by Prokopy Nestorovich Sokolnikov
Doctor Prokopy Nestorovich Sokolnikov (1865-1917) was a Yakut-born physician who graduated from Tomsk University and desired to return to serve in his homeland. On his way to Yakutsk, at the request of his friend and colleague Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, he accompanied a party of forty-one Doukhobors (25 women, 15 children and one elderly man) from the Caucasus, providing them with medical assistance throughout the journey and making arrangements with administrative authorities in regard to their needs. Thanks to Sokolnikov’s assistance, the Doukhobors were safely delivered to Yakutsk, where they reunited with their husbands and fathers who were exiled there for their rejection of military service. Throughout the 11,000-verst journey, the Tolstoyan doctor kept a diary in which he recorded vivid, often moving, impressions of his experiences. His diary was originally published in 1899 in the Irkutsk newspaper “Vostochnoe Obozrenie”. In 2001, it was reproduced in the Russian monthly “Ilin”. The English translation of this valuable historical material is reproduced by permission from ISKRA Nos. 1945-1951 (Grand Forks, U.S.C.C., August-December, 2003).
At the proposal of Count L.N. Tolstoy, on March 24, 1899, I departed Moscow by way of the Ryazan Railway so as to meet up with the party of Doukhobor women and children traveling from the Caucasus to Yakutsk province.
As is known, about three years earlier, a party of the Caucasian Doukhobors had been exiled to the Yakutsk region for their rejection of military service. There, these sectarians, having formed a colony of 90 people and settled at Ust-Notora, in a short period of time managed to recover somewhat and to set themselves up economically. They built themselves huts, obtained an inventory of basic equipment, acquired several horses and cows, began sowing grain, planted garden vegetables, and are mowing a significant amount of hay.
In a word, they fervently applied themselves, with typical Doukhobor energy, sobriety and industriousness, so that in these cold thickets on the outskirts of Yakutsk, they show promise of being genuine carriers of their cultural origins. And so, therefore, having become somewhat established in their new homeland, these Doukhobors decided to send for their women and children in the Caucasus to come and join them.
After waiting an extra day at the Kozlov station, I met a party of 41. Traveling were 25 women, one older man, and 15 children (ages 3 – 7). The party had departed from Tiflis on March 18, accompanied by the police (military) overseer, K.V. Visotsky. On March 20, they boarded a steamship in Batum at a fare reduced by 50%, at the request of the overseer. Then on March 22, the party set out from Novorossiysk in a Fourth class rail car designated for migrants. The fourth class ticket from Novorossiysk to Irkutsk at the reduced tariff was seven rubles and 15 kopecks. On March 26, I met the party in the town of Kozlov.
I found the party in the following condition. In general, the spirits of the women were high. Only one young boy was ascertained to be running a fever, and he seemed weak and undernourished. In addition, one woman had an inflammation of the conjunctiva and cornea of the eye. The railway doctor gave us the necessary medicine and the child was given quinine. When I presented myself as a chaperone and doctor, on behalf of L.N. Tolstoy, the group seemed to be very pleased and even very touched. They encircled me and repeatedly exclaimed, “You’ve come from Grandfather? … Grandfather sent you?… You are from the Count?… May the Lord God grant him the best of health and everything…” At this their melancholy, open-hearted faces expressed spontaneous joy.
Doctor Prokopy Nestorovich Sokolnikov (1865-1917)
At this moment I also became acquainted with their chaperone, overseer K.V. Visotsky, who gave a most flattering account of the party and was concerned about every aspect of its well-being. Shortly, the train station-master, his assistant, and their wives also arrived. They immediately organized the preparation of a meatless meal for the party and distributed by an apple and a rich pastry bun for each of the children.
The picture was quite touching. Emaciated after eight days of shaking, tossing and still more jolting, the children, having had nothing hot or baked to eat for over a week, devoured these apples and pastries so that one had the involuntary desire to give them something more of the same… It is no joke for women and children to make an 11,000-verst (an Imperial Russian measure of distance equal to 1.06 kilometres) journey, (the distance from Tiflis to Ust-Notora in the Yakutsk region)! And the 2800-verst etaup (way-station) route from Irkutsk to Yakutsk still awaited them!
The challenge — how to safeguard these women and children so as to reunite them with their fathers — appeared truly difficult and complicated… The way is long, arduous… What if, along the way, the children become sick with typhus due to the hunger and fatigue!.. What if there is dysentery, scurvy, etc.? Doukhobors do not eat meat, fish and in general avoid all that is the result of death and killing… Therefore, the challenge becomes even more complex. The kind-hearted overseer once wanted to treat the children to soup, but the mothers did not allow them to eat the soup.
From Kozlov, that very day the party was sent on two train cars through Tambov, Penza, Samara, etc. The local people showed the best side of their personality: they displayed much kindness toward the children, comforting them and even giving them money for milk. In a word, the train station “Kozlov” flashed by as a bright spot in the hard and difficult life of these women and children.
Since I had a Third class ticket from Moscow to Irkutsk, and as the party was traveling Fourth class, and, in view of the fact that their circumstances were satisfactory, I, with the consent of the party, decided to travel ahead somewhat and go into Tomsk on personal matters, and then meet up again at the “Taiga station”… Here I will briefly interrupt my notes…
Outstripping the party travelling from “Kozlov”, I calculated that I would arrive at “Taiga” one or two days before its arrival, and so I utilized the time to go to Tomsk, where I had considerable moral obligations to visit with friends and acquaintances, whom I have been waiting to see for a long time and from whom I will, yet again, have to be separated for a long time, maybe even forever… With what a heavy heart, in such instances, must one be parted from dear and loved ones, everyone knows from their own experiences, so I need not make further comment here. But I must say that Tomsk is also particularly dear to me, because I had spent my early years as a student there, – these were undoubtedly difficult, but at the same time the best years of my life… It matters little, that at that time I became somewhat disillusioned with life and people, as well as with the university and professors. Little does it matter also, that many circumstances in life and immediate conditions were morally depressing, rather than being conducive to our education and well-being. Incidentally, the purely Asian features of local life and its immediate surroundings did not destroy the enthusiasm of the best of our group and did not have the demoralizing effects, that one would have expected, but on the contrary, forged and tempered a moral strength that prepared them for life’s difficult battles – this is evident, first of all, from the success of the Tomsk students working in the medical field, and secondly, in their exemplary behavior in matters of pure fellowship. Having made a small excursion into past territory, I return to the present.
In Tomsk I was able to spend three days (April 3, 4 and 5). During that time I met many fine and responsive people, wishing, without fail to offer any help they could to our party, that is, to the Doukhobor women and children. In this regard, they often gave their very last and hard earned pennies. For example, one elementary school teacher, almost physically forced me to take five rubles, and her son, a high-school student, dumped out nearly the entire contents of his piggy bank, and counted out one ruble in silver coins. Another time, the railway conductor, a young, sweet-talking fellow with a Ukrainian accent, gave the mothers a twenty kopeck piece saying “take this for nuts for the children…” Such an input from a poor person is, without doubt, an expression of the best of human nature, and therefore it touches and gladdens one even more than do the larger gifts of rich people.
Therefore, without an accompanying feeling of gratitude, I cannot think of S.E.T. (the engineer’s wife) who not only gave a significant amount of money, but also procured for us various medicines, bandages and sent us 100 eggs, ignoring my reluctance to take such a bulky package. In the end I became convinced that these eggs had at least as much value as the money. The important thing — in all of these efforts to provide money, provisions and medicines one sees a purely maternal concern, which warms, gladdens and comforts all people in need and sorrow. In this manner, donations in Tomsk amounted to 93 rubles, 50 kopecks.
Looking at the magnanimous response of the Siberian people to the fate of the innocent children and women, I was involuntarily gladdened, touched, and my pride found for itself convenient sustenance in this, I was proud of our Siberian men and women (the women were particularly attentive and zealous in their response).
Having stayed in Tomsk with some considerable benefit to the party, I arrived at Taiga station on April 6. But here, unfortunately, I had to wait an extra day. The following day (April 7) the party safely arrived at Taiga station. Our meeting was a happy occasion for both sides. I inquired about the health of the group. They replied: “Praise God, we are all alive and well.” But later it became evident that this was not exactly true, of which I will relate further along.
Having learned that all of our women and children are travelling fourth class in two coaches and that the police overseer is travelling together with them, I decided to also accommodate myself in fourth class, being that with a third class ticket I have the right to travel in fourth class.
I will explain a little about the fourth class coaches. These are ordinary freight cars in the shape of red boxes with white writing: 40 people – 8 horses. They are built so that, through one of the side doors horses can be easily loaded, and on the opposite side there is a double door through which people can pass freely, but horses cannot. At each corner of the car, near the very ceiling, there are four small openable windows, through which light and fresh air comes in. At each end of the car, two rows high, there are wide bunks built in, similar to peasant beds, where people can arrange themselves in rows, cross-ways. In the centre of the car stands an iron stove, which quickly warms the coach inside. However, the warmth in the coach cannot be maintained for long, since, as the train starts moving, all of our doors and windows start to skip, jump, rattle and bang, quickly letting the cold air in and the warm air out. Luckily our women and children are dressed very well. All of the women have wadded jackets and sheepskin coats, and the children have vests, jackets and trousers which are also wadded. The collars are all buttoned up. Evidently, they do not recognize French fashions.
When I handed over the provisions and money collected in Tomsk for the benefit of the party (93 rubles, 50 kopecks) one of the women said: “Sisters! Let us give thanks to God, that He does not forsake us and sends us aid through good people.” Then the women formed a circle, first bowed to each other from the waist, then bowed to the earth, saying out loud: “Praise God”. … Then they went, each to their own spot, sat down and in a soft, mournful voice began to sing a beloved song:
Tell me where you’re going, pilgrim
With a staff in your hand?
There, where God’s grace Is greater, I am going, a pilgrim
Across mountains and valleys
Across steppes and fields,
Across forests and plains,
Friends, I am going home!
Pilgrim! What do you hope for In that far-off better land?
Snow-white robes And a crown of glory!..
Fear and terror are unknown On your path?
Jesus Christ is with me,
From that desired place I am following after Jesus
Over the hot sands…
They sang together with enthusiasm, with much feeling without any crying or squeaking, although their melodies are very monotonous and it is hard to distinguish individual words.
From later information I learned that the fortune of the group was far from bright. True, the little boy with a fever, Fedya Dimovsky, had more or less recovered. But the woman’s eye had gotten considerably worse during the trip. Besides, it turned out we had another sick person. Six year old Alyosha Makhortov had a severe case of scurvy, to the extent that his teeth and jawbone were literally rotting. In appearance he seemed very malnourished, his face swollen and his stomach bloated. Upon examination I found many loose and dead teeth, so that there was an unbearable odour coming from his mouth.
…With no other resource, I decided to remove the rotten teeth, prescribe a disinfectant mouthwash, improve as much as possible his overall nutrition and so forth. Since the teeth were barely, barely held in the gums, I was able to remove four teeth with my fingers without difficulty. At that the youngster cried, fought and tried to protect himself with his hands and pleaded for mercy… My heart ached and I felt sorry for the youngster, but scrunching up my heart, I did what I felt was necessary.
At the station “Bogotol” I met Dr. Sosunov, a fellow student from the medical university. He provided us with medicines and with the help of his pliers I was able to remove three more teeth.
Trans-Siberian Railway, circa 1890’s. Photo by John Foster Fraser.
With these types of surprises we travelled from “Taiga” to Irkutsk. I send my sincere thanks to all of my fellow doctors who helped us by providing medicine. In brackets I will say that the migrational doctors helped us more quickly and extensively than did the railroad doctors, who seemed to have less medicines and were more entangled with various formalities which interfered with the actual efforts of medical assistance. For example, for some reason the railway pharmacy would not release medicine according to my prescription, but required the signature of their own doctor, but in Moscow, Tomsk, Irkutsk, medicines were given out on all of my prescriptions, in that I am a certified doctor of the Russian empire. The migrational doctors were of exceptionally important service to us at the Bogotol and Kansk stations (Sosunov and Oreshko).
In this manner we travelled from the Taiga station to Irkutsk in generally good conditions, benefitting everywhere from the attention and consideration of the more cultured public. The only exception to this attitude was the behaviour of Sergeant-Major Kokhtev (a lower rank of the military police) who serves at the Nizhniudinsk station. Upon hearing that our women sing their prayers in the cars, he sought to forbid them this singing. The women of course, became confused and went silent; but our accompanying police overseer, K.V. Visotsky, intervened on their behalf and explained to Kokhtev, that there is nothing reprehensible in their songs. But the overly zealous sergeant-major was not subdued and in an even more raised tone asked the overseer: “And who are you?.. What business is it of yours?!” The other introduced himself and added: “If you like, I have instructions authorizing that all of the military police detachments at the train stations must show us all manner of assistance.” The sergeant then went to complain to the detachment captain, who didn’t attach any significance to it. This incident concluded without any legalities, but left all of us there with bad feelings. “Oh, our motherland, Siberia!” – one involuntarily thinks to oneself. On this I will conclude my account up to Irkutsk for the time being.
On April 13, at about 5:00 o’clock in the afternoon, we arrived at the Irkutsk station. Regarding accommodation, K.V. Visotsky conferred by telephone with the city’s chief of police, who responded very kindly and immediately showed us to temporary lodgings. The accommodations designated to us were in the Novozhilov building, on Preobrazhenskaya street. At that, the chief of police expressed his regrets that we had not notified him by telegram from along the way… Had we thought to do that, no doubt better quarters would have been prepared for us.
Upon leaving the station, we were met by the local migration official, I.A. Strukovsky, who initially took us as migrants, but then, of course, the situation was clarified; regardless, he was of great assistance, providing us with addresses and very relevant instructions concerning our further activities in Irkutsk; not to mention the material help which the Irkutsk citizens subsequently bestowed upon us, and in which Mr. Strukovsky played a visible role.
Next, we hired two local drivers, and loading up the wagons with our bundles, sacks, bags, and other goods, set forth in somewhat of a disorderly throng towards town.
We crossed the Angara River by way of the famous pontoon bridge. Our women were amazed to no end, when they saw the bridge suspended on floats, stretching across the huge and turbulent river. Trying to get a good look at the construction of the bridge, they, like children, running to the front and leaning over the railing, peered at the water under the bridge. The fast-moving, clear waves of the exotic Angara rolled by, the sun happily shone and warmed the weary spirits of our sisters. The children scattered and ran ahead of the adults, romping in the sunlight with such joy, like young calves who, lifting up their tails, cavort around the green meadows. Seeing the children’s hearts filled with such spontaneous joy and sensing that the adult mothers were no less joyous, having for the first time set foot on solid ground following a continuous, nearly uninterrupted journey of 26 days by rail in fourth class, the heart of an outsider could also not help but feel gladdened. In all honesty, there was much to be happy about, now that the women and children had safely traversed some 7000 difficult versts. But oh! – My mind dictated skeptical thoughts and to me it was clear that we had accomplished relatively little, as before us was by far the harder half of our journey – that is, the distance from Irkutsk to Yakutsk (2800 versts), that we would have to travel in the convoy system, and then another 900 versts by river – Lena and Aldan, that is, from Yakutsk to Ust-Notora, to where the husbands of these women had been exiled and were now settled. I, therefore, hid my forlorn thoughts from the women.
Having arrived at the Novozhilov Building, which was on Preobrazhenskaya street, we arranged our lodgings in an annex. At first it was fairly damp there, cold, dirty, dusty and with a very obvious musty cellar odour. But were we to complain about the lack of convenience?! We should feel blessed that the lodgings, firewood and water were provided for us by the city, free of charge. However, when I came the following day, I hardly recognized yesterday’s place. The dusty and dirty floor had been thoroughly swept, the low, dirty, black bunks were covered and heaped with clean, colourful bedding, clothing, and travellers bags, so that these unattractive bunks for a time forgot that, year after year, half-drunk people had trampled and dirtied them… Even the glass in the windows looked cleaner and brighter… After two-three days, the musty cellar smell was gone. In a word, the old, half-rotten, wooden outbuilding, half sunken into the ground, was turned into a relatively usable and pleasant quarters. Here, automatically, one recalls the phrases in praise of women’s capable, caring hands.
Not to put it off, the next day I went to deal with administrative issues. I went to see the governor, inspector of prisons and police chief to make arrangements regarding the outfitting of the convoy-party in May. As the Doukhobor women did not have sufficient funds, and as the distance from Irkutsk to Yakutsk (2800 versts) could cost a considerable amount, the following plan had been developed: from Tiflis to Irkutsk, whether by sea or by train, they would travel on their own funds, then from Irkutsk to Yakutsk they would be transported by the prison convoy method, at the state’s expense, for which they would first have to be “arrested” in Irkutsk.
The top administration in Irkutsk responded to the fate of our group with special care and concern. I was given permission to accompany the convoy. Unfortunately, we didn’t arrive in time for the selection of the first prisoner convoy of 300 people, which was by then already filled up and a list of their names finalized. Any changes to the completed list of people for transport could raise all manner of displeasure amongst the prisoners. Therefore, there was no possibility of sending us with the first party of prisoners, which was to depart from the Alexandrovsk Central Transit Prison on May 5, 1899. As concerned the second party, it would only be fully outfitted by July. Consequently, we had only two alternatives: to wait for the departure of the second party of prisoners, or travel at our own expense to Yakutsk. The first option was very unappealing to us due to the delay, and the second was completely out of the question due to lack of funds. The administration, however, in view of its exceptional leniency with our group, found a third alternative – and that was to send us as a special group ahead of everyone. In this way, we were notified to be ready to depart on April 23. For transporting us and all of our belongings from Irkutsk to the Alexandrovsk Prison were hired, for 50 rubles, some kind of itinerant peasants who would be going to Irkutsk and back to pick up supplies to sell at the Easter celebrations. Alexandrovsk Prison lies in the direction of Yakutsk, 60 versts from Irkutsk. Thus, in principle, our journey was decided. But a rare, fortunate occurrence completely changed our plans.
The following day I was in the office of A.I. Gromova, where I met her senior agent, M.V. Pikhtin, in whose name I had a letter from Count L.N. Tolstoy, with a request that, if possible, the Doukhobor wives be taken on a barge of one of the ships belonging to A.I. Gromova. The effects of this letter were startling. Immediately there took place a family discussion with the sons of Anna Ivanovna, I.I. and V. I. Gromov, who responded warmly and sympathetically to the request of Leo Tolstoy, and M.V. Pikhtin came forth with the following, touching phrase:
“Since such a world-renowned writer and great person as Count L.N. Tolstoy, whose creative works brought us so much great pleasure, is asking us to participate in the fate of these people, then we, from our side must do all that is necessary.”
After this, they decided to absorb all of the costs for getting the group from Irkutsk and right to Ust-Notora (3700 versts). They decided to specially hire, at the expense of A.I. Gromova, 10 transport wagons which would initially get the party to the village of Kachuga, which is the embarkation point for all the merchant cargo floated down the river Lena on flat-bottomed vessels called pauzki (pronounced “pawoozki”). Then, from Kachuga to the station of Zhigalovo, from where begins the shipping into open, ice-free waters, it was proposed to send the party on pauzki. Finally, from Zhigalovo and right to Ust-Notora, it was considered possible to go on a barge attached to one of the Gromovs’ ships. That was the plan for continuing our journey.
That very day I ran into the Novozhilov Building and told the women of the Gromovs’ decision to transport them, at no charge, right to Ust-Notora. At first, the women didn’t seem to understand the significance of this announcement, but then, when I finished with “and therefore, ladies, their will be no convoy… We will not have to be part of the prisoner convoys..!”, several voices as one repeated my words: “There will be no convoy! There will be no convoy!”, and there was a cry from one hoarse, but strong voice at the back. Looking back, I saw our elderly man, Nikolai Cheveldeyev. His usually calm, and even apathetic expression, was visibly excited, and his glassy, large eyes were staring off into the distance. Momentarily, the facial muscles twitched slightly, the elder’s graying brows flickered and tears began streaming down his cheeks… But these were tears of joy, tender emotion… Everyone wept except for the children, who looked at the elders with big, incredulous eyes and, apparently, unable to come to a clear understanding of what was taking place in the hearts of the elders, did not know what to do. Recovering from their first reaction, the women stood in a circle, bowed to the ground and thanked God for sending good people. At that they exclaimed, “May the Lord bless them!, May the Lord bless them!” Then they had the children do the same.
In the following days in Irkutsk, the women and children were visited by various cultured people, men and women, who brought them money and provisions…. There also appeared some brothers and sisters who shared the Doukhobor beliefs, who more than once hosted our sisters in their homes.
Pauzok on the River Lena, c. 1899. Photo by John Foster Fraser.
Without expanding too much on the goodwill of the Irkutsk intelligentsia to our group, I must give special thanks to our friends, doctors P.I. Fedorov and P.N. Shastin for their very sympathetic attitude, the editor of “Vost. Obozr”, I.I. Popov and his wife, Mr. Posarevsky for dispensing a considerable amount of medication free of charge, A.G. Luri, I.I. Mainov, I.A. Strukovsky and his wife, the senior administration of the town of Irkutsk. In general, various good people of Irkutsk gave more than 200 rubles to the cause of the Doukhobor wives and children.
In Irkutsk, aside from the good will of the people, there was some unpleasantness. Soon after our arrival in Irkutsk, measles broke out amongst our children. At first Andrei Sofonov become ill. It was very difficult for us to isolate the sick youngster and his mother from the rest of the children. We had to quickly get permission from the city officials to occupy the lower portion of an adjacent building. Again it was necessary to heat the building, obtain firewood, etc. We then divided the group between the two buildings in the following manner: the mother with the sick child and all the women without children were left in the original wing, while the remaining mothers and their children were taken to the new building, with instructions to avoid contact as much as possible between these two buildings. But alas! – These efforts were almost fruitless, for too infrequently was I able to enforce them, and as soon as I would arrive, I would be greeted with everything in disarray, i.e. those from the “wing” would be found in the large home and vice-versa. As a result my arrangements for isolation were not completely carried out. Of course, I knew full-well that I was dealing with uneducated women who had no clear understanding of communicable diseases and couldn’t understand the importance of isolation, and particularly as they were very much accustomed to helping one another in a communal way, which was very evident here; nevertheless, I was not about to do otherwise. It is true that at first I suggested to take the sick child and his mother for a time to the Bazanovskaya children’s hospital, but the women were not in agreement with this step, particularly as they were expecting that they would soon be departing for Yakutsk province.
On the other hand, I could not bring myself to violate their communal bond and force a separation of the mother and sick child from the rest of the group and their emotional support, even for a week.
In time, the situation of the group in Irkutsk significantly improved. The child recovered from measles, and the other children, to all appearances, did not get sick. The child who had been ill with scurvy, Alyosha Makortoff, had significantly improved. The woman with the eye condition had also improved.
Finally, on April 23rd, we escorted the group from the Novozhilov building past the edge of town. The group was walking in high spirits and singing their spiritual hymns – psalms. On the day of the women’s departure, the Irkutsk Doukhobors prepared a sort of farewell dinner and accompanied the group beyond the city boundary. Then I became aware that the “brothers in faith” had supplied the women with provisions and a small amount of money. Then, from some village below Irkutsk, a group of Doukhobor brethren came out to the main road to meet them, brought them some supplies and bowed to the ground before them. They said that the parting was very touching. Many were crying to the point of sobbing. But I had remained behind in Irkutsk with the intention of catching up to the group later, thinking that their situation was satisfactory for the time being.
Lagging behind the party by three days, I overtook it one night at a station and arrived at Kachuga one day ahead of it. The group arrived there on April 29th. There I learned that the women had arrived not altogether satisfactorily. During one descent, a horse began to run down from the top of a hill, causing one of the women to fall from the wagon, hitting her knees on the ground and catching her dress in the wheel. In that manner she was dragged by the horse for several yards. Thankfully, the dress was made from fairly poor quality material and was easily torn away by the wheel. Nonetheless, the woman received several abrasions, one cut and considerable injury in the areas of both knees. At one of the stations, Dr. Toropov applied an antiseptic bandage to the wound. Aside from that, we had others who had become ill. Along the way, three more children developed measles, but the rash had already gone away. In that manner in Kachuga we comprised a virtual hospital. M.V. Pikhtin assigned the women a relatively convenient granary at the Andreevsky dock, where supplies were to be loaded.
The loading took almost two days. In that time we made various purchases for the road, in Kachuga we went to a medical station where a medical doctor’s assistant welcomed us very warmly and dispensed various medicines. It turned out that this assistant had already learned from the newspapers of the imminent arrival of the Doukhobor women. He also know that Count L.N. Tolstoy was the sponsor of these women. In Siberia there are many fans of Leo Tolstoy, which doesn’t surprise me in the least, as the Siberian populace likes to read and knows all of the best writers by their works. But in one instance I was absolutely amazed. When I was seeing the party off from Irkutsk, while seeking out a coachman, I wondered into a shabby housing district and there I encountered a very poor Jew, who took up a conversation with me and quickly concluded that I was the very same doctor who was accompanying the women. “Allow me to inquire, are you a doctor?” he asked. At my surprised reply, he explained. “I know, I know! I am very happy to see you… you are travelling at the request of Count Tolstoy… I read about it in the newspaper.” Very enthusiastically, he proceeded to elaborate about Lev Tolstoy, and I was very favourably amazed. The not-too-clean, worn out and bedraggled old man would have surprised me less had he asked for some gratuity, then when he began a discussion of Count L.N. Tolstoy…
Loading a Siberian river barge, circa 1899. Photo by George Kennan.
After a laborious loading of supplies, on May first, at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon, we left the Andreevsky dock in two pauzki. Earlier we had had to draw the pauzki to the opposite shore by cable, from there, by a winding channel, get to the village of Kachuga, and there, joining other pauzki, float downstream on the Lena. At first, using a tow-line, the workers had dragged the pauzki upstream, then by boat, had strung a thin cable (across) which then helped in getting the pauzki to the other shore of the Lena, which is quite narrow at that point (only about 50-60 yards). Just as we got across to the other side, a slight breeze came up. The pilots decided that it wasn’t possible to go further in such weather. This was based on the fact that the pauzki are only suitable to float in very calm conditions. As soon as a slight wind comes up, it can easily run the pauzki aground onto a sandbank. The steering mechanism and oars of this flat-bottomed, box-like vessel, lying flat on the surface of the water, and with a heavy load of 3000 pounds, were of little use in controlling the vessel, because the pauzki float downstream with the flow of the water like a wood chip, going their own way. Should a slight wind begin to blow either from the back or the side near shoals or winding channels, it is very easy to be blown ashore. And once the pauzok runs aground, it requires much effort to free it and sometimes it is completely impossible, especially when there is a diminished water level in the river.
In view of the unexpected stop, we did a number of things to make the time go by faster. The women and I walked over to a nearby Buryat village with the intention of buying some milk. But there, speaking in a nearly unintelligible Russian, they asked for 30 kopecks for a bottle of milk, which seemed very expensive to us and so we didn’t buy any. At this, an elderly Buryat fellow, who spoke a little Russian, looked in the direction of the women and said, “You many wife.” I couldn’t help smiling at this, and walked away. After wandering haphazardly through many Buryat yards, more than once climbing over a fence, we came upon one very wealthy home of Russian design. Here there didn’t appear to be any men-folk and the women, seemingly somewhat frightened of us, responded to our questions very curtly and with negative shakes of their heads. With nothing else to do, we returned to our pauzki empty-handed.
Very early in the morning of the following day I heard cries, shouting and pounding on the roof of our pauzok. Its planked roof was shaking and trembling. One could hear the workers running in unision and with all of their might, jerking the steering mechanism. I walked over to one end of our cabin and peered through a crack. We were floating slowly — along a winding channel; near Kachuga a wind came up again. Again we are hugging the shoreline. In this way, again we are stopping for another day, not having travelled even five versts. Such was the unfortunate start to our voyage. The women became despondent in view of these circumstances. But I consoled them by saying, that after Zhighalov, once we boarded the ships, we would be travelling faster.
On May 3rd, very early in the morning, we resumed our journey. There was the very same pounding and shouting, the very same running of people on the roof. But on this day, there were no special stops. For short periods, one or another of the pauzki (there were four of them floating together) would become caught on a shoal, but then would free itself, and we would float on further. We floated slowly with the current. In places the course of the river would split into two channels, and then it was necessary to exert special effort to prevent the pauzki from running aground. Here the shores of the Lena are very picturesque. On the right-hand side was a continuous series of cliffs, beyond which loomed the dark, gloomy and mighty taiga; on the left a plateau covered in dense forest. The weather was truly enchanting. The mountaintops and slopes covered in green forest were brightly illuminated by golden rays of sunlight. Birds were singing and the air was filled with the scent of new leaves. In places the mountains seem to move apart and the Lena, cutting through the green hills, creates small meadows. Near these meadows, at the foot of some mountain huddles a small village or postal station, bringing an amazing enlivening effect to this desolate wilderness. Within these immense forests there is no place for people to expand their homesteads. A small piece of cleared land can sustain only a few residents, who must keep up a difficult struggle for their existence. In these places all goods are very expensive, for most have to be imported, including even bread. Here a pound of rye bread costs 6 1/2 kopecks. There is almost no milk, anything manufactured is very expensive. My only consolation, during this time floating down the river, was to sit in sunny weather on the deck and admire the wild beauty of the landscape. The women, coming out onto the deck, keep together in a bunch in some corner, so as not to be in the workers’ way. The workers occupied all of the central area of the deck and, running in unison, operated the enormous steering mechanisms of the pauzki. The old pilot, standing somewhere at the edge of the pauzok, watched for the depth of the channel and shouted out his simple orders, “Work the prow, work the helm! Down with the prow, work the helm!” and so forth…
At this time the women, sitting on the deck, did not so much enjoy the beauty of the place, as they were horrified by the wildness and gloominess of the surroundings. They sometimes spoke out about this, “Lord! How much we have travelled, and still just forest and more forests… These forests and mountains seem to squeeze one’s head as though in a vice and it gets frightening!..”
In the evening of that very day, we arrived at the town of Verkholensk. A boat approached us from the shore, on board of which were two intelligent looking young fellows. They asked: “Are the Doukhobor women here?” “Yes, they are here”, I answered.
They quickly began inquiring about the needs of our group. Then they took me ashore with the intention of showing me to Dr. Rauer’s home. As it turned out, the doctor wasn’t at home, but we were told that he would soon return, so I went inside, where I was introduced to the rest of his friends. In all there were 5 or 6 people, a cultured, sophisticated group of men and women. From the conversation I discerned that these were intelligent people, only temporarily living in Siberia. In such a wilderness it was pleasant to encounter some intelligent people. Soon, Doctor Rauer returned and welcomed me most warmly, supplied me with various medicines and kept me a whole hour. Our pauzki were to stop for the night a little ways downstream from Verkholensk. Dr. Rauer knew exactly where our docking site was and promised to get me there on horseback. However, when we set out to cross the Lena on the pontoon bridge, a heavy downpour broke out, which flailed us the entire distance of two or three versts, and it was so dark, that several times we lost our way and, finally, decided to cover the remaining distance on foot, leaving the horses along the way. Eventually, the rain abated somewhat and from a distance of a hundred metres or so, we were able to discern a campfire on one of the pauzki. Coming along side of it, I saw several human silhouettes and inquired: “Whose pauzki are these? Gromov’s?” “Yes, Gromov’s!”, someone answered from the deck. “Where are the Doukhobor women?” “They aren’t here…” “Not there?! The Doukhobor women must be here!”, I exclaimed. “Oh, this is our doctor!” Someone had recognized me by my voice and added: “Yes, yes, the Mukhomori (mistaken term for a “mushroom”) are here.”
In this manner we found our pauzki and went to see Alexander Grigorievich, who worked for the Gromovs. There we encountered an entire “community”. It appeared that two men and two women from the group of exiled intelligentsia that I had met earlier, had walked in the pouring rain and had brought with them a veritable mountain of all kinds of provisions (a great quantity of eggs, tea and sugar) for our party. But, thanks to the lateness of the hour and inclement weather, they were not even able to see those for whom they had shown such great concern.
Early in the morning of the following day we set forth on our journey and from that day on we entered a streak of bad luck. It was, in truth, yet in Kachuga that several of our children developed a bloody diarrhea (dysentery), but, for the most part, it was possible to stop it. The more stubborn illness was that of the seven year old boy Fyodor Dimovsky. From birth he was predisposed to a weaker constitution, and suffered from rickets; he had been ill with measles along the way and finally became ill with dysentery which took away his last bit of strength. It is now the third day that he is lying, nearly unconscious, like a sheet. Since he is not able to swallow even very soft foods, he was force-fed a runny gruel with milk, i.e., we forced his jaws open with a spoon and poured into his mouth one mouthful after another. We had no means for feeding him artificially with tubes. His strength was kept up somewhat with caffeine and to try to stop the diarrhea he was given bismuthi subnitrici… But he did not gain strength.
The little boy was very dehydrated and with blue colouring, breathing loudly and hoarsely. His extremities began to grow cold and turn blue. His heart rate was dropping… In a word, it was clear to me that death was near, but I didn’t want to deprive the mother of her last hopes. For that reason I continued to force-feed and medicate him with German precision. After a fairly heavy dose of caffeine, the little boy would revive somewhat, open his eyes and seem to recognize his mother, and me, but with no strength to speak. With his mother he was sometimes stubborn and irritable, but of me, it seemed, he was a little fearful and saw me as a monster, who only knew to force his mouth open several times a day and pour foul liquids into it. Being aware of this, I tried to sit in such a way that when it was time to force-feed him and give him his medicine, that he wouldn’t immediately notice me. The situation was very difficult… For the last while, his mother had gone completely without sleep, whispering some sort of prayers, and going back and forth, from desperation to hope, from hope to desperation: should the boy revive a bit, open his eyes and call her “Mama”, her spirits would instantly lift, and with energetic nervous movements, she would begin to arrange the blanket, the pillow, and, covering him in kisses, ask: “What, my dear?… Tell me what you need!..”…But, alas! To all these questions, chatter and caresses, the boy would only respond by again losing consciousness, closing his eyes, unconsciously smacking his tongue, making some sort of superfluous chewing motions, followed by feeble moans… At this, the mother’s heart is ready to burst into pieces, and again, the poor thing falls into despair… Frozen to the spot, her tears flow in rivulets and her lips whisper futile prayers. One occasionally observes that one or another of the other women comes up and quietly sits near the head of the boy, making some sort of light movements of the hand, as though chasing away flies, and she also whispers a prayer. Sometimes they pray as a group near the sick boy and they even make the children pray together. At this, one hardly would think that they are praying for the recovery and well-being of the sick one, but more readily they remind one of prayers for the dying…
After several days of very trying circumstances for everyone, the young boy passed away on May 4th, about three o’clock in the afternoon, right at the time that we were standing at the dock awaiting the rest of the pauzki which had run aground. We were in a difficult situation. The question of the funeral arose. If the other pauzki which had run aground would be removed quickly and would arrive today, then it would not work out to bury him here. We were waiting near Nikishenskaya village, between the Davidov and Petrov stations. The women, the elderly man and I, in consultation decided this: to go over to Nikishenskaya village, which was situated on the opposite shore of the Lena, a distance of about one verst from our moorage, to purchase some lumber for the casket and get other necessary tools to make the casket, as well as for digging the grave. We decided, for now, to get the casket ready, and then, tomorrow morning, to get started on the grave, if the remainder of the pauzki don’t arrive today.
With one worker and several of the women, we crossed to the opposite shore of the Lena on a boat, and went into the village. There, at one place, we found everything that we needed: we purchased lumber and provisions, acquired the tools and returned to the pauzok. It must be noted here that the ordinary villagers responded to our grief most compassionately. One peasant let us have the lumber and nails for the coffin at a very low price, sold the bread and eggs very cheaply, and didn’t charge at all for the loaning of the tools; another woman, who brought us several round loaves of bread and some eggs, refused to accept the regular market price, but charged us less. Even the workers on the pauzki, who were relatively coarse, drinking people, responded to our grief with much compassion, and by the evening of that very day, they had constructed a small, child-sized casket, lined inside with a rose-coloured fabric. The stranded pauzki did not arrive, so we decided to commence digging the grave the following morning.
Next morning (May 5th) the little grave was made ready. Together with the women and old man, in two consecutive groups, we made our way to the opposite shore of the Lena, taking the casket over with us. The women, losing no time, took up the long poles on which they lifted the casket, and proceeded to carry it further…
It was a beautiful morning. The sun shone brightly, illuminating the mountain tops and dense taiga, the Lena, swirling in quick, dark waves with their metallic sparkle, cut through the mountain ridges, dark forests and green knolls. The Lena was mysteriously beautiful in its gloomy grandeur. The birds twittered merrily and the air carried the aroma of the coniferous trees… And there, amongst the green hills, where from a chink in the mountain side, runs a pebbly stream, becoming a loud waterfall at the foot of the hill, one can see a bunch of women in colourful clothing milling about… The group begins to spread out, moving slowly and making its way up the hill… The lid of the casket flashes reflectively in the sunlight and slowly the tiny casket appears, covered in a white shroud. Suddenly, the sound of harmonious, heart-wrenching singing is heard… This was the Doukhobor women singing their funeral psalms. With a moan, in a trembling wave, the sounds flew out from the breast, flowing out and away… to die out in the faraway hilltops and the dark forests, the final tones echoing off the cliffs along the river’s edge…
Climbing to the hilltop, I observed the following scene. The women, forming a circle, sang various psalms, and in their midst, on the ground, stood the tiny casket, in which could be seen the pale face of the dead boy, with a white scarf at the neck, tied in a pretty bow. The hands of the boy were placed on his chest, in a manner similar to our deceased, and for some reason clasped another clean, white handkerchief. To the left, among the pine trees, the worker, up to his chest in the hole, was using a pick to dislodge the last rocks from the grave. The ground, almost in its entirety consisted of rocks and it was very difficult for the workers to dig the grave. These rocks were followed by stone slabs so huge that it was impossible to break them apart with the pickax. It was decided to conclude the digging and to inter the boy, lowering him into the grave. At first the grave was filled in with fine earth, sand and pebbles, then smaller stones began to be dropped in… The grave was quickly filled in and a board with an inscription was placed on it, and the gravesite was very prettily bordered with large rounded stones. In this manner giving over to the earth our departed, we returned to our pauzok. First of all we treated our workers to a little vodka, knowing that the local workers are temperamental and don’t do anything without vodka. Then I handed out money for the casket maker and workers at the gravesite. At first, for some reason, they didn’t want to take the money, saying, “We can work for the young boy without pay.” But then they took it.
Siberian barge moored at river bank, circa 1899. Photo by George Kennan.
Having spent the night at this ill-fated place, the next morning of May 6th, we again set off on our way. Luckily, our subsequent travel went more favourably. There were no lengthy stops. It is true, that there were some places where it was necessary to employ all manner of safeguards to avoid once again running our barge aground on a sandbank. As, for example, near the station Ust-Ilga, where there are dangerous sandbars and there is a very sharp bend in the course of the river, it was necessary to ease the barge downriver on the anchor; i.e., taking a small anchor and cable on a boat and pulling it to one side, we dropped it into the water, and by pulling on the cable we were able to hold the barge in the proper direction. In this way, bypassing a dangerous place, the ship left our barge at the shore and went downstream for wood, where there was a stockpile of wood for the Gromov ships.
Taking advantage of this time, the women and I went by boat to the opposite shore of the Lena to the Ust-Ilga station, where we hoped to purchase a variety of provisions. But here we were hard pressed to find even a little bread, potatoes, cabbage and milk. The cabbage and milk were only found at a clergyman’s, where the mother-superior demanded such a price that I was involuntarily amazed, even in light of the general high cost of living which rules in these parts. With somewhat wicked intentions I had at first thought to take advantage of the weaker heartstrings of a woman and mentioned that the milk was needed for our ailing children. But the nun turned out to be more hard-hearted than I had expected; she didn’t discount it even a penny.
Returning from the station, for recreation we walked up from the shore and climbed a hill, at the top of which a beautiful, grandiose vista opened up before us of the Lena mountains and surrounding taiga. The spring sunlight illuminated the wavy foothills of the mountains, covered in dark, gloomy taiga; but this taiga was turning a luxurious green and giving off the rich scent of the newly sprouted needles on the larch trees. The weather was clear and warm… Breathing was easy… The singing of birds could be heard in the air. The Lena, at this point, is relatively narrow, seemingly constrained, and flowed in a blue ribbon through the centre of its valley; but it capriciously swirled, giving off thousands of sparkles of the May sun. It felt good, and in one’s heart, it awakened an involuntary feeling of love and an acquiescence to life.
In the evening of that same day there was an occurrence which upset our entire community. The group of prisoners, which had been released from the Alexandrovsk prison on May 5th, overtook us at this point. From upstream, two pauzki approached us filled with people, in the middle of which was a dark mass of people in Caucasian burkas (a type of jacket). As soon as this was noticed, almost simultaneously several women cried out, “Oh, our people are coming… Sisters, there are our men coming!” Upon hearing this, several women ran up from the hold. Now they were abreast of us… Now they are passing us… The people in burkas, it appeared, recognizing their “sisters”, started taking off their caps and bowing. “How good it would be to approach them now by boat!”, one woman remarked out loud. “That can be done,” I said and called out: “Hey, boys, prepare a boat, quickly. There come the husbands of our women!… They must get to see them.” Two good fellows instantly appeared in a boat and began to bring it alongside of us. “Wait, they are coming themselves!”, someone from the group cried out.
Sure enough, from the prisoner’s pauzok, people descended into a boat and immediately set to the oars. A second boat soon followed. A few minutes later, the husbands and relatives of our women were already on our deck. There were but a few men, but it is impossible to express the joy of the meeting in words. First of all, however, the men as well as the women, bowed to each other, to the ground, and with tears in their eyes, began kissing one another. Following the ritualistic kissing, they began conversing and questioning, as to each other’s health, etc. In ordinary circumstances, the Doukhobors act slowly, in a measured, cautious manner, giving the appearance of people who are apathetic, and who must contemplate each step they make and each word they say. But here their emotion and haste were evident in everything. After conversing for about 15 minutes, the men departed. From the context of the conversations, it was apparent that these people are prepared to endure, silently, all manner of ordeals. The men said that they were fine, both while in prison as well as on the road; and the women said that they were travelling fine, when the real truth was that the children had endured virtual epidemics and the group had experienced many inconveniences and hardships. At the point of the men’s departure, I was introduced to them. This occurred as follows: Several women whispered something to the men, and they, glancing at one another, come up to me, one after another, to shake my hand, saying, “We humbly thank you for staying by our womenfolk.” “There is nothing to thank me for… I look after very minor things and I do so at the request of “Grandfather”, at the request of Count L.N. Tolstoy”, I said in response. “All the same! We are nonetheless grateful to you… We are grateful to “Grandfather” also… But you went to a lot of trouble on behalf of our women, tiring yourself out for them all through the journey.” “I had to come out here anyway.” “In any event, you have put out a lot of effort,” insisted the “brothers”. Following this the men left, and we, with the coming of darkness, stayed there until the following morning.
Our subsequent journey did not present any obstacles. For this reason we are able to say that, the end of our trials had finally arrived. The only serious, unfortunate incident to be noted, was in regard to the one woman, who had earlier received the injury and abrasions in the area of her knee joint; it had become infected and was now red and inflamed. The fault lay with the injured woman, herself. She, as I’ve said, had removed the antiseptic bandage, and at first applied a suspicious looking cream. In this manner she had contaminated the wound and ended up having to endure the results of her own ignorance. And as her secretive “healing” whisperings evidently did not help her, and the inflammation continued, it became necessary for me to get involved in the matter again. This time it was necessary to put into practise all that was available to us in order to turn the situation around. The inflammation did not go down for a long time, and then only slowly began to gradually improve.
Travelling through Kirensk, we met up with Dr. Feight, who knew of the group from the newspapers and was very interested in its well-being. He brought candy for the children. Then it became apparent to us that this doctor was himself not a willing resident of Eastern Siberia, having landed here from the capital, and now residing in the main town of the region. In the impenetrable forests of Siberia it is amazing whom one might encounter…
As we had travelled through the village of Vitim before the fire we were very impressed with its wealth and external splendour. This village, due to its proximity to the gold mines of this region, has become very wealthy and serves as a central station for ships travelling along the Lena and Vitim rivers. In this village there is a telegraph, post office, church, excellent stores and shipping dock. When there is a huge influx of workers coming and going from the mines, the population of Vitim reaches 15 thousand people. Here, because of the large exiled element and all manner of unemployed and often broke mine workers, drinking, card playing, fights, theft and killing – is not uncommon. That is why Vitim has long been known as a centre of drunkenness, depravity and all manner of crime. But even here were found people who were kind to the Doukhobor women and children. We are particularly grateful to Dr. Zakonov and the representative of K. Korzukhinskaya – Mr. Kurenko. The first supplied us with medicines, free of charge, and the second gave us 15 rubles (which had been gathered from some kind people) and a large variety of provisions (potatoes, flour, onions, milk, sugar, honey and even lemons). All this was very needed and very welcome, in that the provisions of our women were very depleted and everything here is very expensive.
Group of women and children exiles standing in front of barracks, c. 1899. Photo by George Kennan.
Further along, we also stopped at the town of Olekminsk, where the party was warmly greeted by local Skoptsy, also exiled for their sectarian beliefs. They organized a meal for the women befitting a parting dinner, served tea and listened to their religious hymns. On parting, they gave additional provisions. The Doukhobor brother, Konkin, of whom our party speaks with much enthusiasm, we didn’t have the opportunity to see, as he doesn’t live in the town of Olekminsk itself, but some 30 versts away. From the town of Olekminsk I had to send a report and evidence of the death of the little boy Fyodor Dimovsky, who had passed away on May 4, near Nikishenskaya, since in our rush, I had forgotten to inform the local authorities of the death of this boy. Right before our departure from Vitim I had heard that the gravesite of our little boy was going to be dug up, because we had not informed the local authorities of his death. I kept this unpleasantness hidden from our women.
In the end, on June 1, 1899, near 12 noon, we arrived at the town of Yakutsk, where the party was met by their husbands and brothers-in-spirit. The joy of the reunion, to my astonishment, was not distinctive for its degree of enthusiasm. To the contrary, there was a feeling of some sort of melancholy. The men and brothers, upon seeing the “sisters”, seemed to be recalling their enchanting homeland in the Transcaucasus, and were saddened by that; and the women, stepping onto foreign soil, might have felt that now everything had come to an end, and that once and for all they had been torn from all that was dear, important and familiar to them. Furthermore, the new homeland welcomed them with a frowning face: on May 31, as they neared Yakutsk, it began to snow. The poor women involuntarily exclaimed, “Oh! How shocking!… Snow at this time of year!..” The elder, Nikolai Cheveldeyev, sat the entire time at the front of the barge in his winter clothing. He wore an enormous yellow coloured sheepskin coat and his hat was also of impressive dimensions. Bundling up in this coat, he gruffly commented, “The wind is puffing pretty strongly, harshly.” Then, as though talking to himself, he quietly told of his old homeland: “As soon as the wheat is threshed, the Armenians and Greeks bring pears and all kinds of fruit to your doorstep… If you want, you take, if not – you don’t… As much as you need, that is how much you take.” With such a contrast between the old and new homelands for the Doukhobors, of course they would be melancholy, that was completely understandable. The arrival of the “sisters”, as joyous as it was for the “brothers”, could not but open up old wounds of the heart: it reminded them of all that was important, familiar and dear to them from childhood, but lo! was lost forever…
Handing the women over to their husbands and brothers, I departed for town. The women remained that day on the boat. The following day (June 2nd), with the authorization of the regional superintendent, V.H. Skripitsin, the women were assigned to the governor’s empty home, as the governor and family were living at their summer residence. The poor women did not really understand what a high honour they had been given by being accommodated in the very home of the governor, but were much more expressively appreciative of all of the provisions that the governor had donated to them: 72 bricks of tea, 20 puds (an Imperial Russian measure of distance equal to 16.38 kilograms) of grain, and 2 loaves of sugar. The wife of the district police officer also stopped by and brought a large quantity of pastry buns. In this way the highest administrative authorities of Yakutsk greeted the Doukhobor women and children very lovingly and humanely.
On July 12, a large part of the group, accompanied by several of the men, set off by barge of the “Gromov” ship to Aldan, where five versts from the confluence of the Notor and Aldan rivers, a Doukhobor colony of 90 people had formed. The Yakutsk governor and medical inspector, also were on board the Gromov ship.
The governor and medical inspector went into the Doukhobor colony and provided it with essential medicines from the pharmacy aboard the Gromov ship. Returning from the neighbouring Baturuskiy administrative district on June 14, I had missed the party in Yakutsk and therefore wasn’t able to accompany it to Ust-Notora, as the governor had requested of me. With this I conclude my drawn-out observations of the Doukhobor women and children. At this time, with the permission of the readers, I will present a small characterization of these people, as a conclusion.
In our time, Doukhobors present themselves as a fairly odd phenomenon. These simple village peasants with wives and children, are imbued with a common religious ideology having moral-mystical and rationalistic characteristics. In their personal as well as communal lives, they are very modest, honest and with high moral standards. They not only will not hurt other people, but will not defend themselves when they are being hurt, i.e. they do not resist evil with violence, as if in compliance with recent teachings of Count L.N. Tolstoy. It must be noted, however, that Doukhoborism came into being before the teachings of the famous writer. Nevertheless, there are significant similarities between Doukhobor beliefs and those of Tolstoy – Doukhobors renounce ceremonies, churches and adhere to vegetarianism (the Doukhobors adhere to Lenten foods, not even eating fish). Furthermore, they do not smoke tobacco and do not drink wine. Their marriages are by free will (civil ceremony), but thanks to the extraordinary meekness, patience and mutual respect of spouses they de facto remain unbreakable. The Doukhobors are not negative towards education and grammar (reading and writing), but are not too trusting of our schools, believing that they can give children a false religious-moral upbringing. The commandment “Thou shalt not kill”, they, evidently, understand in a very strict and literal sense, and therefore will not take up arms and refuse all manner of military training. Toil is incorporated as a basic principle of life, and the community, from an economic point of view, maintains a communistic character, in that all of these people are brothers. Therefore, in principle they reject private ownership. They regard exile and forced migration as a martyr’s cross, which leads to salvation. For that reason they endure exile, prison, deportation, and painful ordeals of the road with joy and to force them to complain of their fate is totally impossible. Destitute circumstances, suffering, death and all kinds of life’s misfortunes only serve to raise the moral spirit of the sect and its members draw together ever closer and closer as a result. Being in such a mystical-martyr-like state, it almost appears, that they welcome the wreath of struggle and suffering. From this springs the unconditional, absolute love of Doukhobors for one another. From this comes the peace and blissful demeanor of the members of the community. They are gathered, as one would at the moment of death, or after confession – full of love and forgiveness.
Group of Doukhobor women and children reunited with men in Yakutsk, Siberia, circa 1899
The religious spirit is so strong among them, that even the children are filled with the emotions of the elders, and do not fight amongst each other. During the course of the three months that I lived amongst the women, not only did I never hear any quarrels, but not an argument either (and a woman’s temperament, as is well known, is very fervent). In that time, there was also not a single fight amongst the children, but only once or twice a little boy took a stick away from a little girl. The children play very little and rarely… They are serious, almost like children who are ill or who are very poor. Once I picked some flowers along the shore and brought them to the children. One woman began dividing them amongst the children as one would treats, saying, “This one is for Malashka, this one for Vaska, and so forth. The children stand in a mannerly fashion, and politely take only that which is given to them. The children never argue amongst themselves, but prayers, greetings and religious hymns are known by all (from age 3 to 8). I only once witnessed how four year old Malasha, not so much swore as joked: “You are a cat yourself!.. You are a cat yourself!..” In a word, I will preserve the very best memories of these quiet, honest and virtuous people. As for their unfortunate little children, involuntarily sharing the fate of their parents – they deserve the greatest compassion, love and kindness, as examples of innocent, angelic purity, embodied in the delicate and vulnerable fragility of their tender age. Farewell, dear children, and farewell to you, Fedya Dimovsky, whose body lies on the stoney shore of the Lena, amongst the green conifers, near the chattering mountain stream. The End
Following their long journey from European Russia to Yakutsk, Siberia, Doctor Sokolnikov’s close relations with the Doukhobors continued. He became their correspondent with the outside world, publishing favorable articles about them in the Irkutsk newspaper “Vostochnoe Obozrenie” and acting as an intermediary between them and other people, particularly Tolstoy, who provided financial assistance through him to the exiled Doukhobors from 1899 to 1901.