The Doukhobors' Land
©2023 by Natela Grigalashvili
Where she lived in Georgia, there was no place to study formally and get the professional skills she needed, so Natela Grigalashvili taught herself photography. She was born in the middle of the Kvartli region, and then worked as a photo reporter for various publications; at that time—this was in the mid-1990s—women photojournalists were very rare.
Her innate abilities are more than simply photographic. It is in her nature to sense and interpret the land and the people, with all of their freely shifting thoughts, moods, and practical yearnings which she always manages to capture insightfully.
"To my mind, Georgia is the very best place for photography. I’m fortunate that I was born here."
The Doukhobors in Georgia
"The Doukhobors, as they call themselves (“soul-strugglers” or “spirit-wrestlers”), are an Orthodox Protestant society, which appeared for the first time around three centuries ago in Russia, in the Tambov Province...
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Photographs ©2023 by Natela Grigalashvili
"Exiled by the Russian Tsar and relocated to Georgia, the Doukhobors founded ten villages in the Javakheti region. Despite the unfavorable climate, they adapted enthusiastically to their new home, forming a community-based orphanage and school with a communal economy. They soon became one of the richest communities in the Caucasus. During the Soviet regime period, the Gorelovka collective farm produced the second-highest amount of wealth in the entire Soviet Union. Their school was built with the help of the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy and the Doukhobors soon became distinguished by their capacity for hard work as well as a reputation for discipline and honesty.
In their faith, they reject all Orthodox rites of the mass—the cross, the icons, even the priests, as well as church rituals. For births, marriages, and deaths, they have their own simple rites. They claim that God is everywhere and in everything, especially in the human soul—therefore, every person is a temple.
At the head of their community, they have spiritual leaders; but they never break the gender balance. The recognition and importance of women have always existed, and women frequently play the role of leaders.
They regard Javakheti as a holy land and the village of Gorelovka to be the home of all Dukhobors scattered around the world.
There is the old holy cemetery of Gorelovka, where their original spiritual leader, Lukeria Kalmikova is buried. Near here there is also a house of prayer, where on Sundays, dressed in unique national clothes, women sing psalms.
In general, their reverence for the environment in which they live is central to their spirituality. There are four mountains nearby—Holy Kurgan, Blue Kurgan, Ivanis Mountain, and Big Abul. The Doukhobors consider these mountains to represent a sort of border of “The Doukhobors' Land.” The steppes are deemed a sacred place where their ancestors once defended themselves from enemies, but where, as pacifists, they also protested war and all categories of violence—and even burned weapons, for which they were severely punished by the government of Tsar Nicholas I.
The last twenty years have been especially difficult for the Doukhobors. There is much speculation as to why most of them have decided to return to Russia, and there are different explanations: betrayal, fear, persecution, and false promises... most of those who originally left their homeland more or less settled in Canada, but did not find any peace, say the locals, “because their home and place is here in Javakheti. Only here have they been able to find peace".
Here, the new owners of their old houses, unfamiliar with the Doukhobors' culture, have set about destroying and changing the appearance of the village. Unique Russian-Ukrainian houses have been destroyed and neglected, and old Russian fireplaces that once served as ovens have been turned into ornaments. The Doukhobors now watch sadly how the village of their ancestors has become made over.
The Doukhobors believe in prophecies and they have known, they say, the fate of their community from the beginning. According to these prophecies, all Doukhobors will one day leave Javakheti and strangers will inevitably possess their houses and land. They will pass a hard journey full of suffering. But then there will come a time when "Doukhoborism" will revive again."
All Photographs and Text ©2023 Natela Grigalashvili
Natela's work can also be found at: www.roadsandkingdoms.com/the-last-days-of-tolstoys-people
Learn more about Natela Grigalashvili at: www.youtube.com
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"During the last 20 years, Georgia has been through three wars. This is a country with almost half a million refugees, an uneven social environment and unemployment. There is an especially hard situation in the villages. But despite this, the people who live there beautifully carry on their traditions, with kindness and simplicity. They live simply, plant and garden, fall in love, get married and never lose hope."
— Natela Grigalashvili