by Simeon F. Reibin
The following excerpt is taken from the unpublished English translation of Doukhobor Simeon F. Reibin’s (1880-1961) controversial book, “Toil and Peaceful Life: History of the Doukhobors Unmasked.” A private secretary to Doukhobor leader Peter “Lordly” Verigin from 1902 to 1923, Reibin left the Community disillusioned with its leadership. In frank, flowing and often humorous detail, Reibin recounts the folklore, peasant superstition and simple village life of his childhood in Tiflis province, Russia. Reproduced with permission.
I was born on March 9, 1880, in the village of Efremovka, district of Akhalkalak, province of Tiflis, Russia (present day Ninotsminda district, Republic of Georgia). My father, Fyodor Semenovich, was engaged in agriculture like all other members of the village. In winter months he followed his tailor trade making fur coats. He was considered wealthy compared to others for he had a capital stone house and large properties.
Simeon F. Reibin, 1922
I had four brothers older than I, the oldest was Ignaty, whose mother was my father’s first wife. He was a specialist in shoe making; he made Doukhobors wooden hill shoes for wedding newly married brides. For this skill he was honoured by young women.
Our village was situated on the top of the Kholodnoye (“Wet Mountains”) near a great shallow lake, “Madatapa” by a small river of the same name. The elevation was over ten thousand feet above sea level. Here people were hardly able to grow barley. The inhabitants were deprived of all conveniences. Other Doukhobor villages, excepting Troitskoye, were situated much lower where it was possible to grow even wheat and some vegetables. Residents of our and Troitskoye villages bought potatoes, cabbage and other produce in the vicinity of Alexandropol.
Our village was situated, as people used to say, on the “naval” of earth. From here, land in all directions lay much lower. On the south lay Alexandropol, on the west Akhalkalak, to the north and east was Bashka Chet. Wealthy people used wheat bread which they bought outside, but the poor ate barley bread…
Shortage of water was the main scourge of our village. Deep wells were dug but all in vain – no water. Six miles lower where the Goreloye village was situated, there was sufficient of good water in the wells. A tiny river froze in winter and in order to have water, it was dammed across with manure for winter. When the river was covered by heavy ice the water became tainted and produced a strong odour. People and animals, under the circumstances, used it nevertheless. People and animals from other villages were unable to drink our water. In winter water was thawed from yellow ice and snow. At weddings water for tea was brought from Goreloye village.
The climate was severe but very healthful; residents were energetic and looked very healthy with their rosy cheeks. We children, disregarding the dirt and filth in the water, used to swim in summer like ducks all day. I had no sisters, so regardless of being a little child I was compelled to occupy myself in the capacity of a “nurse” to look after younger children and even babies. I did not like my occupation, so in spite of daily whippings, I left them sleeping and ran to play with my companions.
I remember very little of my father, for he was indefinitely exiled in 1887 with the Leader Peter Vasilyevich Verigin as his right hand and devoted defender. He died in the town of Onega, on the shore of the White Sea, on February 25, 1895 without seeing his family.
Mother, brothers and their wives were occupied in the fields often from dawn to dark. Their absence gave us extensive liberty at home. Mother taught me to read psalms by heart – I read over 100 psalms – from the time I was able to talk. She always threatened me, even for a trifling prank: “God will put you in hell fire”. This terrified me immensely and I shivered to think of such a hot spot. Being youngest, I enjoyed special privileges from my older brothers. They were good to me and often freed me of hard labour. In harvest time I helped women put hay in stacks. During this time I grew bigger. Once, brother Ignaty brought me a present “ABC” book with beautiful covers. I accepted it very gladly with many thanks, but when I started to learn alphabet, I regretted that I had accepted it. I wanted to go and play with my companions, but to my great sorrow, my brothers were inexorable – they threatened to whip me if I did not study.
In our village there were over one hundred houses occupied by very large families, and there were perhaps only ten persons that were able to read and scrawl. As far as real education is concerned, there was none. My father and brothers were able to read and scrawl. Father, although it was against the Leader’s order, had a Gospel – the only one little gospel in the entire village. For this, he was despised by both Leader and people. Nevertheless, some elders used to come to him in the evenings and he read the gospel to them. Most often he read about the ten maidens: “Five of them were wise and five unwise”, so the elders talked among themselves saying: “We must be wise so not to miss in our sleep our “bridegroom”.
The inhabitants of the village often looked at me with contempt and called “literate” among themselves. They had strong convictions and blamed my brothers for transgression against Doukhobor religion.
Eventually, I began to love reading and read various stories and tales which Anna Obedkova lent me. She was the widow of Ivan Martinovich, who was formerly Sergeant of Peter Vasilyevich Verigin’s Cossacks in our village. Martin was a 2nd guild merchant who had a general store: dry goods, groceries etc. His grandson Alexander was my companion. He was son of Anna. Owing to our companionship, she favoured me. At times, as a reward for her favours, I had to read books to her for hours – she was illiterate. Anna was clever and intelligent in comparison with average Doukhobor women. I loved to visit Alexander. They kept a Stage Post and we children in a group patiently waited, like an old cat, for Martin to go out of the store to meet travelling passengers – tourists. Then all of our gang would rush madly to the store and attack the candies filling our pockets and trying to get away before Martin returned. Sometimes he caught us right on the spot and punished us severely by pulling our ears until they bled. We somehow expected that and did not mind as long as he did not tear our ears off completely. We assumed they would heal.
Sometimes elder Kudrin, a shoe maker, put us boys and girls in a rank file like soldiers and ordered us to read psalms and perform religious ceremonies including low bowing and kissing thricely. We always were glad to comply with his desires.
My mother, before her marriage, was a servant of Leader Lukeria Vasilyevna Kalmykova, and on her advise or rather order, married a widower with three children who was 20 years older than my mother. Lukeria Vasilyevna Kalmykova was favourably disposed toward my father and he was even a delegate, with Alexei Zubkov, to the Tsar regarding Doukhobor affairs.
Mother was contented and happy, but her happiness did not last long. After the exile of my father, all responsibilities for managing her material affairs and bringing up little children – four of her own – fell on her shoulders. I have seen hundreds of times when my mother privately and bitterly wailed, sometimes loudly vociferated about my father and her unfortunate fate. Only her deep and unlimited faith in Peter Vasilyevich Verigin encouraged her spirit and she felt certain that she would be rewarded a hundred fold by God for her such suffering. This of course, never came true.
I remember Lukeria Vasilyevna Kalmykova well. She was a beautiful and kind hearted lady. When in the village, she always came to see my mother – her former servant – and by the Doukhobor custom, we bowed to her feet and kissed her hand. She always rewarded us with presents: candies and cookies. I remember also her carriage phaeton and grey horses, also Zakhar, her coachman. On arrival in the village he always drove the horses slowly down the street to cool them off. We children, sitting on benches by the houses, bowed together as a group, each time he drove past us. He, poor fellow, replied to us by a low bow each time he passed and he passed scores of times. He was dressed in Doukhobor costume. He was young and tall, slim with a graceful shape. Charming large blue eyes added to his handsomeness completed with a Caucasian nose and large moustache.
I also remember how Peter Vasilyevich Verigin’s Cossacks, dressed in costumes, armed with sabres, swords and revolvers, imitating Tsar’s Cossacks, manoeuvred on the field near the village. They were under the command of Ivan Obedkov and his assistant Ivan Ivin. They galloped on their saddle horses, raced, shot loudly amid the noise of revolvers. In other words, they were exercising just like the real Tsar’s Cossacks. Cossack were also in other villages and their General Sergeant was Peter Vasilyevich Verigin who lived with Lukeria Vasilyevna Kalmykova as her spiritual confidant. Lukeria Vasilyevna Kalmykova’s husband Peter also had Cossacks.
When I was seven years old, one evening, while lying on the top of the oven, I noticed my mother bitterly wailing and she told me terrible news: “Our beloved Lushechka – “beautiful sun” – had died. I have joined her in vociferous lamentation; now that we have no Lukeria Vasilyevna Kalmykova we shall have no more sunshine – we will always be in the dark. I thought that then, but in the morning I saw the sun rise, it had not gone with Lushechka. Then my mother gave me words of consolation: the Holy Spirit that dwelt in Lukeria Vasilyevna Kalmykova had moved to Peter Vasilyevich Verigin; God was always with us, is now and always will be with us; consequently, there was no use to worry.
I remember also how our group of boys and girls walked over seven miles to the graveyard of the “Saints” and with some adults who were there, we made bows to the ground before each grave stone and kissed the stones. Black spots were printed on each stone from wet lips. We experienced the highest happiness in our young hearts by thinking that we were kissing our holy Leaders. Such marches to the holy cemetery gave us more pleasure and content then a world tour. Coming home we were proudly bragging that we visited the graveyard of Saints.
Mother, being a deep believer, tried to instill in us the inspiration of true faith in the Leaders. In this she had complete success. She knew many prophesies and miracles that had been performed by Leaders. She had heard these directly from Peter Ilarionovich Kalmykov and his wife Lukeria Vasilevna Kalmykova. “Nobody knows” she said, “that God lives with Doukhobors in the flesh of our Leaders. We are the most fortunate people in the entire world. Only we shall ba saved and enter the Heaven of God; but the rest of the world is in darkness and will perish. Especially those people will not enter Heaven who have an organ which provides music in their churches. Such soulless objects are against God”.
Nothing interested my young soul more than our Doukhobor divinity, in which I had not the slightest doubt. I was proud that I knew now about the real God and where he resided in flesh.
Simeon F. Reibin (rt) and friends, 1922
Anna Obedkova’s son Alexander was brought up in a more normal atmosphere by an intelligent mother. Sometimes I asked him: “Do you know, Alexander, who is God and where he is?” He unconcernedly but sincerely replied: “I don’t know”. Such reply angered me and I thought: “Damned Armenian he is in the dark and does not know God”. Martin Obedkov, his grandfather, was considered by Doukhobors as “ruined” because he did not take off his hat before Lukeria Vasilyevna Kalmykova and did not kiss her hand like all Doukhobors did. When Lushechka bought silk and other expensive goods at his store, he charged her a double price instead of giving her goods free like others did. He knew that money come easily to her. Martin paid no attention to any opinion that other Doukhobors held about him. He was very tall old man, stout, weighing over 300 pounds; had very heavy, black moustache. He was a self contented, proudly independent maladets (“little fellow”).
But to me the Leaders were “Almighty Gods” who were carefully concealing their divinity among Doukhobors. If any one, God forbid, should tell the truth about Doukhobors’ faith, he would be thricely damned like Judas Iscariot, the betrayer, and would perish in body and soul as a blasphemer. Such was my education. With very few exceptions, all Doukhobor children were brought up in this light from their early babyhood.
My mother having once been the servant of Lukeria Vasilyevna Kalmykova, had certain prestige among the women. Companions visited her often and their conversations always referred to “our saints”. A neighbour, Tanya (Tatiana) Ivin, was the mother of Ivan “Sergeant”. When she came, she usually moved her apron to one side and carefully pulled out a large pipe and a package of tobacco from a large pouch attached to her belt; then she would fill the pipe, start smoking and after a few inhalations of smoke, close her eyes, adjust her apron to the right place and begins to take part in the day’s discussion. Nearly all of the elderly women smoked – some made long cigarettes of cheap tobacco wrapped in newspaper or other wrapping paper. After greeting each other, one says: “Well, against a strong wind blows from Abdul (Abdul was a high mountain to the north). It is cold and unpleasant”. Another replies: “As it is on earth not quite so is it in heaven; look at the agitation going on with the Chaldeans (“Small Party” of Doukhobors). How could we expect good weather until matters are definitely settled among Doukhobors”. The third: “There was a prophesy by our late beloved Lushechka, may God remember her in His own kingdom; she told that the time would come when there will be wars and evil among Doukhobors. It is now being fulfilled and that’s why we have such unpleasant weather”.
In such typical talk-fest the fervour increases to a babble of voices; the room fills with smoke of makorka (a cheap Russian tobacco) and it smells acrid. Old lady Ivina motions that she wants to speak. The conversation increased and all present turn their faces to her. “Now girls” says Tanya, “All Tsars, Princes and Rulers of the whole world will soon recognize us and come to us and bow to our saintly Leader. Then the judgement of God will take place. Old lady Nazarova heard this from old leader Peter Ilarionovich Kalmykov”. “We all know about this” said another. “I will tell you the facts that were accomplished not very long ago at the time of the war with Turkey. When Russian armies tried to capture city of Kars, poor Russian soldiers tried very hard but to no avail. Then grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich had an idea; he sought our beloved sun (Lukeria Vasilyevna Kalmykova), knelt before her holiness and with tears in his eyes asked: “Lukeria Vasilyevna Kalmykova, please allow us to capture Kars”. She kept him praying for awhile, then at last said, “All right, Mikhail, I consent”. Kars was taken that very night. That’s what the power of our Leaders means dear girls, and in spite of this, we sometimes grumble and are discontented with our saints! God may forgive us.” The fourth: “The Kars incident was not the only influence of our Lushechka; what about the (Doukhobor) people who hauled the material to the front? Don’t you remember? Lushechka agreed to the request of Grand Duke Mikhail that Doukhobors would convey the provisions and ammunition for the army. When the Doukhobors were leaving on the wagons for the front she told them bluntly, “Not one of you shall perish” and in spite of the fact that our men were under a heavy hail of bullets, not one was killed”.
Another unique instance was given: “Our boys wore Caucasian cowls and sometimes these cowls became filled with bullets; they then untied the cowls, emptied the bullets and again tied them around their necks. This was a real, genuine miracle of Lord”. “Perhaps the men repeated some Doukhobor psalms for protection from bullets?” asked one. “No, no, it was not psalms that protected them, it was the power of Lukeria Vasilyevna Kalmykova.” replied the other. “Lushechka was protecting us al, don’t you understand that?” reproached another.
Taniusha Vyshlova (a bold lady) listened attentively and was whispering quietly to herself, apparently preparing for her turn. She began: “You all heard perhaps of the incident that took place at Bashka-Chet (Doukhobor settlement in Borchalin district, Tiflis province)?” “Please tell us Taniusha, maybe someone did not hear” they asked unanimously. Taniusha shook the hot ashes from her pipe onto the earth floor, knocked her pipe against the bench to be sure no sparks remained, carefully put the pipe in pouch, replaced her apron, slightly coughed and proudly began: “Once our beloved Peter Ilarionovich Kalmykov, may we mention his holy name in God’s heaven of eternal peace, this hour; went with his Cossacks to visit fallen brethren at Bashka-Chet; it was in the fall; there they were harvesting grain. The crop that year was extremely heavy. On their arrival they found the people occupied in work and they paid no attention to their guests; some unbelievers even mirthfully remarked: “Ah, here come Peter Ilarionovich with his boys to help us harvest our good crop of grain”. These remarks bitterly insulted our beloved Leader and he in great wrath said: “You want us to help you harvest your grain? I will comply with your wishes”. This he said before departing. And what was the result dear girls? When Petushka with his Cossacks went up the mountain – Bashka-Chet lies in a deep ravine – there suddenly appeared a little cloud in the sky; in a few minutes it became a huge black cloud hanging over the grain fields; then came hail – listen, dear girls – hail the size of hen’s eggs poured down and destroyed the crops completely, not leaving a single kernel; the field was black. This miracle made them understand with whom they dared to joke, but it was too late”. Finished the speech, Taniusha glanced at all present to see what impression she had made on them by her story.
(l. to r.) Simeon F. Reibin, Peter “Lordly” Verigin, Alex F. Reibin, 1903
“Oh, God, even to hear about this occasion makes one feel scared, but how were they able to overcome such punishment? Oh Lord, forgive us all!” said all assembled.
“But my grandpa told me, if I remember right, the hail was as large as geese eggs” said one of the crowd. “That makes it still more terrible.” “It could even kill people” approved another. “And it will kill if necessary, do you think the Small Party will remain unpunished? No, they are Sodom-Gomorra, Lot’s wife; they will perish the unfortunate victims of Hubanov” said one of the gathering.
“The whole affair was spoiled by the (Doukhobor) Cossacks” said one, “they did not stand guard duty. It was cold and they went to warm themselves and let it slip; if they had been at their posts, as they were ordered by Sergeant Peter Vasilevich Verigin, the judgement of God over Doukhobors would have taken place right then and he would not have to go to Siberia. Now the judgement of God may be postponed for many years and we have to suffer. The Cossacks caused many bad things: they were young and could not mind cold”.
Another continued: “Perhaps all of this happened for the best; be the will of our beloved Leader Peter Vasilyevich Verigin”. Another said: “He is yet youthful and handsome. I saw him recently in Cossack costume; such a sweet charming young man and now he must go to Siberia”. Another asked: “Ah, how will the Cossacks get along without their General Sergeant Peter Vasilyevich Verigin?” Taniusha Vyshlova said: “I think everything goes according to the plans of our beloved Leader”.
These old girls spoke on many other subjects at meetings, which they held often and which lasted many hours. I always listened to their conversations with great interest, thereby learning many folk stories and gaining an insight into the minds of that generation…