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A Visit to the Dukhobortsy on the Sea of Azov, 1816

 

by Robert Pinkerton

 

Robert Pinkerton (1780-1859) was a Scottish missionary of the British and Foreign Bible Society who travelled extensively throughout Russia during the reign of Tsar Alexander I. In 1816, he travelled to the Dukhobortsy living on the Molochnaya River in Tavria province, Russia. He kept a journal and recorded his detailed impressions of his visit. The following account is reproduced from his published memoirs, “Russia: or, Miscellaneous Observations on the Past and Present State of that Country and its Inhabitants" (London: Seeley and Sons, 1833). It is the earliest surviving Western account of the Doukhobor colony on the Molochnaya and provides invaluable historic insights about their way of life and beliefs. Afterword by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

 


 

In 1816, after having visited the tribe of Nogai Tartars that wander with their flocks and herds about the extensive steppes of Little Tartary, on the Sea of Azov, and having made preparations for supplying the villages of German colonists recently settled there with the Holy Scriptures, I purposed, on my way towards the Crimea, to see the Dukhobortsy [Doukhobors] who live on the River Molochnaya and on the Sea of Azov [collectively known as Molochnaya Vody or "Milky Waters"].

 

   Robert Pinkerton (1780-1859).

On approaching the first of their villages on the Molochnaya, I met with a female and inquired of her where the chief person of the place resided. The answer she gave me was, "Among us, no one is greater than another". The next person I met was a shepherd attending his flock, an old man with grey hair. I made my driver stop, and beckoned to the man to draw near. This he did, and uncovering his head, he leaned over his staff and replied to my inquiries. 

 

I asked the old man if he could could read. He replied, "Yes, I can read the word of life". From this I naturally thought that he was able to read the Bible, and offered him a Tract on the Bible Society. He refused, however, to accept it, saying that he could not read our books, but only the Book of Life which he had learnt by heart. In other words, that he could repeat the principal doctrinal and moral articles of the Dukhobortsy sect. And when I touched upon some of the articles, as given in my work on the Orthodox Church, he repeated them distinctly; in others of them his memory failed him.

 

I stopped in a second village [Terpeniye], the capital, and without ceremony entered one of the best looking houses, requesting a glass of water. This a young man readily handed to me. After a little talk with him, I discovered that I was in the chancery, or place where the civil affairs of the sect are transacted [Sirotsky Dom or "Orphans Home"].

 

I told him distinctly what my object was in visiting them, and begged him to introduce me to some of their seniors. All this seemed rather suspicious to him; yet he sent for one of the Elders, who had been in St. Petersburg as a deputy to the Government, and who soon after, with several of his brethren, made his appearance. After a little talk about Senator Hoblitz and other gentlemen who had shown them kindness during their stay in St. Petersburg, they seemed in some degree to lay aside their reserve, and replied freely to my inquiries.

 

I took out my volume on the Orthodox Church and read to the assembly the passages which I had written concerning the Dukhobortsy, and I had the satisfaction of hearing them distinctly state their principles in the very terms there given. As soon as I began any paragraph by translating a few words, they generally gave the remainder exactly as stated in the book. The two prayers they repeated verbatim. One passage only was found to require explanation that of their "having all things in common". This was their practice when they came to the Molochnaya, but now every family has its own private property, cattle, fields, etc. Still they have fields of corn, gardens and flocks which belong to the whole community, and the revenues of which are applied for the common benefit of the society. This is also the custom of the Mennonites, who live near them, and of other German colonists; a custom, in their case, independent of religious considerations.

 

Doukhobor village, Melitopol district, Tavria province, Russia circa 1816.

 

This extraordinary sect, the Dukhobortsy, is settled in eight [nine] villages and consists of about 2,500 souls. I saw an individual of them who had been sixteen years exiled to Siberia, for conscience sake. He spoke with great feeling, when contrasting his former sufferings with his present prosperous circumstances. He was a fine looking, middle aged man, and was returning on horseback from viewing his corn fields and flocks, country like, without his coat. They have been collected from every part of the Empire, and are entirely separated from the Orthodox Church. Indeed, it was the object of the Tsarist government, in colonizing them here, to put it out of their power to make any more proselytes to their peculiar opinions. Their neat and clean dress, comfortable looking huts, and industrious habits, their numerous flocks, and extensive and well cultivated fields, widely distinguish them from the common Russian peasantry.

 

Their neighbours the Mennonites and other German colonists speak well of their morals; but all complain of their reserve and shyness of character. No doubt they have been taught this by the severe persecutions to which they have for ages been exposed, and out of which they can scarcely yet believe themselves delivered. Their neighbours seem to know but little of their religious tenets. The Mennonites say they are a peaceable and industrious people, but accuse them of hypocrisy. Hence, they say, when some of their members were convicted of drunkenness, they denied the fact, and maintained that their members were all holy.

 

Very few among the Doukhobors appear to be capable of reading; yet their members seem to have had the doctrines of the sect instilled into them by oral instruction. These lessons are committed to memory. They have no schools among them, nor did I see a book of any kind among them. I recommended to them the Bible, and offered to supply them with it; but they refused to accept any copies, saying, "That what was in the Bible was in them also". I told them that some of their neighbours suspected them of immoral habits, because in speaking of females and children they did not use the common expressions of "my wife", "my child" etc. but rather "my sister", "our child" etc. This insinuation they indignantly repelled, exclaiming, "Are we then beasts?" "But" continued they, "we are accustomed to every kind of false accusation".

 

                       
Dukhoborets - a Doukhobor man.   Dukhoborka - a Doukhobor woman.

 

Their whole aspect and manner of intercourse with strangers, indicates a degree of shyness and distrust which is quite extraordinary. Hence, also, their evasive answers to all direct inquiries respecting their sect. Some of them, however, ventured to speak with me freely, and with warmth, against the use of images in worship. Their assemblies for religious purposes are held in the open air, or in private dwellings, according as the weather suits. They say their doctrines are as old as the world, and they either would not, or could not, give me any particulars of the rise of the sect in Russia.

 

It was, doubtless, the heavy burden of superstitious ceremonies in the services of the Orthodox Church which drove the founders of this sect to reject all ceremony, and external ordinances of every kind. Many of this sect, I fear, are deists.

 

But we need not wonder at these indications of fear and distrust. For at the very time I visited them, as I afterwards learned, intrigues were on foot in order to ruin them, under the twofold accusation of their harbouring deserters and making proselytes.

 


 

Afterword

Between 1812 and 1822, Robert Pinkerton travelled extensively throughout Russia in the service of the British and Foreign Bible Society, a non-denominational Christian charity formed in England in 1804 for the purpose of making affordable, vernacular translations of the Bible available throughout the world. Through his indefatigable efforts, readily supported by Tsar Alexander I and the Russian nobility, the Russian Bible Society was established in St. Petersburg in 1812-1813. In the years that followed, Pinkerton assisted in the formation of dozens of local branches of the Russian Bible Society, through which thousands of Russian language Bibles were distributed to the peasantry.
 

Through his travels and studies, Pinkerton became acquainted with the Doukhobor religious sect. In 1815, he translated an 1805 tract about the sect, Several Characteristics of Doukhobor Society as part of his English publication of Platon’s “Present State”.  In September of the same year, he travelled forty miles north of Vyborg, Finland to the Imatra Waterfall, where he found a colony of Don Cossack Doukhobors living in exile there: Visit to the Dukhobortsy Exiled in Finland, 1815. The Scottish missionary was deeply moved by his meeting with the Doukhobor exiles, who were most thankful to receive copies of the Russian Scriptures and publications from the Russian Bible Society.

 

It was in this context that in 1816, Pinkerton, accompanied by a cargo of Bibles, set out to visit the largest group of Doukhobors in the Russian Empire: those living on the Molochnaya River in Tavria province near the Sea of Azov. There, he expected to find kindred spirits whom he could supply with copies of the Scriptures on behalf of the Russian Bible Society.


Pinkerton visited two Doukhobor villages on the Molochnaya. At the first unnamed village, he encountered two Doukhobors with whom he had a short exchange. At the second village, which was Terpeniye, he was conducted to the Sirotsky Dom (Orphan’s Home) where he addressed a group of Doukhobors and met briefly with a Doukhobor elder. Thereafter, Pinkerton departed from Terpeniye and travelled to the neighbouring Mennonite villages across the Molochnaya. His recorded impressions of his visit are brief, forming a random compendium of his conversations with the Doukhobor colonists and their Mennonite neighbours.

Pinkerton found the Molochnaya Doukhobors to be settled in eight villages (he erred as there were nine Doukhobor villages in 1816) with a total population of 2,500 residents. Materially speaking, his impression of the colony was highly favourable. The Doukhobors’ “neat and clean dress” he wrote, “comfortable-looking huts, and industrious habits, their numerous flocks, and extensive and well-cultivated fields, widely distinguish them from the common Russian peasantry.” In every aspect, the Doukhobors verified the opinion of their Mennonite neighbours that they were a “peaceable and industrious people…”.


View Tavria Doukhobor Villages, 1802-1845 in a larger map


The Scottish missionary noted that when they first came to the Molochnaya, the Doukhobors held everything in common. However, by 1816 the Doukhobors had abandoned communalism and distributed their property on an individual basis. Pinkerton recorded that “now every family has its own private property, cattle, fields, etc. Still they have fields of corn, gardens and flocks which belong to the whole community, and the revenues of which are applied for the common benefit of the society.” By this he meant the lands belonging to the Sirotsky Dom, the Doukhobors’ financial, administrative and spiritual centre.

Pinkerton found the Doukhobors proficiently disciplined in matters of faith and doctrine. The first sectarian he encountered was a female, whom he met on the approaches of the first village. He inquired of the woman “where the chief person of the place resided.” She answered that “among us, no one is greater than another.” The second Doukhobor Pinkerton met was an elderly shepherd tending a flock of sheep. With him, Pinkerton began a discussion of the chief doctrines of Doukhoborism, based on the 1805 tract. He found that the old Doukhobor could repeat some of the articles “distinctly”. Similarly, when Pinkerton read passages from the tract to the Doukhobors at Terpeniye, he “had the satisfaction of hearing them distinctly state their principles in the very terms there given.” They also dutifully advised him against the use of images in worship.  As these encounters indicate, the Molochnaya Doukhobors possessed a strong doctrinal unity.

 

At the same time, Pinkerton found the Doukhobors to be evasive in their replies to many of his inquiries. “Their whole aspect, and manner of intercourse with strangers,” he found, “indicate a degree of shyness and distrust which is quite extraordinary; hence, also their evasive answers to all direct inquiries respecting their sect.” Neighbouring Mennonites also complained of the “reserve and shyness” of the Doukhobors, which gave rise to various vague rumours and accusations about the sect. What Pinkerton and the Mennonites did not take sufficiently into account, however, was the intensity of persecution that had made the Doukhobors evolve evasion as a means of dealing with authorities or with passing strangers.
 

Unlike their brethren in Finland, the Molochnaya Doukhobors were now living in a completely Doukhobor setting under the dynamic influence of their leader Kapustin and the exclusivist doctrines embodied in his psalms.  They possessed the fully-developed version of the Living Book and had come to reject the Bible as an exclusive source of divine revelation.


Hence, Pinkerton’s main objective of distributing Bibles among the Molochnaya Doukhobors proved unsuccessful. He had travelled far only to find people who, when he offered copies of the Scriptures, ‘refused to accept any copies, remarking, “That what was in the Bible was in them also.”’ He had one moment of hope, when the old shepherd told him, ‘Yes, I can read the Word of Life’; however it turned out that the old man was illiterate but knew by heart the Living Book of the Doukhobors. Consequently, Pinkerton left the Molochnaya disappointed, having failed to dispense a single Bible to the Doukhobors there.
 

 


 

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