I didn’t think there were any communes left in Azerbaijan, nearly twenty years after independence from the Soviet Union. That I was wrong became obvious as I drove past the entrance to the village of Ivanovka. Tall, white posts, crowned by the hammer and sickle and the letters CCCP flank the road, proclaiming the community’s history and allegiance.
That Ivanovka survives at all is a testament to the unique history of a community that came into existence, thanks to the expulsion and exodus of thousands of dissenting Christians from Russian in the first half on the 19th century.
The influence of protestant reformers was felt right the way across the Christian world, including Orthodox Russia where in the late 18th Century, Simion Uklein [born 1833] founding the Molokane faith. Orthodox Christians considered them vile heretics, not only because they rejected worship in churches and the use of icons but also because they follow the Jewish dietary laws, circumcise their children and the use of Saturday as the day of worship. In addition, although they accepted the New Testament, they do not consider that Jesus is divine or the Son of God.
Ridiculed as “milk drinkers” [molokane in Russian] who would not fast on Orthodox saint’s days, they adopted the title as ones who “drink the pure spiritual word of God”. They are also known traditionally for their pacifism and communal organisation.
In 1830, Tzar Nicholas I published an edict banishing dissenters to the edge of the rapidly expanding Russian empire and for the next sixty-years, tens of thousands of Molokans moved or were relocated to the Caucuses where they developed a reputation as ideal colonists. In 1847 the village of Ivanovka [near Ismailly], was founded by a Russian peasant called Ivan Pershin. It is after him that the village was named.
Although they had been driven out of Russia as heretics, the Molokans were seen to be hard workers, introducing a protestant work ethic into the region and as people who were loyal to their Russian heritage. Indeed, many of these so-called “outcasts” acted as administrators of the new lands at a time when there were very few Russians living in the region.
The community continued to grow through the 19th century and survived the turmoil of revolution, civil war and the introduction of Communism to Azerbaijan from 1920. In 1930, a collective farm was established, specialising in growing table grapes and cattle farming on the fertile, black soil.
Today, neat Russian-style timber-framed houses face tree-lined streets in this quiet rural community of nearly 1,000 homes and over 3,000 people. Old men with long white beards stand chatting in twos or threes, while women in headscarves hurry past with hoes and other farm implements. Ancient tractors till the rich, soil whilst close by, neat lines of vines cover the rolling hillsides. Old Ladas, some still sporting their Soviet era number plates with their seats removed, do service as pick-up trucks and muskovi geese squawk at anyone who gets too close to their young. It is an idyllic picture that seems to belong to another age in another country.
The town is well wooded and spread out, covering about one square mile whilst the collective farm, is ten-times the size. At the centre of the community is the classical style town hall but much larger than this building is magnificent 750 seat theatre. On the day I visited, it was preparing for the 66th anniversary of the end of World War II. Centre stage was a large Soviet banner proclaiming victory. The act of remembrance is very important to Ivanovka as nearly 300 local men died in the war, nearly all the young men of their generation. Today only four veterans are still alive from that time.
During the Soviet period, the community was held up as a shining example within Azerbaijan, thanks to its hardworking members and high levels of productivity but it was not always so. By the end of the Second World War, so many men had died that the community faced a crisis. For several years after the war, fields were not tilled and it was said that cows were so poorly fed that they could hardly walk. Then in 1953, the charismatic 20-year-old Nikolai Nikitin was chosen as chairman of the collective farm. He helped improve farm practices and turned around the fortunes of the collective. Much later, he was proclaimed “Hero of Socialist Labour” and went on to become a Deputy of the Supreme Soviet.
was not only a good manager but had a good friend in the first secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan, Comrade Heydar Aliyev. Thanks to this friendship, soon after Azerbaijan became independent, President Heydar Aliyev visited the community and gave his personal assurance that, so long as the people wanted to remain a collective, it would remain as such. Nikitin died in 1994, but in 2005, after Heydar Aliyev’s son Ilham came to power, he underlined his father’s support for the continuation of the collective.
Times are changing and while many people from the old community have moved back to their ancestral home of Russia, ethnic Azeri people have moved in, shifting the population balance. In a few years time, there may be fewer than half the people who support the continuation of the commune after which, it may cease to exist, like all the others.
The village is a fascinating reminder of a system that has all but passed into history and well worth the three-hour travel time from Baku.
If you would like to visit Ivanovka, I can recommend staying at the guesthouse of John and Tanya Howarth. John, an ex-pat from the UK and his charming wife have created a rural retreat where you can sleep soundly on the most comfortable beds in Azerbaijan and wake to a full English breakfast before taking a walk in the greenest area of Azerbaijan I have yet visited. John and Tanya can be contacted by phoning 050 225 8861 or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
To find out more about Ivanovka check out this website