Story of a Spiritual Upheaval

by Vasily Nikolayevich Pozdnyakov

The following article is reproduced from the English translation of Doukhobor Vasily Nikolayevich Pozdnyakov’s (1869-1921) controversial narrative, “Story of a Spiritual Upheaval” (Peace Collection of Swarthmore College: Swarthmore Pennsylvania, 1908). Exiled to Siberia from 1896 to 1905 for refusing to bear arms, Pozdnyakov later left the Doukhobor Community disillusioned with its leadership. In stark, eloquent detail, Pozdnyakov recounts the persecutions and spiritual upheaval of the Doukhobors in the Caucasus and Canada under the leadership of Peter “Lordly” Verigin. Translated by Alexander M. Slowinski.


In the second half of the nineteenth century the Doukhobors – numbering about twenty thousand people – were living in the Caucasus in the provinces of Elizavetpol, Tiflis, and Kars. In each province they formed one separate settlement of several neighbouring villages. 

Vasily Verigin – the father of Peter Verigin, the present leader of the Canadian Doukhobors – was living in the village Slavyanka, province of Elizavetpol, and was reported among the Doukhobors to be very rich. He was totally illiterate – as almost all the Doukhobors were – and a man of harsh temper. Being once elected Elder of his village, he showed himself a real despot. He used to walk about in the village with a whip and to give lashes for the least disorder or disrespect. His fellow countrymen were often sorry for having elected for themselves such a severe commander, and they were glad when the term of his service ended. He had seven sons and two daughters. All his sons were tall and possessed a remarkable strength; they were also known to be very proud and ambitious. 

Being rich the Verigins could not find their equals among the simply living Doukhobors and had to look for friends elsewhere. The country near Slavyanka is inhabited by many Tartars, Mohammedans, known as desperadoes and robbers. Many of them are polygamists and particularly the nobility. Much of the land belongs to their petty Princes, and the peasants are generally very dependent from the landlords and sharply treated by them. The Verigins were on best terms with the Tartar Princes; they visited frequently each other and this acquaintance was not without influence on them. 

The four elder sons of Verigin were also illiterate and were spending most of their time in the mountains, looking after the cattle. There they made famous themselves by intrepidity and even the Tartars feared them. They got later their share of the inheritance and were living separately. 

The three younger sons were called: Peter, Vasily and Grigory; I will have to mention them afterwards. Unlike their elder brothers they were learning at home – there were no schools in the Doukhoborian villages – but, as soon as they could read and write a little, their father decided that they have learned enough and discharged the teacher. It was resolved that they will be merchants and carry on the trade in the dry goods store their father set up for them. But they did not show any ability in trade and the business was going on badly. In fact, they were living an easy and merry life and spending more money than they could work out, so that the patrimonial fortune was gradually wasting away. 


The Doukhobors possessed from long ago a charitable institution called the Orphan House, which was, however, more a centre of spiritual and common activity of the Doukhobors than an asylum, as the orphans and the old, helpless people found usually refuge in their native village. The Orphan House was situated in the Doukhoborian settlement of the province of Tiflis, in the village Goreloye, district of Akhalkalaki, and owned much property and about half a million rubles in money which was kept in the Orphan House itself. 

Lukeria Kalmykova

The post of the manager of the Orphan House was very influential and honourable; in fact, the manager of the Orphan House was the leader of all the Doukhobors. At that time the manager was a woman, a middle- aged widow, Lukeria Kalmykov. She was clever and had a certain kind of good nature, for which she was beloved by everybody who knew her. Her management was so intelligent and peaceful that the Doukhobors remember her until now with best feeling. 

Once she came to Slavyanka where the Verigins were living. Here she got acquainted with Peter Verigin –  who was about twenty years old then and married already – and proposed to him to be her helper in the Orphan House. He consented willingly and went away with her, leaving his wife and a baby at home. 

Nobody knew exactly why Peter Verigin was taken to the Orphan House. He had no definite occupation as all the others employed in the Orphan House had; but was seen always together with the woman-manager when she was going about and giving orders. 

So passed [a] few years. In 1886 Lukeria Kalmykov died. Her death was quite unexpected, and the first few weeks that followed the affairs were at a dead set and the successor’s question was not raised decidedly yet. The post of the manager of the Orphan House was usually hereditary. The late woman-manager had no children, but she had a brother; she did not name her successor, however, and it was unknown who will replace her. 

At that time Peter Verigin introduced himself to public notice. During the funeral ceremony already he was giving orders as if he was the manager, which displeased much the relatives of the late woman-manager and all the persons employed in the Orphan House, he did not enjoy their sympathy during all the time of his stay there. Many Doukhobors, seeing how boldly he was commanding, began to suppose that he will be the manager. They were saying that probably he was taken to the Orphan House, because the late woman- manager wanted him to be her successor . Some were approaching him and inquiring about the matter, but he was reserved and was not answering frankly. At the same time he was behaving mysteriously and telling prophetically to the people that “the time of the second advent of Christ is coming, and everybody ought to pray to God that He giveth him the understanding to recognize Christ”. This prediction was not quite unexpected to the Doukhobors, as it was their common belief long since that Christ is living secretly among them, and they were only waiting for His appearance.

Verigin’s words were spreading rapidly and interpreted differently. Very soon a party of friends was formed around him and they suggested to the people that he himself is the Christ. Some of them were saying, they had been told by the late woman-manager that Verigin shall judge all the universe; others had seen him doing miracles; and an old man was relating that the night of Verigin’s birth he had seen a star falling on the house of the Verigins and dispersing; he knew that Christ had been born, but ought to be silent; but now it is time to reveal it. The old man is alive yet, now in Canada, and still relating to the Doukhobors there about that star that fell upon the house. 


The fame of Verigin was growing rapidly and very soon all the Doukhobors were divided into two parties: the Large party, much more numerous, which wanted Verigin to be the manager of the Orphan House; and the Small, opposition party, with all the former familiars of the late woman-manager at the head. 

The first public acknowledgement of Verigin was in our village Bogdanovka, not far away from Goreloye, where the Orphan House was. I was seventeen years old then and remember everything very well. It has been a custom among the Doukhobors to celebrate once a year a three day’ feast in each village at a different time. Friends and relatives were coming usually in great number to the village where the feast was. In our village the feast was falling on the New Year. Soon after the woman-manager’s death came the time of our feast, and our elders sent their invitation to the Orphan House and especially to Verigin. The next day he came in the company of [a] few men of his party. They were all a little intoxicated and merry – the Doukhobors were drinking at that time yet – but Verigin was keeping separately, however. He was very active, but reserved, and looked as if he was superior to others. 

The guests were entertained in each house, and passing from one house to another Verigin was playing many jokes, which seemed, however, unusual and mysterious to many. His assistants were saying to the people that he is telling parables. 

In one house Verigin ordered his men to turn their fur coats inside out, and, having them on the hair upwards, to walk about in the village. It was executed immediately. The elders were discussing this parable and explaining it differently. Some were saying that the parable is directed against the men of the Small party, and Verigin wants to show by it that he can turn them like a fur coat and bring them forcibly under his subjection. Others were saying that he shall judge all the universe and establish a new life in a new form.

In another house, Verigin approached a very religious old man and inquired of him loudly: how would he act if he had to demolish an old house; would he begin from the roof or the walls. The old man got troubled with this unexpected question and, falling at Verigin’s feet, begged him to explain it. This was the first bow to the ground to Verigin. He did not answer the old man’s question, but raised him; and the old man, while rising, kissed Verigin’s hand. 

After that Verigin continued to be so mysterious all the day long, and everybody whom he was addressing was kissing his hand. He had much success with us, and departed the next day. Our villagers were very satisfied that they were the first to recognize Christ, and the rumour about this event spread rapidly in all the villages. 

The leaders of the Small party, seeing no possibility to resist the majority and being not able to reconcile themselves with the idea of Verigin’s supremacy, were compelled to use an extreme measure. They reported to the authorities that Verigin is giving himself out for Christ and trying to take possession of the property left by the late woman-manager; at the same time they put forward her brother as the right heir of the Orphan House and all its property. This was not true, because the property was really common, and not personal; but no legal proof of it existed and, before the law, Lukeria Kalmykov’s brother was the right heir indeed. Thus the police was warned and ready to arrest Verigin at the first cause. 

Six weeks after the death of Lukeria Kalmykov in the village Goreloye where the Orphan House was, a commemoration for the dead was taking place. Many people were present, both Doukhobors and strangers. After the prayers had been said and all the Doukhobors – according to the custom – had dined, all the people gathered in one place. Then Verigin came out and placed himself before the people, as a chief in expectation of a bow, and all the Doukhobors, with the exception of the Small party, fell to the ground and bowed to him. This general bow was the confirmation of Verigin in the post sanctified by the Doukhoborian ancestors. From that time he has gained a particular greatness in the opinion of the Doukhobors, and his influence and power over them have been immense. 

But the triumph of Verigin was soon disturbed. The police, who were also there, arrested him. He was ordered at first to go to his native village, Slavyanka and live there, but he refused; he was put into prison then and banished afterwards to the very North of Russia, for a term of five years.


After the arrest of Verigin the Large party declared to the authorities that the Orphan House with all its property belongs to the Doukhoborian community and that they want to have Verigin for manager. But the Small party testified differently, and thus the affair of the Orphan House went over to the court. Both parties were carrying on their case, and at the same time a personal struggle between them was going on. Their enmity was bitter, and was constantly rising. The Doukhobors, forming one compact body before, were split into two hostile parties now. 

Doukhobor Leader Peter “Lordly” Verigin.

Though in exile, Verigin did not discontinue to direct the affairs of his party through his intimates which were constantly coming from the Caucasus to see him. He advised his party at first to take possession of the Orphan House by force; but the Small party got apprised of it and reported it to the authorities, who despatched a detachment of soldiers to protect the Orphan House and subdue the Large party. Then he ordered to break off all relations with the Small party; the Large party should not tolerate anyone who does not acknowledge him. Thus, if anybody belonging to the Large party has a wife which sympathizes with the Small party, he ought to turn her out of the house, even if she had children, let her go to the Small party; and a wife of a husband belonging to the Small party, if she sympathizes with the Large party, ought to leave her husband and come to the Large party. 

The Large party followed Verigin’s order, and thus many families were separated and hundreds of children were left without attendance. The authorities had to issue an order. They ordered the husbands to give allowances to their wives they had turned out; and those wives that had run away from their husbands were installed in their homes again, and forced to provide for their children. 

The cause of the Large party in the court was going on badly. The party had little money to carry it on. All the common money was in the hands of the Small party which was regardless of expenses and was giving considerable bribes. The process was lingering on for a long time and, finally, when was evident that the cause is lost, Verigin ordered his party to discontinue it.

Thus the Orphan House was left with the Small party, but did not become a personal property, however; it is still the common good of a comparatively small party of Doukhobors. 


At that time Verigin was living in the town of Shenkursk, in the province of Archangel. His life in exile was not hard at all. He had plenty of money, rented good apartments, and was living in an agreeable company. When he was taking a drive, in the company of some girls of his acquaintance, in a sledge drawn by three ambling Caucasian stallions – a present of the Doukhobors – he produced no little sensation in the town. In the meantime he was writing to the Doukhobors in the Caucasus some instructive letters and transmitting his orders through his intimates. He proposed to himself to establish a common fund of one hundred thousand rubles, by means of a collection among the Doukhobors, and determined that every man ought to give half of the amount of money he possesses. His intimates, who were returning home after an interview with him, were telling the Doukhobors that “the way to the Kingdom of God is narrow and difficult and planted with thorns, but there are fields of eternal quietude at the end of it, and nobody should regret his perishable acquisition, but give it for the glory of God”. In that manner more than the acquired sum was collected, but this money did not form a permanent fund as the Doukhobors supposed, but was spent for different needs of the direction. 

Verigin’s intimates were telling the Doukhobors to “pray to God with awe and expect at every moment the coming of Verigin, and the time when he will clear all the Doukhobors and separate the believers from the unbelievers; and grant to the believers an everlasting joy and condemn he unbelievers to destruction”. The Doukhobors  were gathering early in the morning to pray to God, then they separated for their daily work, and met again together for the evening prayers; and yet, at home, everyone vas kneeling down and praying to God , with tears in the eyes, to receive the reward promised by Verigin. 

Verigin was supposing that after the expiration of his exile’s term he will be let free, and planned to establish his residence further from the Small Party in the village Terpeniye in the province of Kars. By his advice, his parents and two of his younger brothers, Vasily and Gregory, removed here. A large house was built for them, and they were receiving by free – gifts from the Doukhobors everything they needed. Vasily Verigin, junior, was leading the Doukhobors in the province of Kars and absolutely commanding them. He was driving about the Doukhoborian villages in the company of a singing chorus – of girls mostly – and everywhere he came he found an entertainment ready. 

At that time John Konkin, Peter Verigin’s brother-in-law – who had also a great influence over the Doukhobors – just arrived from Shenkursk and reported that Verigin is advising to go out in the fields by night and pray to God over there; and particularly not to miss the day-break, because God is distributing the “talents” (spiritual gifts) then. Vasily Verigin assembled a still greater number of young people then, and they were rambling the whole night long in the fields – and nothing good resulted.


After the five years term of Peter Verigin’s exile expired, the Government added him five years more yet. At that time he became acquainted with the teachings of Count Tolstoy, and they had a great influence over him, though, as it appears, somewhat superficial. He got convinced of the truth of the new ideas, but he did not experience them and work out practically; and nevertheless he transmitted them incautiously to the Doukhobors, and not as an ideal which ought to be approached in the bounds of forces and possibility of everyone, but as a truth, according to which the Doukhobors can and ought to regulate their life directly. 

After his acquaintance with the new ideas, Verigin restrained himself somewhat in his private life and his letters to the Doukhobors got another sway. Beginning with 1893 and during the few following years he instructed the Doukhobors in the true Christian life. He advised them to cease to smoke and drink wine, and also not to eat meat because the men should not deprive of life any being. Further he recommended chastity for perfection’s sake; the unmarried should not marry, and those that are married already should live as brothers and sisters. “The Doukhobors ought to purify themselves,” he was saying, “and be ready to meet Christ as the five wise virgins of the evangelical parable had been.” 

The teachings of Verigin called forth a very strong movement among the Doukhobors of the Large party. They were taking everything he was advising close to heart and were thinking themselves obliged to execute it; but the chastity ideal was, generally, not within their reach, and caused the dividing of the Large party into two approximately equal parties. One party renounced Verigin and all his teachings entirely, and the members of this party, for the use of meat for food, fell under the denomination of myasniki (“Fleshers”). The other party (postniki or “Fasters”) remained true to Verigin, left the smoking and drinking off, ceased to eat meat, and exerted herself to attain the ideal of chastity. This ideal did not prove to be practical, however,  and even drove some to the crime of infanticide, so that most of the married people gave it finally up; but the young people were containing themselves and not marrying, and ready to meet Christ, according to Verigin’s saying. 

The envoys coming from Shenkursk were still bringing the Doukhobors some more of the new teachings they never had heard before. They were lying: “The Doukhobors are an elected and true Christian people and should not work physically but spiritually. They should leave their perishable acquisition and go to preach the Gospel; and all the domestic animals should be let free, because everything alive ought to have liberty; and the money which is Caesar’s should be returned to Caesar. The men are perverting their nature by wearing garments; they should go naked, as the first men, Adam and Eve, did, and their food should be fruits, vegetables, and water only. Verigin was trying himself to eat the moss on which the reindeer is feeding and he found it tasty.” 

Finally Verigin advised the Doukhobors to renounce the military service and to burn all the arms they have.


In 1895 almost all the Doukhobors of the Verigin’s party decided to refuse to do the military service. The number of those that were then in actual service was not large – about threescore only – but they all gave up their arms. For this bold, action they were put into prison, judged by military court, and condemned o penal battalions. Many of them were ready to die, but instead of death lingering tortures were awaiting them.

From the very first day the bloody chastisement commenced. They were flogged with thorny rods, whose thorns were remaining in the flesh, and thrown in a cold and dark cell afterwards. After [a] few days they were requested again to do the service, and for the refusal flogged again. And so it was going on and no end was seen. Besides they were always hungry, because they were eating no meat and were given too little bread. They were physically exhausted; many were sick; but the doctor was refusing to admit them in the hospital, unless they would agree to eat meat. The chaplain was requiring the performance of the Orthodox rites, and they were driven to the church by fists and musket butt ends. Their position was unbearable; so that those few of them which were acting not by their own conviction, but only by Verigin’s advice, gave it up, but the majority was convinced and held out. 

Finally, after one year of suffering – during which they were either wielding somewhat or persisting – they were condemned to deportation to Siberia, to the province of Yakutsk, for eighteen years. 

At the same time when the Doukhobors which were in actual service were refusing to do their duty, those Doukhobors which were in reserve and living in the villages were giving back their militia certificates. The 29th of June – the Saint Peter’s and Paul’s day – was fixed for the burning of arms in all the Doukhoborian villages. 

The Government began to persecute the Doukhobors and particularly severely in the province of Tiflis. The Governor of that province, being informed by the Small party that the Verigin’s party is planning something about arms, came on the above mentioned day, appointed for the burning of arms, to the village Goreloye, to the Orphan House – the headquarters of the Small party – and ordered to all the householders of the Doukhoborian villages in the neighbourhood to gather on the following day in the village Bogdanovka. But in the night before the holiday already all the arms – a wagon load from each village – were burned and melted down in a distant place, and in the morning of the 30th of the month about two thousand Doukhobors gathered for the prayer there. The Governor sent a messenger with an order for the Doukhobors to come to Bogdanovka immediately, but they answered that they will come only after the prayer will be ended. Then a detachment of mounted Cossacks was sent to fetch them. Without any warning they fell upon the Doukhobors and beat them – both men and women – unmercifully with their whips, and drove them afterwards to Bogdanovka.

In the meantime the Governor came to Bogdanovka, where all the Doukhobors loyal to the Government were gathered already, and a small part of those of the Verigin’s party which were not attending the prayer. The Governor greeted the Doukhobors of the Small party and the “Fleshers” and asked those of the Verigin’s party if they will obey the government as the Small party does. They answered that they will – if the Government’s orders will not disagree with their conscience, but they will not – if they will disagree. The Governor got furious and cried out: “Cossacks on you! I will make you obedient by force!” Then a young Doukhobor approached him and gave him back his militia certificate. The Governor snatched out a stick from the hands of the village Elder , who was standing by him, and began to beat the Doukhobor himself. Other Doukhobors commenced then to give up their certificates also. The Governor was not taking them, and they were put on the ground before him. He ordered to beat to arms, and the Cossacks who escorted him appeared instantly. By his order they dismounted and whipped the rebellious Doukhobors, together and singly, till the blood came. After that the Doukhobors were driven away to their homes and the Governor departed. 

The next morning the Cossacks came again and the punishment continued. They quartered in our village over a fortnight and were riding about the villages, plundering everywhere and beating everybody who fell into their hands. In one night, by the permission of their commander, they violated several women, among whom was a girl of sixteen. I was given, from the very beginning, three hundred lashes with Cossacks’ whips, and kept in a corn loft afterwards, under arrest, for twenty days. No help was given to me and only bread and water. Finally the Cossacks went away and soldiers of infantry replaced them. They behaved much better and the people, who fled in all directions, began to return home. 

Shortly after, all of us, Doukhobors of the province of Tiflis – over four thousand people – were transplanted to the districts of Gori, Tionety, Doushet, and Signakh, of the same province, and settled in Georgian and Ossetian villages, by [a] few families in each village. As very little time for preparations was granted, only few succeeded to sell something; most of the the property was abandoned or given away to neighbours. Several men – and I was among them – were requested for a monthly repetition of the military service, and, in consequence of their refusal, put into prison for two years, and deported afterwards to Siberia, to the province of Yakutsk.

Burning of Arms by the Doukhobors in Russia on June 29, 1895.  Painting by Terry McLean.

The Doukhobors of the Verigin’s party, who were living in the provinces of Elizavetpol and Kars, were also persecuted, but not so severely, and were not transplanted, as the Doukhobors of the province of Tiflis.

About the same time Verigin was removed from the province of Archangel to Siberia, to the village Obdorsk, in the province of Tobolsk. A vigilant watch was kept there upon him and, after the expiration of his second exile’s term, five years more yet were added to him again.


The total number of Doukhobors condemned to deportation to Siberia was about hundred and fifty. They were sent there in a few separate parties, under the escort of soldiers. The first party – numbering about thirty men – started from the Caucasus in the autumn 1896, but arrived to Yakutsk in September of the following year only, because the TransSiberian railroad was in construction yet and they had to walk most of the way. The Governor of the province of Yakutsk fixed their dwelling place in Ust Notora – a very scarcely inhabited wooded country about six hundred versts southeast from the town of Yakutsk – and appointed a police agent to escort them there. As on the greater part of the way there were no roads at all, the journey was made on ox-back at first, and on a boat afterwards, down the river Aldan. Finally they reached the mouth of the river Notora, where the place of their settlement was fixed. Not a single man was seen on the bank, and an empty hut deserted by the Yakuts was only standing. The police agent pointed it out and said that the Doukhobors ought to live there, and have no right to absent themselves nowhere, without a special permission; and, should it be otherwise, they will be severely punished. After that he departed, leaving them alone. 

Group of Doukhobor Exiles in Yakutsk, Siberia, circa 1904

The place where the hut was standing was quite dull. The nearest neighbours were Yakuts and Tunguses, living with their families some twenty or thirty versts one from another. The hut which the Doukhobors occupied was a poor wooden structure with earthen floor and ice slabs in the window openings in the winter. The Doukhobors had bought on the way from Yakutsk some provisions and warm, winter clothes, but having not enough money, they could not provide themselves sufficiently for the long Siberian winter . 

Soon the winter began and it was so cold in the hut, in spite of the heating, that all the walls get covered with ice inside. It was too cold to sleep, for want of warm clothes, and the Doukhobors had to sleep by turns. While some were sleeping, covering themselves with all the warm clothes, the rest had to walk in the hut to keep warm. Besides they had nothing to make light with and were in a total darkness during all the long evenings. Their situation was very distressing indeed. 

So went on the first few months of the winter and they grew short of provisions; but they could not look for work and earn some money, because they had no right to absent. A policeman was coming every month to verify them, and the Yakuts were ordered to watch them. Then they wrote a petition to the Governor, asking him permission to earn their living elsewhere, and forwarded it with the policeman. But very little provisions were left already, and the Governor’s answer could not come before two months, so that they were obliged to absent secretly. They chose among themselves some of the strongest men, provided them with the best clothes, and those men started on the journey to the nearest village – two hundred versts away. The weather was intensely cold at that time and very foggy – as it usually happens there at hard frost. The snow was deep the travellers did not know the road, so that the way was extremely hard to them, and they were quite exhausted when they reached village. Happily, they found some work there, and in a few weeks already they were able to help their comrades in Ust Notora. Shortly afterward the Governor’s permission to work in that village was obtained, and arbitrary absentation went off with impunity. 

When the summer came, one party yet of the Doukhobors arrived. Everyone went to work; some in the above mentioned village, and the rest on their own land in Ust Notora. They began to build a large house, provided themselves with [a] few horses and cows, and plowed the land, making it ready for the next spring’s sowing.


When the deportation to Siberia was announced to the Doukhobors many of the wives were willing to share the exile with their husbands, but they were dissuaded by them because the Doukhobors did not know then what kind of life is awaiting them in Siberia. But in the summer 1898 when the Siberian Doukhobors learned that the Caucasian Doukhobors are preparing to emigrate to Canada, they decided to advise their wives to come to them. It was resolved that somebody ought to go to Obdorsk and inquire Verigin’s opinion about this project, and proceed to Caucasus afterwards, and personally confer about the matter there. The task was not an easy one, because there was no permission of the Government for this excursion, of course, and it ought to be done quite secretly. In case of apprehension, a solitary deportation to a remote part of Siberia could be expected. 

According to the comrades’ desire, I had to go. It took me two months to make the journey to Obdorsk. I travelled partly by rail, but mostly by steamer and boat on the large Siberian rivers Lena and Ob, and near one thousand versts I made on foot. On the way, I got acquainted with travelling companion, a workman, who had a temporary passport which he did not need any more. He gave it to me, and it was very useful to afterwards. 

Trans-Siberian Railway, circa 1890’s. Photo by John Foster Fraser.

Finally, one day, late in the evening, our steamer neared Obdorsk, and from the steamer yet, I saw Verigin who was standing on the illuminated bank side. I came down from the steamer and, approaching Verigin, and intimated him with a glance. He understood me and we went away, a little further from the people. I said who I was and what was the purpose of the visit, and we passed almost the whole night in conversation together. Verigin approved our intention to take our wives to Siberia, and, when I told him about the bad consequences of the abstinence from marriage, he got thoughtful, and said afterwards, “Transmit my words to the Doukhobors, that they can marry now.” 

The next day I had to keep away from Verigin, because he was strictly watched and no Doukhobor was allowed to see him. I was walking on the bank side and pretending to deal in fish. 

At night we met again and passed it in the field in a conversation about life. He was telling me: “The term of my exile is ending soon. I will take my wife and my son and come to Canada, to the Doukhobors, and lead the simplest life there. I will have a little house, one pair of horses and a cow, and work as all the brethren; simplicity and laboriousness will be good examples for the Doukhobors.” And further he was relating about the way of life he wishes to establish in Canada: “I want the Doukhobors to live in communities, but they ought to be based on a free principle. Each family should have a separate house, a pair of horses, and a cow at their disposal. The increase of the cattle should join the common herd and be common. All the work in the fields should be done together. Each family should get its allowance of corn for itself and the forage for the cattle. The remaining revenue should be common and be kept in the cash office of the community.” And he said to me afterwards: “Transmit my words to the Doukhobors – let them arrange themselves in that manner.” 

One evening I came to the lodging of Verigin. He was occupying one room only. He showed to me a turner’s lathe and a set of tools, and told me that he is doing joiner’s work. I passed only a few days in Obdorsk. The steamer was going to start; I took my leave of Verigin and departed on my next journey. 

The impression Verigin made on me this once was not quite satisfactory. I did not see anything unusual in him now – as it seemed to me before – on the contrary, he appeared to me vain and selfish. His speech was usually beginning by the words: “I think”, “I understand”, “I advise”, “I order”, and so on. He showed himself indifferent to the suffering of the Doukhobors, and, when I related him what they had endured, he said only: “I know it already; nothing can be done; it should be endured”, and passed to his speech. A fish monger of Obdorsk, whom I inquired about Verigin, told me that Verigin is getting much money by post and leading an idle life; and I thought then that probably the joiner’s work was not a serious doing. But, nevertheless, the image of the coming life in Canada, which he represented, was so attractive, that I left him filled with hope in the radiant future of the Doukhobors.


On the way to the Caucasus I visited Count Leo Tolstoy in Yasnaya Polyana. I was heartily received by him and even lodged in his own room, for my safety’s sake, during the few days I was staying there. Though everything around Tolstoy did not appear to me to square with his teachings, but he seemed to me himself quite sincere and trying to do his best. 

From Yasnaya Polyana I proceeded to the Caucasus and came at first to the province of Kars, where Verigin’s parents were living. At night a secret meeting took place and I transmitted to everybody the greetings of the deported Doukhobors, their desire to have their wives in Siberia, and all the instructions of Verigin. Then I went to the transplanted Doukhobors of the province of Tiflis, and communicated to them the same news. The life of the Doukhobors there was extremely hard. The deportation made them all destitute; they got no land and had to work for the natives, whose language they did not know and who were hostile to them. Being habituated to the healthy tableland of the Akhalkalaki district, they were constantly ill with fever in the low and very unhealthy valleys in which they were living now, and the mortality among them was excessive. But, in spite of the general distress of their situation, they were endeavouring to execute even the most advanced instructions of Verigin. They were ceasing to eat any animal food, and even many ceased to work. But, when they knew that they can marry again, the next day already several marriages were celebrated. 

Just at that time all the Doukhobors of the Verigin’s party were preparing themselves to emigrate to Canada. In consequence of the very distressing and quite unbearable situation of most of them, they all resolved to emigrate. Verigin could not direct the emigration then, but the Doukhobors had many sympathizers already, who raised the necessary funds and arranged everything. Count Tolstoy, the Quakers, and many others, did the Doukhobors a great service. The emigration was directed to the Isle of Cyprus at first, and a party of Doukhobors went there. But the poor climatic conditions of this island compelled them to renounce to it and Canada was chosen then. 

I passed in the Caucasus a fortnight altogether, and finally came to the house of my parents, but remained there two days only. I was hiding in the garret in the day-time and was seeing men in the night only. My parents were very old already, and my short stay gave them more grief than joy. My mother, who was ill then, got worse and died in my presence. 

When I was departing to Siberia backwards, it was winter already. I took my wife with me – we had no children – and another woman yet; the other women had children and had to wait for the spring. We went by rail as far as Irkutsk, and further with horses. The road was poor and we were thrown out from the sledge hundreds of times; but the cold was the worst of all, and the women could not endure it finally any more. We made a bed in the sledge then, on which the women laid down and covered themselves overhead with blankets and all the clothes we had; and so we continued our journey anyhow. We travelled thus by day and night and in about six weeks we reached Yakutsk. As the women were quite sick from the hardship of the journey, I had to leave them in the town with an acquaintance of mine and went further to Ust Notora alone.


When I came to Ust Notora I found the Doukhobors living in the new house already [that] they had built during my absence. They were provided with enough provisions and were living much better than last winter. 

At the beginning of the summer the wives and children of the Doukhobors arrived, and the new colony got an appearance of settlement. The Doukhobors set up a regular farm. They provided themselves with some more cattle; were raising rye and potatoes; built a blacksmith shop and a horse mill. All the community was composed of equal men; they were taking themselves for brethren and nobody was striving to dominate the others. Many were ill; some in consequences of treatment in the disciplinarian battalion and others from the cold they caught in Siberia; but, nevertheless – and in spite of the poor living – there was a good understanding among them and everybody was satisfied. 

The Yakuts and Tunguses were coming to see the Doukhobors. At first the men only, but afterwards the women and the children, too. They were given a seat at the table and treated to the usual Doukhoborian meal of soup, bread, and potatoes, which was new and very attractive to them, as they are living at home on the animal food, mostly. They are a good, honest people – in spite of their lack of civilization – and the Doukhobors were on good terms with them. 

The place the Doukhobors were occupying in Ust Notora consisted of a comparatively small section of land convenient for culture, which was insufficient for all the Doukhobors. The forest was around, but it would be too hard a task to uproot the trees, as the ground in the forest was frozen all the year round. Thus some of the Doukhobors had to hire themselves out to different works in the villages and towns, wherever the government was permitting them. In that part of the province of Yakutsk the villages are inhabited mostly by the sectarians Skoptsy (“Eunuchs” – physically mutilated, according to their religious belief), who are transported to Siberia for life. They are known by their eagerness for riches and are mostly well to do. The Doukhobors had to work chiefly for them, and very hard, on account of their avidity. The work was lasting about sixteen hours a day, both summer and winter, with only short intervals for lunch and dinner. The most tiresome work was the threshing on the ice floor in the winter. It was beginning at about four o’clock in the morning and ending at eight in the evening. For this kind of heavy work well wadded clothes are put on, as fur coats are breaking when frozen through. This work – in semi-obscurity and at hard frost – was lasting all the winter long, and many were ill from it.

In 1899 the last deported Doukhobors arrived and they went all to work for wages, but everyone was giving some money for the support of the Ust Notora community and the friendly relations of all the Doukhobors were still kept up. 

But this state of matter changed entirely when the brothers of Peter Verigin and Konkin, his brother-in-law – who were also deported to Siberia on account of their leadership of the Doukhoborian movement – came to live in Ust Notora. They were thinking themselves superior to others, and, as soon arrived, they commenced to require a complete obedience. But their superiority was not acknowledged and quarrels followed. By little and little the first residents of Ust Notora were leaving it and finally [a] few families remained only, and Vasily Verigin became the absolute master then. 

Those Doukhobors who left Ust Notora founded [a] few other settlements, but at that time already nobody was thinking to settle in Siberia permanently. Since their Caucasian brethren had emigrated to Canada, the Siberian Doukhobors were expecting every moment that the Government will let them free and they will go also there. But years were passing and the liberty was not coming yet.


In the years 1898 and 1899 all the Doukhobors of the Verigin’s party – over seven thousand people – emigrated to Canada. The Small party and “Fleshers” who were loyal to the government remained in the Caucasus.

Canada was for the Doukhobors a land of promise and they had a firm intention to fully realize there the ideal of Christian life as Verigin depicted. They were representing Canada to themselves as an abundant country, with a mild and pleasant climate, favourable to the new way of life; and when they saw the Canadian winter in its full severity, they were somewhat disenchanted. They founded two large colonies in the present province of Saskatchewan – some three hundred miles one from the other – the Yorkton colony and the Prince Albert colony. About five and a half thousand people settled in the former and one thousand and a half in the latter. Many sympathizers, both Russians and Americans, were helping them very actively in the first year of their settlement, but the Doukhobors were not wholly understanding all the disinterestedness of this attention. Thinking themselves an elected people and Verigin a man of higher power, they were looking at this attention as on their due and a consequence of Verigin’s power, and they did not appraise it sufficiently. When the time came to begin to work, they were somewhat spoiled already, and were working indolently at first, still expecting an assistance whatever; but they recovered themselves afterwards and commenced to work with all their usual energy. 

Doukhobor women pulling plow, circa 1901.

The first few years were very hard for the Doukhobors, on account of their general poverty and of their ignorance of the language and customs of the country. Almost all the men were away hiring themselves out to different works, and the women; who were remaining at home, had to do the farming. As they had very little cattle in the beginning, they were sometimes obliged to carry timber for the building of the houses, and even to plow, on themselves. But by little and little the position of the Doukhobors became better. Each family built a house for itself and provided itself sufficiently with cattle and implements. But still most of the men were working for wages, as there was no money in reserve.

At the same time the Doukhobors were attempting the community life, according to the advise of Verigin, but they were mostly unsuccessful. After many trials the majority began to live individually – as they had been always living in the Caucasus before – and only a few of the villages succeeded to live in communities.


In 1902 the term of Verigin’s exile was ending and he wrote to the Doukhobors that he will come to Canada and live with them. The expected coming of Verigin was an event of the utmost importance for the Doukhobors, but they were fearing it, because they did not realize most of his instructions. They were saying between themselves, “How can we meet our master now, when we have not executed all his commandments. Did not he tell us that a true Christian should not work, but preach the Gospel, and we are oppressed with labour. We should have no money at all, and see there, how busily we are hunting for it! He told us to liberate the animals, and we are tormenting them with work. We ought to feed on fruits and vegetables and wear no clothes at all; the first men had no clothes and God was warming them. Do you remember, brethren, what was said to us about the ten virgins ? How the lamps of five of them were gone out. It is we! It is our lamps that are gone out! How can we meet Christ then ? He will come soon, find us unprepared, and we are lost then!”

The leaders of this movement were Ivan Ponomarev and Nikolai Zibarev; both totally illiterate. They were saying to the Doukhobors that “the time of the general purification – of which Verigin was speaking long ago – is just coming now. He that will leave off all his property and will go to meet Christ – shall be freed from work for ever and shall live with Christ in everlasting joy; and he that will not do it – shall work eternally and perish thus, out of disobedience.” Ponomarev was relating that when he had been in Shenkursk he had heard himself Verigin saying, “Behold, brethren! the time shall come when a great river will pass through. Throw yourselves into it. I am a good swimmer – I will save you!” And in conclusion Ponomarev was saying, “Now, brethren, here is that river! I throw myself the first into it, and you follow me. Let us clear ourselves from everything sinful and let us go to meet Christ!”

Over one thousand Doukhobors – almost exclusively of the Yorkton colony – joined this libertine movement. They began to feed on bread and raw potatoes only; ceased to cut their hair; threw out all the woolen and leather clothes, and tore off from their cotton clothes all the metallic appurtenances, as buttons and hooks. They let their cattle loose and gave up all their money to the local authorities. They ceased to work altogether and were wandering in crowds, singing psalms and preaching the Gospel to others. They made the tour of the Doukhoborian villages, inviting every one to join, and they set off afterwards in the direction from which Verigin was expected to come. The little children and the sick persons were carried in hand- barrows. They were feeding on grains of corn and berries they were gathering in the fields, and were begging for bread and potatoes in the farms on the way. They were sleeping in the fields and were enduring cold, as it was in the autumn and freezing in the mornings already. The authorities were stopping them; they detained in Yorkton all the women and children, but the men were unwilling to go back and were continuing to go forwards toward Winnipeg. They were expecting every moment to see Verigin, barefooted, with a long beard, and in simple clothes, going towards them. 

But Verigin was not appearing. In fact, he was in England then, where he stopped on the way to Canada. The thought struck the Libertines then that Verigin does not appear because their faith is not deep enough, and some of them may not have delivered themselves from all their sinful property yet. A general inquiry proved that many had watches, knives, needles and some other objects yet. It was all taken and thrown away, and the Libertines proceeded indefatigably further. They made about two hundred miles thus and were all stopped finally, put in a train, brought to Yorkton, and conveyed to their villages. But they were still waiting for Verigin and though the winter has settled already, many were unwilling to work and to take care of themselves, and the authorities had to look after them. All the cattle that had been let loose was caught and sold by the authorities, and the money thus received, and that money which had been given up by the Libertines themselves, all was used for their assistance now. Some men were hired to look after them; they were carrying provisions, firewood, and even, sometimes, heating stoves for them. 

All the remaining Doukhobors, which have not participated in this movement, were living and working as before, but they were anxious anyhow, and were not certain to whom Verigin will come: to them or to the Libertines. 


At last Verigin arrived and stopped in the village Otradnoye, of the Yorkton colony, where his mother was living (his father was dead already). He came alone; he did not take neither his wife nor his son with him, and they remained to live in the Caucasus.

As soon as it became known that Verigin arrived, many Doukhobors, both Libertines and non-Libertines, came to salute him. The Libertines were looking meagre and weary, and were clad in the simplest clothes; and the non-Libertines were cheerful and properly clad, and had a singing chorus with them. All wished to see Verigin, and he came out to them. 

He was well dressed, in everything new and expensive. He had a fur coat on, a beaver hat, and high leather boots. He was looking as a man in his prime and did not appear to be oppressed by his long exile. The aspect of the Libertines did not strike him. He was well aware of their movement already, and it is also doubtful if he recognized all his responsibility for it. Other feelings were probably agitating him. His people was again before him, as obedient as fifteen years ago, in the Caucasus, when he left them. 

Verigin conversed favourably with everyone. He addressed the Libertines and thanked them warmly for the ardent belief they displayed for him. “You went to meet Christ”, he said to them, “Now he appeared to you. Go to your homes, live, and work for your living.” And he thanked the non-Libertines for the joyful welcome they arranged for him, and for all their labour and assiduity. 

All were listening reverently to Verigin’s words. The non-Libertines were very satisfied with them and were glad to see Verigin as dressed as they were, but the Libertines were disenchanted and afflicted.


When the leaders of the Libertines heard from Verigin himself that they ought to work, they obeyed him instantly and the majority of the Libertines with them, in spite of their disenchantment. They put their households in order and began to work and live as formerly.

But a small part of them – [a] few scores only – were thinking independently and remained firm in their conviction. These last Libertines said to Verigin: “We were taking all thy teachings as commandments coming from God, which are immutable forever. We acknowledged them and we were doing our utmost to execute them. Why hast thou altered thy words now? No, we do not want to be traitors and we will continue to do our duty.” But, as they were not many, Verigin did not pay any attention to them and would not let them approach him any more. 

When [a] few months later Verigin arranged himself already, and the last Libertines saw plainly how much his life was disagreeing with his teachings, all their hopes failed and they fell into despair. They were saying, “There is no divine spark in him and unfortunate are those who believe in him. Let us take our clothes off; let us go and tell him: “Behold! Thou hast said that man should go naked – we took our clothes off. Now thou do it, and let us go to preach the Gospel.” And they did as they were saying. They pulled their clothes off – it was in the spring already – and went to Verigin, but they were not admitted to him. They were trying to talk with him somewhere on the road then, but they did not succeed in it. At last they got all together and decided to reach him whatever may happen. They went in a crowd – men, women, and children, all naked – by the road to the village Otradnoye where Verigin was living. It was reported to him and he ordered to stop them, but they were breaking through the crowd of those who were detaining them and were still advancing. Then, by Verigin’s order, they were unmercifully beaten with rods and dispersed finally. And so, they could not get to Verigin again. 

Shortly after about two scores of them, all naked, went to Yorkton. They were arrested there and put into prison for three months. But when released they began to behave as formerly again.

Once several of them were going through a field and, seeing a reaping machine newly bought by Verigin, they stopped before it. They recollected all what had been said about machines: how oppressive and unhealthy the workmen’s work is, and how those human inventions are disagreeable to God; and they thought it a good deed to destroy the machine. They overlaid it with straw and burned all the wooden parts of it. Verigin reported it to the authorities and those Libertines were put into prison again. 

The prison authorities did not show any indulgence to the excited Libertines and were treating them very harshly. As they were refusing to eat any animal food and were unwilling to work, some up-to-date methods were used to subdue them. They were fed with broth, which was conducted through a hose into the stomach directly; and to make one work, he was brought into a special cell and sand was strewn from above, threatening to cover him entirely, and compelling thus to dig himself out. But these measures did not change the Libertines. They were firm and obstinate and remained Libertines however. 

Afterwards they were put into prison [a] few times more, but they were treated well. Some of them are in prison and some had been released, but are still living in their own way.


Shortly after his coming to Canada, Verigin invited several girls and a singing chorus, and in such a numerous and merry company he took a trip through all the Doukhoborian villages. In each village a solemn reception was given to him. All the Doukhobors were in high spirits and listened attentively to every word he was saying. He was relating them about the grand Doukhoborian community, the “free principle” on which she shall be based, and about the happiness of the coming life. 

When he returned home, he convoked a general meeting and advised the Doukhobors to take up their homesteads officially – they had been taken temporarily as yet – but to cultivate all the land conjointly. Thus, since Verigin’s coming, all the Doukhobors – with very little exception – formed one great community. The land was counted common, but each family had a household and some property of its own. 

This state of affairs was changed very soon, however, by Verigin himself. He abandoned the “free principle” and adopted the “principle of centralization”. By his order all the cattle of each village was taken to the common herd and all the agricultural implements to one shed. Large communal stables and sheds were built, and attendants were appointed; modern agricultural machines were bought and several corn mills were built, but, for want of money, everything on credit. 

The Doukhobors were working but little at home, however. They were sowing corn for their own use only, and only one fourth of all the workers was remaining at home. Over one thousand men were leaving their homes for all the summer every year. They were hiring themselves out as workmen, and everyone of them had to give up in the autumn at least one hundred and fifty dollars to the cash office of the community. 

During the few following years the system of centralization was reinforced. All the orders were printed in the headquarters of Verigin and each village was getting a copy of them. It was exactly said in each order what to do and how to do: how much cattle to keep and how to feed it; how to plough and what to sow; how to build houses, and even how to dress oneself. Thus, by one order, was simplified the children’s dress. All the boys and girls below thirteen had to submit to a new rule. The boys get long shirts, instead of trousers, and the girls had their hair cut, and they were all very afflicted by that. 

Doukhobor village house, circa 1901

In spite of the zealous work of the Doukhobors and their modern way of farming, they were still remaining very poor. Each village – composed of just forty houses – had about twenty cows only and very few chickens, so that the Doukhobors were living on bread and vegetables mostly. Besides, they were getting from the common warehouse a very insufficient quantity of clothes. In consequence of that many were ill, both from cold and for want of proper food. 

Almost all the Doukhoborian children were learning then, but they were getting very little knowledge, however. Verigin was of the opinion that a true Christian should have only Christ for teacher; he would not admit strangers and ordered to each village to choose a teacher among themselves. But, as there are no Doukhobors enough educated to be teachers, sometimes a teacher had to be appointed who could hardly write his own name; and thus the children were often, in few months already, as advanced as the teacher himself. 

Not all the Doukhobors were satisfied with the Community. Those that were not were setting up their own farms and were mostly successful. But their number was not large.


In the year 1905, after the religious liberty had been proclaimed in Russia, all the Doukhobors deported to Siberia were liberated and set off for Canada. The Siberian Doukhobors, or “Yakutians” as they were called, had at that time already some views quite different from those of the “Canadians” or Canadian Doukhobors. An individual life in a remote country made them farm more liberal and independent. Unlike the “Canadians” who were believing that there is no salvation beyond their community, the “Yakutians” were thinking that every man, whatever his belief may be, can advance on the way of the spiritual perfection. The “Canadians” were thinking Verigin a divine leader who ought to be obeyed absolutely, and the “Yakutians” were taking him for a manager only, and fully responsible for all his actions. This diversity of convictions was not dangerous by itself, however, neither to the Doukhoborian Brotherhood, nor even to the Community, but it was dangerous to the principle on which the Community was based. 

All the “Canadians” were awaiting with joy the arrival of their brethren, who had suffered so much for the common cause, but Verigin was dissatisfied with them and his displeasure made all the Doukhobors uneasy. He was well informed already of the indocility of the “Yakutians” from the letters of his brother Vasily and personally, from his other brother Grigory and his brother-in-law Konkin, who were since [a] few years in Canada (the former had run away from Siberia arbitrarily; the latter had petitioned the Government for liberation and had been released). 

The arrival of the “Yakutians” was a great joy for many families who saw their relatives again after a long separation of ten years. Many meetings were held, new projects were formed and, after all, when the “Yakutians” had rest enough, they went to work and began to live the community life. But from the first day already they were told that it is quite indispensable to wait on Verigin. Their relatives were saying to them, “All our misfortune is over now and we will live a quiet life together, but you should go to see our master. You had been living very long alone and you may have sinned in some way, by a deed, word, or thought whatever. Go and fall before him on the ground, beg him pardon, and beg him to admit you in the Community. He will admit you, and you will live there as we are. We do not puzzle our brains over anything; we do what he orders and everything is well.” 

The “Yakutians” were very afflicted that their relatives and all the Doukhobors of the Community are in such a pitiful position, but they would not offend them by a direct reply and were answering thus: “We do not see any necessity to beg for admission. We have been always members of the Doukhoborian society; you wish that we live with you and we will.” But the “Canadians” were replying: “We advise you to see our master anyhow, and you will feel yourselves that there is a divine power in him. No man can see him without fear, and everyone trembles who talks to him.” And the “Yakutians” were answering: “You tremble not only because you believe him to be a supernatural man, but also because you submitted to him and you know that he is severe and can punish you.” 

When shortly after several “Yakutians” went to see Verigin, he knew already that they came not to submit, but to ask explanations, and ordered not to receive them. The report about the refusal of Verigin to receive the “Yakutians” spread in all the villages, and the “Canadians” began to think them great sinners. “Our master knows everything”, were saying the “Canadians” to them, “He knew your thoughts were not sincere when you came to him and he did not receive you. You blame him, but we believe in everything he is saying, whether in respect to spiritual matter or husbandry.” 

“Your material state is far from being satisfactory,” were answering the “Yakutians”. “All your common property, as factories and agricultural machines, amount comparatively to little, and your indebtedness is greater than all that is worth. Only the property of each village can be counted yours, and there is but very little of it. You are living miserably. Look how weak your children are! Many begin to walk at the age of three years only!” “It is true that we are living poorly,” were saying the “Canadians”, “but we are not looking for riches. We care for the soul only and we believe that there is no salvation out of the Community.” 

“There are many bad principles in your Community,” were replying the “Yakutians”. “You are quarrelling constantly, either at work or at the delivery of goods. You are very intolerant and you cruelly persecute all those that are leaving the Community. We do not see any salvation here.”


At that time all the Doukhobors were talking about the “Yakutians” only. The old people were listening to the “Yakutians” with disgust, but many of the young were agreeing and beginning to talk themselves in a similar manner. 

Everything the “Yakutians” were saying was reported to Verigin and he took severe measures to bring them under subjection. “They are dissatisfied with our food,” he said. “I will teach them how to appreciate the bread as a gift of God.” And he sent an order to all the villages not to give the “Yakutians” anything to eat for two days; and if they do not submit, give them no food for two days more yet; and then if they will be indocile then expel them from the Community entirely. 

This order afflicted all the Doukhobors. “My God! what times!” were saying the “Canadians”. “To starve our brethren who had been suffering for our cause. And we are calling ourselves Christians of the Universal Brotherhood yet! It was never so before when the late woman-manager was living.” And others were replying: “It is not our business, Christ is sitting on the throne And is creating all alone.” (This old Doukhoborian saying is alluding to the Doukhoborian leader himself.)

In each village a meeting was held and the “Yakutians” were informed of their destiny. The question of the children was raised. Some were saying that some bread could be given to them; but others were saying that if it could be given it would be said so in the order, but as nothing is said about it, it means then that it cannot be given. A whole week passed in deliberations. At last in some villages all the provisions were taken away from the “Yakutians” and they were compelled to leave the Community; but most of the Doukhobors, in spite of the fear of Verigin, could not be decided to do it and did not execute Verigin’s order. 

Then Verigin sent another order, that all the “Yakutians” ought to give up all their money to the cash office of the Community. And again meetings were held and the money was requested from the “Yakutians”. Most of them answered that they have no money; others gave their money up; and some said that they have some money but will not give it up, because they know Verigin wants to force them out from the Community and they will need it then. 

In one village a “Yakutian” was called to the meeting and asked if he has any money. He answered that he has some twenty dollars. “Then give it up to the cash office,” said the elders to him. “Who is living in the Community should have not one cent at home.” “Well, I will give up my money,” he answered, “but only if you give up yours to the last cent also.” “We have not any,” said the elders. “We are living long since without money already.” “How so, you have no money ? I know he has some,” replied the “Yakutian”, pointing at a man at random. The man got troubled and, thinking it is really known he has money, said that he has some, indeed, but he knows others have money also. And thus the truth was revealed, all were ashamed, and there was no more question about money in that village. 

By little and little, and in consequence of such severe measures, almost all the “Yakutians” were obliged to part with their relatives again and leave the Community. An elderly man was thus expelled by his own family from the very village where Verigin was living. He was a “Yakutian” and they were “Canadians”. He hired himself out somewhere as a workman, but fell ill and came to his family again. They were willing to keep him until he gets better, but Verigin did not permit it, and he was expelled again, and his family has no right to see him any more.


All these events troubled the Doukhobors and caused some discontent in the Community. Verigin ordered then Ponomarev and Zibarev – the former leaders of the libertine movement – to go through all the villages and to pacify the people. They started each in another direction. 

When Zibarev came to the village where I was living, all the villagers assembled in one house and he addressed them thus: “Brothers and sisters! Our master is very afflicted that there is a commotion among you. Many are displeased with the food, clothes, and all the order he has established himself. Do not you know that unruliness leads to perdition? Our master has great pity of you, and he sent me to warn you that the day of judgement shall come from one minute to another. You had been waiting whole years for it, but only minutes are left now. Behold! Better repent of your sins and pray to God.” And he said afterwards: “There are many unbelievers among you. Here are the “Yakutians”, our former brethren, who do not believe in God Himself, and our master is advising you even not to speak with them.”

I inquired Zibarev then why does he think that the “Yakutians” do not believe in God, and he said: “They do not know God, because they do not acknowledge Christ in His second advent, and who do not know Christ do not know God.” “And under what appearance is concealed Christ you are acknowledging ?” I inquired. “It is of no use to direct you,” he answered, “because you are an unbeliever.” And addressing all the assembly, he said: “I will not relate you also about the advent of Christ; you ought to know who is Christ and when His advent was. If you will murmur and listen to apostates, he will say: “Be damned!” and will abandon you. It will be like a lightning that flashes from the east to the west – as it is written in the gospel – and you will be lost then.” He addressed the women afterwards and said: “And you sisters are requested to persuade your husbands to stay in the Community. The salvation is only in the Community and out of it, whatever good the actions of men may be, they are nothing before God. Be faithful! As the day of the general destruction of the infidels is near.” 

“And how about the Quakers then?” I inquired. “They had helped us so much, but they do not belong to the Community. Are their deeds worth nothing and they shall be lost ?” “They may believe in Christ yet and unite with Him,” he replied. “And if they do not ?” “They shall perish as the other sinners then”. And addressing all the assembly he said: “All the offerings of the Quakers were for our master’s sake and according to his will. If not he, nobody would give us a bit of bread, and we would be lost.” 

After both preachers visited all the villages, the murmur ceased and the Doukhobors commenced to pray and to wait for the end of the world; and some pious women were even not undressing themselves and their children, when going to bed, to be quite ready for the last judgement. They were thinking that sometime at night, Christ will come and take them – His faithful people – to a lonely and safe place; and in the meantime, a universal confusion will follow and all the infidels will perish in a general, mutual slaughter; and the earth will be left empty and will be granted to the selected people; and the life will be free and easy then.


In the last years there have been but little changes in the life of the Community. As the Doukhobors of the Community had not been willing to accept the Canadian subjection, the Government took a considerable part of their land from them, leaving them only fifteen acres to each person, and declared that this land also is granted for a temporary use only. 

The community principle has been more strengthened yet. Thus, in many villages, common kitchens and dining rooms have been established. But the material state of the Community has not improved. The indebtedness has not diminished; though the Doukhobors are still working zealously and living the most frugal life. They are nourishing themselves very poorly, as before. They are gradually abolishing all the animal food. They ceased to keep chickens and to eat eggs. Most of the cows had been sold and only a few have been left in each village. At the same time neither the variety nor the quality of their vegetable food has improved, and in the last year they have been obliged to eat the distasteful bread of frost-bitten corn. Consequently their health condition is far from being satisfactory. 

The education is still arousing but little interest in the Community. The schools are neglected and most of the villages, now, have no schools at all. 

Verigin is still remaining the absolute director of the Community, as all those that are dissatisfied with his management are compelled to abandon the Community, leaving him a faithful majority. The belief in his divine origin, which is very common yet, and the usual devotion of the Doukhobors to their leader, are considerably strengthening his position. 

As an example of the humble submissiveness of the members of the Community to their leader, the case of the village Pokrovka can be cited. At the beginning of the community life the inhabitants of Pokrovka had no luck and for two years they were giving to the common cash office less money than the other villages. Verigin called them idlers and gave to their village a new denomination Nedokhvatnoye (“the Insufficient”). They were bearing this disgraceful name for [a] few years, during which they were endeavouring to correct themselves, and they succeeded soon to give up even more money than the others, but they were still called by their new name, however. They decided then to beg Verigin himself for another name, but as nobody had boldness enough to personally talk with him, a petition was written which was beginning thus: “Our merciful Lord! Great is thy holy grace – have pity upon us! Show us your mercy, though as small as a poppy seed – deliver us from thy chastisement and grant to our village a Christian name. We will endeavor by all means to have no more defects…” and so on, on several pages. Shortly after the petition had been presented to Verigin, he came to Nedokhvatnoye himself, very contented, and said to the villagers that he gives them another name: their village shall be called henceforth “The Intercession of the Holy Virgin”, what expresses in Russian, but more solemnly, the first name of the village, Pokrovka. When the villagers heard Verigin granting them this great favour, they fell to the ground and thanked him.


Though the Doukhoborian Community has a semblance of solidity, she is precarious in reality, however. The life in the Community is so ungrateful, that in spite of all the devotedness of the Doukhobors to the Community, a certain feeling of dissatisfaction is almost general. Even Ivan Makhortov – the well known Doukhoborian patriarch – is getting pessimistic now. He has been a great admirer of Verigin and used often to say maliciously, amid a numerous assembly, while tapping Verigin on the shoulder: “I know well who is Christ.” But now, being very old already, he is saying to the Doukhobors, in a fit of frankness: “Beg him to give you liberty. There is no success in it.” 

And so, in fact, Verigin has to take particular measures to hold the Doukhobors in the Community. He is inspiring them with the great idea of a single Doukhoborian community, which he compares to the Ark of Noah, saying that as then all the men had perished and only [a] few remained, so it shall be also now. He is endeavoring to isolate the members of the Community from the influence of all the other Doukhobors and wants to have them all in one place – in the chief Yorkton colony. Thus he compels those members of the Community, who are living in the remote, but very fertile, Prince Albert colony, to remove on some poor lands in the Yorkton colony, in spite of all the serious loss by this removal. He is profiting by the loyalty of the women, who are generally more attached to the Community than the men, and gave them recently a still greater liberty of action, by granting them solemnly full equality of rights. He is advising them to abandon their husbands if they are “unbelievers” but, as it is not always possible to subdue the husbands in such a manner, divorces are very common. 

In spite of all these measures, however, the Doukhobors are more and more leaving the Community, and the total number of individual farmers as they are called (the “Independents”) is over one thousand already. They are living either in their old homes, in the villages, or on their own homesteads, and are generally more successful than the members of the Community . 

There is reason to suppose that the Doukhoborian movement has not quite ended yet, as new complications are possible, on account of the unstableness of the Community and her forced terms with the Canadian Government. But it can be said already that the movement has not been without good results. The Doukhobors embraced some principles with the aid of which they may become a worthy people. Something is done already. There is neither theft nor drunkenness among them. There is much poesy in their peaceful villages, where elks and prairie chickens are coming unmolested. But, of course, there is no perfection, and much is to be done yet. 

For an excellent scholarly analysis of the above article, see Peter Brock, Vasya Pozdnyakov’s Dukhobor Narrative (Slavonic and East European Review Vol. 43, 1965).

Wives and Children of the Doukhobors

by Prokopy Nestorovich Sokolnikov

Doctor Prokopy Nestorovich Sokolnikov (1865-1917) was a Yakut-born physician who graduated from Tomsk University and desired to return to serve in his homeland. On his way to Yakutsk, at the request of his friend and colleague Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, he accompanied a party of forty-one Doukhobors (25 women, 15 children and one elderly man) from the Caucasus, providing them with medical assistance throughout the journey and making arrangements with administrative authorities in regard to their needs. Thanks to Sokolnikov’s assistance, the Doukhobors were safely delivered to Yakutsk, where they reunited with their husbands and fathers who were exiled there for their rejection of military service. Throughout the 11,000-verst journey, the Tolstoyan doctor kept a diary in which he recorded vivid, often moving, impressions of his experiences. His diary was originally published in 1899 in the Irkutsk newspaper “Vostochnoe Obozrenie”.  In 2001, it was reproduced in the Russian monthly “Ilin”. The English translation of this valuable historical material is reproduced by permission from ISKRA Nos. 1945-1951 (Grand Forks, U.S.C.C., August-December, 2003).

At the proposal of Count L.N. Tolstoy, on March 24, 1899, I departed Moscow by way of the Ryazan Railway so as to meet up with the party of Doukhobor women and children traveling from the Caucasus to Yakutsk province.

As is known, about three years earlier, a party of the Caucasian Doukhobors had been exiled to the Yakutsk region for their rejection of military service. There, these sectarians, having formed a colony of 90 people and settled at Ust-Notora, in a short period of time managed to recover somewhat and to set themselves up economically. They built themselves huts, obtained an inventory of basic equipment, acquired several horses and cows, began sowing grain, planted garden vegetables, and are mowing a significant amount of hay.

In a word, they fervently applied themselves, with typical Doukhobor energy, sobriety and industriousness, so that in these cold thickets on the outskirts of Yakutsk, they show promise of being genuine carriers of their cultural origins. And so, therefore, having become somewhat established in their new homeland, these Doukhobors decided to send for their women and children in the Caucasus to come and join them.

After waiting an extra day at the Kozlov station, I met a party of 41. Traveling were 25 women, one older man, and 15 children (ages 3 – 7). The party had departed from Tiflis on March 18, accompanied by the police (military) overseer, K.V. Visotsky. On March 20, they boarded a steamship in Batum at a fare reduced by 50%, at the request of the overseer. Then on March 22, the party set out from Novorossiysk in a Fourth class rail car designated for migrants. The fourth class ticket from Novorossiysk to Irkutsk at the reduced tariff was seven rubles and 15 kopecks. On March 26, I met the party in the town of Kozlov.

I found the party in the following condition. In general, the spirits of the women were high. Only one young boy was ascertained to be running a fever, and he seemed weak and undernourished. In addition, one woman had an inflammation of the conjunctiva and cornea of the eye. The railway doctor gave us the necessary medicine and the child was given quinine. When I presented myself as a chaperone and doctor, on behalf of L.N. Tolstoy, the group seemed to be very pleased and even very touched. They encircled me and repeatedly exclaimed, “You’ve come from Grandfather? … Grandfather sent you?… You are from the Count?… May the Lord God grant him the best of health and everything…” At this their melancholy, open-hearted faces expressed spontaneous joy.

Doctor Prokopy Nestorovich Sokolnikov (1865-1917)

At this moment I also became acquainted with their chaperone, overseer K.V. Visotsky, who gave a most flattering account of the party and was concerned about every aspect of its well-being. Shortly, the train station-master, his assistant, and their wives also arrived. They immediately organized the preparation of a meatless meal for the party and distributed by an apple and a rich pastry bun for each of the children.

The picture was quite touching. Emaciated after eight days of shaking, tossing and still more jolting, the children, having had nothing hot or baked to eat for over a week, devoured these apples and pastries so that one had the involuntary desire to give them something more of the same… It is no joke for women and children to make an 11,000-verst (an Imperial Russian measure of distance equal to 1.06 kilometres) journey, (the distance from Tiflis to Ust-Notora in the Yakutsk region)! And the 2800-verst etaup (way-station) route from Irkutsk to Yakutsk still awaited them!

The challenge — how to safeguard these women and children so as to reunite them with their fathers — appeared truly difficult and complicated… The way is long, arduous… What if, along the way, the children become sick with typhus due to the hunger and fatigue!.. What if there is dysentery, scurvy, etc.? Doukhobors do not eat meat, fish and in general avoid all that is the result of death and killing… Therefore, the challenge becomes even more complex. The kind-hearted overseer once wanted to treat the children to soup, but the mothers did not allow them to eat the soup.

From Kozlov, that very day the party was sent on two train cars through Tambov, Penza, Samara, etc. The local people showed the best side of their personality: they displayed much kindness toward the children, comforting them and even giving them money for milk. In a word, the train station “Kozlov” flashed by as a bright spot in the hard and difficult life of these women and children.

Since I had a Third class ticket from Moscow to Irkutsk, and as the party was traveling Fourth class, and, in view of the fact that their circumstances were satisfactory, I, with the consent of the party, decided to travel ahead somewhat and go into Tomsk on personal matters, and then meet up again at the “Taiga station”… Here I will briefly interrupt my notes…

Outstripping the party travelling from “Kozlov”, I calculated that I would arrive at “Taiga” one or two days before its arrival, and so I utilized the time to go to Tomsk, where I had considerable moral obligations to visit with friends and acquaintances, whom I have been waiting to see for a long time and from whom I will, yet again, have to be separated for a long time, maybe even forever… With what a heavy heart, in such instances, must one be parted from dear and loved ones, everyone knows from their own experiences, so I need not make further comment here. But I must say that Tomsk is also particularly dear to me, because I had spent my early years as a student there, – these were undoubtedly difficult, but at the same time the best years of my life… It matters little, that at that time I became somewhat disillusioned with life and people, as well as with the university and professors. Little does it matter also, that many circumstances in life and immediate conditions were morally depressing, rather than being conducive to our education and well-being. Incidentally, the purely Asian features of local life and its immediate surroundings did not destroy the enthusiasm of the best of our group and did not have the demoralizing effects, that one would have expected, but on the contrary, forged and tempered a moral strength that prepared them for life’s difficult battles – this is evident, first of all, from the success of the Tomsk students working in the medical field, and secondly, in their exemplary behavior in matters of pure fellowship. Having made a small excursion into past territory, I return to the present.

In Tomsk I was able to spend three days (April 3, 4 and 5). During that time I met many fine and responsive people, wishing, without fail to offer any help they could to our party, that is, to the Doukhobor women and children. In this regard, they often gave their very last and hard earned pennies. For example, one elementary school teacher, almost physically forced me to take five rubles, and her son, a high-school student, dumped out nearly the entire contents of his piggy bank, and counted out one ruble in silver coins. Another time, the railway conductor, a young, sweet-talking fellow with a Ukrainian accent, gave the mothers a twenty kopeck piece saying “take this for nuts for the children…” Such an input from a poor person is, without doubt, an expression of the best of human nature, and therefore it touches and gladdens one even more than do the larger gifts of rich people.

Therefore, without an accompanying feeling of gratitude, I cannot think of S.E.T. (the engineer’s wife) who not only gave a significant amount of money, but also procured for us various medicines, bandages and sent us 100 eggs, ignoring my reluctance to take such a bulky package. In the end I became convinced that these eggs had at least as much value as the money. The important thing — in all of these efforts to provide money, provisions and medicines one sees a purely maternal concern, which warms, gladdens and comforts all people in need and sorrow. In this manner, donations in Tomsk amounted to 93 rubles, 50 kopecks.

Looking at the magnanimous response of the Siberian people to the fate of the innocent children and women, I was involuntarily gladdened, touched, and my pride found for itself convenient sustenance in this, I was proud of our Siberian men and women (the women were particularly attentive and zealous in their response).

Having stayed in Tomsk with some considerable benefit to the party, I arrived at Taiga station on April 6. But here, unfortunately, I had to wait an extra day. The following day (April 7) the party safely arrived at Taiga station. Our meeting was a happy occasion for both sides. I inquired about the health of the group. They replied: “Praise God, we are all alive and well.” But later it became evident that this was not exactly true, of which I will relate further along.

Having learned that all of our women and children are travelling fourth class in two coaches and that the police overseer is travelling together with them, I decided to also accommodate myself in fourth class, being that with a third class ticket I have the right to travel in fourth class.

I will explain a little about the fourth class coaches. These are ordinary freight cars in the shape of red boxes with white writing: 40 people – 8 horses. They are built so that, through one of the side doors horses can be easily loaded, and on the opposite side there is a double door through which people can pass freely, but horses cannot. At each corner of the car, near the very ceiling, there are four small openable windows, through which light and fresh air comes in. At each end of the car, two rows high, there are wide bunks built in, similar to peasant beds, where people can arrange themselves in rows, cross-ways. In the centre of the car stands an iron stove, which quickly warms the coach inside. However, the warmth in the coach cannot be maintained for long, since, as the train starts moving, all of our doors and windows start to skip, jump, rattle and bang, quickly letting the cold air in and the warm air out. Luckily our women and children are dressed very well. All of the women have wadded jackets and sheepskin coats, and the children have vests, jackets and trousers which are also wadded. The collars are all buttoned up. Evidently, they do not recognize French fashions.

When I handed over the provisions and money collected in Tomsk for the benefit of the party (93 rubles, 50 kopecks) one of the women said: “Sisters! Let us give thanks to God, that He does not forsake us and sends us aid through good people.” Then the women formed a circle, first bowed to each other from the waist, then bowed to the earth, saying out loud: “Praise God”. … Then they went, each to their own spot, sat down and in a soft, mournful voice began to sing a beloved song:

Tell me where you’re going, pilgrim

With a staff in your hand?

There, where God’s grace Is greater, I am going, a pilgrim

Across mountains and valleys

Across steppes and fields,

Across forests and plains,

Friends, I am going home!

Pilgrim! What do you hope for In that far-off better land?

Snow-white robes And a crown of glory!..

Fear and terror are unknown On your path?

Jesus Christ is with me,

From that desired place I am following after Jesus

Over the hot sands… 

They sang together with enthusiasm, with much feeling without any crying or squeaking, although their melodies are very monotonous and it is hard to distinguish individual words.

From later information I learned that the fortune of the group was far from bright. True, the little boy with a fever, Fedya Dimovsky, had more or less recovered. But the woman’s eye had gotten considerably worse during the trip. Besides, it turned out we had another sick person. Six year old Alyosha Makhortov had a severe case of scurvy, to the extent that his teeth and jawbone were literally rotting. In appearance he seemed very malnourished, his face swollen and his stomach bloated. Upon examination I found many loose and dead teeth, so that there was an unbearable odour coming from his mouth.

…With no other resource, I decided to remove the rotten teeth, prescribe a disinfectant mouthwash, improve as much as possible his overall nutrition and so forth. Since the teeth were barely, barely held in the gums, I was able to remove four teeth with my fingers without difficulty. At that the youngster cried, fought and tried to protect himself with his hands and pleaded for mercy… My heart ached and I felt sorry for the youngster, but scrunching up my heart, I did what I felt was necessary.

At the station “Bogotol” I met Dr. Sosunov, a fellow student from the medical university. He provided us with medicines and with the help of his pliers I was able to remove three more teeth.

Trans-Siberian Railway, circa 1890’s. Photo by John Foster Fraser.

With these types of surprises we travelled from “Taiga” to Irkutsk. I send my sincere thanks to all of my fellow doctors who helped us by providing medicine. In brackets I will say that the migrational doctors helped us more quickly and extensively than did the railroad doctors, who seemed to have less medicines and were more entangled with various formalities which interfered with the actual efforts of medical assistance. For example, for some reason the railway pharmacy would not release medicine according to my prescription, but required the signature of their own doctor, but in Moscow, Tomsk, Irkutsk, medicines were given out on all of my prescriptions, in that I am a certified doctor of the Russian empire. The migrational doctors were of exceptionally important service to us at the Bogotol and Kansk stations (Sosunov and Oreshko).

In this manner we travelled from the Taiga station to Irkutsk in generally good conditions, benefitting everywhere from the attention and consideration of the more cultured public. The only exception to this attitude was the behaviour of Sergeant-Major Kokhtev (a lower rank of the military police) who serves at the Nizhniudinsk station. Upon hearing that our women sing their prayers in the cars, he sought to forbid them this singing. The women of course, became confused and went silent; but our accompanying police overseer, K.V. Visotsky, intervened on their behalf and explained to Kokhtev, that there is nothing reprehensible in their songs. But the overly zealous sergeant-major was not subdued and in an even more raised tone asked the overseer: “And who are you?.. What business is it of yours?!” The other introduced himself and added: “If you like, I have instructions authorizing that all of the military police detachments at the train stations must show us all manner of assistance.” The sergeant then went to complain to the detachment captain, who didn’t attach any significance to it. This incident concluded without any legalities, but left all of us there with bad feelings. “Oh, our motherland, Siberia!” – one involuntarily thinks to oneself. On this I will conclude my account up to Irkutsk for the time being.

On April 13, at about 5:00 o’clock in the afternoon, we arrived at the Irkutsk station. Regarding accommodation, K.V. Visotsky conferred by telephone with the city’s chief of police, who responded very kindly and immediately showed us to temporary lodgings. The accommodations designated to us were in the Novozhilov building, on Preobrazhenskaya street. At that, the chief of police expressed his regrets that we had not notified him by telegram from along the way… Had we thought to do that, no doubt better quarters would have been prepared for us.

Upon leaving the station, we were met by the local migration official, I.A. Strukovsky, who initially took us as migrants, but then, of course, the situation was clarified; regardless, he was of great assistance, providing us with addresses and very relevant instructions concerning our further activities in Irkutsk; not to mention the material help which the Irkutsk citizens subsequently bestowed upon us, and in which Mr. Strukovsky played a visible role.

Next, we hired two local drivers, and loading up the wagons with our bundles, sacks, bags, and other goods, set forth in somewhat of a disorderly throng towards town.

We crossed the Angara River by way of the famous pontoon bridge. Our women were amazed to no end, when they saw the bridge suspended on floats, stretching across the huge and turbulent river. Trying to get a good look at the construction of the bridge, they, like children, running to the front and leaning over the railing, peered at the water under the bridge. The fast-moving, clear waves of the exotic Angara rolled by, the sun happily shone and warmed the weary spirits of our sisters. The children scattered and ran ahead of the adults, romping in the sunlight with such joy, like young calves who, lifting up their tails, cavort around the green meadows. Seeing the children’s hearts filled with such spontaneous joy and sensing that the adult mothers were no less joyous, having for the first time set foot on solid ground following a continuous, nearly uninterrupted journey of 26 days by rail in fourth class, the heart of an outsider could also not help but feel gladdened. In all honesty, there was much to be happy about, now that the women and children had safely traversed some 7000 difficult versts. But oh! – My mind dictated skeptical thoughts and to me it was clear that we had accomplished relatively little, as before us was by far the harder half of our journey – that is, the distance from Irkutsk to Yakutsk (2800 versts), that we would have to travel in the convoy system, and then another 900 versts by river – Lena and Aldan, that is, from Yakutsk to Ust-Notora, to where the husbands of these women had been exiled and were now settled. I, therefore, hid my forlorn thoughts from the women.

Having arrived at the Novozhilov Building, which was on Preobrazhenskaya street, we arranged our lodgings in an annex. At first it was fairly damp there, cold, dirty, dusty and with a very obvious musty cellar odour. But were we to complain about the lack of convenience?! We should feel blessed that the lodgings, firewood and water were provided for us by the city, free of charge. However, when I came the following day, I hardly recognized yesterday’s place. The dusty and dirty floor had been thoroughly swept, the low, dirty, black bunks were covered and heaped with clean, colourful bedding, clothing, and travellers bags, so that these unattractive bunks for a time forgot that, year after year, half-drunk people had trampled and dirtied them… Even the glass in the windows looked cleaner and brighter… After two-three days, the musty cellar smell was gone. In a word, the old, half-rotten, wooden outbuilding, half sunken into the ground, was turned into a relatively usable and pleasant quarters. Here, automatically, one recalls the phrases in praise of women’s capable, caring hands.

Not to put it off, the next day I went to deal with administrative issues. I went to see the governor, inspector of prisons and police chief to make arrangements regarding the outfitting of the convoy-party in May. As the Doukhobor women did not have sufficient funds, and as the distance from Irkutsk to Yakutsk (2800 versts) could cost a considerable amount, the following plan had been developed: from Tiflis to Irkutsk, whether by sea or by train, they would travel on their own funds, then from Irkutsk to Yakutsk they would be transported by the prison convoy method, at the state’s expense, for which they would first have to be “arrested” in Irkutsk.

The top administration in Irkutsk responded to the fate of our group with special care and concern. I was given permission to accompany the convoy. Unfortunately, we didn’t arrive in time for the selection of the first prisoner convoy of 300 people, which was by then already filled up and a list of their names finalized. Any changes to the completed list of people for transport could raise all manner of displeasure amongst the prisoners. Therefore, there was no possibility of sending us with the first party of prisoners, which was to depart from the Alexandrovsk Central Transit Prison on May 5, 1899. As concerned the second party, it would only be fully outfitted by July. Consequently, we had only two alternatives: to wait for the departure of the second party of prisoners, or travel at our own expense to Yakutsk. The first option was very unappealing to us due to the delay, and the second was completely out of the question due to lack of funds. The administration, however, in view of its exceptional leniency with our group, found a third alternative – and that was to send us as a special group ahead of everyone. In this way, we were notified to be ready to depart on April 23. For transporting us and all of our belongings from Irkutsk to the Alexandrovsk Prison were hired, for 50 rubles, some kind of itinerant peasants who would be going to Irkutsk and back to pick up supplies to sell at the Easter celebrations. Alexandrovsk Prison lies in the direction of Yakutsk, 60 versts from Irkutsk. Thus, in principle, our journey was decided. But a rare, fortunate occurrence completely changed our plans.

The following day I was in the office of A.I. Gromova, where I met her senior agent, M.V. Pikhtin, in whose name I had a letter from Count L.N. Tolstoy, with a request that, if possible, the Doukhobor wives be taken on a barge of one of the ships belonging to A.I. Gromova. The effects of this letter were startling. Immediately there took place a family discussion with the sons of Anna Ivanovna, I.I. and V. I. Gromov, who responded warmly and sympathetically to the request of Leo Tolstoy, and M.V. Pikhtin came forth with the following, touching phrase:

“Since such a world-renowned writer and great person as Count L.N. Tolstoy, whose creative works brought us so much great pleasure, is asking us to participate in the fate of these people, then we, from our side must do all that is necessary.”

After this, they decided to absorb all of the costs for getting the group from Irkutsk and right to Ust-Notora (3700 versts). They decided to specially hire, at the expense of A.I. Gromova, 10 transport wagons which would initially get the party to the village of Kachuga, which is the embarkation point for all the merchant cargo floated down the river Lena on flat-bottomed vessels called pauzki (pronounced “pawoozki”). Then, from Kachuga to the station of Zhigalovo, from where begins the shipping into open, ice-free waters, it was proposed to send the party on pauzki. Finally, from Zhigalovo and right to Ust-Notora, it was considered possible to go on a barge attached to one of the Gromovs’ ships. That was the plan for continuing our journey.

That very day I ran into the Novozhilov Building and told the women of the Gromovs’ decision to transport them, at no charge, right to Ust-Notora. At first, the women didn’t seem to understand the significance of this announcement, but then, when I finished with “and therefore, ladies, their will be no convoy… We will not have to be part of the prisoner convoys..!”, several voices as one repeated my words: “There will be no convoy! There will be no convoy!”, and there was a cry from one hoarse, but strong voice at the back. Looking back, I saw our elderly man, Nikolai Cheveldeyev. His usually calm, and even apathetic expression, was visibly excited, and his glassy, large eyes were staring off into the distance. Momentarily, the facial muscles twitched slightly, the elder’s graying brows flickered and tears began streaming down his cheeks… But these were tears of joy, tender emotion… Everyone wept except for the children, who looked at the elders with big, incredulous eyes and, apparently, unable to come to a clear understanding of what was taking place in the hearts of the elders, did not know what to do. Recovering from their first reaction, the women stood in a circle, bowed to the ground and thanked God for sending good people. At that they exclaimed, “May the Lord bless them!, May the Lord bless them!” Then they had the children do the same.

In the following days in Irkutsk, the women and children were visited by various cultured people, men and women, who brought them money and provisions…. There also appeared some brothers and sisters who shared the Doukhobor beliefs, who more than once hosted our sisters in their homes.

Pauzok on the River Lena, c. 1899. Photo by John Foster Fraser.

Without expanding too much on the goodwill of the Irkutsk intelligentsia to our group, I must give special thanks to our friends, doctors P.I. Fedorov and P.N. Shastin for their very sympathetic attitude, the editor of “Vost. Obozr”, I.I. Popov and his wife, Mr. Posarevsky for dispensing a considerable amount of medication free of charge, A.G. Luri, I.I. Mainov, I.A. Strukovsky and his wife, the senior administration of the town of Irkutsk. In general, various good people of Irkutsk gave more than 200 rubles to the cause of the Doukhobor wives and children.

In Irkutsk, aside from the good will of the people, there was some unpleasantness. Soon after our arrival in Irkutsk, measles broke out amongst our children. At first Andrei Sofonov become ill. It was very difficult for us to isolate the sick youngster and his mother from the rest of the children. We had to quickly get permission from the city officials to occupy the lower portion of an adjacent building. Again it was necessary to heat the building, obtain firewood, etc. We then divided the group between the two buildings in the following manner: the mother with the sick child and all the women without children were left in the original wing, while the remaining mothers and their children were taken to the new building, with instructions to avoid contact as much as possible between these two buildings. But alas! – These efforts were almost fruitless, for too infrequently was I able to enforce them, and as soon as I would arrive, I would be greeted with everything in disarray, i.e. those from the “wing” would be found in the large home and vice-versa. As a result my arrangements for isolation were not completely carried out. Of course, I knew full-well that I was dealing with uneducated women who had no clear understanding of communicable diseases and couldn’t understand the importance of isolation, and particularly as they were very much accustomed to helping one another in a communal way, which was very evident here; nevertheless, I was not about to do otherwise. It is true that at first I suggested to take the sick child and his mother for a time to the Bazanovskaya children’s hospital, but the women were not in agreement with this step, particularly as they were expecting that they would soon be departing for Yakutsk province.

On the other hand, I could not bring myself to violate their communal bond and force a separation of the mother and sick child from the rest of the group and their emotional support, even for a week.

In time, the situation of the group in Irkutsk significantly improved. The child recovered from measles, and the other children, to all appearances, did not get sick. The child who had been ill with scurvy, Alyosha Makortoff, had significantly improved. The woman with the eye condition had also improved.

Finally, on April 23rd, we escorted the group from the Novozhilov building past the edge of town. The group was walking in high spirits and singing their spiritual hymns – psalms. On the day of the women’s departure, the Irkutsk Doukhobors prepared a sort of farewell dinner and accompanied the group beyond the city boundary. Then I became aware that the “brothers in faith” had supplied the women with provisions and a small amount of money. Then, from some village below Irkutsk, a group of Doukhobor brethren came out to the main road to meet them, brought them some supplies and bowed to the ground before them. They said that the parting was very touching. Many were crying to the point of sobbing. But I had remained behind in Irkutsk with the intention of catching up to the group later, thinking that their situation was satisfactory for the time being.

Lagging behind the party by three days, I overtook it one night at a station and arrived at Kachuga one day ahead of it. The group arrived there on April 29th. There I learned that the women had arrived not altogether satisfactorily. During one descent, a horse began to run down from the top of a hill, causing one of the women to fall from the wagon, hitting her knees on the ground and catching her dress in the wheel. In that manner she was dragged by the horse for several yards. Thankfully, the dress was made from fairly poor quality material and was easily torn away by the wheel. Nonetheless, the woman received several abrasions, one cut and considerable injury in the areas of both knees. At one of the stations, Dr. Toropov applied an antiseptic bandage to the wound. Aside from that, we had others who had become ill. Along the way, three more children developed measles, but the rash had already gone away. In that manner in Kachuga we comprised a virtual hospital. M.V. Pikhtin assigned the women a relatively convenient granary at the Andreevsky dock, where supplies were to be loaded.

The loading took almost two days. In that time we made various purchases for the road, in Kachuga we went to a medical station where a medical doctor’s assistant welcomed us very warmly and dispensed various medicines. It turned out that this assistant had already learned from the newspapers of the imminent arrival of the Doukhobor women. He also know that Count L.N. Tolstoy was the sponsor of these women. In Siberia there are many fans of Leo Tolstoy, which doesn’t surprise me in the least, as the Siberian populace likes to read and knows all of the best writers by their works. But in one instance I was absolutely amazed. When I was seeing the party off from Irkutsk, while seeking out a coachman, I wondered into a shabby housing district and there I encountered a very poor Jew, who took up a conversation with me and quickly concluded that I was the very same doctor who was accompanying the women. “Allow me to inquire, are you a doctor?” he asked. At my surprised reply, he explained. “I know, I know! I am very happy to see you… you are travelling at the request of Count Tolstoy… I read about it in the newspaper.”  Very enthusiastically, he proceeded to elaborate about Lev Tolstoy, and I was very favourably amazed. The not-too-clean, worn out and bedraggled old man would have surprised me less had he asked for some gratuity, then when he began a discussion of Count L.N. Tolstoy…

Loading a Siberian river barge, circa 1899. Photo by George Kennan.

After a laborious loading of supplies, on May first, at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon, we left the Andreevsky dock in two pauzki. Earlier we had had to draw the pauzki to the opposite shore by cable, from there, by a winding channel, get to the village of Kachuga, and there, joining other pauzki, float downstream on the Lena. At first, using a tow-line, the workers had dragged the pauzki upstream, then by boat, had strung a thin cable (across) which then helped in getting the pauzki to the other shore of the Lena, which is quite narrow at that point (only about 50-60 yards). Just as we got across to the other side, a slight breeze came up. The pilots decided that it wasn’t possible to go further in such weather. This was based on the fact that the pauzki are only suitable to float in very calm conditions. As soon as a slight wind comes up, it can easily run the pauzki aground onto a sandbank. The steering mechanism and oars of this flat-bottomed, box-like vessel, lying flat on the surface of the water, and with a heavy load of 3000 pounds, were of little use in controlling the vessel, because the pauzki float downstream with the flow of the water like a wood chip, going their own way. Should a slight wind begin to blow either from the back or the side near shoals or winding channels, it is very easy to be blown ashore. And once the pauzok runs aground, it requires much effort to free it and sometimes it is completely impossible, especially when there is a diminished water level in the river.

In view of the unexpected stop, we did a number of things to make the time go by faster. The women and I walked over to a nearby Buryat village with the intention of buying some milk. But there, speaking in a nearly unintelligible Russian, they asked for 30 kopecks for a bottle of milk, which seemed very expensive to us and so we didn’t buy any. At this, an elderly Buryat fellow, who spoke a little Russian, looked in the direction of the women and said, “You many wife.” I couldn’t help smiling at this, and walked away. After wandering haphazardly through many Buryat yards, more than once climbing over a fence, we came upon one very wealthy home of Russian design. Here there didn’t appear to be any men-folk and the women, seemingly somewhat frightened of us, responded to our questions very curtly and with negative shakes of their heads. With nothing else to do, we returned to our pauzki empty-handed.

Very early in the morning of the following day I heard cries, shouting and pounding on the roof of our pauzok. Its planked roof was shaking and trembling. One could hear the workers running in unision and with all of their might, jerking the steering mechanism. I walked over to one end of our cabin and peered through a crack. We were floating slowly — along a winding channel; near Kachuga a wind came up again. Again we are hugging the shoreline. In this way, again we are stopping for another day, not having travelled even five versts. Such was the unfortunate start to our voyage. The women became despondent in view of these circumstances. But I consoled them by saying, that after Zhighalov, once we boarded the ships, we would be travelling faster.

On May 3rd, very early in the morning, we resumed our journey. There was the very same pounding and shouting, the very same running of people on the roof. But on this day, there were no special stops. For short periods, one or another of the pauzki (there were four of them floating together) would become caught on a shoal, but then would free itself, and we would float on further. We floated slowly with the current. In places the course of the river would split into two channels, and then it was necessary to exert special effort to prevent the pauzki from running aground. Here the shores of the Lena are very picturesque. On the right-hand side was a continuous series of cliffs, beyond which loomed the dark, gloomy and mighty taiga; on the left a plateau covered in dense forest. The weather was truly enchanting. The mountaintops and slopes covered in green forest were brightly illuminated by golden rays of sunlight. Birds were singing and the air was filled with the scent of new leaves. In places the mountains seem to move apart and the Lena, cutting through the green hills, creates small meadows. Near these meadows, at the foot of some mountain huddles a small village or postal station, bringing an amazing enlivening effect to this desolate wilderness. Within these immense forests there is no place for people to expand their homesteads. A small piece of cleared land can sustain only a few residents, who must keep up a difficult struggle for their existence. In these places all goods are very expensive, for most have to be imported, including even bread. Here a pound of rye bread costs 6 1/2 kopecks. There is almost no milk, anything manufactured is very expensive. My only consolation, during this time floating down the river, was to sit in sunny weather on the deck and admire the wild beauty of the landscape. The women, coming out onto the deck, keep together in a bunch in some corner, so as not to be in the workers’ way. The workers occupied all of the central area of the deck and, running in unison, operated the enormous steering mechanisms of the pauzki. The old pilot, standing somewhere at the edge of the pauzok, watched for the depth of the channel and shouted out his simple orders, “Work the prow, work the helm! Down with the prow, work the helm!” and so forth…

At this time the women, sitting on the deck, did not so much enjoy the beauty of the place, as they were horrified by the wildness and gloominess of the surroundings. They sometimes spoke out about this, “Lord! How much we have travelled, and still just forest and more forests… These forests and mountains seem to squeeze one’s head as though in a vice and it gets frightening!..”

In the evening of that very day, we arrived at the town of Verkholensk. A boat approached us from the shore, on board of which were two intelligent looking young fellows. They asked: “Are the Doukhobor women here?” “Yes, they are here”, I answered.

They quickly began inquiring about the needs of our group. Then they took me ashore with the intention of showing me to Dr. Rauer’s home. As it turned out, the doctor wasn’t at home, but we were told that he would soon return, so I went inside, where I was introduced to the rest of his friends. In all there were 5 or 6 people, a cultured, sophisticated group of men and women. From the conversation I discerned that these were intelligent people, only temporarily living in Siberia. In such a wilderness it was pleasant to encounter some intelligent people. Soon, Doctor Rauer returned and welcomed me most warmly, supplied me with various medicines and kept me a whole hour. Our pauzki were to stop for the night a little ways downstream from Verkholensk. Dr. Rauer knew exactly where our docking site was and promised to get me there on horseback. However, when we set out to cross the Lena on the pontoon bridge, a heavy downpour broke out, which flailed us the entire distance of two or three versts, and it was so dark, that several times we lost our way and, finally, decided to cover the remaining distance on foot, leaving the horses along the way. Eventually, the rain abated somewhat and from a distance of a hundred metres or so, we were able to discern a campfire on one of the pauzki. Coming along side of it, I saw several human silhouettes and inquired: “Whose pauzki are these? Gromov’s?” “Yes, Gromov’s!”, someone answered from the deck. “Where are the Doukhobor women?” “They aren’t here…” “Not there?! The Doukhobor women must be here!”, I exclaimed. “Oh, this is our doctor!” Someone had recognized me by my voice and added: “Yes, yes, the Mukhomori (mistaken term for a “mushroom”) are here.”

In this manner we found our pauzki and went to see Alexander Grigorievich, who worked for the Gromovs. There we encountered an entire “community”. It appeared that two men and two women from the group of exiled intelligentsia that I had met earlier, had walked in the pouring rain and had brought with them a veritable mountain of all kinds of provisions (a great quantity of eggs, tea and sugar) for our party. But, thanks to the lateness of the hour and inclement weather, they were not even able to see those for whom they had shown such great concern.

Early in the morning of the following day we set forth on our journey and from that day on we entered a streak of bad luck. It was, in truth, yet in Kachuga that several of our children developed a bloody diarrhea (dysentery), but, for the most part, it was possible to stop it. The more stubborn illness was that of the seven year old boy Fyodor Dimovsky. From birth he was predisposed to a weaker constitution, and suffered from rickets; he had been ill with measles along the way and finally became ill with dysentery which took away his last bit of strength. It is now the third day that he is lying, nearly unconscious, like a sheet. Since he is not able to swallow even very soft foods, he was force-fed a runny gruel with milk, i.e., we forced his jaws open with a spoon and poured into his mouth one mouthful after another. We had no means for feeding him artificially with tubes. His strength was kept up somewhat with caffeine and to try to stop the diarrhea he was given bismuthi subnitrici… But he did not gain strength.

The little boy was very dehydrated and with blue colouring, breathing loudly and hoarsely. His extremities began to grow cold and turn blue. His heart rate was dropping… In a word, it was clear to me that death was near, but I didn’t want to deprive the mother of her last hopes. For that reason I continued to force-feed and medicate him with German precision. After a fairly heavy dose of caffeine, the little boy would revive somewhat, open his eyes and seem to recognize his mother, and me, but with no strength to speak. With his mother he was sometimes stubborn and irritable, but of me, it seemed, he was a little fearful and saw me as a monster, who only knew to force his mouth open several times a day and pour foul liquids into it. Being aware of this, I tried to sit in such a way that when it was time to force-feed him and give him his medicine, that he wouldn’t immediately notice me. The situation was very difficult… For the last while, his mother had gone completely without sleep, whispering some sort of prayers, and going back and forth, from desperation to hope, from hope to desperation: should the boy revive a bit, open his eyes and call her “Mama”, her spirits would instantly lift, and with energetic nervous movements, she would begin to arrange the blanket, the pillow, and, covering him in kisses, ask: “What, my dear?… Tell me what you need!..”…But, alas! To all these questions, chatter and caresses, the boy would only respond by again losing consciousness, closing his eyes, unconsciously smacking his tongue, making some sort of superfluous chewing motions, followed by feeble moans… At this, the mother’s heart is ready to burst into pieces, and again, the poor thing falls into despair… Frozen to the spot, her tears flow in rivulets and her lips whisper futile prayers. One occasionally observes that one or another of the other women comes up and quietly sits near the head of the boy, making some sort of light movements of the hand, as though chasing away flies, and she also whispers a prayer. Sometimes they pray as a group near the sick boy and they even make the children pray together. At this, one hardly would think that they are praying for the recovery and well-being of the sick one, but more readily they remind one of prayers for the dying…

After several days of very trying circumstances for everyone, the young boy passed away on May 4th, about three o’clock in the afternoon, right at the time that we were standing at the dock awaiting the rest of the pauzki which had run aground. We were in a difficult situation. The question of the funeral arose. If the other pauzki which had run aground would be removed quickly and would arrive today, then it would not work out to bury him here. We were waiting near Nikishenskaya village, between the Davidov and Petrov stations. The women, the elderly man and I, in consultation decided this: to go over to Nikishenskaya village, which was situated on the opposite shore of the Lena, a distance of about one verst from our moorage, to purchase some lumber for the casket and get other necessary tools to make the casket, as well as for digging the grave. We decided, for now, to get the casket ready, and then, tomorrow morning, to get started on the grave, if the remainder of the pauzki don’t arrive today.

With one worker and several of the women, we crossed to the opposite shore of the Lena on a boat, and went into the village. There, at one place, we found everything that we needed: we purchased lumber and provisions, acquired the tools and returned to the pauzok. It must be noted here that the ordinary villagers responded to our grief most compassionately. One peasant let us have the lumber and nails for the coffin at a very low price, sold the bread and eggs very cheaply, and didn’t charge at all for the loaning of the tools; another woman, who brought us several round loaves of bread and some eggs, refused to accept the regular market price, but charged us less. Even the workers on the pauzki, who were relatively coarse, drinking people, responded to our grief with much compassion, and by the evening of that very day, they had constructed a small, child-sized casket, lined inside with a rose-coloured fabric. The stranded pauzki did not arrive, so we decided to commence digging the grave the following morning.

Next morning (May 5th) the little grave was made ready. Together with the women and old man, in two consecutive groups, we made our way to the opposite shore of the Lena, taking the casket over with us. The women, losing no time, took up the long poles on which they lifted the casket, and proceeded to carry it further…

It was a beautiful morning. The sun shone brightly, illuminating the mountain tops and dense taiga, the Lena, swirling in quick, dark waves with their metallic sparkle, cut through the mountain ridges, dark forests and green knolls. The Lena was mysteriously beautiful in its gloomy grandeur. The birds twittered merrily and the air carried the aroma of the coniferous trees… And there, amongst the green hills, where from a chink in the mountain side, runs a pebbly stream, becoming a loud waterfall at the foot of the hill, one can see a bunch of women in colourful clothing milling about… The group begins to spread out, moving slowly and making its way up the hill… The lid of the casket flashes reflectively in the sunlight and slowly the tiny casket appears, covered in a white shroud. Suddenly, the sound of harmonious, heart-wrenching singing is heard… This was the Doukhobor women singing their funeral psalms. With a moan, in a trembling wave, the sounds flew out from the breast, flowing out and away… to die out in the faraway hilltops and the dark forests, the final tones echoing off the cliffs along the river’s edge…

Climbing to the hilltop, I observed the following scene. The women, forming a circle, sang various psalms, and in their midst, on the ground, stood the tiny casket, in which could be seen the pale face of the dead boy, with a white scarf at the neck, tied in a pretty bow. The hands of the boy were placed on his chest, in a manner similar to our deceased, and for some reason clasped another clean, white handkerchief. To the left, among the pine trees, the worker, up to his chest in the hole, was using a pick to dislodge the last rocks from the grave. The ground, almost in its entirety consisted of rocks and it was very difficult for the workers to dig the grave. These rocks were followed by stone slabs so huge that it was impossible to break them apart with the pickax. It was decided to conclude the digging and to inter the boy, lowering him into the grave. At first the grave was filled in with fine earth, sand and pebbles, then smaller stones began to be dropped in… The grave was quickly filled in and a board with an inscription was placed on it, and the gravesite was very prettily bordered with large rounded stones. In this manner giving over to the earth our departed, we returned to our pauzok. First of all we treated our workers to a little vodka, knowing that the local workers are temperamental and don’t do anything without vodka. Then I handed out money for the casket maker and workers at the gravesite. At first, for some reason, they didn’t want to take the money, saying, “We can work for the young boy without pay.” But then they took it.

Siberian barge moored at river bank, circa 1899. Photo by George Kennan.

Having spent the night at this ill-fated place, the next morning of May 6th, we again set off on our way. Luckily, our subsequent travel went more favourably. There were no lengthy stops. It is true, that there were some places where it was necessary to employ all manner of safeguards to avoid once again running our barge aground on a sandbank. As, for example, near the station Ust-Ilga, where there are dangerous sandbars and there is a very sharp bend in the course of the river, it was necessary to ease the barge downriver on the anchor; i.e., taking a small anchor and cable on a boat and pulling it to one side, we dropped it into the water, and by pulling on the cable we were able to hold the barge in the proper direction. In this way, bypassing a dangerous place, the ship left our barge at the shore and went downstream for wood, where there was a stockpile of wood for the Gromov ships.

Taking advantage of this time, the women and I went by boat to the opposite shore of the Lena to the Ust-Ilga station, where we hoped to purchase a variety of provisions. But here we were hard pressed to find even a little bread, potatoes, cabbage and milk. The cabbage and milk were only found at a clergyman’s, where the mother-superior demanded such a price that I was involuntarily amazed, even in light of the general high cost of living which rules in these parts. With somewhat wicked intentions I had at first thought to take advantage of the weaker heartstrings of a woman and mentioned that the milk was needed for our ailing children. But the nun turned out to be more hard-hearted than I had expected; she didn’t discount it even a penny.

Returning from the station, for recreation we walked up from the shore and climbed a hill, at the top of which a beautiful, grandiose vista opened up before us of the Lena mountains and surrounding taiga. The spring sunlight illuminated the wavy foothills of the mountains, covered in dark, gloomy taiga; but this taiga was turning a luxurious green and giving off the rich scent of the newly sprouted needles on the larch trees. The weather was clear and warm… Breathing was easy… The singing of birds could be heard in the air. The Lena, at this point, is relatively narrow, seemingly constrained, and flowed in a blue ribbon through the centre of its valley; but it capriciously swirled, giving off thousands of sparkles of the May sun. It felt good, and in one’s heart, it awakened an involuntary feeling of love and an acquiescence to life.

In the evening of that same day there was an occurrence which upset our entire community. The group of prisoners, which had been released from the Alexandrovsk prison on May 5th, overtook us at this point. From upstream, two pauzki approached us filled with people, in the middle of which was a dark mass of people in Caucasian burkas (a type of jacket). As soon as this was noticed, almost simultaneously several women cried out, “Oh, our people are coming… Sisters, there are our men coming!” Upon hearing this, several women ran up from the hold. Now they were abreast of us… Now they are passing us… The people in burkas, it appeared, recognizing their “sisters”, started taking off their caps and bowing. “How good it would be to approach them now by boat!”, one woman remarked out loud. “That can be done,” I said and called out: “Hey, boys, prepare a boat, quickly. There come the husbands of our women!… They must get to see them.” Two good fellows instantly appeared in a boat and began to bring it alongside of us. “Wait, they are coming themselves!”, someone from the group cried out.

Sure enough, from the prisoner’s pauzok, people descended into a boat and immediately set to the oars. A second boat soon followed. A few minutes later, the husbands and relatives of our women were already on our deck. There were but a few men, but it is impossible to express the joy of the meeting in words. First of all, however, the men as well as the women, bowed to each other, to the ground, and with tears in their eyes, began kissing one another. Following the ritualistic kissing, they began conversing and questioning, as to each other’s health, etc. In ordinary circumstances, the Doukhobors act slowly, in a measured, cautious manner, giving the appearance of people who are apathetic, and who must contemplate each step they make and each word they say. But here their emotion and haste were evident in everything. After conversing for about 15 minutes, the men departed. From the context of the conversations, it was apparent that these people are prepared to endure, silently, all manner of ordeals. The men said that they were fine, both while in prison as well as on the road; and the women said that they were travelling fine, when the real truth was that the children had endured virtual epidemics and the group had experienced many inconveniences and hardships. At the point of the men’s departure, I was introduced to them. This occurred as follows: Several women whispered something to the men, and they, glancing at one another, come up to me, one after another, to shake my hand, saying, “We humbly thank you for staying by our womenfolk.” “There is nothing to thank me for… I look after very minor things and I do so at the request of “Grandfather”, at the request of Count L.N. Tolstoy”, I said in response. “All the same! We are nonetheless grateful to you… We are grateful to “Grandfather” also… But you went to a lot of trouble on behalf of our women, tiring yourself out for them all through the journey.” “I had to come out here anyway.” “In any event, you have put out a lot of effort,” insisted the “brothers”. Following this the men left, and we, with the coming of darkness, stayed there until the following morning.

Our subsequent journey did not present any obstacles. For this reason we are able to say that, the end of our trials had finally arrived. The only serious, unfortunate incident to be noted, was in regard to the one woman, who had earlier received the injury and abrasions in the area of her knee joint; it had become infected and was now red and inflamed. The fault lay with the injured woman, herself. She, as I’ve said, had removed the antiseptic bandage, and at first applied a suspicious looking cream. In this manner she had contaminated the wound and ended up having to endure the results of her own ignorance. And as her secretive “healing” whisperings evidently did not help her, and the inflammation continued, it became necessary for me to get involved in the matter again. This time it was necessary to put into practise all that was available to us in order to turn the situation around. The inflammation did not go down for a long time, and then only slowly began to gradually improve.

Travelling through Kirensk, we met up with Dr. Feight, who knew of the group from the newspapers and was very interested in its well-being. He brought candy for the children. Then it became apparent to us that this doctor was himself not a willing resident of Eastern Siberia, having landed here from the capital, and now residing in the main town of the region. In the impenetrable forests of Siberia it is amazing whom one might encounter…

As we had travelled through the village of Vitim before the fire we were very impressed with its wealth and external splendour. This village, due to its proximity to the gold mines of this region, has become very wealthy and serves as a central station for ships travelling along the Lena and Vitim rivers. In this village there is a telegraph, post office, church, excellent stores and shipping dock. When there is a huge influx of workers coming and going from the mines, the population of Vitim reaches 15 thousand people. Here, because of the large exiled element and all manner of unemployed and often broke mine workers, drinking, card playing, fights, theft and killing – is not uncommon. That is why Vitim has long been known as a centre of drunkenness, depravity and all manner of crime. But even here were found people who were kind to the Doukhobor women and children. We are particularly grateful to Dr. Zakonov and the representative of K. Korzukhinskaya – Mr. Kurenko. The first supplied us with medicines, free of charge, and the second gave us 15 rubles (which had been gathered from some kind people) and a large variety of provisions (potatoes, flour, onions, milk, sugar, honey and even lemons). All this was very needed and very welcome, in that the provisions of our women were very depleted and everything here is very expensive.

Group of women and children exiles standing in front of barracks, c. 1899. Photo by George Kennan.

Further along, we also stopped at the town of Olekminsk, where the party was warmly greeted by local Skoptsy, also exiled for their sectarian beliefs. They organized a meal for the women befitting a parting dinner, served tea and listened to their religious hymns. On parting, they gave additional provisions. The Doukhobor brother, Konkin, of whom our party speaks with much enthusiasm, we didn’t have the opportunity to see, as he doesn’t live in the town of Olekminsk itself, but some 30 versts away. From the town of Olekminsk I had to send a report and evidence of the death of the little boy Fyodor Dimovsky, who had passed away on May 4, near Nikishenskaya, since in our rush, I had forgotten to inform the local authorities of the death of this boy. Right before our departure from Vitim I had heard that the gravesite of our little boy was going to be dug up, because we had not informed the local authorities of his death. I kept this unpleasantness hidden from our women.

In the end, on June 1, 1899, near 12 noon, we arrived at the town of Yakutsk, where the party was met by their husbands and brothers-in-spirit. The joy of the reunion, to my astonishment, was not distinctive for its degree of enthusiasm. To the contrary, there was a feeling of some sort of melancholy. The men and brothers, upon seeing the “sisters”, seemed to be recalling their enchanting homeland in the Transcaucasus, and were saddened by that; and the women, stepping onto foreign soil, might have felt that now everything had come to an end, and that once and for all they had been torn from all that was dear, important and familiar to them. Furthermore, the new homeland welcomed them with a frowning face: on May 31, as they neared Yakutsk, it began to snow. The poor women involuntarily exclaimed, “Oh! How shocking!… Snow at this time of year!..” The elder, Nikolai Cheveldeyev, sat the entire time at the front of the barge in his winter clothing. He wore an enormous yellow coloured sheepskin coat and his hat was also of impressive dimensions. Bundling up in this coat, he gruffly commented, “The wind is puffing pretty strongly, harshly.” Then, as though talking to himself, he quietly told of his old homeland: “As soon as the wheat is threshed, the Armenians and Greeks bring pears and all kinds of fruit to your doorstep… If you want, you take, if not – you don’t… As much as you need, that is how much you take.” With such a contrast between the old and new homelands for the Doukhobors, of course they would be melancholy, that was completely understandable. The arrival of the “sisters”, as joyous as it was for the “brothers”, could not but open up old wounds of the heart: it reminded them of all that was important, familiar and dear to them from childhood, but lo! was lost forever…

Handing the women over to their husbands and brothers, I departed for town. The women remained that day on the boat. The following day (June 2nd), with the authorization of the regional superintendent, V.H. Skripitsin, the women were assigned to the governor’s empty home, as the governor and family were living at their summer residence. The poor women did not really understand what a high honour they had been given by being accommodated in the very home of the governor, but were much more expressively appreciative of all of the provisions that the governor had donated to them: 72 bricks of tea, 20 puds (an Imperial Russian measure of distance equal to 16.38 kilograms) of grain, and 2 loaves of sugar. The wife of the district police officer also stopped by and brought a large quantity of pastry buns. In this way the highest administrative authorities of Yakutsk greeted the Doukhobor women and children very lovingly and humanely.

On July 12, a large part of the group, accompanied by several of the men, set off by barge of the “Gromov” ship to Aldan, where five versts from the confluence of the Notor and Aldan rivers, a Doukhobor colony of 90 people had formed. The Yakutsk governor and medical inspector, also were on board the Gromov ship.

The governor and medical inspector went into the Doukhobor colony and provided it with essential medicines from the pharmacy aboard the Gromov ship. Returning from the neighbouring Baturuskiy administrative district on June 14, I had missed the party in Yakutsk and therefore wasn’t able to accompany it to Ust-Notora, as the governor had requested of me. With this I conclude my drawn-out observations of the Doukhobor women and children. At this time, with the permission of the readers, I will present a small characterization of these people, as a conclusion.

In our time, Doukhobors present themselves as a fairly odd phenomenon. These simple village peasants with wives and children, are imbued with a common religious ideology having moral-mystical and rationalistic characteristics. In their personal as well as communal lives, they are very modest, honest and with high moral standards. They not only will not hurt other people, but will not defend themselves when they are being hurt, i.e. they do not resist evil with violence, as if in compliance with recent teachings of Count L.N. Tolstoy. It must be noted, however, that Doukhoborism came into being before the teachings of the famous writer. Nevertheless, there are significant similarities between Doukhobor beliefs and those of Tolstoy – Doukhobors renounce ceremonies, churches and adhere to vegetarianism (the Doukhobors adhere to Lenten foods, not even eating fish). Furthermore, they do not smoke tobacco and do not drink wine. Their marriages are by free will (civil ceremony), but thanks to the extraordinary meekness, patience and mutual respect of spouses they de facto remain unbreakable. The Doukhobors are not negative towards education and grammar (reading and writing), but are not too trusting of our schools, believing that they can give children a false religious-moral upbringing. The commandment “Thou shalt not kill”, they, evidently, understand in a very strict and literal sense, and therefore will not take up arms and refuse all manner of military training. Toil is incorporated as a basic principle of life, and the community, from an economic point of view, maintains a communistic character, in that all of these people are brothers. Therefore, in principle they reject private ownership. They regard exile and forced migration as a martyr’s cross, which leads to salvation. For that reason they endure exile, prison, deportation, and painful ordeals of the road with joy and to force them to complain of their fate is totally impossible. Destitute circumstances, suffering, death and all kinds of life’s misfortunes only serve to raise the moral spirit of the sect and its members draw together ever closer and closer as a result. Being in such a mystical-martyr-like state, it almost appears, that they welcome the wreath of struggle and suffering. From this springs the unconditional, absolute love of Doukhobors for one another. From this comes the peace and blissful demeanor of the members of the community. They are gathered, as one would at the moment of death, or after confession – full of love and forgiveness.

Group of Doukhobor women and children reunited with men in Yakutsk, Siberia, circa 1899

The religious spirit is so strong among them, that even the children are filled with the emotions of the elders, and do not fight amongst each other. During the course of the three months that I lived amongst the women, not only did I never hear any quarrels, but not an argument either (and a woman’s temperament, as is well known, is very fervent). In that time, there was also not a single fight amongst the children, but only once or twice a little boy took a stick away from a little girl. The children play very little and rarely… They are serious, almost like children who are ill or who are very poor. Once I picked some flowers along the shore and brought them to the children. One woman began dividing them amongst the children as one would treats, saying, “This one is for Malashka, this one for Vaska, and so forth. The children stand in a mannerly fashion, and politely take only that which is given to them. The children never argue amongst themselves, but prayers, greetings and religious hymns are known by all (from age 3 to 8). I only once witnessed how four year old Malasha, not so much swore as joked: “You are a cat yourself!.. You are a cat yourself!..” In a word, I will preserve the very best memories of these quiet, honest and virtuous people. As for their unfortunate little children, involuntarily sharing the fate of their parents – they deserve the greatest compassion, love and kindness, as examples of innocent, angelic purity, embodied in the delicate and vulnerable fragility of their tender age. Farewell, dear children, and farewell to you, Fedya Dimovsky, whose body lies on the stoney shore of the Lena, amongst the green conifers, near the chattering mountain stream. The End


Following their long journey from European Russia to Yakutsk, Siberia, Doctor Sokolnikov’s close relations with the Doukhobors continued. He became their correspondent with the outside world, publishing favorable articles about them in the Irkutsk newspaper “Vostochnoe Obozrenie” and acting as an intermediary between them and other people, particularly Tolstoy, who provided financial assistance through him to the exiled Doukhobors from 1899 to 1901.

My Renunciation of Military Service

by Gregory Ivanovich Sukharev

In the 1890’s, hundreds of young Doukhobor men endured persecution and suffering as a result of their refusal to perform military service. Historic accounts of this heroic period exist, however there are very few first-person accounts made by those who actually lived through the persecutions, much less by those who survived the tortures of the Penal Battalion. One of the most eloquent and informative of these is the account made by Gregory Ivanovich Sukharev in 1938, reproduced here from ISKRA Nos. 1821-1826 (Grand Forks: U.S.C.C., 1996). Translated by William A. Soukoreff.


I was born in the year 1875 in the village of Slavyanka, in the province of Elizavetpol, Kavkaz (Caucasus) region of Russia. After the Russo-Turkish war, when I was five years of age, my parents moved to Kars oblast where, soon after, my father died. After the death of my father we lived with our uncle. There were four of us youngsters left with mother, I being the eldest of my two brothers and one sister. Our mother was unable to support the family, so she gave up the youngest brother for adoption. 

At the age of seven I was given charge of a flock of geese, and when I reached the age of nine I became a calf herdsman. At ten I was a shoemaker’s apprentice, and at twelve I was initiated in the art of mowing hay. At thirteen I became a shepherd, and when I was fifteen my uncle established us on our own plot of land, where I was now required to become the head of the household, attending to all the menial tasks and all the various duties and responsibilities. When I became sixteen, I married, in spite of my youthful age. It was incumbent on me to attend public meetings which I did with the genuine seriousness of a grownup, and from which I extracted alot of good. Thus I had virtually no time for enjoyment with my playmates.

At the time of the coronation of the Tsar Nikolai Romanov, a resolution was passed in our village to the effect that we would not swear allegiance to the Tsar and would renounce anything pertaining to war and militarism, including service in the army. When I’d reached the age of twenty I had been registered to become a soldier. My innate love of all living things, born of close contact with nature in my adolescent years, was opposed to this, so I began to decide what course I should take. Finally, I resolved to fight against war at any cost, and to refuse to be a soldier. Soon, however, I was notified that I must go and draw lots for (active) military service.

I was called for military service at the age of 21. We were assembled at the station of Argino in Kars oblast, where, in a large public hall, we were to draw lots for military service. In keeping with my convictions, I immediately declared that I would not take part in the drawing of lots (tickets). But the military authorities paid little heed to my declaration. The district commander Shegubatov himself drew a ticket for me, and loudly announced, “Sukharev’s ticket is number four!” 

At the conclusion of the drawing, my comrades and I were left in the building, and ordered to strip off our garments, and stand naked for a detailed physical examination in order to determine our state of health and eligibility for military service. Each was brought into a special stall for measurement of height, breadth of figure and numerous other examinations, carried out with the aid of a doctor. I refused to comply with their requirements and did not enter the stall, but they physically forced me to comply, because in their hands lay the iron strength of state power. The district police chief ordered me to be forcibly placed in the stall, and this was instantaneously carried out. At the close of the examination I was proclaimed to be fully eligible for service.

I immediately answered that, being a Christian, I could not possibly take part in such service. The police official, probably out of pure curiosity, asked me, “Why, Sukharev, can you not take part in military service?” I answered that I would not be altogether against gratifying the will of the Emperor and joining the military if only they would not teach there the wanton slaughter of people, which is against my conscience. “Why does your conscience not allow that?” continued the official. “Because Our Saviour, Jesus Christ, strictly forbids the killing of people, and I believe in His teachings and wish to gratify His will,” I replied. “Who are you, that you wish to fulfil His will?” “I am a Christian, because I believe in Jesus Christ. His living spirit within me cannot and will not serve you,” I answered.

After all this, the four of us, F. Fominov, K. Chevildeev, L. Novokshonov and I were transferred to a relay prison (a temporary place of confinement used for lodging insurrectionists while on their way to places of exile).

On the following day we were conveyed to the city of Kars and brought before the military commander who, after lengthy questioning, decided that two of us should be taken to Ekaterinograd, and Novokshonov and I to the town of Grozniy, in Tersk oblast. There we were placed in the reserve battalion, the commanding officer of which very sternly admonished us with his orders, saying “You are now registered in the ranks of the army, and it shall be your duty to yield to military discipline.” To this we answered in turn that we could not and would not serve, nor comply with military discipline. He curtly replied, “You shall be forced to do so.”

After eight days we were escorted from Kars under the supervision of the local command to the next designated relay prison. And from that time, November 30, 1895, we were absolutely denied all freedom. On the road to Alexandropol, we were met by our friends and relatives in one of the relay prisons, and they, knowing the hardships and trials which awaited us, parted with us for the last time, with tears of heartfelt sympathy towards us, and with entreaties to be brave and strong, and not to stray from the teachings of Jesus Christ, who died on the Cross in agonizing pain and torment which should always serve as an example for His true followers.

On December 25 we arrived at the appointed place and were distributed amongst the various companies. Now, they began to try to dress me in a soldier’s uniform and subject me to military discipline. But all of this I boldly and triumphantly repudiated and refused to satisfy their demand. I tried my best to make it known that I was a follower of that same Christ who taught all people to love their enemies as well as their friends, and as such I could not be instructed in the slaughter of people. They refused to listen to my explanations, and forcing me into a soldier’s uniform, assigned me, from among the soldiers, an “uncle” who began to inculcate soldierly mannerisms and to run me through their gymnastic exercises, which I also rejected. For such violation of discipline I was placed in solitary confinement in a cold cell for three days and nights. This was on January 4, when the unbearable cold frosts and blizzards at Shatoi, the ancient stronghold of the Chechens 50 miles from Grozniy, were in their fiercest stage.

So intense was the suffering in the course of these three days and nights, that its duration seemed to me to be endless, almost an eternity. I was in good spirits and always held before me a mental picture of the anguish of my Lord Jesus Christ, as a consolation and a support to the strength of my soul. I tried, as much as possible, to conserve the heat in my body, because I was feeling both hunger and cold, but in spite of it all, the cold was gradually increasing. I could feel it penetrate my organism and gradually stifle the circulation of my blood. I involuntarily felt a strong physical torment gnawing at my vitals and, notwithstanding all my efforts to conserve the heat in my body, I was slowly reaching the point of actually freezing. The only thing that could and did give me warmth was my invincible faith in Christ.

After this torment I was let out of the isolation cell, and given another “uncle” who turned out to be much stricter than the first one. They began to treat me even more savagely and cruelly. With sincere faith I called upon the Lord to help me, and patiently suffered all the condemnations, observing the words of Christ, “Whosoever smites you on the right cheek, let him smite you also on the left.” In spite of their brutal treatment of me, they could not force me to accept their lessons in military discipline. 

After this they appointed a third “uncle” and a fourth, and these in turn treated me cruelly, inhumanly. They threatened to beat me to death and to submit me to court martial, but none of this had any effect on me whatsoever. When they ordered me to take up a gun for training, I said, “Do you not yet comprehend my renunciation of militarism and warfare? If not, then I can repeat again that I can neither serve nor let myself be instructed in a service intended for the purpose of killing people. Because I regard all peoples of the universe as my brothers. If perchance I have enemies, I am obliged to pray for them. it is your desire to teach me to kill men, but Christ forbids it, saying, “Whosoever takes up the sword, shall perish by the sword.”

After this my “uncle” softened and began to implore me, “Sukharev, take the gun.” I remained silent. He tried to force the gun into my hands, but I wouldn’t take it. He tried to tie it around my shoulders but it wouldn’t stay and always fell off. Then he returned the rifle to its rack, and began to implore me, “Sukharev, if you will only consent to serve, the company commander promised me a decoration (medal), provided that I succeed in convincing you to be trained.” I answered that even if the company commander were able to make him into a general, I would still not agree to serve.

Russian Prison Warden and Guard, c. 1890. Photo by John Foster Fraser.

After this I was given a fifth “uncle”, a non-commissioned officer named Drozdov, who was far more ferocious than the others. He unmercifully beat me, and then committed me to an unendurable immobile standing position for many hours. He continued this punishment for several days in succession until he was convinced that I remained firm in my belief, at which time he stopped torturing me. For one week I was given full freedom, except that when meeting officers I was obliged to salute, as was demanded by the rules of discipline. But I refused to do so, and for this was subjected to cruel beatings and cold cells. Of all the officers there was one huge scoundrel, Vozhanov, who, whenever he encountered me, always pummelled me with his fists. After a week, the military inspector arrived. The sergeant major was questioned first, then all of my “uncles”. Their reports, of course, were unknown to me. How they treated me was probably never revealed, because none of them were found guilty.

Subsequently, the inspector questioned me, “Why are you not complying?” I answered, “Because I do not wish to kill people. Military activity leads directly to warfare, and this is contrary to God’s law which says in the Sixth Commandment, “Do not kill”. I wish to adhere to this Commandment, because I believe in and practice the law of Christ, and I serve Him only. That is why I cannot fulfil your laws.”

After this questioning, another week of so-called freedom, and then I was again locked in a cold cell for 20 days of solitary confinement. I will not describe in full detail the conditions in which I was forced to endure my grim punishment for a term of 21 days and nights. Cold and hunger again crushed me with nightmarish strength. Sometimes I felt an unfamiliar to me, animal like or more aptly, beastly appetite, which developed inside of me with a dismal power of its own, and began to torture me anew. After this torment, I was taken to the battalion court, where I was sentenced to serve three years in the disciplinary prison battalion. But they kept me in this single cold cell for an additional three and a half months. In the course of this term, an innumerable quantity of insects – bedbugs and lice – filled in the gaps in the efforts of the government’s inquisition, cruelly and heartlessly sucking the last remnants of my blood. It happened that oftentimes the rats would steal away my last piece of bread, which was given to me very seldom.

On June 24, I was transferred by relay order to the disciplinary battalion. On June 28 I was already inside the fortress, in which the ruthlessness and the cruelty of the torture of people resorted to is beyond any possibility of adequate description. Before even reaching the Ekaterinograd station, I could already see the gigantic fortress with its high walls looming in the distance. I involuntarily felt a strong chill gripping my entire frame, and my heart whispered, “This is where our brothers are being tortured.”

Upon reaching the gate of the fortress, we were met by the duty officer. Our escorts stopped and laid a mark on each of us, to which respective company each of us was to belong. The duty officer received us and admitted us into the fortress. Here we encountered a number of non-commissioned officers, one of which came up to me and, silently taking my hand, led me to the third company. The room which we entered was empty and reeked of a certain eerie atmosphere, as if that of a grave. I afterwards found out that on this day the third company was in “dispersion”. The “dispersion” company was so-called because, since a battalion was constituted of four companies, one was obliged to do the work while the other three were engaged in military training, and so on in daily rotation. 

On the following day this dispersion company stepped out in full military regalia for their particular training exercises. They are given canteens, knapsacks and rifles, but after their obligations are done all the equipment is handed over to the armoury, because the disciplinary prison inmates are not allowed to keep any weapons with them. And so the same thing is repeated day after day. Lessons in arms use and military tactics are continued for two hours, after which everyone goes to the priest for confession and sermons. The priest arrives with his services which continue for another two hours, and literature for another two hours. This concludes the studies for the day. After supper at nine o’clock a careful survey is made of all the inmates. After the inspection, one non-commissioned duty officer remains with each company and the entire dormitory is put under lock. Each dormitory houses two companies of imprisoned soldiers, each group with its duty officer having its own quarters. This is a brief description of prison life.

After I’d spent some time in the eerie room, the quartermaster sergeant brought in an old, well worn uniform, which bore the mark of “useless”. The non-commissioned corporal gave a command for me to put it on. I said, I have my own clothing and don’t need any other.” But he told me to take it off because it was simple peasant clothing and that I should be dressed in a soldier’s uniform. I said that since I declined to be a soldier, I had no need for their clothing. But, in spite of my protests, I was forced into uniform. This happened at 8 o’clock in the evening when the soldiers, after their engagements, were gathering in the ward. 

Here, I saw amongst them some of my own comrades, my brother Doukhobors. I was immediately stricken by the sight of their exhausted, tormented appearance. They looked so abused and oppressed that the expressions on their faces showed clearly the imprints of great suffering and sorrow. To my question, “Why are you so sad and emaciated?” they answered that they were sorrowful because they had been so severely punished and beaten, flogged with rods, and emaciated because they’d been given so little food. “We don’t eat meat and are forced to sustain ourselves with only bread and water. We are given only half a pound of bread per person for each meal, and even this is wormy. Without exaggeration it could be said that in every half a pound of bread there are from three to four worms.” I asked them, “Have you any strength left for the struggle?” They answered, “In spirit we are still brave, thanks to God, but in the future we shall trust in our Almighty Creator, Christ the Saviour. He is powerful and can do anything.” Thus ended our bitter prison meeting.


On the next day, when all were engaged in rifle practice, I categorically refused to do so. For this I was lodged in a cold cell for three days and nights of solitary confinement. When I was set free, our company was called for work. I ungrudgingly went about my work, but on the following day when the full company was mustered for practice, I declined to go. Again I was locked in the isolation cell for three days and nights, and when I came out I again joined the company, which was dispersed for work. The third time I again refused to present myself for the training, and again I was placed in a dark cold cell for three days. As soon as i was liberated, I again joined the group for work. And so it continued for the first 13 days after my arrival at the fortress.

But on the next occasion the sergeant major cried “Sukharev, will you obey?” I replied that I wouldn’t. I was placed anew under an enforced arrest and lodged in the cell. At the following sessions I again declared that I would not participate in military practice on the strength of my belief which I had previously expounded, and again I came under arrest. But this time, at 5:00 o’clock in the evening, the sergeant major, Myaskovsky with two armed soldiers took me from my cell and led me to the backyard, in line with the dormitory, where a prison guard was already waiting for me with his thorny rods. The guard had two assistants, prison inmates, who obeyed their orders precisely, sincerely. 

Having brought me to the appointed place, they pulled off my coat and spread it on the ground. With pants unbuttoned, I was ordered to lie down. When I lay down, the two inmates sat on top of me, one sitting on my head and firmly holding my hands against my back while the other held my feet in place. The guard with his flogging rods stood in readiness, looking at me like a beast at its prey, ready to devour at a moment’s notice, thus intending to prove his genuine sincerity in his duty to the service. The flogging rods were improvised for the purpose from the thin rods of an ash tree, tied together in bunches of from three to four to a bunch. But for the Doukhobors an additional insertion was made of a single twig of a thorny bramble.

Lying prone as I was, pressed tightly against the ground, I was fully prepared for the inhuman torture of punishment which could only be evaded by abdicating the great truth of the testament of our Lord Jesus Christ. His example in suffering the throes of anguish and torment on the cross gave me strength and confidence. I fervently called upon the Heavenly Father to give me strength to survive the ordeal. Although I could feel the heavy pressure of the guard’s assistants sitting on top of me, the words of the sergeant-major nevertheless came quite plainly to me as he asked the company commander, “How many strokes of the rod do you order?” In answer, I could hear the voice of the latter, “Twenty strokes!”

The guard was ordered to make three swings and strike hard on the naked body. When the strokes began to fall, I instantly felt the blood squirting on my hands with each stroke, while the unendurable, horrible pain increased with each stroke of the rods. The sergeant major counted each stroke made by the guard, while the latter picked a fresh bunch of rods for each successive stroke so as to inflict the maximum amount of force and punishment.

Group of Russian Prisoners, circa 1890’s. Photo by John Foster Fraser.

When the required number of strokes had been given, and the two assistants seated on me released their hold, I felt somewhat relieved. Being in a state of insensibility and numbness, I could scarcely hear the voice of someone yelling, “Get up!” When I arose I felt my back all torn and bleeding. In my semiconscious condition I managed with great difficulty to button my pants, which caused me horrible pain. At a strict order from the commandant I followed the soldier to my cell, where I was put under lock in the cold dark dungeon.

All alone, I gradually came to my self, while the pain in my lacerated wounds assailed me with ever increasing force. I was unable to sit, lie down or move. I couldn’t even stand up straight. I could feel the blood trickle from my wounds, and soaking its way through my pants, freeze up from the cold, forming a tough crust resembling the bark of a tree. I could feel it getting colder and colder. I was getting very feverish, and was forced to stand for almost 24 hours. I tried to sit down, but it was impossible. Fragments from the rods stuck in my flesh. With every slight movement these slivers and thorns made themselves felt in a most unbearable manner. A day and a night of such ordeal seemed to be almost an eternity. 

It would require a gifted master of the writing art to describe the agony of mind and body that I endured in my harrowed state during this period. I called on the Lord God for relief and this alone seemed to ease the endless suffering. I prayed aloud, “O, Gracious God, when shall the time arrive, that the powers of this cruel world will realize the error of their ways and cease to persecute and torture the people who merely wish to abide by the sacred teachings of the Saviour, Jesus Christ.”

In these agonizing moments, I fully realized and even felt the pains which Christ the Saviour so patiently endured in His Crucifixion. And how sad it seemed to me that His brilliant teachings, which are the essence of love, friendship and goodwill towards all things living on this earth, have not yet been understood. Only through such a relationship between all people can we expect to attain God’s Kingdom on Earth. This realization inspired and encouraged me and gave me strength to endure my suffering with patience.

About 24 hours after my flogging, I ws freed from my cell and ordered to work. I did not object and went back to work, as best I could, for the whole day. On the following day everything was set for marching drills with rifles, and I was again compelled to take part. On my refusal to do so, I was placed anew in the cell for a day and a night. On the same day at 6:00 o’clock in the evening the sergeant major arrived with two escort soldiers and, opening the door, cried “Sukharev, come out!” I came out and they led me to the same place where two days before they had enacted their inhuman inquisition. Approaching the spot, I noticed that this time there were two guards standing at attention, which flogging rods in their hands. I was told to unbutton my pants, but I refused to obey their orders. The two soldiers standing by took off my clothes and threw me on the ground. As before, one of them held my feed while the other sat on my head, bending the arms against my back, and squeezing my face against the ground so that I could scarcely breathe. 

The company commandant gave orders for 30 strokes to be applied with extraordinary force. The flogging rods swished through the air like serpents, coming down from both sides with blows as hot as fire. The sergeant major counted each stroke out loud, one, two, three, four, etc. It seemed to me that this time the rods were not made of wood but of iron cable, fired up to a white heat. I could feel each stroke cutting to the very bone. Consequently during the flogging, I lost all semblance of consciousness.

When the final stroke was given and I was ordered to rise, I was unable to do anything. It seemed to me that I was lying on red-hot coals in a flaming fire and could not move any part of my body. The guards lifted me up, pulled up my pants, threw my shirt over me and dragged me off to my cell. The sergeant major asked, “Well, Sukharev, will you obey?” I answered, “No.” “After this you shall get 50 lashes!”, he yelled. I replied, “You, of course, have the power to give twice as many lashes, but I shall not forsake the teachings of Christ, even though you would devise far more ruthless means of torture. You have the power over my flesh, but you could not possibly force me to betray my spirit. Rather than forsake the will of God, manifested in the spirit within my flesh, I am willing, with a faith founded on the testament of the Lord, to transmit that spirit back to God.”

“Silence!” bellowed the sergeant major, with a curse poking me into the cell. Locking the door, he left me in a condition worse than after the first flogging. My unhealed wounds, raw and bleeding, were now even more deeply gashed. My pants, saturated in blood, stuck to my wounds so fast that I was unable to move. I tried to tear them away from the skin, so that I could give some freedom to the movement of my legs, but the pieces of my lacerated skin stuck to the underwear, causing intolerable pain. With great care I managed to free my wounds, and hobbling to and fro, began to exercise my limbs, although I had very little space to move about in.


Suddenly, the priest, Stefanovsky, opened the door of my cell and came in. He immediately began to reproach me for my refusal to serve the Emperor. I answered that I would not be against serving the Emperor if he would not teach the killing of people. “All people are children of one God-Father and are brothers between themselves.” I referred to the New Testament, Matthew 5:21, where it says “Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be subject to judgement.” But the priest answered, “In times of peace no one shall force us to kill.” I said, “What difference is there, if one kills in times of peace or war? In our understanding it is not allowable to kill a human being at any time, for any reason.”

The priest then asked me what would happen if my enemies were to pounce on me. I replied that we had no enemies, because Christ tells us: Pray for your enemies, and forgive them that trespass against you. “How would it be if another empire would invade us; are these not our enemies? After all, they can kill all of us, if we didn’t defend ourselves!”, said the priest. I answered that if we would not attack and mistreat them, nobody would kill or hurt us. Evidently my contradictions very much annoyed the priest, who sullenly stared at me for a moment and then left my cell in a very resentful mood.

Group of Russian Prisoners with Heads Half-Shaven, circa 1890’s Photo by John Foster Fraser.

Soon after, Vasily Matveyevich Lebedev, one of my fellow Doukhobors, who was also subjected to such punishments for refusal to bear arms, entered my cell. Unable to endure the cruel tortures at the hands of the authorities, he had unwillingly accepted the gun and given his consent to serve the government. After the exchange of greetings and a few words in regard to my health, he began to counsel me to act in his way, to accept the arms and give my assent to serve the authorities. I said, “Lebedev, go away from me. You can see that I am physically maimed and wounded, and yet you stab my heart! Leave me and do not tempt me!” He went away.

Finally, Nikolai Kukhtinov visited me, who also, unable to resist the punishments, had agreed to give his services. And he, likewise, had been sent to try and influence me to surrender. But I rejected his advice also, and asked him to leave me in peace.

On the next day I was freed from my cell and ordered to work. I went about my work without complaining. We were working behind the fortress, mixing clay with our feet, with which we made bricks for building the prison barn. The mixing of clay was accomplished by the simplest of methods: The clay, which was piled in a heap, was sprinkled with water and tramped on with our bare feet. I also was obliged to take off my boots, roll my pant legs above the knees and trample on this pile together with my comrades until a fine mixture was obtained for the making of bricks. I found it exceedingly difficult to accomplish this task, because my wounds had just begun to heal, and opened at the slightest movement, causing an abundant discharge of blood, and an unendurable pain in my body.

Finally the officer in charge of the work brigade ordered me to take off my pants. When I took them off, my comrades were shocked at the sight of thick crusts of dried blood on my underwear. Some of them, in utter amazement, asked me, “How are you, in your painful battered state, able to work?” I replied, You should realized that we are all under oppression, and are forced to do various things. In this case, in principle, I am not against the mixing of clay and the making of bricks, as I know that every person should toil and by means of his labour should acquire sustenance for himself. But of course our circumstances here are altogether different.”

On the following day at nine o’clock in the morning everyone was assembled for training drills. I felt extremely weak and sick, but I was ordered to take part, to which effect the officers threatened me with even greater punishments than those I had already endured, all the while casting beastly glances at me. I felt that I did not have sufficient strength at the moment to endure any further punishments, so I declared that since they were forcing the gun on me, I had no choice but to take it, but I would not use it, under any circumstances, and would regard it as just another wooden stick. “Silence, you swine!” bellowed the sergeant major, and added, “I ask you again, will you serve?” Here, in the severely weakened state that I was, and very much against my conscience, I reluctantly answered that yes, for now, I would. My intention was to consent only long enough to give me a chance to strengthen myself.

But the main point of my temporary consent was that we Doukhobors in the Penal Battalion had already made a decision or pact among ourselves, that as soon as all of our comrades were assembled in the fortress (it was understood that all the young Doukhobor men who had refused military service were to be transferred to the Penal Battalion from all the surrounding districts where they had been serving, to undergo disciplinary punishment and correction of their errant ways), we would all in unison once again abdicate our obligations and cease to serve. All of the newcomers coming in from the various areas had, in fact, been subjected to the same treatments as those of us in the first groups, receiving 30 strokes of the rod at the first time. So, we decided that in the month of August we would all once again refuse to participate in the training drills, insofar as our conscience tortured us over our temporary capitulation and that none of us wanted to handle guns and carry out the training drills.

On the next day, however, I happened to find out that two of our comrades from the fourth company, Ivan Malakhov and Nikolai Rylkov, had refused to participate in the training drills and had been immediately locked in separate cells. The company commandant had turned them over to the battalion court, because it was not within his jurisdiction to pass sentence for an additional quantity of strokes in the floggings. Having heard this, in the morning my comrade and I also again refused to go out for training, so we were placed likewise in separate cells. We also heard that from the fourth company ten others had refused, bringing the number of us who were refusing to cooperate to sixteen. But for some reason, out of this number, three were to be punished more severely.

The first one was Nikolai I. Malakhov, who received 80 strokes of the rod. Secondly, Nikolai Rylkov also received 80 strokes of the rod, and thirdly, there was Feodor Plotnikov, who, due to his poor state of health, received only 60 lashes. These three men were so ruthlessly and cruelly beaten that the guards were obliged to carry them back to their cells in a state of total unconsciousness. One of them, Ivan Malakhov, was not able to stand or walk for a long time on account of the unmerciful flogging he’d received. These extremely harsh punishments and tortures came at the orders of Lieutenant Colonel Morgunov, who at that time had the appearance of a fierce tiger. He promised to skin us alive, and pull out our veins, if necessary, in order to force us to eat meat and comply with military discipline. But the battalion commander, Colonel Maslov, was somewhat softer. He was away at the time, having gone to St. Petersburg, to consult with the ministry in regard to our situation.

In the meanwhile, we were all making preparations for an all-out struggle, even at the risk of possible death. If only this could be accomplished at once! Lieutenant Colonel Morgunov was torturing us almost to death; in some cases there was hardly any breath of life left in our lacerated bodies. Such heartless inflictions succeeded in driving fear into us, and thus it was that we decided to accept the arms, even though for a short time. We unanimously declared to ourselves that our temporary acceptance of arms was only for the sake of our physical self preservation from their ruthless punishments, but ultimately we would never partake in active military service or kill people. “Anything that is contrary to the teachings of Christ we shall fight against.” And so our struggle continued until the very last day of our ordeal with floggings and other torture in the disciplinary battalion.


At this time Mikhail Shcherbinin died from the results of the cruel treatment he received in the battalion. The prison authorities gave us permission to conduct the funeral services according to our Doukhobor custom. A Doukhobor comrade and I washed the corpse, and clothed it in the personal clothes of our deceased friend. The doctors carved his insides and diagnosed some sort of a chronic disease. But we all knew that he had died as a direct result of the many cruel beatings and other tortures that were inflicted upon him. For example, several guards would take him by the hands and feet and forcibly throw him over the “horse” (gymnastics stand) and then he would be trampled to insensibility with the guard’s feet. He was severely bruised in the chest and coughed with blood. The doctor did not allow any of us Doukhobors into the hospital, because we firmly stuck to our convictions, refusing to accept military service or to eat meat.

Feodor Akimovich Fominov was a peaceful man of large stature, but he also gradually succumbed to the heartless pummelling and other means of torture. He died in the Siberian province of Yakutsk, where all 36 of us had been exiled for 18 years. Many were the sufferings that he endured here in the penal battalion. No prison clothing fitted him, so he was forced into it. For the rents in his clothes which were unable to withstand the strain of the pressure of his body, he was subjected to countless beatings. Finally, he was given clothes that were made to measure. He was such a handsome man and a great Spirit Wrestler, but the miserable unscrupulous, good-for-nothing guards and officers tortured him to death because he refused to give in to military discipline.

With him also died Feodor Malov, Lukian Novokshonov, Ivan Chutskov and Vasily Sherstobitov. We hardly managed to get them to Yakutsk province to our appointed settlement on the Aldan River. There they were buried – may they rejoice in Heaven and their spirits live eternally. On our way to Siberia, we also left in Moscow Feodor Samorodin, one of our comrades, seriously ailing from the mistreatment in the penal battalion. He was placed in a hospital and there his life came to an end. Another comrade, Alexander Gritchin, died in Chelyabinsk. The rest of our comrades, having survived, with difficulty, the terrorism of the disciplinary battalion, wearily made their way to the far distant province of Yakutsk. Eventually all of those who refused to bear arms and render military service were banished to the same place of exile for a term of 18 years.

But, I did not finish my narration of our torturous life in the disciplinary battalion. There, in addition to enforced military training, we were compelled to go to church and to worship according to the rites of the (Orthodox) priests. We told them that we could not attend their hand-made church and would not worship according to their custom or bow to their ikons and idols. But they used force to make us to go to church, saying, “Duty and discipline demand it, you are Christians just like us!”

We explained that we did not wish to repudiate Christendom, but we have a church of our own, which is not created by hand. And in the words of Christ the Saviour we could pray anywhere. Christ says, “Go to your room and close the door, and pray in secret. Your Heavenly Father, seeing your secret, shall answer you openly.” This is the only prayer that we acknowledge. Our conscience does not permit us to worship in your church, because we and our fathers and grandfathers rejected the need for priests and all the other trappings of the church. As it says in one of our psalms, “We do not let the priest into our homes for any reason or purpose. We serve only the righteous powers, whose judgement is upright and just, like our benevolent God.”

But, in spite of this, they forced us to go to church. As all of the companies were marched to church, they were stopped at the church entrance and given the command, “Caps off!” The companies would then enter the church, but we Doukhobors would turn back. The corporals would remain with us and try to forcibly pull us in. Some of our comrades would grab hold of the trees which grow at the entrance and not let go. Then the corporals would pull out their sabres and with the blunt edges strike at the hands until the blood began to ooze. A veritable free-for-all would arise within the church. The beaten were sent to the doctor but the doctor refused to accept them. The doctor’s name was Priobrazhensky. He always asked of our ailing comrades, “Would you eat meat?” “No”, answered the Doukhobors. “If so, then go away from here”, the doctor would say, and refused to give any remedy.

Once the priest ventured to reproach one of our comrades, Ivan Rylkov, saying he was a poor Christian because he refused to go to church to pray to God. Ivan answered that this church could not be very close to God, as he hadn’t seen anyone beaten so severely, even in a saloon, as he was beaten in their church.

Once, I became blind, for such was the degree of my illness as a result of the tortures and privations, that the physical weakness resulted in “chicken blindness”. From sunset to sunrise I could not see anything. From the shortage of food we all suffered various effects of starvation. Besides the bread, we had nothing else, and even that in a very small quantity. Whenever we chanced to pass the bakery, and we would happen to find, by sheer luck, a piece of bread swept from the kitchen, we would grab this morsel and relish it with hearty contentment.

On the 20th of October we were all again interrogated by the company commanders: “Are you going to learn to kill?”, to which we answered emphatically, “No”. After the questioning we were strictly forewarned: “Think seriously about it. You are given one week’s time, then you shall be questioned again. Anyone who does not concede shall be treated in a different manner.” A week passed and the same thing repeated – none of us agreed to kill. When we were questioned for the third time, they threatened us with some great punishment of which they themselves did not know.

On the 24th of November, 1896, we were given our own personal belongings and ordered to discard our uniforms and put on our own clothes. On the 25th of November, at 10 o’clock in the morning, we were to take our belongings and appear at the gate. These orders were only for the ones that refused to be taught to kill. There were 36 of us, all told. All of the company commandants were present. We were placed in a row in military fashion, in expectation of Colonel Maslov. Suddenly the door opened and the Colonel appeared. After exchanging greetings, he inquired if all of us had enough clothes. We told him that we had no bashliks which we needed because it was a time of severe cold and heavy frosts (the “bashlik” is a hooded, cape like, protective over garment, somewhat like a cowl, worn by the mountain people of the Caucasus area). The Colonel gave orders that these be supplied immediately. The quartermaster brought them out, but they were later confiscated at Vladikavkaz.

After this, the Colonel ordered us to appear at the bakery. We entered, thinking that he would give orders for us to be given some bread for the road. So appealing was the odour of fresh bread, but alas, such bitter disappointment! Instead of this, the Colonel delivered a short speech: “Thank you, brothers, for your virtuous behaviour. If you refuse to serve, it’s your business. You shall now be banished to a place of exile far away in distant Siberia for eighteen long years”. The gate opened and we made our exit from the towering walls of the fortress, where the escort guards were already awaiting us. 

I was very ill, unable to walk straight, as if something was forcibly bending me to the ground. The railway station was eighteen miles away. Under heavy escort guard, and ill and feeble as we were from our recent tortures, we started on our long journey to distant Siberia. And with us we took an indelible memory, one that would remain with us for the rest of our lives, of the ruthlessness of the servants of the then reigning Romanov generation, and the “kind-heartedness” of the Russian Orthodox church, in whose hands we had existed for a year and a half!

The company commanders remained standing at our departure, still bearing their beastly grudges because they were unable to defeat us and force us to submit to military discipline. But, in our soul of souls, we fervently rejoiced and thanked God for setting us free from our horrible trials, and even though we were being banished to Siberia, to the province of Yakutsk, we were happy in the knowledge that we had not betrayed our faith.

Outside the fortress we were met by one of our elder Doukhobors, Nikolasha Chevildeev. He had managed to find out beforehand of our departure, and had prepared breakfast for us. He had cooked some potatoes and had bread ready on the table. But our escort guards did not allow us to partake of this sumptuous repast. The elder took two loaves under his arm and carried it behind us, beseeching the guards to pass at least one piece of bread for each of us. But they did not allow it. Nevertheless, he insistently proceeded to follow us. After walking a few miles he succeeded in soliciting the guards to hand us the bread. With great appetite we ate the piece and thanked God and thanked the good man for this gift of God. We walked along in great spirits, in spite of the fact that we were hungry and ill and being banished to Siberia. Our spiritual disposition was cheerful because we felt we had been delivered forever from the ruthless tyranny and the physical punishments.


All of us arrived safely at the station of Prokhlodnoye on the Vladikavkaz railway. Here our guards locked us in the relay prison, which was so small that we were obliged to sleep in a sitting posture. In such a condition we had to spend the last night, painfully crowded, like “herrings-in-a-barrel”. We felt that, in a sense, we were fulfilling the essence of various Russian sayings, such as “There is no bad without good”. After all, even though the Lord has imposed trials on us and we had endured, for a year and a half, the tyranny and severe tortures for our renunciation of military service for all time, now, at last, we were able to raise the joyous banner of Christ, and know that we would never again perform military service or kill our fellow man.

In the morning, our escort guard transported us to the platform of the station where the train was waiting. We were placed in the convict coaches, manacled in twos, hand to hand, and thus we arrived at Vladikavkaz, late in the evening. It was very dark. In our party several persons were ill, suffering from “chicken blindness” and, not being able to see anything at night, some of them accidentally strayed from the rest of the party. The guards shouted and swore with anything they could think of. One guard shouted to the other, “Shoot the so and so!”

We had a hard time trying to explain that they would not run away, but that it was simply that they could not see their way. But in spite of this they continued to swear. In this manner we finally arrived at the Vladikavkaz prison, where we were given a good night’s sleep in the convict cells. We stayed for two weeks at Vladikavkaz. Our friend, the Doukhobor elder Nikolasha Chevildeev, had stayed with us throughout all of this time, and he always brought us good food into the jail. His own son, Kiril Chevildeev, was one of our party, whom the escort guard from the Penal Battalion had not permitted to embrace his own father – to greet him in a normal fashion of a son to a father. But here we were given more freedom and treated better than in the Penal Battalion. 

After two weeks we began our long journey into exile, along the Rostov-Vladikavkaz railway to distant Siberia, to the province of Yakutsk. Firstly, we were escorted from Vladikavkaz to the city of Rostov-on-the-Don. In Vladikavkaz we were again manacled together in twos, and kept that way until we reached Rostov. They kept us for three days and nights in the jail at Rostov. We were housed in one large cell together with other prisoners. The room was disgustingly filthy. From the ranks of these prisoners, senior “orderlies” were elected, and they confronted us saying, “Each of you give us three kopeks for the lavatory. This “lavatory” was a half barrel with handles on both sides, and at nights it was brought in for use as a toilet by all the prisoners. We declared that we ourselves would look after the emptying of the “lavatory” but the “orderlies” began to curse, saying, “we shall teach you, etc.” In the course of these three days and nights we were obliged to hear much shouting and profanity.

Trans-Siberian Railway, circa 1890’s. Photo by John Foster Fraser.

From Rostov we were driven to the city of Tula, still manacled together in twos. In Tula we were kept for one week. Although here the prison was somewhat cleaner, the prison guards and the prisoners did not act very kindly towards us. “So,” they said, “you do not want to serve the Emperor!” We were separated into several different cells, with a certain number in each cell. Here they kept us for one week and then sent us further to the city of Samara. 

The prison at Samara was unbelievably filthy, and infested with insects. We were kept there for three days and then sent further to the town of Penza, in the province of Penza. Here, besides the uncleanliness of the prison, the water was very bad.

We stayed here, likewise, for three days. From Penza we were sent further to the town of Chelyabinsk. This was in the frontier province of Russia.

All through Russia we had been transported by train in prison coaches with barred windows under strict vigilance. At each window a guard was posted. Here in Chelyabinsk we were also subjected to physical examination. The prison authorities treated us roughly, and kept us here for a whole week. Subsequently we were obliged to part with Russia and seek a “haven” in distant, frigid Siberia. Our route to Siberia led us through the town of Tyumen in the province of Tobolsk. This was in winter. During this time we lost two of our friends who were ailing – Feodor Samorodin, who in the course of being transported died in Moscow. The other, Alexander Gritchin, being very ill, died in Chelyabinsk.

The rest of us were escorted to the town of Tyumen. The prison was very large, and we were placed with some other prisoners in one large common cell. We implored the prison authorities to give us a separate cell. At first we were refused, but since we were obliged to stay here for the winter, we gradually became separated from the other prisoners, and were left to ourselves.

Upon our arrival in Tyumen, we announced that we were vegetarians, and that we had no use for meat. For a long time they refused to serve vegetarian food until the prison Inspector arrived. When he came to investigate our cell with the caretaker and the assistant, we immediately informed him of our trouble. Addressing these worthy characters, he inquired of them as to why they would not serve vegetarian food. “What do they want, double rations?” he asked. “No,” said the caretaker, “they want butter in place of meat, and to have all the provisions with them so that they could prepare their own meals.” Thereupon the Inspector ordered the caretaker to make the necessary arrangements to have these supplied at once. After a few minutes, the latter appeared and requested that two of us should come with him and receive the provisions. My comrade Nikolai Vasilievich Rylkov and I did as we were bid. From that time we were also given some dishes and began to cook our own meals in the same cell where we slept. 

Here we were left for the winter and compelled to work. We were quite willing to work, although our clothes were not fit for the severe cold of the Siberian winter. We asked the caretaker for some warm clothes, but he refused, saying “You shall get work in a warm building, in a flour mill.” We refused to work in the mill because, as we told him, we were not completely denied our rights, but were only denied a soldier’s status. Other criminal convicts were treated almost like slaves, as in this case – the turning of the grind mill required sixteen men to harness themselves like animals. After this they did not try to force us to do this work. We passed the winter uneventfully. The work we were given was not hard, and every day we were given bread to our heart’s content.

Siberian Prisoners Starting Up-Country, circa 1890’s. Photo by John Foster Fraser.

With the advent of springtime they sent us further to Siberia long the Siberian railway to the town of Krasnoyarsk in the province of Yenisey. We arrived at this destination on the 1st of April, where we stayed in the relay prison until the 4th of May. During the course of this period one of our comrades, Ivan Kukhtinov, died. I am using the word “we” frequently because, all in all, there were over thirty persons in our party.

On the 4th of May, 1897, we were sent on foot from Krasnoyarsk. We were ferried across the Yenisey River and driven on foot for one thousand miles. Oh, how hard it was to walk! The relay prisons were indescribably filthy and full of insects – bedbugs and fleas.

On arriving at a certain relay prison, we would flop down on the bunks or on the floor from utter fatigue, and physical exhaustion, while these worthless parasites covered us from head to toe, mercilessly sucking the last drops of our blood.

Our routine was as follows: we would walk steadily for two days, and on the third day stop for a while to heat water in which to boil our clothing. Our forced march was exceedingly debilitating. Five of our comrades were very ill and were obliged to be transported in wagons. There were altogether, some three to four hundred people in the prisoner convoy. One time, some of the non-Doukhobor prisoners caused a disturbance, and as a punishment, the wagons were emptied of our ailing friends, and they were obliged to walk. It was extremely difficult for them to do so. The next station was some thirty miles away and our sick friends walked slowly. 

Now and again the convoy soldiers cursed at the stragglers, threatening with their guns and sabres. On the next day we demanded wagons for the sick members of the party. The officers told us to appeal to the commander. He, in turn, demanded two rubles to be given him for “vodka”. We handed him this sum and our sick comrades seated themselves in the wagons. We walked steadily for two months during which time we suffered many hardships and difficulties. Bread was very expensive and so were vegetables. We were given ten kopeks a day for food, and bread was eight kopeks per pound, so we had to sell some of our clothing in order to buy bread.

During this time, four Russian prisoners escaped from the ranks. The convoy guards had sent the convoy out at night, giving them a chance to run away, under the cover of darkness. The night was dark and a drizzling rain enveloped the landscape. I was a victim of total blindness at sunset (these night marches were especially torturous for those of us who were afflicted with “chicken blindness”) so I could not see what really happened. I heard one convoy guard shouting to the other, “shoot him.” But the latter shouted back that it was against the law to shoot in the dark. When we arrived at the next relay station the officer counted the members of the party and found four persons missing. After this we were treated even more roughly.


We reached Alexandrovsk on the 28th day of June, 1897. We stayed here for two weeks, and then proceeded on our journey. We were driven on foot for three days, and then rode on wagons for four days until we reached Kachooga on the shores of the River Lena. We again set out on four rafts which were made of logs nailed together on top of which cabins were constructed, and in such a manner we followed the course of the Lena. There were also a number of other nationalities amongst us. We were given work to do, for which the convoy officer paid us fifty kopeks per day. From among our Doukhobor group there were always eight or nine of us working, and we occupied two of the rafts, while the other two were occupied by the other prisoners, who also did work on their rafts. These earnings helped to alleviate the food problem.

For a few days our journey was quite uneventful, and then, from of those among the other half of the Russian prisoners created a disturbance. They began to complain that the Doukhobors should not be allowed to work as they were already “rich”. It was true that a few of us did have a little bit of money, which we all shared, but the convoy officer nevertheless took the other prisoners’ complaint into account. Henceforth we Doukhobors were given work for only one party, while the others were given work for two parties of workers.

Once we reached a certain part of Irkutsk province the majority of Russian prisoners were required to remain there as their place of exile. This left only enough prisoners for our two rafts, which were tied together and continued onward. After some time the other prisoners again began to voice their dissatisfaction, demanding that the officer give them all the work. This was granted, but before long, they had accumulated more money than they needed for food and they began to spend all their time drinking and playing cards.

They began to neglect their work and fulfil their duties very poorly and inconsistently. During their drunken periods they were so oblivious, that one night, they allowed the rafts to run aground on a sandbar. In the morning, once it became clear what had happened, we scolded the Russian prisoners, pointing out that, due to their carelessness, we would all be held accountable, and may well be disembarked and forced to cover the remainder of the journey on foot. But they just shouted at us and brazenly renounced all authority, making mutinous threats about exerting their “rights”.

At this time, I was preparing breakfast on the officers’ raft. The commanding officer had just arisen and was washing up. Hearing the commotion at the other end, he hurried his morning preparations and, grabbing a revolver, went over to re-establish order. Coming up to the noisy mob he pointed the revolver at the rowdiest of the prisoners, intending to quieten him down. But the prisoner, seeing danger, grabbed one of our Doukhobors, Kiril Chevildeev, and pulled him in front to use as a shield. The officer yelled at Kiril to get out of the way or he would also be shot, but the Russian prisoner was holding on in desperation and would not let go. Then the officer shouted, “Solders to arms” and all of the convoy guards grabbed their rifles. The mutineer panicked and bolted for the cabin, but the soldiers cornered the poor wretch and then proceeded to severely beat him with their fists and the stocks of their rifles. After they’d beaten him unconscious, the commander ordered all of us to be locked in the cabins.

Prison Barge on the River Lena, circa 1890’s. Photo by John Foster Fraser.

We Doukhobors protested that we should not be locked up, and that if we were freed, we would do what we could to dislodge the rafts from the sandbars. At first, the officer, who was extremely agitated and perturbed, did no listen to our appeal, but eventually conceded. We were let out and, after considerable effort, we managed to free the rafts from the sandbar, and continued to float down the river. The other prisoners were only released after four days.

We followed the course of the River Lena for another 30 days, until we reached the town of Yakutsk. As in the previous parts of the journey, many of us, including me, continued to suffer from “chicken blindness” where we could not see at all at night. This made things very difficult for us, especially when we had to take a turn at the helm. Several times, I barely missed falling into the river, which at that time was very big. But at last, thank God, we reached our destination.

After disembarking, we were lodged in the prison at Yakutsk. On the following day the Governor and a number of officials came to visit us. After an exchange of greetings, he declared that we were sent here under the vigilant supervision of the police and that we could not remain in close proximity to the town, but since he had received a letter from Tolstoy, begging him to make us as comfortable as possible, he had made arrangements for our settlement on the mouth of the River Notora. It was a good place with plenty of fish in the river. But we told him that this did us no good because we were vegetarians. “Oh, my God”, he exclaimed, “What am I going to do with you!”

We began to implore the Governor to give us permission to stay close to the town in order that we could obtain some form of employment. But he refused, saying that according to our papers we were dangerous people and, as such, could not be permitted to stay in close proximity to the town. He informed us, however, that the money that had been confiscated from us earlier was now awaiting us, and we could use it to buy warm clothing and such necessities, tools and farm implements, as we might require. “Some of you may go to town with the guard and buy whatever you need,” he said. A number of us went and bought overcoats, “bashliks”, tools, and staple food such as flour and salt. The prison authorities also presented us with clothes and leather footwear, in a word, most everything that is essential for prisoners.

When all this was finished, they asked us, “How will you proceed, what convoy escort do you want?” We replied that an escort was not necessary because we would go peacefully, and that we would not run away. The Governor and the members of the administration said, “We will give you one police official and two Cossacks and they shall see to your transportation.” From the town of Yakutsk they sent us on foot, while our supplies were transported on wagons. Yakutsk is a swampy place and we found it difficult to walk. We tramped for 15 days, some 400 miles, and arrived at the village of some exiled Skoptsi (a Russian sect known for the practice of self-castration) on the shores of the River Aldan. There we made a purchase of flour, baked some bread and proceeded on big boats along the course of the river for about 150 miles further, to the mouth of the River Notora. We bought a Yakut yurt (hut) for 10 rubles and began to settle down for the winter.


Soon we had our first snowfall and the grim winter cold set in. The thermometer registered 60 degrees below zero. Those who have not felt the rigour of a Siberian winter could not possibly comprehend its stinging cruelty. In some places the ground froze solid to a depth of 150 feet. In the summer time this would thaw off to a depth of four or five feet, but in the woods, where the sun’s rays are unable to penetrate the dense foliage, the ground remained frozen all the year round. It is a land of perpetual snows.

There was a thick coat of ice on the walls of our dwelling, so we were obliged to sleep with our feet towards the wall and in moccasins. The moccasins often frozen to the wall, while under our legs there would be a thick layer of ice, and all the while the cold came in from every direction. There were 33 of us in this barn, and we found it very trying to pass the winter. We had flour and salt but no vegetables, and even bread was not plentiful. We had to live on rations so that our flour would last until the ice break, but even then we suffered a shortage of food.

Group of Doukhobor Exiles in Yakutsk, Siberia, circa 1904

Finally, 20 persons were elected to go to the Skoptsi village which was 150 miles away. Unfortunately, just as we were about to leave, a military officer arrived and strictly forbade us to leave, saying that we must first obtain permission from the governor. He reminded us that we were exiled in Siberia under surveillance and control of the police and could not take leave on no account. So we had to wait for a whole month while our store of bread was gradually diminishing. Our patience became exhausted, so we sent out twenty men anyway. Along the way they met up with the officer who was bringing the governor’s permission, so they were able to get to the Skoptsi village where they rented quarters, and there they were able to procure some work and purchase flour and other essential supplies. 

In the meanwhile, 13 of us stayed behind, including me. I was assigned to look after three sick comrades, Ivan Chutskov, Feodor Fominov and Feodor Malov, who were very ill. Two of them died before spring, and Fominov left for the town of Yakutsk where he died on August 20, 1898. 

Next year, in the month of June, our wives came to us, and thus we lived for four more years on the Notora. During this time an additional 45 of our Doukhobors came to join us. We occupied ourselves with building houses, constructed a flour mill, broke some of the soil and sowed wheat, rye, barley, potatoes and other vegetables. Some years we reaped a bountiful harvest, in others the frost killed everything. In general, however, life was not too bad. Three more persons, Tolstoyans, having also rejected military service, joined our group.

During all of our stay on the Notora, I was at times required to undertake various journeys. The main journey was when I was sent to Yakutsk for various supplies, such as cloth for clothing. During these trips, which took a full thirty days and nights for the return journey, I encountered many interesting experiences.

After four years on the Notora, I was forced by ill health to move closer to Yakutsk, together with my family. I settled in the Skoptsi village about 10 miles from the town of Yakutsk, and went into town to work, working usually up to 18 hours per day. For this I received 60 cents a day, and on these means I was required to feed myself and my family.

After living here for somewhat more than three years, we were informed in 1905 that our exile had ended – we were now free and could go wherever we wished. Along with most of the others, we decided to go to Canada, to join our brethren there. The governor told us it would take 3000 rubles to pay for our passage to Irkutsk. The government would allow us 1000 rubles, and our brethren sent us 1000 more from Canada. We set up to gather the remainder from our own earnings and resources.

On June 3, 1905, with a great feeling of joy, the first group left Yakutsk for Canada. The journey from Yakutsk to Irkutsk took eleven days and nights by ship and another seven days and nights by boat, going up the River Lena. From Irkutsk we travelled for 14 days and nights by train to Libau (a Baltic port in Latvia) where we were required to wait for 20 days until a person came from Canada, who brought us 10,000 dollars to pay for our passage. From Libau we journeyed three days and nights to London, and from there to Liverpool. From there to Quebec took eleven days and nights by steamer. From Quebec to Yorkton and, on September 18, 1905, we settled into the village of Slavyanka, on the Red River.

I have always kept strictly to all the Doukhobor principles, and I continue to do so until today. I earn my living by my own toil, and live a vegetarian way of life. Always an opponent of war.

The Vereschagins’ Exile to Siberia

by Ann J. Vereschagin

In 1887, universal military service was introduced in the Caucasus, which prompted a spiritual reawakening among the Doukhobors. Many reasserted their pacifist beliefs by refusing to bear arms or perform military service. This culminated in 1895 with the Burning of Arms as a protest against violence. The event was followed by harsh reprisals against the religious dissenters. Hundreds were imprisoned, tortured and exiled. The following is an autobiographical account of the struggles and tragedies of the Vereschagin family during this period. In 1895, Doukhobor elder Vasily Gavrilovich Vereschagin was imprisoned, first in Karadakh prison in Kars and later Metekhi prison in Tiflis, for inciting the young men to refuse military service. In 1897, he was exiled to Yakutsk, Siberia and died en route from abuse and mistreatment. Unbeknownst to him, his son Alexei Vasil’evich Vereschagin was also exiled to Yakutsk in 1897 after refusing to serve when he was called up for active duty. He remained there until 1905, when he and other Doukhobor exiles were pardoned and permitted to join their brethren in Canada. This story is reproduced by permission from the 1999 family history, “Spanning the Years”, written by Alexei’s Molokan-born daughter-in-law Ann J. Vereschagin (1910-2005). Edited by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

Background to the Burning of Arms and Aftermath

Mikhail Romanov, a Russian general [and Grand Duke], served in the region around Tiflis, which was the capital of the province of Georgia. Romanov ordered the Doukhobors to provide man power for the army [during the Russo-Turkish War of 1878-1879]. If they refused, the military would come and take the men anyway, loot their villages, and rape the women. Romanov did relent and gave them another choice. They could participate in the transport of arms and ammunition to the front lines. If they would do that, he promised that their men would be exempt from serving in the army and their villages would be safe.

After some debate amongst the Doukhobors in the surrounding villages, they chose to participate in the transportation. All of the Doukhobor villages were required to provide their own wagons and horses. For their efforts, the Doukhobors were spared any more harassment by the military for the duration of the war.

They lived in peace for only a short time after the war, when trouble again began with the military [when universal military service was introduced in the Caucasus in 1887].

Lukeria Vasil’evna Kalmykova, the Doukhobor leader at the time, died on December 15, 1886. She named her 22 year old nephew, Peter Vasil’evich Verigin, as her successor.

On February 26, 1887, Peter V. Verigin was attending a memorial service for his aunt Lukeria. In attendance at the service was the Governor of Tiflis with his body guards. During the service, one of the speakers said that God was merciful to the Doukhobors and that He would continue to be gracious as long as they (the Doukhobors) continued to obey His commandments. One of the guards thought that the speaker was referring to Peter Verigin as “God.”  That was heresy!  For this misunderstanding, Peter was arrested and taken to [the Metekhi] prison in Tiflis. He spent about three months there before being transferred to [Shenkursk in Northern Russia and later] Obdorsk, Siberia, where he spent a total of [sixteen] years in exile.

While Peter Verigin was imprisoned in Siberia, his devout followers kept in contact with him, even risking their lives by traveling to Siberia to see him. They brought him news from home [in the Caucasus] about the persecutions by the Cossacks. The Cossacks [after 1895] were taking the young men of military age, stripping them, having them lie face down, and then beating them with thorn-like vines until their backs were like raw meat. After about 10-15 strokes, they would ask them if they would now agree to serve in the army. The young men would reply: “We cannot conscientiously serve.” Then they (the victims) would pray to God: “Forgive them for they know not what they are doing.” Some of the victims got as many as 100 lashes.

The Doukhobor ‘Burning of Arms’, June 29, 1895. Painting by Terry McLean.

Peter wrote many letters of encouragement to his devoted followers, stating that they should continue their resistance and never yield to the army nor lose faith. No matter how much they suffer, they suffer in the name of Jesus Christ and His commandment: “Thou shall not kill.” In one of his letters, Peter also told them that it was time to stop using alcohol and tobacco and to stop eating meat. Just as Kapustin before him, Peter wanted his followers to share their possessions with each other. There were to be no rich nor poor Doukhobors; they should all be equal.

It was a difficult time for the Doukhobor people. They needed advice and counsel as to how to proceed with all the demands on their lives. They appointed two men, Vasily Gavrilovich Vereschagin (my father-in-law’s father) and Vasily Vasil’evich Verigin, to go to Siberia and seek advice from Peter Verigin. At that time, Vasily G. Vereschagin was the [starshina or] mayor of the [Doukhobor village of Terpeniye in the Kars] region. He knew the governor, so was able to get both of them passports to travel to Siberia without any problems.

During their visit, Peter told them that it was time for the Doukhobors to burn all their personal firearms, which they had for protection and for the hunting of wild game. He was explicit as to how this was to be done.

When Vasily G. Vereschagin and Vasily V. Verigin returned home, they informed the Doukhobors of Peter’s message to burn, simultaneously, all of their firearms and weapons. This was to happen on St. Peter and St. Paul’s Day, the 29th of June, 1895.

This also happened to be Peter V. Verigin’s birthday. [For a detailed account of how these faithful messengers passed on their leader’s advice to reject military service and destroy their firearms, see Accomplishment of the Mission by Grigory V. Verigin.]

The burning of the firearms was carried out as Peter had instructed in all of the [regions of the Caucasus where there were] Doukhobor villages. While the faithful were holding a prayer meeting around the bonfire in the village of Bogdanovka [in Tiflis province], the governor and armed Cossacks arrived to see what was going on. The Cossacks tried to put the fire out, but were unable to do so. They also attempted to trample the people with their horses, with little success.

After this confrontation at the Burning of Arms, the governor demanded that the Doukhobors show their respect to him by removing their hats. They paid no attention to his command, leaving their hats on. The Cossacks started whipping them for their insubordination. Subsequently, the governor told the Doukhobors: “We will not only make your young men serve in the military, we will see that you show respect to all government authorities.” Hearing this, the young Doukhobor men came forward and laid their draft cards on the table before the governor, stating that under no circumstances would they serve in the military.

The governor commanded that the Cossacks form a firing squad and shoot the dissidents; however Count Kropinsky, who was witnessing the confrontation, came forward and commanded the Cossacks to hold their fire. He said that he, too, was a servant of the Tsar, and the Tsar’s laws do not permit the killing of dissidents. The outraged governor left, leaving instructions to the Cossack leader to do whatever necessary to bring the Doukhobors under control; consequently, the beatings continued and the women were assaulted and raped. The robbery of food and household items was a constant occurrence.

The infamous Metekhi Prison in Tiflis, in which Vasily Gavrilovich Vereschagin was imprisoned from 1895 to 1897 prior to his exile to Siberia.

For their part in delivering the message from Peter V. Verigin, Vasily G. Vereschagin and Vasily V. Verigin were arrested [and incarcerated, first in Karadakh prison in Kars and later in Metekhi prison in Tiflis] and sentenced to go before a firing squad. Fortunately, due to the intervention of Leo Tolstoy and the Quakers, they were given a reprieve and exiled to Siberia instead. The total number condemned to exile [in Siberia] was about a hundred and fifty. They were sent in groups, under the escort of soldiers. The first group numbered about 30 men.

The exiles were herded like cattle as they went on their long trek to Siberia. The roads, if any, were bad. They had to walk up and down mountains, constantly on the alert for wild animals. They had an inadequate supply of food, and were always wet, with no time to dry out. Many got frostbite and became ill. Wherever there was a railroad, they were herded into boxcars like sheep – crowded, with no sanitation. Ferry boats and barges took them across rivers and lakes.

The military had established inspection [or way-] stations throughout the route of the journey. At one point, the walk between stations took approximately 30 days through snow and mud for a distance of about 660 miles.

The prisoners were convoyed in groups, station to station [known as the etaup method of exile], with horse-drawn wagons to carry provisions and anyone who could not walk because of severe illness or fatigue. The convoy leaders rode horseback and drove the teams, while the prisoners walked.

They were allowed to travel with some money; thus were able to buy additional food from the peasants who lived along the route. Since there was a shortage of bread, salt, and oil, they would purchase these items whenever they had the chance. Without oil, some prisoners became blind, so butter and oil were important commodities.

Grandfather Vereschagin Exiled to Siberia

Having been sentenced soon after the burning of the firearms in Bogdanovka [and elsewhere in the Caucasus], Vasily Gavrilovich Vereschagin spent one year in [Metekhi,] a Tiflis prison before being exiled to Siberia. (Note: For sake of clarity, from now on I will call him “Grandfather Vereschagin” since he was my husband Alex’s grandfather.)

On July 22, 1897, Grandfather Vereschagin and thirty-six other prisoners left Tiflis by train to Baku. They spent about a week in a jail there, awaiting a ship to take them across the Caspian Sea to Astrakhan. After sailing for four days, they came to a place called “Twelve Feet,” [or Dvenadtsat’ Futov in Russian] so named because of the 12-foot level of the water. They had to change to a smaller vessel because the large ship could not sail in the shallow water. The smaller ship was very crowded. The prisoners slept wherever they could find space.

On the morning of the fifth day, they arrived at Astrakhan. One seriously ill prisoner was left to die there. The rest got on a small boat that took them up the Volga River to Kazan. Although the boat was small, the accommodations were much better than the previous boat. The captain and officers were friendly and kind. They allowed the Doukhobors to cook their own food and even provided them with some provisions. When the boat stopped at various little villages along the way, the prisoners were able to get off the boat and buy whatever they needed to sustain them on route.

At Saratov, they again left a friend and fellow prisoner because of illness. The captain of the boat allowed a cousin of the ill man to stay with him until he, too, died. The caretaker cousin later joined his “comrades in exile.”

About sixty miles south of the [city] of Kazan, the Kama River empties into the Volga River. Here, the prisoners were transferred onto a barge. Up to this point, their route was to the north. Now, the balance of their journey would be to the northeast.

On the 17th of August, 1897, they arrived at Perm, a large city where they had to transfer onto a tram [railway] in order to cross the Ural Mountains. At Perm, the Doukhobor brethren left another sick friend. This time, no one was allowed to stay behind with the sick man. He died alone.

After crossing the Urals, they were in Siberia. On August 21st, they left the custom station on a sailboat for a day’s journey to Tobol’sk. At Tobol’sk, the boat anchored for three hours. They were informed that this would be their last chance to purchase food. They hurriedly bought bread, butter, rice, and potatoes – as much as they could carry.

The Trans-Siberian Railway.  It was still under construction when groups of Doukhobor exiles were transported part-way to Yakutsk on it in 1897.

August 30th, they arrived at Tomsk, on the Ob River. From Tomsk they boarded a train that took them to Krasnoyarsk on the Yenisei River. Here they were taken to a jail where they stayed until September 17th, awaiting the arrival of the man who had been left at Saratov to care for his cousin.

From Krasnoyarsk, the prisoners had to walk [as the Trans-Siberian railway was still under construction]. By this time, many of the older members of the group were showing their fatigue; however, they refused to ride on the wagons, determined to prove their commitment and faith. It rained hard the entire first day.

It was very difficult walking through the mud and carrying a pack on their backs. They had to get to a particular station by nightfall, so were not able to stop for rest or nourishment. If they lagged behind, the soldiers prodded them with guns. They spent that night in a small, drafty barn. The authorities had given each man a straw pillow, blanket, and straw pad. They were given no food.

Having walked approximately 23 miles, they came to a river. It took two trips to ferry them across the river. Unfortunately, they were still not able to sit and rest while waiting for the other group to cross, because it was still raining and the ground was too wet. At this point, Grandfather Vereschagin was very ill and could hardly walk. He had a pain in his right side and coughed a lot; however, he was still forced to walk.

After about thirty station stops, the prisoners arrived at Nizne-Udinsk, a station on the Uda River, where they stayed for two days. On the third day, the journey started again. Walking was easier because the rain had stopped and the ground was not as muddy; however, frost and snow did make it colder.

On November 2nd, they arrived at Aleksandrovsk prison [near the city of Irkutsk]. By this time they had walked 45 days, covering about 528 miles. They spent the winter at this prison because all roads east were impassable and the rivers were frozen. The Doukhobor prisoners were able to stay together as a group while in this prison, and were allowed some cooking utensils so that they could cook their own food. Two more comrades died during their stay there.

May 3, 1898, they left Aleksandrovsk prison, again on foot. The leader was a very harsh and strict Siberian. At first he would not allow the prisoners to load their individual baggage onto the wagons. He told them that they either had to carry their own things or hire a wagon to haul them. After much discussion, he relented and allowed them to use the wagons that were already available.

The weather was now warmer, so they were able to comfortably sleep outdoors. After walking another 132 miles, they got on a boat that took them down the Lena River. On May 9th, they arrived at [Kachuga]. They had to wait there until May 13th for boats to take them on the last leg of their journey – to Yakutsk, Siberia. The convoy leaders tried to make the Doukhobors eat meat; however, they refused and asked for butter instead. This request was denied them.

Loading a Siberian river barge, circa 1897. Photo by George Kennan.

The exiles continued traveling north on the Lena River. It took six men to control each boat, as the river was treacherous. The flat-bottomed boats [known as pauzoks in Russian] had hand-controlled rudders for maneuvering around bends, riffles, and rapids. Each boat held up to 120 passengers. Since they were going down river, the boats moved by gravity. The first night was spent in Verkholensk.

The next day they arrived at the Alekseyevsk prison station in Kirensk. In all, they had walked approximately 800 miles. Grandfather Vereschagin was so ill that he had to be admitted to a hospital. His friend Nikolai Ril’kov stayed with him.

Grandfather spent a month in the hospital. The care was bad; the doctors basically ignored him because he was a prisoner. He tried to return to the group, wanting to go on with them. He did not want to be left behind. It was not to be. He died on the 9th of June, 1898, and was buried in the Kirensk cemetery. He was about 63 years old.

Grandfather Vereschagin wrote a letter to his wife and family in Terpeniye [from Alexandrovsk prison shortly before his death], telling them that he was very ill and the circumstances that led to his ill health. He asked to be forgiven for any hurt feelings that he may have caused. He told them not to grieve over his passing, especially if he were to die alone in an alien country. He stated that he had chosen his own path and trusted that his guardian angel would not forsake him. A translated copy of his letter appears below:

“My most beloved spouse Nastyusha and my ever unforgettable children:

While resolving to write this letter to you, I considered it of prime importance to relate to you all the details of my current situation. The details of my letter may sadden you, but I do beseech you not to be sad; be brave in God’s spirit; ask the Lord to your assistance and He will sustain you. Regarding myself I will tell you my beloved spouse and my dear children, I am quite invigorated with the spirit of God; steadfast in my faith in the Lord; but I am weakened in the flesh.

My infirmity, as you all know, was already evident at the time I was with you; however, while living in the conditions of freedom, it did not bother me that much; it’s effect upon me was minimal. Being incarcerated under lock and key at Metekh for the length of about two years, I did not experience sickness to any great extent. And furthermore, the Lord strengthened me on the journey. Upon arrival here in Alexandrovsk, after a certain period of time, I began feeling pain, most probably as a result of the journey on foot, the 800 versts from Kamsk to Alexandrovsk. That is where most likely I overexerted myself. It happened to be in autumn when there was rainfall, snow, and deep mud. The doctor at Kamsk who examined me did testify me to be in full health and did not provide me with vehicular transport. I was forced to traverse the entire 800 versts on foot. Now I have a cough in my chest and high temperature. I suffer internal pain, have difficulty in breathing, and occasional asthmatic spasms.

I have spent a month’s time in the hospital; however, the doctors did not help me much. Upon leaving the hospital, I wrote you a letter on the 20th of March in which I informed you that my health had improved, but this I did only so as to allay your fears on my behalf; however, I did become somewhat better, and I looked forward to more improvement. And even now I still have not lost hope – if the Lord wills it so, that I will be well again. Nevertheless, I do feel myself quite weak.

I am writing this letter to you, my beloved spouse Nastyusha and the children dear to my heart, one in which my wish is to converse with you as with those closest to me and perhaps these strokes could already be the final strokes in our earthly life. Lord may your holy will abide. It is upon Thee my trust does rest.

While living an extended period of time with you, it happened that I sometimes, for lack of self-restraint, did offend you. These offenses do not leave my memory in the situation in which I find myself; the conscience torments me and gives me no peace. As if it is telling me: you are responsible for all this! By the force of such thoughts I ask magnanimously that you forgive me for all the offenses from my direction toward you; please do not hold it against me for my behavior. I am sending you my paternal peace and blessings for the extent of your earthly lives. May the Lord preserve you from all temptations for the entire period of your lives. I am beseeching you, as obedient children, to be in good relations with all those around you.

Oh, dear children, do not delay to correct yourselves; leaving it off for even a single day – rather be prepared for every hour for none of us can escape this fate. The flesh derives its origin from the earth and finally must again return to the earth. But the soul of man derives its origin from God and at the time of its separation from the body must return to God and make account for all the life spent in the body.

All the little grandchildren I kiss warmly. May the Lord send you humility and gentleness. Darling grandchildren, I greatly miss all of you and perhaps the Lord will alleviate my distressful situation and then possibly we will see one another. May His holy will prevail over all of us.

All the brothers and sisters, the ones related to me and acquaintances, I cordially ask not to harbor any ill feelings for any offenses whatever that I may have caused to them at anytime – to render forgiveness toward a remorseful sinner. My dear unforgettable spiritual brothers and sisters, because of weakness and unrestrained nature of man, what an array of happenings can occur during his life’s tenure. At times he even forgets about the after-life; of this I speak more as relating to my own self in regards of what I greatly beseech to be forgiven. Man’s forgetfulness related to the fact of the occasion when he commits deeds not characteristic of a human being, and in general all manner of sins of man are committed with no thought of the after-life. But had he always kept in mind the facts of death, judgement, and the Heavenly Kingdom, he would then have refrained from committing sin.

I am asking you all not to have ill-thoughts about me. And in conclusion, my dearest spouse and beloved children, from the depth of my heart, I wish you all of the best in your lives; in my thoughts I am tightly hugging you and kissing you warmly with conjugal and paternal love and bowing with the lowest of bows. Another request: if it so happens that I shall die, do not grieve exceedingly about me. Especially may the Lord guard you from thinking something in the nature that I died in an alien country and without the attendance of relatives and friends.

The country to me is all the same. All our life on earth is a path of sorrows. When a person comes to the end of the road, then only he transmigrates into the land of eternity which is hidden from our mental perception. In the matter of attendance, I must say that the brethren have not neglected to look after me, and if it happens that I have to be alone by myself, even then I must console myself with my lot because I chose this path by my own will for the purpose of obtaining salvation for my soul with hope and trust that my guardian angel will not forsake me.

Prior to the time we shall be dispatched to Yakutsk, if the condition of my health shall not improve resulting in my continued stay in the hospital I will then write you a letter or inform you by telegram.

Again, kissing you all and wishing you from the Lord all the best in your lives. Farewell my dear Nastyusha and the small children, and also all the close relations. For the last time – farewell.

Remaining with faith in God and love to all of you. One who sincerely loves and remembers all of you forever:

Husband, Father, and Grandfather,
Vasily Gavrilovich Vereschagin

Alexandrovsk Deportation Prison

Irkutsk Gubernia

April 15, 1898″

Grandfather Vasily G. Vereschagin left his wife, Nastya Vasil’evna Postnikova; and the following seven children and then-spouses: Vasily (wife Dunya Dorofaeva), Semyon (wife Masha Zarchukova), Dunya (husband Vasily Bondarev), Masha (husband Vasily Gulyaev), Alexei (wife Aksinya Usacheva), Paranya (husband Grigory Popov) and Gavril (wife Masha Malov).

The remaining prisoners arrived in Yakutsk on June 10, 1898. They were separated; some being sent to Nel’kan and others to Ust’ Notora. Both of the villages were southeast of Yakutsk along the Aldan River.

Note: A Doukhobor Narrative by Vasya Pozdnyakov states the following about their arrival in Ust’ Notora. “The police-agent pointed out an empty hut and said that they ought to live there. The hut was a poor wooden structure with earthen floor and ice-slabs in the window-openings in the winter….. Soon the winter began and it was so cold in the hut, in spite of the heating, that all the walls got covered with ice inside. The Doukhobors had to sleep by turns. While some were sleeping, covering themselves with all available clothing, the others had to stay awake and walk in the hut to keep warm. Besides, they had nothing to make light and were in total darkness during all the long evenings.”

Father-in-Law Vereschagin Exiled to Siberia

All the time that Grandfather Vereschagin had been on the trek to Yakutsk, he did not know that his son, Alexei Vasil’evich Vereschagin (my future father-in-law) was on his way to Yakutsk for the same reason. He was exiled to Siberia in September of 1897, two and a half years after the Burning of Arms and nine months before his father died. Alexei arrived in Kirensk in August, two months after his father had died there. I never heard whether he knew that his father had died in Kirensk; however, I assume that he must have found out, since he had to spend the winter in the same prison as his father.

My future father-in-law, Alexei Vasil’evich Vereschagin, went with the third group [of Doukhobor military conscripts] exiled from [Kars, Elizavetpol and] Tiflis and the last group of Doukhobors to be exiled to Siberia. Their trek was much the same as those going before them, with the exception that they were driven much harder. The authorities wanted them to catch up with the group that had gone before them, before winter set in. Nevertheless, when they arrived at Alekseyevsk, they learned that the party had already departed, so this group stayed at the prison farm until the spring of 1899.

While living at the prison, the prison administrator observed the conduct and behavior of the young men in the group and felt kindness toward them. They, in turn, respected the administrator and trusted him. Father-in-law Alexei, nineteen years old, was one of the young men in this group. He was determined to follow in his father’s footsteps with honor. It appears that he became one of the spokesmen for the group and was not afraid to speak up in their behalf.

Group of exiles standing in front of barracks way-station en route to Siberia, c. 1899. Photo by George Kennan.

At one point when the young men were asked to help the prison farm workers with the haying, Alexei spoke for the group and said that they would be glad to help. Not only did they get to go out into the country, but they also got better food. They were allowed to cook their own meals, which for them was worth the labor. For their good behavior, they got extra rations of butter. Since they did not eat meat, this additional butter provided the proper vitamins for preventing night blindness. They were also able to melt down the extra butter to be saved and used when needed in the future.

The young men continued to work at odd jobs at the prison throughout the winter. They kept busy with carpenter work, repairing equipment, etc. The administrator even asked some of them to stay on and work for him personally. They thanked him for his kindness, but told him that their conscience would not allow them to leave the convoy.

In the spring, the large party of prisoners left the Alekseyevsk prison on their last trek to Yakutsk. They had to travel seven days and nights on foot to reach Kachuga, the embarkation station on the Lena River. When they arrived at Kachuga they immediately started to build a barge to take them down the Lena River to Yakutsk and the surrounding area where they would spend the rest of their exile. Kachuga had acres and acres of straight and tall fir trees, which were used to build large, safe barges. The barges were rather crude, with no private accommodations or bathrooms and very little overhead shelter. At one end they had a thick layer of gravel on which they could build a fire for cooking and for warmth. Double deck bunks were built against the walls on each side to accommodate approximately 100 people.

Upon arriving in Yakutsk, many of the exiles settled in villages in the surrounding countryside. Markha and Magan were two such villages. After the spring thaw, the younger and stronger men went to work for the [local] natives. They exchanged their labor for needed food supplies (flour, salt, butter, sugar, rice, etc.). They also exchanged work for horses and cows. They shared everything within their commune in order to survive.

Until others could be built, the first home was also shared. It was an abandoned native house [at Ust’ Notora] that was ready to collapse. They had to patch the holes and cracks the best they could with the tools they had. In preparation for winter, they made a clay stove in the middle of the room so that they could get around the fire to keep from freezing to death. Sixty degrees [Fahrenheit] below zero was not an uncommon temperature during the winter in this area of Siberia.

During the summer months, when the rivers were navigable, traders from the more populace areas would bring all kinds of supplies to sell to the people of the area around Yakutsk. The Yakuti [local native Siberians] had to plan and conserve their food and clothing supplies for about nine months each year, until the traders could arrive after the spring thaw. Not only did they have to stock up on food, clothing, and fodder, but they had to have tools and repair parts. In other words, they couldn’t hop on a horse and go to the local hardware store.

There were all kinds of craftsmen among the [Doukhobor] exiles. They had to know how to make and repair tools, harnesses, sleighs, etc. They had to build a flour mill and a water wheel to power the grinding of wheat for flour. Out of birch wood, they carved bowls, spoons, ladles, and other kitchen utensils. For baking bread, they built ovens out of straw and mud. They cut logs to build cabins for themselves, as well as shelters for their animals. It was important to have a supply of leather and a cobbler for making footwear suitable for the extreme cold weather. The boots had to be lined with fur. Since nearly everything you could think of had to be handmade within the [Ust’ Notora] commune, there was never a dull moment nor an idle body.

Siberian barge moored at river bank, circa 1899. Photo by George Kennan.

The first winter was a long one for the men. The police would not allow them to leave the area to seek work; therefore, they could not buy food or provisions. Their supply of food was low, so they had to ration the portions and ate only two meals a day. Many were ill because of malnutrition and fatigue, especially the older members. One of their members passed away that first winter. A burial in the frozen tundra was no easy task.

In the spring, they started building more adequate houses, barns, a bath house, and a saw mill. Because of their primitive tools and lack of power, it was not an easy task to cut, saw, and plane the timber. Everything had to be done by hand and in the rough. Land had to be cleared for planting the wheat and vegetable gardens. Water had to be made available for home use and for irrigating the gardens. Fortunately, water was abundant because of the nearby rivers. They also had to stock a lot of firewood for the winter and haul it in close to the houses for easy access and for shelter from the cold weather.

They worked as a team with the younger members doing the more physical labor and the older ones doing the lighter chores. They organized a commune where everything was planned together, everyone worked together, and everything was shared.

The first summer’s crops were not very good because they did not have the right seeds for the region. They bartered for wheat and vegetables from the local farmers. The Yakuti were quite friendly and often came to watch the Doukhobors work.

With more knowledge about the Siberian growing season and better seeds, the second summer their crops were much better. They were able to clear enough land to plant more grain, which they cut and threshed by hand. With more wheat, they proceeded to build their own flour mill. This mill eventually became a good source of added income for the Doukhobors. They became known for their fine flour; consequently, outsiders began to also use their flour mill.

Father-in-law Alexei farmed and worked in the flour mill as long as he lived in Siberia. Working in the mill was considered dangerous because one had to be very careful around the heavy grinding stone. In order to keep awake and alert, he was ordered to smoke tobacco. Note: He continued smoking until he was on his way to Canada in 1905. He decided to quit because he was planning to visit friends in London who were against drinking and smoking. He said that he threw his pack of cigarettes out the window and never touched them again.

In the summer of 1898, the Siberian exiles learned that many of the Doukhobors who were still in the Caucasus were preparing to emigrate to Canada. Although they were not able to emigrate themselves, the exiles felt that they were now properly settled and financially able to support their own families in Siberia; however, the decision to send for their families was not theirs alone to make. They had to ask their leader, Peter Verigin, who had been exiled to a different area in Siberia (Obdorsk, Province of Tobol’sk). He had been there since [1894] and had kept in contact with his followers by mail and personal envoys.

The exiled Doukhobors decided to send Vasya Pozdnyakov to go to see Peter Verigin and ask for his permission. It was a long and dangerous trip and it had to be done in secret. He did not have permission from the government to leave his home in Siberia and he had no passport. Fortunately, on the way he met a man who gave him his passport. Vasya traveled by rail, by steamer and boat, and also had to walk about 660 miles. It took him two months to get to Obdorsk.

Vasya Pozdnyakov was not happy with the so-called “life in exile” that their martyred leader was living in Obdorsk. Verigin had a house, a housekeeper, and fine sleighs and horses. He was able to ride around the surrounding countryside whenever he wished. He had a lathe on which he spent his leisure time making wooden tools and gadgets. Although Vasya was disappointed with Verigin’s life style, he still respected him as the leader of the Doukhobors.

Before returning to Yakutsk, Vasya visited Count Leo Tolstoy at his home – named Yasnaya Polyana, which means “brilliant fields.” From there he proceeded to Kars [region], where Verigin’s parents lived, to give them messages from their son. Verigin’s instructions for the Doukhobors was that they should continue to practice communal living and that they should expand their herds. Each family should get an allowance, with extra revenue to be kept in the “cash-office” of the community. He also gave them permission to marry again; consequently, there were several weddings announced immediately.

From Kars, Vasya went to visit his parents and wife [in Tiflis region]. He only stayed for a short while because he had to return to Yakutsk before winter set in. He took his wife and another woman with him. They traveled by train to Irkutsk and the rest of the way by horse and sledge. The road was poor and they were tossed out of the sledge many tunes. The women could hardly endure the cold. At one point, they had to lie down in the sledge, bundled in all of their clothes and blankets, in order to travel day and night. Note: Before the two ladies were permitted to leave their homes, they had to have permission and passports from the government. This they were able to do because of Count Tolstoy and the Quakers working on their behalf.

Group of Doukhobor women and children reunited with men in Yakutsk, Siberia, circa 1899

The fourth group that traveled from Tiflis to Yakutsk were the women and children. Their journey took them on the same route as the other three groups, except that they had to pay their own way. They had a woman guide and were transported by steamers, boats, trams, and horses. They were not expected to walk as their husbands who went before them. Included in this group was my mother-in-law, Aksinya (Usacheva) Vereschagin, who had married father-in-law Alexei only a few days before his departure a year before. That summer (1899), the wives and children arrived in Siberia. [For a detailed account of their journey to Siberia, see Wives and Children of the Doukhobors by Prokopy N. Sokolnikov.]

Three children were born to my in-laws in villages near Yakutsk. Vasily Alexeyevich (William) was born June 17, 1900 in Markha; Malanya Alexeyevna (Martha) was born October 13, 1901 in Magan; Alexei Alexeyevich (Alex) was born April 7, 1903 in Magan.

The Doukhobors expanded their farming: grew potatoes, rye, and wheat; added to their herds and purchased good horses. They built solid buildings, including a blacksmith shop. The horse-drawn flour mill was prospering and there were enough provisions to sustain them. Everyone was treated equally and the elders were taken care of.

Soon there was not enough cleared land to accommodate all of the villagers, so many of the last deported Doukhobor men had to work for wages. They worked long hours in very harsh conditions. They farmed in the summer months and threshed the wheat and rye in the winter on ice floors. Mostly, they worked for another sectarian group, the Skoptsy, who had previously been exiled to Siberia for life. By now the Skoptsy were quite well-off because they had already adjusted to the Siberian way of life.

Background for Emigrating to Canada

All this time, the Doukhobors were struggling for their identity with their government and the Orthodox Church. Count Leo Tolstoy sent a letter to Tsar Nicholas II, asking him to allow the Doukhobors to live in peace wherever they chose. Meanwhile, the Quakers petitioned to Queen Victoria of England to permit the Doukhobors to emigrate to Canada. England was in need of hard-working people to clear and farm the land, and to build bridges, roads, and railroads. She consented and invited the Doukhobors to settle wherever they chose in Canada in exchange for 99 years of religious freedom [a common myth among Doukhobors today, there was in fact no 99-year term]. Note: I personally met one Quaker who was involved with the settling of the Doukhobors in Saskatchewan, Canada. He was Joseph Elkington from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The Elkingtons originally came from England where the family was in the soap-making business. They heard of the plight of the Doukhobors from their relatives in England. Since they were religious people, they had empathy for the struggles endured by the Doukhobors. Mr. Elkington even invited two sons of [Alexei’s brother] Vasily V. Vereschagin (Timofey and Alexei) to come from Blaine Lake (Saskatchewan) and live with his family in Philadelphia and go to school. They accepted the invitation, staying there for about two years [from 1902 to 1904].

Another name often mentioned by the Doukhobors is Almer Maude. He was a [Tolstoyan] from England who acted as a guide and mediator for the emigrants. Mr. Maude had been a journalist and had lived amongst the Doukhobors in Russia. He traveled with a small group of emigrants to Cyprus and then with another group to Canada. He was involved with their transportation and with the purchasing of land in Canada.

Word of the plight of the Doukhobors – the beatings, their hunger, and their exile – had spread to many nations. Leo Tolstoy, a famous author, was so deeply shocked that he wrote an article entitled “The Persecution of Christians in Russia.” In 1899, at the age of 70, he completed his last great novel, Resurrection. The book was translated into many languages and distributed all over the world. Tolstoy donated all profits from the sale of the book ($33,000) to a Doukhobor fund; however, the clerk of that Quaker fund committee felt that the Society of Friends should not accept money from the sales of a “smutty book.” (The story is about a prostitute, her lover, a court trial, and the participation of the Orthodox Church in the trial. Tolstoy tried to portray all kinds of love which lead to resurrection. The book also portrays Tolstoy’s personal struggles in his own life and his search for the truth. This was hardly the kind of book Quakers or Doukhobors would have in their personal library.) Fortunately, the donated money remained in the fund and eventually was used to transport the first load of Doukhobors from Batumi to Halifax on the ship “Lake Huron.”

In addition to petitioning to Queen Victoria, the Society of Friends (Quakers) in England generously donated $8,000 to help the exiles resettle in Canada. Once they arrived in Canada, this money helped the Doukhobors to find temporary housing, and to buy food and other necessities until such time as they were able to survive on their own.

Emigrating to Canada

The emigration of the Doukhobors to Canada began in 1899. They emigrated in several different groups. They had to sell most of their possessions because they were only able to take what they could carry; besides, they needed money to help pay their way to Canada. By 1904, most of the Doukhobors living in the villages around Tiflis [, Kars and Elizavetpol regions] had emigrated. The last ones to leave were the few families living in Siberia. They left in the spring of 1905.

In this final group were father-in-law Alexei and his wife Aksinya, along with their three children: five-year-old Vasily (William), four-year-old Malanya (Martha), and two-year-old Alexei (my husband Alex). Their destination was Canada where father-in-law’s mother (Nastya Postnikova Vereschagin), brother Vasily, sister Dunya, brother Semyon, sister Masha, sister Paranya, and brother Gavril were living. They had all emigrated in 1899 with the [fourth] group of immigrants on the ship “Lake Huron,” leaving from Batumi, a port city along the Black Sea. The family was now settled in Blaine Lake along the Saskatchewan River north of Saskatoon.

The Vereschagin family shortly after their arrival in Canada. (l-r) Alexei W. Vereschagin, William, John, Virginia holding Jane, Alex and Martha, 1909.

Father-in-law Alexei and family first traveled by boat along the Lena River and then by train until they reached Hamburg, Germany. From Hamburg, they took a ferry across the English Channel. In England they visited Vladimir Chertkov, Count Tolstoy’s secretary, who lived about 25 miles from London. They stayed there for a few days, until the next steamer [the SS Southwark] sailed for [Quebec]. The three children were too young to remember their stay there, but it must have been enjoyable, being in the rural area of England. Brother-in-law Bill remembered being sick on the ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean and he also remembered that at one of the borders, a doctor put “terrible medicine” in their eyes. Note: Perhaps they had developed trachoma, a contagious inflammation of the eyes.

I heard from both Bill and Martha that each of them were responsible for carrying one item throughout the long trek from Siberia to Canada. At each stop and transfer to another train or boat, they would grab and carry their personal article of responsibility: Bill’s was a small valise and Martha’s was the chamber pot. Without a doubt, they were both proud to relate that the articles made it to their destination.

The family arrived in [Quebec] in the autumn of 1905. They left immediately for Saskatoon, Saskatchewan where they were met by Alexei’s brothers, Vasily and Semyon. From there they were taken to Blaine Lake (approximately 60 miles) in a horse-drawn wagon. What a reunion that must have been!


After arriving in Canada in 1905, the Alexei V. Vereshchagin family lived and farmed in the Blaine Lake district of Saskatchewan for two years. Then, in 1907, they resettled to Cucamonga and later Los Angeles, California where they worked as labourers on fruit farms. In 1909, they and several other Doukhobor families purchased land and established a short-lived colony near Shafter, California. Then in 1913, they joined a much larger “Freedom Colony” of Doukhobors near Peoria, Oregon. They returned to California in 1916, permanently settling in Orland, where they worked together for over 60 years as a cooperative family unit, becoming outstanding builders and innovators in the fruit growing and retail-wholesale industry. To follow the story of this remarkable Doukhobor family further, see Spanning the Years by Ann J. Vereschagin.

Confession of a Doukhobor Elder

by Vasily Vasilyevich Zybin

Vasily Vasilyevich Zybin was born in 1875 in the village of Slavyanka in Elisavetpol province, Russia. As a young man, he witnessed and participated in the turbulent events of the 1890’s surrounding the arrest and exile of Doukhobor leader Peter “Lordly” Verigin; the Burning of Arms and Doukhobor refusal to perform military service; the reprisals, persecutions and sufferings which followed; the Doukhobors’ preparations for departure to Canada; and their early life there. Years later, he recounted these experiences in his Russian-language memoir, “Ispoved’ Starika Dukhobortsa: Vospominaniya o Pereselenii Dukhobortsev v Kanady” edited and published by John A. Popoff in 1964. Now, this rare, historic first-person account is made available for the first time in English translation by Jack McIntosh for the Doukhobor Genealogy Website.

This is Vasily Vasilyevich Zybin’s story of the Doukhobors, telling about what I myself witnessed and experienced in my lifetime. I am eighty-nine years old. Many of my grandchildren, great-grandchildren and friends have been asking me to relate how and why the Doukhobors moved from Russia to Canada.

Arrest and Exile of Peter Vasilyevich Verigin

I remember the day when the woman leader of the Doukhobors, Lukeria Kalmakova, died. She had then been living in the Kholodnoye (Cold Mountains) region in Tiflis Province in Russia. We were living in the village of Slavyanka, in Elisavetpol Province. It was in 188[6] when the desyatnik (village overseer) called around at every house: “Early tomorrow morning everybody go to the moleniye (prayer meeting): Lushechka has died.” My mother, Hanyusha Zybina was such a devoted believer that she burst into tears at once at the news.

Living in the Sirotsky Dom (Orphans’ Home) in accordance with Lushechka’s wishes was Peter Vasilyevich Verigin. He was 26 years old. Lushechka did not leave any kind of note or a will concerning the Sirotsky Dom or the succession to leadership of the Doukhobor community. However everyone knew that Peter V. Verigin was living in the Sirotsky Dom in preparation to take Lushechka’s place after her death.

Peter V. Verigin (sitting) in exile, c. 1890. With him (l-r) are his brother Vasily, sister Vera and Vasily Obedkov. Koozma Tarasoff Collection.

The whole Doukhobor community went into ferment. But the people were not all in agreement about the leadership of their community, and they divided into two groups. The lesser half [the Small Party] did not want Verigin, such as Lushechka’s brother Gubanov, Zubkov, who had been starshina (village head) for 20 years, Baturin, and the group of opponents who had formed around them. The majority of the Doukhobors [the Large Party] eagerly accepted and recognized Verigin as their new leader.

At the same time, fictitious rumours, accusations, and denunciations to the authorities concerning Verigin began to circulate. Verigin [it was said] was supposedly setting himself up as God. And this was playing into the hands of the authorities, who were in any case ill-disposed towards the Doukhobors owing to the latters’ strange beliefs and uncompromising behaviour.

Hostility towards Verigin led to his expulsion from the Sirotsky Dom and his return to Slavyanka, his home village. But the denunciations brought about legal action against him, interrogations and exile to Arkhangel’sk Province. This was in 188[7].

They [the authorities] told him: “You are now under arrest. Tomorrow at ten o’clock we are sending you by cart under escort to Elisavetpol. Spend the night in your house with your parents and your family, and in the morning present yourself at the assembly point; from there you will leave at ten o’clock in the morning with the trusted elder Vasily Pugachev. In the city he will hand you over to the chief of police.”

This news spread all around Slavyanka and the other villages – Goreloye, Troitskoye, and Novospasovka. Sadness befell all the believers, but opponents rejoiced: “So much for you and your ‘Petyushka’; now he won’t be seen any more!” However, he managed to get around and visit people who invited him, albeit carefully, not in daytime but at night so that it would be scarcely noticeable to his ill-wishers.

At that time Petyushka was 27 years old. He was tall, well built, and handsome in appearance, clean-shaven, with an even, pale-blond moustache. He always wore a Cossack outfit: a long, close-fitting coat made of high-quality heavy cloth; cartridge cases on both sides of his chest, that is, cartridges as ornaments, and on his left side a sabre with a two-edged blade some three feet long, but of course enclosed in a scabbard; on his belt a dagger, and on his right side a six-shot revolver fourteen inches long and fully loaded. His hat, bead-grey in colour, was made from the hide of a curly-haired young ram, sewn together more narrowly towards the peak; his boot tops came up to his knees. He held himself straight as a candle, was of cheerful disposition and always treated people courteously.

In the morning the time came for parting from his father, mother, all six of his brothers, and two sisters. At eight o’clock in the morning a commissar had appeared at the house with desyatniks and placed Petr Vasilyevich under arrest. The order was “that nobody from among the people was to escort you, not even your relatives.” But the word had already spread around all the households [from Petr] that “everybody who wishes to accompany me attire yourselves festively and from each house come out and stand near your yard, and after my departure, trail behind about twenty sazhens (an Imperial Russian unit of measure equal to 7 feet) and proceed in this manner to the end of the street.” The street filled up with people.

At the gates of his yard Petr Vasilyevich stopped and bowing towards his house, took his leave: “Well, farewell and forgive me, house of my father, my cradle. You nurtured me and I am leaving you, perhaps forever,” and he bowed down to the ground. Then, moving into the middle of the street, he bowed to the earth, and asked of it forgiveness “that I have trampled and run over you.”

Then they all set out along the road and moved over onto another street, Khomyakov’s. Here, by Fedya Golubov’s yard, he stopped. But Vasily Pugachev, the authorities’ deputy and the man in charge of Petyushka’s arrest, began to urge him on: “So get on with it, get going, time’s a’wasting!”

Standing nearby was Alyosha Polovnikov with his wife, a large, bold personage who had not been allowing even her husband Alyosha to acknowledge the leader of their fathers. But Petyushka says to them: “Alyosha, I would like to visit you.” And both of them joyfully invited him to call by at their house for tea.

The wife started shaking as she rushed home to get the samovar (tea-urn) ready. Their place was five doors ahead, and by the time the crowd got that far, the samovar was already prepared, and Polovnikov’s wife sprang forth, calling out: “Please be so kind, come in for tea!” At this the authorities were enraged: “What’s the meaning of this – this is an official convoy – impossible!” But from all directions they all surged forward and went in. The young fellows were given places and drank tea, but Petyushka remained standing, not sitting down at the table, however much they tried to persuade him.

Then he says: “So then, fellows, sing Zapoem my Kazaki Pesnyu Novuyu! (We Cossacks Shall Sing a New Song!)”. They began singing in harmony, but Petyushka stood there, holding in his left hand the handle of his cavalry sword. The authorities began shouting “Come out, enough of this!” But Petyushka shouted back in a loud voice: “What kind of people are you, how dare you forbid this psalm?” At that he drew his sword from its sheath and swung it powerfully over their heads, so that everybody jumped with fright. “Come out, fellows, into the yard. Let’s hear Shashki Naostri, Vorontsova Ugosti (Swords to the ready, we’ll have Vorontsov for dinner).” The singing resumed. And in time with every word Petyushka stabbed at the ground with an abrupt thud.

At last they started out, walking to the special place called Zaglubokaya Balka (behind the deep gully), where we customarily would see off dear guests. The farewells began. Petyushka was in an elevated mood, giving the appearance of unconcern. Then, yielding to a mischievous impulse, along with Vasya Golubov, he hid from the others in the deep gully. Suddenly the authorities noticed that the prisoner was not among them, they raised an uproar. Nobody, not even his own people, knew where he had gone. At the height of the confusion Petyushka and Vasya plunged back into the crowd and shouted: “What’s the matter with you, who are you looking for? You see we’re here in your midst!” With that everyone calmed down and became quiet.

  Ivan Evseyevich Konkin, brother-in-law of Peter V. Verigin. Koozma Tarasoff Collection.

Standing on the phaeton (horse-drawn carriage) were Petyushka’s father, Vasya, and his mother Nastyusha. They called their son to come near and said: “Dear son, you know they are hounding you off to Siberia, perhaps forever. You should give up this cause.” But this is what he said in reply: “This cause is not yours, and not mine, but God’s. This is what has been appointed for me.” His parents fell silent and then wished God’s blessings upon their son for a happy journey and a successful life. This was their last farewell and absolution.

Farewells were said all around; part of the community returned home, while the rest went to see him off as far as Esomal’skaya Mountain. That would be about twenty versts (an Imperial Russian unit of measure equal to 1.0668 km) farther on. At the halfway point, near a small spring, they stopped to water the horses and have something to eat themselves.

There the authorities lagged behind and turned back, but Vasya Pugachev kept on right after Petyushka, not letting him get ahead. Also there was Ivan Evseyevich Konkin [Verigin’s brother-in-law and confidant]. Petyushka said to Konkin: “Well then, why aren’t you giving Vasya refreshment? Bring him vodka to his heart’s content!” Konkin poured a glass, and then another. “Drink up, drink up, you see, Vasya, you are delivering me to prison. But do you know who it is you are conveying? I am going to shoot you right here, and feed your flesh to the crows! But Vasya does not tremble and remains calm. But Petyushka again says to Konkin: “Why have you not given him a lump of sugar to bite on?” Konkin began to shove the expensive lump into his mouth. Now Petyushka again says to Vasya: “I’m going to kill you right here,” and he drew out his revolver, swung it around, pointed straight at him, and fired between his legs. The miserable little brute fell back so that everybody thought that was the end of him.

Konkin started to lift him up, and Vasya, not yet having managed to swallow the sugar, started muttering like a half-dead man. This put such a fright into him that he then became quite subdued.

When they got as far as Esomal’skaya Mountain, they said their farewells; the people returned home, but Pugachev and Petyushka traveled on to the city. The police chief wanted to place the prisoner straight into prison, but then a certain Armenian, Akhrem, an important person in the eyes of the police chief, bailed Petyushka out and took him into his home. Soon his trial took place, and he was sent to Tiflis prison, and then to Arkhangel’sk Province in Siberia.

At that same time, for their active assistance to Verigin, another five elders were arrested and sentenced to exile. They were Vanya Fadeyevich Makhortov, the one who had [first] declared Verigin to be the new leader of the Doukhobors, Lezhebokov, Rybin, Tsibul’kin, and Ignasha Argatov. All of them were sent into Siberian exile.

Petyushka spent three years in Arkhangel’sk Province; such was his initial sentence. Then he would have been returned to his homeland, but he was condemned to serve another five years and transferred to another province – Shenkursk. However, wherever he was, he walked freely around the village, but no further. And the local clergymen followed his movements. Petyushka was conversing with school children, gave them presents, and the children could not wait to be let out of school to they could go to visit this kind gentleman and listen to his stories. He got on well with them. The priests saw that the children were not going straight home, but to see this person, and at their instigation, he was prescribed new terms of exile and sent off to Eastern Siberia to the village of Berezovo in Tobolsk Province. In all, he spent 15 years in exile.

He was not permitted visitors, passports were not granted, and yet many succeeded in visiting in secret, and they carried home his advice. Letters from him personally were monitored. Verigin wrote to Empress Alexandra Fedorovna a humanitarian plea that she persuade her husband Nikolai Romanov to turn his attention to our Doukhobor people in the Caucasus, that just recently they were starting to put in prison women, mothers who were forced to abandon their own children to the mercy of fate. “And you, sister Alexandra, are a mother. To her own children a mother will have more pity than their father. Our guilt is not as grave as the authorities attribute to us. It is only that we cannot be killer-soldiers.”

Ivan E. Konkin spent some time with Peter V. Verigin and passed on his advice to all the Doukhobors: to stop eating meat, drinking vodka, smoking tobacco; all these things are harmful and unbecoming a Christian. And from this time we will be called Doukhobors of the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood. The word “Doukhobors” is not understood by the public. To this the following was added: a Christian should share what he has according to the instruction in the Gospel – “If you have two shirts, give one to the one who has none.” That is what they proceeded to do, they shared, and became all equal. They forgave one another their debts, and paid outsiders on behalf of their Doukhobor brethren. When they were departing from Russia, they all hired the steamship together and paid the total sum.

Burning of Arms and Refusal to Perform Military Service

Ivan E. Konkin passed on to all the Doukhobors [Verigin’s] directions that to be a Doukhobor meant not to be a soldier; and not to be a murderer not only of human beings, but even of animals. Whoever has weapons at home, anything concerned with killing, be it swords, daggers, pistols, rifles – all were to be placed on a pile in one place and burned, secretly, so that our non-believing Doukhobors would not cause us harm. Everything was collected at a spot three versts from the village of Slavyanka. There are mineral waters there, and water is always bubbling out of the ground; it is sour, as pleasant as lemonade. Near that spring a small fruit tree orchard had been planted, and in the middle of the orchard a summer house, raised about three feet from the ground, had been erected. This was according to the instruction of our former leader, Peter Larionovich Kalmykov, who lived in Tiflis Province. When he visited Slavyanka he was already married to Lukeria Vasilyevna.

The day designated for the Burning of Arms was June 29, 1895, the day of remembrance of the apostle saints Peter and Paul. This was also Peter Vasilyevich’s birthday. The Burning of Arms was accomplished simultaneously in three provinces [Tiflis, Elisavetpol and Kars] at one o’clock in the morning. In Slavyanka, all the brothers, sisters and young people gathered in the orchard and prayed to God for His help in accomplishing this exploit well and safe from betrayers.

When the bonfire flared up, the sky was lit up all the way to Slavyanka. The whole village was aroused. Here also the authorities were staying in the village all summer. The investigator, justices of the peace and the policeman with his 12 horsemen galloped toward the bright glow. Now from the three wagonloads of wood set in the middle of the bonfire, on which a barrel of kerosene had been poured, smoke rose in a black cloud and covered the whole village. Suddenly the rifles, which had not been unloaded, began to fire from the heat. Dawn had just started to break when the authorities all surged in and rushed up to the fire, but the bonfire had already burned everything. Then they surrounded all of us in the orchard, but we stood there singing and reciting. Ivan E. Konkin was right there. The interrogations began: Why did you burn your weapons? There was just one answer: “We are Christians. We cannot kill either a man or a living animal.”

The Doukhobor ‘Burning of Arms’, June 29, 1895. Painting by Terry McLean.

There had been advice from Petyushka that all the young fellows who were on call for military service were to prepare their reserve draft cards and turn them in to the authorities, telling them “We cannot be murderers: we are Christians!” Many were whipped, beaten with sticks, and put behind bars.

One of the lock-ups was near the Kotel’nikovs’ [Small Party leaders] home, in their banya (bath-house). At midnight the Kotel’nikovs had just finished steaming themselves. At ten o’clock in the morning they jammed in 25 men and fastened the lock. But the banya’s chimney pipe was blocked. The packed-in “Christians” stood there with their tongues hanging out from the heat, and they were done for. Suddenly grandmother Dunyusha Kotel’nikova, Chistyakov’s mother, came and spoke to them: “Children, why don’t you unstuff the stovepipe? It is blocked from above outside.” Then she rushed up on the roof herself and opened up the pipe, and pulled out a window. And everyone took a deep breath.

The next day they [the Doukhobor military reservists] – 150 in number – were dispatched to the Elisavetpol Prison, 60 versts from Slavyanka. And their fathers – 40 persons – were also arrested for teaching their sons treason against the Tsar [including the author’s father Vasily Nikiforovich Zybin].

Each of them was put on trial. At the end of the trial, all the young ones were sent to Kozakh Prison, where the intense heat of summer was unbearable. All of them came down with fever. Four of them died there and were buried near the prison: Yakov Polovnikov, Anton F. Arekhov (Verigin), Ivan Y. Kalmakov from the village of Goreloye, and Fyodor F. Verigin. About eight of our own brethren dug graves near the prison, and buried them in the moist earth. Soon all the rest were sent out to Yerevan Province and scattered around the auls (Caucasian villages) in pairs, under police supervision. Many of those sent to the auls died of fever. They remained there nearly three years, until the out-migration of the Doukhobors from Russia in 189[9].

At that time all young men, Doukhobors included, were subject to compulsory military service. They were called up by lot, and those who had to go were trained and served in the army for three years. After that they were released, but with a reserve draft card in case they would be required again. Some of the young Doukhobors had already served their term, but others were still in service. This was how it was in all three provinces where the Doukhobors were living.

Ivan E. Konkin visited Peter V. Verigin in Siberia, after which he arrived in Elisavetpol, where six of our Doukhobor brethren were serving in a regiment. Konkin passed on to them Verigin’s counsel, first to Matvey Lebedev, who had earned the rank of noncommissioned officer. The advice was this: Easter is approaching – the resurrection of Christ, when the commander customarily announces holiday greetings to the soldiers. When during this ceremony the commander says “Now we are celebrating the holiday – Christ is risen,” Lebedev was instructed to bring his rifle to the commander and say: “Christ is risen indeed. We serve Christ, not you!” and surrender to the commander this rifle in the presence of his whole company of soldiers. Seeing this, the thousands of soldiers present wondered whether Lebedev had lost his mind. But Lebedev affirmed “I cannot be a soldier in order to kill people. Christ died for us and is resurrected in our souls.” Lebedev’s comrades followed his example, and all six turned in their rifles to the commander. They were all arrested and sent to a disciplinary prison where they were whipped with thorny switches. The same thing happened in other regiments where Doukhobors were serving.

They rounded up those 36 men and gave them each two years “under rozgi“(thorny switches or rods). But Lebedev, as the first instigator, was given three years. First they called out Lebedev, led him out to an open place; the commander, six executioners, and a doctor gathered. The commander ordered: “Get undressed, Lebedev, take off your outer clothing!” The executioners stepped up to Lebedev and took his clothing. “Lie down!” They rolled him over on his stomach and stretched out his arms; two of them sat on his arms and two on his legs, and the other two each held a bunch of switches. The rest of our brethren were brought to that place so that they would see what was going to happen to them.

The commander ordered: “Begin!” The first executioner swung first to the right, then to the left, and the third time he brought the rods down on Lebedev’s back, then the second executioner followed suit. The commander kept count – one, two, three, up to the 30th blow. “Stop!” The doctor checked Lebedev’s heart and muscles. “Add another five!” They complied. “Stop!” The executioners who were holding Lebedev lifted him up and took him to a cold cell where he was kept for three days. They announced that in two weeks he would be beaten again with switches.

Doukhobor organizers of the Burning of Arms in Kars province, 1895. [l-r] Ivan I. Planidin, Peter I. Dorofeev, Grigory, V. Verigin, Pavel V. Planidin, Semyon E. Chernov. Koozma Tarasoff Collection.

The second man they brought forward was Fyodor I. Plotnikov. The commander announced: “For you, 40 strokes for your ‘service’, and another five for disrespecting your superior, for not addressing him correctly.” (Fyodor had referred to his superior as barin (master) instead of “your excellency”.) They placed Plotnikov in the same position as Lebedev. The executioners held him. The first one swung once, twice, and the third time onto Fedya’s flesh. He merely stirred. The same officer again kept count: “Thirty. Stop!” The doctor checked his heart and muscles. “Give him ten more!” When they started to lift him, he could not stand. The executioners grabbed him and took him to a cold cell where he was kept for three days. This would be repeated in two weeks.

The third man brought forward was Kuz’ma Nikolaevich Pugachev, and they carried out the same punishment on him. All those who were there were beaten. The second time Plotnikov was given 40 strokes. They tortured him with thorny switches for over a year, but they saw that he was not yielding. One of them died right there. [Then] the decision was made to send them to Siberia for 18 years, and they were transported under guard. On the way to Yakutsk six of them died. Also, the Elisavetpol and Karakhan elders who had been imprisoned were all exiled to Siberia, where they remained for eight years. After our resettlement to Canada they were all released from Siberia and they arrived here in 1905.

So you see, spirit-filled brothers and sisters, and more than that, blood relatives of those who suffered: how can our hearts [be unmoved], hearing of these sufferings of our own blood relatives, spirit-filled martyrs, thanks to whom we now live in a free country, Canada? And have we not seen the bloodshed after our departure from Russia; indeed we have had two world wars, and we have not witnessed them and have not taken part in them. Believe this: in truth we have been spared only through our suffering forebears. They saved us and now continue to save us: in Canada we are protected against the obligation to be soldiers and thus killers!

What is more, let us not forget the glory of our earlier suffering ancestors in Russia 200 years ago. They shut them up in cairns – there were no doubt such things in prisons at that time – and they say that strips were cut out of their backs to make them submit to the priest and not go against the law of the Romanov Tsars. And they drove out and sent into exile our ancestors from inside Russia to the Caucasus to settle near the Turks, who were regarded as wild beasts. But no matter how hard life was in the Transcaucasus, our Doukhobor loyalty to our faith nevertheless came to the fore once again. The time came when we renounced soldiering, and now we are also free from that thanks to our later suffering brethren. It was not only strips of flesh that were torn from the backs of these later ones, but their backs were entirely torn to shreds. One of those suffering brethren is still alive to attest to this, Fedor I. Plotnikov in Castlegar, British Columbia.

That is how our grandfathers, parents, husbands, and some of our women have suffered. So many were confined in prisons, and then banished separately in various Tatar and Georgian auls to fend for themselves but without the right to earn money to support themselves, and without the right to receive assistance from their own families. And their wives and families lived in poverty: they had to get by without their men. Moreover, there were whole families expelled from their homes, their property confiscated and sold for the benefit of the state.

Let us again turn our attention to those of our brothers who served in the army, and later bravely turned in and surrendered their rifles. They were subjected to flogging with thorny branches, threats of the firing squad, being tortured to death, solitary confinement in cold cells without medical supervision, and starvation. This happened also to those who had already served out their military time but had then turned in their reserve cards and declared that they would not serve in the future. They also were not treated mildly by the authorities: they were arrested and banished for three years separately among Tatars. Many of them died from cruel treatment, harsh conditions of their confinement, from the heat, from fever, hunger and cold, and from frequent forced marches on foot in irons from one place to another, sometimes in uninhabitable desert areas. All of these trials and tribulations they took on and endured bravely and stoically for the sake of the great ideal apprehended and implanted as the foundational principle of Doukhoborism: “Thou shalt not kill”, in the name of brotherhood and equality not only of the whole human race, but also of all living things. Evidently, there was no place for such people in Russia, and it was necessary for them to abandon her.

At the time of the Burning of Arms, it was the Kholodenskiye (Cold Mountain) Doukhobors who were made to suffer especially grievously by the authorities. In the Peshcherochki (caves) seven versts outside the village [of Orlovka], while the bonfire consuming the weapons was burning, the community – four thousand souls – were praying to God. The authorities dispatched one hundred Cossacks on horseback to herd these people to the governor. But first of all they beat everyone with whips, and would have trampled on them with their horses, but the horses would not step on the people: God had given the horses more sense than those men. In the next three days they were banished from their homes and exiled into Georgia scattered among the auls, two families to each aul. They were allowed to take with them only what they could take away with them in a chetverik (an Imperial Russian unit of measure equal to 26.24 litres). All the rest of their property was taken away from them and sold for a pittance. For almost three years they lived dispersed among the auls. That land is hot, and grows tropical fruits. But the Doukhobors, who had been living in a cold climate, could not quickly adapt to such conditions. The heat and the fruits growing there laid all of them low with fever and other diseases. In the two and a half years of their sojourn in that part of the country, up to a thousand souls died. When the Doukhobors were allowed to leave Russia, it was those Doukhobors who, earliest of all, settled on Cyprus.

Kholodenskiye Doukhobor exiles in the town of Gomi, Gori district, Georgia, 1897. British Columbia Archives C-01649.

In the Elisavetpol area the climate is injurious: in the mountains it is cool, but in the lowlands it is unbearably hot and fever is prevalent. Here there were four Doukhobor villages: Slavyanka, Goreloye, Troitskoye and Novospasovka. Slavyanka was a very large village – 4000 souls. For administrative purposes it was divided into two halves. Usually the village starshina was a person chosen by the community. But there this choice did not work out: some wanted their own person, others wanted somebody else. Therefore, the governor had appointed a government starshina, a retired Russian officer. It was required that he be paid a salary – a certain sum from each house.

We refused to pay. We had begun to call ourselves the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood, and we did not recognize any authority. The Tsar [we believed] was just as much our brother as we ourselves, and we acknowledged as our real sovereign only Jesus Christ. At that they began to do an assessment on us. From every house they took away possessions, and sold them in lieu of the salary contributions. And our adversaries bought these things on the spot.

In the wintertime they came to Nikolai Malov’s place. They locked up two cows and two horses in the barn, and the auctioneer began to appraise them. However, we brothers and sisters from all four villages, up to a thousand persons, gathered so as to prevent this. Here also were the provincial police officer with 12 village constables. A riot arose: the constables began to beat us. They bashed many of the brothers’ heads in, but they were unsuccessful in selling anything off. They went on to another house, that of Vasya Plotnikov, and the same thing happened there – it was like a war. Then they accused 27 persons of rude behaviour, including also four women, and by judicial summons they demanded their appearance in court in Zecham, thirty versts from the village. This was done calculating that they would arrive on their carts, and then it would be possible to take away their horses and wagons and sell them, and put them in jail. That is what they did: they sentenced all of them as criminals for not permitting the assessment of their cows and horses to proceed, and locked them up in the Elisavetpol prison. And so our brethren sat in prison for a year and six months.

Moreover, this is how something else turned out. Nikolai Pugachev was feeling sorry for his son, also named Nikolai. The father came to the following agreement with his son: “you, my son, stay here, and I will go to court in your place. For I am Nikolai and you are also Nikolai.” When in court they called for Nikolai Pugachev, the father came out, saying “that is I.” The judge asked him “were you at that riot?” “I was,” Nikolai replied. “So, guilty!” But at this point one witness, Aldokim Kotel’nikov, told who he really was, his full name, and that it was his son who was at the riot, and not the father. The judge spoke: “Did you not hear him admit that he was there? Therefore, both of them were there, both son and father, and both should go to prison.” So they summoned the son, and both of them were locked up for a year and a half, up to the time of the tsarsky (upper) court trial. The first was a sinodsky (Orthodox church synod) trial.

Then came the court verdict: three years at hard labour in Turkestan. That is a very tropical place. The decree specified that this was to depend on those of the opposing party who had brought them to trial (that same Kotel’nikov, among others). Then the starshina gathered all the inhabitants together from the whole volost (rural administrative district in Imperial Russia), read out the decree, and posed the question: “Do you agree that the convicted persons go to hard labour, or that they be returned? This is up to you.” Almost everyone responded: “Good riddance!” “In that case, come forward, and everybody sign this in your own hand.”

But there were then some Evangelical Baptists present who had rejected the priests; these were literate men who knew the laws. One of them shouted out for all to hear that they should hear him out. “Brothers, I want to explain to you what was decided about your brethren by the upper court, what was read to you and what you are agreeing to – your brethren are going to be tortured.” At that they began to shout: “Don’t listen any longer to these bearded ones. Sign before time runs out!” But the Baptist insisted: “It is for your sake I am telling you. The imperial law has left this to your decision and assent so that when you sign agreeing to their exile to hard labour, then by this law you will have to provide for their families, wives and children for their whole lives. You will have to feed them and look after them.” Then how the objections began to pour in: “How am I going to feed them? Let them all go and feed themselves! So then, let them go home.” And this is how they all came back. The Baptist saved them all. There [in Turkestan] they would have been tortured. But as for those elders who had been arrested at the time of the Burning of Arms, they were sent to Siberia, and our Slavyanka was almost emptied of men.

Lev N. Tolstoy (1828-1910), Russian novelist, philosopher and benefactor of the Doukhobors. Vasily V. Zybin delivered a message from him to the Doukhobor reservists incarcerated in Elizavetpol prison in 1896.

I myself did not happen to be conscripted, and so did not have to renounce military service. Thus I was not subjected to arrest or other repression. I was completely at liberty, and so was able to some extent to help my less fortunate brethren. I often was in the city [of Elisavetpol] and walked around the prison so as to exchange news by hand signals with my brethren when we had received letters from Peter V. Verigin or from Lev Tolstoy. Once I received a letter from P. I. Biryukov enclosing a message from Tolstoy to those locked up in the Elisavetpol prison. Tolstoy wrote: “I have been informed about you. Be strong and of good courage. This strength comes from a more eminent source than yourselves, from the One who existed before you were born.”

I was serving every day, from morning till night, darting about by the prison. The prison was overflowing with all kinds of people, criminals. They announced to our starichki (elders) that within a day they would be sent to a new prison just built in Nukha in Elisavetpol Province. This was two hundred versts from Slavyanka, one hundred by rail and another hundred on foot under guard.

The party ended up consisting of one hundred persons: these were our seniors. Among them was my father, Vasily Nikiforovich Zybin, and six of the Verigin brothers: Vanya, Fedya, Pronya, Lukasha, Vasya, and Grisha, while the seventh, Peter V. Verigin, was in Siberia. There were also the Golubovs: Vasya and Fedya; the Arekhovs: Vasya, Arisha, and Mikola; Vasya Shcherbakov and his two sons Gavryusha and Nikolai, the one who had turned in his rifle and been given 80 strokes with thorny rods.

So the day of our dispatch had arrived. They drove them three versts under escort to the railway, and from there one hundred versts by train to Yavlakh station. To the left and right were the high mountains of the Caucasus range. Between them they would have to walk a hundred versts. Twelve soldiers escorted this forced march, while I and Alyosha Rybin from the village of Troitskoye followed behind on foot.

Among those arrested were three of my comrades: Petrunya M. Morozov, his brother Ilyusha, and Gavrila Popov-Aseev. All of them were cheerful and in good spirits. All the way we walked together with the convoy. The non-commissioned army officer in charge of the convoy proved to be a good-hearted person who allowed us to accompany them. For two nights along the way Alyosha and I spent the night locked up with them like prisoners.

And so we arrived at Nukha. The city is built high on a mountain, almost at the summit. The inhabitants of the city, Nukhintsy, had heard the news that a convoy consisting of one hundred so-called “Dukhobortsy” was coming, of whom some had refused to serve in the army and had turned in their rifles, while others had burned their weapons in a bonfire. Before we had approached within three versts of the city, the officer in charge of the convoy, when he noticed a crowd coming out to meet us, ordered Alyosha and me to separate and drop back, thinking that this might be a commission of some sort. However, when the groups came together, it turned out that these were Russian exiles who had also rejected the priests. They were the poorest of the poor, but every woman carried something to eat, either some pastry or a wheatmeal loaf; that is, they were bringing out alms for the suffering, and, bowing low, they said: “Behold such people – they consider even the Tsar to be their brother, whereas we have only rejected the priests!”

Our fellows spent five months in the new prison, and then they were taken back by railway train to Baku, and from there by steamship to the Lena River. In August they were transported to Irkutsk, where they spent the winter, and in spring again along the Lena to the city of Yakutsk. Then another 500 versts deep into the north. They were all dropped off in the taiga, where they remained for seven years. They were released to go to Canada in 1905.

Preparations for Departure to Canada

Rumours about the ruination of the Doukhobors spread throughout Russia and aroused deep sympathy among certain eminent personages of Russian society, chief of whom was Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy. He and associates who shared his convictions set about to make efforts to ease the predicament of the Doukhobors.

The Doukhobors themselves appealed to the government for permission to resettle in any other part of the Russian land, far away from other inhabitants where they could live in their own way; or alternatively, to allow them to leave Russia and go to another country. The government had no desire to make concessions to the Doukhobors within the country and preferred that they leave her borders. The Doukhobors hastened to depart.

With the assistance of Tolstoyans they began to look for a place in other countries. The most suitable were lands ruled by England, primarily in Canada. In that country there was a lot of empty land suitable for agriculture, and the country was eagerly welcoming new settlers. The Tolstoyan Prince Khilkov, with Doukhobor delegates Ivan Ivin and Petr Makhortov, travelled to Canada to look over various localities and become familiar with the living conditions.

In Russia, meanwhile, without waiting for firm agreements with the new authorities, the more oppressed Doukhobors hastened to abandon their places of exile. These were the ones who had been expelled from their villages [in Tiflis province] and dispersed among Tatar and Georgian auls. More precisely, those of them who were still alive; for a large number of them had perished from the heat and from fever. They were the first ones to leave their homeland hastily; they disembarked on the island of Cyprus, at that time one of England’s possessions.

The time came for the rest to leave Russia as well. They began to petition and seek advice, especially [from] L. N. Tolstoy and his close friend Pavel I. Biryukov. They embarked at Batum on the Black Sea, and the first steamer left Cyprus with 1100 souls on board. Following Tolstoy’s advice, Pavel Biryukov sailed with them in order to help them with everything, to provide advice, and to be their English translator. But malaria was still rife among them. Biryukov exerted every effort to assist them, and while on Cyprus he himself fell ill and almost died. The climate on Cyprus is very tropical and for the Doukhobors unbearable, little different from that which they had only just left. Here also they suffered greatly: another 107 of their number died of sunstroke. Only their quick departure from there saved the remainder from the same fate.

The port of Batum as it appeared in the late nineteenth century. In 1898, Vasily V. Zybin was one of six Doukhobor delegates sent here to charter a transatlantic ship for Canada. Portrait by Lev Lagorio (1827-1905).

Tolstoy sent word: a steamship has been found for you; you will have to pay 65,000 rubles for it, and right away. A meeting of the four [Elisavetpol province] villages was called together; they reckoned on a collection of forty rubles a person, and they did collect that sum. Now they had to get that money to Batum. They appointed six men as delegates, and I was one of them. We arrived in Batum, found the ship’s agent, an Englishman, and we poured out our gold for him: there was no paper money. At that time another 600 Doukhobors from Karakhan [region in Kars province] joined us, making up a total of 2,100 persons

The Karakhan people as yet had no money with them, so the contract for the ship could not be completed. Just then the agent gave orders, pointing at me: “Let this young man make an urgent trip to Karakhan and press them to make a payment on the contract as soon as possible.” I whirled into action, rushing to the train to make a quick departure from Tiflis. I would have to travel 300 versts as far as the village of Kirilovka. But at that point news arrived that the steamer had already been hired. Tolstoy wrote us: “Your guide on the ship will be my son, Sergei L’vovich Tolstoy.”

Then it was necessary to obtain foreign passports, for which we had to travel to Gandzha [aka Elizavetpol], where the governor was living. What was required first was a certificate from the starshina, and then using that certificate to obtain a passport. Everyone went; for families without a husband, the woman of the household went, such as Anyuta Petyushkina, the Shcherbakovs’ sister Masha Golubova, and Polya Golubova. From all four villages, about three hundred persons travelled there and back.

At eight o’clock, three hundred of us all went to the office of Governor Kireev. He himself was not in the city. He had gone to Tiflis, whence Prince Golitsyn had summoned all the governors. His own office staff began to make inquiries and delve into the laws, trying to seek out how to make up foreign passports. Some said it’s one passport per family; that is, the head of the family, while others were sure that if a man had three sons, each of whom had a family of his own, that meant four passports were required. And for every passport, 12 rubles had to be paid. We agreed even to that, and paid 12 rubles for each separate family. However, they again wouldn’t issue them, and were arguing among themselves. All day our people revolved around the office, and this was now day three – what to do? We’d have to travel to Tiflis and complain to Prince Golitsyn!

Every Friday, complaints from all over the Caucasus were received by Golitsyn in Tiflis. For this, they appointed me and Vasya Kalmakov, and directed us to make out the complaint and petition ourselves. There was nobody else who could do this except our guide Sergei Tolstoy, who had already arrived in Batum to wait for our steamship. It would be necessary to tell him everything and he would write the petition.

They resolved as follows: “You, Zybin, travel now to Batum (500 versts), and you, Kalmakov, get off in Tiflis the next day; and on Friday both of you will get to see Golitsyn.” So I set out for Batum, and on Thursday morning I got off the train. I was already familiar with the city. Not far off I saw a man standing there who looked like a Doukhobor. I introduced myself. It was Anton Savel’ich Popov, from Kars province, whereas I was from Elisavetpol province. I asked him: “Do you know where to find Sergei Tolstoy?” He answered “Yes, I do. Let’s go!” I went in a hurry so as to return to Tiflis at three o’clock.

“There he is, your Seryozha.” I introduced myself and explain my complaint. He responded angrily: “Why on earth did you not come to see me sooner? It is necessary to write a petition, and tomorrow by seven o’clock to be at Golitsyn’s reception room.” He asked: “Can you write? Well, right here write down this: ‘Your Excellency’.” I wrote it, but left out one letter. “That will spoil everything – you omitted a letter. I’ll do it myself. Tell me how they have not given you passports.”

I told our story: “We agreed to pay 12 rubles each for all the passports, for the father and for each son in the family. Instead of one passport per family, it sometimes comes out to four. And we paid for those, but once again they are not giving them out. It is already four days that we have been milling about the caravan, and there are 300 of us.”

We finished writing the petition. I set off for the train: Anton Popov came along to see me off. He suggested: “Let’s walk over to have a look at my comrades, 60 persons released from Baku Province; they are all our Karakhan Doukhobors. They are over there in that emigration building.” We went in. Indeed, all of them were worn out. They had been living poorly, scattered two to an aul. Already it had been three years that they had been separated in this way from their families – wives, children, fathers. They were waiting impatiently to meet their families in Batum. They would arrive here within four or five days to embark on the steamer. We already knew the name of the ship – “Lake Superior”.

But I had to leave them. “Farewell, I am off to Tiflis. Vasya Kalmakov will be expecting me.” At midnight I arrived in Tiflis. I set off on foot. Vasya was already there, and with him three of the Kholodnenskiye (Cold Mountains) people who have arrived on some kind of business: Gubanov, starshina Zubkov, and Baturin. These men were all dressed up and in the pink of health and, after getting drunk, they conversed merrily. They asked me: “You’re not Verigin?” I answered: “No, I’m Zybin.”

At eight o’clock in the morning Vasya and I set out to be received by Golitsyn. They told us to stand nearby close to the building. We stood there waiting for ten hours. [Then] the aide-de-camp came out and shouted: “Persons lodging a complaint, enter!” But we waited for an hour thinking we would be all but alone, when the aide-de-camp came out and shouted at us, and we hurried up. Our men came in from all directions, and about fifty of us gathered. The aide-de-camp led us to the second floor, lined us up along the wall and ordered us to hold our petitions in our hands. He announced: “I shall take your petitions from you, and return them to you later. On the other side of this wall the Synod will sort out your petitions. Those that are needed soon, urgently, I shall hand back to you. Prince Golitsyn himself will check them and question you personally about your concerns; as for the remainder, I shall announce the decision of the Synod as to how you are to proceed.” And he plunged back through the door towards the Synod. They were out of our sight.

He came out again carrying three petitions, among them ours. To all he gave an answer: some to be received the next day, some postponed, but us six he led into the Synod, where Prince Golitsyn himself was to arrive. But he was not there yet. Here all the senators, about ten of them, got up and were standing. All had epaulettes on their shoulders. They looked us over, and we them. We were in a state of wonderment: what had we gotten ourselves into? For us this was the first time in our lives that there has been such an encounter. The aide-de-camp lined us up with me in front, and Vasya beside me. I was holding the petition in my hands. The aide-de-camp explained: “There where it is underlined in red – those are the main questions. Prince Golitsyn will be looking only at those places. Whatever he asks you, give him your answer.”

The room was luxurious in every way, all adorned with glass, and the senators were still standing and looking at us. The door creaked and the senators spoke up: “He’s coming.” Prince Golitsyn entered and greeted the senators; they all responded in a friendly manner. The Prince turned toward me. The aide-de-camp took the petition from me and began to tell him our story, indicating the parts underlined in red. He remarked right then: “But their governor, Kireev, is here. Bring him over here.” And there he is, our Governor Kireev, standing at attention.

Prince Grigory Sergeyevich Golitsyn (1838-1907), Viceroy of Caucasia from 1896-1904. Vasily V. Zybin petitioned him in 1899 for the Doukhobors.

“Kireev, why is there such slow-wittedness in your office – don’t you know how to issue foreign passports? A father is head of his whole family, and there is supposed to be one passport. But with you there is such a disgrace: they do not understand the regulations and have been tormenting people for several days. Right now I have sent them a telegram ordering them to return the overcharged money, and tomorrow without fail to issue the passports. This was sent in my name. And, peasants, I am telling you that if they do not release you tomorrow, inform me immediately. I will deal with them. They know how to receive their salaries, but this they do not understand. Kireev, do you hear what I am saying?”

“Yes, Sir, your Excellency,” and the governor was trembling as if in a fever, while we were glad. The Prince approached closer to me and began to question me: “You, young man, are a delegate from your community?” “Yes, I am,” I answer. “And how old are you?” “Twenty-three.” “Ah, a fine young fellow. And where did you buy this fur coat?” “Here in Tiflis.” “How much did you pay?” “Fourteen rubles.” “Ah, excellent!” And he patted my shoulder. “Go along with your governor – and God go with you!”

Kireev was still standing there. The Prince repeated his order to Kireev, and we went out. We are walking, and outside in the courtyard the governor is still shaking with fright, and blurts out: “Oh my God, what has happened.” We walked into the drawing room of his apartment, and sat down at a table. The governor asked us: “But what are we to write? Dictate to me.”

I began to prompt him, saying that tomorrow they were to give us passports and return all the money for the unnecessary passports. They had overcharged us three thousand rubles. But Vasya is sitting beside me and whispers: “Don’t dictate for him, how could you prompt a governor!” I nudged him with my knee: “He is still frightened, that’s why I am speaking to him.”

We finished writing the telegram. He pulled out five rubles and gave them to us: “Go to the telegraph office and pay him to send it now.” We found the office and gave the telegraphist the money. He glanced at the signature and, not believing his eyes, asks “Is this from Prince Golitsyn?” “Yes,” we reply. “And you were in his presence?” “Yes, we were.” “Well then, I’ll send it right away. Take your change.”

We took the change to the Governor. But we still had to go to the railway office in order to hold the train which we had for the time being only ordered for loading baggage and people, as there were as yet no passports. We took a phaeton and rushed to that office. [We arrived at] dinner time. We hurried in, lest the station master leave for dinner and the train that we have to catch for Elisavetpol also departs. We just managed to catch the station master. He did us a good turn by stopping the train for Batum. And the train on which [we] ourselves had to travel to Elisavetpol had just arrived at the station and was about to start out. Vasya Kalmakov says to me: “I’ll get off at Dalyar and walk home, but you ride on. At home my baggage is not yet all tied up in bundles.” He had 30 versts to go on foot.

I rode on alone. I arrived at midnight and walked three versts into the city. All three hundred people had been waiting now for five days. Everyone was sick and tired of waiting, especially the old folks. So I walked up to the caravan. [It was] midnight. The caravan was locked; it was full of wagons and draymen. But I wasn’t going to wait for daybreak. I looked over this caravan and scrambled onto a corner of it, and there crawled along the top, greased with clay, and then reached an edge. Near it I saw a low loft, the chicken pen of the lodger who heats up tea for new arrivals. I leaned on this chicken pen, but it had been woven only out of twigs. I brought it down entirely along with the chickens: they raised a shriek that could be heard over the whole caravan! I made haste to run away lest I be arrested. However, this turned out to be my own people, praise God! They greeted me joyfully. I told them our whole story, none of which they had been aware of.

Dawn broke. We all got going to the office at seven o’clock in the morning. We saw lights burning in the office. There was our starshina, Sklyarov, furious as a wild animal. He asks us: “Who of you was in Tiflis? Was it Vasily?” And he turned to me: “You saw Prince Golitsyn?” I answer “I saw him, and what’s more I even had a conversation with him and he patted me on the shoulder.” For him this was incredible, that a simple peasant had spoken with a prince. And princes were revered as all but a Caucasian Tsar!

As soon as they received the telegram, all the passport clerks hastened to start writing. I said to them “But are you going to return the overpayment to us?” “We shall, but you will have to wait for days.” I turned to the senior men who were with me in the office, Styopa Ozerov and Yasha Polovnikov: “Well, what about it, shall we wait?” They replied: “Let’s forget about it” – but it amounted to three thousand rubles. There was nobody to assign to receive it, and so we gave up and left. That same day they released all of us with our passports.

We rode the train 60 versts to Dalyar station. Standing there was the station master, looking at us while I look at him. He beckoned to me: “Come here!” I went up to him, and my companions all walked on further. He said “Tomorrow your train will be place right here. That evening you must be in the German colony, and in the morning you will load up, and you – I mean just you – bring one of your friends and in the evening come and inquire about your train.” I promised to do so.

So we did ride into the colony to spend the night. There would be 800 of us, and within a day another 800 – in two parties. I told our elders how the station master had instructed me to go to Dalyar to find out about the train. They advised: “Here is Misha Popov, go together.”

We hired a phaeton and arrived. I began to pay the driver, but my friend Misha did not wait and walked to the station master and began to ask him: “What is your authority, can you give us a discount if we grease your palm?” This seemed like a swindle to the stationmaster. As I approached, the stationmaster was scolding him in Russian: “What kind of nonsense are you suggesting?” When I got there, he said: “Well now, I know this man, but who are you?”

I got between them and said: “This is my friend.” “Well, let’s talk. Your train will be here at 10 midnight. Everybody should be here at seven in the morning. I have the right to give a discount for the trip, only a little something is needed. I’ll give you the smallest discount, three hundred rubles. I just need you to keep quiet about it.” I said to Misha “Let’s give it to him. I have 17 rubles on me – let him have it.” I started to pull it out, and he saw what he was getting: “Hand it over up here so nobody notices.” He grabbed the money and shoved it into his pocket: “Well, there it is. I advise you to spend the night here on these benches. It is warm here, and in the morning your people will arrive.”

Doukhobors stand beside passenger cars in the Caucasus en route to Batum to sail to Canada, 1899. Vasily V. Zybin helped arrange their passage and fare. British Columbia Archives C-01512.

A minute later he came back: “Here is the thing, peasants – in Russia we have a law: migrants get to pay half fare, and you are migrants. You need to apply to the head of resettlement in Elisavetpol. Right now a passenger train is due, and I advise you to take this train to see this man, and in the morning walk to his house, not to his office, and ask him about migration. He will tell you. If he can, he will do it. Go to his house so that you will catch the return train back here at twelve noon, and I will then write waybills. Well, good luck.”

The train arrived just then; I sat for the night and off I went. I arrive. All was locked up just as before. I crawled up on the roof again and jumped down. I get to where the people were and found there ten of our Karakhan Doukhobors. One of them was Vanya Podovinnikov, who also had been exiled together with the young fellows for ridiculing Skvortsov, an emissary of the Tsar. We recognized one another. I said: “I am going to see the head of resettlement.” They told me: “And we also are going to see him. Why are they not transporting us at government expense, aren’t we prisoners, after all?”

We set out. It was daybreak. We dropped in, and he [the head of resettlement] asked us why we had come. Vanya started to explain that we had been released, and should be taken home to Kars province at state expense. “But do you have a document from those authorities saying specifically that you have been released?” “No, no,” replied Vanya. “Well, that means I cannot grant you passage. You could be entirely different people!”

However, I called out: “But I am a local, from Elisavetpol, and we are emigrating to Canada. We have the right to travel for half fare.” “Yes, but that is only true for those who are migrating within the empire. But your are excluding yourselves entirely from this empire. There are no concessions for such people.” And we all departed.

I ran towards the train. When I got there, I sat down and off we went. I arrived at Dalyar; I saw the stationmaster looking towards the carriages – will I get off or not. I slipped off from the very last car, and he did not see me. The [Doukhobor] people were working feverishly loading baggage onto three coaches. When I meet them, they were surprised: “look here, yesterday Vasya was with us, but now he is already taking the train out of the city!” The stationmaster swore that I had not got onto that train, and returned to his office. But then I appeared. As soon as he caught sight of me, he started cursing, and asked: “Where on earth have you been? Well, tell me, what is going on?” I saw the head of the resettlement office,” I replied, “He told us they will not grant us a concession because we are quitting the empire.” “No matter, I shall do my business. Here are the papers, and here is a pencil; go, beginning from the far carriage, and start making a list for the three groups of how many persons there are and the value of the baggage in each car.”

I went up to the first carriage; there was Vanya Plotnikov. I asked him: “Vanya, how many people ten years of age and above are there in your carriage – four, five, six? And how much are your belongings worth?” Vanya stood there in a quandary, and I stood there thinking “how am I going to write all this down?” I just don’t know. “Vanya, how many of you are there in your carriage?” Dunya, his wife, is standing there too. He asks her: “Dunya, how old is our Anyutka?” “I don’t know,” answers Dunya. “But how many are in the carriage?” “But you see we also have Kostenikha with us…”.

All this exchange of words had already taken up ten minutes. I saw the stationmaster leap out and start looking along the cars trying to see where I was. But I was chatting with Vanya. Another three minutes and the stationmaster came out again and saw that I had only gotten as far as the second carriage. He ran up to me: “Why, Zybin, are you so slow?! Well, give me your list.” I gave it to him. He looked at it, swore, and tore up my list. He shouted at me: “Follow me, Zybin!” I started running.

The people were all pottering about the train cars. He and I ran into the office. On the wall in his office was a bell. Now he struck the bell, and every last one of the people rushed to get a seat on the train carriages. The sound of the bell signified that the train was now leaving. But he did this deliberately so that they would take their seats. He shouted at me, “Zybin, follow me!” He grabbed a sheet of paper and ran again to the far carriage. All on the train were watching. He came up to Vanya Plotnikov: “How many people are in your carriage? Tell me quickly!” Vanya repeated once more: “Dunya, surely Kostenikha is also with us?” The stationmaster did not spend more time in thought, but began himself to count – “seventeen” – and on to the next car. There he did a recount himself. I follow after him. He ran through the three cars in 15 minutes.

Doukhobors at the Port of Batum waiting to embark to Canada, 1899. British Columbia Archives C-01560.

“Zybin, bring the money, as I said, for the three groups. How do you have the money, all together communally, or separately? Bring it soon, or time will be up. The train is due to leave!” I ran again to Vanya: “Vanya, pay the money. Either turn it in yourself, or give it to me and I’ll bring it.” “Yes, my boy, I knew how to acquire it, and can give it away myself.” We paid, every man for himself.

The stationmaster sat behind his desk – “Well, let’s have the money.” But they were asking him: “How much should I give you?” Nobody knew. They poured it into his hands, and he cupped it into a pile with his hands – it was all gold, none of it was paper money. They kept on handing it over, no longer questioning. They heaped up a big pile, but he again urged them on: “Faster, faster, time is up!”

Then last came Vanya Plotnikov, and shouted: “give way people!” He stayed behind, confidently expecting change. The stationmaster, seeing everyone in a stupefied state and nobody beside him, did not give anybody change. Right there he had the sheet of paper showing how many people there were, but the money was heaped up in an uncounted pile – all in gold coins. He began to count it quickly: ten, twenty, one hundred, and another hundred. He pushed aside half the pile, stopped, and now just as much again was lying there. We watched – the office is full of our people – nobody was calling out. He did not believe his own eyes. He piled it all up again and began to count it all over again, this time a little more calmly. He pulled it aside, and gazing at the sheet of paper showing how many of us there were – his eyes took in all of us, and at that he screamed: “What do you think you’re doing in my office – all of you get out of here!”

At that we scrambled out of there. Vanya got knocked off his feet. We had to jump over him. We jumped into the train, with the stationmaster still shouting at us, while he pulled a drawer out of his desk and pulled all the money into it. He rang the bell for the departure of the train and ran out of the office shouting: “Zybin, go get the way-bill, and one for the baggage as well!” I got it, along with Syoma Konkin, and we departed.

In Canada

All of our ships sailed from Batum. Ours was the [second] party of Doukhobors to arrive in Canada, on the steamship “Lake Superior”. We moored in the port of Halifax on February 13th, 1899. The [third] party soon followed on the steamship “Lake Huron”. Both ships made two ocean crossings carrying a Doukhobor cargo. On the last voyage, Doukhobors who had sojourned on Cyprus arrived to settle. Yakutian (Siberian) prisoners were liberated in 1905 and arrived here in separate parties.

In 1902, near Christmas time, Petyushka was released. In Canada, in the village of Otradnoye, he succeeded in finding still alive his mother, Grandma Nastyusha, whom he had not seen in 15 years. Not one of her sons was with her: all were in prisons. Lukasha and Fedya had died in Siberia; she saw only two of them, Petyushka and Grisha. Grisha had fled from Siberia with Petrunya Shukin. She herself passed away in the village of Otradnoye in 1904, I believe.

Petyushka’s son, Peter P. Verigin (Chistyakov) did not come with our parties or with his father. He remained in Elisavetpol at school, and arrived in Canada for the first time in 1905. Then, after quarreling with his father, he and his family returned to Russia.

During his stay here, Chistyakov lived with his father in one house located in the village of Otradnoye. He occupied the front part of the house, while Petyushka lived in a back room, the gornitsa (special quarters).

Peter V. Verigin (standing behind buggy) touring the villages while his mother Anastasia and “Dedushka” Ivan Makhortov sit beside him, c. 1904. Koozma Tarasoff Collection.

At that time Petyushka had four maidservants, and the manservant Vasya Obedkov, who stoked the fire in the banya (bath-house), cleaned shoes and fulfilled other duties. Vasya would spend the night with neighbours, the Morozovs. Dedushka (Grandpa) Makhortov, a little hundred year-old man, who for 25 years had served the Tsar in Russia, had completed his term of military service and after returning home began to serve the Doukhobor leaders: P. L. Kalmykov, then Lushechka, and now Peter V. Verigin. Every day Petyushka summoned him to his house for consultation. The old fellow was devoted to the elder Verigin wholeheartedly, and also to Chistyakov.

In the Verigin house there was one door for all who were living there; entering through it were Petyushka, his son Chistyakov, and Chistyakov’s mother Dunyusha, Petyushka’s former wife. Dunyusha, Chistyakov’s mother, moved her son and his family out, and almost settled them in our house. They gave us a deadline of three weeks to vacate the house. But then they decided to return to Russia.

Before our departure from Batum I naturally had occasion to meet up with Anton S. Popov. He was a clever and efficient person, and very kind, always ready to help somebody else. I first became acquainted with him at the railway station when I arrived in Batum to see about passports. It was he who led me to Sergei Tolstoy to draw up a petition to Prince Golitsyn. My memories of that event have remained forever in my soul, and thereafter Anton and I remained close friends to the very end of his life.

I had heard of Anton before meeting him in Batum. My village was in Elisavetpol Province, and his village in Kars Province. However, his sister was living in our village, Slavyanka, married to Anton V. Konkin. Anton Savel’ich [Popov] was a little older than me, had already completed his military service and had been released, but of course with a draft reserve card. It was just at that time when the instruction arrived from Peter V. Verigin to renounce serving as soldiers. Anton and others of his comrades in the same situation as he went to the army authorities and turned in their draft cards, stating that they would no longer serve in armies on account of their Christian convictions.

All of them were arrested and put on trial. They were sentenced to three years in Baku Province in Tatar and Georgian settlements, two men to an aul. There they remained for two and a half years until the government gave permission for the Doukhobors to leave Russia. Then they were released, but were not allowed to return home; instead they were sent directly to the steamship in Batum. Only there were they reunited with their families.

The area in Baku Province where they had been exiled was low-lying and very hot. Many of them came down with fever, and several of them died. Those who did recover returned worn out and exhausted, but happy at their liberation and that they could once again be with their dear ones and their own people.

Anton Savel’ich could read and write to some extent. While still in exile in 1897, he somehow came across a collection of poems where he found one poem that was very much in tune with his spirit. He changed it a little and sent it to our village to his sister, Anyuta Konkina. She showed it to others, who liked it and took it up, applying a melody to it, and began to sing it among themselves. Subsequently it was referred to as Antoshinym stishkom (Antosha’s poem). To this day it is sung by the Doukhobors. After all this time it has possibly changed a little, but basically it is the same as it was at the start. Here is the poem put into circulation among the Doukhobors by Anton S. Popov*:

Christ, when a Child, a garden made,
And many roses flourished there.
He watered them three times a day
To make a garland for His hair.

And when in time the roses bloomed,
He called the children in to share.
They tore the flowers from every stem,
And left the garden stript and bare,

“How wilt Thou weave Thyself a crown
Now that Thy roses are all dead?”
“Ye have forgotten that the thorns
Are left for Me, the Christ child said.

They plaited then a crown of thorns
And laid it rudely on His head;
A garland for His forehead made;
For roses: drops of blood instead.

*Translation by Nathan Haskell Dole (1852-1935) of the poem Legenda attributed to A. N. Pleshcheev, which in turn is a Russian translation of the poem Roses and Thorns by American poet Richard Henry Stoddard (1825-1903) – JM

That was one meritorious service rendered by Antosha Savel’ich Popov. I myself am a witness of this occurrence involving “his” poem. There were also others.

Antosha’s party of migrants, those from Kars, 600 persons in number, were placed with our Elisavetpol settlers on the same ship. In all, there were 2,100 of us. We disembarked in Halifax, and from there went by train to settle in the Province of Saskatchewan. My family took up residence in the village of Otradnoye, to the north of Verigino station, and Anton’s in the village of Khristianovka, not far from Buchanan station. At that time these stations did not yet exist. They appeared only some time later, when the railway came through.

Being an enterprising and capable person, Anton was well suited for village building work. He was a good carpenter and was renowned for his mastery in making window frames, doors, spinning-wheels, and other such things. He invented a method of preparing tiles for covering the roofs of houses.

During the first winter, having understood while still in Russia the usefulness of reading and writing, he opened a school of Russian written language in his village, and he himself was the teacher there. He attracted some forty pupils of various ages. Unfortunately, the older members of the community did not support his innovation and, after the first season, the school did not continue. At that time Doukhobors were not yet ready to accept scientific knowledge and education, although in their own traditions “knowledge” is presented as a desirable thing.

Anton had two daughters while in Russia, but no son. But soon after arriving in Canada, a son turned up for him, Ivan. I knew little of him during his father’s lifetime. Only recently have we become acquainted through correspondence. He published in the Doukhobor journal ISKRA several articles that I enjoyed. I wrote to him about them, at the same time asking if he would help me put into print my reminiscences about our move to Canada. He enthusiastically agreed, and we are now corresponding about this matter.

I sent him my manuscripts, and he put them in order and printed them. This is the result of his work. I sincerely thank him for his efforts. And for you, my readers, I desire that you take to heart what is related here, and that you not forget the difficult path taken by our forebears, our brothers and sisters, who suffered cruelly for their pure Doukhobor ideal.

Almost 70 years has passed since the beginning of my story, and in my soul that picture in which I was a participant and witness of all that was experienced by our people, has not faded. I am a vegetarian; for 66 years I have neither eaten meat nor smoked nor drunk alcohol. Perhaps that has helped me to live to such advanced years. But now I am already standing at the brink of my own life’s end. I thank the Lord the Creator for giving me life up to this time, enabling me to write out this my confession. May this remain my modest monument as a reminder to all of our descendents.

Vasily V. Zybin 


The author, Vasily Vasilyevich Zybin resided with his family in the Doukhobor village of Otradnoye in the Veregin district of Saskatchewan from 1899 until 1912-1913. Thereafter, he resettled to Brilliant, British Columbia with the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood. Following the death of Peter “Lordly” Verigin in 1924, Vasily and his family were among the several hundred Doukhobors who recognized Verigin’s companion, Anastasia F. Holuboff as his successor. In 1926, they resettled with Anastasia’s supporters to the Shouldice district of Alberta where they established a small breakaway colony. In 1941, Vasily and family returned to British Columbia, eventually settling in Creston where he remained until his death on February 16, 1965.

For another historic account of Vasily Vasilyevich Zybin’s efforts to arrange passports for the Elisavetpol Doukhobors to immigrate to Canada and his audience with Prince Golitsyn on their behalf, see Donskov, Andrew (ed). Sergej Tolstoy and the Doukhobors: A Journey to Canada (Ottawa: University of Ottawa, 1998), pp 265-271.

For a list of Doukhobor military conscripts and elders exiled to Yakutsk, Siberia from 1895-1905 compiled (in part) from Vasily Vasilyevich Zybin’s memoirs, click here. For a list of Doukhobor military reservists and elders imprisoned and exiled in the Caucasus from 1895-1899 compiled (in part) from his memoirs, click here.

My Rejection of Military Service

by Petr Vasilyevich Olkhovik

The 1880’s and 1890’s saw a surge of pacifist sectarianism among Christian groups in Russia. Historic accounts of this period exist, especially in relation to the Doukhobors, who refused military service en masse in 1895. However, there are relatively few accounts of members of other “Spiritual Christian” faiths who, inspired by Tolstoy and the example of the Doukhobors, similarly refused to bear arms in the name of Christ’s teachings. One of the most eloquent and informative of these are the letters of the peasant Petr Vasilyevich Olkhovik, which contain a first-person account of his rejection of military service and subsequent arrest, imprisonment and exile by Tsarist authorities.  His fate, as well as that of his companion, Kirill Alexeyevich Sereda, would be inextricably linked to that of the Doukhobors. His letters were originally published in 1897 by the Tolstoyan Vladimir Grigoryevich Chertkov as “Pis’ma Petra Vasilyevicha Olkhovika, Krest’yanina Kharkovskoy Gubernii, Otkazavashchagosya ot’ Voinskoi Povinnosti v 1895 Gody” (London: Tchertkoff, 1897).  One hundred and ten years later, this rare historic manuscript is made available for the first time in English translation in this Doukhobor Genealogy Website exclusive.  Translated from the original Russian by Jack McIntosh.  Foreword and Afterword by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.


The author of the “Letters”, Petr Vasilyevich Olkhovik, was born on 20 January, 1874 in the village of Rechki in the Sumy district of Kharkov province to an Orthodox peasant family. During his youth, Petr received three years of education at the village school and acquired the ability to read and write. As a young man, he was a voracious reader and inquisitive mind who devoted himself to the study of the Bible and other religious works.

At the age of seventeen, Olkhovik underwent a profound spiritual crisis which led him to question the basis of his faith. Delving deep into the Gospels, he observed around him that “the Orthodox had departed from the teachings of Christ”. At this time, he and his brothers Ivan and Ignat came into contact with Tolstoyans who preached and taught Spiritual Christianity, pacifism and non-resistance. Principal among these was Prince Dmitry Alexandrovich Khilkov from the nearby village of Pavlovka who, influenced by the Doukhobors, distributed his estate among his peasants and began to work the land as one of them. Another was Mitrofan Semenovich Dudchenko, a young landowner who left university in Sumy and returned to the peasantry. Under their influence, the Olkhovik family returned their icons to the village priest, stopped attending church, and devoted themselves to good works and the study of the Bible.

In October 1895, at the age of twenty-one, Olkhovik received his call-up for conscript service in the Russian army. It is here that the narrative in the “Letters” begins. Inspired by Tolstoyan literature and the recent example of the Doukhobors who, six months earlier, had rejected military service in the Caucasus en masse, he refused. For this he was arrested and incarcerated at Sumy, Kharkov and Odessa for four months. In February 1896, he was dispatched by steamship to Vladivostok in the Russian Far East, a distance of over 9,000 versts (an Imperial Russian measure of distance equal to 1.06 kilometres). During the voyage he met Kirill Alexeyevich Sereda, a recruit in his regiment who was destined to share his fate over the ensuing decade.

Sereda was a twenty-one year old Orthodox peasant from Maksimovshchinovka, a village neighbouring Rechki. Previously illiterate, he had learned to read and write in the recruiting barracks. Reading the Bible for the first time aboard the ship, he came to the realization that Olkhovik’s pacifist stand was fully in accordance with the Gospels. This revelation “lit a fire in his mind’. He accepted “the faith of Christ” and following his new friend’s example, refused to serve. He was arrested and detained aboard the ship.

In April 1896, Olkhovik and Sereda disembarked at Vladivostok where they were placed in lockup. In July, they were tried in a brigade court for “deliberate insubordination” and sentenced to three years in a disciplinary battalion in Irkutsk. They were transported there in shackles in a prison convoy. The 4,000-verst journey by river steamer, wagon and on foot took them seven months to complete.

On their arrival in Irkutsk in March 1897, Olkhovik and Sereda were taken to the disciplinary battalion where they once again refused to serve. They were subsequently placed in solitary confinement, and shortly thereafter transferred to a civilian prison. It is here that the narrative in the “Letters” abruptly ends.

Original cover sheet of the “Letters of Petr Vasilyevich Olkhovik” published in Russian in London, England in 1897 by Vladimir Grigoryevich Chertkov.

The gripping story of Olkhovik and Sereda’s rejection of military service was originally relayed through a series of letters from Olkhovik to his family and friends during the period October 1895 to April 1897. If his correspondence continued – and there is evidence to suggest that he wrote Tolstoy and others subsequent to this period – no further letters have apparently been preserved, or else they lie forgotten.

Olkhovik had no pretensions to be a professional writer, still less a scholar. Yet in the “Letters”, the largely self-educated peasant displays considerable literary gifts, a poetic sensitivity and a power to put himself inside the characters whose views he is setting forth. Witness, for instance, the sympathetic rendering of the escape and recapture of the convict Volov from the prison convoy. Olkhovik’s clarity of style is evident throughout as he carries the reader along with his highly detailed, rapidly moving narration. His “Letters” are history intermixed with autobiography, with an emphasis centred on events and personalities directly encountered by the writer. They also present, with simple eloquence and touching integrity, Olkhovik’s “world view” and understanding of true Christian teachings. Armed with this powerful faith, he is able to maintain his physical, mental and spiritual equilibrium and remain unshakable in his commitment to the eternal truths of life as he sees them, despite unrelenting hardship and oppression.

Olkhovik wrote the “Letters” at a critical juncture in the history of conscientious objection in Tsarist Russia. Since the imposition of conscription in Russia in 1874, only Mennonites were exempt from military service. Other conscientious objectors faced a variety of punitive measures. In the eyes of Tsarist authorities, conscientious objectors were guilty of dual crimes: violation of civic duty as well as military duty. It was feared, too, that the contagion might spread. Thus the surge of pacifist sectarianism among Doukhobors, Stundists and other Christian groups in the 1880’s and 1890’s, fanned by the writings of Tolstoy and agitation by Tolstoyans, was met with particular hostility and alarm by the Russian state. Against this backdrop, Olkhovik’s narrative of his arrest, interrogation and imprisonment provides a candid and revealing account, not only of the lot of military conscripts who objected on grounds of conscience, but also of the means by which such pacifist views were introduced and disseminated among fellow soldiers.

The “Letters” were collected and published in Russian by the Tolstoyan Vladimir Grigoryevich Chertkov in London, England in mid-1897 for anti-military propaganda purposes. The pamphlet achieved significant notoriety and was widely circulated among Russian pacifists and religious dissenters, inspiring at least three potential army desertions in Kars province in 1900. In the years following the Russian Revolution, however, interest and circulation waned and the “Letters” were eventually forgotten.

One hundred and ten years later, this publication makes the “Letters” available for the first time in English translation. The translation is made from a copy of the original Russian pamphlet at the Leeds University Library in London, England, one of few extant copies. The Russian is translated with only minor changes. Wherever possible a literal translation has been retained, except where the original sense has required the addition of words or rewording.


1895. On the 15th day of October, I was summoned to the city of Belopole (Kharkov Province, Sumy District) to perform my military service. When my turn came to draw lots, I refused and said that I would not do it. The officials all looked at me, then talked among themselves and asked me why I would not draw lots. I replied that this was because I will not swear an oath or take up arms. They said that this matter would be taken up later, but that I would have to draw lots. Again I refused. Then they ordered the starosta (prefect) to do it. He drew number 674. They wrote it down.

The secretary glanced at me and said: “Get going” But another man shouted “Stop, don’t move, why are you leaving?” I turned and said “Look here, they ordered me to go, so I am leaving.” But the official who had called me back shouted “Be quiet, there’s nothing to discuss. It’s not priests you’re dealing with. Here we’ll appeal to your conscience like priests do at your home. If that doesn’t work, we’ll get through to you here so that you’ll remember it forever. We’ll give it to you so that you won’t return home for ten years.” Then they led me off to one side: they wrote something down and said: “Get out”.

I left the office, walked to my quarters and stayed there another two days until it was my turn to go to the reception point. I was thinking that if I don’t go, they’ll force me to – they’ll strip me, they’ll get mad, and it will be worse. When they measured my height, they praised my good build and enrolled me in the guards. The officer in charge walked over to where they were doing the sign-up and said “See here, if that’s the case, we’ll hand him over without a test.”

They began to call across and line everybody up in rows, but they stood me by myself. The officer in charge came out and ordered us to be led into the church. They again lined us up, with me in front. The priest came in holding a sheet of paper on which the oath was written. He ordered us to raise our hands. Everyone raised them, but I did not. The officer in charge came up to me and said “You have to raise your hand.” I refused. He said “You have to take the oath.” I also refused to do that. He threatened me with Siberia, but I said that it would be better to go to Siberia, and I would go, but I will not take an oath. He tore up my release ticket, and ordered that I be returned to the office.

That evening they ordered me to go home. I set out, and walked into my quarters, but because the starosta there was afraid that I would run away somewhere, he arrested me and took me to Rechki (the sloboda), and then through several volosts to the officer in charge at Sumy.



They took me to Sumy on October 21. When they led me into the office to the military commander, there were some young fellows there. They asked: “Why are you here?” The police commissioner handed over a packet. One of them took it, read it over, and then said: “Wait, he’ll be here soon.” Then he turns to me and said “Well then, you would not take the oath?” “Yes,” I said, “I didn’t take the oath.” Another came over: “So you didn’t take the oath? It’s going to be bad for you,” he says, “they’ll torture you.” I said “I know myself it will be bad.” “What, then, aren’t you afraid?” I said “I’m not terrified of death of the flesh.”

The chief clerk came in. They told him: “Here’s the one who would not take the oath.” He said, “Such a fool – he’s done for.” Then he came up to me and said: “How can anyone not take an oath? It’s a matter of law, isn’t it? One must not break the law.” To this I made no reply. He left.

The officer in charge came in, summoned me into the office and asked: “Who taught you all this, that you do not wish to take the oath?” I replied: “I learned myself by reading the Gospel.” He says: “ I don’t think you came to understood the Gospel this way by yourself. Everything there is unintelligible, is that not so? You’d need to study a lot to understand it.” To this I said that Christ did not teach difficult wisdom, for the simplest illiterate people understood his teaching. “And since when have you begun to understand the Gospel?” I said: “Since I began to read – I was still in school when I stopped cursing.” He asked: “And of what faith are you?” I said: “Of the faith of Christ”. He said: “But I am also of the Christian faith, and I don’t do such a thing.” I kept silent. Then he asked: “And what creed do you follow?” I said: “Christian.” He asked: “Orthodox?” I answered: “No, not Orthodox.” “But why on earth are you not Orthodox?” “Because I do not recognize Orthodox rituals.” Again he says: “But what kind of Christian are you if you’re not Orthodox?” I said: “A Christian of the faith of Christ.”

At this point the chief clerk stood up. He turned to me and said “To utter an oath is a sin when it is untruthful.” But I answered that truth is good even without an oath. The officer in charge gave him a look and said: “No, that’s not the point.” Then he turned to me and said: “You must have been taught this by Prince Khilkov?” I said that I have never seen Prince Khilkov, but I know where he lived, and I did not learn from him. He asked: “Did he live far away from you?” I said: “About twelve versts.” He said again: “Be that as it may, surely somebody led you to this. You would not have thought this up by yourself.” I said: “By reading the Gospel we learned all this by ourselves.” He again asked: “So this means you will not take the oath?” I said that I wouldn’t.

Then he ordered a soldier to take me to the detachment. I went with him into the kitchen where another soldier was eating. I asked for something to eat. He said: “Be our guest.” He poured some more borshch, and then kasha. We ate. After the meal they began to ask me why I had not taken the oath. I said: “Because it says in the Gospel: do not swear at all.” They were surprised, and asked: “Is that really in the Gospel? Well, find it, then.” I found it, read it out, and they listened. “Although it is there, nevertheless it’s impossible not to take the oath, for they’ll torture you.” To this I replied: “Whoever loses his earthly life will inherit everlasting life, but whoever saves his earthly life will lose everlasting life.”

They looked at me and said: “Look what we have here, a peasant, a ‘Uke’, but what a clever one. Everything you say is right, but you’ll have to take the oath or they’ll kill you or torture you. We’re sorry for you. You’re a good lad.” “This way,” they went on, “you won’t leave anything good behind if you don’t swear, but if you do, you’ll be doing a better thing: you’ll serve out your time, go home and live again as you did before.”

From there a soldier took me to the barracks. Here I also met young soldiers. Here again they began to question me about my refusal. I told them everything as it was. They have begun to sympathize with me but nevertheless tell me: “We advise you against this, because they will torture you. Take the oath; you’ve got the brains to become an officer right away.” But I told them that to be an officer would be sinful, because Christ said: “The greatest of you will be least of all, let the master be as a servant.” If I were to become an officer, it would be necessary to use violence against people, but any violence against people is a sin.

At this point two people were listening very closely when I was reading or speaking, and when others began to object, they said that I was telling the sacred truth. This is how they put it: if one is to obey human laws, one has to reject God’s laws, and if one fulfills the law of God, it is necessary to reject human laws. They told me often: “See here, Petr, don’t yield, don’t be timid, let them send you even to the firing squad. Don’t be afraid, withstand everything. It is a great thing you have conceived.” I answer them: “Yes, one has to suffer all for the teaching of Christ, all kinds of persecution, deprivation and suffering and even death itself.” And many, many conversations take place here, and everybody is sympathizing with me and telling me: “I’m sorry for you, Petr, they’ll torture you – you’re a good fellow.”

I am thinking that the Kingdom of God on earth is at hand, because people are clearly changing. It is good for me here. In the morning we are given tea, at lunch time borshch and kasha, and kander in the evening. I sleep in a soft warm bed. I am in good spirits and am healthy in body.



In the brigade they have assigned me to the Amur. On November 17 the order came to the Sumy officer in charge that I be dispatched to Kharkov to the 122nd Tambov Regiment, at the disposal of the commander of the regiment. And so at 12 noon on the 18th a soldier bearing a cavalry sword sat down next to me in a passenger train, and we arrived at eight o’clock that evening in Kharkov. We spent a long time looking for the headquarters of that regiment and finally found it. First we went into the office, signed in there and were sent to our quarters. There were no beds, so I slept on the bare floor.

The next day, i.e. today, they assigned me to the third company of the Tambov Regiment. Here I will remain until spring, and then will be transported to the Amur. At the time of the breaking up into groups twenty men from Sumy uezd (district) were designated for the Amur. They too will stay here until spring, because it is impossible to travel there in winter. Kharkov is like being in chaos or in a forest where you cannot glimpse even one small ray of light…..

I implore you, my dear ones, love one another as well as you can. Love can conquer all. With that I say farewell to you with embraces and kisses. Pass on my heartfelt greetings to all my friends.


November 26, 1895.

At present I am in Kharkov sitting in the guardhouse of the 122nd Tambov Infantry Regiment. The reason for this is as follows: on the 20th I was lined up with other young soldiers and they went over soldiers’ regulations for us. I told them that I was not going to do any of this. They asked “Why not?” I said: “As a Christian, I will not bear arms and defend myself against enemies, because Christ commanded us to love even our enemies.” The non-commissioned officer said: “Fine, I’ll inform the company commander.”

On November 22nd the company commander arrived with the half-company commander. They summoned me to the company office, which was in the same barracks building. When I went in, the company commander asked: “Who is this?” The sergeant major who was standing right there said: “This is a Stundist, one who doesn’t want to serve.” He turned to me with a shout and asked: “You! Why don’t you want to serve?” I said: “Because I will not carry weapons, that’s why I won’t take part.” “And why won’t you carry weapons?” I said: “I won’t carry weapons because I am a Christian, and according to Christ’s teaching one must love even one’s enemies, and not fight them, that’s why I have no need of them.” Again he said: “Are you really the only Christian, then? We’re all Christians here, you know, but we’re not doing this.” I said: “As to others, I know nothing. For myself, I know only that Christ said to do as I am doing.” He said again: “If you don’t take part, I will leave you to rot on wooden slats.” To this I said: “Do what you like with me, but I will not serve.”

He turned to the half-company commander: “What shall we do with him?” That man said: “He needs to be taken to a priest. Let him lead him to Orthodoxy; otherwise you’ll not be able to do anything with him.” After this the company commander ordered: “March.” As I started out, he said to the sergeant major: “There’s a better way to deal with him – whip him like a dog, then he’ll co-operate.” In about three minutes the soldiers again summoned me to the company commander. I came. He asked: “Can you read and write?” “See to it,” he says, “that you co-operate with me.” I said that I will not co-operate. He again said: “March.” I went out.

I had only just sat down, when they went out from the office into the barracks and again for the third time summoned me. They asked my father’s name, his first name and surname. I told them. They wrote it down. The company commander again turned to me with the words: “If you do not co-operate, I’m going to have you whipped with thorny rods.” I said: “It’s in your power, do as you like with me, but I will not serve.” Then the lance corporal said: “Follow me.”

I followed him to the other end of the barracks; then he said “Halt”. When I stopped and glanced back, I noticed that behind me they were leading another soldier; they stood him near me and ordered me to place my feet together. I said: “For me it is more comfortable to stand this way.” The non-commissioned officer grabbed me by the shoulders and began to shove at my legs with his and told me “Place your feet in this position, with heels together and toes apart.” But I didn’t do as I was ordered and said: “Do what you like with me, but I won’t cooperate.” The company commander and half-company commander were standing there and watched as the non-commissioned officer shoved me. I turned to them and said: “So this is how Christians behave, wanting to use force to make somebody do something.” The company commander said: “Go f— your mother – I’ll use whips to make you come around.” With these words he went into the office.

After all this, the half-company commander asked me: “Why then did you not say this before, back in your own district?” I said that I had said all of this both at the reception point and in the presence of the military superior officer in Sumy. He asked: “So what did they tell you?” I said: “At the reception point they told me ‘We’re sending you’, and the colonel didn’t say anything, but sent me to the brigade, where he received the reply that I should be sent here.”

At that they left the barracks. That evening the non-commissioned officer took me to the regiment’s priest. The priest declared me incorrigible. The priest asked to what creed I belonged. I said: “Christian.” He asked: “Russian Orthodox?” I said: “No, not Orthodox.” Then he asked: “But what faith, then?” I said: “Christian, of the faith of Christ.” He said: “But there is no such faith. There are many Christians, and all of them have a name: Orthodox, or Lutheran, or Catholic; there are Christian Doukhobors, Molokans, and many others. Look here, tell us what religion you profess?” I said: “I don’t recognize any religion apart from the teaching of Christ.” He continued to question me: “But on what do you base your faith?” I said: “On the love of the Heavenly Father.” Then he said: “In Russia there are two sects which do not wish to serve; one came out of the German lands, and the other is Russian: that is, Tolstoyism. So there it is, tell us: to which of these you belong?” I said: “I am not a sectarian, but a Christian, so I cannot belong to a sect.” After all these conversations, the officer wrote down that I do not accept any part of Orthodoxy.

From the priest he took me to the guardhouse, where even now I am under arrest. The cell is spacious, bright and warm, a lamp burns all night, the door is locked, and a soldier is standing with a rifle and every five minutes looks through a hole cut in the door. Two soldiers with rifles take me out for air morning and evening. For meals they are giving me borshch and kasha, and at dinnertime, soup.

Here I shall remain to await the orders of the regimental commander. They’ll probably condemn and punish me, but that doesn’t bother me a bit. The Apostle Peter talks about this: “And who is he that will harm you, if ye be followers of that which is good? But and if you suffer for righteousness’ sake, happy are ye.” (1 Peter 3:13-14) “If ye be reproached for the name of Christ, happy are ye, for the spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you: on their part he is evil spoken of, but on your part he is glorified. But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evil-doer, or as a busybody in other men’s matters. Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf” (1 Peter 4:14-16.)

Every day officers are coming to my cell asking: “Why were you arrested?” I answer them: “I wish to fulfill Christ’s commandment to love one’s enemies.”
They ask: “Where are you from and of which class of society?” To all this I answered depending on who is asking.

With that I say farewell, I am still alive and well. My spirits are good. My letters will all be read by some officer as soon as I have written them. It’s impossible to write without the command knowing about it.


Kharkov. December 5, 1896.

On December 1 the same priest and officer came to me in my cell again. Once more they asked me what sect I belong to. I asked them why they needed to know this. They said: “We have to report on you to the higher-ups, that’s why.” I said: “Then write this, that I am a Christian.” At that they departed.

Officers are often coming to my cell asking where I am from, what social class I belong to, and why I was imprisoned. I do not know how long I’ll be kept here; they’ve locked me up me awaiting further orders.


Odessa. February 11, 1896.

Now I find myself in the city of Odessa. We left [Kharkov] on February 7th, and arrived here February 9th. Today a commission looked us over to see who is fit to travel by sea to the Amur. They examined me and declared me fit.

The general says to the officers: “What kind of ideas has this milksop picked up, that he has been refusing to serve? Millions are doing their stint, and he alone is shirking? Give him a good hiding with thorny rods – then he’ll give up his scruples!” But then the colonel said: “First we need to take into consideration his gentleness and his conduct, and then his convictions will also be evident; he will not be able to change what he believes in.” Then the general asked where I had studied and whether I had read a lot. I said: “I studied in the village school, and read whatever I could.” They asked what sect I belong to. I said: “I am a Christian, and do not belong to any sect.” The general kept on barking and did not want to agree with the colonel. The doctors also spoke to me: “Let’s travel to the Amur; it’s a fine place to serve.” “It is fine everywhere,” I said.

For such a long time they twisted me about at the time of the hearing and threatened to whip me on the steamboat, to which I consented. I am setting out in my own clothing, but they’ll be presenting me with government issue before we get there. Already on February 1st they took 1200 men by sea. They say that thousands more will be gathered up. Soldiers are often questioning me about my refusal to serve and many have got to know me.

I am traveling without military escort and without even any supervision. We traveled past Poltava; if I had known that we would be passing through, I would

have written to my friends so that we could have seen one another at the station. I have not been receiving letters from anybody. Only I. S. has written, but the higher-ups would not give me his letters.

On February 8th, when they led me from the guardhouse to the squad, they took me to a bathhouse. The sergeant major asked if I were heading for the Amur. I said: “Let them take me wherever they like.”

I don’t believe there are going to be harsh punitive measures, and even if there are, it doesn’t much matter to me. When I arrive at the place I will write immediately. I will have to travel by water for a month and a half if the weather is good; if it is bad, it will take longer.

Farewell; abide with God; love one another. Remember the words of the Apostle Paul: “But if any provide not for his own, and especially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.” I heartily embrace and kiss you all. Although I am separated from you in body, in spirit I am always with you. Pass on my deep bow to all my friends and acquaintances.


Letter concerning Petr Vasilyevich Olkhovik from one of his friends.

Poltava, February 14, 1896.

I have just returned from Kharkov, where I went for the purpose of visiting Petya and finding out about his situation. However, I was not able to see him; two days before my arrival he had been dispatched to Odessa and then to the Amur along with 220 new recruits. They dispatched him from here without any definite decision on his case – simply to get him out of sight as far away as possible. But I was so anxious to get to see him, and so confident that I would succeed. More’s the pity that during his entire stay in the guardhouse Petya not only did not see any of his friends, but did not even receive any letters, as the authorities intercepted them. Somebody tried to get through to him before me, but unsuccessfully.

The soldiers at the guardhouse, the sergeant major and the senior officers all had good things to say about him. The best thing was that somehow he succeeded in not provoking either the soldiers or the officers, and knew how to combine within himself steadfastness and mildness. The soldiers’ attitude towards him is highly sympathetic, and even the officers are amazed at his fortitude.

A week before his departure they tried once more to compel him to train, but without success. He emphatically declared to the commander that he “was not about to change his words” and added: “You mind your business, and I shall mind mine.” In the guardhouse, according to the soldiers, he was always courageous and in good spirits. However, being constantly under lock and key, he changed in appearance: his youthful rosy complexion had become yellowish. Just before his departure, the sergeant major related, he had become melancholy.

They still wanted to issue him with military gear: greatcoat, cloth, linen, boots and money, but he refused all this, as he did not consider himself a soldier, preferring to remain in his smock. His brother and I are now on the way to Odessa, where Petya will be staying until February 24th. God willing, we will see him. I feel that will be good both for him and for me. From Odessa he will be dispatched to Vladivostok and on to Khabarovsk, where he will be completely at the disposition of the Governor-General of the Amur region and the military command. In a word, he is still in the same uncertain predicament.

M. D. [probably Mitrofan Dudchenko, a fellow Stundist-Tolstoyan residing in Poltava]


Letter from P. V. Olkhovik to his brother at home

April 7, 1896. Received June 26, 1896.
En route to Vladivostok.

Dear brother!

Your visit cheered me up greatly. The thought then came to me: “I may be persecuted, but I have not been abandoned; there are people who have begun to think about me and sympathize with me.” On the ship I found within myself new spiritual strength. Here I found a person of like mind with whom I share what is dear and sacred for me. It will be another four days before we arrive at Vladivostok. We are now approaching the city of Nagasaki. From Nagasaki the steamship “Orel” (Eagle) goes to Odessa. It will carry this letter to Odessa. The sea has not been very rough, but nevertheless many have not been eating for three days, and many have been throwing up. However, I have felt sick all this time. Once you have read about what happened on the ship, please send this on to Rechki. I think they will be very interested.

On April 1 a soldier came from the third deck to the second to see me – he is a native of Kiev and can read and write. First he asked me: “may I ask you something?” “About what, exactly?” I said. “Just this,” he replied, “You are refusing to serve and do not acknowledge yourself to be Orthodox – we,” said he, “have been fasting, but you haven’t?” He continued to ask questions, and I answered. The conversation went on for a long time.

Our conversation was joined by Kirill Sereda. He opened the Gospels and began to read the 5th chapter of Matthew. When he had finished reading, he said: “Look here, Christ forbade taking oaths, courts, and war, but we do all this and it is considered legitimate.” Standing there, crowded together in a bunch, the soldiers noticed that Sereda was not wearing a cross around his neck. They asked him “Where is your cross?” “In my suitcase,” he replied. Again they asked: “But why are you not wearing it around your neck?” He said: “Because I love Christ, and so cannot wear the instrument on which Christ was crucified.”

At that point two lance corporals came in and began to speak to Sereda: “Why is it that not long ago you were fasting, but now have thrown off your cross?”  He answered thus: “Because I was ignorant then, I hadn’t seen the light, but now I have begun to read the Gospel and have discovered that all of that is unnecessary to live a Christian life.” Again they pressed him: “So you, like Olkhovik, will not be serving?” He told them that he would not. They asked him: “Why?”. He said: “Because I am a Christian, and Christians must not arm themselves against other people.”

When the duty officer found out about this, he entered the hold and began to shout: “Where is this one who says there is no God and authority in the world?” All were silent. He turned to me and said: “Is it you who is spreading this propaganda?” I said that I had said nothing to the effect that there is no God or authority in the world. He asked: “Who else is here?” They pointed out Sereda for him. He began to shout, using oaths: “Son of a bitch, fool, such a wise guy – he’s learned so much that he can’t wear a cross and doesn’t recognize authority? I’m going to inform the company commander. He’ll put you in irons, you fool.” To this Sereda answered: “Your telling the commander does not inhibit me, because I am making no secret of this, but doing it openly, and even if you do not tell, he will find out himself. I am willing to be placed in irons for the sake of Christ’s teaching.”

The duty officer left the hold and went to inform the sergeant-major. The sergeant-major summoned Sereda and asked: “So is it you, Sereda, who rejects the cross?” He said: “It is.” The sergeant-major again asked: “So how do you look upon it?” “As an instrument of torture and execution,” he replied. Then the lance-corporal who was standing right there asked Sereda, pointing to the sergeant-major: “And who is that?” “A person,” he replied. Then the lance-corporal said: “but what is he in military terms?” “I do not recognize military discipline,” said Sereda. “Why not?” they asked. He said, “Because it has nothing in common with Christ’s teaching.” Then the sergeant-major began cursing and started speaking: “So you don’t recognize the authorities?” “That authority is from God who is servant to all,” he responded.

Thereupon the sergeant-major ordered the man on duty to take Sereda up and put him on the spar deck (near the funnel), which he did. And the soldiers pointed at him and laughed at him. He stood there about two hours, and then they let him go and immediately began to demand obedience. For the second time the sergeant-major interrogated him, this time quietly, drinking tea.

The next day the sergeant-major came to us in the hold. We were lying together. When he entered, he said: “You’re both together?” He said nothing to me, but had a long conversation with Sereda and advised him not to read the Gospels, but some other books instead. After this one of the sailors came to Sereda and said: “They say you have some kind of book?” He answered, “there is a Bible” (he had bought a Bible when they were still in Port Said and had been reading it all the time.) The sailor asked if could read some of it. Sereda brought it onto the deck, they sat down and the sailor began reading.

When he had read a little, he said: “It’s a good book.” Then he looked around and said: “But it has not been passed by the censor, right?” Then he began to advise Sereda to burn the Bible or throw it overboard; otherwise, he said, “they’ll take it away from you and you may end up on trial.” Sereda said that he would not burn it or throw it away, and if they take it away, let them – it will just be a ruble lost.

At that time I was sitting with one soldier teaching him to read. A sailor with a Bible came up to me and began to speak: “I’ve come to ask you – here in Russia, you see, our whole system is so well organized and it is accepted that people ought to believe and understand Christ’s teachings correctly. So then, do you acknowledge all this or not?” To this I replied: “I know nothing about the system, whether it is good or bad, and so I can neither reject it or support it, but as to the correct understanding of Christ’s teachings, I know that if people believe in Him, they ought not arm themselves against other people and repay evil for evil.”

Then another sailor and the sergeant-major began to tell me that there are many learned people who have not come up with this idea. I replied to them that when Christ walked and talked, it was the simplest illiterate people who understood His teachings, while the scholars hated and persecuted Him. Furthermore, I told them about Paul’s teaching that “God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty.” And I told them a lot more from the Gospels. They were most interested and said: “Well, it’s obvious that he is using his head – his convictions won’t be changed by any punishment, but Sereda is another matter; if we give him a flogging, he’ll give all this up.”

Then they ordered Sereda to another deck, telling him not to read the Gospels, but instead some other holy books; otherwise, they said, “Olkhovik will be teaching you, you’ll be reading the Gospels and it will seem to you that that’s the way it should be.” He replied that one must not listen to others, but think things over well on one’s own. Then the sergeant-major took the Bible away to the company commander and told him that Sereda had thrown away the cross and refused to recognize anything.

Late that evening the company commander and the sergeant-major entered the hold and summoned Sereda. The company commander began shouting at him: “You idiot, what’s all this about, that you don’t recognize authority?” He replied: “Why do you say no authority? The authorities exist, but shouldn’t among true Christians.” The company commander: “Place your feet together.” He did so. “I’ll put you in irons for this.” “Do what you like,” he replied. The commander again spoke: “Don’t you know that you will be put on trial for this?” Sereda answered: “It makes no difference to me, send me where you like.”
The company commander began to hit him about the face with a book, tearing it; then he turned to the sergeant-major: “Make this fool stand all night; I’m going to hold this idiot in a stinking place until we arrive at our destination.” The sergeant-major stood, saluted, and repeated: “I obey, your Honour.” As he went out, the company commander said: “Instead of being a fine and honourable soldier, he’s going to become some kind of prisoner.” To me they had nothing to say.

They stood Sereda up above by the funnel. Three times the priest came there to see him. The first time he said: “Is it true that you do not want to recognize the authorities?” To this, he began to answer this way: “You see, in the Gospels it says ‘earthly kings exercise lordship over the nations; and they that exercise authority upon them are called benefactors. But among ye my disciples, may it not be so: but he that wishes to be great, let him be as the younger, and he that is chief, as he that doth serve’.” Hardly had Sereda finished speaking, when suddenly the priest began to threaten him: “Who do you think you’re addressing? Shut up!” He fell silent and would not answer any questions. The priest shouted, shouted some more, then left.

When he came a second time, he began to ask quietly: “And who taught you this? Where did you gather such wisdom?” He answered: “Nobody taught me. I began to read the Gospels and from it I discovered that to live a Christian life one must not do that.” The priest again began to speak, saying: “If we didn’t arm ourselves, we would have nothing; other countries would come and begin to attack and rob us, leaving us nothing.” To this he replied: “Christians should put up with everything, because Christ said: ‘love your enemies, bless those who curse you and pray for those who insult you and persecute you’.”

Again the priest went away for a short walk, then came again and began speaking: “repent and nothing will happen to you, but if you don’t repent, it will be bad for you.” Sereda replied: “For the sake of Christ’s teachings I am ready for anything; indeed Christ Himself said: ‘believers in me will be persecuted’.” The priest said: “That was said about unbelievers, that they would persecute Christians, but we ourselves are Christians.” Sereda replied: “Christians should not persecute one another.” The priest had a lot more to say and then left.

Then the sailors and the sergeant-major approached and again spoke up: “Repent, nothing will happen to you, but if you don’t, it will be three times as bad for you as for Olkhovik, because you have already taken the oath and served, even if only for a little while.” He replied: “As to punishment there is nothing to think about, if one is doing the will of God.” And they had much more to say.

Then the company commander ordered that he be released: the sergeant-major arrived and said: “Go on, get some sleep,” took his arm and led him below. When they had gone down onto the deck, the sergeant-major began to embrace Sereda: “Come on,” he said, “let’s have a go.” Sereda said: “Why fight?” He replied: “Like brothers.” Sereda again objected: “Really, like brothers?” With that he went to have a sleep.

On the third day the sergeant-major again pressed Sereda and everybody tried to persuade him, but he stood his ground. After all this the priest summoned me. At first he asked me what province I came from. I told him. Then he asked: “What faith do you profess?” I said: “The faith of Christ.” He said: “Orthodox?” “No,” I told him. “Why are you spreading your own teachings here?” he asked. I replied: “I have no teachings of my own.” He said: “So how is it that you are teaching others that there are no teachers when you yourself are giving instruction? And if has been said that people should not call themselves teachers, in that case don’t teach anybody – but you have already been teaching one person – and he’s going out of his mind.” “I do not take it upon myself to be a teacher,” I said. Then, as he departed, said: “You’ll get it three times worse for this.” “It makes no difference to me,” I replied.


Vladivostok, July 8, 1896.

My dear parents!

I have already written to you of my fate, which has tossed me far away from you, but the fate that has befallen me is not allowing me to remain even here, and so is moving me to another place. Because on July 1 the brigade court tried me and sentenced me to three years in a disciplinary battalion, with transfer to the penal category, they are sending me from here to Irkutsk, where the penal battalion is located. Along with me, they also gave the same sentence to Kirill Sereda.

We are still in the guardhouse – we have no idea when they will send us. The journey will be a long one – about three months. It will be necessary to go by land vehicle, water and a long way on foot. For over a month they have taken us out for walks – for two hours every day. During our walks they have forbidden us to talk.

They did not sentence us for refusing military service, but for deliberate insubordination. To the question from the presiding officer: “Do you plead guilty to disobedience to a superior?” I answered: “It depends – what about?” He said: “In the matter of your superior’s order for you to turn from the ranks.” To this I replied: “I do not plead guilty to this, as I was not able to do this, because I had not studied this, moreover I will not learn this, because according to Christ’s teachings one should not study warfare.” Sereda said that he was guilty in the eyes of military law, but not guilty in the eyes of Christ.

Twice the officer made inquiries of us. He asked me about the following matters: can I read and write well, where did I study, since when had I fallen away from Orthodoxy and begun to live according to the Gospels; had I had occasion to speak with someone about my religious views, what had I said as I was on the way to the reception point and at that place, had I taken the oath, and had anyone supported me in my convictions? However, most of all he asked what I had said to Sereda when we were on the steamship. All of this I told him.

He went on to ask me whether I was acquainted with Tolstoy. I said that I was not. He asked: “But does he know about you?” “Maybe he does,” I said. Then he asked: “How could he have found out about you?” I said that it could be through friends. Then he said: “It seems he has asked an officer who is in correspondence with him to make efforts on your behalf to find out whether arrangements could be made to assign you somewhere in a noncombatant capacity. And this,” he went on, “could have been arranged if you had conducted yourself differently.” Sereda was also asked what we had talked about on the ship, had we been acquainted for a long time, do we live far from one another, and he was asked about my behaviour.

Ignat [Peter Olkhovik’s brother]: tell Trofim about Kirill; he would have written, but he cannot: he is sitting alone in a cell. On the steamship he was always reading the New Testament and he told me: “I am reading and I cannot get enough of reading, because it gives me much joy and peace – it was not for nothing that Christ said: ‘Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’ With God’s help I too will some day come to Him. He will give me rest also.” Looking at his decisiveness and steadfastness, I have never felt happier and more cheerful.

Did you receive the registered letter I wrote in May? Let me know – did you receive what I wrote from Kharkov and Odessa? Write to me about the present conditions of your life: how you are feeling, and what is new and pleasing with you. But don’t write just now until I let you know when I am settled. They are not letting us read – while under arrest we haven’t read anything

Farewell – I remain alive and healthy, which is what I wish for you. My spirits are always good. I send you hearty greetings.

Loving you, your Peter.
I wish you love and peace.
Pass on my bow to all my friends and acquaintances.

Petr Olkhovik (standing, second from right) in Yakutsk, Siberia with members of his in-laws, the Andryanchenko family, c. 1901.  His wife Agafia is standing second from left.


From Official Documents

Brigade court of the 1st East Siberian Artillery Brigade re: the young soldiers Petr Olkhovik and Kirill Sereda.

The grounds for commencing the case was the report of the 1st Martyrs Battery, which stated: “The young soldiers Petr Olkhovik and Kirill Sereda, natives of Kharkov Guberniya, Sumy Uezd, who arrived on April 15th within a group dispatched to bring the Battery entrusted to me up to strength, while among the rest of the young soldiers lined up in formation, ignored the orders of the men in charge of training recruits, Captain P. and Second Lieutenant T., to stand in line and obey commands. When the same demands were confirmed to them by myself, Sereda, albeit most unenthusiastically and carelessly, did nevertheless carry out the orders. But Olkhovik announced that under no circumstances would he stand in the ranks, and that the kind of duties that they were ordering he would not carry out, basing his refusal on the text of the Bible and the Gospels. Upon questioning it turned out that Olkhovik had not yet taken the oath, whereas Sereda had done so on the steamship. Finding the presence of Olkhovik and Sereda among the rest of the lower ranks of the Battery extremely harmful, I, along with the above-named officers, placed them under preliminary arrest in the Brigade Guardhouse until further notice from Your Excellency.” (Report dated 17 April 1896.) The report is signed by the Commander of the Battery, Second Lieutenant D.

On the basis of this report, an investigation was carried out. (There follows here a statement of the investigation, the content of which is a repetition of the above.) “In this matter the recruits named based their refusal on the text of the Bible and the Gospels, in which, according to them, it is forbidden to anyone to teach, apart from J. Christ, or to use weapons against one’s neighbours …. Meanwhile, I referred them to the local Rural Dean, asking him to turn them by persuasion to the true path, which was attempted by Orthodox Priest M., but without success.” Captain P. of the 1st Martyrs Battery testified: “On the second day after the arrival at the Battery of the recruits, I was ordered to stand them in single file so as to determine their training level. At the command: “right turn”, two young soldiers, Olkhovik and Sereda, would not turn, saying that they do not wish to be instructed in soldiering. Olkhovik added that for this he had already spent 2 1/2 months in a cell. Approaching Sereda, I ordered him to turn. He turned, but said: “I still will not accept training.” However, Olkhovik would not obey even my personal commands. All of this was reported by me to the Commander of the Battery.” The investigation was carried out by Second Lieutenant P.

On the basis of the above investigation, the whole file on the young soldiers Olkhovik and Sereda was sent to the Military Investigator for the Nikol’skoe sector to carry out an investigation with respect to these lower ranks being charged with violation by them of Article 196 of the Code of Criminal and Corrective Punishments and Article 105 of volume XXII of the Code of Military Decrees of 1869, second edition. The Military Investigator, not interpreting in the conduct of these lower ranks violations of Article 196 of the Code of Criminal and Corrective Punishments, did not accept this case as being his to execute. For that reason, to establish Olkhovik’s guilt of violating Article 196 of the Code of Punishments, the file was forwarded to Second Lieutenant P. for execution of a supplemental inquiry, accompanied by a note of the following content: ‘Accompanying this correspondence to the Commander of the 2nd Battery, I propose to His Honour that Second Lieutenant P. be assigned to determine in an inquiry carried out by him by means of interrogation of the young soldier Sereda by whom and precisely when the latter was convinced to become a “Christian”, i. e. to fall away from Orthodoxy, and to determine by means of interrogation of the young soldiers Olkhovik and Sereda whether they belong to the “Stundist” sect. I propose that the result of the supplemental inquiry be presented to me with an inscription on this document.’ June 14, 1896, Brigade Commander, Major General L., Brigade Adjutant, Second Lieutenant G.

Supplemental inquiry:

The young soldier Kirill Sereda testified:

“I accepted the faith of Christ on the steamship according to my own conviction and according to the Gospels. Previously I was an ignorant person. In Kharkov and in Odessa I learned to read and write from soldiers of the 9th Company of the 122nd Tambov Infantry Regiment, where books were handed out to us. Previously I had been illiterate and had been unable to read the Gospels. In Port Said I bought a Bible, which also contained the New Testament. I talked about what I read with Olkhovik, among other recruits. First I read the Old Testament, and then also the New Testament.“

“When Olkhovik was refusing various military duties, his answers lit a fire in my mind. When I read the Gospels, I found that he was right. Then I had some doubts about this New Testament, as it had not been passed by the censor*, and I bought another from the young soldier Yakovenko, this one published under censorship by the Holy Synod, and it turned out there was no difference between the New Testaments. Then I began to refuse everything that Olkhovik had renounced, because he was doing everything according to the Gospels.“

“When I began to do the same things as Olkhovik, they wanted to separate us, but when they noticed that I was not approaching him, they left us in our places. When I was reading the New Testament, some young soldiers told me not to read it, otherwise I’d go out of my mind, but I had the unquenchable desire to read the Gospels. Once the Company Commander began to shame me, saying that I could become a good soldier, but that I had departed from Orthodoxy. I answered the questions he put to me. Then he began to curse at me, even using obscene language. At that I told him: ‘So, among you Orthodox, is it really fitting for a top person to be cursing with devilish words?’ Then the Company Commander grabbed our hard-bound training manual and beat me about the face. I said nothing. Then the Commander forced me to stand on the spar deck, where I stood from evening until midnight.

“Three times the priest came there to talk with me and ask various questions. I told him that if any answer I gave him had not been clear, I would show him in the Gospels. Then the priest said that he would call me in to read it with him and that he would explain it for me. But I was not called in to see the priest, and did not read the Gospels with him. Instead, the sergeant-major took away my Bible and for my beliefs made me stand up for three hours. In the Martyrs Battery they took away all our books for the signature of the Battery Commander and they have not returned my New Testament yet. Olkhovik told me that a priest in Odessa had told him: ‘God help you in the cause that you have conceived to carry out.“

“When I was living in the village of Maksimovshchina, just 3 versts from the settlement of Rechki (I was then 17 or 18), I heard that the whole Olkhovik family did not go to church, but were distinguished for their good deeds. On the steamship I asked Olkhovik to explain to me certain places in the Gospels: concerning oaths, adultery, courts, rulers, love for one’s enemies and much else that I do not recall. I told him that I am glad that I have found the faith that is right according to the Gospels and will never betray it.”

The young soldier Petr Ol’khovik testified:

“On the steamship I talked with Sereda, among others, about many things, whereas about my beliefs I conversed only after Port Said, when everybody fasted and attended divine service in preparation for confession and Communion, but I refused. Then Sereda asked me why I did not want to take part. I answered that I was not Russian Orthodox, but belong to the faith of Christ, although four years previously I had been Orthodox. He asked me to tell him what sort of faith this is, and when and how I had changed over to it. I related to him at various times everything from the very beginning, just this way: I was a pupil in the rural school in the settlement of Rechki for three years, where I learned to read and write well. In school the priest told us that the very best religion was Orthodoxy. That pleased me and I had no doubts. But when I was about seventeen years old, I read a story about a Jew and a person of the Orthodox faith. They lived side by side and their children got along so well together that they not only played together but even slept together. However, they began to study in schools and found out that each of their religions was the best. Over this they began to quarrel and fight, and their friendship turned into hostility.“

“Then I began to have second thoughts about my faith. I delved deeper the Gospels and observed that the Orthodox have departed from the teachings of Christ. At that time my brother became acquainted with Prince Khilkov, who lived fully in accord with the Gospels and often argued with the priests. That was probably the reason he was exiled to the Caucasus. My brother also delved deeply at that time into the Gospels. At about the age of eighteen I renounced Orthodoxy and began to strive to live according to the Gospels. At that time I became acquainted with M. D., who supported me in my religious views. D. had been a student in a high school, but did not want to take his examinations and returned to the peasantry. He was exiled to Poltava….“

“When they took me in to become a soldier, I refused military training, and would not take the oath, as this was against my religion; after that they dispatched me from Belopole to the military commander in the city of Sumy, where I sat in a cell for a month. In Kharkov they began our training. I would not train and for this I was held under arrest for two and a half months. Then we were sent to Odessa, to which my brother came and supported me in my convictions. On the steamship I tried not to talk about my beliefs with anybody. When Sereda was reading the Gospels, he would ask me when he did not understand something, and I would explain it to him. I never wanted to win him over to my faith, but he himself told me that he rejoiced that he had found out the truth about the faith of the Gospels and that he would never betray it.” The investigation was carried out by Second Lieutenant P.

On the basis of the investigation cited above, Olkhovik and Sereda, by order of the 1st Eastern Siberia Artillery Brigade, were committed to trial by the Brigade Court for violation of Article 105, volume XXII, Sv. V. P., 1869 edition. At the trial Olkhovik and Sereda would not acknowledge their guilt. Olkhovik testified: “I did not carry out the officer’s orders because I did not know how to turn around, but even if I had known how, I would not have done it, as my faith does not allow me to train to be a soldier, and I consciously do not wish to be trained in this. Petr Olkhovik.” Exactly the same testimony was given by Sereda.

At 12 p.m. on July 1, 1896, the presiding officer of the court read the brief verdict according to which Olkhovik and Sereda were found guilty: I) of not showing due respect to a superior when carrying out obligations of service for the latter, and II) in deliberate failure to carry out the orders of a superior, i. e. insubordination: Article 105, part II, article 96, volume XXII, Sv. V. P.*, 1869, 2nd edition, and therefore the court ordered as follows: that Olkhovik and Sereda, with loss of certain service privileges, be given into the custody of the disciplinary battalion for three years with transfer to a penal detachment, with consequences indicated in Article 52, volume XXII of the same Code of Military Decrees.


Letter from Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy


The Commander of the Irkutsk Disciplinary Battalion

October 22, 1896

Dear Sir:

Knowing neither your first name and patronymic, nor even your surname, I cannot address you other than by this cold and somewhat unpleasant formula, one that distances people from one another: “Dear Sir” – but at the same time I am appealing to you on the most intimate matter, and would prefer to bypass all those external formalities that divide people and, on the contrary, call forth in you towards myself, if not the brotherly feeling that is in people’s nature to have one for another, then at least to eliminate all preconceptions that may be aroused in you by my letter and my name. I would desire that you regard me and my request as if it had come from a person of whom you know nothing, either favourable or unfavourable, and that you would be prepared to hear out my appeal to you with benevolent attention. The matter about which I wish to petition you is as follows:

Two persons who have been sentenced by the brigade court in Vladivostok to three years confinement have arrived at your disciplinary battalion, or should arrive soon. One of them is the peasant Petr Olkhovik, who had refused military service because he regards it to be contrary to the law of God; the other is Kirill Sereda, a private who had become close to Olkhovik on the steamship and, once he found out from him the reason for his exile, came to the same convictions as Olkhovik, and renounced continuation of his military service.

I understand very well that the government, not yet having developed a law appropriate to the peculiar features of such cases, is not able to proceed in any other way than it has acted, although I also know that recently the higher government, whose attention has been drawn to the cruelty and injustice of punishing such people on a par with villainous military ranks, is anxious to find more just and mild measures to counteract such refusals to serve. I also know very well that occupying the position you do, you cannot share the convictions of Olkhovik and Sereda, and cannot act otherwise than to strictly apply what the law prescribes. However, that notwithstanding, I beg you, as a Christian and good person, to have pity on these men, who are guilty only of fulfilling that which they consider to be God’s law that is to be preferred to manmade laws.

I shall not conceal from you the fact that I personally believe not only that these people are doing what they should, but also that very soon all people will realize that these men have done a great and holy deed. However, it is entirely possible that this view seems crazy to you, and that you are firmly convinced to the contrary. I shall not permit myself to try to convince you, knowing that people who are serious and of your age arrive at certain convictions not on the strength of someone else’s words, but by their own internal thought processes.

The one thing I implore you, as a Christian, a good man, and a brother – a brother of mine, of Okhovik, and of Sereda – as a man who walks under the same God and will after death come to the same place to which we are all going, I implore you not to conceal from yourself how these men (Olkhovik and Sereda) are different from other criminals, and that you not demand of them fulfillment of that which they have renounced once and for all: not to tempt them, leading them into more and more infractions and imposing on them more and more punishments, as was done with the unfortunate Drozhzhin, who was tormented to death in the Voronezh Disciplinary Battalion, arousing general sympathy, even in the highest circles.

Without deviating from the law and from conscientious fulfillment of your obligations, you can either make the confinement of these people a real hell and destroy them, or you can to a considerable extent soften their suffering. This I beg of you, hoping that you will find this request superfluous, and that your inner sense has already inclined you to the same conclusion.

Judging by the position that you occupy, I suppose that your views on life and on a person’s obligations are quite opposite to my own. I cannot hide from you the fact that I consider your military position to be incompatible with Christianity and I wish for you, just as I wish for any person, release from having to take part in such matters. However, knowing all my own sins both past and present, and all of my weaknesses, and the things I have done, I not only do not permit myself to condemn you for your position, but I sustain towards you, as to any brother in Christ, perfect respect and love.

I shall be very grateful to you if you reply to me.

Lev Tolstoy

Moscow, Khamovnicheskii per., No. 21.


September 1, 1896. Siberia. A steamboat on the Amur River.

My dear parents!

I already wrote to you on July 8th about the fate that has befallen me, which, I believe, will have greatly saddened you. But there is nothing to be despondent about; you need only recall the words of Christ: “Ye shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned to joy.” After I was parted from you and my friends, and when they took me to the other side of the world, I was thinking that I would be living here all alone; however, God has given me a friend with whom I have already been living for half a year – it seems like only a month. I am very grateful for such a great gift from God.

When we were imprisoned at Nikol’skoe in the guardhouse, one of the recruits who was being held for desertion when they were being trained in Kazan told us that a recruit from Perm Province had decided not to take part (in military training), for which he was being held in the guardhouse until being shipped to the Amur. When he was despatched, he would not take his government-issued clothing.

Another recruit came to wash the floor and said that a recruit travelling with them had refused training in Kazan, and in Odessa and Vladivostok had refused to stand in formation and had conversed with the officers as if with comrades. The officers ordered that new recruits not be allowed to associate with him. We were unable to find out anything more from these recruits about him, as they had been transported to Nikol’skoe while he still remained in Vladivostok. When we were being held in the Blagoveshchensk prison, one soldier told us that there was a recruit in the 2nd Battalion who did not want to practice with a rifle, and his commander took him on as a clerk. We think this is the same man.

In the same prison they brought into our company an old man from Russia who had fled from hard labour in exile. He told us that in their party was a soldier who had been serving in Orenburg Province, but had not wanted to swear an oath of allegiance to [Tsar] Nikolai Aleksandrovich, and for this had been transferred to serve out his time in the Amur…

Now we are on the way to Irkutsk to the disciplinary battalion. It is already the second month since we set off from Nikol’skoe. It will still take about three months to get to Irkutsk. We are at present on a steamboat travelling along the Amur River to the village of Sretensk. From Sretensk we will be going on foot. From Sretensk to Irkutsk it is over 2000 versts. It is possible that we will get as far as the other side of Lake Baikal on the steamer if we can make it before freeze-up.

They are now giving us 15 kopecks each a day for provisions. Previously we thought that on the way we would go hungry, because bread here costs from 5 to 8 kopecks a pound, and they had given us no money to take with us, and there would be no use sending letters. But everything has turned out otherwise. Our convoy escorts have let us out to gather wood for the steamboat while at the station pier. They pay us 50 kopecks each, and in two hours we load 3 or 4 sazhens each; we have also been able to buy bread cheaply in the Blagoveshchensk prison – for prisoners, at 2 kopecks a pound – from which we have collected a bag of dry bread. En route we bought two New Testaments. The commanding officers had not wanted to let us have the ones at the Battery to read on the way…

If you write to my friends, tell them to write to me in Irkutsk. I will be very glad to receive a letter from them. I have not received any letters from you; either you did not write, or possibly they did not get to me. Nor have I received letters from friends. I am glad they are pushing us closer to our homeland – it is more likely that letters will arrive. Write to me about my friends: where has fate taken whom? Write in such a way that the command will let them through.

Tell me everything in detail: How are the crops? Have you finished building the hut?

I send you my heartfelt greetings. I remain with true love, your Petr.

Pass on my greetings to all my friends and acquaintances. All my clothing is still intact…


November 20, 1896.

My beloved parents!

I shall set as one of the first priorities of my life to make use of every occasion to express to you my esteem. You know already that I am going to Irkutsk to the disciplinary battalion together with Kirill Sereda for the sake of our cause. Now we are going on foot across the Trans-Baikal Region by stages in a party made up of 45 prisoners. Every day we walk a “stanok” – from one halting-place to the next. The stanki are from 25 to 40 versts in length. Every two days there is a day’s rest, and at some locations we stay for a week to await a party that is being driven into exiled settlement or hard labour.

Some of them are left around the Trans-Baikal Region, others along the Amur, and yet others are herded onto the island of Sakhalin. All of them are in shackles; the heads of the ones sent to hard labour are shaved on the right side, while among the ones being sent to settle deprived of all civil rights, their heads are shaved on the left side. In these parties walk wives and children, and there are old men up to seventy-five years old who have been put in irons and are scarcely able to move ahead, and constantly wheezing and groaning owing to their decrepitude. At the transfer prison in Nerchinsk we saw a boy about eleven years of age bid farewell to his father, whom they were sending off to the island of Sakhalin. Crossing himself, the boy knelt before his father. His father, crying and laughing at the same time, uttered these words: “Well, farewell, my little son, we will never see one another again.” They kissed, and the boy went away in tears.

Now I have managed to have a good look at the life of prisoners and their pitiable situation: these poor people…. For what purpose are they being deprived of their human dignity and their human reason befogged? They are selling all they own: they are buying vodka and getting drunk, they are losing their conscience, starting to gamble away what little they have without thinking that they’ll then have to go hungry, as they give them each 10 kopecks a day for food, while bread here costs 4 and 5 kopecks a pound. During the card games arguments break out, leading to fights. When the soldiers from the guards’ quarters hear this, they run in and begin to beat them with their rifle butts and put handcuffs on them. People think that others can be corrected by punishment, that is, by prisons and hard labour. No, you cannot reform people that way. In that situation they become even more corrupt.

Every recently arrived prisoner at first behaves himself modestly, peacefully, and timidly; he defers to everybody, takes the last place somewhere in a corner or under the slat bunks. However, once he has lived a little longer and become familiar with the life of the depraved prisoners, he becomes the same as they. Here no sooner has he heard how the others tell how they stole, pillaged, raped, or murdered, and seen how the others play cards and fight – beyond that he sees nothing or hears nothing by which he might occupy himself and find pleasure. At first he is bored, and then he picks up all these things himself, thinking that that is the way to live. He begins to play cards, loses three days food money in advance, after which he has to go hungry. He turns to the other prisoners to borrow something, but they don’t trust him. Then willy-nilly he goes right down to their level, looking for someone to deceive or something to steal and, if he doesn’t succeed, he becomes discontented with his fate, gets into a beast-like fury, and begins to swear and use foul language, cursing tsar, government, the law, religion, life itself, and everything in the world. Often one hears from prisoners: “Well, if I can only get out of here, for God’s sake, I’ll start living my way, now I know how to steal and cover my tracks…”

Not long ago in our party there was an escape attempt. It came to my attention as a terribly pathetic incident. It happened in the following manner: on October 27th we had left the Shaksha halting-place; there we were received by the Upyrsk convoy escort. This convoy party was regarded as a good one because the senior officer did not strictly observe military discipline. When we arrived at the first small village, he let the prisoners go to the little store, and some even went to the bar to drink. When we had gone 15 versts, we caught up with the string of carts carrying the goods. The convoy leaders shouted to the drivers to halt the horses until the party of prisoners had passed by. The drivers stopped the horses on the road, and our party passed the wagon train. The convoy leaders, who were following behind the party, started to swear at the drivers and hit them because they had not turned off the road to let the party go by; they also let the prisoners who had been drinking in the village hit the drivers with their fists; the latter abandoned their leading horses and turned back. The party, having regrouped, went ahead, but the wagon train stayed put.

That evening we began to approach the village of Kanda; nearby is the halfway point between stages where the party was supposed to turn in to spend the night. Before we reached the village, the senior officer went ahead along with the prisoners’ starosta. When our party turned into the halfway point, the senior officer and our starosta were not there. They were in the village, whence they arrived drunk and the starosta brought vodka, which he gave out to the convoy leaders and some of the prisoners. After this the convoy leaders and prisoners began to play cards in the prisoners’ quarters. While they were playing cards, one of the convoy leaders began to tell the senior officer that he was permitting what he shouldn’t in terms of discipline. The senior officer said: “Be quiet, you swine, how dare you accuse me? I myself am responsible for you and for the prisoners.” The other man took offence and cursed him out… The senior officer blew up, jumped off the slat bunk and was about to hit him. The prisoners’ starosta grabbed hold of the senior officer, imploring him: “Stop it, comrade!” He did not hit the man, but drove him out of the building; he wanted to write a report, but changed his mind, because he himself was in the wrong.

After this the convoy leaders came out of the prisoners’ quarters, locked the door, went into their own quarters, shouted at one another for a little in a state of drunkenness, and then everything turned quiet; everyone went to sleep, both prisoners and convoy personnel. There was no guard on duty all night. The next day, early in the morning, the convoy leaders opened the door; the parashniki carried out the waste, brought in firewood and water into our quarters and lay down to sleep. The door was unlocked, and there was no guard. One of the prisoners, Aleksey Volov, who was being escorted in shackles to Irkutsk for robbery, stood up, noticed that the door was ajar, and no guard in sight. He threw off the shackles, on which he had already broken the rivets, braced himself and took off. When dawn broke, the prisoners were starting to make tea for breakfast when they noticed that Volov was gone. They told the starosta. He called for the senior officer from the guards quarters and said that one prisoner was missing. The senior officer asked where he had been sleeping. They showed him. He inspected the place. It turned out that Volov had left his smock, fur coat, and the shackles with the broken rivets. He took the shackles to the convoy escorts and told them that one prisoner was gone.

They brought the parasha into the prisoners area and closed the door. Only one guard remained to watch the prisoners while all the other convoy men ran off in all directions. They found his tracks in the snow and determined that he had gone along the road in the forward direction. Three soldiers mounted horses and began to tear after him along the road. At the 9th verst the fugitive turned into the forest and went on through the forest near the road. The soldiers passed by on the road and did not notice his tracks. A driver coming in the opposite direction had caught sight of the fugitive in the forest. Then he observed that a soldier was chasing behind him along the road. The driver joined the soldier and they ran after the fugitive. They caught up to him and grabbed him. Then the soldier forced him with threats to run back. Two more soldiers came up and wanted to shoot the fugitive. But the driver began to urge them not to shoot him. They began to beat Volov with their rifle butts, knocked him off his feet, tied his hands behind his back and began to kick him with their boots and beat him all over with their rifle butts. Then they tied him to a cart and began to whip up the horses; he ran as long as he could, then fell and was dragged about a verst before the horse stopped. Then they took him to the village, tied him to a post and began to beat him with sticks, rifle butts and bayonets. Then the drivers whom they had beaten up for not turning off the road when their party caught up to them passed by. When they saw the drivers, they stopped beating Volov. Then they left to drink tea after shoving the fugitive into some hay.

After they had drunk tea, they threw him onto a cart and hauled him to the half-stage point. When they had come up to the doors and halted the horses, I looked out the window: the cart was all covered with blood. The fugitive got down from the cart. All the convoy escorts threw themselves on him and began to beat him, some with sticks, some with rifle butts. They opened the door, shoved him into the prisoners’ room and burst in themselves in beast-like fury. One of the soldiers fired a shot into the room, shouting: “Don’t move!” The bullet almost hit one of the prisoners sitting on the slat bunks by the wall. It tore through the wall just a quarter [inch] from the seated prisoner, and scorched another prisoner’s eyes. Frightened by the shot, the prisoners stood quietly, while some hid under the bunks. One soldier jumped into the room carrying the shackles Volov had left behind and began to beat the fugitive with them. He opened up his skull. Then he began to use the shackles to beat the starosta whom two soldiers had dragged into the room. They beat him the same way as they had the fugitive: some with sticks, some with rifle butts, and others with shackles. They had tied his hands behind his back and shoved him into the room. They also beat three other prisoners. From one Jew they took away the goods he had brought to sell to the prisoners: tea, sugar, candles, tobacco and paper.

That evening they led the fugitive to the forge to have his shackles welded. The blacksmith, ordered by a soldier to weld them on tighter, made them so tight that the next day, he cut his legs when he walked. He could scarcely walk due to the pain and cuts from the shackles. He walked straining all his muscles, fearing to lag behind the party lest the soldiers begin to beat him again. All the soldiers, when they are doing such a terrible thing, do not notice anything out of the ordinary: they converse and laugh, proud of the fact that weapons have been placed in their hands and that they can exercise power with these weapons.

How pitiful it is to look at people in this situation, creatures of God possessing reason. Often this thought arises: why do people torment one another? The answer: because they lack the love of Christ. If they possessed within themselves Christ’s love, there would be no violence among people who are God’s reasoning creatures.

Walking with our party going from Nerchinsk to Chita was a nobleman from Nizhnii Novgorod who had served time at hard labour for a political offense, a quite well educated man who had graduated from university. Clearly, this was a sympathetic person who was striving to achieve the higher good. He arrived at the Nerchinsk transit prison after us. When he found out about us from other prisoners travelling with us, he began to question us about our renunciation of military service. We told him. After hearing our story, he befriended us, inviting us at every opportunity to join him for tea and always making an effort to have a word with us. He told us a lot and asked many questions…. He remained for some time in Chita. A friend of his came to see him in the transit prison. The warden took them beyond the gates. He told his friend about us. The warden overheard this, was interested and asked him about us. His friend also wanted to visit us, but it was not to happen. His friend sent him a present: loaves of bread, fish, sausages, Dutch cheese, jam and sweets. All evening and the next day before our departure, he treated us with all these things. For the road he gave us everything left over from the present, as well as four rubles in cash.

Now I have become acquainted with Siberia and the Amur region, and I would like to describe it for you. The whole place here is mountainous and wooded. The ground is almost entirely stony. There is a lot of land suitable for agriculture that lies untilled. The peasants here are far behind their Russian counterparts. They do everything in a slipshod manner and carelessly. Everything is scattered about. Cattle are poorly cared for. There are no warm barns at all, although there is material from which to build them. Logs are thrown about cattle pens, causing suffering to cattle in the enclosures that have to withstand hunger and bad weather. Feed is thrown under their feet. All this is done this way as a result of the fact that they have been demoralized in the prisons and also in the gold-fields, where they make big money that they immediately fritter away.

Life for a worker is easier than in Russia, because labour is more highly paid. A railway is being built across Siberia, and for this reason the price of everything has gone up. Along the railway route, rye flour costs from 1 ruble up, going as high as 2 rubles. Potatoes: from 20 to 80 kopecks a pud. Meat: 10 kopecks a pud. Sugar: from 25 to 40 kopecks a pound. Salt: 2 rubles a pud. In some places we had been able to buy it for 10 kopecks a pound. Onions are sold by weight: from 5 to 12 kopecks a pound. Black bread we buy for from 3 to 7 kopecks a pound, and white bread from 5 to 15 kopecks a pound. In a word, there is nothing definite about prices; everywhere the price for everything varies. We have never been in need of anything, having enough resources for all our needs. On the ship we earned 20 rubles loading wood. We could have earned more, but Kirill was down with a bad leg and could not carry anything.

Now we also have a small source of income. Kirill does tailoring for the officers at the stopping places. I am still wearing my home-made clothing, all of which is intact. My boots are also still good. The heels and iron fittings would have fallen off, but I re-soled them with new ones. Now they are giving us 12 kopecks a day each for food; previously they gave us 15 kopecks apiece. Among the prisoners we are living richly. From us the rest get bread, salt, potatoes, tea, sugar, groats, money, needles, thread, scissors, awls, ink, paper – in a word, everything needed on the journey.

Did you get my letter that I wrote on September 1st, when we were still travelling along the Amur River on the steamer? I sent it registered mail. It was not possible to post it soon, because we were not on a mail-delivery steamer, but on a steam tug. Neither were we able to post it when we arrived in Sretensk, because we were there one day, and we were being held in dark solitary cells because we had not stood up for an officer passing by. I posted it September 26th in Nerchinsk. We lived there for two weeks in the transit prison. Civilian prisoners there were placed in the kotel while we in the 3rd “military” category were each provided with 12 kopecks a day for food. I went with a soldier to the bazaar for produce and while there posted my letter and one from Kirill.

Now we are located at the Oninsk stage between Chita and Verkhneudinsk. We arrived here November 6th, and will leave November 26th. We have had to stay here this long owing to the delay of the party coming in the opposite direction. Here at the stopping point one man who was being accompanied to the hospital in Verkhneudinsk has died. He had been working on the railroad blowing up mountain rock with dynamite. He had been thrown about 7 sazhens onto a mountain slope. He lived on for two months, then died. We will have to walk another 6 stanki to get to Verkhneudinsk. There we will have to stay for over a month – Lake Baikal will hold us up. Steamships have already stopped sailing on it, but it is not yet covered with ice. It is covered with heavy frost, and it is a long way to go around: it is up to 400 versts long and 60 versts wide. We will have to cross its full width.

The only thing I am unhappy about is that I have still not received letters, either from you or from my friends. I cannot bear to wait to get from you a report on events I do not know about. If it happens that I do get a letter, it will bring me great joy. Write me, were A. and F. accepted, and how did the irregulars join up in Sumy? Write in such a way that I will receive it. If they are going to flog us in the disciplinary battalion and not allow us to write in our letters that we are being flogged, then, so that you will know they are flogging us, I will put hyphens in the corner. Each hyphen will signify 10 blows.

I have no doubts about anything. Now I have found out that imagined troubles double in magnitude until one actually is in the situation; when that happens, there is nothing to fear. But the imagination is always lively. By now I have seen so many changes and events in my life that it is impossible even to describe them all.

Farewell, I remain alive and healthy, which is also my wish for you. I am never depressed; I always feel merry and in good spirits. I wish you love and peace.
Loving you, your Petr.

P.S. Don’t be afraid of exile in Siberia: life is better here. Soldiers from Tomsk Province have told me that the land there has not been allotted; a person can plough as much as he likes, and one can also cut as much hay as he likes. There are no hindrances as far as cattle are concerned. A lot of cattle breeding goes on. Crops are good; they plant mainly wheat. Everything is cheap there. They also say that conditions are also good in Tobolsk Province.


Prison lockup.
April 3, 1897.

My dear brother!

I received your letter, and I was very pleased with its contents. How well you express what our attitude should be towards every individual person, i.e. “to seek in him that which constitutes human virtue, and on that footing to maintain relations with him.” I have often had occasion to bring out in people feelings that constitute human virtue. In my own situation it has been my lot to encounter people both good and evil, and the evil ones, when they met me for the first time, would shout abuse at me and threaten me with punishment. But when I begin to explain to them that humanely speaking, it is foolish to behave in this way, their attitude towards me begins to change.

You ask how life is for me in this new place. My life is, so to speak, that of a nomad. No sooner do you get used to one place than they send you to another. In the fall I was on the road. I spent the winter in the Verkhneudinsk prison lockup, and in the spring again began to go from place to place. On March 1st I left Verkhneudinsk, and arrived in Irkutsk March 19th.

First they took me to the disciplinary company. There, upon my arrival, I announced to the company commander that I would not learn about soldiering. It was already known to him from documents that Kirill and I had been sentenced at the same time, and he summoned us out of the party of soldiers that arrived with us. He led us into another building and there called each of us into the office and advised us to abandon our convictions. To this we replied that under no circumstances would we give them up. He advised and threatened, but to no avail. Then he sent us into solitary confinement, where we sat for 10 days. Once a priest came there to see us, and those in command attended from time to time. They spoke with me less often than with Kirill. They were more insistent with him because he had trained at first, but then renounced military service. The company commander spoke to him in this way: “Let him – his beliefs are deep-rooted, but you came to this opinion recently. He taught you, and you obeyed, but you’d better obey me. I am telling you this not as your commander, but as a brother in Christ: abandon these ideas, and do as you are ordered.” He answered thus: “I can obey and do only what is in accord with my conscience and does not contradict the teaching of Christ.” After quiet persuasion, the commander turned to menacing demands, but all this had no effect at all. Kirill remained firm and serene in his conviction….

After dinner we were taken first to the commanding officer, and then sent to the police administration, where we were kept for two days. From there they transferred us to the prison lockup, where even now we remain in the same department where the exiles in transit are kept. Whether we will be here for long, we do not know. When I find out, I shall write. Write to the prison; we may be here for a long while. You ask: “Do you need money?” It won’t be necessary. We still have 27 rubles. As our expenses are low, that will suffice for a long time.

I am never fatigued or bored, always light-hearted and merry. Only when I reminisce about home and my friends do I get a feeling of self-pity and I think to myself: will we ever see each other again? Hearty greetings to all my friends. Kirill sends you a bow of greeting and regrets that he did not make your acquaintance while at home.

Loving you, Petr.


The narrative in the “Letters” breaks off with Olkhovik and Sereda’s transfer from the disciplinary battalion to civilian prison in Irkutsk in April 1897. What do we know about what happened to them afterwards?

It is certain that Olkhovik and Sereda were spared the routine floggings, beatings and other tortures of the disciplinary battalion only by the intervention of Tolstoy on their behalf. In October 1896, while they were en route to Irkutsk, Tolstoy wrote the commanding officer of the battalion, appealing that he give the men fair treatment and avoid punishing them repeatedly for what was essentially the same offence. Such was the power of Tolstoy’s suasion that, shortly after their arrival, the commanding officer commuted their sentence to administrative exile in Yakutsk for a period of eighteen years, the equivalent of their term of service.

In June 1897, the two men departed Irkutsk in a prison convoy for Yakutsk. The 3,000-verst journey by wagon and river barge took them six weeks. Olkhovik and Sereda disembarked at the town of Yakutsk in July 1897. After a brief stay in the prison there, the governor fixed their place of settlement at the town of Aldan, another 1,000-verst journey by wagon, on foot and by river barge.

At Aldan, Olkhovik and Sereda joined another conscientious objector, Egor Egorovich Egorov from Pskov province. Inspired by Tolstoy’s writings, the twenty-three year old peasant recruit had rejected military service in 1895. He was sentenced to three years in the Bobruisk disciplinary battalion, then released in October 1896, only to be sent into administrative exile in Yakutsk for eighteen years. He had arrived at Aldan in June 1897. Together, the three men struggled to adapt and survive in their new surroundings.

Group of Doukhobor Exiles in Yakutsk, Siberia, circa 1904

Olkhovik, Sereda and Egorov’s stay at Aldan proved to be brief. In September 1897, they were transferred six hundred versts up the Aldan River to the mouth of the River Notora, where a party of Doukhobors had recently arrived from the Caucasus. These Doukhobors, numbering thirty men, had laid down their arms and refused to serve in Easter 1895. For a year and a half, they had been subjected to cruel beatings and floggings, solitary confinement, cold and hunger in the Ekaterinograd disciplinary battalion. Four of their number died as a result of the atrocities committed there. In November 1896, their sentences were commuted to administrative exile in Yakutsk for an eighteen-year period. Their journey there in a prison convoy took almost a year, as the Trans-Siberian Railway was still under construction and they had to walk most of the way. Having finally arrived at their fixed place of settlement on the Notora, they began preparing for a new life in exile.

The Doukhobors welcomed the three men into their community as fellow “brothers in Christ”. They established a joint life together, and working communally, built themselves huts, obtained a basic inventory of equipment, acquired several horses and cows, began sowing grain, planted garden vegetables and mowed large quantities of hay. Many of the stronger men, including Sereda and Olkhovik, obtained work in the neighbouring Skoptsy (a Russian religious sect that practiced self-mutilation) villages on the Aldan River and pooled their earnings to purchase food and provisions for their comrades. Over time, the colony on the Notora achieved a measure of self-sufficiency, and even moderate prosperity, growing to over ninety people as additional parties of Doukhobor conscientious objectors arrived there from the Caucasus in 1898 and 1899.

By all accounts, Olkhovik and Sereda participated in the daily life and affairs at Ust Notora with energy and enthusiasm. Sereda often served as a tailor, sewing overcoats and warm clothes for his companions. Olkhovik made several trips to the town of Yakutsk to purchase supplies and conduct business on behalf of the colony. Ever the inveterate reader, he even arranged for a small library of spiritual and educational materials for the colonists. Both men gave up hunting and fishing in deference to the vegetarian Doukhobors. They shared a common life there from 1897 to 1901.

In March 1901, the Doukhobors at Ust Notora were permitted to establish two new colonies closer to the town of Yakutsk. To this end, Olkhovik, Sereda and about twenty other men and their families resettled to the village of Prokhladnoe, eighteen versts from Yakutsk, where they established a small agricultural commune. Both men married soon after resettling there; Kirill to Praskovia Semenovna Sergeeva of the neighbouring village of Kil’demskoe and Petr to Agafia Lukyanovna Andryanchenko of Yakutsk. They lived in community there for the next four years.

Meanwhile, in Petr’s home village of Rechki in Kharkov, peasants professing Stundist and Tolstoyan beliefs were outlawed as “particularly dangerous” sectarians and subjected to every kind of harassment. Prayer meetings were broken up and participants placed under surveillance, physically abused, fined or jailed. In 1896, Petr’s brother Ignat and four others were exiled to Warsaw province as “religious agitators” for three years. While in Warsaw, they learned through Tolstoyans of Petr and Kirill’s association with the Doukhobors exiled in Yakutsk. Moved by this news, they determined to join the Doukhobors who were immigrating en masse to Canada. Upon their release in 1899, they and their families immigrated to Canada via New York and Quebec, settling in the Doukhobor village of Kamenka in the Assiniboia district of the North-West Territories.

(l-r) Agafia and Petr Olkhovik, Alexei and Uliana Andryanchenko taken shortly after their arrival in Canada, 1905.

After spending eight years in administrative exile in Yakutsk, Olkhovik, Sereda and the Doukhobors, along with thousands of other religious and political deportees across Russia, were granted amnesty and released by Imperial Manifesto in 1905. The Doukhobors hastened to go to the new land across the ocean where the rest of their brethren were settled. Olkhovik and Sereda chose to accompany them, having formed close bonds with them and wishing to reunite with their friends and relatives already living among the Doukhobors in Canada. To this end they gathered their earnings and resources and made arrangements to emigrate.

In June 1905, a party of one hundred and eighty-two Doukhobors, including Sereda and his wife, Olkhovik, his wife, infant daughter and brother-in-law Alexei Lukyanovich Andryanchenko and his wife Uliana, departed Yakutsk for Canada. They travelled eighteen days by riverboat from Yakutsk to Irkutsk. From Irkutsk, they travelled fourteen days by train to the Baltic port of Libau. From Libau, they sailed three days to London, England, and from there to Liverpool. From Liverpool, they sailed aboard the SS Southwark, arriving eleven days later in Quebec. From Quebec, they travelled by train to Yorkton, Saskatchewan and then dispersed throughout the Doukhobor villages in the area.

In September 1905, the Olkhoviks and Seredas arrived in the Doukhobor village of Kamenka, where a number of their brethren from Kharkov had settled six years prior. The arrival of the “Yakutians” was a great joy for these families who saw their friends and relatives again after a long separation of ten years. Many meetings were held, new projects formed, and after all, when the “Yakutians” had rested enough, they went to work and began to establish a new life for themselves and their families. Olkhovik and Sereda’s paths diverged at that point; however, they would remain lifelong friends.

Kirill A. Sereda settled among the Independent Doukhobors in the Whitebeech district. He took out a homestead there in 1906 and established a successful farming and horse raising operation. In 1924, he sold his farm and resettled to the Veregin district, where he lived and farmed for the remainder of his life. He held fast to the Doukhobor way of life he had adopted, especially the commandment “Thou Shalt Not Kill”. He was a respected member of the Society of Independent Doukhobors (1916-1928), the Society of Named Doukhobors of Canada (1928-1938) and later the Veregin Doukhobor Society. He died in 1952 in his seventy-eighth year, leaving a widow, Praskovia Semenovna, two sons, George and Mike, and two daughters, Mary and Laura.

Petr V. Olkhovik took a somewhat more circuitous route. Spiritually dissatisfied with the narrowness and sectarianism of life in the Canadian Doukhobor settlements, he joined a group of forty “Yakutian” Doukhobors in Brandon, Manitoba, where he worked as a labourer. In September 1907, he exchanged the harsh climate of the Canadian prairies for the sunshine of California, accompanying the “Yakutian” Doukhobors to Los Angeles. Life stateside, however, proved disappointing, and in 1908, he moved to Vancouver, British Columbia. He remained there for the next eighteen years, working as a fisherman, miner and logger. In 1910, he separated from his wife of seven years, Agafia Lukyanovna, with whom he had two daughters.

Throughout this period, Olkhovik remained an avid reader and amassed a substantial library of books at his home in Vancouver, which became a gathering place for Russian émigré workers to read and discuss a wide range of spiritual, philosophical and political topics. It would appear that his library contained a great deal of socialist, anarchist and revolutionary literature, and that for this reason, in 1919, at the height of the first Red Scare and the Canadian Labour Revolt, it was confiscated in a raid by the Royal North-West Mounted Police.

Following the Russian Revolution, Olkhovik began to turn his thoughts to his homeland, where momentous changes were taking place. Like many Russian émigrés, he had never completely abandoned the dream of returning to the land of his birth. On learning that many of his old friends among the Independent Doukhobors were selling their farms in Saskatchewan and returning to the Soviet Union to help establish the new life there, he decided to join them, selling off his belongings and sailing there in May 1926 with his daughters.

Petr Olkhovik (sitting) logging with a steam donkey engine, Vancouver, 1919.

Olkhovik and seventeen Independent Doukhobor families settled in the Melitopol district of Zaporozhye province, Ukraine where they founded the village of Vozdvizhenka. They formed the Kolkhoz Nezavisimiy Kanadtsa Dukhobora (“Independent Canadian Doukhobor Collective Farm”), using modern farm machinery brought from Canada. The resettlement flourished, despite less than cordial relations with local authorities and local peasants, who considered them to be kulaks (pejorative term for “rich peasant”) until 1927, when the young men received calls to serve in the Soviet army. Refusing to bear arms, the Doukhobors hastily sold their homes and machinery and returned to Canada. Olkhovik and his daughters sailed back aboard the SS Roussillon via Bordeaux, France, arriving in Halifax in September 1928.

Returning to Canada after his sojourn in the Soviet Union, Olkhovik returned to Vancouver, where he worked as a fisherman until his retirement in 1939. Throughout his many and various life experiences, he remained true to his pacifist principles. He died in 1944 in his seventieth year, leaving two daughters, Dora and Tania.

At once dramatic and inspiring, historic and autobiographical, the story of the peasant Petr V. Olkhovik and his companion Kirill A. Sereda is highly significant in its content, the actual story that it tells, the profound human experience that it conveys and the dramatic period in history that it portrays. It is a valuable piece of writing in its own right, while at the same time part of a larger saga in the history of the Tolstoyan, Stundist and Doukhobor movements.