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The Russians In Mexico

Vestiges still exist of Los Rusos or the Russian immigrants who came to the Guadalupe Valley in 1905. You’ll find a small house, a restaurant and a winery at Familia Samarin about 15 miles north-east of Ensenada.

This vanished ethnic enclave once brimmed with a wide street where inhabitants spoke Russian and wheat fields stretched through the valley. This fascinating community disappeared within a generation, but several websites exist that document their life in Northern Baja.

A Brief History of Russians in Valle de Guadalupe

The Molokans (milk drinkers) came from Kars, Russia (now Turkey) and they were not Orthodox Christians like most Russians. They followed a strict diet of abstaining from pork, tobacco and alcohol. They also interpreted the term “spiritual milk” noted in the Bible to mean they should receive much of their nourishment from milk and dairy products.

They were pacifists who refused to be conscripted into the military under Tsar Nicholas II, so they searched for a better environment where they could practice their religious views. They first moved to Los Angeles, but the urban setting didn’t suit them. Land prices also were expensive.

In 1905 Mexican President Porfirio Diaz sold the group 13,000 acres of land in Guadalupe Valley. The 105 Russian families laid out a town the way they had at home with equal partitioned lots along a broad street. Their whitewashed adobe and wood homes had steep-pitched wooden (some thatched) roofs.

They planted grains and vegetables, olives and grapes and raised geese and bees for honey. They baked Russian bread and drank tea or “chai” made in the samovar.

The Molokans dressed simply with women covering their heads with homemade “kosinkas” or shawls, and the bearded men wore high-collared shirts called “rubajas,” which had drawstrings around the waist.

In 1938 Mexican President Cardenas designated lands for the peasants and 3,000 Mexicans surrounded Guadalupe. The town was renamed Francisco Zarco and many Russians left at that time. Others stayed and have assimilated into the culture.

By 2004 writer Greg Nieman reported that there were only about 20 pure Russians left in the Guadalupe Valley. There were another 240 who were half-Russian and half-Mexican.

Familia Samarin

Visit today and you won’t see much more than this property with a Russian restaurant that touts pizza. Their homemade cheeses are delicious. They sell red wines, which are excellent if you are an enthusiast.

You can also receive a tour of the museum, which was built in the adobe Mexican style, but included a shingled inclined roof. The museum has objects from the kitchen that shows how they used to cook, pictures and other memorabilia.

Additional Oddities

There’s also a Russian cemetery a little up the ways.

If you’re an armchair traveler, you can spend hours at the Molokane website learning all about the Russians in Mexico. There’s also a book you can read for free on-line by George Mohoff called The Russian Colony of Guadalupe Molokans in Mexico.

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5 Responses to The Russians In Mexico

  1. Gil April 29, 2015 at 10:25 PM #

    Thanks for this interesting post. I think that I’ve learned more history from reading your work than I did in 16 years of school!

  2. bzzaragoza April 29, 2015 at 10:44 PM #

    Aw. Thanks, Gil! Who knew, right? Russians, Swiss Italians and French in the Valle de Guadalupe. You can check out a different post about the cheese cave created by a Swiss Italian in Mexico. This is the NEW hip place to be: http://www.sandiegoreader.com/news/2015/apr/09/travel-baja-ojos-negros-cheese-cave/#

  3. bzzaragoza May 6, 2015 at 4:04 PM #

    A few extra comments from an expert, Therese Muranaka, who studied this area and this group:

    The Molokanye in prison for pacifism would only drink milk because that was the only thing that they knew for sure was kosher. Also, in 1937 Cardenas made the ejido, but really left the Russians alone. 1958 was the squatter takeover, and frightened and bitter Russians left in large numbers.

  4. bzzaragoza May 6, 2015 at 4:08 PM #

    For even more information about the Russians and when they left, Therese Muranaka gives the following references for further study:

    If you plan on doing anything more with this great topic, you might want to look at:

    1) The 1937 events were based on:

    Article 27 of the Political Constitution of the United States of Mexico, Feb. 15, 1917, which sets up the 1937 Baja California scene. (There’s a work by John Sanford Deway, 1966, The Colonia Rusa of Guadalupe Valley: A Study of Settlement, Competition and Change, M.A. Thesis in Geography at California State University, Los Angeles (p. 52) that’s good on all this.)

    This law gave President Cardenas the right to reapportion tracts of land over a certain size, and set up the situation that happened there (see also the classic Meyer, Michael C. and William L. Sherman, 1979, The Course of Mexican History. New York: Oxford University Press [p. 378]). It took almost twenty years, but on September 19, 1937, the Mexican Government requested a dotacion or donation of 2920 hectares in the Guadalupe Valley, but not Molokan-held lands.

    From about 1984 to 1986 (and thereafter if I met someone I hadn’t spoken to yet), I interviewed all the remaining villagers I could find from the 1930’s to 1960’s; the best interview (a good informant who was still living there) was with Mary Rogoff who met Cardenas himself when he came with the official group to review the valley. She felt that it was that interview alone that exempted Molokan lands from the dotacion.That’s when the ejido El Porvenir was begun. Some Molokan people still not convinced of their safety, or their holdings’ security, fled primarily to L.A.

    The best outsider (non-Molokan) informant of all on the 1938 details was Howard Chernoff, who was a San Diego businessman, and later was the owner of a local San Diego radio/television station (I remember it being Channel 8); he was a very politically active local personality, and was a Quaker, a group similar to the Molokans (he later became President Reagan’s ambassador to Japan, but returned to San Diego, and I interviewed him and his wife about 4 times).

    As a member of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), he was asked to speak to the Mexican President, which he did, about these sectarians (and others like the Mennonites in Chihuahua and the Mormons in Arizona), how diligent and hard-working they were, etc. It was Howard’s lecture at the San Diego Museum of Man (I have the date somewhere, but don’t have time to find it) that brought out the nature of the threat in the late 1930’s, and how much worse it was in the 1950’s, and how the colony was probably saved at the time of the ejido.

    2) The 1958 events were based on:

    The state election of 1958 brought Mexican and Indian workers sympathetic to the UGOCM (General Union of Mexican Workers and Peasants) who were moving to speed up land reform in Baja California. According to the San Diego Union, July 12, 1958 to July 11, 1959, 3000 people filled the valley on the night of July 10, 1958, taking over many of the Molokan ranch homesteads (mostly the actual homesteads, equipment, cattle and other stock on the main street, and not actual fields which were scattered over the whole valley). They were still called the paracaidistas or “parachutists” in the 1980’s for how they just dropped down ‘out of the sky.’

    They made then a poblado, not another ejido as before (Meyer and Sherman, 1979: 385-386), and that is when the real exodus started. I remember the informants speaking of Russian images burnt in effigy, thefts, ruined fields, and arson threats. Their defense was the Ley de Tierras Ociosas “Law of Idle Lands” of June 23, 1920.

    This is all explained in that year-long Union coverage, and by Deway 1966: pp. 82, 84, 98-99; also by Story, Sidney Rochelle, 1960, Spiritual Christians in Mexico: Profile of a Russian village, Ph.D. Dissertation in Anthropology, UCLA (p. 162 and with whom I also spoke); and Kvammen, Lorna, 1976, A Study of the Relationship between Population Growth and the Development of Agriculture in Guadalupe Valley, Baja California, Mexico, M.A. Thesis in Anthropology, California State University, Los Angeles. Mary Rogoff, the Bibayoffs, the L.A. Samarins, and interviews with George Mohoff and in his book (which the United Molokan Christian Association [UMCA] in L.A. supported, and which came out after I finished my project), all had versions of the takeover.

    The UMCA in Whittier were the loveliest people, and would really help you look at this all further, should you need to. This is all in the pamphlet which the Museum of Man published (Muranaka, Therese Adams, 1988, Spirit Jumpers: The Russian Molokans of Baja California. San Diego Museum of Man Ethnic Technology Notes, No. 21) what I knew at the time when I guest curated a year-long exhibit on this for the Soviet Arts Festival. It was taken from the first chapter of a 1992 Ph.D. dissertation which I did on the valley for the Univ. of Arizona in Tucson, and is probably still available digitally.

  5. Gil May 7, 2015 at 12:17 AM #

    I think that you might get the award for the most intensive response to a comment to a blog post since blogging began!

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