The Decembrist and the Doukhobor, 1827

by Alexander Ivanovich Herzen

During the repressive, autocratic rule of Tsar Nicholas I (1825-1855), princes and peasants alike were deported to Siberia for expressing beliefs that challenged the established order. In this regard, Russian writer and thinker Alexander Ivanovich Herzen (1812-1870) relates how the exiled Decembrist leader Prince Evgeny Petrovich Obolensky (1796-1865) was aided by a banished Doukhobor peasant in the town of Usol’ye in Irkutsk in 1827. The Doukhobor, at great risk to himself, delivered letters between Obolensky and his fellow Decembrist exiles elsewhere in Siberia. The story illustrates the kinship shared by Russians of all walks of life who suffered for their beliefs under Nicholas, and the common ground they discovered while labouring side by side in the Siberian forests and mines. Reproduced from “My past and thoughts: the memoirs of Alexander Herzen”, Dwight Macdonald (ed.) (University of California Press: 1982). Foreword and Afterword by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.


Evgeny Petrovich Obolensky was born to a princely Russian family in Novomirgorod in 1796. His family traced its lineage to the Rurik dynasty in Kievan Rus. His father was a Governor of Tula province. He spent his childhood educated by French tutors and in 1814, enrolled in the cadet corps. In 1816, he entered the Russian army as an ensign. By 1821, he rose to the rank of lieutenant and in 1825, he was appointed aide-de-camp in the Guards regiments.

While a young officer, Obolensky volunteered to fight a duel and inadvertently killed his opponent. The ‘murder’ troubled him all his remaining years. Reflective and conscientious-driven, he was always concerned with questions of morality and of man’s natural rights and just relationship with his society.

It was specifically because of its ‘high moral ideals’ that Obolensky joined the secret society, the Union of Salvation in 1817, and its successor organization, the Northern Society in 1821. These societies called for a constitutional monarchy, the abolition of serfdom, greater individual rights and freedoms, and opposition to the succession of the conservative Nicholas I to the Russian throne. As a member of the latter society, Obolensky participated in working out detailed plans for a rebellion.

On the morning of December 14, 1825, Obolensky led a group of officers commanding about three thousand men assembled in Senate Square in St. Petersburg, where they refused to swear allegiance to the new Tsar, Nicholas I. They expected to be joined by the rest of the troops stationed in the Russian capital, but they were disappointed. Nicholas spent the day gathering a military force and then attacked with the artillery and captured the rebels. Because these events occurred in December, the rebels were called the Decembrists.

Obolensky was arrested and imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress for his involvement in the Decembrist uprising. He was initially sentenced to death; however, this was subsequently commuted to life-long katorga (penal labour) in Siberia. To this end, in 1826 he was exiled to the town of Usol’ye in Irkutsk province. It was there where the following story took place.

Portrait of Prince Evgeny P. Obolensky

While Prince Obolensky was still at the Usol’sky Works [state-owned saltworks where exiles performed penal labour] he went out early one morning to the place where he had been told to chop down trees.

While he was at work a man appeared out of the forest, looked at him intently with a friendly air and then went on his way. In the evening, as he was going home, Obolensky met him again; he made signs to him and pointed to the forest.

Next morning he came out of a thicket and made signs to Obolensky to follow him. Obolensky went.

Leading him deeper into the forest, the man stopped and said to him solemnly: “We have long known of your coming. It is told of you in the prophecy of Ezekiel [Ezekiel 34:13: God would gather the exiles from the various nations where they had been scattered and he would restore them to their own land.].”

“We have been expecting you. There are many of us here; rely upon us, for we shall not betray you!” 

It was a banished Doukhobor.

Portrait of Alexander I. Herzen by Nikolai Gay.

Obolensky had for a long time been tormented by his desire to have news of his own people [the Decemberists] through Princess Trubetskoy [wife of Decembrist Sergei Trubetskoy], who had come to Irkutsk. He had no means of getting a letter to her so he asked the schismatic for help.

The man did not waste time thinking. “At dusk tomorrow,” he said, “I shall be at such and such a place. Bring the letter, and it shall be delivered… “

Obolensky gave him the letter, and the same night the man set off for Irkutsk; two days later the answer was in Obolensky’s hands.

What would have happened if he had been caught? “One’s own people do not regard dangers…”.

The Doukhobor paid the people’s debt for Radischev [a radical 18th century poet and political philosopher who called for increased liberty for all Russians and whose works inspired the Decembrists.].

And so in the forests and mines of Siberia, the Russia of Peter, of the landowner, of the public official, of the officer, and the “black” [common] Russia of the peasants and the village, both banished and fettered, both with an axe in the belt, both leaning on the spade and wiping the sweat from their faces, looked at each other for the first time and recognized the long-forgotten traits of kinship.


The origin and identity of the Doukhobor who assisted Prince Evgeny Petrovich Obolensky was not recorded.  He was most likely of peasant class from central Russia.  There were numerous Doukhobor exiles living in the Usol’ye district at this time. In assisting Obolensky make contact with his fellow Decembrist exiles, the sectarian demonstrated the central Doukhobor tenets of kindness, brotherly love and mutual assistance.  It was a debt of gratitude which the exiled prince never forgot.  

Obolensky himself did not remain in Usol’ye for long. Shortly after the above story took place, he was re-assigned to penal labour in Nerchinsk, then to Chita, Petrov’sk, Turinsk and finally Yalutorovsk. His sentence was eventually reduced from lifelong penal labour to 20 years, then 15, and finally 13 years. In 1856, Obolensky was pardoned and permitted to return to Moscow. He lived out his last years in Kaluga and died in 1865.

Doukhobor Interfaith Relations in South Ukraine, Late 18th and Early 19th Century

by Anastasia Buchnaya

While residing in Tavria in the early nineteenth century, the Doukhobors invariably came in contact with members of other religious creeds, notably Orthodox, Mennonites, Molokans and Muslims. In this Doukhobor Genealogy Website exclusive, Anastasia Buchnaya, a Postgraduate of the State University of Zaporozhia in Ukraine, explores the influence of inter-creed relations on the belief system and socioeconomic life of the Doukhobors, based on archival records from the State Archives of Crimea and other Russian and Ukrainian language sources. Translated from the original Ukrainian by Yana Sermyakova with further translation and editing by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff. Published by permission.

One of the peculiarities of the south of Ukraine in the second half of the 18th century through the first half of the 19th century was the closer coexistence of different ethnic groups and religious creeds than in other parts of the country. This was primarily due to the historical conditions under which colonization of the country was taking place. The south of Ukraine became the centre for the emergence and dissemination of a variety of Christian sects, prominent among which was the Doukhobor sect which arose in the second half of the 18th century and gradually spread.

The coexistence of the Doukhobors with representatives of other religious creeds had an influence not only upon some aspects of their material life but also upon their religious doctrine.

According to the opinion of Orest Novitsky, an early researcher of Doukhoborism, the existence of Quaker elements in the Doukhobor belief system is explained by the fact that the first teacher of the sect was a Prussian corporal. Originating from Orthodox Christianity, under the influence of contacts with Anabaptists, the Doukhobor sect absorbed the features of this movement.

Studying the origins of Doukhoborism, 19th century researchers adhered to the view that the teachings had mainly spread amongst peasants of Russian origin, however, the fact that there exists a considerable quantity of Ukrainian surnames among the Doukhobors points to the propagation of the belief system among Ukrainian inhabitants, primarily among the Cossacks. The government of Catherine the Great, when it attempted to discover the source of Doukhoborism, came to the conclusion that the centres for the dispersion of this teaching were Zaporozhian Cossack villages. As the historian Nikolsky contended, this became one of the forms of protest against the persecution of the Cossacks by Catherine the Great. Further to this, modern research suggests that Cossacks introduced elements of their own ideology when joining the Doukhobor sect.

Beginning in the second half of the 18th century, Doukhobor teachings began to spread in the central and southern regions of Ukraine. The number of followers of the sect was rapidly increasing, a fact which could not but bother the government. The persecution of Doukhobors for resistance to the government and divergence from the state religion began in the times of Catherine the Great, whose practice was to evict them to Siberia. It is worth noting, however, that it was exactly in the time of Catherine the Great that the laws relating to punishment of religious dissidents were relaxed. A series of edicts during this period were directed to calming relations between representatives of different creeds. Religious intolerance was censured, foment of religious hostility was prohibited, and heresy was to be treated as nothing more than a civil affair, since ‘persecution stirs the mind’.

Nevertheless, at the end of the 18th through the beginning of the 19th century, wherever Doukhobors lived, in addition to persecution from officials and clergy, they also faced negative treatment from the Orthodox population. Local officials often received complaints from Doukhobors relating to the fact that wherever they lived together with Orthodox peasants, the Doukhobors were frequently harassed, forced to pay crippling taxes and recruited into the army out of turn. The Imperial Senator Lopukhin, in his report about the life of Slobodsk-Ukrainian Doukhobors, confirmed these conditions, emphasizing that the “settlers are intolerant of them, the same of which can be said of the rest of the inhabitants”. It cannot be determined whether the Doukhobors’ own behavior resulted in conflict with their neighbours; however, given their teachings about the equality of all people in the face of God, it can be assumed that they were inclined toward peaceful coexistence with representatives of other creeds. On the other hand, the Doukhobors considered themselves the “sons of Abel” wrestling against the “sons of Cain”, a synonym for all other people. Such an attitude of opposing other inhabitants within their own communities could have brought about their negative treatment by Orthodox peasants. Such attitudes towards the Doukhobors may also be explained by the fact that Doukhobor teachings, especially during the ascendancy of the sect, were largely embraced by free landowning peasants – the most independent and economically successful of the peasantry.

Eventually, persecution from government and local officials led to the poverty and ruin of many Doukhobors. The Doukhobors’ unbearable living conditions drew the attention of Tsar Alexander I, whose rule proved to be the most comfortable period for the Doukhobors. The primary thrust of Alexander’s policy towards the Doukhobors was their separation from the rest of the Orthodox population as a means of “containing their heresy and preventing their influence on others” as well as protecting them from persecution. To this end, by Imperial Decree No. 20 123, on January 25, 1802, Doukhobors were resettled to Tavria province along the Molochnaya River. At the beginning of the 19th century, these lands were thinly populated; therefore the founding of Doukhobor settlements was deemed favorable for the development of the region and would also lessen the sectarians’ contact with the Orthodox population.

Among the Doukhobors’ neighbours in Tavria were the Mennonites, religious nonconformists who, fleeing persecution in Holland and Germany, settled in the south of Ukraine.

It is entirely possible that the Anabaptist elements in the Doukhobor belief system took shape as a result of long-term relations with the Mennonites. In Novitsky’s opinion, however, the influence of Anabaptist beliefs began long before the Doukhobors’ sojourn with the Mennonites on the Molochnaya. In the 18th century, captive Prussian soldiers had brought these elements of Protestantism to Tambov province, a centre of early Doukhoborism. In this way, the resemblance of the doctrines of the Doukhobors and Mennonites is demonstrated by the denial of baptizing children, prayer ritual, and wedding and burial ceremony. The traditions of a communal economy, common property and aversion to secular and ecclesiastic authorities were common as well.

In 1804, the Mennonites, alongside other German immigrants of Catholic and Lutheran faith, established settlements in the Melitopol district on both banks of the Molochnaya River, close to the settlements of the Doukhobors.

In their homeland, the Mennonites had been principally engaged in farming, and with their resettlement to the south of Ukraine, they brought progressive farming practices which resulted in their colonies becoming the most rich and advanced.

The Doukhobors eagerly adopted the advanced expertise of their neighbours in farming, gardening and cattle breeding, whereas most other settlers were indifferent to such experience. The Doukhobors of Melitopol also took up some of the niceties of the Mennonites’ lifestyle, incorporated German elements in their clothing and began to build their houses in the German style.

From time to time, the Mennonites stepped forward as mediators between the Doukhobors and local authorities, delivering petitions from the people of the Doukhobor settlements and standing as witnesses during court investigations.

At the beginning of the 19th century, the Tsarist government, having no detailed descriptions of the Doukhobor and Molokan belief systems, frequently misidentified the two religious groups. This fact significantly complicates the study of Doukhobor history, as in many official reports, bulletins and other documents, the two groups were often confused. In actuality, while the two beliefs shared similarities in their outward expression, they were diametrically opposed to each other in basic principles, such as their attitude towards the Holy Bible, which was highly respected by the Molokans, whereas among the Doukhobors, spiritual insight was considered the source of religious truth. The historical development of the Molokans and Doukhobors is closely connected. It is significant that one of the first Molokan teachers, Semyon Uklein, was the son-in-law of the Doukhobor leader Ilarion Pobirokhin, a fact which leads researchers to regard the Molokans as an offshoot of the Doukhobor sect.

Nevertheless, frequently while living together, the sectarians of these different creeds occasionally quarreled over religious matters. The representatives of both sects kept a vigilant watch on not being confused with the other. When in 1804 through 1804, the Molokans were resettled on the banks of the Molochnaya River, the government having considered them to be Doukhobors, the latter refused to incorporate them into their community. In addition the Molokans’ settlements were situated close to those of the Mennonites.

During the coexistence of the Doukhobor and Molokan settlements along the Molochnaya River, there were cases where Molokans departed from their religious beliefs and joined the Doukhobors. This is supported by archival records about the Molokans of Novo-Vasilyevka village, who claimed to be Doukhobors. On May 6, 1831, a report from the Melitopol regional court was filed with the Tavria official expedition, according to which twelve Molokans and their families professed the Doukhobor religion and requested to join the Doukhobor villages of Rodionovka and Tambovka. The Molokan community of Novo-Vasilyevka did not mind their conversion and the Doukhobors were eager to accept them. It was accepted that these people could no longer stay at their present place of residence because of differences in belief, and a portion of them, to avoid reproaches from the Molokans, had already moved out to the aforementioned Doukhobor villages. The list of persons who claimed themselves to be Doukhobors is given in two records – a nominal list and a list of recruits in four sections. In the latter list, it is evident that the family of Vasily Zhmaev, a resident of Novo-Vasilyevka village, was on the recruit roll under the second row. Based on the Recruit Regulations issued in 1831, families whose members were on the recruit roll in the first two rolls couldn’t be resettled until they had served their time. The fact that other Molokan families were allowed to join the Doukhobors was confirmed on October 4, 1833 by the Minister of Internal Affairs’ letter to the Governor of Tavria.

In 1807, the Nogai tribes of the Bucak horde, who professed Islam, migrated to the Molochnaya River. Orest Novitsky recounts that there were many conflicts between the Doukhobors and the Nogai concerning land ownership: while enlarging their farmlands the Doukhobors seized a portion of their neighbors’ pastures. In response, the Nogai complained to local officials, but “the quick-witted and largely affluent Doukhobors, through lies and false arguments and quite possible using bribes, managed to absorb the disputed lands into their landholdings, thus the Tatars, numbering 600 people, having lost the pastures necessary for their herds, had to resettle to the banks of the Danube”. Unfortunately, the author omits references as the sources used; therefore it is difficult to confirm the reliability of this information. However, it can be assumed that quarrels over land could arise between landlords and communities, regardless of religion.

It is interesting to note that the Doukhobors frequently hired the Nogai as workers. The government didn’t object to such contracts between the Doukhobors and Muslims, as their conversion to the sect was not prohibited. In accordance with the Imperial Decree No. 15543 of February 8, 1834, the Doukhobors of Tavria province were permitted to accept Muslims into their communities after paying all taxes and duties, and to hire them to perform military service on their behalf. For this reason, the Doukhobors of Tavria and other provinces actively exercised this right. As a result, by Imperial Decree of May 8, 1839, this option was cancelled.

We have already highlighted the Doukhobors’ ambiguous relationship with the Orthodox prior to their resettlement to the Molochnaya River. Although the Doukhobor resettlement was carried out in order to insulate them from the Orthodox and to settle the region, such contacts could not be avoided. The historian A. Skalkovsky has pointed out that while the Doukhobors lived in isolation from others “except for the Mennonites and Nogai, there were no complaints or denunciations against them. However, with the establishment of Russian settlements near Nogaisk and the newly established port of Berdiansk, the Doukhobors had to face rivals and covetous people”. Once again, the Doukhobors’ land ownership was a matter of dispute. Hence, one man, Efimenko, proposed that the Administration of State Property should confiscate the farmlands which the Doukhobors obtained during their resettlement to the Molochnaya River (15 desatnias per person). This man proposed to purchase the Doukhobor land for 20 kopeks per desiatnia, and to sell it for 60 kopeks (he later increased the proposed price to one ruble per desiatnia). However, his proposal was rejected, which resulted in many denunciations against the Doukhobors.

It should be noted that at the time of Alexander I, practicing the Doukhobor faith was not considered a crime; however, proselytizing among the Orthodox was punishable by law. On account of cases of Orthodox conversion to Doukhoborism in the Melitopol region during the first quarter of the 19th century, the government vigilantly monitored for Doukhobor proselytization. Revealing in this regard is the 1816 archival case, “On the settlers Mikita Yashchenko and Gordei Oborovsky, and others who converted to the Doukhobor sect, as well as the Doukhobor teacher Savely Kapustin’s proselytization among the Orthodox”. The case contains a letter of July 25, 1815, in which Iov, the Archbishop of Ekaterinoslav, informs A.M. Borozdin, the Governor of Tavria, that the priests of the Pokrov Church in Orekhov had notified him about Savely Kapustin’s propagation of the Doukhobor faith amongst the Orthodox population of the Melitopol region. The priests, in turn, received their information from their parishioners, Arkhip Baev and Ivan Bazilevsky, who had converted from the Doukhobor faith to Orthodoxy. In the course of investigation, it turned out that these reprobates had converted to Orthodoxy only to escape their recruitment call, and the guilt of the 73 year-old Kapustin, who had been imprisoned, was not established. The Doukhobors themselves, in a petition to the Emperor, described this case among many others.

Accordingly, when Langeron, the military governor of Kherson, devised a proposal for the resettlement of the Doukhobors from Tavria because of the threat of the further spread of their teachings among others, the Emperor issued a Decree No. 26550 of December 9, 1816, stating that “Over several years, the Government did not receive any complaints or accusations of disorders” caused by the Doukhobors, therefore “we should be thinking not about the resettlement of these people, but rather of protecting them from persecution. Thus Alexander I acknowledged the fact that the Doukhobors were still persecuted by the Orthodox population and officials.

Still, there existed another basis of relations between the Doukhobors and Orthodox. Occasionally the Orthodox, while employed for work, lived in the Doukhobor communities; as well, Doukhobors could be employed in the homes of the Orthodox or persons of other confessions.

Some aspects of these contacts and of quarrels with local clergy are depicted in the case investigation of the crime of Alexei Nalimsky, a priest from Tokmak, against the Doukhobors of Terpeniye village. According to the case, the priest, being drunk in the house of the Doukhobor Nikolai Zakharov, offended the hose and tried to beat him, breaking his wooden cross and accusing Zakharov of this. In the course of investigation, the priest pled guilty and it was also concluded that during the inquest, the Assessor of the Melitopol regional court, Yakov Kovtunovsky, had made a series of mistakes. Namely, the testimonies of the colonist Ivan Belgart and the settler Emelian Plokhiy, witnesses in favour of the Doukhobors, had not been verified. Since the witnesses resided in the employ of the Doukhobors, therefore their testimonies could not be considered trustworthy. It was noted that the Orthodox Emelian Plokhiy had not attended confession for several years, therefore it should be investigated as to whether he had been affected by the Doukhobors.

The above demonstrates that the Doukhobors readily availed themselves of the laws allowing them to employ laborers of other confessions. In addition to hired workers, those Doukhobors belonging to the landowning class could have had Orthodox peasants as their property.

Nevertheless, after Nicholas I sharply altered the state’s policy towards religious sectarians, a number of governmental decrees were passed to restrict their influence on the Orthodox. In particular, the Imperial Decree of January 17, 1836 prohibited Molokans and Doukhobors from hiring Orthodox workers nor being employed by the Orthodox. A further decree of April 17, 1842 strictly prohibited Molokans and Doukhobors from owning serfs of any religious confession.

Certainly, during the Doukhobors sojourn in Tavria province, they established close commercial relations with representatives of other religious confessions: the Doukhobors sold their produce and goods at the fairs of Melitopol and other regions; and when preparing to resettle in the Caucasus, they sold their property to the inhabitants of neighboring non-Doukhobor villages.

Having thoroughly examined aspects of the Doukhobor belief system, it may be concluded that they reflected certain elements of other confessions, which they had contact with during the formation of their own religious doctrines.

While residing in the Tavria region, the Doukhobors, living in isolated settlements, could not avoid contact with members of other religions (Orthodox, Mennonites, Molokans and Muslims). Such relations influenced both the socio-economic and material life of the Doukhobor community, as well as the lives of their neighbours.


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Conversation Between the Rector of Alexander Nevsky Seminary and Three Kharkov Dukhobortsy, 1792

Translated by Robert Pinkerton

In 1792, a deputation of three Doukhobors from Kharkov – Mikhail Shchirev, Anikei and Timofey Sukharev – was sent to the Governor-General of that province, ostensibly to petition for protection from persecution and harassment by local authorities, clergy and their Orthodox neighbours. They were summarily arrested and sent to the Alexander Nevsky Seminary in St. Petersburg. There they were admonished and persuaded to recant their faith, to no avail. The following is a record of their “conversation” with the rector of the seminary, Archimandrite Innokenty (Dubravitsky), contained in a May 12, 1792 letter from Gavriil (Petrov), Metropolitan of Novgorod and St. Petersburg to the Governor-General of Kharkov. This invaluable historic material contains one of the earliest recorded accounts of the Doukhobor religious doctrine. Reproduced from Robert Pinkerton, “Russia: or, Miscellaneous Observations on the Past and Present State of that Country and its Inhabitants” (London: Seeley and Sons, 1833). Afterword by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

Letter from the Metropolitan of Novgorod and St. Petersburg to the Governor-General of Kharkov


Mikhail Shchirev, Anikei and Timofey Sukharev sent by your Excellency from the vicinity of Kharkov have been admonished by Innokenty, rector of the Nevsky Seminary and Archimandrite. The conversation which took place between them I forward to you, along with this letter.

I knew this sect as early as 1768. I then admonished them, and succeeded in turning several to the Church; but on their returning home, they again fell into their former errors. Since I became Archbishop of St. Petersburg, I have also spoken to some of the Don Cossacks; but they remained obstinate. Their obstinacy is founded on enthusiasm: all the demonstration which is presented to them they despise, saying that “God is present in their souls, and He instructs them: – how then shall they hearken to a man?” They have such exalted ideas of their own holiness, that they respect that man only in whom they see the image of God; that is, perfect holiness. They say that every one of them may be a prophet or an apostle; and therefore they are zealous propagators of their own sect. They make the Sacraments consist only in a spiritual reception of them, and therefore reject infant baptism. The opinions held by them not only establish equality, but also exclude the distinction of ruler and subject: such opinions are therefore the more dangerous, because they may become attractive to the peasantry. The truth of this Germany has experienced. Their origin is to be sought for among the Anabaptists or Quakers. I know the course of their opinions; and we can have no hope that they will desist from spreading abroad this evil.

These are my thoughts, which I have considered it my duty to communicate to your Excellency.

With sincere respect,

Metropolitan of Novgorod and St. Petersburg
May 12, 1792

Conversation Between the Rector of Alexander Nevsky Seminary and Three Kharkov Dukhobortsy

Conversation between Innokenty, Archimandrite and Rector of Alexander Nevsky Seminary in St. Petersburg and three Doukhobors from Kharkov province – Mikhail Shchirev, Anikei and Timofey Sukharev, May 1792.

Archimandrite: By what means are you come into this state, that people confine you as men dangerous to society?

Dukhobortsy: By the malice of our persecutors.

Archimandrite: What is the cause of their persecuting you?

Dukhobortsy: Because it is said that all who will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.

Archimandrite: Whom do you call your persecutors?

Dukhobortsy: Those who threw me into prison, and bound me in fetters.

Archimandrite: How dare you, in this way, speak evil of the established Government, founded and acting on principles of Christian piety? Which deprives none of their liberty, except such as are disturbers of the public peace and prosperity.

Dukhobortsy: There is no higher Governor than God, who rules over the hearts of kings and men : but God does not bind in fetters; neither does he command those to be persecuted who will not give His glory to another, and who live in peace, and in perfect love and mutual service to each other.

Archimandrite: What does that signify, “Who will not give his glory unto another”? – To whom other?

Dukhobortsy: Read the Second Commandment, and you will know.

Archimandrite: I perceive, then, that you mean to throw censure on those who bow before the images of the Saviour and of His holy ones?

Dukhobortsy: He has placed his image in our souls. Again, it is that those who worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth.

Archimandrite: From this it is evident, that you have brought yourself into your present condition, by falling into error; by misunderstanding the nature of piety, and entertaining opinions hurtful to the common faith and to your country.

Dukhobortsy: It is not true.

Archimandrite: How, then? Do you not err, when you think that there are “powers that be” which exist in opposition to the will of God; whereas there is no power but of God? Or that Government, which is appointed to restrain and correct the disobedient and unruly, persecutes piety; “whereas he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil”?

Dukhobortsy: What evil do we do? None.

Archimandrite: Do you not hurt the faith by your false reasoning concerning her holy ordinances, and by your blind zeal against God; like the Jews of old, whose zeal was not according to knowledge?

Dukhobortsy: Let knowledge remain with you! Only do not molest us, who live in peace, pay the taxes, do harm to no one, and respect and obey earthly governments.

Archimandrite: But perhaps your paying the taxes, harming no one, and obeying earthly governments, is only the effect of necessity, and of the weakness of your power; while your peace and love respect those only who are of your own opinion.

Dukhobortsy: Construe our words as you choose.

Archimandrite: At least, it is far from being disagreeable to you, I suppose, to behold your society increasing!

Dukhobortsy: We desire good unto all men, and that all may be saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth.

Archimandrite: Leave off your studied secrecy, and evasive and dubious answers. Explain and reveal to me your opinions candidly, like men who have nothing in view but to discover truth.

Dukhobortsy: I understand you; for that same Spirit of Truth which enlightens us in things respecting faith and life, assists us also to discern affectation and deceit in every man. Nevertheless, in order to get rid of your importunity, and with boldness to preach the true faith, I shall answer your questions as I am able.

Archimandrite: By what way – by the assistance of others, or by the use of your own reasoning powers only, did you obtain this Spirit of Truth?

Dukhobortsy: He is near our heart, and therefore no assistance is necessary. A sincere desire and ardent prayers are alone requisite.

Archimandrite: At least, you ground your opinions on the word of God, do you not?

Dukhobortsy: I do ground myself on it.

Archimandrite: But the word of God teaches us, that God has committed the true faith, and the dispensing of his ordinances, and of instruction in piety, to certain persons, chosen and ordained for this purpose: “According to the grace of God given unto me,” says St. Paul, “as a wise master-builder I have laid the foundation.”

Dukhobortsy: True: and such were our deputies who were sent hither in 1767 and 1769. But what did the spirit of persecution and of wrath do to them? Some were taken for soldiers; others were sent into exile.

Archimandrite: You doubtless intend, by these deputies, some well-meaning people like yourself?

Dukhobortsy: Yes.

Archimandrite: But you, and people like you, though well-meaning, cannot be either ministers or teachers of the holy faith.

Dukhobortsy: Why not?

Archimandrite: Because a Church cannot be established by individual authority; as is manifest from 1 Cor. iii. 5. Secondly, because special talents and gifts from above are requisite, “to make us able ministers of the New Testament:” 2 Cor. iii. 6. And, thirdly, it is absolutely necessary to this lawful and gracious calling, that we possess that ordination which hath remained in the holy Church from the times of the Apostles; as it is said: “And he gave some Apostles, and some Prophets, and some Evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ:” Ephes. iv. 2.

Dukhobortsy: There is no other calling to this office required, than that which crieth in our hearts: neither doth our learning consist in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but in “demonstration of the Spirit and of power.” Are the gifts which you require such as to be able to gabble Latin?

Archimandrite: You do not understand the Holy Scriptures; and this is the source of all your errors. The Apostle, in the words quoted by you, does not reject the talents and gifts of acquired knowledge, but contrasts the doctrines of Jesus Christ with the wisdom of the heathen, which was in repute at that time. And that the calling of pastors and teachers always depended on the Church by which they were chosen, is manifest from the very history of those pastors and teachers of the Church who are eternally glorified.

Dukhobortsy: What Holy Scriptures? What Church? What do you mean by Holy Scriptures?

Archimandrite: Did not you yourself say that you founded your opinions on the word of God? That is what I mean by the Holy Scriptures.

Dukhobortsy: The word of God is spiritual, and immaterial; it can be written on nothing but on the heart and spirit.

Archimandrite: Yet when the Saviour saith, “Search the Scriptures,” and gives us the reason of this command – “for in them ye think ye have eternal life,” – can He really understand thereby any thing else than the written word of God? This is the treasure which He himself hath entrusted to his holy Churchy as the unalterable rule of faith and life.

Dukhobortsy: And what do you call a church?

Archimandrite: An assembly of believers in Jesus Christ, governed by pastors according to regulations founded on the word of God, and partakers of the ordinances of faith.

Dukhobortsy: Not so: there is but one Pastor, Jesus Christ, who laid down his life for the sheep: and one Church, holy, apostolical, spiritual, invisible, of which it is said, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them;” in which no worship is paid to any material object; where those only are teachers who live virtuous lives; where the word of God is obeyed in the heart, on which it descends like dew upon the fleece, and out of which it flows as from a spring in the midst of the mountains; where there are no such noisy, ostentatious, offensive, and idolatrous meetings and vain ceremonies as with you; no drunken and insulting pastors and teachers like yours; nor such evil dispositions and corruptions as among you.

Archimandrite: You have here mixed up many things together: let us consider them one by one.

First, that the Saviour Christ is the only chief Pastor and Head of the Church, is a truth: for He hath founded it by His own merits under His Almighty providence it exists, is guarded and protected; and “the gates of hell shall never prevail against it.” Spiritually, Christ is united to it; for “behold! I am with you, even to the end of the world:” and by the power of His grace He helpeth the prayers petitions of believers. But it does not seem good to the wisdom and majesty of God, that all, without distinction, should be engaged in the external state and service of the Church, which is so closely united to the internal; and therefore, from the very first ages, this has been committed unto worthy pastors and teachers, “as stewards of the mysteries of God.”

Secondly, I said that the external state of the Church is very closely united to the internal. Certainly it is so. Who does not know how powerfully the passions and the flesh work in us, both to good and evil, according to the nature of the object presented to them? We have need to recruit the efforts of our minds by such salutary aids; and to stir up the expiring flame of piety within us, by memorials of the goodness of God, and of the example of holy men. Here is the whole of what you so improperly style “material and idolatrous worship”. So long as we are united to matter, that is, to the body, we can never reach that pure and inward spiritual worship of God which the holy angels present unto Him, or such as that of the eternally-glorified saints; and on this account, when God requires that we should worship Him in spirit and in truth, it is to warn us against shameful hypocrisy, or other dispositions of mind not corresponding with our external worship.

Thirdly, with respect to the scandalous lives of some pastors, they can never harm the essence of faith; for that is not the cause of their bad conduct. And that their irregularities can never excuse those who on this account leave the Church and despise her doctrine, is witnessed by the Saviour Himself, in his discourse with the Pharisees: “The Scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat,” saith he: “all therefore, whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works; for they say, and do not.” Moreover, Christian humility should have deterred you from judging so rashly concerning general corruption and evil dispositions. But I have purposely not yet answered several of your expressions, such as “idolatrous meetings and vain ceremonies,” that I might first ask you what you mean by them?

Dukhobortsy: You may conjecture that yourself.

Archimandrite: Well: do not even you show becoming respect for the characters of those, who have been distinguished for holiness, and after death glorified by God, as patterns of faith and virtue ?

Dukhobortsy: Where and whom hath God thus glorified?

Archimandrite: Are the names of Chrysostom, Gregory the Great, and such like, unknown to you?

Dukhobortsy: I know them.

Archimandrite: What do you think of them”?

Dukhobortsy: What do I think? – Why, they were men!

Archimandrite: But holy men, whose faith and lives were agreeable to God; and on this account they are miraculously glorified from above.

Dukhobortsy: Well, let us suppose so.

Archimandrite: Now it is to them that the Church is indebted for all those offices and ceremonies, which you denominate “idolatrous” and “vain”; and the worship of images has been declared not to be sinful by the Council of the Holy Fathers; – how then will you make this agree with your views?

Dukhobortsy: I know not. I only know that hell will be filled with priests and deacons, and unjust judges. As for me, I will worship God as he instructs me.

Archimandrite: But can you, without danger, depend upon yourself? Are you not afraid, that sometimes you may mistake your own opinions, and even foolish imaginations, for Divine inspiration?

Dukhobortsy: How? To prevent this, reason is given unto us. I know what is good, and what is bad.

Archimandrite: A poor dependence! With the best reason, sometimes, good appears to be evil, and evil to be good.

Dukhobortsy: I will pray to God: He will send His word” – and God never deceives.

Archimandrite: True, God never deceives: but you deceive yourself, assuring yourself of that, on His part, which never took place.

Dukhobortsy: God does not reject the prayers of believers.

Archimandrite: Believers – true: those requests which are agreeable to the law of faith. Divine Wisdom will not reject: but “ye ask and receive not, because ye ask amiss.” For this purpose hath He given us the Book of his divine word, that in it we may behold His will, and that our petitions may be directed according to it. But it is vain to expect in the present day miraculous and immediate inspirations, without sufficient cause, particularly such as are unworthy of Him: and to pretend to such inspirations and revelations, is very hurtful to society, and therefore ought to be checked.

Dukhobortsy: But to me they appear to be very useful, salutary, and worthy of acceptation.

Archimandrite: What? To break off from the society of your countrymen, though united with you by the same laws and the same articles of faith, and to introduce strange doctrines, and laws of your own making? To begin to expound the doctrines of the Gospel without the aid of an enlightened education, disregarding the advice of such men as are most versed and experienced in those things; and out of your own head, to found upon all this a separate society? Is it not also to rise against your country, when you refuse to serve it where the sanctity of an oath is required? Should not the simple command of the higher powers be sufficient to unite you with others to defend your country, your fellow-citizens, and your faith?


Archimandrite: Why do you make no answer to this?

Dukhobortsy: There is nothing to say. I am not so loquacious as you, neither have I need of it.

Archimandrite: But do you not see, at least, whither your blind zeal is leading you, and that you deserve to suffer much more than all that has yet befallen you? – We look for your repentance and amendment.

Dukhobortsy: Do what you choose with us: we are happy to suffer for the faith: this is no new thing. Did you ever hear the old story?

Archimandrite: Tell me, I pray you, what story?

Dukhobortsy: “A certain man planted a vineyard, and set a hedge about it, and dug a place for the winefat, and built a tower, and let it out to husbandmen, and went into a far country. And at the season he sent to the husbandmen a servant, that he might receive from the husbandmen of the fruit of the vineyard. And they caught him, and beat him, and sent him away empty. . . . And again he sent another; and him they killed, and many others; beating some, and killing some. Having yet therefore one son, his well-beloved, he sent him also last unto them, saying, They will reverence my son. But those husbandmen said among themselves, This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance shall be ours. And they took him, and killed him, and cast him out of the vineyard. What shall therefore the Lord of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the husbandmen, and will give the vineyard unto others:” Mark xii. 1 – 9. Now I have done with you.

Archimandrite: At least, answer me this: How can it be reconciled, that you reject the Holy Scriptures, and at the same time endeavour to support yourself upon them?

Dukhobortsy: Argue as you will. I have spoken what was necessary, and shall not say another word.


The “Conversation” of 1792 is one of the earliest recorded accounts of the Doukhobors and demonstrates that they were already well established as a sect in Kharkov province, having sent previous deputations to state authorities as early as 1767 and 1769.

At the time of the “Conversation”, the Doukhobors of Kharkov province were outwardly characterized by their peaceful living, payment of taxes and their respect and adherence to the state. At the same time, they had “broken off from their countrymen” and formed their own society, with “laws and doctrines of their own making” based on the “Spirit of Truth”. The Doukhobors had already formed a distinct identity as a people set apart, within whom the “image of God” resided, in contrast to the “vain and idolatrous” Orthodox. This trait made the Doukhobors “zealous propagators” of their sect, reflected in the fact that their numbers in Kharkov were rapidly on the rise.

It is clear from the “Conversation” that persecution was “no new thing” to the Kharkov Doukhobors. Their belief system, compounded by their refusal to attend church, swear oaths or perform military service in defense of their country, invariably led to conflicts with local officials, clergy and their Orthodox neighbours. Previous deputations in 1767 and 1769 had been imprisoned and admonished by state authorities, after which some were taken for soldiers while others were sent into exile. The present deputation had ostensibly been sent to plead for protection from this “spirit of persecution and of wrath”.  For this, they, too, were imprisoned. The discrimination and maltreatment they suffered does not appear to have deterred the sect, however, and even in the midst of admonishment at the Alexander Nevsky Seminary, the three Doukhobors were “happy to suffer for the faith”.

Throughout the “Conversation”, the Kharkov Doukhobors showed a marked reluctance to discuss and explain their doctrines, sidestepping some questions, and refusing to answer others altogether. For this, the Archimandrite accused them of “studied secrecy” and “evasive answers”. Their reticence regarding their beliefs is understandable, however, given that in Russia at the time outside inquiries as to their faith were, in general, mere preliminaries to banishment and imprisonment. At the very least, such inquiries occasioned ridicule and derision.

At the same time, the Doukhobors adopted a decidedly defiant tone in response to questions raised by the Archimandrite; stubbornly resisting his theological arguments, showing a “boldness to preach the true faith”, and at times, displaying open contempt and derision for their captor and interrogator. Inherent in their bearing and response is the Doukhobor rejection of ecclesiastical and state authority, since “there is no higher Governor than God”. At the same time, their fearlessness in the face of official punishment and sanction can be ascribed to the Doukhobor axiom “fear not, but trust in God”.

For all of their reticence and stubbornness, however, the three Doukhobors from Kharkov provide us with one of the earliest statements of the Doukhobor faith, setting out, briefly and simply, in their own words, the basis of their beliefs, which can be summarized as: the belief that the spirit of God can be found in the soul of every man; worship of God in spirit and in truth; and in the rejection of all external rites, sacraments, dogma and ecclesiastic hierarchy and authority.

At the end of the admonishment, the Archimandrite demanded that the Doukhobors repent and amend their “erroneous beliefs”. Not surprisingly, the Doukhobors refused. The available records are silent as to their fate. In all likelihood, they remained imprisoned or were exiled, like many of their brethren during this intense period of persecution.

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

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.

Early Doukhobor Experience on the Canadian Prairies

by Jeremy Adelman

The prairie frontier is usually seen as an open society. Yet as historian and scholar Jeremy Adelman contends, the settlement of over 7,000 Doukhobors asks us seriously to challenge this view. Despite an agreement between Dominion authorities and Doukhobor leaders to respect the claims of the refugees regarding the pattern of land tenure, protection was slowly rescinded. Under pressure from non-Doukhobor settlers and fueled by the conviction that independent ownership by male homesteaders was the best way to effect colonization of the west, the government withdrew land from the Doukhobor reserves. In response, Doukhobors who wanted to preserve community-based proprietorship fled the prairies. In the following article, reproduced by permission from the Journal of Canadian Studies (1990-91, Vol 25, No. 4), Adelman redresses the view that Canada’s first attempt at coordinated refugee settlement ended in failure because of the “fanaticism” and “zealotry” of the Doukhobors; rather it was a disaster, largely due to cultural insensitivity.


In early 1899, having fled Czarist Russia, some 7,400 Doukhobors arrived in North-West Canada. Under the rule of Nicholas II they were forced into exile in the Caucasus region, but even internal exile within the Czarist empire did not exempt them from official military conscription. As pacifists they refused to bear arms for the State. Their leaders were exiled again, to Siberia, while devout followers were forced to eke out a living in adverse circumstances. Constant persecution made escape from Russia their only option. The need to find a new home became evident by the mid-1890s. Count Leo Tolstoy then took up the cause of the Doukhobors. Seeing an affinity with his own pacifism and Christian anarchism, Tolstoy set out to find a suitable place for the dispirited refugees. After a failed attempt to resettle some of them in Cyprus, Tolstoy and his followers learned of the vacant Canadian prairies. A quick exchange of letters started a process which would see many thousands embark on the first refugee venture to Canada and one of the largest single voluntary group settlement schemes in Canadian history. It ended in disaster.

Our interest in the fate of the Doukhobors addresses various themes in Canadian historiography. The experience on the prairies reveals much about the cultural intolerance of the supposedly open-frontier society. The episode also saw the region’s police forces deployed for the first time in systematic repression of an ethnic minority. But our concern here is primarily with the clash between a group seeking to preserve its traditional form of property relations based on collective ownership and a State intent on populating the frontier with independent, owner-occupant farmers. The confrontation exposed the ideological substance of the homestead model so long eulogized as forward-looking and progressive.

Friends of the Doukhobors, 1899.  Standing (l-r) Sergei L. Tolstoi, Anna de Carousa, Leo A. Soulerjitsky. Seated (l-r) Sasha Satz, Prince Hilkov, W.R. McCreary, Mary Robetz. Library and Archives Canada C018131.

In portraying the struggle between Doukhobors and the State as one over land ownership, my purpose is also to redress an ingrained view of the Russian refugees as “fanatics” or “zealots.” This view is especially proffered in a popular, controversial book by a Vancouver Sun journalist, Simma Holt. Holt argued that the Doukhobors were the masters of their own fate: their failure to integrate and their determination to ward off outside influences alienated them from an otherwise benevolent Canadian society. The author’s case is full of distortions, and it is not helped by the penchant to use sources without offering citations. Therefore, it is worthwhile to try to set the record straight about the Doukhobors, who are otherwise noted mainly for their nudism and atavism.

This essay also redresses a second problem. The failure of Doukhobor settlements on the prairies is usually explained either through Doukhobor misunderstanding of the land laws, compounded by eccentric behaviour, or, as in the case of works by Doukhobors themselves, by glossing over the problem. One exception is the work of Koozma Tarasoff, who does attempt to explain the source of discord and rightly distills the problem to the conflict over land. But Tarasoff does not study the episode within the context of State-promoted development of the West. Consequently, the conflict is not seen by him as a clash of models of economic development.

In the last few years of the century, the settlement of the prairies was still disappointingly slow. The Dominion Lands Act, passed in 1872, was designed to attract farmers to free parcels of land. Transcontinental railways had reached into the prairies since the early 1880s. But settlers still refused to come. Tolstoy’s plea to help the Doukhobors came to the attention of Clifford Sifton in late 1898. The energetic Minister of the Interior found the proposal to settle such a large group of potential farmers from Russia attractive and he acceded.

The Doukhobors, however, were not, and could not be, typical homesteading farmers. Sifton’s concern was not with the past plight of the refugees, but with their potential role in populating the prairies. Dominion authorities seemed willing to protect traditional religious custom and belief. However, the identity of the Doukhobors also included the tradition of collective ownership of property. Under pressure from Czarist authorities, Peter Verigin, the spiritual leader for most Doukhobors, urged his followers to reconsolidate their meagre holdings into common units and abolish private property. Many obeyed. Verigin advocated a “highly ascetic” world-view reminiscent of the creed followed in the early nineteenth century called the “New Doukhoborism.” The “New Doukhobors” were especially singled out by Czarist authorities. It remains unclear whether collective ownership was indeed a “traditional” mode of proprietary relations for the Doukhobors. As George Woodcock and Ivan Avakumovic argue, collectivization was often a measure taken by this ethnic minority to protect its identity when under siege by a dominant State; it was also a means to ensure group cohesion in moments of acute internal fragmentation.

Collective land ownership was the nub of the discord between the Doukhobors and the Canadian State: although officials were eager to see staple-producers populate the grasslands, which was why the refugees were offered land in the first place, these same officials would not countenance a system of property relations which did not cohere with the homestead model.


In the summer of 1898, the anarchist Prince Kropotkin contacted James Mavor, then professor of Political Economy and Constitutional History at the University of Toronto and Canada’s leading social scientist of the day. Working in conjunction with a group of Tolstoy’s followers in Britain, Prince Kropotkin was responding to a personal suggestion made by Tolstoy that the prairies be considered as a possible refuge. In his appeal for help for the Doukhobor cause, Kropotkin argued that settlement on the prairies could only proceed if three conditions were granted: that the pacifists be exempt from military service; that the internal organization (principally educational matters) of the sect not be interfered with; and that lands be allocated to the Doukhobors in block reserves so that they could till the soil collectively.

Mavor was converted to the cause and contacted Clifford Sifton, spelling out the Doukhobor plight and making clear the conditions under which they would agree to come to Canada. The government agreed to the conditions. On October 25,1898, James Smart, Deputy Minister of the Interior, wrote Aylmer Maude, the Doukhobors’ main advocate in England, to inform him that the Ministry was especially willing to help the Doukhobors.

According to Doukhobor belief, all land belonged to God: no single individual could claim rights to the exclusion of any other individual. Exclusive proprietary claims were avoided since decisions about the use of land were vested in village elders who represented collective interests. Absolute collective proprietary rights seldom obtained; to a great extent individual Doukhobors had enjoyed exclusive privileges while in Russia. But in times of acute need or scarcity of resources, villagization of property was reinstituted. Tolstoyans and Doukhobor leaders wanted to maintain the collective hold on land as a means of preserving the group’s identity in the New World.

Making Doukhobor proprietary beliefs fit with the Canadian legal system was not easy. The 1872 Lands Act provided for the allocation of 160 acre, quarter-section lots for an administrative fee of $10. Initially a homesteader was required to “file for entry” (register his claim), occupy his land at least six months of the year for three years, and break a certain portion of that land. After three years, if the farmer could demonstrate fulfilment of the criteria, he would be awarded his “patent” (title) to the homestead. The Act encouraged the allocation of land to modest producers who wanted to cultivate their crops on an individual basis. Given these stipulations, how were the Doukhobors to be allocated land communally?

Last night camp before arriving at Yorkton, Saskatchewan, 1899.  Library and Archives Canada C-008889.

Sifton and Smart came up with a solution. Doukhobor military and educational demands were met entirely. Regarding land, Doukhobors were required to file for entry individually for quarter-section lots, but were not required to meet the criteria
normally demanded of homesteaders: they did not have to live on the individual quarter-section and till that specific lot. They were allowed to live in villages and “to do an equivalent quantity of work on any part of the township they took up, thus facilitating their communal arrangements.”

This seemed a sensible arrangement. By filing individually, Doukhobors could expect the government to defend their claims, but they were not required to abide by the stipulations which enforced individual division of the territory. However, there were several flaws in this arrangement. First, the Lands Act included a stipulation that title or patent could only be earned if the applicant swore allegiance to the Crown. If this provision was not waived, and in this case it was not, the government could be accused of conferring special treatment on the Russian refugees. Swearing allegiance to anything but God was a direct infringement of Doukhobor beliefs. Second, and most importantly, there was no clear guarantee that the terms for the filing for entry would also apply to the receipt of patent. Filing for entry only ensured that the applicant would be given the exclusive right to till the land during the three-year “proving-up” period. Even if the Doukhobors fulfilled all the requirements of the compromise, there was no guarantee that the same conditions would obtain when they applied for their title several years later. In other words, they would be allowed to cultivate collectively in order to file for entry, but would collective cultivation allow them to receive their absolute title after the proving-up period? Nothing of this was mentioned in the compromise. Perhaps the government gambled on the hope that eventually the Doukhobors would abandon village life and till the land in severally before the three years had elapsed. The thoughts of the government in this case are unknown to us, but whatever the consideration Sifton did not seem concerned that requirements for entry and for receipt of patent were inconsistent. This oversight proved costly.

Leopold Sulerzhitsky, Tolstoy’s personal envoy who helped coordinate the initial establishment of Doukhobor villages on the prairies, counted the Doukhobors by reference to the regions they came from in the Caucasus. He estimated that 1,600 Doukhobors came from the Elizabetpol region; 3,000 from the Kars district; and 2,140 from Tiflis province (sometimes referred to as the Wet Mountain region); another 1,126 had been relocated in Cyprus. Those from Elizabetpol and Kars were better off than those from Tiflis; the Cyprus refugees were the worst off.

The Wet Mountaineers were the first to arrive, in January 1899; the last shipload, from Cyprus and Kars, arrived in June. Lands had already been set aside for the new arrivals. With the support of the Dominion Lands agents in the North West, Aylmer Maude chose three tracts in the districts of Saskatchewan and Assiniboia.” The two major colonies were located near Yorkton: the North Colony, seventy miles north of Yorkton, encompassed six townships (216 square miles); while the South Colony, thirty miles north of Yorkton, included fifteen townships (540 square miles). The Yorkton colonies were “reserve” lands. According to the agreement struck with the Dominion government to stimulate railway construction, the Canadian Pacific Railway had been granted all odd-numbered sections in arable tracts (amounting to a total grant of 25 million acres). The CPR now ceded their claim, thus allowing the Doukhobors to settle on both odd and even numbered sections. The same concession was not made for the third colony near Prince Albert, where the Doukhobors were allocated twenty townships. Here they were allowed to take up only the even numbered sections, and it was not long before non-Doukhobors bought the odd-numbered sections from the CPR. This mingling of Doukhobors and non-Doukhobors was one of the features which distinguished the Prince Albert Colony from the colonies of the Yorkton area.

The colonies also differed in the groups of Doukhobors represented. The North Colony included mainly Wet Mountaineers previously exiled in Georgia and noted for their impoverishment; the South Colony was a mixture of exiles from Elizabetpol and some Kars, as well as Wet Mountaineers previously exiled in Cyprus; and the Prince Albert Colony was populated mostly by prosperous Kars. Difference in group representation in part explains the different behaviour patterns in each colony: Prince Albert colonists, as a result of their mingling and their comparative wealth, more readily accepted Dominion regulations, while the North colonists were the most uncompromising.


By June 1899 communities were beginning to form, and Doukhobors began to move out of their barracks in order to build villages. The first year — a difficult one — was made somewhat more tolerable by donations: English Quakers provided $1,400; the Tolstoyan community in Purleigh, England sent $5,000; and Tolstoy himself gave $17,000. The Doukhobors put together $16,500 out of their own pockets. The Canadian government contributed another $35,000, which normally was paid as a bonus to shipping agents. In a matter of months these funds were exhausted, and the settlers still had not made even the most elementary purchases of livestock, agricultural machinery, or building materials. Additional money was raised among American Quakers and by the Dominion Council of Women. James Mavor began negotiations with Massey-Harris, the agricultural implement manufacturer, to provide ploughs and harrows on credit. But these united efforts were not sufficient. In mid-May William McCreary, the Dominion Colonization Agent in charge of the Doukhobors, wrote a confidential letter to Smart warning of the real danger that if the crops were not put in (which was likely given the handful of old walking-ploughs at their disposal) the Doukhobors would surely starve over the winter.

An early Doukhobor village with houses and animal shelters constructed of prairie sod, 1900.  Library and Archives Canada C-008890.

In July the elders of the sect appealed to the government for a loan. The government was put in an awkward position: it could only issue credit on the security of land; since their titles had not yet been granted, the Doukhobors were technically landless. The government pondered the issue, but in November a decision had still not been made. Herbert Archer, a Doukhobor sympathizer, wrote Sulerzhitsky from Ottawa informing him that no loan could be issued until all entries were filed: “The loan is still in the cloudy, unsatisfactory region of hopes and fears,” Archer confessed. In the end, the Canadian government offered $20,000 at eight percent, on the condition that the settlers file for entry. The offer was turned down by the Doukhobors, partly because the need for funds had passed, and partly out of reluctance to be pressured by the State. The episode was an indication of future complications.

The first summer was bad, but in order to make up for the shortage of funds male Doukhobors “worked out” in sawmills, threshing gangs, and construction companies. Mostly they worked for the railways. One contractor was so pleased with his economical Doukhobor workers that he wrote to the Department of the Interior, praising them as “crackerjacks, and superior to any other class of foreign settlers I know of.” The income earned, an average of 50-60 cents per day, was pooled in a common account and used by the colonies to make appropriate investments.

While the men worked out, the women “worked in.” They built the houses and schools. They also broke the prairie sod. With the scarcity of draught animals, women were called upon to pull rudimentary walking ploughs by hand. One observer noted that “all people except very old and young works very hard. They pull plough theiself — 24 men or women in every. Somebody works with spade.” Women were often admired by outsiders for their toil: William McCreary wrote Prince Hilkoff, another Russian notable who had taken up the Doukhobor cause, that the progress of the enterprise rested on the shoulders of its women folk. A contemporary article entitled “The Doukhobor Woman” claimed that “she has muscles instead of curves,” and that, when angered, Doukhobor women act like “infuriated Amazons.” To this day, photographs of Doukhobors portray women drawing ploughs in gangs of sixteen as testimony to either exploitation by men or sectarian atavism. In fact, the only recorded incidents of hand-pulled ploughing occurred during the summer of 1899 when machinery and livestock were not available.

During the winter of 1899-1900, roaming officials reported back to Winnipeg and Ottawa with stories of widespread disease, some cases of hunger, and general demoralization. The men continued to work on the railways, but their income bought only the bare necessities. The deprivation of the first year was to reinforce the collective nature of the enterprise. The Doukhobors could aspire to nothing more than self-sufficiency. Unable to buy implements, they made their own; unable to buy clothes, they made their own with the spinning and sewing machines donated by the Dominion Council of Women. The scarcity of resources at the early stages made pooling indispensable. Collectivization was also reinforced by the nature of outside assistance. Donors gave money to centralized committees who accordingly made spending decisions. Few Doukhobors would want to forgo the benefits of these handouts — a potential loss which village elders held over the heads of would-be individualists. One obvious exception was the Prince Albert Colony: because the Kars had more funds available for investment, they filed for entry individually and homesteaded in the same way as non-Doukhobors.


In the North and South Colonies, poverty and Peter Verigin’s message (though he was still in exile in Siberia) tipped the scales in favour of collective property ownership. But this was not unanimously approved. As early as July 1899, some members of the Yorkton colonies began expressing a wish to till their own quarter-sections.

The division was especially clear in the South Colony where well-off Elizabetpol Doukhobors were mixed with the Wet Mountaineers, the former wishing to detach themselves from the latter with whom they were forced to share assets. Less debate occurred in the North Colony where all the impoverished Wet Mountaineers endorsed collective enterprise. Leopold Sulerzhitsky attended the first meeting, held on July 16, 1899, to address the issue. The discussion, which saw wealthier Doukhobors arguing with the poorer, was profound and endless. Unable to reach a common agreement, the elders went back to their villages where they took up the issue on their own. Some, especially those in the North Colony, voted to keep all holdings together; others did not. Thirteen of the North Colony villages even experimented with a common exchequer. During that first summer most Doukhobors were caught up in an internal debate about how to organize their settlements. It did not help that many of their leaders, including Verigin, were still trapped in Siberia. They were unable to arrive at a common solution and the divisions remained. So while it is fair to say that penury reinforced collectivization, it is also true that the divisions would have been considerably worse if poverty had not been an issue.

When Sulerzhitsky and Archer were commissioned by the government to draw up a map of each village, the elders asked that the land be identified as belonging to villages, and that individual quarter-sections not be itemized. Prince Hilkoff, who was overseeing settlement efforts in Yorkton, wrote to Deputy Minister Smart and specifically asked that lands only be identified in township units (36 sections). The cartographers turned to the government. In reply, the Department of the Interior insisted that a quarter-section be identified by the name of the Doukhobor who filed for entry on that lot, but that the land on which the village was built need not be registered as homesteads. The Doukhobor elders were “saddened” but did not protest. Sulerzhitsky left the finished maps for the Dominion surveyor and registrar, but the officials did not arrive. In the meantime, the Doukhobors discussed the problem over the winter, and by the spring of 1900 they were less willing to tolerate what they considered to be incursions on their collective way of life.

Doukhobors plowing, North Colony, 1905.  Library and Archives Canada A021179.

That winter was tough, but the return of good weather brought promise of better times. However, imminent prosperity generated more problems. Better-off villagers wanted out. Aylmer Maude, who was closely involved in establishing the villages, observed the discord. He believed that most Doukhobors wanted to hold their land individually, but that early scarcity, and directives from Peter Verigin dating from the early 1890s, prevented more rapid disintegration of the collectivity. The biggest obstacle to individual homesteading was “that it was evident… that the communist villages generally prospered more rapidly than individualist villages.” Collective villages proved a highly successful way of organizing production given scarce resources. Increasing prosperity revealed the internal fissures within communities. Village elders struggled to maintain the collectivity, first to avoid material deprivation, then increasingly to smooth over the cracks. The pressure to dismantle collective villages came from within as well as without.

In June, the Trustees of the Community of Universal Brotherhood (the umbrella group of elders) posted notices in villages proclaiming strong opposition to enforcement of homestead regulations. Through the summer of 1900, the government debated what to do. Its position gradually became clearer. The Deputy Minister of the Interior wrote to Aylmer Maude and spelled out the official line: “It will be necessary for the Doukhobors to make individual homestead entries, in accordance with the Dominion Lands regulation, but upon getting their patents there will be nothing to prevent them from conveying their lands in one common trust. They will thus be able to carry out their ideas with regard to community of property without requiring any alteration to our rules.” The government thus made it clear that titles to Doukhobor land would only be guaranteed individually: not only did entries have to be filed individually, but patent would be issued individually. The latter had not been spelled out in Sifton’s initial compromise with the Doukhobors. Doukhobor leaders feared that, by allowing community members to receive individual title, nothing could prevent them from seceding from their village while maintaining rights over their quarter-section. In the words of James Mavor, “the old peasant feeling came out. The only way to oppose the oppression of the Govt. was for the community to hold together.” Agitation in the communities, rumours, declarations by leaders, and especially the antics of a non-Doukhobor anarchist, A.M. Bodianskii, prompted the government to harden and enforce its position. In the spring of 1901, the Commissioner of Crown Lands posted notices advising that lands within the reserves which had not been filed for individually by May 1, 1902 would be thrown open to non-Doukhobor homesteaders. This notice, together with a lack of diplomatic negotiation, had the effect of a bombshell.

By the end of 1901, the debate within and without the communities reached a fever pitch. In February 1902, Clifford Sifton wrote an open letter to the Doukhobors to prevent any doubts about official policy and to try to heal some of the wounds of mistrust and Doukhobor feeling of betrayal. Sifton stressed for the first time the threat of pressure by non-Doukhobor homesteaders: if titles were not registered individually according to the Dominion Lands Act, federal land agents would have “no power to prevent these strangers or any other person from taking the land.” The Doukhobors had to make individual entry, and serve the proving-up period, as Sifton told the refugees, “for your own protection against outsiders.” Sifton reiterated the deadline, but by May 1 so few Doukhobors had filed their homesteads at the Lands Office that the deadline was waived.

At the request of the government, Joseph Elkinton, a Quaker from Philadelphia. who helped organize relief efforts funded by the American Society of Friends, agreed to try to explain the land laws to the Doukhobors. The Dominion Colonization Agent, C.W. Speers, wrote his Commissioner that Elkinton’s efforts induced more Doukhobors to take an interest in homesteading. Elkinton personally considered official efforts well intentioned, but he could not understand why the government insisted on seeing the Lands Act fulfilled to the letter: “no great harm could result from granting the Doukhobors the privilege of possessing their lands in common.” When Elkinton wrote his book on the Doukhobors in late 1902 and early 1903, he feared that the debate over land would be the ruin of the Doukhobor villages.

The tension and uncertainty mounted through the summer of 1902. In October a group of Doukhobors embarked on the first of a series of “pilgrimages.” Thousands abandoned their villages and marched, with children but without provisions, to Yorkton and beyond. This demonstration brought the Doukhobor plight to the attention of the entire country; all across Canada people discussed this strange peasant march towards Winnipeg. It proved to be a turning point in the popular image of the Russian refugees. Once considered the victims of Czarist oppression in need of help, they were now increasingly characterized as “fanatics.” While they explained their pilgrimage in messianic and spiritual terms appropriate to their world view, there was little doubt as to the source of the problem. As far as the Land Agent for the Yorkton area, Hugh Harley, was concerned, the pilgrimage was just the first outburst of frustration created by official pressure to file individually for land.

Coincidentally, Peter Verigin, the Doukhobors’ spiritual leader, was released from Siberian exile in the autumn of 1902. Dominion officials awaited his arrival in suspense: they hoped that a strong hand would bring the unruly refugees under control. They expected Verigin to recognize the wisdom of abiding by the Lands Act, for even as late as April 1903 only 596 entries were registered in the North Colony, while 874 were registered in the South Colony.

Verigin’s task was not easy. Taking up the issue in early 1903, he decided that entering for land should be considered a mere formality in the spirit of the agreement of 1898. Doukhobors should file for entry, but should nonetheless treat land as the common property of the community. Like Sifton before him, Verigin used the grace period before patent to delay a lasting solution: the conflict over who should hold ownership titles once the time for patent came was still not resolved. Verigin’s apparent compromise only temporarily restored a semblance of peace.

Doukhobor pilgrims leaving Yorkton to evangelize the world, 1902.  Library and Archives Canada C014077.

Respite from the tension allowed Verigin to initiate a process of large-scale material expansion. Through extensive borrowing, soliciting of donations, and the pooling of earnings from “working out,” Doukhobors accumulated large investment funds. In 1903 alone, their earnings from “working out” brought in $215,000. They made heavy investments. The Immigration Commissioner counted 4 grist mills, 3 sawmills, 8 steam threshers, and 2 steam ploughs in 1904, at a time when few homesteaders operated mammoth steam engines to pull gang-ploughs. In August 1903, the Doukhobors bought 4 more steam threshers and 500 horses (300 in a single day). While investigating for the British Board of Trade, James Mavor found signs of intense investment: in the North Colony (population 1,369) he counted 54 horses, 16 ploughs, and 18 wagons, while among Kars colonists (population 1,442) he counted 88 horses, 28 ploughs and 34 wagons. Evidently the days of penury were past, but the disparity between the richer Kars and the North Colonists persisted.

Verigin tried to calm the “fanatics,” but his success was limited. In May 1903 rumours circulated about another pilgrimage. The government was increasingly aware of the bad press which roaming “fanatics” brought upon an administration keen to be viewed as smoothly bringing about prairie prosperity. On May 11, James Smart asked the North West Mounted Police to begin regular patrols in the villages. Referring to spontaneous pilgrimages, Smart claimed that the presence of red tunics would “give the people the impression that we do not intend to allow anything more of this kind, and no doubt it will also give them respect for the authority of the police.”

The move backfired. The presence of police only reminded Doukhobors of the oppression suffered at the hands of Czarist police. They resisted by stepping up their protests. When the police solicited the help of Verigin, he explained that he was helpless to control the zealots in his sect. Verigin must have recognized the pointlessness of condoning police patrols in villages. Two weeks after Smart’s request, the first Doukhobors were arrested for plotting a demonstration. Twenty-six men were picked up. One man, who refused to comply with the order, stripped in full view of onlookers. For his pathetic act he was immediately charged with indecent exposure and sentenced to four months in prison without trial.

One nude demonstration had been held before May 1903. The gesture was meant to signify Doukhobor rejection of material possessions. Such naked marches through the countryside were rites performed only by the “fanatical” Sons of Freedom group to bring believers in closer contact with God. The arrests changed the nature of the rite from one of worship to one of defiance of authority. Thereafter, Doukhobors stripped regularly. Upon the sight of an approaching police patrol whole groups would undress. Displays of nudity, sometimes on the streets of Yorkton or smaller towns, terrified authorities. Pilgrimages were bad enough, but naked processions created a sensation in the Victorian press. Whatever charity was left in the government quickly vanished and the arrests were stepped up.

Confrontation sometimes brought comic incidents. In one case a patrolling officer stumbled upon a group of women who promptly changed to their “prayer meeting attire” by dropping their clothing in a heap beside them. As the young officer tried to talk the women into redonning their clothes, a photographer arrived on the scene. They struck a deal: the women promised to get dressed if the officer would have his photograph taken beside the naked women. The hapless mountie agreed, and when the scandalous photograph hit the front pages of prairie newspapers, the Prime Minister ordered the head of the NWMP to explain. The plates of the photo were chased down and destroyed, and the officer was fined $5 and sentenced to a month of hard labour.

As if police-Doukhobor relations had not soured enough, the villages came under assault from non-Doukhobor settlers. The prosperity of the Doukhobors, the filling in of land elsewhere on the prairies, and the construction of the Canadian Northern Railway, and later the CPR’s North-Western line, brought the region to the attention of prospective non-Doukhobor homesteaders. Land around the reserves was being taken up; the villages were no longer isolated in the way their creators had wanted. Through Peter Verigin’s efforts, the Doukhobors had filed for entry on about half the total land allotted to them. This left a sizeable area vacant, but also beyond the legal claim of land-hungry settlers. Letters began to arrive at Land Offices in Yorkton and Winnipeg complaining of favours accorded to the “fanatics.” One prominent Winnipeg correspondent slammed the government’s treatment of “Sifton’s pets”: “The main question in settling up the vast west is not so much to run in a horde of people as it is to get the right class of people. Settlers are to a large extent born and not made, if I may use the term, and the Doukhobor as he is today in the neighbourhood of Yorkton does not come up to the lowest qualification of a settler.” Pressure mounted as neighbouring settlers coveted the unoccupied Doukhobor lands. The government felt the need to deal with the unruly, albeit prospering, refugees.


In December 1904 the government revoked the original agreement and redefined Doukhobor lands as those falling within the territory which had been filed for entry. This measure aimed to allow homesteaders to develop unoccupied land. This it did. Hundreds of squatters quickly took up lots. In 1905 the Territories became the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta. In the same year Clifford Sifton, architect of the flawed Doukhobor settlement compromise, quit the Liberal cabinet over the language provisions of the new provinces. He was replaced by Edmonton MP Frank Oliver, an irascible champion of the quarter-section homesteader. As the prairie economy took off, the fate of the Doukhobors was sealed. They were no longer seen as necessary in populating the vacant land. They certainly no longer induced the pathos of the government.

Communal harvesting, c. 1910.  The women ride the binders and the women stook. Library and Archives Canada C-009787.

The North West Mounted Police, not accustomed to mass arrests and systematic containment of non-native or non-Metis ethnic minorities, asked the Minister of the Interior for guidelines. The new Deputy Minister, Cory, instructed the Comptroller, Fred White, to defend Doukhobors and other settlers who took up quarter-sections. The police should desist from protecting the collective rights invoked by village elders: “As you are aware, they are living on the communal plan, but most of them have now taken up homesteads, and as they have been over seven years in the country it is felt that they should not be considered as wards of the Government any longer. I think if your police should merely see that they are protected in their personal rights, … the matter will be settled quite satisfactorily.”

The police and the Ministry did more, however, than just rescind an earlier commitment to protect the community. They openly encouraged individual Doukhobors to leave the community and take up homesteads elsewhere. This was the last straw for Peter Verigin, who had hitherto helped quell unrest. By speaking out against the police and in favour of collective property as the only true Doukhobor economy, he fired up his followers. Fred White became alarmed by the turn of events. Writing to the Minister, he confessed that “at one time we were anxious to have Peter Verigin arrive from Russia. It now looks as if we shall be compelled to take drastic measures to repress him.”

The concept of property relations was the wedge which, by 1904, divided the Doukhobors into three general factions: the wealthier “Independents” concentrated in the Prince Albert Colony, with some in the South Colony; Community or traditional Doukhobors, taken mainly from Tiflis and Elizabetpol emigres, concentrated in both the North and South Colonies; and the Sons of Freedom concentrated in the Yorkton Colonies. The latter took a much more militant stance in the ensuing conflict with the government. There was also a class dimension to the fissures: wealthier Doukhobors, it seems, were more disposed to accept government rulings and to go the route of the “Independents.” Where Peter Verigin’s allegiances lay is not clear, though they were most likely linked with the Community Doukhobors.

It is impossible to estimate how many Doukhobors sympathized one way or the other with Verigin. No observers were impartial, and certainly official reporting inflated the numbers who dissented from Verigin’s preachings. Corporal Junget, the officer in charge of the Yorkton battalion, reported on the open confrontation between those whom he called “Community” and “non-Community” Doukhobors. Some members asked for permission to withdraw from the community, but they wanted to take with them their share of what was by now a considerable amount of capital tied up in land, machinery and livestock. Dissenters were reported stealing away from the villages in wagons loaded with animals and implements, heading for the nearest police or land office to file for entry on land elsewhere. They were sometimes caught en route by “Community” Doukhobors. Roadside battles were fought with axes and pitchforks, and local police officers on occasion had injured Doukhobors stumble into their station after encounters with their brethren-foe.

Repression intensified during the summer of 1905. After a demonstration in Yorkton, the now promoted Sergeant Junget condemned sixteen male Doukhobors as “lunatics.” He ordered their wives to return to their villages and shipped the “criminals” to the Brandon Insane Asylum. According to the Medical Superintendent of the Asylum, the Doukhobors were not “insane”; they were merely “religious fanatics.” The Asylum was no place for them. In one of its last acts, the North West Assembly refused to commit the sixteen to the Asylum and they were discharged. Junget responded by sending a party of officers after the sixteen and re-arrested them on vagrancy charges and sentenced them himself to six months in the Regina gaol. Throughout the summer Junget had his officers chase down uncooperative Doukhobors. Dozens spent nights in prison. In the autumn, several interned Doukhobors went on a hunger strike to bring attention to the official treatment inflicted on them. By this time they had few supporters outside the community: the Canadian press played up the confrontation with headlines of “Demented Lunatics” and “Religious Fanatics.” In November, despite attempts to force-feed the strikers, one of them died of starvation.


The death of this hunger-striker made it clear that the government could not hope to alter the situation with the carrot of a quarter-section of land and the stick of a night in gaol. Not only was it costly in human terms (the demonstrations continued through the winter of 1905-06), but settlers in the area were calling for the removal of the Doukhobors and the opening of their tracts for homesteading. Frank Oliver, as Minister, was inclined to oblige.

Not only had the reserves been abolished, which opened unoccupied tracts to non-Doukhobors, but in 1906 squatters also began to occupy land for which the Doukhobors had filed for entry under the compromise reached with Sifton. About half the sections in the reserves had actually been claimed, but under the agreement, Doukhobors were not required to cultivate a portion of the quarter-section, as stipulated by the terms of the Lands Act. Instead they could cultivate an equal portion elsewhere in the collective, say, closer to the village. Squatters refused to accept these terms: untilled land, in their eyes, meant that the Doukhobors were not living up to the terms required of all settlers. These quarter-sections were up for grabs and the government was reluctant to defend the rightful claimants, the Doukhobors.

Doukhobor village group in Saskatchewan, c. 1905. British Columbia Archives D-01139.

Nervous about possible confrontations between non-Doukhobors and Doukhobors, the police did what they could to keep them apart. In one incident, a group of Doukhobors went to Yorkton while the town was celebrating a summer fair. When the Doukhobors entered the town, they were said to have attracted the attention of the townspeople with their “singing and queer actions.” To prevent the Doukhobors from “interfering with the sports … it was decided by the Town authorities to run them in.” No criminal offence had been committed so the Doukhobors were charged under a town by-law. They were held in custody for several days and then released — “the object” of this authoritarian exercise, in the words of the commanding officer, “being merely to keep them away from the public and not injure the town during the Fair.” Officer Junget expected that eventually he would have to “take action against the whole outfit… and have them deported either to prison or [the] Lunatic Asylum.” Later, in July, another sixteen were arrested for “parading around town… at times in a semi-nude condition….” They served six months in the Regina gaol.

The situation did not improve. In late 1906 Oliver commissioned the Reverend John McDougall to report on the problem and to propose a solution. In what must be one of the most scandalous official reports submitted to a responsible government, McDougall called for a hard line. He reminded the Minister of the great strides made by the prairie economy. Amongst other things,

… everywhere land values have appreciated in rich measure and prices for land are from $200 to $500 more than they were five or six years since. Alongside of and in some instance cutting right through the midst of this development have been large areas of land known as “the Doukhobor Reserves,” and omnipresent in the minds of settlers and business men and transport officials was this stupendous lot of reserve land constituting as it has a most serious block impediment to the natural and righteous growth of the country.

McDougall celebrated the Anglo-Saxon settler and excoriated the disturbingly unconventional refugees from Russia. The former developed the country, the latter did not. To make matters worse, the Doukhobors openly contravened the law and then made unreasonable demands on the State to uphold special privileges. McDougall paid no heed to Sifton’s agreement or the reminders of non-Doukhobors like Herbert Archer that the Dominion government had made a deal with the Doukhobors. McDougall rested his case on the juridical point of the Doukhobors’ refusal to swear the oath of allegiance. To be sure, Sifton had overlooked this aspect of the Lands Act as a precondition to the receipt of patent. Doukhobors would not swear their allegiance to the Crown because they felt their only allegiance was to God.

Using this pretext, argued McDougall, they should be stripped of their land except for the belts around the villages. Accordingly, Doukhobors were to be granted fifteen acres per person. With a population of 7,853 “Communist Doukhobors,” the settlements would be left with 117,795 acres; they were thus to be dispossessed of 303,360 acres (they had already lost half of what the Reserves originally comprised in 1904). Oliver chose to implement the McDougall recommendations.

In a letter to James Mavor, Herbert Archer acknowledged the stickiness of the problem: “Squatters began to appear on the unimproved land. The Doukhobors tried to evict them & revolvers were produced. A state of violent anarchy threatened. And the squatters rightly charged the Government with protecting Doukhobor illegalities.” Archer was not entirely opposed to the McDougall solution. He thought it might bring peace to the region. But it didn’t. Furious, Mavor wrote the Prime Minister on behalf of the Doukhobors, explaining the long story of the Doukhobor settlement and appealing for a more sympathetic solution, though agreeing in principle that the Sifton compromise was entirely untenable. Laurier replied, saying he would give Mavor’s appeal due consideration and confer with his Minister of the Interior. In the meantime, Laurier received a memorandum from a member of the McDougall Commission, E.L. Cash, accusing the Doukhobors of occupying “the very best land in Saskatchewan,” and of being “foreigners” uninterested in the welfare of the Dominion or the Empire:

I would suggest… that these people should be given a fair chance to become Canadian Citizens, and cultivate their individual 1/4 sections. If it were an American Settler, and he refused to do this, his land would be cancelled without further consideration; then why should the Doukhobor be placed on a higher level than the American, who certainly would make more desirable citizens than the Russians…? If they refuse the offer made to them by the Government, they should receive only such an allowance of land as will be necessary for their subsistence.

The Prime Minister and the Minister of the Interior, fully cognizant of the history of the Doukhobors in Canada and the provisions made for them under the agreement struck by Sifton, and also aware of their material advances, decided to restrict their claim to fifteen acres per Doukhobor. Perhaps this decision was affected by the wave of squatters who seized unoccupied Doukhobor land in January, and was adopted in order to avoid a dangerous situation. In February John McDougall, now Commissioner for Investigation of Doukhobor Claims, posted notices giving Doukhobors three months to pledge allegiance. Those wanting to acquire quarter-sections more than three miles from the village had to show intent to abide by the terms of the Lands Act. Otherwise, they could only claim title to village land: fifteen acres per person.

Doukhobor land rush in Yorkton, 1907. Library and Archives Canada PA-022232.

In a last ditch effort to save their land, the Doukhobors sent a delegation to Ottawa to meet with Oliver. The exchange was testimony to Oliver’s determination to distance himself from Sifton’s original deal:

Doukhobors: The Doukhobors made entries in accordance with the agreement which the Government made before they came from Russia.

Oliver: I cannot tell them [the squatters] that the Doukhobors are holding land in accordance with an agreement made before they came from Russia because that is not true.

Doukhobors: We think it would be true because if the Doukhobors had not had such a promise they would not have come to this country. If the Government of Canada had suggested before the Doukhobors left Russia that this would not be carried out, they are sure they would not have come at all.

Oliver: If the Doukhobors had suggested the same terms which you suggest now, the Government would have said they could not come on those terms.

Mavor, in anger, wrote Oliver and accused him of stealing Doukhobor land with this “thoroughly unwise action.” Oliver merely observed that the Doukhobors failed “to live up to the technical requirements of settlers.” Mavor felt impelled to write to those who had contributed so much in aid of the Doukhobors in the early years: Elkinton, Vladimir Tchertkoff, Prince Kropotkin. To his friend Kropotkin, he wrote that Canada should no longer be considered a place for the settlement of Russian emigres: “Why not try the Argentine?”

Matters soon came to a head. Verigin wrote Mavor in April appealing for help. To complicate matters, the community had invested a great deal of money in machinery and livestock with the expectation of having more than a mere fifteen acres each. The debt-load was worringly high, and Verigin asked Mavor whether the machinery ought to be sold given the reduced size of their tracts. In June, the Doukhobor lands were thrown open for settlers. The day before the Land Office was due to open its doors, prospective homesteaders began lining up outside at 9:00 a.m. Policemen were stationed in the queue to keep the peace and prevent the over-anxious from queue jumping. Violence was narrowly avoided during the night, but the next day saw a rampage at the Land Office such as had never been seen before on the prairies.


Almost a decade after the Doukhobors had begun to flee their exiled homes in the Caucasus, they once again began to contemplate leaving the homes they had created on the Canadian prairies. Not all of them were dissatisfied. The so-called “Independent Doukhobors” had taken up quarter-sections and were prospering. The numbers who did so are not known, though Herbert Archer estimated that between 12.5 and 15 percent split from the collective. Woodcock and Avakumovic estimate that there were over 1,000 Independents.

The new solution did not quell Doukhobor protests. In July, 35 “fanatics” started a march to Winnipeg, thus setting off another round of demonstrations and arrests which lasted well into 1908. In May 1908, 31 men, 29 women, and 16 children started another trek. When apprehended by the police, they stripped. They were promptly arrested and sent to the Brandon Asylum, though the police report failed to say whether the children were also deemed insane. In July a whole village went on a hunger strike: a dozen were arrested and the village elders were packed off to the Asylum.

In the Spring of 1908, having selected a site in remotest British Columbia, Verigin began moving his followers to their new home. Those who remained continued their protests to the last. In July 1909, residents of the village of Hledebarnie set out on a protest march. They continued to give the North West Mounted Police trouble until they were relocated in 1912. By 1914 the Doukhobors had lost 2,300 quarter-sections upon which they had filed entry — 368,000 acres of improved land valued at $11,000,000. By moving to British Columbia, they also left behind sixty villages, complete with stores, roads, telephone lines, and trees. The Doukhobors estimated their total losses to be $ 11,400,000.

The Doukhobor experience on the Prairies sheds light on the extent to which the police were deployed by the State to put down an ethnic minority choosing to live with an alternative pattern of property relations. If the Mounties were often seen by destitute homesteaders as primitive social workers, as Carl Betke has argued, their relations with the Doukhobors demonstrate that there were very clear limits to their charity.

More seriously, there is a tradition of writing about the homestead model which celebrates its visionary and progressive accomplishments. A vacant land, save for the occasional native or Metis, was to be colonized, and the Lands Act of 1872 provided the framework. Homesteading, as it was envisaged in North America, was a specific process of agricultural settlement rooted in a clearly individualist heritage of agrarian practice. The law was meant to enshrine the process of settlement by private property owners. It served to exclude any other variation, including village-based agriculture. Since then, historians have often written as if homesteading was the only path to agrarian development.

Consequently, many historians have thus far accepted individual homesteading as the “necessary” approach to settlement simply because no other existed. Although alternatives were not explored, this does not mean they did not exist. Politics, more often than not, seals off alternatives. In the case of the Doukhobors on the prairies, officials at the very highest level of political authority chose not to tolerate the alternative structure of property relations. As a result, they broke an obviously badly drafted agreement, and instead denied the refugees their legal and economic rights.