The Dukhobortsy, 1822-1828

by Daniel Schlatter

Daniel Schlatter (1791-1870) was a Swiss missionary who lived among the Nogay Tatars on the Molochnaya River in South Russia between 1822 and 1828. During that time, he had opportunity to study and observe their neighbours, the Dukhobortsy. Schlatter was sharply critical of the Dukhobortsy, whom he viewed as materially prosperous but in spiritual decline and discord. He maintained a journal and recorded his impressions, which he later published in Swiss German in “Bruchstücke aus einigen Reisen nach dem südlichen Russland in den Jahren 1822 bis 1828: Mit besonderer Rücksicht auf die Nogaÿen” (Huber, 1836). Available for the first time in this exclusive English translation, Schlatter’s account provides a rare, penetrating glimpse into this little-known period of Doukhobor history. Translated by Gunter Schaarschmidt for the Doukhobor Genealogy Website. Afterword by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

Other neighbours of the Nogay Tartars are the Dukhobortsy whose self-identifying name means “Spiritual Ones; those born [sic] from the Spirit”. They are a sect that split from the Russian-Greek [Orthodox] Church and its members now reside in large and pretty villages on the right bank of the Molochna [Molochnaya] and of Lake Molochna. They are people who were no longer satisfied with the ritual and ceremonial practices of the Church and who believed they had sought and found something better. Especially by reading the Holy Scriptures (which had been spread in Russian by Bible societies that arose all over the Empire), they had been awakened out of their slumber and led to contemplating. A large part of them had been scattered all over the Empire even before the spread of the Bible.

A significant number of people, of both sexes, from various Russian provinces, in particular also from Finland and from the more enlightened Don Cossacks, separated from the great Mother Church. Neither forced exile nor imprisonment deterred them. As usual, resistance increased their zeal and the dissemination of new teachings and principles. Since all efforts to make them return to the Church failed, the authorities granted them freedom and allotted them landed property on the Sea of Azov. However, a few of them had to leave behind wives and children in the retention of the great Church. The reasons for the split [from Orthodoxy] as well as the religious beliefs among the dissenters were understandably not very uniform.

A mass of people who descended from various regions of the wide Russian Empire and differed in customs, practices and character, could not stay united. The character and views of the Cossacks in particular did not agree with those of the remaining resettled groups [of Dukhobortsy on the Molochnaya]. What kind of partial or religious motives may have caused a split [among themselves]?

Yet at the time of the foundation of this colony there certainly were truly enlightened or, even if labouring under a delusion, upright and well thinking people who were striving to worship God in spirit and in truth instead of in lifeless hypocrisy and formalism. However, gradually these [people] passed away; the spirit was extinguished and people got benumbed – and what started in the spirit ended in the flesh.

They rejected almost all outward means for [spiritual] revival and edification; they completely lacked religious instruction for youth; they relegated God’s written word – all this soon led to a great decline, disorder, irreligiosity, and even indifference to religion.

Many began to want to return to the Greek Church, or, separating again, hope to form a new sect. Many families returned to the Mother Church and left the colony either because they desired a physical worshipping of God or due to pecuniary advantage because the Government imposed severe punishment in order to maintain at least an external order. Yet others formed their own sect named Molokans and received new landed properties in the middle of the regions of the Nogay Tartars.

The Dukhobortsy are for the most part handsome, physically well-shaped people. They dress well and are industrious and capable farmers. Their villages give evidence of wealth. They engage a lot in cattle-raising and agriculture. A large part of them, however, indulge in envy, quarrels, indecency and all sorts of sensual pleasures. At the same time they consider themselves to be spiritual, to be sons of God, and to be God themselves.

If you ask them about their belief system, they give evasive or shrewd answers. And how could they account for their belief system since they do not know what to believe, are in disagreement among themselves, and, to be sure, may of them do not believe in anything at all. They have not accepted a proper Symbolum (creed).

Germans who served under them as farm-hands and others who have business dealings with them, say that the Dukhobortsy have meetings every now and then in which they sing psalms. It is also reported that they live in partial abstinence and that they still have many adherents in the interior of Russia and especially in the Caucasus. In addition, they are reported to have no proper teachers but recognize a supreme leader. Few of them are reported to keep Bibles, and if so, then in secret. Finally, a small better group is afraid of the larger group which exerts a lot of pressure on the former. Visiting English and American Quakers who were hoping to find similarities with their own principles among the Dukhobortsy already many years ago, were painfully disappointed in their expectations. 

View Tavria Doukhobor Villages, 1802-1845 in a larger map


Daniel Schlatter (1791-1870) was raised in St. Gallens, Switzerland, where he gained a sophisticated education and a deep immersion in Pietist religious belief, which emphasized personal faith and salvation through piety, Bible study and prayer rather than church doctrine and theology. He was also strongly influenced by ecumenical religious belief, which promoted unity within and among different Christian churches and groups, as well as by physiognomic ideas that people could be physically and morally transformed through education.

From his earliest years, Schlatter was gripped by a passion for travel and adventure coupled with a fervent desire to perform missionary work among non-Christian peoples, and in doing so, influence and benefit them religiously and economically. To this end, at age 29, Schlatter set out for South Russia in 1822 to promote Christianity among the Nogay Tatars.

Schlatter arrived in the Molochnaya River region in Autumn 1822. He found himself a position as a servant in a Nogay Tatar home, shed his western clothing in favour of Nogay robes, and pursued the religious enlightenment of his host. He also became a frequent visitor of the home of Johann Cornies, leader of the Mennonites settled on the upper left bank of the river, with whom he formed a close friendship and enjoyed a lengthy discourse on Christianity. Schlatter spent much of the next six years on the Molochnaya, departing briefly to Switzerland in 1823 and England in 1827, before making his final departure in June 1828.

During his time on the Molochnaya, Schlatter came to observe and study the neighbouring Dukhobortsy living in nine villages on the right bank of the river. He obtained his information about them in part from his Nogay hosts, in part from the Mennonite Johann Cornies, from German labourers in the employ of the Dukhobortsy, and partially from the Dukhobortsy themselves.

Schlatter wrote approvingly of the Dukhobortsy’s industry and capability in agriculture and animal husbandry. He admired their “large and pretty” villages which displayed “evidence of wealth” and abundance. Schlatter also noted that the Dukhobortsy were “handsome, physically well-shaped people”; observations that no doubt stemmed from his interest in physiognomy.

At the same time, Schlatter’s Pietist and ecumenical beliefs made him sharply critical of mainstream Dukhobortsy society, which in his view, suffered from “a great decline, disorder, irreligiosity, and even indifference to religion”.

From a Pietist perspective, Schlatter was strongly sympathetic to the early founders of the Dukhobortsy colony, “upright and well-thinking” people who had been spiritually “awakened out of their slumber”, and were dissatisfied with the “lifeless hypocrisy and formalism” of Church ritual and ceremony. In Schlatter’s view, these “truly enlightened” people were “led to contemplating” and strove “to worship God in Spirit and in truth”. In doing so, they “believed they had sought and found something better”. However, with the passing of these early founders, the spirit of truth and enlightenment declined among the Dukhobortsy and was slowly extinguished. In Schlatter’s opinion, while the Dukhobortsy of the 1820’s “consider[ed] themselves to be spiritual”, they showed little evidence of the spiritual enlightenment of their founders.

Equally disconcerting for Schlatter, from an ecumenical point of view, was the lack of unity among the Dukhobortsy regarding their belief system. Disagreement over religious creed had led some members of the sect to leave the colony and return to the Orthodox Church, while others joined the rival Molokan sect situated on the lower left bank of the Molochnaya River. Those remaining in the colony could not, in Schlatter’s estimation, properly account for their creed “since they do not know what to believe”. This stemmed from the fact that the Dukhobortsy had been resettled on the Molochnaya “from various regions of the wide Russian Empire” and differed in their “customs, practices and character”. Their reasons for joining the sect were also varied. Thus, the religious beliefs of the dissenters were, from Schlatter’s viewpoint, “understandably not very uniform”.

For Schlatter, the roots of the spiritual decline and discord among the Dukhobortsy lay in the absence of religious education; sentiments derived from his physiognomic beliefs. He censured the sectarians for having “no proper teachers” among them and for completely lacking “religious instruction for youth”. He was disturbed by the lack of scriptural study and noted that “few are reported to have Bibles, and if so, then in secret.” In the same vein, he disapproved of their rejection of “almost all outward means” of spiritual revival and edification.

If Schlatter was a harsh critic of the Dukhobortsy, he reported much the same of the Mennonites he encountered on the Molochnaya, writing that their faith was “superficial”, formalistic, and showed little evidence of “true belief”. His comments must therefore be taken at face value, in the context of his particularly aggressive Pietist evangelical religious beliefs.

Schlatter recorded his observations during a period of rapid and profound transition within the Dukhobortsy colony. Prior to 1820, under the able leadership of Savely Kapustin, the colony was organized on a communal basis, was well administered and reasonably united, and relations with Tsarist authorities were cordial. The period following Kapustin’s death in 1820, by contrast, was marked by the abandonment of communal institutions, weak and ineffectual leadership, the decay of internal administration, disunity within the sect and a deterioration of relations with Tsarist authorities.  Schlatter’s writings reflect these changes, and are among the very few sources of published information for this little-known and little-explored period of Doukhobor history.  Therefore, Schlatter’s work is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the period.

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