In which I spend the night as an outsider in a small Russian village in northern Armenia, where one hot shower was enough (1,800 words).
The title is less salacious than it sounds and I don’t intend to lead anyone on. For when I stumbled over the dirt under the night sky back towards the shop entrance and the males loitering around it, them silent me yelling, my rain pants were undone and falling down but my purple leggings remained in place, saving me from public nudity.
FINDING MY PLACE
I did not endear myself to Lermontovo’s more famous residents, its dwindling community of ethnic Russians or Molokans or Spiritual Christians or “those bearded men,” depending on who is doing the identifying. There was little time for me to make any impression. The men on the side of Highway M8 were pleasant, their faces ensconced in grey and white—“the beards, I’ve arrived!” went my silent celebration. I quickly wore out any welcome I had. On Lermontovo’s single gravel road parallel to the highway young men cast me unsmiling gazes. When I asked a woman if there was a place I could sleep, she curtly shook her head.
Russian speakers, Armenian and foreign, have been welcomed warmly by the Molokans (this is what I will call them) of Lermontovo and nearby Fioletovo. I arrived with the barest of Russian, and well as ignorance of their aversion to being photographed. Perhaps from behind their gates—metal painted green or blue, some decorated with paintings of birds or grape bunches or both—they spied me photographing their cheery architecture and decided I was both disrespectful and nosey, and should find somewhere else to spend the night.
If I had been hosted by a Molokan family, maybe my attentions would have been directed towards their sauerkraut that in different times was enjoyed throughout the USSR, their resistance against the Russian Orthodox Church via dairy products, or their love of taking the Bible literally. We would shared a moral evening in their izba (cottage) furnished with varnished wooden cupboards and devoid of all the Molokans avoid: religious icons, television, smoking, pork, alcohol.
Instead, my visit was spent with an Armenian shopkeeper. Inside his shop I was given a perch from which to watch another side of Lermontovo life.
God’s day; work prohibited, and maybe there was less work in late November. From spring until October or early November, both children and adults dirty their hands growing and harvesting turnips, potatoes, carrots, beetroot, cabbages. If on that Sunday there were Molokans working from dusk to dawn—they are lauded for their work ethic—they were more likely in Yerevan or Dilijan in Armenia, or in Krasnodar or Stavropol in Russia.
How banal, for a traveller to report back that in a religious community where drinking is taboo, she found that the vice is an open secret, on Sundays of all days, shock, scandal. The few online stories of Armenia’s Molokans tend to note the alleged abstinence of its people, the brave, virtuous—sober—face with which they meet the slow stranglehold of Armenia’s persistent economic slump. Molokans are further squeezed out of jobs and higher education because they do not speak Armenian. That men (women too, who knows) drink, fight and smoke is in my imagination the expression of their frustrations. Isn’t it usually?
Speaking of the boozy reality of some Molokans needn’t detract from their brave past of re-building their lives after migration and exile from Tsarist Russia, nor contradict their brave present: reliance on teachers mostly bused in from Vanadzor who teach during short, intermittent school hours with Soviet-era textbooks; reliance on fluctuating prices for their produce; reliance on meagre earnings to see them through cold northern Armenian winters in a small, quiet town—Lermontovo has around 1,000 residents, of which 80% are Molokan.
The Armenians living in Lermontovo manage small shops where sins are for sale seven days a week—cookies, too—footsteps from the Molokan’s painted gates. But this isn’t a story about blame; none of us would emerge unscathed. It’s a story about arriving in Lermontovo irreverent and unprepared, for I was cycling from Yerevan to Tbilisi in winter without a tent. Without my nylon mobile home I planned to seek shelter indoors each night, and I managed this: in Sevan, in Alaverdi, in Vanadzor, in a village I didn’t write down the name of, and in Lermontovo.
I had especially wanted to visit Lermontovo after hearing about the beards. I wanted to gawk—like I said, irreverent.
But I saw fewer than expected: The shopkeeper was beardless because he was Armenian but not a hipster bartender at Calumet Ethnic Lounge, who like beards for different reasons than Molokans, who generally grow them once married. The shop’s patrons were the occasional woman in a headscarf purchasing groceries, and the steady trickle of clean-shaven Molokan males variously along the boy-man spectrum. Ruddy skin, pale features, eyes of colours I can only now guess at, for my hazel pair was rarely met: my chair was far from the counter and the vodka, so I was of little interest. The shelves were only shoulder high, affording me a chance to watch.
A DESTRUCTIVE SHOWER
If I have done my job you can now imagine the Molokan men loitering around the shop that night, their breath visible, their activities perhaps not welcomed indoors. We drove east along the gravel road and our headlights briefly illuminated one, two, another, another of them standing along the roadside, before we passed, quickly returning them to their darkness.
This driving home was only much later, after several hours of wondering if the floor of the shop was going to be my bed. To be hosted is to yield to someone else’s idea of hospitality without necessarily being informed of the details. The confusion, the mystery, the reading between the lines where something might be found, or nothing—it’s exhilarating. I munched biscuits, watched television, and felt devoid of anything else to do, anywhere else to be. The great surprise that punctuated this long wait was the offer of a hot shower.
The beardless Armenian dressed in dark colours led me to a basement, accessed by going outside, around a corner, through a gate and down a slope. In agreeing—as accepting a shower is not always a good idea for the ideas it may conjure up in the minds of some—I showed this man that I trusted him. I guessed that he would not fail me, and I was right. The shopkeeper guessed that I was capable of taking a shower, and he was wrong!
Brown smouldering burns grew on the white box of the electric water heater fixed to the wall. Smoke and noises erupted, across the room from where I was getting dressed. Sufficiently clothed to scurry over, I frantically looked for a way to turn it off. It took me a second or two to decide that the heater would violently explode at any moment, so off I ran back the way I’d been guided.
The shopkeeper was calm. In response to my flapping arms, shouts of “PROBLEM! PROBLEM!” and the wreckage he saw once he surveyed his basement, he refused to raise his voice, to accept the money I offered. I felt terrible, and almost more-so when he brushed the whole thing off, leaving me to calm down and resume my television watching and cookie eating. The only time I saw him a little rankled was when one man tried to buy vodka on credit— not Visa, the honour system. He did not like that.
I didn’t sleep in Lermontovo; he drove us to Margahovit or Fioletovo, indistinguishable at night to my outsider’s eyes. The night with his wife and children was unremarkable beyond the fact that any homestay is remarkable, that a stranger is permitted to sleep on the aging couch, glance at knick-knacks and framed photographs, at the material expressions of a family trying their best.
However in the morning there was irony, an equilibrium restored. The wife demanded a high fee for the night’s food and couch—maybe 20 USD or so in Armenian dram, enough to surprise me. Her justification was that the money was going to be spent making her home into a homestay, by adding a sauna. I had sort of wrecked their sauna the previous night, so this seemed fair.
Lermontovo was bracing for winter. Piles of hay were hoarded behind the painted gates. Not all can be brightened with paint—the season’s unedited shades were browns and greys of old pipes and naked birches; the peaks rising to the south were dusted white. Water still flowed from the taps along the road but you wouldn’t have wanted to bathe in it. A large cabbage hung from one gate, I thought that this would make a nice photograph. Only later did I read that cabbage on gate means cabbage for sale, and cabbage for sale has over the years been part of the Molokan’s survival.
When I visited I knew little beyond beards. When I saw the vodka drinking, I only registered that it was done without the jovial toasting manner that Armenians love. It was not obvious to me that the shopkeeper was Armenian simply because he was beardless and engaged in trade. And yet maybe some ignorance at the time was for the best. If I had known beforehand about the Molokan’s reputation for being closed of, how one has to be lucky to be invited inside a Lermontovo home, I might have chosen elsewhere to spend the night.
In my later Google-ing to write this post, one quote really interested me, in that I found it an unexpected ethos for a traditional culture that has maintained itself in spite of significant outside influences, from Russian Orthodoxy to Communism. When interviewed, a Fioletovo resident spoke of the social ideals Molokans strive for in their communities—restraint, equality, pacifism— but that they “do not enforce anyone to do anything…the religion does not allow it. That is how we live—without any enforcement.”
When I first read that quote I reacted. Angry, I worried that it implied a lack of consequence for cruelty, like drunken domestic violence. And maybe this is a valid concern. But another way to look at this freedom to choose is to consider the diversity it permits within Lermontovo’s small and isolated community. In little ways, I saw different choices being made—beyond the vodka. In Monday morning’s cold sun, bundled children quickened their pace with heads down to avoid my camera. But seconds later an elderly Molokan man gladly posed for a photograph, giving me the gift of his wrinkles and awesome beard in digital memory.