Report from the Caucasus, 1875

by Hans Leder

Hans Leder was an Austrian naturalist and explorer who toured the Caucasus region in 1875-1877. During his travels, he visited the Doukhobor village of Tambovka along Lake Paravani in the Akhalkalaki district of Tiflis province, Russia. He kept a journal and recorded his impressions of his Doukhobor hosts. He jointly published his account with Oskar Schneider as “Beiträge zur Kenntniss der kaukasischen Käferfauna” in “Verhandlungen des Naturforschenden Vereines in Brünn” (Vol 16) (Naturforschender Verein in Brünn, Adolf Oborny, 1877). Available in English for the first time ever, this exclusive translation provides the reader with a brief, rare, first-hand account of Doukhobor life during this little-known period of their history. Translated by Gunter Schaarschmidt for the Doukhobor Genealogy Website. Afterword and editorial comments by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

On June 7 I rented horses and a guide and rode to the high mountains that beckoned from the West with their snowy plains. The distance is not very great, approximately 300 verst [an Imperial Russian measure of distance equal to 1.06 kilometers]; one ascends ever so gradually in the monotonous steppe so that one entirely imperceptibly reaches the height of 8,000 feet. There, from the highest point of a mountain pass, one suddenly catches sight of extensive Lake Toporawan [sic. Paravani] surrounded by mountains on all sides. At the upper end of the lake lies the Doukhobor village of Tambowka [sicTambovka] where in spite of my communication difficulties I was received very well and was assigned the room that was reserved for strangers, especially officials. To be sure this was not done entirely out of hospitality but also due to a letter of reference by the central administration in Tiflis [present-day Tbilisi] requesting all administrative authorities to facilitate my stay and provide support.

Hans Leder (1843-1921).

However, the dogs were not so hospitable. These dogs in general make life most miserable for the stranger because, being half-wild, they bark incessantly and jump at unsuspecting people and herds entering the village threatening to tear them apart. Unfortunately they do not just stop at threats but do attack in actual fact. Moreover, the Tatars are in the habit of neither fending a dog off nor beating him. Therefore one must be very careful not to harm these curs seriously or else one risks revenge by their just as half-savage masters who are only too willing to make use of their kinzhal [“Caucasian daggers”]. I saw that here in Tambowka everyone passing was armed only with a long pole because the dogs do not even respect the village inhabitants. But the villagers do not think of using these poles to beat the dogs – rather the people hold the poles behind waving them back and forth. The dogs then concentrate on the pole and they try to seize the end with their sharp teeth while staying at a distance from the pole-carriers.

The Doukhobors (Spirit-Wrestlers), along with several other sectarians, were banned from their home region because of their religious views and resettled to the less suitable and more dangerous areas of Transcaucasia. However, they firmly adhere to their accepted views and, as distinct from the other Russians, have very different morals and customs. They consider churches and priests superfluous and do not tolerate them in their villages. They especially show reverence for the Old Testament, interpreting it often very differently from established practice. They seldom give their children, especially the girls, the names of saints, for example, Baraschka (“little lamb”). Their wives live in considerable dependence on the men although all of them are willingly subservient to a female prophet, a descendant of the founder of their sect. The matrimonial bonds are very dissolute. Otherwise they live peacefully and are well-behaved people.

Their villages do not yet excel in excessive cleanliness but make a relatively favourable impression as compared with the earthen dwellings of the auls [“Caucasian villages”] of the indigenous races. Since the area is utterly deficient in firewood they prepare a fuel made out of cow dung mixed with straw, formed into bricks, and air-dried. The lake abounds in excellent species of fish, especially the salmon trout (trutta lacustris) of which I have seen truly giant specimens.

The shores of Lake Paravani near Tambovka village in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region of Georgia, much the same today as when Hans Leder visited it in 1875. A Panoramio photo by Aleksan


Hans Leder (1843-1921) was an Austrian naturalist and explorer who possessed a strong interest in the study of entomology and published numerous scholarly works on the subject. From 1867-1872, his explorations in Algeria led to the discovery of new beetle species. In 1875-1877, he toured the Caucasus with Dr. Oskar Schneider. During their 32-month journey together through the Russian provinces of Kuban, Terek, Kutaisi, Tiflis, Elizavetpol, Baku and Erevan, they documented a number of rare, previously unknown species of insects.

It was during Leder’s travels through the Caucasus that he encountered the Doukhobors. On June 7, 1875, he stopped at the Doukhobor village of Tambovka, situated on the north shore of Lake Paravani in the Akhalkalaki district of Tiflis province.  He stayed there for three days, during which time he explored the surrounding countryside, documenting several rare species of beetles, before departing on June 9.  During his stay, he conversed with his Doukhobor hosts and observed their way of life.

The Austrian explorer wrote approvingly of the Doukhobors’ hospitality, noting that he was “received very well” and was assigned special guest quarters (gornitsa) reserved for travelling officials and persons of importance. Undoubtedly, the Doukhobors also provided him with food and supplies, along with shelter and forage for his horses. He admired their “peaceful” and “well-behaved” nature, along with their “firm adherence” to their unique way of life amidst one of the most unsuitable and dangerous areas of the Caucasus. As well, he admired the cleanliness of their homes, which left a “favourable impression”.

Curiously, Leder devotes an entire paragraph of his account to the vicious, half-wild dogs in the village. Without a doubt, the Doukhobors kept these animals to guard against, watch for, and warn off, attacks, raids and depredations by native Caucasian tribesman; a frequent occurrence in that era.  Leder noted that the Doukhobors armed themselves against the dogs with long poles – not to beat them with, but to distract them – which was a testament to their pacifist nature.

Leder did not have an opportunity during his stay to learn much about the Doukhobors’ religious beliefs. However, he observed that they had no priests nor churches in their villages, and that they held the Old Testament in great reverence, interpreting it differently from established practice. He also noted that the sectarians paid homage to a “female prophet” amongst them – a reference to nineteenth century Doukhobor leader Lukeria Vasil’evna Kalmykova (1841-1886).

This would not be Leder’s only brush with the Doukhobors. On September 4, 1875, he hired a Doukhobor carter from Karaklisi village to drive him by wagon from the city of Tiflis to the town of Mamudly, where he arrived on September 10. Leder found the 300 verst trip rather deplorable because there were few habitable homes and one had to camp out in the open, food was hard to come by, and because of the general lack of hospitality in the area; a sharp contrast to his experience among the Doukhobors.

Leder’s impressions of the Doukhobors, while brief, are among the remarkably few sources of detailed, published information about them during the third quarter of the nineteenth century. As such, his work is a valuable contribution to our understanding of this little-known era of Doukhobor history. 

View Doukhobor Villages in Georgia, 1841-Present in a larger map

To read more, search, download, save and print a full PDF copy of the original German text of Hans Leder & Oskar Schneider’s “Beiträge zur Kenntniss der kaukasischen Käferfauna”in Verhandlungen des Naturforschenden Vereines in Brünn (Vol 16) (Naturforschender Verein in Brünn, Adolf Oborny, 1877) visit the Google Book Search digital database.