Doukhobor Interfaith Relations in South Ukraine, Late 18th and Early 19th Century

by Anastasia Buchnaya

While residing in Tavria in the early nineteenth century, the Doukhobors invariably came in contact with members of other religious creeds, notably Orthodox, Mennonites, Molokans and Muslims. In this Doukhobor Genealogy Website exclusive, Anastasia Buchnaya, a Postgraduate of the State University of Zaporozhia in Ukraine, explores the influence of inter-creed relations on the belief system and socioeconomic life of the Doukhobors, based on archival records from the State Archives of Crimea and other Russian and Ukrainian language sources. Translated from the original Ukrainian by Yana Sermyakova with further translation and editing by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff. Published by permission.

One of the peculiarities of the south of Ukraine in the second half of the 18th century through the first half of the 19th century was the closer coexistence of different ethnic groups and religious creeds than in other parts of the country. This was primarily due to the historical conditions under which colonization of the country was taking place. The south of Ukraine became the centre for the emergence and dissemination of a variety of Christian sects, prominent among which was the Doukhobor sect which arose in the second half of the 18th century and gradually spread.

The coexistence of the Doukhobors with representatives of other religious creeds had an influence not only upon some aspects of their material life but also upon their religious doctrine.

According to the opinion of Orest Novitsky, an early researcher of Doukhoborism, the existence of Quaker elements in the Doukhobor belief system is explained by the fact that the first teacher of the sect was a Prussian corporal. Originating from Orthodox Christianity, under the influence of contacts with Anabaptists, the Doukhobor sect absorbed the features of this movement.

Studying the origins of Doukhoborism, 19th century researchers adhered to the view that the teachings had mainly spread amongst peasants of Russian origin, however, the fact that there exists a considerable quantity of Ukrainian surnames among the Doukhobors points to the propagation of the belief system among Ukrainian inhabitants, primarily among the Cossacks. The government of Catherine the Great, when it attempted to discover the source of Doukhoborism, came to the conclusion that the centres for the dispersion of this teaching were Zaporozhian Cossack villages. As the historian Nikolsky contended, this became one of the forms of protest against the persecution of the Cossacks by Catherine the Great. Further to this, modern research suggests that Cossacks introduced elements of their own ideology when joining the Doukhobor sect.

Beginning in the second half of the 18th century, Doukhobor teachings began to spread in the central and southern regions of Ukraine. The number of followers of the sect was rapidly increasing, a fact which could not but bother the government. The persecution of Doukhobors for resistance to the government and divergence from the state religion began in the times of Catherine the Great, whose practice was to evict them to Siberia. It is worth noting, however, that it was exactly in the time of Catherine the Great that the laws relating to punishment of religious dissidents were relaxed. A series of edicts during this period were directed to calming relations between representatives of different creeds. Religious intolerance was censured, foment of religious hostility was prohibited, and heresy was to be treated as nothing more than a civil affair, since ‘persecution stirs the mind’.

Nevertheless, at the end of the 18th through the beginning of the 19th century, wherever Doukhobors lived, in addition to persecution from officials and clergy, they also faced negative treatment from the Orthodox population. Local officials often received complaints from Doukhobors relating to the fact that wherever they lived together with Orthodox peasants, the Doukhobors were frequently harassed, forced to pay crippling taxes and recruited into the army out of turn. The Imperial Senator Lopukhin, in his report about the life of Slobodsk-Ukrainian Doukhobors, confirmed these conditions, emphasizing that the “settlers are intolerant of them, the same of which can be said of the rest of the inhabitants”. It cannot be determined whether the Doukhobors’ own behavior resulted in conflict with their neighbours; however, given their teachings about the equality of all people in the face of God, it can be assumed that they were inclined toward peaceful coexistence with representatives of other creeds. On the other hand, the Doukhobors considered themselves the “sons of Abel” wrestling against the “sons of Cain”, a synonym for all other people. Such an attitude of opposing other inhabitants within their own communities could have brought about their negative treatment by Orthodox peasants. Such attitudes towards the Doukhobors may also be explained by the fact that Doukhobor teachings, especially during the ascendancy of the sect, were largely embraced by free landowning peasants – the most independent and economically successful of the peasantry.

Eventually, persecution from government and local officials led to the poverty and ruin of many Doukhobors. The Doukhobors’ unbearable living conditions drew the attention of Tsar Alexander I, whose rule proved to be the most comfortable period for the Doukhobors. The primary thrust of Alexander’s policy towards the Doukhobors was their separation from the rest of the Orthodox population as a means of “containing their heresy and preventing their influence on others” as well as protecting them from persecution. To this end, by Imperial Decree No. 20 123, on January 25, 1802, Doukhobors were resettled to Tavria province along the Molochnaya River. At the beginning of the 19th century, these lands were thinly populated; therefore the founding of Doukhobor settlements was deemed favorable for the development of the region and would also lessen the sectarians’ contact with the Orthodox population.

Among the Doukhobors’ neighbours in Tavria were the Mennonites, religious nonconformists who, fleeing persecution in Holland and Germany, settled in the south of Ukraine.

It is entirely possible that the Anabaptist elements in the Doukhobor belief system took shape as a result of long-term relations with the Mennonites. In Novitsky’s opinion, however, the influence of Anabaptist beliefs began long before the Doukhobors’ sojourn with the Mennonites on the Molochnaya. In the 18th century, captive Prussian soldiers had brought these elements of Protestantism to Tambov province, a centre of early Doukhoborism. In this way, the resemblance of the doctrines of the Doukhobors and Mennonites is demonstrated by the denial of baptizing children, prayer ritual, and wedding and burial ceremony. The traditions of a communal economy, common property and aversion to secular and ecclesiastic authorities were common as well.

In 1804, the Mennonites, alongside other German immigrants of Catholic and Lutheran faith, established settlements in the Melitopol district on both banks of the Molochnaya River, close to the settlements of the Doukhobors.

In their homeland, the Mennonites had been principally engaged in farming, and with their resettlement to the south of Ukraine, they brought progressive farming practices which resulted in their colonies becoming the most rich and advanced.

The Doukhobors eagerly adopted the advanced expertise of their neighbours in farming, gardening and cattle breeding, whereas most other settlers were indifferent to such experience. The Doukhobors of Melitopol also took up some of the niceties of the Mennonites’ lifestyle, incorporated German elements in their clothing and began to build their houses in the German style.

From time to time, the Mennonites stepped forward as mediators between the Doukhobors and local authorities, delivering petitions from the people of the Doukhobor settlements and standing as witnesses during court investigations.

At the beginning of the 19th century, the Tsarist government, having no detailed descriptions of the Doukhobor and Molokan belief systems, frequently misidentified the two religious groups. This fact significantly complicates the study of Doukhobor history, as in many official reports, bulletins and other documents, the two groups were often confused. In actuality, while the two beliefs shared similarities in their outward expression, they were diametrically opposed to each other in basic principles, such as their attitude towards the Holy Bible, which was highly respected by the Molokans, whereas among the Doukhobors, spiritual insight was considered the source of religious truth. The historical development of the Molokans and Doukhobors is closely connected. It is significant that one of the first Molokan teachers, Semyon Uklein, was the son-in-law of the Doukhobor leader Ilarion Pobirokhin, a fact which leads researchers to regard the Molokans as an offshoot of the Doukhobor sect.

Nevertheless, frequently while living together, the sectarians of these different creeds occasionally quarreled over religious matters. The representatives of both sects kept a vigilant watch on not being confused with the other. When in 1804 through 1804, the Molokans were resettled on the banks of the Molochnaya River, the government having considered them to be Doukhobors, the latter refused to incorporate them into their community. In addition the Molokans’ settlements were situated close to those of the Mennonites.

During the coexistence of the Doukhobor and Molokan settlements along the Molochnaya River, there were cases where Molokans departed from their religious beliefs and joined the Doukhobors. This is supported by archival records about the Molokans of Novo-Vasilyevka village, who claimed to be Doukhobors. On May 6, 1831, a report from the Melitopol regional court was filed with the Tavria official expedition, according to which twelve Molokans and their families professed the Doukhobor religion and requested to join the Doukhobor villages of Rodionovka and Tambovka. The Molokan community of Novo-Vasilyevka did not mind their conversion and the Doukhobors were eager to accept them. It was accepted that these people could no longer stay at their present place of residence because of differences in belief, and a portion of them, to avoid reproaches from the Molokans, had already moved out to the aforementioned Doukhobor villages. The list of persons who claimed themselves to be Doukhobors is given in two records – a nominal list and a list of recruits in four sections. In the latter list, it is evident that the family of Vasily Zhmaev, a resident of Novo-Vasilyevka village, was on the recruit roll under the second row. Based on the Recruit Regulations issued in 1831, families whose members were on the recruit roll in the first two rolls couldn’t be resettled until they had served their time. The fact that other Molokan families were allowed to join the Doukhobors was confirmed on October 4, 1833 by the Minister of Internal Affairs’ letter to the Governor of Tavria.

In 1807, the Nogai tribes of the Bucak horde, who professed Islam, migrated to the Molochnaya River. Orest Novitsky recounts that there were many conflicts between the Doukhobors and the Nogai concerning land ownership: while enlarging their farmlands the Doukhobors seized a portion of their neighbors’ pastures. In response, the Nogai complained to local officials, but “the quick-witted and largely affluent Doukhobors, through lies and false arguments and quite possible using bribes, managed to absorb the disputed lands into their landholdings, thus the Tatars, numbering 600 people, having lost the pastures necessary for their herds, had to resettle to the banks of the Danube”. Unfortunately, the author omits references as the sources used; therefore it is difficult to confirm the reliability of this information. However, it can be assumed that quarrels over land could arise between landlords and communities, regardless of religion.

It is interesting to note that the Doukhobors frequently hired the Nogai as workers. The government didn’t object to such contracts between the Doukhobors and Muslims, as their conversion to the sect was not prohibited. In accordance with the Imperial Decree No. 15543 of February 8, 1834, the Doukhobors of Tavria province were permitted to accept Muslims into their communities after paying all taxes and duties, and to hire them to perform military service on their behalf. For this reason, the Doukhobors of Tavria and other provinces actively exercised this right. As a result, by Imperial Decree of May 8, 1839, this option was cancelled.

We have already highlighted the Doukhobors’ ambiguous relationship with the Orthodox prior to their resettlement to the Molochnaya River. Although the Doukhobor resettlement was carried out in order to insulate them from the Orthodox and to settle the region, such contacts could not be avoided. The historian A. Skalkovsky has pointed out that while the Doukhobors lived in isolation from others “except for the Mennonites and Nogai, there were no complaints or denunciations against them. However, with the establishment of Russian settlements near Nogaisk and the newly established port of Berdiansk, the Doukhobors had to face rivals and covetous people”. Once again, the Doukhobors’ land ownership was a matter of dispute. Hence, one man, Efimenko, proposed that the Administration of State Property should confiscate the farmlands which the Doukhobors obtained during their resettlement to the Molochnaya River (15 desatnias per person). This man proposed to purchase the Doukhobor land for 20 kopeks per desiatnia, and to sell it for 60 kopeks (he later increased the proposed price to one ruble per desiatnia). However, his proposal was rejected, which resulted in many denunciations against the Doukhobors.

It should be noted that at the time of Alexander I, practicing the Doukhobor faith was not considered a crime; however, proselytizing among the Orthodox was punishable by law. On account of cases of Orthodox conversion to Doukhoborism in the Melitopol region during the first quarter of the 19th century, the government vigilantly monitored for Doukhobor proselytization. Revealing in this regard is the 1816 archival case, “On the settlers Mikita Yashchenko and Gordei Oborovsky, and others who converted to the Doukhobor sect, as well as the Doukhobor teacher Savely Kapustin’s proselytization among the Orthodox”. The case contains a letter of July 25, 1815, in which Iov, the Archbishop of Ekaterinoslav, informs A.M. Borozdin, the Governor of Tavria, that the priests of the Pokrov Church in Orekhov had notified him about Savely Kapustin’s propagation of the Doukhobor faith amongst the Orthodox population of the Melitopol region. The priests, in turn, received their information from their parishioners, Arkhip Baev and Ivan Bazilevsky, who had converted from the Doukhobor faith to Orthodoxy. In the course of investigation, it turned out that these reprobates had converted to Orthodoxy only to escape their recruitment call, and the guilt of the 73 year-old Kapustin, who had been imprisoned, was not established. The Doukhobors themselves, in a petition to the Emperor, described this case among many others.

Accordingly, when Langeron, the military governor of Kherson, devised a proposal for the resettlement of the Doukhobors from Tavria because of the threat of the further spread of their teachings among others, the Emperor issued a Decree No. 26550 of December 9, 1816, stating that “Over several years, the Government did not receive any complaints or accusations of disorders” caused by the Doukhobors, therefore “we should be thinking not about the resettlement of these people, but rather of protecting them from persecution. Thus Alexander I acknowledged the fact that the Doukhobors were still persecuted by the Orthodox population and officials.

Still, there existed another basis of relations between the Doukhobors and Orthodox. Occasionally the Orthodox, while employed for work, lived in the Doukhobor communities; as well, Doukhobors could be employed in the homes of the Orthodox or persons of other confessions.

Some aspects of these contacts and of quarrels with local clergy are depicted in the case investigation of the crime of Alexei Nalimsky, a priest from Tokmak, against the Doukhobors of Terpeniye village. According to the case, the priest, being drunk in the house of the Doukhobor Nikolai Zakharov, offended the hose and tried to beat him, breaking his wooden cross and accusing Zakharov of this. In the course of investigation, the priest pled guilty and it was also concluded that during the inquest, the Assessor of the Melitopol regional court, Yakov Kovtunovsky, had made a series of mistakes. Namely, the testimonies of the colonist Ivan Belgart and the settler Emelian Plokhiy, witnesses in favour of the Doukhobors, had not been verified. Since the witnesses resided in the employ of the Doukhobors, therefore their testimonies could not be considered trustworthy. It was noted that the Orthodox Emelian Plokhiy had not attended confession for several years, therefore it should be investigated as to whether he had been affected by the Doukhobors.

The above demonstrates that the Doukhobors readily availed themselves of the laws allowing them to employ laborers of other confessions. In addition to hired workers, those Doukhobors belonging to the landowning class could have had Orthodox peasants as their property.

Nevertheless, after Nicholas I sharply altered the state’s policy towards religious sectarians, a number of governmental decrees were passed to restrict their influence on the Orthodox. In particular, the Imperial Decree of January 17, 1836 prohibited Molokans and Doukhobors from hiring Orthodox workers nor being employed by the Orthodox. A further decree of April 17, 1842 strictly prohibited Molokans and Doukhobors from owning serfs of any religious confession.

Certainly, during the Doukhobors sojourn in Tavria province, they established close commercial relations with representatives of other religious confessions: the Doukhobors sold their produce and goods at the fairs of Melitopol and other regions; and when preparing to resettle in the Caucasus, they sold their property to the inhabitants of neighboring non-Doukhobor villages.

Having thoroughly examined aspects of the Doukhobor belief system, it may be concluded that they reflected certain elements of other confessions, which they had contact with during the formation of their own religious doctrines.

While residing in the Tavria region, the Doukhobors, living in isolated settlements, could not avoid contact with members of other religions (Orthodox, Mennonites, Molokans and Muslims). Such relations influenced both the socio-economic and material life of the Doukhobor community, as well as the lives of their neighbours.


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