Spirit Jumpers

The Russian Molokans of Baja California

Therese Adams Muranaka, San Diego Museum of Man, Ethnic Technology Notes No. 21, 1988.

In ancient times, it is shown in the Old and New Testaments the movements of people from one land to another — like Abraham, Izaac, Jacob, Moses and others — and of their worthy trials and tribulations before God [Shubin 1963:2].

Tanya Shubin watched out the window as the train coursed on and on through the tropical jungle and oppressive heat. For a young girl from the mountainous lands of Armenia, the tropics of Panama with its strange birds and mammals were intriguing and unusual and hinted of the strange lands she and her family of Russian peasants would see as they made their way to freedom. Carrying only a small satchel of the plain clothing she wore as a Molokan or Spirit Jumper,* she pondered the events which had led to this flight of her family and the other Molokans to the New World and wondered where the Spirit would lead them next. [* Jumpers and Molokans are different ethno-religious denominations, which is not clearly explained in this paper.]

Many years ago, a group of Russians established a settlement on the Guadalupe River above Ensenada in Baja California. Now known as Francisco Zarco or Colonia rusa, their colony is located 35 miles southeast of Tijuana. In 1905, the 105 families pooled their resources and purchased 13,000 acres of land from the Mexican government under Porfirio Diaz. The official deed dates from 1907, but the settlers remember an established colony there at an earlier date (Deway 1966:36 and Appendix A; San Diego Union August 26 and September 5,1905).

These people were known as Molokans (mah-la-kanz) and on the advice of the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy (Young 1932:12, Dunn 1970:307, Tolstoy 1933:351-354), they had come family by family to the New World from the vicinity of Kars, now in modern-day Turkey (Figure 2 [map of the Transcaucasus]). As with many immigrant groups, they came to the Americas with a purpose. They were members of a Christian religious group who believed in peace, the Bible, and a simple way of life. In their efforts to evade the Imperial Russian government's intrusions into their private ways (M. Rogoff 1983, Conybeare 1962:293- 294), families fled through the Ukraine to Bremen or Hamburg and from there to Ellis Island, Galveston, or across the Isthmus of Panama by train (since the canal was not opened until 1914). Some Molokans came to the United States by way of Harbin in China; some came after a hiatus in Argentina, Chile, and other Latin American countries (Lisizin 1984:11).

Figure 2. Kars and vicinity, origin of the Molokan exodus to the United States at the turn of the 20th century.
Suffering many hardships, families arrived as early as 1904 in Los Angeles, in Alta California (Desatoff 1977, Deway 1966:33, Lisizin 1984:10, Young 1927:54). They settled in "Russian Town" — regions that would become "The Flats" of Boyle Heights or Hollenbeck Heights — and later in Belvedere, Maywood, Bell, Huntington Park, San Pedro, Lynwood, and Palomar Park (Dolbee 1983, Sokoloff 1918, Young 1932:16). They knew that Los Angeles was their destination because it had been prophesied that they would always be protected by "the angels" (M. Rogoff 1983). Finding land expensive, however, and needing vast tracts to farm winter wheat in the old ways (Schmieder 1928:415- 420), they began looking further for a cheaper, and less materialistic, lifestyle. In 1907, officially purchasing a large tract of land in Mexico known as Ex-Misión Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, formerly a Dominican mission on the Guadalupe River above Ensenada (Goldbaum 1971:56), they settled down to maintain forever the old ways (Figure 3 [map showing San Diego to Ensenada]).

The Molokans built villages in the Strassendorf [German shoestring, single-street row village] pattern (Post and Lutz 1976:140, Schmieder 1928:417), with houses arranged side by side along a single, straight, tree-lined road (Figure 4). Houses were made of bricks of sun-dried mud and straw stacked with mud mortar and whitewashed in the fashion of the Mexican adobes of Baja California, but roofs were shingled and steeply-pitched in the old Russian way to keep out the snow they would never see in Guadalupe (Figure 5). Every family had the same sized strip of land on the main street and each homestead had a house entered by means of a narrow passage with a room on either side, one of which was the kitchen, the other a family living area. At the back, another kitchen might be attached, with a large bake-oven or pechka (Story 1960:35). Cousins visiting from Los Angeles remembered as a Saturday night treat the banya, a sauna consisting of a floor of heated stones on which cold water was poured to provide a steam bath for the family (Deway 1966:49). An outhouse, a laundry room, a chicken house (perhaps with a room for the hired hand upstairs), a duck pen, and a cattle barn completed most households (Story 1960:36). Each family had a small orchard or garden, a well, and perhaps a windmill.

Interiors varied considerably throughout the colony's history. Both of the two rooms, the kitchen and "living" rooms, had feather beds in them; as late as 1960, they had huge storage chests still containing blankets made in Russia but U.S. or Mexican-made sheets (Story 1960:36). Wood, and later gas, stoves, benches built in the walls, kettles mixing bowls, coffee pots, short clear tea glasses and china saucers, wooden spoons and bowls furnished the interiors (H. Rogoff 1988). The Russian samovar or tea service and a Bible, always open, were on display. Wedding pictures, perhaps a colored print of the Last Supper, and a Victrola might have been allowed in later years (Story 1960:38, Montemayor 1980). Porches were edged with carved wooden railings, unlike the Mexican houses.

No elaborate church existed in the village but a simple building without icons or statues served as a place of worship. A new church was built as late as 1955 to 1957 (Story 1960-60 127) Services at this sobranie or meeting [assembly hall] consisted of spiritual verses and songs through which the presence of the Holy Spirit was felt. Because of the fervor of the meetings, the people were known as the "Spirit Jumpers." Pacifism, sobriety and social conscience were stressed. "It is against our religion for one man to consider himself better in any way than his fellows. We are all equal before God. The only superiority one man holds over another is in his years of experience and spiritual wisdom" (an elder quoted in Young 1928:546).
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In keeping with Molokan views, clothing was simple. The men wore the Russian-style shirt with a rope belt, long baggy pants, and boots. The women wore long skirts and over-blouses. On special occasions, a hand-made lace shawl known as kosinka was worn over the head and tied behind the neck (Figure 6). Under the kosinka, a married woman wore her hair bound at the neck in a snood tied with ribbons. No jewelry or ornament without function was allowed.

As dictated by the religion, all harvests were held together and the food was stockpiled and distributed by elected elders. Everything was produced on the individual homestead with the exception of coffee, sugar, salt, and rice, which were purchased in Ensenada or San Diego (M. Rogoff 1983). Daily food was plainly prepared and featured a Russian meat soup [vegetable] or borshch, lapsha or noodles, and loaves of wheat bread from outdoor ovens. The Molokans practiced bee-keeping and kept flocks of geese (Figure 7). In general, dietary patterns followed kosher rules from Leviticus 23, with prohibitions on alcohol, shellfish, animals without cloven hooves, and pigs ("The pig does not look to the sky"). In later years, goats or sheep were considered food for guests, along with the garden's regular fare of pickled cabbage, cucumbers, olives, onions, pumpkins, and melons (Post and Lutz 1976:144, Story 1960:31).

Molokan, the name for these settlers, is similar to the Russian word for "milk" (moloko). Although scholars of Russian sectarianism such as Klibanov (1982:107-109) leave no doubt as to the Milky River (Molochnye Vody) origins of the Doukhobors, from whom the Molokans evolved, most doubt any real connection between Molochnye Vody and the Molokan name (Dunn and Dunn 1978:352). A more likely explanation is that the name "Molokan" comes from the practice of drinking milk during the Russian Orthodox fast seasons such as Lent, during which the Orthodox were restricted from milk and milk products (Lane 1978:100, Shubin 1963:10, Struve 1967:228). In the early years of the sect's persecution in Russia, milk and milk products were also the only foods which Molokan conscientious objectors, imprisoned for their beliefs, could trust had not been contaminated as defined by kosher law (J. J. Samarin 1988). The explanation most commonly given in Guadalupe today is that the name comes from Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians, Chapter 3 Verse 2 about Christians drinking "spiritual milk."

To understand who the Molokans are and why they fled Imperial Russia, one must look to the origins of Orthodox Christianity. In A.D. 1054, Latin Catholicism and Greek Catholicism (later known as Orthodoxy) officially split under the leadership of Michael Cerularius. In 1654 Russian Orthodoxy (the Third Rome) was divided again by the backlash of protests over changes in ritual made by the Patriarch Nikon. The protesters were known as the "Old Believers" and from the Orthodox point of view were dangerous schismatics or raskolniki. "Orthodox peasants were wont to say that among the Rascolniks 'every moujik (peasant man) formed a sect, and every baba (peasant woman) a persuasion'" (Stepniak 1888:266).

Splintering, rejoining and splintering again, raskolniki such as the Old Believers were divided in two categories: popovtsy (those with priests) and bespopovtsy (those without priests) (Fadner 1967:755). Molokans are a priestless sect which first appeared in the historical record about 1765 after a split with the Doukhobors, a group now famous in Western Canada (Kolarz 1961:349, Stepniak 1888:266, Struve 1967:228). Part of the "Spiritual Christian" movement, their founder was a Russian tailor named Simion Uklein whose doctrine (written in a book called "The Ritual") included the following: no priests, no formal church organization, no status differences, and an opposition to material progress (Young 1932:83-84). Bratsvo or "brotherhood" and obshchestvo or "community" were central ideas. Unlike the Doukhobors, however, who were almost solely peasants, the Molokan drew early converts from townspeople (meshchanye), merchants and industrialists (Lane 1978:100). Pacifism, reason and self-perfection through work were highly valued (Lane 1978:102). The Molokans have been characterized overall as a Utopian type of sect which seeks, from a distance removed from the surrounding society, to reconstruct the world in a better way (cf. Wilson 1970:47). Sociologically speaking, Molokans fit the definition of a sect in that their behavior as a group contrasts with that of the outside world, they consider themselves as divinely inspired or chosen, they set themselves apart by their clothing and speech, and they have a codified body of laws considered sacred (Young 1932:56-57).

Under Uklein's leadership, the sect spread from Tambov to Voronezh, to the Cossacks on the Don River, to Saratov, and from there to the Caucasus with Isaiah Ivanov Krylov and across the Volga River with Peter Dementev. Further expansion was noted  in Vladimir, and to the area of Ryazan under a follower named Moses the Dalmatian (Conybeare 1962:291).

Doctrinal divisions soon arose in the Molokan sect (Young 1932:71), giving rise to the Subbotniki or "Sabbatarians" (who followed Jewish Talmudic law more closely), the "Evangelical Christians" of the Don River (who eventually allowed themselves to be drafted), the "Communists" (who made various efforts at total equality through a sharing of personal property), the Postoyanye or "Steadfast" (who did not "jump" in ecstasy at religious meetings), and the Pryguny or "Spirit Jumpers" (some of whom are called Maksimisty after Maxim Rudometkin) (Lane 1978:102).

Religious persecution started each time the displaced Molokan settlement grew prosperous or (with the exception of the Evangelical Christians) the Imperial Russian government demanded conscripts, which the Molokans refused (M. Rogoff 1983). At these times, severe laws against the Molokans were enacted (Conybeare 1962:293-294). Responding to these new problems and to the urgings of the famous Russian writer and pacifist Leo Tolstoy, the Molokans began a disorganized flight from Russia, family by family, between 1904 and 1906 (Dunn 1970:307, Tolstoy 1933).

Fleeing in all directions, perhaps 3,500 people migrated to the United States (Samarin 1982:753), departing by way of Hamburg or Bremen and entering at Ellis Island or Galveston, or via the Isthmus of Panama. Most of the Molokans found their way to California in 1904, following leaders Phillip M. Shubin (Frontispiece) and Ivan G. Samarin, who had come ahead in 1900 to scout for land after visiting the Doukhobors of Canada and working their way down to San Francisco and Los Angeles (Shubin 1963:26). Molokan families settled in the aforementioned suburbs of Los Angeles (Moore 1973:21-22), but the heart of their settlement was in the Vignes and First Streets section, where a church and grocery store were located. Molokan businesses were identifiable by names ending in -in, -off or -eff suffixes.

Modern-day events have been difficult for the Molokans of the Guadalupe Valley. On a hill overlooking the colony the cemetery tells the story. At the top of the hill rows of the older headstones written in the Cyrillic alphabet can still be seen. One can still read the stone of Ivan A. Bibayoff (Figure 8). The stones of many of Phillip M. Shubin's descendants must be there, too, no longer marked. In the middle of the cemetery, closer to the valley floor, are headstones written in Cyrillic with Spanish transcriptions, e.g., Sergei Filatoff's with "Sergio Filatoff" written in Spanish. At the base of the hill are headstones written only in Spanish and decorated more elaborately with plastic flowers, crosses, and religious figurines. These stones are standing evidence of death, intermarriage, and near-abandonment of the Russian village in more recent years.

The first major emigration from Guadalupe took place in 1912, when an unknown number of settlers departed (Schmieder 1928:421). Dissatisfaction with the land or fear of the uprisings in Northern Mexico during the Mexican Revolution (cf. the pacificos in Reed 1983:57) may have been the causes. Certainly popular folklore cites more than one raid by the Villistas of Pancho Villa looking for food, clothing, and horses (M. Rogoff 1983, J. A. Samarin 1988).

The second major exodus from the valley took place after the creation of the ejido El Porvenir in Guadalupe Valley in 1937. Article 27 of the Political Constitution of the United States of Mexico of February 15, 1917, says, "The ownership of lands and waters ... is vested originally in the nation which ... has the right to transmit title thereto to private persons ... the nation shall have at all times the right to impose upon private property such restriction as the interest may require ... in order to conserve and equitably distribute the public wealth" (Deway 1966:52). Elaborated in the Agricultural Code of Mexico, these laws gave President Lazaro Cardenas the right to reapportion tracts of land above a certain size to the general population, a procedure known as the ejido system (Meyer and Sherman 1979:378). ["Can I buy "ejido" land?", by David W. Connell, Connell & Associates, 1998: "...since the constitutional reforms of 1992 ejido land now can be converted into private property and sold to third parties, including foreigners."]

On September 19, 1937, the Mexican government requested a dotación or "donation" and on November 28,1937, reapportioned 2920 hectares adjoining the colonia to 58 Mexican ejidatarios. The ejido, known as El Porvenir ("things to come"), did not incorporate Russian lands, but caused great consternation amongst Russians just the same. Colonists such as Mary Rogoff (1983) claim that President Cardenas himself came to the valley and, impressed with the industrious farms, decided not to take Russian lands to enlarge the ejido. Many colonists were not convinced and consolidated their holdings in the United States.

The final change for the colony came with the completion of a new road in 1958 (Deway 1966:82, Story 1960:162, Kvammen 1976) and with the coming of squatters who claimed portions of the valley as their own. The year 1958, in particular, was an election year and activists of the General Union of Mexican Workers and Peasants (UGOCM) were organizing takeovers of private properties to speed land reform (Deway 1966:80). Associated with this movement, 3000 workers appeared in the Guadalupe Valley during the night of July 10,1958 (San Diego Union July 12, 1958 to July 11, 1959). Known as paracaidistas or "parachutists" for their sudden appearance "from the skies," they formed the poblado Francisco Zarco (cf. Meyer and Sherman 1979:385-386) at the fork of the calle principal and Mexico Highway 3 (the Tecate-Ensenada highway). Backed by the Ley de Tierras Ociosas ("Law of Idle Lands") of June 23, 1920, the squatters were attracted by fallow Russian fields. Acts of civil disobedience followed as more and more squatters came. Destroying plantings, raiding stock, and robbing orchards were some of the techniques used to drive both Russian and Mexican owners from their lands. Russian dolls with beards were burnt in effigy and threats to torch crops and harm families were made (Deway 1966:84, M. Rogoff 1983). In August of 1959,107 hectares of Russian land were given officially to the poblado. Anxiety about holdings which were not constantly supervised forced the sale of more and more Russian-held parcels (Deway 1966:98-99) and brought about the effective demise of the functioning colony.

Japanese, Chinese, and Jewish settlers, among other ethnic groups, bought property from the original squatters as time went on, completely changing the ethnic character of the village. Today only one family of rusos puros or "pure Russians" exists in the colonia and six or seven Russians are married to Mexican spouses. A small family of Cossacks from Ensenada once lived in the valley. Because they speak Russian with the Molokans, they are well informed and have left an excellent memoir of the valley's history (Lisizin 1984).

All that is left is a colony in ruins. Residents claim that in ten years no Russian will be heard in a valley which was known for the sound of Russian voices singing a cappella as visitors turned in from the main road (Rangel 1983, Long 1983). Today's visitor sees nothing of the area where Tanya Shubin, the young girl who crossed the Isthmus of Panama, lived with her husband Moses Desatoff. Her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren live in Alta California, Oregon, and Alaska (Dolbee 1983). No one in the village remembers how still she sat as she crossed the U.S. border on her way to a new home in Los Angeles, or how quietly she held the little girl who had died on the trip because she wanted to bury her close by. Many sufferings, many joys associated with the Russians of Guadalupe have been forgotten. As one walks through Guadalupe today, parts of the village are in ruins, weedy and overgrown. The casual visitor looks down the long road and sees only Salsola kali or tumbleweeds, also known as the "Russian thistle."

For ye have not received the spirit of the bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God, and if children then heirs, heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with Him, that we may be also glorified together, for I reckon that the sufferings of the present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us [Shubin 1963].

Figure 9. Unidentified Molokan families, from an old print found in Guadalupe Colony.


I remember my first trip to Guadalupe with Elena Teresa Orozco and trying to look inconspicuous driving down the main street in a white Mercedes-Benz with Alta California plates.

I remember catching my breath at Molokan John A. Samarin's memories of his boyhood in Guadalupe, shared with me in the company of his son John J. Samarin.

I remember making Judie Dolbee stand still for 20 minutes in the worst part of San Diego so I could take her picture for a series of Molokan portraits.

I remember the half hour spent in phone conversation with Dr. Leiand A. Fetzer, Professor of Germanic and Slavic Studies at San Diego State University, and my feeble attempts to spell "Bibaiv [sic]," "Bibaev," "Bibayeff," now "Bibayoff."

I remember taking a "shortcut" on our way to Guadalupe with Helen Long balanced in the back seat of a '67 Volkswagen so that we could see her ancestral home.

I remember Irma Retana's careful translations of Spanish documents while her family ate dinner without her.

I remember the hospitality extended to strangers by the Hector Fuentes family of Guadalupe.

I remember the patience of my husband Jason Muranaka and my son Jay-Michael, which knew no bounds.

Therese Adams Muranaka
San Diego, California
July, 1988 

References Cited

Conybeare, Frederick C.
1962 Russian Dissenters. New York: Russell and Russell, Inc.

Desatoff, Tanya

Tape recorded interview [original colonist]. Woodburn, Oregon, April 24, 1977

Deway, John Sanford

1966 The Colonia Rusa of Guadalupe Valley: A Study of Settlement, Competition and Change. M.A. Thesis (Geography), California State University, Los Angeles.

Dolbee, Judie

1983 Personal communication [Tanya Shubin Desatoff's granddaughter]

Dunn, Ethel

1970 Canadian and Soviet Doukhobors: An Examination of the Mechanisms of Social Change. Canadian Slavic Studies 4(2):300-326.

Dunn, Stephen P., and Ethel Dunn

1978 Molokans in America. Dialectical Anthropology 3:349-360.

Fadner, F. L

1967 Russian Sects. In: New Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XII, pp. 753-756.
The Catholic Encyclopedia: Raskolniks

Goldbaum, David

1971 Towns of Baja California: A 1918 Report. Translated with introduction and supplemental annotations by William O. Hendricks. Glendale, California: La Siesta Press.
Book Review by Dr. W. Michael Mathes, Associate Professor of History at the University of San Francisco. The Journal of San Diego History, Spring 1972, Volume 18, Number 2.

Klibanov, A.I.

1982 History of Religious Sectarianism in Russia (1860s-1917). Edited by Stephen P. Dunn, translated by Ethel Dunn. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Kolarz, Walter

1961 Religion in the Soviet Union. London: Macmillan, and New York: St. Martin's Press.

Kvammen, Lorna

1976 A Study of the Relationship Between Population Growth and the Development of Agriculture in     Guadalupe Valley, Baja California. Mexico. M.A. Thesis (Anthropology), California State University, Los Angeles.

Lane, Christel

1978 Christian Religion in the Soviet Union: A Sociological Study. London: George Alien and Unwin.

Lisizin, Francisco

1984 Secta religiosa molokan y la Colonia rusa de Guadalupe, Ensenada, Baja California. Unpublished manuscript. [The Molokan religious sect and the Russian colony of Guadalupe, Ensenada, Baja California]

Long, Helen

1983 Personal communication [descendant of Jose Matias Moreno, who owned the Ex-Misión Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe land grant].

Meyer, Michael C, and William L. Sherman

1979  The Course of Mexican History. New York: Oxford University Press.

Montemayor, Robert

1980 Baja's Russian Colony Dwindling Away. Los Angeles Times, February 10,1980, p. 2:10.

Moore, William Burgess

1973 Molokan Oral Tradition: Legends and Memorates of an Ethnic Sect. University of California Publications. Folklore Studies 28.

Post, Lauren C., and Carl Lutz

1976 The Molokan Colony of Guadalupe, Baja California, Mexico. In: Brand Book, Volume IV. pp. 140-155. San Diego: San Diego Corral of the Westerners.

Rangel, Jesus

1983 Russian Emigre Group Fading in Mexico. San Diego Union, June 20, 1983, pp. B-l and 2.

Reed, John

1983 Insurgent Mexico. Penguin Books, Ltd. [1914 original is online.]

Rogoff, Hanya

1988 Personal communication [Guadalupe Valley Molokan].

Rogoff, Mary

1983 Personal communication [Guadalupe Valley resident since 1919].

Samarin, Ivan G.

1982 Dukh i Zhizn' [Spirit and Life]. Third Edition. Los Angeles.

Samarin, John A.

1988 Personal communication

Samarin, John J.

1988 Personal communication

San Diego Union

Issue of August 26, 1905, p. 1, col. 6.
Issue of September 5,1905, p. 7, col. 6
Issue of July 12,1958, p. 1:4.
Issue of July 13,1958, pp. 1:4-5.
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Schmieder, Oscar

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Shubin, Peter Phillip

1963 Untitled manuscript. Los Angeles, California.

Sokoloff, Lilian

1918 The Russians in Los Angeles. Sociological Monographs. Los Angeles: University of Southern California Press.

Slepniak, a.k.a. Sergei Mikhailovich Kravchinskii

1888 The Russian Peasantry. New York: Harper and Brothers.

Story, Sidney Rochelle

1960 Spiritual Christians in Mexico: Profile of a Russian Village. Ph.D. Dissertation (Anthropology), 
University of California, Los Angeles.

Struve, Nikita

1967 Christians in Contemporary Russia. Translated by L. Sheppard and A. Manson. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.

Tolstoy, Leo

1933 Polnoe sobranie sochinenii. Volume 27, pp. 351-354 (May 2, 1900).
[Полное собрание сочинений : Complete Collection of Works online page 210 shows 2 requests from Molokans in the Caucasus for Tolstoy's help to go to America — 1 March 1900 from Kars province, and 2 May 1900 from Erivan governate. When he got the second request, Tolstoy wrote: "I thought I was finished dealing with molokans, ..." which may indicate he was annoyed with them. There is no indication that he responded to them after these dates. A request for copies of these messages, if they exist, has been forwarded to  Tolstoy archives in Russia.] 

Wilson, Bryan R.

1970 Religious Sects. London: Oxford University Press.

Young, Pauline V.

1927 Family Organization of the Molokan: A Study in Primary Croup Relations. Sociology and Social Research 12(1):54-60.

1928 Occupational Attitudes and Values of Russian Lumber Workers. Sociology and Social Research 12(6): 543-553.

1932 The Pilgrims of Russian Town: The Community of Spiritual Christian Jumpers in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 

Molokans and Jumpers in Mexico
Molokans and Jumpers Around the World