When Ivan Varonin passed away in late June at the age of 81, he was the oldest member of the Russian-speaking Christian community of Molokans left in the tiny Azerbaijani mountain village of Karinovka, some 125 kilometers west of Baku. The night before Varonin’s burial, it was unclear if there were even enough men available to dig his grave.
Molokans – known as “milk (moloko) drinkers” for their refusal to honor Russian Orthodox Church fasts -- settled in Azerbaijan sometime in the mid-19th century, after being expelled from Russia for refusing to wear the cross and to practice any ritual, such as fasting or venerating icons, not explicitly stated in the Bible. Molokans are also known for their pacifism and their communal tendencies in social organization.
Like Karinovka, the Molokan settlements of Qizmeydan, Chukhuyurd, Khil’milli and many others in this area of Azerbaijan now face the same question -- how to preserve a 400-year-old way of life when the community that nurtures it starts to dissolve?
Newly built luxury dachas now ring Karinovka’s hilltops. Ethnic Azeris have come to make up the majority of the population. Only 15 or so Molokan families remain in the hamlet, a settlement that 20 years ago was almost exclusively populated by Molokan believers. A few of those Azeri neighbors helped prepare the tombstone and casket for Varonin’s funeral. Four men were eventually found to dig his grave. A few other Molokans worked to dust cobwebs out of the village prayer room and to roll dough for a traditional mourning meal of noodle soup. When the final prayers began, the songs of mourning were sung by only a dozen elderly Molokan women; not out of custom, but because these women were the only ones left who knew the songs.
Villagers say most Molokan communities in Azerbaijan have been hit hard by emigration. In Karinovka, the departures began in 1988, amid the initial rumblings of the Soviet Union’s demise.
Mikhail Kastrulin, who became the local presbyter after his predecessor emigrated to Russia, said that the trickle of departing families grew to a flood in the early 1990s, fueled in part by the deterioration of the local Molokan community’s rural communal farming system. By the middle of the decade, the village’s kolkhoz, or collective farm, had finally collapsed, with the equipment and resources dismantled and reportedly sold off at bargain prices. With the machinery and livestock gone, the villagers had to scramble to make a living, with many resorting to subsistence farming.
With their economic and social support system crumbling, people left in search of a more stable environment, villagers say. “It was panic,” said Ukleyn Ivanovich, a 63-year-old Molokan from the village of Qizmeydan, “But it didn’t happen overnight, either.”
The 1988-1994 war with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh hastened the trend. These days, there are only several thousand Molokan families left in Azerbaijan, with about half in Baku, according to Andrei Conovaloff, who runs the reference site Molokane.org. "To know how many were here before, you can pretty much multiply that number by ten," Konovalov added.
Every Sunday, some 12 to 24 local Molokans meet for a sobraniye, or gathering, during which they perform their traditional prayer, kneeling and standing nine times while reciting sections from the Bible. The spartan prayer room – ornate churches do not exist -- contains only benches, a rug for an altar, and a Bible on the table.
Before the wave of emigration in the late 1980s and 90s, these meetings were packed and doubled as a time for community planning. “People would try to arrive early to get a good spot,” remembered Kastrulin.
That sense of community is part and parcel of the Molokans’ identity. Displays of individual wealth are discouraged; testimonies to communal physical labor are valued. As an example, Kastrulin pointed to his own house: “I had no money, but we communally built this house.”
Many other elders voiced memories of building their own homes. To this day, most of the families maintain individual garden plots for subsistence farming, especially as jobs are scarce. “Life is hard now, there’s no opportunity,” said 25-year-old Kolya, one of the few young Molokans left in Karinovka. “They’ve broken everything we had. Maybe it’s our own fault for leaving, who knows?” he said.
A few hours away, in the Molokan settlement of Ivanovka, the exception proves the rule. Former Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev decreed that the Ivanovka kolkhoz could continue; the town is now widely known throughout the country for its produce and perceived prosperity.
But back in Karinovka, Kolya’s brother, Oleg, has a different perspective on the value of material success, one that was common among the village’s remaining Molokans. “I stayed because of the nature,” said Oleg, referring to the forests and lakes within walking distance of his home. “I was born here. I fish here. I hunt here. This is my homeland. No one can make me leave it,” he said.
“We were distracted from our traditions by the material world,” commented presbyter Kastrulin describing the emigration of the 1990s. “Who cares if there is milk and honey flowing there?” he said in reference to the departed Molokans’ newfound homes abroad. “If we lose our faith, but eat well, we are nothing before God and have no spiritual life.”