Folk Furniture of Canada’s Doukhobors

by John Fleming and Michael Rowan

When the Doukhobors arrived in Western Canada in the late nineteenth century, the folk furniture they created reflected the traditional forms, construction methods and decorative motifs of Russia. A systematic comparison of their Canadian furniture to Russian pieces reveals the extent to which geography and Canadian society affected how the Doukhobors adopted and adapted these elements in their new environment, while at the same time retaining familiar forms and practices. The following article examines the issues of tradition, adaptation and innovation in the folk furniture of Canada’s Doukhobors. Reproduced by permission from The Magazine ANTIQUES (March 2007). Photos by James Chambers.

In recent years, an influx of folk furniture imported from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, northern Russia, in particular, has made it easier to compare the pieces made by Russian immigrants after their arrival in North American with examples that demonstrate the original context, in which the forms, construction methods, and decorative motifs were born. This comparative approach also addresses the perennial issues of tradition, adaptation and innovation in the transfer of these elements from the old world to the new.

Figure 1. Frame, Blewitt, British Columbia, early twentieth century. Spruce, overpaint removed to reveal original red, blue, yellow and green; height 20 1/4, width 16 inches.

This article is an attempt to systematically examine the furniture made by one group of Russian immigrants, the Doukhobors, who settled in the Canadian West and compare it to Russian pieces. But to understand and interpret the objects the Doukhobors made, and the context in which these people began as a nonconforming religious sect, we must first return to their origins in eighteenth century Russia and their arrival in Canada at the end of the nineteenth century.

Figure 2. Cupboard, North Colony near Chelan, Saskatchewan, early twentieth century. Pine, overpainted in light green, yellow and red, the latter probably original color; height 79, width 38 1/2, depth 21 1/2 inches. Canadian Museum of Civilization.

On January 20, 1899, the SS Lake Huron, thirty days out of Batum on the Black Sea arrived off Halifax, Nova Scotia, and its passengers disembarked the following day at Lawlor’s Island for quarantine inspection. The ship then proceeded onto Saint John, New Brunswick, where the settlers started their train trip west to Winnipeg in Manitoba and beyond. At Winnipeg, one group of men was sent ahead to begin preparations for the construction of houses and other necessary buildings. In the four months that followed, three other shiploads of immigrants arrived in Canada, bringing the total number of Doukhobors to about seventy-five hundred. James Mavor (1854-1925), a professor of economics at the University of Toronto and supporter of Doukhobor immigration to Canada, recorded on May 21, 1899: “At a station in the prairie last night, there was an American Indian in his native costume and with red paint or colour on his cheeks; also a crowd of Galicians who were coming in on the train, and a few Doukhobors: a very strange throng indeed.” This “strange throng” anticipated in microcosm the mix of ethnic identities that settled the Canadian prairies and British Columbia in the years that followed. The Europeans’ arrival was facilitated by the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1885. With the exception of a few individuals, and various Doukhobor internal exiles held in Russia, Doukhobor immigration to Canada ended in about 1905.

Figure 3. Storage box, Saskatchewan, early twentieth century. Pine with original painted decoration; height 13 1/2, length 20, depth 16 inches.

The origins and evolution of this religious reform movement in the eighteenth century were based on a sweeping double rejection of organized and dogmatic forms of religion and external secular authority. This radical stance brought the group into immediate conflict with the Russian Orthodox Church and of course with the Russian czarist government. In terms of spiritual belief and the ways in which that belief is practiced, the Doukhobors refused the external material manifestations and practices of the Orthodox Church, including the preeminence given to the Bible and the historical Christ. In 1785, Archbishop Ambrosius of Ekaterinoslav first used the term Dukho-borets (spirit wrestlers) to describe these outsiders who struggled against the spirit of Christ. The Doukhobors gave this pejorative designation a positive turn by declaring that it should mean those who wrestle with rather than against the spirit of Christ. The Doukhobors abandoned iconography, church buildings, artifacts, ritual and the priestly class in a radical return to what they saw as the principles of early Christianity. They proclaimed God to be indwelling – that is, present within each person – thus making both priests and churches irrelevant to the spiritual life of the community. Similarly, printed biblical texts were replaced in Doukhobor social and religious life by their own oral psalms and hymns. Recounting his experiences crossing the Atlantic twice with the Doukhobors bound for Canada in 1899, Leopold Antonovich Sulerzhitsky (1872-1916) wrote:

The majority of the Doukhobors are convinced, to this date, that their psalms represent something original, having nothing in common with printed gospel. It seems to them that the unperverted teaching of Jesus Christ can be learned only from their psalms…The Doukhobors never wrote down these psalms. They are passed on orally from generation to generation and are preserved only in the memory.

Figure 4. Storage chest, probably Russian, late nineteenth century, found in British Columbia. Pine, iron hardware, original paint; height 23 1/2, length 41 3/4, depth 27 1/4 inches. Canadian Museum of Civilization.

The formalism and the authority of the czarist empire were equally repugnant to the Doukhobors, who tried to avoid bureaucratic intervention in their lives by refusing to register births, deaths, marriages, and, in particular, by steadfastly opposing military service. The implicit egalitarianism inherent in this rejection of authority, the assertion of personal freedom, and the beliefs of the presence of God in every individual and that all men are brothers attacked the very bases upon which church and state were founded, and caused the Doukhobors more than two centuries of official persecution.

Figure 5. Cupboard, northern Russia, late nineteenth century. Pine and spruce with original faux-bois graining and commercial cast-metal pulls; height 68 1/4, width 50, depth 20 inches. The cornice is missing.

As repression of the Doukhobors became more and more severe, a number of outside people stepped in to find a solution. Among the most important and influential was Count Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), who found in Doukhobor belief many parallels with his own anarchistic and pacifistic views, as well as a living embodiment of early Christian communism. According to Sulerzhitsky, Tolstoy, “[m]aking an exception to his rule not to take royalties for his publications….sold his novel Resurrection for the benefit of the Doukhobors.”  In advocating the Doukhobors’ immigration to Canada as a solution to their repression at home, Mavor, in Toronto, wrote to James Allan Smart (b. 1858), deputy minister of the Interior, on October 19, 1898: “I should mention also that their idea that they may as well be frozen to death in Canada as flogged to death by the Cossacks, is natural enough.”

Figure 6. Cupboard, Vologda region, Russia, c. 1900. Pine and spruce with original red and polychrome painted decoration; height 75, width 53 1/2, depth 19 1/2 inches.

As so many immigrants to North America before the Doukhobors had discovered, the promise of a new land and a new life brought with it struggle and hardship and official persecution and support in unequal measures. The only possessions most new arrivals brought with them appear to have been trunks or chests containing clothing, domestic items, and tools – a fragile visual and material bridge between departure from home and arrival in North America, or, more specifically, in the case of the Doukhobors, from the Russian steppes to the Canadian prairies. The chests’ materials, construction, proportions, and profile, colors and finish, decorative motifs, and overall aesthetic constitute a framework for analyzing the ways in which geography and Canadian society affected how the Doukhobors adopted and adapted these elements in their new environment. At the same time, the reassuring presence of familiar forms and practices provided them with a stabilizing psychological underpinning.

Some elements require extensive considerations while others are simple and straight-forward. The woods used, for example, were similar and vary little in physical composition. Pine, spruce, and birch were all commonly used in Canada and Russia, but Russian pine and spruce have more well-defined graining and greater weight than their North American counter-parts, facts that are further accentuated in a constructed state by the thickness of the planks used in Russia.

Figure 7. Cupboard, Saskatchewan, early twentieth century. Pine with original blue and green paint; height 77 1/4, width 42, depth 21 inches.

Like the materials, construction techniques are, with some variations, closely related in the Russian and Canadian pieces. In accordance with centuries’ old traditions of good joinery, mortise-and-tenon techniques prevail in cupboards and tables, while dovetailed construction predominates in boxes of all sizes. Unlike the furniture made by the Doukhobors in the Canadian West, however, Russian pieces often use visible through- tenon joints and cupboards have vertical tongue-and groove joinery and horizontal backboards, while analogous North American forms employ blind tenons and vertically nailed backboards. With few exceptions, most nails used on Russian furniture have cross-hatched heads, while those used by the Doukhobors in Canada do not.

In contrast to the material similarity between traditional Russian folk pieces and those of the Canadian Doukhobors, the decoration on the two types, differs greatly. The range of colors employed was similarly broad in both places, but the decorative application and the motifs used are distinct and constitute defining characteristics. Our examination and analysis will be limited to three categories of furniture –cupboards, boxes, and tables– since few imported chairs, benches, beds, and small domestic pieces from Russia are available for comparative purposes at present.

Figure 8. Mirror, Blaine Lake, Saskatchewan, early twentieth century, once owned by the Popoff family. Pine with old brown paint over red stain and inner gesso frame with cream-color paint; height 20, width 12 inches.

Cupboards constituted a major item in the domestic interior and were therefore more subject to decorative elaboration. Generally of imposing size and proportion, cupboards in the Russian tradition are broad, deep, and relatively low in height, probably reflecting low ceilings and modest living spaces (See Fig. 5). Although often constructed in one piece, they appear as two-part storage units, of balanced proportions, usually with fielded rectilinear panels that convey a sense of solidity and stability and a certain heaviness. Russian cupboards were frequently fastened to the walls and further integrated with the architecture of a room by having painted and decorated surfaces that echoed that of the wainscoting, moldings, door and window frames.

Russian cupboards with multiple outlined panels, such as the one in Figure 6, seem to call for further decorative elements, perhaps a lingering reflection of traditional methods of icon production, in which several artisans were responsible for the decoration of a single object, a practice that encouraged a proliferation of visual effects. The roses, tulips, and other floral ornaments that embellish panels are treated in an iconic manner that emphasizes centrality and focus; another hand may well have applied the field colors and trompe-l’oeil graining that serve as background. The background color on most Russian cupboards ranges from shades of red-brown to orange, and is sometimes painted to imitate graining.

In contrast, the paint on Canadian Doukhobor cupboards is plain and simple. It invariably emphasizes the composition of the whole by making the component parts clear – cornice, top section, waist, lower doors, base and foot (See Figs. 2 and 7). Doukhobor cupboards have single color fields, often outlined by another color in such combinations as blue and green, yellow and green, pink and green, or orange and green, with the darker color applied to moldings, cornices, and other edges. While floors, walls, and interior trim were almost always white or neutral in color in Doukhobor houses in Canada, in rural interiors in some regions of Russia such as Vologda bright colors and often repeated motifs were used to create a blended effect between furniture, walls, and paneling.

Figure 9. Table, northern Russia, late nineteenth century. Pine with original paint; height 29, width 64 1/2, depth 30 inches.

Doukhobor cupboards, including hanging versions, occasionally have carved and shaped profiles. A few familiar animals such as horses and birds sometimes appear as silhouettes on cornices (See Fig. 2) but seldom appear elsewhere. In contrast, flowers and foliate imagery are common painted motifs on Russian cupboards and chests (See Fig. 4) along with symbolic animals : “lions, Bereginy (Slavic – Spirits of Nature) and other creatures….were often painted on cupboard doors, large storage chests, and even the floors.

The boxes the Doukhobors brought from Russia at the end of the nineteenth century, probably as dower chests, and ready-made traveling trunks, were frequently embellished with painted geometric motifs, particularly pinwheels and circles. As symbols, circle related motifs have long been associated with mythologies of the sun and predate the religious icons of Christianity as they are usually understood.

On Russian boxes, where they appeared often, these motifs are well-developed, opulent, and generally fill all the space available (see Fig. 14). On Doukhobor boxes made in Canada, however, decorative elements were less insistently used, and were more restrained; they contained fewer colors; and generally consist of fewer motifs, both floral and geometric, which are disposed singly or in simple symmetrical and bilateral arrangements against a single color colored ground (See Figs. 3 and 13). This is the geometry of the pagan mythologies of the natural world and the vocabulary world of folk, rather than the symbolic language of Christian iconography that prevailed in Russia at the time.

Figure 10. Table and chair, Buchanan, Saskatchewan, c. 1910. Pine; height 30 1/2, width 42 3/4, depth 28 3/4 inches. Chair: pine and birch with original painted decoration; height 35 1/2, width 14 1/2, depth 16 1/4 inches.

The physical properties and the structure of the boxes made in North America and Russia are analogous; both use similar woods, mortise and tenon construction, and dovetailed corners. As on cupboards, the structural components, such as the moldings, around the lid or at the foot function as both protective and decorative devices in both countries, but on Doukhobor boxes a dark color normally contrasts with the field color, adding a further decorative element to the field (See Fig. 3).

Gennadi Blinov, in a book about Russian folk style figurines, identifies red, red-orange, and variants as the essential field colors of the Russian decorative palette and describes their perpetual qualities in psychological terms: “Red is an extremely active colour, strongly affecting human emotions and endowed with highly decorative properties.”  By emphasizing the emotional content of color and its decorative force, Blinov unexpectedly touched on the essentials of most Doukhobor painted furniture, which bypasses the emblematic use of color.

The final form we wish to discuss are tables. As objects around which domestic and social interactions are repeated day after day, tables play a basic role in the aesthetics of everyday existence in both Russia and Canada during this period. Russian tables are solid and block-like (See Fig. 11). It is no accident that they are almost exclusively plain or painted simply with several colors, reflecting through color and the control of the planimetric structure an unconscious preference for a two-dimensional iconic focus and a disinterest in the decorative potential of edges, curvilinear profiles, and the three-dimensional irregularities of the natural world. Doukhobor tables, on the other hand, often have carved and cutout skirts that emphasize three-dimensional effects and their sculptural nature, with positive and negative spaces creating a dynamic tension (See Fig.12) Despite these differences, both Russian tables and Doukhobor ones have turned legs that suggest their common origin. Alexander and Barbara Pronin point out that the furniture made by carpenters in Russia mirrors architectural forms and observe that the rounded legs of the tables resemble in miniature the pillars on the porches of some dwellings.  The same can be said for the correspondence between Canadian Doukhobor table legs and some pillars on some Doukhobor houses in British Columbia.

The distinction between carved, and cut-out, as opposed to painted decoration is, we think, related to certain perceptual values and beliefs. The long and widespread tradition of icons in Russia depends essentially on painted decoration of a flat surface, and is thus an aesthetic based on symbolic representation. As iconoclasts, the Doukhobors, perhaps unconsciously, distanced themselves from this technique by translating the pictorial tradition into carved three-dimensional decoration and by transforming the widespread presence of icons in Russian culture into the sculpted vegetable forms of the natural world, coincident with their own beliefs and the vegetarianism that many of them practiced. In the representation of the animate world of humans, animals and vegetables, stylized forms predominate on Russian pieces, while in Canadian-made Doukhobor furniture, the three-dimensionality of carved decoration and of cutout profiles and pierced and cutaway surfaces creates patterns of depth and overlap in a dynamic, spatial exchange. The minimal use of geometric motifs and the emphasis on vegetable imagery in the North American context accounts, at least in part, for the evacuation of the symbolic meaning and religious implication that was inherent in the iconlike painted and framed flower forms and geometric shapes of traditional Doukhobor objects. In other words, the decoration of Russian pieces is associated with a strong pictorial tradition of iconographic and emblematic origin, while Canadian Doukhobor furniture associates ornamentation with structural elements – such as cutout, sculpted, or pierced aprons or the carved elements found on cupboard cornices – enhanced through patterns of contrasting color and a minimal use of motifs. Incidentally, the infrequent use of representational motifs by the Doukhobors may be related to their long exile in the Caucasus, where Islamic custom eschewed figural decoration.

Figure 13. Storage box, Yorkton area, Saskatchewan, late nineteenth century. Pine with original painted decoration; height 24 3/4, width 39 1/2, depth 26 3/4 inches.

In summary, the Doukhobor’ rejection in the eighteenth century of both the Russian state and the Orthodox Church marked the beginning of a search for a utopian ideal of simplicity, expressed by the term, “Toil and peaceful life, ” a motto that continues to circulate widely within the community. The symbolism attached to figures and other imagery from the Russian tradition gradually lost its relevance in the decoration of objects as a result of the Doukhobors’ minimization of religious ritual, rejection of iconography, and absence of a sacred book, along with the hardships of their daily lives during their early years in a new land. In Russia, however, the religious traditions of Orthodoxy continued to influence the decorative embellishments of domestic life.

Like most folk cultures transported to North America from earlier European sources, traditional forms persisted at the physical level of everyday existence and the production of domestic objects necessary to support daily activities. At the same time, the traditional forms and decorations of household objects, utensils and tools were usually simplified, motifs more sparingly used, often emptied of iconic and emblematic meaning. Some of this attenuated decorative expression was no doubt also due to the new conditions of life imposed by a strange environment and the influences of an unfamiliar social culture that exerted through commercial channels and differing physical preferences a growing pressure to adapt and conform to new visual models.

Figure 14. Storage box, northern Russia, late nineteenth century. Pine with original painted decoration; height 13, width 29, depth 19 3/4 inches.

For More Information

For more information on this subject, see Folk Furniture of Canada’s Doukhobors, Hutterites, Mennonites and Ukrainians (2004, University of Alberta Press) by John Fleming and Michael Rowan. With over 100 color photographs, this informative book offers a stunning visual record of the culture and values of these four ethno-cultural groups. Authors John Fleming and Michael Rowan take an interpretive approach to the importance of folk furniture and its intimate ties to people’s systems of values and beliefs. Photographer James Chambers beautifully captures both representative and exceptional artifacts, from large furniture items such as storage chests, benches, cradles, and tables, to small kitchen items including spoons, bread-boxes, and cookie cutters. The extensive text provides descriptive, analytical, and interpretive dimensions to these rare artifacts. The descriptions lead into further analysis and interpretation of the physical characteristics of the furniture—focusing on material, form, style, and colour—and the influences of each of the ethnic groups in these particular areas. To order copies of Folk Furniture of Canada’s Doukhobors, Hutterites, Mennonites, and Ukrainians (ISBN 0-88864-4183), contact the University of Alberta Press