by Leslee Newman
In 1867, a wedding dress was handmade and worn in a traditional Doukhobor wedding ceremony in the Caucasus, Russia. Thereafter, it was carefully preserved and passed down through the generations. Today, over one hundred and forty years later, this historic garment is part of the extensive collection of Doukhobor artifacts held at the Saskatchewan Western Development Museum. The following commentary, reproduced by permission from the Saskatoon Sun, April 25, 1999, outlines the story of the dress from its origins to present.
Within sight of Mount Ararat, which according to the Bible was the resting place of Noah’s ark, Onya Kabaroff and Fedyor Perehudoff pledged their union. The young Doukhobor couple began their life together in 1867. Half a world away in North America, four provinces joined to form a new country, Canada. Onya (Anna) and Fedyor (Fred) could not have known that they would someday leave their small village in the Russian province of Georgia to make this new country their home.
Anna’s mother began to prepare for her daughter’s wedding long before the special day. She spun flax into thread, wove the thread into cloth, sewed the cloth into a full length dress. The dress has long sleeves, with gathering so fine at the wrists and neck, and embroidery so delicate, that it challenges you to imagine producing such work by the light of a flickering flame. A hand-woven geometric-patterned band decorates the hemline.
The blue woollen apron also was made from hand-woven cloth. After washing and carding, the wool was spun, then woven into a fine cloth. The apron was gathered at the waist. The hem was decorated with a colourful woven band and hand-knit lace.
Dress worn by Onya Kabaroff on her wedding to Fedya Perehudoff in 1867 in Russia.
The short, padded vest was hand-sewn from cotton. Since cotton was not a cloth that could be produced at home, it was likely purchased on a rare trip to a large trading centre. All items must have been lovingly prepared by Anna’s mother for her daughter’s hope chest.
Thirty-two years after their marriage, Anna and Fred made the heart-wrenching choice to leave their home and travel with 7,500 others of Doukhobor faith to Canada. Leo Tolstoy, the well-known Russian writer, sponsored Doukhobor immigration to what is now Saskatchewan, financing the trip with proceeds from his book Resurrection. The Quakers, another pacifist group, also came to their aid.
Anna’s wedding dress was packed and made the long journey from Russia to the tiny village of Ospennia, 15 kilometres southeast of Blaine Lake in what was then, Canada’s North West Territories.
It is likely that Anna wore her dress on Sundays and special days like the annual June 29th commemoration of the Burning of Arms. On that day, a large tent was set up to house the people who gathered for prayers, songs and ceremony.
Firm in their belief in the commandment “Thou shalt not kill,” Doukhobors rejected the call to serve in the Russian military. On June 29, 1895 they collected their weapons and burned them. Thousands were punished with death or exile. Doukhobors have commemorated June 29th faithfully since that time.
On Anna’s death in the 1930s, the dress was handed down to her daughter, Dasha (Dora) Postnikoff. When Dora died, Anna’s dress went to Dora’s daughter Agatha. It was donated to the Saskatchewan Western Development Museum by Anna’s granddaughter, Agatha Stupnikoff, on behalf of the Postnikoff family.
“The people then tried very hard to accept the Canadian way of life, so they switched over to Canadian dress quite early. Anna’s dress came out only on special occasions,” recalled Agatha.
“Doukhobour people come from all walks of life. It isn’t a nationality, it’s a belief,” Agatha explained as she mused about the exodus from Russia her grandparents joined in 1899. They were not young people, both in their fifties when they came to Canada, with the strength of their belief sustaining them through hardship.
Agatha Stupnikoff’s sensitivity to her family’s story and Doukhobor history was shared by her husband Sam. Motivated by their desire to preserve these cherished garments, they consulted family members, then offered the wedding outfit to the Saskatchewan Western Development Museum.
Ruth Bitner, WDM Collections Curator, accepted the donation with gratitude, stating “Despite the fact that people from so many different cultures made Saskatchewan their homes, the WDM has few examples of traditional clothing. Costumes like this are a tangible reminder of personal journeys, leaving the familiar culture of the homeland for an unknown future in faraway Saskatchewan.”
For More Information
The Saskatchewan Western Development Museum (WDM) is the museum of social and economic history for the Province of Saskatchewan. It is a network of four exhibit branches in the cities of Moose Jaw, North Battleford, Saskatoon and Yorkton. For more information about the WDM, its programs, events, exhibits, and the many Doukhobor artifacts in its holdings, visit the WDM web site at: www.wdm.ca.