Rediscovering the Lost Burning of Arms site in Azerbaijan

By Jonathan J. Kalmakoff

It is a familiar and cherished story – one retold by generations of Doukhobor Canadians for well over a century.

It was midnight on June 29th 1895 – the feast-day of Saint Peter – when over seven thousand Doukhobors in the Caucasus region of Russia – followers of Peter Vasil’evich Verigin – gathered all the firearms in their possession, heaped them onto a pile of kindling, doused it with kerosene and lit it aflame.  As these weapons of death and destruction twisted and melted in the bonfire, the Doukhobors gathered round and sang hymns of non-violence and universal brotherhood.  It was a peaceful mass demonstration against militarism and violence.  But it was met by violent reprisals and brutal retaliations by the Tsarist government.  Hundreds of Doukhobors were summarily arrested and imprisoned, while thousands were exiled from their homes to distant lands for their so-called act of ‘rebellion’.  The ‘Burning of Arms’, as this event became known, would become a seminal moment in Doukhobor history.

The Burning of Arms, a painting by Michael M. Voykin, Castlegar, BC (1974).

Students of Doukhoborism are generally aware that the Burning of Arms did not happen in a single place.  Rather, it was coordinated simultaneously in three different regions of the Caucasus where the Doukhobors had settled: in Akhalkalaki district, Tiflis province in what is now Ninotsminda region, Georgia; in Elisavetpol district and province in present-day Gadabay region, Azerbaijan; and in Kars region in modern Turkey.

However, while the precise location of the Georgian Burning of Arms site has remained widely known and frequently visited by touring Canadian Doukhobors to the present day, the corresponding locations of the Azerbaijani and Turkish sites had long since passed out of living memory among modern descendants. They are not identified in any modern history or text.

Thus, when I had the opportunity to visit the Doukhobor villages in Azerbaijan in July of 2015, I couldn’t resist the challenge of trying to locate the site of this momentous historic event in that region! 

Prior to departing on my trip, I carefully surveyed the published literature and found several important clues that would prove critical to identifying the location of the site. 

Countryside on the northwest outskirts of Slavyanka. The hill in the background is known among local Doukhobors as Orlov Bugor or the ‘Eagle Mound’. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

First, in his 1964 memoir, Ispoved’ starika dukhobortsa: vospominaniya o pereseleniy dukhobortsev v Kanady (‘Confessions of a Doukhobor Elder: Memories of the Resettlement of Doukhobors to Canada’), Vasily Vasil’evich Zybin recounted the following details about the Burning of Arms in the district of Elisavetpol (translated from Russian):

"Ivan E. Konkin passed on to all the Doukhobors [Verigin's] directions that to be a Doukhobor meant not to be a soldier; and not to be a murderer not only of human beings, but even of animals. Whoever has weapons at home, anything concerned with killing, be it swords, daggers, pistols, rifles – all were to be placed on a pile in one place and burned, secretly, so that our non-believing Doukhobors would not cause us harm. Everything was collected at a spot three versts from the village of Slavyanka. There are mineral waters there, and water is always bubbling out of the ground; it is sour, as pleasant as lemonade. Near that spring a small fruit tree orchard had been planted, and in the middle of the orchard a summer house, raised about three feet from the ground, had been erected. This was according to the instruction of our former leader, Peter Larionovich Kalmykov, who lived in Tiflis Province.”

Second, friend and fellow Doukhobor writer D.E. (Jim) Popoff reminded me that another passage about the Burning of Arms in Elisavetpol could be found in Grigori Vasil’evich Verigin’s 1935 memoir, Ne v sile Bog, a v pravde (‘God is not in Might, but in Truth’), in which he wrote (translated from Russian): 

“In Slavyanka, the place for the burning of the weapons was selected about two miles away from the village. There was a grove there with some fruit trees planted a long time ago. This grove was well fenced and kept in good order by the Doukhobors. All the Doukhobors went there often in the summertime, performed the Divine Liturgy and had lunches, so that the grove was kind of a sacred place. The bonfire was placed in the proximity of that grove, over a thousand feet aside from it.  This was all done quietly and neatly, despite the fact that there were guards there who were supposed to report to the government if anything happened.”
Highway at the northwest outskirts of Slavyanka. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

These two accounts, each written by a first-hand witness to the Burning of Arms in Elisavetpol, were remarkably consistent.  Both identified that it took place: near Slavyanka, the largest of four Doukhobor villages in the district; at a spot three versts (an Imperial Russian unit of measure equal to 2 miles or 3.2 kilometers) from the village; near a grove of fruit trees.  Zybin also mentioned a mineral spring with slightly sour water nearby, while Verigin referred to it as a ‘sacred’ place of worship.

Taken together, these clues provided me with the distance from the village to the site, two geographic features in its immediate vicinity; and that it was a place of religious significance to local Doukhobors.  I now felt I was equipped and ready to try to locate the actual site, once I got to Slavyanka!

Before long, I was on my way, accompanied by eight other Canadian Doukhobors.  Over the course of three weeks, we visited former and present Doukhobor sites throughout the Caucasus.  As the ‘resident historian’ of the group, I shared my knowledge about many of the sites we visited.   For their part, the other tour participants shared my enthusiasm and excitement about visiting these sites, steeped in such history and significance!  In particular, Andrei Conovaloff, a Molokan from Arizona with a keen interest in Doukhoborism, actively assisted me in photographing and filming many of these places.  

View of Slavyanka from the main highway. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

After spending two weeks travelling in Turkey and Georgia, experiencing many adventures along the way, we finally made our way into Azerbaijan.  We arrived in Slavyanka, once the largest Doukhobor village in the Caucasus, now home to over three thousand Azeris, with less than a hundred Doukhobors remaining.  It was a lush, green oasis amid the dry grassy hills, with handsome houses all tidy and in good repair and an air of general prosperity.  After settling into our hotel, a clean, newly-constructed building overlooking the town, we piled into our tour bus and set out to explore Slavyanka.  No sooner did we reach the town centre, then we came across Grisha Zaitsev, a tall, lanky, friendly Doukhobor in his fifties who was genuinely excited to meet us.

View of Slavyanka from the main highway. The hill in the background is known by local Doukhobors as Kosavyi Bugor or the ‘Slanted Mound’. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

After mutual introductions and much spirited discussion between Grisha and our group, I asked him if he knew where the Doukhobors had burned their guns, over a century ago.  “I do not know what you mean,” he replied.  I went on, with other tour participants assisting, to explain the events of the Burning of Arms to him.  It quickly became apparent that he was not aware of the event.  This surprised me at first, given its tremendous significance to Canadian Doukhobors.  However, I quickly realized that Grisha and the other Doukhobors who remained in Slavyanka were descendants of the Small Party, whose members had never participated in the Burning of Arms.  Simply put, it was not a part of their own history; thus the memory of this event was not kept among them.

The writer beside a local Azeri (left) and Grisha Zaitsev (right). © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

Undeterred, I changed my line of questioning from the ‘event’ itself to the ‘site’ where it took place.  I began by asking Grisha if there was a fruit grove – a very old one – on the outskirts of the town.  “There are many groves in Slavyanka,” he affirmed, “Which one do you mean?”.  I recognized I needed to be more specific.  I then asked him if any of the orchards were located near a mineral spring.  “Oh yes,” Grisha responded matter-of-factly, “we have two such springs – the Nizhnyi Narzan (‘lower mineral spring’) and the Verkhnyi Narzan (‘upper mineral spring’).  “Aha!” I thought to myself, now I was getting somewhere!  But which of these springs was ‘the’ site I was specifically looking for?  I asked Grisha if the Slavyanka Doukhobors held moleniye (‘prayer meetings’) at one of the springs.  “I do not know about that,” he replied.  “You need to ask Masha”, he said, “she will know the answer.”  Hot on the trail of a new lead, our group piled into our tour bus, together with Grisha, who directed us to the house of the eldest remaining Doukhobor in Slavyanka.

View of Maria Strelyaeva’s house in Slavyanka, whitewashed with light blue trim in the traditional Doukhobor fashion. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

Several minutes later, we arrived at a typical ‘Doukhobor’ dwelling with sharp-pitched roof, verandah with decorative wooden beams, whitewashed walls and sky-blue trim along the eaves, verandah, door and window frames.  Maria (‘Masha’) Strelyaeva, the matron, was outside tending her flower garden.  She was a stern-looking diminutive woman in her late seventies.  However, her eyes lit up as soon as Grisha introduced our group and explained who we were.  After several minutes of friendly conversation, I explained, with others assisting, that we were looking for the site where our ancestors had burned their guns, over a century ago.  Like Grisha, Maria had no specific knowledge of this event.  I explained to her that it had taken place near a fruit grove and mineral spring, a short distance from the town, at a sacred place for local Doukhobors.  Maria paused to contemplate what I had told her.  I pressed on, asking her if the Slavyanka Doukhobors had gathered for moleniye at one of the two springs on the outskirts of the town.  This immediately struck a chord with her.  “Of course,” she answered without hesitation, “our people used to gather at the Verkhnyi Narzan to celebrate Troitsa (‘Trinity Sunday’).  I can take you there, if you wish.”  Once more, we piled back into our tour bus, this time accompanied by both Grisha and Maria. 

Canadian visitors and local neighbours at Maria Strelyaev’s home. (L-R): Brian Ewashen, Jarred Arishenkoff, Lisa Siminoff, Andrei Conovaloff, Alex Ewashen, the writer, Lyuba Konkina, another girl of mixed Azeri-Doukhobor parentage, Maria Strelyaeva, Verna Postnikoff, Linda Arishenkoff, Grisha Zaitsev. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

Maria directed our bus towards the southwestern outskirts of Slavyanka.  Our road followed a rocky and nearly-dry river bed.  “Kizilchak”, said Maria, pointing to the river, “that is what our people call it”.  I would learn that it was a Doukhoborization of the original Azeri name, Gyzyl Chai, meaning ‘Golden River’.  Pointing upriver, she went on, “Even before the Revolution, our Doukhobors followed the Kizilchak to Verkhnyi Narzan.  There we celebrated Troitsa, with prayers, singing and meals.”  This holiday was observed by Doukhobors on the seventh Sunday after Easter.  She went on to explain that Slavyanka Doukhobors continued to celebrate it during the Soviet era, in secret, until the Fifties or early Sixties.  I asked Maria whether the Slavyanka Doukhobors also celebrated Petrov Den’ there.  “No, we did not” she replied.  I would learn that after the Burning of Arms, the Small Party in Slavyanka ceased commemorating Petrov Den’ because of its association with that event, and celebrated Troitsa as their major holiday instead.

Kizilchak – the river valley leading southwest from Slavyanka to the ancient grove and mineral spring where Elisavetpol Doukhobors traditionally gathered to celebrate their festivals. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

Within minutes, our tour bus came to a jarring halt at our destination.  On one side of the road, to our right, sprawled lush, park-like grounds with well-kept groves of trees and carefully-tended gardens.  It was a veritable oasis paradise!  Maria explained that it was a resort hotel and spa complex, developed several years earlier by an Azeri businessman.  “But many of the trees here are much older than that,” she observed, “They were planted by our Doukhobors over a hundred years ago.”  I asked her if there were fruit trees here, and she nodded in affirmation.  If the trees here were indeed that old, I thought excitedly, then this could very well be the ‘grove’ described by Zybin and Verigin!  Such a place of great natural beauty would have been a prominent landmark amidst the surrounding expanse of treeless grassy hills then, as it still was today.

Part of the ancient grove beside the Verkhnyi Narzan spring. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

To our left, between the road and the Kizilchak, was the mineral spring – Verkhnyi Narzan.  It was surrounded by a small group of Azeri men and boys busily filling plastic containers with water.  Evidently, it was a popular and well-used drinking source.  As we disembarked from our tour bus, Grisha and Maria gestured and encouraged us to take a drink from the spring, which we did.  The water that bubbled out of the ground was incredibly cool, refreshing and invigorating!  It was carbonated, with a slightly sour taste.  As if on cue, Maria explained, “In the old days, our people called this spring Kvasok, because its water tastes sour like kvas” (a fermented drink popular in Russia).  I recalled in that moment that Zybin had described the spring water in similar terms, as being “sour, as pleasant as lemonade”.  Was this not the spring he had described?

The mineral spring traditionally known by Doukhobors as Kvasok, today known as Verkhnyi Narzan. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

I hiked up a hill overlooking the spring and grove and surveyed the surrounding landscape.  It was indeed a breathtaking view! The flat-bottomed valley of the Kizilchak abounded with fields of wheat, cabbage, potatoes and corn, along with herds of sheep grazing on the surrounding hillsides.  Gazing down at the small crowd of locals and tourists below, it was easy to imagine several thousand Doukhobors assembled there, over a century earlier, praying and singing as they destroyed their weapons, while their Tatar and Armenian neighbours observed from a distance in wonder. 

The writer atop the hill overlooking the ancient grove and Verkhnyi Narzan spring (not visible, left). To the left lies the Kizilchak. To the right, the ravine known by local Doukhobors as Kinzhal’naya Balka (‘Dagger Gulley’), and behind it, Kosavyi Bugor. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

It was an exhilarating moment.  This sacred, beautiful place seemed to match Zybin and Verigin’s description in every respect.  Here stood an ancient grove of trees, alive since the time of the Burning of Arms.  And here issued a mineral spring with sour but pleasant waters.  Here, also, Doukhobors historically gathered to pray and celebrate religious holidays. 

View of the ancient grove and Verkhnyi Narzan spring from atop the hill. Behind them lies Sukhorukova Balka (‘Sukhorukov Ravine’) named for a local Doukhobor family. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

I paused to consider the distance from this site to Slavyanka.  Using satellite mapping, I calculated a distance of one and a half kilometers to the town outskirts.  This alarmed me at first, as it fell markedly short of the three kilometers stated by Zybin and Verigin.  However, it occurred to me that Slavyanka had significantly expanded over the past century.  Its present outskirts were not the same as they had been in 1895.  With this in mind, I recalculated the distance from the site to the oldest section of Slavyanka, at its centre.  Remarkably, it was a little over three kilometers, just as Zybin and Verigin had recorded!   

Satellite image showing Verkhnyi Narzan lying 3 km from the centre of Slavyanka. ZoomEarth.

Surely, I thought, this was the very place where the Elizavetpol Doukhobors had destroyed their weapons!

However, before I could definitively say so, I had to rule out the possibility that the other spring – the Nizhnyi Narzan – was the Burning of Arms site.  Based on the descriptions by Zybin and Verigin, it had to be either one or the other! 

After thoroughly enjoying the serenity and spiritual ambience of the Verkhnyi Narzan and adjacent grove and gardens, we eventually boarded the bus and made our way back to Slavyanka.  After saying our farewells to Maria and Grisha, we went for dinner and made plans to visit the other spring the next day. 

View of the Slavyanka hills at dusk from our hotel. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

Back at my hotel room that night, I was unable to sleep.  My mind raced with excitement at the prospect of having rediscovered a ‘lost’ site of enormous importance to our Doukhobor heritage.  As I lay in bed, gazing at the hills of Slavyanka out my window, the morrow could not come soon enough! 

The following morning our group gathered for breakfast and then visited two Doukhobor cemeteries in Slavyanka, one established in the early 20th century and a much older one established in the 19th century. At the latter site, we found a memorial stone engraved by the first Doukhobor settlers in Slavyanka in 1844 with the following psalm (translated from Russian):

"Eternal memory of our righteous forefathers named Doukhobors. We bow to them, to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. For they saved our souls, and continue to do so, in their meekness and humility. For the sake of truth it pleased God and our sovereign to gather us to the Promised Land in Tavria guberniya in 1805. But in 1844, we were resettled to Transcaucasia, Tiflis guberniya, the village of Slavyanka. And whoever else remains alive and hears of this story, should not desist from continuing these deeds to the end."
Memorial stone at the old cemetery, engraved by the first Doukhobor settlers in Slavyanka in 1844. The age-worn engraving was replaced with a sheet metal inscription in 1967. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

From the cemeteries, we made our way to the spring known as Nizhnyi Narzan

This second spring was located in the northeastern outskirts of Slavyanka.  Beside it stood a row of one hundred large walnut trees which, local Doukhobors advised us, were the remnants of a much larger grove planted by Doukhobors in the mid-19th century, but which several years ago had been cleared by Azeri businessmen to build a restaurant and hotel. 

This potentially complicated my task of identifying the Burning of Arms site, since both springs in Slavyanka were situated beside ancient groves!  However, while the grove at Verkhnyi Narzan was comprised of fruit trees, (which accorded with Zybin and Verigin’s accounts), this grove contained only nut trees.  

A row of one hundred walnut trees planted a century and a half ago by Slavyanka Doukhobors near the Nizhnyi Narzan spring. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

From the walnut grove, we walked down a steep ravine to the Nizhnyi Narzan spring. I learned that several years earlier, an Azeri-owned commercial bottling facility was established here, which produced the now-famous ‘Slavyanka 1’ bottled mineral water, sold throughout Azerbaijan. 

We drank from the spring waters.  It was carbonated, refreshing and… distinctly sweet.  There was no hint of sourness, like that we had tasted at Verkhnyi Narzan, and as Zybin had recorded.

View of the Nizhnyi Narzan spring on the northeast outskirts of Slavyanka. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

I also recalled, from my conversation with Maria Strelyaeva the day before, that there was no tradition of Doukhobors gathering at this spring to hold moleniye or celebrations, unlike the Verkhnyi Narzan. Indeed, the undulating terrain of the site would have made a mass gathering difficult.

Finally, using satellite mapping, I calculated the distance from Nizhnyi Narzan to the oldest section of Slavyanka.  It was only 600 meters from the town centre; nowhere close to the three kilometers recorded by Zybin and Verigin.

Satellite view showing Nizhnyi Narzan lying 600 m from the centre of Slavyanka. Zoomearth.

I was now convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Burning of Arms site described by Zybin and Verigin could not be the Nizhnyi Narzan spring. It could only be Verkhnyi Narzan spring we visited the previous day!

We went for lunch at the nearby hotel resort and then departed from Slavyanka. As our tour bus made its way to the Azerbaijani-Georgian border, I reflected on the significance of the discovery (or more aptly, rediscovery) I had made.

The lush, serene grove and Verkhnyi Narzan mineral spring was the site of a truly momentous event in Doukhobor history – the Burning of Arms by the Doukhobors of that region on June 29, 1895. Forgotten for a hundred and twenty years, it would once again be known among their descendants.

Upon returning to Canada, I would share my discovery through historical articles, gazetteers and interactive maps in the hopes that other Doukhobor Canadians might one day too visit this sacred, beautiful and historic place for themselves.

The writer at Slavyanka road sign at town outskirts. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

After Word

This article was originally published in the following periodical:

  • ISKRA Nos. 2141, August 2019 (Grand Forks: Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ).
The popular ‘Slavyanka’ premium bottled mineral water from the Nizhnyi Narzan spring, sold throughout Azerbaijan. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

Petrov Den’ (Peter’s Day)

By Jonathan J. Kalmakoff

As we make ready to celebrate Petrov Den’, a quintessential Doukhobor holiday, it is important to remind ourselves of the many rich layers of spiritual, cultural and historical meaning that have come to be associated with it over the past three centuries. I would like to briefly share some of the various traditions connected to this day.     

Commemoration of Apostles Peter and Paul

While the holiday is commonly known among Doukhobors today by its shortened Russian name – Petrov Den’ (Петров День) or ‘Peter’s Day’ – its actual formal, full name is Den’ Petra i Pavla (День Петра и Павла) or ‘the Day of Peter and Paul’ (Zhivotnaya Kniga, Psalm 383). 

It commemorates the apostles Peter and Paul, leaders of the first generation of Christians, founders of the Christian church, and widely considered the two most important people (after Jesus) in the history of Christianity.  According to ancient church tradition, the apostles were executed and martyred by Roman authorities on the same day – June 29th according to the (Old) Julian calendar – July 12th according to the (New) Gregorian calendar.

According to this tradition, the apostle Peter came to preach in Rome in 64 A.D., where he was arrested and crucified head down. The apostle Paul was also executed in Rome in A.D. 65, but since he was a Roman citizen, he could not be executed on the cross, and was beheaded instead.

Ancient Orthodox Festival

The holiday was not created or conceived by the Doukhobors.  Rather, it owes its origins to a much older tradition inherited from the Orthodox Church.    

For over a millennium since the introduction of Christianity in Russia in 988 A.D., the day of Peter and Paul has been one of the great festivals of the Orthodox Church. It was considered a day of mandatory church attendance, where Russian peasants attended an all-night vigil on the eve, and a liturgy service on the morning of the feast-day.  The Orthodox priest offered prayers to the apostles, who were venerated by the church as saints.  Afterwards, the people held feasts, while young people assembled to play games, sing and enjoy themselves in the villages.    

Russian Orthodox icon depicting the apostles Peter (left) and Paul (right).

During the mid to late 1700s, while the Doukhobors were still living among Orthodox Russians, they also outwardly celebrated Peter and Paul’s Day in the traditional manner. Some Doukhobors went to church for appearances sake; others avoided going altogether, having already rejected the physical church in favour of the ‘inner church’ within themselves; nonetheless at home they celebrated with prayer meetings, followed by visits to family and friends.

However, by this time, the Day of Peter and Paul had acquired its own distinctive spiritual meaning and significance among Doukhobors.

A Remembrance of Suffering for Faith

After Doukhobors openly rejected the Orthodox Church and were permitted to settle together at Molochnye Vody (‘Milky Waters’) near the Crimea in the early 1800s, they ceased to celebrate most Orthodox feast days, as they neither venerated saints nor invoked them in prayers, but simply respected them for their good works.  Nonetheless, they continued to commemorate the Day of Peter and Paul in their own way, as they held these apostles in particular respect.

The Doukhobors’ admiration for Peter and Paul is reflected in the Zhivotnaya Kniga (‘Living Book’), where the apostles are mentioned in several psalmy (Psalms 6, 144, 302) and stishki (“verses”) as ‘martyrs’ who ‘hold the keys’ that ‘unlock the souls’ of the righteous and which ‘open the gates’ to God’s heavenly kingdom. 

It was the apostles’ martyrdom for their faith and their victory of spirit over flesh which the Doukhobors considered worthy of emulation, and which evoked memories of their own suffering at the hands of Orthodox and Tsarist authorities in the late 18th century, when they were arrested, imprisoned, tortured and mutilated, had their property and children confiscated, and were banished to the furthest reaches of the Empire.  Thus the holiday became a day of memoriam of those Doukhobor martyrs who, like the apostles Peter and Paul, had endured suffering and hardship for their beliefs.    

Name Days

An Orthodox tradition which some Doukhobor families retained after breaking away from the church was the practice of naming a child after the saint on whose feast day he or she was born; at least those saints whom the Doukhobors continued to commemorate.  Hence, in many cases, when a male Doukhobor child in Russia was born on or around the Day of Peter and Paul, he received one or the other name.   

Seasonal Changes in Nature

In addition to its religious significance, the Day of Peter and Paul was associated in pre-Christian Russian folk tradition with the occurrence of seasonal changes in nature.  In particular, it marked the beginning of summer haying among the agrarian peasantry.  In Russia, the Doukhobors traditionally began haymaking the day after the festival.  Mowing the hay with scythes was primarily the men’s responsibility, but women also helped.  The hay was then gathered into stacks or stored in haylofts until it was needed in the winter.  It was a very important activity for the Doukhobors, being agriculturalists, as they needed sufficient hay to feed their livestock during the long winters.  Hence, this gave the festival additional significance among them.      

Doukhobors cutting hay on the Canadian prairies, in the same manner as they had in 19th century Russia. BC Archives C-01388.

Sacred Places of Celebration

In the early 19th century on the Molochnaya, the Day of Peter and Paul was typically celebrated in the village of Terpeniye.  Doukhobors from surrounding villages gathered there the morning of the festival to hold a large mass moleniye (‘prayer meeting’).  The moleniye was held either inside the Sirotsky Dom (‘Orphan’s Home’) or, if weather permitted, outside in the courtyard in front of this building.  After, they held an outdoor banquet in the scenic park-like grounds of the Sirotsky Dom, with its well-tended orchards, beautiful springs and fountains.

The sacred grove on the outskirts of Slavyanka village, Azerbaijan where Doukhobors of that region traditionally gathered to celebrate Petrov Den’ and where they burned their firearms in 1895. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

During the late 19th century in the Caucasus, the Doukhobors chose a central location in each of the districts they settled, where people from the surrounding villages would congregate to commemorate the festival.  These were often places of tremendous natural beauty, which over time, came to be viewed as sacred or holy places in their own right. 

  • in Tiflis guberniya (‘province’) in what is now Georgia, they met on the flat, rocky plateau above the cave-like grotto known as Peshcherochki near the village of Orlovka. It was a favorite place of Doukhobor leader Luker’ya (‘Lushechka’) Kalmykova to spend time in quiet reflection.
  • in Elisavetpol guberniya in present-day Azerbaijan, they gathered at a sacred grove (svyashchennaya roshcha) on the outskirts of Slavyanka village, which had a well-ordered and carefully-tended orchard, a summer pavilion where visiting Doukhobor leaders stayed, and a mineral spring with carbonated, slightly sour water that tasted refreshingly like kvas.
  • in Kars oblast (‘region’) in modern Turkey, they met on a high, wide plateau that overlooked the surrounding plains and villages. Known as Krasnaya Gora (the ‘Red Hill’) it was situated next to a valley with a myriad of small springs that nurtured a grove of trees that, according to Doukhobor tradition, were planted by Christ and the apostles.
The high, wide plateau near Terpeniye village in Turkey were Doukhobors of that region traditionally celebrated Petrov Den’ and where they burned their firearms in 1895. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

In each of these sacred places, the Doukhobors of the Caucasus assembled and held moleniye.  Afterwards, they would spread about their blankets and have an outdoor picnic.

Association with Leaders

During the second half of the nineteenth century, the Day of Peter and Paul came to be closely associated with two much-revered Doukhobor leaders, as it was the name day of both.   

Peter Ilarionovich Kalmykov, born on June 29, 1836, led the Doukhobors of the Caucasus from 1856 to 1864.  Despite his short rule, he was much-beloved and renowned for his dynamic personality, force of character and feats of bravery, for which he was nicknamed Khrabryy, meaning the “Brave”. 

19th century Doukhobor leader Peter Ilarionovich Kalmykov. Courtesy Koozma J. Tarasoff.

The second Doukhobor leader by this name was, of course, Peter Vasil’evich Verigin, born on June 29, 1859. After 1886, Verigin became leader of the ‘Large Party’ of Doukhobors in the Caucasus.  In 1887, Verigin was exiled to Shenkursk in Arkhangel’sk guberniya in the Russian Far North, then in 1890 he was transferred even further north to Kola on the Barents Sea.  Later, in 1894, he was transferred to Obdorsk in northwestern Siberia.  Throughout his exile, Verigin emphasized a return to traditional Doukhobor pacifist beliefs and issued secret teachings and counsel to his followers in the Caucasus, through trusted messengers. 

Doukhobor leader Peter Vasil’evich Verigin (1859-1924) whose name day coincided with Petrov Den’. BC Archives C-01443.

Burning of Arms

It was through one such communique that, in 1895, Verigin bade his followers to collect all the weapons that were in their possession and on June 29th, burn them in a large bonfire doused with kerosene in a mass renunciation of violence and militarism. This dramatic demonstration was carefully and deliberately timed to correspond with the Day of Peter and Paul because of its deep religious symbolism among the Doukhobors.

His instructions were carried out simultaneously in each of the three regions of the Caucasus where his followers traditionally assembled to celebrate the festival. As their guns burned and melted, the Doukhobors gathered around the bonfire, prayed and recited psalms and sang hymns of universal brotherhood.

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The rocky plateau above the Peshcherochki near Orlovka village, Georgia, where Doukhobors of that region traditionally celebrated Petrov Den’ and where they burned their firearms in 1895. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

In the regions of Elisavetpol (Azerbaijan) and Kars (Turkey), the Doukhobor ‘Burning of Arms’ occurred with minimal government intervention.  However, in the region of Tiflis (Georgia), local Tsarist officials viewed the burning as an act of civil insurrection and rebellion, and the fiercest punishments were at once applied. 

Two squadrons of mounted Cossacks were dispatched, posthaste, to the Peshcherochki to pacify the protestors and quell the civil disorder.  Once they arrived, the Cossacks charged the praying crowd of men, women and children, slashing through them with whips.  Many were brutally beaten and some severely injured when they were trampled by horses.  The dazed and bloodied Doukhobors were then forcibly herded to Bogdanovka for questioning.

In the days that followed, Cossack troops were billeted in the Tiflis Doukhobor villages, where they ravaged the homes of the Large Party, taking food, smashing furnishings, beating males and raping females without check or rebuke. Four thousand, five hundred of them were then banished, without supplies, to poor Georgian villages in oppressively hot and unhealthy climates, left to scrape by as best they could, or survive on whatever charity the local Georgians and Tatars dared give them under threat of arrest. Many perished in exile.

The Burning of Arms was a seminal event in the history of the Doukhobor movement; one that has become indelibly and permanently connected with the celebration of Petrov Den’ to this day.

Sketch by William Perehudoff published in Koozma J. Tarasoff, Pictorial History of the Doukhobors (Modern Press, Saskatoon: 1969) at p. 48-49.

After the Large Party of Doukhobors immigrated to Canada in 1899, those Doukhobors who remained in the Caucasus became split on their observance of Petrov Den’. Members of the Middle Party (who recognized Verigin as their spiritual leader but declined to accept his more radical teachings) continued to observe the holiday as before. However, members of the Small Party (who refused to accept Verigin’s leadership) abandoned the holiday altogether, given its association with Verigin, and thereafter celebrated Troitsa (‘Trinity Day’) as their major summer festival.

In Canada

Upon immigrating to and settling in Canada, Doukhobors continued to observe Petrov Den’ in much the same manner as they had in Russia.  From 1899 to 1938, both those belonging to the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood and those who lived and farmed as Independents commemorated the event with a moleniye, often followed by a social gathering and picnic.

The locations where they congregated to celebrate Peter’s Day often varied depending on the facilities available, the needs and circumstances of the particular group, and of course, the state of the weather.

Petrov Den’ gathering of Independent Doukhobors at Devils Lake, June 29, 1928. BC Arc
Arhives C-01364.
  • At Devil’s Lake SK, Independent Doukhobors gathered at a lug (‘clearing’) on the north shore of the lake. After 1916, members of the Buchanan Doukhobor Society also gathered at their meeting hall in the nearby village of Buchanan, SK.
  • At Veregin SK, CCUB members met at the ornate prayer home in the village, afterward picnicking in the tree grove beside the building to the west.
  • In Pelly SK, Independents assembled on the south shore of the Swan River, 4 miles northeast of the village beside the Doukhobor-built steel truss bridge. After 1936, members of the Pelly Doukhobor Society also met at their meeting hall half a mile east of the village.
  • In Kylemore SK, Community Doukhobors met at a lug (‘meadow’) on the northwest shore of Fishing Lake near the Arishenkoff village.  After 1954, members of the Kylemore Doukhobor Society also met at their prayer home in the village of Kylemore. 
  • At Blaine Lake SK, Independent Doukhobors erected a large tent at a lug (‘meadow’) near Pozirayevka cemetery, a mile and a half east of the town. After 1931, members of the Blaine Lake Doukhobor Society also met at their brick meeting hall in the town.
  • At Lundbreck, AB, CCUB members met atop the hill known as Safatova Gora beside Bogatyi Rodnik village. After 1953, members of the United Doukhobors of Alberta were also held in the prayer home built in the village of Lundbreck.
  • In Grand Forks BC, gatherings occurred at the Sirotskoye meeting hall. On at least one occasion in the 1930s, an open-air mass moleniye was held at Saddle Lake, where Peter P. ‘Chistyakov’ Verigin gave an address from a boat on the lake to his followers gathered on the shore.
  • In Brilliant BC, Community Doukhobors often gathered at the trading store/warehouse; although in some years after 1927, an open-air mass moleniye was held at Verigin’s Tomb, from which Chistyakov addressed his followers gathered below.
  • In Ootischenia BC, such Community gatherings were typically held at either the Belyi Dom meeting hall, or else the lug (‘meadow’) on the banks of the Kootenay River.   
  • In Thrums BC, Independent Doukhobors gathered at the brick meeting hall built there.
  • This is by no means an exhaustive list.
Peter P. ‘Chistyakov’ Verigin addresses followers from Verigin’s Tomb at the annual Petrov Den’ commemoration at Brilliant, British Columbia, June 29, 1931. BC Archives C-01924.

Upon its formation in 1938, the Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ in British Columbia ceased to actively celebrate Peter’s Day in favour of Declaration Day, a new event celebrated annually by members of that organization in August.

However, other local Doukhobor societies from across Western Canada (including the Benito Doukhobor Society, Pelly Doukhobor Society, Kamsack Doukhobor Society, Veregin Doukhobor Society, Canora Doukhobor Society, Buchanan Doukhobor Society, Watson Doukhobor Society, Langham Doukhobor Society, Blaine Lake Doukhobor Society, Saskatoon Doukhobor Society, United Doukhobors of Alberta, Canadian Doukhobor Society and others) continued to commemorate Petrov Den’ throughout the 20th century and 21st century to present.

Closing

It is perhaps because of its many rich layers of meaning and significance that Peter’s Day, in contrast to other traditional festivals, remains one of the popular and enduring celebrations among Canadian Doukhobors to this day.

And as we commemorate this day through fellowship, prayer, food and song, let us also reflect on the achievements and impacts of the Doukhobor people in the name of peace and faith.   

Petrov Den’ celebrations among Independent Doukhobors at their meeting hall in Thrums, British Columbia, June 29, 1934. BC Archives C-01413.

Celebration of Petrov Den’ by members of the Blaine Lake Doukhobor Society at their prayer home in the town of Blaine Lake, Saskatchewan, c. 1952. Courtesy Albert Popoff.

After Word

This address was originally presented by the author at the following Petrov Den’ commemorations:

  • National Doukhobor Heritage Village, Veregin, Saskatchewan. June 29, 2018; and
  • Blaine Lake Doukhobor Prayer Home, Blaine Lake, Saskatchewan, June 30, 2019.
Peter’s Day picnic held in Veregin, Saskatchewan in the tree grove north beside the prayer home, following the singing of psalms and other religious observances, June 29, 1964.

Bibliographic References

  • Bonch-Breuvich, V.D., Psalms 6, 144, 302, 383 in Zhivotnaia Kniga Dukhobortsev (Winnipeg: Union of Doukhobors of Canada, 1954);
  • Inikova, Svetlana A. Holidays and Rituals of Doukhobors in the Caucasus (Doukhobor Heritage);
  • Ivanits, Linda J. Russian Folk Belief. (Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 1989); and
  • Popoff, Eli A., Stories from Doukhobor History (Grand. Forks, B.C.: Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ, 1992).

A Pilgrimage to the Peshcherochki

By Jonathan J. Kalmakoff

In a hidden river gorge in the remote and rugged highlands of Samtskhe-Javakheti region, Georgia lies a grotto where, for nearly two centuries, Doukhobors have gone to seek solitude, consolation and serenity.  It is also the site of one of the most momentous and tumultuous events in their history – the Burning of Arms.

The Peshcherochki (Пещерочки) is a place of extraordinary natural beauty and is imbued with immense historical, cultural and spiritual importance to the Doukhobor people.  Indeed, it is considered one of the most sacred sites in Doukhoborism.

The Peshcherochki. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

So when the opportunity arose to visit the Caucasus in July of 2015, I jumped at the chance to see and experience this holy and historic place for myself!   

I accompanied a group of eight other Canadian Doukhobors on a three-week tour of Doukhobor settlements throughout the Caucasus.  It was an exceptionally thrilling experience, visiting places steeped in heritage and tradition that I had only read about in books.  Throughout our trip, I shared my knowledge of the historical significance of the sites with the other participants.  Treading in the footsteps of our ancestors, it was a profoundly moving and meaningful journey.   

After spending our first week travelling throughout northeast Turkey, we made our way into Georgia.  We arrived at the village of Gorelovka, the largest of eight Doukhobor settlements on the Javakheti Plateau, a large, high-altitude grassland surrounded by the Javakheti Range or Mokryi Gori (‘Wet Mountains’).  It was once the capitol of Dukhobor’ye, the popular 19th century name given to these uplands by Russian travellers and officials, owing to its predominantly Doukhobor population.  The Doukhobors themselves called the plateau Kholodnoye, or the ‘cold place’ on account of its high elevation and cool climate. Today, however, the village and surrounding plateau is home to thousands of Armenian migrants, with only a hundred and fifty or so Doukhobors remaining. 

Gorelovka village, facing southwest towards the Svyataya Gora. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

Situated at the forks of two small rivers, Gorelovka comprised three long parallel streets, with houses aligned on both sides of each street.  While many dwellings were occupied by newcomers, they still retained distinctive Doukhobor stylings, with sharp-pitched roofs, verandahs with decoratively-carved beams, whitewashed walls, and sky-blue trim on eaves, door and window frames.  Some were clad in metal roofing, while others still had thatch.  The Doukhobor yards were neat and orderly, with well-kept gardens and outbuildings; those of the Armenians were less tidy, with livestock kept penned and piled manure drying for use as heating fuel.  The once-spotless streets were rutted and covered in cow dung as the newcomers drove their cattle over them to the hills and back daily.  Above us, storks nested on the tops of power poles; a natural phenomenon unique to this village.    

Home of Nikolai (Kolya) Sukhorukov in Gorelovka. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

In Gorelovka, we met Nikolai Kondrat’evich Sukhorukov, Tat’yana Vladimirovna Markina and Yuri Vladimirovich Strukov.  Nikolai, or Kolya, was a tall man in his sixties with inquisitive blue eyes and a long white beard.  Having moved to Simferopol in the Crimea in the 1990s for work, he returned several years ago, desiring a simpler, more wholesome life.  Tat’yana was a young woman in her late twenties with dark brown hair, warm brown eyes and a kind smile.  Raised here, she left to attend university in Tyumen in Siberia, where she now worked as a geologist.  However, she came back each summer to live in her family home.  Yuri, in his late thirties, had a stocky build with blond hair and cheery blue eyes.  Having lived for years in the Georgian resort town of Borjomi, he returned here because he felt it was a better place to raise his young family.  They would be our constant hosts and guides during our stay, showing us tremendous hospitality and generosity.

Attending moleniye at the Sirotsky Dom in Gorelovka. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

We spent our first day with our hosts attending a moleniye (‘prayer service’) at the historic Sirotsky Dom (‘Orphan’s Home’) in Gorelovka, followed by a hike through the scenic countryside along Lake Madatapa, then an open-air moleniye and picnic beside the ruins of the 19th century khutor (‘farmstead’) of the Kalmykov dynasty of Doukhobor leaders.  Of these remarkably memorable events, I will write separately.

On the morning of our second day, our hosts organized a convoy of vehicles from among local Doukhobors to take our group to the much-awaited Peshcherochki.  Our driver was Sergei Mikhailovich Yashchenkov, an affable retired kolkhoz (‘collective farm’) tractor driver.  Kolya also accompanied us on our drive.  

As we drove west from Gorelovka along a pothole-laden paved road, the land was flat and divided into fields of oats, barley and rye.  A kilometer to our north stood a large wooded hill.  “The Spasovsky Kurgan,” said Kolya, pointing to it.  This kurgan (‘mound’), I learned, took its name from the village of Spasovka, which lay on its opposite side.  “There is much wildlife on the hill,” added Sergei, eagerly. “There, in its woods, one can find deer, wolves, fox and wild boar”.  Sergei, it turned out, was an avid outdoorsman.  

The Spasovsky Kurgan. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

Within minutes, we arrived at Orlovka and turned south off the highway through the village.  It was noticeably smaller and poorer than Gorelovka, with several houses standing empty and derelict along its single street.  “My family once lived here” Sergei wistfully remarked. “But now, only two Doukhobor households remain.”  Many homes, I found out, were taken up by Armenians after most Doukhobors relocated to Russia in the 1990s.  The dilapidated state of the village left me feeling melancholy… 

From Orlovka, we continued south along a heavily-rutted dirt road.  The flat, cultivated fields soon gave way to rolling grassland.  Herds of grazing cattle and sheep dotted the treeless landscape.  To our west loomed a massive hill, if not a small mountain.  “The Svyataya Gora,” observed Kolya solemnly.  “It is sacred to our people”, he added. “Atop it lies the grave of a saint, a holy man.”  Each summer, I learned, Doukhobors gathered to pray on this ‘holy mountain’ that marked the western boundary of Dukhobor’ye.  Its imposing presence and enormity left a powerful impression on me.       

The Svyataya Gora towers over the horizon above the plateau. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

After three or so kilometers, we turned off the road and drove cross-country to the east.  Within a kilometer, we came to a stop on a broad, grassy plateau with rocky outcroppings.  We exited the vehicle and surveyed our surroundings.  Behind us, the Svyataya Gora dominated the horizon.  In front of us, the ground dropped away precipitously, and we found ourselves standing at the edge of a deep gorge, staring down its steep, rocky walls.  A small river ran along its bottom.  “The Zagranichnaya,” explained Kolya, pointing to it.  The Zagranichnaya or ‘transboundary’ river was so named because when the Doukhobors arrived on the plateau in the 1840s, its source lay across the Turkish border. It was here on the banks of this river where the Peshcherochki stood.

I was brimming with anticipation… We were nearing our destination!

On the plateau overlooking the Zagranichnaya River gorge. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

Within minutes, we were joined by the rest of the convoy and soon our entire group was anxiously assembled on the plateau.  Kolya then led us to the head of a trail, obscured by undergrowth, which gradually descended into the gorge.  We slowly and cautiously made our way downward, single-file, along the narrow, rock-strewn path.  As we did, the faint sound of trickling water grew louder as it tumbled over rocks and echoed off the gorge walls. 

Dar’ya Strukova descends along the narrow rocky path into the gorge. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

Once we reached the bottom of the gorge, I instinctively looked around and uttered an involuntary “wow”!  The scene that greeted us was truly breathtaking.  The dark, sheer sandstone walls of the gorge, 10 to 15 meters high, towered above us on one side.  The Zagranichnaya babbled and rippled past us on the other.  The floor of the gorge teemed with tall waving grass, patches of brush and scattered boulders, bathed in the rays of the midday sun.  The far side of the gorge, 30 to 40 meters distant, sloped gently up to the horizon.  It felt as though we had entered a different world from that above.   

The flat grassy bottom of the gorge. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

The place where we stood was a sharp outside bend of the Zagranichnaya which, over millennia, had cut into the surrounding rock to form the vertical cliff or cut bank overlooking us.  The lower rock stratum, being comprised of softer, more porous rock, had been further eroded by the meandering river to form a shallow cave-like opening or rock shelter at the base of the cliff.  Lying on a north-south axis, the cavity was a meter or so deep, two to three meters high, and over 80 meters long.  It was entirely open to the outside along its length. 

This was the Peshcherochki of lore and legend!    

Near the opening of the grotto at the bottom of the gorge. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

I paused to consider the Doukhobor name of this feature.  It was derived from the Russian term peshchera, commonly translated as ‘cave’.  This puzzled me somewhat, since it was not technically a cave, as its opening was wider than it was deep.  However, I then recalled that the term also referred to a ‘grotto’ or ‘hollow’ which described the feature perfectly.  It also occurred to me that though it formed a single chamber, Doukhobors always referred to the feature in the plural (Peshchery), and always in diminutive, affectionate terms (Peshcherki or Peshcherochki).  Such was the uniqueness of the Doukhobor dialect!    

Within the grotto, there was a deep stillness in the air that made the slightest sound – the buzz of an insect’s wing, the cracking of a twig, or the rustle of grass – distinctive and pronounced.  Just beyond us, the hum of the river formed a soundscape of natural white noise that had a strangely soothing, relaxing and centering effect.  And the mottled light and shadow that played upon the rock face evoked a sense of serenity and contentment.  As I took in the sights and sounds of this place, my senses awakened and I felt a deep sense of peace.

The Zagranichnaya River. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

Our group fanned out and began to explore the Peshcherochki.  As we did, we learned from our hosts about the legends and traditions associated with it.

Alcove in grotto wall containing hand inprint and floral emblems. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

At the south end of the grotto, Yuri beckoned us toward a small, rocky alcove where an imprint in the shape of a hand could be seen.  “Doukhobors believe it is the hand print of Christ,” he declared, “who hid here from his persecutors.”  “At one time,” he added solemnly, “the impression was so clear that you could make out the fingerprints.  But it became faded and worn over time by so many people placing their palms over it.”  Accordingly, he asked us not to touch it, only to kiss it, which we did in reverence.

A few paces further, Tat’yana pointed out to us the word “Dukhobor” faintly inscribed in Cyrillic on the grotto wall.  In another spot, three faded floral symbols appeared etched and painted on the rock.  “Our people believe that these images have always been here,” she explained, “and that they appeared naturally and divinely and not by the hands of man.”  We kissed them out of veneration and respect.   

A faded floral symbol etched on the rock face of the grotto. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

We then gathered around Kolya, who had halted along the grotto.  “There is a legend,” he proclaimed, “that the Golubinaya Kniga is buried somewhere near the Peshcherochki.”  The ‘Book of the Dove’, I discovered, was a mythical book in Slavic folklore said to contain all knowledge – the entire assembled wisdom of God.  “Doukhobors,” he continued, “no matter how few remain, must carry out our mission to preserve this holy place and book, otherwise triple as much will be asked from us on Judgement Day.” 

Khatochka at the far end of the grotto. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

We slowly made our way to the far north end of the grotto, which was enclosed by a man-made facade so as to form a small khatochka (‘little hut’).  The rock face naturally formed two adjacent walls, one running lengthwise and another spanning the width, along with most of the ceiling.  Another two masonry walls were built along the opposite length (with a window enclosure) and width (with a doorway) with a masonry tile roof.  The outward-facing exterior walls were whitewashed while the window sill, door frame and door were painted sky-blue.  A rising sun symbol was inscribed over the entrance.  Built by Doukhobors in the 19th century, it served as a place of prayer and repose. 

Khatochka interior. The natural rock face is enclosed by a man-made facade to form a small chamber lined with stone benches. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

We entered the khatochka and found ourselves in a small, dimly-lit chamber, 4 meters wide by 5 meters long, lined with low stone benches.  The interior masonry walls were etched with floral symbols, while lush ferns grew out of the damp rock face.  We lingered therefor a long while, lost in our own thoughts and prayers.

Natural rock wall forming the Khatochka ceiling with ferns growing on rock face. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

“According to tradition,” said Kolya quietly and reverently, “this was a favorite place of Doukhobor leader Luker’ya Vasil’evna Kalmykova (1841-1886), who loved to spend time here in summer in deep spiritual reflection.”  Indeed, Doukhobors have long associated the Peshcherochki with the memory of ‘Lushechka’, as the much-beloved leader was affectionately known.

Doukhobor leader Luker’ya (Lushechka) Vasil’evna Kalmykova (1841-1886). BC Archives C-01444.

During the last five years of her life, I knew, Lushechka often withdrew here with her protégé, Petr Vasil’evich Verigin, whom she counselled on the teachings and traditions of the sect and imbued with the understanding and aspiration to fulfill his future role as leader.  It was a matter of significance to Canadian Doukhobors, as descendants of the Large Party who followed him after her passing.  Understandably, it was not mentioned by our hosts, being descendants of the Small Party who rejected his leadership.    

Floral symbols etched in the khatochka interior. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

It was no wonder why Lushechka was drawn to this place.  There was something spiritual, powerful and beautiful about the grotto… something that inspired contemplation and communion with God and nature among all who came here.  It gave rise to a sense of shelter and safety from the outside world, and brought about a feeling of comfort and solace from suffering.

These sentiments were echoed in the 19th century Doukhobor psalm engraved in the rock face above us as we exited the khatochka.  It read (translated from Russian[1]) as follows:

Be happy, o grotto, rejoice, o wilderness! For, herein is a refuge of the Lord our God, a true shelter and a comforting, protective covering - victory over my enemies and banishment to adversaries, weaponry against the unbelievers and hope to true believers. O, Thou Holy Mother of God, ever-present helper – in our misfortunes Thou hast been our devoted defender.”
19th century Doukhobor psalm inscribed on the wall of the grotto. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

According to tradition, Lushechka had these words inscribed on the wall of the Peshcherochki to consecrate it as a haven of peace and comfort, a place of sanctuary and sanctity for believers.  It was unknown whether she composed them herself or whether they already existed in the repertoire of psalms forming the Zhivotnaya Kniga (‘Living Book’).  Whatever their origin, they stood as a constant guide and enjoinder to all Doukhobors to gather here in fellowship, and to be happy and rejoice.

Doukhobor psalm inscription and commemorative plaque above the khatochka. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

And rejoice here they had, over the ages.

“Doukhobors have long been coming here,” Yuri told us.  “Since their arrival in the Caucasus in the 1840s, our people have met at the Peshcherochki every summer to pray, sing and eat together.”  Indeed, among Doukhobors, the grotto was not only a sacred place of worship but also an important site of cultural celebration and social interaction.

I knew that in the 19th century, Doukhobors gathered here annually to celebrate Petrov Den’ – the feast of St. Peter celebrated on June 29th.  This holiday held particular significance to them, as it was the name day of their leader, Petr Ilarionovich Kalmykov, late husband of Lushechka, who died in 1864.  They would assemble in the grotto to pray, then spread about blankets on the plateau above and have a picnic.  The young people gathered in a nearby hollow, out of sight of the stern elders, to sing and dance.    

Historic celebration of Petrov Den’ at the grotto in 1917. Anna Petrovna Markova and her brother Petr Petrovich (‘Istrebov’) Verigin are seated at the back, with their mother Anna Fedorovna Verigina and friend Maria Fedorovna Perepelkina in front. Photo courtesy Koozma J. Tarasoff.

I asked Kolya whether Doukhobors still held Petrov Den’ at the Peshcherochki.  “Some do,” he thoughtfully replied. “Those from Spasovka, Orlovka and other villages still meet here on that day.”  Evidently, they were descendants of the Middle Party who recognized Verigin as leader but remained in the Caucasus.  “But our Gorelovka people,” he clarified, “meet here on the first Sunday following Troitsa.”  After Lushechka’s death, the Small Party and their descendants observed Troitsa (‘Trinity’) here instead. 

This year, the Gorelovka people had postponed their annual Troitsa commemoration at the Peshcherochki by several weeks to coincide with our visit; a testament to their genuine goodwill and sense of brotherhood towards us.

Wild flowers growing in the bottom of the gorge near the grotto. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

Nowadays, I found out, it was not only Doukhobors who came to the Peshcherochki.  It was also visited by Armenians, who set burning candles on the rocky ledges while praying to God here, as evidenced by the wax remnants we found throughout the grotto.

At this point, we left the grotto and Kolya led us to the banks of the Zagranichnaya where several lush, large berezy (‘birch’) and verby (‘willow’) trees were growing.  “If you carefully break off the young branches,” he eagerly explained, “they will take root when planted.  Let us do so, now, to commemorate our visit!”  Following his lead, we each took turns planting saplings in the soft, marshy riverbank – a fitting, living testament to our journey here. 

The writer planting a birch sapling on the banks of the Zagranichnaya. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

Thereafter, we slowly ascended back up the trail to the plateau above.  It was here, on this windswept grassy plain, on a rocky outcropping some fifty meters from the edge of the gorge, that one of the most important events in the history of the Doukhobors took place 120 years earlier – the Burning of Arms.

Rocky outcropping on the plateau above the Peshcherochki where the Burning of Arms took place, facing west. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

On Petrov Den’ in 1895, Doukhobors gathered at the Peshcherochki as was customary.  This time, though, members of the Large Party brought with them all the weapons in their possession, piled them together on the plateau above, then surrounded the pile with wood, poured on kerosene and set them on fire.  As the weapons twisted and melted in the flames, the Doukhobors gathered around, prayed and sang psalms of universal brotherhood.  It was a peaceful mass demonstration against militarism and violence. 

This dramatic act of defiance had been carefully timed to correspond to the name day of Petr Vasil’evich Verigin, who became leader of the Large Party in 1887, while the site was deliberately chosen because of its deep religious symbolism.  Indeed, it was aspired to evoke the words of the psalm inscribed in the grotto, years earlier at Lushechka’s behest, and solidify their importance.

The Burning of Arms, a painting by Michael M. Voykin (1974).

For their part, Tsarist authorities viewed it as an act of rebellion.  Two squadrons of mounted Cossacks were dispatched, posthaste, to the Peshcherochki to pacify the protestors and quell the civil disorder.  Once they arrived, the Cossacks charged the praying crowd of men, women and children, slashing through them with whips.  Many were brutally beaten and some severely injured when they were trampled by horses.  The dazed and bloodied Doukhobors were then forcibly herded to Bogdanovka for questioning.

In the days that followed, Cossack troops were billeted in the Doukhobor villages, where they ravaged the homes of the Large Party, taking food, smashing furnishings, beating males and raping females without check or rebuke.  Thousands were then banished, without supplies, to poor Georgian villages in oppressively hot and unhealthy climates, left to scrape by as best they could, or survive on whatever charity the local Georgians and Tatars dared give them under threat of arrest.  Many perished in exile.

The Burning of Arms site facing west. The Svyataya Gora towers in the distance. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

I felt a mixture of emotions as I reflected on these momentous events.  It filled me with sadness that such a place of natural beauty and peace could have witnessed such needless cruelty and suffering.  At the same time, I felt immensely proud and moved by the unwavering courage and steadfast faith that those Doukhobors demonstrated in the face of such adversity.  And I felt a deep sense of gratitude for the legacy of faith, tradition and community they had imparted to us through their actions.

It was thus indeed fitting that the Burning of Arms was commemorated by a bronze plaque mounted on the walls of the Peshcherochki, which read (translated from Russian[2]) as follows:

Here on the 29th of June, 1895, the Doukhobors made their stand for the ideal of peace, and against war and killing. Upon this spot they symbolically burned their firearms. For this great deed they suffer persecution and torture from Tsarist authorities of that time. These peace makers are our own ancestors. In memory of their heroism and steadfastness in the cause of peace and brotherhood throughout the whole world, we, the Canadian Doukhobors, during our visit place this memorial plaque, in witness of our gratitude.  On behalf of the Doukhobors of Canada, J. J. Verigin August 1966. ‘Peshcheri’, Village of Orlovka, Akhalkalak District, Georgian SSR.” 
Bronze plaque commemorating the Burning of Arms presented by Canadian Doukhobors and mounted on the grotto wall in 1966. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

Once our entire group had reassembled on the plateau, our hosts spread blankets about on the grass, and after reciting the Otche Nash (‘Lord’s Prayer’), treated us to a picnic.  It was a sumptuous feast – with cheese, bread, honey, roast chicken, sausage, tomatoes, pyrohi, green onions, watermelon, apricots and plums – all homemade and home grown by the Gorelovka Doukhobors. 

Picnicking on the plateau above the Peshcherochki. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

As we broke bread together, Kolya relayed the ongoing efforts of Georgian Doukhobors to preserve and protect the Peshcherochki.  “There are few of us left here,” he lamented, “but no matter how hard it is for us, we will live near this sacred place and care for it.”  Several years earlier, we learned, the President of Georgia announced that it would be granted zapovednik (‘reserve’) status, thus entitling it to funding and legal status as a historic site.  To date, however, the presidential decree had not come into force.

Group photo at the Burning of Arms site above the Peshcherochki. (Back l-r) Sergei Yashchenkov, Jared Arishenkoff, myself, Lisa Seminoff, Tat’yana Markina, Dar’ya Strukova, Yuri Strukov, Andrei Conovaloff. (Front l-r) Verna Postnikoff, Linda Arishenkoff, Hannah Hadikin, Alex Ewashen, Brian Ewashen, Mila Kabatova, Kolya Sukhorukov, unidentified Doukhobor lady. © Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

We assembled for a final group photograph at the rocky outcropping where the Burning of Arms took place and then departed for Gorelovka. 

As we made our way back through the Javakheti countryside, I recalled that among her many prophecies, Lushechka had also made one specifically about this location, in which she spoke about Doukhobors returning to the Peshcherochki.  This prophecy was published in William A. Soukoreff, Istoriya Dukhobortsev (North Kildonan: J. Regehr, 1944 at 64-65) in which it was written (translated from Russian[3]):    

“The Doukhobors will be destined to leave our homeland and to stay in distant lands, to test their faith and to glorify the Lord, but I tell you, wherever Doukhobors may come to be, wherever they may end up going, they shall return to this place. It is their ‘Promised Land’, and when the Doukhobors return, they will find peace and comfort.”

Lushechka foresaw that the Doukhobors would wander far from this location, both physically (from the Peshcherochki) and spiritually (from the true understanding represented by the psalm inscribed there), but would inevitably return to both, thus ensuring the fulfillment of their sacred mission.

Indeed, our Doukhobor ancestors had left their homeland for distant Canadian shores, where their faith was sorely tested, many times.  Most never returned.  Yet more than a century later, we, their descendants, had journeyed to the Peshcherochki, gathered with our brethren who remained here, and together, found tranquility and solace in this sacred place. 

Perhaps, in a way, Lushechka’s prediction had come true after all…


After Word

Special thanks to Barry Verigin and D.E. (Jim) Popoff for proofreading this article, providing valuable feedback, and offering translation assistance.

This article was originally published in the following periodical:

  • ISKRA Nos. 2143, October 2019 (Grand Forks: Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ).

End Notes

[1]English translation of the psalm courtesy D.E. (Jim) Popoff.

[2] English translation courtesy ISKRA No. 1091 (July 8, 1966).

[3] English translation of prophesy (as published in W.A. Soukoreff) courtesy D.E. (Jim) Popoff.

Easter Among Doukhobors

By Jonathan J. Kalmakoff

This weekend we celebrate Easter, a festival commemorated by Christians across the world. As we do so, it is important to remind ourselves how this holiday is understood in Doukhobor religious thought and teaching, and how it differs in significant respects from that of other Christian denominations; the Doukhobor folk customs and traditions connected to Easter; and the significant historic events associated with its celebration.

Orthodox Easter

Since the introduction of Christianity in Russia in 988 AD, Paskha (Пасха) or ‘Easter’ was celebrated by the Orthodox Church as a holiday in remembrance of the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ. It was traditionally held (on the first Sunday after the spring equinox and full moon with dates varying year-to-year) according to the Julian (Old) Calendar then used in Russia, which fell one or five weeks later than the Gregorian (New) Calendar.

Among the Orthodox, Jesus Christ was considered the incarnation of God the Son, the second person of the Trinity. That is, the Orthodox considered Christ the literal supernatural embodiment of God on earth, having taken on a human body and human nature. His suffering and death on the Cross, the Orthodox believed, was followed by his actual, physical, bodily resurrection. This concept of events formed the foundation of the Orthodox faith, and its belief that Christ’s death and resurrection were part of God’s plan for man’s salvation and redemption through Christ’s atonement for man’s sin.

The Orthodox celebration of Paskha was preceded by twelve weeks of Lent, during which the faithful fasted and practiced repentance, forgiveness and prayer. When the festival finally arrived, it was considered a day of mandatory church attendance, where believers attended a midnight service on the eve which abounded in ornate ritual and ceremony. It began with a procession out of the church building, with the faithful carrying icons and candles led by the priest burning incense in a censer. The procession circled the building and returned to the closed front doors, where the priest read from the Gospel. The faithful then re-entered the church and continued the service of Easter matins, which were entirely sung. This was followed by a divine liturgy, with singing and readings by the priest, and concluded with the sacraments of the holy communion.

Following the church service, Orthodox Russians celebrated Paskha with feasts and merriment along with the exchange of colored eggs, traditionally dyed red with onion skins. Among the Orthodox, Easter eggs traditionally symbolized resurrection and new life, while the red colouring symbolized the blood of Christ on the cross.

Easter among Doukhobors

During the mid to late 1700s, while the Doukhobors were still living among Orthodox Russians, they also outwardly celebrated Paskha in the traditional manner. Some Doukhobors went to church for appearances sake; others avoided going altogether, having already rejected the physical church in favour of the ‘inner church’ within themselves; nonetheless at home they celebrated with prayer meetings, followed by visits to family and friends.

However, by this time, Paskha had acquired an inner, spiritual meaning and significance among Doukhobors that differed substantially from that of the Orthodox, and which was founded on dramatically different ideas concerning the nature of Jesus Christ, the Resurrection, and the basis of man’s salvation.

Jesus Christ

In order to understand the Doukhobor concept of Jesus Christ, it is first necessary to discuss the Doukhobor notion of the Trinity.

Doukhobors rejected the Orthodox dogmatic concept of the Holy Trinity (i.e. one God coexisting in three separate persons) as being incomprehensible and counter to any rational understanding. Instead, they likened the Trinity in metaphorical terms to God the Father represented by our ‘Memory’, God the Son represented in our ‘Reasoning Conscience’ (𝘴𝘰𝘷𝘦𝘴𝘵’) and the Holy Spirit represented by our ‘Will’. Doukhobors believed these qualities to be God-given and thus divine. The Doukhobor concept of the Trinity is described in the Zhivotnaya Kniga (‘Living Book’) in Psalms 1 (Q/A 5), 3 (Q/A 89), 5 (Q/A 42 and 49), 6 (Q/A 12), 11 (Q/A 68), 64 and 65.

Regarding Christ, Doukhobors rejected the concept of the immaculate conception and that God the Son was literally and supernaturally embodied in human form in Mary’s womb. They considered this to be an artificial embellishment introduced by the established church in order to mystify and confound believers as to Christ’s true nature. Doukhobors instead believed that Mary was simply a woman, who like any other woman, gave birth to an ordinary mortal man, in this case, Jesus of Nazareth. The Doukhobor belief in Jesus, born a man, is found in the Zhivotnaya Kniga in Psalms 1 (Q/A 3), 7 (Q/A 10), 12 (Q/A 6 and 8, 64, 71, 73, 85, 88, 94 and 375.

Doukhobors believed that God chose Jesus as his anointed one by endowing him with the divine quality of ‘Reasoning Conscience’ of the highest degree. Possessing extraordinary spiritual intelligence in his soul, lucid and enlightened beyond that of his fellow men, Jesus was able to attain the highest possible understanding of God’s Law. Since Jesus attained the highest, purest and most perfect form of ‘Reasoning Conscience’ possible for a man, and ‘Reasoning Conscience’ was ‘God the Son’ in the Doukhobor metaphorical sense of the Trinity, thus, Jesus was a Son of God.

According to Doukhobor belief, Jesus’s enlightened teachings and life revealed mankind’s true meaning and purpose, which was to fulfill God’s Law – i.e. to love God with all of one’s heart, soul and mind, and to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. God’s Law was manifested in Jesus through his loving attitude toward other people. The Doukhobor understanding of Jesus as a keeper of God’s Law can be found in the Zhivotnaya Kniga in Psalms 2 (Q/A 14, 15 and 16), 4 (Q/A 7), 5 (Q/A 17), 7 (Q/A 11 and 12), 8 (Q/A 24, 25, and 26), 9 (Q/A 24), 47 (Q/A 1) 59 (Q/A 4), 185, 373 and 374.

The Resurrection

Like the Orthodox, Doukhobors believed that Jesus was crucified by his oppressors and that he suffered and died on the cross. The Doukhobor account of Jesus’s death by crucifixion is relayed in the Zhivotnaya Kniga in Psalms 1 (Q/A 14), 8 (Q/A 15, 29), 71, 89, 114, 141, 204, 208, 212, 253, 349, 350, 357, 359, 361, 362, 363, 366, 367, 372, 391, 400, 404, 410 and 415.

Also like the Orthodox, Doukhobors believed that on the third day after his crucifixion, Jesus was resurrected. However, they rejected the idea that his resurrection was literal and physical (bodily), as this defied logic and common sense. Instead, Doukhobors believed that Jesus’ resurrection was metaphorical: he rose again spiritually in the hearts of righteous people and continues to be resurrected to this day in those who follow his teachings. This Doukhobor understanding of the Resurrection is reflected in the Zhivotnaya Kniga in Psalms 8 (Q/A 11), 14 (Q/A 6), 80, 112, 132, 189, 217, 312, 339, 349, 352, 361, 362, 367, 383 and 410.

Salvation

While the Orthodox believed that Jesus died to atone for our sins and in so doing, earned our salvation, Doukhobors reject this notion entirely. For Doukhobors, the idea that his death served as some kind of ‘divine bargain’ for the salvation of others was contrary to the very essence of his teachings. Rather, Doukhobors understood salvation as being attained through the emulation of Jesus, by living, as he did, according to God’s Law and thus earning our redemption through our own good works. That is, for Doukhobors, the essence of Christ (i.e. Reasoning Conscience) exists in the soul of every person awaiting only recognition; and those who respond to the Christ within and strive to follow his example will be saved. This Doukhobor concept of salvation is found in the Zhivotnaya Kniga in Psalms 1 (Q/A 1), 2 (Q/A 31, 71), 3 (Q/A 79), 5 (Q/A 44), 9 (Q/A 45), 11 (Q/A 56), 14 (Q/A 5), 65, 67, 69, 74, 96, 137, 157, 170, 176, 192, 210, 217, 227, 229, 237, 277, 300, 311, 316, 319, 320, 333, 375, 384, 385 and 415.

The Meaning and Significance of Easter for Doukhobors

In light of the Doukhobor concepts of Christ, the Resurrection and Salvation, what is the significance of Easter among them?

Doukhobors understand Jesus to have been born, to have lived, and died in the flesh. His soul, the perfect embodiment of divine Reasoning Conscience, is eternal. He arose in spirit and continues to arise in those who follow his teachings (i.e. true Christians), not in word but in deed. Paskha (‘Easter’) for Doukhobors is thus the celebration of Jesus Christ’s spiritual resurrection within each of us. The Doukhobor celebration of this ‘New Easter’ is described in the Zhivotnaya Kniga in Psalms 6 (Q/A 66), 14 (Q/A 14), 86 and 383.

Doukhobor Easter Customs in Russia

Once Doukhobors openly rejected the Orthodox Church and its teachings in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, they discarded many Orthodox feast days as being unnecessary and superfluous. However, they continued to celebrate Paskha as an important holiday in accordance with their own beliefs and interpretations. In doing so, they adapted some of the Easter holiday rituals and customs from the Orthodox, imbuing them with new meaning and significance.

Strashnaya

Unlike the Orthodox, the Doukhobors did not fast during Lent except in a spiritual sense. However, they were very scrupulous in their attempts to refrain from sinning, both verbally and in deed, during Strastnaya Nedelya (‘Holy Week’), or Strashnaya as it was called among Doukhobors, which preceded Paskha.

Velikaya Pyatnitsa

On Velikaya Pyatnitsa (‘Good Friday’), the women of each Doukhobor village dyed eggs with onion peels and baked Easter cakes. The folk custom of coloring Easter eggs was borrowed from the Orthodox, but its symbolic meaning was reinterpreted by Doukhobors as a way to “celebrate the joyful resurrection of Christ and to glorify the name of God”: Zhivotnaya Kniga, Psalm 14 (Q/A 6). There is historical evidence of this practice among the Doukhobors of Tavria guberniya (‘province’) in what is now Ukraine in the early 19th century, as well as in the Caucasus in the late 19th century.

Paskhal’noye Voskresen’ye

During the night that preceded Paskhal’noye Voskresen’ye (‘Easter Sunday’), Doukhobors would assemble for a moleniye (‘prayer meeting’).

In the early 19th century, Doukhobors in Tavria guberniya gathered in the village of Terpeniye to hold the Paskha prayers. The moleniye was held either inside the Sirotsky Dom (‘Orphan’s Home’) or, if weather permitted, outside in the courtyard in front of this building.

In the latter 19th century, after being exiled to the Caucasus, the Doukhobors chose a central location in each of the three districts in which they settled, where people from the surrounding villages would congregate to commemorate Paskha.

  • in Tiflis guberniya in what is now Georgia, they met on the flat, rocky plateau above the sacred cave-like grotto known as Peshcherochki near the village of Orlovka.
  • in Elisavetpol guberniya in present-day Azerbaijan, they gathered at a sacred grove (svyashchennaya roshcha) on the outskirts of Slavyanka village, which had a well-ordered and carefully-tended orchard, a summer pavilion where visiting Doukhobor leaders stayed, and a refreshing mineral spring.
  • in Kars oblast’ (‘region’) in modern Turkey, they met on a high, wide plateau that overlooked the surrounding plains and villages. Referred to as Vozle Verbochek (‘beside the pussy willows’) it was situated next to a grove of trees planted, according to Doukhobor tradition, by Christ and the apostles.

When greeting one another at Easter, 19th century Doukhobors would proclaim: “Khristos voskres!” (“Christ has Risen!”), a phrase borrowed from Orthodox tradition. Among Orthodox believers, the customary response was: “Vo istinu Khristos voskres!” (“Truly, Christ has Risen!”). However, Doukhobors subtly adapted this response to say instead: “Vo istinnykh Khristos voskres!” (“In the righteous, Christ has Risen!”) meaning that Christ has risen among his true believers (in the spiritual sense).

At the end of the prayer meeting, it was customary for Doukhobors to then wish each other a Happy Easter by kissing three times and exchanging colored eggs.

In some villages, such as Gorelovka, it was also customary for Doukhobor women to take Easter cakes known as paskha (a round-shaped sweet cake made with raisins) to the Sirotsky Dom and hand them out to the old people after prayers.

After the Easter moleniye, it was also customary for Doukhobors to visit their local cemeteries and visit the graves of deceased relatives, putting colored eggs on the graves, to pray for them and to revive their memory.

Yet another Doukhobor tradition, dating back to pre-Christian Russian tradition, was to put a few dyed eggs into the barn for the khozya (‘master’), as some called the fairy tale spirit said to inhabit it; others referred to it as domovoy.

Doukhobor children in each village would play with the colored eggs they received, rolling them along grooves during the Easter festivities.

Doukhobor Easter Commemoration in Canada

Doukhobors continued to observe these traditional Easter festivities after their arrival in Canada in 1899, at least initially. The major difference was that after 1903, the Doukhobors moved their observance of New Year’s from the Old (Julian) Calendar to the New (Grigorian) Calendar.

At a 1908 all-village congress held by the Doukhobor Community in Nadezhda village near Veregin, Saskatchewan, Peter V. Verigin, in an effort to simplify and modernize Doukhobor ceremony and ritual, set aside many of the folk traditions and festivities formerly associated with Easter. Strashnaya and Velikaya Pyatnitsa were no longer actively celebrated as part of the Easter celebration. However, a special moleniye continued to be held on the Sunday of Paskhal’noye Voskresen’ye to commemorate Easter.

Also, a new Easter salutation evolved into use in Canada at the moleniye on Paskhal’noye Voskresen’ye:

  • Greeting: “Slava Hospodu (“Glory to God). Response by those gathered: “Slavim, blahodarim Hospadu za Yevo Milost’ (“We glorify and thankfully gift Him with blessings for His grace.)
  • This new greeting was followed by the traditional Doukhobor Easter greeting described above.

Two other greetings were developed by Doukhobors in Canada that reference Christ’s spiritual resurrection; however, they are not associated exclusively with Easter. At every moleniye, the following greetings are given in the form of an exchange between the two sides (men and women) gathered. These are as follows:

  • Greeting: “Slaven Bog proslavilsya!” (“Our praiseworthy God has been given His due recognition!”).  Response: “Velikoye imya Gospodnee i slava Evo po vsey zemle!” (“Great is the name of the Lord (God), and His honor is felt throughout the world!”).
  • Additional Greeting: “S prazdnikom vas, s svetlym Khristovym Voskreseniem!” (“Greetings to you this day, commemorating the day of Christ’s resurrection, which gave light to the world!”)

Significant Historic Events

No discussion of Easter would be complete without mentioning the seminal historical event associated with this holiday: the Doukhobor repudiation of military service.

On Easter day in 1895, Doukhobor conscripts then in active duty in the Russian Imperial Army carried out a series of protest actions in accordance with the careful instructions of their exiled leader, Peter Vasil’evich Verigin, as communicated through his loyal messengers.

When the commander of the company arrived and congratulated his soldiers on the Easter holiday, saying: ‘Christ has Risen’, each Doukhobor soldier answered: ‘In the righteous, Christ has risen’ rather than the customary Orthodox response of ‘Truly, Christ has risen’. Following this, each Doukhobor soldier advised his commander that he believed in Christ in deed, and would be serving Christ by denying and rejecting all violent regimes. He then handed the officer his rifle, saying ‘this is why I ask you to accept this rifle from me because all this is unnecessary for me and contradicts my consciousness and the spiritual feeling of my soul.’

It was the Doukhobor conscript Matvei Vasil’evich Lebedev who carried out this action first, and his brave endeavor became known to the whole regiment and everyone questioned: What happened to him? Some soldiers assumed he went insane, while others whispered, quietly and cautiously, that he was correct in his actions. For taking this courageous stand, Lebedev was tortured, beaten and put into a punishment cell, where he was not given food except for bread and water.

Others, empowered by Lebedev’s example, followed and soon almost 60 Doukhobor conscripts in active service (at the time) in the Caucasus returned their arms and equipment. They were all arrested, beaten, tortured and put into isolation away from the other soldiers. A number died from this cruel and inhumane treatment. Finally, they were sent to the disciplinary battalion at Ekaterinograd Fortress where they underwent additional punishment and inhuman cruelties. In the years that immediately followed, over 180 Doukhobor conscripts took this action. They were all exiled for a term of 18 years to the isolated and remote Yakutsk region in Eastern Siberia.

The actions of the Doukhobor army conscripts during Easter of 1895 set off a much wider protest within Doukhobor society against violence, killing and militarism, which would culminate with the Burning of Arms, later that same year.

Conclusion

As we once again commemorate Easter, celebrating Christ’s spiritual resurrection within us, today and every day, let us once more proclaim in our hearts and to each other: Khristos voskres! … Vo istinnykh Khristos voskres!


This article was originally published in the following periodical:

  • ISKRA No. 2161, April 2021 (Grand Forks: Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ).

Bibliographic Sources 

  • Bonch-Breuvich, Vladimir D., Zhivotnaia kniga dukhobortsev (Winnipeg: Union of Doukhobors of Canada, 1954);
  • Inikova, Svetlana A., Holidays and Rituals of Doukhobors in the Caucasus (Doukhobor Heritage: www.doukhobor.org).
  • Ivanits, Linda J. Russian Folk Belief (Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 1989);
  • Manitoba Free Press, “Doukhobors Will be Canadians”, April 6, 1903;
  • Novitsky, Orest M., Dukhobortsy. Ikh istoria I verouchenie (Kiev: 1882);
  • Poznikoff, Liza, correspondence with writer re: Easter greetings, April 1, 2021;
  • Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ, “About Our Faith” (U.S.C.C. website: uscc-doukhobor.org);
  • Veregin, Barry, correspondence with writer re: Easter greetings, April 12, 2021; and
  • Voykin, Wendy, correspondence with writer re: Easter greetings, April 1, 2021.

Photo Credit: Olga Nagorna, Olga in the Kitchen.

The Letters of Betty Blue – Veregin, Saskatchewan

By Jean Blewett

Jean McKishnie Blewett (1862-1934) was a turn-of-the-last-century Canadian journalist, author, poet and women’s rights advocate. In September 1909, she visited the Doukhobors of Veregin, Saskatchewan during a two-month automobile tour of Western Canada to study the social conditions of new pioneer settlements, particularly the circumstances of women. In the following article (written as a fictitious letter from ‘Betty Blue’ to her friend ‘Joan’), Blewett examines the Doukhobors’ communal way of life. She describes in detail the uniform housing and manner of dress of her Doukhobor women hosts, the exceptional cleanliness and orderliness with which they kept their village, and their assigned community roles; a self-sufficient, egalitarian society where no member was greater than another, everything was held in common and everyone shared a common purpose – no ‘mine’ or ‘thine’ – only ‘ours’. Article and photographs reproduced from Canada Monthly magazine, Volume VII, No. 6, April 1910 (London: Western Canadian Immigration Association, 410-416).

DEAR JOAN: – These protégés of Count Tolstoi are just as human as other folk – when you get into the family circle. It must seem good to them to have as much as they desire of God’s out-of-doors all to themselves after the way old Russia behaved to them. You know how she was always making grass-widows of the women by rushing the men off to Siberia – between ourselves the male member of the family seems a stranger at his own hearth to this day. But I must tell you of the entertainment while it is fresh in my mind.

“While we are yet miles away we see the white village stretched out on the green of the prairie.” (Jean Blewett).

From the garden party of a real live lieutenant governor with flags flying, and the band playing so madly you can’t keep your feet still, with furbelows, flower and finery, with the usual crowd of pretty women talking the usual amount of nothings, and the marquee under the trees offering the usual salads, sweets, ices – from this to the tea-party of a Doukhobor community is a long step, but out here distance does not count. You put on seven league boots to make your strides, social and other, and only touch the high places – or you get left so far behind the only thing is to pretend you never made a start. Yes I know that verse about the battle not being to the strong or the race to the swift – but it was written before this big West came into notice.

Comparisons are odious – we learned that in Miss M’s school, when we wore pinafores and pigtails – and I’ll not disgrace my early training by drawing one now, but, let me whisper it, the Doukhobor “At Home” knocks the ordinary into a cocked hat.

No hour is set, no need that it should be. As our rig follows the winding country road through the valley, up the hill, around the bends of the river and then straight across the level prairie, we can see the white village of Veregin a good six miles before we reach it – and Veregin can see us for at least half that distance. It is the atmosphere, smokeless, dustless and so clear, you know Mother Nature strains it through a silver sieve every morning before the world wakes up.

This being a pretty thought I pass it on to Propriety (her name is Ann, but I call her Propriety for short) who has taken a bottle of witch hazel from her bag and is busily applying it to certain angry spots on neck and forehead. But Propriety merely remarks that she wishes Mother Nature would use a sieve fine enough to take out mosquitoes. Propriety being in charge of me, as it were, has the feeling that she must hold me down to earth with a big prosaic pin. Shell have her own time, bless her!

Yesterday it stormed. Joan, you think you know what lightning means, but you don’t. Instead of the real essence you get a diluted article. A little west of here the storm king does his brewing and compounding. These he tries on this big new land – having, I presume, formed the habit before folks came here to live – and if they wreck a landscape or two, he knows they are all right, and, gathering up what is left of them after they have done their worst, he makes of the fragments the kind of storms you have been used to.

But yesterday the boldest held his breath for a time. It is a habit they have up here, this holding the breath during a storm. I’m catching it. No, it is not the wind, it is the fear, the dread lest the hail come and cut down the grain – grain which is high as my head, and golden as a sunset sky. Wheat, – wheat so heavy with its ripening weight it no longer skips and dances in the breeze, but moves softly, softly in the warmth and glow.

I can picture you the grain fields, but not the wonder of them, the promise of them. Before your eyes:

“Stretches a widening sea of gold, Every ripple upon its breast, Sings peace and plenty and wealth untold.”

Before me then at four o’clock of the afternoon, holding my breath with the others as the grey cloud, black-centred, creeps nearer, drops lower, spreads and spreads until the last vestige of the blue disappears. The homesteader and his good little wife fall silent, so do I, so does the room, the whole house. I go out on the porch. The same grey silence which shrouds the house shrouds the landscape, the copse, the vine in the yard, the scarlet runners on the gate post, even the baby poplars hiding behind the fence. How still the world is! How tempestuously still.

The warmth has gone out of the air, the chill and greyness have everywhere their own way.

There are no preliminary flashes or mutterings, just the terrible quiet of an ambush, something sinister stealing on one; something that cannot be warded off or gotten away from.

All at once a streak of flame hisses across the sky as though hunting a short cut to the warm old earth hugging her gardens and grain to her bosom, and with it – not behind it – comes a rendering, explosive crash, which dares you not to be afraid. It is no air-clearing, beneficent thing, this, but a destructive force. The lightning flames to strike, each detonation of these terrific peals is a threat. The wood stands very still, the vines and poplars cower, the thing they fear most is not yet on them.

It is coming, though. You hear it a long way off, the wind of the prairie storm. Of a sudden the stillness goes: the vines shake, the poplars whimper and sob, the wood moans in pure panic.

If you know nothing of lightning you certainly know nothing of wind. The kind we have at home makes a lot of noise, but does very little damage. It blusters, and threatens in a mad game of show off. “Booh,” it bellows, “I’ll catch you! I’ll catch you! Boo! B-o-o-h!” and that’s the end of it. True, it sometimes snaps off a telegraph pole, uproots a stray tree, or unroofs a building, but only as a rough bit of fun, a playing at fierceness.

“The Doukhobor houses open on a common court.” (Jean Blewett)

Listen, Joan, this wind is a devil, it’s pit the black eddying centre of the cloud, and when it flings itself from thence, with flame and fury for company, I fall into such terror of it, I can’t go into the house, or even shut my eyes. I watch it writhe itself about the haystacks and scatter them; tear the trees; twist the vines; maim and hurt for the very joy of it. Then, as if flurry has created a thirst, it lowers its terrible maw over Mallard pond – “O!” I cry, “O!” for before my very eyes it sucks up the little singing lake of blue, with sickening greediness, sucks it up with choking and gurgling, and passing on to the low lying valley spits the draught in the face of the cornfields, flooding their greenness out of sight like the evil thing it is. “O!” I cry again, and this time with such hysterical force that someone hears me and draws me into the shelter of the house.

The lightning grows less vivid, the wind passes with muttered threatenings but you know by the greyness and chill getting deeper every moment that the storm is only begun. It comes with the sharp fusillade, the clamor and tempest of hail, cutting a highway through the fields, threshing out the grain, shredding the straw, beating the beautiful gold back into the yielding earth.

Joan, you in the heart of the city, cannot realize what it means to plough and sow, watch the growth and ripening – and then have no harvest. If you were here where the grain is all they have you would understand why, when later I try to follow the storm’s path, I can’t do it, so full are my eyes of tears.

All this was yesterday.

Today the little white clouds are one and all turned loose to chase each other across the blue – just as after some really grand affair in the home the children are left to play where they please till such time as things are straightened up: Such clouds as Lampman saw when he wrote:

“They call you sheep, The sky you sward, A field without a reaper; They call the shining sun Your lord, The shepherd wind your keeper.”

And yonder is Veregin – and Doukhobor hospitality.

At that other tea the gowns might be described as “creations” and the wearers as “dreams,” and very likely when the account appeared in the social columns there was a little envy here and there, a little bitterness over the relative superiority of lingerie dresses and embroidered lace, and silks, but at this one I give you my word not a woman of the lot makes the least effort to outdress her neighbor.

Each wears the same sort of costume, a full petticoat of blue stuff, a fuller skirt of blue print trimmed with a wide band of cerise sateen, made about an inch shorter than the petticoat, a print sacque belted in with an apron as clean as soapsuds can make it. On the heads of old and young alike is the never-failing square of cotton folded once and tied under the chin.

They are a trifled hampered in the matter of conversation – we all are – but they manage to tell us we are very welcome, and we – well, we do our best. They know the meaning of “good” and “no good” so to things we all like we nod and say “good” and the things we don’t like we shake our heads and say “no good” – which is not so new after all.

Talking of nods, I find myself unable to keep my eyes off Propriety. You never saw anybody’s head bob so hard and fast as hers does while she listens to the Doukhobor damsel who has charge of the children. It reminds me of Pip in “Great Expectations” when he tips the Aged Parent the prodigious nods to show his friendliness. I only hope her hair won’t loosen and come down.

Propriety has lovely hair, but in these days of fluffy fashions she cuts it out with a curl or two, and I have the feeling that these women wouldn’t understand a head being adorned with anything but its own particular home grown hair. I signal her a warning, but she is so deep in the nodding business she never heeds. On her head – or off her head – so be it.

It is the cleanest place you ever saw. The spotter of spotless town would never be able to spot a spot, certainly not on the butcher’s gown. There is not – has never been – a butcher here, but if there were his gown would be just as spotless as everything else.

The windows are a joy in themselves, each identical pane shine as though it were the only thing in Veregin to reflect God’s blessed sunlight. You understand at a glance why a Doukhobor doesn’t paint his woodwork, it would be defrauding his better half of the joy of scouring the same. The floors are white enough to eat from, the tables and benches are fairly bleached with soap suds.

Each house contains a kitchen and living room; the first boasts the big brick oven, the second the table and benches. There are no bedrooms. Each morning the bedding is taken from the benches within, and spread in the sunshine without, and each evening it is brought in and put upon the wide benches flanking the wall. A hard bed, but a wholesome one.

Cleanliness is not second to godliness here, it is part and parcel of it. If I were to start firing the catechism at this stalwart sisterhood, they would answer that the chief end of man, woman, or child was work – work – work! They glory in it. They have followed the plow and sown the grain, and taken their place in the harvest-field; they have size and muscle and a comeliness of their own. The thing they despise is physical weakness, men and women of them have an undue appreciation of strength. It is said that the only thing a Doukhobor man will take as just cause for deserting his mate is her failure to keep in good health.

Moral – if you want to keep the man of your choice, never say die; deny headache, backache, any and all of the thousand ills that common folk are heir to – practice Christian science with might and main. Sympathy is not a strong factor in the make-up of these wonderful workers who came over from Russia, and are making the desert bloom as the rose here in the Canadian West.

Communistic life is a thing that grows on you. Down in yonder house with the blue smoke curling from the chimney, the baking for the village is done. In another is done the washing, in another the spinning, in another the weaving of rugs and cloth. The bake woman is not proud, though her apron is a good half yard wider than that worn by her sisters. There is no emulation, no fault-finding, each goes on with the task given into her hands without let or hindrance.

It is a matter of training, I suppose. Now with us if one woman undertook the baking we would all be clamoring for her to use our recipes; if one made our dresses we would choose the pattern or know why; and we would all be so busy helping the spinner, weaver, etc., we’d never get our own share done.

“Waiting to welcome us.” (Jean Blewett)

Imagine one woman taking care of all the babies! Not a word about “my nurse said” this or that – the Doukhobor woman has no nurse; not a word about the doctor’s opinion on the merits of hot or cold milk – the Doukhobor woman has no doctor. She has just her own common sense and training which tell her the other woman knows as much as she does. She lets it go at that.

Not that she isn’t allowed to think. The fine looking man who is head of spotless town, breaks it to us gently. Not only do the women vote, but they have a place in the council chamber. “One hundred men, and fifty women in the council,” he says, with a smile, “one woman talks as much as two men, eh?”

Propriety is joyous over this, and I haven’t a doubt will tell the suffrage society all about it on her return. But really with so much going on in the domestic line, one can’t feel especially interested in things merely municipal.

Things in common! You hear it everywhere, see it everywhere. They sweat their humors out in a common steam bath arranged on modern lines in the last house of the row; the women gabble together of their common wrongs and common wrights; the little folk run and play, laugh and cry, live and grow in a common playground with a common woman mothering the lot. There is no mine or thine; “ours” is the word. Life in a community sounds alluring.

Propriety and the girls grow quite friendly as the afternoon progresses.

They eat no meat these sturdy folk, nor flesh of fowl or fish. It is against their religion to do so. But they can cook vegetables the best ever. Oh, yes, we have vegetables at this “At Home” – we have a feast.

The cloth is white as snow and (think of it!) there are serviettes beside the plates. No drinking a cup of tea standing, no eating an ice with the chills running up and down your spine – due not to the ice, but to the fear of someone upsetting his or her refreshments on your best frock.

We sit down on a bench, and eat off a table. Now, Joan, you’ll be full of curiosity as to what we have to eat, so I am going to tell you. There are new potatoes cut in squares and fried brown in butter, there are carrots in a dressing of cream that removes them from the list of common things, food for the gods these are. There is an omelet light and frothy, there is a loaf of brown bread as wide as the woman who made it. It is freshly baked and the butter melts and runs into it, and there is a crowning delicacy, a deep dish of wild strawberry preserve. Of this the Doukhobor women do not partake.

“Is it that you do not like sweets?” Propriety, who has had a second helping, inquires of her neighbour. “no need,” comes the cheerful answer. “We eat to make strong – milk, meal, potato.” “Why trouble to make preserves, if you do not care for them?” persists Propriety. “Some day we have child sick, maybe, or,” with a laugh, “what you call company for tea. We like for others, not for ourselves, see?”

Tea over we go out onto the court or dooryard, where the women exhibit their children and their handicraft. The Doukhobor damsels bring out their embroidery frames; the weaver brings out her rugs; the sun-flower lady taking her biggest blossom in hand, shells out the seeds. Putting these through a sieve winnows the hulls from them.

An especially fine woman of the village brings out a wheel, the old fashioned kind as seen in the city drawing-room, seats herself, puts her foot on the running gear, and a long roll of white wool to the spindle. There is a breezy, wheezy, chirrupy sound and you see the roll of wool grow to yarn, and wind itself about the spindle. It is a beautiful art this spinning – though the lady at the wheel does not call it art – work is a good enough name for her.

We are at a disadvantage, my dear, in being born so late. Take a really pretty girl in a white frock, set her at a little low singing wheel with a bundle of wool beside her, a thread of soft yarn in her fingers, and what chance would a bachelor have? Not a bit. He would realize that after all Solomon was wise, truly wise, and never more so than when he said once a time when this world was centuries younger than it is today, “her price is above rubies.”

“Out for a walk.” (Jean Blewett)

Homeward bound in the glow of sunset, with the road following the curves of the river, and the great spaces stretching away before, behind, on either side. The sky comes down to the edge of the prairie and fastens itself there with a sash of something blue like smoke, and soft as the heart of a cloud. It seems good that earth and sky are near enough to neighbor with each other.

I say as much to Propriety.

“I wish the folk were,” she returns, “I’m thirsty as can be and not a pump to be seen.”

There is no poetry in Propriety.

Your far away but faithful,

Betty.

P.S. – Joan, dear, I ought to tell you of the Doukhobor leader Veregin; a wonderful man (talk of matinee idol! Why, the whole community bows down to Peter), the Doukhobor bargain sale, Doukhobor matchmaking, and other equally interesting things, but there is no space. Beside, I only set out to tell you of the tea-party – the rest will keep. – B.B.

After Word

Several authors have attributed Jean Blewett’s visit to the Doukhobors to the year 1910: Laura Dale, Walking in Two Worlds (Friesen Press, 2019 at 6); Ella Thompson, “The Doukhobor Settlers of the Swan River Valley” in Manitoba History (Number 72, Spring-Summer 2013). However, an analysis of period newspaper stories confirms that the visit in fact took place in 1909.

Engaged by a magazine syndicate that year to write a series of articles about the social life of Canada, Blewett embarked on a much-publicized tour of Western Canada. On June 29, 1909, she departed Toronto by train, arriving in Winnipeg on July 19. Two days later, she departed by automobile westward across the Prairies, reaching Calgary on July 26, Edmonton July 28, Peace River August 5, Vancouver August 14 and Victoria on August 20. Blewett then returned eastward from Vancouver on August 25, reaching Edmonton August 31, Red Deer September 17 and Winnipeg on September 22. It can be deduced that she visited the Doukhobors of Veregin, Saskatchewan on the final leg of her tour, between September 18 and 22, as she writes about the Doukhobors harvesting at the time.

Publicity photograph of Jean Blewett, 1899.

For other articles written by Jean Blewett regarding her September 1909 visit to the Doukhobors of Veregin, Saskatchewan, please see:


The Doukhobor Woman

By Jean Blewett

Jean McKishnie Blewett (1862-1934) was a turn-of-the-last-century Canadian journalist, author, poet and women’s rights advocate. In September 1909, she visited the Doukhobors of Veregin, Saskatchewan during a two-month automobile tour of Western Canada to study the social conditions of the new pioneer settlements, particularly the circumstances of women. In the following account, Blewett’ offers an overall positive and sympathetic interpretation of the Doukhobor woman, paying particular attention to her unrelenting work ethic; her adoption of non-traditional man’s farm work in addition to her traditional domestic role; her unprecedented equality within Doukhobor society; and her unwavering commitment to Community life. At the same time, Blewett subjects the Doukhobor woman’s body to Victorian Anglo ideals of form and behaviour, seemingly concluding that the Doukhobor woman who performs undue physical labour loses her picturesqueness, comeliness, and contours, in direct contrast to the ideal life of an Anglo woman settler. Recent scholars have argued that by publishing descriptions of the Doukhobor woman engaged in hard farm labour in addition to doing ‘woman’s work’ Canadian media accounts such as this significantly shaped ‘public knowledge’ about the Doukhobors by focusing on the peculiarity of Doukhobor women’s bodies. Originally printed in Collier’s Weekly (n.d., n.p.) and reproduced in Frank Carrel, “Canada’s West and Farther West” (Toronto: Musson Book Company, 1911) at 227-235.

The Doukhobor woman is no Venus. A long while ago she acquired the habit of working, and, theorists to the contrary, hard, incessant work does not tend toward beauty of face or form. TEST

Taking her place at the plow when the first furrow is turned in the spring, planting, hoeing, making hay, harvesting the grain, threshing and grinding the same, doing the whole year round a man’s work, has given her the figure of a man. She has muscles instead of curves; there is no roundness or softness visible. The sun has burned her face brown and her eyelashes white. Her hands and arms are the hands and arms of a working man. But her life in the open has done this for her, it has given her a dignity of carriage and a strength and wholesomeness more pleasing than mere beauty.

Doukhobor water carrier. Simon Fraser University, MSC121-DP-206-001.

The Community Life

Her dress is peculiar—she is a peculiar person. She wears an exceedingly full skirt. Indeed, when you first see her you wonder why Peter Veregin, with his rigid ideas of economy, does not order a style of garment which will not call for a double quantity of material. With this goes a jacket tied in at the waist with an apron, which, like everything else about the Doukhobor woman, is of generous proportions. On her feet are heavy shoes, and on her head the unfailing white covering, which is nothing more or less than a square of cotton folded once and tied under the chin.

The houses open on to a common court or dooryard, and in this the children are put to play and the bedding to air. Here in the evening the women gather with their embroidery frames to catch the last glimpse of sunlight for their work – pretty work it is and beginning to find a ready market. The hands holding the needle are coarse and hard from labor, but the flower and leaf which they bring out on the linen are dainty and exquisite as any lady of the land could do.

What the hearth is to the family circle the court is to the community circle, a common meeting-place for those who will sit silent and those who will talk. You notice this, it is the old who do the gossiping, the young who do the laughing. The middle-aged Doukhobor, to quote the little Galician girl at the post, “is of a sour face and still tongue.”

At the upper end of the court is the store, with its varied stock of merchandise; at the lower end the bath-house, which is at once the village sanitarium and its pride. Here go the Doukhobors for a general cleaning up each Saturday evening. The fire on this altar of cleanliness never goes out. If a man falls ill, instead of having a doctor he has a bath. If a child is taken with croup, measles, whooping-cough, or any of these ailments, that child is rushed to the bath. Let a woman show the first symptoms of headache, backache, or nerves, and she is given a course, short but efficacious, in the ‘health-house.’

The place boasts a brick stove out of all proportion to its size, a stone bath, and a sweating-room. A great place for the curing of fevers contracted while working on the railway or in the woods, the rheumatism of the ditches, bronchial affections, any and all the diseases which show themselves.

The houses, which run down each side of the street, are cleanly, comfortless places, as free from decoration as the women who preside over them. A place to eat in and sleep in, this is what the Doukhobor house is, and all it is. The fireplace, with its big oven, fills one end; the table the other, and along the wall runs a wide bench.

A Doukhobor woman and her two daughters. Simon Fraser University, MSC121-DP-150-01.

The Luxury of Scrubbing

It is to be wondered at that these hard working folk do not have some comforts in the home. A wise and sympathetic man who has done a great deal for them, and who has their confidence, said as much to them of late. They answered with a superior air that life was not made for comforts and ease-taking, but for work, much work. The bed is made upon the bench by the wall, and in the morning the housewife carries the mattress, quilts, and coverlets out of doors and spreads them on a structure built for the purpose. Thus is a double purpose served; the bedding is aired in hygienic fashion, and the house is left free to the spinning of carded wool or the weaving of gorgeous rugs, or some of the other industries, which go on with unflagging zeal. After being with her, I know the Doukhobor woman’s idea of heaven—a place where she will have a long stretch of golden street to scrub to her heart’s content. It is her one luxury, scrubbing, and she never stints herself.

She does not bother her head with cookbook or recipe. Her meals are like herself, substantial and wholesome. No flesh of fowl or beast, though prairie hens rear their broods on the outskirts of the village street, and, as for the wild ducks, no sooner is the song of the gun heard in the land than instinct prompts them to seek the ponds and creeks of the Doukhobor. Here, literally, none dare molest or make afraid – as more than one sportsman finds to his cost. The waters, black with teal, mallard, blue bill, and red-head, offer a great temptation. He steals a shot, maybe two, but before he has time to gather up the spoil, the avenger is upon him. If he is discreet he stands not on the order of his going.

Infuriated Amazons

They are no respecter of persons. The story goes that a certain man, who was poobah of the place in the hollow of his hand, went forth one fair September morning to shoot in the Doukhobor grounds. Suddenly there came bearing down upon him a couple of stalwart women. The Doukhobor women did not care who or what he was. He had broken one of their laws, violated a tenet of their faith. They took his ducks away, they threw him and his gun in the pond. When he had choked and spluttered till purple in the face, they pulled him out, put him in his rig, gave him the lines, and started the horse off on a gallop.

‘Why didn’t you put up a fight?’ a friend asked him later. ‘I wouldn’t have taken that from any two women under the sun.’ ‘Women’, sighed the poobah, his pride all gone; ‘they weren’t women – amazons, amazons, that’s what they were.’

The Doukhobor woman’s house is homemade, so is her furniture. She puts her heavy plates on the bare board, and beside them wooden spoons carved by the lads of the village. She serves porridge made of wheat grown on their own land, ground in their own mill, and a big blue pitcher of milk from their own cows. There is a basin of potatoes, a platter of eggs, another of bread cut from the immense brown loaves which only the Doukhobor women know the secret of: and for a luxury there is tea – but only as a luxury.

‘We eat not to pleasure in food, but to make strong,’ says the Doukhobor woman. ‘Meat is strengthening,’ you tell her. ‘Maybe, maybe,’ she makes answer, with that slow, superior smile of hers; ‘but we keep from tire long time. People who eat the flesh of bulls and heifers they tire more soon than Doukhobor. Yes, yes, the boss man who build railroad track he tell you so, too. It is not meat that makes one keep the strong arm and young face; it is the wind and sun and being among ground new plowed. Yes, yes, I think.’

A Doukhobor man and woman. Simon Fraser University, MSC121-DP-173-01.

The Austerity of Romance

The Doukhobor woman is eligible to membership in the council, which is a parliament of the people for the people. … This council is the beginning and the ending of all that pertains to law and order in the community. It determines questions, judges cases, settles disputes, adjusts wrongs. Its findings are final.

It was Peter Veregin who assigned to woman a place in this important body. ‘Our women work as hard for the community as we do, are equally interested in its welfare and prosperity. Why should they not have a voice in the council?’

There is no romance in the life of a Doukhobor woman. From a sturdy child with drab colored braids and a solemn face, she grows into a woman. The braids, still drab, are done round her head, and she is no whit less solemn. One day young Joseph, finding himself in need of a helpmate – which means a willing worker – takes her to his house. She is his woman. He does not bind himself to cherish and protect, she makes no contract to love and obey. In fact, there is no ceremony in connection with the mating. They know nothing about affinity, and, as for marriages being made in heaven, the self-sufficient Doukhobor would think it a reflection on his judgment and the woman an infringement on her rights, so to speak.

If you were to ask them if they loved each other they would answer vaguely that to love all people was good. That state of mind or emotions which we call ‘falling in love,’ with the acute joys and jealousies which accompany it, is to them apparently an unknown quantity. There may be a faint partiality in some direction, but it is a case of ‘Love me little, love me long,’ if it is love at all. They are willing to become partners, but as for the glow and gladness, the melting glance and the wild heartbeat, these form no part or parcel of a Doukhobor mating.

Her Maternal Patriotism

Faithfulness, which means much in any union, means more perhaps in this one consummated without the sanction of the law of the land. There is this to be said, cases of desertion are exceedingly rare.

If he has not enough of sentiment, temperament, call it what you will, to love his own woman to distraction, he is not apt to fall into the snare of loving some other woman. And so with his helpmate. She keeps the even tenor of her way, cooks his meals, nurses the children which come to the home, works late and early. Happy? Oh, well, happiness is a thing of comparison. If it were not Joseph it would be some other, since to mate with a man and bear children is a part of her duty to the community.

Rome in her mightiest days did not mean more to the Roman matron than the community means to the faithful, if unlettered Doukhobor woman

A Doukhobor woman and her daughter. Simon Fraser University, MSC121-DP-126-01.

After Word

Several authors have attributed Jean Blewett’s visit to the Doukhobors to the year 1910: Laura Dale, Walking in Two Worlds (Friesen Press, 2019 at 6); Ella Thompson, “The Doukhobor Settlers of the Swan River Valley” in Manitoba History (Number 72, Spring-Summer 2013). However, an analysis of period newspaper stories confirms that the visit in fact took place in 1909. TEST

Engaged by a magazine syndicate that year to write a series of articles about the social life of Canada, Blewett embarked on a much-publicized tour of Western Canada. On June 29, 1909, she departed Toronto by train, arriving in Winnipeg on July 19. Two days later, she departed by automobile westward across the Prairies, reaching Calgary on July 26, Edmonton July 28, Peace River August 5, Vancouver August 14 and Victoria on August 20. Blewett then returned eastward from Vancouver on August 25, reaching Edmonton August 31, Red Deer September 17 and Winnipeg on September 22. It can be deduced that she visited the Doukhobors of Veregin, Saskatchewan on the final leg of her tour, between September 18 and 22, as she writes about the Doukhobors harvesting at the time.

Publicity photograph of Jean Blewett, 1899.

For other articles written by Jean Blewett regarding her July 1909 visit to the Doukhobors of Veregin, Saskatchewan, please see:

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/.