From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Doukhobors/Koozma J. Tarasoff

The term Doukhobor is derived from Dukhoborets, or Spirit Wrestler. It was first formulated in 1785 by the Russian Orthodox archbishop of Ekaterinoslav in the southern region (present-day Ukraine) of the Russian Empire, who used the term in a derogatory manner, implying that it referred to those who wrestled against the spirit of the church and God. The group itself, however, adopted the name with the understanding that it referred to people who “wrestle with the spirit of truth.” Although comprising elements of religion and a distinct way of life, Doukhobors might best be described as a social movement characterized by love, human goodness, and justice. At present the largest number of Doukhobors outside the homeland is in Canada, which has a Doukhobor population of about 30,000. There are about the same number in the former Soviet Union.

The origins of the Doukhobor movement go back to the 1650s, when Patriarch Nikon introduced reforms in the Russian Orthodox Church. His action led to protest among many believers and the result was the development of several factions or schisms that came to be known as the Raskol, or great division. The Raskol, in turn, split into two groupings, Popovtsi (priestists) and Bezpopovtsi (priestless). The Popovtsi sought to return to the pre-reform Orthodox traditions, retaining both priests and the veneration of icons. That orientation is today best represented by the Old Believers. The Bezpopovtsi dispensed entirely with priests and some of them, like the future Doukhobors, rejected all church trappings, including icons, sacraments, and even the Bible. They argued that God exists in spirit and truth, that each individual is his or her own church, and that there is no need for priests. Although the Doukhobors rejected a priesthood, they soon developed the principle of spiritual leadership, which during the nineteenth century tended to become hereditary.

By the time the Doukhobors became a distinct religious group in the early eighteenth century, they had rejected not only the Russian Orthodox Church but the tsarist regime that backed the official church. As a result, Doukhobors were frequently persecuted by the Russian imperial authorities and forced to live in peripheral regions of the empire, such as southern Russia (Kursk, Voronezh, Tambov, and Saratov provinces), Ukraine, the Don Cossack region, Transcaucasia, and far eastern Siberia (Irkutsk and Kamchatka).

The importance of spiritual leaders within the movement dates back to the 1730s, when a Socrates-like, unnamed, wandering teacher from Moscow appeared in the Kharkov province of Ukraine. He argued that the hierarchy and clergy are man-made inventions, that all churches and their rituals are therefore superfluous, and that monasticism is a distortion of human nature. He also criticized the existing social order, claiming that the tsar and church hierarchs were in no way superior to other people and that Russia’s serf system was a disgrace to humanity. This first Doukhobor teacher proclaimed that all men and women are brothers and sisters.

Following in the footsteps of the unnamed wandering teacher was Sylvan Kolesnikov, a Doukhobor organizer in Russia’s Ekaterinoslav province (present-day Ukraine). Kolesnikov opened his home as a learning centre, where he also taught the Doukhobors to survive by evasion, stressing that external forms of religion are unimportant and that a believer might profess any religion provided that they remained true to themselves and lived a good and simple life. He also introduced the custom of bowing to the God within every person, and he stressed use of the oral tradition based on the so-called “book of life.”

Next came Ilarion Pobirokhin, a prosperous wool dealer in the Tambov and Kharkov provinces, who taught that truth is not found in books but rather in the spirit. What was important, therefore, was not the Bible but rather the “book of life” of living memory. Under Pobirokhin’s leadership, the Doukhobor oral literature of hymns was greatly expanded. It was not long, however, before Pobirokhin became taken with his own self-importance and proclaimed himself to be the living Christ, arguing that his divinity was passed on to him via chosen individuals since apostolic times. Not surprisingly, Pobirokhin’s claim caused friction among the Doukhobors themselves and brought as well persecution from tsarist Russian authorities.

For most of the nineteenth century, Doukhobor life in the Russia Empire was characterized by two developments: frequent internal power struggles between the community’s hereditary leaders, including figures like Savelii Kapustin, Lukeriia Kalmykova, Mikhail Gubanov, and Petr Verigin; and alternative periods of tolerance and persecution by the Russian imperial government. During the 1840s, most Doukhobors (numbering about 4,000 at the time) were exiled to Transcaucasia. After a period of cooperation with the authorities during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78, about 5,000 were allowed to settle in the newly acquired territory of Kars near Russia’s border with the Ottoman Empire. This period of tolerance ended in 1895, however, when Doukhobor military recruits and then civilian community members began to burn their firearms. The tsarist government reacted to Doukhobor pacifism by new persecutions during which several hundred were exiled to Yakutsk in far eastern Siberia and others were isolated in their community. The remainder, with the help of the renowned Russian novelist and committed pacifist Leo Tolstoy, sought refuge by emigrating to Canada.

The Doukhobors in far eastern Siberia were basically left alone by the tsarist regime until it fell in 1917. Under the new Soviet regime, the Doukhobors managed to survive because of their distance from the centre of political authority in Moscow and most especially because of their ability to downplay external forms of religion in favour of an emphasis on a person’s private beliefs.