Holidays and Rituals of Doukhobors in the Caucasus

by Svetlana A. Inikova

Traditionally, the life events, family and culture of Doukhobors were all shaped by the holidays contained in the Doukhobor calendar. Many were borrowed and adapted from the Orthodox Church. Others were deeply rooted in Russian folk belief. In this Doukhobor Genealogy Website exclusive, Russian ethnographer and archivist Svetlana A. Inikova explores the holiday rituals and customs of the Doukhobors in the Caucasus, based on her ethnographic expeditions and field research among the Doukhobors of the Republics of Georgia and Azerbaijan. Translated from the original Russian by Koozma J. Tarasoff. Edited by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff. Published by permission.

Introduction

Holidays had already been celebrated for a long time when Christianity was introduced to Russia. They provided people with an opportunity for rest, merrymaking and at least a brief respite from burdensome daily tasks. Holidays were also very important in that they coincided with the occurrence of annual changes in nature, such as the succession of seasons or the sun’s changing position in the sky. They served as reference points that clearly identified the beginning of particularly important events, such as turning cattle out to pasture, sowing time for specific crops, haymaking and harvesting. During the winter and early spring holidays, ancient Russians performed divinations hoping to accelerate the awakening of nature. During the spring and summer they prayed to their gods to grant them a bountiful harvest, whereas in the autumn they took stock of the field work that had been accomplished and thanked the spirits of the fields for their generosity.

When Christianity was introduced in 988 AD, the Church strove for the longest time to have certain folk holidays and rituals, such as Maslenitsa (“Butter Week”), abolished. Holidays that coincided with Christian celebrations were accepted by the Church, but vested with a meaning that served its purpose. Semik (“Festival of the Birch”) for instance, was a pre-Christian holiday in honour of vegetation which almost coincided with the Christian festival of Troitsa (“Trinity Sunday”). Rituals associated with the two holidays intertwined so closely that it has become impossible to distinguish between them, even though in some areas of Russia the holiday has retained its ancient name, Semik. Paskha (“Easter”) is another example. It was instituted by the Christian Church as a holiday in remembrance of the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ. Yet Easter is also closely associated with the widespread tradition of dying eggs and, in Russia, rolling them on the ground, along grooves, and even playing with them. The egg has been a symbol of rebirth since ancient times and by rolling eggs on the ground, people hoped to increase the fertility of the soil. Many rituals and traditions have lost their profound meaning and have become simple games or pastimes. Hence, for example, most people do not realize that by eating a pancake during Maslenitsa they are actually consuming the symbol of the sun.

In this article I would like to describe the holidays celebrated by the Doukhobors and their associated rituals, some of which are still practiced today.

Doukhobor Holidays in the Early Nineteenth Century

Before settling in Molochnye Vody (“Milky Waters”), the Doukhobors lived among Orthodox Russians and celebrated the same traditional folk festivals. Some Doukhobors went to church for appearances only, others avoided going altogether; nonetheless at home they celebrated Orthodox holidays with prayer meetings that were usually followed by visits to family and friends, while young people assembled to play games, sing and enjoy themselves in the village.

After they had settled in Molochnye Vody, the Doukhobors continued to celebrate the festivals of the Orthodox Church that were common to all Christians throughout Russia, i.e. Rozhdestvo hristovo (“Christmas”), Khreshchenie (“Epiphany”), Paskha and Troitsa, although each village also observed a patron holiday of its own which usually lasted for three days filled with festive merrymaking.

Thus, the villagers of Goreloye in Molochnye Vody chose Frol and Lavr as their patron saints, celebrating their feast day, Frolov Den’, on August 18. The Doukhobors of Bogdanovka, on the other hand, preferred Vasily the Great as their patron saint, celebrating his feast day, Vasil’ev Den’, on January 1. Also, the inhabitants of Efremovka observed November 8, the day of the Archangel Mikhail, Mikhailov Den’, as their patron holiday. The Doukhobors continued celebrating these holidays even after they had settled in the Caucasus, with the sole exception of the village of Rodionovka, which had no holiday of its own, neither in Molochnye Vody nor in the Caucasus.

While living in Molochnye Vody, the villagers of Troitskoye celebrated Troitsa in a particularly big way, whereas after establishing themselves in the Caucasus, they chose Nikolai the Wonderworker as their patron saint, honouring him on December 6. After relocating to the Caucasus, the villagers of Tambovka revered the Kazanskaya (“Our Lady of Kazan”), commemorating her feast day, Den’ Kazanskoi Bogomateri (“Day of our Lady of Kazan”) on October 22, instead of that of Nikolai the Wonderworker, who had been their patron saint in Molochnye Vody.

Kirilovka was a village in Molochnye Vody that celebrated its holiday, Pokrov (“Intercession and Protection of the Holy Virgin”) on October 1. In settling in the Caucasus, the villagers of Kirilovka merged with the villagers of Spasskoye from Molochnye Vody to form a single village which chose Pokrov as its joint holiday. In this case, the villagers of Spasskoye forsook their own holiday, which was Rozhdestvo Khristovo, for Pokrov.

The village of Terpeniye, the Doukhobor capital in Molochnye Vody, was renamed Orlovka when its inhabitants moved to the Caucasus, although they continued to observe Den’ Kazanskoi Bogomateri until the 1920’s, at which time they chose to observe Zheny Mironositsy (“Sunday of the Myrrhbearers”) or Zheny for short, as their patron holiday.

As they settled in the Caucasus, the Doukhobors founded new villages. Doukhobor elders recall that Lukeria Kalmykova, their beloved leader, “bestowed” certain holidays upon them.

Doukhobor Holidays in the Caucasus

We shall now give a systematic description of the holidays celebrated by the Doukhobors of the Caucasus throughout the calendar year.

The cycle of winter holidays or Sviatki (“Holy Days”) as it was called by Orthodox Russians, began with Rozhdestvo Khristovo, which used to be celebrated on December 25 according to the old-style calendar, and has been celebrated on January 7 after the new-style calendar was introduced following the Russian Revolution. The new-style calendar differs from the old one by 13 days.

On Christmas Eve, Doukhobors ate the traditional kut’ya (a dish prepared with boiled wheat kernels sweetened with honey); then around midnight they would assemble for worship. On Christmas Day adults would not eat breakfast and would perform their daily chores so that the entire family could sit down to enjoy Christmas dinner. It was a holiday when adults would visit family and friends while young people would enjoy themselves at vecharushki (parties of Doukhobor youth). In Rodionovka, young people would dress up and masquerade about the village. In fact, masquerading during the winter holidays was an ancient custom practiced in old Russia. The Christmas festivities lasted only one day. Christmas is still celebrated by Doukhobors in the Caucasus, although at the present time only elders attend worship on Christmas Eve, whereas for the young people it has become an occasion to get together and enjoy themselves.

All Doukhobor villages celebrate Novyi God (“New Year’s Day”). The village of Bogdanovka originally worshipped its patron saint day, Vasil’ev Den, on January 1. Eventually, however, this holiday merged with Novyi God and, unlike other villages, New Year’s festivities in Bogdanovka lasted not one but three days, during which friends and family from surrounding villages would come to visit.

In most villages on New Year’s Eve, children would go from house to house “sowing” seeds around the rooms, trying hard to throw some onto the bed as this was thought to bring prosperity to the household. The house was not to be swept until the next morning, so as not to sweep out the prosperity. Villagers welcomed the “sowers” warmly, offering them kalachi (a type of sweet bun) and pirogi (a type of pie). The children, in turn, would chant as they “sowed”:

We wish you a Happy New Year,
As we sow, sow. sow.
Loosen up your purse strings,
Spare us a few coins.

Sometimes they would add:

Lord, do produce for the Traveller,
For the Passer-by
and for the Greedy Soul.

Adults would get together and make cheese vareniki (dumplings), which was the traditional dish for Novyi God festivities. At nightfall, the villages would glitter with a thousand sparkles: it was children walking down the village streets carrying homemade torches they called “candles” or “lanterns”, which in fact were long sticks with rags tied to one end that had been dipped into paraffin oil and lit up.

The following day, on January 1, the young people would masquerade as gypsies and, while going from house to house, repeat quite a different refrain that was both humorous and foreboding:

Lady Bounty – spare a dumpling.
If you can’t spare a dumpling,

give me some pie.
Won’t give me pie,

I’ll grab your bull by the horns,
Your mare by the forelock,

take them to the fair,
And sell them for a few kopecks.

They were also treated to cakes and vodka. The festivities would then brim over into the street: people in holiday dress would stroll about the village, and children and young people would go sleigh-riding in horse-drawn sledges which the Doukhobors were reputed for. The sledges were brightly painted and each sledge owner would display his most colorful harness.

Like thousands of young girls throughout Russia, Doukhobor maidens performed divination rituals on New Year’s Eve and on all the following evenings until Khreshcheniye. They sought to divine their fate and, more specifically, get a glimpse of their future husbands. There was an array of divination rites they could chose from. For instance, a young girl might take a pail of water, hang a lock on the handle and put the key under her pillow so as to conjure up in her dreams a vision of her future husband who would come for a drink of water; or else she might bake an overly salty bun and eat it at bedtime so that her fiancé might bring her some water to quench her thirst. Young Doukhobor girls would also get together in a barn and chase sheep. Should a girl catch a ewe, it was thought that she would marry a young man; should she catch a ram, it was thought that she would marry a widower. One of the most popular divination rites was throwing a shoe over the yard gate: the direction the shoe toe pointed in as it fell was the direction the maiden would take to find her husband.

No one “sows seeds” anymore, nor do the young people dress up as gypsies. However, on New Year’s Eve in the streets of Gorelovka, children still light “candles” and adults still gather to enjoy the traditional vareniki prepared by the women.

When the new-style calendar was introduced in Russia in 1918, Doukhobors started celebrating the New Year twice: on January 1, according to the new style, as well as on January 14, according to the old style.

The Doukhobors have always celebrated Khreshcheniye and still do at the present time, commemorating the descent of the Holy Spirit onto the Son of man, the day divine grace was bestowed onto Jesus Christ in his human incarnation. On the eve of January 6, the Doukhobors would assemble for prayer, then on the way home, each person would try to draw some water from a well, river or spring; as this water was considered blessed, therefore endowed with purifying powers, it was sprinkled around the house, the barn and the stable; it was used in washing up and was also given to drink to the sick.

The next holiday was Maslenitsa, or Maslena, as the Doukhobors called it. It was preceded by Nedelya Sviatykh Praotsev (“Forefathers’ Week”), a time to commemorate ancestors and make traditional blini (pancakes). According to Doukhobor custom, the first pancake went to the household dog because it was believed that “man was eating the dog’s share”, a saying that stems from an old Russian legend. According to the legend, long ago, wheat plants had grain filled spires descending all the way to the ground. However, people did not treat bread with the respect it deserved. When God saw how people squandered bread, he decided to punish them by taking it away. Having grasped an ear of wheat with his hands, he began shelling it. Suddenly, when there were just a few grains left on the very top of the ear, a dog howled plaintively. God took pity on him and left him a few kernels. The Doukhobors have always had a very respectful attitude towards bread. It was considered a sin to throw out a piece of bread or to brush off bread crumbs onto the floor.

For the Doukhobors, Maslena began on Saturday and lasted for three days. Neighbors would go visiting, wishing each other a “Happy Maslena”. In certain villages it was customary to masquerade during this holiday. Mothers would sew special pockets onto their children’s belts so they could fill them with tasty kalachi given to them by housewives as they went from door to door, offering greetings.

On Sunday, young people would organize horse-drawn sleigh ride parties. Sunday evening was Proshchenoe Voskresen’e (“Sunday of Forgiveness”) when Doukhobors in groups of five to ten people would go to the homes of elders and bowing low three times beg for the forgiveness of their sins. Or they could say: “Forgive us our sins on this Sunday of Forgiveness”. And the elders would answer: “The Good Lord will forgive your sins”, then all would embrace as evidence of forgiveness. The hosts would either set the table or give the visitors some treats to take along and the group would then go to the next home.

Chistyi Ponedel’nik (“Pure Monday”) marked the beginning of Lent for Orthodox Russians. Although the Doukhobors did not observe Lent in the religious sense, they retained the name of this holiday for the last day of Maslena. In Rodionovka, Chistyi Ponedel’nik was a time to “grieve”: the villagers were sorry to see Maslena come to an end; they would eat and drink the leftovers from the holiday festivities. In the village of Spasovka, it was customary “to rinse one’s mouth” on Chistyi Ponedel’nik, whereas in Troitskoye, the first guest to enter a home was made to sit on a coat turned fur-side-out and forced to eat, as it was believed that if the guest ate well, it would be a good year for the hosts with respect to their cattle. In Novo-Gorelovka in the province of Elizavetpol, the villagers would pitch in and fry eggs together.

Nowadays, people still get together for Maslena to enjoy themselves and eat the traditional blini, although the festivities are much more modest than in the past.

There existed in Russia the age-old tradition of “ushering in the spring” on March 9. In order to hasten the arrival of warm weather, children would fling up into the air soroki (sweet buns baked in the shape of magpies). According to the Orthodox calendar, March 9 was the Day of the Forty Martyrs or Soroki as it was popularly called (soroki means both “magpies” and “forty”). In all the villages, Doukhobor women made soroki buns. They placed buttons, kopecks and other small objects into the dough, each time making a wish related to the well-being of their cattle. Later, as they ate the “little magpies”, the villagers had fun guessing what the future held for their cattle and poultry. For instance, it was believed that if a kopeck stood for a cow, the cow of the person eating the bun with the kopeck would give him plenty of milk; someone else might be lucky with his chickens, sheep or other animals. Soroki was not considered an important holiday and therefore it was a workday as usual. Today the younger generation of Doukhobors have no idea what the “little magpies” were.

March 25 was Blagoveshcheniye (“Annunciation”), a very important holiday when no one worked in all of Russia. It commemorates the announcement made to the Virgin Mary by the archangel Gabriel that she would give birth to the Son of God. It was considered a sin for anyone to work on Blagoveshcheniye, even though many people, including the Doukhobors, made a point of not celebrating the holiday in the religious sense. There was a saying that on that day “birds do not nest, maidens do not braid their hair”. On that day, Doukhobors usually assembled for worship. Women and young girls would dress up in new clothes that they would have made especially for the occasion.

Verbnoye Voskresen’e (“Palm Sunday”), the Sunday preceding Easter, was not celebrated in the religious sense, although it was a tradition for young people to call on their neighbors very early in the morning; if they found anyone of their peers still in bed, they would “whip” him or her with a pussy willow rod while reciting the whole time:

Pussy willow rod,
Whip him till he weeps.
The pussy willow’s whipping,
Not me.

Mothers would pretend to whip their young children with pussy willow rods while reciting this verse. The very same rods were later used for turning cattle out to pasture for the first time after the winter.

Doukhobors usually tried to send their cattle to pasture for the first time in the spring on the feast day of St. Egorii on April 23, Egorov Den’. However, because of the rigorous climatic conditions that prevailed where they lived in Georgia, that event was generally postponed until May. In Russia, St. Egorii was the patron saint of horses. Therefore, on Egorov Den’, all Russian peasants, including the Doukhobors, would let their horses rest, brush them down, pamper them and feed them well. This tradition has long since been consigned to oblivion.

Easter has always been one of the most important Christian holidays in Russia. During Strastnaya Nedelya (“Holy Week”), or Strashnaya as it was called, which precedes Paskha (“Easter Sunday”), Orthodox Russians were particularly devout in their observance of Lent which commenced on Chistyi Ponedel’nik and lasted for seven weeks. The Doukhobors did not fast as such during Lent; however, they were very scrupulous in their attempts to refrain from sinning both verbally and in deed during Strashnaya.

On Velikaya Pyatnitsa (“Good Friday”), women dyed eggs with onion peels and baked Easter cakes. During the night that preceded Paskha, Doukhobors would assemble for prayer, then wish each other a Happy Easter by kissing three times and exchanging eggs. In the village of Gorelovka, women would take Easter cakes to the Sirotsky Dom (“Orphan’s Home”) and hand them out to the old people after prayer. On Paskha, everyone went to the cemetery to put eggs on the graves of relatives and visit the graves of deceased Doukhobor leaders, to pray for them and to revive their memory. These rituals are still very much alive today and Easter prayer meetings are the most attended of all.

Another Doukhobor tradition was to put a few dyed eggs into the barn for the khozya (“master”) as some of them called the fairytale household spirit; others referred to it as domovoi. Children would play with the eggs, rolling them along grooves during the three days of Easter festivities.

A week after Easter Caucasian Doukhobors celebrated Krasnaya Gorka (“Glorious Hill”), a very old Russian folk festivity that originated in pre-Christian times. Villagers treated each other to eggs left over from Easter or else they dyed the eggs. At the beginning of the 20th century, this festival lost its original meaning and became a holiday for Doukhobor children and young people. Parties were thrown for children where they played with eggs and ate fried eggs. Young people would get together; girls would pitch in and make fried eggs, while the young men took care of beverages. It has been several decades now that the holiday has not been celebrated.

The second Sunday after Easter was Zheny Mironositsy, or Zheny, and was considered a holiday for women. People of all ages would get together and make the traditional fried eggs. In the 1920’s, Zheny became the holiday of the village of Orlovka instead of the festival of Den’ Kazanskoi Bogomateri. This occurred after the departure of some Doukhobors from Orlovka to Canada and later, Rostov, after which many Doukhobors from Gorelovka settled in Orlovka but refused to commemorate the Kazanskaya. The village then opted for Zheny as its holiday, even though some people continued to worship the Kazanskaya. In the past, Zheny celebrations lasted three days, whereas now the holiday is observed very modestly, if at all.

Seven weeks after Easter, all Doukhobor villages celebrated Troitsa, a festival that lasted for three days in honour of the Holy Trinity: God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Doukhobors used to say. “Trinity is when God descends onto the ranks of the righteous who are his Apostles. The first day, Jesus Christ appeared to the Apostles; he spent the second day consolidating his Throne, bestowing wisdom onto his Apostles and the power to resurrect the dead and give sight to the blind; the third day, they prayed and then went to preach in the name of the Holy Trinity: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

After worship, on Troitsa, Doukhobors usually went to the cemetery to pray on the graves of their deceased leaders. During the first two days of the Troitsa holiday, they greeted each other with the words “Happy Trinity”, whereas on the third day, which was the last, they would say “Farewell”, bidding farewell to the holiday. Doukhobors still celebrate Troitsa, the elders assemble for prayer, while the young assemble to enjoy themselves. To mark spring and summer festivals, and particularly the Troitsa holiday, young people usually got together somewhere on a hillock, in a clearing or a hollow to sing and dance, keeping out of sight of the stern elders. There were also places where young people from several villages would meet so that young men could court the girls.

The next major holiday observed by Doukhobors was Petrov Den’ celebrated on June 29 in commemoration of the saints Peter and Paul. It was celebrated throughout Russia and held particular significance for Doukhobors, as it was the name day of two outstanding Doukhobor leaders: Petr Ilarionovich Kalmykov who died in 1864 and Petr Vasilyevich Verigin who became leader of the “Large Party” of Doukhobors after the 1887 schism. It was for this reason that in 1895 the followers of Petr Verigin chose to burn their arms on Petrov Den’ to protest against war and violence. Thus this day soon became a holiday in memory of those who had been persecuted, having endured extreme trials and tribulations on account of their faith.

After 1895, Petrov Den’ was celebrated only by Doukhobors belonging to the “Large Party”, comprised of Doukhobors from all villages except for Gorelovka. They would assemble under the cliff where the arms burning had taken place, pray by the piously revered peshcherochki (“little cave”), a place that was particularly cherished by Lukeria Kalmykova, their beloved leader who passed away in 1886. Then they would spread about blankets and have a picnic. At present, Petrov Den’ is celebrated on July 12 according to the new-style calendar. Very few people, for the most part elderly women from the neighboring villages of Orlovka and Spasovka, still gather around the peshcherochki.

Frolov Den’, the feast day of St. Frol and Lavr, or simply Khrol as the Doukhobors call it, was the patron holiday of the village of Gorelovka, which used to be celebrated for three days. An important prayer meeting took place at the Sirotsky Dom on August 18, which marked the first day of the holiday. Later that day, Doukhobors would go visiting or welcome visitors from neighboring villages. Khrol was considered to be the holiday of matchmaking and launched the season when young men could send in matchmakers. In other villages, however, matchmaking began on the holiday of Pokrov.

Pokrov, celebrated on October 1, was the holiday adopted by the Doukhobors of Spasovka and those of Novo-Pokrovka in Kars, province. Doukhobor elders explain that this holiday was instituted in honour of the Holy Virgin who bestowed her protection upon people by covering them with her Holy Mantle.

As matchmaking rituals traditionally took place during the holiday of Pokrov, marriages began to be celebrated on Den’ Kazanskoi Bogomateri on October 22, after all field work had been completed. This was a holiday instituted by the Orthodox Church in honour of the Kazanskaya, the icon of Our Lady of Kazan. For Doukhobors, however, it acquired a different meaning: it was a day of remembrance for the warriors who had fallen during the siege of Kazan. Den’ Kazanskoi Bogomateri was the patron holiday of Tambovka as well as the villages of Orlovka, Novo-Spasovka, in Elizavetpol province, and in Novo-Troitskoye, in Kars province until the 1920’s.

The villagers of Rodionovka, which is located in the vicinity of Tambovka on Lake Paravani, did not have a holiday of their own. They too adopted Den’ Kazanskoi Bogomateri as their patron holiday.

For three days, beginning on November 8, Mikhailov Den’, the village of Efremovka honoured its patron saint, the archangel Mikhail. A month later, on December 6, the village of Troitskoye celebrated Nikolin Den (“St. Nikolai’s Day”) in honour of its patron saint, Nikolai the Wonderworker, or Mikola as he was called. According to the ethnographer V.D. Bonch-Bruevich, the Doukhobors of Troitskoye stopped commemorating Nikolin Den’ after the Burning of Arms and in protest of the subsequent persecutions of Doukhobors, because Nikolai or Mikola also happened to be the first name of the tsar, Nicolas I. Troitskoye, however, reinstated its holiday when the Doukhobors belonging to the Large Party left for Canada.

Conclusion

It was predominantly during the autumn and winter, when field work was completed, that Doukhobor holidays were celebrated with festivities as social gatherings, parties, merrymaking in the streets and sleigh rides. It was then that people had time to enjoy themselves. Moreover, the new harvest and freshly prepared food supplies enabled Doukhobors to set a lavish table for their guests. People unfamiliar with the customs and rituals of Doukhobors of the Caucasus often had the erroneous impression that they were generally austere villagers, opposed to all forms of merriment. In actuality, the Doukhobors did enjoy festivities, although elders say that when they were young, the old people would chide them and forbid them to play musical instruments and dance; then in the same breath and with the greatest pleasure they reminisce of times they would get together and, in spite of everything, humming a dance tune, they would dance in a hollow or in someone’s house. It can be said that the Doukhobors always worked hard and enjoyed themselves just as intensely.

Editorial Note

To Ms. Inikova’s detailed and scholarly work must be added several holidays, celebrated by Doukhobors in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Caucasus, but evidently no longer observed or remembered at the time that she conducted her field research. These have been documented by the editor Jonathan J. Kalmakoff from Doukhobor oral tradition, toponymy and from ethnographer V.D. Bonch-Bruevich’s collection of Doukhobor psalms, songs, hymns and prayers.

Vosneseniye (the “Ascension”) was an important Christian holiday in Russia. Observed on the Thursday after the fifth Sunday after Easter, it commemorates Christ’s bodily ascent to Heaven in the presence of his disciples, following his resurrection. It was a holiday celebrated by the village of Efremovka. When Doukhobors from this village left for Canada, they named one of their new villages Vosneseniye in remembrance of this holiday.

In July, during haying time, the Doukhobors of Rodionovka village celebrated Lushechkin Pokos (“Lushechka’s Mowing”) or Kalmykov Pokos (“Kalmykov’s Mowing”) as it was also called. It was a thanksgiving festival associated with Doukhobor leader Lukeria Kalmykova, who visited the village annually at this time. People came from near and far to join the festivities. Everyone pitched in to help prepare the feast, which consisted of shishliki (a Caucasian dish prepared with marinated lamb), vareniki and slivnyi halushki (dumplings made with prunes, eaten with melted butter). Large cast iron pots and kettles were assembled to cook the food. Also, as the village was located on Lake Paravani, large quantities of fish were caught using barkasi (large fishing barges), then prepared by boiling them, allowing them to cool and then gel in large wooden tubs. After much eating, singing and thanksgiving, it was the custom for the men of the village to take their wives or girlfriends and dunk them in the lake.

On July 20 according to the old style, the Doukhobors of Slavyanka village in Elizavetpol province celebrated Ilyin Den’  in memory of St. Ilya (Elijah), the 9th century BC Hebrew prophet who proclaimed God’s judgment and retribution. In Russian folk belief, thunder, fire and lightening were believed to be the special provenance of Elijah, and people expected thunderstorms and rain each year on his feast day.

Uspenie (the “Assumption”) was a holiday celebrated by Christians throughout Russia on August 15 according to the old style. It commemorates the Virgin Mary’s passage into Heaven following her death. It was a holiday celebrated by the village of Troitskoye as well as the village of Terpeniye in Kars province. When Doukhobors from these villages left for Canada, and later Rostov, they named several of their new villages after this holiday.

Finally, it should be noted that in Canada in the early 1900’s, the celebration of traditional holidays was abolished by Doukhobor leader Petr Vasilyevich Verigin, who considered them to be unnecessary and superfluous to the spiritual development of his followers. The exception was Petrov Den’, which continued to be celebrated by Doukhobors who left Verigin’s communal organization in Canada to become independent farmers. 

For a comprehensive calendar of the Doukhobor holidays and festivals discussed in this work, click here.

About the Author

Dr. Svetlana A. Inikova is a senior researcher at the Institute of Ethnography and Anthropology of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow.  Considered one of the world’s foremost authorities on the Doukhobors, Svetlana has conducted extensive archival research and has participated in several major ethnographic expeditions, including field research among the Doukhobors of Georgia and Azerbaijan in the late 1980’s and 1990’s and a North American ethnographic expedition on the Doukhobors in 1990.  She has published numerous articles on the Doukhobors in Russian and English and is the author of History of the Doukhobors in V.D. Bonch-Bruevich’s Archives (1886-1950s): An Annotated Bibliography (Ottawa: Legas and Spirit Wrestlers, 1999) and Doukhobor Incantations Through the Centuries (Ottawa: Legas and Spirit Wrestlers, 1999).

For more online articles about the Doukhobors by Svetlana A. Inikova, see Spiritual Origins and the Beginnings of Doukhobor History as well as Leo Tolstoy’s Teachings and the Sons of Freedom in Canada.

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.

Doukhobors: An Endangered Species

by Dr. John I. Postnikoff

The following is an excerpt from an address given by Dr. John I. Postnikoff at the Postnikoff Family Reunion held in Blaine Lake, Saskatchewan in 1977. Now, decades later, more than ever, his speech forcefully captures the dilemma of assimilation and cultural change challenging Doukhobors today. Reproduced from the pages of MIR magazine, No. 16 (Grand Forks, BC: MIR Publication Society, May, 1978).

…At this point, I would like to share with you some observations on our role in present and future society, and mention some facts about minority groups in general. An outside observer in our midst would be hard pressed to detect any difference between us and a group of Anglo-Saxon Canadians. I recognize the fact there may be some here from other racial backgrounds.

1. We are absolutely fluent in the English language, in fact, much more so, than in Russian. Why am I speaking in English this morning? Well, it is a great deal easier, believe me.

2. Our dress is non distinctive, call it North American. The ladies are not wearing embroidered shawls, the men are not exposing their shirt tails, and not wearing sheep skin coats. 

It was not always so, however. Our dress, speech and mannerisms are a far cry from our forefathers, who disembarked on Canadian soil in 1899. They were immigrants from Russia, members of a sect which emerged into history around the middle of the 17th century. They called themselves “People of God” or “Spiritual Christians”, implying that adherents of other sects or churches were only false Christians. The name Doukhobor, like other names treasured afterwards, was first used in anger and derision by one of their opponents, the Archbishop Serebrenikov of Ekaterinoslav in 1785. It means Spirit Wrestlers, and was intended by the Orthodox Archbishop to suggest they were fighting “against” the Holy Ghost. Its followers changed the meaning, claiming they fought “with” the spirit of God which was within them.

Allow me to skip one hundred years of history, marked by good times and bad times, persecutions and migrations, and bring you to the year 1886. Following the death of Lukeria Kalmykova (affectionately known as “Lushechka”) a major struggle developed between Lukeria’s brother Mikhail Gubanov and her apparent successor Peter Verigin concerning leadership of the group and control of the Orphan Home assets valued at roughly one million rubles. The quarrel split the sect into two factions. Those acknowledging Verigin’s spiritual leadership became known as the “Large Party”.

Since the government officials were in sympathy with Gubanov, Verigin was exiled to Siberia. This strengthened his position and his followers now regarded him as a martyr. While in exile, he met disciples of Tolstoy and became acquainted with his literature. As subsequent events proved, this had a profound affect on his outlook. He began to indoctrinate his subjects in peasant communism, pacifism, and defiance of government.

Doukhobor Leader Peter “Lordly” Verigin.

One of his directives, delivered by loyal messengers, pertained to military service, which later resulted in their expulsion from Russia. All loyal followers were not to bear arms, and to show they meant business, destroy all their weapons, which were in ample supply. This directive was obeyed, all muskets were placed in one big pile, doused with kerosene, and put to the torch.

Such a display of defiance was not to pass unnoticed by Tsar Nicholas II and his officials. Punishment, suffering, and persecution followed, which made headlines in the Western World. Quakers in England and United States, Tolstoy in Russia, rallied to their aid, and it can safety be said that without their moral and financial support, migration to Canada would never have been a reality.

Canada was suggested as a safe haven by Peter Kropotkin, a Russian anarchist living in England. Contacts were made with the Canadian Government, which appeared sympathetic. A group headed by Aylmer Maude, Prince Khilkov, and Doukhobor delegates Makhortoff and Ivin, were delegated to find a suitable locality for resettlement. They were directed to Edmonton, where twelve townships consisting of 572 square miles were available. The party agreed this would be an ideal site, returning to Ottawa to finalize the arrangements, An obstacle however was placed in their path by the Conservative opposition and the plan did not reach fruition.

I am going to ask you to stretch your powers of imagination and consider for a moment, what kind of Doukhobor society would have evolved if the chain of circumstances had been different than what actually took place:

1. Suppose there was no opposition to the block settlement near Edmonton, and all of the 7,000 plus immigrants were allowed to settle in this area and initiate an experiment in religious communism.

2. Verigin was allowed to leave Russia, accompany his subjects to Canada and be the first to step on Canadian soil. 

3. Land ownership was acquired without the controversial Oath of Allegiance.

How would this ethnic group, tightly knit by blood ties and cultural bonds, succeed in this experiment? Would a society have emerged like the Hutterites and Mennonites, agrarian in nature, committed to self sustenance and isolation from neighbours? Such an arrangement, of course, is an attempt to form a state within a state, a Dukhoboria. Would we have fared better under this arrangement? Conflict arises whenever a minority group is pitted against a dominant majority. Interaction between them, by its very nature, is competitive and is marked by hostility at many points. I have a feeling, no concrete evidence, just a feeling, that internal dissension coupled with external pressures would have been too much for many independent souls, like my grandfather. They would have “packed it in” and set up an Independent existence on available homesteads. The venture would have collapsed like it did in British Columbia years later. Back to reality however:

1. Peter Verigin did not arrive in Canada from his Siberian exile until 1902.

2. Land was not available in one block. Settlers were split into three groups, two in the Yorkton area and one in Prince Albert. Free from Verigin’s leadership, the Prince Albert group especially were already beginning to feel at home in their new surroundings. 

3. The Canadian Government insisted on registration of vital statistics and the Oath of Allegiance as a prerequisite for land ownership. This resulted in a mass migration to British Columbia under Verigin’s instigation. Many chose not to leave and remained in Saskatchewan, including most of the Prince Albert group. They accepted the Oath of Allegiance and became independent operators on their newly acquired homesteads.

Why did some stay behind rather than move to British Columbia? Perhaps they had second thoughts about collective ownership and all its ramifications. The offer of free land, even with strings attached, was a temptation hard to resist. They came from the land, they loved the soil. To them, it was a means of livelihood and economic independence. They began to clear the land and build log dwellings with sod roofs.

Tasting independence, a luxury long denied them, they came in contact with immigrants of Anglo-Saxon, Irish, Ukrainian and Polish origin. From this point, precisely, forces of assimilation, began to alter old patterns which had been in existence for decades.

Children were enrolled in public schools where they came in contact with students of different racial origin. In school they were exposed to a new language, different from the one spoken at home. For those not destined to take up farming as an occupation, it was a natural and easy step to High schools and Universities. In a short space of time, a community which knew only agrarian skills for hundreds of years had a new breed in its midst. This was a change of major proportions. Lawyers, engineers, school teachers, doctors, dentists, nurses, accountants etc., arrived on the scene, fluent in English, different only in name. Along with their agrarian cousins, they willingly accepted all that modern technology had to offer: cars, tractors, combines, television and radio. The Russian tongue was heard less frequently and in most homes English became the language of choice.

The basic dogma of our religion became a lively issue during the First and Second World Wars, more so in the Second. I can recall mother telling me when the late Peter Makaroff was conscripted in the First World War, how the Doukhobors rallied to his aid. They threatened not to harvest their grain if Peter was taken into the army, so the government did not press the issue. In the Second World War, some of our young men did alternative service under army supervision, but there was no persecution such as experienced in Tsarist Russia. Can it be Doukhobors perform best under pressure, and a crisis of major proportions might make us realize that out cultural identity is slipping away? In peace time, the issue tends to fade into the background as it does not affect our day to day activities. In other words, “the shoe is not pinching”.

After 80 years in Canada, what is the present state of affairs? We have to admit, we are in a retreating situation. I think we are all in agreement on this point. Our language has fallen into disuse; few remain who can speak it fluently. Our prayer homes are empty; many of the former worshippers are throwing in their lot with other faiths, Baptists, Mormons, Pentecostals, Jehovah Witnesses, United Church. Our young people are exchanging their marriage vows in other faiths.

Granted, the Doukhobor Community in Saskatoon is expert in making large crusty loaves of bread in outdoor ovens during exhibition week. We still like our borshchpirogi and blintsi. Outside of this, little remains. What I am really saying is we are not a healthy ethnic group with our heritage at our fingertips.

The number of Doukhobors claiming membership in the sect is declining at an alarming rate especially in the last years. Let us look at some figures from Statistics Canada:

Year Quantity
1921 12,674
1931 14,978
1941 16,898
1951 13,175
1961 13,234
1971 9,170

A drop of 4000 in the last 10 years. Geographical distribution per 1971 census is as follows:

Province Quantity
Newfoundland 5
Nova Scotia 10
New Brunswick 20
Quebec 220
Ontario 175
Manitoba 130
Saskatchewan 1,675
Alberta 200
British Columbia 6,720
North West Territories 10

If we estimate the number in Canada from this stock around 20,000 plus, more than half have left. Another suitable topic for my talk could be: “Lost, 10,000 Doukhobors”. We are one of the few religious groups experiencing a decline. Some examples to substantiate this in round figures:

Denomination 1921 1971
Baptists 422,000 667,000
Mormons 19,000 66,000
Hutterites & Mennonites 58,000 168,000
Pentecostals 7,000 220,000
Jehovah Witnesses 6,500 174,000

I am going to ask you once again to stretch your imagination. Assume a hypothetical situation, a gifted individual with our ethnic background arrives on the scene. He or she possesses the organizing ability of Kolesnikov, and like Lushechka, has charisma and personality. Sincere and trustworthy, he makes enough of us realize, like the whooping crane, we are an endangered species on the verge of extinction, and if we are going to salvage anything from the wreckage, we had better do something about it. There is no time to lose. He draws our attention to George Woodcock’s statement in the May 1977 issue of MIR, “unless there is a change in your attitude towards the practical things of social existence, Doukhoborism will not survive as it has existed in historic times”.

His message gets through to enough interested sympathizers. They form a committee (it seems to get anything done, you need a committee). Their terms of reference: to survey in depth, the Doukhobor dilemma and formulate a plan of action that might have some hope of reviving our cultural heritage. You will agree they have their work cut out for them. It will require tact, diplomacy, the patience of Job, and the wisdom of Solomon. They are well aware their proposals must appeal not only to all age groups but also to those who have left the sect. Hopefully they may be enticed to return. As assimilation has progressed at a faster rate in Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Vancouver than in Grand Forks and the Kootenays, the situation in these areas will have to be looked at more closely.

What are the factors which give authenticity to minority groups in general? Basically only three: language, religion, and folk arts. Take these away, a minority group could hardly perform the tasks necessary for survival or train the next generation in its way of life.

The importance of language is best expressed in the 1970 Report on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. I quote: “The significance of language retention in the over all question of cultural retention is one of the most important working assumptions of this study. Language is an essential expression of a culture. Although it is noted, some groups do retain distinctive cultural traits despite their disappearing native language, (as in the case of the Acadians in the Maritimes, and Canadian Jews) the commission felt in most cases the original cultural traits survive only partially after the adoption of the dominant language. They almost disappear after several generations. Thus culture and language cannot be dissociated”.

When our Committee surveyed the language situation, this is what they discovered. Very few people remain who are fluent in Russian. Those left who came from Russia and first generation Canadians have a good working knowledge; second and third generation Canadians will not get a good score. Why has the language fallen into disuse? Because there is no economic need for it. Nearly all of us earn our bread and butter with the use of English. It is the only language we use at work. Language is like a garden; a garden requires constant attention, watering, cultivating, spraying. Neglect it and weeds take over. Language is the same. Fluency is only maintained by constant use.

Russian – the traditional language.

A similar pattern runs through all minority groups. A survey on non official languages in Canada, came up with this finding: “Fluency decreases rapidly from generation to generation. It drops sharply in the second generation and is almost non-existent in the third and older generations”. In five Canadian cities, Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Edmonton and Vancouver among the Ukrainians, it was found 63.6% were fluent in the first generation, 18.9% in the second, dropping to .7% in the third. That is, only 7 out of 1000 knew their ethnic tongue. We would not score any better. Needless to say, the survey ended on a discouraging note. However these recommendations were put forward by the Committee. First, it is mandatory all who have a knowledge of Russian speak it in the home and other appropriate places. I asked one of my cousins if he and his wife spoke Russian. His answer was “only when we have an argument”. It seems Russian uncomplimentary words pack a more forceful punch than their English counterparts. Secondly, school boards would be approached to include Russian in the curriculum with some subjects taught in that language. Thirdly, intermarried families pose a problem. I might be unpopular for suggesting the “other” partner be encouraged to learn Russian. My wife, Audrey, mastered fifty pages of grammar, but could not continue when her teacher failed to show up for classes.

The Committee found a divergence of opinion when it tackled the problem of divine worship. Furthermore, many suggestions were charged with emotion and prejudice. I must admit my knowledge of our worship service is meagre and I have to rely on my childhood recollections here in Blaine Lake and one year in British Columbia. One thing that stands out in my memory: no individual was designated to take charge of the service; the lot usually fell to the most able orator. If the situation has changed here and in British Columbia, I apologize for my remarks. It was not only an occasion for worship, but pertinent business matters were discussed. To my dear grandmother, it was also a social occasion, she never left for worship without her supply of roasted sun flower seeds in her home-made pouch, and she must have raised the blood pressure of many a speaker trying to deliver his message above the crackle of sunflower seeds.

The Committee were amazed at the number of problems that confronted them in devising a form of worship acceptable to meet the needs of modern Doukhobor Canadians. Who will assume responsibility for religious instruction? Will we delegate one individual on a full time or part time basis, and how will he or she be paid? What will be his or her official title? Priests are anathema. He or she will require credentials. He or she would be expected to possess a basic knowledge of theology in order to express religious truths to a fairly sophisticated congregation. Dwelling only on past exploits of our forefathers, noble as they are, would soon empty the church.

What about the Bible? Pobirokhin rejected the Bible, believing it to be a source of dissension among Christians. Silvan Kolesnikov used the New Testament. Can this be a reason why many have left our ranks, many who have come to regard the Bible as a source of inspiration and spiritual truths about our Master, do not see a Bible in our prayer homes?

What about music? We have not allowed musical instruments in our prayer homes; the only music has been choral rendition of psalms and hymns. Choral psalms would have to find a place in our liturgy; although they are complex and difficult to understand, they are unique and steeped in tradition. Prayer homes will be a place where our young people exchange their marriage vows. A modern bride will not be content unless she can walk down the aisle to the strains of Wagner’s Wedding March played on the organ.

What priority will be given to Christian education for children? There has not been an organized plan of instruction to teach Bible stories and religious precepts to our youth. This was done in the home. Regular church attendance in adulthood must be initiated in childhood.

It has been suggested a scholarship be made available to an enterprising student willing to specialize in that branch of anthropology dealing with preservation and perpetuation of folk arts. Perhaps he could arouse sufficient interest to initiate a cultural museum which could serve as a focal point for preserving our past heritage. The building would have an auditorium where family reunions such as this could meet and get acquainted with their “kith and kin”.

Participation in ethnic organizations has been regarded an important means by which language and culture are maintained. In fact, the Royal Commission research reported a positive correlation between a sense of ethnic identity and participation in ethnic organizations.

I have discussed some of the problems that face us if we are to restore and preserve our heritage. Are we equal to the task? Frankly, I am pessimistic. Too much water has gone under the bridge; we have probably passed the point of no return. I would like to be an optimist, but the hard facts militate against it. My reasons are: 

1. We are not sufficiently motivated. Motivation comes from a deep conviction that a certain goal must be achieved irrespective of cost. We are not that committed. It would take a great deal of energy and sacrifice to implement the proposals suggested. This would encroach on our lifestyle, and too many of us are set in our ways. We experience no job discrimination, or social isolation.

2. We are outnumbered, twenty-two million against ten thousand. Wherever we turn, culture of the dominant majority confronts us, which in fact, we have adopted. Quebec, with a population of four million, finds the French language is threatened by the dominance of English.

3. We are a house divided, splintered into groups. We do not present a united front. How could a Son of Freedom, an Orthodox and and Independent reach a consensus on their religious philosophy?

4. Our form of worship has not been updated to keep up with the times. Our principle precept, noble and virtuous, is not an urgent problem. Should there be a war, it is inconceivable that conventional weapons would be used, where we will be asked to bear arms. Heaven preserve us from another Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

What about the future? I’m going to make a prediction, knowing full well prognostication is fraught with danger. Doukhoborism as a viable cultural entity, fifty years hence, will cease to exist in the three Prairie provinces. We are witnessing its demise. Only major surgery and blood transfusions will revive it. Canadians, with Russian surnames, will be here, but there will be no common bond to unite them. Heirlooms, family albums, and long playing Russian records will be treasured as antiques, but the culture which gave them birth has been laid to rest with the spinning wheel and the bronze axe.

In British Columbia, specifically in Grand Forks and the Kootenays, total assimilation is meeting resistance. The younger generation are taking concrete steps to preserve their language and traditions. The new cultural centre in Brilliant is an asset in their favour. Still the tide is against them. Cultural identity in cities is difficult to preserve. Fred Samorodin in his article in MIR, March 1977, estimates there are 4,000 souls of Doukhobor background in Vancouver, only thirty-two claim membership in the Union of Young Doukhobors. 

The idea is expressed that migration back to Russia will save the group. Such a panacea is too fantastic to merit consideration. Can you see Communist Russia accepting a religious group on our terms? We would be strangers in the land where our forefathers trod. If the “be all and end all” of our life in Canada is the preservation of our heritage, then migration was a wrong move. Verigin rendered us a disservice. We should have fought it out with the Tsar. Our leader should have realized, once he brought his subjects to “Rome” they would “do as the Romans”.

Our problem is not unique, this is history of minority groups, repeating itself. Minority groups came into existence five thousand years ago with the development of a state or a nation. Only a state with the apparatus of government, can extend law and order over sub groups, who neither speak the same language, worship the same gods, nor strive for the same values. The Aztecs of Mexico, the Maya of Yucatan, the Inca of South America, once they became minority groups, disappeared with time, to become a name only.

What about the future? We should be filled with remorse in allowing a beautiful language, rich in poetry and prose to fall into disuse. We are not taking advantage of the opportunities in Russian studies presented by our higher institutions of learning. In this regard, we are the losers and great is our loss.

However as Christians, I believe Christ is calling us to be more wide awake than ever. Firstly, we must find peace within ourselves and brotherly love towards our neighbour. As Christians, we are called to make our Community a better place to live, and take action on such issues as: the preservation of our environment; violence on television; pornography; the plight of the underprivileged here and abroad; and discrimination in any form.

Above all, let us preserve the spirit which guided our forefathers in their exodus from tyranny to freedom. Observing the 6th Commandment “Thou shalt not kill”, they were loving their neighbour as themselves. Thank you.

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.

A Doukhobor Romance

Victoria Daily Colonist & Lima Times Democrat

“All the world loves a lover” – and his story. What follows is the story of Arthur Fortesque, a well-born, Oxford-bred Englishman and nephew of the Chief Steward of the Duke of Portland, who fell in love with Olga Varinhoff, a Doukhobor maiden in Canada in 1901. Renouncing caste, inheritance and English tradition, he married her and adopted her religion, customs and way of life. This story is a composite of two articles: a feature in the Victoria Daily Colonist published October 22, 1902, and a Lima Times Democrat feature published March 27, 1909. Although largely forgotten today, it is surely one of the most remarkable romances in Canadian and Doukhobor history. Afterword by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

The birth a few days ago [in March 1909] in a little town in the far Canadian Northwest of a baby girl recalls to the few who knew of the incident one of the most remarkable romances in history – the romance of Arthur Fortesque, a nephew of the Chief Steward of the Duke of Portland, and Olga Varinhoff, a Doukhobor maiden, then less than 20 years of age.

The story was suppressed carefully at the time, and the passing of a few years obliterated the memory of it among those friends of the young nobleman who were aware of it, for naturally it was the most pronounced kind of a mesalliance [Victorian term for a marriage with a person of inferior social position].

Oxford Roots

Fortesque, handsome and dashing, a recent graduate from Oxford University, where he took an honor course, disagreed with his family, and went to the Canadian West as a remittance man [Victorian term for an Englishman living abroad on funds remitted from his family in England, usually to ensure that he would not return home and become a source of embarrassment]. He was daring and devil-may-care by nature, and unless he kept it a secret carefully hidden, he was heart whole and fancy free. He reached Winnipeg when that city was just beginning to boom, and for some time, he hung around the western town, making friends among the restless western souls like himself who thronged the place. At Oxford, Fortesque had been a figure in athletics and at one time, he was prominently identified with rowing and aquatics. His name was familiar to many of the Englishmen he met in Winnipeg during his first few weeks there and he became popular with them. However, the wanderlust within him conquered his ambition to become a Winnipeg business man and he drifted south to Minneapolis, Minnesota across the line.

Life in Minneapolis

Fortesque lived in Minneapolis for two years, arriving there in 1899. He became known as a landscape painter of some distinction, but being perennially hard up when trying to subsist on money he received from his artistic endeavors, he succumbed to the persuasion of Fred W. Gretton, now senior member of the sign-painting combination of Fortier-Gretton on 213 Hennepin avenue, and began decorating windows for people who desired to secure stained glass effects without the expense of stain.

At this sort of enterprise Fortesque, who was then a fashionably-clad and handsome youth of 25, made good wages and supplemented his remittance from England of $100 a month.

In 1901, he refused to receive longer any financial aid from his uncle in England, who is Chief Steward of the estate of the Duke of Portland, and decided to make his own way in the world. This decision on the part of Fortesque appears to have been due to a religious conviction. Early in his Minneapolis career he became interested in Christian Science, and he continually preached the doctrine of Mrs. [Mary Baker] Eddy’s cult during his residence with Gretton, who regarded the views he expressed as visionary in the extreme and his declination of an income from his father’s estate as nothing short of suicidal.

It was at this time that the idea of visiting the Doukhobor colony in Western Canada formed in Fortesque’s mind. Sociology had been a hobby with him, and as the idea took form, he determined to get some money together and make a study of the customs and religion of the strange community of “Russian Quakers” to the north.

Fortesque first heard of the Doukhobors when he reached the ancient Canadian city of Quebec, and the story had been of deep interest to him. These people, he was told, had left their own homes in Russia because of their strange religious beliefs. The Russian government had hounded them until their spirit was bowed and broken. They would not fight because of their creed, and they had sought Canada, as the Puritans sought America in the pursuit of happiness and religious liberty. The Canadian government had given them grants of land, in the far West, and there they were living as communalists, apart from the world, industrious, peaceful, happy.

The tale appealed to Fortesque as little more than mythient, but in the West he heard more of this strange people and read a great deal about them, and the longing to understand them, to know their creed, ethics and simplicity of life, possessed him relentlessly. To this end, Fortesque left Minneapolis for Assiniboia [district], ostensibly for the reason that he felt more at home under the British flag.

Visit to Doukhobor Colony

It was midsummer 1901 when Fortesque reached the first of the Doukhobor colonies on the Saskatchewan River. He had bought a horse and outfit and he intended to go from colony to colony making friends with the dim notion of eventually publishing an account of his life among the Canadian Doukhobors. Behind this ambition, preserved for the future, was his expectation that he would one day return to England and claim his own among his own people. But here fate intervened.

Fortesque was “hiking” along a dusty trail in the Doukhobor country one hot afternoon when he came in sight of a spectacle that caused him to pull up short in bewilderment. Some distance to one side of the track he was following, he made out a band of women dressed in the gorgeous attire of the Dukhobortsy, laboriously hauling a plow, 16 to a yoke. Behind them, guiding the handles of the implement, trudged a broad-shouldered Doukhobor man.

The sight angered the young nobleman, and spurring his horse, he dashed across to a point where the human drudges must pass. Slowly and toilsomely, they came on, the women chanting in a minor key as they tugged at the ropes. Then they were abreast of him, and from the moment his eyes first rested on the sweet face of one of the women, a mere girl in her teens, Fortesque forgot his anger. The girl gazed at him shyly as she passed, and Fortesque thought hers the sweetest face he had ever seen.

The incident passed from the young man’s mind at the time, and he continued his journey to the outlying colonies, spending considerable time with each one. He was struck by their evident earnestness and sincerity in renunciation of the world’s vanities.

Then, one night, in a little cabin in one of the furthest colonies, when he was fighting off the lonesomeness that possessed him and the physical weariness, the face of the plow girl flashed into his memory. Responsive to the promptings of his impulsive nature, Fortesque started next morning for the colony where he had seen the girl, determined to seek her out and dispel the strange fancy that had taken hold of him by hearing her talk and by observing the crudities [unrefined nature] he knew she must possess.

The search for the girl presented more difficulties than the Englishman anticipated, and the longer he hunted, the stronger became the desire to see the girl’s face again. At last, by accident, he saw her among a group of women coming from a little church [prayer home]. Through friendship with the leaders of the colony, Fortesque was presented to the girl. Her name, he learned, was Olga Varinhoff.

Fortesque liked the name. The girl met him shyly but without affection, for simplicity was a part of her nature. Her clothes were outlandish, Fortesque admitted to himself, but despite his attempts to rid himself of the charm this peasant girl had for him, the young nobleman found her surprisingly sweet and womanly. She was different from any woman he had ever met.

Day after day, he spent more and more time with her, accompanying her on her journeys to and from work, for the girl would not consent to shirk her duties in the community.

In the end, Fortesque sank his pride and acknowledged to himself that he loved Olga Varinhoff, Doukhobor maiden. With the admission came a great happiness for he found that the girl cared for him, and disregarding British convention and Doukhobor custom, he took the little woman in his arms and kissed her after the manner of the Anglo-Saxon.

Decision to Join Colony

Fortesque, following this, made arrangements to become a member of the colony. He sent no word to his people. He decided his future in a moment, relinquishing his chance for fortune and title in his love for the peasant girl. He renounced the faith of his father and swapped the Church of England for the sect of the Doukhobors.

Some of his friends in the West heard of it and did their best to dissuade him. They warned him that his fancy for the girl would soon fade. But Fortesque turned his back on all objections and convincing the leaders of the colony that he was in earnest, he was received with the customary ceremonies into the community of the Dukhobortsy.

Soon afterwards, he and Olga Varinhoff were married, and in accordance with their rules of communal life, his brothers and sisters helped him and his bride to build a home. Fortesque adopted, in part, the Doukhobor dress and entered into the fullest extent into the life of the strange people with whom he had thrown in his lot, becoming by adoption a ‘Doukhobor of the Doukhobors’ and a vegetarian of pronounced views.

Fortesque’s action cut him off forever from his friends in England. His family, learning of his marriage sometime after it took place, disinherited him and forgot his existence.

Return to Minneapolis

It was back in Minneapolis that Fortesque’s extraordinary story was exposed to curiosity-mongers. He returned there from Assiniboia in October 1902, nine months after he left. He was bare-footed, his hair was 18 inches long, of the silken blond variety, and he refused to answer any questions that seemed to him unworthy of the mental effort necessitated in ordinary conversation.

“I have nothing at all to say about my change of faith,” said Fortesque when asked by a Minneapolis reporter. “I did not [just] become a Doukhobor because my wife is of that faith. I joined the band because I believe they are right, and there is excuse for my change of heart in the beliefs of other men, much more distinguished than I am. Tolstoi believes the Doukhobors are right, and so do scores of men in England quite as brilliant thinkers as he is. The trouble with them all is that they have not the courage of their convictions. I have nothing but my convictions to bother me. I would not be rich if I could be so now by the mere turning of my hand. I will never wear shoes again so long as I may live – that is, if they are made of leather. I may wear felt shoes in the winter, and I might even be persuaded to wear canvas shoes with rubber soles in the summer. I don’t want to go into all the ramifications of the Doukhobor belief. It would take too long, and might excite ridicule from unthinking people.”

But the interesting feature of this episode was that Fortesque was on his way to England, where he proposed to influence the British government, through influential relatives, to set apart a territory in South Africa to which the Doukhobors may remove from Assiniboia and be unhampered in their religious faith by the interference of government.

“I do not say what my intentions are, said Fortesque, “but there is certainly no reason why a people should not be permitted to do what it pleases with its own. I think our turning of our cattle into the hills was our own private business. We decided that it was wrong to work cattle. The government authorities have rounded the cattle up and sold them, but that, while unfortunate, is not our fault. I believe that the British government, which is able to get along with all sorts of Mohammedan sects in India and evade friction, ought to be able to find a corner in its broad dominions for so inoffensive a body as the Doukhobors, and I am going to find out whether or not this is so.”

Fortesque then left for Chicago on the Milwaukee road. When asked whether he intended to travel bare-footed, he curtly informed the newspaper man that it was none of his business, and refused to discuss any phase of his mission thereafter, the outcome of which is unknown.

Present Life

At present [in March 1909], by reason of his education, Fortesque has become one of the leaders of the colony. He and his wife live peacefully and apparently happily in Assiniboia district. They resent intrusion on the part of strangers and seem content to let the outside world do what it will. They have two children now, one but recently born.

Afterword

The story of the Englishman Arthur Fortesque and the Doukhobor maiden Olga Varinhoff has all the makings of a best-selling novel or Hollywood movie: romance, drama and adventure, with a dash of scandal and controversy tossed in for good measure. Not surprisingly, after the story first broke in October 1902, it was carried by dozens of newspapers throughout the Canadian and American West and caused quite a stir. It must be recalled that in the Victorian era, social class barriers were rigid and stratified; much more so than they are today.

According to the story, Fortesque (spelled Fortescue in some accounts), well-born and Oxford-bred, left England over a family disagreement in the late 1890’s. He sailed to Canada, arriving via Quebec City, and stayed briefly in Winnipeg, Manitoba before departing stateside for Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1899. There he lived and worked for two years as a landscape and window painter. During this time, he drew a monthly remittance from his uncle, the Chief Steward of the Duke of Portland (in some accounts his uncle is identified as the Duke of Portland). In mid-1901, the 25-year old Fortesque travelled to the Saskatchewan and Assiniboia districts of the Northwest Territories to visit the Doukhobor colonies. There, he met and fell in love with a Doukhobor maiden, Olga Varinhoff (possibly a misspelling of Varankoff, Varabioff, Vanin or Verigin), then less than 20 years of age. Renouncing his upper-crust English birthright, he married her and adopted the Doukhobor religion, customs and way of life. Thereafter, Fortesque fell in among the Doukhobor zealots who, in late 1901, released their horses and cattle into the wild and refused to use animal products. It was at the height of this hysteria that Fortesque returned to Minneapolis in late 1902, with bare feet and long hair, en route to Chicago. He was ostensibly travelling to England to persuade the British Government, through his influential relatives, to set apart land in South Africa for the Doukhobor zealots to live according to their beliefs. It is not known whether Fortesque carried out his mission; in any case, the Doukhobor zealots did not relocate to South Africa or elsewhere abroad. What is known is that by 1909, Fortesque was still living among the Doukhobors of the Assiniboia district (probably in the North or South Colony) with his wife and two children, where he attained a measure of local leadership on account of his education.    

Nothing is known about the fate of Arthur Fortesque after 1909.  A cursory search reveals no trace of him or his family among the Doukhobors in the available census and other records for the period.  His story is virtually forgotten among Doukhobors living in Canada today.  Clearly, further historical and genealogical research needs to be carried out to verify and elucidate this most interesting Doukhobor love story.

Special thanks to Corinne Postnikoff of Castlegar, British Columbia for assisting in the data input and proofing of this article.

Folk Furniture of Canada’s Doukhobors

by John Fleming and Michael Rowan

When the Doukhobors arrived in Western Canada in the late nineteenth century, the folk furniture they created reflected the traditional forms, construction methods and decorative motifs of Russia. A systematic comparison of their Canadian furniture to Russian pieces reveals the extent to which geography and Canadian society affected how the Doukhobors adopted and adapted these elements in their new environment, while at the same time retaining familiar forms and practices. The following article examines the issues of tradition, adaptation and innovation in the folk furniture of Canada’s Doukhobors. Reproduced by permission from The Magazine ANTIQUES (March 2007). Photos by James Chambers.

In recent years, an influx of folk furniture imported from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, northern Russia, in particular, has made it easier to compare the pieces made by Russian immigrants after their arrival in North American with examples that demonstrate the original context, in which the forms, construction methods, and decorative motifs were born. This comparative approach also addresses the perennial issues of tradition, adaptation and innovation in the transfer of these elements from the old world to the new.

Figure 1. Frame, Blewitt, British Columbia, early twentieth century. Spruce, overpaint removed to reveal original red, blue, yellow and green; height 20 1/4, width 16 inches.

This article is an attempt to systematically examine the furniture made by one group of Russian immigrants, the Doukhobors, who settled in the Canadian West and compare it to Russian pieces. But to understand and interpret the objects the Doukhobors made, and the context in which these people began as a nonconforming religious sect, we must first return to their origins in eighteenth century Russia and their arrival in Canada at the end of the nineteenth century.

Figure 2. Cupboard, North Colony near Chelan, Saskatchewan, early twentieth century. Pine, overpainted in light green, yellow and red, the latter probably original color; height 79, width 38 1/2, depth 21 1/2 inches. Canadian Museum of Civilization.

On January 20, 1899, the SS Lake Huron, thirty days out of Batum on the Black Sea arrived off Halifax, Nova Scotia, and its passengers disembarked the following day at Lawlor’s Island for quarantine inspection. The ship then proceeded onto Saint John, New Brunswick, where the settlers started their train trip west to Winnipeg in Manitoba and beyond. At Winnipeg, one group of men was sent ahead to begin preparations for the construction of houses and other necessary buildings. In the four months that followed, three other shiploads of immigrants arrived in Canada, bringing the total number of Doukhobors to about seventy-five hundred. James Mavor (1854-1925), a professor of economics at the University of Toronto and supporter of Doukhobor immigration to Canada, recorded on May 21, 1899: “At a station in the prairie last night, there was an American Indian in his native costume and with red paint or colour on his cheeks; also a crowd of Galicians who were coming in on the train, and a few Doukhobors: a very strange throng indeed.” This “strange throng” anticipated in microcosm the mix of ethnic identities that settled the Canadian prairies and British Columbia in the years that followed. The Europeans’ arrival was facilitated by the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1885. With the exception of a few individuals, and various Doukhobor internal exiles held in Russia, Doukhobor immigration to Canada ended in about 1905.

Figure 3. Storage box, Saskatchewan, early twentieth century. Pine with original painted decoration; height 13 1/2, length 20, depth 16 inches.

The origins and evolution of this religious reform movement in the eighteenth century were based on a sweeping double rejection of organized and dogmatic forms of religion and external secular authority. This radical stance brought the group into immediate conflict with the Russian Orthodox Church and of course with the Russian czarist government. In terms of spiritual belief and the ways in which that belief is practiced, the Doukhobors refused the external material manifestations and practices of the Orthodox Church, including the preeminence given to the Bible and the historical Christ. In 1785, Archbishop Ambrosius of Ekaterinoslav first used the term Dukho-borets (spirit wrestlers) to describe these outsiders who struggled against the spirit of Christ. The Doukhobors gave this pejorative designation a positive turn by declaring that it should mean those who wrestle with rather than against the spirit of Christ. The Doukhobors abandoned iconography, church buildings, artifacts, ritual and the priestly class in a radical return to what they saw as the principles of early Christianity. They proclaimed God to be indwelling – that is, present within each person – thus making both priests and churches irrelevant to the spiritual life of the community. Similarly, printed biblical texts were replaced in Doukhobor social and religious life by their own oral psalms and hymns. Recounting his experiences crossing the Atlantic twice with the Doukhobors bound for Canada in 1899, Leopold Antonovich Sulerzhitsky (1872-1916) wrote:

The majority of the Doukhobors are convinced, to this date, that their psalms represent something original, having nothing in common with printed gospel. It seems to them that the unperverted teaching of Jesus Christ can be learned only from their psalms…The Doukhobors never wrote down these psalms. They are passed on orally from generation to generation and are preserved only in the memory.

Figure 4. Storage chest, probably Russian, late nineteenth century, found in British Columbia. Pine, iron hardware, original paint; height 23 1/2, length 41 3/4, depth 27 1/4 inches. Canadian Museum of Civilization.

The formalism and the authority of the czarist empire were equally repugnant to the Doukhobors, who tried to avoid bureaucratic intervention in their lives by refusing to register births, deaths, marriages, and, in particular, by steadfastly opposing military service. The implicit egalitarianism inherent in this rejection of authority, the assertion of personal freedom, and the beliefs of the presence of God in every individual and that all men are brothers attacked the very bases upon which church and state were founded, and caused the Doukhobors more than two centuries of official persecution.

Figure 5. Cupboard, northern Russia, late nineteenth century. Pine and spruce with original faux-bois graining and commercial cast-metal pulls; height 68 1/4, width 50, depth 20 inches. The cornice is missing.

As repression of the Doukhobors became more and more severe, a number of outside people stepped in to find a solution. Among the most important and influential was Count Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), who found in Doukhobor belief many parallels with his own anarchistic and pacifistic views, as well as a living embodiment of early Christian communism. According to Sulerzhitsky, Tolstoy, “[m]aking an exception to his rule not to take royalties for his publications….sold his novel Resurrection for the benefit of the Doukhobors.”  In advocating the Doukhobors’ immigration to Canada as a solution to their repression at home, Mavor, in Toronto, wrote to James Allan Smart (b. 1858), deputy minister of the Interior, on October 19, 1898: “I should mention also that their idea that they may as well be frozen to death in Canada as flogged to death by the Cossacks, is natural enough.”

Figure 6. Cupboard, Vologda region, Russia, c. 1900. Pine and spruce with original red and polychrome painted decoration; height 75, width 53 1/2, depth 19 1/2 inches.

As so many immigrants to North America before the Doukhobors had discovered, the promise of a new land and a new life brought with it struggle and hardship and official persecution and support in unequal measures. The only possessions most new arrivals brought with them appear to have been trunks or chests containing clothing, domestic items, and tools – a fragile visual and material bridge between departure from home and arrival in North America, or, more specifically, in the case of the Doukhobors, from the Russian steppes to the Canadian prairies. The chests’ materials, construction, proportions, and profile, colors and finish, decorative motifs, and overall aesthetic constitute a framework for analyzing the ways in which geography and Canadian society affected how the Doukhobors adopted and adapted these elements in their new environment. At the same time, the reassuring presence of familiar forms and practices provided them with a stabilizing psychological underpinning.

Some elements require extensive considerations while others are simple and straight-forward. The woods used, for example, were similar and vary little in physical composition. Pine, spruce, and birch were all commonly used in Canada and Russia, but Russian pine and spruce have more well-defined graining and greater weight than their North American counter-parts, facts that are further accentuated in a constructed state by the thickness of the planks used in Russia.

Figure 7. Cupboard, Saskatchewan, early twentieth century. Pine with original blue and green paint; height 77 1/4, width 42, depth 21 inches.

Like the materials, construction techniques are, with some variations, closely related in the Russian and Canadian pieces. In accordance with centuries’ old traditions of good joinery, mortise-and-tenon techniques prevail in cupboards and tables, while dovetailed construction predominates in boxes of all sizes. Unlike the furniture made by the Doukhobors in the Canadian West, however, Russian pieces often use visible through- tenon joints and cupboards have vertical tongue-and groove joinery and horizontal backboards, while analogous North American forms employ blind tenons and vertically nailed backboards. With few exceptions, most nails used on Russian furniture have cross-hatched heads, while those used by the Doukhobors in Canada do not.

In contrast to the material similarity between traditional Russian folk pieces and those of the Canadian Doukhobors, the decoration on the two types, differs greatly. The range of colors employed was similarly broad in both places, but the decorative application and the motifs used are distinct and constitute defining characteristics. Our examination and analysis will be limited to three categories of furniture –cupboards, boxes, and tables– since few imported chairs, benches, beds, and small domestic pieces from Russia are available for comparative purposes at present.

Figure 8. Mirror, Blaine Lake, Saskatchewan, early twentieth century, once owned by the Popoff family. Pine with old brown paint over red stain and inner gesso frame with cream-color paint; height 20, width 12 inches.

Cupboards constituted a major item in the domestic interior and were therefore more subject to decorative elaboration. Generally of imposing size and proportion, cupboards in the Russian tradition are broad, deep, and relatively low in height, probably reflecting low ceilings and modest living spaces (See Fig. 5). Although often constructed in one piece, they appear as two-part storage units, of balanced proportions, usually with fielded rectilinear panels that convey a sense of solidity and stability and a certain heaviness. Russian cupboards were frequently fastened to the walls and further integrated with the architecture of a room by having painted and decorated surfaces that echoed that of the wainscoting, moldings, door and window frames.

Russian cupboards with multiple outlined panels, such as the one in Figure 6, seem to call for further decorative elements, perhaps a lingering reflection of traditional methods of icon production, in which several artisans were responsible for the decoration of a single object, a practice that encouraged a proliferation of visual effects. The roses, tulips, and other floral ornaments that embellish panels are treated in an iconic manner that emphasizes centrality and focus; another hand may well have applied the field colors and trompe-l’oeil graining that serve as background. The background color on most Russian cupboards ranges from shades of red-brown to orange, and is sometimes painted to imitate graining.

In contrast, the paint on Canadian Doukhobor cupboards is plain and simple. It invariably emphasizes the composition of the whole by making the component parts clear – cornice, top section, waist, lower doors, base and foot (See Figs. 2 and 7). Doukhobor cupboards have single color fields, often outlined by another color in such combinations as blue and green, yellow and green, pink and green, or orange and green, with the darker color applied to moldings, cornices, and other edges. While floors, walls, and interior trim were almost always white or neutral in color in Doukhobor houses in Canada, in rural interiors in some regions of Russia such as Vologda bright colors and often repeated motifs were used to create a blended effect between furniture, walls, and paneling.

Figure 9. Table, northern Russia, late nineteenth century. Pine with original paint; height 29, width 64 1/2, depth 30 inches.

Doukhobor cupboards, including hanging versions, occasionally have carved and shaped profiles. A few familiar animals such as horses and birds sometimes appear as silhouettes on cornices (See Fig. 2) but seldom appear elsewhere. In contrast, flowers and foliate imagery are common painted motifs on Russian cupboards and chests (See Fig. 4) along with symbolic animals : “lions, Bereginy (Slavic – Spirits of Nature) and other creatures….were often painted on cupboard doors, large storage chests, and even the floors.

The boxes the Doukhobors brought from Russia at the end of the nineteenth century, probably as dower chests, and ready-made traveling trunks, were frequently embellished with painted geometric motifs, particularly pinwheels and circles. As symbols, circle related motifs have long been associated with mythologies of the sun and predate the religious icons of Christianity as they are usually understood.

On Russian boxes, where they appeared often, these motifs are well-developed, opulent, and generally fill all the space available (see Fig. 14). On Doukhobor boxes made in Canada, however, decorative elements were less insistently used, and were more restrained; they contained fewer colors; and generally consist of fewer motifs, both floral and geometric, which are disposed singly or in simple symmetrical and bilateral arrangements against a single color colored ground (See Figs. 3 and 13). This is the geometry of the pagan mythologies of the natural world and the vocabulary world of folk, rather than the symbolic language of Christian iconography that prevailed in Russia at the time.

Figure 10. Table and chair, Buchanan, Saskatchewan, c. 1910. Pine; height 30 1/2, width 42 3/4, depth 28 3/4 inches. Chair: pine and birch with original painted decoration; height 35 1/2, width 14 1/2, depth 16 1/4 inches.

The physical properties and the structure of the boxes made in North America and Russia are analogous; both use similar woods, mortise and tenon construction, and dovetailed corners. As on cupboards, the structural components, such as the moldings, around the lid or at the foot function as both protective and decorative devices in both countries, but on Doukhobor boxes a dark color normally contrasts with the field color, adding a further decorative element to the field (See Fig. 3).

Gennadi Blinov, in a book about Russian folk style figurines, identifies red, red-orange, and variants as the essential field colors of the Russian decorative palette and describes their perpetual qualities in psychological terms: “Red is an extremely active colour, strongly affecting human emotions and endowed with highly decorative properties.”  By emphasizing the emotional content of color and its decorative force, Blinov unexpectedly touched on the essentials of most Doukhobor painted furniture, which bypasses the emblematic use of color.

The final form we wish to discuss are tables. As objects around which domestic and social interactions are repeated day after day, tables play a basic role in the aesthetics of everyday existence in both Russia and Canada during this period. Russian tables are solid and block-like (See Fig. 11). It is no accident that they are almost exclusively plain or painted simply with several colors, reflecting through color and the control of the planimetric structure an unconscious preference for a two-dimensional iconic focus and a disinterest in the decorative potential of edges, curvilinear profiles, and the three-dimensional irregularities of the natural world. Doukhobor tables, on the other hand, often have carved and cutout skirts that emphasize three-dimensional effects and their sculptural nature, with positive and negative spaces creating a dynamic tension (See Fig.12) Despite these differences, both Russian tables and Doukhobor ones have turned legs that suggest their common origin. Alexander and Barbara Pronin point out that the furniture made by carpenters in Russia mirrors architectural forms and observe that the rounded legs of the tables resemble in miniature the pillars on the porches of some dwellings.  The same can be said for the correspondence between Canadian Doukhobor table legs and some pillars on some Doukhobor houses in British Columbia.

The distinction between carved, and cut-out, as opposed to painted decoration is, we think, related to certain perceptual values and beliefs. The long and widespread tradition of icons in Russia depends essentially on painted decoration of a flat surface, and is thus an aesthetic based on symbolic representation. As iconoclasts, the Doukhobors, perhaps unconsciously, distanced themselves from this technique by translating the pictorial tradition into carved three-dimensional decoration and by transforming the widespread presence of icons in Russian culture into the sculpted vegetable forms of the natural world, coincident with their own beliefs and the vegetarianism that many of them practiced. In the representation of the animate world of humans, animals and vegetables, stylized forms predominate on Russian pieces, while in Canadian-made Doukhobor furniture, the three-dimensionality of carved decoration and of cutout profiles and pierced and cutaway surfaces creates patterns of depth and overlap in a dynamic, spatial exchange. The minimal use of geometric motifs and the emphasis on vegetable imagery in the North American context accounts, at least in part, for the evacuation of the symbolic meaning and religious implication that was inherent in the iconlike painted and framed flower forms and geometric shapes of traditional Doukhobor objects. In other words, the decoration of Russian pieces is associated with a strong pictorial tradition of iconographic and emblematic origin, while Canadian Doukhobor furniture associates ornamentation with structural elements – such as cutout, sculpted, or pierced aprons or the carved elements found on cupboard cornices – enhanced through patterns of contrasting color and a minimal use of motifs. Incidentally, the infrequent use of representational motifs by the Doukhobors may be related to their long exile in the Caucasus, where Islamic custom eschewed figural decoration.

Figure 13. Storage box, Yorkton area, Saskatchewan, late nineteenth century. Pine with original painted decoration; height 24 3/4, width 39 1/2, depth 26 3/4 inches.

In summary, the Doukhobor’ rejection in the eighteenth century of both the Russian state and the Orthodox Church marked the beginning of a search for a utopian ideal of simplicity, expressed by the term, “Toil and peaceful life, ” a motto that continues to circulate widely within the community. The symbolism attached to figures and other imagery from the Russian tradition gradually lost its relevance in the decoration of objects as a result of the Doukhobors’ minimization of religious ritual, rejection of iconography, and absence of a sacred book, along with the hardships of their daily lives during their early years in a new land. In Russia, however, the religious traditions of Orthodoxy continued to influence the decorative embellishments of domestic life.

Like most folk cultures transported to North America from earlier European sources, traditional forms persisted at the physical level of everyday existence and the production of domestic objects necessary to support daily activities. At the same time, the traditional forms and decorations of household objects, utensils and tools were usually simplified, motifs more sparingly used, often emptied of iconic and emblematic meaning. Some of this attenuated decorative expression was no doubt also due to the new conditions of life imposed by a strange environment and the influences of an unfamiliar social culture that exerted through commercial channels and differing physical preferences a growing pressure to adapt and conform to new visual models.

Figure 14. Storage box, northern Russia, late nineteenth century. Pine with original painted decoration; height 13, width 29, depth 19 3/4 inches.

For More Information

For more information on this subject, see Folk Furniture of Canada’s Doukhobors, Hutterites, Mennonites and Ukrainians (2004, University of Alberta Press) by John Fleming and Michael Rowan. With over 100 color photographs, this informative book offers a stunning visual record of the culture and values of these four ethno-cultural groups. Authors John Fleming and Michael Rowan take an interpretive approach to the importance of folk furniture and its intimate ties to people’s systems of values and beliefs. Photographer James Chambers beautifully captures both representative and exceptional artifacts, from large furniture items such as storage chests, benches, cradles, and tables, to small kitchen items including spoons, bread-boxes, and cookie cutters. The extensive text provides descriptive, analytical, and interpretive dimensions to these rare artifacts. The descriptions lead into further analysis and interpretation of the physical characteristics of the furniture—focusing on material, form, style, and colour—and the influences of each of the ethnic groups in these particular areas. To order copies of Folk Furniture of Canada’s Doukhobors, Hutterites, Mennonites, and Ukrainians (ISBN 0-88864-4183), contact the University of Alberta Press

Doukhobor Architecture: An Introduction

by F. Mark Mealing

When Russian Doukhobors emigrated to Canada, they brought ideological and folklife traditions that generated the distinctive character of their architecture.  The following article by F. Mark Mealing Ph.D., adapted and reproduced by permission from Canadian Ethnic Studies (XVI, 3, 84), describes and comments upon the five distinctive periods of architectural forms of which we have a record: Russian, Saskatchewan Community Village, British Columbia Communal Structures, Transition and Present.  The earlier forms are characterized by Plain ornamental style and communally-oriented function; the recent forms reflect, in their variety, the impact of social forces including internal division and external pressures of politics, economics and acculturation.

Introduction

The Doukhobors, a pacifist sect, arose in Russia, most likely during the Raskol or Orthodox Schism (1652). Their theology and resultant political views generated the most bitter opposition from Church and State, resulting in discrimination and often the harshest persecution through the late seventeenth, eighteenth, and portions of the nineteenth centuries. Tsar Alexander I granted a measure of peace with settlement land in the Milky Waters (Molochnye Vody) region of the Crimea in 1801; but after his death persecution was renewed and the Doukhobor communities were exiled to the Caucasus. Increased pressures, then religious revitalization, and in response punishments and abuses rationalized emigration as a tactic of social survival. This emigration was aided by Tolstoyans, Populists, and the London and Philadelphia Yearly Meetings of the Society of Friends, and brought the most devout Doukhobors to Canada, starting in 1899. The Doukhobors took up homestead land in Saskatchewan; but the majority, newly organized into a commune, the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood (CCUB), lost the land between 1905 and 1907, probably as a joint result of misunderstanding, some intransigence on the part of the Doukhobors, and the ethically imperfect policies of the Secretary of the Interior’s Ministry of the period. The CCUB purchased land in the West Kootenay region of British Columbia and operated there for a generation; when to its unremarkable financial and administrative weaknesses were added the hostility of the provincial government and the upheaval of the 1929 Depression, the communal enterprise collapsed. For the next twenty years, its one-time members and the dissident Sons of Freedom sub-sect worked slowly and sometimes violently through a period of social and economic disaster. In the early 1960s, individuals began to repurchase the land on which they had been squatting; since this repurchase, a modest social flowering has occurred and the use by the Sons of Freedom of techniques of violent political action has been diminished.

Doukhobors have borne a great deal of pressure and dislocation over the life of their society so far; one impact of these forces has been the selection of plain functions for architecture. Consider the implications of these excerpts “From the General Principles of the CCUB,” dating from the 1890s in Russia:

9. The chief base of the life of man – thought, reason serves as (that). For material food this serves: air, water, fruits and vegetables.

10. It is held that the life of mankind is communal, upheld through the strength of moral law, for which (this) rule serves: “Whatever I do not want for myself, that I should not wish for others.”

Plain and communal living styles – analogous to Western experiments, including those of Anabaptist sectarians – are encapsulated here. The results for Architecture were a marked antipathy to the usual Russian peasant tradition of richly applied ornament, and a primarily communal function for buildings until the collapse of the CCUB and the hegemony of Western economic patterns. Applied ornament is replaced by a severe but evident concern with simple line, texture and colour; communal usage is evidenced in massive industrial installations and in multiple-family dwellings of replicated pattern.

Coincidences of leadership, technological change and history made the CCUB experiment in Canada perhaps the most highly developed and integrated experiment the Doukhobors have achieved to date. The dissident Sons of Freedom early adopted a very modest approach to housing, building small cabins, often of salvage materials (and, in the period 1930-1965, often burned by their owners or others); their zealous anti-materialist views were often visited upon other Doukhobors by some members. A third discrete grouping, the Independents, left the commune during the Homestead crisis in Saskatchewan, and rapidly integrated into Western lifestyle, adopting the architecture of their neighbours.

This brief survey of Doukhobor structures is limited by time and opportunity to five major phases: (1) Russian Villages; (2) CCUB Community Villages of Saskatchewan; (3) CCUB installations in British Columbia (which set the style for those developed also in Saskatchewan and Alberta); (4) buildings of the Collapse period; (5) Present styles.

Architectural Periods

a. Russia

Little data survive from the early period in Russia; most significant is the single illustration, from Baron von Haxthausen’s “Studien…” depicting Terpenie, the village of the leader Savely Kapustin, after 1818 [Fig. 1].

Figure 1. Sketch of Terpeniye village, Tavria province, Russia by Baron Von Haxthausen, 1843. Note the row of dwellings and outbuildings along wide central street. Note Sirotsky Dom (Orphans Home) in background.

The administrative site is enclosed in the background. The middle-distance four-roomed ‘Guesthouse’ and the second-story porch adorning the “Village House” (r. foreground) are elements that appear again in recent Canadian structures. No one has been able to explain adequately to me the Three Babas, the wooden pillars in the centre of the administrative section.

Figure 2. Sketch of Lukeria’s Besedka (Summer Pavilion) by H. F.B. Lynch.

A few photographs survive of buildings in the Caucasus region, including long, low homes and one rather ornate residence for the leader Lukeria Kalmikova [Fig. 2].

b. Saskatchewan Community Villages

The CCUB villages in Saskatchewan were laid out according to a standard plan. Forty homes, each with its own garden lot and dairy barn, were set astride a wide avenue and divided by a short street, terminated by community buildings (warehouses, bathhouse, etc.) at one end and a small park at the other. A settled village, Khristianovka [Fig. 3], shows growing saplings on the avenue, developed gardens (sunflowers grown for ornament and seed in yard at right), and a neighbourly grouping in the street.

Figure 3. Khristianovka Village, Saskatchewan, circa 1903. British Columbia Archives, Tarasoff Collection.

Figure 4. Women and children placing turf on Doukhobor house at Petrovka, Saskatchewan. British Columbia Archives E-09610.

At least three distinctive house types were employed. The single house in Petrovka [Fig. 4] with its perimeter porch and full loft, accommodates probably two brothers and their families. Construction is of mud-plaster, probably over small logs, with a thatched roof. A house in Veregin [Fig. 5] varies in its low, flat-ridged sod roof supported by purlins and supplemented by a side-length pent-roof; its garden is fenced by a hedge. Another house from Verigin [Fig. 6] appears essentially identical with the previous example, but a taller thatched roof is present, as is a small rack with “found” ornate tree limb uprights.

Figure 5. House, Veregin, Saskatchewan, circa 1911. Library and Archives Canada C-057053.

Figure 6. Houses, Veregin, Saskatchewan, circa 1903. Library and Archives Canada A-019333. 

After the bulk of the CCUB members moved to British Columbia in 1908-1912, most of the villages fell rapidly into disuse and dilapidation, and today only a few isolated ruins remain, although a handful of buildings are under restoration at Verigin, Sask. In their time, these villages represented the transplantation of a traditional plan that reflected certain Russian cultural traits: use of wood and mud-plaster in construction, the rectilinear organization of buildings across a central avenue (appropriate to a structured commune), and a general ideal of equality.

c. The CCUB in British Columbia

When the CCUB reestablished itself in the far West, in the isolated interior of British Columbia, its structures were more insular, more tightly organized, and innovative in physical design. The range of structures expanded, extending between small outbuildings to large industrial complexes. Families were accommodated in private dormitories, but ate, worked and worshipped together in standardized village groupings. Many persons, but not all, laboured in community enterprises, and at certain dates, all who could gathered for major festival celebrations. Thus there was a temporal and spatial flow between village and complex. Planning extended to the largest blocks of land, upon which villages were located on carefully related sites.

1. The Community Village

Between 1908 and 1912, some 5,550 souls were settled in perhaps 90 villages in nine major regional areas (Brilliant, Ootischenie, Champion Creek, Pass Creek, Shoreacres, Glade, Krestova, and three sections of Grand Forks). Their unique design has been ascribed to Peter V. Verigin, the spiritual leader of the period; it has been suggested elsewhere that the Big House design resembles Russian Mennonite examples, which may be true of facade but is in no way true of the interior plan. The typical village was composed of two “Big Houses’, their floor plans mirror-imaged, backed by a U-shaped Annex or “Apartment,” and the placement of these units produced a quiet, enfolding courtyard. Where transportation was direct, Big Houses were clad in community-manufactured brick, otherwise in unpainted clapboard siding. Behind the Annex was located a small Barn for horse and dairy cow and, further yet, a large laundry/banya (steam-bathhouse). Hotbeds, herbs, and potherbs were placed immediately south or west of each Village, which further sat upon about 100 acres of land and was responsible for agricultural production therefrom. The Big House included on the main floor an Assembly room in the front, used for worship; an L-shaped kitchen/refectory in the rear; and eight private family dormitories on the next floor, typically occupied by two single persons of the same sex or a young married couple. Elders and larger married families occupied the larger individual Annex rooms.

Figure 7. Community Village at Brilliant, British Columbia, 1973.  Courtyard view shows Annex L, Big House L.  British Columbia Archives  I-06198. 

Oral sources state that after an initial village was constructed above Brilliant, measurements were simply copied manually for all subsequent villages, those in Grand Forks tending to be only two to three inches larger overall. Deviance from the standard plan is extremely rare; the number of ornamental roof ventilation dormers varies from 0 to 4; one village in Shoreacres has the porch extended on two sides and a lean-to rear room added; a village at Brilliant possessed a sunken lower story used for storage, shoemaking and basketry; another in Grand Forks had a large fruit storage warehouse on site. Those few villages that survived the ideological troubles of the 1940s and early 1950s, intervening vandalism and neglect, and the acculturated demolition and construction of the past twenty years, are generally occupied by single families [Fig. 7.]. While the buildings are plain in design, an austere decoration and proportion saves them from aesthetic mediocrity. The most conspicuous decorative elements are the gross placement of the buildings in the landscape, typically on the rims of glacial benches facing adjacent rivers or creeks; and minor finish details, including nonfunctional curved archways, uniform interior paint schemes (colours of choice being chocolate brown, dark green, ochre red and middle blue on woodwork, and whitewash tinted with laundry blueing), and handcrafted furnishings.

2. Institutional Structures of the CCUB

Figure 8. Industrial Centre, Brilliant, British Columbia, 1924. British Columbia Archives  A-08913. 

The major industrial and administrative centre of the CCUB was the Jam Factory complex at Brilliant, on the Kettle Valley Line of the CPR. Here were located sawmills, the famous Kootenay-Columbia Preserving Works, a grain elevator, office and warehouse buildings, a residence and retreat for the leader, and several community villages [Fig. 8]. In several other parts of the West Kootenay, a number of remarkable buildings were erected, of which the jewel was perhaps the Glade Community Hall [Fig. 9], with its gambrel roof, second-story porch – all of elegant proportions. Also noteworthy was the duma’et (retreat) built for Peter V. Verigin near what is now the site of his tomb [Fig. 10]. Regrettably, none of these buildings now survive.

Figure 9. Community Hall, Glade, British Columbia, circa 1929. Library and Archives Canada  A-019841. 

Figure 10. Dumaet or retreat home of Peter V. Verigin on bluffs above Brilliant, British Columbia, circa 1915. British Columbia Archives, Tarasoff Collection.

Another large CCUB complex was located at Verigin, Sask., with administrative buildings, grain elevators, and warehouses, etc., of which one magnificent example, the Leader’s Office and Residence, survives and functions as a museum [Fig. 11].

Figure 11. Sirotsky Dom (Orphans Home), Veregin, Saskatchewan, circa 1918. The remarkable porch ornamentation, identical with that of Figure 9, was executed by Ivan Mahonin; the upper tracery is in cut tin. British Columbia Archives C-06513. 

While these sites were physically planned to support the economic life of the CCUB, they were occasionally used for major community assemblies. It is clear from this use, however, that Commune administrators and members held their material and ideological lives to be perfectly integrated – at least ideally, if not always in fact. In those cases in which the assembly was pointedly outside the complex, it was never far distant.

Transition

When the CCUB moved to British Columbia, it purchased land outright, but used a deficit loan system of mortgages to finance its development. To pay off these debts, most male Community members worked for a portion of the year off their land, which the women then maintained, and their salaries serviced the loans. The burden of the loan system, the alienation imposed by outside work, and the hostility of the western Canadian establishment combined in the Depression to crush the CCUB. The National Trust and Sun Life corporations purchased the mortgages and began foreclosure proceedings, but the CCUB contested financial distressal in the Provincial courts on the basis that it was composed of farm workers, and had paid off the bulk of its debts. The B.C. Supreme Court judged that the CCUB was a corporation and not an individual within the meaning of the Farmer’s Protection Act, and upheld the foreclosure; consequently, on an outstanding debt of about $260,000, the CCUB was foreclosed on approximately six million dollars of capital, plus improvements, goods on hand, stock and implements. The B.C. Provincial Cabinet immediately paid off this balance and acquired trusteeship, allowing Doukhobors to squat in their villages at nominal tax “rentals,” but the means of controlling their economy was lost or beyond control.

Figure 12. Big House, Grand Forks, British Columbia, now derelict.

The massive blow to the economic and social structures, the very spirit of the community, resulted in almost a generation of aimlessness, anomie and violence. Zealots and criminals fired villages and industrial buildings: dispirited occupants neglected and could not afford maintenance; villages were slowly abandoned, and littered about with lean-to’s, shoddily converted into one- or two-family dwellings [Fig. 12]. People now built small one-family houses in various styles, some preserving the old “Russian” second-level porch in the West Kootenay region.

The slow development of plain transitional housing is also evident in the materials, style and relative placement of houses in nearby Thrums. The Sons of Freedom occupied, then burned, the Villages of Krestova; here they periodically erected small houses laid out in traditional Russian village plan, which were periodically burned when their owners purged themselves of materialism, or when criminal elements bent on manipulation of community politics felt the need for terrorist action.

Figure 14. A banya (steam house) in Krestova, British Columbia.

Even under such pressures, some Doukhobors did not give up their plain but perceptive aesthetic. This is well illustrated by two examples: the little banya or steam-bathhouse in Krestova [Fig. 13], perfectly proportioned and located in an orchard, on a bank, before a row of alders; or the row of farm-house and outbuildings in Glade [Fig. 14], placed with a clear sense of spatial rhythm.

Figure 14. Glade, British Columbia, 1966. British Columbia Archives, Tarasoff Collection.

The Present

Several currents are presently to be observed: many Sons of Freedom maintain the small, Plain dwellings they developed during the 1930s, as in this recent view from Krestova’s Lower Village [Fig. 15]. Most Doukhobors now live in owner-constructed houses which, to meet CMHC (Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation) requirements, follow commercial designs which can be epitomized as Western Contractor-built style. Between these extremes occur a fair range of housing, from more-or-less restored Community Village homes to slowly enlarged and expanded single dwellings and the universal folk-housing of the latter twentieth century, mobile homes. Two not-quite-conflicting values are expressed in this society: a taste for the idealism of traditional plainness (illustrated in the last illustration by about a decade’s delay between completion of the hall and painting of the exterior), and a need to demonstrate success by the majority culture’s standards—which enjoin conformity to those standards.

Figure 15. Modern house, Krestova, British Columbia.

Contemporary community buildings include commercial buildings, entirely adaptive to Western standards and styles, and the Community hall. These are usually small halls with stages, commonly one-story high with a basement kitchen/refectory, of extreme plain style and finish. They still serve the dual functions of earlier times: religious and community meetings with their sacred and less-sacred characteristics; the hall at Pass Creek is typical. Exceptions include two large-scale halls in Grand Forks [Fig. 16] and Brilliant, contemporary structures of technically elaborate design.

Figure 16. Community Hall, Grand Forks, British Columbia.

Conclusion

The Doukhobors who arrived in Canada brought with them the resources of eastern European peasantry modified by the unique ideals of their sectarian faith. They established functional building styles displaying an aptness for technology and demonstrating an aesthetic ideal of plain style and the social and religious ideals of communal life. Early settlement in Saskatchewan was characterized by the recreation of the traditional Russian village. With the loss of their land and removal to British Columbia, a wholly novel material expression of the social ideal of communalism arose, drawing equally upon Russian and Northern American traditions, and upon the innovative community village complex. When the CCUB collapsed under internal and external pressures, the ethnic community suffered great distress. Architecture became individualized and expressed two needs: simple survival coupled with the plain tradition; and vindication through an achievement ethic dictated by the majority culture’s models.

Several lines of development for the future are apparent. The idealistic minority continues to build small, plain houses, and conventionally-styled homes also proliferate in the region. The “mobile home” has become excessively visible over the past ten years, but it is presently difficult to judge the varying impacts of human need, shoddy construction, community pressure, personal taste and the other intangibles that will determine this device’s prevalence. Community buildings tend to austere design and finish, although the most recently constructed are technically ambitious and highly adapted to the choral musical performance that is at the heart of Doukhobor tradition.

The Doukhobor community in Saskatchewan blends solidly into the multiethnic makeup of that province. British Columbia has had a much less tolerant history, and Doukhobors there are still recovering from a generation of experiencing inferior status, retreat from the visions and trials of the past and adaptation to the pressures of the present. A tiny handful of zealots among the Sons of Freedom agitate for repudiation of modern materialism, while the province’s economic and political climate challenges the real social achievements of the majority of Doukhobors. For many years the Doukhobors of the province have been in a constructive transition: now the rest of its population joins them in the hopes and fears that attend an uncompleted experiment.

History of the Anton S. and John A. Popoff Family

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.

Notes

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.

My Memories of Grandmother and Grandfather Sookochoff

by Cyril Brown

The following is a collection of stories selected from the recently printed family history book (December, 2004) compiled and edited by Doukhobor descendant Cyril Brown. The book, entitled “Backward Glances”, is a collection of family histories, stories, memories, photos and genealogical information about his Sookochoff and Brown grandparents. As Mr. Brown states in his book, “only a very few can claim outstanding contributions to society but it is often the many uncelebrated individuals that really make a difference.” Indeed, the life stories of each of our ancestors is just as relevant a part of the historical record as the mainstream of history. Mr. Brown hopes that by sharing these stories, it will encourage others to preserve their Doukhobor family histories.

The Homestead

…The blind road which ran past the bottom of our garden near our farm home in an east/west direction was the shortest route to our grandparents the Sookochoff’s near Buchanan, Saskatchewan. Traveling two miles east from our farm on this road would lead directly into Grandma and Grandpa Sookochoff’s acreage. It was overgrown with trees whose branches stretched inward onto a wagon trail, telling the story of its infrequent use. This road was part of the original grid system laid out by the regional surveyors. Because it led you to a miniature lake or large slough, I’m not sure which, the road was abandoned. A new route half mile to the south was constructed in order to skirt this obstruction. This route however was to be taken only in a hurried state to get to our grandparents.

The blind road was impassable to most vehicles other than a horse drawn wagon in summer and a sleigh in winter. In spring a couple of meandering creeks crossed the road forcing the horses to wade knee deep through running water while dragging a sinking wagon through its soft bed. The branches of the trees would brush by the driver, who was almost always Dad, and snap back onto the next person in the line of fire. This always seemed to be at face level. The whipping action of these branches would sting severely and you soon learned to turn away and put your arms out for protection. The stinging of the branches in summer was only minor compared to the lashing you would receive on a cold 20 degree below day and your face was half frozen. This road was only passable in the early part of winter. Snow that fell on open fields would collect in the treed areas after a blizzard and would become too deep even for horses to traverse. 

The location of the original house.

Today five gnarled maple trees stand atop a slight hill as steadfast beacons marking the location where the original old two story lumber house of the grandparents once stood.  This was the house they built after settling on the homestead.  It served the Sookochoff’s well for many years and it was here my mother Mary (Masha) and two uncles, John (Ivan) and Nick (Nicholai) Jr. were born and raised. I must have visited this house in my early childhood yet my memories of it are vague at best. I do not recall any of the interior features.

In the late 1940’s Grandma and Grandpa were growing older and their youngest son Nick Jr. was the last remaining child living with them. Nick Jr. had taken over the agricultural operations and was doing the majority of work on the land.

It was during this time that I recall hearing the news of the fire that destroyed the old house. Following this disaster, there was some question as to whether they would remain on the farm or sell everything and move elsewhere. An auction sale was held and many of the items on the farm were sold. The move however failed to materialize and a decision to rebuild and remain on the land was decided.

Excitement filled the air as construction took place on the new living quarters. The new home was on a slightly different locale. A treed area two or three hundred yards to the south of the old location was cleared and became the spot for the foundation. The remaining trees on the peripheral of the new yard acted as a ready made shelter belt for the new abode.  The garden was strategically placed by a small creek that ran nearby.

The blueprint of the new house was very similar to the one a neighbor Pete Bagalow had built some years earlier. It was a design that was quite progressive and functional for its day.

The “new” house as it appears today.

I recall a spacious kitchen that had a new chrome table and chairs positioned by a sunny east window.  After a hearty Russian supper it was here that the men would linger to tell their stories. 

Grandpa’s favorite was the tale of the mysterious lights. I would listen intently even though I had heard it several times before. Grandpa was a good story teller and with each narration there would be the addition of some new details. With each revealing I found myself entrapped by the adventure he was spinning and once again I would join him as we traveling through the unfolding exploits of the account. I never knew with certainty if it was pure fiction or it wore the mask of reality. He would push his chair away slightly from the table, lean foreward and commence.

“I remember the time I was traveling home on a dark cloudy night,” he would begin. “In the distance I could see a faint light glowing and moving ahead of me near the road I was traveling on. I was sure it was someone lost and I was going to see if they needed help,” he added. “As I moved toward the light it left the road twisting and turning through the field, leading me this way and that. It finally stopped next to some trees.” He would lean into the group so only we would hear. “Well, as I came upon this certain spot, it just disappeared. All I could see were a few mounds of dirt in a grassy area. There was nothing there. No horses, cart or person, nothing,” he commented. There would be a pause and he would take out a cigarette from its case. “There was no trace of a lantern, fire or shiny object anywhere around.” Sulfur crowned matches were found, one of them lit by his fingernail and then brought to the tip of his cigarette. “Because I was so surprised by what took place, I did not mark the spot. When I did not see anyone or anything, I left. It was dark and it scared me. “This light was near the old village where I once lived as a young man and I am sure I now know what it was I had seen, “said Grandpa. He would stop, look around for and ashtray, not finding one, walk to the kitchen stove and tap the ashes from the end of his cigarette into the firebox. “It was rumored among the villagers that the leaders of the Russian emigration party before leaving Russia were given large amounts of gold coins by Queen Victoria to be used in the new settlement. They were put into pots and brought with them to America. No one would be suspicious of the pots during the voyage and they would be strong and easy to move. Once at the new land the pots were buried at a location only known to the leaders.” I listened intently waiting for Grandpa to disclose the location. “It is told that when conditions are right, gold will give off a dancing light where it is buried and then disappear when you are there,” he whispered. By this time I was convinced that we should be looking for a shovel. “If I would have been able to put two and two together right then and there, I would have been a very wealthy man today.” he said. “You can never tell, I may see it again and this time I will know what to do. It is also quite possible the leaders have returned and moved the gold to a new place and then we will never see the lights again. If they did, it will be easy to tell who they are. They will be the ones with beautiful new homes, all the best farm equipment and a new car every second year whether they grow a good crop or not,” he ended.

Grandpa leaned back in his chair an indication that he was finished and we all waited for someone else to bring forth another adventure. Both Dad and Uncle Nick were avid hunters and it wasn’t long before a hunting story was begun.

The wood/coal cooking stove was centrally located in the kitchen and supplied the needed heat for cooking and warming of the house. For additional warmth throughout the cold winter months, a downstairs coal burning furnace with ductwork leading to several registers upstairs helped warm the rooms. I marveled at the innovativeness of this heating system which evenly distributed heat to all parts of the house. Electricity and forced air were to come later.

Great-grandmother Anastasia

A formal dining area and sitting room were located just off the kitchen. The dining room contained a large ornate table and chairs with a buffet situated along a wall nearby. This room was used largely for special occasions or when many guests necessitated the need for a larger eating area.

The arched entrance between the living room and dining room gave me a slight feeling of Russian classical architectural elegance. The dining room extended into the living room and this was where the guests would congregate after the meal. It is in this room that a large white stuffed snowy owl with its sharp scaly talons stood clinging to a pedestal type base. And from here its yellow piercing eyes seemed to be scanning the room for a meal of its own.

On the wall hung a beautiful oval picture frame encircling a black and white photograph of a female figure proudly posing in her best attire.  The soft almost bluish tones of the picture suggested some very early photographic technology or hand painted sketches. I was never told who the individual was or the relationship to the family.

South of the living room and extending the full width of the house was the sun-room with its many windows. It appeared to be an inviting place to relax and enjoy after a hard days work. The hot summers and cold winters however made this room one that could be used only on a limited number of days. I’m afraid it became storage space for various items. In winter it was also a natural freezer for the prized deer carcass that was hunted that fall.

Today, with doors ajar, window openings void of glass and surrounded by numerous poplar trees which seem determined to crowd it out of existence, the bathhouse still stands. It is a fading reminder of the life lead by our grandparents and a link to our Doukhobor heritage. Light filters through the log structure that now has lost much of its plaster to the elements revealing a two room building slowly losing its battle to the forces of nature.

The banya, a forerunner of the modern day steam room stood near the old house and on the outer fringe of the garden and small creek. A wooden floor, low cedar lined ceiling and walls of mud plaster throughout the interior brought you into the change room and dry off area of the bathhouse. A cast iron door on the dividing wall to the adjacent room opened to feed a wood burning stove. It is in this room clothes were shed and towels were placed prior to entering the steam room. 

The bathhouse as it appears today.

Once inside the banya wide wooden benches lined the outer wall welcoming you to a place of rest and cleansing. A metal heater surrounded by bricks at the base and topped with rocks stood along the inner partition. They would absorb and hold the heat needed to create the steam. A wooden door and a small window were the only remaining features of this room. It was here at age eight years I had my one and only experience in a Russian bathhouse.

Occasionally my sister Lois and I had the opportunity to stay over at Grandma’s and Grandpa’s and it was on one of these occasions that I was told I would be joining the men in the steamroom. The firing of the stove to heat the rocks was previously done by Uncle Nick and we were told all was ready. Before we departed there was a brief explanation by Grandpa as to what I was going to experience. So with towels in hand we trotted off to cleanse our soles and any other part of our body that happen to be soiled that day.  After undressing and closing the door behind us we seated ourselves on the benches. A large dipper was dunked into a bucket of water and the liquid tossed on the superheated rocks. Instantly there was a hissing and steam erupted everywhere. I could barely see the doorway. The stove not only superheated the stones and made the room warm but it made the room into a suffocating steam boiler when the water was added. I wasn’t sure what the survival rate was but I was determined to tough it out. Just when I was able to see my toes, Uncle Nick would toss on another ladle of water and once again everything would disappear. After several minutes of this, the body became acclimated to the temperature and the experience became very pleasant. Everyone turned pink and I was told this was a healthy thing to experience. Soap was generously applied and then a splashing of water on our bodies to remove the residue was next.

The remains of the bathhouse heater.

During the bath it was customary to use a bunch of birch leaves on twigs in the form of a broom for whipping the backs of the bathers. Since birch trees were not native to this area, tiny hazelnut or willow twigs were used to gently beat the extremities, thereby enhancing the circulation process of the body. Thoughts of my waywardness quickly darted through my mind. Could this be someone’s opportunity to get even? The absence of twigs in the steam room made me feel reasonably comfortable the tanning of my tender little hide was not in the cards that day.

Visiting Our Grandparents

Our extended stay at Grandmas and Grandpas arose from a medical problem Mom was encountering. Occasionally I would be awakened at night to hear Mom in severe pain talking to Dad. This pain seemed to last from a few minutes to several hours and in an ever increasing frequency as the months passed. Some of these pain filled bouts were less severe than others. From the tone of their voices and from the conversation I overheard, it was something that mom would have to deal with shortly.

In the morning after a severe pain filled night, we were on our way to Grandma and Grandpa’s.  We stayed at their farm while Uncle Nick drove Mom and Dad to the Yorkton hospital. At this time we did not have the luxury of owning a car and we depended on the relatives for any long distance travel. Upon their return my sister and I as much as possible were kept from the details.  We were being spared the worry and fright of the diagnosis.

Pelagea and Nicholai Sookochoff with grandchildren Cyril and Lois Brown.

Later, Mom took us aside and informed us that she had to be away for a couple of weeks and we would be staying at Grandma’s and Grandpa’s farm.  She assured us that everything was going to be fine and we need not worry. Normally going there for a stay or overnight was a jovial one. This was generally a time that we could attack Grandpa, knock him over and claim victory or otherwise fool around until somebody got hurt. Grandpa, as we all knew, loved getting mauled by us but pretended not to. This time however things did not seem to have that note of joy.

In a couple of weeks we were packing our bags for a stay with the Sookochoff’s.  From the bits and pieces of conversation that were floating about I was able to piece together the fact that Mom was probably scheduled for an operation. We were aware of the fact that any operation had its dangers. Even though there was a note of grave concern, just to be free of the pain filled sleepless nights was encouragement enough for Mom to go forward with it.

We arrived at the farm and were left to put our things away in a smaller bedroom while Mom and Dad gave us a hug good bye and continued on to Yorkton.

 Grandma and Grandpa grew up in a Russian environment so English was a second language to them. Grandpa could converse in English well enough to make his intentions known. Grandmother, on the other hand, knew very little of the local dialect and if I was to have a conversation with her it would mean a crash course in Russian. To learn the language involved spending more time with my grandparents or taking more of an interest in the language at home. Mom was fluent in Russian, English and Ukrainian and she would have been pleased to help if I asked.  Since English was the predominant language spoken around our household, Russian was laid aside. I had previously absorbed some of it however, through listening. I knew enough Russian in this situation to keep me from starving or dying of thirst (I did much better with the obscenities).  After a week with my grandparents, I thought I was doing quite well with the Russian Immersion program.

We managed to help slightly around the house and with the chores. I don’t recall breaking anything or doing things that would have put our lives in jeopardy during our stay.

The nights were the greatest. Grandma dug out the feather bed. This was a comforter and mattress cover filled with duck down. It was the softest, fluffiest warmest thing imaginable. It was like sleeping in a cloud. Once you wiggled your way inside, it swallowed you up and kept you toasty warm all night.

I saw very little of Dad for he was at home taking care of the chores and only stopped by when a trip to the hospital was scheduled. I was missing Mom a lot although we were treated royally by Grandma, Grandpa and Uncle Nick. We were told that she was recovering nicely from the operation for a condition called piles and it would be several more days before her return. I waited patiently for the days we would be together again.

Upon her arrival home we all offered our assistance and we catered to her needs as best we could. A pillow to sit on was used everywhere by Mom during the recovery period.  The operation by Dr. Novak proved successful resolving the condition Mom had experienced and things steadily returning to normal.

Life amongst the relatives was not without its carefree sugary moments. It had become tradition in the family that John, Mary and Nick with their families would join Grandma and Grandpa and all congregate at the Yorkton Exhibition each year. This event was a time of fun for everyone, starting at the gate. Lois recalls the time when the younger generation were required to sit on the car floor while their heads were covered with blankets, skirts and jackets. Being absolutely still and quiet was a must, she remembers. This was almost an insurmountable task for youngsters in close proximity. Someone always had a comment, giggle or sneeze. This is where we remained until the car passed the ticket booth and was parked. After disembarking, we were ordered not to stray or get lost as we roamed from attraction to attraction. As the adrenaline slowly diminished we willingly squeezed into the car for the uneventful journey homeward.  The purring of the car motor and the whine of the tires on the road were sedatives to me as I faded off into a deep slumber.

Contact with other children in our age group was occasional and brief. Christmas holidays however, brought with it the good fortune and opportunity to join with our cousins in a stay at the grandparents. It was a stay that usually lasted a week. We patiently waited for the invitation as the holiday drew near.  Our first cousins at this time were those in Uncle John and Aunt Lillian Sookochoff’s family and we hoped they would be invited and joining us. The more the merrier it seemed. Kathleen, their oldest daughter was two years senior to my sister and their younger daughter Lucille was slightly younger than me. Donald their youngest was only a tot and too small to become involved.

During this time Kathleen would frequently arrive for a stay with our grandparents but I do not remember gracing Lucille’s company. We played games of cards, built card houses and the girls whispered secrets. During the day the adults involved themselves with work that required their daily consideration leaving us ample opportunity to interact with each other.  Once the flour came out we would be at grandma’s side watching and trying to assist with the bean or cottage cheese filled pirogi (Russian pies) she was baking that day. Effortlessly Grandma would roll out round balls of pastry then weave closed the filling into oblong pies for the evening meal. We each tried one of our own. It was all worth the effort once the aroma from the baking permeated the kitchen. How soft was the dough and tasty the filling after a light covering with butter.

As the sun deepened in the horizon and before the frost bit deeply into the outdoors, the empty wood box needed its last filling. Grandpa imparted the virtues of physical activity to me. If I participated, I would become big and strong. Rather than a chore of drudgery it was one of teamwork, assistance and a partnership. With an offer like this I usually consented. I would help fill a noosed rope he specially created for this task and when full, he would sling the load onto his back. After grabbing an armful of sticks, back I would trudge losing pieces of wood all along the way. I tried to get as near the house as possible before letting the load escape thereby save myself a long journey back to pick up the pieces.

As the night sky rolled out its carpet of the moon and stars, Russian prayers were said in preparation for bedtime. It started as a “repeat after me” process and as they became more familiar and further ingrained in our memories we joined in unison. With the guidance of Uncle Nick, Grandma or occasionally Grandpa, they were practiced nightly bringing us in contact with the customary Doukhobor prayers. Not knowing the language thoroughly made it somewhat more difficult for me and interpretation was required if it was going to be meaningful.

Getting to sleep in a new environment was difficult and it was occasionally preceded by playing trampoline on the bed until Grandma came into the room.

Grandfather Sookochoff

 Grandpa Sookochoff stood slightly shorter than average and was a stalwart built individual. His well tanned face, rough hand and lean muscular body were evidence of the hard work needed to run the farm. Living off the land was their means of survival and hard work was a part of that equation. Nor was work something Grandpa shied away from. The harder the task the more stubborn and persistent he became. He was very strong minded and not easily swayed from his convictions, sometimes to the frustration of his wife and children.

Nicholai Sookochoff

In their initial days of farming the Sookochoff’s as many, experienced much hardship. It meant more than just doing without money and included the real possibility of starvation as well. In my discussions with Mom, she occasionally spoke of the hunger they had endured and the many hardships they encountered while growing up with her parents in her youthful years. The most difficult times were those encountered after the move to the farm in approximately 1906 followed by the depression of the1930’s. Pride or the threat of losing everything brought their refusal to accept social assistance during these hard times. The need to subsist with nothing but than their land and labor left them with a fear never to be forgotten even in the more prosperous times. To survive and succeed meant that everyone in the family would assist with the work load.  And those years of hardship had worn lines of wisdom into Grandpa’s stern strong face.

To thrive meant being physically and emotionally strong, qualities of grave importance to Grandpa. Apart from battling the wind, rain, dust and snow this was also a time when brute force was needed to clear land, pick roots, prepare hay for livestock and thresh the grain. I remember him saying to me, “You have to be strong to make it”.

As with many Russian homes it was not uncommon to witness the men indulging in alcoholic beverages. The presence of company or an event that required a celebration often invoked the need for several drinks of vodka or home made whiskey. These were poured into shot glasses and downed in one gulp or swigs were taken directly from a bottle which then was passed around. This was followed by a frowning and puckering of ones face as testimony to the strength and harshness of the potent. The frequency of shots was monitored by grandma who whisked away and hid the bottle when the celebrities in her opinion seemed to be indulging a little too much. When Grandpa’s drinking occurred outside the home and there was no one to monitor the amounts he drank, the picture was quite different. It usually ended late at night by him loosely tying the reins of his trusted steeds to the box, starting them on their way homeward and letting them find their residence. Usually his absence was a source of great worry to grandma and many words of disapproval were uttered upon his return. Grandpa would be up early next morning and after a few strong cups of coffee he would still manage a strenuous day’s work. These celebrations usually occurred at more idle times during the farm year and he curbed his drinking when there was work to be done.

Grandpa didn’t come through life unscathed. From my earliest memories he had a stub of an arm. The loss resulted from a farm tractor accident, as Mom recalls. The earliest models of tractors didn’t have rubber tires but steel wheels with large metal lugs used for traction on the rear. It is this type of tractor that was being used by Grandpa that traumatic day. A new tractor with a foot clutch rather than the more familiar hand clutch of the previous model was in his operation. While attempting to back up and latch onto an implement, he lost his grip, slipped off and fell under the tractor. His arm dropped into the lane of the still moving uncontrolled machine and was over-run by the rear wheel. Still others nearest to grandpa report a slightly different version of the accident. It was told that the arm was over-run as well as a portion of the stomach region which was torn open and exposed by the tractor wheel. This necessitated the need for wrapping a flour sack around his waist to keep the entrails from further damage and contamination .The tractor eventually threw him out and away from its oncoming path. Its progress became impeded by the implement and the rear wheels were slowly digging holes in the soil at the time of Uncle Nick’s arrival on the scene. He was hastily placed in the car and sped to the hospital.  The arm was crushed beyond repair and necessitated the removal of the damaged portion. Recovery and adjustment must have been painful and difficult.

With the circulation impaired, it left the arm feeling cold and achy. On many occasions we would witness grandpa sitting with his partial arm tucked into a slightly ajar oven door to bring warmth and comfort to his injury. This handicap however, never seemed to restrict his daily life and I do not ever recall him complaining about its loss.

A frosted lens hid the hollowed socket of a missing eye. The scars on his forehead directly above the eyebrow told of another accident that must have brought him dangerously close to losing his life. This again was not an event I can recall but I did ask about its happening. It was not a subject that anyone cared to discuss in any detail and I can understand why.

An airplane was giving rides to those citizens in the area that cared for the experience. Mom being young and adventuresome wished to try this phenomenon and convinced grandpa to join her on a ride. They were scheduled for the next flight and waited excitedly in line for the plane to land.  As it taxied to the loading area grandpa moved foreword to board the plane.   Not paying attention or a miscalculation of the distance from the prop brought him dangerously close and then into its path. Mom indicated that grandpa had indulged in a few drinks prior to the flight and this may have also hampered his judgment as well. The impact left the skull broken and the brain exposed.

Upon being taken to Canora after the accident, Dr. Anhauser attended to his injuries. It was felt that a wound of this nature and magnitude needed special facilities and personnel who could better deal with a brain and skull reconstruction. He was flown to Winnipeg and was accompanied by Mom. She would act as an interpreter, supporter and decision maker for a time until Uncle Nick was free to relieve her as Grandpa’s care-giver.

 After hours on the operating table and weeks of convalescence, grandpa gradually started to show signs of recovery.  Mom accounts how he lived largely on a diet of buttermilk and watermelon until he started to regain his health. These were the foods he craved. This hardly seemed like a diet that could sustain life and help with the healing process. After recovery, Mom was convinced they had some undiscovered miraculous healing properties.  Amazingly enough, apart from the slight scar and indentation to his forehead, he showed no outward signs of physical disability or permanent memory loss from the injury.

His eyelid took on a puckered appearance from the absence of the eyeball and earned him the Russian nickname “kosoi” or squint-eyed from some of his peers.

At the apex of his farming career, Grandpa had acquired and operated three quarters of land most of which surrounded the homestead. Cattle were always a part of the landscape although grain was their central focus as a source of income. In his latter years of farming I remember seeing a team of horses grazing lazily on a pasture nearby. And when a source of power or transportation was needed they were used only as a last recourse. In summer chickens could be seen dusting themselves around the barnyard while others scratched vigorously with their feet looking for bits of food in the straw covered surroundings. This seemed like such a useless action to me. One that took grain from a pile easily accessible for their pecking to one of seeds scattered everywhere. It reminded me of people digging for bargains at a sale counter. The garden was always an attraction to the chickens and the fence always allowed and entry somewhere. Chickens half running and half flying scurried back to the barnyard in great haste while Grandpa or Grandma with broom in hand could be seen shooing them away.

A few shared moments with Grandpa in 1956 give rise to a gentle smile. By 1950 Uncle Nick had married Laura Holoboff and two years later an expectant mother gave birth to their first born child Lorne. Shortly thereafter Laura fell ill to polio leaving her left side partially disabled and a difficult time for the family resulted. However, in 1956 a second pregnancy brought with it another joyous occasion. The newborn and mother were healthy and in good spirits. It wasn’t long thereafter that many members of the immediate family congregated at the Canora hospital to see the newest relative and now help with his delivery home. After the arrival at the hospital, we stopped in the doorway to Laura’s room. It became apparent that not everyone was going to be permitted into the room at once. It was decided that Grandpa and I would wait in the entranceway until some of the others dispersed. I peeked in from the hallway and can recall sensing an excitement in Aunt Laura voice and seeing a glowing face. How pleased she seemed with their newest addition to the family. Comments of loveliness were being made and resemblances were being picked out as we left the group. Grandpa and I reluctantly worked our way to the public area.

As I waited, I remember sitting on a wooden oak bench next to Grandpa swinging my dangling legs as I watched events within the hospital unfold about me. It wasn’t long before a doctor in his white hospital coat hurriedly passed by. I envisioned doctors as those miracle workers who could fix every malady known to mankind.

An elderly lady in her housecoat nearby spotted him and in a shuffling manner approached him saying in a Ukrainian accent, “Dr. Danyalchuck, Dr. Danyalchuck, I have pains here, my back is sore and my leg hurts when I walk.”

I could not discern what the doctor’s reply was to her. But on his trip back from whence he came, he passed in front of Grandpa and me.

Grandpa hailed the doctor by saying, “Dr. Danyalchuck, why don’t you at least give the lady some pills or medicine to make her feel better?”

“Nickolai,” the doctor responded, “when a threshing machine is all worn out there is nothing we can do,” and then walked away. I’m sure my eyes were as big as saucers and my mouth was agape from the shock of hearing this comment. Maybe it was the doctor’s strategy to make my grandfather smile.

Grandpa and I in due time were permitted to see the new fragile infant. The visitation was a short one as I recollect. I was pleased to make Mile’s acquaintance even though I knew the young lad’s immediate goals were mainly eating and sleeping. As we departed Aunt Laura’s hand squeeze seemed to say she was glad I came. Their attention quickly turned to preparing themselves for the discharge from the hospital and the beginning of Mile’s trek through life.

Grandmother Sookochoff

Grandma’s eyes, so expressive of her mood, were the windows to her soul. Without a word spoken, a note of joy, sadness, anger or fear could easily be told by a quick glance into Grandma’s gaze.

I remember grandma being of average height and heavier set. Her dark hair then streaked with grey was parted in the center, was void of any curl and hung to the nape of her neck. A shawl was added to her head if she was scheduled to go outdoors. An apron over her housedress was most frequently worn as she went about her day to day housework. Apart from different prints on her dresses she did not stray far from the traditional Doukhobor styles.

Pelagea Sookochoff

If she wasn’t tending to the household chores of cooking and cleaning, she would sit with some knitting needles in hand and a ball of yarn tucked into her pocket or bag making some mitts, socks or sweater. So adept was she at this skill, a pair of mitts would be waiting to warm someone’s cold hands by days end. Never once did I see a pattern being followed. Yet these items always turned out a perfect fit.

Occasionally, Grandma would be found seated behind her spinning wheel and was quickly but skillfully feeding even strands of carded wool into the machine. On the spindle, tightly twisted yarn gathered ready for knitting. Grandma always encouraged us to try these skills. What seemed like such a simple procedure for Grandma turned out to be a lumpy uneven mess for me when I was at the wheel. While concentrating on pedaling the mechanism, I would unevenly distribute the wool that was being fed into the spinning wheel. This would produce skinny then thick strands of yarn, hence the lumps. I think she concluded that all men were hopeless creatures in this field and it best be left to the capable hands of the ladies. Her loving arms were always there for a hug and encouragement when the task became too difficult or frustrating.

Once she had your attention and interest, out came the knitting needles and a ball of yarn. I believe my first effort was a pair of socks since they were straight forward and quickest to complete. If the test of your job is in the wearing, I learned the term “half-life of an object” at an early age. Several holes appeared half a day after wearing the socks I made and this lead me to another of Grandma’s valuable lessons, darning. Her eyes always shone with approval at a job well done or a good effort put forth. A gentle pat on the head told you she was proud of your labors. I am sure some bragging was done thereafter.

Her hands were never idle. She could be actively taking part in a group discussion and at the same time knitting, darning, preparing supper or a whole host of other tasks. The work ethic demonstrated by this family could not leave one unaffected.

Grandma always grew an extensive garden that had bountiful fruits and vegetables of many kinds. The tomato plants of unknown variety, although never very tall, yielded massive amounts of fruit that lasted until the arrival of frost in the fall. On her travels through the garden she would hold the lower ends of her apron in one hand while with the other pick and deposit peas into the pocket she had just created. Once in the kitchen, we gladly volunteered our help with shelling the peas, knowing full well we would get to sample every second or third pod. After the tasting was done, the job become a bit more onerous but we carried on until finished or we got tired of picking up peas that shot themselves all over the kitchen. In the event of a dire situation, the warm gentle nature she possessed would often bring her to tears.

 “Oye yoy yoy,” she would utter as she shook her head and wiped the tears from her eyes with the end of her apron or a handkerchief drawn from her pocket. Usually the situation would be resolved and grandma would slowly return to her former self.

Grandma’s agility and flexibility were nothing short of being remarkable even at an older age.  As evidence of this, Aunt Laura Sookochoff remembers a time when someone put a five dollar bill on the floor and challenged Grandma to pick it up with her teeth, hands held behind her back and her legs straight. Grandma widened her stance and with ease bent over, bit into the bill and then tucked it in her purse.

The Golden Years

In the early 1950’s Grandma and Grandpa Sookochoff qualified for their well deserved old age security pensions. And to receive a regular stable income after the risks associated with farming was something new and welcomed by them. Uncle Nick now married was totally managing the farm operation. The new family would need some extra room to grow and operate without imposing upon the elders. They could now spend some relaxing free time in their golden years. The decision for the grandparents to leave the farm and relocate into the town of Buchanan was made. This concept sounded like an excellent idea.

Partaking in a more leisurely way of life sounded ideal however it was a source of concern to those nearest the Grandparents. They had worked from dusk to dawn for countless years and to abruptly stop could prove disconcerting. To them working was like eating and sleeping, it had to be done daily. It was customary to live with the children who would give them the security and care in their maturing years.  It was feared that leaving the old familiar surroundings for a new establishment may prove to be too much of an adjustment for the aging Grandparents.

By coincidence, Ralph Brown my uncle the butcher and meat market owner of many years in the town, was finding refrigerators and locker plants popping up in great numbers. The need for a butcher shop was diminishing. He was at the retirement age himself and retire he did.  He and his wife Verna had planned on joining their daughter Ruth and husband Ivan Reid in Moose Jaw after giving up work. As a result, it left a square cottage styled house across the road from the United Church available for some new owners. It stood on the corner lot of Second Street one block east of Central Avenue. It had a “widow’s walk” or belvedere situated on the roof suggesting a blueprint originating near the sea. Traditionally, wives of the fishing captains stood on the “widow’s walk” to watch for signs of flags on the incoming banking schooners.  I had many opportunities to visit this home when the Browns resided there.

The retirement home of Pelagea and Nicholai Sookochoff in Buchanan, SK.

Leaving the hollow sounding wooden village sidewalk and turning onto the footpath that approached the backdoor, you were greeted by two enormous evergreens that competed for the walking space. After brushing by these trees you were confronted by a large veranda. On the veranda sat two weather beaten arm chairs overlooking the back yard while patiently waiting for someone to sit and enjoy the relaxing outdoors. At the far end of the back yard near the alleyway a small unpainted garage or large shed stood accompanied by an old model “T” Ford truck.

The front yard was surrounded by caraganas that had been trimmed to shoulder height. The lawn looked cut but dry, thin and pale. Since those were the days before water sprinklers and fertilizer, Mother Nature determined the lushness of growth.

The entrance to the front door led abruptly into the living room and did not appear to be used by anyone with any frequency. Above the door a panel of stained glass windows brought a feeling of elegance and warmth to the room. It is this house that Grandma and Grandpa Sookochoff purchased as their retirement location.

Saturdays on the farm were a day of shopping and meeting with friends and relatives. The trip to town by buggy or wagon was slow, dusty and rough. After the groceries were purchased, the mail collected and the cream can recovered from the railroad station there was time to visit with Grandma and Grandpa. On one trip, Grandpa who did not read English fluently made the mistake of asking us if the movie at the theater was any good. A question he knew would get our attention. Although we never passed by the theater or read the poster that day, we told him it was the greatest. After strongly promoting the movie we turned to saying please, please, please.  Grandpa was enjoying the attention and fuss we were making over him. I had never been to a movie and didn’t really know what to expect but I heard it was enjoyable. Grandpa finally consented.

With permission granted from our parents, off to the theater we trotted with grandpa in hand. This was a treat of treats. I knew that Mom and Dad would not have the necessary funds left over from the cream cheque to be able to join us, so they stayed behind to shop and visit. Anyway this was Grandpa’s time with us.

Although it was only mid afternoon, lights were needed at the theater due to an absence of windows. Upon entering I had to squint to see where we were going. An usher with flashlight in hand escorted us to our seats after the admissions were paid. Twenty five cents for adults and fifteen for children was the amount needed to gain entry.  Old plush seats mounted on an inclined floor made it easy to watch the movie without others obstructing the view. What a great idea I thought. As my eyes adjusted to the dim lighting, I spotted the ceiling fans slowly rotating overhead. They were belt driven, each ganged together by flat long strips of leather. Although they turned very slowly a hint of air movement could be felt. At the front of the theater long pleated curtains hung motionless. I was amazed by everything I saw. The lights dimmed and there came a clattering noise from the balcony overhead. A beam of light broke through the darkness and the drapes were slowly drawn back. The screen and room was flooded with colour, movement and sound.

Cartoons appeared on the screen first. My only previous experience with cartoons was those found in the Free Press or comic books at home. These had movement. How did they bring them to life? At the time I thought they were the funniest things I had ever seen. I sat there spellbound and consumed right to THE END as it flashed on the screen. Suddenly a lion’s head appeared on the screen and a roar ensued. I did not quite understand its significance at the time but it quickly faded and the title of the main feature Ma and Pa Kettle on the Farm appeared. I waited in anticipation to see what would happen. As the story unfolded it didn’t take long to realize there was a thread of truth about the exaggerated Kettle’s farm experiences to some of our day to day activities. Suddenly the movie stopped and the interior lights came on. This seemed like an abrupt ending. I looked around to see if anyone was leaving. No one moved, so I waited. There was a bustling going on in the balcony room behind us and soon the movie again continued. I was to eventually learn that movies came on two large reels and this was the threading of the second reel. It only seemed like seconds and it was all over. This time people were getting up and filing out of the theater. We rallied around Grandpa and walked the block and a half to his house. In route I asked Grandpa what he thought of the movie. He would feign a spit and say, “This is the worst movie I have ever seen.” Regardless of what he said I had the time of my life. I was convinced that this would be the last movie experience we were to have with him. The movie kept on replaying itself in my head as we slowly plodded our way homeward. For several weeks thereafter Mom and Dad had every scene told and retold to them on numerous occasions.

Another view of the Sookochoff retirement home.

The opportunity to visit Grandma and Grandpa on Saturday did not avail of itself for many months to follow and when it did I was astonished to hear Grandpa Say, “Is there a good movie at the theatre this week?” We jumped at the chance and off we went once more. Again the evaluation of the movie by Grandpa was the same. He would feign a spit and say, “This is the worst movie I have ever seen.” I concluded that this evaluation of the movie meant we would have to keep trying to find that ultimate production but today I realize it was his way of returning to the theatre with us indefinitely. In this manner I was able to see Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Marilyn Monroe and several more very memorable movies and movie stars.

 It wasn’t long thereafter the attendance at the theatre was insufficient to make it a viable operation and it closed its doors indefinitely. Although the final pages were written on the history of this establishment, grandpa had found a way to open the door to my heart and leave some ever-lasting memories within it.

The day to day activities and a large garden kept them considerably occupied. The back lawn virtually disappeared and was replaced by some very rich looking topsoil. The garden would supply them with the fresh fruits and vegetables they needed and still give them the opportunity to exercise their agricultural roots. They had adjusted to a new environment before and once more they would adapt to these new surroundings. They had each other. And here they would deal with their everyday needs as they walked through life together.

Reflections

As the years passed and I entered my teens, more responsibilities on the farm and school began to consume more of my time. I saw less and less of my grandparents. The language was a barrier whenever I wished to express my thoughts in more depth. I often regretted not putting forth the effort to become more fluent in the dialect. We would still visit them occasionally but there were fewer and fewer things that we would participate in together. Grandma and Grandpa seldom came to the farm and I felt myself drifting out of their lives. It was always with good intentions I planned on bringing them closer once more. Time waits for no one and too soon they were gone.

With pails of water loaded on a small wagon on a clear warm summer’s day Grandpa and five year old grandson Lorne Sookochoff slowly worked their way homeward. Two blocks south of the house a town dugout filled their buckets with the needed moisture for the dry garden. The afternoon was slowly descending and this would give them a chance to revive the wilted vegetables from the day’s heat.  Tired and sweaty upon his return, a dish of canned peaches was requested by Grandpa as he entered the house. After finishing a bowlful of the desired fruit he must have sensed something was wrong. He addressed Grandma with the remark that, “I will be leaving now and will see you”. He found his way to the bedroom and probably feeling uncomfortably warm, removed a pillow from the bed and lay on the floor. And it is here on July of 1961 a massive heart attack ended Grandpa’s journey with us forever.

Upon entering the Doukhobor prayer hall in Buchanan there was the stop at the casket to say my last goodbyes to Grandpa then a seat was found with the mourners. The walls were void of any decorative religious material and the room was furnished with a plain wooden table, chairs and benches. The traditional bread, salt and water on a platter graced a small stand near the wall. Another room contained a stove, cooking utensil and lunch making facilities.

The men congregated at one end of the table after bowing to the members present while the women gathered at the other. A request for a starter came to the floor and a hymn by the individual was started. After a few bars were sung by the starter the group joined in. An angelic harmony filled the room with a full rich sound unique onto itself. At the end of each verse the group would cease singing and allow the leader to continue in solo a few more bars before once again joining in. No musical instrumentation was ever used and in this true Doukhobor manner grandpa was laid to rest.

Grandma continued to live alone in Buchanan for another ten years after Grandpa’s death. A stoke resulted thereafter leaving the left side of her body paralyzed and made living unaided impossible. She rejoined Uncle Nick and Aunt Laura at the farm once more. Walking was difficult and this lead to a fall which broke her hip. At Yorkton hospital it was set then pinned and all seemed to be on the mend. Nevertheless, before her release from hospital she contacted pneumonia and it was in the summer of 1973 when she too soon was also called away.

It was in silence Mom and I drove the fifteen miles to the farm after the funeral. The event left her deeply shaken and the sorrow she was experiencing showed clearly on her somber face. Following the arrival we walked slowly throughout the garden together and it was there I voiced the comment that Grandma’s suffering had ended. This remark brought a look which told me she did not wish to see her gone under any circumstances. The deep love which existed between mother and daughter was never to end. Eventually she nodded in agreement and it was only then I saw a gradual acceptance of the parting.

Quite unknowingly perhaps, their interaction with us brought with it many wonderful things. Their quiet determination, the sense of family, the freedom to allow you to become your own self and experience things, support when you needed it, were all memories that linger in my mind. In addition to the coins that helped fill our piggy banks and the occasional push to do our best, they gave us the greatest gifts of all, their love and attention.

Grandparents Nicholas and Pelagea Sookochoff

To be a strong member of the community and a valued asset to society in the eyes of their peers is everyone’s goal, especially the Doukhobors. I believe Grandma and Grandpa can proudly say their efforts were dubbed a success.

They were brave determined individuals striking out on a dangerous voyage to a strange far off land. Grandma and Grandpa had their dreams, dreams of greater things and hopes of giving their children opportunities for a better life. Fulfilling all of ones lifetime goals can only be gauged by the person who sets them. Grandma and Grandpa had accomplished many. Operating a successful grain and cattle farm and rearing three loyal, hardworking, children was a full time task. The farm always kept pace with modern equipment and facilities to aid in the process.

 Who of us can justly say we have no regrets? A few drinks too many with errors made by relaxed inhibitions, comments made by idle chatter that injured feelings, or harsh words from the flair of ones temper, all too often escape.  Grandpa and Grandma made a few I am sure but to grandchildren they are soon forgiven if not forgotten.  In the lives of this couple, the troubles they endured were a much smaller component than the joys they shared, for the vows of their marriage remained until death did them part.

I acknowledge them for their hard work on the farm and the strides they made to improve their lot. Only a very few can claim outstanding contributions to society but it is often the many uncelebrated individuals that really make a difference.

How Deep are the Doukhobor Roots?

It almost seems commonplace that our culture motivates us to bring forth the past and find ways to preserve and continue our heritage. Its scope and breadth is dependant on the individual and what they have at their disposal during their lifetime. Some share photographs, stories, family trees and written documents while others say prayers, sing hymns and speak the language. The preparation of Doukhobor dishes often graces the tables for others to share in the taste of this culture. Handcrafted objects, tools and antiques from the bygone days created by the craftsman show the inventiveness and creativeness of the group as they fought to conquer the new land. Many still have the traditional dresses worn by their ancestors as reminders of the past. Also and not so outwardly visible but deep within us are the values and attitudes that governed these peoples lives. And it is these building blocks of the past that brings us into the present.

Change is inevitable and necessary for our survival and so it was with our ancestors as they moved throughout their history.  Undeniably some areas of Doukhoborism more and more are melting into the mainstream culture. Whether this naturally occurring process will bring the end to the old or still have deep rooted undercurrents is yet to be determined. But as we slide from generation to generation it appears as though less and less of the elements of the culture are being passed on intact. It is the fault of no one but circumstance itself. The elements of the old culture do not survive unaltered if the next generation experiences them differently.  This is a tendency that seems to be also happening to the remaining Doukhobors within Russia today.

To lose the Russian language in this country is to lose a rich unique way of expression. We have only to read a translated Doukhobor story to notice the vivid arrangement of words creating a new exciting different representation of a situation in our minds. Those who have the mastery of this language are the richer for it. No one in our immediate household or locale speaks the language or requires its use. The children do not see a need for this life skill nor have I made an effort to push it upon them.  Career-wise it almost seems to their advantage to learn French. Interdenominational marriages use the common denominator dialect, English, for the communication within the family unit and the Russian language has faded.  There are very few in the vicinity that are left to converse with and refresh the memory. Distance had also taken away the close contact needed with the grandparents that forced you back into the language. For these reasons the Russian language has gone by the wayside in our immediate family. The language nevertheless will remain abroad for centuries to come and can be reclaimed by those individuals who require it or when the need arises.

The Doukhobors religious principles which originally brought the group together are the reasons that made them so unique. These principles were not preached or shared with the general public and remained closed and unfamiliar to most inhabitants in our society. This closed nature of the group and their beliefs brought with it a loss of numbers to the Doukhobors following. Throughout the years as the elderly departed and the young married outside the Doukhobor following its numbers diminished. It also brought some suspicions from many of the citizens in the country. Often mentioning the word ‘Doukhobor’ seemed to bring a negative connotation and a look of uncertainty by people with different racial origins. This is a natural occurring reaction by those who did not fully understand the underlying beliefs. By clinging to their religious principles the Doukhobors proved to be good neighbors and strong members of society and eventually gained the acceptance in their communities as they showed their worth.  As man travels through time, the Doukhobors basic religious philosophy of God within man, the love of others and the reluctance to kill may once again surface, flourish and come to the forefront as the guiding principle to live by.  There certainly is a need to find some way to heal terrorism, war and suffering. Could this be answered by a bit of pacifism, tolerance and working together?

As individuals we can do many things to keep and perpetuate the culture and traditions of our nationality. This article in itself is my effort to keep alive as much of our family history as possible. It is something that can be passed forward through the years and hopefully brings my children and grandchildren a little closer to understanding their ancestry. We are responsible for passing on our roots to our children and each of us will do it in different ways. It has become tradition in our household to celebrate our Doukhobor roots each year before Christmas by engaging in the making of Russian tarts. It is a delicious recipe passed down from my mother some years ago. They are raspberry filled pastries smothered with cream and eaten fresh from the oven. The soft tender crust accented by the rich berries flavor leaves one begging for more. The aroma guides and holds everyone into the kitchen in anticipation of the first serving. Their considerable demand makes their existence but a few days. Friends, relatives and neighbors reappear each Christmas with a request for more of these tasty morsels. To my great delight, the daughter and son have now become involved in their creation and hopefully they will carry on the tradition. In their making we seem to honour the grandparents and great grandparents by accepting the cultural customs that has been handed down to us. For it is said to honour ourselves is to honour the past.

If we look deeply within ourselves I believe we will get a glimpse of our grandparents and more so our parents. My mother brought with her the Doukhobor language, work ethic, skills, religious beliefs, attitudes, goals and ideals only to mention a few. The view that children are to be held in the highest esteem and were of the greatest importance is only one example of the above. The tone of her voice, the strength of her conviction, her body language and comments are all representative of her true nature. These mixed with her life experiences directly or indirectly found their way to me.

From the interaction I had with my Doukhobor grandparents as a child, I could see the same loving nature of Grandma and the strong determination to succeed from Grandpa within my Mom. I believe we accept many of these same characteristic and thus our heritage lives on.

I was raised within two different cultural groups of grandparents, the Doukhobors on the one side and the English on the other. The influences of the English grandparents will be dealt with in a subsequent chapter.

I am proud of my Doukhobor heritage and proud of my grandparents. I say this because of what I have witnessed and experienced while in their association. It is this pride that gets passed on to our children.