by Petr Vasilyevich Olkhovik
The 1880’s and 1890’s saw a surge of pacifist sectarianism among Christian groups in Russia. Historic accounts of this period exist, especially in relation to the Doukhobors, who refused military service en masse in 1895. However, there are relatively few accounts of members of other “Spiritual Christian” faiths who, inspired by Tolstoy and the example of the Doukhobors, similarly refused to bear arms in the name of Christ’s teachings. One of the most eloquent and informative of these are the letters of the peasant Petr Vasilyevich Olkhovik, which contain a first-person account of his rejection of military service and subsequent arrest, imprisonment and exile by Tsarist authorities. His fate, as well as that of his companion, Kirill Alexeyevich Sereda, would be inextricably linked to that of the Doukhobors. His letters were originally published in 1897 by the Tolstoyan Vladimir Grigoryevich Chertkov as “Pis’ma Petra Vasilyevicha Olkhovika, Krest’yanina Kharkovskoy Gubernii, Otkazavashchagosya ot’ Voinskoi Povinnosti v 1895 Gody” (London: Tchertkoff, 1897). One hundred and ten years later, this rare historic manuscript is made available for the first time in English translation in this Doukhobor Genealogy Website exclusive. Translated from the original Russian by Jack McIntosh. Foreword and Afterword by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.
The author of the “Letters”, Petr Vasilyevich Olkhovik, was born on 20 January, 1874 in the village of Rechki in the Sumy district of Kharkov province to an Orthodox peasant family. During his youth, Petr received three years of education at the village school and acquired the ability to read and write. As a young man, he was a voracious reader and inquisitive mind who devoted himself to the study of the Bible and other religious works.
At the age of seventeen, Olkhovik underwent a profound spiritual crisis which led him to question the basis of his faith. Delving deep into the Gospels, he observed around him that “the Orthodox had departed from the teachings of Christ”. At this time, he and his brothers Ivan and Ignat came into contact with Tolstoyans who preached and taught Spiritual Christianity, pacifism and non-resistance. Principal among these was Prince Dmitry Alexandrovich Khilkov from the nearby village of Pavlovka who, influenced by the Doukhobors, distributed his estate among his peasants and began to work the land as one of them. Another was Mitrofan Semenovich Dudchenko, a young landowner who left university in Sumy and returned to the peasantry. Under their influence, the Olkhovik family returned their icons to the village priest, stopped attending church, and devoted themselves to good works and the study of the Bible.
In October 1895, at the age of twenty-one, Olkhovik received his call-up for conscript service in the Russian army. It is here that the narrative in the “Letters” begins. Inspired by Tolstoyan literature and the recent example of the Doukhobors who, six months earlier, had rejected military service in the Caucasus en masse, he refused. For this he was arrested and incarcerated at Sumy, Kharkov and Odessa for four months. In February 1896, he was dispatched by steamship to Vladivostok in the Russian Far East, a distance of over 9,000 versts (an Imperial Russian measure of distance equal to 1.06 kilometres). During the voyage he met Kirill Alexeyevich Sereda, a recruit in his regiment who was destined to share his fate over the ensuing decade.
Sereda was a twenty-one year old Orthodox peasant from Maksimovshchinovka, a village neighbouring Rechki. Previously illiterate, he had learned to read and write in the recruiting barracks. Reading the Bible for the first time aboard the ship, he came to the realization that Olkhovik’s pacifist stand was fully in accordance with the Gospels. This revelation “lit a fire in his mind’. He accepted “the faith of Christ” and following his new friend’s example, refused to serve. He was arrested and detained aboard the ship.
In April 1896, Olkhovik and Sereda disembarked at Vladivostok where they were placed in lockup. In July, they were tried in a brigade court for “deliberate insubordination” and sentenced to three years in a disciplinary battalion in Irkutsk. They were transported there in shackles in a prison convoy. The 4,000-verst journey by river steamer, wagon and on foot took them seven months to complete.
On their arrival in Irkutsk in March 1897, Olkhovik and Sereda were taken to the disciplinary battalion where they once again refused to serve. They were subsequently placed in solitary confinement, and shortly thereafter transferred to a civilian prison. It is here that the narrative in the “Letters” abruptly ends.
Original cover sheet of the “Letters of Petr Vasilyevich Olkhovik” published in Russian in London, England in 1897 by Vladimir Grigoryevich Chertkov.
The gripping story of Olkhovik and Sereda’s rejection of military service was originally relayed through a series of letters from Olkhovik to his family and friends during the period October 1895 to April 1897. If his correspondence continued – and there is evidence to suggest that he wrote Tolstoy and others subsequent to this period – no further letters have apparently been preserved, or else they lie forgotten.
Olkhovik had no pretensions to be a professional writer, still less a scholar. Yet in the “Letters”, the largely self-educated peasant displays considerable literary gifts, a poetic sensitivity and a power to put himself inside the characters whose views he is setting forth. Witness, for instance, the sympathetic rendering of the escape and recapture of the convict Volov from the prison convoy. Olkhovik’s clarity of style is evident throughout as he carries the reader along with his highly detailed, rapidly moving narration. His “Letters” are history intermixed with autobiography, with an emphasis centred on events and personalities directly encountered by the writer. They also present, with simple eloquence and touching integrity, Olkhovik’s “world view” and understanding of true Christian teachings. Armed with this powerful faith, he is able to maintain his physical, mental and spiritual equilibrium and remain unshakable in his commitment to the eternal truths of life as he sees them, despite unrelenting hardship and oppression.
Olkhovik wrote the “Letters” at a critical juncture in the history of conscientious objection in Tsarist Russia. Since the imposition of conscription in Russia in 1874, only Mennonites were exempt from military service. Other conscientious objectors faced a variety of punitive measures. In the eyes of Tsarist authorities, conscientious objectors were guilty of dual crimes: violation of civic duty as well as military duty. It was feared, too, that the contagion might spread. Thus the surge of pacifist sectarianism among Doukhobors, Stundists and other Christian groups in the 1880’s and 1890’s, fanned by the writings of Tolstoy and agitation by Tolstoyans, was met with particular hostility and alarm by the Russian state. Against this backdrop, Olkhovik’s narrative of his arrest, interrogation and imprisonment provides a candid and revealing account, not only of the lot of military conscripts who objected on grounds of conscience, but also of the means by which such pacifist views were introduced and disseminated among fellow soldiers.
The “Letters” were collected and published in Russian by the Tolstoyan Vladimir Grigoryevich Chertkov in London, England in mid-1897 for anti-military propaganda purposes. The pamphlet achieved significant notoriety and was widely circulated among Russian pacifists and religious dissenters, inspiring at least three potential army desertions in Kars province in 1900. In the years following the Russian Revolution, however, interest and circulation waned and the “Letters” were eventually forgotten.
One hundred and ten years later, this publication makes the “Letters” available for the first time in English translation. The translation is made from a copy of the original Russian pamphlet at the Leeds University Library in London, England, one of few extant copies. The Russian is translated with only minor changes. Wherever possible a literal translation has been retained, except where the original sense has required the addition of words or rewording.
1895. On the 15th day of October, I was summoned to the city of Belopole (Kharkov Province, Sumy District) to perform my military service. When my turn came to draw lots, I refused and said that I would not do it. The officials all looked at me, then talked among themselves and asked me why I would not draw lots. I replied that this was because I will not swear an oath or take up arms. They said that this matter would be taken up later, but that I would have to draw lots. Again I refused. Then they ordered the starosta (prefect) to do it. He drew number 674. They wrote it down.
The secretary glanced at me and said: “Get going” But another man shouted “Stop, don’t move, why are you leaving?” I turned and said “Look here, they ordered me to go, so I am leaving.” But the official who had called me back shouted “Be quiet, there’s nothing to discuss. It’s not priests you’re dealing with. Here we’ll appeal to your conscience like priests do at your home. If that doesn’t work, we’ll get through to you here so that you’ll remember it forever. We’ll give it to you so that you won’t return home for ten years.” Then they led me off to one side: they wrote something down and said: “Get out”.
I left the office, walked to my quarters and stayed there another two days until it was my turn to go to the reception point. I was thinking that if I don’t go, they’ll force me to – they’ll strip me, they’ll get mad, and it will be worse. When they measured my height, they praised my good build and enrolled me in the guards. The officer in charge walked over to where they were doing the sign-up and said “See here, if that’s the case, we’ll hand him over without a test.”
They began to call across and line everybody up in rows, but they stood me by myself. The officer in charge came out and ordered us to be led into the church. They again lined us up, with me in front. The priest came in holding a sheet of paper on which the oath was written. He ordered us to raise our hands. Everyone raised them, but I did not. The officer in charge came up to me and said “You have to raise your hand.” I refused. He said “You have to take the oath.” I also refused to do that. He threatened me with Siberia, but I said that it would be better to go to Siberia, and I would go, but I will not take an oath. He tore up my release ticket, and ordered that I be returned to the office.
That evening they ordered me to go home. I set out, and walked into my quarters, but because the starosta there was afraid that I would run away somewhere, he arrested me and took me to Rechki (the sloboda), and then through several volosts to the officer in charge at Sumy.
They took me to Sumy on October 21. When they led me into the office to the military commander, there were some young fellows there. They asked: “Why are you here?” The police commissioner handed over a packet. One of them took it, read it over, and then said: “Wait, he’ll be here soon.” Then he turns to me and said “Well then, you would not take the oath?” “Yes,” I said, “I didn’t take the oath.” Another came over: “So you didn’t take the oath? It’s going to be bad for you,” he says, “they’ll torture you.” I said “I know myself it will be bad.” “What, then, aren’t you afraid?” I said “I’m not terrified of death of the flesh.”
The chief clerk came in. They told him: “Here’s the one who would not take the oath.” He said, “Such a fool – he’s done for.” Then he came up to me and said: “How can anyone not take an oath? It’s a matter of law, isn’t it? One must not break the law.” To this I made no reply. He left.
The officer in charge came in, summoned me into the office and asked: “Who taught you all this, that you do not wish to take the oath?” I replied: “I learned myself by reading the Gospel.” He says: “ I don’t think you came to understood the Gospel this way by yourself. Everything there is unintelligible, is that not so? You’d need to study a lot to understand it.” To this I said that Christ did not teach difficult wisdom, for the simplest illiterate people understood his teaching. “And since when have you begun to understand the Gospel?” I said: “Since I began to read – I was still in school when I stopped cursing.” He asked: “And of what faith are you?” I said: “Of the faith of Christ”. He said: “But I am also of the Christian faith, and I don’t do such a thing.” I kept silent. Then he asked: “And what creed do you follow?” I said: “Christian.” He asked: “Orthodox?” I answered: “No, not Orthodox.” “But why on earth are you not Orthodox?” “Because I do not recognize Orthodox rituals.” Again he says: “But what kind of Christian are you if you’re not Orthodox?” I said: “A Christian of the faith of Christ.”
At this point the chief clerk stood up. He turned to me and said “To utter an oath is a sin when it is untruthful.” But I answered that truth is good even without an oath. The officer in charge gave him a look and said: “No, that’s not the point.” Then he turned to me and said: “You must have been taught this by Prince Khilkov?” I said that I have never seen Prince Khilkov, but I know where he lived, and I did not learn from him. He asked: “Did he live far away from you?” I said: “About twelve versts.” He said again: “Be that as it may, surely somebody led you to this. You would not have thought this up by yourself.” I said: “By reading the Gospel we learned all this by ourselves.” He again asked: “So this means you will not take the oath?” I said that I wouldn’t.
Then he ordered a soldier to take me to the detachment. I went with him into the kitchen where another soldier was eating. I asked for something to eat. He said: “Be our guest.” He poured some more borshch, and then kasha. We ate. After the meal they began to ask me why I had not taken the oath. I said: “Because it says in the Gospel: do not swear at all.” They were surprised, and asked: “Is that really in the Gospel? Well, find it, then.” I found it, read it out, and they listened. “Although it is there, nevertheless it’s impossible not to take the oath, for they’ll torture you.” To this I replied: “Whoever loses his earthly life will inherit everlasting life, but whoever saves his earthly life will lose everlasting life.”
They looked at me and said: “Look what we have here, a peasant, a ‘Uke’, but what a clever one. Everything you say is right, but you’ll have to take the oath or they’ll kill you or torture you. We’re sorry for you. You’re a good lad.” “This way,” they went on, “you won’t leave anything good behind if you don’t swear, but if you do, you’ll be doing a better thing: you’ll serve out your time, go home and live again as you did before.”
From there a soldier took me to the barracks. Here I also met young soldiers. Here again they began to question me about my refusal. I told them everything as it was. They have begun to sympathize with me but nevertheless tell me: “We advise you against this, because they will torture you. Take the oath; you’ve got the brains to become an officer right away.” But I told them that to be an officer would be sinful, because Christ said: “The greatest of you will be least of all, let the master be as a servant.” If I were to become an officer, it would be necessary to use violence against people, but any violence against people is a sin.
At this point two people were listening very closely when I was reading or speaking, and when others began to object, they said that I was telling the sacred truth. This is how they put it: if one is to obey human laws, one has to reject God’s laws, and if one fulfills the law of God, it is necessary to reject human laws. They told me often: “See here, Petr, don’t yield, don’t be timid, let them send you even to the firing squad. Don’t be afraid, withstand everything. It is a great thing you have conceived.” I answer them: “Yes, one has to suffer all for the teaching of Christ, all kinds of persecution, deprivation and suffering and even death itself.” And many, many conversations take place here, and everybody is sympathizing with me and telling me: “I’m sorry for you, Petr, they’ll torture you – you’re a good fellow.”
I am thinking that the Kingdom of God on earth is at hand, because people are clearly changing. It is good for me here. In the morning we are given tea, at lunch time borshch and kasha, and kander in the evening. I sleep in a soft warm bed. I am in good spirits and am healthy in body.
In the brigade they have assigned me to the Amur. On November 17 the order came to the Sumy officer in charge that I be dispatched to Kharkov to the 122nd Tambov Regiment, at the disposal of the commander of the regiment. And so at 12 noon on the 18th a soldier bearing a cavalry sword sat down next to me in a passenger train, and we arrived at eight o’clock that evening in Kharkov. We spent a long time looking for the headquarters of that regiment and finally found it. First we went into the office, signed in there and were sent to our quarters. There were no beds, so I slept on the bare floor.
The next day, i.e. today, they assigned me to the third company of the Tambov Regiment. Here I will remain until spring, and then will be transported to the Amur. At the time of the breaking up into groups twenty men from Sumy uezd (district) were designated for the Amur. They too will stay here until spring, because it is impossible to travel there in winter. Kharkov is like being in chaos or in a forest where you cannot glimpse even one small ray of light…..
I implore you, my dear ones, love one another as well as you can. Love can conquer all. With that I say farewell to you with embraces and kisses. Pass on my heartfelt greetings to all my friends.
November 26, 1895.
At present I am in Kharkov sitting in the guardhouse of the 122nd Tambov Infantry Regiment. The reason for this is as follows: on the 20th I was lined up with other young soldiers and they went over soldiers’ regulations for us. I told them that I was not going to do any of this. They asked “Why not?” I said: “As a Christian, I will not bear arms and defend myself against enemies, because Christ commanded us to love even our enemies.” The non-commissioned officer said: “Fine, I’ll inform the company commander.”
On November 22nd the company commander arrived with the half-company commander. They summoned me to the company office, which was in the same barracks building. When I went in, the company commander asked: “Who is this?” The sergeant major who was standing right there said: “This is a Stundist, one who doesn’t want to serve.” He turned to me with a shout and asked: “You! Why don’t you want to serve?” I said: “Because I will not carry weapons, that’s why I won’t take part.” “And why won’t you carry weapons?” I said: “I won’t carry weapons because I am a Christian, and according to Christ’s teaching one must love even one’s enemies, and not fight them, that’s why I have no need of them.” Again he said: “Are you really the only Christian, then? We’re all Christians here, you know, but we’re not doing this.” I said: “As to others, I know nothing. For myself, I know only that Christ said to do as I am doing.” He said again: “If you don’t take part, I will leave you to rot on wooden slats.” To this I said: “Do what you like with me, but I will not serve.”
He turned to the half-company commander: “What shall we do with him?” That man said: “He needs to be taken to a priest. Let him lead him to Orthodoxy; otherwise you’ll not be able to do anything with him.” After this the company commander ordered: “March.” As I started out, he said to the sergeant major: “There’s a better way to deal with him – whip him like a dog, then he’ll co-operate.” In about three minutes the soldiers again summoned me to the company commander. I came. He asked: “Can you read and write?” “See to it,” he says, “that you co-operate with me.” I said that I will not co-operate. He again said: “March.” I went out.
I had only just sat down, when they went out from the office into the barracks and again for the third time summoned me. They asked my father’s name, his first name and surname. I told them. They wrote it down. The company commander again turned to me with the words: “If you do not co-operate, I’m going to have you whipped with thorny rods.” I said: “It’s in your power, do as you like with me, but I will not serve.” Then the lance corporal said: “Follow me.”
I followed him to the other end of the barracks; then he said “Halt”. When I stopped and glanced back, I noticed that behind me they were leading another soldier; they stood him near me and ordered me to place my feet together. I said: “For me it is more comfortable to stand this way.” The non-commissioned officer grabbed me by the shoulders and began to shove at my legs with his and told me “Place your feet in this position, with heels together and toes apart.” But I didn’t do as I was ordered and said: “Do what you like with me, but I won’t cooperate.” The company commander and half-company commander were standing there and watched as the non-commissioned officer shoved me. I turned to them and said: “So this is how Christians behave, wanting to use force to make somebody do something.” The company commander said: “Go f— your mother – I’ll use whips to make you come around.” With these words he went into the office.
After all this, the half-company commander asked me: “Why then did you not say this before, back in your own district?” I said that I had said all of this both at the reception point and in the presence of the military superior officer in Sumy. He asked: “So what did they tell you?” I said: “At the reception point they told me ‘We’re sending you’, and the colonel didn’t say anything, but sent me to the brigade, where he received the reply that I should be sent here.”
At that they left the barracks. That evening the non-commissioned officer took me to the regiment’s priest. The priest declared me incorrigible. The priest asked to what creed I belonged. I said: “Christian.” He asked: “Russian Orthodox?” I said: “No, not Orthodox.” Then he asked: “But what faith, then?” I said: “Christian, of the faith of Christ.” He said: “But there is no such faith. There are many Christians, and all of them have a name: Orthodox, or Lutheran, or Catholic; there are Christian Doukhobors, Molokans, and many others. Look here, tell us what religion you profess?” I said: “I don’t recognize any religion apart from the teaching of Christ.” He continued to question me: “But on what do you base your faith?” I said: “On the love of the Heavenly Father.” Then he said: “In Russia there are two sects which do not wish to serve; one came out of the German lands, and the other is Russian: that is, Tolstoyism. So there it is, tell us: to which of these you belong?” I said: “I am not a sectarian, but a Christian, so I cannot belong to a sect.” After all these conversations, the officer wrote down that I do not accept any part of Orthodoxy.
From the priest he took me to the guardhouse, where even now I am under arrest. The cell is spacious, bright and warm, a lamp burns all night, the door is locked, and a soldier is standing with a rifle and every five minutes looks through a hole cut in the door. Two soldiers with rifles take me out for air morning and evening. For meals they are giving me borshch and kasha, and at dinnertime, soup.
Here I shall remain to await the orders of the regimental commander. They’ll probably condemn and punish me, but that doesn’t bother me a bit. The Apostle Peter talks about this: “And who is he that will harm you, if ye be followers of that which is good? But and if you suffer for righteousness’ sake, happy are ye.” (1 Peter 3:13-14) “If ye be reproached for the name of Christ, happy are ye, for the spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you: on their part he is evil spoken of, but on your part he is glorified. But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evil-doer, or as a busybody in other men’s matters. Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf” (1 Peter 4:14-16.)
Every day officers are coming to my cell asking: “Why were you arrested?” I answer them: “I wish to fulfill Christ’s commandment to love one’s enemies.”
They ask: “Where are you from and of which class of society?” To all this I answered depending on who is asking.
With that I say farewell, I am still alive and well. My spirits are good. My letters will all be read by some officer as soon as I have written them. It’s impossible to write without the command knowing about it.
Kharkov. December 5, 1896.
On December 1 the same priest and officer came to me in my cell again. Once more they asked me what sect I belong to. I asked them why they needed to know this. They said: “We have to report on you to the higher-ups, that’s why.” I said: “Then write this, that I am a Christian.” At that they departed.
Officers are often coming to my cell asking where I am from, what social class I belong to, and why I was imprisoned. I do not know how long I’ll be kept here; they’ve locked me up me awaiting further orders.
Odessa. February 11, 1896.
Now I find myself in the city of Odessa. We left [Kharkov] on February 7th, and arrived here February 9th. Today a commission looked us over to see who is fit to travel by sea to the Amur. They examined me and declared me fit.
The general says to the officers: “What kind of ideas has this milksop picked up, that he has been refusing to serve? Millions are doing their stint, and he alone is shirking? Give him a good hiding with thorny rods – then he’ll give up his scruples!” But then the colonel said: “First we need to take into consideration his gentleness and his conduct, and then his convictions will also be evident; he will not be able to change what he believes in.” Then the general asked where I had studied and whether I had read a lot. I said: “I studied in the village school, and read whatever I could.” They asked what sect I belong to. I said: “I am a Christian, and do not belong to any sect.” The general kept on barking and did not want to agree with the colonel. The doctors also spoke to me: “Let’s travel to the Amur; it’s a fine place to serve.” “It is fine everywhere,” I said.
For such a long time they twisted me about at the time of the hearing and threatened to whip me on the steamboat, to which I consented. I am setting out in my own clothing, but they’ll be presenting me with government issue before we get there. Already on February 1st they took 1200 men by sea. They say that thousands more will be gathered up. Soldiers are often questioning me about my refusal to serve and many have got to know me.
I am traveling without military escort and without even any supervision. We traveled past Poltava; if I had known that we would be passing through, I would
have written to my friends so that we could have seen one another at the station. I have not been receiving letters from anybody. Only I. S. has written, but the higher-ups would not give me his letters.
On February 8th, when they led me from the guardhouse to the squad, they took me to a bathhouse. The sergeant major asked if I were heading for the Amur. I said: “Let them take me wherever they like.”
I don’t believe there are going to be harsh punitive measures, and even if there are, it doesn’t much matter to me. When I arrive at the place I will write immediately. I will have to travel by water for a month and a half if the weather is good; if it is bad, it will take longer.
Farewell; abide with God; love one another. Remember the words of the Apostle Paul: “But if any provide not for his own, and especially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.” I heartily embrace and kiss you all. Although I am separated from you in body, in spirit I am always with you. Pass on my deep bow to all my friends and acquaintances.
Letter concerning Petr Vasilyevich Olkhovik from one of his friends.
Poltava, February 14, 1896.
I have just returned from Kharkov, where I went for the purpose of visiting Petya and finding out about his situation. However, I was not able to see him; two days before my arrival he had been dispatched to Odessa and then to the Amur along with 220 new recruits. They dispatched him from here without any definite decision on his case – simply to get him out of sight as far away as possible. But I was so anxious to get to see him, and so confident that I would succeed. More’s the pity that during his entire stay in the guardhouse Petya not only did not see any of his friends, but did not even receive any letters, as the authorities intercepted them. Somebody tried to get through to him before me, but unsuccessfully.
The soldiers at the guardhouse, the sergeant major and the senior officers all had good things to say about him. The best thing was that somehow he succeeded in not provoking either the soldiers or the officers, and knew how to combine within himself steadfastness and mildness. The soldiers’ attitude towards him is highly sympathetic, and even the officers are amazed at his fortitude.
A week before his departure they tried once more to compel him to train, but without success. He emphatically declared to the commander that he “was not about to change his words” and added: “You mind your business, and I shall mind mine.” In the guardhouse, according to the soldiers, he was always courageous and in good spirits. However, being constantly under lock and key, he changed in appearance: his youthful rosy complexion had become yellowish. Just before his departure, the sergeant major related, he had become melancholy.
They still wanted to issue him with military gear: greatcoat, cloth, linen, boots and money, but he refused all this, as he did not consider himself a soldier, preferring to remain in his smock. His brother and I are now on the way to Odessa, where Petya will be staying until February 24th. God willing, we will see him. I feel that will be good both for him and for me. From Odessa he will be dispatched to Vladivostok and on to Khabarovsk, where he will be completely at the disposition of the Governor-General of the Amur region and the military command. In a word, he is still in the same uncertain predicament.
M. D. [probably Mitrofan Dudchenko, a fellow Stundist-Tolstoyan residing in Poltava]
Letter from P. V. Olkhovik to his brother at home
April 7, 1896. Received June 26, 1896.
En route to Vladivostok.
Your visit cheered me up greatly. The thought then came to me: “I may be persecuted, but I have not been abandoned; there are people who have begun to think about me and sympathize with me.” On the ship I found within myself new spiritual strength. Here I found a person of like mind with whom I share what is dear and sacred for me. It will be another four days before we arrive at Vladivostok. We are now approaching the city of Nagasaki. From Nagasaki the steamship “Orel” (Eagle) goes to Odessa. It will carry this letter to Odessa. The sea has not been very rough, but nevertheless many have not been eating for three days, and many have been throwing up. However, I have felt sick all this time. Once you have read about what happened on the ship, please send this on to Rechki. I think they will be very interested.
On April 1 a soldier came from the third deck to the second to see me – he is a native of Kiev and can read and write. First he asked me: “may I ask you something?” “About what, exactly?” I said. “Just this,” he replied, “You are refusing to serve and do not acknowledge yourself to be Orthodox – we,” said he, “have been fasting, but you haven’t?” He continued to ask questions, and I answered. The conversation went on for a long time.
Our conversation was joined by Kirill Sereda. He opened the Gospels and began to read the 5th chapter of Matthew. When he had finished reading, he said: “Look here, Christ forbade taking oaths, courts, and war, but we do all this and it is considered legitimate.” Standing there, crowded together in a bunch, the soldiers noticed that Sereda was not wearing a cross around his neck. They asked him “Where is your cross?” “In my suitcase,” he replied. Again they asked: “But why are you not wearing it around your neck?” He said: “Because I love Christ, and so cannot wear the instrument on which Christ was crucified.”
At that point two lance corporals came in and began to speak to Sereda: “Why is it that not long ago you were fasting, but now have thrown off your cross?” He answered thus: “Because I was ignorant then, I hadn’t seen the light, but now I have begun to read the Gospel and have discovered that all of that is unnecessary to live a Christian life.” Again they pressed him: “So you, like Olkhovik, will not be serving?” He told them that he would not. They asked him: “Why?”. He said: “Because I am a Christian, and Christians must not arm themselves against other people.”
When the duty officer found out about this, he entered the hold and began to shout: “Where is this one who says there is no God and authority in the world?” All were silent. He turned to me and said: “Is it you who is spreading this propaganda?” I said that I had said nothing to the effect that there is no God or authority in the world. He asked: “Who else is here?” They pointed out Sereda for him. He began to shout, using oaths: “Son of a bitch, fool, such a wise guy – he’s learned so much that he can’t wear a cross and doesn’t recognize authority? I’m going to inform the company commander. He’ll put you in irons, you fool.” To this Sereda answered: “Your telling the commander does not inhibit me, because I am making no secret of this, but doing it openly, and even if you do not tell, he will find out himself. I am willing to be placed in irons for the sake of Christ’s teaching.”
The duty officer left the hold and went to inform the sergeant-major. The sergeant-major summoned Sereda and asked: “So is it you, Sereda, who rejects the cross?” He said: “It is.” The sergeant-major again asked: “So how do you look upon it?” “As an instrument of torture and execution,” he replied. Then the lance-corporal who was standing right there asked Sereda, pointing to the sergeant-major: “And who is that?” “A person,” he replied. Then the lance-corporal said: “but what is he in military terms?” “I do not recognize military discipline,” said Sereda. “Why not?” they asked. He said, “Because it has nothing in common with Christ’s teaching.” Then the sergeant-major began cursing and started speaking: “So you don’t recognize the authorities?” “That authority is from God who is servant to all,” he responded.
Thereupon the sergeant-major ordered the man on duty to take Sereda up and put him on the spar deck (near the funnel), which he did. And the soldiers pointed at him and laughed at him. He stood there about two hours, and then they let him go and immediately began to demand obedience. For the second time the sergeant-major interrogated him, this time quietly, drinking tea.
The next day the sergeant-major came to us in the hold. We were lying together. When he entered, he said: “You’re both together?” He said nothing to me, but had a long conversation with Sereda and advised him not to read the Gospels, but some other books instead. After this one of the sailors came to Sereda and said: “They say you have some kind of book?” He answered, “there is a Bible” (he had bought a Bible when they were still in Port Said and had been reading it all the time.) The sailor asked if could read some of it. Sereda brought it onto the deck, they sat down and the sailor began reading.
When he had read a little, he said: “It’s a good book.” Then he looked around and said: “But it has not been passed by the censor, right?” Then he began to advise Sereda to burn the Bible or throw it overboard; otherwise, he said, “they’ll take it away from you and you may end up on trial.” Sereda said that he would not burn it or throw it away, and if they take it away, let them – it will just be a ruble lost.
At that time I was sitting with one soldier teaching him to read. A sailor with a Bible came up to me and began to speak: “I’ve come to ask you – here in Russia, you see, our whole system is so well organized and it is accepted that people ought to believe and understand Christ’s teachings correctly. So then, do you acknowledge all this or not?” To this I replied: “I know nothing about the system, whether it is good or bad, and so I can neither reject it or support it, but as to the correct understanding of Christ’s teachings, I know that if people believe in Him, they ought not arm themselves against other people and repay evil for evil.”
Then another sailor and the sergeant-major began to tell me that there are many learned people who have not come up with this idea. I replied to them that when Christ walked and talked, it was the simplest illiterate people who understood His teachings, while the scholars hated and persecuted Him. Furthermore, I told them about Paul’s teaching that “God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty.” And I told them a lot more from the Gospels. They were most interested and said: “Well, it’s obvious that he is using his head – his convictions won’t be changed by any punishment, but Sereda is another matter; if we give him a flogging, he’ll give all this up.”
Then they ordered Sereda to another deck, telling him not to read the Gospels, but instead some other holy books; otherwise, they said, “Olkhovik will be teaching you, you’ll be reading the Gospels and it will seem to you that that’s the way it should be.” He replied that one must not listen to others, but think things over well on one’s own. Then the sergeant-major took the Bible away to the company commander and told him that Sereda had thrown away the cross and refused to recognize anything.
Late that evening the company commander and the sergeant-major entered the hold and summoned Sereda. The company commander began shouting at him: “You idiot, what’s all this about, that you don’t recognize authority?” He replied: “Why do you say no authority? The authorities exist, but shouldn’t among true Christians.” The company commander: “Place your feet together.” He did so. “I’ll put you in irons for this.” “Do what you like,” he replied. The commander again spoke: “Don’t you know that you will be put on trial for this?” Sereda answered: “It makes no difference to me, send me where you like.”
The company commander began to hit him about the face with a book, tearing it; then he turned to the sergeant-major: “Make this fool stand all night; I’m going to hold this idiot in a stinking place until we arrive at our destination.” The sergeant-major stood, saluted, and repeated: “I obey, your Honour.” As he went out, the company commander said: “Instead of being a fine and honourable soldier, he’s going to become some kind of prisoner.” To me they had nothing to say.
They stood Sereda up above by the funnel. Three times the priest came there to see him. The first time he said: “Is it true that you do not want to recognize the authorities?” To this, he began to answer this way: “You see, in the Gospels it says ‘earthly kings exercise lordship over the nations; and they that exercise authority upon them are called benefactors. But among ye my disciples, may it not be so: but he that wishes to be great, let him be as the younger, and he that is chief, as he that doth serve’.” Hardly had Sereda finished speaking, when suddenly the priest began to threaten him: “Who do you think you’re addressing? Shut up!” He fell silent and would not answer any questions. The priest shouted, shouted some more, then left.
When he came a second time, he began to ask quietly: “And who taught you this? Where did you gather such wisdom?” He answered: “Nobody taught me. I began to read the Gospels and from it I discovered that to live a Christian life one must not do that.” The priest again began to speak, saying: “If we didn’t arm ourselves, we would have nothing; other countries would come and begin to attack and rob us, leaving us nothing.” To this he replied: “Christians should put up with everything, because Christ said: ‘love your enemies, bless those who curse you and pray for those who insult you and persecute you’.”
Again the priest went away for a short walk, then came again and began speaking: “repent and nothing will happen to you, but if you don’t repent, it will be bad for you.” Sereda replied: “For the sake of Christ’s teachings I am ready for anything; indeed Christ Himself said: ‘believers in me will be persecuted’.” The priest said: “That was said about unbelievers, that they would persecute Christians, but we ourselves are Christians.” Sereda replied: “Christians should not persecute one another.” The priest had a lot more to say and then left.
Then the sailors and the sergeant-major approached and again spoke up: “Repent, nothing will happen to you, but if you don’t, it will be three times as bad for you as for Olkhovik, because you have already taken the oath and served, even if only for a little while.” He replied: “As to punishment there is nothing to think about, if one is doing the will of God.” And they had much more to say.
Then the company commander ordered that he be released: the sergeant-major arrived and said: “Go on, get some sleep,” took his arm and led him below. When they had gone down onto the deck, the sergeant-major began to embrace Sereda: “Come on,” he said, “let’s have a go.” Sereda said: “Why fight?” He replied: “Like brothers.” Sereda again objected: “Really, like brothers?” With that he went to have a sleep.
On the third day the sergeant-major again pressed Sereda and everybody tried to persuade him, but he stood his ground. After all this the priest summoned me. At first he asked me what province I came from. I told him. Then he asked: “What faith do you profess?” I said: “The faith of Christ.” He said: “Orthodox?” “No,” I told him. “Why are you spreading your own teachings here?” he asked. I replied: “I have no teachings of my own.” He said: “So how is it that you are teaching others that there are no teachers when you yourself are giving instruction? And if has been said that people should not call themselves teachers, in that case don’t teach anybody – but you have already been teaching one person – and he’s going out of his mind.” “I do not take it upon myself to be a teacher,” I said. Then, as he departed, said: “You’ll get it three times worse for this.” “It makes no difference to me,” I replied.
Vladivostok, July 8, 1896.
My dear parents!
I have already written to you of my fate, which has tossed me far away from you, but the fate that has befallen me is not allowing me to remain even here, and so is moving me to another place. Because on July 1 the brigade court tried me and sentenced me to three years in a disciplinary battalion, with transfer to the penal category, they are sending me from here to Irkutsk, where the penal battalion is located. Along with me, they also gave the same sentence to Kirill Sereda.
We are still in the guardhouse – we have no idea when they will send us. The journey will be a long one – about three months. It will be necessary to go by land vehicle, water and a long way on foot. For over a month they have taken us out for walks – for two hours every day. During our walks they have forbidden us to talk.
They did not sentence us for refusing military service, but for deliberate insubordination. To the question from the presiding officer: “Do you plead guilty to disobedience to a superior?” I answered: “It depends – what about?” He said: “In the matter of your superior’s order for you to turn from the ranks.” To this I replied: “I do not plead guilty to this, as I was not able to do this, because I had not studied this, moreover I will not learn this, because according to Christ’s teachings one should not study warfare.” Sereda said that he was guilty in the eyes of military law, but not guilty in the eyes of Christ.
Twice the officer made inquiries of us. He asked me about the following matters: can I read and write well, where did I study, since when had I fallen away from Orthodoxy and begun to live according to the Gospels; had I had occasion to speak with someone about my religious views, what had I said as I was on the way to the reception point and at that place, had I taken the oath, and had anyone supported me in my convictions? However, most of all he asked what I had said to Sereda when we were on the steamship. All of this I told him.
He went on to ask me whether I was acquainted with Tolstoy. I said that I was not. He asked: “But does he know about you?” “Maybe he does,” I said. Then he asked: “How could he have found out about you?” I said that it could be through friends. Then he said: “It seems he has asked an officer who is in correspondence with him to make efforts on your behalf to find out whether arrangements could be made to assign you somewhere in a noncombatant capacity. And this,” he went on, “could have been arranged if you had conducted yourself differently.” Sereda was also asked what we had talked about on the ship, had we been acquainted for a long time, do we live far from one another, and he was asked about my behaviour.
Ignat [Peter Olkhovik’s brother]: tell Trofim about Kirill; he would have written, but he cannot: he is sitting alone in a cell. On the steamship he was always reading the New Testament and he told me: “I am reading and I cannot get enough of reading, because it gives me much joy and peace – it was not for nothing that Christ said: ‘Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’ With God’s help I too will some day come to Him. He will give me rest also.” Looking at his decisiveness and steadfastness, I have never felt happier and more cheerful.
Did you receive the registered letter I wrote in May? Let me know – did you receive what I wrote from Kharkov and Odessa? Write to me about the present conditions of your life: how you are feeling, and what is new and pleasing with you. But don’t write just now until I let you know when I am settled. They are not letting us read – while under arrest we haven’t read anything
Farewell – I remain alive and healthy, which is what I wish for you. My spirits are always good. I send you hearty greetings.
Loving you, your Peter.
I wish you love and peace.
Pass on my bow to all my friends and acquaintances.
Petr Olkhovik (standing, second from right) in Yakutsk, Siberia with members of his in-laws, the Andryanchenko family, c. 1901. His wife Agafia is standing second from left.
From Official Documents
Brigade court of the 1st East Siberian Artillery Brigade re: the young soldiers Petr Olkhovik and Kirill Sereda.
The grounds for commencing the case was the report of the 1st Martyrs Battery, which stated: “The young soldiers Petr Olkhovik and Kirill Sereda, natives of Kharkov Guberniya, Sumy Uezd, who arrived on April 15th within a group dispatched to bring the Battery entrusted to me up to strength, while among the rest of the young soldiers lined up in formation, ignored the orders of the men in charge of training recruits, Captain P. and Second Lieutenant T., to stand in line and obey commands. When the same demands were confirmed to them by myself, Sereda, albeit most unenthusiastically and carelessly, did nevertheless carry out the orders. But Olkhovik announced that under no circumstances would he stand in the ranks, and that the kind of duties that they were ordering he would not carry out, basing his refusal on the text of the Bible and the Gospels. Upon questioning it turned out that Olkhovik had not yet taken the oath, whereas Sereda had done so on the steamship. Finding the presence of Olkhovik and Sereda among the rest of the lower ranks of the Battery extremely harmful, I, along with the above-named officers, placed them under preliminary arrest in the Brigade Guardhouse until further notice from Your Excellency.” (Report dated 17 April 1896.) The report is signed by the Commander of the Battery, Second Lieutenant D.
On the basis of this report, an investigation was carried out. (There follows here a statement of the investigation, the content of which is a repetition of the above.) “In this matter the recruits named based their refusal on the text of the Bible and the Gospels, in which, according to them, it is forbidden to anyone to teach, apart from J. Christ, or to use weapons against one’s neighbours …. Meanwhile, I referred them to the local Rural Dean, asking him to turn them by persuasion to the true path, which was attempted by Orthodox Priest M., but without success.” Captain P. of the 1st Martyrs Battery testified: “On the second day after the arrival at the Battery of the recruits, I was ordered to stand them in single file so as to determine their training level. At the command: “right turn”, two young soldiers, Olkhovik and Sereda, would not turn, saying that they do not wish to be instructed in soldiering. Olkhovik added that for this he had already spent 2 1/2 months in a cell. Approaching Sereda, I ordered him to turn. He turned, but said: “I still will not accept training.” However, Olkhovik would not obey even my personal commands. All of this was reported by me to the Commander of the Battery.” The investigation was carried out by Second Lieutenant P.
On the basis of the above investigation, the whole file on the young soldiers Olkhovik and Sereda was sent to the Military Investigator for the Nikol’skoe sector to carry out an investigation with respect to these lower ranks being charged with violation by them of Article 196 of the Code of Criminal and Corrective Punishments and Article 105 of volume XXII of the Code of Military Decrees of 1869, second edition. The Military Investigator, not interpreting in the conduct of these lower ranks violations of Article 196 of the Code of Criminal and Corrective Punishments, did not accept this case as being his to execute. For that reason, to establish Olkhovik’s guilt of violating Article 196 of the Code of Punishments, the file was forwarded to Second Lieutenant P. for execution of a supplemental inquiry, accompanied by a note of the following content: ‘Accompanying this correspondence to the Commander of the 2nd Battery, I propose to His Honour that Second Lieutenant P. be assigned to determine in an inquiry carried out by him by means of interrogation of the young soldier Sereda by whom and precisely when the latter was convinced to become a “Christian”, i. e. to fall away from Orthodoxy, and to determine by means of interrogation of the young soldiers Olkhovik and Sereda whether they belong to the “Stundist” sect. I propose that the result of the supplemental inquiry be presented to me with an inscription on this document.’ June 14, 1896, Brigade Commander, Major General L., Brigade Adjutant, Second Lieutenant G.
The young soldier Kirill Sereda testified:
“I accepted the faith of Christ on the steamship according to my own conviction and according to the Gospels. Previously I was an ignorant person. In Kharkov and in Odessa I learned to read and write from soldiers of the 9th Company of the 122nd Tambov Infantry Regiment, where books were handed out to us. Previously I had been illiterate and had been unable to read the Gospels. In Port Said I bought a Bible, which also contained the New Testament. I talked about what I read with Olkhovik, among other recruits. First I read the Old Testament, and then also the New Testament.“
“When Olkhovik was refusing various military duties, his answers lit a fire in my mind. When I read the Gospels, I found that he was right. Then I had some doubts about this New Testament, as it had not been passed by the censor*, and I bought another from the young soldier Yakovenko, this one published under censorship by the Holy Synod, and it turned out there was no difference between the New Testaments. Then I began to refuse everything that Olkhovik had renounced, because he was doing everything according to the Gospels.“
“When I began to do the same things as Olkhovik, they wanted to separate us, but when they noticed that I was not approaching him, they left us in our places. When I was reading the New Testament, some young soldiers told me not to read it, otherwise I’d go out of my mind, but I had the unquenchable desire to read the Gospels. Once the Company Commander began to shame me, saying that I could become a good soldier, but that I had departed from Orthodoxy. I answered the questions he put to me. Then he began to curse at me, even using obscene language. At that I told him: ‘So, among you Orthodox, is it really fitting for a top person to be cursing with devilish words?’ Then the Company Commander grabbed our hard-bound training manual and beat me about the face. I said nothing. Then the Commander forced me to stand on the spar deck, where I stood from evening until midnight.
“Three times the priest came there to talk with me and ask various questions. I told him that if any answer I gave him had not been clear, I would show him in the Gospels. Then the priest said that he would call me in to read it with him and that he would explain it for me. But I was not called in to see the priest, and did not read the Gospels with him. Instead, the sergeant-major took away my Bible and for my beliefs made me stand up for three hours. In the Martyrs Battery they took away all our books for the signature of the Battery Commander and they have not returned my New Testament yet. Olkhovik told me that a priest in Odessa had told him: ‘God help you in the cause that you have conceived to carry out.“
“When I was living in the village of Maksimovshchina, just 3 versts from the settlement of Rechki (I was then 17 or 18), I heard that the whole Olkhovik family did not go to church, but were distinguished for their good deeds. On the steamship I asked Olkhovik to explain to me certain places in the Gospels: concerning oaths, adultery, courts, rulers, love for one’s enemies and much else that I do not recall. I told him that I am glad that I have found the faith that is right according to the Gospels and will never betray it.”
The young soldier Petr Ol’khovik testified:
“On the steamship I talked with Sereda, among others, about many things, whereas about my beliefs I conversed only after Port Said, when everybody fasted and attended divine service in preparation for confession and Communion, but I refused. Then Sereda asked me why I did not want to take part. I answered that I was not Russian Orthodox, but belong to the faith of Christ, although four years previously I had been Orthodox. He asked me to tell him what sort of faith this is, and when and how I had changed over to it. I related to him at various times everything from the very beginning, just this way: I was a pupil in the rural school in the settlement of Rechki for three years, where I learned to read and write well. In school the priest told us that the very best religion was Orthodoxy. That pleased me and I had no doubts. But when I was about seventeen years old, I read a story about a Jew and a person of the Orthodox faith. They lived side by side and their children got along so well together that they not only played together but even slept together. However, they began to study in schools and found out that each of their religions was the best. Over this they began to quarrel and fight, and their friendship turned into hostility.“
“Then I began to have second thoughts about my faith. I delved deeper the Gospels and observed that the Orthodox have departed from the teachings of Christ. At that time my brother became acquainted with Prince Khilkov, who lived fully in accord with the Gospels and often argued with the priests. That was probably the reason he was exiled to the Caucasus. My brother also delved deeply at that time into the Gospels. At about the age of eighteen I renounced Orthodoxy and began to strive to live according to the Gospels. At that time I became acquainted with M. D., who supported me in my religious views. D. had been a student in a high school, but did not want to take his examinations and returned to the peasantry. He was exiled to Poltava….“
“When they took me in to become a soldier, I refused military training, and would not take the oath, as this was against my religion; after that they dispatched me from Belopole to the military commander in the city of Sumy, where I sat in a cell for a month. In Kharkov they began our training. I would not train and for this I was held under arrest for two and a half months. Then we were sent to Odessa, to which my brother came and supported me in my convictions. On the steamship I tried not to talk about my beliefs with anybody. When Sereda was reading the Gospels, he would ask me when he did not understand something, and I would explain it to him. I never wanted to win him over to my faith, but he himself told me that he rejoiced that he had found out the truth about the faith of the Gospels and that he would never betray it.” The investigation was carried out by Second Lieutenant P.
On the basis of the investigation cited above, Olkhovik and Sereda, by order of the 1st Eastern Siberia Artillery Brigade, were committed to trial by the Brigade Court for violation of Article 105, volume XXII, Sv. V. P., 1869 edition. At the trial Olkhovik and Sereda would not acknowledge their guilt. Olkhovik testified: “I did not carry out the officer’s orders because I did not know how to turn around, but even if I had known how, I would not have done it, as my faith does not allow me to train to be a soldier, and I consciously do not wish to be trained in this. Petr Olkhovik.” Exactly the same testimony was given by Sereda.
At 12 p.m. on July 1, 1896, the presiding officer of the court read the brief verdict according to which Olkhovik and Sereda were found guilty: I) of not showing due respect to a superior when carrying out obligations of service for the latter, and II) in deliberate failure to carry out the orders of a superior, i. e. insubordination: Article 105, part II, article 96, volume XXII, Sv. V. P.*, 1869, 2nd edition, and therefore the court ordered as follows: that Olkhovik and Sereda, with loss of certain service privileges, be given into the custody of the disciplinary battalion for three years with transfer to a penal detachment, with consequences indicated in Article 52, volume XXII of the same Code of Military Decrees.
Letter from Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy
The Commander of the Irkutsk Disciplinary Battalion
October 22, 1896
Knowing neither your first name and patronymic, nor even your surname, I cannot address you other than by this cold and somewhat unpleasant formula, one that distances people from one another: “Dear Sir” – but at the same time I am appealing to you on the most intimate matter, and would prefer to bypass all those external formalities that divide people and, on the contrary, call forth in you towards myself, if not the brotherly feeling that is in people’s nature to have one for another, then at least to eliminate all preconceptions that may be aroused in you by my letter and my name. I would desire that you regard me and my request as if it had come from a person of whom you know nothing, either favourable or unfavourable, and that you would be prepared to hear out my appeal to you with benevolent attention. The matter about which I wish to petition you is as follows:
Two persons who have been sentenced by the brigade court in Vladivostok to three years confinement have arrived at your disciplinary battalion, or should arrive soon. One of them is the peasant Petr Olkhovik, who had refused military service because he regards it to be contrary to the law of God; the other is Kirill Sereda, a private who had become close to Olkhovik on the steamship and, once he found out from him the reason for his exile, came to the same convictions as Olkhovik, and renounced continuation of his military service.
I understand very well that the government, not yet having developed a law appropriate to the peculiar features of such cases, is not able to proceed in any other way than it has acted, although I also know that recently the higher government, whose attention has been drawn to the cruelty and injustice of punishing such people on a par with villainous military ranks, is anxious to find more just and mild measures to counteract such refusals to serve. I also know very well that occupying the position you do, you cannot share the convictions of Olkhovik and Sereda, and cannot act otherwise than to strictly apply what the law prescribes. However, that notwithstanding, I beg you, as a Christian and good person, to have pity on these men, who are guilty only of fulfilling that which they consider to be God’s law that is to be preferred to manmade laws.
I shall not conceal from you the fact that I personally believe not only that these people are doing what they should, but also that very soon all people will realize that these men have done a great and holy deed. However, it is entirely possible that this view seems crazy to you, and that you are firmly convinced to the contrary. I shall not permit myself to try to convince you, knowing that people who are serious and of your age arrive at certain convictions not on the strength of someone else’s words, but by their own internal thought processes.
The one thing I implore you, as a Christian, a good man, and a brother – a brother of mine, of Okhovik, and of Sereda – as a man who walks under the same God and will after death come to the same place to which we are all going, I implore you not to conceal from yourself how these men (Olkhovik and Sereda) are different from other criminals, and that you not demand of them fulfillment of that which they have renounced once and for all: not to tempt them, leading them into more and more infractions and imposing on them more and more punishments, as was done with the unfortunate Drozhzhin, who was tormented to death in the Voronezh Disciplinary Battalion, arousing general sympathy, even in the highest circles.
Without deviating from the law and from conscientious fulfillment of your obligations, you can either make the confinement of these people a real hell and destroy them, or you can to a considerable extent soften their suffering. This I beg of you, hoping that you will find this request superfluous, and that your inner sense has already inclined you to the same conclusion.
Judging by the position that you occupy, I suppose that your views on life and on a person’s obligations are quite opposite to my own. I cannot hide from you the fact that I consider your military position to be incompatible with Christianity and I wish for you, just as I wish for any person, release from having to take part in such matters. However, knowing all my own sins both past and present, and all of my weaknesses, and the things I have done, I not only do not permit myself to condemn you for your position, but I sustain towards you, as to any brother in Christ, perfect respect and love.
I shall be very grateful to you if you reply to me.
Moscow, Khamovnicheskii per., No. 21.
September 1, 1896. Siberia. A steamboat on the Amur River.
My dear parents!
I already wrote to you on July 8th about the fate that has befallen me, which, I believe, will have greatly saddened you. But there is nothing to be despondent about; you need only recall the words of Christ: “Ye shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned to joy.” After I was parted from you and my friends, and when they took me to the other side of the world, I was thinking that I would be living here all alone; however, God has given me a friend with whom I have already been living for half a year – it seems like only a month. I am very grateful for such a great gift from God.
When we were imprisoned at Nikol’skoe in the guardhouse, one of the recruits who was being held for desertion when they were being trained in Kazan told us that a recruit from Perm Province had decided not to take part (in military training), for which he was being held in the guardhouse until being shipped to the Amur. When he was despatched, he would not take his government-issued clothing.
Another recruit came to wash the floor and said that a recruit travelling with them had refused training in Kazan, and in Odessa and Vladivostok had refused to stand in formation and had conversed with the officers as if with comrades. The officers ordered that new recruits not be allowed to associate with him. We were unable to find out anything more from these recruits about him, as they had been transported to Nikol’skoe while he still remained in Vladivostok. When we were being held in the Blagoveshchensk prison, one soldier told us that there was a recruit in the 2nd Battalion who did not want to practice with a rifle, and his commander took him on as a clerk. We think this is the same man.
In the same prison they brought into our company an old man from Russia who had fled from hard labour in exile. He told us that in their party was a soldier who had been serving in Orenburg Province, but had not wanted to swear an oath of allegiance to [Tsar] Nikolai Aleksandrovich, and for this had been transferred to serve out his time in the Amur…
Now we are on the way to Irkutsk to the disciplinary battalion. It is already the second month since we set off from Nikol’skoe. It will still take about three months to get to Irkutsk. We are at present on a steamboat travelling along the Amur River to the village of Sretensk. From Sretensk we will be going on foot. From Sretensk to Irkutsk it is over 2000 versts. It is possible that we will get as far as the other side of Lake Baikal on the steamer if we can make it before freeze-up.
They are now giving us 15 kopecks each a day for provisions. Previously we thought that on the way we would go hungry, because bread here costs from 5 to 8 kopecks a pound, and they had given us no money to take with us, and there would be no use sending letters. But everything has turned out otherwise. Our convoy escorts have let us out to gather wood for the steamboat while at the station pier. They pay us 50 kopecks each, and in two hours we load 3 or 4 sazhens each; we have also been able to buy bread cheaply in the Blagoveshchensk prison – for prisoners, at 2 kopecks a pound – from which we have collected a bag of dry bread. En route we bought two New Testaments. The commanding officers had not wanted to let us have the ones at the Battery to read on the way…
If you write to my friends, tell them to write to me in Irkutsk. I will be very glad to receive a letter from them. I have not received any letters from you; either you did not write, or possibly they did not get to me. Nor have I received letters from friends. I am glad they are pushing us closer to our homeland – it is more likely that letters will arrive. Write to me about my friends: where has fate taken whom? Write in such a way that the command will let them through.
Tell me everything in detail: How are the crops? Have you finished building the hut?
I send you my heartfelt greetings. I remain with true love, your Petr.
Pass on my greetings to all my friends and acquaintances. All my clothing is still intact…
November 20, 1896.
My beloved parents!
I shall set as one of the first priorities of my life to make use of every occasion to express to you my esteem. You know already that I am going to Irkutsk to the disciplinary battalion together with Kirill Sereda for the sake of our cause. Now we are going on foot across the Trans-Baikal Region by stages in a party made up of 45 prisoners. Every day we walk a “stanok” – from one halting-place to the next. The stanki are from 25 to 40 versts in length. Every two days there is a day’s rest, and at some locations we stay for a week to await a party that is being driven into exiled settlement or hard labour.
Some of them are left around the Trans-Baikal Region, others along the Amur, and yet others are herded onto the island of Sakhalin. All of them are in shackles; the heads of the ones sent to hard labour are shaved on the right side, while among the ones being sent to settle deprived of all civil rights, their heads are shaved on the left side. In these parties walk wives and children, and there are old men up to seventy-five years old who have been put in irons and are scarcely able to move ahead, and constantly wheezing and groaning owing to their decrepitude. At the transfer prison in Nerchinsk we saw a boy about eleven years of age bid farewell to his father, whom they were sending off to the island of Sakhalin. Crossing himself, the boy knelt before his father. His father, crying and laughing at the same time, uttered these words: “Well, farewell, my little son, we will never see one another again.” They kissed, and the boy went away in tears.
Now I have managed to have a good look at the life of prisoners and their pitiable situation: these poor people…. For what purpose are they being deprived of their human dignity and their human reason befogged? They are selling all they own: they are buying vodka and getting drunk, they are losing their conscience, starting to gamble away what little they have without thinking that they’ll then have to go hungry, as they give them each 10 kopecks a day for food, while bread here costs 4 and 5 kopecks a pound. During the card games arguments break out, leading to fights. When the soldiers from the guards’ quarters hear this, they run in and begin to beat them with their rifle butts and put handcuffs on them. People think that others can be corrected by punishment, that is, by prisons and hard labour. No, you cannot reform people that way. In that situation they become even more corrupt.
Every recently arrived prisoner at first behaves himself modestly, peacefully, and timidly; he defers to everybody, takes the last place somewhere in a corner or under the slat bunks. However, once he has lived a little longer and become familiar with the life of the depraved prisoners, he becomes the same as they. Here no sooner has he heard how the others tell how they stole, pillaged, raped, or murdered, and seen how the others play cards and fight – beyond that he sees nothing or hears nothing by which he might occupy himself and find pleasure. At first he is bored, and then he picks up all these things himself, thinking that that is the way to live. He begins to play cards, loses three days food money in advance, after which he has to go hungry. He turns to the other prisoners to borrow something, but they don’t trust him. Then willy-nilly he goes right down to their level, looking for someone to deceive or something to steal and, if he doesn’t succeed, he becomes discontented with his fate, gets into a beast-like fury, and begins to swear and use foul language, cursing tsar, government, the law, religion, life itself, and everything in the world. Often one hears from prisoners: “Well, if I can only get out of here, for God’s sake, I’ll start living my way, now I know how to steal and cover my tracks…”
Not long ago in our party there was an escape attempt. It came to my attention as a terribly pathetic incident. It happened in the following manner: on October 27th we had left the Shaksha halting-place; there we were received by the Upyrsk convoy escort. This convoy party was regarded as a good one because the senior officer did not strictly observe military discipline. When we arrived at the first small village, he let the prisoners go to the little store, and some even went to the bar to drink. When we had gone 15 versts, we caught up with the string of carts carrying the goods. The convoy leaders shouted to the drivers to halt the horses until the party of prisoners had passed by. The drivers stopped the horses on the road, and our party passed the wagon train. The convoy leaders, who were following behind the party, started to swear at the drivers and hit them because they had not turned off the road to let the party go by; they also let the prisoners who had been drinking in the village hit the drivers with their fists; the latter abandoned their leading horses and turned back. The party, having regrouped, went ahead, but the wagon train stayed put.
That evening we began to approach the village of Kanda; nearby is the halfway point between stages where the party was supposed to turn in to spend the night. Before we reached the village, the senior officer went ahead along with the prisoners’ starosta. When our party turned into the halfway point, the senior officer and our starosta were not there. They were in the village, whence they arrived drunk and the starosta brought vodka, which he gave out to the convoy leaders and some of the prisoners. After this the convoy leaders and prisoners began to play cards in the prisoners’ quarters. While they were playing cards, one of the convoy leaders began to tell the senior officer that he was permitting what he shouldn’t in terms of discipline. The senior officer said: “Be quiet, you swine, how dare you accuse me? I myself am responsible for you and for the prisoners.” The other man took offence and cursed him out… The senior officer blew up, jumped off the slat bunk and was about to hit him. The prisoners’ starosta grabbed hold of the senior officer, imploring him: “Stop it, comrade!” He did not hit the man, but drove him out of the building; he wanted to write a report, but changed his mind, because he himself was in the wrong.
After this the convoy leaders came out of the prisoners’ quarters, locked the door, went into their own quarters, shouted at one another for a little in a state of drunkenness, and then everything turned quiet; everyone went to sleep, both prisoners and convoy personnel. There was no guard on duty all night. The next day, early in the morning, the convoy leaders opened the door; the parashniki carried out the waste, brought in firewood and water into our quarters and lay down to sleep. The door was unlocked, and there was no guard. One of the prisoners, Aleksey Volov, who was being escorted in shackles to Irkutsk for robbery, stood up, noticed that the door was ajar, and no guard in sight. He threw off the shackles, on which he had already broken the rivets, braced himself and took off. When dawn broke, the prisoners were starting to make tea for breakfast when they noticed that Volov was gone. They told the starosta. He called for the senior officer from the guards quarters and said that one prisoner was missing. The senior officer asked where he had been sleeping. They showed him. He inspected the place. It turned out that Volov had left his smock, fur coat, and the shackles with the broken rivets. He took the shackles to the convoy escorts and told them that one prisoner was gone.
They brought the parasha into the prisoners area and closed the door. Only one guard remained to watch the prisoners while all the other convoy men ran off in all directions. They found his tracks in the snow and determined that he had gone along the road in the forward direction. Three soldiers mounted horses and began to tear after him along the road. At the 9th verst the fugitive turned into the forest and went on through the forest near the road. The soldiers passed by on the road and did not notice his tracks. A driver coming in the opposite direction had caught sight of the fugitive in the forest. Then he observed that a soldier was chasing behind him along the road. The driver joined the soldier and they ran after the fugitive. They caught up to him and grabbed him. Then the soldier forced him with threats to run back. Two more soldiers came up and wanted to shoot the fugitive. But the driver began to urge them not to shoot him. They began to beat Volov with their rifle butts, knocked him off his feet, tied his hands behind his back and began to kick him with their boots and beat him all over with their rifle butts. Then they tied him to a cart and began to whip up the horses; he ran as long as he could, then fell and was dragged about a verst before the horse stopped. Then they took him to the village, tied him to a post and began to beat him with sticks, rifle butts and bayonets. Then the drivers whom they had beaten up for not turning off the road when their party caught up to them passed by. When they saw the drivers, they stopped beating Volov. Then they left to drink tea after shoving the fugitive into some hay.
After they had drunk tea, they threw him onto a cart and hauled him to the half-stage point. When they had come up to the doors and halted the horses, I looked out the window: the cart was all covered with blood. The fugitive got down from the cart. All the convoy escorts threw themselves on him and began to beat him, some with sticks, some with rifle butts. They opened the door, shoved him into the prisoners’ room and burst in themselves in beast-like fury. One of the soldiers fired a shot into the room, shouting: “Don’t move!” The bullet almost hit one of the prisoners sitting on the slat bunks by the wall. It tore through the wall just a quarter [inch] from the seated prisoner, and scorched another prisoner’s eyes. Frightened by the shot, the prisoners stood quietly, while some hid under the bunks. One soldier jumped into the room carrying the shackles Volov had left behind and began to beat the fugitive with them. He opened up his skull. Then he began to use the shackles to beat the starosta whom two soldiers had dragged into the room. They beat him the same way as they had the fugitive: some with sticks, some with rifle butts, and others with shackles. They had tied his hands behind his back and shoved him into the room. They also beat three other prisoners. From one Jew they took away the goods he had brought to sell to the prisoners: tea, sugar, candles, tobacco and paper.
That evening they led the fugitive to the forge to have his shackles welded. The blacksmith, ordered by a soldier to weld them on tighter, made them so tight that the next day, he cut his legs when he walked. He could scarcely walk due to the pain and cuts from the shackles. He walked straining all his muscles, fearing to lag behind the party lest the soldiers begin to beat him again. All the soldiers, when they are doing such a terrible thing, do not notice anything out of the ordinary: they converse and laugh, proud of the fact that weapons have been placed in their hands and that they can exercise power with these weapons.
How pitiful it is to look at people in this situation, creatures of God possessing reason. Often this thought arises: why do people torment one another? The answer: because they lack the love of Christ. If they possessed within themselves Christ’s love, there would be no violence among people who are God’s reasoning creatures.
Walking with our party going from Nerchinsk to Chita was a nobleman from Nizhnii Novgorod who had served time at hard labour for a political offense, a quite well educated man who had graduated from university. Clearly, this was a sympathetic person who was striving to achieve the higher good. He arrived at the Nerchinsk transit prison after us. When he found out about us from other prisoners travelling with us, he began to question us about our renunciation of military service. We told him. After hearing our story, he befriended us, inviting us at every opportunity to join him for tea and always making an effort to have a word with us. He told us a lot and asked many questions…. He remained for some time in Chita. A friend of his came to see him in the transit prison. The warden took them beyond the gates. He told his friend about us. The warden overheard this, was interested and asked him about us. His friend also wanted to visit us, but it was not to happen. His friend sent him a present: loaves of bread, fish, sausages, Dutch cheese, jam and sweets. All evening and the next day before our departure, he treated us with all these things. For the road he gave us everything left over from the present, as well as four rubles in cash.
Now I have become acquainted with Siberia and the Amur region, and I would like to describe it for you. The whole place here is mountainous and wooded. The ground is almost entirely stony. There is a lot of land suitable for agriculture that lies untilled. The peasants here are far behind their Russian counterparts. They do everything in a slipshod manner and carelessly. Everything is scattered about. Cattle are poorly cared for. There are no warm barns at all, although there is material from which to build them. Logs are thrown about cattle pens, causing suffering to cattle in the enclosures that have to withstand hunger and bad weather. Feed is thrown under their feet. All this is done this way as a result of the fact that they have been demoralized in the prisons and also in the gold-fields, where they make big money that they immediately fritter away.
Life for a worker is easier than in Russia, because labour is more highly paid. A railway is being built across Siberia, and for this reason the price of everything has gone up. Along the railway route, rye flour costs from 1 ruble up, going as high as 2 rubles. Potatoes: from 20 to 80 kopecks a pud. Meat: 10 kopecks a pud. Sugar: from 25 to 40 kopecks a pound. Salt: 2 rubles a pud. In some places we had been able to buy it for 10 kopecks a pound. Onions are sold by weight: from 5 to 12 kopecks a pound. Black bread we buy for from 3 to 7 kopecks a pound, and white bread from 5 to 15 kopecks a pound. In a word, there is nothing definite about prices; everywhere the price for everything varies. We have never been in need of anything, having enough resources for all our needs. On the ship we earned 20 rubles loading wood. We could have earned more, but Kirill was down with a bad leg and could not carry anything.
Now we also have a small source of income. Kirill does tailoring for the officers at the stopping places. I am still wearing my home-made clothing, all of which is intact. My boots are also still good. The heels and iron fittings would have fallen off, but I re-soled them with new ones. Now they are giving us 12 kopecks a day each for food; previously they gave us 15 kopecks apiece. Among the prisoners we are living richly. From us the rest get bread, salt, potatoes, tea, sugar, groats, money, needles, thread, scissors, awls, ink, paper – in a word, everything needed on the journey.
Did you get my letter that I wrote on September 1st, when we were still travelling along the Amur River on the steamer? I sent it registered mail. It was not possible to post it soon, because we were not on a mail-delivery steamer, but on a steam tug. Neither were we able to post it when we arrived in Sretensk, because we were there one day, and we were being held in dark solitary cells because we had not stood up for an officer passing by. I posted it September 26th in Nerchinsk. We lived there for two weeks in the transit prison. Civilian prisoners there were placed in the kotel while we in the 3rd “military” category were each provided with 12 kopecks a day for food. I went with a soldier to the bazaar for produce and while there posted my letter and one from Kirill.
Now we are located at the Oninsk stage between Chita and Verkhneudinsk. We arrived here November 6th, and will leave November 26th. We have had to stay here this long owing to the delay of the party coming in the opposite direction. Here at the stopping point one man who was being accompanied to the hospital in Verkhneudinsk has died. He had been working on the railroad blowing up mountain rock with dynamite. He had been thrown about 7 sazhens onto a mountain slope. He lived on for two months, then died. We will have to walk another 6 stanki to get to Verkhneudinsk. There we will have to stay for over a month – Lake Baikal will hold us up. Steamships have already stopped sailing on it, but it is not yet covered with ice. It is covered with heavy frost, and it is a long way to go around: it is up to 400 versts long and 60 versts wide. We will have to cross its full width.
The only thing I am unhappy about is that I have still not received letters, either from you or from my friends. I cannot bear to wait to get from you a report on events I do not know about. If it happens that I do get a letter, it will bring me great joy. Write me, were A. and F. accepted, and how did the irregulars join up in Sumy? Write in such a way that I will receive it. If they are going to flog us in the disciplinary battalion and not allow us to write in our letters that we are being flogged, then, so that you will know they are flogging us, I will put hyphens in the corner. Each hyphen will signify 10 blows.
I have no doubts about anything. Now I have found out that imagined troubles double in magnitude until one actually is in the situation; when that happens, there is nothing to fear. But the imagination is always lively. By now I have seen so many changes and events in my life that it is impossible even to describe them all.
Farewell, I remain alive and healthy, which is also my wish for you. I am never depressed; I always feel merry and in good spirits. I wish you love and peace.
Loving you, your Petr.
P.S. Don’t be afraid of exile in Siberia: life is better here. Soldiers from Tomsk Province have told me that the land there has not been allotted; a person can plough as much as he likes, and one can also cut as much hay as he likes. There are no hindrances as far as cattle are concerned. A lot of cattle breeding goes on. Crops are good; they plant mainly wheat. Everything is cheap there. They also say that conditions are also good in Tobolsk Province.
April 3, 1897.
My dear brother!
I received your letter, and I was very pleased with its contents. How well you express what our attitude should be towards every individual person, i.e. “to seek in him that which constitutes human virtue, and on that footing to maintain relations with him.” I have often had occasion to bring out in people feelings that constitute human virtue. In my own situation it has been my lot to encounter people both good and evil, and the evil ones, when they met me for the first time, would shout abuse at me and threaten me with punishment. But when I begin to explain to them that humanely speaking, it is foolish to behave in this way, their attitude towards me begins to change.
You ask how life is for me in this new place. My life is, so to speak, that of a nomad. No sooner do you get used to one place than they send you to another. In the fall I was on the road. I spent the winter in the Verkhneudinsk prison lockup, and in the spring again began to go from place to place. On March 1st I left Verkhneudinsk, and arrived in Irkutsk March 19th.
First they took me to the disciplinary company. There, upon my arrival, I announced to the company commander that I would not learn about soldiering. It was already known to him from documents that Kirill and I had been sentenced at the same time, and he summoned us out of the party of soldiers that arrived with us. He led us into another building and there called each of us into the office and advised us to abandon our convictions. To this we replied that under no circumstances would we give them up. He advised and threatened, but to no avail. Then he sent us into solitary confinement, where we sat for 10 days. Once a priest came there to see us, and those in command attended from time to time. They spoke with me less often than with Kirill. They were more insistent with him because he had trained at first, but then renounced military service. The company commander spoke to him in this way: “Let him – his beliefs are deep-rooted, but you came to this opinion recently. He taught you, and you obeyed, but you’d better obey me. I am telling you this not as your commander, but as a brother in Christ: abandon these ideas, and do as you are ordered.” He answered thus: “I can obey and do only what is in accord with my conscience and does not contradict the teaching of Christ.” After quiet persuasion, the commander turned to menacing demands, but all this had no effect at all. Kirill remained firm and serene in his conviction….
After dinner we were taken first to the commanding officer, and then sent to the police administration, where we were kept for two days. From there they transferred us to the prison lockup, where even now we remain in the same department where the exiles in transit are kept. Whether we will be here for long, we do not know. When I find out, I shall write. Write to the prison; we may be here for a long while. You ask: “Do you need money?” It won’t be necessary. We still have 27 rubles. As our expenses are low, that will suffice for a long time.
I am never fatigued or bored, always light-hearted and merry. Only when I reminisce about home and my friends do I get a feeling of self-pity and I think to myself: will we ever see each other again? Hearty greetings to all my friends. Kirill sends you a bow of greeting and regrets that he did not make your acquaintance while at home.
Loving you, Petr.
The narrative in the “Letters” breaks off with Olkhovik and Sereda’s transfer from the disciplinary battalion to civilian prison in Irkutsk in April 1897. What do we know about what happened to them afterwards?
It is certain that Olkhovik and Sereda were spared the routine floggings, beatings and other tortures of the disciplinary battalion only by the intervention of Tolstoy on their behalf. In October 1896, while they were en route to Irkutsk, Tolstoy wrote the commanding officer of the battalion, appealing that he give the men fair treatment and avoid punishing them repeatedly for what was essentially the same offence. Such was the power of Tolstoy’s suasion that, shortly after their arrival, the commanding officer commuted their sentence to administrative exile in Yakutsk for a period of eighteen years, the equivalent of their term of service.
In June 1897, the two men departed Irkutsk in a prison convoy for Yakutsk. The 3,000-verst journey by wagon and river barge took them six weeks. Olkhovik and Sereda disembarked at the town of Yakutsk in July 1897. After a brief stay in the prison there, the governor fixed their place of settlement at the town of Aldan, another 1,000-verst journey by wagon, on foot and by river barge.
At Aldan, Olkhovik and Sereda joined another conscientious objector, Egor Egorovich Egorov from Pskov province. Inspired by Tolstoy’s writings, the twenty-three year old peasant recruit had rejected military service in 1895. He was sentenced to three years in the Bobruisk disciplinary battalion, then released in October 1896, only to be sent into administrative exile in Yakutsk for eighteen years. He had arrived at Aldan in June 1897. Together, the three men struggled to adapt and survive in their new surroundings.
Group of Doukhobor Exiles in Yakutsk, Siberia, circa 1904
Olkhovik, Sereda and Egorov’s stay at Aldan proved to be brief. In September 1897, they were transferred six hundred versts up the Aldan River to the mouth of the River Notora, where a party of Doukhobors had recently arrived from the Caucasus. These Doukhobors, numbering thirty men, had laid down their arms and refused to serve in Easter 1895. For a year and a half, they had been subjected to cruel beatings and floggings, solitary confinement, cold and hunger in the Ekaterinograd disciplinary battalion. Four of their number died as a result of the atrocities committed there. In November 1896, their sentences were commuted to administrative exile in Yakutsk for an eighteen-year period. Their journey there in a prison convoy took almost a year, as the Trans-Siberian Railway was still under construction and they had to walk most of the way. Having finally arrived at their fixed place of settlement on the Notora, they began preparing for a new life in exile.
The Doukhobors welcomed the three men into their community as fellow “brothers in Christ”. They established a joint life together, and working communally, built themselves huts, obtained a basic inventory of equipment, acquired several horses and cows, began sowing grain, planted garden vegetables and mowed large quantities of hay. Many of the stronger men, including Sereda and Olkhovik, obtained work in the neighbouring Skoptsy (a Russian religious sect that practiced self-mutilation) villages on the Aldan River and pooled their earnings to purchase food and provisions for their comrades. Over time, the colony on the Notora achieved a measure of self-sufficiency, and even moderate prosperity, growing to over ninety people as additional parties of Doukhobor conscientious objectors arrived there from the Caucasus in 1898 and 1899.
By all accounts, Olkhovik and Sereda participated in the daily life and affairs at Ust Notora with energy and enthusiasm. Sereda often served as a tailor, sewing overcoats and warm clothes for his companions. Olkhovik made several trips to the town of Yakutsk to purchase supplies and conduct business on behalf of the colony. Ever the inveterate reader, he even arranged for a small library of spiritual and educational materials for the colonists. Both men gave up hunting and fishing in deference to the vegetarian Doukhobors. They shared a common life there from 1897 to 1901.
In March 1901, the Doukhobors at Ust Notora were permitted to establish two new colonies closer to the town of Yakutsk. To this end, Olkhovik, Sereda and about twenty other men and their families resettled to the village of Prokhladnoe, eighteen versts from Yakutsk, where they established a small agricultural commune. Both men married soon after resettling there; Kirill to Praskovia Semenovna Sergeeva of the neighbouring village of Kil’demskoe and Petr to Agafia Lukyanovna Andryanchenko of Yakutsk. They lived in community there for the next four years.
Meanwhile, in Petr’s home village of Rechki in Kharkov, peasants professing Stundist and Tolstoyan beliefs were outlawed as “particularly dangerous” sectarians and subjected to every kind of harassment. Prayer meetings were broken up and participants placed under surveillance, physically abused, fined or jailed. In 1896, Petr’s brother Ignat and four others were exiled to Warsaw province as “religious agitators” for three years. While in Warsaw, they learned through Tolstoyans of Petr and Kirill’s association with the Doukhobors exiled in Yakutsk. Moved by this news, they determined to join the Doukhobors who were immigrating en masse to Canada. Upon their release in 1899, they and their families immigrated to Canada via New York and Quebec, settling in the Doukhobor village of Kamenka in the Assiniboia district of the North-West Territories.
(l-r) Agafia and Petr Olkhovik, Alexei and Uliana Andryanchenko taken shortly after their arrival in Canada, 1905.
After spending eight years in administrative exile in Yakutsk, Olkhovik, Sereda and the Doukhobors, along with thousands of other religious and political deportees across Russia, were granted amnesty and released by Imperial Manifesto in 1905. The Doukhobors hastened to go to the new land across the ocean where the rest of their brethren were settled. Olkhovik and Sereda chose to accompany them, having formed close bonds with them and wishing to reunite with their friends and relatives already living among the Doukhobors in Canada. To this end they gathered their earnings and resources and made arrangements to emigrate.
In June 1905, a party of one hundred and eighty-two Doukhobors, including Sereda and his wife, Olkhovik, his wife, infant daughter and brother-in-law Alexei Lukyanovich Andryanchenko and his wife Uliana, departed Yakutsk for Canada. They travelled eighteen days by riverboat from Yakutsk to Irkutsk. From Irkutsk, they travelled fourteen days by train to the Baltic port of Libau. From Libau, they sailed three days to London, England, and from there to Liverpool. From Liverpool, they sailed aboard the SS Southwark, arriving eleven days later in Quebec. From Quebec, they travelled by train to Yorkton, Saskatchewan and then dispersed throughout the Doukhobor villages in the area.
In September 1905, the Olkhoviks and Seredas arrived in the Doukhobor village of Kamenka, where a number of their brethren from Kharkov had settled six years prior. The arrival of the “Yakutians” was a great joy for these families who saw their friends and relatives again after a long separation of ten years. Many meetings were held, new projects formed, and after all, when the “Yakutians” had rested enough, they went to work and began to establish a new life for themselves and their families. Olkhovik and Sereda’s paths diverged at that point; however, they would remain lifelong friends.
Kirill A. Sereda settled among the Independent Doukhobors in the Whitebeech district. He took out a homestead there in 1906 and established a successful farming and horse raising operation. In 1924, he sold his farm and resettled to the Veregin district, where he lived and farmed for the remainder of his life. He held fast to the Doukhobor way of life he had adopted, especially the commandment “Thou Shalt Not Kill”. He was a respected member of the Society of Independent Doukhobors (1916-1928), the Society of Named Doukhobors of Canada (1928-1938) and later the Veregin Doukhobor Society. He died in 1952 in his seventy-eighth year, leaving a widow, Praskovia Semenovna, two sons, George and Mike, and two daughters, Mary and Laura.
Petr V. Olkhovik took a somewhat more circuitous route. Spiritually dissatisfied with the narrowness and sectarianism of life in the Canadian Doukhobor settlements, he joined a group of forty “Yakutian” Doukhobors in Brandon, Manitoba, where he worked as a labourer. In September 1907, he exchanged the harsh climate of the Canadian prairies for the sunshine of California, accompanying the “Yakutian” Doukhobors to Los Angeles. Life stateside, however, proved disappointing, and in 1908, he moved to Vancouver, British Columbia. He remained there for the next eighteen years, working as a fisherman, miner and logger. In 1910, he separated from his wife of seven years, Agafia Lukyanovna, with whom he had two daughters.
Throughout this period, Olkhovik remained an avid reader and amassed a substantial library of books at his home in Vancouver, which became a gathering place for Russian émigré workers to read and discuss a wide range of spiritual, philosophical and political topics. It would appear that his library contained a great deal of socialist, anarchist and revolutionary literature, and that for this reason, in 1919, at the height of the first Red Scare and the Canadian Labour Revolt, it was confiscated in a raid by the Royal North-West Mounted Police.
Following the Russian Revolution, Olkhovik began to turn his thoughts to his homeland, where momentous changes were taking place. Like many Russian émigrés, he had never completely abandoned the dream of returning to the land of his birth. On learning that many of his old friends among the Independent Doukhobors were selling their farms in Saskatchewan and returning to the Soviet Union to help establish the new life there, he decided to join them, selling off his belongings and sailing there in May 1926 with his daughters.
Petr Olkhovik (sitting) logging with a steam donkey engine, Vancouver, 1919.
Olkhovik and seventeen Independent Doukhobor families settled in the Melitopol district of Zaporozhye province, Ukraine where they founded the village of Vozdvizhenka. They formed the Kolkhoz Nezavisimiy Kanadtsa Dukhobora (“Independent Canadian Doukhobor Collective Farm”), using modern farm machinery brought from Canada. The resettlement flourished, despite less than cordial relations with local authorities and local peasants, who considered them to be kulaks (pejorative term for “rich peasant”) until 1927, when the young men received calls to serve in the Soviet army. Refusing to bear arms, the Doukhobors hastily sold their homes and machinery and returned to Canada. Olkhovik and his daughters sailed back aboard the SS Roussillon via Bordeaux, France, arriving in Halifax in September 1928.
Returning to Canada after his sojourn in the Soviet Union, Olkhovik returned to Vancouver, where he worked as a fisherman until his retirement in 1939. Throughout his many and various life experiences, he remained true to his pacifist principles. He died in 1944 in his seventieth year, leaving two daughters, Dora and Tania.
At once dramatic and inspiring, historic and autobiographical, the story of the peasant Petr V. Olkhovik and his companion Kirill A. Sereda is highly significant in its content, the actual story that it tells, the profound human experience that it conveys and the dramatic period in history that it portrays. It is a valuable piece of writing in its own right, while at the same time part of a larger saga in the history of the Tolstoyan, Stundist and Doukhobor movements.