Imperial Legislation of the First Quarter of the 19th Century Regarding Ukrainian Doukhobors: Support or Appeasement?

by Tamara V. Nagorna

During the reign of Tsar Alexander I, a favourable legislative framework was established which allowed Spiritual Christians in Ukraine, particularly Doukhobors, to benefit both socially and economically.  In this Doukhobor Genealogy Website exclusive, Tamara Nagorna, a Postgraduate student of the Faculty of History at Poltava State Pedagogical University, examines the major features of Alexander’s policy towards the Doukhobors, based on an analysis of Imperial Russian legislation during the first quarter of the nineteenth century. She concludes that while his policy could be viewed as supportive of the religious dissenters, its actual goal was to placate and assuage them.  Reproduced from the Proceedings of the Faculty of History, Zaporozhye State University Vol. XIX (Kiev: Zaporozhiye Archive, 2005). Translated from the original Ukrainian by Khrystyna Hudyma with further translation and editing by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.  Click here for the original Ukrainian article.

At the present stage of Ukrainian society, attempts to reform executive bodies, including those responsible for cooperation with religious communities, draw researchers’ attention to state-church relations.

The interrelation between church and state has always been of vital importance in state legislative activity. Yet in modern Ukraine, the situation is exacerbated due to the lack of an efficient legal and regulatory framework for religious matters.

In this context, let us examine [Russian] imperial legislation of the first quarter of the nineteenth century as represented not only by numerous legal statutes, but also by acts of codified law. This insight will allow us to analyze the relations between legislative bodies and representatives of different groups that dissented from Orthodoxy, which, since their appearance in Ukraine, were for the most part contradictory and ambiguous.

This article attempts to trace the main features of Tsar Alexander I’s policy toward the Doukhobors in Ukraine.

This issue still remains largely unexplored. It is worth starting with an analysis of the general characteristics of publications by nineteenth and early twentieth century researchers dedicated to Alexander I’s policy on the Doukhobors, as they were the first to focus upon studying groups opposed to the Russian Orthodox Church. These scholars viewed the main state measures regarding religion only within the context of studying the history of separate religious communities. M. Kutopova [1], O. Lebedeva [2], and I. Yuzova [3] attempted to highlight the main stages in the development of separate religious communities in the Russian Empire. The scholars generalized materials compiled about the history of religious groups starting from the time of their establishment in Russia. They analyzed the effect of legal statutes chronologically and geographically on this group of people.

O. Pipin [4] and V. Skvortsov [5] in their works raised the issue of subdividing the groups opposed to orthodoxy into the ‘mystical’ and the ‘rational’. O. Novitsky [6] and P. Tun [7] researched the separate religious movements. Some chapters of F. Livanov’s multi-volume work provide insight on the history and development of Spiritual Christianity in Ekaterinoslav, Tavria and Kharkov provinces during the nineteenth century [8]. Such interest is explained by the wide spread of Spiritual Christian doctrine through the Ukrainian land. In addition, the missionaries M. Cheltsov [9] and S. Butkevych [10] studied the sects of the Russian Empire in general.

Soviet scholars dedicated their efforts to working out theoretical issues relating to sectarian studies. A. Klibanov [11] obtained a wealth of materials and made a profound summary on relations between the state and Spiritual Christians. I. Malakhova [12], A. Nikolsky [13], F. Fedorenko [14], M. Putintsev [15] and others studied the activities of religious organizations.

Modern scholars (O. Sahan, A. Kolodny, P. Yarotsky, L. Shuhayeva) focus their utmost attention to religion studies, hardly mentioning any Russian emperors’ policy [16; 17; 18].

An analysis of the main elements of state policy toward religion highlights the different approaches Russian emperors utilized in order to establish relations between authorities and religious communities, which were sometimes disinclined to both the state and the church (see Table I).

Before we begin a precise analysis of the Imperial Russian legal framework of the first quarter of the nineteenth century, several concepts used in the official documents should be investigated.

Legal statutes of that period use synonymous names for movements opposed to the Orthodox Church, i.e. Raskolniki (“Schismatics”), Ikonobortsy (“Iconoclasts”). It should be noted that some writers used a rather vague definition of iconoclasts, that allowed the name to be used for other groups as well. Consequently, some protestant groups opposed to Orthodoxy had identical names. The names Molokani (“Milk-Drinkers”), Dukhovny Khristyani (“Spiritual Christians”), etc. exemplify this.

Analyzing this issue is rather complicated, due to the fact that originally, only Old Believers, which comprised a religious group separate from the Orthodox Church, were called “dissenters”. However, starting from the second half of the nineteenth century, this label began to spread to include representatives of other communities, being a member of which was illegal [19]. Therefore, the legal statutes of the nineteenth century concerning religious groups cover all movements opposed to the Orthodox Church in general, and representatives of Spiritual Christianity in particular.

The characteristic feature of Catherine the Great’s policy toward dissenters was to condemn them, based not on religious intolerance, for her views espoused [against] that, but rather using real proofs of guilt: threat to public order, public opposition to the government, etc. All the trials regarding Doukhobor activity were processed within the context of civil proceedings. The main types of punishment were discipline with a rod (mild punishment) and exile to the Caucasus (strict punishment).

According to P. Biryukov, 1792 should be considered as the starting point of state-Doukhobor relations. That is the time when the Ekaterinoslav governor [Khakovsky], in one of his reports to St. Petersburg, wrote that nothing connected with iconoclasm deserved any mercy [20, p. 48]. He was talking about Doukhobors and Molokans who appeared at that time in Ekaterinoslav province and were not tolerated by local authorities. O. Novitsky suggests 1799 to be the time when authorities started paying attention to “Spiritual Christians” that had [already] for a long time influenced minds and hearts in Russia [6, p.24].

The last third of the eighteenth century witnessed trials against Doukhobor representatives in Kherson province. Trials of the same kind took place against Mariupol and Ekaterinoslav Doukhobors. According to the [Ekaterinoslav] governor’s report to the Minister of Internal Affairs, the Doukhobors were accused of spreading their doctrine in the streets and being accompanied by crowds. There is also some information about trials against Kharkov Doukhobors at the beginning of the nineteenth century. At the same time, Khlysty (“Flagellants”) in Kaluga and Moscow provinces, who had some connections with their Ukrainian peers, were outlawed. Thus, the priest Kostantin Ivanov, being supported by local authorities, gained the confidence of one of their community leaders, as a result of which the entire community was exposed, the main principles of their doctrine were made public and members were committed to trial [21, p.172].

Taking into account all the aforementioned facts, let us analyze the particulars of Alexander I’s policy toward Spiritual Christians. His primary goal was to reduce their activity, not by introducing additional penalties, nor by intensifying the struggle against them, but by paying due attention and providing [them] some benefits and concessions. In 1801, Tsar Alexander I issued a royal edict owing to which many Doukhobors were able to return home from Siberia and the Caucasus. O. Novitsky points out the inability of officials to predict a foreseeable result – the founding of new communities. When asked about their attitude toward the Tsar, the Doukhobors who came back to Kharkov said that they respected any ruler given by God; a good one they considered to be God’s gift, whereas an evil one – a scourge of God for their sins. When asked about taxation, they refused to pay, saying that they had no money. When asked about military duty, they answered that there was no one in their community to serve in the army. Such answers show their neutral attitude towards the government with non-admittance, but not disregard, of some state obligations due to the impossibility of fulfilling them.

The fact that proves the aforementioned policy towards religious communities is the conclusion of the Doukhobor case in the Izyum court of law. The case gained widespread publicity due to its promotion by local authorities. Immediately afterwards, the Doukhobors submitted a formal request asking for a separate colony. O. Novitsky and P. Biryukov consider this to be a voluntary step, whereas O. Titov points out that they agreed to the resettlement following a lengthy period of negotiations [22, p. 247]. In any case, there was a dramatic result – a request for resettlement to a separate colony. To fulfill the request, an Imperial Edict was published which allowed the Doukhobors to settle along the Molochnaya River (Milky Waters) in the Melitopol district of Tavria province.

Due to a mandatory condition, the first Doukhobors to be resettled were those of Sloboda-Ukraine, where the religious situation was evaluated by a special commission consisting of Tsarist officials. Every settler was granted 15 acres of land, 100 rubles (as a credit for 10 years), and tax exemption for 5 years [23, p. 186]. Thus, the Doukhobors of Kharkov and Ekaterinoslav provinces were resettled first, i.e. Ukrainian Doukhobors were given priority, and then followed others from Russian provinces.

The next period, which comprises more than ten years, witnessed no new legal statutes. However, there are some statements that demonstrate the resettlement took place over an extended period of time. In official documentation those Doukhobors dwelling along the Molochnaya River were referred to as “Melitopol colonists”, although the latter rejected such name. Thus, Goncharov and Sorokin, representatives of the Doukhobor colony, appealed to the Minister of Internal Affairs with a request to approve the official name of “Doukhobors”. The official answer was concise and allowed the use of the name Doukhobors as requested [24, p. 170]. F. Livanov considers that the appeal as such proved the Doukhobors’ great courage. However, this kind of request was not the last one, and later on, Doukhobors began to benefit from a favorable policy of the government (a more detailed description follows).

In 1816, Alexander I was delivered a report accusing the Doukhobors of drawing those of Orthodox belief into their communities. In fact, this situation was rather common. In Verkhnya Belozerka village, Dniprovsk district, Tavria province, V. Babayev, M. Kurbatov and H. Rudenko along with their families proclaimed themselves to be Doukhobors, being highly disappointed by the Orthodoxy. The Dniprovsk provincial court did not reach any decision, since it was waiting for the highest approval of their [the Doukhobors’] exile to Melitopol district. F. Livanov found some analogical cases with subsequent appeals for exile up to 1821. Count Langeron, the Kherson governor, verified the data, confirmed it and submitted a detailed report to relevant authorities.

The Doukhobors’ reaction was immediate, and resulted in an official appeal. It submitted evidence of Doukhobors being abused [by local authorities]; for instance, illegal detentions, arrests, questionings, forced confessions to crimes they did not commit, etc. were all quite common. Alexander I considered the appeal, and on October 10, 1816, ordered local authorities to submit detailed reports concerning the case. On December 12, a royal referral was addressed to the Kherson military governor regarding the [Doukhobors’] attitude toward the local bureaucracy and the aforementioned abuses. Some local officials requested to resettle the colony, but due to the absence of strong arguments in favor thereof, the Emperor declined their appeal.

Afterwards, Lavinsky, the Tavria governor, was appointed to evaluate the situation of religious life in the Melitopol district. He visited the colony on the Molochnaya River and concluded that, first of all, the settlers acted in a modest and reserved way, and gathered every Sunday in the so-called Sirotsky Dom (“Orphan’s Home”); secondly, they were hardworking, engaged in farming and ranching; thirdly, they did not aim to draw others into their community (he provides an example of about 60 [Orthodox] people employed by the community in its daily life; consequently not one of them became a Doukhobor). However, O Titov provides different information, as there was a considerable number of [Doukhobor] settlers who came from other territories.

On August 23, 1817, the Doukhobors appealed to the Emperor again, complaining about still being called “Melitopol colonists”. This time, Alexander I gave an official response stating that the Doukhobors were free to use their name while interacting with one another, but not with authorities. Alexander I is said to have met the Doukhobors in person during his visit to the Crimea. There are some facts confirming his stay in the [Doukhobor] village of Terpeniye and staying overnight at the Sirotsky Dom [15, p. 84].

During the next few years, the government made several concessions to Spiritual Christians. First of all, in 1818, they passed under the jurisdiction of the Guardianship Office, founded in 1800 to govern foreign colonies. This decision was made in order to avoid the common abuses and biased attitudes on the part of local authorities. As well, an Imperial edict of December 28, 1818 made it official for every Melitopol colonist [i.e. Doukhobor] case, prior to being prosecuted by a court of law, to be passed to the Emperor [for review]. Thus, Alexander I was able to facilitate a criminal investigation, or, on the contrary, stop it due to lack of evidence. These very steps demonstrate that some favourable conditions were created for the development of Spiritual Christianity in Tavria province.

It is worth mentioning that mass relocations [of Doukhobors] to the aforementioned province continued until 1817. In 1820, official permission to allocate an additional 5,236 acres of land to the Melitopol colonists was passed. That year, a ban was placed on further resettlement, lasting until 1824. The exact number of people exiled to Molochnye Vody is unknown. There is some information attesting that around 800 families amounting to 3,985 people lived in the Molochnaya River area in 1827 [7, p. 75]. There is no evidence of Doukhobors being evicted by Alexander I to the Caucasus; however in 1821, 2,300 people [reputedly] already lived in the Akhalkalak district of Tiflis province. The percentage of Ukrainian Doukhobors among them is unknown. Nevertheless, we know that they were the first ones to be evicted. Thereupon, we can conclude that Ukrainian Doukhobors comprised the largest part of the Molochnye Vody residents. Later on, Doukhobors from Voronezh, Tambov and Saratov provinces as well as from Azov, Ekaterinburg, Siberia and even Finland were settled there too.

Representatives of other Spiritual Christian branches, mainly the Molokans, also settled in the Molochnaya River area. This is due to a number of legal statutes aimed at regulating relations with other communities opposed to the Orthodox Church. In 1819, a decree on the eviction of Subbotniki ( “Sabatarians”) to the Caucasus was issued. At the same time, this decree rejected [Orthodox] Archbishop Iov’s request to also evict Spiritual Christians from Kherson and Tavria provinces. After the eviction, only 59 Molokans were left in the Ekaterinoslav region. However, according to an additional decree issued by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, they were also exiled to Molochnye Vody.

The Royal edict of November 15, 1824 was of vital importance for settling relations between the state and representatives of dissenting religious communities. The edict granted certain privileges to those who re-entered the Orthodox Church, namely, the right to return to their former place of residence, a three year tax exemption, free choice of occupation, and the right to become a member of village/town. However, if they returned to dissenting doctrines, they were subject to exile to Siberia, and the men were to be conscripted as soldiers.

Thus, in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the Molochnaya River area became a center for Spiritual Christians in Ukraine. Doukhobors who lived there were resettled in 1802-20 of their own volition. The total number of Doukhobors amounted to 5,000 people; among them 3,000 were from Ukraine. Along with them, Molokans also lived in this area, founding their own colonies in Tavria province.

Another center of Spiritual Christians from Ukraine became the Caucasus. Beginning in 1819, a considerable number of Molokans from Ekaterinoslav region was evicted there. In subsequent years, especially during Nicholas I’s rule, this destination for exiling people belonging to dissenting religions became very popular. The Caucasus was suggested as a place where the Tavria religious dissenters should [also] be exiled. The authorities tried to isolate those representatives of Spiritual Christianity who proved to be especially dangerous by sending them to Siberia.

Therefore, while analyzing the major features of Alexander I’s policy, researching the legislation of the first quarter of the nineteenth century becomes highly important. During his reign, a favorable legislative framework for Spiritual Christians was established. Thus, those who were exiled to Siberia in earlier times were allowed to come back, they received approval for their mass resettlement, using their own name, as well as economic benefits. These measures were aimed at forming a positive image of the government and fostering its support by the people (see Table II). Representatives of the Doukhobors were open to this development. They did not oppose the policies, but utilized the situation in order to obtain more benefits from the state. This applies especially to the right of increasing the number of their settlers, quitting the jurisdiction of local authorities, increasing the size of their landholdings, etc.

A characteristic feature of the Doukhobors of the first quarter of the nineteenth century was their active engagement in dealings with the authorities. This is evidenced by the considerable number of petitions and appeals to the Emperor relating to the improvement of their socio-economic conditions. These kind of appeals had been addressed by the representatives of Spiritual Christians to Alexander I throughout the whole first half of the nineteenth century. Each appeal was thoroughly considered by Alexander I, and he satisfied most of the requests. However, these concessions were of [relatively] small importance to both parties, thus enabling the emperor to overestimate the importance of the concessions when announcing them to the people. The subsequent chronological period shows no more tolerance of this kind, as the government’s policy toward Spiritual Christians had changed. Hence, the policy of this member of the Romanov dynasty [i.e. Alexander] could be viewed as aiming to support dissenters, although its actual goal was to assuage them.

Further research of this issue might involve:

  • Systematic research of nineteenth century imperial legislation on religious matters;
  • Comparative analysis of policies Russian emperors employed toward believers of different Orthodox communities; and
  • Determining express and implicit policies of the state toward religious organizations.

Table I: Main Features of State Policy Towards Spiritual Christians in Ukraine (19th Century)

Official responses that satisfied the demands of Spiritual Christians (Alexander I, first quarter of 19th c.) Spiritual Christians exiled to areas on the periphery of the Russian Empire Implementing spiritual and secular institutions of censorship (Nicolas I, 1828) Legislative statutes concerning Spiritual Christians (Alexander I, Nicolas I, Alexander II, Nicolas II) Special commissions established to review Spiritual Christian cases (Nicolas I, 1855)

To Siberia (Nicolas II, end of 19th century) To  Molochaya River, Melitopol district of Tavria province (Alexander I, first quarter of 19th century) To the Caucasus (Alexander I, first quarter of 19th century, Nicolas II, end of 19th century) Educational measures (Nicolas II, end of 19th century) Spiritual Christians recognized as harmful compared to other dissenters (Nicolas II, end of 19th century) Measures to combat some groups of Spiritual Christians (Nicolas I, Alexander II, Nicolas II, second half of 19th century)

Table II: Alexander I’s Legislation Towards Spiritual Christians in Ukraine

No. Document Date Name of Document Description of Legislation Concerning Spiritual Christians in Ukraine
1. 26.11.1801 Royal command Doukhobors allowed to return from Siberia to Kherson, Kharkov and Ekaterinoslav regions.
2. 25.01.1802 Imperial decree Spiritual Christians exiled to Molochnaya River area (Melitopol district, Tavria province).
3. 1816 Imperial rescript Molochnya River colonists allowed to refer to themselves as “Doukhobors”.
4. 10.10.1816  Imperial rescript Local authorities obliged to submit detailed reports on cases of Doukhobors’ abuse.
5. 09.12.1816 Royal command Reprimand toward local officials regarding abuses of Spiritual Christians.
6. 1817 Imperial rescript Colonists allowed to use the name “Doukhobors” only when communicating amongst each other, but not with official authorities.
7. 1818 Imperial rescript Spiritual Christians transferred from jurisdiction of local authorities to that of the Guardianship Office for foreign colonies.
8. 28.12.1818 Imperial rescript Cases of Spiritual Christians to be submitted to the Emperor before court trial.
9. 1818-1820 Individual regulations Individual approvals for exiling families of Spiritual Christians to Molochnaya River.
10. 1819 Imperial ukase Molokans evicted from Ekaterinoslav region to the Caucasus and Tavria province.
11. 1820 Imperial ukase Permission to allocate additional 5.296 acres to Melitopol colonists.
12. 1824  Imperial ukase Final ban on resettling dissenters to Molochnye Vody.
13. 15.11.1824 Highest regulation Gave the right to dissenters, namely those who re-entered the Orthodox church, to return to their former place of dwelling, 3 year tax exemption, free choice of occupation and right to become a member of village/town community. However, if they returned to dissenting doctrines, they were subject to exile to Siberia, and the men conscripted as soldiers.


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