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  • In 2006 I spent the year in Russia and Azerbaijan, conducting research for the dissertation that was never written. At the State Archives in Moscow (as opposed to the Party archives) are copies of the journal Bezbozhnik, literally ‘Those without God” or simply “The Godless”. The aim of this journal was to spread anti-religious propaganda and to report on the work being done to stamp out religion. I liked to read the letters to the editors.

    In one letter, some guy wrote to Bezbozhnik complaining about the actions of a group of Christians and the struggle local authorities were having in combating this group. It seems a group of young people gathered in the village Red reading room and sang religious songs, certainly not what the rooms had been established for. So they were arrested on charges of “hooliganism”. Afterwards, a larger group of youth then met again at the reading room and started dancing and singing. The local authorities had failed to prevent these youth from “falling under religious persuasions”. A local religious “tsar” then began to speak. This “‘prophet’ began to converse with the ‘holy spirit’. ‘Brothers, sisters! People search for spiritual and physical freedoms, but that is not our prospect here’… ” Everybody started jumping up and down, both young and old, “the old men jumping at angles; they fear that the frisky young people in their ecstasy would not bring them down with their feet.” There was only one answer, to march to Zion.

    The religious sect discussed in this letter were the ‘Molokans’, which literally means ‘Milk-drinkers’. They were a schismatic Russian Orthodox group who fled to the edges of the Russian empire, to Azerbaijan, to escape persecution in the nineteenth century. And part of their religious practice was jumping up and down.

    “‘Well brothers and sisters. Are you ready? Are you ready? Do we go?’” their leader called out. The crowd went out onto the street and a procession began. They brought along their geese and cattle. When they reached the outskirts of town, they stopped and held a conference, and decided to send four men into Persia, right over the border, to search for Mt. Zion. Two moths later they returned (there is no saying what happened to the gathered group during those two months), and they had not found the Promised Land in Persia. Indeed, ‘The Persian peasants … live worse than us. The Khans there are not small. And the earth is a little less good than ours, and there are many diseases.’ There were far too many Kurds, as well. ‘We did not find Zion, we did not see the rivers of milk, but their river was small, the water malodorous.’” The peasant who were prepared to march, and “had sold off their cattle and kitchen utensils,” took leave and returned to the village.

    While these people were Christians, not Muslims, these kinds of occurrences happened regardless of religion, using the relevant religious language. During this time there was massive immigration into Persia to escape the repressive cultural and economic policies of the Communists. This was a major problem for government and party authorities, since they were losing a good chunk of the population they needed to implement their economic plans. And often enough, the peasants wouldn’t sell their livestock, but simply take it with them, also not a good thing for the state. Maybe this group sold off everything because they were going to the Promised Land, where all would be provided.

    Footnote - GARF 5407-2-254-2, March 1929
    The photo is not the same issue as the letter.
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