The Novgorod Doukhobor Elder, 1796

by Alexander Ivanovich Herzen

At the end of the 18th century, the Doukhobors were subjected to savage oppression by the highest levels of the Russian autocracy. In his autobiography, Russian writer and thinker Alexander Ivanovich Herzen (1812-1870) relates the story of a Novogorod Doukhobor elder who in 1796, when summoned before the soon to be crowned Tsar Paul (1754-1801), refused to doff his cap. For his impertinence, the insecure and unstable Tsar had the unfortunate Doukhobor immediately exiled and imprisoned.  The story illustrates both the the position of official notoriety achieved by the Doukhobors at this time, and the extent of their deep-seated belief in the equality of all men. Reproduced from “My past and thoughts; the memoirs of Alexander Herzen”, Constance Garnett (trans.) (New York: Knopf, 1968).

In Novgorod Province there were in the reign of Catherine a great many Doukhobors. Their leader, the old head of the posting drivers (yamshchiki or “coachmen” – ed.), in Zaitsevo, I think it was, enjoyed enormous respect. When Paul was on his way to Moscow to be crowned he ordered the old man to be summoned, probably with the object of converting him.

Portrait of Russian Emperor Paul I by Stepan Shchukin

The Doukhobors, like the Quakers, do not take off their caps and the grey-headed old man went up to the Emperor of Gatchina (suburb of St. Petersburg where Paul resided – ed.) with his head covered.

This was more than the Tsar could bear. A petty, touchy readiness to take offence is a particularly striking characteristic of Paul, and of all his sons except Alexander; having savage power in their hands, they have not even the wild beast’s consciousness of strength which keeps the big dog from attacking the little one.

“Before whom are you standing in your cap?” shouted Paul, breathing hard, with all the marks of frenzied rage: “Do you know me?”

“I do,” answered the schismatic calmly; “you are Pavel Petrovich.”

“Put him in chains! To penal servitude with him! To the mines!” the knightly Paul continued.

The old man was seized and the Tsar ordered the village to be set fire to on four sides and the inhabitants to be sent to live in Siberia. At the next stopping-place one of the Tsar’s intimates threw himself at his feed and said that he had ventured to delay the carrying out of His Majesty’s will, and was waiting for him to repeat it.

Paul, now somewhat sobered, perceived that setting fire to villages and sending men to the mines without a trial was a strange way of recommending himself to the people. He commanded the Synod to investigate the peasants’ case and ordered the old man to be incarcerated for life in the Spaso-Efimevsky Monastery.

The Spaso-Efimevsky Monastery, Vladimir-Suzdal, Russia.

He thought that the Orthodox monks would torment him worse than penal servitude; but he forgot that our monks are not merely good Orthodox Christians but also men who are very fond of money and vodka; and the schismatics (generic term applied to sectarians such as Doukhobors – ed.) drink no vodka and are not sparing of their money.

The old man acquired among the Doukhobors the reputation of a saint. They came from the ends of Russia to do homage to him, and paid with gold for admission to see him. The old man sat in his cell, dressed all in white, and his friends draped the walls and the ceiling with linen.

Portrait of Alexander Herzen by Nikolai Gay.

After his death they obtained permission to bury his body with his kindred and solemnly carried him upon their shoulders from Vladimir to the province of Novgorod. Only the Doukhobors know where he his buried. They are persuaded that he had the gift of working miracles in his lifetime and that his body is incorruptible.

I heard all this partly from the governor of Vladimir, I.E. Kuruta, partly from the post-drivers at Novgorod, and partly from a church-attendant in the Spaso-Efimevsky Monastery.

Now there are no more political prisoners in this monastery, although the prison is full of various priests and ecclesiastics, disobedient sons of whom their parents have complained, and so on. The archimandrite, a tall, broad-shouldered man in a fur cap, showed us the prison-yard. When he went in, a non-commissioned officer with a rifle went up to him and reported: “I have the honour to report to your Reference that all is well in the prison and that there are so many prisoners.” The archimandrite in answer gave him his blessing – what a mix-up!

The business about the schismatics was of such a kind that it was much best not to stir them up again. I looked through the documents referring to them and left them in peace.