New Year’s Among the Early Doukhobors

By Jonathan J. Kalmakoff

As we approach the eve of the New Year’s, it is a timely opportunity to examine how this cultural holiday was traditionally celebrated by our 18th and 19th century Doukhobor forebears in Russia.

Ancient Russian Folk Holiday

For centuries in Russia, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day (collectively New Year’s or Novy God) has been celebrated as a folk holiday on January 13/14 under the Old (Julian) Calendar.

Many of the traditions and rituals associated with this celebration dated back to pre-Christian, pagan times, and centred around house-to-house visiting by groups of young people, costumed as characters from folk tales, as well as the preparation and sharing of special food and drink.

When Doukhobors openly rejected the Orthodox Church and its teachings in the late 1700s and early 1800s, they discarded many folk holidays and religious feast days as being unnecessary and superfluous. Interestingly, however, they continued to observe Novy God as a holiday, maintaining many ancient South Russian folk customs associated with it. These customs are described below as follows:

House to House Visits

On New Year’s Eve, Doukhobor children would gather together and go from house to house in their village, chanting the following greeting as they went:

Сейим сейим посиваем
Новый год устриваем
А вы наши люди
Чего либо дайте
Хуч у хату позавите
Хуч на двор унасите.

Seeds, seeds we are sowing,
We are celebrating the New Year
And you, our people,
Give me something,
Invite us into your home,
Or bring it outside.

As they chanted this greeting, they ‘sowed’ seeds around each room in the house, trying hard to throw some onto the bed as this was thought to bring prosperity to the household. The house was not swept until the next morning, so as not to ‘sweep out’ the prosperity. Villagers warmly welcomed these youthful ‘sowers’ into their homes, offering them kalachi (a type of sweet bun), pirohi (baked pies) and other sweets.

Adults got together together to make cheese vareniki (dumplings), the traditional dish for New Year’s festivities. At nightfall, the villages were aglitter as children walked up and down the village street carrying homemade torches they called ‘candles’ or ‘lanterns’ which were in fact long sticks with rags tied to one end dipped into paraffin oil and lit.

Moleniye

Early New Year’s morning, between 2:00 and 3:00 a.m., villagers attended moleniye (prayer meetings) held at their meeting house or one of the village dwellings. There, they would eat bread and drink water, while giving thanks to God for these necessities of human existence. After giving thanks, one villager would state his or her views on the moral life and exhort his brethren to a closer adherence to the teachings of Christ, and then another would do the same.

After the prayer meeting, the villagers would disperse to their own homes, where an extra amount of prayers and psalm-reciting was undertaken.

One particularly noteworthy psalm recited on New Year’s Eve was as follows:

Новый год бежит – во яслях лежит, О, Кто? – Отрока благого нам небо дало. О, чудо! Как время было, – места не было родить чистой девице – Богородице. О, где – В Вифлееме граде, в нищенском доме, спокойном. Идите прямо – укажут вам. О, кто? – Иосиф старенький, Богу миленький, пут вам скажет. Пастушки Его перед Творцом смиряются; ангелы поют, Царя ведают, строят, дары. Воспоем и мы песню новую, Христову, Будешь похвален, ото всех прославлен, с девой со пречистой, с матерью со Чристовой. Кто не внушался, тот человеком остался не вем. Богу нашему слава.

A new year has begun – [a child] is lying in a manger. Oh, who? Heaven has given us a blessed Son. Oh, miracle! When the time came, there was no place for the pure virgin – the Mother of God – to give birth. Oh, where? In the town of Bethlehem, in a poor home, a peaceful one. Go there now – someone will show you. Oh, who? Old Joseph, who is dear to God, will tell you the way. Shepherds humble themselves before the Creator; angels sing, acknowledging the King, bringing gifts. Let us also sing a new song, a song for Christ. And You will be praised and glorified by all, with the purest virgin, the mother of Christ. One who is not filled with awe [by this], remains an ignorant person. Glory to our God. (Translated by Natasha Jmieff).

Festivities & Rituals

Later that day, the young people would masquerade as gypsies, and would go houses to house chanting as they went, and were treated with cakes and vodka. The festivities and socializing would then spill over into the street: villagers in their best holiday dress would stroll about the village, and the children and young people would go sleigh-riding in brightly painted and harnessed horse-drawn sledges.

Young Doukhobor maidens also performed ancient divination rituals (such as taking a pail of water beside their bed, hanging a lock on the door handle, putting a key under their pillow or baking and eating an overly-salty bun) so as to conjure up images and glimpses of their fate, particularly that of their future husbands.

Early Celebration in Canada

Doukhobors continued to observe these traditional New Year’s festivities after their arrival in Canada in 1899, at least initially. The major difference was that after 1894, the followers of Peter Vasil’evich Verigin abandoned meat-eating and vodka-drinking altogether.

Also, in 1903, they moved their observance of New Year’s from January 13/14 under the Old (Julian) Calendar to December 31/January 1 under the New (Grigorian) Calendar.

At a 1908 all-village congress held by the Doukhobor Community in Nadezhda village, Saskatchewan, Peter V. Verigin, in an effort to simplify and modernize Doukhobor ceremony and ritual, set aside the traditional Doukhobor festivities associated with New Year’s. Thereafter, among Community Doukhobors, the holiday was formally shorn of most folk custom and external ceremony.

Traditions Maintained

However, not all traditional New Year’s customs were set aside by Doukhobors.

Among those Doukhobors living independently on the Prairies, the tradition of going outdoors with a lit torch to welcome in the coming year was maintained by at least some families, well into the 1950s and 1960s. Meanwhile, in the Kootenay and Boundary regions of BC, the tradition of ‘sowing seeds’ (Сейим сейим посиваем) existed in some village settlements well into the 1950s and 1960s, and indeed, even into the 1980s. Many families in BC continued to recite the psalm, “A New Year has Begun” (Новый год бежит) to the present day. Finally, many Doukhobor families throughout Canada still cook vareniki on New Year’s.


Bibliographic Sources

  • Chernoff, Katherine, Calgary, AB. Correspondence with writer re: Kootenay Doukhobor New Year’s customs, December 31, 2023;
  • Inikova, Svetlana, “Holidays and Rituals of Doukhobors in the Caucasus”;
  • Ivanits, Linda J. Russian Folk Belief (Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 1989);
  • Konkin, Evseyevich Konkin to Bonch-Breuvich, Vladimir Dmitr’evich correspondence dated February 12, 1909 in Bonch-Breuvich, Vladimir D., Zhivotnaia kniga dukhobortsev (Winnipeg: Union of Doukhobors of Canada, 1954;
  •  Nelson Daily News, January 15, 1910;
  • Osachoff, Linda, Canora, SK. Correspondence with writer re: Prairie Doukhobor New Year’s customs, January 5, 2021;
  • Poogachoff, Polly (Kalmakoff), Kamloops, BC. Correspondence with writer re: Kootenay Doukhobor New Year’s customs, December 31, 2023;
  • Slastukin, Katie, Grand Forks, BC. Correspondence with writer re: Boundary Doukhobor New Year’s customs, December 31, 2023;
  • Verigin, Elmer, Castlegar, BC. Correspondence with writer re: Prairie Doukhobor New Year’s customs, January 5, 2021; and
  • Walton, Lorraine (Saliken), South Slocan, BC. Correspondence with writer re: Kootenay Doukhobor New Year’s customs, December 31, 2023.
Image: Konstantin Aleksandrovich Trutovsky, “Christmas Carols in Little Russia, 1864. Saint Petersburg State Russian Museum collection.

Kut’ya – A Traditional Doukhobor Christmas Recipe

By Jonathan J. Kalmakoff

Kut’ya (Cyrillic: Кутья) (pronounced: KOOT-yah) is a cold wheat porridge/pudding, sweetened with honey, traditionally made by Doukhobors in Russia and the Caucasus at Christmas for centuries. It is customarily served on Christmas Eve, following the evening prayer meeting, to family and friends.

The following Doukhobor recipe for Kut’ya was shared with the writer by Vasily Stroyev and family, formerly of Troitskoye village, Bogdanovsky region, Georgia, now living in Markevichevo village, Shiryaevsky district, Odessa region, Ukraine.

Ingredients

3 cups wheat4 tablespoons brown sugar
½ to 1 cup poppy seeds1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup honey¼ teaspoon salt
Ground nuts, raisins or diced fruit if desired

Instructions

  1. Clean the wheat by spreading it on a plate and removing any green kernels, foreign seeds, chaff, etc. Rinse it well in a colander. Soak the wheat in 6-8 cups of fresh water overnight for approximately 8 hours.
  2. Cook the wheat.
    a. Stovetop: add 6 cups of water and wheat to pot and bring to a boil. Skim the residue off the top. Turn to low heat, cover and simmer for 4-5 hours, stirring frequently and adding more water as needed.
    b. Slow Cooker: add 6 cups of water and wheat to slow cooker. Cook on high heat for half an hour, then reduce to low heat and cook for 6-8 hours.
    The wheat will expand as it cooks to approximately twice its volume. It is done when the kernels burst open and the white germ appears. Drain off excess water in a colander.
  3. Place poppy seeds in a small bowl and pour 1 cup of boiling water of it. Let it sit for 15 minutes then drain. The poppy seed may then either be ground or added whole to the wheat.
  4. In a large measuring cup, combine honey (can be melted in the microwave), brown sugar, vanilla and vanilla with 1 cup of boiling water. Stir until honey is completely dissolved. Add to wheat mixture and stir thoroughly.
  5. Add ground nuts and/or diced fruit if desired to wheat mixture.
  6. The wheat mixture should be porridge- or pudding-like in texture. Cool in refrigerator. Serve either hot or cold. Makes 10-12 cups/servings.

Notes

The making of Kut’ya at Christmas is a millennia-old Orthodox tradition practiced throughout the former Russian Empire. When the Doukhobors openly rejected the Orthodox church in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, they discarded many Orthodox customs and traditions. However, they continued to make Kut’ya at Christmas, modifying and imbuing the practice with their own religious meaning and significance. Learn more about the historical, religious and cultural aspects of Christmas Among Doukhobors.

When the Doukhobors first arrived in Canada in 1899, they initially continued to make Kut’ya at Christmas. However, at an All-Doukhobor Congress at Nadezhda village, Saskatchewan in December 1908, Peter V. Verigin, in an effort to simplify and modernize Doukhobor ceremony and ritual, and to focus on its wholly spiritual aspects, set aside many of the folk traditions and festivities formerly associated with Christmas, including Kut’ya making. Thereafter, the recipe eventually fell into disuse and was forgotten by many – but by no means all – Canadian Doukhobors. The Doukhobors who remained in Russia and the Caucasus continue to make Kut’ya to this day.

Let us revive this centuries-old, traditional Doukhobor recipe!

Image Credits: Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

Categories
Historical

Paska – A Traditional Doukhobor Easter Recipe

By Jonathan Kalmakoff

Paska (Cyrillic: Паска) (pronounced: PAH-skah) is a round, egg-enriched sweet bread, traditionally made by Doukhobors in Russia and the Caucasus at Easter for centuries. It is customarily served on Easter Sunday, following the morning prayer meeting, to family and friends.

The following Doukhobor recipe for Paska was shared with the writer by Vasily Stroyev and family, formerly of Troitskoye village, Bogdanovsky region, Georgia, now living in Markevichevo village, Shiryaevsky district, Odessa region, Ukraine.

Ingredients

flour (2 kg initially; more as needed)sugar (600 grams)
warm milk (1 litre)salt (1 teaspoon)
eggs (10)yeast (30 grams dry/100 grams fresh)
melted butter (600 grams)raisins (200 grams)
icing sugar (10 table spoons)vanillin (4 grams)

Instructions

  1. Sift flour so that it is well saturated with air.
  2. In a bowl, add 8 tablespoons of flour. Add in the yeast and 4 teaspoons of sugar, along with a little warm milk.  Mix yeast mixture well, cover bowl with a tea towel and put in a warm place for 15 minutes.
  3. In another bowl, pour in the egg. (If making icing under Step 11, pour in egg yolks only, and separate egg whites into a different bowl and put in fridge to chill.). To the eggs, add the salt and start beating, gradually adding the sugar to get a lush, creamy texture that leaves a light pattern behind.
  4. In another bowl, combine the rest of the milk and flour.  Slowly beat in the egg yolk/sugar mix. Add in the yeast mixture (once it has sat for 15 minutes), then the melted butter.
  5. Begin kneading the dough mixture, adding in the vanillin. While kneading, add up to 100-200 grams of additional flour, if necessary, to ensure a soft, smooth elastic texture (however, do not add too much!). Continue to knead the dough thoroughly for up to 40 minutes.
  6. Once kneaded, cover the bowl of dough with a tea towel and put in a warm place to rise for 1 ½ hours. The dough will be yellowish in colour because of the volume of eggs used.
  7. In the meantime, while the dough is rising:
    • Rinse the raisins with water, drain, then place on a tea towel to dry. Once dry, dust the raisins with two tablespoons of flour; and
    • Grease 10 large coffee tins (or other cylindrical baking tins) with butter.
  8. Once the dough has risen, stretch it out on a countertop (dusted with flour), add in the raisins and knead/roll until the raisins are evenly distributed.
Raw paska dough in tin forms. Image: Vasily Stroyev.
  1. Divide the dough into roughly 10 equal parts. Roll each part into a ball and place into a coffee tin; each ball should fill approximately half of the tin. Cover the cans loosely with a towel and leave for 20 minutes until the dough slightly rises out of the tins.
  2. Put tins in oven preheated to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and bake for 35 minutes. Then take out tins and place on countertop on their sides, turning them from time to time, as they cool over 15 minutes. They should then be easily removed from tins.
Baked paska, removed from tins, cooling on tray. Image: Vasily Stroyev.
  1. This next step is optional, as Doukhobor paska did not traditionally have icing. Beat the chilled egg whites together, then add icing sugar and whip well until it is a thick, frothy consistency. Optional: add a dash of lemon or orange juice to taste. Then, using a spatula, add icing mixture generously to the top of each of the completely cooled loafs. Optional: add sprinkles to the top of the icing mixture before it hardens. Allow the icing to dry well before serving.  
Doukhobor paska with decorative icing added. Image: Vasily Stroyev.

Notes

History

The making of Paska at Easter is a millennium-old Orthodox tradition practiced throughout the former Russian Empire. When the Doukhobors openly rejected the Orthodox church in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, they discarded many Orthodox customs and traditions. However, they continued to bake Paska at Easter, modifying and imbuing the practice with their own religious meaning and significance. Learn more about the historical, religious and cultural aspects of Easter Among Doukhobors.

In the Doukhobor South Russian dialect, the bread is called Paska (Паска), which is also its name in Ukrainian. In modern Russian it is called Paskha (Пасха).

Unlike Orthodox Russians and Ukrainians, who braid the loaves or imprint them with crosses and other religious symbols, Doukhobor loaves are left plain and unadorned. This is a very important religious and cultural distinction that reflects Doukhobor iconoclast beliefs.

When the Doukhobors first arrived in Canada in 1899, they initially continued to bake Paska at Easter. However, at an All-Doukhobor Congress at Nadezhda village, Saskatchewan in December 1908, Peter V. Verigin, in an effort to simplify and modernize Doukhobor ceremony and ritual, and to focus on its wholly spiritual aspects, set aside many of the folk traditions and festivities formerly associated with Easter, including Paska baking. Thereafter, the recipe eventually fell into disuse and was forgotten by many – but by no means all – Canadian Doukhobors. The Doukhobors who remained in Russia and the Caucasus continue to bake Paska to this day.

Additional Baking Tips

Some Canadian Doukhobor users of this traditional recipe have suggested the following tips and tricks:

  • Combining Ingredients: It may be less cumbersome to follow a common bread recipe method of ‘proofing’ the yeast mixture separately, but combining and mixing the rest of the dry ingredients (flour, sugar, salt, vanillin, raisins) together at once.
  • Tins: Coffee tins or cylindrical baking tins must be very well greased or else lined with parchment paper to avoid sticking. Cylindrical spring-form pans with detachable bottoms and openable sides may work best.
  • Fill the tins between 1/3 and no more than 1/2 with dough balls to avoid significant overflow.
  • Recipe Size: This is a large recipe that makes the equivalent of about 5 dozen buns. Consider halving the recipe ingredients for a smaller amount.
  • Cooking Time and Temp: Although the loaves may be browned on top, they may not be thoroughly baked inside. Consider baking instead at 375 degrees Fahrenheit for 40-50 minutes.

Let us revive this centuries-old, traditional Doukhobor recipe!

Categories
General

Christmas Among the Doukhobors

By Jonathan J. Kalmakoff

For over three centuries, Doukhobors have celebrated Christmas, a festival commemorated annually by Christians across the globe. As we once again make ready to do so, it is essential to remind ourselves how this holiday is understood in Doukhobor religious philosophy, how it differs in key aspects from that of other Christian denominations, as well as the Doukhobor cultural and folk traditions associated with Christmas.

Orthodox Christmas

Since the introduction of Christianity to Russia in 988 AD, Rozhdestvo Khristovo or ‘the Nativity of Christ’ (Christmas) was celebrated by the Orthodox Church to remember the birth of Jesus Christ. It was traditionally observed under the Julian (Old) Calendar, which ran thirteen days behind the Gregorian (New) Calendar, putting it on January 7th rather than December 25th when it is now commonly observed.

To the Orthodox, Jesus Christ was the divine Son of God incarnate, born to the Virgin Mary by immaculate conception through the Holy Spirit. That is, he was considered the literal, supernatural embodiment of God on earth, having taken on human body and human nature, who performed miracles, cured the sick and raised the dead.

The Orthodox celebration of Rozhdestvo Khristovo was preceded by a forty-day fast, during which meat, dairy products and eggs were not eaten, and parishioners engaged in prayer and charity. When the festival finally arrived, church attendance was compulsory by law.[i] On the evening of Christmas Eve, parishioners attended the church liturgy service, whereafter they went home and ate a meal of twelve meatless dishes. That night, they returned to church for an all-night vigil to observe Jesus’ birth. After hours of standing (the Orthodox church had no seats) and praying, the priest led a procession out of the church, with the parishioners carrying icons and candles led by the priest burning incense in a censer. They circled the building until midnight, after which they returned home. On Christmas morning they once again returned to the church to attend the nativity liturgy service after which they went home for feasting and merriment.

Winter Doukhobor village scene. Joseph Elkinton, “The Doukhobors: Their History in Russia, Their Migration to Canada” (Philadelphia: Ferris & Leach, 1903).

Doukhobor Repudiation of Orthodox Christmas

During the mid to late 1700s, while the Doukhobors were still living among Orthodox Russians, they outwardly continued to celebrate Rozhdestvo Khristovo in the obligatory manner. Some went to church for appearances’ sake; while others made excuses to not attend at all. At home, they observed the festival with simple moleniye (‘prayer meetings’) followed by visits among fellow believers.

However, by this time, Rozhdestvo Khristovo had already acquired an inner, spiritual meaning and significance among Doukhobors that differed substantially from that of their Orthodox neighbours, and which was founded on dramatically different ideas concerning God and Christ.

They ceased to believe that the Christmas fast offered any spiritual advantage to the soul; for true fasting was not in abstaining from food but from vice and gluttony. Attending the church at Christmas was not essential to salvation, for they believed the ‘true’ church was not built by human hands – it was spiritual, invisible and within us. The priest’s conduct of Christmas mass was unnecessary, for they understood the Spirit of God resided in the soul of every person and could be directly understood and interpreted – without need of an intermediary – by listening to the voice within.  

Indeed, Doukhobors came to view the Orthodox observance of Christmas – with its complex and elaborate ritual, Slavonic chanting, burning of incense, lighting of candles, bowing and crossing, as well as the resplendent robes of the priest and the richly adorned church with stained glass windows, gold candelabras and crucifixes, icons, sacred relics and ornately decorated domes – to be a contrived, outward sensory and material experience that served only to distract from a true, inner spiritual understanding of the holiday.

What is more, they believed that the Orthodox depiction of Christ’s birth and existence as something ‘mystical’, ‘superhuman’, ‘supernatural’ and ‘otherworldly’ was an artificial embellishment introduced by the church in order to mystify and confound its followers as to his true nature.

Doukhobor household in winter. Joseph Elkinton, “The Doukhobors: Their History in Russia, Their Migration to Canada” (Philadelphia: Ferris & Leach, 1903).

Christ and Christmas as Understood by Doukhobors

According to Doukhobor belief, Jesus was neither immaculately conceived nor born of a virgin, nor was he the literal Son of God incarnate in human flesh. Rather, he was an ordinary mortal man, born to an ordinary woman named Mary. In the physical sense, Jesus was no different from other men. In the spiritual sense, however, God chose Jesus as his anointed one by endowing him with divinely-inspired, extraordinary spiritual intelligence in his soul, lucid and enlightened beyond that of his fellow man.[ii]  Because of this, Jesus was able to attain the highest, purest, most perfect understanding of God’s Law, and was therefore the Son of God, a man, but not God himself.

Doukhobors believed that Jesus’s enlightened teachings and life revealed mankind’s true meaning and purpose, which was to fulfill God’s Law – 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.[iii] The role of his followers, Doukhobors believed, was to emulate Christ by living, as he did, according to God’s Law, to strive to follow his example, and thus be saved through their own works.[iv]

For Doukhobors, then, Christmas marks the day when the world was given a child to lead the world through God’s Law to peace on earth – good will among men. Doukhobors celebrate it as a sign of honour and glory for Jesus Christ.[v] We observe this occasion during all the days of our life as we endeavor to emulate him in our own actions.[vi]  

Doukhobor Christmas Customs in Russia

Once Doukhobors openly rejected the Orthodox Church and its teachings in the late 1700s and early 1800s, they discarded many Orthodox feast days as being unnecessary and superfluous. However, they continued to celebrate Rozhdestvo Khristovo as an important holiday in accordance with their own beliefs and interpretations. In doing so, they adapted some of the Christmas holiday rituals and customs from the Orthodox, imbuing them with new meaning and significance.

Both during their settlement along the Molochnaya River near the Sea of Azov (Molochnye Vody) from 1801-1845 and in the Caucasus (Zakavkaz) from 1841-1899, Doukhobors are recorded as having celebrated Christmas over a three day period commencing January 6th, being Christmas Eve under the Old (Julian) Calendar.[vii]

On Christmas Eve, the men performed their daily agricultural chores while the women cleaned the house and baked, cooked and prepared food for the upcoming Christmas feast.[viii] At dinner, Doukhobor families ate twelve meatless dishes, a tradition retained from Orthodoxy, which might include any of the following dishes: borshch (cabbage-based soup), vareniki (boiled dumplings with savory fillings), lapshevniki (‘baked noodles’), pyure iz fasoli (‘mashed beans’), rybnyi kholodets (pickled fish), kvashenye ogurtsy (pickled cucumbers), kartoshniki (‘mashed potatoes’), pyrohi (‘baked savory pies’) and pyroshki (‘baked sweet tarts’), bliny (‘pancakes’), holubtsy (‘cabbage rolls’), kvashenaya kapusta (‘sauerkraut’), vinaigrette (‘salad’), kasha (‘rice porridge’), uzvar (homemade fruit juice), and always, kutya (a boiled wheat dish sweetened with honey).[ix] In the evening, grandmothers recited psalms while the family gathered to listen.[x] 

At midnight on Christmas Eve, Doukhobor villagers assembled at a common dwelling or prayer home to hold a moleniye (‘prayer meeting’).[xi] The Christmas moleniye traditionally began with the Doukhobor psalm, Narodilsya nam Spasitel (‘Our Savior was Born’)[xii] which reads as follows:

“Our Savior is born, an Enlightener to the whole world. Sing praises to Him. All the world glorifies Him eternally. Rejoice ye, prophets who have the power of prophesizing, those who are with their oath! The Savior is coming at the last moment. Sing praise to Him, in joyous sweet songs, sing and play to Him. A star is travelling from the East to the place of the new-born prophet. The angles are singing in unison, expressing their love with the sound of their voices. Animals announce with their voices to the shepherds that a miracle has happened. There are clear signs announcing the birth of Christ. Three Wise Men bring Him the most precious gifts; gold frankincense and myrrh. The Father of the future ages offers you rich gifts. He came here to redeem the poor mankind. Eternal God was born and has taken human flesh. Glory be to our God.”[xiii]

Early Christmas morning, Doukhobor villagers again gathered for moleniye to worship, then returned home.[xiv]  The adults would not eat breakfast and would carry out their morning chores.[xv]  Children were given nuts or fruit as a special treat.  Throughout the afternoon, Doukhobors would stroll through the village streets, singing psalms and greeting friends and neighbours,[xvi] with the following customary greeting: Na zdorov’ye! (‘To Health!’), to which the customary reply was Slava Bohu! (‘Thank God!’).[xvii] 

Later, the entire family would sit down to enjoy Christmas dinner, which typically consisted of the same dishes enjoyed the night before; however, meat dishes such as roast goose, chicken or pork were also included.[xviii] In the evening, the adults would visit or host relatives and friends while the young people enjoyed themselves at vecherushki (‘parties’).[xix]  Often, the young people would dress up and masquerade about the village, an ancient Russian folk custom.[xx]

The third and final day of the Christmas celebration (today, Boxing Day) was spent in much in the same manner – with merry visiting, singing and feasting throughout the village.

Winter open-air Doukhobor prayer meeting. J. Elkinton, “The Doukhobors: Their History in Russia, Their Migration to Canada” (Philadelphia: Ferris & Leach, 1903).

Doukhobor Christmas Commemoration in Canada

These Christmas traditions continued to be practiced, without change, through the 20th century to the present day by the Doukhobors of Gorelovka, Georgia and surrounding villages. However, among the Doukhobor followers of Peter Vasil’evich Verigin, several significant changes were made to the Christmas celebration after 1887. 

First, in November 1894, those Doukhobors stopped eating meat in accordance with the teachings of Verigin, then in exile in the Russian Far North, brought back by his messengers to his followers in the Caucasus.[xxi]  Thereafter, no meat (including fish) was consumed as part of the Christmas feasting.

Second, following their migration to Canada in 1899, the Doukhobors initially continued to celebrate Christmas as they had in Russia, over a three-day period according to the Julian (Old) Calendar. In January 1901, the Swan River Star reported, “The Doukhobors appear to know how to celebrate Christmas. Their feast lasted three days and commenced on Jan. 6. They still use the old style of counting time.”[xxii] However, by 1903, the Winnipeg Free Press reported that “they have disregarded the Russian and adopted the Canadian calendar and are beginning to observe Canadian holidays and festivals.”[xxiii] Thereafter, the Doukhobors celebrated Christmas twelve days earlier in accordance with the Gregorian (Old) calendar, on December 24-26.  

Third, at an all-village congress of the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood held in Nadezhda village, Saskatchewan in December 1908, Doukhobor leader Peter V. Verigin, in an effort to modernize and simplify their worship, discarded many of the traditional rituals, psalms and feasts observed by the Doukhobors.[xxiv] Thereafter, Christmas continued to be observed within the Community, however, the celebration was paired down from three days to a day and a half, with worship services still held on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning, but with the feasting and revelry reduced to a more modest scale befitting that of Christ’s followers.[xxv] Some of these changes were also adopted by Independent Doukhobors who left Verigin’s Community, to greater or lesser degrees.

In the years that followed, new psalms and hymns were added to the existing repertoire of those traditionally sung during Doukhobor Christmas moleniye [xxvi] while the foodstuffs enjoyed at their Christmas feast varied according to local availability and economic conditions.[xxvii] However, the essence of the traditional Doukhobor Christmas celebration, as it evolved in the late 19th and early 20th centuries continued to be observed by many Canadian Doukhobors well into the 1950s, and indeed, to the present.

Doukhobor villagers assembled outdoors in winter. Joseph Elkinton, “The Doukhobors: Their History in Russia, Their Migration to Canada” (Philadelphia: Ferris & Leach, 1903).

Conclusion

Although there was none of the ubiquitous commercialism associated with Christmas today, including notions of gift-giving, Santa Clause, Christmas trees and outdoor light displays, Christmas as traditionally understood and celebrated by Doukhobors was and is a most meaningful and anticipated event.


After Word

Publication

A previous version of this article was originally published in:

Doukhobor Christmas Prayer Service

To experience and participate in a traditional Doukhobor Christmas prayer meeting, contact your nearest Doukhobor society or organization to find in-person dates and times or whether online streaming of services are available.

Traditional Doukhobor Kut’ya Recipe

To prepare traditional Doukhobor Kut’ya like that mentioned above, see the following Doukhobor Kut’ya Recipe. This recipe was adapted from that shared by Doukhobor Vasily Stroyev and family, formerly of Troitskoye village, Bogdanovsky region, Georgia, now residing in Markevichevo village, Shiryaevsky district, Odessa region, Ukraine.


End Notes

[i] In Imperial Russia, receiving the Orthodox sacraments and attending church on Sundays and feast days was compulsory by law: see for example, M. Raeff, Imperial Russia, 1682-1825 (Michigan, University of Michigan, 1971); D. Longley, Longman Companion to Imperial Russia, 1689-1917 (New York: Pearson Education Limited, 2000).

[ii] Regarding the Doukhobor belief in Jesus, born a man, see: Bonch-Breuvich, Vladimir Dmitr’evich, Zhivotnaya Kniga Dukhobortsev (St. Petersburg: V.M. Volf, Sib. Nevskiy Pr., 1909), Psalms 1 (Q/A 3), 7 (Q/A 10), 12 (Q/A 6 and 8, 64, 71, 73, 85, 88, 94 and 375.

[iii] Regarding the Doukhobor understanding of Jesus as a keeper of God’s Law, see: Zhivotnaya Kniga, ibid, 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.

[iv] Regarding the Doukhobor understanding of salvation through emulating Christ, see: Zhivotnaya Kniga, supra, note ii, 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.

[v] Zhivotnaya Kniga, supra, note ii, Psalm 383.

[vi] Ibid

[vii] Novitsky, Orest Markovich. Dukhobortsy: Ikh Istoriia i verouchenie (Kiev, 1882) at 254-255.

[viii] Stroev, Vasily (Tula, Russia), correspondence with the writer, November 25, 2020.

[ix] Stroev, ibid; Svetlana Inikova., Holidays and Rituals of Doukhobors in the Caucasus (Doukhobor Genealogy Website); Linda Osachoff (Canora, SK), correspondence with the writer, December 18, 2020.

[x] Stroev, supra, note v.

[xi] Stroev, ibid; Inikova, supra, note vi; Goncharova, Lyubov. Malaya Sibir’ – Duhoboriya. (Bryansk, 2012 at 278); Lyubov Goncharova (Moscow, Russia), correspondence with the writer, December 20, 2020.

[xii] Народился нам Спаситель, Goncharova, ibid.

[xiii] Vladimir Dmitr’evich Bonch-Breuvich, Book of Life of Doukhobors (Translated Version by Victor O. Buyniak) (Saskatoon, Doukhobor Societies of Saskatchewan, 1978), Psalm 340.

[xiv] Stroev, supra, note v; Inikova, supra, note vi.

[xv] Inikova, ibid.

[xvi] Novitsky, supra, note iv; Stroev, supra, note v; Inikova, supra, note vi.

[xvii] Stroev, ibid.

[xviii] Stroev, supra, note v.

[xix] Inikova, supra, note vi.

[xx] Inikova, ibid.

[xxi] Grigory Verigin, Ne v Sile Bog, a v Pravde. (Paris, Dreyfus, 1935), chapter 10.

[xxii] Swan River Star, January 9, 1901.

[xxiii] Winnipeg Free Press, April 6, 1903.

[xxiv] Minutes of Community meeting, 1908 December 15, Nadezhda village. (SFU Item No. MSC121-DB-025-002); Letter from Peter Vasil’evich Verigin to Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy dated February 2, 1909 in Gromova-Opulskaya, Lidia, Andrew Donskov, and John Woodsworth, eds. Leo Tolstoy–Peter Verigin Correspondence (Ottawa, Legas: 1995) at 87-88; Letter from Ivan Evseyevich Konkin to Vladimir Dmitr’evich Bonch-Breuvich dated February 12, 1909 in Zhivotnaya Kniga, supra, note ii.

[xxv] Wendy Voykin (Castlegar, BC), correspondence with the writer, December 18, 2020.

[xxvi] For example, some of the Doukhobor psalms and hymn traditionally sung at Christmas moleniye in Brilliant, British Columbia include: Psalms: Chistaya Deva Mariya; Rechyot Khristos Uchenikam Svoim; Vysoko Zvezda Voskhodila. Hymns: Kto v ubogikh yaslyakh spit; Nyne vse vernye v mire likuyut; Dnes’ my likuem v kupe vospevaem; Vot Spasitel’ s nebes k nam soshyol; Vnov’ Khristos narodilsya; Vspomnim te slova Khrista; Tikhaya noch’, divnaya noch’; Khristos v Tebe dusha nashla ( New Year’s to the tune of Auld Lang Syne).  Very special thanks to Mike and Mary Kanigan of Ootischenia, BC for sharing this list with the writer, via Wendy Voykin.

[xxvii] For instance, it is doubtful whether the Doukhobors had the luxury of enjoying all the foodstuffs mentioned for their Christmas feast during the hardships of their early settlement in Saskatchewan after 1899 and in British Columbia after 1908.


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’ (??????’) 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 paska (a round, egg-enriched sweet bread 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 December 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!


After Word

Publication

This article was originally published in the following periodical:

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

Doukhobor Easter Prayer Service

To experience and participate in a traditional Doukhobor Easter prayer meeting, contact your nearest Doukhobor society or organization to find in-person dates and times or whether online streaming of services are available.

Traditional Doukhobor Paska (Easter Loaf) Recipe

To prepare traditional Doukhobor Paska (Easter loaf) like that pictured and mentioned above, see the following Doukhobor Paska recipe. This recipe was shared by Doukhobor Vasily Stroyev and family, formerly of Troitskoye village, Bogdanovsky region, Georgia, now residing in Markevichevo village, Shiryaevsky district, Odessa region, Ukraine.

Traditional Doukhobor Easter Egg Decorating

To prepare simple, traditional Doukhobor Easter eggs like those pictured above: (1) Take half a cup of crushed, dried onion peels (outer brown husk, not onion itself) and boil in 2-3 cups of water until tea-like in colour. As the peels boil they will dye the water a reddish-brown hue. Add more or less water for desired hue. Remove peels while continuing to boil the dyed water. (2) Briefly soak small leaves of any herbs or greenery (dill, parsley, thyme, etc.) in separate bowl of water for 1-2 minutes. (3) Press a wet leaf firmly against each unpainted, raw egg, securing tightly around egg with thread. Add a leaf to both oblong sides of egg. (4) Immerse raw, wrapped eggs in boiling dye water for 6-8 minutes until hard-boiled. Then remove and cool. (5) Once cooled, remove thread and leaves. There should be a white, undyed imprint of the leaf. (6) Arrange decorated eggs for display and/or enjoy them as part of your Easter meal! This technique was shared by Doukhobor Mila Kabatova, formerly of Troitskoye village, Bogdanovsky region, now residing in Tbilisi, Georgia.


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);
  • Konkin, Evseyevich Konkin to Bonch-Breuvich, Vladimir Dmitr’evich correspondence dated February 12, 1909 in Bonch-Breuvich, Vladimir D., Zhivotnaia kniga dukhobortsev (Winnipeg: Union of Doukhobors of Canada, 1954;
  • Manitoba Free Press, “Doukhobors Will be Canadians”, April 6, 1903;
  • Minutes of Community meeting, 1908 December 15, Nadezhda village. (Simon Fraser University, Doukhobor Collection, Item No. MSC121-DB-025-002);
  • 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;
  • Verigin, Peter Vasil’evich to Tolstoy, Lev Nikolayevich correspondence dated February 2, 1909 in Gromova-Opulskaya, Lidia, Andrew Donskov, and John Woodsworth, eds. Leo Tolstoy–Peter Verigin Correspondence (Ottawa, Legas: 1995) at 87-88; and
  • Voykin, Wendy, correspondence with writer re: Easter greetings, April 1, 2021.

Feature Photo Credit: Traditional Doukhobor Easter paska loaves and easter eggs by Mila Kabatova, formerly of Troitskoye village, Georgia, now residing in Tbilisi, Georgia.

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: