My Beautiful Sons – Why Did You Have to Die?
by Akim A. Fominov
In the 1890’s, hundreds of young Doukhobor men endured persecution and suffering as a result of their refusal to perform military service. The following is a true, first person account of Doukhobor Akimushka A. Fominov’s visits to where his two sons were exiled for denouncing military service and surrendering their army tickets. Reproduced by permission from the pages of ISKRA Nos. 1915-1916 (Grand Forks: U.S.C.C., 2001) it features the struggles and tragedies that occurred during that time. Recorded by William A. Faminow. Translated by Vera Kanigan
After surrendering their army tickets and denouncing military service because of their newly declared pacifist beliefs, Vanya (Ivan) Fominov and Grisha (Grigory) Gorkov were first arrested and then placed in prison in the Kars Region. Soon thereafter, they were led on foot to Tiflis where they were exiled to the Tartar villages close to a place called Agdash.
On the way to Agdash, the military horsemen herded them 40 kilometers on foot, attempting to cover this distance in one day. The young men were humble and obedient, walking diligently. It was very hot, and they got extremely sunburned and thirsty. Coming upon a creek by the road, they drank with great zeal – they were unaware that the water was not suitable for drinking. When they had arrived at the designated place of the wealthy Becka (officer who looked after exiled people) it would not have been too bad, as he gave them adequate quarters; however, shortly after, they both turned very ill. They wrote to the Fominov family and explained their situation. I, Akimushka Fominov (Ivan’s father), decided to secretly go to visit them.
When I arrived, I tried to make them as comfortable as possible and looked after their needs before returning home. After some time, they wrote once again, telling me that their illnesses had continued, and indeed, gotten worse. This time I invited my daughter-in-law Masha (Ivan’s wife) to accompany me.
When we got off at the last train station, we were supposed to walk another 40 verst (kilometers) on foot. Here I asked my daughter-in-law to dress in a man’s attire, as the road was very remote, frightening and open to all kinds of occurrences. This precaution of ours was very wise as two Tartars happened to catch up to us on horseback, and with suspicion, asked us many questions.
By the time we arrived at the young men’s living quarters, the sun had already set. Grisha Gorkov sat beside the house leaning against the wall, apparently feeling very sick and not even noticing us until we came up very close. As we walked closer, the thought went through our heads, “God, why are you young people suffering here, as you have not done any evil to anyone in the world?”
My son Vanya was in the house and he looked a bit more cheerful. We did not waste much time in pleasantries but immediately tended to the tasks at hand. I went to see the Becka and took from him a kettle and started to heat water for a bath as they had been eaten up by lice. First of all we bathed Grisha and then Vanya and then we boiled their clothes to get rid of the lice.
In the morning Grisha looked more cheerful and asked me if I could arrange to move him to another village – Kietkeshen. This village was eight or nine kilometers from Agdash and they had good water and a more tolerable climate. In that village were two more exiled young Doukhobors – Feodor Ivanovich and Nikolai Vasilievich Tikhonov. I went to address this request to the Becka. He agreed and sent a Tartar on a bullock-cart to transfer Grisha and his belongings. I went with Grisha and helped him settle in with the Tikhonovs and then returned to my son and daughter-in-law. We discussed with my son that we needed to return home, so we proceeded to arrange our return trip. But Vanya’s health had not improved, and he asked us not to leave him alone. His wife, Masha, decided to stay with him for the winter while I returned home. I agreed to come for her in the early spring.
Burning of Arms, June 29, 1895. Painting by Terry McLean.
When I came back to the village on February 25th, I spent some time with Vanya and Masha and then walked to visit Grisha Gorkov. Grisha appeared a bit more cheerful this time, but both Grisha and our son Vanya’s health was not very encouraging. When March came, we decided to travel home to the Kars Region. Vanya became very despondent but said: “Once you have decided, do not delay your plans: I will accompany you to Agdash.”
I then went and asked the Becka if he would allow for such a plan. The Becka agreed and even gave us a horse for Vanya to ride on. When we woke up in the morning, preparing for our return trip, Vanya appeared very ill. He hardly ate anything for breakfast, drinking only half a cup of tea. We started to talk about postponing our trip, but Vanya would not agree to this, and we proceeded on our journey.
Vanya rode horseback, and we walked on foot. By the time we arrived at Agdash, our young man turned worse, swaying on the horse, and when we helped him off the horse, he lay down and was unable to walk on his own. We were unable to leave him alone, so I decided to find temporary living quarters. I was unable to find anything. The only place where there was vacancy was in a small hut where a single woman, a Kazonian Tartar, resided. She agreed to allow us to lay Vanya on her porch providing that Vanya’s wife would look after him, as to leave a single man with her would be viewed questionably by the surrounding residents. She made a living by doing laundry in the region, and if people would hold her in suspicion, her source of income could cease.
We were glad even with this porch, laid Vanya there, and then I proceeded to find the village doctors. They prescribed medicine that did not help at all, so we decided to transport Vanya back to the Tartar village of Agdash. To our good fortune at this time, a Tartar from his village was here on a bullock cart. For three rubles, he agreed to take Vanya, cautioning us that he would travel very slowly, as that is how his buffalo are accustomed, and he did not want to ruin them.
After travelling all night, we arrived in the morning. My ill son had turned worse and passed away on the second evening. I went to tell the Becka about what had happened. He sympathized and asked, “What are your plans now?” I replied that we want to bury him according to our own tradition, and therefore, needed to make a coffin. He gave us some boards and sent a Tartar somewhere for the tools. He also sent another rider to Kietkeshen to get the Tikhonov cousins to come and help with the burial. The rider returned quickly and said that half way to the village he met up with a messenger from Kietkeshen, sent to inform us that Grisha Gorkov had died as well – he was on his way to tell us that we should go there to help with that burial!
We buried my son on our own. Even though the tools were not adequate, somehow we were able to cut the boards and nail the coffin together. The Tartars dug out a grave at the place where we requested. The police officer came, offered his sympathy, wished him to enter God’s Heavenly Kingdom, and left. With the help of the Tartars, we lowered the coffin into the grave and covered the body with dirt, while I said a prayer for my dear son: “Please accept his innocent soul into Your Everlasting Abode, as this sacrifice was offered for the adherence to the great commandment, “Thou Shalt Not Kill…”
Upon returning to our quarters, I asked my daughter-in-law to assemble the clothes and belongings in order so that I could go to Kietkeshen to see if they buried Grisha Gorkov. When I had arrived and asked the Tikhonovs about Grisha, I was told that Grisha had died the same morning; and unbeknownst to me at the time, at the same hour and at the same minute as our son Vanya. I stayed a while at the Tikhonovs, then gathered Grisha’s belongings and returned to my flat.
When we got ready for our return trip home, we realized that we had too many items for us to carry and went to the district police officer to request permission to give us a ride. He did not allow us to take Grisha’s clothes, as according to the law, they were required to be returned by mail. When I objected, he said: “Aren’t you satisfied with all that I have allowed already?” My orders from my superiors were not to permit you to even make contact, but you were here and even lived here. If the authorities learn this, I will be fired from my position! I need to feed myself!”
I did not pursue my request any further, but thanked him for all of his concessions and left. Without Grisha’s belongings, we were able to proceed on foot. On the way, we stopped at the Becka’s quarters. His Matushka almost cried at Masha’s leaving because she had been a big help to her while looking after her husband Ivan.
When we arrived at Agdash, we realized that we didn’t have enough money to go by train. To our good fortune, however, Molokan carriers were travelling to Alexandropol and they agreed to take us along. On the way, they stopped in their village, Voskresenovka right on Sunday. We all attended moleniye (prayer service) together. These were the steadfast Molokans. They were not jumpers. Their Father Superior read the psalm: “Listen, King of Everlasting Glory.”
When we arrived with the Molokan at the town where we were supposed to get off, and we started to give them the promised 1 1/2 rubles, he took into consideration our hardship and did not accept any payment. We thanked him sincerely from the bottom of our hearts and bade him farewell.
From the town we traveled home with our neighbour. Our relatives gathered to meet us but all we brought with us was unbearable pain. Everyone who came cried and expressed their sorrow for Vanya. Only his very own mother, and my wife, did not shed a single tear, but paced around the house, whispering and praying to God…
My son, Fedya, for refusal to serve in the army along with others, was sent to the disciplinary battalion at the Ekaterinogradskiy prison. We received a letter from him that they were badly beaten for the second time; that is, they were whipped with birch rods. Military officers were trying to change their minds about serving in the army, and we heard that they decided to obey by using some of the firearms.
For that reason, I decided to travel and find out for myself how they were and what was being done to them, as many elders, both men and women, begged me to go there as soon as possible. They said that I had a son there and I would be allowed to speak to him. I decided not to put this off, gathered my belongings, bade farewell to my family and went on my journey. I travelled with my neighbour as far as the town of Aleksandropol and immediately came to the post office and asked the postmaster when the mail would be leaving. He told me that in a 1/2 hour it will leave to Delezan and that I can go with the driver in the wagon. I was happy with this arrangement.
I sat down and we left on our way. When we arrived at the train station, I got on board and traveled to the city of Tiflis. There, I had a chance to see many brethren (Kholodenskiye). They were dispersed among the Georgian villages. I had an opportunity to speak to several of them, and I learned that with the majority of them, their situation was very dismal.
I continued my trek further, from here to Dushet, travelling by train. From Dushet I traveled on the letter-carrying horses, over the Kazbetskiye mountains to Vladikavkaz, then by train to Prakhladnoe. From there, I went by horseback to Ekateringradskoye station, where the prison was located and where my son Fedya was being held in the disciplinary battalion. In the station there lived mainly Leninskiye Cossacks. I entered my former quarters where I had once previously stayed.
Group of Russian Prisoners with Heads Half-Shaven, circa 1890’s Photo by John Foster Fraser.
The proprietors welcomed me pleasantly and said: ” So, Starichok (“Elder”), have you come to visit your lads?” I replied that, yes, I want to see them. They said: “This is the situation, old man, that we need to tell you. Please do something about your lads. Ask them to serve in the army like everyone else, or ask the authorities not to punish them so harshly, or approach the Tsar himself so that he could arrange some sort of lenience or pardon. Just a short while ago they were so harshly beaten and tortured that they screamed and cried with inhumane sounds. It is getting to the point where it is impossible for us to stay here, as their cries break our hearts. At this station reside five hundred families, and the last time nearly all of us moved three kilometers away just so that we couldn’t hear their heartbreaking screams…” I replied that I’ve come here for that very reason, to speak to the lads and the authorities. At this time I went to the fortress.
From a distance, I noticed that six people sat on the roof of a new building, which was part of the prison stronghold. They were covering the roof. I walked up closer to the gate of the fortress and saw a soldier walking away, carrying a garbage pail. Behind him was a corporal. I walked up closer and started to greet them loudly. “Good day, countryman! Are any of our Doukhobors here?” The sentry man answered: “Certainly not!”
Apparently, those who were on the roof heard me and when I looked up, I noticed that there were only five of them, as one of them had already left. He ran and climbed along the wall of the fortress and started to greet me. It was Lukyan Fedorovich Novokshonov. He immediately started to say: “Akimushka, I beg you, please leave from here immediately. Do not even show yourself to the officials. They are extremely angry right now. The other day they tortured us almost to the point of death. We barely survived. They told us that if any of your hometown people come here for a visit, we will also rip a strip out of them and will deport them home like convicts. ” I gave him some money and said that it is to share with those in need. He jumped off the wall and ran away from me. I looked up and there he was, once again, sitting on the roof in his own place. Obviously, he was afraid of being noticed.
He frightened me so much that I stood still for a long time, contemplating my next step. What should I do now? Should I listen to Lukyan and return home? But everyone would gather and ask me: “How are the lads, what is with them?” I would have to tell them that someone warned me not to show myself to the officials for they would tear me apart, and therefore, I was too afraid to stay. What will my people say then? The lads are so young and are enduring such extreme torture -“for whom and for what? For our common cause, and you, old man, are running away?” I thought to myself, “let them flog and cut me up in small pieces, but I must speak with them in person.”
It was Friday evening. I went back to my quarters and almost all night thought about my situation. How could I arrange it so that the officials would not suspect me and catch me?
On Saturday morning I woke up, washed myself, prayed to God and then went to the fortress, thinking that I may see one of the lads. I stayed quite a while, not too far from the gate of the fortress and not seeing anyone walk out. I checked around from another wall, thinking that someone may be there. In one place were a group of soldiers. I walked closer to them and noticed that they were digging dirt. I didn’t know for what purpose. Two officials walked up to me, very quickly, and immediately started to say: “Did you know Mikhail Shcherbinin?” I answered that although I did not know him personally, my son had written me about him, stating that he was ill. They replied, pointing: “Do you see those black gates, that is a cemetery. Remember, he will be there soon! Do you know Fominov and Malakhov? We will build them coffins as well for they are very stubborn. But in this group, (pointing to someone), one of your Doukhobors, since he came to this battalion, has not received even one whipping.”
He stood there smiling and I thought to myself, “Fominov is my own son, and you are such hypocrites, you want to take one to the cemetery, and for the others, you wish to build coffins, and the other one is laughing.” Then I spoke up: “Aren’t you afraid to punish innocent people? You should fear God,” They replied: “Here no one speaks of God, they only say hit and whip… We simply obey our commands.”
I did not continue this conversation and went back to my place. As I was walking, I thought to myself -”as if no one speaks about God?” Here, in this fortress, stands a church, one that is called “Orthodox”. Our lads were forcefully driven there, that is, as if they had strayed from God’s path. Where should there be more conversations about God than in this church? At that point, a thought came to me to enter this church and there, hopefully, see my lads, but I couldn’t figure out the way to get inside.
I approached the store to buy some bread. It was possible to buy some good bread there, as well as watermelons. Several area villagers were also in the store. I started to ask them whether they attend the prison church. They answered yes, some of them do attend. I said that I wanted to attend the church but had no idea as to the procedure. They suggested that tomorrow was Sunday and when others start to assemble, that I could join them and walk inside. I went back to my room and didn’t go anywhere else. I lay down to sleep early, but couldn’t sleep as I kept thinking about how to attend the church and how I could see my son. I woke up way before dawn, washed up and went to the fortress. There I stopped and stood and waited for the people to arrive.
It seemed to me that I stood and waited there the whole night. Finally, the church bell tolled and I thought that now people would assemble. I waited and waited but no one came…
Then the bell tolled a second time and still no one came. When daylight arrived, the third bell tolled and I saw one family corning. I walked up to them, thinking that I could walk in with them, but when we walked to the gate, there stood the sentry soldier. He opened the gate, let them in and yelled at me: “You! Stand there! Where are you going?” I answered that I wanted to attend the church service. He said that he could not let me through until he consults the sergeant major. He went to confer with the sergeant as I stood thinking: here I wanted to walk through so that I wouldn’t be noticed, but the sentry went straight to the major, who would order the soldiers to put me in jail. But, so be it, if it is God’s will. I will not run away!
During the time I was waiting, more people assembled. At last the sentry came, opened the door, allowed others through and also told me to enter. I walked with the other residents, thinking, wherever they stand in church, I will stand with them. We entered. The plain folk stood on the left and the soldiers stood on the right. Everyone looked at the priest who waved the censer and read something. When he would say “Amen”, the soldiers knelt on their knees and our boys remained standing. Doing so, I was able to see the boys, and my son Fedya, but they kept looking straight ahead, not even glancing to the side. I thought to myself, you poor soldiers, you are under strict discipline, even in church. I started to think of a way to move closer to the front, so that the lads could notice me for the moleniye would end soon. They would be taken to the back and they wouldn’t even know that I was here. I started to slowly and inconspicuously move forward.
I hardly moved a half-meter when an officer on duty called out from the back: “Leave the church at once! You came here not to view the church, but to see your lads.” I begged his forgiveness and said that I simply was not aware of their procedures, that when we have visitors at our moleniye, we do not restrict their movement, nor do we tell people where to look or not to look. He once again sternly warned me that in their church, they have their own rules and that I should follow their procedures. I promised to do so, and he left me alone. As a result of this argument, our lads clearly recognized me, and when the church service concluded, and the soldiers left, our boys came over to me, walked by, greeted me, and said, “Thank God, we are still alive!” My son rushed up to me, said that he was okay, and continued walking after the others, not stopping for a moment. I went outside and looked sadly upon them and thought – “I sure have heard lots about God, and was almost beaten on the neck! I didn’t even have a chance to get a good look at my son because they were driven away. What sort of a place is this Russian Orthodox Church?”
I stood and glanced around. I noticed that I was not too far away from a large house where a man in an overcoat was pacing on the balcony. At that moment the sergeant major came up to me, and simultaneously, I heard a loud voice blare out from somewhere near the balcony: “Well, old man, do you want to see your son now or after dinner?” I realized then that I had not remained unnoticed. I thought to myself, “Let whatever happens, happen. I am already in their hands!” and replied, “If possible, right now.” The sergeant major said: “Okay, I will relay this to the colonel.”
The colonel turned out to be the fellow pacing on the balcony, and I overheard him say that a Doukhobor from the Kars region had come and wanted to meet with his son Fedya Fominov. I noticed the colonel waving to me to join him. I came forward, removed my hat, bowed, and said, “The best of health, Gospodin Colonel,” and then placed my hat back on and stood still. At first, he harshly reproached me: “You come here for a visit and then simply confuse your children! Not too long ago an old grey-haired elder like you came from the Kazbetski mountains and do you know what happened? The boys had just started to settle down here and had begun to finally serve, but the old man knocked them off the path of reason, confused them, and they, once again, refused to take up arms! We whipped and ripped strips out of them that they will never forget! Do you know that this is a correctional prison, that not only your lads, but if an angel from heaven were here we would have to make him serve. And you, old man, refuse to submit to authority and the Tsar. You and all your people have been dispersed over all of the Kazbetski Mountains!”
Russian Prison Warden and Guard, c. 1890. >Photo by John Foster Fraser.
I turned to him and said “Gospodin Colonel, we are not against obeying the will of God, but we are against that which contradicts His will.” Here the colonel started pacing even faster on the balcony, almost running. He walked over to me and hollered: “Tell me, what here is against the will of God?” I noticed that he was very angry, so I decided not to answer, thinking that in this case, silence was the best answer. For quite a while he continued to pace the balcony, cursing and calling me all kinds of names, then he ceased and became calmer. He stopped pacing, turned towards us and addressed the sergeant major: “Go with him and let him meet his son for one hour.” We hadn’t walked more than five steps when he yelled for us to come back. I felt shivers down my spine, thinking that he had changed his mind and would now put me in jail. As we got closer to him he turned to the sergeant major and said: “Let him visit for two hours, one hour is too little. After all, the old man traveled a long distance and the trip cost him money.”
We went to the area where visitors were allowed. The sergeant major told me to wait there while he went to bring my son. Soon after, my son arrived, accompanied by three soldiers. They took us to another room and set us side by side on a bench. One soldier sat beside me and the other sat beside Fedya. The third soldier stood across from us, glancing quite often at his clock. They were instructed to listen to our conversation. In fact, we couldn’t talk about anything confidential. My son simply asked a few questions about news from home and I answered. As soon as the two hours were up, the soldiers got up and led my son away, and I stood for a long time with tears in my eyes, watching as they left. I felt so sorry for the poor lad. All of our boys looked very beaten, and with inadequate nutrition, they had become mere shadows of men.
The thought occurred to me to go to the colonel and ask him where I could purchase a few things to treat our lads. I walked up to his home. The sentry informed him of my coming and he walked outside. I thanked him for allowing me a visit with my son, and then I asked him: “Gospodin Colonel, allow me please to buy some bread and watermelon to treat all of the lads.”
“Absolutely not. I have everything here – bread, borshch, meat, and kasha, and if your lads do not wish to eat these things, that is not my business,” he replied. With this, he concluded his conversation with me, and I walked away from the jail with great sorrow and grief. I thought – “What authorities, they are whipping and beating our sons and won’t even allow us to treat them with bread!”
I went to my quarters, had breakfast and lunch at the same time and then sat down, thinking about what I should do next. Since it was impossible during my visit to discuss the most important issue, I decided to try get a secret meeting with my son. During the last two times I had been within the prison, I noticed that one sergeant major by the name of Zaitsev often left the jail for one reason or another. I decided to go, watch him more closely, and hopefully, talk to him. I walked up to the prison wall, and to my good fortune, he soon came out. Immediately, I went and started to speak to him directly. “Gospodin Zaitsev, could you please arrange a secret meeting for me with my son Fedya A. Fominov?” “If you will give me a ruble, then I will,” he answered. I agreed and we arranged to meet in a large new building in the early morning.
That night I hardly slept, praying that our meeting would pass safely. When I arrived that morning, the non-commissioned officer was already waiting for me with new plans, for the colonel had ordered the new building to be plastered, and therefore, it would not be possible to have the meeting there. He took me to a far corner of the prison grounds where tall weeds grew. He told me to pick some and make a wall so that I would not be seen and then went to go get my son. I made the wall and sat down waiting. Some cattle were grazing nearby and some of the cows came up towards me. At this point I started to worry, thinking that the soldiers would come for the cattle and see me. Here, I would get caught! They would whip and exile me. And that was almost exactly what happened…
A soldier came for the cattle, but because he was deep in thought, he did not pay any attention to me, took the cattle and chased them away, shouting at them to leave. Soon, the non-commissioned officer came, bringing Fedya and Kuzma Pugachev. We exchanged greetings as necessary and then I started to talk. “Before I left home. I met with Vasya Obetkov and he said that if I had a chance to meet with you, that I should advise you if I can. Since it is very difficult to bear the torture of this disciplinary battalion. You lads should concede. When everyone is returned to their own regions, then again they could refuse military service. There in their own regions they will not be subjected to such torture.”
The lads answered that this plan would not work, as no one is released until they have served their entire sentence in the disciplinary battalion. Then I answered them: “If so, then stick to your convictions, as you are the first detachment (the vanguard) of our people. If you change your direction, the rest of us will surely be shipped through this battalion.” They answered that in spite of the hardships, they would endure suffering as long as they would have the strength.
I further started to tell the lads that when I was getting ready to come here many of the elders wanted details as to the reason why many of our young men were backing down and serving. Somewhere they had heard that one Russian man had been flogged to death, but that he never conceded to them; but none of our lads had, as of yet, died from the flogging.
When I told our boys about this, both in unison started crying like small children. “We could endure almost everything from the flogging. The pain is unbearable at first, but afterwards, the body becomes wooden and a person loses all feeling. At this point the doctors’ assistants pay closer attention as to how much you can endure. When they see that a person is close to death, they cease the flogging. They rip the meat off your back, then put your clothes back on. They drag you to the punishment cell, pushing you there like an unfortunate animal. In this cell there is no bed and no bench. The floor is cold cement, and one can only lie on the stomach. The clothing freezes, turning to wood. For food, they bring a piece of bread and water. When the wounds heal a bit, the commanders come and tell you to now accept military service, and if you don’t, tomorrow you will be flogged twice as hard. At this point, one, not having any more strength, agrees, telling them, I will pick up a rifle, but we pretend it is just a stick when we agree to serve, and under no circumstances will we kill anything or anyone.
They continued, stating that even if angels from heaven were to come here, they would not be able to endure the punishment and would submit to military service. They told me that if I were to arrive home safely, I should ask the elders to take the brushwood which they use to light a fire and imagine themselves being whipped, as the lads are here. I asked them about those who had totally agreed to serve in the same way as the soldiers. They answered that even though their situation was already unbearable, that this has made it even more difficult. At this point the non-commissioned officer rushed in and told the lads to hurry, it was necessary to go to the colonel. They left with him, and I left the fortress. When I came to my living quarters, I had breakfast, packed my belongings, bade farewell to the proprietors and left on my return home.
I arrived home safely, passed on regards to my family and shared all about my visit in detail. When all the rest of our people assembled, I explained what the lads had told me and passed on regards to their families. Soon after my trip, Nikola Chevildeev went to the disciplinary battalion as well. His son Kiryusha was there. During his time there, a new agreement was made in regards to the imprisoned Doukhobors. A decision was reached that would have all the Doukhobors who were refusing to serve in the military, sent to the Yakutsk Oblast for eighteen years. Therefore, Nikolasha Chevildeev accompanied the lads to Vladikavkaz. The boys were driven further, but Nikolasha returned home.
On the trip to Siberia, our son Fedya had mailed a very sad letter home. “My dear parents, father Akimushka and mother Polyusha, sister-in-law Masha and your son Petya, my dear wife, Anyuta, as well as my children Mavrunya and Malasha, brother Vasya and your wife Tanya, and also my sisters, Hanya and Marfunya, all of our dear Fominov family combined.”
Siberian Prisoners Starting Up-Country, circa 1890’s. Photo by John Foster Fraser.
“At this time I wish to tell you about myself and about our present life here. My health is very poor. From day to day I feel as if I am drying up like the cut grass in a meadow.”
“What stands before us is a very long walk. Some people say it is more than a thousand verst. We must walk 35-40 verst a day, and when we arrive at the station, they send us to a convicts’ building which is infested by many different insects, especially bed bugs. We must sleep right on the floor, but the bed bugs eat at us all night, not giving us any peace. We have to get up early in the morning and proceed on the trip once again. When I get up and start to dress, my feet are so swollen that I am barely able to pull on my boots, but we must walk another 40 verst.”
“When I lag behind the group the soldiers walk up to me and start to nudge me with the nose of their rifles. They aren’t the ones to blame though. Those to blame are the higher authorities that do not give us more transport carts. The carts are only given to the convicts who are shackled. But even amongst the shackled convicts, there are kind people. When I start to get weak, almost falling down on the road, someone from the group of prisoners gets down off the cart, walks up to me and says, “well brother, I see that you are exhausted. Go to the cart and sit in my place, rest, and I will walk in your place.” Such people support me, and if it weren’t for them, I would long ago have been left alone on the road.”
“My dear family, I beg you, don’t worry about me and don’t feel sorry for me. Even though this trip is extremely difficult, I do not complain, nor am I sorry. Yes, I cannot com plain, for I chose this path myself. After all, our Lord Jesus Christ took the cross and carried it on His back to Golgotha: “He who wants to follow Me, take My cross and follow Me.” On this cross He was crucified. We must also continue without complaining, and with God’s help, we will reach our destination. If something should happen to me on this trip, then this will be the will of our Lord in Heaven. With this I will end my letter. I send you all my love, warm kisses and hugs. Your son, husband, father and brother. Feodor A. Fominov.
Following after Fedya’s letter were several other accounts about our ill son and his friend.
Misha V. Arishchenkov’s Account
“When we were brought to the town of Yakutsk we bought ourselves some warm clothes, especially good, warm valenki (boots made out of felt). From Yakutsk we had to go further north to the place where we were to serve our 18 year sentence. We arrived at our destination and occupied an abandoned yurta (nomad’s hut). It was very cold, and the windows were all iced up. There were approximately thirty of us. We installed some glass windows, and with difficulty, built a Russian kiln for baking bread in the middle of the hut. Beside the kiln, we set up a bed for our sick friend, Fedya Fominov, and for the rest of us we set up nari (plank beds). In order to sleep, we would lay down with our heads towards the center of the hut and our feet towards the wall. We always slept in our valenki. The weather was fiercely cold and the nomad’s hut was so poor, that by morning, our valenki were frozen to the wall…”
Grisha Sukharev’s Account
“My responsibility was to look after our ill friend. Near him, I tied a belt to the crossbar of the hut. This was done so that when I went elsewhere, and Feodor needed to sit up or turn on his other side, he took hold of the belt, and although with great difficulty, he slowly turned himself over. After the winter was over, Fedya spoke gravely to us: “Brothers, tovarishchi (comrades) I want to ask you to please take me back to the town of Yakutsk, to the hospital. Even though I feel that I will not survive, I wish to at least free your hands as there is enough for you to take care of in order to survive. You must go and earn your daily bread without having to also care for me. There, in the hospital, it may be easier for me…”
Narrative of Seoma S. Usachev
“I chose to go with our sick tovarishch to Yakutsk and take him to the hospital. With difficulty we brought Fedya to the river and set up a tent. I stayed to look after him: We waited for the ship to arrive. On this particular river, the steamboat comes only once throughout the whole summer. Apparently, the boat was in Nelkan picking up winter tea brought from China on the backs of deer. We had to wait a long time. At one point Fedya said: “Seoma, tovarishch, are you here?” I replied that I was. He called me forward and said: “Please look at my side, there is something soft. ” I opened his shirt and saw a lump as huge as my fist. I got scared and explained that the situation was not very good. He turned and said: “if you have a knife, try and cut it off.” I started to carefully cut it off, ask- ing him if ithurt. He said that he didn’t feel any pain. When I finished I carefully cleaned the area and bandaged it up. It was a chunk of old, black blood. Fedya had been unmercifully beaten in the disciplinary battalion. His sergeant-major was strong, almost the same size as Fedya, and was an extremely angry man. He would often beat Fedya with his fists, on his cheeks, on his head, on his side. He also beat him with a stump of wood or with the butt of his rifle. His last beating was the most injurious, when he was beaten with an ammunition belt filled with shells on the back of his head, and both of his ears were severely scarred. They were always pussing. Almost all of his skin hung from his bones.”
Group of Doukhobor Exiles in Yakutsk, Siberia, circa 1904
“I wanted to look after Fedya until his bodily existence came to an end. However, to my regret, before the arrival of our ship, a man from our work party walked up to us and told us that he was also ill, and was going to Yakutsk and could take Fedya with him. I did not argue with him.”
“When they arrived in Yakutsk, he placed Fedya in the hospital, but he did not consider it necessary to constantly visit him and Fedya was left alone. Soon afterwards, a few middle-aged Doukhobors, exiled from Elizavetpol (including several brothers of Peter “Lordly” Verigin) arrived in Yakutsk. Petrunya Dimovsky, a middle-aged man, exiled for incitement, was also placed in the hospital because of his illness. He was not altogether bedridden, and at times, looked in on Fedya Fominov. When Fedya became even more tired and exhausted, Petrunya asked him: “What is with you, brother Fedya, how do you feel?”
“I feel that I will soon die and return to my Heavenly Father…”, replied Fedya. “What should be done about your clothing – should it be returned to your family?” asked Petrunya. “No, my family has everything, give it away here amongst the poor,” further stated Fedya. And so, on the 20th of August, 1897, in the Yakutsk hospital, one of our Doukhobor martyr’s earthly existence came to an end.”
When we received a letter and learned about our son’s death, all of us grieved and mourned for him. Only his own mother did not shed a single tear, but prayed to God, so that the Lord would receive her son in his everlasting abode. She considered crying a sin, and said that her sons went to share the suffering of our Lord Jesus Christ. However, after the sorrowful news, she stayed in bed for a whole week -“and how could she not lie in bed, when two of her sons died at the height of their youth, both in the same year?”
Our eldest son, Vanya, passed away in the Georgian villages in March at the age of twenty-six, and our middle son, Fedya, passed away in the Yakutsk Region in August at the age of twenty-four. Their families never saw them again. Their mother (and my wife) lived very well with her daughters-in-law. They looked upon her like their own mother, and she considered them like her own daughters. When they remarried and took her grandchildren with them, only then did our mother cry out loud, repeating, “Only now do I see that my devout family is torn apart!” She had three daughters-in-law. For many years they lived together and never spoke a harsh word to each other. They always tried to live a happy, Christian life.