Discovering Our Doukhobor Roots

by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff

Who are we?  Where do we come from?  Who are our ancestors?  How did they live?  What were their beliefs?  Why did they come to Canada?  When did they arrive?  Where did they settle?  How did we get where we are, and what does that tell us about ourselves?  Today, more than ever, we are pondering these questions.  All to one end: to discover who we are.  At the beginning of the twenty-first century, we find Doukhobors aggressively taking up genealogy – the study of family history.  And as Jonathan J. Kalmakoff notes in the following commentary, thanks to genealogy, Doukhobors are discovering their heritage, asserting their background and celebrating their achievements.

The urge to discover one’’s roots is probably as old as civilization itself.  Beyond the basic physical and emotional needs, there is perhaps no greater desire than that of identity and belonging.  So we explore our past to better understand our place in the present.

We know a great deal about the history of the Doukhobors.  We know the 1801 manifesto of Alexander I united thousands of Doukhobors from across the Russian Empire at Milky Waters.  We know the Burning of Arms in 1895 led to religious persecution and caused thousands of Doukhobors to flee Russia and come to Canada.  We know the land loss in Saskatchewan in 1907 caused many Doukhobors to relocate to British Columbia.  Yet we know little about the lives of individual Doukhobors who were our ancestors and how these historic events impacted them.

Until recently, most Doukhobors have assumed that it’s simply impossible to trace their ancestry back more than a few generations because they were illiterate and kept few written records, they lived in different parts of the world from one century to the next, they spoke a different language than many of us today, and our ancestral homeland was distant and inaccessible – cut off behind the Iron Curtain.  For these reasons, many Doukhobors have not even tried to trace their ancestry.

19th Century Doukhobors in GeorgiaIt is difficult, but it’s not impossible.  If Doukhobors face special obstacles in tracing their family histories, they also enjoy special advantages.  The most intriguing is the fact that there are only a finite number of Doukhobors in the world – there were never more than 60,000 at any one time.  As well, Doukhobors tended to intermarry within Doukhoborism, meaning that most Doukhobors are related to each other somewhere in the past, however distant.  What’s more, Doukhobors migrated and settled en masse in large groups and not as disparate individuals, thus making the task of tracing our ancestors easier.

Present-day Doukhobors descend from a small founding population of only two thousand or so persons as recently as 1800.  If we mathematically figure twenty-five years to a generation, then most of us had over two hundred ancestors alive at this time – one tenth of the founding population.  Therefore, it should not be too difficult to link up our family tree with the tree of another related Doukhobor family that can trace itself to 1800 or earlier.  Especially in the computer age, it may well be possible to gather and cross-index all Doukhobor genealogies into a master database so that each of us can find missing interlocking pieces of our shared histories.

Doukhobor oral tradition can provide us with invaluable clues in reconstructing our family heritage.  For centuries, our ancestors passed down names, relationships and events orally, from generation to generation.  It is vital to record and preserve these traditions while they are still intact.  At the same time, we should resist the temptation to accept family legend as “absolute fact” without further verification.  Any traditional story passed through successive generations will be altered by fading memories, by misinterpretation of details, and by the very human desire to present one’s self or family in the best possible light.  Regardless, Doukhobor genealogists who are scholarly in their methods and interpretation, and who anticipate (and accept) that discrepancies may be found between fact and fable, can utilize family traditions to reconstruct a meaningful heritage.

To be sure, there are records relating to Doukhobor genealogy.  Archival discoveries in the former Soviet republics by the writer have revealed literally thousands of records that allow most Doukhobor families to trace their history back to the eighteenth century and beyond.  Unfortunately, most of these records are still not easily accessible and are scattered in repositories throughout Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.  Even where the records are physically accessible, they are often difficult for non-specialists to use because of the foreign language and unfamiliar scripts.  Over time, these records will be translated into English and published, thus making them more readily available.

19th Century Doukhobors in GeorgiaRecords for compiling Doukhobor family trees after immigration to Canada far exceed those for the much longer period in Russia.  This is not because the records are better or more extensive – they are simply more accessible.  Through such records we can begin to reconstruct our family’s life in Canada.  We learn the name of the ship that brought them over, the port at which they arrived, the village in which they settled, their names, ages, family relationships, occupation, property and literacy.  We may even find the name of the village in Russia from which they came or the names of relatives who stayed behind.  We can now point to a place on the map where our life in Canada began.

One of the newest, most powerful tools available to Doukhobor genealogists is the Internet, which is changing the way we research and share family information.  It is a learning tool – providing quick, easy and inexpensive access to online information resources such as libraries, archives, genealogical and historical societies, personal sites and government databases.  It is a meeting place – facilitating communication with other researchers through e-mail, news groups and bulletin boards.  Finally, it is a forum to publish our research questions, concerns, results and advice.  The Internet is not a source in itself – it will not do your family research for you – but it is an incredible finding aid.

The Doukhobor Genealogy Website developed by the writer is the primary Internet source connecting researchers of Doukhobor genealogy worldwide.  Its components include a message board, a comprehensive directory of Doukhobor historic maps and place names, Doukhobor name databases, guides to Doukhobor historic records, tutorials for genealogical researchers, and a wealth of stories and articles.  Created to assist those researching their Doukhobor ancestry, the site is dedicated to the reclamation, discovery, collection, preservation and free sharing of our Doukhobor family heritage.

As Doukhobors we share a unique culture, values, philosophy and history.  As Doukhobor genealogists, we help preserve this rich, life-giving heritage – our birthright – for future generations.  And in the process, we arrive at the humbling – and inspiring – realization that each of us is merely a link in a chain.  The contribution we make to the chain will always be there, and as long as the chain exists, a piece of us will exist too.  In finding the roots of our Doukhobor family tree, we learn that we are all brothers and sisters, and that whatever harm we do to one another, we do to ourselves.

Spirit Wrestlers CoverThis article originally appeared in “Spirit Wrestlers: Doukhobor Pioneers’ Strategies for Living” by Koozma J. Tarasoff (Ottawa: Legas and Spirit Wrestlers Publishing, 2002).  A major millennium book on the Doukhobors, it features over 700 of the best old and contemporary photos, sketches and historic, biographic, artistic and human interest articles pertaining to the Doukhobors of the century. For more information about this excellent book, or to order copies, see the Spirit Wrestlers website.