At first they seemed unreal—blue mountains emerging from the haze above the southern horizon. Never had Stepan, twenty-year-old Molokan believer in a linen shirt, leading a horse and cart with his young wife, his mother and her sister, seen mountains. Let alone snow-capped mountains! But the road from Saratov on the Volga had been long. The spring of 1862 had turned to early summer and their destiny, Vladikavkaz at the foot of the Caucasian Mountains, lay just ahead.
Stepan Prokhanov with his family was only a small part of the Spirit Christian migration to the south and east during the mid 1800s. Like those from the Molochna River colonies they left most of their belongings behind. But the Prokhanovs did not come from the Molochna. They came from Saratov, one of the earliest regions affected by the Spirit Christian movement. And to the older women on the cart and Stepan—serious-minded and willing to work—the prospect of settling in a new land where they hoped the tsar would leave them alone, looked bright.
In reality, it was not a new land.
Cyrus, in the prophet Daniel’s time, already knew the Caucasus—a great mountain barrier between the Black and Caspian Seas. He knew its hidden valleys and the mountain tribes who lived there. To Alexander the Great and his Greek voyagers it was Colchis, land of the Golden Fleece. Early Christians settled there (in Armenia and Georgia). Mohammed’s missionaries reached the Azerbaijan city of Bakir on the Caspian Sea, and now, since the time of Tsar Peter the Great and Turkish threats from the south, the kingdoms of the Caucasus had looked to Russia for protection and trade.
Only three years before the arrival of the Prokhanovs and their Spirit Christian friends, the Russian army had driven four hundred thousand Cherkessian Muslims from the Caucasus south into Turkey. Now large tracts of land lay empty and Tsar Nikolai let undesirable residents from Central Russia and the Ukraine (Molokans, Dukhobors, Mennonite Brethren, and Old Believers) settle there. He ordered a good road built from the Volga River to the Caucasus and at the foot of Mount Kazbek, his engineers laid out the new city of Vladikavkaz.
A New Home and Son
Hundreds of Molokan refugees settled, like Stepan Prokhanov, on the outskirts of Vladikavkaz. Some of them milked cows and made cheese. Some owned shops along its wide acacia-lined streets. Stepan himself kept bees, tended fruit trees and built a mill on the banks of the Terek River, rushing down from the mountains. And here in Vladikavkaz, on April 17, 1869, he and his wife blessed a new son and named him Ivan.
Ten days after his birth, Ivan suddenly died. They called the elders. They set out the bread and salt, and prepared to read from the Scriptures and pray over the infant’s grave. But when the elders came, a strange thing happened. The baby opened its eyes. Was it still alive? Or again?
“Surely this child has a special call from God,” the elders said. “The devil tried to kill him, but Christ has rescued him from the grave!”
A Nonconformist Legacy
Already as a preschooler Ivan Prokhanov learned to sing Molokan hymns and read the Bible. With his parents he attended meetings where the brothers and sisters spent most of their time in prayer. But as much as the meetings, or more, long evenings with his family shaped his life. He wrote later:
I will never forget those summer evenings when we sat out-of-doors around the table with a samovar of tea. Father, the two grandmothers (one of them actually my great-aunt) and Gavrilich, an old man who lived with us, would tell stories and we listened to them with glowing eyes and trembling hearts.
The stories about the suffering of the innocent spoke to me. . . . My father told how he was left an orphan as a child. Both grandmothers told of the Molokans’ sufferings in the province of Saratov where they were arrested and imprisoned themselves. The thought that such good and innocent people should suffer at the hands of the wicked struck me with wonder.
I considered the grandmothers saintly women, and the stories of their sufferings meant all the more in light of what happened to me. At the primary school we attended all the students knew my brother and I were nonconformists—Molokans—and were often unfriendly to us. They joked about us and hurled insults at us. Sometimes on the street they took after us with sticks, shouting, “Molokans! Nonconformists!” But this did not discourage me nor make me ashamed of what we believed. On the contrary, I sensed that it somehow made me a participant of that holy multitude who have suffered through the ages for Christ and the truth. To comfort my brother Aleksandr I used to say, “Don’t be afraid Sasha. The One in us is greater than the one in them!”
Close to Stepan Prokhanov’s mill, stood the regional jail. Already as a small boy, Ivan accompanied his father on visits to the prisoners. His father brought them food and money if they needed it. He admonished the wicked, and encouraged the Spirit Christians, Evangelicals, and Old Believers who passed through on their way to exile. Ivan himself became so used to the prison that he made visits to it on his own.
The example of his father in helping the afflicted, and what took place when Ivan was six years old, stayed with him for the rest of his life.
Examples and Commitments
When Ivan was six Nikita Voronin, the tea merchant from Tiflis, came on a visit. Everyone of the Molokan community in Vladikavkaz welcomed him. But what Nikita came to tell, surprised them very much. He said a great number of the Spirit Christians at Tiflis had gotten baptised.
Stepan Prokhanov and the believers around him did not react with displeasure. They looked instead, to the example of Christ, and studied the Scriptures. Then, convinced that Nikita had done the right thing, many of them (including the Prokhanovs) asked for baptism too.
The example of Christ in the Scriptures guided the Molokans in all areas of life. Already in grade school Ivan learned the blessings of following it and the terrible things that happen where it is ignored.
Walking home from school one evening, Ivan and his brother saw a bosyak (vagrant) on the street. The bosyak was asking a wealthy man on horseback for a kopek with which to find lodging for the night. “Why should I give you money?” the wealthy man responded roughly. “No doubt you would spend it on drink. I will not give you anything.”
The boys watched as the bosyak, his hand outstretched, tottered down the snowy street to a deserted market area. The next morning they found him, a frozen hulk, in a scale shed. About this experience, Ivan wrote:
Since that time I have understood the words of Christ: “Give to him who asks of you,” in an unconditional way.
So easily we shrug off requests for help by pointing to the errors and sins of those who ask. If we, like God, could know the hearts of men, this might be alright. But since we are not like God, our knowledge of man is limited in the extreme, and we err so easily in refusing to help one really in need (one who may perish through our neglect), we dare not turn anyone down. We must “give to him who asks.”
If some of those who receive our help abuse it, the responsibility rests with them, and by helping all we avoid the risk of failing to help the one who really needs it.
If, however, we judge those who ask for help and give to some while refusing to give to others, we may err both ways—by giving to those who will abuse it and by refusing to give to those who are really in need. So the only wise thing to do is obey Christ who says: “Give to him who asks.”
Of course we must decide how much help to give—in proportion to the need and according to our ability.
Even though the Molokans taught against arming themselves and taking part in war, Stepan Prokhanov kept a hunting rifle in his house. On one occasion Ivan took it with him on a walk along the Terek. He saw a bird sitting on a tall stalk of grass and shot it. Hurrying to pick it up he saw what led him to write:
The bird lay on the ground, still alive but with blood on its wings. Its eyes were closing and it was dying. I cannot describe what I felt. The word “murderer” flashed into my mind and I blushed from the shame of a crime committed. An inner voice asked me: “Why have you stopped this life which brought glory to its Creator?” I trembled, and prayed in despair.
When the bird died I buried it in the sand. I did it without thinking why, but now I understand my action. I did it from the instinct to hide the evidence of my crime from the shining sun, the blue sky, and heaven above. But nothing, of course, was hidden. I vowed then and there, never to go hunting again. I vowed never to take another gun into my hands.
Since that time I have hated everything connected with the taking of life.
Several years later, when Ivan was seventeen, he almost broke that vow.
As a young teenager, in high school, Ivan began to pay attention for the first time to something totally other than Molokan thought. Tsar Nikolai’s long rule had ended and his son’s milder rule let the books of modern thinkers from Germany, Artur Schopenhauer, Eduard von Hartmann and Ludwig Feuerbach become popular in Russia. Many whom Ivan knew, both students and faculty at the high school, had declared themselves “nihilists” (from nihil, “nothing”) and revolted against the established order of the state, the church and the home.
The nihilists were the “hippies” of late nineteenth century Russia. They scoffed at the idea that man is immortal, that God exists apart from human imagination, or that human beings have souls. They wore their hair long, dressed in the sloppiest clothes they could find, and threw rules of propriety and morals to the wind.
Ivan’s closest friends, including a boy called Grigory Korsh, were would-be nihilists. Even though their parents hindered them as much as they could, they met in the evenings, and Ivan began to meet with them.
Grigory was the high school nihilist leader. He read the most and had connections. One evening he said, “Watch me overcome life by death!” To the horror of the boys he pulled a bottle of cyanide from his pocket and lifted it to his mouth. Ivan jumped on him and knocked it to the floor. But this experience, combined with his own struggle to overcome sin, led him into a period of dark depression.
Stepan noticed it, and acting on impulse in November, 1886, he hid the hunting rifle that hung in his son’s room.
That evening Ivan came home late. His face would have frightened his parents. Beyond what had become his ordinary gloominess, his eyes looked wild. He lit the lamp to take down the gun. But it was gone—and he found a paper lying on the stand beside his bed. In his father’s Cyrillic script (he wrote with a large but careful hand) he read: “Do you love Jesus Christ?”
For a moment Ivan stood, unable to move.
Then he began to cry and reached for his Bible.
Even though he knew exactly where to turn, Christ’s words, “I am the way, the truth and the life. . .” had never come home before. He called his father. His mother came too. They prayed, wept, and rejoiced together, and on January 17, 1887 the New Molokans held another baptism at a bend in the Terek.
Ivan threw himself with all he had into the service of Christ. He returned at once to Grigory Korsh (who had made another unsuccessful attempt at suicide) to tell him of his conversion. At first his friends laughed at him. But before long they saw he was in earnest and took him seriously.
In meetings on the day of Resurrection (Sunday), he began teaching the children and gave his first message to the whole assembly of believers on Christ’s promise: “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.”1
Several months later he graduated from high school and left for St. Petersburg to study engineering. There he found . . .
1 In Spirit Christian meetings everyone was expected to speak. Older men led out in congregational matters, but there was no “clergy.”