"May 9 Icon." The Life and Ways of Residents of a Russian Village in Ukraine
2 August, 2021
The Molokan group performs a folk song in the period-house museum of the first settlers of the village of Novovasylivka, Zaporizhia region Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / hromadske

The village of Novovasylivka and neighboring villages in the Zaporizhia region have grown thanks to their multinational nature. Descendants of Albanians, Bulgarians, and Moldovans live here next to Ukrainians. Novovasylivka was founded by the Old Believer community - the Molokans. They were evicted from the Russian provinces to the then uninhabited steppes of Azov in 1820-1830. They lived, sang, ate, prayed in their own way, all while gradually turning into Ukrainians.

We arrived in Novovasylivka after Ukraine passed a law defining the rights of indigenous peoples. Crimean Tatars, Karaites and Krymchaks are considered such, i.e. those who do not have their own state outside Ukraine. The Russians were not included in the list - and this angered Putin. He said the law was a weapon of mass destruction against Russians in Ukraine, restricting their rights and making them second-class people.

We found out firsthand how ethnic Russians actually live in Ukraine and whether they feel oppressed.

Depends how you look

"It could be a kokoshnik, or it could be a kerchief," Tetiana from Novovasylivka takes off her headdress, which is colorful, embroidered with gold threads, and has a semicircular shield over her forehead. The woman demonstrates how easily a cardboard shield bends in the other direction - a Russian kokoshnik can be tied like a Ukrainian kerchief. It’s quite handy.

Because in reality, it depends on how you perceive it. If you ask these people how they view themselves above all, they won't hesitate for a moment: "I'm a Molokan!"

One of her colleagues to the same question says: "We are Russian, but we live in Ukraine."

Another will say: "We are Ukrainians."

"We have a mix here," the third will add.

And all this is true.

Жінки з національної спільноти молокан спілкуються біля входу до Музею побуту першопоселенців села Нововасилівка Запорізької області

Women from the Molokan national community communicate at the entrance to the  period-house museum of the first settlers of the village of Novovasylivka, Zaporizhia region. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / hromadske

"Period-House Museum"

Before the most depressing pause of the day kicks in, we have a concert and a tour of the museum.

Olga Kirpik, the head of the department of culture and education of the local community, arrives. Her gold bracelets and high-heeled sandals sparkle in the sun, and vigilant, soaked eyes make sure the conversation takes place in a stream of "tolerance, peace and love." The Balkan craving for beauty gives itself away in Olga even before she says that she is also a member of the Albanian national minority.

We will hear a lot about tolerance, peace and love from fellow Molokans in this day. But the words "khokhol", "gypsy" will also slip through. Olga moderates our communication with the Molokan community and warns against divisive topics. Before entering the museum, by the way, she remarks: it is better not to touch upon the war. Since 2014, Molokan singers have volunteered: baking cakes, collecting food.

Жінки з національної спільноти молокан спілкуються у одній із кімнат Музею побуту першопоселенців села Нововасилівка Запорізької області

Women from the Molokan national community communicate in one of the rooms of the period-house museum of the first settlers of the village of Novovasylivka, Zaporizhia region. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / hromadske

"But what is there to say? For them, it is so obvious that they do not want to brag about it," says Olga. She is very eloquent, loves a fine metaphor, and writes poems at leisure.

From the threshold of the building with the sign "Period-house museum of the first settlers" we are greeted with a theatrical performance: song, dance and tour. The band of women waves wide hem skirts - they are members of the ensemble "Bird of Paradise".

Twelve years ago, they came together to sing in one band - but they are not only united by songs. They share joys and sorrows, dig gardens together and rest together. One of the women shows a video on her phone: they went to celebrate the anniversary of the leader of the ensemble on the lake, smeared with healing clay, danced on the shore. Descendants of the Old Believers are quite secular modern people: all have cellphones.

The singers are all retired, but they say they come to the museum for work. Today there are six of them and another man playing the accordion. "My dear matryoshka dolls,"  Tetiana Kutsova, head of the Molokan cultural society calls them. They speak Russian, sometimes someone switches to Ukrainian.

The solemn intonations with which Tatiana conducts the tour fade a bit only when she takes off her costume and puts on a T-shirt with jeans. A sublime poetic voice betrays the former teacher. What did she teach? At first, she answers in a whisper, as if it were something forbidden: "Russian". And then he changes his mind, takes a deep breath and says out loud: "I'm a Russian language teacher."

The head of the Molokan cultural society Tetiana Kutsova shows how a handkerchief turns into a kokoshnik. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / hromadske

"Bird of Paradise" performs psalms, rituals, humorous songs. They sing in Ukrainian and Russian. And there are songs that are performed simultaneously in two languages ​​- verse. When it comes to religious singing - they proudly say - they are second to none.

"Psalms are sung without notes and passed from mouth to mouth. Once three years in a row, expeditions from the Moscow Conservatory visited us to record. "They were handed over to the Moscow Virtuosos (Russian State Chamber Orchestra - ed.) - they couldn't sing the same way," says the ensemble's leader Lyubov Fefelova.

Exhibits of the museum - clothes, utensils, Molokan furniture, Soviet-era china, the band’s commendations, musical instruments, paintings, history books, grandmother's chests. The past of the Old Believers is intertwined with the present of their descendants. The old samovars are decorated with Petrykivka paintings by a local craftsman - the identity of the Molokans themselves is just as layered.

We pass to the central hall - "gornitsa". Molokans do not pray to icons, but they do have one.

"Our icon is May 9," Tetiana takes us to the stand between the windows of the room: red stars, the inscription "Remember! Appreciate! Take pride!” In the center, there is a photo of 130 Novovasylivka residents who fought in World War II in the Red Army. Among them are the parents of the band members.

"The orchestra tore it up, lilacs were blooming, we were happy in the splendor of these medals," Tetiana's memory adorns the past. “Every year on May 9, our girls come to the stand and say: "Happy Holidays, Dad!". We pray to that."

Колектив молокан виконує народну пісню у Музеї побуту першопоселенців села Нововасилівка Запорізької області

The Molokan band performs a folk song in the period-house museum of the first settlers of the village of Novovasylivka, Zaporizhia region. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / hromadske

"Out of politics"

There will be a pause when Vladimir Putin pops up in the museum. We brought up a little politics. Although the Molokans avoid it, the Azov region is on the list of controlled border areas due to its proximity to the sea. Locals are used to going everywhere with passports.

Putin speaks on video - comments on the recently adopted law on indigenous peoples in Ukraine. According to him, the list of indigenous people includes Crimean Tatars, Karaites and Krymchaks. These are the communities that were formed on the territory of Ukraine, have their own language and culture, traditional representative bodies and do not have their own state outside Ukraine. Putin was outraged: there are no Russians among them.

"It used to be: the Great Russians, the Little Russians, and the Belarusians. Then they began to divide the united Russian people," he told the journalist.

Then we hear the usual: "oppression of the Russian language", "one nation". The women listen to all this in silence, but a solemn and sublime expression has already fallen from their faces. What do they think about what they saw?

Tetiana's voice is not so sweet anymore. She’s angry:

"Little Russians, great Russians are insolent terms. We can speak Ukrainian, we can speak Russian - and we will understand each other. My first-grader grandson already speaks Ukrainian - and I speak it with him. Is anyone oppressing us? If that were the case, we would not be happy. The oppressed do not sing like that!"

Колектив молоканок танцює у Музеї побуту першопоселенців села Нововасилівка Запорізької області

The band of Molokans dances in the period-house museum of the first settlers of the village of Novovasylivka, Zaporizhia region. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / hromadske

Lyubov adds:

"We are Russian, but we were born in Ukraine. Our village is Russian-speaking, and nine kilometers away is Voskresenka, where Ukrainians live. Five kilometers away is Bulgarian Fedorivka, they speak Bulgarian. When we get together, we speak either Ukrainian or Russian."

In general, says Lyubov, they are not a political organization, but a national-cultural community, their mission is to sing, and everyone is "for peace in the whole world."

Many women's voices offer different options for self-determination: "Ukrainians according to passport", "descendants of the Zaporozhian Cossacks", "Slavs", "Eastern Slavs", "we are all mixed here: grandfathers are one and husbands are another".

And then Olga, as a moderator, summarizes in the usual manner:

"There are no perfect nations, there are perfect people."

And immediately ending the political debate, they move on to what they find easier - singing.

Interior of the period-house museum of the first settlers of the village of Novovasylivka, Zaporizhia region. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / hromadske

"We were never persecuted"

Time is changing the way the Molokan community lives. They do not follow the usual way so religiously: they eat pork, although their ancestors did not do it ("Piglet does not look at the sky," says Tetiana, that is, he has no chance to survive, because he will not turn to God in heaven). Almost everyone is already baptized (but not Tetiana), because that's what their children and grandchildren do. They want to be closer to their own. Baptism, communion, division into church ranks - all this is alien to traditional Molokans.

Along with other dishes, they prepare traditional - minutely thin - Molokan noodles, without water and salt, on flour and eggs. They even try making a business of it: they sell noodles on request. The table is set for us with red borshch, noodles, pancakes, and compote.

They adapt to modern life challenges: they look for sponsors to support their activities and charity events. They take part in the life of the community: submitted their application for the community emblem competition. According to their proposal, a single collage should combine Melitopol cherries, Mazai sheep (bred by a Molokan), a Petrykivka samovar, and a book as a symbol of Molokan education. Until the competition was held, the Molokans arranged such a composition as a stand inside their museum.

They integrate with farmers, shop owners. The village council provides transport - on the eve of the holidays, they deliver gifts to children's boarding schools.

A woman adjusts a kokoshnik on the head of a member of the Molokan folk group. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / hromadske

Molokans love their holidays. Both Maslenitsa and the Day of Slavic Writing are celebrated. Tetiana calls the 30th anniversary of Independence a "majestic holiday" - a concert is being prepared for it.

Even the anniversary of the creation of a united territorial community is spoken of as a holiday. "This is our family," says the eloquent Tetiana about the community.

She repeatedly praises their cooperation and understanding with local governments - perhaps because Olga is always present, or maybe because they just feel grateful. Previously, they had to pay for the rent and utilities of the museum house, but now the community pays for it. The house was built in the middle of the XVIII century by a businessman at the time, the owner of a mill. Modern Molokans have saved the house from destruction and made it their cultural space.

They preserve their traditions and can speak for hours about how hard-working, educated, neat and good at singing their ancestors were. They built a school, a house of prayer, a mill out of nothing - all the main infrastructure items were created by them at one time. But they have a special opinion as to why their ancestors had to rebuild everything, leaving what they had gained.

"No one persecuted us," Tetiana corrects me when I ask her to tell me how the Old Believers persecuted by the Russian authorities inhabited the Azov steppes by order of the emperor. Thus the Molokans found themselves in Zaporizhia.

They settled themselves, she says. Her version of the story is as follows:

"Molokans were good people, hardworking, they believed in God. But maybe someone didn't like it somewhere - someone wrote a petition to the tsar. The tsar-father allowed to take the family and go here to settle in the Tavriya province. Suburbs grew here, the land was settled."

Учасниця колективу молокан відпочиває біля входу до Музею побуту першопоселенців села Нововасилівка Запорізької області

The member of the Molokan band is resting at the entrance to the period-house museum of the first settlers of the village of Novovasylivka, Zaporizhia region. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / hromadske

Tetiana is either joking or mythologizing - pointing to an old creaking chest, she says: the Molokans came up with an alarm, because when the grandchild secretly wanted to pull some candy out of hiding, the grandmother heard everything.

Molokans prefer success and those aspects of history that testify to their uniqueness and valor. Perhaps that is why their museum has a stand dedicated to the victory in the “Great Patriotic War” and does not mention the Holodomor or other Stalinist repressions that affected the region and Molokan families in particular. Tetiana does not mention them during her tour.

Singing and entertaining together protect the Molokan "birds of paradise" from the would-be retirement peace, and sometimes from reality itself.

Molokans sing: "If there is peace - there will be holidays." And they say: "We are out of politics."

Olga, responsible for the culture of the village, seconds them:

"Politics, economics is to be discussed in a store somewhere. We do not bring here. It's all about the music here."

Author: Yaroslava Tymoshchuk

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