by Kuzma F. Spassky-Avtonomov
Between 1841 and 1845, nearly 5,000 Doukhobors were exiled from Tavria to the Caucasus region of Russia. Their journey was long, difficult and dangerous. By the time they reached the Caucasus, many were exhausted, ragged and starving, only to discover that the lands assigned for their resettlement were harsh, barren and inhospitable. Faced with these conditions, most Doukhobors remained steadfast. Some, however, underwent a change of heart and took the only action that would let them return to their former homes: conversion to Orthodoxy. In 1843, Russian explorer Kuzma Spassky-Avtonomov encountered one such group of Doukhobor reconverts near Mount Kazbek. He recorded his impressions in a journal, subsequently published in German as “Ausflug von Moskau nach Transkaukasien” (Vaterländ. Memoiren, Julius 1845.) in “Das Ausland: Wochenschrift für Länder- u. Völkerkunde” Volume 18 (Cotta, September 1845; pp. 1051b-1052a). Available in English for the first time ever, this exclusive translation provides the reader with a rare, brief first-hand account of these little-known events. Translated by Gunter Schaarschmidt for the Doukhobor Genealogy Website. Afterword and editorial comments by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.
When you leave the village of Gulet inhabited by Kists and Chechens and situated three verst [an Imperial Russian measure of distance equal to 1.06 kilometers; in this case, 3.2km] from Dariel on the right hand, you will ascend the Kew Valley which gets wider and gradually wild and infertile the higher you go. Half a verst [0.53km] away from [Mount] Kasbek, a fissure called Beshenaya Balka [“Raging Gulley”] cuts across the road. From here you reach the village of Altas at the foot of Krestovaya Gora [“Cross Mountain”] where the postal station Kobi is located. Krestovaya Gora is named after a marble cross that Yermolov [General Aleksey Petrovich Yermolov (1777-1861), commander of Russian troops in the Caucasus] erected on its summit. At this station we had to camp for about four days because a severe storm was raging during that time; that storm not only buried the road in snow but also gave rise to six avalanches that in turn created new mountains.
Mt. Kazbek on the Georgian Military Road where the anonymous author encountered the Doukhobor converts to Orthodoxy in September of 1845.
Several families, Doukhobors, that had rejoined the Orthodox Church and were therefore permitted to return from exile, had been stranded on their way by this terrible blizzard. The avalanches completely blocked off their road. The unfortunate convoy with its children and babies had to dig themselves into the deep snow drifts without any protection and aid and had already given themselves up for lost. For a full 24 hours they spent in this terrible situation until one of them, a strong peasant, decided to dig himself out of the avalanches and worked his way through to the postal station to seek help.
The Cossack officer Greganovsky who happened to be on the station at that time took eight Cossacks and the station master with him and left at once to help the unfortunate travellers. With considerable difficulty and incredible strains they succeeded in digging themselves through to the scene of disaster. It is difficult to describe the joy of the waiting families who had already given up all hope and considered themselves on the verge of certain death. The children had stopped crying: they were already stiff with cold. The Cossacks lifted them onto their horses, wrapped them in their clothing and managed to take them back to the station on the same route and with the same strains. With tears in their eyes the families thanked their saviours and kissed their hands.
In the meantime, one hundred Ossetians were continuously busy clearing the road – they had hardly cleared one spot when the blizzard that strengthened with every minute, had covered the road again. Finally, four days later, the weather cleared.
Wagon on the Georgian Military Road between Vladikavkaz and Tiflis, 19th century.
In 1839, Tsar Nicholas I ordered the expulsion of the Doukhobors living in the Melitopol district of Tavria province to the Caucasus mountain region of Russia. Almost 1,000 Doukhobors immediately converted to Orthodoxy in order to remain in Tavria. The majority, however, remained firm in their faith, and in 1841-1845, 4,992 Doukhobors were deported to the Caucasus. They were exiled in five parties of 800-900 persons each year over the four year period.
The journey into exile lasted several months and involved over a thousand miles on the road. The exiles travelled in large groups; adults walked the entire distance, while children and the elderly rode in wagons. They were escorted by armed military detachments. Nights were spent in crowded, squalid way stations. Dried food had to be eaten, the water supply was often inadequate, and disease frequently struck the settlers while on the road. They had to find their way through roadless mountain passes and struggled to keep their wagons from going over precipices. Snowstorms rendered trails impassible, even in summer. With little to graze on, livestock perished, or as the only available food, was consumed. Caucasian tribesmen, hostile to Russian incursions, threw stones down on the convoys from the heights above, wounding some and killing others. By the time the exiles completed their journey, many were exhausted, ragged and starving.
Upon their arrival in the Caucasus, the Doukhobor exiles were assigned to the Akhalkalaki district of Tiflis province. These mountain highlands, 8,000 feet above sea level, experienced long winters, deep snow, frosts and hail. The mountainous soil was rocky, bare and infertile. The harsh, inhospitable climate was overall very unhealthy and many Doukhobors suffered and died from fever. Famine and destitution soon followed.
Most Doukhobors steadfastly endured this hardship, suffering and adversity. Some, however, underwent a change of heart about resettlement and took the only action that would let them return to their original homes: conversion to Orthodoxy. The exact number of Doukhobor reconverts is unavailable; however, archival records indicate that in 1843 alone, 37 families abandoned their faith, undertook the perilous journey back across the Caucasus to Tavria, and returned to the bosom of the Orthodox Church.
In 1843, Kuzma Fedorovich Spassky-Avtonomov (1807-1890), a Russian scientist, explorer and member of the Russian Geographic Society, encountered one such group of Doukhobor reconverts near Mount Kazbek, on the Georgian Military Road between Vladikavkaz and Tiflis. Blocked by a snowstorm on a treacherous mountain pass, they would have faced imminent death, had it not been for the heroic rescue efforts of the local Cossack commander. Spassky-Avtonomov recorded this experience in a journal, which he subsequently published in German in 1845 as Ausflug von Moskau nach Transkaukasien” (Vaterländ. Memoiren, Julius 1845.). His account is one of the only published sources of information about Doukhobors who converted back to Orthodoxy, and provides a gripping account of the perils faced when passing across the Caucasus. As such, this short account is a valuable contribution to our understanding of this little-known era of Doukhobor history.
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