Memories of the Holoboff Family

by Russell A. Holoboff

Russell A. Holoboff (1918-1991) was born in Veregin, Saskatchewan to Independent Doukhobor parents.  In 1922, at the age of four, he accompanied his family to Los Angeles, California seeking a better life and warmer climate.  Life stateside, however, proved to be disappointing, and in 1929, at the age of eleven, he returned with his family to the Veregin district where they resumed farming.  Russell’s boyhood during the Depression was filled with hard work and responsibilities beyond his years, but there was also laughter, adventure, and the love of family and friends.  Russell would later write that, “there was no money for anything…one just did the best with what he had…but in spite of all this, there was still joy and laughter.”  His memoirs of his boyhood, reproduced here by permission, are an evocative picture of a way of life that will bring back memories of anyone who grew up there, and make the Prairies come alive for those who didn’t.   


Russell Holoboff, my uncle, was the fourth son of my grandfather, Alexei A. and Mary J. Holoboff, a pair I have always known as simply “Baba and Dyeda”. Ever since finding a copy of my uncle’s memoir among my late mother’s things, it has been a lamp that has helped to illuminate the darkness of my knowledge about my Russian background. I would like to extend my deepest gratitude to Jonathan Kalmakoff for allowing me to contribute my Uncle Russell’s memoir to the Doukhobor Genealogy Website which he so generously shares with us all. His research has been profoundly helpful in my understanding of my Russian Doukhobor ancestors, a lineage of which I am very proud. I would also like to thank my cousin Laurie Holoboff Verstegen, Russell’s daughter, for her kind permission to publish her father’s invaluable memoir. To my dear departed Uncle Russ: “Я люблю вас.”

Lisa Holoboff, Los Angeles, California, 2006

As I sit back in my easy chair, my mind drifts back to where I first experienced life in a very small village in the northern part of Canada, the province of Saskatchewan…

It was late at night when the Holoboff family disembarked from a train on the C.N.R. rail line. The train is one of those old locomotives, with live steam and a long, mournful whistle only the old people can remember.

We are arriving from California (circa 1929). We are met by my brother Alex, his wife Polly, and their daughter, Nora. Nora is only a couple of years younger than me. I knew her when they lived in Los Angeles, and since she was born, of course. This little village that we have come to is my birthplace. It is called Veregin. It is also the birthplace of all the Holoboff children except one – my brother, Fred, who is now long deceased.

The season is early fall and the night is dark. There are no electric lights, only the flickering of a few gas lights. All this is so new to me. I am not aware of all that is taking place – that I am going to make a new life for myself here. I asked Nora what street she lived on, and she shrugged her shoulders and said, “Central.” Central was not a street at all, just a spot of recognition. Central was the building where the telephone operator worked. I thought every place was like Los Angeles – what a rude awakening I am about to receive. My cousin, John (Holoboff), had brainwashed me into believing that I would have a horse of my own and all the good things that go with it. I still believed in things like Hoot Gibson, Ken Maynard, and the like. Well, it didn’t take too long until I did get a horse: eight of them in harnesses all hitched to a bunch of harrows, and a hundred acres of land to work!

Alex and Mary Holoboff with children Mary, Frederick (front), and Russell (back), c.1935, Veregin, Saskatchewan.

I was enrolled in the school in the town. Sorry to say, but right off the bat, I didn’t fare too well. The Canadian standards of teaching were higher than the United States, so I was immediately set back a grade and was laughed at. This broke my desire to learn. If I had started at the beginning of the semester, I would have been more prepared. But here it was, almost at the end of the year, with everyone busy with harvesting, and no time to see how I was doing. Can I blame them? Not really. I don’t think any of them had any time for anything but work. The harvest was very important in this part of the country because of the weather – snow could fall at any time. The ground was frozen and the nights were very cold with heavy frost.

I enjoyed a couple of weekends at the threshing machine with its steam engine puffing away. The fun was to blow the whistle. Before I go too far into my story, I must try to clarify a few things that I have already left out. The reason we are in this part of the country is that it is the very first beginnings of the Holoboff family (after leaving Russia). Starting from the immigration of my father into Canada, his first ventures began in the rural parts of the village of Verigin. And at one time (circa 1922) he left it behind for the golden shores of California, which lasted only a couple of years. So now we’re back to where it all started. This village of Verigin is located in the middle of the province. The capital is Regina. It’s the home of the Mounties – yes, the real ones. On numerous occasions, I had the chance to be in the company of them.

The easiest way I can describe the climate is that it’s eleven months of winter and all the rest of the year it’s summer. Ruthless and mean winters. They made many a strong man drop to his knees and beg and caused many families desperation, despair and hunger.

We spent that first winter after returning from Los Angeles in town with my brother Alex and his family. Alex was a businessman, the owner of the Holoboff & Co. General Store. He sold everything from groceries to farm equipment. At the time, he was very successful. When I think of his store and supermarkets of today it makes my head swim. It’s a story in itself to describe that store. Everything was shelved behind the counter. Everything that you bought was clerked to you, weighed, packaged, and wrapped. If you bought coal oil and had no cork for the spout they would plug it with a big gumdrop. It never lasted very long because one of us kids would steal it and eat it. And you know what? We never tasted the coal oil.

Speaking of the store…one time in the spring when the snow had almost melted, the gophers were starting to come out of their winter sleep. The county was paying two cents for every gopher that was destroyed. To prove it, you had to strip him of his tail as proof. We would hang the carcasses on the barbed wire fence in hopes it would ward off more gophers. It didn’t. It just made the crows breed more. They were a deterrent for the farmer. The county also paid five cents for a pair of crow’s legs. So this is what my friend and I did: We caught a gunnysack full of gophers and took them to Alex’s store, stripped them of their tails, and collected the bounty. But we left the dead gophers tucked away in the back of the store. In a few days they started to smell something awful. It almost drove Alex insane until he found the source of the smell. Don’t you think we didn’t hear about it. Poor Alex. He was one hell of a nice fellow. We got along just swell throughout all the years of our relationship.

Everything was an adventure to me. There wasn’t very much I didn’t tackle, which included a few shiners that I wore for a few days. This one big kid would get me and another kid into the livery barn and make us fight for no reason at all. He would tell this one kid one thing and me another and then it wouldn’t take much for a fight to start. I was well known among the young and old, but I was liked by all and respected by many, including some of the young maidens. It was fun living in town. I had little supervision, but I knew better than to do something bad. What made me so popular was that I spoke good English compared to the rest of the kids. The reason for this is that they were taught to speak their native tongue, Russian, and their parents were illiterate in English. Like their parents, the other kids could only read and write in Russian.

Russell Holoboff, c.1935, Veregin, Saskatchewan.

I guess I was also different because I had known life in the big city of Los Angeles. But I sure wasn’t in any way smarter. I was just a city kid. Anyway, my town life near Verigin was coming to an end and I would be moving to my new home out in the country. The place is a farm that belonged to my mother (Mary nee Petroff). It was three miles from town and it was a very pretty farm. The reason it was my mother’s is that it was part of a legacy from her first husband (Nikolai Shcuratoff). Yes, both Mother and Dad were married before. I will explain all that later.

But mother’s inheriting the farm was the big inducement for Dad to give up Los Angeles and the job he had at the Goodyear Tire & Rubber plant. He had a pretty good job there, too. Our whole family was a part of the Goodyear plant – pioneers, so to speak. Dad opened the plant and I closed it years later. You see, this all came about because of a man named John Holoboff, my first cousin on Dad’s side. After Dad came to the United States and settled down, the correspondence started with the folks back in Saskatchewan, with Dad telling them how nice and warm it was in California. To hear this at a time when the temperatures in Saskatchewan were in the forties or less, California sounded like heaven. This news brought John Holoboff to California and Dad got him a job at Goodyear. It was hard and dirty work, but that’s where they started a new man there. John couldn’t take it and he started to miss the come-and-go, as-you-please lifestyle of the farm, with no lunch box to tote around. So he started to brainwash Dad, and he did a good job of it. Mother didn’t approve of this but lost the battle. Until her dying day she didn’t like John.

The move back to Saskatchewan broke up some of us kids in the family. Sam, Honey, and Mike stayed behind in Los Angeles. They wanted no part of Canada. They were old enough to know the difference. Afterward, Mother’s life was not at all that easy without the conveniences of a large family to help her. She worked during the walnut harvest. I think she liked living in California and having the family all together. She gave a lot and received little. She never once said these are my children and these are my husband’s children. We were all her children. Now I will name all of the family.

There was Grandfather (Joseph Petroff) on Mother’s side, a very adventurous man. There was (half-brother) Alex Holoboff who also moved to California but didn’t like city life and not being his own boss. With some persuasion from his wife, Polly, they returned to Canada before we did. Sam, Honey, Mike and Alice were Dad’s kids from his first marriage. Peggy and Molly (Shcuratoff) were from Mother’s first marriage. Me, Fred and Mary, were from Mother and Dad’s marriage. Fred was born in Los Angeles (1925) and Mary was born in Canada (1930) after we returned. So, that makes quite a table-full.

I don’t remember when we first moved to Los Angeles. I was very young, but I remember growing up there. I went to Miramonte School. It was right across the street from us. I remember two teachers: Mr. Henderson and Mrs. Holt. She used to snitch in the kids’ lunch bags. And who can forget Mr. Walker, our principal? No comment. I remember this one fellow who lived on our street who had an airplane. He crashed it on our street, showing off. Boy did Grandfather give him a tongue lashing – “sookin sin,” etc. – for trying to fly. But I wish Grandfather could see the progress that has been made in aviation since then. Lindbergh flew over Los Angeles after his world flight. That was a big day in Los Angeles. The Blimp was also something to see.

There was this family across the street named Lewis. They had a son my age and the sun set and rose on him. They liked me well enough that they took me every place they went. Especially to the beach for an overnight stay. Mrs. Lewis was very nice to me. After many long years I had the honor to be her pallbearer. What a coincidence. The son, Buckey, never respected his parents after all they had done for him.

I remember hiking to the Los Angeles River in the summer to swim in it and just bum around. Also the Christmas the Shriners held for us. The Red Car Line to Balboa; the fare was three cents to Los Angeles and parts unknown. The young kids dancing to the Charleston. Rudy Valentino, Hoot Gibson, Ken Maynard, the Our Gang comedies, and ten cent movies. It was the beginning of a new era.

A pensive Alex Holoboff.

Driving to Long Beach by car was an all-day trip. It was sure to consist of a flat tire or two. If that happened, us kids would play in the orange groves. The people my parents associated with were friends of theirs from Canada, and all they had cars. At this time Dad didn’t have a car. One time he was talked into buying one but he didn’t keep it; he got tired of buying someone else’s gas, as he never drove the car. I remember it well. It was an Overland Touring. Sam sure looked good behind the wheel. The city limits of Los Angeles were small then. Huntington Park and Southgate were in the orange groves and there was hardly any streets in them. The Lyric Theatre in Huntington Park was the one of the last big movie houses to open and it was very popular. There was no public transportation to reach it, so we had to hoof it on Saturday matinees. Anyway, my life was very happy then, except that we weren’t a rich family and I always envied other kids. But as I see it know, they just lived a different life.

Before I go any further, I would like to tell you a little about Grandfather (Petroff). He was born somewhere in Russia and spent most of his life living among the Turks and Cossacks. He told us many a hair-lifting tale of true adventure. He was really not a bother to anyone, but few wanted to admit they were related to him. He spoke no English, but swore a blue streak at the kids who passed by our house on their way home. He had some small parts as an extra in movies during the early days of Hollywood. Had one studied him more sincerely they could have learned a lot about the ways of life. He was always very daring. Anyway, I had some good and bad times with him. He smoked pipes that were so strong the smoke would not disappear. When he passed away I became heir to them by knowing where they were hidden. One puff from one of them would make your head swim all day.

Yes, I had many good times in California. Maybe that’s why I came back to live here. Perhaps I lived in a boy’s dream. Eventually it was time to say goodbye to sunny California and 1418 70th Street. If one goes by there they will see the house still standing and not much changed since we left. At the time we lived there it was a very nice part of town – not rich or poor, but it was centrally located in Los Angeles and close to the car line and to Dad’s work. Now the area is nothing compared to the old days.

We boarded a steamer for Canada. A steamer was the most reasonable fare to Canada, but it only lasted until we reached Seattle because everyone got sea sick. From there, we took a train for the rest of the journey north to our destination. Or maybe I should “our destiny” because that’s what it really amounted to. Why Saskatchewan, Canada? It all stems back to Dad’s and Mother’s beginning their new lives in a new part of the world, away from the steppes of peasantry in old Russia. Saskatchewan is where the immigrants settled after they landed in Halifax, Canada.

I don’t know too much about Mother’s immigration to Canada; she was not on the same boat as Dad, and she came from another part of Russia. I do know that her first husband (Nikolai Shcuratoff), Peggy’s and Molly’s dad, was a Yakut (exiled Doukhobor) from northern Russia. He spent quite some time in Siberia in the salt mines.

Dad was from the southern part of Russia. And an orphan. He was taken under someone’s wing and landed with a sect of Russian people called Doukhobors, a very religious group. They later formed a community called the Christian Community of (Universal Brotherhood) Doukhobors. They worked and lived in a community and shared the results of their toil. Eventually they owned thousands of acres of land, had their own flour mill, and large brick buildings for homes. They had a leader named Peter Verigin, and so named the town after him. Their leader was well respected by all, even Queen Victoria. He was the forerunner that made all this possible for some of these people. There is more to this – community living and so on – but I can’t possibly tell it all. And it doesn’t really mean that much to the Holoboff family because Dad didn’t belong to the sect or live with them for long. He preferred to freelance and go it on his own (as an Independent Doukhobor). And that’s what he did but it was not as easy as you might think. I will tell of some of his hardships.

It was said that Dad was so young when he married (first wife Vasilisa Perepelkin) that he fell asleep in the bride’s arms on this wedding night. The young had very little to say as to who they were going to marry; it was all matched and planned by their elders. So his first wife was the mother of Alexei, Helen, Samuel, Mike and Alice Holoboff. While on the subject of names let me further enlighten you. Mother’s maiden name was Petroff and her first two daughters, Peggy and Molly, had the last name Shcuratoff. Peggy and Molly never used their real last name, but always went by the name Holoboff.

Dad had a brother named Vasya. He was older than Dad and he had three sons, Pete, John and Nick, and a daughter, Lesunia, of McCloud, Alberta. Pete died at an early age from cancer. I liked him the best of the brothers. Uncle Vasya’s life was short-lived. He was gored to death by a bull. Dad’s dad (Alexei Holubov) died after being chewed up by a badger. Gangrene set in and resulted in his death. I did not know him and neither did Dad.

I think this covers all the history that I know about the family. One other thing…the name “Doukhobor” means “spirit wrestler”. They did not believe in bearing arms and that was one of the reasons for their migration to Canada. Russia would not tolerate them. Their religion was very strong; that is why they had the name of Christian Community (of Universal Brotherhood) of Doukhobors. In Brilliant, British Columbia, they had a large cannery of great renown. They grew and made strawberry jam that was know the world over. It is no longer in existence.

Alex Holoboff with son Fred, feeding the chickens, c.1932, Veregin, Saskatchewan.

Okay, let’s get back to the farm, our destination. It was Fall 1929 when I got my first glimpse of the farm. I really don’t know how I felt at that time, it just seems hazy to me. I think there was nothing eventful about it, maybe because nothing there was like I expected. There was no livestock yet; Dad was out, busy buying livestock. Uncle Vasya gave us an old gray horse who was more than ready for the glue factory. But we used him to haul water for our use. Yep, you heard right: hauled water.

Farm or no farm, I still had to go to school. I was enrolled in a country school two and a half miles from home and the only way to get there was by Shank’s Pony (this is an old euphemism: “Shank’s Mare” – to travel upon one’s own “shanks” – to get there on foot). It was not the kind of school I expected: a lonely one room building on the corner of someone’s farm. Grades 1 through 8 were all together in the same room. Inside was a world globe suspended from the ceiling and a big pot-bellied stove for heat. It was the pits. Lunch was not much to be desired: homemade bread and honey packed in a honey can and a whiskey bottle full of cold tea. It was like something you see in an old movie and couldn’t believe it. Tobacco Road, I called it. Sometimes a kid had something better in his lunch that you envied. The fall of the year was nice, like Indian Summer, but then the snow fell and winter came.

I’m going to try and explain how things were, as I see it now. I was too young then to know what it was all about. Everything was new and strange and there was no one to explain anything to me. I had to find out for myself and I still don’t know why it was so. There are many spots in my young childhood that I can’t explain. But I will do my best.

Winter was in full force: freezing temperatures, cold blizzards, winds up to sixty miles per hour. Child’s play was limited mostly to the house or barn – snow balls and sledding was out of the question. The only thing in my favor was that school had its summer holiday break during the winter, to spare us kids from freezing to death. Somewhere close to Christmas, we had our school Christmas party. A homemade stage was set up for our plays; you had to be careful not to stand too far at the edge, as the other end would raise up. We used sheets for curtains and a borrowed gas lamp for light. We didn’t have a Christmas tree because in spite of the cold north country, fir trees didn’t grow there, as it was all bald prairie (and it would have been ridiculous to go further north for one). So we did without a tree. But we did have a Santa. Everyone for miles was invited to the party because there was always a big dance held after. That was really the big event. We kids exchanged gifts. The boys desperately tried to impress their best girl with a small bottle of Orange Blossom perfume, a shining brooch, or a box of chocolates costing a total sum of twenty-five cents. I wasn’t in that class, but I did impress in my own way.

After the kids did our bit we were taken home by our parents so that the grown-ups could have their party. Well, I got to stay because my parents weren’t there to take me home. I acted big for my age and I liked to dance. The older girls didn’t mind dancing with me. The older boys were too busy getting drunk on white lightning – and on many occasions I was encouraged. There was nothing backward about me and I caught on easy. Somehow I acted older than I was (and I was always full of the devil) and I fit in with the older crowd. Even Dad would comment to some of the older boys who insisted that I partake in their activities. Like going to Vecheruskie parties (evening parties for young Doukhobor men and women) with dancing, singing and parlor games like spin-the-bottle. Most of them were fun. Despite the cold we would hitch up a team of horses to a sleigh and go from one farmhouse to the other picking up friends until we reached the designated house for the party. Sometimes they would last into the wee hours of the morning.

Somehow winter passed quickly and I really didn’t know what to expect. I really didn’t know anything about seasons. Some things I had to learn for myself. My friend (horse) Levon, didn’t make it through the winter. I can still see his remains, which by spring was pretty much a skeleton.

As yet I have still not gotten the steed that I was so ready to have at my disposal. I will never forget the rotten joke that was played on me. Dad and I were going to Alex’s in-laws (the Kabatoffs). They lived about seven miles away from us. We spent the night there. Anyway, when they were putting me to bed they told me that there would be a big white stallion all saddled and ready for me in the morning. I was more than sure that this would be true. Even when I woke up in the early hours of the morning, they encouraged me to hurry and eat my breakfast as the steed was waiting for me at the door. Well, if you ever saw a broken hearted child, I was one. How could they have played such a bad trick on me and get some fun out of it? Even my own Dad! I have lived with this all my life, and will to my dying day. I had finished my breakfast, rushed to the door, and opened it to find no such promise there. I was stunned beyond belief. There were much more such surprises in store for me in the years to come.

Spring was a beautiful time of year. The fields were full of little lakes from the winter snow. The streams of running water and the budding out of the pussy willows…everything seemed to smell fresh and clean. The most memorable thing about this part of the world at this time of year was the full moon of springtime. Just to hear the babbling streams and the croaking of the frogs – our farm had all of this! Being a kid, I didn’t want to come inside. Also at this time of year was the dropping (birthing) of new animals. I especially liked the horses, but as yet we didn’t have any. At any rate, spring was a blessing as I didn’t have to plow through the snow going to school. I could take a shortcut through the farm to lessen the distance. I could enjoy the wild little creatures that came to life with the warm weather – especially the red-breasted robin. When you saw the robin you knew that winter was well past. I also remember the big slough that I had to pass on the way to school; it was full of blackbirds. But the birds that stood out the most were the red winged (blackbird) – truly beautiful. And the chatter they would make if you disturbed them! There were a lot of things to amuse a child and cause him to be late for school. And I was late many times. As I see it now, school was no big thing to me then and I fared well below average. I was by no means a bum, more like too smart for my britches. I need guidance then more than anything. I will try to explain this more in detail as I go on.

Now it is late spring or early summer. I am witnessing death in the family for the first time. Grandfather (Petroff) passed on and we are very sorry for the loss. He passed away in the night, and in the early morning, Dad and our handyman acted as morticians. They gave him a bath and a shave, and got him all dressed up for his last rites. The neighbors pitched in and made a casket, a pine box. It looked very professional. The funeral was held in Russian style – lots of prayer and singing and feeding to no end. There must have been a hundred people at the funeral. Even the big dignitary, Peter (Chistiakov) Verigin, was there as he and Grandfather had been buddies in Russia. This was a big hour for Grandfather and the community as Mr. Verigin was a big wheel. Everyone was amazed that Grandfather knew him as well as he did. Funerals and weddings were big things and they brought many people together for the occasion. Grandfather’s funeral was a big step in my life, as I was only a young boy. It was a strange feeling. But with loss we also have our gains – births.

Very much to my surprise I suddenly became a brother to a sister, Mary (1930). I was not the least bit aware of this and even to this day I don’t know how it happened. We were all happy with her arrival and she was a very pretty girl. When she was a little girl she had a very bad accident. Mother was washing clothes one day and while she was transferring some boiling water from one pot to another, Mary dashed underneath the pot causing Mother to stumble and spill the water on Mary’s back. It was more than a first degree burn as her clothes stuck to her skin. There was no doctor handy so the folks did the best with what they had. The doctor was of very little help; the medication he prescribed was of little help. The skin would not heal. As a last resort, Dad used some of his own medication and healed the wound. It consisted of charred bulrushes. So it wasn’t just the Indians that made their own medicine – the old Russians did, too.

It’s the first year that we planted a crop. It should have been the last. From there on it was nothing short of disaster farming. The crops consisted of wheat, oats and some barley. Year after year, the same routine with the crops. The farmer fallowed half the acreage and sowed the rest. There wasn’t any help from the agriculture department to advise the farmer whether his soil was suitable for this or that particular crop. In many cases it was not. After years of disaster farming, the government stepped in to help. Necessity and politics.

The crop that we first planted was doing fine. It was all headed out and not too far from harvest time when one afternoon – wham! – it started to thunder and rain. The sky got really dark and it was suddenly very cold for that time of year. All of a sudden it started to hail and the hailstones were as large as chicken eggs. I am not exaggerating one bit. In about five minutes the crops were flattened to the ground and animals were killed. But just as fast as the storm appeared, the sun came out and the ground was covered with inches of hail. The crops, our main source of a livelihood, did not survive. This and the stock market crash was the beginning of total depression and near-survival for the farmer. This was only the beginning, there were other years to follow just as bad. The next year rust set in to the crops, which was also another total loss. The grain buyers would not accept this crop at any price. It wasn’t even suitable as cattle feed.

The price of grain on the stock market dropped to ten cents a bushel for No. 1 Northern Wheat, a drop from over two dollars a bushel. In many cases the grain buyers refused to buy at all. Cattle prices also dropped so low that the farmer owed money for shipping his cattle to market. Butter and eggs were five cents per dozen or pound, but even at this price there wasn’t a market for anything the farmer had to sell. We had to go as far as twenty miles for wood in the winter, in the worst cold, never more than thirty or forty degrees below zero. This wood would be cut to stove length and taken to town to sell at a dollar-fifty a cord. Many times we made just enough to by coal, oil, sugar and salt, a very sad situation, to say the least. There was no such thing as welfare, one just did the best with what he had. There were some people who had money stashed away and lived quite well. This was the time that my brother Alex lost all he had because he had allowed too much credit to the farmers who were not able to pay their debts. In spite of all this, there was still joy and laughter.

I really didn’t know what it was all about and went along with the times, always wishing. But I recall lots of enjoyment in my time, the type that no one will ever witness in his entire life. Like when Dad got me a pony and we became inseparable, just short of taking him to bed with me. I remember the little hunting trips I used to go on in the fall in a little meadow which had once been someone’s home site. I spent hours loitering there, and would admire Dad’s first farm nearby. It had a big red barn, the most outstanding of all the buildings in the area. But this farm held something more important to me. It was my birthplace: Northeast Quarter, Section 28, Township 30, West of the Second Meridian, in the Province of Saskatchewan, Canada. This took place on the 16th of May, 1918. What a button-popper I was to my Dad.

Frederick, Mary and Russell Holoboff, c. 1944, New Westminster, British Columbia.

This is about the only time there was any deep affection ever shown to me. This lasted only a few years, to my knowledge. If it ever existed beyond this, it was well hidden inside of Dad. But I will say that a lot of it showed up later in my life, with some guilt written on Dad’s face. For all of this there was a reason, I’m sure. It’s hard to give something when you never received it yourself. But I never felt bitter about it. I just carried on, not knowing the difference. It’s only now that I sometimes analyze these things.

Anyway, the farm. It still holds lots of memories for me, like the big red barn and the beautiful horses that Dad had, especially one we called Nell, a very pretty mare. She was very tame and gentle until one day I snuck up behind her and hit her with a switch. It startled her and she retaliated with her hind leg, grazing me at the temple of my head. I went flying over, ass-over-tea kettle, blood all over my face. Everyone panicked as they thought I was dead. But I survived with nothing less than a scar which I still bear.

I remember a horse we called Twilby. She was really my brother Mike’s pony, but we all enjoyed her. I remember the big pond by the house; in the fall it would be full of migrating foul – a hunter’s delight. Wildlife was plentiful in those years. Killing, to us, was a bit on the religious forbidden side. I doubt if Dad owned a gun.

The first marriage in our family took place at this farm. It was the wedding of my brother Alexis and a local farm gal named Polly Kabatoff. I have heard that cousin John talked Alex into getting married, and I wouldn’t doubt it because Alex was young and timid. But the wedding was a blast. I remember drinking a lot of bubbling water – I think they called it lemonot. After the wedding, Alex brought his new bride home to a little house that we built for the young lovers. I liked to visit with them. The house had no kitchen, so we ate at the big house; it had a large kitchen and a long table. There were eleven of us sitting at that table, country-style.

Another incident was in the spring. Mother had some newborn chicks she was keeping behind the stove. Well, I got wind of this – just a little boy – and played with them. Before Mother knew what had happened, I had them all strangled with loving care. They were so soft and cuddly. But my rear end was red and sore afterward.

Playing in the huge loft of the big red barn was a lot of fun. If I went back to that part of the country, I would make sure to visit the old barn as I hear it still stands.

Alex’s and Polly’s first child was born at this farm. Her name is Nora, my niece, and she now resides in Grand Forks, British Columbia, with her husband, Pete Semenoff.

Another memory was my pony, King. I could write a book about our adventures. I remember being buried in snow drifts that rose over our heads, in freezing temperatures, going to and from school. I remember having visions of being a cowboy, and for all purposes I was but didn’t know it. Because anything on the farm pertained to being a cowboy. But in my vision I was wearing a tall Stetson, with boots and a gun. I wore out the pages of the Eaton’s Wish Book. About the closest I ever got to any kind of cowboy regalia was a western bit for my pony’s bridle. Times were too tough for any luxuries. The harness was more important for the work horse, and they were fixed and re-fixed. But I never gave up hope, as I liked all accessories pertaining to horses. I did manage to get together a set of fancy harnesses for my favorite team. I even had brass bells that I put on the harnesses in the winter. I just liked horses and I still do. I had the opportunity to breed them and raise them from birth. I doubt if there is any other animal so rewarding as a colt of your own.

Besides my little pony King, we had eight horses, all bred from one mare. Her name was Lady; she was a Belgium breed. Her first colt was a little sorrel filly. Her face was blazed and her tail and main were flaxen. She was very pretty and gentle. Lady’s colt eventually also produced quite a few colts. In all we managed to breed seven generations, which made the last purebred. In spite of hard times, our horses brought top dollar at auction. When they were sold, there were a lot of tears on my part.

About my pony, King…it was early winter when Dad and I set out to buy the little critter. The owner told us that he was with the rest of the horses at the straw pile. Finally we saw a little black spot and it was him. After some time spent trying to catch him, we put him in the sleigh box and started home. I was so happy I almost choked him with joy and love. He was only a year old then and it would still be some time before I could ride him. About the only thing I didn’t do was take him to bed with me, but I did sleep in the barn with him.

One adventure with my pony is clear in my mind. When he was old enough for me to ride him, I trained him to run a blue streak. It was always a full gallop. I must say that he was darned fast and on several occasions I raced him against big horses. Not too many would out-speed him.

In the Fall there was an annual fair held at a bigger town nearby called Kamsack, about fifteen miles from our home. People came from far away, despite poor times. Farmers took their wares to exhibit and the youngsters went for the excitement of the merry-go-round and the Ferris Wheel, the sideshows, cotton candy, and yelling barkers selling the all-cure medicine. All of this was very exciting because very little else went on during the year. Despite hard times, with the harvest done, everyone managed to scrape together a few nickels.

My main purpose for going to the fair was that horses raced there, with a special division for ponies that carried a purse of $2.50 for First Place. Need I say more? Yep, I was determined to go to the fair and win. Before I go on about this adventure, let me tell you a little about this fair. One will never again see a fair like fairs back then. Tents pitched all over the grounds, with all sorts of enticements: Lena the Tattooed Lady, sword swallowers, Harem girls, the old shill game of guessing where the pea is, Kewpie doll winnings for your best gal, barkers shouting, a caravan of Real Gypsies…ah, come, let me tell your future.

After telling the folks what I had in mind, they agreed to my adventure and the next day I was off to the races. I had no money, nor any idea how all this was to be executed, but more than halfway there I was stopped by some young farmer and his wife. They were very nice people and they didn’t know my folks, so they talked me into staying the night with them and then in the early morning I could pursue my journey to the fair. After they took me in for the night, it seemed that they immediately took a liking to me. The man helped me stable my pony and took me into the house to clean up for dinner. His wife was very young and kind to me. Their house was big, fairly modern for the times, and made of brick. Well, I was plenty hungry and I ate to my heart’s content. They just kept passing food to me, including dessert. After dinner, the lady showed me to my own room which was nicely furnished and had a very comfortable bed. Looking at it now, it seems that this young farmer and his wife wanted me as their own son. Maybe they had some difficulty having children of their own and took a liking to me. I was happy with it all and it fit in with my journey. I stopped at their place on my way home from the fair as they had insisted. But I did not spend the night with them again. I guess I was getting tired and homesick so I made it home that day.

Now, my day at the fair: When I got there I registered for the pony race and was told what time I was to be ready. It was to take place after the big horses raced. There were many Indians who entered in the big race. They were notorious horsemen. When the pony race was called, we brought our steeds to the race track and arrived at the starting point. It just so happened that the stewards forgot to close the gate where we had entered, and at the sound of the gun, my pony headed straight back for the little pasture I had come through, and there was no way I could get him back to the track. So they had to rerun the race due to negligence on the stewards part. Race we did, and I came in first in my class with a total purse of two dollars and fifty cents – which took a whole year to collect.

Time passes. I am growing up and changing. I quit school – I made a thorough mess of it. One year I missed fifteen days in one month. Yes, I was lectured on this quite severely, but it was a rather hopeless case to make up for all this. Today it’s much to my sorrow, but at that time I knew no better, so the choice I was given was to take a man’s place in the world and go to work. I accepted this role. I was used to work. As a matter of fact, that’s all I knew.

My first real job was at harvest time. Our neighbor had a threshing rig and he hired me as his assistant to operate the tractor and threshing machine. I felt really good about this as no other kid had this type of opportunity, to learn mechanics. What the job really meant was that I was to be grease monkey. But I learned to drive a car and a tractor. In order to learn this and a lot of other things I had to get up at four in the morning with heavy frost on the ground and on the machines. I dipped my hands into cold grease and oil to get the rig ready for when the men got there to thresh. Believe me, this was not fit for man nor beast. I had a lot of other chores that were back-breaking, like pulling the separator belt to the tractor. It was about a hundred feet long and weighed a ton. After I got the rig running I would go have breakfast, or what was left of it. But the prestige was something else at my age. I even had my own tobacco to smoke. Of course I hid it from my parents, but I wasn’t fooling anyone. I was about twenty-five before I smoked in front of Mom and Dad. In our belief smoking was very much taboo.

Taboo or not, I was growing up pretty fast – too fast for my own good. There are other things I started trying, like white lightning – homemade grain alcohol, over a hundred percent proof. We young ones thought this was great and a part of growing up, and the older ones thought we were funny and encouraged us. What drinking really was, was an escape from our depressing times. It could be a serious situation because whereas some could control themselves, some went on to the bye-and-bye as a result. Because it was easy to make, bootleggers sprang up all over the place.

Russell, Alex, Mary, Fred, and Mary Holoboff, c. 1944, New Westminster, British Columbia.

Anyway, back to my job. Harvest lasted about six weeks and I was anxious to receive my pay. I had no idea what the pay would be. One night, when I was asleep, my boss came to our house to treat Mom and Dad with a drink and pay my wages. He woke me up to tell me that he wanted to square up with me for my services and asked me what I thought would be a fair price. As a young boy I was not allowed to say, so I left it to his discretion. He handed me eleven dollars. I nearly died. I had worked really hard for him, and many times I had to cover up for him because he was a playboy and hit the bottle often. Dad should have spoke up for me, and why he didn’t I don’t know. Well, it was better than nothing and it wasn’t likely I could find any other job that would have paid as well. The experience had been worth it and I worked for him the next year, but after that, not much more.

My next problem was what to spend the money on – you’d have thought I was a millionaire. It was the first time I had my own money to spend on myself and I did so wisely. The first thing was to get out Eaton’s Wish Book. What a decision I had to make! Would it be a saddle, a bridle, or that navy blue striped suit for seven dollars? It took some time to make up my mind and the suit won out. You see, although I was young and small, I had already had lots of briefings about the birds and the bees and the penalties that went with them. But I was entering manhood and girls and dancing were entering my mind a lot. After all, during the winter, dancing was our only fun and entertainment. I liked to dance and did a very nice job of it – not many girls refused to dance with me. So I needed to dress up and try to make a good impression.

By the time I paid for the suit and a few things to go with it, I was broke but happy. The day the suit arrived, I got all spruced up and felt like Clarke Gable (movie stars being our ideals and inspiration). I looked pretty sharp for the first dance of the season.

The dances were held mostly in town or in schoolhouses. The orchestras were very simple – an accordion, a violin, and a guitar, more or less. The music was mostly Western style and also lots of polkas. We would dance until the wee hours of the morning, and in many cases, we’d have to walk home in a blizzard. Sometimes there were house parties and sometimes we would dance to just a Jew’s harp or a kazoo. We played parlor games like spin-the-bottle, anything to get a kiss from your favorite girl.

There was this family, close neighbors of ours, who had three girls and one boy. The girls were musically inclined without any training and they made wonderful music on their accordions. They were God-gifted with an ear for music but it took an awful lot of persuasion to get them to play. Who could blame them? Playing the music left them out of the fun. But they were always available for hire. With the few pennies they earned they could buy lipstick. For eye shadow, girls used charcoal. But these girls were very beautiful. Most girls were natural wholesome beauties without makeup, but they liked to live in the world of Hollywood.

In spite of the cold winter, the months went by fast. There were lots of weddings and different kinds of celebrations that kept us happy. On the subject of weddings…I don’t think one ever lived until he or she participated in our kind. Food, liquor and dancing for days with as many as a hundred people in attendance.

There was one wedding I will never forget. It was a Ukrainian family, one of our close neighbors. They were fairly wealthy and this was the marriage of their only son. They went all out for this wedding and it lasted three days and nights. People would sleep wherever they fell. The orchestra was authentic. There were Russian troubadours with cimbalas and balalaikas. In no way could you refrain from dancing when they played. This wedding was also my first experience getting bombed. I don’t remember, to this day, taking a shortcut home in waist deep snow. How foolish – I could have easily passed out and froze to death. But I don’t regret the experience I had at a real Ukraine-style wedding. Only in the Ukraine could you experience a ceremony like that.

I would like you to understand one thing. The people in this era still had morals and scruples. It was different and far better than today’s standards – the body and soul were not abused. But more specifically, this was some fifty years ago, before the modern age. The telephone and the radio were marvels. The first thing anywhere near to a radio that I had was a crystal set. There wasn’t too much to it – it had a piece of crystal metal, a coil, and a set of earphones. Reception was best at night. With a small piece of steel spring you would start scratching the piece of crystal until you were able to pick up a strong station in the wavelength. If you were lucky you would get a good station with good sound and a good program. If there were others in the room they would almost tear your head off to get the earphones.

That was the beginning of radio. After that came the modern tube type radio. Most of them were the cabinet type – no one knew what portable was. As I remember, a person’s wealth could be judged by the beauty of the cabinet: solid hardwood, highly polished and lovely. People that enjoyed radio the most were the ones who lived in towns with electricity. For us rural folk, reception wasn’t good. We had to run our radio off batteries and the reception wasn’t good, plus you never knew when the radio was going to die. Just like everything new on the market, not everyone could afford a good radio; we certainly could not. But we were fortunate to have a nice neighbor about a half mile away who was generous to share his radio and we took advantage of his generosity. My sister Peggy and I couldn’t wait to get the evening chores and dinner over with, then off we would go, tracking through the snow drifts to the neighbor’s place to hear our favorite programs. We listened to Fred Allen, Fibber McGee and Molly, Burns and Allen, Jack Benny, and the Lone Ranger, a very popular series. We heard a lot of good western music; a few programs came in quite good like the one from Del Rio, Texas. Also, Kate Smith and her theme song “When the Moon Comes Over the Mountains”. The thing that was nice about radio instead of modern television was that you had to picture the characters. Movies were out of the question. There was only one movie house in a small town about ten miles away. In all the years I lived in Saskatchewan I went to only one show: “The Silver Bullet”.

This is what it was like in this remote part of the country. Not all of the people were so backward, mostly the older folks who had not been in this country too long. Children only know what is taught to them. The younger generation of parents were different. Most of them had some education and passed it down to their children. I can’t say the same for my parents. If you started to play some sport you were told it was a waste of time. If you had some idea, to prove something, all you heard is “it won’t work.” Like when Grandfather used to say, “Look at that damned fool trying to fly.” I wish he could see what it’s like now. Progress didn’t seem very important to my parents and their generation, only their one knowledge: work, work, and more work.

Doctors and dentists in those times was almost nil. We had a country doctor but we couldn’t afford him, and he was tired of getting paid in calves, pigs, and such. I can remember having a toothache once in the middle of winter. The closest dentist was fifteen miles away. We had a farmer nearby who was a kind of self-made dentist and he only charged what you could afford. He was five miles away and I rode horseback in a blizzard to get to him and have my tooth pulled. The pain was so bad, I didn’t care.

As I said before, all we ever heard from our elders was “no”, “what for?”, “it’s not important”, “tomorrow”, “maybe” – teachings that always seemed negative. It was fear, their fear. It was the depression and hard times, another era not like today. There was no such thing as credit cards. To buy anything you had to have the full amount, even if you ordered from the Wish Book. So we had to make do with whatever we had. Only during the harvest season, after the crops were sold, did we have any money. I know hardship well.

Back to family events. My sister Alice married her beloved, Charles Schram. He came from a very large German family. He had six brothers and three sisters, and like everyone else, they were poor as church mice. But the family had a lot of love for each other and it really showed. Their mother was a frail, little woman. I fit in to their family well, and with the other boys, most of them were in my age bracket. I spent a lot of time there during winters. We went to a lot of house parties and raided the smokehouse and smoked like steam engines. The Schram boys had a bunk house all to themselves so we got away with a lot of things. I can still see Mr. Schram waking up the boys. It was like a ritual, the same thing every morning: “Charlie! George! William! Robert! Albert! Steve!” But the boys would merely grumble some cuss word and go further down into their blankets. It took an Act of Congress to get them up.

Russell in later life, c. 1980.

Charlie Schram was a prince of a man. He was about five feet, ten inches tall and nearly two hundred pounds. A very solid, very handsome man. I liked him very much and still do to this day. When Alice told the folks she was going to marry Charlie, the folks weren’t pleased because they knew nothing about his family, and because he was not the same nationality. At that time, in this region, intermarriage wasn’t heard of very often. But eventually they got the folks’ blessing and were married. It had to be true love because Charlie had nothing to offer Alice except love. Alice and Charlie lived with the Schrams after their wedding which was not all that great. Alice had little knowledge of their way of life and it took some time to get used to. Eventually they were able to move out on their own and it was better. They rented a farm in God’s Forsaken Acres, about as far north in the province as a white man wanted to go. Their nearest neighbor was the Indian agent on the reservation. It was a struggle for them. They raised three wonderful children. My sister Molly was midwife at the birth of their oldest child, Richard. Then came Shirley and Douglas. The story of when Molly was a midwife at Richard’s birth is somewhat funny. Alice was very near to her delivery and Molly was visiting them at the time. One night while they were playing cards, Alice felt tired and wanted to go to bed. In her preparation to go to bed she decided to use a portable john in the house (there was no such thing as an inside bathroom and the night was frightfully cold). As she sat down she started to give birth and Molly was the closest thing to any help. It was quite an experience for them all.

Peggy was married next. One day in the barn, while she was milking the cows, she asked me what I thought about her getting married to this fellow named Mike Gizowski. Hell, what did I know about marriage? I told her it was for her to decide. She was afraid she would be left an old maid. She married Mike and they raised a great family of three girls and one boy: Barbara, Mona, Linda, and Fred – a great bunch of kids. Mike was a Polish immigrant from Warsaw who was raised with strict Polish military training. He was old-school and he had an excellent trade as a shoe and harness maker. His work was something to see. His life came to a close at an early age – he died from arthritis. To my deep regret, Peggy’s life ended tragically. She was killed in a car accident on her way home from visiting the folks. But she left a nice family. I have nice memories of Peggy. Her housekeeping was not the best, but her warm heart and hospitality, along with her good cooking, was out of this world.

Not too much later after Peggy‘s marriage, my sister Molly had her wedding bells ring. She married a local boy of the same background and faith. He was a farm boy named Paul J. Rieben; his family lived near us. Molly and Paul had two boys, Paul, Jr. and Donald, and two girls, Debbie and Julie. Their marriage was good and lasted right up to Paul’s death.

So, between droughts, cold, no crops, and working for ten cents a day, the family grew with no sign of a light at the end of the tunnel and it gradually got to Dad. All this time, his heart was still in California and so he began to seriously consider going back there. I acted as his legal aid, getting birth certificates, passports, and other legal documents together. Eventually we got an appointment with the U.S. Immigration Department for a final interview. After all of our efforts, Dad failed to qualify for entry into the states. I still think he needed someone other than me to help him with this – after all, I was just a kid. It was a disappointment to everyone after all the trouble we’d gone through. But Dad was no quitter. He had another plan. Before I tell you about it, I want to back up a bit in my story.

I have been talking about all of the family, but I have said very little about Mother (Mary nee Petroff). Good old mother, how dear a mother she was and how little rewards she received. I remember how hard she toiled from sunup to sundown, then many a night up with one of us kids. I can remember Mother and me in the hot sun, out in the field, making hay, then she would have to come home to milk cows and make dinner, or stand over a hot tub scrubbing clothes. There was no end to her work but I never heard her complain, not until after the birth of Mary. With all the hardship and things getting worse, it put an awful strain on her nerves which eventually resulted in her having a complete nervous breakdown. The fact that she was going through the change of life then only made matters worse for her. There were times she was completely out of her mind from the suffering she went through. What she really needed was total rest away from all the worry. But that was like wishing for the moon. As a result Mother suffered for the rest of her life.

Back to Dad’s plan: British Columbia, here we come! Dad was determined to get the hell out of Saskatchewan. No matter what happened, it couldn’t be any worse. We had some friends and relatives in Grand Forks, BC. and that was to be our destination. I don’t recall the exact month this took place, but it was in the early spring. All I know is that it was damned cold.

The date was set and all the arrangements were made for the auction sale. Lots of comments were heard, like “Are you crazy?” But Dad was determined to leave so there was very little feedback on the sojourner’s part. Mother gave him static. I was all for it. My brother, Fred, and my sister, Mary, were too little to have a say. The girls were married and on their own and would stay behind. Peggy and Molly had a farm that was willed to them by their real father, so they decided to stay. They were sad to see their mother go, but the trek was destined.

As I said, Dad got a lot of remarks from lots of neighbors and friends. But in the end he actually started a whole movement west. The day of the auction was a very sad day, especially when I had to lead out the horses for the auctioneer. I sure hated to part with them. I told all the new owners to treat them as I did, with loving care. Each one brought a fair price and it was time for the last farewells.

It was a cold, blustery morning when the neighbor came for us. We packed everything on the sleigh and off we went to the railroad station. The train was to leave at 9:00 a.m. The station was full of friends and relatives, there to wish us well. Also, quite a lot of my school friends and sweet ones. The whole thing was quite an affair as nothing like this had happened here before. No one could believe that there was any place else than here.

Still, I was sad to leave all my dear friends and the place itself, so vital a part of my life, and all the things I had learned growing up there. The experiences I had living on the farm – even during bad times – I don’t regret at all.

A faint sound, a train whistle, is heard in the distance. The train is on time and we will be boarding it soon. All the farewells have been said. The train blows the high ball whistle and the conductor yells “Alllllll-aboard!”  With the clack of the wheels and in a short time of travel, my birthplace is now a memory.


Russell Alexander Holoboff, the writer of this memoir, married and moved to Downey, Los Angeles, California, where he and his wife Bess raised three daughters. Russell passed away on 4 March 1991 in Downey, CA, leaving ten grandchildren. One of his favorite places was the Fraser River in British Columbia where his family scattered his ashes as he had requested.

A History of the Perverseff Family

by Roger Phillips

Roger Phillips (1926-) was born in Tangleflags, Saskatchewan to Francis "Frank" Henry James Phillips, an English "remittance man", and Agatha J. Perverseff, a university-educated Doukhobor schoolteacher. At the age of nine, he moved with his mother to her parents home west of Blaine Lake. There, Roger enjoyed a typical Independent Doukhobor farmboy upbringing for the times, complete with hard work and responsibility. Nearly eighty years later, his Doukhobor heritage and upbringing has given Roger much to treasure and remember. His memoirs, reproduced here by permission from his book, “A History of the Phillips & Perverseff Families” provides an overview of his Perverseff family roots from their earliest origins through to their settlement on the Molochnaya, exile to the Caucasus and emigration to Canada – the ‘Promised Land’, as well as the family’s early pioneer years, and his own boyhood during the Depression.

Having introduced (my mother) Agatha into this narrative, the time is ripe to trace what is known of her early family history—one very different from (my father) Frank’s and sometimes quite turbulent. The Perverseffs (maternal line) belonged to a unique social entity. They were Doukhobors, a strongly pacifist social grouping driven by persecution in Mother Russia to migrate to Canada. I spent some time with my Perverseff grandparents as a little boy and young man and learned just enough Russian to grasp snatches of stories my Grandmother told. I refer to my grandparents now as John and Lucille, but in Russian they were Vanya and Lusha; to me they were Dyeda and Babushka. They and my Mother were my bridges to the past.

Family Origins

Scholarly sources state that the Russian surname Pereverzev (transcribed as Perverseff or Pereverseff in Canada) originates from the Russian verb pereverziti meaning “to muddle” or “to distort”. One may suppose that an early ancestor acquired this term as a nickname, which in turn was passed on to his forebears. The exact reason for such a nickname is unknown. It might be complimentary or insulting, or even ironic depending on circumstance and the individual concerned.

I recall that Russia’s Perm region, some 700 miles east of Moscow, was often alluded to by the family, for there my Pereverzev forebears purportedly dwelled and toiled until the 1700’s. Lusha had heard folk tales but the intercession of tumultuous events had insinuated themselves between her memory and that long-ago time so the connection was at best tenuous. Nevertheless, that is the first historical hint we have.

Were one to fall back on an imagination sprinkled with elusive wisps of hearsay to pierce the mists of centuries, he might conjure up images of his village-dwelling ancestors herding sheep and cattle on the steppes of Perm gubernia (province) or meeting in sobranya (a primarily religious gathering) to foster a burgeoning pacifist faith which by the 1700s was already balking against an increasingly stifling church orthodoxy and corrupt priesthood.

The Molochnaya and Caucasian Exile

If, indeed, Perm was an ancestral home, my antecedents had left it long before the migration made to the Molochnye Vody (Milky Waters) region of Tavria Province on the Crimean frontier just north of the Sea of Azov. Doukhobor researcher Jon Kalmakoff’s accessing of Russian archives reveals that the Pereverzev family in the later 1700s lived in Ekaterinoslav province, migrating about 1801 to land along or near the Molochnaya River in the Melitopol district of Tavria province, Russia (present day Zaporozhye province, Ukraine) where they lived in Rodionovka village, farming adjoining land for some forty years. There were eight other Doukhobor villages scattered along the river and adjoining lake known as Molochnaya.

In 1845, a Pereverzev family and other Doukhobors were exiled to the forbidding Zakavkaz (Transcaucasian) region. Wild Asiatic tribes occupied this mountainous, inhospitable region and Tsar Nikolai I, hitherto unable to rehabilitate what he considered to be an incorrigible sect, opined that these mountain tribes would soon teach the Doukhobors a lesson or, better still, remove altogether this thorn from his side.

Kalmakoff, a Regina-based researcher, accessed long-forgotten Russian archives and found that the family patriarch, Vasily Mikhailovich Pereverzev, together with his wife Maria, was listed among the Doukhobors exiled to the Caucasus. His parents and siblings did not accompany him.

Seduced, one might posit, by a growing prosperity that looked askance at being driven into unpleasant exile, his parents and siblings demurred to Orthodoxy and pronounced allegiance to the Tsar. The parents were Mikhailo (b. 1802), and Maria (b. 1802); his siblings, Ilya Mikhailovich (b.1827), Pelegea Mikhailovna (b. 1828), Semyon Mikhailovich (b. 1830), Fedosia Mikhailovna (b. 1832), Irena Mikhailovna (b. 1834), Evdokia Mikhailovna (b. 1837), Evdokim Mikhailovich (b. 1839), Ivan Mikhailovich (b. 1841) and Anna Mikhailovna (b. 1843).

Ivan Vasilyevich Pereverzev (left) and unidentified Doukhobor relatives in Gorelovka village, Kars province, Russia, c. 1890.

So it was that as the middle of the Nineteenth Century approached, my maternal Great-Great-Great-Grandfather Vasily Mikhailovich Pereverzev had grown up and chosen to go into exile with his wife Maria and their two sons rather than bow to Orthodox Church and Tsarist pressure.

Their sons were Ivan Vasilyevich, to whom our branch of the Perverseffs traces our lineage, and Fyodor Vasilyevich, who founded the Fred, Andrew, and Alexander Perverseff lines. Their father, Vasily, was the only one of his line of Pereverzevs to accompany those Doukhobors who stood firm by their faith and were banished from their Molochnaya settlements between 1841 and 1845.

In the Caucasus, the Pereverzevs settled in Novo-Goreloye village in Elizavetpol province (in present-day Azerbaijan), one of four Doukhobor villages established in that province of Transcaucasian Russia.

Harsh Living Conditions

Ivan Vasilyevich, my Great-Great-Grandfather and son of the patriarch Vasily, married in the mid-1850s and his wife Aksinya bore him a son Vasily in 1859. In 1880 this son Vasily married Elizaveta Lapshinov and they had a son, my Grandfather Ivan Vasilyevich in 1883 and two daughters.

The Pereverzevs along with their fellow Doukhobors in Elizavetpol province found life harsh. Fleeting summers squeezed between frost-bitten springs and falls and deep winter snows contrasted sharply with the pleasing milder climate their elders had known in the Molochnaya region. Subsistence was based mainly on cattle and sheep raising, market gardening, and what little wheat could be grown. There was something else. An undercurrent of fear shadowed the Elizavetpol villages, with good reason.

Asiatic hill country tribesmen would occasionally swoop down on horseback on the Doukhobor villages, plundering livestock and poultry and, reputedly, even carrying off children. The hillsmen’s depredations were tempered somewhat by the retributive countering of armed Doukhobors riding out to punish the raiders. Circumstances soon offered many Elizavetpol Doukhobor families an opportunity to leave.

Aksinya Pereverzeva in Gorelovka village, Kars province, Russia, c. 1894. Her loyalty to Verigin’s Large Party resulted in a Pereverzev family schism in 1886.

During the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, Doukhobor men were enlisted as teamsters for the Russian Army – a compromise from being actual combatants and a lucrative arrangement made by the then-Doukhobor leader Lukeria Kalmykova. The Doukhobor teamsters served faithfully and their efforts helped Russia emerge victorious from the conflict. As a reward, the Doukhobors in Elizavetpol and other areas were invited to settle in the more temperate and fertile province of Kars, newly-conquered from the Ottoman Empire. Many Doukhobors accepted, including the Pereverzevs.

The Pereverzevs’ migration to Kars in 1880 took them through Tiflis (later Tbilisi, Georgia), a city Grandmother Lusha sometimes mentioned when talking about life in Kars. Once in Kars, the Pereverzevs settled in the village of Gorelovka, named after their former home in Elizavetpol. It was one of six Doukhobor villages established in the province. There, they would live and prosper for the next nineteen years.

A Pereverzev family schism occurred in 1886 when the Doukhobor leader Lukeria (Lushechka) Vasilyevna Kalmykova died. Many Doukhobors decided to follow Petr Vasilyevich Verigin, who had been a protégé of hers, and formed what became known as the “Large Party”. Other Doukhobors maintained that Lushechka had not anointed Peter and instead sided with her officials who claimed Verigin usurped the leadership. Individuals of this persuasion established themselves as the “Small Party”. My Great-Great-Grandmother, Aksinya, was by all accounts a loyal Large Party adherent while her husband Ivan Vasilyevich sided with the Small Party. Sadly, the ill feelings this rift created forced the elderly couple to vacate the family home.

In his later years, Ivan Vasilyevich Pereverzev was a village starshina – a dignitary we would today call a mayor. His son Vasily Ivanovich became a trader as well as farmer, herdsman, and carpenter and, years later, related that on his trading expeditions he found Christian Armenian shopkeepers the most hospitable of the merchants he encountered in the Caucasus. Only after sharing a meal and an hour or two of pleasant conversation would they get down to mundane business.

Restrictions meant to better reflect their pacifism were imposed on the Large Party Doukhobors in the early 1890s, and the following obeyed Leader-in-Exile Petr Vasilyevich Verigin’s decree to forego smoking, drinking, sex, and eating meat. Late in 1894, Verigin wrote from banishment in Siberia that such denial would purify the body and bring into one fold all the animal kingdom in the Doukhobor pact of non-violence.

The Burning of Arms

A supreme test came in 1895 when Verigin ordered his followers to protest war and killing of any sort by burning their arms. This they did in dramatic fashion on the night of June 28-29. A bonfire near the villages of the Kars Doukhobors punctuated the darkness as guns and other killing instruments were put to the torch. As well, Doukhobors serving in the army laid down their rifles, refusing to kill for the state. Then it was that these folk felt the full fury of an enraged officialdom. The whippings and other means of persecution were brutal. Indeed, the “Burning of Arms”, as Doukhobor history records the event, became buried deep in the psyche of these people, a watershed act pointing them towards Canada and a new destiny.

Vasily Ivanovich (sitting) and his son Vanya (standing) Pereverzev pictured in typical Russian dress – a military style peaked cap, a coat tight at the waist and high boots. Gorelovka village, Kars province, Russia, c. 1894.

The Doukhobors wanted so little and yet so much. Above all they wished to peacefully pursue their faith, to be free to lead simple, non-violent, productive lives in a communal environment with “Toil and Peaceful Life” and “Thou Shalt Not Kill” their watchwords. Noble sentiments, indeed, but the Burning of Arms and Doukhobor soldiers rejecting the army were highly provocative acts inviting harsh reprisals by Tsarist officials. The persecution that followed seemed to leave no choice for many but to get out or perish.

Exodus to Canada

Their plight attracted worldwide attention. Journalists, writers and benefactors in several countries took up their cause. Not the least of these was the already famous Russian novelist and humanitarian Lev Tolstoy who, himself, embraced many Doukhobor ideals, becoming their staunchest ally. His financial contribution and towering talent as a writer did much to facilitate their move to Canada, an exodus that began December 21, 1898, when the first shipload left Russia. Their turn to depart set for some months later, the Pereverzevs and other villagers in Gorelovka, Kars Province, began selling off their possessions and preparing for their own departure. Overseeing preparations for our branch of the Pereverzevs was Vasily Ivanovich, now 40, who had helped shepherd the family through the harrowing times in Transcaucasia and the terrors following the Burning of Arms. He and his wife Elizaveta now had in their care a 16-year-old son, Ivan Vasilyevich, his wife Lusha, and two younger daughters, Dunya and Hanya. Ivan’s birth, on May 1, 1883, followed by two years that of Lusha (nee Negreeva). Under mutual arrangements and approving eyes Ivan and Lusha were married in 1898.

Cousin Mae Postnikoff tells Grandmother’s side of the story. Mae stayed with the Perverseff grandfolks in Blaine Lake while attending high school in the 1950s. Grandmother told her the marriage was arranged by the Pereverzev and Negreev families and confided that back in Russia she loved not Grandfather but another man her family wouldn’t condone her marrying. This “beloved” also migrated to Canada eventually moving on to British Columbia and Grandmother never saw him again. Love takes nurturing and while Lusha may not have loved Ivan at first, she did in time.

Vasily Ivanovich’s immediate and extended family was among that part of the Kars Doukhobor population scheduled to set sail for Canada May 12, 1899. At sea they lived on sukhari (dried bread) and water, reaching Canada June 6. After a lengthy quarantine they proceeded west by rail, reaching the Northwest Territories settlement of Duck Lake in early July. Detraining there, they temporarily occupied immigration sheds, regrouped, acquired settlement supplies, and underwent further documentation.

A cavalcade of Doukhobor immigrants on the move from debarkation at Duck Lake, Northwest Territories, to settle a prairie site in the summer of 1899.

Canadian unfamiliarity with the spelling and pronunciation of Russian family names resulted in their sometimes being anglicized. In our case, Pereverzev became Perverseff although family members eventually adopted Pereverseff. Today, more than a hundred years later, the Russian pronunciation of names has often given way to anglicized versions.

With August approaching and half the summer gone, Vasily and the other new arrivals to Canada were understandably restless. Having heard of the harshness of western prairie winters, they were anxious to reach their new lands, build shelters in time to get through the inevitable snows and cold, and get on with their new life. To this end they formed into groups based mainly on extended family relationships. One group of some 20 families including the Perverseffs set off with wagons and on foot for a site nearly 40 miles west of Duck Lake. With a few horse-and-oxen-drawn wagons heaped with necessities they were part of the procession that marched to Carlton Ferry, crossed the North Saskatchewan River and entered the “Prince Albert Colony”. To the newcomers this was indeed a Promised Land where they and their faith might flourish. Little did they realize then that inevitable acculturation would modify and eventually replace traditional thinking and ways with Canadian thinking and ways. Once across the river, the different groups set off to the designated areas each was to settle.

The Promised Land

Let us retrace this migration and subsequent settlement as seen through the eyes of Grandfather Vanya and his son Jack, with manuscript-typist and cousin Mae Postnikoff joining in. In a memoir, Grandfather related that the Gorelovka villagers began their journey on a fresh April morning. They spent Easter Week in the Russian Black Sea port of Batum awaiting the May 12 departure of the S.S. Lake Huron, the Canadian ship taking them to Canada. Of the 2,300 Kars Doukhobors who made the voyage by sea and ocean, 23 did not survive the rough waters and meager diet. Reaching Quebec City at the beginning of June, the new arrivals were immediately subjected to a thirty-day quarantine on Grosse Isle in the St. Lawrence River to obviate any communicable disease spread. Ten days aboard Canadian Pacific Railway “colonial” rail cars with wooden benches to sit and sleep on brought the migrants by later-July via the still largely tent city of Saskatoon to Duck Lake, the seat of a Metis uprising 14 years earlier. There, immigration sheds housed them before they departed for their settlement sites.

With a few oxen and horses and wagons and a few cows in tow the group that included Grandfather’s family wended its way westward to a point approximately a mile and a half northeast of where the town of Krydor now stands. In a ravine near a small lake they stopped. Squatters now, the migrants dug holes in the ravine walls into which they thrust poles and used sod to complete rude huts. These first “homes”, not unlike the domiciles characteristic of some of their Asiatic neighbors in Russia, provided rough shelter. Grandfather wrote that “we lived about three years” in this “wild and desolate place…isolated in a strange and unfamiliar land”.

Vanya, Lusha and their son Jack photographed in Canada c. 1903. 

A creek ran through the ravine meandering across rolling prairie situated in the SE 26-44-8-W3. Men who could be spared were away railroad building or working on construction or for established farmers earning money for settlement needs. It fell to the womenfolk to break ground for gardens, manage the livestock and keep the village going. Many years later, the late Bill Lapshinoff, a relative whose farm was nearby, showed a friend and me where village women had dug a channel to provide water flow to turn a grist mill wheel. The channel lay in a copse of brush and poplar preserved from the effects of wind and water erosion. There is no one left to tell us now, but the new settlers presumably called this first village Gorelovka after their former home village in Russia.

Grandfather further wrote that things changed when the Doukhobor leader Peter “Lordly” Verigin arrived in Canada from Siberian exile late in 1902. He soon convinced his Doukhobor brethren to start living communally. New villages built would hold and work land in common sharing resources equally. Grandfather noted that “we began communal life which we had not been living before”. Grandfather’s revelation indicates that it was at this time that our forebears abandoned their original dugout settlement in 1902 to build the village of Bolshaya (Large) Gorelovka a mile or so north and a bit west. The word “Large” was needed to distinguish it from the nearby village of Malaya (Small) Gorelovka established at the same time. Both derived from the original dugout settlement. Goreloye, a diminutive form of the village name, was what my grandfolks called Bolshaya Gorelovka. The word Bolshaya was not used unless one needed to distinguish the village from Malaya Gorelovka.

Bolshaya Gorelovka or Goreloye was well situated. High bordering hills tree-covered in places offered shelter from the prevailing northwest wind. A ravine with a free flowing natural spring intersected the northwest corner of the village which ran in an approximate north-south direction for about three quarters of a mile. A large slough lay near the south end and sod from its environs provided roofing. The Fort Carlton-Fort Pitt trail ran east and west just north of the village.

The spring flowed year round providing water for household and livestock use. It ran northeasterly as a creek forming a muskeg that bordered a row of gardens including the Perverseff’s. An open area, where a Russian ball game called hilki was played by youngsters in summer and on hard-packed snow in winter, divided the village into two parts. Toward the north end on the east side stood a large community barn just to the north of which a shallow well had been dug where the creek flowed. A large wooden watering trough lay beside this depression. Here, old country innovation came into play. A stout pole sunk into the ground had attached to it a smaller pole with an arm that could swivel. A pail filled at the well and hung over the arm by its handle would be swung to the watering trough and there emptied. This beat having to physically carry the pail back and forth.

Vasily, in a traditional Russian coat, with his son Vanya and daughters Dunya and Hanya photographed in Canada c. 1903. 

An indoor, closed-in brick oven was built into the wall of each village house. Oven tops covered with blankets or coats made good resting places and in winter, ideal retreats from invading cold. Soon banyas (bath houses) that had been an Old Country fixture began to appear, one of the first built by William John Perverseff, as Vasily Ivanovich Pereverzev came to be known in Canada.

The land description on which Bolshaya Gorelovka or Goreloye village stood was the SW 35-44-8-W3, North-West Territories (Saskatchewan came into being three years later). While hilly benchland rimmed the west and north, the country east and south was flat or gently rolling prairie carpeted with fescue, spear and wheat grass knee high in places, and pocked with numerous sloughs and potholes. There were poplar groves and to the north, spruce was available. The soil was mainly good black loam. To the Perverseffs and their fellow settlers, this land truly held promise.

Cousin Mae picks up the narrative: "Grandfather Vanya was an admirer of education and he was the prime mover in establishing the first Canadian public school in their midst. He did attend school in Petrofka in winter months… around 1907. The teacher was Herman Fast who was… responsible for the English spelling of our surname… It was in this school that our grandfather… learned the rudiments of the English language… [and] to read the English newspapers and get the gist of the meaning."

Grandpa really did not have a good command of the English language, but he insisted on corresponding with the Department of Education through Uncle Jack after Uncle Jack started attending school in 1911. Before that, all business was transacted through a Ukrainian intellectual immigrant with old country higher education. His name was Joseph Megas…an organizer and field representative of the Department of Education….It was he who misnamed our school to Havrilowka, which later was corrected to "Haralowka"S, but still a far cry from Gorelovka or Goreloye.

By the fall of 1902, Bolshaya Gorelovka or Goreloye had taken shape, with the new pioneers sharing the tasks of village building and taming the wild land. Although many of the men-folk were away earning money, the work of building still got done with women pitching in to fill the manpower shortage. A belief that women were hitched to ploughs to till the fields is not true. Men using oxen ploughed the fields. However women, in pairs twenty strong, did pull a small one-furrow plough to break up garden ground.

Perverseff women and children grouped in front of the Gorelovka village family home in 1904. Vasily’s wife Elizaveta (Lisunya) stands at left, Lusha holds Agatha while Jack stands beside her, with sister-in-law Hanya at right.

Unlike other blocks of Doukhobor land elsewhere, the Prince Albert Colony allotment was in alternate sections. Canadian authorities were aware that the Kars Doukhobors were more individualistic than their brethren from other areas. These so-called “Independents” had been reluctant to go along with Verigin’s 1893 edict asking all Doukhobors not only to live communally but also to share all resource ownership in what amounted to Christian Communism. Alternate sections of land amidst other nationalities imbued with the spirit of individual enterprise fostered independent farmstead development instead of living in a central communal village – a notion the Doukhobors from Kars found attractive. But for the first dozen or so years communal living did prevail.

Village buildings were simple yet sturdy. Logs trimmed to form four-sided timbers made up the main framework. Clay, grass and other ingredients were mixed with water and treaded into a paste that was plastered on both the outside and inside of the timbered walls. Poles laid lengthwise on inverted v-shaped frames supported the roofing sod cut from the marshy margins of nearby sloughs. Grey/white calcimine covered the walls inside and helped waterproof them outside.

William’s home (starting from the street and working back) had a living room that also served as a bedroom, a kitchen, a verandah, a main bedroom, then a storage room, and a brick oven. Sod cut from the environs of a nearby slough covered the roof. Out back was the inevitable outhouse. Before long, William built a bath house patterned after those popular in Russia, and eventually a small blacksmith shop was erected. Since self sufficiency was an ingrained Doukhobor trait, the Perverseffs – like their neighbors – cultivated a large garden.

The Perverseffs and fellow immigrants soon added to their initial inventory of eight horses, five cows, four oxen, four wagons and three ploughs. Horses pulled the wagons; oxen, the ploughs.

Pioneering was at first extremely labour intensive. Grain was sown by hand broadcasting; mature crops were cut with scythes and sickles; grain was threshed by men and women wielding flails. William, good with his hands and mechanically inclined, made shovels and other needed tools and implements in his blacksmith shop. When Elizabeth (as Elizaveta came to be called) wanted a spinning wheel or Lucille (as Lusha was called in Canada) needed a garden hoe, William made them. Because money was needed to buy livestock and farm machinery, William’s son John joined other young men and walked to St. Lazare, Manitoba to work on the Grand Trunk Railway (see How the Doukhobors Build Railways). A picture taken in 1907 shows him with 18 other Doukhobor men in a work party.

When time permitted, Lucille and the other women earned money, too, gathering seneca root, considered to have medicinal benefits, and selling their fine needlework or trading it for things they needed.

John and Lucille began their Canadian family in 1901 when John Ivan “Jack” was born. Agatha (my mother) followed in 1904; Nicholas “Nick” in 1907, Nita in 1911, and Mary “Marion” in 1919. John and Lucille’s first-born daughter was lost in childbirth during the sea voyage to Canada. What became known as Haralowka School opened in 1911 three quarters of a mile southeast of the village and all five children went there, with Marion also attending a new, larger brick school erected a half mile north which opened in 1930.

This image of a Haralowka home was found among the Perverseff collection or pictures and may have been the family home. It is typical of those at the time–squared log construction, a plaster covering painted with calcimine and with a sod roof. A buggy or what was often called a “democrat” is parked beside the home.

Both Bolshaya and Malaya Gorelovka were reminiscent of old country mirs (communal villages in Russia), but they were short-lived, the villagers having abandoned them by 1920 to become individual landowners. However, the name continued in the form of Haralowka school district.


William and John were among the first villagers to file for their own land, the first in 1909 being 320 acres of scrip land that had been assigned to a Boer War veteran named Thomas J. Stamp. Its legal description was NW & NE 22-45-8-W3. Located some six miles to the northwest of the village, it was used primarily for grazing. In 1912, the SW 25-44-8-W3 was acquired and buildings were erected that served as a temporary base of operations. Other land subsequently added to the family holdings included the NW 25-44-8-W3, SE 31-44-8-W3 and NE 25-44-8-W3. An old land registry map shows the Perverseff home place on the NW 30-44-8-W3. Because Haralowka district Doukhobor settlers became sole land owners, they were referred to in Russian as farmli (individual farmers) and were no favorites of the Doukhobor leader, Peter Verigin. Lucille’s parents, on the other hand, joined more communally-minded Doukhobors migrating to British Columbia.

In 1909 William journeyed to Russia to bring back his newly-widowed mother Aksinya. According to Jon Kalmakoff’s research, they returned to Canada aboard the SS Kaiserin Auguste Victoria, sailing from Hamburg, Germany on November 4, 1909, arriving at New York, USA on November 13, 1909. Aksinya lived in the village for three years before passing away and was laid to rest in the tiny burial ground near the top of a hill just west of the village. “Bill” Lapshinoff, the owner of the village land in the 1990s, regretted that this original cemetery had eventually been ploughed over instead of being retained historically.

The Perverseffs on their homestead. Jack and Agatha at back, Nick beside seated Vanya, Lusha and Nita. Blaine Lake district, SK, c. 1914.

For their home place William and John chose a site at the northeast corner of the quarter with the erecting of farm buildings starting immediately. The main farmyard sloped on all sides near the southeast corner to a low point at which the base of the main garden started and where spring runoff advantageously settled. A fence divided the house, great grandfolk’s cottage, summer kitchen, a small grassed field, orchard and garden from the farm utility buildings. Open to the east, this spacious area of perhaps ten acres was bounded on the south, west, and north by a three row-spruce tree shelterbelt. A caragana-lined sidewalk led from the farmyard gate to the house.

The home Vanya and Lusha moved into in 1914 was modest, probably no more than 30 by 40 feet. The front porch, entered from the south, had two inner doors, one opening into the kitchen beyond which was the one bedroom; the other, into the large living room. A bookcase and writing desk constituted John’s study and there was a large table where meals were served. A couch in one corner doubled as my bed when I stayed as a child with my grandparents. A radio was turned on mainly for the news, although I recall listening Wednesday evenings to Herb Paul, the yodeling cowboy, his program originating from Winnipeg.

The impressive barn on the Perverseff family homestead near Blaine Lake, SK, c. 1921.

A cottage built just a few steps east of the main house was a comfortable haven for William and Elizabeth. They ate their meals with the rest of the family in the main house and during the warmer months of the year, in the summer kitchen.

While the house was modest, the barn started in 1921 was anything but. The largest in the district, it was a red-painted, hip-roof type boasting cement and plank flooring, plank stalls, a harness tack room with harness repair equipment, water cistern, large hayloft area, and an ample chop bin. The north side was extended to include a cow-barn/milking area, a box stall for small calves, and a cream separating room. The barn was completed in 1922 and if ever there was a status symbol in the Haralowka district, this was it.

Down a bit from the west entrance to the barn was a windmill-powered well beside which stood a big corrugated metal watering trough. The garden and orchard extended south and west. Just north of the garden and behind the well was a Russian style bath-house and just north of it was the blacksmith shop, complete with forge and foot-pedal-driven wood lathe, a marvel that William designed and built. A few yards further north was the root cellar, while a granary and chicken coop with fenced-in yard stood south of the barn.

Implement and storage sheds were northeast of the summer kitchen. A three-car brick garage built in 1927 housed sleeping quarters for hired men and a McLaughlin-Buick car. A tree-lined lane ran a hundred yards or so north to an east-west road. The natural lawn lying west of the house and extending north and south served as an outdoor recreational area. Slough willow and poplar sheltered the south side of the garden and orchard. John, with an eye for symmetry and order, could be justifiably proud of the impressive yard.

A Good Life

Hard work and good planning combined with good wheat prices during World War I brought prosperity. The meager assets with which the Perverseffs started out had multiplied many-fold. John emerged the master planner; William, the implementer. By 1930, with the Great Depression still around the corner, they presided over a successful farming operation, with a complete line of farm machinery. They had a section of land under cultivation; three hired men during the busiest times and a hired girl when Lucille needed extra help. Cree Indian men from the nearby Muskeg Reserve signed on during fall threshing to haul sheaves and field pitch.

On the farm at any one time would be up to ten milking cows, at least eight draft horses, and a fast team of matched sorrels kept for buggy and cutter use. Selling cream and eggs provided extra income that helped tide the family over during the cash-strapped Depression years of the 1930s.

Grandfather Vanya was inordinately proud of the family’s white stallion, Safron, seen here pulling a buggy, c. 1908.

In the rhythm of farm life, seeding and harvesting took precedence over all else. Social activities followed the then-current rural pattern: visiting with relatives and friends, attending marriages and funerals, and going regularly to sobranya, first in a rural dom, a hall built for gatherings a half mile east of the farmstead; later in the town of Blaine Lake, ten miles east. Cream and eggs were delivered to Tallman, a hamlet three miles southeast, where mail was picked up and cream cans retrieved.

The main event of the year was Peter’s Day, held every June 29. It was essentially a commemoration of the trials and tribulations the Doukhobors had endured in Russia. There were prayers and the air swelled harmoniously with the a cappella singing of psalms and resonated with voices raised in discourse on the Doukhobor faith. A huge tent holding more than a hundred people was set up on grounds just southeast of Blaine Lake and a carnival atmosphere prevailed especially for the younger children who would absent themselves from the tent to play. A noon meal, served picnic style, consisted of such fare as pie-like cheese and fruit peroshki, crepe-like bliny, boiled eggs, fresh bread and fruit, especially arbus (watermelon), a universal Doukhobor favorite, if available. Life was good!

The Perverseffs did not smoke, drink alcohol, or eat meat but a diet rich in garden-grown vegetables and their own dairy products made for healthy eating. Vegetable borsch (a heavy soup), bread and cheese were staples, eaten pretty well daily.

About 1935, William and John acquired land near Blaine Lake for John’s son Nick to farm. I was present when John negotiated with the owner, Senator Byron Horner. A handshake sealed the deal – unlike today no lawyers were needed then to oversee an agreement between men whose word was their bond.

Perverseff family portrait, 1919. At back Agatha and Jack; in front, Vanya, Nita, Lusha (holding Marion) and Nick.

In 1935 William’s wife Elizabeth died. Casting further gloom was the Great Depression, the so-called Dirty Thirties, now firmly entrenched. The bottom had dropped out of wheat prices. Grasshopper and army worm infestations plagued the farmland. Only “empties” going by, a wry allusion to rainless dark clouds, conspired with wicked winds to rearrange quarter sections and penetrate homes, layering windowsills and floors with fine dust. Planted fields baked dry had to be ploughed over. Talk about good times and bad – these were really bad!


Back in Tangleflags, Saskatchewan – where I lived with my parents in the late 1920’s and early 1930s – folks didn’t find the Depression quite so severe. There was more moisture – less than everyone would have liked – but enough to produce some grain, and livestock pastured better. I didn’t think anything was really out of the ordinary before we left the area in October of 1935. My friend Vernon Dubay would come over to play. I poled my raft on the lake. I walked to school or rode double on horseback with Dad or Mother or sometimes a visiting aunt. Grace Harbin, a spinster, taught at Tangleflags School, and I once penciled a rather good likeness of her attractive niece, Betty, who sat in front of me.

Born on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1926, I won a prize in the fall as “baby of the year” in a weekly newspaper contest and still wonder how such a chubby, round-faced little cherub could have been selected. Francis “Frank” Henry James Philips, an English immigrant farmer, and Agatha (nee Perverseff) had married in Lashburn at friends Bob and Dorie Sanderson’s place on December 26, 1924 and I was their first child.

I’ve speculated about why Agatha married Frank. Having attended university (Education) she was at that time considered well educated (especially for a Doukhobor). Frank wasn’t. She had mastered two languages. He knew only one. She had a quick mind. His was more plodding and his prospects didn’t really reach beyond farming. So! Was it pity for the underdog? Did she feel sorry for him because of his physical handicap (he was missing one arm)? Did his cheerfully and successfully forging ahead in the face of odds win her heart. Did his fine baritone singing voice move her? Why is something I really cannot answer.

This most glamorous image of Agatha is thought to have been taken just after she graduated from what was then called “Normal School” in April of 1924. She was immediately hired to teach for the remainder of the school year in rural Tangleflags, SK.

As the schoolteacher at Tangleflags, Agatha gained quick entree into the community. Her pupils brought her in touch with their parents and community functions with eligible bachelors usually in attendance. Just shy of eight months from the time she met Frank, they married and his little bungalow was their first home. In January, 1925 she started teaching at North Gully, close to 15 miles southwest from our place shortcutting across country. She rode Satin, a fine saddle pony, to a farmstead near North Gully School where she boarded during the week.

On one occasion, as she would later recall, Satin, likely feeling bored, decided to jump Cook’s gate [a quarter mile from our place and the beginning of the cross country shortcut]. “Bob Oswell was rounding up his horses nearby and saw me fall. He galloped over to render assistance but I was back on Satin before he reached me.” Falling off horses happened frequently in those days and it’s a wonder more people weren’t badly hurt. Satin’s faithful companion and Mother’s was Bob, a dog of mixed heritage but good character. Whenever she tethered Satin, Bob always stayed close by until they were off again.

Frank concentrated on building a proper house, and proper it truly was, the first in Tangleflags to have hardwood floors, occasioning some neighbor women to consider Mother “spoiled”. Agatha quit teaching in December and she and Frank moved into the new home the beginning of January, 1926, with me arriving a month and a half later. Agatha’s sisters Nita and Marion Perverseff came to visit in the ensuing years, and Mother chummed with a Miss Thom and Phoebe Mudge from Paradise Hill. By 1930, we had a piano in the house and a tennis court outside.

One was practically born in the saddle in those days and I was quite at home riding horseback by the time I was six. The only problem was getting on; but a fence or corral pole or anything a couple of feet high answered well enough. By the time I could ride, Frank had sold Satin and acquired Phyllis, a mare in foal who soon gave us Star, a black colt named for the white patch on his forehead. In the warm months I’d ride Phyllis to herd our cattle on Crown grassland a half mile northeast of our place. Influenced no doubt by tales of the Old West, I trained Phyllis to dig in her front feet and “stop on a dime”. If we were moving quickly and I yelled whoa, I’d have to brace myself or go for a tumble. Once, I did. I chased a gopher taking a zigzag course over the prairie. When it disappeared down a hole, I excitedly yelled whoa, and forgetting to brace myself, flew over Phyllis’ head as she stopped abruptly. I was seven at the time; my young bones were pliant, and thankfully the prairie wasn’t too hard; my feelings were the most damaged.

Frank, Agatha and “Old Bob” standing in front of the new farmhouse the couple moved into in January of 1926 at Tangleflags, SK.

Once summoned, other childhood memories flood back, jostling for attention.

Bob Oswell, whose folks farmed up in the hills southwest of us, was my idea of a cowboy. Bob always wore a beat-up old ten-gallon hat and had trained a white pony named Smokey to rear up on its hind legs when he mounted it. Watching Smokey rear up and then gallop away, Bob firmly in the saddle with a rifle in a scabbard strapped to it, convinced me to become a cowboy. But once in a long while an airplane would fly over and I’d change my mind. I figured piloting a plane was even better than being a cowboy. I even went so far as to build what vaguely resembled a plane with boards and logs in back of the old bungalow. Then I’d walk up a nearby hill to watch it get smaller, the way planes did in the sky.

Once, Frank let me plough a furrow right across a field by myself. Actually, the horses were so conditioned to this work that they needed no guidance. Still, I held the reins and kicked the foot rod that raised the ploughshares up and that released them when we’d turned around. I was pretty proud of myself and thought maybe I’d be a farmer.

I changed my mind when I fell off a straw stack. Frank was loading straw onto a hayrack and I, not paying proper attention, missed my footing and tumbled off the stack crashing down on my back. That hurt! Farming was proving to be dangerous.

Another incident altered my thinking about being a cowboy. On one occasion Aunt Marion Perverseff rode Phyllis to fetch me from school and for some reason Phyllis didn’t take kindly to riding double that day. She bucked and I fell off, much, I imagine, to the amusement of the other children.

I was fortunate to have a sister, if only for a short while. Her given names were Lorna Ruth and Agatha always remembered her as “my golden-haired girl”. Though she was more than two years younger than me, we were pretty good companions. She was my chum and we played together, happily most of the time but not without the odd sibling tiff.

Frank, Agatha, Roger and newly-born Lorna pose for a family portrait in 1928 at Tangleflags, SK.

Lorna fell dreadfully ill in the dead of winter. The last day or two before the end of January, 1933, a doctor snow-planed out from Lloydminster and took her back with him. Her death from peritonitis February 2 broke Mother’s heart and fanned the spark of a hitherto embryonic paranoia that gradually grew more troublesome and consumed her last years. I stayed with Cook’s, our closest neighbors, while Frank and Agatha were at Lorna’s hospital bedside and when they got home and told me Lorna was now with God and that I wouldn’t see her again, a terrible weight settled on me. I’ve since experienced many deaths amongst family and friends, but none that hurt more.

I wasn’t crazy about school, but I liked recess. One of our main amusements was a maypole-like swing with several chains having rungs to cling to that dangled from a rotating disk at the top of the steel pole. One person who was “it” would take his or her chain in a circle around all the other chains to which children clung. Then the youngsters would race around the pole with whoever was “it” flying high in the air. It was great fun and my turn could never come soon enough. But one day when it did, disaster struck. I was flung out and around so furiously that my hands slipped off the chain rung and my now uncharted flight path brought me into contact with a nearby woodpile. Somehow a nail gashed my skull which bled so profusely that some of the kids figured I was “sure a goner”. I survived, bloody and somewhat bowed.

In the 1930s for a few years a troop of Boy Scouts summer camped across the lake in front of Cook’s. The boys were from Lloydminster and possibly Lashburn and Marshall. Island Lake was likely chosen for this outing because it was so buoyant that drowning was practically impossible. In the evenings, if the wind was right, we could hear the boys singing around a campfire and see flames leaping into the air. I thought being a Boy Scout was alright and maybe I’d try it when I got old enough.

On the farm we grew or raised part of what we ate. We had a large garden which mostly gave us potatoes. Occasionally we’d slaughter a pig or a beef. I usually wasn’t around when that happened but the year before we left the farm, I was. I knew we were going to kill a pig and wanted no part of it. When a man Dad hired to help arrived, I headed down to the lake. Suddenly there was an awful squeal and I knew the pig was dying.

Agatha with Lorna and Roger in front of the Tangleflags house in 1932.

Grassland was needed for grazing when I was little, and there was more of it then than now. More grass meant more prairie fires and there was a bad one when I was about five. It burned to within a couple hundred yards of our place and I remember men with faces and hands smeared black from fighting it dropping in for coffee and sandwiches or heading for the dipper in the water pail. The lake probably saved us, both in cutting off the direct line of the blaze and being so handy a source for water to wet gunny sacking used to beat the flames. I was too young to comprehend what a close call we had. Instead, I childishly found the rush of activity exciting.

One tends to remember certain people. As a councilman for Britania Rural Municipality No. 502 our neighbor Joe Cook was out and about a lot in the district. He’d come riding by in his buggy, whip in one hand, reins in the other. His big walrus moustache made him quite imposing, even a bit fearsome. I rather fancied his good-looking daughter Joan, maybe because she always beat me when we raced on horseback. But she was older and paid me no mind.

British accents attested to the strong English influence in the community where the men smoked pipes and played cricket. There were garden parties, and you watched how you held your little finger when you sipped your tea. Since the sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the sons, I, like Dad, smoked a pipe when I grew up. Eventually, though, I gave up pipe smoking as a bad habit.

I always paid heed when Bob Oswell’s dad passed in his wagon going to Bob’s place. He was built stocky, “strong as a bull”, my father said, and it seemed to me that he always scowled. And his Tyne-sider’s accent was so strong and his voice so raspy that I never understood a word he said. He was a good enough neighbor but his gruff manner told me to steer clear of him.

Nip and Tuck were a pair of greys that Dad treasured. They were big horses, Clydesdales probably, and powerful. I would watch them strain and see their muscles ripple as they pulled a wagonload of wheat up the steep hill a half mile south of our place. It was a treat to accompany Frank to Hillmond for these trips usually promised hard candy in Arthur Rutherford’s general store. I remember coyote skins hanging on a store wall – each had brought someone a $25.00 bounty. Coyotes chased bad little boys, I’d been told, but they didn’t seem so scary now.

On one Hillmond trip Bob spooked a deer with a good rack of antlers. He chased it across the road right in front of us and got a futile but good workout. This was near the Allen’s and I’d always watch hard when we passed their place. They were reputedly a “rough bunch” but I never saw anything untoward. One of the Allen girls later became a policewoman in Edmonton so I guess they weren’t so bad.

Frank, Agatha, Roger and cousin Joan Perverseff photographed in Saskatoon in 1935.

We used to have dances in Tangleflags School. I don’t recall that much about them. I’d sit on Mother’s knee. I remember once that she wore a black dress. There was other entertainment -singing, mostly. Frank was a regular in this department and always got a lot of applause when he sang old favorites like Climb Upon My Knee Sonny Boy and My Wild Irish Rose. Mother didn’t like it when some woman would go up and congratulate him.

That was one thing about Agatha. She was possessive. If Frank even looked at another woman, it upset her and she’d let him know about it. When I look back now, it seems she carried her distrust of other women to extremes. I’m convinced she’d only have been happy if Frank were actually rude to them. She was strong willed to the point of being dictatorial sometimes no doubt thinking her education (allowedly good for a woman of her time) had prepared – nay entitled – her to tell others what to do. In our realm she decided the course of events, exerting her will in everything except farm finance. Frank made it clear when they married that he would “wear the pants in the family” when it came to money matters, and he did.

Living on a farm we may have lacked some city life niceties but there were still refinements. Agatha had a piano to play and was middling good on our tennis court even sometimes beating Jack Hickman who was no slouch. The one thing Mother seemed to enjoy most in life was talking philosophy. Having Alfred Abraham, a student minister stay with us one summer, gave her unlimited opportunities. The poor young cleric must have grown weary of fending off her intellectual parries.

That was something else about Agatha – her intelligence. She had a fine memory and a mind able to manipulate and exploit what she had learned. She may not have been a genius, but I think she came closer to that than most of us. One has to wonder if there isn’t a grain of truth in the old straw that genius stands next to madness; if not Mother’s quick mind had become a nursery where paranoia took root and grew.

Lorna’s death broke Mother, who became convinced that the Tangleflags farm was cursed. There was nothing for it but to move to Haralowka where her folks would help us make a new start. This running away from a situation of growing torment became a pattern as Agatha’s paranoia worsened. A new setting initially worked wonders but in time her nerves would start bothering her and the cycle would repeat itself. Frank resisted the idea of selling out and moving but Agatha’s will prevailed. The farm auction went well enough but we had to rent our land which didn’t sell. It was now the beginning of October, 1935, and with our house empty, we slept the night at Dubay’s. The next day our Model T Ford car carried us into a new life chapter.

A young Roger launches a flying model airplane he built.

Leaving the West Saskatchewan farm he had built up out of the wilderness and the people he had come to know so well was a wrenching experience for Father. Even though the Perverseffs welcomed us with open arms and open hearts and even though they would have helped us make a fresh start with land and equipment, Frank was sorely troubled. Nurturing a growing independence and self-reliance, he’d become a successful pioneer farmer in Tangleflags—made it on his own; was what the English so prided, a self-made man. And now the thought of accepting charity (for that’s how he saw it) was too much.

Then there was Mother’s affliction. Temporarily at bay in the first weeks in Haralowka, the paranoia that tormented her would return. Frank may not have known then the precise medical term for what she had but he knew the toll it took—how miserable it made life for Agatha and those around her.

There was more. Word came from England that his Mother was dying and his Father was seriously ill. Everything, it seemed, was conspiring against him. Separation resulted with Frank going to England and Mother’s restless spirit soon taking her to California.


Now nine years old, I entered what I call my Russian phase, experiencing Doukhobor/Russian culture in Haralowka as an unuk (grandson in Russian). Meanwhile, Mother sampled work life in California, first as a day nurse to a Mrs. Strictland, next as governess to a Hollywood movie director’s daughter, then as personal assistant to Madam Boday, a Los Angeles dowager. In turn she became a confidant to Julia Edmunds, a leader in the Oxford Group movement, then a teacher at Harding Military Academy where a fellow teacher was nominally a prince of the long since deposed Bourbon family. Prince Bruce de Bourbon de Conde was then simply a commissioned U.S. Army officer. Like Agatha, Captain Conde had an adventurous spirit and after World War II service in Europe, ended up as an administrator in the Arab Emirates where intrigue brought him to an untimely end.

A nine-year-old learns quickly and I was soon able to speak Russian with Grandmother at an elementary level – things like, “I’m hungry”, “I wish to have water”, “shall I fetch the eggs”, “where are we going?”, “When do you want me to get the cows”, “give me”, “here”, “I want to sleep”, and (I remember ruefully now) “please give me money”. I later became friends with a second cousin named Sam “Sammy” Perverseff. His family lived a quarter mile east of us and in the winter time I would ride to school with him on his horse-drawn stone-boat. Sammy introduced me to a lot more Russian, mostly words and phrases embracing life’s seamier side. A few years older than me, taller, and good-looking, Sammy was something of a Don Juan.

My Aunt Marion was still at home when we arrived in Haralowka, but her days there were numbered, for an Edward Postnikoff was courting her and they soon married. Edward was a likely young man but poor as a church mouse. Courting wasn’t all that easy then. He had to peddle the twenty-some miles from Petrofka on a bicycle to see Marion. But he had the right stuff and with a little help from Grandfather, became a successful farmer in the district.

Roger playing baseball at Jarvis Collegiate in Toronto in 1941.

Great Grandfather William and Great Grandmother Elizabeth had lived contentedly together in their little cottage. Since Elizabeth passed away soon after we arrived, I barely got to know her. Agatha, who looked after her the last while, said she was a very wise and practical woman. To the extent that the goodness of parents can have a bearing on the way their children turn out, William and Elizabeth were truly good people and John, their son and my Grandfather, bore excellent witness to that.

William suffered through his loss and carried on. Friends came initially to commiserate and later to visit. Grandfather Samirodin with his bristling, Russian Cossack-like moustache was one who came regularly. Well into his eighties, he would walk the three miles across snow-laden fields to our place and he and William would greet each another with kisses on each cheek and traditional words praising God. His advanced age walking prowess bore testimony to the health benefits of a lifetime diet of borshch and other Doukhobor staples and the rigors of good, hard work in the outdoors.

In 1937 I stayed a short while with my Uncle Jack (Dr. J.I. Perverseff), Aunt Anne, and their daughters Joan and Dorothy at their Avenue V South home. For the brief time I was in Saskatoon I attended Pleasant Hill School. It was a short walk from Uncle Jack’s and one day as I passed the Hamms (Uncle Jack’s neighbors) their German Shepherd grabbed my lunch and trotted off with it. Mrs. Hamm saw this and brought me a couple of sandwiches in a big basin. The Hamms may have been poor folk with rough edges, but I’ll always remember Mrs. Hamm as a good-hearted woman.

The Principal at Pleasant Hill School was Sam Trerice. It happened that the Trerices were friends of Mother’s and had spent a summer holiday with us in Tangleflags. Fortunate that was for me, because I soon got into a school fight that Sam, himself, broke up. The other poor fellow was grabbed by the ear and hauled off for rough justice while I went scot free. The lesson I learned from this experience was that in life it wasn’t so much what you knew (or did) but who you knew that counted.

We didn’t have television back in the “Thirties”. About the only time one listened to the radio was to hear the news. I was too young to be interested. We did have fun, though. In winter kids would get together to play street hockey or “shinnie”; in summer, cowboys and Indians. This latter activity was eminently fair and politically correct. Some days more Indians got killed; other days, more cowboys.

Roger and his Haralowka buddy Sammy Perverseff, a second cousin.

I was soon back with my Grandparents and attending Haralowka School. Muriel Borisinkoff, Sammy’s cousin, taught there and it wasn’t long before I discovered how good she was with the strap. Big Paul Greva and I were having a dustup about midway between the school and the barn when Bill Samirodin, a school trustee, drove up to fetch his daughter. Paul and I ceased hostilities and stood like innocents watching as Bill drove by. But it was too late. He had seen us fighting and amusingly commented to Muriel about her unruly pupils. That really stung a hard taskmaster who prided herself on her discipline. Summoned to the school, Paul was strategically in tears and I tried to feign innocence as we entered the side door. The situation was bleak. With tears streaming down Paul’s cheeks, Muriel took out the wrath she would have devoted to him on me – along with my share. In time the strap was outlawed in Saskatchewan schools, but I can attest to having intimately known its application before that happened.

If kindness was a Perverseff trait, then I was blessed. William and Lucille treated me like a favorite son. They fed me well and clothed me warmly. On Saturdays I would get the huge sum of 25 cents to spend in Blaine Lake where folks from the country gathered to buy groceries, attend to other matters, or just visit. I would go to town with John and Lucille or with Sammy and his folks. Later, a Tallman elevator man put a bare bicycle together for me – bare because it lacked handlebar grips, fenders and a chain guard, but it was transportation. Grandfather paid seven dollars for it and I surely got his money’s worth.

Life wasn’t all fun. I had to fetch the cows, help milk, turn the cream separator, and churn the butter. I’d also gather the eggs, carry wood to the house, help clean the barn and do other sundry chores. Sometimes when I was out in the yard around sundown, I would hear Grandmother whistle in an odd way. It was to keep the vadema (bad spirits) away, she said. I don’t know if it worked but I never saw the need for it myself.

A Roundtrip to the Homeland: Doukhobor Remigration to Soviet Russia in the 1920s

by Vadim Kukushkin

Following the Russian Revolution, an increasing number of Doukhobors in Canada began to turn their eyes to their homeland, where momentous changes were taking place. Many had never completely abandoned the dream of returning to the land of their birth. To this end, between 1922 and 1926, forty Independent Doukhobor families from the Veregin, Kamsack and Pelly districts of Saskatchewan remigrated to the Soviet Union. Their aim was to help their homeland to establish the new life following the Revolution. Settling in the Melitopol district of the Ukrainian province of Zaporozhye, they established two villages and formed the Independent Canadian Doukhobor Collective Farm, using modern farm machinery brought from Canada. The resettlement flourished until 1927, when the young men received calls to serve in the Soviet army. Refusing to bear arms, the Doukhobors hastily sold their homes and machinery and returned to Canada. In this Doukhobor Genealogy Website exclusive, Dr. Vadim Kukushkin chronicles the promise and failure of the Doukhobor remigration to Soviet Russia in the 1920s. 

By the end of the First World War, Canadian Doukhobors were in a state of flux. In a climate of instability and increasing pressure for assimilation and conformity, many Doukhobors wondered if Canada was indeed the land where they could freely pursue their way of life. Various resettlement schemes began to float within the community. An increasing number of Doukhobors, including Peter Verigin himself, began to turn their eyes to the homeland, where momentous changes were taking place. Despite their economic success in Canada, the Doukhobors never abandoned the idea of returning to Russia. Similar to other diaspora groups, they saw their Canadian exile as a temporary condition to be followed by an eventual return to the land of their ancestors. Throughout the years of emigration, the dream of return was kept alive in Doukhobor songs and oral tradition.

The Russian revolution of February 1917 for the first time made the idea of return a feasible one. By doing away with the tsarist monarchy and proclaiming the freedom of religion, it removed the greatest obstacle that stood in the way of moving back to the homeland. In a telegram dated 27 March 1917, Peter Verigin informed Russia’s Provisional Government of ten thousand Doukhobors “willing to return to Russia as good farmers and horticulturalists.” The Russian authorities reacted favourably, although they balked at the idea of exempting the returning Doukhobors from military service at a time when Russia was straining all its resources to fight the war. Before any practical scheme could be worked out, however, the Provisional Government was brought down by the Bolshevik coup of October 1917.

While more research is needed on Doukhobors’ attitudes to the Russian revolutions of 1917, the new Soviet government clearly had the support of at least a certain part of the community, which viewed the collectivist and internationalist tenets of the Communist doctrine as similar to Doukhobor teachings. Russian revolutionary songs such as Otrechemsya ot starogo mira (Let Us Renounce the Old World) and others had entered the Doukhobor song repertoire. Although the idea of return circulated through all segments of Canada’s Doukhobor community, interest in Soviet Russia was strongest among the approximately 7,000 Independent Doukhobors, who lived in several compact clusters in eastern Saskatchewan (around Kamsack, Verigin, Pelly and Buchanan) and western Manitoba (Benito).

As early as February 1920, the Independent Doukhobors of Kamsack inquired with immigration authorities in Ottawa about sending delegates to Soviet Russia to “ascertain what the conditions are there” and find ways of giving aid to their suffering brethren in the Caucasus region. The idea had to be postponed, however, until political situation in Russia became less volatile. During the next two years, the prospects of return and the election of delegates to Russia remained the subject of heated debates at Doukhobor community meetings. In March 1921, the Independents sent a letter to the Soviet government, which hailed the “dawn of freedom [which] shines in our motherland” and asked for admission to Russia. To deal with the issues of remigration, they established the Immigration Committee, responsible to the Community of Independent Doukhobors.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870-1924). The Soviet leader took a keen interest in the remigration of Doukhobors from Canada.

For their part, the Bolshevik leadership showed a considerable interest in Russian pacifist sects who had been victimized by the tsarist government, viewing them as potential allies in the building of the new social order. Doukhobors, Molokans, Old Believers and other Russian sectarians were seen as “natural” communists, even if their communism was rooted in religion rather than scientific Marxism. To secure the sectarians’ support of the new regime, Soviet decrees of 1 January 1919 and 14 February 1920 exempted them from military service provided they proved the conscientious nature of their refusal to carry arms and abstained from anti-Soviet agitation. Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin showed a personal interest in the matter. In August 1921, he instructed officials who dealt with the Doukhobor petition for admission to “give permission immediately and respond with extreme courtesy”. In October the same year, the Soviet government established a Commission for Settlement of State Farms, Unoccupied Lands and Former Estates with Sectarians and Old Believers (known as Orgkomsekt). The Commission issued an appeal To Sectarians and Old Believers Residing in Russia and Abroad, which invited victims of tsarist religious persecution to return and contribute to Russia’s agricultural development. The document was penned by Vladimir Bonch-Bruevich, a Russian folklorist involved in arranging the Doukhobor migration to Canada and now a high-ranking Soviet official.

The Doukhobors’ well-known experience in cooperative mechanized farming made them a highly desirable class of returnees. Facing a shortage of capital and skilled workforce, the Soviet state sought the help of Russian emigrant workers and farmers willing to contribute their American-acquired knowledge, money and resources to the economic rebirth of the country. Soviet policy towards returning emigrants was defined in a series of decrees passed in 1921-22, which welcomed the arrival of farming and industrial collectives (increasingly referred to as “communes”), organized in consultation with Moscow. Such collectives were required to bring enough supplies and machinery (as well as foodstuff and clothing) to run a collective farm or an industrial establishment without taxing the scant resources of the Soviet state. Machinery and goods imported by the communes into the Soviet Union were admitted duty-free.

Responsibility for coordinating the movement of immigrant communes to the Soviet republics was vested in the Permanent Commission for the Regulation of Industrial and Agricultural Immigration. The Society of Technical Aid to Soviet Russia, organized in 1919 by a group of Russian emigrants in New York, did the practical recruitment work in Canada and the United States. Its functions also included purchasing supplies and machinery for the departing groups and taking care of transportation and visa matters. In 1922-23, the Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal branches of the Society organized three Ukrainian-Canadian agricultural groups, which settled on the steppes of Southern Ukraine.

Because of Doukhobors’ geographical and cultural isolation, they were a harder target for remigration agitators than were Russian and Ukrainian immigrants who lived in major urban centres. From the beginning, the Society focussed its attention on the Independents, whose pro-Soviet leanings were known in New York and Moscow and who had already gone further than Community Doukhobors towards arranging a move to the homeland. In mid-1922, the Society’s Central Bureau reported to Moscow that despite the “individualist” farming practices that set the Independents apart from Community Doukhobors, with due care they “could be steered towards communalist or cooperative landholding”.

In July 1922, a meeting of Independent Doukhobors in Kamsack elected Larion Taranoff and Vasily Potapoff, a former associate of Peter Verigin who had broken with his leader, as delegates to Soviet Russia to survey potential settlement locations and negotiate a relocation scheme. They carried a list of 281 families prepared to move immediately and a petition of to the Soviet government, in which the Doukhobors requested an opportunity to “choose one of the unoccupied tracts of land in the southern part of Russia, where [they] could practice wheat farming and horticulture”. The petition also asked for “full and absolute” exemption from military service and the right of religious instruction for Doukhobor children.

Potapoff and Taranoff spent three months touring Russian and Ukrainian provinces and meeting with Soviet officials, including the head of the All-Russian Executive Committee Mikhail Kalinin and the influential Commissar of Foreign Trade Leonid Krasin. They were especially impressed with the fertile plains in the Salsk district of Southern Russia, which already had several settlements of Doukhobors who had moved there in 1921-22 from the Caucasus. The Soviet authorities, however, refused to grant the Salsk lands to Canadian Doukhobors on the grounds that these lands had been reserved for commercial horse breeding.

Instead, the Doukhobor delegates were offered a tract in the Melitopol district of the Ukrainian province of Zaporozhye, close to the old Doukhobor settlements on the Milky River. The area already had several villages populated by Russian Doukhobors who had recently relocated from the Caucasus. Each Doukhobor family returning from Canada was to receive 43 acres of land as individual property and the same amount under a thirty-year lease. The land was to be held in reserve until settlement was completed. The Doukhobors were also promised exemption from military service, a three-year release from property taxes, and the freedom to choose individual, cooperative or communal form of farming at their own discretion. All business aspects of the relocation (the purchase of agricultural machinery and supplies, travel and passport arrangements) were to be handled by the Central Bureau of the Society for Technical Aid to Soviet Russia in New York.

By April 1923, the remigration movement was underway. The first party of the returnees, totalling 22 people, left on 11 April 1923 from New York along with several other agricultural groups from Canada and the United States. Their destination was Liepaja – a Latvian port which served as the main gateway to the USSR for returning immigrants. The total cost of belongings they took to Russia was a mere $2,000. The group also owned about $5,800 in cash. On arrival to Zaporozhye, the returnees founded a village, which they named Pervoye Kanadskoye (First Canadian), obviously believing that it would be followed by others.

Canadian Doukhobor emigrants to the Soviet Union on board the SS Empress of Scotland, Sept. 15, 1926. Photo courtesy Koozma J. Tarasoff.

Canada’s plummeting real estate market became a major obstacle to the further progress of the return movement. In the early 1920s, the price of developed farmland fell to $25-30 per acre, which in many cases did not cover even the original purchase price, to say nothing of later investments. In the summer of 1923, the Society for Technical Aid to Soviet Russia began negotiations with Northwestern Trust Company about a bulk sale of the Doukhobor lands at $25 per acre, but no agreement was reached. The fact that many farms were mortgaged was an additional difficulty. In search of a solution, the Doukhobor Immigration Committee asked the Soviet government for a credit of $2,000,000 to buy out their lands, but Moscow had no funds available for the Doukhobors.

More important for dampening Doukhobors’ enthusiasm for resettlement were the warning signs that began to come from Russia with letters and stories from the first returnees. Anton Popoff, Alex Horkoff and John Malakhoff – three “scouts” who made a round-trip to Russia in 1924 in order to investigate conditions at Melitopol – painted a bleak picture of life in Soviet Ukraine, sowing further doubts in the minds of potential returnees. The delegates spoke of the “poverty, misery and despair” in the villages populated by Caucasian Doukhobors and local Ukrainian peasants. A visit to Moscow left them with an impression that “Russia had abandoned God”, that “Jews entirely hold the rule over the country of the Soviet Union”, and that any opposition to Communism was rooted out with an iron hand.

Contradictory reports from the USSR added more fuel to the debates among the Independent Doukhobors. The community became divided into the “radical” and “conservative” factions. The “radicals”, led by Potapoff, George Podovinnikoff (the secretary of the Immigration Committee) and Andrew Konkin, insisted on proceeding with the resettlement scheme. The “conservatives” – Peter Vorobieff, N. Morozoff, John Dergausoff and Doukhobor lawyer Peter Makaroff – advocated a more cautious approach and took Soviet promises with a grain of salt. The majority of the latter group came from a better-established part of the Doukhobor community, while the radicals had little to lose in Canada.

In this situation, relentless propaganda remained the only way to keep remigration going. During 1923-25, three members of the Society for Technical Aid’s Central Bureau were dispatched from New York to agitate for resettlement in the Doukhobor communities of Saskatchewan, Manitoba and British Columbia.

There were home-grown agitators as well: Boris Sachatoff and Victor Kavtaradze – two Russian immigrants of non-Doukhobor extraction who lived in Kamsack. Both were somewhat shadowy characters, whose backgrounds and status in the Doukhobor community remain little known. Sachatoff was a Russian Jew who had converted to Leo Tolstoy’s teachings and married a Doukhobor woman. He came to Canada via the United States and made a living as a real estate agent, watchmaker and owner of a jewellery store in Kamsack. Kavtaradze (also known as Kaft) was a Georgian, who boarded with Sachatoff and worked as a teacher at the local Russian-language school. He had a bad reputation with the RCMP, who considered him a “dangerous agitator” and possibly a Soviet agent, who received money from Moscow. Well-educated and amicable, Sachatoff and Kavtaradze had apparently managed to earn the respect of the local Doukhobors and had considerable authority in the community. By late 1923, however, Sachatoff lost interest in Russia and, along with Verigin and a group of other Doukhobors, became an ardent supporter of resettlement to Mexico. For several months, the Mexican project was floated in the community but failed to attract considerable interest.

The propaganda efforts apparently had some effect, although the movement of the Doukhobors to Russia remained at levels well below initial expectations. In February 1924, the second party of returnees – 23 Doukhobor farmers from the Kamsack area – left Canada for the homeland. They travelled through Constantinople to Odessa with $5,000 in cash and the same amount in property. In late January 1925, a third group, numbering 14 people from Kamsack and Pelly, headed for Melitopol. The Soviet authorities, however, grew increasingly frustrated with the slow progress of the Doukhobor resettlement. The land tracts near Melitopol, calculated to accommodate 2,000 Doukhobor families, remained idle and had to be leased to local peasants. In July 1926, Ivan Kulyk, deputy trade representative of the USSR in Canada, travelled to western Canada to gather first-hand information about the prospects of further remigration and try to breathe new life into the sagging recruitment campaign. Kulyk’s conversations with the Doukhobors revealed that only 100 families still seriously considered moving to the USSR.

The actual number of the returnees turned out to be even smaller. In the late summer of 1926, 17 more Doukhobor families from Kamsack, Pelly and Verigin (57 people in total) sold their land to the Ukrainian Immigration and Colonization Association of Edmonton and on 15 September sailed off to Russia. The newcomers settled apart from the earlier arrivals in the newly founded village of Vozdvizhenka (from vozdvizhenie – Russian for “exaltation”). With the arrival of this group, organized Doukhobor emigration to Russia all but ceased, although individual families continued to arrive as late as August 1927.

The precise statistics of Canadian Doukhobors who returned to Russia between 1923-27 is difficult to establish – neither the Canadian nor the Soviet government appear to have kept a complete tally of the returnees. According to a Soviet survey of immigrant agricultural communes conducted in July 1925, only 72 Doukhobors (probably excluding children) had returned to the USSR by that time. Adding the 57 people that came in 1926 and perhaps about a dozen later arrivals, we can estimate that probably no more than 160-180 Doukhobors (children included) participated in the entire return movement. Genealogist Jonathan Kalmakoff has found that the majority of the returnees had not arrived in Canada in 1899 – the year in which the main Doukhobor immigration occurred – but came in 1910-12 as members of the non-Veriginite “Middle” and “Small” Parties. This interesting finding may suggest that remigration was a more attractive option for the less established members of the community, who retained closer ties with the homeland and had less time to accumulate large property in Canada. The amount of property and cash the returnees were able to take to Russia also shows that few among them were prosperous farmers.

More research is needed about the life of Canadian Doukhobors in the USSR, but even the existing fragmentary evidence shows that it was far from the idyllic picture that many of them must have portrayed in Canada. The majority of Doukhobor families brought little money and machinery that would allow establishing viable mechanized farms from scratch. Like other returned emigrants, the Doukhobors also ran into problems with local peasants who considered them to be kulaks (derogatory Russian word for “rich peasant”) and stole their property. Relations with local authorities were also less than cordial. A 1924 Soviet government inspection of immigrant agricultural collectives working in the USSR put the Doukhobor group in the category of failures and recommended its “liquidation or a radical reorganization”. Soviet sources indicate that Doukhobors began to abandon the Melitopol settlements shortly after arrival. Sixteen of the seventy-two Doukhobors had left the First Canadian settlement by July 1925.

The Petr V. Ol’khovik family in the Doukhobor village of Vozdvizhenka, 1926. Like most of the villagers, the Ol’khoviks returned to Canada by 1928.

The drafting of young Doukhobor men into the Red Army, which appears to have begun in 1927, was the last straw for the Canadians. After their petitions to Bonch-Bruevich and other old friends such as I.M. Tregubov brought little result, the return trek to Canada began. In August 1927, the Canadian immigration officer in Riga reported the first case of Doukhobors returning from the USSR: three families (11 people in total) who claimed to have been misled by Soviet agitators from New York and asked for readmission into Canada. The returnees were held up at Riga pending instructions from Ottawa. Soon afterwards, the Riga office received an application for entry to Canada from 135 more Doukhobors, most of whom had arrived in the Soviet Union in 1926-7 and lived at the Vozdvizhenka settlement.

Meanwhile, the matter attracted the attention of Canada’s Doukhobor community. In late September, the Immigration Committee of the Community of Independent Doukhobors at Kamsack sent a petition to the Department of Immigration and Colonization “with a humble request for a Permit of Entry in favor of the said Independent Doukhobors at present residing in Russia.” By the time it reached Ottawa, Canadian immigration authorities had already decided that the return of several dozen families disillusioned by their Soviet experience would be advisable not only on economical grounds (all the returnees being “agriculturalists”) but could also serve as a potent weapon against Communist agitation in Canada. “I think that the effect of their return will be to kill propaganda by the Soviet Agents and at the same time make these people and their friends a lot more contented than they have been in the past”, Assistant Deputy Minister Frederick Blair pointed out in his memorandum. On 13 September, the Department of Immigration ordered unconditional admission of Canadian-born among the Doukhobors. The rest could be admitted “if mentally and physically fit”.

During the summer of 1928, the majority of Canadian Doukhobors returned to Canada, although a few families remained in the USSR. The Soviet resettlement experiment was over, proving a complete failure and leaving its participants with a sense of betrayal and disillusionment for years.


Click here to view a list of 150 Doukhobor ship passengers who arrived in UK ports between 1922 and 1927 in transit to the Soviet Union. Information includes the surname, name, age, family unit, occupation, port of departure, arrival date, port of arrival and ship name for each Doukhobor passenger. View an index of ship passenger lists containing Doukhobors returning to Canada from the Soviet Union between 1927 and 1930. Information includes the ship name, port and date of departure, port and date of arrival, number of passengers and Library and Archives Canada microfilm numbers and online images of original ship passenger lists.

About the Author

A native of Russia, Dr. Vadim Kukushkin earned a Bachelors Degree at Chelyabinsk University, Russia in 1991 and a Masters Degree at Perm University, Russia in 1994. He continued his research at Carleton University, where he received his PhD Doctorate in 2004. Dr. Kukushkin is currently the Grant Notley Post-Doctoral Fellow at the University of Alberta, Department of History and Classics. He has published a number or articles on Russian immigration and ethnic history in Canada.