The Remote Pacifist Sect That Leo Tolstoy Tried to Save Is About to Disappear

Stories from Roads & Kingdoms
Aug. 23 2013 5:17 AM

The Last Days of Tolstoy’s People

Leo Tolstoy so admired the Doukhobors, a remote pacifist sect in the highlands of Georgia, he tried to shield them from the modern world. Now only 500 of them remain. 

Doukhobor women in a grassy meadow in Gorelovka, Georgia.
Doukhobor women in Gorelovka, Georgia.

Photos courtesy of Natela Grigalashvili

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GORELOVKA, Georgia—The July sun had yet to shake the night chill from the air, so the men stood hunched with their hands in their pockets, watching the appointed soup makers stir two large cast-iron caldrons full of borscht and lapsha. The two men worked over a brazier of tezek, bricks of dried manure that are the favored fuel in a land that has few trees but many cows. They were preparing the food for a Doukhobor wake that would mark 40 days since another member of their religious sect, a carpenter named Vladimir Smorodin, was taken by old age. More than 80 Doukhobors would gather that day in the sod-roofed home to pay their respects.

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The wake might as well have been for the Doukhobors themselves. After 300 years of tumultuous history, this remote strain of pacifists, who have called the mountain highlands of Georgia their home since Tsar Nicholas I exiled them in the 1840s, is about to disappear. A splinter from the Russian Orthodox Church, their way of life rests on the brink of extinction, as the few who remain either pass away or return to Russia, leaving their life in the mountains behind. Their numbers in Georgia today have dwindled to 500; here in Gorelovka, once their spiritual center, there are 145 left. Their ineluctable exodus north, to cities in modern Russia, could spell the end of an entire culture, something akin to what would happen if all the Amish slowly moved to Pittsburgh. Removed from their villages, they would be swallowed whole by the modern world.

The irony is that the Doukhobors never wanted to leave Russia in the first place. They emerged in the 1700s in the Tambov region of Russia, a Christian sect that believed God resides within every person, rendering the need for the church and all its trappings—icons, buildings, rituals, even priests—unnecessary. These views did not endear themselves with the Russian Orthodox Church, and in 1785 an archbishop gave them the name Doukhobors, which means “spirit wrestlers.” It was meant as an insult, but they embraced it. The sect rejected the authority of the state, refusing to pay taxes or serve in the military, and by the 1840s became such an irritant that Tsar Nicholas I exiled nearly 5,000 of them to the edge of the Russian empire. Many of the Doukhobors died on the treacherous 70-day wagon journey.

Doukhobor man in Gorelovka, Georgia.
Doukhobor man in Gorelovka, Georgia.

Photos courtesy of Natela Grigalashvili

They founded eight villages—the largest of which was Gorelovka—in the distant peaks of what is now the Republic of Georgia’s Javakheti region, near the border with Turkey and Armenia. They flung themselves into creating a place for themselves in this new inhospitable climate—the winters are harsh and long in the mountains here—by tilling the rocky soil and taming the land to build a tidy town of sod-roofed homes with whitewashed walls and carved wooden shutters that are painted cheerful shades of blue. As the Doukhobors don’t have churches, Gorelovka’s spiritual and civic life is centered around the orphanage, a mint green building that was built in the 1800s. Every Sunday a dozen Doukhobors still meet there for prayers.

In the summer, white storks with clattering beaks stand atop their huge nests, which are balanced precariously on the sod-roofed houses and utility poles. (Armenians call the town Aragilneri Gyugh, stork village). The village still feels a part of the 19th century, despite the satellite dishes, cellphones, and 18-wheelers that pass through the town’s one paved road on their way to Armenia or Turkey. The remaining roads are no more than rutted dirt paths, spackled with cow patties from the twice-daily cattle drives up the nearby hills and back again. “The Doukhobors, we made all of this ourselves,” says Nikolai Sukhorukov, 59, a village elder of sorts with an inquisitive face and a long white beard.

The Doukhobors eked out a relatively quiet existence here until 1895, when they rounded up all the weapons in the villages and burned them in protest of the Tsarist government's military draft. They paid dearly for their principles: Some were deported to Siberia, others were imprisoned and tortured. But they gained an unlikely savior in Leo Tolstoy, the famed novelist who was undergoing a spiritual renewal in the later years of his life. Tolstoy admired the Doukhobors’ pacifism and met their leaders at his estate in Yasnaya Polyana, in what must have been one of history’s great beard-summits. He engaged in a furious letter-writing campaign on their behalf, including one missive sent to Sweden suggesting the first Nobel Peace Prize be awarded to these remote people. Eventually he donated the profits from his final novel, Resurrection, to resettle a group of more than 7,500 Doukhobors from the Caucasus to Saskatchewan in 1899. Some 25,000 of their descendants still live in Canada, but the majority of them have assimilated. For those left behind in Georgia, Tolstoy sent money to build a school in Gorelovka that still bears his name.

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Photos courtesy of Natela Grigalashvili

The school is a well-maintained, whitewashed building with a black-and-white portrait of its famous benefactor hanging in the office. However, as with the rest of the town, the school’s future is uncertain. “We’re trying to save the school,” director Tatyana Kirova told me as she led me down the building’s single dimly lit hallway, showing me the classrooms each heated by their own stove. Hand-lettered posters in Russian and Georgian hung on the walls alongside educational posters from the Soviet era. When Kirova graduated from the school in 1992, it had 300 students. Today there are 32. Most of the town’s children attend the Armenian school down the road.

“There are no more young people here,” lamented teacher Irina Tamilina, 43, as we sat in her kitchen later that day, drinking tea and eating watermelon. She handed me a creased photocopy, flecked with brown stains, of a letter Tolstoy wrote in 1898 to a newspaper about the plight of the Doukhobors. “The government of the Caucasus has surrounded the whole rebellious population with a magic circle, and this population is slowly dying out. In another three or four years, it’s possible there could be no Doukhobors left,” the novelist cautioned. (That last sentence had been underlined in black pen.)

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