Wrestling With the Spirit–and With Death

Wrestling With the Spirit–and With Death
by Giga Chikhladze

Transitions on Line, Czech Republic
May 21 2004

Once championed by Tolstoy, the pacifist Russian Dukhobors of
southern Georgia now find themselves without a champion or much of a

GORELOVKA, Georgia– Small white-and-blue houses, all decorated with
ornamental window frames, some topped by storks’ nests. A landscape
whose only touches of modernity are scattered electricity poles,
vertical complements to the ash trees that blaze with red berries in
the autumn. Villages named Gorelovka, Orlovka, Bogdanovka and peopled
with fair-haired, blue-eyed Russian-speakers. But for the harsh,
stony highland countryside with bluish hills outlined against a
dove-gray sky, it could be a village somewhere on the steppes of
southern Russia.

This, though, is the Caucasus and the Samtskhe-Javakheti region of
Georgia, home to a unique and dying way of life.


For the pacifist, non-conformist Russian Orthodox who came to be
known as the Dukhobars, this spot near the Armenian border and the
outer edges of the Russian Empire became a haven 150 years ago.

It was not a haven they chose.

The Dukhobors appeared in southern Russia in the 18th century, at a
time when nonconformists of all kinds were splitting away from
established Russian Orthodox ways and doctrines. One foundation story
says the Dukhobors were followers of a certain American Quaker who
somehow found his way to the steppes—and, certainly, the similarities
between the two faiths are striking. Like the Quakers, the Dukhobors
rejected the priesthood, original sin, and the authority of the
Bible. They were vegetarians, teetotalers, and pacifists.

The central thread of Dukhobor spirituality is the teaching that
God’s kingdom resides in our souls and God’s words direct our
actions. The believer needs no priest nor church hierarchy to
intercede between the individual soul and God. The “struggle for the
soul” is their essential dogma–and the origin of the epithet,
originally derogatory, they earned in Tsarist Russia: Dukhobor, or
“spirit wrestler.” In time the expression lost its insulting
overtones and became a neutral term.

The Dukhobors’ migration to the edges of the Russian empire began in
the early 19th century, when Tsar Alexander I settled them near the
Sea of Azov. The next three decades saw the most peaceful period in
the sect’s history, according to historian Valery Oghiashvili of
Tbilisi University.

As the political mood grew increasingly reactionary, particularly
under Alexander’s successor, Nicholas I, the Orthodox Church again
stepped up the pressure on this splinter group. Traditionalists saw
the Dukhobors’ rejection of religious ritual and the clerical
hierarchy as a rejection of the state. In 1837, the authorities
ordered the Dukhobors to be resettled in the Caucasus territories
recently annexed to the empire. Many went there on foot; others
scattered across Russia, disappearing from history or returning to
the Orthodox fold. Those who made it to Georgia were first settled in
the Kakheti region, then in the remote highlands of

When they first came to this high plateau, emptied of people as a
result of Georgia’s wars with Turkey and Persia, the Dukhobors lived
in primitive mud huts. Here, in conditions far removed from what they
had known on the south Russian steppe, they began to breed cattle,
grow vegetables, and spin wool.


The spiritual—and practical—struggles of the Dukhobors won them the
support of Leo Tolstoy, the sage of Russian literature. Tolstoy, who
was strongly influenced by their devotion to pacifism and communal
living, helped the Dukhobors by paying for a school to be built in
Gorelovka at the turn of the last century. The school was only one in
the district for the next 45 years and is still where young people in
the village go to for their schooling.

But Tolstoy also sowed the seeds that might ultimately lead to the
demise of the community in Georgia. The Russian authorities may have
effectively exiled the Dukhobors, but they did not exempt them from
their duties to tsar and country. In 1895, a mass protest by the
pacifist Dukhobors against military conscription prompted many to
look for a refuge outside Russia. Tolstoy came to their aid,
sponsoring their migration to Canada. Some 10,000 people left “New
Dukhoboria,” as the Georgian community was known, for Canada at the
turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. In Canada, they took the name
the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood; today, the
denomination counts about 40,000 adherents, most in British Columbia.

For those who remained in Georgia, life was tough. “I still remember
the time when my grandmother went 160 kilometers on foot to Armenia
to buy wool,” says Maria Fedorova, a 76-year-old from Gorelovka.
“Then she would spin the wool here and take [the yarn] back to
Armenia, where she sold the goods she made. There was a time when we
lived from the wool business alone.”

Stalin made life harsher still. Lyubov Demidova, former head of the
Gorelovka village council, says that in the 1930s, Stalin’s
collectivization practically uprooted their way of life. Despite
their poverty, the Dukhobors were branded kulaks–well-off
farmers–and thus, class enemies.

“Most of our people suffered repression, and the remaining few had to
change their lifestyle. In spite of that all, though, we retained our
beliefs,” Demidova says.


What state repression could not accomplish, though, the invisible
hand of the market may. The collapse of the Soviet-era planned
economy brought hard times to Georgia’s highlands. Poor roads and a
lack of investment heightened the area’s isolation, forcing many
able-bodied workers to seek better opportunities, most in Russia.
Others left for fear of war between Georgia and Armenia. Although
that war never came, the Dukhobor population in Georgia, already
reduced to some 7,000 in 1990, plummeted to fewer than 1,200 in 2003,
about half of them in Samtskhe-Javakheti.

Most ethnic Georgians have also left the area. The population drain
has only partly been replenished by local Armenians.

The Dukhobors who remain eke out a living. After Georgia’s
independence, agricultural cooperatives were set up, but most have
gone bankrupt under the burden of high taxes and legislation. Large
herds of well-kept cattle used to graze on these hills, but now,
though villagers still keep a few cows and grow potatoes for their
own use, the farming economy in Samtskhe-Javakheti and other less
hospitable areas of Georgia has been devastated.

The impoverishment has been cultural as well as economic. “We’ve lost
and forgotten a lot,” laments Lyubov Demidova. “Only our old women
remember our ancestral songs, prayers, rituals, and traditions. Once,
mixed marriages between Dukhobors and outsiders were unimaginable.
This rule doesn’t apply now. We were vegetarian. Now we eat
everything. We didn’t drink alcohol, even beer. Now we do … We didn’t
smoke. Now we do …”

One of the few true Dukhobor features the locals have not yet
forgotten is the extraordinary influence of women. Women run almost
all aspects of life, not through formal structures but through family
ties. This matriarchal way of life is considered something close to
heresy in Georgia’s male-dominated society.

But not even matriarchy may be strong enough to hold the Georgian
Dukhobors together any longer.

Many believe it is time to leave if they can. Russia is no longer the
destination of choice. Even though most Dukhobors still speak only
Russian, many would head for Canada given the choice. “Our only hope
is the Canadian Dukhobor community,” says another (unrelated)
Demidova, Luda.

“They still cherish the old traditions and rituals. We would go there
if we could. We have no future here. Nobody helps us in Georgia. We
are simply disappearing.”