by Adele and Xavier Hommaire de Hell
Xavier Hommaire de Hell (1812-1848), a French explorer and geologist, studied the Crimea and the south of Russia from 1838 to 1841. Although Hommaire de Hell was concerned primarily with geology and geography, his wife, Adele (1819-1883), interested herself in the historical and ethnographic aspects of Russia. In 1839, they travelled among the Dukhobortsy living on the Molochnaya River. Two years later, in 1841, they met a group of exiled Dukhobortsy en route from the Molochnaya to the Caucasus. Adele recorded her impressions of these encounters, which was published in “Travels in the Steppes of the Caspian Sea, the Crimea, the Caucasus” (London: Chapman and Hall, 1847) under her husband’s name. Her brief account provides rare, historic insights into the Dukhobortsy at this time. Afterword by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.
Adele Hommaire de Hell (1819-1883)
…Besides the German [Mennonite] colonies of which we have been speaking, there are others in the environs of Nicolaief [Nikolaev] and Odessa, in Bessarabia and the Crimea, and about the coasts of the sea of Azov. Altogether these foreign colonies in New Russia, number upwards of 160 villages, containing more than 46,000 souls.
In the midst of them are several villages inhabited by Russian dissenters, entertaining nearly the same religious views as the Mennonites and Anabaptists.
These are the Douckoboren [Dukhobortsy] and Molokaner [Molokany], who separated from the national [Orthodox] church about 160 years ago, at which time they were resident in several of the central provinces; but the government being alarmed at the spread of their doctrines, transported them forcibly to New Russia, where it placed them under military supervision.
Here they admirably availed themselves of the examples set them by the Germans, and soon attained a high degree of prosperity. In 1839, they amounted to a population of 6617 souls, occupying thirteen villages. Most of their houses were in the German style, and every thing about them was indicative of plenty. [p. 81]
. . .
I had opportunities of observing among the members of the two latter communities, how great an influence a change of religion may have on the character and intellect of the Russians. The Douckoboren and the Molokaner differ essentially in this respect from the other [Orthodox] subjects of the empire.
Xavier Hommaire de Hell (1812-1848)
Activity, probity, intelligence, desire of improvement, all these qualities are developed among them to the highest degree, and after having consorted with the Germans for fifteen years, they have completely appropriated all the agricultural ameliorations, and even the social habits of those foreign colonists.
Among the Russian [Orthodox] peasants on the contrary, whether slave or free, a complete immobility prevails, and nothing can force them out of the old inevitable rut. All the efforts and all the encouragements of the government have hitherto been of no avail. [p. 113]
. . .
Two years after this first visit to them, I met on the road from Taganrok [Taganrog] to Rostof [Rostov], two large detachments of exiles escorted by two battalions of infantry. They were the unfortunate dissenters of the Moloshnia [Molochnaya], who had been expelled from their villages, and were on their way to the military lines of the Caucasus.
The most perfect decorum and the most touching resignation appeared in the whole body. The women alone showed signs of anger, whilst the men sang hymns in chorus. I asked several of them whither they were going; their answer was ” God only knows.” [p. 81]
Xavier Hommaire de Hell was a French geologist and civil engineer who spent almost five years from 1838 to 1841 exploring and studying the geology of the Crimea and Southern Russia. His wife, Adele, braved all hardships to accompany him on his journeys. During this period, his research provided the travelers with many objects of study, not only in towns and villages but in the country-houses of the Russian nobility. His pursuits also carried them over a large range of the Russian countryside, extending from the Dnieper to the Caspian Sea, and from there to the Caucasian mountains. They subsequently published their observations in the 1847 work, Travels in the Steppes of the Caspian Sea, the Crimea, the Caucasus, in which the subjects of commerce, government, official economy, with historical and ethnological notices were treated by Xavier; while descriptions of society, adventures en route, and much of what is usually considered travelogue, were contributed by Adele under her husband’s name. Their account of the Molochnaya Doukhobors is presumed to have been written by her.
The Hommaire de Hells visited the Doukhobors living on the Molochnaya River in Tavria, Russia in 1839. At that time they found a population of 6,617 souls (males) occupying thirteen villages. This number included nine villages of Doukhobors as well as four neighbouring villages of Molokans. They noted the “high degree of prosperity” among the inhabitants and that “everything about them was indicative of plenty.”
The French travelers had opportunities to observe the Doukhobors and noted their “activity, probity, intelligence, [and] desire of improvement”, which stood in stark comparison to Russian Orthodox peasants, over whom “a complete immobility prevails”. According to the Hommaire de Hells, the Doukhobors appropriated these characteristics from their German Mennonite neighbours, among whom they consorted, and from whom they borrowed their style of housing, agricultural methods and even social habits. The French couple were among the earliest Western observers to note the significant Mennonite influence on Doukhobor society.
Two years later, in 1841, the Hommaire de Hells met a group of Doukhobor exiles on the road from Taganrog to Rostov and noted that the sectarians were “escorted” by two infantry battalions. By all accounts, the military escort was particularly large and aggressive. In spite of this, the French travellers observed “the most perfect decorum and the most touching resignation” amongst the Doukhobors. Upon inquiring as to their destination, Hommaire de Hell was simply told, “God only knows.” In fact, the Doukhobors they met were the first of five parties to be exiled from the Molochnaya to the Caucasus over the 1841-1845 period. Hommaire de Hell’s description of this meeting is one of the few extant eyewitness accounts of the Doukhobor exile to the Caucasus and provides a poignant and touching picture of this momentous event in Doukhobor history.
View Tavria Doukhobor Villages, 1802-1845 in a larger map
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