Armenia’s Beardless Molokan: Ivan Ivanich is Elder Statesman of Dwindling Tashir Community
Yellow dandelions are spread like a carpet outside the gate leading to Ivan Ivanich’s sky-blue house.
Ivan, at 80, is the elder Molokan in Tashir, a town located in Armenia’s Lori Province.
What makes Ivan unique is that he doesn’t sport a beard like most Molokan adult males. He never has.
He apologizes for greeting us wearing work clothes. His sister-in-law is cleaning up inside the house. After Ivan’s wife died, relatives periodically stop by to help.
The woman chides Marieta for bringing us unannounced on a Saturday, the day Molokans traditionally devote to housecleaning and bathing.
There’s a photo of Ivan’s father hanging on the wall of the ill-lighted guest room. Ivan looks at the photo and recounts that he was three and a half when they took his father to the warfront. Ivan doesn’t remember his father all that well.
“My mother remained on her own with four kids; two girls and two boys,” says Ivan. Of the four, only Ivan and his 87-year-old sister Maria are alive.
There’s an old cuckoo clock chiming the hour. Ivan brings a Bible, printed in 1904, from the adjoining room.
“I can’t see without my eyeglasses. Can you please hand them to me?” Ivan asks.
We hand him the glasses from the table. Ivan starts to thumb the thick book. Years ago, Molokans would gather for bible readings on non-work days. Community elders would read the scriptures. Ivan says they mostly read the New Testament. Each Molokan community would have a gathering house for such occasions.
“I’m the only one left now. I do the reading. There’s Alexander Ivanich, but he too can’t read without glasses,” says Ivan, adding that women don’t read the Bible. They just sing.
There’s a Molokan choir that sings spiritual songs on happy and sad occasions. Ivan counts off the funeral, requiem service, and other holidays when the choir performs.
Only forty Molokans remain in Tashir.
“We no longer gather for Bible readings. Only if someone dies do we read,” Ivan says.
For forty years, starting in 1962, Ivan taught at the Russian school in Tashir.
Because he taught at a public school, Ivan never participated in Bible readings until after retiring. He says the Soviets banned religious beliefs and for Molokan males to grow beards.
Ivan says that Molokans settled in Tashir (formerly Vorontsovka and then Kalinino) in 1804-1805.
“My great-grandfather was a boy when he arrived here from Russia. My father was born here. He was the eldest child and died at the age of 75. I’ve probably taken after him. I’m already 80.”
Ivan proudly states that Molokans are an industrious lot who never live off the toil of others. Molokan families raised livestock and farmed the land. They were basically self-sufficient.
During the 1990s, Molokan communities, like the rest of Armenia’s populace, endured hard economic times.
“We’d go to get 300 grams of bread. We wouldn’t eat it if they gave it to us today. They all had their plots of land, growing potatoes and vegetables. We’d take the produce to Georgia to sell. While working at the kolkhoz, they’d pay us in vegetables and grains.”
In 1956, after graduating high school, Ivan participated in the first of Stalin’s crop harvests in Kazakhstan. He received 800 kilograms of wheat in wages.
Ivan’s sister-in-law sits on the couch listening to our conversation. She says that if her sister, Tanyushka, was still alive things would be different.
“Tomorrow’s Sunday. She would have baked all our Molokan cakes and pastries.”
As for Ivan’s philosophy on life, he says, “In life, the most important is to love and be pure of heart. If you’re not sincere, you won’t live.”
Ivan escorts us to our car. A strong wind is blowing. The chained dog is barking up a storm.
As we reach the gate, Ivan asks us to wait. He enters the house and reappears with a telephone directory.
“These are the numbers of our Molokans in Yerevan. Write the numbers down and call them,” he says.
Extending his large hand, Ivan wishes us a fond farewell and good fortune.
Photos: Hakob Poghosyan