Report from the Caucasus, 1875

by Hans Leder

Hans Leder was an Austrian naturalist and explorer who toured the Caucasus region in 1875-1877. During his travels, he visited the Doukhobor village of Tambovka along Lake Paravani in the Akhalkalaki district of Tiflis province, Russia. He kept a journal and recorded his impressions of his Doukhobor hosts. He jointly published his account with Oskar Schneider as “Beiträge zur Kenntniss der kaukasischen Käferfauna” in “Verhandlungen des Naturforschenden Vereines in Brünn” (Vol 16) (Naturforschender Verein in Brünn, Adolf Oborny, 1877). Available in English for the first time ever, this exclusive translation provides the reader with a brief, rare, first-hand account of Doukhobor life during this little-known period of their history. Translated by Gunter Schaarschmidt for the Doukhobor Genealogy Website. Afterword and editorial comments by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

On June 7 I rented horses and a guide and rode to the high mountains that beckoned from the West with their snowy plains. The distance is not very great, approximately 300 verst [an Imperial Russian measure of distance equal to 1.06 kilometers]; one ascends ever so gradually in the monotonous steppe so that one entirely imperceptibly reaches the height of 8,000 feet. There, from the highest point of a mountain pass, one suddenly catches sight of extensive Lake Toporawan [sic. Paravani] surrounded by mountains on all sides. At the upper end of the lake lies the Doukhobor village of Tambowka [sicTambovka] where in spite of my communication difficulties I was received very well and was assigned the room that was reserved for strangers, especially officials. To be sure this was not done entirely out of hospitality but also due to a letter of reference by the central administration in Tiflis [present-day Tbilisi] requesting all administrative authorities to facilitate my stay and provide support.

Hans Leder (1843-1921).

However, the dogs were not so hospitable. These dogs in general make life most miserable for the stranger because, being half-wild, they bark incessantly and jump at unsuspecting people and herds entering the village threatening to tear them apart. Unfortunately they do not just stop at threats but do attack in actual fact. Moreover, the Tatars are in the habit of neither fending a dog off nor beating him. Therefore one must be very careful not to harm these curs seriously or else one risks revenge by their just as half-savage masters who are only too willing to make use of their kinzhal [“Caucasian daggers”]. I saw that here in Tambowka everyone passing was armed only with a long pole because the dogs do not even respect the village inhabitants. But the villagers do not think of using these poles to beat the dogs – rather the people hold the poles behind waving them back and forth. The dogs then concentrate on the pole and they try to seize the end with their sharp teeth while staying at a distance from the pole-carriers.

The Doukhobors (Spirit-Wrestlers), along with several other sectarians, were banned from their home region because of their religious views and resettled to the less suitable and more dangerous areas of Transcaucasia. However, they firmly adhere to their accepted views and, as distinct from the other Russians, have very different morals and customs. They consider churches and priests superfluous and do not tolerate them in their villages. They especially show reverence for the Old Testament, interpreting it often very differently from established practice. They seldom give their children, especially the girls, the names of saints, for example, Baraschka (“little lamb”). Their wives live in considerable dependence on the men although all of them are willingly subservient to a female prophet, a descendant of the founder of their sect. The matrimonial bonds are very dissolute. Otherwise they live peacefully and are well-behaved people.

Their villages do not yet excel in excessive cleanliness but make a relatively favourable impression as compared with the earthen dwellings of the auls [“Caucasian villages”] of the indigenous races. Since the area is utterly deficient in firewood they prepare a fuel made out of cow dung mixed with straw, formed into bricks, and air-dried. The lake abounds in excellent species of fish, especially the salmon trout (trutta lacustris) of which I have seen truly giant specimens.

The shores of Lake Paravani near Tambovka village in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region of Georgia, much the same today as when Hans Leder visited it in 1875. A Panoramio photo by Aleksan


Hans Leder (1843-1921) was an Austrian naturalist and explorer who possessed a strong interest in the study of entomology and published numerous scholarly works on the subject. From 1867-1872, his explorations in Algeria led to the discovery of new beetle species. In 1875-1877, he toured the Caucasus with Dr. Oskar Schneider. During their 32-month journey together through the Russian provinces of Kuban, Terek, Kutaisi, Tiflis, Elizavetpol, Baku and Erevan, they documented a number of rare, previously unknown species of insects.

It was during Leder’s travels through the Caucasus that he encountered the Doukhobors. On June 7, 1875, he stopped at the Doukhobor village of Tambovka, situated on the north shore of Lake Paravani in the Akhalkalaki district of Tiflis province.  He stayed there for three days, during which time he explored the surrounding countryside, documenting several rare species of beetles, before departing on June 9.  During his stay, he conversed with his Doukhobor hosts and observed their way of life.

The Austrian explorer wrote approvingly of the Doukhobors’ hospitality, noting that he was “received very well” and was assigned special guest quarters (gornitsa) reserved for travelling officials and persons of importance. Undoubtedly, the Doukhobors also provided him with food and supplies, along with shelter and forage for his horses. He admired their “peaceful” and “well-behaved” nature, along with their “firm adherence” to their unique way of life amidst one of the most unsuitable and dangerous areas of the Caucasus. As well, he admired the cleanliness of their homes, which left a “favourable impression”.

Curiously, Leder devotes an entire paragraph of his account to the vicious, half-wild dogs in the village. Without a doubt, the Doukhobors kept these animals to guard against, watch for, and warn off, attacks, raids and depredations by native Caucasian tribesman; a frequent occurrence in that era.  Leder noted that the Doukhobors armed themselves against the dogs with long poles – not to beat them with, but to distract them – which was a testament to their pacifist nature.

Leder did not have an opportunity during his stay to learn much about the Doukhobors’ religious beliefs. However, he observed that they had no priests nor churches in their villages, and that they held the Old Testament in great reverence, interpreting it differently from established practice. He also noted that the sectarians paid homage to a “female prophet” amongst them – a reference to nineteenth century Doukhobor leader Lukeria Vasil’evna Kalmykova (1841-1886).

This would not be Leder’s only brush with the Doukhobors. On September 4, 1875, he hired a Doukhobor carter from Karaklisi village to drive him by wagon from the city of Tiflis to the town of Mamudly, where he arrived on September 10. Leder found the 300 verst trip rather deplorable because there were few habitable homes and one had to camp out in the open, food was hard to come by, and because of the general lack of hospitality in the area; a sharp contrast to his experience among the Doukhobors.

Leder’s impressions of the Doukhobors, while brief, are among the remarkably few sources of detailed, published information about them during the third quarter of the nineteenth century. As such, his work is a valuable contribution to our understanding of this little-known era of Doukhobor history. 

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

To read more, search, download, save and print a full PDF copy of the original German text of Hans Leder & Oskar Schneider’s “Beiträge zur Kenntniss der kaukasischen Käferfauna”in Verhandlungen des Naturforschenden Vereines in Brünn (Vol 16) (Naturforschender Verein in Brünn, Adolf Oborny, 1877) visit the Google Book Search digital database.

Travels Among the Molochnaya Dukhobortsy, 1839-1841

by Adele and Xavier Hommaire de Hell

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

Adele Hommaire de Hell (1819-1883)

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

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

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

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

. . .

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

Xavier Hommaire de Hell (1812-1848)

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

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

. . .

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

A Visit to the Dukhobortsy, 1843

by Baron August Freiherr von Hasthausen

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

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

Baron August Freiherr von Haxthausen (1792-1866)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Count Vorontsov, Odessa, January 26, 1841.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Letters from the Caucasus, 1858

by Floriant A. Gille

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


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

Floriant Antoine Gille (1801-1865).

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

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

October 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tolstoy’s Correspondence with N.E. Fedoseev

by Nikolai E. Fedoseev and Lev N. Tolstoy

Nikolai Evgrafovich Fedoseev (1871-1898) was a Russian Marxist revolutionary who was politically exiled to Siberia in 1897. While en route to his place of exile in Irkutsk province, he encountered the first party of 34 Doukhobor conscripts en route to exile in the Yakutsk region for their refusal to bear arms. In early 1898, he met with the second party of 46 Doukhobor exiles on their way to join their brethren. During this period, Fedoseev initiated a correspondence with Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, the Russian novelist, philosopher and social reformer. Fedoseev informed Tolstoy about the circumstances of the Doukhobors’ exile and settlement, their health, state of mind, and material well-being. This information was extremely useful for Tolstoy, who was deeply concerned about the Doukhobors’ plight, and was actively advocating on their behalf. The following are the three surviving letters between Fedoseev and Tolstoy. Reproduced from N. Pokrovskiy and K. Shokhor-Trotskiy [L. N. Tolstoi II. Moscow: Izd-vo Akademii Nauk SSSR, 1939, pp. 277-289. (Series: Literaturnoe nasledstvo 37-38.)] [Vaduz: Kraus Reprint Ltd., 1963], they are made available for the first time in English translation in this Doukhobor Genealogy Website exclusive. Translation by Jack McIntosh. Afterword and additional editorial notes by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

Introduction (From the Original Russian Publication)

Nikolai Evgrafovich Fedoseev (1871-1878).

Nikolai Evgrafovich Fedoseev (1871-1898) was one of the outstanding pioneers of revolutionary Marxism in Russia. In the words of Lenin [i.e. Vladimir Il’ich Lenin, communist leader of the Soviet Union from 1917-1924], “the public of that day, as they were turning toward Marxism, undoubtedly experienced in greater and greater measure the influence of this unusually talented and dedicated revolutionary.” As Vladimir Il’ich recalls, Fedoseev “enjoyed the unusual affection of all who knew him, as a model old-time revolutionary, totally devoted to his cause.”[1]

Fedoseev’s untimely death deprived Russia’s proletarian revolution of a passionate fighter, while in him Russian historical science lost a serious scholar. One of his most important works – on the fall of serfdom in Russia – based on primary sources – earned high praise from everyone who read it. The manuscript of that work perished without a trace along with almost the whole of Fedoseev’s literary heritage during a police search of “Vpered”, the Party publishing house. A monument to this remarkable man was created by the Commission on the History of the October Revolution and the All-Union Communist Party (Bolshevik) in the form of an anthology dedicated to him.

Fedoseev spent the greater part of his politically conscious life in prisons. Exiled in 1897 to Eastern Siberia, he soon committed suicide. Stunned by the news of this “tragic story,” Lenin, then in exile in the village of Shushenskoye, wrote to his sister A. I. Yelizarova that in the final days of Fedoseev’s life, “the wild slanders of a certain scoundrel,” a political exile in Verkholensk,[2] played “a major part.” Those “slanders” had something to do with Fedoseev’s relations with the Doukhobors.

L. Lezhava, in exile in Verkholensk at the same time as Fedoseev, recalls: “… it seems that from Verkholensk Nikolai Evgrafovich was already writing letters to L. N. Tolstoy – about the Doukhobors, if I am not mistaken. Lev Nikolaevich immediately replied to him personally, and a lively correspondence between them ensued, which continued throughout Nikolai Evgrafovich’s time in Verkholensk.”[3]

How then did this correspondence come about? While travelling into exile, Fedoseev met a group of Doukhobors. The Doukhobors were natives of the Transcaucasus. For their burning of weapons and refusal of military service they had been subjected to the harshest repressions. Persecution of the Doukhobors by the Tsar’s government is described in Rabotnik, the Social Democratic organ published in Geneva, in correspondence from St. Petersburg forwarded and edited by V. I. Lenin[4]:

“The correspondence published in mid-August about the expulsion of Doukhobors from Akhalkalaki district, Tiflis province could not have escaped the attention of readers of Russkie Vedomosti. However, almost nothing is said about the reasons for this eviction. However, this disturbing story deserves serious attention. It reveals to us that terrible Asiatic despotism which is quite inconceivable in a civilized country… Thirty-five families first exiled by order of the governor were the vanguard, soon to be followed by thousands more. But where to exile such a huge number of prosperous, industrious people? They were not merely expelled, but scattered in various directions in the most barbaric manner. The Doukhobors were dispersed as separate families around various mountain hamlets of Tiflis province and the Dagestan region, without being given a plot of land, housing or even a piece of bread. The native authorities were ordered not to provide Doukhobors with employment of any kind. Obviously thousands of families were being doomed to death by starvation…. Such is the picture that serves to supplement the Armenian Question that so interests Europe.”[5]

The Doukhobor young men who had refused in 1895 and 1896 to serve in the armed forces were condemned to imprisonment in disciplinary battalions, where they were subjected to corporal punishment “according to the law.” “Those sentenced were driven with whips into a cold, dark cell; a day later they were ordered to fulfill their military duties, and for refusing they were again beaten on their wounded bodies.” These Doukhobors spent from one year to a year and a half in the disciplinary battalion. When the order came for those not showing “hope of correction” to be exiled to Yakutsk region, thirty-four Doukhobors were dispatched from the battalion on November 25, 1896.

It was precisely during one difficult leg of that journey that N. E. Fedoseev encountered this first party of Doukhobors exiled to Siberia. That group passed through Rostov-on-Don, Tula, and Chelyabinsk, “wintered over” for over two months in Tyumen, and at the beginning of April, 1897 were transported by rail to Krasnoyarsk. Also in Krasnoyarsk that April was Fedoseev, who was being expelled from Moscow to Verkholensk.[6] However, here he apparently did not meet the first party of Doukhobors. As far as Aleksandrovsk he went with a different group in which was a lone Doukhobor, Ivan Rybin, an exile from the Caucasus. For some portion of the route, the peasants Ol’khovik and Sereda –”Tolstoyans” dispatched from Irkutsk to the Aldan River area – were also with Fedoseev. This is clear from documents drawn up along the stage route concerning the ill-fated “affair” in which Fedoseev was accused of acts unbecoming a socialist. One of the documents compiled June 17, 1897 during the “Khorbatovsky leg” of the route mentions the names Rybin, Ol’khovik and Sereda. When they arrived June 29th, 1897 at the village of Aleksandrovsk, the first Doukhobor party found their co-religionist Rybin, who had come there with Fedoseev, in the transfer prison. It was there, we have to assume, that the Doukhobors also met up with Fedoseev.[7] They were held in the Aleksandrovsk transfer prison for twenty days, and on July 18th they were sent on further. After five days they reached the Lena River and, probably on July 23rd, set out on a river barge from the pier at Kachug to Yakutsk. That day or the next they passed the town of Verkholensk, the place designated for Fedoseev’s exile.

Rare photo of Doukhobors in Yakutian Exile, 1898.  Second from the left in the front row – P. V. Ol’khovik. Second from the left in the middle row – K. Sereda Private collection, Moscow.

Undoubtedly it was while he was in the Aleksandrovsk prison that Fedoseev, when informed of the arrival there of Doukhobors, first established contact with them, began to exchange notes, and peppered them with questions. This exchange went on between cells. Fedoseev’s notes have not survived; his personal acquaintance with the Doukhobors probably continued on the way from the village of Aleksandrovsk to Verkholensk, to which he also, as his friends recall, arrived along the Lena by river barge. His conversations with them and the direct impression the Doukhobors made on him enabled him to say in his letter to Tolstoy that he had found out about their life and fate “directly from them during our journey there together.”

As far as is known, no archival collection of Nikolai Fedoseev’s papers has been preserved; only three letters from Doukhobors to him have fortuitously escaped destruction. Those letters, hitherto unpublished, were passed on to K. S. Shokhor-Trotsky by P. I. Biryukov, the author of a book about the Doukhobors[Dukhobortsy: sbornik statei, vospominanii, pisem i drugikh documentov” (St. Petersburg: I.N. Kushnerev, 1908)], who in turn had received them from A. N. Dunaev, who in the late 1890s was a friend of Tolstoy. Hence the supposition naturally arises that in early 1898 they had been sent by Fedoseev himself to Tolstoy in Moscow, and from him found their way to Dunaev.

Early in December 1897, in his first letter to Tolstoy, Fedoseev made use of written communications from Doukhobors, and also some of their oral narratives. On January 1st, 1898, Tolstoy noted receipt of this letter in his diary: “I received a letter from Fedoseev in Verkholensk about the Doukhobors – very moving.” At the end of January Tolstoy sent a copy with a letter to V. G. Chertkov, who was living at that time in exile in England, where he had set about organizing his publishing company “Svobodnoe Slovo” [“Free Word”]. On the copy Tolstoy inscribed “I am sending you a copy of a letter from Fedoseev, who is in administrative exile, with very important and interesting details about the Doukhobors. I have answered it” (from V. G. Chertkov’s archive). The text of that first letter from Tolstoy to Fedoseev has not been preserved, nor has the second letter from Fedoseev to Tolstoy been found. Consequently, printed below are only the first and third letters from Fedoseev, and the second and third of Tolstoy’s letters.[8] Only one of these letters (Fedoseev’s first) has been published abroad, and that in a rare publication without naming its author.

Tolstoy had known nothing about Fedoseev, but thanks to his letters, he felt “close” to him, took an interest in him, and at the end of his last letter asked a number of questions about Fedoseev himself. Tolstoy never received an answer, as his letter in all likelihood arrived in Verkholensk several days after Fedoseev’s suicide.

1.    N. E. Fedoseev to L. N. Tolstoy (ca. December 10, 1897, Verkholensk)

Highly esteemed Lev Nikolaevich – Several months ago you sent a letter to the editor of a St. Petersburg newspaper concerning assistance to Doukhobors of the Caucasus,[1] victims of persecution in 1895. At the time when the ruined Akhalkalaki Doukhobors who had been dispersed about Georgian villages were perishing in their destitution, several dozen of their children were being subjected to terrible torture in the disciplinary battalions of Ekaterinograd stanitsa [“Cossack settlement”], in the Tersk region.

I have decided to inform you of certain details of this latest circumstance, and also of the subsequent fate of the Doukhobors who have rejected weapons, assuming that you are unaware of what I found out directly from them during our journey together.

For refusing weapons and military service (April 2nd, May 6th, and June 29th, 1895), the military court (in the period from June 16th, 1895 to May 3rd, 1896 sentenced to disciplinary battalions 41 Doukhobors from Akhalkalaki district (Tiflis province), Elizavetpol province and the Kars region. Of those, 11 persons were conscripted into the Ekaterinograd battalion on October 20, 1895, 8 persons on December 29th, 8 on March 8th, 1896, 1 on April 23rd, 2 on June 28th, 4 on August 9th and 7 on October 4th. The disciplinary battalion staff was assigned to force the Doukhobors into military service. For refusing training, they were first locked into a cell for 3, 5, 10 and even 15 days in a row. Then, when this measure led nowhere, they resorted to corporal punishment. The battalion commander, Colonel Maslov and company commanders Bogaevsky, Shapkin, Okinchets, Pokrovsky and Protopopov sentenced the Doukhobors to 20-30 strokes by birch rods. They beat them with tied bundles of thorny branches, during the beatings treating the butchers to vodka. In August 1896 Lieutenant Colonel Morgunov, standing in for Maslov, along with company commanders Bogaevsky, Volochkov, Protopopov and Pokrovsky stepped up the punishment from 30 to 60-80 strokes. Morgunov slashed away over the punishment bench…

Imprisoned soldiers and staff non-commissioned officers were ordered to herd the Doukhobors into the church with straps and sabres. When the Doukhobors who had been driven into the church refused to cross themselves and kneel, they were immediately beaten with straps and sabres until the blood flowed (“there was a bloodbath.”[2]) The systematic torture forced the Doukhobors to agree to go for training and take up weapons for parade drill. They agreed to this, saying that they would not use them under any circumstances.

Their obstinacy was reported to the emperor; an order came from St. Petersburg that each Doukhobor be asked once more individually whether he would serve as a soldier. Maslov lined up the Doukhobors and asked each of them: “Will you serve, will you slaughter your neighbour, if the Tsar so orders?” Seven men said “yes” and were left to serve out their term in the disciplinary battalion, but a month later, November 25, [18]96, the remaining 34 men were exiled a month later to the Yakutsk region.

One more detail: the senior doctor (with the disciplinary battalion), Preobrazhensky, forced ailing Doukhobors who came to him to eat meat, “spat in their faces and committed all sorts of outrages” and sent them off without treating them. When the Doukhobors who had been beaten with thorny branches could neither walk nor sit down, this doctor would not receive them in the hospital. The Doukhobor Mikhail Shcherbinin “died on his feet.” Preobrazhensky had refused to take him to the hospital.[3]

The schism in their community, the break with their nearest relatives over disagreements about taking the oath and accepting weapons, the ruination of near ones and their impoverished situation in their banishment cannot but leave terrible imprints on the souls of the exiles.

Moreover, for many of them, the beatings inflicted at the time of their prayer gathering on the steep slope, and during the following days, and the cruel tortures in the battalions all left their imprint. They all are depressed, crushed by grief and have a passive attitude toward the future.[4] [*] They have not even bid farewell to their relatives; correspondence with them, of course, is difficult in the extreme.

During their journey under escort, the Doukhobors have already lost four of their companions. Alexander Gridchin [sic. Gritchin] died in Chelyabinsk and Ivan Kukhtinov in Krasnoyarsk; in Moscow Fyodor Samorodin was taken away gravely ill, and recently Luk’yan Novokshenov died in the Yakutsk jail. The health of many of the sick ones gives cause for concern. Fyodor Fomenov and Fyodor Malov show clear signs of tuberculosis;[5] Filipp Popov has lost an eye due to trachoma. The term of the Doukhobors’ exile has been administratively set (with royal approval) as 18 years.[6]

The usual term of active and reserve military service has been offered as justification for the illegal term of administrative exile. However, among the 34 exiled Doukhobor soldiers, 4 have served two years and 6 have served one year; the same sentence has been handed out to reservists (“red-carders”) who had served out their whole term of active service. According to news received by Doukhobors from home, after them another 80 “red-carders” were sent to Yakutsk region.[7] The location selected for settlement of the Doukhobors is Ust’-Notora, 300 versts from Amga and 150 versts above the Okhotsk post road northeast of Yakutsk. This location, according to associates who know the Yakutsk region, is more suitable for agriculture that the previously designated Aldan River area. The Doukhobors arrived from Yakutsk to Ust’-Notora on the twentieth day (September 25).  They settled in their winter quarters, all together (30 persons) in one Tungus yurt [“Siberian hut”].[8] When spring arrives they intend to set about clearing land for ploughing from the forest and building houses. For the first while they have purchased up to 400 puds [An Imperial Russian unit of measure equal to 36.11 lbs.] of grain (at 1 ruble 50 kopecks a pud) from the Skoptsy [A Russian religious sect that practiced self-castration.] in Ust’-Maya.

They have brought Ol’khovik[9] and Sereda[10] and a certain Egorov[11], who had been sent previously to the Aldan (also for rejection of weapons), to join them. Ol’khovik and Sereda are full of life and energy, and I am very glad for the Doukhobors that they have been assigned to them.[**] Materially they will be poverty stricken, at least until their farming gets under way. Government assistance will be insufficient even for food, and they will need to be provided with implements and livestock (Ol’khovik heard from somebody that the government will provide them with equipment, how true that is, I do not know), but first and foremost, clothing and footwear. Monetary assistance is urgently necessary. For the initial period the government provided assistance forward for three months (up to January 1st) of 386 rubles to 30 persons (from the assistance they evidently deducted their own money sent to the Doukhobors by relatives, which had been taken away from them in prison).[12] Thus, sending money directly to the Doukhobors is of no use, because their government assistance will be reduced by the same amount.

It would be a good thing for the Ust’-Notora colony to be sent books, ranging from alphabet books to general educational texts. What would of greatest importance for them would be medications along with a popular book of home remedies.

Knowing the history of the latest persecutions of the Doukhobors from their own stories, I was extremely annoyed to read distorted information about this in the one censored article in Russian in Birzhevye Vedomosti; moreover Yasinsky provided that newspaper with extremely vile commentary, concluding with a most reactionary and utterly shameless proposal for the elimination of the Doukhobor commune.[13]

It seems to me that it would be important for you to tell this story on the pages of Novoe Slovo.[14] I would be able to send you some materials based on the stories of the Doukhobors themselves (about Gubanov’s lawsuit, which had such an influence on the pogrom [“organized massacre”] of June 29th, and about that debacle itself.

Here are the names of the Doukhobors exiled to the Yakutsk region: Vasily Sherstobitov, Grigory Zibarov, Mikhail Arishchenkov, Nikolai Ryl’kov, Nik. Vas. Ryl’kov, Petr Safonov, Nikolai Shcherbakov, Petr Salykin, Daniil Dymovsky, Nikofor Safonov, Grigory Vanin, Grigory Sukharev, Ivan Malakhov, Kirill Chevel’deev, Dimitry Astaforov, Kuz’ma Pugachev, Semen Usachev, Alistrat Baulin, Illarion Shchukin, Stepan Rybalkin, Fyodor Fomin[ov], Petr Kinyakin, Grigory Verigin, Ivan Chutskov, Filipp Popov, Fyodor Malov, Luk’yan Novokshenov – died in Yakutsk, Nikolai Sukhachev, Fyodor Plotnikov, Aleksei Makhortov, Aleksandr Gridchin – died in Chelyabinsk, Mikhail Shcherbinin – died in the battalion at the Ekaterinograd stanitsa, Ivan Kukhtinov – died in Krasnoyarsk, Fyodor Samorodin – in Moscow in the city hospital.  Sixteen of these are from the Spasskoye community, Elizavetpol’ province; eleven from the Shuragel community and one from the Zarishat community, Kars region. Most are married. Their wives and children remained at home. Along with them a reservist – Ivan Rybin[15] – was sent, and the reservists Vasily Pozdnyakov,[16] Petr Svetlishchev and Grigory Voikin have been left in Aleksandrovsk, Irkutsk province until the winter or spring dispatch to the Lena post road.

The Doukhobors’ address: Amga station, Yakutsk region and district, To the Zemsky zasedatel’ [“police chief”] of the 2nd sector, to be passed on to Vasily Fedorovich Sherstobitov,[17] who lives in Ust’-Notora.

Mail goes only as far as Amga. Their letters are under the control of the police.

2.    N. E. Fedoseev to L. N. Tolstoy (May 1, 1898, Verkholensk)

Deeply respected Lev Nikolaevich – The other day I received a letter from Ust’-Notora[18] residents P. Ol’khovik and Ryl’kov (a Doukhobor)[19], who have arrived in Yakutsk after being summoned by the administration to receive a government allowance (600 rubles) to get themselves established farming and to purchase horses and implements. They all are in good health and are enthusiastically getting to work building houses and preparing land for cultivation. Since February 2nd twenty of them have been supporting themselves with temporary work in the Skoptsy village of Petropavlovsk, 150 versts from Ust’-Notora.


By summer they expect to be well enough settled that they have decided to summon their families to join them[20]. Letters from home have been encouraging them greatly: those who are dispersed around Tiflis province have written to tell them that thanks to outside assistance and support, they are now no longer in dreadful straits[21].

I do not know how they will take the news of the permission granted to their fellows to resettle in America or England. This permission apparently does not extend to those in Ust’-Notora[22]. The reason for their exile – not appearing for conscription – renders this extremely difficult and completely superfluous for the majority of Doukhobors.

Among the several dozen sectarians exiled last year to East[ern] Siberia from various provinces of Eur[opean] Russia (including 12-13 Neplatel’shchiki [“Nonpayers”][23] from Krasnoufimsk district exiled to Yakutsk region for five years), there was a certain Egorov[24]. Probably he is from Pskov. This Egorov was exiled for refusing military service. At first he was settled in the Aldan, but later, along with Ol’khov[ik] and Sereda was transferred to Ust’-Notora. Money for him can be sent to this address: Amga Station, Yakutsk region, to the zemsky zasedatel’ of the second sector, for delivery to the Doukhobor Nikolai Ivanovich Ryl’kov (or to Petr Ol’khovik) in Ust’-Notora. They have received the books I sent, and they are also receiving letters; apparently they are not being held back. Ol’khov[ik] expressed a desire to receive books for reading to the Ust’-Notora colony, books on general subjects in large quantities, not excluding popular works. They are being permitted to travel themselves to Amga to pick up mail and go shopping. In mid-May I will be seeing the second party of Doukhobors exiled to Ust’-Notora[25].

With deep respect, N. Fedoseev

My address: Verkholensk, Irkutsk province, Nikolai Evgrafovich Fedoseev.

3.    L. N. Tolstoy to N. E. Fedoseev  (June 9, 1898, Yasnaya Polyana)

Dear Nikolai Evgrafovich – I feel very grateful and close to you because of your kind concern for our friends. Thank you for the information you sent me in your last letter of May 28th[26]. Please continue to write to me everything you find out about them. If possible, please pass on to them my love and let them know that very, very many people both in Russia and abroad know about them, love them and want to be useful to them.

We have deposited in the bank a small sum of around 3000 rubles designated for assistance to the Doukhobors. I hope that more will be collected. We intend to use this money to help with resettlement. If however it is needed more for settlement of the Yakutsk Doukhobors, part of it may be used there also. Let they themselves decide.

Khudyakov[27] has been writing to me from the Irkutsk prison. I have not replied to him, in the first place because I do not know whether a letter would reach him in Irkutsk, and in the second place because I am always afraid that my letters to Doukhobors will aggravate their situation, as the government is assiduously impeding any contact between me and them.

If you see him, tell him that I read his letter with great pleasure and that not I alone, but many people remember them, follow the news about them, and are trying to help them.

Convey to them that a few days ago Ivin[28] and his family passed through here. He is travelling to England and by mistake, instead of going by a southern route from Batum, he called by in Moscow and at Yasnaya Polyana without finding me (I was in a remote place in Chern district to assist those in need due to crop failure, and while there I fell ill)[29]. He did find my daughter[30], who directed him to St. Petersburg, from where, I hope, with the assistance of friends, he will arrive safely in England. Tell them also that for a long time, unfortunately, we have not been receiving letters from P[eter] V[erigin]. Also mention that Androsov[31] writes from Kars region that although the authorities there are taking away horses and cattle and selling them at auction[32], they are in good spirits and are living well.

Tell them that I think now that things will not get worse, but on the contrary everything will get better.

I hope that the government will soon change its way of doing things. I think that if the majority leaves, the government will also release those who have been exiled in Yakutsk, if not now, then in time[33]. Only may God grant the Yakutian exiles spiritual strength: patience, humility, and love.

He that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved[34].

I shall not write directly to Ol’khovik and the other brethren because I do not wish to write care of the zasedatel‘.

Tell me about yourself. Why were you exiled? What is your situation now? And what is your state of mind? If you do not object to answering these questions, I shall be grateful to you[35].

With love, L. Tolstoy

Group of Doukhobor Exiles in Yakutsk, Siberia, circa 1904


Introduction – Original Russian Editor’s Notes

[1] Lenin, V. I., “Neskol’ko slov o N. E. Fedoseeve” [A few words about N. E. Fedoseev], in his Sochineniya [“Works”], vol. XXVII, pp. 376-377.

[2] Ibid., p. 558 (excerpt from the letter of August 16, 1898).

[3] Fedoseev, Nikolai Evgrafovich. Odin iz pionerov revolyutsionnogo marksizma v Rossii. Sbornik vospominanii [“One of the pioneers of revolutionary Marxism in Russia. Collected reminiscences”]. Moscow – Petrograd: GIZ, 1923, p. 127.

[4] See Lenin’s letter to P. B. Aksel’rod early in November, 1895, in his Sochineniya, vol. XXVIII, p. 8.

[5] “Vesti iz Rossii. Peterburg 20 oktyabrya” [“News from Russia. St. Petersburg, October 20”] (1895), Rabotnik (Geneva), No. 2, 1896.

[6]  The only personal contact between Fedoseev and Lenin took place April 24th, 1897 in Krasnoyarsk (see Zil’bershtein, I. S., “Nekotorye voprosy biografii molodogo Lenina” [“Some questions concerning Lenin’s early life”], Katorga i Ssylka, no. 1, 1930, p. 18).

[7] By the time the Doukhobors arrived, Ol’khovik and Sereda had probably already been sent on from Aleksandrovsk to the Aldan River area.

[8] The text of Fedoseev’s first letter is taken from the copy preserved in V. G. Chertkov’s archive; his second – from an autograph kept in the Tolstoy collection in the Manuscript Division of the All-Union I. Lenin Library. Tolstoy’s letters are printed from the pages of a book of copies preserved in the Tolstoy Museum.

N. E. Fedoseev to L. N. Tolstoy (December 10, 1897) – Original Russian Editor’s Notes

[1] Tolstoy’s letter to the editor of Birzhevye Vedomosti requesting that newspaper to print P. A. Bulanzhe’s article about the grave predicament of the Doukhobors who had been dispersed to villages around Tiflis province. Both the letter and this article sent by Tolstoy to the editor on May 18th, 1897 were only published in August of that year as part of a contribution by I. I. Yasinsky (see footnote 13 of this letter).

[2] The words quoted come from the letter from Doukhobors to N. E. Fedoseev of August 5th, which evidently served as one of the sources for this letter.

[3] The quotation is probably taken from an unknown letter from Doukhobors to Fedoseev.

[4] It has been impossible to ascertain how Fedoseev received word of the report in the newspaper Saratovsky Dnevnik.

[5] Both of the Doukhobors named here by Fedoseev died in Yakutian exile (see Dukhobortsy v distsiplinarnom batal’one, p. 35).

[6] The initiator of the 18-year exile of the Doukhobors, instead of the usual three-five year term of administrative exile, was Minister of War P. S. Vannovsky. The “Most humble report of the Minister of Internal Affairs,” I. L. Goremykin, signed by Vannovsky, was reprinted by V. D. Bonch-Bruevich in his Volneniya v voiskakh i voennye tyur’my [“Army disturbances and military prisons”], Petrograd, 1918, pp. 116-118. On August 5th, 1896 Nicholas II wrote his endorsement on this report: “Agreed”, and, as a result, the “proposal” of the two ministers, approved also by the Minister of Justice, acquired the force of law.

[7] The “red-carded” Doukhobors were persecuted because they had returned their military documents – their red draft cards – to the authorities. The number of Doukhobor “red-carders” supposedly exiled from the Caucasus with the second party as reported to Fedoseev turned out to be unreliable. The whole second party arriving into Yakutian exile consisted of forty persons, of whom nine were over fifty years old, nine over forty, and the rest younger (see Il’insky, A. “Dukhobory v Yakutskoi oblasti”  Golos Minuvshego, no. 1, 1917, p. 257). [In fact, most Doukhobor reservists were exiled internally within the Caucasus, while Doukhobor conscripts in active service, along with Doukhobor elders arrested for inciting their youth to refuse to bear arms, were exiled to Siberia. Only a few reservists were exiled to Siberia with them.]

[8] The Irkutsk governor-general deemed it necessary to isolate the Doukhobors not only from the Russian population, but also from the “Yakuts, who are extremely backward and unstable in their notions.” He feared that “the Yakuts could easily fall under the harmful influence of the sectarians.”

Among the whole first party of Doukhobors exiled to the Yakutsk region about whom Fedoseev wrote to Tolstoy, only one (Kuz’ma Pugachev) did not withstand the severity of the ordeals and begged for mercy. All the other Doukhobors in this party demonstrated the “granite-hard firmness and steadfastness of people who are convinced of the rightness of their cause,” people who, as V. D. Bonch-Bruevich expressed it, “broke modern Russia’s inquisition.” They endured seven and a half years in exile (see Il’insky, A., “Dukhobory v Yakutskoi oblasti”, Golos Minuvshego, no. 1, 1917, pp. 246-253 and 261; and Bonch-Bruevich, V. D., Volneniya v voiskakh i voennye tyur’my, p. 125). 

[9] Ol’khovik, Petr Vasil’evich (born in 1874), peasant of the village of Rechki, Sumy district, Kharkov province, non-Doukhobor. In October 1895 P. V. Ol’khovik, at the time of his call-up, refused the oath and rejected military service. Nevertheless he was enlisted and dispatched by sea to an artillery brigade stationed in Vladivostok. There Ol’khovik continued to refuse to serve in the military and was found guilty by the brigade court “of deliberate insubordination.” On July 1st, 1896 he was sentenced to three years confinement in a disciplinary battalion.

[10] Sereda, Kirill (born in 1874), peasant of the village of Maksimovshchina, Sumy district, Kharkov province. After being called up for military service in 1895, he was assigned to the same artillery brigade.  As he completed the long ocean voyage to Vladivostok together with Ol’khovik, Sereda became good friends with him and while still en route attracted the attention of the authorities. Then in the brigade he refused to continue his military service, and also was found guilty by the court and sentenced to imprisonment for three years in the disciplinary battalion.

In the charge brought against N. E. Fedoseev by the Yukhotskys and their associates he was accused, among other things, of “uncomradely relations” with Ol’khovik and Sereda. A combined meeting of political exiles held January 5th, 1898, after rejecting all the insinuations directed against Fedoseev as to the point concerning his relations with Ol’khovik and Sereda, concluded that the available letters from the latter to Fedoseev “do not permit even a shadow of suspicion of the existence between them and Fedoseev of other than purely friendly relations”  (see Vinogradov, F., “Iz zhizni verkholenskoi ssylki” [“From life in Verkholensk exile”], Katorga i Ssylka, XI (48), 1928, pp. 129-137).

[11] Egorov, Egor Egorovich (born in 1874), peasant of the village of Murashkino, Ostrovsky district, Pskov province. In 1895 he refused to serve, both at his call-up and in the regiment. He was sentenced by the regimental court to three years imprisonment in the disciplinary battalion and dispatched to the Bobruisk Battalion. Later, on October 1st, 1896 he was dispatched for 18 years to Yakutsk region, where he arrived on June 9th, 1897. In September 1901 he escaped from exile and in 1902 went abroad.

[12] Fedoseev’s supposition is mistaken. According to archival data, the money of their own that had been evidently taken away from everyone in the Doukhobor party upon their arrival in prison in Yakutsk came to 945 rubles. After receiving this money and also money for forage, they spent the entire sum on provisions and in fact found themselves at their place of settlement without a kopeck (see Il’insky, A., Dukhobory v Yakutskoi oblasti, pp. 247-250).

[13] Yasinsky, Ieronim Ieronimovich (1850-1931), fiction writer and publicist, notable for erratic opinions and lack of principle.

In 1897 in the newspaper Birzhevye Vedomosti (no. 213, August 6), Yasinsky published his article “Sekta, o kotoroi govoryat” [“The sect people are talking about”]. After outlining the history of the Doukhobor movement, Yasinsky ended his article with the proposal that the poor Doukhobors be given aid so as to “return the lost sheep to the bosom of the church.” In his article Yasinsky included an article by P. A. Bulanzhe along with a letter from Tolstoy to the editor of Birzhevye Vedomosti (see footnote 1).

Referring to Yasinsky’s contribution, Tolstoy wrote to P. I. Biryukov on August 13th(?), 1897: “Not one newspaper wanted to publish Bulanzhe’s article about the Doukhobors, and then Birzhevye Vedomosti did print it, but prefaced it with Yasinsky’s article, which slanders them. I think that is worse than nothing. Let us try not to forget, but to feel their suffering and then strive to help them. How, I do not yet know, but I hope that life will show us” (emphasis mine).

[14] “Novoe Slovo” – a monthly journal that began publication in October 1895. Since March 1897 Plekhanov (under the pseudonym Kamensky), Potresov, and others contributed to the journal. The journal was shut down in December 1897, which Fedoseev could not yet have known.

The version of Fedoseev’s letter that appeared in Listki Svobodnogo Slova substituted the words “some journal” for the name of the above-mentioned Marxist publication.

[15] Rybin, Ivan Semenovich, Doukhobor, was exiled from the Transcaucasus to Yakutsk region, probably in November 1896. As evident from the slanderous accusation lodged against Fedoseev, the latter was acquainted with Rybin (see introduction).  In the copy of Fedoseev’s letter to Tolstoy, the name appears as “Rybakov” rather than Rybin. This is clearly an error.

[16] Pozdnyakov, Vasily Nikolaevich, Doukhobor from Tiflis province. For rejecting military service he was subjected to corporal punishment.

In the spring of 1897 he was exiled for eighteen years to the Yakutsk region. Pozdnyakov arrived at Ust’-Notora with the second party of Doukhobors in June 1898. Soon he was sent by his co-religionists to the Caucasus with an instruction for the wives of the exiles. He successfully completed this risky illegal journey, on the way visiting Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana. According to Tolstoy, Pozdnyakov “showed his lashed body, and it was awful: he was covered with scars, although several months had already passed since his punishment.” At Tolstoy’s request, while at Yasnaya Polyana he wrote down his reminiscences of the violent reprisal against the Doukhobors over the burning of weapons (see Rasskaz dukhobortsa Vasi Pozdnyakova, edited by Vlad. Bonch-Bruevich, Christchurch, “Svobodnoe Slovo” Publication, 1901.)

[17] Sherstobitov, Vasily Fedorovich (1871-1901), Doukhobor from Tiflis province. Conscripted in the autumn of 1892. On June 29th, 1895 (the day of the burning of weapons by the Doukhobors) he refused further military service. For this he was sentenced to imprisonment in the disciplinary battalion, and then sent into exile in Yakutia.

Judging from unpublished letters from Doukhobors to N. E. Fedoseev, it can be stated with confidence that having written these letters on behalf of the whole party of Doukhobors, Sherstobitov was not only in correspondence with Fedoseev, but also personally conversed with him “during [our] journey there together.” A significant number of his letters to Fedoseev apparently have not come down to us.

N. E. Fedoseev to L. N. Tolstoy (December 10, 1897) – Fedoseev’s Notes

[*] The report in Saratovsky Dnevnik that the exiled Doukhobors are in good spirits is false. It is not true that they were allowed to accompany their dead comrade who had died in Krasnoyarsk prison to his burial place.

[**] As a result of having lived together with the vegetarian Doukhobors, Olkhovik and Sereda refused to engage in hunting or fishing.

N. E. Fedoseev to L. N. Tolstoy (May 1, 1898) – Original Russian Editor’s Notes

[18] This letter is unknown to the editors.

[19] Ryl’kov, Nikolai Ivanovich (born in 1871).

[20] Before transporting their families, the Yakutsk settlers decided to familiarize them with living conditions in Siberia; to that end they sent Vasily Pozdnyakov to the Caucasus (regarding him and his journey, see footnote 16 to letter no. 1). Only three childless women arrived with Pozdnyakov to join their husbands. Only in the summer of 1899 did the rest of the Doukhobor families resettle in Siberia [with the assistance of the Tolstoyan Prokopy Nestorovich Sokolnikov].

[21] Outside assistance and support were organized with the closest involvement of L. N. Tolstoy and his friends.

[22] In the summer of 1897 the Doukhobors who had been scattered around villages of Tiflis province petitioned Empress Mariia Fedorovna either to exempt them from military service and permit them to live once again all together, or not to prevent them from emigrating abroad. The latter part of their petition was granted, with the stipulation, however, that those Doukhobors who were subject to call-up could not emigrate. Thus the Ust’-Notora Doukhobors, because they had already been conscripted, were also deprived of that right. Only in 1905 did they finally emigrate (see Babiakin, I., “Dukhobory v iakutskoi ssylke,” Russkoe bogatstvo, no. 2, 1909, pp. 76-98, and no. 3, pp. 34-53).

[23] Neplatel’shchiki – a sect with a clearly anarchistic inclination that emerged in Krasnoufimsk district, Perm province in the mid-1860s. For their refusal to carry out obligations to the state (military service in particular), and for their passive resistance in prisons, they were subjected by the Tsarist authorities to severe measures of coercion. From 1896 on, they were exiled to settle in Yakutsk province. See Prugavin, A. S., Nepriemliushchie mira [“Those who reject the world”], Moscow: izd. “Zadruga”, 1918; and Medyntsev, K. N., Neplatel’shchiki. – Dukhobory [“Nonpayers. – Doukhobors”], Moscow, b.o.g. [1919].  [Note: Besides the Neplatel’shchiki,  another sect from Perm province – the Egovisti (“Jehovists”) or Il’intsy (“Ilyinites”) – were also exiled amongst the Doukhobors in Yakutsk province in the late 1890s.]

[24] As to Egorov, see footnote 4 to letter no. 2.

[25] Peter Verigin’s brothers, who travelled with this second party of Doukhobors into Yakutian exile, in a letter to relatives dated May 22, 1898 from the town of Kirensk reported: “… We had just set out from Kachuga when that same day we arrived in the small town of Verkholensk, where a little below the town we came ashore and spent the night” (Listki Svobodnogo Slova, no. 1, November 1898, pp. 11-12). Undoubtedly Fedoseev was one of the political exiles who met the second party of Doukhobors in Verkholensk. The encounter probably took place on May 13, 1898, as it was on that very day that the Doukhobors set out on barges from the pier at Kachuga.

L. N. Tolstoy to N. E. Fedoseev (June 9, 1898) – Editor’s Notes

[26] Tolstoy doubtless had in mind Fedoseev’s letter of May 1, received at Yasnaya Polyana at the end of May. See letter no. 3.

[27] Khudyakov, Nikolai Fedorovich, Doukhobor from the village of Pokrovskoye, Kars region. In the Tolstoy Archive three of his letters are preserved: those of February 28, April 8 (about which Tolstoy wrote to Fedoseev) and November 15, 1898. In the second of these Khudyakov declared to “dear grandfather” that he knows him “from books of his compositions”, that he has read “What Is To Be Done?,” that he is “living in prison”, that he was “exiled to Siberia for the words ‘thou shalt not kill'” and that his “wife and daughter are voluntarily following” after him. Tolstoy answered June 26, 1898 by letter to Khudyakov, but his reply was intercepted by the Okhrana [“secret police”] and comparatively recently was discovered in the archives of the Department of Police. It was published in the newspaper Krasnaya Gazeta, no. 51, evening edition, February 28, 1925.

[28] Ivin, Ivan Vasil’evich, Doukhobor. Carried out community assignments on more than one occasion. Repeatedly suffered persecution. Was one of the envoys (along with P. V. Makhortov) to England to inspect land and negotiate with V. G. Chertkov and Quakers regarding migration. In May 1898 the families of Makhortov and Ivin obtained foreign passports after signing a written undertaking to return.

[29] On April 25, 1898, after receiving information about famine in the southern part of Tula province, Tolstoy left Moscow for Chern district. After getting settled in Grinevka, the estate of his son Ilya L’vovich, he began to organize a network of canteens for the starving. At the end of May, on the way from Grinevka to Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy called in to see a very longstanding acquaintance, the well-known agriculturalist P. I. Levitskii (1842-1920) at the village of Alekseevskoye, where Tolstoy fell ill and remained for ten days.

[30] Tolstaya, Tat’iana L’vovna, from 1899 – Sukhotina.

[31] Androsov, Mikhail Semenovich, Doukhobor from the village of Gorelovka, Kars region. In 1895, he was deputized by the community to travel to Obdorsk to visit P. V. Verigin. He described his journey in an article: “My Journey: a narrative by Mikhail Androsov, member of the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood”, which was published in the book Pis’ma dukhoborcheskogo rukovoditelia Petra Vasil’evicha Verigina [“Letters of the Doukhobor leader Peter Vasil’evich Verigin”], edited by V. D. Bonch-Bruevich. Christchurch, England: “Svobodnoe Slovo” Publication no. 47, 1901.  Three letters from Androsov to Tolstoy are preserved: from June and October 13, 1897, and the one of May 17, 1898 mentioned by Lev Nikolaevich.

[32] Money obtained from the sale of cattle went to pay the wages of men placed by the government to keep an eye on the Doukhobors.

[33] The Yakutsk Doukhobors received permission to emigrate in 1905.

[34] Tolstoy often repeated this New Testament saying.

[35] N. E. Fedoseev died June 21, 1898. This letter of Tolstoy did not find him among the living.


Nikolai Evgrafovich Fedoseev was born on May 9, 1871 in the town of Nolinsk in Vyatka province. The son of a court investigator, he became one of the first advocates of Marxism in Russia.  In 1887, he was expelled from his studies at the Kazan Gymnasium for spreading revolutionary propaganda. In 1888, he began to organize Marxist study groups, including one that included Vladimir Il’ich Lenin among its members. Arrested in 1889 for operating an illegal printing press, Fedoseev in 1890 was confined in the Kresty prison of St. Petersburg. Upon his release in 1892, Fedoseev’s revolutionary work took him to Vladimir, where he established ties with Marxists in other cities, and in September of the same year he was a leader of the strike at the Morozov factory in Nikol’skoye. Again arrested, in the course of his imprisonment in Vladimir he corresponded with Lenin, then living in Samara, on questions of Marxism. Fedoseev was then politically exiled, first to Sol’vychegodsk in Arkhangel’sk province in 1893, and then to Verkholensk in Irkutsk province in 1897.

It was while en route to Verkholensk that Fedoseev first encountered the Doukhobors. At the beginning of April 1897, he accompanied a party of exiles from Krasnoyarsk in Yenisei province to Alexandrovsk in Irkutsk province. Among this group was Ivan Rybin, a lone Doukhobor from the Caucasus exiled to the Yakutsk region for refusing military service. For some portion of the route, they were accompanied by Petr Ol’khovik and Kiril Sereda, two Tolstoyans from Kharkov province also banished for refusing to bear arms. Upon arriving in Alexandrovsk on June 29, 1897, Fedoseev met the first party of 34 Doukhobors exiled for their refusal of military service.  They spent almost a month together in the Alexandrovsk transfer prison, before setting out by barge on the River Lena on July 18, 1897. Five days later, on July 23, 1897, the party reached Verkholensk, where Fedoseev disembarked, while the Doukhobors continued on to Yakutsk. During the journey, Fedoseev made the personal acquaintance of a number of Doukhobors, whom he continued to correspond with by mail. The following year, on May 13, 1898, Fedoseev briefly met the second party of 46 Doukhobor exiles when they stopped at Verkholensk on their way to Yakutsk.

Fedoseev’s personal acquaintance with the Doukhobors enabled him to find out directly about the circumstances of their exile and settlement, their health, state of mind, and material well being. He decided to write Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, the Russian novelist, philosopher and social reformer, and inform him about their fate, along with that of Ol’khovik and Sereda, who had joined the Doukhobors in Yakutsk.  Tolstoy was grateful to receive this information, as he was deeply concerned about the Doukhobors’ plight, and was actively advocating with Tsarist authorities on their behalf.  The two struck up a lively correspondence, and between December 10, 1897 and June 9, 1898, exchanged five letters – only three of which survive. These letters provide us with a rare, fascinating glimpse into the life of the Doukhobor exiles during this period.

Regrettably, Tolstoy and Fedoseev’s correspondence was cut short by the latter’s suicide on July 4, 1898 at 27 years.  Undoubtedly, the terrible conditions of life in exile, the isolation and loneliness, and the unrelenting police harassment, played a role in Fedoseev’s decision to take his own life. However, the main cause appears to have been the “wild slanders” of a certain Yukhotsky, another political exile in Verkholensk, who accused Fedoseev of having “uncomradely relations” with the Doukhobors; accusations which proved to be unfounded. He was posthumously regarded as one of the first propagandists of Marxism in Russia.

For graphic first-hand accounts of the Doukhobor refusal to perform military service, atrocities committed at the disciplinary battalion, and the exile to Yakutsk see: My Renunciation of Military Service by Gregory I. Sukharev; Refusal of Military Service by Gregory Vanin; Story of a Spiritual Upheaval by Vasily N. Pozdnyakov; My Beautiful Sons…Why Did You Have to Die? by Akim A. Fominov; Confession of a Doukhobor Elder by Vasily V. Zybin; The Vereschagins’ Exile to Siberia by Ann J. Vereschagin; and My Rejection of Military Service – Petr V. Olkhovik. For a comprehensive listing of Doukhobor exiles in Yakutsk see: Index of Doukhobor Military Conscripts Exiled to Siberia, 1895-1905 and Index of Doukhobor Elders Imprisoned in the Caucasus and Exiled to Siberia, 1895-1905. For an account of the journey by Doukhobor women and children to Yakutsk to join their husbands and fathers in exile see: Wives and Children of the Doukhobors by Prokopy N. Sokolnikov.

Passage Across the Caucasus, 1843

by Kuzma F. Spassky-Avtonomov

Between 1841 and 1845, nearly 5,000 Doukhobors were exiled from Tavria to the Caucasus region of Russia. Their journey was long, difficult and dangerous.  By the time they reached the Caucasus, many were exhausted, ragged and starving, only to discover that the lands assigned for their resettlement were harsh, barren and inhospitable. Faced with these conditions, most Doukhobors remained steadfast.  Some, however, underwent a change of heart and took the only action that would let them return to their former homes: conversion to Orthodoxy. In 1843, Russian explorer Kuzma Spassky-Avtonomov encountered one such group of Doukhobor reconverts near Mount Kazbek.  He recorded his impressions in a journal, subsequently published in German as “Ausflug von Moskau nach Transkaukasien” (Vaterländ. Memoiren, Julius 1845.) in “Das Ausland: Wochenschrift für Länder- u. Völkerkunde” Volume 18 (Cotta, September 1845; pp. 1051b-1052a). Available in English for the first time ever, this exclusive translation provides the reader with a rare, brief first-hand account of these little-known events. Translated by Gunter Schaarschmidt for the Doukhobor Genealogy Website. Afterword and editorial comments by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

When you leave the village of Gulet inhabited by Kists and Chechens and situated three verst [an Imperial Russian measure of distance equal to 1.06 kilometers; in this case, 3.2km] from Dariel on the right hand, you will ascend the Kew Valley which gets wider and gradually wild and infertile the higher you go. Half a verst [0.53km] away from [Mount] Kasbek, a fissure called Beshenaya Balka [“Raging Gulley”] cuts across the road. From here you reach the village of Altas at the foot of Krestovaya Gora [“Cross Mountain”] where the postal station Kobi is located. Krestovaya Gora is named after a marble cross that Yermolov [General Aleksey Petrovich Yermolov (1777-1861), commander of Russian troops in the Caucasus] erected on its summit. At this station we had to camp for about four days because a severe storm was raging during that time; that storm not only buried the road in snow but also gave rise to six avalanches that in turn created new mountains.

Mt. Kazbek on the Georgian Military Road where the anonymous author encountered the Doukhobor converts to Orthodoxy in September of 1845.

Several families, Doukhobors, that had rejoined the Orthodox Church and were therefore permitted to return from exile, had been stranded on their way by this terrible blizzard. The avalanches completely blocked off their road. The unfortunate convoy with its children and babies had to dig themselves into the deep snow drifts without any protection and aid and had already given themselves up for lost. For a full 24 hours they spent in this terrible situation until one of them, a strong peasant, decided to dig himself out of the avalanches and worked his way through to the postal station to seek help.

The Cossack officer Greganovsky who happened to be on the station at that time took eight Cossacks and the station master with him and left at once to help the unfortunate travellers. With considerable difficulty and incredible strains they succeeded in digging themselves through to the scene of disaster. It is difficult to describe the joy of the waiting families who had already given up all hope and considered themselves on the verge of certain death. The children had stopped crying: they were already stiff with cold. The Cossacks lifted them onto their horses, wrapped them in their clothing and managed to take them back to the station on the same route and with the same strains. With tears in their eyes the families thanked their saviours and kissed their hands.

In the meantime, one hundred Ossetians were continuously busy clearing the road – they had hardly cleared one spot when the blizzard that strengthened with every minute, had covered the road again. Finally, four days later, the weather cleared.

Wagon on the Georgian Military Road between Vladikavkaz and Tiflis, 19th century.


In 1839, Tsar Nicholas I ordered the expulsion of the Doukhobors living in the Melitopol district of Tavria province to the Caucasus mountain region of Russia. Almost 1,000 Doukhobors immediately converted to Orthodoxy in order to remain in Tavria. The majority, however, remained firm in their faith, and in 1841-1845, 4,992 Doukhobors were deported to the Caucasus. They were exiled in five parties of 800-900 persons each year over the four year period.

The journey into exile lasted several months and involved over a thousand miles on the road. The exiles travelled in large groups; adults walked the entire distance, while children and the elderly rode in wagons. They were escorted by armed military detachments. Nights were spent in crowded, squalid way stations. Dried food had to be eaten, the water supply was often inadequate, and disease frequently struck the settlers while on the road. They had to find their way through roadless mountain passes and struggled to keep their wagons from going over precipices. Snowstorms rendered trails impassible, even in summer. With little to graze on, livestock perished, or as the only available food, was consumed. Caucasian tribesmen, hostile to Russian incursions, threw stones down on the convoys from the heights above, wounding some and killing others. By the time the exiles completed their journey, many were exhausted, ragged and starving.

Upon their arrival in the Caucasus, the Doukhobor exiles were assigned to the Akhalkalaki district of Tiflis province. These mountain highlands, 8,000 feet above sea level, experienced long winters, deep snow, frosts and hail.  The mountainous soil was rocky, bare and infertile. The harsh, inhospitable climate was overall very unhealthy and many Doukhobors suffered and died from fever. Famine and destitution soon followed.

Most Doukhobors steadfastly endured this hardship, suffering and adversity. Some, however, underwent a change of heart about resettlement and took the only action that would let them return to their original homes: conversion to Orthodoxy. The exact number of Doukhobor reconverts is unavailable; however, archival records indicate that in 1843 alone, 37 families abandoned their faith, undertook the perilous journey back across the Caucasus to Tavria, and returned to the bosom of the Orthodox Church.

In 1843, Kuzma Fedorovich Spassky-Avtonomov (1807-1890), a Russian scientist, explorer and member of the Russian Geographic Society, encountered one such group of Doukhobor reconverts near Mount Kazbek, on the Georgian Military Road between Vladikavkaz and Tiflis. Blocked by a snowstorm on a treacherous mountain pass, they would have faced imminent death, had it not been for the heroic rescue efforts of the local Cossack commander. Spassky-Avtonomov recorded this experience in a journal, which he subsequently published in German in 1845 as Ausflug von Moskau nach Transkaukasien” (Vaterländ. Memoiren, Julius 1845.). His account is one of the only published sources of information about Doukhobors who converted back to Orthodoxy, and provides a gripping account of the perils faced when passing across the Caucasus.  As such, this short account is a valuable contribution to our understanding of this little-known era of Doukhobor history.  

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The Dukhobortsy and Religious Persecution in Russia

by John Ashworth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doukhobor villagers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doukhobor village

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Appeal For Help

by Vladimir G. Chertkov, Pavel I. Biryukov & Ivan M. Tregubov

Vladimir Grigorievich Chertkov (1854-1936), Pavel Ivanovich Biryukov (1860-1931) and Ivan Mikhailovich Tregubov were Tolstoyan writers who supported the Doukhobor cause of pacifism. Their appeal, “Pomogite: Obrashchenie k Obshchestvu po Povodu Gonenii na Kavkazskikh Dukhoborov” (London: 1896) helped publicize the persecution of the Doukhobors in the Caucasus. The following excerpt is taken from the English translation, “Appeal for Help” (London: 1897).

A terrible cruelty is now being perpetrated in the Caucasus. More than four thousand people are suffering and dying from hunger, disease, exhaustion, blows, tortures, and other persecutions at the hands of the Russian authorities.

These suffering people are the Doukhobors (or “Spirit Wrestlers” as the word means) of the Caucasus. They are enduring persecution, because their religious convictions do not allow them to fulfil those demands of the State which are connected, directly or indirectly, with the killing of, or violence to, their fellow man.

Brief and fragmentary notices of these remarkable people have not infrequently appeared of late in the Russian and foreign press. But all that has been published in the Russian newspapers has been either too short, or in a mutilated form – whether intentionally, unintentionally, or as a concession to the requirements of the Russian censor; while what has been printed abroad is, unfortunately, little accessible to the Russian public. Hence it is that we consider it our duty in this Appeal to give a general view of the events that are now taking place, and a brief sketch of the circumstances which preceded them

Vladimir G. Chertkov (1854-1936)

The Doukhobors first appeared in the middle of last century. By the end of the last century or the beginning of the present (ie. 19th century) their doctrine had become so clearly defined, and the number of their followers had so greatly increased, that the Government and the Church, considering this sect to be peculiarly obnoxious, started a cruel persecution. 

The foundation of the Doukhobors’ teaching consists in the belief that the Spirit of God is present in the soul of man, and directs him by its word within him.

They understand the coming of Christ in the flesh, His works, teachings, and sufferings, in a spiritual sense. The object of the sufferings of Christ in their view, was to give us an example of suffering for truth. Christ continues to suffer in us even now, when we do not live in accordance with the behest and spirit of His teaching. The whole teaching of the Doukhobors is penetrated with the gospel spirit of love.

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

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

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

The Doukhobors found alike their mutual relations and their relations to other people – and not only to people, but to all living creatures – exclusively on love; and therefor, they hold all people equal brethren. They extend this idea of equality also to the Government authorities; obedience to whom they do not consider binding upon them in those cases when the demands of these authorities are in conflict with their conscience; while, in all that does not infringe what they regard as the will of God, they willingly fulfil the desire of the authorities.

They consider murder, violence, and in general all relations to living beings not based on love, as opposed to their conscience, and to the will of God. The Doukhobors are industrious and abstemious in their lives, and always truthful in their speech, accounting all lying a great sin. Such, in their most general character, are the beliefs for which the Doukhobors have long endured cruel persecution.

The Emperor Alexander I, in one of his prescripts concerning the Doukhobors, dated the 9th December, 1816, expressed himself as follows: “All the measures of severity exhausted upon the Spirit Wrestlers during the thirty years up to 1801, not only did not destroy this sect, but more and more multiplied the number of its adherents.” And therefor he proposed more humane treatment of them. But, notwithstanding this desire of the Emperor, the persecutions did not cease. 

Under Nicholas I, they were particularly enforced, and by his command, in the years ’40 and ’50 the Doukhobors were all banished from the government of Taurus (Tavria) where they were formerly settled, to Transcaucasia, near the Turkish frontier. “The utility of this measure is evident,” says a previous resolution of the Committee of Ministers of the 6th February, 1826, “they (the Doukhobors) being transported to the extreme borders of the Caucasus, and being always confronted by the hillsmen, must of necessity protect their property and families by force of arms,” ie. they would have to renounce their convictions. Moreover the place appointed for their settlement, the so-called Wet Mountains, was one (situated in what is now the Akhalkalak district of the Tiflis government) having a severe climate, standing 5,000 feet above the sea level, in which barley grows with difficulty, and where the crops are often destroyed by frost. Others of the Doukhobors were planted in the present government of Elizavetpol.

But neither the severe climate nor the neighbourhood of wild and warlike hillsmen shook the faith of the Doukhobors, who, in the course of the half century they passed in the Wet Mountains, transformed this wilderness into flourishing colonies, and continued to lived the same Christian and laborious life they had lived before. But, as nearly always happens with people, the temptation of the wealth which they attained to in the Caucasus weakened their moral force, and little by little they began to depart somewhat from the requirements of their belief.

But, while temporarily departing, in the external relations of life, from the claims of their conscience, they did not, in their inner consciousness, renounce the basis of their beliefs; and therefor, as soon as events happened among them which disturbed their outward tranquility, the religious spirit which had guided their fathers immediately revived within them.

In 1887, universal military service was introduced in the Caucasus; and even those for whom it was formerly (in consideration of their religious convictions) replaced by other service or by banishment, were called upon to serve. This measure took the Doukhobors unawares, and at first they outwardly submitted to it; but they never in their consciences renounced the belief that war is a great sin, and they exhorted their sons taken as recruits, though they submitted to the various regulations of the service, never to make actual use of their arms. Nevertheless, the introduction of the conscription among people who considered every murder and act of violence against their fellow men to be a sin, greatly alarmed them, and caused them to think over the degree to which they had departed from their belief.

At the same time, in consequence of an illegal decision of the Government departments and officials, the right to the possession of the public property of the Doukhobors (valued at half a million roubles) passed from the community to one of their members, who, for his own personal advantage, had betrayed the public interest. This called forth the protest of the majority of the Doukhobors against this individual and his party, who hd thus become possessed of the public property, and against the corrupt local administration which had been bribed to give an unjust decision in the case.

When, besides this, several representatives of the majority, and among them the manager (ie. Peter Vasilievich Verigin) elected to administrate the communal property, were banished to the government of Archangel, this awakening assumed a very definite character.

The majority of the Doukhobors (about twelve thousand in number) resolved to hold fast to the traditions left them by their fathers. They renounced tobacco, wine, meat, and every kind of excess, divided up all their property (thus supplying the needs of those who were then in want), and they collected a new public fund. In connection with this return to a strictly Christian life, they also renounced all participation in acts of violence, and therefor refused military service.

The Burning of Arms, 1895. Painting by Terry McLean.

In confirmation of the sincerity of their decision not to use violence even for their own defence, in the summer of 1895, the Doukhobors of the “Great Party” as they were called, burnt all their arms which they, like all the inhabitants of the Caucasus, kept for their protection, and those who were in the army refused to continue service. By general resolution, they fixed on the night of 28th June for the purpose of burning their arms, which were their own property and therefor at their absolute disposal. This holocaust was accompanied by the singing of psalms, and was carried out simultaneously in three places, namely, in the governments of Tiflis and Elizavetpol and in the territory of Kars. In the latter district it passed off without interference; in the government of Elizavetpol it resulted in the imprisonment of forty Doukhobors, who are still in confinement; while in the government of Tiflis the action taken by the local administration resulted in the perpetration by the troops of a senseless, unprovoked, and incredibly savage attack on those defenceless people, and in their cruel ill treatment.

The Burning of Arms in the Tiflis government was appointed to take place near the village of Goreloe, inhabited by Doukhobors belonging to the “Small Party” in whose hands was the public property they had appropriated. This party having learnt the intention of the “Great Party” to burn their weapons, were either afraid of such an assembly, or wished to slander them, and informed the authorities that the Doukhobors of the “Great Party” were devising a rising and preparing to make an armed attack upon the village of Goreloe. The local authorities, then, without verifying the truth of this information, ordered out the Cossacks and infantry to the place of the imaginary riot. The Cossacks arrived at the place of assembly of the Doukhobors in the morning, when the bonfire, which had destroyed their arms, was already burning out, and they made two cavalry attacks upon these men and women, who had voluntarily disarmed themselves and were singing hymns, and the troops beat them with their whips in the most inhuman manner.

After this, a whole series of persecutions was commenced against all the Doukhobors belonging to the “Great Party”. First of all, the troops called out were quartered “in execution” on the Doukhobors’ settlements, ie. the property and the inhabitants themselves of these settlements were placed at the disposal of the officers, soldiers, and Cossacks quartered in these villages. Their property was plundered, and the inhabitants themselves were insulted and maltreated in every way, while the women were flogged with whips and some of them violated. The men, numbering about three hundred, who had refused active service, were thrown into prison or sent to a penal battalion.

Afterwards, more than four hundred families of Doukhobors in Akhalkalak were torn from their prosperous holdings and splendidly cultivated land, and after the forced sale, for a mere trifle, of their property, they were banished from the Akhalkalak district to four other districts of the Tiflis government, and scattered among the Georgian villages, from one to five families to each village, and there abandoned to their fate.

As early as last autumn, epidemics such as fevers, typhus, diphtheria, and dysentery, appeared among the Doukhobors (scattered as above stated), with the result that the mortality increased largely, especially among the children. The Doukhobors had been exiled from a cold mountain climate and settled in the hot Caucasian valleys, where even the natives suffered from fevers; and consequently nearly all the Doukhobors are sick, partly because (not having dwellings of their own) they are huddled together in hired quarters; but chiefly because they lack means of subsistence.

Their only earnings are from daily labour among the population amidst whom they have been thrown, and beyond the bounds of whose villages they are not allowed to go. But these earnings are very small, the more so that the native population suffered this year both from a bad harvest and from inundations. Those who are settled near the railway pick up something by working there, and share the wages they get with the rest. But this is only a drop in the ocean of their common want.

The material position of the Doukhobors is getting worse and worse every day. The exiles have no other food than bread, and sometimes there is a lack of even this. Already among the majority of them certain eye diseases, which are the sure harbingers of scurvy, have appeared.

In one place of exile situated in the Signak district, 106 deaths occurred among 100 families (about 1,000 people) settled there. In the Gory district, 147 deaths occurred among 190 families. In the Tionet district, 83 deaths occurred among 100 families. In the Dushet district, 20 deaths occurred among 72 families. Almost all are suffering from diseases, and disease and mortality are constantly increasing. 

Besides these deaths there have been others (due to actual violence) among the Doukhobors in prison and in the penal battalion. The first to die in this way, in July 1895, was Kirill Konkin, the cause of death being blows received as corporal punishment. He died on the road, before reaching the place of his exile, in a state of hallucination, which commenced while he was being flogged. Next, in August 1896, died Mikhail Shcherbinin in the Ekaterinograd penal battalion, tortured to death by flogging, and by being thrown with violence over the wooden horse in the gymnasium. Among those confined in the prisons many have already died. Some of them, while dying, were locked up in separate rooms, and neither their fellow prisoners, nor parents, wives and children who had come to bid them farewell, were allowed even to enter the room while the dying lay alone and helpless. More deaths are to be expected both among the population suffering from want in exile and in the prisons.

The Doukhobors themselves do not ask for help – neither those who are in exile with their families, famished, and with starving and sick children, nor those who are being slowly but surely tortured to death in the prisons. They die without uttering a single cry for help, knowing why and for what they suffer. But we, who see these sufferings, and know about them, cannot remain unmoved.

But how to help them?

There are only two means to help people persecuted for faith’s sake. One consists in the fulfilment of the Christian commandment, to welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned, and feed the hungry, which is prescribed to us both by our own hearts and by the Gospel; the other consists in appealing to the persecutors, both to those who prescribe the persecutions and to those who allow them to take place when they might stop them; and also to those who, without sympathizing with the persecutions, participate in them and become their means – appealing by laying bare before these persecutors the sin, the cruelty, and the folly of their acts.

Having been in a position sooner than others to know what has here been set forth, we appeal alike to Russians and to non Russians to help our brethren in their present sore distress, both with money offerings to relieve the sufferings of the aged, sick, and children, and by raising their voices on behalf of the persecuted.

The most important and grateful means of expressing sympathy with the persecuted, and of softening the hearts of the persecutors, would be personally to visit the victims, in order to see with one’s own eyes what is being done with them now, and to make the truth about them generally known.

The expression of sympathy is dear to the Doukhobors, because although they do not ask for help, they yet have no greater joy than to see the manifestation of love and pity to them on the part of others – of that same love for the sake of which these martyrs are sacrificing their lives.

The making publicly known of the truth about the Doukhobors is important, because it cannot be that the Russian State authorities really desire to exterminate these people by the inexorable demand from them of that which their conscience does not allow them to do, and the ceaseless persecution and torture of them on this account. There is probably here some misunderstanding, and therefor it is that the promulgation of the truth which may remove this is specially important.


Editorial Note

The above appeal attained its purpose by drawing the attention both of the public and of the higher authorities to the persecution of the Doukhobors by the local authorities of the Caucasus. But for the three friends who signed it, the result was their banishment. Two of them, Biryukov and Tregubov, were exiled to small towns in the Baltic provinces; while Chertkov was given the choice between the same sentence and being altogether exiled from Russia. He chose the latter as affording him the possibility of helping, from abroad in England, his persecuted friends, which would have been impossible under the conditions of strict police supervision under which those banished within Russia had to live – JJK.