by Svetlana A. Inikova
Much has been written about the Sons of Freedom in Canada. Remarkably little scholarly attention has been devoted, however, to the ideological origins and historical genesis of this zealot group. According to Russian ethnographer and archivist Svetlana A. Inikova, the roots of the Freedomite movement can be found in the intellectual ideas and philosophical writings of Russian novelist Leo N. Tolstoy. His teachings, spread by Tolstoyans living among the Doukhobors in Canada and abroad, and adopted by Doukhobor leader Peter V. Verigin in Siberian exile, found fertile ground among an uneducated, mystically inclined group of sectarian zealots and exerted a definite influence on the formation of the radical wing of the Doukhobor movement. In this Doukhobor Genealogy Website exclusive, Dr. Inikova offers an in-depth and critical examination of how the Freedomite movement in Canada was to become the unanticipated fruit of Tolstoy’s frequently misinterpreted ideas. Originally published in the Russian journal “Religiovedenie” [Moscow, Blagoveshchensk, No. 3, 2002]. Translated from the original Russian by Jack McIntosh.
In Russia, few people have heard of Canada’s “Sons of Freedom” or “Freedomites.” In recent years, two Russian newspaper articles are most likely all that the general reader might have read on that theme. There is a complete absence of scholarly publications on the Freedomites, although in Canada numerous academic works have been written about them, and newspapers have been full of articles and news items about their antisocial activity, sometimes filling whole columns. For almost a hundred years, the Freedomites have kept Canadian society in a state of tension, organizing acts of arson against schools and private homes and enterprises, bombing of railway and power lines, and scandalizing respectable citizenry by disrobing in public places and staging “nude parades” along the roads of Canada.
The Freedomite movement, an extremist socio-religious trend, originated among that portion of the Doukhobor sect that had come to be known as “Fasters,” those Doukhobors who in 1895, after proclaiming their pacifism, burned their weapons in the Transcaucasus and were driven by acts of government repression to resettle in Canada. The paradox was that the ideology of the Sons of Freedom, like that of the other Doukhobor-Fasters, was based on high ideals of non-violence. Moreover, the social and ethical aspect of the doctrine espoused by the Doukhobor-Fasters (non-participation in violence and exploitation, vegetarianism, renunciation of luxury, and communal way of life), adopted by them in 1893-94, had coalesced under the powerful influence of the ideas of Leo Tolstoy as propagated among the Doukhobors by “Tolstoyans” D. A. Khilkov, A. M. Bodyansky, S. T. Prokopenko, and N. Dudchenko, all of whom had lived since 1892 in the Transcaucasus. Not only did they conduct discussions and distribute publications of the “Posrednik” publishing house set up by Tolstoy and V. G. Chertkov, but Khilkov and Bodyansky, using the traditional genre of Doukhobor psalms, also composed catechisms for a “new” set of teachings that had not yet been accepted even by the Fasters. Their propagandistic activity was crowned with success only because many of Tolstoy’s ideas had been accepted by the leader of the Doukhobor-Fasters, Peter Vasil’evich Verigin, who since 1887 had been in Russia’s far north in administrative exile, all the while maintaining continual contact with his supporters through messengers. Through the efforts of the Tolstoyans, the struggle for power typical of religious sects had been turned into a socio-religious movement destined to cause many problems for authorities at all levels.
In 1855, while still a young man, Tolstoy had expressed the need to create a new religion “purged of faith and mystery, a practical religion, one not promising future bliss, but bringing about heaven on Earth.” He understood that it would be a difficult task requiring more than one generation, but “some day fanaticism or reason” would accomplish this, Tolstoy wrote in his diary. His friends and followers went further: they attempted to utilize Tolstoy’s teachings as a lever by which, as I. M. Tregubov wrote in 1889 to D. A. Khilkov, it would be possible to “turn life around,” that is, to destroy both state and church. To this end, it was necessary to spread this teaching among the rationalist sects, especially the Doukhobors, Molokans, and Stundists. In another letter to the Tolstoyan P. I. Biriukov, Tregubov emphasized that the most suitable sectarians for this purpose are the ones who “are distinguished by extraordinary self-denial, to the point of self-crucifixion,” that is, simply put, fanatics. A. M. Bodyansky also extolled the self-denial of people of deep faith. Doukhobors, or so it seemed to the Tolstoyans, entirely met these requirements.
From 1895 on, all the activity of the Tolstoyans was concentrated on the Doukhobor-Fasters: The Tolstoyans endeavoured to let the world know about their struggle against militarism, about persecutions by the government and the suffering of these true Christians, provided them with financial assistance, and later organized their resettlement in Canada and helped them become established in their new location. Not only was Tolstoy familiar with the details of all the events taking place in “Dukhoboria,” but he was at the centre of the campaign to furnish aid to the persecuted. He repeatedly expressed in letters and conversations that the “Doukhobor cause” was most important and that it was totally absorbing him. However, neither Tolstoy nor his friends were aware that they were dealing not with a rationalistic but a mystical sect in which their leader is the very incarnate Son of God, Christ. They had no idea of the immense danger inherent in fanaticism and what kind of repercussions could result from intellectual ideas sown within an uneducated, mystically inclined people. The Freedomite movement in Canada was to become the unanticipated fruit of Tolstoy’s frequently misinterpreted ideas.
When they were resettling the Doukhobor-Fasters in Canada, the Tolstoyans saw their task as that of building in a free country a “Kingdom of Truth and Love.” However, even at the time of the move, those who were closely associated with the Doukhobors and those Tolstoyans who accompanied them en route noticed that very many of their wards were by no means keen on living communally, and that among the Fasters there were some who continued to eat meat, drink and smoke. However, that did not arouse Tolstoy’s suspicions. He believed that living people have shadows, and as he wrote to one of his English followers, Arthur St. John, who assisted the emigration of the Fasters and noted vices in their midst that were a disgrace to Christians, it would be “very useful [for the Doukhobors] to have such friends as you and our other friends. You are serving them conscientiously, reminding them of their principles, and with your help they are more keenly aware of their errors.”
In 1899 D. A. Khilkov, who had exerted so much effort towards expanding the Doukhobor movement in the Caucasus and who, quite naturally, understood better than others its true essence, became disenchanted with the Doukhobors. Once he had finally come to believe that “in no respect will anything propitious come of their settlement,” he departed from Canada, where he had helped them find land and get settled. His relations with the Doukhobors essentially had come to an end, although he continued to be interested in their life. However, in that same year, 1899, A. M. Bodyansky, a friend of Khilkov’s who had already become well known to many Doukhobors in the Caucasus, arrived in Canada from exile in Pribaltiisky kray [Baltic region]. He considered himself to be a follower of Tolstoy, was long in correspondence with him, participated in several Tolstoyan colonies and expended his whole large fortune in that cause. He had served out several periods of administrative exile for spreading Tolstoyan propaganda. Bodyansky was a man fanatically committed to an idea and for the sake of bringing it to fruition spared neither himself, nor his colleagues, nor his friends. He went to Canada with the intention of assuming the role of ideological mentor to the Doukhobors, who, in his opinion, were in need as never before “of spiritual food, models of good living, of live preaching in action.” In September, 1899, Bodyansky, who was destined to play an important part in the fate of the Doukhobors, was accepted into the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood created back in 1896 at the instigation of Peter Verigin.
In the very first years in Canada, the Christian Community showed signs of splitting. Canada opened up prospects for rapid accumulation of wealth for enterprising and industrious people such as the Doukhobors indeed were. According to Canadian law, every man from the age of eighteen had to right to an allotment – a homestead 160 acres in size, which he was supposed to make over to himself. Soon after arrival, the authorities required new settlers to assume ownership of the allotted lands. They were not prohibited from combining their homesteads, living in villages and working the land jointly, but formally, each parcel of land had to have its own owner. Thus at any time the owner of a homestead could leave the community. In this opportunity lurked great danger for the sect. Vacillation and doubts began to grow within the Doukhobor milieu. The situation that had developed was all the more dangerous in that once the sect was spared compulsory military service in Canada, the powerful unifying factor of having to contend with a government over the issue of military service had disappeared.
Bodyansky saw that for the “universal brethren,” as he often called the Doukhobors in his letters, the temptation of material prosperity was proving more difficult to withstand than the Tsar’s prisons and Cossack whips, that “the spirit of moral disintegration is very rapidly conquering” them, that the “beast of the flesh” that previously had been suppressed by religious persecution and “the blind sense of a herd moving in the footsteps of its leaders” had awakened. The hopes of Tolstoy and the Tolstoyans that the Doukhobors would create a Kingdom of Truth and Love were in danger of complete collapse. Both the Tolstoyans and those Doukhobors who had taken an active part in the movement immediately saw a threat that recent rebels would quickly become law-abiding Canadians. Both the former and the latter had a stake in impeding this process.
While still in Canada, Khilkov repeatedly wrote to Tolstoy that the Doukhobors were preparing to divide up the money collected for them and live separately. Setting his hopes on Tolstoy’s authority, he appealed to him to advise the Doukhobors to live as a commune. Reports of inclinations towards private ownership also arrived from other educated friends and helpers living among the Doukhobors. Impressed by these letters and stories, Tolstoy wrote a letter to the Doukhobors on February 15, 1900, in which he reproached them for accumulating possessions and forgetting their principles. “You see it only seems to us that it is possible to remain a Christian and still have property and keep it from other people,” he wrote, “but that is impossible. People must acknowledge this – or else in a short time, nothing will be left of Christianity except words, and unfortunately, insincere and hypocritical words… At first it may seem that between renunciation of violence, refusal of military service, and recognition of private property there is no connection… But this is not true. You see, property means that that which I consider my own, I will not give to anybody who wishes to take this thing of mine, but moreover, I will defend it against him. But to defend against another that which I regard as my own cannot be done except by violence, that is, if need be, by struggle, fighting, even killing. The teachings of Christianity cannot be taken piecemeal: it is all or nothing. It is all inseparably connected as a single whole. If a person acknowledges himself to be a son of God, then there flows from this recognition love for one’s neighbour, and in exactly the same way, love of neighbour entails rejection of violence, the uttering of oaths, military service, and property… Man does not need to provide for himself, as Christ himself said. He is provided for once and for all by God: just like the birds of the air and the flowers of the field.”
S. Prokopenko, who lived with the Doukhobors, wrote sadly: “I read Lev Nikolaevich’s letter to the Doukhobors and I see that he knows little of their state of mind. In the first place, he does not know that this is sectarianism in the extreme. In the second place, he does not know that within the Doukhobor midst violence is even greater that that meted out by the Russian authorities. I say “greater,” because there is no authority that can exercise such moral violence as Doukhobors do… Lev Nikolaevich does not know that the Doukhobors possess in the highest degree a land-owning spirit and have never been otherwise.”
Tolstoy’s letter was published in England in the series Listki Svobodnogo slova by V. G. Chertkov, very close friend of Lev Tolstoy and an active participant in the campaign to defend the Doukhobors (for which he had been exiled to England) and in the organization of their emigration. The Listki were sent to the Doukhobor settlements in large quantities, and the letter was reprinted several times in separate small-format editions. It became widely known among the Doukhobors, who were well aware of the immense assistance given them by Tolstoy while they were still in the Caucasus and during their resettlement in Canada, and they regarded him as their friend. Even today, this letter is well known among Canadian Doukhobors, and the Freedomites in particular.
Dissemination of this letter was also aided by the fact that current among Doukhobors was the opinion that between “Petiushka” (P. V. Verigin) and Tolstoy there existed some sort of special invisible bond, and that Tolstoy was preaching what he had learned from Verigin. You see, Petiushka also had advised them to live in Canada as a commune. True, he had not passed on anything concerning ownership of land. In the Transcaucasus the Doukhobors had lived on state land, and the question of the moral aspects of private ownership of land had never arisen. When the Doukhobors were getting ready to depart from Russia to seek out a place to live, they were entirely permissive in regard to land purchase. One of the respected “starichki” [elders], Nikola Zibarov, wrote to Arthur St. John: “As to whether we wish to rent or buy [land – S.I.], for us it would be good to have either in mind, that is, either rental or such lands as we might buy. What would be most convenient for us would be to settle in America on government lands, if that is possible.”
Most likely the Doukhobors could have found some sort of compromise on the land question or stalled until the arrival to Canada of Peter Verigin, whose term of exile was coming to an end in the summer of 1902. Much more acute was their reaction to the demand of the government for obligatory registration of marriages and reporting to the authorities the number of births and deaths. The Doukhobors considered this to be interference in the sect’s business. They had traveled to a free country where they could live according to their own laws. Here, however, instead of Russian law, which could be evaded by bribery, Canadian law stood as an impassable wall they could not get around. The Doukhobors became perplexed, frightened, and deeply indignant.
A. M. Bodyansky decided to take advantage of the situation that had developed by attaching a Christian slant, in the spirit of Tolstoy, to their imminent struggle for independence, this time from the Canadian state. Later, in a letter to Tolstoy, he wrote: “Accordingly, even if one were to acknowledge the government of Canada as perhaps the best of governments, one had to expect efforts therefrom to turn us into Canadians devoted to the interests of the new fatherland, and not to expect any help or sympathy at all in enabling us to be better sons of humanity. I found it necessary to protect the Doukhobors against the undesirable results of such government efforts. What was necessary in this regard? In the first place, it seemed to me essential to convince the Doukhobors that to achieve the goal of a better life, people ought not associate themselves with any national state “herd” at all. In the second place, it was essential to take up such a position with them that we would in reality not belong to any state herd… The moment had come when one had either to reject any striving toward a better life, or through direct ways of bringing this life into being openly express one’s striving towards it. And I seized the moment and came out onto the new stage all the more boldly because your letter to the Doukhobors in which you advise them not to be landowners, and its publication and wide distribution by Chertkov, compelled me to believe that I would find support in this cause.”
Impressed by Tolstoy’s letter, Bodyansky, in the name of the Doukhobors, wrote a declaration to the Canadian authorities signed by twenty-two elders, and in June 1900 the Doukhobors delivered it to the government agent in Yorkton. In this declaration they announced that they could not obey government laws that violate the law of God:
1) They cannot secure land for themselves, as it belongs to God, whereas “to secure land as the property of individuals or communities constitutes a profound violation of God’s law that will more than anything else impede the establishment of the Kingdom of God on Earth…”;
2) They cannot register weddings in a police book; they cannot go along with marriage unions being moved “from God’s jurisdiction to that of the police…”;
3) They see no need to enter births and deaths in police books, as the Heavenly Father knows this all anyway.
In an attempt to define Bodyansky’s role in the publication of the declaration, P. I. Biriukov wrote that this friend of Doukhobors, “in sympathy with those high Christian ideals, was, so to speak, the literate voice of the Doukhobors’ protest against the Canadian government.” They themselves accepted this protest more on faith than by agreement with its content. When Biriukov asked one of the signatories how it came about that the Doukhobors signed the letter, that person replied: “… you know that we are not clever enough to understand every word. And there were words we thought inappropriate for us, but B[odyansky] is a persistent fellow and always interprets things in his own way.”
Once they had so incautiously, using someone else’s words, proclaimed to all of Canada their rejection of land ownership, they felt compelled to continue to defend the position thrust upon them. The Freedomites became the staunchest defenders of this idea. To this very day a Freedomite settlement exists at Gilpin (near Grand Forks in the province of British Columbia), whose inhabitants not only reject land ownership, but even refuse to pay any taxes on it, on the basis that “the land is God’s.”
So as to deprive the Doukhobors of any opportunity to retreat, Bodyansky hastened to send this declaration not only to the Canadian government, but also to like-minded Tolstoyans in different countries, with a request to translate it into French and German and publish it in the newspapers so that the world would know of this new heroic deed of the Doukhobors. However, he himself had a very low opinion of the Christian virtues of the “universal brotherhood.” On July 8, 1900, Bodyansky wrote to V. D. Bonch-Bruevich, the future historian of religious sectarianism, who accompanied to Canada the fourth party of Doukhobors and helped them get settled: “Notwithstanding [their] world-renowned Christian exploit, it seems to me that there is very little true Christianity among them, at least, much less than among Orthodox peasants, not to mention the rationalist sects. And a terribly repulsive characteristic of the Doukhobors is a certain slyness attainable only by sectarians holding to a secret doctrine; also, their inordinate pride.”
Bodyansky set himself the goal of not letting the Doukhobors stop their forward movement or become complacent. Accordingly he strove to stir up Doukhobor society by all possible means. Evidently it was he who brought to Canada two letters written by P. V. Verigin, one of which, dated January 4, 1896, was addressed to Nikolai Trofimovich Iziumchenko, then serving out his exile in Siberia for rejecting military service, and the other, dated November 25, 1896, to the Tolstoyan Evgenii Ivanovich Popov. Although there is no direct proof that it was Bodyansky himself who acquainted the Doukhobors with these letters, it is quite obvious that he along with the most radical of the Doukhobors used them while composing a catechism for a new belief system in which the fundamentals of Freedomite doctrine were laid out. I would like to dwell on the content of these letters in some detail.
In his letter to Iziumchenko, Verigin philosophized on the theme of true Christian living. Clearly, some of the thoughts expressed in this letter were inspired by the philosophical writings and letters of Tolstoy that had been furnished in quantity in published and manuscript form by the Tolstoyans. But Verigin, accepting these thoughts as a foundation, attempted to develop them further, taking them to their logical conclusion, arguing them to the point of total absurdity. It is difficult to tell how sincere he was, but he was sure of the originality of his thinking. In this letter Verigin tries to allay in advance any suspicion of his having borrowed ideas from Tolstoy, remarking offhandedly: “In what does his [Tolstoy’s – S.I.] philosophy consist? I have not read his works. Only by hearsay do I know that he rejects the legitimacy of modern ‘civilization,’ that is, progress.” He wrote that the ability to read and write, which Doukhobors had always regarded with disfavour, ‘destroys the attraction of the personal encounter,’ and schools corrupt the morals of children. Moreover, “all of the things by means of which literacy is achieved are obtained by hard labour, and so we have to avoid any part in the enslavement of others, in whatever manner.” Verigin announced that he does not consider labour as basic to human life, but that if we moderate our needs, it is possible to get by in tranquility without working. Citing the words of Christ: “Man does not live by bread alone,” Verigin wrote that humanity is thereby liberated ‘from the slavery of physical, unnatural labour.” A person should assume the position of a guest on the Earth and return to nature. By being abstemious in his diet, a person could, in Verigin’s opinion, have a lifespan with what he possesses of one hundred years, and in that time the Earth would return to its original state, and “humanity, along with spiritual growth, lost by Adam and Eve, would also attain a natural heaven on earth” and be fed “legitimately” – with fruit. “People would gradually become used to bodily nudity,” Verigin reasoned further, “having taken off all clothing and eaten all their bread, humanity would arrive at its original state.” True Christians “should abandon physical labour and go to spread the Gospel, that is, Christ… If some want to work, let them, but we should work exclusively on behalf of Christ. The bread of moderation thus should be bestowed from our Heavenly Father on every person, whether he works or not: “the birds of the air sow not, neither do they reap, but they are satiated.”
In his letter to E. I. Popov, Verigin discussed marriage in the spirit of Tolstoy’s postscript to his Kreutzer Sonata. He proclaimed sexual relations to be sinful and advocated chaste upbringing of children. Incidentally, in this letter Verigin did not conceal the fact that these thoughts had already been expressed by Tolstoy: “The question of sexual relations or marriage has been treated in sufficient detail and reliably in a leaflet contained in letters sent to me. This thought is probably L. N.’s… I repeat that legitimate, clean upbringing of children would be most beneficial, as L. N. also points out. Then the difference in people’s lives would be greater than it is now.” On the subject of mercy, Verigin expressed the thought that mercy presupposes not only rejection of the killing of animals, but even of the use of horses. Expressing his opposition to civilization, he reproached E. Popov for being afraid of complete simplicity. Verigin, on the contrary, regarded returning to the sources as his goal, even if humanity were to revert to the world of the apes. “My soul has been in pain, dear Evgenii Ivanovich, looking at the fruits of civilization,” he wrote. Complete satisfaction in life, in Verigin’s words, he experienced when he observed people wandering aimlessly, especially in the forest. A person would not die in the forest, if he were eating grass and roots, and in a warm climate he could even do without clothing. “Even if I did have to die of the cold and hunger, I agree that it would be better to die with honour than to be a barbarian who lives a hundred years, but at the expense of one’s environment.”
Verigin’s letters were evidently discussed among the Doukhobors closest to Bodyansky and were received by them as a new Gospel from Christ – i.e. Petiushka. These people with total sincerity desired to live true Christian lives, following every letter of their leader’s new teaching. Continuing the work perfecting the Doukhobor belief system begun back in the Caucasus, Bodyansky recruited this group of Doukhobors to work with him on the composition of a new catechism that would reflect their spiritual advancement. The catechism was written in 1900 by Bodyansky, with the participation and approval of the elders. In it Verigin’s letters were used; to be more precise, the catechism was drawn up in such a manner that the ideas expressed therein were in harmony with what Verigin had written and with which Bodyansky, in the main, agreed. Bodyansky formulated their corresponding phraseology and added ideas of his own on true Christian living. In 1901, after Bodyansky had already left Canada, he published the catechism in Geneva in the form of a small-format booklet entitled Kniga zhizni khristianskoi ili otvetnaia rech’ veruiushchego o delakh zhiteiskikh [Book of Christian life or answers of the believer to questions on matters of everyday life]. The author discovered a copy in the Museum of the History of Religion in St. Petersburg.
This book sets forth essentially the whole of Freedomite doctrine, and those who took part in its creation became the leaders of the Freedomite movement. The Kniga zhizni … opens with the same question as the title of the well-known Doukhobor psalm “What manner of man art thou?” In the original, the answer that followed was “I am a man of God.” Here at once appeared a new understanding of life and one’s place therein: “[I am] a simple man.” Further on it states that truth lies in the words of Jesus Christ: “Be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect,” and in order to be perfect, one should live as Jesus did, that is according to God’s law. One can apprehend the law of God by means of “the voice of God in human understanding.”
In the Doukhobor belief system, inner revelation played a large part in apprehending God’s will, but in actuality it was their leader who uttered the will of God, and not every believer. According to the new teaching, each person should feel within himself the voice of God. The essence of God’s law is to strive for spiritual perfection, and for this it is essential to be free, wise, and meek. At this point it was explained how to understand these qualities. Let us take note of the prerequisites for a person to be considered free: “Not to have over himself any tsar or earthly superior, but to have God within himself as tsar, neither to lord it over people nor to subordinate oneself slavishly to others, neither to swear nor take an oath, neither to borrow nor be beholden, neither to hire nor hire oneself out, not to own property, not to enter into marriage, not to indulge the flesh, neither to have fatherland nor clan nor tribe, but to acknowledge all people as kinfolk, not to conform with human laws, but to be in all things a servant of one’s own clear conscience – that is what it means to be free.” To conform to human laws means to reject the laws of God. Clearly, these formulations are very strict and uncompromising.
It is well known that there had previously been no fasting among the Doukhobors. However, Bodyansky included in the book a section entitled “On fasting,” asserting that “power of spirit over flesh” is achieved thereby. In the section “On instruction” he affirmed that the simple ability to read and write is necessary for a person to be able to communicate with people. It is necessary to learn trades that are “needed for a simple life.” But one can do without scholarly learning, inasmuch as scientific, artificial knowledge brings little that is useful and much that is harmful. “Life goes on, and will itself find everything it needs. And only that is necessary for life which life itself attains simply through experience, while everything artificially acquired damages the simplicity and directness of its path toward perfection.” A man must work, but unselfishly and only to satisfy the needs of a simple and righteous life. Work that satisfies whims based on greed is disreputable. A man should be fed “with those things intended by God for the nourishment of his flesh: fruits, roots, greens and seeds – food from plants, not from animals.” And the use of leather and oils from animals was equated to the use of meat. However, the use of the labour of animals was permissible on condition that they be rewarded with feed and tending, but with this reservation, “for a person whose conscience allows this.” It was proposed that surplus domestic animals be set free: “If you do not keep them under compulsion, you will not [need to] feed them.” And meals should be prepared simply: “the less preparation, the greater the simplicity.” Clothing should also be just as simple, for the sole purpose of protecting the body from bad weather. It should be self-made, without adornment, and “the clothing of men and women should differ little.” Only those with families should have a permanent place of residence, while “there is no reason for a single person to curtail his freedom by attaching himself to one place.” Righteous Christians seeking a simple life were supposed to live “in warm and temperate” countries, “blessed with the fruits of the earth.”
The section on property and money is very interesting. “Property” is defined as “proof of the victory of the flesh over the human spirit.” Acknowledgement of land ownership is declared to be “a sin of folly.” Property and money, the Kniga zhizni… states, are the handiwork of the devil. “It is impossible to achieve perfection in life without first having rejected the use of money.” A man in whom the spirit is stronger than the flesh should remain celibate, and he who is married should live as brother and sister or may separate [from his wife]. Marriage is within God’s jurisdiction. Marriage is designated by God for procreation. “Therefore copulation between husband and wife only avoids the sin of adultery for the husband when it is required by his wife, and for the wife only when her maternal flesh requires conception.” No kinship in terms of birth in the flesh need be recognized, but only kinship in spirit, truth and way of life. Observers of the law of God should live communally in spirit, way of life, and flesh. The spiritual commune is the Universal Brotherhood, the commune of the flesh is the family. The chief business of the communal lifestyle is the Brothers’ Home – a place for the homeless, the ill, wanderers, a place of assembly and community workshops. The commune will attain perfection “when in it there will be no place of residence other than the Brothers’ Home – God’s temple, when there will be no everyday activities apart from those done in common, when there will be no property except communal property, and when Christ’s spirit will govern the commune.” The state, as well as industrial and commercial enterprises, was declared to be under the sway of the devil.
Such are the fundamental ideas contained in the Kniga zhizni…. Also included are long discourses, clearly incomprehensible to the simple peasant, on flesh and spirit, the origins of water and air, and so on. At the beginning of the century the Kniga zhizni was well known among the Freedomites. During my visit with them in the year 2000, I was interested in ascertaining whether today’s Freedomites are aware of its existence and how they perceive the doctrine expounded therein. After reading it through, all of those whom I asked unanimously recognized it as being in harmony with Freedomite beliefs and with the ideal pursued by the old-time Freedomites (and from which their descendents have long since deviated). Not only did the Freedomites in Gilpin acknowledge the printed doctrine as their own; it unexpectedly turned out that they are in possession of the book itself. About ten years ago it had come into their hands in manuscript form, lacking the first few pages, from an old Freedomite woman, whereupon it had been typed up and several copies given out. Quite recently it had been read and discussed at meetings. To be sure, Freedomites have not abandoned the memorization of psalms and stishki and their attachment to ritual that Bodyansky had spoken out against in his new catechism.
While living in England, Vladimir Chertkov and his wife Anna exerted a definite influence on the formation of the radical wing of the Doukhobor movement. During the first years, they continually supplied Canadian Doukhobors with large quantities of books, primarily those of their own “Svobodnoe Slovo” [Free Word] publishing house, with issues of the journal of the same title and with Listki Svobodnogo slova [Free Word Leaflets]. Among these books were many ethical and religious works by Tolstoy: Kratkoe izlozhenie Evangeliia [The Gospel in brief], O polovom voprose: mysli L. N. Tolstogo, sobrannye Chertkovym [On the sex question: thoughts of L. N. Tolstoy, collected by Chertkov], Mysli o Boge L. N. Tolstogo, sobrannye iz ego pisem i dnevnikov za period 1885-1900 g. [Thoughts on God by L. N. Tolstoy, collected from his letters and diaries over the period 1885-1900], and others.
The Chertkovs carried on a voluminous correspondence with the Doukhobors, endeavouring to exhort them, maintain their enthusiasm, and inform them of the admiration that their exploits were calling forth among sympathizers all over the world. Interestingly, among their addressees were many of the individuals who formed the nucleus of the Freedomite movement. The aforementioned Nikolai Zibarov lived for a time with the Chertkovs in England; later in Canada, he continued to be in close contact with them. He wrote to the Chertkovs: “We have also received all your books and L. N. Tolstoy’s letters that you sent to our address. We shall try to send the books around to those you have indicated. Another Doukhobor, Evdokim Popov, who shared the Freedomite world view, wrote to them: “The newspapers and booklets I am receiving from you are reviving me.” The Chertkovs exchanged letters with and sent books to A. Makhortov, a prominent figure in the new movement. “Such a booklet can be important for saving the life of any … send it, we will strive with you towards the love of God’s way of living,” was Makhortov’s appeal to them. The stream of literature and letters from the Chertkovs did not remain unnoticed by the local authorities. “Dear Annushka, I don’t know, but it seems the government is angry with you. The agent himself has more than once or twice stated that you are supposedly giving us instructions,” wrote Makhortov in another letter.
The official’s interest in Anna Chertkova was not unfounded. She had composed, specially for the Doukhobors, her Prakticheskii uchebnik angliiskogo iazyka, prednaznachennyi dlia russkikh poselentsev v Amerike [Practical textbook of the English language intended for Russian settlers in America], which the “Svobodnoe Slovo” publishing house published in the second half of 1900, presenting what were in her view the most important themes of conversation. This textbook was intended to help Doukhobors propagandize their views among Canadians. It included such phrases as: “All governments are founded on violence,” “they are maintained by armies, courts, prisons, and the police,” and “we can obey only what is not contrary to our conscience.” On the matter of registering marriage, divorce, and death, the Doukhobors were supposed to answer: “We will gladly answer accurately when people ask us, but we cannot promise anything”; “a promise binds a person’s conscience and action”; “even in small things we wish to be free”; “brotherly love is higher than fleshly love”; and “we do not seek pleasure in marriage.” Further on it speaks of schooling, social injustice, and land ownership: “we are not against schools, but we are not sympathetic to compulsory education”; “there are many harmful and stupid books in the world”; “if everyone believed it his duty to work, there would not be as many hungry poor folk in the world”; “we believe that private ownership of land should not exist”; “the person who is working on a piece of land now is the one who owns it”; “on the land question it is useful to read the works of two authors: the American Henry George and our Russian writer Leo Tolstoy. For several years the Chertkovs provided this textbook to Doukhobors, which undoubtedly furthered the spread of Tolstoyan ideas among the Doukhobors and the rise of the Freedomite movement.
Thus we see that by 1900 Freedomites already had a completely formulated and accepted doctrine. Moreover, some of them had begun to put the new ideas into practice. Their activity began with adoption of the simple life: they let their beards grow so as to be natural, whereas it had been traditional among Doukhobors to shave; they replaced the age-old brightly embroidered Doukhobor apparel with the plainest of clothing. Such a change was noticed immediately by everyone, and the rest of the Doukhobors were very disapproving.
The publication by Chertkov and Bonch-Bruevich of P. V. Verigin’s letters in England in 1901 contributed to an increase in the number of followers of the new teaching. Among these letters was the letter to T. Iziumchenko of January 4, 1896. Now it became the property not of a narrow circle, but of the whole community. Doukhobors considered it themselves duty bound to acquire this “new Gospel,” and parcels full of the Pis’ma… [Letters…] arrived in Canada. The Freedomite Nick Novokshonoff, whose father Kuz’ma was one of the first Sons of Freedom, has confirmed that the Freedomites “read these letters as they read other similar materials, carefully look into them and act upon them, albeit not without making mistakes.” The publication of Verigin’s letters served as a stimulus to the movement, a push towards moving from general discussion to action.
Meanwhile, tension between the Doukhobors and the government was growing. The Canadian government was perplexed, as were the English and American Quakers who had assisted the migration of the Doukhobors and had assured everybody of the law-abiding nature of the new settlers. The Doukhobors themselves were in a very ticklish situation. They did not know what to do: stay in Canada or look for new places to live, and they tossed and turned, unable to decide on anything.
At the request of the Canadian government, Aylmer Maude, an English follower of Tolstoy who had assisted the Doukhobor migration to Canada, wrote trying to convince them that acceptance of land does not contradict God’s law, as they would be able to work it in common. He also endeavoured to explain why they were being asked to register vital statistics. This letter caused the position of some Doukhobors to waver, and opinions were divided. However, A. M. Bodyansky and his close circle of Doukhobor associates obstinately continued to uphold the proclaimed three points. It is possible that Maude, who was well known and enjoyed prestige among the Doukhobors, could have succeeded in swaying the Doukhobors towards an agreement with the government, but Bodyansky, over his own signature and that of his very close companion-in-arms Fyodor Dutov, sent Maude a very harsh rebuke. It was distributed to all the villages through the collective efforts of delegated elders. A copy of the letter was sent to the Canadian government. On October 14, 1900, at Kamenka, in the northern colony (in what was soon to become northeastern Saskatchewan), where Bodyansky was living, as well as other Tolstoyans and some Stundists, Doukhobor delegates assembled in order once again to discuss the demands of the authorities. The response of the Doukhobors, judging by its style and strong social overtone, was entirely the work of Bodyansky. In the name of the commune he proclaimed that they recognize God alone to be the owner of land, and that land ownership is the cause of social injustice when those who are not working on the land own it.
In February 1901, delegates from the Doukhobors of the southern colonies addressed the government and all nations with an appeal in which they expressed the desire to leave Canada. They requested permission from the Canadian government to remain in Canada until they found a new refuge. The Doukhobors indicated a desire to settle on government-owned land and pay rent for it. At the same time they announced that they would not pay any taxes in support of the requirements of the state, that they were renouncing all civil rights and obligations and were content that their marriages and children from these marriages be considered illegitimate. Expressing their willingness to provide general figures for statistical purposes, they categorically refused to collect them systematically. The Doukhobors appealed to the governments of North America and Turkey with an explanation of their beliefs and a request to take them in.
Tolstoy knew what was happening among the Canadian Doukhobors, being informed by mail both by Tolstoyans and the sectarians themselves. Interestingly, Tolstoy spoke out against such an extreme approach to the land question and registration of vital statistics. On January 17, 1902, he wrote to Peter Verigin in Obdorsk that he was “very much against their refusal to accept land as private property,” because on more important issues “they are departing from the requirements of Christian living,” while here, for the sake of nominal recognition of ownership of land “they are throwing their lives into disarray.” That also applied to their refusal to register marriages and births. In another letter, written to Chertkov on April 19-22 of the same year, Tolstoy remarked that “here property itself is not being rejected, but only private property outside the commune, and I think this to be unimportant and on this account it is not worth quarrelling with the government and giving enemies a weapon to use against themselves and disturb their lives; moreover, much greater compromising decisions than this will have to be made: whether to go out to earn wages doing harmful work or use someone else’s money that has been acquired by evil means. The same goes for the refusal to give information. Of course, you are right, it is not for us to judge, but, as for me personally, I would not do this.”
In February 1902 the government announced that lands allotted to the Doukhobors but not yet signed for as of the first of May would be regarded as free, but later the term was extended by another six months. Evidently the Canadian authorities had been informed that on July 29th, P. V. Verigin’s term of exile would end, and they hoped that the issue would be resolved one way or another with his arrival. Some Doukhobors, not very many, it is true (in February 1902, eighteen families), had begun to make over plots of land to themselves and leave the commune to set up farms of their own. It became perfectly obvious that a portion of the Doukhobors were prepared to enter into an agreement with the government and subject themselves to Canadian laws. The Doukhobor community was impatiently awaiting the arrival of their leader to Canada.
By the spring of 1902 all the Doukhobors had already studied Verigin’s letters. Many interpreted them as a sacred commandment, and believed it necessary as his arrival approached to accomplish something very momentous for the spiritual growth of the whole Doukhobor community, to continue that movement towards Christian ideals which they had begun in the Caucasus and for which their leader had served fifteen years in exile. Besides that, the exit from the commune of even those eighteen families could turn into a chain reaction ending in the complete collapse of the sect. Only an explosion of religious enthusiasm, and new persecution and suffering, could unite them.
The conflict with the government, the activity of Bodyansky, the Chertkovs and other Tolstoyans, the publication of Verigin’s letters, the evident danger of assimilation, and the tense expectation of the arrival of “Christ” – all this prepared the way for the events that unfolded in 1902.
In the spring of 1902 the first preachers of Freedomite doctrine began to preach from village to village. “One woman is not dressing up in pretty clothes, she is walking around the settlements in simple gray apparel, she’s breaking mirrors and saying that we must destroy all temptations, because temptations have ruined people, temptations have forced the people to work hard,” Bodyansky was informed by his Doukhobor friend Evdokim Popov. “There should be freedom not only for horses and cows, but even the land has to be liberated. People should give total freedom to all creatures and to the land, so that the land will return to the original paradise in which Adam and Eve lived. Some are releasing their horses and cows and are beginning to do their work themselves. Hitching themselves to the plough are women and men, girls and boys. Others are starting to abuse, chase them around and beat them up. Some of them have quit using milk, butter, and eggs.” Even before that, the diet of the Doukhobors in Canada had been rather meagre. Now, however, the Freedomites had totally condemned themselves to a hungry existence. Early in May another Doukhobor, Vasili Potapov, reported in the same vein to Arthur St. John: “As you see, all of these people are striving towards perfection, but how they will achieve it, I do not know,” he concluded.
Both correspondents remarked on the fact that some Doukhobors had been going on very prolonged fasts, a phenomenon that had not previously been characteristic of the sect. Thoughts of liberating their cattle had been in their minds for a long time. As early as the spring of 1901, Evdokim Popov had written to V. D. Bonch-Bruevich: “My beloved brother, what do you think about the animals we torment day and night and do not see ourselves. God created truth not just for people, but for all living things. Dear brother, where will there be a master craftsman capable of designing such a plough as could carry two people and plough the earth?! Or a conveyance such that two people [could] carry several puds [an Imperial Russian unit of measure equal to 36.11 lbs). Or that there be justice on Earth.” Another Doukhobor, A. S. Popov, sharing his thoughts with Bonch-Bruevich, wrote: “Surely the Lord did not create animals for humans to oppress and constrain in order to maintain their worldly life? If I wish to be liberated from slavery, I then must not have slaves, for whatever you do not wish for yourself, do not do unto others.”
In the summer of 1902 a group of Doukhobors began to go from village to village, reproaching their brethren for forsaking the spiritual for the material and agitating for them to stop constraining their cattle and to let them loose into God’s freedom. It was at that time that the name of the new wave emerged: Syny svobody [Sons of Freedom] or Svobodniki [Freedomites]. Their advocates cited the New Testament (Romans 8, 19-21): “For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope, because the creature itself shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.” In a group letter to the Chertkovs, the Freedomites wrote that they had decided to let their cattle go free, because “all existing life is God and is present in all. And if we are to love God (the first commandment), then we must without fail love all beings, from the human being down to the smallest living creature, and we must bow down to the spirit of love and truth.” Such an all-embracing pantheism, the notion of God as nature or life, had not previously been characteristic of Doukhobors. Of course, they said that “there is not one place where God does not dwell,” and “where love is, there is God,” but nevertheless they conceived of God as Spirit existing separately from the visible world. They were borrowing these new ideas from Tolstoy’s teachings.
The Freedomites requested the Immigration Agent in Yorkton to find a place for their cattle “in a land where they would not suffer from the frost and could feed themselves without human aid that is unnecessary, in our opinion.” The Canadian government was at a loss as to what it was these peculiar people really wanted, who with such toil had acquired these cattle, and now were asking to release them.
Talks with the government went on for two months. The government declared that it did not possess such lands, and insisted that the Freedomites abandon their escapade. On August 17th herdsmen abandoned their cattle “to the will of God.” Some of them were caught by farmers, but the majority were rounded up by men sent by the government. These cattle were sold at auction, and the money subsequently used to feed those same Freedomites. In their aspiration to give all living things freedom and thereby become liberated themselves, these Doukhobors were completely sincere. Not only Canadians, but even their own kindred Doukhobors did not understand them and made fun of them. Withstanding their derision was more difficult than carrying heavy loads on their backs or hitching themselves to ploughs and wagons.
Because the use of animal skins was equated with the eating of meat, the Freedomites decided to do away with that as well. In the village they went from house to house collecting horse collars, harness, leather foot-ware, and fur coats and, after stacking them up, burned them.
Then the Freedomites demonstratively began to give away the money in their possession to the government agent in Yorkton, declaring that they wished to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and henceforth not be indebted to anyone.
On the whole, Tolstoy reacted approvingly to the appearance of this new wave in Doukhoborism. On August 20th, 1902 he wrote to I. M. Tregubov that as he was thinking about them, he experienced a feeling “similar to that which I would feel watching a person crawling up a mountain I should climb, who had already climbed high and was grasping for a ledge or branch by which he could immediately pull himself yet much higher, but from which he might easily slip and fall very far. I am afraid of this, but I cannot say anything to him, because I do not know how strong he is, and his very striving gladdens me. I do not agree that we should use violence against animals or children for their own good, although such a thought has somewhere crossed my mind”. In another letter to James Mavor dated November 30th, 1902, Tolstoy wrote: “I could find their conduct to be mistaken only if I were convinced that they were ignoring more important things than the use of animals. But as I do not know that, I cannot render judgment on them. While I would not have advised them to do what they have done, I nevertheless cannot help but admire their spiritually motivated self-denial.” Three years later, when a conversation at Yasnaya Polyana turned to the Doukhobors’ attitude towards animals, Tolstoy said “…that they are releasing animals is as it should be.”
With rare exceptions, the Tolstoyans also displayed a positive attitude towards the Freedomite initiatives. P. I. Biriukov had already long since abandoned leather shoes and wore “vegetarian slippers,” as Tolstoy described them. Evgenii Popov greeted this news avidly. He had written a book on working land without the use of cattle: Khlebnyi ogorod ili iaponsko-kitaiskoe ruchnoe zemledelie [The bread garden; or Japanese-Chinese manual land-tilling]. In a letter to P. V. Verigin after the latter had already arrived in Canada, he wrote that he was delighted with the news “that the brethren have decided to reject coercion and the use of domestic cattle, because this is the direct consequence of their refusal to kill and eat animals… We must use all our mental powers, do all possible experiments on working the land without cattle and without animal fertilizer, invent foot-ware and clothing without skins and wool and such like, and if all these experiments prove unsuccessful and useless, only then will we have the right to give up the struggle.”
The Freedomites hastened to resolve the issue over cattle, as they were preparing to leave Canada for warm countries where they would be nourished by “food from God” and live like Adam and Eve. Migration agitation enveloped not only the Sons of Freedom, but also other Doukhobors who did not entirely share the radicalism of their brethren. Many were convinced that as soon as Verigin arrived, migration would begin.
P. V. Verigin was delayed in Russia due to red tape in procuring an external passport; then en route to Canada he made a side trip to visit the Chertkovs in England. In the autumn of 1902, without waiting for their leader, the Sons of Freedom set off on foot “to greet the bridegroom” and spread the good news of the new doctrine. The pilgrimage began from the village of Truzhdeniye, where its initiators were living. Six families, including old people and children, started out, taking with them neither clothing nor food. They walked from village to village, and their ranks steadily increased by three or four families from each village. Different sources fix the number of participants in the trek from 1500 to 2000 people. The number of pilgrims might have been considerably greater had not P. V. Verigin’s mother spoken out against it. One of the Tolstoyans living in Kamenka at the request of V. G. Chertkov maintained a diary in which he described everything that happened in that period. In his conversations he tried to ascertain the reasons for the pilgrimage, as the Freedomites themselves understood them: “Where are you going?” “We are going into the world to restore Christ’s behest; we will go wherever it takes us, but we will not come back. It is not permissible for us to keep money, or iron – even needles.” – “Why do you not want needles?” I asked a girl of about sixteen. “Look here, our people want to free men from the mines, so they will not be tormented. We should feed ourselves only with fruits, vegetables, grain or fowl; we think we should be clothed in leaves, or go entirely naked, because to make clothing, iron and the digging of ore is necessary. We should not bury the dead, because in order to dig a grave, you need a shovel – iron. So if someone dies, we shall leave him on the road and walk on farther”… And one old man told us: “We came out to get away from smokers and vodka drinkers, everything is bad among us, we cannot do anything.” Some of them are taking with them neither needles, nor matches, nor knives, not even bags. Homes, bread, gardens, vegetables – they have abandoned everything, saying the communal treasury will list everything and sell it and the money will go to feeding them… In the north they have also removed clothing, fur coats, and so on. An old man sent a wagon, and they seized it for the treasury. In some villages they burned or tore apart vans. We must, they say, enter into a primitive state of being. Man used to have skin like animal horn, thick, and he was without clothing, except for something on his feet.” One of the wanderers thus explained his pilgrimage: “I myself do not know where I am going, but I feel the need to go. You see, this feeling – it is the voice, the spirit of Christ, which is sending me. He is the master, and I am his messenger, I do his will, the will of the Father. Man is a stranger on the Earth; a Christian should not live in one place. No matter that I could have got settled in one place and lived peacefully for myself. No, my conscience will not let me, because it is impossible to live in tranquility when people are perishing.”
For all the variety of their motivations, they all fitted within the framework of the new worldview and complemented one another. But behind them there stood deeper goals that were very important for the sect: through suffering to recover their dampened religious enthusiasm, to unite the Doukhobors, to build an insuperable barrier between them and Canadian society, thereby preventing assimilation of their community. The vast majority of the Freedomites of that time were unaware of the deep purposes underlying their pilgrimage. On the other hand, their leaders understood them perfectly well.
Singing psalms, the huge throng of poorly dressed, hungry people proceeded along Canadian roads, horrifying the inhabitants. It was already cold, and well-wishers tried to persuade the Freedomites to return to their villages, frightening them with the onset of winter, but they replied with a rhyming couplet: “Tomu zima, u kogo very nema” [It is winter for one who lacks faith]. During the trek the Freedomites dined on raw vegetables, apples, and bread given to them by tender-hearted Doukhobors and Canadians, but there were also instance in which farmers came out with rifles to confront the wanderers. In uninhabited places the Freedomites gathered and ate wild roses and cranberries. They would spend the nights wherever they could, with people in the villages, in abandoned granaries, or in haystacks. It is a wonder nobody died of cold and starvation.
The police made an effort to return the Doukhobors to their homes, but they failed. Then the women and children were detained at Yorkton, locked in barracks, and the men allowed to go on farther. The Doukhobors had become very weak and exhausted from their wanderings and from hunger. November cold spells began, and many were compelled to return home. Only four hundred people walked as far as the town of Minnedosa. They were carted back to Yorkton and along with their families already there sent by train to their places of residence.
The Freedomites wrote concerning themselves “We are out of our minds for the sake of Christ….” They desired to place themselves on a level with the poor and not to possess anything except the spirit of God and love. They explained their vagrancy by saying that they must not care about that which is liable to decay, and that “the birds neither sow nor reap, yet the Lord feeds them.” The Freedomite pilgrimage was in complete accord not only with the Kniga zhizni… [Book of Life] and P. V. Verigin’s letter to Iziumchenko, but also with Tolstoyism in its original version. Tolstoy himself believed itinerancy to be necessary for a Christian. “That which you write concerning the need for a Christian to be homeless and itinerant was for me at the very beginning of my conversion a most joyous thought that explained everything and without which genuine Christianity is incomplete and incomprehensible,” he wrote in 1903 to E. I. Popov. The life of a wanderer followed organically from Tolstoy’s teaching, and what is more, from the Gospel. And, to be sure, the type of the Tolstoyan tramp existed in small numbers in Russia.
In December 1902 Peter Verigin arrived in Canada. The first thing he did was to tour all of the villages trying to calm people down, and he met with the leaders of the Freedomites. After expressing a high opinion of the pilgrimage, Verigin advised all of its participants to return to cattle-raising and the use of money. He declared that Canada was the very country in which Doukhobors could flourish, and that the guarantee of their prosperity is communal life, and another important prerequisite for their success is livestock, especially draught animals. To the Freedomites’ objection that sons of God should not use force against animals, Verigin replied that horses will be their co-workers and members of the commune: they would be working together to feed themselves. The “horseless ones” who had come many miles on foot to meet the leader, were disheartened by such an announcement. But the vast majority of the Doukhobors followed their leader’s counsel. However, a small group “had doubts about returning to their corrupt possessions,” seeing in this a violation of God’s law.
P. V. Verigin settled the land question just as quickly. He persuaded the Doukhobors to fulfill the requirements of the authorities, and two thousand five hundred homestead applications, filled out and signed, were handed over to the officials. Later, when in 1907 the government began to demand of the Doukhobors acceptance of citizenship, threatening them otherwise with leaving them only fifteen acres per head, Verigin purchased lands for the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood in the wild mountains of British Columbia, further away from civilization, and the majority of commune members moved to the new location. As they purchased the land, the Community Doukhobors were overlooking what they had quite recently declared about the land belonging to God and that it could not be bought or sold. Community members paid to their central office taxes on the land, whereupon the managers settled with the government. However, the idea of the land being God’s, which had earlier captured the minds and hearts of the “radical Freedomites,” could not disappear without a trace. The Freedomites were a great hindrance to Verigin, who had launched feverish activity in the purchase of inventory and livestock for the commune, and the construction of mills and elevators. He could not bring himself to take any repressive measures against them, as he himself had written about the things they believed in and were preaching.
After the pilgrimage of 1902, the authorities decreed that the Freedomites be settled in three villages in the south colony and in three villages in the north colony. In these settlements policemen would periodically call in to observe the behaviour of the inhabitants. The authorities undertook to supply the Freedomites with provisions; the latter demanded that they be brought “legitimate food”: fruits and vegetables, and they refused flour. On principle the Freedomites did not wish to work, as they had abandoned physical labour. The winter and spring of 1903 they spent in painful meditation as to how they should now live and how to understand the leader who suddenly had renounced what he himself had recently written in his letters, which still represented, in their opinion, true Christianity.
In the spring of 1903 a group of Freedomites began to walk about the villages in the nude, preaching renunciation of physical labour and a return to nature. The Freedomite E. Vlasov explained the reasons for disrobing as follows: “As the Lord God created Adam naked, and we were born naked, we uncovered our flesh to display our love, if only by coming naked to approach God with pure hearts. We walked naked around the villages, begged the people not to enter into their corrupt possessions and to be like us, revealing the new life.” Another Freedomite, A. Makhortov, in a letter to the Chertkovs, emphasized that “it is necessary to pay heed to the lawful life and how Christ and the apostles lived. They achieved such perfection that they could go naked…” and further on he continued that he was still disquieted by the thought “that I find in myself a sinful body, I am ashamed of everything – can it really be that God created this? No, that is not right. This is my responsibility.” The Freedomite F. Riazantsev supposed that Adam and Eve soiled their white apparel by their sin, while Freedomites had gotten rid of passions and sin and “then we took off our clothing – manufactured by human hands, and broke the seal of the sin for which the human race is answering. We killed that sin in the flesh, in our natural state called in on all the people, putting on white apparel such as human eye has not seen from the beginning of time.”
Under the influence of the new teaching, with its incessant striving back to nature, the entire way of life of the Freedomites changed. They turned against bread, because they wanted to prove by their example that one could live “being fed by God.” “These are the foods we are now using: raw foodstuffs: oatmeal, potatoes, beets, radishes, carrots,” Makhortov was describing the life of the Sons of Freedom in a letter to Tregubov. “But even that food is not lawful, it is contrary to our conscience. We are using it because we do not have any fruit. And our main food should be fruit grown by God himself to feed mankind. We are eating raw vegetables because by this we are preaching before the eyes of the people that they should believe in nature, and that a person can live without bread.” At that time they were even eating in a special way: taking turns biting from a turnip or potato so as to stress equality. And if something had to be cut, they would use a stone. Freedomites even tried to feed themselves on ordinary grass, like peaceful herbivorous animals. Naturally, such experiments were not greeted with understanding by those around them.
Freedomites ceased interring the dead, it being impermissible to bury a corpse in the living earth. “It is imprudent for the sake of an unnecessary small matter to disturb moist Mother Earth by digging. For another thing, we must enter into the nature of Adam and Eve, that is, they did not have claws; they could not dig into the earth with their fingers; therefore, that is also unnatural for their descendents.”
After the treks of 1902 and 1903, religious pilgrimages became a tradition and turned into a sort of ritual. Every year in the spring, Freedomites set off on foot preaching around the Doukhobor settlements, and in cities near and far. In these marches, fifteen to twenty persons would take part, but in 1907 at Fort William, Ontario, eighty people participated. It became a common occurrence for them to walk along the street of their settlement or around it in the nude, singing psalms. A Freedomite would always carry a canvas bag with a change of clothing so that it would be possible at any moment to set off on a pilgrimage.
The Freedomites renounced the family, for marriage too amounts to bondage and violence. Makhortov wrote in 1904 to the Chertkovs: “And to have a peaceful life and long-lasting peace in one’s soul, I think that evil arises from appropriating something as one’s own, even, truth to tell, a wife. You live with her in the flesh, and that’s all you think about. If she happens to chat with someone about some necessary matters, I am seized with jealousy, and think the worst. And that’s how she lives, and it’s the fault of you and that brother. Thus evil emerges. It occurred to me that the law of God teaches us to love even our enemies, and I decided to live with her as brother and sister: spiritually. Only then did I begin to love everybody.” “We regard everyone as brothers and sisters, there are no husbands and wives,” Makhortov developed this theme in another letter: “All women are virgins who should prepare the lamps and meet the bridegroom, Christ, chaste.”
The sex question, to which the Tolstoyans in their letters devoted much space and which proved beyond their powers, the Freedomites resolved quickly and in a fundamental way. They entirely did away with the concept of marriage. Makhortov cited as an example for emulation the Virgin Mary, who, in his words, when God demanded it of her, gave birth to Jesus, and did not get married. The men and women slept apart, and engaged in sexual relations only when a woman wanted to have a child. Even in such an instance “a sister should make a baby openly and freely, with whomever she chooses.” Makhortov and others believed that conception is a natural thing, and should be performed in the presence of others. Indeed, over a twelve-year period two such babies were born among Freedomites. On the other hand, children were now free, no longer tied hand and foot to their mothers. It is interesting to note that the women enthusiastically supported all these ideas about family and marriage. In the Kniga zhizni khristianskoi [Book of the Christian life] it is written that man and woman should differ as little as possible externally, and the Freedomites endeavored to wear floor-length wide cotton shirts that were identical for both sexes.
The Freedomites reduced their material needs to a minimum. They would work only when necessary to earn money to buy some absolutely essential material object. They would not work for future benefit, but lived one day at a time, as indeed the Gospel calls upon believers to do, and as Tolstoy had advised in his famous letter.
Peter the Lordly, as the Doukhobors had begun to call their leader in Canada, was unable to do anything with the Freedomites. One day near one of the villages, upon meeting Verigin riding in a char-à-banc, the Freedomites attempted to unharness the horse and unseat its rider. Their action greatly angered the leader, and he promised them each “twenty-five hot ones.” Verigin forbade the communal Doukhobors from allowing Freedomites into the villages to sleep over or to give them bread. After convincing themselves that the rest of the Doukhobors would not accept what they were advocating, twenty-eight Freedomites set off for Yorkton on foot. Three miles out, they disrobed and walked into the city in the nude. They were arrested and sentenced to three months imprisonment. Verigin was allowed to take the brethren back on condition that they would promise to live submissively. He tried to persuade them to give him their word, but had to leave empty-handed.
For the Freedomites, those three months served in a Regina jail were an absolute hell. They refused to come out to work or obey the orders of the prison administration, so as not to be accomplices to the violence which the jail represented. They even refused to attend to their own needs, because they had not ended up there voluntarily. They requested Christian food: fruits, vegetables and nuts, and refused to eat anything else. For this the jailers cruelly mocked them: they beat them unconscious, poured ice water over them, stuffed a man’s head into a chamber pot until he began to choke, and so on.
Verigin gradually began to apply ever more radical measures against the Sons of Freedom: he called upon the Community Doukhobors to drive out the Freedomites by force; he himself sent for the police when they organized a prayer session around his house. No admonitions or punishments of any kind were of any avail. The impression was that the Freedomites had gotten out of the leader’s control.
We are confronted with a most important and complex question, that of the Doukhobors’ attitude to their leader and his role in the Freedomite movement. As mentioned, Doukhobors believed that Christ abides in the flesh of their leaders. Although this was kept in greatest secrecy, it was impossible to hide it from the Tolstoyans who lived with the Doukhobors in Canada. The Tolstoyans were surprised, and wrote to one another and to Tolstoy about this, but nevertheless they continued to think that the Doukhobors were perceiving their leader-Christ as a prophet, a chosen one of God, a man who had achieved the highest degree of perfection. Some guessed that the Doukhobor Christ was not just a prophet at all, but was in essence the Son of God. In the summer of 1901, Matryona Krasnikova and thirteen other Doukhobor women wrote a letter to the Canadian government which produced a bombshell effect on everyone:
“Enough of your boasting of your rights, authorities, and superiority! Who is higher than the King of Heaven and God? God created the sky and adorned it with all heavenly beauty: the sun and its rays, and the moon, and the stars in their glory… Our Lord is high above all tongues, as are his blessings and to all ages his mercy… This Lord is our guide Peter Vasil’evich Verigin. His beauty is in his exceeding wisdom; in flesh he is pure. We strive towards Him, honour him as God and King and with fervent desire submit ourselves to his authority.”
These Doukhobor women were expressing the traditional point of view regarding their leader. Verigin himself, not denying the presence of the Divine Spirit within himself, explained that Christ is not God, but an angel of light sent by God. In Canada – and this had evidently begun back in the Caucasus – as a result of all the events they had endured and Tolstoyan propaganda, certain changes had taken place in the religious world view of the Doukhobors. Some Doukhobors had begun to believe that God overflows everywhere in nature, that he is in every creature and in every person. An expression such as “God in one’s soul” they began to take literally: Every person is God, one to a lesser degree and another to a greater degree, while the leader most completely incarnates this Divine Spirit. Doukhobors connected this with their old ideas of the God-leader and elevated the Divine essence within themselves. Naturally, given such an approach, the importance of each person’s inner revelation grew. Based on this, all thoughts and decisions that came into the heads of any of the Freedomites was accepted by them all as the voice of God. But this voice, if we follow their ideas, was the voice of the very Divine Spirit that in the most complete form was incarnate in their leader. And if this Spirit prompts them to do something, then that means that their leader has sent them to perform a heroic deed or to suffer. By spoken word the leader might, on the contrary, dissuade, verbally abuse or beat them, but this is done intentionally, firstly, to test whether the faith of the Freedomites and other Doukhobors is strong, and secondly, the leader must conceal who he is; otherwise, they will crucify (i.e. kill) him as they did Jesus of Nazareth.
Because this aspect of Freedomite belief was kept in strictest secrecy, any testimony from participants in the movement is for us most valuable. In 1905, one I. Mulchenko, a Tolstoyan of Ukrainian peasant origin who had previously lived in the United States, affiliated himself with the Freedomites. This is what he wrote in 1906 to the Chertkovs: “The communalists venerate Peter Verigin as Christ and God; they have even said that to my face. As for the Freedomites, I had not been aware that they acknowledge him even more as God than the communalists do. They say that he created everything that exists. In my presence they held back, but then blurted it out. Then later they began to criticize him – Peter Verigin, that is – and began to call him “king of the communalists.” I was right there among them, and I could see that this was a pretense, as they had totally acknowledged that he is God, and that he even provides the rain. At that point I could not agree, and began to say to them that he is not God, but a son of God and our brother, as are all such people, and I began to point to “Uncle” L. N. Tolstoy and to them. You see, I said, Tolstoy and Chertkov are also such people – they are sons of God, and he is a son of God, and all people are sons of God, and all are brothers to one another. Alyosha Makaseyeff and Vasili Strelaeff began to be displeased with me, and said: “Oh what kind of person are you, wanting to compare yourself to God! No, brother, he is God, and we are his children”… And he told me that when Peter orders the communalists to go after us and beat us, that is only because he is testing to see whether they will beat us or not… he thus divides us all into two parts, when he orders them to drive us away from here, and when he has divided us Doukhobors into two, he then will come to join us himself.”
Such a view of the leader and the purpose of his activities provided Freedomites with a pretext to reinterpret his words in their own way, investing in any of his pronouncements whatever meaning suited them. These notions have been maintained among Freedomites right up to the present day. Never in the Caucasus had there been any such reinterpretation of the words of leaders, never such “upside-down thinking.”
The first destructive act carried out by Freedomites was the destruction of a strip of mature wheat. Incidentally, they had grown this crop themselves without even the use of animals. Present-day Freedomites describe this occurrence as follows. Peter Verigin had arrived in the south colony at the village of Truzhdeniye, where he was shown the strip of mature wheat. He was pleased and said: “Very, very good bread-grain. Now [you] can bring it down by the heads.” Everyone understood that it was time to begin harvesting, but the Freedomites interpreted his words in their own way. During the night, eight men hitched to a wooden roller flattened part of this wheat crop, while two women stood praying and singing: “Bravely, friends, do not lose courage in your unequal battle.” One of the participants, A. Makhortov wrote about this incident, that “again our hearts were moved by the Lord to engage in spiritual work,” and that their purpose was “to show that we should not place our hopes on human science, but on God.” In another letter he explained the reason for this act even more clearly: “And we rolled the heads into moist Mother earth in order to show an example for all the people that from now on we must not disturb her, but she, moist Mother earth, should provide for man, as assigned by our Lord, fruits and vegetables.” The communalists gave them a beating, and at that the matter came to an end. However, on the fifth day after the destruction of the wheat, “The Lord revealed” to them the idea of burning a binder, as machines destroy the boundaries set by the Heavenly Father and violate moist Mother Earth, and all human inventions will be consumed by fire.” People ran up to put the fire out. Peter Verigin reported the Freedomites to the police. The arsonists were arrested and sentenced to six months in jail. Two of them did not return alive. The Freedomite V. V. Popov explained their action as follows: “… we burned an English factory-made implement by which people and every living creature are enslaved and killed, like tools of war; we burned the harvest-reaping machine just as we burned the weapons of war in Russia. Moreover, we intended to burn all machines and all depravity-creating factory-made equipment, but the Satan-serving Canadian government arrested us.”
Many years later, the son of one of those involved in the burning of the binder, Nick Novokshonoff, tried to explain the action of his father and other Freedomites: “Looking far into the future, the Freedomites condemned science and its various achievements, including the machine. They foresaw that all these conveniences achieved by science would not bring good to mankind, but the opposite – evil, unhappiness, and even death. In their pursuit of glitter, people are losing faith in God and are even forgetting him… The Freedomites burned the binder for that very reason, because it was the first machine that the Doukhobors had acquired.” The destructive activities of Freedomites were directed against civilization and its fruits.
Bodyansky’s reaction to these actions, observed from afar, is interesting. Although in a letter to Makhortov he called the Freedomite antics mistaken, he did not condemn them: “And I can by no means cast upon you even a shadow of condemnation. On the contrary, I sympathize with you whole-heartedly and with all my thinking I commend you, notwithstanding all your mistakes. And I say this: go ahead, press on toward the new life. It is better to live there, even if you make mistakes, even if you stumble at every step, than to be paralyzed on the spot, accepting spiritual death and turning from a human being into a lower creature.” Bodyansky held the Freedomites in high regard, considering them to be superior to the communalists, believing communal life to be the very lowest form. Bodyansky called attempts by Freedomites to return to the primitive state “a highly genuine, vitally important aspiration,” understanding this to mean simplicity of physical life. He believed, as did the Freedomites, that culture and science enslave and corrupt a person and make him insincere, and all of the behaviour of his friends, including the burning of the binder and public copulation, Bodyansky considered as a protest against “cultured hypocrisy and deception” and he believed it to be “a matter of the greatest importance, in every way deserving of imitation.” Bodyansky even regarded with sympathy the Freedomite aspiration to walk around in the nude, as “there is no sense in covering oneself up out of shame.” What he did reprove them for was that while exposing hypocrisy, they were tolerating violence and artificiality in their actions,” acting not out of necessity, but with deliberation. The Freedomites in turn wrote Bodyansky touching letters, believing him to be a person close to them in spirit: “Dear old Aleksasha, although we are in the flesh far separated from one another, yet by the spirit and our inner sense of the true path we are united.”
Leo Tolstoy also regarded the Freedomites with understanding. He censured Verigin for his passion for material goods: “They built a comfortable home for him, and he has servants. Despotic rule. Konkin is his minister. All this will fall apart. The nudes will come to the rescue,” he told Dusan Makovicky in August 1905. The next year, when P. V. Verigin traveled to Russia with a group of Doukhobors and visited Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy “began to speak in defense of those who had ‘disrobed’.” He referred to them as “spiritually alive.”
How could the Tolstoyan ideal of nonviolence, which the Freedomites also preached, be reconciled with their destructive and, generally speaking, violent acts? Let us first analyze the position of Tolstoy himself on this question. In 1901 in Russia, the peasants known as New Stundists – essentially Tolstoyans – living in the village of Pavlovka, Sumskii uezd [district], Kharkov guberniia [province], where at the end of the nineteenth century D. A. Khilkov and A. M. Bodyansky had led a propaganda campaign, destroyed a Russian Orthodox church. Tolstoy set forth his attitude toward this act in a letter to I. M. Tregubov as follows: “As to whether the Pavlovtsy acted well or badly when they destroyed a church, of course I would say, badly, just as badly as people who have destroyed a factory not built by them and needed by others. However, there is an extenuating circumstance, namely, that the church has been distorting the great teaching that people need, just as it would be an extenuating circumstance for those who had destroyed a factory that manufactures instruments for killing and executions.” So Tolstoy, albeit with reservations, allowed for the possibility of destroying somebody else’s property in the name of a higher purpose. As far as his own property was concerned, that was apparently not up for discussion. Everyone is free to do with property as his conscience dictates.
Accusations against the Tolstoyans streaming from the pages of the Russian Orthodox missionary press, blaming them for the actions of the New Stundists of Pavlovka, stung Tregubov and the Chertkovs to the quick. In 1902 they questioned sectarians about the permissibility of violence. They received replies from Freedomites N. Zibarov, G. Plotnikov and G. Kanygin. To the question as to whether is it a good or a bad thing to revolt against oppressors and kill rulers, they answered in an entirely Christian spirit that it is necessary to pray for one’s enemies and turn the other cheek. To the question about whether it is a good or a bad thing to destroy Russian Orthodox churches and icons, they answered very evasively: “It is not good to smash a church, because for God a person is a church and temple of the living God and icon,” while they do not wish to attend a church made by human hands; that is, they are again talking not about a church building as such, but about killing a person who constitutes God’s temple. Those who dispersed the orthodox church of Christ acted badly. Again, by the words “orthodox church of Christ” the Doukhobors did not mean the Russian Orthodox Church at all, but the inhabitants of Pavlovki and themselves. On the question of destroying an Orthodox Church, they did not give a negative answer. Further they amplified by saying that if something is theirs, they may get rid of it if they don’t need it. “And as for them [the Pavlovtsy – S. I.], as their conscience allowed, so they acted.” If, however, the opinions of owners diverged, “and some wish to destroy while some wish to preserve, they then should destroy only that which is within the sphere of their free will and conscience.” No unambiguous condemnation of violence follows from this kind of reasoning, but loopholes remain in the form of “willpower and conscience.”
As he explains the Freedomite conception of violence, the modern-day Freedomite T. Savinkoff says that “it is based on the idea that if material goods are the cause of all divisions and discord, it would then be more prudent for people to sacrifice material goods and remain alive themselves as brothers and sisters, even if naked, but alive and safe,” that is, for people’s own good, for a higher purpose, it is permissible to sacrifice material blessings – that is, property. Clearly, the position of the Freedomites on this issue turns out to resemble that of Tolstoy.
From the beginning, of course, Tolstoy’s teachings disseminated among the Doukhobors had been distorted by Verigin and his close circle. But even when preached by the Tolstoyans themselves, they passed Tolstoy’s ideas through the prism of their own worldviews and experiences. Khilkov, after his journey to Canada, aligned himself with European revolutionaries, became disillusioned with pacifism, and, as is well known, fell as a volunteer soldier at the front during World War I. Bodyansky had an extremist mentality. Once when the appeal of the Chertkovs and Tregubov “K russkim sektantam” [To Russian sectarians] came into his hands, he unexpectedly expressed himself frankly on the theme of nonviolence. He wrote that the cornerstone of Christ’s teaching was not the doctrine of nonviolence, but “the way of Christ,” that is, the aspiration to a higher life, in his view, that a “revolutionary user of force, laying down his life for others (according to our beliefs), is closer to Christ than someone jabbering only in the language of a Christian non-resistor.” Bodyansky admired the Beguny [or “Jumpers” – a radical Russian sect] of Kherson, who starved themselves rather than submit to the census, and the Pavlovtsy, who desired to suffer: “How great before the court of my judgement is the significance of a life of faith, and how worthless is knowledge of the truth without its application to life.” It is precisely this quality – living by faith – that he strove to inculcate in the Freedomites.
Ten years after the burning of the binder, Freedomites burned a very beautiful community building in the village of Otradnoye in Saskatchewan that had been built according to the wish and design of Peter the Lordly. Then once more a lull set in, and it seemed that the burning of the binder and the house in Otradnoye were regrettable atypical occurrences in the life of the Canadian Freedomites, who had completely dedicated themselves to self-perfection in the vineyards of the Christian life. For the most part, their public activity was limited to disrobing as a sign of protest against oppressive measures of the authorities. But from the beginning of the 1920s, when the government instituted a strict policy requiring the Doukhobors to accept English schools, burnings began anew, and there were times when several buildings would burn down in a single night. The destructive activity of the Freedomites was gathering momentum, and all this in the name of God and for the salvation of humanity. These people passed through prisons and insane asylums, their children were taken away to foundling hospitals and reform schools. They returned from such places sick, and some never returned. They would burn their own homes and live for ten years near the walls of the prison where their husbands, sons, and brothers were serving their sentences. All this so as not to go back on their precepts concerning God’s ownership of the land and living a peaceful life. But in spite of all their self-denial, they were doomed to defeat; they had no future. Some abandoned Freedomite ways, while others sank ever lower into vices concealed by verbose Christian phraseology.
I am reminded of a letter from Countess Alexandra Andreyevna Tolstaya to Lev Nikolaevich, in which she wrote of his responsibility towards those to whom he preached his doctrine:
Indeed self-denial is a virtue that is not easy and in general is not innate in humans. Will not the time come when, depressed by their awareness of the impossibility of fulfilling the prescriptions of the Gospel in their literal sense, they will become muddled in their thinking and fall even lower than before, however inclined to goodness they had been? Your responsibility towards them brings fear to my heart…
Dr. Svetlana A. Inikova is a senior researcher at the Institute of Ethnography and Anthropology of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. Considered one of the world’s foremost authorities on the Doukhobors, Svetlana has conducted extensive archival research and has participated in several major ethnographic expeditions, including field research among the Doukhobors of Georgia and Azerbaijan in the late 1980’s and 1990’s and a North American ethnographic expedition on the Doukhobors in 1990. She has published numerous articles on the Doukhobors in Russian and English and is the author of History of the Doukhobors in V.D. Bonch-Bruevich’s Archives (1886-1950s): An Annotated Bibliography (Ottawa: Legas and Spirit Wrestlers, 1999) and Doukhobor Incantations Through the Centuries (Ottawa: Legas and Spirit Wrestlers, 1999).
For more online articles about the Doukhobors by Svetlana A. Inikova, see Spiritual Origins and the Beginnings of Doukhobor History as well as Doukhobor Holidays and Rituals in the Caucasus.