by Natalie Voykin
Dunia (nee Chernenkoff) Berikoff (1897-1965) came from Russia as a small child of one and a half years. With no prior education and a peasant background, Dunia had a heart of gold as she lived through the difficulties of resettlement, first in Saskatchewan and then in British Columbia. She participated in the experimental community of Hilliers on Vancouver Island from 1946 to 1950, after which she moved back to the BC interior to settle in the ‘zealot’ community of Krestova. When the zealots trekked to the coast in 1962, she followed them, carrying only a bundle containing the sum of her earthly possessions. When she died in a Vancouver hospital, she was dressed in the traditional clothes she was carrying with her. Written from the heart by Natalie Voykin, the following is an ode to Grandmother Berikoff, who connected her Doukhobor belief in God with practical everyday life. Reproduced by permission from “Spirit-Wrestlers’ Voices. Honouring Doukhobors on the Centenary of their migration to Canada in 1899” Koozma J. Tarasoff (ed). (Ottawa: Legas, 1998).
On the evening of 12 February 1965 the nurse at the Vancouver General Hospital greeted us with unexpected news: grandmother had died! Disbelief, grief, flashed through me like a bolt of lightning. How could it be? Just hours before my beloved grandmother was very much alive, smiling and talking. I wanted to see her at once. I ran into her room. My grandmother lay there, quiet and peaceful. I gathered her in my arms and held her close to my heart. Her body was still warm, but limp.
I wept. Slowly I released her. Her two braids of hair fell loose by her shoulders. Her long white gown made her look like an angel.
Grandmother Dunia Berikoff was just a year and a half old when her father fled the harsh persecution at the hands of both Church and State in the Russian homeland for the principles the family and their community stood for. Believing that life is a sacred gift of God abiding in all people, the Doukhobors considered it wrong to destroy life and hence wrong to bear arms, and consequently were subjected to severe punishment and incarceration. Whole families were sent into exile. In other cases children and parents were separated. Communities were disrupted. Conditions of life were made impossible. At this point, Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy stepped in and helped organize and finance the exodus to Canada.
Shortly after her mother’s death, in 1899 little Dunia boarded the S.S. Lake Huron in Batum along with her father Misha Chernenkoff and hundreds of other Doukhobors driven into exile for their faith. A month later they arrived in Halifax and almost immediately headed west to the Canadian prairies – their new home. For all who came, it was to be a strange and challenging experience.
Finding it a particular challenge coping with his infant daughter in this new environment, Misha Chernenkoff soon married a young Doukhobor girl who became Dunia’s stepmother, thereby adding yet another complexity to the life of the growing child. Dunia found the needed warmth and love from her Aunt Malasha, who looked after her little needs and made her feel welcome at this stage of her life. Dunia remained ever grateful to this aunt for her tenderness and caring, and for the beneficial influence she exercised on both her outward and inner (spiritual) development.
Her family being of peasant background, no formal schooling was included in Dunia’s upbringing in the settlement of Aaron (on the Saskatchewan-Manitoba border). Life’s experiences were her teachers. Life’s events were marked by the seasons; Dunia’s birthday, for example, was associated with the harvest season.
In her late teens Dunia fell in love, but as her intended was not a verushchii (i.e., not a believer of the Doukhobor faith), her father disapproved. She married Koozma Berikoff, a handsome, charismatic, sports-loving lad. Though of Doukhobor upbringing, Koozma indulged in meat-eating and social drinking, both foreign to Dunia, who adhered to the strict Doukhobor tradition of refusing to eat animal flesh. Obliged to accommodate her husband’s habits, she was especially bothered by having to prepare meat (in particular, chicken) at harvest time to feed the men from the surrounding community who came to help take in the crop.
By this time the newly-weds had established their home on a 160 acre (65 hectare) farm with few conveniences, and begun raising a family. Two days before the New Year of 1912, their first-born, Florence (Fenia) arrived. Three years later came a son, Alex, followed by two more daughters – Mabel (Nastia) and Harriet (Grunia). She engaged in the routine duties of farm and family, but always had an inner feeling in her heart telling her there was more to life than her isolated experience on the prairies.
After several years misfortune befell the family. One evening, upon bringing full pails of milk down to the cellar from the barn, Koozma accidentally hit his head with severe force against a low beam spanning the cellar entrance. The local doctors could do very little about the serious headaches, sore eyes and other disorders which followed. Relatives managed to raise enough money to send Koozma (then 40) to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester (USA), and while the operation there was successful, he died of a hemorrhage when he attempted to get out of bed some time later (because of nursing staff shortages he had been left unattended at the time).
The tragic death of her husband brought Dunia untold hardships. With four children ranging in age from three to sixteen and with no knowledge of English, and no government social programs yet in existence, she was obliged to depend mostly upon her own resources and limited help from relatives, along with the power of God for protection and guidance.
The Doukhobors’ first leader in Canada, Peter V. (‘the Lordly’) Verigin, had worked with his people in their efforts to bring about the realization of God’s ‘universal spirit of oneness’ – the building of a heaven on earth. The Doukhobor people lived, toiled and prayed for this goal endeavoring to share their lands, resources and talents in harmony with the natural environment, with themselves and the world around them. But this ‘new social order’ was perceived as a significant threat by certain elements of the established Canadian society who believed in ‘every one for himself’. In 1924 Verigin was killed by an explosion near Farron in the high Kootenay Mountains, while travelling by train from Brilliant to Grand Forks.
Now a leaderless flock in a still new and unfriendly environment, the Canadian Doukhobors sent a delegation to Verigin’s son, then living in Russia – Peter P. Verigin, who had adopted the pseudonym Chistiakov (‘the Cleanser’) and was informally known as Petushka – to come and help restore order to the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood (CCUB) established by his father. Arriving in 1927, he fascinated his new Canadian followers with his stamina and dynamic spirit; the wisdom expressed in his charismatic voice drew the attention of Doukhobors from all sections of the community.
He held a special fascination for Grandmother Dunia’s eldest daughter Florence, in whom she had instilled a strong belief in God and in Doukhobor principles. She would ask friends and neighbors to take her with them when they went to hear him speak. His dynamic personality not only inspired her own spirituality, but eventually took the whole family in a whole new direction, to the zealot ‘Sons of Freedom’ movement.
In 1930 Dunia gained further inspiration through a visit from her brother, Alex Chernenkoff (then living in British Columbia), who told her and her family about the spiritual stirrings going on among young people in Doukhobor communities throughout Canada. She did her best to live out her sense of spiritual awareness as she and her children coped with life on the farm.
When Verigin was arrested in 1932 and sent to prison in Prince Albert, Dunia and Florence took part in successive protests, even to the point of disrobing on the highway, to call attention to the injustice directed at their leader. They themselves were arrested and held for a time in a women’s prison at North Battleford. While the younger children were initially taken to foster homes, they were eventually allowed to be cared for by relatives until the family was reunited.
For some time Dunia had been cherishing the idea of the communal way of life adopted by Community Doukhobors in British Columbia, and following her prison experience, she was led – by her faith and the dictates of her heart – to leave her farm (unsold) in Saskatchewan and take her family and possessions out west, settling in the village of Krestova, B.C., just a few doors away from her half-brother.
By this time Florence had married a young Saskatchewan farmer, Joseph Podovinikoff, a Doukhobor who fervently shared her aspirations and ideals and her family’s conviction in the rightness of communal living. He (along with other family members) persuaded his father to sell their prairie homestead and follow the Berikoffs to the B.C. interior, settling in Slocan Park.
Dunia’s son Alex married a beautiful, kind and thoughtful young woman named Natasha, who was exceptionally talented as a handcraft artist and dearly loved by all who knew her. One day, when Natasha was seven months pregnant, she and her brother died after eating some contaminated processed food brought from town.
A day or two later Florence was in the process of giving birth to her first baby, attended by an elderly Doukhobor midwife and her mother-in-law Nastia. After many hours of labour, a baby girl finally arrived – lifeless, not breathing. But Nastia, who had brought up seven children of her own, was so elated at the new baby girl that she refused to give up. Wrapping the baby up, she cuddled it close to her heart and began walking to and fro in the living room, all the time breathing into the baby’s mouth. All at once she heard a cry – the baby was alive!
They named her Natasha after Florence’s sister-in-law, whom they had just laid to rest in Krestova. Florence had also been enchanted with the spirited character of Natasha portrayed in Tolstoy’s epic novel “War and Peace”.
Both Babushkas – Dunia (Berikoff) and Nastia (Podovinikoff) – had a significant influence on my life. I spent a great deal of time in my early years with my much-beloved Grandmother Podovinikoff, who lived close by and took care of us children while our parents were busy clearing land or weeding or picking strawberries to earn money for the next winter’s supply of groceries and warm clothing.
But I felt a special love for Grandmother Berikoff, who, living eight kilometers away up the mountain in Krestova, visited us as often as she possibly could. When I was older, I would stay at her house for a week or so. An extraordinary person (in my eyes), she always kept her modest home in perfect order and cleanliness; its atmosphere was always warm, homey and nurturing. I always remember the feeling of security, strength and beauty evoked by her presence.
Dunia Berikoff’s family, Krestova, BC, 1937. (l-r) Uncle Alex; my father Joseph; grandmother Dunia; holding me, Natalie at 2 months old; Aunt Harriet; my mother Florence; and Aunt Nellie.
One particularly vivid memory is of standing by Grandmother Berikoff’s side as she opened the lid of a large shortening can to inspect the precious garden seeds she had gathered the previous autumn – each variety wrapped in white cotton bundles – to determine what needed to be planted in early spring. I remember the mysterious, invigorating, aroma that came from this special seed collection – a heavenly whiff of gentle potency unlike any other I had experienced. When spring came, once she had worked the soil in her garden patch into neat, straight rows, Grandmother Dunia would drop the seeds into them ever so gently, all the while affirming out loud: na priezzhago i na prikhozhago – signifying that the food to be produced from this seed by Mother Earth was not only for her and her family but also to share with strangers who might come riding or walking by. Grandmother was a prime example of Doukhobor kindness and loving hospitality.
In line with Doukhobor custom, the first question my grandmother would ask was whether the visitor was hungry; somehow there was always food to share. And, I must add, she was a wonderful cook – resourceful in converting simple and modest means into imaginative and successful creations. Very handy with her knitting needles, she sewed all her own clothes, always in the neatest fashion; she was unable to read patterns, but her socks, mittens and slippers were expertly executed, many times with intricate designs.
Her petite physical stature belied her formidable capabilities. I remember from my visits that her days never ended without reciting the psalm she taught me:
My guardian angel, do guard and protect my soul, strengthen my heart and also all my thoughts. Grant me, O Lord, Thy protection for the sleep of the coming night, peace for the physical body, salvation for the soul and for the mouth to utter prayer. Glory be to God.
These were the words I was invariably put to bed with. This was the time, too, to talk about the day’s events, before Grandmother sent me off to sleep by gently stroking my back. It was ‘heaven’! And one of the first duties in the morning was to wash my face and hands. Grandmother told me to always start the day by saying: Gospodi blagoslovi (roughly translated: ‘Lord, may thy blessings abide’).
The death of Peter P. Verigin in 1939 left the B.C. Doukhobor community (including Krestova) in a rather unsettled state. In searching for answers amid the many different interpretations which surfaced, some in the village could not hold back their feelings of extreme frustration at the injustices and misunderstandings they perceived on the part of the government. But Grandmother Berikoff did not take part in this radical trend.
Her life underwent a radical change, however, when she was introduced to a certain Michael Verigin (a distant relative and close associate of Peter P. Verigin) who had moved from the Verigin district in Saskatchewan to Vancouver with his wife and son to operate a rooming house and work in the labour force on the side.
Peter P. (Chistiakov) Verigin had at one point told Michael that ‘the Father wanted to see him’, although Michael did not understand what that meant at the time. Several weeks after the leader’s death, Michael happened to be walking down a street in Vancouver when he felt a tap on his shoulder. Turning around, he saw his late friend standing beside him, and heard his voice say: ‘The time is now. Come, the Father is ready to see you.’ Boarding a train at the station, the two men sped away ‘swiftly upward’ to a place where ‘the Father met with Michael’, instructing him to come back to earth and deliver a message to the Doukhobor people.
Some listeners utterly discredited his message, while others accepted it, at least in their own way. The message essentially urged all Doukhobors to:
Stop thinking, doing and living in unconstructive ways. Begin to organize yourselves in communities where all can live in the spirit of communal brotherhood, working for peace and harmony. Share and learn to overcome greed, selfishness, jealousy and mistrust.
A particular part of the message was directed toward the ‘Sons of Freedom’:
Enough burning and jails for you. When one of you goes to jail there are ten people who must work to support you. You come and work together in the community where everything is held in common, where one person works and that goes to support ten people, the women, the children, the elders and the indigent.
Michael appealed to Doukhobors to help him launch the ‘New Spiritual Community of Christ’, to share his vision of a cooperative social and economic order of security based on the traditional teaching of ‘toil and a peaceful life’. Time and again he tried to convince those who would obtain ‘migration through jails’ that the real migration was inner transformation, a change of heart from one of negativity and destruction to one of holy, peaceful construction.
Another conspicuous part of this multifaceted ‘message’ was the requirement to abolish bonds of ownership in marriage. Women must be freed from male domination.Grandmother Berikoff came forth as one of a group of six women and six men to launch this new order, under the name ‘Elders of the Spiritual Community of Christ.”
The new order, however, met with a mixed reception from the larger Doukhobor community. Some accepted the idea of communal living based on non-possessiveness – in respect not only to material possessions but also to the private family unit – while others felt threatened by the concept. The core group of twelve people Michael established at Krestova was soon disrupted by an extremist segment and forced to move to a homestead formerly occupied by one of his followers.
The communal kitchen, bathhouse and store (supplied with staples bought wholesale) was supplemented by a school, where one young mother taught basic reading and writing skills in both English and Russian, along with lessons in Doukhobor culture. The extremists, however, seeing the store and school as violating the sacredness of their fundamental beliefs, attacked again: a large group came out from Krestova, threw out the school furnishings and set the buildings ablaze. Once more homeless, Michael and his Elders were offered temporary accommodation by a sympathetic family living in nearby Robson.
Even though I as a ten-year-old had not yet attended any school, my parents (Florence and Joseph) were indeed concerned about their children’s education. After yet another attack by the Krestova group, Michael resolved to relocate further afield, away from trouble. He asked my father to accompany him on an exploratory trip to Vancouver Island, where a suitable location was quickly found, purchased and occupied (thanks to the former owners’ willingness to move out immediately following the sale).
The new community established near the village of Hilliers toward the end of June 1946 (shortly after an earthquake in the area) immediately began to draw attention from far and wide. My parents readily accepted their invitation to young families with children to come and help construct the Community, arriving there lock, stock and barrel in 1947. A large kitchen, sleeping quarters, storeroom, prayer-hall, school, steamhouse and gardens all had to be set up and put in place. It was in this school that I received my first formal education, through a curriculum organised by the community itself in both Russian and English.
Grandmother Berikoff was one of the women actively participating in this new experience, drawing upon her expertise in household affairs, involving herself in finances, organizing cooking groups, laundry, gardening and other duties. Her contribution to the stability and order of the community was recognized by Michael and the other Elders, many of whom came to her for advice and direction.
Unfortunately, the distance from the mainland did not ensure peace. This time the extremists not only destroyed property (worth thousands of dollars) but fabricated accusations which landed both Michael and my father (his secretary) in jail, charging that his vision of fulfilling certain prophecies in the Doukhobor psalms was nothing but a personal fantasy.
Michael died soon after being released from prison; he and other elders who had passed away from old age were buried in a special Community cemetery at Hilliers. The remainder, about four years after the experiment began, moved back to the B.C. interior, but did not lose sight of Michael’s original ideology. They spent about a year at Gilpin, near Grand Forks, but feeling isolated from the main body of the Doukhobor community in the Kootenays (where they still considered their roots to be), they accepted an invitation to occupy a communal property in Krestova. Once more they constructed a place to live and work, and once more they settled down to practice their faith.
I remember Grandmother telling me one spring in the mid 1950s how the Elders had decided to renew their appeal to the Doukhobor community’ to join the new order and build a true brotherhood of selfless sharing, Grandmother Berikoff was even sent door-to-door along the dusty streets of Krestova to spread the message of love she carried in her heart. But none of the Elders’ efforts (Grandmother’s included) met with any positive response.
Grandmother Berikoff in her later years.
Now a married woman with two children, living some thirty kilometers away in Castlegar, I still kept in close touch with Grandmother Berikoff, whom I loved immensely. It was a matter of some amazement to me that she always knew when I needed her most, even though she had no telephone. She would show up at my doorstep with a basket of fresh strawberries, or a package of knitted socks, slippers or mittens to help meet whatever might be the need. When the babies were sick, she was there to help, like a guardian angel. As a young and inexperienced gardener, I watched as she virtually produced magic during her short summer visits to our home with her simple but effective handling of soil and plants. ‘Do this’, she would advise, and, sure enough, the weak shoots would quickly develop into strong, shiny, productive plants.
Grandmother was a never-ending source of interesting conversation for me and my family. Her philosophy and knowledge fuelled my insatiable thirst for ideas, my wonder at the underlying factors that motivated her quest and worked such a powerful and meaningful influence on her character. The oneness of the life we shared and her indestructible faith in God left a deep imprint on my heart. Her stamina and the natural intelligence that guided her filled me with unbounded love and respect. Our tea-time sharings – another experience of heaven – were especially memorable. She would explain the many psalms she knew by heart on a spiritual level, and we would talk about their hidden symbolic meaning and source – this was an entirely natural unfoldment in our relationship.
Grandmother Berikoff applied her belief in God to practical everyday life. For example, when my babies were restless and unable to sleep peacefully, she had healing remedies which worked. After helping me bathe my new-born (the air and water temperature had to be warm and comfortable!) she would hold the baby in one hand and pour a pitcher of lukewarm water over her for a rinse, then wrap the baby in a warm towel, all the while affirming: kak s gusochki vody vsia skorb’ i khodor’ba (roughly: ‘like water off a goose, all negativity is washed clean and gone’). In Grandmother’s presence I had the feeling that all was well with my world.
In the autumn of 1962, when I was eight months pregnant with our third child, the outbreak of Freedomite unrest in the Kootenays reached its peak. With local prisons unable to accommodate all the sect members charged with acts of terrorism, the authorities had constructed a special fireproof prison for them at Agassiz. Many supporters of the Freedomite cause began a trek to Agassiz to draw attention to what they saw as a great injustice against the Doukhobor people.
At Grandmother’s urging, my husband and I, who similarly felt our people were being misunderstood and unfairly treated, decided to join the protest. We sold our home, stored furniture at my in-laws, and followed the trek – living in tents, sharing rides, finances and moral support. The march took us through Castlegar, Grand Forks and on through Princeton, where in late September we stopped to camp in Bromley Park. Feeling the onset of labour, I (together with my husband) headed for the nearest hospital. When stopped by an RCMP roadblock along the way, I told them they could deliver the baby themselves if that was their choice. We were given immediate clearance! Our beautiful daughter Katya was born in Princeton on 26 September 1962.
I felt surrounded by love and care: the wonderful doctor who delivered the baby, a sympathetic Princeton family who took us into their home after my release from hospital, and, above all, my mother, who was a guardian angel to me during this time. My father had little time to attend to his own family, involved as he was with the many relationship problems among the trekkers, the authorities, the press and the representatives of the towns and villages through which we marched. Grandmother, too, needed all the energy she could muster to organise and keep order among the group of Elders, by this time all of senior years.
One incident in particular left an indelible imprint on my heart. By” late autumn we had reached the town of Hope, where we were obliged to stop. Many local people offered shelter to the crowd of people descending upon this small town. On one rainy day Grandmother and I sat face to face on some apple boxes in a small station house; between us was a bundle about one metre square wrapped in dark blue cloth and neatly tied in a knot on top, containing all her earthly possessions. As we sat there, just the two of us, not knowing where we were going or where it would all end, I felt a sense of tremendous love and respect for her, of sharing in some mysterious way in her deep faith, of the whole world being on our side.
Upon finally arriving (weeks later) at the Agassiz Mountain site, the families set up their palatki (tents) in a neat row alongside the road leading to the prison. The local garbage dump, surprisingly, yielded several old stoves still in usable condition, which after some cleaning and fixing provided warmth and a place to cook. It was amusing to see chimneys made out of recycled juice tins. Even a small steam bath-house was erected from scrap timber and served for both baths and laundry. Plastic was bought to provide a shield from the rain and wind.
While the authorities indeed had their hands full (they had no choice but to allow events to unfold), they were pleased to find their concerns over sanitation problems and adverse incidents unjustified, noting only cleanliness and tidiness in and around the tent dwellings, and the snow-white laundry hung out to dry.
Grandmother Berikoff and her group of Elders occupied the first tent down the lane from us. They held together as a small unit of ten people, living according to their traditional communal order, uncomplainingly making the best of a difficult situation.
When I think back on this period, it all seems like an adventurous dream. It was indeed a learning experience of togetherness, one of fulfilment and revelation – my husband and our three children (five-year-old Daniel, three-year-old Tamara and three-month-old Katya), and Grandmother Dunia by my side, for advice.
Bill and Natalie Voykin with grandchildren, 1990.
After several months my husband, children and I moved on to Vancouver, where Grandmother would often come to visit us, sharing a ride with friends from the camp who had occasion to make a trip to the ‘Big City’. For me it was a special time of sharing her company.
Now and again during these visits she would complain about chest pains. She was seventy-five years old. She was examined several times by a doctor, who eventually asked her to go to hospital for further observation. She obliged reluctantly, commenting that any of the elders who ended up there ‘did not make it back’. While I naturally rejected this suggestion, it did leave me with a sense of fear and dread. The third day there, during our visit she shared with us a dream she had had, one she could not explain:
A most beautiful young woman appeared and stood at the foot of my bed. She just looked at me and said nothing.
Grandmother also mentioned the clothes she had prepared for herself in case ‘something did happen’ to her – a white homespun linen skirt and blouse, hand-made slippers and a fine white woolen shawl with tiny pink rosebuds. They were part of the bundle she had carried throughout the trek.
As I sat by her bedside, Grandmother wanted to go over a psalm, one that dealt with the meaning of life, God and the ‘Universal Laws of Being and Knowing’. “I do want to be prepared”, she said, “when I go to meet the Great One.”
The following evening the ‘beautiful young woman’ took the hand of my beloved Grandmother and led her to meet ‘the Great One’. I held her warm body close to my heart and sobbed. My teacher, guide and angel had finished her earthly journey. I realized I had to go on alone without the benefit of her wisdom, strength and unshakeable faith upon which I had relied so heavily. Now it is my turn, for now my own seven grandchildren turn to me for spiritual support.
I am convinced that Grandmother Dunia Berikoff was a special gift to me from God, and perhaps to others, too, who now have the opportunity to read and share this account of a rare and most precious angel who came to earth to fulfill her mission of unselfish love.
Grandmother Berikoff was laid to rest in the cemetery next to the Agassiz encampment, alongside twenty others who had shared in the trek. May their souls rest in the blessedness of the Heavenly Peace they earned and so richly deserve!