by Alexander M. Bodyansky
The following article is a true, first person autobiographical account by Doukhobor Vanya Bayoff (1864-1901) outlining his brutal torture and persecution during the “Burning of Arms” in Russia in 1895. It was recorded by Alexander Mikhailovich Bodyansky, a Russian nobleman and Tolstoyan who visited the Doukhobors in Canada in early 1900. Reproduced from ISKRA No.1883 (December 15, 1999) and ISKRA No. 1884 (January 12, 2000), (Grand Forks: U.S.C.C.), it is a powerful and riveting account of extraordinary spiritual depth, endurance and heroism.
All right, let me tell you about my life, though you’re not going to find this interesting. Of my boyhood, what is there to say? I grew, just as our boys nowadays grow. We live differently by our understanding than the Russians do. The Russians are strict with their children, sometimes beating them. As we understand it, this is an impossibility; a deadly sin.
Once or twice I saw how an adult beat a small child and I was so grieved over it, so grieved that I nearly joined in this fight myself. A child, no matter what sort, is more pure than an adult, and how are you going to beat him anyway, when he’s no stronger than a little chick? He’s completely defenceless. No, thank God, we have no such practice. I dare say that it all comes from a lack of understanding. Oh, the poor unfortunate Russians.
And now, I remember something – What I saw as I was travelling across Russia on my way to visit Peter Vasilyevich (Verigin) in Archangelsk province. I was travelling on a steamer along the Volga where the forest is entirely fir and spruce. The steamer broke down and they moored it to a dock and began repairing it. To us, the deck passengers, they announced that we would be standing until evening. There was a village right there, so I went for a stroll and a look around to see how the people live, and I thought I’d buy some provisions, because things are expensive on the boat.
I ask the man at the dock whether there is a store here where I can buy some bread. He answers that there is no bread in the stores but that one can buy it at any home. I go up to one of the nicer looking houses, say hello, and ask if they have bread for sale. There is a man sitting in a chair on the porch. He looks like some sort of merchant. He says I can buy some, and inquires whether I am a passenger from the steamer, at which time he calls his son out. A boy of about 12 comes bounding out and when he notices me he stops and stares. Now I don’t know what it was about me that he found so strange. Whatever it was he saw, he just fixed his eyes on me, mouth wide open, and stared. And what do you think? The parent takes and shoves his fist right into the boy’s mouth, and he must have scraped his finger on one of those little teeth, because he pulled his hand back and slams his foot square into the boy’s stomach, who curls right over while his father swears. I didn’t want the bread any more after witnessing this shamelessness, and I turned to leave. Where are you going he yells, its not you I clipped. They’ll bring the bread right now. You have clipped me, I say. Just think about what you have done. And what, says he, have I done (and he clutches his sides). Maybe you want me to teach my son to gawk? You wicked spirit, say I, to drive the boy in the mouth and darken his soul. So what are you, he asks, a priest soliciting for the church service. Well, here’s five kopecks. Probably can’t hold a service on five kopecks. I had already walked away, and didn’t carry the conversation any further.
There was another time, near the town of Mezen’ when I had to spend the night at a hunter’s house. His wife brought in the flounder, a flat fish fried on a pan, and set it on a table. Here is how they do it: the fish will have kvass or something poured over it, and children eat first. They dip their barley bread into the pan with the grease and eat it, and when they’ve eaten up the sauce, the adults eat the actual fish. One little girl, perhaps six years old, stood up and reached across the table. Her hand must have slipped, for she tipped over the entire frying pan. And, oh, how her mother flew into a rage! She grabbed the girl by the hair – can you imagine? – she picked her up by the hair and threw her onto the floor, leaving hair between all her fingers. Its terrible to imagine such ferocious people. Grandfather, what do you think, where does this cruelty come from? Why do they have no God? I think it is because they have used up all their God on services, priests, and all sorts of holiness, grandfather! We do not have any of this, thank God.
I’m not saying this to brag. After all, among us you’ll find all sorts of people. I’m just saying that there is less stupidity with us. If there is a villain among us, he was either born that way or became so of his own will, but a good person does not turn into a villain. That woman, you see, the hunter’s wife who I said had pulled the girl’s hair, was really a good person. She took the girl on her lap as soon as she started to cry, she caressed, comforted, fed, and lulled her to sleep on her breast, in her arms. As long as they sat, she held her and did not eat herself.
We do not permit any beating of children, grandfather, because we are people of different thinking. We believe that all children are born of God’s spirit, and incarnated through man. And you know, grandfather, you will not hear these words from us: father, mother, son and daughter. We consider these words to be harmful, because through these very words the larger gains authority over the smaller. We completely forbid the use of these words. For us the elder and the younger are addressed in the same fashion: Petya, Vasya, Tanya, or else: parent, old man, nanny, missus. It has been this way with us since the olden days. We had this custom when we still lived in depravity and in alliance with the Russian government.
My parent – now that I have begun to speak, I must speak truthfully – liked to drink. Everyone in those days drank. I myself tried the poison, though it has always been repulsive to me. Wine I could drink, but vodka turned my insides, and if I ever drank it, it was only when travelling on the carriers, and my companions made me drink it for fortitude. But now I know that there is no truth in this whatsoever. As if the body’s strength were increased by vodka – this is self-deception and nothing more, and there is great danger in this because one can become dependent on this item. It would seem that my parent had this dependency. Now the business of drinking also took a different form with us than with the Russians. When our people drank, and there were great drunkards among us, they never became violent and there was none of the debauchery. If they got drunk, even to the brink, they would still quieten down without a fuss. Nor did my parent ever raise a fuss, and he drank often; a week would not pass without him drinking to the brink. He’d drink his fill, sleep it off, take a shot for his hangover, and get to work. And in matters of business he was an intelligent man. We had everything we needed. There were two of us in my family – I and my younger brother. My brother went into the army, but I had the privilege of staying home and helping my parent.
I was twenty-two years old then. And he says to me: get married, Vanya – take Tanya Novokshonova. And I, still young, didn’t understand much of anything, so I figured: everyone is getting married, so why don’t I? There was no great desire in me for marriage, I’ll admit. You can believe this or not, as you wish, but I was odd in this way from quite early on, and I used to wonder yet as a boy why there were men and why there were women. One could have lived without this, and it would have been better. And I still think that way today – that’s how ingrained these thoughts became to me from any early age. I probably shouldn’t have gotten married, but I did it like this: since my parent had told me to get married, I decided that that is what I must do. I had great respect for my parent as a very smart person; everyone had this respect for him; he was a village elder. And since he had told me I ought to get married, I figured that I ought to get married, that he knows best what ought to be done, so I’ll get married. My parent sent the matchmakers and Tanya and I became one family.
It was right at this time that our discord began among our people. You must have heard about this. Well, I’ll tell you a little: when our previous mistress Lukeria Kalmykova died, our elders kissed the hand of Peter Vasilyevich (Verigin), meaning that he was to be our master and to run our Orphan’s Home. Everything went as it should: Peter Vasilyevich became our master. But then something happened that no one had expected. Our deceased mistress had a brother whom they called Gubanov, and this brother secretly submitted an application to the court in Tiflis, requesting that he be made heir to the estate as consisting of our Orphan’s Home, with the capital and so on that went along with it, as well as the farmstead belonging to the home, the livestock and the sheep. The court did everything according to that request and paid no attention to the fact that our community hired a lawyer to dispute it. This lawyer told us afterwards that he could not do a thing in the courts since we were not legally recognized as a society and therefor could not legally possess property collectively. Thus the Orphan’s Home belonged not to us but to Gubanov, the heir of his sister’s estate, along with the capital and so forth. But then they called a halt to the proceedings, set up an investigation, and interrogated the neighbouring inhabitants, Armenians, Georgians and Tatars. And everyone testified to the same thing: that the Orphan’s Home with its capital and so forth had always been our common property. Only Gubanov must have taken them a bribe after this, because things took a turn for the worse: they arrested Peter Vasilievich along with five of our elders and sent them off to Arkhangelsk province. Dondukov-Korsakov was the senior commander at that time. It was after this that our discord began.
All together we were, it was said, about fifteen thousand people. Well, some of us were on Gubanov’s side, though not many – perhaps about three thousand, no more. And such a rift formed between us that whenever the “signed” and “unsigned” (as the Gubanov party and the large party were then called) met any place, there would be swearing and fighting without fail. This discord kept up for a few years. But when Peter Vasilyevich wrote to us from exile, and through messengers passed the word to us that this is not the way to live, that we ought to live as Christians, a great change took place among our people, and through the letters and messengers of Peter Vasilyevich a spirit of freedom, truth and love – God’s spirit – began to filter through our people. We, the large party, started gathering more frequently, and we began to examine life, to discuss, and to learn from one another. And if you can believe it, such an inspiration arose among us that even teenagers would stand up at meetings and deliver sermons. We gave up quarrelling with the Gubanov party, and we also gave up smoking and the drinking of intoxicating beverages, and stopped using abusive and unclean words (an unclean word is one that names the Devil). Then we shared our possessions evenly among everybody, and then we burned our guns. But that was somewhat later.
There were some old men among us who did not stand behind Gubanov, but neither did they welcome these changes in their lives. They wanted everything to be as of old, though they did not approve of Gubanov. My parent was one of these. Whereas I, grandfather, when our people started talking about a Christian life, I soaked up those speeches as the soft earth drinks the rain. These speeches brought such a sweetness to my soul, that I would walk many miles to wherever there was a gathering in order to hear them. Now this irritated my parent, and a discord arose in our family. My parent started getting drunk more often, he started picking on my mother and myself, he became malicious and even used abusive words, horribly nasty soldier words. My Tanya was in a state of hesitation at first because my parent had always treated her very affectionately. I don’t think that he actually had sinful intentions; he simply let himself go to the point of indecency in his drunkenness, but it was through this that we finally parted for good.
There we were, sitting at the table, and my parent as usual had been drinking. When he drank he always treated Tanya affectionately and joked with her, which she liked at first, but later got to dislike it. Here he had been drinking more than usual. He didn’t bother eating, but kept pestering Tanya, which we all found disgusting, but what are you going to do? He put his arms around her and started laughing. Now my mother says to him, what are you doing, old man, come to your senses! Are you after young flesh? When she uttered this completely unseemly phrase, Tanya stood up with a look of disgust, and walked right out of the house. I went out after her and caught up to her in the yard. Where are you going Tanya, I ask. I will not stay here, she says. I’m going home. You can come with me if you like or, if you don’t want to, its up to you, but I’m going home. I asked her to wait and went back into the house. Mother, I say, I’m going to the Novokshonovs. Go wherever you like, says my parent, but my mother keeps silent. I bowed and left. I never went back after that.
I spent a week with Tanya’s family. I kept thinking that we would go back, that my parent or mother would call for us. My mother did come by once, but only to share her grief. It was as though my parent had lost his mind; he even beat her. He drank, yelled, swore, promised to wipe me from the face of the earth, to inform on me to the authorities and tell them that I am in alliance with Verigin so that they would send me into exile, that I have no respect for the Tsar or the authorities. My mother sat a while and cried, then she went home. I was not myself. I just didn’t know what to do. I was at my wit’s end. I wanted to help everyone, even answer with my life, if necessary, and blow the spirit of malice out of everyone. But I could not understand how to do this.
My brother came home on a pass from the service. After this it seemed that our life took a turn for the better. I and Tanya stayed on at her parent’s place, to begin with because my parent did not call us back, and Tanya would not have gone back anyway, but also because it would already have been inconvenient for us to return: my parent maintained his old position: he ate meat, smoked a pipe, drank vodka, while Tanya’s whole family had adopted the new way. And finally, as a result of the changes in our lives our understanding was growing not daily, but hourly, while those who continued in the old way also maintained the old way of understanding things. My parent therefor became for me, and I for him, as virtual strangers to each other.
During this time, many changes took place in our people. They arrived at a point where they decided to burn all people-killing weapons in order to stop being people-killers, sons of the devil. This decision gladdened me more than anything. I had always felt that this is the way it should be, that people should not be killers, because you see, human dignity is lost through this. I had not been able to clearly understand this beforehand, but when they spoke about it I immediately understood and my soul rejoiced as never before, as if someone born blind had been given sight, such a joy I felt in my spirit. During this time, while I was living at Novokshonov’s, I came to understand many other things as well, things about which I had not previously thought, because I was now living freer and was able to attend meetings whenever I wanted. These meetings, I’ll tell you, did everything; never would our people have had the kind of understanding that you will now find among our people had it not been for those meetings. No one taught us, and as you know, there were few literate people among us, but I will relate one story to you.
Not long ago an English doctor came here to Yorkton from a town in Ontario. He was sent, as Feodor Karlovich explained, by an English Christian society, not the Quakers – no, a different group. They sent him in order to set up a hospital in one of our villages because they had learned that many among us, of those who had been in exile, were sick with the Transcaucasian fever. He also wanted to take portraits of our elders and to talk about faith. Five people had discussions with him, Nikolasha Fofanov, Aldosha Popov, Efimushka Vlasov, Aliosha Makhortov, and myself. We were in Yorkton at that time, and that is why we had the discussions, whoever was there spoke, while Feodor Karlovich translated. Having spoken with us, the doctor asked him, saying to him: Very well, I’m pleased with all of it, but these are educated people – pointing at us – and I would like to speak with some uneducated people, as I have heard that in Russia the people are uneducated. Feodor Karlovich laughed and turned to us: which one of you has a university education, admit it! Well all right, who is literate? And who among us was literate? I am illiterate, Nikolasha also, and Aldosha – well he knows a little, and he can read, but his writing is extremely poor; he can barely trace out his letters. Efimushka and Aliosha are also illiterate. And this is what Feodor Karlovich said to the doctor, which greatly surprised him. Now I can’t explain to you what it was about us that made him think we were educated, because all we talked about was human life, the earth, wealth, power, authority, rights – we didn’t talk about anything else. But its clear that we spoke with understanding if he thought we were educated.
Anyway, I told this story just so that it would be clear at least that we do now possess understanding, and its easy to compare myself and the sort of understanding I had when I lived with my parent, with what I acquired afterward. And we all acquired this understanding; we got it through mutual unification and communication, and had it not been for this we would have remained in our previous situation, in a great stupor. And I – thank God! – if I am still alive at this moment, though my death is near (as you yourself can see, I’m barely alive) it is because I am at peace, as I say, after everything that I have been through, and I have peace only because I acquired in my understanding the tranquility of life, a true peace of mind, an understanding that I gained at our meetings, while our discord was in progress and I was living with Tanya’s parents, and then in exile.
Peter Vasilievich sent his expensive rifle, which cost three hundred rubles; they sent a letter with it, requesting that it be burned. After this it was decided that we gather all the arms that anyone among us had and burn them. We decided to hold the burning on St. Peter’s day, and began gathering the arms to one place. On St. Peter’s day, about three mile out of Bogdanovka, in 1895, several thousand of our people gathered together, started a giant bonfire, and dumped a number of wagon loads of arms onto it – rifles, pistols, daggers, swords, everything.
But before we gathered our weapons, the Gubanov people found out about it; they see that we are gathering our weapons together, although they don’t know for what, and they decided that we were gathering our weapons in order to go to war on Goreloye, to take the Orphan’s Home from them, and destroy them.
And so they made these things known in Tiflis, to Governor Shervashidze, who believed them and immediately sent Cossacks and infantry, and he himself went on the following day. He arrived at Bogdanovka right on St. Peter’s day. He sees that there is nearly no one in the village – only the old and young. Where is everyone, he asks. No one knows. He sends the Cossacks out to search for them, and they straggle and straggle in the hills and ravines but find no one; it was a foggy day in the mountains, making it difficult to see. Then they went out a second time and found them. What transpired next – you don’t believe yourself when you think about it. I was afraid of one thing, that I would not contain myself and would start fighting, and harm my soul. You can beat me as much as you want – this I can take (that is how it seemed to me then; I had not yet experienced the Cossack whips, and did not know for myself what sort of people these were). What I was afraid of was that I would intercede for someone else and get involved in a fight, because for me to see someone being beaten – its an impossible thing. You see, you can allow beating when you are in a craze, and you think that beating only causes pain for the person, but when you understand that with each blow you drive the spirit of malice into the person and torment his spirit, how can you possibly allow for beating?
Listen, grandfather, do you know what I think about the soul and about human life? I’m going to interrupt my story here and explain it to you, because this to me is of more worth than anything.
All life comes from the spirit – this is how I understand it, grandfather. All strength comes from the spirit, for if the flesh acts, it is not really the flesh acting, but rather the spirit captive within the flesh. Its difficult for me to convey my opinion, grandfather, but I have a strong desire to do so. Now, when I talk about spiritual things, my spirit rejoices and neither earth nor bodily life do I feel; I become spirit, grandfather, that is how good I feel when I think and speak of spiritual things. In my thinking, grandfather, all action is from the spirit, and there is a spirit in everything, though there are different kinds of spirits, low and high, and then there are incarnated spirits and incorporeal spirits. Only understand here, grandfather, that there are no entirely incorporeal spirits – only transitory – these are the incorporeal. That spirit which does not have its own bodily form, but appears in spiritual expression – first in one body, then another that accepts it – is a transitory incorporeal spirit, and that which has its own body is an incarnate spirit.
The spirit of love, for instance, is an incorporeal, higher spirit, because it can live in you and in whomever you wish who accepts it, but it is not yours and it is not mine, but higher, and if someone accepts it, then he himself is elevated to that height. And every sort of sin, be it lustful or cunning, is also an incorporeal spirit, only for man it is base, degrading, whereas for an animal it is all right, for those for which it is meant, but if a man takes it on, he becomes unworthy. Furthermore, if it firmly settles within a person, then the higher or baser spirit enters the makeup of that person’s spirit, and becomes incarnate. Incorporeal spirits, grandfather, do not live or act, but they exist, the high ones and the low ones; they are inactive, but everything that happens is from them, and you understand, grandfather, that through every creature there comes into being one spirit or another, from which that creature then develops.
This, grandfather, is my understanding, because this is the way I see it happening. And those among us who understand, understand it like this. Our position is that we develop our spirits in such a manner that we integrate in ourselves the spirit of freedom, truth and love, and so that though this the human spirit becomes beautiful and blissful, and has a free existence in and of itself. Do you understand what I am saying, grandfather? We must confer to ourselves the spirit of truth, love and freedom. This is the most high and blissful spirit, whereas the unclean, base spirits we must, like poison, avoid. It is through these things that the human spirit becomes beautiful, and all that is beautiful is in bliss because it is beautiful, and it lives in freedom, is dependent on nothing, because it is beautiful. Do you understand, grandfather, that the human spirit can blossom and can wither? It can blossom in all the lovely colours of the rainbow, dear grandfather, only we must unceasingly maintain cleanliness so that no baseness of any kind creeps into our spirit. This I think, grandfather, is the biggest lesson, and the most difficult task for man, the preservation of cleanliness, yet it is essential for the attainment of a blissful existence. The unclean cannot be blissful; all evil and baseness passes on to grief and death. Therefor more than anything it is necessary to avoid uncleanness and baseness, in order that we not do anything unworthy for the human spirit. If I do not do anything worthy, this is still not a tragedy. The tragedy is in the unworthy deed, because it leaves an unclean mark on life forever, which nothing can smooth over.
And so I too, grandfather, have always tried to avoid falling into uncleanness, and to avoid committing unworthy acts, speaking untruths, cheating, offending or raging. And if this had happened with me it would have tormented me. And here, when we were being driven from our prayer at the Burning of the Arms, what went on here overwhelmed us with confusion and made every limb tremble. And you understand, grandfather, that if I am in such a position that the higher or the lower spirit is pressing itself upon me, wishing to be incarnated in me, and I resist this, then it will fade from life, but to whatever extent I do embody it, either the lower or the higher spirit, depending which one I serve, can grow through me and develop into life.
At one point a Cossack thrust his horse upon me. Their senior officer commanded: attack! and they drove their horses right into living people. One cossack drove his horse towards me and I, seeing this, placed one foot forward and put my weight on the other foot, holding out my elbow and my hip. He rode upon me, whipping his horse – the horse has no desire to push itself upon me – he pulls and tears its lip with the bit, whips it in the rear and across the brow – the horse only rears up on its hind legs, but will not advance upon a human. And that is the way it was with everyone. Not a single person was trampled and there was nothing they could do. And what was it they wanted? They wanted to break apart our circle and having broken it, herd us like cattle to the governor.
And what did we do? We, when we saw that the Cossacks were riding upon us, we shouted for the women and old men to move into the centre, while we stood on the outside in several circles holding hands. They had been ordered to drive us in, but we said that we would go ourselves, that there was no need to chase us. But they were out to have fun or make mockery, which is easier to do with women and old men, and so they wanted to break apart our circle and then scatter us in all directions. Then for the first time I tasted the Cossack whip and I learned that a great spirit of animosity can be driven into a man with it, but thank God! I was saved from that. When his horse refused to advance on me he turned it sideways to me and began to lay strips into me. Many times he struck me, and with each strike I flinched not from pain, but from lawlessness; lawlessness was being beaten into me, but I held fast and would not let it in and, thank God! I endured it successfully. And because of that I now live in peace. Except that up to that point I had thought that the most odious thing of all is to see others beaten before you, but after this I realized that it is even more odious when you yourself are beaten.
We arrived in Bogdanovka, having sort of walked and sort of been driven, and stood before the governor. Here again what transpired was beyond any comparison. It even got to the point where the governor himself, infuriated, started going after our passports and beating us with a stick. You see, they had begun handing him their own service cards and he would not take them so they dropped them at his feet, and this is when he became infuriated. After this they instigated an execution for us. And here my story will soon come to an end.
I’m working out in the yard, cleaning something up and I look: the gate swings open and four plain Cossacks step in along with a fifth officer of some kind, and my parent was with them as well. He was an elder at that time and when they sent the Cossacks and soldiers to us for the execution, he took them around to the homes of those who were reckoned to be insurgents. And so to us, to Novokshonovs, he brought no less than five. I paid no attention to this, but continued my work. The Cossacks went into the house and my parent went back to the gate. Some time had passed; I heard some sort of hubbub coming from the house, and then a woman’s cries, which I make out to be Tanya’s. I cross the yard to the door, where I meet two Cossacks leading Tanya by the arms. Her hair was down, she was not herself, then she saw me and cried, intervene, intervene! oh, help!
I approached, but here it happened that other Cossacks ran in front, and I remember that one of them had a bloodied nose and brow – to which Tanya had treated him. The officer was standing in the back, motioning with his hand and shouting, come here quickly! This he shouted at the other Cossacks who were standing at the gate. Now the first Cossacks grabbed me by the arms and from behind by the throat. Others ran up and also grabbed my arms and torso. I had not yet spoken a word nor raised a hand before they had me completely restrained. Thank God! This was my good fortune because I blanked out from this. Either from the tight grip on my throat or from everything, altogether, I completely blanked out for perhaps an hour. I was told afterward that I had fought them off in such a frenzy that nine Cossacks were barely able to restrain me; three had me by each arm, two around the neck, holding me by the collar from behind, and one held me around the waist. That is how they led me, and Tanya they led ahead of me.
But I do not remember any of this, how they led me or where. I started to come around just before Tanya stopped screaming. When she stopped, I came to my senses. As a result of her stopping. I see Tanya, stripped and lying face down, her entire backside striped by whips. One Cossack is standing at her feet, another at her head, a third beside her with a whip. The one at her head bent down and grabbed her under the arms to lift her. I see all of this and feel nothing. And even now, if the entire scene presents itself to me, I just close my eyes and I see all of it. I see the Cossack commander standing on the porch with his feet apart, smoking, and I see my parent behind him against the wall, also standing on the porch. I remember that I wanted to look at Tanya again, but here I once again became unconscious. I only remember that I resisted and struggled again, and they fell on me and brought me down.
I began to come around from the blows of the whip. They were pressing my legs so hard that my joints ached, someone was sitting on my back, and on both arms as well, while the blows came one after another, becoming stronger as the time passed because I was coming to my senses – gaining consciousness. Then again they became less painful, and then I stopped feeling the beating entirely. I was as if completely on fire and could not feel whether they were beating me or not. Then they jabbed me in the side and I realized that they had stopped beating me. And what should I do? Probably I should stand up. I wanted to get up but I don’t know how to do it, what to move first, my hands or my feet. I remembered my hat and began to run my hand over the ground. A Cossack must have guessed; he pushed my hat over with his foot and kicked my hand.
Now I pulled my knees up under me, and my elbows, and stood on all fours. I can hear Tanya’s voice: godless, evil people! That was the first thing that I heard. Up until then, from the time they had grabbed me in the yard, I didn’t hear a thing, only buzzing, z-z-z-z like the ocean. Tanya’s voice seemed to wake me from a sleep and I immediately began to feel better and began to stand up. I see both my mother and my mother-in-law helping me. The Cossacks are laughing about something. I don’t know what, and I think to myself: let them laugh. Actually, they were chuckling at my mother pulling my pants on for me. I wanted to pull them up myself, but I couldn’t bend down; my back had stiffened up like a post. Mother and Tanya pulled my pants up and led me by the arms; I could not walk by myself; I was burning like a fire, and I could not bring my thoughts together. What had happened? Why did they beat me? They beat Tanya as well; what will be next? I can’t understand a thing.
Then I lay motionless for about three days – I could not even turn over; thus they transported me, lying down, into exile. After this my entire body broke out in boils; I thought I was going to rot. The boils tormented me for about three months. As one went down two would puff up next to it. And I just lay there thinking – how much thinking I did during that time! But what they had tortured me for, I could not figure out. Perhaps on my parent’s request. It seemed probable; he was angry with me over many things, for leaving to go live with my father-in-law, for no longer respecting him as I had before, and for much more, but why had they beaten Tanya? What was she guilty of? He couldn’t have held animosity toward her, but then he couldn’t have asked that they beat me to death either, and they did beat me to death, you see, my life was holding by a thread when they stopped beating me, and three years have passed since then and I still haven’t recovered.
I didn’t even have any desire to come to Canada. Why go when I’ll die tomorrow, if not today? But since the whole family was going I couldn’t stay behind. I figured that I’d die on the way, but here I am. But I won’t be living much longer, this I know; as time passes I just grow worse. And what do I need to live for, anyway? As I understand it, all that could be taken away from me has already been taken, and through my ordeal so much malice has faded from my life that nothing more than this can be demanded of me. As I see it, all of the malice which pressed itself upon me, I brought to nothing. I did not embody it in myself. And now I am at peace for my entire life, and will die in peace. There is only one thing that bothers me, when I ask the question: what would I have done had I not blanked out when they grabbed me? And what would I have done had I been able to overpower the nine men who held me? And here it seems to me that only because the situation did no allow this, and not because I did not allow it, did the malice not enter into me. A man cannot be perfect; it seems to me that in a different circumstance I would not have kept myself from malice…
My parent did not come to Canada, nor did he allow my mother to come, while my brother was exiled to Siberia.
The term “execution” as used here, it the direct translation of a somewhat archaic Russian term denoting punishment, as in a punitive expedition to carry out a Tsarist “executive” order (in this case, to punish the Doukhobors for their insurrection against Tsarist regulations regarding military service, oaths of allegiance, etc.). Although the Russian term was also used to denote corporal punishment such as flogging, it does not have the English language connotation of capital punishment (i.e. by hanging).
The narrator, Doukhobor Vanya Bayoff, died in Canada in 1901 at the age of thirty-seven, having suffered right to his death with some sort of complicated, serious ailment, undoubtedly inflicted upon him by the barbaric “execution” employed by the Russian government on the Doukhobors.