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The Dowager and the Doukhobor Petition ...

In Chapter Three of his book, The Promised Land, Pierre Berton looks at the Spirit Wrestlers and identifies three particular events in their history, that were, as he describes them, to lead to “the most bizarre chapter in the history of the shaping of the Canadian West”.  This web page will look at one of these events (the second on his list), which in itself may have been rather minor and incidental, yet would become in reality a pivotal occurrence in Doukhobor history, that set their emigration to Canada in motion.

The event occurred in 1897 not long after the historic Doukhobor Burning of Arms protest against compulsory military service in the Caucasus, when over 4300 men, women and children, largely from the Akhalkalaki district, were forcibly driven from their mountain villages and scattered, homeless, in the subtropical Georgian lowland Kura River Valley. They were placed in four pre-existing settlements, Gori, Dusheti, Tianeti and Signakhi, near the ancient city and regional capital of Tiflis (Tbilisi).

Link to a full-screen copy of this map

Akhalkalaki Doukhobor exiles in village of Gomaya near Gori, Tiflis province 1897 - BC Archive photo

Denied land, employment, foreign communication and assistance, and subjected to an unfamiliar hot subtropical climate, the exiles were suffering disease and malnutrition, and hundreds were dying. Facing potential annihilation, their salvation materialized somewhat unexpectedly on April 1, 1898 in the form of a decree or directive from the tsarist government giving them permission to emigrate to a new country, but only as we shall see, on certain terms. What finally inspired this "act of human kindness" is not certain as there were a number of appeals or petitions made on their behalf to the imperial government for clemency just before that time. The uncertainty of the precise role of two Russian empresses in this matter has also perpetuated additional confusion, and in that sense, even Pierre Berton may have had it wrong.

The first specific request from the Doukhobors themselves for permission to emigrate, if they were not otherwise granted exemption from military service, is found in a letter penned in 1896 by Doukhobor leader, Peter V. Verigin, then in Siberian exile, to the young new Empress Alexandra Feodorovna. A copy of this letter appears in the Appendix of V. Tchertkoff's book, Christian Martyrdom in Russia, albeit with a footnote to say it was placed in the hands of two court ladies, and its ultimate delivery to the empress herself was uncertain. (Link) The English Quakers (Society of Friends) also appealed to her husband, the Emperor, Tsar Nicholas II in 1897. And undoubtedly, the publicity in the British press generated by Leo Tolstoy, Vladimir Tchertkoff and other supporters in England had a great deal to do with it.

Another possible occurance that may have helped set the Doukhobor emigration in motion is perhaps best described in the book, The Doukhobors, by George Woodcock and Ivan Avakumovic, and subsequently in Plakun Trava, by K. Tarasoff. According to their accounts, the Doukhobor emigration, first to Cyprus, and then Canada, was facilitated by a visit to the Caucasus by the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, the widow of the recently deceased Tsar, Alexander III, who accepted a petition from the exiles and delivered it to imperial government authorities. A relevant paragraph from the former book describing this scenario is reproduced below.


From "The Doukhobors", Woodcock and Avakumovic – 1968, pg. 117
What effect Verigin's letter had at the time is not recorded. It was followed in 1897 by a petition from the Society of Friends in London to the tsar himself, while the Doukhobors continued to concentrate their appeals on the women of the imperial family. In the spring of 1897 a Tolstoyan, Paul Boulanger (who was later exiled for his work in favour of the Doukhobors), managed to break the press boycott by persuading a Russian paper to publish an article on the situation in the Caucasus, and this, according to Tolstoy, was read by a highly placed and pious civil servant, K. K. Grot, who was close to the Dowager Empress Maria. It is possible that he drew it to her attention, for when the dowager empress visited the Caucasus , at the end of the year she accepted, probably from Ivan Abrosimov, one of Verigin's couriers, a petition requesting that the Doukhobors be exempted from military service or allowed to emigrate. She transmitted the petition to the senate, which acted as an ultimate court of appeal (subject of course to the personal will of the tsar), and the senate in turn sent it to Prince Golitsyn who was the governor-general of the Caucasus, with the instruction that the second request of the Doukhobors should be granted, but only with strict qualifications. Golitsyn, who had shown himself extremely unsympathetic to the Doukhobors, had no alternative but to implement the senate's decision, and late in February an order was issued, stating that exemption from military service could not be granted, but that 'all Doukhobor vegetarians, except those of military age and those who have not completed their military service' would be allowed to leave Russia provided they obtained passports, paid the costs of their emigration, and signed an undertaking that they would never return to the Russian Empire, under pain of being 'straightway exiled to the farthermost corners of the Empire'.

The form of the petition itself is unknown, although there are some indications in a footnote on page 240, of a 1998 University of Ottawa Slavic Research Group book, Sergej Tolstoy and the Doukhobors, followed by a reference to it in a more recent (2019) book, Leo Tolstoy and the Canadian Doukhobors, by Andrew Donskov, that the wording of it may have been a variation of Peter Verigin’s original letter to Alexandra. Whatever the form, whether letter or petition, a copy of this document, according to Donskov, was once again delivered to Empress Alexandra and Grand Duke Michael Nikolaevich, without any apparent result, until finally, the dowager empress, Maria Feodorovna, successfully transmitted it to its intended destination. This interpretation of events does not name the petitioner in person, but claims the response to the petition was delivered to Ivan Abrosimov (likely the same person referenced above) on February 24, 1898 from the Tiflis Governor’s office.

 

The Tolstoy letter to the editor ...

We can learn additional details from yet a slightly different account of the dowager’s encounter with the Doukhobors from two microfilmed documents in the Library and Archives Canada (LAC) collection, ascribed to Tolstoy himself. The documents are reprints of an article he submitted to the editor of the London newspaper, The Daily Chronicle, dated April 29, 1898. Aside from differing titles and footnotes, their content is otherwise virtually the same. These documents were downloaded, assembled into Acrobat pdf form and reposted here ... “The Persecution of the Doukhobors(Link) and “The Emigration of the Doukhobors(Link).

In this article to the newspaper, Leo Tolstoy included the text of a letter he received from Vassily Potapoff, a representative of the desperate Doukhobors in Georgian exile. His letter confirms that the dowager did in fact visit the Caucasus to see her son, but more specifically, at “Abostooman”, a small mountain resort then called Abastuman or now Abastumani, in the summer of 1897, and that she accepted a petition from Vassily himself on behalf of the Doukhobors, and delivered it to the senate. According to this same letter, Vassily was afterwards directed to Signakhi and later to the office of the Governor General (Viceroy), Golitsyn, at Tiflis, to collect a response.

Leo Tolstoy, author and philosopher, and V. Tchertkoff, his close associate, publicized the persecution of the Doukhobors and raised funds for their emigration

The explanation for the discrepancy in these two accounts between the two Doukhobors involved in this exchange remains unclear. Potapoff received his response from Golitsyn on April 21, 1898 and Ivan Abrosimov his on April 24, 1898. The footnote in Andrew Donskov’s book additionally reveals that there may have actually been multiple signatories to the petition, "Vasilij Popov, Ivan Abrosimov, Nikolaj Zibarov, and Vasilij Potapov", as trustees of the Caucasus Doukhobor community. This is interesting but does not necessarily explain the discrepancy, which would seem to be important as this was a pivotal event in Doukhobor history. This footnote does however identify the ultimate intended recipient of the petition ... delivered on 29 October 1897, specifically for the consideration of the chief of civil affairs in the Caucasus, Governor General (Viceroy) Prince Grigorij Sergeevich Golitsyn.

As for Vassily Potapoff, we would have no reason to doubt his claim in his letter that he was the sole petitioner to have approached the dowager in person. Various other letters of his to the Tolstoyans and English Quakers reveal him as an intelligent, literate and dedicated spokesman for the Doukhobors. Excerpts of two of these letters appear in V. Tchertkoff's book, Christian Martyrdom in Russia, with one reference suggesting that he was an exile from the Signaki region, enumerating various statistics documenting the sad state of affairs among those exiles. His name also appears on a number of letters written to the Society of Friends, expressing his gratitude for their assistance with the Cyprus emigration. There is at least one available photograph of what may be our Vassily Andrevitch Potapoff taken a year or two later, which appears in the BC provincial archives. Permission to emigrate granted, he is seen below, claimed to be on board the S.S. Lake Huron, as the ship departs from Batum with other immigrants on their way to Canada. And there is also a record confirming his arrival and settlement in Canada, in which his name appears on a letterhead as a manager of the Trading Store of the Doukhobor Society in 1907, in Verigin Sask. selling "Dry Goods, Hardware, Groceries and Crockery, Etc. Wholesale and Retail."

SS Lake Huron, steamship brought the first group of immigrants to Canada in 1899. Vassily Potapoff is seen here on his way to Canada, BC Archive photo

As it turns out, apart from Vassily’s reference to “Abostooman”, there is no actual record of Maria Feodorovna meeting there with the Doukhobors, nor an explanation as to how these marginalized and isolated exiles could have possibly known that she was to be there precisely at that time, and potentially willing to accept such a petition? It is quite unlikely that such an encounter could have simply happened by chance. Without hard evidence and boots on the ground to search or access actual archival records, we can only speculate about the full circumstances surrounding this significant event. There is online evidence, however, with additional information about Abastuman and the true purpose of Maria Feodorovna's visit there to see her son, which in reality had liitle to do with Doukhobors. To appreciate the wider context of the visit, and better understand the willingness of the dowager to assist the Doukhobors, we would need to learn a little more about the Romanov imperial family and their circumstances at that moment in time.


Tsarist Government influences on Doukhobor emigration ...

While it is tempting to suggest that the Doukhobor petition had a significant impact on the attitude of the Romanov tsar and his government, it is quite likely that they had far more serious matters on their mind than a few thousand recalcitrant Doukhobors in the Caucasus. It would become apparent in the next decade or two, that the Russian monarchy, and indeed the Romanov dynasty itself, were facing the possibility of their own imminent destruction.

Their oppressive policies, endured by their subjects for decades were becoming less and less palatable to citizens, intellectuals and political activists alike, and the frustration of the more radical elements of the population was boiling over into violent uprisings and assassinations, including that of Alexander II in 1881. Alexander III's subsequent reactionary monarchy came to an end when he also died in 1894, and the immediate transition of the monarchy to his son Nicholas, preoccupied the inexperienced and somewhat disoriented Romanovs and their central government for a period of time. But rather than expressing tolerance and making a serious attempt at reform, Tsar Nicholas II continued the repressive policies of his father.

On his accession to the throne, he immediately began demanding compulsory military service and the swearing of allegiance, to be expected of all citizens throughout the empire, regardless of their economic status, political persuasion, faith or ethnicity. Universal military conscription had previously been legislated by Alexander II in 1874, yet it had not always been strictly enforced, and sectarians were able to work out alternative means of service. Such was the case in the historic Doukhobor compromise between Lukeria Kalmykova and Grand Duke Michael during the Russian-Turkish War of 1877-78, a topic we will explore briefly elsewhere on this web page. After 1895 the new tsarist government insisted on the enforcement of compulsory military service, while the Doukhobors were steadfast in their resistance to it, and their differences appeared to be irreconcilable. In the following years, it was becoming clear that the very survival of the Spirit Wrestlers rested on the willingness of the tsarist government to permit them to emigrate from Russia. For a better understanding of these circumstances from a Doukhobor perspective at that time, we must review a few significant developments in their own history.


The Historic Doukhobor Burning of Arms protest of 1895 ...

Following the death of Lukeria Kalmykova (Gubanova) at Goreloye in 1886, the question of her succession remained unresolved, and her followers became divided into two distinct factions. The “Small Party” of Doukhobors was claiming leadership on the basis of a Gubanov hereditary link to the communal property and assets of the Orphan's Home at Goreloye, which had in essence been the seat of local governance during the time of Lukeria. The members of the “Large Party”, supported the leadership of the young man, Peter V. Verigin, who had been especially tutored by Lukeria in preparation for a potential leadership role.

Under the control of Lukeria's brother Michael and his associate, Zubkov, the Gubanov faction, or Small Party Doukhobors, were not about to relinquish their influence. In what was an unprecedented request for governmental intervention in their internal affairs, they approached the district courts to pursue legal action against the Verigin supporters. The courts settled the dispute in their favour, but in doing so, the supporters of this group revealed, to their own detriment, their willingness to fully co-operate with local officials on these and other future matters in general. The local governor of Tiflis, Prince Georgi Shervashidze, was supportive of their cause and possibly even amused by these developments, welcoming them as a means to further "divide and conquer" the problematic Doukhobor community.

In spite of their loss, the Large Party which represented the majority of the Doukhobors, accepted Peter Verigin as their new leader in 1887, in a special ceremony six weeks after Lukeria's burial. Nonetheless, the Gubanovtsi had succeeded in their effort to villainize him in the eyes of government officials, falsely accusing him of usurping the authority of the state. And almost immediately after his acclamation, Peter V. Verigin was arrested and exiled, first to Shenkursk, some 1500 miles distant in the remote northern Russian interior, then to north-western Siberia, where he remained until 1902. In the intervening years he maintained contact with his followers by loyal couriers, and developed a close relationship with Leo Tolstoy by correspondence, finding that they shared common spiritual amd philisophical beliefs, and a strong committment to non-violant resistance to state and church intolerance.

When the Doukhobors were finally confronted with strictly enforced compulsory military service, Peter Verigin encouraged his followers to stand firmly against the newly prescribed demands of Nicholas II. He advised potential recruits to turn in their draft notices, and those soldiers already serving, to turn over their uniforms and rifles to their respective commanders. These heroic young Doukhobors were subjected to brutal beatings and many were sent to special disciplinary battalions, nine of them perishing from their beatings.

But the boldest and most publicly overt form of Doukhobor resistance was carried out in dramatic fashion by the villagers themselves in the Akhalkalaki, Elizavetpol, and Kars districts. They secretly co-ordinated plans for simultaneous bonfires in all three regions, at midnight on June 29, 1895, to symbolically burn all their existng weapons and personal firearms. The most spectacular fire was organized in the Akhalkalaki region in the village of Orlovka, where wagon loads of firewood and coal were fueled by kerosene over two nights in what was the largest conflagration, undoubtedly intended to get the attention of government authorities. What they may not have anticipated however, was the degree of the violent reaction by government administrators who interpreted their resistance as a flagrant violation of imperial authority. We introduced this webpage with the tragic results of this peaceful demonstration and will not further explore its details, but we will briefly examine the involvement of certain government participants in the violence of its aftermath, and their role in the emigration of the Doukhobors to Canada.


The Governors and the aftermath of a peaceful protest ...

The violent assault on the settlers at Orlovka and Bogdanovka, after the Burning of Arms, was carried out by Commander Praga, the head of a Cossack detachment, at the behest of the local Governor of Tiflis. Hundreds of mounted Cossack troops, amassed from garrisons in Ardahan and Alexandropol, where they had been stationed after the Russian-Turkish war, were deployed to suppress the supposed revolt of these Doukhobors, conducting whippings, severe beatings and even decapitations, resulting in death. In a footnote of his excellent article, Non-Violent Protest and the Russian State: the Doukhobors in 1895 and 1937 (Link), Joshua A. Sanborn reveals that Commander Praga later submitted a report in his own defence of these retaliatory tactics. And the governor also evidently approved them, even though Praga's immediate superiors, Major-General Surovtsov and Colonel Grebenshchikov, later condemned him for exceeding his authority.

In this same article, Sanford further references primary documents in Russia and elsewhere, to most conclusively confirm that it was Prince Georgi Shervashidze, the Governor of Tiflis, who directed the violent assault at Bogdanovka and was even personally involved in the confrontation with the peaceful protestors. Curiously, a number of elder Doukhobors who were actual victims of these atrocities, had also made the same assertion in their recollection of events over the years, while a number of recognized contemporary historians (including George Woodcock-Ivan Avakumovic, and K. Tarasoff), appear to have mistakenly placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of Governor Nakashidze. And this error has been perpetuated in the historical record for many years. Alexander Nakashidze was however not to be entirely excused from culpability. He was in reality the Governor of Elizavetpol, where the Elizavetpol Doukhobors had also been suffering retribution for their own Burning of Arms protest, although to a much lesser degree.

Following this incident in the Akhakalaki District, Governor Shervashidze generated lengthy documents with his personal interpretations of the events, including specific suggestions for their remedy, all to be submitted further up the chain of command. And in that regard, he may have been the first government official to consider the idea of emigration as a solution to the nagging Doukhobor problem. His recommendations were submitted shortly after the 1895 Burning of Arms in confidential reports to Civilian Commander In Chief, Sheremetev. Convinced that Tolstoyan influences had polluted the minds of vulnerable Doukhobor sectarians beyond possible rehabilitation, he suggested that, "It would be advisable to send the Doukhobor fasters [the Large Party vegetarian followers of Peter Verigin] out of the province altogether, it would be best of all to send them out of the country into neighbouring Turkey, where, according to rumours, they have been trying to go [themselves]."

These sentiments were later also expressed by Governor General Golitsyn, who was directly dealing with the Doukhobor petition and their emigration, in the following words from footnote No. 5, Part III, of Andrew Donskov's book, Tolstoy and the Canadian Doukhobors, reproduced below:

"In a secret message of 22 November 1897, Prince Golitsyn wrote to the minister of internal affairs, Ivan Logginovich Goremykin, as follows:

In passing along the said petition for Your Excellency's consideration, I am privileged to add that I myself see no impediment to granting the Doukhobor fasters permission to emigrate; indeed, I believe the granting of this request would help bring about a solution to the Doukhobor question, for the removal of such an unruly and dangerous element beyond our borders would be most desirable. Even a different outcome of this petition would not be without benefit: it is possible that foreign governments may not wish to accept anarchistic propagandists under their jurisdiction and refuse to grant the petition of the Doukhobor-fasters; or the fasters themselves, after emigrating, may have their hopes disappointed. In either case the result would undoubtedly have a sobering influence on the sick minds of the sectarians."

Golitsyn does not excuse the "sick minds" and behavior of the Doukhobors, suggesting that their final punishment would be their rejection as flawed immigrants by foreign governments when they did approach them. He was of course proven wrong. Pierre Berton's book, The Promised Land, demonstrates the openness of the Canadian government to immigrants as a means of settling the vast empty Canadian prairies, and the Doukhobors were welcomed there as ideal, hard working and capable agriculturalists with a proven record as successful self-sufficient pioneers. And this arrangement was undoubtedly one of "mutual benefit".

The alleged harmful influence of Leo Tolstoy and his followers on the Doukhobors was also the focus of a conservative Russian journal, Missionary Review, the editor, V.M. Skvortsov, also being the head of an anti-sectarian arm of the Orthodox Church. He was requested by Konstantin Pobedonostsev, who was then the highly influential ultra-conservative procurator of the Holy Synod representing the state, to visit and investigate the Doukhobors, only to reaffirm their foregone conclusion that their disrespect of Tsarist authority was indeed largely inspired by Tolstoy. A number of examples of his handwritten letters can be viewed here. (Link) Skvortsov's recommendation to address Tolstoy's supposed infestation of the dissident Doukhobors was to "let the dirty scum flee" the country. These extraordinary words are reproduced in the following paragraph from Andrew Donskov's book:

"As an unwilling sacrifice of getting blindly carried away with Tolstoyism, the dark masses of Doukhobors are unfortunate and deserve our pity. After trying all possible measures, however, given the crazed mass movement of a politically unreliable, unruly and dangerous element [of society], the government was left with no alternative but to willingly permit the fasters to resettle abroad. This is the only true way of dealing with the tangled issue. Let the dirty scum flee, which all told counts for less than half of the entire Doukhobor population. At least the intelligent part of the Doukhobor sect will free itself from the crazed, unruly, anarchical element. So we can only wish the Doukhobor Fasters Godspeed, and the Tolstoyans the success they desire in fulfilling their thankless mission. (May 1898: 710-11)"


In summary and hindsight ...

There appears to be ample evidence that the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna did indeed play a greater role in the emigration of the Doukhobors than Empress Alexandra. Whether her gesture of kindness was spontaneous or premeditated will likely remain unknown ... it may have been simply the right thing to do at that particular time. But although the petition itself may have made some difference, there were indications that the Doukhobor emigration of 1898 was already predetermined well before that time by government authorities.

Meanwhile back in the Caucasus, with permission granted, funds were being raised for their emigration by Leo Tolstoy and the English Society of Friends, steamships and other logistics were being organized by Leopold Sulerzhitsky and Sergei Tolstoy, arrangements with Canadian immigration officials were being made by Aylmer Maude, James Mavor, Prince Khilkov and the British Consul at Batum, and the Doukhobors would thereby be stepping upon the North American continent for the very first time in the winter of 1898-1899.

But there was still more to this story, aside from the Doukhobor petition, from the Dowager's personal perspective. And Abastuman will likely be remembered in general Russian history for a completely different reason.

Lukeria Kalmykova and Grand Duke Michael ...

The Romanovs as individuals were not new to the Doukhobors and the Caucasus in the latter half of the 19th century. Perhaps their most significant interaction at that time would have been during the Russian-Turkish War of 1877-1878 at Gorelovka between the brother of Alexander II, Grand Duke Michael Nikolaevich, and the current Doukhobor leader, Lukeria Kalmykova. Under Lukeria's watch, the Doukhobors were coerced to temporarily set aside their aversion to serving in the military, in order to accommodate the Grand Duke and the Russian military on their assault of Kars. The Doukhobors operated wagon convoys using their own drivers to transport troops, munitions and supplies between Tiflis and Kars for several months along the Georgian route through Gori, Barjom Pass, Akhalkalaki and through the Wet Mountain Doukhobor villages. With added provisions from local gardens, fields and stocks, hundreds of Doukhobor wagonloads were escorted across the Turkish border to Kars, where Russian soldiers had surrounded the city and were laying siege to the Turkish fortress. For their contribution to the war effort, the Doukhobors were later rewarded handsomely in gold, valued at nearly a million and a half rubles, as well as settlement land in the vicinity of Kars.

 

The Michaelovich Grand Dukes and Borjomi ...

Prior to the Russian-Turkish War, Grand Duke Michael had been the Viceroy of the Caucasus since 1865, continuing to serve in that capacity until 1882 when he was appointed President of the Council of the Empire and moved his family to St. Petersburg. While living in the Caucasus, he had access to enormous family wealth and acquired property in the Tiflis area and Borjom (now Borjomi), building a luxurious family mansion in the Meskheti Mountain foothills along the Kura River. His mansion was a favourite resort-like destination for other Romanov family members in the spring or autumn, where they could enjoy the fresh alpine air and the mineral hot springs for which Borjom was then well known. Grand Duke Michael recognized the potential medicinal qualities of the mineral water and understood that you could soak or swim in it, as well as drink it. He began a bottling operation in 1894 for its distribution. The bottling operation continued in subsequent years after then, both under government control and as a private business enterprise, which continues to function to this day. Bottled Borjomi Mineral Water is now said to be sold in 40 countries around the world, including Canada. The grand duke's son, Grand Duke Nicholas Michaelovich, also participated in the development of Borjom, building a luxurious summer palace designed by a prestigious Russian architect, at Likani in 1892, just southwest of Borjom, with its own mineral pools and baths. This palace has also been maintained to this day and has served as a summer residence for recent presidents of Georgia.

Borjom in 1899 ... Grand Duke Michael's mansion visible on the hillside at middle right.

Mansion of Grand Duke Michael Nikolaevich at Borjom on the Kura River, 1890s.    At right - Romanov Palace built by his son, Nicholas at Likani (photo 1920s)


Grand Duke Michael died in 1909, and Grand Duke Nicholas Michaelovich, being the eldest son of six, inherited the family wealth and these properties, and frequently returned from the capital to the Caucasus, accompanied by one or more of his brothers, to their late father's estates. Unlike his father, being preoccupied with military and administrative matters, Grand Duke Nicholas dedicated his energy to scholarly matters, particularly interested in history and botany, collecting specimens, writing books and serving on historical and geographical societies. He spent a great deal of quiet time pursuing his scholarly interests at Likani, from where he on occasion even corresponded with Leo Tolstoy regarding Romanov family history. But he also became a pacifist after exposure to war, and was a self-proclaimed socialist, never afraid to express his political point of view to other Romanovs, including his nephew, the tsar.

Far removed from St. Petersburg in the Caucasus, this Michaelovich branch of the Romanovs developed a more progressive liberal attitude to government, sympathetic with a growing movement toward constitutional reform and at odds with the ultra-conservative influences of the "Pobedonostsev doctrine" that had inspired oppressive legislation and various restrictive measures against religious sectarians, ethnic minorities and political dissent, infecting three tsarist governments, including that of Alexander III and Nicholas II.

The dowager empress, Maria Feodorovna, who was a cousin by marriage to Grand Duke Nicholas Michaelovich, was a frequent visitor to Borjom and Likani, after the death of her husband, Alexander III in 1894, along with her son Grand Duke George Alexandrovich, the tsar's younger brother. She and her son George, held Grand Duke Nicholas in high regard and valued his opinions and may have shared his liberal sentiments to some degree, which may have perhaps explained her receptiveness to the plight of the Doukhobors and their petition.

Other evidence raises the possibility that she may have also been directly influenced by the Grand Duke's personal concern for the welfare of the Doukhobors in Georgian exile. In a first hand account of his experiences after the Burning of Arms, Nikolay Zibarov, one of the aforementioned signatories to the original petition, wrote that a brother in exile named Nikolay Laktin had directly approached the Grand Duke in Barjom to seek his support and sympathy. Nikolay was well known to the Grand Duke as a former coachman in his employ, and they were said to have had an extensive conversation about the urgency of the Doukhobor matter, particularly involving the vulnerability of the young and elderly. It would be reasonable to presume that Grand Duke Nicholas may have shared these concerns with his cousin, Maria Feodorovna. And this in fact may have been the most likely explanation for her willingness to help the Doukhobors by delivering their petition to St. Petersburg.

Grand Duke Nicholas Michaelovich left and centre, and seated at right with young Grand Duke George, his nephew, the tsar's younger brother.

During this period, Maria Feodorovna initially had considerable influence over the new Tsar, as his mother, but after her daughter in law, the new Empress Alexandra, joined the Romanov family, her influence and involvement in the young couple's affairs and their governance, gradually waned, as one would normally expect in most household environments.

Alexandra soon disapproved of the liberal attitude of Grand Duke Nicholas, and in particular, for his outspoken criticism of her husband, Nicholas II, for his mishandling of government affairs, notwithstanding the reality that his ineptness may have been a result of his acquiescence to her own growing influence. The Grand Duke's criticism increased progressively during the first two tumultuous decades of the new century and his sentiments are well expressed in a letter he penned to the tsar (his nephew), when governmental affairs were particularly dysfunctional. (Link) Prime Minister Sergei Witte was even more critical of Alexandra and Nicholas II, as documented in his later memoirs, accusing them of falling victim to the ultra-nationalist propaganda, generated by Alexander Dubrovin and the "Union of Russian People", a fascist-like organization of nobles in support of Russification and an even more autocratic monarchy. Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin's meddling in the affairs of the imperial family didn't help matters much either. Given these general circumstances and characterizations of Empress Alexandra, it would not have been at all surprising if Peter Verigin's earlier letter to Alexandra, should it have been received, would have fallen on deaf ears.


The Dowager's son, Grand Duke George and Abastuman ...

Maria Feodorovna's second son Grand Duke Georgy, a likeable young man in his twenties, had been dealing with a bronchial medical condition for a number of years, and when it was diagnosed as tuberculosis, his doctors recommended that he seek treatment and relief in the Caucasus. There were numerous thermal mineral springs found throughout the foothills of the Greater and Lesser Caucasian Mountains, each possessing a unique mix of minerals, said to be suitable for the treatment of a particular ailment. Although health spas were already available to him at either Borjom, or at his uncle Grand Duke Nicholas Michaelovich's palace at Likani, current balneological researchers had also identified three small historic springs in a small village further west in the Meskheti Mountain foothills that were rich in sulfate-sodium chloride, minerals thought to be particularly beneficial for the treatment of tuberculosis.

These thermal springs had been used by locals even at the time of Ottoman rule in the 16th century, and the village had been initially called Abbas Tuman. By the mid 19th century, it had developed into a little townlet, by then called Abastuman, with a few outdoor tubs and pools as well as a number of guest houses to accommodate visitors, all nestled in the narrow mountain valley of the Otskhe River. Recognizing its potential medicinal value, the imperial family purchased land at the springs with the assistance of Grand Duke Michael Nikolaevich himself. Maria Feodorovna arrived there with her son and a collection of servants, in 1891, to oversee the construction of two luxurious mansions, for both winter and summer seasons, each on either side of the river. And the construction of the residences and a health spa for the grand duke continued in stages until 1895.


The intrepid British traveler H.F.B. Lynch, (Link), was traveling a southerly route from Kutais, through Zikari Pass toward Akhaltsykh and Akhalkalaki, when he by chance found young Grand Duke George already living in Abastuman in 1893. The British travelers normally pitched tents for the night but chose instead, a crowded hotel as they were invited to join the grand duke's evening party for dinner. The host and guests all spoke perfect English and Harry Lynch would have undoubtedly spoken of the spectacular vistas the travelers had just experienced at the Zikari Summit, the views he was moved to immortalize in two of his own equally spectacular watercolours.

H.F.B. Lynch watercolours - At left, Zikari Pass looking north ... at right, Zikari Pass looking south at the Armenian highlands.

H.F.B Lynch wrote about the encounter giving readers a glimpse of what appeared to be a comfortable existence in this otherwise remote alpine wilderness, where the grand duke was enjoying all the amenities of privileged country living. But little could he have known that he and his fellow travelers had spent the evening with the future heir apparent of the Russian monarchy. (Link)

George Alexandrovich's father, Alexander III died unexpectedly of nephritis in 1894, and after his death, his eldest son Nicholas, succeeded his father and was officially coronated as Tsar Nicholas II and Emperor of Russian in 1896. Married that same year, he and his beautiful bride, Alexandra Feodorovna (Alix of Hesse, Germany) were childless for a number of years, and in the intervening time, without an apparent heir, Nicholas named his younger brother, George (pet name Georgy) Alexandrovich, heir to the throne. Though honoured and willing to temporarily assume the role, Tsareivich George was uneasy with the responsibility, partly due to his pre-existing medical condition. He was confined to Abastuman on a year-round basis receiving medical treatment at that time, but his emotional well being was sustained by regular visits from family members who traveled great distances to offer him support and to alleviate his isolation.

And it was here that the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna was visiting her son in 1897 when she was approached by a humble petitioner, Vassily Potapoff, asking for an imperial favour on behalf of the persecuted Doukhobor exiles near Tiflis.

Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna with her son, Grand Duke George, her daughter Xenia and the grand duke's companion at Abastuman

 

On Monday, the 28th of June, 1899, the same year the SS Lake Huron and Lake Superior steamships were bringing Doukhobor immigrants to Canada, Grand Duke George woke up earlier than usual in the morning, and having inspected his beautiful flower gardens, arranged for a motorcycle to explore the road up the Otshe River valley to Zikari Pass that Harry Lynch had praised so effusively. Along the roadway toward the summit, but not far from the village, the grand duke's passage was blocked by a milk-maiden and her young helper pulling a milk cart. The grand duke hailed to them to move aside and continued on his way, and only moments later, returned slowly downward in apparent distress. He stopped beside them and fell from his motorcycle, coughing up blood from his mouth. The milk-maid propped him upright against a rock beside the road, while frantically shouting to her young assistant to get help from the village. She quickly clambered down to the river for water to clear his throat, and while she held up his head and encouraged him to drink, she noticed that his face was increasingly turning pale, and within minutes, Grand Duke George, the heir to the Russian monarchy, collapsed and died in her arms.

The funeral procession at Abastuman to the small local Alexander Nevsky Church, built by Grand Duke George himself, was documented in a sequence of a dozen extraordinary photographs. These images and a Russian language description of the milk-maiden's experience, "В понедельник, 28-го июня 1899 года" are posted on an online archive here (Link), along with hundreds of other extraordinary authentic historical photographs and short film clips of the Romanovs. George Alexandrovich's death was mourned across Russia, but Maria Feodorovna was especially devastated, and while unable to attend her son's service at Abastuman, she awaited his remains in the Crimea at Odessa, as the funeral procession slowly made its way by hearse to Borjom and thence more quickly by train to Batum, and finally to the Black Sea, from where the family and his remains were brought to St. Petersburg for his burial beside his father, Alexander III.

Grand Duke George's funeral service at the Alexander Nevsky Church.  At upper left: a marker preserving the precise location of his death.

 

Dowager Maria Feodorovna and the 1902 controversy ...

After 1899, Maria-Feodorovna spent a considerable amount of time with her charities, fulfilling her family and social duties as a mother, grandmother and dowager. But she also, more often than not, enjoyed cruising the seas on her luxurious yacht, the Polar Star. The ship, befitting her status as a former empress, was a gift from her husband Alexander III, and was the fastest cruiser in the Baltic fleet at the time. She often traveled to Europe to visit her elder sister, Queen Alexandra in London and to Denmark, her family's country of origin, where she acquired a villa in the countryside.

 

But in what was undoubtedly a most peculiar turn of events in this story of the Dowager and the Doukhobor Petitiion, Maria Feodorovna, who had previously assisted the Doukhobors with their petition, fell in love in 1902 with the aforementioned Governor of Tiflis, Prince Georgi Shervashidze, who was at the same time an instrument of their persecution. The Abkhasian prince was a family friend of both Alexander III and the empress since the late 1880s, when he served as a vice-governor and later governor of Tiflis between the years 1888 and 1897. After the death of Alexander, he moved to St. Petersburg in 1899 where he was a chamberlain in Maria Feodorovna's imperial court, and the two were joined in a morgantic marriage in 1902. Research into this occurrence is ongoing and not without controversy, as it gets even more peculiar. (Link) Prince Shervashidze had a son from a previous marriage and it is claimed that he was considered as a replacement for Maria Feodorovna's own son, Nicholas II, after his abdication from the throne in 1917.

There is considerable irony in this later-life relationship, that even Pierre Berton would have appreciated. It appears that both the dowager empress and her new husband, the former prince and governor, had almost simultaneously played a role in the emigration of the Doukhbors to Canada, albeit for different reasons.

Maria Feodorovna died in Copenhagen at the age of 80, and there is no apparent evidence to indicate whether she ever returned to Abastuman, although a shrine remains there to this day in her son's memory, marking the very spot where he took his last breath. Her immediate family, the Romanov grand dukes discussed on this web page, as well as many other existing Romanovs in Russia, were executed in 1918 by the Bolsheviks after the 1917 revolution.

Current travelers now visit Abastumani as a starting point for nature hikes into the adjacent scenic Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park, and a four star hotel was expected to be completed there for visitors by 2018. Significant plans are also underway by regional historical development groups, funded by the World Bank, for the restoration of Abastumani heritage wooden buildings. And curiously, for cold war historical enthusiasts, there is renewed interest in a former secret soviet-era astronomical observatory that was maintained here during the Sputnik years, on a hillside above Abastumani. (Link) It is still operating today under adverse conditions and limited funding, but then, its history was a long one and there were better days, going back even as far as Georgy Romanov, who was an amateur astronomer. He brought a team of scientists from St. Petersburg to Abastuman to investigate its suitability for an observatory, and the first significant optical telescope was put into operation there just after he died.

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