By Stepan Serdiukov, PhD student in History
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Modern states have their skeptics (look no further than some current conspiracy theories about COVID-19), and dissident religious movements have often come across as the best examples of this. The Mormons’ erstwhile defense of polygamy, the Russian Old Believers’ insistence that the mandatory changes in ecclesiastical ritual indicated the end of times, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ rejection of blood transfusions all in some form responded to the increasing bureaucratization and expanding capacity of the modern state at different times in its history.
My dissertation examines a group of such skeptics – the Russian Molokans. Exiled en masse to the South Caucasus in the 1840s by imperial decree among other sectarians such as Doukhobors, for several decades thereafter they helped maintain Russia’s hold on the region as colonists through establishing settlements, transforming the landscape through agriculture, achieving economic dominance in trade, and supplying the Russian army and law enforcement. In exchange, the state officials would not persecute the Molokans and Doukhobors as heretics, de facto creating a highly localized regime of religious toleration in a country where converting from Orthodoxy carried legal punishment and dissident Christian confessions did not have official recognition until as late as 1905. The colonists also received tax breaks and a blanket exemption from conscription.
This uneasy peace held until the 1890s, when a radical pacifist faction of the Doukhobors led a campaign of civil disobedience against the tsarist officials. They were responding to a gradual erosion of their impressively good deal with the government, in which the introduction of draft (from which much of the indigenous population was still exempt) was the most major factor. To the radical Doukhobors and Molokans, the requirement not only contradicted the old compact, but came into direct conflict with their religious commitment to nonviolence—one that they thought had been already broken when the previous generation agreed to use violence for self-defense and in service of the state’s needs. They also resented being counted: when the government started demanding more accurate vital records from every colonist community, many Doukhobors refused to comply, finding (correctly) that the administrators would use this in the future to make sure every eligible male could be drafted.
Since these measures were also a part of a larger, empire-wide drive for Russification (most notably in the western provinces), the governors of the tsarist South Caucasus then found themselves in an ironic bind: unable to Russify even the Russians. They responded to the Doukhobor revolt by dispersing many to the even more remote villages where they would contract diseases and struggle to provide for themselves, and in some cases, sending army troops and Cossacks to occupy the settlements where they beat and harassed the inhabitants. Reports of the persecution, with help from the Tolstoyan movement, appeared in the newspapers worldwide and helped form an international network of sympathizers that partially financed the eventual mass emigration of the radical faction to Canada—after the tsarist government consented.
The Molokans were sympathetic to the rebellion and shared most of the grievances that had led to it. Additionally, from 1895 on, economic pressures such as the construction of railroads, which tore into the carting business (a traditional source of income for the sectarian colonists) and growing land shortages became even more pronounced. However, alarmed by the ruthless response of the governors to the Doukhobors, they opted for a less spectacular exit. Early Doukhobor reports from Canada complaining about poor climate and continuing antagonism with government officials, as well as their own scouting missions gave them little reassurance. And so they chose a different destination. Between 1904 and 1912, several thousand left their settlements in South Caucasus for the American West, where they would try, once again, to establish a lifestyle without the interference of government and other perceived outsiders. Due to lack of immediately available land, most stayed in San Francisco and Los Angeles, where they lived in compact immigrant enclaves, but a few dozen families tried to go back to agriculture, starting new villages in Arizona, Utah, Washington, and northern Mexico. I focus mainly on their views of secular authority and the ways in which they put these views to practice, both before and after emigration to the US. I try to put these views in context of the rapid social change in late Imperial Russia, the unique material conditions of the Molokans’ lives as settler colonists in the borderland regions, and to analyze how they changed in response to the new political, environmental, and economic conditions of the Western US, both urban and rural.
Why are the Molokans important? Why pick their immigration experience for study over that of other, often way more numerous groups of ex-imperial subjects in the USA? My intended contribution here is a truly transnational study that uses archival sources both in Russia and the United States to bring out the lived experience of migration and adaptation of the people who had, in a sense, no positive understanding of citizenship—or at least aspired to a minimal participation in the state. In this respect, Molokans represent a fairly unique case. They have a background both in actively resisting the state’s push for social control (the reason for their initial exile to the Caucasus in the 1840s) and in helping it pacify the multiethnic borderland as settler colonists later. Simultaneously hailed as propagators of Russian “superior” culture among the indigenous peoples and maligned as unreliable sectarians who often rejected Russian identity in favor of a pan-Christian one, they proved equally difficult modernization subjects in the USA. There, they resisted the draft, avoided officially registering marriages and births, and treated government-led schools in their urban communities with suspicion: in sum, pushed back against many obligations of citizenship, and doing so in a country that was, in the first quarter of the 20th century, supremely preoccupied with “Americanizing” its immigrants.
I argue that studying the Molokan experience in the two countries (which I tackle mostly from the perspective of government officials, police, and journalistic accounts, but try to incorporate Molokan and Doukhobor memoirs, oral histories, and sacred texts whenever possible) could improve our understanding of the role coercion played in modernization in general, and in delimiting the definition of good citizenship and acceptable exercise of religious freedom across such very different polities as Imperial Russia and the USA during the peak period of international migration prior to the First World War.
I see the Molokans, the Doukhobors, and other religious emigrants from the imperial Russian borderland not as much rebelling against modernity, but as quite pragmatically seeking an accommodation within it. Only the most radical of the Caucasus sectarian colonists left for America, while most of the remaining Doukhobors and Molokans supported reconciliation with the tsarist government, especially after some restrictions on their religious practice in the aftermath of the 1905 Revolution. However, the emigrants, while mounting more open challenges to Canadian and American authorities that tried to fully incorporate them into the body politic, argued for much the same things: free exercise of their religion and a measure of community autonomy. Their struggle highlighted the contradictory promises of modernity at large and the social contract of the modern state. An echo of these battles can be heard even today, as some citizens across the globe repudiate the modernist consensus on schooling, taxes, and, most dramatically in recent months, public health.