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
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.