Library and Archives Canada and the Doukhobor Genealogy Website Announce Strategic Partnership

For Immediate Release – July 10, 2008

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) and Jonathan J. Kalmakoff, creator of the Doukhobor Genealogy Website, the largest Doukhobor family history website, announced today a strategic partnership to make more resources accessible to Canadians interested in online Doukhobor family research.

Initially, Kalmakoff and LAC will focus on identifying the significant amount of Doukhobor archival material held at LAC. The material, covering 1899 to the present, includes thousands of government records, private manuscript collections, books, reports, periodicals, newspapers, photographs, and sound and video recordings. The result will be a thematic guide to help locate the material and assist in general research. The thematic guide will be available free of charge at www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/genealogy as well as at www.doukhobor.org.

In addition to the thematic guide to Doukhobor records, LAC and Kalmakoff will develop a specialized web page for Doukhobor genealogy at www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/genealogy. The specialized web page will be designed for those who wish to undertake genealogical research on their Doukhobor ancestors. It will provide an overview of select sources and tips for doing effective Doukhobor genealogical research while avoiding numerous pitfalls.

Jonathan J. Kalmakoff, creator of the Doukhobor Genealogy Website and Sylvie Tremblay, head of the Canadian Genealogy Centre, Library and Archives Canada, discuss the strategic partnership in Ottawa.

The Doukhobors are a Christian group that originated in Russia in the 17th century. They were persecuted in Tsarist Russia for their religious beliefs, which included pacifism, egalitarianism and communal ownership. In 1899, over 7,500 Doukhobors immigrated to Western Canada. There, they formed large communal farming enterprises. Today an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 Doukhobors live in Canada with a similar number living in Russia and the Former Soviet Republics.

“I am pleased to be partnering with LAC to provide guidance and direction to Doukhobor family researchers,” said Kalmakoff. “There is a wealth of records that can help those researching their Doukhobor roots understand their past. Being able to find, locate and use them is absolutely essential.”

About the Doukhobor Genealogy Website

The Doukhobor Genealogy Website is the leading online site for Doukhobor family history. It contains research guides and indices of Doukhobor archival materials in Canada and elsewhere and offers comprehensive glossaries of Doukhobor names and naming practices, geography, maps and place names, in addition to a wealth of historical texts and English translations of Russian sources. The creator, researcher and writer Jonathan J. Kalmakoff is a leading authority on Doukhobor genealogy and history. His publications are essential works for the study of Doukhobor family history. For more information, visit www.doukhobor.org.

About Library and Archives Canada

Library and Archives Canada collects and preserves Canada’s documentary heritage, and makes it accessible to all Canadians. This heritage includes publications, archival records, sound and audio-visual materials, photographs, artworks, and electronic documents such as websites. The Canadian Genealogy Centre (www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/genealogy) includes all physical and online genealogical services of Library and Archives Canada. It offers genealogical content, services, advice, research tools and opportunities to work on joint projects, all in both official languages.

Media contacts:

Sylvie Tremblay
Library and Archives Canada
613-992-1638
Sylvie.Tremblay@lac-bac.gc.ca

Jonathan J. Kalmakoff
Doukhobor Genealogy Website
306-569-0074
Contact Jonathan

The Doukhobors in Malyi Snezhetok

by Evgeny Pisarev

Today in the Pervomaysky district of Tambov, Russia, one hundred and four Doukhobor immigrants from Georgia have obtained permanent residence. Half of them – under the Russian Federation’s state program for the resettlement of Russian compatriots. The following article, reproduced from the Russian newspaper “Chernozem’e” (No. 4568, January 22, 2008) and translated into English by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff, examines the arrival of the Spirit Wrestlers from the perspective of the local Tambov population.

Descent from the Mountains

The first 56 immigrants, representatives of the Doukhobor religious community who left their historic native land – Russia – more than one and a half centuries ago, arrived in Tambov during the summer of last year. Initially they arrived, it may be said, on reconnaissance: to observe and get acquainted with the conditions of life, for eventual permanent settlement there with their families and belongings. The authorities advised the local press not to publicize the fact of their arrival, especially as the printed word might influence public opinion. Russian relations with Georgia were not at their best that summer, and the Georgian Doukhobors had not yet entered the state program for assistance of compatriots living abroad.

A Doukhobor woman ponders her family’s future in Russia. Photograph by Agnes Montanari.

The Doukhobors arrived from the mountain highlands village of Gorelovka. Territorially the village is Georgian, but the name it carries is distinctly Tambovsky. And the surnames of the immigrants appear quite familiar: Tikhonov, Tolmachev, Popov, Tomilin, Baturin, Savenkov, Sukhorukov. Along with the other “scouts”, the leader of the community, Tatyana Chuchmaeva, has also arrived in Tambov. She is not venerated by her coreligionists in the manner of the Doukhobors two hundred years ago, but her influence is significant. Moreover, in Georgia Tatyana Stepanovna was an assistant to the chief administrator of the district, therefore she quickly found a common language with the local authorities: the officials – everywhere the officials.

However, local residents, being uninformed, welcomed the visitors from Georgia mistrustfully. There were district hearings about sectarians, rumours of the “mykhomortsy” (a type of mushroom native to Russia) spread, and the inhabitants of one of the shabby houses in neighbouring Staroklenskoye village hung out a red flag from his roof to scare away any newcomers.

Tambov regional authorities offered the immigrants seven villages in which to form a compact settlement. Having inspected the host villages, they decided on the village of Maly Snezhetok in the Pervomaysky district. And today they are convinced they haven’t misjudged things. Here they have a suburb, in actuality a settlement, which they matter-of-factly named Novoye (“new’).

Operation “Migration”

Through the resettlement program, Russia has demonstrated its good will and readiness to accept its compatriots, provide them with a livelihood, and help whenever possible with housing, while at the same time, to utilize the migrant workforce to help correct the current demographic situation in the country. In this regard, the Tambov authorities announced in 2007 that they would accept one and a half thousand immigrants from neighbouring countries, and that they had housing and accommodations ready for them. They even visited Kazakhstan, where they met with Russian compatriots to promote the virtues of life in Tambov, although they did not conceal the problems which they would likely encounter in a new place.

Six agricultural districts were designated for the immigrants, located in the districts of Michurinsk, Nikiforovka, Pervomaysky, Petrovka, Sosnovka and Staroyur’evo. The question of expanding the territories for resettlement was seriously discussed – regional authorities intended to add to the list the districts of Inzhavino and Bondari, as well as the city of Uvarovo, where a business/financial zone has been created on the site of a former chemical plant. Under the planned program, by 2012 the province of Tambov should receive twelve and a half thousand migrants. The vast bulk is expected from Kazakhstan, Turkmeni, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Moldova and Kirghizia. In Kazkhstan alone, there are over 14 million residents of which five million are ethnic Russians.

However, the number of Russian compatriots wishing to leave their familiar places in search of greener pastures has turned out to be much less than expected. As of today, the resettlement process has occurred only in the Pervomaysky district. And even incorrigible optimists admit that it will be hardly possible to entice several thousand compatriots to Tambov province in the short term. It is much easier to persuade them to relocate to the provincial capital, or at worst, one of the large district centers, rather than to a rural Tambov village where there is insufficient employment for the local inhabitants.

The return to their ancestral home in Tambov offers new hope to many. Photograph by Agnes Montanari.

In any case, as of today, 109 people have relocated to the province, having privileges under the state program, along with their family members.

The Road Home

The immigrants are quietly maintained at their new place. Forty-five people live in the dormitory of an agricultural enterprise, while the others are lodged in twenty-six of the new prefabricated houses built on an expedited basis by the local construction firm.

The immigrants were met, as is customary, with bread and salt, and the bookkeeper of the agricultural enterprise, Svetlana Lepikhova, by tradition, first let a cat into the house of the Chuchmaev family. It sniffed at the corners and indicated, by its pleasant purring, that it was okay to come in. The migrants have received housing at the rate of eighteen square meters per person. Each family has received 40 sotok (4 hectares) of land for farming, and the local school has been replenished with twelve pupils. At Christmas, the immigrants received all their containers of possessions from Georgia. The costs of transporting the personal property of the participants of the program were assumed by the state.

The shadow of mistrust with which the migrants from Georgia met with local residents soon disappeared. As it was found out, their fellow countrymen have arrived. Simply, they have not been home for a long time…

The shadow of easy mistrust with which local residents have met immigrants from Georgia, has soon disappeared. As it was found out, fellow countrymen have arrived. Simply they for a long time not were at home …

Official Commentary

Kirill Kolonchin, Vice-Governor of Tambov province:

The state program of assistance for resettlement is intended, first of all, for those who wish to relocate, but have no resources for this purpose. Taking a provincial approach, we assessed their needs from the perspective of the local economy. The province has received a total of approximately five hundred applications, but they were not all followed up with. The only ones who were consistent were the Doukhobors. In Georgia they lived in the mountains where, eight months of the year, they were engaged primarily in agriculture; therefore, I think, they will find employment in our chernozem (black earth, agriculturally productive) districts. In order to accept them, we had to negotiate debt security documents, incorporate them into the resettlement program, and before the New Year, install the immigrants in new houses. The houses are financed through a municipal development fund, and we have yet to develop repayment procedures for the buyout of the houses. The immigrants do not yet have citizenship, but upon receipt of such they will have all the rights of Russian citizens; in particular they will be able to obtain loans for the development of farms.

Several hundred Georgian Doukhobors still await resettlement to Tambov. Photograph by Agnes Montanari.

Background

The spiritual Christian religious movement, whose adherents later became known as Doukhobors or Dukhobortsy emerged in Russia in the second half of the eighteenth century. The Doukhobors denied Orthodox rites and did not recognize priests and the clergy, or the traditional authorities in their communities. For disobeying the authorities and for refusing to serve in the military, they were persecuted by the Tsarist government and the Church. At the end of the nineteenth century, many Doukhobors immigrated to Canada. A large number of them were settled in Georgia. There, the Russian natives maintained a traditional way of life, the Russian language, culture and have endured all conceivable revolutions, wars, militant atheism and changes of political regime. In the early Nineties of the last century, they began returning to Russia, their historic homeland. There, they settled in Tula, Bryansk, Belgorod and Orel provinces, and as of last year have begun settling in Tambov province.

 

For additional background on the Doukhobors in Malyi Snezhetok, see the articles Georgian Doukhobors Relocate to Tambov, Russia and More Georgian Doukhobors Move to Tambov by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff as well as Tambov Doukhobors on Russian News by Drugie Novosti (translated by Koozma J. Tarasoff). 

Georgian Doukhobors Relocate to Tambov, Russia

For Immediate Release – July 31, 2007

Fifty-seven Doukhobors have recently resettled from the Bogdanovka region of the Republic of Georgia to the province of Tambov in central Russia. Their families, numbering up to seven hundred and sixty Doukhobors, are expected to join them from Georgia in September. This was reported by the Russian news agency Regnum today.

The Doukhobors have settled in the village of Malyi Snezhetok in the Pervomaysky district, ninety kilometres north-west of Tambov city, the administrative capital of the province. There, they are temporarily housed in a school dormitory, with a small local staff providing the migrants administrative support, including food, lodging and basic necessities, while a new suburb is being built with permanent accommodations for them.

The suburb will be named Novoe (“new”), marking the beginning of the Doukhobors’ new life in Russia. It will consist of two hundred panelboard houses on forty square meter lots for the Doukhobor families. A shop, medical clinic and a retirement home for the Doukhobor elderly will also be built. Construction of the buildings, roads, waterworks and electrical works is scheduled to be completed by the end of this year.

The Doukhobors resettling to Tambov will be offered employment in the local market garden and nursery, “Snezhetok Ltd.” They will also have the opportunity to establish peasant collective farms and individual farmsteads, the Russian news agency noted.

General map of Doukhobor resettlement from the Caucasus to Tambov, Russia in 2007.

The relocation of the Georgian Doukhobors is part of the Russian Federation’s ambitious six-year program to facilitate the voluntary repatriation of millions of Russians residing in former Soviet republics. The resettlement program, decreed by Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 22, 2006, is intended to help revive the Russian economy and compensate for the country’s staggering demographic crisis – high mortality rates and low birth rates are believed to be draining the Russian population of some 700,000 people a year.

The Doukhobors, who are among the first to participate in the resettlement program, have received strong support from Russia’s top political leaders, including President Vladimir Putin, Premier Mikhail Fradkov, Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov, Director of the Federal Migration Service Konstantin Romadanovsky and Tambov Governor Oleg Betin. They were deliberately chosen to resettle to Tambov on account of their expertise in agricultural production.

For the village of Malyi Snezhetok, the arrival of the Doukhobors is warmly welcomed. In addition to doubling the population, the Doukhobors will provide a tremendous boost to the local economy, offset an acute labour shortage in the agricultural industry, and help facilitate the improvement and expansion of local infrastructure. The village school, previously slated for closure, will now remain open with the impending arrival of over sixty Doukhobor children.

Having considered several different options for relocation, the Doukhobors chose Tambov on account of its large agricultural sector, temperate climate, steppe geography, and its favourable linguistic, cultural and religious environment. In this regard, the interests of the Doukhobors, the Russian Federation, and Tambov local and provincial administrations coincided.

Under the resettlement program, the Doukhobors are assisted with their travel arrangements and primary accommodation, including the registration of their legal and social status, as well as with jobs, municipal and pension services, preschool, school and professional education, Regnum said. In addition, local and provincial authorities provide administrative support for the Doukhobors, including food, temporary lodging and basic necessities.

An important factor is the cost of housing. While the Russian Joint Stock Company “Tamak” has contracted to construct the Doukhobors’ homes in Malyi Snezhetok, it is not for free. The cost to complete each panelboard house is estimated at a minimum of six thousand roubles per square meter of living space. The Doukhobor migrants do not currently possess the required funds; therefore Russian authorities are developing various repayment schemes for them, including financial grants and compensation and credit facilities.

Notwithstanding this assistance, the resettlement is not without problems. The Doukhobors have encountered numerous legal obstacles in connection with the receipt of visas, the certification of participants in the resettlement program, and with citizenship. In response to this, the representative of the Doukhobor community Ivan Astafurov has voiced his concern over the slow pace at which the Doukhobors are being allowed to relocate with their families to Tambov.

Tambov Governor Oleg Betin recently visited Malyi Snezhetok and toured the suburb construction site. He met with local officials responsible for coordinating the resettlement as well as with the Doukhobors. He assured them that “their resettlement will be aided and supported at the highest levels in the Russian Federation” and pledged to work with local, provincial and federal officials to expedite their relocation.

Tambov is the ancestral home of many of the Doukhobors, whose forebears resettled from there to Tavria in the early 1800’s, and later to the Caucasus in the 1840’s. The province is located in central Russia, along the confluence of the Tsna and Studenets rivers, and borders on Penza, Saratov, Ryazan, Lipetsk and Voronezh provinces. Tambov’s economy is primarily industrial, with major sectors including mechanical engineering, metalworking and the chemical industry. Agriculture is a smaller but still important economic sector; its production focuses on grains, potatoes and sugar beets.

Since 1989, more than 3,000 Doukhobors have relocated from the Caucasus to the provinces of Krasnodar, Stavropol, Tula, Orel, Bryansk and elsewhere in Russia, driven by regional instability, ethnic tensions, land reform, economic hardship, as well as a longing to return to the Motherland. Once the latest resettlement to Tambov is completed, it is estimated that less than one hundred Doukhobors will remain in the Bogdanovka region of Georgia.

For updated information on the Doukhobor resettlement, see the articles More Georgian Doukhobors Move to Tambov by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff, The Doukhobors in Malyi Snezhetok by Evgeny Pisarev (translated by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff) and also Tambov Doukhobors on Russian News by Drugie Novosti (translated by Koozma J. Tarasoff).

Spirit Wrestlers of Southern Russia

by Maria Kolesnikova

Not many hints remain of Doukhobor culture in Southern Russia. Persecuted in the past for their pacifist beliefs, modern Doukhobors search for an identity in the modern world. The following article by Dr. Maria Kolesnikova examines the Doukhobors of Tselina region, Rostov province as they struggle to maintain their faith, traditions, history and culture in twenty-first century Russia. Reproduced from “Russian Life” magazine ( Sept/Oct 2005).

Few in Russia remember the Doukhobors, the pacifist Russian Christian sect championed by Leo Tolstoy over a century ago. In fact, even the name Doukhobor evokes little reaction.

“It sounds funny. Perhaps it is an evil house spirit?” guessed Mikhail Grishin, 20, an engineering student in Rostov-on-Don. His grandmother, Maria Grishina, 80, a retired schoolteacher, does no better. “Doukhobor sounds like doushegub [murderer],” she said. Natalia Trifonova, a Rostov University professor, knows of the Doukhobors. “But they are all gone now,” she noted. “To find them you should go to Canada.

“In fact, the Doukhobors are not all gone. An estimated 40,000 still live in Russia and the countries of the former Soviet Union. About the same number live in Western Canada, and a few hundred live in the U.S., according to Koozma Tarasoff, a Canadian historian of the Doukhobors and author of 12 books and hundreds of articles about their culture. Scattered around Russia, Doukhobor populations are centered in the Tselina region in Rostov oblast, Cherns region in Tula oblast, near Blagoveshchensk in Amur oblast and the Mirnoye settlement near Bryansk.

Doukhobors (Doukhobory in Russian), literally means “spirit wrestlers.” It was a name bestowed on the sect — which had previously been known as Ikonobory (“icon fighters”) — by a Russian Orthodox Church priest (originally, the epithet was Doukhobortsy — “wrestlers against the Holy Spirit” — and intended as an insult, but the members of the sect changed it to the more positive Doukhobors, which implies a wrestling with the Holy Spirit). The sect has its roots in the 1650s, when Patriarch Nikon’s reforms of the Russian Orthodox Church led to the Raskol, the Great Schism. Some of the schismatics [raskolniks], called Popovtsi (“Priesters”) sought a return to pre-reform traditions, eventually giving way to the movement known as Old Believers. Others, called Bezpopovtsi (“priestless”), argued for dispensing entirely with priests. Some went further still, rejecting icons, sacraments, the divinity of Christ and even the Bible. They became precursors of the Doukhobors, who developed into a distinct religious group by the early 18th century.

Natalia Trofimenko, a Doukhobor who moved to Khlebodarnoye in 1992.

The notion of God within each individual is the cornerstone of Doukhobor belief “This philosophy has no creeds and does not need any Bible, Church, icons, or priests to fulfill its needs,” Tarasoff explained. “From this notion, we support the moral imperative that we cannot kill another human being — because then we would be killing the spark of God in us. The creation of a non-killing society is the essential quest of the Doukhobors.”

Not surprisingly, Russia’s tsars saw such pacifism as a threat, as something that could undermine social order and lead to rebellion. As a result, the Doukhobors suffered through centuries of persecution and three major resettlements. Under Tsar Alexander I, they were moved to Molochnye Vody, on the border between Ukraine and Russia. Under Nicholas I, they were exiled to Transcaucasia, along the border of Georgia and Turkey. There, in 1895, the Doukhobors refused to fight in Russia’s war with Turkey, burning all their weapons in a symbolic protest against war and militarism.

The furious tsar ordered that the Doukhobors be scattered throughout Transcaucasia, “sending the father to one village, the mother to another and their children to yet a different village,” according to Doukhobor lore [oral history]. The Doukhobors pleaded for help. It came from Quakers in the United States, who shared many beliefs with the Doukhobors, most notably pacifism and anticlericalism. And it came from the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, whose own personal philosophy had, by this time, gravitated into non-violence. Tolstoy called the Doukhobors a “people of the 25th century.” The Doukhobors, for their part, called Tolstoy “our father,” after he donated $17,000 from the publication of his book Resurrection to help pay for emigration of some 7,500 Doukhobors to Canada in 1898. Despite this mass emigration, the majority of Doukhobors remained; many moved to Southern Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.

Tselina region, Rostov Oblast

My qust for the Doukhobors takes me to Petrovka, a village in Tselina region, about 100 miles southeast of Rostov-on-Don. In 1921, some 4,000 Doukhobors were permitted to resettle here, establishing 21 villages (consolidated to 11 in the 1950s). Today, there are just six Doukhobor villages. Petrovka is the largest and it is by no means exclusively Doukhobor. Other inhabitants include Russian Orthodox, Armenians and Meskhetian Turks, who fled from Uzbekistan after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Farther into the country, the asphalt road turns to dirt and cows mindlessly collaborate in the creation of a traffic jam. By the time I reach Petrovka, the dirt road has turned to mud.

Regional administrator Lyudmila Nikitina — my guide in Petrovka — offers a disapproving glance at my sandals as she dons her rubber boots. As we splash together through the mud, she explains that Doukhobors still comprise about half of the village’s declining population of 300. “It’s not as good as it used to be,” Nikitina says. “Young people cant find jobs here and they have to leave.”

I examine the streets of Petrovka, looking for traces of Doukhobor culture. Most houses appear to have porches bordered with columns, their whitewashed siding shyly hiding behind trees in the yards. On some, sheds and hen houses share a roof with the house itself. These are traditional Doukhobor homes. Newer ones use brick and have no porches, Some of the houses are well kept; some are shabby; some are deserted. The streets seem empty, with only two or three middle-aged women digging in their gardens. There are few children and men.

We approach one of the women. “You are a Doukhobor, aren’t you?” I ask. She seems proud. “Yes, I’m a pureblood,” she replies. She invites us into her house, to see a typical Doukhobor interior of three rooms with papered walls. “It’s more fashionable today than whitewash, as prescribed by tradition,” she explains. The house has painted floors, several wardrobes made in the 1970s, a television and lots of embroidery. It smells of ripe apples.

Sen (left) and Tatyana Safonova at the Petrovka cemetery.

Our hostess is Tatyana Yuritsina, a social worker in Petrovka. “Doukhobors are the nicest, the most hospitable people,” she says. “Now there are many refugees and many people of different religions here. But we have no trouble with them.”

Yet, life carries on and the Doukhobors are changing. “We used to live without fences,” Yuritsina says. “And the young, they don’t want to follow Doukhobor traditions. Take my daughter. She’s 25, and she won’t listen to me, won’t stick to the tradition.” Yuritsina speculates that her generation may be the last of the “true Doukhobors,” because only older members are clinging to their roots.

Many Doukhobors now marry outside the sect. Yuritsina’s husband Vasily is Ukrainian; she says she met him in Rostov and brought him back to Petrovka. “I don’t mind Doukhobors,” he says. “They are people, just like everyone else. And the religion isn’t important in the long run. You have to believe in God and not sin. That’s all.”

Museum of Doukhobor Culture and Worship

The Museum of Doukhobor Culture and Worship is a small home dating to the 1950s which was turned into a museum in 1991, thanks to a donation from the local collective farm, Lenin Kolkhoz. It has a collection of Doukhobor artifacts and serves as a place of worship for a few of Petrovka’s active Doukhobors.

Today, a dozen Doukhobor women have assembled in the living room, the largest room in the house. Its walls are adorned with embroidered towels and traditional costumes. A table in the far right corner holds a bust of Lev Tolstoy and albums with black and white photographs of community members. On the wall are portraits of two Doukhobor leaders, Lukeria Kalmykova and Peter P Verigin.

The Doukhobor women greet us with a traditional hymn. They are wearing long skirts with fancy, embroidered aprons, colorful blouses and white kerchiefs. Some of their attire comes from their grandmothers; some was adapted from the contemporary clothing bought at a local market. it is the sort of clothing no longer worn in everyday life.

“If you dress Doukhobor style and walk along the streets, people will look at you as if you were a savage,” says Yevdokia Bulanova, 75, a Doukhobor who lives in the village of Khlebodarnoye, five miles from Petrovka.

The women in front of me walked to the museum wearing their regular dresses. They carried their traditional Doukhobor costumes in plastic bags, then changed at the museum, like schoolchildren for a class drama performance. But the reality is that they came here to perform, and they like it.

The oldest surviving Doukhobor house in Petrovka.

Their singing seems to erase years of worry and woe from their faces. They have a certain ethereal solemnity. The words of the hymns are hard to make out, enhancing the impression that they are protecting some hidden truths. But the explanation is more banal. Years of persecution made Doukhobors in Russia drawl their syllables when singing, so that outsiders could not understand their meaning, says Lyudmila Borisova, 66, a choir member and Doukhobor activist. “Canadian Doukhobors sing much faster,” she says, “and one can actually make out the words.” Once they have started, the women do not want to stop. Their singing goes on and on. They forget about their hardships, miniscule pensions, cows that need milking, or water that only runs out of the tap a couple of hours each day.

Petrovka’s Doukhobor choir once was quite well known. Ethnographers came from Rostov and Moscow to record them singing their traditional hymns and psalms. The choir even toured Rostovskaya and neighboring provinces during the 1995-1998 centennial celebrations of Doukhobor heritage. But the choir doesn’t travel anymore. “People are scattered,” Borisova says. “We used to have a big choir, but now maybe only a dozen people remain.” Some left the village, some are too old to travel, and some are dead.

“Young people don’t come to our meetings,” Borisova says. “They are busy working and don’t have time.”

Vera Guzheva, 44, is an exception. Guzheva, who lives in the city of Taganrog, about 170 miles northwest of Petrovka, came to the meeting with her mother, Vera Safonova, who is 77. “My mother is a Doukhobor, but I’m not,” says Guzheva. “Our generation doesn’t even know who we are.”

The other women at the meeting hiss in protest.

“I’ve lived in the city for 25 years, I am not a Doukhobor anymore,” Guzheva responds.

“Who are you then? You are not a Ukrainian, you are not a Belorussian, you are a Doukhobor,” Borisova asserts.

“No one in the city knows the Doukhobors. How will I explain to people who I am?”

“You don’t need to tell them, you just have to know in your soul that you are a Doukhobor,” Borisova says.

After moving to Taganrog, Guzheva had changed to Russian Orthodoxy, thinking it was more convenient than living as a Doukhobor. During her baptismal, the priest corrected her, saying that the right name of the religion she was giving up was Doukhobortsy, not Doukhobors, a fact she didn’t know. “But in my soul I’m a Christian and a Doukhobor,” Guzheva says.

Oral History

Doukhobors in Petrovka nourish Doukhobor legends and revere names like Lukeria Kalmykova and Peter P Verigin. They remember the rituals, and, during their meetings on major holidays — Christmas, Whitsunday, Easter and St. Peter’s Day — they each read a psalm and then all perform a low bow, even though some of the women now need help standing up afterwards. But ask them to explain the essence o their belief and daily traditions, and they may give you a puzzled look.

A traditional Doukhobor bow.

There is an awkward silence when I pose this question while visiting the village of Khlebodarnoye. Yevdokia Bulanova finally speaks. “We have our Zhivotnaya Kniga [Book of Life], and you can read something about it there,” she suggests. “Nadezhda, bring it here.”

Nadezhda Trofimenko, whose home we are visiting, disappears behind the curtain separating the bedroom and living room, and returns with an old, leather-bound book, which she sets down carefully. “This is the principal Doukhobor document, here you’ll find everything,” Trofimenko says.

The Doukhobor Book of Life is the primary written artifact of Doukhobor heritage, which had been transmitted orally before 1899. Compiled by the Russian ethnographer Vladimir Bonch Bruevich while spending nearly a year in Canada transcribing Doukhobor psalms and hymns, the Book of Life preserves Doukhobor oral history and serves as a bible of their faith.

Dr. Vladimir Kuchin, 63, a researcher at Rostov-on-Don’s Anti Plague Institute, has lived in Rostov since 1958. He is a Doukhobor, and in his tiny studio apartment on the city outskirts, he archives a complete collection of the back issues of Iskra — the Canadian published Doukhobor magazine. He also stores trunk-loads of Doukhobor recordings and artifacts, which he has been collecting since 1975. He frequently contributes to local papers and to Iskra, and he said he is thinking about writing a book on Doukhobor heritage. But he must wonder whom he would be writing for. His own brother and sister have expressed no interest in their Doukhobor roots. And his parents, when they were alive, worried about his fervor for Doukhoboriana. “Dear son, why do you need all this?” they used to ask.

Kuchin’s grandparents moved to the Tselina region in 1922. They were in their thirties; his father was 10 and his mother was 8 at the time. At first, people lived in sod houses — 30 people in each home. “Their life was hard, but full of wisdom, patience and good spirit,” Kuchin says. When the Soviet state started putting up collective farms (kolkhozy), the first Doukhobor kolkhoz — Obshy Trud [Joint Labor] was set up in Petrovka, headed by Peter P. Verigin. There followed a kolkhoz named after the military commander Vasily Chapayev, and then six Doukhobor villages were united in another kolkhoz named after Vladimir Lenin. In 1928, Doukhobors in the Soviet Union dropped their stricture against army service.

“There was no other way to survive,” Kuchin says. For the most part, the Doukhobors lived an uneasy peace with the atheistic Soviet State. The government was tacitly permissive toward their religion, as long as the Doukhobors did not openly profess it.

Certainly many Doukhobors were imprisoned and exiled under Stalin. Kuchin recalls one story from Petrovka which reflects the insanity of the times. A villager, Fyodor Tomilin, made a chest for his little daughter’s toys and instruments and decorated it with a newspaper clipping that featured, among other things, a picture of Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, a prominent Soviet military leader arrested and executed in 1937 on trumped-up charges of treason. Some time later, another villager, Koozma Pereverzev, stopped by to borrow some tools. On his way out, Pereverzev said, “Such a young guy, and already a marshal.” Tomilin had no idea what Pereverzev was talking about. Ten days later, Tomilin was arrested and accused of treason along with Tukhachevsky and his supporters. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Tomilin insisted that he did not have any idea who Tukhachevsky was, and that no one by this name lived in this village. Only after several years in prison, when he saw Tukhachevsky’s photo somewhere else, did he understand what had happened.

Anna Sen (Safonova), center, who helped set up the Museum of Doukhobor Culture and Worship.

In the 1960s, political liberalization allowed the Doukhobors to be open about their beliefs. “I left my home village in 1958, when I entered Rostov State Medical Institute,” Kuchin says. “Even then I didn’t conceal my religion from my friends.”

Unfortunately for the Doukhobors, Kuchin’s example was becoming more typical. The youth left the village for the cities, where they studied, worked, lived, got married and had children. Many married people outside their religion, often assimilating into Russian Orthodoxy. In bigger cities, like Rostov, Doukhobors no longer gather to sing psalms. “Canadian [Doukhobor] visits might stir people up,” Kuchin says. “Some people would meet at Whitsunday, St. Peter’s day, and Christmas.

“Kuchin says he used to go to Petrovka quite frequently, until his father died in 1999. But he does not go any longer. It is too painful. “The things that have been happening since the 1980s and 1990s are incredible and I can hardly find the right words,” he says. “Prosperous Doukhobor villages in Tselinsky and Bogdanovsky regions have become hard to recognize. Suspicious strangers are buying up many homes; other houses are abandoned and falling apart, and yards and gardens are covered in thick weeds.

“The Doukhobor cemetery is also covered with thick grass. There, Doukhobor graves, devoid of tombstones and crosses, are marked only by fences with people’s names. Anna Sen and Tatyana Safonova lead me to the grave of the five settlers who died during the Doukhobors’ first winter in Tselina region. These people are heroes, and a memorial plaque was placed over their grave in the 1960s.

Three years ago, Lyudmila Dorokh, a longtime director of the museum and one of the best singers in the Petrovka choir, told me, “We are losing our identity as a community and the Doukhobor culture here will be gone in several years.” She is gone now, lying in this quiet cemetery. And her prediction is slowly coming to pass.

Certainly there are attempts to preserve Doukhobor culture in Tselina region. Canadian Doukhobors visited the museum several years ago and gave $200 for repairs. Regional authorities provided a tape recorder, so that locals might record Doukhobor psalms. “We are trying to preserve the Doukhobor culture, which is unique,” says Lyudmila Nikitina, the regional administrator. “Once a year, we bring children from the local school to this museum for a history class, to tell them about the Doukhobor faith and traditions. I wish we could do more before it’s too late.”

Goat and sheep herds near Khlebodarnoye. Agriculture is still the main source of income.

On the way back to the village, we meet other women from the Doukhobor museum. They are walking home, carrying plastic bags containing their traditional costumes. They show us a recently built asphalt road, which gives Petrovka a new, better connection with the outside world, for better or for worse.

The Molokan Arrival in Manitoba, 1905

Manitoba Free Press

In 1905, a group of 160 Molokans living in Kars, Russia, weary of civil unrest and strife in their country, decided to emigrate. In June of that year, they took coastal ships from Russia to Western European ports where they boarded transatlantic ships bound for Canada. Disembarking at the port of Quebec, they boarded trains for the Canadian West, seeking land to settle on and farm. They arrived at Winnipeg, Manitoba in July, arousing widespread interest and curiosity among the city residents. They received a hearty welcome from local Doukhobors and Russian émigrés who encouraged them to stay. The following account of the Molokan sojourn in Manitoba is reproduced from the Manitoba Free Press articles “A Strange People Reach the West” (July 5, 1905) and “Welcome Molokans” (July 6, 1905). Preface and Postscript by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

Preface

The Molokans referred to in this story immigrated to Canada aboard three ships. First, 112 Molokans (Bukharev, Dvornin, Fadeev, Fetisov, Kholopov, Kulikov, Metchkov, Mokshanov, Morozov, Novikov and Samarin families) sailed to Canada aboard the SS Southwark. This Dominion line steamship departed June 22, 1905, under Captain J.O. Williams, from the port of Liverpool, England. It carried 867 passengers. After 10 days at sea, the vessel arrived at the port of Quebec on July 1, 1905. View shiplist. Another 24 Molokans (Cheremisin, Pluzhnikov, Shubin and Treglazov families) departed aboard the SS Montreal. This Canadian Pacific line steamship departed July 18, 1905, under Captain T.C. Evans, from the port of Antwerp, Belgium. It carried 267 passengers. After 12 days at sea, the vessel arrived at the port of Quebec on July 29, 1905. View shiplist. Finally, 24 Molokans (Kudinov, Machov, Planin, Prokhorov, Pudov and Shetuchin families) sailed to Canada aboard an unidentified ship.

Group of Russian Molokans, similar in dress and appearance to the group which arrived in Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1905. New York Public Library Digital Gallery, Digital Image ID: 50667.

A Strange People Reach the West

Party of Molokans from Transcaucasia Arrive

Yesterday the train brought over one hundred Molokans, including women and children, from the Kars district in Transcaucasia. That country being joined to the Russian empire in 1878, the Doukhobors and Molokans were located there. Those who wish to see the aspect and attire of these new immigrants may find them at the immigration building. They are somewhat different from the Doukhobors in dress, although the features of their faces are much similar.

Resemble the Doukhobors

The Molokans are Russian dissenters who have sprung up from the same origin as the Doukhobors, and it is believed by some, received their religious tenets from the English Quakers one century ago, which teaching they have partially modified. Unlike the Doukhobors, the Molokans have not objected to their sons being enrolled in the army, although they have always been a peacable and law-abiding people. They also differ from the Doukhobors by the reference they pay to the teaching of the Bible in their religious services, and by the solemnity they attribute to the sacred rite of matrimony.

As soon as the arrival of the Molokans became known, a well known Doukhobor rancher visited the immigration building and greeted them in their own tongue. He shook hands with the grey-bearded man who seemed to be the oldest one of the party, and the following conversation took place between them:

“When did you arrive?” “This morning,” answered the aged Molokan. “Have a good journey?” “Thanks, fairly good.” “Where did you come from?” “From the Kars district.” “How many miles were you living from the town of Alexandrovsk?” “About thirty.” “Were you very far from the Doukhobor settlement?” “Why, we were living right between their villages. Our villages were scattered among the Doukhobors.”

“I suppose you are used to raising cattle? There are many empty homesteads in this part of the country which is very good for mixed farming.” “We can raise cattle, but we believe more in raising grain, and the produce from the earth. We believe God has especially blessed farming for the welfare of man.”

Immigration Hall in Winnipeg, Manitoba where160 Molokans stayed in 1905. It served both as an arrival location and as a way station for immigrants traveling to other destinations in Western Canada. Library and Archives Canada, C-042728.

“Then one of the younger men enjoined, “We have not seen any good land all the way from the east.” “This you mean probably the rocks and hills and water courses you saw before reaching Kenora” “Yes, that was the kind of land we saw.” “You need not be anxious; you will see very good soil indeed in the northwest. Everybody praises this country for its wheat.”

“We have been raising excellent wheat, barley and oats in the Kars district. Corn and buckwheat could not grow because the land was too high above the level of the sea.” “Yes, I know it is situated on a plateau. Then it seems the climate you will meet here will not be unfamiliar to you.”

“I hope good men will show us where to pick up better land, but your time of harvest seems to be much later than in the country we left. When we started from there one month ago the wheat began to throw its ear, and here it is only raising its green blade from the ground. Some of our brothers have settled in Los Angeles, California, and they like very much that country.” “So do those that have lived here for years too.”

Informed of Naval Mutiny

“Did you hear that the fleet of the Black Sea is in a state of mutiny, and that those that are sent to fight the strikers say they would not lift their hands against their brethren.”

“Yes, I believe that,” said a younger Molokan, with an intelligent face, while the older men looked at the informant suspiciously, as if he were giving false statements.

1911 Census map showing the Immigration Hall on Higgins Avenue adjacent to the Canadian Pacific Railway station in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

“Yes, a similar case occurred in Tiflis, where the soldiers refused to fight against the mob. But then the Cossacks were called to the spot and charged the crowd. The people are very excited against the landlords in the Caucasus, in some places they stripped the priests of their robes and shaved half of their hair. They tore off the sacred pictures and other articles from the churches, and smashed them and stamped them under their feet.

Describe Scenes of Murder and Pillage in their Country

“In several villages they shot the noblemen, took from them the estates, and divided the land between them. They also compelled the noblemen to sign a resignation of their property in favour of the peasants.

“In one instance the prince and owner of one estate refused to comply with their demands, but his son signed a resignation to suit them. They let go the son but they killed his father. But then there were some other noblemen who would not submit to the arrogance of the population. They avenged the old aristocrat’s death by killing his son.

“Oh, fancy what bloody occurrences are heard of in your country,” exclaimed the naturalized Doukhobor. “Who are those people who killed the noblemen? They are in Tiflis, you said?”

“They are the Georgians, an Asiatic tribe of the Greek creed, who live in Transcaucasia, of which Tiflis is the main city. These people abused the priests, despised the sacred shrines and images, and then they said to their priests; What need have we of you. We don’t want to feed you and to support you, and to be fooled any longer by the kind of religion you teach us.

Photo of a Molokan elder from the Caucasus taken in Los Angeles, California, c. 1905. New York Public Library Digital Gallery, Digital Image ID: 490797.

“Do you expect to stay over Sunday in Winnipeg?” asked the Winnipeger, turning to the grey-bearded patriarch. “Yes, most likely,” he answered. “We have not yet quite settled our minds as to our movings.”

Welcome Molokans

Mr. and Mrs. Sherbinin Entertained Last Evening in Their Honor

The newly-arrived party of Molokans from Russia received a hearty welcome yesterday afternoon at Mrs. Sherbinin’s cottage, 72 Shultz street, where a group of them were entertained. Mrs. Sherbinin was assisted by several prominent ladies of the city, while Mr. Sherbinin entertained the men. Friendly conversation was indulged in, hymns were sung, and refreshments were served. The new-comers made an impression upon their Canadian entertainers as being an intelligent and pious people.

The features of the men seemed to be more like those of the Icelanders than of the Slavs of southeastern Europe. Through circumstances they have been denied school advantages, the Russians refusing to allow them schools of their own, while the people refused to send their children to Russian schools to be taught religious doctrines and usages contrary to the faith of their parents. Through home teaching, however, the great majority of them are able to read. Their devotional music appeared, judging from their chanting of a psalm, to be very similar to that of the Doukhobors. Their beliefs are said to differ from those of the latter people in that they do not absolutely refuse to do military service, though they are peaceably inclined to such an extent that a main consideration in leaving Russia was that their sons might not be sent away to the war; and that they are not purely vegetarian in their diet, but hold themselves free in this respect. They have elders in their villages who conduct their religious services, but they do not observe the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper, holding that these are to be given a spiritual interpretation.

The future movements of the party are not yet announced. A number of the families have near relatives in southern California, and have a natural desire to join them, but their tickets were only to Winnipeg, and they are at present getting information which will determine their future movements. In Russia the Molokans are much more numerous, it is stated, than the Doukhobors.

Photo of Molokans from the Caucasus taken in Los Angeles, California, c. 1905. New York Public Library Digital Gallery, Digital Image ID: 490797.

Postscipt

Despite their initial interest in the Canadian West, the Molokans ultimately moved on; between July and September 1905, they crossed the border into the United States and continued southwest to Los Angeles, California. View border crossing records. The records do not indicate why they chose to depart; perhaps they found the climate too cold and inhospitable; maybe they were discouraged by the Canadian Shield, the region of rocky, hilly, forested land with numerous lake which they observed on their rail journey west to Winnipeg; or perhaps Canadian immigration agents failed to assist them to locate the fertile Prairie farmland where the Doukhobors had settled, further west. Certainly, they had numerous relatives in southern California, and naturally desired to join them. In any case, one can only conjecture what might have been the result if this group of Molokan immigrants had remained in Canada, established a colony, and helped settle the West as pioneer farmers.

The Manteca Russian Colony

by Rose M. Albano

In 1924, fourteen Doukhobor families from British Columbia and Saskatchewan resettled to Manteca, California seeking warmer climate and economic opportunity. There they purchased 140 acres of land and established a grape growing cooperative. The “Russian Colony”, as it came to be known, was considered one of the most successful in the United States. However, by 1941, the colony was abandoned as colonists relocated elsewhere to find employment. In the following article, descendants reminisce about growing up in the Russian Colony. The following article by Rose M. Albano is reproduced from the Manteca Bulletin (Manteca, California: May 11, 1997).

Yes…there was a Russian Colony here in Manteca. That there was such a place here comes as a complete surprise to many area residents. “About the only ones aware of the colony’s existence are those who have lived here since before the 1950s,” said Ken Hafer of the Manteca Historical Society. “Those who were here then knew that everyone who lived in the 140-acre area at the south end of Castle Road were Russians. That’s why they called it a Russian Colony,” Hafer explained. After a big influx of people to Manteca in the 1960s, everyone ceased referring to the area as the Russian Colony. “The church was gone by then, and the people didn’t refer to themselves as Russians,” Hafer said.

Residents at the Manteca Russian Colony gather to celebrate the end of apricot-picking season, circa 1930’s.

Plenty of Memories

But memories of the old Russian Colony are still fresh in the minds of a few descendants of the first settlers who continue to live in the area. Nellie Richetta (nee Reibin), whose parents came to live in the colony in the 1920s when she was two months old, remembers a very cohesive community where everyone was treated like family.

“Every adult in that community was your aunt, your uncle, your grandfather. We called aunt so and so – tyotka – or uncle so and so – dyadya,” Richetta said, phonetically spelling the Russian words she used as a child. “The elders were grandfather and grandmother. We were safe. We could be at anybody’s house. It was a very safe environment to grow up in,” she said.

The children at the colony all became fast friends. Those friendships were further cemented by the fact that they all walked to the same grammar school together. Then they all went to Manteca High School, which was the only high school in town then. “We had a lot of friends here; it was still one of the best areas in the world,” remembered septuagenarian Peter Gretchen who came to live at the colony when he was two years old. He and his wife still live on Castle Road, just across the street from his parent’s old house. “I grew up with all ethnic groups – Greeks, Mexicans, Portuguese, Italians. The Indelicatos were there. We all went to (Castle) school together. It was just a mile away.”

The school was built at the south end of Castle Road on land donated by the pioneer Castle family. It was the Castle family which sold the land to the group of 14 Russian families who came to Manteca via Saskatchewan. 

Phillip Bloudoff, who still lives next to the house where he grew up, likewise had plenty of happy memories to share about growing up in the countryside. “We had no problems growing up with the Italians, the Portuguese, the Greeks. No, no, no! We had no problems whatsoever.” Both he and Richetta are from Manteca High’s class of 1944. 

Manteca, California in the 1930’s and 1940’s was home to various immigrant labourer groups.

Russian Speaking Children

Like all children growing up in the colony, Richetta spoke only Russian until she started first grade at Castle School. “My parents usually spoke Russian to us, and we spoke to them in English,” she said with a laugh. “I wish I had kept up with my speaking and reading Russian,” she says now with regret. “But it wasn’t important then. We wanted to learn English.”

“There were also Italians and Portuguese who didn’t speak English when I went to school. But when we graduated from grammar school, we all spoke English. That’s why I don’t believe in bilingual education. And I still speak Russian,” said Bloudoff.

Immaculate Housekeepers

Like many of the few dozen families who eventually settled at the colony, Richetta’s family used horses to farm their small lands, and a cow kept them supplied with milk. “They also raised chickens, so we had our own eggs,” Richetta said. “And we worked our own fields with our horses.”

She described the women at the colony as “immaculate housekeepers.” She laughed as she described to what lengths the women went to preserve that image. “When they hung their clothes outside they had to be white, because somebody might see them. That was their claim to fame: who was the best homemaker, the best cook,” she said.

 

Richetta also remembered how everyone supported one another in every way. She said nobody had a need to get hired help when it came to building a house or raising a barn. “Everybody helped each other. If somebody was building the barn, everybody came to help,” she said. And that meant men women and children. “While some got busy working on the building, others fixed lunch,” she said.

The same thing happed when women met for quilting sessions. “They all helped each other make their quilts. They bought raw wool, washed it and carded it. They did everything by hand,” Richetta recalled. “Back then, too, people did not have much money to buy a lot of things,” she said.

Hard-Working People

Besides tending their small farms where they grew grapes, apricots and other fruit trees and crops year around, the men in the colony took whatever odd jobs they could get anywhere. Many of them, like Gretchen’s father, took seasonal jobs. “My dad, many times, worked for a dollar a day,” Gretchen recalled.

Peter Gretchen working behind his home at the old Russian Colony where he and his wife still live today. Photo courtesy: Rose M. Albano.

He remembered having to live and attend school for some time in Modesto, Locke, and Thorton because that’s where his father found work in the fields or in the ranches. When the jobs were done, they came back home to Manteca. “They were difficult times, but we always had food. We had a cow and chickens,” said Gretchen who was the youngest of three children. “Because the men were away working somewhere, the women often had to do all the heavy work at home in the colony,” said Richetta.

“The men went to work in factories or they worked as carpenters – whatever jobs they could get. So they hitched up the women and built the roads in some of the Russian communities. It was all manual labor. They didn’t have the money to buy the animals because they were penniless,” she said. “Everybody worked hard. Later we had tractors,” she said. 

Many of the men at the Manteca Russian Colony found employment at Spreckels Sugar. Richett’s father, who was born in Saskatchewan, found work as a mechanic at the old Manteca Canning which was then located near the rail road tracks on Yosemite Avenue. The women worked in the fields picking fruits, Richetta said. “My grandmother picked apricots, grapes, peaches. Later the women worked in the canneries.” 

Homes With Big Basements

The houses they built at the Russian Colony were simple one story homes with big basements where such staple foods as milk, sour cream, canned goods, maybe a hundred pounds or more of potatoes, sugar and flour were kept. In the summer when the valley simmered and baked in three-digit temperatures, residents retreated into their basements where “it was nice and cool,” Richetta said. The homes also were equipped with huge furnaces fed with coal. Some had water towers built behind the house complete with an extra room which was often used as a bedroom. Those who could afford it had steam rooms called banyas which also invariably included a shower room. 

A few of the old homes are still there, but the water towers are all but gone, replaced by huge satellite dishes and other comforts of modern technology.

The Russian Colony prayer home building today sits as an unoccupied residence. Built in the 1930s to facilitate religious gatherings and funerals, the building was sold in the 1960s and converted into a private home.

The community also had its own prayer home, which was a multi-purpose building where funerals, weddings and other social gatherings were held. The building is still there, but it has since been sold, remodeled and converted into a home. 

Return of the Native

The children and grandchildren of the first Russian settlers have gone on to bigger and better things in the world. 

Many of those in Richetta’s generation went into business in Manteca, Stockton, Sonora and Oakdale. Their children are now distinguished professionals in their fields. The Gretchen’s oldest son, for example, is managing director of a microelectronics company in Malta. Before that, he worked in the Philippines. His sister, Sylvia, owns a publishing company in Orinda and is president of the Tibetan Institute in Berkeley. Bloudoff’s daughter, who is married and living in Lindon, is a lawyer. 

Bloudoff said that growing up, he too never wanted to live in the country. “I wanted to be a city boy,” he laughed. But then he got married, and soon he and his wife Helene were swamped with the patter of tiny feet around their home in Stockton. Recalling his carefree days in the open country at the Russian Colony, Bloudoff began to realize that his kids did not really have enough room to play where they lived.

Fog shrouds of an old vineyard planted by Doukhobors. They marketed their grapes under the name Ruscol, for “Russian Colony”.

So he and his wife made a decision to move to Manteca. “I wanted to raise my kids in the country because I remember my own childhood,” he said. “We had lots of room to play, plenty of space and lots of things to do.  So I decided to build a house next to my folks’ where the kids could play out in the country.”  The Bloudoffs and the Gretchens say that to this day their children are grateful for being raised in the country. 

The Colony Today

The old Russian Colony still boasts a quiet, rustic and rural atmosphere.  Surrounding almond orchards and vineyards still keep it isolated from Manteca’s urban sprawl. The area, just south of French Camp Road, remains an unincorporated section of San Joaquin County. 

Some of the old homes are still there. Anna F. Reibin, whose husband was one of the three Reibin brothers who were among the first to come form Saskatchewan, continues to live in the same house her husband built more than half a century ago. Richetta’s childhood home and farm have since been sold. She and her husband now live on East Lathrop Road. But the house where she also grew up is still standing there on Castle Road with the steam bath and two-story tank house in the back.

The old Russian Colony today on Verigin Road.

The Bloudoffs and Gretchens now live in modern homes built next door to houses where they grew up. Phillip Bloudoff continues to work at Ted’s Meat Company in Stockton a company he has co-owned since 1935. The business now has two locations in Stockton. Peter Gretchen is now retired, but he and his wife continue to tend the family vineyard they bought form their parents. 

But while the area still exudes a pastoral calm, Bloudoff said “it’s a lot different now; it’s changed a lot.” Gretchen agreed. “It was a lot more country then,” he said. We never locked our doors. Now you don’t know who’s here. But before, you knew everybody. Before, you used to talk to people. Now you watch television. Life has changed completely.”

For More Information

For a listing of 73 Doukhobors living in the Russian Colony in 1930, including their names, ages, family relationships, years of immigration from Canada, and their occupations, see the 1930 United States Federal Census enumerations under Castoria Township, San Joaquin County, California.

Novo-Spasskoye – A Doukhobor Village

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.

Religion and Tradition in the Cultural Landscapes of the Doukhobors in Saskatchewan

by Carl J. Tracie

Like other immigrant groups, the Doukhobors created cultural landscapes on the Prairies that reflected their traditions and values. However, they modified these traditional cultural landscapes according to differences in their loyalty to leadership and to variations in their understanding of communalism as the essential religious centre of Doukhoborism. The following case study by Carl J. Tracie examines the role of religion and tradition in the cultural landscapes of the Doukhobors in the North and South Colonies and in the Saskatchewan Colony.  Reproduced by permission from “Saskatchewan: Geographic Perspectives” by Bernard D. Thraves, Marilyn L. Lewry, Janis E. Dale, and Hansgeord Schlichtmann, editors (Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center, 2007).

The Doukhobors, a Russian pacifist sect, arrived in Canada in 1899, persecuted and poverty-stricken (Woodcock and Avakumovic 1968; Tarasoff 1982). Special concessions by the Canadian government, in the form of homestead land in blocks for close settlement and exemption from military service, made it possible for nearly 7,500 of these hardy agriculturalists to settle in three colonies in western Canada (Figure 1). The earliest and poorest of the Doukhobors located in the North and South Colonies; the last and relatively more prosperous group settled in the Saskatchewan Colony. Like other immigrant groups, the Doukhobors created cultural landscapes on the prairies that reflected their traditions and values. The application of the Hamlet Clause that allowed the Doukhobors to fulfill their homestead residence duties in the familiar context of an agricultural village, rather than on individual quarter-sections, encouraged the development of a traditional cultural landscape. Despite these commonalities, they did modify traditional cultural landscapes according to differences in their loyalty to leadership and to variations in their understanding of communalism as the essential religious centre of Doukhoborism.

Figure 1. Doukhobor colonies in Saskatchewan.

The Doukhobors’ leader, Peter Verigin, was exiled in Siberia and did not join the colonists until 1902, but gave quite specific instructions as to the shape their life should take in their new settlements. Along with a renewed commitment to pacifism, starkly symbolized by the “Burning of the Arms” in 1895, they were to organize their settlements in Canada on a communal basis, following the example of the New Testament Christians who had all things in common. This communalism grounded and facilitated the concept of brotherhood: equality in persons, each of whom had the ‘divine spark,’ which gave equal access to divinity. The sole exception was their leader in whom the divine spark was magnified to the extent that he was regarded as an earthly Christ whose edicts had the force of divine directives. Most Orthodox Doukhobors viewed Verigin in this way and implemented a communal way of life. A minority, later known as Independents, rejected this elevated view of Verigin and followed more traditional ways, including an individualistic approach to settlement and activity. The following section illustrates the impact of tradition and religion on the distinctive cultural landscapes created in the Saskatchewan Colony and in the North and South Colonies.

Traditional Cultural Landscapes in the Saskatchewan Colony: The Russian Heritage

The Doukhobors who settled in the Saskatchewan (or Prince Albert) colony created the most traditional cultural landscape in the new land. They were relatively more prosperous, more independent-minded, and apparently less anxious to engage in communal sharing. They regarded Peter Verigin as no more than mortal, and his instructions as suggestions to be interpreted according to their own needs. Some of them made an early attempt at communalism, but it quickly faded as the disadvantages of sharing their relative prosperity with their poorer brethren became clear. Consequently, they rejected the communal way of life as an essential component of true Doukhoborism. The cultural landscape they created in the bend of the North Saskatchewan River therefore reproduced their traditional cultural landscape without the modifications introduced by the communal way of life evident in the North and South Colonies.

The village plan followed the traditional layout of the Russian mir: strassendorf or street village plan (Figure 2). Initially, some villagers did attempt communal sharing but they were outnumbered by those who pursued an independent or, at most, a co-operative approach to farming. Neither approach affected the traditional cultural landscape since the returns from agricultural activity were retained by the individual settler. These settlers reproduced the traditional house-bam combination as well, since each farmstead needed a barn and other outbuildings to house animals and store crops and implements. Some of these connected structures were more than 30 m long.

Figure 2. Plan of Pokrovka (W 1/2 4-39-9-W3), Saskatchewan Colony.  Saskatchewan Archives Board S-A36-17.

This traditional cultural landscape disappeared quickly as Independent Doukhobors moved out of their villages onto individual homesteads and the communally-minded answered Verigin’s call to join their brethren in the South Colony in 1905. Interestingly, many of these would-be communalists returned so disillusioned by the abusive treatment they received, that they determined to abandon even the appearance of the communal life by leaving the confines of village settlement as soon as possible.

Traditional Cultural Landscapes Modified by Religion: The North and South Colonies

The Doukhobors most loyal to their exiled leader, Peter Verigin, settled in the North and South Colonies. They believed Verigin embodied fully the spirit of Christ and thus they implemented his instructions regarding the communal organization of land and life that was to illustrate clearly their adherence to the model set by New Testament Christians. The compact form of the traditional mir admirably accommodated communal sharing. Since agricultural activity was to be communal as well, they modified the regular plan that characterized the Saskatchewan Colony by creating larger lots, usually in the centre of the village, for communal structures: barns, stables, shops and a meeting house (Figure 3). Communal agricultural activity meant that individual barns and other agricultural buildings were no longer needed. Consequently, these settlers modified the traditional house-barn by eliminating the connected barn or stable when they constructed their houses (Figure 4).

Figure 3. Plan of Petrovo (NW 1/4 22-26-32-W1), South Colony.  Saskatchewan Archives Board S-A36-23.

Contemporary accounts and photographs identify exceptions to these generalizations: house-bam combinations occurred in the North and South Colonies, and individual houses separated from barns or stables occurred in the Saskatchewan Colony. But, particularly in the former case, these records indicate that the exceptions were related to the factors of tradition and religion.

Carrying these associations a step further, the movement of the Verigin faithful to the ‘second community’ in British Columbia (BC) established a cultural landscape where the religious conviction of communalism dominated. There is no vestige of tradition, either in the courtyard ‘village’ plan, or in the almost-square, two-storey ‘double houses’ which comprised most villages. All aspects of land and life were now communal.

Figure 4. House at Osvobozhdenie (NE 1/4 6-34-1-W1) North Colony in 2006. Photo by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

While the move to BC removed the bulk of the community Doukhobors, a remnant remained in Saskatchewan to form villages on purchased land. These persisted until the collapse of the communal system in the late 1930s. Faint traces of both the earlier and later communal villages are still found in the present-day landscape, while the traditional cultural landscapes have been erased.

References

  • Tarasoff, K. 1982 Plakun Trava: The Doukhobors (Grand Forks, ND: Mir Publication Society).
  • Tracie, C.J. 1996 “Toil and Peaceful Life”: Doukhobor Village Settlement in Saskatchewan, 1899-1918 Canadian Plains Studies 34 (Regina, SK: Canadian Plains Research Center, University of Regina).
  • Woodcock, G. and Avakumovic, I. 1968 The Doukhobors (Toronto, ON: Oxford University Press).

This article is reproduced from “Saskatchewan: Geographic Perspectives”, Saskatchewan’s first comprehensive geography textbook. Its major sections cover these themes: Physical Geography, Historical and Cultural Geography, Population and Settlement, and Economic Geography. Eighteen chapters provide an excellent overview of the province from a variety of geographic perspectives, while twenty-nine focus studies explore specific topics in depth. Included are more than 150 figures, 70 tables, and over 60 full-colour plates. For more information, visit the Canadian Plains Research Center website at: http://www.cprc.uregina.ca/.

Ethnicity and the Prairie Environment: Patterns of Old Colony Mennonite and Doukhobor Settlement

by Carl J. Tracie

In the agricultural settlement of the Canadian west, two ethnic groups that merit special study are the Old Colony Mennonites and the Doukhobors. Both came in groups large enough to warrant the government allowing them to settle en bloc, and both molded the natural landscape into a truly distinctive cultural landscape. This paper examines the interaction between both of these groups and the environments in which they settled, considering on one hand, the impact of variations in the settlers’ customs, beliefs and values on their location in, and organization of space, and on the other hand, the physical and social environment which influenced settlement decision making. Reproduced by permission from “Man and Nature on the Prairies” by Richard Allen, editor, (Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center, 1976).

In view of the current increasing interest in the history and culture of a wide variety of ethnic and religious groups, geographers have an increased responsibility in providing information and analysis from the geographic perspective. For the rural settlement geographer these concerns revolve around the interaction between the settler and the environment, and the expression of this interaction in the process of settlement and in the patterns of settlement produced. One must consider on the one hand the impact of variations in the settlers’ customs, beliefs and values on their location in, and organization of, space, and on the other, the physical and social environment which influenced settlement decision-making. Much has been made of the action of man in molding a variety of “natural” landscapes into distinctive cultural landscapes. In the agricultural settlement of the Canadian west, however, of the many groups participating in creating a mosaic of ethnic communities, each distinct in varying ways, few created truly unique cultural landscapes. Of particular interest, then, are those groups whose size and desirability allowed them to extract certain concessions from the government which allowed them to give expressions to their beliefs and practices in the landscape they produced.

Two such groups were the Old Colony Mennonites and the Doukhobors. Both came in groups large enough to warrant the government allowing them to settle en bloc, and both began to mold the natural landscape into a distinctive cultural landscape. Their adjacent location in Russia and some similarity in belief also allow a comparison of the influence of these factors on the initiation, maintenance or decline of the unique aspects of their settlement.

It is the purpose of this paper to describe briefly the initiation and development of the distinctive settlements of these groups and to follow this with an analysis of the varying interactions between the groups and the new environment they encountered. The emphasis on the factors involved in the interaction between the group and the environment and on the nature of this interaction is seen to be valuable not only in understanding the process of Doukhobor and Mennonite settlement, but in providing stimulus and possible direction for the study of other ethnic or religious groups.

The Old Colony Mennonites

The fortuitous coincidence of a desire for emigration on the part of the Russian Mennonites, brought to a head by threatened compulsory military conscription and growing numbers of landless members, and the desire for large groups of settlers to occupy the empty lands of the Canadian west on the part of the Canadian government resulted in the movement to Manitoba of some 7,000 Mennonites between 1874 and 1881. They came under special conditions to special reserves set aside for their sole use, and under a special amendment to the Dominion Lands Act, were allowed to maintain their traditional form of settlement. Initially, one reserve was set aside for them in Manitoba (the East reserve) consisting of eight townships. Additional reserves were set aside in 1876 (the West Reserve) 1895 (the Rosthern reserve) and 1904 (the Swift Current reserve). (See Figure 1).

Figure 1. Location of the Mennonite Reserves.

Under the special provisions of the Hamlet Clause of the Dominion Lands Act, the Mennonites were allowed to recreate the agricultural village type of settlement in this new environment. The major characteristics of this type of settlement were the street-village (Strassendorf) and the open-field system of farming. The village was composed of farmsteads on their 2-3 acre rectangular lots facing one another across a broad central street, creating a distinctive agglomerated but elongated settlement in the midst of the village land. The farm system consisted of a pooling of the individual quarters of land held by the village occupants, and the subdivision of these pooled lands or Flur into several large fields (Gewanne) of similar land quality, and the further subdivision of these fields into strips (Kagel), the number of strips in each field corresponding to the number of families or landholders in the village. This too created distinctive patterns in the landscape although the marks of this system are seen only faintly today in some of the best preserved sites. In the East reserve, the “model” form of the street-village was disrupted by the physical environment so that many of the villages were oriented at odd angles and many had only a single row of farmsteads facing the street. In the remainder of the reserves, however, most of the villages were cardinally oriented and consisted of the traditional double row of farmsteads (see Figure 2). Fifty-eight villages were established in the East reserve, 65 in the West reserve, 17 in the Rosthern reserve and 15 in the Swift Current reserve, although not all the villages were occupied at any one time.

Figure 2. Neuenlage Village Plan (1895), Rosthern Reserve.

Another distinctive feature of the Mennonite settlements were the connected house-barn combinations, here fabricated in wood rather than the more common brick or stone of Russia. These units consisted of the dwelling and barn either built under one roof, or attached with or without a connecting passageway in a variety of orientations (see Figures 3 and 4).

Figure 3. Mennonite House-barn combination.  Letkemann brothers’ farmstead, Hochfeldt (Rosthern Reserve).

Figure 4. Mennonite House-barn combination. Southwest of Hague (Rosthern Reserve).

In the more recently-settled reserves of Saskatchewan the form and style of the village settlement has persisted to the present, although there are no evidences remaining of the open-field system in the landscape, and the distinctive house-barn combinations are being dismantled or detached rather rapidly (see Figure 5).

Figure 5. Mennonite house-barn combination being dismantled, Neuhorst (Rosthern Reserve).

The Doukhobors

The Doukhobors were an immigrant group quite similar in many respects to the Mennonites. Before their removal to the Caucasus, they lived in the same area of south Russia as the Mennonites; they lived in similar settlements; and they were brought to a decision to emigrate by persecution arising from their refusal to bear arms. As the Canadian government was attempting to fill the still-empty lands west of Manitoba, concessions were again negotiated to attract this large group of proven agriculturalists to the west. The concessions granted to the Doukhobors were broadly similar to those granted to the Mennonites: reserved land, exemption from military duty and a re-application of the Hamlet Clause which allowed them to settle in villages. The agreement under which the Doukhobors came was not, unfortunately, spelled out in detail, and the vagueness of the conditions and misunderstandings on both sides, especially in the matter of land regulations, were to have significant ramifications for the success of the settlements they created.

Figure 6. Location of the Doukhobor Reserves.

Negotiations between the government and the Doukhobor representatives were completed in 1898, and in the first six months of 1899 approximately 7400 Doukhobors emigrated to Canada. Their final destination was three blocks of land which had been reserved for their sole use; the North or Thunder Hill Reserve, the South Reserve (with annex), and the Prince Albert or Saskatchewan Reserve (see Figure 6). Over the next decade, 63 villages were constructed by the Doukhobors in the three reserves, although, as with the Mennonites, not all were inhabited at any one time. The form of these villages was very similar to that of the Mennonites, based on the street-village that was a common heritage. There were more variations from the traditional model among the Doukhobors however, in the orientation of the villages, lot size, building placement on the lots, and in regularity of form. (See Figures 7-9.)

Figure 7. Doukhobor village of Bogdanovka (Prince Albert Reserve) (from the original village plan, Saskatchewan Archives Board.

The communal system of farming practiced by the Doukhobors with their large undivided fields produced a cultivated landscape differing from both the strip fields of the Mennonites and the isolated, small fields of the individual settler.

The structures erected by the Doukhobors were also distinctive in form and detail. The traditional pattern brought from Russia was modified initially by the availability of building materials but the permanent dwellings and larger structures exhibited considerable stylistic uniformity. (See Figures 10, 11.)

“In architecture, as in other instances, they [Doukhobors] are as yet absolutely insensible to Western influences. Their houses, built on either side of a wide street, are of unsawn timbers covered with clay, painted white and ornamented with yellow dados. The rooftops project and form verandahs ornamented with carved woodwork… They intend when they become more prosperous to replace these exotic-looking buildings with larger ones of stone.

The village – when I presently arrived at it – proved a surprising place, with strange, foreign-looking and picturesque houses having walls plastered with mud, but with a note of distinction in the disposition of the timbering, in the shaping of the windows, and in the gable ends of the heavy vegetating roofs. Moreover, the eye was grateful for variations of detail in the several structures, no two being exactly alike, though all were affected by common principles of structure and design – all, at least, save a central meeting-place in prim brickwork, which was a civilized eyesore in that setting of primitive architecture.”

Although the form of the village has been eradicated almost completely, a few remaining isolated structures give witness to the distinctive settlements created 75 years ago. (See Figure 12.)

Group-Environmental Interaction: The Group

Having briefly sketched the major elements of the cultural landscapes of these two groups I would like to consider some of the elements of the interaction between the group and their new environment in more detail. This discussion is designed to clarify the operation of several group and environmental factors in the initiation, development and decline of these distinctive cultural landscapes.

Those factors considered under the heading of the group revolve around the common beliefs, practices and values of an ethnic/religious group which have found expression in the form and pattern of their settlement. For example, the choice of the location for the reserves may be explained in terms of the varying perceptions of these groups as to what constituted desirable land and a desirable location. A common explanation for the varying perceptions of what is “desirable” land hinges on similarities in the landscape of the new land and the former homeland, that is, the settler or group will choose land that they perceive as similar to the land they have left. This explanation not only recognizes the impact of a psychological element in the decision-making process (i.e. familiarity, at-homeness) but also the hard economic fact that experience gained in a similar environment will allow the settler to “control” his new environment more effectively. It is tempting to explain the location of the first Mennonite reserves in the same way. Having become accustomed to the steppes of southern Russia, and knowing “how to strike living water from level ground, how to build comfortable huts and how to heat them, too, without a stick of wood” and “how to plant shelter belts for protection against the icy winds of the northern plains,” what more natural conclusion than that of the Mennonites seeking a similar environment in the Canadian west, thus choosing prairie lands in southern Manitoba and Saskatchewan?

Figure 8. Doukhobor village of Blagoveshcheniye (South Reserve) (from the original village plan, Saskatchewan Archives Board.

There are at least two problems with such explanations however. First, there is the possibility that the choice of similar land may have been made for entirely different reasons, or at least that these other reasons may have been dominant. Considering the traditional desire of the Mennonites to avoid contamination by the “world” it seems reasonable to suggest that the prairie lands of southern Manitoba and Saskatchewan were chosen for their isolation as much as for their similarity to the homeland. The correspondence relating to the choice of land south of Swift Current appears to indicate that the Mennonites deliberately chose poor land so they would not be bothered by the pressure of expanding settlement into the area. The choice of land in the Rosthern reserve and in other areas (e.g. La Crete, Alberta) seem to lend weight to the proposal as in both areas the wooded environment was unlike the previous location yet both were isolated from the main body of settlement at the time they were chosen.

A second problem with the general application of this explanation is that there is evidence to suggest that some groups, rather than choosing lands with environmental problems with which they were familiar, decided to eliminate some of the problems by choosing lands that supplied some of the deficiencies of the homeland. In the case of the Doukhobors, the desire for land with a good water supply and timber to build with was accentuated by the fact that in their former location, timber was scarce. Far from seeking a similar environment, then, they deliberately sought one that was quite different.

The actual settlement form and pattern within the reserves most clearly indicate the impact of the group’s traditions, beliefs and practices however. Both groups demanded large contiguous tracts of land where they could settle in compact units free from the fragmentation of their holdings by outsiders. As noted above, the settlement unit was the farm village, the basic form of which was transferred to Canada from Russia. On the part of the Mennonites, the retention of this form in their new environment appears to have rested in their traditional resistance to change, and the desire to retain a form of settlement which would facilitate cooperation and administration. They had utilized this method of settlement successfully for almost 100 years in Russia; to maintain this form in the new environment was clearly desirable. The Doukhobors were much more strictly bound to a village type of settlement. Not only was the street-village traditional, but some form of compact settlement was essential in their adherence to the religious principle of communal life. Peter Verigin, their spiritual leader, established the framework for the new settlements by noting that they should be on a communal foundation and that the villages should be built “on the customary plan that you so well know.”

Whereas tradition and belief reinforced each other in the matter of settlement form, especially in the case of the Doukhobors, their influence on the individual elements of the settlements often took different directions. The connected house-barn was the traditional farmstead unit for both Mennonites and Doukhobors, yet the Mennonites recreated this form almost without exception in their villages, while only a few Doukhobor villages retained this form. Among the Mennonites there was no tension between tradition and belief; it had been their custom to erect structures of this sort and their beliefs and practices did not demand a change in this tradition in the new environment. With the Doukhobors however a recent change from an individualistic to a communistic way of life based on a spiritual directive from their leader demanded a change from the traditional form. According to the instructions given by Verigin, “the absolute necessities like cattle, plows, and other implements as well as granaries and storehouses, grist mills, oil presses, blacksmith shops and woodworking shops, all these in the first years must be built by communal effort.” Crops and livestock, being communal property, were to be stored and housed in communal buildings. Consequently those villages heeding this admonition had no need for individual barns, attached or otherwise; only large communal barns and storehouses were built. In the villages of the Prince Albert colony, where it appears that the people viewed Verigin as somewhat less than a “living Christ,” the traditional attached house-barn combinations were the norm as crops and livestock were owned individually. These differences in belief also affected the interior arrangement of the villages. Village plans show a form organized around the central position of several large communal buildings in the eastern villages, but the Prince Albert colony villages appear to be more regular in plan with buildings uniform in size and orientation (see Figures 7 and 8).

Figure 9. Doukhobor village of Utesheniye (Devil’s Lake Annex) (from the original village plan, Saskatchewan Archives Board.

The basic distinction between the individualism of the Mennonites and the communalism of the Doukhobors reinforced or weakened the influence of tradition in the built landscape. These differences also gave rise to distinctive cultivated landscapes. Both groups pooled their individual land allotments on a village basis to create a “super-farm” which was then divided according to the desires of the group. Being individualistic, the Mennonites allotted each family its fair share in each of the large fields created, thus giving rise to a distinctive strip pattern. The communal Doukhobors recognized no individual land ownership so the large fields remained undivided and were farmed as one unit. Again both systems reflected the religious beliefs of the group. Although the pooling of land was voluntary with the Mennonites and was designed primarily to foster social cohesion, Francis has pointed out that it would have been impossible to retain such a system in the absence of sanctions having a distinctly religious connotation.

These groups’ beliefs, particularly in the matter of land tenure, were to bring about inter-group conflicts, and with the Doukhobors, conflicts with the government. In both cases, these difficulties brought about modification and sometimes complete eradication of original settlement patterns. The Mennonites had no religious qualms about individual ownership of land, or about pledging allegiance to the Crown, so there was no problem in registering and obtaining patents for individual quarter sections of land. They were only concerned with retaining the village form of agricultural settlement, which they were able to do by voluntary means within the framework of existing land policy. This latter was no problem during the initial years of settlement in Manitoba, but it was not long before economic advantage outweighed religious considerations in the eyes of some Mennonites, particularly those who had title to excellent arable land. Since the land was legally held under individual title, those wishing to sacrifice group approval for individual gain were not hindered legally in claiming their own land. Only a few such cases in a village seriously disrupted the whole functioning unit and the conservatives were forced to look elsewhere for land if they wished to persist in this type of settlement. The village type of settlement was abandoned fairly rapidly, then, depleted by individualists taking up their own land, and by the removal of the most conservative members who were forced to move elsewhere to recreate a similar system. On the other hand, the conservatives who moved into Saskatchewan to form the Rosthern and Swift Current colonies were able by a very early abandonment of the open-field system to retain the village form of settlement which they viewed as essential to their way of life. As a result of this successful compromise, the Strassendorfer persist in the landscape to the present, and in a few cases at least, appear to remain a viable form of settlement.

The religious views of the Doukhobors regarding communal ownership of land brought them into immediate conflict with government land policy which was designed around individual ownership. The Doukhobors at first refused even to apply for entry to the land which they were occupying. However when Verigin came to Canada in late 1902, he modified his previous instructions, suggesting that registration itself was only a formality; what was important was that they operate communally. This tactic delayed confrontation with the government for a few years. Most Doukhobors registered for their land individually, but farmed the land communally. When expanding settlement forced the government to take a closer look at the cultivation duties performed by the Doukhobors a decision was made to require cultivation duties on each quarter section of land or the homestead entries would be cancelled. Under this increasing pressure from the government many moved from their village residences to take up residence on their own land. When it became apparent that obtaining title to their land individually not only was a necessity but involved pledging allegiance to the Crown (which also was against their religious convictions as they did not recognize any earthly authority), the communal Doukhobors faced the same decision as had the conservative Mennonites in Manitoba. They had to choose either to abandon their beliefs or move elsewhere to preserve them. They chose to move to purchased privately-owned land in British Columbia.

Figure 10. Doukhobor village near Veregin, Saskatchewan (early 1900’s).  Uniformity of style is apparent in the dwellings of this village. A departure is seen in the larger, communal structures near the center of the village. Glenbow Archives.

We see then the same elements at work in the deterioration of the village settlements among the Doukhobors as among the Manitoba Mennonites. The more liberal members moved onto their own land; the conservatives were forced to move to retain their religious integrity. The result was the very rapid disappearance of the Strassendorfer. That this eradication was so complete rests on the fact that there was no compromise available. The Independents had in the main moved onto their own land before the communal Doukhobors left. For their part, the communal Doukhobors, under the existing land regulations, had no choice but to move to a new area. Consequently, there was no residue left in most of the villages to maintain them and they were very quickly dismantled or left to deteriorate. A potential exception to this pattern could have been the Prince Albert colony. They were the most individualistic, and were cooperative rather than communal in their agricultural system. They established villages on the traditional plan, and there seems to have been no reason why they could not have continued this form of settlement while farming their land individually. A possible reason is suggested by one of the members of the present Blaine Lake community. Quite a number of the members of the Prince Albert colony were attracted to the communal way of life, or more particularly, to the person of Peter Verigin, when he came to Canada in 1902. These people left their villages and moved to the eastern colonies “to be with Petushka.” They were very poorly treated by the Doukhobors there, presumably since they were regarded as “bad brothers” who had initially abandoned Peter’s command regarding communal ownership of land. Many of these returned to the Prince Albert colony with such a distaste for anything smacking of the communal life, that they forthwith abandoned the village type of settlement since it reminded them of the constrictions of communal life.

Group-Environment Interaction: The Environment

The environment, both physical and social, which the Doukhobors confronted also had considerable influence on the development and decline of distinctive settlement patterns created by these groups. The role of the physical environment has been alluded to above. Certain aspects of the landscape – vegetation, drainage, etc. – comprised the elements which were perceived and assessed in various ways according to the background beliefs and desires of the group. The Mennonites appeared to be drawn to the grassland areas of southern Manitoba and Saskatchewan either because they were regarded as familiar and manageable or because they were regarded as a surrogate for isolation. The Doukhobors, too, sought for certain physical elements in the land they were to occupy, e.g., timber, water, etc., although they seem to have been more concerned with the immediate advantages of such features. In both cases then, but apparently for different reasons, each group was drawn to a certain kind of “natural” landscape.

The impact of the physical environment is apparent more clearly on variations in the pattern of settlement. Both the pattern and form of Mennonite settlements of the East reserve were modified by variations in topography, vegetation and drainage. The villages tended to be less regular in form, as noted above, the site often allowing the development of only a single row of farmsteads along the street, rather than the more traditional double row. Many of the villages were oriented along streams or beach ridges as well. The field pattern was also fragmented; good and poor land were interspersed throughout the reserve, and fields tended to be fragmented by areas of unproductive land. This situation also resulted in a somewhat more irregular distribution of settlements within the reserve as great care had to be taken to choose a village site which was central to a sufficient amount of arable land to support the village population. Some villages were abandoned owing to an unwise choice of site with respect to the surrounding land. In the West reserve however, where land was more uniform both in quality and terrain, the villages were more uniformly distributed, more regular in the recreation of the traditional form, and most exhibiting a cardinal orientation.

The Doukhobor villages were affected by the physical environment in a similar way, particularly in the orientation of the villages to lakes and streams. It appears from the village plans that certain modifications in the form of some of the villages were made as a result of local site conditions, although a detailed study of the village sites with the plans in hand would be required to detail this observation.

Figure 11. House being erected by Doukhobors just outside their village near Canora, c. 1906. From what can be ascertained from contemporary evidence and surviving structures, this is the style employed by the Doukhobors of eastern Saskatchewan for their prayer homes, larger communal structures and many dwellings. Glenbow Archives.

A major component of the general environment to which these groups came was the social milieu; the attitudes of both public and government toward these newcomers. Society in general appears to have accepted the Mennonites at face value; different, but valuable as agriculturalists and settlers. There was not too much about them to raise resentment except possibly their pacifism and their desire to maintain their own educational system, but these did not assume importance until much later. The government had no cause for concern. The Mennonites were law abiding, responsible citizens and were positively regarded as successful and innovative farmers, models to be set up before intending settlers, in much the same way as they had been in Russia. In the main, then, the social environment seems to have had little impact on their initial settlements – they were left to pursue their own ends.

Doukhobor settlement, on the other hand, was influenced by public opinion and government policy from the outset. Although the influence of physical factors in the choice of reserve land has been noted above, the actual location of land having these components was directly related to the social climate of the time. Aylmer Maude, an Englishman who acted as an interpreter for the Doukhobor delegation, detailed the matter:

“The conditions of the problem were these: the Doukhobors wished to settle as a compact community, with lands as much as possible together… Other important considerations in selecting the land were: to secure a good water supply, and timber to build with, and not to be too far from a railway… The first locality we inspected was in the district near Edmonton… A most promising location not far from Beaver Lake was selected where we wished to take up twelve “townships” of thirty-six square miles each, and where the whole Doukhobor community might have settled contiguously. But, after our return to Ottawa, this arrangement was upset… The Liberal Government was making efforts to find immigrants to take up the unoccupied land of the North-West Territories; so the Conservative Opposition was ready and eager to note and exaggerate everything unfavourable about such immigrants and to use, as a weapon wherewith to attack the Government, any prejudice that could be aroused against them As a result, an opposition to the location of the Doukhobors in the Edmonton district sprang up; pressure was brought to bear on the Government, and, when we thought all had been favourably settled, we learnt that we could not have the land we had selected. The search had to be recommenced in other, less tempting, parts of the country.

Instead of this favourable location for the reserve being chosen, attention was directed to other areas where physical conditions were untested, and were therefore mainly unsettled. These locations were far enough from the main body of settlement not to arouse local dissatisfaction. Concern was also expressed in the Senate about the impact of the placement of the Doukhobors on subsequent settlement. The Honourable Mr. Boulton (Marquette) said, “… that we should go to enormous expense to bring foreigners in and place them on the soil, leaving the odd numbered sections of land between them, so that our own people cannot settle in among them or perhaps will not be made comfortable to settle among them … is a mistake.”

The public’s view as to what constituted an acceptable social distance between them and foreign immigrants appears to have been related to how “foreign” they were perceived to be. The Doukhobors, with their strange clothing and practices, were perceived to be very foreign indeed. The press labelled them as “Sifton’s pets” and one outspoken member of the Senate referred to them as “the refuse of Russia.” Society, already alarmed at the prospect of the West becoming dominated by “foreigners” at the “expense of the more desirable British, Canadian, and American settlers, wanted these strange people as far away from existing settlement as possible. Also, considerable pressure was created to have the government apply the letter of the law in matters of homestead regulations. This of course made it very difficult for the government to exercise much flexibility in their land dealings with the Doukhobors, and ultimately culminated in the abandonment of the village type of settlement.

Figure 12. Prayer Home, Spasskoye village (South Reserve) photographed by author in May 1975.

The role of the government as part of the new environment which the two groups encountered might be designated either as that of a villain, or that of a much-tried, would-be benefactor. The Mennonites were quite contented with the government. The concessions granted to them were honored and they reciprocated by abiding by the policies of the government, a course of action made easier by the fact that there was no direct conflict between government policy and their beliefs. They had always maintained good relations with the Russian government, and they were dedicated to cooperation with the Canadian government as much as possible. The Doukhobors had a quite different view of government in general and the Canadian government in particular. Earthly authority was seen to have no hold on the actions of the group, and, where it contradicted the religious principles of the group, it was to be vigorously resisted. It is quite likely that even with the generous terms offered by the Canadian government they were suspicious of it, and when the government began demanding commitments in matters of registration and land tenure, which they argued were contrary to the spirit of the negotiated terms, they began to view the government as a tyrannical oppressor. It appeared to some sympathetic observers that the government was at least acting in an ambivalent manner, seemingly encouraging or condoning communal settlement by certain concessions, then abruptly reverting to a strict observance and application of the land policy. On its part, the government was plagued by pilgrimages, nude demonstrations and arson by those it sought to help (although involving only a fraction of the total group) on the one hand, and on the other, was under considerable public pressure to make these foreigners conform to the law of the land without any special concessions.

The increasing pressure brought to bear by the government on the Doukhobors brought about two diverse reactions. For some this pressure resulted in yielding to government terms with subsequent movement from the villages to individual parcels of land. For others, the pressure hardened their resistance to the government and its policies, and made any compromise that might have been attempted impossible. The lines were clearly drawn; neither could compromise. Most of the communal Doukhobors abandoned their villages and moved to British Columbia. The pattern of settlement which had been slowly eroded by the movement of the Independents to their own land began a rather rapid eradication in Saskatchewan, and was completely modified in its transferal to the new environment of British Columbia.

Conclusion

In this paper an attempt has been made to draw out and analyze pertinent elements of the main environment interaction which have been influential in the initiation and development of the distinctive cultural landscapes of two ethnic/religious groups. Two major points stand out. First, in the examination of the interaction between these groups and the environment, it appears that group traditions and values are dominant. They structured the group’s perception of the physical elements of the new environment, dictated the basic form and pattern of the settlements they created, determined their attitudes toward the new social environment, and, to a large extent, determined or influenced public and government attitudes toward them. Second, and closely related to the first, is the degree to which group values (beliefs) outweighed all other considerations.

In both groups these values originally reinforced the traditional form of village settlement. The Mennonites were able to recreate these settlements without significant modification, while their belief in communal living forced modifications of some of the details of Doukhobor settlement. Further, the beliefs of the Mennonites allowed them to perpetuate the village settlement within the framework of government land policy, whereas the Doukhobors were forced by their beliefs to abandon their villages. In fact, the increased resolve to live communally which the confrontation in Saskatchewan seems to have produced, resulted in a completely changed form of settlement in British Columbia. It is by a consideration of these factors, then, that the initiation of a unique form of settlement, the persistence of this form in the Old Colony Mennonite settlements in Saskatchewan, and the nearly complete eradication of Old Colony Mennonite settlement in Manitoba and Doukhobor village settlement in Saskatchewan can be understood.

Dr. Carl J. Tracie has been an Assistant Professor of Geography at the University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan from 1970 to 1979 and thereafter, an Associate Professor of Geography at Trinity Western University, Langley, British Columbia. He has travelled widely and frequently through the original Doukhobor settlements in Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia.  Dr. Tracie has published numerous articles on Doukhobor historical geography. His book, “Toil and Peaceful Life”: Doukhobor Village Settlement in Saskatchewan, 1899–1918 (Regina, 1996) is a major work of historical geography that analyses the unique cultural landscape created by the Community Doukhobors in Saskatchewan. He is currently researching and writing a book on the Doukhobor “Second Community” in British Columbia.

Forced Doukhobor Schooling in British Columbia

by William Janzen

Historically, Doukhobors had not emphasized formal education. They were concerned that schools would lead their children away from their community life and religious ideals. Also, their view of ‘the God within’ made it less important. Despite these views, in Saskatchewan, the entry of Doukhobors into the public school system went relatively smoothly, in part due to its localized nature, the leniency of civil servants in enforcing attendance requirements, and the openness of the largely Independent Doukhobor population towards education. In British Columbia, however, the Doukhobors’ stronger communalism and greater hesitancy about the larger society, combined with the rigid approach of the provincial government, produced dramatically different results. The following article by William Janzen examines the forced schooling of Doukhobors in British Columbia. Reproduced by permission from his book, “Limits on Liberty, The Experience of Mennonite, Hutterite and Doukhobor Communities in Canada” (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990), it examines three distinct periods: 1909-1913, 1914-1927 and 1927-1959.

1909-1913: Acceptance, Rejection, and a Commission of Inquiry

The story of the Doukhobors and public schools in British Columbia is complex. Virtually all the Doukhobors who moved there belonged to the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood. As such they had both a stronger communalism and a greater hesitancy about the larger society. The approach of the provincial government was different, too. British Columbia had had a public school system since the 1870s. It even had an attendance requirement, though it applied only to children aged 7-12, and only if they lived within three miles of a school accessible by public roads. Also, the system operated under a central Council of Public Instruction with relatively little scope for local boards. This circumstance tended to bring school issues into the arena of provincial politics even though it might have been possible to resolve them locally.

The Doukhobors’ first contact with British Columbia’s school system came soon after they arrived in 1909. By 1910, some who lived close to public schools discovered that their children were expected to attend. They then complied without complaint. In 1911 the school district of Grand Forks built the Carson school near Doukhobor lands to accommodate more Doukhobor children. Soon thereafter the Doukhobors, who were quickly becoming established in their new settlements, built a school right on their land near Brilliant. It opened in 1912 as an official public school with an all-Doukhobor board and an enrolment of forty-eight pupils. The teacher, Beulah Clarke Darlington, spoke highly of the Doukhobors and of the experience in general. In a letter to a local newspaper she stated: ‘It is a relief to find people with no pretense who are willing to work with their hands, and who show, by the wonderful development of that country, that they are capable of working with their brains as well; who are content with simple pleasures and who keep a right outlook on life because they are not striving after wealth or trying to attain a position in society which is worthless when procured.’ The Doukhobors were very pleased with Darlington as a teacher. They planned to expand class-room facilities for the coming year and encouraged Darlington to bring some of her friends also to serve as teachers.

Then, suddenly, there was an interruption. The schoolchildren were withdrawn, not to return until four years later. A major reason was the arrest of five Doukhobors who had been sentenced to three months in prison for failing to register a death. The chief constable for the Grand Forks area met with Peter V. Verigin and was informed that the Doukhobors, at a large meeting, had decided not to register births, deaths, and marriages even though the law required it. When the constable reported this information to the attorney-general he was told: ‘You may inform Mr. Verigin … that the laws of British Columbia must be obeyed … and … will be strictly carried out, without any favour being shown to him and members of his Society.’ The Doukhobors then sent a letter, dated 16 July 1912, addressed to ‘The Government of British Columbia,’ to explain their position. They said: ‘We believe that the favourable adorable power is ruling all the world and endeavour to be written in eternal life book, and propose ourselves obligation to live quietly and to employ honest labour on the earth, so as to get substance. All the human race registration we calculate unnecessary. We can say, briefly, our religion confines on two commandments to be gentle and to employ agriculture.’

Doukhobor children in flax field, Grand Forks, BC, circa 1920. British Columbia Archives C-01745.

The public, which at first had welcomed the Doukhobors for contributing to the economic development of the area, now became more critical. Newspapers pointed out that they were not taking the oath and that they were not co-operating fully with the 1911 census. Local citizens expressed concern that the Doukhobors were becoming numerous, that they might ‘swamp the community,’ and ‘that it would be impossible for them to be assimilated.’ In response, the Conservative government led by Premier Richard McBride appointed a royal commission to make a broad inquiry. The person chosen for the task was William Blackmore, a newspaper editor from the nearby town of Nelson.

When Blackmore came to the Doukhobor community, later in 1912, he was welcomed in an elaborate way. The Doukhobors showed him their orchards, sawmills, and other prospering enterprises, and talked of their plans for further development. They also invited him to their religious assembly, where the children sang for him. In one such ceremony, a young boy stepped forward and said: ‘We’ve been attending school during the eleven weeks it was in session, but we no longer wish to go to school again, because the teacher, though very kind, belonged to the people who had put our friends in prison.’ Blackmore stayed with the Doukhobors for almost four months and held long public hearings. He also made a trip to their settlements on the prairies. At the end he produced a report that was extensive and remarkably sympathetic to the Doukhobors but it did not relieve them from the responsibility of abiding by the established laws of the province.

Regarding their refusal to register births, deaths, and marriages, Blackmore stated: ‘They will not register because they desire to remain unmolested in their communal life. They want no interference, as they call it, which means no intrusion of any kind. They claim that birth and death are the acts of God, and call for no cognizance on the part of man; and as to marriage, they take the high ground that it is purely a matter between the contracting parties.’ Blackmore also found that the Doukhobors feared that registration would somehow lead to military service. In their own words they said: ‘The registration intimately… tied …with religious faith … we wish to be citizens of all the world, and do not wish to register our children in the Royal Crown Government books … We are not refusing to give knowledge of increase or decrease of our Doukhobor Community people in ten or five years once. But to enter in your register books we will never do it. Because we calculate we are already registered in the Book of Life before Him the Founder, which is called Eternity.’

Regarding public schools, Blackmore found that the Doukhobors were concerned that ‘education was likely to make the children discontented with the life of cultivation of the soil followed by their parents,’ and ‘separate the children from their parents and from the customs and habits of the Community.’ He reported further that the women had said that ‘among them crime was unknown, and that, whereas among educated people poverty existed, no Doukhobor ever suffered for want of food or clothing; so … while the laws spoken of were needed for other people, they did not think they were required among the Doukhobors.’

In a statement of their own, the Doukhobors listed three reasons for their objection to the public schools:

1) The school education teaches and prepares the people, that is children, to military service, where shed harmless blood of the people altogether uselessly. The most well educated people consider this dreadfully sinful such business as war, lawful. We consider this great sin.

2) The school teaching at the present time had reached only to expedience for the easy profit, thieves, cheaters, and to large exploitation working-class laborious on the earth. And we ourselves belong to working-class people and we try by the path of honest labour, so we may reap the necessary maintenance, and to this we adopt our children to learn at wide school of Eternal Nature.

3) The school teaching separates all the people on the earth. Just as soon as the person reached read and write education, then, within a short time leaves his parents and relations and undertakes unreturnable journey on all kinds of speculation, depravity and murder life. And never think of this duty, respecting his parents and elder-ones, but he looks opposite, turning themselves, enslaving of the people, for theirs own licentious and insatiableness gluttony … educated people, swallow down all the national peoples … the people suffer from not having land even a piece of daily bread … we distinctly understand instruction of Christ, we holding on to Community life and we calculate all the people on earth are our brothers.

These three objections — that education in public schools leads to militarism, that it is not practical, and that it alienates people from one another, thus militating against community life — were to be referred to again and again in the following half-century as the controversy continued.

In his report, Blackmore spoke positively of how the Doukhobors themselves provided for the education of their children:

It must not, however, be supposed that, because this misguided people refuse elementary education for their children, they do not give them the best home training.

The children are intelligent, respective, and observant. The home life is almost ideal. They are taught all the cardinal virtues with which most of us, as children, we acquainted, but which are now too often regarded as old-fashioned — such as obedience, reverence, industry, and thrift; and it is not a little to the credit of their parents to find that the chief objection that they entertain to education is the fear that secular teaching may undermine the religious spirit.

Blackmore also praised their capability as agriculturalists, their irrigation system, their large orchards, and the other enterprises that they, as the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood, had collectively developed. Blackmore stated:

It is not out of place at this point to comment on the wonderful success that has attended the fruit-growing operations of the Doukhobors. To them it was a new industry. They had never been engaged in it before coming to British Columbia. Yet, today, if you were to go through their orchards, you would find that they are the cleanest, the best-kept, the heaviest-cropped of any in the district…

In addition … the Doukhobors have manifested a spirit of enterprise at Brilliant by putting in a splendid concrete reservoir capable of holding 1,000,000 gallons of water, and from this reservoir the water is being piped all over the Settlement. It is to be used both for domestic purposes and irrigation.

The reservoir will be supplied partially from a creek in the mountains, and partially by an immense pumping plant which the Doukhobors have erected … on the banks of the Kootenay River. This is the largest pumping plant in British Columbia …

Besides the farming industry, the Doukhobors have established sawmills on all their properties, which are used chiefly to convert the timber into building material …They have also a good brick-making works at Grand Forks, which is producing a high-class brick, commanding a ready sale. This brick is being used in the new Government Buildings at Grand Forks, which is a fair testimony as to its quality.

While recommending that the Doukhobors should be required to obey provincial laws, Blackmore cautioned against ‘drastic steps … to force their immediate compliance,’ stating that ‘persecution is fuel to the flames of fanaticism. Withdraw the fuel, and the fire will die out.’ He suggested a policy of ‘patience with the people’ and ‘pressure on their leaders’ and that, ‘if it is found necessary to resort to prosecution and conviction ensues, it is desirable that the punishment should take the form of fines rather than imprisonment.’ Prison sentences, he felt, might nurture a martyrdom complex. He also recommended that to facilitate the registration of births, deaths, and marriages, a member of the Doukhobor Community be appointed as a sub-registrar. And to facilitate matters in the schools he said that ‘Russian teachers could be employed in conjunction with Canadian teachers, and that the curriculum be modified so as to include only elementary subjects.’ He also suggested that a permanent Doukhobor agent be appointed to serve somewhat like an Indian agent.

Most of Blackmore’s observations and recommendations were such that a mutually satisfactory compromise might have developed. But the Doukhobors’ disposition towards a compromise was drastically set back because, at the very end of the report, Blackmore recommended that their exemption from military service be cancelled. This suggestion was most upsetting to the Doukhobors. They had questioned Blackmore about the possibility of war between Britain and Germany, about the probability of Canadian involvement, and about the status of their exemption. Now they felt confirmed in their suspicion that there was a connection between registration, school attendance, and military service.

1914-1927: Pressing Community Doukhobors to Accept Schools

While Blackmore’s final recommendation disappointed the Doukhobors, the generally moderate tone of his report disappointed the authorities. Supported by local citizens, officials soon discarded his counsel for patience. They rejected a Doukhobor offer that for vital statistics, they check the Community’s records. The public wanted compliance with the existing law; to gain evidence for prosecutions they exhumed bodies and raided a village. Naturally, this approach was upsetting to the Doukhobors. Regarding the schools, the Doukhobors were now also concerned about a recently introduced program of military drills and rifle shooting. The Department of Education had started the program in order to foster ‘the spirit of patriotism in the boys, leading them to realize that the first duty of every citizen is to be prepared to defend his country.’

Early in 1914, when Doukhobor children were still not in school, the government prepared itself for an unusual course of action. It enacted the Community Regulation Act, which made the Doukhobor Community, that is, the CCUB, liable for an infraction committed by any member. The act referred particularly to infractions relating to vital statistics, school attendance, and the Health Act. It authorized officials to seize, without warrant, the goods and chattels of the Community in order to cover fines not paid by individuals. In one sense, holding the Community liable was understandable. The Doukhobors, as individuals, had little property while as a Community they had a sizeable amount. Nevertheless, as a form of collective punishment this law was a departure from Canada’s tradition of justice. More seriously, the law defined a Community member as any person who, on the oath of one witness, had been found on or about Community lands. This meant that even if the Community expelled trouble-making individuals, which it did on occasion, it could still be liable for the actions of such individuals. Obviously, the Community was extremely vulnerable.

As the authorities became more threatening, some Doukhobors, apparently against the advice of Peter V. Verigin, responded with a threat of their own. They sent a long list of grievances to Attorney-General Bowser and then said: ‘The [Community] Doukhobors, of whom there are six thousand members, are planning beforehand in this case, to all take off what clothes still remaining on them after the plunder they have been subjected to in Saskatchewan, take them and throw them into the faces of your officials in Nelson and Grand Forks, and leave themselves stark naked on the very street of the town. This will be a good illustration to show the attitude taken by the government officials in regards to Doukhobors.’ The attorney-general replied that if the clothes came off the law against indecent exposure would be enforced.

As the confrontation became increasingly intense several non-Doukhobors tried to intervene. Blackmore continued to counsel moderation in the columns of his newspaper. A lawyer from the town of Nelson wrote to the attorney-general: ‘I contend that the Grand Forks people are not playing the game square as far as these people are concerned. They welcomed them to their midst and took their money for the land, and now, when they have made a success of agriculture in that district, they want to drive them out.’ A CPR superintendent urged the government to seek a compromise so as to avoid ‘injury to the religious convictions of the Doukhobors.’ A.E. Miller, inspector of schools, was cautious, too. He predicted that ‘any attempt to enforce attendance will be met with opposition.’ Others, however, supported the action of the government. A group of Quakers from Pennsylvania who had earlier supported the Doukhobors now said: ‘The sooner the Commune is broken up, the sooner will be real progress amongst these simple, misled people.’

For a time the trends pointed towards a harsh confrontation. A.E. Miller was instructed to warn the Doukhobors that ‘the refusal to comply with the requirements as to education would mean the breaking up of their community.’ In August 1915 the attorney-general issued instructions to enforce the Community Regulations Act. At that point, however, certain technical obstacles were noticed. The property, until 1917, was registered in the name of Peter V. Verigin, not in the name of the Community. Also, school attendance was compulsory only if people lived within three miles of a school, accessible by a public road. Most roads in the Doukhobor settlements were private.

Before these legalities could be tested a compromise was reached. On 20 September 1915 the attorney-general promised a delegation of Doukhobors that no military training would be forced upon their children and that they would be excused from religious exercises. The Doukhobors in turn promised that their children would return to both the Carson and the Brilliant public schools. As a result, a period of co-operation followed. The Doukhobors built nine additional public schools although these were administered not by local boards but by an official trustee appointed by the government. At one point, in the 1920-1 school year, the enrolment rose to 414, which was more than 80 per cent of those eligible, although attendance was little more than 50 per cent. Inspector Miller, following a policy of caution and patience, did not press for full attendance.

This co-operation lasted for several years, but soon after the First World War there were strains related to the Doukhobors’ exemption from military service and to their prosperity. In February 1919 a meeting of returned soldiers in Nelson demanded that all Doukhobors be deported to Russia and that their lands be given to veterans. A meeting of citizens declared its support for the veterans and at one point twelve ex-soldiers went to Verigin to force their demands upon him. Apparently Verigin then signed an agreement to turn over the Doukhobor lands to the Soldiers’ Settlement Board but a few days later he wired Arthur Meighen, the minister of the Interior, that he had signed under duress. Meighen, the Conservative who according to George Woodcock ‘consistently proved fairer to the Doukhobors than his Liberal predecessor Frank Oliver,’ ruled that the Soldiers’ Settlement Board had no right to carry out expropriations.

Group of Doukhobor schoolchildren at Brilliant, BC, circa 1920. British Columbia Archives D-01929.

The soldiers’ claim to the land was thus nullified but the general criticism of the Doukhobors continued, leading some Doukhobors to withdraw their children from school. However, a 1920 amendment to the Public Schools Act broadened the compulsory attendance provisions and authorized the construction of schools on the lands of the Doukhobor Community and at its expense. Also, Inspector A.E. Miller, under whose patient supervision things had worked reasonably well, was replaced by E.G. Daniels, who began to press for better attendance. In December 1922, the Grand Forks school board took legal action against eight cases of truancy. Fines were imposed and when they were not paid, some CCUB property, meaning Doukhobor Community property, was seized. However, before it could be sold, Community officials intervened and paid the fines.

In April 1923, Inspector Daniels pressed further. Fines of $50 each were levied on six parents. When they were slow in paying, a large truck, used by the Community for farm work, was seized. Again the Community paid the fines. But soon after, in May 1923, a school building was destroyed by fire. In the months that followed a total of nine schools in the Brilliant area were destroyed, the burnings in each case coinciding with an attempt on the part of the police to seize property in payment of fines.

The burning of schools was a relatively new type of action on the part of the Doukhobors. There were some acts of civil disobedience in their history, and a few times some Doukhobors had destroyed property as a way of witnessing against materialism. However, this more widespread destruction of property was a departure from their tradition. It also created a new dynamic among the Doukhobors. Those who committed these acts were a very small minority. Verigin and other Community leaders publicly declared that the Community as a whole had nothing to do with the burnings and that many of their children were still attending school. At one inquiry a teacher of a burned school testified that the Community Doukhobors had, ‘instead of burning schools, been guarding them and that the destruction has been the work of a small but fanatical element among them.’ The authorities, however, did little to apprehend the guilty individuals. Instead, they followed the orientation of the Community Regulation Act and held the Doukhobor Community liable for the depredations.

While dissociating themselves from the acts of destruction, the Doukhobor Community leaders also charged that School Inspector Daniels was using undue compulsion in pressing for attendance. They warned that if the prosecutions continued, they would not be able to guarantee the safety of other schools. In a letter to the minister of Education, dated 17 May 1923, the Doukhobors said:

It is apparent that the government is only seeking an excuse to create a quarrel with the Doukhobors, on the basis of the school issue.

Doukhobors are fanatics — so the English say, but what can we term the action of Mr.
Daniels? This is more than fanaticism. What compels them to take such measures when the school question is so favourable, and the people are living peacefully, working and cultivating their own holdings … You are only expert at ruining peaceful residents and plundering the proletariat…

There is a saying: ‘One fool can roll a stone off a mountain top into a river, but ten wise men, try as they may cannot take it up again”. Mr. Daniels rolled this stone down, although it’s not yet of very large proportions. He too must salvage it from the nether regions before it is too late.

The tension continued and in April 1924 Verigin’s own house was destroyed. He then appealed to the premier for protection and offered to provide the names of the twenty to thirty arsonists. To his surprise, there was little interest in his offer. The government, instead of seeking to apprehend the guilty individuals, levied special taxes on the Doukhobor Community in order to pay for destroyed property. On 24 October 1924, in an even more drastic event, Peter V. Verigin was killed in a train explosion, along with eight other people. The reason for the accident was never established. Many blamed the ‘fanatical’ Doukhobors but some Doukhobors thought that the Canadian government had killed him just as Russian governments had exiled their earlier leaders.

It was a traumatic time for the Doukhobors. The authorities continued to enforce the law with prosecutions, fines, and the seizure of Community property. Before long most of the Doukhobor children who had been in school were withdrawn. In April 1925, a police inspector, 10 deputies, and 100 citizens forced their way into Community warehouses and seized $20,000 worth of goods, according to the Community’s estimate. This response was unusually severe. But then, suddenly, things changed. Peter P. Verigin, the new Doukhobor leader, who would soon be coming from Russia, sent word that ‘all children should be sent to school and no protests held until he arrived.’ The Doukhobors complied and a three-year calm followed.

In summer 1925 the Doukhobor Community built five new schools and in the next few years it erected several more. When Peter P. Verigin arrived in September 1927 he said he wanted the Doukhobors to have the best possible education while retaining their religious faith. He also had plans to set up private Doukhobor schools. To assist in this matter he had brought along Paul Biriukov, a friend of Tolstoy. Provincial authorities, however, turned down the private school proposal so the effort was redirected into Russian-language classes after regular school hours, and into choirs and other cultural activities. Peter P. Verigin’s acceptance of public schools settled the question for a majority of the Community Doukhobors. Those who were not persuaded gradually became known as the Sons of Freedom.

1927-1959: Forcing School on the ‘Sons of Freedom’ Doukhobors

When Peter P. Verigin arrived in 1927, the Sons of Freedom numbered only a few hundred. Indeed, they were not a fully distinct group, However, their activities and their numbers were about to increase. In January 1929, when most Doukhobor children were in school, this group withdrew its children and announced that they would not be returning. This event resulted in ten arrests, which in turn led to a nude demonstration. Verigin who, in an earlier appeal for unity, had described the Sons of Freedom as ‘the ringing bells who cleared the way for the movement’ now disowned and denounced them. In a press release to newspapers dated 6 February 1929, he stated: ‘Please take notice that the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood, Limited, had nothing to do and will never have any connection with these people and with their dirty insolent violence, and all their stupid, childish actions, such as unclothing to the skin … these persons do not belong to the membership of the Community. The Community is not taking any responsibility for their actions materially or morally and moreover the Community refuses to consider such persons as brothers and to have any connections with them.’

In March 1929, the Sons of Freedom issued a letter addressed to ‘the Executives of all Countries: Judges, Government Inspectors, Police and all other servants of man-made laws,’ which stated:

The time has come to reveal… why we reject the Government schools and their orders. We are conscious of our history, and denote it by saying that Christ was the first Doukhobor. We are the direct Spiritual descendants of the Apostles of Christ and his followers, the so-called Christian martyrs of this time. It was the same kind of Government as the Canadian, that crucified Christ two thousand years ago … Take our Government school education; people are so hypnotized by it that they do not see that its results are demoralizing. The present Government schools are nurseries of militarism and capitalism … If there are men to be found among educated people like George B. Shaw, Tolstoy, Tagore, Gandhi, and many others, these men received enlightenment through Spiritual Regeneration, heeding the voice of Christ, and if such men are to be given honour, it was not attained by college education. Our whole history is marked by cruel persecutions by the churches, governments and capitalists. These persecutions are on account of our loyalty to Christ’s teaching and our uncompromising refusal to submit to any Authority but God’s.

In summer 1929 there were numerous acts of property destruction. In most instances it was property used by the Community Doukhobors. On 29 June three schools that the Community Doukhobors had built in 1925 were burned. In August three more schools, a flour mill, and a warehouse belonging to the group were destroyed. When two men were arrested, demonstrations involving nudity followed. As a result fifty-five men and forty-nine women were convicted for indecent exposure. Their sentence was six months at the Oakalla Prison Farm in New Westminster. It was the first mass imprisonment. Some of the prisoners’ children were held in custodial care by the province until the parents were released.

In February 1930 those who had been imprisoned were released but they now found that they were no longer accepted as members of the Doukhobor Community. They were expelled. But some Doukhobors in the ‘branch communes,’ especially in the poorer ones, welcomed them. This action led Verigin to withdraw all loyal Community Doukhobors from those areas, thus creating a more complete separation between the Sons of Freedom and the Community Doukhobors. This separation, however, did not prevent the acts of property destruction. However, to the consternation of the Community Doukhobors, the police were still not eager to apprehend the guilty individuals or to protect the community’s property. Peter P. Verigin now complained: ‘The police are standing and looking… what is the use of building schools when they are burning and dynamiting them faster than we can build them.’ The Community Doukhobors wanted the Sons of Freedom removed from their property and offered to pay the cost of a government investigation into the problems. The government instead continued with its policy of holding the Community liable for the destruction of property while arresting individuals who participated in nude demonstrations.

The provincial authorities were strengthened when the federal government, in August 1931, changed the Criminal Code so as to provide ‘a mandatory penalty of three years’ imprisonment for nudity in a public place.’ Because prison terms longer than two years are served in federal penitentiaries, the three-year penalty brought some financial relief to the provincial government. It also helped provincial politicians to project an image of ‘getting tough’ on the Doukhobors. However, lengthening the prison term was not effective as a deterrent to the nudity problem. The demonstrators wanted to make a religious witness, and the longer imprisonment could only enhance the martyrdom they sought. Instead of the demonstrations diminishing, they became larger. One participant later spoke of them in this way: ‘You see the (zealots) refused to pay their taxes, refused to comply with the ownership regulations; they just refused … and had written a kind of appeal to everyone to the effect that the time had arrived when we must take this ownership from Caesar and give it back to God … It was a wonderful sight. I doubt if this planet had ever seen anything like it… It was a protest against land ownership and all ownership — against the Caesar’s injustice that he has taken the cosmic property into his own hands.’

In spring 1932, in a second mass imprisonment, approximately 600 men and women were convicted for nudity and given three-year prison sentences, to be served on Pier’s Island, forty miles from Victoria, where special facilities had been erected. As the train carrying the convicts departed from the Kootenay Valley, the Doukhobors sang the hymns of their martyred forefathers. For them it was a spiritual pilgrimage.

Doukhobor Penitentiary on Piers Island, BC, 1934. British Columbia Archives G-00058.

No less significant than the imprisonment of the parents was the placement of their 365 children in orphanages and industrial schools in Vancouver and Victoria. Clearly, the children had to be cared for while their parents were in prison but the authorities also hoped that by exposing the children to a new environment their attitudes would change. It turned out that the children did not stay the full term. After one year, when a delegation of Independent and Community Doukhobors approached authorities with an offer of taking the Sons of Freedom children into their homes, it was accepted on the condition that they would attend public school. When the parents were released, between October 1934 and July 1935, the children were reunited with them. But it appears that few attitudes had changed. A 1947 study found ‘that some of these children are actively participating in the quasi-anarchistic activities of the present day.’

In the following years the school situation continued to be a public concern. An inspectors’ report for 1935/6 stated: ‘In the community schools and in those schools in which there is a major proportion of Doukhobors, no great progress has been made in Canadianizing this people. The persistence of the Doukhobors in maintaining their identity as such and in resisting Canadian influence is as strong as ever. While the children seem to be happy at school, they quit at the earliest possible date and at the present time there are many of school age who, supported by their parents, are defiantly absenting themselves from school.’

In 1939 the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation suggested that real Canadian homes ‘radiating the best in our Canadian mode of life’ be placed among the Doukhobors in order to help them to establish intimate contacts with ‘lovable Canadians’ and thus overcome their prejudice. Two years later, the Teachers’ Federation stated that ‘the supervision and administration of all Doukhobor schools should be vested in a single official, a trained and experienced educator of vision, initiative and wide sympathies, whose contacts with the Doukhobors will justify affection and confidence, and that it would be part of wisdom to entrust such a man with authority to adjust the curriculum.’ Some years later the federation recommended that teachers for the schools among the Doukhobors be chosen with special care, that they be given a wide liberty to adapt the curriculum to the needs of the Doukhobors, and that attendance be enforced consistently but only with fines and not with prison sentences.

For most of the Second World War period, 1939—45, the Sons of Freedom were relatively quiet. The attacks on the property of the Doukhobor Community ceased in 1938 when that body went into formal bankruptcy, having suffered from the depression, poor management, and government unwillingness to let the Community benefit from programs set up to assist industries affected by the depression. With this collapse, the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood (CCUB) was renamed the Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ (USCC). But the war and the disappearance of much Community Doukhobor property as a target did not keep the Sons of Freedom quiet for long. In 1944, there was a demonstration in which ‘women’s clothes and jewelry were burnt as symbols of the vanity of modern civilization.’ Soon after, the house of John J. Verigin, who had succeeded Peter P. Verigin as leader of the Community Doukhobors, was burned. From then until 1947 there were over 100 acts of destruction. Most of these were directed against other Doukhobors as a protest against their prosperity and materialism but some involved public property, including a CPR station, a bridge, and schools. The USCC condemned the destruction and John J. Verigin publicly asked for police protection for his followers.

To deal with the continuing problem, the government of British Columbia, in September 1947, appointed Judge H. Sullivan to conduct an inquiry. In the public hearings that followed, one person confessed to having committed twenty-five acts of vandalism in the preceding twelve years, the largest being the 1943 burning of the $400,000 jam factory at Brilliant, long owned by the Community Doukhobors but taken over by the government in 1939. This person explained: I believe that this was necessary to wake up our brothers from materialism, which is the main source of patriotism.’ One person wrote to Sullivan that ‘schools, forced upon the Doukhobors by the government, were destroyed by fire because schools are propagators of a false conception of civilization, patronizing the beast, militarism.’ Others came to the hearings and created ‘an epidemic of true and false confessions, of accusations and counter-accusations that brought an atmosphere of pseudo-religious hysteria into the courtrooms.’ After four months of hearings Judge Sullivan was exasperated. He felt it was useless to continue ‘until the crazy people are put in the mental asylum and the criminals locked up in the penitentiary.’ As for Doukhobor children, they should be educated with a view toward assimilation, he said. His brief recommendations did not, however, lead to a program of action.

Meanwhile, the nude demonstrations and acts of property destruction continued. In summer 1950, over 400 Sons of Freedom were in jail for nudity and arson. By now another commission was at work. The president of the University of British Columbia had agreed, at the request of the attorney-general, to assemble a group of social scientists for a more thorough study. Chaired by anthropologist H.B. Hawthorn, the study lasted two years and involved twelve researchers. Their lengthy report, like the Blackmore report of 1912, showed considerable sympathy and respect for the Doukhobors but called also for compliance with the laws. As a matter of strategy, it recommended ‘a balance of pressures and inducements.’ Claudia Lewis, one of the social scientists engaged in the study, advised against removing children from their parents. Instead, schooling should be made more acceptable to the Doukhobors. She suggested that Doukhobors be included on local boards, that the practices of saluting the flag and singing patriotic songs be discontinued, that some teaching of the Russian language and music be included, that the reading program be modified to include excerpts from Tolstoy, and that some aspects of the social studies program be changed, too. Notwithstanding these proposals for change, the report did not rule out prosecution as a way of dealing with cases of habitual truancy.

As with the moderate Blackmore report of 1911, the Hawthorn report was not followed, at least not immediately. The government that had commissioned the study was defeated in the 1952 election. The Social Credit party that came to power was in a minority situation at first, so in 1953 it went back to the people to get a majority. In doing so, ‘getting tough with the Doukhobors’ became a priority. The Social Credit party received the desired majority and, on 9 September 1953, 148 Doukhobor adults were arrested and imprisoned for parading nude near a school. They were taken to Vancouver in a train that had been especially prepared for them. There, the next day, a court was convened in a community hall and all those arrested were sentenced to three years at the Oakalla prison.

In addition, 104 children were loaded into buses and taken to New Denver, an old mining town, where the buildings of an old sanitorium served as their dormitory. The dormitory was surrounded by a high wire fence and the government invoked the Children’s Protection Act to make them wards of the Provincial Superintendent of Child Welfare. Occasional police raids on Sons of Freedom settlements brought in more children. In one such raid, seventy police officers entered the small village of Krestova before dawn and seized forty children. According to one mother’s account:

On January 18th [1955] at eight o’clock, in the morning my little son awoke me and come to lie down beside me as though he knew it would be the last time. Then all of a sudden we heard a loud banging on the door, we thought it would break. Three RCMP officers came in and went straight to the bed waving the clubs in their hands in front of me and my child, and they said: ‘How old is the boy?’ We told them he is only six years old. The boy started to cry and begged us not to take him, but they said: ‘Get him dressed or we’ll take him in his underwear.’ So, I dressed my little son for the last time, and he was taken from us who is not even school age. Only a mother who has gone through the same thing will know what it means to have the dearest ones taken from her.

A total of 170 children passed through the institution in its six-year history. They attended the regular public school in the town of New Denver, while evening and weekends were spent in the dormitory. Parents were allowed to visit their children two Sundays per month but they had to procure special passes. In protest most chose to see their children through the fence outside.

Understandably, the New Denver project attracted considerable controversy. Civil libertarians protested the brutality of a government that would separate children from parents in this way. Journalists wrote numerous stories about it. One reported on the death of a Doukhobor woman found hanging from a beam in her home. A nearby note from her nine-year-old daughter at New Denver said: ‘Mommy, I am lonesome for you – come and visit me. I love you. Goodbye.’

The government also publicized its point of view. It stated that it was ‘the birthright and privilege of every Canadian child to receive an education’ and that because the Sons of Freedom refused to send their children to school, the government had no alternative. It pointed out also that of the 12,500 Doukhobors in the province only about 2500 belonged to the Sons of Freedom group and that of these only about forty-six families continued to refuse to send their children to school.

For their part, the Sons of Freedom lodged a complaint with the United Nations under the Genocide Convention, which condemns the forcible transfer of children from one group to another. They also, in 1957, challenged the government’s action in the courts, arguing that the question was one of freedom of religion. However, Judge Sidney Smith did not accept that argument. In what became known as the Perepolkin case, he said:

I, for my part, cannot feel that in this case there is any religious element involved in the true legal sense. It seems to me that religion is one thing: a code of ethics, another, a code of manners, another. To seek the exact dividing line between them is perhaps perilous but I absolutely reject the contention that any group of tenets that some sect decides to proclaim form part of its religion thereby necessarily takes on a religious colour. I turn to the affidavit relied on by the appellants:… the objection to public schools is that they interpret history so as to glorify, justify, and tolerate intentional taking of human and animal life or teach or suggest the usefulness of human institutions which have been or can be put to such purposes … that public schools ‘expose their children to materialistic influences and ideals’… that Doukhobors object to education on secular matters being separated from education on spiritual matters.

This clearly to my mind involves the claim that a religious sect may make rules for the conduct of any part of human activities and that these rules thereby become … part of that sect’s religion. This cannot be so

At one point during the six-year detention of children some thirty Doukhobor women went to see Dr Campbell, British Columbia’s deputy minister of Education. Campbell told them that if they would agree to send their children to school, they would be returned. ‘We can’t change the laws of the country,’ he explained. The Doukhobor women replied:

‘We can’t change the laws of God either,’ The other Doukhobors, even though they had often sought to dissociate themselves from the Sons of Freedom, were sympathetic to them in this situation. They, too, appealed to the government but without success. Eventually, in 1959, when the parents appeared before a judge in Nelson and promised that their children would attend the regular public school, the children were returned to their homes.

Visiting Day between a wire fence for a Sons of Freedom Doukhobor schoolgirl and her parents at New Denver, BC, circa 1950.  www.newdenversurvivors.tk.

This Doukhobor encounter on education stands out for its length and its harshness. Essentially, the British Columbia government forced the Doukhobors to comply with its regulations. Some observers have argued that the government had no alternative, that the ongoing destruction of property, belonging either to the government or to other Doukhobors, reflected a way of life that, though religiously based, was prone to violence and simply could not be accommodated, and that it was natural to look to education – forced if necessary – as a long-term solution.

A closer analysis shows, however, that there could have been significant accommodations at a number of points. The government could have accepted the 1912 Doukhobor offer to take information about vital statistics from the Community’s record books and not exhumed bodies. It could have pursued the individual arsonists much more vigorously and focused less on those engaged in nude demonstrations. It could have removed military drills, flag-saluting ceremonies, and other activities from the schools much earlier. It could have incorporated Russian-language classes, Tolstoyan literature, Doukhobor music, and certain Doukhobor concerns about the teaching of history into the curriculum. It could have continued the lenient policy of Inspector A.E. Miller and not pressed for full attendance. It could have followed the moderate course recommended by Blackmore in 1912, by the Teachers’ Federation in 1939, and by the Hawthorn Committee in 1952. The government could have given the Doukhobors a broader educational liberty. Repeatedly, it chose not to do so. Ewart P. Reid wrote in 1932 that ‘much of the Doukhobor opposition to public schools arose not because of school per se … but because of the course content and methodology employed. Many of these difficulties arose because of the educational theories and practices … dividing children into grades, or using military drill … competitive tests and comparative grading … teaching history with military and political orientations, and refusing to allow the teaching of Russian did nothing to make schools more palatable, even to the Independent Doukhobors.’

The government’s policy of pressing ahead without making accommodations divided the Doukhobors, making their experience similar to that of the Mennonites. Some yielded, albeit reluctantly, while others became more determined in their resistance. Unlike the conservative Mennonites, the Doukhobors did not emigrate, though they did consider this option. Instead, they simply withheld their children from the public schools. Some engaged in nude demonstrations and a small number, probably no more than 200, destroyed buildings and other property. Regarding the underlying reasons for this behaviour, one analyst wrote in 1973 that ‘while Freedomite nude parades and destruction of Community property may have been attempts to convert Independents and Community members, incendiary attacks on schools and other non-Doukhobor property were clearly a response to attempts to enforce registration laws and compulsory education … They reacted … against what they viewed as an attempt to destroy their way of life and the faith of their children … also against the Independent and Community members’ acceptance of the forces of acculturation.’ According to this interpretation the violence was, at least to a large extent, the result of the provincial government’s refusal to accommodate a distinctive Doukhobor way of life.

In probing the reasons for the British Columbia government’s refusal to accommodate the Doukhobors there, certain similarities to developments affecting Mennonites and Doukhobors on the prairies emerge. Like the early settlers on the prairies there, the Doukhobors of British Columbia were appreciated for their contribution to the economy when they first arrived. But when the primary concern shifted from the frontier economy to social development there was no longer as much room for non-conforming groups. Also, as on the prairies, when the authorities pressed for social integration they defined religion in narrow terms and liberty on an individual basis. The narrow definition of religion in British Columbia is indicated most clearly in the Perepolkin case where it is suggested that the schooling of children is not a religious matter. The individualistic interpretation of liberty was indicated when the government defended the New Denver forced-schooling effort by saying, essentially, that the future liberty of the Doukhobor children required it.

Other explanatory factors lie in characteristics peculiar to British Columbia. Its educational structure was unusually centralized. Local school units had relatively little authority. Hence, developments in one locality could be used by politicians at the provincial level to project a ‘get-tough’ image. Also, the British Columbia educational system was unusually uniform. Unlike most other provinces, it had never had to accommodate a French-Catholic minority. Further, the approach of holding the Doukhobor Community liable for infractions committed by individuals was most unusual. It meant that law-enforcement agencies could impose fines and other punitive actions against the Community instead of looking for the guilty individuals. Community leaders were willing to help the police in identifying the individuals but the authorities showed little interest in their offers of assistance. The resulting atmosphere was poisonous, both among Doukhobors and between the government and those Doukhobors who wanted to be law abiding. If the Doukhobors could be treated as a community for purposes of liability, should they not also have been treated as a community for purposes of rights?

To say that the government of British Columbia could have been much more accommodating is not to say that accommodation would have solved all the problems. It must be conceded that there were some unusual and difficult elements among the Doukhobors. The actions by some Doukhobors to destroy the property of others, as a way of protesting against materialism and alleged departure from a true Doukhobor way of life, were a serious and persistent problem. It was probably necessary for the government to use some coercive measures in dealing with these developments but if it had granted the Doukhobors a broader educational liberty earlier on, the coercion required would probably have been much less.