Spirit Wrestlers of the Caucasus

1890s

All who came for the yearly love feast on the evening of June 28, 1895, sensed something about to happen.

In carts and on foot they came from surrounding valleys. On winding trails up through cow pastures, all afternoon and evening they found their way to the top of a bare hill above Orlovka.

Was it a breath of God?

Even with few words exchanged, they felt a surge of new life flowing through the great crowd in peasant clothes—the “Spirit Wrestlers—gathered in a circle on the hill, as the sun went down.

All day men and boys had worked. With horses and wagons they hauled twenty loads of wood and charcoal up the hill. In barrels they brought five hundred litres of kerosene. Then, at evening they brought guns. . . .

Only the oldest among the gathered crowd remembered when things had been like this before. Only they could recall villages along the River of Milk (the Molochna) where they had lived in peaceful community before the tsar’s soldiers rounded them up and drove them a thousand kilometres east into the wet mountains of Caucasia.

Here, in the east, their children and grandchildren had forgotten how the first Spirit Wrestlers in Russia had lived. During terrible times of war and persecution they had chosen to live like Christ. Giving up their claim to personal property, like Christ, they had no more need for self-defense. Giving up all ambition to greatness and rule over others, they had gathered in quietness, around bread and salt, to worship God. There the beauty of holiness had came down.

After tsarist oppression drove them from Central Russia, the Spirit Wrestlers had lived for many years in the south, in the Ukraine. They had prospered there, materially and in numbers, as their communal grain fields spread across fertile plains.  But uprooted again, in Caucasia, and forced to eke their living from rocky heights too cold for raising wheat, things had changed.

Muslim tribesmen, delighting in treachery and blood, and bandits lived here. Even though the Spirit Wrestlers regrouped in villages with beautiful Christian names—Voskresenovka, Troytskoye, Spaskova, Bogdanovka—some of them forgot what Christ had taught them and purchased guns. When cattle thieves came they used the guns to scare them away. Later, when the tsar ordered them to do military training, many of their young men complied.

With every passing year the Spirit Wrestlers paid less attention to the light of Christ within them until a new voice awoke and moved them to action. The voice was that of Lev Tolstoy, a Russian landowner who rediscovered the Gospel. It came to them through Pyotr Vasilyevich Verigin, one of their young men exiled to Siberia. And it moved them to get rid of their guns.

From his prison camp in the far north—the place where he met Lev Tolstoy, and where he rediscovered the peace of Christ—Pyotr Vasilyevich wrote to his family and friends in the Caucasus:

In his teaching, Christ condemned and destroyed the basis for military duty. That is how I understand the life and teaching of Christ. And I believe that we as Christians should refuse military service altogether. I find it my responsibility to tell you that you should refuse to serve as soldiers and take no part in any military actions, even if if they are non-combatant. Whatever weapons you have acquired while drifting away from Christ’s teaching—rifles, revolvers, swords, daggers—should be gathered in one place and, as a sign of non-resistance to evil by evil means, and to obey the commandment “You shall not kill” they should be destroyed by burning.

Little by little Pyotr’s message took effect, for in the bottom of their hearts all Spirit Wrestlers knew they had departed from the best and highest way. They knew they had compromised with evil by purchasing guns and doing military training. First one, then two and three, then many mountain families decided to burn their guns. This is what brought them, filled with the excitement of revival, to the bare hill above the village of Orlovka.

Song followed song around the great pile of guns, swords, and other weapons, covered with wood and coal. Men with untrimmed beards—beards that had turned white, and whose voices wavered—lifted their hands and spoke with new vigour. Young men shouted. Women with kerchiefs tied under their chins and long skirts, cuddled their babies and smiled, in the summer night. 

At the stroke of midnight, in the quietness of more than two thousand men, women, and children watching intensely, someone threw a torch. A great flame roared up amid shouts and cheers, songs of triumph, and joyful prayers to Christ. A love feast! Even though the peasants who gathered on the hill above Orlovka were serious-minded people, their spirits could not help but dance before the Lord.

From hours of travel in every direction people could see the great light on the hill. Many saw it and rejoiced. Some feared. The tsar’s soldiers reported it to their superiors.

Christ on earth had become gloriously visible again, and the “chief priests and Pilate” hurried to make fresh crucifixion plans. Within days, hundreds, then thousands, faced arrest, torture, and exile.

At the same time, Christian boys in army camps recovered the courage to throw away their guns—inhuman floggings, kicks and imprisonment notwithstanding—and Spirit Wrestlers everywhere stood up for Christ.

No matter how roughly the Tsar’s soldiers treated them, the Spirit Wrestlers resolved not to fight back.

A hundred soldiers overtook a group of women on the road between Spaski and Bogdanovka. They threw the skirts of some of them over their heads and beat them mercilessly.

A Christian women, Nastasya Chernenkova, had just sat down to eat with her two sons when soldiers came to her door. Her seventeen-year-old escaped. But they caught her nineteen-year-old son and beat him nearly to death while they tortured his young wife (delivered of a child two weeks earlier) for three hours. Then they went to Tania Posnyakov’s place while her husband was not home. They caught her cousin and locked him up in the barn while they treated her violently. In Bogdanovka the soldiers also locked up Mitro Malakov and abused his wife “to their heart’s content.”

Anna Posnyakov described her experience with the soldiers:

They called my son Vasya, twenty-four years old, into the yard . . . and brought a whip. After they had flogged him three times they raised him up and when they saw he was still breathing they flogged him more. When they stopped he was barely alive. His whole body was jerking. Then they flung him into the coach house.

At midnight they came to arrest my other son. We said, “We are all the same. Arrest us all! We will not let him alone.” Two of the women in our house had little children whom they took up in their arms. . . . The soldiers almost strangled the children by trying to tear us from them. Then they dragged my son and us along with him. . . . They also flogged Vasya Kolesnikov until his boots filled with blood.

The stronger the winds of trial blew around the Spirit Wrestlers, the brighter the flame of love for Christ flared up among them. While the tsar’s soldiers beat Nicholas Posnyakov he sang:

Lord my Saviour, you are my light! Whom shall I fear? The Lord watches over my life, of whom shall I be afraid? Though they bring my flesh to harm, my enemies shall be put to shame. Let mine enemies rise up against me, yet will I not fear. Though a host should rise up against me, my trust is in the Lord. My father and my mother deserted me in my infancy. But my Saviour took me up and gave me life and prosperity. Place me, oh Lord, in the way of truth through your holy law. Let not mine enemy trouble me! I trust in life to come, but oh Lord, do not abandon me in this life to the hands of the ungodly. Cover me, oh Lord, with your right arm from all lying slanderers. Let my head now be lifted up against all terrible enemies. I offer my heart as a sacrifice. I call upon you, O Lord, with the songs of those who serve you. With my heart and soul I cling to you. Do not leave me confounded for my trust is in God! To our God be the glory!

When the tsar’s soldiers rounded up great crowds of Spirit Wrestlers to drive them with their old people, women, and children into exile, they sang as they left their possessions:

For your sake, Lord, we enter the narrow gate.
We leave our worldly lives, our fathers and our mothers.

We leave our brothers and sisters, our people and tribes.

We bear hardness and persecution, scorn and slander.

We are hungry and thirsty. We walk with nothing,

For your sake Lord.

In Siberia, in swampy lowlands along the Black Sea, and on the way to Canada, many Spirit Wrestlers perished. Through later conflicts and errors more lost the way. But the Spirit with whom they wrestled against the god of this world—the “gun god”— yet moves the body of Christ.

Main source: Tchertkoff, Vladimir, Christian Martyrdom in Russia, Brotherhood Publishing Co., London, 1897

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