Nearly two centuries after Russia’s Doukhobors (Spirit Wrestlers) were exiled to Georgia, the fate of their tiny community lies in the hands of its young members.
A small religious minority, the Doukhobors built a home in Georgia in the 1840s, after falling afoul of the tsarist Russian Empire. For generations, they thrived in the area, settling into eight villages.
But today their numbers are dwindling, largely due to mass emigration.
Today the community is tiny – just 135 Doukhobors remain in the villages of Orlovka and Gorelovka, which is a sacred place for Doukhobors around the world.
The future of their community depends, in many ways, on the fates of young people like Kristina Krasnikova and Kristina Bichahchyan.
Stylish, modern and educated, the two young women could easily be mistaken for any one of their peers in Western metropolises.
Both Kristinas are fiercely proud of their Doukhobor heritage, but the challenges facing the Doukhobors are forcing each girl to make very different choices for her future.
Kristina Krasnikova, 18, fears she could be the next to leave. All around her, her peers are moving abroad, mostly to nearby Armenia.
Kristina Bichahchyan, 24, however, decided to stay. A fierce defender of her Doukhobor roots, Kristina is also well integrated in Georgian society. While she left the tiny village of Gorelovka to study, she returned to work at the local school, which she herself graduated from.
Both Kristinas spend most of their time at the Georgian-Russian school in Gorelovka, where local children from Doukhobor, Armenian and Georgian families study together.
The school is a good example of how the village’s three ethnic groups have learned to coexist in peace.
But the process has not been an easy one.
The Doukhobors’ first winter in their new home nearly 200 years ago was a rough one: many died and by spring there were a number of orphans in need of care. Doukhobors quickly built an orphanage for them and surrounded it with their traditional prayer houses.
Over the years, they eventually found peace and prosperity in Georgia’s remote Samtskhe-Javakheti region. Reportedly over 4,000 families originally settled in the area and they slowly expanded their communities to include over eight villages.
They survived the region’s harsh winters, building cheery white houses with blue doors to fight the chill of the wind and snow.
During a recent visit, the two Kristinas lead us to one such blue and white prayer house. It is covered in snow and the only spot of color is a red rowan tree growing in the garden.
While the community is Orthodox Christian, like the majority of Russians and Georgians, Doukhobors do not recognize priests, written prayers, icons, crosses or even churches.
“You should cover your head, bow down and show your respect. I am only half Doukhobor, but I used to come here often with my grandmother,” Kristina Bichahchyan, who was born to a Russian Doukhobor mother and Armenian father, tells us. She knows three psalms by heart, a demonstration of how the unique culture can survive in a mixed family.
Families like Kristina’s are common in Gorelovka today, where most families are Georgian or Armenian or some combination of the three groups.
Non-Doukhobors started moving into the area after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The rise of Georgian nationalism saw an influx of ethnic Georgians into Doukhobor villages and an organized push for Russian Doukhobors to leave the country.
Local Armenian families also started to move into Doukhobor villages, and the shrinking Doukhobor community struggled to maintain its autonomy and hold on to its traditions.
Raisa Astafurova, 50, tells the story of how thousands of Doukhobors fled the community in the 1990s, opting to return to the land of their forefathers, even though it is harder for them to maintain their traditions there.
On a chilly morning during our visit, both Kristinas emerged from the local school wearing warm clothes, yet another sign that they were born and raised in these mountains.
The teachers also approach us, eager to express their frustration with the negative media coverage the village usually receives as a “place of abandoned and old people.”
“Look, there are so many children here,” one of the teachers tell us.
While the school is a sign of the community’s growing tolerance, it also a symbol of one of the Doukhobor’s biggest challenges: the Georgian language. The increased number of Georgian pupils in the school are helping expose young Doukhobors to the language, however they still struggle to achieve the level of fluency needed to pass college entrance exams.
“I want to stay and study in Georgia, but I am afraid that my knowledge of Georgian is very poor, so I might have to move to Gyumri, Armenia,” Kristina Krasnikova says, noting that all but two of her classmates left school in the 10th grade so they could move to Armenia and attend a Russian-language college.
Her 18-year-old cousin, Roman, has the same concern. He dreams of joining the Georgian Army, where he can improve his Georgian, and then staying in Georgia to study.
It is sad to hear that for young Doukhobors, leaving Georgia and going to Russia or Armenia is not a choice, but rather the only way they can receive a higher education.
Kristina Bichahchyan was one of those who felt she had to leave: she enrolled in the state university in Yerevan, Armenia after graduating from school in Gorelovka.
But she has also become an example of how the younger generation can overcome those challenges.
After she graduated, she returned to the village and now works as a teacher. In her classroom, she speaks Russian, Armenian and Georgia daily. "My surname is Armenian, but my Doukhobor maternal grandmother had a profound impact on my upbringing. She already passed away, but everytime I approach the prayer house, I remember all those times when I accompanied her to the house. My love for the village and Doukhobor traditions are some of my favorite parts of myself, and my grandma gave that to me, ” she says.
Kristina Bichahchyan’s story provides some hope as we walk among the abandoned houses in Gorelovka.
White storks, another local population in the village, provide another ray of hope. They still maintain their neat nests on the roofs of Doukhobor houses, even though many human residents have abandoned them.
The storks also leave in the long winter but, like Kristina, they find their way home as the days grow warmer.
As we say goodbye and prepare to leave, we promise that we, too, will return.
Walking back to the highway, we savored the moment to enjoy the picturesque view of the Doukhobor’s houses. It requires enormous dedication to sustain such a unique community in a place where, even as water freezes and the cold wind blows, you can still hear chiming bells as cows graze nearby.
Millennials, February/March 2019