Vysoki: Geographic Background and Early History

Vysoki: Geographic Background and Early History

Shavei Israel: We are glad to share an exciting historical and ethnographic report about the history of Vysoki, Russia’s biggest location of the community of the Subbotnik Jews who embraced Judaism several centuries ago and continued to keep their Jewish identity during all these years in the most difficult of circumstances of Czarist oppression, Nazi persecution and Communist repression. This is the first installment, which will tell the readers about the early history of the community and their life before the village of Vysoki was founded.

The people of Vysoki have written this about their own village.

It is a noble but not a simple task to write about the story of Vysoki. One has to embrace the immensity of this project. It is difficult to be objective and impartial for there is a danger of distorting facts and events. The sources are too scarce and contradictory and working in the archives is problematic. Therefore, there should be no illusions about the existence of the ultimate truth. This is only an attempt to give a broad review of the historical past and the development of our small village.

In this article, different types of sources and character will be used.

It will include the works published by Voronezh’s local historians, such as V.P. Zagorovsky and V.F. Panova.

“The History of the Town of Vysoki,” by V.V. Kopytin, the first director of the local 8-grades school.

Articles from the regional newspapers, “Zarya” and “Commune.

Materials from the school museum exhibition “Far and Close.

Old-timers’ oral reports.

So, who are we? Where did we come to this land from and when? Why did our ancestors settle here? What were they like? How did the village develop? Does it have a future? Will we preserve our history or will we disappear from the map like hundreds and thousands of other settlements? These are the questions to be answered. And what is the purpose? It is to preserve the historical memory and not to break the thread of the past centuries. Without the past there will be no happy future.

Motherland, distant and close,

The expanse of fields and blue sky,

You start with this little village,

The place where I was born.

The town of Vysoki is relatively young. It was founded in 1922, six kilometers south of Talovaya near the road leading to Buturlinovka. It got its name from a hill, the slopes of which run north to the valley of the now-lost Talovaya River, east to Talovskaya balka (valley) to the south and west to Verkhneozersky and Voznesensky ponds.

Building the village started during the last stage of the Voronezh regional settlement in the early twentieth century. Before this, the area was home to a variety of herbs: fescue, meadowsweet, wormwood, yellow gorse, thyme, clover and feather grass. As if they were trying to outgrow each other, they all stretched up and there was not a tree around! In some places, on the slopes of ravines, thickets of thorns huddled together.

Split steppe

Lies wide

Far around

Spread out

By feather grass!

Oh my steppe

Free steppe,

You spread out

Far around!

In his poem, The Mower, we can see how the famous Russian poet, A. Koltsov admired this area. However, for a long time these spaces were unsuitable for human existence. Frequent summer dry winds, long periods without rain, and the lack of rivers all made the earth as hard as stone. That is why these places were called the Stone Steppe. However, it cannot be stated that these lands were unknown. The huge plain massif has been used since ancient times by nomads. In the period of Kievan Rus there were the Pechenegs and the Polovtsians who were followed by the Mongols. After the collapse of the Golden Horde, the Crimean and Nogai Tatars moved in. Perhaps during the 16th and 17th centuries passed Nogai Sakma – the steppe road – passed through our land. This was the road through which the Nogai Tatars roamed in the steppes between the lower reaches of the Volga and the Don to raid the Russian lands.

The barrow on the territory of the settlement is a silent witness of past battles that became the burial place for the Russian soldiers. The people of Vysoki did not know about its function and thought that this was a marmot mountain as there were a lot of marmot holes there. In the sixties they built a grocery store on the top of the barrow. It was closed down in the early eighties and for a long time the building was used as a warehouse. Now it is privately owned.

Vysoki: Early History until the Russian revolution

In the middle of the 17th century, after the creation of the Belgorod junction line, and then as a result of the Peter I’s activities (the Azov and Pruth campaigns), the region became inaccessible to nomads. This became an area for intensive settlement and our lands were used for cattle grazing. Old Nogai roads became routes to be used for moving the cattle to the market.

The history of the area was unpredictable. Sometimes it seems that the development here stopped while at other times it progressed at such a pace it seemed to be like the changing pieces of glass in a kaleidoscope. Not one decade passed without people traveling across these lands. Perhaps it was then that our distant ancestors noticed the steppe elevation. But settling here was still risky.

Everything changed as the result of the activities of the great Russian soil scientist V.V. Dokuchaev. In the 1870-1880s he organized a number of scientific trips to the provinces of Russia which contained rich black soil. In 1892, his expedition to the Stone Steppe began. From 1892 to 1899 Dokuchaev and his follower, Sobenevsky, organized the creation of a forest nursery and they also planted belts of forest. The expedition’s activities led to the creation of the first experimental station (1911) which later became a research institute in the Soviet era (1946).

Without exaggeration, we can say that Dokuchaev and his successors made a land revolution in this area. Rich black soil became available thanks to field-protective afforestation. The lack of moisture was compensated by the creation of artificial reservoirs.

The successful activities of scientists were made possible thanks to construction of a new railway line from Kharkov to Balashov as well as the building of the Talovaya station in 1895. In 1896, the railway line was extended to the town of Kalach. Now the cattle did not have to be moved through most of the region. They were loaded onto wagons and the geography of the distribution of animal products expanded.

Taken together, the above improvements caused an economic revival in the province. The fertile and now protected lands attracted people. The landowner Ogarkov (or Agarkov) founded his estate three and a half kilometers south of Talovaya and one and a half kilometers from the future town of Vysoki. These lands formally belonged to the descendants of Count Alexei Orlov, who had received them as a gift from Catherine II, for victories in the Russian-Turkish wars of the end of the 18th century. Probably, neither Catherine II nor Orlov himself realized the scale of his possessions at the time. As a result, the Orlovs leased their lands to such people as Ogarkov.

Unfortunately, neither the first name of this person or his memoirs have been preserved. But it can be assumed that he was an enterprising landowner. He built a house and outbuildings and he created a beautiful pond lined with trees which he blocked off with a wide dam. He also bred cattle on the steppes’ open spaces and sowed fields. But people did not continue with his efforts over the years. Only some of the red brick remains of his estate survived which until the mid-sixties were to be found in a few places. Here they were exposed while nearby fields were being plowed. Also, the local pond was called Ogarky. It is a shame but this reservoir doesn’t exist anymore. However, since then several generations of the people of Vysoki have used its clean springs as a source of drinking water and as a resting place and a site for grazing cattle.

Therefore due to a number of circumstances: Dokuchaev’s expedition, the building of the station at Talovaya, Ogarkov’s activities, the proximity to the Buturlinovka – Bobrov route – all of these  led to the development of the territory where Vysoki is located today.

So this is what happened before the country and its inhabitants suffered the terrible events at the beginning of the century: World War I (1914-1918), the 1917 revolution and the civil war which followed. It was through the lands of the future Vysoki that the army of the White General Denikin and the Red Army soldiers led by S. Budenny as well as the Mamontov gangs passed through. These steppes remember many battles. Old-timers used to find fragments of shells and moldy green handgun cartridges here. Even today one can still see the line of already overgrown trenches stretching across the meadow parallel to Karl Marx Street.

This page of history has also been turned. Another period was coming. The October revolution of 1917 radically changed the lives of people. It is no coincidence history divides this period into pre- and post-revolutionary eras.

One of the important and major decisions of the first years of Soviet power was the nationalization of the land. Peasant dreams came true. This was followed by the creation of the committees of poor peasants, food squads and dispossessions. However, the fact remains that in the very beginning the new government gave land to the people and this caused a long-lasting effect which resulted in popular support for the government.

The decree about the land gave every peasant the right to have a plot of land up to three tithes per consumer. Peasants were allowed to develop new lands taken from the larger villages.

Vysoki: Early History and Religion of its Population

Just as the path leading to the creation of the town of Vysoki was long and complicated, the fate of its future inhabitants was even more so. It was very hard to find out where exactly our roots came from. With confidence we can only say that the ancestors of the people of Vysoki were free peasants as they were able to quite freely move across the territory of the Russian Empire.

What made them leave their homes?

On the one hand, there was the eternal Russian desire to find a better place; to explore new lands. On the other hand, there was also religious persecution and the search for co-religionists. Yes, our ancestors had such a distinctive feature: Russian surnames and patronymic names, Jewish first names and the Jewish faith.

The origins of this phenomenon go back to the distant “rebellious” age – the 17th century. Patriarch Nikon’s religious reforms led not only to the establishment of a new religious order and the creation of the Old Believers movement, but it also pushed some of them away from Orthodox Christianity. Spiritual quests sometimes resulted in the adoption of a new faith — Judaism.

Judaism has always been present in the history of Russia. The ruling elite of the Khazar Kaganate, which had a great influence on the neighboring territories, consisted of Jews. Prince Vladimir, The Great (“The Red Sun”) hesitated for a long time before choosing a faith for Russia. One of the claimants to the state religion was Judaism.

This is the period of Kievan Rus: late 9th – mid 13th centuries.

Later, during the period of the formation of the Moscow state and the Russian Empire, the country which was quite open to all sorts of tribes, peoples, denominations, was always characterized by relative state of religious tolerance. Even though the officials pursued the Old Believers, the gentiles were treated more condescendingly. In Moscow, the Kokuy settlement existed and so too did the Protestant Kirche. There were synagogues in the Ukraine and temples belonging to different religions in St. Petersburg.

This issue seriously worried the Orthodox Church. Russia was always considered to be Orthodox. Of course, there were certain aggressive acts, pogroms, for example, in the Pale of Settlement for Jews. However, the vast scale of the land; the constant internal colonization which included the movement of large masses of people and the weakness of the authorities gave a certain freedom for the people to choose their own religion. Our ancestors also made their choice. Having embraced the new faith, they most often left for some distant places where they could find co-religionists and not suffer persecution.

In the late 18th and 19th centuries, the Voronezh region became such a place. It was settled unevenly and gradually. Up until the 18th century, its south-eastern surroundings and the center could be called “a bear’s corner” (the Russian expression indicating an extremely remote place). The population of this region was very diverse: Cossacks, merchants, landowners, adventurers, Ukrainians and Judaizers.

In 1806, the Bishop of Voronezh wrote a report that “the Judaic sect arose between Orthodox Christians around 1796 under the influence of Jews who lived among Christians spread out among the six villages of Bobrovsky and Pavlovsky counties.”

It is known that most of the population of the Voronezh region came from the central regions of the country. This could be proved by the antiquities, clothing and dialect of the old-timers. Most likely, our ancestors are from the center of Russia. They arrived in the Voronezh land in a few groups.

One of these groups came from Moscow region as well as from Yaroslavl. The existence of the village of Voronino in the modern Yaroslavl region, as well as elements of the folk costume adopted in Vysoki also serve as indirect evidence.

Another group came from Ryazan and Tambov. In the Tambov region there is also a settlement, where the most common surname is Gridnev. People from the city of Kozlov (now Michurinsk) located in the Tambov Region were evicted to the village of Kozlovka on the territory of the modern Buturlinovsky region. In this village the roots of modern people of Vysoki are clearly obvious.

In addition, the old-timers talked about the settlements in Siberia and the south-east of Russia. Indeed, Asian features could be noticed in the appearance of some of the people of Vysoki.

Finally, at the beginning of the 19th century all these groups of settlers settled on the fertile black-soil lands in the center and southeast of the Voronezh region.

Our ancestors have come a long way. Already in the new places they worked as traditional peasants but did not forget their Jewish traditions. In the villages of the Voronezh region they either found co-religionists, or founded their own Jewish communities. Large Jewish communities existed in the villages of Kozlovka, Gvazda, Klepovka, Staraya Tishanka. In the 1970s many Jewish emissaries traveled to these territories. They instilled the thought that the day would come that all the Jews would gather in one place and create a strong flourishing state. These people even handed out passes – documents that were kept in families as genuine souvenirs. One of these documents is currently in the school museum of Vysoki.

Apparently, all this really impressed the people. It was possible that the Orthodox Russians who lived nearby also turned to Judaism. However, there were conflicts, and some of our ancestors decided to move out of the big village of Kozlovka into the small village of Ozerki.

to be continued…

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Esther Surikova
Esther Surikova
esther@shavei.org