According to Conovaloff, Molokan – literally, “milk-drinker” in Russian – refers to a specific Russian religious sect first documented in the mid-1600s. But the term, as he notes, “just like Kleenex, or Coke, has become generic.”
The name Molokan is broadly applied to roughly a dozen groups of “Spiritual Christian” peasant iconoclasts who began to appear in Russia in the 1700s. Vilified by the mainstream, these sects – analogous to the Amish in their agrarian insularity, but with a dash of Pentecostal or “charismatic” in their worship style – were characterized by pacifism, a rejection of Russian Orthodox Church practices, and the singing or chanting of psalms in a droning, startlingly beautiful folk-choir style. This singing is thought to be a near-direct link to otherwise-extinct Russian music: “Turning the pages of the Molokan songbook,” according to UCLA ethno-musicologist Linda O’Brien-Rothe, “is a review of popular and sacred song from ‘Old 100’ to ‘Michael Rowed the Boat Ashore.’” In short, a musical time machine to Old Russia.
In the early 20th century, thousands of Molokans fled Czarist persecution to settle in the Americas. By 1911, four small subgroups had settled along 75th and 83rd avenues between Glendale and Tolleson, lured by the promise of labor contracts with Southwestern Sugar and Land Company. The Russians originally hoped to live communally, but most soon became independent farmers, growing everything from alfalfa to cabbage to watermelons as they assimilated into mainstream American society. They also raised their own livestock, which they “killed kosher-style as a sacrifice offering for meals, in the Old Testament custom,” Conovaloff, a third-generation Russian-American, says. “I rarely ate store-bought meat or vegetables until I was almost in high school.”
Conovaloff – an excitable, exacting fellow who prefers the sacred name “Dukh-i-zhizniki” to describe the Valley’s bygone Molokans – was steeped in the culture as a child; his late father was a presviter, or lay minister, of their congregation. The Molokans – or “Jumpers,” as they were sometimes called, for their practice of jumping with upraised arms at the prompting of the Holy Spirit – weren’t a high-profile community. “As kids, we were just doing what we thought of as going to church, although we didn’t say church – the Russian word was sobranie, or meeting,” Conovaloff says. “But we were told, ‘Don’t say you’re going to sobranie,’ because they didn’t want us to sound weird. We were told to keep who we were hidden, so we’d fit in.”
Though mostly invisible to their neighbors, the West Valley Molokans led a dynamic existence. During World War I, 34 male members of the community were jailed as conscientious objectors; six were so “absolutist” in their pacifist beliefs that they spent the war in disciplinary barracks in Kansas. Later, during the Cold War and Vietnam, a zealous fringe of Molokans became obsessed with the prophesy of nuclear holocaust, triggering an exodus to Australia starting in the early ’60s.
Despite the community’s reserved attitude toward outsiders, the Molokans made significant contributions to the Valley’s human landscape, ranging from high school sports stars to local politicians to legendary bar brawlers. They also contributed the name “Maryvale,” which developer John F. Long coined in honor of his wife, the former Mary Tolmachoff.
Ultimately, second- and third-generation Molokans assimilated so successfully that many of them simply abandoned the faith. Religious chauvinism hastened the process, according to Conovaloff – many younger members felt “picked on or ostracized” by non-Russians, and some Glendale neighbors “thought [the Molokans] weren’t real Christians, but a cult.” He adds that few descendents of the original West Valley settlers have a conscious grasp of their Molokan heritage. The building Conovaloff visited almost every Sunday for sobranie still stands – an utterly nondescript little structure at 75th and Maryland avenues, with the small, private Russian Molokan Cemetery nearby. During the 1950s and 1960s, the building buzzed with activity. “If we had a holiday or a wedding, there wasn’t enough room to seat everyone,” Conovaloff remembers.
Today, the building is locked up, owing to disputes over who will be the next presviter and who owns the property. Though Conovaloff dismisses their authenticity, services are still sometimes held on the property by the families with access to it. “We’ve just about dwindled down to about three or four members,” says Pete Uraine, a member of this congregation. “We haven’t had church in some time, three or four months. A lot of people married non-Molokans, or died off or moved away. We’re just running out of people, I guess is how you could put it.”
Attrition has also bedeviled the handful of families that Conovaloff recognizes as “the legal congregation” – their services have in recent years mostly consisted of funerals, held at members’ homes.
David Tolmachoff, who grew up with Conovaloff and farmed cotton and alfalfa in Glendale, left Arizona for California more than a decade ago – in part, due to the explosion of West Valley development and land scarcity. The decline of the Molokan community was another factor. “The younger people, they were becoming more modern-thinking,” Tolmachoff says.
Tolmachoff is now part of an active but declining Molokan community in Kerman, near Fresno: “I think there’s 40 families in my church. Honestly, I think it’s shrinking, slowly.”
Despite the grim prognosis for the survival of the Molokan faith in the U.S., Conovaloff is determined to prevent further erosion of his ancestral legacy. In 1980, the UCLA-educated chemist published a “diaspora phone book with history and maps” to document the Molokan experience in America. He’s also spent a total of nine months visiting communities in Russia. In 1992, Conovaloff met a Molokan woman in the town of Essentuki and later married her in a traditional Prygun ceremony. “The presviter was a [Conovaloff] uncle, who told me I had to buy, kill and pluck fresh chickens for the meal,” he recalls.
Such centuries-old rituals are revelatory to Conovaloff, who refuses to sit idly while his heritage vanishes into thin West Valley air. “I saw it in Russia too,” he says sadly. “I met kids who had no idea about the service or the faith, and their parents only left the faith 10 years earlier. So in half a generation, you can wipe out that culture and oral history.”
Conovaloff, who runs the Molokan Home Page (molokane.org), concedes that he doesn’t always understand the meaning behind Molokan traditions, and acknowledges that they can seem “bizarre” to outsiders. But he embraces them nonetheless as direct and powerful tethers to his ancestors – just as his presviter father did while leading the energetic, revival-tent-style Molokan church meetings of his youth.
“The people that went up there were just performing rituals that they had memorized, including my dad,” Conovaloff remembers. “He couldn’t explain things, but he could recite prayers.”
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