A world without politics, without international boundaries, without violence, without poverty. Why not?
Cannot all men see how unnecessary these things are? Cannot all men see how greed is the reason they exist, and how much better we could live if no man claimed anything as his own?
The questions Lev Tolstoy planted in Russia caused serious people everywhere to ask serious questions. One of them was a young military officer named Pyotr.
A son of Prince Aleksey Kropotkin, Pyotr had served as a page in the tsar’s court at St. Petersburg before he began service in Siberia. There he had much time to think and observe. Everywhere he saw misery, cruelty, and injustice. He saw how the Russian church and government oppressed the poor. Then he saw the lives of exiled Christians and became fascinated with them—the Bespopovtsy (priestless Old Believers) in particular. “Who needs priests?” he began to ask himself. “Or for that matter, anyone to tell him what to do or believe? Anyone to stand between him and God, or between him and his conscience?”
The longer Pyotr thought about human beings, all on one level before God, the more the lifting up of any kind of authority seemed wrong. Even God, when he walked among men as Jesus Christ, did not lift himself up above the rest.
In his careful way, Pyotr began to research society as far back as one can go. Everywhere he saw that Charles Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” theory was a lie. Societies (and consequently life, both animal and human) have only survived where co-operation, not individual advancement, was a priority. Pyotr made notes on the Russian communities he came across, not only of the nonconformists, but of the ordinary peasant villages, of primitive tribes, and of communal societies among nomads. “Cooperation, not conflict, must become our goal,” he wrote. And after a trip to Switzerland where he visited a watch-makers’ commune in the Jura Mountains, he concluded, “Our hope lies not in correct nor powerful government. All forms of government and coercion are evil.1 Our hope lies in decentralized, nonpolitical, cooperative societies after the example of Christ and his disciples where everyone may develop his creative faculties without the interference of rulers, priests, or soldiers.”
“Scientific anarchy,” he named his understanding of the Gospel and promptly landed in jail.
For two years, tsarist officials kept Pyotr Kropotkin in strictest confinement. Then, in a daring plot his friends and secret supporters in high places helped him escape. In exile he wrote Words of a Rebel, Mutual Aid (his masterpiece), and Conquest of Bread.
Shared Lives at Vertograd
Just out of college, Ivan Prokhanov faced the same questions as Pyotr Kropotkin. He drew similar conclusions and for a short time the Lord allowed him to put them in practice.
A wealthy woman, the widow of the poet and social reformer Nikolai Alekseyevich Nekrasov, and two of her nieces joined the St. Petersburg fellowship. For years she had been a friend of Lev Tolstoy,2 and with Fyodor Sakharov and others, she shared Ivan’s enthusiasm for living like the Christians described in Acts two and four. Then a door opened.
Through his Mennonite friends in St. Petersburg Ivan learned of a tract of land for sale at Vertograd in the Crimea.3 After serious discussion and prayer the Nekrasovs, Fyodor with his new wife, and Ivan settled there. Ivan wrote:
We let the account of the early Christians guide us and tried to live according to the example of the Apostles: “No one said that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common.” At Vertograd all we had belonged to everyone. Our spirits strangely rose as this knowledge—even as persons we belonged to others—grew upon us. In a sense we lost our “selves,” our freedom, and individuality. But as we did this in accordance with the early Christians’ example and with Jesus’ teaching on self denial (Matt. 16:24) great joy filled our hearts and we were in the brightest spiritual state imaginable, all the time.4
From the beginning, a stream of visitors converged upon the Vertograd community. Some stayed and much work got accomplished between daily meetings for worship and prayer. But renewed persecution, and Ivan’s return to the Caucasus after his father got arrested, forced everyone to leave. Under threat of arrest, Ivan himself left Russia secretly, through Finland, in the winter of 1895.5
A Weed Flowing Upstream
While Ivan traveled west, Lev Tolstoy, taking a break from his writing projects at Yasnaya Polyana, traveled north. There, in Russian prison camps, he saw with his own eyes what he had heard of torture, starvation, and forced labour under inhuman conditions. For hardened criminals this would have been bad enough. But to Lev’s consternation, he found many of the prisoners humble, innocent people—like Maksim Gavrilovich Rudometkin of the Molokan Pryguny, who had survived nine years in the dungeon at Solovets on the White Sea.
Lev and Maksim talked to one another. They discovered their common beliefs about voluntary poverty and nonviolence. For the first time in years Maksim could talk freely with someone who understood him and when the time came for the two men to part it was hard. But good news came soon. Through Lev’s influence Maksim got transferred to a somewhat better prison at Suzdal, in Central Russia.
In the north, Lev Tolstoy also met a Dukhobor leader in exile: Pyotr Vasilyevich Verigin, of an old Spirit Christian family from the Molochna River. A man over six feet tall with black hair and a full beard, Pyotr impressed Lev Tolstoy with his sincerity and common sense. “We are like the plakun trava,” Pyotr told him. “No matter what they do to us we will keep on going the direction we have chosen. We will follow Christ.”
Lev Tolstoy knew at once what Pyotr meant. The Russians had a legend about the plakun trava, a weed that floats against the current, upstream. “You are right,” he answered. “And if you keep on doing so, more will follow until the world turns around and goes the other way.”
In his places of exile in Shenkursk and Kola, Pyotr Vasilyevich, not only read Lev Tolstoy’s books with interest, particularly The Kingdom of God is Within You. He wrote instructive letters to his family and fellow believers in Armenia. He encouraged them in brotherly community, urging them to overcome the last remnants of selfish ambition, and to stop hiring non-members to work for them. “Whatever those labourers produce, they deserve to take home with them,” he said. “If you make a profit on their labour the accusation of James 5:4 stands against you. If you do not make a profit on their labour, why hire them at all?”
Pyotr also wrote about self denial and abstaining from foods:
All creatures get their life from the same power that gives life to man. Why should they not have the same right to live? To destroy those creatures for the sake of gluttony is reprehensible. . . . Drinking alcoholic beverages and smoking tobacco is not only unnatural for a Christian, but is also unnatural for any man. . . . In the Gospel it is said: “Do not live oneself up to drinking wine because it leads to dissolution.” And about smoking tobacco and the harm it does, I have no need to explain. It is one of the lowest levels to which a man can fall.6
But by far the most of Pyotr Vasilyevich’s instructions had to do with alternative military service. During Aleksandr III’s rule the Mennonites and Spirit Christians who remained in Russia gradually agreed (against their true desire) to do Red Cross or forestry duty instead of going to war. They might not have disliked it as much had their boys not been forced to wear uniforms and carry guns, even though it was said they did not have to use them.
Pyotr Vasilyevich wrote:
In his teaching, Christ condemned and destroyed the basis for military duty. That is how I understand the life and teaching of Christ. And I believe that we as Christians should refuse military service altogether. I find it my responsibility to tell you that you should refuse to serve as soldiers and take no part in any military actions, even if it they are non-combatant. Whatever weapons you have acquired while drifting away from Christ’s teaching—rifles, revolvers, swords, daggers—should be gathered in one place and, as a sign of non-resistance to evil by evil means, and to obey the commandment “You shall not kill” they should be destroyed by burning.
The Spirit Christians in the Caucasus took Pyotr’s counsel seriously—and suffered the consequences.
On April 2, 1895, on a Day of Resurrection, a young believer in noncombatant service, Matvey Lebedov, refused to parade as commanded. Ten boys serving with him, immediately dropped their guns and followed his example. Their officer was furious. “We will show you who is in charge,” he screamed at them. “Go fetch the rosgi!”
The rosgi, bundles of prickly acacia rods appeared at once, and the soldiers laid Matvey face down on the ground without his shirt. Working in rhythm, one man on either side, they flogged him fifty times, until bits of flesh flew with the blood. Then they threw him into an unheated cell for the night.
The next boy, Mikhail Sherbinin, they flogged the same way, but like Matvey he showed no sign of weakening. The officer, rapidly losing face, grew desperate. “Flog him on the other side, the brute!” he shouted. The soldiers turned him face up and gave him another fifty lashes. But Mikhail would not give up. The officer, in blind rage, threw him against a nearby gymnasium horse, breaking his ribs. Then they hurled him into a cell where he got a high fever and died.
The other boys suffered likewise, but the Spirit Christian communities sensed more clearly than ever the challenge to let the light of Christ shine above the darkness of war and violence. On June 28, 1895 believers gathered from every direction to a high place above the village of Orlovka in the Caucasus. It was the time of the yearly love feast but everyone sensed that this gathering would be unusual. From all the villages men and boys brought the guns and other weapons they had acquired. On top of the hill they piled them up and covered them with twenty wagon loads of wood and coal, soaked in five hundred litres of kerosene.
At the stroke of midnight, with more than two thousand believers standing in a circle around the “mountain of arms” they threw a burning torch onto the pile and a great flame roared up amid the sound of victory songs and joyful prayers to Christ.
The fire, strategically placed, lit the summer night, and could be seen from many hours’ travel in every direction.
The Spirit Christians had made their point and retribution was immediate.
Persecuted But Not Forsaken
After the burning of arms at Orlovka (and shortly afterward at two other locations) tsarist troops arrested five thousand Spirit Christians. On horseback, Cossack soldiers swept into their villages, rounded them up, and drove them into exile.
The Spirit Christians sang as they left all their earthly possessions behind:
For your sake, Lord, we enter the narrow gate.
We leave our worldly lives, our fathers and our mothers.
We leave our brothers and sisters, our people and tribes.
We bear hardness and persecution, scorn and slander.
We are hungry and thirsty. We walk with nothing,
For your sake Lord.
The Cossacks tried to drown out the Spirit Christians’ singing with obscene songs of their own. Wherever they could they captured more and mistreated them. One of their many victims who described to Lev Tolstoy’s investigators what happened, Aksenya Strelayeva, said:
Four of us women were walking from Spaskoye to Bogdanovka when a hundred Cossacks overtook us. They brought us to the village and led us one by one into the yard of the coach house. There they stripped us (throwing our skirts over our shoulders) and flogged our bare bodies. In the yard stood some Cossacks and many other people. They flogged us so, you could not count the strokes. Two of them held us and four flogged. Three of us stood through it but one they dragged about so that she could not stand. We received many insults.
An old woman, Anna Posnyakov said:
The soldiers came to us during the day—twenty of them. They called my son Vasya, twenty-four years old, into the yard . . . and brought a whip. After they had flogged him three times they raised him up and when they saw he was still breathing they flogged him more. When they stopped he was barely alive. His whole body was jerking. Then they flung him into the coach house.
At midnight they came to arrest my other son. We said, “We are all the same. Arrest us all! We will not let him alone.” Two of the women in our house had little children whom they took up in their arms. . . . The soldiers almost strangled the children by trying to tear us from them. Then they dragged my son and us along with him. . . . They also flogged Vasya Kolesnikov until his boots filled with blood.
Even unconverted Russians looked on in dismay. A military officer stationed in the Caucasus wrote on March 7, 1897:
Having heard that some Dukhobors were being transferred from the Elisavetpol prison to that of Nukhin, I went out to meet them at the military post. I shall never forget how they looked. Along the high road, muddy with the melting snow, moved a crowd of well-grown healthy men in sturdy clothes. They slung their sacks and coats in soldier-fashion over their shoulders. Their faces were calm and good-tempered, their movements measured, and their conversation peaceful.
Surrounded by an escort of soldiers with rifles, there were thirty-six of them, for the most part middle-aged men, though some were quite old and grey, and others young beardless boys. The expanse of steppe and fields which for a long time they had not set eyes on, the bright sunshine, the open air, and the sight of other men and of free life evidently had a cheering effect on the captives. The stifling city prison was forgotten for the moment and each was glad merely to breathe fully and freely, to stretch his cramped limbs, to enjoy the new scene, with the walls of the prison court no longer around him.
It was just this that went through my heart as I looked at them. . . . Other bystanders also stared at the captives in astonishment and consternation, for everyone in that part of Russia knows the Dukhobors well. “Why are they taking these people to prison?” they asked one another. “What have they done? What is their crime? . . . I took leave of them and returned home pensive and sorrowful.
All told, tsarist authorites banished four hundred families to swampy lowlands along the Black Sea, or to Yakutsk in Siberia, seven thousand kilometres away. Under torture and brutal mistreatment, many of them perished within a year. But they did not lose faith and the Lord Christ in whom they trusted did not forsake them. Through the efforts of Pyotr Kropotkin (who had visited Russian Mennonites in Canada) Vladimir Chertkov, and English Quakers, more than seven thousand five hundred Spirit Christians got permission to leave Russia and made their way through British Cyprus to Canada. Lev Tolstoy paid for their way with the sale to the rights of his newest book, Resurrection, printed in England.7
Cast Down But Not Destroyed
Tsar Nikolai II (married to Queen Victoria’s granddaughter) censured Resurrection and made it illegal to distribute it in Russia. The Orthodox church excommunicated Lev Tolstoy for his criticism of “God-ordained authority.” But Lev remained serene. He had “left the church” at his conversion years before, not bothering to discuss it with church officials because he neither saw them as “officials” nor what they represented as “the church.” He wrote: “I believe in God whom I understand as Spirit, as Love, as the Source of all. I believe He is in me and I in Him.”
At the same time, as repression grew worse, the numbers of believers mushroomed. Ten years after the burning of arms in the Caucasus nearly a million Spirit Christians lived in that region alone. In secret they circulated the Book of Spirit and Life written by Maksim Gavrilovich Rudometkin (presumed to have died in jail at Suzdal) and other Pryguny leaders. Like Pyotr Vasilyevich’s writings, it encouraged believers to free themselves from violence, even senseless violence against animals, and called them to live in brotherly community.8
Along with a rapidly growing number of Spirit Christians and disciples of Lev Tolstoy, the Stundists flourished “underground.” Particularly true was this of southern Russia (the Ukraine), where Adolf Abramovich Reimer grew up in a village along the Molochna River.
Adolf and his family belonged to the Mennonite Brüdergemeinde. His mother was a daughter of Martin Kalweit, the converted Lutheran who brought believers’ baptism to the Molokans in the Caucasus. And like the children of many other believers, Adolf grew up knowing poverty and persecution. People still made fun of Stundists and all the more so if they were poor enough to collect match boxes along the street, like he did, to turn in at the store for one kopek.
Adolf did not worry. As a child he had learned to love the Kingdom of Heaven. By the time he was fifteen the elders had baptised him and he preached regularly in a Ukrainian village not far from Halbstadt, where he lived. Then he taught school in the village of Tiege and married Sara Goosen.
Soon after their wedding Adolf held his first baptism. Four Ukrainian boys and a girl had turned to Christ. To evade the police, they hurried to a creek behind Tiege in the middle of the night. They celebrated communion with bread and wine and before five in the morning everyone hurried home.
Through such activities the “underground” church kept on spreading, with no central organization and in political unrest and fear, throughout Russia. Not the least among what hastened its spread was the Trans-Siberian Railroad, opened between Chelyabinsk and Vladivostok (9,288 kilometres) in 1905.
A foreign critic laughed at the railroad, “rusty streaks of iron through the vastness of nothing to the extremities of nowhere.” But to Russian believers it opened the way to far more communication than had ever been possible. Large numbers of Siberian Old Believers became baptised. Molokans from the Caucasus found their way east along the railroad, to the Amur River. Mennonites from Khortitsa and Molochna also settled along the railroad in remote farming colonies, and some of them thought of a unique way to bring the Scriptures to the people.
Russian law could not censure the Bible. Neither could it class an honest sale “propaganda.” So in all mills along the Trans-Siberian railroad owned by Mennonite Stundists or people friendly toward them, they placed Russian New Testaments to sell for ten kopeks. It was impossible to keep the racks full.
Travelling messengers, like Jakob Kroeker (whom his parents dedicated to the work of Christ after he ran into the blade of a scythe on their south Russian farm), Pavel Pavlov (Vasily Pavlov’s only surviving son), Martin Thielman, Mikhail Timoshenko and others, travelled thousands of kilometres every year. Wherever they went, more came to Christ and received baptism for remission of sins.
Back in St. Petersburg Ivan Prokhanov (now with a wife and two children) still found time to write hymns. Along with other hymns he adapted from “underground” sources he published them in a small book he called Gusli (The Harps). Along with this he and the St. Petersburg believers kept publishing Beseda, the newsletter that eventually became Khristianin (The Christian) under a clearly stated purpose: “We will publish nothing but Christ. . . . Khristianin is to be a call to Russia’s millions to come directly to Christ, the only mediator between men and God. It is a call to break down walls between men by bringing them to God’s community in Christ.” Heinrich Braun, Ivan’s friend from college got involved and before long, the owners of a print shop at Halbstadt on the Molochna.
The Molochna printers, putting out a German paper called Friedensstimme (Voice of Peace) had become interested in doing work in Russian. Ivan saw an open door and the St. Petersburg believers met with those from Halbstadt to establish a Christian publishing company. More books and papers appeared at once.
When the question of a name for the new publishing work came up, Ivan looked about the group—baptised Molokans, Mennonites, and Russians of widely varied backgrounds but one belief in Christ—and said, “Let us call it Raduga (The Rainbow).” Everyone understood, and in the light of unity in Christ, the Russian believers went out to meet . . .
1 Pyotr Kropotkin, believing prisons to be “nothing but schools of crime” advocated correction, not by force but the power of persuasion and example. He believed children should learn not so much from books as by observing and doing, especially outdoors.
2 Lev Tolstoy published his first works in Nikolai Nekrasov’s paper.
3 A Mennonite group, influenced by the “Temple Movement,” had decided to emigrate to Palestine and put their property up for sale.
4 Hans Brandenburg, in his book The Meek and The Mighty wrote: “Ivan Prokhanov . . . wanted to show Russian intellectuals who were influenced by socialist thought, by means of an example, that a voluntary communism based on the gospel was not impossible. This is reminiscent of the Bruderhöfe that came into being in Germany and later abroad through Dr. Eberhard Arnold.”
5 His escape involved ten weeks of hiding in a secret room in a Helsinki castle, waiting for the harbour ice to break. He spent his time writing and composing tunes.
6 Cited in an anonymous tract, About Verigin’s Tomb, Grand Forks, British Colombia.
7 This was a slight adjustment of his decision--made at the time of his conversion--not to receive any more royalties or payment for what he wrote.
8 Under constant persecution, some Molokan families began to escape Russia on foot, through Turkey and Iran, to Panama, Mexico, and the United States. They carried Maksim Gavrilovich’s original writings with them, baked into a loaf of bread, and founded the first obshina (Molokan community farm) in the United States. After publicly burning a gun in downtown Phoenix and suffering much for their nonresistant stand during World War I, the Molokans became recognized there as a “Historic Peace Church.” They have kept their simple Russian-language worship services and their plain clothes--the rubashka, the kosinka (head covering for women), etc--for meetings, and keep to some degree their traditions about food. But they have declined in numbers. In recent years there has been a revival of the Molokan movement in the Molochna River area of the Ukraine.