Notes from the Molochnaya, 1855

by Alexander Petzholdt

Alexander Petzholdt was a German scholar who toured the Molochnaya region of Tavria, Russia in 1855.  During his expedition, he visited the villages of Rodionovka and Terpeniye, formerly inhabited by the Doukhobors.  He found their once clean and orderly villages in a dilapidated state, and their once resplendent garden park neglected and overgrown.  Petzholdt kept detailed notes of his observations, which he later published in “ Reise im westlichen und südlichen europäischen Rußland im Jahre 1855: Mit in d. Text gedr. Holzschr. u. Kt” (Griesbach, 1860; pp. 222-223, 225-227).  Available in English for the first time ever, this translation provides the reader with a brief, rare, first-hand account of the physical legacy of the Doukhobors on the Molochnaya, ten years after their expulsion.  Translated by Gunter Schaarschmidt exclusively for the Doukhobor Genealogy Website.  Foreword and Afterword by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff. 


Alexander (George Paul) Petzholdt (1810-1889) was a Saxon-German scientist and traveller-explorer. After studying at the universities of Leipzig, Berlin and Giessen, he practiced medicine and pharmacy in Dresden from 1838 to 1846.  At the same time, he pursued the study of geology and plant chemistry.  From 1846 to 1872, he was a professor of agriculture and agricultural engineering at the University of Dorpat (now Tartu) in the Baltic region of the Russian Empire.  During this period, Petzholdt undertook extensive expeditions throughout the Empire on behalf of the Russian Government and published a number of books based on his travels.

In the year 1855, Petzholdt received a commission from the High Ministry of Public Education to conduct an expedition of southwestern Russia. To this end, he traveled throughout the provinces of Mogilev, Chernigov, Kiev, Ekaterinoslav, Tavria, Kharkov, Kursk, Orel, Tula and Moscow.  During his stay with the Mennonite colonists on the Molochnaya River in Tavria, Petzholdt visited several villages formerly inhabited by the Doukhobors, who had been expelled to the Caucasus ten years prior. What follows are his detailed observations about the state and condition of their former villages.

Alexander (George Paul) Petzholdt (1810-1889).

During my stay with the Mennonites on the Molochnaya River I also visited the village of Astrakhanka formerly inhabited by Molokans and the villages of Terpeniye and Rodionovka formerly inhabited by Doukhobors.

The Molokans and Doukhobors are exceptional Russian sects that in their own words “have abolished in its entirety the sensual divine service in order to find and acquire the pure spiritual Christian faith”; therefore they do not have any churches, icons, crucifix etc. Nonetheless, this search for the pure and spiritual Christian faith does not prevent the most severe moral excesses and, especially in the case of the Doukhobors, the most extensive atrocities. Because of this, the Government which has been otherwise most tolerant in religious matters had to do its utmost in order to subdue this sect. In the following I will try to supply the reader with an approximate understanding of the nature of these interesting sects. In this I will follow Haxthausen’s treatise [August Freiherr von Haxthausen, “The Russian Empire, its People, Institutions and Resources” (2 vols) (London: Chapman and Hall, 1856)] for the description of their history and matters of faith.

The time of the rise of these sects is obscure but the Molokan sect is probably older than the Doukhobor sect. The latter probably arose from, or was at least generated and inspired by, the former. At present only Russian peasants are the followers of both sects.

. . .

Concerning the Doukhobors, their name is said to go back to Bishop Ambrosius of Ekaterinoslav who in 1785 engaged in an investigation of their belief system; the name roughly means “spirit or light combatants”. While the Doukhobors adopted this name they interpreted it to mean “spirit or light wrestlers” (the Russian language allows such a double meaning); they were also called “iconoclasts”.

They appeared first in Ekaterinoslav Province but spread soon to all parts of Russia. In 1801 about 30 families settled from Ekaterinoslav with Tsar Alexander I’s permission to the right-hand side of the Molochnaya River. Since this small colony, having no enemies or oppressors, flourished very fast, Doukhobors from all regions of the Empire descended upon this area and settled there with the Government’s permission. They founded nine villages in this way and had formed a population of about 4,000 members before being exiled. The most significant of their settled villages were Terpeniye, the location of the Doukhobor leader, and Bogdanovka.

The Doukhobors’ teachings form a complete theological and mystic-philosophical system filled with magnificent views and consisting of a considerable inner cohesion.  [What follows is a lengthy footnoted quote from Haxthausen describing the Doukhobors’ spiritual teachings. After the footnoted quote, Petzholdt continues:]

Molochnaya River beside Terpeniye village, much the same today as when Alexander Petzhold visited it in 1855. A Panoramio photo by Matryoshka

When the Doukhobors had resettled to the Molochnaya in 1801, their leader Kapustin, whose origin and former life are completely obscure, introduced a complete community-held property management system. The fields were cultivated collectively in accordance with his arrangement, the harvest was distributed to all, storage facilities were set up for hungry years, etc. Various industrial branches developed, gardens were laid out and soon put the young villages into a most prime condition. However, when after Kapustin’s death his son, Larion Kalmykov, took over the leadership of the Doukhobors with its ensuing gravest excesses and atrocities, the Russian Government stepped in.

In 1834 a commission was set up that completed its investigation in 1839. As a result all Doukhobors were exiled to the Caucasus. In 1841 the most aggravating heads of households and their families (800 persons) were exiled, in 1842 another 800 persons followed, and in 1843 finally the last 900, thus 2,500 persons in all [in fact two more groups of 900 persons each were exiled in 1844 and in 1845]. Only those who, realizing their erroneous ways, converted to the correct belief and entered into the womb of the Orthodox Church, were allowed to stay in their villages as the owners of their lands. Crown peasants from other regions, Little Russian and Great Russians [Ukrainians and Russians], were resettled into the vacated villages, e.g., to Terpeniye and Rodionovka etc. I therefore did not find Doukhobors any longer when I visited these villages in 1855.

Concerning the condition of these villages at the time when I saw them, it seemed to me that their condition was better under Doukhobor management than now; this is certainly true of Terpeniye where one can still sense the former prosperity that has now gone to ruin. Terpeniye is situated on the right side of the Molochnaya on the high embankment of that small river – the village stands out due to its beautiful park that was created and carefully tended by the Doukhobors. Especially coming from the Mennonite colony Altona, one can see Terpeniye from afar due to its high location on the slope of the mountain range of younger tertiary limestone that extends along the Molochnaya.

The shaded and cool park beckons the traveler of the steppe already from far away. Since this plantation is the oldest in the area we naturally also find the tallest trees here. This Doukhobor park setting is very romantic and bestows on Terpeniye a special attractiveness because it does not have the pedantic regularity of the Mennonite park settings that significantly prevents one from getting the impression of being in a forest. In addition there is the God-given presence of water that wells forth everywhere from the limestone mountains and that was used by the Doukhobors in the irrigation of the park land on the slope but mostly speeds uninhibitedly and with a murmur towards the Molochnaya in the shade of leafy trees. Simple benches had been installed everywhere and beckon us to sit and linger. There is the most magnificent view from the highest point of the park onto the steppe. This contrast is apt to place the beauty of this locality into the best of lights. Because of such an abundant source of excellent fresh water, which is lacking all around, a cold-water spa had been built that, however, lacked patients and of course also a physician when I visited the place. Instead, the place was heavily populated by all sorts of song-birds that had taken refuge to this oasis. At least to my taste these birds formed a hundredfold substitute for the disgusting activity as we usually find it in a West European spa.

Historic photo of local Russian and Ukrainian residents at the garden park at Terpeniye, 1905. At the time of the photo, it was still recalled that Doukhobors had established the park a century earlier.  Photo courtesy Alexander Chukhraenko.

After ascertaining that it was going more and more back to the wild after the Doukhobors could no longer tend to it, the garden park in Terpeniye has become the responsibility of the overall Mennonite supervisor of the administration of the Berdyansk crown model plantation.


In his tour of Tavria province in 1855, Alexander Petzholdt visited two of the villages formerly inhabited by the Doukhobors: Terpeniye, situated on the right bank of the Molochnaya River; and Rodionovka, situated at the confluence of the Tashchenak River and the Molochnaya River estuary. The Doukhobors themselves no longer lived in the villages they had founded, having been exiled to the Caucasus region ten years prior. Nevertheless, the physical landscape of the Molochnaya still bore their imprint, and their memory was still kept by local residents.

Petzholdt reiterated the ‘official’ position – documented by Haxthausen – that the Doukhobors were exiled to the Caucasus because of undefined crimes and excesses committed while they lived on the Molochnaya; however recent historical scholarship has cast doubt on the veracity of these accusations. Petzholdt probably included this as a nod to his benefactors, the High Ministry of Public Education, to ensure the further financial backing of his expeditions. These comments are counterbalanced, somewhat, by Petzholdt’s own observations about the industry, efficiency and hard work of the Doukhobors, as well as the “magnificent views” and “considerable inner cohesion” of their spiritual beliefs.

The German scholar wrote disapprovingly about the physical state of the villages he saw. Under Doukhobor management, the villages had been clean, orderly and in “a most prime condition”. However, a decade later, the former prosperity had now “gone to ruin” under the habitation of Crown peasants from other regions and the villages had become dilapidated. Petzholdt noted with particular disappointment how the once-beautiful garden park at Terpeniye, a veritable “oasis” on the steppes, created and carefully tended by the Doukhobors, was now neglected and overgrown. Petzholdt is one of very few writers to make reference to the Terpeniye springs and park.

This would not be Petzholdt’s only brush with the Doukhobors.  In 1863-1864, while touring the Caucasus, he would meet a convoy of Doukhobor teamsters in the Tiflis district hauling freight to the German colonies. He would also visit the Doukhobors living in the Borchalo district, where he observed their living conditions and way of life. For more information, see Doukhobors in the Caucasus, 1863-1864.

Petzholdt’s writings are among the few, rare sources of published information about the physical legacy of the Doukhobors on the Molochnaya after their expulsion to the Caucasus. As such, his work is a useful contribution to our understanding of this little-known period of Doukhobor history.

To read more, search, download, save and print a full PDF copy of the original German text of Alexander Petzholdt’s work, Reise im westlichen und südlichen europäischen Rußland im Jahre 1855: Mit in d. Text gedr. Holzschr. u. Kt (Griesbach, 1860), visit the Google Book Search digital database.