It was a giant leap. As she packed up her life in Azerbaijan, 18-year-old Anna Sergeyevna left behind the gentle maze of lanes in Ivanovka, her native village of 2,720 residents, to face the gargantuan labyrinth of streets of Moscow, a megacity teeming with over 12 million people.
“It is a difficult place, difficult to describe. I would like to have my family next to me here in Russia. I return to Ivanovka twice a year. I feel…,” sighs the now 23-year-old as her voice breaks over the Skype chat.
Sergeyevna is a Molokan, a religious minority.
Complex as Russia may be, Azerbaijan does not offer the opportunities the marketing specialist, and other young Molokans like her, need. While no official numbers are available, the ever shrinking community suffers from a slow and steady migration of its young members who leave seeking education and work opportunities.
Ivanovka is the last village with a sizeable Molokan population left in Azerbaijan. The community originated in Russia. In the 19th century it clashed with the Russian Orthodox Church authorities as its members refused to wear the cross and to practice any ritual not explicitly stated in the Bible. These include venerating icons or fasting — hence the name Molokans, or “milk (moloko) drinkers,” which refers to their refusal to honor the dairy-free fasting period. At the turn of the 1800s an estimated half a million Molokans lived in the Russian empire, but as Tsar Nicholas I sought to populate the periphery, the unruly group came handy. Their refusal to go to war coupled with their strong stand against the religious establishment made the case for their resettlement in the South Caucasus from the 1830s, one of the most prominent migration waves to the region.
In the dying years of the Soviet Union, Ivanovka tried to maintain the old traditions — reportedly the village has the world’s last kolkhoz, the communist system of collective farms producing grains, grapes, dairy and meat. But the wider collapse of the kolkhoz meant the mostly agrarian community lost its lifeline to the larger market and a new wave of migration started — this time, back to Russia.
“Life in [the village] was interesting, but very difficult. I had to work hard and help my parents around the house and the fields,” explains Sergeyevna. “I wanted to leave Azerbaijan as I looked to develop further,” she says.
Old wooden houses, many up for sale, line the village’s streets where silence dominates — the current residents are mostly elderly. Molokans gather in the small decoration and icon-free prayer house, known simply as the sobraniye.
Thirty-seven-year-old Anatoly Vetrov is one of the few under 40s in sight — out of a family of eight children, he is only one still living in Ivanovka. All his living siblings are in Russia.
“I don’t want to leave, have no desire to, none at all,” he says. “They invite me to visit them there, well, for a visit I’ve been there for a month. But to move there, I have no desire.” Vetrov is visually impaired due to a fall from a horse when he was a child and lives off the disability allowance — a vegetable plot and a few chickens provide for his daily needs.
Employment opportunities in the village are close to none and the quality of the education, or rather the lack of it, is the young generation’s main concern, specifically among those of Russian descent like the Molokans.
During the USSR, Russian dominated public life and it was the lingua franca across the Soviet empire — but that is no longer the case. Media reports indicate only 340 public secondary schools provide instruction in the Russian language — a small percent of the 3,280 secondary schools in the country. Official data was not immediately available from the education ministry, but the question of how many such schools should exist is frequently discussed by politicians and on social media. The limitation on the use of the Russian language is also increasing psychological uneasiness among Molokans.
“The attitude towards the Russian language is not always positive. We feel it, increasingly,” notes Sergeyevna, adding that many feel uneasy about speaking Russian.
Anastasia Minnikova, a fellow Molokan émigré, agrees. Enrolled at the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow, the 23-year-old benefited from the tuition-free higher education program that the Russian government offers every year to 15,000 foreign citizens. The number of Azerbaijani applicants has been growing steadily — in 2015, 145 were selected, compared to 197 in 2016 and over 200 in 2017.
“I wanted a real education, of high quality,” notes Minnikova, whose family left Ivanovka for Moscow when she has was 17. “Corruption was the main factor to leave, [we] knew that some people paid bribes to pass the exams.”
If the aspiration to receive a good, merit-based education was key, Azerbaijani society, which favors boys over girls, also played a role in Minnikova’s, and her family’s, decision.
“The first time I faced [it] I was in primary school. I had an argument with a male teacher and he said ‘Who you are? You are a girl, you cannot judge relevant arguments’,” she recalls.
Through the years she increasingly suffered from the patriarchal structure, which sees boys as more valuable, at school as well as in the workplace.
“My friend, who is working in Baku now, struggled to get the job she wanted, male applicants were always more welcome.”
Education and work are a trade-off and those who leave pay a high price emotionally. Molokans remain a tight knit group and the sense that their way of life is slowly disappearing is palpable among them. All things considered however, Sergeyevna thinks traditions will survive.
“Even though I moved to Moscow, my upbringing, its very foundations... I still carry them with me. For some time I attended the Molokan church in Moscow, I keep in touch with other young Molokans. I regularly stay in touch with our community here. These values live in our hearts, always. The inner faith remains, no matter where you live. It would be difficult to remove it from your life."
She longs to be reunited with her family, ideally in Moscow, but she understands why they do not want to leave.
“[Ivanovka] is their home, they feel better there, they are happy to live there. I have this mixed feeling: I want to take them with me, but I also understand that they are really happy there. I’d return to Azerbaijan, should work conditions and career prospects improve,” she sighs, adding that she misses the village’s slow pace, the nature, the warmth feeling of being part of a community.
Vetrov’s brothers and sister often ask him to join them in Moscow, but to no avail.
“They ask me the same old question, ‘What is keeping you there?’. I respond that I stay because this is my homeland. I was born here, I’ll live here till I die.”
To hear more from remainees, follow the video by Shahin Khalil.