by Grigory Vasilyevich Verigin
In November 1894, Doukhobor leader Peter Vasilyevich Verigin was transferred from exile in the far northern town of Kola to the village of Obdorsk in remote Siberia. His brother Vasily Vasilyevich Verigin and Vasily Vereshchagin travelled with him as far as Moscow, from where they continued south to the Caucasus. Upon their arrival home, the faithful messengers passed on their leader’s advice to his followers to reject military service and to destroy their firearms in a mass demonstration against violence. Tsarist authorities responded by arresting and imprisoning the messengers for disturbing the peace. These events were recorded by Grigory Vasilyevich Veregin in Chapter 13 of his 1935 book, “Ne v Sile Bog, a v Pravde” (Paris, Dreyfus & Charpentier). This chapter, translated by Galina Alexeyeva and Larry A. Ewashen, portrays the important historical events which led to the rejection of military service by Doukhobor conscripts and the “Burning of Arms”.
Vasily Grigoryevich Vereshchagin and brother Vasily Vasilyevich returned home from the trip safely. All of the Doukhobors waited for them impatiently. When they arrived, there were big conventions and meetings where they spoke in detail about their trip, spoke about the health and well being of Peter Vasilyevich, and explained in detail why he was being transferred for such a long distance and such a remote place as Obdorsk. Of course such a transition accompanied by much suffering made everyone sad but life and deeds soon took another turn. They brought regards and best wishes from Peter Vasilyevich and without any hesitation presented his advice for the life of the Doukhobors concerning the Burning of Arms and rejection of military service and other related matters. Over the next while, they went to the Elizavetpol region, to Slavyanka, and to the other villages. They saw everyone there and delivered all of the necessary messages.
From there they went to Akhalkalaki district where the majority of the Doukhobors lived. They went through all of the villages safely and discussed all pertinent matters. But the police followed them closely. If they were not as careful as they were, they could have been arrested and imprisoned. But they avoided this successfully keeping in mind the words of Christ: Be wise as the snakes and you will be safe as the doves; they returned home to the village of Terpeniye in the Kars region safely. When the police learned about the delivery of Peter Vasilyevich’s messages, they became concerned.
Alexei Vorobiev, who was considered to be the closest friend, even the brother of Peter Vasilyevich (the late Lukeria Vasilyevna Kalmykova called them “brothers”) became intimidated along with the Small Party of the Doukhobors because they feared punishment by the government. And that segment of the Doukhobors, headed by him, did not accept the message and advice of Peter Vasilyevich. They didn’t stop eating meat, didn’t participate in the Burning of Arms and did not reject military service. If that was all, it would be fortunate, but they went so far as to report to the government that some people were going around the villages creating disturbances. Christ’s words are true which take on a meaning today. He said: “Those who are not with me are against me”. Let them do as they wish, but we will continue with God’s work. Vereshchagin and brother Vasily asked their relatives to go to those who were in military service as soldiers and inform them of Peter’s message. Brother Vasily passed on a letter to them personally where the message was explained. I quote this letter, word for word:
“Beloved brother in our Lord Jesus Christ, I would like to talk to you, dear brother, about what constitutes my faith. I believe in the law of our Lord Jesus Christ and comprehend it sincerely. When we live according to the will of our Father, our Lord, then our Lord lives in us reviving us and enlightening our reason with a radiant light. Those who wish to fulfill the will of our heavenly father must bend their hearts to God’s will. Our Lord tells us: You were bought at an expensive price, do not be slaves of human beings. Learn the truth and the truth shall make you free.
Undertaking such a great deed we must totally realize that our sincere desire may have to overcome cruel tests. It may bring some insults, offences, suffering and even death upon us. Misunderstanding, false interpretations and lies will await us. A storm will arise against us: pride, pharisaism, ambition, cruel rulers, authorities; all of these may be combined to eradicate us. In a similar way as they did to our God, Jesus Christ, whom we try to emulate as much as possible, according to our abilities. We should not be frightened by all of these horrors. Our hope is not for the people but for our almighty Lord. If we reject human protection what would support us, if not our singular faith, which conquers the entire world? We will not be surprised by those trials to which we are exposed, we will be glad to have the honour to share the sufferings of our Lord Jesus Christ. Because of all this, we give our souls to God and believe what was said: “The one who leaves one’s home, brothers, sisters, mother, father or children for the sake of God will get one hundred times more, and in the Kingdom of Heaven will inherit eternal life”. So firmly believing in the certain triumph of truth, in spite all which could stand against us, we trust reason and the consciousness of humanity, but most of all, God’s power to which we subject ourselves. For a Christian to promise to follow people and people’s laws is the same as a hired worker who promises the owner to fulfill all he would be ordered not only by him but by other people.
You cannot serve two masters. A Christian liberates himself from human power when he recognizes only the power of God over himself and the law which was revealed by the Lord Jesus Christ. He realizes it within himself and abides by it. Human life consists of following not your own will but the will of God. A Christian may be subjected to exterior violence and may be deprived of physical freedom, and at the same time could be freed of his passions. The one who sins is the slave of sin. A Christian is meek and quiet, does not argue with anyone and never attacks anyone, does not use violence against anyone, and on the contrary, he overcomes violence and overcomes evil.”
Vasily Vasilyevich Verigin
They travelled, met with everyone, and did their task so well that those who elected to reject military service selected a specific day, as I explained above: if they consider this seriously and come to a conclusion, then they must take action on it on the first day of Easter, perhaps not everyone at once, but the beginning must take place on that day. When the commander of the company comes and congratulates his soldiers on the greatest holiday in the world, saying: ‘Christ has arisen’, the soldiers must answer: ‘In the righteous, Christ has arisen’; and to prove this, someone filled with the spirit of God, must tell the commander that he believes in Christ in deed and will serve Him, and will deny and reject all violent regimes; that is why I ask you to accept this rifle from me because all this is unnecessary for me and contradicts my consciousness and the spiritual feeling of my soul.
And it was Matvei Vasilyevich Lebedev who committed this action first, and his brave endeavour became known to the whole regiment and everyone questioned: What happened to him? Some people said he went insane, others said, cautiously, that he was correct in his actions. He was tortured, beaten and put into the punishment cell, he was not given food except for bread and water. Others followed his example, and soon all of the Doukhobors in all of the regions who were soldiers returned their arms and equipment. They were all arrested, beaten, tortured and put into isolation away from the other soldiers. But they did not recant. Finally, they were all sent to the disciplinary battalion to Ekaterinograd Fortress for additional cruel punishment. In all, there were thirty-three of them.
When the above mentioned brothers returned their arms to the government, the government was suspicious and began to investigate and search for reasons for this behaviour and although they were not certain, they suspected Vasily Vereshchagin, brother Vasily, and I don’t know why, myself. On the tenth of July, 1895, all three of us were summoned by gendarme officer Astafeev and Assistant Procurator Stepanov to the Argeno station. The above mentioned persons also took another road to come to our village with horsemen and began to search our houses. They did not find anything suspicious, came back, and began to interrogate us. Because there was no direct evidence against us to enable them to arrest and imprison us, they began to question us about our convictions, in what way do we recognize our sovereign and all existing authorities?
Without any hesitation, we informed them of our convictions; we recognize the sovereign as sovereign, authorities for authorities, but to abide to their demand if it were against the law of God, that we would not be able to do. We deeply believe in our Lord Jesus Christ, who came to the world to redeem the sin of his forefathers and he gave the whole human race the commandment and presented the testament, not to sin. The foundation of his teaching consists firstly, to love God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your reason. Secondly, love your neighbour as you love yourself. This is the foundation of the law of the prophets. Also in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter Five, Verse 38: Christ says to the people: “You have heard the law as it was pronounced: An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth, But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away. Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? Do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? Do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect”.
Grigory Vasilyevich Verigin, taken after his escape from Siberian exile in 1902. Photo courtesy Larry Ewashen.
From what we said, the Gendarme Officer and Assistant Procurator sensed that somehow we didn’t believe in them, and they said: ‘It means that you won’t abide the laws of the sovereign?” “Yes, if the laws of the sovereign are connected with murder and violence, we will not participate in them”. After that, they sentenced us and announced that “now you are arrested and tomorrow you will be sent to Kars to the Karadakh prison.”
Brother Vasily addressed them thusly: “Because our parents are old, the wives aren’t able to take care of the household, the children are very small, would it not be possible to liberate our youngest brother till the special order, to let him look after the old parents and small children?” They agreed to do this on payment of 500 rubles bail. And Ivan Ivanovich Usachev agreed to pay on my behalf immediately and in the morning they freed me. I went home and my brother and Vereshchagin were sent to Kars under strict convoy and put into the Karadakh prison in solitary imprisonment the same day. They informed Chief Commander Sheremetiev about them and he resolved to put both of them put under military tribunal in order to frighten all the rest; and to prove that, I quote excerpts from Tregubov and brother Vasily’s letters: “Once there was rumour that they wanted some Doukhobors to receive the death penalty through hanging or shooting. Their friends informed the Doukhobors about this. They replied with a dignified letter. “Today we received a letter from Ivan Mikhailovich Tregubov in which he greets us with brotherly wishes and regards, God save him. He writes that me and Vereshchagin were sentenced to hang; he also writes that he and Vladimir Grigoryevich Chertkov wrote to the Chief Commander in the Caucasus, Sheremetiev, to pardon us. I don’t know from whence this rumour reached them, we haven’t heard this yet, maybe they have a plot to do some evil against us. It’s up to them, our task – to fulfill the Lord’s work, who gave us life and light; and for this of course, we are thankful to our brothers, that they, because of plenty of love in their heart, care about us. Save them Lord, but according to our understanding, for a Christian it is not common to appeal to a human person and ask for pardon” [from the letter of Vasily Verigin to Dmitry Alexandrovich Khilkov].
Beside Tregubov and Chertkov, Georgii Alexandrovich Dadiani wrote to Sheremetiev; he was adjutant to Sheremetiev but later on he gave up all his ranks and rewards and became a Christian. Georgii Alexandrovich, a Georgian prince by inheritance, only a year ago was an adjutant to Sheremetiev and at that time brother Vasily Vasilyevich knew him. Georgii Alexandrovich was a Tolstoyan. And when he received that resolution he wrote a letter to Sheremetiev immediately, in which he said: “I received awful news that you have resolved to put Vereshchagin and Verigin before a military tribunal and it all depends on your signature. This is awful. How immoral this is. How low this is. Haven’t those times come to an end? We are living in the twentieth century after the birth of Christ and the horrible death of our great teacher of truth Jesus Christ who wished brotherhood and peaceful life upon all humanity, and thanks to that the Kingdom of God will come to Earth as it is in Heaven. And for this holy or sacred teaching you dare to publicly shoot these innocent people before you. Moreover, you believe in this doctrine, you are considered a Christian. You think that by such a cruel action as to spill the blood of innocent people you will intimidate people who are fulfilling the will of God expressed by Jesus Christ, for which he laid down his life and bequeathed his followers to do the same. And perhaps you think that in such a way you will intimidate these wrestlers for virtue. I am telling you as my bygone friend [now I stand in the ranks of Christ] – by this you will only put a spot of innocent blood not only on yourself but on the entire country of Russian people. The greater part of these people, in one way or another, believe in Christ, and you will bury these people for Christ. As for Vereshchagin and Verigin, I know Vasily Vasilyevich personally, they will not give in and will abide by your resolution with joy. And the rest of the Doukhobors who have already accepted the spirit of Christ, will not only not be intimidated but will be inspired even more. Because these people whom you wish to execute they will revere as holy. And in fact these people deserve this name because they are dying for the teaching of Christ and for our brotherly mutual task. And they themselves will abide by your resolution.
This is what Georgii Alexandrovich Dadiani wrote. Of course such people have a great force in God’s work, maybe this helped their salvation and they were not executed.
A complete English translation of Grigory Verigin’s 1935 Russian publication, “Ne v Sile Bog, a v Pravde” is currently being prepared by Doukhobor Village Museum Curator Larry A. Ewashen. For more information on this project, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org.