Brilliant History – Fading Into Obscurity

by William M. Rozinkin

Today, few travelling on Highway 3A from Brilliant to Ootischenia across the Kootenay River notice the concrete foundation on the rocky bluff overlooking the river. Fewer still know or recall its history. In the following article, reproduced by permission from the Nelson Daily News (March 2 & 6, 1995), long-time Kootenay resident and historian William M. Rozinkin (1923-2007) documents the history of the “Besedushka”, the stately “retreat house” built for Peter “Lordly” Verigin by his followers in 1922. In the quiet atmosphere of its location, the Doukhobor leader spent time writing and meditating. However as Rozinkin recounts, the destruction of the building by arson in 1924 heralded decades of strife and factionalism within the British Columbia Doukhobor community.

For many years motorists travelling on Highway 3A from Castlegar through Ootishenia and across the Kootenay River bridge at Brilliant saw the old Doukhobor bridge upstream to their right, while to their left are settlements of Brilliant. Slightly to their left but straight ahead, they also could see Verigin’s Tomb and a cement foundation directly below it. Today motorists can also see a newly constructed Brilliant Intersection road as it sweeps below the tomb and the cement foundation.

This new road, costing almost $4 million, now joins the new bridge across the Columbia River leading to the city of Castlegar and the Celgar Pulp Mill giving an alternative route to motorists who otherwise would have to travel through Ootishenia. This new road and bridge were opened to the public late last year at a cost of about $28 million.

Today no evidence remains to suggest or remind motorists that Brilliant was the headquarters of the Canadian Doukhobor communities of The Christian Community Of Universal Brotherhood that had about 90 communal villages in British Columbia and settlements in Alberta and Saskatchewan. There is no doubt that with the passing years interesting Brilliant history is also fading into obscurity.

Nonetheless, Brilliant’s past includes Verigin’s Tomb and the old bridge whose histories are briefly recorded while the cement foundation remains forgotten. It, indeed, also has a unique place in the pages of this region’s history.

View from near the “Besedushka” overlooking Brilliant and Ootischenia across the Kootenay River, 1924.  British Columbia Archives A-08737.

After the Doukhobors moved to the Kootenay and Columbia regions from Saskatchewan in 1908, their determination to succeed with hard work brought forth almost amazing results.

By living and working communally under the leadership of Peter Lordly Verigin, in less than a decade they transformed the forested wilderness into village settlements with orchards and gardens around them. They also built a wooden pipe plant to manufacture water pipes for domestic needs and irrigation along with sawmills, planer mills, flour mills, linseed oil plants and a jam factory to serve the villagers of Brilliant, Ootishenia, Pass Creek, Glade, Shoreacres, Slocan, and Grand Forks.

In Grand Forks where purchased lands included some cleared with small orchards, they built a brick factory to produce quality bricks for all their needs along with occasional shipments to the Consolidated Mining and Smelting Company in Trail, B.C.

The main administrative office was in Brilliant. It was also here that the famous Kootenay-Columbia Jam Factory was located along with a towering grain elevator, fruit-packing shed, a retail store, Mr. Verigin’s residence and other buildings.

In late 1920 Mr. Verigin asked his nephew Vasily Lukianovich Verigin and his family to move to Brilliant from Shoreacres to help in maintaining his residence there. Their family consisted of Vasily, his wife Margaret, three daughters, Fanny, Lucy, and Margaret, when they moved into a house on the hillside overlooking Brilliant. Also living with them were their grandchildren, Andrew, Peter, and Johnny Semenoff whose mother Nastia (their first daughter) had passed away earlier in Shoreacres, and their father, Andrew, was away occasionally for extended periods of time to work on community projects.

Vasily and Margaret’s second oldest daughter, Mary, was married to John Fedorovich Masloff and resided across the river from them in Ootishenia.

With flourishing communities organized and growing in development, its members decided in 1921 to express their appreciation to their leader — president Peter Lordly Verigin for his administrative and religious guidance.

The following year, in 1922, this was done with construction of a small, ornamentally designed house on a solid, almost flat-surfaced rock overlooking the settlements and lush orchards of Brilliant and Ootishenia along with a grand view of the sparkling waters of the Kootenay River as it races to join the rushing currents of the Columbia River near Castlegar, about a mile downstream.

The house was specially designed to accommodate the space on the rock. It was about 23 feet long and almost 17 feet wide and with a veranda on cement pillars around it, the house appeared much larger. Construction of the building was neatly finished and painted white with blue trim and the veranda elegantly decorated with an interlaced ornamental fret work as it embraced the beautiful house. It was the pride of the community craftsmen.

Approaches to the house followed a well arranged walkway with flower beds on either side that led to concrete steps leading down to the main entrance below, while around the house, rock walls were built to form benches filled with earth in which beautiful flowers and lawns adorned the immediate surroundings.

The house had a full basement that was divided into two rooms and its solid rock floor also served as a base for the brick chimney. It had a separate outside entrance and a window on the west side.

Peter “Lordly” Verigin’s retreat house in Brilliant, British Columbia. ISKRA.

With Mr. Verigin’s main residence near the business section of Brilliant proper below, this new house on the hillside above was used by him as a place where he met special visitors and friends and a place to rest and relax. Some of his writings were done there in the quiet atmosphere of its location, at times late into the night.

The house was located almost on the same level of the hillside and a short distance from the home of Vasily Lukianovich and his family who looked after the new building with its colorful gardens. The family also maintained an apiary of no less than 60 beehives for the communities.

More than ever, during that period in the 1920’s life in the communities honoured with pride Peter Lordly Verigin’s slogan, “Toil and Peaceful Life”. Under his administration, not only did they show exceptional accomplishments needed for their daily lives, they also were on the threshold of retiring all their financial debts.

Among occasional problems that occurred in the villages, most were resolved with tolerant appeals for common sense and understanding. There were also occasions Lordly Verigin was asked to help with advice.

At times a disrupting threat to the villagers came from a small group of people who broke away from The Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood a few years after the Doukhobors arrived from Russia in 1899 to settle in Saskatchewan. Among the Doukhobors this group was commonly called “nudes”. Later they became more known as Freedomites.

These people, whose closest residence to Brilliant was three miles away in Thrums, often harassed the villagers by disrupting their meetings with heckling and stripping nude. Many times Mr. Verigin would help his members to manually escort these nudes from their meetings after they forced their way inside.

A small Freedomite settlement in Thrums was alongside several farmers among whom were some (Independents) who left the communities through disagreements. Although some farmers befriended the Freedomites, they were shocked to see three Freedomite women that lived nearby, quickly disrobe and standing stark naked to watch an airplane fly by in 1919.

It was Sunday, April 20, 1924, after attending a morning prayer meeting Vasily Lukianovich and his wife were enjoying their usual Sunday rest with their children when suddenly they heard a loud female voice singing by Mr. Verigin’s house. They all ran to the vacant house to search for the intruder and found a nude Freedomite woman, who they recognized, hiding behind a linen drape hanging on the veranda.

They pleaded with her to leave in peace and return home to Thrums, but she refused to leave. With fears she would damage the house, they sent word to the villages for help. Their neighbours arrived with a team of horses harnessed to a wagon, loaded the female intruder on it and took her home in Thrums.

When Vasily Lukianovich and his family went to bed that same Sunday night after a very disturbing day that appeared to have ended peacefully, they did not expect a loud hammering on their door after midnight and hear a loud voice yelling that Mr. Verigin’s house was on fire. It was a guard from Brilliant, Nikolai Lebedoff, who saw the flames spreading through the house and rushed there to try help save it. They ran to the burning building and with garden hoses poured water on the blaze while more people from nearby villages came running to help, without success.

With the frightful fire so close to their house, the children were terrified. And as the light from the nearby flames shone through their windows and flickered brightly on the walls and floor in their house the terrified children began to fear their own house would also be attacked by arsonists. Their fears rose to helpless panic, and in desperation to at least save some family valuables, 12 year old Lucy, their second youngest daughter, grabbed her father’s special box that contained valuable correspondence and writings they all treasured and with it she ran to hillside bushes to protect and hide it.

The flames from the burning house on the hillside were visible for miles around when suddenly it was discovered that the Brilliant school and two Ootishenia schools were also in flames.

The following day it was noted that the three schools and the house were set on fire at about the same time, indicating that several terrorists had done it.

The three schools were valued at $1,500 each while the value of Mr. Verigin’s house was estimated at $2,500. Not included in the house value was fine furniture and irreplaceable books, correspondence, writings and other personal items. Heirloom rugs alone were valued at more than $600 in 1924.

The night before this happened in Brilliant a school in Grand Forks was set a fire but was saved before fire spread.

While these unfortunate events were happening, CCUB president Peter Lordly Verigin was away on business on the prairies. Following the fires he was notified and immediately he returned to Brilliant.

Another view of the “Besedushka” in Brilliant, British Columbia prior to its destruction by arson, 1924.  British Columbia Archives, Koozma Tarasoff Collection.

While community Doukhobors with emotion condemned the Freedomite terrorists and vowed not to let them enter their settlements for any reason whatsoever, Mr. Verigin studied the situation, and four days after these attacks, he sent an appeal to the Premier of British Columbia John Oliver for assistance to stop Freedomite attacks on schools and community property.

In his letter dated April 25, 1924 he wrote the premier: “Last Sunday night towards Monday morning, April 21, a lot of buildings were burned in the Doukhobor Colony at Brilliant, namely three schools and a small house of mine which was built on a rock about two years ago with beautiful architecture.”

In his lengthy letter Mr. Verigin explained that since the arrival of the Doukhobors to Canada in 1899 “different opinions were formed in the Doukhobor Society result of which three parties came out.” Almost in detail he addressed many differences of these parties. Describing the parties he said the first party was under his control and carries the name of The Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood. “. . . This party is upkeeping the principle, religion, and customs which the Doukhobors I have had in Russia.”

The Second Party he pointed out are “the people who left the Doukhobor Society (to become independent farmers) and have accepted the homesteads in the Provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta and became British subjects.”

Describing the Third Party that became more known later as Freedomites, he said: “The Third Party, although very small in number that left the Doukhobor Society under the name “Nudes” are absolutely anarchists acknowledging no moral laws, desire to work nothing, hatefully looking on all the cultured progressive arrangements …”

Such party is under suspicion are the ones who is setting fire amongst Doukhobor Colonies in British Columbia.” “… I have decided to bring to your notice and respectfully ask you to remove this party from nearby community settlements otherwise these people are threatening to start burning the good arrangements as possessed by the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood. I am very much surprised that the setting a fire to schools had been started sometime ago and the government does not take any steps whatever in order to punish the guilty ones …”

Further in his letter he pointed out that, “There will be about 20 or not more than 30 of such people who are living around the Community Colonies.”

Mr. Verigin concluded his letter with these words: “If the government will appoint an Inspectorate to pick out the “Nudes” or in other words anarchists, I will give exact list of names and surnames of such people. I beg to remain with the hope that you will take quick action on my report. Respectfully yours,
(Signed) Peter Verigin, President”

Upon receiving Mr. Verigin’s letter desperately asking for protection against the Nudes’ (Freedomites’) violent attacks on schools and buildings in the Doukhobor communities, it is not known how the 67 year old B.C. Premier John Oliver planned to respond although he apparently viewed the trouble with Freedomites as “incomprehensible”.

What is known is he and his Liberal party were heavily involved in preparations for an approaching provincial election less than two months away. That election on June 20, 1924 saw all campaigning political party leaders defeated including John Oliver although his Liberal party won enough seats to form a minority government.

To return as head of the B.C. Liberal Party and Premier of the province, Mr. Oliver ran in a by-election in Nelson where he defeated a local candidate. Harry Houston, and triumphantly returned home to Victoria to remain as provincial premier until he died on August 17, 1927 from incurable cancer.

Today it appears the only historical evidence of that fateful day of April 21, 1924 is found in Mr. Peter Lordly Verigin’s letter in the provincial government archives and the surviving concrete foundation just below Verigin’s Tomb and above the newly constructed road of the Brilliant Interchange as seen daily by motorists travelling north across the Kootenay River bridge between Ootishenia and Brilliant.

Writer’s Note: A lot of information for this story came from my wife’s (Lucy) grandparents Vasily and Margaret Verigin’s family members.