Persecution of Doukhobors in South Russia, 1797

by Joseph S. Elkinton

At the turn of the 18th century, the Doukhobors were subjected to bitter persecution by church and state. On account of their faith, members of the sect were harassed, extorted, imprisoned, tortured, exiled and executed in barbarous ways. The following excerpt, reproduced from Joseph S. Elkinton’s book, “The Doukhobors: Their History in Russia, Their Migration to Canada” (Philadelphia: 1903) illustrates the persecutions suffered by Doukhobors in South Russia in the 1790’s.

…It would be too distressing, as well as difficult, to narrate the many persecutions of this people, yet their endurance and heroic fortitude under all the adverse conditions which the Russian Government has imposed upon them for more than a century, can best be appreciated by citing some particular instances on record.

In 1797, Andrei Tolstoev and his wife were tried because of their adherence to the Doukhobor principles, and after being punished with the knout, and having their nostrils cut off (this inhuman punishment was frequently inflicted on dissenters) they were sentenced to hard labour in the Government of Irkutsk. This was about twenty years after the Cossacks of the Don, who had first embraced the same faith, fell under the ban of the ecclesiastical law as heretics.

The renowned Senator Lopukhin (a Tsarist official sympathetic to the Doukhobors’ plight) wrote in 1806: “No sect has, up to this time, been so cruelly persecuted as the Dukhobortsy, and this is certainly not because they are the most harmful. They have been tortured in various ways, and whole families have been sentenced to hard labour and confinement in the most cruel prisons. Some were confined to cells in which one could not stand upright, nor lie down at full length. This was boastingly told me by one of the officers at a place where they were confined. Every procurator and general, on the recommendation of the governor of a province, promulgated a ukase for banishing whole families to various places for settlement or for hard labour; and many families were thus expelled.”

As a sample of such an edict, issued at the end of the eighteenth century, some thirty four Doukhobors, after prolonged sufferings during the investigation made by their accusers, received their sentence in these words:

“As the same prisoners remain inflexible to suggestion and persuasion, in order to guard men from like superstition in the future, and also to retaliate upon them for their renunciation of the Church, her sacraments and saints, they shall receive, each man, thirty strokes of the knout, and each woman forty strokes of the lash publicly. The Doukhobor Yakov Laktev’s daughter, Ekaterina, and Ivan Shalaev’s daughter, Anastasia, as minors, are, in accordance with the ukase of May 2nd, 1765, to be whipped with rods. After all these criminals have been punished they are to be banished to Siberia, their goods are to be confiscated and sold by public auction, and the money sent to the treasury office in Perekop, to be entered to the account of public revenue; the carrying out of which sentence is to devolve upon the police court of Perekop.”

The higher criminal court, to which this case came up from the district court, altered the sentence as follows: “the prisoners convicted of Dukhobortsy heresy are to be put in irons without punishment, and sent to work perpetually in the mines at Ekaterinburg, Siberia, excepting the younger children. The bringing up of the children under ten years of age in the faith of the Orthodox Church is to devolve upon the mayor of the town or of the parish together with the priests.”

Some thirty one Doukhobors from another district were similarly sentenced in 1799, and in 1800 a ukase reads: “Everybody who shall be convicted of belonging to the sect of Dukhobortsy shall be condemned to life-long hard labour.”

Tsar Alexander I, however, was graciously disposed to restore them to their rights, after his minister, Lophukin, had investigated the civil and other disabilities of this sorely persecuted sect, and some of them came back from the places of banishment. They conversed with Lopukhin on friendly terms, and he petitioned the Emperor on their behalf for a place of settlement apart from the Orthodox Russians. This was granted, with permission to emigrate to the “Milky Waters” in the Melitopol district of the Tauride government (near the Crimea).