My Trip to Shenkursk and My Communal Life There
by Grigory Vasilyevich Verigin
In September 1888, Grigory Vasilyevich Verigin journeyed from the Caucasus to the town of Shenkursk in the far northern province of Arkhangelsk to visit his brother - Peter Vasilyevich Verigin. The Doukhobor leader had been exiled there, together with several Doukhobor elders, during the previous year by Tsarist authorities. At the time of Grigory's visit, the exiles were living communally, giving charity to the poor and practicing vegetarianism according to the teachings of Peter Vasilyevich. Grigory recorded his experience of life among the exiles in Shenkursk in his memoirs, published in 1935 as "Ne v Sile Bog, a v Pravde" (Paris, Dreyfus & Charpentier). The following is an English translation of Chapter 8 of Verigin's book by Galina Alexeyeva and Larry A. Ewashen. Besides its historical value, this chapter provides important insights into the Doukhobor leader's spiritual and philosophical teachings which were adopted by the Doukhobors of the Caucasus in the years leading up to the "Burning of Arms".
The elders living in Shenkursk, along with Peter Vasilyevich, advised him to invite a (Doukhobor) lady from the Caucasus, one who would be able to look after the elders and housekeeping. The lot fell to the wife of Dmitry Vasilyevich Lezhebokov. His wife was Irina Vasilyevna, middle aged, energetic, wise and industrious; and well versed in housekeeping and related duties. Such a lady was needed there. Such a hazardous journey was not suitable for a lady travelling alone.
Peter Vasilyevich wrote to our parents, and asked them, if possible, to allow me to travel with her, as a guide, and visit like true brothers. Our parents gladly agreed, and on September 12 we said our good-bys and began our journey. We travelled by railroad to Tiflis. From Tiflis to Vladikavkaz by baggage van. From Vladikavkaz, we purchased railway tickets to Moscow. In Moscow there was a transfer and new tickets to Vologda. From Vologda there was no longer a railroad and we travelled by the postal system on horses for 300 versts. We travelled by carriage and found the trip extremely arduous, especially Irina Vasilyevna, as a lady would. We were surrounded by swamps, nearly all of the road was bogged down, covered with logs, and the travel was shaky and difficult. One hundred versts from our destination, snow fell and we continued by sleigh. Before Shenkursk was a large river, the Vaga, over which we travelled by ferry. A severe squall with sludge ice began which made it dangerous to proceed. This was on the 29th of September. We had our belongings with us, and we crossed safely and were left on the shore, awaiting further transport. Others crossing with us lived in Shenkursk, and learned from our conversation that we were travelling to see Peter Vasilyevich, they assured us that as soon as we disembarked, they would let him know.
After some time, a conveyance arrived, in which was seated Dmitry Vasilyevich, someone I did not know; he was from the Akhalkalaki area. His wife also did not recognize him. He did not introduce himself, and it was only after some talk that his wife recognized her own husband! After that, we embraced him, loaded our luggage unto the sleigh, and left for our quarters. There, Peter Vasilyevich and the elders greeted us with heartfelt enthusiasm and were extremely gratified for such a meeting. First they enquired as to our route, how we managed it safely, then as to the life of our parents and relatives, and all of our Brothers and Sisters in Christ. We explained everything in detail. He, along with the elders, was very pleased to hear the news; all were healthy and well and had begun living the Christian life. And this is how we continued living there, spending the time happily. They all seemed to live well.
They lived in two homes about seventy feet apart, one from the other. The elders lived in one house. Their household consisted of the Makhortovs which included his elderly wife who had come from home, Rybin, Tsibulkin; also living with them was Nikolai Ivanovich Voronin, with his wife. His wife was a dear old lady, Ekaterina Vasilyevna, many years his senior. Voronin was of middle age, a full, handsome man of Russian background, with good humour; he had little, and the elders asked him to live in their house without payment; he ate separately. He was banished administratively and belonged to the political exiles. Peter Vasilyevich, along with Lezhebokov, lived in the other house. There was a kitchen and a dining room, and they ate together with the elders. There was a hired cook, and two girls, orphaned, of whom I have written earlier; there were two youngsters about sixteen years of age, one cared for the horses, the other the cows, of which there were four of the Kholmogor breed.
There were also about 20 geese which Dedushka Makhortov minded. He liked them extremely well, and this duty of caring for them was therapeutic for him. He tended them with kindly care. He had a bell with which he called them for feeding. As soon as he rang, they would surround him. He gave them their feed, and if they began to nip at each other, he would reprimand them, “such behavior is not necessary”; they would listen to him, stop their strife, and stretch their necks towards him, and indicate to him that they would no longer fight. The geese were well bred, large and very gentle. I often watched and admired how he handled them. One time I said to him: "Dedushka, could we butcher that one that is lagging behind? What a tasty noodle soup that would be!" He replied; "Enough, enough! Let them live and rejoice under God's grace! We can do without that!" By this time, Grandfather was a complete vegetarian.
In the winter time, the nights were long, there was little to do, it was not good for the elders to stay in the house all of the time; because of this, every morning we went for a walk for an hour and a half, or even two; this was good for our health, especially for the elders. After such a walk we had a good breakfast, then retired to our quarters for rest.
In the evening after dinner, when the cooks cleared the tables and all was in order, Peter Vasilyevich, and all of us, except for Lezhebokov, went to the elders, and there we studied the New Testament. This was for everyone, and especially the elders, for they had suffered for truth. It gave them some comfort in their difficult circumstances when they heard how Christ had said; "They persecuted me and they will persecute you, fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; My yoke is tolerable, I carry my cross with ease; Learn from me and you will no longer live in darkness", etc.
Voronin attended these meetings without fail and Ivan Semenovich Tikhomirov of the political exiles was also with us. He was a moral, good hearted person and had left his former beliefs and joined the Christian teachings. After the reading, there was much discussion. If some text of Christ's teachings was not understood, all was examined and dissected from different directions, until we all agreed on one conclusion; this went on until 11:00 o’clock. After that, after good-nights were expressed, we departed to our respective quarters. There was also there Vasily Obetkov. He was always near Peter Vasilyevich, like a brother and a true and faithful servant.
On Sundays, not always but often, we would hitch up the horses for a sleigh ride. The horses were hitched singly. Such a trip included the entire family; the family consisted of all at home: the cook, the girls and youngsters. We did not look at them as outsiders but as members of our own family. If anyone was left at home and did not go on the ride, it was Lezhebokov; he looked after the homes. This was our entire assembly: the three sleighs, horses which were racers and pretty as a picture; two horses were from the Caucasus, one was from our parents, the other was from Ivan Ivanovich Ponomarev. He wished to give the stud racehorse as a gift to Peter Vasilyevich, the third was from there. Such rides were looked upon with envy by the administrators, overseers and police and others; they did not even see such horses, let alone ride with them. Occasionally this disturbed them - how was it that the banished, inferior to them, enjoyed such rides?
I will give you another instance; People here live poorly, children from around Shenkursk come to beg in the name of Christ. Peter Vasilyevich suggested to the elders that twice a week they would prepare a hot meal for them. Some forty or more began to show up. This developed into a whole new story. This was stirred up by the priests. They came to the Chief of Police and said that our Orthodox children are going to the sectarians for dinner, and that through this dinner they are being seduced into becoming sectarians. He summoned Peter Vasilyevich and warned him that, he must not let the children gather around him, and he must not prepare any more meals. Peter Vasilyevich replied: "How can I deny those children who ask in the name of Christ, you are exhorting me to break the command of Christ, which you believe in yourself; those who ask must be given to. Such a request from you is unseemly - if you have the authority, you may place a sentry at my gates to prevent the children from entering, once they are in my yard, and ask for food in the name of Christ, you must forgive me, in this matter I must listen to Christ rather than listen to you." - At this, the commander raised his voice: "I will write the minister." Peter Vasilyevich replied; "That is your affair," and walked away. Whether or not the Captain did write the minister, we do not know, but the dinners continued. A senior administrator came to see the children at dinner, praying before and giving thanks after the dinner. The children, though young, were accustomed to icon worship, and at first, did not want to pray and give thanks. Then the cook, who had been an Orthodox believer, and who now understood through Peter Vasilyevich's teachings that one could pray to God in spirit and truth without icons, told them: "It is possible to pray without icons, let one of you look at salt and bread, the others recite silently." This they began. The observer could not find anything to object to, that the children prayed without icons; he came with nothing and left with nothing. In this matter, this was one stupid attempt to find some fault on the part of the priests and the chief. Children that are begging in the name of Christ are hungry, and are asking for their daily bread, and such children aren't interested in preaching, they only need bread. With grown ups he truly often discussed the teachings of Christ whenever possible, and pointed out the errors of the priests and their own gains for an easy life, as they ruined the populace and misrepresented the teachings of Christ. They are fooling the people and the people are falling for it.
Some agreed with Peter Vasilyevich, and four families stopped going to church; and they were subjected to secret surveillance, of course, they suspected that Peter Vasilyevich was responsible. One family was called Krasnikov; it consisted of a man, wife, and eighteen year old daughter, which I had seen as guests at Peter Vasilyevich’s.
Many agreed with him in words only, as they were afraid to take action. Why? - because of exile and suffering. Until people stop emphasizing worldly life, they will not make a decision in such a matter. But when people understand the importance that life includes the spiritual life, one that flows without beginning or end into our sensate being, they will not fear to suffer for the truth. Our temporal life is secondary in terms of time; today we're here, tomorrow we're gone, I am telling you of the flesh. Spirit is without beginning, it has no end, and when people understand that, they will no longer be afraid of fear or suffering. The example of this is illustrated by the life and death of Jesus Christ.
Life in Shenkursk in the home Peter Vasilyevich and the elders continued joyfully. There was one thing that bothered me; Peter Vasilyevich and the elders were already fully vegetarian and because of that, no meat was prepared, as for themselves, so for the guests. Even if someone wanted meat, it was not allowed. For me this was not right and unsettling; at home I ate meat. Although the food was very good and nutritious, there was enough butter, milk also, every morning there was always coffee with cream and leavened bread, often they prepared piroshki with cheese and potatoes, there was tasty borsch, good soup with various grains, they served pasta, you couldn't ask for better. But my heart was not at ease, I wanted to eat meat. Peter Vasilyevich saw this and noticed it. One day he asked me: "How do you like our food? Can you live without meat?" I answered, "The food is very good, but I can't live without meat."
He laughed; I was a little embarrassed, and he, wanting to ease me out of my embarrassment, said "I noticed that your body is weakening." I answered: "I live as a guest, and do not work; I noticed that I feel weaker." I did feel weaker, but it was not the result of the food, but plainly because my heart was not at ease because I did not have the understanding of living creatures. Peter Vasilyevich sympathized with me but there was nothing to do but get used to it. He said: "We got used to it, it occurs to me that at our table there is surplus food; enough to get fat on, not just to get weak on; in my understanding we could cut back a little at our table but it would be difficult for the elders and they might start weakening; this depends on your understanding. For example, I now hold this belief, all things created are created here for life, and this includes human beings, a person is a higher form of life, imbued with a reasoning power, this person will be recognized as such from the other forms of life only when he acts like a human being. For example, man is not a carnivore. This is illustrated in his body and his organisms. Don't give him a knife or a weapon and turn him out with a steer or a ram. What will he do with them? nothing; but let the steer in with a lion or tiger, or the ram with a wolf, and quicker than the eye can see, all will be over. Mankind has strayed from his natural food, and with his violent ways, is bringing himself down to the level of animals; is this a good or reasonable direction for mankind, one who is made in the image of God? - if one has anything of God within him, he must look at all creation with love and compassion, and for all this bounty, he must give praise and thanks to God, In this way, as an intelligent being, he will be different from the rest of the living creatures, in such bloodthirsty behavior such as the eating of meat, mankind does not distinguish himself from the fierce animal, and to satisfy his Mamon-like craving, decides to destroy what God has created.
I will repeat again; everything is created for life, not for death; if for death, then people should be fattened as a person fattens oxen, cattle or rams, especially older ones that are no longer fit for physical labour. They say, I don't know how true this is, human-flesh is the best and the tastiest of all meats, and we could use this for ourselves, and for sale. I suppose people would cry out and protest in every which way that this is not good, and even sinful that how could we do this with people, this is how animals behave, this is frightening, he would be finding all sorts of excuses to be saving his own life. And if through this reasoning, we would be saving our own lives, why shouldn't we think seriously about all other life? - perhaps they are thinking and saying; it is not right and it is even sinful to end their lives, they want to live as people do, but we don't understand their language; we get strong ropes ready for them and continue to sharpen knives. In such circumstances where we do not understand each other's language, we must speak with the language of the heart and soul, especially because the heart of mankind should understand and communicate with the swiftness of a telephone, which can transmit his own sound for several tens or a hundred versts. This invention is made by a human being, but a person, who has the spark of love or God within them, such a thing is present, but he is not conscious of it. Sometimes when they tie down the oxen for slaughter, he feels he is going to die and there are tears in his eyes, nothing helps, the man nevertheless continues. He should understand this with his heart, but where is such a heart, when all is in strife, and mankind has only begun to be regarded as evolving as a human being, the spark of Godliness is hidden and buried, the man with this spark is not seen."
He said a lot more about this subject, this made me think about my desire for meat, and after that I began to have doubts and began to have a new understanding about vegetarianism; after some time my weakness disappeared. In such a manner, Peter Vasilyevich brought me to a new understanding. In essence, where there's a non-credible weakness, you need a serious strengthening.
A complete English
translation of Grigory Verigin's 1935 Russian publication, "Ne v Sile Bog, a v Pravde"
is currently being prepared by Doukhobor Village Museum Curator Larry A. Ewashen.
For more information on this project, please email: