hunt and eat bear and wild boar when possible because fresh meat is difficult to get and is expensive. Similarly most Russian Jews have dropped the kosher diet. One Molokan babuska (elderly woman) in Russia summarized her philosophy on strictly adhering to Molokan food laws: "No matter how hard you try, you'll probably still eat an entire pig in your lifetime."
Why a Molokan HomePage?
So searches for "Molokan" on the Internet will locate accurate information originating from real Molokans. For example, in 1995 Internet searches for Molokan too frequently found this limerick by the Trobador@aol.com which was posted to the Early Music listserve (EarlyM-L@aearn.bitnet); Subject: Uncouth Molokans.
A Molokan whose shorts were of silk,
Sang dank chants, and sad songs of that ilk
During Lent. But he'd still
Grab a nip of the swill
His Ma brewed from cold borscht and fresh milk.
Another music student soon reprimanded the Troubador: "As I have already discovered, the Molokans are a very sensitive and private group of people. I believe it would be improper for me to continue discussion about them on the net from now on. I hope you and any other interested parties understand."
Credits and WebMaster
Thanks to Dr. Joyce Story, Russian Instructor at Glendale Community College, for donating the resources that make this Molokan HomePage possible.
For corrections, comments, suggestions, or questions about the Molokan HomePage, e-mail the WebMaster: A.J. Conovaloff at mailto:%firstname.lastname@example.org