The Non-sectarian Visionaries

In addition to the sects having their prophets and leaders and a

certain amount of organisation, almost every year in Russia saw--and

probably still sees--the birth of many separate heresies of short

duration. For instance, in one part a whole village would suddenly be

seized by religious ardour, its inhabitants deserting the fields and

passing their time in prayer, or in listening to the Gospel teachings

as expounded
to them by some "inspired" peasant. Or elsewhere, the

women would all leave their husbands and depart into the forests, where

in the costume of Mother Eve they would give themselves up to

meditating upon the sins of humanity and the goodness of God.

On the outskirts of a village near Samara, in East Russia, a forester

was one day attracted to a cabin by the resounding cries and groans

that issued from it. On entering, a strange sight met his eyes--three

women, completely naked, praying and weeping. They were like

skeletons, and one of them died soon after being forcibly brought back

to the village. In spite of all entreaties she refused to let the

orthodox priest come near her, and begged that no cross should be

placed over her grave.

The police searched the forest, and found several other women in a

similar condition. Inquiry revealed that they had left their homes in

the neighbourhood of Viatka in order to expiate the sins of their

fellows. For nourishment they depended on herbs and strawberries, and

prayer was their sole occupation. Their unquenchable desire was to be

allowed to die "for the greater glory of Jesus Christ." They belonged

to no sect, and did not believe in sacred symbols or in priests. In

order to get into direct communication with God, they discarded their

garments and lived in a state of nature, eating nothing but what they

could find by the wayside. Thirty or forty of these women were

gathered in and sent back to their homes.

The peasants of the Baltic Provinces, although better educated than

those of Southern Russia, became victims of religious mania just as

frequently. It was in the Pernov district that the cult of the god

Tonn was brought to light. The chief function of this god was to

preserve cattle and other livestock from disease, and to gain his

favour the peasants brought him offerings twice a year. His statue was

placed in a stable, and there his worshippers were wont to gather,

praying on bended knee for the health of their cows and horses. In

time, however, the statue was seized by the police, to the great grief

of the peasants of the district.

In another part there dwelt a magician who was said to cure all bodily

ills by the aid of the sixth and seventh books of Moses.

The tribunal of Kaschin, near Tver, once had occasion to judge a

peasant named Tvorojnikoff who, as a result of his private meditations,

had succeeded in evolving a new religion for himself and his friends.

After working for six months in St. Petersburg as a mechanic, and

studying the "vanity of human affairs," he came to the conclusion that

orthodox religious observances were an invention of the priests, and

that it was only necessary to believe in order to be saved.

An action was brought against him, whereupon his mother and sister, who

were called as witnesses, refused to take the oath, that being "only an

invention of men." Tvorojnikoff described his doubts, his sufferings,

and the battle which had long raged in his soul, and declared that at

last, on reaching the conclusion that "faith is the only cure," he had

found happiness and peace.

"What have I done to be punished?" he demanded. "What do you want with

me? Instead of sending me to prison, explain how I have sinned. Read

the Gospel with me!"

But his entreaties were ignored. The "religious expert," who was

present in the person of a delegate of the ecclesiastical authorities,

thought it beneath his dignity to discuss eternal truths with a

peasant, and the poor dreamer received a sentence of imprisonment.

The Russian legal records are full of the misdeeds of many such, whose

sole crimes consisted in dreaming with all sincerity, and in spite of

cruel deceptions and disappointments, of the day when man should at

last attain perfection upon earth.