A Visit to the Dukhobortsy, 1843

by Baron August Freiherr von Hasthausen

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

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

Baron August Freiherr von Haxthausen (1792-1866)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Count Vorontsov, Odessa, January 26, 1841.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Visit to the Dukhobortsy Exiled in Finland, 1815

Passages by Robert Pinkerton and John Paterson

In 1815, two Scottish agents of the British and Foreign Bible Society, Robert Pinkerton and John Paterson, visited a group of Dukhobortsy exiles living in the Vyborg district of Finland. They recorded their impressions through a series of letters to friends and associates. The following accounts are reproduced from Pinkerton’s October 13, 1815 letter to Richard Phillips from St. Petersburg (Society of Friends Library, London, England) and Patterson’s September 28, 1815 letter published in “The Christian Herald” (Volume 1, John E. Caldwell, 1816) as well as his letter to Richard Phillips from St. Petersburg of October 12-24, 1815 (Society of Friends Library, London England). Taken together, they form one of the few surviving accounts of the Dukhobortsy in Finland, their history and beliefs, the circumstances of their exile, and the efforts taken by the missionaries, both openly and covertly, to assist them and ease their sufferings. Foreword and afterword by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff. 


Between 1812 and 1822, Scottish missionaries Robert Pinkerton (1780-1859) and John Paterson (1776–1855) 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 their tireless efforts, supported by the liberal-minded Tsar Alexander I, the Russian Bible Society was formed in St. Petersburg in 1812-1813. In the years that followed, Pinkerton and Paterson 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.

It was under these auspices that Pinkerton and Patterson, accompanied by a cargo of Bibles, travelled northwest of St. Petersburg along the Gulf of Finland to Vyborg in September of 1815.  The missionaries then visited a “famous waterfall” forty miles north of Vyborg.  Although not mentioned by name, this was almost certainly the Imatra Waterfall, located on the Vuoksijoki River between Lake Saimaa and Lake Ladoga; a prime tourist attraction in 19th century Finland.  There, they found a colony of Doukhobors who had been living in exile for several years. They recorded the following accounts of their visit. 

The Imatra Waterfall in Finland 1819 by Fedor Mikhailovich Matveev

Robert Pinkerton’s Account

St. Petersburg, 13th October, 1815.

We went forty miles to the north of Wiborg [sic, Vyborg] to see a famous waterfall, and then fell in with a colony of Duhubortsi [sic, Dukhobortsy], from the Cossack country, consisting of about ninety persons. From all we could learn concerning them they are truly a pious, intelligent people, well reported by all around them.

We had a long conversation with one of them, who himself could not read, but who has a more intimate acquaintance with the Scriptures than many I have met with. He answered all our questions in the language of Scripture, and explained some texts to us in a manner which would have done honour to an Oxford or Cambridge divine.

These poor, forgotten people had not a Bible among them – their persecutors had taken these away from them – nor indeed a book of any kind, although some of them could read. We furnished them with some [Bibles]. I most heartily wish you had seen how his countenance brightened when we told him of the Bible Society and what has been done for the extended promotion of the Redeemer’s kingdom. He could not believe for joy and wonder. ‘No person,’ said he, ‘has ever told us of these things before.’

John Paterson’s Accounts

St. Petersburg, 28th September, 1815.

In a short tour from Petersburgh [sic, St. Petersburg], we fell in with a Colony of Cossacks, consisting of about ninety persons, who are in these quarters for the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. They belong originally to the Don, and are of the sect of Duhabertzy [sic, Dukhobortsy], of whom you will find some particulars in Pinkerton’s Greek Church. Since they came to Finland, they have had no books among them, not even a single copy of the Scriptures. We had a long conversation with one of them, who could not read, and yet he answered all our questions in the language of Scripture.

We asked if they had any priests among them? He answered, ‘Yes, we have a Great High Priest, who is holy, harmless, &c.’ Have you baptism? ‘We are baptised with the Holy Ghost and with fire.’ Have you Communion? ‘We have communion with the Lord Jesus daily.’ Have you churches? ‘I hope you do not think that churches are built of wood and stone; wherever two or three are met together in Christ’s name, there he has promised to be with them; and there, is a Church of Christ. We have now conversed about God for more than an hour, and are of one heart and one soul, we are a church when you will. With the so called churches we can have nothing to do, as they admit drunkards, &c. &c.; but a Church of Christ is holy, and all its members must be so too. You will find no such people among us.’

What is your opinion of the new birth?, reading to him the passage in John III. ‘We are born the first time when we are born of our mother, but the second time when our hearts are changed by the word and spirit of God, when we are led to hate what we Ioved, and love what we hated formerly, when we give over living in sin; not that we are perfect in this world, but we have no pleasure in sin as before.’  What do you think is meant by being born of water and of the spirit? ‘By water is not meant baptism, but the word of God; for we are born of the incorruptible seed of the word which liveth and abideth for ever; and as it is the Spirit by whose operation this is effected, so we are said to be born of the Spirit; that which is born of the flesh is flesh; so you see we are not Christians or born again as we come into the world, we do not inherit it from our parents.’

But seeing you cannot read, how came you to know all this? ‘I wonder you ask such a question. Has not Jesus promised to be with his people always, to the end of the world; and has he not promised to give them his Spirit to teach them all things? He has said, when you are brought before governors and kings for my sake, take no thought how or what you shall speak, for it shall be given you in the same hour what you shall speak; now I believe the promise. I have often been called to answer for my religion, and I have always found Jesus true to his word. And there now, when called to come before you, I prayed God to fulfil this promise to me, and he has done it. You see I speak freely, and you seem satisfied with me. You are the first we have ever met with in this place who understood us. You must be taught by the same spirit.’

Can any among you read? ‘There are some among us who can read; but you seem to lay much stress on reading and being learned; Jesus Christ had no other learning than his parents taught him, and the apostles were unlearned men. It is enough if we are taught of the Spirit.’  We asked him if he crossed himself before these pictures? He replied, ‘That we cannot do; you know the commandments;’ and here he repeated the first and second.

Are you obedient to the laws? ‘As far as they do not interfere with our religion or our faith. We have sworn allegiance to our Emperor, and we serve in the army.’  You are called Duhabertzy? ‘Our gracious Emperor has been pleased to call us so, and we submit. We call ourselves true Christians; we are the same as from the beginning.’  Are there many on the Don of your way of thinking. ‘Oh yes, many thousands; but they are afraid to show themselves, or to avow their opinions. ‘Have you been persecuted? ‘If any man will live godly in Christ Jesus, he must suffer persecution.’

We then related to him what was going on in the religious world, and made him acquainted with the Bible Society. I wish you had been present while we related these things to him. He seemed to awaken as out of a dream: a heavenly joy beamed from his countenance, which melted our hearts. At last he exclaimed, ‘Now he is near. We have long been expecting him to come, and long been convinced it could not be far distant, but never believed that such preparations were making for his coming. No person has ever told us of these things. I will go home to my church, and relate to them all these glorious things. How will my brethren rejoice when they hear them.’

We gave him a Russian Testament, and some of our Society’s publications to carry home with him to his brethren, as he always called them. It seems they have all things common, or nearly so. Their conduct is most exemplary: they have a good report of all men, even of their enemies.

St. Petersburg, 12-24 October, 1815.

Perhaps friend Owen has informed you that I lately had an interview with some Duhobortsy [sic, Dukhobortsy] in whose situation I feel deeply interested. They belong originally to the country of the Cosacks [sic, Cossacks] on the Don.

The history they gave of themselves is very affecting and interesting. They say that there were three brothers who from their youth directed themselves to the meaning of the Scriptures by which means they obtained more light than their neighbours, and were convinced that some of the practices of the Greek church were not scriptural.

In one ward they went so far as to refuse to cross themselves before the images of the Saints, they refused to join in the sacraments and even denyed [sic] that the Greek church was a church of Christ or that her Priests were Christian pastors, together with many other principles they held and endeavoured to propagate brought them under the notice of the Powers that be.

They were represented as being disobedient to government and on this account were banished from their homes to distant provinces of the Empire. There they remained many years and their party seemed to have languished and almost died out.

At length they were allowed to return to their homes. They immediately began to spread their sentiments: their disciples increased rapidly. In a few years after their return, they died in peace; but as these edified themselves with whom we speke [sic], their party were convinced that they ought not to remain silent. They therefore propagated their opinions and again became obnoxious to government. About 100 of the ringleaders were sent to the government of Wiborg [sic] among the Finns who could neither speak with them nor understand them and where of course they could not propagate their opinions.

They were distributed among the poor peasants and at first were not allowed to move from the place of their abode to seek a livelihood in any way. All their religious books were taken from them and even the Bible so that they were entirely without books when we found them. Even their children were taken away from them that they might be educated in the true faith. In this state of distress they were kept for several years, but for some years past they have been better treated.

They are now permitted to seek employment where they can and to support themselves by the sweat of their brows. Their children are no more torn from them, so that they are now much better off. They have otherwise been subjected to many hardships. Still they are far from being comfortable. They wish to be permitted to return to their old homes again and the late Governor of Wiborg had taken in hand to procure this liberty for them; but he died before their petition could be presented.

You may have assured we will do every thing in our power for them as soon as the great and good Alexander returns, and we are convinced that we shall succeed if not in obtaining permission for them to return to the Don, at least to join their brethren in the Crimea.

They have an excellent character among the people where they now sojourn. We have already taken preliminary steps and made arrangements for hastening the business; but we are obliged to act with the greatest caution and must not appear in this affair. They are ill misrepresented to Government, perhaps owing in many instances to their own obstinacy, and their enmity to the church creates them enemies in their quarter.

What I have in mind in stating these things to you is to request that you will endeavour to do something for them. There are upwards of 90 of them and some of them very old, one 90 years of age. They have no heads among them and only two or three who can read: a little pecuniary support would have the utmost advantage to these poor people. And if we should get them permission to return, think how much they will require for such a long journey and to set them up again in the world.

Now I know thee friend, that thou art famous for managing an affair of this kind whence prudence is requisite. Nothing must be said publicly on the subject, all must be done among the Friends in private, and silence must be enjoined on all parties. Our names must never be mentioned and in case of help in your applications you must write me and only say you can draw on friend Redman for example for so much money to be applied as mentioned in your letter of such a date; but not a word must be said of the Duhobortsy.

Consider the situation in which we stand and you will see the propriety of all this. We will never appear in the business, we have friends amongst who will manage it better than we can. None will know whence the help comes, not even those who receive it. It must be literally Let not the right hand know what the left hand doeth. I am obliged to write in a hurry. I am sure thou does not forget they old friend. Salute thy partner and daughter from thy sincere friend.


At the Imatra Waterfall, Pinkerton and Paterson found a colony of ninety Don Cossack Doukhobors who had been living in exile there since 1806-1807. Historical records indicate that these included the Lazarev, Markin, Abrosimov, Nazarov, Semenov and Chuval’deev families, among others.

When the Doukhobors first arrived at Imatra, they were distributed among the poor Finnish peasants, who could neither speak with them nor understand them. They were not allowed to move from their assigned places of exile nor seek a livelihood in any way. They were subjected to many hardships; their children were taken away and their religious books were confiscated.

In time, thanks to the benevolence of Tsar Alexander I, the families were reunited again and the exiles were permitted to seek employment where they could and support themselves. They formed a colony and lived communally, holding all things in common. However, they were still far from comfortable and wished to be allowed to return to their old homes on the Don River.

Pinkerton and Paterson learned that the Doukhobor philosophy originated among the Don Cossacks generations earlier, and was first taught by three brothers who from their youth ‘directed themselves to the meaning of the Scriptures’ by which means they ‘obtained more light than their neighbours’ and became convinced that the practices of the Orthodox Church ‘were not scriptural’. Their disciples increased rapidly, and many Don Cossack Doukhobors were cruelly persecuted and exiled to distant parts of the Empire for their faith.

The Scottish missionaries had a long conversation with one of the Doukhobor exiles who explained the basic tenets of their beliefs: that the spirit of God could be found in the soul of every man; worship of God in spirit and truth; and the rejection of all external rites, sacraments, dogma and ecclesiastic hierarchy and authority. While illiterate, the exile had ‘a more intimate acquaintance with the Scriptures than many they had met with’ and ‘explained some texts to us in a manner which would have done honour to an Oxford or Cambridge divine.’

Unlike their brethren on the Molochnaya, who were now living in a completely Doukhobor setting under the dynamic influence of their leader Kapustin and the exclusivist doctrines embodied in his psalms, the Doukhobor exiles in Finland did not possess the fully-developed version of the Living Book and still maintained the earlier Doukhobor tendency to follow the Bible as well as their own oral traditions. Accordingly, while only ‘one or two’ of them could read, they were most thankful to receive copies of the Russian Testament and publications from the Russian Bible Society.

Shortly after Pinkerton and Paterson’s visit, the Doukhobor exiles in Finland submitted the following letter to the Russian Bible Society (Elkinton, Joseph The Doukhobors, Their History in Russia, Their Migration to Canada (New York: Ferris & Leach, 1903), p. 267-268):

“We, the under-named, make known that we have received the most precious and divine gift of seven copies of the Holy Scriptures from the Bible Society, according to our desire. We account it our duty to return thanks to God for His unsearchable mercy and condescension to us in having put it into the hearts of the members of the Society thus to strengthen mankind against sin. We present our ardent petition to the Society, that they would unite with us in thanksgiving to the Almighty God, who has bestowed upon them the spirit of Light and Wisdom and Grace, to lead us by the right knowledge of Himself, from the path of ignorance into the way of truth and salvation. We offer up in our prayers in union with you for the life of our great monarch, Alexander, and for his brethren and the allies. May they who love his life live as pillars of the world, and may their days be as the days of heaven, because they are called to do the work of God. May the Lord of Hosts help them, and preserve them from all their enemies, that righteousness and peace may abound in their days, and may the Lord number them among His elect forever and ever. Along with this we send each of us, the under-named, according to our promise, two rubles in aid of the Bible Society, in all twenty rubles from nine peasants.”

The Scottish missionaries, in turn, were deeply moved by their meeting with the Doukhobor exiles. John Paterson, in particular, endeavored to ease their sufferings and to obtain permission for them to either return to the Don or else join their brethren on the Molochnaya. To this end, he wrote Richard Phillips, a prominent London member of the Society of Friends (Quakers) to request financial aid for the Doukhobor exiles in Finland. It is probable that Paterson also lobbied Tsar Alexander I to release the Doukhobors from exile. However, he took great pains to conceal these efforts, so as not to damage the reputation and standing of the British and Foreign Bible Society in Russia as a neutral, non-denominational organization.

Two years after Pinkerton and Paterson’s visit to Finland, in 1817, the Don Cossack Doukhobors were released from exile and allowed to join their brethren on the Molochnaya. Unbeknownst to even the Doukhobors themselves, it seems that the British and Foreign Bible Society, together with the Society of Friends in England, played a direct, albeit clandestine, role in securing their liberation and in financing their relocation.

Note: for a detailed account of Robert Pinkerton’s subsequent visit to the Molochnaya Doukhobors in 1816, see A Visit to the Dukhobortsy on the Sea of Azov.