Russian Religious Maniacs

One of the best things about falling down a Tolstoy wormhole is discovering new strange Russian “cults”/religious groups.  I thought the Molokhans were good, but the Dukhobors, which means “Spirit Wrestlers,” blow them out of the water.  Take it away, A. N. Wilson!

“The Dukhobors were a rum lot, even by the rum standards of Russian religious eccentrics.  Their origins, some time in the eighteenth century, are obscure and it is hard to pin down many details of their beliefs or customs since most of them have been illiterate.  Indeed, since they object to written records or formulated dogmas, illiteracy is rather cherished by them.  Even the New Testament is rejected in favor of The Living Book––that is, the guidance of the spirit in individual Dukhobor guidance of the spirit individual Dukhobor leaders.  Mutatis mutandis, there is much in the Dukhobor position which will be familiar to the post-Barthes schools of criticism in Paris or Yale.

Some English and American Quakers who visited a Dukhobor community in 1819 were scandalized by their complete absence of interest in the historical Christ whom they considered less important than their own leader of the moment.  The great thing seemed to be prophecy: the prophetic utterance of the living spirit.

The movement had its ups and down and (inevitably) its schisms.  Alexander I was tolerant towards them.  (The Dukhobors were, and perhaps are, among those who believed that the liberal Tsar did not die in 1825 but, rather like King Arthur, continued a mysterious existence which would one day be known to the faithful; in this case, they believed, not that Alexander was sleeping in Avalon, but alive on the shores of the Baltic, and practicing the religion of the Dukhobors.)  Gradually, as the century wore on, the Dukhobor renunciation of property was compromised.  By the close of the century there were many Dukhobor peasants who were, by peasant standards, rich; there were even Dukhobors who had compromised their pacifist principles by doing national service in the army.  Then there was a revival of the old values, and squabbles broke out within the movement.  The larger group of Dukhobors, and the more reactionary, called themselves the Large Party.  They chose, “in the spirit of Christ,” a leader called Pyotr Vasilyevich Verigin, who took the title of Peter the Lordly.

Verigin pretty soon fell foul of the intolerant spirit of the times.  His insistence that property and warfare were sinful got him thrown into prison in 1887, and then exiled to Shenkursk in the Arctic Circle.  It was there that he read Tolstoy’s religious writings and absorbed many of his teachings…

Peter the Lordly, who claimed for himself a divine infallibility as absolute as the Apostolic successors of Peter the Fisherman in Rome, was naturally unwilling to admit that many of his ideas were derived from [Tolstoy’s books.]  He had no sooner read Tolstoy than he imagined that Tolstoyan ideas had been fed directly into his brain by God; and during the years 1893 and 1894 Peter the Lordly, having now been released from prison, issued a series of directives which were to have dire consequences upon the lives of his followers in the Caucasus.  Their only weapons were those of civil disobedience as prescribed by Tolstoy… ”

So Peter the Lordly outlaws meats and mandates pacifism, and of course the Tsar loses his shit, and Tolstoy takes up the cause.  His devotee Chertkov gets a British captain friend to go check on them and scout out a location for a “kind of pied-a-terre” where the Dukhobors could live.  “Perhaps in a military career, he had witnessed odder scenes than those presented by these pathetic encampments of fanatics, some of whom practiced nudism… There was a great amount of bowing, for the Dukhobors believe that the Deity resides in His fullness in every human being, and reverence their fellow man as Orthodox would an altar or a wonder-working icon.  There was weeping and sighing.”

I kind of like this whole bowing-to-everyone thing.  If it weren’t totally heretical for me––and also bound to lead to some awkward social encounters––I’d take it up!

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