The Subbotniks: an Armenian community on the fringe of extinction
A community of rural residents in the former Soviet Union, descended from Russian peasants who converted to Judaism two centuries ago, may soon be consigned to the dustbin of history.
Mikhail Zharkov, the 76-year-old leader of Armenia’s tiny Subbotnik community, said only 13 of the 30,000 people living in his small alpine town of Sevan are Subbotniks. There are three men and 10 women, and all are nearing the age of 80.
The community in Sevan is part of an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 Subbotniks spread across the former Soviet Union. Zharkov, a retired welder who is wiry and full of energy, estimated that about 2,000 Subbotniks lived in Sevan during the community’s zenith in the 1930s.
Located at an altitude of 6,000 feet, Lake Sevan’s turquoise waters were seen as a vast exploitable natural resource. After Armenia became a Soviet republic in the 1930s, the lake fell victim to disastrous Soviet planning and industrial expansion.
During Soviet rule, the Subbotniks’ religious freedom, which had helped preserve their identity for almost two centuries, vanished, along with their prime waterfront real estate.
According to Zharkov, Soviet authorities confiscated the Subbotnik synagogue in the mid-1930s. It has since been privatized, and the building no longer belongs to the community.
An unknown number of Subbotniks from elsewhere in the region immigrated to Israel after the fall of the Soviet Union, but community members in Sevan never dreamed of leaving for Israel. In Sevan, Soviet repression, combined with Armenia’s difficult economic conditions after the fall of communism 15 years ago, tore into the fabric of the community.
“My son, who is 48, and daughter, who is 36, are in Moldova. And of course, they have been baptized,” Zharkov said. “They did it without consulting me or my wife. My daughter had to. She married a Russian Orthodox man.”
Zharkov’s family situation is mirrored in the rest of the community. Sevan’s Subbotniks have dispersed all over the former Soviet Union and offer no financial assistance to their parents, Zharkov said.
“We lead a simple life, but life has become very expensive. Without the aid of the Jewish community, we would have a very tough time,” he said. “Our pensions are meager, not even enough to cover utilities.”
The Armenian office of Hesed Avraham, a welfare center sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, periodically provides the Subbotniks with food packages.
The Subbotniks’ mysterious 19th century conversion to Judaism, strict adherence to the Torah and staunch refusal to convert back to Christianity exposed them to repression and persecution. During the rule of Czar Alexander I in the first quarter of the 19th century, Subbotniks were deported en masse to remote parts of the Russian empire.
According to Michael Freund, founder of Shavei Israel, an Israel-based organization that reaches out to “lost Jews,” the Subbotniks are spread out in small pockets across remote corners of the former Soviet Union. Sevan’s Subbotniks do not know what part of Russia their ancestors came from or what prompted them to convert to Judaism.
“Maybe they thought it a purer form of religion,” Zharkov speculated.
Subbotniks derived their name from their observance of the Sabbath on Saturday — Subbota in Russian — rather than Sunday. Most Subbotnik communities practice circumcision, but otherwise, the Subbotniks do not differ in outward appearance from other Russian peasants.
The women wear head scarves and long skirts; the men dress in simple slacks and shirts. They do not observe kashrut or Jewish dietary laws, and their melodic Shabbat prayers, chanted in Russian, could be mistaken for Russian folksongs.
According to Gersh-Meir Burshtein, who heads a small Chabad-sponsored synagogue in the Armenian capital of Yerevan, the fact that the community owned two Torah scrolls is proof that Sevan’s Subbotniks once were well-versed in Hebrew.
Some years ago, one of the old Torah scrolls was taken to the Yerevan synagogue, where it remains to this day. The other was stolen from the small community. Sevan’s Subbotniks now sing and read out of their own Torah-based Russian-language prayer book.
“Maybe at some point one of their elders realized that the community was losing its Hebrew knowledge and adapted the Torah into a Russian-language prayer book that they use now,” Burshtein said.