Petrov Den’ (Peter’s Day)

By Jonathan J. Kalmakoff

As we make ready to celebrate Petrov Den’, a quintessential Doukhobor holiday, it is important to remind ourselves of the many rich layers of spiritual, cultural and historical meaning that have come to be associated with it over the past three centuries. I would like to briefly share some of the various traditions connected to this day.     

Commemoration of Apostles Peter and Paul

While the holiday is commonly known among Doukhobors today by its shortened Russian name – Petrov Den’ (Петров День) or ‘Peter’s Day’ – its actual formal, full name is Den’ Petra i Pavla (День Петра и Павла) or ‘the Day of Peter and Paul’ (Zhivotnaya Kniga, Psalm 383). 

It commemorates the apostles Peter and Paul, leaders of the first generation of Christians, founders of the Christian church, and widely considered the two most important people (after Jesus) in the history of Christianity.  According to ancient church tradition, the apostles were executed and martyred by Roman authorities on the same day – June 29th according to the (Old) Julian calendar – July 12th according to the (New) Gregorian calendar.

According to this tradition, the apostle Peter came to preach in Rome in 64 A.D., where he was arrested and crucified head down. The apostle Paul was also executed in Rome in A.D. 65, but since he was a Roman citizen, he could not be executed on the cross, and was beheaded instead.

Ancient Orthodox Festival

The holiday was not created or conceived by the Doukhobors.  Rather, it owes its origins to a much older tradition inherited from the Orthodox Church.    

For over a millennium since the introduction of Christianity in Russia in 988 A.D., the day of Peter and Paul has been one of the great festivals of the Orthodox Church. It was considered a day of mandatory church attendance, where Russian peasants attended an all-night vigil on the eve, and a liturgy service on the morning of the feast-day.  The Orthodox priest offered prayers to the apostles, who were venerated by the church as saints.  Afterwards, the people held feasts, while young people assembled to play games, sing and enjoy themselves in the villages.    

Russian Orthodox icon depicting the apostles Peter (left) and Paul (right).

During the mid to late 1700s, while the Doukhobors were still living among Orthodox Russians, they also outwardly celebrated Peter and Paul’s Day in the traditional manner. Some Doukhobors went to church for appearances sake; others avoided going altogether, having already rejected the physical church in favour of the ‘inner church’ within themselves; nonetheless at home they celebrated with prayer meetings, followed by visits to family and friends.

However, by this time, the Day of Peter and Paul had acquired its own distinctive spiritual meaning and significance among Doukhobors.

A Remembrance of Suffering for Faith

After Doukhobors openly rejected the Orthodox Church and were permitted to settle together at Molochnye Vody (‘Milky Waters’) near the Crimea in the early 1800s, they ceased to celebrate most Orthodox feast days, as they neither venerated saints nor invoked them in prayers, but simply respected them for their good works.  Nonetheless, they continued to commemorate the Day of Peter and Paul in their own way, as they held these apostles in particular respect.

The Doukhobors’ admiration for Peter and Paul is reflected in the Zhivotnaya Kniga (‘Living Book’), where the apostles are mentioned in several psalmy (Psalms 6, 144, 302) and stishki (“verses”) as ‘martyrs’ who ‘hold the keys’ that ‘unlock the souls’ of the righteous and which ‘open the gates’ to God’s heavenly kingdom. 

It was the apostles’ martyrdom for their faith and their victory of spirit over flesh which the Doukhobors considered worthy of emulation, and which evoked memories of their own suffering at the hands of Orthodox and Tsarist authorities in the late 18th century, when they were arrested, imprisoned, tortured and mutilated, had their property and children confiscated, and were banished to the furthest reaches of the Empire.  Thus the holiday became a day of memoriam of those Doukhobor martyrs who, like the apostles Peter and Paul, had endured suffering and hardship for their beliefs.    

Name Days

An Orthodox tradition which some Doukhobor families retained after breaking away from the church was the practice of naming a child after the saint on whose feast day he or she was born; at least those saints whom the Doukhobors continued to commemorate.  Hence, in many cases, when a male Doukhobor child in Russia was born on or around the Day of Peter and Paul, he received one or the other name.   

Seasonal Changes in Nature

In addition to its religious significance, the Day of Peter and Paul was associated in pre-Christian Russian folk tradition with the occurrence of seasonal changes in nature.  In particular, it marked the beginning of summer haying among the agrarian peasantry.  In Russia, the Doukhobors traditionally began haymaking the day after the festival.  Mowing the hay with scythes was primarily the men’s responsibility, but women also helped.  The hay was then gathered into stacks or stored in haylofts until it was needed in the winter.  It was a very important activity for the Doukhobors, being agriculturalists, as they needed sufficient hay to feed their livestock during the long winters.  Hence, this gave the festival additional significance among them.      

Doukhobors cutting hay on the Canadian prairies, in the same manner as they had in 19th century Russia. BC Archives C-01388.

Sacred Places of Celebration

In the early 19th century on the Molochnaya, the Day of Peter and Paul was typically celebrated in the village of Terpeniye.  Doukhobors from surrounding villages gathered there the morning of the festival to hold a large mass moleniye (‘prayer meeting’).  The moleniye was held either inside the Sirotsky Dom (‘Orphan’s Home’) or, if weather permitted, outside in the courtyard in front of this building.  After, they held an outdoor banquet in the scenic park-like grounds of the Sirotsky Dom, with its well-tended orchards, beautiful springs and fountains.

The sacred grove on the outskirts of Slavyanka village, Azerbaijan where Doukhobors of that region traditionally gathered to celebrate Petrov Den’ and where they burned their firearms in 1895. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

During the late 19th century in the Caucasus, the Doukhobors chose a central location in each of the districts they settled, where people from the surrounding villages would congregate to commemorate the festival.  These were often places of tremendous natural beauty, which over time, came to be viewed as sacred or holy places in their own right. 

  • in Tiflis guberniya (‘province’) in what is now Georgia, they met on the flat, rocky plateau above the cave-like grotto known as Peshcherochki near the village of Orlovka. It was a favorite place of Doukhobor leader Luker’ya (‘Lushechka’) Kalmykova to spend time in quiet reflection.
  • in Elisavetpol guberniya in present-day Azerbaijan, they gathered at a sacred grove (svyashchennaya roshcha) on the outskirts of Slavyanka village, which had a well-ordered and carefully-tended orchard, a summer pavilion where visiting Doukhobor leaders stayed, and a mineral spring with carbonated, slightly sour water that tasted refreshingly like kvas.
  • in Kars oblast (‘region’) in modern Turkey, they met on a high, wide plateau that overlooked the surrounding plains and villages. Known as Krasnaya Gora (the ‘Red Hill’) it was situated next to a valley with a myriad of small springs that nurtured a grove of trees that, according to Doukhobor tradition, were planted by Christ and the apostles.
The high, wide plateau near Terpeniye village in Turkey were Doukhobors of that region traditionally celebrated Petrov Den’ and where they burned their firearms in 1895. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

In each of these sacred places, the Doukhobors of the Caucasus assembled and held moleniye.  Afterwards, they would spread about their blankets and have an outdoor picnic.

Association with Leaders

During the second half of the nineteenth century, the Day of Peter and Paul came to be closely associated with two much-revered Doukhobor leaders, as it was the name day of both.   

Peter Ilarionovich Kalmykov, born on June 29, 1836, led the Doukhobors of the Caucasus from 1856 to 1864.  Despite his short rule, he was much-beloved and renowned for his dynamic personality, force of character and feats of bravery, for which he was nicknamed Khrabryy, meaning the “Brave”. 

19th century Doukhobor leader Peter Ilarionovich Kalmykov. Courtesy Koozma J. Tarasoff.

The second Doukhobor leader by this name was, of course, Peter Vasil’evich Verigin, born on June 29, 1859. After 1886, Verigin became leader of the ‘Large Party’ of Doukhobors in the Caucasus.  In 1887, Verigin was exiled to Shenkursk in Arkhangel’sk guberniya in the Russian Far North, then in 1890 he was transferred even further north to Kola on the Barents Sea.  Later, in 1894, he was transferred to Obdorsk in northwestern Siberia.  Throughout his exile, Verigin emphasized a return to traditional Doukhobor pacifist beliefs and issued secret teachings and counsel to his followers in the Caucasus, through trusted messengers. 

Doukhobor leader Peter Vasil’evich Verigin (1859-1924) whose name day coincided with Petrov Den’. BC Archives C-01443.

Burning of Arms

It was through one such communique that, in 1895, Verigin bade his followers to collect all the weapons that were in their possession and on June 29th, burn them in a large bonfire doused with kerosene in a mass renunciation of violence and militarism. This dramatic demonstration was carefully and deliberately timed to correspond with the Day of Peter and Paul because of its deep religious symbolism among the Doukhobors.

His instructions were carried out simultaneously in each of the three regions of the Caucasus where his followers traditionally assembled to celebrate the festival. As their guns burned and melted, the Doukhobors gathered around the bonfire, prayed and recited psalms and sang hymns of universal brotherhood.

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The rocky plateau above the Peshcherochki near Orlovka village, Georgia, where Doukhobors of that region traditionally celebrated Petrov Den’ and where they burned their firearms in 1895. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

In the regions of Elisavetpol (Azerbaijan) and Kars (Turkey), the Doukhobor ‘Burning of Arms’ occurred with minimal government intervention.  However, in the region of Tiflis (Georgia), local Tsarist officials viewed the burning as an act of civil insurrection and rebellion, and the fiercest punishments were at once applied. 

Two squadrons of mounted Cossacks were dispatched, posthaste, to the Peshcherochki to pacify the protestors and quell the civil disorder.  Once they arrived, the Cossacks charged the praying crowd of men, women and children, slashing through them with whips.  Many were brutally beaten and some severely injured when they were trampled by horses.  The dazed and bloodied Doukhobors were then forcibly herded to Bogdanovka for questioning.

In the days that followed, Cossack troops were billeted in the Tiflis Doukhobor villages, where they ravaged the homes of the Large Party, taking food, smashing furnishings, beating males and raping females without check or rebuke. Four thousand, five hundred of them were then banished, without supplies, to poor Georgian villages in oppressively hot and unhealthy climates, left to scrape by as best they could, or survive on whatever charity the local Georgians and Tatars dared give them under threat of arrest. Many perished in exile.

The Burning of Arms was a seminal event in the history of the Doukhobor movement; one that has become indelibly and permanently connected with the celebration of Petrov Den’ to this day.

Sketch by William Perehudoff published in Koozma J. Tarasoff, Pictorial History of the Doukhobors (Modern Press, Saskatoon: 1969) at p. 48-49.

After the Large Party of Doukhobors immigrated to Canada in 1899, those Doukhobors who remained in the Caucasus became split on their observance of Petrov Den’. Members of the Middle Party (who recognized Verigin as their spiritual leader but declined to accept his more radical teachings) continued to observe the holiday as before. However, members of the Small Party (who refused to accept Verigin’s leadership) abandoned the holiday altogether, given its association with Verigin, and thereafter celebrated Troitsa (‘Trinity Day’) as their major summer festival.

In Canada

Upon immigrating to and settling in Canada, Doukhobors continued to observe Petrov Den’ in much the same manner as they had in Russia.  From 1899 to 1938, both those belonging to the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood and those who lived and farmed as Independents commemorated the event with a moleniye, often followed by a social gathering and picnic.

The locations where they congregated to celebrate Peter’s Day often varied depending on the facilities available, the needs and circumstances of the particular group, and of course, the state of the weather.

Petrov Den’ gathering of Independent Doukhobors at Devils Lake, June 29, 1928. BC Arc
Arhives C-01364.
  • At Devil’s Lake SK, Independent Doukhobors gathered at a lug (‘clearing’) on the north shore of the lake. After 1916, members of the Buchanan Doukhobor Society also gathered at their meeting hall in the nearby village of Buchanan, SK.
  • At Veregin SK, CCUB members met at the ornate prayer home in the village, afterward picnicking in the tree grove beside the building to the west.
  • In Pelly SK, Independents assembled on the south shore of the Swan River, 4 miles northeast of the village beside the Doukhobor-built steel truss bridge. After 1936, members of the Pelly Doukhobor Society also met at their meeting hall half a mile east of the village.
  • In Kylemore SK, Community Doukhobors met at a lug (‘meadow’) on the northwest shore of Fishing Lake near the Arishenkoff village.  After 1954, members of the Kylemore Doukhobor Society also met at their prayer home in the village of Kylemore. 
  • At Blaine Lake SK, Independent Doukhobors erected a large tent at a lug (‘meadow’) near Pozirayevka cemetery, a mile and a half east of the town. After 1931, members of the Blaine Lake Doukhobor Society also met at their brick meeting hall in the town.
  • At Lundbreck, AB, CCUB members met atop the hill known as Safatova Gora beside Bogatyi Rodnik village. After 1953, members of the United Doukhobors of Alberta were also held in the prayer home built in the village of Lundbreck.
  • In Grand Forks BC, gatherings occurred at the Sirotskoye meeting hall. On at least one occasion in the 1930s, an open-air mass moleniye was held at Saddle Lake, where Peter P. ‘Chistyakov’ Verigin gave an address from a boat on the lake to his followers gathered on the shore.
  • In Brilliant BC, Community Doukhobors often gathered at the trading store/warehouse; although in some years after 1927, an open-air mass moleniye was held at Verigin’s Tomb, from which Chistyakov addressed his followers gathered below.
  • In Ootischenia BC, such Community gatherings were typically held at either the Belyi Dom meeting hall, or else the lug (‘meadow’) on the banks of the Kootenay River.   
  • In Thrums BC, Independent Doukhobors gathered at the brick meeting hall built there.
  • This is by no means an exhaustive list.
Peter P. ‘Chistyakov’ Verigin addresses followers from Verigin’s Tomb at the annual Petrov Den’ commemoration at Brilliant, British Columbia, June 29, 1931. BC Archives C-01924.

Upon its formation in 1938, the Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ in British Columbia ceased to actively celebrate Peter’s Day in favour of Declaration Day, a new event celebrated annually by members of that organization in August.

However, other local Doukhobor societies from across Western Canada (including the Benito Doukhobor Society, Pelly Doukhobor Society, Kamsack Doukhobor Society, Veregin Doukhobor Society, Canora Doukhobor Society, Buchanan Doukhobor Society, Watson Doukhobor Society, Langham Doukhobor Society, Blaine Lake Doukhobor Society, Saskatoon Doukhobor Society, United Doukhobors of Alberta, Canadian Doukhobor Society and others) continued to commemorate Petrov Den’ throughout the 20th century and 21st century to present.

Closing

It is perhaps because of its many rich layers of meaning and significance that Peter’s Day, in contrast to other traditional festivals, remains one of the popular and enduring celebrations among Canadian Doukhobors to this day.

And as we commemorate this day through fellowship, prayer, food and song, let us also reflect on the achievements and impacts of the Doukhobor people in the name of peace and faith.   

Petrov Den’ celebrations among Independent Doukhobors at their meeting hall in Thrums, British Columbia, June 29, 1934. BC Archives C-01413.

Celebration of Petrov Den’ by members of the Blaine Lake Doukhobor Society at their prayer home in the town of Blaine Lake, Saskatchewan, c. 1952. Courtesy Albert Popoff.

After Word

This address was originally presented by the author at the following Petrov Den’ commemorations:

  • National Doukhobor Heritage Village, Veregin, Saskatchewan. June 29, 2018; and
  • Blaine Lake Doukhobor Prayer Home, Blaine Lake, Saskatchewan, June 30, 2019.
Peter’s Day picnic held in Veregin, Saskatchewan in the tree grove north beside the prayer home, following the singing of psalms and other religious observances, June 29, 1964.

Bibliographic References

  • Bonch-Breuvich, V.D., Psalms 6, 144, 302, 383 in Zhivotnaia Kniga Dukhobortsev (Winnipeg: Union of Doukhobors of Canada, 1954);
  • Inikova, Svetlana A. Holidays and Rituals of Doukhobors in the Caucasus (Doukhobor Heritage);
  • Ivanits, Linda J. Russian Folk Belief. (Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 1989); and
  • Popoff, Eli A., Stories from Doukhobor History (Grand. Forks, B.C.: Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ, 1992).

New Book on 1873 Tax Register to be Released Fall 2012

For Revised Release

Doukhobor writer and historian Jonathan J. Kalmakoff is pleased to announce the upcoming release of his new book: 1873 Tax Register of Doukhobors in the Caucasus. The book is compiled from original nineteenth century Imperial Russian tax records housed at the Georgian State Archives in Tbilisi, Georgia and the National Archives of Azerbaijan in Baku, Azerbaijan.

This book contains detailed family information about the Doukhobors living in the Caucasus mountain region of Russia in the year 1873 and includes: the name and age of the males in each household, the family relationship to the head of the household, the number of males and females in each household, resettlement to and from other areas, and more. It also contains full bibliographic references and a comprehensive index.

Sample entry from original 1873 tax register.

The information contained in 1873 Tax Register of Doukhobors in the Caucasus, meticulously translated into English from the original Old Russian handwritten script, is made available to Doukhobor family historians for the first time. The book is a companion to Kalmakoff’s 2004 publication, 1853 Tax Register of Doukhobors in the Caucasus (click here for link).

“This book sheds new light on the demographic and settlement history of Doukhobors in the Caucasus,” says Kalmakoff. “It also contains a wealth of new genealogical information for those tracing their Doukhobor family back to Russia.  It provides a unique and fascinating view of our Doukhobor ancestors – who they were, where they lived and when.”

To the Spirit of God, I Pray and Bow

by Elena Kovshova

Today, relatively few Doukhobors remain in the Republic of Georgia, following mass emigrations to Russia over the past two decades. One of the largest remaining – but least documented – populations of Doukhobors is centered in the town of Dmanisi, formerly known as Bashkichet. In the following article, Russian journalist Elena Kovshova examines the Doukhobors of Dmanisi – the history, philosophy and culture of a disappearing people, rooted in goodness and renowned for their kindess and hospitality. Translated by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff from the Russian journal “Argumenty i Fakty” (No. 4, January 27, 2010).

Dmanisi – the small Georgian town which, in recent times, has become world famous thanks to sensational archeological finds, stores many secrets within itself. Its name is connected not only to the history of early mankind, but also to the destinies of thousands of simple people who, in more recent centuries, appeared in this place.

The history of the Dmanisi Doukhobors is rooted in the depths of the history of the Russian empire, when, in the mid-seventeenth century, Patriarch Nikon, with the support of the reigning [Tsar] Alexei Mikhailovich, introduced church ceremonial reforms intended to correct Russian prayer books to make them consistent with Greek practices, by replacing the two-fingered sign of the cross with the three-fingered sign, and a number of other changes. But the violent methods by which the patriarch implemented the reforms were met by hostile opposition. These actions resulted in the emergence of defenders of the “old belief” who believed that the church had departed from the old rites. Thus arose a religious social movement, whose supporters called themselves Starobryadtsy or “Old-Believers”. Later, they divided into the Popovtsy (“with priests”) and the Bezpopovtsy (the “priestless”) such as the Dukhobory or “spirit wrestlers”.

Elizaveta Bludova proudly displays her handiwork in this rushnik – a traditional Doukhobor handicraft among the Dmanisi Doukhobors.

The movement originated in the second half of the eighteenth century among the peasants of Voronezh, Tambov, Ekaterinoslav and Sloboda-Ukraine provinces. According to the Doukhobors, the world is in eternal struggle, the spirit against the flesh, and desiring brotherhood in the spirit of God’s truth, they renounced the established church dogmas and rites. It was the only way people could protest against the autocratic oppression and hypocrisy of the clergy, who were afraid of losing power, and therefore, followed in the wake of the state.

Naturally, such ideas disturbed the Tsarist government, which saw a direct threat to the state in such opinions. Therefore, an active resettlement policy was undertaken in relation to the Doukhobors. First, they were sent to Tavria province (in the Crimea) on the Molochnaya River (from which the name of the sectarians Molokane is [reputedly] derived), and then they were all expelled to the Caucasus.

Whole families of Doukhobors, with small children in their hands and shackles on their feet, made their way by foot to their places of exile. Some of them thus perished on the road while others arrived in Georgia in the district of Bashkichet, which in Turkish means “the main road”. Indeed, there was no inhabited settlement there, let alone a town; only impenetrable forest through which ran a trade route linking Georgia with Armenia, Turkey and Azerbaijan. Having arrived on this bare ground, the Doukhobors, thanks to astonishing diligence and faith, did not rail at their fate, but began life anew with nothing, hollowing out family dwellings in the ground with stone axes. They spent one year in such dugouts covered with straw, until they built houses in which many of the descendants of those first Doukhobors live to this day.

Each band of the rushnik symbolically represents a particular stage in the life of the Doukhobor woman who makes it.

The house of the Bludovs is more than 150 years old. The rickety stairs, the cracked tree… The seniors cannot afford to repair the house. Nonetheless, the internal furnishing is striking: practically everything, from the wooden furniture and finishing, to all kinds of table-cloths, blankets, mats, bed-covers, is constructed, painted or woven by hand. Every corner of the house exudes exceptional hard work and perfect purity. The [traditional Orthodox] place for icons in the house is [instead] occupied by rushniki – long hand towels which are sacred to each Doukhobor.

Upon marrying, a [Doukhobor] woman should begin to sew such rushniki, although the word “sew” does not accurately reflect the volume of work involved. It is difficult to imagine that it is all done by a single mistress; sewn multi-colored satin ribbons, embroidered satin, cross-stitch, crochet, hand-drawn patterns covered with varnish, combining all the elements in a single composition. And each rushnik, or more accurately, its band, symbolically represents a particular stage in the life of the needlewoman, reflecting her individual perception of the world, the successes and hardships experienced, emotions… Rushniki receive the newborn; they also cover the deceased before burial. Children are not baptized. They themselves perform the funeral service for the deceased, and at the commemoration, borshch (vegetable soup), lapsha (noodles), pastries and vodka are served.

The sunduk (hope chest) is also an indispensable feature for every “marriageable” girl. The father of the bride makes it by hand, and always without nails. On the surface a pattern is burned which is covered with lacquer, and in the corner the initials of the craftsman are put. With such a chest, and its contents, the young wife enters the family of the husband. Incidentally, it is worth noting that the woman begins to sew her “death clothes” as soon as she marries.

Doukhobors do not acknowledge church and traditional religious rites. For example, [the Orthodox custom of] drawing water for a baptism at midnight or taking it from a river, or directly from under a crane. To this day, elements of the Old Russian and Ukrainian languages have survived in the speech of these people, and as a memory of the distant past, the popular legend of the priest who did not actually hold the post, but taught others about the “true path”.

The bands of the rushnik – a Dmanisi Doukhobor handicraft – reflect the individual perceptions, experiences and emotions of its maker.

On Sundays at sunrise, Doukhobors gather in a prayer home. In sequence, one after another, they read psalms, which are transmitted from generation to generation, or else are composed directly during prayer.

God is Spirit / God is a Man, / To the Spirit of God, I pray and bow, / Thus I am a Doukhobor – so Elizaveta Fedorovna Bludova explains the essence of the psalms and teachings.

On a table at Elizaveta Fedorovna’s is an old, but good condition copy of Leo Tolstoy’s book, “Resurrection”. The novel, undoubtedly, has been read and reread many times. Her respect for Leo Tolstoy is particularly vibrant. And no wonder! His sermon on nonviolent resistance to evil, a message of love and forgiveness, liberation from crude ecclesiastical rituals coupled with a call for passive resistance to authority, and the individual spiritual component – is something for which the Doukhobors have suffered! The novel “Resurrection”, with its story of personal spiritual revival, and sharp criticism of the church embodied in the narrative, became one of the reasons for Tolstoy’s excommunication by the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church. But here they honour and remember the great writer who, in the 1890’s, saved thousands of Doukhobors, assisting in their migration from sweltering Cyprus to Canada, whose climatic conditions were better suited for settlement by Russian people.

[Incidentally] few people know that the famous Russian artist Vasily Vasil’evich Vereshchagin drew his painting “Doukhobors Praying” in Dmanisi.

Today, the Doukhobors in Dmanisi are relatively few. The first Georgian President, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, proposed that the Doukhobors return to their historical homeland [of Russia]. On his orders, in 1993-1994, the [Georgian] state bought up Doukhobor houses for quite a good sum. It was then that the bulk of the [Doukhobor] youth went to Tula, Tambov, Lipetsk and Rostov regions. Others – assimilated and began to enter into mixed marriages.

Doukhobor folk patterns etched on a sunduk (hope chest) etched into the wood using pyrography, the art of decorating wood with burn marks from the controlled application of a heated tool.

Vasilisa Minakova, Chairman of the Center for Russian Culture “ISKRA”, represents the average generation of Doukhobors. She combines working as a teacher of Russian language and literature at the Dmanisi primary school with public service. At the center, English and Russian language courses are offered, and whenever possible, attention is paid to urgent problems of the elderly [Doukhobor] people.

Dmanisi has always been distinguished for its kindness and humanity – shares Vasilisa Minakova. “Three years ago, with the support of the head of regional administration Bakuri Mgeladze and the deputy from our area, the president of the pharmaceutical company “PSP”, Kahi Okreashvili, opened a dining-room in Dmanisi for needy pensioners. From 43 people, who make use of it, most of them comprise of single Doukhobors. What the dining-room means to them is self evident. In the name of all participants, I would like to thank not only the initiators, but also the directors of the dining-room Natalia Kavlelashvili, and also the whole collective for their good heart and skillful hands”. With only limited funds, without time-off on holidays, and in spite of frequent stoppage of gas and electricity, they always come out “on top”, they do not turn anyone away without a bowl of soup. There was a time when a total stranger came to the dining-room who had lost his documents; while he was replacing them, he relied largely on the goodness of the collective of this dining-room.

Surrounded by beautiful mountains, reminiscent of the Egyptian pyramids, the River Mashavera and the land, once the promised land of the Doukhobors, stretches the small town of Dmanisi. And in it live a very hospitable, very sweet, kind and hardworking people, those who consider Georgia as their homeland, who love this land, their old homes, small gardens…

These people do not seek attention to themselves: they are not inclined to stand out in front of cameras and give extensive interviews. But they do not decline to, either. So as not to offend. They do not transgress the law of love to one another. And [they desire] only that which is necessary – which is the peaceful sky above, good health, mutual assistance and care for others. From the point of view of the state or from humanitarian organizations, there is no difference – goodness is goodness.

Day-trip to Piers Island: Reminiscing About the Penitentiary, 1932-1935

by Gunter Schaarschmidt

From 1932 to 1935, over 600 Sons of Freedom were interred in a special penitentiary built on Piers Island in the Strait of Georgia between Vancouver Island and the mainland Pacific coast of British Columbia, Canada. Seventy-three years later, on June 17, 2008, Dr. Gunter Schaarschmidt of the University of Victoria returned to Piers Island and visited some of the physical features left from the penitentiary camp site. The following is an account of his observations and photos from his excursion. Reproduced by permission from ISKRA No. 2011 (Grand Forks, USCC, October 3, 2008).

On June 17, 2008, the University of Victoria Retirees Association organized a day-trip to Piers Island just 0.8 km (about half a mile) northwest of the Swartz Bay Ferry Terminal on the Saanich Peninsula on Vancouver Island. The island is inhabited by some 300 people many of whom live there for only part of the year. The island is accessible only by private boat – there are no roads except a dirt circle dirt road and walking trails criss-crossing the island. There are no stores but there is a Fire Station and an emergency helicopter landing site. For the retirees group one of its members and an island resident had chartered the harbour ferry that is normally used for Eco-trips from the pier at the end of Beacon Avenue in Sidney. The group assembled in the Piers Island parking lot next to the Swartz Bay Ferry Terminal and was ferried to the island in two trips. One of the trips arrived at a southern pier across from the ferry terminal, the other at the pier of the property that had been built on the same site as the Penitentiary for the Sons of Freedom (svobodniki), a radical group of Doukhobors, on the north side of the Island.

Plan of Piers Island, British Columbia. Note the Doukhobor penitentiary was located on ten acres in the northwest corner of the island, off of Satellite Channel.

Why was there a need for the creation of the Penitentiary on Piers Island for the Sons of Freedom, far away from their area of settlement in 1908? First of all, one must clearly differentiate between the group of Freedomite Doukhobors (svobodniki) and the Doukhobors as a whole, a pacifist philosophical movement. Lest it be thought that the group of Freedomites are all extreme anarchists, “there are many sincere and creative personalities in the group” (see Tarasoff 2002:93 who devotes an entire section to some of them on pp. 93-98). In fact, the Freedomite group has been very productive in writing diaries and autobiographies (see Rak 2004:115-142).

Figure 1. The old pier post of the camp (the new pier is farther to the right out of range of the photograph). Photo by Gunter Schaarschmidt.

An excerpt from a government document describes the establishment of the camp in part as follows (HWC/WJ 1934:1):

In May and June, 1932, at Nelson and Grand Forks, B.C., 303 males and 285 females of the faction above-named (”the Sons of Freedom faction of the Doukhobor sect”) were convicted of having publicly displayed themselves in a nude condition, and were sentenced to three years imprisonment in the British Columbia Penitentiary.
There being no accommodation for these convicts at the New Westminster Institution, arrangements were made to construct a temporary penitentiary at Piers Island, British Columbia.

Figure 2. Another view of the old pier post. Photo by Gunter Schaarschmidt.

The incarceration of the Freedomites proceeded in 18 escorted parties consisting of between 9 and 40 individuals, from August 11, 1932, to December 22, 1932. None of them served their full sentence of three years. No doubt the most important reason for their early release was a cost-saving effort in the difficult economic situation of the Depression years in Canada (see Skolrood 1995:27). Rationalizing, the warden H.W. Cooper wrote on June 20, 1934 (HWC/WJ 1934:13):

The object of the Administration has been to induce in the Sons of Freedom , confidence in Canada and Canadian ways so that upon their release they will be better citizens of the Dominion. There are signs that this has, to some extent, been attained.

Figure 3. View from the former campsite to the new pier post looking out to the NE. Photo by Gunter Schaarschmidt.

However, others do not quite see it that way stating that “their (the Sons of Freedom) attitudes were unchanged, in fact, their resolve to disobey the state was enhanced by a consciousness of martyrdom achieved at comparatively little person discomfort” (Woodcock & Avakumovic 1968:318).

The release of the Sons of Freedom proceeded in various stages – the last group of about 30 men was transferred to the New Westminster penitentiary before June, 1935. The camp was then demolished for the most part except the wharf and two buildings that had housed the penitentiary officers and matrons.

Figure 4. The owner’s flag post of property No. 119 is on the same spot as the old camp flag post. Photo by Gunter Schaarschmidt.

Of the University of Victoria retirees group visiting the island in June this year, not many knew about the “Doukhobor period”. It is, however, well remembered by the residents of Piers Island. In fact, on a small table with other information about the island, our host had placed a photograph of the campsite with the sign “Piers Island Penitentiary” attached to the pier post. This had apparently been given to him by the real estate agent at the time of the purchase of the property. Skolrood’s book (click here to read Doukhobor chapter) has a full page of photographs accompanying his chapter entitled “The Doukhobor Period, 1932-1935” (Skolrood 1995:14-32). This is a chapter well worth reading for anyone interested in the history of the Doukhobor movement as seen from the perspective of a former resident of Piers Island.

Figure 5. Rear view of the camp site (now property No. 119). Photo by Gunter Schaarschmidt.

Included are four photographs that I took of some of the physical features left from the penitentiary camp site. There is first and foremost the old pier post in Figures 1 and 2 (but without the sign “Piers Island Penitentiary”). Figure 3 shows today’s pier looking out to the NE. Then, there is the site of the camp flag post now marked by the owner’s maple-leaf flag (Figure 4). And, finally, there is the rear view of the new owner’s property which for some reason evoked in me the sight of the former women’s compound (Figure 5). Mentally, I had the eerie feeling of Doukhobor voices united in song in the beautiful surroundings of the camp whose barbed-wire fencing no doubt prevented the camp inhabitants from enjoying the scenery as much as we visitors were able to do more than three quarters of a century later.

References

  • HWC/WJ (1934). Piers Island Penitentiary (Memorandum from H.W.Cooper, Warden, British Columbia Penitentiary, to Superintendent of Penitentiaries, Ottawa).
  • Rak, Julie (2004). Negotiated Memory: Doukhobor Autobiographical Discourse. Vancouver/Toronto: UBC Press.
  • Skolrood, A. Harold (1995). Piers Island: A Brief History of the Island and Its People 1886-1993. Lethbridge, Alberta: Paramount Printers.
  • Tarasoff, Koozma J. (2002). Spirit Wrestlers: Doukhobor Pioneers’ Strategies for Living. Ottawa: LEGAS/Spirit Wrestler Publishing.
  • Woodcock, George & Ivan Avakumovic (1968). The Doukhobors. Toronto: Oxford University Press.

Notes

To read about Gunter Schaarschmidt’s research about the Doukhobor dialect spoken in Canada, see Four Norms – One Culture: Doukhobor Russian in Canada and also English for Doukhobors: 110 Years of Russian-English Contact in Canada.  For his translations of 19th century German articles about the Doukhobors, see The Dukhobortsy in Transcaucasia, 1854-1856 by Heinrich Johann von Paucker and Doukhobors in the Caucasus, 1863-1864 by Alexander Petzholdt.

Doukhobor Place Names Database Renamed ‘The Doukhobor Gazetteer’

For Immediate Release – June 6, 2008

Over the course of their three hundred-year history, the Doukhobors have both influenced, and been influenced by, the culture and geography of the places where they have settled and lived. For the first time ever, a comprehensive record has been compiled of the places of historic, cultural and religious significance to the Doukhobor people, presenting them in detail.

The ‘Doukhobor Place Names Database’ was originally conceived in 1999-2000 by writer and historian Jonathan J. Kalmakoff as a compilation of the origin and meaning of some 200 select Doukhobor village names. In the years that followed, Kalmakoff continued to expand the database, painstakingly gathering facts and details for hundreds of additional entries associated with the Doukhobors, including populated places such as localities, settlements, schools, post offices, railway sidings, subdivisions, streets, farms, bridges, cemeteries and parks, as well as natural geographic features such as lakes, streams, springs, bays, islands, hills, mountains, caves, woods, rocks and valleys.

Today, with over 1,000 entries, the database is the most complete and detailed database of Doukhobor geographic information ever compiled, with entries for place names, features and locations, large and small, well-known and obscure, past and present, throughout Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Armenia, Cyprus, Canada and the United States. It has been made available online and is searchable by keyword, feature type, geographically and alphabetically.

Each entry in the database contains a wealth of information relating to: the feature type; cross-references to current, previous and alternate names; the Russian (Cyrillic) spelling of the name; the origin and meaning of the name; current and previous political borders and administrative boundaries; the history of the place or feature, including dates of establishment and abandonment; the legal land description of the place or feature; the geographic coordinates (latitude, longitude) of the place or feature; and other descriptive information.

Recently, a number of researchers have suggested that the database has become much more than a compilation of place name origins; it is an important and authoritative online reference source for Doukhobor geographic information. To reflect this greater scope and purpose, the database has now been officially renamed ‘The Doukhobor Gazetteer’. It is believed that the new name provides a more accurate picture of what the database is about.

The Doukhobor Gazetteer is a tremendous achievement of detail and extraordinary research. Jonathan J. Kalmakoff has put in a prodigious amount of work to provide an accurate and definitive listing of Doukhobor geographic information. Packed with historical detail, interesting facts and entertaining anecdotes, it gives a fascinating panorama of Dukhoboria – the land of the Doukhobors. Ideal for browsing, its simple, easy-to-use format makes it the perfect reference companion for research and general interest purposes.

The Doukhobor Gazetteer will be continually updated with new information and additional features to ensure the user of data reliability and usability. The next phase of development will be to link the text entries to online maps utilizing Google Maps and Google Earths interactive software. It is anticipated that this new phase will be largely completed by fall as project volunteers conduct fieldwork over the summer to gather and compile GPS geographic coordinates of historic Doukhobor sites.

The Doukhobor Gazetteer can be accessed online through the Doukhobor Genealogy Website at https://www.doukhobor.org/gazetteer-intro.html.

The Doukhobors in Malyi Snezhetok

by Evgeny Pisarev

Today in the Pervomaysky district of Tambov, Russia, one hundred and four Doukhobor immigrants from Georgia have obtained permanent residence. Half of them – under the Russian Federation’s state program for the resettlement of Russian compatriots. The following article, reproduced from the Russian newspaper “Chernozem’e” (No. 4568, January 22, 2008) and translated into English by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff, examines the arrival of the Spirit Wrestlers from the perspective of the local Tambov population.

Descent from the Mountains

The first 56 immigrants, representatives of the Doukhobor religious community who left their historic native land – Russia – more than one and a half centuries ago, arrived in Tambov during the summer of last year. Initially they arrived, it may be said, on reconnaissance: to observe and get acquainted with the conditions of life, for eventual permanent settlement there with their families and belongings. The authorities advised the local press not to publicize the fact of their arrival, especially as the printed word might influence public opinion. Russian relations with Georgia were not at their best that summer, and the Georgian Doukhobors had not yet entered the state program for assistance of compatriots living abroad.

A Doukhobor woman ponders her family’s future in Russia. Photograph by Agnes Montanari.

The Doukhobors arrived from the mountain highlands village of Gorelovka. Territorially the village is Georgian, but the name it carries is distinctly Tambovsky. And the surnames of the immigrants appear quite familiar: Tikhonov, Tolmachev, Popov, Tomilin, Baturin, Savenkov, Sukhorukov. Along with the other “scouts”, the leader of the community, Tatyana Chuchmaeva, has also arrived in Tambov. She is not venerated by her coreligionists in the manner of the Doukhobors two hundred years ago, but her influence is significant. Moreover, in Georgia Tatyana Stepanovna was an assistant to the chief administrator of the district, therefore she quickly found a common language with the local authorities: the officials – everywhere the officials.

However, local residents, being uninformed, welcomed the visitors from Georgia mistrustfully. There were district hearings about sectarians, rumours of the “mykhomortsy” (a type of mushroom native to Russia) spread, and the inhabitants of one of the shabby houses in neighbouring Staroklenskoye village hung out a red flag from his roof to scare away any newcomers.

Tambov regional authorities offered the immigrants seven villages in which to form a compact settlement. Having inspected the host villages, they decided on the village of Maly Snezhetok in the Pervomaysky district. And today they are convinced they haven’t misjudged things. Here they have a suburb, in actuality a settlement, which they matter-of-factly named Novoye (“new’).

Operation “Migration”

Through the resettlement program, Russia has demonstrated its good will and readiness to accept its compatriots, provide them with a livelihood, and help whenever possible with housing, while at the same time, to utilize the migrant workforce to help correct the current demographic situation in the country. In this regard, the Tambov authorities announced in 2007 that they would accept one and a half thousand immigrants from neighbouring countries, and that they had housing and accommodations ready for them. They even visited Kazakhstan, where they met with Russian compatriots to promote the virtues of life in Tambov, although they did not conceal the problems which they would likely encounter in a new place.

Six agricultural districts were designated for the immigrants, located in the districts of Michurinsk, Nikiforovka, Pervomaysky, Petrovka, Sosnovka and Staroyur’evo. The question of expanding the territories for resettlement was seriously discussed – regional authorities intended to add to the list the districts of Inzhavino and Bondari, as well as the city of Uvarovo, where a business/financial zone has been created on the site of a former chemical plant. Under the planned program, by 2012 the province of Tambov should receive twelve and a half thousand migrants. The vast bulk is expected from Kazakhstan, Turkmeni, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Moldova and Kirghizia. In Kazkhstan alone, there are over 14 million residents of which five million are ethnic Russians.

However, the number of Russian compatriots wishing to leave their familiar places in search of greener pastures has turned out to be much less than expected. As of today, the resettlement process has occurred only in the Pervomaysky district. And even incorrigible optimists admit that it will be hardly possible to entice several thousand compatriots to Tambov province in the short term. It is much easier to persuade them to relocate to the provincial capital, or at worst, one of the large district centers, rather than to a rural Tambov village where there is insufficient employment for the local inhabitants.

The return to their ancestral home in Tambov offers new hope to many. Photograph by Agnes Montanari.

In any case, as of today, 109 people have relocated to the province, having privileges under the state program, along with their family members.

The Road Home

The immigrants are quietly maintained at their new place. Forty-five people live in the dormitory of an agricultural enterprise, while the others are lodged in twenty-six of the new prefabricated houses built on an expedited basis by the local construction firm.

The immigrants were met, as is customary, with bread and salt, and the bookkeeper of the agricultural enterprise, Svetlana Lepikhova, by tradition, first let a cat into the house of the Chuchmaev family. It sniffed at the corners and indicated, by its pleasant purring, that it was okay to come in. The migrants have received housing at the rate of eighteen square meters per person. Each family has received 40 sotok (4 hectares) of land for farming, and the local school has been replenished with twelve pupils. At Christmas, the immigrants received all their containers of possessions from Georgia. The costs of transporting the personal property of the participants of the program were assumed by the state.

The shadow of mistrust with which the migrants from Georgia met with local residents soon disappeared. As it was found out, their fellow countrymen have arrived. Simply, they have not been home for a long time…

The shadow of easy mistrust with which local residents have met immigrants from Georgia, has soon disappeared. As it was found out, fellow countrymen have arrived. Simply they for a long time not were at home …

Official Commentary

Kirill Kolonchin, Vice-Governor of Tambov province:

The state program of assistance for resettlement is intended, first of all, for those who wish to relocate, but have no resources for this purpose. Taking a provincial approach, we assessed their needs from the perspective of the local economy. The province has received a total of approximately five hundred applications, but they were not all followed up with. The only ones who were consistent were the Doukhobors. In Georgia they lived in the mountains where, eight months of the year, they were engaged primarily in agriculture; therefore, I think, they will find employment in our chernozem (black earth, agriculturally productive) districts. In order to accept them, we had to negotiate debt security documents, incorporate them into the resettlement program, and before the New Year, install the immigrants in new houses. The houses are financed through a municipal development fund, and we have yet to develop repayment procedures for the buyout of the houses. The immigrants do not yet have citizenship, but upon receipt of such they will have all the rights of Russian citizens; in particular they will be able to obtain loans for the development of farms.

Several hundred Georgian Doukhobors still await resettlement to Tambov. Photograph by Agnes Montanari.

Background

The spiritual Christian religious movement, whose adherents later became known as Doukhobors or Dukhobortsy emerged in Russia in the second half of the eighteenth century. The Doukhobors denied Orthodox rites and did not recognize priests and the clergy, or the traditional authorities in their communities. For disobeying the authorities and for refusing to serve in the military, they were persecuted by the Tsarist government and the Church. At the end of the nineteenth century, many Doukhobors immigrated to Canada. A large number of them were settled in Georgia. There, the Russian natives maintained a traditional way of life, the Russian language, culture and have endured all conceivable revolutions, wars, militant atheism and changes of political regime. In the early Nineties of the last century, they began returning to Russia, their historic homeland. There, they settled in Tula, Bryansk, Belgorod and Orel provinces, and as of last year have begun settling in Tambov province.

 

For additional background on the Doukhobors in Malyi Snezhetok, see the articles Georgian Doukhobors Relocate to Tambov, Russia and More Georgian Doukhobors Move to Tambov by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff as well as Tambov Doukhobors on Russian News by Drugie Novosti (translated by Koozma J. Tarasoff). 

More Georgian Doukhobors Move to Tambov

For Immediate Release – January 18, 2008

Another fifty-four settlers arrived in the Russian province of Tambov from Georgia on December 25-26, 2007. All of them are members of the Doukhobor community whose ancestors had been relocated to the Caucasus from Tambov and elsewhere in south and central Russia in the mid-nineteenth century. This was reported recently by the Russian news agency Regnum.

As previously reported (see Georgian Doukhobors Relocate to Tambov, Russia), the first fifty-six Doukhobors from Georgia arrived in Tambov in May and June, 2007. Prior to that, at the beginning of 2007, the leaders of the Doukhobor community petitioned the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin with a request for assistance to resettle its members in Russia. The President endorsed the request and made the appropriate directives to federal and regional authorities.

The Doukhobors were expelled from Tsarist Russia in the 19th century. Photograph by Agnes Montanari.

The relocation of the Georgian Doukhobors is part of Putin’s ambitious six-year program to voluntarily repatriate millions of ethnic Russians residing in the former Soviet republics to the Russian Federation. The resettlement program, announced by the President on June 22, 2006, is intended to help revive flagging economic conditions in Russia and to boost the nation’s high mortality rates and low birthrates.

In the summer, the first Doukhobor repatriates in Tambov began construction of a new suburb to house their families in the village of Malyi Snezhetok in the Pervomaysky district, ninety kilometres north-west of Tambov city. However, they had serious problems paying for building materials because of the high cost of housing. Consequently, federal officials allocated 198 million roubles from the federal budget to assist the Doukhobors up to the end of 2008.

Doukhobor dress and customs have changed little from the 19th century. Photograph by Agnes Montanari.

Provincial officials have also played a significant role in the Doukhobor resettlement. On September 27, 2007, the Tambov regional Duma (representative assembly) enacted changes to provincial programs designed to assist, in conjunction with the federal government, the voluntary resettlement of repatriates living abroad. In large part, the enactments related to the arrival of the Doukhobor community from Georgia since May and June, 2007.

Tambov authorities have assisted the latest Doukhobor arrivals with temporary accommodations in a three-tier school dormitory in Malyi Snezhetok while additional panelboard houses are constructed for them in the new suburb of Novoye. The local market garden and nursery, “Snezhetok Ltd.” has offered employment to the Doukhobors. Expert agriculturalists, they will also be given the opportunity to establish peasant collective farms and individual farmsteads.

It is reported that up to 500 more Doukhobors in Georgia await clearance to relocate to Tambov under the resettlement program. Yet despite the assistance which is offered to them by Russian authorities, the move is still a difficult one, requiring the Doukhobors to uproot and start over again, in a new land, with virtually nothing, as their ancestors had before them. Perhaps it is no coincidence that one Doukhobor psalm teaches “Мир состоит из движения, и все стремится к совершенству” (“the World consists of movement, and all aspire to perfection”).

For subsequent information on the Doukhobor resettlement to Tambov, see the article The Doukhobors in Malyi Snezhetok by Evgeny Pisarev (translated by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff) and also Tambov Doukhobors on Russian News by Drugie Novosti (translated by Koozma J. Tarasoff).

New Russian Book Chronicles the Doukhobors

For Immediate Release – December 31, 2007

A new book has been published in Russian about the Doukhobors. Strana Dukhoboriya by Alla Bezhentseva was published in Tbilisi, Georgia by Russkii Klub in late 2007. The English translation of the title is “Land of the Doukhobors”.

Cover of Strana Dukhoboriya

Cover of Strana Dukhoboriya.

Strana Dukhoboriya documents the historical origins and development of the Doukhobors over the past two hundred and sixty years. It begins with the birth of the Christian Protestant doctrine in mid-eighteenth century South Russia. It then follows the lives of early teachers Siluan Kolesnikov, Ilarion Pobirokhin and Savely Kapustin who spread the Doukhobor faith among the Russian peasantry and formed the core of the sect’s worship and devotions. The history of the Doukhobor community is traced from its establishment at Molochnye Vody in 1801 through to its expulsion to the Caucasus in 1841-1845. The book explores the pivotal events of the late nineteenth century which helped define the modern face of Doukhoborism. It follows the immigration to Canada – the second homeland of the Doukhobors – and the problems they encountered with integration into the society and culture of North America. It also examines the little-known history of the Doukhobors during the Soviet period, through Perestroika and the fall of the Soviet Union, to the present period, including recent mass immigrations of Doukhobors from Georgia to the Central Russian provinces of Tula, Bryansk and elsewhere.

The appendix to Strana Dukhoboriya contains a rich and detailed exposition of Doukhobor culture in Georgia today. It studies traditions, past and present, including local dialect, food and dishes, ceremonies, as well as songs and psalms. It includes a selection of psalms from the Doukhobor Zhivotnaya Kniga or “Living Book”. As well, it contains a parting word from the Doukhobor elders of Dmanisi, Georgia, the hometown of the author. It concludes with a detailed bibliography and interview of the author by Georgian journalist Nino Tsitlanadze.

The author, Alla Nikolayevna Bezhentseva, was born in Tbilisi, Georgia and currently lives in the town of Dmanisi, a district administrative centre with a significant Doukhobor population. She has a PhD in civil engineering and taught engineering design at “Gruzgiprogorstoi” Institute in Sukhumi for fifteen years. She has designed numerous buildings throughout Georgia including theatres, houses of culture and recreation, government administrative buildings and hotels. She is actively involved in a number of women’s and humanitarian organizations, notably the Union of Russian Women in Georgia. She is also an accomplished writer, having written a number of Russian and Georgian language texts and materials.

Author Alla Nikolayevna Bezhentseva

Author Alla Bezhentseva speaks at the book release in Tbilisi, Georgia in December, 2007.

Bezhentseva’s Doukhobor research was sponsored and published by the Russkii Klub (“Russian Club”), a Georgian-based cultural and educational organization dedicated to the promotion of cooperation, friendship and mutual understanding between the states of Russia and Georgia. Fittingly, her book was released in December 2007, symbolically declared the “Year of Russian Language” in Georgia. The book release, which took place at the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Tbilisi, was attended by Russian and Georgian dignitaries as well as members of the Doukhobor community in Georgia.

Georgian Doukhobor Choir performs at Book Release

A Doukhobor choir from Dmanisi, Georgia performs at the book release in December, 2007.

At a time when Russian culture generally, and Doukhobor culture in particular, in Georgia is in serious decline, Bezhentseva’s book graphically illustrates the life, doctrines, history and traditions of the Doukhobor community in Georgia. It is a valuable and interesting source of information for present and future generations.

Book Release of Strana Dukhoboriya

Book release at the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Tbilisi, Georgia in December, 2007.

Strana Dukhoboriya (IBSN 978-9941-0-0088-1) is a 152-page Russian language book. To read, search, download, save and print a full PDF copy of the book, free of charge, visit the Russkii Klub website. By special arrangement with the author and publisher, an English translation of select chapters is underway and will appear on the Doukhobor Genealogy Website in early 2008.

Georgian Doukhobors Relocate to Tambov, Russia

For Immediate Release – July 31, 2007

Fifty-seven Doukhobors have recently resettled from the Bogdanovka region of the Republic of Georgia to the province of Tambov in central Russia. Their families, numbering up to seven hundred and sixty Doukhobors, are expected to join them from Georgia in September. This was reported by the Russian news agency Regnum today.

The Doukhobors have settled in the village of Malyi Snezhetok in the Pervomaysky district, ninety kilometres north-west of Tambov city, the administrative capital of the province. There, they are temporarily housed in a school dormitory, with a small local staff providing the migrants administrative support, including food, lodging and basic necessities, while a new suburb is being built with permanent accommodations for them.

The suburb will be named Novoe (“new”), marking the beginning of the Doukhobors’ new life in Russia. It will consist of two hundred panelboard houses on forty square meter lots for the Doukhobor families. A shop, medical clinic and a retirement home for the Doukhobor elderly will also be built. Construction of the buildings, roads, waterworks and electrical works is scheduled to be completed by the end of this year.

The Doukhobors resettling to Tambov will be offered employment in the local market garden and nursery, “Snezhetok Ltd.” They will also have the opportunity to establish peasant collective farms and individual farmsteads, the Russian news agency noted.

General map of Doukhobor resettlement from the Caucasus to Tambov, Russia in 2007.

The relocation of the Georgian Doukhobors is part of the Russian Federation’s ambitious six-year program to facilitate the voluntary repatriation of millions of Russians residing in former Soviet republics. The resettlement program, decreed by Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 22, 2006, is intended to help revive the Russian economy and compensate for the country’s staggering demographic crisis – high mortality rates and low birth rates are believed to be draining the Russian population of some 700,000 people a year.

The Doukhobors, who are among the first to participate in the resettlement program, have received strong support from Russia’s top political leaders, including President Vladimir Putin, Premier Mikhail Fradkov, Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov, Director of the Federal Migration Service Konstantin Romadanovsky and Tambov Governor Oleg Betin. They were deliberately chosen to resettle to Tambov on account of their expertise in agricultural production.

For the village of Malyi Snezhetok, the arrival of the Doukhobors is warmly welcomed. In addition to doubling the population, the Doukhobors will provide a tremendous boost to the local economy, offset an acute labour shortage in the agricultural industry, and help facilitate the improvement and expansion of local infrastructure. The village school, previously slated for closure, will now remain open with the impending arrival of over sixty Doukhobor children.

Having considered several different options for relocation, the Doukhobors chose Tambov on account of its large agricultural sector, temperate climate, steppe geography, and its favourable linguistic, cultural and religious environment. In this regard, the interests of the Doukhobors, the Russian Federation, and Tambov local and provincial administrations coincided.

Under the resettlement program, the Doukhobors are assisted with their travel arrangements and primary accommodation, including the registration of their legal and social status, as well as with jobs, municipal and pension services, preschool, school and professional education, Regnum said. In addition, local and provincial authorities provide administrative support for the Doukhobors, including food, temporary lodging and basic necessities.

An important factor is the cost of housing. While the Russian Joint Stock Company “Tamak” has contracted to construct the Doukhobors’ homes in Malyi Snezhetok, it is not for free. The cost to complete each panelboard house is estimated at a minimum of six thousand roubles per square meter of living space. The Doukhobor migrants do not currently possess the required funds; therefore Russian authorities are developing various repayment schemes for them, including financial grants and compensation and credit facilities.

Notwithstanding this assistance, the resettlement is not without problems. The Doukhobors have encountered numerous legal obstacles in connection with the receipt of visas, the certification of participants in the resettlement program, and with citizenship. In response to this, the representative of the Doukhobor community Ivan Astafurov has voiced his concern over the slow pace at which the Doukhobors are being allowed to relocate with their families to Tambov.

Tambov Governor Oleg Betin recently visited Malyi Snezhetok and toured the suburb construction site. He met with local officials responsible for coordinating the resettlement as well as with the Doukhobors. He assured them that “their resettlement will be aided and supported at the highest levels in the Russian Federation” and pledged to work with local, provincial and federal officials to expedite their relocation.

Tambov is the ancestral home of many of the Doukhobors, whose forebears resettled from there to Tavria in the early 1800’s, and later to the Caucasus in the 1840’s. The province is located in central Russia, along the confluence of the Tsna and Studenets rivers, and borders on Penza, Saratov, Ryazan, Lipetsk and Voronezh provinces. Tambov’s economy is primarily industrial, with major sectors including mechanical engineering, metalworking and the chemical industry. Agriculture is a smaller but still important economic sector; its production focuses on grains, potatoes and sugar beets.

Since 1989, more than 3,000 Doukhobors have relocated from the Caucasus to the provinces of Krasnodar, Stavropol, Tula, Orel, Bryansk and elsewhere in Russia, driven by regional instability, ethnic tensions, land reform, economic hardship, as well as a longing to return to the Motherland. Once the latest resettlement to Tambov is completed, it is estimated that less than one hundred Doukhobors will remain in the Bogdanovka region of Georgia.

For updated information on the Doukhobor resettlement, see the articles More Georgian Doukhobors Move to Tambov by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff, The Doukhobors in Malyi Snezhetok by Evgeny Pisarev (translated by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff) and also Tambov Doukhobors on Russian News by Drugie Novosti (translated by Koozma J. Tarasoff).

A Fading Minority: The Doukhobors’ Continued Struggle For Survival

by Hedvig Lohm & Ilya Chkhutishvili

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, many of Georgia’s Doukhobors resettled to Russia, driven by regional instability, ethnic tensions and economic hardship.  Those who remained became minorities in their own villages. Now, land reforms are forcing those who are left to apply for Russian citizenship.  Should the Doukhobors leave, it is feared that new ethnic disputes may erupt between their Armenian and Georgian neighbours.by Hedvig Lohm and Ilya Chkhutishvili originally appeared in the e-magazine “Georgia Today” (31.08.2007) www.georgiatoday.ge/.

The Dukhobors are an ethnic Russian religious community who today reside in Russia, the Caucasus and Canada. While the word ‘Dukhobor’ means ‘Spirit Wrestler’ in Russian, today the Dukhobors living in Georgia are facing a more earthly struggle. Since the Dukhobors’ legal documents for the lease of land have been disputed by the Ninotsminda rayon’s municipal administration, this community may lose all legal rights to its land – the Dukhobors’ only source of income. If the issue of land ownership is not resolved, most Dukhobors are likely to give up the struggle to continue living in Gorelovka, Georgia, and leave for Russia. Such a development would contribute not only to the loss of a colorful and unique population group, but is also a cause for concern among local Armenians who worry that if the Dukhobors leave, the Georgian government will settle ecological migrants from Adjara and Svaneti in Gorelovka, a move which could become a source of new disputes between the Georgian newcomers and the local Armenian community.

The Dukhobors represent one of the oldest ethnic minorities in Georgia. In late 18th century Tsarist Russia, sects of religious dissenters such as the Dukhobors, Molokans, Staroveri (“Old Believers”) and Subbotniks were treated as pariahs. The Russian rulers were concerned that they would spread their heresies and seduce ‘true’ Orthodox believers. Consequently, in 1839 an ultimatum was given to the sectarians: convert to Orthodoxy, or leave for the newly conquered Caucasus region. Most of them decided to go into exile. In 1839-1845 the Dukhobors settled in the two Georgian regions of Javakheti and Dmanisi, Kedabek in today’s Azerbaijan, and Kars in today’s Turkey. Of these early exiles, the Dukhobors in Ninotsminda rayon are the only ones that remain.

Group of Doukhobor women in Gorelovka village, Georgia.  GeorgiaToday.

The Dukhobors lived through very hard times during the 19th century, weathering both conflicts with Tsarist Russian authorities and disputes within the community. At the end of the 19th century there were a total of 10,000 Dukhobors in the Javakheti region spread through eight villages. During the Soviet collectivization process in the 1930s, the Dukhobor’s communal system of redistributing agricultural lands was destroyed. However, the Dukhobors were used to working on collective lands and most of them were able to easily adapt to the new Communist system. Consequently, their kolkhozes turned into some of the most efficient and profitable in the entire Soviet Union. Ethnically, their villages remained predominantly Dukhobor, though in some villages a few Armenian families resided as well.

The end of the Soviet era, however, saw many Dukhobors leaving Georgia and by the late 1980s a wave of resettlement to the Russian Federation was already in full swing. There were several reasons why the Dukhobors left for Russia. During the last part of the Perestroika years and the collapse of the Soviet Union Georgia was in turmoil. In addition, Georgian ethno-nationalist politics were on the rise while at the same time “Javakh” the Armenian, then paramilitary, organization took de facto control over the Javakheti region.

One of the main initiators of this resettlement process was Maria Uglova, who was a chairperson of the Spasovka kolkhoz. The Dukhobors who left with Uglova resettled in Russia’s Tulskiy oblast. The migrant Dukhobors moved primarily to Tulskiy and Rostovskiy oblasts, as well as to Stavropol krai. From 1979 to 1989 the number of Dukhobors in Ninotsminda decreased from 3,830 to 3,165. By the mid-1990s about 1,400 Dukhobors remained in Georgia, about 50 of them in Dmanisi.

Already by the early 1990s the Dukhobors had become minorities in seven of their eight original villages. In 1997 there was another wave of migration from Javakheti. Lyuba Goncharova, the new chairperson of the Gorelovka kolkhoz, arranged a resettlement of around 300 people to Bryanskiy oblast. By the end of the decade, the Russians were now a minority in seven of the eight Dukhobor villages. Gradually the ratio of Dukhobors in Gorelovka also changed from an absolute majority to a situation where the Armenian population is now larger. Today there are about 504 Dukhobors, 551 Armenians and 31 Georgians in Gorelovka.

The agricultural cooperative “Dukhoborets” which was established after the fall of communism in Gorelovka village on the remains of an old kolkhoz, provides the Gorelovka Dukhobors with a sense of collective security. The cooperative is weak and not very profitable, but still provides a small income to most of the remaining Dukhobor families in Gorelovka. It also functions as a social security institution for the entire community of Dukhobors. As one of the leading Dukhobors explains, the credo of the cooperative is “to help the Dukhobor community”.

In 1997 the cooperative was one of the biggest agricultural unions in the region. At present the cooperative has one major challenge: the “Dukhoborets” land lease contract is being disputed by the local authorities. In 2002, then gamgebeli Rafik Arzumanyan signed a lease contract with the Dukhoborets cooperative in Gorelovka. According to the contract the cooperative leases 4,290 ha of the original 7,700 ha that made up the Soviet kolkhoz. However, this contract is now disputed by the current gamgebeli, who claims that the Dukhoborets contract falls short of both the initial lease decision made by the gamgeoba (Georgian for “village council”) and a proper map delineating exactly which lands are being leased. The contract also lacks the proper signature of the Public Registrar and a registration number from the Public Registry. Dukhoborets representatives claim, however, that none of these mistakes can be blamed on the cooperative – rather, they fall under the concept of ‘administrative trust’, meaning that the responsibility for creating a legal lease document lies with the authorities and not with a private person or entity.

Sirotsky Dom building in Gorelovka village, Georgia.  GeorgiaToday.

If the cooperative closes or the land lease contract is not acknowledged by the local gamgeoba, most Dukhobors in Gorelovka are likely to give up the fight to continue living in Gorelovka and leave for Russia. Already many of them are applying for Russian citizenship. If the cooperative continues to function, however, it could be a better choice for the Dukhobors to stay, since they are provided with income and still have a collective point of security.

The European Center for Minority Issues (ECMI) is assisting the Dukhobor community in their relations with the local government and helping them to maintain their cultural heritage and present living place. As the total number of Dukhobors in Georgia has decreased to 700, another wave of emigration will lead to the loss of this minority from Georgia. To help resolve the legal problems of the Dukhobor community, ECMI in cooperation with other organizations is trying to convince local and state authorities of the importance of the Dukhobors issue. For now, with no specific actions taken either at the state or local level, the fate of the Dukhobors in Georgia remains an unknown.

Notes

For a thorough and comprehensive examination of the issue of land ownership and inter-ethnic relations among the Doukhobors, Armenians and Georgians of Ninotsminda rayon (district), in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region of Georgia, see Hedvig Lohm’s study, Doukhobors in Georgia.

Since the writing of this article, the remaining Doukhobors in Georgia have chosen to resettle to Russia as part of President Putin’s highly-publicized repatriation scheme. Arrangements are being made for their resettlement to the village of Maly Snezhetok in Tambov province, Russia. For more about the resettlement, see the articles Georgian Doukhobors Relocate to Tambov, Russia and More Georgian Doukhobors Move to Tambov by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff and also The Doukhobors in Malyi Snezhetok by Evgeny Pisarev.