Confession of a Doukhobor Elder

by Vasily Vasilyevich Zybin

Vasily Vasilyevich Zybin was born in 1875 in the village of Slavyanka in Elisavetpol province, Russia. As a young man, he witnessed and participated in the turbulent events of the 1890’s surrounding the arrest and exile of Doukhobor leader Peter “Lordly” Verigin; the Burning of Arms and Doukhobor refusal to perform military service; the reprisals, persecutions and sufferings which followed; the Doukhobors’ preparations for departure to Canada; and their early life there. Years later, he recounted these experiences in his Russian-language memoir, “Ispoved’ Starika Dukhobortsa: Vospominaniya o Pereselenii Dukhobortsev v Kanady” edited and published by John A. Popoff in 1964. Now, this rare, historic first-person account is made available for the first time in English translation by Jack McIntosh for the Doukhobor Genealogy Website.

This is Vasily Vasilyevich Zybin’s story of the Doukhobors, telling about what I myself witnessed and experienced in my lifetime. I am eighty-nine years old. Many of my grandchildren, great-grandchildren and friends have been asking me to relate how and why the Doukhobors moved from Russia to Canada.

Arrest and Exile of Peter Vasilyevich Verigin

I remember the day when the woman leader of the Doukhobors, Lukeria Kalmakova, died. She had then been living in the Kholodnoye (Cold Mountains) region in Tiflis Province in Russia. We were living in the village of Slavyanka, in Elisavetpol Province. It was in 188[6] when the desyatnik (village overseer) called around at every house: “Early tomorrow morning everybody go to the moleniye (prayer meeting): Lushechka has died.” My mother, Hanyusha Zybina was such a devoted believer that she burst into tears at once at the news.

Living in the Sirotsky Dom (Orphans’ Home) in accordance with Lushechka’s wishes was Peter Vasilyevich Verigin. He was 26 years old. Lushechka did not leave any kind of note or a will concerning the Sirotsky Dom or the succession to leadership of the Doukhobor community. However everyone knew that Peter V. Verigin was living in the Sirotsky Dom in preparation to take Lushechka’s place after her death.

Peter V. Verigin (sitting) in exile, c. 1890. With him (l-r) are his brother Vasily, sister Vera and Vasily Obedkov. Koozma Tarasoff Collection.

The whole Doukhobor community went into ferment. But the people were not all in agreement about the leadership of their community, and they divided into two groups. The lesser half [the Small Party] did not want Verigin, such as Lushechka’s brother Gubanov, Zubkov, who had been starshina (village head) for 20 years, Baturin, and the group of opponents who had formed around them. The majority of the Doukhobors [the Large Party] eagerly accepted and recognized Verigin as their new leader.

At the same time, fictitious rumours, accusations, and denunciations to the authorities concerning Verigin began to circulate. Verigin [it was said] was supposedly setting himself up as God. And this was playing into the hands of the authorities, who were in any case ill-disposed towards the Doukhobors owing to the latters’ strange beliefs and uncompromising behaviour.

Hostility towards Verigin led to his expulsion from the Sirotsky Dom and his return to Slavyanka, his home village. But the denunciations brought about legal action against him, interrogations and exile to Arkhangel’sk Province. This was in 188[7].

They [the authorities] told him: “You are now under arrest. Tomorrow at ten o’clock we are sending you by cart under escort to Elisavetpol. Spend the night in your house with your parents and your family, and in the morning present yourself at the assembly point; from there you will leave at ten o’clock in the morning with the trusted elder Vasily Pugachev. In the city he will hand you over to the chief of police.”

This news spread all around Slavyanka and the other villages – Goreloye, Troitskoye, and Novospasovka. Sadness befell all the believers, but opponents rejoiced: “So much for you and your ‘Petyushka’; now he won’t be seen any more!” However, he managed to get around and visit people who invited him, albeit carefully, not in daytime but at night so that it would be scarcely noticeable to his ill-wishers.

At that time Petyushka was 27 years old. He was tall, well built, and handsome in appearance, clean-shaven, with an even, pale-blond moustache. He always wore a Cossack outfit: a long, close-fitting coat made of high-quality heavy cloth; cartridge cases on both sides of his chest, that is, cartridges as ornaments, and on his left side a sabre with a two-edged blade some three feet long, but of course enclosed in a scabbard; on his belt a dagger, and on his right side a six-shot revolver fourteen inches long and fully loaded. His hat, bead-grey in colour, was made from the hide of a curly-haired young ram, sewn together more narrowly towards the peak; his boot tops came up to his knees. He held himself straight as a candle, was of cheerful disposition and always treated people courteously.

In the morning the time came for parting from his father, mother, all six of his brothers, and two sisters. At eight o’clock in the morning a commissar had appeared at the house with desyatniks and placed Petr Vasilyevich under arrest. The order was “that nobody from among the people was to escort you, not even your relatives.” But the word had already spread around all the households [from Petr] that “everybody who wishes to accompany me attire yourselves festively and from each house come out and stand near your yard, and after my departure, trail behind about twenty sazhens (an Imperial Russian unit of measure equal to 7 feet) and proceed in this manner to the end of the street.” The street filled up with people.

At the gates of his yard Petr Vasilyevich stopped and bowing towards his house, took his leave: “Well, farewell and forgive me, house of my father, my cradle. You nurtured me and I am leaving you, perhaps forever,” and he bowed down to the ground. Then, moving into the middle of the street, he bowed to the earth, and asked of it forgiveness “that I have trampled and run over you.”

Then they all set out along the road and moved over onto another street, Khomyakov’s. Here, by Fedya Golubov’s yard, he stopped. But Vasily Pugachev, the authorities’ deputy and the man in charge of Petyushka’s arrest, began to urge him on: “So get on with it, get going, time’s a’wasting!”

Standing nearby was Alyosha Polovnikov with his wife, a large, bold personage who had not been allowing even her husband Alyosha to acknowledge the leader of their fathers. But Petyushka says to them: “Alyosha, I would like to visit you.” And both of them joyfully invited him to call by at their house for tea.

The wife started shaking as she rushed home to get the samovar (tea-urn) ready. Their place was five doors ahead, and by the time the crowd got that far, the samovar was already prepared, and Polovnikov’s wife sprang forth, calling out: “Please be so kind, come in for tea!” At this the authorities were enraged: “What’s the meaning of this – this is an official convoy – impossible!” But from all directions they all surged forward and went in. The young fellows were given places and drank tea, but Petyushka remained standing, not sitting down at the table, however much they tried to persuade him.

Then he says: “So then, fellows, sing Zapoem my Kazaki Pesnyu Novuyu! (We Cossacks Shall Sing a New Song!)”. They began singing in harmony, but Petyushka stood there, holding in his left hand the handle of his cavalry sword. The authorities began shouting “Come out, enough of this!” But Petyushka shouted back in a loud voice: “What kind of people are you, how dare you forbid this psalm?” At that he drew his sword from its sheath and swung it powerfully over their heads, so that everybody jumped with fright. “Come out, fellows, into the yard. Let’s hear Shashki Naostri, Vorontsova Ugosti (Swords to the ready, we’ll have Vorontsov for dinner).” The singing resumed. And in time with every word Petyushka stabbed at the ground with an abrupt thud.

At last they started out, walking to the special place called Zaglubokaya Balka (behind the deep gully), where we customarily would see off dear guests. The farewells began. Petyushka was in an elevated mood, giving the appearance of unconcern. Then, yielding to a mischievous impulse, along with Vasya Golubov, he hid from the others in the deep gully. Suddenly the authorities noticed that the prisoner was not among them, they raised an uproar. Nobody, not even his own people, knew where he had gone. At the height of the confusion Petyushka and Vasya plunged back into the crowd and shouted: “What’s the matter with you, who are you looking for? You see we’re here in your midst!” With that everyone calmed down and became quiet.

  Ivan Evseyevich Konkin, brother-in-law of Peter V. Verigin. Koozma Tarasoff Collection.

Standing on the phaeton (horse-drawn carriage) were Petyushka’s father, Vasya, and his mother Nastyusha. They called their son to come near and said: “Dear son, you know they are hounding you off to Siberia, perhaps forever. You should give up this cause.” But this is what he said in reply: “This cause is not yours, and not mine, but God’s. This is what has been appointed for me.” His parents fell silent and then wished God’s blessings upon their son for a happy journey and a successful life. This was their last farewell and absolution.

Farewells were said all around; part of the community returned home, while the rest went to see him off as far as Esomal’skaya Mountain. That would be about twenty versts (an Imperial Russian unit of measure equal to 1.0668 km) farther on. At the halfway point, near a small spring, they stopped to water the horses and have something to eat themselves.

There the authorities lagged behind and turned back, but Vasya Pugachev kept on right after Petyushka, not letting him get ahead. Also there was Ivan Evseyevich Konkin [Verigin’s brother-in-law and confidant]. Petyushka said to Konkin: “Well then, why aren’t you giving Vasya refreshment? Bring him vodka to his heart’s content!” Konkin poured a glass, and then another. “Drink up, drink up, you see, Vasya, you are delivering me to prison. But do you know who it is you are conveying? I am going to shoot you right here, and feed your flesh to the crows! But Vasya does not tremble and remains calm. But Petyushka again says to Konkin: “Why have you not given him a lump of sugar to bite on?” Konkin began to shove the expensive lump into his mouth. Now Petyushka again says to Vasya: “I’m going to kill you right here,” and he drew out his revolver, swung it around, pointed straight at him, and fired between his legs. The miserable little brute fell back so that everybody thought that was the end of him.

Konkin started to lift him up, and Vasya, not yet having managed to swallow the sugar, started muttering like a half-dead man. This put such a fright into him that he then became quite subdued.

When they got as far as Esomal’skaya Mountain, they said their farewells; the people returned home, but Pugachev and Petyushka traveled on to the city. The police chief wanted to place the prisoner straight into prison, but then a certain Armenian, Akhrem, an important person in the eyes of the police chief, bailed Petyushka out and took him into his home. Soon his trial took place, and he was sent to Tiflis prison, and then to Arkhangel’sk Province in Siberia.

At that same time, for their active assistance to Verigin, another five elders were arrested and sentenced to exile. They were Vanya Fadeyevich Makhortov, the one who had [first] declared Verigin to be the new leader of the Doukhobors, Lezhebokov, Rybin, Tsibul’kin, and Ignasha Argatov. All of them were sent into Siberian exile.

Petyushka spent three years in Arkhangel’sk Province; such was his initial sentence. Then he would have been returned to his homeland, but he was condemned to serve another five years and transferred to another province – Shenkursk. However, wherever he was, he walked freely around the village, but no further. And the local clergymen followed his movements. Petyushka was conversing with school children, gave them presents, and the children could not wait to be let out of school to they could go to visit this kind gentleman and listen to his stories. He got on well with them. The priests saw that the children were not going straight home, but to see this person, and at their instigation, he was prescribed new terms of exile and sent off to Eastern Siberia to the village of Berezovo in Tobolsk Province. In all, he spent 15 years in exile.

He was not permitted visitors, passports were not granted, and yet many succeeded in visiting in secret, and they carried home his advice. Letters from him personally were monitored. Verigin wrote to Empress Alexandra Fedorovna a humanitarian plea that she persuade her husband Nikolai Romanov to turn his attention to our Doukhobor people in the Caucasus, that just recently they were starting to put in prison women, mothers who were forced to abandon their own children to the mercy of fate. “And you, sister Alexandra, are a mother. To her own children a mother will have more pity than their father. Our guilt is not as grave as the authorities attribute to us. It is only that we cannot be killer-soldiers.”

Ivan E. Konkin spent some time with Peter V. Verigin and passed on his advice to all the Doukhobors: to stop eating meat, drinking vodka, smoking tobacco; all these things are harmful and unbecoming a Christian. And from this time we will be called Doukhobors of the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood. The word “Doukhobors” is not understood by the public. To this the following was added: a Christian should share what he has according to the instruction in the Gospel – “If you have two shirts, give one to the one who has none.” That is what they proceeded to do, they shared, and became all equal. They forgave one another their debts, and paid outsiders on behalf of their Doukhobor brethren. When they were departing from Russia, they all hired the steamship together and paid the total sum.

Burning of Arms and Refusal to Perform Military Service

Ivan E. Konkin passed on to all the Doukhobors [Verigin’s] directions that to be a Doukhobor meant not to be a soldier; and not to be a murderer not only of human beings, but even of animals. Whoever has weapons at home, anything concerned with killing, be it swords, daggers, pistols, rifles – all were to be placed on a pile in one place and burned, secretly, so that our non-believing Doukhobors would not cause us harm. Everything was collected at a spot three versts from the village of Slavyanka. There are mineral waters there, and water is always bubbling out of the ground; it is sour, as pleasant as lemonade. Near that spring a small fruit tree orchard had been planted, and in the middle of the orchard a summer house, raised about three feet from the ground, had been erected. This was according to the instruction of our former leader, Peter Larionovich Kalmykov, who lived in Tiflis Province. When he visited Slavyanka he was already married to Lukeria Vasilyevna.

The day designated for the Burning of Arms was June 29, 1895, the day of remembrance of the apostle saints Peter and Paul. This was also Peter Vasilyevich’s birthday. The Burning of Arms was accomplished simultaneously in three provinces [Tiflis, Elisavetpol and Kars] at one o’clock in the morning. In Slavyanka, all the brothers, sisters and young people gathered in the orchard and prayed to God for His help in accomplishing this exploit well and safe from betrayers.

When the bonfire flared up, the sky was lit up all the way to Slavyanka. The whole village was aroused. Here also the authorities were staying in the village all summer. The investigator, justices of the peace and the policeman with his 12 horsemen galloped toward the bright glow. Now from the three wagonloads of wood set in the middle of the bonfire, on which a barrel of kerosene had been poured, smoke rose in a black cloud and covered the whole village. Suddenly the rifles, which had not been unloaded, began to fire from the heat. Dawn had just started to break when the authorities all surged in and rushed up to the fire, but the bonfire had already burned everything. Then they surrounded all of us in the orchard, but we stood there singing and reciting. Ivan E. Konkin was right there. The interrogations began: Why did you burn your weapons? There was just one answer: “We are Christians. We cannot kill either a man or a living animal.”

The Doukhobor ‘Burning of Arms’, June 29, 1895. Painting by Terry McLean.

There had been advice from Petyushka that all the young fellows who were on call for military service were to prepare their reserve draft cards and turn them in to the authorities, telling them “We cannot be murderers: we are Christians!” Many were whipped, beaten with sticks, and put behind bars.

One of the lock-ups was near the Kotel’nikovs’ [Small Party leaders] home, in their banya (bath-house). At midnight the Kotel’nikovs had just finished steaming themselves. At ten o’clock in the morning they jammed in 25 men and fastened the lock. But the banya’s chimney pipe was blocked. The packed-in “Christians” stood there with their tongues hanging out from the heat, and they were done for. Suddenly grandmother Dunyusha Kotel’nikova, Chistyakov’s mother, came and spoke to them: “Children, why don’t you unstuff the stovepipe? It is blocked from above outside.” Then she rushed up on the roof herself and opened up the pipe, and pulled out a window. And everyone took a deep breath.

The next day they [the Doukhobor military reservists] – 150 in number – were dispatched to the Elisavetpol Prison, 60 versts from Slavyanka. And their fathers – 40 persons – were also arrested for teaching their sons treason against the Tsar [including the author’s father Vasily Nikiforovich Zybin].

Each of them was put on trial. At the end of the trial, all the young ones were sent to Kozakh Prison, where the intense heat of summer was unbearable. All of them came down with fever. Four of them died there and were buried near the prison: Yakov Polovnikov, Anton F. Arekhov (Verigin), Ivan Y. Kalmakov from the village of Goreloye, and Fyodor F. Verigin. About eight of our own brethren dug graves near the prison, and buried them in the moist earth. Soon all the rest were sent out to Yerevan Province and scattered around the auls (Caucasian villages) in pairs, under police supervision. Many of those sent to the auls died of fever. They remained there nearly three years, until the out-migration of the Doukhobors from Russia in 189[9].

At that time all young men, Doukhobors included, were subject to compulsory military service. They were called up by lot, and those who had to go were trained and served in the army for three years. After that they were released, but with a reserve draft card in case they would be required again. Some of the young Doukhobors had already served their term, but others were still in service. This was how it was in all three provinces where the Doukhobors were living.

Ivan E. Konkin visited Peter V. Verigin in Siberia, after which he arrived in Elisavetpol, where six of our Doukhobor brethren were serving in a regiment. Konkin passed on to them Verigin’s counsel, first to Matvey Lebedev, who had earned the rank of noncommissioned officer. The advice was this: Easter is approaching – the resurrection of Christ, when the commander customarily announces holiday greetings to the soldiers. When during this ceremony the commander says “Now we are celebrating the holiday – Christ is risen,” Lebedev was instructed to bring his rifle to the commander and say: “Christ is risen indeed. We serve Christ, not you!” and surrender to the commander this rifle in the presence of his whole company of soldiers. Seeing this, the thousands of soldiers present wondered whether Lebedev had lost his mind. But Lebedev affirmed “I cannot be a soldier in order to kill people. Christ died for us and is resurrected in our souls.” Lebedev’s comrades followed his example, and all six turned in their rifles to the commander. They were all arrested and sent to a disciplinary prison where they were whipped with thorny switches. The same thing happened in other regiments where Doukhobors were serving.

They rounded up those 36 men and gave them each two years “under rozgi“(thorny switches or rods). But Lebedev, as the first instigator, was given three years. First they called out Lebedev, led him out to an open place; the commander, six executioners, and a doctor gathered. The commander ordered: “Get undressed, Lebedev, take off your outer clothing!” The executioners stepped up to Lebedev and took his clothing. “Lie down!” They rolled him over on his stomach and stretched out his arms; two of them sat on his arms and two on his legs, and the other two each held a bunch of switches. The rest of our brethren were brought to that place so that they would see what was going to happen to them.

The commander ordered: “Begin!” The first executioner swung first to the right, then to the left, and the third time he brought the rods down on Lebedev’s back, then the second executioner followed suit. The commander kept count – one, two, three, up to the 30th blow. “Stop!” The doctor checked Lebedev’s heart and muscles. “Add another five!” They complied. “Stop!” The executioners who were holding Lebedev lifted him up and took him to a cold cell where he was kept for three days. They announced that in two weeks he would be beaten again with switches.

Doukhobor organizers of the Burning of Arms in Kars province, 1895. [l-r] Ivan I. Planidin, Peter I. Dorofeev, Grigory, V. Verigin, Pavel V. Planidin, Semyon E. Chernov. Koozma Tarasoff Collection.

The second man they brought forward was Fyodor I. Plotnikov. The commander announced: “For you, 40 strokes for your ‘service’, and another five for disrespecting your superior, for not addressing him correctly.” (Fyodor had referred to his superior as barin (master) instead of “your excellency”.) They placed Plotnikov in the same position as Lebedev. The executioners held him. The first one swung once, twice, and the third time onto Fedya’s flesh. He merely stirred. The same officer again kept count: “Thirty. Stop!” The doctor checked his heart and muscles. “Give him ten more!” When they started to lift him, he could not stand. The executioners grabbed him and took him to a cold cell where he was kept for three days. This would be repeated in two weeks.

The third man brought forward was Kuz’ma Nikolaevich Pugachev, and they carried out the same punishment on him. All those who were there were beaten. The second time Plotnikov was given 40 strokes. They tortured him with thorny switches for over a year, but they saw that he was not yielding. One of them died right there. [Then] the decision was made to send them to Siberia for 18 years, and they were transported under guard. On the way to Yakutsk six of them died. Also, the Elisavetpol and Karakhan elders who had been imprisoned were all exiled to Siberia, where they remained for eight years. After our resettlement to Canada they were all released from Siberia and they arrived here in 1905.

So you see, spirit-filled brothers and sisters, and more than that, blood relatives of those who suffered: how can our hearts [be unmoved], hearing of these sufferings of our own blood relatives, spirit-filled martyrs, thanks to whom we now live in a free country, Canada? And have we not seen the bloodshed after our departure from Russia; indeed we have had two world wars, and we have not witnessed them and have not taken part in them. Believe this: in truth we have been spared only through our suffering forebears. They saved us and now continue to save us: in Canada we are protected against the obligation to be soldiers and thus killers!

What is more, let us not forget the glory of our earlier suffering ancestors in Russia 200 years ago. They shut them up in cairns – there were no doubt such things in prisons at that time – and they say that strips were cut out of their backs to make them submit to the priest and not go against the law of the Romanov Tsars. And they drove out and sent into exile our ancestors from inside Russia to the Caucasus to settle near the Turks, who were regarded as wild beasts. But no matter how hard life was in the Transcaucasus, our Doukhobor loyalty to our faith nevertheless came to the fore once again. The time came when we renounced soldiering, and now we are also free from that thanks to our later suffering brethren. It was not only strips of flesh that were torn from the backs of these later ones, but their backs were entirely torn to shreds. One of those suffering brethren is still alive to attest to this, Fedor I. Plotnikov in Castlegar, British Columbia.

That is how our grandfathers, parents, husbands, and some of our women have suffered. So many were confined in prisons, and then banished separately in various Tatar and Georgian auls to fend for themselves but without the right to earn money to support themselves, and without the right to receive assistance from their own families. And their wives and families lived in poverty: they had to get by without their men. Moreover, there were whole families expelled from their homes, their property confiscated and sold for the benefit of the state.

Let us again turn our attention to those of our brothers who served in the army, and later bravely turned in and surrendered their rifles. They were subjected to flogging with thorny branches, threats of the firing squad, being tortured to death, solitary confinement in cold cells without medical supervision, and starvation. This happened also to those who had already served out their military time but had then turned in their reserve cards and declared that they would not serve in the future. They also were not treated mildly by the authorities: they were arrested and banished for three years separately among Tatars. Many of them died from cruel treatment, harsh conditions of their confinement, from the heat, from fever, hunger and cold, and from frequent forced marches on foot in irons from one place to another, sometimes in uninhabitable desert areas. All of these trials and tribulations they took on and endured bravely and stoically for the sake of the great ideal apprehended and implanted as the foundational principle of Doukhoborism: “Thou shalt not kill”, in the name of brotherhood and equality not only of the whole human race, but also of all living things. Evidently, there was no place for such people in Russia, and it was necessary for them to abandon her.

At the time of the Burning of Arms, it was the Kholodenskiye (Cold Mountain) Doukhobors who were made to suffer especially grievously by the authorities. In the Peshcherochki (caves) seven versts outside the village [of Orlovka], while the bonfire consuming the weapons was burning, the community – four thousand souls – were praying to God. The authorities dispatched one hundred Cossacks on horseback to herd these people to the governor. But first of all they beat everyone with whips, and would have trampled on them with their horses, but the horses would not step on the people: God had given the horses more sense than those men. In the next three days they were banished from their homes and exiled into Georgia scattered among the auls, two families to each aul. They were allowed to take with them only what they could take away with them in a chetverik (an Imperial Russian unit of measure equal to 26.24 litres). All the rest of their property was taken away from them and sold for a pittance. For almost three years they lived dispersed among the auls. That land is hot, and grows tropical fruits. But the Doukhobors, who had been living in a cold climate, could not quickly adapt to such conditions. The heat and the fruits growing there laid all of them low with fever and other diseases. In the two and a half years of their sojourn in that part of the country, up to a thousand souls died. When the Doukhobors were allowed to leave Russia, it was those Doukhobors who, earliest of all, settled on Cyprus.

Kholodenskiye Doukhobor exiles in the town of Gomi, Gori district, Georgia, 1897. British Columbia Archives C-01649.

In the Elisavetpol area the climate is injurious: in the mountains it is cool, but in the lowlands it is unbearably hot and fever is prevalent. Here there were four Doukhobor villages: Slavyanka, Goreloye, Troitskoye and Novospasovka. Slavyanka was a very large village – 4000 souls. For administrative purposes it was divided into two halves. Usually the village starshina was a person chosen by the community. But there this choice did not work out: some wanted their own person, others wanted somebody else. Therefore, the governor had appointed a government starshina, a retired Russian officer. It was required that he be paid a salary – a certain sum from each house.

We refused to pay. We had begun to call ourselves the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood, and we did not recognize any authority. The Tsar [we believed] was just as much our brother as we ourselves, and we acknowledged as our real sovereign only Jesus Christ. At that they began to do an assessment on us. From every house they took away possessions, and sold them in lieu of the salary contributions. And our adversaries bought these things on the spot.

In the wintertime they came to Nikolai Malov’s place. They locked up two cows and two horses in the barn, and the auctioneer began to appraise them. However, we brothers and sisters from all four villages, up to a thousand persons, gathered so as to prevent this. Here also were the provincial police officer with 12 village constables. A riot arose: the constables began to beat us. They bashed many of the brothers’ heads in, but they were unsuccessful in selling anything off. They went on to another house, that of Vasya Plotnikov, and the same thing happened there – it was like a war. Then they accused 27 persons of rude behaviour, including also four women, and by judicial summons they demanded their appearance in court in Zecham, thirty versts from the village. This was done calculating that they would arrive on their carts, and then it would be possible to take away their horses and wagons and sell them, and put them in jail. That is what they did: they sentenced all of them as criminals for not permitting the assessment of their cows and horses to proceed, and locked them up in the Elisavetpol prison. And so our brethren sat in prison for a year and six months.

Moreover, this is how something else turned out. Nikolai Pugachev was feeling sorry for his son, also named Nikolai. The father came to the following agreement with his son: “you, my son, stay here, and I will go to court in your place. For I am Nikolai and you are also Nikolai.” When in court they called for Nikolai Pugachev, the father came out, saying “that is I.” The judge asked him “were you at that riot?” “I was,” Nikolai replied. “So, guilty!” But at this point one witness, Aldokim Kotel’nikov, told who he really was, his full name, and that it was his son who was at the riot, and not the father. The judge spoke: “Did you not hear him admit that he was there? Therefore, both of them were there, both son and father, and both should go to prison.” So they summoned the son, and both of them were locked up for a year and a half, up to the time of the tsarsky (upper) court trial. The first was a sinodsky (Orthodox church synod) trial.

Then came the court verdict: three years at hard labour in Turkestan. That is a very tropical place. The decree specified that this was to depend on those of the opposing party who had brought them to trial (that same Kotel’nikov, among others). Then the starshina gathered all the inhabitants together from the whole volost (rural administrative district in Imperial Russia), read out the decree, and posed the question: “Do you agree that the convicted persons go to hard labour, or that they be returned? This is up to you.” Almost everyone responded: “Good riddance!” “In that case, come forward, and everybody sign this in your own hand.”

But there were then some Evangelical Baptists present who had rejected the priests; these were literate men who knew the laws. One of them shouted out for all to hear that they should hear him out. “Brothers, I want to explain to you what was decided about your brethren by the upper court, what was read to you and what you are agreeing to – your brethren are going to be tortured.” At that they began to shout: “Don’t listen any longer to these bearded ones. Sign before time runs out!” But the Baptist insisted: “It is for your sake I am telling you. The imperial law has left this to your decision and assent so that when you sign agreeing to their exile to hard labour, then by this law you will have to provide for their families, wives and children for their whole lives. You will have to feed them and look after them.” Then how the objections began to pour in: “How am I going to feed them? Let them all go and feed themselves! So then, let them go home.” And this is how they all came back. The Baptist saved them all. There [in Turkestan] they would have been tortured. But as for those elders who had been arrested at the time of the Burning of Arms, they were sent to Siberia, and our Slavyanka was almost emptied of men.

Lev N. Tolstoy (1828-1910), Russian novelist, philosopher and benefactor of the Doukhobors. Vasily V. Zybin delivered a message from him to the Doukhobor reservists incarcerated in Elizavetpol prison in 1896.

I myself did not happen to be conscripted, and so did not have to renounce military service. Thus I was not subjected to arrest or other repression. I was completely at liberty, and so was able to some extent to help my less fortunate brethren. I often was in the city [of Elisavetpol] and walked around the prison so as to exchange news by hand signals with my brethren when we had received letters from Peter V. Verigin or from Lev Tolstoy. Once I received a letter from P. I. Biryukov enclosing a message from Tolstoy to those locked up in the Elisavetpol prison. Tolstoy wrote: “I have been informed about you. Be strong and of good courage. This strength comes from a more eminent source than yourselves, from the One who existed before you were born.”

I was serving every day, from morning till night, darting about by the prison. The prison was overflowing with all kinds of people, criminals. They announced to our starichki (elders) that within a day they would be sent to a new prison just built in Nukha in Elisavetpol Province. This was two hundred versts from Slavyanka, one hundred by rail and another hundred on foot under guard.

The party ended up consisting of one hundred persons: these were our seniors. Among them was my father, Vasily Nikiforovich Zybin, and six of the Verigin brothers: Vanya, Fedya, Pronya, Lukasha, Vasya, and Grisha, while the seventh, Peter V. Verigin, was in Siberia. There were also the Golubovs: Vasya and Fedya; the Arekhovs: Vasya, Arisha, and Mikola; Vasya Shcherbakov and his two sons Gavryusha and Nikolai, the one who had turned in his rifle and been given 80 strokes with thorny rods.

So the day of our dispatch had arrived. They drove them three versts under escort to the railway, and from there one hundred versts by train to Yavlakh station. To the left and right were the high mountains of the Caucasus range. Between them they would have to walk a hundred versts. Twelve soldiers escorted this forced march, while I and Alyosha Rybin from the village of Troitskoye followed behind on foot.

Among those arrested were three of my comrades: Petrunya M. Morozov, his brother Ilyusha, and Gavrila Popov-Aseev. All of them were cheerful and in good spirits. All the way we walked together with the convoy. The non-commissioned army officer in charge of the convoy proved to be a good-hearted person who allowed us to accompany them. For two nights along the way Alyosha and I spent the night locked up with them like prisoners.

And so we arrived at Nukha. The city is built high on a mountain, almost at the summit. The inhabitants of the city, Nukhintsy, had heard the news that a convoy consisting of one hundred so-called “Dukhobortsy” was coming, of whom some had refused to serve in the army and had turned in their rifles, while others had burned their weapons in a bonfire. Before we had approached within three versts of the city, the officer in charge of the convoy, when he noticed a crowd coming out to meet us, ordered Alyosha and me to separate and drop back, thinking that this might be a commission of some sort. However, when the groups came together, it turned out that these were Russian exiles who had also rejected the priests. They were the poorest of the poor, but every woman carried something to eat, either some pastry or a wheatmeal loaf; that is, they were bringing out alms for the suffering, and, bowing low, they said: “Behold such people – they consider even the Tsar to be their brother, whereas we have only rejected the priests!”

Our fellows spent five months in the new prison, and then they were taken back by railway train to Baku, and from there by steamship to the Lena River. In August they were transported to Irkutsk, where they spent the winter, and in spring again along the Lena to the city of Yakutsk. Then another 500 versts deep into the north. They were all dropped off in the taiga, where they remained for seven years. They were released to go to Canada in 1905.

Preparations for Departure to Canada

Rumours about the ruination of the Doukhobors spread throughout Russia and aroused deep sympathy among certain eminent personages of Russian society, chief of whom was Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy. He and associates who shared his convictions set about to make efforts to ease the predicament of the Doukhobors.

The Doukhobors themselves appealed to the government for permission to resettle in any other part of the Russian land, far away from other inhabitants where they could live in their own way; or alternatively, to allow them to leave Russia and go to another country. The government had no desire to make concessions to the Doukhobors within the country and preferred that they leave her borders. The Doukhobors hastened to depart.

With the assistance of Tolstoyans they began to look for a place in other countries. The most suitable were lands ruled by England, primarily in Canada. In that country there was a lot of empty land suitable for agriculture, and the country was eagerly welcoming new settlers. The Tolstoyan Prince Khilkov, with Doukhobor delegates Ivan Ivin and Petr Makhortov, travelled to Canada to look over various localities and become familiar with the living conditions.

In Russia, meanwhile, without waiting for firm agreements with the new authorities, the more oppressed Doukhobors hastened to abandon their places of exile. These were the ones who had been expelled from their villages [in Tiflis province] and dispersed among Tatar and Georgian auls. More precisely, those of them who were still alive; for a large number of them had perished from the heat and from fever. They were the first ones to leave their homeland hastily; they disembarked on the island of Cyprus, at that time one of England’s possessions.

The time came for the rest to leave Russia as well. They began to petition and seek advice, especially [from] L. N. Tolstoy and his close friend Pavel I. Biryukov. They embarked at Batum on the Black Sea, and the first steamer left Cyprus with 1100 souls on board. Following Tolstoy’s advice, Pavel Biryukov sailed with them in order to help them with everything, to provide advice, and to be their English translator. But malaria was still rife among them. Biryukov exerted every effort to assist them, and while on Cyprus he himself fell ill and almost died. The climate on Cyprus is very tropical and for the Doukhobors unbearable, little different from that which they had only just left. Here also they suffered greatly: another 107 of their number died of sunstroke. Only their quick departure from there saved the remainder from the same fate.

The port of Batum as it appeared in the late nineteenth century. In 1898, Vasily V. Zybin was one of six Doukhobor delegates sent here to charter a transatlantic ship for Canada. Portrait by Lev Lagorio (1827-1905).

Tolstoy sent word: a steamship has been found for you; you will have to pay 65,000 rubles for it, and right away. A meeting of the four [Elisavetpol province] villages was called together; they reckoned on a collection of forty rubles a person, and they did collect that sum. Now they had to get that money to Batum. They appointed six men as delegates, and I was one of them. We arrived in Batum, found the ship’s agent, an Englishman, and we poured out our gold for him: there was no paper money. At that time another 600 Doukhobors from Karakhan [region in Kars province] joined us, making up a total of 2,100 persons

The Karakhan people as yet had no money with them, so the contract for the ship could not be completed. Just then the agent gave orders, pointing at me: “Let this young man make an urgent trip to Karakhan and press them to make a payment on the contract as soon as possible.” I whirled into action, rushing to the train to make a quick departure from Tiflis. I would have to travel 300 versts as far as the village of Kirilovka. But at that point news arrived that the steamer had already been hired. Tolstoy wrote us: “Your guide on the ship will be my son, Sergei L’vovich Tolstoy.”

Then it was necessary to obtain foreign passports, for which we had to travel to Gandzha [aka Elizavetpol], where the governor was living. What was required first was a certificate from the starshina, and then using that certificate to obtain a passport. Everyone went; for families without a husband, the woman of the household went, such as Anyuta Petyushkina, the Shcherbakovs’ sister Masha Golubova, and Polya Golubova. From all four villages, about three hundred persons travelled there and back.

At eight o’clock, three hundred of us all went to the office of Governor Kireev. He himself was not in the city. He had gone to Tiflis, whence Prince Golitsyn had summoned all the governors. His own office staff began to make inquiries and delve into the laws, trying to seek out how to make up foreign passports. Some said it’s one passport per family; that is, the head of the family, while others were sure that if a man had three sons, each of whom had a family of his own, that meant four passports were required. And for every passport, 12 rubles had to be paid. We agreed even to that, and paid 12 rubles for each separate family. However, they again wouldn’t issue them, and were arguing among themselves. All day our people revolved around the office, and this was now day three – what to do? We’d have to travel to Tiflis and complain to Prince Golitsyn!

Every Friday, complaints from all over the Caucasus were received by Golitsyn in Tiflis. For this, they appointed me and Vasya Kalmakov, and directed us to make out the complaint and petition ourselves. There was nobody else who could do this except our guide Sergei Tolstoy, who had already arrived in Batum to wait for our steamship. It would be necessary to tell him everything and he would write the petition.

They resolved as follows: “You, Zybin, travel now to Batum (500 versts), and you, Kalmakov, get off in Tiflis the next day; and on Friday both of you will get to see Golitsyn.” So I set out for Batum, and on Thursday morning I got off the train. I was already familiar with the city. Not far off I saw a man standing there who looked like a Doukhobor. I introduced myself. It was Anton Savel’ich Popov, from Kars province, whereas I was from Elisavetpol province. I asked him: “Do you know where to find Sergei Tolstoy?” He answered “Yes, I do. Let’s go!” I went in a hurry so as to return to Tiflis at three o’clock.

“There he is, your Seryozha.” I introduced myself and explain my complaint. He responded angrily: “Why on earth did you not come to see me sooner? It is necessary to write a petition, and tomorrow by seven o’clock to be at Golitsyn’s reception room.” He asked: “Can you write? Well, right here write down this: ‘Your Excellency’.” I wrote it, but left out one letter. “That will spoil everything – you omitted a letter. I’ll do it myself. Tell me how they have not given you passports.”

I told our story: “We agreed to pay 12 rubles each for all the passports, for the father and for each son in the family. Instead of one passport per family, it sometimes comes out to four. And we paid for those, but once again they are not giving them out. It is already four days that we have been milling about the caravan, and there are 300 of us.”

We finished writing the petition. I set off for the train: Anton Popov came along to see me off. He suggested: “Let’s walk over to have a look at my comrades, 60 persons released from Baku Province; they are all our Karakhan Doukhobors. They are over there in that emigration building.” We went in. Indeed, all of them were worn out. They had been living poorly, scattered two to an aul. Already it had been three years that they had been separated in this way from their families – wives, children, fathers. They were waiting impatiently to meet their families in Batum. They would arrive here within four or five days to embark on the steamer. We already knew the name of the ship – “Lake Superior”.

But I had to leave them. “Farewell, I am off to Tiflis. Vasya Kalmakov will be expecting me.” At midnight I arrived in Tiflis. I set off on foot. Vasya was already there, and with him three of the Kholodnenskiye (Cold Mountains) people who have arrived on some kind of business: Gubanov, starshina Zubkov, and Baturin. These men were all dressed up and in the pink of health and, after getting drunk, they conversed merrily. They asked me: “You’re not Verigin?” I answered: “No, I’m Zybin.”

At eight o’clock in the morning Vasya and I set out to be received by Golitsyn. They told us to stand nearby close to the building. We stood there waiting for ten hours. [Then] the aide-de-camp came out and shouted: “Persons lodging a complaint, enter!” But we waited for an hour thinking we would be all but alone, when the aide-de-camp came out and shouted at us, and we hurried up. Our men came in from all directions, and about fifty of us gathered. The aide-de-camp led us to the second floor, lined us up along the wall and ordered us to hold our petitions in our hands. He announced: “I shall take your petitions from you, and return them to you later. On the other side of this wall the Synod will sort out your petitions. Those that are needed soon, urgently, I shall hand back to you. Prince Golitsyn himself will check them and question you personally about your concerns; as for the remainder, I shall announce the decision of the Synod as to how you are to proceed.” And he plunged back through the door towards the Synod. They were out of our sight.

He came out again carrying three petitions, among them ours. To all he gave an answer: some to be received the next day, some postponed, but us six he led into the Synod, where Prince Golitsyn himself was to arrive. But he was not there yet. Here all the senators, about ten of them, got up and were standing. All had epaulettes on their shoulders. They looked us over, and we them. We were in a state of wonderment: what had we gotten ourselves into? For us this was the first time in our lives that there has been such an encounter. The aide-de-camp lined us up with me in front, and Vasya beside me. I was holding the petition in my hands. The aide-de-camp explained: “There where it is underlined in red – those are the main questions. Prince Golitsyn will be looking only at those places. Whatever he asks you, give him your answer.”

The room was luxurious in every way, all adorned with glass, and the senators were still standing and looking at us. The door creaked and the senators spoke up: “He’s coming.” Prince Golitsyn entered and greeted the senators; they all responded in a friendly manner. The Prince turned toward me. The aide-de-camp took the petition from me and began to tell him our story, indicating the parts underlined in red. He remarked right then: “But their governor, Kireev, is here. Bring him over here.” And there he is, our Governor Kireev, standing at attention.

Prince Grigory Sergeyevich Golitsyn (1838-1907), Viceroy of Caucasia from 1896-1904. Vasily V. Zybin petitioned him in 1899 for the Doukhobors.

“Kireev, why is there such slow-wittedness in your office – don’t you know how to issue foreign passports? A father is head of his whole family, and there is supposed to be one passport. But with you there is such a disgrace: they do not understand the regulations and have been tormenting people for several days. Right now I have sent them a telegram ordering them to return the overcharged money, and tomorrow without fail to issue the passports. This was sent in my name. And, peasants, I am telling you that if they do not release you tomorrow, inform me immediately. I will deal with them. They know how to receive their salaries, but this they do not understand. Kireev, do you hear what I am saying?”

“Yes, Sir, your Excellency,” and the governor was trembling as if in a fever, while we were glad. The Prince approached closer to me and began to question me: “You, young man, are a delegate from your community?” “Yes, I am,” I answer. “And how old are you?” “Twenty-three.” “Ah, a fine young fellow. And where did you buy this fur coat?” “Here in Tiflis.” “How much did you pay?” “Fourteen rubles.” “Ah, excellent!” And he patted my shoulder. “Go along with your governor – and God go with you!”

Kireev was still standing there. The Prince repeated his order to Kireev, and we went out. We are walking, and outside in the courtyard the governor is still shaking with fright, and blurts out: “Oh my God, what has happened.” We walked into the drawing room of his apartment, and sat down at a table. The governor asked us: “But what are we to write? Dictate to me.”

I began to prompt him, saying that tomorrow they were to give us passports and return all the money for the unnecessary passports. They had overcharged us three thousand rubles. But Vasya is sitting beside me and whispers: “Don’t dictate for him, how could you prompt a governor!” I nudged him with my knee: “He is still frightened, that’s why I am speaking to him.”

We finished writing the telegram. He pulled out five rubles and gave them to us: “Go to the telegraph office and pay him to send it now.” We found the office and gave the telegraphist the money. He glanced at the signature and, not believing his eyes, asks “Is this from Prince Golitsyn?” “Yes,” we reply. “And you were in his presence?” “Yes, we were.” “Well then, I’ll send it right away. Take your change.”

We took the change to the Governor. But we still had to go to the railway office in order to hold the train which we had for the time being only ordered for loading baggage and people, as there were as yet no passports. We took a phaeton and rushed to that office. [We arrived at] dinner time. We hurried in, lest the station master leave for dinner and the train that we have to catch for Elisavetpol also departs. We just managed to catch the station master. He did us a good turn by stopping the train for Batum. And the train on which [we] ourselves had to travel to Elisavetpol had just arrived at the station and was about to start out. Vasya Kalmakov says to me: “I’ll get off at Dalyar and walk home, but you ride on. At home my baggage is not yet all tied up in bundles.” He had 30 versts to go on foot.

I rode on alone. I arrived at midnight and walked three versts into the city. All three hundred people had been waiting now for five days. Everyone was sick and tired of waiting, especially the old folks. So I walked up to the caravan. [It was] midnight. The caravan was locked; it was full of wagons and draymen. But I wasn’t going to wait for daybreak. I looked over this caravan and scrambled onto a corner of it, and there crawled along the top, greased with clay, and then reached an edge. Near it I saw a low loft, the chicken pen of the lodger who heats up tea for new arrivals. I leaned on this chicken pen, but it had been woven only out of twigs. I brought it down entirely along with the chickens: they raised a shriek that could be heard over the whole caravan! I made haste to run away lest I be arrested. However, this turned out to be my own people, praise God! They greeted me joyfully. I told them our whole story, none of which they had been aware of.

Dawn broke. We all got going to the office at seven o’clock in the morning. We saw lights burning in the office. There was our starshina, Sklyarov, furious as a wild animal. He asks us: “Who of you was in Tiflis? Was it Vasily?” And he turned to me: “You saw Prince Golitsyn?” I answer “I saw him, and what’s more I even had a conversation with him and he patted me on the shoulder.” For him this was incredible, that a simple peasant had spoken with a prince. And princes were revered as all but a Caucasian Tsar!

As soon as they received the telegram, all the passport clerks hastened to start writing. I said to them “But are you going to return the overpayment to us?” “We shall, but you will have to wait for days.” I turned to the senior men who were with me in the office, Styopa Ozerov and Yasha Polovnikov: “Well, what about it, shall we wait?” They replied: “Let’s forget about it” – but it amounted to three thousand rubles. There was nobody to assign to receive it, and so we gave up and left. That same day they released all of us with our passports.

We rode the train 60 versts to Dalyar station. Standing there was the station master, looking at us while I look at him. He beckoned to me: “Come here!” I went up to him, and my companions all walked on further. He said “Tomorrow your train will be place right here. That evening you must be in the German colony, and in the morning you will load up, and you – I mean just you – bring one of your friends and in the evening come and inquire about your train.” I promised to do so.

So we did ride into the colony to spend the night. There would be 800 of us, and within a day another 800 – in two parties. I told our elders how the station master had instructed me to go to Dalyar to find out about the train. They advised: “Here is Misha Popov, go together.”

We hired a phaeton and arrived. I began to pay the driver, but my friend Misha did not wait and walked to the station master and began to ask him: “What is your authority, can you give us a discount if we grease your palm?” This seemed like a swindle to the stationmaster. As I approached, the stationmaster was scolding him in Russian: “What kind of nonsense are you suggesting?” When I got there, he said: “Well now, I know this man, but who are you?”

I got between them and said: “This is my friend.” “Well, let’s talk. Your train will be here at 10 midnight. Everybody should be here at seven in the morning. I have the right to give a discount for the trip, only a little something is needed. I’ll give you the smallest discount, three hundred rubles. I just need you to keep quiet about it.” I said to Misha “Let’s give it to him. I have 17 rubles on me – let him have it.” I started to pull it out, and he saw what he was getting: “Hand it over up here so nobody notices.” He grabbed the money and shoved it into his pocket: “Well, there it is. I advise you to spend the night here on these benches. It is warm here, and in the morning your people will arrive.”

Doukhobors stand beside passenger cars in the Caucasus en route to Batum to sail to Canada, 1899. Vasily V. Zybin helped arrange their passage and fare. British Columbia Archives C-01512.

A minute later he came back: “Here is the thing, peasants – in Russia we have a law: migrants get to pay half fare, and you are migrants. You need to apply to the head of resettlement in Elisavetpol. Right now a passenger train is due, and I advise you to take this train to see this man, and in the morning walk to his house, not to his office, and ask him about migration. He will tell you. If he can, he will do it. Go to his house so that you will catch the return train back here at twelve noon, and I will then write waybills. Well, good luck.”

The train arrived just then; I sat for the night and off I went. I arrive. All was locked up just as before. I crawled up on the roof again and jumped down. I get to where the people were and found there ten of our Karakhan Doukhobors. One of them was Vanya Podovinnikov, who also had been exiled together with the young fellows for ridiculing Skvortsov, an emissary of the Tsar. We recognized one another. I said: “I am going to see the head of resettlement.” They told me: “And we also are going to see him. Why are they not transporting us at government expense, aren’t we prisoners, after all?”

We set out. It was daybreak. We dropped in, and he [the head of resettlement] asked us why we had come. Vanya started to explain that we had been released, and should be taken home to Kars province at state expense. “But do you have a document from those authorities saying specifically that you have been released?” “No, no,” replied Vanya. “Well, that means I cannot grant you passage. You could be entirely different people!”

However, I called out: “But I am a local, from Elisavetpol, and we are emigrating to Canada. We have the right to travel for half fare.” “Yes, but that is only true for those who are migrating within the empire. But your are excluding yourselves entirely from this empire. There are no concessions for such people.” And we all departed.

I ran towards the train. When I got there, I sat down and off we went. I arrived at Dalyar; I saw the stationmaster looking towards the carriages – will I get off or not. I slipped off from the very last car, and he did not see me. The [Doukhobor] people were working feverishly loading baggage onto three coaches. When I meet them, they were surprised: “look here, yesterday Vasya was with us, but now he is already taking the train out of the city!” The stationmaster swore that I had not got onto that train, and returned to his office. But then I appeared. As soon as he caught sight of me, he started cursing, and asked: “Where on earth have you been? Well, tell me, what is going on?” I saw the head of the resettlement office,” I replied, “He told us they will not grant us a concession because we are quitting the empire.” “No matter, I shall do my business. Here are the papers, and here is a pencil; go, beginning from the far carriage, and start making a list for the three groups of how many persons there are and the value of the baggage in each car.”

I went up to the first carriage; there was Vanya Plotnikov. I asked him: “Vanya, how many people ten years of age and above are there in your carriage – four, five, six? And how much are your belongings worth?” Vanya stood there in a quandary, and I stood there thinking “how am I going to write all this down?” I just don’t know. “Vanya, how many of you are there in your carriage?” Dunya, his wife, is standing there too. He asks her: “Dunya, how old is our Anyutka?” “I don’t know,” answers Dunya. “But how many are in the carriage?” “But you see we also have Kostenikha with us…”.

All this exchange of words had already taken up ten minutes. I saw the stationmaster leap out and start looking along the cars trying to see where I was. But I was chatting with Vanya. Another three minutes and the stationmaster came out again and saw that I had only gotten as far as the second carriage. He ran up to me: “Why, Zybin, are you so slow?! Well, give me your list.” I gave it to him. He looked at it, swore, and tore up my list. He shouted at me: “Follow me, Zybin!” I started running.

The people were all pottering about the train cars. He and I ran into the office. On the wall in his office was a bell. Now he struck the bell, and every last one of the people rushed to get a seat on the train carriages. The sound of the bell signified that the train was now leaving. But he did this deliberately so that they would take their seats. He shouted at me, “Zybin, follow me!” He grabbed a sheet of paper and ran again to the far carriage. All on the train were watching. He came up to Vanya Plotnikov: “How many people are in your carriage? Tell me quickly!” Vanya repeated once more: “Dunya, surely Kostenikha is also with us?” The stationmaster did not spend more time in thought, but began himself to count – “seventeen” – and on to the next car. There he did a recount himself. I follow after him. He ran through the three cars in 15 minutes.

Doukhobors at the Port of Batum waiting to embark to Canada, 1899. British Columbia Archives C-01560.

“Zybin, bring the money, as I said, for the three groups. How do you have the money, all together communally, or separately? Bring it soon, or time will be up. The train is due to leave!” I ran again to Vanya: “Vanya, pay the money. Either turn it in yourself, or give it to me and I’ll bring it.” “Yes, my boy, I knew how to acquire it, and can give it away myself.” We paid, every man for himself.

The stationmaster sat behind his desk – “Well, let’s have the money.” But they were asking him: “How much should I give you?” Nobody knew. They poured it into his hands, and he cupped it into a pile with his hands – it was all gold, none of it was paper money. They kept on handing it over, no longer questioning. They heaped up a big pile, but he again urged them on: “Faster, faster, time is up!”

Then last came Vanya Plotnikov, and shouted: “give way people!” He stayed behind, confidently expecting change. The stationmaster, seeing everyone in a stupefied state and nobody beside him, did not give anybody change. Right there he had the sheet of paper showing how many people there were, but the money was heaped up in an uncounted pile – all in gold coins. He began to count it quickly: ten, twenty, one hundred, and another hundred. He pushed aside half the pile, stopped, and now just as much again was lying there. We watched – the office is full of our people – nobody was calling out. He did not believe his own eyes. He piled it all up again and began to count it all over again, this time a little more calmly. He pulled it aside, and gazing at the sheet of paper showing how many of us there were – his eyes took in all of us, and at that he screamed: “What do you think you’re doing in my office – all of you get out of here!”

At that we scrambled out of there. Vanya got knocked off his feet. We had to jump over him. We jumped into the train, with the stationmaster still shouting at us, while he pulled a drawer out of his desk and pulled all the money into it. He rang the bell for the departure of the train and ran out of the office shouting: “Zybin, go get the way-bill, and one for the baggage as well!” I got it, along with Syoma Konkin, and we departed.

In Canada

All of our ships sailed from Batum. Ours was the [second] party of Doukhobors to arrive in Canada, on the steamship “Lake Superior”. We moored in the port of Halifax on February 13th, 1899. The [third] party soon followed on the steamship “Lake Huron”. Both ships made two ocean crossings carrying a Doukhobor cargo. On the last voyage, Doukhobors who had sojourned on Cyprus arrived to settle. Yakutian (Siberian) prisoners were liberated in 1905 and arrived here in separate parties.

In 1902, near Christmas time, Petyushka was released. In Canada, in the village of Otradnoye, he succeeded in finding still alive his mother, Grandma Nastyusha, whom he had not seen in 15 years. Not one of her sons was with her: all were in prisons. Lukasha and Fedya had died in Siberia; she saw only two of them, Petyushka and Grisha. Grisha had fled from Siberia with Petrunya Shukin. She herself passed away in the village of Otradnoye in 1904, I believe.

Petyushka’s son, Peter P. Verigin (Chistyakov) did not come with our parties or with his father. He remained in Elisavetpol at school, and arrived in Canada for the first time in 1905. Then, after quarreling with his father, he and his family returned to Russia.

During his stay here, Chistyakov lived with his father in one house located in the village of Otradnoye. He occupied the front part of the house, while Petyushka lived in a back room, the gornitsa (special quarters).

Peter V. Verigin (standing behind buggy) touring the villages while his mother Anastasia and “Dedushka” Ivan Makhortov sit beside him, c. 1904. Koozma Tarasoff Collection.

At that time Petyushka had four maidservants, and the manservant Vasya Obedkov, who stoked the fire in the banya (bath-house), cleaned shoes and fulfilled other duties. Vasya would spend the night with neighbours, the Morozovs. Dedushka (Grandpa) Makhortov, a little hundred year-old man, who for 25 years had served the Tsar in Russia, had completed his term of military service and after returning home began to serve the Doukhobor leaders: P. L. Kalmykov, then Lushechka, and now Peter V. Verigin. Every day Petyushka summoned him to his house for consultation. The old fellow was devoted to the elder Verigin wholeheartedly, and also to Chistyakov.

In the Verigin house there was one door for all who were living there; entering through it were Petyushka, his son Chistyakov, and Chistyakov’s mother Dunyusha, Petyushka’s former wife. Dunyusha, Chistyakov’s mother, moved her son and his family out, and almost settled them in our house. They gave us a deadline of three weeks to vacate the house. But then they decided to return to Russia.

Before our departure from Batum I naturally had occasion to meet up with Anton S. Popov. He was a clever and efficient person, and very kind, always ready to help somebody else. I first became acquainted with him at the railway station when I arrived in Batum to see about passports. It was he who led me to Sergei Tolstoy to draw up a petition to Prince Golitsyn. My memories of that event have remained forever in my soul, and thereafter Anton and I remained close friends to the very end of his life.

I had heard of Anton before meeting him in Batum. My village was in Elisavetpol Province, and his village in Kars Province. However, his sister was living in our village, Slavyanka, married to Anton V. Konkin. Anton Savel’ich [Popov] was a little older than me, had already completed his military service and had been released, but of course with a draft reserve card. It was just at that time when the instruction arrived from Peter V. Verigin to renounce serving as soldiers. Anton and others of his comrades in the same situation as he went to the army authorities and turned in their draft cards, stating that they would no longer serve in armies on account of their Christian convictions.

All of them were arrested and put on trial. They were sentenced to three years in Baku Province in Tatar and Georgian settlements, two men to an aul. There they remained for two and a half years until the government gave permission for the Doukhobors to leave Russia. Then they were released, but were not allowed to return home; instead they were sent directly to the steamship in Batum. Only there were they reunited with their families.

The area in Baku Province where they had been exiled was low-lying and very hot. Many of them came down with fever, and several of them died. Those who did recover returned worn out and exhausted, but happy at their liberation and that they could once again be with their dear ones and their own people.

Anton Savel’ich could read and write to some extent. While still in exile in 1897, he somehow came across a collection of poems where he found one poem that was very much in tune with his spirit. He changed it a little and sent it to our village to his sister, Anyuta Konkina. She showed it to others, who liked it and took it up, applying a melody to it, and began to sing it among themselves. Subsequently it was referred to as Antoshinym stishkom (Antosha’s poem). To this day it is sung by the Doukhobors. After all this time it has possibly changed a little, but basically it is the same as it was at the start. Here is the poem put into circulation among the Doukhobors by Anton S. Popov*:

Christ, when a Child, a garden made,
And many roses flourished there.
He watered them three times a day
To make a garland for His hair.

And when in time the roses bloomed,
He called the children in to share.
They tore the flowers from every stem,
And left the garden stript and bare,

“How wilt Thou weave Thyself a crown
Now that Thy roses are all dead?”
“Ye have forgotten that the thorns
Are left for Me, the Christ child said.

They plaited then a crown of thorns
And laid it rudely on His head;
A garland for His forehead made;
For roses: drops of blood instead.

*Translation by Nathan Haskell Dole (1852-1935) of the poem Legenda attributed to A. N. Pleshcheev, which in turn is a Russian translation of the poem Roses and Thorns by American poet Richard Henry Stoddard (1825-1903) – JM

That was one meritorious service rendered by Antosha Savel’ich Popov. I myself am a witness of this occurrence involving “his” poem. There were also others.

Antosha’s party of migrants, those from Kars, 600 persons in number, were placed with our Elisavetpol settlers on the same ship. In all, there were 2,100 of us. We disembarked in Halifax, and from there went by train to settle in the Province of Saskatchewan. My family took up residence in the village of Otradnoye, to the north of Verigino station, and Anton’s in the village of Khristianovka, not far from Buchanan station. At that time these stations did not yet exist. They appeared only some time later, when the railway came through.

Being an enterprising and capable person, Anton was well suited for village building work. He was a good carpenter and was renowned for his mastery in making window frames, doors, spinning-wheels, and other such things. He invented a method of preparing tiles for covering the roofs of houses.

During the first winter, having understood while still in Russia the usefulness of reading and writing, he opened a school of Russian written language in his village, and he himself was the teacher there. He attracted some forty pupils of various ages. Unfortunately, the older members of the community did not support his innovation and, after the first season, the school did not continue. At that time Doukhobors were not yet ready to accept scientific knowledge and education, although in their own traditions “knowledge” is presented as a desirable thing.

Anton had two daughters while in Russia, but no son. But soon after arriving in Canada, a son turned up for him, Ivan. I knew little of him during his father’s lifetime. Only recently have we become acquainted through correspondence. He published in the Doukhobor journal ISKRA several articles that I enjoyed. I wrote to him about them, at the same time asking if he would help me put into print my reminiscences about our move to Canada. He enthusiastically agreed, and we are now corresponding about this matter.

I sent him my manuscripts, and he put them in order and printed them. This is the result of his work. I sincerely thank him for his efforts. And for you, my readers, I desire that you take to heart what is related here, and that you not forget the difficult path taken by our forebears, our brothers and sisters, who suffered cruelly for their pure Doukhobor ideal.

Almost 70 years has passed since the beginning of my story, and in my soul that picture in which I was a participant and witness of all that was experienced by our people, has not faded. I am a vegetarian; for 66 years I have neither eaten meat nor smoked nor drunk alcohol. Perhaps that has helped me to live to such advanced years. But now I am already standing at the brink of my own life’s end. I thank the Lord the Creator for giving me life up to this time, enabling me to write out this my confession. May this remain my modest monument as a reminder to all of our descendents.

Vasily V. Zybin 


The author, Vasily Vasilyevich Zybin resided with his family in the Doukhobor village of Otradnoye in the Veregin district of Saskatchewan from 1899 until 1912-1913. Thereafter, he resettled to Brilliant, British Columbia with the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood. Following the death of Peter “Lordly” Verigin in 1924, Vasily and his family were among the several hundred Doukhobors who recognized Verigin’s companion, Anastasia F. Holuboff as his successor. In 1926, they resettled with Anastasia’s supporters to the Shouldice district of Alberta where they established a small breakaway colony. In 1941, Vasily and family returned to British Columbia, eventually settling in Creston where he remained until his death on February 16, 1965.

For another historic account of Vasily Vasilyevich Zybin’s efforts to arrange passports for the Elisavetpol Doukhobors to immigrate to Canada and his audience with Prince Golitsyn on their behalf, see Donskov, Andrew (ed). Sergej Tolstoy and the Doukhobors: A Journey to Canada (Ottawa: University of Ottawa, 1998), pp 265-271.

For a list of Doukhobor military conscripts and elders exiled to Yakutsk, Siberia from 1895-1905 compiled (in part) from Vasily Vasilyevich Zybin’s memoirs, click here. For a list of Doukhobor military reservists and elders imprisoned and exiled in the Caucasus from 1895-1899 compiled (in part) from his memoirs, click here.