Doukhobors of Russia

From:       by Linda DeLaine     2001

The Doukhobors were a religious sect which developed in Russia during the 1700s. They referred to themselves as Christians of the Universal Brotherhood. In their early days, the group was called Ikono-bortsi (icon wrestlers) for their opposition to Orthodox icons and the veneration (worship, as they saw it) of these religious images. Instead, they insisted that the Spirit of God dwelt in each person and not in icons.

In the 1600s, Nikon, patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church (1652–66), set out to reform the Church. His primary emphasis was on the liturgical books used by the Church. Nikon’s reforms created a great schism in the Russian Church, resulting in his banishment and the creation of a group known as the Old Believers or Raskolniki. Various other sects formed and joined with the Raskolniki. One of these sects was the Doukhobors.

Opposition to the ceremonial of the Orthodox Church is embodied by the Doukhobors who reject the sacraments and are officially designated as a rationalistic sect. Scorning ceremonial, a special priesthood, and the veneration of icons, they maintain that the only worship of God is in spirit and that the heart of man is the sole true temple of God. Instead of baptism by water, they demand the baptism of the Spirit, instead of confession to a priest, confession to each of the brethren, and instead of the Eucharist meditation on the words of Christ.
From The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol X: Reutsch – Son

The name Doukhobors means spirit wrestlers. The name comes from Doukho-bortsi (same meaning) used by Archbishop Ambrosius (1785) to identify this peasant group as heretics to the Orthodox faithful. The name is not intended as a compliment, rather it meant, in the Church’s opinion, that these people were doing war against the Holy Spirit.

This group adopted the name Doukhobor, saying that it meant that they fought for and with the Spirit of God. They believed that life is a struggle and that the only viable weapon was the spiritual power of love.

Doukhobor dogma is very similar in nature to that of the Quakers. Both reject the ordained clergy, the sacraments and any external symbol of Christianity such as icons, statues, crucifixes, etc. Most of the early Dukhobors were peasants and farmers who believed in a communal living situation with all members being equal in status. As such, they categorically ignored any authority imposed by either church or state.

Catherine II persecuted them and Alexander I moved roughly 4,000 Doukhobors to a remote region around the Sea of Azov in 1801. Here, the rejected sect flourished and quickly created profitable agricultural communities. Not surprisingly, they refused to be drafted into the Russian military. In 1840, the Doukhobors were taken off their Sea of Azov lands and relocated in the Caucasus. Again, they soon produced flourishing agricultural communities. They continued to resist the state’s insistence that they serve in the military. Eventually, their leader, Peter Vasilievitch Verigin, was exiled to Siberia, in 1887, taking with him a small group of followers.

Doukhobors made their greatest moral strides and development in the late 1800s under the leadership of Peter Verigin. Peter Verigin, believed to be truly enlightened by God, implemented many changes in Doukhobor life believed to bring them closer to total purity. These changes enabled the Doukhobors to live a Christian life closest to that which is outlined by God. It was during this time that they became vegetarian and rejected the use of all forms of tobacco and alcohol. Up until this time, the Doukhobor’s eating habits were nothing unusual. They ate in the same fashion as the region they lived in.

Doukhobor Dogma

The Doukhobors did not have worship services or masses as is part of other Christian faith traditions. The center of their religious expression was the gathering or sobraniye. At the gathering, the Doukhobors would come together, sit around a table laden with food and recite or sing passages from the Book of Life. This was a collected oral tradition of hymns and proverbs. Little material symbolism was present in Doukhobor religion, however, bread, salt and water represented the faith and kindness of the Doukhobors.

Doukhobors spiritual dogma is based on the Law of God. This canon is made up of two elements.

  1. Recognize and love God, God’s power and role as the only Creator
  2. Love your neighbor as yourself.

God was defined as word, spirit and love. The soul is that part of each person which reflects the Spirit of God. Where love prevails, God lives. Doukhobors see Christ as a human figure whose Spirit prevails and lives in all who live, not just preach, His teachings. The purpose of Christ’s human life was to show that the meaning of all human life was/is a fulfillment of God’s Law. Again, God’s Law is only achieved/obeyed via love. Thus, hate, war, violence of any kind, etc., is taboo.

In brief, the Doukhobors believe in the following:

  1. They reject all forms of ordained clergy
  2. There is no liturgy or veneration of symbols
  3. No fasting
  4. Marriage is not subject to laws of church or state
  5. Reject Bible as central source of inspiration
  6. No Baptism
  7. Man is redeemed through his/her individual inspiration
  8. Christ did not, literally, rise from the dead
  9. Heaven/Hell are states of mind and conditions on earth
  10. Each person is lead by the Divine Presence in others

Doukhobors believe, without hesitation or doubt, that the Spirit of God dwells in all human beings. Once this is understood, one assumes the responsibility to care for all of God’s Creation. All elements of this Creation are spiritually intertwined. Each person’s actions and deeds are governed by God’s Spirit and Voice from within. This Voice enables the Doukhbor to:

  1. Develop conscious understanding
  2. Use one’s ability to reason
  3. Use one’s will to take action based on understanding and reasoning.

This is the Doukhobor’s understanding of the Trinity.

Move To Canada

Orthodox Church and Tsarist persecution of the Doukhobors escalated by the end of the 1800s. The well-known Russian writer and proponent of moral and spiritual reform, Leo Tolstoy, was a friend of the Doukhobors. He was successful in obtaining permission from the Tsar for the Doukhobors, now known as the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood, to emigrate to Canada. The massive exodus was funded by British and American Quakers. In 1899, over 7,500 Russian Doukhobors left for Saskatchewan where they formed the community of Kamsack. Some 12,000 stayed behind in Russia.

The Canadian government gave the new settlers tracts of land and granted them immunity from military service. Again, their amazing abilities in the area of agriculture came to pass and the Doukhobors soon developed thriving communities in their new land.

The Doukhobors were conservative and hard working. They built their own roads and managed high yielding orchards and farms. Internal strife developed among the Doukhobors in Canada. A group known as the Sons of Freedom, believed in many unusual things, most notable was nudism.

Doukhobors often had differences with their neighbors. These disputes were usually resolved by non-violent resistance. The Sons of Freedom used nudist strikes during which they would take off all their clothes and march, in public, to express their opposition to various governmental controls and/or judgments.

This development of nudist protests prompted the Doukhobor leader, Peter Verigin, to leave Russia for Canada. He formed a second community in southern British Columbia in 1908. It flourished until Peter was murdered by a bomb in 1924.

Peter’s son, also named Peter, traveled from Russia to Canada to assume his father’s leadership role. His primary effort was to convince the Doukhobors to give up their exclusive, communal life-style and assume the local Canadian ways. He died in 1939.

After Peter the younger’s death, the Doukhobors assumed the title of Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ. They continued to revolt against the Canadian government on matters of taxes and educational laws. They opposed formal education because they believed that it taught violence and war.

The Union of Doukhobors of Canada was formed in 1945. The Sons of Freedom did not join this union. In recent years, the communal life-style of the Doukhobors has fallen by the wayside and most have assimilated into Canadian culture. The Sons of Freedom became more extremist and added arson of personal and government property to their list of tactics; all designed to show their disgust for material possessions.

According to the Canadian census, there are roughly 5,000 Doukhobors living in Canada today. Most have assimilated into local society. There are no records as to how many Doukhobors may still reside in Russia.