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.