Jewish? No, We’re Subbotniks. Welcome to Our Synagogue.

Russian Sect Practices Judaism — In a Way

Valentina Navoyan
Valentina Navoyan

By Maxim Edwards

Published July 13, 2014, issue of August 01, 2014.
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Slipping and skating on the icy street, Larisa Semyonova approached an austere gray-brick building and then stopped to greet it as if it were an old friend.

“This was our prayer house — our synagogue,” she said. But now, her modest wooden house farther down Nairyan Street is sufficient for that purpose.

Four pensioners awaited us there, swathed in scarves against the frost. Sixty-one-year-old Svetlana Utkina handed me a tattered siddur, or prayer book. “Compiled by Eliezer Aaronovich Semyonov, published 1907,” its title read. In its 500 pages, I found not a single Hebrew letter; all prayers were in pre-revolutionary Russian. Utkina shrugged: “And why should there be Hebrew? I’m not Jewish, I’m a Subbotnitsa.”

The prayers we read are uncannily familiar, but they may not be heard here for much longer. These five women from the lakeside town of Sevan, Armenia, are among the country’s last Subbotniks.

The Russian language maintains the useful distinction between Evrei, ethnic Jews, and Judei, followers of Judaism, simplifying the complex identity of this religious community. Described as a “Judaizing Sect,” the Subbotniks (“Saturday people” in Russian) were Christian Russian peasants who dissented from Russian Orthodoxy and began to recognize Mosaic Law late in the 18th century, observing the Sabbath, keeping kosher and practicing circumcision.

The Subbotniks’ rejection of Russian Orthodoxy led the czar to banish them from Central Russia permanently, exiling them to Siberia, Southern Russia and distant, newly acquired territories in the Caucasus and Central Asia, in a drive to isolate them from Russian Orthodox peasant communities receptive to their message.

They were joined there by two dissenting Christian groups with earlier origins — the Doukhobors and the Molokans. These spirit warriors and milk drinkers, as their names translate respectively, were spiritualist Christian groups whose pacifism and rejection of hierarchical Russian Orthodoxy did not endear them to the Czarist authorities.

A few thousand Molokans live in tight-knit agricultural communities in Armenia to this day, sharing their story of exile with the Subbotniks.

“On the Sabbath, our day of rest, the Molokans would bring us fresh milk,” one Subbotnik recalled. “On Sunday we returned the favor.”

“The Russian Cemetery” where many Subbotniks are buried
“The Russian Cemetery” where many Subbotniks are buried

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