Subbotniki

by Nathan Hamm on 8/9/2004 · 1 comment

subbotnikFrom the “Who’d’ve thunk it?” files comes a group called the Subbotniks, and they most certainly have nothing to do with the picture to the side.

The subbotnik phenomenon (or, “‘volunteer’ to give up my Saturday working my ass off to smooth out the deficiencies of the stupid command economy”) is fairly well-known. The Subbotniki, despite being much older than “Saturdays at the office,” are a very difficult group to find good information on, especially on the internet.

Subbotniks, discussed in Highlanders, are the result of incremental abandonment of Orthodox beliefs resulting from the availablity of Bibles to Russian peasants.

The sequence of events leading up to the birth of the Subbotniks may in fact suggest evolution rather than revolution, in that each cycle seemed to drop one more ounce of radicalism into the expanding pool of Christian noncomformity. The first Molokan-Subbotniks may have been more interested in what they were leaving than in what they were joining: they were eager to turn their backs on the established church and perhaps on the entire polity it represented and legitimized. At times accounts of the early Subbotnik movement, however indirect and questionable their reliability, suggest nihilism more than profound theological commitment.


This movement resulted in a home-grown, Russian Judaizer phenomenon that persisted into the ’90s in the Caucasus (they very likely have died out by now in Armenia and Azerbaijan either from old age or by scattering across Russia).

The Subbotniks’ choice was no whim or religious fad. These Russian peasants not only chose to challenge the dogmas but remained faithful to their choice despite tremendous suffering that involved forced separations of parents from their children. Their persecutions in Alexander’s reign entered the collective memory of the Subbotniks as a formative religious experience unto itself, on a par with the momentous nation-forming tribulations of the ancient Israelites. When I asked Maria Solovyova, the Subbotnik woman in Yelenovka, about the significance of the unleavened breat they ate during Paskha (Passover), which Jews call matzah, she responded without the slightest hesitation: “Our ancestors had to leave their villages in haste, and they had no time to finish baking their bread. They had to feed themselves with this half-baked dough.”

Her words filled me with awe. She may have been ignorant of Jewish religious history, but she claimed a stake in an act of self-affirmation and survival no less miraculous than that of the Israelites coming out of Egypt. Indeed, she may have even had an advantage: her ancestors’ exodus and heroic endurance did not belong to ancient, ahistorical myth but are known to have happened. After I told Maria Solovyova what the original Paskha was all about, she shrugged and said: “But they were not our ancestors.” She gave Passover her own people’s coloring without losing one iota of its original meaning. As a matter of fact, she may have demonstrated Passover’s universal applicability and detribalized it.

This lack of knowledge about Judaism while essentially practicing it is astounding. A Subbotnik community doesn’t have a synagogue, they have a sobranie. Yom Kippur is Sudnyi Dyen’. The list goes on.

The precursors of the Subbotniks are Molokans, about whom much more is known.

Molokans are sectarian Bible-centered Christians who evolved from Spiritual Christian Russian peasants who refused to join the Russian Orthodox Church in the 1600s. Spiritual Christians rejected the divinity of the Tsar and icons, Orthodox fasting, military killing, and other practices which they believed conflicted with the Bible. The first use of the label “Molokan” appeared in the 1670s refering to those who ignored many of the 200 fasting days a year by drinking milk. Russian for milk is moloko; and Molokan means “milk drinker”. A Russian who was not Orthodox under the Tsar was “sectarian” — an “infectious heresy” and a felony, often brutally punished. Of over 100 “sects” that resisted the Tsar, the Molokans were the largest, numbering perhaps almost half a million at their peak. During the 1800s the Tsars developed policies to remove sectarians away from central Russia, eventually concentrating them in the south Ukraine, Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Far East, where many descendants still reside. Today over 200 Molokan communities exists world-wide–150+ in Russia and the FSU, 30 in the American west, and 7 in Australia.

In a sense Molokans are Protestants for rejecting Orthodoxy, but are more like Presbyterians in that they have volunteer lay-ministers and a loose council of dominant elders. Though Molokans somewhat similiar to the European Quakers and Mennonites — pacifism, communal organization, spiritual meetings, and sub-groupings — they are much closer to Doukhobors because they evolved from the same Russian Spritual Christian movement. Today the majority of Molokans in Russia and in America have melted into their host cultures often 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.

The Library of Congress has recordings of Molokan services from San Francisco in 1938.

With a little bit of digging, I was surprised to find that the Russian community in Oregon’s Marion County is partially made up of Molokans. I had a college roommate from the town of Woodburn, around which most of the Willamette Valley Russians live. I knew that the community was very traditional, very religious, and had been in the US long enough to deny the Russianness of recent immigrants who they refer to as Soviets (I’ve been thinking lately how Homo Sovieticus is a pretty useful descriptor for a certain social group). As an aside, if you ever want to see what a theoretical border between Russia and Mexico would look like, Woodburn is your place. I seem to remember seeing more Spanish and Russian signs than English ones in downtown Woodburn. Anyhow, more about the Russian religious community in Oregon can be found here.

If anyone can dig up more on the Subbotniks, it’d be much appreciated. (Praktike, you worked miracles with the Yezidis…)


Subscribe to receive updates from Registan

This post was written by...

– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

For information on reproducing this article, see our Terms of Use

{ 1 comment }

Tatyana August 9, 2004 at 8:54 pm

Nathan, I’ve found this http://www.ciaonet.org/olj/gjia/gjia_winspr03l.pdf , but it requires subscription.
There is a book on history of American communes that should mention Subbotniks and other “spirit” communes, http://www.worldcatlibraries.org/wcpa/ow/584b19d937fd9c84a19afeb4da09e526.html
I’ve read about it in book A.Etkind. Interpretation of travels (“Tolkovanie puteshestvij”, in Russian – in chapter *Sex and sects in bodies and texts…*

Previous post:

Next post: