by Elena Kovshova
Today, relatively few Doukhobors remain in the Republic of Georgia, following mass emigrations to Russia over the past two decades. One of the largest remaining – but least documented – populations of Doukhobors is centered in the town of Dmanisi, formerly known as Bashkichet. In the following article, Russian journalist Elena Kovshova examines the Doukhobors of Dmanisi – the history, philosophy and culture of a disappearing people, rooted in goodness and renowned for their kindess and hospitality. Translated by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff from the Russian journal “Argumenty i Fakty” (No. 4, January 27, 2010).
Dmanisi – the small Georgian town which, in recent times, has become world famous thanks to sensational archeological finds, stores many secrets within itself. Its name is connected not only to the history of early mankind, but also to the destinies of thousands of simple people who, in more recent centuries, appeared in this place.
The history of the Dmanisi Doukhobors is rooted in the depths of the history of the Russian empire, when, in the mid-seventeenth century, Patriarch Nikon, with the support of the reigning [Tsar] Alexei Mikhailovich, introduced church ceremonial reforms intended to correct Russian prayer books to make them consistent with Greek practices, by replacing the two-fingered sign of the cross with the three-fingered sign, and a number of other changes. But the violent methods by which the patriarch implemented the reforms were met by hostile opposition. These actions resulted in the emergence of defenders of the “old belief” who believed that the church had departed from the old rites. Thus arose a religious social movement, whose supporters called themselves Starobryadtsy or “Old-Believers”. Later, they divided into the Popovtsy (“with priests”) and the Bezpopovtsy (the “priestless”) such as the Dukhobory or “spirit wrestlers”.
Elizaveta Bludova proudly displays her handiwork in this rushnik – a traditional Doukhobor handicraft among the Dmanisi Doukhobors.
The movement originated in the second half of the eighteenth century among the peasants of Voronezh, Tambov, Ekaterinoslav and Sloboda-Ukraine provinces. According to the Doukhobors, the world is in eternal struggle, the spirit against the flesh, and desiring brotherhood in the spirit of God’s truth, they renounced the established church dogmas and rites. It was the only way people could protest against the autocratic oppression and hypocrisy of the clergy, who were afraid of losing power, and therefore, followed in the wake of the state.
Naturally, such ideas disturbed the Tsarist government, which saw a direct threat to the state in such opinions. Therefore, an active resettlement policy was undertaken in relation to the Doukhobors. First, they were sent to Tavria province (in the Crimea) on the Molochnaya River (from which the name of the sectarians Molokane is [reputedly] derived), and then they were all expelled to the Caucasus.
Whole families of Doukhobors, with small children in their hands and shackles on their feet, made their way by foot to their places of exile. Some of them thus perished on the road while others arrived in Georgia in the district of Bashkichet, which in Turkish means “the main road”. Indeed, there was no inhabited settlement there, let alone a town; only impenetrable forest through which ran a trade route linking Georgia with Armenia, Turkey and Azerbaijan. Having arrived on this bare ground, the Doukhobors, thanks to astonishing diligence and faith, did not rail at their fate, but began life anew with nothing, hollowing out family dwellings in the ground with stone axes. They spent one year in such dugouts covered with straw, until they built houses in which many of the descendants of those first Doukhobors live to this day.
Each band of the rushnik symbolically represents a particular stage in the life of the Doukhobor woman who makes it.
The house of the Bludovs is more than 150 years old. The rickety stairs, the cracked tree… The seniors cannot afford to repair the house. Nonetheless, the internal furnishing is striking: practically everything, from the wooden furniture and finishing, to all kinds of table-cloths, blankets, mats, bed-covers, is constructed, painted or woven by hand. Every corner of the house exudes exceptional hard work and perfect purity. The [traditional Orthodox] place for icons in the house is [instead] occupied by rushniki – long hand towels which are sacred to each Doukhobor.
Upon marrying, a [Doukhobor] woman should begin to sew such rushniki, although the word “sew” does not accurately reflect the volume of work involved. It is difficult to imagine that it is all done by a single mistress; sewn multi-colored satin ribbons, embroidered satin, cross-stitch, crochet, hand-drawn patterns covered with varnish, combining all the elements in a single composition. And each rushnik, or more accurately, its band, symbolically represents a particular stage in the life of the needlewoman, reflecting her individual perception of the world, the successes and hardships experienced, emotions… Rushniki receive the newborn; they also cover the deceased before burial. Children are not baptized. They themselves perform the funeral service for the deceased, and at the commemoration, borshch (vegetable soup), lapsha (noodles), pastries and vodka are served.
The sunduk (hope chest) is also an indispensable feature for every “marriageable” girl. The father of the bride makes it by hand, and always without nails. On the surface a pattern is burned which is covered with lacquer, and in the corner the initials of the craftsman are put. With such a chest, and its contents, the young wife enters the family of the husband. Incidentally, it is worth noting that the woman begins to sew her “death clothes” as soon as she marries.
Doukhobors do not acknowledge church and traditional religious rites. For example, [the Orthodox custom of] drawing water for a baptism at midnight or taking it from a river, or directly from under a crane. To this day, elements of the Old Russian and Ukrainian languages have survived in the speech of these people, and as a memory of the distant past, the popular legend of the priest who did not actually hold the post, but taught others about the “true path”.
The bands of the rushnik – a Dmanisi Doukhobor handicraft – reflect the individual perceptions, experiences and emotions of its maker.
On Sundays at sunrise, Doukhobors gather in a prayer home. In sequence, one after another, they read psalms, which are transmitted from generation to generation, or else are composed directly during prayer.
God is Spirit / God is a Man, / To the Spirit of God, I pray and bow, / Thus I am a Doukhobor – so Elizaveta Fedorovna Bludova explains the essence of the psalms and teachings.
On a table at Elizaveta Fedorovna’s is an old, but good condition copy of Leo Tolstoy’s book, “Resurrection”. The novel, undoubtedly, has been read and reread many times. Her respect for Leo Tolstoy is particularly vibrant. And no wonder! His sermon on nonviolent resistance to evil, a message of love and forgiveness, liberation from crude ecclesiastical rituals coupled with a call for passive resistance to authority, and the individual spiritual component – is something for which the Doukhobors have suffered! The novel “Resurrection”, with its story of personal spiritual revival, and sharp criticism of the church embodied in the narrative, became one of the reasons for Tolstoy’s excommunication by the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church. But here they honour and remember the great writer who, in the 1890’s, saved thousands of Doukhobors, assisting in their migration from sweltering Cyprus to Canada, whose climatic conditions were better suited for settlement by Russian people.
[Incidentally] few people know that the famous Russian artist Vasily Vasil’evich Vereshchagin drew his painting “Doukhobors Praying” in Dmanisi.
Today, the Doukhobors in Dmanisi are relatively few. The first Georgian President, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, proposed that the Doukhobors return to their historical homeland [of Russia]. On his orders, in 1993-1994, the [Georgian] state bought up Doukhobor houses for quite a good sum. It was then that the bulk of the [Doukhobor] youth went to Tula, Tambov, Lipetsk and Rostov regions. Others – assimilated and began to enter into mixed marriages.
Doukhobor folk patterns etched on a sunduk (hope chest) etched into the wood using pyrography, the art of decorating wood with burn marks from the controlled application of a heated tool.
Vasilisa Minakova, Chairman of the Center for Russian Culture “ISKRA”, represents the average generation of Doukhobors. She combines working as a teacher of Russian language and literature at the Dmanisi primary school with public service. At the center, English and Russian language courses are offered, and whenever possible, attention is paid to urgent problems of the elderly [Doukhobor] people.
Dmanisi has always been distinguished for its kindness and humanity – shares Vasilisa Minakova. “Three years ago, with the support of the head of regional administration Bakuri Mgeladze and the deputy from our area, the president of the pharmaceutical company “PSP”, Kahi Okreashvili, opened a dining-room in Dmanisi for needy pensioners. From 43 people, who make use of it, most of them comprise of single Doukhobors. What the dining-room means to them is self evident. In the name of all participants, I would like to thank not only the initiators, but also the directors of the dining-room Natalia Kavlelashvili, and also the whole collective for their good heart and skillful hands”. With only limited funds, without time-off on holidays, and in spite of frequent stoppage of gas and electricity, they always come out “on top”, they do not turn anyone away without a bowl of soup. There was a time when a total stranger came to the dining-room who had lost his documents; while he was replacing them, he relied largely on the goodness of the collective of this dining-room.
Surrounded by beautiful mountains, reminiscent of the Egyptian pyramids, the River Mashavera and the land, once the promised land of the Doukhobors, stretches the small town of Dmanisi. And in it live a very hospitable, very sweet, kind and hardworking people, those who consider Georgia as their homeland, who love this land, their old homes, small gardens…
These people do not seek attention to themselves: they are not inclined to stand out in front of cameras and give extensive interviews. But they do not decline to, either. So as not to offend. They do not transgress the law of love to one another. And [they desire] only that which is necessary – which is the peaceful sky above, good health, mutual assistance and care for others. From the point of view of the state or from humanitarian organizations, there is no difference – goodness is goodness.