Russia eText - Chapter XVII - Among The Heretics

Chapter XVII - Among The Heretics

Whilst travelling on the Steppe I heard a great deal about a peculiar religious sect called the Molokanye, and I felt interested in them because their religious belief, whatever it was, seemed to have a beneficial influence on their material welfare. Of the same race and placed in the same conditions as the Orthodox peasantry around them, they were undoubtedly better housed, better clad, more punctual in the payment of their taxes, and, in a word, more prosperous. All my informants agreed in describing them as quiet, decent, sober people; but regarding their religious doctrines the evidence was vague and contradictory. Some described them as Protestants or Lutherans, whilst others believed them to be the last remnants of a curious heretical sect which existed in the early Christian Church.

Desirous of obtaining clear notions on the subject, I determined to investigate the matter for myself. At first I found this to be no easy task. In the villages through which I passed I found numerous members of the sect, but they all showed a decided repugnance to speak about their religious beliefs. Long accustomed to extortion and persecution at the hands of the Administration, and suspecting me to be a secret agent of the Government, they carefully avoided speaking on any subject beyond the state of the weather and the prospects of the harvest, and replied to my questions on other topics as if they had been standing before a Grand Inquisitor.

A few unsuccessful attempts convinced me that it would be impossible to extract from them their religious beliefs by direct questioning. I adopted, therefore, a different system of tactics. From meagre replies already received I had discovered that their doctrine had at least a superficial resemblance to Presbyterianism, and from former experience I was aware that the curiosity of intelligent Russian peasants is easily excited by descriptions of foreign countries. On these two facts I based my plan of campaign. When I found a Molokan, or some one whom I suspected to be such, I talked for some time about the weather and the crops, as if I had no ulterior object in view. Having fully discussed this matter, I led the conversation gradually from the weather and crops in Russia to the weather and crops in Scotland, and then passed slowly from Scotch agriculture to the Scotch Presbyterian Church. On nearly every occasion this policy succeeded. When the peasant heard that there was a country where the people interpreted the Scriptures for themselves, had no bishops, and considered the veneration of Icons as idolatry, he invariably listened with profound attention; and when he learned further that in that wonderful country the parishes annually sent deputies to an assembly in which all matters pertaining to the Church were freely and publicly discussed, he almost always gave free expression to his astonishment, and I had to answer a whole volley of questions. "Where is that country?" "Is it to the east, or the west?" "Is it very far away?" "If our Presbyter could only hear all that!"

This last expression was precisely what I wanted, because it gave me an opportunity of making the acquaintance of the Presbyter, or pastor, without seeming to desire it; and I knew that a conversation with that personage, who is always an uneducated peasant like the others, but is generally more intelligent and better acquainted with religious doctrine, would certainly be of use to me. On more than one occasion I spent a great part of the night with a Presbyter, and thereby learned much concerning the religious beliefs and practices of the sect. After these interviews I was sure to be treated with confidence and respect by all the Molokanye in the village, and recommended to the brethren of the faith in the neighbouring villages through which I intended to pass. Several of the more intelligent peasants with whom I spoke advised me strongly to visit Alexandrof-Hai, a village situated on the borders of the Kirghiz Steppe. "We are dark [i.e., ignorant] people here," they were wont to say, "and do not know anything, but in Alexandrof-Hai you will find those who know the faith, and they will discuss with you." This prediction was fulfilled in a somewhat unexpected way.

When returning some weeks later from a visit to the Kirghiz of the Inner Horde, I arrived one evening at this centre of the Molokan faith, and was hospitably received by one of the brotherhood. In conversing casually with my host on religious subjects I expressed to him a desire to find some one well read in Holy Writ and well grounded in the faith, and he promised to do what he could for me in this respect. Next morning he kept his promise with a vengeance. Immediately after the tea-urn had been removed the door of the room was opened and twelve peasants were ushered in! After the customary salutations with these unexpected visitors, my host informed me to my astonishment that his friends had come to have a talk with me about the faith; and without further ceremony he placed before me a folio Bible in the old Slavonic tongue, in order that I might read passages in support of my arguments. As I was not at all prepared to open a formal theological discussion, I felt not a little embarrassed, and I could see that my travelling companions, two Russian friends who cared for none of these things, were thoroughly enjoying my discomfiture. There was, however, no possibility of drawing back. I had asked for an opportunity of having a talk with some of the brethren, and now I had got it in a way that I certainly did not expect. My friends withdrew--"leaving me to my fate," as they whispered to me--and the "talk" began.

My fate was by no means so terrible as had been anticipated, but at first the situation was a little awkward. Neither party had any clear ideas as to what the other desired, and my visitors expected that I was to begin the proceedings. This expectation was quite natural and justifiable, for I had inadvertently invited them to meet me, but I could not make a speech to them, for the best of all reasons--that I did not know what to say. If I told them my real aims, their suspicions would probably be aroused. My usual stratagem of the weather and the crops was wholly inapplicable. For a moment I thought of proposing that a psalm should be sung as a means of breaking the ice, but I felt that this would give to the meeting a solemnity which I wished to avoid. On the whole it seemed best to begin at once a formal discussion. I told them, therefore, that I had spoken with many of their brethren in various villages, and that I had found what I considered grave errors of doctrine. I could not, for instance, agree with them in their belief that it was unlawful to eat pork. This was perhaps an abrupt way of entering on the subject, but it furnished at least a locus standi--something to talk about--and an animated discussion immediately ensued. My opponents first endeavoured to prove their thesis from the New Testament, and when this argument broke down they had recourse to the Pentateuch. From a particular article of the ceremonial law we passed to the broader question as to how far the ceremonial law is still binding, and from this to other points equally important.

If the logic of the peasants was not always unimpeachable, their knowledge of the Scriptures left nothing to be desired. In support of their views they quoted long passages from memory, and whenever I indicated vaguely any text which I needed, they at once supplied it verbatim, so that the big folio Bible served merely as an ornament. Three or four of them seemed to know the whole of the New Testament by heart. The course of our informal debate need not here be described; suffice it to say that, after four hours of uninterrupted conversation, we agreed to differ on questions of detail, and parted from each other without a trace of that ill- feeling which religious discussion commonly engenders. Never have I met men more honest and courteous in debate, more earnest in the search after truth, more careless of dialectical triumphs, than these simple, uneducated muzhiks. If at one or two points in the discussion a little undue warmth was displayed, I must do my opponents the justice to say that they were not the offending party.

This long discussion, as well as numerous discussions which I had had before and since have had with Molokanye in various parts of the country, confirmed my first impression that their doctrines have a strong resemblance to Presbyterianism. There is, however, an important difference. Presbyterianism has an ecclesiastical organisation and a written creed, and its doctrines have long since become clearly defined by means of public discussion, polemical literature, and general assemblies. The Molokanye, on the contrary, have had no means of developing their fundamental principles and forming their vague religious beliefs into a clearly defined logical system. Their theology is therefore still in a half-fluid state, so that it is impossible to predict what form it will ultimately assume. "We have not yet thought about that," I have frequently been told when I inquired about some abstruse doctrine; "we must talk about it at the meeting next Sunday. What is your opinion?" Besides this, their fundamental principles allow great latitude for individual and local differences of opinion. They hold that Holy Writ is the only rule of faith and conduct, but that it must be taken in the spiritual, and not in the literal, sense. As there is no terrestrial authority to which doubtful points can be referred, each individual is free to adopt the interpretation which commends itself to his own judgment. This will no doubt ultimately lead to a variety of sects, and already there is a considerable diversity of opinion between different communities; but this diversity has not yet been recognised, and I may say that I nowhere found that fanatically dogmatic, quibbling spirit which is usually the soul of sectarianism.

For their ecclesiastical organisation the Molokanye take as their model the early Apostolic Church, as depicted in the New Testament, and uncompromisingly reject all later authorities. In accordance with this model they have no hierarchy and no paid clergy, but choose from among themselves a Presbyter and two assistants--men well known among the brethren for their exemplary life and their knowledge of the Scriptures--whose duty it is to watch over the religious and moral welfare of the flock. On Sundays they hold meetings in private houses--they are not allowed to build churches-- and spend two or three hours in psalm singing, prayer, reading the Scriptures, and friendly conversation on religious subjects. If any one has a doctrinal difficulty which he desires to have cleared up, he states it to the congregation, and some of the others give their opinions, with the texts on which the opinions are founded. If the question seems clearly solved by the texts, it is decided; if not, it is left open.

As in many young sects, there exists among the Molokanye a system of severe moral supervision. If a member has been guilty of drunkenness or any act unbecoming a Christian, he is first admonished by the Presbyter in private or before the congregation; and if this does not produce the desired effect, he is excluded for a longer or shorter period from the meetings and from all intercourse with the members. In extreme cases expulsion is resorted to. On the other hand, if any one of the members happens to be, from no fault of his own, in pecuniary difficulties, the others will assist him. This system of mutual control and mutual assistance has no doubt something to do with the fact that the Molokanye are distinguished from the surrounding population by their sobriety, uprightness, and material prosperity.

Of the history of the sect my friends in Alexandrof-Hai could tell me very little, but I have obtained from other quarters some interesting information. The founder was a peasant of the province of Tambof called Uklein, who lived in the reign of Catherine II., and gained his living as an itinerant tailor. For some time he belonged to the sect of the Dukhobortsi--who are sometimes called the Russian Quakers, and who have recently become known in Western Europe through the efforts of Count Tolstoy on their behalf--but he soon seceded from them, because he could not admit their doctrine that God dwells in the human soul, and that consequently the chief source of religious truth is internal enlightenment. To him it seemed that religious truth was to be found only in the Scriptures. With this doctrine he soon made many converts, and one day he unexpectedly entered the town of Tambof, surrounded by seventy "Apostles" chanting psalms. They were all quickly arrested and imprisoned, and when the affair was reported to St. Petersburg the Empress Catherine ordered that they should be handed over to the ecclesiastical authorities, and that in the event of their proving obdurate to exhortation they should be tried by the Criminal Courts. Uklein professed to recant, and was liberated; but he continued his teaching secretly in the villages, and at the time of his death he was believed to have no less than five thousand followers.

As to the actual strength of the sect it is difficult to form even a conjecture. Certainly it has many thousand members--probably several hundred thousand. Formerly the Government transported them from the central provinces to the thinly populated outlying districts, where they had less opportunity of contaminating Orthodox neighbours; and accordingly we find them in the southeastern districts of Samara, on the north coast of the Sea of Azof, in the Crimea, in the Caucasus, and in Siberia. There are still, however, very many of them in the central region, especially in the province of Tambof.

The readiness with which the Molokanye modify their opinions and beliefs in accordance with what seems to them new light saves them effectually from bigotry and fanaticism, but it at the same time exposes them to evils of a different kind, from which they might be preserved by a few stubborn prejudices. "False prophets arise among us," said an old, sober-minded member to me on one occasion, "and lead many away from the faith."

In 1835, for example, great excitement was produced among them by rumours that the second advent of Christ was at hand, and that the Son of Man, coming to judge the world, was about to appear in the New Jerusalem, somewhere near Mount Ararat. As Elijah and Enoch were to appear before the opening of the Millennium, they were anxiously awaited by the faithful, and at last Elijah appeared, in the person of a Melitopol peasant called Belozvorof, who announced that on a given day he would ascend into heaven. On the day appointed a great crowd collected, but he failed to keep his promise, and was handed over to the police as an impostor by the Molokanye themselves. Unfortunately they were not always so sensible as on that occasion. In the very next year many of them were persuaded by a certain Lukian Petrof to put on their best garments and start for the Promised Land in the Caucasus, where the Millennium was about to begin.

Of these false prophets the most remarkable in recent times was a man who called himself Ivan Grigorief, a mysterious personage who had at one time a Turkish and at another an American passport, but who seemed in all other respects a genuine Russian. Some years previously to my visit he appeared at Alexandrof-Hai. Though he professed himself to be a good Molokan and was received as such, he enounced at the weekly meetings many new and startling ideas. At first he simply urged his hearers to live like the early Christians, and have all things in common. This seemed sound doctrine to the Molokanye, who profess to take the early Christians as their model, and some of them thought of at once abolishing personal property; but when the teacher intimated pretty plainly that this communism should include free love, a decided opposition arose, and it was objected that the early Church did not recommend wholesale adultery and cognate sins. This was a formidable objection, but "the prophet" was equal to the occasion. He reminded his friends that in accordance with their own doctrine the Scriptures should be understood, not in the literal, but in the spiritual, sense--that Christianity had made men free, and every true Christian ought to use his freedom.

This account of the new doctrine was given to me by an intelligent Molokan, who had formerly been a peasant and was now a trader, as I sat one evening in his house in Novo-usensk, the chief town of the district in which Alexandrof-Hai is situated. It seemed to me that the author of this ingenious attempt to conciliate Christianity with extreme Utilitarianism must be an educated man in disguise. This conviction I communicated to my host, but he did not agree with me.

"No, I think not," he replied; "in fact, I am sure he is a peasant, and I strongly suspect he was at some time a soldier. He has not much learning, but he has a wonderful gift of talking; never have I heard any one speak like him. He would have talked over the whole village, had it not been for an old man who was more than a match for him. And then he went to Orloff-Hai and there he did talk the people over." What he really did in this latter place I never could clearly ascertain. Report said that he founded a communistic association, of which he was himself president and treasurer, and converted the members to an extraordinary theory of prophetic succession, invented apparently for his own sensual gratification. For further information my host advised me to apply either to the prophet himself, who was at that time confined in the gaol on a charge of using a forged passport, or to one of his friends, a certain Mr. I---- , who lived in the town. As it was a difficult matter to gain admittance to the prisoner, and I had little time at my disposal, I adopted the latter alternative.

Mr. I---- was himself a somewhat curious character. He had been a student in Moscow, and in consequence of some youthful indiscretions during the University disturbances had been exiled to this place. After waiting in vain some years for a release, he gave up the idea of entering one of the learned professions, married a peasant girl, rented a piece of land, bought a pair of camels, and settled down as a small farmer.* He had a great deal to tell about the prophet.

* Here for the first time I saw camels used for agricultural purposes. When yoked to a small four-wheeled cart, the "ships of the desert" seemed decidedly out of place.

Grigorief, it seemed, was really simply a Russian peasant, but he had been from his youth upwards one of those restless people who can never long work in harness. Where his native place was, and why he left it, he never divulged, for reasons best known to himself. He had travelled much, and had been an attentive observer. Whether he had ever been in America was doubtful, but he had certainly been in Turkey, and had fraternised with various Russian sectarians, who are to be found in considerable numbers near the Danube. Here, probably, he acquired many of his peculiar religious ideas, and conceived his grand scheme of founding a new religion--of rivalling the Founder of Christianity! He aimed at nothing less than this, as he on one occasion confessed, and he did not see why he should not be successful. He believed that the Founder of Christianity had been simply a man like himself, who understood better than others the people around him and the circumstances of the time, and he was convinced that he himself had these qualifications. One qualification, however, for becoming a prophet he certainly did not possess: he had no genuine religious enthusiasm in him--nothing of the martyr spirit about him. Much of his own preaching he did not himself believe, and he had a secret contempt for those who naively accepted it all. Not only was he cunning, but he knew he was cunning, and he was conscious that he was playing an assumed part. And yet perhaps it would be unjust to say that he was merely an impostor exclusively occupied with his own personal advantage. Though he was naturally a man of sensual tastes, and could not resist convenient opportunities of gratifying them, he seemed to believe that his communistic schemes would, if realised, be beneficial not only to himself, but also to the people. Altogether a curious mixture of the prophet, the social reformer, and the cunning impostor!

Besides the Molokanye, there are in Russia many other heretical sects. Some of them are simply Evangelical Protestants, like the Stundisti, who have adopted the religious conceptions of their neighbours, the German colonists; whilst others are composed of wild enthusiasts, who give a loose rein to their excited imagination, and revel in what the Germans aptly term "der hohere Blodsinn." I cannot here attempt to convey even a general idea of these fantastic sects with their doctrinal and ceremonial absurdities, but I may offer the following classification of them for the benefit of those who may desire to study the subject:

1. Sects which take the Scriptures as the basis of their belief, but interpret and complete the doctrines therein contained by means of the occasional inspiration or internal enlightenment of their leading members.

2. Sects which reject interpretation and insist on certain passages of Scripture being taken in the literal sense. In one of the best known of these sects--the Skoptsi, or Eunuchs--fanaticism has led to physical mutilation.

3. Sects which pay little or no attention to Scripture, and derive their doctrine from the supposed inspiration of their living teachers.

4. Sects which believe in the re-incarnation of Christ.

5. Sects which confound religion with nervous excitement, and are more or less erotic in their character. The excitement necessary for prophesying is commonly produced by dancing, jumping, pirouetting, or self-castigation; and the absurdities spoken at such times are regarded as the direct expression of divine wisdom. The religious exercises resemble more or less closely those of the "dancing dervishes" and "howling dervishes's with which all who have visited Constantinople are familiar. There is, however, one important difference: the dervishes practice their religious exercises in public, and consequently observe a certain decorum, whilst these Russian sects assemble in secret, and give free scope to their excitement, so that most disgusting orgies sometimes take place at their meetings.

To illustrate the general character of the sects belonging to this last category, I may quote here a short extract from a description of the "Khlysti" by one who was initiated into their mysteries: "Among them men and women alike take upon themselves the calling of teachers and prophets, and in this character they lead a strict, ascetic life, refrain from the most ordinary and innocent pleasures, exhaust themselves by long fasting and wild, ecstatic religious exercises, and abhor marriage. Under the excitement caused by their supposed holiness and inspiration, they call themselves not only teachers and prophets, but also 'Saviours,' 'Redeemers,' 'Christs,' 'Mothers of God.' Generally speaking, they call themselves simply Gods, and pray to each other as to real Gods and living Christs or Madonnas. When several of these teachers come together at a meeting, they dispute with each other in a vain boasting way as to which of them possesses most grace and power. In this rivalry they sometimes give each other lusty blows on the ear, and he who bears the blows most patiently, turning the other cheek to the smiter, acquires the reputation of having most holiness."

Another sect belonging to this category is the Jumpers, among whom the erotic element is disagreeably prominent. Here is a description of their religious meetings, which are held during summer in the forest, and during winter in some out-house or barn: "After due preparation prayers are read by the chief teacher, dressed in a white robe and standing in the midst of the congregation. At first he reads in an ordinary tone of voice, and then passes gradually into a merry chant. When he remarks that the chanting has sufficiently acted on the hearers, he begins to jump. The hearers, singing likewise, follow his example. Their ever- increasing excitement finds expression in the highest possible jumps. This they continue as long as they can--men and women alike yelling like enraged savages. When all are thoroughly exhausted, the leader declares that he hears the angels singing"--and then begins a scene which cannot be here described.

It is but fair to add that we know very little of these peculiar sects, and what we do know is furnished by avowed enemies. It is very possible, therefore, that some of them are not nearly so absurd as they are commonly represented, and that many of the stories told are mere calumnies.

The Government is very hostile to sectarianism, and occasionally endeavours to suppress it. This is natural enough as regards these fantastic sects, but it seems strange that the peaceful, industrious, honest Molokanye and Stundisti should be put under the ban. Why is it that a Russian peasant should be punished for holding doctrines which are openly professed, with the sanction of the authorities, by his neighbours, the German colonists?

To understand this the reader must know that according to Russian conceptions there are two distinct kinds of heresy, distinguished from each other, not by the doctrines held, but by the nationality of the holder, it seems to a Russian in the nature of things that Tartars should be Mahometans, that Poles should be Roman Catholics, and that Germans should be Protestants; and the mere act of becoming a Russian subject is not supposed to lay the Tartar, the Pole, or the German under any obligation to change his faith. These nationalities are therefore allowed the most perfect freedom in the exercise of their respective religions, so long as they refrain from disturbing by propagandism the divinely established order of things.

This is the received theory, and we must do the Russians the justice to say that they habitually act up to it. If the Government has sometimes attempted to convert alien races, the motive has always been political, and the efforts have never awakened much sympathy among the people at large, or even among the clergy. In like manner the missionary societies which have sometimes been formed in imitation of the Western nations have never received much popular support. Thus with regard to aliens this peculiar theory has led to very extensive religious toleration. With regard to the Russians themselves the theory has had a very different effect. If in the nature of things the Tartar is a Mahometan, the Pole a Roman Catholic, and the German a Protestant, it is equally in the nature of things that the Russian should be a member of the Orthodox Church. On this point the written law and public opinion are in perfect accord. If an Orthodox Russian becomes a Roman Catholic or a Protestant, he is amenable to the criminal law, and is at the same time condemned by public opinion as an apostate and renegade--almost as a traitor.

As to the future of these heretical sects it is impossible to speak with confidence. The more gross and fantastic will probably disappear as primary education spreads among the people; but the Protestant sects seem to possess much more vitality. For the present, at least, they are rapidly spreading. I have seen large villages where, according to the testimony of the inhabitants, there was not a single heretic fifteen years before, and where one- half of the population had already become Molokanye; and this change, be it remarked, had taken place without any propagandist organisation. The civil and ecclesiastical authorities were well aware of the existence of the movement, but they were powerless to prevent it. The few efforts which they made were without effect, or worse than useless. Among the Stundisti corporal punishment was tried as an antidote--without the concurrence, it is to be hoped, of the central authorities--and to the Molokanye of the province of Samara a learned monk was sent in the hope of converting them from their errors by reason and eloquence. What effect the birch-twigs had on the religious convictions of the Stundisti I have not been able to ascertain, but I assume that they were not very efficacious, for according to the latest accounts the numbers of the sect are increasing. Of the mission in the province of Samara I happen to know more, and can state on the evidence of many peasants--some of them Orthodox--that the only immediate effect was to stir up religious fanaticism, and to induce a certain number of Orthodox to go over to the heretical camp.

In their public discussions the disputants could find no common ground on which to argue, for the simple reason that their fundamental conceptions were different. The monk spoke of the Church as the terrestrial representative of Christ and the sole possessor of truth, whilst his opponents knew nothing of a Church in this sense, and held simply that all men should live in accordance with the dictates of Scripture. Once the monk consented to argue with them on their own ground, and on that occasion he sustained a signal defeat, for he could not produce a single passage recommending the veneration of Icons--a practice which the Russian peasants consider an essential part of Orthodoxy. After this he always insisted on the authority of the early Ecumenical Councils and the Fathers of the Church--an authority which his antagonists did not recognise. Altogether the mission was a complete failure, and all parties regretted that it had been undertaken. "It was a great mistake," remarked to me confidentially an Orthodox peasant; "a very great mistake. The Molokanye are a cunning people. The monk was no match for them; they knew the Scriptures a great deal better than he did. The Church should not condescend to discuss with heretics."

It is often said that these heretical sects are politically disaffected, and the Molokanye are thought to be specially dangerous in this respect. Perhaps there is a certain foundation for this opinion, for men are naturally disposed to doubt the legitimacy of a power that systematically persecutes them. With regard to the Molokanye, I believe the accusation to be a groundless calumny. Political ideas seemed entirely foreign to their modes of thought. During my intercourse with them I often heard them refer to the police as "wolves which have to be fed," but I never heard them speak of the Emperor otherwise than in terms of filial affection and veneration.