The Dukhobors and Molokans
Spirit Christian Communities in Russia
From The Russians’ Secret by Peter Hoover
While Old Believers spread through remote regions of Russia
and colonies of Nemtsy appeared in the South, Spirit Christians (Dukhobors and Molokans)
in its central and most densely populated regions around Tambov, Voronezh, and Moscow also
increased. Like the Old Believers, they called on the name of Christ, and like those who
loved Christ among the Moravians, Hutterites, and Mennonites, their walk with him led them
into serious-minded obedience to his teachings.
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A wool merchant from Tambov, Ilaryon Pobirokhin, became a
leader among the Spirit Christians in the late 1600s. He read much and kept his large
family in order. Before his death in Siberian exile he wrote:
Be serious minded. Trust in God. Love
God with all your heart. Actively work for the good of his holy congregation. Show respect
and obey all his commandments. Follow the path of virtue. Shun enslaving habits. Be
perceptive. Do everything in light of what comes after death. Do not allow opportunities
to do good escape you. Think carefully before setting out to do anything new, and make no
decisions in a hurry. Be prompt in meeting your obligations. Do not believe everything you
hear. Do not tell others everything you know, but only what is necessary. If you are not
sure about something, do not affirm it nor deny it. Investigate, so you may be discreet.
Be temperate. Do not eat unless you are hungry. Do not drink unless you thirst, and that
only in small quantities. Avoid drunkenness like you would avoid hell. Intemperance leads
to sickness. Sickness brings death. Those who abstain from the unnecessary live in health
Do not be arrogant, but
meek. Keep more to silence than to much conversation. When someone is speaking, listen.
When someone talks to you, pay attention. When someone gives you orders, carry them out.
Do not boast. Do not be stubborn, quarrelsome or vain. Be friendly to all but flatter
none. Be fair. Do not desire what belongs to others. Do not steal but work hard to produce
everything you may need. In poverty ask for help. When it is given, accept it and be
thankful. But return the things you borrow, and whatever you promise, fulfill.
Be courageous, and always ready to work. Leave off
idleness and laziness. If you wish to start a project, count the cost in advance, then
stick to it without giving up. Do not lose heart in adversity. Do not let prosperity
corrupt you. Be thrifty. Take note of what happens to those who do not persevere: They
come to misfortune and sorrow. The fainthearted sigh, lament, and wail over things the
patient forbear without murmuring. Be generous and kind to all. Give to the one who asks
of you. As long as you have anything left, help the poor. If someone has hurt you, forgive
him. If you have hurt anyone seek reconciliation. Do not hold grudges. Forgive the sinner.
Let peacemakers do their work. If you love your fellowmen, you will be loved in return.
Greet those you meet. Return the greeting of those who greet you. Answer those who ask
questions. Give advice to those who want it. Comfort the sorrowful. Do not envy. Wish
Serve everyone to the extent of your ability. If you
do only good to others, your friends will love you, and your enemies will not be able to
hate you with reason. Always speak the truth. Do this and it will go well with you.
Glory to God!4
Ilaryon's son-in-law, Semyon Ukleyn, worked as an itinerant
tailor. In his travels, he told many about Christ. On one occasion, with too large a group
to arrest, he entered the city of Tambov, publicly calling on the whole city to repent.
Isaya Kirilov, another zealous leader read the Gospels and taught the people. As a result
of these men's work, large "underground" communities of Spirit Christians took
shape in the 1700s.
Back to Christ
Twelve years after the Mennonites' came to Russia, Spirit
Christians also began to settle on the great plains of the South. They established
themselves-directly across the Molochna from what became the Mennonites' largest colony-in
communities called Bogdanovka (gift of God), Spaskoye (salvation), Troytskoye (the
trinity), Terpenye (patience), Tambovka, Rodianovka, Yefremovka, Goreloye, Kirilovka, and
others, south to the Black Sea.
"The cry of the Spirit Christians," a scholar who
visited them in the 1800s remarked, "is back to Christ." They
lived by the Sermon on the Mount and counted twelve virtues as friends: truth
that delivers us from death, purity that brings us to God, love
that is where God is, labour that is good for body and soul, obedience
the quickest way to salvation, not judging that brings us grace without
effort, reasonableness the highest virtue, mercy of
which Satan himself is afraid, self-control the work of Christ, prayer
and fasting that unite us with God, repentance the highest
commandment of Christ, and thanksgiving that pleases God and the angels.
Equals in Christ
Nowhere did the Spirit Christians' obedience to Christ become
more apparent than in their relationships one to another. With Christ, they objected to
being masters over others. "The Spirit of God lives in man," they taught.
"God has no separate existence or dwelling place apart from his Spirit. Therefore all
men deserve the same honour: poor or rich, servant or master, lowly or high. All men have
fallen and need a Saviour. We must serve them all, like Christ." This attitude led
them into good relationships not only with their Mennonite neighbours, but also with the
pious among the Orthodox, the Old Believers, the Armenians-even the Turks and Tatars with
whom they came in contact.
The Way, the Spirit Christians believed, did not belong only
to them. All who follow Christ in their hearts, whether they know him with their mouths
and minds or not, will be saved. One of their members wrote in the nineteenth century:
The church consists of all whom God has
separated from worldly society. These elect ones are not distinguished by any special
symbols. They are not united in a distinct denomination with distinct doctrines and rites.
Rather, the children of God are scattered all over the world and belong to all
confessions. ... The church is a society selected by God himself. It is universal. It has
no common external creed. ... We must understand the Scriptures as representing what is
inward and spiritual. We can understand them only if Christ lives within us.
Growing up in this atmosphere of equality and grace, Spirit
Christian children honoured their elders but used no special titles. All who lived in
their communities greeted one another by bowing "to the inestimably precious image of
God that lives in all men." A woman who visited them in the 1800s remarked:
Can you picture an old man of eighty and
a boy of ten calling one another affectionate diminutives like Stepa, Viktorushka, Lusha,
Dasha, etc.? That is exactly how they do. Fathers, mothers, wives, husbands, brothers,
sisters, children of all ages address one another, and even strangers, with their given
names. ... At first it is impossible to know who is related to whom and how. Along with
this they respect one another alike, the young the old, the old the young, the men the
women, and the women the men. The men take no liberties they would not allow the women to
Spirit Christians respected all, but like the Quakers they
refused to bare their heads to anyone.