Intinerario: International Journal on the History of European Expansion and Global Interaction

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Nicholas B. Breyfogle, Heretics and Colonizers: Forging Russia's Empire in the South Caucasus. London and Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005. xxii + 347 pp. ISBN: 0-8014-4242-7 (hbk.).

Brilliantly researched, Nicholas Breyfogle’s study of the nineteenth-century history of two Russian heretical sects exhaustively analyses their accommodation to an entirely new environment, the unique traits that brought them success, and the destructive downfall their indomitable religiosity eventually helped to produce.

Soon after Nicholas I (r. 1825-1855) became tsar of all the Russians, he enlarged his predecessor’s ‘toleration through isolation’ policy toward heretical Christian sects. In 1830 he decreed that three heretical sects of ethnically Russian peasants, the Dukhobors, Molokans, and Subbotniks, would be removed to colonize the recently acquired south Caucasus region. Successes of the pacifist Dukhobors in converting some warlike Don Cossacks had provoked the decree. Although some of Nicholas’s officials hoped that the sectarians would soon die off, the exodus was intended to stop their proselytizing among the vast Russian Orthodox peasantry; make barren areas productive; and motivate the heretics to take up arms against belligerent non-Russian Caucasian natives. Many sectarians wanted to go so that they might freely practice their religion. The long expeditions to the Caucasus that followed involved hardships, but were certainly not death marches. The 1830s saw high Dukhobor death rates largely because officials mismanaged the expeditions, chose unhealthy land for the settlers, and provided improper homes for them. Originally assigned to lowlands long feared and avoided by the Caucasian natives, the sectarians were eventually transferred to habitable and productive areas. From the 1840s to the mid-1890s the Dukhobors and Molokans became increasingly prosperous.

Breyfogle’s concentration is primarily on the Dukhobors. Occasionally he weaves in Molokan events, but he writes little about the enigmatic, Judaicized Christians known as Subbotniks. [Though Breyfogle's 387-page 1998 PhD thesis covers all 3 sects well, the publisher limited the number of pages and images in the book. This forced Dr. Breyfogle to focus on one group. He said he chose Doukhobors because more information was available about them. Unfortunately published histories of Molokans and Subbotniki in English are still lacking.] The newcomers in time prospered far beyond the natives through adapting economic activities they had seen in the larger Russian rural society they had left, many of which they now practiced for the first time. They introduced four-wheeled carts, merino sheep, staple vegetables, and cultivated varieties of previously wild but edible plants and raised livestock. Although living in isolation from the Muslims, Azerbaijanis, Armenians, and other non-Russians, they yet dominated the region by providing transportation and much-needed skills like blacksmithing, carpentry, and barrel-making. [Not explained by Breyfogle, Molokans and Doukhobors learned about merino sheep and European farm equipment from their German Mennonite neighbors in the Milky Waters area — Molochnaia, now Zaparozhe province, South Ukraine. Also see: John R. Staples Cross-Cultural Encounters on the Ukrainian Steppe: Settling the Molochna Basin, 1783-1861, pages 68-71; and Staples, '"On Civilizing the Nogais": Mennonite-Nogai Economic Relations, 1825-1860', Mennoninte Quarterly Review, 1990, and The Russians' Secret: What Christians Today Would Survive Persecution?, 1999, by Peter Hoover and Serguei V. Peterov.]

Breyfogle explains how the Dukhobors’ interaction with the tsarist government was advantageous to both parties. Until 1886, the sectarians were regarded as a very desirable Russian population, contributing greatly to the imperial economy. Commerce back and forth between government and Dukhobor business interests was mutually beneficial. Success reached an apex with the large profits Dukhobors amassed by providing goods and services during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878. Describing the sectarians’ impact on the Transcaucasian environment, the author makes one of his rare ventures outside of his internal Dukhobor–Molokan narrative:

The limited environmental impact of the sectarian settlers in Transcaucasia adds to our understanding of the relationship between empire and ecology worldwide. First, it supports the recent historiographical tendency to see environmental history (and imperial-ecological history) as something more complex than a “purely destructive” or apocalyptic phenomenon. Second, the Transcaucasian case compels us to rethink [Alfred] Crosby’s assertion that “the migrant Europeans could reach and even conquer, but not make colonies of settlement of these pieces of alien earth until they became a good deal more like Europe. Crosby argues that in the “Neo-Europes” that the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand became, Europeans could quickly and easily control the land, without significant change in their economic activities. Yet, despite the fact that the sectarians did not “conquer” the region in an environmental sense, they not only sank deep roots and lived there through the end of the Soviet period, but they also thrived economically (127-128).

Chapter 5, ‘Frontier Encounters’, presents conclusions about the interaction of sectarians and the indigenous south Caucasians. There were many conflicts at first, especially for control of the best land. The tsarist government had a policy of placating the indigenous elite, but this inevitably clashed with their policy of assisting the sectarians. In some locations the government made contracts in which sectarian farmers worked lands owned by members of the non-Russian elite. Azerbaijanis, Turks, and other Muslims routinely raided sectarian communities, which led Dukhobors and Molokans to compromise their religious scruples against violence. In some communities armed guards were permanently maintained. [Russian soldiers gave their older guns to the sectarians who formed their own guard units.] Breyfogle concludes that, relative to other frontier encounters with incoming colonists, social accommodation and cultural exchange between the colonists and the traditional inhabitants in the south Caucasus was minimal. This was no melting pot.

All the successes of the sectarian colonists began to unravel in 1886. The Dukhobors’ passive resistance to government in 1894-1895, best remembered for their defiance of universal military service laws and the burning of their personal weapons, has long been recognized as provoking the Dukhobor exodus to Canada in 1898. Breyfogle, however, traces the beginning of the downfall back to the death in December 1886 of the Dukhobor politico-religious autocrat, Lukeria Kalmakov, the childless widow of the last of a bloodline Dukhobor dynasty of such rulers. Thus, internal Dukhobor discord rather than tsarist tyranny laid the groundwork for the finale of the colonial enclave in Transcaucasia. Repeated splintering of Dukhobor society following a dispute over the succession coincided with imperial reforms resulting in a complete breakdown of Dukhobor-state solidarity. Kalmakov’s valued administrator and possibly lover, Peter Valnevich ‘Lordly’ Verigin (1859-1924) claimed to succeed as autocrat, but was opposed by Kalmakov’s brother. Verigin’s followers became the Large Party; the brother’s the Small Party. Government help was sought by both, and the befuddled officials eventually exiled Verigin to Archangel and awarding the Dukhobors’ prized property holding and government centre, the Orphan Home— valued at one million roubles— to the Small Party. Although the imperial military draft imposed on most of Transcaucasia in 1887 was not at first resisted by Dukhobors, other aspects of Alexander III’s ‘Russification’ reforms included compulsory schooling, required entries in the ‘metrical books’ that officially recorded vital statistics, healthcare programs, and contributions of grain and cash to emergency communal grain centres. Added to these reformist policies was an increasing pattern of graft and corruption by government officers.

Then, the exiled Verigin embraced Leo Tolstoy’s Christian anarchy, and anti-state activity soon increased with the emergence of an eccentric, radical ‘New Dukhoborism’, splitting the Large Party into those who accepted its strange standards— the ‘Fasters’— and the remaining Verigin supporters who did not— the ‘Middle Party’. Fasters passionately turned to extremes: repudiating of all violence and government; renouncing worldly wealth; giving away their personal property; abstaining from sex, marriage, and child bearing; communal farming; refusing to apprehend identified criminals; and refusing to swear allegiance to the new tsar, Nicholas II (r. 1894-1917). Fasters threatened to undermine their non-Russian neighbours, also, by giving their money and goods to them. If allowed to have their way, the Fasters might have undermined the entire regional economy. Dukhobors drafted as soldiers defied all authority and were cruelly punished, and on June 28, 1895 the Dukhobor communities burned all their personal weapons.

When various extreme forms of government retaliation— including Cossack brutality that involved the rape of some Dukhobor women— failed to stop the Fasters, several group exile plans were discussed by tsarist officials and Dukhobor leaders. Finally, in 1898, about 7,500 of the approximately 20,000 Dukhobors departed for Canada under Verigin’s leadership. A comparable plan for an exodus of 5,000 Molokans never materialized because they reached no agreement on what part of the world had been prophesized for them, and because the government had exiled as individuals the Molokan leaders who had most vociferously argued for exodus. [The minority of Jumpers and Maksimists, who broke away from Molokans, were the most zealous and persecuted, hence they migrated in a much larger share than the Constant Molokans. About 2,500 migrated mainly in village groups, the largest about 300, to California, though the original plan was to join the Doukhobors in Canada. See Chapter1: The Migration, Molokans in America, by John K Berokoff.]

Heretics and Colonizers makes a major contribution to the list of studies of colonisation experienced by homogeneous minority groups held together by distinct religious, economic, political, or philosophical beliefs. Written on a subject— imperial colonization— that cries out for worldwide comparisons, this close study is structurally improved because it does not become enmeshed in lengthy comparisons. Let others draw from Heretics and Colonizers to do that.

— Louis M. Waddell, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission

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