EuropeStoryMolokans by Marina Balakina

Molokans are Russian Christians who do not recognise any intermediary communication with God. Molokan history began in 18th Century with the rejection of icons, churches, hierarchies, within the Church and the numerous sacraments.

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Molokans are Russian Christians who do not recognise any intermediary communication with God. Molokan history began in 18th Century with the rejection of icons, churches, hierarchies, within the Church and the numerous sacraments.

The Russian Orthodox Church considers the religious movement to be sectarian. Once, Molokans lived throughout the country, but pressure from the government and the desire to establish a Molokan community forced them to migrate. Today, Molokan communities are scattered across Eastern and Western Russia, the Caucasus, former Soviet republics, Turkey, the USA, Mexico, Australia, and China. The customs and lifestyles of Molokans vary greatly from region to region. In Azerbaijan, Molokans live peacefully side by side with Muslims. This series was photographed in the Azeri villages of Chukhryurd, Khimilli, Ivanovka and Alty-Agach. Each village has its own unique identity, as each was founded by different communities from Russia. There is, however, something that unites them: a duality expressed, on the one hand, in the desire to preserve their unique cultural traditions and, on the other hand, the rapprochement towards the bearers of other traditions.

Forty days after the death of a relative, family members are on their knees praying for the forgiveness of themselves and for the deceased on their community.

This is a story of how the older generation attempts to preserve the memory of their cultural origins and about the interpretation of their culture: Russians, Ukrainians and Azeris live side by side, having forgotten the differences that once set them apart. Meanwhile, the youth heads towards bigger towns and cities, so as to be educated and escape the pressure of their conservative families.

A scenic view of the village Khimilli.

About Marina Balakina

Documentary photographer and visual storyteller. Was born in the Sverdlovsk region of Russia, now is based in Yekaterinburg. She is a graduate School of Modern Photography Docdocdoc, Saint Petersburg. She explores the larger world through close personal narratives that are centred around the lives of people in small communities. Marina focuses on the study of identity, isolation and collective memory. [Official Website]

An elderly Molokan women from Khimilli treats her grandsons to compote. They eat Qutab – a kind of pastry stuffed with potatoes or tripe.

A wedding in Ivanovka. Many of the subtle customs have been forgotten, but the elderly residents of the village still remember how weddings used to be. Anna Ivanova Lebedeva recalls, “All the relatives come and bid their farewells. More attention is given to the bride as she has come to another house… And so they all say goodbye and beautiful words are spoken… and then they leave. They leave, and then the groom and his bride seat those who helped to set the table.”

Molokans gather pears to be baked on a Russian stove. Sun-dried pears are also popular.

Before, by the age of 16, each Molokan had to have a dowry ready: embroidered sheets, pillowcases, handkerchiefs and towels. If a girl did not have time to cope with the work herself, her friends would help in the evening. There are pillows with the embroidered initials of the craftswoman in every house.

Molokans light the samovar for drinking tea during a festive gathering. During festivities, it is customary to wear something white, such as a head scarf.

The main treat during the festive gathering in Khimilli – a traditional Molokan dish of noodles in a meat bouillon. Whilst the dishes on the table are being changed from one to another (after the noodles come dolma and cabbage rolls), the Molokans sing psalms.

A day before the funeral, a memorial service takes place. Elderly Molokans do not use modern technology, but amongst the participants of the prayer was a young Baptist man. To join in with singing the psalms, he found the necessary texts on the internet.

A family visits an ancient Molokan cemetery in Khimilli. The woman standing by the gravestone is the only member of her family to still live in her native village. Relatives from Russia visit her during public holidays and vacations.

Many Molokans offer domestic animals and birds including turkeys. In the evening, they are taken into the aviary.

Several of the Molokans who live in Ivanovka work on a collective farm. They are paid barely anything for the harvesting of grapes, but they are allowed to keep some of the berries they harvest for themselves.

Mikhail Mikhailovich Kastryulin, the elder of the village, Chukhuryurd, takes the birds “vitamins” – cabbage from his own vegetable patch.

Returning from the service, elderly Molokans pass a bus stop from which the residents of Ivanovka can return to the centre of the region, and then back to Baku. Buses are infrequent, but from the centre you can leave by taxi. These services are mainly operates by Azeris, who also sell fruit on the outskirts of the city.

Many Molokans work in village agriculture. The main form of employment in Ivanovka is with the local collective farm. It is forbidden to burn grass and garbage in the fields, but it is cheaper to burn than to take away, therefore lighting fires in the fields is not uncommon.

An elderly couple from Ivanovka. The wife helps her husband tie his shoelaces, which he is unable to do due to problems with his health.

The shapes of gravestones for men and women in Molokan cemeteries different from each other: a semi-circular headstone symbolises a head, indicating that a man has been buried there. A triangular headstone symbolises a dress, therefore indicating that a woman has been buried there.

Every Sunday, the gathering of Molokans finishes with a special prayer which is said whilst kneeling.

The the end of the working day at the collective farm in Ivanovka – Russians, Azeris and Lezgins drink tea. The chairperson of the farm has come to talk to them.

They are preparing the commemoration feast together. Again the main dish is the traditional noodle dish served with meat bouillon. They cook it in a 50 litre cast iron pot.

For many Molokans living in different villages, the funerals of relatives are the only times that they see each other for long periods of time.

Catherine Ivanovna Kastyulina – the wife of the elder of the village Chukhuryurd is resting at home. On the day when the photo was taken, commemorations were taking place in the village, which added to the usual worries and anxieties of domestic life.

The samovar is taken into the house for gatherings. A young woman observes the table being set. She came from Russia to Khimilli, where her parents grew up.



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