More About the History of the Dukhobortsy of Kharkov Province

by Vladimir Ivanovich Savva

In 1798, hundreds of Doukhobors from Sloboda-Ukraine (Kharkov) were arrested and deported to the frontier regions of the Russian Empire. Their salvation came in 1801, with the ascension of Tsar Alexander I to the Russian throne, who released the exiled Doukhobors and permitted them to return to their former homes in Sloboda-Ukraine. This measure proved inadequate, however, as the returning Doukhobors were immediately persecuted anew by local authorities and Orthodox neighbours. When Orthodox clergy attempted to ‘admonish’ the newly-returned exiles, a rebellion ensued. When word of the Doukhobors’ situation reached Tsar Alexander, he ordered a senatorial investigation.  The following manuscript depicts the investigation by Russian Senator Ivan Vladimirovich Lopukhin (1756-1816), who in 1801, met with the Sloboda-Ukraine Doukhobors, gathered information about them, intervened on their behalf with the authorities, and helped ease their sufferings. Reproduced from Vladimir Ivanovich Savva’s article, “K istorii dukhobortsev Khar’kovskoi gubernii” (Kharkov, Kharkov Historical-Philological Society, 1893) as republished in P.N. Malov, Dukhobortsy, ikh istoriia, zhizn’ i bor’ba, it highlights Lopukhin’s role in the resettlement of Sloboda-Ukraine Doukhobors to the Molochnye Vody region of Tavria. Translated by Vera Kanigan, with additional translation and editing by Jack McIntosh, for the Doukhobor Genealogy Website. Foreword by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.


The Russian province of Sloboda-Ukraine (Kharkov) is widely considered to be the birthplace of the Doukhobor faith, arising there in the early eighteenth century.  During the second half of the eighteenth century, Doukhoborism spread widely amongst the peasantry of that province, particularly in the districts of Kharkov, Izium and Zmiev. 

By the end of the eighteenth century, the sect had grown numerous enough to attract the attention of Orthodox church and Tsarist state authorities.  In 1793 and again in 1797, the Governor of Sloboda-Ukraine ordered ‘secret expeditions’ to be carried out across the province to gather intelligence about those professing to be Doukhobors.  As a result of these investigations, hundreds of Sloboda-Ukraine Doukhobors were subjected to surveillance, arrest, interrogation, extortion, imprisonment, torture and exile. Consequently, 203 members of the sect were exiled to the island of Ezel and the Fortress of Dünamünde in the Baltic region in 1798. Another 19 were condemned to penal labour (katorga) in the Ekaterinburg mines in Siberia. In exile, the Doukhobors endured much hardship, privation and suffering, and many of their number perished from mistreatment, exhaustion, disease, exposure and malnutrition.

Salvation for the Doukhobors finally came in 1801, with the accession of Tsar Alexander I to the Russian throne. Within five days of his accession, the liberal-minded monarch issued a decree releasing all of the exiled Doukhobors from Ezel, Dünamünde and Ekaterinburg and permitted them to return to their previous residences in the Kharkov, Izium and Zmiev districts of Sloboda-Ukraine.

For more information about the surveillance, arrest, interrogation, extortion, imprisonment, torture and exile of Sloboda-Ukraine Doukhobors under the reign of Tsar Paul (1796-1801) and their subsequent amnesty and release under his successor, Tsar Alexander (1801-1825), see Vladimir Ivanovich Savva’s 1907 manuscript, Iz slobodskoi-ukrainskoi stariny kontsa XVIII v. (zametki i materialy)(“Additional Information on Doukhobor History“).

Ultimately, the release of the exiled Doukhobors in 1801, while a godsend, proved to be inadequate. Brought to ruin by their exile, many of the Doukhobors had literally “nothing” when they returned to Sloboda-Ukraine and were destitute. To make matters worse, the returning Doukhobors were almost immediately persecuted anew by local authorities and their Orthodox neighbours. When Orthodox clergy attempted to ‘admonish’ the newly-returned exiles in late 1801, a rebellion ensued. 

When word of the Doukhobors’ situation reached Tsar Alexander I, he ordered an official investigation to be conducted by Russian Senators Lopukhin and Neledinskiy-Meletskiy, who visited the returned exiles, gathered information about them, interceded on their behalf with the authorities, and helped ease their sufferings. The following manuscript outlines the senatorial investigation in detail, and its role in the resettlement of the Doukhobors to the Molochnye Vody region of Tavria province.   

Preface by the Author

The article presented here contains information on the history of the Dukhobortsy (Doukhobors – ed.) of Kharkov province found in materials preserved in the Kharkov Historical Archives of the Historical-Philological Society (“Delo o vypushchennykh Dukhobortsakh Slobodsko-ukrainskoi gub. po Vysochaishemu poveleniyu 1801 g.“, No. 56 [File on Doukhobors from Sloboda Ukraine province released by Imperial Command in 1801], No. 56). These materials were not covered in Professor A. S. Lebedev’s study entitled “Dukhobortsy v Slobodskoy Ukraine” [Doukhobors in Sloboda Ukraine].

These archival materials are supplemented by Senator Lopukhin’s interesting notes which he revised in 1801 with the assistance of the other senator from Sloboda-Ukraine Province. Imbued with Tsar Alexander I’s spirit of tolerance, and interested in the fate of the Dukhobortsy who at that time had only just been resettled from exile to their former places of residence, Lopukhin, while in Belgorod on the way to Kharkov, was already gathering information about them.

Within five days of his accession to the throne, on March 17, 1801, Tsar Alexander I issued a royal command releasing all of the exiled Dukhobortsy from Dünamünde (present-day Daugavgriva, Latvia – ed.) in the Baltic, a total of 203 persons of both sexes from Sloboda Ukraine and the provinces of Novorossiya (“New Russia”, the historic name of Southern Ukraine – ed.). As well, from Ekaterinburg (in Siberia – ed.), nineteen persons of both sexes were sent back to the village of Bereky, Zmiev district, Sloboda Ukraine. A large number of the Sloboda Dukhobortsy had been imprisoned in Dünamünde Fortress – 148 persons, transferred there in 1799 from Ezel Island (present-day Saaremaa, Estonia – ed.). The surnames of the Dukhobortsy point to their Great Russian origin, for example: Shchekin, Golishchev, Gremyakin, Poznyakov, Malakhov, Makhonin and so forth.

The released exiles were given funds gained from the sale of their confiscated property. However, from the archival documents it is evident that only odnodvortsy (a class of peasant smallholders – ed.) from the village of Bereky, Zmiev district received such funds: Mikhail Stroev – 283 rubles, 18 1/2 kopecks, Trofim Baev – 64 rubles, 97 kopecks, Onisim Kukhtin – 34 rubles, 65 3/4 kopecks, and Kukhtina – 122 rubles, 63 3/4 kopecks.

All of the returning Dukhobortsy returned in groups, first to the city of Kharkov, from which they were sent out to their previous places of residence. The first group appeared in Kharkov in May 1801. Their fellow villagers did not give the returning Dukhobortsy a warm welcome. When they arrived at the village of Saltovo-Ternovo, the Dukhobortsy were not permitted by the villagers to enter their dwellings and so were forced to stand in a field for over 24 hours. In their complaint submitted to the Vice-Governor over such treatment by the people of Saltovo-Ternovo, the Dukhobortsy requested that they be moved to another location, because the anger directed to them by the villagers was great, and already the latter had submitted a petition alleging that the newcomers were enticing members of the Orthodox Church into their heresy.

Early 19th century lithograph of the Island of Ezel (present-day Saaremaa, Estonia) in the Baltic where over two

hundred Dukhobortsy from Sloboda-Ukraine were exiled in the 1790’s.  By F.S. Stern.

When several Dukhobortsy rented space in a coach house from a landlord in the village of Liptsy, the volost (rural sub district – ed.) administration appealed to the Kharkov land court requesting that the Dukhobortsy be forbidden to live in the coach house because they would spread their heresy among Liptsy inhabitants. The relationship with the villagers became more aggravated because the Dukhobortsy desired once again to occupy their original property, which had subsequently already changed hands three times. The Dukhobortsy proposed to the new plot owners that they would pay the same price for their property as that for which it had been sold; however the latest owners did not agree, because they had spent money improving the farms.

On account of the complaints of the Dukhobortsy, to the effect that they were ruined and could not restore their original dwellings, and that given the hostile treatment by their neighbours they would have to provide for all their own farming needs, the Governor of Sloboda Ukraine ordered, through the lower land court, that the authorities be charged with making sure that there was no ill-treatment or oppression against the Dukhobortsy either on the part of the local residents or the nearby population. However, the local authorities had not given the Dukhobortsy satisfaction, and so the latter subsequently appealed to Senators Lopukhin and Neledinskiy-Meletskiy while they were in Kharkov.

At almost the same time as the Dukhobortsy complained about their ill treatment by the villagers, the villagers rejoined with complaints against the Dukhobortsy, saying that they were openly practicing their heresy, were trying to entice Orthodox people into it, and were uttering abuse against Russian Orthodoxy. The provincial authorities were assigned to investigate the problem; the accused Dukhobortsy were taken into custody and found guilty of rebellion (see Dukhobortsy v Slobodskoy Ukraine [Doukhobors in Sloboda Ukraine] by Professor A. S. Lebedev, Kharkov 1890, pg. 12 & ff.). Governor Zilbergarnish appeared before Lopukhin and Neledinskiy-Meletskiy, who were then in Kharkov, with news about the revolt of the Dukhobortsy.

Previously, when Lopukhin found out about the dispatch of church luminaries and the lay judge of the Izium lower land court, along with a team of dignitaries, to “admonish” (literally “to give friendly earnest advice or encouragement” but in Tsarist Russia, tantamount to summary incarceration, interrogation and in some cases, torture – ed.) the Dukhobortsy of Petrovskiy village to abandon their heresy, he had told the Governor that such actions might provoke a revolt, because the Dukhobortsy had just returned from exile and as yet had not had an opportunity to catch their breath. The Governor, however, made the excuse that the instructions to admonish the Dukhobortsy had been made in his absence by the Vice-Governor while he (Zilbergarnish) was on leave. Lopukhin then ordered him to recall the dispatched team, along with the church officials who had been sent, and to have a word with the bishop about the return of the latter group, as it was not yet time to admonish the Dukhobortsy, who had not succeeded in recovering after their exile. He blamed the revolt itself on the admonishments, supposing that when the Dukhobortsy had been asked whether they would pay taxes, they refused because they had been brought to ruin and were themselves in need of assistance (see “Zapiska niekotorykh obstoiatel’stv zhizni i sluzhby dieistvitel’nago Tainago Sovietnika, senatora I. V. Lopukhina” [A note on some circumstances in the life and career of Acting Privy Councillor, Senator I. V. Lopukhin], Chteniia v Obshchestvie istorii i drevnostei rossiiskikh (Moscow), no. 2, 1860: 1-82; no. 3, 1860: 83-193; Book 3, page 93 and ff.).

After a discussion with Lopukhin, the Governor directed the Izium lower land court not to exert even the slightest amount of pressure on the Dukhobortsy, not to place any under guard, to release those that were under arrest without delay, and in general to treat them gently and with patience, not to constrain them, give them freedom and cease all investigation of them. In reply to the Governor’s directive, the Izium land court sent him the statements taken in evidence from the Dukhobortsy who had been in custody, which had been the basis for their arrest.

One of those arrested, Sergei Ivanovich Popov, 67 years of age, testified as follows: “[I was] born in Belgorod province of a father and mother who made profession and took the holy sacraments in worldly (Orthodox) churches; about 40 years ago [I] moved with them to live in the sloboda (free village – ed.) of Petrovskiy, where in the Petrovskiy church [I] married Praskoviya, the daughter of a villager, Andrei Dergachev”. Popov’s wife and three sons supported all of his testimony, the former testifying as to her husband, the latter as to their father, adding that, although during the time the father was serving in the military and in exile, they went to church and took the sacraments yearly, they did so at the insistence of the priest and under coercion from the village heads, whereas now they rejected that, and in the future intended to abide permanently in the Dukhobor faith.

The other Dukhobor who was interrogated, Ivan Abramovich Sukrutov, gave testimony similar to Popov’s; in response to a question about how old he was, he said that he was “12 years old in spirit (that is, from the time that he had entered into the Dukhobor heresy), but as to how old in the flesh, [I] do not know.”

One of the Dukhobortsy who had returned to Orthodoxy after being admonished testified that he had been seduced into the Dukhobor faith during the time that he was serving with the Ekaterinoslav Cossack troops, in the small town of Kaushany, at the time of the seizure of the town of Bender (from the Turks in 1770 – ed.). After he became a member of the Dukhobortsy, he continued in all matters to follow Christian rituals because he did not wish to reveal his apostasy.

18th century lithograph of the Fortress of Dünamünde (present-day Daugavgriva, Latvia) in the Baltic where

over two hundred Dukhobortsy from Sloboda-Ukraine were exiled from 1799 to 1801. 

Having insisted on a halt to the admonitions meted out to the Dukhobortsy and their release from custody, Lopukhin and his colleague Senator Neledinskiy-Meletskiy sent their report to the Tsar about the Dukhobor affair (on November 12, 1801). With this report, Lopukhin appended an extract about the Dukhobortsy in which he laid out a history of the emergence of the sect and the essence of their teaching. (“Vypuska o dukhobortsakh…” [Extract on the Doukhobors], by Senator Lopukhin, Chteniia v Obshchestvie istorii i drevnostei rossiiskikh, 1864, Book 4, page 47.).  Lopukhin characterized the way of life of the Dukhobortsy as abstemious and respectable, supposing that their fanaticism had been provoked by harsh measures directed towards them.

In their report to the Tsar (November 12, 1801), Lopukhin and Neledinskiy-Meletskiy, the latter playing a secondary role in all of Lopukhin’s arrangements regarding the Dukhobortsy, explained their intervention in the Dukhobor situation as resulting from the Tsar’s injunction to be “attentive to all that was noteworthy in Sloboda Ukraine”, the province they were inspecting.

“Before our arrival here in Kharkov,” the Senators reported, “the local authorities, by virtue of their excessive zeal, of course, but without having penetrated into the exact essence of Your Majesty’s orders concerning the aforementioned Dukhobortsy, undertook to admonish and convert them, although they had only just been freed from their heavy bonds and permitted the mercy and wise tolerance enthroned in the Holy Personage of Your Imperial Highness. During this formal admonishment, the questions, which were not, of course, skillfully crafted, wrested from those admonished, as the exhorters reported, responses contrary to the duties of a loyal subject. But it is highly probable that the newly aroused fanaticism of those who responded, oppressed and brought to ruin by their former misfortunes, wrapped their words with a brutality not present in their hearts; or possibly their insufficiently enlightened interrogators wrongly understood them, and prejudice already engendered against those speaking caused their interrogators to apprehend their utterances in darker colours than their words intrinsically deserved” (Chteniia v Obshchestvie istorii i drevnostei rossiiskikh [Readings at the Society of Russian History and Antiquities], Book 3, 1860, page 95: “Zapiski … Lopukhina” [Lopukhin’s Notes]).

Explaining the irritation of the Dukhobortsy as due to the incompetence of the advisors, the Senators reported to the Tsar that from their discussions with the Dukhobortsy they detected in them feelings of special gratitude to the Tsar who had liberated them, and a willingness to submit to the ruling monarch and fulfill all duties and responsibilities required of loyal subjects. As a result, the Senators ordered that all investigation of the Dukhobortsy be halted and those who had been arrested released.

To the district authorities, they explained His Royal Highness’s will concerning treatment of the Dukhobortsy thusly: “[you are] enjoined to call upon ecclesiastical personages to instruct the Dukhobortsy on the path of truth without any compulsion on their part, meaning they should not by untimely and unduly elegant means, as in a court of law, confuse and inspire fear of those in power who are carrying out the admonitions, but to do this at opportune moments, being attentive to the situation, striving in their own places of settlement to engage at the churches clergy who are not so much distinguished by the brilliance of their schooling and their artistic eloquence, as they are by their genuine piety and zealous love for the law of God and Gospel teaching, by their lives bearing witness to their sensitivity and principles. Such pastors will naturally inculcate a good opinion of themselves and therefore will attract trust; they will find time, occasions and places for their conversations and with the most simple methods will discover ways to influence their hearts and minds, minds that desire enlightenment and have inner zeal towards God’s law, but are confused as to ways and means. As for the duties and responsibilities of a loyal subject, then in harmony with Your Imperial Majesty’s wisdom and pleasure, by treating them with gentleness and patience, they should, just like everyone else, be required to abide by the obligations prescribed by the decrees of Your Imperial Majesty and the laws of the state, both general civil and rural land law. As for those who do not fulfill the above, they should be punished in accordance with the same laws, and without entering into the ideas or reasons behind non-fulfillment, if someone in actual fact proves to be in direct revolt against the authorities and the common order, he should be dealt with to the full extent and the letter of the law” (Chteniia…page 97).

At the same time as this dispatch from Lopukhin and Neledinskiy-Meletskiy, the Governor of Sloboda Ukraine also sent his “humble report” to the Tsar with his explanation of the affair, influenced by Lopukhin, who did not regard the words and actions of the Dukhobortsy as a revolt (“Doukhobors” – Professor A. S. Lebedev, page 18.) .

The Dukhobortsy who had gathered at Kharkov, encouraged by the mild attitude of the Senators, started to present different requests. Two of them, Cossacks from Okhochei sloboda (Baev and Sidorov), requested of Lopukhin that the houses acquired by them (while in exile) on Ezel Island, for which one of them (the former) had been offered 325 rubles, and the other (the latter) 158 rubles, be sold and the proceeds from the sale be given to them. In their directions to the governor to see to satisfying these requests, the Senators again expressed the desire that the governor take care to protect the Dukhobortsy “from the oppressive consequences of prejudice and misconceptions on the part of the district authorities,” who had not understood or interpreted correctly the testimony of the Dukhobortsy. The Senators and the Governor himself had had occasion to be convinced of this when the Dukhobortsy testified to them in contradiction to what the authorities had reported about them.

When the Dukhobortsy were in Kharkov, Lopukhin had daily conversations with them. They took a liking to him and talked openly with him. “Apart from their boundless – one might say fanatical – prejudice against everything exterior, their skeptical aloofness and preference for themselves, I found their concept of Christianity to be most radical and correct,” wrote Lopukhin in his Zapiski (page 98).  He paid particular attention to the circumstance that although amongst the Dukhobortsy there were hardly any who knew how to read and write, and that of those whom he met, only one of them could write, and very poorly at that, nevertheless each one spoke “like a book”.

18th century lithograph of Kharkov, the provincial capital of Sloboda-Ukraine.  The Dukhobortsy returned here from

exile in 1801 before dispersing to their home villages throughout the province.

After repeated discussions with the Senators, the Dukhobortsy delivered to them a formal petition that expressed their loyalty and zealousness to the Tsar, requesting that they try to obtain from him permission to resettle in another area. Then Lopukhin and Neledinskiy-Meletskiy dispatched a second message to the Tsar (December 3, 1801), explaining the way of thinking of the Dukhobortsy, passed on their request to settle in a special place, and recommended that the Tsar not permit them to establish their own volost administrations independently, but to establish over them an administration made up of honest and unprejudiced officials of high moral character, and to locate their settlements near cities and settlements where the priests, by the good example of their lives and persuasive preaching, would attract the Dukhobortsy to themselves. In this humble petition the Senators attested to the extreme poverty of those who had returned from exile. Although they had indeed been given money from the sale of their property, it had been sold after their exile for a very low price.

On the eve of their departure from Kharkov, Lopukhin and Neledinskiy-Meletskiy received an official royal reply (rescript) in which the Tsar, expressing his appreciation for all of their dispositions in the matter of the Dukhobortsy, directed them to make sure that all of them would be enforced. At the same time, the Tsar commanded the Sloboda Ukraine Governor to follow the Senators’ example in his treatment of the Dukhobortsy, to involve himself with the needs of the Dukhobortsy and report to him as to the status of their farming economy, whether they have housing, whether they have commenced tilling the soil, whether they have money to pay duties; whether indeed they have means for building homes; then, having determined how much they need in total for that purpose, to report back right away, thereby demonstrating that the government was concerned about them.

The idea of relocating the Dukhobortsy was approved by the Tsar. The purpose of this resettlement was the desire to protect the Dukhobortsy from people’s hostility while distancing Orthodox believers from the Dukhobortsy’s corrupting influence. The places chosen for Dukhobor settlements were located along the Molochnaya River (Melitopol district, Tavria province – ed.), where they were settled by the Imperial Decree dated January 25, 1802, under the following favourable conditions: that relocated persons receive 15 desyatinas (imperial land measure equivalent to 2.7 acres – ed.) of land per head, and that for five years, all resettled persons would be excused from paying any state taxes. At the time of the relocation itself, 100 rubles were issued from the treasury to each family as a loan, with the understanding that after ten years this sum would then be collectable from the settlers within twenty years, such that annually each family would have to pay no more than five rubles (Polnoe sobranie zakonov [Compete compendium of laws], volume XXVII, No. 20.123).

The first 296 settlers along the banks of the Molochnaya River were Dukhobortsy from Sloboda Ukraine and Ekaterinoslav provinces, who established the village of Bogdanovka and took up farming (For information about the Doukhobors after their relocation to the banks of the Molochnaya, see Dukhobortsy: ikh istoriya i vierouchenie [Doukhobors, their history and beliefs], O. Novitskiy, 2nd edition; Skalkovskiy, Kievskaia starina, April 1887, page 777; and Yuzov, Russkie dissidenty [Russian Dissidents]. To join them there, with the permission of the government (starting early in 1805), Dukhobortsy from Tambov and Voronezh provinces, 494 in number, began to arrive there, followed by Dukhobortsy from other parts of Russia (the Don Cossack lands, and Kherson, Tavria, Astrakhan, and Penza provinces). By the end of 1808 they already had nine villages: Bogdanovka, Spasskoye, Troitskoye, Terpeniye and Tambovka on the banks of the Molochnaya River, and Rodionovka, Efremovka, Goreloye, and Kirilovka near the estuary of the same river where it flows into the Sea of Azov (Dukhobortsy… – Novitskiy, 2nd edition, pages 63–85).  

In the latter years of Alexander I’s reign, the attitude of the government towards the Dukhobortsy changed, for which the Dukhobortsy themselves were to blame, and during the reign of Tsar Nicholas I, in 1830, a decree was issued according to which heretics – Dukhobortsy, Ikonobortsy, Molokans, and Judaizers – accused of spreading their heresies, riotous conduct and insolence against the Church, clergy and faith, had to be brought to trial; that those found guilty were to be subject to military conscription. By this same decree the resettlement of the Dukhobortsy to Novorossiya was stopped, but migration to the Transcaucasus of those wishing to do so was allowed. In 1839 an Imperial Decree followed, ordering all the Dukhobortsy to be moved from the banks of the Molochnaya River to the Transcaucasus. The reason for this, in the words of the inquiry that was conducted, were actions of the Dukhobortsy themselves: they had been harbouring evildoers and criminals, and had been subjecting their own people suspected of defecting from their heresy to cruel torture and death. The forced migration of the Dukhobortsy from Novorossiya to the Transcaucasus took place from 1841 (when there were 9 settlements and as many as 4505 residents – see Skalkovskiy’s study in Kievskaya starina) until 1845. Altogether there were over 4000 migrants (in Novitskiy, page 154).


Senator Ivan Vladimirovich Lopukhin’s (1756-1816) involvement in the “Dukhobortsy Affair” would determine the fate of the sect throughout Russia for the next forty years. For the first time, the Dukhobortsy had in Lopukhin a sympathetic high official who spoke up for the sectarians and stressed their virtues as well as their faults.  He acted as a conduit between the Dukhobortsy and the highest circles of Russian society, transmitting their beliefs using the language and metaphors of the Imperial Court, and in doing so, helped lay the basis for Tsar Alexander’s policy on the Dukhobortsy.  But for his intervention, the Dukhobortsy of Sloboda-Ukraine and elsewhere would have remained isolated, dispersed, voiceless and oppressed.  It is through his efforts that the Dukhobortsy owed a great measure of release from persecution, and also an opportunity to exist and develop as a self-contained community on the Molochnaya.  Sadly, his role and influence in the history of the Dukhobortsy remains largely unappreciated and forgotten. To find out more about this important benefactor and sympathizer see: Ivan Vladimirovich Lopukhin: His Life and Role in Doukhobor History