Easter Among Doukhobors

By Jonathan J. Kalmakoff

This weekend we celebrate Easter, a festival commemorated by Christians across the world. As we do so, it is important to remind ourselves how this holiday is understood in Doukhobor religious thought and teaching, and how it differs in significant respects from that of other Christian denominations; the Doukhobor folk customs and traditions connected to Easter; and the significant historic events associated with its celebration.

Orthodox Easter

Since the introduction of Christianity in Russia in 988 AD, Paskha (Пасха) or ‘Easter’ was celebrated by the Orthodox Church as a holiday in remembrance of the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ. It was traditionally held (on the first Sunday after the spring equinox and full moon with dates varying year-to-year) according to the Julian (Old) Calendar then used in Russia, which fell one or five weeks later than the Gregorian (New) Calendar.

Among the Orthodox, Jesus Christ was considered the incarnation of God the Son, the second person of the Trinity. That is, the Orthodox considered Christ the literal supernatural embodiment of God on earth, having taken on a human body and human nature. His suffering and death on the Cross, the Orthodox believed, was followed by his actual, physical, bodily resurrection. This concept of events formed the foundation of the Orthodox faith, and its belief that Christ’s death and resurrection were part of God’s plan for man’s salvation and redemption through Christ’s atonement for man’s sin.

The Orthodox celebration of Paskha was preceded by twelve weeks of Lent, during which the faithful fasted and practiced repentance, forgiveness and prayer. When the festival finally arrived, it was considered a day of mandatory church attendance, where believers attended a midnight service on the eve which abounded in ornate ritual and ceremony. It began with a procession out of the church building, with the faithful carrying icons and candles led by the priest burning incense in a censer. The procession circled the building and returned to the closed front doors, where the priest read from the Gospel. The faithful then re-entered the church and continued the service of Easter matins, which were entirely sung. This was followed by a divine liturgy, with singing and readings by the priest, and concluded with the sacraments of the holy communion.

Following the church service, Orthodox Russians celebrated Paskha with feasts and merriment along with the exchange of colored eggs, traditionally dyed red with onion skins. Among the Orthodox, Easter eggs traditionally symbolized resurrection and new life, while the red colouring symbolized the blood of Christ on the cross.

Easter among Doukhobors

During the mid to late 1700s, while the Doukhobors were still living among Orthodox Russians, they also outwardly celebrated Paskha in the traditional manner. Some Doukhobors went to church for appearances sake; others avoided going altogether, having already rejected the physical church in favour of the ‘inner church’ within themselves; nonetheless at home they celebrated with prayer meetings, followed by visits to family and friends.

However, by this time, Paskha had acquired an inner, spiritual meaning and significance among Doukhobors that differed substantially from that of the Orthodox, and which was founded on dramatically different ideas concerning the nature of Jesus Christ, the Resurrection, and the basis of man’s salvation.

Jesus Christ

In order to understand the Doukhobor concept of Jesus Christ, it is first necessary to discuss the Doukhobor notion of the Trinity.

Doukhobors rejected the Orthodox dogmatic concept of the Holy Trinity (i.e. one God coexisting in three separate persons) as being incomprehensible and counter to any rational understanding. Instead, they likened the Trinity in metaphorical terms to God the Father represented by our ‘Memory’, God the Son represented in our ‘Reasoning Conscience’ (𝘴𝘰𝘷𝘦𝘴𝘵’) and the Holy Spirit represented by our ‘Will’. Doukhobors believed these qualities to be God-given and thus divine. The Doukhobor concept of the Trinity is described in the Zhivotnaya Kniga (‘Living Book’) in Psalms 1 (Q/A 5), 3 (Q/A 89), 5 (Q/A 42 and 49), 6 (Q/A 12), 11 (Q/A 68), 64 and 65.

Regarding Christ, Doukhobors rejected the concept of the immaculate conception and that God the Son was literally and supernaturally embodied in human form in Mary’s womb. They considered this to be an artificial embellishment introduced by the established church in order to mystify and confound believers as to Christ’s true nature. Doukhobors instead believed that Mary was simply a woman, who like any other woman, gave birth to an ordinary mortal man, in this case, Jesus of Nazareth. The Doukhobor belief in Jesus, born a man, is found in the Zhivotnaya Kniga in Psalms 1 (Q/A 3), 7 (Q/A 10), 12 (Q/A 6 and 8, 64, 71, 73, 85, 88, 94 and 375.

Doukhobors believed that God chose Jesus as his anointed one by endowing him with the divine quality of ‘Reasoning Conscience’ of the highest degree. Possessing extraordinary spiritual intelligence in his soul, lucid and enlightened beyond that of his fellow men, Jesus was able to attain the highest possible understanding of God’s Law. Since Jesus attained the highest, purest and most perfect form of ‘Reasoning Conscience’ possible for a man, and ‘Reasoning Conscience’ was ‘God the Son’ in the Doukhobor metaphorical sense of the Trinity, thus, Jesus was a Son of God.

According to Doukhobor belief, Jesus’s enlightened teachings and life revealed mankind’s true meaning and purpose, which was to fulfill God’s Law – i.e. to love God with all of one’s heart, soul and mind, and to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. God’s Law was manifested in Jesus through his loving attitude toward other people. The Doukhobor understanding of Jesus as a keeper of God’s Law can be found in the Zhivotnaya Kniga in Psalms 2 (Q/A 14, 15 and 16), 4 (Q/A 7), 5 (Q/A 17), 7 (Q/A 11 and 12), 8 (Q/A 24, 25, and 26), 9 (Q/A 24), 47 (Q/A 1) 59 (Q/A 4), 185, 373 and 374.

The Resurrection

Like the Orthodox, Doukhobors believed that Jesus was crucified by his oppressors and that he suffered and died on the cross. The Doukhobor account of Jesus’s death by crucifixion is relayed in the Zhivotnaya Kniga in Psalms 1 (Q/A 14), 8 (Q/A 15, 29), 71, 89, 114, 141, 204, 208, 212, 253, 349, 350, 357, 359, 361, 362, 363, 366, 367, 372, 391, 400, 404, 410 and 415.

Also like the Orthodox, Doukhobors believed that on the third day after his crucifixion, Jesus was resurrected. However, they rejected the idea that his resurrection was literal and physical (bodily), as this defied logic and common sense. Instead, Doukhobors believed that Jesus’ resurrection was metaphorical: he rose again spiritually in the hearts of righteous people and continues to be resurrected to this day in those who follow his teachings. This Doukhobor understanding of the Resurrection is reflected in the Zhivotnaya Kniga in Psalms 8 (Q/A 11), 14 (Q/A 6), 80, 112, 132, 189, 217, 312, 339, 349, 352, 361, 362, 367, 383 and 410.

Salvation

While the Orthodox believed that Jesus died to atone for our sins and in so doing, earned our salvation, Doukhobors reject this notion entirely. For Doukhobors, the idea that his death served as some kind of ‘divine bargain’ for the salvation of others was contrary to the very essence of his teachings. Rather, Doukhobors understood salvation as being attained through the emulation of Jesus, by living, as he did, according to God’s Law and thus earning our redemption through our own good works. That is, for Doukhobors, the essence of Christ (i.e. Reasoning Conscience) exists in the soul of every person awaiting only recognition; and those who respond to the Christ within and strive to follow his example will be saved. This Doukhobor concept of salvation is found in the Zhivotnaya Kniga in Psalms 1 (Q/A 1), 2 (Q/A 31, 71), 3 (Q/A 79), 5 (Q/A 44), 9 (Q/A 45), 11 (Q/A 56), 14 (Q/A 5), 65, 67, 69, 74, 96, 137, 157, 170, 176, 192, 210, 217, 227, 229, 237, 277, 300, 311, 316, 319, 320, 333, 375, 384, 385 and 415.

The Meaning and Significance of Easter for Doukhobors

In light of the Doukhobor concepts of Christ, the Resurrection and Salvation, what is the significance of Easter among them?

Doukhobors understand Jesus to have been born, to have lived, and died in the flesh. His soul, the perfect embodiment of divine Reasoning Conscience, is eternal. He arose in spirit and continues to arise in those who follow his teachings (i.e. true Christians), not in word but in deed. Paskha (‘Easter’) for Doukhobors is thus the celebration of Jesus Christ’s spiritual resurrection within each of us. The Doukhobor celebration of this ‘New Easter’ is described in the Zhivotnaya Kniga in Psalms 6 (Q/A 66), 14 (Q/A 14), 86 and 383.

Doukhobor Easter Customs in Russia

Once Doukhobors openly rejected the Orthodox Church and its teachings in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, they discarded many Orthodox feast days as being unnecessary and superfluous. However, they continued to celebrate Paskha as an important holiday in accordance with their own beliefs and interpretations. In doing so, they adapted some of the Easter holiday rituals and customs from the Orthodox, imbuing them with new meaning and significance.

Strashnaya

Unlike the Orthodox, the Doukhobors did not fast during Lent except in a spiritual sense. However, they were very scrupulous in their attempts to refrain from sinning, both verbally and in deed, during Strastnaya Nedelya (‘Holy Week’), or Strashnaya as it was called among Doukhobors, which preceded Paskha.

Velikaya Pyatnitsa

On Velikaya Pyatnitsa (‘Good Friday’), the women of each Doukhobor village dyed eggs with onion peels and baked Easter cakes. The folk custom of coloring Easter eggs was borrowed from the Orthodox, but its symbolic meaning was reinterpreted by Doukhobors as a way to “celebrate the joyful resurrection of Christ and to glorify the name of God”: Zhivotnaya Kniga, Psalm 14 (Q/A 6). There is historical evidence of this practice among the Doukhobors of Tavria guberniya (‘province’) in what is now Ukraine in the early 19th century, as well as in the Caucasus in the late 19th century.

Paskhal’noye Voskresen’ye

During the night that preceded Paskhal’noye Voskresen’ye (‘Easter Sunday’), Doukhobors would assemble for a moleniye (‘prayer meeting’).

In the early 19th century, Doukhobors in Tavria guberniya gathered in the village of Terpeniye to hold the Paskha prayers. The moleniye was held either inside the Sirotsky Dom (‘Orphan’s Home’) or, if weather permitted, outside in the courtyard in front of this building.

In the latter 19th century, after being exiled to the Caucasus, the Doukhobors chose a central location in each of the three districts in which they settled, where people from the surrounding villages would congregate to commemorate Paskha.

  • in Tiflis guberniya in what is now Georgia, they met on the flat, rocky plateau above the sacred cave-like grotto known as Peshcherochki near the village of Orlovka.
  • in Elisavetpol guberniya in present-day Azerbaijan, they gathered at a sacred grove (svyashchennaya roshcha) on the outskirts of Slavyanka village, which had a well-ordered and carefully-tended orchard, a summer pavilion where visiting Doukhobor leaders stayed, and a refreshing mineral spring.
  • in Kars oblast’ (‘region’) in modern Turkey, they met on a high, wide plateau that overlooked the surrounding plains and villages. Referred to as Vozle Verbochek (‘beside the pussy willows’) it was situated next to a grove of trees planted, according to Doukhobor tradition, by Christ and the apostles.

When greeting one another at Easter, 19th century Doukhobors would proclaim: “Khristos voskres!” (“Christ has Risen!”), a phrase borrowed from Orthodox tradition. Among Orthodox believers, the customary response was: “Vo istinu Khristos voskres!” (“Truly, Christ has Risen!”). However, Doukhobors subtly adapted this response to say instead: “Vo istinnykh Khristos voskres!” (“In the righteous, Christ has Risen!”) meaning that Christ has risen among his true believers (in the spiritual sense).

At the end of the prayer meeting, it was customary for Doukhobors to then wish each other a Happy Easter by kissing three times and exchanging colored eggs.

In some villages, such as Gorelovka, it was also customary for Doukhobor women to take Easter cakes known as paskha (a round-shaped sweet cake made with raisins) to the Sirotsky Dom and hand them out to the old people after prayers.

After the Easter moleniye, it was also customary for Doukhobors to visit their local cemeteries and visit the graves of deceased relatives, putting colored eggs on the graves, to pray for them and to revive their memory.

Yet another Doukhobor tradition, dating back to pre-Christian Russian tradition, was to put a few dyed eggs into the barn for the khozya (‘master’), as some called the fairy tale spirit said to inhabit it; others referred to it as domovoy.

Doukhobor children in each village would play with the colored eggs they received, rolling them along grooves during the Easter festivities.

Doukhobor Easter Commemoration in Canada

Doukhobors continued to observe these traditional Easter festivities after their arrival in Canada in 1899, at least initially. The major difference was that after 1903, the Doukhobors moved their observance of New Year’s from the Old (Julian) Calendar to the New (Grigorian) Calendar.

At a 1908 all-village congress held by the Doukhobor Community in Nadezhda village near Veregin, Saskatchewan, Peter V. Verigin, in an effort to simplify and modernize Doukhobor ceremony and ritual, set aside many of the folk traditions and festivities formerly associated with Easter. Strashnaya and Velikaya Pyatnitsa were no longer actively celebrated as part of the Easter celebration. However, a special moleniye continued to be held on the Sunday of Paskhal’noye Voskresen’ye to commemorate Easter.

Also, a new Easter salutation evolved into use in Canada at the moleniye on Paskhal’noye Voskresen’ye:

  • Greeting: “Slava Hospodu (“Glory to God). Response by those gathered: “Slavim, blahodarim Hospadu za Yevo Milost’ (“We glorify and thankfully gift Him with blessings for His grace.)
  • This new greeting was followed by the traditional Doukhobor Easter greeting described above.

Two other greetings were developed by Doukhobors in Canada that reference Christ’s spiritual resurrection; however, they are not associated exclusively with Easter. At every moleniye, the following greetings are given in the form of an exchange between the two sides (men and women) gathered. These are as follows:

  • Greeting: “Slaven Bog proslavilsya!” (“Our praiseworthy God has been given His due recognition!”).  Response: “Velikoye imya Gospodnee i slava Evo po vsey zemle!” (“Great is the name of the Lord (God), and His honor is felt throughout the world!”).
  • Additional Greeting: “S prazdnikom vas, s svetlym Khristovym Voskreseniem!” (“Greetings to you this day, commemorating the day of Christ’s resurrection, which gave light to the world!”)

Significant Historic Events

No discussion of Easter would be complete without mentioning the seminal historical event associated with this holiday: the Doukhobor repudiation of military service.

On Easter day in 1895, Doukhobor conscripts then in active duty in the Russian Imperial Army carried out a series of protest actions in accordance with the careful instructions of their exiled leader, Peter Vasil’evich Verigin, as communicated through his loyal messengers.

When the commander of the company arrived and congratulated his soldiers on the Easter holiday, saying: ‘Christ has Risen’, each Doukhobor soldier answered: ‘In the righteous, Christ has risen’ rather than the customary Orthodox response of ‘Truly, Christ has risen’. Following this, each Doukhobor soldier advised his commander that he believed in Christ in deed, and would be serving Christ by denying and rejecting all violent regimes. He then handed the officer his rifle, saying ‘this is why I ask you to accept this rifle from me because all this is unnecessary for me and contradicts my consciousness and the spiritual feeling of my soul.’

It was the Doukhobor conscript Matvei Vasil’evich Lebedev who carried out this action first, and his brave endeavor became known to the whole regiment and everyone questioned: What happened to him? Some soldiers assumed he went insane, while others whispered, quietly and cautiously, that he was correct in his actions. For taking this courageous stand, Lebedev was tortured, beaten and put into a punishment cell, where he was not given food except for bread and water.

Others, empowered by Lebedev’s example, followed and soon almost 60 Doukhobor conscripts in active service (at the time) in the Caucasus returned their arms and equipment. They were all arrested, beaten, tortured and put into isolation away from the other soldiers. A number died from this cruel and inhumane treatment. Finally, they were sent to the disciplinary battalion at Ekaterinograd Fortress where they underwent additional punishment and inhuman cruelties. In the years that immediately followed, over 180 Doukhobor conscripts took this action. They were all exiled for a term of 18 years to the isolated and remote Yakutsk region in Eastern Siberia.

The actions of the Doukhobor army conscripts during Easter of 1895 set off a much wider protest within Doukhobor society against violence, killing and militarism, which would culminate with the Burning of Arms, later that same year.

Conclusion

As we once again commemorate Easter, celebrating Christ’s spiritual resurrection within us, today and every day, let us once more proclaim in our hearts and to each other: Khristos voskres! … Vo istinnykh Khristos voskres!


This article was originally published in the following periodical:

  • ISKRA No. 2161, April 2021 (Grand Forks: Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ).

Bibliographic Sources 

  • Bonch-Breuvich, Vladimir D., Zhivotnaia kniga dukhobortsev (Winnipeg: Union of Doukhobors of Canada, 1954);
  • Inikova, Svetlana A., Holidays and Rituals of Doukhobors in the Caucasus (Doukhobor Heritage: www.doukhobor.org).
  • Ivanits, Linda J. Russian Folk Belief (Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 1989);
  • Manitoba Free Press, “Doukhobors Will be Canadians”, April 6, 1903;
  • Novitsky, Orest M., Dukhobortsy. Ikh istoria I verouchenie (Kiev: 1882);
  • Poznikoff, Liza, correspondence with writer re: Easter greetings, April 1, 2021;
  • Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ, “About Our Faith” (U.S.C.C. website: uscc-doukhobor.org);
  • Veregin, Barry, correspondence with writer re: Easter greetings, April 12, 2021; and
  • Voykin, Wendy, correspondence with writer re: Easter greetings, April 1, 2021.

Photo Credit: Olga Nagorna, Olga in the Kitchen.