Doukhobors in the Caucasus, 1863-1864

by Alexander Petzholdt

Alexander Petzholdt was a German scientist and traveller-explorer who toured the Caucasus region of Russia in 1863-1864. In Tiflis district, he met a convoy of Doukhobor teamsters hauling freight to the German colonies. Later, he visited Doukhobors living in Borchalo district. Petzholdt kept a journal and recorded his impressions of these encounters, which he published in “Der Kaukasus: Eine naturhistorische so wie land- und volkswirtschaftliche Studie (ausgeführt im Jahre 1863 und 1864) (H. Fries, 1866). Available in English for the first time ever, this exclusive translation provides the reader with a remarkably rare and detailed first-hand account of the Doukhobors during this little-known, little-studied period of their history. Translated by Gunter Schaarschmidt for the Doukhobor Genealogy Website. Foreword and Afterword by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.


Alexander (George Paul) Petzholdt (1810-1889) was a Saxon-German scientist and traveller-explorer. After studying at the universities of Leipzig, Berlin and Giessen, he practiced medicine and pharmacy in Dresden from 1838 to 1846.  At the same time, he pursued the study of geology and plant chemistry.  From 1846 to 1872, he was a professor of agriculture and agricultural engineering at the University of Dorpat (now Tartu) in the Baltic region of the Russian Empire.  During this period, Petzholdt undertook extensive expeditions throughout the Empire on behalf of the Russian Government and published a number of books based on his travels.

Petzhold first discovered the Doukhobors in 1855, while on an expedition of southwestern Russia for the High Ministry of Public Education.  During his stay with the Mennonites on the Molochnaya River in Tavria, he visited the villages of Rodionovka and Terpeniye, formerly inhabited by the Doukhobors, who had been expelled to the Caucasus ten years prior.  The physical landscape of the Molochnaya still bore the strong imprint of the Doukhobors; however, the German scholar found their once clean and orderly villages in a now-dilapidated state, and their once-beautiful garden park in Terpeniye neglected and overgrown.  For more information about Petzholdt’s expedition, see Notes from the Molochnaya, 1855.

Eight years later, in 1863, Petzholdt received a commission from the Grand Duke Mikhail Nikolayevich, Governor of the Caucasus, to conduct an expedition in that province.  There, in the German village of Marienfeld (now Sartichala) in Tiflis district, he encountered a convoy of Doukhobor teamsters whom he mistook for Germans because of their well-built wagons, good horses, German harness, German clothing and cleanliness. “I offered the first carter a cheerful good morning; the man looked at me with surprise and gave no answer. I was told that they were not Germans but Doukhobors who, before being exiled to the Caucasus, had been long-time neighbours of the Mennonites in the Molochnaya area and had learned alot from the Germans.”  They were Doukhobors from the Akhalkalaki district.

The following year, in 1864, Petzholdt travelled from Tiflis via Katherinenfeld (now Bolnisi) to the Doukhobor village of Bashkichet (now Dmanisi) in Borchalo district, which he visited twice.  He also visited neighbouring Doukhobor villages in the district; while he did not mention them by name, these would have been the villages of Karaklisi (now Vake) and Ormasheni (now Kirovisi). What follows are his detailed observations of the Doukhobors of Borchalo district – their state and condition of life.

Concerning the Russian colonies of the Doukhobors and Molokans, one can find these in many areas of Transcaucasia. Even though only a few of these colonies are located in favourable areas, almost all of them are found in such an excellent condition that the traveller is fond of recalling his visit there: he remembers having made the acquaintance of industrious, orderly, and intelligent people.

It is well known that the Doukhobors and Molokans are Russian sectarians that [allegedly] engaged in acts of violence of the grossest kind. The latter is true in particular of the Doukhobors. Such [alleged] acts of violence aroused the justified displeasure of the government and led to the sectarians’ exile to the Caucasus.

Earlier they had inhabited a number of villages on the Molochnaya River in Tavria province in the immediate vicinity of the estates occupied by the “Mennonites on the Molochnaya”. The sectarians thus enjoyed the great advantage of learning from the Mennonites, who served as their mentors. The sectarians lived in this area in great wealth as everyone who had the opportunity of getting to know them testified. I myself had seen their deserted villages in the year 1855 and can only agree that the people who had lived there were efficient and tidy.

Alexander (George Paul) Petzholdt (1810-1889).

But, as I already indicated, various [alleged] excesses on their part forced the government that was otherwise very tolerant in religious matters to take severe measures against these sects. As a consequence of these measures, all Doukhobors and a large part of the Molokans were exiled to Transcaucasia in the years 1841 and 1842. Only those who saw their wrong ways and converted to the correct faith by entering into the bosom of the Orthodox Church, were allowed to remain in their old settlements and in the possession of their estates. The deserted villages were resettled with crown estate peasants from other areas (Ukraine, Central Russia) while the exiled were assigned land in various areas of Transcaucasia for the establishment of new villages.

Since they had been sent to the Caucasus as a punishment, it goes without saying that they were not assigned the most fertile lands; on the contrary, they received in part very inhospitable areas and were forced to adjust to the conditions as well as they could. Those Doukhobors who were assigned their future place of residence in the plains of the Western part of the Akhalkalaki district near the Turkish border were worst off: this area is situated almost 3,000 feet above sea-level, traversed by low mountains that receive an early snow-fall, is only open towards the Turkish side, and gives the impression of a dead wasteland. The Doukhobors in the upper part of the Mashavera Valley [in the Borchalo district] had a somewhat better deal, as did the Molokans in the Shemakha district and on Lake Gokcha (now Sevan); the Molokans in the Bambak (now Pambak) Valley between Delishan and Alexandropol had the best deal.

The Doukhobor village of Bashkichet (now Dmanisi), much the same today as when Petzholdt visited it in 1864. A Flickr photo by AutumLilee.

I myself was able to view only the sectarians’ villages located in the Bambak Valley, on Lake Gokcha, and on the road between Nukha (now Shaki) and Shemakha as well as the villages on the upper part of the Mashavera River [in the Borchalo district]. I was unable to view the state of the Doukhobor colonies in the Akhalkalaki district in person since I did not get there during my Transcaucasion travels. I only saw Doukhobors of the latter area on the road.

At the beginning of these remarks I have already praised the condition in which I found the Doukhobors in Transcaucasia, and I will refrain from any further details. As far as I was able to observe, they are efficient, hard-working people who keep their entire household in good order. With the kind of skill and obedience that is innate in the Russian personality, they have adjusted as well as possible to their new conditions which are after all quite distinct from their previous ones. They pursue farming and cattle-raising both of which support their needs. However, the Doukhobors of the Akhalkalaki district had been assigned a most unsuitable settlement area where neither farming nor cattle-raising was worth while, and they therefore had to resort to other sources of income. As I have already stated, I did not visit their villages. And so it is with great interest that I read the description of the living conditions of these Doukhobors by an anonymous author. Indeed, I may be permitted to relate the most essential details of this interesting treatise in an excerpt because our ‘Anonymous’ has lived with these people for a longer period of time and became accurately acquainted with their doings.

Doukhobors living in the mountain lowlands of Borchalo district enjoyed a more moderate climate, fertile soil and better growing conditions than their brethren settled in Akhalkalaki district highlands. A Flickr photo by Rita Willaert.

After first describing the location, the so-called Dukhobor’e (land of the Doukhobors), our Anonymous writes:

[What follows is a lengthy quote from the anonymous article, The Dukhobortsy in Transcaucasiain the Baltic journal Baltische Monatsschrift (Volume 11, Riga: Jonck & Boliewsky, 1865). The quote begins in the section “Geography and Climate”, second paragraph and ends at the end of the section “Customs and Practices”, with many omissions in between.  After the quote, Petzholdt continues:]

When I stayed in [the town of] Akhaltsikhe, the Doukhobors, especially those from the villages Goreloye and Spasskoye, pleaded with me to come to them and to convince myself that they had been allotted too little land. They were hoping that I could intervene with the authorities in Tiflis to give them more land and especially land suitable for pasture. They stressed that they had already made that request many times but there had been no results. Unfortunately, I was unable to accept their call. Considering all the facts supplied by the above Anonymous, one would wish that the authorities would offer these people the means to pursue cattle-raising and thus to be able to support themselves by other means than the ones they have available now.

View Doukhobor Villages in Georgia, 1841-Present in a larger map


In his tour of the Caucasus, Petzholdt found a population of 7,000 Doukhobors living in thirteen colonies, namely one (he erred as there were three) in the Borchalo district; four in Elizavetpol district; and eight in Akhalkalaki district.  He only visited those living in the former, and not the latter two districts.  He also found a population of 23,000 Molokans living in thirty-eight colonies, namely six in Tiflis district; five in Elizavetpol district; seven in Novo-Bayaset district; two in Alexandropol district; and eighteen in Baku province – of the latter, eight were located in the Shemakha district, three in the Shusha district, and seven in the Lenkoran district.

Petzholdt noted that the Doukhobors were assigned insufficient, barren lands in very inhospitable areas of the Caucasus and were forced to adjust to the conditions as well as they could.  Those assigned to the mountain highlands of the Akhalkalaki district, a “dead wasteland” situated almost 3,000 feet above sea level, were worst off.  By comparison, those assigned to the lowlands of Borchalo district, situated at a lower altitude with a more moderate climate, fertile soil and growing conditions were somewhat better off. 

Petzholdt wrote approvingly of the Doukhobors as an “industrious, intelligent, efficient and hard-working” people whose character and whose “clean, orderly and excellent” villages reflected the influence of their Mennonite mentors. At the same time, he admired the skill and obedience “that is innate in the Russian personality”, which enabled the Doukhobors to adjust as well as possible to the adverse geographic and climatic conditions of the Caucasus.  

Nonetheless, Petzholdt reprimanded Doukhobors, Molokans, and Germans alike: “they live in isolation and keep to themselves so that it is not surprising that they have not yet been able to exert a noticeable influence on their environment.” He went on to quote from Karl Koch’s book, “Wanderungen im Orient” (Weimar, 1846-1847) which states: “Concerning the Doukhobors and Molokans (of the Shemakha district): “Like the German colonists, the influence of these industrious people on the original inhabitants of the area is by far not as benevolent as one might think. Unfortunately, they refrain from socializing with people of different persuasions and even the mere touching of one of their vessels by one of the latter is enough grounds to throw the vessel away.”

Petzholdt reiterated the “official” position that the Doukhobors were exiled to the Caucasus because of undefined crimes and excesses committed while they lived on the Molochnaya River in Tavria province; recent historical scholarship has cast doubt on the veracity of these accusations.  This was probably included as a nod to his benefactor, Grand Duke Mikhail Nikolayevich, Governor of the Caucasus, to ensure the further financial backing of his expeditions. It is counterbalanced, somewhat, by Petzholdt’s adjuration to authorities to provide the Doukhobors (particularly those of Akhalkalaki district) with sufficient land to support themselves by means of cattle-raising; at the time they derived their only means of income through cartage – the transport of goods by horse and wagon for hire.

Petzholdt’s writings are among the remarkably few sources of detailed, published information about the Doukhobors in the two decades following their settlement in the Caucasus.  As such, his work is a valuable contribution to our understanding of this little-known and little-explored period of Doukhobor history.

To read more, search, download, save and print a full PDF copy of the original German text of Der Kaukasus: Eine naturhistorische so wie land- und volkswirtschaftliche Studie (ausgeführt im Jahre 1863 und 1864) (H. Fries, 1866), visit the Google Book Search digital database.