Introduction to Russian Mormonism

This site houses research on the so-called “Russian Mormons” or “Samara Mormons”, a 19th century Christian sect originating in the Volga region of the Russian Empire. Although they are unrelated to the more well-known American Mormon movement, the name “Mormon” has survived in folk Russian religion and been applied to various groups throughout time.

The below information is a summarized version of my longer paper, entitled “Russian Mormonism: Geographic and Historical Foundations”. While the complete paper includes many geographic and historical details of interest to those wishing to study the subject in depth, this shorter summary will give a brief understanding of why, where, and when Russian sectarians were called Mormons, and what these Russian Mormons believe.

Missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS or American Mormon Church) began activities in Russia during the early 1990s. Reports soon came to American Mormons living in Russia that native “Mormon” communities existed elsewhere in Russia. By 1998 researchers had begun to document the sect, and it quickly became apparent that the Russian Mormons constituted a separate movement with only a philological relationship to American Mormonism.

Two important antecedent movements combined to create the Russian Mormon movement. The first, Khlystism, began in the mid-1600s as a mystical peasant-based sect focusing on living revelation and liberal views regarding marriage and family. The second, Molokanism, grew out of the Khlysts and spread as a Bible-based religion with a more traditional way of life, abandoning some mystical Khlyst elements (such as spiritual marriage) but preserving the tradition of visionary prophets and apostles.

Khlystism and Molokanism eventually influenced one another to such an extent that a new religious idea arose, a hybrid movement that capitalized on the energy of the Khlysts and the rationality of the Molokans. This dynamic mixture of the two sects appeared in two prominent movements, both of which were known as Mormonism.

The first group to be called Mormons developed in the Novouzensk region, situated between present-day Kazakhstan and the Volga River city of Saratov (see maps). In 1855, a charismatic Molokan named Ivan Grigorev Kanygin began gathering followers to a new faith. Grigorev was raised among Molokans practicing a form of communism taken from the New Testament. He incorporated his early ideas of communal property with the less restrictive lifestyle of the Khlysts, forming several communes throughout the Novouzensk region before his death in 1872. Grigorev’s followers called themselves Communists or Methodists, the latter designation deriving from Grigorev’s exposure to Methodist teachings near Odessa, Ukraine. The Methodists were criticized by their enemies as being libertines and notorious drunkards, in addition to rumors that their communism extended to a community of wives. An Orthodox priest by the name of Khrisanf Rozhdestvenskiy saw in the Novouzensk Methodists many similarities to the American Mormons, known across the world for their communal idea of Zion and their rejection of traditional marriage roles. Rozhdestvenskiy is first known to have applied the name of Mormonism to Grigorev’s Methodists in 1869.

The second instance of Russian sectarians being called Mormons occurred in the area immediately southeast of the Volga city of Samara. The Samara Mormons developed separately from the Novouzensk Methodists. However, based on the precedent established by Rozhdestvenskiy in 1869, by the 1870s the term “Mormonism” had spread throughout Samara Province as a popular label for sects that incorporated a mixture of Khlystism and Molokanism. The first Samara Mormon groups appeared in the 1870s, and by the mid-1890s had become a powerful religious and social influence in many villages. Unlike Grigorev’s Methodists, this northern sect’s members were popularly known as Mormons. Some of their leaders practiced polygamy. The Samara Mormons were organized into tight social units based on communal cooperation and led sober lives free of alcohol or tobacco. The unified Mormon communities became wealthy through various joint enterprises, and the sect attracted many followers by reason of both its teachings and its material prosperity. Faithful Mormons were under oath never to reveal the tenets of their religion to unbelievers, but were quick to capitalize on opportunities to win converts. Each Mormon community was governed by “apostles” and “prophets,” with most groups recognizing a central “Christ” figure as the highest religious authority of the sect. Because the Mormons incorporated both the charismatic worship services of the Khlysts and the rationalistic approach to religion fostered by the Molokans, the sect had great success among other sectarians and their Orthodox neighbors. By the early 1900s, more than 40 villages contained members of the Mormon sect. However, two factors eventually led to the demise of most Mormon village communities.

First, the decentralized Mormon religious structure tended toward division and fragmentation. Although remaining remarkably unified between 1890 and 1910, Mormonism fragmented into many local sects during the early twentieth century. The second factor contributing to the almost complete demise of Samara Mormonism was the Bolshevik Revolution. The Soviet policy of collectivization in the 1920s and 30s tore apart the ages-old fabric of Russian village life, dislocating established families and destroying the infant capitalistic trends of many successful rural communities. Famine, deportation, and organized assassinations depopulated most Mormon centers. Surviving Mormon descendants assimilated into secular village life or moved to the rapidly expanding urban periphery, abandoning their village heritage. Exiled and emigrating Mormons established new communes in several areas of the Russian Empire, including Omsk and Barnaul in Siberia, Birobidzhan in the Russian Far East, and the Caucasus.

Not all Mormons succumbed to the policies of the early Soviet leaders, however. Several groups survived in various forms. One of the largest Mormon groups today is concentrated in the suburbs of the city of Samara. According to local sources, the Mormon population currently consists of about 300 people. They are known variously as Mormons, Khlysts, or Old Believers. The Samara suburban Mormons continue to practice their beliefs, meet together for religious services, and are noted for their exceptional unity and abstention from alcohol, tobacco, and swearing. They engage in joint business ventures and are generally envied for their material prosperity. Unfortunately, little can be ascertained regarding their beliefs due to their persistent refusal to share information, based on a religious code of silence.

Another prominent surviving Mormon population is located in Orenburg Region. The Orenburg Mormons descend from religious Mormon groups and continue to adhere to some religious tenets of Mormonism. However, the Orenburg Mormons are best known for their business and criminal activities as one of the city’s most powerful mafia organizations. The Mormons are feared and respected for their power and lifestyle.

At least two appearances of “Mormon” sects in Russia can be attributed to direct influence from American Mormonism. In one case, a religious sect in the Caucasus called itself Mormonism and possessed printed papers and books that outlined Mormon teachings. These Caucasus Mormons held to several beliefs closely tied with the American Mormon Church, and likely derived their name solely from that association. In another village in the Crimea, Molokans who began practicing polygamy were called Mormons in derision by their neighbors.

One thought on “Introduction to Russian Mormonism

  1. I found your website by accident and really enjoyed it, I hope that you will be writing more on these sects. Being a member of the LDS Church I am gratified that there are also others willing to endure sacrifice for their beliefs.

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