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In 1830, Tsar Nikolai I published an edict banishing dissenters to the edge of the rapidly expanding Russian empire and for the next sixty-years, tens of thousands of Molokans moved or were relocated to the Caucuses where they developed a reputation as ideal colonists. In 1847 the village of Ivanovka [near Ismayilly], was founded by a Russian peasant called Ivan Pershin. It is after him that the village was named.

Ridiculed as “milk drinkers” [molokane in Russian] who would not fast on Orthodox saint’s days, they adopted the title as ones who “drink the pure spiritual word of God”. They are also known traditionally for their pacifism and communal organization. Although they had been driven out of Russia as heretics, the Molokans were seen to be hard workers, introducing a protestant work ethic into the region and as people who were loyal to their Russian heritage. Indeed, many of these so-called “outcasts” acted as administrators of the new lands at a time when there were very few Russians living in the region. The community continued to grow through the 19th century and survived the turmoil of revolution, civil war and the introduction of Communism to Azerbaijan from 1920. In 1930, a collective farm was established, specializing in growing table grapes and cattle farming on the fertile, black soil. Today, near Russian-style timber-framed houses face tree-lined streets in this quiet rural community of nearly 1,000 homes and over 3,000 people. Old men with long white beards stand chatting in twos or threes, while women in headscarves hurry past with hoes and other farm implements. Ancient tractors till the rich, soil whilst close by, neat lines of vines cover the rolling hillsides. Old Ladas, some still sporting their Soviet era number plates with their seats removed, do service as pick-up trucks and muskovi geese squawk at anyone who gets too close to their young. It is an idyllic picture that seems to belong to another age in another country.

In 1953, the charismatic 20-year-old Nikolai Nikitin was chosen as chairman of the collective farm. He helped improve farm practices and turned around the fortunes of the collective. Much later, he was proclaimed “Hero of Socialist Labour” and went on to become a Deputy of the Supreme Soviet. The village is a fascinating reminder of a system that has all but passed into history and well worth the three-hour travel time from Baku.