by Tanya Postnikoff
In her later years, Doukhobor Tanya (Makaroff) Postnikoff (1891-1982) wrote down her memories of growing up in Terpeniye village near Kars, Russia and in Petrofka village near Blaine Lake, Saskatchewan. The following excerpt, taken from her “Childhood Recollections”, is yet another rich and colourful example of Doukhobor oral tradition preserved in writing for future generations.
I remember very little of my Postnikov grandparents because we lived at opposite ends of our village, Terpeniye, in Russia. I can only recall two occasions when I visited them – once when grandmother was very ill, near death, and my mother, Paranya, was going on foot to visit her and I attached myself to her. I recollect that grandma, on that occasion, was already too ill to talk. I can’t remember anything of her looks or appearance, however, even then, I sensed the kindness in her heart and the deep love that she had for her children and grandchildren.
As for grandfather, all I can recall is the occasion when mother and I visited them on a very warm day. We had heard that he was very ill, and when we arrived, we found him tottering about outside, heavily bundled in a heavy winter topcoat and obviously suffering from severe chills. Soon after this occasion grandfather took a turn for the worse and passed away. In appearance, I remember him to be a tall, slim man, taller than his son Nikolai (my father-in-law) yet with a strong similarity in their facial features. This is about all that I can remember.
It was a large family – five sons and three daughters – eight children in all. Nikolai (my future father-in-law) became a son-in-law of the Bondarevs and went to live with his bride’s parents and their family. The Patriarch or head of the Bondarev family was Lavrentii or Lavrusha for short. As a result, the family became known as the Lavrovs, and were always referred to by that nickname. At that time, their family consisted of five sons and two daughters.
Nikolai, my father-in-law to be, had at that time been working as a freighter on a wagon train. In an accident, he fell under a heavily laden freight wagon and both his legs were crushed between the heavy steel-rimmed wheels and the cobble-stoned military highway. The doctors refused to attempt to set the multiple fractures and decided to amputate. It was a common bone-setter (a Molokan with no schooling) who saved the situation. He did such a good job of bone-setting, that Nikolai retained full use of his legs for his entire lifetime. While convalescing, he would walk about supporting himself on two canes, and because of this was nicknamed Starichok (“oldster”) which stuck to him for life. His family, in turn, was alternately referred to as either Lavrovs or Starchikovs.
Wedding photo of Wasil & Tanya Postnikoff (left)
Nikolai’s convalescence lasted a long time, and while he was unable to work, their oldest son, Semeon, was gradually taking over the support of the family. One day Semeon with his mother, Nastya, decided to bring a wagonload of clay, which the villagers used to mix with fine hay or chaff in order to stucco all their stone-walled buildings. The excavation site was treacherous with overhanging walls and while working in it, Nastya was almost completely buried by a sudden collapse of an overhanging wall and the landslide that descended upon her. There were many other clay-diggers at the site at the time, and they managed to extricate Nastya from the mound of heavy clay and dirt. She must have suffered internal injuries, however, for soon thereafter she became ill and eventually passed away.
Nastya’s mother had been living with the family for several years prior to Nastya’s death. She was a kindly compassionate soul, beloved by all the children. Needless to say, she had her hands full in trying to discipline the large family of growing children. Sometime after Nastya’s death, Nikolai met and married his second wife, Mavrunya, who had also been widowed by the death of her husband, Nikolai Konkin. There were two daughters from that marriage, Elizaveta and Praskovia. Mavrunya was much younger than Nikolai and their marriage was more a union of convenience than anything else. She was a widow with two little girls who needed support, while he, in turn, needed her to manage his household with a large family of children. Thus, they faced the world together and managed not only to survive, but to bring up their families as well.
Nikolai had six sons and two daughters from his first marraige. With Mavrunya, they had six sons and one daughter. When their youngest son was born, Mavrunya’s father, who was noted for his wit, insisted that the baby be named Yosef (“Joseph”) after the Biblical story of Jacob, whose twelfth son carried that name.
All in all it was a very large family group and yet Nikolai and Mavrunya not only managed to feed each hungry mouth, but were very hospitable and generous with outsiders. When they settled in Canada (Petrofka, Saskatchewan) there was a constant flow of immigrant settlers who were moving in to find their places in the newly opened country. Many of them, needy as they were, got stranded in Petrofka and were fed and sheltered, free of charge, for months at a time, in the Postnikoff mud-plastered, sod-roofed, humble household.
Going back in time, Nikolai himself had four brothers, the first of whom was Semeon, then Mikhailo, Dmitry and Ivan. He also had three sisters, Nastya, who married Vasily Vereshchagin, next Dasha, whose husband was Ivan Planidin, and the third one was Paranya, married to Gregory Makarov.
And now I will try to tell all that I can recollect about the Makarovs. I can remember grandpa and grandma Makarov quite well; they came to Canada with their family. Grandpa was injured on the train en route to their destination, Petrofka. His finger was crushed somehow by the car couplings of the train. It became infected (probably gangrene) and he died soon after. Grandma survived him by seven years and was totally blind when she passed away. They had only four children, three sons and one daughter. The sons’ names were Nikolai, Semeon and Gregory, my father. They all lived together in one family for a long time. The daughters’ name was Polya, an aunt whom I never saw because when in Russia, the family moved from Elizavetpol to Kars, while she and her husband remained behind.
The Makarov family lived in one house. Nikolai had six children, Semeon had four while Gregory, my father, also had six. My aprents broke away from the rest a year or two before immigrating to Canada (1899) and farmed independently in that interim. The house we lived in was newly built, but very small and crowded for a family of eight, yet somehow there was always room even for guests (to think that nowadays people who own two, three or four houses sometimes complain that they are too crowded to entertain visitors!!).
My mother used to tell us that in the past, when they had been living in the Tavria province, in Milky Waters, the newly formed sect of Doukhobors decided to break away from the Russian Orthodox Church and denounced its hierarchy. They refused to register their children in Church records and defied the age-old custom of burial with a priest in attendance. On one occasion, some practical jokers allowed a priest to officiate by the grave-side, and when the ceremony was completed, seized the priest and announced that they would throw him into the grave as well, in accordance with the rule that the “dead should be buried with a priest”. Soon after this, the pressure from Church and government officials slackened off, and the Doukhobors were allowed to settle in the Elizavetpol province. Here they lived for a period of twenty years or so. Then, because land for farming was getting scarce, six villages decided to move to Kars (an area that has been under Turkey since 1918). Here, our village of Terpeniye was the largest and in it resided the leading Verigin family. In Kars, the Doukhobors resided for some twenty years.
For some time, pressure had been increasing on the part of the Government to compel them to accept military service. The Doukhobors refused to comply, however, and soon were subjected to punitive persecution, such s exile to Siberia, violence, etc. These measures failed to shake the Doukhobor faith, however, and the Tsar’s Government then decided to solve the problem by exiling this steadfast group beyond the borders of Russia. Leo Tolstoy and the Quakers appealed to Queen Victoria of England to allow the Doukhobors to settle in Canada. Their plea was successful, and soon, several thousand immigrants assembled in the Black Sea port of Batum where for two weeks they waited while a coal freighter was being converted and readied to accommodate them as passengers.
The Trans-Atlantic journey took a whole month and was full of hardship. When they finally arrived in Quebec, the authorities promptly placed the entire group under quarantine because cases of smallpox had appeared among the passengers. After the quarantine was lifted, a fast-moving passenger vessel arrived; it was trim and neat and the children were delighted with its appearance. This boat took us to the city of Quebec where we went ashore to be met by a large group of men and women, some of whom may have been Quakers. The ladies in the group began tossing mint candy into the crowd of eager children and a wild scramble commenced. My brother Peter and myself were too young to join the general rush and felt quite left out, until a couple of ladies approached us and filled our pockets full of fragrant mints. After some time, the entire boatload of immigrants were taken aboard a train, the destination point being Selkirk, Manitoba. Here too, we stayed for a week or two prior to departure for our final ultimate settlement points.
At this point, I would like to go back and make a few remarks about my grandmother. Grandma loved me very much and tried hard to imbue me with a sense of piousness. She spent endless hours teaching me to recite psalms among which was one I still remember well. She also taught me a zagovorie (“incantation”) allegedly endowed with magical powers to stop a nosebleed or other small ailments – this too, I remember and can still recite. I can recall how hurt I was when my playmates refused to play with me, saying that my grandma was teaching me witchcraft.
Prairie Doukhobor dwelling, circa 1901
The hardships and privations of the first few months of our pioneer life are unforgettable. We all lived in canvas tents which provided poor shelter against the cold, incessant rains. The tents dripped and leaked, so that everything inside was soggy and cold. It was next to impossible to build a fire or sustain it for long. To add to our torture, clouds of ravenous mosquitoes were constantly tormenting us – there was simply no refuge from them. Our diet was poor and inadequate, lacking in protein. All of this added up to a life of constant, almost intolerable suffering and misery. The nearest railway point was Rosthern, Saskatchewan, and that meant that to obtain flour and salt, the men would go some thirty miles afoot and return heavily laden with a hundred pounds of flour, ten pounds of salt, and whatever else each of them could afford and/or carry. It seemed incredible now that so many survived.
At this point, I would like to describe an occurance in which my two cousins Mavrutka (Fast) and Lisunya (Lastowsky) and myself were involved, and which nearly spelled disaster for us. We three were sent by our mothers to pick wild garlic for borshch. Our search finally brought us to the riverbank (North Saskatchewan) where we found a boat (the only one the village had), which we promptly untied from its mooring, climbed in, and were off! This was happening toward evening; the sun was low and we three were all about the same age – eight or nine years old. The main-stream current, by some quirk of fate, propelled us toward the shore where we climbed out, and tied the boat to a stump.
It was getting late and with darkness came the fear of wolves! We remembered that somewhere nearby there was a homestead owned by Isaac Neufeldt, a Mennonite farmer, and for whom Nikolai Postnikoff was working at the time. I recall that the Neufeldt girls were painting the kitchen floor when we timidly knocked on their door. They spoke no Russian, didn’t know who we were, and soon summoned their father, who spoke Russian well. We told him that we three were daughters of Nikolai Postnikoff. The farmer did not want to wake Nikolai up (he had had a hard day and was already sleeping) so old Isaac ordered his daughters to put us up for the night. We slept in the hayloft that night. The wind had risen and whistled and moaned through cracks and knot-holes – it was a weird, sleepless night for me – an unforgettable night!
Early the next morning, old Isaac informed Nikolai that three little girls claiming to be his daughters had spent the night there. Nikolai was astonished. “Three little girls?”, “My daughters?” When he saw us, he was flabbergasted. “What are you doing here – how did you get here?” he yelled at us. We had, meanwhile, concocted a wild story about how Hrishka Konkin, a local mischievous brat, had enticed us into the boat, rowed us across the river, and abandoned us to our fate. Hrishka’s reputation was so notorious that Nikolai readily believed our story, which, of course, was a lie from “A” to “Z”. “Wait till I get ahold of that little devil!” he roared, “I’ll fix it so he won’t be able to sit down for a month!”
The boat was still tied to the stump where we had left it last night, and as we were crossed, we three sang an old Russian song – something about Cossacks returning to their native villages. Our absence apparently had caused a great deal of alarm and fear about our safety, and as our boat approached the shore, the bank was lined with a large crowd of anxious people. Our mothers were hysterical with joy and relief at the sight of us – it was a highly emotional experience indeed! We soon learned that our boating adventure had not gone unnoticed. Someone had seen us board the boat and head downstream. The alarm was sounded and runners were dispatched to the village of Terpeniye, some miles downstream, where quickly, a boat was launched in the hope of intercepting us as we drifted in that direction. Their efforts and vigil were fruitless, of course, and lasted throughout the night.
At the time, I was terrified, expecting a severe beating from my father, who was always quick to punish his children mercilessly for any misdemeanor. My grandmother, seeing my terror and knowing what was in store for me, took me to bed with her, and when father entered, she intercepted him, saying that he had better not touch me, that I was blameless, and that it was my cousin Mavrutka who was the ringleader of our escapade. Fierce though he was by nature, my father broke into tears – which both astounded and, of course, delighted me.