Refusal of Military Service

by Gregory F. Vanin

The following is a letter from Doukhobor Gregory F. Vanin to Russian ethnographer Vladimir D. Bonch-Breuvich outlining Vanin’s experience as a young military conscript during the “Burning of Arms” in Russia in 1895. Translated by George Stushnoff and reproduced from the pages of The Dove magazine, Volume 32 (Saskatoon: October 1996), this article is a dramatic and powerful account of the torture and incarceration of Doukhobor conscripts who refused military service as conscientious objectors.

Dear brother Vladimir Dmitrovich,

I will attempt to write about my denial of military service in Russia. I feel the younger generation needs to know that part of our history. This has been written about in the past, but not by me, and the writings were not complete historically and they were not factual. I have now become an old man 74 years of age and all this happened a long time ago – hard to remember it all, where and what happened to me. Nevertheless, I will try to write whatever I can recall, which may be brief but true.

The Burning of Arms, 1895. Painting by Terry McLean.

I will begin when the Doukhobors burnt their weapons in 1895 when I participated in this bloody work at the age of 21. I was already married and it so happened that I also participated in the bloody execution by Cossack whips when Esaul (Cossack Commander) Praga gave his orders in the village of Bogdanovka, to the right and to the left, day and night, sparing no one.

Then they immediately deported us to the village of Goriski where I spent only one and a half months till three military men arrived taking me away without my relatives knowing whereto. They brought me to the Goriski military disciplinary battalion and at this time brought three of my friends here, Shcherbinin, Kinyakin, Makhortov; so we became four and we were told there that our lot was drawn by an elder at the Akhalkalak district and we were required to report for service and so we were to be examined and measured.

We asked them why measure us because we will not serve. Then they forcefully undressed us and did what they had to with us and told us that they will send us to the Ekaterinodarski Vanapski reserve battalion where we will be forced to serve.

They did not allow us to bid farewell to our families and sent us away by convoy. When they brought us there they immediately placed us in different companies. Kinyakin and I into the second company, Shcherbinin into the third company and Makhortov into the first company. For me and Kinyakin, the Sergeant Major at once ordered us to take off our clothes and put on soldiers uniforms. We reply that we would not wear uniforms, we would not even serve. Then they forcefully took off our clothes, put on the uniforms and cut our hair. It was already evening, at nine o’clock the Sergeant Major commanded a prayer service, we sang the Lord’s Prayer, then we were shown our beds where we must sleep. 

We slept the night and in the morning the whole company arose at the same time and went outside for their duties. The two of us remained seated on our beds on one lower bunk and since our own clothing was still with us we put it on and remained sitting. We noticed the Sergeant Major coming straight toward us and laughingly says to us: “What, are you boys ready to go home?” We remain quietly seated, he looks at us and goes away. Then returning abruptly he tells us boys to follow him, the company Commander wants us in his office. We came, he was sitting; we stopped and stood. The commander rose up, looked us over and tells the Sergeant to go and bring the uniforms. Immediately he brought them and laid them in front of us. Then the Commander orders: “Vanin, put on the uniform!” I replied I will not wear the uniform and I will not serve. He started scolding me with bad words and cries at me with all his might, “I will knock your head off” while he pulls a knife out of its sheath and for a long time he shouted at me, stamping his feet on the floor while I stood motionless. Then he turns to Kinyakin and orders him: “Kinyakin, put on the uniform.” He also replied that he will not wear and will not serve. Then he got even angrier and scolded us for a long time but did not hit us, and we didn’t put on the uniforms. Eventually he asked us why we didn’t want to serve our Sovereign. We answered because he teaches people to kill but Christ forbid the killing of people. We believe in Christ and the Sixth Commandment says not to kill.

Saying nothing to us he sat at the table, wrote something and ordered the Sergeant Major to take us away and lock us up in a dark cell and no food but bread and water. He led us away and locked us up. Then after three days they brought Shcherbinin and Makhortov and locked them up. Shcherbinin sat in a row with me and we were able to converse quietly. The prison had a small opening and I heard him groaning, and then he began to explain how they tortured him, forcing him to do gymnastics and to run but he didn’t want to do these and would fall to the ground. They would trample him with their feet, kick him, pressed their knees into him and dropped him over a wooden bar. The uncommissioned officers were horribly nasty to him and from that time he became sick, something inside was injured. But Makhortov was not beaten and we sat in the jail cells for almost a month when they brought here another ten of our young friends from the Kars and Elizavetpol region in 1896 and they were no longer allocated to companies but put us all together in a military jail and through a military court ordered us to proceed under a convoy to a disciplinary battalion.

When they brought us there they locked us up in a stronghold that was guarded both inside and outside both day and night. Sometime before us, Lebedev’s party which had been serving but then refused, were already here in jail and each had already received by 30 lashes with thorny rods, and were forced to learn the ways of war.

They then allocated our group into companies and I, once again, remained here with another friend Chevildeev in the third company. Here, they handled us quite differently, forcefully dressing us in torn and all patched uniforms, took away our own clothing and showed us where we will be sleeping. In the morning two companies woke up and went outside to perform their duties and we two also dressed up and stood in the cell. Shortly an elderly company Commander came straight towards us; with a wide and long beard, appearing very scary, he was called Akinchits. Approaching us, without saying anything, instantly he cried out: “Chevildeev, stand straight, raise your nose”. Poking me with his boot, he yells: “Vanin, hold your head higher, raise your shoulders” while hitting me on the chin. Then he questions us, if we will serve our Sovereign. We replied no, we will not, so he didn’t ask us anything else but turned to the Sergeant Major and directed him to bring the executioners here, while telling us to come into the corridor. 

We went and stood there, noticing two executioners carrying several bunches of thorny branches, bound together in bundles of five – which always are soaked in barrels of water so that they would not break up. Also four soldiers were coming who were going to hold us and two soldiers with guns. The executioners took their coats off, rolled up their sleeves, took into their hands by a bundle of branches – awaiting the command. Then the Commander ordered the soldiers: “first lay down Chevildeev” but to me he said: “but Vanin, you must stand here and watch”. Then the soldiers took Chevildeev and laid him down on the cement floor face down, his hands tied behind his back. Pulled his pants down, revealed his buttocks, sat down on him, two on his head and two on his legs. One soldier with a gun stood at the head and the other at the feet, holding their guns in readiness. The executioners stood one on each side. The Commander then told the Sergeant Major: ” count the lashes, there must be 30 lashes”. He, himself turned away, and walked off a distance, not being able to look upon such a bloody scene. The Sergeant Major in command cried out to begin. And the branches began to whistle in the air. The first one swung to the left, then to the right, then with all his might he struck at the naked flesh, then the other, from the other side, in similar manner with all his might, beating rather occasionally. Blood squirted in all directions, the back, turning blue, began to swell. After that they locked him up in a cold prison cell, this happened in wintertime.

Russian Prison Warden and Guard, c. 1890. Photo by John Foster Fraser.

I stood motionless, paralyzed with fear and looked upon this bloody pitiful scene, while my heart was dying from the horror. Then the Commander approached saying: “Well Vanin, you got scared. You will now serve”. I replied with a trembling voice, “No I will not”. Then he ordered: “Lay this one down too”. I stood motionless, paralyzed with fear and looked upon this bloody pitiful scene, while my heart was dying from the horror. Then the Commander approached saying: “Well Vanin, you got scared. You will now serve”. I replied with a trembling voice, “No I will not”. Then he ordered: “Lay this one down too”. They lay me down the same way and gave me also thirty lashes, hot as fire. Then they lifted me up and started putting my pants on, they would not come on, barely came on, sticking to my bloody flesh. And in the same way they locked me also in the cold prison.

It was like that for all of us that were in that battalion, practically all of us were beaten with the thorny branches in the same way. Except that some got more, some less. And in that battalion there was a church and the priest also fulfilled his disciplinary role by inducing us forcefully so that we would attend their church to pray to God, that our ancestors had already rejected several hundred years ago.

Twice a day, morning and evening, all imprisoned soldiers had to attend church. There were four companies and each company had by 10 Doukhobor boys in it. The commanders marched the soldiers to church, all the soldiers went but we stood still. The priest explained to us that if we called ourselves Christians then we must attend his church. Then the secondary officers and the soldiers would grab us and drag us, while we would cling unto trees that grew there and they couldn’t tear us away, so they would beat our hands with belts, sabers, knives. And so goes the struggle throughout the whole battalion, until they drag us into church, then we stand there doing nothing while they all got down on their knees we just stood. Then the priest would walk through putting the incense under our noses, but we would wave the smoke away with our caps, while he would stare at us in anger.

My God, if you had only seen, dear brother Vladimir Dmitrovich, what they did to us there, even forced us to mix clay (manure). Crawled up to our bellies, made bricks and different other kinds of jobs. We were vegetarians, did not eat meat, but they would not allow such food that we could use. Told us to devour from the same pot that the soldiers eat. So we would come for dinner or supper, sit at the table, put a piece of wormy rye bread into our pockets, go back to the prison and eat it with water, and that’s how we survived. We were so worn out and sick with chicken blindness from a lack of food, barely staying alive. When the first Lebedov party of Doukhobors arrived at the disciplinary battalion, General Maslov didn’t want to have them tortured with thorns but wanted to exile them at once to Siberia. However the local administration – Sub-General Morgunov, Doctor Preobrazhenski and priest Stepanovski and others did not want to exile immediately to Siberia, kept us all in jail and tortured us for a year and a half. They wanted us to give into everything and force us to serve and so we were left barely alive but refused to give in. One of our friends, Mikhail Shcherbinin died there in the disciplinary battalion from the beatings. They allowed us to bury him, so we buried him in Doukhobor tradition. Then they exiled us to (Yakutsk) Siberia for 18 years.

Now the continuation of our history and our experiences in Siberia will be written by others. I am now concluding the writing of my version. Our remaining friends, who struggled for the truth in the disciplinary battalion, are very few, almost all of them have departed into life everlasting.

Your brother,

Gregory F. Vanin
Veregin, Saskatchewan, Canada
April 15, 1947