Armenia welcomes first-ever Molokan Heritage Museum in the region

The opening ceremony of “Chaibushka” Molokan Heritage Museum

By Mane Berikyan

Earlier this month, Armenia saw the opening of “Chaybuska,” a first-of-its kind Molokan Heritage Museum in the northern Lori Region.

The museum opened in the village of Fioletovo, with the support of the European Union and Germany. Among others, guests from the EU delegation to Armenia, Lori municipality and the Molokan community were in attendance at the opening ceremony.

The Molokans are a Russian ethnic minority in Armenia. They are descendants of a religious sect that was exiled from tsarist Russia to the Caucasus for rejecting some tenets of the Orthodox Church, such as refusing to wear a cross or practicing rituals not explicitly stated in the Bible. Molokans also live in neighboring Azerbaijan and Georgia.

Chaybushka’s exhibits include photographs, clothes, handicrafts and interactive components meant to showcase and preserve Molokan culture and traditions.

“I had this dream for a long time. I always wanted to talk about our culture, our customs,” said Anatoly Mikhailov, the founder of the museum.

He added, “I invite everyone to the village of Fioletovo to get away from the bustle of the city, get in touch with the history of the Molokans, enjoy the purest mountain air and taste natural products.”

Fioletovo is the last remaining Molokan-only village in the country. When Armenia declared its independence in 1991, there were approximately 12,000 Molokans and at least 30 Molokan-only villages in the country.

ALSO WATCH (in Russian): Фиолетово. Русский уголок в сердце Армении

After the Soviet Union collapsed, many emigrated out of Armenia and the Caucasus. Today, the Molokan population in Armenia stands at under 3,000.

There is also a large population of Molokans in neighboring Lermontovo Village, although they live side-by-side with Armenians and other ethnic minorities. Several also live in other parts of Armenia, including the capital city, Yerevan, and major towns and cities like Dilijan, Vanadzor and Gyumri.

The Molokan community is known for being small, closed and largely secluded. Many are spiritual and remain strong adherents of their faith, bearing some resemblance to the Amish community in the United States.

Traditions such as the prohibition of alcohol and marriage outside of the community are largely upheld, especially in Fioletovo, where the population adheres more strictly to Molokan traditions than those living in Yerevan and other parts of the country. There are some exceptions, such as mixed Armenian-Molokan marriages.

However, the community has also seen changes in the last few decades. For instance, in the past, the use of technology was prohibited by elders and spiritual leaders. Today, most Molokans living in Armenia use mobile phones and even the internet.

Moreover, generational differences are shaping the future of Armenia’s Molokan community. Although they traditionally worked in farms and factories, today, more and more young Molokans are receiving higher education and working in other sectors.

In 2019, Armenia’s first Molokan lawmaker Aleksey Sandikov, was elected to parliament.

That same year, he told CivilNet that his decision to run for office was largely influenced by a growing desire among the Molokan community to achieve new heights.

“In the 200-year history of our presence in Armenia, we’ve never faced any major problems,” Sandikov told CivilNet.

However, increasing rates of higher education among the community are one of several factors that pushed him to pursue a career in politics, with hopes of increasing the community’s role and visibility in Armenia.

ALSO WATCH (in Armenian): Ալեքսեյ Սանդիկով․ առաջին մոլոկան պատգամավորը Հայաստանում

Armenian law mandates that the four largest ethnic minority groups in Armenia — Assyrians, Kurds, Russians and Yezidis — each get a representative in parliament under quota. Although the Molokan community has historically comprised the majority of Armenia’s ethnic Russian population (prior to the recent influx of Russians following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine), Sandikov is the first Molokan to fulfill the quote-mandated position of the Russian representative in Armenian parliament.

Issues surrounding education, language and social welfare are still a factor for the Molokan community in Armenia.

However, the opening of the “Chaybushka” Molokan Heritage Museum is a welcomed milestone for the community and a notable first for the South Caucasus region.

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