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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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!
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
This article was originally published in the following periodical:
- ISKRA Nos. 2141, August 2019 (Grand Forks: Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ).