Eastern Mojave Vegetation Growing Up in the Russian Baptist Church in the 30's  

Lydia Schweich  

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• Field Notes:   1990s;  

  There were two Russian Baptist Churches in California -- one in Los Angeles, and one in San Francisco. But there were also a number of Russian people who lived on farms in such places as Kerman, Porterville, Lodi, Sevastopol, Delano, Lancaster, Riverbank, Shafter, and other places. And while they would visit from time to time, there was a convention formed, which met in either Los Angeles or San Francisco.
  The one I remember the most was the 2nd Convention held in Los Angeles in 1935. During one of the meetings, I was accompanying Mr. Kalinchenko as he was singing. Then I heard his voice falter, and on looking, saw that he was crying. Sitting on the stage was Dad, and a couple of other people and they were also crying- When the song ended, as I went to take my seat in the audience, I noticed that all of the people in the church were crying. It seemed that the words to the song he had been singing had been found on the body of a man who had somehow mysteriously died in Russia. In mailing the words to the U.S. the letter had stated that the man had gone to the same place as such and such a person, whom everyone knew had been killed for his beliefs in God. Needless to say, everyone in the church was moved, as they all still had relatives in Russia, and probably most of them were also Russian Baptists, who were also under suspicion for their religious beliefs.
  Those were very difficult times in Russia. Stalin was in power, (I remember Dad saying that Stalin wasn't even a Russian, he was a Georgian. and he was attempting to destroy all religious faith. Quite a few of the people in the church left Russia before the Revolution. But a number also had left after the Revolution, but because they were unable to come into the U. S. under the quota system, they migrated to Mexico, a number of them to Tijuana. They considered themselves fortunate to be able to get out of Russia before the doors were closed to all immigration. One family going to Tijuana was the Paul Kushnerov family. However, the call to the U.S. was so strong that one night they snuck across the border, the story tells how Tanya lost one shoe in the process. Everyone was aware of how they got into the States. One Sunday night in church, a man walked in who obviously was an American man, and everyone was afraid that he was from the Immigration Service, so there was a lot of tension in the church that night. I don't remember exactly who he was, but at least he was not from the Immigration Service. Later when the Kushnerov family wanted to become U.S. citizens, they decided to relate how they had left Russia because of their Baptist beliefs and came into this country illegally, and they were allowed to stay in this country as citizens
  At that time Russia seemed to be so far away, especially for those of us who had never traveled. To get to L.A. from Russia meant taking whatever transportation was available to pet you to the train- Then you had to take the train probably to Belgium from where the ships sailed for America. Then there were the days on the ocean, then more trains to get across the country. There were no airplanes in those days. We got our first radio in the early 15309s, and of course, there was no TV. Sometimes when we would be outside playing at night we would look up at the moon and realize how far away that really was, never realizing that in our lifetime men would walk on the moon. The wonder of it all! And Russia seemed to be farther away than that It could have been on another galaxy as far as we were concerned, to put it in today's terms. When we would suggest to our parents that maybe we could travel somewhere, they never seemed to want to go, and we would tell them, look, when you were young, you traveled from Russia to here, but they couldn't seem to make the connection.
  The Russians were very emotional people -- hear how even today they call their country Mother Russia. They would laugh a lot, but they would also cry a lot, they were very expressive of their emotions. To see a man cry was commonplace. Frequently a visitor would come, either from somewhere in California, or perhaps from the Slavic Church in Fort Worth, or maybe even somewhere from the eastern part of the U.S. When they were leaving, the whole church would sing the song, in Russian of course, God Be With You Till We Meet Again, and everyone in the church would be crying. Truly, they were people in a strange land, bound together all the more because of their families who were still in Russia, which was going through such terrible times in the 30's. It was a long time before I could sing that song in an American church without getting a lump in my throat, as the feeling was so intense growing up. And when they had Communion in the church, which was the first Sunday of the month as is typical of Baptist churches, at the end of the service, every one would be crying, and the men would bear-hug the men, and the women would hug each other. Here again the thought of sacrifice and of their relatives left behind in Russia must have come to mind.
  The words Russian and music are synonomous. How the Russians did like their music. Put two Russians together and you have a duet, three Russians and you have a trio, and four Russians will give you a quartette -- and no music was necessary either. Whenever Dad would go calling on people, not only would he have his Bible, but he also carried his songbook with him, which only had the words in it -- no music -- and when you would be sitting around drinking your glass of tea, of course, you had to sing. Then there was the church orchestra. Early in the 30's a man from "Hollywood" Mr. Skuratoff, was hired to come and teach all of the children and some of those a little older how to play the mandolin, balalaika, and the guitar.. One night a week was orchestra practice. Paul Kushnerov would write notes for the mandolin in three part harmony and together with the balalaikas and guitars (one man even made a bass fiddle in the shape of a balalaika) we would play in church every Sunday night. And frequently we would be invited to various churches, mostly American Baptist on Wednesday nights to their potluck prayer meetings, and we would entertain them with our 'different' kind of music.
  Grannick, Atamanuck, Ketzko, Pluznichenko, Pettrichka, Grigorian, Artemenko, Girgelevich, Urbanovich, Starchenko, Shnitka, Nikitin, Kalinchenko, Kushnerov and Pawluk were a few names of these Russian people. Themen held such jobs as house painter, shoe maker, photographer, one was an insurance salesman and into real estate, a couple of others made floral baskets, but the majority of them cleaned buildings or theaters. And it was necessary for the women to also work, which they did willingly as so many of the immigrants who have come to this country, and they also cleaned buildings or other peoples' homes, or did other peoples' laundry. Some also cracked walnuts, their hands were stained, and others sorted rags. But they all knew that they were living in a land where they were free, and that really counted for something.
  As most of the children were born in this country, English was their first language, so it was necessary to have Americans come and teach the children about the Bible. A number of ladies came from the LYceum Group, who were members of Temple Baptist Church, and a number of others came from the Bible Institute of Los Angeles. On Sunday mornings there was an adult class that met from about 10:00 until 11:00, but it was in the Russian language. So we kids would just sort of hang around outside, sometimes we would sit in our cars and just gab, or wander around or whatever. Then Sunday School was from 11:00 until noon. Then Sunday evening at 7:00 the whole church would meet again. The first hour was singing, the choir sang, the orchestra played, the offering was taken, and I'm not sure what else went on. Then at 8:00 the young people and children were excused to go to the rear room of the church for their meeting in English, while the adults had their sermon in Russian. We had various people lead us. There was Mary Christman who told us stories about American Indian children. There was Mr. Epp who told us about the end of the world and the Great Tribulation. And there was Mrs. Paul, from Glassell Park Baptist Church, who was a real Bible student. She would write lessons and even had them printed up. When we became older, we prepared our own programs. Americans also would help with Vacation Bible School. At Christmas time some Americans would put on parties for us -- I remember one year all of the women of the church received aprons and all of the men received ties. One year there were so many American Baptist Young People's Groups that wanted to put on parties for the Russian children, that we practically had to go out into the highways and byways and bring in children.
  Other than the Russian Baptists, there was also a small group of Russians that met on Saturdays, Called Subotnicks. The Baptist church itself was located in an area which had many Russians of the sect "Molokans." They supposedly broke away from the Russian Orthodox Church because they wanted to eat meat and drink milk on Fridays. They had been persecuted in Russia, so came to this country in the early 1900's, and there were quite a few of them in Mexico too. The men wear the high collar shirts, hanging outside their pants with a cord around their waists, and all the women covered their heads with shawls. In their churches men sat on one side of the church and women sat on the other.
  It seemed like every Sunday there was a wedding in their churches, where they had a sit-down dinner (lunch., and they served the best lopshah, a soup. And they had a typical way of singing their hymns, without accompaniment. At times a Molokan would leave their church and Join the Baptist church, which meant they were ostracized from the Molokan community. Then there were the Russian Orthodox churches. They were considered to be the wealthiest group of Russians in the U.S. We heard about their long church services where everyone stood, but they were sort of forbidden fruit, as almost all of the Baptists had left that church. In Russia, The Orthodox church was the State Church under the Czar, so in the small towns the priest was the dominant figure, and sometimes he took advantage of the people. What he said was fact, so when the people became Baptists, and had to answer to no man, it was no wonder they had nothing to do with the Russian Orthodox Church.
  It wasn't easy growing up in a Russian Baptist Church. We were neither Russian, nor were we American. We had no traditions handed down to us, as we were practically first-generation Baptists. We never lived anywhere near any other Russians. We knew we were different. We really wanted to be Americans, but when our parents spoke with a Russian accent, and they were torn between living in a new country with some of their old country ways, it was very difficult.
If you have a question or a comment you may write to me at: tas4@schweich.com I sometimes post interesting questions in my FAQ, but I never disclose your full name or address.  

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Date and time this article was prepared: 5/10/2024 11:10:00 AM