Spirit Wrestlers of Southern Russia
Not many hints remain of Doukhobor culture in
Southern Russia. Persecuted in the past for their pacifist beliefs, modern
Doukhobors search for an identity in the modern world. The following article
by Dr. Maria Kolesnikova examines the Doukhobors of Tselina region, Rostov
province as they struggle to maintain their faith, traditions, history and
culture in twenty-first century Russia. Reproduced from "Russian Life"
magazine ( Sept/Oct 2005).
Few in Russia remember
the Doukhobors, the pacifist Russian Christian sect championed by Leo
Tolstoy over a century ago. In fact, even the name Doukhobor evokes little
"It sounds funny. Perhaps it is an evil house spirit?" guessed Mikhail
Grishin, 20, an engineering student in Rostov-on-Don. His grandmother, Maria
Grishina, 80, a retired schoolteacher, does no better. "Doukhobor sounds
like doushegub [murderer]," she
said. Natalia Trifonova, a Rostov University professor, knows of the
Doukhobors. "But they are all gone now," she noted. "To find them you should
go to Canada.
"In fact, the Doukhobors are not all gone. An estimated 40,000 still live in
Russia and the countries of the former Soviet Union. About the same number
live in Western Canada, and a few hundred live in the U.S., according to
a Canadian historian of the Doukhobors and author of 12 books and hundreds
of articles about their culture. Scattered around Russia, Doukhobor
populations are centered in the Tselina region in Rostov oblast, Cherns
region in Tula oblast, near Blagoveshchensk in Amur oblast and the Mirnoye settlement near
Doukhobors (Doukhobory in Russian),
literally means "spirit wrestlers." It was a name bestowed on the sect ó
which had previously been known as
Ikonobory ("icon fighters") ó by a Russian Orthodox Church priest
(originally, the epithet was Doukhobortsy
ó "wrestlers against the Holy Spirit" ó and intended as an insult,
but the members of the sect changed it to the more positive
Doukhobors, which implies a
wrestling with the Holy Spirit). The
sect has its roots in the 1650s, when Patriarch Nikon's reforms of the
Russian Orthodox Church led to the
Raskol, the Great Schism. Some
of the schismatics [raskolniks],
("Priesters") sought a return to pre-reform traditions, eventually
giving way to the movement known as Old Believers. Others, called
Bezpopovtsi ("priestless"), argued for dispensing entirely with
priests. Some went further still, rejecting icons, sacraments, the divinity
of Christ and even the Bible. They became precursors of the Doukhobors, who
developed into a distinct religious group by the early 18th century.
Natalia Trofimenko, a Doukhobor who moved to Khlebodarnoye in
The notion of God within each individual is the cornerstone of Doukhobor
belief "This philosophy has no creeds and does not need any Bible, Church,
icons, or priests to fulfill its needs," Tarasoff explained. "From this
notion, we support the moral imperative that we cannot kill another human
being ó because then we would be killing the spark of God in us. The
creation of a non-killing society is the essential quest of the Doukhobors."
Not surprisingly, Russia's tsars saw such pacifism as a threat, as something
that could undermine social order and lead to rebellion. As a result, the
Doukhobors suffered through centuries of persecution and three major
resettlements. Under Tsar Alexander I, they were moved to Molochnye Vody, on the
border between Ukraine and Russia. Under Nicholas I, they were exiled to Transcaucasia, along the
border of Georgia and Turkey. There, in 1895, the Doukhobors refused to
fight in Russiaís war with Turkey, burning all their weapons in a symbolic
protest against war and militarism.
The furious tsar ordered that the Doukhobors be scattered throughout
Transcaucasia, "sending the father to one village, the mother to another and
their children to yet a different village," according to Doukhobor lore
[oral history]. The Doukhobors pleaded for help. It came from Quakers in the
United States, who shared many beliefs with the Doukhobors, most notably
pacifism and anticlericalism. And it came from the Russian writer Leo
Tolstoy, whose own personal philosophy had, by this time, gravitated into
non-violence. Tolstoy called the Doukhobors a "people of the 25th century."
The Doukhobors, for their part, called Tolstoy "our father," after he
donated $17,000 from the publication of his book
Resurrection to help pay for
emigration of some 7,500 Doukhobors to Canada in 1898. Despite this mass
emigration, the majority of Doukhobors remained; many moved to Southern
Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.
Tselina region, Rostov Oblast
My qust for the Doukhobors takes me to Petrovka, a village in Tselina region, about 100
miles southeast of
Rostov-on-Don. In 1921, some 4,000 Doukhobors were permitted to resettle
here, establishing 21 villages (consolidated to 11 in the 1950s). Today,
there are just six Doukhobor villages. Petrovka is the largest and it is by
no means exclusively Doukhobor. Other inhabitants include Russian Orthodox,
Armenians and Meskhetian Turks, who fled from Uzbekistan after the collapse
of the Soviet Union.
Farther into the country, the asphalt road turns to dirt and cows mindlessly
collaborate in the creation of a traffic jam. By the time I reach Petrovka,
the dirt road has turned to mud.
Regional administrator Lyudmila Nikitina ó my guide in
Petrovka ó offers a disapproving glance at my sandals as she dons her rubber
boots. As we splash together through the mud, she explains that Doukhobors
still comprise about half of the village's declining population of 300.
"It's not as good as it used to be," Nikitina says. "Young people cant find
jobs here and they have to leave."
I examine the streets of Petrovka, looking for traces of Doukhobor culture.
Most houses appear to have porches bordered with columns, their whitewashed
siding shyly hiding behind trees in the yards. On some, sheds and hen houses
share a roof with the house itself. These are traditional Doukhobor homes.
Newer ones use brick and have no porches, Some of the houses are well kept;
some are shabby; some are deserted. The streets seem empty, with only two or
three middle-aged women digging in their gardens. There are few children and
We approach one of the women. "You are a Doukhobor, arenít you?" I ask. She
seems proud. "Yes, I'm a pureblood," she replies. She invites us into her
house, to see a typical Doukhobor interior of three rooms with papered
walls. "It's more fashionable today than whitewash, as prescribed by
tradition," she explains. The house has painted floors, several wardrobes
made in the 1970s, a television and lots of embroidery. It smells of ripe
Sen (left) and Tatyana Safonova at the Petrovka cemetery.
Our hostess is Tatyana Yuritsina, a social worker in Petrovka. "Doukhobors
are the nicest, the most hospitable people," she says. "Now there are many
refugees and many people of different religions here. But we have no trouble
Yet, life carries on and the Doukhobors are changing. "We used to live
without fences," Yuritsina says. "And the young, they don't want to follow
Doukhobor traditions. Take my daughter. She's 25, and she won't listen to
me, won't stick to the tradition." Yuritsina speculates that her generation
may be the last of the "true Doukhobors," because only older members are
clinging to their roots.
Many Doukhobors now marry outside the sect. Yuritsina's husband Vasily is
Ukrainian; she says she met him in Rostov and brought him back to Petrovka.
"I donít mind Doukhobors," he says. "They are people, just like everyone
else. And the religion isn't important in the long run. You have to believe
in God and not sin. That's all."
Museum of Doukhobor Culture and Worship
The Museum of Doukhobor Culture and Worship is a small home dating to the
1950s which was turned into a museum in 1991, thanks to a donation from the
local collective farm, Lenin Kolkhoz. It has a collection of Doukhobor
artifacts and serves as a place of worship for a few of Petrovkaís active
Today, a dozen Doukhobor women have assembled in the living room, the
largest room in the house. Its walls are adorned with embroidered towels and
traditional costumes. A table in the far right corner holds a bust of Lev
Tolstoy and albums with black and white photographs of community members. On
the wall are portraits of two Doukhobor leaders, Lukeria Kalmykova and Peter
The Doukhobor women greet us with a traditional hymn. They are wearing long
skirts with fancy, embroidered aprons, colorful blouses and white kerchiefs.
Some of their attire comes from their grandmothers; some was adapted from
the contemporary clothing bought at a local market. it is the sort of
clothing no longer worn in everyday life.
"If you dress Doukhobor style and walk along the streets, people will look
at you as if you were a savage," says Yevdokia Bulanova, 75, a
Doukhobor who lives in the village of Khlebodarnoye, five miles from
The women in front of
me walked to the museum wearing their regular dresses. They carried their
traditional Doukhobor costumes in plastic bags, then changed at the museum,
like schoolchildren for a class drama performance. But the reality is that
they came here to perform, and they like it.
oldest surviving Doukhobor house in Petrovka.
Their singing seems to erase years of worry and woe from their faces. They
have a certain ethereal solemnity. The words of the hymns are hard to make
out, enhancing the impression that they are protecting some hidden truths.
But the explanation is more banal. Years of persecution made Doukhobors in
Russia drawl their syllables when singing, so that outsiders could not
understand their meaning, says Lyudmila Borisova, 66, a choir
member and Doukhobor activist. "Canadian Doukhobors sing much faster," she
says, "and one can actually make out the words." Once they have started, the
women do not want to stop. Their singing goes on and on. They forget about
their hardships, miniscule pensions, cows that need milking, or water that
only runs out of the tap a couple of hours each day.
Petrovka's Doukhobor choir once was quite well known. Ethnographers came
from Rostov and Moscow to record them singing their traditional hymns and
psalms. The choir even toured Rostovskaya and neighboring provinces during
the 1995-1998 centennial celebrations of Doukhobor heritage. But the choir
doesnít travel anymore. "People are scattered," Borisova says. "We used to
have a big choir, but now maybe only a dozen people remain." Some left the
village, some are too old to travel, and some are dead.
"Young people donít come to our meetings," Borisova says. "They are busy
working and donít have time."
Vera Guzheva, 44, is an exception. Guzheva, who lives in the city of
Taganrog, about 170 miles northwest of Petrovka, came to the meeting with
her mother, Vera Safonova, who is 77. "My mother is a Doukhobor, but I'm
not," says Guzheva. "Our generation doesn't even know who we are."
The other women at the meeting hiss in protest.
"I've lived in the city for 25 years, I am not a Doukhobor anymore," Guzheva
"Who are you then? You are not a Ukrainian, you are not a Belorussian, you
are a Doukhobor," Borisova asserts.
"No one in the city knows the Doukhobors. How will I explain to people who I
"You donít need to tell them, you just have to know in your soul that you
are a Doukhobor," Borisova says.
After moving to Taganrog,
Guzheva had changed to Russian Orthodoxy, thinking it was more convenient
than living as a Doukhobor. During her baptismal, the priest corrected her,
saying that the right name of the religion she was giving up was
Doukhobortsy, not Doukhobors, a fact she didn't know. "But in my soul I'm a
Christian and a Doukhobor," Guzheva says.
Doukhobors in Petrovka nourish Doukhobor legends and revere names like Lukeria Kalmykova and Peter P Verigin. They
remember the rituals, and, during their meetings on major holidays ó
Christmas, Whitsunday, Easter and St. Peter's Day ó they each read a psalm
and then all perform a low bow, even though some of the women now need help
standing up afterwards. But ask them to explain the essence o their belief
and daily traditions, and they may give you a puzzled look.
traditional Doukhobor bow.
There is an awkward silence when I pose this question while visiting the
village of Khlebodarnoye. Yevdokia Bulanova finally speaks. "We have our
Zhivotnaya Kniga [Book of Life], and
you can read something about it there," she suggests. "Nadezhda, bring it
whose home we are visiting, disappears behind the curtain separating the
bedroom and living room, and returns with an old, leather-bound book, which
she sets down carefully. "This is the principal Doukhobor document, here
you'll find everything," Trofimenko says.
The Doukhobor Book of Life is the
primary written artifact of Doukhobor heritage, which had been transmitted
orally before 1899. Compiled by the Russian ethnographer Vladimir Bonch
Bruevich while spending nearly a year in Canada transcribing Doukhobor
psalms and hymns, the Book of Life
preserves Doukhobor oral history and serves as a bible of their faith.
Dr. Vladimir Kuchin,
63, a researcher at Rostov-on-Donís Anti Plague Institute, has lived in
Rostov since 1958. He is a Doukhobor, and in his tiny studio apartment on
the city outskirts, he archives a complete collection of the back issues of
Iskra ó the Canadian published Doukhobor magazine. He also stores
trunk-loads of Doukhobor recordings and artifacts, which he has been
collecting since 1975. He frequently contributes to local papers and to
Iskra, and he said he is thinking
about writing a book on Doukhobor heritage. But he must wonder whom he would
be writing for. His own brother and sister have expressed no interest in
their Doukhobor roots. And his parents, when they were alive, worried about
his fervor for Doukhoboriana. "Dear son, why do you need all this?" they
used to ask.
Kuchin's grandparents moved to the Tselina region in 1922. They were in
their thirties; his father was 10 and his mother was 8 at the time. At
first, people lived in sod houses ó 30 people in each home. "Their life was
hard, but full of wisdom, patience and good spirit," Kuchin says. When the
Soviet state started putting up collective farms (kolkhozy),
the first Doukhobor kolkhoz ó
Obshy Trud [Joint Labor] was set up
in Petrovka, headed by Peter P. Verigin. There followed a
kolkhoz named after the military
commander Vasily Chapayev, and then six Doukhobor villages were united in
another kolkhoz named after Vladimir Lenin. In 1928, Doukhobors in the
Soviet Union dropped their stricture against army service.
"There was no other way to survive," Kuchin says. For the most part, the
Doukhobors lived an uneasy peace with the atheistic Soviet State. The
government was tacitly permissive toward their religion, as long as the
Doukhobors did not openly profess it.
Doukhobors were imprisoned and exiled under Stalin. Kuchin recalls one story
from Petrovka which reflects the insanity of the times. A villager, Fyodor Tomilin, made a chest
for his little daughter's toys and instruments and decorated it with a
newspaper clipping that featured, among other things, a picture of Marshal
Mikhail Tukhachevsky, a prominent Soviet military leader arrested and
executed in 1937 on trumped-up charges of treason. Some time later, another
Pereverzev, stopped by to borrow some tools. On his way out, Pereverzev
said, "Such a young guy, and already a marshal." Tomilin had no idea what
Pereverzev was talking about. Ten days later, Tomilin was arrested and
accused of treason along with Tukhachevsky and his supporters. He was
sentenced to 10 years in prison. Tomilin insisted that he did not have any
idea who Tukhachevsky was, and that no one by this name lived in this
village. Only after several years in prison, when he saw Tukhachevsky's
photo somewhere else, did he understand what had happened.
Anna Sen (Safonova),
center, who helped set up the Museum of Doukhobor Culture and Worship.
In the 1960s, political liberalization allowed the Doukhobors to be open
about their beliefs. "I left my home village in 1958, when I entered Rostov
State Medical Institute," Kuchin says. "Even then I didnít conceal my
religion from my friends."
Unfortunately for the Doukhobors, Kuchinís example was becoming more
typical. The youth left the village for the cities, where they studied,
worked, lived, got married and had children. Many married people outside
their religion, often assimilating into Russian Orthodoxy. In bigger cities,
like Rostov, Doukhobors no longer gather to sing psalms. "Canadian
[Doukhobor] visits might stir people up," Kuchin says. "Some people would
meet at Whitsunday, St. Peter's day, and Christmas.
"Kuchin says he used to go to Petrovka quite frequently, until his father
died in 1999. But he does not go any longer. It is too painful. "The things
that have been happening since the 1980s and 1990s are incredible and I can
hardly find the right words," he says. "Prosperous Doukhobor villages in
Tselinsky and Bogdanovsky regions have become hard to recognize. Suspicious
strangers are buying up many homes; other houses are abandoned and falling
apart, and yards and gardens are covered in thick weeds.
"The Doukhobor cemetery is also covered with thick grass. There, Doukhobor
graves, devoid of tombstones and crosses, are marked only by fences with
people's names. Anna Sen and Tatyana Safonova lead me to the grave of the
five settlers who died during the Doukhobors' first winter in Tselina
region. These people are heroes, and a memorial plaque was placed over their
grave in the 1960s.
Three years ago, Lyudmila Dorokh, a longtime director of the museum and one
of the best singers in the Petrovka choir, told me, "We are losing our
identity as a community and the Doukhobor culture here will be gone in
several years." She is gone now, lying in this quiet cemetery. And her
prediction is slowly coming to pass.
Certainly there are attempts to preserve Doukhobor culture in Tselina
region. Canadian Doukhobors visited the museum several years ago and gave
$200 for repairs. Regional authorities provided a tape recorder, so that
locals might record Doukhobor psalms. "We are trying to preserve the
Doukhobor culture, which is unique," says Lyudmila Nikitina, the regional
administrator. "Once a year, we bring children from the local school to this
museum for a history class, to tell them about the Doukhobor faith and
traditions. I wish we could do more before it's too late."
and sheep herds near Khlebodarnoye. Agriculture is still the main source of
On the way back to the village, we meet other women from the Doukhobor
museum. They are walking home, carrying plastic bags containing their
traditional costumes. They show us a recently built asphalt road, which
gives Petrovka a new, better connection with the outside world, for better
or for worse.