From Astrahan to Galilee and back

The descendants of Russian Subbotniks undertake a journey to their ancestral village

Descendants of Subbotniks521 (photo credit: Sarah Levin)
Descendants of Subbotniks521
(photo credit: Sarah Levin)
It’s midafternoon in Ilaniya, a small moshav with a long history in the Upper Galilee. The air is clear and bright, and slender cypresses guard the neat, empty valleys.
The adults are away at work, the kids are at schools and kindergartens.
Serenity oozes from the well-set stone buildings, solid fences and well-groomed greenery. A wooden barrel with two names, Shmueli and Protopopov, is on display at the entrance to the house I’m looking for. I park my car, follow the narrow pathway and enter the spacious open court. Hanging there are several large family portraits in black and white on the backdrop of the splendid Galilee vista. The men in the photographs are dressed in stiff black suits, probably worn only during the High Holidays to synagogues, and are surrounded by their wives and children of various ages.
More than 100 years ago, these men, women and children took up residence here, in Sejera, now called Ilaniya, the end point of their incredible journey from remote Russian villages to the heart of the Galilee. Today, their descendants peer at the black and white portraits, trying to fill in the blank spots with missing pieces of biography, history and origins.
“The name is Protopopov,” says Esther Shmueli, a gracious hostess who points to the portrait of a tall man with a large beard and clear eyes. “Protopop is the title of mid-level servant at a Russian church, you know,” she explains to The Jerusalem Report.
Then we sit at the table, under the mighty tree that was probably planted here around the same time this large man decided to tie his destiny with the Jewish nation and the Land of Israel. We are joined by Noga, Ester’s sister, and Ofer Shmueli – all of them descendants of the Subbotniks, a movement that existed in Russia from the 18th to the 20th centuries, and whose followers – originally Russian men and women – eventually embraced the Jewish faith. Old family albums appear along with books and manuscripts, and step by step the story of the Subbotniks is told.
At some point in the late 19th century, Gapon Kurakin, a bell-ringer who lived in Solodniki village had a revelation. One Christmas night, he climbed the bell tower of the church as usual but was unable to ring the bells – quite a complicated chore that demanded both physical strength and good coordination.
A deeply religious man, Kurakin started to chant the Psalms, eventually leaving the tower and having to explain to the surprised priest why he was unable to ring the bells.
Abraham Kostitzky, a local farmer who heard the story from Kurakin himself, retells it to The Report. “Kurakin climbed the bell tower but suddenly felt dizzy. He couldn’t see a thing and didn’t know where to go. Then he sat down and chanted the 91st psalm three times and regained his sight. As soon as he tried to ring the bell, he became dizzy once again.”
The experience changed the life of Gapon Kurakin – soon to become Abraham Kurakin – forever. Following his revelation, he became convinced that the only right path is Judaism, and convinced his entire family to convert. Then, along with a number of other families of proselytes, they decided to follow their dream and move to the Land of Israel.
Theological disputes may have already begun in the village prior to Kurakin’s revelation. After all, the Subbotniks movement began long before the incident inside the bell tower.
The story of Russian converts to Judaism begins somewhere between the 17th and 18th centuries in central parts of Russia, with the first reports about the movement appearing in the first decade of the 18th century. “They don’t celebrate Sunday, but Saturday for religious purposes and refuse to worship the icons,” Metropolitan Dmitry Rostovsky wrote in 1709, and the Jewish Encyclopedia mentions that the movement became common and well-known by the end of the century.
Most Subb otniks refused to perform any work on Saturday and relied on the Old Testament for guidance. As soon as this phenomenon began to spread and reached the Moscow, Ryazan, Voronezh and Arhangelsk areas, repression soon followed.
According to official Russian sources at the time, “In 1805, in the Voronezh district, 503 Subbotniks were discovered. Most of them were converted back to Christianity and the rest had to enlist into the army.”
Some members of the sect – for the Russian Synod did not recognize them as followers of Judaism – were exiled to Siberia; others were jailed. In addition, Subbotniks were denied passports so they would not be able to travel to other cities and regions and forge ties with Jewish communities. Nevertheless, the number of those who turned away from their religion and embraced the new faith and its laws continued to grow. By the beginning of the 20th century, various Subbotnik communities existed in more than 30 cities all across Russia. However, only a few dozen families – Dubrovin, Kurakin, Protopopov, Matveev and others – took their religious commitment one step further – a huge and inconceivable step at the time. These stern men decided to uproot their large families and to move to the Holy Land.
Experienced farmers with strong agricultural traditions, they were encouraged by Chaim Kalvariski and other leaders of the Jewish Colonization Agency to settle in newly established settlements in the Galilee – Sejera, Yavne’el, Kfar Tavor and others. The Subbotnik families quickly found their place, cultivating land, raising livestock and building their new homes. They never wanted to recall or to be reminded of their old homes, back in the villages of Solodniki, Zaplavnoe and others.
“They spoke Russian and Yiddish, and soon mastered Hebrew and even some Arabic. But their language of choice was silence,” says Esther Shmueli. “They never wished to be reminded of their history or to discuss it.”
The descendants of the original Subbotniks decided to maintain the tradition and remained silent – for almost four generations. “We remember that neither our grandparents nor our parents wished to discuss this subject, although we always knew that it’s part of our heritage, of our history. It’s not that they were ashamed of the past, but most probably worried that somebody would question their Jewishness and ruin their dream of integrating into the society,” Shmueli recalls.
Some were afraid that their children would go back to Christianity and leave the Land of Israel, and some tried to spare the pain of being an unwelcome foreigner from their sons and daughters. In the past, the children of Subbotnik families were often ridiculed because of their blonde hair, “which looked like straw,” and their bright blue or green eyes, and because of their foreign origins. Apparently, four generations later, doubts and fears still remain, and many myths, halftruths and rumors about the Subbotniks still circulate.
“When I decided to organize a reunion of Subbotniks more than a year ago, so that we could all get together and complete the missing parts of the puzzle, one of my relatives warned me that I’m ‘opening this story way too early,’ that I should wait another two or three generations,” Shmueli says, her green eyes sparkling.
But she didn’t want to wait. “Perhaps because I and many others still live here in Sejera, where it all begun, it’s important to us – to find out more about the origins, the sources, to learn more about these people and their history,” she says.
The reunion took place in September 2010, and the great-grandchildren of the original proselytes finally met – about 120 of them – and decided to investigate their history further. So they approached Dr.
Zeev Levin, a researcher and historian at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and explored the option that once seemed unthinkable – a journey to remote villages of the Astrahan region, where Gapon Kurakin once used to ring the bells.
And so it happened. About 15 native Israelis, who didn’t speak a word of Russian, packed their things, along with ancient photographs, memoirs and books that served them as tour guides, and made the journey back from Ilaniya. The trip was coordinated with local authorities, so that when they arrived in the villages – Solodniki and Zaplavnoe – the locals knew who they were and were expecting them.
“And then it happened. As we began to talk, we didn’t need to explain who we are. Our surnames were familiar to them, and many said that they had heard about the exodus of the families to Eretz Israel,” Shmueli says.
Among many photos and video clips that were taken during that journey, there are also images of cemeteries, where men and women with the same family names are buried. “Some of these graves are of soldiers who fought during World War II; there are Kurakins and also many others,” Noga Shmueli relates to The Report, adding that the trip made her understand a few things about the life and life choices of her ancestors.
“I was always amazed at their audacity” she says. “How can a person get up one day and leave everything behind for the sake of a place where there was virtually nothing? Now I understand that there was probably not much here as well,” she continues, describing the grim living conditions of the people in the village. “There is no electricity or running water and the church building – the very same church where Gapon Kurakin served as a bell-ringer – is decaying and in dire need of reconstruction. It looks as if the situation there hasn’t changed at all during the last few decades.
“So in a way, we saw a glimpse of what our lives could have looked like if our great-grandfathers had stayed put and hadn’t moved to Eretz Israel,” she notes.
“This journey will not be the last one – so we hope. We still hope to locate long lost relatives, to find more information about these people, and to close the gaps that were part of our family heritage for generations,” Esther Shmueli promises.