Journey to a Colony of Doukhobors, 1903

by E.W. Thompson

On December 4, 1903, renowned Canadian journalist and author Edward William (E.W.) Thompson (1849-1924) accompanied an immigration officer and guide from Swan River, Manitoba to the Doukhobor village of Voznesenie in the Arran district of Saskatchewan. His personal experiences and observations were later published in the Manitoba Morning Free Press on January 22, 1904. His account is detailed, poignant and grabs the attention of the reader as he describes the Doukhobors’ unique customs and gracious hospitality, the goodness of the people, the interior of a Doukhobor house, their architecture and craftsmanship, well-mannered children, and the calm, peaceful village environment “where prairie chickens are tame” and unafraid of man. In doing so, he provides a rare, first-hand historic account of a Doukhobor village shortly after their arrival in Canada. Editorial notes by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

Voznesenie, Saskatchewan, Dec. 4. This Doukhobor village, in the extreme southeast corner of Saskatchewan territory was reached by traveling 278 miles northwest from Winnipeg via the Canadian Northern railroad, then driving twenty miles southwest from the prosperous wheat-receiving village of Swan River. En route by rail we traversed a thickly settled region of Manitoba, where pretty towns, numerous elevators and a farming population well housed and barned indicate the solid welfare that has come of agricultural work during the past twenty-two years.

Swan River, Manitoba, Canadian Northern Railway railhead in 1903. Library and Archives Canada PA-021748.

At Swan River, there was more than half a day’s delay by difficulty in securing McGaw, most desirable of all possible teamsters. Because Sunny Johnny is a guide of guides, American land-seekers wanted him, and they are hard men to beat. I wanted him because my route of 105 miles across country to Yorkton on the Canadian Pacific Railway lay through many Doukhobor villages, wherein John is welcome as ever Peter Stuyvesant’s ‘Anthony the Trumpeter’ was in the hamlets between Weathersfield and New Amsterdam. Hugh Harley, the government land and immigration agent at Swan River, wanted McGaw because H.H. had business with Peter Verigin, the Doukhobor chief, who resides some fifty miles westward. By putting our gray heads together, H. H. and your correspondent beat the younger land seekers and got away triumphantly about 4 in the afternoon of yesterday.

The delay was fortunate. It not only secured me the valuable company of Harley and McGaw, who are literally and metaphorically white-headed boys, in the Russian villages, but it enabled one to purchase a considerable stock of big candy and little dolls for Doukhobor children, on learning that the men and women would refuse money for the hospitality that must be sought at their amicable hands. Finally, the delay enabled Mr. Archer to reach Swan River. He is an English philosopher, young, but not discreditably so, who understands the Slavonic dialect of the Doukhobors. Among them, he has resided off and on since they migrated to Canada. To him I had a letter of introduction from some of the associated Montreal ladies, who market, for sweet charity’s sake, the charming laces and embroideries which Doukhobor women made until they recently found ways of earning more money.

The temperature was near zero at 4 o’clock. Sun just sinking in the tops of distant poplars. A dead calm after twenty-four hours of windy snowfall.

Down the short steep to the Swan River Bridge, up the pull on t’other side and there we was the first token of Doukhobor customs. It consists of two log huts for people and of two more quite as good for horses and oxen. These collectively constitute the stopping places of Doukhobors visiting Swan River village to sell wheat, purchase supplies, or haul freight from the railway. Why should vegetarians squander their substance in buying profane hotel meals? Why should they submit their beloved cattle to the untender mercies of non-Doukhobor hostlers?

Bridge over Swan River, built by Doukhobors, c. 1903. Library and Archives Canada PA-021087.

How a Bully Was Thrashed

Moreover, there are in English-speaking villages men who at times drink heavily and assail Doukhobors, presumably on their creed, which requires them to suffer even more than is signified by turning the other cheek. Old Hugh Harley told a rare story of what happened in Swan River when a notorious local bully had belabored two Doukhobors almost to his heart’s content, ignoring their mild expostulations. A righteous Englishman, high in the confidence of all Doukhobors, went straightway to the place where Ivan, a giant among them, earnestly laboured with a hod [a long-handled box carried over the shoulder to move a load]. “Ivan,” he said in Russian, “a man is whacking Doukhobors unmercifully. He has bloodied gentle Piotr’s nose and cut kind Michael’s chin. Go thou instantly and whack him. Give it to him – hard – or never show thy face again unto me.”

Now obedience to the orders of Rectitude is a cardinal virtue among the Doukhobors. It is said that an unholy pleasure might have been marked in Ivan’s grin while he thumped and thumped the bully. Thereafter, “the man who had been licked by a Doukhobor” suffered such derision from his congeners that he reformed. Consistent Doukhobors lament that one of their numbers should thus have let himself be incited to violence, yet a certain indulgence for Ivan may be seen in their flickering smiles at allusions to that great day. Because he was so obedient to a good friend, they can pardon his frailty. From this incident, the unregenerate derive hope of the ultimate complete Canadianization of this singular people. “After a few years, they’ll do just as bad as the rest of us” said one of our party, “and just as good. This result will be called civilization. In that regime, real Christianity is out of place.”

The Goodness of the People

The trail was one long drift of snow, trotting rarely possible, our progress at a walk. An hour had passed and the undark night of snowland had fallen when we passed the white-washed cabin of an English-speaking man, well acquainted with the Doukhobor quality of mercy.

“A shiftless, good-for-nothing fellow,” said one of ours. “The Douks presented him with a team of oxen last year. They did his ploughing and seeding this year. They have given him all sorts of things – food, clothing, harness, the deuce knows what not. Seems they are afflicted about his family. Can’t pass his place without giving ‘em something, drawing water for his wife, or doing a good turn for him. It’s all no use. Never will be. He thinks he’s entitled to be supported by anybody but himself in this blasted country. The more done for him the more he wants done.”

Doukhobor family, Saskatchewan, c. 1903. Glenbow Archives NA-2878-15

Yet the good Doukhobors do not weary of their charity. They have a theory that persistence is good in such cases. Their interpreter neither names the man, in talking about him, nor claims any peculiar goodness for his sheep-skin covered confreres [brothers]. “Somebody is everybody’s neighbour,” he says with a pause between the words. “One mans get bad luck – oder man gets good luck – one mans tink no use for work anymore – oder mans give him some liddle ting, one time, two time, maybe more three time – de man find out peoples love him – he like himself better after while – den he pick himself up, he get shame of himself – he work good – be good man.” The interpreter’s English is not as beautiful as his theory. It may work out well in the end, but so far the “shame of himself” has not been reached by the benefited in this instance.

As the moon rose, the temperature fell. Perfect calm continued. So did Mr. Archer’s excellent disquisition on the Doukhobors and their virtues.

Why the Prairie Pilgrimage

Why did they go on that amazing prairie pilgrimage by which the attention of all America was called to them in October of last year? The philosopher’s explanation was, first, that not more than twenty-five percent of them did go. The 4,200 or so who stayed at their villages condemned the 1,800 who departed; condemned them, not roundly but gently, for these people are gentle, even in controversy with their own kind. The rest of Mr. Archer’s explanation is lengthy: to give it here would require much more space than can be presently afforded, but Archer’s theory was perfectly creditable to the sincerity, if not entirely to the practical sense of the 1,800 pilgrims.

Why should it be thought so amazing for Doukhobors to assemble to form a procession to walk 200 miles over the Prairie, seeking Christ? Have not analogous pilgrimages been seen or heard of since ever religions were invented? Mecca! Rome! Lourdes! Ste. Anne de Beaupre! Jerusalem! Benarcs! Lhassa!

If acute Yankees become dull [bored] in rural places, why not Doukhobors? May they not also desire to behold something out of the usual? They have neither theatres, dances, instruments of music, minstrel shows, dime exhibitions, prize fights, store windows, doctors, lawyers, editors, politicians, or a clergy to amuse them – few books and those mostly pious. Under such conditions, any sort of pilgrimage might relieve monotony. Also, some of the pilgrims had practical objects in view. That a queer mingling of ground and lofty motives set them on their notable march will probably be confirmed by [Peter] Verigin and [Semeon] Reibin. Now let us try to reach Voznesenie.

The trek of 1902.

Seven o’clock saw us outspanned at Charles’s Goodwin’s store for supper. If one of Boston’s prize ascetics had not warned me to beware, I might wish to specify, with some fondness of reminiscence the very remarkable quality and quantity of venison steaks that Mrs. Goodwin supplied to her hungry visitors. Alas, there is no duly philosophized reason for repeating that the steaks were not “too sweet and good for human nature’s daily food.”

Mrs. Goodwin’s husband is an Englishman, long resident in Kansas. Their five, big American-born sons have, like their father, homesteads near the store. Thus the family possesses 960 acres of good land as the result of paying railroad fares northward. They are just outside of the Doukhobor reserve and therefore assured of amicable neighbours.

The moon, when we drove again, was so high and so luminous as to reveal clearly the hands of a small watch dial. In the distances of the enchanted snow, plain poplar bluffs bulked as dark hills. Beside the trail ran incessantly a lovely lace of twigs, tall motionless bending grasses and the tracery of their shadows. Our dark ponies were white with rime [frozen water droplets]. Moustaches, eyebrows, tall fur-coat collars were thickly frosted. The air was so still that it was “as if moored there”, to use [Archibald] Lampman’s expression. Occasionally, where woodland had sheltered the trail and trotting became possible, one had the sense that the temperature might be below zero. But it could not be credited in so pleasant an air. We guessed at the record which Archer’s thermometer would be making at Voznesenie. One said 10 above, one said 5 above, another 2 above. It was 11:30 p.m. when we read the tool. Ten below zero! We had traveled for six hours in an open sleigh, at that pitch of cold, without at least discomfort.

The Arrival at the Doukhobor Village

The virtuous Doukhobors are wholly free at this time of year – of the common rural vice of going to bed early. Lights shone through many Voznesenie windows. Two women, sheepskin-cloaked to the ground and bulged out as by innumerable petticoats came from the neighboring cabin when our bells ceased to jingle before that of Nicholas Zibareff.

They stared placidly, asked Mr. Archer if they could do anything for us in the way of hospitality and they waddled away. Mrs. Zibareff, her lord being absent, came forth with her well-grown brood, neighbors collected speedily, handshaking became general. By the way, the Doukhobors do not shake well. They are unused to the rite. I am told they kissed instead before they came to Canada. They give you a slack hand with a glad face. You waggle the hand a little and let go without conviction of being welcomed. Next morning, when you find that the family gave you their own good beds you understand that the glad face only was indicative.

Village of Voznesenie, North Colony, where the author visited in 1903.  Library and Archives Canada C-000683.

Mr. Archer’s bachelor hut stands next to Zibareff’s family caravanserai [roadside inn]. Both are earthen floored. The good philosopher insisted on making tea for us at midnight. After that McGaw alone remained with the Englander. Into Zibareff’s house, Harley and your correspondent were conducted with impressive bows, almost salaams [a ceremonious act of deference performed in Islamic countries]. These semi-Orientals are truly polite, but people of all ages and both sexes went unconcernedly in and out of the main room while we got into night gear. We were soon in such comfort as to be soon asleep.

The bedding was sweet, clean, soft, light and warm. It was placed at opposite ends of the broad unpainted benches, scrubbed clean as the deck of a yacht, which go about two and sometimes three sides of a Doukhobor living room. Each bed was hedged in by a railing about five feet long and eight or ten inches high; a structure resembling one side of a child’s cot. The go-to-bed gets in or out from the feet end. Unfortunately the room was heated by that accursed American invention, a box stove of iron, instead of by a Russian stove of clay, and that made the room too warm.

Interior of a Doukhobor House

Broad daylight through un-curtained windows roused to observation of the room. The walls and ceilings were showily white-washed. Over the windows were some brightly colored rude [simple] decorations. Bits of pictures from “dress goods” and from machinery advertising posters had been so skillfully employed in various places that one was puzzled to know how the effect was produced. These people manifest a sound oriental sense for color effects. There was nothing ridiculous, unseemly nor squalid in the simple and neat room. Not until the family heard us moving did they run the risk of disturbing the morning slumbers of their guests. Then young and old of both sexes passed in and out indifferently while we dressed. Harley said: “They don’t mind us a bit more than if we were roosters.”

One thing must be noted here lest it be forgotten later. The Doukhobors have pleasant voices. After the strident tones of the Teutonic, Scandinavian, British, Canadian and American inhabitants of prairieland, these Russian voices fall sweetly on the ear. Perhaps nothing is rarer than to hear from illiterate or common-schooled lips the gentle and suave accents of well-bred people. Doukhobors have that charm from a source analogous to that whence it is derived by the best of good society. They wish never to offend, always to conciliate. They desire to give assurance of kindly feeling by their modulations. They express themselves quite without that arduous and oily effect of studied smoothness one hears from some of the professional evangelicals of anywhere. Their accents are worthy to be ranked with those of the delightful few to whom the French attribute the manners of the good heart.

Baking bread in the clay oven inside a typical Doukhobor home. BC Archives C-01577.

It was not until after breakfasting on our own carnivorous food, pork and other things that we had brought along, that I understood we had slept in the house of Zibareff, one of the chief leaders of the pilgrimage. To be consistent with the reports he and his should be wild-eyed ranting fanatics. Now he is absent in Winnipeg with $40,000 cash buying dry goods and groceries for the village. His family are as quiet, seemingly intelligent looking folks as you shall ever meet in a winter’s day.

A Primitive Flouring Mill

After we had partaken in Archer’s cabin of some Doukhobors’ bread and eggs, besides our own meal, Alexander the engineer invited us to behold the pride of Voznesenie, its flouring mill. In a large mud-plastered house, they had set up the engine of a stream threshing machine – bought last fall. This they had connected with large millstones rounded and “picked” or dressed by Doukhobor millers from boulder stones, taken out of Swan River’s bed. They were grinding wheat at the rate of a hundred bushels a day. The brown whole-grain flour was to go gratis [free] to any villagers who wanted it. To supply the others was part of Voznesenie’s appointed work for the whole commune of fifteen hamlets in the Swan River Colony.

It was evident that the much derided Doukhobor is “no slouch.” in learning how to employ modern machinery. Moreover his doors, windows, and excellent smithied hinges testify that he is a good carpenter and blacksmith. It is with a new respect for his machine abilities that we are getting ready for the sleigh about noon, after seeing most of the Voznesenie work of his ingenious hands.

His houses, usually two or three-roomed, are but temporary. They are roofed with poles and turf. In this, tall grasses grow. The under or ceiling side of the poles is smoothly clay-plastered, then kalsomined [white-washed] with a whitewash made of grinding in water balls of subsoil clay which had been previously baked. His apartments are mostly at once evenly heated and well ventilated by his own make of clay stoves. Many prouder settlers have a great deal to learn from him about the art of living comfortably in the north.

Well Mannered Children

As for good breeding, in Voznesenie Mrs. Manners [a popular author on Victorian etiquette] herself would feel at home with old and young alike. When we assembled the children for candy and dolls they looked eager enough, but not the smallest tot grabbed at the goodies, stepped forward out of its turn, failed in its profound bow and its Russian word for thankfulness. There were but two big and dressed dolls for Voznesenie. These went to the smallest pair of girls. Not a sign of jealousy was evinced even by the slightly bigger ones who had to be content with tiny white china figurines about two inches long and wholly un-garmented. In desiring to be left free to teach their children what they please, Doukhobor parents would seem to have good reason.

Two Doukhobor girls, c. 1903. BC Archives C-01390.

Where Prairie Chickens are Tame

The most surprising thing last! In the one long street of Voznesenie, on weedy roofs, in its cattle yards and door-yards, prairie chickens stalk about as if they owned the place. They pay less attention to human beings than to Doukhobor dogs, though of these well-governed quadrupeds they are little afraid. The wild indigenous birds are not a bit more shy than Doukhobor pigeons. Both sorts feed amiably with the hens, and walk around among the legs of the cattle. At this season, these blue grouse are in their winter plumage, and almost as broad as dorking fowls [a breed of chicken]. They are so feathered to the heel that they seem long-trousered. It is a treat to see at four or five yard’s distance, the innocent proud stare of the game bird that usually hurries away, thunderously flying when he sees at fifty yards, the form of murderous man.

The Doukhobor reserve will probably become one great “preserve” of “chickens” so intelligent as to have learned in three years that there are people who hold all life sacred. But the Man with the Gun need not hope for good shooting in that tract. When he comes banging on his destructive way, the Doukhobors, men, women and children, rise up as one and drive the grouse far and wide out of his reach into the sheltering prairie. But they do not look angrily at the man, nor hurl at him one harsh word. He is but doing after his kind, as they after theirs. They think they save him from sin. They hope he may become ”shame of himself”. Such a hopeful, ignorant [naive] people!