Sketch of a Doukhobor Prisoner in Siberia

Commentary by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff

The following is a drawing from an artist’s sketchbook, unknown and unavailable for over a century, of a Doukhobor prisoner in Siberia. The discovery of this rare work will be of particular interest to those researching the exile of Doukhobor military conscripts who refused military service in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Russia following the historic Burning of Arms. The following is a discussion of the drawing by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

The drawing is by the famous artist-painter Boris Vasilyevich Smirnov (1881-1954), whose Soviet works are found in many Russian and foreign museums and galleries, but whose pre-Revolutionary drawings are almost unknown. It was drawn in 1904 when the artist was deported as a political prisoner along the Great Siberian Highway by the Tsarist regime. It is one of a collection of ninety-nine rare drawings and watercolors by Smirnov at the Novosibirsk State Museum of Regional History and Folklife. The collection was acquired from the artist in 1950.

The drawing uses rich black charcoal heightened with white on grey paper and measures 29.5 by 22.3 centimeters. It bears an inscription with the artist’s name as well as the date it was drawn. On the obverse, it bears an inscription with the title Arestant – Dukhobor (“Doukhobor Prisoner”). The drawing is a bust of the subject in profile facing forward.

Smirnov depicts his subject in a realistically informal pose, with hair slightly disheveled and coat unbuttoned. The prisoner’s expression is at once thoughtful, plaintive and resolute, a man who has paid the price of faith with unwavering courage and humanity. It is presumably this intensity of expression which drew the artist’s attention to the subject.

Regrettably, Smirnov did not record the name of his subject. It is known, however, that the artist sketched the drawing at the prison for exiles in Irkutsk, Siberia. This prison was an étape, or stopping place, for Russian convicts and exiles on their way to their destinations. It can therefore be deduced that the prisoner was one of the over one hundred Doukhobor military conscripts exiled from the Caucasus, via Irkutsk, to Yakutsk, Siberia between 1896 and 1905 for refusing military service.

Perhaps there are family researchers – grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the Doukhobor exiles in Siberia – who might be able to identify this Doukhobor prisoner who, while en route to exile in distant unknown lands, humbly agreed to pose for Smirnov over a century ago. It is intriguing to think that there might be literally hundreds of his descendants living in Canada today.

This article was reproduced by permission in ISKRA No.1978 (Grand Forks: Union of Spiritual Communities in Christ, 2006).