In Gorelovka today, Doukhobors are outnumbered at least 15-to-1 by the majority Armenians; in the broader Javakheti region of Georgia, the ratio is 200-to-1. And various Armenian groups, both moderate and more hardline paramilitary groups, have been a part of de facto Armenian control of the region since the fall of the Soviet Union. That may make Doukhobors anxious, but the Georgian government likes it even less: On the heels of a series of bloody wars of secession by Ossetians and Abkhazians, Georgia is wary of any demographic imbalance within its borders. One solution has been to periodically resettle ethnic Georgian Muslims in empty Doukhobor houses.
Rivalries run deep in this part of the world. Lukeria Medvedova, an octogenarian left in Gorelovka after her extended family moved back to Russia, takes a dim view of her Armenian neighbors. “They know I see poorly and so they take things off my clotheslines,” she said, as she stooped over a metal bowl of laundry in her kitchen, swirling the soapy water with her hands. “They steal and steal and steal.” She was widowed 53 years ago, and her only son died when he was a teenager in the 1970s. As is Doukhobor custom, photos of them as corpses in their caskets hang alongside other less grim family pictures. Yet she has no desire to leave her one-room home, which is tidy and well-kept despite her waning eyesight. “I didn’t exist when this house was built,” she said.
The Doukhobors’ return to Russia began as a trickle in the glasnost era and has gained momentum since then. In 2007, Russia launched a “voluntary migration” program under President Vladimir Putin, as a means of stemming Russia’s demographic collapse. The results are mixed: More than 98,000 ethnic Russians have been lured back to the motherland under the program, but a far larger exodus out of the country, particularly of the wealthy and highly skilled, continues. In Javakheti, the reasons for Doukhobors moving out seem to be largely economic: Russia’s per capita GDP is $14,000 compared to Georgia’s $3,500. This is why Tamilina, the schoolteacher, and her husband bought a house in Bryansk, Russia, five hours southwest of Moscow, a year ago. They’ll be leaving as soon as they sell their house in Gorelovka. Her 23-year-old son Alexander has already moved, bringing home $1,000 a month remodeling apartments, 10 times what he could make in Georgia. The move, she says, will still pain her. “Georgia is my homeland. Russia is not.” And besides, like many of the Doukhobors, they’ll be moving to the big city. There are Doukhobors in Russia, but no Doukhobor villages.
In Soviet times, there was a dairy factory in town that made Swiss-style cheese, but it has long since been shuttered. Now, the cows are all that’s left in Gorelovka, and they serve as the main source of income for the village. “If you have 10 cows, then you’ll have enough bread to eat,” one Georgian woman explained to me outside the town’s kindergarten. “We only have one cow.”
Twice a day, a dozen Doukhobor women board a white van and make a jolting trip a few miles up into the hills where a herd of brown, handsome cattle have spent the day grazing. The women head into a room in the barn to don headscarves, aprons, and sensible, waterproof shoes or clogs (the better to dodge fresh cow patties and errant squirts of milk) and head outside to the waiting herd. For the next two hours, they milk, filling up 14 large stainless steel cans. Not that it’s easy work—one wandering animal vexed her owner enough to elicit a rather irreligious “Cursed cow! Damn cow!” from her. The milk they gather is made into cheese at the Doukhobors’ small workshop, either for their own consumption or to be sold locally. Cheese and other dairy products are just about the only items the Doukhobors in the village still produce.
There are some who recognize what’s at stake. After living in the Ukraine for more than a decade, Vasily Slastukin moved back to Gorelovka in 2002, in part to take care of his aging parents, in part to raise a family in the traditional Doukhobor style. Now 57, he prays at the orphanage with the elderly women and passes down oral histories to his two young daughters. As in Soviet times, Slastukin explained, oral traditions and village life are what keep Doukhobor culture alive. “Preserving these traditions is much harder than just going to church,” he says.
Inside the house on the day of the wake, around 12 women, mostly in headscarves, prepared typical Doukhobor sides: cucumber and tomato salad, eggplant with walnuts, fish jelly, homemade cheese, mashed potatoes with eggs, and ground liver. Sitting on mint green benches at the head table, the women—in a hodgepodge of plaid and pastel, outfits completed by colorful vests featuring hand-embroidered roses—started praying, then singing mournful songs in unison with long, drawn-out vowels. Anya Smorodina, 66, the widow of the deceased, bowed and touched her head to the floor several times. The singing continued as everyone ate, washing down the food with shots of vodka and fennel soda. As one woman explained to me as we took our seats at the table: “We need to preserve this.” The question of where it might be preserved remains unanswered.
For more of Natela Grigalashvili's photography from Javakheti and around Georgia, visit natelagrigalashvili.ge.