Ethnic Diversity Among the Early Doukhobors

by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff

Pushkin, the 19th century Russian poet once wrote, ‘Turkic blood flows in all Russian veins’. It has also been said, ‘Scratch a Russian and you’ll find a Tatar’. While many present-day Doukhobors may find it difficult to believe, it would appear that not all early Doukhobors were ethnic Russians. As the following commentary by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff suggests, a number of different ethnic groups may have contributed to, and enriched, our Doukhobor heritage.

At its peak, the Russian Empire covered vast expanses of geographic territory and encompassed many different ethnic groups, including Ukrainians, Poles, Cossacks, Finns, Lapps, Lithuanians, Estonians, Mordvinians, Magyars, Turks, Tatars, Meshcheryaks, Bashkirs, Turkmen, Uzbeks, Bulgars, Mongols, Kalmyks, Buriats, Germans, Swedes, Jews and Gypies to name just a few. Throughout history, Russians interbred with all of these ethnic groups. As these ethnic groups assimilated and became citizens of the Russian Empire, they adopted Russian names, dress, religion and language.

Many Doukhobor surnames, formed in the 17th and 18th centuries, reflect the wide ethnic diversity of the Russian Empire: 

  • The Kalmykov surname is derived from kalmyk, the name of a nomadic Mongol tribe. The surname Kasahov is derived from the term kasag, the Old Russian name for the Circassians, a north Caucasian people. The Mordovin surname is derived from mordva, the name of an indigenous tribe of people in Russia.  The Polyakov surname is derived from the term polyak, meaning Pole. The surname Novokshonov is derived from the term novokreschony meaning “newly-baptised” or “newly-converted”. This term was given to those who accepted the Russian Orthodox faith, specifically non-Christians and non-Russians such as Turks, Tatars, Mordvins, etc.

  • Several Doukhobor surnames are formed from terms borrowed from the Turkish language. These include: Argatov, Babaev, Balabanov, Baturin, Bulanov, Chekmarev, Chuchmaev, Chuval’deev, Il’yasov, Kurbatov, Makhortov, Saburlev, Sadkov, Zibarev and others. While these surnames do not necessarily indicate Turkish family origins, they reveal Turkic cultural and linguistic influences at the time of their formation. 

  • Several Doukhobor surnames are formed from Mordvinian personal names.  These include: Kinyakin, Kitaev, Kochatov, Kunavin, Kuchaev and Varakin.

  • A number of Doukhobor surnames are clearly Ukrainian in form or derivation. These include: Arishchenkov (Arishchenko), Atamanenko, Barovsky (Oborovsky), Baturin (Baturinsky), Bokovoy, Bondarev, Borisenkov (Borisenko), Butsky, Cherkashev, Chernov (Chernoy), Chernenkov (Chernenko), Chubenko, Chutsenko, Chutsky, Dimovsky, Dyachenko, Eroshchenko, Gontarenkov (Gontarenko), Khokhlin, Kobzenko, Kolbasov (Kolbasa), Kolesnik, Kovalev, Krikunov (Krikun), Lavrenchenkov (Lavrenchko), Leshchenko, Levadniy, Matveyenko, Miroshnikov, Nagornov (Nagorniy), Petrenko, Pogozhev (Pogozhiy), Planidin (Planida), Plokhov (Plokhiy), Prokopenko, Remez (Remezov), Reznikov, Rudenko, Rybin (Ryban), Rybalkin, Savenkov (Savenko), Savitskov (Savitsky), Sereda, Shtuchnov (Shtuchniy), Skripnichenko, Skripnikov (Skripnik), Sorokin (Soroka), Svetlishnov (Svetlichniy), Tertishnikov, Vanzhov (Vanzha), Vasilenkov (Vasilenko), Yaroshenko, Yashchenkov (Yashchenko), Yarovenko, Zapasnoy, Zheltenkov (Zheltenko), Zubenkov (Zubenko).

  • Several Doukhobor surnames identify Cossack roots: The Kazakov surname is derived from the term kazak, meaning “Cossack”. The Esaulov surname is derived from the term esaul, meaning a Cossack “calvary commander”. The Sotnikov surname is derived from the term sotnik, meaning a Cossack commander of a hundred men.

In the early 1800’s, Doukhobors from across the Russian Empire settled together in Tavria (Tauride) province. Russian archival records confirm that a significant minority of these settlers were of Ukrainian, Cossack and Mordvinian origin: Ukrainians from Ekaterinoslav, Sloboda-Ukraine (Kharkov), Poltava, Kherson and Tavria provinces; Cossacks from Sloboda-Ukraine (Kharkov), the Kuban and the Don; and Mordvins from Tambov and Penza provinces. 

Doukhobor oral tradition supports the view that individuals of non-Russian ethnic origin settled amongst the Doukhobors at Milky Waters, Tavria province. In his book, Toil and Peaceful Life: History of Doukhobors Unmasked, author Semeon F. Reibin recounts how the Verigin family descended from Tatar princes. In his book, Stories from Doukhobor History, folk historian Eli Popoff discusses Doukhobor families of Finnish or Mordvinian ancestry who retained their native language and customs for generations after joining the Doukhobor movement. Popoff also discusses individuals of Mongol ancestry who settled among the Doukhobors. 

After the Doukhobors were exiled to the Caucasus mountain region in the 1840’s, many learned to speak the native Turkic, Georgian, Armenian and Azeri tongues of their mountain neighbours. There is no evidence to suggest the Doukhobors intermarried with the native Caucasian peoples during this period, however they definitely interacted with them on a daily basis.

In the late 1890’s following the “Burning of Arms”, close to 100 Doukhobor military personnel were exiled from the Caucasus to the Yakutsk district of Siberia for refusing to bear arms. A handful of these young men married local women of Siberian (Tagut) ancestry before they rejoined their families in Canada in 1905.

Without a doubt, the vast majority of Doukhobors are of Slavic Russian ethnic origin. However there is no such thing as a “pure-bred” nationality. A number of different ethnic groups may have contributed to, and enriched, our Doukhobor gene-pool. There are many old photographs of dark-complexioned Doukhobors, taken at the turn of the last century, that suggest some of us aren’t as “Russian” as we’d like to believe.