by Ann J. Vereschagin
In 1887, universal military service was introduced in the Caucasus, which prompted a spiritual reawakening among the Doukhobors. Many reasserted their pacifist beliefs by refusing to bear arms or perform military service. This culminated in 1895 with the Burning of Arms as a protest against violence. The event was followed by harsh reprisals against the religious dissenters. Hundreds were imprisoned, tortured and exiled. The following is an autobiographical account of the struggles and tragedies of the Vereschagin family during this period. In 1895, Doukhobor elder Vasily Gavrilovich Vereschagin was imprisoned, first in Karadakh prison in Kars and later Metekhi prison in Tiflis, for inciting the young men to refuse military service. In 1897, he was exiled to Yakutsk, Siberia and died en route from abuse and mistreatment. Unbeknownst to him, his son Alexei Vasil’evich Vereschagin was also exiled to Yakutsk in 1897 after refusing to serve when he was called up for active duty. He remained there until 1905, when he and other Doukhobor exiles were pardoned and permitted to join their brethren in Canada. This story is reproduced by permission from the 1999 family history, “Spanning the Years”, written by Alexei’s Molokan-born daughter-in-law Ann J. Vereschagin (1910-2005). Edited by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.
Background to the Burning of Arms and Aftermath
Mikhail Romanov, a Russian general [and Grand Duke], served in the region around Tiflis, which was the capital of the province of Georgia. Romanov ordered the Doukhobors to provide man power for the army [during the Russo-Turkish War of 1878-1879]. If they refused, the military would come and take the men anyway, loot their villages, and rape the women. Romanov did relent and gave them another choice. They could participate in the transport of arms and ammunition to the front lines. If they would do that, he promised that their men would be exempt from serving in the army and their villages would be safe.
After some debate amongst the Doukhobors in the surrounding villages, they chose to participate in the transportation. All of the Doukhobor villages were required to provide their own wagons and horses. For their efforts, the Doukhobors were spared any more harassment by the military for the duration of the war.
They lived in peace for only a short time after the war, when trouble again began with the military [when universal military service was introduced in the Caucasus in 1887].
Lukeria Vasil’evna Kalmykova, the Doukhobor leader at the time, died on December 15, 1886. She named her 22 year old nephew, Peter Vasil’evich Verigin, as her successor.
On February 26, 1887, Peter V. Verigin was attending a memorial service for his aunt Lukeria. In attendance at the service was the Governor of Tiflis with his body guards. During the service, one of the speakers said that God was merciful to the Doukhobors and that He would continue to be gracious as long as they (the Doukhobors) continued to obey His commandments. One of the guards thought that the speaker was referring to Peter Verigin as “God.” That was heresy! For this misunderstanding, Peter was arrested and taken to [the Metekhi] prison in Tiflis. He spent about three months there before being transferred to [Shenkursk in Northern Russia and later] Obdorsk, Siberia, where he spent a total of [sixteen] years in exile.
While Peter Verigin was imprisoned in Siberia, his devout followers kept in contact with him, even risking their lives by traveling to Siberia to see him. They brought him news from home [in the Caucasus] about the persecutions by the Cossacks. The Cossacks [after 1895] were taking the young men of military age, stripping them, having them lie face down, and then beating them with thorn-like vines until their backs were like raw meat. After about 10-15 strokes, they would ask them if they would now agree to serve in the army. The young men would reply: “We cannot conscientiously serve.” Then they (the victims) would pray to God: “Forgive them for they know not what they are doing.” Some of the victims got as many as 100 lashes.
The Doukhobor ‘Burning of Arms’, June 29, 1895. Painting by Terry McLean.
Peter wrote many letters of encouragement to his devoted followers, stating that they should continue their resistance and never yield to the army nor lose faith. No matter how much they suffer, they suffer in the name of Jesus Christ and His commandment: “Thou shall not kill.” In one of his letters, Peter also told them that it was time to stop using alcohol and tobacco and to stop eating meat. Just as Kapustin before him, Peter wanted his followers to share their possessions with each other. There were to be no rich nor poor Doukhobors; they should all be equal.
It was a difficult time for the Doukhobor people. They needed advice and counsel as to how to proceed with all the demands on their lives. They appointed two men, Vasily Gavrilovich Vereschagin (my father-in-law’s father) and Vasily Vasil’evich Verigin, to go to Siberia and seek advice from Peter Verigin. At that time, Vasily G. Vereschagin was the [starshina or] mayor of the [Doukhobor village of Terpeniye in the Kars] region. He knew the governor, so was able to get both of them passports to travel to Siberia without any problems.
During their visit, Peter told them that it was time for the Doukhobors to burn all their personal firearms, which they had for protection and for the hunting of wild game. He was explicit as to how this was to be done.
When Vasily G. Vereschagin and Vasily V. Verigin returned home, they informed the Doukhobors of Peter’s message to burn, simultaneously, all of their firearms and weapons. This was to happen on St. Peter and St. Paul’s Day, the 29th of June, 1895.
This also happened to be Peter V. Verigin’s birthday. [For a detailed account of how these faithful messengers passed on their leader’s advice to reject military service and destroy their firearms, see Accomplishment of the Mission by Grigory V. Verigin.]
The burning of the firearms was carried out as Peter had instructed in all of the [regions of the Caucasus where there were] Doukhobor villages. While the faithful were holding a prayer meeting around the bonfire in the village of Bogdanovka [in Tiflis province], the governor and armed Cossacks arrived to see what was going on. The Cossacks tried to put the fire out, but were unable to do so. They also attempted to trample the people with their horses, with little success.
After this confrontation at the Burning of Arms, the governor demanded that the Doukhobors show their respect to him by removing their hats. They paid no attention to his command, leaving their hats on. The Cossacks started whipping them for their insubordination. Subsequently, the governor told the Doukhobors: “We will not only make your young men serve in the military, we will see that you show respect to all government authorities.” Hearing this, the young Doukhobor men came forward and laid their draft cards on the table before the governor, stating that under no circumstances would they serve in the military.
The governor commanded that the Cossacks form a firing squad and shoot the dissidents; however Count Kropinsky, who was witnessing the confrontation, came forward and commanded the Cossacks to hold their fire. He said that he, too, was a servant of the Tsar, and the Tsar’s laws do not permit the killing of dissidents. The outraged governor left, leaving instructions to the Cossack leader to do whatever necessary to bring the Doukhobors under control; consequently, the beatings continued and the women were assaulted and raped. The robbery of food and household items was a constant occurrence.
The infamous Metekhi Prison in Tiflis, in which Vasily Gavrilovich Vereschagin was imprisoned from 1895 to 1897 prior to his exile to Siberia.
For their part in delivering the message from Peter V. Verigin, Vasily G. Vereschagin and Vasily V. Verigin were arrested [and incarcerated, first in Karadakh prison in Kars and later in Metekhi prison in Tiflis] and sentenced to go before a firing squad. Fortunately, due to the intervention of Leo Tolstoy and the Quakers, they were given a reprieve and exiled to Siberia instead. The total number condemned to exile [in Siberia] was about a hundred and fifty. They were sent in groups, under the escort of soldiers. The first group numbered about 30 men.
The exiles were herded like cattle as they went on their long trek to Siberia. The roads, if any, were bad. They had to walk up and down mountains, constantly on the alert for wild animals. They had an inadequate supply of food, and were always wet, with no time to dry out. Many got frostbite and became ill. Wherever there was a railroad, they were herded into boxcars like sheep – crowded, with no sanitation. Ferry boats and barges took them across rivers and lakes.
The military had established inspection [or way-] stations throughout the route of the journey. At one point, the walk between stations took approximately 30 days through snow and mud for a distance of about 660 miles.
The prisoners were convoyed in groups, station to station [known as the etaup method of exile], with horse-drawn wagons to carry provisions and anyone who could not walk because of severe illness or fatigue. The convoy leaders rode horseback and drove the teams, while the prisoners walked.
They were allowed to travel with some money; thus were able to buy additional food from the peasants who lived along the route. Since there was a shortage of bread, salt, and oil, they would purchase these items whenever they had the chance. Without oil, some prisoners became blind, so butter and oil were important commodities.
Grandfather Vereschagin Exiled to Siberia
Having been sentenced soon after the burning of the firearms in Bogdanovka [and elsewhere in the Caucasus], Vasily Gavrilovich Vereschagin spent one year in [Metekhi,] a Tiflis prison before being exiled to Siberia. (Note: For sake of clarity, from now on I will call him “Grandfather Vereschagin” since he was my husband Alex’s grandfather.)
On July 22, 1897, Grandfather Vereschagin and thirty-six other prisoners left Tiflis by train to Baku. They spent about a week in a jail there, awaiting a ship to take them across the Caspian Sea to Astrakhan. After sailing for four days, they came to a place called “Twelve Feet,” [or Dvenadtsat’ Futov in Russian] so named because of the 12-foot level of the water. They had to change to a smaller vessel because the large ship could not sail in the shallow water. The smaller ship was very crowded. The prisoners slept wherever they could find space.
On the morning of the fifth day, they arrived at Astrakhan. One seriously ill prisoner was left to die there. The rest got on a small boat that took them up the Volga River to Kazan. Although the boat was small, the accommodations were much better than the previous boat. The captain and officers were friendly and kind. They allowed the Doukhobors to cook their own food and even provided them with some provisions. When the boat stopped at various little villages along the way, the prisoners were able to get off the boat and buy whatever they needed to sustain them on route.
At Saratov, they again left a friend and fellow prisoner because of illness. The captain of the boat allowed a cousin of the ill man to stay with him until he, too, died. The caretaker cousin later joined his “comrades in exile.”
About sixty miles south of the [city] of Kazan, the Kama River empties into the Volga River. Here, the prisoners were transferred onto a barge. Up to this point, their route was to the north. Now, the balance of their journey would be to the northeast.
On the 17th of August, 1897, they arrived at Perm, a large city where they had to transfer onto a tram [railway] in order to cross the Ural Mountains. At Perm, the Doukhobor brethren left another sick friend. This time, no one was allowed to stay behind with the sick man. He died alone.
After crossing the Urals, they were in Siberia. On August 21st, they left the custom station on a sailboat for a day’s journey to Tobol’sk. At Tobol’sk, the boat anchored for three hours. They were informed that this would be their last chance to purchase food. They hurriedly bought bread, butter, rice, and potatoes – as much as they could carry.
The Trans-Siberian Railway. It was still under construction when groups of Doukhobor exiles were transported part-way to Yakutsk on it in 1897.
August 30th, they arrived at Tomsk, on the Ob River. From Tomsk they boarded a train that took them to Krasnoyarsk on the Yenisei River. Here they were taken to a jail where they stayed until September 17th, awaiting the arrival of the man who had been left at Saratov to care for his cousin.
From Krasnoyarsk, the prisoners had to walk [as the Trans-Siberian railway was still under construction]. By this time, many of the older members of the group were showing their fatigue; however, they refused to ride on the wagons, determined to prove their commitment and faith. It rained hard the entire first day.
It was very difficult walking through the mud and carrying a pack on their backs. They had to get to a particular station by nightfall, so were not able to stop for rest or nourishment. If they lagged behind, the soldiers prodded them with guns. They spent that night in a small, drafty barn. The authorities had given each man a straw pillow, blanket, and straw pad. They were given no food.
Having walked approximately 23 miles, they came to a river. It took two trips to ferry them across the river. Unfortunately, they were still not able to sit and rest while waiting for the other group to cross, because it was still raining and the ground was too wet. At this point, Grandfather Vereschagin was very ill and could hardly walk. He had a pain in his right side and coughed a lot; however, he was still forced to walk.
After about thirty station stops, the prisoners arrived at Nizne-Udinsk, a station on the Uda River, where they stayed for two days. On the third day, the journey started again. Walking was easier because the rain had stopped and the ground was not as muddy; however, frost and snow did make it colder.
On November 2nd, they arrived at Aleksandrovsk prison [near the city of Irkutsk]. By this time they had walked 45 days, covering about 528 miles. They spent the winter at this prison because all roads east were impassable and the rivers were frozen. The Doukhobor prisoners were able to stay together as a group while in this prison, and were allowed some cooking utensils so that they could cook their own food. Two more comrades died during their stay there.
May 3, 1898, they left Aleksandrovsk prison, again on foot. The leader was a very harsh and strict Siberian. At first he would not allow the prisoners to load their individual baggage onto the wagons. He told them that they either had to carry their own things or hire a wagon to haul them. After much discussion, he relented and allowed them to use the wagons that were already available.
The weather was now warmer, so they were able to comfortably sleep outdoors. After walking another 132 miles, they got on a boat that took them down the Lena River. On May 9th, they arrived at [Kachuga]. They had to wait there until May 13th for boats to take them on the last leg of their journey – to Yakutsk, Siberia. The convoy leaders tried to make the Doukhobors eat meat; however, they refused and asked for butter instead. This request was denied them.
Loading a Siberian river barge, circa 1897. Photo by George Kennan.
The exiles continued traveling north on the Lena River. It took six men to control each boat, as the river was treacherous. The flat-bottomed boats [known as pauzoks in Russian] had hand-controlled rudders for maneuvering around bends, riffles, and rapids. Each boat held up to 120 passengers. Since they were going down river, the boats moved by gravity. The first night was spent in Verkholensk.
The next day they arrived at the Alekseyevsk prison station in Kirensk. In all, they had walked approximately 800 miles. Grandfather Vereschagin was so ill that he had to be admitted to a hospital. His friend Nikolai Ril’kov stayed with him.
Grandfather spent a month in the hospital. The care was bad; the doctors basically ignored him because he was a prisoner. He tried to return to the group, wanting to go on with them. He did not want to be left behind. It was not to be. He died on the 9th of June, 1898, and was buried in the Kirensk cemetery. He was about 63 years old.
Grandfather Vereschagin wrote a letter to his wife and family in Terpeniye [from Alexandrovsk prison shortly before his death], telling them that he was very ill and the circumstances that led to his ill health. He asked to be forgiven for any hurt feelings that he may have caused. He told them not to grieve over his passing, especially if he were to die alone in an alien country. He stated that he had chosen his own path and trusted that his guardian angel would not forsake him. A translated copy of his letter appears below:
“My most beloved spouse Nastyusha and my ever unforgettable children:
While resolving to write this letter to you, I considered it of prime importance to relate to you all the details of my current situation. The details of my letter may sadden you, but I do beseech you not to be sad; be brave in God’s spirit; ask the Lord to your assistance and He will sustain you. Regarding myself I will tell you my beloved spouse and my dear children, I am quite invigorated with the spirit of God; steadfast in my faith in the Lord; but I am weakened in the flesh.
My infirmity, as you all know, was already evident at the time I was with you; however, while living in the conditions of freedom, it did not bother me that much; it’s effect upon me was minimal. Being incarcerated under lock and key at Metekh for the length of about two years, I did not experience sickness to any great extent. And furthermore, the Lord strengthened me on the journey. Upon arrival here in Alexandrovsk, after a certain period of time, I began feeling pain, most probably as a result of the journey on foot, the 800 versts from Kamsk to Alexandrovsk. That is where most likely I overexerted myself. It happened to be in autumn when there was rainfall, snow, and deep mud. The doctor at Kamsk who examined me did testify me to be in full health and did not provide me with vehicular transport. I was forced to traverse the entire 800 versts on foot. Now I have a cough in my chest and high temperature. I suffer internal pain, have difficulty in breathing, and occasional asthmatic spasms.
I have spent a month’s time in the hospital; however, the doctors did not help me much. Upon leaving the hospital, I wrote you a letter on the 20th of March in which I informed you that my health had improved, but this I did only so as to allay your fears on my behalf; however, I did become somewhat better, and I looked forward to more improvement. And even now I still have not lost hope – if the Lord wills it so, that I will be well again. Nevertheless, I do feel myself quite weak.
I am writing this letter to you, my beloved spouse Nastyusha and the children dear to my heart, one in which my wish is to converse with you as with those closest to me and perhaps these strokes could already be the final strokes in our earthly life. Lord may your holy will abide. It is upon Thee my trust does rest.
While living an extended period of time with you, it happened that I sometimes, for lack of self-restraint, did offend you. These offenses do not leave my memory in the situation in which I find myself; the conscience torments me and gives me no peace. As if it is telling me: you are responsible for all this! By the force of such thoughts I ask magnanimously that you forgive me for all the offenses from my direction toward you; please do not hold it against me for my behavior. I am sending you my paternal peace and blessings for the extent of your earthly lives. May the Lord preserve you from all temptations for the entire period of your lives. I am beseeching you, as obedient children, to be in good relations with all those around you.
Oh, dear children, do not delay to correct yourselves; leaving it off for even a single day – rather be prepared for every hour for none of us can escape this fate. The flesh derives its origin from the earth and finally must again return to the earth. But the soul of man derives its origin from God and at the time of its separation from the body must return to God and make account for all the life spent in the body.
All the little grandchildren I kiss warmly. May the Lord send you humility and gentleness. Darling grandchildren, I greatly miss all of you and perhaps the Lord will alleviate my distressful situation and then possibly we will see one another. May His holy will prevail over all of us.
All the brothers and sisters, the ones related to me and acquaintances, I cordially ask not to harbor any ill feelings for any offenses whatever that I may have caused to them at anytime – to render forgiveness toward a remorseful sinner. My dear unforgettable spiritual brothers and sisters, because of weakness and unrestrained nature of man, what an array of happenings can occur during his life’s tenure. At times he even forgets about the after-life; of this I speak more as relating to my own self in regards of what I greatly beseech to be forgiven. Man’s forgetfulness related to the fact of the occasion when he commits deeds not characteristic of a human being, and in general all manner of sins of man are committed with no thought of the after-life. But had he always kept in mind the facts of death, judgement, and the Heavenly Kingdom, he would then have refrained from committing sin.
I am asking you all not to have ill-thoughts about me. And in conclusion, my dearest spouse and beloved children, from the depth of my heart, I wish you all of the best in your lives; in my thoughts I am tightly hugging you and kissing you warmly with conjugal and paternal love and bowing with the lowest of bows. Another request: if it so happens that I shall die, do not grieve exceedingly about me. Especially may the Lord guard you from thinking something in the nature that I died in an alien country and without the attendance of relatives and friends.
The country to me is all the same. All our life on earth is a path of sorrows. When a person comes to the end of the road, then only he transmigrates into the land of eternity which is hidden from our mental perception. In the matter of attendance, I must say that the brethren have not neglected to look after me, and if it happens that I have to be alone by myself, even then I must console myself with my lot because I chose this path by my own will for the purpose of obtaining salvation for my soul with hope and trust that my guardian angel will not forsake me.
Prior to the time we shall be dispatched to Yakutsk, if the condition of my health shall not improve resulting in my continued stay in the hospital I will then write you a letter or inform you by telegram.
Again, kissing you all and wishing you from the Lord all the best in your lives. Farewell my dear Nastyusha and the small children, and also all the close relations. For the last time – farewell.
Remaining with faith in God and love to all of you. One who sincerely loves and remembers all of you forever:
Husband, Father, and Grandfather,
Vasily Gavrilovich Vereschagin
Alexandrovsk Deportation Prison
April 15, 1898″
Grandfather Vasily G. Vereschagin left his wife, Nastya Vasil’evna Postnikova; and the following seven children and then-spouses: Vasily (wife Dunya Dorofaeva), Semyon (wife Masha Zarchukova), Dunya (husband Vasily Bondarev), Masha (husband Vasily Gulyaev), Alexei (wife Aksinya Usacheva), Paranya (husband Grigory Popov) and Gavril (wife Masha Malov).
The remaining prisoners arrived in Yakutsk on June 10, 1898. They were separated; some being sent to Nel’kan and others to Ust’ Notora. Both of the villages were southeast of Yakutsk along the Aldan River.
Note: A Doukhobor Narrative by Vasya Pozdnyakov states the following about their arrival in Ust’ Notora. “The police-agent pointed out an empty hut and said that they ought to live there. The hut was a poor wooden structure with earthen floor and ice-slabs in the window-openings in the winter….. Soon the winter began and it was so cold in the hut, in spite of the heating, that all the walls got covered with ice inside. The Doukhobors had to sleep by turns. While some were sleeping, covering themselves with all available clothing, the others had to stay awake and walk in the hut to keep warm. Besides, they had nothing to make light and were in total darkness during all the long evenings.”
Father-in-Law Vereschagin Exiled to Siberia
All the time that Grandfather Vereschagin had been on the trek to Yakutsk, he did not know that his son, Alexei Vasil’evich Vereschagin (my future father-in-law) was on his way to Yakutsk for the same reason. He was exiled to Siberia in September of 1897, two and a half years after the Burning of Arms and nine months before his father died. Alexei arrived in Kirensk in August, two months after his father had died there. I never heard whether he knew that his father had died in Kirensk; however, I assume that he must have found out, since he had to spend the winter in the same prison as his father.
My future father-in-law, Alexei Vasil’evich Vereschagin, went with the third group [of Doukhobor military conscripts] exiled from [Kars, Elizavetpol and] Tiflis and the last group of Doukhobors to be exiled to Siberia. Their trek was much the same as those going before them, with the exception that they were driven much harder. The authorities wanted them to catch up with the group that had gone before them, before winter set in. Nevertheless, when they arrived at Alekseyevsk, they learned that the party had already departed, so this group stayed at the prison farm until the spring of 1899.
While living at the prison, the prison administrator observed the conduct and behavior of the young men in the group and felt kindness toward them. They, in turn, respected the administrator and trusted him. Father-in-law Alexei, nineteen years old, was one of the young men in this group. He was determined to follow in his father’s footsteps with honor. It appears that he became one of the spokesmen for the group and was not afraid to speak up in their behalf.
Group of exiles standing in front of barracks way-station en route to Siberia, c. 1899. Photo by George Kennan.
At one point when the young men were asked to help the prison farm workers with the haying, Alexei spoke for the group and said that they would be glad to help. Not only did they get to go out into the country, but they also got better food. They were allowed to cook their own meals, which for them was worth the labor. For their good behavior, they got extra rations of butter. Since they did not eat meat, this additional butter provided the proper vitamins for preventing night blindness. They were also able to melt down the extra butter to be saved and used when needed in the future.
The young men continued to work at odd jobs at the prison throughout the winter. They kept busy with carpenter work, repairing equipment, etc. The administrator even asked some of them to stay on and work for him personally. They thanked him for his kindness, but told him that their conscience would not allow them to leave the convoy.
In the spring, the large party of prisoners left the Alekseyevsk prison on their last trek to Yakutsk. They had to travel seven days and nights on foot to reach Kachuga, the embarkation station on the Lena River. When they arrived at Kachuga they immediately started to build a barge to take them down the Lena River to Yakutsk and the surrounding area where they would spend the rest of their exile. Kachuga had acres and acres of straight and tall fir trees, which were used to build large, safe barges. The barges were rather crude, with no private accommodations or bathrooms and very little overhead shelter. At one end they had a thick layer of gravel on which they could build a fire for cooking and for warmth. Double deck bunks were built against the walls on each side to accommodate approximately 100 people.
Upon arriving in Yakutsk, many of the exiles settled in villages in the surrounding countryside. Markha and Magan were two such villages. After the spring thaw, the younger and stronger men went to work for the [local] natives. They exchanged their labor for needed food supplies (flour, salt, butter, sugar, rice, etc.). They also exchanged work for horses and cows. They shared everything within their commune in order to survive.
Until others could be built, the first home was also shared. It was an abandoned native house [at Ust’ Notora] that was ready to collapse. They had to patch the holes and cracks the best they could with the tools they had. In preparation for winter, they made a clay stove in the middle of the room so that they could get around the fire to keep from freezing to death. Sixty degrees [Fahrenheit] below zero was not an uncommon temperature during the winter in this area of Siberia.
During the summer months, when the rivers were navigable, traders from the more populace areas would bring all kinds of supplies to sell to the people of the area around Yakutsk. The Yakuti [local native Siberians] had to plan and conserve their food and clothing supplies for about nine months each year, until the traders could arrive after the spring thaw. Not only did they have to stock up on food, clothing, and fodder, but they had to have tools and repair parts. In other words, they couldn’t hop on a horse and go to the local hardware store.
There were all kinds of craftsmen among the [Doukhobor] exiles. They had to know how to make and repair tools, harnesses, sleighs, etc. They had to build a flour mill and a water wheel to power the grinding of wheat for flour. Out of birch wood, they carved bowls, spoons, ladles, and other kitchen utensils. For baking bread, they built ovens out of straw and mud. They cut logs to build cabins for themselves, as well as shelters for their animals. It was important to have a supply of leather and a cobbler for making footwear suitable for the extreme cold weather. The boots had to be lined with fur. Since nearly everything you could think of had to be handmade within the [Ust’ Notora] commune, there was never a dull moment nor an idle body.
Siberian barge moored at river bank, circa 1899. Photo by George Kennan.
The first winter was a long one for the men. The police would not allow them to leave the area to seek work; therefore, they could not buy food or provisions. Their supply of food was low, so they had to ration the portions and ate only two meals a day. Many were ill because of malnutrition and fatigue, especially the older members. One of their members passed away that first winter. A burial in the frozen tundra was no easy task.
In the spring, they started building more adequate houses, barns, a bath house, and a saw mill. Because of their primitive tools and lack of power, it was not an easy task to cut, saw, and plane the timber. Everything had to be done by hand and in the rough. Land had to be cleared for planting the wheat and vegetable gardens. Water had to be made available for home use and for irrigating the gardens. Fortunately, water was abundant because of the nearby rivers. They also had to stock a lot of firewood for the winter and haul it in close to the houses for easy access and for shelter from the cold weather.
They worked as a team with the younger members doing the more physical labor and the older ones doing the lighter chores. They organized a commune where everything was planned together, everyone worked together, and everything was shared.
The first summer’s crops were not very good because they did not have the right seeds for the region. They bartered for wheat and vegetables from the local farmers. The Yakuti were quite friendly and often came to watch the Doukhobors work.
With more knowledge about the Siberian growing season and better seeds, the second summer their crops were much better. They were able to clear enough land to plant more grain, which they cut and threshed by hand. With more wheat, they proceeded to build their own flour mill. This mill eventually became a good source of added income for the Doukhobors. They became known for their fine flour; consequently, outsiders began to also use their flour mill.
Father-in-law Alexei farmed and worked in the flour mill as long as he lived in Siberia. Working in the mill was considered dangerous because one had to be very careful around the heavy grinding stone. In order to keep awake and alert, he was ordered to smoke tobacco. Note: He continued smoking until he was on his way to Canada in 1905. He decided to quit because he was planning to visit friends in London who were against drinking and smoking. He said that he threw his pack of cigarettes out the window and never touched them again.
In the summer of 1898, the Siberian exiles learned that many of the Doukhobors who were still in the Caucasus were preparing to emigrate to Canada. Although they were not able to emigrate themselves, the exiles felt that they were now properly settled and financially able to support their own families in Siberia; however, the decision to send for their families was not theirs alone to make. They had to ask their leader, Peter Verigin, who had been exiled to a different area in Siberia (Obdorsk, Province of Tobol’sk). He had been there since  and had kept in contact with his followers by mail and personal envoys.
The exiled Doukhobors decided to send Vasya Pozdnyakov to go to see Peter Verigin and ask for his permission. It was a long and dangerous trip and it had to be done in secret. He did not have permission from the government to leave his home in Siberia and he had no passport. Fortunately, on the way he met a man who gave him his passport. Vasya traveled by rail, by steamer and boat, and also had to walk about 660 miles. It took him two months to get to Obdorsk.
Vasya Pozdnyakov was not happy with the so-called “life in exile” that their martyred leader was living in Obdorsk. Verigin had a house, a housekeeper, and fine sleighs and horses. He was able to ride around the surrounding countryside whenever he wished. He had a lathe on which he spent his leisure time making wooden tools and gadgets. Although Vasya was disappointed with Verigin’s life style, he still respected him as the leader of the Doukhobors.
Before returning to Yakutsk, Vasya visited Count Leo Tolstoy at his home – named Yasnaya Polyana, which means “brilliant fields.” From there he proceeded to Kars [region], where Verigin’s parents lived, to give them messages from their son. Verigin’s instructions for the Doukhobors was that they should continue to practice communal living and that they should expand their herds. Each family should get an allowance, with extra revenue to be kept in the “cash-office” of the community. He also gave them permission to marry again; consequently, there were several weddings announced immediately.
From Kars, Vasya went to visit his parents and wife [in Tiflis region]. He only stayed for a short while because he had to return to Yakutsk before winter set in. He took his wife and another woman with him. They traveled by train to Irkutsk and the rest of the way by horse and sledge. The road was poor and they were tossed out of the sledge many tunes. The women could hardly endure the cold. At one point, they had to lie down in the sledge, bundled in all of their clothes and blankets, in order to travel day and night. Note: Before the two ladies were permitted to leave their homes, they had to have permission and passports from the government. This they were able to do because of Count Tolstoy and the Quakers working on their behalf.
Group of Doukhobor women and children reunited with men in Yakutsk, Siberia, circa 1899
The fourth group that traveled from Tiflis to Yakutsk were the women and children. Their journey took them on the same route as the other three groups, except that they had to pay their own way. They had a woman guide and were transported by steamers, boats, trams, and horses. They were not expected to walk as their husbands who went before them. Included in this group was my mother-in-law, Aksinya (Usacheva) Vereschagin, who had married father-in-law Alexei only a few days before his departure a year before. That summer (1899), the wives and children arrived in Siberia. [For a detailed account of their journey to Siberia, see Wives and Children of the Doukhobors by Prokopy N. Sokolnikov.]
Three children were born to my in-laws in villages near Yakutsk. Vasily Alexeyevich (William) was born June 17, 1900 in Markha; Malanya Alexeyevna (Martha) was born October 13, 1901 in Magan; Alexei Alexeyevich (Alex) was born April 7, 1903 in Magan.
The Doukhobors expanded their farming: grew potatoes, rye, and wheat; added to their herds and purchased good horses. They built solid buildings, including a blacksmith shop. The horse-drawn flour mill was prospering and there were enough provisions to sustain them. Everyone was treated equally and the elders were taken care of.
Soon there was not enough cleared land to accommodate all of the villagers, so many of the last deported Doukhobor men had to work for wages. They worked long hours in very harsh conditions. They farmed in the summer months and threshed the wheat and rye in the winter on ice floors. Mostly, they worked for another sectarian group, the Skoptsy, who had previously been exiled to Siberia for life. By now the Skoptsy were quite well-off because they had already adjusted to the Siberian way of life.
Background for Emigrating to Canada
All this time, the Doukhobors were struggling for their identity with their government and the Orthodox Church. Count Leo Tolstoy sent a letter to Tsar Nicholas II, asking him to allow the Doukhobors to live in peace wherever they chose. Meanwhile, the Quakers petitioned to Queen Victoria of England to permit the Doukhobors to emigrate to Canada. England was in need of hard-working people to clear and farm the land, and to build bridges, roads, and railroads. She consented and invited the Doukhobors to settle wherever they chose in Canada in exchange for 99 years of religious freedom [a common myth among Doukhobors today, there was in fact no 99-year term]. Note: I personally met one Quaker who was involved with the settling of the Doukhobors in Saskatchewan, Canada. He was Joseph Elkington from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
The Elkingtons originally came from England where the family was in the soap-making business. They heard of the plight of the Doukhobors from their relatives in England. Since they were religious people, they had empathy for the struggles endured by the Doukhobors. Mr. Elkington even invited two sons of [Alexei’s brother] Vasily V. Vereschagin (Timofey and Alexei) to come from Blaine Lake (Saskatchewan) and live with his family in Philadelphia and go to school. They accepted the invitation, staying there for about two years [from 1902 to 1904].
Another name often mentioned by the Doukhobors is Almer Maude. He was a [Tolstoyan] from England who acted as a guide and mediator for the emigrants. Mr. Maude had been a journalist and had lived amongst the Doukhobors in Russia. He traveled with a small group of emigrants to Cyprus and then with another group to Canada. He was involved with their transportation and with the purchasing of land in Canada.
Word of the plight of the Doukhobors – the beatings, their hunger, and their exile – had spread to many nations. Leo Tolstoy, a famous author, was so deeply shocked that he wrote an article entitled “The Persecution of Christians in Russia.” In 1899, at the age of 70, he completed his last great novel, Resurrection. The book was translated into many languages and distributed all over the world. Tolstoy donated all profits from the sale of the book ($33,000) to a Doukhobor fund; however, the clerk of that Quaker fund committee felt that the Society of Friends should not accept money from the sales of a “smutty book.” (The story is about a prostitute, her lover, a court trial, and the participation of the Orthodox Church in the trial. Tolstoy tried to portray all kinds of love which lead to resurrection. The book also portrays Tolstoy’s personal struggles in his own life and his search for the truth. This was hardly the kind of book Quakers or Doukhobors would have in their personal library.) Fortunately, the donated money remained in the fund and eventually was used to transport the first load of Doukhobors from Batumi to Halifax on the ship “Lake Huron.”
In addition to petitioning to Queen Victoria, the Society of Friends (Quakers) in England generously donated $8,000 to help the exiles resettle in Canada. Once they arrived in Canada, this money helped the Doukhobors to find temporary housing, and to buy food and other necessities until such time as they were able to survive on their own.
Emigrating to Canada
The emigration of the Doukhobors to Canada began in 1899. They emigrated in several different groups. They had to sell most of their possessions because they were only able to take what they could carry; besides, they needed money to help pay their way to Canada. By 1904, most of the Doukhobors living in the villages around Tiflis [, Kars and Elizavetpol regions] had emigrated. The last ones to leave were the few families living in Siberia. They left in the spring of 1905.
In this final group were father-in-law Alexei and his wife Aksinya, along with their three children: five-year-old Vasily (William), four-year-old Malanya (Martha), and two-year-old Alexei (my husband Alex). Their destination was Canada where father-in-law’s mother (Nastya Postnikova Vereschagin), brother Vasily, sister Dunya, brother Semyon, sister Masha, sister Paranya, and brother Gavril were living. They had all emigrated in 1899 with the [fourth] group of immigrants on the ship “Lake Huron,” leaving from Batumi, a port city along the Black Sea. The family was now settled in Blaine Lake along the Saskatchewan River north of Saskatoon.
The Vereschagin family shortly after their arrival in Canada. (l-r) Alexei W. Vereschagin, William, John, Virginia holding Jane, Alex and Martha, 1909.
Father-in-law Alexei and family first traveled by boat along the Lena River and then by train until they reached Hamburg, Germany. From Hamburg, they took a ferry across the English Channel. In England they visited Vladimir Chertkov, Count Tolstoy’s secretary, who lived about 25 miles from London. They stayed there for a few days, until the next steamer [the SS Southwark] sailed for [Quebec]. The three children were too young to remember their stay there, but it must have been enjoyable, being in the rural area of England. Brother-in-law Bill remembered being sick on the ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean and he also remembered that at one of the borders, a doctor put “terrible medicine” in their eyes. Note: Perhaps they had developed trachoma, a contagious inflammation of the eyes.
I heard from both Bill and Martha that each of them were responsible for carrying one item throughout the long trek from Siberia to Canada. At each stop and transfer to another train or boat, they would grab and carry their personal article of responsibility: Bill’s was a small valise and Martha’s was the chamber pot. Without a doubt, they were both proud to relate that the articles made it to their destination.
The family arrived in [Quebec] in the autumn of 1905. They left immediately for Saskatoon, Saskatchewan where they were met by Alexei’s brothers, Vasily and Semyon. From there they were taken to Blaine Lake (approximately 60 miles) in a horse-drawn wagon. What a reunion that must have been!
After arriving in Canada in 1905, the Alexei V. Vereshchagin family lived and farmed in the Blaine Lake district of Saskatchewan for two years. Then, in 1907, they resettled to Cucamonga and later Los Angeles, California where they worked as labourers on fruit farms. In 1909, they and several other Doukhobor families purchased land and established a short-lived colony near Shafter, California. Then in 1913, they joined a much larger “Freedom Colony” of Doukhobors near Peoria, Oregon. They returned to California in 1916, permanently settling in Orland, where they worked together for over 60 years as a cooperative family unit, becoming outstanding builders and innovators in the fruit growing and retail-wholesale industry. To follow the story of this remarkable Doukhobor family further, see Spanning the Years by Ann J. Vereschagin.