A Laboratory Of Sects

We will now travel to the south of Russia, and examine more closely

what might be called a laboratory of sects, or in other words a

breeding-ground of religions whose idealism, whether foolish or

sublime, is often sanctified by the blood of believers, and descends

like dew from Hermon into the midst of our busy civilisation.

The mystical tendencies of the popular soul sometimes develop in a

fashion little
short of prodigious, and to no country do we owe so many

remarkable varieties of religious faith as to that portion of Russia

which lies between Kherson and Nicolaïev. There is seen in full

activity the greatest religious laboratory in the world; there

originate, as a rule, the morbid bacilli which invade the rest of

Russia; and there do sects grow up like mushrooms, only to disappear

with equal rapidity.

An orthodox missionary named Schalkinsky, who was concerned especially

with the erring souls of the region of Saratov, has published a work in

which he gives a fantastic picture of the events of quite recent years.

He was already the author of several books dealing with the sect of the

_bezpopovtzi_, and his high calling and official position combine to

give authority to his words.

When we consider the immense variety of these sects, we can easily

imagine what takes place in every small village that becomes possessed

of the craving for religious perfection. Prophets, gods and demi-gods,

holy spirits and apostles, all kinds of saints and mystics, follow

thick and fast upon one another's heels, seeking to gain the ascendancy

over the pious souls of the villagers. Some are sincere and genuinely

convinced believers; others, mere shameless impostors; but all,

manifesting the greatest ardour and eloquence, traverse the

countryside, imploring the peasants to "abandon their old beliefs and

embrace the new holy and salutary dogmas." The orthodox missionaries

seem only to increase the babel by organising their own meetings under

the protection of the local authorities.

Some of the sectarians will take part in public discussions, either in

the open air or in the churches, but most of them content themselves

with smiling mockingly at the assertions of the "anti-Christian faith"

(i.e. the orthodox official religion). With the new régime conditions

may undergo a radical change, but in former times religious doubts,

when too openly manifested by the followers of the "new truths," were

punished by imprisonment or deportation.

Sometimes the zeal of the missionaries carried them too far, for, not

content with reporting the culprits to the ecclesiastical authorities,

they would denounce them publicly in their writings. The venerable

Father Arsenii, author of fifteen pamphlets against the _molokanes_,

delivered up to justice in this way sufficient individuals to fill a

large prison; and another orthodox missionary crowned his propaganda by

printing false accusations against those who refused to accept the

truth as taught by him.

In a centre like Pokourleï, which represented in miniature the general

unrest of the national soul, there were to be found among the

classified sects more than a dozen small churches, each having its own

worshippers and its own martyrs. An illiterate peasant, Theodore

Kotkoff, formed what was called the "fair-spoken sect," consisting of a

hundred and fifty members who did him honour because he invented a new

sort of "Holy Communion" with a special kind of gingerbread. Another,

Chaïdaroff, nicknamed "Money-bags," bought a forest and built a house

wherein dwelt fifteen aged "holy men," who attracted the whole

neighbourhood. Many men in the prime of life followed the example of

the aged ones, and retired to live in the forest, while women went in

even greater numbers and for longer periods. Husbands grew uneasy, and

bitter disputes took place, in which one side upheld the moral

superiority of the holy men, while the other went so far as to forbid

the women to go and confess to them. One peasant claimed to be

inspired by the "Holy Ghost," and promenaded the village, summer and

winter, in a long blouse without boots or trousers, riding astride a

great stick on which he had hung a bell and a flag, and announcing

publicly the reign of Anti-Christ. In addition the village was visited

by orthodox missionaries, but, as the Reverend Father Schalkinsky

naïvely confesses, "the inhabitants fled them like the plague." They

interviewed, however, the so-called chiefs of the new religions, who

listened to them with gravity and made some pretence of being convinced

by the purveyors of official truth.