With the Doukhobors on Cyprus

by Ivan Stepanovich Prokhanov

Ivan Stepanovich Prokhanov (1869-1935) was born into a well-to-do Molokan family in Vladikavkas, North Caucasus, Russia. After much studying and thought he converted to the Baptist faith in 1887, while retaining close links with his Molokan roots. He graduated in 1893 from the Technological Institute in St. Petersburg as an engineer. After graduation, he moved to the Crimea, where he founded a short-lived commune of Evangelical Christians. Driven by a strong sense of call to preach the Gospel to the masses, he soon gave up his career as an engineer. For three years, 1895-98, he studied theology in England (Baptist at Bristol, Congregational at New College in London), in Berlin, Germany, and in Paris. In 1898, Prokhanov travelled to Cyprus at the behest of the English Quakers to assist a group of 1,150 Doukhobors residing there. For several months, he worked among the fever-stricken settlers, assisting them with their medical, food and shelter needs, before returning to Russia in 1899. The following excerpt, reproduced from “In the Cauldron of Russia, 1869-1933: Autobiography of I.S. Prokhanoff (All-Russian Evangelical Christian Union, New York, 1933) recounts his work among the Doukhobors on Cyprus. 

In September of the year 1898, while in Paris, I received a letter from Mr. E. W. Brooks [an English Quaker industrialist and philanthropist], proposing that I should go to Cyprus to aid the Doukhobors.

I have mentioned before that the Doukhobors living in the Transcaucasus, under the influence of the Tolstoists [Tolstoyans], withdrew their soldiers from the army, publicly burned their guns and rifles and declared to the Government that they would never take up arms again. Some of the Doukhobors’ leaders were punished and they decided to emigrate from Russia.

After much negotiation Canada was chosen as the country to which they would migrate. The first party of Doukhobors, numbering 1,150 people, took ship at Caucasus, but they were held up en route because of an epidemic which broke out among them. All the Doukhobor passengers were disembarked on the island of Cyprus. There the epidemic continued.

Ivan S. Prokhanov (1869-1935)

There was on the island only one man who could act as an interpreter for the Doukhobors, Mr. [Pavel] Birukoff. but he had to leave Cyprus for some reason and return to England. Somebody was required to take his place, and the [Society of Friends Doukhobor] committee, of which Mr. E. W. Brooks was the chairman, proposed that I should go there. Count Sergius L. Tolstoy, son of the celebrated Russian writer and philosopher, came to Paris to see me on this question. I gave my consent, and in a day or so a peasant Doukhobor came to Paris from London in order to travel with me to Cyprus.

We sailed from Marseilles on a steamer of the “Menageries Maritimes” line. For the first time I voyaged over the western portion of the Mediterranean Sea and I enjoyed the experience immensely, delighting in the beautiful scenery, particularly the shores of Italy and Sicily, the groves of oranges and lemons and other things of interest.

Egypt, the Nile and the Pyramids

On our way to Cyprus the steamer called at Alexandria, where it lay for two days, and we also anchored at Port Said for two days. I took the advice of one of the ship’s officers and, with my Doukhobor friend, made an excursion to Cairo and from there to the Pyramids. At Alexandria we saw the column of Pompeus and also some remarkable orchards belonging to a rich Greek. For the first time I saw bread as thin as linen. When a servant approached our table, I thought he was carrying napkins on his arm, but it proved to be bread! The small coffee house where we dined had a veranda covered with grapes, large and very sweet.

With a feeling of awe I looked for the first time upon the River Nile and its fertile estuaries where the land of Goshen is situated. My awe increased when I beheld the Sphinx and the pyramids. We went out from the city of Cairo on hired donkeys, attended by Arab boy drivers, who ran behind, shouting very loudly. The donkeys were so small that I had much difficulty in keeping my feet from dragging along the ground.

The highest of the pyramids, as is well known, is that of Pharao Kheops. Special Arab guides took both of us and a group of other tourists to see this pyramid. We had to climb up a narrow subterranean passage, all the time ascending in the darkness. Our Arab guide was climbing ahead of us with a torch in his hand, the smoke from which was very unpleasant. The greater part of the way we had to climb on “all fours.” It was a very arduous journey.

When at last we attained our objective, the guide lighted a magnesium lamp and we saw a spacious room, much dust and flying bats. The atmosphere was stifling. It was the burying place of ancient kings. The coffins themselves, with the mummies, had been taken to a museum and we saw only the room. Of course, our impressions here were very strong! Were there not the odors of four thousand years in that cave!

The remarkable thing to me was the fact that the regular outlines of the pyramid had been preserved during forty centuries! For the first time I saw Arab Bedouins on their camels, and away in the distance the great Desert of Sahara. Sand! Sand! Sand without any end! This sight also inspired in me a feeling of awe. We returned from Cairo by railway to Port Said and again boarded our steamer.

Port of Larnaca, Cyprus, c. 1898-1899.

On our arrival at Larnaca, the port of Cyprus, I found there Mr. [Wilson] Sturge, the commissary of the Society of Friends, who was supervising all the help that was being rendered by them to the Doukhobors. He introduced me to the British Governor of Cyprus. I also saw Mr. Birukoff and I entered upon the fulfillment of my new duties.

An Oasis in the Sands of Cyprus

The population of Cyprus consisted of Turks, Greeks and Armenians. The tall and handsome figures of the fair-featured Doukhobors were conspicuous among these natives. The camp of the Doukhobors was in the interior of Cyprus. I traveled to the encampment on the back of another small donkey, like the one I had ridden in Egypt. When we left Larnaca I saw a wide, flat level of sand that became very hot from the rays of the burning sun, although it was in November. There was not even one tree and no grass. Sand! Sand!

After traveling several hours we saw at a distance a group of trees and vegetation. When we approached we found a grove of pretty palms, and also orange and lemon trees laden with their fruit. There was a small stream of water coming from the ground, and this was the reason for such luxuriant vegetation. I thought, “What a fine illustration of the living water of the Word of God, which regenerates men’s hearts!”

Among these trees we found tents and small wooden barracks, in which the Doukhobor families lived. At a distance of a few miles there was another small colony, also housed in wooden barracks.

I found the Doukhobors in a very sad condition. Most of them were ill with a strange disease, something like dysentery. A man would have blood issues, some swelling on the legs and in a few days he would die. Entering one of the barracks, I saw a low wooden platform built along one wall for the full length of the room, on which they usually slept, but on which now there were sick people lying, with some dead bodies in between them! About one hundred men and women had already died. A Russian cemetery had been made a short distance from the Doukhobor colonies.

A dusty track in rural Cyprus today, much as it appeared in 1898-1899.

Ministering to Sick Doukhobors

The doctor was an Armenian. He prescribed opium. The medicines were usually brought from Larnaca by an old man Mark, a Jew from Odessa, who spoke Russian, Greek, Turkish and even Armenian, all languages badly enough, but he was an indispensable person to the Doukhobors. He brought to them not only medicines but also small articles and all kinds of goods. Once more I was convinced that as long as our people remained uneducated they would need the services of Jews, who are always practical and energetic wherever they are.

My duties were to look after the general conditions of the Doukhobors, to secure improvements and to help them with their medicine. At once I insisted on putting into effect some measures which seemed practical and most important:

Simple Rules to Combat the Plague

  1. To remove all the dead bodies from the barracks immediately.
  2. To isolate the sick ones from those who were in good health.
  3. To keep the windows open as much as possible to secure ventilation. Usually they kept the windows closed and the air in the rooms was very stuffy and close.
  4. To keep the rooms and clothing clean.
  5. I tried to enforce upon everybody the necessity for observing many simple rules of home sanitation which were being neglected.
  6. I asked the doctor to increase the doses of opium for the sick ones, telling him that for a Russian treble quantity of medicines was required as compared with an Armenian. The doctor somewhat increased the portions and a beneficial effect was soon noticeable.

Whenever I had any free time I gathered around me the boys and girls and taught them the English language. Almost thirty years later, in 1926, when I visited the Doukhobors in Canada, one of them recognized me and said he would never forget my help in teaching him the English language.

By doing this work among the Doukhobors I attained some intimate relations with them. Mr. Sturge and Mr. Birukoff lived at the town of Larnaca, at some distance from the Doukhobors, and the latter left Cyprus soon after my arrival. Nobody really knew the conditions under which these people were living. I decided to live in their largest colony [Athalassa] and so I was able to closely observe their mode of life and to decide on means to overcome the plague and also to improve their condition.

Landscape in rural Cyprus today, much as it appeared in 1898-1899.

I Fall Ill in a Strange Country

I endeavored to banish all kinds of uncleanness and disorderliness, and gradually the condition of the Doukhobors began to improve, but I became ill myself with the same disease which was ravaging their colonies. I fell sick while in the town of Larnaca and lay in the house which had recently been occupied by Mr. Birukoff.

During my illness no one came to visit me. To become ill with a mortally dangerous sickness in a strange land, far away from friends, is a very trying experience. But the optimism of faith helped me through this time also. I did not give way to despair, but during my illness I thought a great deal about my country and my life, and I prayed to God that He might dispose of me according to His will. It was God’s will that I should recover. Gradually I began to mend, almost without any help, and at last I recovered. After this I resumed my work among the Doukhobors until a message reached us that a steamer [SS Lake Superior] was to come from England to take them to Canada.

I was asked by the English [Society of Friends Doukhobor] Committee whether I would be willing to go to Canada, but I felt that after the recovery of the Doukhobors they could very well get along without me. whereas the whole Russian people were in need of energetic workers and messengers of Christ. I felt I must return to Russia, where, although my father was still in exile and arrest might await me,  and although many others were suffering oppression and persecution, there were great possibilities for Christ.

Perhaps the call to service among the Doukhobors was the means God used to prevent my premature return to Russia during the time I was liable to be sent to exile. But now the call to return to my country was irresistible and so I declined to accompany the Doukhobors on their long journey to Canada.

My Decision to Return is Confirmed

Knowing the circumstances, Mr. E. W. Brooks and the others were greatly surprised at my decision, but I felt that it was the will of God with regard to me. Shortly after the decision had been made, a telegram came to Larnaca from my brother Vasily from Vladikavkas, calling me back home. The telegram itself surprised me more than the message, for under the conditions in Russia at that time I never thought such a message could have been sent. I took it for the voice of God confirming my decision.

After final conferences with the Doukhobors, Mr. Sturge and others, I boarded a steamer bound for Constantinople and to Odessa, and with a prayer I sailed for home. All my thoughts were directed to my poor country suffering for centuries and bound by the chains of spiritual darkness. I was ready to accept the worst things for myself if only I could be among my own people and have the privilege of preaching the Gospel to them.


Returning to Russia in 1899, Prokhanov finally settled in St. Petersburg where he found employment in the St. Petersburg branch of the American Westinghouse Company. He now entered upon a remarkable career as preacher, writer, and leader. He reorganized the Evangelical Christians in 1908 as the All-Russian Union of Evangelical Christians, of which he served as President until 1928. He sought, without full success, to unite the Baptists and Evangelical Christians in Russia. In 1926, he travelled to North America, which included a little-known visit to the Doukhobors in Brilliant, British Columbia. In 1928, he was elected Vice-President of the World Baptist Congress. Prokhanov never returned to Russia because of the dangers there, but served the émigré Russian evangelical groups in Europe and America. He died in Berlin, Germany in 1935 and was buried there. To read the complete translated English test of Prokhanov’s 1933 autobiography online, see In the Cauldron of Russia and for the original Russian text, see В котле России.

A rare photographic record of Ivan S. Prokhanov’s visit to the Doukhobors in Brilliant, British Columbia in 1926.  BC Archives C-01547.

For More Information

For more information about the short-lived Doukhobor settlement experiment on Cyprus in 1898-1899, the factors leading to its establishment and the reasons for its ultimate failure, see: A Courteous and Well-Conducted Community by Carla King and The Doukhobors on Cyprus by Pavel Ivanovich Biryukov.