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Russian Molokans in Utah: A Conversation with Marshall Bowen

One of our favorite articles published in the Utah Historical Quarterly this year was Marshall Bowen’s “The Russian Molokans of Park Valley.” A thoughtful and richly textured history, Bowen’s article introduced readers to five Russian families that temporarily settled in rural Park Valley in western Box Elder County, Utah. An emeritus professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia, Bowen brings to this article the tools and insights of a geographer to demonstrate the spatial dimensions of Park Valley history. In our conversation we asked Bowen about the brief tenure of the Molokans in Park Valley and the process of uncovering their history.

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The Russian Molokans in northwestern Utah. How did you come to this obscure subject?

I first became aware that Russians had lived in Park Valley in the summer of 1980, when I was examining a number of dry farming settlements in northeastern Nevada.  I split my time between the Special Collections at Utah State University and field work in Nevada, often spending a few days in Logan and then driving to Elko via Snowville and Park Valley.  Aware of my interest in remote dryland communities and my route back and forth to Nevada, Jeff Simmonds, Director of the Special Collections, asked if I knew about some Russian graves south of Park Valley.  I admitted that I had not, but expressed an interest in seeing them, so Jeff gave me rough directions to the site, adding that he knew little about the people who had erected the graves.

Later that summer I drove down to the vicinity of the graves, but before reaching the site I got my car stuck in the bed of an intermittent stream, and had to walk several miles to the nearest residence, where I was able to call the garage in Park Valley for tow truck assistance.  Conversations with the woman who let me use her phone and with the tow truck operator yielded some information, but I still didn’t have a clear picture of the Russians’ experience in Park Valley.  The next summer, using a more suitable vehicle, I found the graves and a foundation that, as I discovered later, had once supported a school building.

By this time my curiosity was aroused, and I asked myself “I wonder” questions that have often been the foundations of my research.  These included such inquiries as: Who were these people?  Where did they come from?  Why did they come?  What were their lives like when they were in Park Valley?  Why did they leave?  Where did they go?  At the time, I had many other academic commitments, but I resolved that some day I would try to figure it all out.  This time came when I retired from full-time teaching in 2001, and was free to do the digging needed to obtain the answers to my questions.  This paper represents the culmination of that research, whose seeds were planted when I first saw the graves in 1981.

How did the insights and techniques of your discipline (geography) shape this project? What can historians learn from geographers?

A basic component of geography is the spatial approach – that is, analysis of the distributions and flows of tangible things such as people, goods, and plant life, as well as more abstract phenomena such as ideas and political affiliations.  Two of my foundation questions – where did the Molokans come from and where did they go – are clearly spatial in nature.  So, too, is my desire to identify all places where Molokans lived in Park Valley, and to determine the arrangement of their houses, outbuildings, and fields.  Tax records steered me to the three settlement sites, and aerial photographs, taken a half-century after the Molokans left, provided clues about property lines and field alignments, particularly in the vicinity of the Jumper village.  But ultimately it became necessary to get my boots dusty as I explored each site.  I spent countless hours pinpointing the exact location of dwellings, identifying abandoned fields and holes that had once been wells, and discovering artifacts, from a rusty old spoon to pots and pans that had been left behind.  These experiences helped me sense what these remote places must have looked like when the Molokans were there, to absorb some of their flavor, and in turn to share what I have learned with my readers.

Geography and history are closely intertwined, for all human activity happens in certain places at certain times, or occurs from place to place through the passage of time.  Just as geographers should pay more attention to historical processes that have helped shape today’s patterns on the land, historians can make use of geographical approaches to understand past events.  Knowing how certain things or phenomena were distributed in the past, how these patterns changed through time, and portraying them cartographically, can yield insights that might otherwise have escaped notice.  As a corollary, I cannot emphasize strongly enough the importance of field work.  Being there, getting a feel for a place where certain events occurred, and perhaps discovering remnants of the past, can help historians become sensitive to the nuances of the places where these events occurred.

You have emphasized the diversity of five Molokan families who settled in Park Valley. Why is the variety of the Molokan experience significant?  Does it reflect the broader ethnic experience in Utah?

It is easy for us to assume that all members of a particular social group, no matter how large or small, are about the same.  This is especially true when we are studying unfamiliar groups.  Initially, I made this assumption about the Molokans of Park Valley.  But as I learned more about each family (not just the ones that are the focus of this paper), I discovered that each had its own personality, with all of them living their lives under the umbrella of Molokanism, at least while they were in Park Valley.  The differences may have been subtle, but they were nonetheless real.  This would have been more fully brought out if I had expanded my paper to include the lives of the children of the five families in California.  Some plodded along about as their parents had done, others, most notably the sons of Pete and Fannie Volkoff, got into serious trouble with the law, while still others, notably Jennie Kunakoff, completed their schooling, embarked on successful careers, and in some cases married outside the faith of their parents.  Understanding the variety of the Molokan experience is significant because it enables us to see, at the grassroots level, how the process of Americanization played out, with some people taking tiny steps and others, for better or for worse, making giant strides.

I cannot say with certainty whether the Molokan experience reflected the broader ethnic experience in Utah.  This is something that can only be determined by similar in-depth studies of other groups.  But my gut feeling is that while the details may have differed, the process would have been about the same, with some people gladly embracing what they found in their new country, and others clinging stubbornly to their Old World values.  The gap that developed between these extremes may have been greater among the Molokans than with people who came from northwestern Europe, for example, but I would argue that as time passed, the similarities probably overshadowed the differences.

The emigrants in Park Valley stayed only a short time, a few years at most. Why did they leave, where did they go, and what is their lasting legacy in Box Elder County?

The basic problem was the Molokans’ inability to raise enough crops to feed themselves.  This occurred primarily because of drought, with extraordinarily heavy storms at inappropriate times also taking a toll.  The Constants’ inability to attract more families from their branch of the sect to their little cluster of homes near Rosette also played a role, as did homesickness, with some people concluding that they were now living too far from relatives and friends in California.  But the primary cause, without doubt, was crop failure and the threat of starvation.

As I described in the article, and illustrated in Figure 7, all of the Molokans returned to California, but some families took roundabout ways of getting there.  One family lived for several years in Oregon, others made their homes in Arizona before relocating to Los Angeles, and a half dozen families stayed in Salt Lake City before they, too, moved to Los Angeles.  The Constants tended to settle down in northern California, while the Jumpers were more likely to establish lasting homes in the Los Angeles area and the southern part of the Central Valley.

The Molokans’ legacy in Park Valley is faint.  There are landscape remnants, of course, and local residents remember hearing something, from their parents or grandparents, about the Russians who lived “out there.”  Occasionally, a newspaper article will remind readers of the broad outlines of the Molokans’ brief presence on the land.  But all of these fall into the category of curiosities, glimpses of something unusual that happened long ago and has been nearly forgotten.  Hopefully, my article will rekindle some interest in the Molokan experience in Utah and, more importantly, enable others to understand that even for a small group of people who lived in an out-of-the-way corner of the state, there is a compelling story to be told, with relevance that extends far beyond the boundaries of Box Elder County.

What lessons do you think the story of the Molokans provide for Utah and western historians?

I believe that I have addressed some of these lessons above.   Specifically, Utah and western historians can benefit from utilizing several dimensions of the spatial approach in their research, by determining if the processes of Americanization that I have alluded to in the Park Valley experience have broader applicability, and by intensively analyzing the life histories of individual families to better understand group dynamics.  I am also convinced that field work can yield important insights, and that historians can make fuller use of internet sources.  I know that I would not have succeeded in getting to the root of the Park Valley Molokan story without use of materials on the internet, especially but not exclusively those available through ancestry.com.

Was there anything that surprised you while researching this topic?

As an “old school” historical geographer in his seventies who has spent hundreds of hours rooting through archival sources from Washington, DC, to San Francisco, I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered how much information I could access via the internet.  I am a relative newcomer to the world of computers, and am not very computer savvy, but once I began to get the hang of it, the opportunities proved to be almost limitless.  And the more I probed, the more I found.

I was also surprised that most Molokans were willing to share their memories, and provide copies of various family documents.  I had been warned that many of the older generation in particular would be standoffish and suspicious of my work, and some were, but the vast majority welcomed my interest in their heritage, and were genuinely pleased that I had chosen to examine the Park Valley settlement and its residents.  Their principal concern was that I “got it right,” as one man expressed it.  There may be places in the article where I have misconstrued something, especially of a subtle nature, but I think that on the whole I did get it right.  My heartfelt thanks go to those people who helped me, and trusted me with describing and interpreting a part of their history.