The Dukhobors (Dukhobory or Spiritual Christians) encompasses a Russian religious tradition that denies the rites stated by the official Church.
Its adherents are not members of the Russian Orthodox Church, yet their beliefs are similar to the English Quakers. This teaching is one of the streams of Spiritual Christianity.
Siluan Kolesnikov who lived in a village of Nikolskoe in Ekaterinoslav Governorate between 1755 and 1775 was the founder and the main ideologist of the movement. The name “Dukhobors” was given to Kolesnikov’s adepts in 1785 by Ambrosius, the Bishop of Ekaterinoslav. Originally the bishop meant that the Dukhobors (literally “Spirit wrestlers”) rejected the Holy Spirit yet the Dukhobors interpreted the name in their own way. They rejected church rituals and outer piety and regarded themselves as zealous defenders and supporters of the Spirit. As a result, this name was adopted by the group and became strongly associated with them.
The Dukhobor community was led by a council of the elders. Dukhobors do not appreciate written texts (they called them “dead words”) and prefer the oral tradition – “living book”. That is why there are no written documents concerning early Dukhobor history.
The basic idea of their teaching is Quaker-like and includes the following titles:
– rejecting Original Sin
– a belief in reincarnation. Moreover, a sinner’s soul may be incarnated in an animal’s body
– the Resurrection of Christ is interpreted allegorically, in a Spiritual manner
– one may confess only to God, not to a priest
– fasting is limiting oneself from sinful thoughts and deeds
– the service is held in an ordinary room, e.g. private house etc.
– marriage is not a religious sacrament
– external human differences are not important
– prohibition of oaths or pledges
– refusal of military service (including oath)
– rejection of any religious ritual
In the late 18th century, persecutions against the Dukhobors started. It was only in 1818, when Tsar Alexander I visited Terpenie (“Patience”), a Dukhobor village and learned more about their lives and households, that he relieved them from the oath and settled them in Tauris (Crimea). The Dukhobors were grateful and built a monument to Alexander I.
The reign of the next Tsar, Nickolas I was less friendly to the group. The Government regarded them as unreliable neighbours for the Orthodox villagers who were masters in the Tauris lands and exiled them from the Molochnaia river area to Transcaucasia.
In 1841-1845 five thousand Dukhobors were exiled to the territories of modern Georgia and Azerbaijan. In Georgia, they settled in the south, in the deserted mountainous areas of Javakheti. They founded ten villages there. In Azerbaijan they founded villages that still keep their Russian-like names – Slavianka, Ivanovka, Novosaratovka and Novoivanovka.
1886 was the year of an inner crisis. This was caused by the “Orphan house” (“Sirotskii Dom”), the heritage of Lukeria Kalmykova, a prominent Dukhobor leader. When she died, many Dukhobors supported Peter Verigin (they called themselves Bolshaia Storona or The Large Party) as an heir, but the court decision was in the best interests of his brother Michael Gubanov whose adherents were called Malaia Storona (The Small Party). This conflict led to the exile of Peter Verigin, and in exile, he was introduced to the teachings of Lev Tolstoy concerning non-resistance to evil by violence. Under the influence of these doctrines as well as the ideas of Christian Anarchism, Verigin compiled his political program and sent it to his adherents, the Large Party. This program included:
– the rejection of the exploitation of waged labour
– the division of property benefits between members of the community in equal shares, with the approval of wealthy members
– the rejection of the desire for enrichment
– the curbing of the desires of wealth by simplifying the way of life
– reducing the population growth by eliminating marriage and spreading sexual abstinence
– the denial of conscription and military service
However this program was not approved of by all of Verigin’s supporters, and this led to further splits. Those who stayed faithful to Verigin were called “fasters” due to the rejection of eating meat. In 1895 thousands of Fasting Dukhobors burned all the weapons they had as a sign of their refusal to participate in military service. This led to the brutal suppression of their actions by the Russian Cossacks. This resulted in more than four thousand Dukhobors being forcibly relocated to places with dangerous living conditions without the right to sell their housing. Those who rejected the military service were sentenced to Siberia.
Vladimir Chertkov, leader of Tolstovtsy, was later exiled from Russia, Pavel Biriukov, a public figure, and Ivan Tregubov, Tolstoy’s adherent, did their best to protect the Dukhobors, but in vain. Lev Tolstoy provided great support to the Dukhobors too. He initiated (and Quakers abroad supported) the struggle for permission for the Dukhobors to emigrate. As a result, about 7,500 men and women (one third of all the Dukhobors) moved to Saskatchewan province in Canada. To provide enough money for their transfer, Tolstoy ended the work on his novel Resurrection sooner than he had previously planned. He arranged for the royalties from that novel and some others, to go to the emigration fund. Also, the Dukhobors were supported by Vladimir Bonch-Bruevich who published The Living Book of the Dukhobors, i.e. their psalms. These songs used to be stored only in the oral traditions. It was published in Canada.
In Canada, the Doukhobors were allowed to abstain from military service. They settled close to each other so they could cultivate the land jointly.
Yet they refused to take an oath of allegiance to the Canadian Government, and this was a prerequisite for obtaining land as personal property. So, a huge number of plots that had become suitable for cultivation were taken from the Dukhobors.
Between 1908 and 1911, the Dukhobors were required to move to British Columbia in the West of Canada where they founded the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood. The level of material well-being of the community began to grow yet internal ideological conflicts between the brethren arose. In 1924 Peter Verigin died under unknown circumstances, and his ideology began to fall into decay. The radical Dukhobor faction (known as the Sons of Freedom) showed a complete rejection of the canons of modern life. They protested against school education and became notorious for their nude marches in towns and cities of Canada and midnight arsons (they burned schools).
The community of Canadian Dukhobors became a member of the organization “International Against War” in 1932. This international movement was initiated by V.F. Bulgakov, a secretary of Lev Tolstoy.
Since the late 1980s, many Dukhobors have returned from Georgia to Russia – to Tulsk, Belgorod, Bryansk, Orlov and Rostov regions, through the Russian program of resettlement of compatriots to Russia.
Before 2008 the remaining Canadian Dukhobors were led by John Verigin, the great-grandson of Peter Verigin. For his peacekeeping activities, he was awarded the Order of Canada, the Order of British Columbia and the Order of Friendship of the Peoples of the Soviet Union.
Nowadays, there are about thirty thousand descendants of the Dukhobors in Canada. Five thousand of them have kept their faith, and for about half of them Russian is the first language. Thomas G. Nevakshonoff, a famous Canadian politician, is one of the prominent Dukhobors.