by Sergey Petrov
Novyi Izrail’ or New Israel is a small religious movement of Spiritual Christians that emerged in Russia in the late nineteenth century. Its beliefs include the worship of God in spirit and truth, the rejection of traditional Orthodox religious practices and an emphasis on rationalism. The following scholarly article by Russian religious historian Sergey Petrov examines the origins and history of New Israel and investigates the radical reform of the sect undertaken by its most famous leader, Vasily Semenovich Lubkov (1869-1931). One of the principal questions the author addresses is the amazing similarity between the character of the New Israelite movement and that of another Spiritual Christian group, the Doukhobors. This is no coincidence, he contends, as he demonstrates how Lubkov, heavily influenced by the Doukhobors, whom he lived amongst in the Caucasus for a time, consciously and deliberately emulated them, which led to a radical reformation of the New Israelites, and ultimately the immigration of a part of the sect to South America in the early twentieth century.
The question of the genesis of the group of Russian religious dissenters called Dukhovnoye Khristantsvo or “Spiritual Christians” as well as the degree and the character of the influence they exerted on each other at different times under a great variety of circumstances has been and remains a somewhat obscure subject. Conjectures and hypotheses concerning the origins of the Spiritual Christians go as far as the alleged links of the Russian sectarians to early Christian heresies, Gnosticism, Manichaenism, medieval Cathars and Balkan Bogоmils. Other scholars saw the phenomenon of the mass dissent among Russian peasantry as the indirect output of the Western Reformation, particularly, the radical movements of Quakers and Anabaptists. Finally, one more group of scholars attribute the appearance and rise of Spiritual Christians to Russians themselves and believe that those dissent movements were born on the Russian soil as a result of re-thinking of traditional Orthodoxy.
Not all of the sectarians known under the umbrella term “Spiritual Christians”, explicitly called themselves that way, although their self-consciousness as those “worshiping God in spirit and truth” as opposed to those practicing “outward” and “fleshly” forms of worship, is obvious. Contemporary researchers of Russian sectarianism usually apply the name to the Khristovschina (“Christ-faith”), Skoptsy (“Castrates”), Molokany (“Molokan”), Dukhobortsy (“Doukhobors”) and Izrail’ (“Israel”) movements, a branch of the latter being the subject of this paper. Orthodox Bishop Aleksii (Dorodnitsyn) of Sumy, who published an extensive article on Israel communities in Eastern Ukraine, based mainly on personal observations of the author, testifies that members of the Israel communities called themselves “Spiritual Christians”.
Early leaders of the New Israel sect (l-r): Porfirii Katasonov, Vasily Lubkov, Vasily Mokshin. Museo de Los Inmigrantes, San Javier, Uruguay.
The purpose of the present paper is to explore the origins and the history of one of the more recent groups of Spiritual Christians that became known under the name of New Israel, and to investigate the reasons and the meaning of the radical reform of the sect, undertaken by the prominent leader of New Israel, Vasily Semenovich Lubkov (1869 – ca. 1931). One of the questions that will need to be raised in this connection is an amazing similarity between the character and the results of the reforms and the doctrine and practice of a much more renowned sect of the Doukhobors. The relatively high proportion of the scholarly attention to the latter group is explained by the dramatic immigration of the Doukhobors to Canada after a period of severe clashes with the Russian civil authorities with the monetary help of the famous Leo Tolstoy and the British Quakers. The alleged connection and, possibly, a common origin of New Israel and Doukhobors has been a subject of some speculation and considerable controversy in the scholarly discourse. It seems likely, however, that the nature of such a similarity was a conscious and deliberate imitation of the latter by the former that resulted in a thorough revision and amendment of the theory and practice of Lubkov’s organization and finally led a part of New Israelites to the immigration to South America.
The available literature on New Israel is not at all rich and consists almost entirely of books and articles published in the Russian language. A feature of virtually all of the sources is their tendentiousness or a high degree of subjectivity. The sources of information on the Israel movement can be divided into three subgroups – 1) writings by the sectarians themselves (including texts of the songs), usually incorporated into books produced by outsiders, 2) non-sectarian observers, most of them Orthodox priests or professional anti-sectarian missionaries, and later on Soviet atheist writers who had a clear intention of destroying the sect, with very scarce exceptions when the purpose was to justify the dissidents, sometimes overemphasizing their real and imagined good qualities, and 3) a small group of authors, who tried to come up with a relatively objective and unbiased accounts.
Among the most comprehensive books on the subject is a highly sympathetic account written by Vladimir Dmitrievich Bonch-Bruevich (1873-1955), a socialist scholar of the Russian religious dissent. The book by Bonch-Bruevich under the title Novyi Izrail’ was published in 1911 as Volume 4 of his series of materials on Russian sectarianism and Old Belief . One of the main merits of the Bonch-Bruevich’s book is the great number of original documents it contains, including numerous writings by the New Israel leader Vasily Lubkov and other members of New Israel. The views of Bonch-Bruevich are highly pro-sectarian, for he tended to see Russian religious dissenters as a force of protest against monarchy and the evil social structure of the Russian Empire.
A number of books on Russian sectarians were written by their natural opponents, clergy of the Orthodox church. In spite of the subjectivity, their authors give substantial first-hand evidence concerning the topic. Volumes I and III of Khristovshchina published by a professional Orthodox anti-sectarian missionary Ivan Georgievich Aivazov (b. 1872) consist of court rulings, legal documents, police reports, testimonies given by a wide circle of those involved, examples of the sectarian religious poetry and other materials . Among other books of the Orthodox anti-sectarian writers of special interest for us have been a book on Khristovshchina and Skoptsy (Castrates) by Konstantin Kutepov and a review of all known sects attempted by a priest and church historian Timofei Ivanovich Butkevich. Another priest and missionary, Simeon Nikol’sky, published a theological analysis and a refutation of the Catechism of the New Israel community in 1912.
Journal articles on New Israel, a large number of which appeared at the end of nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century in the church press, especially in Missionerskoe Obozrenie (“The Missionary Review”) and newsletters and bulletins of various church districts (Eparkhial’nye Vedomosti) also contribute to the task of building a broad picture of the origins and development of the New Israel movement, although the main purpose of those articles was to teach parish priests how to fight the sectarians more efficiently.
Semen Dmitrievich Bondar’, an official of the Ministry of Interior Affairs, published a book on a wide circle of dissident religious movements . Bondar’ was commissioned by the Ministry to the South of Russia in order to conduct a research of the sects. The author, apparently did not feel any sympathy towards the sectarians, but his account is characterized by a high degree of diligence and factual accuracy.
The only contemporary attempt to investigate the mechanisms behind the New Israel immigration to Uruguay, was made by a journalist, V. M. Muratov, who published an unbiased and impartial analytical article on the New Israel move to South America.
The New Israel movement entered a phase of decline following the emigration of the part of the adherents of the sect to Uruguay that occurred in 1911-1914 and the establishment of the Soviet regime in Russia, although occasional data on New Israel does occur in the 1930s in the Soviet anti-religious press, for example in Dolotov’s book on church and sectarianism in Siberia and the critical book by S. Golosovsky and G. Krul’, Na Manyche Sviashchennom (“On ‘Sacred’ Manych”) on the New Israelite planned community in Sal’sk district, authorized by the Soviet authorities in the 1920s.
The most prominent scholar of religion of the Soviet period who wrote about New Israel was Aleksandr Il’ich Klibanov (1910-1994), whose Istoriia religioznogo sektantstva v Rossii (“The History of the Religious Sectarianism in Russia”) is one of the most comprehensive books on the subject. Klibanov conducted a number of field trips, among those a trip in 1959 to Tambov area where the Israel sect originated. Klibanov describes his experiences during that trip in his book Iz mira religioznogo sektantstva (“From the World of Religious Sectarianism”).
The only work on the Israel/New Israel movement published in English is The Russian Israel by Dr. Eugene Clay, a US researcher of Russian sectarianism and Old Belief of Arizona State University. The article contains a brief historical account of the movement along with the tables showing the leadership transfers and partitions within the sect as well as the dates of both ecclesiastical and civil trials of the sectarians.
The purpose and the subject of the present paper necessitated the use of literature on another sect of Spiritual Christians, the Doukhobors. Already mentioned, Obzor (“Review”) by Butkevich contains a fair amount of information on the Doukhobor history and teachings, of course, from the Orthodox standpoint. The part that is of especial interest for the present paper is the original Confession of Faith composed by the Ekaterinoslav Doukhobors. The dissertation The Doukhobors, 1801-1855 by Gary Dean Fry, which gives a concise, accurate and highly objective account of the Doukhobor history, beliefs and living conditions within a broad panorama of the Russian economical, political and ideological context, has also been extensively used.
Kopylov and the Fasters
One of the branches of the so-called Spirit Christians in Russia, along with more widely-known groups such as the Khristovshchina (“Christ-faith”), Molokans and Doukhobors, was a clandestine movement called Izrail’ (“Israel”) which began in the first quarter of nineteenth century. The group first appeared among the Orthodox peasantry in Tambov province as a reaction against the superficiality of personal spiritual experience within the state-sanctioned church. An official report of the Tambov provincial government of 10 April 1851 stated that the sectarians “call the Christian (Orthodox) faith the faith of the Old Adam, not renewed in the spirit. They consider church sacraments mere rituals” . The founder of the movement was Avakum (also spelt Abakum) Kopylov, a peasant of Perevoz village in Tambov province. Kopylov was an ardent reader of the Orthodox literature, especially Lives of the Saints, and apparently tried to imitate the life of the Orthodox ascetics. He fasted frequently for long periods of time, abstaining from any kind of food altogether. Once, after having fasted for 40 days in a row, he felt he was taken to Heaven in spirit and talked to God face to face. He said God had commissioned him to “study books” in search of salvation and spread this knowledge around. Allegedly, Kopylov then went to the local Orthodox bishop and told him what had happened. The bishop, according to the story, approved of the Kopylov’s experience and gave him a few Orthodox books, among them “On Duties of a Christian” by the Orthodox bishop Tikhon Zadonsky. The story hardly has any factual truth behind it, but it can clearly be interpreted in the sense that Kopylov and his followers saw themselves as Orthodox Christians, although they tried to enhance and enrich their Orthodoxy with strict asceticism, piety and personal experience with the Divine.
Members of the New Israel sect in Uruguay, c. 1914. Museo de Los Inmigrantes, San Javier, Uruguay.
Kopylov preached celibacy, temperance, abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, meat, fish, garlic, onion and potatoes, and emphasized fasts as an efficient means of spiritual progress. Many of Kopylov’s followers had a “spiritual spouse” from among the members of the group that were assigned by the prophets. Such spouses were supposed to support and comfort one another spiritually. Any sexual intercourse was, nevertheless, forbidden. Kopylov’s followers did not call themselves “Israel”. Rather, they referred to their community simply as postniki (“fasters”), bogomoly (“those who pray to God”), or “The Faith of New Jesus Christ”, according to the evidence brought forward by Aivazov and Butkevich. It is difficult to say, though, how Kopylov himself called his group. In any case, his followers began using both postniki and bogomoly for self-identification rather early, and the term postniki survived until at least 1959 when Klibanov conducted field research in Tambov province. The meetings of the postniki consisted in reading the Bible and Orthodox literature on practical ways of attaining personal sanctity, singing of the Orthodox prayers and songs composed by themselves, revealing the sins of the members and their public confession, and prophecies. At the same time, the followers of Kopylov faithfully attended Orthodox services and very often were a lot more accurate and serious than the average Orthodox people in terms of observance of church rules and generosity towards the priesthood. Even in 1901, followers of Kopylov, being asked by Orthodox clergy about their religious affiliation, answered that they were “Orthodox postniki”.
Soviet scholar Klibanov conducted field research in the Tambov area as late as 1959; that is, when the Orthodox church was completely stripped of all former privileges. In a conversation with a faster, Klibanov learned that the members attended the Orthodox church if they wished. The same person said that fasters observed and revered essentially the same things as the Orthodox, but only in a better, firmer and more complete manner. The main point of their deviance from the Orthodox doctrine was the belief that the priests were not quite worthy since they didn’t live a holy life and, therefore, the sacraments performed by the priests were not as effective as the immediate and unmediated relationship with God at their meetings.
Anti-sectarian Orthodox writers often insisted that the leaders of the Fasters were revered by their followers as incarnations of Christ and the Virgin Mary. There is no evidence that Kopylov saw himself as Christ or a divine figure, but later developments of the theological thought of his co-religionists apparently contain an idea of spiritual christhood. According to the above mentioned Report, published by Aivazov, the sectarians believed that Jesus Christ was a man whom Holy Spirit chose to dwell, therefore everyone who attains grace of the Holy Spirit and is spiritually reborn may be called Christ. On the same basis a woman who is likewise favored with God’s grace and spiritually reborn may be called the Virgin Mary. Notably, the sectarians cited the following assertion from the book by Tikhon Zadonsky to substantiate their argument: “everyone is called by the name of his progenitor”.
Possibly, the concept of incarnate christs becomes a part of the Fasters’ doctrine at a later time. In 1901 Aivazov cites Fasters who openly called their female leaders bogoroditsa (“God-bearer” or “Virgin Mary”) and asserted that there may be more than one christ; although Aivazov’s testimony should be treated with a degree of caution due to his decidedly anti-sectarian bias. In any case, the opinion that the Fasters worshiped their “living christs” instead of the historical Christ, seems to be a misunderstanding. Rather, it can be said that the Fasters saw the divinity of their leaders in terms of a symbolical analogy with the Biblical figures. The real object of their worship, rather, was the Holy Spirit seen as a force and an agent of the divine in the world. The living voice of the Fasters, their songs, bear witness of that, for the Holy Spirit is the permanent theme and hero of practically all the known songs, and not historical figures of distant or recent past, present, or future.
It is interesting to look at the version of the emergence of the movement told by Faster Ivan Seliansky as cited by Klibanov. According to Seliansky, Tat’iana Chernosvitova, the closest collaborator of Kopylov (Bondar’ calls her Kopylov’s spiritual wife , and Kutepov – his bogoroditsa ) initiated the movement. She lived in celibacy, but had a vision of an angel who predicted that Chernosvitova would bear a son. However, the son the angel referred to was not a natural baby, but Avakum Kopylov, who was spiritually born through Chernosvitova’s preaching. Seliansky draws an analogy between that story and the Gospel account of Christ’s birth, saying: “Do you comprehend? You see, it was such a spiritual matter! Sometimes they get confused – he (Christ) was born. Perhaps, Jesus Christ was not born of Virgin Mary, maybe she begot him spiritually.”
In 1834, about 20 years after the movement began, the local government became aware of the activity and influence of Avakum and Tat’iana Chernosvitova, and arrested both of them and one of their followers. They were mistakenly charged with spreading of the Molokan heresy, which was a mass dissent movement and a real dilemma for the local administration at that time. None of the arrested betrayed any of their friends, and no more arrests followed. All three were found guilty in 1838. Avakum was sentenced to imprisonment in one of the Orthodox monasteries “till he repents”, but, being an old man of 82 years, died before the sentence could be fulfilled.
Avakum Kopylov was followed by his son Filipp who changed the teachings of his father by adding sacred dances in the spirit as an expression of joy that the worshipers felt at their meetings. Those dances were called by Fasters themselves khozhdenie v Dukhe (“walking in the Spirit”), and explained as an imitation of King David who danced before the Lord, which might have been borrowed from ecstatic practices of other religious movements of the Russian peasantry. Aleksii Kaninsky, who was a parish priest in Perevoz village, the birthplace of the Fasters, wrote in his article on the religious situation in the village, that Filipp Kopylov visited a number of Orthodox holy sites throughout Russia, and on his way back stayed for a long time in another village in Tambov province, Sosnovka. Sosnovka at that time was a stronghold of the Skoptsy (Castrates) sect, that practiced ecstatic dances (radeniia) at the meetings, so upon return to his native village, Perevoz, Filipp introduced certain customs of the Skoptsy into the teaching of his group . Bondar’ and Aivazov are in agreement that the “walking in Spirit” was an innovation brought about by Filipp after his father’s death.
Another interesting feature of the Faster worship meetings were the so called deistviia, or “actions”. Eugene Clay defines them as “a sermon or prophesy in action” similar to those employed by the Biblical prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel. Those symbolical actions might include crowning a member with a wreath, which meant that he/she lived a pious life, or tying up another member’s eyes which revealed his/her spiritual blindness.
Katasonov and the Israel Sect
Filipp Kopylov’s hired worker and co-religionist, Porfirii (also known as Parfentii or Perfil) Petrovich Katasonov, was at first a member of Filipp’s group, but later on, he split off and founded a separate organization that came to be called Israel. The formal pretext for the separation was, apparently, the introduction of the dances by Filipp, which Katasonov disapproved of as a deviation from Avakum’s tradition. Nevertheless, Kaninsky, Kutepov, Aivazov and Butkevich assert that the real reason was most likely the struggle for the power within the group and the outgoing and energetic personality of Katasonov, who thought he would ascend as a leader on his own. Filipp’s followers remained in the Tambov area, but their movement never grew to be as strong and wide-spread as the clandestine church of the Katasonovites.
Katasonov, who apparently was not nearly as strict an ascetic as Avakum or Filipp, relaxed the dietary rules and let his followers eat and drink anything except meat and alcohol. He also changed the meaning of the institution of spiritual wives, admitting the possibility of sexual intercourse between spiritual spouses under the guidance of the spirit, while sex within official marriage remained formally prohibited. The real innovation brought about by Katasonov was the creation of the regular organizational structure of his church. Because of the mass migration of peasantry from Tambov, Samara and Voronezh provinces to the fertile North Caucasus caused by economical reasons, as well as due to the missionary activities of Katasonov and his followers, the new movement spread rapidly, especially throughout Southern Russia and by the time of Katasonov’s death in 1885 it had up to 2000 local groups. Communities were organized into okruga, districts with “apostles” and “archangels” as their heads. Bondar’ indicates that there was a certain shift towards more critical and even hostile attitude towards the official Orthodoxy. Numerous trials of the members of the Israel sect on the charges of blasphemy took place in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, the Israelites continued to attend the Orthodox church, follow church rituals and worship icons. Many of the Katasonovites, including their leader, didn’t consider it wrong to “repent” and “convert” to Orthodoxy when arrested and put on trial in order to get released.
Symbolical actions, or sodeistviia, continued to be an important part of the meetings. A number of sources (Bondar’, Butkevich, Bishop Alexii Dorodnitsyn) mention that “walkings in the Spirit” were as frequent among the Katasonovites as among the Fasters, which may mean that the disagreement between Katasonov and Filipp Kopylov was essentially not of doctrinal nature, even if the dispute about sacred dances was brought up as a formal pretext for the separation.
The New Israel congregation in San Javier, c. 1930. Museo de Los Inmigrantes, San Javier, Uruguay.
The Orthodox clergy and people often referred to both Fasters and Katasonovites as khlysty. The latter term can be interpreted either as “flagellants” or as a distorted word Khristy, that is “Christs”. Khlysty was a derogatory name of one of the earliest movements of religious sectarianism in Russia. It appeared in the middle of the seventeenth century and spread throughout the North and central part of the country. Members of that group called themselves God’s People. They believed in the multiple incarnations of Christ, Virgin Mary, apostles and other Biblical figures in living people, practiced asceticism and gathered in secrecy calling on the spirit to descend upon them and move them to dance and prophesy. The Khristovshchina did not recognize any sacred texts and had a very elaborate mythology pertaining to their leaders and their miraculous deeds. Khristovshchina was a secret society and there were quite a few myths and legends associated with their clandestine meetings that circulated within Russian society. They were accused of participating in sexual orgies, flagellating themselves, using flesh and blood of killed babies in their rituals etc. In reality all of those accusations appear to be quite groundless, but the word khlysty came to be used as a strong pejorative and derogatory qualifier to define any religious dissenting group of a secret or ecstatic nature. It was a general tendency among many Russian and Soviet scholars of religious sectarianism to link khlysty with the Fasters and the Katasonovites by default. This view is shared by A. I. Klibanov. However, in spite of the long tradition and certain similarities between the two groups, such a view is very hard to substantiate with provable facts. Most of the sources and literature on the Faster and Israel movements treated khlysty as well. In fact, in some cases (eg. Kutepov) khlysty were the main object of the investigation, while Fasters or Katasonovites were mentioned in the context of the greater discourse devoted to khlysty.
In spite of efforts to give regular structure and doctrinal unity to the denomination, the human factor contributed to the partition and disintegration of the Israelite movement that occurred immediately after Katasonov died in 1885. The enormous emphasis placed upon a person led to the lack of the internal balance and as soon as the gravitational center ceased to exist, the structure could no longer be preserved.
A number of Katasonov’s collaborators assumed power and christhood in different parts of the country. The most prominent among them were Roman Likhachev, who governed the Israel communities in Ekaterinodar (now Krasnodar) region, Petr Danilovich Lordugin of Georgievsk , the leader of the Terek communities (now parts of Stavropol’ krai, North Ossetia and Kabardino-Balkaria), Vasily Fedorovich Mokshin and Ivan Markov in Voronezh, Iakov Kliushin in Stavropol’ and others. Those leaders did not recognize each other as legitimate heirs of Katasonov, although, according to Bondar’, their worship and doctrine remained unchanged.
The Birth of the New Israel Movement
The New Israel movement appeared around 1890 in the Voronezh district in Russia as a branch of Israel or Old Israel, as New Israelites began to call the Katasonovites. Certain aspects of the ideology and practices of New Israel proved to be more appealing to a broader range of people and Vasily Lubkov, who soon became an outstanding leader of the denomination, was by far a more gifted and skilled organizer than the rest of his competitors in other branches of the Israel sect.
The first head of New Israel was Vasily Fedorovich Mokshin, a peasant of Dankovo village in the Voronezh district, who converted to the Israel sect during his stay in the town of Taganrog. Mokshin was charged with spreading the khlysty heresy in 1880 and exiled to the Caucasus. He allegedly repented and returned to his native land in 1883 where he died in 1894. Mokshin, in all probability, did not enjoy a wide recognition as the heir of Porfirii Katasonov, according to Bonch-Bruevich, who cited Lubkov: “elders… did not want to recognize him and did not let people come to him under the threat of damnation, proclaimed him an anti-christ… He rejected the whole Israel, condemned them for the unbelief and began to plant a New Israel”. Mokshin, apparently, understood his mission as uniting the “remnants of Israel” everywhere and first used the term New Israel referring to his followers as opposite to the Old, and unworthy, Israel. Nevertheless, he was never accepted as a leader by the Katasonovites other than in the Voronezh area.
The future leader of New Israel, Vasily Semënovich Lubkov, was born in the town of Bobrov in 1869 into an Orthodox family. By his own account, Lubkov experienced a conversion in 1886 when he was 17 and became an active member of Mokshin’s sect. He was first arrested at the young age of 18 and then exiled to Elizavetinka (sometimes called Akstafa, by the name of the adjacent railway station) in Elisavetopol’ province (now Azerbaijan). An energetic and enthusiastic proselyte, he got to know many people of many faiths, perhaps taking advantage of his job, for he worked as a train conductor and traveled extensively throughout Transcaucasia. It should be noted that Akstafa was a station halfway between the largest cities of the Russian Transcaucasia, Tiflis and Baku.
Vasily Lubkov had a difficult time trying to find a spiritual haven in the land of his exile. He called this land a “desert”, for there was no “fullness of God” there. At first he was welcomed by another exiled Katsonovite, Fedor Kirillovich Poslenichenko, who considered himself a spiritual christ (as well as Adam, Abraham and a number of other Biblical figures) and whom Lubkov eventually condemned as a pretender and a false teacher. The Old Israel group of Poslenichenko is described by Bondar’ and a few original materials pertaining to the group were published by Aivazov. At last, Lubkov met a man who later came to be called “the first-born of Israel”, Andriusha, or Andrei Poiarkov, and a group of people who recognized Vasily as their spiritual guide, was formed.
Finally, Lubkov was summoned to Tiflis, but suspected he would probably be arrested again, so he preferred to flee and hide himself in Doukhobor villages in one of the least accessible parts of Transcaucasia .
Other sources says Lubkov also lived in Ardagan, Kars province, that is, precisely in the area settled by the Doukhobors, although it is hard to define whether Lubkov’s stay at Ardagan refers to the period of his exile or hiding. There is a good reason to believe that Lubkov’s contact with the Doukhobors during his stay in Transcaucasia and the ideas he was exposed to there played an important role in the changes New Israel was to undergo, both doctrinally and organizationally, which will be discussed further on.
Lubkov was still in exile in 1894 when he heard of Mokshin’s death. In order to come back to Central Russia he had to leave the province where he was obligated to reside according to court sentence. Nevertheless, he came back to Voronezh soon thereafter and was acknowledged as the new leader and christ. From then on, Lubkov had to live under constant threat of arrest until the Manifesto of 1905 was published. The Manifesto permitted many groups of religious dissenters to legalize their existence.
The Living ‘Christ’
Before Lubkov was accepted as christ by the communities in Voronezh, he had to withstand his rivals. Two cases of unsuccessful competition with Lubkov within Mokshin’s group refer to the attempts of Ivan Kir’ianov, Mokshin’s “Apostle John” and Gerasim Chernykh, Mokshin’s “Moses”, both of whom had limited success among Mokshin’s sheep in Voronezh district. A researcher of Russian sectarianism, S. D. Bondar’ says about those who followed Lubkov’s competitors: “These were people who were looking for a new “incarnated christ” and could not find one”. As soon as Lubkov learned of these “christs”, he came from Caucasus and “spiritually defeated” both of them, that is, convinced the sectarians that he was the real “christ”. The cases of competition and rivalry within the group were not limited to those two cases, however. Lubkov mentions more opponents in his autobiography. From then on, Lubkov saw his primary tasks as 1) absorbing whatever worthy elements were left of Old Israel; 2) reforming and updating teachings, practices and the structure of his community; and 3) propagating New Israel among the general population in a systematic and regular form.
Contemporary testimonies help us see in detail how communities of Old Israel, deprived of any adequate leadership and often referred by New Israelites as “in ruins”, were shaken and absorbed by the impact of Lubkovites.
The growth of New Israel took place mostly by swallowing up scattered Old Israel groups. The Orthodox missionary and priest Simeon Nikol’sky says: “What is remarkable, “New Israel” spreads only among the khlysty. At least, it is so in Stavropol province. … But even among the khlysty there are doubts about recognition of the “New Israel” heresy. Some of the khlysty in a given village accept the “newlywed christ”, others remain faithful to the belief of their fathers…” . The changes the followers of Old Israel had to accept were too radical for many, who saw Lubkov as literally eliminating the most basic tenets of their faith.
An article by A. Anan’ev published in Missionerskoe Obozrenie (“The Missionary Review”) in 1915, tells a story of a group of Katasonovite communities in Samara province. Ivan Koroviadsky, a follower of the deceased Katasonov, made a considerable and quite successful effort trying to spread the teachings of his admired christ as he understood them. However, one of the basic beliefs of Israel is the doctrine of the living christ, that is, a chief, who is supposed to lead his followers at all times in a very tangible and material manner. Anan’ev writes, describing the preaching of Koroviadsky: “The whole truth consists in the Source of Wisdom, the living God-Christ… The living Christ is always on earth”. That was the point where Koroviadsky ultimately got into an inconsistency. He was not aware of any available and worthy candidate for christhood nor he was quite sure of himself as a christ to step forward and claim it as did the “Apostle John” and “Moses” of Mokshin. He communicated to his fellow-believers the idea of a living christ, but failed at the attempt to show them one. Therefore, his unsatisfied followers started to look elsewhere and when somebody by occasion told them of new sectarians living some 60 kilometers away, they immediately rushed there in their pursuit of a living christ. The attempt was successful; they learned about Lubkov, went to see him, and, finally, left poor Koroviadsky who was unable to show them a real christ. At a joint meeting all the communities established by Koroviadsky condemned their former teacher and joined New Israel.
Lubkov was trying to rethink the history of his movement to present himself as a rightful heir of past leaders. In addition to the portraits of Katasonov found, according to Bonch-Bruevich, in almost any house of the members of Israel , the sectarian iconography was enriched by a triple portrait representing Vasily Lubkov in the center surrounded by Katasonov and Mokshin. Lubkov was also aware of Avakum Kopylov as the initiator of the movement and held him in high esteem , although the personality of Katasonov, the leader of a much larger organization, apparently overshadowed the memory of Kopylov, who remained a figure of local importance.
New Israel farmers harvesting in Uruguay, 1940. Museo de Los Inmigrantes, San Javier, Uruguay
In spite of opposition, Lubkov succeeded in unifying a considerable portion of the Old Israel communities. Lubkov’s followers came to call him Papa or Papasha, meaning Daddy. At first the New Israelites continued to attend Orthodox churches and kept icons in their homes. They met secretly or semi-secretly and had to use priests’ services to maintain the legality of their births and marriages. The essence of Lubkov’s reform that will be discussed at more length in the next section, was the rationalization of traditional Israel teachings. Reason seemed to occupy a central place in Lubkov’s theological discourse, dietary limitations (except alcohol and tobacco) were lifted, ecstatic manifestations almost disappeared. Bondar’, however, argues, that when there were no Orthodox visitors at the meetings, New Israelites did dance and jump in the traditional ecstatic manner as late as in 1912. Bonch-Bruevich’s book also contains an Epistle written by Lubkov, probably, in 1906. In this epistle, Lubkov gives recommendations and orders mostly pertaining to the family life of his followers and the internal order of the meetings. Among other things, article 11 states: “The meeting must be orderly, with joy, burning love, powerful preaching. Walking in joy (a euphemism for ecstatic dancing – S. P.) is not permitted except at a marriage” . Bonch-Bruevich’s footnote, however, seriously amends the meaning of the cited advice: “In the original this paragraph reads as follows: 11. The meeting must be orderly, with joy, burning love, powerful preaching. Walking in joy is permitted when there are no worldly people and at a marriage.” The paragraph, corrected by Lubkov, demonstrates the ambiguity of the sectarians in this matter. To what extent the sacred dances continued to be practiced among New Israelites, remains disputable, but the fact that the ecstatic component was greatly reduced and marginalized by Lubkov, cannot be doubted.
Another innovation brought about by Lubkov were so called sodeistviia, dramatizations of gospel themes presented publicly. Eugene Clay believes that “these ceremonies were extensions of the symbolic prophetic actions (deistvie), the “sermons in deeds” which originally were spontaneously performed by a prophet before a small congregation”. The sodeistviia were indeed in many ways the hallmarks of Lubkov’s reform. The first sodeistvie, dramatizing the Last Supper of Christ, took place in 1895. Around 800 of Lubkov’s followers gathered to watch and participate. Naturally, Lubkov personified Christ. During that sodeistvie, evangelists, apostles and other members of the New Israel hierarchy were appointed. The second dramatization, The Sermon on the Mount, was arranged in 1900. Lubkov addressed the crowd of his followers with a 5-hour-long speech on God, the soul, life and death and other important matters. The third sodeistvie, called Transfiguration, and the first one after legalization, was presented in 1905 in the town of Piatigorsk in Stavropol province. An eyewitness and a participant of the event, New Israelite N. I. Talalaev wrote: “There were more than 5 thousand people. There was a colonel and with him a squadron of 40 Cossacks with rifles to protect us so that nobody would bother us… Then many of the worldly men believed. All those days Cossacks and gendarmes were protecting us and a huge crowd looked at our assembly which was in the street, in the middle of the day, (of) our open Christian faith called New Israel.” There Lubkov abolished all the marriages the sectarians had entered into according to the Orthodox ritual. Instead, he ordered everyone to find a new spouse from among the members to enter into a new, spiritual marital union. Bonch-Bruevich depicts this “family reform” in a very sympathetic way, emphasizing the idea of the woman’s emancipation and liberation from oppression and mistreatment common in the marriages where the spouses did not love each other, but had to live together because of the legal status of their marriage. Often, when only one of the married couple belonged to New Israel, the other took advantage of the opportunity to have a “spiritual spouse” from among the co-religionists. Thus, many such marriages had been de facto broken by the time Lubkov proclaimed them of no validity. Other authors, like Bondar’, say that this reform was a complete disaster and mention “destroyed households” and “abandoned wives”. The new form of marriage promoted by Lubkov was based upon love alone. For Lubkov and his faithful, such a radical reform was a way of strengthening families, and soon thereafter he announced that divorce was permitted in the sect only once and that it would not be tolerated any longer unless under exceptional circumstances. In 1905 according to the Manifesto on Religious Toleration New Israelites received the right to conduct the registry of civil statistics of their members independently from the Orthodox church and in 1906 Lubkov permitted his followers to remain in marriages that were performed according to the Orthodox rite.
At that time New Israelites returned the icons and other objects of the Orthodox faith to the priests. Lubkov and other New Israelites always pointed out the fact that they returned the icons to the church and not destroyed them.
In 1907 the fourth and the last sodeistvie called “Zion” took place, where a new (and third) concubine of Lubkov (commonly called Mamasha, or Mommy) was presented to the people as the “daughter of Zion”. It should be said that Lubkov’s concubines (he had at least three of them) played an important role in the sect and were revered by the members, although, apparently they did not influence the decision-making in any way. Lubkov’s first Mamasha had a title of Mount Sinai, the second – Mount Tabor, and the third – Mount Zion. The consecutive replacement of Mamashas was considered a symbolical action of great spiritual significance in itself. It meant the progress of Lubkov from one stage to another, even more glorious stage.
The concept of spiritual progress which Lubkov expressed through the exchange of concubines may shed some light on the significance of the new, spiritual marriage that New Israelites were to enter. This spiritual marriage might have been a sodeistvie of a sort, signifying a new phase of spiritual development of the members of the denomination, although this matter certainly requires further research.
The days of the sodeistviia became feast days for New Israel. In addition to the “great feast” celebrated for three days in a row (May 30, 31 and June 1) in the memory of Lubkov’s exile and return, the dates of the three first public actions (February 3, October 20 and October 1) were celebrated respectively as the coming down of Jerusalem, Sermon on the Mount for the 21st century, and the Transfiguration day.
In May, 1905 the first legal Conference of the New Israel communities was convened in the city of Rostov. The Conference adopted the first published document in which the doctrine of New Israel was systematized as required by the law for the purposes of the legalization of the denomination. This document was entitled “The Brief Catechism of the Basic Principles of the Faith of the New Israelite Community” (Kratkii katekhizis osnovnykh nachal very Novoizrail’skoi obshchiny). It was published with the permission of the official censor in 1906 in Rostov.
Building God’s Kingdom
The first attempt to gather New Israelites in one place to live according to their faith dates back to the first years of the twentieth century. Lubkov called them to move to a distant and sparsely populated region of Russian Central Asia, Golodnaia Step’ (the “Hungry Steppe”), but the place apparently justified its sinister name and the experiment soon failed leaving many New Israelites impoverished. The second try of this kind took place in 1908 and the location of the future community chosen by Lubkov appears quite traditional for Russian sectarians; this time his followers moved to Transcaucasia, very close to the former place of Lubkov’s exile, the town of Akstafa. The second attempt was more of a success, and Lubkov himself moved to Akstafa. A New Israelite wrote: “Formerly our brethren were exiled to Transcaucasia, and now, on the contrary, hundreds and thousands of people go (there) voluntarily…”. A total of about 5,000 people followed their leader to build the God’s Kingdom on earth. In 1912 Bonch-Bruevich visited their colonies and was impressed by the relatively high living standards of the colonists and the above average level of their technological advancement. However, Bondar’ mentions bad climate in the new land, and states that some of the colonists preferred to go back home.
In spite of the newly found religious liberty, although rather unstable and fragile, and a tentatively successful colonization effort, Lubkov did not feel he was obtaining exactly what he sought. By 1910 he already thought about leaving Russia altogether and building his Zion in a brand new land. He felt their freedom was not going to last for too long. He wrote to a group of New Israel elders: “…inform all the churches… so that the people would be ready for any incident. The matter is as follows: dark clouds are approaching Israel, the priests and the administration decided to work energetically toward the uprooting of the new sect in Northern Caucasus.” In October, 1910 the Governor of the Caucasus issued a circular letter concerning the activity of the New Israel sect. As a result, in 1910 and 1911 a number of the New Israelite communities were closed down. Most of the Orthodox churchmen and missionaries regarded New Israel as an offspring of khlysty and, as such, not eligible for legalization and not deserving of toleration; an opinion that they vigorously defended and promoted. Occasional arrests of the sectarians resumed. In those circumstances Lubkov decided to move his flock elsewhere and departed for the United States in 1910 or 1911. A group of New Israelites wrote to their friends imprisoned in Voronezh in May, 1911: ” if the freedom given by our Ruler will not be returned, we will have to leave our native Holy Russia for a free country where there is no persecution or oppression on the account of faith.”
According to M. V. Muratov, a journalist who investigated the background, conditions and circumstances of the New Israel immigration, Lubkov who left for North America together with a prominent New Israelite Stepan Matveevich Mishin, could not find anything suitable in Canada or California, the lands in which they took special interest in because the Doukhobors and Molokans, respectively, settled there. Soon Mishin got utterly disappointed with the idea of emigration and left for Russia. Upon return he conveyed his unfavorable opinion to their fellow believers and advised them to stay home. Lubkov, however, was in no mood to give up. He finally reached an agreement with the government of Uruguay that was seeking colonists at that time. The future colony was allotted 25.000 hectares of land and was officially founded on July, 27 1913. The New Israelite immigration continued until August, 1914 when the First World War broke up and put an end to the mass migration. Muratov says the total of about 2000 sectarians moved to Uruguay, which, according to Klibanov, accounted for approximately 10% of the sect membership.
The colony known under the name of San Javier and inhabited mostly by the descendants of the Russian immigrants exists in Uruguay up to this day, but its history knew two waves of re-emigration. A number of the colonists desired to go back for a variety of reasons, from homesickness to dissatisfaction with new conditions to disappointment with Lubkov’s religion. The main engine of the repatriation, though, was the growing disillusionment of Lubkov himself with the new country and the perspectives of building God’s Kingdom in the isolated far-away land. Apparently, the energetic and anxious personality of Lubkov could not put up with the tranquility of a sleepy place where nothing was ever going on.
New Israel congregation in San Javier, c. 1950. Museo de Los Inmigrantes, San Javier, Uruguay.
The great experiment that was taking shape in Soviet Russia following the First World War and the Revolution, could not leave Vasily Lubkov indifferent and, when he learnt (apparently through his old friend Bonch-Bruevich who became Vladimir Lenin’s personal secretary) about the favorable treatment of formerly oppressed sects by the new Communist government, he made up his mind to go back. A prominent figure among the San Javier New Israelites, Trofim Efremovich Zhidkov, arrived in the USSR in 1923 on a special mission for Lubkov. In 1925 a Conference of New Israel communities in Kropotkin (Krasnodar krai) decided to found a co-operative of fellow-believers and invited the Uruguayan New Israelites to join. At first the Soviet government saw the sectarian co-operatives as similar to state-promoted collective farms and permitted their operation. The district of Sal’sk in Rostov province, a very sparsely populated area, was suggested by the government as a site for sectarian colonies. According to Soviet authors Golosovsky and Krul’, who published a critical book on New Israelite communitarian efforts in the 1920s, about 50% of the population of Sal’sk district (17,500 out of 35,000) were sectarians – Molokans, Doukhobors, Baptists, New Israelites, Adventists and others. In 1925 Lubkov and a group of over 300 re-emigrants went to the USSR. The new colony consisted of a few thousand people from across the USSR and Uruguay and operated as the share-holding company “New Israel”. However, as the political preferences of the authorities changed in the 1930s, the sectarians turned into “enemies of socialism”, their co-operative became a collective farm and was renamed “Red October”, and Lubkov, then a man in his early sixties, was arrested and his further destiny is unknown. Probably, he was exterminated or died in prison. Other sectarian co-operatives and communes shared the same fate. The religion of New Israel continued both in the USSR, semi-legally or illegally, and Uruguay, but the modern history of the sect lies beyond the focus of the present paper.
New Israel and the Doukhobors
Although Lubkov was concerned with the task of substantiating and defending his position as a legitimate heir of the past christs, he changed his organization so much that it came to resemble Doukhobors and even Protestants much more than Old Israel. There is considerable disagreement in the sources regarding the alleged ties or shared origin of Israel and the Doukhobors. It should be taken into account that Lubkov himself promoted the idea of a common source that both his denomination and the Doukhobory came from. Bonch-Bruevich upheld this view. Bonch Briuevich says: “Israel and Doukhoborism… are so close to each other, that a person who is not aware of the details of the sectarian opinions, would never tell them apart”. Bonch-Bruevich went as far as to arrange for a meeting of the representatives of New Israel with the Doukhobory in Transcaucasia and noticed that both parties expressed virtually identical opinions on a wide variety of important subjects.
So, it appears that Bonch-Bruevich explained the similarities between the two denominations mostly by their common origin from a hypothetical united church of Spiritual Christians. Klibanov, a Soviet scholar of religion, also could not but affirm those similarities, although his explanation of them differs radically from that of Bonch-Bruevich. Klibanov, following the old tradition of mainstream Orthodox sect classification, linked Lubkov’s followers along with the Katasonovites and the Fasters, with the old Russian Khristovshchina. For him as a Marxist, the main force behind all social changes was economics. In conformity with this view, the Israel sect was viewed as a version of the Khristovshchina, but transformed and changed in order to serve the new capitalist forms of economy better. Klibanov’s opinion of the New Israel/Dukhobor relationship was shaped in accordance with the same logic. Lubkov’s emphasis on “reason” and “free thought” instead of the ecstasy of his predecessors was seen by Klibanov as a reflection of the worldview shared by “small and middle bourgeoisie” that comprised a major segment of the New Israelites, especially their hierarchy. Klibanov, who frequently cites Bonch-Bruevich’s book, gives the following explanation of the similarities with the Doukhobors: “For as much as the masses of New Israelites were getting rid of the ascetic prohibitions of the old Khristovshchina, and the various forms of the mystical ecstasy were being pushed out of their worship, they were approaching the Doukhobors in their religious views”. A real insight into the core of the problem is given in another document cited by Klibanov, a Report sent to the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church by a group of New Israelites in 1909. In that Report the representatives of the sect argued that their denomination had nothing in common with the khlysty, but “in all probability, had a close brotherly kinship with the Doukhobors”. Klibanov stated that the New Israelites so emphatically rejected the idea of their affinity with the Khristovshchina, it was as if they were defending their relation to Adam and Eve against the evolutionary theory with its ape ancestor.
Bondar’, the official who wrote a review of sectarianism, noted, that the matter of the essence and origins of New Israel was “an object of controversy” in the literature on sectarianism. He argued, however, that New Israel as well as other sects of Israel and Fasters were a branch of the khlysty.
The missionaries Aivazov and Nikol’sky unanimously supported the idea of the khlysty character and genesis of the Israel sect, their argument being based primarily on the ecstatic manifestations at the Israel meetings and the idea of the incarnation of Christ in living men.
Butkevich in his Review upheld a view of the Israelites, who he called by a derogatory popular term shaloputy throughout his book, as a separate entity, although sharing many features with the Khristovshchina. Nevertheless, a few pages later, in a chapter about New Israel, Butkevich affirmed that the latter were just a variety of the khlysty, which demonstrates either the force of the mental inertia, or an inaccurate handling of facts.
Eugene Clay of Arizona State University sees the Israel sect as an independent religious movement that grew out of Orthodoxy rather than an offshoot of any other sect of Spiritual Christians. The issue of the New Israel/Dukhobory relationship is not discussed in the article on the Israel sect. However, Clay calls Lubkov a “sincere admirer of the Dukhobors”, which in a way points out to the clue and names the true reason of the New Israel reformation.
History of the Doukhobors
It is appropriate to give a brief account of the Doukhobor history, doctrine and practice in order to evaluate the nature of the changes made by Lubkov. The genesis of the Doukhobors who were among the most prominent and widely-known branches of the Spiritual Christians seems somewhat obscure. There was some speculation on the foreign roots of the sect. Particularly, Quakers were named as the possible originators of the Doukhobors. Fry also believes that certain shared history with the khlysty is possible, although far from being proved.
The birthplace of the Doukhobors was the southern part of Tambov province. According to P. G. Ryndziunsky, a Soviet researcher of anticlerical movements among the Russian peasantry, the emergence of the movement dates back to 1760s. The movement faced considerable persecution and the first trial of proto-Doukhobor sectarians occurred in 1768. However, oppression did not stop the movement and the exiled sectarians spread their views outside their native province, including Ekaterinoslav (now Khar’kov, Ukraine) province, the territory Fry considers the second focus of the movement.
In 1802 the Doukhobors’ plea to be settled in a separate colony was granted by Tsar Alexander. They remained there until 1842 when they were moved to the provinces of Transcaucasia by order of Nicholas I. There they established a quasi-theocratic autonomous entity referred by them Doukhoboria. By the 1890s the Doukhobor sect split into a few fractions, with so-called Bol’shaia Partiia (the “Large Party”) being the most radical. Partly under the influence of Leo Tolstoy and under the charismatic leadership of Petr Verigin, they adapted strict pacifism, vegetarianism, and community of goods that led them to a serious opposition to civil authorities. Finally, in 1899 the majority of the Transcaucasian Doukhobors left Russia for Canada where they still live in the provinces of Saskatchewan and British Columbia. The initial period of their life in Canada was marked by a deep disappointment with Western capitalism and occasional clashes and mutual misunderstanding with Canadian authorities. The first generation of Doukhobors more than once thought about returning to Russia, and tried to reach an agreement on this matter with the Russian state, but the First World War, civil unrest and lack of genuine interest and involvement from the side of Tsarist officials made repatriation impossible. As we saw, the same kind of feeling played out in the case of the New Israelites and their immigration to Uruguay.
So, how and in what sense was New Israel related to the Doukhobors? There hardly was any shared origin: by the time the proto-Israel movement, the Fasters, emerged, the bulk of the Doukhobor community was already far away on the Milky Waters. Besides, which is even more important, the Fasters and Kopylov began as “improved Orthodox”, recognized the Church sacraments, read Orthodox spiritual literature and even sought the ecclesiastic approval while Doukhoborism was a protest movement from the very first days of its existence, fiercely rejecting every form and outward symbol of the official Church. Ryndziunsky cites numerous testimonies of the earliest participants of the movement to this effect, for example: “you should not go to the church, made by hands of men, there is no salvation in it, also you should not worship icons, for those are also painted by the hands of men, nor should you confess your sins and take communion from the priests.”
The Fasters and Old Israel were based upon mysticism and ecstatic worship, while the Doukhobors earned the fame of a rationalistic sect. The Fasters and Old Israel were clandestine movements during the time of oppression and never tried to get legalized even after the policy of religious toleration was proclaimed. The Doukhobors, on the contrary, never made a secret of their convictions, living their faith even under very unfortunate circumstances. The followers of Kopylov and Katasonov had no explicit communitarian aspirations or millenarian ideas of the Kingdom of God. Instead, they understood the Kingdom in strictly spiritual terms. The Doukhobors, in their turn, always emphasized the community and their self-identification as the chosen people led them to a desire to be separate from the world in a literal way. This is not to say that the Israel movement did not have anything in common with other branches of Spiritual Christians. All of them share the ideas of worshipping God in spirit and truth, of primacy of the spiritual content over material form, and either reject Scripture or understand it allegorically. However, the differences are too serious to admit the speculation on some genetic kinship between the two movements.
The New Israel prayer home in San Javier as it appears today. Museo de Los Inmigrantes, San Javier, Uruguay.
How is it, then, that the New Israel sect of Vasily Lubkov managed in a short time to rid itself of practically all those features that separated the Israel sect and the Doukhobors so that his denomination earned the name of “neo-Doukhoborism”?
There are a number of considerations that allow for an opinion that Lubkov might have consciously attempted to change the doctrine and practice of the sect he governed in order to make it resemble the Doukhobors whom he admired and that he was exposed to such a strong influence during his exile. Of course, this assumption requires separate and thorough research in order to assess the degree and the mechanisms of such an influence, but certain observations concerning the matter will fit the purpose of this paper.
Klibanov believed that New Israel was approaching Doukhoborism gradually in the process of dropping the old ecstatic forms of worship and placing more emphasis on rationalism. Being a Marxist, Klibanov thought that rationalization was necessitated by the development of capitalism which favored rational faith. However, the new capitalist type of economy was no obstacle to the emergence and rapid spread of ecstatic Pentecostalism in exactly the same time period. Besides, the kind of organization New Israel was did not leave much space for natural development, sorting things out etc. It was an authoritarian organization where the word of the “Papa” was the law. Bonch-Bruevich said: “The leader, Christ – that’s who the chief of the organization is. His power is unlimited and absolute”.
The Israel sect takes a peculiar and ambiguous place among other sects of Spiritual Christians. In comparison with their “elder brothers”, Molokans and Doukhobors, the Israelites look weaker and less wholesome for a number of reasons. Lack of a fixed or written doctrine led to disunity, feeble organization created internal disorders, secrecy gave way to rumors and false accusations, absence of positive publicity aggravated the situation and, finally, the association with the “baby-eaters” khlysty stigmatized the sect and deprived it of all opportunities. Vasily Lubkov realized all these things too well and he had to deal with the problem.
Members of the Israel sect, due to the secrecy of their faith and outward Orthodoxy were rarely exiled to Transcaucasia. Even when they were, it was usually done on a case by case basis, rather than en masse. The exiles usually came back to their native lands, as did Katasonov, Mokshin and Poslenichenko. Whereas other sectarians, Molokans and Doukhobors, lived in Transcaucasian provinces as permanent settlers, considering that land their earthly homeland and enjoyed a considerable freedom of worship. Lubkov, who was exiled to Transcaucasia when he was 19 and where he spent a number of years, should have felt quite lonesome spiritually in a place where his co-religionists were not at all numerous, not very well known, and even if known, probably under the shameful name of khlysty. It was difficult for Lubkov to find spiritual companions in Transcaucasia, in spite of the variety of faiths and denominations existing there. Moreover, Lubkov mentions representatives of a number of other branches of Russian religious dissent as people he tried to make friends with, but without any success. “I have been to many meetings, where gather people who look for bliss, all of them are haughty and bad people, as Molokans, Baptists, Pashkovites, Sabbath-keepers, Jehovists, Brethren of Universal Community , Stundists, Jumpers and others.” A rather negative characteristic of Molokans and Baptists that Lubkov met on his way to the place of exile is reiterated elsewhere in his autobiography. Interestingly, the Doukhobors who were quite numerous and prominent in the Caucasus, did not appear on Lubkov’s black list.
According to Bonch-Bruevich, after having been summoned to Tiflis, Lubkov was hiding in the mountainous villages of the Doukhobors with whom he might have established a close relationship. There is also the testimony of the Vladikavkaz missionary I. Kormilin (not supported by any other evidence, though) that Lubkov at some point was a resident of the town of Ardagan in Kars province, that is, right in the area where thousands of the Doukhobors resided. The future leader of New Israel might feel something of an inferiority complex comparing the sad circumstances of the fragmented Israel with the vibrant faith of the surrounding Doukhobors. Besides, the time of Lubkov’s sojourn in Kars province coincided with a rise of the radical movement among the latter of which Lubkov must have been an eyewitness.
Luker’ia Kalmykova, the female leader of Dukhoboria, died in 1886 without having left any direct heir. The matter of leadership and continuity of leadership was crucial for the Doukhobors since their colonies were a state within a state with their own internal rules, security forces, social protection mechanisms, and, last but not least, a communal treasury that was traditionally entrusted to the chief. Petr Verigin, a favorite of the deceased leader, claimed his rights to the throne. At the same time, the closest relatives of Kalmykova, wealthy men with good connections to the regional government, did the same. The majority (generally the poorer people) led by Verigin formed the Large Party, while better off Doukhobors joined ether Middle, or Small, Parties.
Verigin lost the case in the court and the Large Party separated from the rest under the banner of revival and religious radicalism. The Large Party Doukhobors adopted communism and denounced any exploitation, proclaimed vegetarianism and non-resistance. In 1895 the Doukhobor radicals publicly burned all the guns they possessed as a sign of their non-violent stand which provoked brutal repression. In 1896 Verigin asked the Royal family to let his followers settle elsewhere in Russia as a compact group or else permit them to emigrate. In 1899 the Large Party Doukhobors left for Cyprus and then for Canada.
The Doukhobor Influence
Such was the background of Lubkov’s sojourn in Transcaucasia. In his writings, he repeatedly reflected upon those events and brought parallels between the two sects. Lubkov compared Kalmykova with Mokshin, and the situation within Old Israel after Katasonov’s death with the power crisis of the Doukhobors after Luker’ia Kalmykova died. Interestingly enough, he calls Luker’ia by the diminutive Lushechka. To understand what Lubkov really meant by that, we must know that the members of the Israel sect were known for calling their own brethren by diminutive names, a practice unknown among other sects of Spiritual Christians (except Doukhobors). The controversial claims to the leadership among the Doukhobors by Verigin were used to explain the way the christhood was transferred to Lubkov himself, that is, “orally, to a (spiritually) close person”.
The Doukhobor theology was likewise employed by Lubkov. Some of the early accounts of the Doukhobor doctrine found in the “The Book of Life” (Zhivotnaia Kniga) had a form of Questions and Answers. Lubkov quotes almost verbatim from the Doukhobor original, a fact noted by Bonch-Bruevich. In “The New Sermon and the Prophecy of the Holy Israel” written by Lubkov and published by Bonch-Bruevich, the New Israel “Papa” recommended such an answer to a question about the sectarians’ attitude to the church: “Question: Why don’t you respect the (Orthodox) Church? Answer: We respect the holy church… the assembly of the faithful, and your temples and rites are alien to us, we do not expect them to bring salvation.”
The Doukhobor “Book of Life” has almost identical answer to the same question. A piece in the form of Questions and Answers written by Stepan Mishin, a prominent sectarian who traveled with Lubkov to North America, also has a few allusions to the Doukhobor views on the essence of church and the spiritual understanding of baptism. At that, we should remember, that before Lubkov the Israelites never proclaimed the emphatic denial of the Orthodox Church with all its rules, rites and teachings a part of their own worldview.
Matryoshka doll figurines line the streets of San Javier, Uruguay, symbols of Russian culture brought by the New Israel sect. Museo de Los Inmigrantes, San Javier, Uruguay.
Frequent references to God as “reason” and “mind” and emphasizing the role of reason, reasoning and common sense in Lubkov’s writings surprisingly resemble the highly rationalistic theological opinions of the Doukhobors, who even understood the Holy Trinity as the unity of memory, reason and will. In his short pamphlet “About God”, Lubkov stated that God is a “reasonable Spirit” who chose to dwell in “reasonable souls”, to move humans toward “spiritual growth and consciousness” and let them develop a “reasonable faith”. In the “Handbook of the New Israel Community”, Lubkov stated that the New Israelites recognize only one God, namely “the doctrine of sound reason, which is the spirit of life”. This emphasis on reason, hardly typical of the Old Israel sect, might have been adopted from the Doukhobors, especially from Verigin’s radical branch.
Contemporary observers noticed that the personalities of Verigin and Lubkov had a lot in common. Muratov openly compares both sectarian leaders, characterizing Lubkov as a “man of unusual energy and strong will, never giving up in spite of any obstacles and, like Verigin, taking into account only his own desires”.
The obsession with the idea of community-building also seems to be imported from Transcaucasia. The mystical and otherworldly perspective of the Fasters and Old Israel sect never gave any space to communitarian or millenarian ideas. For them, the Kingdom of God was an otherworldly, although highly desired, spiritual condition of ecstatic joy; something immaterial, rather than literal and tangible, whereas Lubkovites were taught that the Kingdom of God is the “righteous, moral, perfect life of men on Earth” that they were supposed to build.
Finally, the idea of emigration may be regarded as a reflection, probably to a certain degree unconscious, of Lubkov’s wish to be in all aspects equal to the Doukhobors, although apparently the New Israelites were in an incomparably better off position than the Doukhobors at the time they left Russia as it was noted by Muratov.
Summarizing this paper, it should be said that the religious history of humankind knows quite a few examples of amazing and unexpected interference and intersection of ideas and personalities, at times resulting in very remarkable phenomena of the religious thought and practice. However, it is not always easy to uncover and reveal the true nature of such influences, especially when the available historical material appears to be inadequate. This paper is an attempt to shed some more light on the genesis and development of a small Russian religious movement that has hardly ever enjoyed a noticeable amount of scholarly attention. But, being as small as it is, the sect of New Israel and its uncommon history occupies a unique place in the annals of the Russian religious dissent and serves as a good illustration of the hidden force of chance and the great role of personality.
About the Author
A native of Russia, Sergey Petrov has a strong personal and scholarly interest in Russian sectarian religious studies. He earned a Masters Degree at the University of Calgary and his thesis, Nikolai Il’in and his Jehovists Followers: Crossroads of German Pietistic Chiliasm and Russian Religious Dissent dealt with a Russian millenarian movement of Jehovists, which emerged in 1840s under the direct influence of German Pietistic Chiliasm and, particularly, writings by Johann Heinrich Jung-Stilling. He is currently a doctoral candidate at the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Calgary. His current work focuses on Russian and Ukrainian Evangelical Christians in Western Canada as a distinct group of religiously motivated settlers, similar to the Doukhobors, Hutterites, and Mennonites.