Letters from the Caucasus, 1858

by Floriant A. Gille

Floriant A. Gille was a Swiss-born educator, curator and writer living in Russia who toured the Caucasus region in 1858-1859. During his travels, he visited the Doukhobors living in the Akhalkalaki district of Tiflis province (present-day Ninotsminda district of Georgia).  Gille kept a journal and recorded these encounters, which he published in French as “Lettres sur le Caucase et la Crimee” (Paris: Gide, 1859).  Available in English for the first time ever, this exclusive translation provides the reader with a rare, fascinating, first-hand account of Doukhobor life during this little-known period of their history. Translated by Wayne Hudson for the Doukhobor Genealogy Website.  Foreword and Afterword by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff. 


Floriant Antoine Gille (1801-1865) was a Swiss-born educator, curator and writer in Russia who came to prominence under Tsar Nicholas I.  In the 1840’s, he served as French tutor to the Tsar’s children and then became Court Librarian and Head of the Tsarskoye Selo Arsenal.  A man of tremendous energy and administrative brilliance, he was appointed State Councilor, and in 1852, was made Director of the First Section of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, where he oversaw the creation of an extensive collection of rare books and manuscripts.  He published a number of works on the museum’s collections.

Floriant Antoine Gille (1801-1865).

In July of 1858, Gille traveled to the Caucasus to visit the hot springs there for the good of his health.  His ten-month journey took him from Pyatigorsk, along the shores of the Tersk until Dagestan, then by the Sunzha and Vladikavkaz to Tiflis, Lake Sevan at Erivan, in Ararat, returning via Imereti and Mingrelia Pol.  He then proceeded to the Crimea, before making the final leg of his journey via Constantinople, Athens and Italy.  He kept a journal of his travels, which he published upon his return to St. Petersburg as Lettres sur le Caucase et la Crimee in May 1859.

It was during this journey that Gilles visited the Doukhobors living in the Akhalkalaki district of Tiflis province.  What follows are his detailed observations about their state and condition of life at this time.

October 10

As we came back up the left bank of the Arpa-chay, continuing along the Turkish frontier, the line of which we saw marked from time to time by white stones, we covered 34 versts to reach Troitskoye, a town that lies on the boundary between Armenia and Akhaltsikhe. To reach this place, we made our way up an incline in a region situated between two mountain ranges; I knew I had reached a great elevation from seeing snow caps on the mountains to the east.

We passed close to the source of the Arpa-chay, which is a small lake named Lake Arpi (6,670 feet above sea level), in the Turkish territory, which is filled from streams formed by sheets of running water in the Russian territory.

In Troitskoye itself, where there is a small lake marked on the Russian map named Madatapa, we stopped for several hours. It was there that I had to take my leave of Mr. Der-Maroukov and Mr. Blavatsky, who were going to return to Sardar-Abad and Erivan respectively.

Troitskoye has 35 houses and 200 souls living there. It is equidistant from Alexandropol and Akhalkalaki; it is 50 versts from each place. On the way to Akhalkalaki there are seven villages populated by Doukhobors, members of a Russian sect, who number about 2,500 souls. These villages are named Troitskoye, Efremovka, Goreloye, Orlovka, Spasskoye, Bogdanovka, all in the direction of Akhalkalaki; and Rodionovka, which is in the high country on the shores of Lake Taparavan [Paravani].

Lake Madatapa near the village of Troitskoye, much the same today as when Gille visited it in 1858. The Sinii Kurgan rises in the foreground behind the lake.  A Panoramio photo by Bazieri.

The entire region is filled with lakes. From the highest one flows the Taparavan-Chay [Paravani River] which empties into Lake Tumangel, from where it continues down to Akhalkalaki. On the left side of the road is Lake Kanchali. It is said that trout abound in these lakes and fishing them is a resource for Rodionovka and the Armenian villages of Poka, Ganza or Kanza, and Sagamo, where it is said there are ancient churches.

We stayed in Troitskoye at the home of the local elder. He was born in the province of Tambov and is called Vereshchagin. I talked with him about their way of life for some time.

“You see,” he said to me as he showed me immense sheds full of forage, “that we can harvest enough for our cattle, of which we can keep a great number, but a cow eats a lot, and we have to feed it for nine months, and it eats many puds each month; and then we have our horses, which keep us alive; we use them for transportation.”

“What about potatoes and barley?” I asked him.

“Potatoes do not want to grow; and as for barley, we have tried; in four years it only grew once. It’s because,” he added, showing me the lake, “it is still frozen here in June and by August 1st there is already snow.”

I learned that the population lives exclusively off the transportation of goods of all kinds. With their horses, these coachmen can haul heavy loads at the rate of 8 silver kopeks (32 centimes) per pud (16 kilograms) for a distance of 100 versts, from Alexandropol on one side to Akhalkalaki on the other. These people belong to the vigorous race of Russian yamchiks [“coachmen”] about whom I have already spoken. They are trusted with all kinds of merchandise. Convoys that travel the frontier have been exposed to attack by Turkish marauders, but the yamchiks do not fear them and know how to defend themselves.

Their women are not afraid of work. The house in which we spent several hours was spotless. A young woman saw to the preparations for our dinner. As I watched her doing it, I could not help but admire how resolute she was, yet gentle at the same time, with an air of resignation to a life of hardship.

There were no churches in these villages. I had known that and I asked about it. “We assemble in the biggest house and pray together there.”

Further on, I had the chance to gather more details about these Doukhobors, who furnished me with excellent horses and escorted me to Akhalkalaki, where people were expecting me and where I was going to have to find other means of transportation.

The mountain countryside surrounding the Doukhobor villages of the Akhalkalaki district, while scenic, was rocky and barren, and was capable of growing only hay for forage. A Panoramio photo by Highland_82.

I wish I could have travelled at my leisure through this remote country and discover for myself whether the land resources were really so poor. I had heard that the villages of Poka, Ganza, and Sagamo had arable land. As for Troitskoye, Goreloye and Efremovka, the ones that I visited, the elevation of the region is an obstacle to farming.

The mountain [Sinii Kurgan] that dominates little Lake Madatapa is 8,900 feet above sea level: I was not able to find out its elevation above the lake; but Tumangel is at an elevation of 7,620 feet, which must also be that of Troitskoye, and it is an elevation that is too high for cereal crops. All that remains is hay, made from the excellent grasses that abound throughout the Caucasus.

I took my leave of Mr. Der-Maroukov, who has been so helpful to me since Mastara, and Mr. Blavatsky, whom I handed a letter of thanks for General Kolubakin.

At the next stop in the village of Efremovka, where I changed horses, I entered one of the houses. I had stopped there for some tea. The main room in which I took my short break was whitewashed. There was a large clay stove that served as an oven, a large table, some wooden furnishings, and a bed that could be curtained off with a printed cotton cloth; all of these things were of the greatest cleanliness, even the floorboards. In front of the windows hung narrow pieces of white cloth embroidered in red [rushniki – a traditional Doukhobor handicraft].

“Are they curtains?” I asked an elderly woman who had invited me in.

“No,” she replied, “it’s the work our young girls do to decorate our place a little bit.”

I looked around as I slowly drank my tea. The old woman presented me a nice cucumber that she had cut up and served on a very white plate.

“It’s a good size one,” I told her, “and really very tasty.”

“They’re Akhaltsikhe cucumbers,” she said. “We buy them for giving to travellers who pass by.”

These cucumbers were as firm and juicy as Maltese oranges, excellent and well-deserving of the reputation they enjoy. They cost only one ruble (4 francs) for a hundred.

This nice old lady, so house proud and well turned out, had an expression of serenity that suggested her soul was unblemished. I spoke for a long time with her. She gave me much information about life in this country.

“Yes,” she said, “we live off transportation. The hay is good here, but the wheat won’t grow.”

She gave me the same details about their sect as the elder in Troitskoye.

“But having no preacher, no books, how do you manage to teach your children to read?” I asked.

“Oh, we manage. We have prayers and we pray for the Tsar,” she added.

I asked her if she had lived in the Doukhobor villages that used to exist by the Azov Sea.

“Oh, yes,” she replied, “in the same neighbourhood as the German colonists [Mennonites]; they were really brave men.”

The mountain countryside outside the village of Orlovka, much the same today as when Gille visited the Doukhobors in 1858. A Panoramio photo by Dimit.

She added more details about the Doukhobors, who had been more numerous at one time in this country; but the land wasn’t good enough, and some of them had been allowed to settle near Chemakha and Elizavetpol, in the same region as German colonists from Helenenfeld, where Molokans can also be found.

The old lady’s son-in-law stopped by to visit, followed by her daughters. What can I say? I was struck by the peace and gentleness that their faces all expressed, and by the order and propriety displayed in all of their houses (I had visited many). As to their doctrine, I do not know much; I only have the impression made by their physical appearance. It seems to me that I had spent a few hours in the company of a society of inoffensive Quakers.

I continued on my route and pondered the men and things I had seen. There are hours in life when the spirit is carried away across the ages. A memory awakened is there in front of you; it recalls facts, it sums them up, it brings them face to face, groups them together, puts them one against the other, and then deduces the outcomes.

In the domain of thought, what are the barriers and what limits should we set? In religious matters, is not a certain tolerance the safest way to deal with sects?

I stayed absorbed in my thoughts for many hours. What power can stop ideas? Are there distances, obstacles or barriers to them? The greatest strength is that of faith. What was it that drove the early Christians to those places where their faith bade them: Go?

The valleys through which I am travelling are on the same route taken by the first neophyte Christians who went to Armenia and Georgia in the 4th century.

In Orlovka, one of the villages I mentioned and have passed through, a road leads to the high country of Lake Taparavan [Paravani], out of which flows the Taparavan-Chay, the river along which I travelled a short distance to Akhalkalaki.

It was by crossing the same region, following the same river, that in the early 4th century, the light of the Gospel was carried in the hand of a woman who, fleeing persecution in Rome, then fleeing Armenia, went on and on, guided by a faith that was unstoppable. A Georgian legend says that this saintly woman, a contemporary of Rhipsime and Gaïane, having perhaps witnessed their martyrdom at Vagharshapat, arrived in this unknown region. A shepherd told her that the waters of Lake Taparavan join up with the Cyrus. The holy woman followed the river as far as Khertwis, and from there along the river into Georgia. The first thing she did was to bring the sign of the Cross and start to preach the Gospel. This cross, made from two vine stocks tied up with some of her hair, is the very cross that is venerated in the Church of Sion at Tiflis [Tbilisi]. The woman’s name was Saint Nina [from which the name Ninotsminda, the modern Georgian name for the Doukhobor settlement of Bogdanovka, is derived].

I arrived in Akhalkalaki in the evening. My arrival had been announced for October 10; at one stop before the town I found an officer of the regency who was waiting for me. He informed me that my lodgings were prepared at the home of an Armenian, Mr. Martyros Markarov, a former officer who had served in the Cossack regiments of the Caucasus line.

Akhalkalaki is 5,510 feet above sea level. The second largest town of the old pashaluk [administrative division of the Ottoman Empire] of Akhaltsikhe, it has a mixed population of about 3,000 souls, made up of Armenians, who own 216 of the houses, as well as Turks and Tartars. It is a town in decline that once had some importance.

View Doukhobor Villages in Georgia, 1841-Present in a larger map


On October 10, 1858, while en route from the town of Alexandropol in Erevan province to the town of Akhalkalaki in Tiflis province, Gille passed through a number of Doukhobor villages in the latter district. He stopped at two of these villages, Troitskoye and Efremovka, for food and a change of horses. During his stay, he conversed with his Doukhobor hosts, visited several of their homes, and learned about their state of affairs and way of life.

Gille found a population of 2,500 Doukhobors living in seven villages (he erred as there were eight Doukhobor villages in 1858) in the Akhalkalaki district. They were previously more numerous in this district, but owing to land shortages, a substantial number of Doukhobors relocated to the districts of Borchalo and Kedabek in 1844-1847.

Gille noted that the Akhalkalaki Doukhobors were assigned insufficient, barren lands in very inhospitable areas of the Caucasus. Because of the high altitude (over 7,500 feet above sea level) and the short growing season (the snow remained until June and returned by August) cereal crops did not ripen and mature. The Doukhobors were forced to adjust to the conditions as well as they could. They grew hay for forage for their cattle and horse herds, and relied exclusively on the cartage trade for their income.

The Swiss-born traveller wrote approvingly of the Doukhobors’ physical appearance, as well as their hospitality and industry, noting in particular that “their women were not afraid of work”. He admired their peaceful, gentle and inoffensive nature, along with their meek resolve to a life of hardship in these adverse geographic and climatic conditions. As well, he found their homes and furnishings to be of the “greatest cleanliness”.

Gille did not have an opportunity during his stay to learn much about the Doukhobors’ religious beliefs. However, he observed that they had no preacher, no books and no churches in their villages. Rather, they assembled in the biggest house in each village and prayed together there.

Gille’s impressions of the Doukhobors, while brief, are among the remarkably few sources of detailed, published information about them in the two decades following their settlement in the Caucasus. As such, his work is an important contribution to our understanding of this little-known period of Doukhobor history. 

To read more, search, download, save and print a full PDF copy of the original French text of Floriant Antoine Gille’s Lettres sur le Caucase et la Crimee (Paris: Gide, 1859), visit the Google Book Search digital database.