In 1983, Elsie Shubin (Parasha Shubin in Gwyn Jolly's paper) took a course in creative writing. At that time she was about 80 years old. She wrote this account of her people. -- John Jolly, nephew
"I was born in a village in the Caucasus, Russia. [Born 1903, in Selim, Kars oblast.] When I was nine years old, my mother joined a large group of the villagers who were migrating to America. My parents settled in San Pedro, where I grew up and went to school to the eighth grade. We moved to Los Angeles when I was fifteen years old. I attended Boyle Heights Intermediate School for a year. My Father took me out of school when I was sixteen and I had to find a job to help support our family. My first job was in the Del Monte Cannery, pasting labels on cans of fruit and bottles of catsup. I worked in the laundries, cookie factories, a pie factory and even in a sewing factory, but not for long.
"I was married when I became eighteen years old, and raised a family of four children, fourteen grandchildren and twenty-five great-grandchildren.
"All through my life I was hungry to read books and to learn to improve myself somehow. I loved to write letters. All my letters were long and descriptive; my family and friends said they enjoyed receiving them. I was advised by my teachers in grammar school to choose literature as my major, but I wasn't allowed to get enough education in that line. Being a Russian, a Molokan, I was subject to rules and regulations that were not of my making.
"Even when I took adult classes later in life, it was still in the category of a homemaker: sewing and cooking. When I became a Senior Citizen I decided to break custom and take academic subjects. I didn't think to take up creative writing 'till I was eighty years old. I. find that I'm past wanting to be a writer, and this class will be my last time in school."
The Molokans In Russia
The Molokans are a religious sect started by peasants and farmers in the rural districts of Russia. They learned about this religion of the Apostles of Jesus Christ, through men of God, who were prophets, and who prophesied and preached to them about the true religion. With the Molokans, all this began at the turn of the seventeenth century.
This religious sect is introverted, turned inward. Molokans did not proselyte; their only growth was from within. Their children are automatically Molokans by birth if their parents are descendants of Molokans. Their aim is to be true to their beliefs as Christians and to follow the rules and rituals that the Elders and Prophets of their Sect have set up for their church. There are no "if's or but's" about any part of their way of life or the way they worship. They were in the world, but not of the world. They wanted to shut the world out and build their own world and stay separate from the rest of the world.
It was not an easy way to go, since the Tzars were in the Greek Orthodox Church and did not give the rural people the freedom to worship any other way than the Greek Orthodox way. The Molokans asked peacefully, to be allowed to separate from the Russian Orthodox Church, but were denied the right. The Molokans protested and petitioned the government so much that it made the Tzar and the church angry. They were told to drop their ideas of separation or be exiled. The Molokans chose exile.
For two hundred and fifty years they suffered exile, imprisonment and torture by the government and the church officials. Some were exiled to Siberia in the beginning, and many ran away to distant, forsaken parts of Russia where they would not be heard of. Their leaders and prophets would petition the Tzar whenever there was a change in the government, for their freedom to worship in their own way and to be exempted from military service. Sometimes their petition would be granted, and they enjoyed peace and freedom for a while. Then there would be a change in the fortunes of the Tzars, or the church officials would petition the Tzar to persecute them. That, of course, meant the Molokans had to leave their established farms and be exiled again.
They were exiled to the edge of the southern part of Russia, to the Caucasus, in 1885. They were given desolate virgin land where primitive wild tribes of Turks, Armenians and Asians lived. These people did not work the land, did not form communities or have any form of self-government. Each person lived for himself and his family and killed anyone who got in his way of life. The Russian government thought this would be a good way to get rid of the Molokans. The Tzar even gave them a large parcel of land which, although it had never been worked, was promising because there were some small lakes and several rivers, as well as some natural springs in the land. The Molokans were grateful to be allowed to settle there. The wild tribes were a problem at first but, seeing how friendly and peaceful the Molokans were, became friendly and even gradually moved to the outer edges of this land where these people wanted to settle, and let them live in peace. For twenty-five years the Molokans lived in the Caucasus, establishing farms in spite of the hardships, and enjoying their freedom to worship in peace and not fearing conscription of their young men. They never aspired to get rich, just work the land, feed themselves and make the community completely self-supporting They lived a spartan, simple life, not even wanting to know what was going on in the world, but concerned only about what was happening in their own world, which was dominated by their religious beliefs.
Their religion was a way of life to them, and it was the most important thing in their communal life. They formed a close-knit community of sincere believers, who all believed the teachings of the early Christians who followed Jesus and his apostles.
Their leaders, who were Elders in the church, and the Prophets that arose among them, were very wise. They knew that if they were to be in an exclusive world of their own, they must have a balance in their religion to relieve the tensions caused by the adherence to their strict religious beliefs. They had to make their social life something pleasant and satisfying, yet not dilute the faith in their religion.
The Prophets told them God wanted the people to keep the Holy Days and feasts as recorded in the Old Testament. They not only celebrated the Holy Days of the Old Testament, they made a big celebration in the church of every birth of a child, every marriage, every death and every occasion of thanksgiving.
The Prophets outlined how the celebrations would be held, what the feasts would be like and even how they would be managed. The only celebration omitted or not even known about was "Christmas", the birth of Christ. They believed He always was, but they celebrated Easter with a feast every day for eight days.
The Molokans never let a community get too large, because then the celebrations would present a problem. They would start another village a few miles away as soon as the first one was the desired size. With so many large families in the communes, there were church services and feasts every Sunday and even on week days. Being farmers, they could manage to attend the social and religious events without harm to their farms. These social events were very enjoyable and renewed their zeal for their religion and their way of life.
The Molokans did not have any worldly entertainment, no art, no dancing, etc. They had no need of formal education; the Elders were able to read and write, so were called upon to read letters, or write letters, as well as any other business for the members when need arose. If someone wanted to be a teacher, to teach reading and writing to a few male children whose parents wanted them to learn, the Elders would permit this. There was no ambition to learn reading or writing, and little use for arithmetic since no money was used in the community.
They bartered everything among themselves. They raised wheat, barley and potatoes, besides garden vegetables, and had surplus wheat and barley to barter for items someone else had who did not have surplus wheat. Once a year they had to have three rubles per head to pay taxes to the government, so they managed to get that much cash, as well as a little money to buy sugar, salt, tea and dry goods. Usually there was a member in the community who was business-minded instead of farming- minded who would establish a very small general store. Then they would barter with him and he would get his farm supplies that way.
The Molokans raised cattle, sheep and horses as well as chickens, ducks and geese. From what they raised and bartered and invented, they were able to fill almost every need that arose in their exclusive life as Molokans.
They knew nothing of machinery that was needed in running a dairy, so in order to barter the surplus milk, they allowed an educated Armenian to establish a dairy in the village. They brought the surplus milk to him and he made cheese and butter and paid them in kind or paid them in rubles, which they saved for taxes, etc.
In the commune, there usually was a person who was a gifted healer, another was a bone setter. Every village had them, even though they never had formal training. Since children were a big asset to every family, there were enough midwives to take care of that. Every homemaker had home remedies at her fingertips; usually herbs, never any pills or prescriptions. About once a year an eye doctor would come to a village from the city and spend a few days with the people and examine their eyes and give medication. Glaucoma was a dreaded disease among them, for which they had no cure themselves.
The people had tremendous faith in God, that He would supply all their needs if they were faithful in following in the footsteps of the early Christians. God did supply them with men and women who were gifted, as the bone setters, spiritual healers and midwives were. Also there usually was a cobbler who made shoes for all the villagers. The people themselves made their own bedding from the farm products; wool from sheep was carded and used to make comforters, and spun into thread to use to knit socks, mittens and caps. The women spun thread from flax and made their own clothes, even coats. There were gifted tailors among them for those who could pay or barter for the service.
The feathers from the ducks and geese were used for pillows and feather beds or mattresses for everyone. Blankets were unknown, comforters were never bought, and the pillows and feather mattresses were very important possessions in every family. These items they would take with them no matter where they were exiled to. They brought them even to America, when they made their complete break with the mother-land and took their last journey of exile. It was like taking a piece of their homeland with them; besides, they didn't know what they would find in America to replace these possessions.
Things changed for the Molokans in 1900, because of wars the Tzar engaged in with Japan. The Molokan young men were conscripted in spite of the promise of the Tzar to exempt them. The people were stunned; it was too late to protest, and practically no place to be exiled to, so they endured the conscription and lost many young men in the war with Japan.
This experience taught them that the word of the Tzar was not to be trusted, and they prayed to be delivered from this curse for good. Their Prophets told them that God wanted them to leave Russia and go to America, because it was a land of promise to all the people who were persecuted in their own countries. This time it was to be a final exile, and one of their own choice. They knew nothing of what life would be like for them in America, except that they would have the freedom to worship God in their chosen way, and be free from conscription of their young men for military service. That was the main, theme of their religion: not to kill under any circumstances. As for hardships that might arise, none could be as bad as they had already gone through in Russia.
In 1905 a group of families decided to try to go to America; they had no money, just their homes and farms. They sold what they could for whatever they could get, and prepared to take this giant step. For people who were primitive farmers, with no education but with great faith in God, these people worked miracles. Not only did they get passports and take care of all kinds of obstacles in their way in order to finally start on their journey to the promised land, but they even received credit from the steamship line for their passage when they were short of money.
When they arrived in America, they had no money to go any further than where they landed in New York. Their Elders and Prophets were told by God to get in touch with an important person in America--Leo Tolstoi, the novelist. Leo Tolstoi sent an interpreter to meet with them and hear their story and the plight they were in. Also a man named Peter A. Demansoff, who at that time was a resident of Los Angeles, met with them. Tolstoi and the interpreter, Budyansky, turned to the United States government with a plea concerning land grants and exemption from military service. The government answered them that the exemption from military service for the Molokans was included in the Constitution of the United States of America if their religion was against it. Also, the government assured them that it did not conscript even its own citizens, because the military was supported by volunteers.
From New York, with Tolstoi's help and the consuls, they sent a plea to all the governments of South America and inquired about land grants and conscription.
Demansoff was asked to contact the railroad company and see if it would grant them credit on their passage from New York to Los Angeles. They would pay it back in weekly payments as soon as they were working. There was plenty of manual labor in the commercial part of Los Angeles at that time. Demansoff did manage to get the railroad company to give the Molokans who wanted to go to Los Angeles, credit on those terms, and the debt was paid in full in due time.
Before they decided to come to California, and Los Angeles in particular, the Molokans sent delegates to northern parts of the United States and into Canada, to see what was available to them there. Leo Tolstol took care of the Molokans in New York till they could decide where they wanted to go as a group.
The Molokans received as answer from Argentina that they could settle there, that they would be free from conscription for ninety-nine years and have freedom of religion also. Canada made the same offer. These delegates traveled to the places offered them, their expenses paid by Leo Tolstoi, but found the climate too harsh, or the land unsuitable for their needs. They finally decided on California as the place most suitable climate-wise, even though they would have to settle in a city temporarily.
The Molokans In America
The largest group of the Molokans settled in California, Los Angeles in particular. This was because manual labor was available right away and every man, woman, and young adult got a job as soon as they found a place to live. Many of them lived together in one or two bedroom homes; sometimes two families, each having six or more children.
Their aim was to find land to farm as they did in Russia, but that took time to look and investigate, and in the meantime they did the best they could in the city of Los Angeles. Some went to San Francisco.
Although they didn't know the language, they found work because they wanted to work and support themselves. They were hard workers, came early and left late. They were shown how to do the job, and that was all they needed. Many of their employers were Jewish people who came from Europe and spoke Russian. The work the Molokans did at the start and which they kept doing for twenty- five years was sorting dirty rags and bottles, which were washed and sold to business places by their employers. This was done by the women. The younger women and single girls, sixteen to twenty years old, worked in the laundries. Most of the older men and young men worked in the lumber yards, moving lumber from box cars to piles in the yard.
When the youngest crop of children on arrival came to age sixteen, the girls started to work in the National Biscuit Company and other food-producing companies, like canneries, because they had learned to speak English by then. Many of the children were told by their parents to give their ages in school registration at least two years older than they were, so at sixteen they could go to work and quit school.
The Elders of the church and the Prophets were not satisfied with the people to be living in the city. The young people were slowly becoming Americanized. So the Elders sent delegates every year to look for land somewhere that they could farm and establish a commune like they did in Russia. At every meeting of the "Subrannia" (church) [sobrannie: meeting] the Elders and Prophets would predict the loss of their young people to the vices of the city, and estrangement from the church and their way of life. Some few families did try going to Utah to farm, but didn't stay long because it was too lonesome away from the rest of the Commune. Some went to Arizona and made good raising cotton, but went broke when the market crashed. There are a few Molokan settlements in Arizona, Oregon and northern California. The majority stayed in Los Angeles.
The young people got married, raised their children and felt pretty well settled. They paid less and less attention to the Elders and the Prophets when they spoke of finding the perfect place for them to settle. By the time the children of the second generation of Molokans came along, it was even harder to convince them to go back to farming and austere living.
Although the second generation was denied schooling on arrival in America by their parents because they were needed to go to work in order for the families to survive, they managed to work and save and some even bought homes after they were married. They had some of the modern conveniences like washing machines, gas cook stoves and electric irons.
A very few became businessmen, like rubbish haulers, bakers, grocers and even a jeweler. Whoever learned a trade learned it on the job. They did very well, considering they never went to school. Their children finished grammar school and their grandchildren finished high school and some went to college, but it took all of fifty years for them to develop that much from being peasant, uneducated farmers, living in the cities.
One group of delegates went to South America in 1950 or thereabout; they found some land available and reported it to the Molokan Commune. After listening to some very convincing sales talk, about twelve families decided to go to Peru to try to establish a Molokan Commune there. This group couldn't take the hardships it encountered in the wilderness of Peru, and all but one couple returned inside six months. When this group returned and told how primitive life would be in Peru, it put the period on any more talk of the Molokans looking for a better place to live than the good old USA. Not one of the grandchildren of the original group of Molokans wanted to give up city life; they were comfortable and were becoming prosperous.
Although the younger people didn't want to go to a strange country and start farming, they wanted to keep their culture and heritage, especially after "Roots" was televised. The Molokans had been having a school to teach the children to speak Russian; it was on a small scale. They began to enlarge the program: more classes, longer hours, and they included all the children, from kindergarten to high school. The Elders planned Sunday School services for all the children and planned sport activities for the boys.
Suddenly, the Molokans seemed to wake up to the fact that they had been negligent in not teaching their children the mother tongue, and never really instructing them in the practice of being a Molokan. They thought that by leaving for that promised land of farming and getting away from the cities, they would become Molokans like their parents. Not so. The third generation already was rebelling against taboos like "no intermarriage with other nationalities".
The Elders were dying off at ages ninety and over, and the succeeding adults did not feel the need of being "in the world but not of the world" as the original Molokan Elders did. "Roots" changed this, and there began a rebirth of the desire to preserve their heritage and religion.
The Russian school was enlarged and was well attended. It had the children's approval and desire this time. Before this, only the adults wore the Russian costume of blouse and long, full skirts for women, with lace shawls to cover their heads, while the men wore shirts buttoning on the side of the neck and tied around the waist with a silk cord; but now the children wanted to be dressed like that, and took pride in looking different from the general public on Sundays and holidays. The revival of the Molokan customs and religion gathered momentum in the seventies. They outgrew their church facilities and searched for larger quarters, more land, more buildings, but in the city. The Molokans finally realized that they were already in the promised land and got busy living in the now and enjoying the freedom to worship as they believed. They still aspired to be different from the general American people.