Kars: A Journey of Discovery

by Florence (nee Chernoff) Lymburner

Florence (nee Chernoff) Lymburner of Seattle, Washington, USA has a close connection with the Doukhobor culture. She was raised in the Doukhobor community of Grand Forks, British Columbia. After studying at the University of British Columbia, she and her husband John lived and worked professionally in Western Canada, Germany, Thailand and Japan, and traveled extensively in Russia, the Middle East and the Far East.  Over the years, Florence has photographed and painted numerous Doukhobor historic sites she has visited.  A highlight of her travels occurred in October of 2009, when she and her husband traveled to Kars, Turkey. Armed with a historical map and assisted by a local guide and translator, she was able to visit the historic Kars Doukhobor village sites – the first such visit by a person of Doukhobor ancestry in 90 to 110 years!  The following article outlines her remarkable heritage trip and fascinating journey of discovery to the lands of her Doukhobor ancestors. 

Dear Doukhobor brothers and sisters, my husband, John, and I travelled to Kars, Turkey on a journey of discovery in October 2009. My grandmother Fenya (nee Podmoroff) Potapoff-Kholodenin was born in Kars (pronounced Karzz). Like many of your families, she left as a child and didn’t recall anything. Being adventuresome at heart, I wanted to see the place for myself.

To our surprise, today, Kars is an energetic city, home to 80,000 people and her neighboring countries are Georgia and Armenia. The elevation is 1700 meters. There is a medieval castle on a hill and a sleek metal monument across the river on an adjacent hill. At the base, are the remains of Ottoman buildings, a bridge built in the 15th Century, and nearby a vacant “Twelve Apostles” Armenian church with grass and weeds on the roof (10th Century).

The magnificent fortress of Kars, dating back to the 12th century.

The Kars people descended from Karsaks, a Turkic tribe that came from the Caucasus (2nd Century BC), I’m told. The Russians captured Kars in 1878 and held it until 1920 during the Turkish War of Independence, when Russia withdrew. Somewhere during that time, the Doukhobors arrived and settled in small clusters of villages, maybe 50 km from Kars. The reminders of the Russians are evident in the stately stone-granite buildings made in their 40 year occupation. Well designed buildings include an Opera House, a Cossack military Orthodox Church, now a (Fethiye) Mosque, an old embassy and the Tsar’s hunting chalet and other structures. I wondered whether any Doukhobors ever saw these sights, as they lived within 57 km, which was a long distance then.

Florence Lymburner stands in front of the road sign for Kuyucuk, the first of several former Doukhobor villages she visited in Kars province, Turkey.

A major tourist sight nearby is Ani, located 45 km away. It is a spectacular plateau on the Silk Road trading route overlooking the river border to Armenia. Its history goes back to year 961. It was in the hands of the Byzantines in 1045, followed by the Mongols in 1239. It was home to 100,000 people at one time. Earthquakes and wars with neighboring countries crumbled it. Mount Ararat, where according to the Bible, Noah’s ark came to rest after the flood, is located to the southeast. It is a fascinating area. Did any of your familes ever mention these places?

The search for our former Doukhobor villages proved to be a great adventure. Today, not much information is known locally about our people. The majority of Turkish villagers were familiar with the “Molokan” name (who were more numerous, historically in Kars) but were puzzled by who the “Doukhobors” were.

Porsuklu, like the other former Doukhobor villages Florence visited, is laid out in two rows of houses facing each other across a wide central street. A tell-tale sign of former Russian habitation, the village layout is distinctly different from most Turkish villages, which follow a scattered, motley pattern.

The first village we visited was Kuyucuk (formerly Gorelovka). It didn’t have anything familiar of our culture left (except for its distinct street-village pattern). We stopped by their (Moslem) cemetery with a pale blue fence, out of respect. The village had a mosque and a school along a muddy road. It had 75 homes, each with a plot of land of the same size behind the house. The fields were bare, as it was early October, only the sunflower stalks remained. The Doukhobors introduced the Turkish villagers to sunflowers, we were told.

A Turkish village woman stands in front of her house in Kuyucuk.

The adventure continued to a village called Sahnalar (formerly Spasovka). Here was a comfortable modest home with welcoming owners who showed us an old cellar and a possible blacksmith area. The real find was an ancient plow and grabli (“metal rake”).

A horse-drawn single-furrow plough stands in the village of Sahnalar.  Dating back to the turn of the 20th century, it was probably used by the original Doukhobor inhabitants of the village.

There was also a hand carved kitchen cabinet with two antiqued mirrored doors on top. This was exciting (my Grandfather Alex Kholodenin made one for his family in Grand Forks, BC). We had found what appeared to be real, historic Doukhobor artifacts. The adjoining property had fields of autumn sunflowers that the Doukhobors had brought to the area. The trip thus far had been rewarding but we went on further for more.

Florence peers into her past in the mirrored doors of an antique hand-carved cabinet. Its age, manufacture and coloring is typical of Doukhobor craftsmanship.

The third village we visited was called Karahan (formerly Terpeniye). It was located at the base of a distinctive ancient mountain, Mount Karahan, next to a small stream. An old flour mill was still operating there. I wondered what was there and was shown a piece of equipment – a metal round drum-like remnant in a light blue painted wooden structure. The color was very “Doukhobor-blue” (a most popular color among Doukhobors in the Caucasus and Canada), like seen in the old porches of our Grand Forks village homes. We tore away the weeds and rubbish. It felt like I was touching someone’s Doukhobor hands, which had created the wooden and metal mill parts. It was hard to remove my hand and to say “good-bye” to a piece of trash.

Over a century old, the Doukhobor-built mill in Karahan village is still operating today.

This wasn’t the end of our surprises. The working mill had metal troughs for the water flowing from Gora Karahan to the flour mill. It had been made by the Doukhobors and was still functioning perfectly. The comments made were that “whatever the Doukhobors made was well done and lasting” and that “it’s too bad the Doukhobors left”.

Mount Karahan rises in the foreground near Karahan village, an important visual landmark demarcating the former Doukhobor homeland in Kars. A Doukhobor cemetery lies atop it, whose graves are still visible.

Next, the hillside of the mountain Karahan was bare of any trees, just short grasses and flat rocks. Here was the location of the mogilochki (cemetery), which had slight indentations to mark the burial area. A herd of cows with a herder, a horse, and a dog roamed in silence. We stopped, knelt and bowed our heads, said a psalm that my grandfather Ivan (John) Chernoff taught me when I was young. “God is mine, I am His, You created me, I will be with you.” It was an incredible moment of mixed feelings of joy, peace, excitement and blessing. This peaceful area must have been difficult to leave forever by our ancestors, it was beautiful.

Indentations mark Doukhobor graves on the rocky hillside of Mount Karahan.

The next village we travelled to was called Mescitli (formerly Troitskoye). It had a Moslem mosque and a village water trough (like the one in Fructova village where I grew up). I remember the quarrels over the water supply and wondered if the Turks had the same problem now. I saw a family outside with a rug on the ground being washed with a hose.

A Doukhobor-built home still inhabited in Porsuklu village. Its flat ridged roof, parameter porch and ornate woodwork is virtually identical to historic Doukhobor homes built in Georgia, Azerbaijan and Saskatchewan.

The sun was setting and there was the last village which was my grandmother’s, called Porsuklu (formerly Pokrovka). There were several homes that looked much like the Doukhobor houses located in the Georgian villages (Orlovka and others) with faded blue bric-brac trims on the windows and eaves. One house was occupied and we visited inside. On entering it, we noticed the woman was drying lapsha (“egg noodles”) in a round machine, while sitting on the ground and on the window sills there was more lapsha drying! This wasn’t what I’d expected because I’d believed lapsha was ‘our’ food.

The ornate hand-carved window frame in this century-old Porsuklu building is typical of Doukhobor craftsmanship.

Inside, the one main family room had carpets on the floor and walls, one of which covered the sealed-off old oven (pech). In the farm yard they showed us a plow, a wagon and a well. Who had been the original occupants? Your relatives? (They spoke of “Vasya” whom they’d known – clearly a Russian). This home should be kept as a museum; some much needed paint would preserve it. The villages we visited were all renamed; the only one we couldn’t find was Kirilovka – which apparently no longer exists.

Inside a Doukhobor-built house in Porsuklu is a pech (oven) that has been sealed off by the current inhabitants. This would have been a mainstay of every Doukhobor home in the village originally.

As a side-note, in preparation for my trip to Kars, I had packed up “Doukhobor” items to be donated to a Molokan and Doukhobor museum that will be established through the Molokan Friendship Association with the assistance of our excellent guide, Vedat Akcayoz. These items included: a loom rug made by my mother, Mable (Nastya) Potapoff, a small spinning wheel, and a wooden lapsha rolling pin, made by my father, Peter J. Chernoff, some old records with Doukhobor choral singing, copies of ISKRA and Dove magazines, a child’s homespun linen dress, doilies, photographs and a bag of lapsha!  I also had a ball of yarn dyed and spun by grandmother, Fenya (Podmoroff) Potapoff–Kholodenin.

In turn, a Turkish lady in the village of Sahnalar was preparing food in her cellar for the winter. She was drying beans and she gave me a handful, which I would be happy to share with gardeners who are sentimental about their history in Kars villages. If these Kars bean plants could be increased in number and passed on each year, they’d be a reminder of our roots and we would be part of Kars too. Could you see the smiles on our grandmother’s faces?

A search for the ruins of Kirilovka village produced no results. In the foreground, the mountains of Armenia loom distant.

This memorable trip will always be with me, in my heart, recorded in my photographs and preserved in the oil paintings that I plan to leave for future generations. What else could I bring back to you?

In summary, my adventure in Kars was like being the “first Doukhobor woman on the moon”; but others can go there also and expand on our historical knowledge of the area.

View Kars Doukhobor and Molokan Villages, 1879-1921 in a larger map


This journey would not have been possible without the help and support of a number of people.  Above all, I would like to thank my husband John Lymburner for his personal support and great friendship at all times, for which my mere expression of gratitude does not suffice.  Locating the Kars Doukhobor villages would not have been possible without the assistance of Doukhobor.org webmaster Jonathan Kalmakoff, who shared his expertise of Doukhobor geography and place names and the historic map he developed. The good advice, support and friendship of Molokane.org webmaster Andrei Conovaloff, has also been invaluable on both a personal and practical level, for which I am very grateful. Finally, I would like to acknowledge Turkish sectarian historian Vedat Akçayöz who generously agreed to act as our guide and translator, and whose knowledge of local history and conditions was extremely helpful. For inquiries regarding my trip to the Kars Doukhobor village sites, please email myself, Florence Lymburner.

An earlier version of this article appeared by permission of the author in ISKRA No. 2028 (U.S.C.C., March 1, 2010).