by Alexei N. Chernoff
Towards the end of his life, Doukhobor Alexei Nikolayevich Chernoff (1877-1967) set to writing his experiences as a young military reservist during the “Burning of Arms” in Russia 1895. Reproduced by permission from the pages of “The Brothers Chernoff from Azerbaijan to Canada” (Winnipeg: December 1992) this article is a wonderful example of our rich Doukhobor oral tradition, now preserved in writing for future generations. Translated by Fred J. Chernoff.
I, Alexei Nikolayevich Chernoff, had the desire to write to my relatives about our past, that part that is still in my memory. My parents were Nikolai Timofeyevich and Anna Semenovna Chernov. My mother’s family were the Popovs. In our family there were six sons: Aliosha (Alexei), Mikola (Nikolai), Vanya (Ivan), Fedya (Feodor), Misha (Mikhail) and Andrusha (Andrei). The parents were neither poor or rich. Their occupation was with farmland and they owned cattle, horses, sheep, chickens, geese and ducks – all in small numbers. There also lived with us two brothers of my father whose names were Danilushka (Danila) and Mikisha (Mikifor). My father Nikolai was the eldest brother. In total there were 23 people living together and all ate at one table. At first we lived well and were happy. This was in Russia, the Caucasus, the village of Slavyanka in the Elizavetpol province (present-day Republic of Azerbaijan).
Alexei Nikolaevich Chernoff (1877-1967)
As children we grew up and soon started to help our parents with the work. When I reached the age of 17, my parents decided to marry me off. They had arranged for the daughter of a rich family by the name of Verigin, whose name was Paranya (Praskovia) Nikolayevna. Both of our families were happy about this arrangement. Our lives became happy and joyful. This happened shortly after the death of the former leader of the Doukhobors, Lushechka (Lukeria) Kalmykova. Her place was taken by Peter Vasilyevich Verigin. Not all the Doukhobors accepted him as the new leader. In opposition a group emerged and began to pass information to the government. Peter Verigin was arrested, tried and exiled to Siberia.
At this time, the young men from 21 of age were called by the government for service in the army, and because of an error by my parents, I was one of the people called. I was given a (reserve) document indicating that I had to appear to serve when it was my turn. This came at the time the Doukhobors started to refuse service in the army. As I was not yet 21 years of age, by law I should not be called into the service. During the last census, believing that they would save me from the army, my parents had added 3 years to my age. Because of this entry in the census, I was now called into the military service. My father appealed to the military command to nullify the call. The officer in command asked if there were any records of the birth of your son. My father answered no. The officer then replied that, the order to serve cannot be nullified, but he added not be afraid that he would not be called for the time being. This is how the matter ended. They didn’t take me into the army, but my name was left on the list for future call.
In 1895, a call came from Siberia from Peter V. Verigin, that the Doukhobors show by action their opposition to service in the army. He ordered all of his followers to burn their arms and guns. The men who were drafted for service went to the officials and turned in their call papers. They informed the officials that they will no longer serve in the army.
On June 29, 1895 was the celebration of Peters Day. On the night before, the Doukhobors secretly collected all of their guns and burned them. This stirred up the government officials, and they started an investigation as to why this burning occurred. Next morning another event furthur antagonized the government officials against the Doukhobors. The young draftees started to hand in their call papers and advised that they will no longer take part in serving in the army. I too, went to turn in my papers, along with 60 other draftees. We were all arrested and placed in jail cells. Our parents were also arrested for influencing the young men. Without giving us an opportunity for a farewell, we were marched to Elizavetpolski prison. That ended our happy life. My dear relatives, it was difficult to part with our family – my mother, my 5 brothers, and my dear wife and son Nikolai. I was young, and God gave me strength to bear this sorrow. My father and I stayed in jail for 5 months. Then along with others we were sent to Kozakh prison. Our parents, the older people were sent to Siberia. Part of their trip was by water and here my father got sick. The ship doctor was unable to help him. Upon landing he was sent to hospital where he passed away. The date was August 17, 1895. He had nobody with him when he died and the news of his passing did not reach us for 6 months.
In Kozakh prison were 65 draftees who had refused to serve and had turned in their papers. In prison, life was not all that bad. We were allowed to exercise, sing and pray to God. They gave us a kitchen, and we had 2 cooks amongst us to board ourselves. Life went well. One thing that bothered us was fever, as the climate was favorable to this illness. Everyone was sick from this except myself. We stayed in that prison for about a year and one-half.
In August 1897, the government decided to send us to the Yerevan region to settle among the Tartars. We notified our relatives that we were being exiled. Our relatives came to a meeting in prison, and the government permitted this. We were glad to see them and they were glad to see us. After the first meeting, we were allowed to meet with them the next day. Soon after, we were all counted, put into a convoy and started on our journey. We called to our people for the last time a good-bye and to forgive us. We marched to Yerevan over a 7 day period. In the month of August, the weather was warm and dry and we thanked God that we reached our destination safely. Nobody was sick on the way. Again we were imprisoned, and due to the lack of room inside, we were kept outside of the prison. They allowed us our own kitchen and gave all that we required. They kept us here for 12 days. Here some of our comrades were distributed to the Tartar villages and the rest of us, about 13 people, were sent further to Nakhichevan.
Again, we were marched through the valleys of the Caucasian mountains for 5 days. On the way, we were given time to rest. The valleys were very hot and the people in this area raised fruit. I was attracted by grapes growing so I picked a bunch and ate them. Shortly after I became sick and became cold and shivering. It appeared that I had the same malaria fever that attacked the other comrades. Every day at the same time I got the shivers. We reached Nakhichevan and were distributed 2 to a village. My partner was Nikolai Fedorovich Salykin. He was much older than myself and had already served in the army. But he was in prison because he turned in his military service papers. Because he was older than myself, he took advantage of me and made me serve him. The village was known a Karabahli. It was a large village and the people were kind and courteous. They provided a well lit room and slowly we got used to our surroundings. We knew their language and soon found a job cutting hay. They paid us a fair wage and did not mistreat us. Their women baked us bread which was very tasty. Here we lived for a year.
One day a Russian doctor visited our village, and I turned to him with my illness. He examined me and told me to appear at the hospital in his village. He ordered that I be released with a guard. We walked 50 verst (kilometers). There he gave me a mixture of quinine and shortly thereafter the fever left me completely. I got well, but the doctor kept me there for 2 weeks. In that time I helped in the house and looked after his little girl. The doctor asked me to stay with him, but I refused and went back to my friends.
Shortly thereafter, our relatives decided to visit us. My Uncle Danilushka decided to ride horseback to our place and invited a Tartar to accompany him. I was very glad to see my Uncle Danilushka. He passed regards from my family, told me how they lived and how they had safely traveled to see me. Thank God. After supper my friend Salykin decided to invite a town official. The official came and with him were 2 policemen. He asked my Uncle whether he had a permit to travel. At that time, every person had to have permission to travel from one place to another in Russia. Danilushka did not have such a permit. The official did not say anything and went back to his room. Shortly thereafter, the official arrested our guest Danilushka and took him away. Next morning, he and his friend were marched to Nakhichevan prison. The horses were left with us. This is how my Uncle visited me at this time. I wondered what to do with the horses and discussed this with a regional official. He sent me to the prison where my Uncle was held and he requested that they not be sold. He wanted them sent back to his village. This request was sent back to the official who became irrate, and sent me to see someone else with authority. An order was given that the horses be given to the local villagers. Nobody wanted them, so I kept the horses. Feed was obtained for the horses till my Uncle Mikisha came and took them away. Later my Uncle Danilushka and his friend had walked back to their village from which they came. All this we lived through. The people here were good, gave us feed for the horses, and helped us in many ways.
In 1899 we were freed. We hired a Molokan, and he drove us to the station Astafoo. By this time we joined a group who were migrating to Canada and were on their way to Batum. Our relatives were already at Batum, and met us after 3 years of separation. I cannot describe this meeting. My mother especially, thanked God that her son Aliosha came back safe and sound. My relatives kissed me and could not believe that I was their Aliosha.
On February 16, 1899 we started boarding the ship. The passage across the ocean was difficult. The ocean was rough but we reached Canada, at Halifax, on the 9th day of March, 1899. We unloaded on a large (quarantine) island. There they gave us a bath and vaccinated us. We stayed there several days, boarded a ship and reached St. John. Here we were loaded onto a train and sent west to Manitoba – Winnipeg, Selkirk and Brandon – where they had places for us. It was still winter and there was a lot of snow. After a while, we were sent to Yorkton, Saskatchewan and from there we went by sleigh to the village of Verovka where they had built long barns. In these barns we spent the remainder of the winter. Spring came and the warm weather with it. Then they started to sort families, who would want to live in the same villages. Everyone was organized into villages and our village was Sovetnoye. It was north-west of the village of Veregin. Here we started our Canadian life.
Doukhobor Village in Saskatchewan, 1902
At this time we had no farming facilities and just set up tents in the middle of the field. The stronger men were sent out to look for jobs and the older men and women began building. They dug and started building sod houses. They were plastered inside and dried outside so to be livable. This was in 1899. Towards fall the workers started coming home and had a place to winter. We had a lot of wood for fuel and wintered well. In the spring we started to get ready to look for work again. Some stayed home to improve the facilities. By then, the village had one horse and several cows, so we had milk for the children. This was 1900. We started planting gardens and getting ready for the next winter. We started to accumulate the necessary equipment, plowing the land and seeding oats. The crops were very good and the times were getting better. We all lived in a commune and had a happy life. I was elected senior in our village and had control of the money.
In 1902, near Christmas, Peter “Lordly” Verigin came to Canada. All Doukhobors were glad of his coming. He visited the villages and met everyone. He advised the people to live a communal life and nearly everyone took his advice. He started to buy cattle and horses and allocated them among the villages. After some time in the communities, a misunderstanding arose with the Canadian government regarding the registration of land ownership and taking the oath of allegiance. Then, Peter Verigin decided to move some Doukhobors to British Columbia. Land was purchased for orchards, and nearly all of the people of the community were transplanted to British Columbia. Our family, the Chernoffs, including the 6 brothers and my 2 sons, stayed on the Khutor ranch near the town of Veregin. The ranch had been well stocked with cattle and horses and the animals were worth a lot of money. Peter Verigin delegated the Chernoffs to look after this property. My brother Nikolai was a tabunchik (“horse trainer”) and I was delegated to look after the stallions. The rest of the brothers looked after the land and planted the grain. The grain amounted to over 30,000 bushels. In the winter we looked after the livestock. We lived under the leadership of Peter “Lordly” Verigin for twelve years, up until the time of his death. He always favored us and was kind.
During October 1927, the other Verigin arrived. The Doukhobors were glad of his coming and soon he started to change procedures and practices. We started to live according to his plans and what he wanted. The time passed and then, he too died. After that, the whole community broke apart. Everyone started to live independently and that’s the way it is now. However, there are a group who are organized under the name of the Union of Christian Communities of Christ.
Dear relatives, the time is fleeing and the memory of relatives and friends is disappearing. My mother died in 1934, and my wife Paranya died in 1950. I myself am 87 years old and nearing the end of my life. I have decided to leave my remembrance of our previous life, and how and why we came to Canada. My sincere desire is that you live in a Doukhobor society and carry out all of the teachings for the well being of ourselves and future offspring. Guard all the time our Doukhobor faith.
Your Father, Grandfather, Great Grandfather, Your Brother and Your Uncle,
Alexei Nikolayevich Chernoff
September 12, 1964