The Dukhobortsy, 1865

by Vasily Vasil’evich Vereshchagin

Vasily Vasil’evich Vereshchagin was one of the most famous 19th Century Russian Realist painters and one of the first Russian artists to be widely recognized abroad. In 1864-1865 he went to the Caucasus in search of subjects for his canvas, where he encountered a variety of local peoples, including the Doukhobors of the Kedabek district of Elizavetpol province.  He kept a journal and wrote down his observations, which were published in “Vassili Verestchagin: Painter-Soldier-Traveller, Autobiographical Sketches” (F. H. Peters, trans., London: R. Bentley & Son, 1887).  The following excerpt provides a detailed and unique first-hand account of the Doukhobors during their early settlement in the Caucasus, and highlights their social customs, spiritual beliefs, religious services and general prosperity.  It also includes a number of rare and historically important drawings by Vereshchagin of various Doukhobor subjects and scenes from the aforesaid publication and from “Voyage dans les provinces du Caucase” par Basile Vereschaguine, traduit du russe par Mme et M. Ernest le Barbier. 1864-1865. Texte et dessins inédits. Seconde Partie. – “La Transcaucasie” Le Tour du Monde (Paris), t. 19, premier semestre 1869: 315-21; 322-36. Foreword and Afterword by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.


Vasily Vasil’evich Vereshchagin (1842-1904)

Vasily Vasil’evich Vereshchagin (1842-1904) was born in the town of Cherepovets in Novgorod province, Russia into a relatively prosperous family of landowners. As the son of a nobleman, he was expected to follow a military or diplomatic career. At the age of eight, he entered the Alexander Cadet Corps, an educational institution in St. Petersburg that prepared future military officers from a very early age. Three years later, he entered the Sea Cadet Corps at St. Petersburg, making his first voyage in 1858. Vereshchagin was one of the ablest students in his class and looked to be at the outset of a promising naval career.

However, during the years of his military education, the young man developed a passion for art – viewed as a ‘lowly’ calling by his peers. Immediately upon graduating from the naval school in 1860, Vereshchagin left the service and enrolled full-time at the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts to begin the study of drawing in earnest. He left the Academy four years later, dissatisfied with its classical standards and approach. The same year, in 1864, he entered the Academie des Beaux-Arts in Paris where he studied under the famous Jean Leon Gerome. But in the Paris Academy, too, classical standards were prevalent, and thus Vereshchagin soon departed, frustrated.

In search of new subjects, Vereshchagin travelled to the Caucasus in 1864-1865, where he created a series of sketches and studies devoted to the life and customs of the local people. It was his second trip, having briefly visited the Caucasus in 1863.  It was at this time that he visited the Doukhobors living in the Kedabek district of Elizavetpol province, whom he sketched and wrote about in his journal.

Not far from the town of Shusha… live the Russian sectarians who were banished from Russia proper on account of their indefatigable zeal in propagating their doctrines. They live as settlers among the Armenians and Tatars; and as their villages lay but a short distance off my route, I went so far out of my way in order to visit them, to question them, and to observe them with my own eyes.

From a lofty mountain ridge we looked down into a valley in which lies the village of Slavyanka, inhabited by the Dukhobortsy (“Doukhobors”). A little further behind the mountains lie some more villages [Novo-Goreloye, Novo-Spasskoye and Novo-Troitskoye], inhabited by the same sect, but these I did not see. Presently we met some of the inhabitants returning home in large parties from their hay making, and carrying their scythes and rakes. They wear white shirts, stuck soldier-wise into their white breeches, and caps with broad peaks. Most of them had a merry air, and were talking and laughing together. When they saw me they politely raised their caps.

Water wheel in Slavyanka, Vereshchagin, Le Tour du Monde.

The village lies in a hollow, by a rushing torrent that falls into the Kura [River]. The distance from Elizavetpol may be sixty versts [an Imperial Russian measure equal to 1.0668 km] or a little more. All round rise mountains, almost bare of vegetation; though in the place itself, which numbers 205 houses, and some 600 male inhabitants, there are trees and more vegetation in abundance. The Dukhobortsy came, or rather were transplanted, to this place from the Tauride [Tavria] district, whither they had been forced to migrate from the interior of Russia between 18[02] and 1830.

Many of their old men still remember quite well their homes in old Russia, in the districts of Tambov, Saratov and elsewhere. The first batch of these were sent here in 1840, others later. They had a hard time of it at first, as they had to take up their abode among the neighboring Armenians and Tatars, who treated them with great cruelty, constantly robbing them and sometimes going to the length of murder. 

Doukhobor woman, left, Vereshchagin, Le Tour du Monde.

Doukhobor woman, right, Vereshchagin, Le Tour du Monde.

There are no forests in the neighbourhood, and the carriage of timber by the mountain paths is exceedingly laborious, so that they could not think at first of making a permanent settlement. Many returned to the bosom of the Orthodox Church and went back to Russia. Those who remained gradually improved their condition, and today, after five-and-twenty years, the settlements of the Dukhobortsy (four villages, if I mistake not) are so well built and well arranged as to be an object of envy to the natives of the district.

In earlier times severe measures were taken against their doctrines, and great efforts were made to prevent them from spreading; and it was with this object that the Dukhobortsy were transplanted to the mountains of Transcaucasia. The Tsar Alexander I visited them while they were still in the Tauride district, was present at their worship, and by his gracious behaviour not only left behind him a good name among the sectarians, but also improved their position in the community, which at that time was far from enviable. “It is only since his visit,” say the Dukhobortsy, “that we are looked upon as human beings and suffered to drive our cattle into the town and to buy and sell in peace. Before that, when we went among our neighbours on business, we heard nothing but insulting remarks, such as ‘You are no Christians: you are people who are not fit to show your faces among men.'” It is easy to see that the Dukhobortsy retain a vivid recollection of the persecution and insult which they formerly suffered, and that though better times came afterwards few of them would care to return to the interior of Russia. 

Sketch of a Doukhobor man, Autobiographical Sketches.

The main thought of their religion may be expressed in a very few words – one God in three persons, vix. God the Father – the memory; God the Son – the understanding; God the Holy Ghost – the will: the Trinity in unity. They have no sacred books, and do not recognize the Old or the New Testament, or the writings of the Fathers of the Orthodox Church. “These books,” say they, “are written by human hands, and the work of human hands is imperfect.” Their conception of Christ is very obscure: beyond a confused notion that He is at once man and God, they have not the least idea how He lived or for what He suffered.

The sources of their knowledge of Christ are their so-called ‘Psalms of David’. These ‘Psalms’ are the only prayers in use among the Dukhobortsy; some specimens which I have collected show how absurd it is to ascribe them to David, whom they hold in high honour.

It may be that these prayers had more meaning at the time when the sect was founded; but in being handed down from father to son (for to this day they are preserved by oral tradition only) it is not to be wondered at that many words and phrases have been so corrupted as to make the most ridiculous nonsense, especially as these people can neither read nor write.

But the Dukhobortsy are convinced that these psalms have been handed down to them word for word as they came from the mouth of the Psalmist.

Their mistrust of, or rather aversion to, everything that is written sometimes leads them into strange absurdities. Besides the prophet David, for instance, there are three persons of the Old Testament whom they hold in special honour; these are Ananias, Asarias and Misael; and the reason is that these three stood still till the last moment by the cross of Christ. “The apostle Peter,” say the Dukhobortsy, “was very near to Christ, and yet denied Him: these three stood by Him.” When I remarked that these three men lived long before Christ, and therefor could not be present at his crucifixion, they answered that it was not their business to criticize, it was enough to believe what had been handed down by their fathers.

Не убоюся на Бога сположуся.”

“Fear nothing and trust in God.”

                19th century Doukhobor slogan

“Is it not known to you,” said I to some old men with whom I was talking, “that besides David there are other prophets of the Old Testament who prophesized a great deal of Christ, for instance Isaiah?” “What Isaiah do you mean, little father?” was the answer. “Do you mean Abraham, or Isaac or Jacob? Who can know them all? They are many, and it is a long time since they lived.” As for the saints of the Orthodox Church, they allow that they may have been very good men, but no more.

Sketch of Doukhobor women chanting their psalms, Vereshchagin, Le Tour du Monde.

The dogma of obedience to the authorities is beginning, under the stress of practical necessity, to come into force with them, and, on the other hand, the favourite dogma of the Dukhobortsy, “Fear nothing and trust in God,” is beginning to lose its significance. This reminds me of an amusing incident. One Sunday (which day the Dukhobortsy spend in idling and drinking brandy) a discharged soldier (for many men of this class are found in the sect) was cursing and swearing under my windows. I sent down my guide, a Cossack, to tell him to take his curses elsewhere. I watched from the window how my Cossack accosted him: “What do you mean by cursing and swearing here? Don’t you see that a stranger, an official, is lodging here? It is most unseemly.” The drunkard looked contemptuously at my envoy, rested his hands on his sides, and replied in a sing-song voice, “I fear thee not, but trust in God.” The Cossack made an angry gesture, and returned to me in great vexation. “It is no good speaking to him, sir; a rude fellow, as drunkards are wont to be.”

The Dukhobortsy protest that they honour the Tsar, and that it is a slander to say they do not. “It is impossible not to honour the Tsar: only, we do not call him our father as the Orthodox do.”

Their worship is extremely simple. One Sunday I was taken into a peasant’s house where the service (moleniye) was to be held. The room was such as you may see in an ordinary peasant’s house, very clean, spacious but low, with a great Russian stove, and decorated with fine towels (rushniki). It was crowded with people – the men on one side, the women on the other – the elders seated on benches, the rest standing.

They repeat the prayers in turn. When one makes a mistake the others correct him: “That is not right.” “How should it be then?” “Thus,” and then the prompter himself makes a slip, and is corrected on all hands. I observed that the mistakes are mostly made by the men: the women know the prayers better, and the corrections come chiefly from their side. The saying of the prayers lasts a considerable time, till the whole stock is exhausted, or (as more frequently happens in seasons of hard work) till the congregation shows signs of exhaustion and snoring is heard from the corners and comfortable places. Then some one suggests to the meeting that it is time to pass from praying to singing.

Doukhobors chanting their psalms at a moleniye (prayer meeting), Vereshchagin, Le  Tour du Monde.

“What think you? It is close here: shall we not go into the courtyard and sing?” All turn out into the court, and the men again take their places on one side, the women on the other. This custom is strictly observed, for it is counted as obedience to the precept “During prayer have God’s image before thee.” The singing also lasts a long time, and is always in such a sad and pensive strain as to make one quite melancholy; one’s thoughts turn to the distant home – to the Volga and the Burlaks with their songs. At the head of the men stands a precentor who begins each psalm. In the village of Slavyanka this post of honour was held by an old man, who often came to chat with me, and never came empty handed: one day he would bring a piece of honeycomb, another day some fresh cucumbers; and I, on my side, never failed to slip into his pocket a handful of cigarettes, which which, as I heard, he made a great display before the neighbours. “All these the Government official gave me, to show his respect for me.” Often he alluded complacently to the importance of his office – “It is not everyone that is equal to it: one must have a calling to it.” Only the precentor and perhaps a few others keep to the words in singing; the rest merely make meaningless sounds.

Sketch of Doukhobor men chanting their psalms,  Vereshchagin, Le Tour du Monde.

Before the end of the service the congregation form a semicircle, bow, and kiss each other, the men passing in turn along the men’s ranks, and the women doing the same on their side. They grasp each other by the right hand, bow twice, kiss, and again bow twice. A final and more profound bow is made by the men in the direction of the women, and by the women in the direction of the men. The bows look very awkward, and are made rather to one side. Each member of the congregation goes through this ceremony with every other member, without any distinction of age. But I did not see any very small children at these services. The singing goes on during the salutation; as soon as it is finished, they put on their caps and all go to their houses.

I wrote down their psalms as dictated to me by members of the sect – some old, some young. Both the old and the young, but especially the old, have a very imperfect understanding of what they say, and gabble the words off by rote without any regard to the sense. If I asked them to explain a passage the old men would answer, “Who can understand it? The wisdom of God is hard to grasp” or “God knows, I know not. So prayed our fathers before us, so pray we and teach our children to pray. As for what it means, we leave that to God.”

I did also get some explanations, but they were mostly very obscure, and it was impossible not to remark that likeness in the sound of words and phrases was taken for identity of meaning. When they are repeating their psalms, if they forget a word they at once get confused and have to go back to the beginning.

It also sometimes happens that a good Dukhobortsy leaves out a long piece in the middle of a prayer and is not conscious of the omission till he comes to the end. After a little reflection he will say, “I seem to have left out something, for I have come to the end too soon.” Sometimes he will notice the omission at once. “No, that is not it. Read, please, what you have written down there.” I read “and we become partakers of the holy communion of the divine, the life-giving…” “Yes, yes. Now write ‘Saviour’, ” and he begins to gabble through the words by rote, “the divine, the life-giving Saviour – the divine, the life-giving” – add “the immortal”. How does it go on? To make sure I am forgetting nothing, read it right through again from the beginning.”

When they are saying their prayers together of course this does not happen, because each mistake is at once corrected by those present. They have prayers not only on Sunday but also on week-days, late in the evening when their work is done, especially on Saturday.

It is strange that the Dukhobortsy, with their sound common sense, should ascribe their psalms to the prophet David, seeing that the greater part of them contain the plainest allusions to the time and the circumstances of the foundation and development of their sect. As an instance of this I here give a prayer or psalm which serves as a sort of catechism of the doctrine of the Dukhobortsy. I repeat that I wrote it down word for word as it was dictated to me:

“The God whom we serve in the spirit we glorify in Jesus Christ. The spirit was given to us; of the spirit we partake, and are of good cheer. We believe in the universal almighty God, Creator of the heavens, and the earth, and the bright light. In Him we believe. We are baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. We pray to God in the spirit: in the true spirit we pray, and to the true God. With my voice I call upon God, and with my voice I pray to God. we make confession to our heavenly Father, for He is gracious, His goodness is everlasting; and as our sins are remitted we receive the holy, divine agonizing, life-giving communion of the immortal Jesus to the forgiveness of sins. We go into the church of God, into the only holy apostolic cathedral, where the true Christians are gathered together. We have an upright and honourable priest, not a false and wicked one, who is set apart from sinners. The mother of God we name and venerate, for she bore Jesus Christ to the forgiveness of the sins of Adam. We honour and emulate the saints. We adore the holy picture of God, the priceless picture of God, the holy picture, which sings and speaks: true pictures of saints, unlike written parchments, made by the Son of the Father and of the Holy Ghost. 

The Tsar we hold in honour: God save the Tsar! Hear us, O God! We observe the fasts – continence in thought. Keep me away from all evil, from murmuring with my lips, from sudden death, from incontinence. Take away from me all untruth. We have marriage, an institution of eternal welfare, wherein we make ourselves sure. Into a church built with hands we will not go. The painted images of saints we do not adore, for in them we see no holiness and no saving virtue. Therefore we practice not the laying on of hands, but turn to the word of God, the life-giving cross. To our God is all honour due!”

After I had written down the psalms, of which the above is a specimen, I read them to various members of the sect in order to make quite sure that they had been given to me correctly. All assured me that, with some unimportant exceptions, what I had taken down agreed with the tradition as known to them.

These same Dukhobortsy, who glorify God and their faith in this wise, live an honest, reasonable, and prosperous life. These qualities, indeed, they share with other religious communities that have been banished and forgotten, such as the Molokans, the Subbotniks, and the Skoptsi in Transcaucasia. But, being acquainted with the Molokans as well as the Dukhobortsy, I place the latter far higher than the former in respect of morality. For instance, among the Molokans the use of wine and tobacco is forbidden, and they do not take either in public; but in private they indulge in these forbidden pleasures. The Dukhobortsy, on the other hand, openly drink and smoke and grow tobacco. The Molokans are not averse to cheating, or even to stealing when the opportunity occurs; with the Dukhobortsy, on the contrary, acts of this kind are so rare that you might count them upon your fingers. It is remarkable that the Dukhobortsy regard the Molokans as apostates from Dukhoborism, while the Molokans declare that the Dukhobortsy are apostates from Molokanism. Probably the Molokans are right. The two sects hate each other. “Godless creatures, worse than dogs,” say the Molokans of the Dukhobortsy, who in their turn, say of the Molokans, “Are they human beings?”


With regard to myself and my occupations the Dukhobortsy showed much less distrust than the Molokans, who apparently persisted in believing that my visit had secret inquiries for its purpose, and their transference to Siberia for its probable result. The Dukhobortsy, indeed, were not at once ready to talk. “You question us about this and that,” said an old Dukhobortsy to me, “but you have not yet told us who you are.” “Why do you want to know that?” “So that we may know what we may say to you and what me may not. We want to know whether you are an official or not, whether you are a noble or a simple gentleman, and by what name we are to call you.” I explained as simply and clearly as I could that I was nothing but a traveller who wanted to see what sort of life is led by Russians, Tatars and Armenians.

Sketch of a Doukhobor woman, Autobiographical Sketches.

“You live in the mountains,” I said, “and it is seldom that anyone comes to you, or that you leave your villages. Hence various rumours about you are spread abroad, and I wanted to ascertain what was true in these rumours and what was false.” Some seemed to understand my motive, and nodded their heads in assent: “So it is, indeed; much nonsense is talked about us.” There were even some “politicians” among them who thanked me for the honour I did them by my questions.

As I have already mentioned, the Dukhobortsy have no books and keep no kind of records. The old men cannot read, and do not get their children taught, for they consider such knowledge superfluous for peasants. The only exceptions are the clerks to the village governments, who are generally discharged soldiers that know how to read.

When I learned about this systematic ignorance (for so it may be called), I saw that an old man had not been joking when he asked me to reckon how old he was now, having been a boy of fourteen when he moved with his father from the Government of Tambov into the Taurus district in the year 1822. “I have long been trying,” he said, “to find this out; but there is no one here whom one could ask.” When my old friend learned that I had travelled a great deal he would have me tell him where the sun goes to rest. “Is there, he asked me several times, “Is there, then, no place at all where the sun rests?”

I wanted to know where the men’s dress came from. In answer to my questions the Dukhobortsy said theirs was a genuine Russian costume; but it is not found anywhere in Russia. As to their long and broad trousers, there may be truth in what they say; but what is the origin of the short archaluk (“jacket”), embroidered in soldier fashion, with a stand-up collar, which is always fastened with hooks, as among the Cossacks? This archaluk is worn by all without exception.

The women wear the ordinary Russian dress, but their head-dress is shaped like a sugar loaf, and has a kerchief or piece of stuff tied round it with the ends hanging down. The houses of the Dukhobortsy are like the peasant’s houses of Southern Russia. On the outside they are decorated with wood carvings representing a little horse, a man on horseback, a cock, etc; the interior is always extraordinarily clean; the walls neatly adorned with embroidered towels, samplers, popular pictures and other knick-knacks.

Their carts are very like those I was in East Prussia – great ladder wagons, ie. with the sides not made of solid boards, but of rails sloping outwards. A telega (“wagon”) of this kind will hold twenty persons, and even a twenty-first can find a corner.

Doukhobor wagon, Vereshchagin, Le Tour du Monde.

The village abounds in beehives, and a good bee master will make as much as a hundred rubles a year out of his honey. Besides honey they sell yarn and linen cloth, and in good years other products, especially potatoes and corn.

The soil is somewhat stony, but nevertheless bears good crops. They sow oats which yield ten-fold, or even fifteen fold; wheat and barley do not succeed so well as oats; buckwheat does well; millet, again, not so well. They also grow good crops of spelt. From hemp seed they extract an oil which they use for food, and also bring to market. Their potatoes and linseed are nothing to boast of.

Sketch of Doukhobor merino sheep, Vereshchagin, Autobiographical Sketches.

The Dukhobortsy in the village of Slavyanka, with 205 houses, have about 7,000 head of cattle. Their horned cattle, a cross between the native and the Black Sea breeds, have a splendid appearance. Their sheep, too, which they call shpanki, and which probably come from Spain or the south of France, deserve notice: their wool fetches from eight to nine rubles the pud, while the natives in the neighbourhood only get three, four or five rubles for theirs.

It is evident that the Dukhobortsy are thriving; it is only of their neighbours that they complain. About these neighbours – ie. the Tatars and the Armenians – they express themselves in very severe terms.

The only difference between them is that the Tatars have recourse to robbery and murder, while the Armenians deceive you and cheat you on every opportunity. There is no end to their tales of robbery and murder.

“It is only since the arrival of the new governor of the district,” say the Dukhobortsy, “that we have begun to live in any tolerable manner; before that we had no chance against the Tatars. They robbed us in open day; they would seize you, bind your hands behind your back, and hold a dagger to your throat while others drove off the cattle. It is useless to think of getting satisfaction or appealing to the law; if you do, you are summoned before the court from your work just when the day is worth a ruble, and have to go into the town merely to learn that the thieves have not been discovered. “So sign this paper, little brother, so that we may have no more charges brought on this score.” And there the matter ends. When you undertake a journey, your friends do not know whether they will ever see you again; and if you come back safe from even the shortest excursion you say, “The Lord be praised!” If a night passes quietly, without a single theft being committed, we all thank God and think, “Perhaps we shall get through the day too without any misadventure.”


On August 10, 1865, while en route from the town of Shusha to the town of Kazakh in Elizavetpol province, Vereshchagin passed through the Doukhobor village of Slavyanka. He stopped there for several days, during which time he conversed with his Doukhobor hosts, visited their homes, sketched a number of subjects and scenes, and observed their state of affairs and way of life.

The Russian painter found a population of 600 male Doukhobors living in 205 households in Slavyanka in 1865. Presumably, there was comparable number of female Doukhobors living there at the time.

Vereshchagin noted that the mountain lowlands of Slavyanka had a temperate climate and fertile soil with trees and vegetation in abundance. Having arrived there from Tavria twenty years earlier, the Doukhobors, through hard work and diligence, had adapted to their surroundings and become “thriving” and “prosperous”. Their homes were finely decorated and extraordinarily clean. They built flour mills (sketched by Vereshchagin), kept an abundance of beehives, maintained a herd of 7,000 cattle as well as extensive herds of sheep (sketched by Vereshchagin), planted sizeable grain fields, pasturage and market gardens, and operated oil presses. They also engaged in the cartage trade (their wagons were sketched by Vereshchagin) and marketed their surplus grain (oats, wheat, barley, buckwheat, linseed, hemp, millet and spelt), vegetables (potatoes and corn) and honey as well as yarn and linen cloth. Indeed, the Doukhobor settlement of Slavyanka was “so well built and arranged as to be an object of envy” of all their neighbours.  Few, if any, would have cared to return to Central Russia from whence they came.

The Doukhobors complained only of their neighbours – the native Tatars and Armenians – who treated them with great cruelty, constantly robbing them and sometimes going to the length of murder. Until recently, the local Tsarist administration had proven ineffective in protecting the Doukhobors; however, under the new district governor, peace and order had begun to prevail.

Vereshchagin made note of the distinctive form of Doukhobor dress, which he was told was a “genuine Russian costume” yet was not found anywhere else in Russia. The men (sketched by Vereschagin) wore white shirts, stuck soldier-wise into their long and broad trousers, with a short, embroidered jacket with a stand-up collar, and caps with broad peaks. The women (sketched by Vereshchagin) wore ordinary Russian dress, but had a unique head-dress shaped like a sugar loaf, with a kerchief tied round it with the ends hanging down.

The Russian painter wrote approvingly of the Doukhobors’ simple, honest way of life as well as their general morality, noting that acts of theft and cheating were virtually unheard of. He noted, however, that the Doukhobors’ growing material prosperity had resulted in a softening of their religious principles. For instance, they were more obedient to Tsarist authorities than they had been in past generations. They had also abandoned their strict prohibitions against drinking, smoking and swearing. They recited their prayers by rote, with little understanding of their spiritual meaning, and when asked to explain them, gave only obscure answers. Moreover, some of the prayers, handed down orally over the generations, had been so corrupted “as to make the most ridiculous nonsense”; this was no doubt exacerbated by the systemic illiteracy among the Doukhobors, who kept no books or records.

Vereshchagin gave a concise summary of Doukhobor religious philosophy, which rejected church institutions, sacraments, sacred books, icons, saints and clergy in favour of a simple, individual-based religion founded on egalitarianism, love and compassion. He noted the Doukhobor belief in the indwelling of God in every person, as well as their figurative, rather than literal, interpretation of the Trinity – God the Father – memory; God the Son – understanding; God the Holy Ghost – will.

Vereshchagin described the Doukhobor form of worship in extensive detail. On Sundays, the service was held in a peasant’s house. The men stood on one side of the room and the women on the other. They repeated their prayers in turn, correcting each other when one made a mistake. After a considerable time, the congregation went outside into the courtyard, where the men again took their places on one side, and the women on the other. An elder stood at the head of the men, who then led the congregation in singing. The sad, melancholy strains of the Doukhobor psalms made a profound impression. After some time, the congregation then formed a semicircle, bowing and kissing each other, the men passing along the men’s ranks, and the women doing the same on their side, all the while continuing their singing. Once this was finished, the service is over and the congregation returned to their homes.

Vereshchagin’s impressions of the Doukhobors, through his writings and sketches, are among the few rare sources of detailed published information about them in the two decades following their settlement in the Caucasus. As such, his work is a valuable contribution to our understanding of this little-known, little-document period of their history.

As for Vereshchagin himself, he returned to the Paris Salon in 1866 to exhibit his very first drawing, which, quite fittingly, was “Doukhobors Chanting their Psalms”. The next year, he accompanied the Russian military expedition to Turkestan, where he was granted the rank of ensign and was awarded the Cross of St. George for his heroism at the siege of Samarkand. He was an indefatigable traveler, returning to St. Petersburg in late 1868, to Paris in 1869, back to St. Petersburg later in the year, and then back to Turkestan at the end 1869 via Siberia. In 1871, he established an atelier in Munich, and made a sole exhibition of his works at the Crystal Palace in London in 1873. He made another exhibition of his works in St. Petersburg in 1874. Later that year, he departed for an extensive tour of the Himalayas, India and Tibet, returning to Paris in 1876. With the start of the Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878), Vereshchagin left Paris and returned to active service with the Imperial Russian Army. Thereafter, he settled at Munich, where he produced a series of sensational works aimed at promoting peace through representing the horrors of war. In 1882-1883, he again traveled to India, followed by Syria and Palestine in 1884. Vereshchagin was in the Far East during the First Sino-Japanese War, with the American troops in the Philippines, and with the Russian troops in Manchuria. During the Russo-Japanese War, he he sailed aboard the Russian flagship, Petropavlovsk, which on April 13, 1904, struck two mines and sank, taking down with it most of the crew including Vereshchagin.

Remarkably, almost eighty years later, there were still Doukhobors alive who were able to recall Vereschagin’s visit to Slavyanka. In his book, Dukhobortsi: Ikh Istoria, Zhizn I Borba (Regehr, North Kildonan, 1948), Doukhobor historian and philosopher Peter N. Maloff (1900-1970) retells his grandmother Malasha I. Maloff’s (1856-1943) recollections about the Russian artist’s visit to her village:

Many years later, a little before her death, I was reading her a booklet by a well-known writer, V.V. Vereshchagin, under the title of “Doukhobors and Molokans’.  As she listened, she suddenly became transported with delight, as though she recalled something from the distant past.  “My god!” she exclaimed, “this happened at our home, in Slavyanka.  Right after [actually, before] the Turkish war, my father-in-law brought him from Ganzha, a clean, attractive gentleman he was.  He stayed with us for several days.  He heard some Doukhobors singing at our neighbours’ at a funeral and said: “I would like to hear some more of your singing.”  Then the melodious Agafonovs took him to their home and, gathering the Slavyanka choir together, sang for him for several days.  We had real singers there: Mavrunya and Masha Strelyaev, the Nichvolodovs, the Konkins and many others. Heavens!  Who ever thought that he was going to write a book about us.

Today, over twelve sketches of the Doukhobors, drawn by Vasily Vasil’evich Vereshchagin in 1865, are kept at the Tretyakov State Gallery in Moscow, Russia.

To read more, search, download, save and print a full PDF copy of “Vassili Verestchagin: Painter-Soldier-Traveller, Autobiographical Sketches”  by Vasily Vasilyevich Vereshchagin (F.H. Peters, trans., London: Bentley, 1887), visit the Google Book Search digital database.

Travels in the Caucasus and the Armenian Highlands, 1875

by Gustav I. Sievers and Gustav I. Radde

Gustav Sievers and Gustav Radde were Russian-German naturalists and explorers who toured the Caucasus and Armenian highlands in 1875. During their expedition, they visited the Doukhobor villages of Orlovka and Gorelovka in the Akhalkalaki district of Tiflis province. They kept a journal and recorded their impressions of this encounter, which they published as “Vorläufiger Bericht über die im Jahre 1875 ausgeführten Reisen in Kaukasien und dem Armenischen Hochlande von Dr. G. Radde und Dr. G. Sievers” in “Petermann’s Geographische Mitteilungen” Vol. 22 (H. Haack, 1876). Available in English for the first time ever, this translation provides the reader with an extraordinary first-hand account of the Doukhobors during this little-known period of their history. Translated by Gunter Schaarschmidt exclusively for the Doukhobor Genealogy Website. Foreword and Afterword by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.


Gustav Ivanovich Sievers (1843-1898) was a Baltic-German naturalist and explorer. After working at the universities of St. Petersburg, Heidelberg and Würzburg, he obtained a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Heidelberg. From 1869 onward, he was librarian of the Tiflis Public Library and taught at the Tiflis Gymnasium. At the same time, he pursued the study of entomology, in particular, rare beetle species. From 1869 to 1875, he undertook a number of expeditions through the Trans-Caspian and Caucasus regions with Gustav Radde and published scientific articles about their travels.

Gustav Ferdinand Richard (“Ivanovich”) Radde (1831-1903) was a Prussian-born geographer and naturalist. He formally studied medicine and pharmacy at the university there. At the same time, he privately studied botony and zoology, which became his chief interests. In 1852, he emigrated to Russia and undertook explorations in the Crimea from 1852 to 1855 and in Siberia from 1855 to 1860. In 1860, he was appointed Conservator of the Zoological Museum of the Imperial Acadamy of Sciences in St. Petersburg. Following expeditions to South Russia in 1860 and 1862, in 1863, Radde was appointed Assistant Director of the Tiflis Physical Observatory. In 1864, he received a commision from the Chief Viceroy of the Caucasus to conduct an extensive expedition of the Caucasus, of which he published numerous scientific papers. In 1868, Radde became the Director of the Tiflis Public Library.

Gustav Ivanovich Radde (1831-1903).

In the spring of 1875, Sievers and Radde organized an expedition of the Caucasus and Armenian highlands with Dr. Oskar Schneider of Saxony for the purposes of geographical and natural historical study. While en route from Tiflis to Alexandropol, they visited the Doukhobor villages of Orlovka and Gorelovka. What follows are their detailed observations about the Doukhobors they encountered and their way of life.

As long as the road was relatively good, we moved forward rapidly and gradually ascended in the Akhalkalaki Plain up to the high-altitude source of the Kirkh-bulak that allows this creek (brook) to flow down towards the north. Lake Khanchali-göl is situated towards the southeast and is shallow and already partly overgrown at its edges. After arriving at the Kirkh-bulak source we turned quickly in a southeasterly direction and, not far from the edge of the lake near the Turkish border, continued straight on. Here the traveller finds himself at the lowest altitude of the road, yet still at an altitude of 6,000 feet above sea-level. The soil resembles the heaviest black steppe loam of the Black Sea lowlands. Due to the frequent rainfalls the soil was softened to such an extent that the carriage moved very slowly and we reached the Doukhobor village Orlovka only in the afternoon.

The sect of the Doukhobors that had been settled in these high and rough regions since the middle of the 1840s has transformed these areas that were originally used only as pasture lands by Tatar nomads into fine cultivated areas. That was accomplished in spite of the various natural obstacles including the nuisances caused by the vicinity of the Turkish border. To be sure, agriculture in this region is possible only in the limitations of a rough Nordic environment. There is no guarantee in any given year that wheat will ripen while crops like barley and rye thrive very well. Because of the abundance of haymaking and the inexhaustible summer pastures cattle-breeding enjoys excellent existential conditions.

The traveller enters this land of the Doukhobors with great joy: here he finds villages in the Russian architectural style with pointed gable houses and with carefully tilled fields over a very wide area giving testimony to the diligence of the inhabitants. The stork’s nests in the villages remind the traveller of home. In addition, he will find in the Doukhobors’ homes not only an exemplary order and cleanliness including in the solicitously tended beds but also all sorts of pleasant signs of affluence and even floriculture on the window sills. By nightfall we covered the route to the large village of Gorelovka and stayed there overnight.

In this village resides Lukeria Vasil’evna Tolmashova [sic. Kalmykova], a widow in her thirtees who enjoys the special esteem of all Doukhobors who, as it were, consider her to be the decisive adviser in all interior affairs of the sect. She had just returned from a journey to Elisavetpol and was festively received by the younger Doukhobor males and greeted with songs and gun salutes. All of us paid her a visit towards evening. On the outside her estate resembles a rich farmhouse in Northern Germany and is marked by an unusual tidiness and cleanliness. At the entrance of the house we were received by a giant of a man – he was the executor of our hostess’s orders. The rooms again were marked by an exemplary cleanliness and a comforting degree of a certain luxuriousness that, to be sure, does not at all result in sumptuousness but nonetheless guarantees a very pleasant existence to the inhabitants and goes beyond the mere satisfaction of everyday needs. Very soon there appeared our hostess, a strong, tall woman whose facial features pointed to an erstwhile beauty and whose figure just barely stayed within the limits of the permissible corpulence.

The road to Orlovka village in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region of Georgia, much the same today as when Gustav Sievers and Gustav Radde visited it in 1875. A Panoramio photo by Dimit. 

The Doukhobors (literally: Spirit Wrestlers, or without thinking of Gutzkow’s novel, Die Ritter vom Geiste [“The Knights of the Spirit]) started out as a sect of the Greek-Catholic [i.e. Orthodox] Church in the middle of the last century. It is rumoured that as early as in the year 1740 a retired soldier in Kharkov Province is reported to have spread a doctrine that does not recognize any symbols of the Greek Church and wishes to worship only in the spirit. In the year 1750 we find the beginnings of this doctrine in Ekaterinoslav Province but not until 1768 there followed a public announcement in Tambov directed at the government by a sect that did not want to recognize either a church built by the human hand or icons or any external cult [i.e. ritual] but wished to worship only an invisible spirit, living Christ. Already during the rule of Empress Catherine the government was required to use force against part of the sect that did not only aim at an apostasy from the Church but gave reason to fear that they could incite serious and general unrest. At the same time the government was tolerant towards the peaceful adherents of the sect. However, eventually the tension of the orthodox congregations in connection with the apostates must have increased to such an extent that Tsar Alexander I gave permission for the resettlements of the Doukhobors to Tavria Province, not far from the Sea of Azov in the area of the Molochnaya River. Under the benevolent government of Alexander I the Doukhobors at the Sea of Azov had become well-to-do and, especially after the ukaz [“decree”] of December 8, 1816, had remained unmolested. This ukaz stipulated that the planned renewed resettlement of the sectarians be canceled; that the persecutions carried out against them (particularly until 1801) had turned out to be devoid of success and purpose; that the judgments of the concerned governors in whose regions the Doukhobors resided had all been laudatory; and that there should therefore be no thought of renewed persecution but, on the contrary, every effort should be made to spare them any unnecessary limitations and denigration. Only in the year 1830, under the reign of Tsar Nicholas, it was ordered that the Doukhobors be resettled into Transcaucasian lands. The main resettlement process took place in the years 1841 to 1845 and resulted in the eight settlements in the above mentioned region near the Turkish border that carries the name of Dukhoboria.

These Doukhobors thus have no churches, no saints, no priests, no written tradition, and no oral daily prayers, nor do they make the sign of the cross. They do chant a number of doctrines named psalms that from generation to generation have become part of the oral tradition. They maintain, however, that their belief is very ancient, that it is the only correct one of all the belief systems on earth, and that it ranks 78th among all such belief systems. The Doukhobors conduct their joint services in some room of a private home, greet one another in the name of God, sit down with the women separated from the men, and, after an elder has started, the psalms either individually or in chorus. Later they join hands and, by bowing to one another, they believe to have shown reverence to the holy God whose image they represent. They then kiss one another.

In the copious work that I envisage I will return to the Doukhobors, Molokans, Subbotniki (Russian Judaists), Pryguny (Jumpers, Leapers) in more detail; I want to mention here only that the settlements existing especially in Doukhoboria are far better off than those in the Caspian Lowland, not far from Lenkoran. The main reason for this is that the natural conditions in Doukhoboria quite closely resemble those in Central Russia and that therefore the new settlers were able to continue living in their long familiar ways. By contrast, the lush lowlands at the border of the hot Mugan Steppe differed in every respect from those in the homeland of the exiled peoples so that the climate decimated them and they are now complaining about the lack of descendents and keep on wishing that they could leave the area again – as I have learnt about all of this via my own eyewitness perception.

View Doukhobor Villages in Georgia, 1841-Present in a larger map  


While en route from Tiflis to Alexandropol, Gustav Sievers and Gustav Radde visited two Doukhobor villages in the Akhalkalaki district. On the afternoon of June 22, 1875, they traveled from Lake Khanchali to the village of Orlovka, where they briefly stopped. From there they continued east, reaching the large village of Gorelovka in the evening. They stayed overnight there and departed the next day. During their stay, they conversed with their Doukhobor hosts and observed their way of life.

The naturalist-explorers observed that the mountain highlands of Dukhoboria – the “land of the Doukhobors” – were inhospitable, “high” and “rough” at an altitude of 6,000 feet above sea-level. Subject to frequent rainfall, where spring came late and winter early, there was no guarantee that wheat crops would ripen. Despite this, they noted that the Doukhobors had transformed the region into “fine cultivated areas” of barley and rye, which thrived there. They had also developed extensive cattle breeding to take advantage of the abundance of haymaking and summer pastures.

Sievers and Radde wrote approvingly of the Doukhobors, who through “diligence” and hard work had adjusted to the adverse conditions and whose villages presented an “unusual order and cleanliness” and even “affluence” that gave the traveler “great joy”. They were particularly impressed with the Sirotsky Dom, the Doukhobors’ main spiritual and administrative centre, where they were billeted for the night, which was marked by “exemplary cleanliness” and a “comforting degree of a certain luxuriousness” that made for a pleasant experience. They had an audience with Doukhobor leader Lukeria Vasil’evna Kalmykova, whom they described as a “tall, strong woman”, an “erstwhile beauty” and a “decisive advisor”; interestingly, they witnessed the festivities that followed Kalmykova’s return from a visit to the Elizavetpol Doukhobors.

The Russian-German scholars reiterated the ‘official’ history of the Doukhobors, noting their origins in 18th century South Russia, their resettlement to Tavria in the early 19th century, and their exile to the Caucasus mid-century. They outlined the Doukhobor belief system, including the absence of churches, saints, priests, liturgy and sacraments. They also described a Doukhobor religious service held in a private village dwelling, in which the men site separately from the women, psalms were sung, followed by bowing to one another, which they may have witnessed during their stay.

Sievers and Radde’s writing are among the few, rare sources of published information about Doukhobor settlement in the Caucasus in the mid- to late-19th century.  As such, their work is a useful contribution to our overall understanding of this period of Doukhobor history.

To read more, search, download, save and print a full PDF copy of the original German text of Gustav Sievers and Gustav Radde’s work, “Vorläufiger Bericht über die im Jahre 1875 ausgeführten Reisen in Kaukasien und dem Armenischen Hochlande von Dr. G. Radde und Dr. G. Sievers”in Petermann’s Geographische Mitteilungen, Vol. 22 (H. Haack, 1876), visit the Google Book Search digital database.

Ivan G. Samarin – The Great Molokan Communicator

Molokan Review

Ivan Guryevich Samarin (1857-1948) – the “Great Molokan Communicator” – helped the Doukhobors and Molokans leave Russia at the turn of the last century. For this he was imprisoned. Samarin obtained a 99 year military exemption for the Molokans in America. He published “Spirit and Life, the Book of Songs and the Book of Prayers”. Reproduced from the pages of the Molokan Review, 1949.

The subject of this sketch was born in February 1857 in the village of Mikhailovka, Kazasch district, Elizavetpol province, Russia (present-day Azerbaijzan). his parents were Gurii Prokofievich Samarin and Lukeria Ustinovna Makarova, residents of the same village. Samarin’s education was sketchy. One old man had taught him for two months to read the old Slavic script; also for two months a friendly soldier taught him the art of writing, and a wandering peddler instructed him in the use of Arabic numerals and simple arithmetic. In those days pencils were unknown. Samarin used a slate and a tin stick, or a goose-quill, with which he wrote on coarse paper with ink made from hazelnuts.

Then in 1873, while still very young, he married Aksinya Pakhomovna Abakumov, daughter of Pakhom Pavlovich Abakumov and his wife Fedosia Fedorovna Titkova. Two years later he was engaged as a public scribe of his village. Then, having improved his ability to read and write at the office of the Justice of the Peace and the Police Commissioner, he was charged, in addition to his regular duties, with the compilation of charts showing the number of livestock at the neighbouring villages.

In 1879 and 1881, Samarin petitioned the authorities for permission for the Molokans to move to Kars and Transcaspian provinces, and he made arrangements for seed grain to be advanced to them. In 1881 Samarin himself moved to Kars province (present-day Turkey) and became scribe in four Doukhobor villages there.

Blue Marker = Molokan Village, Red Marker = Doukhobor Village View Larger Map

When Lukeria Vasilyevna Kalmakova, leader of the Doukhobor sect, died in 1886, a dispute arose concerning the Orphan’s Home (the spiritual, administrative and financial centre of the Doukhobors). Samarin, not neglecting his official tasks, aided Kalmakova’s successor, Peter ‘Lordly’ Verigin, in this controversy, preparing numerous documents on behalf of Verigin and his followers, a service that necessitated much travelling throughout the province of Tiflis (present-day Georgia). Petitions prepared by Samarin were submitted to the Grand Duke Mikhail Nikolaevich, the Tsarevich and his mother the Empress, who at that time were residing in Abastuman. 

Samarin was also instrumental in placing the Doukhobor litigation into the hands of a Tiflis attorney and in moving Vasily Lukianovich Verigin (Peter Verigin’s father) to Kars province. He had written many letters to the Verigin brothers and other persecuted Doukhobors who were living in exile in Arkhangel province, giving them advice and comfort. These and similar labours were continued by Samarin until the time when the Doukhobors proclaimed their intention to abandon all earthly pursuits and enter into a new spiritual life.

In 1893, Samarin moved to the village of Novo-Petrovka in the province of Kars where he built a turbine flourmill and engaged in the milling business. In 1897 he compiled a house-to-house statistical report on five neighbouring villages for his authorities. This task was completed with characteristic speed in three days.

At the request of his Molokan brotherhood, Samarin went in 1899 with Filipp M. Shubin to consult the Canadian consul at Batum on immigration possibilities. Later they visited Moscow to investigate Canadian laws on compulsory military service. In 1900 Samarin and Shubin visited St. Petersburg and petitioned the Emperor either to free the Molokans from military service or to grant them permission to migrate from Russia, like the Doukhobors. In June of the same year, with P.M. Shubin and F.S. Bychneff, he departed for Canada on an inspection tour for lands suitable for settlement. In the course of their journey they crossed the United States border and examined some land in Wisconsin, especially near Milwaukee. In Canada they visited various localities in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, then proceeded to Ottawa, capital of the Dominion of Canada. There, they received a guarantee from the Canadian Government freeing Molokans from military service for 99 years, and a land grant for 160 acres per family, together with other concessions. In the autumn of the year named, they returned home and read a report of their journey at ten Molokan villages

Molokan immigration document.

Immediately after this, Ivan G. Samarin and Nikolai I. Agaltsoff went to St. Petersburg to learn the result of their petition, which they repeated in 1901. The net result of their insistence was the imprisonment of Samarin in a solitary cell of the Kars Prison, after many searchings and much questioning. There he was joined by P.M. Shubin. In a few months they were released on a petition by their sympathizers.

In 1902-1903, still lacking any official word from St. Petersburg, the Molokan community, after many conferences, decided to start the migration in small groups and family units. But instead of Canada, the Molokans decided to settle in the United States – in sunny California – whereupon the small parties of migrants commenced to move toward Los Angeles.

In the autumn of 1904, I.G. Samarin left Novo-Petrovka and arrived in Los Angeles in February 1905. After inspection of several plots of land with Vasily G. Pivovaroff and Mikhail S. Slivkoff, they made local arrangements for transportation credit for other Molokans to travel from New York to California. On May 10 of the same year they negotiated a large loan with the bank and with private individuals (the Mennonites in Kansas City) for other groups which were travelling through countries where cash expenditures were required.

Next, Samarin and Pivovaroff found and bought for the Brotherhood a plot of land in Guadalupe, Lower California, Mexico, where Pivovaroff made his home. Meanwhile, M.S. Slivkoff busied himself with arranging his new life, and the entire task of helping the migrants was left in Samarin’s hands.

The first which received help were five groups travelling through Argentina and five travelling through Panama. The Panama groups received transportation reduction amounting to $15.00 per fare (also one group arriving through San Francisco) and five groups travelling through Canada saved $12.00 on each fare. Considerable help was given to the migrants at Galveston, Texas, Bremen, German and Liverpool, England. Some cash remittances were made for the migrants stranded at Mazatlan and Manzanillo, in Mexico, and money and food were sent to those detained in quarantine in San Francisco.

In March 1906, Samarin, on behalf of his fellow Molokans, travelled to Mexico City and personally received the guaranties of religious freedom and suspension of customs duties for the Molokan colony at Guadalupe. Then he carried protracted negotiations regarding land grants in Lower California, at Rosario with Taras P. Tolmasoff and other Molokan representatives, and at Santa Rosa with P.M. Shubin, Ivan K. Mechikoff and many others.

In 1913-14, after many conferences, the Molokan community decided to make an effort to leave Los Angeles and take up farming. in connection with this project, which was later abandoned, I.G. Samarin and Joseph P. Kariakin prepared, on behalf of the community, an extended petition to the President of Uraguay.

In 1917, Samarin, Shubin and Pivovaroff represented the Molokans before the proper U.S. authorities with regard to the military draft which was incompatible with the Molokan religion, and in this connection, they personally visited the White House and the Russian Embassy in Washington. In 1918, Samarin further petitioned the U.S. Government to allow the Molokans to donate money to the Red Cross instead of buying war bonds – again on religious grounds. In 1922, he also compiled various documents for the Molokan representatives in Peru. In 1927-1929, Samarin and Shubin prepared petitions to diplomatic representatives of Turkey and Persia (Iran) in America, on behalf of fellow Molokans residing in these places, and in 1930, he wrote to the Secretary of Agriculture in Washington regarding lands open to settlement in the United States.

Exact reproduction of one of the pages of Rudometkin’s writings – not enlarged nor reduced.

In 1920 and 1924, Samarin organized with the enthusastic help of all fellow Molokans, the Russian Molokan Aid Society which had extended help to the famine-stricken communities in the Caucasus and Transcaspian provinces in Russia. This society sent clothing, shoes and food – flour, beans, etc, as well as money. These shipments were of vast help to the sufferers and literally saved many lives. The Molokan community opened its purse and heart to this appeal, contributions being received from all members of all ages and of both sexes. In addition, in 1931 and through 1938, large cash contributions were solicited for the destitute refugees in Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran. In connection with benevolent activities, Samarin conducted a large correspondence and rendered all other possible help.

In 1915-1917, Samarin edited and published the book Spirit and Life, which contained the writings of Molokan Maxim Gavrilovich Rudometkin, written by him in monastary imprisonment in 1858-1877. These writings were smuggled out of Russia by Alexei Sergeevich Tolmacheff, concealed in loaves of freshly baked bread. These were written not only in a very small hand, but partly in the old Slavic script, as shown in the picture herewith. Samarin had spent countless hours deciphering these pages, often with the help of a magnifying glass, and preparing them for publication.

In 1928-1930, Samarin issued the second printing of the book. At the same time he published the Book of Songs and the Prayer Book for the Spiritual Molokans.

Having spent 75 years in blissful marraige with Aksinya Pakhomovna, he sorrowfully bade her a last earthly farewell on May 29, 1948. Exactly six months later, on November 29, he rejoined her, thus ending his earthly wanderings. Both passed on in Los Angeles at the ripe age of 92. Thus was written the last chapter of the unselfish life of this outstanding scholar and historian, the indefatigable leader of his people who left undying memories in the hearts of his countless friends and followers.

All his work after 1879 was performed by Ivan G. Samarin without thought of personal gain, but solely out of love for his people. In his passing, the Molokan community has lost one of the most active labourers in God’s Vineyard, as well as an outstanding leader who guided his people to happiness, peaceful life and physical and spiritual well-being.

Imperial Legislation of the First Quarter of the 19th Century Regarding Ukrainian Doukhobors: Support or Appeasement?

by Tamara V. Nagorna

During the reign of Tsar Alexander I, a favourable legislative framework was established which allowed Spiritual Christians in Ukraine, particularly Doukhobors, to benefit both socially and economically.  In this Doukhobor Genealogy Website exclusive, Tamara Nagorna, a Postgraduate student of the Faculty of History at Poltava State Pedagogical University, examines the major features of Alexander’s policy towards the Doukhobors, based on an analysis of Imperial Russian legislation during the first quarter of the nineteenth century. She concludes that while his policy could be viewed as supportive of the religious dissenters, its actual goal was to placate and assuage them.  Reproduced from the Proceedings of the Faculty of History, Zaporozhye State University Vol. XIX (Kiev: Zaporozhiye Archive, 2005). Translated from the original Ukrainian by Khrystyna Hudyma with further translation and editing by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.  Click here for the original Ukrainian article.

At the present stage of Ukrainian society, attempts to reform executive bodies, including those responsible for cooperation with religious communities, draw researchers’ attention to state-church relations.

The interrelation between church and state has always been of vital importance in state legislative activity. Yet in modern Ukraine, the situation is exacerbated due to the lack of an efficient legal and regulatory framework for religious matters.

In this context, let us examine [Russian] imperial legislation of the first quarter of the nineteenth century as represented not only by numerous legal statutes, but also by acts of codified law. This insight will allow us to analyze the relations between legislative bodies and representatives of different groups that dissented from Orthodoxy, which, since their appearance in Ukraine, were for the most part contradictory and ambiguous.

This article attempts to trace the main features of Tsar Alexander I’s policy toward the Doukhobors in Ukraine.

This issue still remains largely unexplored. It is worth starting with an analysis of the general characteristics of publications by nineteenth and early twentieth century researchers dedicated to Alexander I’s policy on the Doukhobors, as they were the first to focus upon studying groups opposed to the Russian Orthodox Church. These scholars viewed the main state measures regarding religion only within the context of studying the history of separate religious communities. M. Kutopova [1], O. Lebedeva [2], and I. Yuzova [3] attempted to highlight the main stages in the development of separate religious communities in the Russian Empire. The scholars generalized materials compiled about the history of religious groups starting from the time of their establishment in Russia. They analyzed the effect of legal statutes chronologically and geographically on this group of people.

O. Pipin [4] and V. Skvortsov [5] in their works raised the issue of subdividing the groups opposed to orthodoxy into the ‘mystical’ and the ‘rational’. O. Novitsky [6] and P. Tun [7] researched the separate religious movements. Some chapters of F. Livanov’s multi-volume work provide insight on the history and development of Spiritual Christianity in Ekaterinoslav, Tavria and Kharkov provinces during the nineteenth century [8]. Such interest is explained by the wide spread of Spiritual Christian doctrine through the Ukrainian land. In addition, the missionaries M. Cheltsov [9] and S. Butkevych [10] studied the sects of the Russian Empire in general.

Soviet scholars dedicated their efforts to working out theoretical issues relating to sectarian studies. A. Klibanov [11] obtained a wealth of materials and made a profound summary on relations between the state and Spiritual Christians. I. Malakhova [12], A. Nikolsky [13], F. Fedorenko [14], M. Putintsev [15] and others studied the activities of religious organizations.

Modern scholars (O. Sahan, A. Kolodny, P. Yarotsky, L. Shuhayeva) focus their utmost attention to religion studies, hardly mentioning any Russian emperors’ policy [16; 17; 18].

An analysis of the main elements of state policy toward religion highlights the different approaches Russian emperors utilized in order to establish relations between authorities and religious communities, which were sometimes disinclined to both the state and the church (see Table I).

Before we begin a precise analysis of the Imperial Russian legal framework of the first quarter of the nineteenth century, several concepts used in the official documents should be investigated.

Legal statutes of that period use synonymous names for movements opposed to the Orthodox Church, i.e. Raskolniki (“Schismatics”), Ikonobortsy (“Iconoclasts”). It should be noted that some writers used a rather vague definition of iconoclasts, that allowed the name to be used for other groups as well. Consequently, some protestant groups opposed to Orthodoxy had identical names. The names Molokani (“Milk-Drinkers”), Dukhovny Khristyani (“Spiritual Christians”), etc. exemplify this.

Analyzing this issue is rather complicated, due to the fact that originally, only Old Believers, which comprised a religious group separate from the Orthodox Church, were called “dissenters”. However, starting from the second half of the nineteenth century, this label began to spread to include representatives of other communities, being a member of which was illegal [19]. Therefore, the legal statutes of the nineteenth century concerning religious groups cover all movements opposed to the Orthodox Church in general, and representatives of Spiritual Christianity in particular.

The characteristic feature of Catherine the Great’s policy toward dissenters was to condemn them, based not on religious intolerance, for her views espoused [against] that, but rather using real proofs of guilt: threat to public order, public opposition to the government, etc. All the trials regarding Doukhobor activity were processed within the context of civil proceedings. The main types of punishment were discipline with a rod (mild punishment) and exile to the Caucasus (strict punishment).

According to P. Biryukov, 1792 should be considered as the starting point of state-Doukhobor relations. That is the time when the Ekaterinoslav governor [Khakovsky], in one of his reports to St. Petersburg, wrote that nothing connected with iconoclasm deserved any mercy [20, p. 48]. He was talking about Doukhobors and Molokans who appeared at that time in Ekaterinoslav province and were not tolerated by local authorities. O. Novitsky suggests 1799 to be the time when authorities started paying attention to “Spiritual Christians” that had [already] for a long time influenced minds and hearts in Russia [6, p.24].

The last third of the eighteenth century witnessed trials against Doukhobor representatives in Kherson province. Trials of the same kind took place against Mariupol and Ekaterinoslav Doukhobors. According to the [Ekaterinoslav] governor’s report to the Minister of Internal Affairs, the Doukhobors were accused of spreading their doctrine in the streets and being accompanied by crowds. There is also some information about trials against Kharkov Doukhobors at the beginning of the nineteenth century. At the same time, Khlysty (“Flagellants”) in Kaluga and Moscow provinces, who had some connections with their Ukrainian peers, were outlawed. Thus, the priest Kostantin Ivanov, being supported by local authorities, gained the confidence of one of their community leaders, as a result of which the entire community was exposed, the main principles of their doctrine were made public and members were committed to trial [21, p.172].

Taking into account all the aforementioned facts, let us analyze the particulars of Alexander I’s policy toward Spiritual Christians. His primary goal was to reduce their activity, not by introducing additional penalties, nor by intensifying the struggle against them, but by paying due attention and providing [them] some benefits and concessions. In 1801, Tsar Alexander I issued a royal edict owing to which many Doukhobors were able to return home from Siberia and the Caucasus. O. Novitsky points out the inability of officials to predict a foreseeable result – the founding of new communities. When asked about their attitude toward the Tsar, the Doukhobors who came back to Kharkov said that they respected any ruler given by God; a good one they considered to be God’s gift, whereas an evil one – a scourge of God for their sins. When asked about taxation, they refused to pay, saying that they had no money. When asked about military duty, they answered that there was no one in their community to serve in the army. Such answers show their neutral attitude towards the government with non-admittance, but not disregard, of some state obligations due to the impossibility of fulfilling them.

The fact that proves the aforementioned policy towards religious communities is the conclusion of the Doukhobor case in the Izyum court of law. The case gained widespread publicity due to its promotion by local authorities. Immediately afterwards, the Doukhobors submitted a formal request asking for a separate colony. O. Novitsky and P. Biryukov consider this to be a voluntary step, whereas O. Titov points out that they agreed to the resettlement following a lengthy period of negotiations [22, p. 247]. In any case, there was a dramatic result – a request for resettlement to a separate colony. To fulfill the request, an Imperial Edict was published which allowed the Doukhobors to settle along the Molochnaya River (Milky Waters) in the Melitopol district of Tavria province.

Due to a mandatory condition, the first Doukhobors to be resettled were those of Sloboda-Ukraine, where the religious situation was evaluated by a special commission consisting of Tsarist officials. Every settler was granted 15 acres of land, 100 rubles (as a credit for 10 years), and tax exemption for 5 years [23, p. 186]. Thus, the Doukhobors of Kharkov and Ekaterinoslav provinces were resettled first, i.e. Ukrainian Doukhobors were given priority, and then followed others from Russian provinces.

The next period, which comprises more than ten years, witnessed no new legal statutes. However, there are some statements that demonstrate the resettlement took place over an extended period of time. In official documentation those Doukhobors dwelling along the Molochnaya River were referred to as “Melitopol colonists”, although the latter rejected such name. Thus, Goncharov and Sorokin, representatives of the Doukhobor colony, appealed to the Minister of Internal Affairs with a request to approve the official name of “Doukhobors”. The official answer was concise and allowed the use of the name Doukhobors as requested [24, p. 170]. F. Livanov considers that the appeal as such proved the Doukhobors’ great courage. However, this kind of request was not the last one, and later on, Doukhobors began to benefit from a favorable policy of the government (a more detailed description follows).

In 1816, Alexander I was delivered a report accusing the Doukhobors of drawing those of Orthodox belief into their communities. In fact, this situation was rather common. In Verkhnya Belozerka village, Dniprovsk district, Tavria province, V. Babayev, M. Kurbatov and H. Rudenko along with their families proclaimed themselves to be Doukhobors, being highly disappointed by the Orthodoxy. The Dniprovsk provincial court did not reach any decision, since it was waiting for the highest approval of their [the Doukhobors’] exile to Melitopol district. F. Livanov found some analogical cases with subsequent appeals for exile up to 1821. Count Langeron, the Kherson governor, verified the data, confirmed it and submitted a detailed report to relevant authorities.

The Doukhobors’ reaction was immediate, and resulted in an official appeal. It submitted evidence of Doukhobors being abused [by local authorities]; for instance, illegal detentions, arrests, questionings, forced confessions to crimes they did not commit, etc. were all quite common. Alexander I considered the appeal, and on October 10, 1816, ordered local authorities to submit detailed reports concerning the case. On December 12, a royal referral was addressed to the Kherson military governor regarding the [Doukhobors’] attitude toward the local bureaucracy and the aforementioned abuses. Some local officials requested to resettle the colony, but due to the absence of strong arguments in favor thereof, the Emperor declined their appeal.

Afterwards, Lavinsky, the Tavria governor, was appointed to evaluate the situation of religious life in the Melitopol district. He visited the colony on the Molochnaya River and concluded that, first of all, the settlers acted in a modest and reserved way, and gathered every Sunday in the so-called Sirotsky Dom (“Orphan’s Home”); secondly, they were hardworking, engaged in farming and ranching; thirdly, they did not aim to draw others into their community (he provides an example of about 60 [Orthodox] people employed by the community in its daily life; consequently not one of them became a Doukhobor). However, O Titov provides different information, as there was a considerable number of [Doukhobor] settlers who came from other territories.

On August 23, 1817, the Doukhobors appealed to the Emperor again, complaining about still being called “Melitopol colonists”. This time, Alexander I gave an official response stating that the Doukhobors were free to use their name while interacting with one another, but not with authorities. Alexander I is said to have met the Doukhobors in person during his visit to the Crimea. There are some facts confirming his stay in the [Doukhobor] village of Terpeniye and staying overnight at the Sirotsky Dom [15, p. 84].

During the next few years, the government made several concessions to Spiritual Christians. First of all, in 1818, they passed under the jurisdiction of the Guardianship Office, founded in 1800 to govern foreign colonies. This decision was made in order to avoid the common abuses and biased attitudes on the part of local authorities. As well, an Imperial edict of December 28, 1818 made it official for every Melitopol colonist [i.e. Doukhobor] case, prior to being prosecuted by a court of law, to be passed to the Emperor [for review]. Thus, Alexander I was able to facilitate a criminal investigation, or, on the contrary, stop it due to lack of evidence. These very steps demonstrate that some favourable conditions were created for the development of Spiritual Christianity in Tavria province.

It is worth mentioning that mass relocations [of Doukhobors] to the aforementioned province continued until 1817. In 1820, official permission to allocate an additional 5,236 acres of land to the Melitopol colonists was passed. That year, a ban was placed on further resettlement, lasting until 1824. The exact number of people exiled to Molochnye Vody is unknown. There is some information attesting that around 800 families amounting to 3,985 people lived in the Molochnaya River area in 1827 [7, p. 75]. There is no evidence of Doukhobors being evicted by Alexander I to the Caucasus; however in 1821, 2,300 people [reputedly] already lived in the Akhalkalak district of Tiflis province. The percentage of Ukrainian Doukhobors among them is unknown. Nevertheless, we know that they were the first ones to be evicted. Thereupon, we can conclude that Ukrainian Doukhobors comprised the largest part of the Molochnye Vody residents. Later on, Doukhobors from Voronezh, Tambov and Saratov provinces as well as from Azov, Ekaterinburg, Siberia and even Finland were settled there too.

Representatives of other Spiritual Christian branches, mainly the Molokans, also settled in the Molochnaya River area. This is due to a number of legal statutes aimed at regulating relations with other communities opposed to the Orthodox Church. In 1819, a decree on the eviction of Subbotniki ( “Sabatarians”) to the Caucasus was issued. At the same time, this decree rejected [Orthodox] Archbishop Iov’s request to also evict Spiritual Christians from Kherson and Tavria provinces. After the eviction, only 59 Molokans were left in the Ekaterinoslav region. However, according to an additional decree issued by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, they were also exiled to Molochnye Vody.

The Royal edict of November 15, 1824 was of vital importance for settling relations between the state and representatives of dissenting religious communities. The edict granted certain privileges to those who re-entered the Orthodox Church, namely, the right to return to their former place of residence, a three year tax exemption, free choice of occupation, and the right to become a member of village/town. However, if they returned to dissenting doctrines, they were subject to exile to Siberia, and the men were to be conscripted as soldiers.

Thus, in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the Molochnaya River area became a center for Spiritual Christians in Ukraine. Doukhobors who lived there were resettled in 1802-20 of their own volition. The total number of Doukhobors amounted to 5,000 people; among them 3,000 were from Ukraine. Along with them, Molokans also lived in this area, founding their own colonies in Tavria province.

Another center of Spiritual Christians from Ukraine became the Caucasus. Beginning in 1819, a considerable number of Molokans from Ekaterinoslav region was evicted there. In subsequent years, especially during Nicholas I’s rule, this destination for exiling people belonging to dissenting religions became very popular. The Caucasus was suggested as a place where the Tavria religious dissenters should [also] be exiled. The authorities tried to isolate those representatives of Spiritual Christianity who proved to be especially dangerous by sending them to Siberia.

Therefore, while analyzing the major features of Alexander I’s policy, researching the legislation of the first quarter of the nineteenth century becomes highly important. During his reign, a favorable legislative framework for Spiritual Christians was established. Thus, those who were exiled to Siberia in earlier times were allowed to come back, they received approval for their mass resettlement, using their own name, as well as economic benefits. These measures were aimed at forming a positive image of the government and fostering its support by the people (see Table II). Representatives of the Doukhobors were open to this development. They did not oppose the policies, but utilized the situation in order to obtain more benefits from the state. This applies especially to the right of increasing the number of their settlers, quitting the jurisdiction of local authorities, increasing the size of their landholdings, etc.

A characteristic feature of the Doukhobors of the first quarter of the nineteenth century was their active engagement in dealings with the authorities. This is evidenced by the considerable number of petitions and appeals to the Emperor relating to the improvement of their socio-economic conditions. These kind of appeals had been addressed by the representatives of Spiritual Christians to Alexander I throughout the whole first half of the nineteenth century. Each appeal was thoroughly considered by Alexander I, and he satisfied most of the requests. However, these concessions were of [relatively] small importance to both parties, thus enabling the emperor to overestimate the importance of the concessions when announcing them to the people. The subsequent chronological period shows no more tolerance of this kind, as the government’s policy toward Spiritual Christians had changed. Hence, the policy of this member of the Romanov dynasty [i.e. Alexander] could be viewed as aiming to support dissenters, although its actual goal was to assuage them.

Further research of this issue might involve:

  • Systematic research of nineteenth century imperial legislation on religious matters;
  • Comparative analysis of policies Russian emperors employed toward believers of different Orthodox communities; and
  • Determining express and implicit policies of the state toward religious organizations.

Table I: Main Features of State Policy Towards Spiritual Christians in Ukraine (19th Century)

Official responses that satisfied the demands of Spiritual Christians (Alexander I, first quarter of 19th c.) Spiritual Christians exiled to areas on the periphery of the Russian Empire Implementing spiritual and secular institutions of censorship (Nicolas I, 1828) Legislative statutes concerning Spiritual Christians (Alexander I, Nicolas I, Alexander II, Nicolas II) Special commissions established to review Spiritual Christian cases (Nicolas I, 1855)

To Siberia (Nicolas II, end of 19th century) To  Molochaya River, Melitopol district of Tavria province (Alexander I, first quarter of 19th century) To the Caucasus (Alexander I, first quarter of 19th century, Nicolas II, end of 19th century) Educational measures (Nicolas II, end of 19th century) Spiritual Christians recognized as harmful compared to other dissenters (Nicolas II, end of 19th century) Measures to combat some groups of Spiritual Christians (Nicolas I, Alexander II, Nicolas II, second half of 19th century)

Table II: Alexander I’s Legislation Towards Spiritual Christians in Ukraine

No. Document Date Name of Document Description of Legislation Concerning Spiritual Christians in Ukraine
1. 26.11.1801 Royal command Doukhobors allowed to return from Siberia to Kherson, Kharkov and Ekaterinoslav regions.
2. 25.01.1802 Imperial decree Spiritual Christians exiled to Molochnaya River area (Melitopol district, Tavria province).
3. 1816 Imperial rescript Molochnya River colonists allowed to refer to themselves as “Doukhobors”.
4. 10.10.1816  Imperial rescript Local authorities obliged to submit detailed reports on cases of Doukhobors’ abuse.
5. 09.12.1816 Royal command Reprimand toward local officials regarding abuses of Spiritual Christians.
6. 1817 Imperial rescript Colonists allowed to use the name “Doukhobors” only when communicating amongst each other, but not with official authorities.
7. 1818 Imperial rescript Spiritual Christians transferred from jurisdiction of local authorities to that of the Guardianship Office for foreign colonies.
8. 28.12.1818 Imperial rescript Cases of Spiritual Christians to be submitted to the Emperor before court trial.
9. 1818-1820 Individual regulations Individual approvals for exiling families of Spiritual Christians to Molochnaya River.
10. 1819 Imperial ukase Molokans evicted from Ekaterinoslav region to the Caucasus and Tavria province.
11. 1820 Imperial ukase Permission to allocate additional 5.296 acres to Melitopol colonists.
12. 1824  Imperial ukase Final ban on resettling dissenters to Molochnye Vody.
13. 15.11.1824 Highest regulation Gave the right to dissenters, namely those who re-entered the Orthodox church, to return to their former place of dwelling, 3 year tax exemption, free choice of occupation and right to become a member of village/town community. However, if they returned to dissenting doctrines, they were subject to exile to Siberia, and the men conscripted as soldiers.


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Appeal For Help

by Vladimir G. Chertkov, Pavel I. Biryukov & Ivan M. Tregubov

Vladimir Grigorievich Chertkov (1854-1936), Pavel Ivanovich Biryukov (1860-1931) and Ivan Mikhailovich Tregubov were Tolstoyan writers who supported the Doukhobor cause of pacifism. Their appeal, “Pomogite: Obrashchenie k Obshchestvu po Povodu Gonenii na Kavkazskikh Dukhoborov” (London: 1896) helped publicize the persecution of the Doukhobors in the Caucasus. The following excerpt is taken from the English translation, “Appeal for Help” (London: 1897).

A terrible cruelty is now being perpetrated in the Caucasus. More than four thousand people are suffering and dying from hunger, disease, exhaustion, blows, tortures, and other persecutions at the hands of the Russian authorities.

These suffering people are the Doukhobors (or “Spirit Wrestlers” as the word means) of the Caucasus. They are enduring persecution, because their religious convictions do not allow them to fulfil those demands of the State which are connected, directly or indirectly, with the killing of, or violence to, their fellow man.

Brief and fragmentary notices of these remarkable people have not infrequently appeared of late in the Russian and foreign press. But all that has been published in the Russian newspapers has been either too short, or in a mutilated form – whether intentionally, unintentionally, or as a concession to the requirements of the Russian censor; while what has been printed abroad is, unfortunately, little accessible to the Russian public. Hence it is that we consider it our duty in this Appeal to give a general view of the events that are now taking place, and a brief sketch of the circumstances which preceded them

Vladimir G. Chertkov (1854-1936)

The Doukhobors first appeared in the middle of last century. By the end of the last century or the beginning of the present (ie. 19th century) their doctrine had become so clearly defined, and the number of their followers had so greatly increased, that the Government and the Church, considering this sect to be peculiarly obnoxious, started a cruel persecution. 

The foundation of the Doukhobors’ teaching consists in the belief that the Spirit of God is present in the soul of man, and directs him by its word within him.

They understand the coming of Christ in the flesh, His works, teachings, and sufferings, in a spiritual sense. The object of the sufferings of Christ in their view, was to give us an example of suffering for truth. Christ continues to suffer in us even now, when we do not live in accordance with the behest and spirit of His teaching. The whole teaching of the Doukhobors is penetrated with the gospel spirit of love.

Worshipping God in the spirit, the Doukhobors affirm that the outward Church and all that is performed in it and concerns it has no importance for them. The Church is where two or three are gathered together, unitedin the name of Christ.

They pray inwardly at all times; while, on fixed days (corresponding for convenience to the Orthodox holy days), they assemble for prayer meetings, at which they read prayers and sing hymns, or psalms as they call them, and greet each other fraternally with low bows, thereby acknowledging every man as a bearer of the Divine Spirit.

The teaching of the Doukhobors is founded on tradition. This tradition is called among them the Book of Life because it lives in their memory and hearts. It consists of psalms, partly formed out of the contents of the Old and New Testaments, partly composed independently.

The Doukhobors found alike their mutual relations and their relations to other people – and not only to people, but to all living creatures – exclusively on love; and therefor, they hold all people equal brethren. They extend this idea of equality also to the Government authorities; obedience to whom they do not consider binding upon them in those cases when the demands of these authorities are in conflict with their conscience; while, in all that does not infringe what they regard as the will of God, they willingly fulfil the desire of the authorities.

They consider murder, violence, and in general all relations to living beings not based on love, as opposed to their conscience, and to the will of God. The Doukhobors are industrious and abstemious in their lives, and always truthful in their speech, accounting all lying a great sin. Such, in their most general character, are the beliefs for which the Doukhobors have long endured cruel persecution.

The Emperor Alexander I, in one of his prescripts concerning the Doukhobors, dated the 9th December, 1816, expressed himself as follows: “All the measures of severity exhausted upon the Spirit Wrestlers during the thirty years up to 1801, not only did not destroy this sect, but more and more multiplied the number of its adherents.” And therefor he proposed more humane treatment of them. But, notwithstanding this desire of the Emperor, the persecutions did not cease. 

Under Nicholas I, they were particularly enforced, and by his command, in the years ’40 and ’50 the Doukhobors were all banished from the government of Taurus (Tavria) where they were formerly settled, to Transcaucasia, near the Turkish frontier. “The utility of this measure is evident,” says a previous resolution of the Committee of Ministers of the 6th February, 1826, “they (the Doukhobors) being transported to the extreme borders of the Caucasus, and being always confronted by the hillsmen, must of necessity protect their property and families by force of arms,” ie. they would have to renounce their convictions. Moreover the place appointed for their settlement, the so-called Wet Mountains, was one (situated in what is now the Akhalkalak district of the Tiflis government) having a severe climate, standing 5,000 feet above the sea level, in which barley grows with difficulty, and where the crops are often destroyed by frost. Others of the Doukhobors were planted in the present government of Elizavetpol.

But neither the severe climate nor the neighbourhood of wild and warlike hillsmen shook the faith of the Doukhobors, who, in the course of the half century they passed in the Wet Mountains, transformed this wilderness into flourishing colonies, and continued to lived the same Christian and laborious life they had lived before. But, as nearly always happens with people, the temptation of the wealth which they attained to in the Caucasus weakened their moral force, and little by little they began to depart somewhat from the requirements of their belief.

But, while temporarily departing, in the external relations of life, from the claims of their conscience, they did not, in their inner consciousness, renounce the basis of their beliefs; and therefor, as soon as events happened among them which disturbed their outward tranquility, the religious spirit which had guided their fathers immediately revived within them.

In 1887, universal military service was introduced in the Caucasus; and even those for whom it was formerly (in consideration of their religious convictions) replaced by other service or by banishment, were called upon to serve. This measure took the Doukhobors unawares, and at first they outwardly submitted to it; but they never in their consciences renounced the belief that war is a great sin, and they exhorted their sons taken as recruits, though they submitted to the various regulations of the service, never to make actual use of their arms. Nevertheless, the introduction of the conscription among people who considered every murder and act of violence against their fellow men to be a sin, greatly alarmed them, and caused them to think over the degree to which they had departed from their belief.

At the same time, in consequence of an illegal decision of the Government departments and officials, the right to the possession of the public property of the Doukhobors (valued at half a million roubles) passed from the community to one of their members, who, for his own personal advantage, had betrayed the public interest. This called forth the protest of the majority of the Doukhobors against this individual and his party, who hd thus become possessed of the public property, and against the corrupt local administration which had been bribed to give an unjust decision in the case.

When, besides this, several representatives of the majority, and among them the manager (ie. Peter Vasilievich Verigin) elected to administrate the communal property, were banished to the government of Archangel, this awakening assumed a very definite character.

The majority of the Doukhobors (about twelve thousand in number) resolved to hold fast to the traditions left them by their fathers. They renounced tobacco, wine, meat, and every kind of excess, divided up all their property (thus supplying the needs of those who were then in want), and they collected a new public fund. In connection with this return to a strictly Christian life, they also renounced all participation in acts of violence, and therefor refused military service.

The Burning of Arms, 1895. Painting by Terry McLean.

In confirmation of the sincerity of their decision not to use violence even for their own defence, in the summer of 1895, the Doukhobors of the “Great Party” as they were called, burnt all their arms which they, like all the inhabitants of the Caucasus, kept for their protection, and those who were in the army refused to continue service. By general resolution, they fixed on the night of 28th June for the purpose of burning their arms, which were their own property and therefor at their absolute disposal. This holocaust was accompanied by the singing of psalms, and was carried out simultaneously in three places, namely, in the governments of Tiflis and Elizavetpol and in the territory of Kars. In the latter district it passed off without interference; in the government of Elizavetpol it resulted in the imprisonment of forty Doukhobors, who are still in confinement; while in the government of Tiflis the action taken by the local administration resulted in the perpetration by the troops of a senseless, unprovoked, and incredibly savage attack on those defenceless people, and in their cruel ill treatment.

The Burning of Arms in the Tiflis government was appointed to take place near the village of Goreloe, inhabited by Doukhobors belonging to the “Small Party” in whose hands was the public property they had appropriated. This party having learnt the intention of the “Great Party” to burn their weapons, were either afraid of such an assembly, or wished to slander them, and informed the authorities that the Doukhobors of the “Great Party” were devising a rising and preparing to make an armed attack upon the village of Goreloe. The local authorities, then, without verifying the truth of this information, ordered out the Cossacks and infantry to the place of the imaginary riot. The Cossacks arrived at the place of assembly of the Doukhobors in the morning, when the bonfire, which had destroyed their arms, was already burning out, and they made two cavalry attacks upon these men and women, who had voluntarily disarmed themselves and were singing hymns, and the troops beat them with their whips in the most inhuman manner.

After this, a whole series of persecutions was commenced against all the Doukhobors belonging to the “Great Party”. First of all, the troops called out were quartered “in execution” on the Doukhobors’ settlements, ie. the property and the inhabitants themselves of these settlements were placed at the disposal of the officers, soldiers, and Cossacks quartered in these villages. Their property was plundered, and the inhabitants themselves were insulted and maltreated in every way, while the women were flogged with whips and some of them violated. The men, numbering about three hundred, who had refused active service, were thrown into prison or sent to a penal battalion.

Afterwards, more than four hundred families of Doukhobors in Akhalkalak were torn from their prosperous holdings and splendidly cultivated land, and after the forced sale, for a mere trifle, of their property, they were banished from the Akhalkalak district to four other districts of the Tiflis government, and scattered among the Georgian villages, from one to five families to each village, and there abandoned to their fate.

As early as last autumn, epidemics such as fevers, typhus, diphtheria, and dysentery, appeared among the Doukhobors (scattered as above stated), with the result that the mortality increased largely, especially among the children. The Doukhobors had been exiled from a cold mountain climate and settled in the hot Caucasian valleys, where even the natives suffered from fevers; and consequently nearly all the Doukhobors are sick, partly because (not having dwellings of their own) they are huddled together in hired quarters; but chiefly because they lack means of subsistence.

Their only earnings are from daily labour among the population amidst whom they have been thrown, and beyond the bounds of whose villages they are not allowed to go. But these earnings are very small, the more so that the native population suffered this year both from a bad harvest and from inundations. Those who are settled near the railway pick up something by working there, and share the wages they get with the rest. But this is only a drop in the ocean of their common want.

The material position of the Doukhobors is getting worse and worse every day. The exiles have no other food than bread, and sometimes there is a lack of even this. Already among the majority of them certain eye diseases, which are the sure harbingers of scurvy, have appeared.

In one place of exile situated in the Signak district, 106 deaths occurred among 100 families (about 1,000 people) settled there. In the Gory district, 147 deaths occurred among 190 families. In the Tionet district, 83 deaths occurred among 100 families. In the Dushet district, 20 deaths occurred among 72 families. Almost all are suffering from diseases, and disease and mortality are constantly increasing. 

Besides these deaths there have been others (due to actual violence) among the Doukhobors in prison and in the penal battalion. The first to die in this way, in July 1895, was Kirill Konkin, the cause of death being blows received as corporal punishment. He died on the road, before reaching the place of his exile, in a state of hallucination, which commenced while he was being flogged. Next, in August 1896, died Mikhail Shcherbinin in the Ekaterinograd penal battalion, tortured to death by flogging, and by being thrown with violence over the wooden horse in the gymnasium. Among those confined in the prisons many have already died. Some of them, while dying, were locked up in separate rooms, and neither their fellow prisoners, nor parents, wives and children who had come to bid them farewell, were allowed even to enter the room while the dying lay alone and helpless. More deaths are to be expected both among the population suffering from want in exile and in the prisons.

The Doukhobors themselves do not ask for help – neither those who are in exile with their families, famished, and with starving and sick children, nor those who are being slowly but surely tortured to death in the prisons. They die without uttering a single cry for help, knowing why and for what they suffer. But we, who see these sufferings, and know about them, cannot remain unmoved.

But how to help them?

There are only two means to help people persecuted for faith’s sake. One consists in the fulfilment of the Christian commandment, to welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned, and feed the hungry, which is prescribed to us both by our own hearts and by the Gospel; the other consists in appealing to the persecutors, both to those who prescribe the persecutions and to those who allow them to take place when they might stop them; and also to those who, without sympathizing with the persecutions, participate in them and become their means – appealing by laying bare before these persecutors the sin, the cruelty, and the folly of their acts.

Having been in a position sooner than others to know what has here been set forth, we appeal alike to Russians and to non Russians to help our brethren in their present sore distress, both with money offerings to relieve the sufferings of the aged, sick, and children, and by raising their voices on behalf of the persecuted.

The most important and grateful means of expressing sympathy with the persecuted, and of softening the hearts of the persecutors, would be personally to visit the victims, in order to see with one’s own eyes what is being done with them now, and to make the truth about them generally known.

The expression of sympathy is dear to the Doukhobors, because although they do not ask for help, they yet have no greater joy than to see the manifestation of love and pity to them on the part of others – of that same love for the sake of which these martyrs are sacrificing their lives.

The making publicly known of the truth about the Doukhobors is important, because it cannot be that the Russian State authorities really desire to exterminate these people by the inexorable demand from them of that which their conscience does not allow them to do, and the ceaseless persecution and torture of them on this account. There is probably here some misunderstanding, and therefor it is that the promulgation of the truth which may remove this is specially important.


Editorial Note

The above appeal attained its purpose by drawing the attention both of the public and of the higher authorities to the persecution of the Doukhobors by the local authorities of the Caucasus. But for the three friends who signed it, the result was their banishment. Two of them, Biryukov and Tregubov, were exiled to small towns in the Baltic provinces; while Chertkov was given the choice between the same sentence and being altogether exiled from Russia. He chose the latter as affording him the possibility of helping, from abroad in England, his persecuted friends, which would have been impossible under the conditions of strict police supervision under which those banished within Russia had to live – JJK.