Conversation Between the Rector of Alexander Nevsky Seminary and Three Kharkov Dukhobortsy, 1792

Translated by Robert Pinkerton

In 1792, a deputation of three Doukhobors from Kharkov – Mikhail Shchirev, Anikei and Timofey Sukharev – was sent to the Governor-General of that province, ostensibly to petition for protection from persecution and harassment by local authorities, clergy and their Orthodox neighbours. They were summarily arrested and sent to the Alexander Nevsky Seminary in St. Petersburg. There they were admonished and persuaded to recant their faith, to no avail. The following is a record of their “conversation” with the rector of the seminary, Archimandrite Innokenty (Dubravitsky), contained in a May 12, 1792 letter from Gavriil (Petrov), Metropolitan of Novgorod and St. Petersburg to the Governor-General of Kharkov. This invaluable historic material contains one of the earliest recorded accounts of the Doukhobor religious doctrine. Reproduced from Robert Pinkerton, “Russia: or, Miscellaneous Observations on the Past and Present State of that Country and its Inhabitants” (London: Seeley and Sons, 1833). Afterword by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

Letter from the Metropolitan of Novgorod and St. Petersburg to the Governor-General of Kharkov


Mikhail Shchirev, Anikei and Timofey Sukharev sent by your Excellency from the vicinity of Kharkov have been admonished by Innokenty, rector of the Nevsky Seminary and Archimandrite. The conversation which took place between them I forward to you, along with this letter.

I knew this sect as early as 1768. I then admonished them, and succeeded in turning several to the Church; but on their returning home, they again fell into their former errors. Since I became Archbishop of St. Petersburg, I have also spoken to some of the Don Cossacks; but they remained obstinate. Their obstinacy is founded on enthusiasm: all the demonstration which is presented to them they despise, saying that “God is present in their souls, and He instructs them: – how then shall they hearken to a man?” They have such exalted ideas of their own holiness, that they respect that man only in whom they see the image of God; that is, perfect holiness. They say that every one of them may be a prophet or an apostle; and therefore they are zealous propagators of their own sect. They make the Sacraments consist only in a spiritual reception of them, and therefore reject infant baptism. The opinions held by them not only establish equality, but also exclude the distinction of ruler and subject: such opinions are therefore the more dangerous, because they may become attractive to the peasantry. The truth of this Germany has experienced. Their origin is to be sought for among the Anabaptists or Quakers. I know the course of their opinions; and we can have no hope that they will desist from spreading abroad this evil.

These are my thoughts, which I have considered it my duty to communicate to your Excellency.

With sincere respect,

Metropolitan of Novgorod and St. Petersburg
May 12, 1792

Conversation Between the Rector of Alexander Nevsky Seminary and Three Kharkov Dukhobortsy

Conversation between Innokenty, Archimandrite and Rector of Alexander Nevsky Seminary in St. Petersburg and three Doukhobors from Kharkov province – Mikhail Shchirev, Anikei and Timofey Sukharev, May 1792.

Archimandrite: By what means are you come into this state, that people confine you as men dangerous to society?

Dukhobortsy: By the malice of our persecutors.

Archimandrite: What is the cause of their persecuting you?

Dukhobortsy: Because it is said that all who will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.

Archimandrite: Whom do you call your persecutors?

Dukhobortsy: Those who threw me into prison, and bound me in fetters.

Archimandrite: How dare you, in this way, speak evil of the established Government, founded and acting on principles of Christian piety? Which deprives none of their liberty, except such as are disturbers of the public peace and prosperity.

Dukhobortsy: There is no higher Governor than God, who rules over the hearts of kings and men : but God does not bind in fetters; neither does he command those to be persecuted who will not give His glory to another, and who live in peace, and in perfect love and mutual service to each other.

Archimandrite: What does that signify, “Who will not give his glory unto another”? – To whom other?

Dukhobortsy: Read the Second Commandment, and you will know.

Archimandrite: I perceive, then, that you mean to throw censure on those who bow before the images of the Saviour and of His holy ones?

Dukhobortsy: He has placed his image in our souls. Again, it is that those who worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth.

Archimandrite: From this it is evident, that you have brought yourself into your present condition, by falling into error; by misunderstanding the nature of piety, and entertaining opinions hurtful to the common faith and to your country.

Dukhobortsy: It is not true.

Archimandrite: How, then? Do you not err, when you think that there are “powers that be” which exist in opposition to the will of God; whereas there is no power but of God? Or that Government, which is appointed to restrain and correct the disobedient and unruly, persecutes piety; “whereas he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil”?

Dukhobortsy: What evil do we do? None.

Archimandrite: Do you not hurt the faith by your false reasoning concerning her holy ordinances, and by your blind zeal against God; like the Jews of old, whose zeal was not according to knowledge?

Dukhobortsy: Let knowledge remain with you! Only do not molest us, who live in peace, pay the taxes, do harm to no one, and respect and obey earthly governments.

Archimandrite: But perhaps your paying the taxes, harming no one, and obeying earthly governments, is only the effect of necessity, and of the weakness of your power; while your peace and love respect those only who are of your own opinion.

Dukhobortsy: Construe our words as you choose.

Archimandrite: At least, it is far from being disagreeable to you, I suppose, to behold your society increasing!

Dukhobortsy: We desire good unto all men, and that all may be saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth.

Archimandrite: Leave off your studied secrecy, and evasive and dubious answers. Explain and reveal to me your opinions candidly, like men who have nothing in view but to discover truth.

Dukhobortsy: I understand you; for that same Spirit of Truth which enlightens us in things respecting faith and life, assists us also to discern affectation and deceit in every man. Nevertheless, in order to get rid of your importunity, and with boldness to preach the true faith, I shall answer your questions as I am able.

Archimandrite: By what way – by the assistance of others, or by the use of your own reasoning powers only, did you obtain this Spirit of Truth?

Dukhobortsy: He is near our heart, and therefore no assistance is necessary. A sincere desire and ardent prayers are alone requisite.

Archimandrite: At least, you ground your opinions on the word of God, do you not?

Dukhobortsy: I do ground myself on it.

Archimandrite: But the word of God teaches us, that God has committed the true faith, and the dispensing of his ordinances, and of instruction in piety, to certain persons, chosen and ordained for this purpose: “According to the grace of God given unto me,” says St. Paul, “as a wise master-builder I have laid the foundation.”

Dukhobortsy: True: and such were our deputies who were sent hither in 1767 and 1769. But what did the spirit of persecution and of wrath do to them? Some were taken for soldiers; others were sent into exile.

Archimandrite: You doubtless intend, by these deputies, some well-meaning people like yourself?

Dukhobortsy: Yes.

Archimandrite: But you, and people like you, though well-meaning, cannot be either ministers or teachers of the holy faith.

Dukhobortsy: Why not?

Archimandrite: Because a Church cannot be established by individual authority; as is manifest from 1 Cor. iii. 5. Secondly, because special talents and gifts from above are requisite, “to make us able ministers of the New Testament:” 2 Cor. iii. 6. And, thirdly, it is absolutely necessary to this lawful and gracious calling, that we possess that ordination which hath remained in the holy Church from the times of the Apostles; as it is said: “And he gave some Apostles, and some Prophets, and some Evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ:” Ephes. iv. 2.

Dukhobortsy: There is no other calling to this office required, than that which crieth in our hearts: neither doth our learning consist in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but in “demonstration of the Spirit and of power.” Are the gifts which you require such as to be able to gabble Latin?

Archimandrite: You do not understand the Holy Scriptures; and this is the source of all your errors. The Apostle, in the words quoted by you, does not reject the talents and gifts of acquired knowledge, but contrasts the doctrines of Jesus Christ with the wisdom of the heathen, which was in repute at that time. And that the calling of pastors and teachers always depended on the Church by which they were chosen, is manifest from the very history of those pastors and teachers of the Church who are eternally glorified.

Dukhobortsy: What Holy Scriptures? What Church? What do you mean by Holy Scriptures?

Archimandrite: Did not you yourself say that you founded your opinions on the word of God? That is what I mean by the Holy Scriptures.

Dukhobortsy: The word of God is spiritual, and immaterial; it can be written on nothing but on the heart and spirit.

Archimandrite: Yet when the Saviour saith, “Search the Scriptures,” and gives us the reason of this command – “for in them ye think ye have eternal life,” – can He really understand thereby any thing else than the written word of God? This is the treasure which He himself hath entrusted to his holy Churchy as the unalterable rule of faith and life.

Dukhobortsy: And what do you call a church?

Archimandrite: An assembly of believers in Jesus Christ, governed by pastors according to regulations founded on the word of God, and partakers of the ordinances of faith.

Dukhobortsy: Not so: there is but one Pastor, Jesus Christ, who laid down his life for the sheep: and one Church, holy, apostolical, spiritual, invisible, of which it is said, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them;” in which no worship is paid to any material object; where those only are teachers who live virtuous lives; where the word of God is obeyed in the heart, on which it descends like dew upon the fleece, and out of which it flows as from a spring in the midst of the mountains; where there are no such noisy, ostentatious, offensive, and idolatrous meetings and vain ceremonies as with you; no drunken and insulting pastors and teachers like yours; nor such evil dispositions and corruptions as among you.

Archimandrite: You have here mixed up many things together: let us consider them one by one.

First, that the Saviour Christ is the only chief Pastor and Head of the Church, is a truth: for He hath founded it by His own merits under His Almighty providence it exists, is guarded and protected; and “the gates of hell shall never prevail against it.” Spiritually, Christ is united to it; for “behold! I am with you, even to the end of the world:” and by the power of His grace He helpeth the prayers petitions of believers. But it does not seem good to the wisdom and majesty of God, that all, without distinction, should be engaged in the external state and service of the Church, which is so closely united to the internal; and therefore, from the very first ages, this has been committed unto worthy pastors and teachers, “as stewards of the mysteries of God.”

Secondly, I said that the external state of the Church is very closely united to the internal. Certainly it is so. Who does not know how powerfully the passions and the flesh work in us, both to good and evil, according to the nature of the object presented to them? We have need to recruit the efforts of our minds by such salutary aids; and to stir up the expiring flame of piety within us, by memorials of the goodness of God, and of the example of holy men. Here is the whole of what you so improperly style “material and idolatrous worship”. So long as we are united to matter, that is, to the body, we can never reach that pure and inward spiritual worship of God which the holy angels present unto Him, or such as that of the eternally-glorified saints; and on this account, when God requires that we should worship Him in spirit and in truth, it is to warn us against shameful hypocrisy, or other dispositions of mind not corresponding with our external worship.

Thirdly, with respect to the scandalous lives of some pastors, they can never harm the essence of faith; for that is not the cause of their bad conduct. And that their irregularities can never excuse those who on this account leave the Church and despise her doctrine, is witnessed by the Saviour Himself, in his discourse with the Pharisees: “The Scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat,” saith he: “all therefore, whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works; for they say, and do not.” Moreover, Christian humility should have deterred you from judging so rashly concerning general corruption and evil dispositions. But I have purposely not yet answered several of your expressions, such as “idolatrous meetings and vain ceremonies,” that I might first ask you what you mean by them?

Dukhobortsy: You may conjecture that yourself.

Archimandrite: Well: do not even you show becoming respect for the characters of those, who have been distinguished for holiness, and after death glorified by God, as patterns of faith and virtue ?

Dukhobortsy: Where and whom hath God thus glorified?

Archimandrite: Are the names of Chrysostom, Gregory the Great, and such like, unknown to you?

Dukhobortsy: I know them.

Archimandrite: What do you think of them”?

Dukhobortsy: What do I think? – Why, they were men!

Archimandrite: But holy men, whose faith and lives were agreeable to God; and on this account they are miraculously glorified from above.

Dukhobortsy: Well, let us suppose so.

Archimandrite: Now it is to them that the Church is indebted for all those offices and ceremonies, which you denominate “idolatrous” and “vain”; and the worship of images has been declared not to be sinful by the Council of the Holy Fathers; – how then will you make this agree with your views?

Dukhobortsy: I know not. I only know that hell will be filled with priests and deacons, and unjust judges. As for me, I will worship God as he instructs me.

Archimandrite: But can you, without danger, depend upon yourself? Are you not afraid, that sometimes you may mistake your own opinions, and even foolish imaginations, for Divine inspiration?

Dukhobortsy: How? To prevent this, reason is given unto us. I know what is good, and what is bad.

Archimandrite: A poor dependence! With the best reason, sometimes, good appears to be evil, and evil to be good.

Dukhobortsy: I will pray to God: He will send His word” – and God never deceives.

Archimandrite: True, God never deceives: but you deceive yourself, assuring yourself of that, on His part, which never took place.

Dukhobortsy: God does not reject the prayers of believers.

Archimandrite: Believers – true: those requests which are agreeable to the law of faith. Divine Wisdom will not reject: but “ye ask and receive not, because ye ask amiss.” For this purpose hath He given us the Book of his divine word, that in it we may behold His will, and that our petitions may be directed according to it. But it is vain to expect in the present day miraculous and immediate inspirations, without sufficient cause, particularly such as are unworthy of Him: and to pretend to such inspirations and revelations, is very hurtful to society, and therefore ought to be checked.

Dukhobortsy: But to me they appear to be very useful, salutary, and worthy of acceptation.

Archimandrite: What? To break off from the society of your countrymen, though united with you by the same laws and the same articles of faith, and to introduce strange doctrines, and laws of your own making? To begin to expound the doctrines of the Gospel without the aid of an enlightened education, disregarding the advice of such men as are most versed and experienced in those things; and out of your own head, to found upon all this a separate society? Is it not also to rise against your country, when you refuse to serve it where the sanctity of an oath is required? Should not the simple command of the higher powers be sufficient to unite you with others to defend your country, your fellow-citizens, and your faith?


Archimandrite: Why do you make no answer to this?

Dukhobortsy: There is nothing to say. I am not so loquacious as you, neither have I need of it.

Archimandrite: But do you not see, at least, whither your blind zeal is leading you, and that you deserve to suffer much more than all that has yet befallen you? – We look for your repentance and amendment.

Dukhobortsy: Do what you choose with us: we are happy to suffer for the faith: this is no new thing. Did you ever hear the old story?

Archimandrite: Tell me, I pray you, what story?

Dukhobortsy: “A certain man planted a vineyard, and set a hedge about it, and dug a place for the winefat, and built a tower, and let it out to husbandmen, and went into a far country. And at the season he sent to the husbandmen a servant, that he might receive from the husbandmen of the fruit of the vineyard. And they caught him, and beat him, and sent him away empty. . . . And again he sent another; and him they killed, and many others; beating some, and killing some. Having yet therefore one son, his well-beloved, he sent him also last unto them, saying, They will reverence my son. But those husbandmen said among themselves, This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance shall be ours. And they took him, and killed him, and cast him out of the vineyard. What shall therefore the Lord of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the husbandmen, and will give the vineyard unto others:” Mark xii. 1 – 9. Now I have done with you.

Archimandrite: At least, answer me this: How can it be reconciled, that you reject the Holy Scriptures, and at the same time endeavour to support yourself upon them?

Dukhobortsy: Argue as you will. I have spoken what was necessary, and shall not say another word.


The “Conversation” of 1792 is one of the earliest recorded accounts of the Doukhobors and demonstrates that they were already well established as a sect in Kharkov province, having sent previous deputations to state authorities as early as 1767 and 1769.

At the time of the “Conversation”, the Doukhobors of Kharkov province were outwardly characterized by their peaceful living, payment of taxes and their respect and adherence to the state. At the same time, they had “broken off from their countrymen” and formed their own society, with “laws and doctrines of their own making” based on the “Spirit of Truth”. The Doukhobors had already formed a distinct identity as a people set apart, within whom the “image of God” resided, in contrast to the “vain and idolatrous” Orthodox. This trait made the Doukhobors “zealous propagators” of their sect, reflected in the fact that their numbers in Kharkov were rapidly on the rise.

It is clear from the “Conversation” that persecution was “no new thing” to the Kharkov Doukhobors. Their belief system, compounded by their refusal to attend church, swear oaths or perform military service in defense of their country, invariably led to conflicts with local officials, clergy and their Orthodox neighbours. Previous deputations in 1767 and 1769 had been imprisoned and admonished by state authorities, after which some were taken for soldiers while others were sent into exile. The present deputation had ostensibly been sent to plead for protection from this “spirit of persecution and of wrath”.  For this, they, too, were imprisoned. The discrimination and maltreatment they suffered does not appear to have deterred the sect, however, and even in the midst of admonishment at the Alexander Nevsky Seminary, the three Doukhobors were “happy to suffer for the faith”.

Throughout the “Conversation”, the Kharkov Doukhobors showed a marked reluctance to discuss and explain their doctrines, sidestepping some questions, and refusing to answer others altogether. For this, the Archimandrite accused them of “studied secrecy” and “evasive answers”. Their reticence regarding their beliefs is understandable, however, given that in Russia at the time outside inquiries as to their faith were, in general, mere preliminaries to banishment and imprisonment. At the very least, such inquiries occasioned ridicule and derision.

At the same time, the Doukhobors adopted a decidedly defiant tone in response to questions raised by the Archimandrite; stubbornly resisting his theological arguments, showing a “boldness to preach the true faith”, and at times, displaying open contempt and derision for their captor and interrogator. Inherent in their bearing and response is the Doukhobor rejection of ecclesiastical and state authority, since “there is no higher Governor than God”. At the same time, their fearlessness in the face of official punishment and sanction can be ascribed to the Doukhobor axiom “fear not, but trust in God”.

For all of their reticence and stubbornness, however, the three Doukhobors from Kharkov provide us with one of the earliest statements of the Doukhobor faith, setting out, briefly and simply, in their own words, the basis of their beliefs, which can be summarized as: the belief that the spirit of God can be found in the soul of every man; worship of God in spirit and in truth; and in the rejection of all external rites, sacraments, dogma and ecclesiastic hierarchy and authority.

At the end of the admonishment, the Archimandrite demanded that the Doukhobors repent and amend their “erroneous beliefs”. Not surprisingly, the Doukhobors refused. The available records are silent as to their fate. In all likelihood, they remained imprisoned or were exiled, like many of their brethren during this intense period of persecution.

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