GORELOVKA, Georgia—The July sun had yet to shake the night chill from the air, so the men stood hunched with their hands in their pockets, watching the appointed soup makers stir two large cast-iron caldrons full of borscht and lapsha. The two men worked over a brazier of tezek, bricks of dried manure that are the favored fuel in a land that has few trees but many cows. They were preparing the food for a Doukhobor wake that would mark 40 days since another member of their religious sect, a carpenter named Vladimir Smorodin, was taken by old age. More than 80 Doukhobors would gather that day in the sod-roofed home to pay their respects.
The wake might as well have been for the Doukhobors themselves. After 300 years of tumultuous history, this remote strain of pacifists, who have called the mountain highlands of Georgia their home since Tsar Nicholas I exiled them in the 1840s, is about to disappear. A splinter from the Russian Orthodox Church, their way of life rests on the brink of extinction, as the few who remain either pass away or return to Russia, leaving their life in the mountains behind. Their numbers in Georgia today have dwindled to 500; here in Gorelovka, once their spiritual center, there are 145 left. Their ineluctable exodus north, to cities in modern Russia, could spell the end of an entire culture, something akin to what would happen if all the Amish slowly moved to Pittsburgh. Removed from their villages, they would be swallowed whole by the modern world.
The irony is that the Doukhobors never wanted to leave Russia in the first place. They emerged in the 1700s in the Tambov region of Russia, a Christian sect that believed God resides within every person, rendering the need for the church and all its trappings—icons, buildings, rituals, even priests—unnecessary. These views did not endear themselves with the Russian Orthodox Church, and in 1785, an archbishop gave them the name Doukhobors, which means “spirit wrestlers.” It was meant as an insult, but they embraced it. The sect rejected the authority of the state, refusing to pay taxes or serve in the military, and by the 1840s became such an irritant that Tsar Nicholas I exiled nearly 5,000 of them to the edge of the Russian empire. Many of the Doukhobors died on the treacherous 70-day wagon journey.