A Visit to the Dukhobortsy on the Sea of Azov, 1816

by Robert Pinkerton

Robert Pinkerton (1780-1859) was a Scottish missionary of the British and Foreign Bible Society who travelled extensively throughout Russia during the reign of Tsar Alexander I. In 1816, he travelled to the Dukhobortsy living on the Molochnaya River in Tavria province, Russia. He kept a journal and recorded his detailed impressions of his visit. The following account is reproduced from his published memoirs, “Russia: or, Miscellaneous Observations on the Past and Present State of that Country and its Inhabitants” (London: Seeley and Sons, 1833). It is the earliest surviving Western account of the Doukhobor colony on the Molochnaya and provides invaluable historic insights about their way of life and beliefs. Afterword by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

In 1816, after having visited the tribe of Nogai Tartars that wander with their flocks and herds about the extensive steppes of Little Tartary, on the Sea of Azov, and having made preparations for supplying the villages of German colonists recently settled there with the Holy Scriptures, I purposed, on my way towards the Crimea, to see the Dukhobortsy [Doukhobors] who live on the River Molochnaya and on the Sea of Azov [collectively known as Molochnaya Vody or “Milky Waters”].

Robert Pinkerton (1780-1859).

On approaching the first of their villages on the Molochnaya, I met with a female and inquired of her where the chief person of the place resided. The answer she gave me was, “Among us, no one is greater than another”. The next person I met was a shepherd attending his flock, an old man with grey hair. I made my driver stop, and beckoned to the man to draw near. This he did, and uncovering his head, he leaned over his staff and replied to my inquiries. 

I asked the old man if he could could read. He replied, “Yes, I can read the word of life”. From this I naturally thought that he was able to read the Bible, and offered him a Tract on the Bible Society. He refused, however, to accept it, saying that he could not read our books, but only the Book of Life which he had learnt by heart. In other words, that he could repeat the principal doctrinal and moral articles of the Dukhobortsy sect. And when I touched upon some of the articles, as given in my work on the Orthodox Church, he repeated them distinctly; in others of them his memory failed him.

I stopped in a second village [Terpeniye], the capital, and without ceremony entered one of the best looking houses, requesting a glass of water. This a young man readily handed to me. After a little talk with him, I discovered that I was in the chancery, or place where the civil affairs of the sect are transacted [Sirotsky Dom or “Orphans Home”].

I told him distinctly what my object was in visiting them, and begged him to introduce me to some of their seniors. All this seemed rather suspicious to him; yet he sent for one of the Elders, who had been in St. Petersburg as a deputy to the Government, and who soon after, with several of his brethren, made his appearance. After a little talk about Senator Hoblitz and other gentlemen who had shown them kindness during their stay in St. Petersburg, they seemed in some degree to lay aside their reserve, and replied freely to my inquiries.

I took out my volume on the Orthodox Church and read to the assembly the passages which I had written concerning the Dukhobortsy, and I had the satisfaction of hearing them distinctly state their principles in the very terms there given. As soon as I began any paragraph by translating a few words, they generally gave the remainder exactly as stated in the book. The two prayers they repeated verbatim. One passage only was found to require explanation that of their “having all things in common”. This was their practice when they came to the Molochnaya, but now every family has its own private property, cattle, fields, etc. Still they have fields of corn, gardens and flocks which belong to the whole community, and the revenues of which are applied for the common benefit of the society. This is also the custom of the Mennonites, who live near them, and of other German colonists; a custom, in their case, independent of religious considerations.

Doukhobor village, Melitopol district, Tavria province, Russia circa 1816.

This extraordinary sect, the Dukhobortsy, is settled in eight [nine] villages and consists of about 2,500 souls. I saw an individual of them who had been sixteen years exiled to Siberia, for conscience sake. He spoke with great feeling, when contrasting his former sufferings with his present prosperous circumstances. He was a fine looking, middle aged man, and was returning on horseback from viewing his corn fields and flocks, country like, without his coat. They have been collected from every part of the Empire, and are entirely separated from the Orthodox Church. Indeed, it was the object of the Tsarist government, in colonizing them here, to put it out of their power to make any more proselytes to their peculiar opinions. Their neat and clean dress, comfortable looking huts, and industrious habits, their numerous flocks, and extensive and well cultivated fields, widely distinguish them from the common Russian peasantry.

Their neighbours the Mennonites and other German colonists speak well of their morals; but all complain of their reserve and shyness of character. No doubt they have been taught this by the severe persecutions to which they have for ages been exposed, and out of which they can scarcely yet believe themselves delivered. Their neighbours seem to know but little of their religious tenets. The Mennonites say they are a peaceable and industrious people, but accuse them of hypocrisy. Hence, they say, when some of their members were convicted of drunkenness, they denied the fact, and maintained that their members were all holy.

Very few among the Doukhobors appear to be capable of reading; yet their members seem to have had the doctrines of the sect instilled into them by oral instruction. These lessons are committed to memory. They have no schools among them, nor did I see a book of any kind among them. I recommended to them the Bible, and offered to supply them with it; but they refused to accept any copies, saying, “That what was in the Bible was in them also”. I told them that some of their neighbours suspected them of immoral habits, because in speaking of females and children they did not use the common expressions of “my wife”, “my child” etc. but rather “my sister”, “our child” etc. This insinuation they indignantly repelled, exclaiming, “Are we then beasts?” “But” continued they, “we are accustomed to every kind of false accusation”.

Dukhoborets – a Doukhobor man.

Dukhoborka – a Doukhobor woman.

Their whole aspect and manner of intercourse with strangers, indicates a degree of shyness and distrust which is quite extraordinary. Hence, also, their evasive answers to all direct inquiries respecting their sect. Some of them, however, ventured to speak with me freely, and with warmth, against the use of images in worship. Their assemblies for religious purposes are held in the open air, or in private dwellings, according as the weather suits. They say their doctrines are as old as the world, and they either would not, or could not, give me any particulars of the rise of the sect in Russia.

It was, doubtless, the heavy burden of superstitious ceremonies in the services of the Orthodox Church which drove the founders of this sect to reject all ceremony, and external ordinances of every kind. Many of this sect, I fear, are deists.

But we need not wonder at these indications of fear and distrust. For at the very time I visited them, as I afterwards learned, intrigues were on foot in order to ruin them, under the twofold accusation of their harbouring deserters and making proselytes.


Between 1812 and 1822, Robert Pinkerton travelled extensively throughout Russia in the service of the British and Foreign Bible Society, a non-denominational Christian charity formed in England in 1804 for the purpose of making affordable, vernacular translations of the Bible available throughout the world. Through his indefatigable efforts, readily supported by Tsar Alexander I and the Russian nobility, the Russian Bible Society was established in St. Petersburg in 1812-1813. In the years that followed, Pinkerton assisted in the formation of dozens of local branches of the Russian Bible Society, through which thousands of Russian language Bibles were distributed to the peasantry.

Through his travels and studies, Pinkerton became acquainted with the Doukhobor religious sect. In 1815, he translated an 1805 tract about the sect, Several Characteristics of Doukhobor Society as part of his English publication of Platon’s “Present State”.  In September of the same year, he travelled forty miles north of Vyborg, Finland to the Imatra Waterfall, where he found a colony of Don Cossack Doukhobors living in exile there: Visit to the Dukhobortsy Exiled in Finland, 1815. The Scottish missionary was deeply moved by his meeting with the Doukhobor exiles, who were most thankful to receive copies of the Russian Scriptures and publications from the Russian Bible Society.

It was in this context that in 1816, Pinkerton, accompanied by a cargo of Bibles, set out to visit the largest group of Doukhobors in the Russian Empire: those living on the Molochnaya River in Tavria province near the Sea of Azov. There, he expected to find kindred spirits whom he could supply with copies of the Scriptures on behalf of the Russian Bible Society.

Pinkerton visited two Doukhobor villages on the Molochnaya. At the first unnamed village, he encountered two Doukhobors with whom he had a short exchange. At the second village, which was Terpeniye, he was conducted to the Sirotsky Dom (Orphan’s Home) where he addressed a group of Doukhobors and met briefly with a Doukhobor elder. Thereafter, Pinkerton departed from Terpeniye and travelled to the neighbouring Mennonite villages across the Molochnaya. His recorded impressions of his visit are brief, forming a random compendium of his conversations with the Doukhobor colonists and their Mennonite neighbours.

Pinkerton found the Molochnaya Doukhobors to be settled in eight villages (he erred as there were nine Doukhobor villages in 1816) with a total population of 2,500 residents. Materially speaking, his impression of the colony was highly favourable. The Doukhobors’ “neat and clean dress” he wrote, “comfortable-looking huts, and industrious habits, their numerous flocks, and extensive and well-cultivated fields, widely distinguish them from the common Russian peasantry.” In every aspect, the Doukhobors verified the opinion of their Mennonite neighbours that they were a “peaceable and industrious people…”.

View Tavria Doukhobor Villages, 1802-1845 in a larger map

The Scottish missionary noted that when they first came to the Molochnaya, the Doukhobors held everything in common. However, by 1816 the Doukhobors had abandoned communalism and distributed their property on an individual basis. Pinkerton recorded that “now every family has its own private property, cattle, fields, etc. Still they have fields of corn, gardens and flocks which belong to the whole community, and the revenues of which are applied for the common benefit of the society.” By this he meant the lands belonging to the Sirotsky Dom, the Doukhobors’ financial, administrative and spiritual centre.

Pinkerton found the Doukhobors proficiently disciplined in matters of faith and doctrine. The first sectarian he encountered was a female, whom he met on the approaches of the first village. He inquired of the woman “where the chief person of the place resided.” She answered that “among us, no one is greater than another.” The second Doukhobor Pinkerton met was an elderly shepherd tending a flock of sheep. With him, Pinkerton began a discussion of the chief doctrines of Doukhoborism, based on the 1805 tract. He found that the old Doukhobor could repeat some of the articles “distinctly”. Similarly, when Pinkerton read passages from the tract to the Doukhobors at Terpeniye, he “had the satisfaction of hearing them distinctly state their principles in the very terms there given.” They also dutifully advised him against the use of images in worship.  As these encounters indicate, the Molochnaya Doukhobors possessed a strong doctrinal unity.

At the same time, Pinkerton found the Doukhobors to be evasive in their replies to many of his inquiries. “Their whole aspect, and manner of intercourse with strangers,” he found, “indicate a degree of shyness and distrust which is quite extraordinary; hence, also their evasive answers to all direct inquiries respecting their sect.” Neighbouring Mennonites also complained of the “reserve and shyness” of the Doukhobors, which gave rise to various vague rumours and accusations about the sect. What Pinkerton and the Mennonites did not take sufficiently into account, however, was the intensity of persecution that had made the Doukhobors evolve evasion as a means of dealing with authorities or with passing strangers.

Unlike their brethren in Finland, the Molochnaya Doukhobors were now living in a completely Doukhobor setting under the dynamic influence of their leader Kapustin and the exclusivist doctrines embodied in his psalms.  They possessed the fully-developed version of the Living Book and had come to reject the Bible as an exclusive source of divine revelation.

Hence, Pinkerton’s main objective of distributing Bibles among the Molochnaya Doukhobors proved unsuccessful. He had travelled far only to find people who, when he offered copies of the Scriptures, ‘refused to accept any copies, remarking, “That what was in the Bible was in them also.”’ He had one moment of hope, when the old shepherd told him, ‘Yes, I can read the Word of Life’; however it turned out that the old man was illiterate but knew by heart the Living Book of the Doukhobors. Consequently, Pinkerton left the Molochnaya disappointed, having failed to dispense a single Bible to the Doukhobors there.  

To read more, search, download, save and print a full PDF copy of “Russia: or, Miscellaneous Observations on the Past and Present State of that Country and its Inhabitants”  by Robert Pinkerton (London: Seeley and Sons, 1833), visit the Google Book Search digital database.

Doukhobors in the Caucasus, 1863-1864

by Alexander Petzholdt

Alexander Petzholdt was a German scientist and traveller-explorer who toured the Caucasus region of Russia in 1863-1864. In Tiflis district, he met a convoy of Doukhobor teamsters hauling freight to the German colonies. Later, he visited Doukhobors living in Borchalo district. Petzholdt kept a journal and recorded his impressions of these encounters, which he published in “Der Kaukasus: Eine naturhistorische so wie land- und volkswirtschaftliche Studie (ausgeführt im Jahre 1863 und 1864) (H. Fries, 1866). Available in English for the first time ever, this exclusive translation provides the reader with a remarkably rare and detailed first-hand account of the Doukhobors during this little-known, little-studied period of their history. Translated by Gunter Schaarschmidt for the Doukhobor Genealogy Website. Foreword and Afterword by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.


Alexander (George Paul) Petzholdt (1810-1889) was a Saxon-German scientist and traveller-explorer. After studying at the universities of Leipzig, Berlin and Giessen, he practiced medicine and pharmacy in Dresden from 1838 to 1846.  At the same time, he pursued the study of geology and plant chemistry.  From 1846 to 1872, he was a professor of agriculture and agricultural engineering at the University of Dorpat (now Tartu) in the Baltic region of the Russian Empire.  During this period, Petzholdt undertook extensive expeditions throughout the Empire on behalf of the Russian Government and published a number of books based on his travels.

Petzhold first discovered the Doukhobors in 1855, while on an expedition of southwestern Russia for the High Ministry of Public Education.  During his stay with the Mennonites on the Molochnaya River in Tavria, he visited the villages of Rodionovka and Terpeniye, formerly inhabited by the Doukhobors, who had been expelled to the Caucasus ten years prior.  The physical landscape of the Molochnaya still bore the strong imprint of the Doukhobors; however, the German scholar found their once clean and orderly villages in a now-dilapidated state, and their once-beautiful garden park in Terpeniye neglected and overgrown.  For more information about Petzholdt’s expedition, see Notes from the Molochnaya, 1855.

Eight years later, in 1863, Petzholdt received a commission from the Grand Duke Mikhail Nikolayevich, Governor of the Caucasus, to conduct an expedition in that province.  There, in the German village of Marienfeld (now Sartichala) in Tiflis district, he encountered a convoy of Doukhobor teamsters whom he mistook for Germans because of their well-built wagons, good horses, German harness, German clothing and cleanliness. “I offered the first carter a cheerful good morning; the man looked at me with surprise and gave no answer. I was told that they were not Germans but Doukhobors who, before being exiled to the Caucasus, had been long-time neighbours of the Mennonites in the Molochnaya area and had learned alot from the Germans.”  They were Doukhobors from the Akhalkalaki district.

The following year, in 1864, Petzholdt travelled from Tiflis via Katherinenfeld (now Bolnisi) to the Doukhobor village of Bashkichet (now Dmanisi) in Borchalo district, which he visited twice.  He also visited neighbouring Doukhobor villages in the district; while he did not mention them by name, these would have been the villages of Karaklisi (now Vake) and Ormasheni (now Kirovisi). What follows are his detailed observations of the Doukhobors of Borchalo district – their state and condition of life.

Concerning the Russian colonies of the Doukhobors and Molokans, one can find these in many areas of Transcaucasia. Even though only a few of these colonies are located in favourable areas, almost all of them are found in such an excellent condition that the traveller is fond of recalling his visit there: he remembers having made the acquaintance of industrious, orderly, and intelligent people.

It is well known that the Doukhobors and Molokans are Russian sectarians that [allegedly] engaged in acts of violence of the grossest kind. The latter is true in particular of the Doukhobors. Such [alleged] acts of violence aroused the justified displeasure of the government and led to the sectarians’ exile to the Caucasus.

Earlier they had inhabited a number of villages on the Molochnaya River in Tavria province in the immediate vicinity of the estates occupied by the “Mennonites on the Molochnaya”. The sectarians thus enjoyed the great advantage of learning from the Mennonites, who served as their mentors. The sectarians lived in this area in great wealth as everyone who had the opportunity of getting to know them testified. I myself had seen their deserted villages in the year 1855 and can only agree that the people who had lived there were efficient and tidy.

Alexander (George Paul) Petzholdt (1810-1889).

But, as I already indicated, various [alleged] excesses on their part forced the government that was otherwise very tolerant in religious matters to take severe measures against these sects. As a consequence of these measures, all Doukhobors and a large part of the Molokans were exiled to Transcaucasia in the years 1841 and 1842. Only those who saw their wrong ways and converted to the correct faith by entering into the bosom of the Orthodox Church, were allowed to remain in their old settlements and in the possession of their estates. The deserted villages were resettled with crown estate peasants from other areas (Ukraine, Central Russia) while the exiled were assigned land in various areas of Transcaucasia for the establishment of new villages.

Since they had been sent to the Caucasus as a punishment, it goes without saying that they were not assigned the most fertile lands; on the contrary, they received in part very inhospitable areas and were forced to adjust to the conditions as well as they could. Those Doukhobors who were assigned their future place of residence in the plains of the Western part of the Akhalkalaki district near the Turkish border were worst off: this area is situated almost 3,000 feet above sea-level, traversed by low mountains that receive an early snow-fall, is only open towards the Turkish side, and gives the impression of a dead wasteland. The Doukhobors in the upper part of the Mashavera Valley [in the Borchalo district] had a somewhat better deal, as did the Molokans in the Shemakha district and on Lake Gokcha (now Sevan); the Molokans in the Bambak (now Pambak) Valley between Delishan and Alexandropol had the best deal.

The Doukhobor village of Bashkichet (now Dmanisi), much the same today as when Petzholdt visited it in 1864. A Flickr photo by AutumLilee.

I myself was able to view only the sectarians’ villages located in the Bambak Valley, on Lake Gokcha, and on the road between Nukha (now Shaki) and Shemakha as well as the villages on the upper part of the Mashavera River [in the Borchalo district]. I was unable to view the state of the Doukhobor colonies in the Akhalkalaki district in person since I did not get there during my Transcaucasion travels. I only saw Doukhobors of the latter area on the road.

At the beginning of these remarks I have already praised the condition in which I found the Doukhobors in Transcaucasia, and I will refrain from any further details. As far as I was able to observe, they are efficient, hard-working people who keep their entire household in good order. With the kind of skill and obedience that is innate in the Russian personality, they have adjusted as well as possible to their new conditions which are after all quite distinct from their previous ones. They pursue farming and cattle-raising both of which support their needs. However, the Doukhobors of the Akhalkalaki district had been assigned a most unsuitable settlement area where neither farming nor cattle-raising was worth while, and they therefore had to resort to other sources of income. As I have already stated, I did not visit their villages. And so it is with great interest that I read the description of the living conditions of these Doukhobors by an anonymous author. Indeed, I may be permitted to relate the most essential details of this interesting treatise in an excerpt because our ‘Anonymous’ has lived with these people for a longer period of time and became accurately acquainted with their doings.

Doukhobors living in the mountain lowlands of Borchalo district enjoyed a more moderate climate, fertile soil and better growing conditions than their brethren settled in Akhalkalaki district highlands. A Flickr photo by Rita Willaert.

After first describing the location, the so-called Dukhobor’e (land of the Doukhobors), our Anonymous writes:

[What follows is a lengthy quote from the anonymous article, The Dukhobortsy in Transcaucasiain the Baltic journal Baltische Monatsschrift (Volume 11, Riga: Jonck & Boliewsky, 1865). The quote begins in the section “Geography and Climate”, second paragraph and ends at the end of the section “Customs and Practices”, with many omissions in between.  After the quote, Petzholdt continues:]

When I stayed in [the town of] Akhaltsikhe, the Doukhobors, especially those from the villages Goreloye and Spasskoye, pleaded with me to come to them and to convince myself that they had been allotted too little land. They were hoping that I could intervene with the authorities in Tiflis to give them more land and especially land suitable for pasture. They stressed that they had already made that request many times but there had been no results. Unfortunately, I was unable to accept their call. Considering all the facts supplied by the above Anonymous, one would wish that the authorities would offer these people the means to pursue cattle-raising and thus to be able to support themselves by other means than the ones they have available now.

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


In his tour of the Caucasus, Petzholdt found a population of 7,000 Doukhobors living in thirteen colonies, namely one (he erred as there were three) in the Borchalo district; four in Elizavetpol district; and eight in Akhalkalaki district.  He only visited those living in the former, and not the latter two districts.  He also found a population of 23,000 Molokans living in thirty-eight colonies, namely six in Tiflis district; five in Elizavetpol district; seven in Novo-Bayaset district; two in Alexandropol district; and eighteen in Baku province – of the latter, eight were located in the Shemakha district, three in the Shusha district, and seven in the Lenkoran district.

Petzholdt noted that the Doukhobors were assigned insufficient, barren lands in very inhospitable areas of the Caucasus and were forced to adjust to the conditions as well as they could.  Those assigned to the mountain highlands of the Akhalkalaki district, a “dead wasteland” situated almost 3,000 feet above sea level, were worst off.  By comparison, those assigned to the lowlands of Borchalo district, situated at a lower altitude with a more moderate climate, fertile soil and growing conditions were somewhat better off. 

Petzholdt wrote approvingly of the Doukhobors as an “industrious, intelligent, efficient and hard-working” people whose character and whose “clean, orderly and excellent” villages reflected the influence of their Mennonite mentors. At the same time, he admired the skill and obedience “that is innate in the Russian personality”, which enabled the Doukhobors to adjust as well as possible to the adverse geographic and climatic conditions of the Caucasus.  

Nonetheless, Petzholdt reprimanded Doukhobors, Molokans, and Germans alike: “they live in isolation and keep to themselves so that it is not surprising that they have not yet been able to exert a noticeable influence on their environment.” He went on to quote from Karl Koch’s book, “Wanderungen im Orient” (Weimar, 1846-1847) which states: “Concerning the Doukhobors and Molokans (of the Shemakha district): “Like the German colonists, the influence of these industrious people on the original inhabitants of the area is by far not as benevolent as one might think. Unfortunately, they refrain from socializing with people of different persuasions and even the mere touching of one of their vessels by one of the latter is enough grounds to throw the vessel away.”

Petzholdt reiterated the “official” position that the Doukhobors were exiled to the Caucasus because of undefined crimes and excesses committed while they lived on the Molochnaya River in Tavria province; recent historical scholarship has cast doubt on the veracity of these accusations.  This was probably included as a nod to his benefactor, Grand Duke Mikhail Nikolayevich, Governor of the Caucasus, to ensure the further financial backing of his expeditions. It is counterbalanced, somewhat, by Petzholdt’s adjuration to authorities to provide the Doukhobors (particularly those of Akhalkalaki district) with sufficient land to support themselves by means of cattle-raising; at the time they derived their only means of income through cartage – the transport of goods by horse and wagon for hire.

Petzholdt’s writings are among the remarkably few sources of detailed, published information about the Doukhobors in the two decades following their settlement in the Caucasus.  As such, his work is a valuable contribution to our understanding of this little-known and little-explored period of Doukhobor history.

To read more, search, download, save and print a full PDF copy of the original German text of Der Kaukasus: Eine naturhistorische so wie land- und volkswirtschaftliche Studie (ausgeführt im Jahre 1863 und 1864) (H. Fries, 1866), visit the Google Book Search digital database.

The Dukhobortsy in Transcaucasia, 1854-1856

by Heinrich Johann von Paucker

During the Oriental (Crimean) War (1853-1856), Imperial Russian Army regiments stationed on the Caucasian Front were billeted in Dukhobor settlements. One such soldier was Heinrich Johann von Paucker, a young Baltic German military cadet quartered in the village of Rodionovka.  Paucker kept a journal and recorded his observations of his Dukhobor hosts, with whom he came in regular contact. Having a keen ethnographic eye, he documented the geography and climate, historical background, religious beliefs, customs and practices and religious services of this unique people – virtually unknown to western members of the Russian Empire. His account was published anonymously in German as “Die Duchoborzen in Transkaukasien” in the Baltic journal “Baltische Monatsschrift” (Volume 11, Riga: Jonck & Boliewsky, 1865, pp. 240-250); republished under his name in the German journal “Deutsche Rundschau für Geographie und Statistik” (Volume, 4, Lepzig: October; November 1881, pp. 18-21; 66-69). Available in English for the first time ever, this exclusive translation provides the reader with an extraordinarily rare, in-depth glimpse into this little-known period of Doukhobor history, for which few other published sources exist. Translated by Gunter Schaarschmidt for the Doukhobor Genealogy Website. Afterword and editorial comments by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

When roaming through the Great Russian Empire in its more distant parts, one comes upon ethnic groups and religions that are not known at all, or only known by name, to we Western members of the Empire. These groups and religions still offer the investigator a large scope for study. Included in these groups is the sect of the Dukhobortsy in Transcaucasia with whom I came in frequent contact during the last Oriental War [Russian name for the Crimean War, 1853-1856] because the regiment in which I had the honour of serving had been assigned to their villages for a base-camp during the winters of 1854-1855 and 1855-1856. This small ethnic group which dwells so far from the Motherland at the border of European civilization (one could almost say outside this civilization) was of such great interest to me in its isolation that I felt obliged to record my observations in writing. Perhaps they deserve a more general interest, too, especially since everything concerning the Schism in Russia [the Raskol or splitting of the Orthodox Church into an official church and the Old Believers movement in the 17th century] is covered by a veil of secrecy that has been lifted only in very recent times.

Geography and Climate

The land of the Dukhobortsy, the so-called Dukhoborye is located in the Western part of the Akhalkalakian circle and occupies the entire plain adjoining the Turkish border. This plain, almost 3,000 feet above sea level and traversed by low mountains that are covered by early snowfalls, is open only towards the Turkish side and gives the impression of a lifeless desert. The snow usually begins to fall in September and disappears in March but sometimes lingers into April. Nonetheless the cold is moderate and seldom exceeds 10-12˚ Réaumur [-12.5˚ to -15˚ Celsius]. But the amount of snow is quite significant and it is so loose that drifts are caused by the slightest of winds and this drifting snow can at times last for several days in a row. In the winter 1854-55 an entire village was literally buried by such a violent storm and there was not enough manpower to shovel away the snow mass, so that it became necessary to tear away the straw roofs of the stables in order to drop food and water through the openings for the animals.

The inhabitants don’t have much of a summer – in the short season they have to hurry to bring in the hay crop and prepare for the winter months. The hay is usually stored in the backyard in large bundles. The Dukhobortsy employ a strange unit of measure when they sell hay: they sell it by the cord – the price is approximately 9-12 rubles depending upon the amount and the quality of the hay. Hay is extremely important as a merchandise among the Dukhobortsy since their only source of [outside] income are loads of hay delivered for Crown and private enterprises. The Dukhobortsy keep relatively few cattle although the latter would be very necessary for them because the Kisyak or manure must be used in these bare, woodless steppes not only as a heating fuel but also for construction – you don’t find any wooden buildings at all. The walls of the houses are produced simply from Kisyak cut into blocks and are carefully whitewashed. There is no ceiling; instead there is a plain roof consisting of rafters and covered with a thick layer of straw. Nonetheless the huts are roomy and bright. The local Kisyak does not give off heavy fumes when heating, like among the Armenians, probably because the Dukhobortsy dry it very carefully and store it wrapped in straw in a shelter – a process that the Armenians should copy from their neighbours.

There is no way to grow grain [wheat] in these areas although the inhabitants have never tried to grow it and most probably spared themselves unnecessary labour. The land here seems really not capable of producing anything but grass. The impression of this lifeless steppe is very sad – there are miserable individual villages but no forest, no field, no garden or lawn, in some places there are meagre vegetable gardens in the yards. The inhabitants must buy the necessary grain for their consumption from the bazaars of Akhalkalaki or Alexandropol which are approximately 60-70 versts [an Imperial Russian unit of measure equal to 1.0668 kilometers] away. The climate is on the whole very unhealthy: people suffer often from fevers and many die from typhoid every year. However, many doctors are of the opinion that the diseases are rather the result of the close living quarters and the damp dwellings than of the unhealthy climate.

Historical Background

The Dukhobortsy attract our attention because of their religion that differentiates them both from the Greek Orthodox Church and from the other sects of Russia as well as because of the mysterious nature of their religion. One could call them the Quakers of the Greek church since like the latter they believe in the direct effect of the holy spirit; their main teachings, however, consist in their peculiar conceptualization of the soul, the mind, and the heart. They do not possess any written records that would elucidate their religious beliefs. These are laid down only in their oral tradition. But since the individuality of each person who hands down the tradition plays an important role, their dogmas are not as clear as seems to be the case with other sects. If the authorities had found a written record among them in the years of persecution, such a record would of course have been incontrovertible evidence of heresy.

The 16th and 17th centuries in Europe were a time of general turmoil and politico-religious revolutions; Russia, too, was not exempt from this. In Russia, the revision of the parish registers by Patriarch Nikon caused different interpretations (tolki). The so-called Old Believers adhered to the [old] ritual to the letter and sought to maintain the sanctity and inviolability of the Orthodox Church. However, others became opposed to the dogma itself – this trend eventually led to the formation of the Dukhobortsy sect. The many foreigners that the Tsar had called into Russia no doubt contributed to feeding the spirit of the religious disputes by importing many ideas from their old country into their new home country.

In the first years of their existence the Dukhobortsy, i.e., Spirit-Wrestlers, formed a single sect with the Ikonobortsy, i.e., icon-wrestlers, because like the latter the Dukhobortsy rejected icons as attempts at idolatry; later, however, when they intensely developed the teaching of the effect of the holy spirit, they separated [from the Ikonobortsy] and adopted their present name. The Dukhobortsy derive the origin of their belief from the three boys in the fiery stove mentioned by the prophet Daniel [the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego: Daniel 3:1-30] but designate a certain Siluan Kolesnikov, who lived in the village of Nikolskoye in the Province of Ekaterinoslav at the end of the last century, as the founder of their belief system. However, while they recognize Kolesnikov as a famous religious hero, others maintain that their sect had been founded already at the beginning of the 18th century and that its origin was in the Province of Tambov. It seems that the latter view is more correct because even though their traditions begin with Kolesnikov, these traditions existed already earlier and were widely spread in the southern provinces of Chernigov, Kursk, Kharkov, Ekaterinoslav, Voronezh, Tambov and Saratov. The Dukhobortsy, like all dissenters, had to endure severe persecution and oppression until a new star rose for them with the government of Alexander I.

In the year 1801 the government considered it necessary to resettle the adherents of this sect to a more distant area. For this purpose the Dukhobortsy were allotted a huge segment of untilled land called Molochnye Vody [Milky Waters] in the Province of Tavria in the district of Melitopol as a new residence. At first only 30 families were sent there. They started tilling the land with great zeal. Soon rumours about the free and happy life of the new settlers reached those left behind and caused them to ask for permission to move there as an entire group. This permission was granted. As a result the Dukhobortsy formed a colony consisting of 9 (nine) villages in the Crimea. The names of these villages can still be found today in the Caucasus, e.g., in the Akhalkalakian district: Bogdanovka, Troitskoye, Spasskoye, Rodionovka, Tambovka, and Goreloye, or, near Bashkichet or Elizavetpol: Akimovka, Terpeniye, and Gavrilovka. The Dukhobortsy reproduced so vigorously that by the year 1832 their number had grown to 800 families with 4,000 members of both sexes.

They could have lived happily and contentedly in Tavria especially since they excelled in considerable work ethic and good management but soon the old spirit of rebelliousness and of religious fanaticism was stirring among them. They began to interpret their resettlement to the Crimea as an apocalyptic event, openly preached their faith, and were disobedient to the authorities. Thus, for example, they refused to supply recruits to the Governor General of Kherson by arguing that those recruits would have to swear an oath of allegiance which oath would be prohibited by their religion. Punishing them achieved nothing so that the authorities arrived at an agreement that under such circumstances they would accept the Dukhobortsy’ word of honour. The numerous complaints and remonstrations by local authorities finally led to a decision in 1841 to resettle the sectarians to Transcaucasia, which decision was carried out in the same year.

Religious Beliefs

Let us now examine more precisely the religious notions of this sect. What is peculiar is their development of the doctrine of the Trinity and of Christ’s person. While they believe in a triune God [God in three persons], He reveals himself as such only in the human soul: God the Father in the power of memory, God the Son in the wisdom of reasoning, and the Holy Ghost in volition and conation. Their [the Dukhobortsy’] conception of the entire earthly life of our Saviour is symbolical and they interpret this life as a mystical habitation of Him in man’s heart. In accord with their doctrine He is conceived and born from the words of Archangel Gabriel in the soul of every person. Here He preaches the word of truth, suffers, dies, and rises again from the dead. Therefore even those who have never read the Gospel or heard about Christ must recognize His inner workings because Jesus is the human conscience that teaches everyone to distinguish between good and evil.

Furthermore, the Dukhobortsy are convinced that not only Christians but also Jews, Muslims, and non-believers enter the kingdom of heaven and that on Judgment Day all people will rise from the dead in spirit. Concerning the Day of Judgment, the torments of hell will consist in the eternal pangs of conscience. The soul is God’s image but after the fall of man the image disappeared, memory was weakened and man forgot what he had been before, reasoning became deadened, and the will was no longer governed by the Holy Ghost and thus turned towards evil.

The biblical story of Adam and Eve is regarded by the Dukhobortsy as a symbolic image of our earthly existence. The soul had already fallen earlier, before the creation of the world, together with the other evil angels. The world was created only as a prison to which they were transferred for their sin. Thus sin came into the world not with the fall of man but Adam and Eve were themselves already created as sinners. This teaching underlies the commandment not to mourn the deceased because they have been pardoned and death has redeemed them from wandering on this earth. They see in Abel’s fate the persecution of the just by the unjust or the Cains; [they see] in the march of the Israelites through the Red Sea and in the decline of the Egyptians the perdition of the sinners and the salvation of the believers.

They completely reject the sacraments; likewise they have no clergy and do not even attribute any importance to the decrees of the general councils which otherwise are recognized by most sects of the schism. They reverence the saints and apostles of the Greek Church as mere humans who, although born in sin, led a life pleasing to God. They consider crossing oneself a useless ceremony and therefore refrain from doing it; neither do they pray for their fellow-men and enemies; and they do not even mention those “who have power over us” in their prayers because everyone already has enough to pray for himself.

An important doctrine in practice is that of the equality of all people. Thus there are no masters and servants among the Dukhobortsy but only completely equal “brothers”. For this reason the children call their father simply “elder” and they call their mother “keeper”; the men use the term “sisters” when addressing their wives while the latter call their husbands “brothers”; none of them use the term “Dad” which is otherwise so popular in Russian because, as they say, all people are brothers, only God alone is our father. As an expression of thanks they use the phrase “may God help you”. They do not bear arms and further consider war a sinful and unjust activity, citing in support the doctrines of love and compassion in the Gospel as well as the Seventh Commandment. This view of religion demands that its adherents live in larger communities so that in case of someone’s mishaps everyone can help the individual. They must also avoid quarrelling and any kind of brawl as well as using indecent or abusive language. And while they must not drink wine or spirits, curiously they are allowed to smoke tobacco which is so taboo among the Old Believers. They do not practice fasting.

Once an elderly Dukhobor recounted to me a very charming symbolic story which I will try to render here in its entirety:
“Far, far away from here, in a region inaccessible to the human mind, there is an azure ocean and in that ocean there is an island. Once in a while, muffled in thick fog, it reveals itself to the seafarer but constant waves stir the ocean and prevent man from setting foot on the island. This ocean and the island represent human destiny which, obscure and dark, lies ahead of us until man forces his ship through the wild surf into the quiet harbour of death. On the island there is a high temple which is not man-made and has been here from the first day of creation. The vault [ceiling] rests on as many pillars as there are religions in the world. At every pillar there is a person who is in the process of professing the religion represented graphically on the pillar. One single pillar is made of pure gold – it is the symbol of the pure and true belief in God who created the island as well as heaven, earth, and water. All the other pillars are made of stone representing the false wisdom of the human spirit petrified in his sins. All these pillars including the golden one are covered with marble representing the ignorance of man that deprives him of an unobstructed view into the light of divine doctrine. And while nobody is able to see the gold, everyone tells the other that he is holding the golden shaft of belief in his hands. Centuries pass, the world ages oppressed by the wrath of the Creator of all things. And then comes the hour of the general and terrible decline – the billows of the ocean wallow blood and fire, the sky collapses, the earth’s joints tremble violently, and the magnificent temple, not man-built, falls. The marble chips off and the golden pillar glitters and it alone illuminates the entire world where there is only darkness and agony. Now all men recognize the gold and fall on their faces blinded by the light of divine truth. Woe to those who held a stone shaft in their hands while those who listened to their inner Christ will be saved because only in Him there is salvation. We are all blind and do not know who is holding the gold of true belief in his hands.”

Customs and Practices

Let us say a few words about the outward appearance of our Transcaucasian Dukhobortsy, about their practices and customs, and their domestic life! Most of them are tall and robust; all men, except the old ones, shave their beards leaving just a moustache. They cut their hair and, together with their clothing consisting of wide trousers and a cloth jacket, thus resemble the looks of the Germans who had settled in Transcaucasia. When you see one of these Russian sectarians drive by on a covered wagon with iron axles and harnessed with two horses, you could easily mistake him for a German colonist. The female sex deserves the epithet “fair sex”; however, it is not the usual type of a Russian village beauty, i.e., of robust health; rather in the pale, oval faces of these girls and women there is a somewhat nobler expression that harmonizes splendidly with their cleanliness, grace, and carefully selected clothing. The latter consists of a white, often very elegant chemise with wide, stitched sleeves and a coloured skirt; their head is covered by a low round small cap very artfully made of various coloured triangular flaps. Their hair is clipped a little in front – the married women hide their hair at the back under the cap, while the girls wear braids. The women are very industrious, get up early and, before sunrise, have already taken care of everything connected with domestic chores after which they usually busy themselves with some or other needlework. In the evenings they very much love socializing and gather under whatever pretext in someone’s house where before long the young lads show up and they spend the evening with work, fun, and laughter.

The character of the female sex is marked by a considerable vivacity and frivolity so that even marital fidelity is not held in high esteem among them. The passion for dressing up has contributed a lot to the decay of morals. The men view their wives’ conduct with lenience and do not on their own accord seek to punish them for being unfaithful. Incidentally, if one of the women goes too far and does not know how to hide her amorous adventures properly, she is subjected to a harsh punishment: she is led naked through the village streets and is pelted with excrement and dirt. Such a case occurred during our stay in Rodionovka and the procedure was stopped only through the intervention of the troop commander.

On the whole, the Dukhobortsy do not attribute any importance to matrimony. To get married requires only the good will of two adult persons of different sex, mutual love, and the parents’ consent. The transaction on such an occasion is roughly the following: the relatives and acquaintances of bride and bridegroom gather in the house of the bridegroom’s or the bride’s parents where the oldest family member pronounces the two man and wife, without any further promises or even written contracts. As a result divorce is very easy because just the simple desire of the married couple to get divorced is sufficient. After the completion of the divorce both parties are completely free. In spite of being so easy, however, divorce is a rare occasion.

In the old days the Dukhobortsy were known for their diligence and their good management but nowadays little has remained of that except a certain cleanliness and orderliness. In the Crimea they practiced extensive agriculture as well as cattle- and horse-breeding. Likewise they possessed large flocks of sheep and practiced the art of weaving. When they resettled to Transcaucasia they had to give up all of this because in many respects the character of the new region was not conducive to continuing these former activities. In this deserted steppe where trade was dominated by a few enterprising Armenians, there was no choice but to devote oneself to [wagon] cargo transporting since it was the most lucrative form of income.

This on the whole lazy life, we believe, has produced the now dominating addiction to alcoholic beverages which, after all, are forbidden by the doctrine of this sect. In Dukhoborye everyone, men, women, boys, and girls, drinks very heavily. No meeting proceeds without some hard drinking. When they visit one another, they sit down at a large table and discuss their everyday concern with a glass of brandy. The more they drink the more solemn and concentrated they become until their mood gives vent to the singing of an Old Testament psalm. Rocking back and forth, supporting their heavy heads with their hands, they keep sitting until one of them begins: “Oh brothers!” After that nothing makes sense any more since all words get absorbed by a lengthy monotonous screaming of the chorus.

Notwithstanding their drunkenness the Dukhobortsy are very frank and honest – they do not steal nor do they break their word of honour. Since they never swear oaths they instead value a simple promise that much more.

Like all Russian sectarians the Dukhobortsy, too, believe in religious customs: every morning, before and after a meal as well as at night before going to bed, the entire family forms a circle and the head recites aloud the Lord’s Prayer or a psalm.

Religious Services

Finally we shall say a few words about their divine service. Every person, Christians, Jews, Muslims, and non-believers, can visit the Dukhobortsy’ house of prayer because of their tenet that man cannot desecrate God’s temple by his presence but only by bad deeds. On a bright winter day on a holiday we set out to attend a divine service. The crowd of the devout, all in festive clothing, presented a very friendly picture. We joined the procession that was moving to the end of the village where the house of prayer was located. We entered with all the others. At the entrance the crowd divided – the men lined up to the left, the women to the right, apparently according to age. The room where we found ourselves was furnished in a very simple manner; at the far end there was a wooden table with salt in a wooden salt barrel and bread; otherwise there were no further ornaments.

After everyone had been seated as assigned, the choir leader began the psalm: “Thus speaks the Lord, the God of Israel” etc. whereupon the choir joined in. It is very noteworthy that their sacred songs consist of different biblical texts that are often taken out of context and occasionally arranged in a meaningless way. After the end of the singing the second-eldest stepped in front of the table, took the hand of the eldest, and both of them twice bowed very low to each other, then they kissed and bowed for the third time. After that the third stepped forward and began the same procedure with the former two, and then that procedure made the round, first for all the men and then the women. In spite of the long duration of this ceremony we had waited for it to end and, leaving the house, we addressed an elder with the request to explain to us the significance of those bows and kisses. He replied: “One must worship God’s image in one’s fellow man because man represents God on earth.”

Because of this doctrine the Dukhobortsy lapse into a peculiar form of idolatry in spite of the fact that they reject icons. That is because they select from their midst a handsome boy whom they call the “mother of God”, and whom they worship in superstitious awe like a deity. This custom may partially explain the demoralization of the female sex because this boy gathers around him a kind of court consisting of the young girls of all villages, and no girl can be wed without having spent some time there. It goes without saying that this mother of God generis masculini [Latin for “of the male sex”] is severely persecuted by the authorities but they seldom succeed in locating the boy in question and stemming this abuse.

In the above I have only attempted to put down my personal observations of a peculiar form of the Russian Schism and I implore the disposed reader not to try to measure this short sketch in terms of the standards of a thorough scientific treatise.


Heinrich Johann von Paucker (1839-1898) was a Baltic German from the province of Estonia in the Russian Empire. As a youth, he received an excellent classical education at Revel (now Tallinn) and Mitau (now Jelgava). In 1855, at age sixteen, he joined the Life-Guards Lithuanian Regiment of the Imperial Russian Army as a cadet and was immediately transferred to the Caucasian Front of the Oriental (Crimean) War.

In the Caucasus, Paucker’s regiment was billeted in the Dukhobor village of Rodionovka in the Akhalkalaki district of Tiflis province during the winters of 1854-1855 and 1855-1856. During his stay there, the young military cadet came to closely observe and study his Dukhobor hosts, with whom he came in regular contact. He kept journals, and with a keen ethnographic eye, recorded his detailed observations of this unique people, little known to western members of the Russian Empire.

At the time, the Dukhobors had been settled in the Akhalkalaki district for less than a decade, having been exiled there from Tavria province in 1841-1845. This relocation had brought about profound and rapid changes in the social, cultural and economic life of the Dukhobors, who were still adjusting to the harsh realities of their new physical environment, as well as the disruption wrought by the Oriental War, when Paucker stayed among them.

Paucker described in detail the geography and climate of Dukhobor’ye – the “land of the Dukhobors” (which, significantly, is the first recorded usage of that name). The climate, he noted, was overall very unhealthy and many Dukhobors, not yet acclimatized to their new surroundings, suffered and died from fever. There on the high mountain plateau, spring came late and winter early; there was no way to grow grain in the short season. The Akhalkalaki Dukhobors, he observed, had thus abandoned their traditional agricultural economy and relied on contracts for wagon transport and the sale of hay for income, with which they bought grain for their consumption in nearby market towns. At the time of writing, they had not yet established the large horse and cattle herds for which they would later become known. He noted also that there were no wooden buildings in the barren, treeless region; the Dukhobors had adapted by constructing their homes from bricks of dried cattle manure.

Recounting their history, Paucker identified the Dukhobors’ origins in the Russian Schism of the 17th century; a time of general religious turmoil when some dissenters, imbued with new ideas introduced by foreigners, rejected the dogma and authority of the Orthodox Church. He traced the growth of the sect from early 18th century Tambov and Ekaterinoslav, through the severe persecutions and oppressions of later that century, to their settlement in Tavria at the beginning of the 19th century, whereafter they enjoyed an era of peace, toleration and prosperity. Later on, stirred by a spirit of “rebelliousness” and “religious fanaticism”, they began to openly preach their faith and disobey the authorities, which led to their exile to Transcaucasia.

Paucker gave a concise summary of Dukhobor religious philosophy, which rejected church institutions, sacraments, icons and clergy in favour of a simple, individual-based religion founded on egalitarianism, love and compassion. He noted the Dukhobor belief in the indwelling of God in every person, as well as their figurative, rather than literal, interpretation of the Trinity. They refused to bear arms and avoided quarrels and abuse. They did not possess any written records about their beliefs, which, he observed, were passed down by oral tradition.

Of particular interest is Paucker’s description of the outward appearance and character of the Dukhobors. The Dukhobor men, he observed, were tall and robust with clothing resembling that of the German colonists in Russia. The same observation had been made by earlier writers, and it is generally accepted that the Dukhobor men adopted aspects of their dress from their Mennonite neighbours while living in Tavria. He noted the noble beauty of the Dukhobor women, and their industry, cleanliness, grace and carefully selected clothing, of which he provided a full description. In general, he found the Dukhobors to be orderly, frank and honest, but lacking the diligence and good management for which they were renowned in Tavria. He also observed that many Dukhobors had lapsed from their prohibition against alcohol, and now drank heavily.

Paucker observed that the Dukhobor community played an important role in reinforcing the behavior and morality of its individual members “so that in case of someone’s mishaps everyone can help the individual”. For example, he recounted how, as punishment for infidelity, a Dukhobor woman was led through the village streets and pelted with excrement and dirt. Inexplicably, however, he inferred from this incident that Dukhobor women generally did not hold marital fidelity in high esteem; a sweeping statement unsupported by the historical evidence.

Paucker discussed the religious customs of the Dukhobors, noting the importance of prayer in their daily lives and describing in detail their unique marriage ceremony and religious service. He also noted the Dukhobor custom of bowing to one another, in reverence to the spirit of God that dwells within each man; a custom he mistakenly confused for idolatry.

Finally, Paucker made note of a boy whom the Dukhobors held in inordinately high esteem; who held court in the villages, and whom they referred to as Bogorodets (masculine form of Bogoroditsa or “Mother of God”). While not identified by name, this could only have been Petr Ilarionovich Kalmykov (1837-1864), the youngest in a line of hereditary Dukhobor leaders dating back to the time of Kapustin. Paucker noted he was severely persecuted by Tsarist authorities, however, they seldom succeeded in locating him; presumably he was concealed by his followers. His account thus provides significant insights into the early life of this important historical personage.

Paucker’s writings are among the remarkably few sources of detailed, published information about the decade immediately following the Dukhobor exile to Transcaucasia; a little-known and little-explored period of Dukhobor history.  His work is thus an invaluable contribution to our understanding of the era.

As for Paucker himself, following the Oriental War, he was promoted to the rank of officer and transferred to the Light-Infantry Battalion in Riga in 1858. He was subsequently promoted to the rank of Second Lieutenant. In 1860, he transferred to the Telegraph Corps and served as Chief of Telegraph Stations in Voronezh and later Yaroslavl. After receiving his discharge from the Imperial Russian Army in 1864, he settled in Wesenberg (now Ravkere), Estonia where he took up teaching and translation work. He also served as a civil servant for the Estonian Provincial Government. From 1865 until his death he published a large volume of translations and original works on various subjects.

Significantly, Paucker’s first published work was on the Dukhobors, which appeared anonymously (under the initial “K”) as Die Duchoborzen in Transkaukasien in the Baltic journal Baltische Monatsschriften in 1865. Anonymous publication was common in Russia at this time, as the state censorship regime was particularly severe and maintained a strict vigilance over the publication of written materials, removing or banning anything it considered even remotely ‘subversive’. Hence, many writers, fearing reprisals from Imperial censors, published their works under initials or pseudonyms.  Sixteen years later, in 1881, Paucker republished the article under his own name in the German journal Deutsche Rundschau für Geographie und Statistik.

Special thanks to Jack McIntosh, former UBC Slavic languages bibliographer, for identifying the anonymous author of the 1865 publication of Die Duchoborzen in Transkaukasien as being Heinrich Johann von Paucker.  

To read more, search, download, save and print a full PDF copy of the original German text of Heinrich Johann von Paucker’s “Die Duchoborzen in Transkaukasien” in Baltische Monatsschrift (Volume 11, Riga: Jonck & Boliewsky, 1865, pp. 240-250), visit the Google Book Search database.

The Doukhobor Jam Factory in Nelson, British Columbia

by Greg Nesteroff

The Kootenay-Columbia Preserving Works Jam Factory in Brilliant, British Columbia is perhaps one of the best known communal enterprises of the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood (CCUB). However, few are aware that the Doukhobor jam enterprise got its start in Nelson, and fewer realize that the original factory building – built in 1909 – is still standing there today. The following article by Kootenay resident Greg Nesteroff examines the origins and history of the building now known as the Front Street Emporium at 601 Front Street in Nelson. Originally published as “The Building With Jam” in The Nelson Daily News (June 29, 2009). Reproduced by permission.

It’s a year of centennials for Nelson heritage buildings: the courthouse and Central School recently celebrated their 100th birthdays in style, and the United Church will do so soon. Meanwhile, an open house last week marked another anniversary that almost went unnoticed. It’s no secret that the Front St. Emporium was built in 1909, but until recently, few remembered or realized the building’s original purpose.

601 Front Street, probably during the winter of 1911-12. At this time the building was home to the Kootenay Columbia Preserving Works, the Doukhobor-operated jam factory. Photo courtesy Pete & Dasha Hadikin and Marlene Anderson.

On June 23, 1909, Premier Richard McBride presided over the grand opening of the Kootenay Jam Company’s new factory in front of a large crowd. Before turning on the steam under the first boiling vat, he delivered a speech that “dealt with the progress of the fruit industry in the Kootenays and spoke of the astonishment with which the idea of the jam factory supplied by local growers would have been regarded a few years ago. No better fruit could be grown anywhere in the province and he felt sure that the undertaking would prove a success.”

The operation was founded the previous year by two English brothers, George and Howard Fox (nicknamed Red Fox and Black Fox on account of their hair), who established a modest cannery across from Harrop. Having outgrown their original premises, they incorporated a new company with $50,000 in capital, and announced plans to build a factory in Nelson.

Inside of the second floor of the jam factory. The long troughs were used to cool the jams in. On the extreme left background you can see the kettles that the jams were cooked in. Photo courtesy Pete & Dasha Hadikin and Marlene Anderson.

Around late October 1908, they bought Lots 1 and 2 of Block 71 from the CPR at 601 Front St., next to the warehouse of J.Y. Griffin & Co. (today’s Reo’s Videos). This spot required extensive excavation and levelling and was sometimes referred to as the foot of Josephine St., which was then a through-road to the waterfront.

Construction began in mid-April 1909, with contractor John Burns working briskly from the plans of local architect Alex Carrie, and within three weeks the unpretentious frame building was pronounced “practically completed” and ready for jammaking equipment. It measured 100 by 50 feet with a second story of 50 by 50, later expanded. (The actual cost of the building is unknown, but in 1910 it had an assessed value of $1,300 for the property and $3,000 for improvements.)

Doukhobor workers John Faminoff and Pete Katasonoff feed each other inside the Kootenay Columbia Preserving Works. Photo courtesy Pete & Dasha Hadikin and Marlene Anderson.

Following the premier’s optimistic prediction, the factory began accepting fruit shipments and cranking out thousands of pounds of jam and preserves per day. However, for all the chest-puffery, and despite a further endorsement from Governor-General Earl Gray (who admired the company’s exhibit at the Nelson fruit fair and ordered a case of their product, leading to an official decree on their labels: “By appointment to H.E. the Governor General.”), the operation was not a great success.

In the spring of 1911, the Kootenay Jam Co. moved to Mission, citing an insufficient local fruit supply. They sold 601 Front St. to the Doukhobors (CCUB), who renamed it the Kootenay Columbia Preserving Works, and kept on a few managers, but otherwise utilized their own workforce. Judging by the jump in the building’s tax assessment the following year, it received a major upgrade, presumably including the brick facade and arched windows it retains today. In the first year under new owners, factory output was 70 tons, which increased to 92 the following year, and 177 the next.

Doukhobor Jam factory crew, from left: John Sherbinin, John Faminoff, Babakaeff brothers.Photo courtesy Pete & Dasha Hadikin and Marlene Anderson.

In February 1913, the Doukhobors sold the building again to an unnamed local man and announced plans to move their operation to Brilliant, but evidently the deal fell through. Construction of a much larger factory at Brilliant would wait until 1915, after which 601 Front St. was leased (by the CCUB) to a series of wholesalers, including Nelson Jobbers, Western Grocers, and most notably the National Fruit Co., which operated there from at least 1935-62 and apparently owned it following foreclosure on the Doukhobor communal enterprise.

Louis Maglio, with his brother and another partner, then bought the building and in the 1960s rented it to McGavin Bakery, West Transfer, West Arm Trucks, and Maclean Sales Appliances. Ron Allen became the next owner in the 1970s and ran an electrical wholesaling and carpet business, while his mother-in-law had a second-hand shop.

Inside the jam factory, from left: John Faminoff, Mr. Cowen, Dan Kanigan. The wheel shown in the background was used to lower the preserves to the lower floor where they were kept prior to shipment. Photo courtesy Pete & Dasha Hadikin and Marlene Anderson.

When purchased in 1988 by Paula Snow, the building was vacant and derelict, but following major renovations the new Front St. Emporium became home to literally dozens of businesses, including Whitewater Ski Resort, Strutter’s, The Golf Doctor, Kutenai Art Therapy, and even the Holy Smoke Culture Shop.

New owners Gord and Dorothy Kaytor acquired the building this year, just in time for its centennial: “We spent a few months searching for a commercial investment in the area,” Gord says. “We were drawn to 601 Front St. because it is a well-kept heritage building with affordable office space for our long term tenants and for first time small business owners. We are excited about celebrating its 100th anniversary.”

1909 was obviously a banner year for Nelson, and thanks to the preservation of its heritage buildings, 2009 is turning out to be one as well.

The Front Street Emporium at 601 Front Street, Nelson, BC as it appears today. Photo courtesy Greg Nesteroff.

Occupants Of 601 Front St.


Kootenay Jam Co.


Kootenay Columbia  Preserving Works

 ca. 1917-21

Nelson Jobbers


Western Grocers

ca. 1935-62

National Fruit Co.


West Transfer

E.B. Horsman & Sons

West Arm Truck Lines

McGavin Toastmaster

Maclean Sales Appliances


Ronald Allen Interiors

Yesterday’s Treasurers

Salvation Army Thrift Shop

Nelson Community Services

Nelson Women’s Centre

Queen City Upholstery

1988 to 2000s

Country Fair Antiques

Front St. Butcher

Protech Sight & Sound

Joe’s Eats

Street Front Graphics

Whitewater Ski Resort

Celeste Comicbook Co.

Kootenay Business Journal

Kutenai Art Therapy

… and many others

For More Information

For more information on the Doukhobors’ Kootenay-Columbia Preserving Works jam enterprise in Nelson and Brilliant, British Columbia, see the article, Brilliant Jam Factory was Thriving Industry by William M. Rozinkin.

Queen Lukeria of Gorelovka

by Henry F.B. Lynch

Henry Finnis Blosse Lynch (1862-1916) was born in London of Irish parentage. His family ran Lynch Brothers, a firm that traded with, and ran shipping lines in, Persia and Mesopotamia. He had already travelled widely in these regions before their geographical closeness to the Caucasus, together with the persecution of the Doukhobors, attracted him to the Akhalkalak district of Tiflis province, Russia in September 1893. His observations were published in his article “Queen Lukeria of Gorelovka” in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Vol. 93, Issue 553 (June, 1896), reproduced below. Lynch depicts the architecture and landscape of Gorelovka in exceptional detail and outlines the events that followed the death of Doukhobor leader Lukeria Vasilievna Kalmykova (1841-1886) from the viewpoint of the “Small Party” of Doukhobors, with whom he clearly sympathized.

The account published by Count Leo Tolstoy in the Times of the 23rd October, of the persecution of Russian sectaries in the Caucasus, comes as an interesting sequel to the story which I told in the Contemporary Review of June 1894, when dealing with the Russian element of the population inhabiting the Russian provinces of the Armenian table-land. That story centres in the figure of a remarkable woman, whose name, indeed, Count Tolstoy mentions, but of whose personality and influence among her co-religionists his informants appear to have presented him with an insufficient idea. I was travelling through the villages of these Russian peasants in September 1893, and with your permission I will tell you what I learnt about the circumstances out of which the thrilling incidents related by Count Tolstoy arose.

At Akhalkalaki, on the lofty uplands of Russian Armenia, from which the headwaters of the Kur descent, I first heard mention of the troubles which were still agitating the Russian settlers who live around. I was told that in the course of my journey southward I should pass through a country which had within recent years been the scene of many stirring events. The accounts I received of what had happened, and of the peculiar form of religion which the people were said to profess, were vague and uncertain, but at the same time sufficient to make me wish to learn more. 

I knew that these Russian sectaries of the Caucasus represented the flower of the Russian peasantry, that their standard of life was higher than that of their class in Russia, and that it would be scarcely just to estimate the merits of Russian colonists by the high example offered by them. “Go to Gorelovka,” said Colonel Tarasov, the governor of the town and district of Akhalkalaki, “if you wish to see what our colonists can do.” To examine into an interesting colonial experiment, and to make the acquaintance of a sect about whose beliefs and actions such strange rumors were current in the country – what could any traveller desire more?

H.F.B. Lynch (1862-1916)

Among my acquaintance in the town was a young Armenian who was likely, from the nature of his calling, to have some knowledge of the truth of these stories. The man had been an itinerant preacher of the evangelical persuasion – a body founded some sixty years ago in Shusha by a missionary from Basle. The Russian government detest these Protestant preachers, and they had cut short the wanderings of the young clergyman by refusing him permission to go beyond the limits of this remote and lonely town. About two years had now elapsed since the ban had been placed upon him; his subsistence he earned by serving as clerk to a merchant of woolen stuffs. From him I gathered that considerable mystery surrounded the religion of these peasants, but that he himself had not sufficient knowledge to clear it up. He told me that pagan practices were imputed to them, and that they were said to worship images of birds and beasts. Whether they worshipped them or only regarded them as symbols, it was certain that they made such images, and I could judge for myself of the purposes which they served.

And then he related to me a portion of the story of Lukeria, and spoke of the superstitious reverence in which they held her – half goddess and half queen.

We struck our tents on the afternoon of the 5th of September, and proceeded on our journey towards Ararat, still more than a hundred miles away. We were passing over the surface of a lofty table-land, 5500 feet above the sea. On our left hand rose the volcanic mass of Abdul, a mountain some 11,000 feet high, while on our right, towards the west, the prospect was open, and the ground stretched in long drawn undulations and convexities to the dim outlines of distant ranges encircling the wide expanse. Not a tree, no vegetation, relieved the loneliness of the scene; the beauty and interest of these Armenian landscapes lie in their rich variety of forms and in the play of light and shade. Man’s imprint upon nature is scarcely visible – some vague tracks winding over the plain, and the volcanic soil exposed by the plough in black checkers by the side of the yellow stubble fields. Banks of grey and white cloud hung over the mountains. But the zenith was blue; a bright sun tempered the keen and searching air.

In the space of two hours we reached a straggling settlement which we found to consist of two villages – the one Armenian, the other inhabited by Russian peasants of the Doukhoborian sect. The first bears the name of Khojabek; the second is called Bogdanovka. Bogdanovka is a poor example of a Doukhoborian colony. I confess that I did not notice any appreciable contrast in methods and standard of life between the Russian and the Armenian village. The level of the plain is always rising the further you progress towards the south. After we had passed through the small Russian settlement of Orlovka it became clear that the wave of reclamation was reaching its limit, and that we should soon leave all cultivation behind.

The crops were still standing in the fields, and we noticed that where the soil was exposed it was filled with the fibre of turf and roots. As the day closed we were travelling over an upland country which bore the character of lofty downs, and it is in a landscape of this nature that is situated Gorelovka, the township to which the governor had called my attention, and in which he had kindly prepared a house for our reception and a ready welcome from the villagers. My barometers place the elevation of Gorelovka at about 7000 feet above the sea. We were here about at the water-parting from which the streams diverge, some to enter the basin of the Araxes, and others to flow northwards to the Kur.

Sketch of Gorelovka village, Tiflis province, Russia, 1893 by H. F.B. Lynch.

Gorelovka is the largest village in the district, and contains 150 houses, with a population of some 1500 souls. In conversation with the villagers I learnt that it was fifty-two years since they had come there from Russia and had been allotted lands. Each house pays 15 roubles (about 30 shillings) a year to the state for the rent of their lands. Snow lies on the ground for about eight months in the year, and, like the Armenians, they heat their houses with tezek fuel, or cakes of dried manure. Their markets are Alexandropol and Akhalkalaki. I admired their ploughs and spacious wagons; they make them in the village themselves. You do not see such ploughs and wagons among their neighbours – Armenians, Tatars, and Turks. On the other hand, they have not improved upon the usual threshing implements, the flat beams encrusted with sharp stones. They said they had found these methods in use in the country, and were satisfied with them. 

A Doukhoborian village is not built into the earth like the burrows of the Armenians and the Kurds; the Russians cheat the climate by the additional thickness which they put into their solid stone walls. Their dwellings are low one-storied houses of most substantial construction; the masonry is completely covered with plaster, which receives several coats of whitewash. A long street traverses the village in a regular straight line; the white-faced houses are for the most part isolated, and align it at intervals. The roofs are only slightly sloped, and consist of stout beams supporting a superstructure of earth and sods of turf. The chimneys are mere apertures in the roof, protected by small wooden caps. I found the interiors clean and comfortable; the wooden ceilings are neatly mitered, and the walls distempered white. The deep embrasures of the windows testify to the stoutness of the walls. In some of these Russian settlements you admire the elaborate fret-work of shutters and ornaments of wood; in Gorelovka no work of fancy adorns the dwellings of the peasants, and they have lavished all their skill in wood-carving upon the residence of their Queen.

The inhabitants are tall and powerfully built, and although they are bronzed in complexion almost beyond recognition, the fair hair bears witness to their origin as sons of the North. Their limbs are loosely put together, and apart from the difference of their dress and demeanor they present a strong contrast to the neatly made natives of the country by reason of their lofty stature and the unbuckled slouch of their walk. The features are irregular, the eyes small, and the countenance is wanting in animation both in the case of women and men. The dress of the men consists of dark blue trousers and jacket and a peaked military cap; this costume gives them the appearance of old soldiers, and all seem to shave the beard. The women wear very clean cotton dresses of showy patterns and bright hues. It is a sturdy race of simple people, and the elements of order are strong among them.

Next morning, according to arrangement, we were to visit, in company with our host Alexei Zubkov, the venerable starshina or head of the village, the residence and garden of the Queen. The brother of the Queen joined our party – Mikhail Vasilyevich Gubanov, the same of whom Count Tolstoy speaks. 

We passed down the long straight street of the village, the spacious intervals between the white houses opening to the breezy downs. Entering an enclosure, we found ourselves in a delightful flower garden, among trees and thick rose bushes allowed to twine and spread in freedom, and only saved from rankness and riot by the loving hand of man. How strange, after our long wanderings over mountain and arid plain, among peoples whose material standards hover on the extreme margin where life is just possible and no more, appeared to us the sight of these garden flowers and the scent of the double rose!

A low one-storied building aligns the garden on two sides: the one wing contains the chapel and reception room; the other, the private apartments in which the Queen lived. Passing within the doorway, we stood in a little hall from which rooms opened, one on either side. Both apartments are spacious, and their size was enhanced by the complete absence of furniture. Large stone stoves are built into the rooms, and form the most prominent feature of them; these stoves are usual in all the houses, but in this house they are decorated with a scroll of stone carving, which is not the case elsewhere. The ceilings are low, and the walls are so thick that the windows have the appearance of fortress embrasures with their deep cavernous sills. The two large rooms on either side of the hall were formerly used, the one for prayer meetings and the other for social gatherings; but it was evident that they were not in use at the time of my visit, and I was told that assemblies in this house had been interdicted by the government on accounts of the fresh outbreak of fanaticism which was apprehended should the people come together beneath the roof of their former Queen.

The general arrangement and appearance of the chapel or apartment in which they used to meet for prayer is this: The low ceiling is composed of narrow pine planks, the surface being relieved by delicate wood beadings along the seams where plank meets plank. The large pier of the stove projects boldly into it from the side of the door. The walls of the rooms are in general covered with a neat paper of common Russian pattern, and the floors are either painted a reddish colour or the boards are left natural, and stopped, and scrubbed daily like the deck of a yacht. Round this particular apartment there runs a low bench; this is the only sitting place. Large pots of flowers, carefully pruned and tended, bloomed in the deep embrasures of the windows, and broke the light diffused about the sober apartment in a warm and regular glow. In that part of the building where the Queen used to live, the rooms, although smaller, presented a similar appearance and were maintained in the same state of scrupulous cleanliness and neatness, although uninhabited now. The furniture had all been removed from them, but in addition to the pots of beautiful flowers there was in each a dish of Easter-eggs.

In the centre of the garden, among the rose-bushes, stands the summer pavilion of the Queen. The kernel of the structure may be described as consisting of two square boxes placed one above the other, and serving as living rooms. Each side of the upper room is broken by a large window, so that the view from within embraces the whole settlement and all the landscape around. The lower room contains a bed and a row of pegs, on which, behind a light covering, hang the dresses of the Queen; that above it is bare of all furniture, and was used as a sitting room. A broad wooden balcony with staircase runs round this inner kernel, supported on pillars of wood; they have lavished all their skill upon the decoration of this balcony, enriching it with the delicate traceries of fret-work and with figures placed at the angles of the roof. At each corner sits a dove with wings outspread, while on the summit of the roof a dove is just alighting, the wings just closing, the legs outstretched. In front of the pavilion and on the side of the house there is a large standard lantern, a work of curious design and fancy, surmounted by an image of St. George and the dragon carved with much life and vigour in wood.

By my side stood the man who had made these images, and I asked him whether they had any religious meaning peculiar to their creed.

Sketch of Lukeria’s Besedka (Summer Pavilion) at Gorelovka by H. F.B. Lynch.

I was loath to put the question, so obvious was their purpose, so universal the symbolism implied. He answered good-humouredly that they were pure ornaments, and that he was flattered by my appreciation of his skill.

In a room removed from the part of the village in which the Queen lived they showed us her furniture and effects, her personal ornaments, and every detail of her attire. Everything that belonged to her had been carefully kept and cherished, like the relics of a saint. Her possessions had been those of a simple peasant woman verging on the middle class, a velvet chair or two, some statuettes in plaster, a few chromo-lithographs. Many trays of coloured Easter-eggs were collected here – the offerings, I suppose, of many happy Easters when she had led their congregations of prayer.

At the time of my visit it was seven years ago that they had lost their beloved Lukeria Vasilyevna (Kalmykova), their leader both in spiritual and in temporal matters; they honoured and obeyed her like a Queen. Her influence was supreme among the settlers on the highlands south of Akhalkalaki, and, from Count Tolstoy’s account, it appears to have extended to all the colonists in Transcaucasia of the Doukhoborian sect. That Lukeria was nothing more to them than a successor to others in an office which had been the outcome of their religious and material needs it would, I think, be no less fallacious to suppose than to credit the rumours current in the country that it had been in the character of a divine personage her people had submitted themselves to her will. A childlike nature, at once the product of the religious temperament and its peculiar pride, may find it difficult to discriminate between the emotions of worship and of love.

When I questioned them they strongly disclaimed for Lukeria all pretension to supernatural gifts, and they rejected as a fable the imputation that they had paid her divine honours. They told me that they both acknowledged and worshipped Christ as God; in Lukeria they had loved and revered a good woman who raised their lives, relieved their sorrows, and led their aspirations towards the higher life. The evidence of her work and example is written in the appearance of this model village and in the demeanour of its inhabitants. All are well clothed and clean and well nourished, and it is a pleasure to see them go about their business in their quiet earnest way. I saw no poor people in Gorelovka, not a sign of the habitual squalor of the East. Provision had been made for the orphans and the destitute, and I understood that all the colonists of the neighbourhood contributed to the funds. But what impressed me most besides the evidence of their affection in these dwellings and this enclosure, maintained in neatest order, as though in spirit she inhabited them still, was the love of flowers, which the Queen appears to have developed in her people and brought them to share with her. In the decline of wealth and of the arts the sight of garden flowers becomes more and more rare in the East, and at best they are little more than the ornaments of luxury and the setting of sensual delights. At Gorelovka one cannot doubt that these geraniums and roses are cultivated for their own sake alone.

The Doukhoborians abhor all ikons and religious pictures, and the traveller is struck by the absence of these emblems in the houses of Russian colonists. They share in the aversion of other extreme Protestants for priests and priestly rule, and the people themselves conduct whatever simple ceremonies may be necessary upon birth, at marriage, and after death. 

That from such peaceful surroundings there should issue fierce dissension, that a people trained to mutual love and forbearance should be inflamed by the worst passions of an opposite nature, and turn the hand which they had been unwilling to lift against others upon the brothers of their own creed, is a melancholy example of the failure of purely emotional methods to elevate permanently the nature of man. It seems there are no shortcuts to virtue, and the standards attained under the impulse of religious enthusiasm have but an ephemeral life. With the death of Lukeria was removed the personality and visible example for which simple natures crave, and the exaggeration of sentiment of which she had been the object brought with it its own revenge. Although cut off at the early age of forty-three hears, the Queen was already a widow when she died. Her marriage had been childless, and even had she possessed a natural successor, the place which she occupied in the imagination of her people would perhaps have been impossible to fill. Yet scarcely a year had elapsed from the time of her death when a pretended successor arose (ie. Peter Vasilievich Verigin), a boy, who, I believe, claimed relationship with her, and who assumed to be worthy to wear the mantle which had hitherto descended on on none.

The inhabitants of Gorelovka, whose version of the story I am giving, were empathetic in their statement that this youth was an impostor. “He told lies,” was the expression which they used. His authority had never been acknowledged by them, and he had stirred up their own brethren against them. I gathered that they had not stopped short of actual violence in the ardor of religious and partisan zeal. Gorelovka, it appears, had been solid against the usurper; but opinion had been divided in the neighbouring villages and throughout the community settled in Transcaucasia of the Doukhoborian sect. The Russian government, as was natural, surveyed the situation from the standpoint of hard-headed prudence; they were not anxious to see installed a successor to Lukeria and a revival of the old religious flame. The weight of their authority was thrown in the scale against the pretender; he was suppressed without delay, and banished from the country to a remote exile in the north.

But the ground on which the seeds of dissension had fallen was more favourable to the growth and development of the feud than the familiar methods of the Russian authorities were calculated to extirpate it. At the time of my visit the symptoms were slumbering. Count Tolstoy tells us in vivid language of the recrudescence of the old trouble, of the revival among the peasants of the old spirit in scenes of bloodshed under the heavy hand of the Russian officials, and in mutual recriminations among themselves.

Reflecting upon this story after reading these accounts, the mind travels back to the dawn of Christianity and the annals of the early Church. The famous letter of Pliny appears fresh and modern, while the grave language of the Times in the leading article which it publishes mingles naturally with the spirit of a remote age. “The first principles of their creed lead straight to social anarchy, tempered only by the whims of the “sons of God”. They are doubtless sincere fanatics, and as such must be looked upon with a measure of pity and respect.” It is interesting to place by the side of this paragraph in a modern newspaper the words of the great historian of the Roman world:

The Christians were not less averse to the business than to the pleasures of this world. The defence of our persons and property they knew not how to reconcile with the patient doctrine which enjoined an unlimited forgiveness of past injuries and commanded them to invite the repetition of fresh insults. Their simplicity was offended by the use of oaths, by the pomp of magistracy, and by the active contention of public life; nor could their humane ignorance be convinced that it was lawful on any occasion to shed the blood of our fellow creatures, either by the sword of justice of by that of war, even though their criminal or hostile attempts should threaten the peace and safety of the whole community; … while they inculcated the maxims of passive obedience, they refused to take any active part in the civil administration or the military defence of the empire. … This indolent, or even criminal, disregard to the public welfare exposed them to the contempt and reproaches of the pagans, who very frequently asked, what must be the fate of the empire, attacked on every side by the barbarians, if all mankind should adopt the pusillanimous sentiments of the new sect?”

Pliny the Younger, AD 110

Have the Christians of the present day become pagans, or did the pagans only change their name?

Travels Among the Molochnaya Dukhobortsy, 1839-1841

by Adele and Xavier Hommaire de Hell

Xavier Hommaire de Hell (1812-1848), a French explorer and geologist, studied the Crimea and the south of Russia from 1838 to 1841. Although Hommaire de Hell was concerned primarily with geology and geography, his wife, Adele (1819-1883), interested herself in the historical and ethnographic aspects of Russia.  In 1839, they travelled among the Dukhobortsy living on the Molochnaya River.  Two years later, in 1841, they met a group of exiled Dukhobortsy en route from the Molochnaya to the Caucasus.  Adele recorded her impressions of these encounters, which was published in “Travels in the Steppes of the Caspian Sea, the Crimea, the Caucasus” (London: Chapman and Hall, 1847) under her husband’s name. Her brief account provides rare, historic insights into the Dukhobortsy at this time.  Afterword by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff. 

Adele Hommaire de Hell (1819-1883)

…Besides the German [Mennonite] colonies of which we have been speaking, there are others in the environs of Nicolaief [Nikolaev] and Odessa, in Bessarabia and the Crimea, and about the coasts of the sea of Azov. Altogether these foreign colonies in New Russia, number upwards of 160 villages, containing more than 46,000 souls.

In the midst of them are several villages inhabited by Russian dissenters, entertaining nearly the same religious views as the Mennonites and Anabaptists.

These are the Douckoboren [Dukhobortsy] and Molokaner [Molokany], who separated from the national [Orthodox] church about 160 years ago, at which time they were resident in several of the central provinces; but the government being alarmed at the spread of their doctrines, transported them forcibly to New Russia, where it placed them under military supervision.

Here they admirably availed themselves of the examples set them by the Germans, and soon attained a high degree of prosperity. In 1839, they amounted to a population of 6617 souls, occupying thirteen villages. Most of their houses were in the German style, and every thing about them was indicative of plenty. [p. 81]

. . .

I had opportunities of observing among the members of the two latter communities, how great an influence a change of religion may have on the character and intellect of the Russians. The Douckoboren and the Molokaner differ essentially in this respect from the other [Orthodox] subjects of the empire.

Xavier Hommaire de Hell (1812-1848)

Activity, probity, intelligence, desire of improvement, all these qualities are developed among them to the highest degree, and after having consorted with the Germans for fifteen years, they have completely appropriated all the agricultural ameliorations, and even the social habits of those foreign colonists.

Among the Russian [Orthodox] peasants on the contrary, whether slave or free, a complete immobility prevails, and nothing can force them out of the old inevitable rut. All the efforts and all the encouragements of the government have hitherto been of no avail. [p. 113]

. . .

Two years after this first visit to them, I met on the road from Taganrok [Taganrog] to Rostof [Rostov], two large detachments of exiles escorted by two battalions of infantry. They were the unfortunate dissenters of the Moloshnia [Molochnaya], who had been expelled from their villages, and were on their way to the military lines of the Caucasus.

The most perfect decorum and the most touching resignation appeared in the whole body. The women alone showed signs of anger, whilst the men sang hymns in chorus. I asked several of them whither they were going; their answer was ” God only knows.” [p. 81]


Xavier Hommaire de Hell was a French geologist and civil engineer who spent almost five years from 1838 to 1841 exploring and studying the geology of the Crimea and Southern Russia. His wife, Adele, braved all hardships to accompany him on his journeys. During this period, his research provided the travelers with many objects of study, not only in towns and villages but in the country-houses of the Russian nobility. His pursuits also carried them over a large range of the Russian countryside, extending from the Dnieper to the Caspian Sea, and from there to the Caucasian mountains. They subsequently published their observations in the 1847 work, Travels in the Steppes of the Caspian Sea, the Crimea, the Caucasus, in which the subjects of commerce, government, official economy, with historical and ethnological notices were treated by Xavier; while descriptions of society, adventures en route, and much of what is usually considered travelogue, were contributed by Adele under her husband’s name. Their account of the Molochnaya Doukhobors is presumed to have been written by her.

The Hommaire de Hells visited the Doukhobors living on the Molochnaya River in Tavria, Russia in 1839. At that time they found a population of 6,617 souls (males) occupying thirteen villages. This number included nine villages of Doukhobors as well as four neighbouring villages of Molokans. They noted the “high degree of prosperity” among the inhabitants and that “everything about them was indicative of plenty.”

The French travelers had opportunities to observe the Doukhobors and noted their “activity, probity, intelligence, [and] desire of improvement”, which stood in stark comparison to Russian Orthodox peasants, over whom “a complete immobility prevails”.  According to the Hommaire de Hells, the Doukhobors appropriated these characteristics from their German Mennonite neighbours, among whom they consorted, and from whom they borrowed their style of housing, agricultural methods and even social habits. The French couple were among the earliest Western observers to note the significant Mennonite influence on Doukhobor society.

Two years later, in 1841, the Hommaire de Hells met a group of Doukhobor exiles on the road from Taganrog to Rostov and noted that the sectarians were “escorted” by two infantry battalions. By all accounts, the military escort was particularly large and aggressive. In spite of this, the French travellers observed “the most perfect decorum and the most touching resignation” amongst the Doukhobors. Upon inquiring as to their destination, Hommaire de Hell was simply told, “God only knows.”  In fact, the Doukhobors they met were the first of five parties to be exiled from the Molochnaya to the Caucasus over the 1841-1845 period. Hommaire de Hell’s description of this meeting is one of the few extant eyewitness accounts of the Doukhobor exile to the Caucasus and provides a poignant and touching picture of this momentous event in Doukhobor history.

View Tavria Doukhobor Villages, 1802-1845 in a larger map

To read more, search, download, save and print a full PDF copy of “Travels in the Steppes of the Caspian Sea, the Crimea, the Caucasus” by Xavier Hommaire de Hell (London: Chapman and Hall, 1847), visit the Google Book Search digital database.

Hilliers Communal Farm was Short-Lived

by Andrei Bondoreff

In 1947, Sons of Freedom leader Michael “the Archangel” Verigin and 200 of his followers established a 348 acre communal farm at Hilliers, British Columbia. There, the colonists cleared and tilled the land, set up apiaries, planted orchards and large vegetable gardens. While it lasted, the small communal farm was quiet, peaceful and industrious. Nonetheless, it set off a firestorm of controversy and rumours and made many of their Islander neighbors nervous about the “potential danger” the Doukhobors posed to the region. Reproduced by permission from the Times Colonist (December 07, 2008), the following article by Andrei Bondoreff examines one of Vancouver Island’s most extraordinary communal experiments.

For six short years, the Vancouver Island community of Hilliers was home to a small peaceful communal settlement that made many Islanders nervous. In early spring of 1947, folks in the rural district about 60 kilometres north of Nanaimo noticed that a group of people had purchased and begun working 348 acres together.

The commune’s 200 inhabitants cleared and tilled the land, set up apiaries, planted hundreds of fruit trees and cultivated thousands of strawberry plants and raspberry bushes along with large vegetable gardens. They began building a small sawmill to provide lumber for barns, residences, a dining hall and a canning plant. They even built a school.

In May 1947, the Daily Colonist reported “an interesting sight is furnished by the women in their full white blouses, pulled down over their full skirts, and kerchiefs worn peasant-style on their heads, stooping low to the earth and putting every inch of soil through a sieve, making a picture reminiscent of Biblical times, silhouetted against the background of rolling hills.”

A group of “Spiritual Community of Christ” members working their communal gardens at Hilliers, BC, 1947. Koozma J. Tarasoff collection, BC Archives, C-01624.

These “interesting” people were from the diverse Doukhobor community living in the Interior. They came from an offshoot of the fundamentalist branch known as the Sons of Freedom. Leadership issues and differing views of schooling led to a rupture that brought the breakaway group to Hilliers.

During the colony’s first few months, spokesman Joe Podovinikoff announced that “private property was the cause of world troubles.” He added, “not only do we renounce private ownership in matters of land and money; we also believe that private ownership of persons and families, including women and children, belongs to the old order.”

This set off a firestorm of controversy. It wasn’t long before the public was titillated with lurid stories of “wife-sharing” or “wife-swapping.” Churchmen were up in arms. Rev. Hugh A. McLeod, pastor of the First United Church at Victoria, said it was “degrading man and woman to the level of the beasts” and had “within it the seeds of slavery.” Dean Cecil Swanson, president of the Vancouver Ministerial Association, told the Daily Colonist that it was “tragic that these people should have been allowed to colonize in Canada and be given a sort of preferred status among us.”

Members of the Doukhobor community at Hilliers, BC, 1947; Koozma J. Tarasoff collection, BC Archives, C-01625.

The Daily Times speculated that the “settlement may cause some concern to wealthy landowners at nearby Qualicum Beach. It is less than five miles from the famed resort where millionaires have summer homes and retired generals, titled gentry and high officers of the army, navy and air force have settled.”

Rumours of the possible migration of 3,000 Doukhobors to the Island inflamed the Parksville Board of Trade, which attempted to rally its counterparts in Port Alberni, Courtenay, Comox, Campbell River, Nanaimo and Duncan against the “potential danger” the group posed to the region. “If Doukhobors spread as they have in the Kootenays it is only a matter of time until they will reach your district,” wrote Parksville Board of Trade secretary Ron Thwaites.

It wasn’t long before the colony and the newspapers began battling. Spokesman Podovinikoff criticized the media for the ways it characterized the group. “We would like to protest to the newspapers and others against calling us ‘Doukhobors’… for us that name is an empty shell.” According to him, they had changed their name to the Elders of the Spiritual Community of Christ. He also added, “We beseech the public and all the Christian world to believe that we have come here not to transgress the law but fulfil it. There are no gross motives in this endeavour and all the reports of swapping wives are sheer misrepresentation of facts.”

Doukhobors bucking wood at Hilliers, BC, 1947. Koozma J. Tarasoff collection, BC Archives, C-01628.

Provincial officials were calm. The attorney general’s department said: “We have not heard of any wife-swapping among the Island Doukhobors. If there is such a practice, it would give grounds for divorce — that is all.” Dr. J.B. Munro, the deputy minister of agriculture who owned property nearby and like the Doukhobors enjoyed beekeeping, said, “I know nothing of my new neighbours, haven’t heard of any lawlessness and haven’t missed any bees.” Neighbours of the commune said the communalists were “conservative and mild-mannered people.”

Real estate agent E.D. Thwaites of Qualicum Beach complained that too much had been made of the settlement and that publicity was unnecessarily affecting real estate sales on the whole Island. According to him, there was nothing wrong with the communalists and they made no trouble. “The trouble with Doukhobors is that they don’t mix … if anyone is living alongside two of them he may as well be without neighbours.”

In April 1951, Comox MLA H.J. Welch called the communal group at Hilliers “first-class citizens.” He said that women were joining women’s institutes and the men farmers’ institutes.

Michael ‘the Archangel” Verigin and a group of women who helped organize the Doukhobor Community at Hilliers, BC, 1947. Koozma J. Tarasoff collection, BC Archives, C-01627.

When an “agitator” from a violent wing of Sons of Freedom in the Kootenays arrived at the colony and urged a new campaign of “bombings and fire raids,” he was “stripped, decked with a necklace of tin cans and ejected from the community.”

There were conflicting reports of stripping at the colony. In 1952, newspapers in Vancouver reported nude demonstrations. However, “surprised” RCMP officers told the Daily Times: “We have received no information to substantiate these reports … we have a man at Hilliers and I’m sure he would have reported a nude parade.”

By then, the colony was in decline. In November the Daily Colonist reported that it had “been losing residents for weeks and the RCMP stated that they had no idea why they were going.” “As a rule, the Doukhobors are close-mouthed with us,” said an officer.

The fact that the group’s leader Michael “the Archangel” Orekoff, who assumed the name Verigin, had died in July 1951 played a big part in the colony’s disintegration.

In December the property was up for sale and by February, the Daily Colonist reported that the settlement was a “ghost town.” The group had all returned to the Kootenays, bringing an end to one of Vancouver Island’s most extraordinary communal experiments.

A Visit to the Dukhobortsy, 1843

by Baron August Freiherr von Hasthausen

In 1843, German political economist Baron August Freiherr von Haxthausen (1792-1866) was commissioned by Tsar Nicholas I to undertake a study of land tenure in the Russian Empire. He journeyed over 7,000 miles through European Russia, the Crimea and the Caucasus. In the late summer of 1843, Haxthausen visited the Doukhobors at Milky Waters, just after the sect was exiled to the Caucasus. His account, published in “The Russian Empire, its People, Institutions and Resources (2 vols) (London: Chapman and Hall, 1856) is one of the most valuable foreign accounts of the sect in the early nineteenth century. In Haxthausen, we find the most frequently cited account of the crisis which racked the Doukhobor colony in the 1830’s and led to its exile and disbursement. Afterword by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

…If the Molokans must be regarded as a Christian Sect, the same cannot be said of the Dukhobortsy, at least in their extreme doctrines. It would lead too far to attempt to give here a full description of these: they constitute a complete theological and mystic-philosophical system, replete with grand ideas and of great consistency. Beside their public assemblies and usual ceremonies they have also mysteries, accompanied by horrible ceremonies and orgies, the nature of which is kept profoundly secret. Even those who in recent times have gone over from the Sect on the Molochnaya to the Church observe a careful silence on this subject, although their behavior when questioned regarding these secrets, and the accidental expressions which fall from them, clearly indicate their existence. All or nearly all know of them, but few participate in them.

Baron August Freiherr von Haxthausen (1792-1866)

It does not appear that the Dukhobortsy have ever had a common head. The various Communes are frequently at variance; but everywhere leaders arise among them who soon acquire an absolute control over their neighbors, and secure perfect obedience.

The most interesting man of this Sect of whom we have any knowledge is Kapustin. I heard much respecting him from the Mennonites on the Molochnaya, his nearest neighbors. Complete obscurity veils his birth, name, and early life: when he began to disseminate his views among the Molokans, it caused a schism in their body; and as about that time the majority of the Dukhobortsy in the Government of Tambov emigrated to the Molochnye Vody, in the Government of Tavria, he and his followers accompanied them and settled there.

In the year 1801 the remainder of the Dukhobortsy in the village of Nikol’sk (Government of Ekaterinoslav), consisting of thirty families, settled, with the permission of the Emperor Alexander, on the Molochnaya; and as this small colony, being free from all hostile attacks and oppression, rapidly increased and flourished, the Dukhobortsy came from all quarters of the Empire and settled here, with the permission of the Government.

Kapustin’s distinguished personal and natural qualities, his genius and eloquence, soon gained him the supremacy of authority and command: all subjected themselves willingly to him, and he ruled like a king, or rather a prophet. He expounded the tenets of the Dukhobortsy in a manner to turn them to his own peculiar profit and advantage. He attached peculiar importance to the doctrine of the transmigration of souls, which was already known among them: he also taught that Christ is born again in every believer; that God is in every one; for when the Word became flesh it became this for all time, like everything divine, that is, man in the world; but each human soul, at least as long as the created world exists, remains a distinct individual. Now when God descended into the individuality of Jesus as Christ, He sought out the purest and most perfect man that ever existed, and the soul of Jesus was the purest and most perfect of all human souls. God, since the time when He first revealed himself in Jesus, has always remained in the human race, and dwells and reveals himself in every believer.

But the individual soul of Jesus, where has it been? By virtue of the law of the transmigration of souls, it must necessarily have animated another human body! Jesus himself said, “I am with you always, until the end of the world.” Thus the soul of Jesus, favored by God above all human souls, had from generation to generation continually animated new bodies; and by virtue of its higher qualities, and the peculiar and absolute command of God, it had invariably retained a remembrance of its previous condition. Every man therefore in whom it resided knew that the soul of Jesus was in him. In the first centuries after Christ this was so universally acknowledged among believers, that every one recognized the new Jesus, who was the guide and ruler of Christendom, and decided all disputes respecting the Faith. The Jesus thus always born again was called Pope. False popes however soon obtained possession of the throne of Jesus; but the true Jesus had only retained a small band of believers about him, as he predicted in the New Testament, “Many are called, but few are chosen.” These believers are the Dukhobortsy, among whom Jesus constantly dwells, his soul animating one of them. “Thus Sylvan Kolesnikov at Nikol’sk,” said Kapustin, “whom many of the older among you knew, was Jesus; but now, as truly as the heaven is above me and the earth under my feet, I am the true Jesus Christ, your Lord! Fall down therefore on your knees and worship me!” And they all fell on their knees and worshiped him.

Sketch of Terpeniye village, Melitopol district, Tavria province, Russia by Baron Von Haxthausen, 1843. Note in the foreground the row of dwellings, barns and stables built  along a wide central street. Note also the Sirotsky Dom (Orphans Home) in the background.

The Dukhobortsy settled on the Molochnaya Vody in nine villages, to which they gave the significant names of Terpeniye (“Patience”), Bogdanovka (the “Gift of God”), Troitskoye (the “Trinity”), Spasskoye (“Salvation”), etc. Kapustin took up his residence at Terpeniye, and from hence governed all the rest. In the year 1833 about four thousand Dukhobortsy were living there.

Kapustin introduced a complete community of goods among the people. The fields were worked in common, the harvest divided among them all, and storehouses were erected to provide against years of dearth; all kinds of industrial occupations were followed, and the colony was making visible progress.

About the year 1814 Kapustin underwent a legal examination for proselytizing, and was thrown into prison, being soon however liberated on bail. His subsequent history is mysterious and dark: it was said that he not long after died and was buried. The authorities, wishing to convince themselves of this, ordered the grave to be opened, and found a man in it with a long red beard, whereas Kapustin had brown hair and always shaved off his beard; the face and figure were no longer recognizable. Kapustin’s wife had been living for some time on an island at the mouth of the Molochnaya, a league distant from Terpeniye, near the Sea of Azov. The persons of most consideration among the Dukhobortsy soon took passports to Lugan, ostensibly to purchase horses; but the authorities grew suspicious, and ordered an investigation to be made on the spot where the woman lived, but nothing was discovered. It was not until a long time after, when Kapustin was really dead, that about the year 1820 the younger Cornies discovered a cave in which he had passed the last years of his life.

I have myself seen it: a small fissure, probably closed at one time by a door, leads from the bank by a zigzag passage into a kind of chamber in the rock, in which stood a bedstead and a stove; light was admitted into the cave by a wooden tube running out into the open air and concealed by bushes.

Sketch of Doukhobor house in Terpeniye village by Baron Von Haxthausen, 1843. Note the high-lofted construction, with the second floor under a steeply pitched gable roof. The Doukhobors continued this style of construction into the early 1900’s in Canada.

After the death of Kapustin the office of Christ passed to his son; he is said to have assured his people that the soul of Christ had the power of uniting itself with any human body it pleased, and that it would establish itself in the body of his son. In order to exempt the latter from service in the army, Kapustin sent his wife when pregnant to the house of her father, Kalmykov, that she might there give birth to the child; after that event he married her anew and the child, which was regarded as illegitimate, was called (Vasily) Kalmykov. This (Vasily) was about fifteen years old when his father died. The Dukhobortsy, in order to obtain issue from him as soon as possible, assigned him, when scarcely sixteen years old, six young girls one after another: but the spirit of the father did not dwell in him. He addicted himself to drinking; order was lost among the Dukhobortsy, and the community of goods was destroyed. He died in 1841 at Akalkhalaki in the Caucasian provinces, leaving behind him two children under age, one of whom the Dukhobortsy expect will in his thirtieth year manifest himself as Christ.

On the dissolution of order among them the despotism of the leaders and Elders increased. Kapustin had assembled a council of thirty Elders about him, of whom twelve acted as Apostles; after his death these, under his weak son, had absolute command. But too many had been initiated into the secret mysteries, and suspicion, mistrust, and denunciation arose; they feared discovery.

The Council of Elders constituted itself a terrible inquisitional tribunal. The principle, “Whoso denies his God shall perish by the sword,” was interpreted according to their caprice; the house of justice was called rai i muka, paradise and torture; the place of execution was on the island at the mouth of the Molochnaya. A mere suspicion of treachery, or of an intention to go over to the Russian Church, was punished with torture and death. Within a few years about two hundred people disappeared, leaving scarcely a trace behind; an investigation by the authorities, too late to prevent the mischief, revealed a frightful state of things: bodies were found buried alive, and many mutilated. The investigation, which was commenced in 1834, terminated in 1839; the Emperor decided that the whole body of the Dukhobortsy on the Molochnaya should be transported to the Caucasian Provinces, there to be parceled out and placed under strict surveillance; those only who were willing to join the Russian Church being permitted to remain. The order was communicated to these people by the Governor-General, Count Vorontsov. I give a literal translation of it: 

“From the Governor-General of New Russia and Bessarabia, to the Inhabitants of the village of Efremovka, called Dukhobortsy.  Proclamation:

All acts injurious to our Orthodox Church, or which disturb the public peace, are forbidden by our national laws; and any violation of these laws is visited with severe punishment. But these laws were made by the power appointed by God to that effect; from Him they derive their sacred origin, and it is the duty of all and every one to obey them, and punctually to fulfill them; so that whoever opposes this power rebels against the appointment of God himself.

“Ye, Dukhobortsy, have fallen away from the doctrines which the Orthodox Church has held throughout all ages; and, from perverted notions and ignorance, constituting a peculiar belief among yourselves, ye have disturbed the peace of the Church, and by your unlawful proceedings have violated public order. As enemies of the Government and its ordinances, you have long since deserved reproof and punishment. But the Emperor Alexander, who is now with God, from a desire of converting you by kindness, patience, and love, in his generosity not only overlooked your guilt and remitted the punishment which awaited you, but ordered that all of you who were scattered and living in darkness should be collected into one community; and moreover that a considerable extent of land should be given to you. In return for all these marks of his favour he required only one thing – that you should live in peace and quiet, and abstain from interfering with the ordinances of the State. But what fruits has this paternal care produced? Scarcely were you settled upon the land allotted to you, when in the name of your religion, and by the command of your pretended teachers, you put men to death, treating them cruelly, harbouring deserters from the army, concealing crimes committed by your brethren, and everywhere opposing disobedience and contempt to the Government. These things, contrary to all the laws of God and man, many of your brethren knew, and, instead of giving intelligence of them to the Government, they endeavored to conceal them; many are still in custody for this conduct, awaiting the just punishment of their misdeeds.

“Your offences are thus all discovered, and the blood which has been shed in secret and in the light of day calls aloud for vengeance. The favour of God’s Anointed, which has hitherto shielded and protected you, ye have yourselves forfeited – by your crimes ye have broken the conditions upon which it was vouchsafed. Your acts, which spring from your belief and interrupt the public peace, have exhausted the patience of the Government; public order demands that ye should no longer be endured here, but should be removed to a place where the means shall be taken from you of injuring your neighbors. Your actions have at length drawn upon them the supreme attention of the Emperor. Now learn his will:

“His Imperial Majesty orders all those who belong to your persuasion to emigrate to the Caucasus. At the same time our master the Emperor grants you the following marks of his favour:

“1. As compensation for the land which you at present hold from the Crown, other lands will be given to you in the Georgian-Imiretian Government, in the Circle of Akhalkalaki. At the same time it is announced to you that henceforth all those of your persuasion who emigrate to the Caucasus are not exempt from service in the army.

“2. It is permitted to the emigrants to sell their movable property, or to take it with them.

“3. For the fixed property, houses and gardens, compensation will be given according to the valuation of a Commission, which will be appointed for the purpose.

“4. Lands which belong to the emigrants in fee may be sold or surrendered to the Crown for a certain price; but on this condition, that if these lands are not sold or surrendered to the Crown at the time appointed for the emigration, which is fixed for the middle of May of this year, 1841, the emigrants to whom they belong will not be permitted to remain longer in their present habitations.

“At the same time his Imperial Majesty has been pleased to command it to be announced to you, that those among you who, acknowledging their error, are willing to be converted to the true faith, to return into the bosom of the Orthodox Church, our common Mother, and to conform to her doctrines, which are founded upon the Word of the Redeemer and the Apostle, may remain in their dwellings and in possession of the lands belonging and granted to them by the Crown, and that especial protection and favour shall invariably be shown to them.

“In order to make known this the will of our most gracious Master, I send to you your Civil Governor, the State-Councillor Muromtsev, and the Collegiate Councillor Kluchbarev. I exhort and pray you to take what I have said into your earnest consideration, and to return me an answer containing your determination.

“(Signed,) Governor-General of New Russia and Bessarabia,

Count Vorontsov, Odessa, January 26, 1841.

In consequence of this announcement, those who were most implicated, together with their families, in all eight hundred individuals, were in 1841 transplanted to the Caucasus, Ilarion Kalmykov with his family being of the number. In 1842 eight hundred more were transported, and in 1843 nine hundred. Some preferred going over to the Russian Church, and remaining in their former homes; many also have since returned from their new home, where they feel wretched enough, declaring their conversion to the Church. That this conversion is only pretended is more than probable: if the Government indeed were to establish schools, and send hither pious and active clergymen, an honorable conversion of the uneducated mass might be effected; otherwise the Church will certainly receive no converts but a crowd of hypocrites.

Before proceeding to describe my visit to these people, I will relate an anecdote which was told me by J. Cornies. In the year 1816 two Quakers were in Russia – Allan from England, and Grellet from Pennsylvania. A belief had arisen that the Dukhobortsy held the same religious principles as the Quakers. The Emperor Alexander, to whom these two worthy men were introduced, encouraged them to investigate the matter, and they in consequence went to the Molochnaya. The Director of the Mennonite colony, State-Councillor Contenius, accompanied them, and arranged a kind of religious colloquy between them and some of the best-informed Dukhobortsy. Kapustin was then dead or in concealment. The conversation was of course carried on by interpreters, and lasted half a day: it was conducted on the part of the Dukhobortsy by a clever and eloquent man named Grishka. The Dukhobortsy spoke in an evasive and ambiguous manner, in which art they have great dexterity; but the Englishmen kept firmly to the point, and at length the Dukhobortsy could elude their questions no longer. When to the peremptory interrogation, “Do you believe in Christ, the only begotten Son of God, the second Person in the Trinity?” they replied, “We believe that Christ was a good man, and nothing more,” Allan covered his eyes with his hands, and exclaimed, “Darkness!”  The two Englishmen then immediately took their departure.

Sketch of Sirotsky Dom (Orphans Home) in the Doukhobor village of Terpeniye by Baron Von Haxthausen, 1843. Note the courtyard was surrounded by a high wall, reputedly so that Orthodox Russians could not see or hear the Doukhobor prayer services, since it was a crime to proselytize among the Orthodox.

I took advantage of my sojourn among the Mennonites on the Molochnaya to become personally acquainted with the Dukhobortsy, under the guidance of J. Cornies, the Mennonite.

On the 7th of August, 1843, we drove to the Dukhobortsy village of Bogdanovka, and were hospitably received by one of its chief inhabitants, whom Cornies knew well. A great number of them soon collected in and around the house of our host. The exterior of the village, the arrangements of the courtyard and dwelling, and the dress of the people, differed little from those in the surrounding Russian villages; but the whole had an appearance of greater wealth, order, and cleanliness; and in walking through the village and looking at the children, and afterwards at the inhabitants collected in the house and courtyard of our host, I was struck with the remarkably handsome forms both of the men and women, and the health and strength they displayed.

The interior of the peasant’s house which I entered was quite the same as all the rest in this district; the absence of a portrait of the Saint in one corner of the room struck me, as this is invariably seen in an ordinary peasant’s house. The conversation soon turned to religious subjects; and although, from being interpreted to me, the connection and niceties of the language were necessarily lost, I could not but admire the readiness, facility of expression, and adroitness of the two principal disputants, one a white-bearded old man, and the other an active young fellow of thirty-two. Whenever they spoke of the higher and dangerous doctrines of their Sect, it was in an equivocal and ambiguous manner, and with such a multitude of fantastic expressions as would have done honour to a sophist gifted with the most acute dialectic powers. Unfortunately I could not in their presence note down anything in my pocketbook, fearing to excite their suspicion; and I can therefore only allude to the general effect: it was the most singular mixture of sublime thoughts, with a material and gross application of them to the affairs of everyday life, possible to conceive, showing how easily the highest spiritual mysticism may grow into atheism: the self-deification of these people was on the point of entirely destroying the idea of the Divinity. Good and evil, virtue and vice, resolved themselves merely into the conception of the I and the Not I; for the Dukhoborets is God, and cannot sin; but the Non-Dukhoborets is the radically wicked – all that he does, even what appears to be good, is sin.

After this colloquy, which lasted a long time, we visited several houses, to cast a glance at their domestic and family life. Cornies drew my attention to the loose connection existing between parents and children – a necessary result of their principles and doctrine. The act of generation and of being born is supposed to constitute no tie of relationship; the soul, the image of God, recognizes not any earthly father or mother; the body springs from matter as a whole; it is the child of the earth; with the body of the mother, which bore it for a time, it stands in no nearer relationship than the seed with the plant from which we pluck it. It is indifferent to the soul in what prison, or body, it is confined. There is only one father, the totality of God, who lives in every individual; and one mother, universal matter or nature, the Earth. The Dukhobortsy therefore never call their parents “father” and “mother,” but only “old man” and “old woman.” In the same way a father and mother call their children, not mine, but ours (the Commune’s); the men call their wives “sisters.”

Sketch of floor plan of Sirotsky Dom by Baron Von Haxthausen, 1843. (a) main home of Kapustin; (b) smaller home used by Kapustin; (c) three female statutuettes; (d) home containing cells; (e) well. The other structures were homes lived in by the advisors of Kapustin as well as barns, stables, etc.

Natural sympathies and instincts however are stronger than dogmas. Thus I both heard and saw that the deep and affectionate veneration of children for their parents, the tender love of parents for their children, which prevail universally among the Russians, appeared here likewise almost everywhere in the family life of the Dukhobortsy, the outward signs of the relationship only being avoided.

On the 28th of July I drove with Cornies to the village of Terpeniye, so long the residence of Kapustin. Accompanied by a Dukhoborets who had gone over to the Church, we entered the house of Kapustin (ie. Sirotsky Dom). It was empty and deserted; the doors and windows stood open, and the wind whistled in every corner. The house consisted of two stories, the upper of which had a small gallery along one side, where on certain days, when all the people were assembled below, Kapustin appeared; then they all fell down upon their knees and worshiped him. But here also was that horrible tribunal, “the place of torture and paradise.” Every spot, room, and partition is said to have had its peculiar use and name; but the Dukhoborets who accompanied us and whom Cornies questioned, at first gave evasive answers, and then observed a gloomy silence. Below was a large dark hall, without windows, which is said to have been the place where the mysteries were celebrated, and where Kapustin and his intimate associates gave themselves up to the most frightful orgies.

It was a beautiful morning, but nevertheless the whole place, in its silent and deserted condition, with the three spectral-looking statues in the courtyard, and its dark and ghastly reminiscences, made a truly fearful impression upon me.

Kapustin had, in his whole nature and position, manifestly a great resemblance to John of Leyden, the Anabaptist King in Munster. The religious principles of the Baptists too, in their origin, if not in their present state, bear an incontestable resemblance to those of the Dukhobortsy. It is however very remarkable that this man, who, according to our modern ideas, was merely an uncultivated Russian peasant, should have been able to create a complete theocratic state, comprising four thousand persons – Platonic Utopia, founded upon religious, Christian and Gnostic principles, and to maintain it for so many years.


It should be noted that Haxthausen’s account of the events which led to the exile of the Doukhobors to the Caucasus (ie. murder, harboring deserters, etc) took place prior to his visit and is based on second-hand information. In this regard, Haxthausen drew on rumours and accusations emanating partly from the Mennonites, who never approved of the Doukhobors and partly from unsympathetic Tsarist authorities. The account is further complicated by Haxthausen’s own inconsistency and exaggeration. For example, in the French Edition of his account, published in 1847, he alleges that 400 Doukhobors were killed at Milky Waters, whereas in the English Edition of his account, published in 1856, he alleges that only 200 Doukhobors were killed. Therefore, Haxthausen’s account is unreliable in this regard, although it is the most commonly-cited version of those events.

View Tavria Doukhobor Villages, 1802-1845 in a larger map

Furthermore, recent archival research by scholar John R. Staples refutes many of the reasons cited by Haxthausen for the Doukhobor exile. In his recent publication, Cross-Cultural Encounters on the Ukrainian Steppe, Settling the Molochna Basin, 1783-1861 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003), Dr. Staples suggests that the case against the Doukhobors was largely fabricated to give the government and the church a dubious excuse to take away their land (motivated by land shortages), to convert them to Orthodoxy, and prepare the ground for exile. The single largest benefactors of the Doukhobor exiles were Mennonites Johan Cornies and his brother David who received 4,039 desiatinas of the land taken away from the Doukhobors.  Staples discovered these findings in a large cache of documents in the State Archives of the Odessa Region, pertaining particularly to the exile of the Doukhobors from Molochna to the Caucasus in the 1840’s.  Doukhobors, confronted by both religious prejudice and jealousy because of their large successful land holdings, could not defend themselves against the abuse of power and consequently were exiles.

Bearing the above in mind, Haxthausen’s first-hand account of his visit to the village of Terpeniye and his sketches of Doukhobor architecture, nevertheless remains one of the rare and valuable glimpses of the Doukhobor colony on the Molochnaya at the end of its existence.

To read more, search, download, save and print a full PDF copy of “The Russian Empire, its People, Institutions and Resources” by Baron August Freiherr von Haxthausen (London: Chapman and Hall, 1856), visit the Google Book Search digital database.

Letters from the Caucasus, 1858

by Floriant A. Gille

Floriant A. Gille was a Swiss-born educator, curator and writer living in Russia who toured the Caucasus region in 1858-1859. During his travels, he visited the Doukhobors living in the Akhalkalaki district of Tiflis province (present-day Ninotsminda district of Georgia).  Gille kept a journal and recorded these encounters, which he published in French as “Lettres sur le Caucase et la Crimee” (Paris: Gide, 1859).  Available in English for the first time ever, this exclusive translation provides the reader with a rare, fascinating, first-hand account of Doukhobor life during this little-known period of their history. Translated by Wayne Hudson for the Doukhobor Genealogy Website.  Foreword and Afterword by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff. 


Floriant Antoine Gille (1801-1865) was a Swiss-born educator, curator and writer in Russia who came to prominence under Tsar Nicholas I.  In the 1840’s, he served as French tutor to the Tsar’s children and then became Court Librarian and Head of the Tsarskoye Selo Arsenal.  A man of tremendous energy and administrative brilliance, he was appointed State Councilor, and in 1852, was made Director of the First Section of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, where he oversaw the creation of an extensive collection of rare books and manuscripts.  He published a number of works on the museum’s collections.

Floriant Antoine Gille (1801-1865).

In July of 1858, Gille traveled to the Caucasus to visit the hot springs there for the good of his health.  His ten-month journey took him from Pyatigorsk, along the shores of the Tersk until Dagestan, then by the Sunzha and Vladikavkaz to Tiflis, Lake Sevan at Erivan, in Ararat, returning via Imereti and Mingrelia Pol.  He then proceeded to the Crimea, before making the final leg of his journey via Constantinople, Athens and Italy.  He kept a journal of his travels, which he published upon his return to St. Petersburg as Lettres sur le Caucase et la Crimee in May 1859.

It was during this journey that Gilles visited the Doukhobors living in the Akhalkalaki district of Tiflis province.  What follows are his detailed observations about their state and condition of life at this time.

October 10

As we came back up the left bank of the Arpa-chay, continuing along the Turkish frontier, the line of which we saw marked from time to time by white stones, we covered 34 versts to reach Troitskoye, a town that lies on the boundary between Armenia and Akhaltsikhe. To reach this place, we made our way up an incline in a region situated between two mountain ranges; I knew I had reached a great elevation from seeing snow caps on the mountains to the east.

We passed close to the source of the Arpa-chay, which is a small lake named Lake Arpi (6,670 feet above sea level), in the Turkish territory, which is filled from streams formed by sheets of running water in the Russian territory.

In Troitskoye itself, where there is a small lake marked on the Russian map named Madatapa, we stopped for several hours. It was there that I had to take my leave of Mr. Der-Maroukov and Mr. Blavatsky, who were going to return to Sardar-Abad and Erivan respectively.

Troitskoye has 35 houses and 200 souls living there. It is equidistant from Alexandropol and Akhalkalaki; it is 50 versts from each place. On the way to Akhalkalaki there are seven villages populated by Doukhobors, members of a Russian sect, who number about 2,500 souls. These villages are named Troitskoye, Efremovka, Goreloye, Orlovka, Spasskoye, Bogdanovka, all in the direction of Akhalkalaki; and Rodionovka, which is in the high country on the shores of Lake Taparavan [Paravani].

Lake Madatapa near the village of Troitskoye, much the same today as when Gille visited it in 1858. The Sinii Kurgan rises in the foreground behind the lake.  A Panoramio photo by Bazieri.

The entire region is filled with lakes. From the highest one flows the Taparavan-Chay [Paravani River] which empties into Lake Tumangel, from where it continues down to Akhalkalaki. On the left side of the road is Lake Kanchali. It is said that trout abound in these lakes and fishing them is a resource for Rodionovka and the Armenian villages of Poka, Ganza or Kanza, and Sagamo, where it is said there are ancient churches.

We stayed in Troitskoye at the home of the local elder. He was born in the province of Tambov and is called Vereshchagin. I talked with him about their way of life for some time.

“You see,” he said to me as he showed me immense sheds full of forage, “that we can harvest enough for our cattle, of which we can keep a great number, but a cow eats a lot, and we have to feed it for nine months, and it eats many puds each month; and then we have our horses, which keep us alive; we use them for transportation.”

“What about potatoes and barley?” I asked him.

“Potatoes do not want to grow; and as for barley, we have tried; in four years it only grew once. It’s because,” he added, showing me the lake, “it is still frozen here in June and by August 1st there is already snow.”

I learned that the population lives exclusively off the transportation of goods of all kinds. With their horses, these coachmen can haul heavy loads at the rate of 8 silver kopeks (32 centimes) per pud (16 kilograms) for a distance of 100 versts, from Alexandropol on one side to Akhalkalaki on the other. These people belong to the vigorous race of Russian yamchiks [“coachmen”] about whom I have already spoken. They are trusted with all kinds of merchandise. Convoys that travel the frontier have been exposed to attack by Turkish marauders, but the yamchiks do not fear them and know how to defend themselves.

Their women are not afraid of work. The house in which we spent several hours was spotless. A young woman saw to the preparations for our dinner. As I watched her doing it, I could not help but admire how resolute she was, yet gentle at the same time, with an air of resignation to a life of hardship.

There were no churches in these villages. I had known that and I asked about it. “We assemble in the biggest house and pray together there.”

Further on, I had the chance to gather more details about these Doukhobors, who furnished me with excellent horses and escorted me to Akhalkalaki, where people were expecting me and where I was going to have to find other means of transportation.

The mountain countryside surrounding the Doukhobor villages of the Akhalkalaki district, while scenic, was rocky and barren, and was capable of growing only hay for forage. A Panoramio photo by Highland_82.

I wish I could have travelled at my leisure through this remote country and discover for myself whether the land resources were really so poor. I had heard that the villages of Poka, Ganza, and Sagamo had arable land. As for Troitskoye, Goreloye and Efremovka, the ones that I visited, the elevation of the region is an obstacle to farming.

The mountain [Sinii Kurgan] that dominates little Lake Madatapa is 8,900 feet above sea level: I was not able to find out its elevation above the lake; but Tumangel is at an elevation of 7,620 feet, which must also be that of Troitskoye, and it is an elevation that is too high for cereal crops. All that remains is hay, made from the excellent grasses that abound throughout the Caucasus.

I took my leave of Mr. Der-Maroukov, who has been so helpful to me since Mastara, and Mr. Blavatsky, whom I handed a letter of thanks for General Kolubakin.

At the next stop in the village of Efremovka, where I changed horses, I entered one of the houses. I had stopped there for some tea. The main room in which I took my short break was whitewashed. There was a large clay stove that served as an oven, a large table, some wooden furnishings, and a bed that could be curtained off with a printed cotton cloth; all of these things were of the greatest cleanliness, even the floorboards. In front of the windows hung narrow pieces of white cloth embroidered in red [rushniki – a traditional Doukhobor handicraft].

“Are they curtains?” I asked an elderly woman who had invited me in.

“No,” she replied, “it’s the work our young girls do to decorate our place a little bit.”

I looked around as I slowly drank my tea. The old woman presented me a nice cucumber that she had cut up and served on a very white plate.

“It’s a good size one,” I told her, “and really very tasty.”

“They’re Akhaltsikhe cucumbers,” she said. “We buy them for giving to travellers who pass by.”

These cucumbers were as firm and juicy as Maltese oranges, excellent and well-deserving of the reputation they enjoy. They cost only one ruble (4 francs) for a hundred.

This nice old lady, so house proud and well turned out, had an expression of serenity that suggested her soul was unblemished. I spoke for a long time with her. She gave me much information about life in this country.

“Yes,” she said, “we live off transportation. The hay is good here, but the wheat won’t grow.”

She gave me the same details about their sect as the elder in Troitskoye.

“But having no preacher, no books, how do you manage to teach your children to read?” I asked.

“Oh, we manage. We have prayers and we pray for the Tsar,” she added.

I asked her if she had lived in the Doukhobor villages that used to exist by the Azov Sea.

“Oh, yes,” she replied, “in the same neighbourhood as the German colonists [Mennonites]; they were really brave men.”

The mountain countryside outside the village of Orlovka, much the same today as when Gille visited the Doukhobors in 1858. A Panoramio photo by Dimit.

She added more details about the Doukhobors, who had been more numerous at one time in this country; but the land wasn’t good enough, and some of them had been allowed to settle near Chemakha and Elizavetpol, in the same region as German colonists from Helenenfeld, where Molokans can also be found.

The old lady’s son-in-law stopped by to visit, followed by her daughters. What can I say? I was struck by the peace and gentleness that their faces all expressed, and by the order and propriety displayed in all of their houses (I had visited many). As to their doctrine, I do not know much; I only have the impression made by their physical appearance. It seems to me that I had spent a few hours in the company of a society of inoffensive Quakers.

I continued on my route and pondered the men and things I had seen. There are hours in life when the spirit is carried away across the ages. A memory awakened is there in front of you; it recalls facts, it sums them up, it brings them face to face, groups them together, puts them one against the other, and then deduces the outcomes.

In the domain of thought, what are the barriers and what limits should we set? In religious matters, is not a certain tolerance the safest way to deal with sects?

I stayed absorbed in my thoughts for many hours. What power can stop ideas? Are there distances, obstacles or barriers to them? The greatest strength is that of faith. What was it that drove the early Christians to those places where their faith bade them: Go?

The valleys through which I am travelling are on the same route taken by the first neophyte Christians who went to Armenia and Georgia in the 4th century.

In Orlovka, one of the villages I mentioned and have passed through, a road leads to the high country of Lake Taparavan [Paravani], out of which flows the Taparavan-Chay, the river along which I travelled a short distance to Akhalkalaki.

It was by crossing the same region, following the same river, that in the early 4th century, the light of the Gospel was carried in the hand of a woman who, fleeing persecution in Rome, then fleeing Armenia, went on and on, guided by a faith that was unstoppable. A Georgian legend says that this saintly woman, a contemporary of Rhipsime and Gaïane, having perhaps witnessed their martyrdom at Vagharshapat, arrived in this unknown region. A shepherd told her that the waters of Lake Taparavan join up with the Cyrus. The holy woman followed the river as far as Khertwis, and from there along the river into Georgia. The first thing she did was to bring the sign of the Cross and start to preach the Gospel. This cross, made from two vine stocks tied up with some of her hair, is the very cross that is venerated in the Church of Sion at Tiflis [Tbilisi]. The woman’s name was Saint Nina [from which the name Ninotsminda, the modern Georgian name for the Doukhobor settlement of Bogdanovka, is derived].

I arrived in Akhalkalaki in the evening. My arrival had been announced for October 10; at one stop before the town I found an officer of the regency who was waiting for me. He informed me that my lodgings were prepared at the home of an Armenian, Mr. Martyros Markarov, a former officer who had served in the Cossack regiments of the Caucasus line.

Akhalkalaki is 5,510 feet above sea level. The second largest town of the old pashaluk [administrative division of the Ottoman Empire] of Akhaltsikhe, it has a mixed population of about 3,000 souls, made up of Armenians, who own 216 of the houses, as well as Turks and Tartars. It is a town in decline that once had some importance.

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


On October 10, 1858, while en route from the town of Alexandropol in Erevan province to the town of Akhalkalaki in Tiflis province, Gille passed through a number of Doukhobor villages in the latter district. He stopped at two of these villages, Troitskoye and Efremovka, for food and a change of horses. During his stay, he conversed with his Doukhobor hosts, visited several of their homes, and learned about their state of affairs and way of life.

Gille found a population of 2,500 Doukhobors living in seven villages (he erred as there were eight Doukhobor villages in 1858) in the Akhalkalaki district. They were previously more numerous in this district, but owing to land shortages, a substantial number of Doukhobors relocated to the districts of Borchalo and Kedabek in 1844-1847.

Gille noted that the Akhalkalaki Doukhobors were assigned insufficient, barren lands in very inhospitable areas of the Caucasus. Because of the high altitude (over 7,500 feet above sea level) and the short growing season (the snow remained until June and returned by August) cereal crops did not ripen and mature. The Doukhobors were forced to adjust to the conditions as well as they could. They grew hay for forage for their cattle and horse herds, and relied exclusively on the cartage trade for their income.

The Swiss-born traveller wrote approvingly of the Doukhobors’ physical appearance, as well as their hospitality and industry, noting in particular that “their women were not afraid of work”. He admired their peaceful, gentle and inoffensive nature, along with their meek resolve to a life of hardship in these adverse geographic and climatic conditions. As well, he found their homes and furnishings to be of the “greatest cleanliness”.

Gille did not have an opportunity during his stay to learn much about the Doukhobors’ religious beliefs. However, he observed that they had no preacher, no books and no churches in their villages. Rather, they assembled in the biggest house in each village and prayed together there.

Gille’s impressions of the Doukhobors, while brief, are among the remarkably few sources of detailed, published information about them in the two decades following their settlement in the Caucasus. As such, his work is an important contribution to our understanding of this little-known period of Doukhobor history. 

To read more, search, download, save and print a full PDF copy of the original French text of Floriant Antoine Gille’s Lettres sur le Caucase et la Crimee (Paris: Gide, 1859), visit the Google Book Search digital database.