by Eli A. Popoff
The following article by Doukhobor writer Eli A. Popoff tells a true story about his grandmother (Babushka) Semeneshcheva-Popova. This Doukhobor Babushka came to Canada along with a group of a hundred and fifty Siberian exiles in 1905 and was soon reunited with her extended families on the prairies. The forces of individual and communal farming were in full play as Babushka helped to bridge the difficult years of adaptation at the family level where this story is fully told. With ‘a smile and a sparkle in her eyes’, she showed her boundless stamina and dedication, and revealed her inner soul. Reproduced by permission, this article was previously published in “Spirit-Wrestlers’ Voices. Honouring Doukhobors on the Centenary of their migration to Canada in 1899” Koozma J. Tarasoff (ed). (Ottawa: Legas, 1998) and in “Transplanted Roots” by Albert J. Popoff (Kelowna: self-published, 2003).
A mere wisp of a woman. Barely over five feet tall. Slight of build, but wiry and tenacious as only a true peasant of the Russian steppes could be. This apparently ‘slight’ peasant woman embodied not only the strength and the fortitude of our glorified pioneers who settled and developed the ‘wild’ Canadian West, but time and again she manifested the deeper inherent traits of humankind which were eventually to make her a legend in her time.
This particular experience occurred in the years 1909-10; The Popov family, comprising father Aleksei Ivanovich, mother Ekaterina Timofeyevna (‘Katiusha’) and their four-year-old son Nikolai, were living in a small log cabin on their homestead near Blaine Lake, Saskatchewan. This was the smaller Doukhobor settlement, referred to as the Northern Prince Albert Colony, situated about 80 miles (130 km) west of Prince Albert. Out of the 7500 souls who had arrived in Canada on four shiploads from the port of Batum on the Black Sea, the larger part of the group had settled in the Yorkton-Thunder Hill area northeast of Regina.
As part of a predominantly younger group of Doukhobors who had been sentenced to an eighteen-year exile in the Yakutsk area of Siberia for refusing to do military service, Aleksei and Katiusha Popov did not arrive in Canada until 1905, the year they were granted early release by a Manifesto of Liberation issued by the reigning Tsar Nicholas II to celebrate the birth of a royal son. Thus, they emigrated directly from Siberia, sailing from the Latvian port of Libava (renamed Liepaja in 1917). After a brief stop in Liverpool, the British ship Southwark landed them at Quebec city on 9 September 1905.
Alexei J. and his wife Katiushka Popov, circa 1915, Blaine Lake, Saskatchewan.
Katiusha Popova often talked of this momentous voyage. She had been given away in marriage by her mother when she was barely fifteen years old; exile did not afford young women much of a selection. Her father, Timofey Ivanovich was a religious exile from Perm Province; his wife Anna (‘Annushka’) had followed him to Yakutsk from their home base in Sverdlovsk, only to have him taken away once more. Re-arrested in Yakutsk and charged with the more serious crime of sedition against the church and the state, he was sent to the most distant northern reaches of Siberia, where his family was not permitted to follow. Annushka was left with five small children to support, with no family or friends to help. Forced to give up her youngest son Sasha for adoption, she began living with a Doukhobor bachelor, whom she eventually married, and soon afterward gave her eldest daughter Katiusha in marriage to her new husband’s chum, one Aleksei Ivanovich Popov – thereby keeping her three middle sons in her new, ‘blended’ family.
All this had taken place in 1905. Here was Katiusha Popova, a teenaged bride already pregnant, coming across the ocean to the promised new land, in the hot, not too comfortable second-class cabins of the Southwark. She always said in recalling the trip that it was ‘most remarkable’ that at five months pregnant she did not suffer from sea-sickness. Her most poignant memories were always of looking back to the homeland she left behind, her happy early childhood with her parents and grandparents in Russia, including the difficult but unifying times with her brothers and mother in Siberia. Above all, she had left behind her father whom she had loved so dearly – back there, somewhere, in that newly-developing harsh expanse of Siberia.
The arrival of the Popovs and some one hundred and fifty other Siberian exiles in the Canadian Doukhobor settlements was a heart-warming occasion. Families were reunited after being apart for a decade or so. Most exiles had relatives who had arrived six years earlier, and even those that didn’t were welcomed and integrated into the communes that had sprung up in the new land.
Aleksei Ivanovich and Katiusha were warmly accepted by the Popovs already in Canada: Aleksei’s parents Vania and Onia, a younger brother Ivan and sister Nastia (both still unmarried), and an elder brother Nikola, who was the acknowledged head of the family, with his wife Mavrunia.
In a very short time, Katiusha came to love her mother-in-law, her Starushka (Russian term for an older woman, bus used among the Doukhobors as an endearing term for an older female family member) Onia. A devout soul, she was always puttering around at something, never raising her voice at anyone. She was often occupied in pacifying Nikola’s two children. Her counsel to her children, especially her two youngest, her level tone of voice, her remarkable memory, her practical approach to things and her insight into the very finest points of Doukhobor faith, always had a profound effect. Katiusha especially marveled at how the mother handled her temperamental daughter Nastia (who was the same age as Katiusha), along with maintaining harmony in the entire household.
Babushka Semeneshcheva with her husband Ivan Semenovich Popov. The latter who was 6 feet 4 inches tall is sitting, while his wife at 5 feet is standing. Photo taken c. 1920 when Babushka was about 70 years old.
The first year of life in the Blaine Lake Village of Pozirayevka proved a real haven for Katiusha. Her Starushka, ever thoughtful of her, taught her to cook according to all the accepted Doukhobor standards, but did it so imperceptibly that Katiusha never felt she was being ‘instructed’. Instead, Onia constantly praised her daughter-in-law’s knowledge, style and abilities that she had learnt from her own mother. Katiusha’s expertise in this and other household tasks (throughout her life she was an outstanding cook, gardener, and housekeeper) thus became enriched by the blending of two distinct cultural backgrounds – from tow totally different environmental spheres within Russia’s vast tow-continent empire.
In December of that year, her Starushka helped bring into the world her first-born, Nikolai, and then proceeded to teach Katiusha how to care for the baby. Katiusha felt her mother-in-law did everything so capably and naturally, never reacting to any mishap and never fearing for the future, even though Katiusha herself sometimes doubted that they would manage to survive the winter on the meager supplies available. Onia would always declare:
“We must have faith that God will provide that which is essential for our well-being. We must only, always, be careful that we are not wasteful and over-indulgent ourselves…”
While Onia had never learnt to read or write, she never missed reciting – evenings, mornings, and at mealtimes – the many Doukhobor prayers (called psalms) and hymns she had learnt by heart as a child. She would teach these, along with their melodies, to her grandchildren, making sure any neighbour child who happened to be around had an opportunity to hear them too. For Katiusha, her Starushka was an angelic presence sent into her life to establish an equilibrium after her unsettled and emotionally unstable childhood.
However, this ‘haven’ of Katiusha’s was not to last. In the year following the Popov family decided that the Prince Albert Doukhobor colony at Blaine Lake was not evolving in line with their inner concepts of the true Doukhobor faith. About half of the two hundred or so Blaine Lake families were contemplating the decision to accede to the government’s demand of an oath of allegiance to the Crown and abandon the communal form of living in favour of individual homesteads. The Popovs, along with the majority of their fellow-villagers, decided to move to the southern colony at Yorkton, where the vast majority were determined to continue their communal way of life and refuse to take the oath.
As far as Katiusha was concerned, her Starushka’s word was not to be questioned. Onia had put it simply and straightforwardly:
“We refused allegiance to the Tsar of Russia because allegiance required military service which we could not and would not perform. How can we now swear allegiance to the Tsar in England, when this will require us to perform military service here? We were promised that we would be allowed our religious freedom here in Canada, and that is why we came here. We ought to toil peacefully on the land, and live our won way…There is no way that we will go back on our principles because we have made our Trust with God, that we will follow these principles – no matter what sacrifices this would require. God will punish us if we do not keep our Trust…”
The organizing and carrying out of the trek by covered wagon from Blaine Lake to the Yorkton/Thunder Hill area took a good part of the summer. The domestic animals were led and herded. Their belongings were transported on the wagons, along with the women and children while most of the men-folk made the 320-kilometre trek on foot. At their destination, the trekkers were welcomed with open arms by none other than the leader himself, Peter Vasilevich Verigin, along with other Community Doukhobors, and were subsequently absorbed into the Doukhobor villages surrounding the prairie railway station named Verigin.
Katiusha took to the communal way of living right from the start, which she later remembered with fondness as being the true Christian way of life. No doubt this impression was at least partly due to the example of her Starushka – who, according to Doukhobor custom, would now be called Babushka (Grandmother) by all the children of the village. (Specifically, she would be referred to as Babushka Semeneshcheva (family nickname/alternate surname) to distinguish her from the many others in the village bearing the Popov name.) Babushka Semeneshcheva helped shield her daughter-in-law from the rough edges encountered in merging into an already-functioning communal system, reminding her neighbours that Katiusha was not only an orphan but was only seventeen years old and a breast-feeding mother.
However, things were turning out quite differently for her husband, Aleksei Ivanovich. A full-fledged working man of thirty years of age, in excellent health, he had mastered his knowledge of grain-growing and cattle- and sheep-raising back in the Caucasus; his evolutionary experience of close cooperation with fellow-Doukhobors for survival in Siberia had made him (and the others) very frugal, self-dependent and more democratically inclined than the majority of the Yorkton colony whose lives had been less harsh.
As time went by, Aleksei Ivanovich was finding it more and more difficult to fit in with the existing Yorkton communal structure – he became dissatisfied with the many instances of the waste of labour, the lack of individual initiative for innovation, not to mention the continual bowing down to local village elders whose consciousness had not evolved, as had his, through harsh experiences. Eventually, he decided he could no longer accept what he saw as an overly restrictive status quo, and despite his family’s pleadings, decided to take his wife and son back to Blaine Lake, where he felt he had a better chance of working with the more independently-minded Doukhobors.
Thus, in the autumn of 1908, Aleksei Ivanovich Popov drove back to his former colony with a small team of two horses. Katiusha and Nikolai came later, traveling by train as far as Rosthern (some fifty kilometres from Blaine Lake) where Aleksei met them with the wagon.
His expectations were not disappointed. The three of them were able to stay with his second cousins, Fyodor and Aliosha Popov, near their old village of Pozirayevka. These cousins lived side by side with two more distant relatives, Nikola and Fedya Tikhonov, who had been childhood chums. Before winter set in, they were able to plant a vegetable garden, put up enough hay for the horses and a cow they had managed to purchase (along with chickens, which were eventually moved into the barn when it got too cold for them outside to lay eggs), and build a small log cabin and a log barn on a neighbouring homestead.
In spite of the cold weather and heavy snow, the winter turned out to be not a difficult one to endure. Their new log cabin was snug and warm. They had enough flour, their garden yielded enough cabbage, potatoes, beets, onions and cabbage, the cow and chickens supplied them with milk and eggs. They had frequent visits with their neighbours, the Tikhonovs and the Popovs. Katiusha rejoiced that Nikolai was an exceptionally strong and healthy child, and that her husband could spend most of the time at home, except for his occasional expeditions to an area some thirty kilometers north to fetch logs (both for firewood and for expansion of their cabin). These trips usually entailed a two- or three-day journey, and he would often stay overnight with local Indians and Metis, who were friendly to the Doukhobors. Their dwellings, however, were far more flimsy and less cold-resistant than his log cabin at home.
The spring and summer proved more challenging. Aleksei found the land-breaking work extremely strenuous both on himself and his two horses, in spite of generous help from the neighbours. Not being able to afford a team of oxen (which many Doukhobor farmers were still using), he came up with the idea of training the cow to pull alongside the horses – a strange sight Katiusha would describe to her children and grandchildren for many years to come.
Their labour proved fruitful, for the harvest was very good that year. But all the extra work of stoking both her own and the neighbours’ sheaves (partly in repayment for all the help they had received from them) took its toll on Katiusha’s health: she discovered she had developed a serious hernia in her abdomen.
Adding to her anxiety was anticipation of a long winter alone with young Nikolai. To acquire some urgently needed income, Aleksei had accepted a job at a sawmill in Prince Albert, which had been unexpectedly postponed from the autumn to the winter. Conscious of their desperate need, Katiusha played down the seriousness of her physical difficulty and urged him to take the work, saying she would be all right.
But that winter of 1909-10 proved to be less than ‘all right’ for Katiusha, obliged to spend long and dreary (sometimes stormy, always cold) winter nights alone with a son who was not yet five years old. A month after her husband’s departure, she realized she was pregnant again. Their only daily contact amid the white wasteland was with their farm animals. Aleksei had arranged for one of the Tikhonovs to look in on them every ten days or so, and each time Katiusha spotted Fedya or the eldest boy Simeon coming across the field, she felt a sense of rejuvenation at the thought that here were people coming to her place to show that she was still included in their sphere of life.
The Alexei J. and Katiushka Popov family taken about 1915 in the old homestead near Blaine Lake, Saskatchewan. (l-r) Nick, Annie, Leonard, and Babushka with Alex J. and Katherine Popoff.
In spite of her loneliness and occasional despondency, she was still satisfied that she had managed to keep her household (including the horses, cow, and chickens) going normally through the winter. Spring was approaching however, which meant she would have to be planting the garden again, and do extra work in the fields as her husband would not be returning from the sawmill until late spring.
She was also feeling the baby growing inside her, which she estimated would be due for delivery in late summer. Despite all her care about her diet and lifting heavy objects, her hernia seemed to be worsening. With all the spring chores ahead of her, how many times she thought of her Starushka, Babushka Semeneshcheva, and the ‘haven’ she had felt when they had lived together. How she longed to have her with her again, right here in her little log cabin! She had to remind herself that even if she wrote her to come, it could be months before the message reached her, and how would Onia ever get to her in the midst of winter storms, when even getting to one’s neighbours was such a challenge!
Still, as spring was beginning to break, Katiusha wept into her pillow every night, praying that by some miracle her Starushka would come to her in her hour of need.
Then one evening, in the latter part of April, Katiusha was preparing to go to bed after finishing her outside chores and tucking Nikolai in for the night. She was startled to hear a light knock on the door, as if the caller did not have the strength to knock briskly. She was somewhat taken aback, since Fedya had come to see her only a few days ago, and the Tikhonovs came more rarely now that spring was breaking. Opening the door cautiously, Katiusha was utterly amazed by what she saw: there stood Babushka Semeneshcheva, with a small packsack on her back. Even though she looked a bit haggard, she still had that sparkle in her eyes and that never-waning smile on her face.
Nikolai jumped out of bed at once and came running to the door. Amidst tears, hugs, and kisses, Katiusha kept asking her Starushka: “How did you know I needed you so much? How did you guess I was all alone, and terribly needed your help?”
At last Babushka took her daughter-in-law by the shoulders, and looking devoutly and wistfully into her eyes, exclaimed: “But my dear Katiusha, I heard you calling for me, and so I came as soon as I could!”
How this wisp of a woman, barely five fee tall, traversed more than three hundred kilometers of wilderness over obscure trails she had covered only once before in her life, in early spring weather that, to say the least, was not conducive to spending nights on the road, is a matter of conjecture. She declined to talk about it at any length, saying only: “I knew I had to go through with this journey. So I kept going, and kept going, and here I am!”
Perhaps it is not too far-fetched to suppose that here was a soul that, in addition to being intuitive enough to ‘hear’ a call for help across great distances, also had the ability to make use of those mythical ‘seven-league boots’ of Russian fairy tales to transport herself to the place she was needed. Given the distances and the difficult circumstances involved, it would be safe to assume that a logical, rational person would not have dared to attempt what Babushka Semeneshcheva accomplished so matter-of-factly and so humbly.
But there is more to this true story than simply a proof that boundless stamina is available to the human soul when dedication requires it. Its real lesson is the realization of the need to recognize, in honouring the fortitude and perseverance of our pioneer grandparents, along with their many worthy accomplishments, the significant evolution of their ‘inner soul’ to a level where it was able to conquer any frontier, including geographical distance. A soul capable, in times of dire stress, regardless of distance or circumstance, to ‘hear’ and ‘do’, and then to say as Babushka Semeneshcheva did, “But my dear Katiusha, I heard you calling, and so I came…”
Copies of the writings of Eli A. Popoff are available for purchase along with various other informative Doukhobor materials from: The Birches Publishing, Box 730, Grand Forks, British Columbia, V0H 1H0, Tel: (250) 442-5397, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.