Rediscovering the Lost Burning of Arms site in Azerbaijan

By Jonathan J. Kalmakoff

It is a familiar and cherished story – one retold by generations of Doukhobor Canadians for well over a century.

It was midnight on June 29th 1895 – the feast-day of Saint Peter – when over seven thousand Doukhobors in the Caucasus region of Russia – followers of Peter Vasil’evich Verigin – gathered all the firearms in their possession, heaped them onto a pile of kindling, doused it with kerosene and lit it aflame.  As these weapons of death and destruction twisted and melted in the bonfire, the Doukhobors gathered round and sang hymns of non-violence and universal brotherhood.  It was a peaceful mass demonstration against militarism and violence.  But it was met by violent reprisals and brutal retaliations by the Tsarist government.  Hundreds of Doukhobors were summarily arrested and imprisoned, while thousands were exiled from their homes to distant lands for their so-called act of ‘rebellion’.  The ‘Burning of Arms’, as this event became known, would become a seminal moment in Doukhobor history.

The Burning of Arms, a painting by Michael M. Voykin, Castlegar, BC (1974).

Students of Doukhoborism are generally aware that the Burning of Arms did not happen in a single place.  Rather, it was coordinated simultaneously in three different regions of the Caucasus where the Doukhobors had settled: in Akhalkalaki district, Tiflis province in what is now Ninotsminda region, Georgia; in Elisavetpol district and province in present-day Gadabay region, Azerbaijan; and in Kars region in modern Turkey.

However, while the precise location of the Georgian Burning of Arms site has remained widely known and frequently visited by touring Canadian Doukhobors to the present day, the corresponding locations of the Azerbaijani and Turkish sites had long since passed out of living memory among modern descendants. They are not identified in any modern history or text.

Thus, when I had the opportunity to visit the Doukhobor villages in Azerbaijan in July of 2015, I couldn’t resist the challenge of trying to locate the site of this momentous historic event in that region! 

Prior to departing on my trip, I carefully surveyed the published literature and found several important clues that would prove critical to identifying the location of the site. 

Countryside on the northwest outskirts of Slavyanka. The hill in the background is known among local Doukhobors as Orlov Bugor or the ‘Eagle Mound’. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

First, in his 1964 memoir, Ispoved’ starika dukhobortsa: vospominaniya o pereseleniy dukhobortsev v Kanady (‘Confessions of a Doukhobor Elder: Memories of the Resettlement of Doukhobors to Canada’), Vasily Vasil’evich Zybin recounted the following details about the Burning of Arms in the district of Elisavetpol (translated from Russian):

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

Second, friend and fellow Doukhobor writer D.E. (Jim) Popoff reminded me that another passage about the Burning of Arms in Elisavetpol could be found in Grigori Vasil’evich Verigin’s 1935 memoir, Ne v sile Bog, a v pravde (‘God is not in Might, but in Truth’), in which he wrote (translated from Russian): 

“In Slavyanka, the place for the burning of the weapons was selected about two miles away from the village. There was a grove there with some fruit trees planted a long time ago. This grove was well fenced and kept in good order by the Doukhobors. All the Doukhobors went there often in the summertime, performed the Divine Liturgy and had lunches, so that the grove was kind of a sacred place. The bonfire was placed in the proximity of that grove, over a thousand feet aside from it.  This was all done quietly and neatly, despite the fact that there were guards there who were supposed to report to the government if anything happened.”
Highway at the northwest outskirts of Slavyanka. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

These two accounts, each written by a first-hand witness to the Burning of Arms in Elisavetpol, were remarkably consistent.  Both identified that it took place: near Slavyanka, the largest of four Doukhobor villages in the district; at a spot three versts (an Imperial Russian unit of measure equal to 2 miles or 3.2 kilometers) from the village; near a grove of fruit trees.  Zybin also mentioned a mineral spring with slightly sour water nearby, while Verigin referred to it as a ‘sacred’ place of worship.

Taken together, these clues provided me with the distance from the village to the site, two geographic features in its immediate vicinity; and that it was a place of religious significance to local Doukhobors.  I now felt I was equipped and ready to try to locate the actual site, once I got to Slavyanka!

Before long, I was on my way, accompanied by eight other Canadian Doukhobors.  Over the course of three weeks, we visited former and present Doukhobor sites throughout the Caucasus.  As the ‘resident historian’ of the group, I shared my knowledge about many of the sites we visited.   For their part, the other tour participants shared my enthusiasm and excitement about visiting these sites, steeped in such history and significance!  In particular, Andrei Conovaloff, a Molokan from Arizona with a keen interest in Doukhoborism, actively assisted me in photographing and filming many of these places.  

View of Slavyanka from the main highway. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

After spending two weeks travelling in Turkey and Georgia, experiencing many adventures along the way, we finally made our way into Azerbaijan.  We arrived in Slavyanka, once the largest Doukhobor village in the Caucasus, now home to over three thousand Azeris, with less than a hundred Doukhobors remaining.  It was a lush, green oasis amid the dry grassy hills, with handsome houses all tidy and in good repair and an air of general prosperity.  After settling into our hotel, a clean, newly-constructed building overlooking the town, we piled into our tour bus and set out to explore Slavyanka.  No sooner did we reach the town centre, then we came across Grisha Zaitsev, a tall, lanky, friendly Doukhobor in his fifties who was genuinely excited to meet us.

View of Slavyanka from the main highway. The hill in the background is known by local Doukhobors as Kosavyi Bugor or the ‘Slanted Mound’. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

After mutual introductions and much spirited discussion between Grisha and our group, I asked him if he knew where the Doukhobors had burned their guns, over a century ago.  “I do not know what you mean,” he replied.  I went on, with other tour participants assisting, to explain the events of the Burning of Arms to him.  It quickly became apparent that he was not aware of the event.  This surprised me at first, given its tremendous significance to Canadian Doukhobors.  However, I quickly realized that Grisha and the other Doukhobors who remained in Slavyanka were descendants of the Small Party, whose members had never participated in the Burning of Arms.  Simply put, it was not a part of their own history; thus the memory of this event was not kept among them.

The writer beside a local Azeri (left) and Grisha Zaitsev (right). © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

Undeterred, I changed my line of questioning from the ‘event’ itself to the ‘site’ where it took place.  I began by asking Grisha if there was a fruit grove – a very old one – on the outskirts of the town.  “There are many groves in Slavyanka,” he affirmed, “Which one do you mean?”.  I recognized I needed to be more specific.  I then asked him if any of the orchards were located near a mineral spring.  “Oh yes,” Grisha responded matter-of-factly, “we have two such springs – the Nizhnyi Narzan (‘lower mineral spring’) and the Verkhnyi Narzan (‘upper mineral spring’).  “Aha!” I thought to myself, now I was getting somewhere!  But which of these springs was ‘the’ site I was specifically looking for?  I asked Grisha if the Slavyanka Doukhobors held moleniye (‘prayer meetings’) at one of the springs.  “I do not know about that,” he replied.  “You need to ask Masha”, he said, “she will know the answer.”  Hot on the trail of a new lead, our group piled into our tour bus, together with Grisha, who directed us to the house of the eldest remaining Doukhobor in Slavyanka.

View of Maria Strelyaeva’s house in Slavyanka, whitewashed with light blue trim in the traditional Doukhobor fashion. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

Several minutes later, we arrived at a typical ‘Doukhobor’ dwelling with sharp-pitched roof, verandah with decorative wooden beams, whitewashed walls and sky-blue trim along the eaves, verandah, door and window frames.  Maria (‘Masha’) Strelyaeva, the matron, was outside tending her flower garden.  She was a stern-looking diminutive woman in her late seventies.  However, her eyes lit up as soon as Grisha introduced our group and explained who we were.  After several minutes of friendly conversation, I explained, with others assisting, that we were looking for the site where our ancestors had burned their guns, over a century ago.  Like Grisha, Maria had no specific knowledge of this event.  I explained to her that it had taken place near a fruit grove and mineral spring, a short distance from the town, at a sacred place for local Doukhobors.  Maria paused to contemplate what I had told her.  I pressed on, asking her if the Slavyanka Doukhobors had gathered for moleniye at one of the two springs on the outskirts of the town.  This immediately struck a chord with her.  “Of course,” she answered without hesitation, “our people used to gather at the Verkhnyi Narzan to celebrate Troitsa (‘Trinity Sunday’).  I can take you there, if you wish.”  Once more, we piled back into our tour bus, this time accompanied by both Grisha and Maria. 

Canadian visitors and local neighbours at Maria Strelyaev’s home. (L-R): Brian Ewashen, Jarred Arishenkoff, Lisa Siminoff, Andrei Conovaloff, Alex Ewashen, the writer, Lyuba Konkina, another girl of mixed Azeri-Doukhobor parentage, Maria Strelyaeva, Verna Postnikoff, Linda Arishenkoff, Grisha Zaitsev. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

Maria directed our bus towards the southwestern outskirts of Slavyanka.  Our road followed a rocky and nearly-dry river bed.  “Kizilchak”, said Maria, pointing to the river, “that is what our people call it”.  I would learn that it was a Doukhoborization of the original Azeri name, Gyzyl Chai, meaning ‘Golden River’.  Pointing upriver, she went on, “Even before the Revolution, our Doukhobors followed the Kizilchak to Verkhnyi Narzan.  There we celebrated Troitsa, with prayers, singing and meals.”  This holiday was observed by Doukhobors on the seventh Sunday after Easter.  She went on to explain that Slavyanka Doukhobors continued to celebrate it during the Soviet era, in secret, until the Fifties or early Sixties.  I asked Maria whether the Slavyanka Doukhobors also celebrated Petrov Den’ there.  “No, we did not” she replied.  I would learn that after the Burning of Arms, the Small Party in Slavyanka ceased commemorating Petrov Den’ because of its association with that event, and celebrated Troitsa as their major holiday instead.

Kizilchak – the river valley leading southwest from Slavyanka to the ancient grove and mineral spring where Elisavetpol Doukhobors traditionally gathered to celebrate their festivals. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

Within minutes, our tour bus came to a jarring halt at our destination.  On one side of the road, to our right, sprawled lush, park-like grounds with well-kept groves of trees and carefully-tended gardens.  It was a veritable oasis paradise!  Maria explained that it was a resort hotel and spa complex, developed several years earlier by an Azeri businessman.  “But many of the trees here are much older than that,” she observed, “They were planted by our Doukhobors over a hundred years ago.”  I asked her if there were fruit trees here, and she nodded in affirmation.  If the trees here were indeed that old, I thought excitedly, then this could very well be the ‘grove’ described by Zybin and Verigin!  Such a place of great natural beauty would have been a prominent landmark amidst the surrounding expanse of treeless grassy hills then, as it still was today.

Part of the ancient grove beside the Verkhnyi Narzan spring. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

To our left, between the road and the Kizilchak, was the mineral spring – Verkhnyi Narzan.  It was surrounded by a small group of Azeri men and boys busily filling plastic containers with water.  Evidently, it was a popular and well-used drinking source.  As we disembarked from our tour bus, Grisha and Maria gestured and encouraged us to take a drink from the spring, which we did.  The water that bubbled out of the ground was incredibly cool, refreshing and invigorating!  It was carbonated, with a slightly sour taste.  As if on cue, Maria explained, “In the old days, our people called this spring Kvasok, because its water tastes sour like kvas” (a fermented drink popular in Russia).  I recalled in that moment that Zybin had described the spring water in similar terms, as being “sour, as pleasant as lemonade”.  Was this not the spring he had described?

The mineral spring traditionally known by Doukhobors as Kvasok, today known as Verkhnyi Narzan. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

I hiked up a hill overlooking the spring and grove and surveyed the surrounding landscape.  It was indeed a breathtaking view! The flat-bottomed valley of the Kizilchak abounded with fields of wheat, cabbage, potatoes and corn, along with herds of sheep grazing on the surrounding hillsides.  Gazing down at the small crowd of locals and tourists below, it was easy to imagine several thousand Doukhobors assembled there, over a century earlier, praying and singing as they destroyed their weapons, while their Tatar and Armenian neighbours observed from a distance in wonder. 

The writer atop the hill overlooking the ancient grove and Verkhnyi Narzan spring (not visible, left). To the left lies the Kizilchak. To the right, the ravine known by local Doukhobors as Kinzhal’naya Balka (‘Dagger Gulley’), and behind it, Kosavyi Bugor. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

It was an exhilarating moment.  This sacred, beautiful place seemed to match Zybin and Verigin’s description in every respect.  Here stood an ancient grove of trees, alive since the time of the Burning of Arms.  And here issued a mineral spring with sour but pleasant waters.  Here, also, Doukhobors historically gathered to pray and celebrate religious holidays. 

View of the ancient grove and Verkhnyi Narzan spring from atop the hill. Behind them lies Sukhorukova Balka (‘Sukhorukov Ravine’) named for a local Doukhobor family. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

I paused to consider the distance from this site to Slavyanka.  Using satellite mapping, I calculated a distance of one and a half kilometers to the town outskirts.  This alarmed me at first, as it fell markedly short of the three kilometers stated by Zybin and Verigin.  However, it occurred to me that Slavyanka had significantly expanded over the past century.  Its present outskirts were not the same as they had been in 1895.  With this in mind, I recalculated the distance from the site to the oldest section of Slavyanka, at its centre.  Remarkably, it was a little over three kilometers, just as Zybin and Verigin had recorded!   

Satellite image showing Verkhnyi Narzan lying 3 km from the centre of Slavyanka. ZoomEarth.

Surely, I thought, this was the very place where the Elizavetpol Doukhobors had destroyed their weapons!

However, before I could definitively say so, I had to rule out the possibility that the other spring – the Nizhnyi Narzan – was the Burning of Arms site.  Based on the descriptions by Zybin and Verigin, it had to be either one or the other! 

After thoroughly enjoying the serenity and spiritual ambience of the Verkhnyi Narzan and adjacent grove and gardens, we eventually boarded the bus and made our way back to Slavyanka.  After saying our farewells to Maria and Grisha, we went for dinner and made plans to visit the other spring the next day. 

View of the Slavyanka hills at dusk from our hotel. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

Back at my hotel room that night, I was unable to sleep.  My mind raced with excitement at the prospect of having rediscovered a ‘lost’ site of enormous importance to our Doukhobor heritage.  As I lay in bed, gazing at the hills of Slavyanka out my window, the morrow could not come soon enough! 

The following morning our group gathered for breakfast and then visited two Doukhobor cemeteries in Slavyanka, one established in the early 20th century and a much older one established in the 19th century. At the latter site, we found a memorial stone engraved by the first Doukhobor settlers in Slavyanka in 1844 with the following psalm (translated from Russian):

"Eternal memory of our righteous forefathers named Doukhobors. We bow to them, to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. For they saved our souls, and continue to do so, in their meekness and humility. For the sake of truth it pleased God and our sovereign to gather us to the Promised Land in Tavria guberniya in 1805. But in 1844, we were resettled to Transcaucasia, Tiflis guberniya, the village of Slavyanka. And whoever else remains alive and hears of this story, should not desist from continuing these deeds to the end."
Memorial stone at the old cemetery, engraved by the first Doukhobor settlers in Slavyanka in 1844. The age-worn engraving was replaced with a sheet metal inscription in 1967. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

From the cemeteries, we made our way to the spring known as Nizhnyi Narzan

This second spring was located in the northeastern outskirts of Slavyanka.  Beside it stood a row of one hundred large walnut trees which, local Doukhobors advised us, were the remnants of a much larger grove planted by Doukhobors in the mid-19th century, but which several years ago had been cleared by Azeri businessmen to build a restaurant and hotel. 

This potentially complicated my task of identifying the Burning of Arms site, since both springs in Slavyanka were situated beside ancient groves!  However, while the grove at Verkhnyi Narzan was comprised of fruit trees, (which accorded with Zybin and Verigin’s accounts), this grove contained only nut trees.  

A row of one hundred walnut trees planted a century and a half ago by Slavyanka Doukhobors near the Nizhnyi Narzan spring. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

From the walnut grove, we walked down a steep ravine to the Nizhnyi Narzan spring. I learned that several years earlier, an Azeri-owned commercial bottling facility was established here, which produced the now-famous ‘Slavyanka 1’ bottled mineral water, sold throughout Azerbaijan. 

We drank from the spring waters.  It was carbonated, refreshing and… distinctly sweet.  There was no hint of sourness, like that we had tasted at Verkhnyi Narzan, and as Zybin had recorded.

View of the Nizhnyi Narzan spring on the northeast outskirts of Slavyanka. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

I also recalled, from my conversation with Maria Strelyaeva the day before, that there was no tradition of Doukhobors gathering at this spring to hold moleniye or celebrations, unlike the Verkhnyi Narzan. Indeed, the undulating terrain of the site would have made a mass gathering difficult.

Finally, using satellite mapping, I calculated the distance from Nizhnyi Narzan to the oldest section of Slavyanka.  It was only 600 meters from the town centre; nowhere close to the three kilometers recorded by Zybin and Verigin.

Satellite view showing Nizhnyi Narzan lying 600 m from the centre of Slavyanka. Zoomearth.

I was now convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Burning of Arms site described by Zybin and Verigin could not be the Nizhnyi Narzan spring. It could only be Verkhnyi Narzan spring we visited the previous day!

We went for lunch at the nearby hotel resort and then departed from Slavyanka. As our tour bus made its way to the Azerbaijani-Georgian border, I reflected on the significance of the discovery (or more aptly, rediscovery) I had made.

The lush, serene grove and Verkhnyi Narzan mineral spring was the site of a truly momentous event in Doukhobor history – the Burning of Arms by the Doukhobors of that region on June 29, 1895. Forgotten for a hundred and twenty years, it would once again be known among their descendants.

Upon returning to Canada, I would share my discovery through historical articles, gazetteers and interactive maps in the hopes that other Doukhobor Canadians might one day too visit this sacred, beautiful and historic place for themselves.

The writer at Slavyanka road sign at town outskirts. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

After Word

This article was originally published in the following periodical:

  • ISKRA Nos. 2141, August 2019 (Grand Forks: Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ).
The popular ‘Slavyanka’ premium bottled mineral water from the Nizhnyi Narzan spring, sold throughout Azerbaijan. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

Accomplishment of the Mission

by Grigory Vasilyevich Verigin

In November 1894, Doukhobor leader Peter Vasilyevich Verigin was transferred from exile in the far northern town of Kola to the village of Obdorsk in remote Siberia. His brother Vasily Vasilyevich Verigin and Vasily Vereshchagin travelled with him as far as Moscow, from where they continued south to the Caucasus. Upon their arrival home, the faithful messengers passed on their leader’s advice to his followers to reject military service and to destroy their firearms in a mass demonstration against violence. Tsarist authorities responded by arresting and imprisoning the messengers for disturbing the peace. These events were recorded by Grigory Vasilyevich Veregin in Chapter 13 of his 1935 book, “Ne v Sile Bog, a v Pravde” (Paris, Dreyfus & Charpentier).  This chapter, translated  by Galina Alexeyeva and Larry A. Ewashen, portrays the important historical events which led to the rejection of military service by Doukhobor conscripts and the “Burning of Arms”. 

Vasily Grigoryevich Vereshchagin and brother Vasily Vasilyevich returned home from the trip safely.  All of the Doukhobors waited for them impatiently.  When they arrived, there were big conventions and meetings where they spoke in detail about their trip, spoke about the health and well being of Peter Vasilyevich, and explained in detail why he was being transferred for such a long distance and such a remote place as Obdorsk.  Of course such a transition accompanied by much suffering made everyone sad but life and deeds soon took another turn.  They brought regards and best wishes from Peter Vasilyevich and without any hesitation presented his advice for the life of the Doukhobors concerning the Burning of Arms and rejection of military service and other related matters.  Over the next while, they went to the Elizavetpol region, to Slavyanka, and to the other villages.  They saw everyone there and delivered all of the necessary messages.

From there they went to Akhalkalaki district where the majority of the Doukhobors lived.  They went through all of the villages safely and discussed all pertinent matters.  But the police followed them closely.  If they were not as careful as they were, they could have been arrested and imprisoned.  But they avoided this successfully keeping in mind the words of Christ: Be wise as the snakes and you will be safe as the doves; they returned home to the village of Terpeniye in the Kars region safely.  When the police learned about the delivery of Peter Vasilyevich’s messages, they became concerned. 

Alexei Vorobiev, who was considered to be the closest friend, even the brother of Peter Vasilyevich (the late Lukeria Vasilyevna Kalmykova called them “brothers”) became intimidated along with the Small Party of the Doukhobors because they feared punishment by the government.  And that segment of the Doukhobors, headed by him, did not accept the message and advice of Peter Vasilyevich.  They didn’t stop eating meat, didn’t participate in the Burning of Arms and did not reject military service.  If that was all, it would be fortunate, but they went so far as to report to the government that some people were going around the villages creating disturbances.  Christ’s words are true which take on a meaning today.  He said: “Those who are not with me are against me”.  Let them do as they wish, but we will continue with God’s work.  Vereshchagin and brother Vasily asked their relatives to go to those who were in military service as soldiers and inform them of Peter’s message.  Brother Vasily passed on a letter to them personally where the message was explained. I quote this letter, word for word:

“Beloved brother in our Lord Jesus Christ, I would like to talk to you, dear brother, about what constitutes my faith.  I believe in the law of our Lord Jesus Christ and comprehend it sincerely.  When we live according to the will of our Father, our Lord, then our Lord lives in us reviving us and enlightening our reason with a radiant light.  Those who wish to fulfill the will of our heavenly father must bend their hearts to God’s will.  Our Lord tells us: You were bought at an expensive price, do not be slaves of human beings.  Learn the truth and the truth shall make you free.

Undertaking such a great deed we must totally realize that our sincere desire may have to overcome cruel tests.  It may bring some insults, offences, suffering and even death upon us.  Misunderstanding, false interpretations and lies will await us.  A storm will arise against us: pride, pharisaism, ambition, cruel rulers, authorities; all of these may be combined to eradicate us.  In a similar way as they did to our God, Jesus Christ, whom we try to emulate as much as possible, according to our abilities.  We should not be frightened by all of these horrors.  Our hope is not for the people but for our almighty Lord.  If we reject human protection what would support us, if not our singular faith, which conquers the entire world?  We will not be surprised by those trials to which we are exposed, we will be glad to have the honour to share the sufferings of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Because of all this, we give our souls to God and believe what was said: “The one who leaves one’s home, brothers, sisters, mother, father or children for the sake of God will get one hundred times more, and in the Kingdom of Heaven will inherit eternal life”.  So firmly believing in the certain triumph of truth, in spite all which could stand against us, we trust reason and the consciousness of humanity, but most of all, God’s power to which we subject ourselves.  For a Christian to promise to follow people and people’s laws is the same as a hired worker who promises the owner to fulfill all he would be ordered not only by him but by other people.

You cannot serve two masters.  A Christian liberates himself from human power when he recognizes only the power of God over himself and the law which was revealed by the Lord Jesus Christ.  He realizes it within himself and abides by it.  Human life consists of following not your own will but the will of God.  A Christian may be subjected to exterior violence and may be deprived of physical freedom, and at the same time could be freed of his passions.  The one who sins is the slave of sin.  A Christian is meek and quiet, does not argue with anyone and never attacks anyone, does not use violence against anyone, and on the contrary, he overcomes violence and overcomes evil.”

Vasily Vasilyevich Verigin

They travelled, met with everyone, and did their task so well that those who elected to reject military service selected a specific day, as I explained above: if they consider this seriously and come to a conclusion, then they must take action on it on the first day of Easter, perhaps not everyone at once, but the beginning must take place on that day.  When the commander of the company comes and congratulates his soldiers on the greatest holiday in the world, saying: ‘Christ has arisen’, the soldiers must answer: ‘In the righteous, Christ has arisen’; and to prove this, someone filled with the spirit of God, must tell the commander that he believes in Christ in deed and will serve Him, and will deny and reject all violent regimes; that is why I ask you to accept this rifle from me because all this is unnecessary for me and contradicts my consciousness and the spiritual feeling of my soul.

And it was Matvei Vasilyevich Lebedev who committed this action first, and his brave endeavour became known to the whole regiment and everyone questioned: What happened to him?  Some people said he went insane, others said, cautiously, that he was correct in his actions.  He was tortured, beaten and put into the punishment cell, he was not given food except for bread and water.  Others followed his example, and soon all of the Doukhobors in all of the regions who were soldiers returned their arms and equipment.  They were all arrested, beaten, tortured and put into isolation away from the other soldiers.  But they did not recant.  Finally, they were all sent to the disciplinary battalion to Ekaterinograd Fortress for additional cruel punishment.  In all, there were thirty-three of them.

When the above mentioned brothers returned their arms to the government, the government was suspicious and began to investigate and search for reasons for this behaviour and although they were not certain, they suspected Vasily Vereshchagin, brother Vasily, and I don’t know why, myself.  On the tenth of July, 1895, all three of us were summoned by gendarme officer Astafeev and Assistant Procurator Stepanov to the Argeno station.  The above mentioned persons also took another road to come to our village with horsemen and began to search our houses.  They did not find anything suspicious, came back, and began to interrogate us.  Because there was no direct evidence against us to enable them to arrest and imprison us, they began to question us about our convictions, in what way do we recognize our sovereign and all existing authorities?

Without any hesitation, we informed them of our convictions; we recognize the sovereign as sovereign, authorities for authorities, but to abide to their demand if it were against the law of God, that we would not be able to do.  We deeply believe in our Lord Jesus Christ, who came to the world to redeem the sin of his forefathers and he gave the whole human race the commandment and presented the testament, not to sin.  The foundation of his teaching consists firstly, to love God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your reason.  Secondly, love your neighbour as you love yourself.  This is the foundation of the law of the prophets.  Also in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter Five, Verse 38: Christ says to the people: “You have heard the law as it was pronounced: An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth, But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.  Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.  But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.  For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye?  Do not even the publicans the same?  And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others?  Do not even the publicans so?  Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect”.

Grigory Vasilyevich Verigin, taken after his escape from Siberian exile in 1902. Photo courtesy Larry Ewashen.

From what we said, the Gendarme Officer and Assistant Procurator sensed that somehow we didn’t believe in them, and they said: ‘It means that you won’t abide the laws of the sovereign?”  “Yes, if the laws of the sovereign are connected with murder and violence, we will not participate in them”.  After that, they sentenced us and announced that “now you are arrested and tomorrow you will be sent to Kars to the Karadakh prison.”

Brother Vasily addressed them thusly: “Because our parents are old, the wives aren’t able to take care of the household, the children are very small, would it not be possible to liberate our youngest brother till the special order, to let him look after the old parents and small children?”  They agreed to do this on payment of 500 rubles bail.  And Ivan Ivanovich Usachev agreed to pay on my behalf immediately and in the morning they freed me.  I went home and my brother and Vereshchagin were sent to Kars under strict convoy and put into the Karadakh prison in solitary imprisonment the same day.  They informed Chief Commander Sheremetiev about them and he resolved to put both of them put under military tribunal in order to frighten all the rest; and to prove that, I quote excerpts from Tregubov and brother Vasily’s letters: “Once there was rumour that they wanted some Doukhobors to receive the death penalty through hanging or shooting.  Their friends informed the Doukhobors about this.  They replied with a dignified letter.  “Today we received a letter from Ivan Mikhailovich Tregubov in which he greets us with brotherly wishes and regards, God save him.  He writes that me and Vereshchagin were sentenced to hang; he also writes that he and Vladimir Grigoryevich Chertkov wrote to the Chief Commander in the Caucasus, Sheremetiev, to pardon us.  I don’t know from whence this rumour reached them, we haven’t heard this yet, maybe they have a plot to do some evil against us.  It’s up to them, our task – to fulfill the Lord’s work, who gave us life and light; and for this of course, we are thankful to our brothers, that they, because of plenty of love in their heart, care about us.  Save them Lord, but according to our understanding, for a Christian it is not common to appeal to a human person and ask for pardon” [from the letter of Vasily Verigin to Dmitry Alexandrovich Khilkov].

Beside Tregubov and Chertkov, Georgii Alexandrovich Dadiani wrote to Sheremetiev; he was adjutant to Sheremetiev but later on he gave up all his ranks and rewards and became a Christian.  Georgii Alexandrovich, a Georgian prince by inheritance, only a year ago was an adjutant to Sheremetiev and at that time brother Vasily Vasilyevich knew him.  Georgii Alexandrovich was a Tolstoyan.  And when he received that resolution he wrote a letter to Sheremetiev immediately, in which he said: “I received awful news that you have resolved to put Vereshchagin and Verigin before a military tribunal and it all depends on your signature.  This is awful.  How immoral this is.  How low this is.  Haven’t those times come to an end?  We are living in the twentieth century after the birth of Christ and the horrible death of our great teacher of truth Jesus Christ who wished brotherhood and peaceful life upon all humanity, and thanks to that the Kingdom of God will come to Earth as it is in Heaven.  And for this holy or sacred teaching you dare to publicly shoot these innocent people before you.  Moreover, you believe in this doctrine, you are considered a Christian.  You think that by such a cruel action as to spill the blood of innocent people you will intimidate people who are fulfilling the will of God expressed by Jesus Christ, for which he laid down his life and bequeathed his followers to do the same.  And perhaps you think that in such a way you will intimidate these wrestlers for virtue.  I am telling you as my bygone friend [now I stand in the ranks of Christ] – by this you will only put a spot of innocent blood not only on yourself but on the entire country of Russian people.  The greater part of these people, in one way or another, believe in Christ, and you will bury these people for Christ.  As for Vereshchagin and Verigin, I know Vasily Vasilyevich personally, they will not give in and will abide by your resolution with joy.  And the rest of the Doukhobors who have already accepted the spirit of Christ, will not only not be intimidated but will be inspired even more.  Because these people whom you wish to execute they will revere as holy.  And in fact these people deserve this name because they are dying for the teaching of Christ and for our brotherly mutual task.  And they themselves will abide by your resolution.

This is what Georgii Alexandrovich Dadiani wrote.  Of course such people have a great force in God’s work, maybe this helped their salvation and they were not executed.

A complete English translation of Grigory Verigin’s 1935 Russian publication, “Ne v Sile Bog, a v Pravde” is currently being prepared by Doukhobor Village Museum Curator Larry A. Ewashen. For more information on this project, please email: