A Visit with the Doukhobors of Irkutsk

by Nikolai Mikhailovich Astyrev

Nikolai Mikhailovich Astyrev (1857-1894) was a writer who specialized in subjects of Russian folk life. From 1888 until his death, he was a government statistician stationed in Irkutsk. In 1891, Astyrev visited the village of Koty in northern Irkutsk province. The population of Koty was predominantly Orthodox, but the village did serve as the sole point of the weak development of Doukhoborism in the province. His article, originally published as “V Gostiakh u Dukhobortsev Irkutskoi Gubernii” in the Russian journal “Sievernii Viestnik” (St. Petersburg, No. 4, April 1891: 52-65), provides a rare glimpse of a small group of Doukhobors isolated from the main body of Doukhobors in the Caucasus. It is made available for the first time in English translation in this Doukhobor Genealogy Website exclusive. Translation and editorial notes by Jack McIntosh. Afterword by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

Preface by the Author

According to official statistics, there are, apart from the 212,000-strong rural population of the Russian Orthodox faith in the three southern districts of Irkutsk guberniia (province) (not counting Buddhists and Shamanists, who number 12,000 and 38,000 respectively), 5,800 sectarians of both sexes, that is, 2.2% overall. A substantial proportion of them are first-generation exiles. Many of the convicts, as is well known, have not settled down to married life and thus leave no heirs (this is especially true of Catholics and Lutherans). Of the sectarians who could or might under other circumstances be able to have a marked influence on the Orthodox masses, only two groups are noteworthy: the Dukhobortsy (Dukhobors) and the Subbotniki (Sabbatarians). The remaining sects are represented by only a few first-generation individual exiles, although of course under exceptionally favourable circumstances, on prepared soil, even one Stundist or Shelaput (sic – i.e. Shalaput) could grow many seeds with his teaching. But the soil, I emphasize, is not all that favourable to any kind of ethical doctrine, be it mystical or rationalistic. As for the two sectarian groups mentioned, according to the national census of 1888, they number as follows: Subbotniki – ninety-one families, totaling 653 persons, and Dukhobors – eight families comprising forty-three individuals.

While traveling around Irkutsk Province, I happened to become personally acquainted with these groups of local inhabitants, albeit very fleetingly, unfortunately. Nevertheless, in view of interest in the subject itself, I think that a few pages telling the story of my encounter with people “searching for the Holy City,” will not be squandered uselessly.

In the literature about the Dukhobors I have read many articles, all of which suffer from a casual approach and incomplete observations, or from a narrow and unseemly one-sidedness. Novitsky’s work on the Dukhobors, published back in 1832, deserves to be considered the most substantial contribution to the history of the Dukhobors. It is based on the author’s personal observations and investigations. Plenty of water has flowed under the bridge since then, and perhaps to a considerable extent Novitsky’s prediction of numerous changes in store for the Dukhobors’ philosophy has been borne out. Thus it would be all the more important and interesting now to have a new detailed and disinterested investigation of this subject, tracing the changes in beliefs, rituals and communal life that have taken place during the sixty-year interval during which a significant event for all Dukhobors occurred – the migration of the Dukhobors from the Molochnye Vody (Milky Waters) to the Transcaucasus.

While it is not firmly established when the Molokan/Dukhobor sect emerged, it is commonly accepted that it happened in the first half of the last century in the provinces of Tambov and Kharkov. The sectarians called themselves “Spiritual Christians” and to some extent, this name is still in use. After the death of Siluan Kolesnikov, who gave flesh and blood to this sect, a split formed within it. Some of the sectarians remained loyal to the teaching of Kolesnikov and his disciple, Uklein; the others followed the interpretation of the new reformers, Pobirokhin and Kapustin, as to the significance of the holy scriptures and parted from Uklein’s followers in their understanding of several other questions of essentially secondary importance. Thus there occurred a division of the sect into Molokans and Dukhobors, who differ very little even now in the spirit of their beliefs, but abhor each other with the passion of narrow-minded fanatics. In the last century, the Dukhobors were severely persecuted: they were exiled to Siberia, to Ezel island, and to the Kola Peninsula.

Nikolai Mikhailovich

Nikolai Mikhailovich Astyrev (1857-1894)

In 1802-1804, the sectarians who remained in various localities of central Russia were allowed to move together as a group to the Molochnye Vody area (located in the Melitopol district of Tavria province); later, after becoming personally acquainted with the sectarians, Tsar Alexander I permitted all other sectarians who had been previously exiled to outlying areas of Russia to move there too. The new Milky Waters settlements prospered greatly, especially during their first years. The sectarians laid purely communistic foundations for their mutual relations; but although the rural economy of the peasant village (mir) developed very successfully in terms of material results, the Milky Waters commune did not hold out for long, and by the end of the 1820s no trace of it remained. What took its place was theocratic domination by the “Council of Thirty”, who took it upon themselves to keep a watch on the conduct of their unreliable brethren, acted like St. Hermandad (in medieval Castile, holy “brotherhoods” formed for vigilante purposes) and disgraced themselves with numerous clandestine crimes. When some of those crimes nevertheless came to light, a decree was issued in 1841 forcing the sectarians to be evicted from Milky Waters to present-day Akhaltsykh and Elizavetpol districts in the Transcaucasus. The localities chosen for settlement were unhealthy; the settlers were threatened by constant danger from as yet unsubdued mountain tribes and numerous criminals, but the colonists withstood all these trials and by now have settled whole districts in the area in question.

This has been a brief historical sketch of the Dukhobor sect in Russia. As for the life of the exiled sectarians in Siberia in general and in Irkutsk Province in particular is concerned, almost nothing is known. However, there is some indication that in 1805, exiled Dukhobors in Irkutsk Province petitioned for transmigration to the Milky Waters, but were refused at that time and possibly migrated later after receiving gracious permission from Tsar Alexander I, who personally visited the Milky Waters colonies. As for specifically who among the Dukhobors were subsequently exiled to Eastern Siberia and why, I am also uninformed. In the Oyek volost (rural district) in Irkutsk okrug (larger territorial division), forty versts (Imperial Russian linear measure equal to 3,500 feet or 1.067 km) from Irkutsk and three versts from the large village of Oyek with its 3500 inhabitants lies the village of Koty, perfectly ordinary in outward appearance, land and other economic conditions, with its 150 Siberian old settler homesteads and ten belonging to the recent arrivals. The village has its own parish priest and a church built by a merchant-benefactor from Irkutsk who used to be a peasant in Koty. There is a tavern maintained by another merchant who so far has only said that he intends to build a church somewhere to atone for his sins. There is also a little shop run by “a political exile from the nobility“ (i.e. a participant in the Polish Revolt), who has put about five thousand rubles into circulation at an annual “Christian“ rate of interest of 40-80 per-cent secured by pasture allotments, arable lands, cows, horses and other peasant properties, in return for which they call him a “benefactor”. In a word, as a village, Koty stands out from the rest solely by being the only place of development, weak though it is, of the Dukhobor sect in Irkutsk Province.

Before my arrival there, all I knew about the local Dukhobor community was that it numbers forty persons; in addition, information about the sect’s origin, its growth, and attitudes of the Orthodox towards the Dukhobors was related to me by the local village clerk, a local peasant who bore no resemblance to the usual type of clerk appointed from among the exiled settlers – typically drunk, sneaky and thievish. About twenty years ago, the mother of a Koty peasant who had served her sentence in exile in Yakutsk Oblast, returned to her native village accompanied by “an old man of quiet demeanor”. This guest spent a winter modestly in the village and left for parts unknown in the spring, while leaving lasting traces of his stay in Koty. Some time later, at a village assembly, three or four families among the local old settlers ceremoniously refused to pay their ruga (annual contribution to the local clergy), to supply firewood to the church and the parish priest, or to pay housing support to the sexton. In a word, they declared that they would no longer “carry” any church duties and, as confirmation of their break with Orthodoxy, they returned their home icons to the church. When asked by their surprised fellow-villagers what all of this meant, the dissidents declared that from now on they reject the church, sacraments, rituals and the clergy and had become “Spiritual Christians – Dukhobors”. “Up to now, we wandered in darkness, and only now have we found the true faith and the pathway to salvation,” they solemnly replied.

Of course such a significant fact could not pass unnoticed by “those responsible for keeping watch.” At first, the sectarians experienced hard times. However, they firmly withstood this ordeal and their existence in Koty was finally officially acknowledged. The volost was issued with books to register the births, marriages and deaths of the sectarians and the reprimands ceased or became less persistent. The Orthodox believers began to “carry” church duties and taxes on behalf of the sectarians, in return loading on them cartage duties and other village responsibilities not related to the church.

Over the past twenty years, four more peasant families have joined the sect at various times, so now they number twenty men and twenty-three women. Still, this growth of the sect has to be considered very slow when compared to the incredibly rapid success of sectarian propaganda in Russia. The attitude of the Orthodox toward the sectarians in Oyek and neighboring districts nowadays can be described as reserved and curious: every son of the true church observes the actions of his heretical neighbors with distrustful curiosity at times masked by indifference, as if in constant expectation that all of a sudden they will “pull some kind of stunt.” The Orthodox express their common opinion about the sectarians in approximately the following words: “We have seen nothing bad about them that we don’t do ourselves: they are not used to drinking, they care for the salvation of their souls much more than we do – only in their own way, of course. The bad thing is that they have no respect for the church, icons and all that.”

But if in conversation one brings up the economic relations between these two sides, the Orthodox people inevitably begin to speak in offended tones about the sectarians’ refusal to fulfill their obligations to the church. “But didn’t you pile on them lots of extra obligations in exchange for relieving them of the ruga and church duties?” “That’s right, but it’s still offensive ….”

For their part, the Dukhobors explained that they fulfill extra village duties worth twice as much as all the services to the church that they had rejected. “They are glad to oppress us because they are a force, a whole army, while we are a small handful. Still, we are yet prepared to put up with it for the sake of our faith.”

Among the householders of Koty I spoke to about “the pleasures of the soil” and community affairs, there was a Dukhobor, one who had only recently abandoned Orthodoxy, as the clerk told me. Snatching a moment when no one was paying attention to us, I asked, “You are a Dukhobor, aren’t you?” Suspicious, he gazed at me intently, but hastened to answer in the affirmative.

In the evening, the work being over, I asked the clerk whether he could take me to the recently met Dukhobor and whether it would be acceptable to show up at his place unannounced. The clerk dispelled my doubts and led me through the narrow, winding streets of the village. He stopped at the small, plain hut with a tumbledown fence around the yard. “This is Nikolay Petrovich’s hut. Shall I knock?” “What about you?” I asked, “Will you come in too? Won’t he be embarrassed?” “Don’t worry. He is entirely without formality! They know me.”

Our knock on the gates and the dog’s growling brought the man out into the yard. “Who’s here?” he asked, half-opening the wicket-gate. I stood so that the moonlight fell on my face and asked in return: “Will you welcome unexpected guests, Nikolay Petrovich?” He was somewhat confused at first by our unexpected arrival, but immediately tried to regain his composure and replied in an exaggeratedly calm voice: “There are no two guests alike. There are all sorts!… Please come in.”

The interior furnishings of the hut also turned out to be very poor. A Russian stove, already caving in from decrepitude, took up a quarter of the space. Burning brightly in the small hearth set into the corner of the stove an arshin (Imperial Russian linear measure equal to 28 inches or 71 cm) and a half above the floor were four finely chopped pieces of firewood spreading warmth and light throughout the hut (poor peasants in Siberia warm their homes in such a way all through the winter). Small dark pegs were hanging right over the door; in the corner there was a bed with a torn large felt mat with two soiled cushions instead of a mattress. There was a table in the krasny ugol (“red corner”, a special space in a Russian peasant hut usually decorated with embroidered towels and one or more icons, to form a private chapel); along two walls were benches. There were no icons, but hanging along the walls forming the krasny ugol were several oleographs (a chromolithograph printed from metal or stone plates using oil paint on canvas – in imitation of oil paintings), portraits of the royal family, a group of European emperors, among whom, incidentally, I noticed the Shah of Persia; I noticed “The Broad and Narrow Way”, a painting of a group of ladies and gentlemen in the funniest caftans and dresses passing through the gates of hell, and a group of simple men, pilgrims and monks passing through the narrow gate into the kingdom of heaven. There was also “Christ being tempted by the Devil”, a picture issued by the “Posrednik” publishing house and some others, none of which exhibited the least trace of romantic or humorous content.

In the peasant hut, apart from our host, his wife and two children, there were two peasants who had obviously just “dropped in for a minute” and were sitting with their hats in their hands. One of them, an altogether common peasant type in appearance, was smoking a pipe; the other, by virtue of his cleaner clothing and broad, well-fed countenance looked more like a dvornik, (i.e. the proprietor of a coach inn) than a peasant ploughman. When I entered, the hostess started fussing and began to wipe something off the table, though it was clean enough, lit a small blackened lamp, set the logs straight in the hearth and sat up to the cradle where a baby was starting to cry. Our host did not know what to do with his tall self and aimlessly paced the floor near the table, watching his wife’s efforts. Only the man with the full face remained unperturbed. “Look, His Honour wanted to know how you are living, Nikolay Petrovich,” said the clerk as a kind of weak recommendation and sat down on the bed near the man who was smoking. “Well, then, welcome! We are glad to meet a good person.…”

Then there was a pause; naturally, it was up to me to break it. I looked around hoping to find a topic of conversation and soon, fortunately, I found one. I asked them about the price of kerosene and whether it was widely used in the villages. In return they asked me about the price of kerosene in Russia. Then we moved to the prices of other products in the local shop; from here it was easier now to bring up the benefits provided to peasants needing credit from the local “nobleman among the exiles”; then we talked about setting up savings and loans banks in the district, and other matters. We were having a rather lively conversation, though only three people took part in it besides me: the fellow with the full face and the clerk; the others kept quiet almost all the time.

I did not know whether it would be proper to turn the conversation to religious questions in view of the presence of guests whose relationship with our host was unknown to me, but in one of the short lulls in the conversation, the stout fellow asked me: “You are, by all appearances, Russian; have you been to the Kavkaz (Caucasus)?” (He pronounced it “Kapkaz”). “No, I haven’t, but I know something about it from books.” “It seems that’s where our Dukhobors are living. I wonder if life is good there.” “You mean the Transcaucasus, specifically, near Lenkoran in Akhaltsykh and Elizavetpol districts?” “Exactly, so have you had an opportunity to be there?”

I told them everything that came to mind about the climate there, living conditions, and so on. They listened attentively, asked if it was far from St. Petersburg and Irkutsk, how to get there and what would it cost. I could not give any kind of definite answer to the last question, but I described the possible routes in detail. Finally, I asked why they were so interested in life in Transcaucasia.

“Who knows, maybe we’ll have to go there! Our spiritual brethren live there, and here – strangers all around. They are offended at us not paying the annual fee to the church or contributing firewood. They also are threatening to take away a desiatina (Imperial Russian land measure equal to 2.7 acres) of land per head. So how can we live here? We’ve got no place to go: there’s little room here, stony ground stretches from here up to the sea (Lake Baikal): although the land there doesn’t belong to anybody, it’s no good. We also heard rumours that the local officials themselves are going to drive us out of here….” “For years they have been singing the same old song, yet nothing has happened and it looks as though it never will. Where can they exile us even farther away?” remarked our host.

I stood up to take my leave, thinking that my first visit was long enough and counting on seeing these sectarians again the next day. “Why have you sat with us such a short time?” asked Vasily Nikolayevich, the stout one, “We should talk longer, we much enjoy good conversation. Tomorrow – will you still be here?” (I answered in the affirmative.) “So, please come in the evening, if you don’t find our company boring. I live across from here, kitty-corner, two houses over.” “Please, please come and see us,” our host also extended an invitation as he saw us to the gates.

“That man, the fat one, he is chief among the brethren,” said the clerk as we walked down the street. “Oh, how clever they are at talking! He’ll talk your ears off, you won’t be able to get a word in edgewise in response.” “Do they live peaceably among themselves?”

“Didn’t you see? They visit each other every evening, read holy books and sing psalms, but in life you wouldn’t notice anything that makes them different from us. Remember, you mentioned that Polish exile; there are those among them who would buy hay fields from their own brethren at half price and take the land in pawn. At Nikolay’s place, where we were, consider – there is nothing to eat, while at Vasily’s house – you’ll see tomorrow – it’s like a merchant’s mansion! So with them it’s “live and struggle, every man for himself,” just as it is with us…. Well now, as for the women, we’ve also noticed something about them: it’s hard for a young woman to live in a family with an old man…. We have seen enough of them – sweet singers, indeed!…. Well, here are your digs. Will you excuse me now? Good night!”

The next evening, I entered the clean, spacious house where Vasily lived. My hopes were realized. Obviously a prayer gathering was about to begin, because five or so of the “brethren” had gathered in the sitting-room; members of Vasily’s family were also there: his wife, already quite an old woman (however, he appeared no more than forty-five, although he was actually approaching sixty), his two daughters, both in their early twenties, and a son about twelve years old. They greeted me as a friend, without reserve. Immediately we were given brick tea with milk, warmed up hard-boiled eggs and some kalachi (wheatmeal loaves) baked from homemade flour. The tea was served to me first, and then to the “brothers”, the wife handing each person a loaf and a lump of sugar. Most of them had only one cup of tea – out of delicacy, I suppose.

During tea we had a conversation on scientific topics. Somebody recalled the eclipse of the sun on August 7, 1887; another mentioned some lunar eclipses: a whole series of questions gave me an opportunity to give a sort of lecture about the reasons for eclipses, day and night, and the seasons. Using a lamp and two small shan’gi (round loaves) as visual aids, I described how the earth goes around the sun, how the moon goes around the earth, and so on. Everyone listened with great attention and acceptance, without making skeptical comments. Their questions were sensible; I even found myself unable with total accuracy to answer from memory some of their questions about numbers. In our conversation it turned out that some of them had their own ideas as to the reasons for the phases of the moon: they thought that some kind of dark “planetoid” orbiting the Earth is hiding the moon from our sight. In general, this whole episode made a very favourable impression on me; clearly, mental gymnastics are not foreign to these people, they possess a certain inquisitiveness, and if they are wandering in the semi-mystical labyrinths of Dukhobor teachings it is not their fault that life has not given them anything better, has not led them to strive for self perfection in another, more rational direction. I recall my three-year stay among peasants in one of the “black soil” provinces of Russia: not once there did I ever have occasion to carry on such a long scientific discussion and never did I have such attentive and inquisitive interlocutors. With regard to the waning and waxing of the moon, my friends in the black soil areas had virtually no interest; I never once heard from them any sort of even childishly naïve interpretations of these phenomena, not even of a sort such as “angels are crumbling the moon into stars”; there I would always receive the same answer to my questions: “Who knows!… We don’t have a clue!…

Of course, a small group of Dukhobors cannot be assumed to represent the state of mind of the Siberian peasantry in general: the latter, as I have already pointed out in a previous essay, are little interested in abstract ideas, let alone religious matters; however, more practical questions affect even the average Siberian deeply. Everywhere, for example, the rumour of a railway creates a virtual sensation and everyone with whom I discussed that topic was interested in what exactly a chugunka (Russian archaic term for railroad train, comparable to “iron horse” in English) is like, how powerful it is, what quantity of goods it can transport, how far it can travel in a day, and so on.

The Dukhobors thus appear, by virtue of their inquisitive nature, to be the cream of the local peasantry: they are interested not only in the chugunka, which will one way or another affect the pocketbooks of the whole population, but also in issues more remote from everyday life.

When we had finished sipping our tea, the host’s daughters, after clearing away the dishes, sat down right there with their needlework. The boy went over to the front corner and took out two rather worn books from a drawer. The brothers were sitting on the beds and benches; our host himself was sitting almost squatting – whether intentionally or without forethought, I do not know – at the doorway from the main room out leading out beyond a partition; he thus occupied the lowest position in line with the others. “Shall we read, brothers?… Well, then, Senia (diminutive form of the Russian men’s name Semen, Ksenofont, etc), read chapter 13 from the Epistle to the Romans”, he said.

None of the rituals that researchers who have studied this sect say are performed before a prayer session did I observe; the men and women even remained sitting alternately without separating into two groups; everybody continued to sit in the most natural postures just as before the reading; one man was even unhurriedly finishing smoking his pipe. The boy began reading rather animatedly. After he finished reading, everyone repeated, “Lord, save us!” in a low voice. They repeated the same words after each subsequent reading or singing.

“This is what the Christ’s apostle passed on to us,” explained our host, “Every person should be subject unto the higher powers.” And then, “render to all their dues: custom to whom custom is due; honour to whom honour is due. That means the rulers are God’s ministers. That’s why we show respect to them and obey them; we also pay all taxes prescribed by the officials, except those prescribed by others. We honour the powers that should be honoured, but not everyone who desires to be honoured.”

It was clear that all this and much of what followed was addressed directly at me. “Now, then, Senia, read chapter 23 from Matthew!” “But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren…” Senia went on reading: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretence make long prayer… . ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity”… . Again, “Lord, save us” with commentary: “And this we consider to mean authorities in the world other than our village powers. We do not honour the former ones and we want nothing to do with them. We acknowledge only one Teacher and Guide, our Lord Jesus Christ.”

“I remember reading somewhere that the Dukhobors supposedly do not recognize the Holy Scripture, as they consider one tradition to be sufficient, that is, the fruit of inner revelation or enlightenment from God the Word, and that for you people the Bible and its Gospel have been replaced by a “book of life”, i. e. a collection of altered psalms of David?” I asked. “Possibly that is so in other places, but we read both the Gospels and the Epistles.” “Do you acknowledge any later prayers and the writings of the holy fathers?” “We accept only the Lord’s Prayer given to us by the Lord and the beginning of ‘I believe in one God, the Father Almighty…’. And that’s all.”

When I asked why they use only the first words of the Apostles’ Creed, our host answered “we don’t need anything beyond that.” With that he indirectly acknowledged that they conceive of the divinity of Christ with great reservations.

But just then I was astonished by the following answer to my question about baptism. “Of course we baptize our children ‘in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’ and name the child right then.” “Surely isn’t that just what the Orthodox do?” “We don’t make up our own names. We name children according to the church calendar. Only when we come to the names of bishops or priests, we skip them.”

“Then do you bury and marry people yourselves?” “Yes, on our own. We announce the marriage before all the brethren; we consider that sufficient. Only we also recite Psalms that are appropriate.”

“But look here, with respect, you all surely were Orthodox once. Do you remember what beautiful prayers there are? For instance, take just the burial ceremony. Why did you reject them and recite nothing but the Psalms? Does it matter who composed a prayer if it speaks to the heart?” “I know them all very well. I used to go to church often thinking I would find the true way to salvation. The only thing is, all that was not to my liking; the prayers themselves are good, but the way they read them!? So let them have them!”

“Why do you not recognize icons?” “An icon is the work of man’s hands, sometimes a vile man; how can we worship it? We only worship God alone, as the Gospel says: ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.’ We gather as often as possible in His name so that He will be in our midst as much as possible. Let’s recite some psalms, brothers.”

He started reciting the 10th Psalm “In the Lord we trust”. After that, an old woman who had been sitting all the time motionless, but with clear signs of fanaticism on her wrinkled face, solemnly recited the 90th Psalm “He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High….” Then our host’s elder daughter laid her needlework down on her lap and recited the 113th Psalm; then all those present, with the sole exception of the peasant sitting next to me, recited various psalms in turn. They all distinctly pronounced the words, though their diction was monotonous and sluggish. Whether they deviated at all from the text, I was unable to tell, as I didn’t have the book in hand to check on it.

“But all of you, it would seem, cannot read: how then did you learn those long Psalms?” “This is how: Senia reads and the rest repeat after him; that’s how we learn them.” “For others, it is awfully easy,” remarked my neighbour, “It’s enough for her (pointing to the girl) to hear a psalm two or three times and she’s ready: she knows it to the last little word. My memory is poor, or the Lord is not letting me: I just can’t memorize! I try and try, but as soon as I learn one verse, I forget another.”

“How many Psalms do the rest know?” “That girl over there, it seems, knows over forty.” “Forty-two,” said the girl, not taking her eyes off her work. “Well, brothers, let’s sing something: these folks will listen.” They sang several psalms. Every time the old woman and our host would start the singing and the rest would join in after the third or the fourth word. “I’m not in good voice today,” said one of the brethren, coughing and spitting. Their psalm singing was extremely doleful; some of them exuded sincerity as they sang. I was especially taken with their singing of the 99th Psalm “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands.”

It was already eleven in the evening when I said good-bye and thanked them for their trust and cordial hospitality. “We thank you most humbly for paying us a visit, and thank you for not looking down on us. But how are we to address you and remember you?” asked our host. I gave him my visiting card and again shook hands with everyone. “If you ever happen to visit our region, don’t pass by, do us the kindness!” “Come visit us again, we humbly beg you! We’ll be glad,” said the others also.

However, I was not to have an opportunity to see any of them again. Recently I have found out from the newspapers that on such and such a day, “a provincial court considered the case of a peasant from the village of Koty, a Dukhobor charged with uttering blasphemous words at a village meeting…” and so on. The accused was that silent and gloomy recent Dukhobor convert, the one I had once visited late at night uninvited. Why was it specifically he who was put on trial? Was it because long-repressed indignation at pressure from the community had boiled up in him and exploded in a stream of reproachful and abusive words, or had he during this interval of time become, owing to outside influence, a fanatic who had decided to “suffer for the true faith,” to strengthen thereby the unity of the commune and call sympathetic attention to it from wavering members of the surrounding population? The dry newspaper account reported only that the accused had been deemed by the judge to have acted without clear understanding and had, therefore, been sentenced to a light punishment. However, some time later I read in another paper a report about a severe drought in the northern district of Irkutsk okrug and that the Koty community regards it as punishment sent down on the Orthodox folk for the indulgences granted by them to the Dukhobors, and they then decided to take away from each of them one desiatina of arable land.

What brother Vasily feared has come to pass. Thus, for this small group of Dukhobors, a new period of ordeals has begun. The reasons for this onslaught are difficult to gauge from afar, some six thousand versts away: it all may come down to the fact that there has been some change unfavourable for the Dukhobors in the personnel of the volost or higher ranking administration. Or, possibly, due to scarcity of land, the rural community intends to expel entirely from their nest these local renegades to somewhere “beyond the ‘Kapkaz’” (Transcaucasia), to where even the Dukhobors themselves would apparently not be averse to resettling were they not apprehensive about the vast distance separating them from their “brothers in spirit”.

Such is life for the group of Dukhobors with whom I chanced to become slightly acquainted in one of the remote frontier areas of Russia. However slight this acquaintance, it would seem possible that on this basis it may be concluded that the beliefs of the Irkutsk Dukhobors differ in many respects from the more fixed Dukhobor doctrines in Russia proper. This difference in dogma and rituals is considerably favoured by the isolation of Koty’s semi-mystical, semi-rationalistic Dukhobors from their Russian brethren.


Throughout nineteenth century Russia, a number of small, isolated groups of Doukhobors existed, separate and apart from the main body of Doukhobors in the Caucasus, in places such as Samara, Orenburg, Irkutsk, Amur, Kamchatka and elsewhere. Unfortunately, little is known or documented about them. In this regard, Astyrev, who displays considerable knowledge of Doukhobor history and historiography, provides us with a rare, valuable glimpse of one such group.

Astyrev traced the origins of the Doukhobors of Koty village, Irkutsk to a wandering Doukhobor, an “old man of quiet demeanour” who had been exiled to Yakutsk province.  Following his release, in circa 1871, he wintered in the village. Over the course of several months, he taught the villagers the Doukhobor life concept. The following spring, he departed the village for “parts unknown”. Despite his brief stay, this “Christ’s apostle” left lasting traces; for a short time later, several village families converted to the Doukhobor faith.

The Doukhobors Astyrev met espoused many of the central tenets of Doukhoborism, including the belief that the spirit of God can be found in the soul of every man; the worship of God in spirit and in truth; and the rejection of external rites, sacraments and dogma. They did not attend the Orthodox Church and rejected the use of icons. They met for simple prayer meetings in their homes, during which they sang hymns and recited psalms and prayers. Many of these they committed to memory, as exemplified by the young woman Astyrev encountered who knew forty-two psalms “by heart”.

At the same time, Astyrev observed some differences in their religious practices from those of the Caucasian Doukhobors. For instance, they did not separate into two groups of men and women during their prayer meetings. As well, they adopted only the first person of the Trinity, the Father; the Son and Holy Ghost, they informed Astyrev, were “not needed”. In addition, they baptized their children according to Orthodox ritual; although they married and buried their dead themselves. Perhaps most significantly, they continued to hold the Bible as a source of divine authority.

Unlike the Doukhobors in the Caucasus, the Doukhobors of Koty did not manifest any strong ideological opposition to the state. While visiting them, Astyrev found portraits of the reigning Romanov family and other secular rulers – including the Shah of Persia – on the walls of their homes. They respected and obeyed the government and paid their taxes regularly, according to the maxim that “every person should be subject unto the higher powers” and “render to all their dues: custom to whom custom is due; honour to whom honour is due.”

Some differences in religious expression were probably inevitable, given the Koty Doukhobors’ geographic and social isolation from other Doukhobor groups.  Indeed, their brief time spent with the old Doukhobor exile, twenty years earlier, was their only point of reference. However, for their part, the Doukhobors did not consider such discrepancies to be important. When Astyrev explained how the practices of the Caucasian Doukhobors differed from their own, they casually remarked that “possibly that is so in other places”, but “this is what the Christ’s apostle passed on to us.”

During the course of his visit, Astyrev discussed a broad range of issues with the Doukhobors, including current events, religious philosophy, the role of education, scientific phenomena and technological advances. The statistician was favourably impressed with their “shrewd questioning” and “intellectual curiosity” in matters both practical and remote from everyday life.  On this basis, he deduced that the Doukhobors were “the cream of the local peasantry”.

In particular, the Koty Doukhobors expressed a keen interest in the lands “beyond the Kapkaz”, inquiring about the climate there, living conditions, how to get there, and what it would cost. When Astyrev asked them why they were so interested in life in Transcaucasia, the Doukhobors explained that they wished to join their “brothers in spirit” living there, were it not for the vast distance which separated them.

Not surprisingly, the Koty Doukhobors encountered hostility from their Orthodox neighbours, who viewed them with “distrustful curiosity” tinged with “concealed contempt.” The Doukhobors told Astyrev, and the Orthodox freely admitted, that they were forced to shoulder disproportionate mir duties and obligations because of their refusal to support the local Orthodox Church. The Orthodox, the Doukhobors explained, “are glad to oppress us because they are a force, a whole army, while we are a small handful.”  Despite this discrimination and maltreatment, the Doukhobors remained unshakable in their faith.

After his departure from Koty, Astyrev learned from newspaper accounts that several of the Doukhobors were brought before a provincial court for uttering “sacrilegious words” in a village meeting.  The court sentenced the offenders to only light punishment for acting “without clear reason”.  A short time later, a severe drought struck northern Irkutsk.  The Koty community decided that its affliction was caused by Orthodox “indulgence” of the heretical minority in its midst.  It was resolved to reduce the Doukhobors’ share of arable land.  Astyrev learned nothing of their subsequent fate.

In an incredible postscript to this story, the Doukhobors of Koty did indeed meet their “brothers in faith”.  In April 1899, a group of forty-one Doukhobor women and children from the Caucasus, escorted by the Tolstoyan doctor Prokopy Nestorovich Sokolnikov, arrived in Irkutsk en route to Yakutsk to join their husbands and fathers who were exiled there for their rejection of military service.  There, they were warmly welcomed by the Koty Doukhobors who had traveled to meet them.  Over the course of ten days, the local Doukhobors visited with the weary travelers, hosting them in their homes, and supplying the women with provisions and a small amount of money.  On the day of their departure from Irkutsk, the Koty Doukhobors came out to the main road to meet them, bringing them additional supplies and bowing to the ground before them.  Their parting was very touching, and many of the Doukhobors cried to the point of sobbing.  The remarkable historic meeting of these two Doukhobor groups was recorded by Sokolnikov in his diary, published as “Wives and Children of the Doukhobors“.

The fate of this small group of steadfast Spirit Wrestlers in twentieth century Russia and beyond remains unknown – JJK.