‘A Courteous and Well-Conducted Community’: The Doukhobors in Cyprus, 1898-9

by Carla King, St. Patrick’s College, Drumcondra

In August 1898, 1,126 Doukhobors, fleeing religious persecution in Tsarist Russia, disembarked on the island of Cyprus, at that time a British protectorate. At first, everything seemed quite promising. The Mediterranean island was beautiful, and the fertile land, lush vegetation and seaside climate appealing. Aided by English Friends (Quakers) and Russian Tolstoyans, the Doukhobors established three small agricultural villages and proceeded to work the land. However, the extreme heat and humidity combined with impure water and unsanitary housing proved unsuitable. Already destitute, impoverished and in a weakened state, 108 of the settlers perished from famine, disease and exhaustion. The settlement proved unsuccessful, and eight months after their arrival, in April 1899, the Doukhobors abandoned the island to travel on to Canada. The following paper examines the reasons for the Cyprus colony’s failure, and argues that the lack of success was far from predictable on practical grounds and the Doukhobors’ decision to settle on Cyprus was reasonable given the available resources.  Reproduced by permission of the author from Epeterida: Annual Review of the Cyprus Research Centre, vol xxix (2003) pp. 255-77.

In early 1899, a mass exodus of over seven thousand people took place from Russia to Canada, when members of the Russian religious sect, the Doukhobors, or “Spirit Wrestlers” left their homeland to escape the oppression they had suffered at the hands of the Tsarist authorities. Canadian Doukhobors recently celebrated the centenary of their migration. However, the move to Canada was preceded by an attempt by just over a thousand Doukhobors to establish a colony on the island of Cyprus, at that time a British protectorate. In the event, the settlement was unsuccessful and eight months after their arrival, the group left again, to travel on to Canada.

This paper will examine the reasons for the Cyprus colony’s failure. It is argued here that the lack of success was far from predictable on practical grounds and the decision to settle on Cyprus was reasonable given the available resources. There are a number of questions that present themselves. Why, for example, did a group of Armenian refugees who arrived in 1896 manage to settle successfully in Cyprus, and a small community of Russian Jews who came to live at Marga in 1898 also survive, while the Doukhobor colony did not? The high temperatures of the island are generally cited as a problem but although they arrived in August at the hottest time of the year, most of their stay was during the winter, which is mild. Was there hostility on the part of the British authorities on the island? Or was the Cypriot population antagonistic toward them? Was the settlement doomed from the start by bad organisation or lack of funds? Furthermore, what caused the high level of mortality amongst the Doukhobor population on the island – in the period of just eight months some 108 died?

A dusty track in rural Cyprus.

But first, who were the Doukhobors? Details of their origins are now lost, as they were one of several sects to emerge among the largely illiterate peasant peoples of Russia in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The first historical references to them occur in the eighteenth century and they may have been linked in their early stages to another sect called the Ikonobors, or Icon Wrestlers denounced by a decree of 1734. Their songs and stories refer to a number of leaders and teachers who helped to shape their faith. At first the Doukhobors seem to have been based in the Ukraine but repressive measures of dispersing them, aimed at weakening and isolating them, (1741-62) had the unintended effect of spreading their faith to various parts of Russia. Like several other religious groupings their name was originally a pejorative label, apparently by the Archbishop Amvrosii Serebrennikov of Ekaterinoslav, who in 1785, described them as wrestling against the spirit of Christ, whereas they took the name to have the opposite connotation, that of wrestlers for the spirit of Christ. In any case, the name “spirit wrestlers” remained.

The Doukhobors had remained relatively unmolested by the authorities in the reign of Tsarina Elizabeth and the early years of Catherine the Great (1762-96). From the 1790s on, however, they suffered increased official persecution. Their situation improved in the reign of Alexander I (1801-25), when the sect was given land for settlement in the newly-conquered territories of the Tauride province (now Crimea), in a district called Molochnye Vody [Milky Waters]. By 1827 there were 3,985 Doukhobors settled there in 800 households settled in 9 villages.

The Doukhobors are quite similar in several respects to the early Christians. Since they believe that the spirit of God is present in every human being, they hold that to violate a person in any way is to defile the spirit of God in him. Thus they are pacifists and egalitarian in their approach to others. They believe that heaven and hell are concepts or states of mind, and they reject any mediation (by a priest) between a person and God. Following from this direct relationship with God, they see no need for church sacraments or indeed for written records of any kind, including scriptures. Unlike members of the Orthodox Church, they do not use icons, although they have their own rituals, psalms and hymns. The only visible symbols of their beliefs are a loaf of bread, a salt cellar and a jug of water placed on a table in the middle of their meeting house.

During the time of Catherine II (1762-1796) Doukhobor numbers rose, but toward the end of that reign they began to suffer persecution. Those living in the provinces of Ekaterinoslav and Khar’kov were resettled in the newly conquered territories of the Tauride province (now Crimea) in a district called Molochnye vody [Milky Waters]. Other Doukhobor groups remained in scattered communities in various parts of Russia. In 1841, under the more repressive reign of Nicholas I (1825-55), the Doukhobors were transplanted once more, to the Caucasian uplands, where they were given land in the Wet Mountains and Elizavetpol’ regions. The conditions of the mountainous land of the Caucasus demanded a shift from arable to cattle farming but the Doukhobors adapted and prospered, apparently maintaining good relations with neighbouring peoples. Settled in three Transcaucasian regions of Elizavetpol, Tiflis (Tbilisi) and later also in Kars, their numbers rose to around twenty thousand by the 1890s.

The Doukhobors had been accustomed to organise themselves under a leader. From 1864 to1886 they were led by Luker’ja Vasil’evna Kalmykova, the widow of a former leader. It was after her death in 1886 that problems arose. These were in part brought on by internal changes in Doukhobor leadership and policy and partly due to shifts in the attitude of the Russian government towards them. Following Kalmykova’s death the Doukhobor community split, the larger faction, the “Large Party” led by her protege, Petr Vasil’evich Verigin and the “Smaller Party” led by the late leader’s brother, Michael Gubanov. Immediately after his acceptance by the majority of the Doukhobors, Verigin was arrested in 1887and spent the next fifteen years in exile in various parts of the Empire. By 1892 he and some of his followers had become vegetarians and later also eschewed the use of alcohol and tobacco. Their example was later followed by many of the “Large Party”. The authorities had become increasingly suspicious of the Doukhobors in the repressive atmosphere following the assassination of Alexander II in 1881. Contacts between them and the Tolstoyans served to exacerbate official hostility. Matters came to a head after compulsory military service was introduced in the Caucasus in 1887 and by 1894 all Russian citizens were obliged to take an oath of allegiance to the Tsar. Verigin urged his followers not to take the oath and around sixty Doukhobors, drafted into the army, refused to bear arms and were severely punished.

On the night of 28-29 June (the eve of St Peter’s Day) 1895 Doukhobor communities in three areas – Kars (now in Turkey), Elizavetpol (now Azerbaijan) and Bogdanovka in Northern Georgia – following directions from Verigin, gathered together and burned their weapons in ceremonies in which they prayed and sang hymns beside the bonfires of arms. In Kars, the authorities learned about the meeting and arrests took place. In Bogdanovka the gathering was encircled by Cossacks on horseback, who fell upon the Doukhobors, beating them with lead-tipped whips. Following this, repression of them became extreme: Doukhobor lands were confiscated, their houses pillaged, women were raped, they suffered beatings and floggings, some 4,300 of them were exiled to villages in four Georgian valleys, without land or other means of support, in which 350 died. Their leaders were imprisoned, exiled to Siberia or sent to punishment battalions of the army. It is this treatment that led to their decision to seek permission to leave Russia.

A winding track in rural Cyprus.

Help was forthcoming to the Doukhobors from two quarters: from the Quakers in Britain and America and from Lev Tolstoy and his circle of followers. The Society of Friends in Britain had been interested in the Doukhobors since the early nineteenth century. The archive in the Friends’ Library in London contains letters from Richard Phillips, dated 12/24 October 1815 and 13 October 1819, describing the conditions of the Doukhobors at that time and improvements which had taken place during the reign of Alexander I. There is also a memorandum in Russian, dating from c.1805 on “Aspects of the Society of the Doukhobors,” outlining their history in the late eighteenth century. Tolstoy had known about the Doukhobors through his correspondence with Prince Dmitri Alexandrovich Khilkov (1858-1914), who, as an officer in the Hussar Guards in 1877-8 had been quartered in a Doukhobor village at the end of the Russo-Turkish War. Khilkov had been exiled for his anti-clerical opinions to the Caucasus and maintained contact with them. He therefore knew about the burning of the arms and the persecutions that followed and contacted Tolstoy, who sent a number of his followers to investigate the case. His friend and close collaborator, Pavel Biryukov went to investigate in early August, returning with an article describing the events in terms impossible to publish in Russia. Tolstoy arranged to have it printed anonymously in The Times, under the title The Persecution of Christians in Russia in 1895, where it appeared, with a covering note by Tolstoy, on 23 September. An article by Vladimir Grigorevich Chertkov, Tolstoy’s closest friend and disciple, had already been published on 9 September in the Daily Chronicle. In 1895 Tolstoy also commenced an extensive correspondence with Peter Verigin, which was to have an important influence on the evolution of Doukhobor thought.

In fact, the English Society of Friends was already aware of the Doukhobors’ plight. Two British Quakers, John Bellows and Joseph Neave had travelled to Russia in 1892 to investigate their position, calling on Tolstoy on the way. As early as 1 November 1895 three members of the Society in Britain, had reported on the situation of the Doukhobors and in 1896 the Meeting for Sufferings appointed a committee to examine whether any practical help could be extended to them. It was concluded that all they could do at the time was to publicise their case. However, in July 1897 a fund was opened by the Doukhobor Relief Committee, which also petitioned the Tsar. It had backed a private petition presented by Chertkov to the Tsar the previous January, requesting that the Doukobors be allowed to emigrate. Chertkov and his two companions were not allowed to present their petition and it seemed as if their efforts were fruitless. However, at the same time a further petition was presented by the Doukhobors themselves to the Dowager Empress Maria, on a visit to the Caucasus in late 1897. In February 1898, following the report of a senate commission to investigate the case, permission was granted to the Doukhobors to leave on three conditions:

  • They should go at their own expense,
  • Those who had been called for military service and those (including Peter Verigin) who were in Siberia should remain to work out their sentences,
  • If any of them ever returned they should be banished to distant parts of Siberia.

News of the concession reached England in March and almost immediately the Doukhobor Relief Committee drafted an appeal for distribution among the Friends and sympathetic organisations (including the Mennonites in America, who had been similarly allowed to emigrate from Russia some 40 years earlier) for assistance to the Doukhobors. By mid-July almost 8,000 copies of the appeal had been distributed, but they had no means of knowing what the response would be. Meanwhile, Tolstoy wrote to various foreign newspapers, putting the Doukhobors’ case, the letters appearing in April and in August and September he wrote a dozen or more letters to leading Russian industrialists seeking funds for their emigration. The previous year, on hearing that it was intended to offer him the Nobel Prize for literature, Tolstoy wrote to the Swedish press suggesting that the money be given to the Doukhobors.

In the meantime the Quaker Doukhobor Relief Committee members began to look for a suitable destination for the Doukhobor exiles. Tolstoy, overcoming his initial opposition to the idea of emigration, had suggested Texas, Chinese Turkestan, Chinese Manchuria and Cyprus. The Relief Committee estimated that it would have to find sanctuary for some 3,500 people. The Doukhobors had themselves been able to put by about £4,700, and although they favoured America as a destination, at the time there were insufficient resources available to take them that far.

Cyprus, as a British protectorate, and a relatively short journey from Batum by steamer, was a reasonable option and would leave them with some funds in hand to allow them to start anew. In April Captain Arthur St John, then on his way back from the Caucasus, having distributed some relief funds to the Doukhobors on behalf of the Quakers, was asked to travel to Cyprus and put the Doukhobors’ case directly to the British High Commissioner and was provided with a letter explaining his mission. On 1 July Professor Patrick Geddes met with the Relief Committee and suggested that Cyprus would be a suitable place for settlement. He had already published an article on “Cyprus Actual and Possible” [The Contemporary Review, June 1897] and was keen to develop the economic potential of the island. It was decided that the Relief Committee would send an advance party of three Russians to Cyprus “with a view to their making such arrangements as may be feasible for more of their people to emigrate to that country.” These were Tolstoy’s friend, Prince Khilkov, who had been living in England, and Ivan Ivin and Peter Mahortov, two Doukhobors who had just arrived in London to seek assistance for their community. The Committee entered into negotiations with the Cyprus Development Company, which offered to sell them 1,570 acres of land, one of the company’s directors, Alexander Dunlop, undertaking to superintend the immigration. At the same time the Committee sought to have passport and transit charges waived by the Tsarist authorities and tried to ascertain the number of Doukhobors planning to travel, while urging them “Don’t start till you hear from us again…”

The High Commissioner for Cyprus, William F. Haynes Smith, raised no objection to the proposal to settle the Doukhobors on the island, providing that sufficient land was made available for them to cultivate. In London, John Bellows wrote to the Foreign Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, on behalf of the Relief Committee, seeking the government’s sanction for the proposal. On further information being sought from the Foreign Office a file was forwarded to the Colonial Office which showed that the Doukhobors had already come to the attention of the British authorities. Captain St John, apprehended while distributing relief funds to Doukhobors in the Caucasus, had been arrested by the Russian police and eventually expelled from the Empire, the British Consul at Batum, P. Stevens, had reported, following an interview with him. In May Stevens had written to the Foreign Office informing of the Doukhobors’ desire to emigrate from the Russian Empire. He reported that the Caucasian official response stated that the Russian authorities welcomed the Doukhobor request to emigrate as it rid them of `a permanently disturbing element’ but pointed out:

This, in the face of the undoubted fact that the sectarians, since their settlement in the Trans-Caucasus, have by their good behaviour, diligence, sobriety and hard working qualities, brought nothing but prosperity to the barren localities in which they were already settled, is, to say the least, but a poor and very unsatisfactory way of solving a question which would have probably never cropped up had it not been for the despotic and arbitrary actions, in the first instance, of a hand-full of subordinate officials.

The Relief Committee’s plan as outlined by its secretary, John Bellows in a letter to the High Commissioner, was that some 3,500 Doukhobors would travel in from four to six steamers, the first arriving in Cyprus toward the end of August 1898. The settlers would be brought in at ports to the north and south of the island and in staged settlements, in order that facilities could be prepared for them in advance. In his letter to Haynes Smith, and another sent almost simultaneously to the Foreign Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, Bellows stressed that the Doukhobors were not paupers and would not become a drain on the island’s resources.

Lush vegetation abounds in rural Cyprus.

Cyprus, situated at a strategic point in the East Mediterranean, had long been the subject of colonisation by various powers. In the nineteenth century it had formed part of the Ottoman Empire until the signing of the Cyprus Convention in June 1878, at the time of the Berlin Conference, which established a British protectorate over the island. At the time, as Britain was entering a period of imperial expansion, the acquisition had been hailed by the Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli as a significant gain, Cyprus, he claimed would be “the key to western Asia”. Queen Victoria, too, was delighted but the Liberal Party, and in particular its leader, William Ewart Gladstone, were opposed to the annexation. As it turned out, the shallowness of the harbours, combined with their lack of natural defenses were a disappointment to the Admiralty, which had hoped to use the island as a naval and military base (instead, the island of Malta was to serve this purpose). Since about two-thirds of the population of around 186,000 was Greek-speaking, Orthodox in religion and maintained links with Greece (the remainder was Turkish, with a few Syrians, Armenians and other nationalities), some British political thinkers favoured handing over the island to the Greek government. However, this would have antagonised the Turkish government which still nominally owned the island. On the other hand, to return Cyprus to the Ottomans would have upset the Greeks and to have given away a colonial possession would not then have been popular in Britain. Thus from the establishment of the protectorate in 1879 to the formal annexation of the island into the British Empire on 5 November 1914, with the outbreak of war between Britain and Turkey, the government of the island remained in a kind of limbo. Uncertainty about the future of Cyprus led, John Reddaway has argued, to a certain amount of administrative drift:

“… The result was that for most of the period of British rule there was in a sense no British policy for Cyprus at all. There were reasons which were understandable and which deserved respect for the adoption of an attentiste posture by successive British governments, but this was not conducive to consistency and vigour in planning the Island’s future.”

Government was in the hands of a High Commissioner, appointed by the British government and responsible to the Colonial Office in London. Below him in rank were six regional commissioners. The island was quite poor and underdeveloped, its agriculture suffering from recurrent drought and attacks by locusts and its small population subject to malaria. The British administration continued Turkish measures against locusts, carried out irrigation projects, road building and some afforestation and improved the health services and urban sanitation. Efforts to increase agricultural production by the establishment of a Board of Agriculture for the island were blocked in London. Moreover, the islanders had to pay an annual tribute to the British administration of £92,799, or just under ten shillings per head of the population, which was a considerable burden on an underdeveloped economy.

The colonial administration on the island was not hostile to the suggestion of a Doukhobor settlement. The governor, Sir William Frederick Haynes Smith, had only begun his term of office in Cyprus the previous year but he was perceived as fond of large projects. Following a meeting with Captain St John, he wrote on 5 June to put the proposal to the Colonial Office and advanced the opinion that “the introduction of these people might be of advantage to the Island,” provided certain conditions were met, namely that proper housing should be provided, together with cultivable land and farm implements, and that there should be sufficient means to support them “until they can reap their first crop”. Moreover, he held that:

The first essential of success would be that the first introduction should be of a sufficient number to form a Village of their own and that amongst the individuals selected to come in the first vessels should be some of each of the common trades as well as some agriculturists, so as far as possible to make the community independent of the aid of persons outside their Village. The second essential is in my view that a proper school should be established and the children taught to learn and speak English.

Chamberlain, while expressing in a note the worry that the settlement might harbour agitators against Russia or contain Russian spies, did not raise the matter officially. Nor did the Foreign Office offer any objections, so the Doukhobor Relief Committee and the Colonial Office commenced negotiations as to how much money the Committee needed to provide per immigrant to indemnify them should the enterprise fail. Initially the government was demanding a sum of £20 per head as guarantee but the Quakers managed, on pleading the Doukhobors’ good character, to have it reduced to £15 and eventually to £10.

Nevertheless, the authorities in Cyprus were nervous and when word reached them that some Doukhobors were on their way; they pointed out that the usual guarantees had not been agreed, and there was worry over how the Cypriots would respond: “The Cypriot is intensely jealous of outsiders, and there is no demand for local labour, so that the community must be self-supporting from the outset. These people do not know the language or the local conditions and must be maintained while they are learning.” Haynes Smith, from his summer residence in the Troodos mountains, issued a proclamation on 27 July, forbidding the landing “of any destitute persons unless and until due provision has first been made for the proper support in Cyprus of every such person to the satisfaction of the High Commissioner…” Instructions were sent out to the Larnaca customs to prohibit the landing of any Doukhobors. As it turned out, the orders reached the customs officials too late to prevent the landing (on the morning of 27 July) but this was only the three-man investigation party, Khilkov, Ivin and Mahortov, sent by London. As Captain St. John hastened to assure the regional commissioner at Larnaca, these men were far from destitute and one member of the group [Khilkov] bore the rank of prince.

It is worth noting that by the time of the meeting on 28 July between St John and the Regional Commissioner, the day after the three men had arrived, the Doukhobor party appears to have made up its mind that it would not recommend Cyprus for settlement. They left the island on 30 July, three days after their arrival, Khilkov apparently describing it as a “burnt-out stump,” where it was impossible even to live, let alone make a living. Therefore, instead of making arrangements for the arrival of the first party of Doukobor immigrants, as they had been requested, the delegation did not even bother to inspect the property at Athalassa selected for settlement and probably had decided even before arriving in Cyprus not to recommend the project. This may be explained by the fact that they had set their hearts on emigration to “America” as a solution and they may only have undertaken the trip to Cyprus in order to humour their Quaker supporters. The decision against Cyprus seems to have been taken by Khilkov, as Aylmer Maude relates that Ivin and Mahorkov were unwilling ever to make such decisions unilaterally, but his attitude reflected a general aspiration among the Doukhobors to go to America. They returned to London to urge a settlement in America, but their arguments came too late to prevent a group of Doukhobors sailing from Batum to Cyprus in August.

In London, negotiations had continued. On 30 July the Colonial Secretary, Chamberlain, wrote to Bellows, to explain that until proper arrangements had been made for the Doukhobors in Cyprus, in terms of land and buildings, farm implements, seed and sufficient funds to support them for the first two years, together with a reserve fund in case of failure of the experiment, they would not be allowed to settle.

The British Consul in Batum, Stevens, had informed the Foreign office in a despatch dated 9 July that 3,000 Doukhobors would be ready to leave in a month and that Captain St John was already in Cyprus seeking land for them. On 21 July a deputation of Doukhobors met the Consul and formally requested permission to emigrate to Cyprus, who then sent a telegram to the Foreign Office passing on the request. In late July, having sold all their property, over 1,000 of them came to Batum to await word from the Foreign Office. Two weeks later, they lost patience, decided to take matters into their own hand and chartered an old French steamer, the Durau, to carry 1,127 of them to Cyprus, sailing from Batum on 19 August. According to Aylmer Maude, they were anxious to move at once because they were both harassed by the Russian authorities and also they feared that the permission to migrate might be withdrawn. Maude, who later travelled with them to Canada, points out that the Doukhobors were “an illiterate peasant sect, ignorant of foreign languages and geography, of whom many had been reduced to the verge of starvation, and all had been impoverished by exactions and by the drain of supporting the exiled and dispersed within Russia.” In addition, he related that all communication between the Doukhobors and the outside world was liable to interruption by the Russian administration and their leaders and more educated supporters had been banished from the Caucasus. This may be so, but it is probable that knowledge of their destination was fairly hazy among many of those who migrated in the nineteenth century. Even without their leaders and more educated supporters the Doukhobors could be quite resourceful and Biryukov and Chertkov from London, were urging them to leave.

Biryukov’s account echoes Maude’s in stressing how worried the Doukhobors were that the authorities’ decision might be revoked. He recounts a fear amongst the Doukhobors and their neighbours in the Caucasus that the permission was a trap, to be played by a government which up to then had shown itself both cruel and capricious, that it was in fact an attempt to kill the Doukhobors by shelling the steamers as they left the port and drowning their passengers. While waiting in Batum, some had considered the alternative of crossing the Turkish border; others had chartered two steamers to Marseilles and were only prevented from leaving for France by the arrival of the telegram from England informing them that permission had been granted to enter Cyprus.

The impending arrival of the Doukhobors caused a certain amount of panic on the part of the authorities because none of the necessary preparations had been completed. It also put the Relief Committee in a difficult and embarrassing position. When its members were informed by the Colonial Office that the Doukhobors had chartered a ship and were on the point of departure from Batum, they had to provide assurances before the Cyprus authorities would give permission to allow them onto the island. Thirty-three individuals undertook such guarantees, out of which eight provided guarantees of £1,000 each and one of £2,000, the total amounting to £11,895. They then wired the Consul at Batum to allow only 1,100 to sail. To the British government they gave assurances that Alexander Dunlop (of the Cyprus Development Company) would make the necessary arrangements, that they would cover the cost of any temporary accommodation necessary, and that Wilson Sturge, from the Society would reach Cyprus on 28 August. They immediately had to organise the rental of land in Cyprus, and the purchase and shipping of tents and other equipment. Much of the cost of all this was provided out of a grant of £1200 by one donor, Arnold Eilouart.

Port of Larnaca, Cyprus, c. 1899.

Haynes Smith received a telegram on the night of 16 August from the Society of Friends in London, which read: `Russian Emigrants expected to arrive Larnaca 21st. Committee respectfully bespeak your kind consideration.’ Faced with the influx of over a thousand immigrants, the authorities in Cyprus considered prohibiting them from landing although they wanted to avoid this course of action. Had they decided to forbid the landing, it would have put the Doukhobors in a perilous situation because one condition of their permission to leave Russia was that they would not return and it might have proved difficult to find an alternative port ready and able to provide facilities for over a thousand travellers. As Haynes Smith reported on 19 August, on looking into the arrangements being made for their arrival he had discovered that neither of those meant to be organising the Doukhobor settlement in Cyprus, Dunlop of the Cyprus Company and Arthur St John, on behalf of the Relief Committee, seemed to have received any instructions. St John suggested that they should wait until the immigrants came, ask if they meant to stay, and if so make arrangements then. Following his meeting with Khilkov, Mahortov and Ivin, a month before, he was evidently convinced that the Doukhobors would not wish to remain. On being urged by the Acting Commissioner in Larnaca, Mr Ongley, to purchase a chiflik (settlement) to which the Doukhobors might be moved following quarantine, he refused, on the grounds that he was unsure that the Doukhobors would remain in Cyprus and spoke of trying to persuade the captain of the steamer to take the immigrants on to Constantinople, and petition the Sultan to allow them to land.

Despite his obvious irritation, Haynes Smith tried to take a practical approach to the threatening crisis, but he was very worried about the lack of preparations and aware of the dangers of “placing men under canvas on the hot and shadeless plains at the most unhealthy season of the year…” pointing out, “but even this accommodation cannot be received for some three weeks after the people have arrived.” [the Society of Friends had promised that tents were on the way].

The Cypriot administration was particularly worried about the danger of importing infectious diseases into the island. As Haynes Smith explained:

In the pamphlet published in London last year by the well wishers of the Doukhobortsis it is stated that owing to their sufferings epidemics such as `fevers, typhus, diphtheria and dysentery,’ have appeared among them and `already among the majority of them certain eye diseases which are the sure harbingers of scurvy,’ and again, `almost all are suffering from diseases, and disease and mortality are constantly increasing’.

He emphasised the need for some precaution for quarantining the immigrants.

The Doukhobors landed at Larnaca on 26 August and were immediately lodged in the quarantine station. This was made up of a group of sheds grouped around a yard and surrounded by a fence, near the sea on the edge of the town. Some of the group were accommodated in the sheds but others had to remain in tents provided by the authorities, quite tightly packed together in the yard. The immigrants made a good impression, the Commissioner of Larnaca noting: “A quieter or more orderly set of people I have never yet seen, and considering what they have undergone they appear to be a fine healthy lot.” There were 1129 people in all, of which 326 were adult men, 360 women, 221 boys and 222 girls. On the evening of 29 August Pavel Biryukov and Wilson Sturge, from the Relief Committee, arrived on the island to help with arrangements and the next day the Doukhobors’ period of quarantine expired so it was possible to move them. The problem that now presented itself was that since St John had not thought they would stay, he had not looked for land other than that already located by the Relief Committee.

Two days after their arrival a group of 200 people was sent to the land rented for settlement at Athalassa. The authorities were approached to provide for 500 more in tents in the government gardens at Larnaca, and the remaining 379 were to stay, for the time being in the quarantine station yard, also in tents. Cyprus is usually very hot in August (temperatures of between 30 and 40 degrees Celsius are common) and sickness broke out almost immediately. By 3 September, three people had died, the commissioner in Larnaca reporting that:

I had occasion to speak to Mr Biriukov about the arrangements generally, which are conducted with very great economy, for instance awnings of cheap mats, which I recommended and which would have afforded some shade, have not been provided, and there is a want of proper supervision and management as Mr Biriukov is quite new to the place. There are a good many cases of fever – yet the fitting up of a room or ward for the sick has been neglected. I am urging that this should be done or a house close to the quarantine, which is available, hired for the purpose.

The commissioner was immediately authorised by the Cyprus administration to incur any expenses necessary to the wellbeing of the Doukhobors, the outlay to be recouped later from the Society of Friends.

Within a fortnight after their arrival in Cyprus the Doukhobors were settled in three separate colonies: the majority, 578 at Athalassa near Nicosia in the central plain, 445 at Pergamos and 100 at Kouklia, the latter two close to the southern coast. There had been some efforts on the part of the authorities to identify available land. On 20 September St John wrote to the High Commissioner enquiring whether the government would allow settlements on two further sites in the Paphos district but it turned out that these were already occupied, the local commissioner noting that the inhabitants “manage to eke out an existence with the help of their flocks but the nature of the lands may be judged from the fact that the occupants of Ayios Mercurios are frequently reduced to existing on dried figs, there being no bread available.” The Cyprus officials seem to have had doubts about the capacity of the organisers, particularly Captain St John, who, moreover, became seriously ill with malaria while in Cyprus, although his letters to the authorities seeking land do take on a note of urgency “as the Doukhobors are suffering much from sickness”.

When the Doukhobors reached the land on which they were to settle they set about building houses of dried brick, the local building material. They began clearing the ground but the number of deaths mounted through September. Athalassa, the largest colony, was situated in a hollow, where the heat of the sun gathered but was sheltered from any cooling breeze. Kouklia, where there was a sharecropping arrangement made with the Cyprus Development Company, had good land but was an area where fever was endemic. Pergamos, on the other hand, situated on high ground was healthier but the soil was thin and stony. By mid-October there had been 30 deaths and the Doukhobors were requesting immediate transfer to Canada. However, at that time the Friends’ Relief Committee had just over £4,000 in hand and many of those Doukhobors remaining in Russia (some 6,000) were also clamouring to be taken into exile. They did, however, immediately arrange for a doctor to be sent from England and for two Russian nurses to travel to Cyprus to care for the sick. They also went on collecting funds and by April 1899 had raised almost fifteen thousand pounds.

Bullock wagons on the road from Larnaca to Nicosia, Cyprus along which Doukhobors travelled en route to Athalassa in late 1898. BC Archives, Koozma J. Tarasoff Collection.

Two letters written by Wilson Sturge and Pavel Biryukov in December gave rather optimistic reports of the Doukhobor settlements, despite the death toll. Athalassa had date palms, orange trees and both it and the smaller settlement at Pergamos had olive trees. By December ground had been cleared and ploughed and houses built. Wheat was bought for them in Cyprus and brought by ship from Britain. Cheese, butter, condensed milk and quinine were also supplied by the Society of Friends, together with seed, which they began to plant in December and January, once the rains came. As Biryukov pointed out, Cyprus was a vegetarian’s paradise, as various types of grain, a great variety of vegetable and a wide range of fruit were grown. The Doukhobors seem to have got on well with their Turkish Cypriot neighbours, because they did not have icons, did not eat pork and many of them spoke Turkish, having learned it in the Caucasus. Two hostile articles in Greek language newspapers when the Doukhobors arrived, but there seems to have been no active antagonism toward them by either Greek or Turkish Cypriots. There was a small Jewish settlement of fourteen families at Marga, near the road from Larnaca to Nicosia, which Wilson Sturge described as `a pleasant-looking colony… dotted over with dwellings and well watered.’ This boded well for the Doukhobors once the initial settling in phase had been endured.

Why, then, did the Doukhobors suffer so much sickness and mortality among their number? To begin with, as several commentators observed at the time, there had been sickness in the Caucasus. In the three years since the repression against them started, between 1000 and 2000 of them had died. Biryukov claimed that the sicknesses suffered in Cyprus were the same as they had experienced there and that “as a matter of fact they were all ill in the Caucasus”. He attributed some of the problem to their diet. While approving in general of a vegetarian diet, he pointed out that “if an abundant meat diet is given up to be replaced by poorly made soup of cabbage, radish and kvass, without any variety, and other trials have at the same time to be endured, stomach derangement must follow.” Added to that, though, were crowding, impurities in the drinking water and a warmer climate than that to which they were accustomed. They seem to have suffered from a mixture of dysentery and malaria, which affected women and children particularly acutely. Cyprus had a problem with malaria until the 1940s, when measures were undertaken to spray all marshy places regularly with DDT, in order to eliminate the mosquitoes that carry it.

Another further contributory factor in the illness suffered by the Doukhobors was that apart from the mud brick dwellings, they built dug-out huts in earthen banks, as they had been accustomed to use as temporary dwellings in the Caucasus. However, in Cyprus December can bring heavy rain and the dug-outs situated near to the latrines became insanitary.

The pattern of mortality is worth examining. By the end of August, that is just days after the Doukhobors had arrived, there had been two deaths, one on the 27th and one on the 31st. By 8 September there had been 2 more deaths, one on the 2nd and one on the 8th. The fastest rise in deaths seems to have been in September and October, so that by mid-October there had been 30 deaths and by early November the total rose to 50. By the end of December 75 had died, by which time the fever was reported as abating. Between December and April, when the Doukhobors left the island, there were 33 further deaths, but this at an average of ten a month was well below that of the earlier months. Unfortunately no breakdown of figures appear to be available for the period after December, so it is impossible to estimate whether or not abnormal deaths ceased altogether but on Cyprus it was generally accepted that malaria was worse in the summer and much less in the winter. The pattern may have been one of “gate mortality”, associated with the risks involved in travelling and settling into a new and alien environment, although in this case the mortality levels do appear to have been unusually high. It is, however, comparable with the mortality level of about 80 per thousand suffered in the Georgian valleys. They had already suffered two years of extreme hardship there before their journey to Cyprus, which would have weakened the systems of many of them, making them more vulnerable to illness. The extent to which the immigrants may have brought some sickness with them is difficult to gauge. Malaria can take time to incubate and it is possible that some of it was already contracted while the migrants were in the uncomfortable conditions in Batum, waiting to board the ship to take them to Cyprus. Nevertheless, its effects were devastating, not only in terms of deaths but in addition it left its survivors debilitated and depressed long after the fever had abated.

Perhaps, with the initial shock of settlement over, houses built, crops planted, olive oil pressed, it might be argued that the Doukhobors could eventually have settled in happily in Cyprus. In fact, as Biryukov elicited in discussions with them a few weeks after their arrival, it would never have provided a permanent solution. This was because the Doukobors had a very clear idea of what they wanted, which was to gather the whole community together in one place with the aim of setting up a kingdom of God on Earth, holding fast to their beliefs and customs. Cyprus, where they would have been scattered in settlements across the island could not provide this. Moreover, the type of lifestyle imposed by the very different surroundings would of necessity impose alterations on their traditional way of life, change that they were unwilling to accept. The decisive factor was that by the late autumn it had been decided that other Doukhobor groups still in the Caucasus would be sent to Canada and they wanted to join them. In response to a letter from the Relief Committee congratulating them on their safe arrival in Cyprus and wishing them well in their new settlement, they sent a reply, dated 20 September, drafted by Biryukov and signed by seven Doukhobors, setting out their difficulties with life in Cyprus, their hopes of eventual reunification with the remainder of their coreligionists and their request for resettlement “in America or Canada”. The proposal was discussed by the Relief Committee on 3 November 1898 and 5 January 1899. On 2 February the Committee took the decision “to endeavour to arrange, so far as funds will permit, for the Doukhobors now in Cyprus to be sent forward to Canada, leaving the island in the early part of fourth month [i.e. April] next, or as near this date as feasible.”

The reason the Committee could now accede to the petition was that the situation had changed somewhat in the meantime. It turned out that some of the Doukhobors in Russia had sufficient savings to pay for their own passage. The bulk of the funding, however, was provided by Tolstoy, who had initially set up a subscription in Russia. He then decided to augment the money collected with the proceeds of two of his works, Father Sergei and Resurrection (indeed, had it not been for his wish to help the Doukhobors, these might never have been completed because Tolstoy had given up publishing fiction). Prompted by an article in the The Nineteenth Century by the Anarchist thinker, Prince Peter Kropotkin, about a visit to the Mennonite community in Canada, the Canadian government was approached and offered land and practical assistance for the Doukhobors to settle. Following negotiations with the Canadian authorities, a group of 2,149 Doukhobors travelled from Batum to Canada on 22 December 1898, a second ship following in January. On 18 April the Cyprus group sailed from Larnaca, a fourth ship leaving Batum in May. Wilson Sturge, of the Relief Committee, remained in Cyprus to see to the harvesting and sale of crops sown by the Doukhobors but died in Malta on the journey back to England.

Athalassa farm in Cyprus occupied by Doukhobors in 1899. BC Archives, Koozma J. Tarasoff Collection.

In conclusion, the main argument here presented is that rather than being predictable from the outset, the failure of the Cyprus colony was a complex result of misunderstanding, precipitate action and mischance, and perhaps above all, of the desire on the part of the Doukhobors to settle elsewhere. Their illness and suffering on the island were, however, severe. They resulted partly from their own decision to come to Cyprus before adequate preparations had been made, one they took for understandable reasons in the face of harassment by the Tsarist authorities and fear that their permission to leave might be rescinded. Unfortunately, their arrival came at the worst possible time of year, when temperatures were at their hottest and therefore life in tents was both uncomfortable and hazardous. In addition, the Doukhobors had difficulty adjusting to a climate, agricultural practices and quite alien foods. Had there been no alternative they might eventually have made a success of Cyprus – these were resourceful people – but given the favourable opportunities offered for their community in Canada they set their sights on re-migration.

At the same time, there seems to have been a certain lack of communication between the Relief Committee on the one hand and the Doukhobors and their Tolstoyan supporters on the other. This may have been due to language barriers, or to an unwillingness to alienate the Quakers by stating their wishes more explicitly but there is an unmistakable note of irritation in Bellows’s letters to Chamberlain of 28 December 1898 and 12 May 1899. In the first of these he blamed the high level of mortality on “that ill-advised push made by some of Tolstoi’s friends in England, who urged the Dukhobors to come away at once in a large body, instead of letting a hundred men first land in Cyprus and prepare for the settlement by building shelters, etc.” He continued:

This, as thou art aware not only put the Friends’ Committee in a false position, by placing on them the task of caring for over 1100 helpless people before they could possibly rightly arrange for it, but it forced on the Cyprus authorities the need of making quarantine arrangements very far in excess of those provided in the existing hospital. The only thing they could do was to erect tents (at our Committee’s cost), in the public garden at Larnaca: and as this spot was somewhat marshy and very hot, it developed the malaria the seeds of which were already in the blood of not a few of the immigrants.”

In his letter of 12 May, thanking Chamberlain for his support, he admitted:

Individually I confess to a disappointment from this [the failure of the Cyprus settlement], which is the more keen because but for the impulsive action of some of the Russian sympathizers with these poor people, I am convinced that they would have become acclimatized and have formed a really valuable addition to the population of the Island.

Bellows’s positive assessment of the Doukhobor community was echoed by the High Commissioner in his report for 1898-9, in which he gave a brief account of the settlement, concluding that: “These interesting people accordingly quitted Cyprus, leaving behind them the recollection of a singularly courteous and well conducted community.” In the end, however, things worked out well for the Doukhobors. The Canadian climate suited them and the countryside could accommodate 7000 of them in Doukhobor communities. In fact, not all the Doukhobors left Russia and today scattered communities remain in Georgia and on the Don, where Philip Marsden visited them in the 1990s.

One effect of the Doukhobor affair was that international publicity given to their treatment helped to further identify tsarism with oppression. The 1890s had seen a famine in Central Russia, the expulsion of some 20,000 Jews from Moscow and St Petersburg to the Jewish Pale, the publication in the west of George Kennan’s exposé of the mistreatment of Siberian convicts, in Siberia and the Exile System (all in 1891), increased attempts to impose Russian culture on national minorities, and the often brutal suppression of workers’ strikes. There is, moreover, a certain irony in the fact that the exodus of the Doukhobors coincided with Nicholas II’s call for a disarmament conference at The Hague. His ill-treatment of pacifists within Russia’s borders must have weakened, to some extent at least, the credibility of his intentions, although the experience of pacifists and conscientious objectors in the First World War demonstrates that the validity of such a position had yet to be fully accepted by governments anywhere.

For More Information

For more information about the short-lived Doukhobor settlement experiment on Cyprus in 1898-1899, the factors leading to its establishment and the reasons for its ultimate failure, see: The Doukhobors on Cyprus by Pavel Ivanovich Biryukov and With the Doukhobors on Cyprus by Ivan Stepanovich Prokhanov.