‘The Long and Endless Journey’, Brief Memories of the Perepelkin Family

By William J. Perepelkin

Towards the end of his life, William J. Perepelkin (1922-2012) of Castlegar, British Columbia wrote a short memoir about his parents, Ivan N. and Nastya (nee Planidin) Perepelkin and grandparents Nikolai N. and Mary I. (Evdokimoff) Perepelkin during their life in the Doukhobor Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood between 1899 and 1939. On account of Nikolai’s skills in farming, livestock raising and brick-making, and on the advice of the leaders, the family frequently moved between Doukhobor settlements within and between the provinces of Saskatchewan and British Columbia. Perepelkin describes their various journeys and experiences as members of the communal organization, along with the hardship and dislocation that followed the demise of the Community and its foreclosure by creditors. He wrote these memories down in the form of a letter to his nephew Fred Samorodin, who years later, transcribed it into the following article. Foreword by Frederick T. Samorodin. Afterword by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.


Hazel Samorodin (1929-2015), my mother, daughter of Ivan Perepelkin and Nastya Perepelkin nee Planedin, was the third of their six children. “Uncle Bill”, William J. Perepelkin (1922-2012) was Hazel’s oldest brother and the second-born sibling. Folded inside one of my adult diaries, its details almost forgotten, I have found and transcribed the “Brief Memories of the Perepelkin Family” written by my uncle, William Perepelkin and addressed to me from a time I do not recall, initially, having seen the memoir! It adds to details on my family tree and to help tie in some earlier childhood recollections of mine on scattered details of my mother’s own childhood memories.

Fred Samorodin October 6, 2020

On August 19, 1898, Grandfather Nicklai (Nikolai Nikolaevich Perepelkin 1875-1965) with his family in a group of 1,126 (Doukhobor) persons from two villages in the Caucasus – Rodionovka and Efremovka, immigrated temporarily to Cyprus. On April 18, 1899 they sailed (from Larnaca) on the S.S. Lake Superior and landed in Montreal with 1,036 other Doukhobors on May 9, 1899. Then their journey west started (un)till they reached Saskatchewan (then known as the ‘North West Territories’). They established themselves in the village of Kamenka, near Kamsack. They lived there until Peter ‘The Lordly’ Verigin came from his exile in Russia to Canada in 1902.

Nikolai N. Perepelkin family enumerated in Kamenoye village, SK in the 1906 Census of Northwest Provinces.

As soon as he came, Verigin started to reorganize the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood (Doukhobors). During this time the Canadian Government was confiscating parts of the Doukhobor lands. Peter Verigin bought land around the town of Verigin and also a brick factory in Yorkton. By his advice our family moved to Yorkton to work in the brick factory. Since then, the long and endless – so to speak -journey started for our family.

Nikolai N. Perepelkin, brickmaster, and family enumerated in Yorkton, SK in the 1911 Canada Census.

For short periods, under the advice of P.V., they moved to a farm, also near Yorkton, which our people called – “Burtseva Farma”. It was bought by the Community to raise cattle and some grain crops, I guess! I can’t recall the farmer’s name that they bought the farm from. He was of German descent, I think.

Nikolai N. Perepelkin family enumerated in Plorodnoye (Glade), BC in the 1921 Canada Census.

After a short time, our family was moved to British Columbia, to Kirpichnoye (‘Claybrick’) in the Slocan Valley. We have family pictures of that period. From there, also under the advice of P.V., they were moved to Plodorodnoye (Glade), where they lived until 1924.

(l-r) Ivan (John), Nikolai, Peter, Mary and Elizabeth Perepelkin at Kirpichnoye in the Slocan Valley, c. 1915.

Then, on the advice given again, in the spring of that year (1924), the family was moved to Verigin, Saskatchewan and settled on Section 1 of the CCUB lands. That year, in the fall (October 29, 1924) Peter Verigin got killed in the train explosion near Farron, BC. Grandfather Nicolai was very close to both Verigins – Peter V. as well as his son, Peter P., and felt the tragedy deeply. On Section 1 we lived with two other families—Bloodoffs and Faminoffs, until the arrival from Russia of Peter P. Verigin (‘Chistiakov’) in 1927.

Nikolai N. Perepelkin family enumerated on Section 1, Veregin district, SK in the 1926 Census of Western Provinces.

In the year 1929, Chistiakov advised our family to move to Section 3, known as ‘Khutor’ (‘ranch’ or ‘farmstead’), which we did, to live with two families of Chernoffs: Nicolai Chernoff with his four daughters and Ivan Chernoff, with his family of five sons. The CCUB was already gradually falling apart, so the land that was jointly cultivated before, was split up, favouring those who had more power or seniority. And, the Chernoffs, having lived there longer than us, took over the two northern quarter sections, which were a full 160 acres each, with no swaps that were left to us on the southern 1.5 quarters—which has a slough across the length (of the property), leaving us only about 105 usable acres. The other quarter and Community buildings and also a huge slough in the middle! So, between these two southern quarters we had only about a total of 205 acres. Then, the Community allotted us the northern part of Section 1, which was across the C.N. Railway line from the farm buildings. This part was not quite cleared of poplar and other brush, which we eventually cleared. This gave us another strip which we could farm!

Anastasia (nee Planidin) (right), wife of Ivan N. Perpelkin near Veregin, SK, c. 1926.

In the years, 1936-37, Chistiakov went around the province of Saskatchewan to all Doukhobor Communities, advising them to move to BC. This he, Chistiakov, advised, not only to Community (CCUB) Doukhobors, but to Independents as well, saying: “Переселяйтесь в Колумбию! Землю не купите! Переселятесь как в Батум! Переживайте где у брата – где у свата!!” [Move to [British] Columbia! Don’t buy property! Move as you (once did) moved to Batum, Georgia (when preparing to emigrate to Cyprus/Canada). Settle in with a brother or a father-in-law!]

Mary Perepelkin holding granddaughter Hazel while very ill at one year of age, Veregin SK, 1929.

We (the Perepelkins) already had accumulated a lot of property: had 16 work horses and four young yearling colts, several cows, all the farm equipment needed to farm the land: a binder, McCormick-Deering for harvesting grain crops; a brand new Case mower for cutting – the first of its kind in Verigin (the first to have gears in an oil bath); a disc harrow, 5 sections of a toothed harrow; a Massey-Harris cultivator. In other words, we were all set to farm! The price of wheat went up to $1.05 a bushel and the yield was fair as compared to the early Thirties, when we barely got our seed back, and the price of feed wheat was 10 cents a bushel.

In 1937, Grandfather Nicolai took Peter Chistiakov’s advice to heart and started to disperse what we could. After the Depression, everyone was poor, so most goods, cows and horses went almost for nothing: $10.00 a head! Grandfather and Dad met with Joe Shukin, who was manager of the CCUB at the time, to deal with property being left behind, such as summer-fallow (which is land that had over 100 plus acres ready for seeding).

Advertisement for a McCormick-Deering binder, similar to the one Nikolai N. Perepelkin acquired while farming near Veregin, SK in the 1930s.

If I remember rightly, we then moved to ‘Vesyoloye’ (Lebahdo-Winlaw) in BC which was also CCUB property at the time – we would not have to pay rent to the CCUB for three years. In the meantime, the CCUB would sell our field under summer fallow, to whomever, at whatever price they could get.

So we started to prepare for the move! Uncle Pete (Peter N. Perepelkinl) and Dad went to Winnipeg and bought a 1934 Chev pickup. This was in 1937. In the spring of 1938 the folks rented a boxcar from the CNR and loaded a team of horses, two cows and other household goods, potatoes, etc. And on April 10th, 1938, Dad with two nice dogs we had, Gyp and Jack, took off for BC in the boxcar with the livestock. I don’t remember how long it took them to get to Lebahdo – about three days, I believe. There were some buildings on the property, although they were in very poor shape, but a shelter, anyway! There were some things that were taken to Auntie Elizabeth Fominoff, who lived at Claybrick, not far away.

Perepelkin siblings (l-r): Hazel ( Samorodin), William holding Frederick, Elma (Hadikin), Una (Voykin). Veregin SK, 1936.

On June 10, 1938, after three days of travel, we, the whole Perepelkin family arrived at ‘Vesyoloye’ on the pickup, dragging behind a trailer with the mower I mentioned earlier. I remember, the fastest we drove, even on paved roads was 45 miles per hour. Much of the road was not paved then!!

So we started to settle down, to fix up buildings. We got permission from the CCUB to wreck a bunkhouse, which was not being used anymore from way up Cougar Creek on the Little Slocan River. It took a few days hauling by horse and wagon to bring the salvaged lumber down. We slept up there a couple of nights while stripping the boards off the sides of the building. So finally we settled down – in a way! Some people would never believe what it was like! Looking back, I could not believe how much work was done in such a short period of time!

Then, in the spring of 1939, William Soukeroff (CCUB official) and a man named Wilson (R.N. Wilson, Sun Life loan manager) – I believe, came to our place and declared, that the Sun Life Assurance Company was foreclosing on the CCUB mortgage, and our agreement with the CCUB was no longer valid! The land now belonged to the Company, and we had to buy the property! I don’t remember if a written notice was given! The agreement would amount to half a crop payment on anything we produced! Seeing that, Grandfather said that: “We have no money, and under the circumstances, we will not buy the land!”

Perepelkin family interviewed about their eviction from Community farm at Winlaw, BC. Vancouver Sun, July 10, 1939.

So we went on living: planted our gardens, etc. On June 7th, 1939, Dad and I were cultivating potatoes of which we had a big field. The cultivator was drawn by a horse, which I led. Suddenly, we heard a lot of screaming; and looking from where the noise came, we saw a truck and a number of men around the buildings (on the property) and an RCMP car standing on the highway. So we stopped our work and went to see what was happening. Upon coming closer, we saw the men were taking anything they could get their hands on and loading the truck, and then driving to the (gravel) highway and unloading everything between the barbed wire fence and the highway! That is a very wet area! There was no more than 10 feet of space. When we moved to “Vesyoloye”, there was only a passible road for horse and wagon. The main road to the Slocan Valley was across the Slocan River. They started to build the main highway that same year, and it was finished in early 1939. It was gravel, of course, and as the traffic went by, the rocks flew up against our tents. And, of course, my brothers, Frederick and George were just – I didn’t know what to say or do! I remembered when we had Bible study in school (We had a very religious teacher). The quote was: “And if any man would go to law with thee, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also!” (Matthew 5:40).

Somehow all fear left me! I took off my clothes and threw them at the Deputy Sheriff. Then the other family members took off their clothes! I don’t remember who all did, because the Deputy Sheriff and another man led me to the highway. I remember, I called the Deputy “Adolf Hitler”, for which he whacked me across my face! I was actually very angry at this time and a bit bigger than the Deputy. I was going to return the favour. However, a few neighbours gathered around, and a good lady by the name of Polly Rilkoff came up and stopped me from doing so!

Our family gradually settled down by bringing tents, which they made from used material they got from CM&S (Consolidated Mining and Smelting) (now Cominco) in Trail, BC. So after a while they (the Sheriff’s gang) brought everything (took) that we had: (they) let our cows and horses loose on the road, which our neighbours, the Munch brothers impounded! But a good neighbour named Frank Bailey contacted the Government at the time and freed the livestock at no cost to us! So we got two tents, and finally more—covered most of our (remaining) belongings, and settled down for the rest of the summer along the highway, in the bog—a very wet area. But, having a fairly dry summer, we fared as best as we could!

Nikolai and Mary Perpelkin, Lebahdo Flats, BC, 1948.

We stayed in the bog by the highway until October 22, 1939, when Dad decided to move us out of the coming cold weather. And it was getting cold!! Seeing as we had no money, he arranged with a woman named Mary Markin, in Slocan Park for accommodation. Our rent would be paid by labour; clearing brush and pulling stumps, with our horses.

Meantime, Grandfather and Grandmother decided to stay put! So the neighbour I mentioned before, Frank Bailey, came and asked Granddad what he intended to do, seeing as it was getting cold with winter approaching! He asked grandfather if he had any money! Grandfather answered: “Have no money and gonna die here!” Mr. Bailey told him to move back into the houses and he will take care of the rest. So he wrote to the right people and got Grandfather and Grandmother their pensions, as they were of pensionable age. So they moved back!

We lived out our terms of rent by work, and Mary Markin told us, that if we can’t pay rent, we would have to move out! Then Dad went to Glade, where he found some Community buildings that were half empty. Where we decided to move. This was in the spring and summer of 1941. That is how we landed once more in Glade (Plodorodnoye).

Dear Fred: This is an afterthought. As you know, it is hard to remember everything! After we were evicted, a lady reporter (seems to me, her name was Terry) from the Vancouver Sun came to interview us! You could probably get information from the ‘Sun’.

Sorry about my writing! When thoughts come, I have to hurry and put them down before I forget them! If there is something you don’t understand, or is not clear, don’t be afraid to write and ask! Writing something like this, at my age, is kind of hard. When a thought comes, one had to hurry and write it down before losing it!

Best Wishes from your

Uncle Bill Perepelkin

(l-r) Son-in-law Timothy N. Samorodin, a young Freddy Samorodin and grandfather Nikolai N. Perepelkin, Lebahdo Flats, BC, 1953.

P.S. Further recollections by your mother: Before our final move to BC, Father or Grandfather brought our Great-Grandmother (Grandfather’s mother) to BC. (I can’t even recall her name! – We just called her ‘Babushka’ [Anna Ilinichna (nee Muzhelskaya) Perepelkin, b. 1848]. She was left temporarily with relatives, who lived at a place known as ‘Fort Pila’ near Shoreacres. She was in her late 90’s and blind. She later was moved to live out her final days with our Grandparents (at Lebahdo Flats). But at the time of our eviction she was temporarily given shelter by a neighbour in a small shack with a dirt floor, where she stayed for four months before she moved back in with our Grandparents. During the eviction, your Aunt Una Voykin (4th sibling) and I were away at Perry’s Siding, picking strawberries, and missed all the excitement!


The following is a summary of the many places where the Perepelkin family lived as members of the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood during the 44-year period between 1895 and 1939. This rather unsettled existence, described by the writer William J. Perepelkin as a “long and endless journey”, together with the trauma associated with the break-up of the Community and their eviction from Community lands by foreclosing creditors in 1939, may have contributed to some family members subsequently becoming associated with the radical Sons of Freedom in the Forties, Fifties and Sixties.

Place of ResidenceYears
Rodionovka village, Akhalkalaki district, Tiflis province, RussiaPrior to 1895
Nizhne-Machkhaani section, Signakhi district, Tiflis province, Russia (exile)1895-1898
Island of Cyprus1898-1899
Kamenka village, Kamsack district, SK1899-1905
Novo-Kamenka village, Arran district, SK1905-1907
CCUB brick factory, Yorkton, SK1907-c.1913
Burtsevo settlement, Hamton district, SKc.1913-c.1915
Kirpichnoye village, Winlaw district, BCc.1915-c.1918
Plodorodnoye settlement, Glade district, BCc.1918-1924
Section 1-30-1-W2 village, Veregin district, SK1924-1929
Khutor village, Veregin district, SK1929-1938
Veseloye village, Lebahdo district, BC1938-1939
Road allowance (evicted), Lebahdo district, BC1939-1939
Slocan Park & Veseloye village, Lebahdo district, BC1939-1941
Glade & Veseloye village, Lebahdo district, BC1941-

History of the Anton S. and John A. Popoff Family

by John A. Popoff

Anton Savelyevich Popoff (1870-1936) was an Independent Doukhobor activist, freethinker and outspoken advocate of education. After his release from exile in Russia for refusing to bear arms, he and his family settled in the Doukhobor village of Moiseyevo in the Sturgis district of Saskatchewan in 1899, and later the village of Khristianovka in the Buchanan district in 1902. In 1907, after a failed homesteading attempt, Anton moved to Yorkton to provide his children with an opportunity to become educated. In 1913, he helped establish the short-lived “Freedom Colony” of Doukhobors near Peoria, Oregon. In 1918, he then tried farming in Cowley, Alberta, but soon returned to Yorkton to do some farming and carpentry. His son John A. Popoff (1901-1993) in 1924 became the first Doukhobor teacher in Canada. He was a Russian interpreter for Peter Chistiakov Verigin and was Secretary-Treasurer of the Named Doukhobors of Canada in the 1930’s. An Independent Doukhobor intellect, Slavophile and strict vegetarian, he was actively involved in a number of social, community and political organizations in the Yorkton area. The following is a detailed and candid autobiographical account of the Popoff family history, reproduced from “Abbreviated History of the Canadian Doukhobors and the Role in it of the Anton Popoff Family” (Saskatchewan Archives Board, John A. Popoff Collection, A562)

My Parental History

The Doukhobors in Russia originated some time in the l7th century, in various parts of the country, but mostly in the central region. That happened to be adjacent to the area occupied by the Mordvins, a Finnic people, who early in history adopted the Russian religion and language. My paternal grandfather seems to have been of Mordvin stock, since he remembered some of his native language. He used to entertain our family by counting from one to ten in the dialect of his people. I remember grandfather Savely quite well, since he lived with us both in our village near Buchanan, and here in Yorkton. Grandmother Popoff (his spouse) had been a sickly woman and died soon after arrival in Canada. My recollection of her is very hazy, since I was extremely young when she passed away, in the village mentioned above.

Savely Popoff spoke of his first home in Russia as being in the Doukhobor settlement on the river region known as Molochnye Vody (“Milky Waters”). That is a small river flowing into the Sea of Azov, which is the northern part of the Black Sea. The description “Milky” probably was due to the color of the water in it which may have carried clay silt.

The Doukhobors had gathered there from all comers of the country, in response to an edict of the Tsar of that period, who was of a liberal turn of mind, and sympathetic to religious believers. He had thought that the Doukhobors would be happier if they lived together in one place, removed from the influence of other faiths, and he suggested that they all settle in the one location.

Anton Savelyevich Popoff (1870-1936).

In view of their opposition to military service, the Tsar granted the Doukhobors military exemption. He even paid part of their moving expenses, and exempted them from the payment of taxes for several years.

The Doukhobors occupied the Milky Waters settlement some 40 years, and had become complacent in their privileged situation. Meanwhile a different Tsar had assumed the throne of Russia, and the country round about had filled in with new settlers of different conviction, who found fault with the Doukhobors.

The new Tsar also was not particularly sympathetic to the Doukhobors and decided to move them to less favorable territory in the distant Transcaucasion region, right on the border with Turkey. He figured that in such dangerous territory they would be obliged to defend themselves with the type of weapons as used for military purposes, and thereby overcome their objection to military service.

The Doukhobors moved as directed, and established a number of villages among the Tatars and Turks. But they made friends with them and did not require the weapons which the Tsar expected them to use. They prospered as before, and lived contentedly until still a new Tsar rescinded their military exemption, and required their youth to serve in the military forces, which involved also the oath of allegiance to the reigning Tsar.

My grandfather, Savely Popoff, had two sons of military age, and the younger one, Anton (subsequently my father), was called into service. The order had come unexpectedly, and the Doukhobors had no choice but to comply. The requirement at that time was 3 years active service, with subsequent release from duty on the condition of recall at any time.

That was the time when the Doukhobor woman leader, Lushechka, had died and her position had been assumed by Peter V. Verigin. He subsequently had been exiled to North Russia, from where he issued advice to his followers to refuse conscription, and to burn whatever arms they had. The military conscripts who still were in the army now refused to serve. Those, like my father, who had just completed their first term of service, refused to accept their recall cards. Such people were arrested and tried for insubordination. Some were exiled to Siberia, others to distant Tatar settlements where they had to exist as best they could among an ostensibly hostile people. Communication with home was forbidden.

All prisoners were obliged to travel on foot. Some of them died before leaving jail from the harsh treatment there, others en route to their place of exile, still others from diseases contracted at their destinations. Most of them were young people. Two of my mother’s sisters lost their husbands. One died in jail, the other on the way to Siberia. The latter was Nikolai Chernoff, father of the Fred Chernoff who now is in the Kamsack Nursing Home.

Meanwhile the authorities were penalizing also the Doukhobor villagers who destroyed their weapons by fire. Some villagers were ordered to vacate their homes and find shelter elsewhere. Others had troops posted on them who were allowed to abuse the people as they saw fit. The Doukhobor settlers were in desperate straits, and helpless. They begged the authorities to let them leave the country.

That was when Leo Tolstoy intervened in their behalf. The government finally granted permission for the emigration. The Doukhobors proceeded to seek suitable means for overseas travel. The exiled recruits were released but not allowed to go home. They were taken directly to the port of embarkation. My father and his companion in exile, Misha J. Kazakoff, travelled to Batum where they located their families.

My father’s clan at that time comprised his own two parents, an older brother, Aldosha, with his family, and three sisters with their families, in addition to his own immediate family (wife and two small daughters). My mother’s parental family was very large, and no doubt went separately, although on the same boat.

Doukhobor village along Canadian Northern Railway, 1902. Western Development Museum 5-A-21.

Two ships were used to transport the Doukhobors to Canada, the Lake Huron and the Lake Superior. Both originally were freighters, now converted by the passengers themselves for their modest requirements. The ships were very slow and took a whole month to reach their destination, and it took 4 shiploads to carry the 7,500 immigrants. The first ship (ours), Lake Huron, reached Halifax, Nova Scotia late in 1898, and the others at intervals in early 1899. A few Doukhobors, who had been exiled in Siberia, came considerably later, about 1905.

From shipboard the Doukhobors travelled by train to Winnipeg, where they were quartered during the winter season, until suitable accommodation could be prepared for them at their future village sites. The preparations were done by the more hardy and capable men who were sent ahead of the main body of immigrants.

At that time Yorkton was the very end of the CPR line going west. The Savely Popoff clan divided at Yorkton, the older brother, Aldosha, establishing there permanently. Anton’s family went north of the present site of Canora to a village named Moiseyevka (“Moses Village”). That was where I was born in the fall of that year, during potato harvest.

When Peter Verigin arrived from Russia in 1902 he saw that the village Moiseyevka would be too far removed from the railway line which was being constructed westward to Saskatoon. He advised its residents to abandon that location and resettle closer to the railway line. My family then moved to the village Khristianovka (“Christian Village”), located a couple of miles south-west of the present town of Buchanan.

That village housed most of my mother’s parental family. I recall the location of some of their homes and other buildings, such as the grist mill and the bakery.

At that time Yorkton was the closest source of supply of all their requirements. The people were so poor, the men themselves had to haul the wagon to Yorkton for provisions – a distance of some 40 miles one way. The more capable men hired out for railway work, or other labor, to earn the funds for purchase of the necessities of life, and they all pooled their wages. In some villages the women pulled the plough to till the soil for gardens and field crops.

In the beginning some arrangement with the Canadian authorities had been entered into for the use of land in the western region of Canada, which, as yet, was governed from Ottawa. And at first the general attitude to the new settlers was friendly and tolerant. But a change of government installed different officials who were not so favorable to the Doukhobors, and proceeded to impose on them new regulations, one of them being the demand for an oath of allegiance in order to hold their grants of land. That was exactly like one of the requirements in Russia which the Doukhobors had refused to countenance there, and which led to their emigration to Canada. Here they found it equally objectionable and refused to comply. A few Doukhobors accepted the condition and took homesteads apart from the main body of fellow immigrants. One of those was my own father, for which he was strongly condemned by Peter Verigin and other conscientious members of the greater Doukhobor community.

My father’s separate homestead was not far from the village Khristianovka. Father built on it a log house and chicken coop, but found it impossible to remain. His own father, then a widower, needed medical attention, obtainable only in Winnipeg, and his children educational facilities. But those were forbidden to community Doukhobors. Doukhobor ideology rejected “worldly” culture and government sponsored schools. They contravened a truly Christian form of life. But father had disavowed such ideology, yet he could not remain on the homestead. He moved to Yorkton to settle near his older brother, Aldosha.

Yorkton, Saskatchewan, 1903-1904. Western Development Museum 5-A-100.

There he needed a source of income, so he started up a livery barn business and provided sleeping quarters for outsiders who came in to town for whatever reason. His children were sent to school and he himself sought whatever work was available.

The larger Doukhobor Community, operating on a cooperative and communal basis, purchased in Yorkton several parcels of land, built on some of them living quarters for their members, and a brick factory for their own use, and for commercial purposes. The leaders of the Community were apprised of the advantage here of official incorporation of their society, so they named it the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood. They established their headquarters in the small railway station of Veregin on the CNR railway and built there a grist mill and a second brick factory. However their main source of revenue was from the sale of grain which they successfully grew on their land and the seneca root which the women gathered.

In Yorkton at that time there was quite a large population of Doukhobors, including a third Popoff family, distantly related to my mother. She, incidentally, also was born Popoff, so that I inherited that name from both sides of my parental family.

The two Popoff brothers both educated their children, particularly the younger ones. The older daughters had to remain at home to help their mothers, whereas the younger ones continued school locally as far as possible. The younger daughter of each family later went to Business College in Brandon, Manitoba. My younger sister then obtained employment with the International Harvester Company. Uncle Aldosha started up a general store where he used the services of his business-trained younger daughter.

Despite the distrust and strong disapproval of “worldly culture”, the leadership of the Doukhobor Community recognized the need for knowledgeable people to manage the affairs of the Community, and such people had to be Doukhobors. So the Community leaders chose 5 promising young candidates to attend school in Yorkton, expecting them later to help in the work of the Community. They all were boys, mostly from the more prominent families of the Veregin area. They were quartered here in local Doukhobor residences, and attended school until they learned the language quite well. Later they returned home and generally engaged in business, oftentimes independently.

Some of those boys visited our home despite the fact that our family generally was not well considered due to its secession from the Doukhobor Community. But the girls were an attraction, and some of the boys courted the girls. Eventually my younger sister married one of the boys by the name of Michael F. Reibin, who at that time was a partner in a farm supply store in Veregin.

Another young fellow courted my older sister Lily, but for some reason father disapproved of him, perhaps because the young man still was a member in good standing of the Community. Anyhow, in his case father discouraged any possibility of marriage to his daughter. Many years later the same man asked me why, and I could not honestly answer. But that created an embarrassing situation in our family. Girls were supposed to marry according to priority of age – the older one first, and then the younger one. In our case, due to father’s intervention, the younger daughter married first, which seemed to disgrace the older one. She felt offended and obliged somehow to restore her reputation. She was desperate to marry, and no longer was too particular about the groom.

In those days Yorkton frequently was visited by wandering Russians of no particular religious persuasion or group affiliation. One such person showed up here who appeared to be a suitable match for Lily. She presented him to father as an eligible candidate for husband and insisted that he be accepted. The marriage was allowed, and Lily left for Winnipeg with her husband, who was employed in a railway repair shop.

But the marriage did not last. The couple were completely incompatible, and soon separated for good. Lily returned home pregnant. Here her condition now appeared even worse than before. After giving birth to her child she suffered mental breakdown, and had to be committed to a hospital in North Battleford. On the way there she contracted pneumonia and died. The child remained with his grandparents here.

Sister Jennie’s marriage apparently was better matched and more successful. She preserved it a much longer time and managed to raise a family of 2 sons and 2 daughters. After some time her husband’s business partnership in Veregin dissolved, and her family came to Yorkton to find something more suitable. He tried photography and insurance, but couldn’t make a success of either.

Doukhobor children at the “Freedom Colony”, Peoria, Oregon, 1915. (l-r) John Vereschagin, Jim Vanin, William Vereschagin and friend. 

When the Doukhobors first came to Canada they found conditions here considerably less favorable than they had anticipated. For one thing the climate was too severe, particularly in winter. Then the difficulty with the government over possession of land – the requirement of the oath of allegiance, which was so distasteful to the Doukhobors. The more concerned of them seriously considered leaving the country for some more hospitable location. But where could that be?

My father was one of those who sought a solution to that problem. He contacted other similar thinking people, and with them decided to seek a suitable place in the United States. That was about 1913. They organized a search party consisting of my father and his son-in-law, Michael F. Reibin, who went to various parts of Western United States, and eventually negotiated the purchase of land in Oregon. Several families were encouraged to settle there, including the family of the son-in-law, the family of one of father’s sisters (the Davidoffs) and a number of others. In other words, they established a Doukhobor colony (Freedom Colony) near Peoria, Oregon.

That colony existed for several years, until it was discovered that the purchase contract included an unusual clause to the effect that if any one of the several purchasers of that land failed to pay his share of the cost, all the others automatically forfeited their share as well. That utterly demoralized the colony, and members began to abandon it. In a while, almost all had left. The only one remaining was my deceased grandfather, Savely, who died before the collapse. But even his grave later could not be found, for it had not been marked.

Before leaving on the search expedition father had realized that, in view of the improved modes of transportation, there henceforth would be less use of the livery stable facilities, so he discontinued his own and proceeded to build store buildings on his property. That was about 1912. It was partly that involvement which later prevented him from joining the colony in Oregon. But other troubles also had befallen him, His oldest daughter’s marriage had failed, and she had returned home to her parental family pregnant and in a very disturbed state of mind. He tried his best to restore her to normalcy, but finally had to seek professional help outside of town, during which she died of pneumonia.

Father’s devotion to his convictions never abandoned him, and, when the colony in Oregon was on the verge of collapse, he decided to at least approach the Doukhobor Community which he earlier had abandoned. His son-in-law’s family already had returned from Oregon, and together they rented farm land near Cowley, Alberta, which was near a newly established colony of Community Doukhobors at Lundbreck, the station west of Cowley, on the CPR railway.

Both families, father’s and the son-in-law’s, operated that farm. That was in 1918. In the fall of that year word came from Oregon of the death of grandfather Savely, and a request for financial help for setting up a suitable marker at the grave. But father had no funds, and could not help, so the grave was left unmarked.

Meanwhile the property in Yorkton required father’s attention, so he discontinued the Alberta farm and returned there to complete the store building which he had commenced before the Alberta episode.

The store buildings needed all the space available on his business property (Betts Avenue), so he had to find living quarters elsewhere. He rented a farm adjacent to the west side of town and set up his family there. The son-in-law rented a farm near Theodore and operated it for a number of years.

In Alberta the family of my father’s sister, the Davidoffs, had returned from Oregon and started up farming near Pincher Station. They took over the farming equipment which father no longer needed there.

The failure of the Oregon colony did not deter father from other efforts to leave Canada for some better location. The overthrow of the Tsarist regime in Russia (1917) suggested to the Doukhobors the possibility of return to their former homeland. In 1923 a delegation was organized to go there and investigate such possibility. Father was appointed one of the delegates. He stayed in Russia that winter and returned only in the spring. The investigation showed the situation in Russia too unstable for a successful resettlement there of the Canadian Doukhobors, so the idea was shelved until some time in the future.

1916 Census of Northwest Provinces entry for the Popoff family at Yorkton, Saskatchewan.

Father discontinued his farming operation here and concentrated on the construction of a house in Yorkton. That was completed in 1924, but his family had begun to occupy the quarters even before the work was finished.

That year brought about a tragic and drastic development for the Doukhobors in Canada. Peter V. Verigin was killed in a railway explosion on the way to his headquarters in Grand Forks, B.C. The shock to the Doukhobors was overwhelming. All factions, regardless of their nature, were distressed by the tragedy, as Verigin was regarded the mainstay of all Doukhobor society, regardless of differences. The cause of the train explosion was never determined, but it was suspected to be the work of some agency which sought to eliminate Verigin himself. On the other hand, some people thought that perhaps Verigin’s difficulties may have so depressed him that he considered that as his only way out. In any case all Doukhobors now were in a quandary, since most of them felt lost without an effective leader.

Peter V. Verigin was supposed to have a son in Russia, and the Canadian Doukhobors now determined to have him come here and assume his father’s position. They proceeded to work to that end, and my own father became one of the principals in that activity, despite the fact that formerly he was known to be inimical to the policy of exclusive one-man leadership.

The second Verigin, also named Peter, had earned himself a bad reputation in Russia by misusing public funds for his own gambling proclivity. At that time he was in detention in Turkistan and would not be released until the losses he had incurred were restored. The Doukhobors in Canada opened a fund to cover those losses and to finance his fare here to his anxiously awaiting supplicants.

Peter P. Verigin arrived in Yorkton in 1927, together with an old friend of the Doukhobors who formerly had assisted Leo Tolstoy in arranging for the original migration of the Doukhobors to Canada. That was Pavel J. Birukoff, who then lived in Geneva, Switzerland. Birukoff was brought ostensibly for the purpose of inaugurating here an educational system which would meet the requirements of the present barely literate members of the Doukhobor society. However, Verigin devoted little effort to that venture and it never materialized. Birukoff was obliged to submit to numerous Verigin offenses which apparently brought about a paralytic stroke, following which he was returned home to end his days in Switzerland.

The economic depression of the 1930’s seriously affected father’s financial condition. He was unable to meet the tax payments on both the house he lived in and the store buildings which he owned, let alone his debt on the latter. To raise funds, he went into partnership with a local friend for the purchase and use of a hay bailer to do custom bailing. The bailer was bought and used a few times by the two men, but the friend realizing its poor earnings, withdrew from the partnership and left the entire responsibility for it to my father. That was in the dead of winter. Father had to handle the machine alone. He took sick and contracted a bad case of rheumatism. Another old friend recommended as a possible cure the sulfur baths at Banff, Alberta.

Father had enjoyed steam baths at home and readily followed the advice of his friend. But, unfortunately, he did not take into account his high blood pressure, with the result that his first visit to the sulfur baths killed him. His body was returned to Yorkton and he was buried (1936) in the same plot as his deceased daughter Lily [at Yorkton City Cemetery].

Mother lived on for another 21 years, and passed away in 1957. She too was buried in the same cemetery plot. She had been the last survivor of her parental family. All her brothers and sisters had predeceased her. She never saw where her parents were buried, nor any of her other family relatives. Such was one of the consequences of the strict Doukhobor injunctions to believers – the avoidance of any communication whatever even between close relatives, due to the differences of religious conviction.

My Life Experiences

The final installment of this historical account deals in the main with my own development and experiences. But the other younger members of our family also must be accounted for, so I include some mention of them as well.

As stated before, I was the only member of my parental family to have been born in Canada. That was in 1899 in the first year of our life in this country, and in the village Moiseyevka. I have no recollection whatever of that village, and know about it only from the account of my mother. She, too, spoke of it only in connection with my birth there, and not otherwise.

On the advice of Peter V. Verigin our family had moved from there to the village Khristianovka, which was located much closer to the Canadian National Railway, which then was being constructed westward towards Saskatoon (near the present site of Buchanan),

My first recollections are of life in that village. All our homes were arranged near each other, in street fashion, so that association with close relatives was no problem. An older female cousin, for some reason, took an interest in me, and looked after me more consistently than my own older sisters. The boys of my age enjoyed visiting the grist mill and the bakery which were nearby, but we never ventured outside the village environs.

When about 1905 the Canadian Government announced to our elders the requirement of individual applications for land together with an oath of allegiance to the British crown by each applicant, the Doukhobors realized that they were being maneuvered into a situation very similar to the one in Russia on account of which they were obliged to leave their homeland. They refused to comply, and were dispossessed of the land which they already had tilled, and the homes they had built.

Some seemingly less conscientious individuals did accept the requirement of the government, and applied for separate homesteads, but they were few in number and earned the strong disapproval of the great majority of their fellow sectarians. By resorting to such practice they in effect seceded from association with, and the authority of, the larger body of members which had negotiated their migration to Canada. The elders of that majority, then, regarded such people as defectors, and issued instructions for the termination of all relationship with them, even that between close relatives.

My father was one of those who applied and received his separate homestead. His quarter-section was not far from the village which he had left. I remember him building a log house on that land, and, during its construction, living in a tent. So far as I can recall, we occupied that house only one winter, and it was one which I never can forget.

It was then that father undertook to teach his daughters the Russian alphabet and the art of writing. He could not teach them more because he himself did not know it. I then was too small to participate, but still absorbed some of that instruction. Later on my desire to know more of the details of the language led to self-study, and the attainment in it of considerable competence. I seem to have some predilection for the study of languages, and learn them quite readily. As a result I know English perhaps better than some persons born to English-speaking families.

Doukhobor village along Canadian Northern Railway, Western Development Museum 3-A-17.

While living in that farmhouse I experienced an accidental injury which left its mark on me for life. Mother had been heating boiling water on the kitchen stove, and I somehow upset the pot on myself and terribly scalded my legs. My parents used some home-made remedy for application to the injury which took so long to heal, that I actually lost the ability to walk, and later had to learn it all over again. My legs stilt bear the scars of that injury.

That was about the year 1906 or 7, and when the village community nearby had to vacate the place, father must have realized that isolation on that farm would be most impractical. He had no separate means for breaking the land, or for harvesting whatever crop he might be able to raise on it. Moreover, he had in mind the welfare of his children who, in that location, would be unable to receive an adequate education. That to him was most important. He wanted his progeny to be knowledgeable people, capable of appreciating and using the information available to contemporary society.

One of his reasons for leaving the Community was his disagreement with the Doukhobor rejection of learning on the grounds of religious conviction. In his view, it seems, such learning did not contravene the purposes of “spiritual life”, but contributed to their attainment,” which actually was very desirable, and in concert with their ideals.

In any case, he then considered it expedient to abandon the homestead and move to Yorkton, where his older brother already was ensconced and enjoying what seemed to be a better mode of living. He started up a livery barn business for the accommodation of both the animals, and of the people who used them, for travel to Yorkton for whatever reason. The operation of that became the responsibility of his wife and older daughter, while he himself sought other employment outside. The younger children attended public school.

When the younger daughter, and her cousin of comparable age, completed their public schooling, they together went to Business College in Brandon, Manitoba. On graduation from there, they returned home and put to use here their newly acquired professional skills. My sister obtained employment with the International Harvester Company, while my uncle’s daughter became his accountant in the general store which he had commenced in the meantime.

The boys in each family (which of course included myself), after completion of the public school, graduated to the Yorkton Collegiate Institute, and there continued their education. That proceeded in regular course up to the time of our graduation.

In 1918 my father had operated a farm in Alberta, and after its harvest, had returned to Yorkton to finish the store buildings which he had commenced earlier. He also purchased his first automobile, a 1917 Ford. He could not operate it himself, and stored it in a stable until he could get someone to teach him. That at first was to be myself. But I too needed instruction, and for that purpose invited here a cousin of about my own age, who in Veregin had acquired such experience in the garage of an older brother. Those two were the sons of my mother’s sister, whose husband in Russia had died in prison of the punishment inflicted on him following the burning of firearms there in 1895. Their mother too had succumbed soon after arrival in Canada.

That same cousin later accompanied me to an electrical school in Chicago, after my graduation from the local Collegiate. I was hesitant about going alone and persuaded him to take the electrical course together with me. That was about 1921.

On graduation from the electrical school I obtained employment as draftsman in an electrical factory, and worked there until the fall of that year. Then my father sought my help on his farm, and I returned home to assist him with, the harvest work. The cousin, who had accompanied me, being then an orphan, preferred to remain in Chicago.

Yorkton, Saskatchewan as it appeared in the Teens and Twenties. City of Yorkton Archives.

At that time my father had rented still another farm located near the station Orcadia. While harvesting there we had used its vacant farm house for our meals and rest periods. Someone, who had been in it before us, had left a paperback book written by a well known American author, Upton Sinclair, who described the workings of the then current business world, and favored instead co-operative or socialist methods. His argument had profound influence on my subsequent thinking when some years later our town was visited by a man who advocated a more equitable economic order, as represented by the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation.

That year also my father was chosen delegate for a fact-finding mission to the Soviet Union to determine if the time then was appropriate for the return of the Doukhobors to their former homeland. He was advised there that it yet was too early for such return, and that it should not be considered for quite some time. On his return home in 1924 he so reported to his brethren at a Peter’s Day celebration which that year was held at Devil’s Lake, south-west of Canora. That was June 29th, the day when in Russia in 1895 the Doukhobors destroyed their firearms in protest against conscription and militarism.

In the winter of 1923 I had taken a Normal School course in Yorkton, obtained a temporary teaching certificate, and in 1924 started to teach in a rural school, in the Wisnia School District, a predominantly Doukhobor farming area south-west of Veregin, Saskatchewan.

The orphan son of my older, deceased sister Lily, named Russell, had been adopted by my parents, and grew up in our family. My younger sister and her family also then resided in Yorkton. She had taken over one of my father’s store buildings to operate in it a grocery business. Her older children, and nephew Russell, attended public school in Yorkton. The husband of the younger sister could find here no suitable employment, and left for California, where a number of other Doukhobors had gone still earlier and established there a Russian Colony based on individual ownership and operation. Other members of his own paternal family were there already. And some years later my sister took her family to California to rejoin her husband.

In 1924 in British Columbia Peter V. Verigin had died in a train explosion, and the Community Doukhobors had proceeded to arrange for his replacement. In time my own father got involved in that also.

So far as I know, I then was the first person of Doukhobor origin to engage in the practice of teaching public school. That was a most unusual occupation for one of the people who traditionally had opposed formal education for what they regarded as “worldly learning”, hence sinful and unworthy.

That year also the Canadian Doukhobors had introduced for the first time the custom of celebrating each year the most important date in their calendar – the 29th of June – when in 1895 their forebears had made their renowned protest against conscription and militarism by burning all their death-dealing weapons. When I was apprised of it, I closed my school in respect of that memorable occasion.

The rural schools in those days operated all summer to take advantage of the favorable weather and the open roads, which in winter oftentimes were impassable due to the stormy weather. The urban schools, on the other hand, closed in the summer months. The result was that my two nephews, the sons of my two sisters, were able to visit with me at my country school, and there spend a few days. Then, also, I frequently went home to Yorkton for the weekends.

As I now recall, teaching certificates were graded according to the applicants’ scholastic standing at the time of graduation from school, and the amount of Normal School training acquired by the applicant. The Normal School in Yorkton supplied only a preliminary course and issued a temporary Third Class teaching certificate. After some experience in practical teaching, that temporary certificate was raised automatically to Permanent Third Class, and the teachers affected were so notified by the Department of Education.

One-room school in rural Saskatchewan much like those which John A. Popoff taught at in the Twenties. LAC C-027459.

Two colleagues, teaching in neighboring school districts, received their enhanced certificates long before I did. I wondered why mine had been delayed. We had attended the same Normal School class, and had commenced teaching at the same time, so had equal teaching experience. Yet I was not provided my permanent certificate. The reason for the delay, it seemed to me, could not have been the inspector’s report, for that was satisfactory and encouraging. The only difference between myself and my colleagues appeared to be that of origin. The other two teachers were of Anglo-Saxon and of Danish extraction, and I of Russian Doukhobor. To me it appeared to be a case of ethnic prejudice. I complained to the Department of Education, for even prior to my graduation from the Yorkton Collegiate Institute, the principal of that school, on his own initiative, had given me a written recommendation to take up the teaching profession due to a shortage of teachers in the province at that time. The Department of Education then, eventually and rather belatedly, supplied me the desired Third Class Permanent teaching certificate. I was offended and deeply resented the undeserved indignity which the delay had indicated.

Towards the end of the second year of teaching I decided to improve my professional standing still more, and proceeded to the Normal School in Saskatoon for further study. There, on the basis of my higher academic standing, I obtained a Permanent First Class teaching certificate, and returned to my first school for the completion there of my third year of teaching.

While employed at that school I had become acquainted there with various farmer girls of marriageable age, and decided to take for wife the daughter of the school district chairman. His family was of Doukhobor belief, so there was no problem respecting the marriage procedure. The daughter and I obtained the willing consent and blessing (and modest dowry) of the girl’s parents, and she moved into the teacherage with me. We completed the year there and for the following season, accepted an offer to teach in a neighboring school district, the Spring Valley.

The next year (1927) we moved to that school district, and I proceeded to teach there. Meanwhile the wife had become pregnant, and in August gave birth to a baby daughter. We named her Lillian May after my deceased older sister Lily, and my favorite Collegiate teacher, Anne May, who had taught her classes Latin and literature.

The pupils in the Spring Valley School also were mostly of Doukhobor origin. One of the boy students later became quite prominent in the Doukhobor Freedomite movement in British Columbia, and one of my girl pupils later became the teacher in my former first school. I taught there only one year, and then moved on to the third school, north of Verigin, the Tolstoy School District, where I stayed three years.

The Tolstoy School had been so named in honor of the great Russian humanitarian author who had helped the Doukhobors emigrate to Canada. At the end of our first year there, during the interval when the school was closed for the Christmas holiday, the school building burned down, and when after Christmas we returned to resume teaching, there was nowhere to conduct the school. The trustees then rented an abandoned farm house for temporary use as school until a new building could be erected. That was accomplished in due course, and I continued teaching in the new building.

There I was paid the highest salary which I had ever received, $117.50 per month, which was for both the teaching and caretaker service. But by that time (1930) an economic depression had overtaken the entire country, and the chairman of the school district informed me that the district no longer could afford to pay the same salary, and if I wished to remain there, I would have to accept a reduction of pay.

I refused that, and quit teaching altogether. I returned to Yorkton to assist my father in the operation of his business affairs, and at the same time applied most of my salary savings to the redemption from tax sale of the home we occupied.

Then also I started up at home a radio repair business, which formerly was not possible because of the general lack of radio receivers which eventually would require service.

In addition I began to participate in community service activity by joining a number of local organizations of such nature; at first the Yorkton Citizens Association, then the Yorkton Film Council, and later still the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation.

In the case of the latter, I myself, with a few other similar idealists, had founded here its local branch following a promotional meeting addressed by George Williams, a veteran of the First World War, who then advocated an improved economic order which would render unnecessary military struggle for the solution of world problems. That closely approximated the principles referred to in the Upton Sinclair literature with which I had become acquainted previously, and so highly approved.

I was appointed Secretary-Treasurer of the local branch of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, and served in that capacity during its formative and most difficult period some 12 years, until after assuming political character, it won its first provincial election and took over the government of Saskatchewan.

In 1927 the successor to Peter V. Verigin, that is, his reputed son, also named Peter Verigin, arrived here to assume the leadership of the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood. On the way to America he had stopped at Geneva, Switzerland, to invite Tolstoy’s former collaborator, Pavel J. Birukoff, to come with him and establish among the Canadian Doukhobors an effective educational system for the instruction of both the youth and the adults. The man came, but found Verigin himself of small help in his declared purpose, which eventually failed to materialize, although mainly due to the inherent incapacity of the Doukhobors themselves to bring it to fruition. Birukoff was expected also to assist Verigin in his other endeavors, during which Verigin had become so abusive, that Birukoff suffered a paralytic stroke and had to be helped back to his home in Switzerland. On the way home, however, he stopped off in Yorkton; to bid farewell to his friends here, including my father, Anton S. Popoff.

A typical religious service at Brilliant, British Columbia. On platform is Peter Petrovich Verigin. Seated is Paul Ivanovich Biryukov, 1927. LAC C-005847.

A few years later, apparently for some reason of his own, Peter P. Verigin decided to reorganize the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood. He proposed a Constitution, setting out the aims and principles for a new Doukhobor society, and named it the Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ. He possibly envisaged it as including the other Doukhobor factions (perhaps even the Molokani of USA) under single leadership, no doubt his own. But the Independents, then known as the “Named Doukhobors”, failed to agree, although some of them readily catered to his drinking and gambling proclivities. The Freedomites also refrained from joining openly, always pretending to act on their own initiative, but secretly carrying out his instructions, yet at the same time refusing to implicate him. He undertook various lawsuits wherein he sought to gain his own ends, was accused of giving false evidence, and eventually imprisoned on that charge.

At the time of his incarceration I had been appointed Secretary-Treasurer of the Named Doukhobor faction, and soon was delegated to visit Verigin at the Prince Albert Penitentiary for whatever elucidation he might be able to offer regarding the general Doukhobor problem. I went, accompanied by a number of other members of our executive committee. At the prison I alone was permitted to speak to Verigin. He assured me that he understood quite well the purpose of our visit, and the aims of the organization which I then represented. He claimed that it was permeated with scoundrels and cheats, and was no proper place for me. In other words, he intimated that my integrity should be above such association. But I already had begun to suspect its solidarity and solvency, which inclined me to terminate my relations with it, and resign my office.

The authorities apparently had tired of dealing with Verigin’s eccentricities. They resolved to get rid of him by releasing him on a technicality, and whisking him off secretly to the coast with the intention of shipping him back to the USSR. But news of that action leaked out and reached Verigin’s legal advisers, who immediately took steps to stop such breach of legality by the authorities. Verigin was released forthwith, and soon returned to his old habits with the various Doukhobor elements.

However, his profligate mode of life (and possibly some consequence of his incarceration) had undermined his health to such degree that he had to seek medical help in a Saskatoon hospital. His condition, however, already was so far gone that he was beyond help, and he expired there in that hospital. That was in 1939.

The Doukhobors, particularly those of the new society, the Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ, again were thrown into turmoil. Who now would be their leader? Ordinarily, according to old Doukhobor custom, it ought to be Verigin’s natural son, who then was in the Soviet Union, and also in trouble with the authorities there. The Community then temporarily appointed Verigin’s young grandson, John J. Markov (Voykin), who had been given the surname “Verigin”. Later on word came that the natural son of Peter P. Verigin had died in prison, so the leadership officially was conferred on the Verigin grandson, now known as John J. Verigin. He refused to accept the title of leader, but was willing to act as “Honorary Head” of the organization, which office he holds to this day.

As for myself, I probably had the most colourful career of any member in our family, with the possible exception of my father. First of all, in High School, my predilection for foreign languages encouraged me during World War I to request the introduction of a course in German. That actually was tried, but it soon became clear that such additional study increased the work load beyond the capacity of its participants, and it had to be abandoned.

But that apparently had added to my prestige with the teaching faculty, since not long afterward the principal of the school, Mr. Finlay, even before my graduation, suggested to me that I seriously consider a teaching position, as the province at that time was experiencing a shortage of such help. And he handed me a written recommendation to that effect. At that time I did not follow his advice, but recalled it considerably later when I realized that the country as yet was not ready for my particular services in the field of electronics.

At about the same time a prominent citizen here suggested that I obtain employment with the Canadian Pacific Railway, as they needed people who had some knowledge of the Russian language. But I myself then felt that my Russian was far from adequate for such a position, and that I might not be able to fill it successfully. So I did not act on that suggestion either.

Then a prominent lawyer and member of the local Liberal Party, Bill Morrison, once accosted me on the street and suggested that I change my name to some other which in English would sound better, to facilitate obtaining suitable employment. I replied that my name in the Russian language was sufficiently dignified and respectable as to require no change. So I did not follow his advice either.

Then still later the same concerned individual unofficially offered me the position of Circuit Court Judge in this community, which also I had to turn down out of consideration for my Doukhobor principles.

During my political activities within the CCF organization, after it had assumed power in this province, I was appointed Returning Officer for the Yorkton Provincial Constituency, and in a number of subsequent provincial elections I directed its electoral procedure. I also helped effectively first the nomination, and then the successful election, of our first CCF federal member of parliament, George Hugh Castleden. He, in turn, later offered to help me obtain the position of Manager of the local Provincial Liquor Board Store. But that, unfortunately, also contradicted my Doukhobor conception of propriety, and I felt obliged to refuse it.

Laura Popoff, John Popoff, and Mrs. Tarasoff, Yorkton, 1980. Saskatchewan Archives Board R90-139.

In 1940, a delegation from the Rona School District, south of Verigin, visited me to request my help in conducting their school until they could locate a regular teacher. I did not care to resume teaching, and my certificate already had expired, but the Department of Education was quite willing that I conduct that school temporarily until a suitable replacement was engaged. Within that same period the Federal Government held its wartime National Registration of all residents in the country, and appointed me Registrar for that purpose in that area. Eventually a teacher for the school was found, and I returned to my own affairs in Yorkton.

That also was the period of my active participation in the Yorkton Film Council. I was a member of it for some 12 years, and half of that time served as its President. Shortly after joining it, the Film Council Executive decided to inaugurate its then famous International Documentary Film Festival, and to hold it biennially.

The international feature of the festival attracted participants from all over the world, including such exotic places as Israel, Czechoslovakia, India, China and the Soviet Union. Several of those countries sent official observers from their Canadian embassies. In 1958 and I960 I used my technical equipment to record on magnetic tape some of the highlights and adjudications of those festivals.

I conducted study classes in the process of motion picture projection and myself operated the projectors during the festivals.

Also, almost from its very beginning I had joined the Yorkton Credit Union when it first conducted its modest business in the office of the Yorkton Cooperative Association store at its original location on Front Street. And again, almost immediately I was appointed to its Supervisory Committee of which in a few years I became Chairman. I served on that Committee some 12 years, during which time the Credit Union grew rapidly, and eventually had to acquire larger quarters. It also had to operate closer to the centre of town, and moved several times, when finally it constructed its own large premises on the corner of Smith Street and Fourth Avenue.

Then, when the CCF provincial administration introduced its neo-socialist Medicare legislation, which at that time aroused a great deal of controversy, our local CCF membership started up a Yorkton Medicare Association: in support of that innovation. I was appointed Secretary-Treasurer of that Association and assisted in keeping it going until the Medicare legislation was accepted as a viable and necessary measure.

Such activity, together with my participation in the political arena, oftentimes subject to suspicion and innuendo, reacted adversely on my physical condition. I became ill, and needed help of some kind, but the local medical fraternity did not know what I required. I was sent to specialists in the Winnipeg Medical Centre, to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and even to Excelsior Springs in Missouri. But none of them could diagnose my trouble well enough to provide effective help. Finally I consulted an old medical practitioner in Winnipeg who successfully determined my problem, and prescribed medication which helped relieve my condition. But the effects still remain with me, and I still am obliged to resort to various tonics to keep myself going reasonably well.

Earlier, at home, the son of my older sister, Russell, on completion of his studies in the Yorkton Collegiate, went to the University in Saskatoon, but for lack of funds, did not continue there long. Instead he went east to Ontario to study the radio trade, and from there west to Vancouver, where he engaged in that occupation. In time he married there and moved again to settle in Calgary,

In California my younger sister’s husband succumbed to his own particular malady, leaving her alone with the responsibility of raising her family of four children. In time all of them married. She herself fell ill and also died. Her younger son, Philip, lost his life in an accident, leaving of the parental family the older son Fred, and two daughters, Graphie and Vera, who have their own families to occupy them.

In my own case, our only child, Lillian, completed her education in Yorkton, went on to the University at Saskatoon, obtained there a degree in Home Economics, and found employment in Alberta. During her entire youth and period of public school education we avoided all mention of our antecedent history, our religious or ethical convictions, or political goals, so as to avoid influencing in any degree her own development within the context of the environment in which she would have to make her living, and seek her happiness. That, no doubt, deprived her of certain familial guidance, whose consequences only now seem to emerge. But we hope that such results will not affect very seriously our close family relationship.

Our daughter has managed to select a worthy husband, and to raise a respectable family. The wife and I extend to all of them our heartfelt felicitation for whatever fortune each of them may achieve in their respective family careers.

I now am at the end of my abbreviated historical account. It is by no means complete. Many incidents have not been mentioned, which perhaps were no less significant than those discussed. To relate them all would require much more effort and time than I now can readily supply.

Presently I am the last surviving member of my parental family. After myself there will be no-one left to carry on the family name or tradition. Its history ends with me.

Arthur Postnikoff and John A. Popoff exchanging addresses at Peter’s Day celebrations, Verigin, June 1983. Saskatchewan Archives Board S-B7612.


For another short biography of John A. Popoff as well his abridged online translation of Pavel Biryukov’s “Life of Tolstoy”, see Koozma J. Tarasoff’s Spirit Wrestlers website.

Childhood Memories

by Alexey Ivanovich Popov

Alexey Ivanovich Popov was born February 8, 1876 in the province of Elizavetpol, Russia, in the village of Novo-Troitskoye. At the age of two, he and his family, together with a sizeable group of Doukhobors immigrated to the territory known as Kars near the Turkish border. There, they founded the village of Spasovka, where Alexey remained until manhood. Many years later, he recounted his Doukhobor childhood in his memoirs, written in 1953 but published posthumously. The following excerpt, reproduced by permission from Chapter One of “Autobiography of a Siberian Exile” (Trans. Eli A. Popoff. Kelowna: 2006), chronicles the first fourteen years of Alexey’s life and provides a wealth of insight into Doukhobor life, events and beliefs, especially with respect to the upbringing and education of Doukhobor children in the Caucasus, Russia the 1880’s.

I, Alexey Ivanovich Popov, was a son of religious parents. They were a poor, peasant family of Doukhobor faith. I was born on February 25, 1877 in the Doukhobor village of Troitskoye in the Russian Gubernia of Elizavetpol, which is situated on the southern side of the Caucasus Mountains in Southern Russia. My father was Ivan Semyonovich Popov and my mother was Anna Semyonovna Popov (Androsov). They were humble, poor peasants who made their living as tillers of the soil. They were staunch in their Doukhobor faith and devout believers in their spiritual Doukhobor leaders. As true followers of their faith my parents migrated to Canada in 1899 with the Doukhobor mass migration of that time. Here in Canada, all the days of their lives they belonged to the Doukhobor group known as the Sons of Freedom. Both of them spent considerable periods of time in Canadian prisons and endured various forms of beatings and other persecution, but they did not change their beliefs to the very end of their lives. They passed away at different times; both are buried at the same cemetery in British Columbia. In their family they had seven children – three sons and four daughters. I was their third child.

Alexei Ivanovich Popov as an adult, c. 1915.

Recollections of what my mother told me:

When my mother gave birth to me, she had a very hard time and remained ill and in bed for months after my birth. It was my father who looked after all the farm chores as well as most of the household duties. Mother told me that I was a very quiet child. Very seldom did anyone hear me cry. During her illness my mother did not have any milk in her breasts to feed me. She was also not able to get out of bed and prepare any baby food for me. As was a common practice at that time among the Doukhobors, all the mothers who were breastfeeding their children in the immediate neighbourhood took turns and came to our house to feed me. Each came at their allotted time to feed me. At the same time when they came to feed me, each of the mothers would do some of the housework and look after some of my mother’s needs. This went on up to the time that I reached two years of age.

After two years of age:

Some of the following that I write about, it seems to me that I remember it myself, but it is possible that some of it may have been told to me by my mother, when I was still a child of eight or nine years of age. I remember that I was a healthy child and remember how I walked with steady feet all over the yard, but the events that went on in the family household at that time I do not seem to recall.

The first thing I remember is that on the south, sunny side of our house, right against the wall, the ashes from our Russian bake oven were always placed in a pile. In the summer this pile got very dry. I loved to play on it and sometimes would even fall asleep, half covered in the ashes. Sometimes I would sleep here till I woke up, and sometimes someone would carry me inside the house while I was still asleep. When I was two and a half years old, I was strong enough to roam around the whole yard and even outside the yard. At one time after it was past the noon hour of twelve o’clock, my mother decided to pay a visit to the nearby shallow river where the village women placed their flax straw to soak in preparation for the next stage to be made into fiber for spinning and weaving. This was a yearly practice that was done in the fall of every year. I was allowed to go with my mother for this visit. Shortly after we had already passed the outskirts of the village, I had my first sight of a large prairie jackrabbit. He had been lying in the grass, till we came quite close to him. Suddenly he raised himself and turning towards the nearby mountain, he ran with a brisk jump towards this mountain. The mountain was a landmark in the area that was called “Troitskiy Shpeel” (shpeel means a peak or spire).

After a short while we arrived at the river. The spot chosen here was a curve in the river with a very slow flowing current. The bottom was covered with a coarse gravel with scattered round and flat rocks. The depth of the water was from 6 to 18 inches. Between the scattered rocks it was excellent to place the flax or hemp straw for soaking. These bundles of straw would then have the river rocks placed on top of them. This was done so that the current would not carry away the straw and so that the direct sun would not shine upon it. When we came to this spot my mother took off her shoes and waded into the water. She reached into the water and took out a handful of straw. She rubbed it between her hands for a while and then put it back. Apparently it was not yet ready to take out. At this same spot, a little further up river, we saw that there was another Doukhobor woman who had come to examine her material. She was also finished with her examination, so we started going back to our village together – this lady and my mother, and me following them. On our way home we did not see any other wild life. Arriving at the outskirts of our village I noticed that the sun was now setting over that same mountain, “Troitskiy Shpeel”, towards which the jackrabbit had scampered.

When we came home, mother went to milk the cows, but as for me, I felt so tired from the walk of about four miles that I immediately climbed up onto the space above the Russian bake oven where it was always warm. Feeling warm all over, I fell asleep almost at once. And it was here that I slept throughout the whole evening and night and right through the early morning. It was never the practice of my mother to wake a child to feed him the evening meal, or to move him once he was comfortably asleep. She always said – once a child is comfortably sleeping in the evening, let him be. Missing the meal won’t hurt him as much as disturbing his peaceful sleep.

In the morning I got up from my place of sleep before my other siblings got out of bed and at once told my mother that I was hungry. Mother immediately poured some milk into the earthenware dish, along with some small chunks of leftover wheat bread. I took out of the cupboard one of the hand-carved wooden spoons and heartily ate what my mother had set before me.

Being only two and a half years old, none of the household or yard chores had yet been allocated to me, and so my daily life went on as with all other children in the quiet peaceful life of our agrarian village. At this age I was already quite articulate in my speaking. Although I did not have too broad a vocabulary, this was being added to from day to day.

As usual, I was always interested in what my father did as his village work routine. It was about three weeks after the visit to the river with my mother that my father brought home on a hayrack wagon the flax and hemp straw that had been soaking in the river. He carefully placed it under a roof to dry. After a period of drying, mother would go to the shed and take small bundles of the straw and with wooden tools she would work days on end beating the straw till it would separate into fibrous strands. The straw would be thrown aside for use in making fuel bricks, and the semi-clean fiber would be taken into the house. During the long winter evenings, in a special corner of the house both mother and father would keep on tramping this semi-clean fiber with their bare feet. Every once in a while they would take this mass outside to shake out the straw from it. When this mass was reasonably clean, mother would then card it piece by piece with special hand carders. Now this fluffy mass was ready handful by handful to be spun into yarn on the home made spinning wheel. In the evening mother would spin while father would be tramping the semi-cleaned flax fiber in the corner. During the daytime mother would work with the wooden tools outside, doing the first stage of the straw separation. In the evenings my father would continue the cleaning process of tramping by foot in the corner of the house that what mother had prepared outside, while mother would be carding or spinning in another corner of the living room. This kind of work continued up until about the month of February. At this time all of the cleaning, carding and spinning should be completed. Now the spun yarn had to be made into linen and hemp cloth in a process that was very fascinating to me as a child. As I grew older the process became clearer to me, but it is still quite hard to explain step by step how the yarn eventually became a very durable linen, hemp or wool material used for sewing the clothes that were worn by all the Doukhobors. All this was done in the living rooms of almost every Doukhobor family in the village.

The spun yarn was rolled into large balls. The place for preparing the yarn for its required width of usually about two feet was chosen along the longest wall of the living room. After a rotating walk around the set up pegs on a raised bench, the resulting unrolling of the large balls of yarn into a long pattern was ready to go into the set up loom for weaving. The loom itself was an intricate homemade wooden construction that a woman had to sit at. Working with her hands to put a cross thread through the two-foot wide yarn on the rollers, and using her feet to move the thing along was an art exclusive mostly to Doukhobor women. The work of weaving on the loom to make these two-foot wide and of various lengths materials or rugs went on into the months of March, April and even May. When it became warm enough in the spring to do this, then the women would take these rugs, which were still quite coarse, to the river again. There they are again soaked in the water and then spread out on the green grass to dry in the sun. As soon as they are dry, they are again soaked and again spread out in the sun. This process softens them, and also makes them become whiter. From this material the women then sew what the family requires. From the purer and softer white material they sew women’s clothes. Some of the coarser material is coloured, usually blue, and men’s pants are sewn from it, and also some women’s work clothing. The women do all their sewing by hand, and use their own, finer linen thread. A lot of clothing material was made from sheep’s wool. The process of preparing wool into yarn for spinning and weaving was a bit different and a lot of wool yarn was used for knitting.

All of this work with flax and hemp straw and sheep’s wool was done in the wintertime, and most of it was done by the Doukhobor women residing at this time in the Doukhobor villages of the Caucasus area in southern Russia. In the summer, during haying season, these same women worked side by side with the men. The men with hand scythes would be cutting the hay, while the women, with hand rakes made of wood, would be raking the hay into little piles, which they referred to as “miniature stacks”. At harvest time the women together with the men, using hand scythes would harvest the grain, tying the grain stalks into sheaves that they would later thresh together. Threshing of the grain was also done by hand by both men and women.

Besides helping the men in the fields, Doukhobor women also planted large vegetable gardens, which they looked after from spring till fall using hand tools. Every Doukhobor family had cows, which the women milked by hand. They also looked after the sheep and it was the women’s job to shear the wool from them every spring. Every family raised chickens, ducks and geese and the women looked after these as well. Of course it was the women’s duty to cook, to sew, to wash clothes, clean house and do all other family chores including the bringing up of children. Among all of these responsibilities the women still found time to go and pick the abundant wild flowers of the Caucasus area. They also picked herbs for their own medicinal use, as well as for sale.

One other very important responsibility of Doukhobor women was that they had to pass on the Doukhobor life-concept to the children by teaching them to know from memory Doukhobor psalms, wherein was contained the aspects of the Doukhobor faith. When a child was still quite young, the mother taught them the psalms only for reciting purposes. As the child grew older, the mother was required to see that the child would start learning the melody of each psalm. This was in order that the child could participate in mass prayer meetings, which were based on the reading and singing of psalms. The melody for Doukhobor psalms was very intricate and not easy to learn, even if you were growing up as a Doukhobor. For most outsiders the melody of Doukhobor psalms is very hard to understand and almost impossible to sing in the same soul stirring way.

When I was two years and eight months old my mother taught me one short psalm, which was specially composed for children. It was easy to read and I learned to read it quite fluently. It started with: “Lord, give us your blessing.” “Thou art my God and I am your slave. You will not desert me, and I will not ever leave you” and ended with “Honour and Praise to our God”. This psalm I learned to read from memory while we still lived in the house where I was born in the village of Troitskoye (Elizavetpol Gubernia).

In the spring of the year 1880 a sizable group of Doukhobors including our villagers and also from the neighbouring village of Spasovka of our Gubernia of Elizavetpol, decided to move to the Kars area of the Gubernia of Tiflis. The distance to cover was about two hundred and fifty plus Russian “Versti” (about 150 miles). My parents decided to make this move with the group. Being merely three years old at this time, I was not too aware of the hardships of this trip. I only remember the convoy of covered wagons following one another and slowly making their way along wagon trail roads, which were often muddy and soft. The wagons were heavily loaded and sometimes got bogged down in the mud so that the team hitched to the wagon would not be able to pull the wagon out. I remember cases where all the wagons would stop and they would hitch teams from other wagons at the head of those stuck. After pulling out the stuck wagon, the whole convoy would then proceed. On the third day of our journey our convoy had to cross a river. Its depth was from one to three and a half feet. Its width was about three hundred feet and it was quite fast flowing. My father was driving a four-horse team hitched to our wagon and it appears that he had moved a bit to one side of the regular track where it was safe to cross. There was a huge unseen rock in the water that stopped the wagon and the horses could not move it. Many men from the other wagons immediately came to the rescue. They waded into the water, and finding out what the problem was, they placed themselves at the wheels and at the back of the wagon and helped to get the wagon over the rock and safely to the other side.

A sample page from Alexey’s handwritten memoirs of 1953, painstakingly translated by his son Eli A. Popoff in 2006.

At the other side of the river, all of the convoy stopped for a meal, to rest and to feed the horses. Feed for the horses was not being hauled because the wagons were overly full with all the household and other belongings that were being transported to the new place of abode. So the horses were fed merely with the local grass that they grazed and any fresh hay that could be cut on the way. The early spring green grass was not very nutritious for the horses. They weakened day by day, and so the journey was longer than it should have been. What added to the hardships was that there was much rain during this trip –making the roads wet and soggy. The wagon wheels kept sinking up to four inches – making ruts as they proceeded. Because of all this the convoy used to make as little as fifteen versti, and at the most 30 versti of travel per day (a “versta” is approximately one kilometre. – Ten kilometres is approximately 6 miles). It was fortunate for the whole convoy that the climate of this Caucasus area was reasonable during the spring. While there were times of very heavy rainfall making puddles three or four inches deep on the roads, within the same hour the sun would come out and in a short time the water would all disappear. The rain did not bother the people or their belongings because all of the wagons were well covered with good frames covered with durable canvass. The food brought along for the trip was very simple. Basically everyone had sacks full of “sookhari” or twice baked bread chunks, made from whole wheat. They had a supply of potatoes, millet grain and salted chunks of sheep’s fat. The road from Elizavetpol to the Kars area was very hilly and rocky and there was a considerable amount of forest growth all around. The territory that was being crossed was all Crown Land and therefore it was permissible to let the horses graze at every stop that was made. We children always rode in the comfort of the covered wagons, where we also slept every night. All of the men usually walked behind or beside the wagons. They did not have to drive the horses most of the time as the Caucasus horses were better trained to keep to the trails, than the Canadian horses that we have had to use. It was only once in a while when a steep hill would appear ahead that the drivers would sit down on the driver’s seat to urge and steer the horses.

In the evenings when the convoy was camping for the night, the men would gather in groups and join in light hearted discussions and usually sang joyous hymns and songs. The women would be cooking the evening meal and tending to the children’s needs. In general this migration from one area to another had its hardships, but there were also joyful times. Throughout the whole trip there was not a single occasion of misfortune or trauma to any family in the whole convoy.

In the latter part of April, our convoy reached its destination. My parents chose to settle in the village named “Spasovka” in the District of Arganov about 40 “Versti” east of the City of Kars in what was referred to as “Karsskaya Oblast” or the region of Kars in the Gubernia (or province) of Tiflis. The village of Spasovka was situated in a unique location. From the west side there was a huge long mountain. On the north, east and south sides, the river “Karsina” made a huge bend. Along the south west side and along the mountain there flowed a smaller unnamed river, which always had warm water in it. On frosty days of the winter months there was always a vapor of steam above it. At the southeast end of our village location these two rivers joined together and they flowed out of our valley in a southeasterly direction between two tall mountains of rock, which formed a gorge at this point.

Both these rivers had an abundance of fish. However these fish were of a small common variety and could not be compared to the special fish that we came to know in far eastern parts of Russia, in Siberia, province of Yakutsk.

In this, our new village of Spasovka, my parents did not have to build their new home to live in. This was because there were two parties of Doukhobors that had already moved here from our province. With one of these parties, my grandfather Semyon Leontievich Popov came here before us. These parties that had come here before us, by mutual agreement, had already allocated exactly how the village would be built. They had measured out equal lots in a long line with homes to be built facing each other. One side of the line would have the houses with the rear facing eastward, and the other side would have their rear facing westward. In the centre was a wide street running from north to south. The total length of this street was about one and one quarter “versti” (about ¾ of a mile). After all the lots were marked out and numbered – each family drew lots for the one that would be theirs.

Part of these lots covered a territory that once had the remains of a small Turkish village. This territory still had the skeletons of five Turkish dwelling homes that were not totally deteriorated. These dwellings all had the same shape and style. The structure was all under one roof and quite low to the ground level. The roof was made from turf. Each had two doors on the long side of the structure. One door led into the structures most spacious division, which had four separate divisions and was used to house the farm animals and the poultry. The other door, at the other end, led into the division where the family was to live. One of these structures still remained on the lot that grandfather drew as his allocated lot. When my parents arrived at this newly pioneered village, my grandfather greeted us at the front of this building, and this is where we settled in to live.

The first essential chore that had to be done here was to go to the place and dig the special clay, from which bricks could be made. After drying and processing the bricks, these would then be laid in proper formation to make the brick oven for baking and cooking. I remember my father and grandfather at work making the bricks, while mother was busy washing up all the clothes from the trip and doing other cleaning. From these very first days I remember my older brother and sister and myself climbing the low roofed dwelling of ours and walking all over the long roof.

Because grandfather had come here earlier, he had done some essential work that every homeowner had to do here at this time. He had tilled some of our allotted soil and sowed some barley. He did complain that the Turkish people who lived here had apparently used the soil continually for many years and he feared that the crop would be very poor. We did not have any choice at this time, so in the latter days of the month of April, we, as all others – planted our gardens, each on the allotted lots, which were also very much worked over before us.

At this time I was just three years and two months old and so all of the responsibilities of this first pioneering year did not affect me. All the responsibilities rested on the shoulders of our parents. As for us, children, free of worldly responsibilities, as soon as summer warmth came around, we headed in groups to the shallow warm river that was really right in our back yard.

There for days at a time we sat in the warm waters of the river taking hourly outings to stretch out on the warm sand of the beach. Because there were no schools in this new area where we settled, the children that came to the river ranged from two to nine years. The parents felt safe to allow the children to come here, because the river was shallow and slow flowing. The shore was not deep set, but just about even with the land’s surface and the river bottom was firm and solid. This was why all the children of our village spent all the sunny days at this river shore. In the evenings the parents always insisted that all children spend a certain amount of time learning from memory the prayers of the Doukhobors, which were called psalms. When I was four years old I learned my second psalm, which read as follows:

Lord, Give Us Thy Blessing

Let us all tearfully reflect on all the daily workings of our lives. Verily speaks to us our Lord with entreaty: “You my male servants and maid servants, devout Christians, do not forget to be faithful to God, and He will not forget you in the end time to come. In our present day, the times are very trying. We are being judged and persecuted. There has been born an evil anti-Christ. He has sent forth his evil oppressors out into the whole world. There is no place to hide for my faithful followers, neither in the mountains, nor in the caves, nor in the distant barren places. My faithful followers have to live in exile and suffer persecution for keeping to the word of God and for manifesting the teachings of Jesus Christ. But you my faithful followers rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven.

Our God be praised.

Because my age group of children was not yet allocated any responsibilities, we continued to spend all our time at our favorite spot by the river. We would go there day after day. The only time we were not there was when we would see a dark cloud coming over the horizon and rumbling of thunder would be heard. At such times we would race to where the nearest covered wagons were parked and hide under their cover. For the first season, families continued to live in their covered wagons while the houses were being built. The last parties were all still living in their covered wagons. My parents were very fortunate to have the frames of the five Turkish huts that were on their allotted plot. We were sheltered in them during the first trying years. All the other families next to us were all hurrying to get their houses built. The construction of houses in this area was very simple. The walls were built from the slabs of unhewn gray rock that was freely available at the nearby foothills of the mountains. In between went layers of mixed clay mortar, which was also readily available at various spots of the valley. There was no visible forest anywhere nearby so wood was only used for window frames and doorjambs. For the roof some round poles were used sparsely, on which were laid split flat slabs of stone. On this base, plain soil was heaped, and this method was used for every roof of every building in the village. All the buildings had similar rock walls. Our village of Spasovka had 86 family residences. Each and every residence was similarly built and there was not a single wooden roofed building in the whole village.

With this form of construction, not counting the labor the cost of the buildings was very minimal. For a residence to house a family of ten with livestock from 25 to 30 head, the cost of constructing a residence would be from five to ten rubles. This expense goes specifically for the cost of glass and any ironware that was required for the buildings. It also covered anything that was needed for the large Russian oven assembled out of hand-made bricks. This oven served for all the kitchen cooking, bread baking, as well as supplying heat in the winter months. The construction of these buildings was the prime occupation of each and every family in these first years of settlement. All of the needed materials for this type of construction was readily available nearby. The forms of rock and stone slabs were all around you to the fullest of your hearts desire. There were mountains of clay for your mortar and brick baking. Water was abundant from the two rivers in the valley. The biggest detriment was the lack of forest nearby. The closest place for cutting any timber was 50 Versti away. Although there was one good thing about the timber, and that was, that for all our new settlers the state allowed a given amount for free. However to transport this timber was very difficult. In the first place there was still a shortage of horses in the first years and there was no supply of any kind of grain to feed the horses in this long and arduous journey. Even though throughout the Kavkaz Mountains there were always patches of good grass, this was not good enough to give strength for the horses to pull these heavy loads of timber for such long distances. Besides all this, horsepower was needed at home for hauling the rocks and for tilling the soil. The roads that were used to get to the timber belt were not kept up by anyone. Although the trails were somewhat packed down, the continuous summer rains would make them muddy and difficult for any kind of transportation. It was because of all of this that lumber was of the highest value in all of our villages.

There never was any talk of a sawmill to be constructed because the logs brought here were few and far between. For the absolutely essential boards the logs were cut by hand with long crosscut saws. Those families that did not have two grown men got together in pairs with other families. Since this was not an occupation that was practiced often, some of the boards that were cut were very uneven. These were the tasks that were performed by all the grown ups of the village throughout the spring, summer and fall. In the fall the gathering in of the crops took precedence over all. The first crops were very poor as these were sewn on lands that the Turkish people had been farming for many years and new land had not yet been prepared. Our children’s summer occupation that we loved best of all was our time spent by the river. Nevertheless there were times when we would go to the spots where the families were mixing the clay for mortar for the buildings. Here we would roll our own little balls of clay for our own kind of play. Sometimes we would dry them, but sometimes we would throw them at each other while they were still raw and wet. The object was to dodge them, as they hurt quite considerably. Sometimes one of the clay balls would hit a grown up person, at which time we would all be chased away. A chase from one place did not usually stop us. We would just go to another place further away where the same clay mixing was going on. Our group eventually earned the name of “mischief makers.”

When it was time for harvest all of our barefooted gang was broken up. Each went to their own family group in readiness to be taken to the fields together with the elders. Only those children stayed at home where there was an elder staying behind to allocate to them the home chores that had to be done.

Harvesting the grain at that time was very simple. The men cut down the standing grain with hand scythes, and the women raked it into small neat piles called “Kopitsi”. Then the men using special thin poles about 10 feet long, and sticking them under the pile from two sides, they would lift and carry this pile to a central place where a neat small stack would be made. This stack would be left that way till all the cutting down of the grain would be finished.

The children’s responsibility was to see that not a blade with a head of kernels in it would be left lying in the field. We would gather these individually and tie them into little sheaves with the spare straw stems. Every child would place his little sheaves separately into neat piles. These sheaves would then be taken home in the evening, where we would give them into caretaking of the parents and receive their praise according to how diligently they had worked and how many sheaves were made up. The parents kept these little sheaves separately and allowed them to be threshed separately. With the grain that resulted, the children were allowed to trade it with the local traveling merchants for goodies like apples, plums or grapes, either fresh or dried.

After the harvesting of the grain in the fields is completed, the families individually, if large families, and sometimes together with others, if small – prepare a special spot for threshing. A sizable smooth surfaced place is chosen. First it is wetted down with water and tall grass or straw is scattered loosely on it. A horse is then hitched to a special wooden roller with pegs in it, and with a rider horseback on the horse, drives back and forth on this patch until the straw is tramped in and the whole base is quite firm and solid. After this has dried, the excess straw is swept off and the reaped grain is then spread on this firm base which is called a “Katok” and the same wooden roller is hauled across, over and over until the kernels are all freed from the heads. When the men feel that all the kernels are free from the straw, they gather the straw with forks and take it away, piling it into stacks for feed. The grain is shoveled to the centre of the “Katok” and more unthreshed wheat or whatever grain is being threshed is spread around. Then the roller and the horse again commence their threshing process. After the men feel that there is about 50 or 60 “poodi” of grain (one “pood” is 40 pounds) in the centre of the “Katok”, the threshing process is halted. Now they take shovels and throw the grain into the air against the wind – thus separating the chaff from the kernels, as it is light and the wind blows it away. If there are any pieces of solid matter like dried mud chunks or small rocks – these are later removed by hand made screens.

All this harvesting work was carried out by the elders. In the meantime we children see how the elders are throwing the wheat and chaff into the wind, develop our own form of make believe. We gather in the street where there is loose dirt and make piles of it in the centre. Then cupping our hands we throw it into the air, just to see which way it blows. Because there are up to ten of us in a group, we create a regular dust storm in which you can hardly see our bodies. In the morning when we get together, all have different colored clothes. In the evening all our clothes are a dark gray. All around our eyes, nose and mouth there is a layer of black dust. We no longer look like children but like knights in black armor. In the event that we have a rainfall and the streets have puddles, we begin by racing through them, and then wrestling and before you know it we begin to go our separate and march home like fishermen coming home, wet and soggy.

It wasn’t always that we children got away with our naughty frolicking. Often either an elder man or an older woman would catch us doing something naughty and they would get after us with a willow switch, and without paying attention as to who belonged to which family, would give each one of us a good wallop on the back and chase us to our individual homes. Most of the time we were on the watch for any approaching elder, and when catching sight of one, we would immediately scatter and hide. There never was any thought of standing up to any older person of your own or any other village. If ever any child would answer harshly to any older person, he would be severely punished by his own parents at home. This meant that no child could do any mischief in any part of the village without immediately answering to any elder around. Even if he got away from the elder on the spot, he knew what he would get at home, when his mischief and disrespect of elders would be reported to his parents. This kind of upbringing allowed the Doukhobors to live in peace and harmony in their large extended families, and in their tightly knit villages. Every parent trusted their neighbouring parents to do the right thing when dealing with children’s pranks. Parents always trusted the elders’ assessment of an irresponsible occurrence, rather than the version given by a guilty teen-ager. There were no schools in our village and at most the literacy rate of the whole village was no more than 5 percent. Yet the whole village kept strictly to the above disciplinary guidelines without any exceptions.

With the oncoming colder weather, after all the fall work was done, our children’s group gallivanting came to an end. Because of general lack of warm winter clothing, most of us children now became confined to their homes. Staying at home, all we could do was think about all of the things we had done this past summer, and plan for the coming spring and summers escapades and the new things we might come up with.

During the fall and winter time of short days and long nights, because the children had no place to play and no responsibilities to fulfill and were having time on their hands, it became the duty of every parent and grandparent to teach them the prayers and psalms that contained the life-concept of the Doukhobors. These were passed on from generation to generation and were learned from memory. Families that had four or five children above four years of age, had them, every day, lined up in a row and made to recite from memory the psalms they already knew, and then separately, each one would be taught additional psalms. Up to a given age these psalms would be taught only for recitation. Later the melody of these psalms would be taught as well. In this particular winter I learned from memory my third psalm, whose contents was as follows:

“Lord, Give Us Thy Blessing”

“From the beginning of time and till now, the Lord God calleth to His faithful children: “Come to me my dear children, come to me my most dear ones. I have prepared for you the Kingdom of Heaven. Do not fear to forsake your father, your mother nor all of your race and lineage in the physical sense, but give reverence to me your heavenly Father in spirit. And the faithful children turn to Him in prayer – Oh Lord, our dear Lord it is so difficult for us to enter into your heavenly kingdom. All the pathways have gates of steel, and at the gates there stand fierce and unjust guards. And the Lord speaketh to them and sayeth: “Do not be fearful my children, do not be fearful my dear ones. I am the powerful wrestler that shall go forward before you. I shall break down all their gates of steel and I shall disperse their fierce guards. And then I shall lead you into my kingdom of heaven, where all shall reign with me as witnessed to by the God of Jacob.”

“Our God be praised”

During the winters male children under the age of 12 years had no responsibilities, so their day-to-day routine was always the same and the winters felt long. In regard to the girls it was a bit different. Beginning from the age of seven, the mothers began teaching them how to knit from the woolen yarn and even simple patching. Those families that had smaller babies, the girls were trained to take care of them. The girls were also taught to clean the floors as well as help their mothers with the washing of dishes. After the girls reach 12 years of age the mothers began to train them how to spin simple, thicker yarn for mitts and working stockings. All the spinning in our area of Kars province was done from sheep’s wool. Some sheep had been brought from our Elizavetpol province because there, most villagers had large herds of sheep. Some long horned cattle were also brought here from Elizavetpol, and these were used for milk from the very beginning of our new settlement.

When the frosts came in late fall, all work on construction was stopped. This was because in order to lay the stone walls it required mortar from the brown clay mixture. This mixture had to be handled with bare hands, and of course later this would get frozen and without a proper drying process this mortar would fall apart in the warm summer weather. Thus ,for the men folk there was less to do. All they had to do was look after cattle, horses and sheep, and in the homes they would patch the leather harness gear, repair worn boots or sew new ones. At times they would tan woolen sheepskins and sew them for wearing as short fur coats. Wood working shops did not exist here because wood was so hard to get. It was not even possible to haul logs from the forest in the wintertime. The roads were not passable. A blacksmith shop was very rare, as only a few essentials for household use or construction were ever made in the village blacksmith. There was nowhere in this area where men could go and do work for others, so in the year there were five months where the men, also, were tied to doing household and barnyard chores, the barn being part of the residence.

All the men’s main work of working the land, sowing, harvesting, and construction work could only be done in the spring and summer, so during the long winter evenings, the men – like the children spent a lot of time learning the Doukhobor psalms. This was done not only in their own homes. They also gathered in groups in neighbour’s homes. They not only read the psalms, but also in groups, sang them. On Sundays there were large gatherings for prayer meetings. At these prayer meetings everyone participated by each reading a psalm. The Doukhobors never had any special person for leading prayer services. Each and everyone participated with the reading and with the singing. That is why the children were taught from a very young age. It was always expected that each person would read a different psalm. And so if a group of one hundred gathered, the elders would be obliged to know just about that many psalms. The Doukhobors read their psalms, their prayers to God, not with the intent of absolving themselves from sin, but they read them for their own enlightenment as to how they should lead their lives. Each and every psalm had some explanation about the living spirit of the teachings of Jesus Christ. This is why the Doukhobors referred to their collection of psalms as the “Living Book”.

When a person has within his memory many Doukhobor psalms, no matter where he is, or what his circumstances are, he always has with him the instructional words contained in the psalms. No one can take them away from him, and having them always within the innermost sanctions of his being for his guidance, no one can sidetrack him, or change his deep seated and deeply rooted faith. This then, was one of the main reasons that the Doukhobors were not so concerned about grammar schools or other forms of academic learning. Their first concern was to instruct their children with the “Living Book”, their religious and moral, ethical, instructional psalms. In addition to all this the Doukhobors believed that their spiritual psalms were their own unique and bona fide life-concepts that no outsider had tampered with. Keeping firmly to the concepts contained in their psalms, the Doukhobors could safely withstand any foreign or alien influences. Their feelings were that any outside grammar teaching could still contain influences that were alien to Doukhobor thought and would infringe on or tend to obscure pure and untainted Doukhobor teachings.

During this first winter, with its short days and long nights was spent with even greater emphasis placed on spiritual aspects and the learning of psalms by both children and elders. I remember this first winter starting to turn towards spring because in February 25th of the year 1881 I became 4 years old. I really was not too aware of how good a crop we had this past year, or what other hardships my parents went through, because at my age this was not within my realm of comprehension. I do remember that the house (Saklya) that we lived in was warm and comfortable. The walls were about four feet thick. The rock walls were double layered. The rocks were laid in clay mortar in two columns, and in between the space was filled with common soil. The roof had round rafters – pine logs twelve to fourteen inches in diameter, on which were placed flat slabs of rock, a few inches in thickness. On these slabs straw was placed and then about twelve to fourteen inches of soil. There were only two windows and one door. The doorway entrance was a corridor with walls about 10 feet thick, and having a door at each end of the corridor. With only the two windows and a doored corridor entrance, the inside of the house was cozy and warm. I do not remember ever feeling cold or uncomfortable throughout the whole winter. It was only later in my life that I began experiencing a longing for the warm sunny days of summer.

Spring did come, and at the end of March the snow began to melt. It was wonderful. For just as soon as a bare spot of earth showed up, there immediately green tufts of grass started to show. By about April 10th the snow was all gone and a vaporous fog started to rise from the soil. Soon the soil warmed up and everywhere green grass appeared. Right after this, the earliest white flowers of the “maslyonka” plant, a variety of buttercups began to dot the green prairie land. These buttercups in their roots had a large kernel, the size of a peanut, which was edible. There we were in groups, armed with a special wooden rod sharpened at the end like a little shovel scampering all over the prairie meadow digging these peanuts to eat right there and to bring some home. This daily occupation of ours lasted till about the 5th of May. After this the white flowers would wither and fly away. Then there was no way you could spot the buttercup plant in the lush green grass, and besides that the peanut seed itself would get to be coarse and hard and not edible anymore. And so, for a time our children’s groups would be left without too much to do except wait for the warm sunny days to come, when we again could go to our favorite river beach to swim and bask in the warm sun. The last year’s pastime was to be repeated again this year, until such time as our parents would begin the harvest season and again get us to pick up all the loosely fallen grain.

This was the routine for all of us children, and this is what occupied my time when I was five and six years old. When I became seven years of age, that winter my parents taught me several more lengthy psalms. I remember that spring when the snow melted more rapidly and the streets were full of puddles and little creeks. Here was something new – to build little dikes and canals and float little hand made boats and make imaginary turning mills on the flowing rivulets. After this came the season of digging the buttercup roots and when that finished a new phase of my childhood development came about. My older brother Nikolay made a fish hook out of an old needle. He attached a length of string to the homemade hook and gave me my first instructions on how to catch the little fish that abounded in the same river that we loved to swim in. He showed me where to dig for the long, red earthworms, how to store them in an empty can with some earth in it, and how to attach them in short pieces for baiting the hook. He showed me how to lower the hook into the water and then patiently wait till a fish starts jerking on the line. This shallow river that we swam in seemed to have millions of these little fish. They were the size of Canadian perch and resembled them in appearance. And so, along with all other boys that were seven and eight years old this became another pastime with which we were occupied.

The little fish were very plentiful in the river, and if a boy struck a good spot he could catch from 50 to 75 of them in one day’s outing. The caught fish would be kept in a screened cage in the water. When these were brought home, the mothers would merely clean the innards and then fry them whole. When the fish was fried for some time they are smothered in a mixture of dough that is made quite thin, and then the whole mass is baked in the oven. This kind of fish in pastry, served as a very special delicacy for all of us children. It also substantially added to our dietary supplies, as in our first years in this new settlement food was not too plentiful. In our particular family this was even more so.

Alexey’s parents, Anna and Ivan Popov, c. 1915. Ivan was a very large man whereas Anna was diminutive. In this photo, Ivan is sitting while Anna is standing.

When our family was coming from our village in the province of Elizavetpol we had brought with us 4 cows. In the fall of 1882 three of these cows were stolen. On one night that fall a group of thieves came and from the far side of the barn they took apart a part of the stone wall and led the three cows away. Even with the help of the whole village, we were never able to track down the culprits or to find out where three of our best cows disappeared. From that time on, our dairy products were far more limited than in other families. Our daily food was bread made from whole-wheat flour with soup, which was made basically of potatoes and coarsely ground wheat. Borshch had potatoes and cabbage plus a large tablespoon of thick cream. Into both soup and borshch, for our family of six people, one small tablespoon of butter was added.

Therefore, the small perch that I caught with the homemade fishing tackle was a very welcome addition to our meager food supply. It was a change, it was very tasty and it cost nothing. Up to seven years of age, no outside family responsibilities were designated to me. I was still allowed to go and dig the buttercup peanuts. But when their season came to an end I was given a more serious responsibility. Most families had flocks of geese. This particular spring my mother was able to successfully hatch 48 goslings, in addition to the five older geese that we owned – making 53 in all. As soon as they grew up a bit and got trained to keep to their own flock, because of shortage of home feed, the flock had to be herded out to pasture in the meadow and also to the same river where we went swimming. The river was shallow and quiet flowing and posed no danger for the geese. In places along its banks there was a lot of lush green grass which both the older geese and the young goslings loved to feed on. Besides this, when they would plunge into the river there were all kinds of bugs that lived in the quiet eddies, and the geese young and old feasted on them. With this range free feeding, the young geese developed in leaps and bounds. My job was to keep them together, both on the range and in the water from 7 o’clock in the morning until 9 o’clock in the evening. After 9 o’clock I would herd the geese home where they had special housing under a solid roof with solid locking doors. It was not possible to leave the geese free overnight because there had been occasions when the large gray wolves which roamed the mountainside would sometimes come down into the village at night and kill some geese and drag them away for eating later.

In the daytimes there had not been any occasion that the wolves would come to the riverside. There were a few occasions when stray dogs would come there but they could be frightened away. On rare occasions there were serious hailstorms and some of the little goslings would be seriously hurt or even killed. Apart from these rare times of worry, we young children that looked after the geese felt free and happy. We often had time to swim in the river ourselves and lie on the shore. Sometimes we even did some fishing. The flocks of geese also enjoyed these free-range outings. At times when they would have a good feeding quickly, they would also stretch out on the sand and lie sleeping. Other times they would swim in the deeper water and then lazily stay in the shallow eddies snapping at the bugs that swam there. There were odd times when one flock of geese would get mixed up with another flock and coming home we would have different counts. To avoid disputes every family had their own markings on the feet of the geese. Some cut slits in the goose toe webs. Others cut one nail off, either, the left or right foot. All were different. And so checking the markings each family claimed their separated goslings. I do not remember that there were ever any serious disputes.

This work of pasturing geese continues from the first of June until the fifth of September when the harvest season commences. At this time the geese are not pastured at the river anymore, but they are brought out into the harvest fields where they methodically go through the harvested field and pick up every head of grain that fell aside from the main stacks. Some families who had the proper utensils brought out water for the geese into the fields and so the geese remain in the field from dawn to dark. Feeding on grain, the geese accumulated a considerable amount of fat. Thus, at home they are grain fed for no more than 2 weeks and then they are sold. The summer’s pasturing of the geese was not a troublesome one for the children. It was rather enjoyable, because the hours of work were not too exact. Morning or evening the timing could be one hour earlier or one hour later. There was however one hardship. Being bare legged all the time proved to have its disadvantages. Wetting your feet about every hour, and then being in the hot sand and sun eventually made all the skin rough, which later would have cracks appear and even open sores. The sores would bleed and be very painful. There was no medicine for this. The only thing that helped was to cover all your legs with black Caucasian oil. The oil seemed to protect the skin and going in and out of the water did not affect the skin as much.

Pasturing the geese at harvest time was more arduous. This was because the grain fields were sometimes one, two or three “Versti” from the home residence. During some hot days in the fall it would not be possible to herd the geese for such distances. This then required the young lad to get up before sunrise, and while the dew was still on the grass to get the geese into the fields and have them already fed before herding them to the river for water. In the evening it was the same problem. While the sun was still high it was too hot for the geese to trek from the river to the fields. They would get hot, open their mouths and lie down without going any farther. You could only start them from the river when the sun was already quite low. By the time they would get themselves fed it would already be getting dark. This created considerable hardships for a boy only seven years of age. Also the weather in the fall was not always calm. Sometimes it rained heavily. Other times a wind storm would come up and you would have to be fighting dust and wind against which even the geese did not want to go. There were times when the older people in the village felt that they had to come and help the young boys to bring the geese home on one or another turbulent evening. They would holler into the night and children would answer in the high-spirited children’s voices. The one saving grace for us children was that we never went in separate groups. Most of the time we had four or five groups of boys following each other, especially after dark. Each was looking after his own herd of geese. Being in a group gave us some comfort. At times, however, it used to get so dark that each of us seemed to be totally alone. All of us were quite well aware of the fact that the huge gray wolves were always not too far away from the grain fields. Thoughts of the wolves always brought a cold shudder down one’s spine.

In my eight and ninth year I did not get any additional responsibilities. There still were no schools in the village. So in the summers I herded geese and in the winters I added to my knowledge of psalms.

When I became 10 years of age I was given another responsibility. Now I had to begin herding sheep. Looking after sheep had its own season. This was from the middle of March till the tenth of June. At this time the sheep were having their lambs and the lambs had to be trained near to and around home, to stay with the herd.

After the 10th of June all the sheep in the village are brought together into one or two large herds. Specially trained Tartar herdsmen are hired, who take the sheep into the hills and graze them on especially rented crown land. They keep them here till about the fifteenth of October, and sometimes even till November 10th. They then bring the herds back to the village and every owner starts taking care of his own little group. They are pastured in and around the village till the time of the first big snowfall. Those owners who have over a hundred sheep pasture them individually. Those that have 20 to 45 usually group together and either hire a person as herdsman or take turns in herding.

All sheep have their own kind of markings. Their markings are on their ears with either one or two cuts or piercing. Herding sheep was one of my favorite responsibilities. There were many groups of boys. During dry weather and no wind, the sheep grazed quietly and the boys would organize some games. In this way, the days would go by quickly. The games could be different each time. One of the games played the oftenest was called “Na v shapki” or beat the cap. This was done by each one throwing his herding stick as far as he could. Whichever stick landed the closest, the owner would have to take off his cap and throw it in the same direction. All the boys were then permitted to run and beat this cap with their sticks a certain amount of times and then again throw their sticks. This could go on all day, and it did happen that some of the less lucky boys would have their caps beaten into shreds and come home bareheaded. To hide his shame this boy would keep his herd out till it was completely dark and then bring them home.

Sketch of merino sheep kept by the Doukhobors by Russian painter, Vasily Vereshchagin during his visit to Elizavetpol in 1863.

There was only one particular drawback in herding sheep, and that was the rainy weather. There were times when it would rain several days in a row. When it was this wet the sheep would not graze quietly but kept running around uncomfortably. For these rainy days we boys had a special garment, which was called a “Bashlik.” It was a kind of large vest that had no sleeves but did have a special parka that pulled over your head from the back. These vests were made from sheep’s wool, tightly knit and well pounded. These vests did not let the rainwater through to your body, but if it rained all day these would become so soaked and heavy that your shoulders felt like you were carrying unwieldy weights of steel that seemed to get heavier every step you took. Carrying this amount of weight from morning until evening was quite a trauma for an eight or nine year old. It was that much harder to carry this weight because the soil beneath your feet was all muddy and sticky. Some evenings it was real torture to drag one foot after another on the last stretch home and when you finally got to bed your legs would continue to feel the pain.

There was another hardship herding sheep in the spring and that was their giving birth to lambs right in the distant field where you had led them. If this were one or two lambs, you would be obliged to carry them home. If it there were more than two new born lambs, you would go to the nearest hilltop and holler at the top of your voice until someone in or near the village would hear and they would come to help.

The most frequent trauma in herding sheep in the summer was this matter of getting soaking wet, which was sometimes followed by a cold wind. There were times when one remained shuddering throughout the whole day. One other fear that always seemed to hover over you when you came closer to the mountains with your herd was the fact that you knew that the mountains abounded with large gray wolves. During my time there was never an occurrence of a pack of wolves attacking a herd of sheep. In the two years that I herded sheep there was only one occurrence of my actually seeing a large gray wolf lurking nearby. There were other older boys that let out loud shouts and the wolf disappeared into the mountains. As for myself I stood petrified and motionless for about half an hour. I was not able to move my feet. It seemed that my whole bloodstream was frozen.

There was one other occurrence that happened to me with one of my older and rather feeble sheep. This happened at the beginning of the month of December when the first snow covered most of our low-level pasture ground. About one quarter of a “versta” from our home there was a gorge through which flowed a larger river named “Karsina Reka”. This gorge stretched for about eight “versti” and three of these “versti” was in the territory of land that was allocated to our village. This gorge had banks of different elevations. Some places the height was about three times the height of prairie grain elevators, other places this elevation was lower. Most places the distance from one side to the other was about 160 feet. The river was not too wide, and it ran through the centre. At one side of the river there was the general road that ran through along the gorge, and at the other side the distance between the river and its mountainous bank varied. In places it came right to the river’s edge and in other places there were ledges of various heights, which contained luscious green grass. From the warmth of the river water there was no snow on these ledges. At places these ledges led to level pieces of land, and at other places they led directly into steep and very rocky mountainous territory. On some of these ledges even horses or cattle could graze. On others only the sheep, being more agile, could safely graze. And so in the first part of the winter, I took my sheep to these ledges. I directed my sheep to a lower ledge, which had very luscious grass on it, but the descent to it was quite steep. Going down, the sheep managed very well, but having smoothed the path going down, when I was ready to chase them back up they found it very slippery and difficult. I had to help practically every sheep to scamper up and onto more level territory. It came to the last one, a heavy older sheep that wasn’t very agile anymore. She just could not make it to the upper ledge, and with all the strength that I could muster I just couldn’t get her out of this lower ledge. It was getting dark and I had to make a quick decision. If I left her loose, she could conceivably scamper out of here later and wander into the mountains where the wolves would most certainly get her. Each of us boys had our slings for throwing stones and so I decided to use that string. I tied all four feet of the sheep as firmly as I could and left her there lying at the foot of the ledge. In the morning we would come with my father and rescue her.

I came home with the rest of the herd later than usual. When my parents asked why I was so late, I explained what happened with that one old sheep. Sheep at that time were valued from two and a half to four dollars each. To me that seemed not such a great deal. However, my parents were so upset with this possible loss that they hardly slept all night. They prayed and grieved and mother even went out into the night to carry out some kind of an ancient witchcraft ritual. She took an axe and plunged it into the ground in the middle of the road, and if everyone went around it without knocking it down, this would denote that the sheep would be safe.

In the very early morning, before dawn, my father and I went to the place where I had left the sheep. The spot was empty but there were signs of struggling. Looking further around and below, we found the dead sheep in a clump of brush. She had kept beating and turning until she fell and rolled among rocks. The whole carcass was so beat up; we could not even salvage the sheep’s skin. The loss of this sheep was a subject of grief to my parents for a long time to come. When spring came my parents did not fail to mention to me – you see that sheep would now have brought us two lambs. It was so hard for me to understand why it was that my parents were so overly concerned with this loss of one old sheep. Was it just grief for a material loss, or was it fear of loss of self-sufficiency, and possible want in the future? It was probably the latter, because we scarcely ever had anything in abundance. However in my childhood immaturity I thought that how could it be that my parents seemed to value the sheep more than they cared about me and my anguish. They continually mentioned that the sheep would have brought two lambs, and that she always fed them so well, and that her wool was of the finest quality. It was long and soft and it produced the finest of yarn. All these rebukes about my fault for this loss kept on for a whole year. For a nine-year-old child these parental rebukes about the loss of a mere older sheep gave me severe mental depression. I kept being sore at heart. At the same time it was a very indelible lesson to me to always be more careful in the future.

When I was in a more self-pitying mood I would think to myself – of course my action in getting the sheep to this luscious green ledge was not done for any kind of self-gratification. I had done this out of pity and love for the sheep. I well knew that they would be half hungry treading over grounds that were already eaten bare, but here I was directing them to a ledge of luscious green grass where not a single foot had trod, – a place you just didn’t want to leave from. And then I would reason again – true enough the thoughts came to me that if I did not take advantage of this ledge today – others would discover it tomorrow! And then of course our elders were always praising the boys that were more alert than others, and I did have the thoughts that when the elders found out that I had discovered and used this ledge for my herd before anyone else – they would say, aha, that Popov youngster finds ledges that even older herders failed to discover! And so really – this was the thought that made me venture to that steep but luscious ledge. Instead of receiving this kind of praise, it turned out that in the end I received an unforgettable lesson to be more careful rather than being more daring. Had I brought home the sheep that evening even half hungry, their suffering would have been minimal. No one would have been able to assess exactly how much was in their stomachs. My parents would have been at peace, and there would have been no rebukes to me in the future. With those thoughts of getting praise and commendations, I probably would have become unnecessarily proud and to think too much of myself. This event of the loss of a sheep brought out in me deeper thoughts of the wisdom of being careful in all matters. Not the least of this was that it is wise to be careful in material matters insofar as one’s welfare sometimes depended on saving every hair that was needed to keep the family self-sustainable.

Traumatic events be they as they were, time did not stand still. On the 25th of February 1887 I became ten years old. In this winter, after the loss of the sheep, I was more studious than before and learned a lot of new psalms. As usual there were no other particular responsibilities for young boys in these winter months. There were only the few times of warmer sunny weather when the parents would allow me to take the sheep for a drink at the river, the same river where we always swam. With the spring break we still went digging for the buttercup peanuts, but even before their season was over there was an additional responsibility given to boys our age with the beginning of the spring planting of grain.

The sowing of grain was done by hand. We did not know any other way, except using a special sack with two straps over the shoulder. The sack was open in the front and from here the sower would take the seed into his hand and scatter it fan wise. About 65 to 80 pounds of seed is placed into the sack. The opening of the sack appears under the left arm and with the right arm the sower takes fistful of seed. He scatters the seed from left to right measured by his steps. When he puts his left foot forward he fills his fist with seed. When he steps forward with his right foot he scatters the seed. This is done by the elders in the family. This job was done by my father. He scattered the seed onto the ploughed land. After this it was essential to pull harrows over the land so that the scattered seed would be covered by soil in order that the birds would not pick it up and in order for the seed to properly germinate and sprout. This part of harrowing was done quite uniquely and probably different from other places in the world. The harrows themselves were constructed right at home. The spikes that were driven into the frame of the harrow were made of dried, firm wood. Each separate frame was made for one horse to be hitched to it and drag it. Each horse would have a young boy driver. If the family did not have a boy, girls also could be seated horseback on the horse. One track of the harrow was not enough to properly cover the seed, and so it was most usual to have four horses hitched to four separate frames that would follow one after the other. Only the front horse had to have a driver. The other horses were just tied to the back end of the harrow. And so in my eleventh year I was entrusted with being the driver of the front horse. The other three followed my trail one after the other. This job was not one that required any amount of physical labour, but it did have its own peculiar difficulties. The driver of the lead horse had the responsibility of traversing the field in a straight line. Keeping this line straight was important, because on the return trip the boy had to make sure that he wasn’t going over the same trail twice, as well as he had to be sure that he was leaving no spaces uncovered.

It was always the same problem. The horses usually walked slowly and carefully. At this time of the spring the sun was usually quite warm, and so the gentle swaying of the horse, and the warm sun never failed to make the young driver start dozing. In this half asleep mood it was usually quite hard to keep your line straight. This brought about the fact that you either wandered over territory that was already covered, or also you left some uncovered spaces. What would happen was that when an elder came to check on the work, he would have a double job of getting the line straight and also having no spaces left uncovered. This slowed down the whole process of completing the harrowing of a given field that was already sowed.

In all our villages the land was divided into long narrow plots seeded on a three-year rotation basis. All the families usually worked their allotted plots at the same time. At times there were up to 50 families in the fields at the same time. When the elders would complete the sowing of a given field they would gather together in group discussions awaiting the completion of harrowing. When they felt that the young boys should by now have completed the harrowing, they would go out to the fields to check matters out. Quite often there would be poorly harrowed plots, and the elder who found such a state, would have to then take over the lead horse and correct the poor job. Sometimes, just about the whole field would have to be done over. Where the job had been ably looked after by the young driver – his elders would already start moving to another plot, and the one who had dozed on his horse and made a mess would then get serious lectures from his elders. Some very irresponsible youngsters were sometimes even punished. Thus it would happen, when horses are unhitched for noon feeding, those boys who had everything in order would be jolly and would get together and have fun amongst themselves. The unfortunate ones whose fields were poorly done would get lectures from their elders, and all of the other boys would be ribbing them about how sloppy their work turned out. Not only would the boys receive lectures from their immediate elders, other elders would also pipe in. This sometimes happened to me. Other elders would have their say – admonishing me: “How come Alyoshka, you worked so sloppily that your father had to spend so much time correcting all your errors? At this rate, if you keep up such irresponsibility – no one will ever want you for a husband, and you will never get married”

At our age this seemed to be such a dire prediction. To add to this, if one received the elders’ lectures several times throughout the spring season, you would never hear the end of this from all of your peers and friends for the whole summer. Of course the age we were, and the warm spring sun and the swaying horse were all part of the natural make-up of things. It was really not such a major sin to doze – but it was really hard to take all the consequences of this dozing. And so this simple responsibility of driving the lead horse in harrowing the fields proved to be its own kind of a painful chore.

Seeding operations are completed by about April 20th. Land is not worked again until June 10th. This gives the working animals a rest of about one month and twenty days. During this rest time I had to lead the horses out for grazing in the pasture. In the free pasture land, the horses had to be hobbled on their front feet. If a horse was exceedingly frisky he would have to be hobbled on a third back leg as well. When the horses would be all hobbled they would be allowed to graze on their own. This was the job that every boy of the village was occupied with. The pasture was common to all the villagers and so all of us boys would get together for games throughout the whole day – as the horses could not wander away too far while they were hobbled. Some of the boys who weren’t too enthusiastic to play –would catch up on their sleep that they lost in the spring. The games we played were simple. One was called “V Tsoorki” and another was called “V Doochki”. Rarely did we play ball, and sometimes the younger boys played riding horses near the river and then we would go swimming. Some of us would take this opportunity to catch fish. Pasturing horses during the rainy season was not as troublesome as with pasturing sheep. Horses did not really get upset with the rain. They either continued grazing – or would just stand quietly in one place. As for us children, we would also stay upright quietly or rest on some jutting stone outcrop, which were plentiful in our area. The only problem with horse pasturing during rainy weather was the form of hobble that was used. If the hobble was made of leather, the rain did not affect it, but if the hobble was made of rope – it would tighten when wet, and it was very difficult to get it undone when the horses would have to be herded home. Sometimes a boy would have to take his horses home all the long way from the pasture while they remained hobbled. This was a slow process and such a boy would come home a lot later.

Picture of Alexey as a young man with unidentified woman in exile in Siberia, c. 1903.

Some of the times the horses would not be herded home every night. At such times all of the horses would be brought together in a large herd where designated elders would watch over them all of the night. The elders of 15 to 30 men, who would divide into groups of four taking several shifts through each night. There were also times when the younger children would take designated horses to the village homes for work that was needed to be done in the gardens or other work within the village structure. When all of the village work would be finished, then all the horses would be divided into two or three large herds watched over by two men to each herd in the daytime and by one additional man coming in from the villages for night time watching. This general overall system continued up to June 10th.

At this time the horses would all be brought back to each individual household for preparing the land that was left as summer fallow land, that is, the land that is left for resting for one year. The plowing of these fields had its own particular routine. To each plow there were hitched from six to eight pairs of horses. The front pair had a boy rider in the ages of from ten to thirteen. Every other pair also had a rider. It was the work of these riders to guide his own pair of horses, and also see that the pair ahead of you was pulling its share. Each boy thus had to look after four horses. This meant that in the morning he would have to put on the harness onto the horses, bring them and hitch them into their proper places and then keep them moving in their proper direction following the furrow that was made. At the proper noontime, the horses would have to be unhitched, unharnessed and allowed to graze in a special field of grass left nearby. They would also have to be taken down to the river for their drink of water. All this would have to be repeated in the evening. The land that was being plowed had been already grazed and well trampled by the village cattle. The plots where the horses had to be allowed to graze were nearby. None of the stock were allowed to graze here since the year before and therefore the grass was lush and plentiful for the working teams of horses.

As I became a ten-year-old boy, it was my job to look after 4 horses. Keep them harnessed when needed, unharnessed and fed at given times, and led to water as designated. Getting the horses to water was a chore in itself, as the fields for plowing were sometimes two to three “Versti” from the river. This entire fallow plowing time proved to be exceedingly hard and trying for me as a ten year old. This was especially hard during the night routine. At 8 o’clock in the evening you had to bring the horses to the place where they were to graze, hobble them and then lie down to get some much-needed sleep. The total of your clothing for the night would be one additional light, longer length semi-raincoat. At 12 o’clock midnight you had to get up and unhobble the horses and take them for their drink at the river. You had to bring them back, hobble them again, and then again lie down to sleep. At 5o’clock in the morning you had to get up, bring in the horses, unhobble them and lead them to the workplace. During the times when it remained dry, this job, although quite hard, was still bearable. However, when the rain kept coming all night it became a real nightmare. At times you would wake up and find yourself lying in a puddle of water – as in the night it was not always easy to spot a higher piece of ground for taking your nap. This torturous spring responsibility continued each year for a period of from 28 to 34 days.

The length of time depended on whether there was more or less fallow land, and also on whether there was more or less of a rainy spell. In some years the weather was cool, and not too much rain. In other years you had spells of intense heat and also many days of wet weather. Of course when it became obvious that conditions were too extreme and hard for the young boys – there was always the fact that there was one elder, the plowman for every group of three or four boys. It was his responsibility to see that the boys were reasonably looked after. This elder was always free to catch up on his sleep during the noon break, which lasted for three hours. But during the nighttime he also took four horses and went with the young boys when they took the horses for their grazing period. He always had the boys sleeping near him and would wake them when they had to take the horses for their drink at the river, and also when they had to take them in the morning to the field which was being plowed. In the nighttime he would help the boys get on their horses to ride to the river, and on the way there would often holler to the boys by name – in case one or another of them would begin to doze while riding and perhaps allow the horse to veer away from the others and head for home instead of the river.

During the time of fallow plowing all the boys remained under the rule and instructions of the one elder designated for their group. He was the one that told them how to look after all the harness gear, how to handle the horses, when to take the breaks and so on. This elder was given the authority to discipline any boy in his group. If need be, he had the right to even use the same whip, that was used on the horses, for punishing a disobedient or irresponsible boy. There was one time that I, when I was 12 years old received a snap of the whip for being too lippy. Our elder was a distant relative by the name of Jacob Voykin. He gave me a sharp snap, that made my pants wet. The wet was not from blood! This Jacob Voykin was the elder in our group, which was made up from several families. Because you needed 12 to 16 horses for each plow, and some families did not have that many horses, it was the custom to get several families together who then shared one plow. The plows were of heavy wood construction. The only steel on the plow was the share and the cutting disc that went ahead of it. There was only one share to the plow and it threw a furrow of about 14 inches. The soil was quite heavy and it required from 12 to 16 horses to pull it fast enough to throw a proper furrow. It was with this one plow that all the land had to be tilled to supply several families with a living. Sometimes the total of these families would be twenty or more souls. All the sustenance of these 20 souls would have to be derived from the produce of their allotted plot of land. Where there were this many souls to their allotted plot, most of the time they barely had enough produce to keep themselves and their stock for the ensuing year. Others, whose families had not grown since the past allotment was made, but who had the horsepower, were fortunate enough to have some produce for sale. Some of these more fortunate families were able to rent land from the nearby peasant Tartars and always had some produce for sale. Renting land was very favorable here as after three years of giving shares to the owner – the lessee could claim ownership of the land.

I spent four years of my life doing the routines that I explained, from the age of 10 to 14 years of age, to help the family till the land for their sustenance. Despite the fact that these years remain in my memory as very trying and hard times during this growing period up of my life, I do not remember getting sick at any time in spite of the many times of being wet, cold and tired. My physical health remained at a good level and I have no bad memories of this particular period of my life.


   Cover of Alexey Ivanovich Popov’s “Autobiography of a Siberian Exile”.

Alexey Ivanovich Popov lived with his parents in Spasovka, Kars until the age of 21, when he received his call-up for conscript service in the Russian army. He refused to perform military training, as the taking of human life ran contrary to his Doukhobor faith and beliefs. For this, in 1898, he, together with other young Doukhobor conscripts, was exiled to Yakutsk Siberia for a term of 18 years. In 1905 a Manifesto of Amnesty was issued by Russian Emperor Nikolai II, thus granting the Doukhobor exiles in Siberia their freedom. Soon thereafter, Alexey and his new bride Katerina immigrated to Canada to join their Doukhobor brethren who had arrived some six years earlier. Alexey lived for a time in the Doukhobor Community, but soon became an Independent Doukhobor, taking out a homestead at Blaine Lake, Saskatchewan, where he lived and farmed until his death on August 14, 1955.

To order copies of Alexey’s fascinating life story, “Autobiography of a Siberian Exile” along with various other informative Doukhobor publications written by his son, Eli A. Popoff, contact: The Birches Publishing, Box 730, Grand Forks, British Columbia, V0H 1H0, Tel: (250) 442-5397, email: birchespublishing@shaw.ca.

Porto Rico

In 1929, nine year old Elizabeth P. Maloff belonged to a family of Independent Doukhobors living in Thrums, British Columbia.  They were sympathetic to the views of the Svobodniki (“Freedomite” or “Sons of Freedom”) Doukhobors who lived in a squatter camp on the edge of their settlement. When her family joined one of their mass protests against militarism and capitalism, they were swept up in a series of sensational events that would forever change their lives.  They marched to South Slocan, where a number of protestors were arrested for indecent exposure and sentenced to Oakalla prison. The rest marched on to Nelson, where they set up a makeshift camp on the city outskirts. When the protestors refused police orders to disperse, the leaders, including Elizabeth’s father, were arrested for obstruction of justice and sentenced to Oakalla prison. The remaining protestors, including Elizabeth, her mother and siblings, were held, without arrest, in Nelson provincial prison, then transported to Porto Rico, an isolated, abandoned, barely habitable logging camp, where they were forcibly confined, without trial, until the following year. Eighty years later, Elizabeth shared these events with her family for the first time. Her story, recorded by her daughter Vera, recounts the reasons for the protests, now blurred by the passage of time, and the little-known, largely forgotten internment at Porto Rico. Reproduced by permission of the author. Foreword and Afterword by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

It all started in 1929 in Thrums where I live. The old Svobodniki Doukhobors lived here behind George Popoff’s place in a community against the mountain. That summer, my six year old brother and I, then nine, sat on our front porch and watched as the Svobodniki walked along the road in Thrums with banners declaring “Land should not be bought or sold. Land belongs to God alone.” “People must not pay taxes for land. Taxes support war.” I could feel their energy and fervour. They were inspired and joyous to be speaking out about their beliefs. There was such a commotion all along the road. My parents sympathized and didn’t pay their taxes either, and so our land was taken away. Like the Svobodniki, my parents were also against an education that promoted militarism and capitalism.

Freedomite camp on the outskirts of Nelson, British Columbia to protest the arrest and jailing of 112 of their brethren for indecent exposure, September 1929.  Photo courtesy Koozma J. Tarasoff Collection.

To begin with I really wanted to go to school. The school was right here, almost in our front yard and everyone walked by on their way to school. All my playmates went and I dreamt of going to school, I was so enthusiastic, but my parents said that school taught about war. The students had to sing for the king and queen, and they said that is why we had all these wars. So mother explained, “Leeza, you can learn with your brother at home. I’ll teach you. We have some school books with lots of stories. ” I started to read and write, and I still remember that funny story, The Little Red Hen, about the chicken that did all the work and there was no help from anybody. Mother said that the chicken was like her. She was trying to wake us up so we would help her more. Mom was a good teacher. She was strict with us. Dad said that mom would make a very good nurse or a teacher, but he didn’t have those capabilities. But then we had so many visitors. People came to ask Dad for help writing letters and making signs. The old Svobodniki said that all books needed to be burnt because they were not from God but written by man. Dad loved books and had quite a collection, so he was always afraid, especially when Nastya Zarubina came around, that they would burn his books. When those Svobodniki came around, dad didn’t have the heart to send them away, but first he made sure he hid all the books. So it didn’t quite turn out; it was hard to learn with so much disturbance all the time. I had to understand these things.

You know, we had just started to live a little better. Dad worked in the Okanagan in the spring and made a little money. Mother would write letters to dad, a quick letter so that dad would feel better. She would say that she was managing and all the children were okay. I would run to the post office. Charlie Johnson owned the Thrums store and post office and he would already be carrying mail to the train station. He said, “You run quickly and get a stamp from the post office and then catch up to me. You are a fast runner.” His wife would sell me the stamp – three cents for a stamp, imagine all that trouble just for three cents, and then I would run after Mr. Johnson. Charlie Johnson was a returned soldier from World War I. His feet were damaged in the war so he limped quite badly. He said that he could have bought all the land in Thrums for taxes when people weren’t paying, but he didn’t because he understood what the rallies and protests were about. He supported them and gave people credit when they didn’t have any money for groceries. Each person paid him back, he said.

Everyone gathered to protest on the old road in South Slocan. There was a prophecy that a big war was coming and there was a saying, “You have to feed the dogs before you go hunting, so that they will follow you.” People believed that this meant they had to let the government know that Doukhobours would not participate in any war effort – they wouldn’t pay taxes that go toward war or teach their children about patriotism and fighting for one’s country. My family was there – my mom, dad, grandfather, grandmother, my brother Pete, and the twins, Luba and John, who were just a year old. I was nine years old. There were many other families too. Right away, though, the police came with trucks and busses and arrested many men and women, including dad and grandfather. We were left with mom and there were other kids with their moms. We didn’t know what to do. We were scared.

Then a strong group of Doukhobor supporters joined us. A friend of mine, Varyusha came. Her family had driven from Grand Forks and stayed in our house in Thrums on their way. It was like that then, friends would drop in, eat, stay overnight without question. Everyone was like family. When they arrived in South Slocan there was such jubilation. We had support and were energized. Mom was too, she was full of inspiration. She said we were doing the right thing, supporting all those taken away to prison. We started on a march, a pokhod [“campaign”] to Nelson to protest the jailing. On the way, we stayed overnight in a barn in Bonnington. I was so tired that I didn’t even notice where I slept. When I woke up I saw that I had been sleeping on rocks.

We got to Nelson the next day. I wanted to see my dad and grandfather, but the police herded us toward the zhuzhlitsa, a slag heap from the coal burning trains. Dad, grandfather and all those people arrested were sent to jail in Oakalla. We camped for three weeks next to that zhuzhlitsa. People brought food and the men set up tents for sleeping though many slept outside. For cooking, there was a big pot over a fire. The cook, Pavel Skripnik was a friend of Dad’s. He was from the Ukraine and educated as a priest, but he supported the Doukhobor cause. He was tall and thin, and so kind and caring. We would line up with our bowls and he would ladle some soup into them. Mother was respected and Paranya Voykin and Mr. Pereverzoff helped with the twins. Mr. Pereverzoff always carried Luba – she barely walked yet. I also felt responsible for my brothers and sister and was always keeping an eye out for them. There was no place to get clean and it was so dusty, but we children didn’t care about that; we ran around and played together. There were a lot of friends. People would come and go, but we stayed because dad and grandfather were in jail.

Then the police rounded us up and the women and all of us children were moved into the Salvation Army building. We were scared, remembering what happened to grandfather and dad. The people there gave us a little soup and we all slept together huddled on the floor. After about four days, police took us to Porto Rico, a logging camp up in the mountains close to Ymir. The men were there already. It’s funny I don’t remember how we got there. When you try to forget something, not all the memories come back right away.

The Maloff family at Porto Rico, October 1929.  (l-r) Elizabeth, John, Lusha, Luba and Peter. Photo courtesy Vera Malloff. 

When we first got to Porto Rico, I was wondering how we could live there. Porto Rico had been a large sawmill owned by the Doukhobors, but it was abandoned when the trees were all cut down. There was a big old barn, kitchen area and some bunk houses, but many of the buildings were starting to fall down and there were no doors or windows on them. That first night everyone slept together on the floor of what I think had been the eating area of that camp. The men had a lot of work to do so we could live there. Porto Rico was in a rainy, snowy area. It got very cold in the winter.

We were lucky. George Nazaroff prepared a room in the bunk house for his family – made it a little more weather proof, found fire wood, built bunk beds; but he gave the space to mom because he respected our dad a lot and since dad wasn’t there for us, he helped us out. There was a pot belly stove in our room – the police brought us some stoves. My brother Pete and I slept together on one bunk, just on the boards, and mom with the babies on another, so they would keep warmer, but we still woke up to frost on our blankets. The men did the cooking and everyone shared. Mom would go to the kitchen and bring back some soup for us. But there wasn’t much.

George Nazaroff organized a school. Though he wasn’t trained to teach, he became the teacher. And he was good. Every morning, he would sit everyone down and make sure everyone would be very quiet and listen. There were lots of children, but he controlled everyone and made sure we were peaceful. He was a peaceful guy himself and it didn’t matter how disturbed everyone was, he was calm. We didn’t have books, paper or pencils, so we learned our prayers and sang psalms and songs. Our homework was to memorize a prayer for the next day.

I remember Mr. Nazaroff and his family well. He was a heavier man and his wife was a small, thin woman. His daughter, Grace – Hrunya, was two years older than me, but her hair was still in braids like mine, with hair a little darker than my blond. Later we would talk about what happened and she reminded me how their dad helped us out and gave us their room. Sam – Syomka was the same age as me and boy, was he rambunctious and he liked to tease. We each had a different prayer or song to remember and he would often copy me and memorize what I was supposed to memorize, just for a trick. Mary, the youngest was a baby.

We came to Porto Rico at the end of September and at first it was fairly warm. We played tag and the older boys built a raft that they used to cross the creek, pushing it back and forth with long poles. Us girls stood on the bank and watched. It seemed like so much fun. Sometimes they invited us to stand on the raft and take a trip across the creek. I only got a chance to do that once. I had to help mom with the twins. We had a picture taken there. Mom got all of us organized and sitting down on a bench. The photographer, Mike Voykin was just learning how to use the camera, so we would be sitting there and he would say, “Just a minute, I have to fix something.” It was hard to keep the twins still, but finally he took the picture.

At first we were allowed visitors. Friends and relatives came all the way from Grand Forks. They brought us food and we greeted them with such joy. Then the police told us that we couldn’t have any more company. They had set up a blockade on the road to the camp with policemen stopping everybody. However, my Uncle Nick got through somehow. He asked everyone he knew in Ootishenia to give food, blankets, clothing or he said that “they will all perish.” So he filled his truck up with a huge load and came. Everyone was surprised he got through the police blockade. He teased us “Here you are you devils. Eat or you will perish like rats.” He was kind hearted, but liked to tease. He had to leave quickly though or he wouldn’t be able to get back out. I think that grandmother left with him, because after he left, she was gone too.

And then the snow came. There was so much snow it almost piled up to the roofs. The nights were so cold and long. Mom would go to the kitchen and bring us some food and we ate huddled together. Maybe people got together in the evenings, I don’t know, we stayed in our room. Luba and John were still young so we couldn’t leave them alone.

We got through that winter, and then people began to be allowed to leave. My mother’s brother, John Hoodicoff came to pick us up and we came home. There was still a lot of snow in Porto Rico when we left, but in Thrums it was early spring. It was already planting time. Mom said we had to plant a garden so that we would have food. Dad came home later in that spring.

I heard that they found three graves by the logging camp and some people know who died, but I was a child, nine years old and I don’t remember that. What happened to me is that I always tried to block that life out, but gradually it is coming back. The main thing is that I pulled through everything.

I often asked Dad why we had to have such a hard life, why he had to be so outspoken all the time and why he had go to jail. As a child, he told me that we could have had an easier life, but he spoke out against war so there wouldn’t be any cripples, no orphans, so that children would have their dads, that there must be a better way. But there was a price to pay.


This is my mother’s story. My mother, Elizabeth, is now in her nineties. The family did not know about her Porto Rico internment until recently when we found pictures of the men, women and children camped in Nelson and she began to tell us what happened when she was nine years old. In the eighty years that have passed, the reasons for the protests of the time have become blurred and the internment in the isolated, barely habitable logging camp, Porto Rico is something that few remember and many would rather forget.

Little is known about the internment of Doukhobor men, women and children in Porto Rico, so wishing to learn more I investigated the local newspapers of the time. The headline of a local newspaper, Rossland Miner of September 5, 1929 read “DOUKHOBORS JAILED WHEN TAKE TO NUDE [sic]” The reporter gave a description of arrests made August 30 of Doukhobors in South Slocan. The situation began with the police demanding the Doukhobors deliver four men who had previously “paraded nude” along the highway in South Slocan, but quickly became a struggle as the arrests were made of one hundred twenty eight Doukhobor men and women. The police officers were previously prepared.

Starting from Nelson in cars and busses of all descriptions commandeered for the purpose, the 60 special constables under the leadership of six provincial police officers drove quickly out to a point around a bend in the road about 100 yards from the South Slocan tennis courts where the fanatics were encamped. There they stopped while Inspector Cruikshank and other officers went on ahead to make the arrest of the four Doukhobors charged with indecent exposure. Sergeant Gammon explained (to the special police force) that they were required to stop any attempt made by the fanatics to prevent the arrest of their fellows and to arrest any of the Doukhobors who were stripped or started to strip. They were to arm themselves with switches and use them on any stripped members of the sect or those who showed fight….

Plying their switches viciously and dragging screaming Doukhoburs along the ground, the police officers went to work, to bring the crowd over to waiting busses, cars and trucks….

After about an hour all the Doukhobors were herded over to the trucks and nobody was left on the former camping site but some of the younger women most of whom did not disrobe, with the children.”

Subsequently the September 12, 1929 Rossland Miner headlines were:

“OKALLA [sic] JAIL TO BE FILLED WITH DOUKS. One Hundred and four were given six months for indecent exposure.” The protesters were tried five at a time with the judge saying, ‘I feel that it is time you people had a lesson.’ Speaking through an interpreter, he continued,’ Tell them they have had a fair trial….They will receive the full term imposed by the act for this offense, six months with hard labour.’….When one man protested that he was not satisfied with the trial, the magistrate commented ‘I feel it is a waste of time to explain matters to you.’ ”

It is known that some of the Svobodniki Doukhobor sect used nudity to attract attention to their message, declaring “If you will take everything from us, and do not let us live by our beliefs, then take our clothes also. We will stand before you naked in the world, but solid in our values.” Their message was often lost when the nudity was sensationalized and it became a way to incarcerate many, and to silence the protests. The effect of this nudity and subsequent imprisonment traumatized not only the children, men and women who survived Porto Rico , and the prisoners, who spent that winter in the infamous Oakalla jail doing time with hard labour, and but also suppressed the voices of a generation of Doukhobors like my mother or conversely helped create a radical movement of Svobodniki Doukhobors that over the next few years proceeded to get more extreme in their reactions to government repression.

Freedomite camp on the outskirts of Nelson, British Columbia, September 1929. Note the zhuzhlitsa (slag pile) in the background. Photo courtesy Vera Maloff.



Few published accounts exist of the events which led to the arrest and imprisonment of 120 Svobodniki (“Freedomite” or “Sons of Freedom”) Doukhobors at Oakalla Prison and the internment of 236 of their brethren at Porto Rico in 1929. The following is a brief summary of those events, compiled from newspaper and other archival sources.

In the late 1920’s, a number ofFreedomitefamilies, evicted from their homes in Brilliant, Glade, and elsewhere in the Kootenays by the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood, established a squatter camp on the edge of Thrums, an Independent Doukhobor settlement. On August 29, 1929, 356 of them staged a march to protest the recent jailing of Paul Vatkin for what they considered to be false arrest on charges of arson and, at the same time, took the opportunity to speak out against public education that promoted militarism and capitalism. They were joined by a number of Independent Doukhobors sympathetic to their cause.

When the protesters reached South Slocan, they were confronted by six provincial police officers and 60 special constables, who arrived there from Nelson to make the arrest of four of their brethren charged with indecent exposure. In the disruption that followed, a number of the protesters publicly disrobed. The police arrested 112 protesters and transported them by truck to the provincial prison in Nelson. On September 7, 1929, 104 of the adults were convicted of indecent exposure and sentenced to six months imprisonment. On September 11, 1929, they boarded a special train which transported them to Essondale near New Westminster, from which they were taken by bus to Oakalla Prison to serve their sentences. Eight children arrested with their parents were, because of being under age, committed to the care of the Superintendent of Neglected Children and placed in institutional shelters in Vancouver.

In the meantime, the remaining 244 Freedomiteswho had not been arrested at South Slocan marched on to Nelson to protest the jailing of their brethren. When they arrived there on August 30, 1929, they were escorted by provincial police to the railway tracks on the southern outskirts of the city, where they established a makeshift tent camp near a slag heap (zhuzhlitsa) from the coal burning trains. They remained there for three weeks.

On September 21, 1929, provincial police arrived at the Zhuzhlitsa camp and ordered the Freedomitesto move. They refused to do so, claiming that they had no homes to go to. A physical clash occurred when eight of the Freedomite leaders, whom the police first took in hand, resisted arrest. After these men were subdued and arrested, they were taken to the provincial prison in Nelson; then on September 26, 1929, they were convicted of obstruction of justice and sentenced to hard labour at Oakalla Prison.  The remaining 200 Freedomite adults were confined, without arrest, in the provincial prison while 36 of their children were taken to the Salvation Army barracks; then on September 25, 1929, all 236 were transported by provincial police in busses and trucks to Porto Rico.

Porto Rico was a former Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood lumber camp situated some 15 miles south of Nelson. It had been abandoned in 1926 after it had been logged out and a forest fire destroyed the remaining timber stands. Following the mass arrests and confinements in Nelson, Doukhobor leader Peter Petrovich Verigin “offered” the camp to provincial authorities as a permanent habitat for the landless Freedomites. Provincial authorities seized the opportunity to forcibly confine the large group of radicals at the camp, without trial. Hence, it became an internment camp.

When the Freedomites arrived at the camp, they picked out living quarters from among the camp buildings, which consisted of a large sawmill, a big barn, kitchen area and several bunk houses. The majority of the buildings were windowless and doorless, and the men immediately set to work to repair their future homes to protect them against the ongoing winter, and to build basic furniture. The Freedomites eventually settled into life at the isolated, barely habitable camp.  The men did the cooking and cutting lumber for firewood, while the women cleaned and looked after the children. Everything was shared.  The provincial government supplied pot bellied stoves, along with some basic rations; however, there was a general shortage of food and supplies. These privations were alleviated, at least in part, by the supply of food, blankets and clothing by Independent and Community Doukhobors sympathetic to their plight. The provincial police maintained a blockade at the entrance to control access to and from the camp.

Despite the harsh conditions, hundreds of radical Doukhobors from Saskatchewan, Alberta and the United States voluntarily drifted into the camp, in a show of solidarity with the internees, so that by November 24, 1929, the number of Freedomites at Porto Rico had swelled to 537 persons. 

The following year, on June 27, 1930, the Freedomites forcibly confined at Porto Rico were released from the camp and permitted to make their way, under police escort, through Nelson, back to their former homes in Thrums, Brilliant, Glade and elsewhere. However, 117 of the Freedomites who voluntarily arrived at Porto Rico remained there until May 3, 1932, when they finally abandoned the camp to stage a protest march in Nelson.

Elizabeth P. Maloff’s autobiographical story, as recorded by her daughter Vera, recalls these events from the perspective of a nine-year old Doukhobor girl. Her father, Peter N. Maloff, was a prominent Independent Doukhobor (and later a historian and self-styled philosopher of the movement) who sympathized with the Freedomite stance on public education and taxes. Inspired by their energy and fervour, the Maloff family joined one of the Freedomite protests against militarism and capitalism in 1929. When they were met by police at South Slocan, Elizabeth’s grandfather was one of the protestors arrested for indecent exposure and sentenced to Oakalla prison. When the rest of the family marched to Nelson and encamped there, her father was one of the leaders arrested for obstruction of justice and sentenced to Oakalla prison. Elizabeth, her mother, grandmother, and three young siblings, along with 236 others, were first incarcerated, without arrest, in Nelson provincial prison, then interned, without trial, at Porto Rico. Her narrative is one of the few first-person accounts which exists about this obscure and little-known chapter of Doukhobor history, making it a valuable addition to our knowledge of the period.

The story of Porto Rico is also important from a broader Canadian perspective. If “internment” is defined as the confinement of people, commonly in large groups, without arrest or trial, for preventative or political reasons (as opposed to “imprisonment” which is confinement as punishment for a crime), then there can be little dispute that the Sons of Freedom Doukhobors at Porto Rico, British Columbia in 1929 were subjected to interment at the hands of the Canadian state. Canadian history is replete with examples of internment: during the First and Second World Wars, internment camps were established on Canadian soil for enemy prisons of war, as well as for civilian enemy aliens, including Austro-Hungarian immigrants in 1916-1918, Italian nationals in 1940-1945, Japanese nationals in 1942-1945, and even Canadian citizens and Jewish citizens of England considered to be ‘fascist’ or ‘disloyal’. What is remarkable, however, is that virtually every Canadian example of internment took place during wartime. The story of the Sons of Freedom Doukhobors at Porto Rico, in sharp contrast, is one of the only occurrences of civilian internment during peacetime in modern Canadian history.

For a comprehensive listing of Freedomite Doukhobors arrested and incarcerated as a result of the 1929 protest march, see: Index of Sons of Freedom Inmates at Oakalla Prison Farm, Burnaby by Steve Lapshinoff. For an inventory of Freedomites forcibly interned (along with those voluntarily encamped) at Porto Rico in 1929-1930, see: Index of Sons of Freedom Camped at Porto Rico by Steve Lapshinoff. For a list of Freedomite burials at Porto Rico see: Porto Rico Doukhobor Cemetery by Lawrna Myers and Nick Kootnikoff.


View Porto Rico in a larger map

On January 18, 2013, Vera Maloff received a First Place award in the category of Adult Creative Non-Fiction for her story, Porto Rico at the 2012 Kootenay Literary Competition held at Nelson, British Columbia. The competition is hosted by the Kootenay Writers Society, a non-profit society dedicated to promoting, supporting and encouraging all writers in the Kootenay region of British Columbia. Vera’s work was published in the KLC anthology, Revolution.

Story of a Spiritual Upheaval

by Vasily Nikolayevich Pozdnyakov

The following article is reproduced from the English translation of Doukhobor Vasily Nikolayevich Pozdnyakov’s (1869-1921) controversial narrative, “Story of a Spiritual Upheaval” (Peace Collection of Swarthmore College: Swarthmore Pennsylvania, 1908). Exiled to Siberia from 1896 to 1905 for refusing to bear arms, Pozdnyakov later left the Doukhobor Community disillusioned with its leadership. In stark, eloquent detail, Pozdnyakov recounts the persecutions and spiritual upheaval of the Doukhobors in the Caucasus and Canada under the leadership of Peter “Lordly” Verigin. Translated by Alexander M. Slowinski.


In the second half of the nineteenth century the Doukhobors – numbering about twenty thousand people – were living in the Caucasus in the provinces of Elizavetpol, Tiflis, and Kars. In each province they formed one separate settlement of several neighbouring villages. 

Vasily Verigin – the father of Peter Verigin, the present leader of the Canadian Doukhobors – was living in the village Slavyanka, province of Elizavetpol, and was reported among the Doukhobors to be very rich. He was totally illiterate – as almost all the Doukhobors were – and a man of harsh temper. Being once elected Elder of his village, he showed himself a real despot. He used to walk about in the village with a whip and to give lashes for the least disorder or disrespect. His fellow countrymen were often sorry for having elected for themselves such a severe commander, and they were glad when the term of his service ended. He had seven sons and two daughters. All his sons were tall and possessed a remarkable strength; they were also known to be very proud and ambitious. 

Being rich the Verigins could not find their equals among the simply living Doukhobors and had to look for friends elsewhere. The country near Slavyanka is inhabited by many Tartars, Mohammedans, known as desperadoes and robbers. Many of them are polygamists and particularly the nobility. Much of the land belongs to their petty Princes, and the peasants are generally very dependent from the landlords and sharply treated by them. The Verigins were on best terms with the Tartar Princes; they visited frequently each other and this acquaintance was not without influence on them. 

The four elder sons of Verigin were also illiterate and were spending most of their time in the mountains, looking after the cattle. There they made famous themselves by intrepidity and even the Tartars feared them. They got later their share of the inheritance and were living separately. 

The three younger sons were called: Peter, Vasily and Grigory; I will have to mention them afterwards. Unlike their elder brothers they were learning at home – there were no schools in the Doukhoborian villages – but, as soon as they could read and write a little, their father decided that they have learned enough and discharged the teacher. It was resolved that they will be merchants and carry on the trade in the dry goods store their father set up for them. But they did not show any ability in trade and the business was going on badly. In fact, they were living an easy and merry life and spending more money than they could work out, so that the patrimonial fortune was gradually wasting away. 


The Doukhobors possessed from long ago a charitable institution called the Orphan House, which was, however, more a centre of spiritual and common activity of the Doukhobors than an asylum, as the orphans and the old, helpless people found usually refuge in their native village. The Orphan House was situated in the Doukhoborian settlement of the province of Tiflis, in the village Goreloye, district of Akhalkalaki, and owned much property and about half a million rubles in money which was kept in the Orphan House itself. 

Lukeria Kalmykova

The post of the manager of the Orphan House was very influential and honourable; in fact, the manager of the Orphan House was the leader of all the Doukhobors. At that time the manager was a woman, a middle- aged widow, Lukeria Kalmykov. She was clever and had a certain kind of good nature, for which she was beloved by everybody who knew her. Her management was so intelligent and peaceful that the Doukhobors remember her until now with best feeling. 

Once she came to Slavyanka where the Verigins were living. Here she got acquainted with Peter Verigin –  who was about twenty years old then and married already – and proposed to him to be her helper in the Orphan House. He consented willingly and went away with her, leaving his wife and a baby at home. 

Nobody knew exactly why Peter Verigin was taken to the Orphan House. He had no definite occupation as all the others employed in the Orphan House had; but was seen always together with the woman-manager when she was going about and giving orders. 

So passed [a] few years. In 1886 Lukeria Kalmykov died. Her death was quite unexpected, and the first few weeks that followed the affairs were at a dead set and the successor’s question was not raised decidedly yet. The post of the manager of the Orphan House was usually hereditary. The late woman-manager had no children, but she had a brother; she did not name her successor, however, and it was unknown who will replace her. 

At that time Peter Verigin introduced himself to public notice. During the funeral ceremony already he was giving orders as if he was the manager, which displeased much the relatives of the late woman-manager and all the persons employed in the Orphan House, he did not enjoy their sympathy during all the time of his stay there. Many Doukhobors, seeing how boldly he was commanding, began to suppose that he will be the manager. They were saying that probably he was taken to the Orphan House, because the late woman- manager wanted him to be her successor . Some were approaching him and inquiring about the matter, but he was reserved and was not answering frankly. At the same time he was behaving mysteriously and telling prophetically to the people that “the time of the second advent of Christ is coming, and everybody ought to pray to God that He giveth him the understanding to recognize Christ”. This prediction was not quite unexpected to the Doukhobors, as it was their common belief long since that Christ is living secretly among them, and they were only waiting for His appearance.

Verigin’s words were spreading rapidly and interpreted differently. Very soon a party of friends was formed around him and they suggested to the people that he himself is the Christ. Some of them were saying, they had been told by the late woman-manager that Verigin shall judge all the universe; others had seen him doing miracles; and an old man was relating that the night of Verigin’s birth he had seen a star falling on the house of the Verigins and dispersing; he knew that Christ had been born, but ought to be silent; but now it is time to reveal it. The old man is alive yet, now in Canada, and still relating to the Doukhobors there about that star that fell upon the house. 


The fame of Verigin was growing rapidly and very soon all the Doukhobors were divided into two parties: the Large party, much more numerous, which wanted Verigin to be the manager of the Orphan House; and the Small, opposition party, with all the former familiars of the late woman-manager at the head. 

The first public acknowledgement of Verigin was in our village Bogdanovka, not far away from Goreloye, where the Orphan House was. I was seventeen years old then and remember everything very well. It has been a custom among the Doukhobors to celebrate once a year a three day’ feast in each village at a different time. Friends and relatives were coming usually in great number to the village where the feast was. In our village the feast was falling on the New Year. Soon after the woman-manager’s death came the time of our feast, and our elders sent their invitation to the Orphan House and especially to Verigin. The next day he came in the company of [a] few men of his party. They were all a little intoxicated and merry – the Doukhobors were drinking at that time yet – but Verigin was keeping separately, however. He was very active, but reserved, and looked as if he was superior to others. 

The guests were entertained in each house, and passing from one house to another Verigin was playing many jokes, which seemed, however, unusual and mysterious to many. His assistants were saying to the people that he is telling parables. 

In one house Verigin ordered his men to turn their fur coats inside out, and, having them on the hair upwards, to walk about in the village. It was executed immediately. The elders were discussing this parable and explaining it differently. Some were saying that the parable is directed against the men of the Small party, and Verigin wants to show by it that he can turn them like a fur coat and bring them forcibly under his subjection. Others were saying that he shall judge all the universe and establish a new life in a new form.

In another house, Verigin approached a very religious old man and inquired of him loudly: how would he act if he had to demolish an old house; would he begin from the roof or the walls. The old man got troubled with this unexpected question and, falling at Verigin’s feet, begged him to explain it. This was the first bow to the ground to Verigin. He did not answer the old man’s question, but raised him; and the old man, while rising, kissed Verigin’s hand. 

After that Verigin continued to be so mysterious all the day long, and everybody whom he was addressing was kissing his hand. He had much success with us, and departed the next day. Our villagers were very satisfied that they were the first to recognize Christ, and the rumour about this event spread rapidly in all the villages. 

The leaders of the Small party, seeing no possibility to resist the majority and being not able to reconcile themselves with the idea of Verigin’s supremacy, were compelled to use an extreme measure. They reported to the authorities that Verigin is giving himself out for Christ and trying to take possession of the property left by the late woman-manager; at the same time they put forward her brother as the right heir of the Orphan House and all its property. This was not true, because the property was really common, and not personal; but no legal proof of it existed and, before the law, Lukeria Kalmykov’s brother was the right heir indeed. Thus the police was warned and ready to arrest Verigin at the first cause. 

Six weeks after the death of Lukeria Kalmykov in the village Goreloye where the Orphan House was, a commemoration for the dead was taking place. Many people were present, both Doukhobors and strangers. After the prayers had been said and all the Doukhobors – according to the custom – had dined, all the people gathered in one place. Then Verigin came out and placed himself before the people, as a chief in expectation of a bow, and all the Doukhobors, with the exception of the Small party, fell to the ground and bowed to him. This general bow was the confirmation of Verigin in the post sanctified by the Doukhoborian ancestors. From that time he has gained a particular greatness in the opinion of the Doukhobors, and his influence and power over them have been immense. 

But the triumph of Verigin was soon disturbed. The police, who were also there, arrested him. He was ordered at first to go to his native village, Slavyanka and live there, but he refused; he was put into prison then and banished afterwards to the very North of Russia, for a term of five years.


After the arrest of Verigin the Large party declared to the authorities that the Orphan House with all its property belongs to the Doukhoborian community and that they want to have Verigin for manager. But the Small party testified differently, and thus the affair of the Orphan House went over to the court. Both parties were carrying on their case, and at the same time a personal struggle between them was going on. Their enmity was bitter, and was constantly rising. The Doukhobors, forming one compact body before, were split into two hostile parties now. 

Doukhobor Leader Peter “Lordly” Verigin.

Though in exile, Verigin did not discontinue to direct the affairs of his party through his intimates which were constantly coming from the Caucasus to see him. He advised his party at first to take possession of the Orphan House by force; but the Small party got apprised of it and reported it to the authorities, who despatched a detachment of soldiers to protect the Orphan House and subdue the Large party. Then he ordered to break off all relations with the Small party; the Large party should not tolerate anyone who does not acknowledge him. Thus, if anybody belonging to the Large party has a wife which sympathizes with the Small party, he ought to turn her out of the house, even if she had children, let her go to the Small party; and a wife of a husband belonging to the Small party, if she sympathizes with the Large party, ought to leave her husband and come to the Large party. 

The Large party followed Verigin’s order, and thus many families were separated and hundreds of children were left without attendance. The authorities had to issue an order. They ordered the husbands to give allowances to their wives they had turned out; and those wives that had run away from their husbands were installed in their homes again, and forced to provide for their children. 

The cause of the Large party in the court was going on badly. The party had little money to carry it on. All the common money was in the hands of the Small party which was regardless of expenses and was giving considerable bribes. The process was lingering on for a long time and, finally, when was evident that the cause is lost, Verigin ordered his party to discontinue it.

Thus the Orphan House was left with the Small party, but did not become a personal property, however; it is still the common good of a comparatively small party of Doukhobors. 


At that time Verigin was living in the town of Shenkursk, in the province of Archangel. His life in exile was not hard at all. He had plenty of money, rented good apartments, and was living in an agreeable company. When he was taking a drive, in the company of some girls of his acquaintance, in a sledge drawn by three ambling Caucasian stallions – a present of the Doukhobors – he produced no little sensation in the town. In the meantime he was writing to the Doukhobors in the Caucasus some instructive letters and transmitting his orders through his intimates. He proposed to himself to establish a common fund of one hundred thousand rubles, by means of a collection among the Doukhobors, and determined that every man ought to give half of the amount of money he possesses. His intimates, who were returning home after an interview with him, were telling the Doukhobors that “the way to the Kingdom of God is narrow and difficult and planted with thorns, but there are fields of eternal quietude at the end of it, and nobody should regret his perishable acquisition, but give it for the glory of God”. In that manner more than the acquired sum was collected, but this money did not form a permanent fund as the Doukhobors supposed, but was spent for different needs of the direction. 

Verigin’s intimates were telling the Doukhobors to “pray to God with awe and expect at every moment the coming of Verigin, and the time when he will clear all the Doukhobors and separate the believers from the unbelievers; and grant to the believers an everlasting joy and condemn he unbelievers to destruction”. The Doukhobors  were gathering early in the morning to pray to God, then they separated for their daily work, and met again together for the evening prayers; and yet, at home, everyone vas kneeling down and praying to God , with tears in the eyes, to receive the reward promised by Verigin. 

Verigin was supposing that after the expiration of his exile’s term he will be let free, and planned to establish his residence further from the Small Party in the village Terpeniye in the province of Kars. By his advice, his parents and two of his younger brothers, Vasily and Gregory, removed here. A large house was built for them, and they were receiving by free – gifts from the Doukhobors everything they needed. Vasily Verigin, junior, was leading the Doukhobors in the province of Kars and absolutely commanding them. He was driving about the Doukhoborian villages in the company of a singing chorus – of girls mostly – and everywhere he came he found an entertainment ready. 

At that time John Konkin, Peter Verigin’s brother-in-law – who had also a great influence over the Doukhobors – just arrived from Shenkursk and reported that Verigin is advising to go out in the fields by night and pray to God over there; and particularly not to miss the day-break, because God is distributing the “talents” (spiritual gifts) then. Vasily Verigin assembled a still greater number of young people then, and they were rambling the whole night long in the fields – and nothing good resulted.


After the five years term of Peter Verigin’s exile expired, the Government added him five years more yet. At that time he became acquainted with the teachings of Count Tolstoy, and they had a great influence over him, though, as it appears, somewhat superficial. He got convinced of the truth of the new ideas, but he did not experience them and work out practically; and nevertheless he transmitted them incautiously to the Doukhobors, and not as an ideal which ought to be approached in the bounds of forces and possibility of everyone, but as a truth, according to which the Doukhobors can and ought to regulate their life directly. 

After his acquaintance with the new ideas, Verigin restrained himself somewhat in his private life and his letters to the Doukhobors got another sway. Beginning with 1893 and during the few following years he instructed the Doukhobors in the true Christian life. He advised them to cease to smoke and drink wine, and also not to eat meat because the men should not deprive of life any being. Further he recommended chastity for perfection’s sake; the unmarried should not marry, and those that are married already should live as brothers and sisters. “The Doukhobors ought to purify themselves,” he was saying, “and be ready to meet Christ as the five wise virgins of the evangelical parable had been.” 

The teachings of Verigin called forth a very strong movement among the Doukhobors of the Large party. They were taking everything he was advising close to heart and were thinking themselves obliged to execute it; but the chastity ideal was, generally, not within their reach, and caused the dividing of the Large party into two approximately equal parties. One party renounced Verigin and all his teachings entirely, and the members of this party, for the use of meat for food, fell under the denomination of myasniki (“Fleshers”). The other party (postniki or “Fasters”) remained true to Verigin, left the smoking and drinking off, ceased to eat meat, and exerted herself to attain the ideal of chastity. This ideal did not prove to be practical, however,  and even drove some to the crime of infanticide, so that most of the married people gave it finally up; but the young people were containing themselves and not marrying, and ready to meet Christ, according to Verigin’s saying. 

The envoys coming from Shenkursk were still bringing the Doukhobors some more of the new teachings they never had heard before. They were lying: “The Doukhobors are an elected and true Christian people and should not work physically but spiritually. They should leave their perishable acquisition and go to preach the Gospel; and all the domestic animals should be let free, because everything alive ought to have liberty; and the money which is Caesar’s should be returned to Caesar. The men are perverting their nature by wearing garments; they should go naked, as the first men, Adam and Eve, did, and their food should be fruits, vegetables, and water only. Verigin was trying himself to eat the moss on which the reindeer is feeding and he found it tasty.” 

Finally Verigin advised the Doukhobors to renounce the military service and to burn all the arms they have.


In 1895 almost all the Doukhobors of the Verigin’s party decided to refuse to do the military service. The number of those that were then in actual service was not large – about threescore only – but they all gave up their arms. For this bold, action they were put into prison, judged by military court, and condemned o penal battalions. Many of them were ready to die, but instead of death lingering tortures were awaiting them.

From the very first day the bloody chastisement commenced. They were flogged with thorny rods, whose thorns were remaining in the flesh, and thrown in a cold and dark cell afterwards. After [a] few days they were requested again to do the service, and for the refusal flogged again. And so it was going on and no end was seen. Besides they were always hungry, because they were eating no meat and were given too little bread. They were physically exhausted; many were sick; but the doctor was refusing to admit them in the hospital, unless they would agree to eat meat. The chaplain was requiring the performance of the Orthodox rites, and they were driven to the church by fists and musket butt ends. Their position was unbearable; so that those few of them which were acting not by their own conviction, but only by Verigin’s advice, gave it up, but the majority was convinced and held out. 

Finally, after one year of suffering – during which they were either wielding somewhat or persisting – they were condemned to deportation to Siberia, to the province of Yakutsk, for eighteen years. 

At the same time when the Doukhobors which were in actual service were refusing to do their duty, those Doukhobors which were in reserve and living in the villages were giving back their militia certificates. The 29th of June – the Saint Peter’s and Paul’s day – was fixed for the burning of arms in all the Doukhoborian villages. 

The Government began to persecute the Doukhobors and particularly severely in the province of Tiflis. The Governor of that province, being informed by the Small party that the Verigin’s party is planning something about arms, came on the above mentioned day, appointed for the burning of arms, to the village Goreloye, to the Orphan House – the headquarters of the Small party – and ordered to all the householders of the Doukhoborian villages in the neighbourhood to gather on the following day in the village Bogdanovka. But in the night before the holiday already all the arms – a wagon load from each village – were burned and melted down in a distant place, and in the morning of the 30th of the month about two thousand Doukhobors gathered for the prayer there. The Governor sent a messenger with an order for the Doukhobors to come to Bogdanovka immediately, but they answered that they will come only after the prayer will be ended. Then a detachment of mounted Cossacks was sent to fetch them. Without any warning they fell upon the Doukhobors and beat them – both men and women – unmercifully with their whips, and drove them afterwards to Bogdanovka.

In the meantime the Governor came to Bogdanovka, where all the Doukhobors loyal to the Government were gathered already, and a small part of those of the Verigin’s party which were not attending the prayer. The Governor greeted the Doukhobors of the Small party and the “Fleshers” and asked those of the Verigin’s party if they will obey the government as the Small party does. They answered that they will – if the Government’s orders will not disagree with their conscience, but they will not – if they will disagree. The Governor got furious and cried out: “Cossacks on you! I will make you obedient by force!” Then a young Doukhobor approached him and gave him back his militia certificate. The Governor snatched out a stick from the hands of the village Elder , who was standing by him, and began to beat the Doukhobor himself. Other Doukhobors commenced then to give up their certificates also. The Governor was not taking them, and they were put on the ground before him. He ordered to beat to arms, and the Cossacks who escorted him appeared instantly. By his order they dismounted and whipped the rebellious Doukhobors, together and singly, till the blood came. After that the Doukhobors were driven away to their homes and the Governor departed. 

The next morning the Cossacks came again and the punishment continued. They quartered in our village over a fortnight and were riding about the villages, plundering everywhere and beating everybody who fell into their hands. In one night, by the permission of their commander, they violated several women, among whom was a girl of sixteen. I was given, from the very beginning, three hundred lashes with Cossacks’ whips, and kept in a corn loft afterwards, under arrest, for twenty days. No help was given to me and only bread and water. Finally the Cossacks went away and soldiers of infantry replaced them. They behaved much better and the people, who fled in all directions, began to return home. 

Shortly after, all of us, Doukhobors of the province of Tiflis – over four thousand people – were transplanted to the districts of Gori, Tionety, Doushet, and Signakh, of the same province, and settled in Georgian and Ossetian villages, by [a] few families in each village. As very little time for preparations was granted, only few succeeded to sell something; most of the the property was abandoned or given away to neighbours. Several men – and I was among them – were requested for a monthly repetition of the military service, and, in consequence of their refusal, put into prison for two years, and deported afterwards to Siberia, to the province of Yakutsk.

Burning of Arms by the Doukhobors in Russia on June 29, 1895.  Painting by Terry McLean.

The Doukhobors of the Verigin’s party, who were living in the provinces of Elizavetpol and Kars, were also persecuted, but not so severely, and were not transplanted, as the Doukhobors of the province of Tiflis.

About the same time Verigin was removed from the province of Archangel to Siberia, to the village Obdorsk, in the province of Tobolsk. A vigilant watch was kept there upon him and, after the expiration of his second exile’s term, five years more yet were added to him again.


The total number of Doukhobors condemned to deportation to Siberia was about hundred and fifty. They were sent there in a few separate parties, under the escort of soldiers. The first party – numbering about thirty men – started from the Caucasus in the autumn 1896, but arrived to Yakutsk in September of the following year only, because the TransSiberian railroad was in construction yet and they had to walk most of the way. The Governor of the province of Yakutsk fixed their dwelling place in Ust Notora – a very scarcely inhabited wooded country about six hundred versts southeast from the town of Yakutsk – and appointed a police agent to escort them there. As on the greater part of the way there were no roads at all, the journey was made on ox-back at first, and on a boat afterwards, down the river Aldan. Finally they reached the mouth of the river Notora, where the place of their settlement was fixed. Not a single man was seen on the bank, and an empty hut deserted by the Yakuts was only standing. The police agent pointed it out and said that the Doukhobors ought to live there, and have no right to absent themselves nowhere, without a special permission; and, should it be otherwise, they will be severely punished. After that he departed, leaving them alone. 

Group of Doukhobor Exiles in Yakutsk, Siberia, circa 1904

The place where the hut was standing was quite dull. The nearest neighbours were Yakuts and Tunguses, living with their families some twenty or thirty versts one from another. The hut which the Doukhobors occupied was a poor wooden structure with earthen floor and ice slabs in the window openings in the winter. The Doukhobors had bought on the way from Yakutsk some provisions and warm, winter clothes, but having not enough money, they could not provide themselves sufficiently for the long Siberian winter . 

Soon the winter began and it was so cold in the hut, in spite of the heating, that all the walls get covered with ice inside. It was too cold to sleep, for want of warm clothes, and the Doukhobors had to sleep by turns. While some were sleeping, covering themselves with all the warm clothes, the rest had to walk in the hut to keep warm. Besides they had nothing to make light with and were in a total darkness during all the long evenings. Their situation was very distressing indeed. 

So went on the first few months of the winter and they grew short of provisions; but they could not look for work and earn some money, because they had no right to absent. A policeman was coming every month to verify them, and the Yakuts were ordered to watch them. Then they wrote a petition to the Governor, asking him permission to earn their living elsewhere, and forwarded it with the policeman. But very little provisions were left already, and the Governor’s answer could not come before two months, so that they were obliged to absent secretly. They chose among themselves some of the strongest men, provided them with the best clothes, and those men started on the journey to the nearest village – two hundred versts away. The weather was intensely cold at that time and very foggy – as it usually happens there at hard frost. The snow was deep the travellers did not know the road, so that the way was extremely hard to them, and they were quite exhausted when they reached village. Happily, they found some work there, and in a few weeks already they were able to help their comrades in Ust Notora. Shortly afterward the Governor’s permission to work in that village was obtained, and arbitrary absentation went off with impunity. 

When the summer came, one party yet of the Doukhobors arrived. Everyone went to work; some in the above mentioned village, and the rest on their own land in Ust Notora. They began to build a large house, provided themselves with [a] few horses and cows, and plowed the land, making it ready for the next spring’s sowing.


When the deportation to Siberia was announced to the Doukhobors many of the wives were willing to share the exile with their husbands, but they were dissuaded by them because the Doukhobors did not know then what kind of life is awaiting them in Siberia. But in the summer 1898 when the Siberian Doukhobors learned that the Caucasian Doukhobors are preparing to emigrate to Canada, they decided to advise their wives to come to them. It was resolved that somebody ought to go to Obdorsk and inquire Verigin’s opinion about this project, and proceed to Caucasus afterwards, and personally confer about the matter there. The task was not an easy one, because there was no permission of the Government for this excursion, of course, and it ought to be done quite secretly. In case of apprehension, a solitary deportation to a remote part of Siberia could be expected. 

According to the comrades’ desire, I had to go. It took me two months to make the journey to Obdorsk. I travelled partly by rail, but mostly by steamer and boat on the large Siberian rivers Lena and Ob, and near one thousand versts I made on foot. On the way, I got acquainted with travelling companion, a workman, who had a temporary passport which he did not need any more. He gave it to me, and it was very useful to afterwards. 

Trans-Siberian Railway, circa 1890’s. Photo by John Foster Fraser.

Finally, one day, late in the evening, our steamer neared Obdorsk, and from the steamer yet, I saw Verigin who was standing on the illuminated bank side. I came down from the steamer and, approaching Verigin, and intimated him with a glance. He understood me and we went away, a little further from the people. I said who I was and what was the purpose of the visit, and we passed almost the whole night in conversation together. Verigin approved our intention to take our wives to Siberia, and, when I told him about the bad consequences of the abstinence from marriage, he got thoughtful, and said afterwards, “Transmit my words to the Doukhobors, that they can marry now.” 

The next day I had to keep away from Verigin, because he was strictly watched and no Doukhobor was allowed to see him. I was walking on the bank side and pretending to deal in fish. 

At night we met again and passed it in the field in a conversation about life. He was telling me: “The term of my exile is ending soon. I will take my wife and my son and come to Canada, to the Doukhobors, and lead the simplest life there. I will have a little house, one pair of horses and a cow, and work as all the brethren; simplicity and laboriousness will be good examples for the Doukhobors.” And further he was relating about the way of life he wishes to establish in Canada: “I want the Doukhobors to live in communities, but they ought to be based on a free principle. Each family should have a separate house, a pair of horses, and a cow at their disposal. The increase of the cattle should join the common herd and be common. All the work in the fields should be done together. Each family should get its allowance of corn for itself and the forage for the cattle. The remaining revenue should be common and be kept in the cash office of the community.” And he said to me afterwards: “Transmit my words to the Doukhobors – let them arrange themselves in that manner.” 

One evening I came to the lodging of Verigin. He was occupying one room only. He showed to me a turner’s lathe and a set of tools, and told me that he is doing joiner’s work. I passed only a few days in Obdorsk. The steamer was going to start; I took my leave of Verigin and departed on my next journey. 

The impression Verigin made on me this once was not quite satisfactory. I did not see anything unusual in him now – as it seemed to me before – on the contrary, he appeared to me vain and selfish. His speech was usually beginning by the words: “I think”, “I understand”, “I advise”, “I order”, and so on. He showed himself indifferent to the suffering of the Doukhobors, and, when I related him what they had endured, he said only: “I know it already; nothing can be done; it should be endured”, and passed to his speech. A fish monger of Obdorsk, whom I inquired about Verigin, told me that Verigin is getting much money by post and leading an idle life; and I thought then that probably the joiner’s work was not a serious doing. But, nevertheless, the image of the coming life in Canada, which he represented, was so attractive, that I left him filled with hope in the radiant future of the Doukhobors.


On the way to the Caucasus I visited Count Leo Tolstoy in Yasnaya Polyana. I was heartily received by him and even lodged in his own room, for my safety’s sake, during the few days I was staying there. Though everything around Tolstoy did not appear to me to square with his teachings, but he seemed to me himself quite sincere and trying to do his best. 

From Yasnaya Polyana I proceeded to the Caucasus and came at first to the province of Kars, where Verigin’s parents were living. At night a secret meeting took place and I transmitted to everybody the greetings of the deported Doukhobors, their desire to have their wives in Siberia, and all the instructions of Verigin. Then I went to the transplanted Doukhobors of the province of Tiflis, and communicated to them the same news. The life of the Doukhobors there was extremely hard. The deportation made them all destitute; they got no land and had to work for the natives, whose language they did not know and who were hostile to them. Being habituated to the healthy tableland of the Akhalkalaki district, they were constantly ill with fever in the low and very unhealthy valleys in which they were living now, and the mortality among them was excessive. But, in spite of the general distress of their situation, they were endeavouring to execute even the most advanced instructions of Verigin. They were ceasing to eat any animal food, and even many ceased to work. But, when they knew that they can marry again, the next day already several marriages were celebrated. 

Just at that time all the Doukhobors of the Verigin’s party were preparing themselves to emigrate to Canada. In consequence of the very distressing and quite unbearable situation of most of them, they all resolved to emigrate. Verigin could not direct the emigration then, but the Doukhobors had many sympathizers already, who raised the necessary funds and arranged everything. Count Tolstoy, the Quakers, and many others, did the Doukhobors a great service. The emigration was directed to the Isle of Cyprus at first, and a party of Doukhobors went there. But the poor climatic conditions of this island compelled them to renounce to it and Canada was chosen then. 

I passed in the Caucasus a fortnight altogether, and finally came to the house of my parents, but remained there two days only. I was hiding in the garret in the day-time and was seeing men in the night only. My parents were very old already, and my short stay gave them more grief than joy. My mother, who was ill then, got worse and died in my presence. 

When I was departing to Siberia backwards, it was winter already. I took my wife with me – we had no children – and another woman yet; the other women had children and had to wait for the spring. We went by rail as far as Irkutsk, and further with horses. The road was poor and we were thrown out from the sledge hundreds of times; but the cold was the worst of all, and the women could not endure it finally any more. We made a bed in the sledge then, on which the women laid down and covered themselves overhead with blankets and all the clothes we had; and so we continued our journey anyhow. We travelled thus by day and night and in about six weeks we reached Yakutsk. As the women were quite sick from the hardship of the journey, I had to leave them in the town with an acquaintance of mine and went further to Ust Notora alone.


When I came to Ust Notora I found the Doukhobors living in the new house already [that] they had built during my absence. They were provided with enough provisions and were living much better than last winter. 

At the beginning of the summer the wives and children of the Doukhobors arrived, and the new colony got an appearance of settlement. The Doukhobors set up a regular farm. They provided themselves with some more cattle; were raising rye and potatoes; built a blacksmith shop and a horse mill. All the community was composed of equal men; they were taking themselves for brethren and nobody was striving to dominate the others. Many were ill; some in consequences of treatment in the disciplinarian battalion and others from the cold they caught in Siberia; but, nevertheless – and in spite of the poor living – there was a good understanding among them and everybody was satisfied. 

The Yakuts and Tunguses were coming to see the Doukhobors. At first the men only, but afterwards the women and the children, too. They were given a seat at the table and treated to the usual Doukhoborian meal of soup, bread, and potatoes, which was new and very attractive to them, as they are living at home on the animal food, mostly. They are a good, honest people – in spite of their lack of civilization – and the Doukhobors were on good terms with them. 

The place the Doukhobors were occupying in Ust Notora consisted of a comparatively small section of land convenient for culture, which was insufficient for all the Doukhobors. The forest was around, but it would be too hard a task to uproot the trees, as the ground in the forest was frozen all the year round. Thus some of the Doukhobors had to hire themselves out to different works in the villages and towns, wherever the government was permitting them. In that part of the province of Yakutsk the villages are inhabited mostly by the sectarians Skoptsy (“Eunuchs” – physically mutilated, according to their religious belief), who are transported to Siberia for life. They are known by their eagerness for riches and are mostly well to do. The Doukhobors had to work chiefly for them, and very hard, on account of their avidity. The work was lasting about sixteen hours a day, both summer and winter, with only short intervals for lunch and dinner. The most tiresome work was the threshing on the ice floor in the winter. It was beginning at about four o’clock in the morning and ending at eight in the evening. For this kind of heavy work well wadded clothes are put on, as fur coats are breaking when frozen through. This work – in semi-obscurity and at hard frost – was lasting all the winter long, and many were ill from it.

In 1899 the last deported Doukhobors arrived and they went all to work for wages, but everyone was giving some money for the support of the Ust Notora community and the friendly relations of all the Doukhobors were still kept up. 

But this state of matter changed entirely when the brothers of Peter Verigin and Konkin, his brother-in-law – who were also deported to Siberia on account of their leadership of the Doukhoborian movement – came to live in Ust Notora. They were thinking themselves superior to others, and, as soon arrived, they commenced to require a complete obedience. But their superiority was not acknowledged and quarrels followed. By little and little the first residents of Ust Notora were leaving it and finally [a] few families remained only, and Vasily Verigin became the absolute master then. 

Those Doukhobors who left Ust Notora founded [a] few other settlements, but at that time already nobody was thinking to settle in Siberia permanently. Since their Caucasian brethren had emigrated to Canada, the Siberian Doukhobors were expecting every moment that the Government will let them free and they will go also there. But years were passing and the liberty was not coming yet.


In the years 1898 and 1899 all the Doukhobors of the Verigin’s party – over seven thousand people – emigrated to Canada. The Small party and “Fleshers” who were loyal to the government remained in the Caucasus.

Canada was for the Doukhobors a land of promise and they had a firm intention to fully realize there the ideal of Christian life as Verigin depicted. They were representing Canada to themselves as an abundant country, with a mild and pleasant climate, favourable to the new way of life; and when they saw the Canadian winter in its full severity, they were somewhat disenchanted. They founded two large colonies in the present province of Saskatchewan – some three hundred miles one from the other – the Yorkton colony and the Prince Albert colony. About five and a half thousand people settled in the former and one thousand and a half in the latter. Many sympathizers, both Russians and Americans, were helping them very actively in the first year of their settlement, but the Doukhobors were not wholly understanding all the disinterestedness of this attention. Thinking themselves an elected people and Verigin a man of higher power, they were looking at this attention as on their due and a consequence of Verigin’s power, and they did not appraise it sufficiently. When the time came to begin to work, they were somewhat spoiled already, and were working indolently at first, still expecting an assistance whatever; but they recovered themselves afterwards and commenced to work with all their usual energy. 

Doukhobor women pulling plow, circa 1901.

The first few years were very hard for the Doukhobors, on account of their general poverty and of their ignorance of the language and customs of the country. Almost all the men were away hiring themselves out to different works, and the women; who were remaining at home, had to do the farming. As they had very little cattle in the beginning, they were sometimes obliged to carry timber for the building of the houses, and even to plow, on themselves. But by little and little the position of the Doukhobors became better. Each family built a house for itself and provided itself sufficiently with cattle and implements. But still most of the men were working for wages, as there was no money in reserve.

At the same time the Doukhobors were attempting the community life, according to the advise of Verigin, but they were mostly unsuccessful. After many trials the majority began to live individually – as they had been always living in the Caucasus before – and only a few of the villages succeeded to live in communities.


In 1902 the term of Verigin’s exile was ending and he wrote to the Doukhobors that he will come to Canada and live with them. The expected coming of Verigin was an event of the utmost importance for the Doukhobors, but they were fearing it, because they did not realize most of his instructions. They were saying between themselves, “How can we meet our master now, when we have not executed all his commandments. Did not he tell us that a true Christian should not work, but preach the Gospel, and we are oppressed with labour. We should have no money at all, and see there, how busily we are hunting for it! He told us to liberate the animals, and we are tormenting them with work. We ought to feed on fruits and vegetables and wear no clothes at all; the first men had no clothes and God was warming them. Do you remember, brethren, what was said to us about the ten virgins ? How the lamps of five of them were gone out. It is we! It is our lamps that are gone out! How can we meet Christ then ? He will come soon, find us unprepared, and we are lost then!”

The leaders of this movement were Ivan Ponomarev and Nikolai Zibarev; both totally illiterate. They were saying to the Doukhobors that “the time of the general purification – of which Verigin was speaking long ago – is just coming now. He that will leave off all his property and will go to meet Christ – shall be freed from work for ever and shall live with Christ in everlasting joy; and he that will not do it – shall work eternally and perish thus, out of disobedience.” Ponomarev was relating that when he had been in Shenkursk he had heard himself Verigin saying, “Behold, brethren! the time shall come when a great river will pass through. Throw yourselves into it. I am a good swimmer – I will save you!” And in conclusion Ponomarev was saying, “Now, brethren, here is that river! I throw myself the first into it, and you follow me. Let us clear ourselves from everything sinful and let us go to meet Christ!”

Over one thousand Doukhobors – almost exclusively of the Yorkton colony – joined this libertine movement. They began to feed on bread and raw potatoes only; ceased to cut their hair; threw out all the woolen and leather clothes, and tore off from their cotton clothes all the metallic appurtenances, as buttons and hooks. They let their cattle loose and gave up all their money to the local authorities. They ceased to work altogether and were wandering in crowds, singing psalms and preaching the Gospel to others. They made the tour of the Doukhoborian villages, inviting every one to join, and they set off afterwards in the direction from which Verigin was expected to come. The little children and the sick persons were carried in hand- barrows. They were feeding on grains of corn and berries they were gathering in the fields, and were begging for bread and potatoes in the farms on the way. They were sleeping in the fields and were enduring cold, as it was in the autumn and freezing in the mornings already. The authorities were stopping them; they detained in Yorkton all the women and children, but the men were unwilling to go back and were continuing to go forwards toward Winnipeg. They were expecting every moment to see Verigin, barefooted, with a long beard, and in simple clothes, going towards them. 

But Verigin was not appearing. In fact, he was in England then, where he stopped on the way to Canada. The thought struck the Libertines then that Verigin does not appear because their faith is not deep enough, and some of them may not have delivered themselves from all their sinful property yet. A general inquiry proved that many had watches, knives, needles and some other objects yet. It was all taken and thrown away, and the Libertines proceeded indefatigably further. They made about two hundred miles thus and were all stopped finally, put in a train, brought to Yorkton, and conveyed to their villages. But they were still waiting for Verigin and though the winter has settled already, many were unwilling to work and to take care of themselves, and the authorities had to look after them. All the cattle that had been let loose was caught and sold by the authorities, and the money thus received, and that money which had been given up by the Libertines themselves, all was used for their assistance now. Some men were hired to look after them; they were carrying provisions, firewood, and even, sometimes, heating stoves for them. 

All the remaining Doukhobors, which have not participated in this movement, were living and working as before, but they were anxious anyhow, and were not certain to whom Verigin will come: to them or to the Libertines. 


At last Verigin arrived and stopped in the village Otradnoye, of the Yorkton colony, where his mother was living (his father was dead already). He came alone; he did not take neither his wife nor his son with him, and they remained to live in the Caucasus.

As soon as it became known that Verigin arrived, many Doukhobors, both Libertines and non-Libertines, came to salute him. The Libertines were looking meagre and weary, and were clad in the simplest clothes; and the non-Libertines were cheerful and properly clad, and had a singing chorus with them. All wished to see Verigin, and he came out to them. 

He was well dressed, in everything new and expensive. He had a fur coat on, a beaver hat, and high leather boots. He was looking as a man in his prime and did not appear to be oppressed by his long exile. The aspect of the Libertines did not strike him. He was well aware of their movement already, and it is also doubtful if he recognized all his responsibility for it. Other feelings were probably agitating him. His people was again before him, as obedient as fifteen years ago, in the Caucasus, when he left them. 

Verigin conversed favourably with everyone. He addressed the Libertines and thanked them warmly for the ardent belief they displayed for him. “You went to meet Christ”, he said to them, “Now he appeared to you. Go to your homes, live, and work for your living.” And he thanked the non-Libertines for the joyful welcome they arranged for him, and for all their labour and assiduity. 

All were listening reverently to Verigin’s words. The non-Libertines were very satisfied with them and were glad to see Verigin as dressed as they were, but the Libertines were disenchanted and afflicted.


When the leaders of the Libertines heard from Verigin himself that they ought to work, they obeyed him instantly and the majority of the Libertines with them, in spite of their disenchantment. They put their households in order and began to work and live as formerly.

But a small part of them – [a] few scores only – were thinking independently and remained firm in their conviction. These last Libertines said to Verigin: “We were taking all thy teachings as commandments coming from God, which are immutable forever. We acknowledged them and we were doing our utmost to execute them. Why hast thou altered thy words now? No, we do not want to be traitors and we will continue to do our duty.” But, as they were not many, Verigin did not pay any attention to them and would not let them approach him any more. 

When [a] few months later Verigin arranged himself already, and the last Libertines saw plainly how much his life was disagreeing with his teachings, all their hopes failed and they fell into despair. They were saying, “There is no divine spark in him and unfortunate are those who believe in him. Let us take our clothes off; let us go and tell him: “Behold! Thou hast said that man should go naked – we took our clothes off. Now thou do it, and let us go to preach the Gospel.” And they did as they were saying. They pulled their clothes off – it was in the spring already – and went to Verigin, but they were not admitted to him. They were trying to talk with him somewhere on the road then, but they did not succeed in it. At last they got all together and decided to reach him whatever may happen. They went in a crowd – men, women, and children, all naked – by the road to the village Otradnoye where Verigin was living. It was reported to him and he ordered to stop them, but they were breaking through the crowd of those who were detaining them and were still advancing. Then, by Verigin’s order, they were unmercifully beaten with rods and dispersed finally. And so, they could not get to Verigin again. 

Shortly after about two scores of them, all naked, went to Yorkton. They were arrested there and put into prison for three months. But when released they began to behave as formerly again.

Once several of them were going through a field and, seeing a reaping machine newly bought by Verigin, they stopped before it. They recollected all what had been said about machines: how oppressive and unhealthy the workmen’s work is, and how those human inventions are disagreeable to God; and they thought it a good deed to destroy the machine. They overlaid it with straw and burned all the wooden parts of it. Verigin reported it to the authorities and those Libertines were put into prison again. 

The prison authorities did not show any indulgence to the excited Libertines and were treating them very harshly. As they were refusing to eat any animal food and were unwilling to work, some up-to-date methods were used to subdue them. They were fed with broth, which was conducted through a hose into the stomach directly; and to make one work, he was brought into a special cell and sand was strewn from above, threatening to cover him entirely, and compelling thus to dig himself out. But these measures did not change the Libertines. They were firm and obstinate and remained Libertines however. 

Afterwards they were put into prison [a] few times more, but they were treated well. Some of them are in prison and some had been released, but are still living in their own way.


Shortly after his coming to Canada, Verigin invited several girls and a singing chorus, and in such a numerous and merry company he took a trip through all the Doukhoborian villages. In each village a solemn reception was given to him. All the Doukhobors were in high spirits and listened attentively to every word he was saying. He was relating them about the grand Doukhoborian community, the “free principle” on which she shall be based, and about the happiness of the coming life. 

When he returned home, he convoked a general meeting and advised the Doukhobors to take up their homesteads officially – they had been taken temporarily as yet – but to cultivate all the land conjointly. Thus, since Verigin’s coming, all the Doukhobors – with very little exception – formed one great community. The land was counted common, but each family had a household and some property of its own. 

This state of affairs was changed very soon, however, by Verigin himself. He abandoned the “free principle” and adopted the “principle of centralization”. By his order all the cattle of each village was taken to the common herd and all the agricultural implements to one shed. Large communal stables and sheds were built, and attendants were appointed; modern agricultural machines were bought and several corn mills were built, but, for want of money, everything on credit. 

The Doukhobors were working but little at home, however. They were sowing corn for their own use only, and only one fourth of all the workers was remaining at home. Over one thousand men were leaving their homes for all the summer every year. They were hiring themselves out as workmen, and everyone of them had to give up in the autumn at least one hundred and fifty dollars to the cash office of the community. 

During the few following years the system of centralization was reinforced. All the orders were printed in the headquarters of Verigin and each village was getting a copy of them. It was exactly said in each order what to do and how to do: how much cattle to keep and how to feed it; how to plough and what to sow; how to build houses, and even how to dress oneself. Thus, by one order, was simplified the children’s dress. All the boys and girls below thirteen had to submit to a new rule. The boys get long shirts, instead of trousers, and the girls had their hair cut, and they were all very afflicted by that. 

Doukhobor village house, circa 1901

In spite of the zealous work of the Doukhobors and their modern way of farming, they were still remaining very poor. Each village – composed of just forty houses – had about twenty cows only and very few chickens, so that the Doukhobors were living on bread and vegetables mostly. Besides, they were getting from the common warehouse a very insufficient quantity of clothes. In consequence of that many were ill, both from cold and for want of proper food. 

Almost all the Doukhoborian children were learning then, but they were getting very little knowledge, however. Verigin was of the opinion that a true Christian should have only Christ for teacher; he would not admit strangers and ordered to each village to choose a teacher among themselves. But, as there are no Doukhobors enough educated to be teachers, sometimes a teacher had to be appointed who could hardly write his own name; and thus the children were often, in few months already, as advanced as the teacher himself. 

Not all the Doukhobors were satisfied with the Community. Those that were not were setting up their own farms and were mostly successful. But their number was not large.


In the year 1905, after the religious liberty had been proclaimed in Russia, all the Doukhobors deported to Siberia were liberated and set off for Canada. The Siberian Doukhobors, or “Yakutians” as they were called, had at that time already some views quite different from those of the “Canadians” or Canadian Doukhobors. An individual life in a remote country made them farm more liberal and independent. Unlike the “Canadians” who were believing that there is no salvation beyond their community, the “Yakutians” were thinking that every man, whatever his belief may be, can advance on the way of the spiritual perfection. The “Canadians” were thinking Verigin a divine leader who ought to be obeyed absolutely, and the “Yakutians” were taking him for a manager only, and fully responsible for all his actions. This diversity of convictions was not dangerous by itself, however, neither to the Doukhoborian Brotherhood, nor even to the Community, but it was dangerous to the principle on which the Community was based. 

All the “Canadians” were awaiting with joy the arrival of their brethren, who had suffered so much for the common cause, but Verigin was dissatisfied with them and his displeasure made all the Doukhobors uneasy. He was well informed already of the indocility of the “Yakutians” from the letters of his brother Vasily and personally, from his other brother Grigory and his brother-in-law Konkin, who were since [a] few years in Canada (the former had run away from Siberia arbitrarily; the latter had petitioned the Government for liberation and had been released). 

The arrival of the “Yakutians” was a great joy for many families who saw their relatives again after a long separation of ten years. Many meetings were held, new projects were formed and, after all, when the “Yakutians” had rest enough, they went to work and began to live the community life. But from the first day already they were told that it is quite indispensable to wait on Verigin. Their relatives were saying to them, “All our misfortune is over now and we will live a quiet life together, but you should go to see our master. You had been living very long alone and you may have sinned in some way, by a deed, word, or thought whatever. Go and fall before him on the ground, beg him pardon, and beg him to admit you in the Community. He will admit you, and you will live there as we are. We do not puzzle our brains over anything; we do what he orders and everything is well.” 

The “Yakutians” were very afflicted that their relatives and all the Doukhobors of the Community are in such a pitiful position, but they would not offend them by a direct reply and were answering thus: “We do not see any necessity to beg for admission. We have been always members of the Doukhoborian society; you wish that we live with you and we will.” But the “Canadians” were replying: “We advise you to see our master anyhow, and you will feel yourselves that there is a divine power in him. No man can see him without fear, and everyone trembles who talks to him.” And the “Yakutians” were answering: “You tremble not only because you believe him to be a supernatural man, but also because you submitted to him and you know that he is severe and can punish you.” 

When shortly after several “Yakutians” went to see Verigin, he knew already that they came not to submit, but to ask explanations, and ordered not to receive them. The report about the refusal of Verigin to receive the “Yakutians” spread in all the villages, and the “Canadians” began to think them great sinners. “Our master knows everything”, were saying the “Canadians” to them, “He knew your thoughts were not sincere when you came to him and he did not receive you. You blame him, but we believe in everything he is saying, whether in respect to spiritual matter or husbandry.” 

“Your material state is far from being satisfactory,” were answering the “Yakutians”. “All your common property, as factories and agricultural machines, amount comparatively to little, and your indebtedness is greater than all that is worth. Only the property of each village can be counted yours, and there is but very little of it. You are living miserably. Look how weak your children are! Many begin to walk at the age of three years only!” “It is true that we are living poorly,” were saying the “Canadians”, “but we are not looking for riches. We care for the soul only and we believe that there is no salvation out of the Community.” 

“There are many bad principles in your Community,” were replying the “Yakutians”. “You are quarrelling constantly, either at work or at the delivery of goods. You are very intolerant and you cruelly persecute all those that are leaving the Community. We do not see any salvation here.”


At that time all the Doukhobors were talking about the “Yakutians” only. The old people were listening to the “Yakutians” with disgust, but many of the young were agreeing and beginning to talk themselves in a similar manner. 

Everything the “Yakutians” were saying was reported to Verigin and he took severe measures to bring them under subjection. “They are dissatisfied with our food,” he said. “I will teach them how to appreciate the bread as a gift of God.” And he sent an order to all the villages not to give the “Yakutians” anything to eat for two days; and if they do not submit, give them no food for two days more yet; and then if they will be indocile then expel them from the Community entirely. 

This order afflicted all the Doukhobors. “My God! what times!” were saying the “Canadians”. “To starve our brethren who had been suffering for our cause. And we are calling ourselves Christians of the Universal Brotherhood yet! It was never so before when the late woman-manager was living.” And others were replying: “It is not our business, Christ is sitting on the throne And is creating all alone.” (This old Doukhoborian saying is alluding to the Doukhoborian leader himself.)

In each village a meeting was held and the “Yakutians” were informed of their destiny. The question of the children was raised. Some were saying that some bread could be given to them; but others were saying that if it could be given it would be said so in the order, but as nothing is said about it, it means then that it cannot be given. A whole week passed in deliberations. At last in some villages all the provisions were taken away from the “Yakutians” and they were compelled to leave the Community; but most of the Doukhobors, in spite of the fear of Verigin, could not be decided to do it and did not execute Verigin’s order. 

Then Verigin sent another order, that all the “Yakutians” ought to give up all their money to the cash office of the Community. And again meetings were held and the money was requested from the “Yakutians”. Most of them answered that they have no money; others gave their money up; and some said that they have some money but will not give it up, because they know Verigin wants to force them out from the Community and they will need it then. 

In one village a “Yakutian” was called to the meeting and asked if he has any money. He answered that he has some twenty dollars. “Then give it up to the cash office,” said the elders to him. “Who is living in the Community should have not one cent at home.” “Well, I will give up my money,” he answered, “but only if you give up yours to the last cent also.” “We have not any,” said the elders. “We are living long since without money already.” “How so, you have no money ? I know he has some,” replied the “Yakutian”, pointing at a man at random. The man got troubled and, thinking it is really known he has money, said that he has some, indeed, but he knows others have money also. And thus the truth was revealed, all were ashamed, and there was no more question about money in that village. 

By little and little, and in consequence of such severe measures, almost all the “Yakutians” were obliged to part with their relatives again and leave the Community. An elderly man was thus expelled by his own family from the very village where Verigin was living. He was a “Yakutian” and they were “Canadians”. He hired himself out somewhere as a workman, but fell ill and came to his family again. They were willing to keep him until he gets better, but Verigin did not permit it, and he was expelled again, and his family has no right to see him any more.


All these events troubled the Doukhobors and caused some discontent in the Community. Verigin ordered then Ponomarev and Zibarev – the former leaders of the libertine movement – to go through all the villages and to pacify the people. They started each in another direction. 

When Zibarev came to the village where I was living, all the villagers assembled in one house and he addressed them thus: “Brothers and sisters! Our master is very afflicted that there is a commotion among you. Many are displeased with the food, clothes, and all the order he has established himself. Do not you know that unruliness leads to perdition? Our master has great pity of you, and he sent me to warn you that the day of judgement shall come from one minute to another. You had been waiting whole years for it, but only minutes are left now. Behold! Better repent of your sins and pray to God.” And he said afterwards: “There are many unbelievers among you. Here are the “Yakutians”, our former brethren, who do not believe in God Himself, and our master is advising you even not to speak with them.”

I inquired Zibarev then why does he think that the “Yakutians” do not believe in God, and he said: “They do not know God, because they do not acknowledge Christ in His second advent, and who do not know Christ do not know God.” “And under what appearance is concealed Christ you are acknowledging ?” I inquired. “It is of no use to direct you,” he answered, “because you are an unbeliever.” And addressing all the assembly, he said: “I will not relate you also about the advent of Christ; you ought to know who is Christ and when His advent was. If you will murmur and listen to apostates, he will say: “Be damned!” and will abandon you. It will be like a lightning that flashes from the east to the west – as it is written in the gospel – and you will be lost then.” He addressed the women afterwards and said: “And you sisters are requested to persuade your husbands to stay in the Community. The salvation is only in the Community and out of it, whatever good the actions of men may be, they are nothing before God. Be faithful! As the day of the general destruction of the infidels is near.” 

“And how about the Quakers then?” I inquired. “They had helped us so much, but they do not belong to the Community. Are their deeds worth nothing and they shall be lost ?” “They may believe in Christ yet and unite with Him,” he replied. “And if they do not ?” “They shall perish as the other sinners then”. And addressing all the assembly he said: “All the offerings of the Quakers were for our master’s sake and according to his will. If not he, nobody would give us a bit of bread, and we would be lost.” 

After both preachers visited all the villages, the murmur ceased and the Doukhobors commenced to pray and to wait for the end of the world; and some pious women were even not undressing themselves and their children, when going to bed, to be quite ready for the last judgement. They were thinking that sometime at night, Christ will come and take them – His faithful people – to a lonely and safe place; and in the meantime, a universal confusion will follow and all the infidels will perish in a general, mutual slaughter; and the earth will be left empty and will be granted to the selected people; and the life will be free and easy then.


In the last years there have been but little changes in the life of the Community. As the Doukhobors of the Community had not been willing to accept the Canadian subjection, the Government took a considerable part of their land from them, leaving them only fifteen acres to each person, and declared that this land also is granted for a temporary use only. 

The community principle has been more strengthened yet. Thus, in many villages, common kitchens and dining rooms have been established. But the material state of the Community has not improved. The indebtedness has not diminished; though the Doukhobors are still working zealously and living the most frugal life. They are nourishing themselves very poorly, as before. They are gradually abolishing all the animal food. They ceased to keep chickens and to eat eggs. Most of the cows had been sold and only a few have been left in each village. At the same time neither the variety nor the quality of their vegetable food has improved, and in the last year they have been obliged to eat the distasteful bread of frost-bitten corn. Consequently their health condition is far from being satisfactory. 

The education is still arousing but little interest in the Community. The schools are neglected and most of the villages, now, have no schools at all. 

Verigin is still remaining the absolute director of the Community, as all those that are dissatisfied with his management are compelled to abandon the Community, leaving him a faithful majority. The belief in his divine origin, which is very common yet, and the usual devotion of the Doukhobors to their leader, are considerably strengthening his position. 

As an example of the humble submissiveness of the members of the Community to their leader, the case of the village Pokrovka can be cited. At the beginning of the community life the inhabitants of Pokrovka had no luck and for two years they were giving to the common cash office less money than the other villages. Verigin called them idlers and gave to their village a new denomination Nedokhvatnoye (“the Insufficient”). They were bearing this disgraceful name for [a] few years, during which they were endeavouring to correct themselves, and they succeeded soon to give up even more money than the others, but they were still called by their new name, however. They decided then to beg Verigin himself for another name, but as nobody had boldness enough to personally talk with him, a petition was written which was beginning thus: “Our merciful Lord! Great is thy holy grace – have pity upon us! Show us your mercy, though as small as a poppy seed – deliver us from thy chastisement and grant to our village a Christian name. We will endeavor by all means to have no more defects…” and so on, on several pages. Shortly after the petition had been presented to Verigin, he came to Nedokhvatnoye himself, very contented, and said to the villagers that he gives them another name: their village shall be called henceforth “The Intercession of the Holy Virgin”, what expresses in Russian, but more solemnly, the first name of the village, Pokrovka. When the villagers heard Verigin granting them this great favour, they fell to the ground and thanked him.


Though the Doukhoborian Community has a semblance of solidity, she is precarious in reality, however. The life in the Community is so ungrateful, that in spite of all the devotedness of the Doukhobors to the Community, a certain feeling of dissatisfaction is almost general. Even Ivan Makhortov – the well known Doukhoborian patriarch – is getting pessimistic now. He has been a great admirer of Verigin and used often to say maliciously, amid a numerous assembly, while tapping Verigin on the shoulder: “I know well who is Christ.” But now, being very old already, he is saying to the Doukhobors, in a fit of frankness: “Beg him to give you liberty. There is no success in it.” 

And so, in fact, Verigin has to take particular measures to hold the Doukhobors in the Community. He is inspiring them with the great idea of a single Doukhoborian community, which he compares to the Ark of Noah, saying that as then all the men had perished and only [a] few remained, so it shall be also now. He is endeavoring to isolate the members of the Community from the influence of all the other Doukhobors and wants to have them all in one place – in the chief Yorkton colony. Thus he compels those members of the Community, who are living in the remote, but very fertile, Prince Albert colony, to remove on some poor lands in the Yorkton colony, in spite of all the serious loss by this removal. He is profiting by the loyalty of the women, who are generally more attached to the Community than the men, and gave them recently a still greater liberty of action, by granting them solemnly full equality of rights. He is advising them to abandon their husbands if they are “unbelievers” but, as it is not always possible to subdue the husbands in such a manner, divorces are very common. 

In spite of all these measures, however, the Doukhobors are more and more leaving the Community, and the total number of individual farmers as they are called (the “Independents”) is over one thousand already. They are living either in their old homes, in the villages, or on their own homesteads, and are generally more successful than the members of the Community . 

There is reason to suppose that the Doukhoborian movement has not quite ended yet, as new complications are possible, on account of the unstableness of the Community and her forced terms with the Canadian Government. But it can be said already that the movement has not been without good results. The Doukhobors embraced some principles with the aid of which they may become a worthy people. Something is done already. There is neither theft nor drunkenness among them. There is much poesy in their peaceful villages, where elks and prairie chickens are coming unmolested. But, of course, there is no perfection, and much is to be done yet. 

For an excellent scholarly analysis of the above article, see Peter Brock, Vasya Pozdnyakov’s Dukhobor Narrative (Slavonic and East European Review Vol. 43, 1965).

Autobiography – Simeon F. Reibin

by Simeon F. Reibin

The following excerpt is taken from the unpublished English translation of Doukhobor Simeon F. Reibin’s (1880-1961) controversial book, “Toil and Peaceful Life: History of the Doukhobors Unmasked.” A private secretary to Doukhobor leader Peter “Lordly” Verigin from 1902 to 1923, Reibin left the Community disillusioned with its leadership. In frank, flowing and often humorous detail, Reibin recounts the folklore, peasant superstition and simple village life of his childhood in Tiflis province, Russia. Reproduced with permission.

I was born on March 9, 1880, in the village of Efremovka, district of Akhalkalak, province of Tiflis, Russia (present day Ninotsminda district, Republic of Georgia). My father, Fyodor Semenovich, was engaged in agriculture like all other members of the village. In winter months he followed his tailor trade making fur coats. He was considered wealthy compared to others for he had a capital stone house and large properties. 

Simeon F. Reibin, 1922

I had four brothers older than I, the oldest was Ignaty, whose mother was my father’s first wife. He was a specialist in shoe making; he made Doukhobors wooden hill shoes for wedding newly married brides. For this skill he was honoured by young women. 

Our village was situated on the top of the Kholodnoye (“Wet Mountains”) near a great shallow lake, “Madatapa” by a small river of the same name. The elevation was over ten thousand feet above sea level. Here people were hardly able to grow barley. The inhabitants were deprived of all conveniences. Other Doukhobor villages, excepting Troitskoye, were situated much lower where it was possible to grow even wheat and some vegetables. Residents of our and Troitskoye villages bought potatoes, cabbage and other produce in the vicinity of Alexandropol. 

Our village was situated, as people used to say, on the “naval” of earth. From here, land in all directions lay much lower.  On the south lay Alexandropol, on the west Akhalkalak, to the north and east was Bashka Chet. Wealthy people used wheat bread which they bought outside, but the poor ate barley bread…

Shortage of water was the main scourge of our village. Deep wells were dug but all in vain – no water. Six miles lower where the Goreloye village was situated, there was sufficient of good water in the wells. A tiny river froze in winter and in order to have water, it was dammed across with manure for winter. When the river was covered by heavy ice the water became tainted and produced a strong odour. People and animals, under the circumstances, used it nevertheless. People and animals from other villages were unable to drink our water. In winter water was thawed from yellow ice and snow. At weddings water for tea was brought from Goreloye village.

The climate was severe but very healthful; residents were energetic and looked very healthy with their rosy cheeks. We children, disregarding the dirt and filth in the water, used to swim in summer like ducks all day. I had no sisters, so regardless of being a little child I was compelled to occupy myself in the capacity of a “nurse” to look after younger children and even babies. I did not like my occupation, so in spite of daily whippings, I left them sleeping and ran to play with my companions.

I remember very little of my father, for he was indefinitely exiled in 1887 with the Leader Peter Vasilyevich Verigin as his right hand and devoted defender. He died in the town of Onega, on the shore of the White Sea, on February 25, 1895 without seeing his family.

Mother, brothers and their wives were occupied in the fields often from dawn to dark. Their absence gave us extensive liberty at home. Mother taught me to read psalms by heart – I read over 100 psalms – from the time I was able to talk. She always threatened me, even for a trifling prank: “God will put you in hell fire”. This terrified me immensely and I shivered to think of such a hot spot. Being youngest, I enjoyed special privileges from my older brothers. They were good to me and often freed me of hard labour. In harvest time I helped women put hay in stacks. During this time I grew bigger. Once, brother Ignaty brought me a present “ABC” book with beautiful covers. I accepted it very gladly with many thanks, but when I started to learn alphabet, I regretted that I had accepted it. I wanted to go and play with my companions, but to my great sorrow, my brothers were inexorable – they threatened to whip me if I did not study.

In our village there were over one hundred houses occupied by very large families, and there were perhaps only ten persons that were able to read and scrawl. As far as real education is concerned, there was none. My father and brothers were able to read and scrawl. Father, although it was against the Leader’s order, had a Gospel – the only one little gospel in the entire village. For this, he was despised by both Leader and people. Nevertheless, some elders used to come to him in the evenings and he read the gospel to them. Most often he read about the ten maidens: “Five of them were wise and five unwise”, so the elders talked among themselves saying: “We must be wise so not to miss in our sleep our “bridegroom”.

The inhabitants of the village often looked at me with contempt and called “literate” among themselves. They had strong convictions and blamed my brothers for transgression against Doukhobor religion.

Eventually, I began to love reading and read various stories and tales which Anna Obedkova lent me. She was the widow of Ivan Martinovich, who was formerly Sergeant of Peter Vasilyevich Verigin’s Cossacks in our village. Martin was a 2nd guild merchant who had a general store: dry goods, groceries etc. His grandson Alexander was my companion. He was son of Anna. Owing to our companionship, she favoured me. At times, as a reward for her favours, I had to read books to her for hours – she was illiterate. Anna was clever and intelligent in comparison with average Doukhobor women. I loved to visit Alexander. They kept a Stage Post and we children in a group patiently waited, like an old cat, for Martin to go out of the store to meet travelling passengers – tourists. Then all of our gang would rush madly to the store and attack the candies filling our pockets and trying to get away before Martin returned. Sometimes he caught us right on the spot and punished us severely by pulling our ears until they bled. We somehow expected that and did not mind as long as he did not tear our ears off completely. We assumed they would heal.

Sometimes elder Kudrin, a shoe maker, put us boys and girls in a rank file like soldiers and ordered us to read psalms and perform religious ceremonies including low bowing and kissing thricely. We always were glad to comply with his desires.

My mother, before her marriage, was a servant of Leader Lukeria Vasilyevna Kalmykova, and on her advise or rather order, married a widower with three children who was 20 years older than my mother. Lukeria Vasilyevna Kalmykova was favourably disposed toward my father and he was even a delegate, with Alexei Zubkov, to the Tsar regarding Doukhobor affairs.

Mother was contented and happy, but her happiness did not last long. After the exile of my father, all responsibilities for managing her material affairs and bringing up little children – four of her own – fell on her shoulders. I have seen hundreds of times when my mother privately and bitterly wailed, sometimes loudly vociferated about my father and her unfortunate fate. Only her deep and unlimited faith in Peter Vasilyevich Verigin encouraged her spirit and she felt certain that she would be rewarded a hundred fold by God for her such suffering. This of course, never came true.

Lukeria Kalmykova

I remember Lukeria Vasilyevna Kalmykova well. She was a beautiful and kind hearted lady. When in the village, she always came to see my mother – her former servant – and by the Doukhobor custom, we bowed to her feet and kissed her hand. She always rewarded us with presents: candies and cookies. I remember also her carriage phaeton and grey horses, also Zakhar, her coachman. On arrival in the village he always drove the horses slowly down the street to cool them off. We children, sitting on benches by the houses, bowed together as a group, each time he drove past us. He, poor fellow, replied to us by a low bow each time he passed and he passed scores of times. He was dressed in Doukhobor costume. He was young and tall, slim with a graceful shape. Charming large blue eyes added to his handsomeness completed with a Caucasian nose and large moustache.

I also remember how Peter Vasilyevich Verigin’s Cossacks, dressed in costumes, armed with sabres, swords and revolvers, imitating Tsar’s Cossacks, manoeuvred on the field near the village. They were under the command of Ivan Obedkov and his assistant Ivan Ivin.  They galloped on their saddle horses, raced, shot loudly amid the noise of revolvers. In other words, they were exercising just like the real Tsar’s Cossacks. Cossack were also in other villages and their General Sergeant was Peter Vasilyevich Verigin who lived with Lukeria Vasilyevna Kalmykova as her spiritual confidant. Lukeria Vasilyevna Kalmykova’s husband Peter also had Cossacks.

When I was seven years old, one evening, while lying on the top of the oven, I noticed my mother bitterly wailing and she told me terrible news: “Our beloved Lushechka – “beautiful sun” – had died. I have joined her in vociferous lamentation; now that we have no Lukeria Vasilyevna Kalmykova we shall have no more sunshine – we will always be in the dark. I thought that then, but in the morning I saw the sun rise, it had not gone with Lushechka. Then my mother gave me words of consolation: the Holy Spirit that dwelt in Lukeria Vasilyevna Kalmykova had moved to Peter Vasilyevich Verigin; God was always with us, is now and always will be with us; consequently, there was no use to worry.

I remember also how our group of boys and girls walked over seven miles to the graveyard of the “Saints” and with some adults who were there, we made bows to the ground before each grave stone and kissed the stones. Black spots were printed on each stone from wet lips. We experienced the highest happiness in our young hearts by thinking that we were kissing our holy Leaders. Such marches to the holy cemetery gave us more pleasure and content then a world tour. Coming home we were proudly bragging that we visited the graveyard of Saints.

Mother, being a deep believer, tried to instill in us the inspiration of true faith in the Leaders. In this she had complete success. She knew many prophesies and miracles that had been performed by Leaders. She had heard these directly from Peter Ilarionovich Kalmykov and his wife Lukeria Vasilevna Kalmykova. “Nobody knows” she said, “that God lives with Doukhobors in the flesh of our Leaders. We are the most fortunate people in the entire world. Only we shall ba saved and enter the Heaven of God; but the rest of the world is in darkness and will perish. Especially those people will not enter Heaven who have an organ which provides music in their churches. Such soulless objects are against God”.

Nothing interested my young soul more than our Doukhobor divinity, in which I had not the slightest doubt. I was proud that I knew now about the real God and where he resided in flesh.

Simeon F. Reibin (rt) and friends, 1922

Anna Obedkova’s son Alexander was brought up in a more normal atmosphere by an intelligent mother. Sometimes I asked him: “Do you know, Alexander, who is God and where he is?” He unconcernedly but sincerely replied: “I don’t know”. Such reply angered me and I thought: “Damned Armenian he is in the dark and does not know God”. Martin Obedkov, his grandfather, was considered by Doukhobors as “ruined” because he did not take off his hat before Lukeria Vasilyevna Kalmykova and did not kiss her hand like all Doukhobors did. When Lushechka bought silk and other expensive goods at his store, he charged her a double price instead of giving her goods free like others did. He knew that money come easily to her. Martin paid no attention to any opinion that other Doukhobors held about him. He was very tall old man, stout, weighing over 300 pounds; had very heavy, black moustache. He was a self contented, proudly independent maladets (“little fellow”).

But to me the Leaders were “Almighty Gods” who were carefully concealing their divinity among Doukhobors. If any one, God forbid, should tell the truth about Doukhobors’ faith, he would be thricely damned like Judas Iscariot, the betrayer, and would perish in body and soul as a blasphemer. Such was my education. With very few exceptions, all Doukhobor children were brought up in this light from their early babyhood.

My mother having once been the servant of Lukeria Vasilyevna Kalmykova, had certain prestige among the women. Companions visited her often and their conversations always referred to “our saints”. A neighbour, Tanya (Tatiana) Ivin, was the mother of Ivan “Sergeant”. When she came, she usually moved her apron to one side and carefully pulled out a large pipe and a package of tobacco from a large pouch attached to her belt; then she would fill the pipe, start smoking and after a few inhalations of smoke, close her eyes, adjust her apron to the right place and begins to take part in the day’s discussion. Nearly all of the elderly women smoked – some made long cigarettes of cheap tobacco wrapped in newspaper or other wrapping paper. After greeting each other, one says: “Well, against a strong wind blows from Abdul (Abdul was a high mountain to the north). It is cold and unpleasant”. Another replies: “As it is on earth not quite so is it in heaven; look at the agitation going on with the Chaldeans (“Small Party” of Doukhobors). How could we expect good weather until matters are definitely settled among Doukhobors”. The third: “There was a prophesy by our late beloved Lushechka, may God remember her in His own kingdom; she told that the time would come when there will be wars and evil among Doukhobors. It is now being fulfilled and that’s why we have such unpleasant weather”.

In such typical talk-fest the fervour increases to a babble of voices; the room fills with smoke of makorka (a cheap Russian tobacco)  and it smells acrid. Old lady Ivina motions that she wants to speak. The conversation increased and all present turn their faces to her. “Now girls” says Tanya, “All Tsars, Princes and Rulers of the whole world will soon recognize us and come to us and bow to our saintly Leader.  Then the judgement of God will take place. Old lady Nazarova heard this from old leader Peter Ilarionovich Kalmykov”. “We all know about this” said another. “I will tell you the facts that were accomplished not very long ago at the time of the war with Turkey. When Russian armies tried to capture city of Kars, poor Russian soldiers tried very hard but to no avail. Then grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich had an idea; he sought our beloved sun (Lukeria Vasilyevna Kalmykova), knelt before her holiness and with tears in his eyes asked: “Lukeria Vasilyevna Kalmykova, please allow us to capture Kars”. She kept him praying for awhile, then at last said, “All right, Mikhail, I consent”. Kars was taken that very night. That’s what the power of our Leaders means dear girls, and in spite of this, we sometimes grumble and are discontented with our saints! God may forgive us.” The fourth: “The Kars incident was not the only influence of our Lushechka; what about the (Doukhobor) people who hauled the material to the front? Don’t you remember? Lushechka agreed to the request of Grand Duke Mikhail that Doukhobors would convey the provisions and ammunition for the army. When the Doukhobors were leaving on the wagons for the front she told them bluntly, “Not one of you shall perish” and in spite of the fact that our men were under a heavy hail of bullets, not one was killed”.

Another unique instance was given: “Our boys wore Caucasian cowls and sometimes these cowls became filled with bullets; they then untied the cowls, emptied the bullets and again tied them around their necks. This was a real, genuine miracle of Lord”.  “Perhaps the men repeated some Doukhobor psalms for protection from bullets?” asked one. “No, no, it was not psalms that protected them, it was the power of Lukeria Vasilyevna Kalmykova.” replied the other. “Lushechka was protecting us al, don’t you understand that?” reproached another.

Taniusha Vyshlova (a bold lady) listened attentively and was whispering quietly to herself, apparently preparing for her turn. She began: “You all heard perhaps of the incident that took place at Bashka-Chet (Doukhobor settlement in Borchalin district, Tiflis province)?” “Please tell us Taniusha, maybe someone did not hear” they asked unanimously. Taniusha shook the hot ashes from her pipe onto the earth floor, knocked her pipe against the bench to be sure no sparks remained, carefully put the pipe in pouch, replaced her apron, slightly coughed and proudly began: “Once our beloved Peter Ilarionovich Kalmykov, may we mention his holy name in God’s heaven of eternal peace, this hour; went with his Cossacks to visit fallen brethren at Bashka-Chet; it was in the fall; there they were harvesting grain. The crop that year was extremely heavy. On their arrival they found the people occupied in work and they paid no attention to their guests; some unbelievers even mirthfully remarked: “Ah, here come Peter Ilarionovich with his boys to help us harvest our good crop of grain”. These remarks bitterly insulted our beloved Leader and he in great wrath said: “You want us to help you harvest your grain? I will comply with your wishes”. This he said before departing. And what was the result dear girls?  When Petushka with his Cossacks went up the mountain – Bashka-Chet lies in a deep ravine – there suddenly appeared a little cloud in the sky; in a few minutes it became a huge black cloud hanging over the grain fields; then came hail – listen, dear girls – hail the size of hen’s eggs poured down and destroyed the crops completely, not leaving a single kernel; the field was black. This miracle made them understand with whom they dared to joke, but it was too late”. Finished the speech, Taniusha glanced at all present to see what impression she had made on them by her story.

(l. to r.) Simeon F. Reibin, Peter “Lordly” Verigin, Alex F. Reibin, 1903

“Oh, God, even to hear about this occasion makes one feel scared, but how were they able to overcome such punishment?  Oh Lord, forgive us all!” said all assembled.

“But my grandpa told me, if I remember right, the hail was as large as geese eggs” said one of the crowd. “That makes it still more terrible.” “It could even kill people” approved another. “And it will kill if necessary, do you think the Small Party will remain unpunished? No, they are Sodom-Gomorra, Lot’s wife; they will perish the unfortunate victims of Hubanov” said one of the gathering.

“The whole affair was spoiled by the (Doukhobor) Cossacks” said one, “they did not stand guard duty. It was cold and they went to warm themselves and let it slip; if they had been at their posts, as they were ordered by Sergeant Peter Vasilevich Verigin, the judgement of God over Doukhobors would have taken place right then and he would not have to go to Siberia. Now the judgement of God may be postponed for many years and we have to suffer. The Cossacks caused many bad things: they were young and could not mind cold”.

Another continued: “Perhaps all of this happened for the best; be the will of our beloved Leader Peter Vasilyevich Verigin”. Another said: “He is yet youthful and handsome. I saw him recently in Cossack costume; such a sweet charming young man and now he must go to Siberia”. Another asked: “Ah, how will the Cossacks get along without their General Sergeant Peter Vasilyevich Verigin?”  Taniusha Vyshlova said: “I think everything goes according to the plans of our beloved Leader”.

These old girls spoke on many other subjects at meetings, which they held often and which lasted many hours. I always listened to their conversations with great interest, thereby learning many folk stories and gaining an insight into the minds of that generation…

Wives and Children of the Doukhobors

by Prokopy Nestorovich Sokolnikov

Doctor Prokopy Nestorovich Sokolnikov (1865-1917) was a Yakut-born physician who graduated from Tomsk University and desired to return to serve in his homeland. On his way to Yakutsk, at the request of his friend and colleague Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, he accompanied a party of forty-one Doukhobors (25 women, 15 children and one elderly man) from the Caucasus, providing them with medical assistance throughout the journey and making arrangements with administrative authorities in regard to their needs. Thanks to Sokolnikov’s assistance, the Doukhobors were safely delivered to Yakutsk, where they reunited with their husbands and fathers who were exiled there for their rejection of military service. Throughout the 11,000-verst journey, the Tolstoyan doctor kept a diary in which he recorded vivid, often moving, impressions of his experiences. His diary was originally published in 1899 in the Irkutsk newspaper “Vostochnoe Obozrenie”.  In 2001, it was reproduced in the Russian monthly “Ilin”. The English translation of this valuable historical material is reproduced by permission from ISKRA Nos. 1945-1951 (Grand Forks, U.S.C.C., August-December, 2003).

At the proposal of Count L.N. Tolstoy, on March 24, 1899, I departed Moscow by way of the Ryazan Railway so as to meet up with the party of Doukhobor women and children traveling from the Caucasus to Yakutsk province.

As is known, about three years earlier, a party of the Caucasian Doukhobors had been exiled to the Yakutsk region for their rejection of military service. There, these sectarians, having formed a colony of 90 people and settled at Ust-Notora, in a short period of time managed to recover somewhat and to set themselves up economically. They built themselves huts, obtained an inventory of basic equipment, acquired several horses and cows, began sowing grain, planted garden vegetables, and are mowing a significant amount of hay.

In a word, they fervently applied themselves, with typical Doukhobor energy, sobriety and industriousness, so that in these cold thickets on the outskirts of Yakutsk, they show promise of being genuine carriers of their cultural origins. And so, therefore, having become somewhat established in their new homeland, these Doukhobors decided to send for their women and children in the Caucasus to come and join them.

After waiting an extra day at the Kozlov station, I met a party of 41. Traveling were 25 women, one older man, and 15 children (ages 3 – 7). The party had departed from Tiflis on March 18, accompanied by the police (military) overseer, K.V. Visotsky. On March 20, they boarded a steamship in Batum at a fare reduced by 50%, at the request of the overseer. Then on March 22, the party set out from Novorossiysk in a Fourth class rail car designated for migrants. The fourth class ticket from Novorossiysk to Irkutsk at the reduced tariff was seven rubles and 15 kopecks. On March 26, I met the party in the town of Kozlov.

I found the party in the following condition. In general, the spirits of the women were high. Only one young boy was ascertained to be running a fever, and he seemed weak and undernourished. In addition, one woman had an inflammation of the conjunctiva and cornea of the eye. The railway doctor gave us the necessary medicine and the child was given quinine. When I presented myself as a chaperone and doctor, on behalf of L.N. Tolstoy, the group seemed to be very pleased and even very touched. They encircled me and repeatedly exclaimed, “You’ve come from Grandfather? … Grandfather sent you?… You are from the Count?… May the Lord God grant him the best of health and everything…” At this their melancholy, open-hearted faces expressed spontaneous joy.

Doctor Prokopy Nestorovich Sokolnikov (1865-1917)

At this moment I also became acquainted with their chaperone, overseer K.V. Visotsky, who gave a most flattering account of the party and was concerned about every aspect of its well-being. Shortly, the train station-master, his assistant, and their wives also arrived. They immediately organized the preparation of a meatless meal for the party and distributed by an apple and a rich pastry bun for each of the children.

The picture was quite touching. Emaciated after eight days of shaking, tossing and still more jolting, the children, having had nothing hot or baked to eat for over a week, devoured these apples and pastries so that one had the involuntary desire to give them something more of the same… It is no joke for women and children to make an 11,000-verst (an Imperial Russian measure of distance equal to 1.06 kilometres) journey, (the distance from Tiflis to Ust-Notora in the Yakutsk region)! And the 2800-verst etaup (way-station) route from Irkutsk to Yakutsk still awaited them!

The challenge — how to safeguard these women and children so as to reunite them with their fathers — appeared truly difficult and complicated… The way is long, arduous… What if, along the way, the children become sick with typhus due to the hunger and fatigue!.. What if there is dysentery, scurvy, etc.? Doukhobors do not eat meat, fish and in general avoid all that is the result of death and killing… Therefore, the challenge becomes even more complex. The kind-hearted overseer once wanted to treat the children to soup, but the mothers did not allow them to eat the soup.

From Kozlov, that very day the party was sent on two train cars through Tambov, Penza, Samara, etc. The local people showed the best side of their personality: they displayed much kindness toward the children, comforting them and even giving them money for milk. In a word, the train station “Kozlov” flashed by as a bright spot in the hard and difficult life of these women and children.

Since I had a Third class ticket from Moscow to Irkutsk, and as the party was traveling Fourth class, and, in view of the fact that their circumstances were satisfactory, I, with the consent of the party, decided to travel ahead somewhat and go into Tomsk on personal matters, and then meet up again at the “Taiga station”… Here I will briefly interrupt my notes…

Outstripping the party travelling from “Kozlov”, I calculated that I would arrive at “Taiga” one or two days before its arrival, and so I utilized the time to go to Tomsk, where I had considerable moral obligations to visit with friends and acquaintances, whom I have been waiting to see for a long time and from whom I will, yet again, have to be separated for a long time, maybe even forever… With what a heavy heart, in such instances, must one be parted from dear and loved ones, everyone knows from their own experiences, so I need not make further comment here. But I must say that Tomsk is also particularly dear to me, because I had spent my early years as a student there, – these were undoubtedly difficult, but at the same time the best years of my life… It matters little, that at that time I became somewhat disillusioned with life and people, as well as with the university and professors. Little does it matter also, that many circumstances in life and immediate conditions were morally depressing, rather than being conducive to our education and well-being. Incidentally, the purely Asian features of local life and its immediate surroundings did not destroy the enthusiasm of the best of our group and did not have the demoralizing effects, that one would have expected, but on the contrary, forged and tempered a moral strength that prepared them for life’s difficult battles – this is evident, first of all, from the success of the Tomsk students working in the medical field, and secondly, in their exemplary behavior in matters of pure fellowship. Having made a small excursion into past territory, I return to the present.

In Tomsk I was able to spend three days (April 3, 4 and 5). During that time I met many fine and responsive people, wishing, without fail to offer any help they could to our party, that is, to the Doukhobor women and children. In this regard, they often gave their very last and hard earned pennies. For example, one elementary school teacher, almost physically forced me to take five rubles, and her son, a high-school student, dumped out nearly the entire contents of his piggy bank, and counted out one ruble in silver coins. Another time, the railway conductor, a young, sweet-talking fellow with a Ukrainian accent, gave the mothers a twenty kopeck piece saying “take this for nuts for the children…” Such an input from a poor person is, without doubt, an expression of the best of human nature, and therefore it touches and gladdens one even more than do the larger gifts of rich people.

Therefore, without an accompanying feeling of gratitude, I cannot think of S.E.T. (the engineer’s wife) who not only gave a significant amount of money, but also procured for us various medicines, bandages and sent us 100 eggs, ignoring my reluctance to take such a bulky package. In the end I became convinced that these eggs had at least as much value as the money. The important thing — in all of these efforts to provide money, provisions and medicines one sees a purely maternal concern, which warms, gladdens and comforts all people in need and sorrow. In this manner, donations in Tomsk amounted to 93 rubles, 50 kopecks.

Looking at the magnanimous response of the Siberian people to the fate of the innocent children and women, I was involuntarily gladdened, touched, and my pride found for itself convenient sustenance in this, I was proud of our Siberian men and women (the women were particularly attentive and zealous in their response).

Having stayed in Tomsk with some considerable benefit to the party, I arrived at Taiga station on April 6. But here, unfortunately, I had to wait an extra day. The following day (April 7) the party safely arrived at Taiga station. Our meeting was a happy occasion for both sides. I inquired about the health of the group. They replied: “Praise God, we are all alive and well.” But later it became evident that this was not exactly true, of which I will relate further along.

Having learned that all of our women and children are travelling fourth class in two coaches and that the police overseer is travelling together with them, I decided to also accommodate myself in fourth class, being that with a third class ticket I have the right to travel in fourth class.

I will explain a little about the fourth class coaches. These are ordinary freight cars in the shape of red boxes with white writing: 40 people – 8 horses. They are built so that, through one of the side doors horses can be easily loaded, and on the opposite side there is a double door through which people can pass freely, but horses cannot. At each corner of the car, near the very ceiling, there are four small openable windows, through which light and fresh air comes in. At each end of the car, two rows high, there are wide bunks built in, similar to peasant beds, where people can arrange themselves in rows, cross-ways. In the centre of the car stands an iron stove, which quickly warms the coach inside. However, the warmth in the coach cannot be maintained for long, since, as the train starts moving, all of our doors and windows start to skip, jump, rattle and bang, quickly letting the cold air in and the warm air out. Luckily our women and children are dressed very well. All of the women have wadded jackets and sheepskin coats, and the children have vests, jackets and trousers which are also wadded. The collars are all buttoned up. Evidently, they do not recognize French fashions.

When I handed over the provisions and money collected in Tomsk for the benefit of the party (93 rubles, 50 kopecks) one of the women said: “Sisters! Let us give thanks to God, that He does not forsake us and sends us aid through good people.” Then the women formed a circle, first bowed to each other from the waist, then bowed to the earth, saying out loud: “Praise God”. … Then they went, each to their own spot, sat down and in a soft, mournful voice began to sing a beloved song:

Tell me where you’re going, pilgrim

With a staff in your hand?

There, where God’s grace Is greater, I am going, a pilgrim

Across mountains and valleys

Across steppes and fields,

Across forests and plains,

Friends, I am going home!

Pilgrim! What do you hope for In that far-off better land?

Snow-white robes And a crown of glory!..

Fear and terror are unknown On your path?

Jesus Christ is with me,

From that desired place I am following after Jesus

Over the hot sands… 

They sang together with enthusiasm, with much feeling without any crying or squeaking, although their melodies are very monotonous and it is hard to distinguish individual words.

From later information I learned that the fortune of the group was far from bright. True, the little boy with a fever, Fedya Dimovsky, had more or less recovered. But the woman’s eye had gotten considerably worse during the trip. Besides, it turned out we had another sick person. Six year old Alyosha Makhortov had a severe case of scurvy, to the extent that his teeth and jawbone were literally rotting. In appearance he seemed very malnourished, his face swollen and his stomach bloated. Upon examination I found many loose and dead teeth, so that there was an unbearable odour coming from his mouth.

…With no other resource, I decided to remove the rotten teeth, prescribe a disinfectant mouthwash, improve as much as possible his overall nutrition and so forth. Since the teeth were barely, barely held in the gums, I was able to remove four teeth with my fingers without difficulty. At that the youngster cried, fought and tried to protect himself with his hands and pleaded for mercy… My heart ached and I felt sorry for the youngster, but scrunching up my heart, I did what I felt was necessary.

At the station “Bogotol” I met Dr. Sosunov, a fellow student from the medical university. He provided us with medicines and with the help of his pliers I was able to remove three more teeth.

Trans-Siberian Railway, circa 1890’s. Photo by John Foster Fraser.

With these types of surprises we travelled from “Taiga” to Irkutsk. I send my sincere thanks to all of my fellow doctors who helped us by providing medicine. In brackets I will say that the migrational doctors helped us more quickly and extensively than did the railroad doctors, who seemed to have less medicines and were more entangled with various formalities which interfered with the actual efforts of medical assistance. For example, for some reason the railway pharmacy would not release medicine according to my prescription, but required the signature of their own doctor, but in Moscow, Tomsk, Irkutsk, medicines were given out on all of my prescriptions, in that I am a certified doctor of the Russian empire. The migrational doctors were of exceptionally important service to us at the Bogotol and Kansk stations (Sosunov and Oreshko).

In this manner we travelled from the Taiga station to Irkutsk in generally good conditions, benefitting everywhere from the attention and consideration of the more cultured public. The only exception to this attitude was the behaviour of Sergeant-Major Kokhtev (a lower rank of the military police) who serves at the Nizhniudinsk station. Upon hearing that our women sing their prayers in the cars, he sought to forbid them this singing. The women of course, became confused and went silent; but our accompanying police overseer, K.V. Visotsky, intervened on their behalf and explained to Kokhtev, that there is nothing reprehensible in their songs. But the overly zealous sergeant-major was not subdued and in an even more raised tone asked the overseer: “And who are you?.. What business is it of yours?!” The other introduced himself and added: “If you like, I have instructions authorizing that all of the military police detachments at the train stations must show us all manner of assistance.” The sergeant then went to complain to the detachment captain, who didn’t attach any significance to it. This incident concluded without any legalities, but left all of us there with bad feelings. “Oh, our motherland, Siberia!” – one involuntarily thinks to oneself. On this I will conclude my account up to Irkutsk for the time being.

On April 13, at about 5:00 o’clock in the afternoon, we arrived at the Irkutsk station. Regarding accommodation, K.V. Visotsky conferred by telephone with the city’s chief of police, who responded very kindly and immediately showed us to temporary lodgings. The accommodations designated to us were in the Novozhilov building, on Preobrazhenskaya street. At that, the chief of police expressed his regrets that we had not notified him by telegram from along the way… Had we thought to do that, no doubt better quarters would have been prepared for us.

Upon leaving the station, we were met by the local migration official, I.A. Strukovsky, who initially took us as migrants, but then, of course, the situation was clarified; regardless, he was of great assistance, providing us with addresses and very relevant instructions concerning our further activities in Irkutsk; not to mention the material help which the Irkutsk citizens subsequently bestowed upon us, and in which Mr. Strukovsky played a visible role.

Next, we hired two local drivers, and loading up the wagons with our bundles, sacks, bags, and other goods, set forth in somewhat of a disorderly throng towards town.

We crossed the Angara River by way of the famous pontoon bridge. Our women were amazed to no end, when they saw the bridge suspended on floats, stretching across the huge and turbulent river. Trying to get a good look at the construction of the bridge, they, like children, running to the front and leaning over the railing, peered at the water under the bridge. The fast-moving, clear waves of the exotic Angara rolled by, the sun happily shone and warmed the weary spirits of our sisters. The children scattered and ran ahead of the adults, romping in the sunlight with such joy, like young calves who, lifting up their tails, cavort around the green meadows. Seeing the children’s hearts filled with such spontaneous joy and sensing that the adult mothers were no less joyous, having for the first time set foot on solid ground following a continuous, nearly uninterrupted journey of 26 days by rail in fourth class, the heart of an outsider could also not help but feel gladdened. In all honesty, there was much to be happy about, now that the women and children had safely traversed some 7000 difficult versts. But oh! – My mind dictated skeptical thoughts and to me it was clear that we had accomplished relatively little, as before us was by far the harder half of our journey – that is, the distance from Irkutsk to Yakutsk (2800 versts), that we would have to travel in the convoy system, and then another 900 versts by river – Lena and Aldan, that is, from Yakutsk to Ust-Notora, to where the husbands of these women had been exiled and were now settled. I, therefore, hid my forlorn thoughts from the women.

Having arrived at the Novozhilov Building, which was on Preobrazhenskaya street, we arranged our lodgings in an annex. At first it was fairly damp there, cold, dirty, dusty and with a very obvious musty cellar odour. But were we to complain about the lack of convenience?! We should feel blessed that the lodgings, firewood and water were provided for us by the city, free of charge. However, when I came the following day, I hardly recognized yesterday’s place. The dusty and dirty floor had been thoroughly swept, the low, dirty, black bunks were covered and heaped with clean, colourful bedding, clothing, and travellers bags, so that these unattractive bunks for a time forgot that, year after year, half-drunk people had trampled and dirtied them… Even the glass in the windows looked cleaner and brighter… After two-three days, the musty cellar smell was gone. In a word, the old, half-rotten, wooden outbuilding, half sunken into the ground, was turned into a relatively usable and pleasant quarters. Here, automatically, one recalls the phrases in praise of women’s capable, caring hands.

Not to put it off, the next day I went to deal with administrative issues. I went to see the governor, inspector of prisons and police chief to make arrangements regarding the outfitting of the convoy-party in May. As the Doukhobor women did not have sufficient funds, and as the distance from Irkutsk to Yakutsk (2800 versts) could cost a considerable amount, the following plan had been developed: from Tiflis to Irkutsk, whether by sea or by train, they would travel on their own funds, then from Irkutsk to Yakutsk they would be transported by the prison convoy method, at the state’s expense, for which they would first have to be “arrested” in Irkutsk.

The top administration in Irkutsk responded to the fate of our group with special care and concern. I was given permission to accompany the convoy. Unfortunately, we didn’t arrive in time for the selection of the first prisoner convoy of 300 people, which was by then already filled up and a list of their names finalized. Any changes to the completed list of people for transport could raise all manner of displeasure amongst the prisoners. Therefore, there was no possibility of sending us with the first party of prisoners, which was to depart from the Alexandrovsk Central Transit Prison on May 5, 1899. As concerned the second party, it would only be fully outfitted by July. Consequently, we had only two alternatives: to wait for the departure of the second party of prisoners, or travel at our own expense to Yakutsk. The first option was very unappealing to us due to the delay, and the second was completely out of the question due to lack of funds. The administration, however, in view of its exceptional leniency with our group, found a third alternative – and that was to send us as a special group ahead of everyone. In this way, we were notified to be ready to depart on April 23. For transporting us and all of our belongings from Irkutsk to the Alexandrovsk Prison were hired, for 50 rubles, some kind of itinerant peasants who would be going to Irkutsk and back to pick up supplies to sell at the Easter celebrations. Alexandrovsk Prison lies in the direction of Yakutsk, 60 versts from Irkutsk. Thus, in principle, our journey was decided. But a rare, fortunate occurrence completely changed our plans.

The following day I was in the office of A.I. Gromova, where I met her senior agent, M.V. Pikhtin, in whose name I had a letter from Count L.N. Tolstoy, with a request that, if possible, the Doukhobor wives be taken on a barge of one of the ships belonging to A.I. Gromova. The effects of this letter were startling. Immediately there took place a family discussion with the sons of Anna Ivanovna, I.I. and V. I. Gromov, who responded warmly and sympathetically to the request of Leo Tolstoy, and M.V. Pikhtin came forth with the following, touching phrase:

“Since such a world-renowned writer and great person as Count L.N. Tolstoy, whose creative works brought us so much great pleasure, is asking us to participate in the fate of these people, then we, from our side must do all that is necessary.”

After this, they decided to absorb all of the costs for getting the group from Irkutsk and right to Ust-Notora (3700 versts). They decided to specially hire, at the expense of A.I. Gromova, 10 transport wagons which would initially get the party to the village of Kachuga, which is the embarkation point for all the merchant cargo floated down the river Lena on flat-bottomed vessels called pauzki (pronounced “pawoozki”). Then, from Kachuga to the station of Zhigalovo, from where begins the shipping into open, ice-free waters, it was proposed to send the party on pauzki. Finally, from Zhigalovo and right to Ust-Notora, it was considered possible to go on a barge attached to one of the Gromovs’ ships. That was the plan for continuing our journey.

That very day I ran into the Novozhilov Building and told the women of the Gromovs’ decision to transport them, at no charge, right to Ust-Notora. At first, the women didn’t seem to understand the significance of this announcement, but then, when I finished with “and therefore, ladies, their will be no convoy… We will not have to be part of the prisoner convoys..!”, several voices as one repeated my words: “There will be no convoy! There will be no convoy!”, and there was a cry from one hoarse, but strong voice at the back. Looking back, I saw our elderly man, Nikolai Cheveldeyev. His usually calm, and even apathetic expression, was visibly excited, and his glassy, large eyes were staring off into the distance. Momentarily, the facial muscles twitched slightly, the elder’s graying brows flickered and tears began streaming down his cheeks… But these were tears of joy, tender emotion… Everyone wept except for the children, who looked at the elders with big, incredulous eyes and, apparently, unable to come to a clear understanding of what was taking place in the hearts of the elders, did not know what to do. Recovering from their first reaction, the women stood in a circle, bowed to the ground and thanked God for sending good people. At that they exclaimed, “May the Lord bless them!, May the Lord bless them!” Then they had the children do the same.

In the following days in Irkutsk, the women and children were visited by various cultured people, men and women, who brought them money and provisions…. There also appeared some brothers and sisters who shared the Doukhobor beliefs, who more than once hosted our sisters in their homes.

Pauzok on the River Lena, c. 1899. Photo by John Foster Fraser.

Without expanding too much on the goodwill of the Irkutsk intelligentsia to our group, I must give special thanks to our friends, doctors P.I. Fedorov and P.N. Shastin for their very sympathetic attitude, the editor of “Vost. Obozr”, I.I. Popov and his wife, Mr. Posarevsky for dispensing a considerable amount of medication free of charge, A.G. Luri, I.I. Mainov, I.A. Strukovsky and his wife, the senior administration of the town of Irkutsk. In general, various good people of Irkutsk gave more than 200 rubles to the cause of the Doukhobor wives and children.

In Irkutsk, aside from the good will of the people, there was some unpleasantness. Soon after our arrival in Irkutsk, measles broke out amongst our children. At first Andrei Sofonov become ill. It was very difficult for us to isolate the sick youngster and his mother from the rest of the children. We had to quickly get permission from the city officials to occupy the lower portion of an adjacent building. Again it was necessary to heat the building, obtain firewood, etc. We then divided the group between the two buildings in the following manner: the mother with the sick child and all the women without children were left in the original wing, while the remaining mothers and their children were taken to the new building, with instructions to avoid contact as much as possible between these two buildings. But alas! – These efforts were almost fruitless, for too infrequently was I able to enforce them, and as soon as I would arrive, I would be greeted with everything in disarray, i.e. those from the “wing” would be found in the large home and vice-versa. As a result my arrangements for isolation were not completely carried out. Of course, I knew full-well that I was dealing with uneducated women who had no clear understanding of communicable diseases and couldn’t understand the importance of isolation, and particularly as they were very much accustomed to helping one another in a communal way, which was very evident here; nevertheless, I was not about to do otherwise. It is true that at first I suggested to take the sick child and his mother for a time to the Bazanovskaya children’s hospital, but the women were not in agreement with this step, particularly as they were expecting that they would soon be departing for Yakutsk province.

On the other hand, I could not bring myself to violate their communal bond and force a separation of the mother and sick child from the rest of the group and their emotional support, even for a week.

In time, the situation of the group in Irkutsk significantly improved. The child recovered from measles, and the other children, to all appearances, did not get sick. The child who had been ill with scurvy, Alyosha Makortoff, had significantly improved. The woman with the eye condition had also improved.

Finally, on April 23rd, we escorted the group from the Novozhilov building past the edge of town. The group was walking in high spirits and singing their spiritual hymns – psalms. On the day of the women’s departure, the Irkutsk Doukhobors prepared a sort of farewell dinner and accompanied the group beyond the city boundary. Then I became aware that the “brothers in faith” had supplied the women with provisions and a small amount of money. Then, from some village below Irkutsk, a group of Doukhobor brethren came out to the main road to meet them, brought them some supplies and bowed to the ground before them. They said that the parting was very touching. Many were crying to the point of sobbing. But I had remained behind in Irkutsk with the intention of catching up to the group later, thinking that their situation was satisfactory for the time being.

Lagging behind the party by three days, I overtook it one night at a station and arrived at Kachuga one day ahead of it. The group arrived there on April 29th. There I learned that the women had arrived not altogether satisfactorily. During one descent, a horse began to run down from the top of a hill, causing one of the women to fall from the wagon, hitting her knees on the ground and catching her dress in the wheel. In that manner she was dragged by the horse for several yards. Thankfully, the dress was made from fairly poor quality material and was easily torn away by the wheel. Nonetheless, the woman received several abrasions, one cut and considerable injury in the areas of both knees. At one of the stations, Dr. Toropov applied an antiseptic bandage to the wound. Aside from that, we had others who had become ill. Along the way, three more children developed measles, but the rash had already gone away. In that manner in Kachuga we comprised a virtual hospital. M.V. Pikhtin assigned the women a relatively convenient granary at the Andreevsky dock, where supplies were to be loaded.

The loading took almost two days. In that time we made various purchases for the road, in Kachuga we went to a medical station where a medical doctor’s assistant welcomed us very warmly and dispensed various medicines. It turned out that this assistant had already learned from the newspapers of the imminent arrival of the Doukhobor women. He also know that Count L.N. Tolstoy was the sponsor of these women. In Siberia there are many fans of Leo Tolstoy, which doesn’t surprise me in the least, as the Siberian populace likes to read and knows all of the best writers by their works. But in one instance I was absolutely amazed. When I was seeing the party off from Irkutsk, while seeking out a coachman, I wondered into a shabby housing district and there I encountered a very poor Jew, who took up a conversation with me and quickly concluded that I was the very same doctor who was accompanying the women. “Allow me to inquire, are you a doctor?” he asked. At my surprised reply, he explained. “I know, I know! I am very happy to see you… you are travelling at the request of Count Tolstoy… I read about it in the newspaper.”  Very enthusiastically, he proceeded to elaborate about Lev Tolstoy, and I was very favourably amazed. The not-too-clean, worn out and bedraggled old man would have surprised me less had he asked for some gratuity, then when he began a discussion of Count L.N. Tolstoy…

Loading a Siberian river barge, circa 1899. Photo by George Kennan.

After a laborious loading of supplies, on May first, at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon, we left the Andreevsky dock in two pauzki. Earlier we had had to draw the pauzki to the opposite shore by cable, from there, by a winding channel, get to the village of Kachuga, and there, joining other pauzki, float downstream on the Lena. At first, using a tow-line, the workers had dragged the pauzki upstream, then by boat, had strung a thin cable (across) which then helped in getting the pauzki to the other shore of the Lena, which is quite narrow at that point (only about 50-60 yards). Just as we got across to the other side, a slight breeze came up. The pilots decided that it wasn’t possible to go further in such weather. This was based on the fact that the pauzki are only suitable to float in very calm conditions. As soon as a slight wind comes up, it can easily run the pauzki aground onto a sandbank. The steering mechanism and oars of this flat-bottomed, box-like vessel, lying flat on the surface of the water, and with a heavy load of 3000 pounds, were of little use in controlling the vessel, because the pauzki float downstream with the flow of the water like a wood chip, going their own way. Should a slight wind begin to blow either from the back or the side near shoals or winding channels, it is very easy to be blown ashore. And once the pauzok runs aground, it requires much effort to free it and sometimes it is completely impossible, especially when there is a diminished water level in the river.

In view of the unexpected stop, we did a number of things to make the time go by faster. The women and I walked over to a nearby Buryat village with the intention of buying some milk. But there, speaking in a nearly unintelligible Russian, they asked for 30 kopecks for a bottle of milk, which seemed very expensive to us and so we didn’t buy any. At this, an elderly Buryat fellow, who spoke a little Russian, looked in the direction of the women and said, “You many wife.” I couldn’t help smiling at this, and walked away. After wandering haphazardly through many Buryat yards, more than once climbing over a fence, we came upon one very wealthy home of Russian design. Here there didn’t appear to be any men-folk and the women, seemingly somewhat frightened of us, responded to our questions very curtly and with negative shakes of their heads. With nothing else to do, we returned to our pauzki empty-handed.

Very early in the morning of the following day I heard cries, shouting and pounding on the roof of our pauzok. Its planked roof was shaking and trembling. One could hear the workers running in unision and with all of their might, jerking the steering mechanism. I walked over to one end of our cabin and peered through a crack. We were floating slowly — along a winding channel; near Kachuga a wind came up again. Again we are hugging the shoreline. In this way, again we are stopping for another day, not having travelled even five versts. Such was the unfortunate start to our voyage. The women became despondent in view of these circumstances. But I consoled them by saying, that after Zhighalov, once we boarded the ships, we would be travelling faster.

On May 3rd, very early in the morning, we resumed our journey. There was the very same pounding and shouting, the very same running of people on the roof. But on this day, there were no special stops. For short periods, one or another of the pauzki (there were four of them floating together) would become caught on a shoal, but then would free itself, and we would float on further. We floated slowly with the current. In places the course of the river would split into two channels, and then it was necessary to exert special effort to prevent the pauzki from running aground. Here the shores of the Lena are very picturesque. On the right-hand side was a continuous series of cliffs, beyond which loomed the dark, gloomy and mighty taiga; on the left a plateau covered in dense forest. The weather was truly enchanting. The mountaintops and slopes covered in green forest were brightly illuminated by golden rays of sunlight. Birds were singing and the air was filled with the scent of new leaves. In places the mountains seem to move apart and the Lena, cutting through the green hills, creates small meadows. Near these meadows, at the foot of some mountain huddles a small village or postal station, bringing an amazing enlivening effect to this desolate wilderness. Within these immense forests there is no place for people to expand their homesteads. A small piece of cleared land can sustain only a few residents, who must keep up a difficult struggle for their existence. In these places all goods are very expensive, for most have to be imported, including even bread. Here a pound of rye bread costs 6 1/2 kopecks. There is almost no milk, anything manufactured is very expensive. My only consolation, during this time floating down the river, was to sit in sunny weather on the deck and admire the wild beauty of the landscape. The women, coming out onto the deck, keep together in a bunch in some corner, so as not to be in the workers’ way. The workers occupied all of the central area of the deck and, running in unison, operated the enormous steering mechanisms of the pauzki. The old pilot, standing somewhere at the edge of the pauzok, watched for the depth of the channel and shouted out his simple orders, “Work the prow, work the helm! Down with the prow, work the helm!” and so forth…

At this time the women, sitting on the deck, did not so much enjoy the beauty of the place, as they were horrified by the wildness and gloominess of the surroundings. They sometimes spoke out about this, “Lord! How much we have travelled, and still just forest and more forests… These forests and mountains seem to squeeze one’s head as though in a vice and it gets frightening!..”

In the evening of that very day, we arrived at the town of Verkholensk. A boat approached us from the shore, on board of which were two intelligent looking young fellows. They asked: “Are the Doukhobor women here?” “Yes, they are here”, I answered.

They quickly began inquiring about the needs of our group. Then they took me ashore with the intention of showing me to Dr. Rauer’s home. As it turned out, the doctor wasn’t at home, but we were told that he would soon return, so I went inside, where I was introduced to the rest of his friends. In all there were 5 or 6 people, a cultured, sophisticated group of men and women. From the conversation I discerned that these were intelligent people, only temporarily living in Siberia. In such a wilderness it was pleasant to encounter some intelligent people. Soon, Doctor Rauer returned and welcomed me most warmly, supplied me with various medicines and kept me a whole hour. Our pauzki were to stop for the night a little ways downstream from Verkholensk. Dr. Rauer knew exactly where our docking site was and promised to get me there on horseback. However, when we set out to cross the Lena on the pontoon bridge, a heavy downpour broke out, which flailed us the entire distance of two or three versts, and it was so dark, that several times we lost our way and, finally, decided to cover the remaining distance on foot, leaving the horses along the way. Eventually, the rain abated somewhat and from a distance of a hundred metres or so, we were able to discern a campfire on one of the pauzki. Coming along side of it, I saw several human silhouettes and inquired: “Whose pauzki are these? Gromov’s?” “Yes, Gromov’s!”, someone answered from the deck. “Where are the Doukhobor women?” “They aren’t here…” “Not there?! The Doukhobor women must be here!”, I exclaimed. “Oh, this is our doctor!” Someone had recognized me by my voice and added: “Yes, yes, the Mukhomori (mistaken term for a “mushroom”) are here.”

In this manner we found our pauzki and went to see Alexander Grigorievich, who worked for the Gromovs. There we encountered an entire “community”. It appeared that two men and two women from the group of exiled intelligentsia that I had met earlier, had walked in the pouring rain and had brought with them a veritable mountain of all kinds of provisions (a great quantity of eggs, tea and sugar) for our party. But, thanks to the lateness of the hour and inclement weather, they were not even able to see those for whom they had shown such great concern.

Early in the morning of the following day we set forth on our journey and from that day on we entered a streak of bad luck. It was, in truth, yet in Kachuga that several of our children developed a bloody diarrhea (dysentery), but, for the most part, it was possible to stop it. The more stubborn illness was that of the seven year old boy Fyodor Dimovsky. From birth he was predisposed to a weaker constitution, and suffered from rickets; he had been ill with measles along the way and finally became ill with dysentery which took away his last bit of strength. It is now the third day that he is lying, nearly unconscious, like a sheet. Since he is not able to swallow even very soft foods, he was force-fed a runny gruel with milk, i.e., we forced his jaws open with a spoon and poured into his mouth one mouthful after another. We had no means for feeding him artificially with tubes. His strength was kept up somewhat with caffeine and to try to stop the diarrhea he was given bismuthi subnitrici… But he did not gain strength.

The little boy was very dehydrated and with blue colouring, breathing loudly and hoarsely. His extremities began to grow cold and turn blue. His heart rate was dropping… In a word, it was clear to me that death was near, but I didn’t want to deprive the mother of her last hopes. For that reason I continued to force-feed and medicate him with German precision. After a fairly heavy dose of caffeine, the little boy would revive somewhat, open his eyes and seem to recognize his mother, and me, but with no strength to speak. With his mother he was sometimes stubborn and irritable, but of me, it seemed, he was a little fearful and saw me as a monster, who only knew to force his mouth open several times a day and pour foul liquids into it. Being aware of this, I tried to sit in such a way that when it was time to force-feed him and give him his medicine, that he wouldn’t immediately notice me. The situation was very difficult… For the last while, his mother had gone completely without sleep, whispering some sort of prayers, and going back and forth, from desperation to hope, from hope to desperation: should the boy revive a bit, open his eyes and call her “Mama”, her spirits would instantly lift, and with energetic nervous movements, she would begin to arrange the blanket, the pillow, and, covering him in kisses, ask: “What, my dear?… Tell me what you need!..”…But, alas! To all these questions, chatter and caresses, the boy would only respond by again losing consciousness, closing his eyes, unconsciously smacking his tongue, making some sort of superfluous chewing motions, followed by feeble moans… At this, the mother’s heart is ready to burst into pieces, and again, the poor thing falls into despair… Frozen to the spot, her tears flow in rivulets and her lips whisper futile prayers. One occasionally observes that one or another of the other women comes up and quietly sits near the head of the boy, making some sort of light movements of the hand, as though chasing away flies, and she also whispers a prayer. Sometimes they pray as a group near the sick boy and they even make the children pray together. At this, one hardly would think that they are praying for the recovery and well-being of the sick one, but more readily they remind one of prayers for the dying…

After several days of very trying circumstances for everyone, the young boy passed away on May 4th, about three o’clock in the afternoon, right at the time that we were standing at the dock awaiting the rest of the pauzki which had run aground. We were in a difficult situation. The question of the funeral arose. If the other pauzki which had run aground would be removed quickly and would arrive today, then it would not work out to bury him here. We were waiting near Nikishenskaya village, between the Davidov and Petrov stations. The women, the elderly man and I, in consultation decided this: to go over to Nikishenskaya village, which was situated on the opposite shore of the Lena, a distance of about one verst from our moorage, to purchase some lumber for the casket and get other necessary tools to make the casket, as well as for digging the grave. We decided, for now, to get the casket ready, and then, tomorrow morning, to get started on the grave, if the remainder of the pauzki don’t arrive today.

With one worker and several of the women, we crossed to the opposite shore of the Lena on a boat, and went into the village. There, at one place, we found everything that we needed: we purchased lumber and provisions, acquired the tools and returned to the pauzok. It must be noted here that the ordinary villagers responded to our grief most compassionately. One peasant let us have the lumber and nails for the coffin at a very low price, sold the bread and eggs very cheaply, and didn’t charge at all for the loaning of the tools; another woman, who brought us several round loaves of bread and some eggs, refused to accept the regular market price, but charged us less. Even the workers on the pauzki, who were relatively coarse, drinking people, responded to our grief with much compassion, and by the evening of that very day, they had constructed a small, child-sized casket, lined inside with a rose-coloured fabric. The stranded pauzki did not arrive, so we decided to commence digging the grave the following morning.

Next morning (May 5th) the little grave was made ready. Together with the women and old man, in two consecutive groups, we made our way to the opposite shore of the Lena, taking the casket over with us. The women, losing no time, took up the long poles on which they lifted the casket, and proceeded to carry it further…

It was a beautiful morning. The sun shone brightly, illuminating the mountain tops and dense taiga, the Lena, swirling in quick, dark waves with their metallic sparkle, cut through the mountain ridges, dark forests and green knolls. The Lena was mysteriously beautiful in its gloomy grandeur. The birds twittered merrily and the air carried the aroma of the coniferous trees… And there, amongst the green hills, where from a chink in the mountain side, runs a pebbly stream, becoming a loud waterfall at the foot of the hill, one can see a bunch of women in colourful clothing milling about… The group begins to spread out, moving slowly and making its way up the hill… The lid of the casket flashes reflectively in the sunlight and slowly the tiny casket appears, covered in a white shroud. Suddenly, the sound of harmonious, heart-wrenching singing is heard… This was the Doukhobor women singing their funeral psalms. With a moan, in a trembling wave, the sounds flew out from the breast, flowing out and away… to die out in the faraway hilltops and the dark forests, the final tones echoing off the cliffs along the river’s edge…

Climbing to the hilltop, I observed the following scene. The women, forming a circle, sang various psalms, and in their midst, on the ground, stood the tiny casket, in which could be seen the pale face of the dead boy, with a white scarf at the neck, tied in a pretty bow. The hands of the boy were placed on his chest, in a manner similar to our deceased, and for some reason clasped another clean, white handkerchief. To the left, among the pine trees, the worker, up to his chest in the hole, was using a pick to dislodge the last rocks from the grave. The ground, almost in its entirety consisted of rocks and it was very difficult for the workers to dig the grave. These rocks were followed by stone slabs so huge that it was impossible to break them apart with the pickax. It was decided to conclude the digging and to inter the boy, lowering him into the grave. At first the grave was filled in with fine earth, sand and pebbles, then smaller stones began to be dropped in… The grave was quickly filled in and a board with an inscription was placed on it, and the gravesite was very prettily bordered with large rounded stones. In this manner giving over to the earth our departed, we returned to our pauzok. First of all we treated our workers to a little vodka, knowing that the local workers are temperamental and don’t do anything without vodka. Then I handed out money for the casket maker and workers at the gravesite. At first, for some reason, they didn’t want to take the money, saying, “We can work for the young boy without pay.” But then they took it.

Siberian barge moored at river bank, circa 1899. Photo by George Kennan.

Having spent the night at this ill-fated place, the next morning of May 6th, we again set off on our way. Luckily, our subsequent travel went more favourably. There were no lengthy stops. It is true, that there were some places where it was necessary to employ all manner of safeguards to avoid once again running our barge aground on a sandbank. As, for example, near the station Ust-Ilga, where there are dangerous sandbars and there is a very sharp bend in the course of the river, it was necessary to ease the barge downriver on the anchor; i.e., taking a small anchor and cable on a boat and pulling it to one side, we dropped it into the water, and by pulling on the cable we were able to hold the barge in the proper direction. In this way, bypassing a dangerous place, the ship left our barge at the shore and went downstream for wood, where there was a stockpile of wood for the Gromov ships.

Taking advantage of this time, the women and I went by boat to the opposite shore of the Lena to the Ust-Ilga station, where we hoped to purchase a variety of provisions. But here we were hard pressed to find even a little bread, potatoes, cabbage and milk. The cabbage and milk were only found at a clergyman’s, where the mother-superior demanded such a price that I was involuntarily amazed, even in light of the general high cost of living which rules in these parts. With somewhat wicked intentions I had at first thought to take advantage of the weaker heartstrings of a woman and mentioned that the milk was needed for our ailing children. But the nun turned out to be more hard-hearted than I had expected; she didn’t discount it even a penny.

Returning from the station, for recreation we walked up from the shore and climbed a hill, at the top of which a beautiful, grandiose vista opened up before us of the Lena mountains and surrounding taiga. The spring sunlight illuminated the wavy foothills of the mountains, covered in dark, gloomy taiga; but this taiga was turning a luxurious green and giving off the rich scent of the newly sprouted needles on the larch trees. The weather was clear and warm… Breathing was easy… The singing of birds could be heard in the air. The Lena, at this point, is relatively narrow, seemingly constrained, and flowed in a blue ribbon through the centre of its valley; but it capriciously swirled, giving off thousands of sparkles of the May sun. It felt good, and in one’s heart, it awakened an involuntary feeling of love and an acquiescence to life.

In the evening of that same day there was an occurrence which upset our entire community. The group of prisoners, which had been released from the Alexandrovsk prison on May 5th, overtook us at this point. From upstream, two pauzki approached us filled with people, in the middle of which was a dark mass of people in Caucasian burkas (a type of jacket). As soon as this was noticed, almost simultaneously several women cried out, “Oh, our people are coming… Sisters, there are our men coming!” Upon hearing this, several women ran up from the hold. Now they were abreast of us… Now they are passing us… The people in burkas, it appeared, recognizing their “sisters”, started taking off their caps and bowing. “How good it would be to approach them now by boat!”, one woman remarked out loud. “That can be done,” I said and called out: “Hey, boys, prepare a boat, quickly. There come the husbands of our women!… They must get to see them.” Two good fellows instantly appeared in a boat and began to bring it alongside of us. “Wait, they are coming themselves!”, someone from the group cried out.

Sure enough, from the prisoner’s pauzok, people descended into a boat and immediately set to the oars. A second boat soon followed. A few minutes later, the husbands and relatives of our women were already on our deck. There were but a few men, but it is impossible to express the joy of the meeting in words. First of all, however, the men as well as the women, bowed to each other, to the ground, and with tears in their eyes, began kissing one another. Following the ritualistic kissing, they began conversing and questioning, as to each other’s health, etc. In ordinary circumstances, the Doukhobors act slowly, in a measured, cautious manner, giving the appearance of people who are apathetic, and who must contemplate each step they make and each word they say. But here their emotion and haste were evident in everything. After conversing for about 15 minutes, the men departed. From the context of the conversations, it was apparent that these people are prepared to endure, silently, all manner of ordeals. The men said that they were fine, both while in prison as well as on the road; and the women said that they were travelling fine, when the real truth was that the children had endured virtual epidemics and the group had experienced many inconveniences and hardships. At the point of the men’s departure, I was introduced to them. This occurred as follows: Several women whispered something to the men, and they, glancing at one another, come up to me, one after another, to shake my hand, saying, “We humbly thank you for staying by our womenfolk.” “There is nothing to thank me for… I look after very minor things and I do so at the request of “Grandfather”, at the request of Count L.N. Tolstoy”, I said in response. “All the same! We are nonetheless grateful to you… We are grateful to “Grandfather” also… But you went to a lot of trouble on behalf of our women, tiring yourself out for them all through the journey.” “I had to come out here anyway.” “In any event, you have put out a lot of effort,” insisted the “brothers”. Following this the men left, and we, with the coming of darkness, stayed there until the following morning.

Our subsequent journey did not present any obstacles. For this reason we are able to say that, the end of our trials had finally arrived. The only serious, unfortunate incident to be noted, was in regard to the one woman, who had earlier received the injury and abrasions in the area of her knee joint; it had become infected and was now red and inflamed. The fault lay with the injured woman, herself. She, as I’ve said, had removed the antiseptic bandage, and at first applied a suspicious looking cream. In this manner she had contaminated the wound and ended up having to endure the results of her own ignorance. And as her secretive “healing” whisperings evidently did not help her, and the inflammation continued, it became necessary for me to get involved in the matter again. This time it was necessary to put into practise all that was available to us in order to turn the situation around. The inflammation did not go down for a long time, and then only slowly began to gradually improve.

Travelling through Kirensk, we met up with Dr. Feight, who knew of the group from the newspapers and was very interested in its well-being. He brought candy for the children. Then it became apparent to us that this doctor was himself not a willing resident of Eastern Siberia, having landed here from the capital, and now residing in the main town of the region. In the impenetrable forests of Siberia it is amazing whom one might encounter…

As we had travelled through the village of Vitim before the fire we were very impressed with its wealth and external splendour. This village, due to its proximity to the gold mines of this region, has become very wealthy and serves as a central station for ships travelling along the Lena and Vitim rivers. In this village there is a telegraph, post office, church, excellent stores and shipping dock. When there is a huge influx of workers coming and going from the mines, the population of Vitim reaches 15 thousand people. Here, because of the large exiled element and all manner of unemployed and often broke mine workers, drinking, card playing, fights, theft and killing – is not uncommon. That is why Vitim has long been known as a centre of drunkenness, depravity and all manner of crime. But even here were found people who were kind to the Doukhobor women and children. We are particularly grateful to Dr. Zakonov and the representative of K. Korzukhinskaya – Mr. Kurenko. The first supplied us with medicines, free of charge, and the second gave us 15 rubles (which had been gathered from some kind people) and a large variety of provisions (potatoes, flour, onions, milk, sugar, honey and even lemons). All this was very needed and very welcome, in that the provisions of our women were very depleted and everything here is very expensive.

Group of women and children exiles standing in front of barracks, c. 1899. Photo by George Kennan.

Further along, we also stopped at the town of Olekminsk, where the party was warmly greeted by local Skoptsy, also exiled for their sectarian beliefs. They organized a meal for the women befitting a parting dinner, served tea and listened to their religious hymns. On parting, they gave additional provisions. The Doukhobor brother, Konkin, of whom our party speaks with much enthusiasm, we didn’t have the opportunity to see, as he doesn’t live in the town of Olekminsk itself, but some 30 versts away. From the town of Olekminsk I had to send a report and evidence of the death of the little boy Fyodor Dimovsky, who had passed away on May 4, near Nikishenskaya, since in our rush, I had forgotten to inform the local authorities of the death of this boy. Right before our departure from Vitim I had heard that the gravesite of our little boy was going to be dug up, because we had not informed the local authorities of his death. I kept this unpleasantness hidden from our women.

In the end, on June 1, 1899, near 12 noon, we arrived at the town of Yakutsk, where the party was met by their husbands and brothers-in-spirit. The joy of the reunion, to my astonishment, was not distinctive for its degree of enthusiasm. To the contrary, there was a feeling of some sort of melancholy. The men and brothers, upon seeing the “sisters”, seemed to be recalling their enchanting homeland in the Transcaucasus, and were saddened by that; and the women, stepping onto foreign soil, might have felt that now everything had come to an end, and that once and for all they had been torn from all that was dear, important and familiar to them. Furthermore, the new homeland welcomed them with a frowning face: on May 31, as they neared Yakutsk, it began to snow. The poor women involuntarily exclaimed, “Oh! How shocking!… Snow at this time of year!..” The elder, Nikolai Cheveldeyev, sat the entire time at the front of the barge in his winter clothing. He wore an enormous yellow coloured sheepskin coat and his hat was also of impressive dimensions. Bundling up in this coat, he gruffly commented, “The wind is puffing pretty strongly, harshly.” Then, as though talking to himself, he quietly told of his old homeland: “As soon as the wheat is threshed, the Armenians and Greeks bring pears and all kinds of fruit to your doorstep… If you want, you take, if not – you don’t… As much as you need, that is how much you take.” With such a contrast between the old and new homelands for the Doukhobors, of course they would be melancholy, that was completely understandable. The arrival of the “sisters”, as joyous as it was for the “brothers”, could not but open up old wounds of the heart: it reminded them of all that was important, familiar and dear to them from childhood, but lo! was lost forever…

Handing the women over to their husbands and brothers, I departed for town. The women remained that day on the boat. The following day (June 2nd), with the authorization of the regional superintendent, V.H. Skripitsin, the women were assigned to the governor’s empty home, as the governor and family were living at their summer residence. The poor women did not really understand what a high honour they had been given by being accommodated in the very home of the governor, but were much more expressively appreciative of all of the provisions that the governor had donated to them: 72 bricks of tea, 20 puds (an Imperial Russian measure of distance equal to 16.38 kilograms) of grain, and 2 loaves of sugar. The wife of the district police officer also stopped by and brought a large quantity of pastry buns. In this way the highest administrative authorities of Yakutsk greeted the Doukhobor women and children very lovingly and humanely.

On July 12, a large part of the group, accompanied by several of the men, set off by barge of the “Gromov” ship to Aldan, where five versts from the confluence of the Notor and Aldan rivers, a Doukhobor colony of 90 people had formed. The Yakutsk governor and medical inspector, also were on board the Gromov ship.

The governor and medical inspector went into the Doukhobor colony and provided it with essential medicines from the pharmacy aboard the Gromov ship. Returning from the neighbouring Baturuskiy administrative district on June 14, I had missed the party in Yakutsk and therefore wasn’t able to accompany it to Ust-Notora, as the governor had requested of me. With this I conclude my drawn-out observations of the Doukhobor women and children. At this time, with the permission of the readers, I will present a small characterization of these people, as a conclusion.

In our time, Doukhobors present themselves as a fairly odd phenomenon. These simple village peasants with wives and children, are imbued with a common religious ideology having moral-mystical and rationalistic characteristics. In their personal as well as communal lives, they are very modest, honest and with high moral standards. They not only will not hurt other people, but will not defend themselves when they are being hurt, i.e. they do not resist evil with violence, as if in compliance with recent teachings of Count L.N. Tolstoy. It must be noted, however, that Doukhoborism came into being before the teachings of the famous writer. Nevertheless, there are significant similarities between Doukhobor beliefs and those of Tolstoy – Doukhobors renounce ceremonies, churches and adhere to vegetarianism (the Doukhobors adhere to Lenten foods, not even eating fish). Furthermore, they do not smoke tobacco and do not drink wine. Their marriages are by free will (civil ceremony), but thanks to the extraordinary meekness, patience and mutual respect of spouses they de facto remain unbreakable. The Doukhobors are not negative towards education and grammar (reading and writing), but are not too trusting of our schools, believing that they can give children a false religious-moral upbringing. The commandment “Thou shalt not kill”, they, evidently, understand in a very strict and literal sense, and therefore will not take up arms and refuse all manner of military training. Toil is incorporated as a basic principle of life, and the community, from an economic point of view, maintains a communistic character, in that all of these people are brothers. Therefore, in principle they reject private ownership. They regard exile and forced migration as a martyr’s cross, which leads to salvation. For that reason they endure exile, prison, deportation, and painful ordeals of the road with joy and to force them to complain of their fate is totally impossible. Destitute circumstances, suffering, death and all kinds of life’s misfortunes only serve to raise the moral spirit of the sect and its members draw together ever closer and closer as a result. Being in such a mystical-martyr-like state, it almost appears, that they welcome the wreath of struggle and suffering. From this springs the unconditional, absolute love of Doukhobors for one another. From this comes the peace and blissful demeanor of the members of the community. They are gathered, as one would at the moment of death, or after confession – full of love and forgiveness.

Group of Doukhobor women and children reunited with men in Yakutsk, Siberia, circa 1899

The religious spirit is so strong among them, that even the children are filled with the emotions of the elders, and do not fight amongst each other. During the course of the three months that I lived amongst the women, not only did I never hear any quarrels, but not an argument either (and a woman’s temperament, as is well known, is very fervent). In that time, there was also not a single fight amongst the children, but only once or twice a little boy took a stick away from a little girl. The children play very little and rarely… They are serious, almost like children who are ill or who are very poor. Once I picked some flowers along the shore and brought them to the children. One woman began dividing them amongst the children as one would treats, saying, “This one is for Malashka, this one for Vaska, and so forth. The children stand in a mannerly fashion, and politely take only that which is given to them. The children never argue amongst themselves, but prayers, greetings and religious hymns are known by all (from age 3 to 8). I only once witnessed how four year old Malasha, not so much swore as joked: “You are a cat yourself!.. You are a cat yourself!..” In a word, I will preserve the very best memories of these quiet, honest and virtuous people. As for their unfortunate little children, involuntarily sharing the fate of their parents – they deserve the greatest compassion, love and kindness, as examples of innocent, angelic purity, embodied in the delicate and vulnerable fragility of their tender age. Farewell, dear children, and farewell to you, Fedya Dimovsky, whose body lies on the stoney shore of the Lena, amongst the green conifers, near the chattering mountain stream. The End


Following their long journey from European Russia to Yakutsk, Siberia, Doctor Sokolnikov’s close relations with the Doukhobors continued. He became their correspondent with the outside world, publishing favorable articles about them in the Irkutsk newspaper “Vostochnoe Obozrenie” and acting as an intermediary between them and other people, particularly Tolstoy, who provided financial assistance through him to the exiled Doukhobors from 1899 to 1901.

My Memories of Grandmother and Grandfather Sookochoff

by Cyril Brown

The following is a collection of stories selected from the recently printed family history book (December, 2004) compiled and edited by Doukhobor descendant Cyril Brown. The book, entitled “Backward Glances”, is a collection of family histories, stories, memories, photos and genealogical information about his Sookochoff and Brown grandparents. As Mr. Brown states in his book, “only a very few can claim outstanding contributions to society but it is often the many uncelebrated individuals that really make a difference.” Indeed, the life stories of each of our ancestors is just as relevant a part of the historical record as the mainstream of history. Mr. Brown hopes that by sharing these stories, it will encourage others to preserve their Doukhobor family histories.

The Homestead

…The blind road which ran past the bottom of our garden near our farm home in an east/west direction was the shortest route to our grandparents the Sookochoff’s near Buchanan, Saskatchewan. Traveling two miles east from our farm on this road would lead directly into Grandma and Grandpa Sookochoff’s acreage. It was overgrown with trees whose branches stretched inward onto a wagon trail, telling the story of its infrequent use. This road was part of the original grid system laid out by the regional surveyors. Because it led you to a miniature lake or large slough, I’m not sure which, the road was abandoned. A new route half mile to the south was constructed in order to skirt this obstruction. This route however was to be taken only in a hurried state to get to our grandparents.

The blind road was impassable to most vehicles other than a horse drawn wagon in summer and a sleigh in winter. In spring a couple of meandering creeks crossed the road forcing the horses to wade knee deep through running water while dragging a sinking wagon through its soft bed. The branches of the trees would brush by the driver, who was almost always Dad, and snap back onto the next person in the line of fire. This always seemed to be at face level. The whipping action of these branches would sting severely and you soon learned to turn away and put your arms out for protection. The stinging of the branches in summer was only minor compared to the lashing you would receive on a cold 20 degree below day and your face was half frozen. This road was only passable in the early part of winter. Snow that fell on open fields would collect in the treed areas after a blizzard and would become too deep even for horses to traverse. 

The location of the original house.

Today five gnarled maple trees stand atop a slight hill as steadfast beacons marking the location where the original old two story lumber house of the grandparents once stood.  This was the house they built after settling on the homestead.  It served the Sookochoff’s well for many years and it was here my mother Mary (Masha) and two uncles, John (Ivan) and Nick (Nicholai) Jr. were born and raised. I must have visited this house in my early childhood yet my memories of it are vague at best. I do not recall any of the interior features.

In the late 1940’s Grandma and Grandpa were growing older and their youngest son Nick Jr. was the last remaining child living with them. Nick Jr. had taken over the agricultural operations and was doing the majority of work on the land.

It was during this time that I recall hearing the news of the fire that destroyed the old house. Following this disaster, there was some question as to whether they would remain on the farm or sell everything and move elsewhere. An auction sale was held and many of the items on the farm were sold. The move however failed to materialize and a decision to rebuild and remain on the land was decided.

Excitement filled the air as construction took place on the new living quarters. The new home was on a slightly different locale. A treed area two or three hundred yards to the south of the old location was cleared and became the spot for the foundation. The remaining trees on the peripheral of the new yard acted as a ready made shelter belt for the new abode.  The garden was strategically placed by a small creek that ran nearby.

The blueprint of the new house was very similar to the one a neighbor Pete Bagalow had built some years earlier. It was a design that was quite progressive and functional for its day.

The “new” house as it appears today.

I recall a spacious kitchen that had a new chrome table and chairs positioned by a sunny east window.  After a hearty Russian supper it was here that the men would linger to tell their stories. 

Grandpa’s favorite was the tale of the mysterious lights. I would listen intently even though I had heard it several times before. Grandpa was a good story teller and with each narration there would be the addition of some new details. With each revealing I found myself entrapped by the adventure he was spinning and once again I would join him as we traveling through the unfolding exploits of the account. I never knew with certainty if it was pure fiction or it wore the mask of reality. He would push his chair away slightly from the table, lean foreward and commence.

“I remember the time I was traveling home on a dark cloudy night,” he would begin. “In the distance I could see a faint light glowing and moving ahead of me near the road I was traveling on. I was sure it was someone lost and I was going to see if they needed help,” he added. “As I moved toward the light it left the road twisting and turning through the field, leading me this way and that. It finally stopped next to some trees.” He would lean into the group so only we would hear. “Well, as I came upon this certain spot, it just disappeared. All I could see were a few mounds of dirt in a grassy area. There was nothing there. No horses, cart or person, nothing,” he commented. There would be a pause and he would take out a cigarette from its case. “There was no trace of a lantern, fire or shiny object anywhere around.” Sulfur crowned matches were found, one of them lit by his fingernail and then brought to the tip of his cigarette. “Because I was so surprised by what took place, I did not mark the spot. When I did not see anyone or anything, I left. It was dark and it scared me. “This light was near the old village where I once lived as a young man and I am sure I now know what it was I had seen, “said Grandpa. He would stop, look around for and ashtray, not finding one, walk to the kitchen stove and tap the ashes from the end of his cigarette into the firebox. “It was rumored among the villagers that the leaders of the Russian emigration party before leaving Russia were given large amounts of gold coins by Queen Victoria to be used in the new settlement. They were put into pots and brought with them to America. No one would be suspicious of the pots during the voyage and they would be strong and easy to move. Once at the new land the pots were buried at a location only known to the leaders.” I listened intently waiting for Grandpa to disclose the location. “It is told that when conditions are right, gold will give off a dancing light where it is buried and then disappear when you are there,” he whispered. By this time I was convinced that we should be looking for a shovel. “If I would have been able to put two and two together right then and there, I would have been a very wealthy man today.” he said. “You can never tell, I may see it again and this time I will know what to do. It is also quite possible the leaders have returned and moved the gold to a new place and then we will never see the lights again. If they did, it will be easy to tell who they are. They will be the ones with beautiful new homes, all the best farm equipment and a new car every second year whether they grow a good crop or not,” he ended.

Grandpa leaned back in his chair an indication that he was finished and we all waited for someone else to bring forth another adventure. Both Dad and Uncle Nick were avid hunters and it wasn’t long before a hunting story was begun.

The wood/coal cooking stove was centrally located in the kitchen and supplied the needed heat for cooking and warming of the house. For additional warmth throughout the cold winter months, a downstairs coal burning furnace with ductwork leading to several registers upstairs helped warm the rooms. I marveled at the innovativeness of this heating system which evenly distributed heat to all parts of the house. Electricity and forced air were to come later.

Great-grandmother Anastasia

A formal dining area and sitting room were located just off the kitchen. The dining room contained a large ornate table and chairs with a buffet situated along a wall nearby. This room was used largely for special occasions or when many guests necessitated the need for a larger eating area.

The arched entrance between the living room and dining room gave me a slight feeling of Russian classical architectural elegance. The dining room extended into the living room and this was where the guests would congregate after the meal. It is in this room that a large white stuffed snowy owl with its sharp scaly talons stood clinging to a pedestal type base. And from here its yellow piercing eyes seemed to be scanning the room for a meal of its own.

On the wall hung a beautiful oval picture frame encircling a black and white photograph of a female figure proudly posing in her best attire.  The soft almost bluish tones of the picture suggested some very early photographic technology or hand painted sketches. I was never told who the individual was or the relationship to the family.

South of the living room and extending the full width of the house was the sun-room with its many windows. It appeared to be an inviting place to relax and enjoy after a hard days work. The hot summers and cold winters however made this room one that could be used only on a limited number of days. I’m afraid it became storage space for various items. In winter it was also a natural freezer for the prized deer carcass that was hunted that fall.

Today, with doors ajar, window openings void of glass and surrounded by numerous poplar trees which seem determined to crowd it out of existence, the bathhouse still stands. It is a fading reminder of the life lead by our grandparents and a link to our Doukhobor heritage. Light filters through the log structure that now has lost much of its plaster to the elements revealing a two room building slowly losing its battle to the forces of nature.

The banya, a forerunner of the modern day steam room stood near the old house and on the outer fringe of the garden and small creek. A wooden floor, low cedar lined ceiling and walls of mud plaster throughout the interior brought you into the change room and dry off area of the bathhouse. A cast iron door on the dividing wall to the adjacent room opened to feed a wood burning stove. It is in this room clothes were shed and towels were placed prior to entering the steam room. 

The bathhouse as it appears today.

Once inside the banya wide wooden benches lined the outer wall welcoming you to a place of rest and cleansing. A metal heater surrounded by bricks at the base and topped with rocks stood along the inner partition. They would absorb and hold the heat needed to create the steam. A wooden door and a small window were the only remaining features of this room. It was here at age eight years I had my one and only experience in a Russian bathhouse.

Occasionally my sister Lois and I had the opportunity to stay over at Grandma’s and Grandpa’s and it was on one of these occasions that I was told I would be joining the men in the steamroom. The firing of the stove to heat the rocks was previously done by Uncle Nick and we were told all was ready. Before we departed there was a brief explanation by Grandpa as to what I was going to experience. So with towels in hand we trotted off to cleanse our soles and any other part of our body that happen to be soiled that day.  After undressing and closing the door behind us we seated ourselves on the benches. A large dipper was dunked into a bucket of water and the liquid tossed on the superheated rocks. Instantly there was a hissing and steam erupted everywhere. I could barely see the doorway. The stove not only superheated the stones and made the room warm but it made the room into a suffocating steam boiler when the water was added. I wasn’t sure what the survival rate was but I was determined to tough it out. Just when I was able to see my toes, Uncle Nick would toss on another ladle of water and once again everything would disappear. After several minutes of this, the body became acclimated to the temperature and the experience became very pleasant. Everyone turned pink and I was told this was a healthy thing to experience. Soap was generously applied and then a splashing of water on our bodies to remove the residue was next.

The remains of the bathhouse heater.

During the bath it was customary to use a bunch of birch leaves on twigs in the form of a broom for whipping the backs of the bathers. Since birch trees were not native to this area, tiny hazelnut or willow twigs were used to gently beat the extremities, thereby enhancing the circulation process of the body. Thoughts of my waywardness quickly darted through my mind. Could this be someone’s opportunity to get even? The absence of twigs in the steam room made me feel reasonably comfortable the tanning of my tender little hide was not in the cards that day.

Visiting Our Grandparents

Our extended stay at Grandmas and Grandpas arose from a medical problem Mom was encountering. Occasionally I would be awakened at night to hear Mom in severe pain talking to Dad. This pain seemed to last from a few minutes to several hours and in an ever increasing frequency as the months passed. Some of these pain filled bouts were less severe than others. From the tone of their voices and from the conversation I overheard, it was something that mom would have to deal with shortly.

In the morning after a severe pain filled night, we were on our way to Grandma and Grandpa’s.  We stayed at their farm while Uncle Nick drove Mom and Dad to the Yorkton hospital. At this time we did not have the luxury of owning a car and we depended on the relatives for any long distance travel. Upon their return my sister and I as much as possible were kept from the details.  We were being spared the worry and fright of the diagnosis.

Pelagea and Nicholai Sookochoff with grandchildren Cyril and Lois Brown.

Later, Mom took us aside and informed us that she had to be away for a couple of weeks and we would be staying at Grandma’s and Grandpa’s farm.  She assured us that everything was going to be fine and we need not worry. Normally going there for a stay or overnight was a jovial one. This was generally a time that we could attack Grandpa, knock him over and claim victory or otherwise fool around until somebody got hurt. Grandpa, as we all knew, loved getting mauled by us but pretended not to. This time however things did not seem to have that note of joy.

In a couple of weeks we were packing our bags for a stay with the Sookochoff’s.  From the bits and pieces of conversation that were floating about I was able to piece together the fact that Mom was probably scheduled for an operation. We were aware of the fact that any operation had its dangers. Even though there was a note of grave concern, just to be free of the pain filled sleepless nights was encouragement enough for Mom to go forward with it.

We arrived at the farm and were left to put our things away in a smaller bedroom while Mom and Dad gave us a hug good bye and continued on to Yorkton.

 Grandma and Grandpa grew up in a Russian environment so English was a second language to them. Grandpa could converse in English well enough to make his intentions known. Grandmother, on the other hand, knew very little of the local dialect and if I was to have a conversation with her it would mean a crash course in Russian. To learn the language involved spending more time with my grandparents or taking more of an interest in the language at home. Mom was fluent in Russian, English and Ukrainian and she would have been pleased to help if I asked.  Since English was the predominant language spoken around our household, Russian was laid aside. I had previously absorbed some of it however, through listening. I knew enough Russian in this situation to keep me from starving or dying of thirst (I did much better with the obscenities).  After a week with my grandparents, I thought I was doing quite well with the Russian Immersion program.

We managed to help slightly around the house and with the chores. I don’t recall breaking anything or doing things that would have put our lives in jeopardy during our stay.

The nights were the greatest. Grandma dug out the feather bed. This was a comforter and mattress cover filled with duck down. It was the softest, fluffiest warmest thing imaginable. It was like sleeping in a cloud. Once you wiggled your way inside, it swallowed you up and kept you toasty warm all night.

I saw very little of Dad for he was at home taking care of the chores and only stopped by when a trip to the hospital was scheduled. I was missing Mom a lot although we were treated royally by Grandma, Grandpa and Uncle Nick. We were told that she was recovering nicely from the operation for a condition called piles and it would be several more days before her return. I waited patiently for the days we would be together again.

Upon her arrival home we all offered our assistance and we catered to her needs as best we could. A pillow to sit on was used everywhere by Mom during the recovery period.  The operation by Dr. Novak proved successful resolving the condition Mom had experienced and things steadily returning to normal.

Life amongst the relatives was not without its carefree sugary moments. It had become tradition in the family that John, Mary and Nick with their families would join Grandma and Grandpa and all congregate at the Yorkton Exhibition each year. This event was a time of fun for everyone, starting at the gate. Lois recalls the time when the younger generation were required to sit on the car floor while their heads were covered with blankets, skirts and jackets. Being absolutely still and quiet was a must, she remembers. This was almost an insurmountable task for youngsters in close proximity. Someone always had a comment, giggle or sneeze. This is where we remained until the car passed the ticket booth and was parked. After disembarking, we were ordered not to stray or get lost as we roamed from attraction to attraction. As the adrenaline slowly diminished we willingly squeezed into the car for the uneventful journey homeward.  The purring of the car motor and the whine of the tires on the road were sedatives to me as I faded off into a deep slumber.

Contact with other children in our age group was occasional and brief. Christmas holidays however, brought with it the good fortune and opportunity to join with our cousins in a stay at the grandparents. It was a stay that usually lasted a week. We patiently waited for the invitation as the holiday drew near.  Our first cousins at this time were those in Uncle John and Aunt Lillian Sookochoff’s family and we hoped they would be invited and joining us. The more the merrier it seemed. Kathleen, their oldest daughter was two years senior to my sister and their younger daughter Lucille was slightly younger than me. Donald their youngest was only a tot and too small to become involved.

During this time Kathleen would frequently arrive for a stay with our grandparents but I do not remember gracing Lucille’s company. We played games of cards, built card houses and the girls whispered secrets. During the day the adults involved themselves with work that required their daily consideration leaving us ample opportunity to interact with each other.  Once the flour came out we would be at grandma’s side watching and trying to assist with the bean or cottage cheese filled pirogi (Russian pies) she was baking that day. Effortlessly Grandma would roll out round balls of pastry then weave closed the filling into oblong pies for the evening meal. We each tried one of our own. It was all worth the effort once the aroma from the baking permeated the kitchen. How soft was the dough and tasty the filling after a light covering with butter.

As the sun deepened in the horizon and before the frost bit deeply into the outdoors, the empty wood box needed its last filling. Grandpa imparted the virtues of physical activity to me. If I participated, I would become big and strong. Rather than a chore of drudgery it was one of teamwork, assistance and a partnership. With an offer like this I usually consented. I would help fill a noosed rope he specially created for this task and when full, he would sling the load onto his back. After grabbing an armful of sticks, back I would trudge losing pieces of wood all along the way. I tried to get as near the house as possible before letting the load escape thereby save myself a long journey back to pick up the pieces.

As the night sky rolled out its carpet of the moon and stars, Russian prayers were said in preparation for bedtime. It started as a “repeat after me” process and as they became more familiar and further ingrained in our memories we joined in unison. With the guidance of Uncle Nick, Grandma or occasionally Grandpa, they were practiced nightly bringing us in contact with the customary Doukhobor prayers. Not knowing the language thoroughly made it somewhat more difficult for me and interpretation was required if it was going to be meaningful.

Getting to sleep in a new environment was difficult and it was occasionally preceded by playing trampoline on the bed until Grandma came into the room.

Grandfather Sookochoff

 Grandpa Sookochoff stood slightly shorter than average and was a stalwart built individual. His well tanned face, rough hand and lean muscular body were evidence of the hard work needed to run the farm. Living off the land was their means of survival and hard work was a part of that equation. Nor was work something Grandpa shied away from. The harder the task the more stubborn and persistent he became. He was very strong minded and not easily swayed from his convictions, sometimes to the frustration of his wife and children.

Nicholai Sookochoff

In their initial days of farming the Sookochoff’s as many, experienced much hardship. It meant more than just doing without money and included the real possibility of starvation as well. In my discussions with Mom, she occasionally spoke of the hunger they had endured and the many hardships they encountered while growing up with her parents in her youthful years. The most difficult times were those encountered after the move to the farm in approximately 1906 followed by the depression of the1930’s. Pride or the threat of losing everything brought their refusal to accept social assistance during these hard times. The need to subsist with nothing but than their land and labor left them with a fear never to be forgotten even in the more prosperous times. To survive and succeed meant that everyone in the family would assist with the work load.  And those years of hardship had worn lines of wisdom into Grandpa’s stern strong face.

To thrive meant being physically and emotionally strong, qualities of grave importance to Grandpa. Apart from battling the wind, rain, dust and snow this was also a time when brute force was needed to clear land, pick roots, prepare hay for livestock and thresh the grain. I remember him saying to me, “You have to be strong to make it”.

As with many Russian homes it was not uncommon to witness the men indulging in alcoholic beverages. The presence of company or an event that required a celebration often invoked the need for several drinks of vodka or home made whiskey. These were poured into shot glasses and downed in one gulp or swigs were taken directly from a bottle which then was passed around. This was followed by a frowning and puckering of ones face as testimony to the strength and harshness of the potent. The frequency of shots was monitored by grandma who whisked away and hid the bottle when the celebrities in her opinion seemed to be indulging a little too much. When Grandpa’s drinking occurred outside the home and there was no one to monitor the amounts he drank, the picture was quite different. It usually ended late at night by him loosely tying the reins of his trusted steeds to the box, starting them on their way homeward and letting them find their residence. Usually his absence was a source of great worry to grandma and many words of disapproval were uttered upon his return. Grandpa would be up early next morning and after a few strong cups of coffee he would still manage a strenuous day’s work. These celebrations usually occurred at more idle times during the farm year and he curbed his drinking when there was work to be done.

Grandpa didn’t come through life unscathed. From my earliest memories he had a stub of an arm. The loss resulted from a farm tractor accident, as Mom recalls. The earliest models of tractors didn’t have rubber tires but steel wheels with large metal lugs used for traction on the rear. It is this type of tractor that was being used by Grandpa that traumatic day. A new tractor with a foot clutch rather than the more familiar hand clutch of the previous model was in his operation. While attempting to back up and latch onto an implement, he lost his grip, slipped off and fell under the tractor. His arm dropped into the lane of the still moving uncontrolled machine and was over-run by the rear wheel. Still others nearest to grandpa report a slightly different version of the accident. It was told that the arm was over-run as well as a portion of the stomach region which was torn open and exposed by the tractor wheel. This necessitated the need for wrapping a flour sack around his waist to keep the entrails from further damage and contamination .The tractor eventually threw him out and away from its oncoming path. Its progress became impeded by the implement and the rear wheels were slowly digging holes in the soil at the time of Uncle Nick’s arrival on the scene. He was hastily placed in the car and sped to the hospital.  The arm was crushed beyond repair and necessitated the removal of the damaged portion. Recovery and adjustment must have been painful and difficult.

With the circulation impaired, it left the arm feeling cold and achy. On many occasions we would witness grandpa sitting with his partial arm tucked into a slightly ajar oven door to bring warmth and comfort to his injury. This handicap however, never seemed to restrict his daily life and I do not ever recall him complaining about its loss.

A frosted lens hid the hollowed socket of a missing eye. The scars on his forehead directly above the eyebrow told of another accident that must have brought him dangerously close to losing his life. This again was not an event I can recall but I did ask about its happening. It was not a subject that anyone cared to discuss in any detail and I can understand why.

An airplane was giving rides to those citizens in the area that cared for the experience. Mom being young and adventuresome wished to try this phenomenon and convinced grandpa to join her on a ride. They were scheduled for the next flight and waited excitedly in line for the plane to land.  As it taxied to the loading area grandpa moved foreword to board the plane.   Not paying attention or a miscalculation of the distance from the prop brought him dangerously close and then into its path. Mom indicated that grandpa had indulged in a few drinks prior to the flight and this may have also hampered his judgment as well. The impact left the skull broken and the brain exposed.

Upon being taken to Canora after the accident, Dr. Anhauser attended to his injuries. It was felt that a wound of this nature and magnitude needed special facilities and personnel who could better deal with a brain and skull reconstruction. He was flown to Winnipeg and was accompanied by Mom. She would act as an interpreter, supporter and decision maker for a time until Uncle Nick was free to relieve her as Grandpa’s care-giver.

 After hours on the operating table and weeks of convalescence, grandpa gradually started to show signs of recovery.  Mom accounts how he lived largely on a diet of buttermilk and watermelon until he started to regain his health. These were the foods he craved. This hardly seemed like a diet that could sustain life and help with the healing process. After recovery, Mom was convinced they had some undiscovered miraculous healing properties.  Amazingly enough, apart from the slight scar and indentation to his forehead, he showed no outward signs of physical disability or permanent memory loss from the injury.

His eyelid took on a puckered appearance from the absence of the eyeball and earned him the Russian nickname “kosoi” or squint-eyed from some of his peers.

At the apex of his farming career, Grandpa had acquired and operated three quarters of land most of which surrounded the homestead. Cattle were always a part of the landscape although grain was their central focus as a source of income. In his latter years of farming I remember seeing a team of horses grazing lazily on a pasture nearby. And when a source of power or transportation was needed they were used only as a last recourse. In summer chickens could be seen dusting themselves around the barnyard while others scratched vigorously with their feet looking for bits of food in the straw covered surroundings. This seemed like such a useless action to me. One that took grain from a pile easily accessible for their pecking to one of seeds scattered everywhere. It reminded me of people digging for bargains at a sale counter. The garden was always an attraction to the chickens and the fence always allowed and entry somewhere. Chickens half running and half flying scurried back to the barnyard in great haste while Grandpa or Grandma with broom in hand could be seen shooing them away.

A few shared moments with Grandpa in 1956 give rise to a gentle smile. By 1950 Uncle Nick had married Laura Holoboff and two years later an expectant mother gave birth to their first born child Lorne. Shortly thereafter Laura fell ill to polio leaving her left side partially disabled and a difficult time for the family resulted. However, in 1956 a second pregnancy brought with it another joyous occasion. The newborn and mother were healthy and in good spirits. It wasn’t long thereafter that many members of the immediate family congregated at the Canora hospital to see the newest relative and now help with his delivery home. After the arrival at the hospital, we stopped in the doorway to Laura’s room. It became apparent that not everyone was going to be permitted into the room at once. It was decided that Grandpa and I would wait in the entranceway until some of the others dispersed. I peeked in from the hallway and can recall sensing an excitement in Aunt Laura voice and seeing a glowing face. How pleased she seemed with their newest addition to the family. Comments of loveliness were being made and resemblances were being picked out as we left the group. Grandpa and I reluctantly worked our way to the public area.

As I waited, I remember sitting on a wooden oak bench next to Grandpa swinging my dangling legs as I watched events within the hospital unfold about me. It wasn’t long before a doctor in his white hospital coat hurriedly passed by. I envisioned doctors as those miracle workers who could fix every malady known to mankind.

An elderly lady in her housecoat nearby spotted him and in a shuffling manner approached him saying in a Ukrainian accent, “Dr. Danyalchuck, Dr. Danyalchuck, I have pains here, my back is sore and my leg hurts when I walk.”

I could not discern what the doctor’s reply was to her. But on his trip back from whence he came, he passed in front of Grandpa and me.

Grandpa hailed the doctor by saying, “Dr. Danyalchuck, why don’t you at least give the lady some pills or medicine to make her feel better?”

“Nickolai,” the doctor responded, “when a threshing machine is all worn out there is nothing we can do,” and then walked away. I’m sure my eyes were as big as saucers and my mouth was agape from the shock of hearing this comment. Maybe it was the doctor’s strategy to make my grandfather smile.

Grandpa and I in due time were permitted to see the new fragile infant. The visitation was a short one as I recollect. I was pleased to make Mile’s acquaintance even though I knew the young lad’s immediate goals were mainly eating and sleeping. As we departed Aunt Laura’s hand squeeze seemed to say she was glad I came. Their attention quickly turned to preparing themselves for the discharge from the hospital and the beginning of Mile’s trek through life.

Grandmother Sookochoff

Grandma’s eyes, so expressive of her mood, were the windows to her soul. Without a word spoken, a note of joy, sadness, anger or fear could easily be told by a quick glance into Grandma’s gaze.

I remember grandma being of average height and heavier set. Her dark hair then streaked with grey was parted in the center, was void of any curl and hung to the nape of her neck. A shawl was added to her head if she was scheduled to go outdoors. An apron over her housedress was most frequently worn as she went about her day to day housework. Apart from different prints on her dresses she did not stray far from the traditional Doukhobor styles.

Pelagea Sookochoff

If she wasn’t tending to the household chores of cooking and cleaning, she would sit with some knitting needles in hand and a ball of yarn tucked into her pocket or bag making some mitts, socks or sweater. So adept was she at this skill, a pair of mitts would be waiting to warm someone’s cold hands by days end. Never once did I see a pattern being followed. Yet these items always turned out a perfect fit.

Occasionally, Grandma would be found seated behind her spinning wheel and was quickly but skillfully feeding even strands of carded wool into the machine. On the spindle, tightly twisted yarn gathered ready for knitting. Grandma always encouraged us to try these skills. What seemed like such a simple procedure for Grandma turned out to be a lumpy uneven mess for me when I was at the wheel. While concentrating on pedaling the mechanism, I would unevenly distribute the wool that was being fed into the spinning wheel. This would produce skinny then thick strands of yarn, hence the lumps. I think she concluded that all men were hopeless creatures in this field and it best be left to the capable hands of the ladies. Her loving arms were always there for a hug and encouragement when the task became too difficult or frustrating.

Once she had your attention and interest, out came the knitting needles and a ball of yarn. I believe my first effort was a pair of socks since they were straight forward and quickest to complete. If the test of your job is in the wearing, I learned the term “half-life of an object” at an early age. Several holes appeared half a day after wearing the socks I made and this lead me to another of Grandma’s valuable lessons, darning. Her eyes always shone with approval at a job well done or a good effort put forth. A gentle pat on the head told you she was proud of your labors. I am sure some bragging was done thereafter.

Her hands were never idle. She could be actively taking part in a group discussion and at the same time knitting, darning, preparing supper or a whole host of other tasks. The work ethic demonstrated by this family could not leave one unaffected.

Grandma always grew an extensive garden that had bountiful fruits and vegetables of many kinds. The tomato plants of unknown variety, although never very tall, yielded massive amounts of fruit that lasted until the arrival of frost in the fall. On her travels through the garden she would hold the lower ends of her apron in one hand while with the other pick and deposit peas into the pocket she had just created. Once in the kitchen, we gladly volunteered our help with shelling the peas, knowing full well we would get to sample every second or third pod. After the tasting was done, the job become a bit more onerous but we carried on until finished or we got tired of picking up peas that shot themselves all over the kitchen. In the event of a dire situation, the warm gentle nature she possessed would often bring her to tears.

 “Oye yoy yoy,” she would utter as she shook her head and wiped the tears from her eyes with the end of her apron or a handkerchief drawn from her pocket. Usually the situation would be resolved and grandma would slowly return to her former self.

Grandma’s agility and flexibility were nothing short of being remarkable even at an older age.  As evidence of this, Aunt Laura Sookochoff remembers a time when someone put a five dollar bill on the floor and challenged Grandma to pick it up with her teeth, hands held behind her back and her legs straight. Grandma widened her stance and with ease bent over, bit into the bill and then tucked it in her purse.

The Golden Years

In the early 1950’s Grandma and Grandpa Sookochoff qualified for their well deserved old age security pensions. And to receive a regular stable income after the risks associated with farming was something new and welcomed by them. Uncle Nick now married was totally managing the farm operation. The new family would need some extra room to grow and operate without imposing upon the elders. They could now spend some relaxing free time in their golden years. The decision for the grandparents to leave the farm and relocate into the town of Buchanan was made. This concept sounded like an excellent idea.

Partaking in a more leisurely way of life sounded ideal however it was a source of concern to those nearest the Grandparents. They had worked from dusk to dawn for countless years and to abruptly stop could prove disconcerting. To them working was like eating and sleeping, it had to be done daily. It was customary to live with the children who would give them the security and care in their maturing years.  It was feared that leaving the old familiar surroundings for a new establishment may prove to be too much of an adjustment for the aging Grandparents.

By coincidence, Ralph Brown my uncle the butcher and meat market owner of many years in the town, was finding refrigerators and locker plants popping up in great numbers. The need for a butcher shop was diminishing. He was at the retirement age himself and retire he did.  He and his wife Verna had planned on joining their daughter Ruth and husband Ivan Reid in Moose Jaw after giving up work. As a result, it left a square cottage styled house across the road from the United Church available for some new owners. It stood on the corner lot of Second Street one block east of Central Avenue. It had a “widow’s walk” or belvedere situated on the roof suggesting a blueprint originating near the sea. Traditionally, wives of the fishing captains stood on the “widow’s walk” to watch for signs of flags on the incoming banking schooners.  I had many opportunities to visit this home when the Browns resided there.

The retirement home of Pelagea and Nicholai Sookochoff in Buchanan, SK.

Leaving the hollow sounding wooden village sidewalk and turning onto the footpath that approached the backdoor, you were greeted by two enormous evergreens that competed for the walking space. After brushing by these trees you were confronted by a large veranda. On the veranda sat two weather beaten arm chairs overlooking the back yard while patiently waiting for someone to sit and enjoy the relaxing outdoors. At the far end of the back yard near the alleyway a small unpainted garage or large shed stood accompanied by an old model “T” Ford truck.

The front yard was surrounded by caraganas that had been trimmed to shoulder height. The lawn looked cut but dry, thin and pale. Since those were the days before water sprinklers and fertilizer, Mother Nature determined the lushness of growth.

The entrance to the front door led abruptly into the living room and did not appear to be used by anyone with any frequency. Above the door a panel of stained glass windows brought a feeling of elegance and warmth to the room. It is this house that Grandma and Grandpa Sookochoff purchased as their retirement location.

Saturdays on the farm were a day of shopping and meeting with friends and relatives. The trip to town by buggy or wagon was slow, dusty and rough. After the groceries were purchased, the mail collected and the cream can recovered from the railroad station there was time to visit with Grandma and Grandpa. On one trip, Grandpa who did not read English fluently made the mistake of asking us if the movie at the theater was any good. A question he knew would get our attention. Although we never passed by the theater or read the poster that day, we told him it was the greatest. After strongly promoting the movie we turned to saying please, please, please.  Grandpa was enjoying the attention and fuss we were making over him. I had never been to a movie and didn’t really know what to expect but I heard it was enjoyable. Grandpa finally consented.

With permission granted from our parents, off to the theater we trotted with grandpa in hand. This was a treat of treats. I knew that Mom and Dad would not have the necessary funds left over from the cream cheque to be able to join us, so they stayed behind to shop and visit. Anyway this was Grandpa’s time with us.

Although it was only mid afternoon, lights were needed at the theater due to an absence of windows. Upon entering I had to squint to see where we were going. An usher with flashlight in hand escorted us to our seats after the admissions were paid. Twenty five cents for adults and fifteen for children was the amount needed to gain entry.  Old plush seats mounted on an inclined floor made it easy to watch the movie without others obstructing the view. What a great idea I thought. As my eyes adjusted to the dim lighting, I spotted the ceiling fans slowly rotating overhead. They were belt driven, each ganged together by flat long strips of leather. Although they turned very slowly a hint of air movement could be felt. At the front of the theater long pleated curtains hung motionless. I was amazed by everything I saw. The lights dimmed and there came a clattering noise from the balcony overhead. A beam of light broke through the darkness and the drapes were slowly drawn back. The screen and room was flooded with colour, movement and sound.

Cartoons appeared on the screen first. My only previous experience with cartoons was those found in the Free Press or comic books at home. These had movement. How did they bring them to life? At the time I thought they were the funniest things I had ever seen. I sat there spellbound and consumed right to THE END as it flashed on the screen. Suddenly a lion’s head appeared on the screen and a roar ensued. I did not quite understand its significance at the time but it quickly faded and the title of the main feature Ma and Pa Kettle on the Farm appeared. I waited in anticipation to see what would happen. As the story unfolded it didn’t take long to realize there was a thread of truth about the exaggerated Kettle’s farm experiences to some of our day to day activities. Suddenly the movie stopped and the interior lights came on. This seemed like an abrupt ending. I looked around to see if anyone was leaving. No one moved, so I waited. There was a bustling going on in the balcony room behind us and soon the movie again continued. I was to eventually learn that movies came on two large reels and this was the threading of the second reel. It only seemed like seconds and it was all over. This time people were getting up and filing out of the theater. We rallied around Grandpa and walked the block and a half to his house. In route I asked Grandpa what he thought of the movie. He would feign a spit and say, “This is the worst movie I have ever seen.” Regardless of what he said I had the time of my life. I was convinced that this would be the last movie experience we were to have with him. The movie kept on replaying itself in my head as we slowly plodded our way homeward. For several weeks thereafter Mom and Dad had every scene told and retold to them on numerous occasions.

Another view of the Sookochoff retirement home.

The opportunity to visit Grandma and Grandpa on Saturday did not avail of itself for many months to follow and when it did I was astonished to hear Grandpa Say, “Is there a good movie at the theatre this week?” We jumped at the chance and off we went once more. Again the evaluation of the movie by Grandpa was the same. He would feign a spit and say, “This is the worst movie I have ever seen.” I concluded that this evaluation of the movie meant we would have to keep trying to find that ultimate production but today I realize it was his way of returning to the theatre with us indefinitely. In this manner I was able to see Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Marilyn Monroe and several more very memorable movies and movie stars.

 It wasn’t long thereafter the attendance at the theatre was insufficient to make it a viable operation and it closed its doors indefinitely. Although the final pages were written on the history of this establishment, grandpa had found a way to open the door to my heart and leave some ever-lasting memories within it.

The day to day activities and a large garden kept them considerably occupied. The back lawn virtually disappeared and was replaced by some very rich looking topsoil. The garden would supply them with the fresh fruits and vegetables they needed and still give them the opportunity to exercise their agricultural roots. They had adjusted to a new environment before and once more they would adapt to these new surroundings. They had each other. And here they would deal with their everyday needs as they walked through life together.


As the years passed and I entered my teens, more responsibilities on the farm and school began to consume more of my time. I saw less and less of my grandparents. The language was a barrier whenever I wished to express my thoughts in more depth. I often regretted not putting forth the effort to become more fluent in the dialect. We would still visit them occasionally but there were fewer and fewer things that we would participate in together. Grandma and Grandpa seldom came to the farm and I felt myself drifting out of their lives. It was always with good intentions I planned on bringing them closer once more. Time waits for no one and too soon they were gone.

With pails of water loaded on a small wagon on a clear warm summer’s day Grandpa and five year old grandson Lorne Sookochoff slowly worked their way homeward. Two blocks south of the house a town dugout filled their buckets with the needed moisture for the dry garden. The afternoon was slowly descending and this would give them a chance to revive the wilted vegetables from the day’s heat.  Tired and sweaty upon his return, a dish of canned peaches was requested by Grandpa as he entered the house. After finishing a bowlful of the desired fruit he must have sensed something was wrong. He addressed Grandma with the remark that, “I will be leaving now and will see you”. He found his way to the bedroom and probably feeling uncomfortably warm, removed a pillow from the bed and lay on the floor. And it is here on July of 1961 a massive heart attack ended Grandpa’s journey with us forever.

Upon entering the Doukhobor prayer hall in Buchanan there was the stop at the casket to say my last goodbyes to Grandpa then a seat was found with the mourners. The walls were void of any decorative religious material and the room was furnished with a plain wooden table, chairs and benches. The traditional bread, salt and water on a platter graced a small stand near the wall. Another room contained a stove, cooking utensil and lunch making facilities.

The men congregated at one end of the table after bowing to the members present while the women gathered at the other. A request for a starter came to the floor and a hymn by the individual was started. After a few bars were sung by the starter the group joined in. An angelic harmony filled the room with a full rich sound unique onto itself. At the end of each verse the group would cease singing and allow the leader to continue in solo a few more bars before once again joining in. No musical instrumentation was ever used and in this true Doukhobor manner grandpa was laid to rest.

Grandma continued to live alone in Buchanan for another ten years after Grandpa’s death. A stoke resulted thereafter leaving the left side of her body paralyzed and made living unaided impossible. She rejoined Uncle Nick and Aunt Laura at the farm once more. Walking was difficult and this lead to a fall which broke her hip. At Yorkton hospital it was set then pinned and all seemed to be on the mend. Nevertheless, before her release from hospital she contacted pneumonia and it was in the summer of 1973 when she too soon was also called away.

It was in silence Mom and I drove the fifteen miles to the farm after the funeral. The event left her deeply shaken and the sorrow she was experiencing showed clearly on her somber face. Following the arrival we walked slowly throughout the garden together and it was there I voiced the comment that Grandma’s suffering had ended. This remark brought a look which told me she did not wish to see her gone under any circumstances. The deep love which existed between mother and daughter was never to end. Eventually she nodded in agreement and it was only then I saw a gradual acceptance of the parting.

Quite unknowingly perhaps, their interaction with us brought with it many wonderful things. Their quiet determination, the sense of family, the freedom to allow you to become your own self and experience things, support when you needed it, were all memories that linger in my mind. In addition to the coins that helped fill our piggy banks and the occasional push to do our best, they gave us the greatest gifts of all, their love and attention.

Grandparents Nicholas and Pelagea Sookochoff

To be a strong member of the community and a valued asset to society in the eyes of their peers is everyone’s goal, especially the Doukhobors. I believe Grandma and Grandpa can proudly say their efforts were dubbed a success.

They were brave determined individuals striking out on a dangerous voyage to a strange far off land. Grandma and Grandpa had their dreams, dreams of greater things and hopes of giving their children opportunities for a better life. Fulfilling all of ones lifetime goals can only be gauged by the person who sets them. Grandma and Grandpa had accomplished many. Operating a successful grain and cattle farm and rearing three loyal, hardworking, children was a full time task. The farm always kept pace with modern equipment and facilities to aid in the process.

 Who of us can justly say we have no regrets? A few drinks too many with errors made by relaxed inhibitions, comments made by idle chatter that injured feelings, or harsh words from the flair of ones temper, all too often escape.  Grandpa and Grandma made a few I am sure but to grandchildren they are soon forgiven if not forgotten.  In the lives of this couple, the troubles they endured were a much smaller component than the joys they shared, for the vows of their marriage remained until death did them part.

I acknowledge them for their hard work on the farm and the strides they made to improve their lot. Only a very few can claim outstanding contributions to society but it is often the many uncelebrated individuals that really make a difference.

How Deep are the Doukhobor Roots?

It almost seems commonplace that our culture motivates us to bring forth the past and find ways to preserve and continue our heritage. Its scope and breadth is dependant on the individual and what they have at their disposal during their lifetime. Some share photographs, stories, family trees and written documents while others say prayers, sing hymns and speak the language. The preparation of Doukhobor dishes often graces the tables for others to share in the taste of this culture. Handcrafted objects, tools and antiques from the bygone days created by the craftsman show the inventiveness and creativeness of the group as they fought to conquer the new land. Many still have the traditional dresses worn by their ancestors as reminders of the past. Also and not so outwardly visible but deep within us are the values and attitudes that governed these peoples lives. And it is these building blocks of the past that brings us into the present.

Change is inevitable and necessary for our survival and so it was with our ancestors as they moved throughout their history.  Undeniably some areas of Doukhoborism more and more are melting into the mainstream culture. Whether this naturally occurring process will bring the end to the old or still have deep rooted undercurrents is yet to be determined. But as we slide from generation to generation it appears as though less and less of the elements of the culture are being passed on intact. It is the fault of no one but circumstance itself. The elements of the old culture do not survive unaltered if the next generation experiences them differently.  This is a tendency that seems to be also happening to the remaining Doukhobors within Russia today.

To lose the Russian language in this country is to lose a rich unique way of expression. We have only to read a translated Doukhobor story to notice the vivid arrangement of words creating a new exciting different representation of a situation in our minds. Those who have the mastery of this language are the richer for it. No one in our immediate household or locale speaks the language or requires its use. The children do not see a need for this life skill nor have I made an effort to push it upon them.  Career-wise it almost seems to their advantage to learn French. Interdenominational marriages use the common denominator dialect, English, for the communication within the family unit and the Russian language has faded.  There are very few in the vicinity that are left to converse with and refresh the memory. Distance had also taken away the close contact needed with the grandparents that forced you back into the language. For these reasons the Russian language has gone by the wayside in our immediate family. The language nevertheless will remain abroad for centuries to come and can be reclaimed by those individuals who require it or when the need arises.

The Doukhobors religious principles which originally brought the group together are the reasons that made them so unique. These principles were not preached or shared with the general public and remained closed and unfamiliar to most inhabitants in our society. This closed nature of the group and their beliefs brought with it a loss of numbers to the Doukhobors following. Throughout the years as the elderly departed and the young married outside the Doukhobor following its numbers diminished. It also brought some suspicions from many of the citizens in the country. Often mentioning the word ‘Doukhobor’ seemed to bring a negative connotation and a look of uncertainty by people with different racial origins. This is a natural occurring reaction by those who did not fully understand the underlying beliefs. By clinging to their religious principles the Doukhobors proved to be good neighbors and strong members of society and eventually gained the acceptance in their communities as they showed their worth.  As man travels through time, the Doukhobors basic religious philosophy of God within man, the love of others and the reluctance to kill may once again surface, flourish and come to the forefront as the guiding principle to live by.  There certainly is a need to find some way to heal terrorism, war and suffering. Could this be answered by a bit of pacifism, tolerance and working together?

As individuals we can do many things to keep and perpetuate the culture and traditions of our nationality. This article in itself is my effort to keep alive as much of our family history as possible. It is something that can be passed forward through the years and hopefully brings my children and grandchildren a little closer to understanding their ancestry. We are responsible for passing on our roots to our children and each of us will do it in different ways. It has become tradition in our household to celebrate our Doukhobor roots each year before Christmas by engaging in the making of Russian tarts. It is a delicious recipe passed down from my mother some years ago. They are raspberry filled pastries smothered with cream and eaten fresh from the oven. The soft tender crust accented by the rich berries flavor leaves one begging for more. The aroma guides and holds everyone into the kitchen in anticipation of the first serving. Their considerable demand makes their existence but a few days. Friends, relatives and neighbors reappear each Christmas with a request for more of these tasty morsels. To my great delight, the daughter and son have now become involved in their creation and hopefully they will carry on the tradition. In their making we seem to honour the grandparents and great grandparents by accepting the cultural customs that has been handed down to us. For it is said to honour ourselves is to honour the past.

If we look deeply within ourselves I believe we will get a glimpse of our grandparents and more so our parents. My mother brought with her the Doukhobor language, work ethic, skills, religious beliefs, attitudes, goals and ideals only to mention a few. The view that children are to be held in the highest esteem and were of the greatest importance is only one example of the above. The tone of her voice, the strength of her conviction, her body language and comments are all representative of her true nature. These mixed with her life experiences directly or indirectly found their way to me.

From the interaction I had with my Doukhobor grandparents as a child, I could see the same loving nature of Grandma and the strong determination to succeed from Grandpa within my Mom. I believe we accept many of these same characteristic and thus our heritage lives on.

I was raised within two different cultural groups of grandparents, the Doukhobors on the one side and the English on the other. The influences of the English grandparents will be dealt with in a subsequent chapter.

I am proud of my Doukhobor heritage and proud of my grandparents. I say this because of what I have witnessed and experienced while in their association. It is this pride that gets passed on to our children.

A True Story About A Pioneer Doukhobor Babushka

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: birchespublishing@shaw.ca

My Life Story

by George P. Stushnoff

In his later years, George P. Stushnoff (1922-2001) wrote about the history and settlement of his family in the Langham district of Saskatchewan and of growing up there in the Twenties to the Forties.  In simple and straightforward style, he recalls the everyday scenes of Doukhobor life on the Canadian Prairies.  Written in 1990, his “Life Story” was published posthumously in 2003 in “The Stushnoff Family History: Kirilowka and Beylond” by Fred & Brian Stushnoff.  Reproduced by permission.

Alexei and Anna Stushnoff were the earliest settlers of my family name.  Born in Russia – he moved to the Republic of Georgia in the Caucasus Wet Mountain region, east of the Port of Batoum on the Black Sea, and some 50 miles west of Tibilisi (Tiflis) Georgia.  To escape from religious persecution, they came to Canada because the Canadian government by Order-in-Council granted them religious freedom and military exemption from war service, which was not available in Russia.  They traveled by refurbished cattle freighters from Batoum and arrived at the Port of Quebec on June 21, 1899, then went by train to Manitoba, Yorkton, and Saskatoon.  A much larger contingent went on to Rosthern to settle in the Blaine Lake area.  The Saskatoon group, including my parents, settled originally in the Doukhobor village of Kirilovka, 4 miles west of Langham.  Others of this group settled at Bogdanovka village at Ceepee and still others settled the Pokrovka village in the Henrietta school district.  My grandparents arrived in Canada with no personal possessions except their clothing.  Their two sons, Peter (my dad) and my Uncle John were 10 and 16 years of age respectively.  Peter married Helen (Hannah) Voykin.  John married Dora (Doonya) Woykin while living in the village of Kirilovka.

My grandfather Alexei had one married brother who arrived at the same time and settled in the same village.  His name was Dmitry and his wife was Maria. Dmitry and Maria had one son and four daughters.  Alexei’s twin sister Anyuta also arrived married from Russia.  Her husband was Savely Dimovsky. Alexei and Anna had a daughter who died back in Russia at 16 years of age.

Alexei Stushnoff family c. 1914. (Back L-R) John, Nick, Pete; (Middle L-R) Dora, Alexei, Anna, Helen; (Front L-R) John, Pete, Bill. Photo courtesy Fred Stushnoff.

Prior to 1906, the village produced goods more or less for self-sufficiency as lands were broken up gradually.  The first crops were used predominantly for feeding the increased livestock herds of cattle and horses.  My parents did not move into the Lutheran-Lynne school district until 1919.  At that time, cattle and grain were taken to Langham and shipped to Winnipeg.  Sometimes the returns did not cover rail shipping costs.  Saskatoon and Rosthern were the nearest trading centres and sources of supplies.  In the first two years, groceries were brought in by backpacking.  Even bags of flour were carried this way in emergencies.  Other times, several men would pull a load of wheat to Saskatoon and return with a load of flour.  Garden vegetables were hauled occasionally to Saskatoon by team and wagon and sold from door to door.  By late afternoon, any unsold vegetables were sold at minimum prices to restaurants so that groceries could be purchased before store closing and returning home during the night.  We depended on the horses to take us home while we slept in the wagon box.  The return trip took two nights and one day plus a day in digging and preparing the vegetables for sale.

Development took place by working communally in the village.  My dad Peter was only 10 years of age upon arrival in Canada.  As he grew up he began earning and saving his own money building railroads.  Upon getting married to Helen Voykin, he and his brother John struck out on their own by jointly renting out a 1/2 section of land, which was later purchased by Paul Edie (East 1/2 of S-31, T-38, R-8, W-3M).  On August 30, 1919, my dad made a purchase agreement on the home place (NE 1/4 of S-29, T-38, R-8, W-3M) from Tumble Company Ltd. as the original owners of title granted to them on August 19, 1919.  The home quarter, without any buildings, was valued at $5000.  Title was attained on December 30, 1925.  It had originally been designated as school land with a legal right-of-way for the Battlefords Trail.  The countryside had lots of bush and grass (parkland) with a few scattered settlers.  No graded roads existed.  The Saskatoon/Battleford Trail cut diagonally across the Northeast quarter.

Most of the prairie sod was broken a little at a time with a two-furrowed gang plow pulled by 4 horses.  After all the grassland was broken, additional acres were made by pulling trees out by their roots.  The trees were either chopped down or bulldozed and the land ploughed with a tractor and breaking plow.

The first set of buildings on our farm consisted of a house, granary, horse bam, cow barn, and a chicken coop.  These were made of logs, with clay-mudded walls and a sod-covered roof.  They were all set in a row and adjoining one another.  Later, a modest two-storey wood-frame house was built, with dimensions of 14′ x 20′.  A year or two later, a lean-to kitchen was added on the end.  It had a clay-mudded floor to begin with, and later, a wooden board floor was put in.  The farmyard also had a clay-mudded, log-walled, sod-roofed steam bath house (banya) which was put into operation every Saturday night.  Neighbours were always welcome.  Our Norwegian and English neighbours often paid us a visit.  It became my job to heat up the stones and supply the water.

Peter A. Stushnoff family c. 1927. (Back L-R) Bill, Pete; (Front L-R) Mary, Helen, Annie, George, Peter. Photo courtesy Fred Stushnoff.

No modern buildings were put up until I started farming in 1948.  In 1928, after a Model T Ford was purchased, we managed to build a little garage for it.  It was made out of axe-hewn and split poplars with a cedar shingled roof.  This was a big spending splurge just before the great Depression of the 30s when land was sold to pay the taxes.

Later, Uncle John and his family moved to the Canora, SK, area.  His son Alex remembers riding on the freight train in 1934 with their horses and cattle to the Canora district.  Later, most of Uncle John’s family moved to British Columbia.

There were no roads to speak of in these early times.  There was a Saskatoon/Battleford Trail that ran diagonally across the farm that dad bought in 1919.  As lands became cultivated and fenced, people were forced to develop trails along the surveyed road allowances.  So the Trail became a hit-and-miss affair and was eliminated by the mid-Twenties.  I was born in 1922 and have a recollection of one Ford Model T traveler who tried to follow the Trail.  I remember opening a gate to let him through our land.  We privately kept a trail across our farm to shorten the distance to Uncle John’s place.  We used to visit back and forth with our cousins quite frequently.  We were almost like brothers and sisters.  There doesn’t seem to be such closeness between cousins anymore.  As cars became common, municipalities started grading up the low spots so that the cars wouldn’t get stuck in the sloughs of water in spring and after heavy rains.  More popular roads became graded their full length.  Grading probably began in the mid-Twenties and accelerated in the Thirties.  Farm grid-roading and gravelling started in the Fifties and completed in the Sixties.  As Councillors of the R.M. of Park, Norman Westad and myself had the grid road built through this community, past the Lynne School and connecting the No. 14 highway with the No. 5 at Ceepee.  For my ancestors, modes of travel commenced with walking, then proceeded to the use of oxen, horses, buggies, wagons, bicycles, cars, trucks, trains, and finally, airplanes.

Our post office was 10 miles away at Langham and neighbours would take turns bringing out the mail, which probably averaged once a week.  Rural mail delivery came to our place, I believe, in the early Thirties, every Tuesday and Friday.  In winter it was delivered using horses and sleigh.  There was no mail for us before the establishment of the Langham post office.

Most illnesses were treated at home with home remedies.  We didn’t seem to have needed any doctors except when my younger sister was born.  Dr. Matheson from Asquith came out to the farm.  Mother had arranged for our cousins to pick up my sister and me and go out for the whole day picking strawberries along the roadsides.  When we came home, we saw our new baby sister and other evidence that a doctor had been there.  When I was in about grade six or seven, I sprained my ankle playing football at school.  My dad took me to a Mennonite self-taught chiropractor (naturalist).  He had my ankle set and bandaged.  I limped for a while and it gradually healed perfectly.

Lynne School was located 2 miles south of our farm and was of frame construction with stucco finished walls and tin roof shingles.  It had a full basement with a coal-fired furnace.  When I started school, there were about 40 students from Grades 1 to 8, plus my brother Bill and Clifford Lindgren taking Grade 9 by correspondence.  Later I also took my Grade 9 and 10 by correspondence and finished Grade 11 and 12 at the Langham High School in 1941.  I also earned enough money, being a janitor for Lynne School, to buy myself a brand new bicycle.  I was so proud of it!  I didn’t mind the extra early hours I had to get up on winter mornings so I could fire up the furnace and have the school warm enough for classes.  Of course, when it was -40, it never warmed up till the afternoon.  Kids spent the mornings huddling around the floor heat register.

Looking back on harvest, to me it was the best of times and the worst of times!  The crops were cut with horses and binder and I usually ended up having to do the stooking with my sister Annie.  The first day was an adventure, especially if the crop was good and the stocks were free of Russian thistle.  Day after day the job became more tedious!  My dad bought a George White threshing machine and a Lawson tractor.  Every fall, Dad would line up about eight or more farmer customers for whom we threshed.  While Dad and my brother Pete operated the threshing outfit, my brother Bill and I would haul sheaves, each with a team of horses and a hayrack.  This job was really a test of endurance.  There were eight teams on the crew, four to each side of the threshing machine.  You had to load up your rack while three unloaded.  Of course most people took pride in their work by bringing in a reasonably good load and on time so that the machine didn’t run half-empty.  There was always one or two workers who rounded off their load a little smaller and always had time for a rest in between.  Not me!  My foolish pride made me work till I ached all over!  Since the family owned the threshing outfit, I felt obligated to set a good example of work ethic rather than slacking off and embarrassing them.  However, the social contacts were a good experience plus the most wonderful food was served.  The servings of food were only equaled on festive occasions such as Christmas or weddings.

Winter evenings were a time for sitting around the wood heater and eating sunflower seeds and visiting relatives.  To help prepare the wood supply, trees were chopped down and hauled into the yard.  Many wood-sawing bees were held in the neighbourhood.  There were never-ending chores of feeding cattle and horses twice a day, and palling water from the well to water them.  And, there was the stinky job of cleaning out the manure from the barn and hauling it by stone-boat to spread out in the fields.

Young unmarried adults used to take turns hosting parties in their homes over the weekends.  This meant overnight stays, so you can imagine wall-to-wall people sleeping on the floor on all available homemade mattresses and blankets.  Some of these were brought along to keep warm in the sleigh, since the party goers came from as far as 10 miles away.  These were not exactly pajama parties; people slept in their clothes, if sleep were possible.  My 12 year old cousin, Johnny Malloff, who came along with his older brother Bill, kept annoying one of the older guys by repeatedly tickling his feet.

George & Laure (Petroff) Stushnoff wedding photo, 1946. Photo courtesy Fred Stushnoff.

In summer we used to gather at the ball diamond and play baseball with pickup teams.  The better players were selected for the ball team that competed at the various sports days.  We had some winners!  Our team even played at the Saskatoon Exhibition.  I am referring to the Doukhobor boys from Ceepee/Henrietta communities when I talk about our team.  We maintained close cultural ties.  For several years the ball diamond was located on my brother Bill’s farm.  It was also a place for picnics and Peter’s Day.  As I was growing up, I was really a part of two communities.  I played on the Lynne School softball team, which was one of the best in the district, and I was goaltender for their hockey team.  When I attended Langham High School I was also on the softball team that played against Borden, Radisson, and Maymont.  My schoolmates from Lynne School (Ivan Thue, Larry Aune, and Norman Westad) were also on the team.  In hockey we sometimes played against the adult Doukhobor team from west of Langham, with whom I also had close relationships.

Christmas was celebrated strictly as celebrating Jesus’ birthday through worship services.  There was no gift giving.  However, it wasn’t long before the commercialized Canadian custom had its negative impact.  So much to be said for assimilation!  Our most important cultural/religious event was the commemoration of Peter’s Day on June 29 of each year.  On June 29, 1895, our ancestors, while still in Russia, collected all of their personal weapons and made a huge bonfire out of them as a sincere declaration of refusal to bear arms or participate in military service.  It stemmed from the religious belief, “Thou shalt not kill,” or destroy the body’s temple in which God resides.  The soul, being the image of God, resides in every human body, without exception.  It was the Burning of the Arms that precipitated severe religious persecution and consequent migration to Canada.  The Doukhobor decision to migrate to Canada was made only after Canada passed an Order-in-Council.  Some boys were imprisoned while others served in labor camps. I, personally, was exempted from service because I happened to be employed in two high-priority essential industries: education and agriculture.  The government seemed to respect that more than the legal religious freedom that had been granted by law.

I started my off-farm career teaching school after a short 12-week stint at the Saskatoon Normal School.  I taught at Worthington School, southwest of Loon Lake; Morin Creek School, west of Meadow Lake; Henrietta School, west of Langham; and Smeaton public and high school.  I resigned in June 1947.

My dad operated the farm till the spring of 1948 when I took over by renting.  Dad gave me 4 horses and 2 cows plus the old horse machinery consisting of a gang plow, 4 sections of harrows, a disc, a seed drill, mower, and binder.  Since Dad decided to retire at 60, I quit teaching school and took up farming.  After the war, there was a shortage of new tractors so my first attempt at motorized farming was the purchase of a Wyllis-Overland Jeep in 1949.  It served the double purpose of tractor and automobile.  After a good crop in 1950, I managed to trade the Jeep as a down payment on a new International 3/4 ton truck and a W6 tractor.  We grew wheat and raised cattle, milked around six cows and sold cream.  Later, we raised 4000 broiler chickens per batch, turning 3 1/2 batches per year.

While farming, in 1952 I volunteered to canvass the district for interest in Rural Electrification.  It was a successful venture and electricity came through in 1953 to this particular region.  SaskPower put in the power after I proved that 75% of the farmers would sign up and pay their deposit of $750.

In 1955, I organized the Central Park 4-H Beef Club which later became a multiple project club including beef, grain, automotive, gun safety, and home economics.  In all, I was 4-H leader for 13 years, with 3 of those years as the district chairman.  I served as a trustee on the Lynne School Board until its integration into the Saskatoon West School Division at Langham.  I also served a 3-year term on the R.M. of Park municipal council.  My voluntary services also included the chairmanships of the Farmers Union Local and the Langham Doukhobor Society.

In 1968, at 45 years of age, I quit farming and took on a job with the Federal Dept. of Indian and Northern Affairs.  I leased the farmland to Mitch Ozeroff for 8 years, and then made an agreement for sale to my daughter Sandra and her husband Edward Walker in 1976.

In 1973, I transferred to the Dept. of Secretary of State to administer the program of Human Rights and Multiculturalism.  In these past years I lived in Prince Albert, Yorkton, Regina, and finally in Saskatoon, where I retired in 1988.  Laura and I now live in the Brandtwood Estates, a seniors condominium in Saskatoon.

George & Laura Stushnoff, 1999. Photo courtesy Fred Stushnoff.

As Russian speaking people of the Doukhobor (“spirit-wrestlers”) faith, our people have retained the traditional worship and funeral services to this very day.  Traditional clothing was always worn for worship services, but lately, it is only worn on occasion, such as a choir costume for special festivals.  Traditional foods of borshch, blini (crepes), perohi (vegetable and fruit tarts), ploe (rice and raisins), vereniki, and lapshevnik (a noodle and egg cake) are still very much in vogue.  We are just beginning to conduct our worship services in both Russian and English languages, eventually becoming English for the sake of all the intermarriages taking place.

Doukhobor to Doukhobor marriages are becoming a rarity.  With freedom and democracy breaking out in Eastern Europe, we feel that our pacifist beliefs are coming of age and should be shared with the rest of society.

George P. Stushnoff (1922-2001) exemplified the Doukhobor ideals of toil and peaceful life. Chairman of the Saskatoon Doukhobor Society and the Doukhobor Cultural Society of Saskatchewan for many years, George strove to preserve and share the Doukhobor way of life, and to promote inter-cultural harmony in his community. He once stated that “I find it spiritually fulfilling to participate in promoting local and international harmony among all people.” In 1995, he recieved the United Nations 50th Anniversary “Global Citizen” Certificate for contributing to the advancement of peace and global harmony.