European Times Tula, Russia: New life in a land of milk but very little money

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The Independent Online
THE OLD lady stood in the field of wild strawberries and waist-high cornflowers and stretched out her sun-tanned arm with the solemn air of someone parting the waters. We were miles from anywhere, amid the plains of European Russia, under a sun so fierce that it had drenched the rest of us although it had yet to dampen a single grey hair of her carefully fashioned plait.

"This will be the main street, right here," said Tatyana Alexandrova. "The hospital will be over here, and we'll have a kindergarten there." One day, she said, gesturing towards a silver birch grove, there would also be a stadium.

Just as the gangster Bugsy Siegel stood in the deserts of Nevada and declared that one day they would become a gambling paradise, so too this weathered old woman, five-foot nothing in a floral dress, has a vision for her rural corner of Russia. She is an ethnic Russian, one of millions of people displaced by the collapse of the Soviet Union, from the Baltic states to central Asia, by political upheaval and military conflict in a pattern now repeated on a smaller scale in the Balkans.

In her case, this meant being caught in the cross-fire in the now stalemated conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. For most of her life, she lived in Azerbaijan. In 1993,her family decided they had had enough of living with bloodshed and left. They belong to a group of Molokan - "milk- drinking" - Christians, a small church of mostly ethnic Russians, many of whose ancestors have lived in the Caucasus between the Caspian and Black Seas since the time of Catherine the Great.

Like Bugsy, she has buckets of optimism, and sheer gall. Qualities such as these explain how she secured 850 acres of rich, if remote, land from the regional authorities of Tula, three hours south of Moscow, on which to settle with 30 other Molokans, including eight of her own family, and build a community.

Nor did she stop at that. After leaping on to her motor cycle, crossing a river, and rattling across a mud track to catch the Moscow bus, she returned with a pounds 3,750 grant from the British government, courtesy of the Foreign Office's Human Rights Fund. That donation meant Mrs Alexandrova's commune now has a new Siberian-built engine in one of its three tractors.

History has taken them full circle. Mrs Alexandrova and the villagers were industrial workers, reared to answer to the demands of the Soviet Union's central planners. She is an engineer; others worked in factories, making tyres and processing phosphates in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Now they are back in Russia, working the soil with their hands, much as their ancestors did 400 years ago.

The Molokans first emerged in the seventeenth century as Christians - mostly in rural southern Russia - who rejected the supremacy of the Russian Orthodox Church. They balked at the more ornate rituals of Orthodoxy, centring their faith, often literally, on the Bible. To escape repression by the tsarist system and later the Soviets, they spread out to the outlying reaches of the empire, particularly the Caucasus and central Asia.

Unlike the 20,000 Molokans in the US, most of whom live in southern California, they do not seem particularly devout, perhaps because Communist- enforced state atheism has corroded their knowledge of their faith. The Russian media, ever suspicious of the non-Orthodox, has depicted them as fundamentalists who do not smoke, drink or dance.

An hour around a laden trestle table was enough to explode that myth. "We don't mind if people drink a little," said Mrs Alexandrova, before draining several glasses of beer. A few yards away, the men of the village stoked up a barbecue, cigarettes clamped between their lips.

We asked if her dream would ever come true. "It is not a dream," she said, almost irritated. "It is a concrete plan. We have documents."

She led us to the mouth of a rusty pipe, buried by grass. I dropped a coin down it. It seemed to take ages before we heard a sullen, shallow plop. "See! We have already got water for our town!" she cried, "All we need is money."