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Molokans (Russian: молокане for "milk-drinkers") are members of a Christian sect that evolved from "Spiritual Christian" Russian peasants who refused to obey the Russian Orthodox Church. Milk-drinking practice was first sanctioned by the Nestorian Church in the 11th century in order to accommodate the conversion of some 200,000 Kerait Tatars, who lived on meat and milk, to Nestorian Christianity.[1] There were approximately 200 fasting days—especially the Great Fast (Lent)—when drinking milk was prohibited by the ecclesiastical authorities of the time. In contrast, they called themselves "true Spiritual Christians", rather than "milk-drinkers", because they could not accept the Russian Orthodox Church, nor the Protestant sects or the Catholic Church. They may have been influenced by an earlier religious sect of Armenian "Paulicians", who became known as the "Bogomils" of Thrace, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Bosnia and Serbia.

In a sense Molokans are similar to Western European Protestants for rejecting Orthodoxy, and like Presbyterians in that they have a council of dominant elders. Though Molokans are somewhat similar to the European Quakers and Mennonites—for their pacifism, communal organization, spiritual meetings, and sub-groupings—they are ethnically much closer to Doukhobors and Sabbatarians (Subbotnik Jews) because they evolved from the same Russian Spiritual Christian movement of Khristovers and Ikonobors (icon-wrestlers), and migrated together with some intermarriage.


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Russian settlers - possibly Molokans - in Azerbaijan's Mugan Steppe in the early 20th century. Photo taken between 1905 and 1915 by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii.

During the reign of Ivan the Terrible (1547–1584), Matvei Simyonich Dalmatov, the first martyr of the Russian Molokan faith, split with the Orthodox Church and began to evangelize his family, his master, and local village members in and around the city of Tambov. Dalmatov carried this sectarian belief into Moscow, where a group of Mordvins heard his message and embraced it. Dalmatov was later martyred by Orthodox priests in a monastery prison by wheeling. Molokans were ostracized from Russian society in the 17th century for their refusal to bear arms and for their refusal to assist in any form of military service.

The name "Molokan" was used for the first time in the 1670s, in reference to the people who ignored the 200 fasting days, drinking milk (moloko means "milk" in Russian). Molokans themselves did not completely reject the name—even adding words like "drinking of the spiritual milk of God" (according to I Peter 2:2, "Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation").

Heretics were punished in Tsarist Russia. Beatings, torture, kidnapping, imprisonment, banishment, dismembering, killing, and other forms of punishment were inflicted upon those called "Spiritual Christians", as Molokan's called themselves. In the 19th century, the government's policy was to send the heretics away from the center of the country into Caucasus, especially Armenia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, central Asia, and Siberia. In 1833, there was a reported outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon a number of Molokans in the Transcaucasus region. This created a schism between Constants (Postoyaniye) and the newly evolved Molokan Jumpers and Leapers. With what the Molokan Jumpers believed to be a manifestation of the Holy Spirit, this new smaller sect began a revival with intense zeal and reported miracles that purportedly rivaled those of Christ's Apostles. Condemnation from the Constant Molokan sect led to betrayals and imprisonment for many of the Jumpers and Leapers, now called New Israelites by their anointed leader Maxim Rudometkin. As a 12-year-old boy, Rudometkins boy prophet, Efim G. Klubnikin was divinely inspired to prophesy about a coming time that would be unbearable and that the time to leave Russia was now. He wrote that "soon the doors will close and leaving Russia would be impossible", he later wrote in his memoirs in his elder years. During the early 20th century under his fellowship, about 2,000 Molokans (mostly of the Jumpers and Leapers Sect) left for the United States and settled in the Los Angeles area near the area of Boyle Heights, and some other parts of the West Coast and Canada. It is there that they influenced in practice and doctrine a later American Revival called "the Pentecostal Azusa Street Revival" near the beginning of the 20th century. The founder of The Full Gospel Business Men's Association associates this Pentecostal Revival to the child prophet of the Molokan Jumpers. When they arrived in Los Angeles, they were befriended by local settlement house director Dana W. Bartlett.[2] The Klubnikins continued to be involved in cattle and groceries, as they probably had done in the area of Tambov prior to exile. Others received a land grant from the Mexican government and settled in the Guadalupe Valley in Baja California, Mexico. An even smaller number of Constant Molokans fled Russia and settled mainly in the San Francisco, California and Sacramento, California areas.

A Molokan villager in Fioletovo, Armenia

At the end of the 19th century, there were about 500,000 Molokans within the Russia empire. Before World War I there was a well-known colony of Molokans that had been exiled to the Caucasus (an area long within Russian hegemony), mainly to what is now Georgia,[3] Armenia, Azerbaijan, and eastern Turkey (Kars plain). By the end of the 19th century, many had resettled in remote areas of the Caucasus, Siberia, and Central Asia, while others remained in southern Ukraine and Russia, or migrated to Romania's Danube Delta region or the western United States.[4] Presently there are about 20,000 people who "ethnically identify themselves as Molokans". There are also approximately 200 Molokan churches, 150 of them in Russia and Azerbaijan. Approximately 25,000 Molokans reside in the United States, of which only about 5,000 "ethnically identify themselves as Molokans"; most of whom reside in California, Arizona, Oregon, Washington, Montana and Wyoming. Settlement of Molokans in southern Alaska during the 1960s was well documented. Molokans are said to be numerous in Canada; over 1,000 reside in the province of British Columbia and hundreds more in Alberta with their traditional communal lifestyle remaining intact. Significant numbers of Molokans live throughout Russia (most in the North Caucasus), Southern Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Central Asia, and in Northern California, U.S.A. The oldest active congregation meets in a prayer hall built in 1929 on Potrero Hill, San Francisco, California. In 1995, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival featured Molokans as one of their peoples.[citation needed]

Some Molokans adhere to the Old Testament kosher dietary laws and do not eat pork, shellfish, or other "unclean" foods. Some refuse to serve on juries or file lawsuits against fellow church members. Church services are conducted predominantly in the Russian language, men and women sit apart, and services are usually quite active – comparable to Pentecostal activities. Molokan families encourage endogamy.

Naming in the United States[edit]

Molokans are known for having different spellings of last names within the same immediate family.

Molokans are also known for having "first names" that aren't their legal names. Many common "first names" are actually based on nicknames from childhood within the church that stuck. These are not legal names, and as such become names that make tracing family history very difficult. For example "Hazel Valov" became known as "Percy Valov", for being very "persistent".

This naming process can help with family trees, but because so many relatives have similar names, and many nicknames aren't legal names, it can be complex.

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