Scenes from: To America With the Doukhobors

by Leopold Antonovich Sulerzhitsky

Leopold Antonovich Sulerzhitsky (1872-1916) was a pacifist who, like the Doukhobors, was arrested and imprisoned in 1896 for refusing to take the Oath of Allegiance to the Tsar during military call up. Upon Leo Tolstoy’s request, he took charge of the first and third ships that carried Doukhobors from Batum to Halifax. His observations were published in a diary V Ameriku s Dukhoborami (1905). The following excerpt is taken from the English translation To America With the Doukhobors (Regina: Canadian Plains Research Centre, University of Regina, 1982). It describes, in eloquent and poignant detail, one heartbreaking scene during the Doukhobors’ voyage at sea in mid-December, 1898.

One morning after making his rounds of the sick, Dr. A. Bakunin requested that the hospital, as yet unused, be prepared. A five year old boy was ill with leukemia. His father and mother were put in the hospital with him, since the sickness was not infectious and there was no one else in the hospital. That night, after the washing of the deck, I entered the hospital and saw both doctors there. Bakunin and Mercer were busy beside the patient who was held in his father’s arms.

In answer to a question about the condition of the patient, the doctor silently opened the boy’s mouth and touched the teeth with a metal spoon. They were loose in the darkened, decomposed gums. From the boy came a heavy odor of decomposing flesh. His face was swollen. Looking significantly at me, the doctor said, “All I can do is to inject ether under the skin.”

The boy tossed and wheezed, bending now to the window, now to his mother, seeking relief from the agonizing pain. With his helpless little hands, he took hold of the shoulders, then the neck of his grieving father, saying his name with difficulty. “Grisha, dear father,” he said hoarsely, “it hurts.” 

When they made the subcutaneous injection, he tossed even more. “No – no, don’t do that Grisha,” he begged looking into his father’s eyes. Carefully, with his large clumsy hand, Grigory quieted the boy lovingly saying with a low voice, “There, there now. It won’t hurt, this will make it better. Now just wait a minute,” and he threw a quick stern glance at his wife, who, weeping, kept taking the doctor’s hands. “Do not torture him unnecessarily,” she pleaded, “He will die anyway. Let him depart peacefully.”

From the hospital which was lit by a small lamp, we walked out on the deck. Through the round window of the hospital we could see two figures bent sadly over the patient.

It was quiet on deck. The ship slept in a deep sleep. With the machinery regularly moaning, as if sighing, and the smooth sea running past the lightly shuddering ship with a hardly audible splash, the sea shone and played, silvery scaled, in the rays of a calm sad moon. And looking at this marvelous, well proportioned picture, it was hard to believe that at that moment, a little being, in terrible suffering, was uselessly struggling with death, that shows no mercy for age nor condition.

Doukhobor immigrants aboard the S.S. Lake Huron, 1899.

In the morning the boy died. It was decided to bury him the same day. On the bed in the hospital lay the little corpse, freshly dressed. Near him stood the father with head bowed and arms folded. Grief had diminished him. Deep wrinkles appeared on his face. But his sorrow was calm and full of dignity. There was no gesture of despair. But his whole giant body seemed to have become smaller. His shoulders sagged and his lips closed sternly.

And the mother looking with tender emotion at the peaceful face ravaged by sickness, whispered last words of love to him; covering her face with a handkerchief. Several times she started to weep uncontrollably, her whole body shaking with silent sobs.

It was crowded in the hospital and a choir of twenty persons stood on the deck near the open door. The choir sang psalms fitting the occasion. Relatives stood around the deceased. All were dressed cleanly in their best. Women with hands folded on their stomachs were holding clean, white, neatly folded handkerchiefs. All stood calmly with dignity as if fearing to waken the dead. The sad mournful psalm continued slowly with harmonious, drawn out sounds. One by one these were carried far out to the height of cloudless unknown distance and sunk there in the tranquil depth. When the singing was ended and the last strains had faded away a woman with a musical voice repeated a prayer with loving, pacifying intonations.

Grigory came to me on the deck and looking with tired eyes said, “I have been told that he should be sewn in a heavy canvas with an iron weight put at the feet. Then will you give me the iron? I will do it myself.” But his face changed. “Would it be possible somehow to bury him on land? The shore, of course, is right here.” With large fingers which one did not normally see shaking, he pointed to one side where Cape Mattapan (Greece) could be seen. 

Difficult though it was to refuse Grigory this request, it was impossible to grant his wish. That the little body would be dropped into the sea where there would be no grave by which one could, even mentally, go and sit – this thought particularly burdened the mother. It was hard for all the Doukhobors.

Moreover, nothing is said on this question either in the psalms or in the prayers; in their traditions nothing is said about burial at sea. This troubles many, since, while Doukhobors get along without ceremony and do not have priests to meet their everyday needs, nevertheless, in the important events of live, be it birth, marriage or death, they have developed established procedures. It is understandable that the majority assign to these formalities, established by custom, the same significance as to the essence of Doukhobor teaching. “The Christian form”, “Real Christian Custom,” could be heard more than once. But after all, where do people not confuse form with content, or even attach greater significance to form than to content?!

Grigory himself sewed his son’s body into a thin canvas and then into a tarpaulin. He himself put into the foot, an old burnt out furnace bar brought to him for this purpose from the engine room. And only when it became necessary to sew the face, did he delay with the edges of the tarpaulin. It was a little too difficult for him to cover this dear face, knowing that he would never see it again.

The mother, standing beside him, wept so bitterly that it was impossible to see her without doing the same. Many other women were also near to tears. The whole crowd was saddened. Sighs and sympathies were heard. “How is it, my dears, in the water? Right into the water?” “What sorrow!” “Is it altogether impossible on the shore?” “They say, ‘not possible’.” A lad pulled the sleeve of his grandfather and asked loudly, “Granddad, Granddad, will the fish eat him there?” “Enough chatter,” the old man answered angrily. The little boy blinked his eyelids in question and looked at the dolphins jumping in the sea, trying to resolve this question on his own.

The corpse was sewn up.

Again the mournful choir sang, and slowly the crowd moved to the edge of the deck. At the front, with a stern face, went Grigory, holding in his hands a piece of old, folded canvas, the furnace bar awkwardly showing from one side. At the side where a part of the rail had been taken down, the sad procession stopped. The engines were not working and the ship rocked gently from side to side. The moving voice of a woman sang the last prayer, accompanied by the restrained sobs of the mother. The prayer ended. The mother kissed the package for the last time and embracing it, could not part from it.

“My loving one, why were you born, to be thrown into the sea?” she cried. She was quietly led away to one side. Grigory kissed the boy on the head and handed him to me with trembling hands. He suddenly turned pale as a corpse. The whole crowd, holding its breath, awaited with anguish.

Bending over as far as possible from the deck, I opened my hands and the corpse fell into the sea. The water splashed loudly, spray flew, and the crowd as one exclaimed, groaned and ran to the side. The women sobbed out loud, and the men also were nearly all weeping, looking at one another with helpless pitiful faces. And in the clear bright emerald depth of the sea, the white bundle could be seen for a long time, gradually turning to blue. It slowly sank lower and lower. Sloping diagonal sun rays played on it, piercing the clear water, and ran shimmering after it into the mysterious cloudy depth.

But the ship shuddered, the water alongside it splashed, and again the playful waves ran past us, gently splashing against the ship. And again two spreading streams stretched out from the nose of the ship, like two whiskers of some gigantic fish calmly moving on the desert of water. And already the place where little Vladimir was dropped could not be recognized. There the sea was smiling to the sky as calmly as anywhere else, as calmly as if nothing unusual had happened. The crowd quietly broke up. 

Only Grigory and his wife remained standing a long time at the very edge, near the flag pole, pressed against one another, mournfully staring at the water along the foaming bubbling stream left by the propeller of our ship.