With the Doukhobors on Cyprus

by Ivan Stepanovich Prokhanov

Ivan Stepanovich Prokhanov (1869-1935) was born into a well-to-do Molokan family in Vladikavkas, North Caucasus, Russia. After much studying and thought he converted to the Baptist faith in 1887, while retaining close links with his Molokan roots. He graduated in 1893 from the Technological Institute in St. Petersburg as an engineer. After graduation, he moved to the Crimea, where he founded a short-lived commune of Evangelical Christians. Driven by a strong sense of call to preach the Gospel to the masses, he soon gave up his career as an engineer. For three years, 1895-98, he studied theology in England (Baptist at Bristol, Congregational at New College in London), in Berlin, Germany, and in Paris. In 1898, Prokhanov travelled to Cyprus at the behest of the English Quakers to assist a group of 1,150 Doukhobors residing there. For several months, he worked among the fever-stricken settlers, assisting them with their medical, food and shelter needs, before returning to Russia in 1899. The following excerpt, reproduced from “In the Cauldron of Russia, 1869-1933: Autobiography of I.S. Prokhanoff (All-Russian Evangelical Christian Union, New York, 1933) recounts his work among the Doukhobors on Cyprus. 

In September of the year 1898, while in Paris, I received a letter from Mr. E. W. Brooks [an English Quaker industrialist and philanthropist], proposing that I should go to Cyprus to aid the Doukhobors.

I have mentioned before that the Doukhobors living in the Transcaucasus, under the influence of the Tolstoists [Tolstoyans], withdrew their soldiers from the army, publicly burned their guns and rifles and declared to the Government that they would never take up arms again. Some of the Doukhobors’ leaders were punished and they decided to emigrate from Russia.

After much negotiation Canada was chosen as the country to which they would migrate. The first party of Doukhobors, numbering 1,150 people, took ship at Caucasus, but they were held up en route because of an epidemic which broke out among them. All the Doukhobor passengers were disembarked on the island of Cyprus. There the epidemic continued.

Ivan S. Prokhanov (1869-1935)

There was on the island only one man who could act as an interpreter for the Doukhobors, Mr. [Pavel] Birukoff. but he had to leave Cyprus for some reason and return to England. Somebody was required to take his place, and the [Society of Friends Doukhobor] committee, of which Mr. E. W. Brooks was the chairman, proposed that I should go there. Count Sergius L. Tolstoy, son of the celebrated Russian writer and philosopher, came to Paris to see me on this question. I gave my consent, and in a day or so a peasant Doukhobor came to Paris from London in order to travel with me to Cyprus.

We sailed from Marseilles on a steamer of the “Menageries Maritimes” line. For the first time I voyaged over the western portion of the Mediterranean Sea and I enjoyed the experience immensely, delighting in the beautiful scenery, particularly the shores of Italy and Sicily, the groves of oranges and lemons and other things of interest.

Egypt, the Nile and the Pyramids

On our way to Cyprus the steamer called at Alexandria, where it lay for two days, and we also anchored at Port Said for two days. I took the advice of one of the ship’s officers and, with my Doukhobor friend, made an excursion to Cairo and from there to the Pyramids. At Alexandria we saw the column of Pompeus and also some remarkable orchards belonging to a rich Greek. For the first time I saw bread as thin as linen. When a servant approached our table, I thought he was carrying napkins on his arm, but it proved to be bread! The small coffee house where we dined had a veranda covered with grapes, large and very sweet.

With a feeling of awe I looked for the first time upon the River Nile and its fertile estuaries where the land of Goshen is situated. My awe increased when I beheld the Sphinx and the pyramids. We went out from the city of Cairo on hired donkeys, attended by Arab boy drivers, who ran behind, shouting very loudly. The donkeys were so small that I had much difficulty in keeping my feet from dragging along the ground.

The highest of the pyramids, as is well known, is that of Pharao Kheops. Special Arab guides took both of us and a group of other tourists to see this pyramid. We had to climb up a narrow subterranean passage, all the time ascending in the darkness. Our Arab guide was climbing ahead of us with a torch in his hand, the smoke from which was very unpleasant. The greater part of the way we had to climb on “all fours.” It was a very arduous journey.

When at last we attained our objective, the guide lighted a magnesium lamp and we saw a spacious room, much dust and flying bats. The atmosphere was stifling. It was the burying place of ancient kings. The coffins themselves, with the mummies, had been taken to a museum and we saw only the room. Of course, our impressions here were very strong! Were there not the odors of four thousand years in that cave!

The remarkable thing to me was the fact that the regular outlines of the pyramid had been preserved during forty centuries! For the first time I saw Arab Bedouins on their camels, and away in the distance the great Desert of Sahara. Sand! Sand! Sand without any end! This sight also inspired in me a feeling of awe. We returned from Cairo by railway to Port Said and again boarded our steamer.

Port of Larnaca, Cyprus, c. 1898-1899.

On our arrival at Larnaca, the port of Cyprus, I found there Mr. [Wilson] Sturge, the commissary of the Society of Friends, who was supervising all the help that was being rendered by them to the Doukhobors. He introduced me to the British Governor of Cyprus. I also saw Mr. Birukoff and I entered upon the fulfillment of my new duties.

An Oasis in the Sands of Cyprus

The population of Cyprus consisted of Turks, Greeks and Armenians. The tall and handsome figures of the fair-featured Doukhobors were conspicuous among these natives. The camp of the Doukhobors was in the interior of Cyprus. I traveled to the encampment on the back of another small donkey, like the one I had ridden in Egypt. When we left Larnaca I saw a wide, flat level of sand that became very hot from the rays of the burning sun, although it was in November. There was not even one tree and no grass. Sand! Sand!

After traveling several hours we saw at a distance a group of trees and vegetation. When we approached we found a grove of pretty palms, and also orange and lemon trees laden with their fruit. There was a small stream of water coming from the ground, and this was the reason for such luxuriant vegetation. I thought, “What a fine illustration of the living water of the Word of God, which regenerates men’s hearts!”

Among these trees we found tents and small wooden barracks, in which the Doukhobor families lived. At a distance of a few miles there was another small colony, also housed in wooden barracks.

I found the Doukhobors in a very sad condition. Most of them were ill with a strange disease, something like dysentery. A man would have blood issues, some swelling on the legs and in a few days he would die. Entering one of the barracks, I saw a low wooden platform built along one wall for the full length of the room, on which they usually slept, but on which now there were sick people lying, with some dead bodies in between them! About one hundred men and women had already died. A Russian cemetery had been made a short distance from the Doukhobor colonies.

A dusty track in rural Cyprus today, much as it appeared in 1898-1899.

Ministering to Sick Doukhobors

The doctor was an Armenian. He prescribed opium. The medicines were usually brought from Larnaca by an old man Mark, a Jew from Odessa, who spoke Russian, Greek, Turkish and even Armenian, all languages badly enough, but he was an indispensable person to the Doukhobors. He brought to them not only medicines but also small articles and all kinds of goods. Once more I was convinced that as long as our people remained uneducated they would need the services of Jews, who are always practical and energetic wherever they are.

My duties were to look after the general conditions of the Doukhobors, to secure improvements and to help them with their medicine. At once I insisted on putting into effect some measures which seemed practical and most important:

Simple Rules to Combat the Plague

  1. To remove all the dead bodies from the barracks immediately.
  2. To isolate the sick ones from those who were in good health.
  3. To keep the windows open as much as possible to secure ventilation. Usually they kept the windows closed and the air in the rooms was very stuffy and close.
  4. To keep the rooms and clothing clean.
  5. I tried to enforce upon everybody the necessity for observing many simple rules of home sanitation which were being neglected.
  6. I asked the doctor to increase the doses of opium for the sick ones, telling him that for a Russian treble quantity of medicines was required as compared with an Armenian. The doctor somewhat increased the portions and a beneficial effect was soon noticeable.

Whenever I had any free time I gathered around me the boys and girls and taught them the English language. Almost thirty years later, in 1926, when I visited the Doukhobors in Canada, one of them recognized me and said he would never forget my help in teaching him the English language.

By doing this work among the Doukhobors I attained some intimate relations with them. Mr. Sturge and Mr. Birukoff lived at the town of Larnaca, at some distance from the Doukhobors, and the latter left Cyprus soon after my arrival. Nobody really knew the conditions under which these people were living. I decided to live in their largest colony [Athalassa] and so I was able to closely observe their mode of life and to decide on means to overcome the plague and also to improve their condition.

Landscape in rural Cyprus today, much as it appeared in 1898-1899.

I Fall Ill in a Strange Country

I endeavored to banish all kinds of uncleanness and disorderliness, and gradually the condition of the Doukhobors began to improve, but I became ill myself with the same disease which was ravaging their colonies. I fell sick while in the town of Larnaca and lay in the house which had recently been occupied by Mr. Birukoff.

During my illness no one came to visit me. To become ill with a mortally dangerous sickness in a strange land, far away from friends, is a very trying experience. But the optimism of faith helped me through this time also. I did not give way to despair, but during my illness I thought a great deal about my country and my life, and I prayed to God that He might dispose of me according to His will. It was God’s will that I should recover. Gradually I began to mend, almost without any help, and at last I recovered. After this I resumed my work among the Doukhobors until a message reached us that a steamer [SS Lake Superior] was to come from England to take them to Canada.

I was asked by the English [Society of Friends Doukhobor] Committee whether I would be willing to go to Canada, but I felt that after the recovery of the Doukhobors they could very well get along without me. whereas the whole Russian people were in need of energetic workers and messengers of Christ. I felt I must return to Russia, where, although my father was still in exile and arrest might await me,  and although many others were suffering oppression and persecution, there were great possibilities for Christ.

Perhaps the call to service among the Doukhobors was the means God used to prevent my premature return to Russia during the time I was liable to be sent to exile. But now the call to return to my country was irresistible and so I declined to accompany the Doukhobors on their long journey to Canada.

My Decision to Return is Confirmed

Knowing the circumstances, Mr. E. W. Brooks and the others were greatly surprised at my decision, but I felt that it was the will of God with regard to me. Shortly after the decision had been made, a telegram came to Larnaca from my brother Vasily from Vladikavkas, calling me back home. The telegram itself surprised me more than the message, for under the conditions in Russia at that time I never thought such a message could have been sent. I took it for the voice of God confirming my decision.

After final conferences with the Doukhobors, Mr. Sturge and others, I boarded a steamer bound for Constantinople and to Odessa, and with a prayer I sailed for home. All my thoughts were directed to my poor country suffering for centuries and bound by the chains of spiritual darkness. I was ready to accept the worst things for myself if only I could be among my own people and have the privilege of preaching the Gospel to them.


Returning to Russia in 1899, Prokhanov finally settled in St. Petersburg where he found employment in the St. Petersburg branch of the American Westinghouse Company. He now entered upon a remarkable career as preacher, writer, and leader. He reorganized the Evangelical Christians in 1908 as the All-Russian Union of Evangelical Christians, of which he served as President until 1928. He sought, without full success, to unite the Baptists and Evangelical Christians in Russia. In 1926, he travelled to North America, which included a little-known visit to the Doukhobors in Brilliant, British Columbia. In 1928, he was elected Vice-President of the World Baptist Congress. Prokhanov never returned to Russia because of the dangers there, but served the émigré Russian evangelical groups in Europe and America. He died in Berlin, Germany in 1935 and was buried there. To read the complete translated English test of Prokhanov’s 1933 autobiography online, see In the Cauldron of Russia and for the original Russian text, see В котле России.

A rare photographic record of Ivan S. Prokhanov’s visit to the Doukhobors in Brilliant, British Columbia in 1926.  BC Archives C-01547.

For More Information

For more information about the short-lived Doukhobor settlement experiment on Cyprus in 1898-1899, the factors leading to its establishment and the reasons for its ultimate failure, see: A Courteous and Well-Conducted Community by Carla King and The Doukhobors on Cyprus by Pavel Ivanovich Biryukov.

‘A Courteous and Well-Conducted Community’: The Doukhobors in Cyprus, 1898-9

by Carla King, St. Patrick’s College, Drumcondra

In August 1898, 1,126 Doukhobors, fleeing religious persecution in Tsarist Russia, disembarked on the island of Cyprus, at that time a British protectorate. At first, everything seemed quite promising. The Mediterranean island was beautiful, and the fertile land, lush vegetation and seaside climate appealing. Aided by English Friends (Quakers) and Russian Tolstoyans, the Doukhobors established three small agricultural villages and proceeded to work the land. However, the extreme heat and humidity combined with impure water and unsanitary housing proved unsuitable. Already destitute, impoverished and in a weakened state, 108 of the settlers perished from famine, disease and exhaustion. The settlement proved unsuccessful, and eight months after their arrival, in April 1899, the Doukhobors abandoned the island to travel on to Canada. The following paper examines the reasons for the Cyprus colony’s failure, and argues that the lack of success was far from predictable on practical grounds and the Doukhobors’ decision to settle on Cyprus was reasonable given the available resources.  Reproduced by permission of the author from Epeterida: Annual Review of the Cyprus Research Centre, vol xxix (2003) pp. 255-77.

In early 1899, a mass exodus of over seven thousand people took place from Russia to Canada, when members of the Russian religious sect, the Doukhobors, or “Spirit Wrestlers” left their homeland to escape the oppression they had suffered at the hands of the Tsarist authorities. Canadian Doukhobors recently celebrated the centenary of their migration. However, the move to Canada was preceded by an attempt by just over a thousand Doukhobors to establish a colony on the island of Cyprus, at that time a British protectorate. In the event, the settlement was unsuccessful and eight months after their arrival, the group left again, to travel on to Canada.

This paper will examine the reasons for the Cyprus colony’s failure. It is argued here that the lack of success was far from predictable on practical grounds and the decision to settle on Cyprus was reasonable given the available resources. There are a number of questions that present themselves. Why, for example, did a group of Armenian refugees who arrived in 1896 manage to settle successfully in Cyprus, and a small community of Russian Jews who came to live at Marga in 1898 also survive, while the Doukhobor colony did not? The high temperatures of the island are generally cited as a problem but although they arrived in August at the hottest time of the year, most of their stay was during the winter, which is mild. Was there hostility on the part of the British authorities on the island? Or was the Cypriot population antagonistic toward them? Was the settlement doomed from the start by bad organisation or lack of funds? Furthermore, what caused the high level of mortality amongst the Doukhobor population on the island – in the period of just eight months some 108 died?

A dusty track in rural Cyprus.

But first, who were the Doukhobors? Details of their origins are now lost, as they were one of several sects to emerge among the largely illiterate peasant peoples of Russia in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The first historical references to them occur in the eighteenth century and they may have been linked in their early stages to another sect called the Ikonobors, or Icon Wrestlers denounced by a decree of 1734. Their songs and stories refer to a number of leaders and teachers who helped to shape their faith. At first the Doukhobors seem to have been based in the Ukraine but repressive measures of dispersing them, aimed at weakening and isolating them, (1741-62) had the unintended effect of spreading their faith to various parts of Russia. Like several other religious groupings their name was originally a pejorative label, apparently by the Archbishop Amvrosii Serebrennikov of Ekaterinoslav, who in 1785, described them as wrestling against the spirit of Christ, whereas they took the name to have the opposite connotation, that of wrestlers for the spirit of Christ. In any case, the name “spirit wrestlers” remained.

The Doukhobors had remained relatively unmolested by the authorities in the reign of Tsarina Elizabeth and the early years of Catherine the Great (1762-96). From the 1790s on, however, they suffered increased official persecution. Their situation improved in the reign of Alexander I (1801-25), when the sect was given land for settlement in the newly-conquered territories of the Tauride province (now Crimea), in a district called Molochnye Vody [Milky Waters]. By 1827 there were 3,985 Doukhobors settled there in 800 households settled in 9 villages.

The Doukhobors are quite similar in several respects to the early Christians. Since they believe that the spirit of God is present in every human being, they hold that to violate a person in any way is to defile the spirit of God in him. Thus they are pacifists and egalitarian in their approach to others. They believe that heaven and hell are concepts or states of mind, and they reject any mediation (by a priest) between a person and God. Following from this direct relationship with God, they see no need for church sacraments or indeed for written records of any kind, including scriptures. Unlike members of the Orthodox Church, they do not use icons, although they have their own rituals, psalms and hymns. The only visible symbols of their beliefs are a loaf of bread, a salt cellar and a jug of water placed on a table in the middle of their meeting house.

During the time of Catherine II (1762-1796) Doukhobor numbers rose, but toward the end of that reign they began to suffer persecution. Those living in the provinces of Ekaterinoslav and Khar’kov were resettled in the newly conquered territories of the Tauride province (now Crimea) in a district called Molochnye vody [Milky Waters]. Other Doukhobor groups remained in scattered communities in various parts of Russia. In 1841, under the more repressive reign of Nicholas I (1825-55), the Doukhobors were transplanted once more, to the Caucasian uplands, where they were given land in the Wet Mountains and Elizavetpol’ regions. The conditions of the mountainous land of the Caucasus demanded a shift from arable to cattle farming but the Doukhobors adapted and prospered, apparently maintaining good relations with neighbouring peoples. Settled in three Transcaucasian regions of Elizavetpol, Tiflis (Tbilisi) and later also in Kars, their numbers rose to around twenty thousand by the 1890s.

The Doukhobors had been accustomed to organise themselves under a leader. From 1864 to1886 they were led by Luker’ja Vasil’evna Kalmykova, the widow of a former leader. It was after her death in 1886 that problems arose. These were in part brought on by internal changes in Doukhobor leadership and policy and partly due to shifts in the attitude of the Russian government towards them. Following Kalmykova’s death the Doukhobor community split, the larger faction, the “Large Party” led by her protege, Petr Vasil’evich Verigin and the “Smaller Party” led by the late leader’s brother, Michael Gubanov. Immediately after his acceptance by the majority of the Doukhobors, Verigin was arrested in 1887and spent the next fifteen years in exile in various parts of the Empire. By 1892 he and some of his followers had become vegetarians and later also eschewed the use of alcohol and tobacco. Their example was later followed by many of the “Large Party”. The authorities had become increasingly suspicious of the Doukhobors in the repressive atmosphere following the assassination of Alexander II in 1881. Contacts between them and the Tolstoyans served to exacerbate official hostility. Matters came to a head after compulsory military service was introduced in the Caucasus in 1887 and by 1894 all Russian citizens were obliged to take an oath of allegiance to the Tsar. Verigin urged his followers not to take the oath and around sixty Doukhobors, drafted into the army, refused to bear arms and were severely punished.

On the night of 28-29 June (the eve of St Peter’s Day) 1895 Doukhobor communities in three areas – Kars (now in Turkey), Elizavetpol (now Azerbaijan) and Bogdanovka in Northern Georgia – following directions from Verigin, gathered together and burned their weapons in ceremonies in which they prayed and sang hymns beside the bonfires of arms. In Kars, the authorities learned about the meeting and arrests took place. In Bogdanovka the gathering was encircled by Cossacks on horseback, who fell upon the Doukhobors, beating them with lead-tipped whips. Following this, repression of them became extreme: Doukhobor lands were confiscated, their houses pillaged, women were raped, they suffered beatings and floggings, some 4,300 of them were exiled to villages in four Georgian valleys, without land or other means of support, in which 350 died. Their leaders were imprisoned, exiled to Siberia or sent to punishment battalions of the army. It is this treatment that led to their decision to seek permission to leave Russia.

A winding track in rural Cyprus.

Help was forthcoming to the Doukhobors from two quarters: from the Quakers in Britain and America and from Lev Tolstoy and his circle of followers. The Society of Friends in Britain had been interested in the Doukhobors since the early nineteenth century. The archive in the Friends’ Library in London contains letters from Richard Phillips, dated 12/24 October 1815 and 13 October 1819, describing the conditions of the Doukhobors at that time and improvements which had taken place during the reign of Alexander I. There is also a memorandum in Russian, dating from c.1805 on “Aspects of the Society of the Doukhobors,” outlining their history in the late eighteenth century. Tolstoy had known about the Doukhobors through his correspondence with Prince Dmitri Alexandrovich Khilkov (1858-1914), who, as an officer in the Hussar Guards in 1877-8 had been quartered in a Doukhobor village at the end of the Russo-Turkish War. Khilkov had been exiled for his anti-clerical opinions to the Caucasus and maintained contact with them. He therefore knew about the burning of the arms and the persecutions that followed and contacted Tolstoy, who sent a number of his followers to investigate the case. His friend and close collaborator, Pavel Biryukov went to investigate in early August, returning with an article describing the events in terms impossible to publish in Russia. Tolstoy arranged to have it printed anonymously in The Times, under the title The Persecution of Christians in Russia in 1895, where it appeared, with a covering note by Tolstoy, on 23 September. An article by Vladimir Grigorevich Chertkov, Tolstoy’s closest friend and disciple, had already been published on 9 September in the Daily Chronicle. In 1895 Tolstoy also commenced an extensive correspondence with Peter Verigin, which was to have an important influence on the evolution of Doukhobor thought.

In fact, the English Society of Friends was already aware of the Doukhobors’ plight. Two British Quakers, John Bellows and Joseph Neave had travelled to Russia in 1892 to investigate their position, calling on Tolstoy on the way. As early as 1 November 1895 three members of the Society in Britain, had reported on the situation of the Doukhobors and in 1896 the Meeting for Sufferings appointed a committee to examine whether any practical help could be extended to them. It was concluded that all they could do at the time was to publicise their case. However, in July 1897 a fund was opened by the Doukhobor Relief Committee, which also petitioned the Tsar. It had backed a private petition presented by Chertkov to the Tsar the previous January, requesting that the Doukobors be allowed to emigrate. Chertkov and his two companions were not allowed to present their petition and it seemed as if their efforts were fruitless. However, at the same time a further petition was presented by the Doukhobors themselves to the Dowager Empress Maria, on a visit to the Caucasus in late 1897. In February 1898, following the report of a senate commission to investigate the case, permission was granted to the Doukhobors to leave on three conditions:

  • They should go at their own expense,
  • Those who had been called for military service and those (including Peter Verigin) who were in Siberia should remain to work out their sentences,
  • If any of them ever returned they should be banished to distant parts of Siberia.

News of the concession reached England in March and almost immediately the Doukhobor Relief Committee drafted an appeal for distribution among the Friends and sympathetic organisations (including the Mennonites in America, who had been similarly allowed to emigrate from Russia some 40 years earlier) for assistance to the Doukhobors. By mid-July almost 8,000 copies of the appeal had been distributed, but they had no means of knowing what the response would be. Meanwhile, Tolstoy wrote to various foreign newspapers, putting the Doukhobors’ case, the letters appearing in April and in August and September he wrote a dozen or more letters to leading Russian industrialists seeking funds for their emigration. The previous year, on hearing that it was intended to offer him the Nobel Prize for literature, Tolstoy wrote to the Swedish press suggesting that the money be given to the Doukhobors.

In the meantime the Quaker Doukhobor Relief Committee members began to look for a suitable destination for the Doukhobor exiles. Tolstoy, overcoming his initial opposition to the idea of emigration, had suggested Texas, Chinese Turkestan, Chinese Manchuria and Cyprus. The Relief Committee estimated that it would have to find sanctuary for some 3,500 people. The Doukhobors had themselves been able to put by about £4,700, and although they favoured America as a destination, at the time there were insufficient resources available to take them that far.

Cyprus, as a British protectorate, and a relatively short journey from Batum by steamer, was a reasonable option and would leave them with some funds in hand to allow them to start anew. In April Captain Arthur St John, then on his way back from the Caucasus, having distributed some relief funds to the Doukhobors on behalf of the Quakers, was asked to travel to Cyprus and put the Doukhobors’ case directly to the British High Commissioner and was provided with a letter explaining his mission. On 1 July Professor Patrick Geddes met with the Relief Committee and suggested that Cyprus would be a suitable place for settlement. He had already published an article on “Cyprus Actual and Possible” [The Contemporary Review, June 1897] and was keen to develop the economic potential of the island. It was decided that the Relief Committee would send an advance party of three Russians to Cyprus “with a view to their making such arrangements as may be feasible for more of their people to emigrate to that country.” These were Tolstoy’s friend, Prince Khilkov, who had been living in England, and Ivan Ivin and Peter Mahortov, two Doukhobors who had just arrived in London to seek assistance for their community. The Committee entered into negotiations with the Cyprus Development Company, which offered to sell them 1,570 acres of land, one of the company’s directors, Alexander Dunlop, undertaking to superintend the immigration. At the same time the Committee sought to have passport and transit charges waived by the Tsarist authorities and tried to ascertain the number of Doukhobors planning to travel, while urging them “Don’t start till you hear from us again…”

The High Commissioner for Cyprus, William F. Haynes Smith, raised no objection to the proposal to settle the Doukhobors on the island, providing that sufficient land was made available for them to cultivate. In London, John Bellows wrote to the Foreign Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, on behalf of the Relief Committee, seeking the government’s sanction for the proposal. On further information being sought from the Foreign Office a file was forwarded to the Colonial Office which showed that the Doukhobors had already come to the attention of the British authorities. Captain St John, apprehended while distributing relief funds to Doukhobors in the Caucasus, had been arrested by the Russian police and eventually expelled from the Empire, the British Consul at Batum, P. Stevens, had reported, following an interview with him. In May Stevens had written to the Foreign Office informing of the Doukhobors’ desire to emigrate from the Russian Empire. He reported that the Caucasian official response stated that the Russian authorities welcomed the Doukhobor request to emigrate as it rid them of `a permanently disturbing element’ but pointed out:

This, in the face of the undoubted fact that the sectarians, since their settlement in the Trans-Caucasus, have by their good behaviour, diligence, sobriety and hard working qualities, brought nothing but prosperity to the barren localities in which they were already settled, is, to say the least, but a poor and very unsatisfactory way of solving a question which would have probably never cropped up had it not been for the despotic and arbitrary actions, in the first instance, of a hand-full of subordinate officials.

The Relief Committee’s plan as outlined by its secretary, John Bellows in a letter to the High Commissioner, was that some 3,500 Doukhobors would travel in from four to six steamers, the first arriving in Cyprus toward the end of August 1898. The settlers would be brought in at ports to the north and south of the island and in staged settlements, in order that facilities could be prepared for them in advance. In his letter to Haynes Smith, and another sent almost simultaneously to the Foreign Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, Bellows stressed that the Doukhobors were not paupers and would not become a drain on the island’s resources.

Lush vegetation abounds in rural Cyprus.

Cyprus, situated at a strategic point in the East Mediterranean, had long been the subject of colonisation by various powers. In the nineteenth century it had formed part of the Ottoman Empire until the signing of the Cyprus Convention in June 1878, at the time of the Berlin Conference, which established a British protectorate over the island. At the time, as Britain was entering a period of imperial expansion, the acquisition had been hailed by the Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli as a significant gain, Cyprus, he claimed would be “the key to western Asia”. Queen Victoria, too, was delighted but the Liberal Party, and in particular its leader, William Ewart Gladstone, were opposed to the annexation. As it turned out, the shallowness of the harbours, combined with their lack of natural defenses were a disappointment to the Admiralty, which had hoped to use the island as a naval and military base (instead, the island of Malta was to serve this purpose). Since about two-thirds of the population of around 186,000 was Greek-speaking, Orthodox in religion and maintained links with Greece (the remainder was Turkish, with a few Syrians, Armenians and other nationalities), some British political thinkers favoured handing over the island to the Greek government. However, this would have antagonised the Turkish government which still nominally owned the island. On the other hand, to return Cyprus to the Ottomans would have upset the Greeks and to have given away a colonial possession would not then have been popular in Britain. Thus from the establishment of the protectorate in 1879 to the formal annexation of the island into the British Empire on 5 November 1914, with the outbreak of war between Britain and Turkey, the government of the island remained in a kind of limbo. Uncertainty about the future of Cyprus led, John Reddaway has argued, to a certain amount of administrative drift:

“… The result was that for most of the period of British rule there was in a sense no British policy for Cyprus at all. There were reasons which were understandable and which deserved respect for the adoption of an attentiste posture by successive British governments, but this was not conducive to consistency and vigour in planning the Island’s future.”

Government was in the hands of a High Commissioner, appointed by the British government and responsible to the Colonial Office in London. Below him in rank were six regional commissioners. The island was quite poor and underdeveloped, its agriculture suffering from recurrent drought and attacks by locusts and its small population subject to malaria. The British administration continued Turkish measures against locusts, carried out irrigation projects, road building and some afforestation and improved the health services and urban sanitation. Efforts to increase agricultural production by the establishment of a Board of Agriculture for the island were blocked in London. Moreover, the islanders had to pay an annual tribute to the British administration of £92,799, or just under ten shillings per head of the population, which was a considerable burden on an underdeveloped economy.

The colonial administration on the island was not hostile to the suggestion of a Doukhobor settlement. The governor, Sir William Frederick Haynes Smith, had only begun his term of office in Cyprus the previous year but he was perceived as fond of large projects. Following a meeting with Captain St John, he wrote on 5 June to put the proposal to the Colonial Office and advanced the opinion that “the introduction of these people might be of advantage to the Island,” provided certain conditions were met, namely that proper housing should be provided, together with cultivable land and farm implements, and that there should be sufficient means to support them “until they can reap their first crop”. Moreover, he held that:

The first essential of success would be that the first introduction should be of a sufficient number to form a Village of their own and that amongst the individuals selected to come in the first vessels should be some of each of the common trades as well as some agriculturists, so as far as possible to make the community independent of the aid of persons outside their Village. The second essential is in my view that a proper school should be established and the children taught to learn and speak English.

Chamberlain, while expressing in a note the worry that the settlement might harbour agitators against Russia or contain Russian spies, did not raise the matter officially. Nor did the Foreign Office offer any objections, so the Doukhobor Relief Committee and the Colonial Office commenced negotiations as to how much money the Committee needed to provide per immigrant to indemnify them should the enterprise fail. Initially the government was demanding a sum of £20 per head as guarantee but the Quakers managed, on pleading the Doukhobors’ good character, to have it reduced to £15 and eventually to £10.

Nevertheless, the authorities in Cyprus were nervous and when word reached them that some Doukhobors were on their way; they pointed out that the usual guarantees had not been agreed, and there was worry over how the Cypriots would respond: “The Cypriot is intensely jealous of outsiders, and there is no demand for local labour, so that the community must be self-supporting from the outset. These people do not know the language or the local conditions and must be maintained while they are learning.” Haynes Smith, from his summer residence in the Troodos mountains, issued a proclamation on 27 July, forbidding the landing “of any destitute persons unless and until due provision has first been made for the proper support in Cyprus of every such person to the satisfaction of the High Commissioner…” Instructions were sent out to the Larnaca customs to prohibit the landing of any Doukhobors. As it turned out, the orders reached the customs officials too late to prevent the landing (on the morning of 27 July) but this was only the three-man investigation party, Khilkov, Ivin and Mahortov, sent by London. As Captain St. John hastened to assure the regional commissioner at Larnaca, these men were far from destitute and one member of the group [Khilkov] bore the rank of prince.

It is worth noting that by the time of the meeting on 28 July between St John and the Regional Commissioner, the day after the three men had arrived, the Doukhobor party appears to have made up its mind that it would not recommend Cyprus for settlement. They left the island on 30 July, three days after their arrival, Khilkov apparently describing it as a “burnt-out stump,” where it was impossible even to live, let alone make a living. Therefore, instead of making arrangements for the arrival of the first party of Doukobor immigrants, as they had been requested, the delegation did not even bother to inspect the property at Athalassa selected for settlement and probably had decided even before arriving in Cyprus not to recommend the project. This may be explained by the fact that they had set their hearts on emigration to “America” as a solution and they may only have undertaken the trip to Cyprus in order to humour their Quaker supporters. The decision against Cyprus seems to have been taken by Khilkov, as Aylmer Maude relates that Ivin and Mahorkov were unwilling ever to make such decisions unilaterally, but his attitude reflected a general aspiration among the Doukhobors to go to America. They returned to London to urge a settlement in America, but their arguments came too late to prevent a group of Doukhobors sailing from Batum to Cyprus in August.

In London, negotiations had continued. On 30 July the Colonial Secretary, Chamberlain, wrote to Bellows, to explain that until proper arrangements had been made for the Doukhobors in Cyprus, in terms of land and buildings, farm implements, seed and sufficient funds to support them for the first two years, together with a reserve fund in case of failure of the experiment, they would not be allowed to settle.

The British Consul in Batum, Stevens, had informed the Foreign office in a despatch dated 9 July that 3,000 Doukhobors would be ready to leave in a month and that Captain St John was already in Cyprus seeking land for them. On 21 July a deputation of Doukhobors met the Consul and formally requested permission to emigrate to Cyprus, who then sent a telegram to the Foreign Office passing on the request. In late July, having sold all their property, over 1,000 of them came to Batum to await word from the Foreign Office. Two weeks later, they lost patience, decided to take matters into their own hand and chartered an old French steamer, the Durau, to carry 1,127 of them to Cyprus, sailing from Batum on 19 August. According to Aylmer Maude, they were anxious to move at once because they were both harassed by the Russian authorities and also they feared that the permission to migrate might be withdrawn. Maude, who later travelled with them to Canada, points out that the Doukhobors were “an illiterate peasant sect, ignorant of foreign languages and geography, of whom many had been reduced to the verge of starvation, and all had been impoverished by exactions and by the drain of supporting the exiled and dispersed within Russia.” In addition, he related that all communication between the Doukhobors and the outside world was liable to interruption by the Russian administration and their leaders and more educated supporters had been banished from the Caucasus. This may be so, but it is probable that knowledge of their destination was fairly hazy among many of those who migrated in the nineteenth century. Even without their leaders and more educated supporters the Doukhobors could be quite resourceful and Biryukov and Chertkov from London, were urging them to leave.

Biryukov’s account echoes Maude’s in stressing how worried the Doukhobors were that the authorities’ decision might be revoked. He recounts a fear amongst the Doukhobors and their neighbours in the Caucasus that the permission was a trap, to be played by a government which up to then had shown itself both cruel and capricious, that it was in fact an attempt to kill the Doukhobors by shelling the steamers as they left the port and drowning their passengers. While waiting in Batum, some had considered the alternative of crossing the Turkish border; others had chartered two steamers to Marseilles and were only prevented from leaving for France by the arrival of the telegram from England informing them that permission had been granted to enter Cyprus.

The impending arrival of the Doukhobors caused a certain amount of panic on the part of the authorities because none of the necessary preparations had been completed. It also put the Relief Committee in a difficult and embarrassing position. When its members were informed by the Colonial Office that the Doukhobors had chartered a ship and were on the point of departure from Batum, they had to provide assurances before the Cyprus authorities would give permission to allow them onto the island. Thirty-three individuals undertook such guarantees, out of which eight provided guarantees of £1,000 each and one of £2,000, the total amounting to £11,895. They then wired the Consul at Batum to allow only 1,100 to sail. To the British government they gave assurances that Alexander Dunlop (of the Cyprus Development Company) would make the necessary arrangements, that they would cover the cost of any temporary accommodation necessary, and that Wilson Sturge, from the Society would reach Cyprus on 28 August. They immediately had to organise the rental of land in Cyprus, and the purchase and shipping of tents and other equipment. Much of the cost of all this was provided out of a grant of £1200 by one donor, Arnold Eilouart.

Port of Larnaca, Cyprus, c. 1899.

Haynes Smith received a telegram on the night of 16 August from the Society of Friends in London, which read: `Russian Emigrants expected to arrive Larnaca 21st. Committee respectfully bespeak your kind consideration.’ Faced with the influx of over a thousand immigrants, the authorities in Cyprus considered prohibiting them from landing although they wanted to avoid this course of action. Had they decided to forbid the landing, it would have put the Doukhobors in a perilous situation because one condition of their permission to leave Russia was that they would not return and it might have proved difficult to find an alternative port ready and able to provide facilities for over a thousand travellers. As Haynes Smith reported on 19 August, on looking into the arrangements being made for their arrival he had discovered that neither of those meant to be organising the Doukhobor settlement in Cyprus, Dunlop of the Cyprus Company and Arthur St John, on behalf of the Relief Committee, seemed to have received any instructions. St John suggested that they should wait until the immigrants came, ask if they meant to stay, and if so make arrangements then. Following his meeting with Khilkov, Mahortov and Ivin, a month before, he was evidently convinced that the Doukhobors would not wish to remain. On being urged by the Acting Commissioner in Larnaca, Mr Ongley, to purchase a chiflik (settlement) to which the Doukhobors might be moved following quarantine, he refused, on the grounds that he was unsure that the Doukhobors would remain in Cyprus and spoke of trying to persuade the captain of the steamer to take the immigrants on to Constantinople, and petition the Sultan to allow them to land.

Despite his obvious irritation, Haynes Smith tried to take a practical approach to the threatening crisis, but he was very worried about the lack of preparations and aware of the dangers of “placing men under canvas on the hot and shadeless plains at the most unhealthy season of the year…” pointing out, “but even this accommodation cannot be received for some three weeks after the people have arrived.” [the Society of Friends had promised that tents were on the way].

The Cypriot administration was particularly worried about the danger of importing infectious diseases into the island. As Haynes Smith explained:

In the pamphlet published in London last year by the well wishers of the Doukhobortsis it is stated that owing to their sufferings epidemics such as `fevers, typhus, diphtheria and dysentery,’ have appeared among them and `already among the majority of them certain eye diseases which are the sure harbingers of scurvy,’ and again, `almost all are suffering from diseases, and disease and mortality are constantly increasing’.

He emphasised the need for some precaution for quarantining the immigrants.

The Doukhobors landed at Larnaca on 26 August and were immediately lodged in the quarantine station. This was made up of a group of sheds grouped around a yard and surrounded by a fence, near the sea on the edge of the town. Some of the group were accommodated in the sheds but others had to remain in tents provided by the authorities, quite tightly packed together in the yard. The immigrants made a good impression, the Commissioner of Larnaca noting: “A quieter or more orderly set of people I have never yet seen, and considering what they have undergone they appear to be a fine healthy lot.” There were 1129 people in all, of which 326 were adult men, 360 women, 221 boys and 222 girls. On the evening of 29 August Pavel Biryukov and Wilson Sturge, from the Relief Committee, arrived on the island to help with arrangements and the next day the Doukhobors’ period of quarantine expired so it was possible to move them. The problem that now presented itself was that since St John had not thought they would stay, he had not looked for land other than that already located by the Relief Committee.

Two days after their arrival a group of 200 people was sent to the land rented for settlement at Athalassa. The authorities were approached to provide for 500 more in tents in the government gardens at Larnaca, and the remaining 379 were to stay, for the time being in the quarantine station yard, also in tents. Cyprus is usually very hot in August (temperatures of between 30 and 40 degrees Celsius are common) and sickness broke out almost immediately. By 3 September, three people had died, the commissioner in Larnaca reporting that:

I had occasion to speak to Mr Biriukov about the arrangements generally, which are conducted with very great economy, for instance awnings of cheap mats, which I recommended and which would have afforded some shade, have not been provided, and there is a want of proper supervision and management as Mr Biriukov is quite new to the place. There are a good many cases of fever – yet the fitting up of a room or ward for the sick has been neglected. I am urging that this should be done or a house close to the quarantine, which is available, hired for the purpose.

The commissioner was immediately authorised by the Cyprus administration to incur any expenses necessary to the wellbeing of the Doukhobors, the outlay to be recouped later from the Society of Friends.

Within a fortnight after their arrival in Cyprus the Doukhobors were settled in three separate colonies: the majority, 578 at Athalassa near Nicosia in the central plain, 445 at Pergamos and 100 at Kouklia, the latter two close to the southern coast. There had been some efforts on the part of the authorities to identify available land. On 20 September St John wrote to the High Commissioner enquiring whether the government would allow settlements on two further sites in the Paphos district but it turned out that these were already occupied, the local commissioner noting that the inhabitants “manage to eke out an existence with the help of their flocks but the nature of the lands may be judged from the fact that the occupants of Ayios Mercurios are frequently reduced to existing on dried figs, there being no bread available.” The Cyprus officials seem to have had doubts about the capacity of the organisers, particularly Captain St John, who, moreover, became seriously ill with malaria while in Cyprus, although his letters to the authorities seeking land do take on a note of urgency “as the Doukhobors are suffering much from sickness”.

When the Doukhobors reached the land on which they were to settle they set about building houses of dried brick, the local building material. They began clearing the ground but the number of deaths mounted through September. Athalassa, the largest colony, was situated in a hollow, where the heat of the sun gathered but was sheltered from any cooling breeze. Kouklia, where there was a sharecropping arrangement made with the Cyprus Development Company, had good land but was an area where fever was endemic. Pergamos, on the other hand, situated on high ground was healthier but the soil was thin and stony. By mid-October there had been 30 deaths and the Doukhobors were requesting immediate transfer to Canada. However, at that time the Friends’ Relief Committee had just over £4,000 in hand and many of those Doukhobors remaining in Russia (some 6,000) were also clamouring to be taken into exile. They did, however, immediately arrange for a doctor to be sent from England and for two Russian nurses to travel to Cyprus to care for the sick. They also went on collecting funds and by April 1899 had raised almost fifteen thousand pounds.

Bullock wagons on the road from Larnaca to Nicosia, Cyprus along which Doukhobors travelled en route to Athalassa in late 1898. BC Archives, Koozma J. Tarasoff Collection.

Two letters written by Wilson Sturge and Pavel Biryukov in December gave rather optimistic reports of the Doukhobor settlements, despite the death toll. Athalassa had date palms, orange trees and both it and the smaller settlement at Pergamos had olive trees. By December ground had been cleared and ploughed and houses built. Wheat was bought for them in Cyprus and brought by ship from Britain. Cheese, butter, condensed milk and quinine were also supplied by the Society of Friends, together with seed, which they began to plant in December and January, once the rains came. As Biryukov pointed out, Cyprus was a vegetarian’s paradise, as various types of grain, a great variety of vegetable and a wide range of fruit were grown. The Doukhobors seem to have got on well with their Turkish Cypriot neighbours, because they did not have icons, did not eat pork and many of them spoke Turkish, having learned it in the Caucasus. Two hostile articles in Greek language newspapers when the Doukhobors arrived, but there seems to have been no active antagonism toward them by either Greek or Turkish Cypriots. There was a small Jewish settlement of fourteen families at Marga, near the road from Larnaca to Nicosia, which Wilson Sturge described as `a pleasant-looking colony… dotted over with dwellings and well watered.’ This boded well for the Doukhobors once the initial settling in phase had been endured.

Why, then, did the Doukhobors suffer so much sickness and mortality among their number? To begin with, as several commentators observed at the time, there had been sickness in the Caucasus. In the three years since the repression against them started, between 1000 and 2000 of them had died. Biryukov claimed that the sicknesses suffered in Cyprus were the same as they had experienced there and that “as a matter of fact they were all ill in the Caucasus”. He attributed some of the problem to their diet. While approving in general of a vegetarian diet, he pointed out that “if an abundant meat diet is given up to be replaced by poorly made soup of cabbage, radish and kvass, without any variety, and other trials have at the same time to be endured, stomach derangement must follow.” Added to that, though, were crowding, impurities in the drinking water and a warmer climate than that to which they were accustomed. They seem to have suffered from a mixture of dysentery and malaria, which affected women and children particularly acutely. Cyprus had a problem with malaria until the 1940s, when measures were undertaken to spray all marshy places regularly with DDT, in order to eliminate the mosquitoes that carry it.

Another further contributory factor in the illness suffered by the Doukhobors was that apart from the mud brick dwellings, they built dug-out huts in earthen banks, as they had been accustomed to use as temporary dwellings in the Caucasus. However, in Cyprus December can bring heavy rain and the dug-outs situated near to the latrines became insanitary.

The pattern of mortality is worth examining. By the end of August, that is just days after the Doukhobors had arrived, there had been two deaths, one on the 27th and one on the 31st. By 8 September there had been 2 more deaths, one on the 2nd and one on the 8th. The fastest rise in deaths seems to have been in September and October, so that by mid-October there had been 30 deaths and by early November the total rose to 50. By the end of December 75 had died, by which time the fever was reported as abating. Between December and April, when the Doukhobors left the island, there were 33 further deaths, but this at an average of ten a month was well below that of the earlier months. Unfortunately no breakdown of figures appear to be available for the period after December, so it is impossible to estimate whether or not abnormal deaths ceased altogether but on Cyprus it was generally accepted that malaria was worse in the summer and much less in the winter. The pattern may have been one of “gate mortality”, associated with the risks involved in travelling and settling into a new and alien environment, although in this case the mortality levels do appear to have been unusually high. It is, however, comparable with the mortality level of about 80 per thousand suffered in the Georgian valleys. They had already suffered two years of extreme hardship there before their journey to Cyprus, which would have weakened the systems of many of them, making them more vulnerable to illness. The extent to which the immigrants may have brought some sickness with them is difficult to gauge. Malaria can take time to incubate and it is possible that some of it was already contracted while the migrants were in the uncomfortable conditions in Batum, waiting to board the ship to take them to Cyprus. Nevertheless, its effects were devastating, not only in terms of deaths but in addition it left its survivors debilitated and depressed long after the fever had abated.

Perhaps, with the initial shock of settlement over, houses built, crops planted, olive oil pressed, it might be argued that the Doukhobors could eventually have settled in happily in Cyprus. In fact, as Biryukov elicited in discussions with them a few weeks after their arrival, it would never have provided a permanent solution. This was because the Doukobors had a very clear idea of what they wanted, which was to gather the whole community together in one place with the aim of setting up a kingdom of God on Earth, holding fast to their beliefs and customs. Cyprus, where they would have been scattered in settlements across the island could not provide this. Moreover, the type of lifestyle imposed by the very different surroundings would of necessity impose alterations on their traditional way of life, change that they were unwilling to accept. The decisive factor was that by the late autumn it had been decided that other Doukhobor groups still in the Caucasus would be sent to Canada and they wanted to join them. In response to a letter from the Relief Committee congratulating them on their safe arrival in Cyprus and wishing them well in their new settlement, they sent a reply, dated 20 September, drafted by Biryukov and signed by seven Doukhobors, setting out their difficulties with life in Cyprus, their hopes of eventual reunification with the remainder of their coreligionists and their request for resettlement “in America or Canada”. The proposal was discussed by the Relief Committee on 3 November 1898 and 5 January 1899. On 2 February the Committee took the decision “to endeavour to arrange, so far as funds will permit, for the Doukhobors now in Cyprus to be sent forward to Canada, leaving the island in the early part of fourth month [i.e. April] next, or as near this date as feasible.”

The reason the Committee could now accede to the petition was that the situation had changed somewhat in the meantime. It turned out that some of the Doukhobors in Russia had sufficient savings to pay for their own passage. The bulk of the funding, however, was provided by Tolstoy, who had initially set up a subscription in Russia. He then decided to augment the money collected with the proceeds of two of his works, Father Sergei and Resurrection (indeed, had it not been for his wish to help the Doukhobors, these might never have been completed because Tolstoy had given up publishing fiction). Prompted by an article in the The Nineteenth Century by the Anarchist thinker, Prince Peter Kropotkin, about a visit to the Mennonite community in Canada, the Canadian government was approached and offered land and practical assistance for the Doukhobors to settle. Following negotiations with the Canadian authorities, a group of 2,149 Doukhobors travelled from Batum to Canada on 22 December 1898, a second ship following in January. On 18 April the Cyprus group sailed from Larnaca, a fourth ship leaving Batum in May. Wilson Sturge, of the Relief Committee, remained in Cyprus to see to the harvesting and sale of crops sown by the Doukhobors but died in Malta on the journey back to England.

Athalassa farm in Cyprus occupied by Doukhobors in 1899. BC Archives, Koozma J. Tarasoff Collection.

In conclusion, the main argument here presented is that rather than being predictable from the outset, the failure of the Cyprus colony was a complex result of misunderstanding, precipitate action and mischance, and perhaps above all, of the desire on the part of the Doukhobors to settle elsewhere. Their illness and suffering on the island were, however, severe. They resulted partly from their own decision to come to Cyprus before adequate preparations had been made, one they took for understandable reasons in the face of harassment by the Tsarist authorities and fear that their permission to leave might be rescinded. Unfortunately, their arrival came at the worst possible time of year, when temperatures were at their hottest and therefore life in tents was both uncomfortable and hazardous. In addition, the Doukhobors had difficulty adjusting to a climate, agricultural practices and quite alien foods. Had there been no alternative they might eventually have made a success of Cyprus – these were resourceful people – but given the favourable opportunities offered for their community in Canada they set their sights on re-migration.

At the same time, there seems to have been a certain lack of communication between the Relief Committee on the one hand and the Doukhobors and their Tolstoyan supporters on the other. This may have been due to language barriers, or to an unwillingness to alienate the Quakers by stating their wishes more explicitly but there is an unmistakable note of irritation in Bellows’s letters to Chamberlain of 28 December 1898 and 12 May 1899. In the first of these he blamed the high level of mortality on “that ill-advised push made by some of Tolstoi’s friends in England, who urged the Dukhobors to come away at once in a large body, instead of letting a hundred men first land in Cyprus and prepare for the settlement by building shelters, etc.” He continued:

This, as thou art aware not only put the Friends’ Committee in a false position, by placing on them the task of caring for over 1100 helpless people before they could possibly rightly arrange for it, but it forced on the Cyprus authorities the need of making quarantine arrangements very far in excess of those provided in the existing hospital. The only thing they could do was to erect tents (at our Committee’s cost), in the public garden at Larnaca: and as this spot was somewhat marshy and very hot, it developed the malaria the seeds of which were already in the blood of not a few of the immigrants.”

In his letter of 12 May, thanking Chamberlain for his support, he admitted:

Individually I confess to a disappointment from this [the failure of the Cyprus settlement], which is the more keen because but for the impulsive action of some of the Russian sympathizers with these poor people, I am convinced that they would have become acclimatized and have formed a really valuable addition to the population of the Island.

Bellows’s positive assessment of the Doukhobor community was echoed by the High Commissioner in his report for 1898-9, in which he gave a brief account of the settlement, concluding that: “These interesting people accordingly quitted Cyprus, leaving behind them the recollection of a singularly courteous and well conducted community.” In the end, however, things worked out well for the Doukhobors. The Canadian climate suited them and the countryside could accommodate 7000 of them in Doukhobor communities. In fact, not all the Doukhobors left Russia and today scattered communities remain in Georgia and on the Don, where Philip Marsden visited them in the 1990s.

One effect of the Doukhobor affair was that international publicity given to their treatment helped to further identify tsarism with oppression. The 1890s had seen a famine in Central Russia, the expulsion of some 20,000 Jews from Moscow and St Petersburg to the Jewish Pale, the publication in the west of George Kennan’s exposé of the mistreatment of Siberian convicts, in Siberia and the Exile System (all in 1891), increased attempts to impose Russian culture on national minorities, and the often brutal suppression of workers’ strikes. There is, moreover, a certain irony in the fact that the exodus of the Doukhobors coincided with Nicholas II’s call for a disarmament conference at The Hague. His ill-treatment of pacifists within Russia’s borders must have weakened, to some extent at least, the credibility of his intentions, although the experience of pacifists and conscientious objectors in the First World War demonstrates that the validity of such a position had yet to be fully accepted by governments anywhere.

For More Information

For more information about the short-lived Doukhobor settlement experiment on Cyprus in 1898-1899, the factors leading to its establishment and the reasons for its ultimate failure, see: The Doukhobors on Cyprus by Pavel Ivanovich Biryukov and With the Doukhobors on Cyprus by Ivan Stepanovich Prokhanov.

The Doukhobors on Cyprus

by Pavel Ivanovich Biryukov

Following the Burning of Arms in 1895, the Doukhobors in Russia were severely persecuted by Tsarist authorities. Thousands were exiled to remote, unhealthy regions where many perished from famine, disease and exhaustion. Their situation became untenable. In March 1898, after several years of letter-writing campaigns, the Doukhobors gained permission to leave their homeland. In choosing a suitable place for settlement, they were guided and assisted by Leo Tolstoy, Russian and English Tolstoyans and the Society of Friends (Quakers) in England who gathered funds for their departure. After considering Texas, Turkistan and Manchuria, the Doukhobors finally selected the island of Cyprus, which was part of the British Empire at the time. Despite reports brought by Doukhobor scouts of poor soil and a hot climate, once the decision was made, resettlement of the Doukhobors on the island proceeded quickly. The first group of 1,126 arrived there in August 1898. Tolstoyan writer Pavel I. Biryukov (1860-1931) joined them to help coordinate their settlement. His observations were published in the journal article “Dukhobory na Kiprie” [The Doukhobors on Cyprus] in ‘Svobodnoe slovo’ (Purleigh, England), No. 2, 1899: 22-55 and republished in his book “Dukhobortsy: sbornik statei, vospominanii, pisem i drugikh documentov” [The Doukhobors: collected articles, reminiscences, letters and other documents] (St. Petersburg: I.N. Kushnerev, 1908). Over a century later, this rare historic manuscript is made available for the first time in English in this Doukhobor Genealogy Website exclusive. Translated from the original Russian by Jack McIntosh.  Afterword by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

On the 19th of August, 1898 (n.s.), an event of great importance in the history of the Russian people took place: 1,126 Russian Doukhobor peasants left Russia irrevocably.

Readers know from the preceding chapter how difficult it was for them to live in Russia.

Apart from separate cases of exile that began as far back as 1886, more than 4,000 Doukhobors were brought to ruin and evicted from their homes in July 1895 and scattered among Georgian villages, where after three years they had lost approximately 1,000 persons who died from various illnesses and had run through the remainder of whatever belongings they had managed to hold onto at the time of their exile.

Pavel Ivanovich Biryukov (1860-1931).

Throughout those three years the authorities in the Caucasus had tried to crush the persistence of the Doukhobors in their religious requirements and, finally acceding to their petition, the government decided upon a most extreme measure – it permitted the separately resettled Doukhobors to emigrate from Russia without the right to return to their motherland.

Up to that time this measure, this concession, had seemed so unlikely that neither the Doukhobors themselves nor especially their neighbours in the Caucasus, right up to the last minute when the steamship sailed, did not believe it would happen. The distrust of the natives of the Caucasus in such a comparatively humane solution of the Doukhobor problem spread to such an extent that, as Doukhobors have told me, their Caucasian acquaintances who were seeing them off were urging them to the very last minute not to go, not to fall for this trap. They were assured that this solution of having them set sail was nothing but a death sentence by sinking. “As soon as you are off shore and still within cannon range,” said the far-seeing Caucasians, “the steamer crew will stay in the boat, throw you onto the steamship, and from the shore they’ll fire a cannonball and sink all of you.”

However, the ship was not sunk, and all 1,126 Doukhobors safely disembarked on the island of Cyprus on the 26th of August.

Many may find it strange that the Doukhobors moved to Cyprus. I am unable to provide a good explanation of the main reason for this project. Although I was not even sympathetic to it, I was not in a position to criticize it severely, as for various reasons I was far from the resettlement arrangements until events themselves drew me into the affair.

As I observe life in Cyprus now, I can say that the thought of permanent settlement of the Doukhobors in Cyprus, if such an idea was actually entertained, could only have occurred to a person entirely unfamiliar with Cyprus or someone understanding nothing about the living conditions of the Russian peasant.

Similar thoughts had been expressed previously, but the resettlement proceeded so quickly that Cyprus was a sad necessity. The two Doukhobors [Ivan Ivin and Petr Makhortov] who had been sent to Cyprus to meet the first party found it unsuitable for settlement, but neither their telegram nor their letter could halt the onrushing current, and the out-migration of the first party went on as if of its own accord.

I feel guilty that I, among others, yielding to the influence of the Doukhobor representatives who had related to us the dire predicament of their brethren, insisted on their immediate departure, which possibly brought about this mass movement, whereas in the beginning it had been proposed to move them out gradually in small parties; then, probably, the consequences of the out-migration would not have been so deadly.

People who are locked into a room, knowing that they are unable to open the door, in spite of the calamitousness of their situation, will inevitably strive for a better arrangement within the walls of that room; and conversely, people who have been locked in a room and have arranged for themselves a tolerable life there, will undoubtedly at the first opening of the doors rush into the free space, abandoning the relative comfort of the room and preferring the unknown of future freedom. Similarly also the Doukhobors, exhausted under the yoke of their three-year administrative supervision and having received permission to leave Russia, could scarcely contain their burst of enthusiasm and at the first sign of encouragement on our part they began to collect their passports and head for Batum.

When they were still in Batum, a new complication arose, one not foreseen by the leaders of the resettlement – the guarantee demanded by the English government of the island of Cyprus of 250 rubles a head ensuring a two-year sojourn here in addition to return travel to the homeland. The sum required was not readily available; moreover, more than 1,000 Doukhobors were assembled in Batum and were put up there in an encampment awaiting resolution of their fate.

For those of us taking part in the resettlement arrangements who were living in England, this was a very difficult and worrisome time. We felt an enormous responsibility for these 1,000 lives and the almost palpable impossibility of helping them get out of this virtually unbearable situation.

After fresh negotiations with the government of Cyprus, a guarantee of up to 150 rubles a person was added, and at last an opportunity emerged to make up the lacking portion of the monetary guarantee through the auspices of persons enjoying the confidence of the English government. Due credit should go to the energy with which the Quaker Committee to Aid the Suffering and its subsection – the Doukhobor Committee – acted. In three days part of the money was collected (50,000 rubles), part of the guarantee amounting to 165,000 rubles and permission was obtained for the Doukhobors to land on Cyprus.

Now, after 51 burials already performed on Cyprus and another unknown number about to occur, one would like to think that perhaps it would have been better if that guarantee had not been collected and permission to land on Cyprus had not been obtained. However, at the time there was real rejoicing, and as soon as the telegram was received announcing that the Doukhobors had set off for Cyprus, I got ready to travel there to meet them and offer assistance in getting them settled.

The doubts that are arising now that the result obtained by such strenuous efforts was not the best are also confirmed by the fact that, judging from the accounts of the Doukhobors themselves, at the time of our intense activity in England, they were not idle either in Batum.

Long accustomed to independent living, as soon as they arrived in Batum, having found out from the English consul the size of the required guarantee, they prudently decided to look for another solution; some of them discussed the possibility of crossing the Turkish frontier, others, more energetically aspiring to the West, engaged in talks with an agent of Messageries Maritimes [a French steamship line] and had already chartered two steamships which undertook to deliver them to Marseilles, with the right to live there three months, at a cost of fourteen rubles a head. On the eve of the day when on of these steamers was due to sail to Marseilles, the telegram arrived from England saying that the guarantee had been collected and permission granted to travel to Cyprus. That telegram decided matters. “If it had not been for that telegram,” several Doukhobors told me, “we would already be in Canada.” And in fact, who knows what turn events would have taken? Some of the Doukhobors might have found work on the docks of Marseilles, while some might have moved on farther, and the 50,000 ruble sum collected, so unproductively wasted here, might have been used by that party for the crossing to Canada.

However, what is done already cannot be undone, and as the fates decree, we are living, falling ill and dying on Cyprus.


As a consequence of the inconvenient schedule of the steamship, I was unsuccessful in meeting the Doukhobors during their disembarkation. I arrived in Cyprus three days after their arrival, that is, on the 29th of August.

When it arrives at the city of Larnaca, the ship stops rather far from shore. As soon as the ship dropped anchor and I surveyed the distant shore and pier, I noticed right away to the right of the pier a cluster of tents and people standing around and walking among them. I aimed a telescope their way and recognized Doukhobors standing in groups on the shore, in white shirts and blue trousers and in their special cut of Cossack peaked caps.

I began to press the boatman, who was bringing my things, and soon, along with my associates in this affair, the [Quaker] Englishman [Wilson] Sturge, we drove up to the pier. In a few minutes I was running to find my Doukhobor friends. They turned out to be in quarantine.

The “Quarantine Office” is a rather large courtyard enclosed within a high fence on the side facing the sea and is located at the outskirts of the city. One side consists of sheds adapted for living space. The Doukhobors were housed partly in these sheds, where they soon set up bunks, and partly in 60 tents pitched quite close together in the courtyard.

When I walked up to the gates of the quarantine, I found them locked. Fortunately, there was a small window with enough space for me to stick my head through and even exchange kisses with my friend, the Doukhobor Vasily Andreyevich Potapov. We had not seen one another for three years. I found him much changed; he had lost weight and aged in that time. Three years of exile had taken its toll. But in his spirit, of course, he had grown still stronger, more clear thinking and more serene.

The Doukhobor Vasily Andreyevich Potapov. BC Archives, Koozma J. Tarasoff Collection, C-01491.

We exchanged greetings and bows, and the very latest information on our mutual wellbeing. Soon after my arrival they began to bring provisions and bread and began to pass it in through the quarantine guard; Potapov was diverted to attend to these matters, and I, after having a word with others, also turned away and set out for the hotel to figure out with my associates how to proceed further. I acknowledge that penetrating through the joy of meeting there was something bitter and unexpected – that lock on the gates, that violence with which the Doukhobors were met during their first step in a free land.

To be completely candid, I admit to yet another feeling I experienced when I caught sight of the Doukhobor encampment on the shore. That feeling may be roughly expressed in the words: “Oh oh, so this is how it is for them here!” Although I had been aware that the Doukhobors would have to land in Cyprus, I was still vaguely hoping that perhaps something would prevent that and they would not end up here. Often I suppressed that feeling and said to myself: “well, Cyprus – why not? I really don’t know the island. Maybe things will be fine here: a warm climate, humane English governance, the proximity of Russia,” and so on. But that feeling of foreboding mixed with hope again broke through and was upsetting my plans.

Now that I had seen the Doukhobors who were already here, I had renewed energy and confidence in Cyprus and a desire to use all my powers to find everything good here, and perhaps under the influence of this urge, or perhaps simply under the spell of the achieved goal and imminent rest after the long journey, I spent that evening somehow especially happy, I feasted my eyes on the moon and the sea and enjoyed the mediocre orchestra playing in the café on the quay; I had an excellent sleep and awoke with great hopes.

The next day the senior doctor once again called in at the quarantine courtyard, for some reason counted the men, women and children again and then allowed me to enter the quarantine so that I could see and exchange greetings with all who were there. Toward evening the governor granted permission to open the quarantine, and the Doukhobors themselves walked into the city for provisions. Their knowledge of the Tatar language proved very useful, as the local Turkish tongue is similar to Tatar, and many of the Doukhobors began to make themselves understood by the local inhabitants.

The governor gave permission for the Doukhobors to remain in quarantine for no more than three weeks. But it would have been impossible for them to remain there any longer than that. The station courtyard and the buildings around it faced directly southward, and by midday the heat grew so intense that even the healthiest could hardly stand it.

One of my associates in this enterprise, [Arthur] St. John [an English Tolstoyan], who had already been living on the island and been actively engaged in studying it, found outside the city a place for the temporary stationing of the Doukhobors – a government-owned orchard with a nearby spring supplying enough water. The government, upon request, provided enough sanitary necessities along with restrictions that prevented the Doukhobors from making use of the orchard.

Fortunately, on the first day of our presence in Larnaca, news came that the farm we were renting, the Athalassa chiflik [farm], in the local parlance, could be occupied the very next day.

Sturge and St. John set out early in the morning the next day to take possession of the farm, while I remained with the Doukhobors to accompany the first party to their place of residence.

Over those two days I spent most of my time with the Doukhobors in the quarantine. In my conversations with them I tried to explain to them the reason for their landing on Cyprus; although they knew this in general terms, I was trying to make their situation better understood and freely accepted, suggesting to them that although Cyprus indeed was an unavoidable way out of their predicament, it would be up to them to choose whether it would be a permanent place of residence or a temporary location. From the very outset, I found in them a reasonable attitude toward this question. Nobody prejudged the issue, because sitting within the four walls of the quarantine and strolling only around the bazaar, it was impossible to decide on a final resolution. Many were attracted by the low prices of the fruit, especially grapes, a pound of which could be bought for less than a kopeck, tomatoes, eggplant and other green vegetables. This showed them that green vegetables and fruit grow here in abundance. Others were frightened by the locals telling them about the absence of water and lumber; all this for the time being merely gave them material for discussion of the issue, but they were far from a decision. In the first few days the decision leaned more on the positive side, so that the liberated Doukhobors already began to consider the possibility of freeing others of their brethren who remained in the Caucasus, and their opinion is reflected in my correspondence those first few days.

The health situation in the quarantine, in spite of the confined quarters, seemed satisfactory; at least, there were no complaints and the doctor’s medical inspection was reassuring.

The death of Timofey Makeyev, one of the brethren, on the day of arrival, did not spoil this mood among either the Doukhobors or the doctors, and everyone unanimously took this to be the outcome of a long illness, apparently consumption, which had been afflicting him for several years.

At the Quarantine Office, those who had not been exposed to smallpox were vaccinated. To me, the senior doctor expressed amazement at the civilized nature and modesty of the Doukhobors, who were not resisting all these manipulations.

Finally the day was set for the dispatch of the first party to Athalassa, around 280 persons, and after midday we began to load the hired oxcarts with baggage, tents, and the elderly, weak, and small children. At about four o’clock everything was ready, and a wagon train consisting of forty-two oxcarts set off on the road toward Nicosia, the main administrative centre of the island.

I remained in Larnaca for another two hours and around six o’clock left on a mule to catch up with the wagon train accompanied by the Turkish policeman placed at my disposal by the obliging governor of Larnaca in the event of possible misunderstandings.

I caught up with the last oxcart after approximately 9 or 10 versts [an Imperial Russian unit of measure equal to 1.0668 km] and passed ahead along the wagon train, overtaking carts and men and women moving along on foot. The sun had already set, but it had not gotten dark. The clear southern moon was shining almost as brightly as the sun. The wagon train stretched for several versts, and it took me a long time to overtake the first oxcart.

Bullock wagons on the road from Larnaca to Nicosia, Cyprus along which Doukhobors travelled en route to Athalassa in late 1898. BC Archives, Koozma J. Tarasoff Collection.

From Larnaca to Nicosia along the main road was 26 English miles, that is, 39 versts. Athalassa is situated not far from the main road, on the left side, three miles short of Nicosia.

I caught up to the first oxcarts half way along the road where they had already stopped for a rest by a coach house yard or “dukhan” in Tatar, or simply “khana” in the local language. The rest of the carts caught up and were arranged to allow the oxen to feed. After a three-hour stop, the first oxcarts again headed out and at around four o’clock in the morning arrived safely in Athalassa.

One by one the carts began to draw up, unload, and were set up in an encampment down below beyond the garden near the stream flowing there. With extraordinary eagerness, the children and old women hurried to the stream. The children began to play and splash around in it, and the grandmothers began to scoop up water, boil it, and do washing. In Larnaca the lack of fresh water had made itself felt, and there had not always been enough for washing. Now they were glad to have plenty of it.

Around 8 o’clock the last oxcart drew up. The move had been completed with complete success. Tents were pitched, fires lit, and life began in full swing in the new location.

Athalassa chiflik is regarded as one of the favorable locations on Cyprus in terms of agriculture. Sufficient water supply, well-managed fruit orchards, with date-palms, fig, orange, lemon, olive and mulberry trees, gardens with various young green vegetables, several tracts with young plantings of olive and mulberry trees and around 500 dessiatines [an Imperial Russian unit of measure equal to 1.0925 hectares] of good arable land. Farm buildings in good shape, house with 5-6 rooms, a barn and granaries. All this was rented from the Eastern and Colonial Association for 200 pounds a year, i.e. 2000 rubles.

Mention of the Eastern and Colonial Association leaves me with an unpleasant sensation. I am little acquainted with the activities of this company and its members, but I know one thing, that for everything they were selling to us, for all the services they were rendering, we paid very dearly, yet at the same time, with every sale made or service rendered, they were making out that they were very sympathetic to us and were doing good deeds.

Toward evening, as soon as the newly-arrived party had to some extent come to grips with their situation in the new location, I headed back to Larnaca on my mule, this time without the police escort, whom I had already let go that morning.

The party that had arrived in Athalassa were all from the one village, Efremovka. For three years they had lived in disorder and now they were reunited in their new location. Right away they came up with the idea, with my support, of building a village right here and calling it Efremovka. That is how it was both in Tavria Province and also in the Caucasus; so also it should be here. Everybody was emboldened in spirit and full of hope. There were several who had fallen ill, and they were sympathetic to them, but they said that this was inevitable and that it was a good thing that up to now they had managed despite the difficulties of the journey. I left for Larnaca, traveled all night, got a little lost when I arrived in the city and only at 3 a.m. reached the hotel, very tired from the long, unaccustomed trip, but content with what had been accomplished.

Although the move to Athalassa had generally been comparatively successful, one circumstance threw a dark shadow that left a bad impression on me and my friends. The Athalassa area was rented by Armenians and the land had been worked half and half by some neighbouring inhabitants. Our arrival had upset all this, and the renters living on the farm, the foreman and the workers were obliged to leave before we arrived. Some of them had left previously, but others were still just starting to get ready in our presence, and we saw how they loaded up their little donkeys with various goods and chattels and left for somewhere else. This situation struck the Doukhobors unpleasantly as well. At the first expression of dissatisfaction with their position, they told me: “Why take land away from others? We were not seeking that. We heard that there is plenty of land not belonging to anybody, government land – that is the kind we need. But to drive away a man who worked and fed himself here – that is not Christian.” Unfortunately, regardless of their wishes, we repeated that un-Christian act many times over.


The next day I got up early and hurried to the quarantine, where more than 800 Doukhobors remained.

After the first party left there was a little more room; there was now an opportunity to walk between the tents and distinguish faces, and I endeavored to become acquainted with them and remember those I had already seen back in the Caucasus.

I related to them how settlement had gone in Athalassa and what I had found there, approximately how much land and other benefits, and right there we decided at a general council that it would be possible to send another party of about 250 to Athalassa, as there is enough land there, it was constricted standing around in the quarantine, and in the near future the purchase of new land was not to be counted on. But since to carry out this measure it was still necessary to have the agreement of my associates Sturge and St. John, it was decided to wait for their return from Nicosia, where they had remained to inspect farms offered for purchase.

As soon as our arrival became known, offers of farms for sale poured in. However, the price for them nevertheless rose, as everybody wanted to take advantage of this good opportunity to sell assets that had lain idle for a long time. We knew this and were not rushing to make purchases. The Doukhobors understood this well themselves and were in no hurry, but on the contrary, urged one another to take their time. But when they discovered what was being paid in Athalassa for cattle and associated goods, they were aghast and began to say that it would be better for them to spend the winter in Athalassa if only not to have to make such unprofitable deals.

They decided to wait for Sturge, and for the time being it was thought better to spend time in the quarantine. But the cramped conditions in quarantine soon made themselves felt. The number of sick people rose and two more children died, a boy of six and a little girl four years old.

I remember how the death of that boy hit me. Previously I had not seen dead bodies among the Doukhobors and had not heard their funereal singing. In the morning I walked to the quarantine and heard singing in one corner of the courtyard. I was interested to find out who they were and what they were singing, and I went over in that direction. There a small shed stood, put together with boards, in which two or three Doukhobor families were housed. The closer I came, the more clearly I could make out the singing and my heart grew ever heavier. I knew that generally speaking, the tunes of Doukhobor psalms are doleful, and I was not paying enough attention to this melancholy feeling when I carelessly went into the shed and stopped at the threshold. There sitting in a circle were several men and women with sad faces and slowly, with long drawn out words and slight bobbing of their heads, they were singing a psalm. On a bench in their midst lay on his back with his little legs stretched out, a fine-looking young boy, his face white with a waxy transparency, in a clean new Doukhobor costume. Tears came to my eyes, but I held back, bowed to the people seated there and withdrew.

This was the first death I had seen in Cyprus, and it made a very strong impression on me. When I saw that dead boy, some inner voice told me: “Well, now, see here, it’s only the beginning!”

A day later, the little girl also died. These two deaths alarmed the doctors too. After the girl’s death, the local governor called me in and said with a stern and serious expression that according to the report of the sanitation inspector, sanitary conditions among the Doukhobors were very bad, he was afraid of an epidemic, and he asked me to take immediate action to improve the situation.

At the same time he added that after consulting with the sanitation inspector, he decided to suggest to me either to rent houses in the city and house the Doukhobors in them, or to rent one building and set it up as a hospital in which to keep the sick ones who could not be treated in the camp. I heard him out, and as I could not and would not make all these arrangements on my own, I summoned Sturge by telegram and went to inform the Doukhobors of this. They silently heard what I had to say, without protest, but in fact the news of a hospital being set up seemed to bother them more than the news of expected deaths.

View of the island of Cyprus, c. 1898.

During these days in quarantine, there was another occurrence that somewhat darkened our then still very optimistic mood and at the same time served to bring me still closer to these people.

When I returned from Athalassa and walked into the quarantine, two elderly Doukhobor men approached me and said that they wanted to ask me what to do. “One of our lads has been indulging in wine, we’re very much ashamed, we are not thinking of him or ourselves, but what are we to do with him?” Of course I was surprised by this, and could not find anything to say, and we decided that we needed to collect our thoughts and talk about this. Soon thereafter, the next morning, it seems, the governor invited me to his quarters and told me that one of the Doukhobors had got drunk, began a brawl, and had been taken in to the police station, where he had spent the night. “If you would like to see him, I can give you a pass.” I took it and went to the police station. Admittedly, I was much grieved by this unexpected scandal. An occurrence that is so common among ordinary people was looked upon by the Doukhobors of this party as a crime. It was precisely the commonplace nature of this situation that more than anything else both weighed heavily on me and angered me, because it provided a pretext for any shortsighted person who did not know them well to say: “you see, this shows there is nothing special about them,” which of course my associate Sturge, who always kept himself rather aloof from the Doukhobors, did not miss the opportunity to say. As soon as he found out about it, he immediately said: “Alors ils ne sont pas meilleurs que les autres!” [“So, they are no better than others!”]

However, because I knew that they are beaucoup meilleurs que les autres [much better than others], I was not put off and went to rescue the wretch. I found him sitting under a tree in the courtyard of the police station. The “brawling lad” turned out to be an old fellow about 50 years old; his swollen red face, teary eyes and uncertain, trembling movement betrayed him to be a man suffering from the effects of hard drinking. The police obligingly released him upon my initial request, on my recognizance, and I led him back to the quarantine. This unfortunate fellow already was expressing great repentance for what he had done, and regret for bringing shame on the community, but it was clear that although he acknowledged all this, he could not guarantee that it would not happen again. I took him back to quarantine and delivered him into the hands of several elders who had come to meet me. They surrounded him and began to tell him off for his misdemeanor. He bowed, begged forgiveness, and did not know what to do. That evening a council gathered.

From conversations with several persons with whom I was more closely acquainted, I found out that Nikolai Borisov – that was the name of the ailing old fellow – had already been suffering for a long time, about ten years, from heavy drinking and had even taken treatment for it. From time to time, sometimes for months at a stretch he had remained sober, but then fell back into the old habit. Such behaviour on his part once forced the Doukhobors during their exile at one of their councils to expel him from the community. As was the custom, he was given his portion and some money and asked to live on his own; in his grief he began to carouse even more, drank up everything in sight and showed up to implore the community in the name of Christ for refuge; from that time on they have not driven him out. Several times they advised him to return to his former associates, that is, to move back with the Small Party, but he did not want to hear of it. They advised him not to leave the Caucasus, and did not even obtain a ticket for him, but he sneaked onto the steamship, and they did not spot him until the ship was en route.

“What are we to do with him?” the elders said to me, “a lost soul, not one of us, but what are we to do about it? Just one person, but he is shaming a thousand, and not just a thousand, but all three thousand plus – just one person, but nonetheless it is painful.” Some advised him to head back to the Caucasus; at times he himself even agreed to this, but nobody could bring himself to act on this.

I did not want to venture advice, worried about my influence on one side or the other, and especially on the side of repressive measures, as I had heard from some of the Doukhobors that they felt ashamed, in particular, to face us friends who were assisting them. “With you,” the Doukhobors told me, “it is not so embarrassing, we regard you as one of our own, but with the Quaker it is very shameful: he is writing to his own people – what are they going to think!” I was very worried that they would repeat the previous expulsion, and thus nevertheless decided to go to the council, there to express not my own opinion, but that of Christ as to the guilty party. I came and read out to them two passages from the Gospels: one about the judgment of the sinful woman, and the other, the words of Caiaphas to the effect that it is better for one man to die rather than the whole nation perish; after reading that and explaining why I had read it out, I withdrew. The council decided to be patient for a while, but if he himself asks for it, to give him the fare for his return to the Caucasus.

It was touching to see the concern with which they discussed this problem and their struggle between community pride and compassion, and how the latter won out in the end.

The governor displayed a rather benevolent attitude to all this. He told me that it was a great pity that this had happened, and that it could affect the general impression. But when I pointed out that, surely, this was one man in a thousand, he agreed that this occurrence was extremely exceptional. I asked him what would happen if 1000 workers in the city of of Larnaca were to find themselves in the same predicament as the Doukhobors, i.e. without work but given a secure existence. Without hesitation, he replied: “They would all be getting drunk!” Then he asked me what I would do with this man. Sensing indecisiveness in my answer, he decided to answer for me, pointing to a tree near where we were standing, and made a gesture with his hand at his throat, adding “hang him!” and at that he burst out laughing. This was his little joke just for my benefit, as he knew what my firm beliefs were.

When he found out about this episode, Sturge, as I mentioned already, remained most upset and the next morning, after heading for the quarantine and gathering a small circle of elders around him, he spoke to them in Russian, saying that if the Doukhobors continue to engage in drunkenness, the Quakers will terminate their assistance. At that the Doukhobors kept silent.


Meanwhile, with the arrival of Sturge the question of sending a second party to Athalassa was definitely resolved. It was decided to do this as soon as possible, and already the next day was designated for sending the first half of the second party, and the remainder the day after that. I divided the party in two, having experienced the inconvenience of moving a very large oxcart train.

This time I could not accompany the party, as I had been drawn away by another matter.

On the day of departure of the second part of the second group, we went with Sturge and the Doukhobor Vasily Potapov to Kouklia, one of the farms belonging to the Eastern Association to discuss working on a half and half basis.

When we returned to Larnaca from Kouklia, I learned that the second part of the second group had already set off. There was now more room in the quarantine, and both we and the Doukhobors were glad at the hope that we would get by without a hospital.

In principle, the Doukhobors themselves were not against a hospital, but they did not want to incur major expenses. Having endured many different illnesses, they were already accustomed to doctors in the Caucasus and were not afraid of them. But they had already become aware back there that doctors are “expensive”; “they would even like to charge less,” one Doukhobor told me, “but they cannot, because they are not supposed to in accordance with their science.” It is that “expensive” science that the Doukhobors much fear, knowing the monetary cost, as they know both how to earn it and how to renounce it.

Our journey to Kouklia had a significant result. We were successful in concluding an agreement with the director of the Eastern Association according to which he took on 10 Doukhobor families as workers going halves on conditions that, although they were not even profitable, were not excessively onerous. The company provided cattle, implements, partial housing and materials for construction of the housing shortfall. The Doukhobors were obliged with these materials to build enough dwellings, to cultivate as much as they were able the fields and at harvest time, to return to the owner the seed and after paying the government tax, they would receive half of the remaining harvest. Hay would be left for the owner for feeding the oxen.

One advantage of settling the Doukhobors there was that there was flowing water and land suitable for gardening, which the director agreed to make available to the Doukhobors for 10 shillings a donum [Cypriot field measure equal to approximately 1/12 of a Russian dessiatine], that is, approximately 60 rubles per dessiatine annually. For Cyprus this price was very moderate, as water there is very expensive.

This settlement, although temporary, as the Doukhobors had no intention of living permanently as sharecroppers, would have been one of the most successful, as here the Doukhobors without great expense could have begun at once to work productively, had it not been for the fever spreading in that place. When the company was inviting the Doukhobors to go there, we were warned that this place is not as healthy as Pergamos. Everyone was saying that Pergamos was healthy (comparatively). At this they added that, of course, if certain precautions were taken, to live and work in Kouklia would be very good. All this the Doukhobors also were aware of, and the desire to begin work as soon as possible overcame their apprehension about disease, and the agreement was concluded. When the Doukhobors arrived and started work, the administrator who sympathized with the Doukhobors, an Armenian who speaks Turkish and French, expressed to me his satisfaction, as he had noticed that the Doukhobor women work alongside the men. “This augurs well for success,” he told me, “Armenians here have not been successful, because their women do not work and so when the men got sick, the work was suspended. With you, I can see, that will not happen: when the men get sick, the women will work.”

From these words I could see that disease was already assumed to be an inevitable fact of life. But the Doukhobors by this time did not want to retreat, and were hoping they could cope with the fever. But in fact within those two months they all came down with it. Although only the two children died, they all had a sickly, exhausted appearance and were already thinking that by spring they would have to leave for Pergamos, and if they would have to stay in Cyprus in the spring, they expected to get to Kouklia only long enough to get some work, and the residents of Pergamos promised to help them with this.

On the same trip we looked over the chiflik of Pergamos and in a few days it was decided to purchase it.

Some of the Doukhobors headed there right away and also to Kouklia.

About one hundred persons still remained in the quarantine. Those who remained were the ones who did not have tents and were living in barns, as there was no accommodation prepared in Pergamos and it would take several days to make the rundown Turkish houses there suitable for habitation.

Pergamos indeed turned out to be a most healthy place, by virtue of its elevation, and the fresh water available from several wells there. Its shortcomings were that there was no flowing water there and it would be necessary to make substantial expenditures on irrigation of the land. In addition, the relative lightness of the soil, i.e. its low fertility and finally and most important, there were only about 40 dessiatines in all, an area of land far from sufficient to feed the 460 persons living there. Having confirmed the healthfulness of this place, I pressed for the settlement there of all the rest, especially because it was possible to find more land to rent in the vicinity.

The last shortcoming, the small amount of land, turned to their advantage after it was decided that the Doukhobors would not remain in Cyprus. As I already mentioned, that part of the group, about 200 persons, was still in the quarantine. They were the most patient ones, but even they, barely able to stand sitting around , agreed to go to Pergamos and spend the nights there under the open sky, “covering themselves a little with something” – anything to get away from the quarantine with which they were so fed up. Taking advantage of a free evening, I went to visit them in the quarantine to read and chat with them. That evening was one of the best I spent in Cyprus.

I read out for them the article “Doukhobory v nachale XIX stoletiia” [“Doukhobors at the beginning of the 19th century” – a late 19th century reprint of the 1805 article “Nekotorye cherty ob obshchestve Dukhobortsev” [“Several Characteristics of Doukhobor Society”]]. It turned out to be unknown to them and they were amazed at the faithfulness of its rendering of the essence of their doctrine, social structure and history.

In confirmation of the truth of what was written, they recited for me several psalms on which the instructional part of that article was based. Those psalms are beautiful and aroused in all of us a good and serious frame of mind, and for a long time we conversed amicably, recalling previous times of persecution and comparing them with those of the present. Little by little the conversation moved to the present state of affairs in Cyprus, and here in candid conversation for the first time I heard and clearly understood the already firmly formed opinion of the Doukhobors that it was impossible for them to live in Cyprus for long. This opinion had hardened, influenced by their gradually growing familiarity with Cyprus. To be sure, as far as I could gather from general conversations with them, the thought of living in Cyprus had never been to their taste. However, as prudent people, they had not been able to reject Cyprus sight unseen and, trusting people who had rendered them brotherly assistance, they had decided to try even Cyprus, especially in the absence of any other more definite proposal.

Cypriots gathering straw for animal feed, c. 1898.

But the resettlement of the Doukhobors had been conceived by them in terms of a particular plan and with conditions they had clearly expressed in their petition to the Empress and in Petr Verigin’s letter to her. They petitioned for the opportunity to settle all together in one place where they could engage in their characteristic toil. Their striving to find a place to settle is similar to that of the people of the Bible to find the promised land and to establish there the Kingdom of God in accordance with the teachings of Christ. I often noticed them expressing this idea in my conversations with them. As they spoke of their firm resolve to die for the truth, they not infrequently confessed to me this human weakness: “Of course,” they said, “we would go that far, to the death if need be, we have decided to withstand everything, even unto eternal life, but we all want to see how we can all live together, we all want to fulfill everything and live as a Christian community should.”

It is hard to condemn these people for this their “great” weakness, and few there are, I believe, who, knowing this, would not wish to help them in this.

The more they got to know Cyprus, the more clearly they could see that this dream was not destined to be realized here.

From information gathered from various sources, it turned out that although it was possible to find in Cyprus the quantity of land needed to settle the whole community, in the first place it would have to be purchased for a very high price (100 rubles a dessiatine or more), and in the second place, it would be scattered all over the island in small pieces, which of course would be extremely inconvenient for communal farming. Moreover, from questioning of local residents they found out that the living and working conditions on the island were to such an extent the opposite of what they were used to, that their main strength – their farming knowledge gained over the ages – would count for nothing. It would mean working in the winter and hiding from the heat in the summertime. Housing, clothing, food, labour, i.e. the sum total of their farming existence would have to be different; everything would have to be learned anew. It was obvious that they would not have enough to eat for long; the prospect was that they would have to depend for their sustenance on kind people – this would be all right, but is this really necessary and is there really nowhere that their toil is needed and where they can receive a decent return so that they can be proud of their labour? Added to this: the unbearable heat for seven or eight months, accompanied by fever, dysentery, and often, death.

From the local inhabitants they discovered that there had already been several attempts to settle foreigners on the island. The English had brought in Hindus; other nationalities, Circassians, Maltese, Armenians and Jews, had come, and all this had ended in disease, death, and the departure of the survivors.

All of this led them to conclude that Cyprus was no good for them, and I could not help but agree with them.

Soon, in about two days, the remaining party headed for Pergamos and at last the quarantine, to the general relief of both the Doukhobors and the local authorities, was vacant, after which, in accordance with all the regulations of “the expensive science,” they covered it over with lime.


Having finished with Pergamos and Kouklia, I set off to call on the folk at Athalassa. I had not seen them for about ten days. The 560 people who were settled in Athalassa were stretched out in an encampment extending about one verst. About 100 of them had been placed in a house belonging to the estate, while the ones living in tents had decided to build themselves huts. In the first days of the settlement of the first party in Athalassa, plans for construction were very ambitious; they decided to recreate the whole village of Efremovka, for which they selected a good location on a hill. But by the time of my second arrival the mood had changed here as well. In Athalassa, all the time the heat was especially palpable. The farm itself was located in a hollow that acted like a convex mirror collecting the sun’s rays in an area shielded from the wind.

Several Doukhobors told me the same thing I had already heard in quarantine; I assembled some of the elders to hear out their opinion more thoroughly, suggesting to them that they write of this to England, which they did. After making some arrangements for provisions, I returned again to Larnaca, and from there set out for Pergamos and Kouklia.

By that time the Doukhobors had received a letter from the Quakers in England. Here is the full text:

“Dear friends,

We are glad to know that after many obstacles and difficulties, you have safely arrived in Cyprus.

Our heartfelt wish is that with the Lord’s blessing you will be able on the island to build a habitation for yourselves and your children; and we have no doubt on that score, as by virtue of your patient staying-power and industriousness with which you excelled in your previous life you will be able to establish yourselves well, and here you will be free from government compulsion that would force you to do what is contrary to your conscience.

May it be possible for you in your new habitation to preserve your conscience pure of sin before God and man.

We were very glad and grateful for the opportunity to take part in the cause of your liberation and to extend to you the hand of brotherly assistance.

Although we are foreign to you in language and nationality, we are nevertheless united with you in the doctrine which forbids both us and you from any war, as that is against the teaching and example of the One who preached peace.

We have heard from those who are acquainted with your past history that your life was imbued with fear of God, honest love of toil and a brotherly disposition to one another, and we felt we could be so bold as to offer the government of Cyprus the large monetary guarantee that they, not without reason, had demanded of us before granting permission for you to settle on the island so that you would not be a burden, either to the government or to the other residents.

We feel that we can rely on you to make the best of the conditions under which you, by the will of God, are now settled.

We have wanted every step of our participation in your destiny to be guided by the Spirit of Truth, and we are confident that you also are basing all your actions on that spirit.

Therefore both you and we can trust that your resettlement in Cyprus is in accord with God’s will and will be a blessing for you.

We strongly desire that your brothers in Russia will also be able to depart from there. Together with your other friends, we shall pursue that goal.

Your example and the boldness with which you will be able to demonstrate in your striving to improve your new living conditions will also very much assist our efforts in this matter.

We are sending this letter by the hand of our friend and brother Wilson Sturge, who is now among you, and to whom we ask you to give brotherly attention and cooperation. With a greeting of Christian love we remain, your brothers.

For the Committee appointed by the English Society of Friends for Assistance to the Doukhobors, signed

John Bellows (secretary). Friends Community House London

2nd day of the 9th month, 1898.”

This letter was read out by me in all three colonies, of course.

In Pergamos I met with the same generally held opinion. I read to them the Quakers’ letter and suggested that they send a reply, which I wrote myself at their request, virtually at their dictation, only editing their thoughts; their letter appears below.

They greeted the Quakers’ letter with touching gratitude, in spite of the total discord between its content and the actual state of affairs. The letter described the Doukhobor settlement in Cyprus as a blessing from God, whereas they were merely enduring it as yet another painful trial. Here is their reply:

Larnaca, Cyprus. 20.9.98
To the Friends – Quakers from the Doukhobors living in Pergamos and Kouklia.

“Firstly, brothers, we bring you profound gratitude, such as we do not know how to express, for your brotherly concern for us and your assistance.

Secondly, we wish to explain to you our predicament and request that you not discontinue your help.

As our brethren Ivin and Makhortov previously explained to you, life for us here is very difficult, and it is most unlikely that we will be able to stay here long.

Our chief concern is for us to be all together as a whole community, but this is impossible here because there is little suitable cheap land here, and if we were to buy expensive land, for the same amount of money we could travel over to America and Canada, which attracts us with its wide open spaces and a climate that is similar to that in which we lived in the Caucasus for 50 years.

Even if it were possible for all our brethren to settle here, we dread the hot climate, which is similar to that which we suffered from in exile and where, out of 4,000 persons, about 1,000 of us already died.

Here eight persons have already died, and many are ill with the same diseases we had in exile: fever, dysentery, eye diseases and blindness.

In one location where it is healthier, the soil is worse – stony and with little water; where the soil is fertile, that is where the diseases are. Ten of our families have taken up sharecropping in the Kouklia estate, which belongs to the Eastern Company.

It might even turn out all right for us here, but our predecessors, Armenians who lived here, all came down sick to the last man, and we expect the same thing.

Moreover, even at the more elevated places the heat can be unbearable, and we came here while it was not yet the hottest time of year.

Taking everything into consideration, we can see that there is no life for us here; we will not flourish here, but wither.

So therefore, we fervently implore you not to enter into large expenditures on establishing us here, but if at all possible to move us from here to a place more suitable for living. As we have heard, Canada is such a place. And with patience and in submission to God’s will we shall await our turn, until with the aid of our friends we shall succeed in joining our brethren.

We are aware that many of our brethren yet remain in the Caucasus under severe repression and without means of subsistence, and our first request is for them. And we hope that our friends will not forget about us here either and will relieve our situation.

We very much are afraid of distressing you with this letter, but we want to tell you the whole truth and frankly express our opinion so as not to be later held to account before you and before God. —

We also thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your letter that we received and read. May the Lord save you.

On behalf of the whole commune, [signed]:

Vasily Potapov, Grigory Glebov, Fyodor Zhmaev, Vasily Popov, Vasily Razinkin, Pavel Popov, Petro Lobyntsev.”

This decision, firmly supported by all the Doukhobors and reinforced more and more with each passing day by the course of events, significantly changed their attitude toward the tasks facing them in Cyprus.

It was decided to get settled temporarily, while striving to do everything as cheaply as possible in order to save as much money as they could for the journey to Canada, from which they had already begun to receive favourable reports about the large amount of free land, about concessions offered by the Canadian government to settlers, about wage levels, and so on. The main barrier to an immediate move was, as was reported from England, that there is no money for the voyage, and that which is now being collected has to go toward the resettlement of the remaining 2000 persons presently in exile in the Caucasus; thus the turn of the Cyprus Doukhobors will not come soon.

Athalassa farm in Cyprus occupied by Doukhobors in 1899. BC Archives, Koozma J. Tarasoff Collection.

All these considerations led to the decision, come what may, to spend the winter in Cyprus, and so it was necessary to build houses. In Pergamos, just as in Athalassa, at first they were planning for a large village, but when they realized the impossibility of a durable settlement, they decided to build at minimal expense, as much as possible making use of what remained intact in the ruins of an old Turkish settlement. Getting to work, they began to plaster walls, reinforce collapsed ceilings, dig out debris, and within two or three days several families were already living in the houses, while others continued the work.

That is how life began in all three settlements.

This is how I organized my time: my main lodging was in Larnaca. I myself spent a good deal of time traveling back and forth. I would head for one end of the island, for example, to Pergamos and Kouklia for two or three days, hen return to Larnaca and have a good rest – timing these rest periods to coincide with days when mail arrived or was dispatched. Then I would set out for the other end to Athalassa, and after three days or so return again to Larnaca, and after taking care of whatever matters were necessary in that city, head once more for Pergamos and Kouklia. My visits to the colonies I also tried to coordinate with visits there by the doctors, after which it fell to me to dispense prescribed medicine and carry out some instructions from the doctor. In addition to matters concerning provisions and concerns about buildings, one of my main activities, appreciated most of all by the Doukhobors, was reading letters received by post, and sometimes articles from periodicals and booklets. This took up a lot of time, because one letter or article would have to be read out about ten times, as it was impossible to read it to many at once, yet everyone wanted to know what they said.

Often, after reading and conversation about the topic of what had been read, one of the older Doukhobors would begin to tell about the olden days. I had no time to write them down, but I heard a lot of interesting things; something of what I heard I shall try to bring forth in another place.

Little by little they began to set about their agricultural work. They began first in Athalassa, as the farm there was in full operation. Then in Kouklia, where everything was also almost ready for work. Last of all in Pergamos, as there it was necessary to start all over with cattle, feed, and equipment.


Little by little life was being put in order, and all would have been fine, but they all had decided to wait for spring and their turn to leave; they were especially energized by news that the “Gorskie”, that is, the ones who had remained scattered in Gori Uezd were preparing to depart, that enough money had been collected for their migration, a steamer hired, and their departure was immanent. As the remaining parties of Elisavetpol and Kars Doukhobors could travel on their own account, it would appear that it was now the Cyprus Doukhobors’ turn; they breathed sighs of relief when they heard this news and said: “Perchance the Lord is not lacking in mercy, and they are going to shift us out of here.”

All would have been well, say I, had it not been for the illness and death that had begun to afflict the Doukhobors when they were still in the quarantine and had intensified after their resettlement in the different locations in the colonies.

The cause of all the illness, as was clearly understood by the Doukhobors themselves, from the old to the young, and was clearly recognized also by me and everyone else who saw the ailing and dying, was the unbearably hot climate of Cyprus.

That the reason for all the illness was the local conditions can be easily seen from the fact that they all came down with them, to an even greater extent those who had not been ill in the Caucasus. But those who had already been sick previously – the weak, children, old men and women – were dying. The nature of these diseases is local and the time of their occurrence, the period of intensified infection, corresponds to the time and period of intensified infection of the local diseases.

Of course, these illnesses and deaths, in spite of the steadfast and steady patience of the Doukhobors, could not but affect their attitude toward Cyprus and their general morale.

Although they did believe those who told them that with the onset of winter, these illnesses would cease or at least subside, they also knew that the hot weather would return, along with renewed illness and that terrible debilitating heat, mosquitoes and the slack time of summer unemployment; all this loomed before them and compelled them to implore people they regarded as brothers to help them extricate themselves from this predicament.

Nevertheless, work continued at its own pace. Building work went on simultaneously in all three colonies. Building projects were completed earliest in Kouklia; there were few there and it was only necessary to buy boards for doors, windows and tables, and beams for the lintels. The rest of the materials belonged to the Company and was on site.

In Athalassa, house construction was somewhat delayed because, owing to its remoteness, I could not get there often, and lumber was delivered there later.

However, toward the end of October, construction was completed in all three colonies, the matter of provisions had been dealt with, and to the great satisfaction of everyone, diseases had even begun to abate as the heat diminished.

My personal affairs were calling me to other tasks, and seeing that my presence in Cyprus was no longer necessary, I decided to leave, especially in view of the arrival of one more Russian [Evangelical Christian] friend of the Doukhobors, Ivan Stepanovich Prokhanov, who had energetically gone into action.

By the time I left, we counted 51 dead and around a hundred sick.

As they bid me farewell, the Doukhobors begged me to use all of my powers to find ways for them to leave Cyprus (“certainly try, as you yourself know best,” they said.)

And I left them with this hope.

I gained very much from those three months with the Doukhobors. Aside from personal satisfaction from associating with such people, I was glad to have been able to examine this community up close and see it in all its variety of types and characters. I saw true heroes who have endured torture, such as Ivan Baev, who had received over a hundred lashes at the time of the Cossack execution, who with a good-natured smile related how he had been entirely unable to stand after that punishment.

“My head was in a fog, and I couldn’t feel anything. It’s as if I had neither spine nor legs; I couldn’t control one arm, but only had feeling in my chest and one arm,” he said. Then there is Egor Khodykin, who suffered for a long time from similar torture and yet has maintained up to this time a clear, firm Christian consciousness. Among them I also saw weak persons, suffering, at times even grumbling, but who have kept holding on with all their might to others and who have not lost one of the principal Doukhobor virtues – their sense of human dignity.

I saw the serious, stern faces of mothers burying their children, who answered words of condolence and sympathy in this way: “There is nothing for it, we have gone this far, we will put up with it for God, for the truth.”

Squalid conditions in a typical Cypriot peasant home, c. 1898.

I also observed simple, bustling, superstitious peasant women uttering a spell “against fire” while at the same time instructing their children in the very highest of Christian truths.

As I became acquainted with them, I saw that this whole – at first glance ignorant – mass has its own history, its own martyrs for the truth and freedom, its own heroes and prophets whose stories are passed on from generation to generation for edification. All this together leaves an impression of a kind of unconquerable strength that is so precious that any unproductive waste of it summons a painful response in the heart of any person who knows them.

If the Doukhobors obtain little of worth from Cyprus, it is true that Cyprus will receive a lot from them. In my presence religious debates have already begun, and, as might have been expected, Greek Orthodox Christians regard Doukhobors as heretics and often break off these discussions, fearing enticement. The Moslem Turks, on the other hand, openly sympathize with them, mentioning only the difficulty of fulfilling their religious ideals. But both the former and the latter look upon them kindly and respectfully, and the presence of the Doukhobors in Cyprus cannot vanish without a trace.

November 10, 1898
P. Biryukov
Larnaca, Cyprus


As noted in Biryukov’s account, when the Doukhobors landed on Cyprus on August 26, 1898 aboard the French steamship Le Douro, everything seemed quite promising. The Mediterranean island was beautiful, and the fertile land, lush vegetation and seaside climate reminded the Doukhobors of their ancient home at Molochnye Vody (Milky Waters). At first sight, the only disadvantage was the lack of buildings.

Following a sojourn of several weeks in quarantine at Larnaca, parties of Doukhobors were settled at Athalassa, Kouklia and Pergamos. In each of these places, the Doukhobors proceeded to build small agricultural villages, constructing homes of Caucasus-style mud bricks and preparing the soil for planting vegetables.

By fall, however, it became clear that the Doukhobor resettlement was not working out by any means as well as the Tolstoyans and Quakers had hoped. Various disagreements had developed among the Doukhobors about the value and extent of communal versus individual farming. They indulged in endless debates about social and economic issues. Lack of leadership and adjustment to the new, unfamiliar physical environment also took its toll on any potential Doukhobor success.

According to some writers, the Russian Tolstoyans such as Biryukov who joined the Doukhobors on Cyprus, despite their best intentions, seem to have to have done very little more than spread discontent among the settlers by complaining about the conditions on the island, and lose their heads in the disorganization all around them.

As a consequence, neither housing nor farming went ahead as quickly as they should have done. Many Doukhobors continued to live in damp tents pitched in marshy spots infested with mosquitoes; those who did live in houses were forced to exist in extremely crowded and unsanitary conditions. These poor living conditions and a limited diet (vegetables were not ready for consumption for months after planting, milk was available only in condensed form, and eating meat was against religious requirements) combined with the impure water and unendurable climate of the locality caused outbreaks of serious illness among the weakest of the Doukhobor settlers. Two months after the arrival in Cyprus, the first two deaths occurred. Many others lingered in a sick and weakened state. In the months that followed, 108 Doukhobors perished from famine, disease and exhaustion. This was an even higher mortality rate than the Doukhobors had experienced while in exile in the Caucasus following the Burning of Arms.

The hopes with which the Doukhobors had come were slowly dissipated, and their discontent with Cyprus was increased by the urgings of Biryukov and other Russian sympathizers who, having in the first place hastened their settlement on the island, now pressed on them the need to leave Cyprus as the only hope of evading extinction. Finally, the news reached them that the Doukhobors remaining in Russia had decided on a new destination, a place where the climate was more like that of their homeland. Any will that the Doukhobors ever felt to succeed on Cyprus was now finally dissipated, and they had no other thought than to join the emigration to Canada.

Finally, on April 27, 1899, the Doukhobors boarded the steamship Lake Superior to cross the Atlantic to Canada where their brethren awaited them, thus ending their unsuccessful settlement experiment on Cyprus.

For More Information

For more information about the short-lived Doukhobor settlement experiment on Cyprus in 1898-1899, the factors leading to its establishment and the reasons for its ultimate failure, see: A Courteous and Well-Conducted Community by Carla King and With the Doukhobors on Cyprus by Ivan Stepanovich Prokhanov.

The Dukhobortsy and Religious Persecution in Russia

by John Ashworth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doukhobor villagers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doukhobor village

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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.