by Sonya Stepankin
The Doukhobor village of Novo-Spasskoye (later renamed Kalmakovo) was established in 1899 in the Good Spirit Lake district of Saskatchewan. For the next fourteen years, it was home to over thirty Doukhobor immigrant families. The following essay by Sonya Stepankin is reproduced from Essays on Pioneer Days in Saskatchewan (Regina: Women’s Canadian Club, 1927). Written from a Doukhobor women’s perspective, it portrays life in one Doukhobor village, from the early struggle for survival, through to the difficult, often painful, choices that led to its eventual abandonment.
From the southern slopes of the Caucasus they came – a band of exiles for conscience’ sake – seeking freedom to follow the tenets of their simple faith without fear of persecution.
Their forefathers, imbued with an appreciation of that evasive something called “Spiritual Life” had become known as Doukhobors (signifying “Spirit Wrestlers”) and, staunch in their belief that an implicit obedience to the command, “Thou shalt not Kill” was demanded of them, had suffered exile, and torture, and death, and banishment to the living death of Siberia. They had been driven from their homes in a fertile region of the valley of the (Molochnaya) and had been herded into mountain villages already occupied by Tartar subjects of the Tsar.
These Tartars, by robbery and murder, had reduced life to one continuous fear, and to this, the Government added the tyranny of the Cossacks and the knout. Such were their miseries, and so wretched was their condition, that the sun soaked mountain valleys became to them, all that is conveyed in that dread name, Siberia. So much so, that they called the place of their exile “New Siberia”.
Generations of Doukhobors had endured this persecution for conscience sake, before their unhappy plight was discovered by an English Quaker named John Bellows. He laid the facts of their case before the Society of Friends (Quakers), whose hearts warmed with ready sympathy for their fellow Christians in distress. The Friends felt it incumbent to strive for some measure of relief for the Doukhobors, and by their efforts Count Tolstoy was interested.
Being exceedingly sympathetic to the Doukhobors’ pacifist attitude towards war, the Count used his influence at court, and eventually through intercession with the Tsar, release, in the shape of permission to migrate en masse, was granted.
The English Society of Friends raised the funds necessary for transportation to Canada, and early in 1898, (four) shiploads left Batum on the Black Sea for Halifax.
The first ship to set sail called at the island of Cyprus for the purpose of breaking the monotony of the long voyage, and giving he immigrants an opportunity to rest. These good intentions, however, proved a fatal mistake, for fever ravaged the company and many dead were left behind.
The other (three) ships sailed direct to Halifax, where approximately seven thousand Doukhobors disembarked, being met by representatives of the American Society of Friends, who accompanied them to their destination. The American Quakers had undertaken the expense of the land journey and they also presented to the older people, especially those in poor health, a sum of money averaging about five dollars each.
The land assigned them by the Canadian Government was in the Northwest Territories, the nearest railway point being Yorkton, where they arrived in May (1899). The blocks allotted to them lay on both sides of what is now the Canadian National railway track, between the present towns of Veregin and Buchanan, and from Yorkton the track began.
Doukhobor village, circa 1901.
Accustomed to living in village groups, going back and forth to their field work, the Doukhobors had no conception of homestead life, and expected to continue their village system, therefor the families formerly occupying the same village in the Caucasus formed themselves into groups to establish new villages.
Striking off to the north and west, following a trail for fifty miles, one group reached the head of Devil’s Lake, and the abundance of wood, water and fish prompted them to search for a clearing in which to locate their village. The site they chose was a stretch of trail a mile further north, and they named the spot Novo-Spasskoye after the village (Spasovka) they had left – home – in spite of all its distresses.
And now, the Land of Promise a reality, and the wearisome journey accomplished, they assembled to offer fervent thanks for mercies vouchsafed. But mingled with the praise was a prayer, an unquashed cry from wives and mothers for protection for the men whose hardest task was upon them. For upon the men and youths devolved the necessity of facing this new, strange world to provide the means of existence; living and working among people whose language was incomprehensible and whose food was revolting, for, manifestly, a scrupulous fulfilment of the Divine command, “Thou shalt not Kill” prohibited the eating of flesh.
Back to the train at Yorkton turned the men, and the desolate women watching them down the trail, cried aloud in their anguish. But the poignant note of terror, characteristic of the parting of other days, was lacking; for then, men had been trampled under Cossack hoofs, flogged by the knout or driven to the living death of Siberia. And the old people, pathetic in their homeless plight, drew comfort from the thought that such scenes could never be repeated upon their children’s children, to save whom they had uprooted themselves, leaving the graves of their dead, and braving the unknown in their old age.
However, tears were futile, work was pressing. Shelter was imperative; wells must be dug; ground broken; and the women, with the men too old for work among strangers, turned to their immediate problem. To a people with babies, the ailing, and the aged among their number, and lacking any vestige of shelter, the speediest means of protection from the elements was their natural choice, and they dug caves in the earth, supporting where necessary with logs; and branches, grass and soil provided roofing material.
Tools were scarce, and in the open space among the poplars, the women used every means necessity could devise to break the ground to receive the precious seed that represented their supply of vegetables for the year. Some woman’s foresight had prompted the bringing of seed of the stinging nettle, a weed whose rapid growth would supply early greens for vegetable soup, which formed their principal dish.
Both soil and tools had been provided by the Society of Friends, but inevitably there was some shortage when divided among seven thousand. In spite of the inadequacy of tools, shelters for approximately three hundred persons were achieved on the village site. This lay paralleled a stretch of trail connecting two ranch houses. To the ranchers, the advent of the settlers spelt loss of livelihood, but they (the Doukhobors), innocent of wrongdoing, strayed on the ranchers’ land cutting logs, and when ordered off, laboriously tried to explain that they had been given to understand it was a free country, therefor, the trees were God’s trees and they could claim a right to them. Despairing of making them realize his ownership, the rancher fired a charge of bird shot among them, and the pierced ear lobe of one of them always proved that fact to possible skeptics.
Ruined as their business was, the ranchers, be it said to their honour, befriended the settlers, who thankfully undertook the care of a cow and a calf in exchange for the milk, and were grateful for permission to strip the potato vines, and the rhubarb, of their leaves for use in soup.
Flour, bedding, clothing, was supplied by the unfailing Friends, whose interest, augmented by the Press publicity of the religious migration, aroused widespread sympathy, and considerably increased the relief fund organized by the Friends in aid of the seven thousand souls, inexperienced in the rigours of a northern winter. In addition, there was a safe supply of fish in the lake, and an abundance of wild fruit, so that in their eager return in the fall, the men found much cause for thankfulness. There were shelters; there was food, and several unexpected possessions from the barrels packed by the Friends.
Of all this the men knew nothing, reading and writing being a rare accomplishment among them. This lack of direct and easy communication made the separation a great ordeal, causing a total cessation of family life; consequently the homecoming was fraught with far deeper significance than the term commonly implies. Each side lived over again the days since the hour of parting. Nearly every day had brought some new experience, and tears alternated with laughter as they recounted in detail, failure and success, hardship and compensation, sorrow and joy.
Enchanting to the women was the men’s’ account of the people they had lived among; the strangeness of their language, their food, their clothing, and most of all, their homes, filled with superfluous furniture. How spendthrift these people seemed, needlessly piling up the expense of living, and careless of the life to come!
This period of family life was very precious; like a jewel set between the blank of separation behind, and the threat of it before them. it made the oncoming spring season of lamentation because once again, the “little death” was upon them. A thousand miles they (the men) went to work, tramping the trail to Yorkton on the first lap of their journey, via Winnipeg, to Medicine Hat. Here they worked on the Canadian Pacific Railway, striving to accumulate sufficient to make better provision for the next winter, in addition to supplying the immediate need for various equipment to improve the primitive living quarters of their families.
Doukhobor women pulling plow, circa 1901.
Appalled by the intensity of the cold they had for the first time experienced, the villagers applied themselves to the building and plastering of log houses that would defy the frost, and some semblance of a village rose on each side of the trail. Lumber floors were a luxury, few, if any, possessed, but the hard tramped earth served the purpose, and spared the lumber for furniture fashioned by the men. Work on the land speeded up, for they had been the happy possessors of a plough. The fact that oxen and horses were both a minus quantity did not daunt them, for the women roped themselves together and cheerfully supplied the power, singing their beloved folk songs as they turned the furrows.
Having rescued their fellow Christians from persecution, the Quakers had no intention of leaving them to work unaided, their own salvation. Besides material help, they were anxious to pass on the benefits of their own experience. To this end they built schools and sent teachers from England and Philadelphia. The Friends themselves had evolved a very clear idea of the value of education, but their magnificent offer was not generally appreciated among the Doukhobors, who looked upon “book learning” as entirely superfluous, preferring their children to help in the work at home. Consequently, through lack of support the Friends’ expensive project collapsed, and realizing the futility of further effort, they quietly withdrew.
At the time of the Doukhobor exodus from Russia, their leader, Peter Verigin, was a prisoner in Siberia. Later, freedom to join his people in Canada was granted, and he assumed control of the settlements in 1902. From that time the affairs of the village were conducted along community lines. The wages of the men were pooled to form a common fund and from the fund every family drew its quota of supplies according to its number. Such foodstuffs as they could not produce, material for clothing and for bedding, footwear, and household dishes, were all distributed from the common fund, and all kept strictly down to the minimum. Machinery, cattle, and all the needs of the village as a whole were supplied out of the common fund.
Their leader (Peter “Lordly” Verigin) made his home in the largest village, which was nearly forty miles from Novo-Spasskoye. In order to have a suitable place in which to transact business, and to hold meetings on the occasion of his periodic visits, he had a spacious building (dom) erected. It was of smooth red brick manufactured in the community brickyard. It was lighted by a dozen or more fine large windows. A veranda with much fancy woodwork ran the whole length and across the front, while an ornate balcony spanned the front gable, all tastefully painted in light colours. The interior was divided into one large room for public use, and smaller rooms as living quarters for the leader and his retinue.
Standing fairly central to the village, the building dominated the humble log dwellings of the men who, year after year, endured months of separation from their families in order to maintain the common fund; and where many a woman, lamenting, worked with a pang in her heart for her absent man.
Besides their work in the field, the women contributed a large share to the handicrafts of the community. They grew flax, and steeped and dried and dressed it, spinning a strong linen thread and weaving a linen which gave almost interminable wear. The men made the bedsteads, and the women filled the ticks and pillows with feathers (from the moulting poultry) patiently stripped off the quill. The blankets they made of fleece stretched between two covers. The fleece was sheared from the sheep by the women, who carded and spun it, knitting for the whole family, and cleverly lining the mitts and socks of the outdoor workers with fleece, rendering them so snug and warm as to defy almost any cold.
Patiently they sewed by hand every garment worn by the whole community except those of the men who went away to work. Five widths went into the making of their own dark skirts, gathered into a waist-band, over their bright blouses which buttoned up to the throat, and at the wrists. Their head shawls were worn in and out of the house, over the hair in a braid tucked under the shawl. The dresses of the girls of all ages were merely a duplicate of their mothers; and the home made suits consisted of long trousers gathered into a waist belt, over which was worn the shirt, tunic-fashion. As a change from strenuous work, and by way of decoration, they did fine drawn thread work, achieving exquisite, lacy effects.
Varied as were their handicrafts, they lamented the fact that their independence was not complete; shoes, for instance, had to be bought, and regretfully, they remembered the slight protection needed in their native climate; and the old people told how big a dollar was, when almost their sole needs from the store were needles and matches. Longingly they thought of the wild figs whose sweetness rivaled the honey used instead of sugar, and of the wild grapes of the mountains; and they yearned for a breath of the scented, moisture laden air of the valleys of home. But human lives were more precious than this, and, singing their folk songs, they toiled to make a home in this country of freedom.
The men, travelling, working, were learning, observing, comparing, learning the language and the law, especially as it related to homestead rights; observing the comfortable living on the farms; comparing men’s pride of ownership with their own lot. By degree, heresy crept into their thoughts and into their conversation, and the subject of separation from the community became an absorbing topic among them. Estrangement from the community at large would be an inevitable result, with possible petty persecutions, but increasing faith in their own judgement forced the conviction upon them that the wiser investment of their labour – their only capital – would be the land, and the bolder, more enterprising spirits withdrew from the community to enter upon the obligatory (homestead) residence duties.
Their example encouraged others to follow their lead, and many whose better judgement urged them to independence were restrained by their womenfolk, who feared the hazards. In vain the men protested their ability to provide but the women pleaded for the security which only community life could guarantee, and their tears and prayers prevailed for the time being. Time and again, ambitious men returned to the argument, but the women stood firm for assured provision in sickness and old age. Besides, they were bred and born, and had their being in a village, and shrank from the isolation of the homestead.
Presently, other questions turned up. They had now been in Canada between eight and nine years and the Government began to insist on naturalization. Apprehensive of their position as private citizens, many Independents were welcomed back into the fold, together with such possessions as they had managed to accumulate. When the fear of military law was removed by exemption being granted, many returned to their homesteads, so that the community system was disrupted, and the leader began negotiations for a block of land in British Columbia.
On their withdrawal from the community, the Independents were allowed the property they had taken in on their re-entry, and ruefully they contemplated their possessions, consisting of a cow and a steer, or a cow and a horse, or some equally ill assorted team, or perhaps only one animal. With their meager household goods, and, in rare cases, a piece of farm machinery, this constituted all their worldly goods; representing the sum total of all their valuable capital after ten years of working out.
Narrowly were they watched by the men restrained by their womenfolk, and by the time their leader’s plans were nearing completion, many took matters into their own hands, determined to avail themselves of their homestead rights, and their decision crystallized into action the wavering attitude of others to swell the ranks of the Independents. Those who lacked the courage to venture and were yet reluctant to relinquish their homestead rights, decided to remain in the community until time should prove the success or failure of the Independents, and they, with the many faithful adherents, moved to British Columbia in 1911 to continue the community regime; the privilege to re-enter being extended to all who had withdrawn.
Doukhobor village house, circa 1901.
The village was deserted! The spot which had been the scene of such varied activities for thirteen years was silent with the mournful stillness of abandoned homes. Forlornly employ stood the little houses, with missing windows like hollow eye sockets, the doorways gaping into vacancy, and weeds in possession of the garden patches.
The village was dead, but the surrounding country resounded with life. Scattered spots of light from lamp lit cottage windows broke the darkness of the bush, like beacons signalling a challenge to nature’s undisputed sway, and children’s’ voices swell and shrill, dispelled the age long silence. The sight and sound of labour was succeeded by blooming gardens and plots of ripening grain.
But there were tears! Behind many lighted window a woman sobbed out her loneliness, wearying of the monotony, longing for the humanity of the village, with its impact of spirit upon spirit, its neighbourliness, its bickering! Hearts were wrung by the severance of close family ties; mothers and daughters were in, or out, of the community according to the decision of their menfolk, and no letters could be exchanged to ease the heartache, nor written to unburden the mind; the mountains were between, and they lacked the ability to bridge them with the written word.
Work was their only respite, and side by side with the men they subdued the forest and brought the wild land to subjection. Early and late they toiled, sustained by the thought of ultimate ownership, stimulated by the fact that every hand’s turn was to their benefit. And between whiles, they reared their children and tended young stock and poultry. They grew tomatoes and cucumbers in quantities to supply their table the year round, in addition to the common vegetables, so that their borshch was plentiful and delicious. This vegetable soup, taking the place of meat, is made as follows: While potatoes are boiling, cabbage is shredded, onion chopped, and both fried in butter; tomatoes are added, or it is varied with different vegetables. The potatoes are taken from their water and crushed, or mashed; they are returned to the water, the fried vegetables with their generous amount of butter, are added, and the whole is sharpened with vinegar. The red tomato, green cabbage and golden butter present an appetizing appearance, and the sharp tang of the vinegar further whets the appetite. A bowl of borshch with a thick slice of bread forms a substantial meal.
They baked and churned, and washed and cleaned, and on Saturdays prepared the steam bath, so that the whole family should greet the Sabbath day with scrupulous personal cleanliness. They plastered the buildings and sheared the sheep and in winter, they spun, and knitted, and sewed, filling bed ticks and pillows with feathers, and comforters with fleece, while some of their menfolk turned to good account the troublesome bush, hauling stove wood and willow fence pickets to Yorkton, while others fished through the ice on the lake.
Their labours were rewarded, and the second ten years produced a very different statement of effects from that of the first ten. Almost without exception an additional quarter section, or more, had been bought adjoining the original homestead, whereon had been erected a frame house and good buildings, which always included a bath-house, and in most cases, a garage.
The telephone in every house made the women forget the meaning of loneliness, and the automobile had robbed the homestead of its isolation. The fine schoolhouse had rendered communication with distant relations a common occurrence, for the children wrote their parents’ letters in English, receiving answers from far-away cousins in the same tongue.
Of all the progress that ten years had brought, these schoolchildren were the most vital. Canadian in speech, dress and sentiment, they bound the older generations with bonds of blood to the country of their adoption, bringing customs into the homes, welding a chain of happy associations, creating an atmosphere of home where before had been only a refuge. The children “belong”. “I was born in Saskatchewan, and I hope to live here until I die,” vied the children of the schoolhouse.
The ten years had effaced the village. A black hole yawned, or grassy mound showed the remains of the banks around the little houses, long since demolished for their logs. Beside the trail that had formed the village street, various herbs proclaimed the dormant gardens, and scattered maples revealed the love of beauty in the hearts of the exiles. The red brick meeting house had become a farm-house surrounded by its wheat fields, and from the old trail the wheat fields stretched in the characteristic sunlit spaces of Saskatchewan.
Men who called the village home in the first hard years, motor through without a regret that nothing more than a momento remains to recall the attempt at paternal autocracy.