Among Russian Sects and Revolutionists

The Extraordinary Life of Prince D. A. Khilkov

by Graham Camfield (Author)
©2015 Monographs VIII, 290 Pages


In his lifetime Prince Dmitrii Aleksandrovich Khilkov (1857–1914) became known in a number of seemingly contradictory roles and contexts: courageous officer, Tolstoyan, defender of the oppressed, leader of the Dukhobor exodus, revolutionary terrorist and returning Orthodox prodigal. Born into one of Russia’s ancient aristocratic families, with close links to the court, he chose an unexpected path that led him deep into the Russian countryside and brought him to the very edge of the Empire. Renouncing a brilliant military career, he gave up almost all his land to the peasants and settled on a small farm at Pavlovki, Khar’kov province. There, his support for peasants at variance with local landowners and the Church brought him into conflict with authority, both civil and ecclesiastical, and led to his exile, firstly among religious dissidents in Transcaucasia and later among political émigrés in Switzerland.
Using a wide range of often obscure published sources, this book explores Khilkov’s extraordinary life through his autobiographical notes and the accounts of many who knew him, among them Lev Tolstoi and his disciples, the Marxist Vladimir Bonch-Bruevich, fellow members of the Socialist Revolutionary Party and the Orthodox clergy who guided him back to the Church.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • The Khilkov Story: An Introduction
  • CHAPTER 1: The Khilkovs in Peace and War
  • CHAPTER 2: Among Cossacks and Exiles in Transcaucasia
  • CHAPTER 3: Dissent in Pavlovki
  • CHAPTER 4: Discovering Tolstoi
  • CHAPTER 5: In the Shadow of Exile
  • CHAPTER 6: Exile and Family Drama
  • CHAPTER 7: The Khilkov Children
  • CHAPTER 8: Sectarians and the State in Russia
  • CHAPTER 9: Among the Doukhobors
  • CHAPTER 10: Khilkov and the Doukhobor Exodus
  • CHAPTER 11: The Break with Tolstoi
  • CHAPTER 12: Khilkov, Bonch-Bruevich and the Sectarian Question
  • CHAPTER 13: Khilkov the Revolutionary
  • CHAPTER 14: Return to Pavlovki
  • CHAPTER 15: Prince Khilkov Goes to War
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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My first acknowledgement must be to the rich collections of the Library of the London School of Economics and Political Science, where it has been my privilege to work over many years. It was there, while researching materials on Russian sectarianism, that I encountered so many references to the name of Dmitrii Khilkov, whose curious history captivated my interest. Without access to the Library’s holdings of Russian and other material, especially the Russian revolutionary pamphlets, this book would not have been written.

I must record also my gratitude to Ol’ga Nikolaevna Nedogarko, researcher and local historian of Sumy district. The publication, in 1990, of her article on Khilkov and his collaboration with Lenin’s newspaper Iskra in Voprosy istorii KPSS, at much the same time as my own article on the Pavlovtsy appeared, prompted me to contact her. Ol’ga is the great-granddaughter of Semen Prokopenko, one of Dmitrii Khilkov’s closest companions, both in Pavlovki and in his subsequent exile. She knows the village and descendants of the Pavlovtsy, as well as members of the Khilkov family. She has kindly shared with me some of her own unpublished work on Dmitrii Khilkov, which is acknowledged in the text. Thanks to Ol’ga also, I had the privilege to meet Aleksei Aleksandrovich Khilkov, grandson of Dmitrii Aleksandrovich, living in Moscow district. Like me she believes that his memory should be preserved and honoured in his homeland and to this end her research over many years has done much to raise local awareness and knowledge of his life.

Finally, Chapters 12 and 13 of the present work draw on material first published in my article, ‘From Tolstoyan to Terrorist: The Revolutionary Career of Prince D. A. Khilkov, 1900–1905’, Revolutionary Russia 12/1 (1999), 1–43 <http://www.tandfonline.com/http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09546549908575697>.

Thanks, therefore, to Taylor and Francis for permission to reuse this material.

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The Khilkov Story: An Introduction

The name of Prince Dmitrii Khilkov is all but forgotten today in his native Russia1 and the wider world. His life spanned the years between the end of the Crimean War and the beginning of the First World War, a period of huge social and political change, and intense intellectual and spiritual ferment in Russia. A friend of Tolstoi and an acquaintance of Lenin, Dmitrii Khilkov could also boast among his near relations, an uncle, Mikhail Ivanovich Khilkov, Minister for Communications and Railways, and a cousin, Vladimir Fedorovich Dzhunkovskii, Chief of the Corps of Gendarmes. His life was a curious circular journey: from Orthodox warrior to pacifist Tolstoyan, from pacifist to revolutionary terrorist, from terrorist to Orthodox warrior. His story serves to illustrate and reveal aspects of movements which contributed to and shaped, in differing degrees, that turbulent period of religious and political life in Russia. The potential alliance of Russian sectarians with Tolstoyism was regarded by Church leaders of the day as a genuine threat to the stability of the Empire, on a par with, if not greater than, the threat of social and political revolution, whose leaders were in exile or emigration. Yet for the Church it was also a period that saw a rich expression of Orthodox thought from thinkers such as Nikolai Berdiaev and Sergei Bulgakov, who both returned to faith from Marxism. Dmitrii Khilkov was active in and through all these trends and movements and his role in them deserves to be better known. According to journalist Mikhail Menshikov, writing on his death, his was ‘an extremely remarkable life, deserving to remain in the literature’. ← 1 | 2 →

Throughout his extraordinary life the remarkable character of Dmitrii Aleksandrovich Khilkov made a lasting impression on many people and their recollections are to be found scattered through a range of varied sources. Indeed, it was the encounter with his name in so many situations and contexts that stirred the author to search out every mention and gather them into one narrative. This book is thus the fruit of research chiefly through printed and published primary and secondary literature. Numerous and sometimes lengthy extracts are given from often hard to find materials; translations are mine unless otherwise indicated.

In his own day episodes of Khilkov’s life were known far beyond his homeland. In this introduction we will examine how that came to be and consider the varied sources which contributed to the story. In May 1892 a short paragraph in the Russian émigré journal, Free Russia, announced the first victims of a campaign against friends and disciples of Count Lev Tolstoi: Prince Khilkov, a ‘well known Khar’kov landowner’, had been exiled for five years to Transcaucasia. Almost two years later, in February 1894, the same journal brought news that the children of Prince Khilkov, ‘one of the most rigid adherents of practical Christianity as preached by Count Leo Tolstoi’, had been forcibly removed from their parents.

Within Russia, the name of Dmitrii Khilkov was already known to many: within the close aristocratic circles of the Russian Court and the military establishment, where generations of Khilkovs had loyally served the Tsar at the highest level; among the provincial nobility of Khar’kov and Poltava provinces, where the family held extensive estates; among the provincial clergy, who were deeply troubled by his anti-clericalism and support for sectarians; within the circle of friends and followers of the heretic Count Tolstoi; and among disaffected peasants in Khar’kov and beyond. The abduction of the Khilkov children by their grandmother on the authority of the Tsar became a cause célèbre in Russia. High family connections, together with the equally influential contacts of Tolstoi and his closest aide, Vladimir Chertkov, ensured that the affair was gossiped and discussed at the highest levels of society. Indeed the association with Tolstoi and the publicity machine developed by Chertkov to promote his teaching was to be the key factor in bringing the Khilkov story to the attention of the wider world. ← 2 | 3 →

In the early 1890s Russia was ravaged by a devastating famine. Tolstoi was instrumental in revealing the extent of the disaster in letters to the foreign press and in bringing relief to the hungry. Visitors came to observe and support the relief work, among them Jonas Stadling, a Swedish Baptist preacher, who had learned of the famine from contacts among dissenting sects in the South of Russia, and had been encouraged by Countess Tolstaia to see for himself. It was Stadling who, through his contact with Tolstoyan circles in Russia, brought the first detailed account of Prince Dmitrii Khilkov and his trials to a wider English audience in the pages of the popular religious magazine, Sunday at Home. His article, entitled A Disciple of Count Tolstoi: the story of Prince Khilkov, appeared in May 1895. Two years later Stadling, included a chapter on Khilkov in his book, In the land of Tolstoi: experiences of famine and misrule in Russia.

The official campaign against Tolstoi and his followers came to a head in 1897, following their involvement in exposing the severe persecution of the Doukhobor sect in the Caucasus. It was Dmitrii Khilkov who had first reported the repression and who was, as a result, exiled once more, away from the Caucasus, to the Baltic, and finally abroad. The expulsion of Chertkov from Russia in the same year was to be of great significance both for the Tolstoyan movement in general and Khilkov’s story in particular. Chertkov’s support for the mass migration of Doukhobors to Canada in 1898 provided an opportunity to promote Tolstoi’s teaching, while drawing the attention of the world to this contemporary exodus. In the same year appeared the first issue of Chertkov’s new journal, Svobodnoe slovo [Free Word] and with it a collection of materials entitled Pokhishchenie detei Khilkovykh [Abduction of the Khilkov Children]. Dmitrii Khilkov’s autobiographical notes (Zapiski D. A. Khilkova) formed a large part of this text. Long after the event in 1908 some extracts were published for English readers in Jaakoff Prelooker’s Heroes and Heroines of Russia: Builders of a New Commonwealth.

Khilkov’s Zapiski were packed with ‘Tolstoyan’ themes: the evils of war and landownership; the virtues of working the land; the failings of the Church; and the injustice of state power. It is not hard to see there Chertkov’s hand as editor in the portrayal of Khilkov as an exemplary follower of Tolstoi’s teaching, and it was as such that he was generally ← 3 | 4 → portrayed. What emerges, however, is a portrait not of a mere disciple, but one who followed his own truth. This was recognised by Countess Tolstaia, who sought to distance her husband from Khilkov’s ideas and wrote to her sister, Tatiana Kuzminskaia: ‘He has nothing in common with Lev Nikolaevich. Khilkov is the preacher of his own thoughts.’

In spite of Tolstaia’s claim, they had shared much in common: a disdain for the privileges of birth, grave misgivings about military service, self-reproach over landownership, sympathetic regard for the peasant and a spiritual outlook on life. For a season their outlook appeared to mesh closely, but Dmitrii Khilkov was the more radical, for which he suffered exile and the enforced removal of his children. Their relationship of mutual respect and admiration lasted for some fourteen years until 1901, when he finally broke with Tolstoi, rejecting his doctrine of non-violence and non-action. In the end Tolstoyan non-action did not sit well with a character that was essentially pragmatic and unable to let injustice pass unchallenged. In this narrative we shall explore not only his relations with Tolstoi, but also with fellow Tolstoyans, the ‘dark ones’ who so offended Sofia Tolstaia with their extreme views and behaviour, and who misrepresented her husband, she believed, in their efforts to lead a simpler life on the basis of his teaching. Khilkov was in contact with members of Tolstoyan communities throughout Russia. Some were visitors and companions at his farm in Pavlovki, some shared his exile in the Caucasus, interacting with dissenters there, and some, like him, were later to renounce Tolstoyism for Orthodox Christianity. The relationship with Tolstoi is, in part at least, revealed by the published correspondence through many volumes of the Jubilee edition of his collected works [Polnoe sobranie sochinenii] (PSS in text and notes hereafter).

The literature of Tolstoi studies is vast and well known. His followers have left numerous memoirs, for example those of Abrikosov and Groman, collected and published by Tolstoi’s secretary N. N. Gusev (1948). Biographies abound, from Biriukov’s early work (1921) to more recent works by A. N. Wilson (1988) and Rosamund Bartlett (2010). New scholarship on the Tolstoyans is appearing, notably Charlotte Alston’s study of the international Tolstoyan movement (2014) and Alexandra Popoff’s recent biography of Vladimir Chertkov (2015). Tolstoyan involvement with the wider ← 4 | 5 → communitarian movement are revealed in S. I. Skorokhodov’s memoir, Iz vospominanii starogo obshchinika (1915–1916) and extensively covered in recent research by I. A. Gordeeva (2003).

The literature on Russian sects and sectarianism ranges through the Orthodox polemics of the nineteenth century, including the works of missionaries Timofei Butkevich and Vasilii Skvortsov and his influential journal Vera i razum [Faith and Reason], the studies and document collections published by Vladimir Bonch-Bruevich in the series Materialy po istorii i izucheniia russkago sektantstva i staroobriadchestva [Materials for the History and Study of Russian Sectarianism and the Old Belief] (1908–16), and, in the Soviet period, notably the work of Alexander Klibanov (1965). More recently Nicholas Breyfogle has written on the history of sectarians in the Caucasus (2005), where Dmitrii Khilkov’s interest and sympathy for these dissenters were first awakened in the 1880s. Molokans, Shalaputs, Stundists and Baptists were all represented there and their presence extended through much of Southern Russia and Ukraine, contributing to what Sergei Zhuk has called ‘Russia’s lost reformation’ (2004). Returning to Pavlovki in the mid-1880s Khilkov encountered Stundists and others under persecution which increased during the following decade.

In exile during the 1890s Khilkov engaged with Russian Baptist leader I. S. Prokhanov in the pages of Beseda, published at that time in Sweden for the evangelical Christian community, but providing a forum for a wide range of views. Here Khilkov debated with Prokhanov on the political position of the dissenting sects and their relations with the State. That theme continued with discussions of religious liberty in the pages of Biriukov’s Svobodnaia mysl’ [Free Thought]. In 1901 theoretical discussion was overshadowed by real and disastrous events in Khilkov’s home village of Pavlovki. That story has been told in the author’s ‘The Pavlovtsy of Khar’kov Province’ (1990) and also by Sergei Zhuk (2004).

Of all Russian sectarians the Doukhobors are perhaps best known through their dramatic history and exodus, and living heritage in Canada. Their story is well documented by Woodcock and Avakumovic in The Doukhobors (1968). Since then further research on the Doukhobors has appeared in the work of fellow Canadian scholars, John Woodsworth (1999) and Andrew Donskov (2006). The Doukhobor Centenary Conference in ← 5 | 6 → 1999 was the occasion for some re-assessment of the Doukhobor protest of 1895 by Nicholas Breyfogle and Josh Sanborn (2000). The role of Dmitrii Khilkov in the Canadian settlement is documented in the above and also in numerous contemporary sources: the memoirs of fellow participants, Leopold Sulerzhitskii (1905), James Mavor (1923) and Quakers, Joseph Elkinton (1913) and James Neave (1911) and in the pages of Tolstoyan and Quaker publications.

Settling in Switzerland from 1899 Khilkov found his name and his talents sought after among the Russian émigré community, where his story was well known. In 1902 it received yet wider circulation with the publication of his memoirs (essentially material from the Zapiski) as Souvenirs inédits [Unedited Memories], in the French journal La Revue. In Switzerland he met revolutionary activists of all persuasions from anarchism to every shade of socialism. Social Democrat Vladimir Bonch-Bruevich was particularly close, sharing with Khilkov an interest in Russia’s sectarians. They participated together for a time in the Social Democrat journal Zhizn’ [Life], which frequently published material on the persecuted sects, and in Khilkov’s own Narodnye listki [People’s Leaflets], a series of radical pamphlets designed for smuggling into Russia. These and the revolutionary pamphlets published by the Socialist Revolutionary Party reveal his progress towards the idea of instigating a popular insurrection. His publications of the period, the memoirs of those who knew him and, not least, the records of the agents of the Okhrana who followed his activities, all add to the picture of this turbulent phase of his life. That story is the subject of the author’s From Tolstoyan to Terrorist: the Revolutionary Career of Prince D. A. Khilkov, 1900–1905 (1999).


VIII, 290
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (July)
Dmitrii Aleksandrovich Khilkov revolutionist Russian sects Tolstoi Bonch-Bruevich Russian empire Russian revolution Socialist Revolutionary Party
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2015. VIII, 290 pp.

Biographical notes

Graham Camfield (Author)

Graham Camfield graduated in Russian Studies from the University of Leeds. He is currently Collection Development Manager at the Library of the London School of Economics and Political Science, where he has worked for nearly forty years. His principal research interest is in Russian sectarianism of the nineteenth century.


Title: Among Russian Sects and Revolutionists
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