Persecution of Doukhobors in the Soviet Union: The Case of Nikolai Babiychuk

by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff

Following the establishment of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1922, Doukhobors there were subjected to systematic oppression on an unprecedented scale. As wealthy and prosperous peasants, they were considered ‘capitalists’ and therefore enemies of socialism. As religious believers, they were branded ‘counter-revolutionaries’ under the officially atheist Soviet regime. Designated ‘enemies of the people’ on both economic and religious grounds, many Doukhobors faced an impossible situation. During the Great Purges of 1929-1939, hundreds were dispossessed, imprisoned, sent to labour camps, deported to remote areas, or summarily executed. The following case study is based on the trial of Nikolai Babiychuk, a Doukhobor from the Russian Far East. Based on information obtained from recently declassified archival records, it briefly but powerfully illustrates the persecutions experienced by Soviet Doukhobors at a personal level. Translations by Jack McIntosh.

Introduction: Oppression Under the Soviet Regime

According to the Marxist-Leninist ideology of the Soviets, kulaks (wealthy or prosperous independent farmers) were considered ‘capitalists’ and, therefore, enemies of socialism. The Russian Revolution of 1917 was intended to liberate poor peasants and farm labourers (alongside the proletariat urban and industrial workers) by overthrowing these ‘oppressors’. Consequently, with the establishment of the Soviet Union in 1922, many Doukhobors, who through generations of hard work and diligence had become relatively affluent, owned land and livestock, hired labourers and traded their surplus grain, produce and meat, found themselves labeled as ‘kulaks’. Even somewhat poor Doukhobors fell into this category by virtue of having a few more cows or desiatinas of land than their poorer, non-Doukhobor neighbours. Initially, the Soviet regime pursued a lax policy towards kulaks, even granting certain concessions, in order to stimulated much-needed grain production. For example, in 1921-1923, Doukhobors from the Caucasus were granted large tracts of land in the Sal’sk and Melitopol districts on which to resettle. However, by 1929, the Soviet state launched a systematic campaign to ‘liquidate’ the kulaks as a class. Over the next decade, culminating in the Great Purges of 1934-1939, Soviet officials forcibly requisitioned grain and livestock from Doukhobor peasants, seized their farms and land and collectivized them, dispossessing their Doukhobor owners in the process. Those Doukhobors who resisted were summarily executed; others were sent to the gulag system of forced labour camps or deported to remote, unpopulated areas; those who remained were reassigned to collective farms.

1925 Soviet propaganda poster. The title caption states, "The Sectarian is the Kulak’s Puppet" while the book held up by the sectarian satirically reads, “All People are Brothers”.

At the same time, Doukhobors were suppressed and persecuted on account of their religious beliefs. Soviet policy towards religion was based on Marxist-Leninist ideology, which advocated the control, suppression and elimination of religion and its replacement with universal atheism. While sectarians such as the Doukhobors were ostensibly praised by the Soviets for pioneering social justice and equality, they were ultimately considered ‘dangerous’ given that they held the law of God above the law of the state. Initially, the Soviet regime ridiculed religion, harassed believers, and promoted atheism in schools. However, by 1928, the Soviet government initiated a much more aggressive and widespread anti-religious campaign. In the decade that followed, especially during the most intense purges of 1937-1938, Doukhobor houses of worship and other religious properties were either destroyed or ‘repurposed’ by the Soviet state; all forms of public, social, communal, educational, publishing or proselytizing activities by Doukhobor believers were prohibited by Soviet law; and a massive purge of Doukhobor leaders and religious activists was conducted, many of whom were summarily executed, while others were imprisoned, sent to gulags or deported to isolated regions where they later died. Doukhobor religious belief became a secretive matter limited to the private and domestic spheres; any external, public manifestation of belief was deemed to be ‘counter-revolutionary’.

The suppression of Doukhobors and other ‘enemies of the people’ was carried out by the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (Narodnyy Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del or NKVD), the law enforcement agency that functioned to protect the state security of the Soviet Union and execute the rule of power of the All Union Communist Party. Combining control over police, security and intelligence, the NKVD maintained a huge network of informers, kept dossiers on millions of people and conducted widespread surveillance both domestically and abroad. It implemented Soviet internal policy through massive domestic repression, including the use of extrajudicial executions, the gulag system and mass deportations. Its operations firmly gripped the Soviet population in a reign of terror.

Until now, there are not even rough estimates available of the number of Doukhobor victims of oppression under the Soviet regime; however, they almost certainly number in the hundreds, and possibly thousands.

The Case of Nikolai Babiychuk

The following case study illustrates the enormity of the persecutions experienced by Doukhobors in the Soviet Union during the Great Purges on a real, human, personal level. It is based exclusively on the minutes of the 1938 trial of the Doukhobor Nikolai Babiychuk by the NKVD. This archival record is one of thousands from the period which have only recently been declassified and made publicly available; in this case, through the State Archives of the Primorsky Krai in Vladivostok, Russia.

Original minutes of the 1938 trial of Doukhobor Nikolai Babiychuk by the NKVD troika. State Archives of the Primorsky Krai, Vladivostok, Russia.

Nikolai Spiridonovich Babiychuk was born in 1871 in the village of Zhatniki in Kiev province. He was an ethnic Ukrainian. Like many thousands of peasants in late nineteenth century Imperial Russia, he sought new land and opportunities in the Russian Far East, resettling to the Shkotovo district of Primorsky (later Dal’niy Vostok) territory, probably in the village of Mnogoudobnoye. Following the Revolution, he was assigned to a collective farm in the district where he worked as a pechnik – a person who made, cleaned and operated the communal ovens where bread was baked.

Nikolai was a member of the Doukhobor faith. It is not known how, when or where he acquired his religious beliefs; he evidently belonged to one of the many small, isolated groups of Doukhobors throughout Russia that evolved independent of the main body of Doukhobors in the Caucasus, and to a lesser extent, the Amur. Nikolai regularly held secret prayer meetings at his home with fellow believers to pray, discuss spiritual matters, sing psalms and read religious literature; as such activity was illegal under Soviet law. He maintained active correspondence with Doukhobors from other regions, notably M. Starodubov, a renowned Doukhobor proselytizer from Amur province. He was considered the leader of the small underground community of Doukhobors in the Shkotovo district.  

Nikolai may have been a sympathizer of the infamous Kuksenko gang. Formed by Afanasy Kuksenko in 1930, this band of peasant rebels actively opposed Soviet power in the Shkotovo district and enjoyed widespread support among the rural populace. For two years, the gang waged a guerrilla war against local officials with ambushes, raids, looting state warehouses and stores and killing party activists before they were massacred by Soviet troops in 1932. Nikolai was subsequently accused of actively assisting the rebels; however, this may have been based on an unfounded denunciation (which had become commonplace among Soviet citizens during the Great Purges). The extent of his actual involvement, if any, is unknown.  

By 1932, Nikolai was put on a police list of suspected ‘enemies of the people’. He may have been denounced by one of his fellow villagers, or perhaps singled out by party activists as a non-party member. For the next six years, he was kept under regular surveillance. NKVD agents were used to shadow his movements, check informants at the collective farm and his village, and covertly examine his mail, keeping a dossier on his activities. It is unknown whether Nikolai was aware that he was being investigated.

Finally, in January of 1938, Nikolai was arrested by NKVD agents on the charge of ‘systematically conducting counter-revolutionary propaganda’ through his Doukhobor faith and practice. At the time of his arrest he was 67 years old. He was imprisoned in intolerably crowded conditions, interrogated daily and almost certainly tortured. Shortly thereafter, on January 7, 1938, Babiychuk was tried in the town of Ussuriysk by an NKVD troika, an extra-judicial commission of three persons comprised of the chief of the regional subdivision of the NKVD, the regional prosecutor, and the party secretary for the region; in this case, one Lieutenant Zavyalov. The troika promptly convicted Babiychuk and sentenced him to death. Nikolai Spiridonovich Babiychuk was then executed by shooting and buried in an unmarked mass grave. His personal property was confiscated by the Soviet state.

English translation of the original Russian minutes of the 1938 trial of Doukhobor Nikolai Babiychuk by the NKVD troika. Translation courtesy Jack McIntosh. 

The case of Nikolai Babiychuk, and his martyrdom at the hands of the NKVD secret police, is one of the remarkably few examples of published information about the persecution of Soviet Doukhobors during the Great Purges. As such, it is a brief but important contribution to our understanding of this little-known, little-studied period of history.