Exile of the Dukhobortsy, 1843

by Moritz Wagner

Moritz Wagner (1813-1887) was a German explorer, collector, geographer and natural historian who toured South Russia and the Caucasus between 1843 and 1846.  In 1843, he met a convoy of Doukhobor exiles en route from the Molochnaya to the Caucasus.  Earlier that year, he visited the Doukhobors already settled in Caucasia.  Wagner kept a diary and recorded his impressions of these encounters, which he published in “Der Kaukasus und das Land der Kosaken, in den Jahren 1843 bis 1846” (Dresden & Leipzig: Arnoldische Buchhandlung, 1848).  The following is reproduced from a review of “Der Kaukasus…” published in The Westminster and Foreign Quarterly Review (London), vol. 50, 1849, in which excerpts from the book were translated into English from the original German and quoted at length. It is one of the most vivid and detailed first-hand accounts of the Doukhobor exile to the Caucasus, and provides rare and fascinating insights into the circumstances of their expulsion and the conditions in which they were settled. Afterword by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

As I returned wearied from my wanderings among the glaciers on the evening of the 2nd of August, to my lodgings, I found everything in unusual bustle. Hundreds of wagons, heavily laden, were rolling slowly through the village – old men with venerable beards, little children, women with sucking babes at the breast – sat in them, among chests, and boxes, and household and agricultural implements of every kind. They reminded me of processions of emigrants from the South of Germany, which I had seen moving towards Havre and Bremen, but that their Slavonian cast of feature, long beards, and old dilapidated hats with narrow brims, showed them to be Russians. They were, however, emigrants, though unwilling ones; people of the religious sect of Duchoborzen [Dukhobortsy], whom an imperial order had just driven from their beautiful and fertile habitations by the Sea of Azoph [Azov], to the uttermost limit of the Russian Empire on the other side of the Caucasus – a region of cold and desolate mountains.

Wagon on the Georgian Military Road between Vladikavkaz and Tiflis, 19th century.

There were among them men of a most venerable aspect – real apostolic figures, but so astonishingly like each other that I could scarcely distinguish them; they seemed all like twin brothers. The women and girls, who were not handsome, wore frightful little caps, tied together with broad ribbon, and long jackets of blue cloth, like those worn by Russian slaves [serfs]. The children, especially the boys, had a most gentle and amiable expression of countenance, and the people seemed to form among themselves one great family.

Sometimes ten or more of the wagons would suddenly make a halt; the men would alight, and assemble around an old woman, who held a great bottle of spirits, of which she would give a glass to one after another, and lastly take a good sip herself. By the uniformity of their simple costume, by their thoughtful faces, and patriarchal mode of life, it was easy to see that they must be reformers [Russian Protestants]; and the sight of so many people, thus resolutely and with solemn resignation going forth into exile, made so much the more painful impression on me, as I knew what a harsh climate and barren soil they had to encounter in the melancholy abode assigned to them.

I had spent some time in Gumri [Gyumri, Armenia], which is on the frontier, towards Asiatic Turkey, and had had some intercourse with those of the Duchoborzen who were already settled there. These poor people had not only suffered the severest privations, but had also been plundered and ill-treated by the Russian officials, and many families had already sunk under misery and hunger.

The Duchoborzen whom I now saw had been settled on the Steppes of the Sea of Azoph, by command of the Emperor Alexander, who had feared that this enthusiastic sect might make proselytes, and spread into the interior of Russia. On the banks of the Maloshna [Molochnaya] (the Milk River) where they were located, they had founded eleven [nine] large, handsome, and prosperous villages. That they are industrious men, and excellent agriculturists, is acknowledged even by their enemies, the adherents of the Russian [Orthodox] national church. In no other part of the empire were the fields and gardens so blooming, the cattle so thriving, as on this colony on the Milk River.

Mt. Kazbek on the Georgian Military Road where Wagner met the Doukhobors in 1843.

The colonists grew rich, but withdrew themselves more and more from their neighbors, and would allow no stranger to witness the mysteries of their divine worship – so that wherein its peculiarities consist has never been rightly understood. They assemble daily in their churches and sing psalms – and they declare that the Holy Spirit, the Father, or the Son, dwells in every man; but they do not seem themselves to have a very clear knowledge of their system. They listen with devout attention to the confused fanatical addresses of their elders; and then-chief [Kapustin], who inhabited an island of the Maloshna enjoyed a boundless reverence, the multitudes believing that he stood in some intimate relation to the deity. He appears to have exercised a mysterious and terrible power over them.

As long as Alexander lived, the Duchoborzen remained in tranquility. They paid their taxes punctually, furnished recruits, and subjected themselves to all the duties of subjects, and though they avoided all intercourse with the members of the Russian church, they offered no molestation to any one. But a change came with the accession of the Emperor Nicholas [in 1825]. The priests and official personages of their neighborhood knew that the Czar hated all religious sects, and desired particularly to establish the unity of the national church – and the persecution now began.

The Duchoborzen were accused of making their villages the asylums of runaway criminals, on whom they conferred, it was said, the names of deceased persons, who were privately buried, and thus the official books for years together showed no record of a death. There existed, moreover, a sort of secret tribunal, which disposed secretly of all of their society who were suspected of divulging the mysteries. Upon such vague accusations as these, commissions of inquiry were established; the authorities would not of course lose such a tempting opportunity of fining the rich Duchoborzen villagers; and the threat of sending them to Siberia, or beyond the Caucasus, filled many an official pocket that had been empty before.

That the Duchoborzen had really been guilty of the crime, such as it was, of affording a refuge to the deserters from the army, is highly probable, and this circumstance was ultimately turned to their destruction. A Russian deserter, who had been closely pursued by a police officer, was afterwards found in the mill-stream of one of the German colonists, and it was now declared that the Duchoborzen had murdered him, and dragged him here in the night, in order to turn the suspicion of the deed upon the Germans.

Mountain pass on the Georgian Military Road, 19th century.

Upwards of a hundred individuals were hereupon seized, imprisoned, whipped, and tortured, to wring from them the confession; but they constantly denied the charge and no proof whatever could be discovered. Notwithstanding, however, that it remained a mere suspicion, thirty men received the knout, as convicted murderers, and were then sent off to Siberia; and shortly afterwards an imperial ukase arrived, commanding that the whole body of the Duchoborzen should be transported to the frontiers of the Arpatschai [Arpachai River] – the coldest, dreariest, and most desolate region of the Caucasus. These poor people had to leave their fruitful fields and convenient houses, and build themselves huts among the rugged mountains, in a place where corn will ripen only in the warmest summers.

In the year 1843, when I was on the Arpatschai, I found some thousands of them settled there, in seven villages, but all in the most deplorable condition. The children looked pale and thin, from insufficient food. I asked one of the boys whether he would go with me and be my servant, to have good food, and wear good clothes, and he answered, ‘Oh, I should like to go – but he added – ‘not without my maminka‘ (my little mother).

The miserable condition into which the greater part of the first settlers fell, was not enough to soften the hearts of their oppressors; a fresh command arrived from St. Petersburg to drive the remaining four or five thousand of the Duchoborzen from their houses. As they had to sell their little possessions in all haste in order to begin their pilgrimage to the Caucasus, they fell into the hands of usurers and cheats, who gave them scarcely a tenth part of the value; and not a few official personages made handsome profits on the occasion.

The choice had been offered to them to remain in their villages on condition of conforming to the national church, but very few yielded to the temptation; and very remarkable it is, that with such vague ideas of religion as they possessed, such imperfect conceptions of God and a future state, they should yet cling so firmly to them, and for their sake renounce all hopes of temporal well-being, consent to abandon their beloved homes, and encounter the thousand-fold miseries of banishment in dreary and inhospitable deserts.


Moritz Friedrich Wagner was one of the foremost traveler-explorers of the mid-nineteenth century. He led expeditions to Algeria (1836-1838), Armenia and the Caucasus Mountains (1842-1846), Italy (1846-1849), Asia Minor and Central Asia (1850-1851), the United States, West Indies and Central America (1852-1855) and Central America and Ecuador (1857-1860). Wagner’s early career was as a geographer, and he published a number of geographic books based on his travels. He was also a keen naturalist and collector whose chief interest was the study of animal migration, and he faithfully reported the scientific and ethnological results of his many expeditions through a long series of writings.

In May of 1843, Wagner toured the Wet Mountains region of Northern Armenia and Southern Georgia.  There, near Gyumri and Akhaltsikhi (as noted in the original German text), he encountered several thousand Doukhobors living in seven (he erred as there were eight) villages. They had only recently settled there, having been deported from the Molochnaya region near the Sea of Azov in two parties in 1841 and 1842. The harsh mountain climate and barren soil had ravaged the exiles, whom Wagner found “all in the most deplorable condition”.  The children, he noted, “looked pale and thin, from insufficient food” and lacked “good clothes”.  Moreover, the Doukhobors had suffered mightily at the hands of corrupt Tsarist officials, who “plundered and ill-treated” them when they arrived.  Many families had sunk under misery, hunger and privation; yet clung firmly to their faith.

Three months later, in August of 1843, Wagner hiked the glaciers of Mount Kazbek (as noted in the original German text) south of Vladikavkaz, Russia. There, along the Georgian Military Road, he met a third party of Doukhobor exiles in “hundreds of wagons, heavily laden” with household and agricultural implements.  They were en route from the Molochnaya to the Wet Mountains. Wagner noted the resolute decorum and solemn resignation of these “real apostolic figures” who “seemed to form among themselves one great family”.  This pained him, having already visited their cold and desolate place of exile.

Unidentified informants, possibly members of the military escort conducting the sectarians, told Wagner that the Doukhobors were “industrious men, and excellent agriculturalists” and that “in no other part of the empire were the fields and gardens so blooming, the cattle so thriving” as on their colony on the Molochnaya.  Under Tsar Alexander I, the Doukhobors remained in tranquility; they “paid taxes punctually, furnished recruits and subjected themselves to all duties”.  Under Tsar Nicholas I, however, they became increasingly introverted. The Doukhobors “grew rich, but withdrew themselves more and more from their neighbours, and would allow no stranger to witness the mysteries of their divine worship”. A cruel persecution began.   

According to Wagner, “vague accusations” were made of Doukhobor murders at the Molochnaya colony which gave the authorities an excuse for “commissions of inquiry”.  No positive proof of these rumours was ever discovered, but over 100 Doukhobors were arrested, and thirty were exiled to Siberia as murderers; this is an anecdote not included in most written histories of the sect.  The real reason for their exile, contended Wagner, was that the Doukhobors were guilty of giving refuge to military deserters.  Moreover, fines and extortion by threats of exile for this crime “filled many an official pocket” with Doukhobor money.  Tsar Nicholas I, who “hated all religious sects,” accepted the dubious charges and exiled the entire Doukhobor colony to the Caucasus in 1839. 

Tsarist authorities waited until the last minute before informing the colony of its deportation in 1841.  The Doukhobors told Wagner that because they “had to sell their possessions in all haste in order to begin their pilgrimage to the Caucasus, they fell into the hands of usurers and cheats, who gave them scarcely a tenth part of the value” of their property left behind on the Molochnaya.  Moreover, Wagner was told that “not a few official personages made handsome profits” off the Doukhobor plight. 

Wagner’s account is almost certainly the most detailed and perceptive eyewitness account of the Doukhobor exile to the Caucasus, and his reasons given for their expulsion from the Molochnaya, among the most believable.

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