Appeal For Help

by Vladimir G. Chertkov, Pavel I. Biryukov & Ivan M. Tregubov

Vladimir Grigorievich Chertkov (1854-1936), Pavel Ivanovich Biryukov (1860-1931) and Ivan Mikhailovich Tregubov were Tolstoyan writers who supported the Doukhobor cause of pacifism. Their appeal, “Pomogite: Obrashchenie k Obshchestvu po Povodu Gonenii na Kavkazskikh Dukhoborov” (London: 1896) helped publicize the persecution of the Doukhobors in the Caucasus. The following excerpt is taken from the English translation, “Appeal for Help” (London: 1897).

A terrible cruelty is now being perpetrated in the Caucasus. More than four thousand people are suffering and dying from hunger, disease, exhaustion, blows, tortures, and other persecutions at the hands of the Russian authorities.

These suffering people are the Doukhobors (or “Spirit Wrestlers” as the word means) of the Caucasus. They are enduring persecution, because their religious convictions do not allow them to fulfil those demands of the State which are connected, directly or indirectly, with the killing of, or violence to, their fellow man.

Brief and fragmentary notices of these remarkable people have not infrequently appeared of late in the Russian and foreign press. But all that has been published in the Russian newspapers has been either too short, or in a mutilated form – whether intentionally, unintentionally, or as a concession to the requirements of the Russian censor; while what has been printed abroad is, unfortunately, little accessible to the Russian public. Hence it is that we consider it our duty in this Appeal to give a general view of the events that are now taking place, and a brief sketch of the circumstances which preceded them

Vladimir G. Chertkov (1854-1936)

The Doukhobors first appeared in the middle of last century. By the end of the last century or the beginning of the present (ie. 19th century) their doctrine had become so clearly defined, and the number of their followers had so greatly increased, that the Government and the Church, considering this sect to be peculiarly obnoxious, started a cruel persecution. 

The foundation of the Doukhobors’ teaching consists in the belief that the Spirit of God is present in the soul of man, and directs him by its word within him.

They understand the coming of Christ in the flesh, His works, teachings, and sufferings, in a spiritual sense. The object of the sufferings of Christ in their view, was to give us an example of suffering for truth. Christ continues to suffer in us even now, when we do not live in accordance with the behest and spirit of His teaching. The whole teaching of the Doukhobors is penetrated with the gospel spirit of love.

Worshipping God in the spirit, the Doukhobors affirm that the outward Church and all that is performed in it and concerns it has no importance for them. The Church is where two or three are gathered together, unitedin the name of Christ.

They pray inwardly at all times; while, on fixed days (corresponding for convenience to the Orthodox holy days), they assemble for prayer meetings, at which they read prayers and sing hymns, or psalms as they call them, and greet each other fraternally with low bows, thereby acknowledging every man as a bearer of the Divine Spirit.

The teaching of the Doukhobors is founded on tradition. This tradition is called among them the Book of Life because it lives in their memory and hearts. It consists of psalms, partly formed out of the contents of the Old and New Testaments, partly composed independently.

The Doukhobors found alike their mutual relations and their relations to other people – and not only to people, but to all living creatures – exclusively on love; and therefor, they hold all people equal brethren. They extend this idea of equality also to the Government authorities; obedience to whom they do not consider binding upon them in those cases when the demands of these authorities are in conflict with their conscience; while, in all that does not infringe what they regard as the will of God, they willingly fulfil the desire of the authorities.

They consider murder, violence, and in general all relations to living beings not based on love, as opposed to their conscience, and to the will of God. The Doukhobors are industrious and abstemious in their lives, and always truthful in their speech, accounting all lying a great sin. Such, in their most general character, are the beliefs for which the Doukhobors have long endured cruel persecution.

The Emperor Alexander I, in one of his prescripts concerning the Doukhobors, dated the 9th December, 1816, expressed himself as follows: “All the measures of severity exhausted upon the Spirit Wrestlers during the thirty years up to 1801, not only did not destroy this sect, but more and more multiplied the number of its adherents.” And therefor he proposed more humane treatment of them. But, notwithstanding this desire of the Emperor, the persecutions did not cease. 

Under Nicholas I, they were particularly enforced, and by his command, in the years ’40 and ’50 the Doukhobors were all banished from the government of Taurus (Tavria) where they were formerly settled, to Transcaucasia, near the Turkish frontier. “The utility of this measure is evident,” says a previous resolution of the Committee of Ministers of the 6th February, 1826, “they (the Doukhobors) being transported to the extreme borders of the Caucasus, and being always confronted by the hillsmen, must of necessity protect their property and families by force of arms,” ie. they would have to renounce their convictions. Moreover the place appointed for their settlement, the so-called Wet Mountains, was one (situated in what is now the Akhalkalak district of the Tiflis government) having a severe climate, standing 5,000 feet above the sea level, in which barley grows with difficulty, and where the crops are often destroyed by frost. Others of the Doukhobors were planted in the present government of Elizavetpol.

But neither the severe climate nor the neighbourhood of wild and warlike hillsmen shook the faith of the Doukhobors, who, in the course of the half century they passed in the Wet Mountains, transformed this wilderness into flourishing colonies, and continued to lived the same Christian and laborious life they had lived before. But, as nearly always happens with people, the temptation of the wealth which they attained to in the Caucasus weakened their moral force, and little by little they began to depart somewhat from the requirements of their belief.

But, while temporarily departing, in the external relations of life, from the claims of their conscience, they did not, in their inner consciousness, renounce the basis of their beliefs; and therefor, as soon as events happened among them which disturbed their outward tranquility, the religious spirit which had guided their fathers immediately revived within them.

In 1887, universal military service was introduced in the Caucasus; and even those for whom it was formerly (in consideration of their religious convictions) replaced by other service or by banishment, were called upon to serve. This measure took the Doukhobors unawares, and at first they outwardly submitted to it; but they never in their consciences renounced the belief that war is a great sin, and they exhorted their sons taken as recruits, though they submitted to the various regulations of the service, never to make actual use of their arms. Nevertheless, the introduction of the conscription among people who considered every murder and act of violence against their fellow men to be a sin, greatly alarmed them, and caused them to think over the degree to which they had departed from their belief.

At the same time, in consequence of an illegal decision of the Government departments and officials, the right to the possession of the public property of the Doukhobors (valued at half a million roubles) passed from the community to one of their members, who, for his own personal advantage, had betrayed the public interest. This called forth the protest of the majority of the Doukhobors against this individual and his party, who hd thus become possessed of the public property, and against the corrupt local administration which had been bribed to give an unjust decision in the case.

When, besides this, several representatives of the majority, and among them the manager (ie. Peter Vasilievich Verigin) elected to administrate the communal property, were banished to the government of Archangel, this awakening assumed a very definite character.

The majority of the Doukhobors (about twelve thousand in number) resolved to hold fast to the traditions left them by their fathers. They renounced tobacco, wine, meat, and every kind of excess, divided up all their property (thus supplying the needs of those who were then in want), and they collected a new public fund. In connection with this return to a strictly Christian life, they also renounced all participation in acts of violence, and therefor refused military service.

The Burning of Arms, 1895. Painting by Terry McLean.

In confirmation of the sincerity of their decision not to use violence even for their own defence, in the summer of 1895, the Doukhobors of the “Great Party” as they were called, burnt all their arms which they, like all the inhabitants of the Caucasus, kept for their protection, and those who were in the army refused to continue service. By general resolution, they fixed on the night of 28th June for the purpose of burning their arms, which were their own property and therefor at their absolute disposal. This holocaust was accompanied by the singing of psalms, and was carried out simultaneously in three places, namely, in the governments of Tiflis and Elizavetpol and in the territory of Kars. In the latter district it passed off without interference; in the government of Elizavetpol it resulted in the imprisonment of forty Doukhobors, who are still in confinement; while in the government of Tiflis the action taken by the local administration resulted in the perpetration by the troops of a senseless, unprovoked, and incredibly savage attack on those defenceless people, and in their cruel ill treatment.

The Burning of Arms in the Tiflis government was appointed to take place near the village of Goreloe, inhabited by Doukhobors belonging to the “Small Party” in whose hands was the public property they had appropriated. This party having learnt the intention of the “Great Party” to burn their weapons, were either afraid of such an assembly, or wished to slander them, and informed the authorities that the Doukhobors of the “Great Party” were devising a rising and preparing to make an armed attack upon the village of Goreloe. The local authorities, then, without verifying the truth of this information, ordered out the Cossacks and infantry to the place of the imaginary riot. The Cossacks arrived at the place of assembly of the Doukhobors in the morning, when the bonfire, which had destroyed their arms, was already burning out, and they made two cavalry attacks upon these men and women, who had voluntarily disarmed themselves and were singing hymns, and the troops beat them with their whips in the most inhuman manner.

After this, a whole series of persecutions was commenced against all the Doukhobors belonging to the “Great Party”. First of all, the troops called out were quartered “in execution” on the Doukhobors’ settlements, ie. the property and the inhabitants themselves of these settlements were placed at the disposal of the officers, soldiers, and Cossacks quartered in these villages. Their property was plundered, and the inhabitants themselves were insulted and maltreated in every way, while the women were flogged with whips and some of them violated. The men, numbering about three hundred, who had refused active service, were thrown into prison or sent to a penal battalion.

Afterwards, more than four hundred families of Doukhobors in Akhalkalak were torn from their prosperous holdings and splendidly cultivated land, and after the forced sale, for a mere trifle, of their property, they were banished from the Akhalkalak district to four other districts of the Tiflis government, and scattered among the Georgian villages, from one to five families to each village, and there abandoned to their fate.

As early as last autumn, epidemics such as fevers, typhus, diphtheria, and dysentery, appeared among the Doukhobors (scattered as above stated), with the result that the mortality increased largely, especially among the children. The Doukhobors had been exiled from a cold mountain climate and settled in the hot Caucasian valleys, where even the natives suffered from fevers; and consequently nearly all the Doukhobors are sick, partly because (not having dwellings of their own) they are huddled together in hired quarters; but chiefly because they lack means of subsistence.

Their only earnings are from daily labour among the population amidst whom they have been thrown, and beyond the bounds of whose villages they are not allowed to go. But these earnings are very small, the more so that the native population suffered this year both from a bad harvest and from inundations. Those who are settled near the railway pick up something by working there, and share the wages they get with the rest. But this is only a drop in the ocean of their common want.

The material position of the Doukhobors is getting worse and worse every day. The exiles have no other food than bread, and sometimes there is a lack of even this. Already among the majority of them certain eye diseases, which are the sure harbingers of scurvy, have appeared.

In one place of exile situated in the Signak district, 106 deaths occurred among 100 families (about 1,000 people) settled there. In the Gory district, 147 deaths occurred among 190 families. In the Tionet district, 83 deaths occurred among 100 families. In the Dushet district, 20 deaths occurred among 72 families. Almost all are suffering from diseases, and disease and mortality are constantly increasing. 

Besides these deaths there have been others (due to actual violence) among the Doukhobors in prison and in the penal battalion. The first to die in this way, in July 1895, was Kirill Konkin, the cause of death being blows received as corporal punishment. He died on the road, before reaching the place of his exile, in a state of hallucination, which commenced while he was being flogged. Next, in August 1896, died Mikhail Shcherbinin in the Ekaterinograd penal battalion, tortured to death by flogging, and by being thrown with violence over the wooden horse in the gymnasium. Among those confined in the prisons many have already died. Some of them, while dying, were locked up in separate rooms, and neither their fellow prisoners, nor parents, wives and children who had come to bid them farewell, were allowed even to enter the room while the dying lay alone and helpless. More deaths are to be expected both among the population suffering from want in exile and in the prisons.

The Doukhobors themselves do not ask for help – neither those who are in exile with their families, famished, and with starving and sick children, nor those who are being slowly but surely tortured to death in the prisons. They die without uttering a single cry for help, knowing why and for what they suffer. But we, who see these sufferings, and know about them, cannot remain unmoved.

But how to help them?

There are only two means to help people persecuted for faith’s sake. One consists in the fulfilment of the Christian commandment, to welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned, and feed the hungry, which is prescribed to us both by our own hearts and by the Gospel; the other consists in appealing to the persecutors, both to those who prescribe the persecutions and to those who allow them to take place when they might stop them; and also to those who, without sympathizing with the persecutions, participate in them and become their means – appealing by laying bare before these persecutors the sin, the cruelty, and the folly of their acts.

Having been in a position sooner than others to know what has here been set forth, we appeal alike to Russians and to non Russians to help our brethren in their present sore distress, both with money offerings to relieve the sufferings of the aged, sick, and children, and by raising their voices on behalf of the persecuted.

The most important and grateful means of expressing sympathy with the persecuted, and of softening the hearts of the persecutors, would be personally to visit the victims, in order to see with one’s own eyes what is being done with them now, and to make the truth about them generally known.

The expression of sympathy is dear to the Doukhobors, because although they do not ask for help, they yet have no greater joy than to see the manifestation of love and pity to them on the part of others – of that same love for the sake of which these martyrs are sacrificing their lives.

The making publicly known of the truth about the Doukhobors is important, because it cannot be that the Russian State authorities really desire to exterminate these people by the inexorable demand from them of that which their conscience does not allow them to do, and the ceaseless persecution and torture of them on this account. There is probably here some misunderstanding, and therefor it is that the promulgation of the truth which may remove this is specially important.


Editorial Note

The above appeal attained its purpose by drawing the attention both of the public and of the higher authorities to the persecution of the Doukhobors by the local authorities of the Caucasus. But for the three friends who signed it, the result was their banishment. Two of them, Biryukov and Tregubov, were exiled to small towns in the Baltic provinces; while Chertkov was given the choice between the same sentence and being altogether exiled from Russia. He chose the latter as affording him the possibility of helping, from abroad in England, his persecuted friends, which would have been impossible under the conditions of strict police supervision under which those banished within Russia had to live – JJK.