|In the past
years most books and articles about Doukhobors were produced in North
America, mostly in Canada, by local Doukhobors, scholars and
Up to now, only one book about Doukhobors was written and published in
Europe by a Doukhobor — Gregory Verigin, Ne v Sile Bog a v
Pravde [God is Not in Might, But in Truth]. Paris,
1935). I know of no other book written in Europe by a
Russian Doukhobor about Doukhobors,
Dukhoboriya [Land of the
Doukhobors], is the first book about Doukhobors by a Russian Doukhobor.
Alla Bezhentseva, it was published last year in the Republic of Georgia
of the Former
Soviet Union). I was excited to download
a free copy from the Internet and read it. I was eager to find new
facts and perspectives of our history unknown to us in the West, who
live far from our roots.
Nikolaevna Bezhentseva (born in Tbilisi in 1953 with Doukhobor
roots) is a renaissance woman. Besides being an accomplished
structural engineer educated in Moscow, she advocates for human rights
as a leader in many civic organizations. She has been honored with
several awards including the 'Order of Character' (Georgia), and 'State
Prize Laureate of the USSR'.
is President of the Union of Russian Women of Georgia ‘Yaroslavna’;
Director of the legal center 'ETNO', which provides legal, medical and
educational assistance to national minorities; Secretary General of the
organization 'Multinational Women of Georgia'; a delegate at the 2006
World Congress of Compatriots held in Moscow; and Vice-President of the
Cultural- Educational Union of Georgia called ‘Russian Club’ [Russkii Klub] which launched this
Since 2005 she has
been the Head Editor of Russkii Klub.
previous books were Moi rodnoi yazyk [My Native Language] in Russian;
Gruzii: konfessial'nyi i polietnicheckii aspekt [Women of
Georgia: The Religious and Multi-Ethnic Aspect] 2006, with a section on
Doukhobor women. Zhenschiny
Gruzii is a book and film, with 1000 copies
distributed in two languages, Russian and Georgian, 'to overcome
exclusiveness, alienation and avert the discrimination, caused by
various forms of intolerance.' Minority women in Georgia typically have
no access to the Internet, nor radio in their languages.
The Contents of Strana
Dukhoboriya include the historical development of religious
sects and movements,
Doukhobors as Christian and Protestant learning, propagandists of the
Doukhobors, history of the Doukhobor commune, Canada — the Second
Motherland, problems of integration, and Doukhobors during the Soviet
The Addendum follows with a useful look on traditions past and
present (including local dialect, clothing, songs and psalms of the
Doukhobors), farewell wishes of an elder Doukhobor women in Dmanisi, a
psalm from the Doukhobor Book of Life, bibliography, and an interview
with the author who says ‘I always faced hardships’.
In exploring the origins of the Doukhobors, Alla acknowledges that the
unified origin of the Doukhobors since the 1700s ‘remains unclear’.
Suggested sources are the intelligentsia, the Masons, European
and the propagandist G.S. Skovoroda (who said that Christ resides in
people). What is clear for her is that peasants rebelled against the
corrupt church which once controlled up to one million serfs and
purchased sins. As a cultural reaction, the illiterate but not
naïve peasants rejected icons, many stopped going to church and
taking communion, while others condemned priests and popes.
The common ground of the peasant revolt, writes Alla, was ‘a search for
equality based on reason’. Sectarianism gradually evolved into a social
movement, of which the Doukhobors are a good example. Maintaining and
nurturing an organized group required special strategies of
isolationism and fear (contrasting the ‘we’ from ‘they’), wearing
distinctive costumes of separation, singing in a code that outsiders
could not understand (such as the early Doukhobors had done with their
innovative psalms), and at times being pushed to extremism and
fanaticism (such as castration by the Skoptsi, burning themselves,
rejecting books and state citizenship, and bowing slavishly to
a spiritual leader).
Early Doukhobors gathered together in sobranies and learned the wisdom
of the past prophets such as Christ by word of mouth or what they
called as ‘our living book’. They considered no notion of God other
than that as a power of us humans in the spirit of wisdom and love. For
these people, Jesus Christ was a good man — he was God and man in one.
Taking this as their guide, Russian Doukhobors argued that because God
exists in each of us, it is therefore wrong to kill another human
being. Hence a strong ethic of love was born.
Alla points out that the first settlement of the Doukhobors in the
1700s took place in the Russian gubernia of Tambov. It attracted
dissidents from Kharkov, Saratov, Ekaterinoslav, Voronezh, Astrakhan,
and Pensk gubernias, as well as from the Don, Siberia and Finland.
They survived and adapted, writes Alla, largely because of ‘their
quiet, sober and good moral life’.
Because of the tortures, beatings and persecution of the Doukhobors, in
1802 Alexander I invited the Doukhobors to settle en masse in the Milky
Waters area of the Crimea. Here nine villages were established
containing 4,000 people. Saveli Kapustin headed the colony out of the
central village of Terpenie. Kapustin was a tall figure, manly, good
speaker and a brilliant mind (he knew the Bible by heart). He was well
respected and was called ‘Moses’ because he relocated the dissidents
from scattered areas of the empire. As a result he achieved great power
over them and began thinking about creating a Doukhobor nation. At one
point he contradicted his beliefs by proclaiming ‘I am Christ, your
Lord. Fall on your knees.’ That was a ‘no-no’ because history teaches
us that power often corrupts.
Author Alla Bezhentseva then goes on to tell us in detail about the
exile of the Doukhobors from the Milky Waters to three areas in the
Caucasus. The most famous location was Dzhavakheti [Javakheti, Javakhk]*
Doukhobors called Bogdanovka)
Once rich and
bountiful, it was located
in the large caravan road trade route which tied Georgia to the rest of
the world. Over time the area became the battleground for
conquerors. When the Doukhobors moved there in the 1840s to the high
plateau, the mountains had practically no forest growth except
evergreens and black poplars. It was very severe: cold, rocky, wheat
cannot ripen due to the short season, and there was lots of snow, but
not enough ground water. It was known as ‘cold land’ or
Although the Orthodox church and state saw the Doukhobors as the most
‘pernicious’ group, the Tsarist government also saw value in the
Doukhobor settlement as security against the marauding Turks of the
day. In spite of frequent and brutal attacks and rape by the Turks,
the Doukhobors survived and prospered and in fact became richer than
the Russian peasants of Central Russia.
How this prosperity evolved is worthy of note for it occurred at the
time of the Golden Age of the Doukhobors during the leadership of the
first woman leader — populist Lukeria Kalmykova (1864-1886). Under her
initiative, a Sirotskii Dom was built in Gorelovka. Besides serving as
a home for orphans and the aged, it became an administrative center of
the Doukhobors. With their excellent horses, the Doukhobors transported
products not only around the Caucasus but also to Russia, Turkey, and
India. They also had contracts for transporting mail for the
government, passengers, and local flour industry and agricultural
implements. They lived in a MIR or commune system and regularly
redistributed land on a collective basis which helped all. For
self-protection, from time to time the government issued guns to them
to deal with Tatar bandits.
It was therefore not surprising that in spite of the strong pacifist
ethic of Lukeria and her group, the Russian Government persuaded them
to help with transport during the Russian-Turkish War of 1877-1878. The
Government engaged some 4,000 caravans to carry supplies such as food
and guns to the field over difficult roads. Author Alla revealed that
‘150 Doukhobor drivers were killed’ while wounded Russian soldiers were
regularly brought home for medical aid practically every day. As a
reward, the Doukhobors benefited financially for their service
(Sirotskii Dom had half a million rubles in cash) and their community
received a small hospital (page 52-54) and continued contracts for mail
The population statistics of this thriving community during Lukeria’s
time was as follows: Tiflis Gubernia: 7,132. Elisavetpol
Gubernia: 2,277. Kars Oblast: 2,805. Also Doukhobors were found in
Dagestan, Tverskoi Oblast and Yerevan Gubernia (p.56). [Map.] All seemed to be
going well until the dark clouds suddenly enveloped their commune.
In December 15, 1886 their leader Lukeria Kalmykova died. The death
signaled a crisis in property inheritance when Michael Gubanov
(Lukeria’s brother) clashed with Lukeria’s ‘secretary’ Peter V.
Verigin. The Government sided with Gubanov and arrested Verigin for
disturbing the peace. Verigin was eventually exiled for 15 years first
to Archangelsk in the north and then to far-off Siberia. The Doukhobors
divided into at least two factions: The Big Party under Peter V.
Verigin and the Small Party headed by Gubanov and elder Zubkov.
The struggle with inheritance of Sirotskii Dom showed how far
Doukhobors had departed from earlier roots. It showed a disparity
between the haves and the have-nots. It also showed that many people
were not happy with the fact that Lukeria’s community had been involved
in transporting goods to the Russian — Turkish front which transgressed
the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’.
Doukhobor messengers traveling to see Peter V. Verigin went through
Yasnaya Polyana, met with Lev N. Tolstoy and revealed their story and
their philosophy. They were warmly received by Tolstoy and Tolstoyans
such as Vladimir V. Chertkov, Ivan Tregubov, Prince Khilkov and Pavel
I. Biryukov, who gave them journals and books such as Tolstoy’s Kingdom
of God is Within You. Tolstoyan propaganda anticipated exile to
isolated areas where Doukhobors and Tolstoyans would live in peace,
wrote author Alla (p.65).
exile read these, secretly adopted Tolstoy’s views, and
decided a strategy that would bring attention to himself as a prophet
as well as the plight of the Caucasus Doukhobors. His ideological
program for the Doukhobors can be summarized as follows:
Author Alla wrote that this program
‘resembled almost fully Lev Tolstoy’s view of creating a Kingdom of God
on Earth. [Also see my essay: What
Lev N. Tolstoy means me and the Doukhobors.]
- 'Do not drink liquor and do not eat meat.
- 'Exploitation and
Christianity do not mix.
- 'Equality is a goal and properties are to
be shared by the rich with the poor.
- 'Stop marriages and sexual
unions in anticipation of expected persecutions.
- 'Military service
and Christianity do not mix.’ (p. 63).
The kingpin of the ideology was the creation of an incident that would
bring world attention to the Doukhobors and ensure help from Lev N.
Tolstoy. This was the June 29, 1895 arms burning, a mass
act of protest
against war in which some 7000 Doukhobors participated in three areas
of Georgia, Elizavetpol, and Kars. The authorities saw this as a
revolt and reacted severely by sending in Cossack troops which attacked
unarmed Doukhobors in the Bogdanovka plateau near the village of
Orlovka. Here Cossacks ravaged all property in the villages, beat
the men with whips, raped the women, and dispersed them into the
mountains. With no economy there was no future. Out of 4,000 who sided
with the Verigin decree, 1,000 Doukhobors died. Doukhobor young
men who refused military service were exiled to Siberia for 18
The idea of relocating Doukhobors outside Russia began and a movement
to help Doukhobors arose under the leadership of Lev Tolstoy and his
followers. Newspapers reported on them. Articles and books were written
about them. They became popular at the end of 1800s. Tolstoy saw the
Doukhobors as an example of a people who in practice realized his
ideas. His voice was heard around the world.
Tolstoy and Verigin were against Doukhobors migrating abroad, but they
were overruled by a Doukhobor skhodka
(convention), wrote Alla (p. 78).
Once the most persecuted Doukhobors decided to move, Tolstoy wrote
countless letters and personal requests to the media, to rich people,
to the Quakers, to immigration officials and others. To the Swedish
paper he proposed that the Nobel Prize go to the Doukhobors. Eventually
with the help of many, four shiploads were engaged and 7,500 Doukhobors
came to Canada in 1899.
Once in Canada, Alla Bezhentseva writes, the process of assimilation
began. The government did not wish to see the communal enterprise
survive. Instead, it pushed for a full private enterprise ethic in a
capitalistic country. Conflict was anticipated and indeed took place
with the loss of land in Saskatchewan in1907 and the movement with
Peter V. Verigin of two-thirds of the Canadian Doukhobors to British
Columbia. With the advent of Tolstoyan and anarchistic ideas pressing
on the group some individuals began to act out with nude protests,
nonpayment of taxes, noncompliance with Census, while a few zealots
strongly discredited the Doukhobors by burnings and bombings of their
own and public buildings in Canada. Still others saw an opportunity of
taking out citizenship and land — and they became Independents who
followed their instincts and severed ties with their leader but not
with their traditional values.
In this more unfamiliar ground, Alla makes some errors. First she fails
to adequately distinguish between Doukhobors and zealots — a trap that
many writers fall into. The actual number of acres
purchased in British Columbia in 1908 to 1916 was 19,000 (not 67,000).
Maria Strelioff, who was killed on the train with Peter V. Verigin in
1924 was not Verigin’s wife, but his girlfriend. There were no villages
in Alberta by the name of Archangelsk or Novoe. She
thought that Canadian Doukhobors live only in British
Columbia, and did not realize that more than 15,000 Doukhobors are
still in Saskatchewan where they first settled. I suspect she was not
familiar with the full story of Canadian Doukhobors and relied on
unspecified sources because she practically
used no footnotes to back up her data
More familiar to the author is the chapter on Doukhobors during the
Soviet years. Here she provides good details and analysis about the
difficulties faced by Doukhobors in the Caucasus who remained in Russia
after the 1899 migration of one-third of them to Canada. She paints a
picture where the leading families of Kalmykovs, the Vorobievs and
the Verigins ceased to oppose the government during the 1905-1907
revolutions. Prosperity set in with the raising of horses, sheep and
cheese-making (for example, Caucasian cheese was sold in Moscow and St.
Petersburg). In the process, most of the dissidents soon lost the
spirit of creativity and protest and remained Doukhobors only in name
and costumes. They kept quiet about military service and many
succumbed to the call on the basis of defending their own
A striking example of how most Russian Doukhobors forgot their doctrine
of nonviolence occurred in 1919 when Turkey occupied part of the
Caucasus and threatened to destroy Dzhavakheti (Bogdanovka). Thanks to
the Red Army, the Turks were chased away and the Doukhobors were saved
from catastrophe (p.102).
The author points out that the Russian Doukhobors accepted the October
Revolution ‘quite favourably’ because they were freed from government
and church repression. However, when the Gorelovka Doukhobors opposed
an attempt to organize its first Komsomol and Pioneer organizations,
along with women’s groups and schools, the opposition went against the
Soviet government aims and led to problems. The program of
collectivization led to a loss of land and livestock and Doukhobors
were forced to serve in the army. Many youth went into the Red Army
especially following a Doukhobor convention in 1928 which decided to
accept military service. (Those who refused the Government order were
threatened with exile.). The meeting also decided to support the
construction of a public school in Gorelovka.
Sirotskii Dom was used for storing grain in the first Kolkhoz
(Collective Farm) amongst the Doukhobors, yet it remained under their
control. Generally the communal experience of the Doukhobors made them
adaptable to collectivization. By 1937, all Doukhobor villages had
kolkhozes. Bogdanovka had a regional hospital. Gorelovka had a
polyclinic and hospital. And all villages had feldshers (doctor’s
assistants) and medical centers. But the official population of
the Doukhobors had dropped from 5,485 in 1928 to 3,103 in 1937 (p.106).
Public and high schools were established in Doukhobor centers as well
as libraries. Literacy led to the graduation of doctors, teachers,
agronomists, lawyers and other professions. With public education,
institutionalization took root.
During World War II, several Doukhobors received medals in defence of
their motherland. Two women soldiers even walked to Berlin.
Repressions at the end of the 1800s and early 1900s to the end of the
1930s undermined their unity and weakened the Doukhobor community. And
the most sincere individuals were usually jailed, according to Alla.
Yet with all of these difficulties, ‘years of surveillance, repression
and exile were not able to kill the Doukhobor belief in goodness,
justice, cleanliness and upright people. This behaviour saved them in
hard times’ (p.108).
The Doukhobors in Russia and the Caucasus face a challenging future,
according to Alla. Out-migration of Doukhobors from the Caucasus to
Russia proper has resulted in new settlements in Chern Raion south of
Tula (1989), Mirnoe village in Bryansk (1997), the creation of a new
settlement in Tambov (beginning in 2007), and the disbursement of
Doukhobors across Russia. Russian Doukhobors have held All Union
conventions in 1991, 1992 and 2005 and have come up with a new
organization called United Doukhobors of Russia. The problem is that
their young people have forgotten their history, have practically
ceased to attend sobranies, and many serve in the army.
To counteract this cultural loss, several measures were put into
practice: in 1993 the Russian Doukhobors released a double vinyl record
of traditional Doukhobor psalm singing (the wisdom of rich Doukhobor
folklore); Sunday schools were set up in Archangelsk village, Chern
Raion; and youth in Rostov-on-the-Don (a major Doukhobor settlement
since the 1920s is in the Tselina region) began to learn the singing of
and hymns at a local museum. But in the former traditional area of the
Caucasus (where Doukhobors in 2001 celebrated their 160th anniversary
in Georgia) with its sacred areas of the 1895 arms burning, only
several hundred Doukhobors remain. These have become the ‘forgotten
people’ (p. 114) where the remaining few feel there is no reason to
stay there anymore. [See links: Doukhobors
Yet in spite of this gloomy picture, author Alla Bezhentseva concludes
on an upbeat note as she observes the presence of storks everywhere in
Gorelovka — the sign of new birth. Whether in the Caucasus, Russia, or
North America, the author says that the Doukhobors have made a
contribution to society with their high values (the urge to create a
nonkilling society and their tradition of caring for others); the
stability of their families; their prosperity in the country (they are
hard workers); they have a rich folklore (especially their singing) and
have maintained a taste in traditional dishes; and they are generally
proud of being Doukhobors. Finally, the survival of a small group of
around 100,000 in the world today is ‘a big accomplishment’
is a very good read! Alla Bezhentseva, the author,
and the Russian Club as publishers, ought to be congratulated for
giving birth to this new literary creation from Russia. You have given
a new understanding to this ‘gem’ called the Doukhobors. Thank you
your free copy of Strana Dukhoboriya
* Dzhavakheti and
Javakheti are Georgian tranliterated spellings. Javakhk is the Armenian
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