by John A. Popoff
Anton Savelyevich Popoff (1870-1936) was an Independent Doukhobor activist, freethinker and outspoken advocate of education. After his release from exile in Russia for refusing to bear arms, he and his family settled in the Doukhobor village of Moiseyevo in the Sturgis district of Saskatchewan in 1899, and later the village of Khristianovka in the Buchanan district in 1902. In 1907, after a failed homesteading attempt, Anton moved to Yorkton to provide his children with an opportunity to become educated. In 1913, he helped establish the short-lived “Freedom Colony” of Doukhobors near Peoria, Oregon. In 1918, he then tried farming in Cowley, Alberta, but soon returned to Yorkton to do some farming and carpentry. His son John A. Popoff (1901-1993) in 1924 became the first Doukhobor teacher in Canada. He was a Russian interpreter for Peter Chistiakov Verigin and was Secretary-Treasurer of the Named Doukhobors of Canada in the 1930’s. An Independent Doukhobor intellect, Slavophile and strict vegetarian, he was actively involved in a number of social, community and political organizations in the Yorkton area. The following is a detailed and candid autobiographical account of the Popoff family history, reproduced from “Abbreviated History of the Canadian Doukhobors and the Role in it of the Anton Popoff Family” (Saskatchewan Archives Board, John A. Popoff Collection, A562)
My Parental History
The Doukhobors in Russia originated some time in the l7th century, in various parts of the country, but mostly in the central region. That happened to be adjacent to the area occupied by the Mordvins, a Finnic people, who early in history adopted the Russian religion and language. My paternal grandfather seems to have been of Mordvin stock, since he remembered some of his native language. He used to entertain our family by counting from one to ten in the dialect of his people. I remember grandfather Savely quite well, since he lived with us both in our village near Buchanan, and here in Yorkton. Grandmother Popoff (his spouse) had been a sickly woman and died soon after arrival in Canada. My recollection of her is very hazy, since I was extremely young when she passed away, in the village mentioned above.
Savely Popoff spoke of his first home in Russia as being in the Doukhobor settlement on the river region known as Molochnye Vody (“Milky Waters”). That is a small river flowing into the Sea of Azov, which is the northern part of the Black Sea. The description “Milky” probably was due to the color of the water in it which may have carried clay silt.
The Doukhobors had gathered there from all comers of the country, in response to an edict of the Tsar of that period, who was of a liberal turn of mind, and sympathetic to religious believers. He had thought that the Doukhobors would be happier if they lived together in one place, removed from the influence of other faiths, and he suggested that they all settle in the one location.
Anton Savelyevich Popoff (1870-1936).
In view of their opposition to military service, the Tsar granted the Doukhobors military exemption. He even paid part of their moving expenses, and exempted them from the payment of taxes for several years.
The Doukhobors occupied the Milky Waters settlement some 40 years, and had become complacent in their privileged situation. Meanwhile a different Tsar had assumed the throne of Russia, and the country round about had filled in with new settlers of different conviction, who found fault with the Doukhobors.
The new Tsar also was not particularly sympathetic to the Doukhobors and decided to move them to less favorable territory in the distant Transcaucasion region, right on the border with Turkey. He figured that in such dangerous territory they would be obliged to defend themselves with the type of weapons as used for military purposes, and thereby overcome their objection to military service.
The Doukhobors moved as directed, and established a number of villages among the Tatars and Turks. But they made friends with them and did not require the weapons which the Tsar expected them to use. They prospered as before, and lived contentedly until still a new Tsar rescinded their military exemption, and required their youth to serve in the military forces, which involved also the oath of allegiance to the reigning Tsar.
My grandfather, Savely Popoff, had two sons of military age, and the younger one, Anton (subsequently my father), was called into service. The order had come unexpectedly, and the Doukhobors had no choice but to comply. The requirement at that time was 3 years active service, with subsequent release from duty on the condition of recall at any time.
That was the time when the Doukhobor woman leader, Lushechka, had died and her position had been assumed by Peter V. Verigin. He subsequently had been exiled to North Russia, from where he issued advice to his followers to refuse conscription, and to burn whatever arms they had. The military conscripts who still were in the army now refused to serve. Those, like my father, who had just completed their first term of service, refused to accept their recall cards. Such people were arrested and tried for insubordination. Some were exiled to Siberia, others to distant Tatar settlements where they had to exist as best they could among an ostensibly hostile people. Communication with home was forbidden.
All prisoners were obliged to travel on foot. Some of them died before leaving jail from the harsh treatment there, others en route to their place of exile, still others from diseases contracted at their destinations. Most of them were young people. Two of my mother’s sisters lost their husbands. One died in jail, the other on the way to Siberia. The latter was Nikolai Chernoff, father of the Fred Chernoff who now is in the Kamsack Nursing Home.
Meanwhile the authorities were penalizing also the Doukhobor villagers who destroyed their weapons by fire. Some villagers were ordered to vacate their homes and find shelter elsewhere. Others had troops posted on them who were allowed to abuse the people as they saw fit. The Doukhobor settlers were in desperate straits, and helpless. They begged the authorities to let them leave the country.
That was when Leo Tolstoy intervened in their behalf. The government finally granted permission for the emigration. The Doukhobors proceeded to seek suitable means for overseas travel. The exiled recruits were released but not allowed to go home. They were taken directly to the port of embarkation. My father and his companion in exile, Misha J. Kazakoff, travelled to Batum where they located their families.
My father’s clan at that time comprised his own two parents, an older brother, Aldosha, with his family, and three sisters with their families, in addition to his own immediate family (wife and two small daughters). My mother’s parental family was very large, and no doubt went separately, although on the same boat.
Doukhobor village along Canadian Northern Railway, 1902. Western Development Museum 5-A-21.
Two ships were used to transport the Doukhobors to Canada, the Lake Huron and the Lake Superior. Both originally were freighters, now converted by the passengers themselves for their modest requirements. The ships were very slow and took a whole month to reach their destination, and it took 4 shiploads to carry the 7,500 immigrants. The first ship (ours), Lake Huron, reached Halifax, Nova Scotia late in 1898, and the others at intervals in early 1899. A few Doukhobors, who had been exiled in Siberia, came considerably later, about 1905.
From shipboard the Doukhobors travelled by train to Winnipeg, where they were quartered during the winter season, until suitable accommodation could be prepared for them at their future village sites. The preparations were done by the more hardy and capable men who were sent ahead of the main body of immigrants.
At that time Yorkton was the very end of the CPR line going west. The Savely Popoff clan divided at Yorkton, the older brother, Aldosha, establishing there permanently. Anton’s family went north of the present site of Canora to a village named Moiseyevka (“Moses Village”). That was where I was born in the fall of that year, during potato harvest.
When Peter Verigin arrived from Russia in 1902 he saw that the village Moiseyevka would be too far removed from the railway line which was being constructed westward to Saskatoon. He advised its residents to abandon that location and resettle closer to the railway line. My family then moved to the village Khristianovka (“Christian Village”), located a couple of miles south-west of the present town of Buchanan.
That village housed most of my mother’s parental family. I recall the location of some of their homes and other buildings, such as the grist mill and the bakery.
At that time Yorkton was the closest source of supply of all their requirements. The people were so poor, the men themselves had to haul the wagon to Yorkton for provisions – a distance of some 40 miles one way. The more capable men hired out for railway work, or other labor, to earn the funds for purchase of the necessities of life, and they all pooled their wages. In some villages the women pulled the plough to till the soil for gardens and field crops.
In the beginning some arrangement with the Canadian authorities had been entered into for the use of land in the western region of Canada, which, as yet, was governed from Ottawa. And at first the general attitude to the new settlers was friendly and tolerant. But a change of government installed different officials who were not so favorable to the Doukhobors, and proceeded to impose on them new regulations, one of them being the demand for an oath of allegiance in order to hold their grants of land. That was exactly like one of the requirements in Russia which the Doukhobors had refused to countenance there, and which led to their emigration to Canada. Here they found it equally objectionable and refused to comply. A few Doukhobors accepted the condition and took homesteads apart from the main body of fellow immigrants. One of those was my own father, for which he was strongly condemned by Peter Verigin and other conscientious members of the greater Doukhobor community.
My father’s separate homestead was not far from the village Khristianovka. Father built on it a log house and chicken coop, but found it impossible to remain. His own father, then a widower, needed medical attention, obtainable only in Winnipeg, and his children educational facilities. But those were forbidden to community Doukhobors. Doukhobor ideology rejected “worldly” culture and government sponsored schools. They contravened a truly Christian form of life. But father had disavowed such ideology, yet he could not remain on the homestead. He moved to Yorkton to settle near his older brother, Aldosha.
Yorkton, Saskatchewan, 1903-1904. Western Development Museum 5-A-100.
There he needed a source of income, so he started up a livery barn business and provided sleeping quarters for outsiders who came in to town for whatever reason. His children were sent to school and he himself sought whatever work was available.
The larger Doukhobor Community, operating on a cooperative and communal basis, purchased in Yorkton several parcels of land, built on some of them living quarters for their members, and a brick factory for their own use, and for commercial purposes. The leaders of the Community were apprised of the advantage here of official incorporation of their society, so they named it the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood. They established their headquarters in the small railway station of Veregin on the CNR railway and built there a grist mill and a second brick factory. However their main source of revenue was from the sale of grain which they successfully grew on their land and the seneca root which the women gathered.
In Yorkton at that time there was quite a large population of Doukhobors, including a third Popoff family, distantly related to my mother. She, incidentally, also was born Popoff, so that I inherited that name from both sides of my parental family.
The two Popoff brothers both educated their children, particularly the younger ones. The older daughters had to remain at home to help their mothers, whereas the younger ones continued school locally as far as possible. The younger daughter of each family later went to Business College in Brandon, Manitoba. My younger sister then obtained employment with the International Harvester Company. Uncle Aldosha started up a general store where he used the services of his business-trained younger daughter.
Despite the distrust and strong disapproval of “worldly culture”, the leadership of the Doukhobor Community recognized the need for knowledgeable people to manage the affairs of the Community, and such people had to be Doukhobors. So the Community leaders chose 5 promising young candidates to attend school in Yorkton, expecting them later to help in the work of the Community. They all were boys, mostly from the more prominent families of the Veregin area. They were quartered here in local Doukhobor residences, and attended school until they learned the language quite well. Later they returned home and generally engaged in business, oftentimes independently.
Some of those boys visited our home despite the fact that our family generally was not well considered due to its secession from the Doukhobor Community. But the girls were an attraction, and some of the boys courted the girls. Eventually my younger sister married one of the boys by the name of Michael F. Reibin, who at that time was a partner in a farm supply store in Veregin.
Another young fellow courted my older sister Lily, but for some reason father disapproved of him, perhaps because the young man still was a member in good standing of the Community. Anyhow, in his case father discouraged any possibility of marriage to his daughter. Many years later the same man asked me why, and I could not honestly answer. But that created an embarrassing situation in our family. Girls were supposed to marry according to priority of age – the older one first, and then the younger one. In our case, due to father’s intervention, the younger daughter married first, which seemed to disgrace the older one. She felt offended and obliged somehow to restore her reputation. She was desperate to marry, and no longer was too particular about the groom.
In those days Yorkton frequently was visited by wandering Russians of no particular religious persuasion or group affiliation. One such person showed up here who appeared to be a suitable match for Lily. She presented him to father as an eligible candidate for husband and insisted that he be accepted. The marriage was allowed, and Lily left for Winnipeg with her husband, who was employed in a railway repair shop.
But the marriage did not last. The couple were completely incompatible, and soon separated for good. Lily returned home pregnant. Here her condition now appeared even worse than before. After giving birth to her child she suffered mental breakdown, and had to be committed to a hospital in North Battleford. On the way there she contracted pneumonia and died. The child remained with his grandparents here.
Sister Jennie’s marriage apparently was better matched and more successful. She preserved it a much longer time and managed to raise a family of 2 sons and 2 daughters. After some time her husband’s business partnership in Veregin dissolved, and her family came to Yorkton to find something more suitable. He tried photography and insurance, but couldn’t make a success of either.
Doukhobor children at the “Freedom Colony”, Peoria, Oregon, 1915. (l-r) John Vereschagin, Jim Vanin, William Vereschagin and friend.
When the Doukhobors first came to Canada they found conditions here considerably less favorable than they had anticipated. For one thing the climate was too severe, particularly in winter. Then the difficulty with the government over possession of land – the requirement of the oath of allegiance, which was so distasteful to the Doukhobors. The more concerned of them seriously considered leaving the country for some more hospitable location. But where could that be?
My father was one of those who sought a solution to that problem. He contacted other similar thinking people, and with them decided to seek a suitable place in the United States. That was about 1913. They organized a search party consisting of my father and his son-in-law, Michael F. Reibin, who went to various parts of Western United States, and eventually negotiated the purchase of land in Oregon. Several families were encouraged to settle there, including the family of the son-in-law, the family of one of father’s sisters (the Davidoffs) and a number of others. In other words, they established a Doukhobor colony (Freedom Colony) near Peoria, Oregon.
That colony existed for several years, until it was discovered that the purchase contract included an unusual clause to the effect that if any one of the several purchasers of that land failed to pay his share of the cost, all the others automatically forfeited their share as well. That utterly demoralized the colony, and members began to abandon it. In a while, almost all had left. The only one remaining was my deceased grandfather, Savely, who died before the collapse. But even his grave later could not be found, for it had not been marked.
Before leaving on the search expedition father had realized that, in view of the improved modes of transportation, there henceforth would be less use of the livery stable facilities, so he discontinued his own and proceeded to build store buildings on his property. That was about 1912. It was partly that involvement which later prevented him from joining the colony in Oregon. But other troubles also had befallen him, His oldest daughter’s marriage had failed, and she had returned home to her parental family pregnant and in a very disturbed state of mind. He tried his best to restore her to normalcy, but finally had to seek professional help outside of town, during which she died of pneumonia.
Father’s devotion to his convictions never abandoned him, and, when the colony in Oregon was on the verge of collapse, he decided to at least approach the Doukhobor Community which he earlier had abandoned. His son-in-law’s family already had returned from Oregon, and together they rented farm land near Cowley, Alberta, which was near a newly established colony of Community Doukhobors at Lundbreck, the station west of Cowley, on the CPR railway.
Both families, father’s and the son-in-law’s, operated that farm. That was in 1918. In the fall of that year word came from Oregon of the death of grandfather Savely, and a request for financial help for setting up a suitable marker at the grave. But father had no funds, and could not help, so the grave was left unmarked.
Meanwhile the property in Yorkton required father’s attention, so he discontinued the Alberta farm and returned there to complete the store building which he had commenced before the Alberta episode.
The store buildings needed all the space available on his business property (Betts Avenue), so he had to find living quarters elsewhere. He rented a farm adjacent to the west side of town and set up his family there. The son-in-law rented a farm near Theodore and operated it for a number of years.
In Alberta the family of my father’s sister, the Davidoffs, had returned from Oregon and started up farming near Pincher Station. They took over the farming equipment which father no longer needed there.
The failure of the Oregon colony did not deter father from other efforts to leave Canada for some better location. The overthrow of the Tsarist regime in Russia (1917) suggested to the Doukhobors the possibility of return to their former homeland. In 1923 a delegation was organized to go there and investigate such possibility. Father was appointed one of the delegates. He stayed in Russia that winter and returned only in the spring. The investigation showed the situation in Russia too unstable for a successful resettlement there of the Canadian Doukhobors, so the idea was shelved until some time in the future.
1916 Census of Northwest Provinces entry for the Popoff family at Yorkton, Saskatchewan.
Father discontinued his farming operation here and concentrated on the construction of a house in Yorkton. That was completed in 1924, but his family had begun to occupy the quarters even before the work was finished.
That year brought about a tragic and drastic development for the Doukhobors in Canada. Peter V. Verigin was killed in a railway explosion on the way to his headquarters in Grand Forks, B.C. The shock to the Doukhobors was overwhelming. All factions, regardless of their nature, were distressed by the tragedy, as Verigin was regarded the mainstay of all Doukhobor society, regardless of differences. The cause of the train explosion was never determined, but it was suspected to be the work of some agency which sought to eliminate Verigin himself. On the other hand, some people thought that perhaps Verigin’s difficulties may have so depressed him that he considered that as his only way out. In any case all Doukhobors now were in a quandary, since most of them felt lost without an effective leader.
Peter V. Verigin was supposed to have a son in Russia, and the Canadian Doukhobors now determined to have him come here and assume his father’s position. They proceeded to work to that end, and my own father became one of the principals in that activity, despite the fact that formerly he was known to be inimical to the policy of exclusive one-man leadership.
The second Verigin, also named Peter, had earned himself a bad reputation in Russia by misusing public funds for his own gambling proclivity. At that time he was in detention in Turkistan and would not be released until the losses he had incurred were restored. The Doukhobors in Canada opened a fund to cover those losses and to finance his fare here to his anxiously awaiting supplicants.
Peter P. Verigin arrived in Yorkton in 1927, together with an old friend of the Doukhobors who formerly had assisted Leo Tolstoy in arranging for the original migration of the Doukhobors to Canada. That was Pavel J. Birukoff, who then lived in Geneva, Switzerland. Birukoff was brought ostensibly for the purpose of inaugurating here an educational system which would meet the requirements of the present barely literate members of the Doukhobor society. However, Verigin devoted little effort to that venture and it never materialized. Birukoff was obliged to submit to numerous Verigin offenses which apparently brought about a paralytic stroke, following which he was returned home to end his days in Switzerland.
The economic depression of the 1930’s seriously affected father’s financial condition. He was unable to meet the tax payments on both the house he lived in and the store buildings which he owned, let alone his debt on the latter. To raise funds, he went into partnership with a local friend for the purchase and use of a hay bailer to do custom bailing. The bailer was bought and used a few times by the two men, but the friend realizing its poor earnings, withdrew from the partnership and left the entire responsibility for it to my father. That was in the dead of winter. Father had to handle the machine alone. He took sick and contracted a bad case of rheumatism. Another old friend recommended as a possible cure the sulfur baths at Banff, Alberta.
Father had enjoyed steam baths at home and readily followed the advice of his friend. But, unfortunately, he did not take into account his high blood pressure, with the result that his first visit to the sulfur baths killed him. His body was returned to Yorkton and he was buried (1936) in the same plot as his deceased daughter Lily [at Yorkton City Cemetery].
Mother lived on for another 21 years, and passed away in 1957. She too was buried in the same cemetery plot. She had been the last survivor of her parental family. All her brothers and sisters had predeceased her. She never saw where her parents were buried, nor any of her other family relatives. Such was one of the consequences of the strict Doukhobor injunctions to believers – the avoidance of any communication whatever even between close relatives, due to the differences of religious conviction.
My Life Experiences
The final installment of this historical account deals in the main with my own development and experiences. But the other younger members of our family also must be accounted for, so I include some mention of them as well.
As stated before, I was the only member of my parental family to have been born in Canada. That was in 1899 in the first year of our life in this country, and in the village Moiseyevka. I have no recollection whatever of that village, and know about it only from the account of my mother. She, too, spoke of it only in connection with my birth there, and not otherwise.
On the advice of Peter V. Verigin our family had moved from there to the village Khristianovka, which was located much closer to the Canadian National Railway, which then was being constructed westward towards Saskatoon (near the present site of Buchanan),
My first recollections are of life in that village. All our homes were arranged near each other, in street fashion, so that association with close relatives was no problem. An older female cousin, for some reason, took an interest in me, and looked after me more consistently than my own older sisters. The boys of my age enjoyed visiting the grist mill and the bakery which were nearby, but we never ventured outside the village environs.
When about 1905 the Canadian Government announced to our elders the requirement of individual applications for land together with an oath of allegiance to the British crown by each applicant, the Doukhobors realized that they were being maneuvered into a situation very similar to the one in Russia on account of which they were obliged to leave their homeland. They refused to comply, and were dispossessed of the land which they already had tilled, and the homes they had built.
Some seemingly less conscientious individuals did accept the requirement of the government, and applied for separate homesteads, but they were few in number and earned the strong disapproval of the great majority of their fellow sectarians. By resorting to such practice they in effect seceded from association with, and the authority of, the larger body of members which had negotiated their migration to Canada. The elders of that majority, then, regarded such people as defectors, and issued instructions for the termination of all relationship with them, even that between close relatives.
My father was one of those who applied and received his separate homestead. His quarter-section was not far from the village which he had left. I remember him building a log house on that land, and, during its construction, living in a tent. So far as I can recall, we occupied that house only one winter, and it was one which I never can forget.
It was then that father undertook to teach his daughters the Russian alphabet and the art of writing. He could not teach them more because he himself did not know it. I then was too small to participate, but still absorbed some of that instruction. Later on my desire to know more of the details of the language led to self-study, and the attainment in it of considerable competence. I seem to have some predilection for the study of languages, and learn them quite readily. As a result I know English perhaps better than some persons born to English-speaking families.
Doukhobor village along Canadian Northern Railway, Western Development Museum 3-A-17.
While living in that farmhouse I experienced an accidental injury which left its mark on me for life. Mother had been heating boiling water on the kitchen stove, and I somehow upset the pot on myself and terribly scalded my legs. My parents used some home-made remedy for application to the injury which took so long to heal, that I actually lost the ability to walk, and later had to learn it all over again. My legs stilt bear the scars of that injury.
That was about the year 1906 or 7, and when the village community nearby had to vacate the place, father must have realized that isolation on that farm would be most impractical. He had no separate means for breaking the land, or for harvesting whatever crop he might be able to raise on it. Moreover, he had in mind the welfare of his children who, in that location, would be unable to receive an adequate education. That to him was most important. He wanted his progeny to be knowledgeable people, capable of appreciating and using the information available to contemporary society.
One of his reasons for leaving the Community was his disagreement with the Doukhobor rejection of learning on the grounds of religious conviction. In his view, it seems, such learning did not contravene the purposes of “spiritual life”, but contributed to their attainment,” which actually was very desirable, and in concert with their ideals.
In any case, he then considered it expedient to abandon the homestead and move to Yorkton, where his older brother already was ensconced and enjoying what seemed to be a better mode of living. He started up a livery barn business for the accommodation of both the animals, and of the people who used them, for travel to Yorkton for whatever reason. The operation of that became the responsibility of his wife and older daughter, while he himself sought other employment outside. The younger children attended public school.
When the younger daughter, and her cousin of comparable age, completed their public schooling, they together went to Business College in Brandon, Manitoba. On graduation from there, they returned home and put to use here their newly acquired professional skills. My sister obtained employment with the International Harvester Company, while my uncle’s daughter became his accountant in the general store which he had commenced in the meantime.
The boys in each family (which of course included myself), after completion of the public school, graduated to the Yorkton Collegiate Institute, and there continued their education. That proceeded in regular course up to the time of our graduation.
In 1918 my father had operated a farm in Alberta, and after its harvest, had returned to Yorkton to finish the store buildings which he had commenced earlier. He also purchased his first automobile, a 1917 Ford. He could not operate it himself, and stored it in a stable until he could get someone to teach him. That at first was to be myself. But I too needed instruction, and for that purpose invited here a cousin of about my own age, who in Veregin had acquired such experience in the garage of an older brother. Those two were the sons of my mother’s sister, whose husband in Russia had died in prison of the punishment inflicted on him following the burning of firearms there in 1895. Their mother too had succumbed soon after arrival in Canada.
That same cousin later accompanied me to an electrical school in Chicago, after my graduation from the local Collegiate. I was hesitant about going alone and persuaded him to take the electrical course together with me. That was about 1921.
On graduation from the electrical school I obtained employment as draftsman in an electrical factory, and worked there until the fall of that year. Then my father sought my help on his farm, and I returned home to assist him with, the harvest work. The cousin, who had accompanied me, being then an orphan, preferred to remain in Chicago.
Yorkton, Saskatchewan as it appeared in the Teens and Twenties. City of Yorkton Archives.
At that time my father had rented still another farm located near the station Orcadia. While harvesting there we had used its vacant farm house for our meals and rest periods. Someone, who had been in it before us, had left a paperback book written by a well known American author, Upton Sinclair, who described the workings of the then current business world, and favored instead co-operative or socialist methods. His argument had profound influence on my subsequent thinking when some years later our town was visited by a man who advocated a more equitable economic order, as represented by the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation.
That year also my father was chosen delegate for a fact-finding mission to the Soviet Union to determine if the time then was appropriate for the return of the Doukhobors to their former homeland. He was advised there that it yet was too early for such return, and that it should not be considered for quite some time. On his return home in 1924 he so reported to his brethren at a Peter’s Day celebration which that year was held at Devil’s Lake, south-west of Canora. That was June 29th, the day when in Russia in 1895 the Doukhobors destroyed their firearms in protest against conscription and militarism.
In the winter of 1923 I had taken a Normal School course in Yorkton, obtained a temporary teaching certificate, and in 1924 started to teach in a rural school, in the Wisnia School District, a predominantly Doukhobor farming area south-west of Veregin, Saskatchewan.
The orphan son of my older, deceased sister Lily, named Russell, had been adopted by my parents, and grew up in our family. My younger sister and her family also then resided in Yorkton. She had taken over one of my father’s store buildings to operate in it a grocery business. Her older children, and nephew Russell, attended public school in Yorkton. The husband of the younger sister could find here no suitable employment, and left for California, where a number of other Doukhobors had gone still earlier and established there a Russian Colony based on individual ownership and operation. Other members of his own paternal family were there already. And some years later my sister took her family to California to rejoin her husband.
In 1924 in British Columbia Peter V. Verigin had died in a train explosion, and the Community Doukhobors had proceeded to arrange for his replacement. In time my own father got involved in that also.
So far as I know, I then was the first person of Doukhobor origin to engage in the practice of teaching public school. That was a most unusual occupation for one of the people who traditionally had opposed formal education for what they regarded as “worldly learning”, hence sinful and unworthy.
That year also the Canadian Doukhobors had introduced for the first time the custom of celebrating each year the most important date in their calendar – the 29th of June – when in 1895 their forebears had made their renowned protest against conscription and militarism by burning all their death-dealing weapons. When I was apprised of it, I closed my school in respect of that memorable occasion.
The rural schools in those days operated all summer to take advantage of the favorable weather and the open roads, which in winter oftentimes were impassable due to the stormy weather. The urban schools, on the other hand, closed in the summer months. The result was that my two nephews, the sons of my two sisters, were able to visit with me at my country school, and there spend a few days. Then, also, I frequently went home to Yorkton for the weekends.
As I now recall, teaching certificates were graded according to the applicants’ scholastic standing at the time of graduation from school, and the amount of Normal School training acquired by the applicant. The Normal School in Yorkton supplied only a preliminary course and issued a temporary Third Class teaching certificate. After some experience in practical teaching, that temporary certificate was raised automatically to Permanent Third Class, and the teachers affected were so notified by the Department of Education.
One-room school in rural Saskatchewan much like those which John A. Popoff taught at in the Twenties. LAC C-027459.
Two colleagues, teaching in neighboring school districts, received their enhanced certificates long before I did. I wondered why mine had been delayed. We had attended the same Normal School class, and had commenced teaching at the same time, so had equal teaching experience. Yet I was not provided my permanent certificate. The reason for the delay, it seemed to me, could not have been the inspector’s report, for that was satisfactory and encouraging. The only difference between myself and my colleagues appeared to be that of origin. The other two teachers were of Anglo-Saxon and of Danish extraction, and I of Russian Doukhobor. To me it appeared to be a case of ethnic prejudice. I complained to the Department of Education, for even prior to my graduation from the Yorkton Collegiate Institute, the principal of that school, on his own initiative, had given me a written recommendation to take up the teaching profession due to a shortage of teachers in the province at that time. The Department of Education then, eventually and rather belatedly, supplied me the desired Third Class Permanent teaching certificate. I was offended and deeply resented the undeserved indignity which the delay had indicated.
Towards the end of the second year of teaching I decided to improve my professional standing still more, and proceeded to the Normal School in Saskatoon for further study. There, on the basis of my higher academic standing, I obtained a Permanent First Class teaching certificate, and returned to my first school for the completion there of my third year of teaching.
While employed at that school I had become acquainted there with various farmer girls of marriageable age, and decided to take for wife the daughter of the school district chairman. His family was of Doukhobor belief, so there was no problem respecting the marriage procedure. The daughter and I obtained the willing consent and blessing (and modest dowry) of the girl’s parents, and she moved into the teacherage with me. We completed the year there and for the following season, accepted an offer to teach in a neighboring school district, the Spring Valley.
The next year (1927) we moved to that school district, and I proceeded to teach there. Meanwhile the wife had become pregnant, and in August gave birth to a baby daughter. We named her Lillian May after my deceased older sister Lily, and my favorite Collegiate teacher, Anne May, who had taught her classes Latin and literature.
The pupils in the Spring Valley School also were mostly of Doukhobor origin. One of the boy students later became quite prominent in the Doukhobor Freedomite movement in British Columbia, and one of my girl pupils later became the teacher in my former first school. I taught there only one year, and then moved on to the third school, north of Verigin, the Tolstoy School District, where I stayed three years.
The Tolstoy School had been so named in honor of the great Russian humanitarian author who had helped the Doukhobors emigrate to Canada. At the end of our first year there, during the interval when the school was closed for the Christmas holiday, the school building burned down, and when after Christmas we returned to resume teaching, there was nowhere to conduct the school. The trustees then rented an abandoned farm house for temporary use as school until a new building could be erected. That was accomplished in due course, and I continued teaching in the new building.
There I was paid the highest salary which I had ever received, $117.50 per month, which was for both the teaching and caretaker service. But by that time (1930) an economic depression had overtaken the entire country, and the chairman of the school district informed me that the district no longer could afford to pay the same salary, and if I wished to remain there, I would have to accept a reduction of pay.
I refused that, and quit teaching altogether. I returned to Yorkton to assist my father in the operation of his business affairs, and at the same time applied most of my salary savings to the redemption from tax sale of the home we occupied.
Then also I started up at home a radio repair business, which formerly was not possible because of the general lack of radio receivers which eventually would require service.
In addition I began to participate in community service activity by joining a number of local organizations of such nature; at first the Yorkton Citizens Association, then the Yorkton Film Council, and later still the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation.
In the case of the latter, I myself, with a few other similar idealists, had founded here its local branch following a promotional meeting addressed by George Williams, a veteran of the First World War, who then advocated an improved economic order which would render unnecessary military struggle for the solution of world problems. That closely approximated the principles referred to in the Upton Sinclair literature with which I had become acquainted previously, and so highly approved.
I was appointed Secretary-Treasurer of the local branch of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, and served in that capacity during its formative and most difficult period some 12 years, until after assuming political character, it won its first provincial election and took over the government of Saskatchewan.
In 1927 the successor to Peter V. Verigin, that is, his reputed son, also named Peter Verigin, arrived here to assume the leadership of the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood. On the way to America he had stopped at Geneva, Switzerland, to invite Tolstoy’s former collaborator, Pavel J. Birukoff, to come with him and establish among the Canadian Doukhobors an effective educational system for the instruction of both the youth and the adults. The man came, but found Verigin himself of small help in his declared purpose, which eventually failed to materialize, although mainly due to the inherent incapacity of the Doukhobors themselves to bring it to fruition. Birukoff was expected also to assist Verigin in his other endeavors, during which Verigin had become so abusive, that Birukoff suffered a paralytic stroke and had to be helped back to his home in Switzerland. On the way home, however, he stopped off in Yorkton; to bid farewell to his friends here, including my father, Anton S. Popoff.
A typical religious service at Brilliant, British Columbia. On platform is Peter Petrovich Verigin. Seated is Paul Ivanovich Biryukov, 1927. LAC C-005847.
A few years later, apparently for some reason of his own, Peter P. Verigin decided to reorganize the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood. He proposed a Constitution, setting out the aims and principles for a new Doukhobor society, and named it the Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ. He possibly envisaged it as including the other Doukhobor factions (perhaps even the Molokani of USA) under single leadership, no doubt his own. But the Independents, then known as the “Named Doukhobors”, failed to agree, although some of them readily catered to his drinking and gambling proclivities. The Freedomites also refrained from joining openly, always pretending to act on their own initiative, but secretly carrying out his instructions, yet at the same time refusing to implicate him. He undertook various lawsuits wherein he sought to gain his own ends, was accused of giving false evidence, and eventually imprisoned on that charge.
At the time of his incarceration I had been appointed Secretary-Treasurer of the Named Doukhobor faction, and soon was delegated to visit Verigin at the Prince Albert Penitentiary for whatever elucidation he might be able to offer regarding the general Doukhobor problem. I went, accompanied by a number of other members of our executive committee. At the prison I alone was permitted to speak to Verigin. He assured me that he understood quite well the purpose of our visit, and the aims of the organization which I then represented. He claimed that it was permeated with scoundrels and cheats, and was no proper place for me. In other words, he intimated that my integrity should be above such association. But I already had begun to suspect its solidarity and solvency, which inclined me to terminate my relations with it, and resign my office.
The authorities apparently had tired of dealing with Verigin’s eccentricities. They resolved to get rid of him by releasing him on a technicality, and whisking him off secretly to the coast with the intention of shipping him back to the USSR. But news of that action leaked out and reached Verigin’s legal advisers, who immediately took steps to stop such breach of legality by the authorities. Verigin was released forthwith, and soon returned to his old habits with the various Doukhobor elements.
However, his profligate mode of life (and possibly some consequence of his incarceration) had undermined his health to such degree that he had to seek medical help in a Saskatoon hospital. His condition, however, already was so far gone that he was beyond help, and he expired there in that hospital. That was in 1939.
The Doukhobors, particularly those of the new society, the Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ, again were thrown into turmoil. Who now would be their leader? Ordinarily, according to old Doukhobor custom, it ought to be Verigin’s natural son, who then was in the Soviet Union, and also in trouble with the authorities there. The Community then temporarily appointed Verigin’s young grandson, John J. Markov (Voykin), who had been given the surname “Verigin”. Later on word came that the natural son of Peter P. Verigin had died in prison, so the leadership officially was conferred on the Verigin grandson, now known as John J. Verigin. He refused to accept the title of leader, but was willing to act as “Honorary Head” of the organization, which office he holds to this day.
As for myself, I probably had the most colourful career of any member in our family, with the possible exception of my father. First of all, in High School, my predilection for foreign languages encouraged me during World War I to request the introduction of a course in German. That actually was tried, but it soon became clear that such additional study increased the work load beyond the capacity of its participants, and it had to be abandoned.
But that apparently had added to my prestige with the teaching faculty, since not long afterward the principal of the school, Mr. Finlay, even before my graduation, suggested to me that I seriously consider a teaching position, as the province at that time was experiencing a shortage of such help. And he handed me a written recommendation to that effect. At that time I did not follow his advice, but recalled it considerably later when I realized that the country as yet was not ready for my particular services in the field of electronics.
At about the same time a prominent citizen here suggested that I obtain employment with the Canadian Pacific Railway, as they needed people who had some knowledge of the Russian language. But I myself then felt that my Russian was far from adequate for such a position, and that I might not be able to fill it successfully. So I did not act on that suggestion either.
Then a prominent lawyer and member of the local Liberal Party, Bill Morrison, once accosted me on the street and suggested that I change my name to some other which in English would sound better, to facilitate obtaining suitable employment. I replied that my name in the Russian language was sufficiently dignified and respectable as to require no change. So I did not follow his advice either.
Then still later the same concerned individual unofficially offered me the position of Circuit Court Judge in this community, which also I had to turn down out of consideration for my Doukhobor principles.
During my political activities within the CCF organization, after it had assumed power in this province, I was appointed Returning Officer for the Yorkton Provincial Constituency, and in a number of subsequent provincial elections I directed its electoral procedure. I also helped effectively first the nomination, and then the successful election, of our first CCF federal member of parliament, George Hugh Castleden. He, in turn, later offered to help me obtain the position of Manager of the local Provincial Liquor Board Store. But that, unfortunately, also contradicted my Doukhobor conception of propriety, and I felt obliged to refuse it.
Laura Popoff, John Popoff, and Mrs. Tarasoff, Yorkton, 1980. Saskatchewan Archives Board R90-139.
In 1940, a delegation from the Rona School District, south of Verigin, visited me to request my help in conducting their school until they could locate a regular teacher. I did not care to resume teaching, and my certificate already had expired, but the Department of Education was quite willing that I conduct that school temporarily until a suitable replacement was engaged. Within that same period the Federal Government held its wartime National Registration of all residents in the country, and appointed me Registrar for that purpose in that area. Eventually a teacher for the school was found, and I returned to my own affairs in Yorkton.
That also was the period of my active participation in the Yorkton Film Council. I was a member of it for some 12 years, and half of that time served as its President. Shortly after joining it, the Film Council Executive decided to inaugurate its then famous International Documentary Film Festival, and to hold it biennially.
The international feature of the festival attracted participants from all over the world, including such exotic places as Israel, Czechoslovakia, India, China and the Soviet Union. Several of those countries sent official observers from their Canadian embassies. In 1958 and I960 I used my technical equipment to record on magnetic tape some of the highlights and adjudications of those festivals.
I conducted study classes in the process of motion picture projection and myself operated the projectors during the festivals.
Also, almost from its very beginning I had joined the Yorkton Credit Union when it first conducted its modest business in the office of the Yorkton Cooperative Association store at its original location on Front Street. And again, almost immediately I was appointed to its Supervisory Committee of which in a few years I became Chairman. I served on that Committee some 12 years, during which time the Credit Union grew rapidly, and eventually had to acquire larger quarters. It also had to operate closer to the centre of town, and moved several times, when finally it constructed its own large premises on the corner of Smith Street and Fourth Avenue.
Then, when the CCF provincial administration introduced its neo-socialist Medicare legislation, which at that time aroused a great deal of controversy, our local CCF membership started up a Yorkton Medicare Association: in support of that innovation. I was appointed Secretary-Treasurer of that Association and assisted in keeping it going until the Medicare legislation was accepted as a viable and necessary measure.
Such activity, together with my participation in the political arena, oftentimes subject to suspicion and innuendo, reacted adversely on my physical condition. I became ill, and needed help of some kind, but the local medical fraternity did not know what I required. I was sent to specialists in the Winnipeg Medical Centre, to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and even to Excelsior Springs in Missouri. But none of them could diagnose my trouble well enough to provide effective help. Finally I consulted an old medical practitioner in Winnipeg who successfully determined my problem, and prescribed medication which helped relieve my condition. But the effects still remain with me, and I still am obliged to resort to various tonics to keep myself going reasonably well.
Earlier, at home, the son of my older sister, Russell, on completion of his studies in the Yorkton Collegiate, went to the University in Saskatoon, but for lack of funds, did not continue there long. Instead he went east to Ontario to study the radio trade, and from there west to Vancouver, where he engaged in that occupation. In time he married there and moved again to settle in Calgary,
In California my younger sister’s husband succumbed to his own particular malady, leaving her alone with the responsibility of raising her family of four children. In time all of them married. She herself fell ill and also died. Her younger son, Philip, lost his life in an accident, leaving of the parental family the older son Fred, and two daughters, Graphie and Vera, who have their own families to occupy them.
In my own case, our only child, Lillian, completed her education in Yorkton, went on to the University at Saskatoon, obtained there a degree in Home Economics, and found employment in Alberta. During her entire youth and period of public school education we avoided all mention of our antecedent history, our religious or ethical convictions, or political goals, so as to avoid influencing in any degree her own development within the context of the environment in which she would have to make her living, and seek her happiness. That, no doubt, deprived her of certain familial guidance, whose consequences only now seem to emerge. But we hope that such results will not affect very seriously our close family relationship.
Our daughter has managed to select a worthy husband, and to raise a respectable family. The wife and I extend to all of them our heartfelt felicitation for whatever fortune each of them may achieve in their respective family careers.
I now am at the end of my abbreviated historical account. It is by no means complete. Many incidents have not been mentioned, which perhaps were no less significant than those discussed. To relate them all would require much more effort and time than I now can readily supply.
Presently I am the last surviving member of my parental family. After myself there will be no-one left to carry on the family name or tradition. Its history ends with me.
Arthur Postnikoff and John A. Popoff exchanging addresses at Peter’s Day celebrations, Verigin, June 1983. Saskatchewan Archives Board S-B7612.
For another short biography of John A. Popoff as well his abridged online translation of Pavel Biryukov’s “Life of Tolstoy”, see Koozma J. Tarasoff’s Spirit Wrestlers website.