Queen Lukeria of Gorelovka

by Henry F.B. Lynch

Henry Finnis Blosse Lynch (1862-1916) was born in London of Irish parentage. His family ran Lynch Brothers, a firm that traded with, and ran shipping lines in, Persia and Mesopotamia. He had already travelled widely in these regions before their geographical closeness to the Caucasus, together with the persecution of the Doukhobors, attracted him to the Akhalkalak district of Tiflis province, Russia in September 1893. His observations were published in his article “Queen Lukeria of Gorelovka” in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Vol. 93, Issue 553 (June, 1896), reproduced below. Lynch depicts the architecture and landscape of Gorelovka in exceptional detail and outlines the events that followed the death of Doukhobor leader Lukeria Vasilievna Kalmykova (1841-1886) from the viewpoint of the “Small Party” of Doukhobors, with whom he clearly sympathized.

The account published by Count Leo Tolstoy in the Times of the 23rd October, of the persecution of Russian sectaries in the Caucasus, comes as an interesting sequel to the story which I told in the Contemporary Review of June 1894, when dealing with the Russian element of the population inhabiting the Russian provinces of the Armenian table-land. That story centres in the figure of a remarkable woman, whose name, indeed, Count Tolstoy mentions, but of whose personality and influence among her co-religionists his informants appear to have presented him with an insufficient idea. I was travelling through the villages of these Russian peasants in September 1893, and with your permission I will tell you what I learnt about the circumstances out of which the thrilling incidents related by Count Tolstoy arose.

At Akhalkalaki, on the lofty uplands of Russian Armenia, from which the headwaters of the Kur descent, I first heard mention of the troubles which were still agitating the Russian settlers who live around. I was told that in the course of my journey southward I should pass through a country which had within recent years been the scene of many stirring events. The accounts I received of what had happened, and of the peculiar form of religion which the people were said to profess, were vague and uncertain, but at the same time sufficient to make me wish to learn more. 

I knew that these Russian sectaries of the Caucasus represented the flower of the Russian peasantry, that their standard of life was higher than that of their class in Russia, and that it would be scarcely just to estimate the merits of Russian colonists by the high example offered by them. “Go to Gorelovka,” said Colonel Tarasov, the governor of the town and district of Akhalkalaki, “if you wish to see what our colonists can do.” To examine into an interesting colonial experiment, and to make the acquaintance of a sect about whose beliefs and actions such strange rumors were current in the country – what could any traveller desire more?

H.F.B. Lynch (1862-1916)

Among my acquaintance in the town was a young Armenian who was likely, from the nature of his calling, to have some knowledge of the truth of these stories. The man had been an itinerant preacher of the evangelical persuasion – a body founded some sixty years ago in Shusha by a missionary from Basle. The Russian government detest these Protestant preachers, and they had cut short the wanderings of the young clergyman by refusing him permission to go beyond the limits of this remote and lonely town. About two years had now elapsed since the ban had been placed upon him; his subsistence he earned by serving as clerk to a merchant of woolen stuffs. From him I gathered that considerable mystery surrounded the religion of these peasants, but that he himself had not sufficient knowledge to clear it up. He told me that pagan practices were imputed to them, and that they were said to worship images of birds and beasts. Whether they worshipped them or only regarded them as symbols, it was certain that they made such images, and I could judge for myself of the purposes which they served.

And then he related to me a portion of the story of Lukeria, and spoke of the superstitious reverence in which they held her – half goddess and half queen.

We struck our tents on the afternoon of the 5th of September, and proceeded on our journey towards Ararat, still more than a hundred miles away. We were passing over the surface of a lofty table-land, 5500 feet above the sea. On our left hand rose the volcanic mass of Abdul, a mountain some 11,000 feet high, while on our right, towards the west, the prospect was open, and the ground stretched in long drawn undulations and convexities to the dim outlines of distant ranges encircling the wide expanse. Not a tree, no vegetation, relieved the loneliness of the scene; the beauty and interest of these Armenian landscapes lie in their rich variety of forms and in the play of light and shade. Man’s imprint upon nature is scarcely visible – some vague tracks winding over the plain, and the volcanic soil exposed by the plough in black checkers by the side of the yellow stubble fields. Banks of grey and white cloud hung over the mountains. But the zenith was blue; a bright sun tempered the keen and searching air.

In the space of two hours we reached a straggling settlement which we found to consist of two villages – the one Armenian, the other inhabited by Russian peasants of the Doukhoborian sect. The first bears the name of Khojabek; the second is called Bogdanovka. Bogdanovka is a poor example of a Doukhoborian colony. I confess that I did not notice any appreciable contrast in methods and standard of life between the Russian and the Armenian village. The level of the plain is always rising the further you progress towards the south. After we had passed through the small Russian settlement of Orlovka it became clear that the wave of reclamation was reaching its limit, and that we should soon leave all cultivation behind.

The crops were still standing in the fields, and we noticed that where the soil was exposed it was filled with the fibre of turf and roots. As the day closed we were travelling over an upland country which bore the character of lofty downs, and it is in a landscape of this nature that is situated Gorelovka, the township to which the governor had called my attention, and in which he had kindly prepared a house for our reception and a ready welcome from the villagers. My barometers place the elevation of Gorelovka at about 7000 feet above the sea. We were here about at the water-parting from which the streams diverge, some to enter the basin of the Araxes, and others to flow northwards to the Kur.

Sketch of Gorelovka village, Tiflis province, Russia, 1893 by H. F.B. Lynch.

Gorelovka is the largest village in the district, and contains 150 houses, with a population of some 1500 souls. In conversation with the villagers I learnt that it was fifty-two years since they had come there from Russia and had been allotted lands. Each house pays 15 roubles (about 30 shillings) a year to the state for the rent of their lands. Snow lies on the ground for about eight months in the year, and, like the Armenians, they heat their houses with tezek fuel, or cakes of dried manure. Their markets are Alexandropol and Akhalkalaki. I admired their ploughs and spacious wagons; they make them in the village themselves. You do not see such ploughs and wagons among their neighbours – Armenians, Tatars, and Turks. On the other hand, they have not improved upon the usual threshing implements, the flat beams encrusted with sharp stones. They said they had found these methods in use in the country, and were satisfied with them. 

A Doukhoborian village is not built into the earth like the burrows of the Armenians and the Kurds; the Russians cheat the climate by the additional thickness which they put into their solid stone walls. Their dwellings are low one-storied houses of most substantial construction; the masonry is completely covered with plaster, which receives several coats of whitewash. A long street traverses the village in a regular straight line; the white-faced houses are for the most part isolated, and align it at intervals. The roofs are only slightly sloped, and consist of stout beams supporting a superstructure of earth and sods of turf. The chimneys are mere apertures in the roof, protected by small wooden caps. I found the interiors clean and comfortable; the wooden ceilings are neatly mitered, and the walls distempered white. The deep embrasures of the windows testify to the stoutness of the walls. In some of these Russian settlements you admire the elaborate fret-work of shutters and ornaments of wood; in Gorelovka no work of fancy adorns the dwellings of the peasants, and they have lavished all their skill in wood-carving upon the residence of their Queen.

The inhabitants are tall and powerfully built, and although they are bronzed in complexion almost beyond recognition, the fair hair bears witness to their origin as sons of the North. Their limbs are loosely put together, and apart from the difference of their dress and demeanor they present a strong contrast to the neatly made natives of the country by reason of their lofty stature and the unbuckled slouch of their walk. The features are irregular, the eyes small, and the countenance is wanting in animation both in the case of women and men. The dress of the men consists of dark blue trousers and jacket and a peaked military cap; this costume gives them the appearance of old soldiers, and all seem to shave the beard. The women wear very clean cotton dresses of showy patterns and bright hues. It is a sturdy race of simple people, and the elements of order are strong among them.

Next morning, according to arrangement, we were to visit, in company with our host Alexei Zubkov, the venerable starshina or head of the village, the residence and garden of the Queen. The brother of the Queen joined our party – Mikhail Vasilyevich Gubanov, the same of whom Count Tolstoy speaks. 

We passed down the long straight street of the village, the spacious intervals between the white houses opening to the breezy downs. Entering an enclosure, we found ourselves in a delightful flower garden, among trees and thick rose bushes allowed to twine and spread in freedom, and only saved from rankness and riot by the loving hand of man. How strange, after our long wanderings over mountain and arid plain, among peoples whose material standards hover on the extreme margin where life is just possible and no more, appeared to us the sight of these garden flowers and the scent of the double rose!

A low one-storied building aligns the garden on two sides: the one wing contains the chapel and reception room; the other, the private apartments in which the Queen lived. Passing within the doorway, we stood in a little hall from which rooms opened, one on either side. Both apartments are spacious, and their size was enhanced by the complete absence of furniture. Large stone stoves are built into the rooms, and form the most prominent feature of them; these stoves are usual in all the houses, but in this house they are decorated with a scroll of stone carving, which is not the case elsewhere. The ceilings are low, and the walls are so thick that the windows have the appearance of fortress embrasures with their deep cavernous sills. The two large rooms on either side of the hall were formerly used, the one for prayer meetings and the other for social gatherings; but it was evident that they were not in use at the time of my visit, and I was told that assemblies in this house had been interdicted by the government on accounts of the fresh outbreak of fanaticism which was apprehended should the people come together beneath the roof of their former Queen.

The general arrangement and appearance of the chapel or apartment in which they used to meet for prayer is this: The low ceiling is composed of narrow pine planks, the surface being relieved by delicate wood beadings along the seams where plank meets plank. The large pier of the stove projects boldly into it from the side of the door. The walls of the rooms are in general covered with a neat paper of common Russian pattern, and the floors are either painted a reddish colour or the boards are left natural, and stopped, and scrubbed daily like the deck of a yacht. Round this particular apartment there runs a low bench; this is the only sitting place. Large pots of flowers, carefully pruned and tended, bloomed in the deep embrasures of the windows, and broke the light diffused about the sober apartment in a warm and regular glow. In that part of the building where the Queen used to live, the rooms, although smaller, presented a similar appearance and were maintained in the same state of scrupulous cleanliness and neatness, although uninhabited now. The furniture had all been removed from them, but in addition to the pots of beautiful flowers there was in each a dish of Easter-eggs.

In the centre of the garden, among the rose-bushes, stands the summer pavilion of the Queen. The kernel of the structure may be described as consisting of two square boxes placed one above the other, and serving as living rooms. Each side of the upper room is broken by a large window, so that the view from within embraces the whole settlement and all the landscape around. The lower room contains a bed and a row of pegs, on which, behind a light covering, hang the dresses of the Queen; that above it is bare of all furniture, and was used as a sitting room. A broad wooden balcony with staircase runs round this inner kernel, supported on pillars of wood; they have lavished all their skill upon the decoration of this balcony, enriching it with the delicate traceries of fret-work and with figures placed at the angles of the roof. At each corner sits a dove with wings outspread, while on the summit of the roof a dove is just alighting, the wings just closing, the legs outstretched. In front of the pavilion and on the side of the house there is a large standard lantern, a work of curious design and fancy, surmounted by an image of St. George and the dragon carved with much life and vigour in wood.

By my side stood the man who had made these images, and I asked him whether they had any religious meaning peculiar to their creed.

Sketch of Lukeria’s Besedka (Summer Pavilion) at Gorelovka by H. F.B. Lynch.

I was loath to put the question, so obvious was their purpose, so universal the symbolism implied. He answered good-humouredly that they were pure ornaments, and that he was flattered by my appreciation of his skill.

In a room removed from the part of the village in which the Queen lived they showed us her furniture and effects, her personal ornaments, and every detail of her attire. Everything that belonged to her had been carefully kept and cherished, like the relics of a saint. Her possessions had been those of a simple peasant woman verging on the middle class, a velvet chair or two, some statuettes in plaster, a few chromo-lithographs. Many trays of coloured Easter-eggs were collected here – the offerings, I suppose, of many happy Easters when she had led their congregations of prayer.

At the time of my visit it was seven years ago that they had lost their beloved Lukeria Vasilyevna (Kalmykova), their leader both in spiritual and in temporal matters; they honoured and obeyed her like a Queen. Her influence was supreme among the settlers on the highlands south of Akhalkalaki, and, from Count Tolstoy’s account, it appears to have extended to all the colonists in Transcaucasia of the Doukhoborian sect. That Lukeria was nothing more to them than a successor to others in an office which had been the outcome of their religious and material needs it would, I think, be no less fallacious to suppose than to credit the rumours current in the country that it had been in the character of a divine personage her people had submitted themselves to her will. A childlike nature, at once the product of the religious temperament and its peculiar pride, may find it difficult to discriminate between the emotions of worship and of love.

When I questioned them they strongly disclaimed for Lukeria all pretension to supernatural gifts, and they rejected as a fable the imputation that they had paid her divine honours. They told me that they both acknowledged and worshipped Christ as God; in Lukeria they had loved and revered a good woman who raised their lives, relieved their sorrows, and led their aspirations towards the higher life. The evidence of her work and example is written in the appearance of this model village and in the demeanour of its inhabitants. All are well clothed and clean and well nourished, and it is a pleasure to see them go about their business in their quiet earnest way. I saw no poor people in Gorelovka, not a sign of the habitual squalor of the East. Provision had been made for the orphans and the destitute, and I understood that all the colonists of the neighbourhood contributed to the funds. But what impressed me most besides the evidence of their affection in these dwellings and this enclosure, maintained in neatest order, as though in spirit she inhabited them still, was the love of flowers, which the Queen appears to have developed in her people and brought them to share with her. In the decline of wealth and of the arts the sight of garden flowers becomes more and more rare in the East, and at best they are little more than the ornaments of luxury and the setting of sensual delights. At Gorelovka one cannot doubt that these geraniums and roses are cultivated for their own sake alone.

The Doukhoborians abhor all ikons and religious pictures, and the traveller is struck by the absence of these emblems in the houses of Russian colonists. They share in the aversion of other extreme Protestants for priests and priestly rule, and the people themselves conduct whatever simple ceremonies may be necessary upon birth, at marriage, and after death. 

That from such peaceful surroundings there should issue fierce dissension, that a people trained to mutual love and forbearance should be inflamed by the worst passions of an opposite nature, and turn the hand which they had been unwilling to lift against others upon the brothers of their own creed, is a melancholy example of the failure of purely emotional methods to elevate permanently the nature of man. It seems there are no shortcuts to virtue, and the standards attained under the impulse of religious enthusiasm have but an ephemeral life. With the death of Lukeria was removed the personality and visible example for which simple natures crave, and the exaggeration of sentiment of which she had been the object brought with it its own revenge. Although cut off at the early age of forty-three hears, the Queen was already a widow when she died. Her marriage had been childless, and even had she possessed a natural successor, the place which she occupied in the imagination of her people would perhaps have been impossible to fill. Yet scarcely a year had elapsed from the time of her death when a pretended successor arose (ie. Peter Vasilievich Verigin), a boy, who, I believe, claimed relationship with her, and who assumed to be worthy to wear the mantle which had hitherto descended on on none.

The inhabitants of Gorelovka, whose version of the story I am giving, were empathetic in their statement that this youth was an impostor. “He told lies,” was the expression which they used. His authority had never been acknowledged by them, and he had stirred up their own brethren against them. I gathered that they had not stopped short of actual violence in the ardor of religious and partisan zeal. Gorelovka, it appears, had been solid against the usurper; but opinion had been divided in the neighbouring villages and throughout the community settled in Transcaucasia of the Doukhoborian sect. The Russian government, as was natural, surveyed the situation from the standpoint of hard-headed prudence; they were not anxious to see installed a successor to Lukeria and a revival of the old religious flame. The weight of their authority was thrown in the scale against the pretender; he was suppressed without delay, and banished from the country to a remote exile in the north.

But the ground on which the seeds of dissension had fallen was more favourable to the growth and development of the feud than the familiar methods of the Russian authorities were calculated to extirpate it. At the time of my visit the symptoms were slumbering. Count Tolstoy tells us in vivid language of the recrudescence of the old trouble, of the revival among the peasants of the old spirit in scenes of bloodshed under the heavy hand of the Russian officials, and in mutual recriminations among themselves.

Reflecting upon this story after reading these accounts, the mind travels back to the dawn of Christianity and the annals of the early Church. The famous letter of Pliny appears fresh and modern, while the grave language of the Times in the leading article which it publishes mingles naturally with the spirit of a remote age. “The first principles of their creed lead straight to social anarchy, tempered only by the whims of the “sons of God”. They are doubtless sincere fanatics, and as such must be looked upon with a measure of pity and respect.” It is interesting to place by the side of this paragraph in a modern newspaper the words of the great historian of the Roman world:

The Christians were not less averse to the business than to the pleasures of this world. The defence of our persons and property they knew not how to reconcile with the patient doctrine which enjoined an unlimited forgiveness of past injuries and commanded them to invite the repetition of fresh insults. Their simplicity was offended by the use of oaths, by the pomp of magistracy, and by the active contention of public life; nor could their humane ignorance be convinced that it was lawful on any occasion to shed the blood of our fellow creatures, either by the sword of justice of by that of war, even though their criminal or hostile attempts should threaten the peace and safety of the whole community; … while they inculcated the maxims of passive obedience, they refused to take any active part in the civil administration or the military defence of the empire. … This indolent, or even criminal, disregard to the public welfare exposed them to the contempt and reproaches of the pagans, who very frequently asked, what must be the fate of the empire, attacked on every side by the barbarians, if all mankind should adopt the pusillanimous sentiments of the new sect?”

Pliny the Younger, AD 110

Have the Christians of the present day become pagans, or did the pagans only change their name?