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 January 17, 2003 
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Bound by Belief: Molokans hold on to faith and tradition in changed world


As soon as the first snow falls in Armenia, the road leading to the village of Fioletovo is almost impassable. Few cars reach this mountain-sheltered site when a winter, which might be tolerable in Yerevan, feels like Siberia in Fioletovo.

The village is all covered by snow and only the roofs of houses can be seen from the top. Only smoking chimneys show signs of life.

The feeling is different when entering the township, where dogs barking and children playing can be heard all day. The most captivating sight is the appearance of villagers. These are the Molokans, about 1,000 in this village, and they live as their ancestors did centuries ago.

Long beards, ruddy hair and Russian typical shirts tight in the middle by a cord belt are the features that describe a Molokan man. Red cheek, blonde hair and smiley faces express the Molokan women that are impossible to forget.

This Russian sect, which originated from the Christian peasants who refused to comply with the Russian Orthodox Church in the 17th century, resides today thanks to its highly devoted members who deny the divinity of churches, icons or Christmas and are centered on the Bible.

Molokans is a Russian term given to "milk drinkers". It is said that they started to be distinguished with this name because they refused to obey the fasting days by drinking milk.

They were despised and exiled during reigns of tsars, but the Molokans have survived and even the Soviet times, they say, were not as difficult as today.

Victor Zadorkin, 33, who is a Fioletovo resident, says that no jobs are left in the region. "Everybody forgot us", he says. His friend, Sasha Zadorkin, a former miner, complains about the same: "We are all still capable of working hard but have no jobs. We are not used to the new rules of the market economy."

Unemployment has left Fioletovo, some 140 km from Yerevan, without many strong men and women. They are now in Russia working to make a living.

"According to our laws, we can not let our children leave, but the poverty has forced us to do so", weeps Anna Zadorkin, a 54 year-old woman, whose five children have gone to Russia.

Despite her sadness of being away from her kids, Anna's serene look and her joyful voice emanates a healthy strength. She cheers up and, as it would make her feel better, justifies it was the will of God. "When we pray for the health of our brothers and sisters, we also pray for our children to stay close to our community."

What keeps Anna alive is her faith. On Saturday, she cleans the house, bakes bread and gets ready for the Sunday religious gathering.

Even though her life is not easier than others' the woman does not let the grief of hardship dominate her. She joyfully finds some work to do in the house and her appearance barely shows traces of age. "In every faith there is a salvation," she always says.

A day before baking, Anna prepares the dough. She uses flour, yeast, salt and water - products, she thinks, that can save from any misfortune. Prior to cooking, the woman says a prayer: "God, give ability to my hands."

"If I don't pray, my bread doesn't come up good," she explains.

Bread is holy for Molokans. Every seventh Sunday, after a three-day lent, the Molokans from Fioletovo practice a bread-sacrificing ritual. Anna says it is important the bread be cooked by a "clean" woman, that is a widow or an old lady who did not have intimate relations for a long time.

The bread is brought to the house of gatherings and is served after their religious meeting. The believers say prayers before eating it, yearning for the dead and pleading for the health of people close to them.

Sunday gatherings are essential in the Molokan lifestyle. Distinguished as a holiday and as a way to make a contact with God, these meetings require special preparation. Cleaning - perceived almost as a ritual - is an approach to get ready. Women say that each house has to be immaculate before the day of talking to God. And so has to be each person.

When talking about preparation, Anna suddenly remembers that she forgot to warm up the bathroom. She immediately calls her elder grandson and asks him to get it ready. "I will not go to bed tonight unless I clean myself and my family," she guarantees.

Molokans believe that washing is helping them to get rid of all the dirty thoughts and actions. The couples can be intimate during all week nights besides the one between Saturday and Sunday. After taking baths they can not even think about getting close as they have to be clean before entering contact with God.

There are few, if not even at all, remnants of traditional Russian baths in Fioletovo. People assimilated new ways of living and are now using baths heated by boilers. There is even one villager who built a sauna.

On the day of gathering itself, the community is all dressed as for a feast. With women wearing white aprons and head kerchiefs, the village looks whiter than the snow. In the morning, everybody rushes for the service. After 10 o'clock there is nobody on the street. All Molokans are inside the four buildings where the religious meetings take place.

Instead of churches, Molokans pray in assembly rooms decorated with nothing but white towels in the corners.

Only the Easter service requires everybody to dress exclusively in white. Otherwise, Molokans wear quite colorful clothes. Women are never dressed in pants. Long and strict robes are their usual outfits. All of them have long hair. Women say they have to naturally preserve what God gave them. Therefore, they never cut their hair.

The congregation is arranged by rankings. Seated on long wood benches covered with rugs, the seniors are forming a line in front of everybody else. The presbyter, who is the head of the congregation, sits on the left and sees all the people attending the worship. The rows turned to seniors are then positioned by age. First the elders come and then the younger ones. The same principle works for the female members, but they sit on the opposite side of the room.

Once in seven weeks Molokans have a Sunday ceremony called "sedmina". Several women, usually the hosts of the meetings, prepare food for the whole congregation and when the service is up, tables are settled in the assembly room so that the community can have lunch. People are first served with fresh bread, cheese and tea from samovars. Before proceeding, one of the elders says a prayer.

Molokans drink tea from glasses and do not use forks or knives for the cheese. They eat it with hands.

There is a severe silence at the beginning. Only the spoons are heard in glasses when people mix sugar with the tea. Later though people somehow get merry and start to talk to each other. The presbyter's helper makes a sign to young girls to sing a song.

Everybody stands up. The multiple voices of Molokans and their absorption into singing is overwhelming. Not everybody is involved in singing during the first verses. But the atmosphere intensifies somehow and everyone in the room participates in the intonation of songs, not necessarily by words. Some are just singing the melody.

When the song is finished the second course is served, borsch. People are given wooden spoons and eat it from huge basins, four or five all together from one dish at once.

Now the congregation is totally cheered up. They start to sing more songs and all of them are happy. "You said I am too young" is a song that makes everybody enter the daze of faith.

A young girl, Marina, is leading the song. Her sharp blue eyes seem to be in contact with somebody though she does not look at anyone. Her face does not reveal an expression and she is not in the room anymore. While singing she wipes a tear. Then, her shoulders start to move. Her motions do not follow the rhythms of the song. Her body is more like shivering than dancing. Gradually, she intensifies her voice. Her motions become more abrupt now that she raised her hands.

Similar gestures can be seen by other members of the congregation. One of them, Viktor Ivanovich, even started to jump. And this state continues until the song is finished. Marina said later that not everybody is capable to feel what she felt when singing. "You must have a strong belief. This is its highest moment."


 

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