Friday, 12 April 2013

Q55: Were Doukhobors serfs?

From: Charlie Chernoff, Sugar Land, Texas, USA

There is one aspect of the Doukhobor history that has puzzled me. So far I have not found a historical summary about how the Doukhobors escaped being serfs. History reports that Serfdom was abolished in Russia in 1861. But it seems that the Doukhobors lived in communities as free families long before that. A short answer if you can.

Answer by Jonathan Kalmakoff, Doukhobor Genealogy Website

In short, the overwhelming majority of 'our' Doukhobor forebears were 'free' peasants in Russia and not members of, the serf class. In other regions of Russia, many Doukhobors were serfs.

Most of 'our' Doukhobors (those belonging to the major grouping of Doukhobors who settled on the Molochnaya in the early 19th century and the Caucasus in the latter 19th century) descended from free peasant classes — odnodvortsy (smallholders), and Cossacks, state peasants and meschane (the townspeople), in the late 18th century.

As the classes were free to travel, they were more apt to proselytize among their Orthodox neighbours, thus 'infecting' them with their heresy. They were severely persecuted for doing so, but that did not stop them, and the Doukhobor faith 'spread across the steppes like a wildfire' during this period. The cruel punishments were replaced by a more 'humane' policy of resettlement, isolation and toleration (i.e., exile). These Doukhobors were quarantined in frontier regions of the Russian Empire where they would not infect the Orthodox, and in doing so, they helped colonize these regions.

That is not to say that there were no serfs at all among the Doukhobors on the Molochnaya and in the Caucasus, however, in most cases, they would have been escaped serfs from their landowers' estates, army deserters or exiles; in any case, serfs comprised no more than 1% to 3% of this major grouping of Doukhobors.

Elsewhere, across the Russian Empire, the Doukhobor faith appeared among the serf class, however, there is little documentary evidence about them. Doukhobor serfs were not permitted to join co-regligionists along the Molochnaya at the beginning of the 19th century. As a result, the majority were doomed to remain in servitude on their masters' estates in northern and central Russia, or else were conscripted into the army (considered the equivalent of a death sentence) or exiled to penal servitude in Siberia, until Emancipation in 1861. Following Emancipation, it is known that some communities of Doukhobors and other Spiritual Christians formed in the Russian Far East, including the Amur region, were comprised of emancipated serfs.

For more details, read historical articles on my Doukhobor Genealogy Website, and Dr. Breyfogle's 1998 thesis and 2005 book.

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  1. Virginia Svetlikov13 April 2013 at 16:35

    Thanks Jonathan and Koozma, very aptly put and answered. My Grandfather was a huge historian and philosopher (in his own right) and tried to explain our ancestry to us, we were children then. We didn't listen too well, but some of it stuck and I'm so grateful it did.

  2. This is basically sound but there were exceptions. Our ancestors in the Tambov region were not allowed to move with other Doukhobors to the Milky waters. They lived on an estate and were employed [?] by a large landowner who requested them to stay, as he considered them a valuable addition to his estate. When the Doukhobors were further exiled to the Caucasus the landowning estate relented, and allowed my ancestors to leave to join their brethren who had moved to the Caucasus.

  3. Jon is historically right, however to make the picture complete, we must say that while most of Doukhobors were not serfs in a legal sense of a word, during several periods of their history have have been severely subjugated and oppressed by their leaders, to the point where their situation was the same or even worse than of serfs: people were not only forced to act against their will, but their wives and daughters borrowed for sexual pleasure, material values and money expropriated. Those who dared to resist usually found themselves without any means of survival and at least at one point there was a case of genocide, where 5% to 10$ of the people were murdered.