This article first appeared in The Friend on 15 February 2018 under the title “A Russian tale”. It is reproduced here by permission. The picture is a view of Buzuluk, painted by Richard Kilbey who was a member of the Quaker famine relief mission in 1921.
Sergei Nikitin writes about a mystery
In January 1986 the US magazine Friends Journal published an article entitled ‘What Happened to the Russian Quakers?’ Gary Sandman, the author of the text, quoted a few stories from Richenda Scott’s book Quakers in Russia – stories about Russian Quakers, presumably existing in Russia, but unknown to the world.
The most intriguing was the story of Tom Copeman, from the British Quaker famine relief mission in 1921. In his diary he wrote a story about a Meeting for Worship with a group of Russians who, according to the non-Russian speaking Copeman, called themselves Quakers. The Meeting, as Copeman described it, took place at Buzuluk railway station, where about ten Russian ‘Quakers’ were joined by several British and American Friends (famine relief workers), none of whom could speak Russian. Not knowing Russian, the foreigners were forced to rely on the accuracy of the local interpreter, who translated the worshippers’ speech.
One of the participants in the Meeting, Beulah Swithinbank, recalled that a ten-minute sermon given by one of the Russians was translated into English laconically as ‘By God, we love peace’. After a brief period of silence another Russian participant at the Meeting made a speech, which lasted longer than the previous one. It was translated into English as ‘By Jesus Christ, you are right.’ Based on a description of this brief Meeting (Tom Copeman writes that the worshipers quickly retired, hurrying out to the train), and a couple of apocrypha, the Quakers also suggested that their secret brothers in faith had already existed somewhere in Russia, and in large numbers.
So, were there Quakers in Russia? In the nineteenth century a Tomsk priest, Vakh Guryev, wrote that the Russian Orthodox Church, in its fight against religious dissent, used the name Quaker as a label for numerous sectarian groups that arose here and there in a huge country. The word ‘Quaker’ was used because it sounds unusual to the Russian ear, if not to say unpleasant. To Russian ears it sounds as though we are talking about someone who is a sectarian, not serious, and who is croaking like a frog or toad.
Besides its strong general dislike of sects, the Russian state religion was not at all pacifist, did not call for reconciliation, or argue against war. On the contrary, Orthodox priests sent soldiers to death, and therefore peace-seeking religions were seen as a dangerous contagion. That’s why the reputation of the famous Russian writer Leo Tolstoy was ‘muddied’, and in official circles the attitude towards the Tolstoyans was ambiguous.
So, the ‘Quakers’ who met the British and American members of the Religious Society of Friends in the Samara province were most likely Russian sectarians. But who were they?
The Russian archive, where I made a thorough research, raised the veil of mystery. On 19 November 1914 the Office of the Orthodox faith, the Samara Spiritual Consistory, informs the Samara Provincial Board about ‘sectarians who like to be called “brothers,”’ and sometimes called ‘Quakers’. To quote from the document: ‘Demyan Muzalev’s wife confessed publicly that her husband is a “Quaker”’. Further on this document gives a curious historical reference: ‘The sect of Quakers appeared in 1903, for the first time, in the Samara diocese in the villages Bogdanovka, on the Buzuluk Uyezd border.’ The propagator of this false doctrine was a certain ‘brother Alexander’ (Dobrolyubov) – a Tolstoyan.
True, it is known that Alexander Mikhailovich Dobrolyubov, a Russian Symbolist poet, who studied at the Faculty of Philology of St Petersburg University, in 1898, abandoned his bohemian way of life and began to seek support in Christianity in deep repentance. His religious searches and wanderings led this former poet to Orenburg and Samara, and in 1903 Dobrolyubov appeared in villages near Samara, where he walked through the steppe and proselytized among peasants – Molokans, Khlysts, and Orthodox. Two years before, in 1901, Dobrolyubov was arrested for ‘inciting’ against military service, but soon – with the help of his mother – he was released as a mentally ill person.
In the same report Orthodox officials consciously mix sectarians into one heap and write that: ‘The doctrines of Khlysts and Quakers are similar, from which it follows that the Quakers are the same Khlysts… The Quaker sect, as a faction of Khlysty, must be classed as a fanatical sect. Therefore, these peasants should be recognised as belonging to the Quaker sect, and, therefore, are followers of a monstrous doctrine, the very belonging to which must be subject to criminal punishment.’
In St Petersburg archives I came across some correspondence with the authorities on the topic ‘Commencement of prosecution against the Semyonovka, Buzuluk Uyezd “Quakers”’. The director of the Department of Spiritual Affairs of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, yegermeister of the Highest Court Yevgeny Vasilievich Menkin, wrote to the governor of Samara in 1915 that: ‘The Quaker activities were observed in the villages of Semyonovka, Blagodarovka and at the Romashin mill in Buzuluk Uyezd, mainly among the “Mormons”, and those distributing the teachings of the Quaker sect, according to the report, had a negative attitude towards war and military service, and in view of the above the Department of Spiritual Affairs has the honour to request that your Excellence instruct us as to what should be done to deter illegal manifestations of sectarianism.’
The clouds seem to be gathering above the Buzuluk Russian Quakers: they are accused of indecency (‘At the meeting, the Bible of Leo Tolstoy is read, sectarian and revolutionary songs are sung… the peasants are also exposed to obscene words pronounced against the Emperor’) and – worst of all – of pacifism.
However, by 29 January 1916, the prosecutor of the Samara Regional Court had reported that ‘according to available information, regarding the followers of the Quaker peasant sect in Semyonovka Buzuluk county, Philip Manakov and others, the criminal prosecution for accusing them of belonging to a feral sect, the decision of the Samara District Court on 18 December 1915 was terminated for lack of corpus delicti.’
In the same document it is reported that: ‘[Quakers] avoid turning to [the Orthodox] clergy for religious help, but at the same time they remain completely loyal to the latter, and they are, in their confession, meek and unquestionably moral, that their life in deeds and relationships to their neighbours are even higher and more moral than the Orthodox; that within their sect there are no encroachments on their lives or the lives of others, that in the actions of the sect under investigation, according to the stated circumstances, there are no signs of an act, foreseen by Criminal Law, therefore it is decided: on the basis of Article 277 of the Criminal Code that the case to be submitted through the district deputy prosecutor in the Samara Regional Court for termination for lack of corpus delicti’.
A reverential silence
It is interesting that in the same years the priest missionary Mikhail Alekseev reported to the Samara Diocese that ‘at the religious meetings of the Quakers there were no definite actions: no prayer, no reading, no singing, no sermons, but only one reverential silence, sometimes interrupted by the rapturous speech of one of those present who felt a special fervor of the spirit. The most fanatical or nervous of the Quakers reached their exaltation in their meetings, and they fell into frenzy, expressed in various convulsions or hysterical crying and screaming, which gives reason to compare the Quaker meetings with our Khlyst rivets. In their private life, in public relations, the Quakers tried to prove their faithfulness to their teachings about inner spiritual enlightenment: hence they lead a severe way of life, have contempt for pleasures, entertainment, honours and rewards, and wealth, and desire to organise their lives on the basis of complete brotherhood and equality’.
Perhaps the reason the Orthodox authorities calmed down was that in 1915 Alexander Dobrolyubov finally left the Samara steppes for Siberia. His followers, the Dobrolyubovtsy, remained. They named themselves ‘brothers’. In 1918 the ‘brothers’ organised two communes near Samara, in the villages of Alekseevka and Galkovka. In 1919 they organised their own village, which was called the ‘World Brotherhood’. Alexander Dobrolyubov died in 1945. He was not a preacher under the Soviet regime. He was poor, earning bread by laying stoves in Azerbaijan.
Perhaps we can assume that the few peasants whom British and American Quakers met in Buzuluk were the Dobrolyubov brothers. The mystery surrounding early Quakers in Russia then vanishes. The teachings of George Fox had not mysteriously made their way to Russia long before British Quakers met Russians who shared their religious beliefs at Buzuluk railway station in 1921.
Sergei was the head of Amnesty International Russia for fourteen years and previously worked at Friends House Moscow. He now lives in Derbyshire with his family.