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
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.