GORELOVKA, Georgia -- It is easy to spot a house that belongs to an Old Believer. Along the main drag and dirt roads of Gorelovka, a village in the southern Georgian region of Javakheti, their brightly colored houses, enclosed by turquoise picket fences and shutters painted with flowers, interrupt the rows of tumbledown houses splattered by mud and cow dung.
Such immaculate care is a startling vision in a region suffering from such poverty and lack of infrastructure, but to the Dukhobors, as the Old Believers are known, their tended homes are simply an outward expression of a nurtured, inner spirituality.
"So many of our beautiful buildings are now destroyed," said Masha, a 70-year-old Dukhobor who was born in Gorelovka. "Now, cows trample these houses. It's painful to see, but I suppose we're used to it now. People can get used to anything."
With gray, shoulder-length hair, Masha is one of the last few Dukhobors left in Gorelovka. "My parents were born here. My grandparents were all born here. Even my great-grandparents," she said. Russian-speaking and identifying first and foremost as Russian, Masha is representative of most of the Dukhobor community in Georgia. "Eight generations of Dukhobors have already been born here."
The Dukhobors, an Orthodox-Protestant pacifist sect originating in Russia, have been living in Javakheti since the 1840s. After they refused Tsar Nicholas I's attempt to force their conversion to the Russian Orthodox Church through military conscription in the 1830s, the Dukhobors found themselves exiled and scattered across the South Caucasus. They settled in Javakheti -- what they call "the land of the Dukhobors" -- where they established eight villages, of which Gorelovka is the heart and spiritual center.
"Thousands left, around 15,000 people," Masha said from her cottage in Gorelovka. "So many people died on the way. It was November, December when they came by foot or on horseback. It was very cold. This land was empty then. By spring, there were only around 8,000 left. The rest had perished."
An egalitarian spiritual community, the Dukhobors stand apart from other religious sects that emerged in Russia around the same time by their profound commitment to pacifism, their gender equality, and the centrality of an inner belief that casts aside the need for material expressions of religion. It was after the catastrophic loss of life during the Napoleonic Wars that small religious sects began to splinter from the Russian Orthodox Church, an institution widely considered an arm of the Russian state since Peter the Great, and therefore tainted by the horrors of war.
"The amalgamation of church and state was seen by many dissidents of the time as responsible for many of the evils committed under the Russian Empire," said Malkhaz Songulashvili, professor of comparative theology at Ilia State University and the metropolitan bishop of Tbilisi. "The Dukhobors are less dogmatic, less ritualistic than the Russian Orthodox Church. For them, religion is about ethics."
But even communities that eschew mainstream rituals often develop their own, and the Dukhobors are no exception. On Sundays and holidays, the Dukhobors gather in the former orphanage in Gorelovka to sing psalms and scripture from the Book of Life. More theological than Orthodox scriptures, the Book of Life, developed in Javakheti, is catechetical; texts composed in a way that presents two voices; quasi-dialogic, often in question and answer. It is to mark their holidays that they don their traditional thick pink skirts, woven shirts, waistcoats, and hand-embroidered scarves covering their heads.
"During Soviet times, we couldn't shout about believing in religion, but our parents did believe, of course," Masha said. "Inside, everyone believes."
The pristinely maintained former orphanage, with the bright colors of the shutters and small doors freshly painted, was, in Soviet times, a warehouse. With religion banned in the Soviet Union, the Dukhobors would gather in each other's houses for Sunday psalms and holidays.
Bereft of iconography, and both informal and interior, the Dukhobors' faith was little affected by the official Soviet ban on religion. Their communal living style, with private property subordinate to sharing and dividing assets among the community, made the Dukhobors well prepared for the stripping of private property under the Soviets.
"We were the first communists" said Galya, a 59-year-old Dukhobor and one of the caretakers of the orphanage. "The Soviet Union was such a good period. There wasn't rich or poor, we were all the same. We lived well. After the revolution, the Dukhobors got used to the kolkhoz, then they destroyed that system in the 1990s and we had to get to something else. During Soviet times, Ukraine, Georgia, Russia, we were all the same. No one was saying, 'this is our land and that is your land.'"
It is a sign of the insularity of the Dukhobor community, that Galya, having never lived in Ukraine, speaks Russian with a Ukrainian accent, something passed down to her from her ancestors who lived in Ukraine over a century ago.
Like many ethnic and religious minorities in Georgia, the Dukhobors feel a sense of nostalgia for the Soviet Union, a time during which they say they experienced an equality that has since been lost under the pervasive ethno-nationalist idea of post-Soviet Georgia.
Part of the reason for the Dukhobors' shrinking community can be traced to the exodus that happened during the chaotic, scarce years of the 1990s, when, fearing a decline in their autonomy in a Georgia newly emergent from the ashes of the U.S.S.R., many emigrated to Russia, where they remained.
To walk along the main road in Gorelovka is to see the town's multiethnic and multilinguistic character in stark terms. Within a few meters of each other are three schools: Georgian, Armenian, and Russian. In the entrance hall of the Russian school hangs a portrait of Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, a great supporter of the Dukhobors who played a key role in helping them get established in Georgia.
"Tolstoy was also instrumental in finding another homeland for the Dukhobors," academic Songulashvili said. "It was Tolstoy who communicated with Victorian Britain and secured the rights for the Dukhobors [to go] to Canada, which was then under British rule. Tolstoy became a quasi-religious figure for Dukhobors as a result."
The exodus of Dukhobors to Canada at the start of the 20th century was the second great rupture in the Dukhobors' history. Although exiled, they realized they weren't fully able to exercise their liberties and pacifism sufficiently, leading a group of them to emigrate to the plains of Canada, which allowed them to have more cultural autonomy.
To speak to the Dukhobors today is to often hear a century-old prophecy, in which the Dukhobors, scattered across the world, return to the spiritual homeland: Gorelovka. Conceived by the community's 19th-century leader, the widow Lukeria Kalmykova, it is here in Gorelovka, so the prophecy goes, that this dwindling community will gain its strength and return to a glorious past. It is a bittersweet idea that, with scarce government interest in supporting the Dukhobors and a lack of infrastructure, is difficult to imagine.
"[They had a] deep commitment to peace when it was extremely unpopular to stand for peace. The war in Ukraine shows again how pointless war can be, claiming lives unnecessarily. These Tolstovian peace principles will become more meaningful and relevant as time passes on, because we need to learn how important peace is for the planet," Songulashvili said. "The Dukhobors have been forerunners in this matter in this part of the world."
NOTE: Natela Grigalashvili has been photographing the Dukhobors since 2013, returning to Gorelovka with Nadia Beard in November 2022.