Brilliant History – Fading Into Obscurity

by William M. Rozinkin

Today, few travelling on Highway 3A from Brilliant to Ootischenia across the Kootenay River notice the concrete foundation on the rocky bluff overlooking the river. Fewer still know or recall its history. In the following article, reproduced by permission from the Nelson Daily News (March 2 & 6, 1995), long-time Kootenay resident and historian William M. Rozinkin (1923-2007) documents the history of the “Besedushka”, the stately “retreat house” built for Peter “Lordly” Verigin by his followers in 1922. In the quiet atmosphere of its location, the Doukhobor leader spent time writing and meditating. However as Rozinkin recounts, the destruction of the building by arson in 1924 heralded decades of strife and factionalism within the British Columbia Doukhobor community.

For many years motorists travelling on Highway 3A from Castlegar through Ootishenia and across the Kootenay River bridge at Brilliant saw the old Doukhobor bridge upstream to their right, while to their left are settlements of Brilliant. Slightly to their left but straight ahead, they also could see Verigin’s Tomb and a cement foundation directly below it. Today motorists can also see a newly constructed Brilliant Intersection road as it sweeps below the tomb and the cement foundation.

This new road, costing almost $4 million, now joins the new bridge across the Columbia River leading to the city of Castlegar and the Celgar Pulp Mill giving an alternative route to motorists who otherwise would have to travel through Ootishenia. This new road and bridge were opened to the public late last year at a cost of about $28 million.

Today no evidence remains to suggest or remind motorists that Brilliant was the headquarters of the Canadian Doukhobor communities of The Christian Community Of Universal Brotherhood that had about 90 communal villages in British Columbia and settlements in Alberta and Saskatchewan. There is no doubt that with the passing years interesting Brilliant history is also fading into obscurity.

Nonetheless, Brilliant’s past includes Verigin’s Tomb and the old bridge whose histories are briefly recorded while the cement foundation remains forgotten. It, indeed, also has a unique place in the pages of this region’s history.

View from near the “Besedushka” overlooking Brilliant and Ootischenia across the Kootenay River, 1924.  British Columbia Archives A-08737.

After the Doukhobors moved to the Kootenay and Columbia regions from Saskatchewan in 1908, their determination to succeed with hard work brought forth almost amazing results.

By living and working communally under the leadership of Peter Lordly Verigin, in less than a decade they transformed the forested wilderness into village settlements with orchards and gardens around them. They also built a wooden pipe plant to manufacture water pipes for domestic needs and irrigation along with sawmills, planer mills, flour mills, linseed oil plants and a jam factory to serve the villagers of Brilliant, Ootishenia, Pass Creek, Glade, Shoreacres, Slocan, and Grand Forks.

In Grand Forks where purchased lands included some cleared with small orchards, they built a brick factory to produce quality bricks for all their needs along with occasional shipments to the Consolidated Mining and Smelting Company in Trail, B.C.

The main administrative office was in Brilliant. It was also here that the famous Kootenay-Columbia Jam Factory was located along with a towering grain elevator, fruit-packing shed, a retail store, Mr. Verigin’s residence and other buildings.

In late 1920 Mr. Verigin asked his nephew Vasily Lukianovich Verigin and his family to move to Brilliant from Shoreacres to help in maintaining his residence there. Their family consisted of Vasily, his wife Margaret, three daughters, Fanny, Lucy, and Margaret, when they moved into a house on the hillside overlooking Brilliant. Also living with them were their grandchildren, Andrew, Peter, and Johnny Semenoff whose mother Nastia (their first daughter) had passed away earlier in Shoreacres, and their father, Andrew, was away occasionally for extended periods of time to work on community projects.

Vasily and Margaret’s second oldest daughter, Mary, was married to John Fedorovich Masloff and resided across the river from them in Ootishenia.

With flourishing communities organized and growing in development, its members decided in 1921 to express their appreciation to their leader — president Peter Lordly Verigin for his administrative and religious guidance.

The following year, in 1922, this was done with construction of a small, ornamentally designed house on a solid, almost flat-surfaced rock overlooking the settlements and lush orchards of Brilliant and Ootishenia along with a grand view of the sparkling waters of the Kootenay River as it races to join the rushing currents of the Columbia River near Castlegar, about a mile downstream.

The house was specially designed to accommodate the space on the rock. It was about 23 feet long and almost 17 feet wide and with a veranda on cement pillars around it, the house appeared much larger. Construction of the building was neatly finished and painted white with blue trim and the veranda elegantly decorated with an interlaced ornamental fret work as it embraced the beautiful house. It was the pride of the community craftsmen.

Approaches to the house followed a well arranged walkway with flower beds on either side that led to concrete steps leading down to the main entrance below, while around the house, rock walls were built to form benches filled with earth in which beautiful flowers and lawns adorned the immediate surroundings.

The house had a full basement that was divided into two rooms and its solid rock floor also served as a base for the brick chimney. It had a separate outside entrance and a window on the west side.

Peter “Lordly” Verigin’s retreat house in Brilliant, British Columbia. ISKRA.

With Mr. Verigin’s main residence near the business section of Brilliant proper below, this new house on the hillside above was used by him as a place where he met special visitors and friends and a place to rest and relax. Some of his writings were done there in the quiet atmosphere of its location, at times late into the night.

The house was located almost on the same level of the hillside and a short distance from the home of Vasily Lukianovich and his family who looked after the new building with its colorful gardens. The family also maintained an apiary of no less than 60 beehives for the communities.

More than ever, during that period in the 1920’s life in the communities honoured with pride Peter Lordly Verigin’s slogan, “Toil and Peaceful Life”. Under his administration, not only did they show exceptional accomplishments needed for their daily lives, they also were on the threshold of retiring all their financial debts.

Among occasional problems that occurred in the villages, most were resolved with tolerant appeals for common sense and understanding. There were also occasions Lordly Verigin was asked to help with advice.

At times a disrupting threat to the villagers came from a small group of people who broke away from The Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood a few years after the Doukhobors arrived from Russia in 1899 to settle in Saskatchewan. Among the Doukhobors this group was commonly called “nudes”. Later they became more known as Freedomites.

These people, whose closest residence to Brilliant was three miles away in Thrums, often harassed the villagers by disrupting their meetings with heckling and stripping nude. Many times Mr. Verigin would help his members to manually escort these nudes from their meetings after they forced their way inside.

A small Freedomite settlement in Thrums was alongside several farmers among whom were some (Independents) who left the communities through disagreements. Although some farmers befriended the Freedomites, they were shocked to see three Freedomite women that lived nearby, quickly disrobe and standing stark naked to watch an airplane fly by in 1919.

It was Sunday, April 20, 1924, after attending a morning prayer meeting Vasily Lukianovich and his wife were enjoying their usual Sunday rest with their children when suddenly they heard a loud female voice singing by Mr. Verigin’s house. They all ran to the vacant house to search for the intruder and found a nude Freedomite woman, who they recognized, hiding behind a linen drape hanging on the veranda.

They pleaded with her to leave in peace and return home to Thrums, but she refused to leave. With fears she would damage the house, they sent word to the villages for help. Their neighbours arrived with a team of horses harnessed to a wagon, loaded the female intruder on it and took her home in Thrums.

When Vasily Lukianovich and his family went to bed that same Sunday night after a very disturbing day that appeared to have ended peacefully, they did not expect a loud hammering on their door after midnight and hear a loud voice yelling that Mr. Verigin’s house was on fire. It was a guard from Brilliant, Nikolai Lebedoff, who saw the flames spreading through the house and rushed there to try help save it. They ran to the burning building and with garden hoses poured water on the blaze while more people from nearby villages came running to help, without success.

With the frightful fire so close to their house, the children were terrified. And as the light from the nearby flames shone through their windows and flickered brightly on the walls and floor in their house the terrified children began to fear their own house would also be attacked by arsonists. Their fears rose to helpless panic, and in desperation to at least save some family valuables, 12 year old Lucy, their second youngest daughter, grabbed her father’s special box that contained valuable correspondence and writings they all treasured and with it she ran to hillside bushes to protect and hide it.

The flames from the burning house on the hillside were visible for miles around when suddenly it was discovered that the Brilliant school and two Ootishenia schools were also in flames.

The following day it was noted that the three schools and the house were set on fire at about the same time, indicating that several terrorists had done it.

The three schools were valued at $1,500 each while the value of Mr. Verigin’s house was estimated at $2,500. Not included in the house value was fine furniture and irreplaceable books, correspondence, writings and other personal items. Heirloom rugs alone were valued at more than $600 in 1924.

The night before this happened in Brilliant a school in Grand Forks was set a fire but was saved before fire spread.

While these unfortunate events were happening, CCUB president Peter Lordly Verigin was away on business on the prairies. Following the fires he was notified and immediately he returned to Brilliant.

Another view of the “Besedushka” in Brilliant, British Columbia prior to its destruction by arson, 1924.  British Columbia Archives, Koozma Tarasoff Collection.

While community Doukhobors with emotion condemned the Freedomite terrorists and vowed not to let them enter their settlements for any reason whatsoever, Mr. Verigin studied the situation, and four days after these attacks, he sent an appeal to the Premier of British Columbia John Oliver for assistance to stop Freedomite attacks on schools and community property.

In his letter dated April 25, 1924 he wrote the premier: “Last Sunday night towards Monday morning, April 21, a lot of buildings were burned in the Doukhobor Colony at Brilliant, namely three schools and a small house of mine which was built on a rock about two years ago with beautiful architecture.”

In his lengthy letter Mr. Verigin explained that since the arrival of the Doukhobors to Canada in 1899 “different opinions were formed in the Doukhobor Society result of which three parties came out.” Almost in detail he addressed many differences of these parties. Describing the parties he said the first party was under his control and carries the name of The Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood. “. . . This party is upkeeping the principle, religion, and customs which the Doukhobors I have had in Russia.”

The Second Party he pointed out are “the people who left the Doukhobor Society (to become independent farmers) and have accepted the homesteads in the Provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta and became British subjects.”

Describing the Third Party that became more known later as Freedomites, he said: “The Third Party, although very small in number that left the Doukhobor Society under the name “Nudes” are absolutely anarchists acknowledging no moral laws, desire to work nothing, hatefully looking on all the cultured progressive arrangements …”

Such party is under suspicion are the ones who is setting fire amongst Doukhobor Colonies in British Columbia.” “… I have decided to bring to your notice and respectfully ask you to remove this party from nearby community settlements otherwise these people are threatening to start burning the good arrangements as possessed by the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood. I am very much surprised that the setting a fire to schools had been started sometime ago and the government does not take any steps whatever in order to punish the guilty ones …”

Further in his letter he pointed out that, “There will be about 20 or not more than 30 of such people who are living around the Community Colonies.”

Mr. Verigin concluded his letter with these words: “If the government will appoint an Inspectorate to pick out the “Nudes” or in other words anarchists, I will give exact list of names and surnames of such people. I beg to remain with the hope that you will take quick action on my report. Respectfully yours,
(Signed) Peter Verigin, President”

Upon receiving Mr. Verigin’s letter desperately asking for protection against the Nudes’ (Freedomites’) violent attacks on schools and buildings in the Doukhobor communities, it is not known how the 67 year old B.C. Premier John Oliver planned to respond although he apparently viewed the trouble with Freedomites as “incomprehensible”.

What is known is he and his Liberal party were heavily involved in preparations for an approaching provincial election less than two months away. That election on June 20, 1924 saw all campaigning political party leaders defeated including John Oliver although his Liberal party won enough seats to form a minority government.

To return as head of the B.C. Liberal Party and Premier of the province, Mr. Oliver ran in a by-election in Nelson where he defeated a local candidate. Harry Houston, and triumphantly returned home to Victoria to remain as provincial premier until he died on August 17, 1927 from incurable cancer.

Today it appears the only historical evidence of that fateful day of April 21, 1924 is found in Mr. Peter Lordly Verigin’s letter in the provincial government archives and the surviving concrete foundation just below Verigin’s Tomb and above the newly constructed road of the Brilliant Interchange as seen daily by motorists travelling north across the Kootenay River bridge between Ootishenia and Brilliant.

Writer’s Note: A lot of information for this story came from my wife’s (Lucy) grandparents Vasily and Margaret Verigin’s family members.

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.

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.

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.

The Dukhobortsy and Religious Persecution in Russia

by John Ashworth

The following lecture was delivered in April 1900 by John Ashworth at the Society of Friends (Quakers) Meeting House in Manchester, England. Reproduced from the pages of ISKRA No.1870 (Grand Forks: U.S.C.C., March 24, 1999), this article sets out the beliefs, practices, history and persecution of the Doukhobors in Russia, and follows their early settlement in the Canadian West.

In bringing this subject into notice I am anxious to awaken an interest on behalf of the sectarian churches in the vast country of Russia, more especially of the Dukhobortsy (Doukhobors) who are suffering in various ways for not worshipping after the manner of the State Religion, known as the Greek (Russian Orthodox) Church. The history of the Doukhobors brings home to members of the Society of Friends what our forefathers suffered in the days of George Fox, in the time of the Irish rebellion, and during the American War.

The religious communities that have suffered and are suffering persecution at the hands of the Government are principally the Baptists, Stundists, Molokans, and Dukhobortsy.

The Baptists, only a few years ago, were permitted to have full freedom for worship in their own places, but this freedom is now restricted to the Province of Livonia, Riga being their chief centre. It is only within this district that they are permitted to erect Meeting Houses. Some of their pastors are undergoing imprisonment for converting members of the Greek Church to their doctrines; and are obliged to send their children to the Orthodox schools.

The Stundists hold similar views to the Baptists. They are not allowed to have their own churches, and they are liable to imprisonment if three of them assemble for worship; they therefore attach themselves to the Baptists that they may take part in their services. Both these are allowed the Bible and hymn books, but they are not permitted to read or receive any religious literature.

The Molokans are Methodists, and they do not believe in war, and they also are not allowed to have any books. These people are scattered in different parts of Russia but mostly in the Caucasus, in order to prevent them from meeting together, yet in spite of these precautions their principles spread.

Lastly, the Dukhobortsy or “Spirit Wrestlers”. These people were first heard of about 150 years ago, and at the end of the last century or the beginning of the present their doctrines had become so clearly defined, and the number of their followers had so greatly increased, that the Government and the Greek Church considered their creed to be peculiarly obnoxious. They therefore subjected them to cruel persecution.

Doukhobor villagers

The foundation of the Spirit Wrestlers’ teaching consists in the belief that the Spirit of God is present in the soul of man, and directs him by its word within him. They understand the coming of Christ in the flesh, His works, teachings, and sufferings, in a spiritual sense. The object of the sufferings of Christ, in their view, was to give us an example of suffering for truth. Christ continues to suffer in them even now, when they do not live in accordance with the behest and spirit of His teaching. The whole teaching of the Spirit Wrestlers is penetrated with the gospel spirit of love.

Worshipping God in the spirit, the Spirit Wrestlers affirm that the outward Church and all that is performed in it and concerns it has no importance for them. The Church is where two or three are gathered together, i.e. united in the name of Christ.

They pray inwardly at all times; while, on fixed days (corresponding for convenience to the orthodox holy days) they assemble for prayer meetings, at which they read prayers and sing hymns, or psalms as they call them, and greet each other fraternally with low bows, thereby acknowledging every man as a bearer of the Divine Spirit.

The teaching of the Spirit Wrestlers is founded on tradition. This tradition is called among them the Book of Life, because it lives in their memory and hearts. It consists of psalms, partly formed out of the contents of the Old and New Testaments, partly composed independently.

The Spirit Wrestlers found their mutual relations and their relations to other people – and not only to people, but to all living creatures – exclusively on love; and, therefore, they hold all people equal, brethren. They extend this idea of equality also to the Government authorities; obedience to whom they do not consider binding upon them in those cases where the demands of these authorities are in conflict with their conscience, while in all that does not infringe what they regard as the will of God, they willingly fulfill the desires of the authorities. They consider murder, violence, and in general all relations to living things not based no love, as opposed to their conscience, and to the will of God. 

Such are the beliefs for which the Spirit Wrestlers have long endured such persecutions. Yet it may be said of them that they are industrious and abstemious, always truthful in their speech, for they account all lying as a great sin.

The Emperor Alexander I, on the 9th of December, 1816, expressed himself in one of his prescripts as follows:

“All the measures of severity exhausted upon the Spirit Wrestlers during the 30 years up to 1801, not only did not destroy that sect, but more and more multiplied the number of its adherents.”

His Majesty, wishing to isolate them, graciously allowed them to emigrate from the Provinces of Tambov and Ekaterinoslav (where they flourished) to the so-called Milky Waters in the Tauride (Tavria) Province.

In the reign of Nicholas I, severe persecutions befell them, especially for not bearing arms. Between 1850 and 1850 they were transported to the extreme borders of the Caucasus, where being always confronted with hills men, it was thought they must of necessity protect their property and families by force of arms, and would thus have to renounce their convictions. Moreover, the so-called Wet Mountains, appointed for their settlement, had a severe climate, standing, as they did, 5,000 feet above the sea level. Barley grew with difficulty and crops were often destroyed by frost.

Others of these Spirit Wrestlers were transported to the wild, unhealthy and uncultivated district of Elizavetpol, where it was thought the wild frontier tribes would probably exterminate them. Instead of that, they won the friendship of the hill tribes, and enjoyed a half a century of prosperity and peace, although in the first instance they suffered to some extent through the depredations of the inhabitants, because they carried out their principles of non-resistance.

In 1887, when Universal Military Conscription was introduced into the Transcaucasus, many of the Spirit Wrestlers, through the snare which comes with increase of worldly goods, became lax in their religious views and joined the army. This indifference continued until 1895, when Peter Verigin, whom the Doukhobors now look up to as their leader, was the means of creating a revival amongst them, and bringing them back to the faith of their fathers, and to their old custom of total abstinence from all intoxicants and tobacco. They voluntarily divided their property, in order to do away with the distinctions between rich and poor, and again they strictly insisted on the doctrine of non-resistance to violence.

The Russian Government felt that Peter Verigin would be better removed, especially as the conscription was again being introduced into the Caucasus. He was banished to Lapland, but afterwards transferred to Obdorsk, in Siberia, in order that he might be more completely cut off from his people.

In carrying out this spirit of non-resistance, however, they felt that so long as anyone possessed arms, it was difficult to keep from using them, when robbers came to steal a horse or a cow. So to remove temptation and to give proof of their principles to the Government, they resolved to destroy their arms. This decision was unitedly carried out in the three districts on the night of June 28th, 1895. In the Kars district, all passed off quietly. In the Elizavetpol district, the authorities made it an excuse for arresting 40 of them under a plea that it was a rebellion against army service. The people in the villages of Goreloye in the Tiflis district fared still worse. There a large assembly of men and women gathered at night for the purpose of burning their arms; they continued singing psalms till the bonfire had burned low, and the day had begun to dawn. Just then two regiments of Cossacks arrived on the scene, and were ordered to charge upon the defenseless crowd, without even ascertaining the cause of the gathering. They flogged the men and women with heavy whips, until the Doukhobors’ faces were cut and their clothes covered with blood.

No one was tried for this, and no one was punished, nor has any explanation or apology been offered to them. The Government in St. Petersburg depend for information upon the local authorities, who were the very people who sanctioned this crime. The newspapers dare not report such disgraceful scenes, in fact they are forbidden to do so.

Vladimir Chertkov, Paul Biryukov and Ivan Tregubov (Tolstoyans sympathetic to the Doukhobors) went to St. Petersburg to plead before the Emperor on behalf of these suffering people. Instead of seeing him they were banished without trial and without being allowed to make the matter public.

Instead of the perpetrators of these crimes being punished, Cossacks were quartered in the villages of the Doukhobors, and there insulted the women, beat the men, and stole their property. Four thousand (Tiflis Doukhobors) were obliged to abandon their houses and sell their well cultivated lands at a few days notice, and were banished to unhealthy districts where nearly 1,000 perished in the next three years, from want, disease and ill-treatment.

It may be interesting at this juncture to show, from the following discourse between a Judge and one of the Doukhobors, that some of the authorities had a tender place in their hearts.

To the conscription of the year 1895, in the district town of Dushet, there were summoned seven of the Spirit Wrestlers who were exiled to the Gory district. They were all entitled to exemption owing to domestic circumstances. They obeyed the summons, but declined to draw lots, and the village alderman was told to draw for them. A report was drawn up of their refusal, and they were sent home again. The judge determined that they were to appear before the Court on the 14th of November, and served them with notices to do so on the spot.

They appeared at the Court at 9 a.m. The Judge said, “Are you the men who refused to draw lots?” “We are” replied the Doukhobors. “And why do you refuse?” asked the Judge.

Glagolev: “Because we do not wish to enter the military service, knowing beforehand that such service is against our conscience, and we prefer to live according to our conscience, and not in opposition to it. Although by the military law we are entitled to exemption, we would not draw lots because we did not wish to have any share in a business which is contrary to the will of God and to our conscience.”

The Judge: “The term of service is now short: you can soon get it over and go home again. Then they will not drag you from court to court, and from prison to prison.”

Glagolev: “Mr. Judge, we do not value our bodies. The only thing of importance to us is that our conscience should be clear. We cannot act contrary to the will of God. And it is no light matter to be a soldier, and to kill a man directly you are told. God has once for all impressed on the heart of each man, “Thou shalt not kill.” A Christian will not only not learn how to kill, but will never allow one of God’s creatures to be beaten.”

Then said the Judge, “But nevertheless, we cannot do without soldiers and war, because both you and others have a little property, and some people are quite rich; and if we had no armies and no soldiers, then evil men and thieves would come, and would plunder us, and with no army we could no defend ourselves.”

Then Glagolev replied, “You know, Mr. Judge, that it is written in the Gospels, “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth.” We have obeyed this injunction, and will hold to it, and therefore shall have not need of defending anything. Why, ask yourself, Mr. Judge, how we can keep our money when our brothers might need it? We are commanded to help our neighbours, so that we cannot find rest in our souls when we see them in want. Christ when He was on earth taught that we should “feed the hungry, give shoes to those who have none, and share with those who are needy.”

Then the Judge began to enquire into our circumstances, and asked how we were getting on, and how the country suited us, all about the distraint, and the Cossacks striking the women and old men, and their outraging the young women, and expressed great astonishment that soldiers whose duty it was to protect us, could turn themselves into brigands and murderers.

Then said Glagolev, “We see from this, Mr. Judge, that an army does not in the least exist for the protection of our own interests, but in order that our savings may be spent on armaments, and is no use in the world but to cause misery, outrage and murder.”

Then the Judge, who had listened to it all attentively, was greatly moved and distressed by all the cruelties which had been practiced on the Spirit Wrestlers. He condemned them, in virtue of some section or other of the Code, to a fine of three roubles, and himself advised them not to pay it.

He talked a great deal more to us, and questioned us, and said, as he dismissed us, “Hold fast to that commandment of the Lord’s.”

We went to the inn to dine, and see our friends, and before we had any dinner, the Judge came to see us, and brought us two roubles, in case we had nothing to eat. We endeavored to decline the money, saying, “We do not want it. Thank God, today we shall have enough.” But he begged us to accept it as the offering of a pure heart, and made in sincerity, and then we took it, as from a brother, and after thanking him, and bidding him farewell, went away. He showed us where he lived, expressed a wish to know more of us, and begged us to come and talk with him.

Ultimately, the Russian Government, perhaps realizing that persecution would not turn the Doukhobors from their faith, granted them permission to emigrate. They were assisted in this emigration by the Society of Friends (Quakers) in England. One colony was sent to Cyprus, where the climate proved unsuitable. Finally arrangements were made with the Canadian Government for each male over 18 years of age to have a grant of 160 acres of land in (the North-West Territories), together with a loan of one dollar per head.

In the first half of 1899, over 6,000 emigrated to Manitoba, Assiniboia and Saskatchewan – and in the Spring it was found necessary to transport the Cyprus Colony to Canada also, as many of them were suffering from fever – this bringing up the total number of Doukhobors in Canada to about 7,400.

The Russian Government apparently showed great forethought in the manner in which they carried out the persecution, by arresting the leaders and foremost men and banishing them to Siberia. At the present time 110 have been thus cruelly snatched away from their families and people, and are still in exile.

In the Autumn of last year (1899) I had occasion to visit Canada on business, when, through the kindness of the Deputy Minister of the Interior, whom I met at Ottawa, arrangements were made for my paying a visit to some Doukhobor Settlements. Upon arriving at Winnipeg, Mr. McCreary, the Immigration Commissioner, passed me forward to Mr. Crerar, the Government Agent at Yorkton, who provided me with a two horse rig, and an interpreter by the name of Captain Arthur St. John, a retired military officer, and who had become a follower of Tolstoy.

Yorkton is a town of about 600 inhabitants, at the terminus of the branch line, which is 270 miles Northwest of Winnipeg. It takes from 8:30 in the morning to about 10 o’clock at night to cover this distance.

On my journey between Winnipeg and Yorkton I got into a conversation with a contractor who was on his way to the latter place to engage 500 Doukhobors to work on the railway at $1.75 per day. He spoke well of them and thought them steady workmen. At the same time he stated that many objections were raised against foreigners being brought into the district.

On the bright, frosty morning of the 25th of October, accompanied by Arthur St. John, I drove 15 miles over the prairie to Whitesand. There we stayed the night with a Friend (Quaker) of the name of Alfred Hutchison, an Ackworth scholar, formerly of Wellingborough, England. At an early hour in the morning, we crossed Whitesand River, drove over the prairie and along the south east side of Good Spirit or Devil’s Lake, till we reached the South Colony of Doukhobors. We stopped to exchange salutations at the first two villages. I shall always remember my first impression of a Doukhobor village on that beautiful, frosty morning. A picturesque group of quaintly built chalet like houses, made of logs with turf roofs. The sides were coated with clay plaster and presented a uniform appearance. In the centre of the main room was a large oven, 5 feet square, which served the purpose of heating the hut and cooking the food. Everything showed most careful workmanship. The habits of personal cleanliness, acquired in their old country, were continued here, for it was noticeable that one of the first buildings put up was a Russian bath.

Doukhobor village

We were sorry to hear that these villagers were obliged to remove in the Spring, owing to their having planted themselves too near former settlers, and also because the land was not good enough to produce sufficient food for the needs of so many.

We next visited the villages on Paterson Lake, where the people seemed more contented and comfortable. They expressed their gratitude for what Friends (Quakers) had done in bringing them to Canada. After the usual salutations, we drove about two miles north to a ranch run by some Scotch people, Mr. and Mrs. Buchanan, who made us welcome for the night. A surveying camp was near, and the leader came and spent two hours with us. Although we were right on the prairie, thirty miles away from any town, yet so many people were gathered together that quite a pleasant evening was spent. Mr. and Mrs. Buchanan spoke highly of the Doukhobors for their honesty and faithfulness. A Doukhobor worked on their farm and they sent him the following day with his team to help the Surveyors to change their camp to twenty miles off. The women are very clever with the needle, as specimens of their handiwork showed.

After a pleasant evening, a good night’s rest, and farewell greetings, we continued our journey over the prairie to the next villages. At one time, owing to a frosty mist, we lost our trail trying to make a short cut. Fortunately, we came across some lumber men at a stream, who put us on the track, and soon we struck Williams’ ranch. Here we stopped for refreshment and to rest our horses. These farmers had also a Doukhobor working for them. Mrs. Williams told us she could trust the Doukhobors when left with herself and children, while she did not feel nearly so safe with the untrustworthy Galician settlers. As evening was approaching, we hastened to the next village, and arrived as the sun was setting.

Here we spent the night in a Doukhobor hut. I had a long conversation with the leaders of the village, through Arthur St. John. They chanted some of their psalms to us, after which we had supper of dark brown, sour bread, tea in glasses, potatoes sliced and baked in oil, which we ate according to their custom with our fingers; then a kind of soup made of macaroni, for which they provided home-made wooden spoons.

Arthur St. John, on leaving me that night, instructed a Doukhobor to accompany me on the morrow. He then walked through the night, 18 miles over the prairies to the next village.

Before retiring for the night, I endeavored to amuse the girls and boys by teaching them simple English words, and I was well repaid by their quickness in learning. After a comfortable night’s rest and a breakfast similar to the supper aforesaid, several Doukhobors escorted me some distance in the beautiful morning. We drove 18 miles over the prairie to the next village, which after some difficulty we reached about 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Here we had another Russian meal, and after a friendly greeting drove to the last village on my tour. I found many poor people here, suffering more or less from the Cyprus fever.

Arthur St. John walked back to the village I had just left, whilst I drove across Dead Horse Creek to Kamsack Post Office, where I put up for the night in such accommodation as could be had. We slept in a loft; I on an old-fashioned bed, the driver in rugs on the floor and the Doukhobor boy on the kitchen floor.

The next day we drove back to Yorkton, a distance of 40 miles, arriving there about 10 o’clock at night. The last eight miles over the prairie was by brilliant starlight.

It is difficult to state clearly what the Doukhobor belief is, especially when we bear in mind that these people are what we should call illiterate. They have no written history, and what knowledge they have is handed down orally from father to son. Upon entering a meeting the custom is for the men to greet each other by bowing three times and kissing one another, and the women to do the same to each other. At the commencement, each one says a prayer. The three bows and kisses are intended to signify the cleansing of the body and the repulsion of pride; they take each other’s hands as a sign of union and love, kindly expression, good understanding, and the sense of a God revered in their souls.

During t he meetings, one after another recites the prayers he knows; they sing psalms together and explain to each other the Word of God. As almost all are illiterate, and therefore without books, all this is done from memory. They have no priests in the ordinary sense of the word; they acknowledge as priest the one just, holy, true Christ, uplifted above sinners higher than the heavens; He is their sole teacher. Thus at their meetings they hear the Word of God from each other; each one may express what he knows or feels for the benefit of his brethren; the women are not excluded from this, for, as they say, women also have understanding, and light is in understanding. They pray either standing or sitting, as the case may be. At the end of the meeting, they again kiss each other thrice as at the beginning, and then the brethren return home.

In visiting the villages of the Doukhobors one cannot help noticing that “the power that Christianity in its truest sense has of civilizing, in our acceptance of the word, is made manifest in this instance. These people, deprived of even the few necessities of life common to the children of the soil, hunted from pillar to post, made to herd like the beasts of the field, beaten, ill-treated, mother separated from their children and wives from their husbands, are today the most polite, orderly people it is possible to imagine. The villages they are building testify to the powers of organization and inherent orderliness of the people; the results of self-discipline are apparent in the people as a unit, and the very core of their religious convictions is self-restraint.

The absence of anything like noisiness or excitability strikes one the instant one moves about among the villages. The very children are curiously quiet and gentle in their mode of play, and they are miniatures of their elders in more than their picturesque costume. The quiet dignity noticeable comes from the best possible influence, the parents having apparently little trouble in training their children, other than by the example of their own quiet and industrious lives. 

There is something unutterably pathetic to those who live in this wrangling, noisy world of the nineteenth century to see the women and children of the Dukhobortsy quietly and silently bearing with a great patience the load that is laid upon their shoulders. The innate dignity of the women and their uncomplaining, untiring patience have perhaps been the reason that they have had strength given them to endure to the end trials that their magnificent physique could not alone have enabled them to withstand. They are a great people – that is undeniable; and while they are the children of the soil, they are the aristocracy of the soil, people who, to use Ruskin’s words, have found that “all true art is sacred, and in all hand labour there is something of divineness.” Their hand labour is marvelous, from the finest embroidery to the building and plastering of their houses.

Whatever we may think about the religion of the Doukhobors, we have here at the end of the nineteenth century an object lesson of what these people have suffered for conscience sake in endeavoring according to their light to advance the cause of truth and righteousness in the earth.

Well may we ask ourselves the question, “What should we do under similar circumstances?” Should we also stand true to the dictates of Christ our Master? It might be said in reply, “There is no fear of such a state of things happening in this country.” Let us pause and consider. The times are ominous. Militarism is apparently becoming rampant. Even professing representatives of the Gospel of Christ have declared a man to be a coward who attempted to carry out the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount. God forbid that His people should forsake Him in their hour of trial.


John Ashworth was a member of the Society of Friends Doukhobor Committee, a Quaker body formed in England in 1897 to help the Doukhobors emigrate from Russia, and thereafter, to assist in their settlement in Canada.  His visit to the Doukhobor settlements in Canada in Autumn of 1899 – the subject of the above article – was his first of several such visits. For an account of his subsequent visit to the Doukhobors in April of 1901, see his account entitled Visit to the Saskatchewan District Doukhobors, 1901.