A Roundtrip to the Homeland: Doukhobor Remigration to Soviet Russia in the 1920s

by Vadim Kukushkin

Following the Russian Revolution, an increasing number of Doukhobors in Canada began to turn their eyes to their homeland, where momentous changes were taking place. Many had never completely abandoned the dream of returning to the land of their birth. To this end, between 1922 and 1926, forty Independent Doukhobor families from the Veregin, Kamsack and Pelly districts of Saskatchewan remigrated to the Soviet Union. Their aim was to help their homeland to establish the new life following the Revolution. Settling in the Melitopol district of the Ukrainian province of Zaporozhye, they established two villages and formed the Independent Canadian Doukhobor Collective Farm, using modern farm machinery brought from Canada. The resettlement flourished until 1927, when the young men received calls to serve in the Soviet army. Refusing to bear arms, the Doukhobors hastily sold their homes and machinery and returned to Canada. In this Doukhobor Genealogy Website exclusive, Dr. Vadim Kukushkin chronicles the promise and failure of the Doukhobor remigration to Soviet Russia in the 1920s. 

By the end of the First World War, Canadian Doukhobors were in a state of flux. In a climate of instability and increasing pressure for assimilation and conformity, many Doukhobors wondered if Canada was indeed the land where they could freely pursue their way of life. Various resettlement schemes began to float within the community. An increasing number of Doukhobors, including Peter Verigin himself, began to turn their eyes to the homeland, where momentous changes were taking place. Despite their economic success in Canada, the Doukhobors never abandoned the idea of returning to Russia. Similar to other diaspora groups, they saw their Canadian exile as a temporary condition to be followed by an eventual return to the land of their ancestors. Throughout the years of emigration, the dream of return was kept alive in Doukhobor songs and oral tradition.

The Russian revolution of February 1917 for the first time made the idea of return a feasible one. By doing away with the tsarist monarchy and proclaiming the freedom of religion, it removed the greatest obstacle that stood in the way of moving back to the homeland. In a telegram dated 27 March 1917, Peter Verigin informed Russia’s Provisional Government of ten thousand Doukhobors “willing to return to Russia as good farmers and horticulturalists.” The Russian authorities reacted favourably, although they balked at the idea of exempting the returning Doukhobors from military service at a time when Russia was straining all its resources to fight the war. Before any practical scheme could be worked out, however, the Provisional Government was brought down by the Bolshevik coup of October 1917.

While more research is needed on Doukhobors’ attitudes to the Russian revolutions of 1917, the new Soviet government clearly had the support of at least a certain part of the community, which viewed the collectivist and internationalist tenets of the Communist doctrine as similar to Doukhobor teachings. Russian revolutionary songs such as Otrechemsya ot starogo mira (Let Us Renounce the Old World) and others had entered the Doukhobor song repertoire. Although the idea of return circulated through all segments of Canada’s Doukhobor community, interest in Soviet Russia was strongest among the approximately 7,000 Independent Doukhobors, who lived in several compact clusters in eastern Saskatchewan (around Kamsack, Verigin, Pelly and Buchanan) and western Manitoba (Benito).

As early as February 1920, the Independent Doukhobors of Kamsack inquired with immigration authorities in Ottawa about sending delegates to Soviet Russia to “ascertain what the conditions are there” and find ways of giving aid to their suffering brethren in the Caucasus region. The idea had to be postponed, however, until political situation in Russia became less volatile. During the next two years, the prospects of return and the election of delegates to Russia remained the subject of heated debates at Doukhobor community meetings. In March 1921, the Independents sent a letter to the Soviet government, which hailed the “dawn of freedom [which] shines in our motherland” and asked for admission to Russia. To deal with the issues of remigration, they established the Immigration Committee, responsible to the Community of Independent Doukhobors.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870-1924). The Soviet leader took a keen interest in the remigration of Doukhobors from Canada.

For their part, the Bolshevik leadership showed a considerable interest in Russian pacifist sects who had been victimized by the tsarist government, viewing them as potential allies in the building of the new social order. Doukhobors, Molokans, Old Believers and other Russian sectarians were seen as “natural” communists, even if their communism was rooted in religion rather than scientific Marxism. To secure the sectarians’ support of the new regime, Soviet decrees of 1 January 1919 and 14 February 1920 exempted them from military service provided they proved the conscientious nature of their refusal to carry arms and abstained from anti-Soviet agitation. Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin showed a personal interest in the matter. In August 1921, he instructed officials who dealt with the Doukhobor petition for admission to “give permission immediately and respond with extreme courtesy”. In October the same year, the Soviet government established a Commission for Settlement of State Farms, Unoccupied Lands and Former Estates with Sectarians and Old Believers (known as Orgkomsekt). The Commission issued an appeal To Sectarians and Old Believers Residing in Russia and Abroad, which invited victims of tsarist religious persecution to return and contribute to Russia’s agricultural development. The document was penned by Vladimir Bonch-Bruevich, a Russian folklorist involved in arranging the Doukhobor migration to Canada and now a high-ranking Soviet official.

The Doukhobors’ well-known experience in cooperative mechanized farming made them a highly desirable class of returnees. Facing a shortage of capital and skilled workforce, the Soviet state sought the help of Russian emigrant workers and farmers willing to contribute their American-acquired knowledge, money and resources to the economic rebirth of the country. Soviet policy towards returning emigrants was defined in a series of decrees passed in 1921-22, which welcomed the arrival of farming and industrial collectives (increasingly referred to as “communes”), organized in consultation with Moscow. Such collectives were required to bring enough supplies and machinery (as well as foodstuff and clothing) to run a collective farm or an industrial establishment without taxing the scant resources of the Soviet state. Machinery and goods imported by the communes into the Soviet Union were admitted duty-free.

Responsibility for coordinating the movement of immigrant communes to the Soviet republics was vested in the Permanent Commission for the Regulation of Industrial and Agricultural Immigration. The Society of Technical Aid to Soviet Russia, organized in 1919 by a group of Russian emigrants in New York, did the practical recruitment work in Canada and the United States. Its functions also included purchasing supplies and machinery for the departing groups and taking care of transportation and visa matters. In 1922-23, the Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal branches of the Society organized three Ukrainian-Canadian agricultural groups, which settled on the steppes of Southern Ukraine.

Because of Doukhobors’ geographical and cultural isolation, they were a harder target for remigration agitators than were Russian and Ukrainian immigrants who lived in major urban centres. From the beginning, the Society focussed its attention on the Independents, whose pro-Soviet leanings were known in New York and Moscow and who had already gone further than Community Doukhobors towards arranging a move to the homeland. In mid-1922, the Society’s Central Bureau reported to Moscow that despite the “individualist” farming practices that set the Independents apart from Community Doukhobors, with due care they “could be steered towards communalist or cooperative landholding”.

In July 1922, a meeting of Independent Doukhobors in Kamsack elected Larion Taranoff and Vasily Potapoff, a former associate of Peter Verigin who had broken with his leader, as delegates to Soviet Russia to survey potential settlement locations and negotiate a relocation scheme. They carried a list of 281 families prepared to move immediately and a petition of to the Soviet government, in which the Doukhobors requested an opportunity to “choose one of the unoccupied tracts of land in the southern part of Russia, where [they] could practice wheat farming and horticulture”. The petition also asked for “full and absolute” exemption from military service and the right of religious instruction for Doukhobor children.

Potapoff and Taranoff spent three months touring Russian and Ukrainian provinces and meeting with Soviet officials, including the head of the All-Russian Executive Committee Mikhail Kalinin and the influential Commissar of Foreign Trade Leonid Krasin. They were especially impressed with the fertile plains in the Salsk district of Southern Russia, which already had several settlements of Doukhobors who had moved there in 1921-22 from the Caucasus. The Soviet authorities, however, refused to grant the Salsk lands to Canadian Doukhobors on the grounds that these lands had been reserved for commercial horse breeding.

Instead, the Doukhobor delegates were offered a tract in the Melitopol district of the Ukrainian province of Zaporozhye, close to the old Doukhobor settlements on the Milky River. The area already had several villages populated by Russian Doukhobors who had recently relocated from the Caucasus. Each Doukhobor family returning from Canada was to receive 43 acres of land as individual property and the same amount under a thirty-year lease. The land was to be held in reserve until settlement was completed. The Doukhobors were also promised exemption from military service, a three-year release from property taxes, and the freedom to choose individual, cooperative or communal form of farming at their own discretion. All business aspects of the relocation (the purchase of agricultural machinery and supplies, travel and passport arrangements) were to be handled by the Central Bureau of the Society for Technical Aid to Soviet Russia in New York.

By April 1923, the remigration movement was underway. The first party of the returnees, totalling 22 people, left on 11 April 1923 from New York along with several other agricultural groups from Canada and the United States. Their destination was Liepaja – a Latvian port which served as the main gateway to the USSR for returning immigrants. The total cost of belongings they took to Russia was a mere $2,000. The group also owned about $5,800 in cash. On arrival to Zaporozhye, the returnees founded a village, which they named Pervoye Kanadskoye (First Canadian), obviously believing that it would be followed by others.

Canadian Doukhobor emigrants to the Soviet Union on board the SS Empress of Scotland, Sept. 15, 1926. Photo courtesy Koozma J. Tarasoff.

Canada’s plummeting real estate market became a major obstacle to the further progress of the return movement. In the early 1920s, the price of developed farmland fell to $25-30 per acre, which in many cases did not cover even the original purchase price, to say nothing of later investments. In the summer of 1923, the Society for Technical Aid to Soviet Russia began negotiations with Northwestern Trust Company about a bulk sale of the Doukhobor lands at $25 per acre, but no agreement was reached. The fact that many farms were mortgaged was an additional difficulty. In search of a solution, the Doukhobor Immigration Committee asked the Soviet government for a credit of $2,000,000 to buy out their lands, but Moscow had no funds available for the Doukhobors.

More important for dampening Doukhobors’ enthusiasm for resettlement were the warning signs that began to come from Russia with letters and stories from the first returnees. Anton Popoff, Alex Horkoff and John Malakhoff – three “scouts” who made a round-trip to Russia in 1924 in order to investigate conditions at Melitopol – painted a bleak picture of life in Soviet Ukraine, sowing further doubts in the minds of potential returnees. The delegates spoke of the “poverty, misery and despair” in the villages populated by Caucasian Doukhobors and local Ukrainian peasants. A visit to Moscow left them with an impression that “Russia had abandoned God”, that “Jews entirely hold the rule over the country of the Soviet Union”, and that any opposition to Communism was rooted out with an iron hand.

Contradictory reports from the USSR added more fuel to the debates among the Independent Doukhobors. The community became divided into the “radical” and “conservative” factions. The “radicals”, led by Potapoff, George Podovinnikoff (the secretary of the Immigration Committee) and Andrew Konkin, insisted on proceeding with the resettlement scheme. The “conservatives” – Peter Vorobieff, N. Morozoff, John Dergausoff and Doukhobor lawyer Peter Makaroff – advocated a more cautious approach and took Soviet promises with a grain of salt. The majority of the latter group came from a better-established part of the Doukhobor community, while the radicals had little to lose in Canada.

In this situation, relentless propaganda remained the only way to keep remigration going. During 1923-25, three members of the Society for Technical Aid’s Central Bureau were dispatched from New York to agitate for resettlement in the Doukhobor communities of Saskatchewan, Manitoba and British Columbia.

There were home-grown agitators as well: Boris Sachatoff and Victor Kavtaradze – two Russian immigrants of non-Doukhobor extraction who lived in Kamsack. Both were somewhat shadowy characters, whose backgrounds and status in the Doukhobor community remain little known. Sachatoff was a Russian Jew who had converted to Leo Tolstoy’s teachings and married a Doukhobor woman. He came to Canada via the United States and made a living as a real estate agent, watchmaker and owner of a jewellery store in Kamsack. Kavtaradze (also known as Kaft) was a Georgian, who boarded with Sachatoff and worked as a teacher at the local Russian-language school. He had a bad reputation with the RCMP, who considered him a “dangerous agitator” and possibly a Soviet agent, who received money from Moscow. Well-educated and amicable, Sachatoff and Kavtaradze had apparently managed to earn the respect of the local Doukhobors and had considerable authority in the community. By late 1923, however, Sachatoff lost interest in Russia and, along with Verigin and a group of other Doukhobors, became an ardent supporter of resettlement to Mexico. For several months, the Mexican project was floated in the community but failed to attract considerable interest.

The propaganda efforts apparently had some effect, although the movement of the Doukhobors to Russia remained at levels well below initial expectations. In February 1924, the second party of returnees – 23 Doukhobor farmers from the Kamsack area – left Canada for the homeland. They travelled through Constantinople to Odessa with $5,000 in cash and the same amount in property. In late January 1925, a third group, numbering 14 people from Kamsack and Pelly, headed for Melitopol. The Soviet authorities, however, grew increasingly frustrated with the slow progress of the Doukhobor resettlement. The land tracts near Melitopol, calculated to accommodate 2,000 Doukhobor families, remained idle and had to be leased to local peasants. In July 1926, Ivan Kulyk, deputy trade representative of the USSR in Canada, travelled to western Canada to gather first-hand information about the prospects of further remigration and try to breathe new life into the sagging recruitment campaign. Kulyk’s conversations with the Doukhobors revealed that only 100 families still seriously considered moving to the USSR.

The actual number of the returnees turned out to be even smaller. In the late summer of 1926, 17 more Doukhobor families from Kamsack, Pelly and Verigin (57 people in total) sold their land to the Ukrainian Immigration and Colonization Association of Edmonton and on 15 September sailed off to Russia. The newcomers settled apart from the earlier arrivals in the newly founded village of Vozdvizhenka (from vozdvizhenie – Russian for “exaltation”). With the arrival of this group, organized Doukhobor emigration to Russia all but ceased, although individual families continued to arrive as late as August 1927.

The precise statistics of Canadian Doukhobors who returned to Russia between 1923-27 is difficult to establish – neither the Canadian nor the Soviet government appear to have kept a complete tally of the returnees. According to a Soviet survey of immigrant agricultural communes conducted in July 1925, only 72 Doukhobors (probably excluding children) had returned to the USSR by that time. Adding the 57 people that came in 1926 and perhaps about a dozen later arrivals, we can estimate that probably no more than 160-180 Doukhobors (children included) participated in the entire return movement. Genealogist Jonathan Kalmakoff has found that the majority of the returnees had not arrived in Canada in 1899 – the year in which the main Doukhobor immigration occurred – but came in 1910-12 as members of the non-Veriginite “Middle” and “Small” Parties. This interesting finding may suggest that remigration was a more attractive option for the less established members of the community, who retained closer ties with the homeland and had less time to accumulate large property in Canada. The amount of property and cash the returnees were able to take to Russia also shows that few among them were prosperous farmers.

More research is needed about the life of Canadian Doukhobors in the USSR, but even the existing fragmentary evidence shows that it was far from the idyllic picture that many of them must have portrayed in Canada. The majority of Doukhobor families brought little money and machinery that would allow establishing viable mechanized farms from scratch. Like other returned emigrants, the Doukhobors also ran into problems with local peasants who considered them to be kulaks (derogatory Russian word for “rich peasant”) and stole their property. Relations with local authorities were also less than cordial. A 1924 Soviet government inspection of immigrant agricultural collectives working in the USSR put the Doukhobor group in the category of failures and recommended its “liquidation or a radical reorganization”. Soviet sources indicate that Doukhobors began to abandon the Melitopol settlements shortly after arrival. Sixteen of the seventy-two Doukhobors had left the First Canadian settlement by July 1925.

The Petr V. Ol’khovik family in the Doukhobor village of Vozdvizhenka, 1926. Like most of the villagers, the Ol’khoviks returned to Canada by 1928.

The drafting of young Doukhobor men into the Red Army, which appears to have begun in 1927, was the last straw for the Canadians. After their petitions to Bonch-Bruevich and other old friends such as I.M. Tregubov brought little result, the return trek to Canada began. In August 1927, the Canadian immigration officer in Riga reported the first case of Doukhobors returning from the USSR: three families (11 people in total) who claimed to have been misled by Soviet agitators from New York and asked for readmission into Canada. The returnees were held up at Riga pending instructions from Ottawa. Soon afterwards, the Riga office received an application for entry to Canada from 135 more Doukhobors, most of whom had arrived in the Soviet Union in 1926-7 and lived at the Vozdvizhenka settlement.

Meanwhile, the matter attracted the attention of Canada’s Doukhobor community. In late September, the Immigration Committee of the Community of Independent Doukhobors at Kamsack sent a petition to the Department of Immigration and Colonization “with a humble request for a Permit of Entry in favor of the said Independent Doukhobors at present residing in Russia.” By the time it reached Ottawa, Canadian immigration authorities had already decided that the return of several dozen families disillusioned by their Soviet experience would be advisable not only on economical grounds (all the returnees being “agriculturalists”) but could also serve as a potent weapon against Communist agitation in Canada. “I think that the effect of their return will be to kill propaganda by the Soviet Agents and at the same time make these people and their friends a lot more contented than they have been in the past”, Assistant Deputy Minister Frederick Blair pointed out in his memorandum. On 13 September, the Department of Immigration ordered unconditional admission of Canadian-born among the Doukhobors. The rest could be admitted “if mentally and physically fit”.

During the summer of 1928, the majority of Canadian Doukhobors returned to Canada, although a few families remained in the USSR. The Soviet resettlement experiment was over, proving a complete failure and leaving its participants with a sense of betrayal and disillusionment for years.


Click here to view a list of 150 Doukhobor ship passengers who arrived in UK ports between 1922 and 1927 in transit to the Soviet Union. Information includes the surname, name, age, family unit, occupation, port of departure, arrival date, port of arrival and ship name for each Doukhobor passenger. View an index of ship passenger lists containing Doukhobors returning to Canada from the Soviet Union between 1927 and 1930. Information includes the ship name, port and date of departure, port and date of arrival, number of passengers and Library and Archives Canada microfilm numbers and online images of original ship passenger lists.

About the Author

A native of Russia, Dr. Vadim Kukushkin earned a Bachelors Degree at Chelyabinsk University, Russia in 1991 and a Masters Degree at Perm University, Russia in 1994. He continued his research at Carleton University, where he received his PhD Doctorate in 2004. Dr. Kukushkin is currently the Grant Notley Post-Doctoral Fellow at the University of Alberta, Department of History and Classics. He has published a number or articles on Russian immigration and ethnic history in Canada.