Skovoroda in Early Doukhobor History – Fact or Myth?

by Victor O. Buyniak

Hryhory Savych Skovoroda (1722-1794) was a poet, philosopher and composer in 18th century Russia. Following a brilliant career teaching at the Kiev, St. Petersburg, Kharkov and Moscow academies, he spent the last thirty years of his life as an itinerant thinker-beggar wandering the Russian Empire and teaching a simple philosophy of withdrawal from the earthly world and the pursuit of happiness and self-knowledge through direct, personal relationship with God. His ideas closely resembled those of the Doukhobors, who emerged as a sect at the same time and in the same regions where Skovoroda lived and taught, leading some scholars of Doukhobor history to view him as a prominent figure in their religious ideology. The following article examines the myths and facts surrounding Skovoroda’s role in early Doukhobor history. Reproduced by permission of the author from “Roots and realities among Eastern and Central Europeans”, edited by Martin Louis Kovacs (Edmonton: Central and East European Studies Association of Canada, 1983); and “Spirit Wrestlers: Centennial Papers in Honour of Canada’s Doukhobor Heritage”, edited by Koozma J. Tarasoff and Robert B. Klymasz. (Ottawa: Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1995).

Some of the nineteenth and the early twentieth century scholars of Doukhobor history believed that the philosopher Hryhory Skovoroda figured prominently as one of the spiritual founders of their religious ideology. Once recorded and published, these opinions were reiterated by subsequent researchers. The purpose of this article is to determine whether there was such an influence, and to trace the historical development of such hypotheses on the part of the various scholars and researchers.

Hryhory (in Ukrainian: Hryhory Savych; in Russian: Grigorii Savvich) Skovoroda was born on 3 December 1722, into a Ukrainian Cossack family of the Poltava region. At that time this area still formed a part of the so-called Sloboda-Ukraine, the left-bank territory of the former Zaporozhian Cossack State. Some important historical changes had occurred in this region during his lifetime. The Russian tsars had conducted a series of wars against the Ottoman Empire using, among their other troops, the Ukrainian Cossack regiments. More and more territory to the south was conquered from the Turks and became open for colonization and settlement. After the successful wars waged by Catherine II between 1768 and 1774, the Ottoman Empire ceded to Russia all the territories north of the Black Sea, including the Crimea. In 1775 Catherine disbanded the Zaporozhian Cossack regiments and their territory was divided into Russian gubernias (administrative units). Catherine encouraged the settlement of these lands by new colonists, among them various religious dissenters, native and foreign.

Portrait of Hryhory Skovoroda (1722-1794)

Skovoroda received the finest education available at the time, including two years at the Mohyla Academy of Kiev, then at the peak of its educational splendour. After a few years in St. Petersburg, where his beautiful voice and musical training earned him a position of musical director in the court choir of the Empress Elizabeth, he returned to his native land and, after 1750, wandered about Central Europe, learning Greek, Latin, German, Hebrew, even Hungarian. After his return, in 1753, he was invited to teach poetry at the Pereyaslav Seminary and, later, in 1759, he was lecturer at the Kharkiv (Russian: Kharkov) Academy. Devoting himself always to the task of knowing himself and his fellow-men, he believed firmly that humanity and human capabilities were as inherent in the peasant as in the lord. Deeply religious, he refused to accept the conventional theology of his time, and approached the pantheistic deism of the West. Although his dialogues and essays on literature were lost, his philosophical dialogues, published after his death, exerted a great influence upon later generations. Skovoroda’s teachings were published in the form of poems, fables and songs. The authorities were not happy with his teaching at the Kharkiv Academy and Skovoroda decided to leave his post there in the late 1760’s. From 1769 until his death, November 9th, 1794, in a village not far from Kharkiv, Skovoroda wandered about Ukraine and parts of Russia as a strannyk, an itinerant philosopher-theologian, living in the homes of the rich and the poor, incessantly teaching his way of life.

The Doukhobors had been known earlier to outsiders as Iconoclasts (Ikonobortsy) and Milk Drinkers (Molokane), and they had already settled in Kharkiv, Katerynoslav (Russian: Yekaterinoslav) and Tambov regions by the middle of the eighteenth century. Those from Tambov region believed they originated in Ukraine. The term dukhobortsy (Spirit-Wrestlers) crystallized in 1785, when the Archbishop of Yekaterinoslav, Ambrosie, derisively coined it to describe the followers of Sylvan Kolesnikov. They coexisted in friendly relations with the Molokane. The rejection of the Holy Script as a written source set the Doukhobors aside from other sectarians. Another feature that distinguished them from a number of religious groups was that the tenets of their philosophy were not written down but were contained in oral tradition – they were enshrined in the memory and the hearts of the faithful. In time, the collection of Doukhobor beliefs became known as the Zhivotnaia kniga dukhobortsev [Doukhobor Book of Life]. Some individuals, both insiders and outsiders, were or might have been very influential upon the formulation of these creeds, and Skovoroda might have been one of them.

As already mentioned, for Skovoroda man was the greatest riddle in life, and self-knowledge the most important means for its solution. His philosophical system embraces three aspects: the ontological, the cognitive, and the ethical. According to him, man is a microcosm reflecting the macrocosm. In order to get to know the universe one must first know oneself. Self-knowledge was for Skovoroda the first aim of philosophy which he approached with the Socratic maxim “Know thyself”. Like Socrates, he travelled on foot and taught his philosophy in market places and among friends and people who would listen to him. His personality may be compared with that of Lev Tolstoy (a great admirer of his), in his common striving for a simple life, in the midst of common folk, as well as in their strong moralizing tendencies. Skovoroda was known to carry all his worldly possessions in a bag, among them a Hebrew Bible and a flute, both of which he was very fond. It was this unorthodox style of preaching and travelling which had a profound impact on peasant masses and which endeared him to them. Since Skovoroda was known to visit a large number of localities not only in Ukraine proper but also in the southern part of Russia, he may have come in contact with dissidents and sectarians in those parts, who would have been exposed to his teachings. Undoubtedly, the significance of Skovoroda’s instruction had a much wider implication than Ukraine proper.

The dearth of documentation regarding the life and precepts of Skovoroda and the origin of the Doukhobors and their philosophical tenets that gave rise to hypotheses concerning his impact on their beliefs. Because Skovoroda disseminated his philosophy mainly by means of discourses, and since the religious tenets of the Doukhobors remained for a long time in oral form, passed from generation to generation, some investigators of Doukhoborism were inclined to see similarities between his teachings and the Doukhobors’ practices and some have postulated that Skovoroda played a leading role in the development of Doukhoborism.

It is significant that Skovoroda’s Katekhyziz [Catechism under the name of “The Chief Gate to Christian Morality”], compiled in 1766 and revised in 1780, outlines some rudimentary principles of Christianity similar to the ones which early Doukhobors held dear. It also may have been significant, or coincidental, that a Russian Senator, Ivan Vladimirovich Lopukhin, who in 1801 travelled to the Doukhobors in the Kharkiv province on Alexander I’s mission, wrote and published earlier, in 1790, a Katekhyz as well. Both Skovoroda and the Doukhobors believed in a simple pure life and in abstinence – a life characterized by meekness and humility vis-a-vis their neighbours in the biblical sense. They denounced individual property and did not view favourably the amassment of material goods. The Doukhobors were courteous in their dealings with strangers but they did not recognize ranks or offices. This was precisely Skovoroda’s attitude. One could quote the well-known incident when he refused to recognize the Governor Shcherbinin so long as the latter insisted on being addressed by his official title, but accepted him as his equal on the basis of his first name and patronymic.

Thus, in the second half of the 18th century, when Skovoroda was engaged in his wanderings and teaching, the Doukhobors were residing on the same territory where he was preaching. Mutual contacts and interaction of the two are not excluded, although definite proofs of such relations lack written documentation. Nevertheless, the very probability of personal contacts contributed to the spreading of certain myths and suppositions regarding Skovoroda and the Doukhobors. These myths occasionally made their way into the published works of various researchers. Let us consider one such account presented in a book by a Canadian author:

After Kolesnikoffs death, a bearded pilgrim strode into the village holding a Hebrew Bible in one hand and a flute in the other. His name was Gregory S. Skovoroda (1722-94). He was trained for priesthood. He was a wandering philosopher, a Theologian, who had escaped from the famous monastery “Pecherskaja Lavra” in Kiev, pretending he was insane. This stranger lived among the Doukhobors about ten years and vanished as mysteriously as he came.

He composed songs for the Doukhobors and made melodies to their psalms. He played them on the flute until they could be memorized. The Doukhobors are still lolling these melodies.

He wrote down “The Confession of Faith of the Doukhobors in the Ekaterinoslaw Province”. This catechism was handed over to Governor Kakhovsky in Ekaterinoslaw in 1791. This was the first written statement that came from a Doukhobor community.

Aylmer Maude (1858-1938), Tolstoy’s friend and translator of his works into English, who was involved in the negotiations with the Canadian authorities concerning the immigration of the Doukhobors into this country in 1899, had the following to say in this regard:

That, under the circumstances of the time, this peasant sect should have been able to formulate such reasonable and coherent views … seems wonderful; but what we know of the life of the philosopher, Gregory Skovoroda, who, reports say, drew up for the Doukhobors the confession of faith they supplied to the Governor of Ekaterinoslav, throws some light on this manner in which such ideas were formulated.

Maude adds that a man of the type of Skovoroda could perform a great service for the peasant masses. Among other things, Skovoroda was a musical composer whose verses and tunes were still popular with the Molokane in the first decade of the 20th century. The fertile period of psalm composition, the late 18th – early 19th century, was the time when the psalms (which were the chief Doukhobor-produced historical sources) originated. They have been garnered from other, non-Doukhobor, sources.

The first researcher on Doukhobors and Doukhoborism was Orest Markovich Novitsky (1806-84), student of the Kiev Academy, who prepared his treatise on the subject to fulfil the requirements for a degree in theology, later professor of philosophy at the University of Kiev until 1850. His work appeared in book form for the first time in 1832. Later, he expanded and published a second edition in 1883. Novitsky does not mention the connection of Skovoroda with the Doukhobors. However, he admits that the above-mentioned “Confession of Faith”, compiled in 1791, indicates an authorship of someone well-educated: the profound knowledge of the Bible, the acquaintance with foreign languages, an elaborate, polished style and some words and expressions totally unfamiliar to illiterate people.

It was Novitsky’s critic, G. Varadinov, who, while reviewing the former’s book, advanced the theory that Skovoroda had a pronounced influence on the Doukhobors. He criticized Novitsky for not mentioning it in his book on the Doukhobors. Varadinov was convinced that Skovoroda contributed greatly to the dissemination of the Doukhobor beliefs in the Kharkov Gubernia, and that the Molokane copied his works, used his verses, and sang the psalms adapted by him.

Later students of Skovoroda’s philosophy and biography, in addition to sharing or refuting the points of view of Novitsky or Varadinov pertaining to this subject, advanced some new hypotheses. For example, V. F. Ern, a Skovoroda biographer, believed that in the person of the philosopher there was the make-up of a potential sectarian, and, moreover, that Skovoroda was the initiator of the Russian Slavophile movement. Another prominent Skovoroda scholar, D. I. Bahalii, admits, like Ern, that the philosopher stood in some form of silent opposition to the official Orthodox Church, without, however, being its enemy in principle. But he was as much against the dogmatism and intolerance of any established Church as he was against the superstitions and the fanatical beliefs of the sectarians. Skovoroda was opposed in general to all sets of philosophical rules which compelled a man to follow a rigid interpretation of faith.

Similarly, nineteenth-century students of Russian sectarianism speculated on the possibilities of Skovoroda’s influence on the spiritual beliefs of the Doukhobors and the Molokane. Thus, F. V. Livanov, a writer and a government official, concluded that in all the archival material which he had used in his research he could not find corroboration that Skovoroda might be, on some basis, considered as the philosopher of one of these sects. Livanov concluded that some attitudes of the sectarians appealed to Skovoroda, as, for example, the contempt for objects made of gold or silver, but there was no general convergence of his views and theirs. What the researcher found was a document (listed as No. 32, Case of 1802, Archives of the Ministry of the Internal Affairs) which mentioned that the Molokane, especially those residing in the south, had been using some of Skovoroda’s adaptations of psalms and melodies, in particular his Vsiakomu horodu [To Every City], on certain festive occasions. According to P.N. Malov, another researcher, A. S. Lebedev, a professor of church history, in his work, Dukhobortsy v slobodskoi Ukrainie [The Doukhobors in Eastern Ukraine], Istorichesko-Filologicheskoe Obshchestvo (The Historico-Philological Society), 1803, mentions an 1801 criminal case against the Doukhobors, where the name of a witness was Skovoroda. Obviously, this must have been another person with the same name, since Hryhory Skovoroda had died in 1794.

Paul N. Miliukov (1859-1943), a historian of Russian culture, says the following on the subject:

It is significant that the ardent and popular preaching of the famous Ukrainian mystic and philosopher, Gregory Skovoroda, dates from that period (between the sixties and nineties of the eighteenth century) in which the sect of the Doukhobors was founded. Gregory Skovoroda, while not a member of any sect, was a Sectarian in spirit; except for the doctrine on reincarnation, his views were identical with those of the Doukhobors, and he frankly called himself an “Abrahamite” (a Bohemian sect similar to the Doukhobors) in his letters to friends. ‘Let everyone else do as he pleases,’ he wrote, ‘I have devoted myself wholly to seeking the divine wisdom. We were born to that end, and I live by it, think of it day and night, and by it I shall die.’ In all Skovoroda’s works, so highly praised by Russian Sectarians, Spiritual Christianity is ardently propagated.

Certainly, such axioms as “compared to faith the ceremonies are as husk to the grain or compliments to true kindness,” could only endear Skovoroda to people like the Doukhobors who rejected the external rituals of religion.

The official confession of faith written by the Yekaterinoslav Doukhobors and presented to Governor Kahovsky during their imprisonment in 1791, bears close similarity to the ideas of Skovoroda, although a direct influence is impossible to prove. The most probable inference is that when the confession was prepared the same ideas had been more or less adopted by all Spiritual Christians. From this confession, however, it is evident that the writers were possessed of natural eloquence and skilful literary expression. In spite of defects in the exposition, the ideas presented make up a complete and harmonious system, possessing a philosophical basis similar to that of ancient Gnosticism.

Statue of Hryhory Skovoroda in Kiev, Ukraine.

From the above exposition it becomes evident that the speculations or suppositions of various Skovoroda biographers, students of Russian philosophy or of Russian sectarianism may have persuaded later scholars that Skovoroda really was a founder or philosopher of this or that religious movement. These scholars included Vladimir Dmitrievich Bonch-Bruevich (1873-1955), the well-known Marxist, writer, historian, ethnographer, and student of Russian sectarianism. Because of his political and scholarly prestige, his theories concerning the role of Skovoroda in the formation of various Russian sects (including that of Doukhoborism) were widespread.

In searching for a prototype of communal living, Bonch-Bruevich became interested in various sects, among them, the Doukhobors. He believed that the Doukhobors lived on the basis of a communal system and as such were the closest, among the Russian peasants, to the tenets of Communism. He came with the Doukhobors to Canada in June 1899, and lived with them in this country until the end of January 1900. He also visited those who remained in the Caucasus in the spring of 1910. His interest, and that of other researchers in the life and the beliefs of the Russian sectarians culminated in a project to publish a number of works dealing with this subject, entitled, Materiaux pour servir a I’histoire des sectes russes. The editor of this series, Bonch-Bruevich, appealed to those interested to send material about the sects either to himself or to Vladimir Chertkov’s Publishing House in England. Unfortunately, owing to adverse circumstances at the time, Bonch-Bruevich was able to publish only a small number of the projected volumes.

One of his books expressed the idea that the philosophical views and opinions of Skovoroda resembled those of the sect known as New-Israel. He wrote:

Already in 1900, when I began to study systematically the Weltanschauung [world-view] of the Russian Spiritual Christians – the Israelitans, I also became acquainted with the works of Skovoroda. His ideas were similar to the socio-religious views widespread at that time in Russia, which were contemptuously called khiystovstvo (flagellatory) by the clergy. We are firmly convinced that Skovoroda was one of the main theoreticians of the Russian “Spiritual Christians”. His works represent a revealing expose of all that was discussed around him clandestinely by the peasant masses. We are convinced that he added to these views and further developed them, thus exerting an enormous influence on the formation of thought which kept circulating among the members of these socio-religious groups, ever growing in strength in spite of all the preventive measures (by the authorities). If anyone wishes to learn and to understand the ancient teachings of the “Spiritual Christians” which have reached our times he should study thoroughly the works of Skovoroda.

Bonch-Bruevich planned to give detailed proofs of Skovoroda’s spiritual relationship with the Russian sectarians in the second volume of his publication which was to be dedicated to an exposition of the thinker’s philosophy. Again, unfortunately, this sequel never appeared in print. A number of later Skovoroda scholars criticized Bonch-Bruevich’s edition of Skovoroda’s works with regard to his subjective attempt to connect him with the world of the Russian sectarians.

M. P. Red’ko, whose work reflects the Soviet evaluation of Skovoroda’s philosophy, denies any possibility of the philosopher’s having been a founder or spiritual mentor of any Russian or Ukrainian religious sect. He considers as groundless the attempts by Miliukov and Bonch-Bruevich to mould Skovoroda into a latent sectarian. He rejects Bonch-Bruevich’s endeavours to equate the philosopher with the Russian Spiritual Christians – especially in considering him one of the chief theoreticians of the New-Israel sect. According to Red’ko, Bonch-Bruevich exaggerated the importance of sectarians in peasant movements before the Revolution of 1905. However, Red’ko assures the reader that toward the end of his life Bonch-Bruevich had already changed his previous opinions and did not insist on Skovoroda being the theoretician of the Doukhobor sect.

Red’ko discounts also as inconclusive the opinion that some of Skovoroda’s works were current among the Doukhobors and the Molokane during the 19th century, as attested by Varadinov and Livanov. This did not prove in itself that their author belonged to these sects or was consciously involved in shaping their philosophical tenets. Another contemporary Soviet Russian scholar, Aleksandr Ilich Klibanov, devotes considerable space in his work arguing that Skovoroda was connected spiritually with the Doukhobors and that the “Confession of Faith” of 1791 was written by him.

Thus, the extant written evidence so far does not provide a conclusive proof of Skovoroda’s involvement with the Doukhobors. In his own opinion, he viewed sectarianism with skepticism. He always objected strongly when anyone tried to accuse him of belonging to any sectarian movement. He would say: “The love of one’s neighbour is non-denominational and non-sectarian”. The philosopher, in his long and fruitful life, did show at times some unorthodox tendencies and beliefs with regard to the official Church of the day. Nevertheless, he never severed relations with this Church. Any influence that his works or teachings might have exerted on the religious philosophy of the Doukhobors or other similar sects were coincidental and, apparently, non-intentional. Nowhere in the documents can one find any direct indications of his being consciously involved in establishing or actively supporting such sects. Nor is there any sound indication of his being indebted in the formulation of his own Weltanschauung to any ideas or beliefs of the Doukhobors or other Spiritual Christians of the time.