Spirit Wrestlers of Southern Russia

by Maria Kolesnikova

Not many hints remain of Doukhobor culture in Southern Russia. Persecuted in the past for their pacifist beliefs, modern Doukhobors search for an identity in the modern world. The following article by Dr. Maria Kolesnikova examines the Doukhobors of Tselina region, Rostov province as they struggle to maintain their faith, traditions, history and culture in twenty-first century Russia. Reproduced from “Russian Life” magazine ( Sept/Oct 2005).

Few in Russia remember the Doukhobors, the pacifist Russian Christian sect championed by Leo Tolstoy over a century ago. In fact, even the name Doukhobor evokes little reaction.

“It sounds funny. Perhaps it is an evil house spirit?” guessed Mikhail Grishin, 20, an engineering student in Rostov-on-Don. His grandmother, Maria Grishina, 80, a retired schoolteacher, does no better. “Doukhobor sounds like doushegub [murderer],” she said. Natalia Trifonova, a Rostov University professor, knows of the Doukhobors. “But they are all gone now,” she noted. “To find them you should go to Canada.

“In fact, the Doukhobors are not all gone. An estimated 40,000 still live in Russia and the countries of the former Soviet Union. About the same number live in Western Canada, and a few hundred live in the U.S., according to Koozma Tarasoff, a Canadian historian of the Doukhobors and author of 12 books and hundreds of articles about their culture. Scattered around Russia, Doukhobor populations are centered in the Tselina region in Rostov oblast, Cherns region in Tula oblast, near Blagoveshchensk in Amur oblast and the Mirnoye settlement near Bryansk.

Doukhobors (Doukhobory in Russian), literally means “spirit wrestlers.” It was a name bestowed on the sect — which had previously been known as Ikonobory (“icon fighters”) — by a Russian Orthodox Church priest (originally, the epithet was Doukhobortsy — “wrestlers against the Holy Spirit” — and intended as an insult, but the members of the sect changed it to the more positive Doukhobors, which implies a wrestling with the Holy Spirit). The sect has its roots in the 1650s, when Patriarch Nikon’s reforms of the Russian Orthodox Church led to the Raskol, the Great Schism. Some of the schismatics [raskolniks], called Popovtsi (“Priesters”) sought a return to pre-reform traditions, eventually giving way to the movement known as Old Believers. Others, called Bezpopovtsi (“priestless”), argued for dispensing entirely with priests. Some went further still, rejecting icons, sacraments, the divinity of Christ and even the Bible. They became precursors of the Doukhobors, who developed into a distinct religious group by the early 18th century.

Natalia Trofimenko, a Doukhobor who moved to Khlebodarnoye in 1992.

The notion of God within each individual is the cornerstone of Doukhobor belief “This philosophy has no creeds and does not need any Bible, Church, icons, or priests to fulfill its needs,” Tarasoff explained. “From this notion, we support the moral imperative that we cannot kill another human being — because then we would be killing the spark of God in us. The creation of a non-killing society is the essential quest of the Doukhobors.”

Not surprisingly, Russia’s tsars saw such pacifism as a threat, as something that could undermine social order and lead to rebellion. As a result, the Doukhobors suffered through centuries of persecution and three major resettlements. Under Tsar Alexander I, they were moved to Molochnye Vody, on the border between Ukraine and Russia. Under Nicholas I, they were exiled to Transcaucasia, along the border of Georgia and Turkey. There, in 1895, the Doukhobors refused to fight in Russia’s war with Turkey, burning all their weapons in a symbolic protest against war and militarism.

The furious tsar ordered that the Doukhobors be scattered throughout Transcaucasia, “sending the father to one village, the mother to another and their children to yet a different village,” according to Doukhobor lore [oral history]. The Doukhobors pleaded for help. It came from Quakers in the United States, who shared many beliefs with the Doukhobors, most notably pacifism and anticlericalism. And it came from the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, whose own personal philosophy had, by this time, gravitated into non-violence. Tolstoy called the Doukhobors a “people of the 25th century.” The Doukhobors, for their part, called Tolstoy “our father,” after he donated $17,000 from the publication of his book Resurrection to help pay for emigration of some 7,500 Doukhobors to Canada in 1898. Despite this mass emigration, the majority of Doukhobors remained; many moved to Southern Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.

Tselina region, Rostov Oblast

My qust for the Doukhobors takes me to Petrovka, a village in Tselina region, about 100 miles southeast of Rostov-on-Don. In 1921, some 4,000 Doukhobors were permitted to resettle here, establishing 21 villages (consolidated to 11 in the 1950s). Today, there are just six Doukhobor villages. Petrovka is the largest and it is by no means exclusively Doukhobor. Other inhabitants include Russian Orthodox, Armenians and Meskhetian Turks, who fled from Uzbekistan after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Farther into the country, the asphalt road turns to dirt and cows mindlessly collaborate in the creation of a traffic jam. By the time I reach Petrovka, the dirt road has turned to mud.

Regional administrator Lyudmila Nikitina — my guide in Petrovka — offers a disapproving glance at my sandals as she dons her rubber boots. As we splash together through the mud, she explains that Doukhobors still comprise about half of the village’s declining population of 300. “It’s not as good as it used to be,” Nikitina says. “Young people cant find jobs here and they have to leave.”

I examine the streets of Petrovka, looking for traces of Doukhobor culture. Most houses appear to have porches bordered with columns, their whitewashed siding shyly hiding behind trees in the yards. On some, sheds and hen houses share a roof with the house itself. These are traditional Doukhobor homes. Newer ones use brick and have no porches, Some of the houses are well kept; some are shabby; some are deserted. The streets seem empty, with only two or three middle-aged women digging in their gardens. There are few children and men.

We approach one of the women. “You are a Doukhobor, aren’t you?” I ask. She seems proud. “Yes, I’m a pureblood,” she replies. She invites us into her house, to see a typical Doukhobor interior of three rooms with papered walls. “It’s more fashionable today than whitewash, as prescribed by tradition,” she explains. The house has painted floors, several wardrobes made in the 1970s, a television and lots of embroidery. It smells of ripe apples.

Sen (left) and Tatyana Safonova at the Petrovka cemetery.

Our hostess is Tatyana Yuritsina, a social worker in Petrovka. “Doukhobors are the nicest, the most hospitable people,” she says. “Now there are many refugees and many people of different religions here. But we have no trouble with them.”

Yet, life carries on and the Doukhobors are changing. “We used to live without fences,” Yuritsina says. “And the young, they don’t want to follow Doukhobor traditions. Take my daughter. She’s 25, and she won’t listen to me, won’t stick to the tradition.” Yuritsina speculates that her generation may be the last of the “true Doukhobors,” because only older members are clinging to their roots.

Many Doukhobors now marry outside the sect. Yuritsina’s husband Vasily is Ukrainian; she says she met him in Rostov and brought him back to Petrovka. “I don’t mind Doukhobors,” he says. “They are people, just like everyone else. And the religion isn’t important in the long run. You have to believe in God and not sin. That’s all.”

Museum of Doukhobor Culture and Worship

The Museum of Doukhobor Culture and Worship is a small home dating to the 1950s which was turned into a museum in 1991, thanks to a donation from the local collective farm, Lenin Kolkhoz. It has a collection of Doukhobor artifacts and serves as a place of worship for a few of Petrovka’s active Doukhobors.

Today, a dozen Doukhobor women have assembled in the living room, the largest room in the house. Its walls are adorned with embroidered towels and traditional costumes. A table in the far right corner holds a bust of Lev Tolstoy and albums with black and white photographs of community members. On the wall are portraits of two Doukhobor leaders, Lukeria Kalmykova and Peter P Verigin.

The Doukhobor women greet us with a traditional hymn. They are wearing long skirts with fancy, embroidered aprons, colorful blouses and white kerchiefs. Some of their attire comes from their grandmothers; some was adapted from the contemporary clothing bought at a local market. it is the sort of clothing no longer worn in everyday life.

“If you dress Doukhobor style and walk along the streets, people will look at you as if you were a savage,” says Yevdokia Bulanova, 75, a Doukhobor who lives in the village of Khlebodarnoye, five miles from Petrovka.

The women in front of me walked to the museum wearing their regular dresses. They carried their traditional Doukhobor costumes in plastic bags, then changed at the museum, like schoolchildren for a class drama performance. But the reality is that they came here to perform, and they like it.

The oldest surviving Doukhobor house in Petrovka.

Their singing seems to erase years of worry and woe from their faces. They have a certain ethereal solemnity. The words of the hymns are hard to make out, enhancing the impression that they are protecting some hidden truths. But the explanation is more banal. Years of persecution made Doukhobors in Russia drawl their syllables when singing, so that outsiders could not understand their meaning, says Lyudmila Borisova, 66, a choir member and Doukhobor activist. “Canadian Doukhobors sing much faster,” she says, “and one can actually make out the words.” Once they have started, the women do not want to stop. Their singing goes on and on. They forget about their hardships, miniscule pensions, cows that need milking, or water that only runs out of the tap a couple of hours each day.

Petrovka’s Doukhobor choir once was quite well known. Ethnographers came from Rostov and Moscow to record them singing their traditional hymns and psalms. The choir even toured Rostovskaya and neighboring provinces during the 1995-1998 centennial celebrations of Doukhobor heritage. But the choir doesn’t travel anymore. “People are scattered,” Borisova says. “We used to have a big choir, but now maybe only a dozen people remain.” Some left the village, some are too old to travel, and some are dead.

“Young people don’t come to our meetings,” Borisova says. “They are busy working and don’t have time.”

Vera Guzheva, 44, is an exception. Guzheva, who lives in the city of Taganrog, about 170 miles northwest of Petrovka, came to the meeting with her mother, Vera Safonova, who is 77. “My mother is a Doukhobor, but I’m not,” says Guzheva. “Our generation doesn’t even know who we are.”

The other women at the meeting hiss in protest.

“I’ve lived in the city for 25 years, I am not a Doukhobor anymore,” Guzheva responds.

“Who are you then? You are not a Ukrainian, you are not a Belorussian, you are a Doukhobor,” Borisova asserts.

“No one in the city knows the Doukhobors. How will I explain to people who I am?”

“You don’t need to tell them, you just have to know in your soul that you are a Doukhobor,” Borisova says.

After moving to Taganrog, Guzheva had changed to Russian Orthodoxy, thinking it was more convenient than living as a Doukhobor. During her baptismal, the priest corrected her, saying that the right name of the religion she was giving up was Doukhobortsy, not Doukhobors, a fact she didn’t know. “But in my soul I’m a Christian and a Doukhobor,” Guzheva says.

Oral History

Doukhobors in Petrovka nourish Doukhobor legends and revere names like Lukeria Kalmykova and Peter P Verigin. They remember the rituals, and, during their meetings on major holidays — Christmas, Whitsunday, Easter and St. Peter’s Day — they each read a psalm and then all perform a low bow, even though some of the women now need help standing up afterwards. But ask them to explain the essence o their belief and daily traditions, and they may give you a puzzled look.

A traditional Doukhobor bow.

There is an awkward silence when I pose this question while visiting the village of Khlebodarnoye. Yevdokia Bulanova finally speaks. “We have our Zhivotnaya Kniga [Book of Life], and you can read something about it there,” she suggests. “Nadezhda, bring it here.”

Nadezhda Trofimenko, whose home we are visiting, disappears behind the curtain separating the bedroom and living room, and returns with an old, leather-bound book, which she sets down carefully. “This is the principal Doukhobor document, here you’ll find everything,” Trofimenko says.

The Doukhobor Book of Life is the primary written artifact of Doukhobor heritage, which had been transmitted orally before 1899. Compiled by the Russian ethnographer Vladimir Bonch Bruevich while spending nearly a year in Canada transcribing Doukhobor psalms and hymns, the Book of Life preserves Doukhobor oral history and serves as a bible of their faith.

Dr. Vladimir Kuchin, 63, a researcher at Rostov-on-Don’s Anti Plague Institute, has lived in Rostov since 1958. He is a Doukhobor, and in his tiny studio apartment on the city outskirts, he archives a complete collection of the back issues of Iskra — the Canadian published Doukhobor magazine. He also stores trunk-loads of Doukhobor recordings and artifacts, which he has been collecting since 1975. He frequently contributes to local papers and to Iskra, and he said he is thinking about writing a book on Doukhobor heritage. But he must wonder whom he would be writing for. His own brother and sister have expressed no interest in their Doukhobor roots. And his parents, when they were alive, worried about his fervor for Doukhoboriana. “Dear son, why do you need all this?” they used to ask.

Kuchin’s grandparents moved to the Tselina region in 1922. They were in their thirties; his father was 10 and his mother was 8 at the time. At first, people lived in sod houses — 30 people in each home. “Their life was hard, but full of wisdom, patience and good spirit,” Kuchin says. When the Soviet state started putting up collective farms (kolkhozy), the first Doukhobor kolkhoz — Obshy Trud [Joint Labor] was set up in Petrovka, headed by Peter P. Verigin. There followed a kolkhoz named after the military commander Vasily Chapayev, and then six Doukhobor villages were united in another kolkhoz named after Vladimir Lenin. In 1928, Doukhobors in the Soviet Union dropped their stricture against army service.

“There was no other way to survive,” Kuchin says. For the most part, the Doukhobors lived an uneasy peace with the atheistic Soviet State. The government was tacitly permissive toward their religion, as long as the Doukhobors did not openly profess it.

Certainly many Doukhobors were imprisoned and exiled under Stalin. Kuchin recalls one story from Petrovka which reflects the insanity of the times. A villager, Fyodor Tomilin, made a chest for his little daughter’s toys and instruments and decorated it with a newspaper clipping that featured, among other things, a picture of Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, a prominent Soviet military leader arrested and executed in 1937 on trumped-up charges of treason. Some time later, another villager, Koozma Pereverzev, stopped by to borrow some tools. On his way out, Pereverzev said, “Such a young guy, and already a marshal.” Tomilin had no idea what Pereverzev was talking about. Ten days later, Tomilin was arrested and accused of treason along with Tukhachevsky and his supporters. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Tomilin insisted that he did not have any idea who Tukhachevsky was, and that no one by this name lived in this village. Only after several years in prison, when he saw Tukhachevsky’s photo somewhere else, did he understand what had happened.

Anna Sen (Safonova), center, who helped set up the Museum of Doukhobor Culture and Worship.

In the 1960s, political liberalization allowed the Doukhobors to be open about their beliefs. “I left my home village in 1958, when I entered Rostov State Medical Institute,” Kuchin says. “Even then I didn’t conceal my religion from my friends.”

Unfortunately for the Doukhobors, Kuchin’s example was becoming more typical. The youth left the village for the cities, where they studied, worked, lived, got married and had children. Many married people outside their religion, often assimilating into Russian Orthodoxy. In bigger cities, like Rostov, Doukhobors no longer gather to sing psalms. “Canadian [Doukhobor] visits might stir people up,” Kuchin says. “Some people would meet at Whitsunday, St. Peter’s day, and Christmas.

“Kuchin says he used to go to Petrovka quite frequently, until his father died in 1999. But he does not go any longer. It is too painful. “The things that have been happening since the 1980s and 1990s are incredible and I can hardly find the right words,” he says. “Prosperous Doukhobor villages in Tselinsky and Bogdanovsky regions have become hard to recognize. Suspicious strangers are buying up many homes; other houses are abandoned and falling apart, and yards and gardens are covered in thick weeds.

“The Doukhobor cemetery is also covered with thick grass. There, Doukhobor graves, devoid of tombstones and crosses, are marked only by fences with people’s names. Anna Sen and Tatyana Safonova lead me to the grave of the five settlers who died during the Doukhobors’ first winter in Tselina region. These people are heroes, and a memorial plaque was placed over their grave in the 1960s.

Three years ago, Lyudmila Dorokh, a longtime director of the museum and one of the best singers in the Petrovka choir, told me, “We are losing our identity as a community and the Doukhobor culture here will be gone in several years.” She is gone now, lying in this quiet cemetery. And her prediction is slowly coming to pass.

Certainly there are attempts to preserve Doukhobor culture in Tselina region. Canadian Doukhobors visited the museum several years ago and gave $200 for repairs. Regional authorities provided a tape recorder, so that locals might record Doukhobor psalms. “We are trying to preserve the Doukhobor culture, which is unique,” says Lyudmila Nikitina, the regional administrator. “Once a year, we bring children from the local school to this museum for a history class, to tell them about the Doukhobor faith and traditions. I wish we could do more before it’s too late.”

Goat and sheep herds near Khlebodarnoye. Agriculture is still the main source of income.

On the way back to the village, we meet other women from the Doukhobor museum. They are walking home, carrying plastic bags containing their traditional costumes. They show us a recently built asphalt road, which gives Petrovka a new, better connection with the outside world, for better or for worse.

Russian Roots, An Odyssey

by Dr. Allan Markin

In July of 2004, Dr. Allan Markin and his wife Evelyn of Penticton, British Columbia embarked on a month-long odyssey in Russia, the land of their Doukhobor ancestors. In the following article, reproduced with permission from the Vancouver Sun (October 9, 2004), Allan recounts their experiences of Russian people and places and their exploration of ancestral roots. Mr. Markin observes that as Doukhobors, “part of our hearts will (always) remain in Russia”.

As the creaking Aeroflot jetliner lands at St. Petersburg’s Pulkovo Airport I am reminded of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s words: “forgetting the past is like losing the sight of one eye.”  My wife Evelyn and I have convinced ourselves that we are merely tourists in Russia, but the truth is that our ancestors, some 7,500 Doukhobors, left Russia in 1898/99 to escape religious and political persecution.

Approximately 12,000 Doukhobors stayed behind. This historical heritage haunts many Canadian Doukhobors and compels them to search for their roots in Russia.

Starting in St. Petersburg, our month-long odyssey will culminate in a visit to a Doukhobor village south of Moscow, with many stops along the way.

In “St. Pete,” a tour through the Hermitage Museum leaves us breathless. It is said that the Hermitage contains a collection so vast (nearly 3 million exhibits) that if one were to spend just one minute at each exhibit it would take several years to see the entire collection. A private guide is highly recommended.

Near St. Petersburg, in the town of Pushkin, is the Catherine Palace. This stunning “summer place” presents architectural details and decorations ranging from classical elegance to baroque indulgence. Its “amber room” is a world treasure.

Plundered by Nazis during the Second World War, the “amber room” has been restored to its original grandeur. One stands in awe of its inlaid amber panels and designs, with Florentine mosaics and sculptures, and feasts on the fusion of exquisite art, craftsmanship, decadence, opulence, and aristocratic self-indulgence. It is here that I first begin to understand what motivated my ancestors to shun materialism in favor of a simple, agrarian lifestyle.

Later, at the Peterhof Palace, with its dozens of gilded cascades and fountains inspired by Peter the Great’s wish to build a palace that would rival France’s Palace of Versailles, my sense of ancestral roots begins to deepen in an oddly ironic way.

I am starting to understand why my ancestors moved to Canada, but cannot escape the wonders of St. Petersburg. The great Kirov Ballet at the Mariinskiy Theatre, the glorious architecture along St. Petersburg’s canals, the boisterous Nevskiy Prospect, that grand street of international shops, cafes, street markets, and night life that continues long into the “white nights” of St. Petersburg.

Aboard the cruise ship, Allan poses with a tour guide dressed as “Peter the Great”.

We leave all this behind when we board our river cruise ship, the MV Zosima Shashkov. It will be our floating hotel as we sail along the lakes, rivers, and canals that will bring us to Moscow.

There are many stops along the way. In Petrozavodsk we note that statues of Lenin remain standing, and streets named after famous communist leaders (except for Stalin) have kept their names. A public referendum determined that nothing would be gained by trying to re-write history, so these traces of the former Soviet Union endure.

On the island of Kizhi, a UNESCO  site, we experience the great wooden Church of the Transfiguration, with its twenty-two cupolas (domes). This is just one of many examples of the religious orthodoxy that the Doukhobors broke away from in Russia, which earned them the name “spirit wrestlers”, and resulted in the persecution that caused them to seek safe haven in Canada.

The Church of the Transfiguration at Kizhi.

In Russia one sees many churches and cathedrals. Their icons, frescoes, and elaborate decorations suggest religious self-indulgence. But one has to marvel at the great religious art and architecture in Russia, much of it now in the process of recovery and restoration.

Kizhi also boasts two original 17th Century peasant houses. One contains a ceiling-mounted cradle, a “loolkya” in which an infant would sleep within reach of a mother’s toe that would conveniently rock the cradle at night. This is a very special moment for me; I slept in such a cradle in infancy and early childhood. I’m amazed at how quickly an inanimate artifact can vivify pleasant memories of a distant past.

Allan sitting next to a ceiling-mounted cradle (loolkya) in a 17th century peasant house.

We meet more art when our little ship sails in to Mandrogi, a planned community where some of Russia’s top artists and craftspeople live in an environment devoted to the advancement of traditional arts and crafts. In several workshops I am reminded of Canadian Doukhobor women (my mother among them) who have been producing fine weaving, knitting, and embroidery for more than 100 years.

In Goritsy we are brought face-to-face with current problems plaguing many small Russian communities. Several town drunks meet us as we leave the ship after breakfast. We are moderately fluent in Russian so we walk into “town” and converse with the “locals.”

Old woman in Goritsy. Note the simplicity of her modest home.

An old woman invites us into her modest home and we enjoy a wonderful chat. She was hoping that we were doctors who could help her with her ailing throat. She lives alone, tends to her small garden and prays to the icon in the corner of her kitchen. We leave with a sad feeling; life for old people in Russia is pretty tough these days.

This is emphasized in another village along the Volga, where I am confronted by a limping old woman who declares that “Putin has reduced my pension to 1500 rubles a month, so now I have to beg. If I could do it, I’d put a bullet in his temple myself.” I address her in Russian. When she hears this, she starts to cry. I see my hard-working grandmother’s face, lined and creased by worry and the sun when we lived on subsistence farming in the Kootenays. I have to turn and walk away.

A lonely spire sticks out of the water along the Volga Canal.

Later we sail through the Volga Canal built during Stalin’s rule. The canal was constructed by forced labour and dug entirely by hand, with the loss of some 100 workers daily. Many communities were flooded in the bargain. We sail over some of them. There is little evidence of their existence, but we do pass by a spire that sticks out of the water, a silent reminder of the town that lies beneath.

The Russians have an expression that eloquently describes projects that were constructed at the cost of many human lives. “ Built on the bones,” they say. I am starting to feel grateful to my ancestors for having the foresight and wisdom to move out of harm’s way to Canada.

Allan and Evelyn leaving the cruise ship with Rashid.

This becomes poignantly clear after we arrive in Moscow. Our driver, a Tatar named Rashid, takes us to one of Stalin’s “killing fields” on the outskirts of the city. On a quiet evening, after a summer rain deep in a birch wood, we stand in silence at the site where as many as seventy thousand people were put to death and buried in mass graves.

Across the road is a horse stable that was converted into a prison. It is rumored that Beria, head of the NKVD under Stalin, was held here. Nearby stands an abandoned foundation for an office building. The work had to stop when the excavators began unearthing human remains.

Memorial garden at Stalin’s killing field.

Before us is a large rectangular plot edged with small yellow flowers. This is one of the burial ditches. It is difficult to speak. It is difficult to keep from weeping. I recall stories of my ancestors who were beaten in 1895 after they burned all their weapons to take a stand against war and violence. Some died. Others were banished to Siberia. These too are my roots.

Ironically, when we leave our ship in Moscow, we move to the Hotel Rossija (Hotel Russia), a 2900 room monolith across the street from the Kremlin.  I remember meeting with a regional governor from Siberia on a previous consulting assignment to Russia and hearing him proudly tell me that he and his colleagues stay at the Rossija when in town on “government” business. I recall the “killing fields” and Russian history of the past century; the hotel conveys a malevolent feeling, which is mitigated by the spectacular view of Red Square and the Kremlin from our room.

A view of the Kremlin from the hotel room in Moscow. board the cruise ship, Allan poses with a tour guide dressed as “Peter the Great”.

The wonderful city of Moscow provides more relief from grim thoughts of Russian history. With a daytime population of some 14 million people, Moscow’s squares, monuments, markets, theatres (we enjoyed three Russian plays in top national theatres), shopping complexes, restaurants, fast-food kiosks, museums, and massive traffic jams challenge all the senses.

Fortunately, Rashid negotiates the traffic with skill and daring. We conclude that Vancouver traffic would bore him.  Moscow has three times the number of motor vehicles than it had five years ago and traffic problems are worsening daily.

Still we get around quite well. We visit the Kremlin, the fabulous Tretyakov Gallery of Russian art, and the Borodino Panorama Museum with its spectacular depiction of the battle between Russian troops and Napoleon’s army. We dine at the great Boris Gudinov Restaurant.

Western-style consumerism is flourishing in Moscow. Top international fashions and finest automobiles are everywhere. A “stretched” Lincoln limousine seems to be the “wedding car” of choice. New construction is everywhere. Heritage buildings are being restored. Tour buses are packed from morning to night. There are casinos and nightclubs everywhere. Shoppers crowd the streets and markets.

We chat with many Muscovites. Some think that the “new economy” is just what Russia needs. Others have mixed feelings, and some are very skeptical about the future. I see the crumbling Khrushchev-era apartment blocks and conclude that the future for many Russians is still pretty grim.

At Tolstoy’s estate – Yasnaya Polyana.

It’s almost too much for the senses, so our departure for Yasnaya Polyana, Leo Tolstoy’s estate two and a half hours south of Moscow is a very pleasant change. My sense of “roots” becomes more pronounced knowing that Tolstoy played a major role in arranging the Doukhobors’ emigration to Canada and helping to finance the journey.

Yasnaya Polyana Children’s Home

During our visit to Yasnaya Polyana we discovered an orphanage in desperate need of assistance. The Yasnaya Polyana Children’s Home houses and educates 55 children of all ages. We have established a network of reliable contacts through whom we have been able to send money to help the orphanage purchase school supplies and personal items like toothbrushes for the children’s use. Readers who would like more information about how they could help should contact Allan Markin at 250-493-6150, or by email to: amarkin@shaw.ca.

At Yasnaya Polyana the rest of the trip fades in to the background. Dr. Galeena Alexeeva, a top Tolstoy scholar, takes us on a private tour. We view the house where Tolstoy lived and worked; we stroll the tree-lined walks until we reach his grave, a simple grass-covered mound of dirt on the edge of a ravine. There is a powerful serenity in this place.

Tolstoy’s grave at Yasnaya Polyana.

The dignity of the site, without a monument or grave marker at Tolstoy’s own request, is a poignant illustration of the simple, spiritual life that the great writer  found in his later years. Doukhobors owe much to Tolstoy. Standing at his grave I felt that, in a small way, I was repaying some of the debt.

In Yasnaya Polyana we are delighted to meet Elaine and Alfred Podovilnikoff from Grand Forks, BC. They, along with their children and grandchildren, are building a log home in the village.

“My soul is in Russia,” says Elaine with conviction. “This is something that I simply have to do, not just for me but for my children and grandchildren, so that they will be more fully aware of who they are and where their roots lie.”

 We marvel at Elaine’s and Alfred’s excitement, their ability to laugh at the seemingly insurmountable challenges, and their fervent commitment to their roots.

Elaine Podovinnikoff at log home.

Yasnaya Polyana is near Tula, a city of 700,000 that was the industrial heart of the former Soviet Union’s weapons manufacturing industry. Many of the factories are now closed, but Tula still enjoys its reputation as the home of Tula “praniki,” tasty little cakes that remind one of biscotti with filling. We stop at one of the many roadside stands where these delicacies are sold, later washing them down with generous shots of premium Russian vodka.

Also in Tula we stumble into a “state” store that stocks beautiful shiny black caviar, which is not easy to find in Russia these days. The price is great so we stock up for later feasting.

Our final stop on this “roots odyssey” is Archangelskaya Selo ninety minutes south of Tula. This village is home to several hundred Russian Doukhobors who were forced to flee hostilities in Georgia in the last century.

The village sits in the middle of the vast Russian steppe. Cows and goats roam the streets. A horse-drawn wagon rolls past. Life is agrarian, simple. Mostly older people live here now, although there is a new school and community hall.

The country surroundings remind me of life in rural BC sixty years ago. But the residents don’t seem to mind. They are hospitable to a fault.  Fred Plotnikoff and his Russian wife Paulina treat us to a grand luncheon.  Fred is formerly from the Kootenays and was a school chum of mine at Mt. Sentinel High School in South Slocan. He has taken up permanent residence in Russia and seems very happy with his decision to plant new roots in ancestral soil.

Russian Doukhobors – the Markins – treat their guests to some kvas and song.

I am happy to discover that my namesake lives in the village, but disappointed to learn that he is away. We pay a visit to his home anyway and his parents welcome us. They honor their Canadian guests with a drink of kvas (a fermented concoction whose main ingredient is bread) and a couple of “spirited” Russian folk songs. Singing, it has been said, connects people “heart to heart.” This ancestral Doukhobor link has endured.

All too soon we are back in Moscow and on a Boeing 767 headed for Seattle. We are laden with souvenirs, mementos, memories, and mixed feelings.

One thing is certain, however. Part of our hearts will remain in Russia. On the great Volga; at the Kremlin; on a canal embankment in St. Petersburg eating Russian ice cream. It will be impossible to forget the glorious singing by cantors at the Kostromo Monastery, or being invited to sing Russian folk songs and some old rock and roll with the resident band on the cruise ship.

Cantors singing at the Kostromo Monastery.

Another memory that will linger forever is having dinner with Rashid’s family in their state-issued apartment and feeling his blind teenage daughter’s gentle hands explore my Canadian face. Such experiences, and our exploration of ancestral roots, have added so much value to our Russian odyssey.

This Russian parting expression says it all: “dosvidanya”…until we meet again.

Doukhobors: An Endangered Species

by Dr. John I. Postnikoff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doukhobor Leader Peter “Lordly” Verigin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russian – the traditional language.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Novo-Spasskoye – A Doukhobor Village

by Sonya Stepankin

The Doukhobor village of Novo-Spasskoye (later renamed Kalmakovo) was established in 1899 in the Good Spirit Lake district of Saskatchewan. For the next fourteen years, it was home to over thirty Doukhobor immigrant families. The following essay by Sonya Stepankin is reproduced from Essays on Pioneer Days in Saskatchewan (Regina: Women’s Canadian Club, 1927). Written from a Doukhobor women’s perspective, it portrays life in one Doukhobor village, from the early struggle for survival, through to the difficult, often painful, choices that led to its eventual abandonment.

From the southern slopes of the Caucasus they came – a band of exiles for conscience’ sake – seeking freedom to follow the tenets of their simple faith without fear of persecution. 

Their forefathers, imbued with an appreciation of that evasive something called “Spiritual Life” had become known as Doukhobors (signifying “Spirit Wrestlers”) and, staunch in their belief that an implicit obedience to the command, “Thou shalt not Kill” was demanded of them, had suffered exile, and torture, and death, and banishment to the living death of Siberia. They had been driven from their homes in a fertile region of the valley of the (Molochnaya) and had been herded into mountain villages already occupied by Tartar subjects of the Tsar.

These Tartars, by robbery and murder, had reduced life to one continuous fear, and to this, the Government added the tyranny of the Cossacks and the knout. Such were their miseries, and so wretched was their condition, that the sun soaked mountain valleys became to them, all that is conveyed in that dread name, Siberia. So much so, that they called the place of their exile “New Siberia”.

Generations of Doukhobors had endured this persecution for conscience sake, before their unhappy plight was discovered by an English Quaker named John Bellows. He laid the facts of their case before the Society of Friends (Quakers), whose hearts warmed with ready sympathy for their fellow Christians in distress. The Friends felt it incumbent to strive for some measure of relief for the Doukhobors, and by their efforts Count Tolstoy was interested. 

Being exceedingly sympathetic to the Doukhobors’ pacifist attitude towards war, the Count used his influence at court, and eventually through intercession with the Tsar, release, in the shape of permission to migrate en masse, was granted. 

The English Society of Friends raised the funds necessary for transportation to Canada, and early in 1898, (four) shiploads left Batum on the Black Sea for Halifax.

The first ship to set sail called at the island of Cyprus for the purpose of breaking the monotony of the long voyage, and giving he immigrants an opportunity to rest. These good intentions, however, proved a fatal mistake, for fever ravaged the company and many dead were left behind.

The other (three) ships sailed direct to Halifax, where approximately seven thousand Doukhobors disembarked, being met by representatives of the American Society of Friends, who accompanied them to their destination. The American Quakers had undertaken the expense of the land journey and they also presented to the older people, especially those in poor health, a sum of money averaging about five dollars each.

The land assigned them by the Canadian Government was in the Northwest Territories, the nearest railway point being Yorkton, where they arrived in May (1899). The blocks allotted to them lay on both sides of what is now the Canadian National railway track, between the present towns of Veregin and Buchanan, and from Yorkton the track began.

Doukhobor village, circa 1901.

Accustomed to living in village groups, going back and forth to their field work, the Doukhobors had no conception of homestead life, and expected to continue their village system, therefor the families formerly occupying the same village in the Caucasus formed themselves into groups to establish new villages.

Striking off to the north and west, following a trail for fifty miles, one group reached the head of Devil’s Lake, and the abundance of wood, water and fish prompted them to search for a clearing in which to locate their village. The site they chose was a stretch of trail a mile further north, and they named the spot Novo-Spasskoye after the village (Spasovka) they had left – home – in spite of all its distresses.

And now, the Land of Promise a reality, and the wearisome journey accomplished, they assembled to offer fervent thanks for mercies vouchsafed. But mingled with the praise was a prayer, an unquashed cry from wives and mothers for protection for the men whose hardest task was upon them. For upon the men and youths devolved the necessity of facing this new, strange world to provide the means of existence; living and working among people whose language was incomprehensible and whose food was revolting, for, manifestly, a scrupulous fulfilment of the Divine command, “Thou shalt not Kill” prohibited the eating of flesh.

Back to the train at Yorkton turned the men, and the desolate women watching them down the trail, cried aloud in their anguish. But the poignant note of terror, characteristic of the parting of other days, was lacking; for then, men had been trampled under Cossack hoofs, flogged by the knout or driven to the living death of Siberia. And the old people, pathetic in their homeless plight, drew comfort from the thought that such scenes could never be repeated upon their children’s children, to save whom they had uprooted themselves, leaving the graves of their dead, and braving the unknown in their old age.

However, tears were futile, work was pressing. Shelter was imperative; wells must be dug; ground broken; and the women, with the men too old for work among strangers, turned to their immediate problem. To a people with babies, the ailing, and the aged among their number, and lacking any vestige of shelter, the speediest means of protection from the elements was their natural choice, and they dug caves in the earth, supporting where necessary with logs; and branches, grass and soil provided roofing material.

Tools were scarce, and in the open space among the poplars, the women used every means necessity could devise to break the ground to receive the precious seed that represented their supply of vegetables for the year. Some woman’s foresight had prompted the bringing of seed of the stinging nettle, a weed whose rapid growth would supply early greens for vegetable soup, which formed their principal dish.

Both soil and tools had been provided by the Society of Friends, but inevitably there was some shortage when divided among seven thousand. In spite of the inadequacy of tools, shelters for approximately three hundred persons were achieved on the village site. This lay paralleled a stretch of trail connecting two ranch houses. To the ranchers, the advent of the settlers spelt loss of livelihood, but they (the Doukhobors), innocent of wrongdoing, strayed on the ranchers’ land cutting logs, and when ordered off, laboriously tried to explain that they had been given to understand it was a free country, therefor, the trees were God’s trees and they could claim a right to them. Despairing of making them realize his ownership, the rancher fired a charge of bird shot among them, and the pierced ear lobe of one of them always proved that fact to possible skeptics.

Ruined as their business was, the ranchers, be it said to their honour, befriended the settlers, who thankfully undertook the care of a cow and a calf in exchange for the milk, and were grateful for permission to strip the potato vines, and the rhubarb, of their leaves for use in soup.

Flour, bedding, clothing, was supplied by the unfailing Friends, whose interest, augmented by the Press publicity of the religious migration, aroused widespread sympathy, and considerably increased the relief fund organized by the Friends in aid of the seven thousand souls, inexperienced in the rigours of a northern winter. In addition, there was a safe supply of fish in the lake, and an abundance of wild fruit, so that in their eager return in the fall, the men found much cause for thankfulness. There were shelters; there was food, and several unexpected possessions from the barrels packed by the Friends.

Of all this the men knew nothing, reading and writing being a rare accomplishment among them. This lack of direct and easy communication made the separation a great ordeal, causing a total cessation of family life; consequently the homecoming was fraught with far deeper significance than the term commonly implies. Each side lived over again the days since the hour of parting. Nearly every day had brought some new experience, and tears alternated with laughter as they recounted in detail, failure and success, hardship and compensation, sorrow and joy.

Enchanting to the women was the men’s’ account of the people they had lived among; the strangeness of their language, their food, their clothing, and most of all, their homes, filled with superfluous furniture. How spendthrift these people seemed, needlessly piling up the expense of living, and careless of the life to come!

This period of family life was very precious; like a jewel set between the blank of separation behind, and the threat of it before them. it made the oncoming spring season of lamentation because once again, the “little death” was upon them. A thousand miles they (the men) went to work, tramping the trail to Yorkton on the first lap of their journey, via Winnipeg, to Medicine Hat. Here they worked on the Canadian Pacific Railway, striving to accumulate sufficient to make better provision for the next winter, in addition to supplying the immediate need for various equipment to improve the primitive living quarters of their families.

Doukhobor women pulling plow, circa 1901.

Appalled by the intensity of the cold they had for the first time experienced, the villagers applied themselves to the building and plastering of log houses that would defy the frost, and some semblance of a village rose on each side of the trail. Lumber floors were a luxury, few, if any, possessed, but the hard tramped earth served the purpose, and spared the lumber for furniture fashioned by the men. Work on the land speeded up, for they had been the happy possessors of a plough. The fact that oxen and horses were both a minus quantity did not daunt them, for the women roped themselves together and cheerfully supplied the power, singing their beloved folk songs as they turned the furrows.

Having rescued their fellow Christians from persecution, the Quakers had no intention of leaving them to work unaided, their own salvation. Besides material help, they were anxious to pass on the benefits of their own experience. To this end they built schools and sent teachers from England and Philadelphia. The Friends themselves had evolved a very clear idea of the value of education, but their magnificent offer was not generally appreciated among the Doukhobors, who looked upon “book learning” as entirely superfluous, preferring their children to help in the work at home. Consequently, through lack of support the Friends’ expensive project collapsed, and realizing the futility of further effort, they quietly withdrew.

At the time of the Doukhobor exodus from Russia, their leader, Peter Verigin, was a prisoner in Siberia. Later, freedom to join his people in Canada was granted, and he assumed control of the settlements in 1902. From that time the affairs of the village were conducted along community lines. The wages of the men were pooled to form a common fund and from the fund every family drew its quota of supplies according to its number. Such foodstuffs as they could not produce, material for clothing and for bedding, footwear, and household dishes, were all distributed from the common fund, and all kept strictly down to the minimum. Machinery, cattle, and all the needs of the village as a whole were supplied out of the common fund.

Their leader (Peter “Lordly” Verigin) made his home in the largest village, which was nearly forty miles from Novo-Spasskoye. In order to have a suitable place in which to transact business, and to hold meetings on the occasion of his periodic visits, he had a spacious building (dom) erected. It was of smooth red brick manufactured in the community brickyard. It was lighted by a dozen or more fine large windows. A veranda with much fancy woodwork ran the whole length and across the front, while an ornate balcony spanned the front gable, all tastefully painted in light colours. The interior was divided into one large room for public use, and smaller rooms as living quarters for the leader and his retinue. 

Standing fairly central to the village, the building dominated the humble log dwellings of the men who, year after year, endured months of separation from their families in order to maintain the common fund; and where many a woman, lamenting, worked with a pang in her heart for her absent man.

Besides their work in the field, the women contributed a large share to the handicrafts of the community. They grew flax, and steeped and dried and dressed it, spinning a strong linen thread and weaving a linen which gave almost interminable wear. The men made the bedsteads, and the women filled the ticks and pillows with feathers (from the moulting poultry) patiently stripped off the quill. The blankets they made of fleece stretched between two covers. The fleece was sheared from the sheep by the women, who carded and spun it, knitting for the whole family, and cleverly lining the mitts and socks of the outdoor workers with fleece, rendering them so snug and warm as to defy almost any cold.

Patiently they sewed by hand every garment worn by the whole community except those of the men who went away to work. Five widths went into the making of their own dark skirts, gathered into a waist-band, over their bright blouses which buttoned up to the throat, and at the wrists. Their head shawls were worn in and out of the house, over the hair in a braid tucked under the shawl. The dresses of the girls of all ages were merely a duplicate of their mothers; and the home made suits consisted of long trousers gathered into a waist belt, over which was worn the shirt, tunic-fashion. As a change from strenuous work, and by way of decoration, they did fine drawn thread work, achieving exquisite, lacy effects.

 

Varied as were their handicrafts, they lamented the fact that their independence was not complete; shoes, for instance, had to be bought, and regretfully, they remembered the slight protection needed in their native climate; and the old people told how big a dollar was, when almost their sole needs from the store were needles and matches. Longingly they thought of the wild figs whose sweetness rivaled the honey used instead of sugar, and of the wild grapes of the mountains; and they yearned for a breath of the scented, moisture laden air of the valleys of home. But human lives were more precious than this, and, singing their folk songs, they toiled to make a home in this country of freedom.

The men, travelling, working, were learning, observing, comparing, learning the language and the law, especially as it related to homestead rights; observing the comfortable living on the farms; comparing men’s pride of ownership with their own lot. By degree, heresy crept into their thoughts and into their conversation, and the subject of separation from the community became an absorbing topic among them. Estrangement from the community at large would be an inevitable result, with possible petty persecutions, but increasing faith in their own judgement forced the conviction upon them that the wiser investment of their labour – their only capital – would be the land, and the bolder, more enterprising spirits withdrew from the community to enter upon the obligatory (homestead) residence duties.

Their example encouraged others to follow their lead, and many whose better judgement urged them to independence were restrained by their womenfolk, who feared the hazards. In vain the men protested their ability to provide but the women pleaded for the security which only community life could guarantee, and their tears and prayers prevailed for the time being. Time and again, ambitious men returned to the argument, but the women stood firm for assured provision in sickness and old age. Besides, they were bred and born, and had their being in a village, and shrank from the isolation of the homestead.

Presently, other questions turned up. They had now been in Canada between eight and nine years and the Government began to insist on naturalization. Apprehensive of their position as private citizens, many Independents were welcomed back into the fold, together with such possessions as they had managed to accumulate. When the fear of military law was removed by exemption being granted, many returned to their homesteads, so that the community system was disrupted, and the leader began negotiations for a block of land in British Columbia.

On their withdrawal from the community, the Independents were allowed the property they had taken in on their re-entry, and ruefully they contemplated their possessions, consisting of a cow and a steer, or a cow and a horse, or some equally ill assorted team, or perhaps only one animal. With their meager household goods, and, in rare cases, a piece of farm machinery, this constituted all their worldly goods; representing the sum total of all their valuable capital after ten years of working out.

Narrowly were they watched by the men restrained by their womenfolk, and by the time their leader’s plans were nearing completion, many took matters into their own hands, determined to avail themselves of their homestead rights, and their decision crystallized into action the wavering attitude of others to swell the ranks of the Independents. Those who lacked the courage to venture and were yet reluctant to relinquish their homestead rights, decided to remain in the community until time should prove the success or failure of the Independents, and they, with the many faithful adherents, moved to British Columbia in 1911 to continue the community regime; the privilege to re-enter being extended to all who had withdrawn.

Doukhobor village house, circa 1901.

The village was deserted! The spot which had been the scene of such varied activities for thirteen years was silent with the mournful stillness of abandoned homes. Forlornly employ stood the little houses, with missing windows like hollow eye sockets, the doorways gaping into vacancy, and weeds in possession of the garden patches. 

The village was dead, but the surrounding country resounded with life. Scattered spots of light from lamp lit cottage windows broke the darkness of the bush, like beacons signalling a challenge to nature’s undisputed sway, and children’s’ voices swell and shrill, dispelled the age long silence. The sight and sound of labour was succeeded by blooming gardens and plots of ripening grain.

But there were tears! Behind many lighted window a woman sobbed out her loneliness, wearying of the monotony, longing for the humanity of the village, with its impact of spirit upon spirit, its neighbourliness, its bickering! Hearts were wrung by the severance of close family ties; mothers and daughters were in, or out, of the community according to the decision of their menfolk, and no letters could be exchanged to ease the heartache, nor written to unburden the mind; the mountains were between, and they lacked the ability to bridge them with the written word.

Work was their only respite, and side by side with the men they subdued the forest and brought the wild land to subjection. Early and late they toiled, sustained by the thought of ultimate ownership, stimulated by the fact that every hand’s turn was to their benefit. And between whiles, they reared their children and tended young stock and poultry. They grew tomatoes and cucumbers in quantities to supply their table the year round, in addition to the common vegetables, so that their borshch was plentiful and delicious. This vegetable soup, taking the place of meat, is made as follows: While potatoes are boiling, cabbage is shredded, onion chopped, and both fried in butter; tomatoes are added, or it is varied with different vegetables. The potatoes are taken from their water and crushed, or mashed; they are returned to the water, the fried vegetables with their generous amount of butter, are added, and the whole is sharpened with vinegar. The red tomato, green cabbage and golden butter present an appetizing appearance, and the sharp tang of the vinegar further whets the appetite. A bowl of borshch with a thick slice of bread forms a substantial meal.

They baked and churned, and washed and cleaned, and on Saturdays prepared the steam bath, so that the whole family should greet the Sabbath day with scrupulous personal cleanliness. They plastered the buildings and sheared the sheep and in winter, they spun, and knitted, and sewed, filling bed ticks and pillows with feathers, and comforters with fleece, while some of their menfolk turned to good account the troublesome bush, hauling stove wood and willow fence pickets to Yorkton, while others fished through the ice on the lake.

Their labours were rewarded, and the second ten years produced a very different statement of effects from that of the first ten. Almost without exception an additional quarter section, or more, had been bought adjoining the original homestead, whereon had been erected a frame house and good buildings, which always included a bath-house, and in most cases, a garage.

The telephone in every house made the women forget the meaning of loneliness, and the automobile had robbed the homestead of its isolation. The fine schoolhouse had rendered communication with distant relations a common occurrence, for the children wrote their parents’ letters in English, receiving answers from far-away cousins in the same tongue.

Of all the progress that ten years had brought, these schoolchildren were the most vital. Canadian in speech, dress and sentiment, they bound the older generations with bonds of blood to the country of their adoption, bringing customs into the homes, welding a chain of happy associations, creating an atmosphere of home where before had been only a refuge. The children “belong”. “I was born in Saskatchewan, and I hope to live here until I die,” vied the children of the schoolhouse.

The ten years had effaced the village. A black hole yawned, or grassy mound showed the remains of the banks around the little houses, long since demolished for their logs. Beside the trail that had formed the village street, various herbs proclaimed the dormant gardens, and scattered maples revealed the love of beauty in the hearts of the exiles. The red brick meeting house had become a farm-house surrounded by its wheat fields, and from the old trail the wheat fields stretched in the characteristic sunlit spaces of Saskatchewan.

Men who called the village home in the first hard years, motor through without a regret that nothing more than a momento remains to recall the attempt at paternal autocracy.

A Doukhobor Wedding Dress

by Leslee Newman

In 1867, a wedding dress was handmade and worn in a traditional Doukhobor wedding ceremony in the Caucasus, Russia.  Thereafter, it was carefully preserved and passed down through the generations.  Today, over one hundred and forty years later, this historic garment is part of the extensive collection of Doukhobor artifacts held at the Saskatchewan Western Development Museum.  The following commentary, reproduced by permission from the Saskatoon Sun, April 25, 1999, outlines the story of the dress from its origins to present.

Within sight of Mount Ararat, which according to the Bible was the resting place of Noah’s ark, Onya Kabaroff and Fedyor Perehudoff pledged their union. The young Doukhobor couple began their life together in 1867. Half a world away in North America, four provinces joined to form a new country, Canada. Onya (Anna) and Fedyor (Fred) could not have known that they would someday leave their small village in the Russian province of Georgia to make this new country their home.

Anna’s mother began to prepare for her daughter’s wedding long before the special day. She spun flax into thread, wove the thread into cloth, sewed the cloth into a full length dress. The dress has long sleeves, with gathering so fine at the wrists and neck, and embroidery so delicate, that it challenges you to imagine producing such work by the light of a flickering flame. A hand-woven geometric-patterned band decorates the hemline.

The blue woollen apron also was made from hand-woven cloth. After washing and carding, the wool was spun, then woven into a fine cloth. The apron was gathered at the waist. The hem was decorated with a colourful woven band and hand-knit lace.

Dress worn by Onya Kabaroff on her wedding to Fedya Perehudoff in 1867 in Russia.

The short, padded vest was hand-sewn from cotton. Since cotton was not a cloth that could be produced at home, it was likely purchased on a rare trip to a large trading centre. All items must have been lovingly prepared by Anna’s mother for her daughter’s hope chest.

Thirty-two years after their marriage, Anna and Fred made the heart-wrenching choice to leave their home and travel with 7,500 others of Doukhobor faith to Canada. Leo Tolstoy, the well-known Russian writer, sponsored Doukhobor immigration to what is now Saskatchewan, financing the trip with proceeds from his book Resurrection. The Quakers, another pacifist group, also came to their aid.

Anna’s wedding dress was packed and made the long journey from Russia to the tiny village of Ospennia, 15 kilometres southeast of Blaine Lake in what was then, Canada’s North West Territories.

It is likely that Anna wore her dress on Sundays and special days like the annual June 29th commemoration of the Burning of Arms. On that day, a large tent was set up to house the people who gathered for prayers, songs and ceremony.

Firm in their belief in the commandment “Thou shalt not kill,” Doukhobors rejected the call to serve in the Russian military. On June 29, 1895 they collected their weapons and burned them. Thousands were punished with death or exile. Doukhobors have commemorated June 29th faithfully since that time.

On Anna’s death in the 1930s, the dress was handed down to her daughter, Dasha (Dora) Postnikoff. When Dora died, Anna’s dress went to Dora’s daughter Agatha. It was donated to the Saskatchewan Western Development Museum by Anna’s granddaughter, Agatha Stupnikoff, on behalf of the Postnikoff family.

“The people then tried very hard to accept the Canadian way of life, so they switched over to Canadian dress quite early. Anna’s dress came out only on special occasions,” recalled Agatha.

“Doukhobour people come from all walks of life. It isn’t a nationality, it’s a belief,” Agatha explained as she mused about the exodus from Russia her grandparents joined in 1899. They were not young people, both in their fifties when they came to Canada, with the strength of their belief sustaining them through hardship.

Agatha Stupnikoff’s sensitivity to her family’s story and Doukhobor history was shared by her husband Sam. Motivated by their desire to preserve these cherished garments, they consulted family members, then offered the wedding outfit to the Saskatchewan Western Development Museum.

Ruth Bitner, WDM Collections Curator, accepted the donation with gratitude, stating “Despite the fact that people from so many different cultures made Saskatchewan their homes, the WDM has few examples of traditional clothing. Costumes like this are a tangible reminder of personal journeys, leaving the familiar culture of the homeland for an unknown future in faraway Saskatchewan.”

For More Information

The Saskatchewan Western Development Museum (WDM) is the museum of social and economic history for the Province of Saskatchewan. It is a network of four exhibit branches in the cities of Moose Jaw, North Battleford, Saskatoon and Yorkton. For more information about the WDM, its programs, events, exhibits, and the many Doukhobor artifacts in its holdings, visit the WDM web site at: www.wdm.ca.

My Life Story

by George P. Stushnoff

In his later years, George P. Stushnoff (1922-2001) wrote about the history and settlement of his family in the Langham district of Saskatchewan and of growing up there in the Twenties to the Forties.  In simple and straightforward style, he recalls the everyday scenes of Doukhobor life on the Canadian Prairies.  Written in 1990, his “Life Story” was published posthumously in 2003 in “The Stushnoff Family History: Kirilowka and Beylond” by Fred & Brian Stushnoff.  Reproduced by permission.

Alexei and Anna Stushnoff were the earliest settlers of my family name.  Born in Russia – he moved to the Republic of Georgia in the Caucasus Wet Mountain region, east of the Port of Batoum on the Black Sea, and some 50 miles west of Tibilisi (Tiflis) Georgia.  To escape from religious persecution, they came to Canada because the Canadian government by Order-in-Council granted them religious freedom and military exemption from war service, which was not available in Russia.  They traveled by refurbished cattle freighters from Batoum and arrived at the Port of Quebec on June 21, 1899, then went by train to Manitoba, Yorkton, and Saskatoon.  A much larger contingent went on to Rosthern to settle in the Blaine Lake area.  The Saskatoon group, including my parents, settled originally in the Doukhobor village of Kirilovka, 4 miles west of Langham.  Others of this group settled at Bogdanovka village at Ceepee and still others settled the Pokrovka village in the Henrietta school district.  My grandparents arrived in Canada with no personal possessions except their clothing.  Their two sons, Peter (my dad) and my Uncle John were 10 and 16 years of age respectively.  Peter married Helen (Hannah) Voykin.  John married Dora (Doonya) Woykin while living in the village of Kirilovka.

My grandfather Alexei had one married brother who arrived at the same time and settled in the same village.  His name was Dmitry and his wife was Maria. Dmitry and Maria had one son and four daughters.  Alexei’s twin sister Anyuta also arrived married from Russia.  Her husband was Savely Dimovsky. Alexei and Anna had a daughter who died back in Russia at 16 years of age.

Alexei Stushnoff family c. 1914. (Back L-R) John, Nick, Pete; (Middle L-R) Dora, Alexei, Anna, Helen; (Front L-R) John, Pete, Bill. Photo courtesy Fred Stushnoff.

Prior to 1906, the village produced goods more or less for self-sufficiency as lands were broken up gradually.  The first crops were used predominantly for feeding the increased livestock herds of cattle and horses.  My parents did not move into the Lutheran-Lynne school district until 1919.  At that time, cattle and grain were taken to Langham and shipped to Winnipeg.  Sometimes the returns did not cover rail shipping costs.  Saskatoon and Rosthern were the nearest trading centres and sources of supplies.  In the first two years, groceries were brought in by backpacking.  Even bags of flour were carried this way in emergencies.  Other times, several men would pull a load of wheat to Saskatoon and return with a load of flour.  Garden vegetables were hauled occasionally to Saskatoon by team and wagon and sold from door to door.  By late afternoon, any unsold vegetables were sold at minimum prices to restaurants so that groceries could be purchased before store closing and returning home during the night.  We depended on the horses to take us home while we slept in the wagon box.  The return trip took two nights and one day plus a day in digging and preparing the vegetables for sale.

Development took place by working communally in the village.  My dad Peter was only 10 years of age upon arrival in Canada.  As he grew up he began earning and saving his own money building railroads.  Upon getting married to Helen Voykin, he and his brother John struck out on their own by jointly renting out a 1/2 section of land, which was later purchased by Paul Edie (East 1/2 of S-31, T-38, R-8, W-3M).  On August 30, 1919, my dad made a purchase agreement on the home place (NE 1/4 of S-29, T-38, R-8, W-3M) from Tumble Company Ltd. as the original owners of title granted to them on August 19, 1919.  The home quarter, without any buildings, was valued at $5000.  Title was attained on December 30, 1925.  It had originally been designated as school land with a legal right-of-way for the Battlefords Trail.  The countryside had lots of bush and grass (parkland) with a few scattered settlers.  No graded roads existed.  The Saskatoon/Battleford Trail cut diagonally across the Northeast quarter.

Most of the prairie sod was broken a little at a time with a two-furrowed gang plow pulled by 4 horses.  After all the grassland was broken, additional acres were made by pulling trees out by their roots.  The trees were either chopped down or bulldozed and the land ploughed with a tractor and breaking plow.

The first set of buildings on our farm consisted of a house, granary, horse bam, cow barn, and a chicken coop.  These were made of logs, with clay-mudded walls and a sod-covered roof.  They were all set in a row and adjoining one another.  Later, a modest two-storey wood-frame house was built, with dimensions of 14′ x 20′.  A year or two later, a lean-to kitchen was added on the end.  It had a clay-mudded floor to begin with, and later, a wooden board floor was put in.  The farmyard also had a clay-mudded, log-walled, sod-roofed steam bath house (banya) which was put into operation every Saturday night.  Neighbours were always welcome.  Our Norwegian and English neighbours often paid us a visit.  It became my job to heat up the stones and supply the water.

Peter A. Stushnoff family c. 1927. (Back L-R) Bill, Pete; (Front L-R) Mary, Helen, Annie, George, Peter. Photo courtesy Fred Stushnoff.

No modern buildings were put up until I started farming in 1948.  In 1928, after a Model T Ford was purchased, we managed to build a little garage for it.  It was made out of axe-hewn and split poplars with a cedar shingled roof.  This was a big spending splurge just before the great Depression of the 30s when land was sold to pay the taxes.

Later, Uncle John and his family moved to the Canora, SK, area.  His son Alex remembers riding on the freight train in 1934 with their horses and cattle to the Canora district.  Later, most of Uncle John’s family moved to British Columbia.

There were no roads to speak of in these early times.  There was a Saskatoon/Battleford Trail that ran diagonally across the farm that dad bought in 1919.  As lands became cultivated and fenced, people were forced to develop trails along the surveyed road allowances.  So the Trail became a hit-and-miss affair and was eliminated by the mid-Twenties.  I was born in 1922 and have a recollection of one Ford Model T traveler who tried to follow the Trail.  I remember opening a gate to let him through our land.  We privately kept a trail across our farm to shorten the distance to Uncle John’s place.  We used to visit back and forth with our cousins quite frequently.  We were almost like brothers and sisters.  There doesn’t seem to be such closeness between cousins anymore.  As cars became common, municipalities started grading up the low spots so that the cars wouldn’t get stuck in the sloughs of water in spring and after heavy rains.  More popular roads became graded their full length.  Grading probably began in the mid-Twenties and accelerated in the Thirties.  Farm grid-roading and gravelling started in the Fifties and completed in the Sixties.  As Councillors of the R.M. of Park, Norman Westad and myself had the grid road built through this community, past the Lynne School and connecting the No. 14 highway with the No. 5 at Ceepee.  For my ancestors, modes of travel commenced with walking, then proceeded to the use of oxen, horses, buggies, wagons, bicycles, cars, trucks, trains, and finally, airplanes.

Our post office was 10 miles away at Langham and neighbours would take turns bringing out the mail, which probably averaged once a week.  Rural mail delivery came to our place, I believe, in the early Thirties, every Tuesday and Friday.  In winter it was delivered using horses and sleigh.  There was no mail for us before the establishment of the Langham post office.

Most illnesses were treated at home with home remedies.  We didn’t seem to have needed any doctors except when my younger sister was born.  Dr. Matheson from Asquith came out to the farm.  Mother had arranged for our cousins to pick up my sister and me and go out for the whole day picking strawberries along the roadsides.  When we came home, we saw our new baby sister and other evidence that a doctor had been there.  When I was in about grade six or seven, I sprained my ankle playing football at school.  My dad took me to a Mennonite self-taught chiropractor (naturalist).  He had my ankle set and bandaged.  I limped for a while and it gradually healed perfectly.

Lynne School was located 2 miles south of our farm and was of frame construction with stucco finished walls and tin roof shingles.  It had a full basement with a coal-fired furnace.  When I started school, there were about 40 students from Grades 1 to 8, plus my brother Bill and Clifford Lindgren taking Grade 9 by correspondence.  Later I also took my Grade 9 and 10 by correspondence and finished Grade 11 and 12 at the Langham High School in 1941.  I also earned enough money, being a janitor for Lynne School, to buy myself a brand new bicycle.  I was so proud of it!  I didn’t mind the extra early hours I had to get up on winter mornings so I could fire up the furnace and have the school warm enough for classes.  Of course, when it was -40, it never warmed up till the afternoon.  Kids spent the mornings huddling around the floor heat register.

Looking back on harvest, to me it was the best of times and the worst of times!  The crops were cut with horses and binder and I usually ended up having to do the stooking with my sister Annie.  The first day was an adventure, especially if the crop was good and the stocks were free of Russian thistle.  Day after day the job became more tedious!  My dad bought a George White threshing machine and a Lawson tractor.  Every fall, Dad would line up about eight or more farmer customers for whom we threshed.  While Dad and my brother Pete operated the threshing outfit, my brother Bill and I would haul sheaves, each with a team of horses and a hayrack.  This job was really a test of endurance.  There were eight teams on the crew, four to each side of the threshing machine.  You had to load up your rack while three unloaded.  Of course most people took pride in their work by bringing in a reasonably good load and on time so that the machine didn’t run half-empty.  There was always one or two workers who rounded off their load a little smaller and always had time for a rest in between.  Not me!  My foolish pride made me work till I ached all over!  Since the family owned the threshing outfit, I felt obligated to set a good example of work ethic rather than slacking off and embarrassing them.  However, the social contacts were a good experience plus the most wonderful food was served.  The servings of food were only equaled on festive occasions such as Christmas or weddings.

Winter evenings were a time for sitting around the wood heater and eating sunflower seeds and visiting relatives.  To help prepare the wood supply, trees were chopped down and hauled into the yard.  Many wood-sawing bees were held in the neighbourhood.  There were never-ending chores of feeding cattle and horses twice a day, and palling water from the well to water them.  And, there was the stinky job of cleaning out the manure from the barn and hauling it by stone-boat to spread out in the fields.

Young unmarried adults used to take turns hosting parties in their homes over the weekends.  This meant overnight stays, so you can imagine wall-to-wall people sleeping on the floor on all available homemade mattresses and blankets.  Some of these were brought along to keep warm in the sleigh, since the party goers came from as far as 10 miles away.  These were not exactly pajama parties; people slept in their clothes, if sleep were possible.  My 12 year old cousin, Johnny Malloff, who came along with his older brother Bill, kept annoying one of the older guys by repeatedly tickling his feet.

George & Laure (Petroff) Stushnoff wedding photo, 1946. Photo courtesy Fred Stushnoff.

In summer we used to gather at the ball diamond and play baseball with pickup teams.  The better players were selected for the ball team that competed at the various sports days.  We had some winners!  Our team even played at the Saskatoon Exhibition.  I am referring to the Doukhobor boys from Ceepee/Henrietta communities when I talk about our team.  We maintained close cultural ties.  For several years the ball diamond was located on my brother Bill’s farm.  It was also a place for picnics and Peter’s Day.  As I was growing up, I was really a part of two communities.  I played on the Lynne School softball team, which was one of the best in the district, and I was goaltender for their hockey team.  When I attended Langham High School I was also on the softball team that played against Borden, Radisson, and Maymont.  My schoolmates from Lynne School (Ivan Thue, Larry Aune, and Norman Westad) were also on the team.  In hockey we sometimes played against the adult Doukhobor team from west of Langham, with whom I also had close relationships.

Christmas was celebrated strictly as celebrating Jesus’ birthday through worship services.  There was no gift giving.  However, it wasn’t long before the commercialized Canadian custom had its negative impact.  So much to be said for assimilation!  Our most important cultural/religious event was the commemoration of Peter’s Day on June 29 of each year.  On June 29, 1895, our ancestors, while still in Russia, collected all of their personal weapons and made a huge bonfire out of them as a sincere declaration of refusal to bear arms or participate in military service.  It stemmed from the religious belief, “Thou shalt not kill,” or destroy the body’s temple in which God resides.  The soul, being the image of God, resides in every human body, without exception.  It was the Burning of the Arms that precipitated severe religious persecution and consequent migration to Canada.  The Doukhobor decision to migrate to Canada was made only after Canada passed an Order-in-Council.  Some boys were imprisoned while others served in labor camps. I, personally, was exempted from service because I happened to be employed in two high-priority essential industries: education and agriculture.  The government seemed to respect that more than the legal religious freedom that had been granted by law.

I started my off-farm career teaching school after a short 12-week stint at the Saskatoon Normal School.  I taught at Worthington School, southwest of Loon Lake; Morin Creek School, west of Meadow Lake; Henrietta School, west of Langham; and Smeaton public and high school.  I resigned in June 1947.

My dad operated the farm till the spring of 1948 when I took over by renting.  Dad gave me 4 horses and 2 cows plus the old horse machinery consisting of a gang plow, 4 sections of harrows, a disc, a seed drill, mower, and binder.  Since Dad decided to retire at 60, I quit teaching school and took up farming.  After the war, there was a shortage of new tractors so my first attempt at motorized farming was the purchase of a Wyllis-Overland Jeep in 1949.  It served the double purpose of tractor and automobile.  After a good crop in 1950, I managed to trade the Jeep as a down payment on a new International 3/4 ton truck and a W6 tractor.  We grew wheat and raised cattle, milked around six cows and sold cream.  Later, we raised 4000 broiler chickens per batch, turning 3 1/2 batches per year.

While farming, in 1952 I volunteered to canvass the district for interest in Rural Electrification.  It was a successful venture and electricity came through in 1953 to this particular region.  SaskPower put in the power after I proved that 75% of the farmers would sign up and pay their deposit of $750.

In 1955, I organized the Central Park 4-H Beef Club which later became a multiple project club including beef, grain, automotive, gun safety, and home economics.  In all, I was 4-H leader for 13 years, with 3 of those years as the district chairman.  I served as a trustee on the Lynne School Board until its integration into the Saskatoon West School Division at Langham.  I also served a 3-year term on the R.M. of Park municipal council.  My voluntary services also included the chairmanships of the Farmers Union Local and the Langham Doukhobor Society.

In 1968, at 45 years of age, I quit farming and took on a job with the Federal Dept. of Indian and Northern Affairs.  I leased the farmland to Mitch Ozeroff for 8 years, and then made an agreement for sale to my daughter Sandra and her husband Edward Walker in 1976.

In 1973, I transferred to the Dept. of Secretary of State to administer the program of Human Rights and Multiculturalism.  In these past years I lived in Prince Albert, Yorkton, Regina, and finally in Saskatoon, where I retired in 1988.  Laura and I now live in the Brandtwood Estates, a seniors condominium in Saskatoon.

George & Laura Stushnoff, 1999. Photo courtesy Fred Stushnoff.

As Russian speaking people of the Doukhobor (“spirit-wrestlers”) faith, our people have retained the traditional worship and funeral services to this very day.  Traditional clothing was always worn for worship services, but lately, it is only worn on occasion, such as a choir costume for special festivals.  Traditional foods of borshch, blini (crepes), perohi (vegetable and fruit tarts), ploe (rice and raisins), vereniki, and lapshevnik (a noodle and egg cake) are still very much in vogue.  We are just beginning to conduct our worship services in both Russian and English languages, eventually becoming English for the sake of all the intermarriages taking place.

Doukhobor to Doukhobor marriages are becoming a rarity.  With freedom and democracy breaking out in Eastern Europe, we feel that our pacifist beliefs are coming of age and should be shared with the rest of society.

George P. Stushnoff (1922-2001) exemplified the Doukhobor ideals of toil and peaceful life. Chairman of the Saskatoon Doukhobor Society and the Doukhobor Cultural Society of Saskatchewan for many years, George strove to preserve and share the Doukhobor way of life, and to promote inter-cultural harmony in his community. He once stated that “I find it spiritually fulfilling to participate in promoting local and international harmony among all people.” In 1995, he recieved the United Nations 50th Anniversary “Global Citizen” Certificate for contributing to the advancement of peace and global harmony.

Grandmother Berikoff: A Special Gift

by Natalie Voykin

Dunia (nee Chernenkoff) Berikoff (1897-1965) came from Russia as a small child of one and a half years. With no prior education and a peasant background, Dunia had a heart of gold as she lived through the difficulties of resettlement, first in Saskatchewan and then in British Columbia. She participated in the experimental community of Hilliers on Vancouver Island from 1946 to 1950, after which she moved back to the BC interior to settle in the ‘zealot’ community of Krestova. When the zealots trekked to the coast in 1962, she followed them, carrying only a bundle containing the sum of her earthly possessions. When she died in a Vancouver hospital, she was dressed in the traditional clothes she was carrying with her. Written from the heart by Natalie Voykin, the following is an ode to Grandmother Berikoff, who connected her Doukhobor belief in God with practical everyday life. Reproduced by permission from “Spirit-Wrestlers’ Voices. Honouring Doukhobors on the Centenary of their migration to Canada in 1899” Koozma J. Tarasoff (ed). (Ottawa: Legas, 1998).

On the evening of 12 February 1965 the nurse at the Vancouver General Hospital greeted us with unexpected news: grandmother had died! Disbelief, grief, flashed through me like a bolt of lightning. How could it be? Just hours before my beloved grandmother was very much alive, smiling and talking. I wanted to see her at once. I ran into her room. My grandmother lay there, quiet and peaceful. I gathered her in my arms and held her close to my heart. Her body was still warm, but limp.

I wept. Slowly I released her. Her two braids of hair fell loose by her shoulders. Her long white gown made her look like an angel.

Grandmother Dunia Berikoff was just a year and a half old when her father fled the harsh persecution at the hands of both Church and State in the Russian homeland for the principles the family and their community stood for. Believing that life is a sacred gift of God abiding in all people, the Doukhobors considered it wrong to destroy life and hence wrong to bear arms, and consequently were subjected to severe punishment and incarceration. Whole families were sent into exile. In other cases children and parents were separated. Communities were disrupted. Conditions of life were made impossible. At this point, Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy stepped in and helped organize and finance the exodus to Canada.

Shortly after her mother’s death, in 1899 little Dunia boarded the S.S. Lake Huron in Batum along with her father Misha Chernenkoff and hundreds of other Doukhobors driven into exile for their faith. A month later they arrived in Halifax and almost immediately headed west to the Canadian prairies – their new home. For all who came, it was to be a strange and challenging experience.

Finding it a particular challenge coping with his infant daughter in this new environment, Misha Chernenkoff soon married a young Doukhobor girl who became Dunia’s stepmother, thereby adding yet another complexity to the life of the growing child. Dunia found the needed warmth and love from her Aunt Malasha, who looked after her little needs and made her feel welcome at this stage of her life. Dunia remained ever grateful to this aunt for her tenderness and caring, and for the beneficial influence she exercised on both her outward and inner (spiritual) development.

Her family being of peasant background, no formal schooling was included in Dunia’s upbringing in the settlement of Aaron (on the Saskatchewan-Manitoba border). Life’s experiences were her teachers. Life’s events were marked by the seasons; Dunia’s birthday, for example, was associated with the harvest season.

In her late teens Dunia fell in love, but as her intended was not a verushchii (i.e., not a believer of the Doukhobor faith), her father disapproved. She married Koozma Berikoff, a handsome, charismatic, sports-loving lad. Though of Doukhobor upbringing, Koozma indulged in meat-eating and social drinking, both foreign to Dunia, who adhered to the strict Doukhobor tradition of refusing to eat animal flesh. Obliged to accommodate her husband’s habits, she was especially bothered by having to prepare meat (in particular, chicken) at harvest time to feed the men from the surrounding community who came to help take in the crop.

By this time the newly-weds had established their home on a 160 acre (65 hectare) farm with few conveniences, and begun raising a family. Two days before the New Year of 1912, their first-born, Florence (Fenia) arrived. Three years later came a son, Alex, followed by two more daughters – Mabel (Nastia) and Harriet (Grunia). She engaged in the routine duties of farm and family, but always had an inner feeling in her heart telling her there was more to life than her isolated experience on the prairies.

After several years misfortune befell the family. One evening, upon bringing full pails of milk down to the cellar from the barn, Koozma accidentally hit his head with severe force against a low beam spanning the cellar entrance. The local doctors could do very little about the serious headaches, sore eyes and other disorders which followed. Relatives managed to raise enough money to send Koozma (then 40) to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester (USA), and while the operation there was successful, he died of a hemorrhage when he attempted to get out of bed some time later (because of nursing staff shortages he had been left unattended at the time).

The tragic death of her husband brought Dunia untold hardships. With four children ranging in age from three to sixteen and with no knowledge of English, and no government social programs yet in existence, she was obliged to depend mostly upon her own resources and limited help from relatives, along with the power of God for protection and guidance.

The Doukhobors’ first leader in Canada, Peter V. (‘the Lordly’) Verigin, had worked with his people in their efforts to bring about the realization of God’s ‘universal spirit of oneness’ – the building of a heaven on earth. The Doukhobor people lived, toiled and prayed for this goal endeavoring to share their lands, resources and talents in harmony with the natural environment, with themselves and the world around them. But this ‘new social order’ was perceived as a significant threat by certain elements of the established Canadian society who believed in ‘every one for himself’. In 1924 Verigin was killed by an explosion near Farron in the high Kootenay Mountains, while travelling by train from Brilliant to Grand Forks.

Now a leaderless flock in a still new and unfriendly environment, the Canadian Doukhobors sent a delegation to Verigin’s son, then living in Russia – Peter P. Verigin, who had adopted the pseudonym Chistiakov (‘the Cleanser’) and was informally known as Petushka – to come and help restore order to the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood (CCUB) established by his father. Arriving in 1927, he fascinated his new Canadian followers with his stamina and dynamic spirit; the wisdom expressed in his charismatic voice drew the attention of Doukhobors from all sections of the community.

He held a special fascination for Grandmother Dunia’s eldest daughter Florence, in whom she had instilled a strong belief in God and in Doukhobor principles. She would ask friends and neighbors to take her with them when they went to hear him speak. His dynamic personality not only inspired her own spirituality, but eventually took the whole family in a whole new direction, to the zealot ‘Sons of Freedom’ movement.

In 1930 Dunia gained further inspiration through a visit from her brother, Alex Chernenkoff (then living in British Columbia), who told her and her family about the spiritual stirrings going on among young people in Doukhobor communities throughout Canada. She did her best to live out her sense of spiritual awareness as she and her children coped with life on the farm.

When Verigin was arrested in 1932 and sent to prison in Prince Albert, Dunia and Florence took part in successive protests, even to the point of disrobing on the highway, to call attention to the injustice directed at their leader. They themselves were arrested and held for a time in a women’s prison at North Battleford. While the younger children were initially taken to foster homes, they were eventually allowed to be cared for by relatives until the family was reunited.

For some time Dunia had been cherishing the idea of the communal way of life adopted by Community Doukhobors in British Columbia, and following her prison experience, she was led – by her faith and the dictates of her heart – to leave her farm (unsold) in Saskatchewan and take her family and possessions out west, settling in the village of Krestova, B.C., just a few doors away from her half-brother.

By this time Florence had married a young Saskatchewan farmer, Joseph Podovinikoff, a Doukhobor who fervently shared her aspirations and ideals and her family’s conviction in the rightness of communal living. He (along with other family members) persuaded his father to sell their prairie homestead and follow the Berikoffs to the B.C. interior, settling in Slocan Park.

Dunia’s son Alex married a beautiful, kind and thoughtful young woman named Natasha, who was exceptionally talented as a handcraft artist and dearly loved by all who knew her. One day, when Natasha was seven months pregnant, she and her brother died after eating some contaminated processed food brought from town.

A day or two later Florence was in the process of giving birth to her first baby, attended by an elderly Doukhobor midwife and her mother-in-law Nastia. After many hours of labour, a baby girl finally arrived – lifeless, not breathing. But Nastia, who had brought up seven children of her own, was so elated at the new baby girl that she refused to give up. Wrapping the baby up, she cuddled it close to her heart and began walking to and fro in the living room, all the time breathing into the baby’s mouth. All at once she heard a cry – the baby was alive!

They named her Natasha after Florence’s sister-in-law, whom they had just laid to rest in Krestova. Florence had also been enchanted with the spirited character of Natasha portrayed in Tolstoy’s epic novel “War and Peace”.

Both Babushkas – Dunia (Berikoff) and Nastia (Podovinikoff) – had a significant influence on my life. I spent a great deal of time in my early years with my much-beloved Grandmother Podovinikoff, who lived close by and took care of us children while our parents were busy clearing land or weeding or picking strawberries to earn money for the next winter’s supply of groceries and warm clothing.

But I felt a special love for Grandmother Berikoff, who, living eight kilometers away up the mountain in Krestova, visited us as often as she possibly could. When I was older, I would stay at her house for a week or so. An extraordinary person (in my eyes), she always kept her modest home in perfect order and cleanliness; its atmosphere was always warm, homey and nurturing. I always remember the feeling of security, strength and beauty evoked by her presence.

Dunia Berikoff’s family, Krestova, BC, 1937. (l-r) Uncle Alex; my father Joseph; grandmother Dunia; holding me, Natalie at 2 months old; Aunt Harriet; my mother Florence; and Aunt Nellie.

One particularly vivid memory is of standing by Grandmother Berikoff’s side as she opened the lid of a large shortening can to inspect the precious garden seeds she had gathered the previous autumn – each variety wrapped in white cotton bundles – to determine what needed to be planted in early spring. I remember the mysterious, invigorating, aroma that came from this special seed collection – a heavenly whiff of gentle potency unlike any other I had experienced. When spring came, once she had worked the soil in her garden patch into neat, straight rows, Grandmother Dunia would drop the seeds into them ever so gently, all the while affirming out loud: na priezzhago i na prikhozhago – signifying that the food to be produced from this seed by Mother Earth was not only for her and her family but also to share with strangers who might come riding or walking by. Grandmother was a prime example of Doukhobor kindness and loving hospitality.

In line with Doukhobor custom, the first question my grandmother would ask was whether the visitor was hungry; somehow there was always food to share. And, I must add, she was a wonderful cook – resourceful in converting simple and modest means into imaginative and successful creations. Very handy with her knitting needles, she sewed all her own clothes, always in the neatest fashion; she was unable to read patterns, but her socks, mittens and slippers were expertly executed, many times with intricate designs.

Her petite physical stature belied her formidable capabilities. I remember from my visits that her days never ended without reciting the psalm she taught me:

My guardian angel, do guard and protect my soul, strengthen my heart and also all my thoughts. Grant me, O Lord, Thy protection for the sleep of the coming night, peace for the physical body, salvation for the soul and for the mouth to utter prayer. Glory be to God.

These were the words I was invariably put to bed with. This was the time, too, to talk about the day’s events, before Grandmother sent me off to sleep by gently stroking my back. It was ‘heaven’! And one of the first duties in the morning was to wash my face and hands. Grandmother told me to always start the day by saying: Gospodi blagoslovi (roughly translated: ‘Lord, may thy blessings abide’).

The death of Peter P. Verigin in 1939 left the B.C. Doukhobor community (including Krestova) in a rather unsettled state. In searching for answers amid the many different interpretations which surfaced, some in the village could not hold back their feelings of extreme frustration at the injustices and misunderstandings they perceived on the part of the government. But Grandmother Berikoff did not take part in this radical trend.

Her life underwent a radical change, however, when she was introduced to a certain Michael Verigin (a distant relative and close associate of Peter P. Verigin) who had moved from the Verigin district in Saskatchewan to Vancouver with his wife and son to operate a rooming house and work in the labour force on the side.

Peter P. (Chistiakov) Verigin had at one point told Michael that ‘the Father wanted to see him’, although Michael did not understand what that meant at the time. Several weeks after the leader’s death, Michael happened to be walking down a street in Vancouver when he felt a tap on his shoulder. Turning around, he saw his late friend standing beside him, and heard his voice say: ‘The time is now. Come, the Father is ready to see you.’ Boarding a train at the station, the two men sped away ‘swiftly upward’ to a place where ‘the Father met with Michael’, instructing him to come back to earth and deliver a message to the Doukhobor people.

Some listeners utterly discredited his message, while others accepted it, at least in their own way. The message essentially urged all Doukhobors to:

Stop thinking, doing and living in unconstructive ways. Begin to organize yourselves in communities where all can live in the spirit of communal brotherhood, working for peace and harmony. Share and learn to overcome greed, selfishness, jealousy and mistrust.

A particular part of the message was directed toward the ‘Sons of Freedom’:

Enough burning and jails for you. When one of you goes to jail there are ten people who must work to support you. You come and work together in the community where everything is held in common, where one person works and that goes to support ten people, the women, the children, the elders and the indigent.

Michael appealed to Doukhobors to help him launch the ‘New Spiritual Community of Christ’, to share his vision of a cooperative social and economic order of security based on the traditional teaching of ‘toil and a peaceful life’. Time and again he tried to convince those who would obtain ‘migration through jails’ that the real migration was inner transformation, a change of heart from one of negativity and destruction to one of holy, peaceful construction.

Another conspicuous part of this multifaceted ‘message’ was the requirement to abolish bonds of ownership in marriage. Women must be freed from male domination.Grandmother Berikoff came forth as one of a group of six women and six men to launch this new order, under the name ‘Elders of the Spiritual Community of Christ.”

The new order, however, met with a mixed reception from the larger Doukhobor community. Some accepted the idea of communal living based on non-possessiveness – in respect not only to material possessions but also to the private family unit – while others felt threatened by the concept. The core group of twelve people Michael established at Krestova was soon disrupted by an extremist segment and forced to move to a homestead formerly occupied by one of his followers.

The communal kitchen, bathhouse and store (supplied with staples bought wholesale) was supplemented by a school, where one young mother taught basic reading and writing skills in both English and Russian, along with lessons in Doukhobor culture. The extremists, however, seeing the store and school as violating the sacredness of their fundamental beliefs, attacked again: a large group came out from Krestova, threw out the school furnishings and set the buildings ablaze. Once more homeless, Michael and his Elders were offered temporary accommodation by a sympathetic family living in nearby Robson.

Even though I as a ten-year-old had not yet attended any school, my parents (Florence and Joseph) were indeed concerned about their children’s education. After yet another attack by the Krestova group, Michael resolved to relocate further afield, away from trouble. He asked my father to accompany him on an exploratory trip to Vancouver Island, where a suitable location was quickly found, purchased and occupied (thanks to the former owners’ willingness to move out immediately following the sale).

The new community established near the village of Hilliers toward the end of June 1946 (shortly after an earthquake in the area) immediately began to draw attention from far and wide. My parents readily accepted their invitation to young families with children to come and help construct the Community, arriving there lock, stock and barrel in 1947. A large kitchen, sleeping quarters, storeroom, prayer-hall, school, steamhouse and gardens all had to be set up and put in place. It was in this school that I received my first formal education, through a curriculum organised by the community itself in both Russian and English.

Grandmother Berikoff was one of the women actively participating in this new experience, drawing upon her expertise in household affairs, involving herself in finances, organizing cooking groups, laundry, gardening and other duties. Her contribution to the stability and order of the community was recognized by Michael and the other Elders, many of whom came to her for advice and direction.

Unfortunately, the distance from the mainland did not ensure peace. This time the extremists not only destroyed property (worth thousands of dollars) but fabricated accusations which landed both Michael and my father (his secretary) in jail, charging that his vision of fulfilling certain prophecies in the Doukhobor psalms was nothing but a personal fantasy.

Michael died soon after being released from prison; he and other elders who had passed away from old age were buried in a special Community cemetery at Hilliers. The remainder, about four years after the experiment began, moved back to the B.C. interior, but did not lose sight of Michael’s original ideology. They spent about a year at Gilpin, near Grand Forks, but feeling isolated from the main body of the Doukhobor community in the Kootenays (where they still considered their roots to be), they accepted an invitation to occupy a communal property in Krestova. Once more they constructed a place to live and work, and once more they settled down to practice their faith.

I remember Grandmother telling me one spring in the mid 1950s how the Elders had decided to renew their appeal to the Doukhobor community’ to join the new order and build a true brotherhood of selfless sharing, Grandmother Berikoff was even sent door-to-door along the dusty streets of Krestova to spread the message of love she carried in her heart. But none of the Elders’ efforts (Grandmother’s included) met with any positive response.

Grandmother Berikoff in her later years.

Now a married woman with two children, living some thirty kilometers away in Castlegar, I still kept in close touch with Grandmother Berikoff, whom I loved immensely. It was a matter of some amazement to me that she always knew when I needed her most, even though she had no telephone. She would show up at my doorstep with a basket of fresh strawberries, or a package of knitted socks, slippers or mittens to help meet whatever might be the need. When the babies were sick, she was there to help, like a guardian angel. As a young and inexperienced gardener, I watched as she virtually produced magic during her short summer visits to our home with her simple but effective handling of soil and plants. ‘Do this’, she would advise, and, sure enough, the weak shoots would quickly develop into strong, shiny, productive plants.

Grandmother was a never-ending source of interesting conversation for me and my family. Her philosophy and knowledge fuelled my insatiable thirst for ideas, my wonder at the underlying factors that motivated her quest and worked such a powerful and meaningful influence on her character. The oneness of the life we shared and her indestructible faith in God left a deep imprint on my heart. Her stamina and the natural intelligence that guided her filled me with unbounded love and respect. Our tea-time sharings – another experience of heaven – were especially memorable. She would explain the many psalms she knew by heart on a spiritual level, and we would talk about their hidden symbolic meaning and source – this was an entirely natural unfoldment in our relationship.

Grandmother Berikoff applied her belief in God to practical everyday life. For example, when my babies were restless and unable to sleep peacefully, she had healing remedies which worked. After helping me bathe my new-born (the air and water temperature had to be warm and comfortable!) she would hold the baby in one hand and pour a pitcher of lukewarm water over her for a rinse, then wrap the baby in a warm towel, all the while affirming: kak s gusochki vody vsia skorb’ i khodor’ba (roughly: ‘like water off a goose, all negativity is washed clean and gone’). In Grandmother’s presence I had the feeling that all was well with my world.

In the autumn of 1962, when I was eight months pregnant with our third child, the outbreak of Freedomite unrest in the Kootenays reached its peak. With local prisons unable to accommodate all the sect members charged with acts of terrorism, the authorities had constructed a special fireproof prison for them at Agassiz. Many supporters of the Freedomite cause began a trek to Agassiz to draw attention to what they saw as a great injustice against the Doukhobor people.

At Grandmother’s urging, my husband and I, who similarly felt our people were being misunderstood and unfairly treated, decided to join the protest. We sold our home, stored furniture at my in-laws, and followed the trek – living in tents, sharing rides, finances and moral support. The march took us through Castlegar, Grand Forks and on through Princeton, where in late September we stopped to camp in Bromley Park. Feeling the onset of labour, I (together with my husband) headed for the nearest hospital. When stopped by an RCMP roadblock along the way, I told them they could deliver the baby themselves if that was their choice. We were given immediate clearance! Our beautiful daughter Katya was born in Princeton on 26 September 1962.

I felt surrounded by love and care: the wonderful doctor who delivered the baby, a sympathetic Princeton family who took us into their home after my release from hospital, and, above all, my mother, who was a guardian angel to me during this time. My father had little time to attend to his own family, involved as he was with the many relationship problems among the trekkers, the authorities, the press and the representatives of the towns and villages through which we marched. Grandmother, too, needed all the energy she could muster to organise and keep order among the group of Elders, by this time all of senior years.

One incident in particular left an indelible imprint on my heart. By” late autumn we had reached the town of Hope, where we were obliged to stop. Many local people offered shelter to the crowd of people descending upon this small town. On one rainy day Grandmother and I sat face to face on some apple boxes in a small station house; between us was a bundle about one metre square wrapped in dark blue cloth and neatly tied in a knot on top, containing all her earthly possessions. As we sat there, just the two of us, not knowing where we were going or where it would all end, I felt a sense of tremendous love and respect for her, of sharing in some mysterious way in her deep faith, of the whole world being on our side.

Upon finally arriving (weeks later) at the Agassiz Mountain site, the families set up their palatki (tents) in a neat row alongside the road leading to the prison. The local garbage dump, surprisingly, yielded several old stoves still in usable condition, which after some cleaning and fixing provided warmth and a place to cook. It was amusing to see chimneys made out of recycled juice tins. Even a small steam bath-house was erected from scrap timber and served for both baths and laundry. Plastic was bought to provide a shield from the rain and wind.

While the authorities indeed had their hands full (they had no choice but to allow events to unfold), they were pleased to find their concerns over sanitation problems and adverse incidents unjustified, noting only cleanliness and tidiness in and around the tent dwellings, and the snow-white laundry hung out to dry.

Grandmother Berikoff and her group of Elders occupied the first tent down the lane from us. They held together as a small unit of ten people, living according to their traditional communal order, uncomplainingly making the best of a difficult situation.

When I think back on this period, it all seems like an adventurous dream. It was indeed a learning experience of togetherness, one of fulfilment and revelation – my husband and our three children (five-year-old Daniel, three-year-old Tamara and three-month-old Katya), and Grandmother Dunia by my side, for advice.

Bill and Natalie Voykin with grandchildren, 1990.

After several months my husband, children and I moved on to Vancouver, where Grandmother would often come to visit us, sharing a ride with friends from the camp who had occasion to make a trip to the ‘Big City’. For me it was a special time of sharing her company.

Now and again during these visits she would complain about chest pains. She was seventy-five years old. She was examined several times by a doctor, who eventually asked her to go to hospital for further observation. She obliged reluctantly, commenting that any of the elders who ended up there ‘did not make it back’. While I naturally rejected this suggestion, it did leave me with a sense of fear and dread. The third day there, during our visit she shared with us a dream she had had, one she could not explain:

A most beautiful young woman appeared and stood at the foot of my bed. She just looked at me and said nothing.

Grandmother also mentioned the clothes she had prepared for herself in case ‘something did happen’ to her – a white homespun linen skirt and blouse, hand-made slippers and a fine white woolen shawl with tiny pink rosebuds. They were part of the bundle she had carried throughout the trek.

As I sat by her bedside, Grandmother wanted to go over a psalm, one that dealt with the meaning of life, God and the ‘Universal Laws of Being and Knowing’. “I do want to be prepared”, she said, “when I go to meet the Great One.”

The following evening the ‘beautiful young woman’ took the hand of my beloved Grandmother and led her to meet ‘the Great One’. I held her warm body close to my heart and sobbed. My teacher, guide and angel had finished her earthly journey. I realized I had to go on alone without the benefit of her wisdom, strength and unshakeable faith upon which I had relied so heavily. Now it is my turn, for now my own seven grandchildren turn to me for spiritual support.

I am convinced that Grandmother Dunia Berikoff was a special gift to me from God, and perhaps to others, too, who now have the opportunity to read and share this account of a rare and most precious angel who came to earth to fulfill her mission of unselfish love.

Grandmother Berikoff was laid to rest in the cemetery next to the Agassiz encampment, alongside twenty others who had shared in the trek. May their souls rest in the blessedness of the Heavenly Peace they earned and so richly deserve!

The Brothers Chernoff From Azerbaijan to Canada: The Canadian Experience, 1899-1938

by Fred J. Chernoff

In 1899, the widow Anyuta Semenovna Chernova and her six sons, Alyosha, Nikolai, John, Feodor, Mikhail and Andrey, departed from their village of Slavyanka in Elizavetpol province, Russia (present-day Azerbaijan), seeking religious freedom and new opportunity in an unknown land. Arriving on the Canadian Prairies, they helped establish the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood (CCUB), the main spiritual, social and economic organization of the Doukhobors in Canada. They first settled in the village of Sovetnoye, in the Veregin district of Saskatchewan, where they lived and farmed communally until 1912. They were then assigned to Khutor, a farm settlement in the Veregin district where they raised pure breed horses and cattle for communal purposes until the demise of the CCUB in 1938. Reproduced by permission from “The Brothers Chernoff From Azerbaijan to Canada” (Winnipeg: 1992), the following excerpt recounts, in frank, personal detail, the faith, courage and strength of the Chernoff family of Doukhobors during the early decades of their settlement in Canada.

Settling in the Veregin Area, 1899

The efforts of many individuals with Christian dedications cleared the many hurdles that had to be handled for the Chernoffs to have arrived in Canada. It must have been an exciting and frightening time for them and the other 7,500 [Doukhobor] immigrants to settle their new land where only the Indians had roamed previously. The making of Canada their new home had begun, and their search for religious expression had continued.

Anna Semenovna Chernova (1864-1934), matriarch of the Brothers Chernoff and their descendants. Photo courtesy Fred J. Chernoff.

Along with Anyuta [Chernoff] and her six sons came her four sisters who were married later to Anton Popoff, a Podovinnekoff, a Verigin, a Sherstobitoff and one left in Russia. Her deceased husband’s relatives included brothers Mikisha, Danila and a sister married to a Samarodin.

The Chernoffs were more fortunate then most of the new immigrants settling the prairies at that time and who had to work on their own to establish their new home. They were part of the 7,500 [Doukhobors] who had arrived within four months and were divided to go into 57 villages in the Veregin, Buchanan, Canora and Swan River areas of Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Here, they were instructed by their leader P.V. Verigin to settle Canada under a communal type of living with everything owned in common. Verigin was influenced by Tolstoy in starting the communal way of life. However, working together under a communal type of living, they shared the difficulties and by working together they were able to make satisfactory progress in building shelter and starting farming operations.

Upon arrival in [what would become] Veregin [district] in the spring of 1899, they were assigned to the village of Sovetnoye located six miles northwest of Veregin. Here the first project was to build shelter. Their first emergency housing consisted of holes in the ground with sod roofing. Ladders were used to gain entry. It was not too long before log houses replaced the sod structures and they were [thereafter] used for the cold storage of vegetables. It was a big change from their beloved Slavyanka [in Elizavetpol, Russia – now Azerbaijan] where they had prospered and many evenings must have been spent in these discussions. However, they were now in a new land and much remained to be done. The many skills that the people brought with them had to be applied in their new home. This was not the first time that the Chernoffs and other [Doukhobor]s were relocated and had to start anew.

Doukhobor woman drawing a pail of water from a well, c. 1899.  Library and Archives Canada PA-022227

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It was a time for everyone to contribute towards the common good of all. Women and the older men stayed in the villages to build houses and to break the land whereas the able bodied men went out to earn dollars by working on the building of railroads across the prairies. Any money that was earned had to be turned over to a central fund for allocation to the building of their communal way of life. Land required clearing and breaking. It was necessary to hitch 24 women to the plow in the North Colony [near Swan River] and break the land for the initial growing of crops for food. There were no oxen or horses. Everyone had to contribute and fortunately the practice of women pulling plows did not last for too long. As money became available, horses were purchased for land work. Prior to the arrival of their leader P.V. Verigin in 1902, they had developed their own administrative system.

During the first eight years, there was continual progress being made by the villages in the breaking of land. However, controversy with the government was developing regarding homestead rights and taking of the oath of allegiance. The Chernoffs, following their leader’s directions, claimed that it was their belief not to own land individually and not to take the oath of allegiance as their only allegiance was to God. The government pressed this issue and in March 1906, 258,880 acres of the land that was cleared was repossessed and sold by the government to other new immigrants. Land was then purchased in British Columbia by the central organization [the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood] under the leadership of Peter V. Verigin who was now in complete control of these new immigrants. Many of the 7,500 signed up to go to British Columbia and were relocated to start a new life in British Columbia under very adverse conditions. The Brothers Chernoffs remained in Saskatchewan.

Life at Khutor, 1912 – 1938

In accordance with a decision by their leader P.V. Verigin, [in 1912,] the Chernoffs were moved to a village called Khutor located 3 1/2 miles northeast of Veregin at Section 13, Township 30, Range 1. West of the 2nd Meridian in the Rural Municipality of Sliding Hills. It was a new village and was designated as a centre for raising pure breed horses and cattle for communal purposes. In Russian, khutor means “little village” [or “farmstead”]. It was an ideal location for Anyuta with her six sons and their families to make their home. It was a good choice to move the Chernoffs here as they possessed superior skills in the raising of farm animals. Certain members of the family were to remain at Khutor until the bankruptcy of the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood in 1938. This farm remains in the hands of Fred J., a grandson of one of the [original] Brothers, John.

The large, two-story multi-family dom (residence) at the Khutor farmstead, c. 1925. Photo courtesy Fred J. Chernoff.

The Brothers Chernoff and their descendants from Khutor were [informally] known as “Khutorsky”. There were many Chernoffs who were not related to each other and were identified by certain names. The Brothers Chernoff were a natural for the type of work expected at Khutor. They were skilled in this type of work and it was an extension of the skills brought with them from [Elizavetpol, now] Azerbaijan as they had excellent stud farms there. Horses were badly needed for communal farming purposes and were raised here. Stallions and brood mares were kept for raising stock. The Brothers Chernoff took pride in the raising of pure breed horses and gained recognition in horse shows at Kamsack and Yorkton. As horses were an essential part of farming, the Brothers Chernoff became well-known. While Nikolai was the outstanding horseman, the other brothers took an active role in the administration of the duties in the running of Khutor affairs. Even the mother Anyuta, who was a mid-wife and practiced folk medicine, had her own medication to prescribe for sick animals. Wild broncos were brought in from Alberta and had to be broken by Nikolai. He excelled in this work and was suited in personality and physical strength to deal with wild horses. Khutor was a hub of activity.

Khutor became well know and their leader P.V. Verigin used it as a showpiece for Doukhobor progress to show outsiders. Many visitors were brought there and the Chernoffs looked after things with great care. It was indeed a place to show and [it] was common practice to whitewash the cow barn whenever Verigin visited. Cleanliness was important to the Chernoffs as well as in the maintenance of the Khutor facilities. During the peak of the Chernoff life here, there were 20 adults and 25 children living under one roof. The house itself was a stately looking building about 30′ X 100′. It had a veranda on three sides with 20 round white columns supporting and adorning it. There were two stories with 10 large bedrooms and a gigantic kitchen. It was heated by 2 brick stoves and a number of box heaters. Wood was used as fuel. One big bedroom was allocated to each brother’s family and all the family slept in that one room. The veranda was a great place for children to play and it was well used.

Within this building was a special room [gornitsa]. It was a separate bedroom, specially furnished and set aside for P.V. Verigin on his official visits to Khutor. The bedding was always aired, the room dusted and made ready at all times for his unexpected visits. Ladies were assigned to look after this room and to cook for him. A self contained red brick heating unit was built into the room. As children I can recall, we were always warned to keep away from this room. We were not allowed to step inside even during cleaning time when the door was open. It was a special place to be treated with respect and everyone knew it. P.V. Verigin was their spiritual leader and acted in the role of priest [i.e. spiritual leader] and czar [i.e. secular leader]. It was their [i.e. the Doukhobors’] custom to attribute Christ-like qualities to their leaders and few doubted his authority. He had the respect of his followers at Khutor and most feared to confront him with the exception of Nikolai. While being his follower, he stood up to him with the same courage and stamina he displayed with wild horses. P.V. Verigin thought twice in his dealings with Nikolai but was generally very good to the Chernoffs at Khutor. During the leadership of P.P. Verigin, son of Peter V. Verigin, after his arrival in 1927, it was seldom used but always ready.

The early years were time for all to contribute. Initially, they had to eat from one bowl which was placed in the centre of the table and had two spoons for eating purposes. Money was required for other purposes. However, times were getting better at Khutor and there were [eventually] individual bowls available. Always they came under the leadership of their leader P.V. Verigin; the Brothers Chernoff were devout followers and expected their families to do the same. Verigin’s orders were law and were followed to the letter by most. There were dissidents to Verigin’s edicts, but fear of being thrown out of the community and of the outside world kept many people in line. Life was getting better for the Chernoffs and they were all together.

Here at Khutor, the mother Anyuta and her six sons made their home and lived according to customs brought with them [from Russia]. They enjoyed their own way of life and were minimally effected by the ways of other cultures that were surrounding them. It was a time of progress for the community. Living in this manner gave them comfort and support from their own kind and a lifestyle seldom enjoyed by other immigrants at the time. They were part of a communal way of life, had a leader that they respected, and all property was owned by the [central] organization. They were living in their own kind of world and Russian was the working language.

It was up to the Brothers Chernoffs to manage the operations of this village in the running of the day to day affairs. Living under one roof with six families was no easy matter. Alyosha, the oldest brother was the one in charge, but it was the mother Anyuta who was the peace maker. It was to her the Brothers turned for solving problems and maintaining harmonious relationships. The situation was further complicated by the relationships between the wives and children. To deal with children’s problems, there was one rule – only parents were to discipline their children.

Labour was divided among the men and household duties among the women. The brothers that didn’t have sons had to assign their daughters to carry out activities such as plowing with horses and hauling hay which would normally be done by men. Men would be encouraged to find summer employment on the outside and turn this money over to the community central treasury. I can remember my own father recalling being under pressure from his father to turn over all his earnings over to the community fund. He wanted to retain a few dollars to buy his new bride a gift. He was not successful and carried out his father’s command. His brother Nick J. flatly refused to turn over all the money and retained five dollars to buy his new bride a gift. There was much pressure by certain Brothers Chernoffs to turn over all the money that was earned on the outside in accordance with Verigin’s instructions. There was much conflict.

Horse-drawn sleights in front of the Khutor residence, c. 1920. Photo courtesy Fred J. Chernoff.

Eating arrangements were that men and women ate together. Children ate separately with the Grandmother usually at the head of the table. She also slept on the clay oven [peche] in the kitchen and looked after the children. A clay oven was constructed out of brick and clay. After being heated with wood, it maintained the heat and provided for a warm resting place. The meals were vegetarian. Singing of hymns was a common practice after meals. Their leader P.V. Verigin, while in exile in Siberia, proclaimed on Nov. 4, 1894 and ordered a ban on drinking, smoking and meat eating as a step towards the achievement of spiritual purity. The Chernoffs, being devout followers, abided by this ruling. Two women were assigned to cook for the whole family in one week shifts as well as to look after the kitchen. Bread was baked twice a week in the indoor clay oven located in the kitchen. It baked superior bread and is remembered by many. After the bread was removed from the oven, Grandmother would slice the crust and rub it with garlic. It would serve a dual purpose. Children would enjoy it just like candy and it would serve to prevent colds. Children would often run barefooted in the fall due to not having proper footwear available. Large root cellars were made to store the many barrels of soured vegetables and hundreds of cabbages and wagon loads of potatoes. Dried beans and peas were used with many sacks of dried fruit received from their communities in British Columbia. They never tired of potatoes and borshch.

Laundry was done by hand on washboards in large wooden troughs, in the bath house [banya] or outside. A water softener was made by mixing wood ash and water by letting it stand overnight. This mixture was then added to the wash water.

Recreation consisted of visitation, talking, eating and steam-baths or walking 3 1/2 miles to Veregin. Everyone would work till Saturday noon and then it would be time off. The steam-bath or banya was a busy place. The Chernoffs were well known for their strong singing voices and this would be a common pastime. Other than celebrating Peters Day [Petrov Den’] on June 29, the date when their people burned the arms in 1895, there were no other holidays [observed in Canada]. The break with the [Orthodox] Church meant there were no religious days to be observed. Everybody waited for Peters Day on June 29 and had fresh clothes. There was a feast on the grass and was a big holiday for the children. Everything closed and horses rested as no farm work was done. There was no Christmas and no other holidays. There was no electricity and no radios.

Sunday morning was a time for worship. Grandmother got everyone together with the exception of two women cooking and two that had to milk the cows. The rest of the adults would be in prayer service from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. Everyone said their prayers as they knew them and were taught. Some would be short and some rather lengthy. Then, the singing would start for about an hour. Nothing was written down and everything done from memory. Everyone got along fairly well and didn’t hold grudges or resentments. The reason perhaps being was they didn’t have anything to resent or envy. Spirituality was an important component of their lives.

When greeting visitors, the following was used [by the Doukhobors of Khutor and elsewhere]:

– How are you?
– God be praised. How are you?
– Thanks. How are your people at home?
– Thank you.
– Our people send greetings.
– Thank you.

At each phase, the speaker removed his hat and bows with a bare head. It is said that in greeting one’s brother, the Christian must have a kind heart and gentle expression. All this is done sedately and without haste, no matter what urgent matter may exist.

Families of Fedya N., Nikolai N., Alexei N., and Mikhail N. Chernoff at Khutor, c. 1915. Photo courtesy Fred J. Chernoff.

Flax was grown for making cloth and oil from it for cooking. Women and the children would rub the skins off the flax seed by hand and the seed taken to the other [Doukhobor] villages for pressing out the oil. This oil was used for cooking instead of butter. They also grew kanopi (hemp) and made from it oil for cooking. This was apparently better than flax oil and besides kanopi was a member of the marijuana family of plants. It was also used for baby soothers on occasion as it made them sleep especially when they cried. Flax straw was used for making cloth. This material was dyed and shirts, pants and suits were made at Khutor for the Brothers Chernoff by their women. For women, the winter months were a time for being behind the spinning wheel but it was seldom put away. Knitting socks from their own wool was a common practice in order to keep the feet warm in the severe cold winter months. They made their own dresses, underpants and jackets. While flax straw was commonly used for making cloth and was finer, the kanopi plant straw also provided for the making of material by the Chernoffs. This material came out a thickish, grayish product but after bleaching in the snow, would become white. They spun and coloured their own wool. Many beautiful rugs were made on the loom at Khutor by the children of the Brothers Chernoff. Four by six feet rugs were made from dyed wool and it was the custom to place these rugs under the bedding to provide for added comfort on the wooden beds. Mabel J. [Chernoff] provided much leadership in the making of these rugs and must have been trained by her mother. This art must have been learned from their Azerbaijan neighbours and the nearby Persian rug makers from Iran and Turkey. Rug making involved all members of the family and each had taken their turn at the loom. The rugs are now classified as collector’s items and the ones in good condition could be valued up to $6,000. The Chernoffs who are in possession of these rugs should be proud to have this heirloom and know that their ancestors had brought this skill to Canada. They should be handed down to family members who realize the value and the history of this prize possession. They made table clothes from linen, serviettes and runners for dressers which they sold commercially.

The Chernoffs were self sufficient in many areas and the skills of the people coming from Ukraine and [Elizavetpol] Azerbaijan contributed to their independence. Land was being broken, cultivated and grain grown. They farmed a total of six quarters of land. This grain was being hauled to their own community elevators that were built in the town of Veregin. Progress was being made.

The organizational centre for communal activities was in Veregin. Here the organization built their own offices, stores, garages, flour mill and grain elevators. Their leader’s residence and prayer home was located here. This was considered head office for business and spiritual affairs. It was the centre where all major decisions were made and business transacted. Veregin was a booming centre and a place of activity. From the store, Khutor received its allocation of supplies such as tea, salt, rice and other commodities that were made available to all community people. Of course, the individuals who broke away from the community were independent and provided for themselves as any other immigrant. It was here that the grain raised at Khutor was hauled and simply deposited at the community elevator and turned over to the organization. Veregin was the centre for Saskatchewan Doukhobor affairs,

Panoramic view of the Khutor farm site and surrounding landscape, c. 1925. Photo courtesy Fred J. Chernoff.

Peter V. Verigin, being a strong leader, continued to influence the lives of the Chernoff Brothers. The Mother Anyuta and all the Brothers Chernoff were devout and loyal followers and believers in his directives and actions. They and others had attributed special powers to him and treated him with much respect. It is difficult for us now to reason why they behaved in this manner but such was their position at the time. For more detailed information on Verigin’s leadership styles and role much is available in other publications, but it would be safe to say that he took on the role of a benevolent dictator and provided the leadership in the running of their affairs. Some of Peter V. Verigin’s less popular directives that affected the Chernoffs at Khutor were:

1. For a time, he didn’t allow cows and chickens in the villages. This meant there was no butter, eggs and milk for the children. In 1914 he allowed one cow for 40 people. The Chernoffs started to raise chickens and he disallowed them.

2. Discouraged frills such as put on Mary F. [Chernoff] by her mother. While inspecting the children on one of his visits, he tore it off and remarked, “it wasn’t necessary to have frills on hats”. He discouraged pretty clothing and encouraged plain clothing made from linen.

3. No irons to be used or watches worn and to work only by the sun. Ironing of clothes was done by wrapping clothing on rolling pins and rolling a piece of board with ridges over the rolling pins.

4. Three binders were purchased at Khutor for cutting grain. Verigin disallowed them and instructed the people to cut grain with a scythe just like in Russia. The women would gather the grain, wrap it in straw strings and stand them up to dry. They would be harvested using sticks and made rollers to separate the kernels.

5. He discouraged education among the people. Education would lead them to military service and get them into trouble. It was necessary to listen to him for fear of being expelled from the community penniless. Those that were expelled were prevented from visiting their relatives and the relatives within the community were further punished if they received their visits. Those that were expelled, left in desperation and empty handed. They were often helped by Ukrainian or German immigrants.

6. Authorized and dissolved marriages according to his wishes.

7. No dancing or music was allowed and to sing only hymns authorized by him.

8. On one of his visits in 1914, he switched the names John N’s children John and Nick to Nick and John. The reason being that Nick looked like his father and should be named John, and the other, [who] was reddish and looked like his mother, should be named Nick. He then instructed the boys to respond only to their new names. As there was no registration of children, his word was law.

9. In the 1920s, Verigin instructed all the women living in the communities to cut their hair short like men. His reason was to be able to identify the women living in his communities at a glance as opposed to those that were independent and had broken away.

Such were the conditions that the early Chernoffs had to live under and abide by. But, they were used to this life for the past 100 years and placed much faith in their leaders. This type of life was consistent with their early lifestyles in Russia and later, only that, the leaders had different faces now. No doubt their Leader had to take drastic measures and probably for valid reasons in running the affairs of this group of people living under communal conditions. But generally, [he] had treated the Chernoffs at Khutor reasonably well.

Many adjustments had to be made as the family was increasing. As the Brothers had moved out, more room was made available for those remaining. It was customary to arrange marriages as practiced previously and for women to be a couple of years older especially when the family had no girls.

Pavel Biryukov (center) with the Chernoffs at Khutor. He was a former personal secretary to Tolstoy and was brought in by Peter P. Verigin to teach the children Russian and to educate them. Photo courtesy Fred J. Chernoff.

During the summer, it was common practice to take the cattle to the Indian reserve for the summer months. This reserve was located a few miles east of Khutor. Tents would be pitched and ten year old children with adults would herd and milk the cows.

Schooling was a controversial subject and was rejected by the leader. In 1927, Pavel Biryukov came with Verigin from Paris at the age of 80 and was Tolstoy’s secretary. He joined [Peter Petrovich] Verigin on the promise that he would be allowed to set up an educational system among the Doukhobor children in Canada as long as it didn’t infringe on their beliefs. Biryukov had Gabriel Vereshchagin as his assistant, but was stifled by Verigin’s inconsistent allocation of funds. Finally Biryukov, discouraged, ill and broken, returned to Switzerland where soon afterwards he died. He is included with one of the pictures of the [Chernoff] family at Khutor. Linden Valley School was a distance of 1 1/2 miles from Khutor. It was in the Kamsack region and school attendance was more enforced here than at other villages close to Veregin. Many did not attend at first but the boys were encouraged more than the girls and attended twice a week. Girls were encouraged to be taught by parents to wash diapers, clothes and to cook. Children attending school were instructed by parents not to sing ‘O Canada’ or participate in physical exercises because it meant preparation for war services. There was about 80 students to 1 teacher. Khutor horses would take the children to school in the winter time and would be let loose to go home on their own as the barn would be full with other horses. During the severe winter months it was common to have other children stay overnight at Khutor but many would walk home and be exposed to the bitter cold. Warm footwear would depend on whether money was available. Clothes were sewn for children from home made woolen material.

Most of the independent [Doukhobor] farmers who left the community were sending their children freely to school but the followers of Verigin had different ideas. The children around the village of Verigin initially didn’t go to school as the trustees would not enforce their attendance and besides the fines were not paid. [Peter Vasil’evich] Verigin promoted his position against education and scared the people by saying that it would lead to military service. Some claim that he did this in order to retain his control over uneducated people. To this day there are many who deeply resent Verigin’s position and that of their parents on the matter of education as this position was most detrimental to the advancement of all the people. In due time, the government’s insistence on education was enforced and the resistance to schooling was history.

The Brothers Chernoff and their families remained at Khutor until one by one they started to move out to other locations as designated by Verigin. The family was growing and there was a shortage of room in the house. In 1920, Alyosha and his family moved to a nearby village with his family. Towards the end of the 1930’s, only the widow of Nikolai N. who died in 1932 along with her family of four daughters, and the family of John N. remained at Khutor.

The Brothers Chernoff and their wives at a family gathering at Khutor, 1942. Photo courtesy Fred J. Chernoff.

In 1924, P. V. Verigin was unfortunately killed in a British Columbia train bombing. The administration of Community affairs was carried out from the office at Verigin, Sask. by individuals hired for this purpose. A process was then put in place to get a replacement Leader for the people. It was decided that his son Peter P. Verigin was to be the successor. Necessary negotiations with the Russian government were completed for his release because of some irregularities and in October, 1927 he arrived in Canada. From the time of his arrival in Canada and his taking over of complete leadership, things began to change in the management of Community affairs. His reign and leadership styles were very controversial. Much is recorded on this subject in various publications and passed down verbally. After turbulent times, he died in Saskatoon in February, 1939.

Leadership styles and practices have a great bearing on the success or failure of any organization. So it was with the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood, and shortly after the passing of Peter P. Verigin, the Community was not destined to survive. Because of the unconventional behavior of it’s Leader and unsound investment practices, it was to lose control and ownership of all of it’s properties in Manitoba, Saskatchewan. Alberta and British Columbia. In 1938 the organization was broke and could not pay its debts. The Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood was foreclosed by the National Trust and other mortgage companies and bankruptcy proceeding were under way. From the collective contribution of thousands of people, the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood had grown in financial and material success since it started in 1899 but in 1938 had ended in failure and had to declare bankruptcy. It was the largest communal enterprise attempt in North America and observers say that it was largely due to the influence of Lev Tolstoy on P.V.Verigin while he was in exile in Siberia prior to his coming to Canada. With this failure came the end for the communal living of the Brothers Chernoff and their first forty years in Canada. The dream for a spiritual communal life and their 40 year experiment was not destined to last and a new chapter was to begin for the Chernoffs.

It was an end to the Brothers Chernoff story at Khutor. They had to set themselves up as independent farmers and needed to purchase land individually which was seized by the mortgage companies. They had to start anew and in most cases in debt. But to start again in 1938 was nothing new to the Brothers Chernoffs. They had done this before in Russia in the 1700’s, in Ukraine in the early 1800’s, in [Elizavetpol] Azerbaijan in 1845, in Canada in 1899, and now again in 1938 in Canada. But, it was with a difference now. Each was starting on their own and would be responsible for their own operations and actions. Perhaps this was part of their destiny and the search for the expression of their personal beliefs. Some Chernoffs commenced farming operations while others moved to British Columbia and obtained jobs in various fields. Canada gave them the option of taking their rightful places in our society just like any other citizen that came to this country. By the way, as far as it is known, no sons of Anyuta were involved with the radical Freedomite movement. However, there are other stories as told by relatives about relatives that were not included for safety reasons and could be as dramatic. Sorry about that, the best stories are often left untold in print. John N. Chernoff purchased the [Khutor village] land in 1940 where Khutor is now located and lived there with his family till the early 1950’s.

The old house that was called Khutor still stood until the early 1980’s and was getting into a pretty desperate state of repair and stability. Every little wind blowing across the prairie would rock it but it managed to withstand the ravages of time. It had frequent visitors who wanted to revisit the place of their roots and walk inside this old house once again with nothing but memories filling every corner of the house and their hearts. It’s always a pleasure to visit places that are near and dear to our hearts as it enables us to make a contact with our past and gives us a sense of identity that is so elusive in this day and age. To relive the memories of the days gone by get more precious by the moment as the years fleet by. It was a place for many to visit but was becoming a safety concern for those entering this old house.

Google Map of Veregin, SK district settlements where the Brothers Chernoff lived and farmed, 1899-1938.

In 1988, as the house was getting into a hazardous condition and the safety of people visiting this location was a concern, it was demolished. Today, nothing remains but the land where Khutor stood on and the many memories of the Chernoffs who made their home here and people with whom they come in contact. Sources say that there are two persons buried on the little hill southeast of the house [site]. A twin who died at birth and a Chernoff who was befriended by the Brothers Chernoff and lived with them during his years in Canada.

I still like to go there and relive the many memories that fill my memory bank and my heart. I then leave the place feeling that somehow here, I have my roots and my identity that will be mine forever as the home of my childhood for the first six years of my life. It is also the Canadian home of my ancestors the “Brothers Chernoff from Azerbaijan” and that of their descendants whoever and wherever they might be.

This is the great story of our ancestors, a very ordinary people who came to settle this country. It will continue now and forever in Canada and many parts of the world through the descendants of a little woman named Anyuta and her six sons, the “Brothers Chernoff from Azerbaijan”.

Family Profiles

A brief profile of the Great Grandmother Anyuta and her six sons follows. There are many matters that deserve mention and have been omitted. For this we are extremely sorry, as this information was not available at the time. But this project can be continued on any Brother’s family and [we] would encourage someone from each family to do this. Record your own special history, add you family’s photos and bring up to date your own special information respecting your family. You too can make this up to date information available to grandchildren or your relatives. This may be the greatest gift you can leave them. Much of the early research had been done and the rest is easier to obtain.

Anna (Anyuta) Timofeyevna Chernova (1864-1934)

Her husband Nikolai was born without knuckles on one hand and died while on his route to exile in Siberia in 1895. They had six sons who lived and two sons and one daughter who died at an early age. All were born in [Elizavetpol, now] Azerbaijan.

Together with Alyosha she governed the affairs of the Brothers at Khutor and was strict in many ways. Her responsibilities included the care and concern for the grandchildren. She always sat with the children during the meals as the grandchildren always ate separately.

Grandmother Anyuta Chernoff and her grandchildren at Khutor. Photo courtesy Fred J. Chernoff.

She provided much guidance to the Brothers and their families. Was the family mediator and everyone went to her for consultation. She didn’t read or write Russian but spoke fluently the Azeri and Tatar language. As a midwife, her role was that of providing medical assistance and advice to people who were having medical problems. Her recommendations were a big breakfast which included soup, porridge, fried potatoes, kasha and rice. Big dinners at noon included borshch, perohy, beets, fried cabbage and only a small supper with soup. She encouraged everyone to eat lightly and not overfill with anything heavy. No food was thrown out and meals were planned accordingly. No food was to be left on the plate. She advised and guided when to seed according to the moon. When the hills were dry, it was time to seed the radishes and advised them of the time to set hens on hatching eggs. One of the sons had brought home a new bride who did not get along with the other wives. After discussion with Verigin, the son was advised to take the new bride home to her village in order to keep peace and harmony within the family.

She was well respected in the community for her midwifery skills. All grandchildren were delivered by her. She developed special skills for handling breach babies and was called by Dr. Thran at Kamsack for assistance with the Mrs. Sheets baby. This was requested by Mr. Sheets as Dr. Thran advised him that nothing further can be done to his wife and she was at risk. She corrected the breach and the baby was delivered successfully. Providing certain medication went along with her services: she had turpentine for bruises, white liniment for cold and fevers, with which she rubbed the chest and back etc. She used certain herbs and plants for medicine.

There were people who were emotionally disturbed and came to her for assistance. They had worries, depression, sleepless nights, confusion and no direction in life. Cures such as whispering with prayer [stikhi], and bloodletting was used to alleviate certain illnesses. There was a case of an eight year old girl who had one eye shut and came to her for help. She took her three times in the morning to a field and washed her face with dew. The girl was instructed not to look back. This corrected her ailment and the eye opened up. Children who had been frightened or feared things would be brought to her for treatment. She would position a child by a tree, drill a hole in the tree at the same height as the child, clip some nails and hair from the child, mix this mixture with gum or bread, put this mixture into the drilled hole and cover it with the tree shavings drilled out previously. She would slowly say a prayer in a whisper and nobody knew the contents of the prayer. The person was instructed not to look back upon leaving the location. It resolved problems in many cases and would change people’s lives. It was said that she had acquired these special powers from her mother-in-law in the old country as she too was a midwife and practiced folk medicine. Her cure for children’s stomach pains was to sit them on the floor with the knees bent. Routine was to bend over and lick salt. In the process the pain subsided and the cure was effective. It is rumored that she used horse manure liquid for curing hangovers.

Grandmother Chernoff pitcher and glass – her only worldly possession. Photo courtesy Fred J. Chernoff.

Throughout the years in Canada she had delivered many babies and on many occasions had to be at the farm home where the mothers was expecting for long periods of time. The only mode of transportation was by horse and sleigh, particularly in the winter. During her midwife career she didn’t lose one child. Fedya N. remembered her making medicine using butter and some other ingredients. Delivering babies was her only income source during her later years while living with Fedya.

Teena A. as a child had lived and slept with her, and stated that she was very kind to her and was even better than some mothers. Upon returning home from delivering a baby, she was asked by Teena where the baby came from? Her response was, that she pulled the baby from a pond and that it was in a bag.

She was a quite spoken woman who had many daughter-in-laws and was respected by her sons and their families. Her hobbies included knitting socks and spinning wool. She always had candy and liked to eat peppermints. She respected Verigin and was scared by him that her sons would be taken away for military service if they got educated and for this reason discouraged education for the sons. Her last years 1928-1934 were spent living with Fedya and his family. Prior to passing away, she asked to see Mike M. Chernoff. During this visit, she told him that she had 30 grandchildren and should she die that she didn’t have anything to leave them. However, she had a water pitcher and 3 glasses as her only possession and would like to leave it for one grandchild. She decided to leave it for him, and besides he was the only one that brought her peppermints which she liked very much. A picture of the pitcher and a glass is included with the photos. She passed away in 1934 without any earthly possessions with the exception of planting the Brothers Chernoff from Azerbaijan in Canada and perhaps stressing the importance of passing around a few peppermints along the way.

She is buried in a community cemetery north of Veregin and left a total of 275 descendants as counted in 1992.

Alyosha Nikolayevich Chernoff (1877-1967)

Alexeii N. Chernoff (1877-1967).

He was married in Azerbaijan at an early age in a marriage arranged by the parents. Was literate in Russian and spoke Azeri. Rejected a military call in 1895 and served in jail.

At Khutor he played a leadership [role] in the running of affairs. His duties included the allocation of work, finances, problem solving, decision-making and generally carrying out the orders of their leader. He took on a fatherly role and was easy going. Was well liked by the family, listened to by everyone and certainly had the assistance of Anyuta when required. He was a devout Christian and a loyal follower of the leader P.V. Verigin. His composed, peaceful manner had helped him maintain his fine facial features in his later years. He had aged gracefully and was at peace within himself. The later years were spent living with his son Wasyl and his family on a farm about 1/2 mile west of Khutor.

His family consisted of three sons: Nick – born in 1893, Peter – born in 1901, and Wasyl – born in 1909. At the age of 80 years he started to learn English and finally realized that education was important. His grandson Bill W. was the first Chernoff to have attained the highest academic standard to that date in obtaining his Doctorate in Mathematics.

A Message to Relatives” was written by him in 1964. It is the only recorded history of our family by a Chernoff from Azerbaijan. It is included proudly and appreciatively of his foresight in recording his story for the family to retain for future purposes.

His family moved from Khutor in 1920 and he is buried in the [Old] Veregin cemetery. He requested to be buried in the old cemetery if the roads were passable as Nikolai, Anyuta, Hanya, and Marisha were buried there.

Nikolai Nikolayevich Chernoff (1880-1932)

Married to Dunya Makaroff and had four daughters: Mabel – 1912, Annie – 1914, Dora – 1919 and Marge – 1923. He was a very strong willed individual and signed his name with a X. Had attractive features, more outgoing than the other brothers, strong willed, courageous and enjoyed his wine on occasions.

He was nicknamed “Czar” because of his exceptional qualities in character and his ability to handle horses. Verigin nicknamed him Czar “king of the horses” and recognized him for this and gave him a gift of a saddle and a gold watch. There are many stories about his role at Khutor and especially about him standing up to Verigin. He must have been envied by many people for his lack of fear against this man. Leadership qualities and determination were his traits and had carried out many business transactions for Khutor with merchants and Indians as necessary. He was a friend of the Indians and got along extremely well with them.

Nikolai N. Chernoff (1880-1932) with wife, Mabel and Annie. Photo courtesy Fred J. Chernoff.

He was a top man with horses and probably one of the reasons the Brothers Chernoff were placed at Khutor. Was in charge of breaking, breeding, and preparing horses for community work purposes. He was gifted horse trainer of the highest quality and also in the supervision of other men. The story is told that when the Alberta wild broncos were received and brought to Khutor for breaking in, he would go into the corral with a whip. By cracking the whip and shouting them down, he would control the horses and proceed with making them useful for farming purposes. Because of his exceptional strength, it was said that if the horses would prove too stubborn and he met with resistance, that he would grab them by the neck and throw them to the ground.

During the digging of a well in January 1932, and in discussion of financial affairs regarding the turning over of money earned outside by the Chernoffs to the central treasury, he died of a heart attack.

The widow Dunya and her daughters continued to live a Khutor until about 1938. She had then married a widower John J. Mahonin and moved to a location a mile from Khutor.

John Nikolayevich Chernoff (1891-1957)

Shortly after his arrival in Canada, he was placed by Verigin in the village Novoye where there was a family that had only girls. During his time there, he married one of the Semenoff girls and made his home here till 1912. At this time all the Brothers Chernoff were assigned to Khutor.

John N. Chernoff family, 1924. (back l-r) Anyuta, John N., Hanya, Mabel, Nick, John. (front l-r) Pete, Harry, Sam. Photo courtesy Fred J. Chernoff.

The family consisted of: Mabel – 1905, John – 1908, Nick – 1912, Peter – 1917, Sam – 1918 and Harry – 1921. He was an honest man and a devout follower of P.V. Verigin in accordance with his mother’s wishes. His skills included that of a carpenter, blacksmith and other skills so necessary to carry out all the operations at Khutor in the growing of crops and the breeding of animals. In 1935 his wife Hanya passed away at the age of 48 from pneumonia and he was left alone to take care of his boys. He was the longest living brother who had lived at Khutor. Married a Polly Barisoff [in] about 1942 and at that time Walter Barisoff came to live at Khutor with his mother. They moved to Veregin to retire and in 1953 with his health failing Mrs. Barisoff chose to leave and live with her children. He decided to move to British Columbia where he had three sons and daughter living. His last years were spent living with his son Harry, wife Elizabeth and children Wayne, Cary and Elizabeth at Appledale, British Columbia.

During his working career, he ran a steam engine and had a lifetime certificate from the government. He was a mechanic for threshing machines and steam engine fuses. Also worked at driving the stallion around during the breeding season from farm to farm. The charge was $2.00 at the initial visit and $2.00 when there was a colt born. Spring was the usual season for this work and lasted about a month. Khutor was a place to visit and I spent many happy days visiting Grandpa’s place.

He is buried in a cemetery at Passmore, British Columbia and his wife is buried in a cemetery directly north of Veregin.

Feodor Nikolayevich Chernoff (1888-1982)

Married Fanya Popoff in Veregin, who was born in Georgia. They had six children: Mary J. Chutskoff – 1912, Polly P. Kyba – 1915, Helen Selander – 1917, Laura P. Kabatoff – 1922, Tena Yurkowski – 1927 and Fred – 1932. Fred is married to Nayda Podovinnekoff.

When he first arrived in Canada he had worked on building the railway from Winnipeg to Dauphin. Here a certain foreman wanted to provide him with an education or training to take on supervisory responsibilities. His mother and brother Alyosha discouraged him to accept.

[He] lived at Khutor till 1928 and then moved one mile east to live with Alyosha’s family because they didn’t have any girls. The girls would help with chores as well as stooking. P.V. Verigin wanted 25 individuals in each section [at the time].

Members of the Feodor N. Chernoff family in front of their Model T Ford at Khutor, c. 1925. (Back row, l-r) Anyuta, son Feodor N. and wife Fanya. (Front l-r) Helen F., Laura F., Polly F. and Mary F. Photo courtesy Fred J. Chernoff.

He was interested in horses and was a shoemaker. From leather he made shoes for men, women and children. This was a winter job and continued until enough money was available to purchase manufactured shoes. Made his own patterns and sizes to fit individual people. Was a generalist and did many things that required doing. Had a mild manner about him and was 5’8″ tall with blue eyes and blonde hair. Looked more on his mother’s side of the family. As Verigin discouraged education, he signed his name with a X. He discouraged his wife to read in Russian to the children. Because of Verigin’s policy on education, members of his family resented this position and blame Verigin to a large degree for their father’s actions regarding education. Spoke the Azeri and Tatar language with his mother and Aunt Dunya Popoff on her visits from Yorkton. This was especially useful when they didn’t want the children to know. He practiced folk medicine and must have received instructions from his mother on bloodletting which was a common practice for individuals with certain ailments. Removed warts by tying a silk thread around the wart and hung the thread on a door hinge. When the silk was worn out, the warts would disappear. This was done after the full moon and after the moon decreases, the warts would disappear. He mother taught him that if people believed, it would work and if they didn’t, then for them to go home.

The girls had to take on men’s work in contributing to Khutor operations and to carry their family load or share. Mary recalls that at the age of 10, she would put the harness on the 4 horses and sit on the plow all day. It was normal for the girls to haul hay and stock during harvest. They would cut hay on the Indian reserve and stacked it. Then, after bailing it by hand, it would be hauled to Kamsack and shipped away by railroad.

His wife Fanya passed away in 1955. He lived in Veregin alone until the last year of his life and looked after himself. It was common to see him walk 1 1/2 miles to his son’s Fred farm which he enjoyed doing. He never looked old for his 94 years and made numerous trips to British Colombia to visit with his family. Got along well with people and had a good sense of humor. He died at the Kamsack Nursing home after a brief illness and is buried in the Veregin cemetery.

Mikhail Nikolayevich Chernoff (1892-1966)

He was married to Helen Chernoff and raised 3 sons: Mike born in 1911, George born in 1914 and Paul in 1920. Helen was raised by her great uncle and aunt.

From the time of being placed at Khutor, he was in charge of providing transportation to P.V. Verigin from 1912 to 1924, at which time he was killed in a train bombing in British Columbia. Special carriages and horses were always at Verigin’s call whenever needed. They were stored at Khutor and one carriage carried 18 passengers.

Like the other brothers, he had an exceptional strong singing voice. This was supplemented by his wife Helen, who also excelled in singing. They made a remarkable singing pair and were recognized by their people for this quality. They both possessed a good memory for the songs and hymns as they were not written down at this time. He was a good dresser and took pride in his appearance. He too went out to work and brought money into the community. While in Toronto working on bridge construction, he fell and severely injured himself. Mr. Klutz a well known bone setter from Mikado, helped set his bones and assisted in his recovery.

Mike N. Chernoff and family, Khutor, SK c. 1935.

He left the community to farm on his own in 1938. The experiences at Khutor equipped him with many farming skills. He farmed until 1942, at which time he sold his farm and moved to Grand Forks, British Columbia. There, he purchased a sawing outfit and sawed cordwood for people.

His son Mike M. Chernoff, perhaps became one of the best known Chernoffs in the Community. In 1928, Mike started to work in the office of the Christian Community Universal Brotherhood at Veregin. By 1935, he rose to the rank of Secretary-Treasurer of this organization. Up to 1939 was a personal secretary to P.P. Verigin. He was intimately involved in the bankruptcy proceeding of the C.C.U.B., and the private affairs and activities of P.P. Verigin up until his death in 1939. He is the only surviving original Director and Shareholder of the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood Ltd. [as of] 1992. The pitcher and glasses given to him by Anyuta are in possession of his son in Vancouver.

His sons George and Paul lived close to him in Grand Forks. Paul had gained a considerable recognition for his outstanding singing voice in the area and certainly carried on the Chernoff traditional skills in singing. His singing career tragically ended with an unfortunate accident on July 13, 1955.

Both him, and his wife Helen who died at the age of 82, are buried in a cemetery at Grand Forks, British Columbia.

Andrey Nikolayevich Chernoff (1895-1975)

Was the youngest of the Chernoffs to arrive in Canada at the age of five. It must have been quite an experience for one so young to make the journey to Canada and the settling in to start a new beginning.

In his marriage to Polly Sherstobitoff, they had a son Andrew born in 1917 and a daughter Teena born in 1920. This marriage ended in separation and Andrew went to live with his mother and Teena with her father. He then married Nellie Kurenoff and they farmed north of Mikado. Was one of the first brothers to leave the community and start independent farming operations in 1928.

(l-r) Andrey N., John J. and John N. Chernoff at Khutor, 1915. Photo courtesy Fred J. Chernoff.

He held the role of a veterinarian at Khutor and during his life on the farm. Had instruments for fixing teeth, performed castrations and pierced stomachs whenever the animals would over-eat grain. He performed this work for community people at no charge but charged outsiders. Was a self-made veterinarian and very interested in working with iron and enjoyed his blacksmithing chores. Left Khutor in 1928 and like the other brothers had a strong singing voice. While living in Mikado, it was common for him to travel by sleigh 23 miles to Kamsack in severe cold winter weather. Had an outgoing personality and made sure he got along with his neighbors. He helped neighbors in their blacksmithing requirements and in many cases at no charge. Did his own carpentering and had his own steam engine for threshing purposes. Was very good to Teena and wanted his daughter to be home before sunset. He never laid a finger on her and his looks were good enough and she respected him. Was very kind but was strict.

Kamsack was his retirement home. Together with Nellie, they spent many pleasant years together in their clean, comfortable home with many close relatives and friends. His wife Nellie is the only living survivor [as of] 1992 of the wives of the Brothers Chernoffs from Azerbaijan.

He is buried in a cemetery at Kamsack. Sask.

About the Author

Fred J. Chernoff was born at Kylemore, Saskatchewan in 1927 and for the first eight years lived at Khutor (Veregin), Saskatchewan where he experienced the historic community style of life. He entered the grain business in 1951 as a grain elevator manager, was promoted to a District Manager at Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan in 1968. Then transferred to Head Office in Winnipeg, Manitoba until retiring as an Administrator of Training / Development and Industrial Relations / Safety in 1989. Since retiring in Winnipeg in 1999, he was fully occupied with volunteering and serving on various community boards/projects. This also included four CESO volunteer assignments in 1993-2000 as a Volunteer Advisor in the former Soviet Union during their historic times. With his wife Natalie, they spent 170 days there and also shared a rare opportunity to learn more about the country of his ancestors. Fred’s interests included traveling, writing, dancing, performing magic, cottage life and visiting his family in Vancouver, British Columbia. During his early retirement, the books “The Brothers Chernoff from Azerbaijan to Canada” (1992) and “The Posnikoffs from Georgia to Canada“ (1998) were written. Currently, he is writing a new family book, “The Gift Of Ancestors“ which will be available mid 2011.

Exile of the Dukhobortsy, 1843

by Moritz Wagner

Moritz Wagner (1813-1887) was a German explorer, collector, geographer and natural historian who toured South Russia and the Caucasus between 1843 and 1846.  In 1843, he met a convoy of Doukhobor exiles en route from the Molochnaya to the Caucasus.  Earlier that year, he visited the Doukhobors already settled in Caucasia.  Wagner kept a diary and recorded his impressions of these encounters, which he published in “Der Kaukasus und das Land der Kosaken, in den Jahren 1843 bis 1846” (Dresden & Leipzig: Arnoldische Buchhandlung, 1848).  The following is reproduced from a review of “Der Kaukasus…” published in The Westminster and Foreign Quarterly Review (London), vol. 50, 1849, in which excerpts from the book were translated into English from the original German and quoted at length. It is one of the most vivid and detailed first-hand accounts of the Doukhobor exile to the Caucasus, and provides rare and fascinating insights into the circumstances of their expulsion and the conditions in which they were settled. Afterword by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

As I returned wearied from my wanderings among the glaciers on the evening of the 2nd of August, to my lodgings, I found everything in unusual bustle. Hundreds of wagons, heavily laden, were rolling slowly through the village – old men with venerable beards, little children, women with sucking babes at the breast – sat in them, among chests, and boxes, and household and agricultural implements of every kind. They reminded me of processions of emigrants from the South of Germany, which I had seen moving towards Havre and Bremen, but that their Slavonian cast of feature, long beards, and old dilapidated hats with narrow brims, showed them to be Russians. They were, however, emigrants, though unwilling ones; people of the religious sect of Duchoborzen [Dukhobortsy], whom an imperial order had just driven from their beautiful and fertile habitations by the Sea of Azoph [Azov], to the uttermost limit of the Russian Empire on the other side of the Caucasus – a region of cold and desolate mountains.

Wagon on the Georgian Military Road between Vladikavkaz and Tiflis, 19th century.

There were among them men of a most venerable aspect – real apostolic figures, but so astonishingly like each other that I could scarcely distinguish them; they seemed all like twin brothers. The women and girls, who were not handsome, wore frightful little caps, tied together with broad ribbon, and long jackets of blue cloth, like those worn by Russian slaves [serfs]. The children, especially the boys, had a most gentle and amiable expression of countenance, and the people seemed to form among themselves one great family.

Sometimes ten or more of the wagons would suddenly make a halt; the men would alight, and assemble around an old woman, who held a great bottle of spirits, of which she would give a glass to one after another, and lastly take a good sip herself. By the uniformity of their simple costume, by their thoughtful faces, and patriarchal mode of life, it was easy to see that they must be reformers [Russian Protestants]; and the sight of so many people, thus resolutely and with solemn resignation going forth into exile, made so much the more painful impression on me, as I knew what a harsh climate and barren soil they had to encounter in the melancholy abode assigned to them.

I had spent some time in Gumri [Gyumri, Armenia], which is on the frontier, towards Asiatic Turkey, and had had some intercourse with those of the Duchoborzen who were already settled there. These poor people had not only suffered the severest privations, but had also been plundered and ill-treated by the Russian officials, and many families had already sunk under misery and hunger.

The Duchoborzen whom I now saw had been settled on the Steppes of the Sea of Azoph, by command of the Emperor Alexander, who had feared that this enthusiastic sect might make proselytes, and spread into the interior of Russia. On the banks of the Maloshna [Molochnaya] (the Milk River) where they were located, they had founded eleven [nine] large, handsome, and prosperous villages. That they are industrious men, and excellent agriculturists, is acknowledged even by their enemies, the adherents of the Russian [Orthodox] national church. In no other part of the empire were the fields and gardens so blooming, the cattle so thriving, as on this colony on the Milk River.

Mt. Kazbek on the Georgian Military Road where Wagner met the Doukhobors in 1843.

The colonists grew rich, but withdrew themselves more and more from their neighbors, and would allow no stranger to witness the mysteries of their divine worship – so that wherein its peculiarities consist has never been rightly understood. They assemble daily in their churches and sing psalms – and they declare that the Holy Spirit, the Father, or the Son, dwells in every man; but they do not seem themselves to have a very clear knowledge of their system. They listen with devout attention to the confused fanatical addresses of their elders; and then-chief [Kapustin], who inhabited an island of the Maloshna enjoyed a boundless reverence, the multitudes believing that he stood in some intimate relation to the deity. He appears to have exercised a mysterious and terrible power over them.

As long as Alexander lived, the Duchoborzen remained in tranquility. They paid their taxes punctually, furnished recruits, and subjected themselves to all the duties of subjects, and though they avoided all intercourse with the members of the Russian church, they offered no molestation to any one. But a change came with the accession of the Emperor Nicholas [in 1825]. The priests and official personages of their neighborhood knew that the Czar hated all religious sects, and desired particularly to establish the unity of the national church – and the persecution now began.

The Duchoborzen were accused of making their villages the asylums of runaway criminals, on whom they conferred, it was said, the names of deceased persons, who were privately buried, and thus the official books for years together showed no record of a death. There existed, moreover, a sort of secret tribunal, which disposed secretly of all of their society who were suspected of divulging the mysteries. Upon such vague accusations as these, commissions of inquiry were established; the authorities would not of course lose such a tempting opportunity of fining the rich Duchoborzen villagers; and the threat of sending them to Siberia, or beyond the Caucasus, filled many an official pocket that had been empty before.

That the Duchoborzen had really been guilty of the crime, such as it was, of affording a refuge to the deserters from the army, is highly probable, and this circumstance was ultimately turned to their destruction. A Russian deserter, who had been closely pursued by a police officer, was afterwards found in the mill-stream of one of the German colonists, and it was now declared that the Duchoborzen had murdered him, and dragged him here in the night, in order to turn the suspicion of the deed upon the Germans.

Mountain pass on the Georgian Military Road, 19th century.

Upwards of a hundred individuals were hereupon seized, imprisoned, whipped, and tortured, to wring from them the confession; but they constantly denied the charge and no proof whatever could be discovered. Notwithstanding, however, that it remained a mere suspicion, thirty men received the knout, as convicted murderers, and were then sent off to Siberia; and shortly afterwards an imperial ukase arrived, commanding that the whole body of the Duchoborzen should be transported to the frontiers of the Arpatschai [Arpachai River] – the coldest, dreariest, and most desolate region of the Caucasus. These poor people had to leave their fruitful fields and convenient houses, and build themselves huts among the rugged mountains, in a place where corn will ripen only in the warmest summers.

In the year 1843, when I was on the Arpatschai, I found some thousands of them settled there, in seven villages, but all in the most deplorable condition. The children looked pale and thin, from insufficient food. I asked one of the boys whether he would go with me and be my servant, to have good food, and wear good clothes, and he answered, ‘Oh, I should like to go – but he added – ‘not without my maminka‘ (my little mother).

The miserable condition into which the greater part of the first settlers fell, was not enough to soften the hearts of their oppressors; a fresh command arrived from St. Petersburg to drive the remaining four or five thousand of the Duchoborzen from their houses. As they had to sell their little possessions in all haste in order to begin their pilgrimage to the Caucasus, they fell into the hands of usurers and cheats, who gave them scarcely a tenth part of the value; and not a few official personages made handsome profits on the occasion.

The choice had been offered to them to remain in their villages on condition of conforming to the national church, but very few yielded to the temptation; and very remarkable it is, that with such vague ideas of religion as they possessed, such imperfect conceptions of God and a future state, they should yet cling so firmly to them, and for their sake renounce all hopes of temporal well-being, consent to abandon their beloved homes, and encounter the thousand-fold miseries of banishment in dreary and inhospitable deserts.

Afterword

Moritz Friedrich Wagner was one of the foremost traveler-explorers of the mid-nineteenth century. He led expeditions to Algeria (1836-1838), Armenia and the Caucasus Mountains (1842-1846), Italy (1846-1849), Asia Minor and Central Asia (1850-1851), the United States, West Indies and Central America (1852-1855) and Central America and Ecuador (1857-1860). Wagner’s early career was as a geographer, and he published a number of geographic books based on his travels. He was also a keen naturalist and collector whose chief interest was the study of animal migration, and he faithfully reported the scientific and ethnological results of his many expeditions through a long series of writings.

In May of 1843, Wagner toured the Wet Mountains region of Northern Armenia and Southern Georgia.  There, near Gyumri and Akhaltsikhi (as noted in the original German text), he encountered several thousand Doukhobors living in seven (he erred as there were eight) villages. They had only recently settled there, having been deported from the Molochnaya region near the Sea of Azov in two parties in 1841 and 1842. The harsh mountain climate and barren soil had ravaged the exiles, whom Wagner found “all in the most deplorable condition”.  The children, he noted, “looked pale and thin, from insufficient food” and lacked “good clothes”.  Moreover, the Doukhobors had suffered mightily at the hands of corrupt Tsarist officials, who “plundered and ill-treated” them when they arrived.  Many families had sunk under misery, hunger and privation; yet clung firmly to their faith.

Three months later, in August of 1843, Wagner hiked the glaciers of Mount Kazbek (as noted in the original German text) south of Vladikavkaz, Russia. There, along the Georgian Military Road, he met a third party of Doukhobor exiles in “hundreds of wagons, heavily laden” with household and agricultural implements.  They were en route from the Molochnaya to the Wet Mountains. Wagner noted the resolute decorum and solemn resignation of these “real apostolic figures” who “seemed to form among themselves one great family”.  This pained him, having already visited their cold and desolate place of exile.

Unidentified informants, possibly members of the military escort conducting the sectarians, told Wagner that the Doukhobors were “industrious men, and excellent agriculturalists” and that “in no other part of the empire were the fields and gardens so blooming, the cattle so thriving” as on their colony on the Molochnaya.  Under Tsar Alexander I, the Doukhobors remained in tranquility; they “paid taxes punctually, furnished recruits and subjected themselves to all duties”.  Under Tsar Nicholas I, however, they became increasingly introverted. The Doukhobors “grew rich, but withdrew themselves more and more from their neighbours, and would allow no stranger to witness the mysteries of their divine worship”. A cruel persecution began.   

According to Wagner, “vague accusations” were made of Doukhobor murders at the Molochnaya colony which gave the authorities an excuse for “commissions of inquiry”.  No positive proof of these rumours was ever discovered, but over 100 Doukhobors were arrested, and thirty were exiled to Siberia as murderers; this is an anecdote not included in most written histories of the sect.  The real reason for their exile, contended Wagner, was that the Doukhobors were guilty of giving refuge to military deserters.  Moreover, fines and extortion by threats of exile for this crime “filled many an official pocket” with Doukhobor money.  Tsar Nicholas I, who “hated all religious sects,” accepted the dubious charges and exiled the entire Doukhobor colony to the Caucasus in 1839. 

Tsarist authorities waited until the last minute before informing the colony of its deportation in 1841.  The Doukhobors told Wagner that because they “had to sell their possessions in all haste in order to begin their pilgrimage to the Caucasus, they fell into the hands of usurers and cheats, who gave them scarcely a tenth part of the value” of their property left behind on the Molochnaya.  Moreover, Wagner was told that “not a few official personages made handsome profits” off the Doukhobor plight. 

Wagner’s account is almost certainly the most detailed and perceptive eyewitness account of the Doukhobor exile to the Caucasus, and his reasons given for their expulsion from the Molochnaya, among the most believable.

To read more, search, download, save and print a full PDF copy of the original German text of “Der Kaukasus und das Land der Kosaken, in den Jahren 1843 bis 1846” by Moritz Wagner (Dresden & Leipzig: Arnoldische Buchhandlung, 1848), visit the Google Book Search digital database.

The Dukhobortsy, 1865

by Vasily Vasil’evich Vereshchagin

Vasily Vasil’evich Vereshchagin was one of the most famous 19th Century Russian Realist painters and one of the first Russian artists to be widely recognized abroad. In 1864-1865 he went to the Caucasus in search of subjects for his canvas, where he encountered a variety of local peoples, including the Doukhobors of the Kedabek district of Elizavetpol province.  He kept a journal and wrote down his observations, which were published in “Vassili Verestchagin: Painter-Soldier-Traveller, Autobiographical Sketches” (F. H. Peters, trans., London: R. Bentley & Son, 1887).  The following excerpt provides a detailed and unique first-hand account of the Doukhobors during their early settlement in the Caucasus, and highlights their social customs, spiritual beliefs, religious services and general prosperity.  It also includes a number of rare and historically important drawings by Vereshchagin of various Doukhobor subjects and scenes from the aforesaid publication and from “Voyage dans les provinces du Caucase” par Basile Vereschaguine, traduit du russe par Mme et M. Ernest le Barbier. 1864-1865. Texte et dessins inédits. Seconde Partie. – “La Transcaucasie” Le Tour du Monde (Paris), t. 19, premier semestre 1869: 315-21; 322-36. Foreword and Afterword by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

Foreword

Vasily Vasil’evich Vereshchagin (1842-1904)

Vasily Vasil’evich Vereshchagin (1842-1904) was born in the town of Cherepovets in Novgorod province, Russia into a relatively prosperous family of landowners. As the son of a nobleman, he was expected to follow a military or diplomatic career. At the age of eight, he entered the Alexander Cadet Corps, an educational institution in St. Petersburg that prepared future military officers from a very early age. Three years later, he entered the Sea Cadet Corps at St. Petersburg, making his first voyage in 1858. Vereshchagin was one of the ablest students in his class and looked to be at the outset of a promising naval career.

However, during the years of his military education, the young man developed a passion for art – viewed as a ‘lowly’ calling by his peers. Immediately upon graduating from the naval school in 1860, Vereshchagin left the service and enrolled full-time at the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts to begin the study of drawing in earnest. He left the Academy four years later, dissatisfied with its classical standards and approach. The same year, in 1864, he entered the Academie des Beaux-Arts in Paris where he studied under the famous Jean Leon Gerome. But in the Paris Academy, too, classical standards were prevalent, and thus Vereshchagin soon departed, frustrated.

In search of new subjects, Vereshchagin travelled to the Caucasus in 1864-1865, where he created a series of sketches and studies devoted to the life and customs of the local people. It was his second trip, having briefly visited the Caucasus in 1863.  It was at this time that he visited the Doukhobors living in the Kedabek district of Elizavetpol province, whom he sketched and wrote about in his journal.

Not far from the town of Shusha… live the Russian sectarians who were banished from Russia proper on account of their indefatigable zeal in propagating their doctrines. They live as settlers among the Armenians and Tatars; and as their villages lay but a short distance off my route, I went so far out of my way in order to visit them, to question them, and to observe them with my own eyes.

From a lofty mountain ridge we looked down into a valley in which lies the village of Slavyanka, inhabited by the Dukhobortsy (“Doukhobors”). A little further behind the mountains lie some more villages [Novo-Goreloye, Novo-Spasskoye and Novo-Troitskoye], inhabited by the same sect, but these I did not see. Presently we met some of the inhabitants returning home in large parties from their hay making, and carrying their scythes and rakes. They wear white shirts, stuck soldier-wise into their white breeches, and caps with broad peaks. Most of them had a merry air, and were talking and laughing together. When they saw me they politely raised their caps.

Water wheel in Slavyanka, Vereshchagin, Le Tour du Monde.

The village lies in a hollow, by a rushing torrent that falls into the Kura [River]. The distance from Elizavetpol may be sixty versts [an Imperial Russian measure equal to 1.0668 km] or a little more. All round rise mountains, almost bare of vegetation; though in the place itself, which numbers 205 houses, and some 600 male inhabitants, there are trees and more vegetation in abundance. The Dukhobortsy came, or rather were transplanted, to this place from the Tauride [Tavria] district, whither they had been forced to migrate from the interior of Russia between 18[02] and 1830.

Many of their old men still remember quite well their homes in old Russia, in the districts of Tambov, Saratov and elsewhere. The first batch of these were sent here in 1840, others later. They had a hard time of it at first, as they had to take up their abode among the neighboring Armenians and Tatars, who treated them with great cruelty, constantly robbing them and sometimes going to the length of murder. 

Doukhobor woman, left, Vereshchagin, Le Tour du Monde.

Doukhobor woman, right, Vereshchagin, Le Tour du Monde.

There are no forests in the neighbourhood, and the carriage of timber by the mountain paths is exceedingly laborious, so that they could not think at first of making a permanent settlement. Many returned to the bosom of the Orthodox Church and went back to Russia. Those who remained gradually improved their condition, and today, after five-and-twenty years, the settlements of the Dukhobortsy (four villages, if I mistake not) are so well built and well arranged as to be an object of envy to the natives of the district.

In earlier times severe measures were taken against their doctrines, and great efforts were made to prevent them from spreading; and it was with this object that the Dukhobortsy were transplanted to the mountains of Transcaucasia. The Tsar Alexander I visited them while they were still in the Tauride district, was present at their worship, and by his gracious behaviour not only left behind him a good name among the sectarians, but also improved their position in the community, which at that time was far from enviable. “It is only since his visit,” say the Dukhobortsy, “that we are looked upon as human beings and suffered to drive our cattle into the town and to buy and sell in peace. Before that, when we went among our neighbours on business, we heard nothing but insulting remarks, such as ‘You are no Christians: you are people who are not fit to show your faces among men.'” It is easy to see that the Dukhobortsy retain a vivid recollection of the persecution and insult which they formerly suffered, and that though better times came afterwards few of them would care to return to the interior of Russia. 

Sketch of a Doukhobor man, Autobiographical Sketches.

The main thought of their religion may be expressed in a very few words – one God in three persons, vix. God the Father – the memory; God the Son – the understanding; God the Holy Ghost – the will: the Trinity in unity. They have no sacred books, and do not recognize the Old or the New Testament, or the writings of the Fathers of the Orthodox Church. “These books,” say they, “are written by human hands, and the work of human hands is imperfect.” Their conception of Christ is very obscure: beyond a confused notion that He is at once man and God, they have not the least idea how He lived or for what He suffered.

The sources of their knowledge of Christ are their so-called ‘Psalms of David’. These ‘Psalms’ are the only prayers in use among the Dukhobortsy; some specimens which I have collected show how absurd it is to ascribe them to David, whom they hold in high honour.

It may be that these prayers had more meaning at the time when the sect was founded; but in being handed down from father to son (for to this day they are preserved by oral tradition only) it is not to be wondered at that many words and phrases have been so corrupted as to make the most ridiculous nonsense, especially as these people can neither read nor write.

But the Dukhobortsy are convinced that these psalms have been handed down to them word for word as they came from the mouth of the Psalmist.

Their mistrust of, or rather aversion to, everything that is written sometimes leads them into strange absurdities. Besides the prophet David, for instance, there are three persons of the Old Testament whom they hold in special honour; these are Ananias, Asarias and Misael; and the reason is that these three stood still till the last moment by the cross of Christ. “The apostle Peter,” say the Dukhobortsy, “was very near to Christ, and yet denied Him: these three stood by Him.” When I remarked that these three men lived long before Christ, and therefor could not be present at his crucifixion, they answered that it was not their business to criticize, it was enough to believe what had been handed down by their fathers.

Не убоюся на Бога сположуся.”

“Fear nothing and trust in God.”

                19th century Doukhobor slogan

“Is it not known to you,” said I to some old men with whom I was talking, “that besides David there are other prophets of the Old Testament who prophesized a great deal of Christ, for instance Isaiah?” “What Isaiah do you mean, little father?” was the answer. “Do you mean Abraham, or Isaac or Jacob? Who can know them all? They are many, and it is a long time since they lived.” As for the saints of the Orthodox Church, they allow that they may have been very good men, but no more.

Sketch of Doukhobor women chanting their psalms, Vereshchagin, Le Tour du Monde.

The dogma of obedience to the authorities is beginning, under the stress of practical necessity, to come into force with them, and, on the other hand, the favourite dogma of the Dukhobortsy, “Fear nothing and trust in God,” is beginning to lose its significance. This reminds me of an amusing incident. One Sunday (which day the Dukhobortsy spend in idling and drinking brandy) a discharged soldier (for many men of this class are found in the sect) was cursing and swearing under my windows. I sent down my guide, a Cossack, to tell him to take his curses elsewhere. I watched from the window how my Cossack accosted him: “What do you mean by cursing and swearing here? Don’t you see that a stranger, an official, is lodging here? It is most unseemly.” The drunkard looked contemptuously at my envoy, rested his hands on his sides, and replied in a sing-song voice, “I fear thee not, but trust in God.” The Cossack made an angry gesture, and returned to me in great vexation. “It is no good speaking to him, sir; a rude fellow, as drunkards are wont to be.”

The Dukhobortsy protest that they honour the Tsar, and that it is a slander to say they do not. “It is impossible not to honour the Tsar: only, we do not call him our father as the Orthodox do.”

Their worship is extremely simple. One Sunday I was taken into a peasant’s house where the service (moleniye) was to be held. The room was such as you may see in an ordinary peasant’s house, very clean, spacious but low, with a great Russian stove, and decorated with fine towels (rushniki). It was crowded with people – the men on one side, the women on the other – the elders seated on benches, the rest standing.

They repeat the prayers in turn. When one makes a mistake the others correct him: “That is not right.” “How should it be then?” “Thus,” and then the prompter himself makes a slip, and is corrected on all hands. I observed that the mistakes are mostly made by the men: the women know the prayers better, and the corrections come chiefly from their side. The saying of the prayers lasts a considerable time, till the whole stock is exhausted, or (as more frequently happens in seasons of hard work) till the congregation shows signs of exhaustion and snoring is heard from the corners and comfortable places. Then some one suggests to the meeting that it is time to pass from praying to singing.

Doukhobors chanting their psalms at a moleniye (prayer meeting), Vereshchagin, Le  Tour du Monde.

“What think you? It is close here: shall we not go into the courtyard and sing?” All turn out into the court, and the men again take their places on one side, the women on the other. This custom is strictly observed, for it is counted as obedience to the precept “During prayer have God’s image before thee.” The singing also lasts a long time, and is always in such a sad and pensive strain as to make one quite melancholy; one’s thoughts turn to the distant home – to the Volga and the Burlaks with their songs. At the head of the men stands a precentor who begins each psalm. In the village of Slavyanka this post of honour was held by an old man, who often came to chat with me, and never came empty handed: one day he would bring a piece of honeycomb, another day some fresh cucumbers; and I, on my side, never failed to slip into his pocket a handful of cigarettes, which which, as I heard, he made a great display before the neighbours. “All these the Government official gave me, to show his respect for me.” Often he alluded complacently to the importance of his office – “It is not everyone that is equal to it: one must have a calling to it.” Only the precentor and perhaps a few others keep to the words in singing; the rest merely make meaningless sounds.

Sketch of Doukhobor men chanting their psalms,  Vereshchagin, Le Tour du Monde.

Before the end of the service the congregation form a semicircle, bow, and kiss each other, the men passing in turn along the men’s ranks, and the women doing the same on their side. They grasp each other by the right hand, bow twice, kiss, and again bow twice. A final and more profound bow is made by the men in the direction of the women, and by the women in the direction of the men. The bows look very awkward, and are made rather to one side. Each member of the congregation goes through this ceremony with every other member, without any distinction of age. But I did not see any very small children at these services. The singing goes on during the salutation; as soon as it is finished, they put on their caps and all go to their houses.

I wrote down their psalms as dictated to me by members of the sect – some old, some young. Both the old and the young, but especially the old, have a very imperfect understanding of what they say, and gabble the words off by rote without any regard to the sense. If I asked them to explain a passage the old men would answer, “Who can understand it? The wisdom of God is hard to grasp” or “God knows, I know not. So prayed our fathers before us, so pray we and teach our children to pray. As for what it means, we leave that to God.”

I did also get some explanations, but they were mostly very obscure, and it was impossible not to remark that likeness in the sound of words and phrases was taken for identity of meaning. When they are repeating their psalms, if they forget a word they at once get confused and have to go back to the beginning.

It also sometimes happens that a good Dukhobortsy leaves out a long piece in the middle of a prayer and is not conscious of the omission till he comes to the end. After a little reflection he will say, “I seem to have left out something, for I have come to the end too soon.” Sometimes he will notice the omission at once. “No, that is not it. Read, please, what you have written down there.” I read “and we become partakers of the holy communion of the divine, the life-giving…” “Yes, yes. Now write ‘Saviour’, ” and he begins to gabble through the words by rote, “the divine, the life-giving Saviour – the divine, the life-giving” – add “the immortal”. How does it go on? To make sure I am forgetting nothing, read it right through again from the beginning.”

When they are saying their prayers together of course this does not happen, because each mistake is at once corrected by those present. They have prayers not only on Sunday but also on week-days, late in the evening when their work is done, especially on Saturday.

It is strange that the Dukhobortsy, with their sound common sense, should ascribe their psalms to the prophet David, seeing that the greater part of them contain the plainest allusions to the time and the circumstances of the foundation and development of their sect. As an instance of this I here give a prayer or psalm which serves as a sort of catechism of the doctrine of the Dukhobortsy. I repeat that I wrote it down word for word as it was dictated to me:

“The God whom we serve in the spirit we glorify in Jesus Christ. The spirit was given to us; of the spirit we partake, and are of good cheer. We believe in the universal almighty God, Creator of the heavens, and the earth, and the bright light. In Him we believe. We are baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. We pray to God in the spirit: in the true spirit we pray, and to the true God. With my voice I call upon God, and with my voice I pray to God. we make confession to our heavenly Father, for He is gracious, His goodness is everlasting; and as our sins are remitted we receive the holy, divine agonizing, life-giving communion of the immortal Jesus to the forgiveness of sins. We go into the church of God, into the only holy apostolic cathedral, where the true Christians are gathered together. We have an upright and honourable priest, not a false and wicked one, who is set apart from sinners. The mother of God we name and venerate, for she bore Jesus Christ to the forgiveness of the sins of Adam. We honour and emulate the saints. We adore the holy picture of God, the priceless picture of God, the holy picture, which sings and speaks: true pictures of saints, unlike written parchments, made by the Son of the Father and of the Holy Ghost. 

The Tsar we hold in honour: God save the Tsar! Hear us, O God! We observe the fasts – continence in thought. Keep me away from all evil, from murmuring with my lips, from sudden death, from incontinence. Take away from me all untruth. We have marriage, an institution of eternal welfare, wherein we make ourselves sure. Into a church built with hands we will not go. The painted images of saints we do not adore, for in them we see no holiness and no saving virtue. Therefore we practice not the laying on of hands, but turn to the word of God, the life-giving cross. To our God is all honour due!”

After I had written down the psalms, of which the above is a specimen, I read them to various members of the sect in order to make quite sure that they had been given to me correctly. All assured me that, with some unimportant exceptions, what I had taken down agreed with the tradition as known to them.

These same Dukhobortsy, who glorify God and their faith in this wise, live an honest, reasonable, and prosperous life. These qualities, indeed, they share with other religious communities that have been banished and forgotten, such as the Molokans, the Subbotniks, and the Skoptsi in Transcaucasia. But, being acquainted with the Molokans as well as the Dukhobortsy, I place the latter far higher than the former in respect of morality. For instance, among the Molokans the use of wine and tobacco is forbidden, and they do not take either in public; but in private they indulge in these forbidden pleasures. The Dukhobortsy, on the other hand, openly drink and smoke and grow tobacco. The Molokans are not averse to cheating, or even to stealing when the opportunity occurs; with the Dukhobortsy, on the contrary, acts of this kind are so rare that you might count them upon your fingers. It is remarkable that the Dukhobortsy regard the Molokans as apostates from Dukhoborism, while the Molokans declare that the Dukhobortsy are apostates from Molokanism. Probably the Molokans are right. The two sects hate each other. “Godless creatures, worse than dogs,” say the Molokans of the Dukhobortsy, who in their turn, say of the Molokans, “Are they human beings?”

 

With regard to myself and my occupations the Dukhobortsy showed much less distrust than the Molokans, who apparently persisted in believing that my visit had secret inquiries for its purpose, and their transference to Siberia for its probable result. The Dukhobortsy, indeed, were not at once ready to talk. “You question us about this and that,” said an old Dukhobortsy to me, “but you have not yet told us who you are.” “Why do you want to know that?” “So that we may know what we may say to you and what me may not. We want to know whether you are an official or not, whether you are a noble or a simple gentleman, and by what name we are to call you.” I explained as simply and clearly as I could that I was nothing but a traveller who wanted to see what sort of life is led by Russians, Tatars and Armenians.

Sketch of a Doukhobor woman, Autobiographical Sketches.

“You live in the mountains,” I said, “and it is seldom that anyone comes to you, or that you leave your villages. Hence various rumours about you are spread abroad, and I wanted to ascertain what was true in these rumours and what was false.” Some seemed to understand my motive, and nodded their heads in assent: “So it is, indeed; much nonsense is talked about us.” There were even some “politicians” among them who thanked me for the honour I did them by my questions.

As I have already mentioned, the Dukhobortsy have no books and keep no kind of records. The old men cannot read, and do not get their children taught, for they consider such knowledge superfluous for peasants. The only exceptions are the clerks to the village governments, who are generally discharged soldiers that know how to read.

When I learned about this systematic ignorance (for so it may be called), I saw that an old man had not been joking when he asked me to reckon how old he was now, having been a boy of fourteen when he moved with his father from the Government of Tambov into the Taurus district in the year 1822. “I have long been trying,” he said, “to find this out; but there is no one here whom one could ask.” When my old friend learned that I had travelled a great deal he would have me tell him where the sun goes to rest. “Is there, he asked me several times, “Is there, then, no place at all where the sun rests?”

I wanted to know where the men’s dress came from. In answer to my questions the Dukhobortsy said theirs was a genuine Russian costume; but it is not found anywhere in Russia. As to their long and broad trousers, there may be truth in what they say; but what is the origin of the short archaluk (“jacket”), embroidered in soldier fashion, with a stand-up collar, which is always fastened with hooks, as among the Cossacks? This archaluk is worn by all without exception.

The women wear the ordinary Russian dress, but their head-dress is shaped like a sugar loaf, and has a kerchief or piece of stuff tied round it with the ends hanging down. The houses of the Dukhobortsy are like the peasant’s houses of Southern Russia. On the outside they are decorated with wood carvings representing a little horse, a man on horseback, a cock, etc; the interior is always extraordinarily clean; the walls neatly adorned with embroidered towels, samplers, popular pictures and other knick-knacks.

Their carts are very like those I was in East Prussia – great ladder wagons, ie. with the sides not made of solid boards, but of rails sloping outwards. A telega (“wagon”) of this kind will hold twenty persons, and even a twenty-first can find a corner.

Doukhobor wagon, Vereshchagin, Le Tour du Monde.

The village abounds in beehives, and a good bee master will make as much as a hundred rubles a year out of his honey. Besides honey they sell yarn and linen cloth, and in good years other products, especially potatoes and corn.

The soil is somewhat stony, but nevertheless bears good crops. They sow oats which yield ten-fold, or even fifteen fold; wheat and barley do not succeed so well as oats; buckwheat does well; millet, again, not so well. They also grow good crops of spelt. From hemp seed they extract an oil which they use for food, and also bring to market. Their potatoes and linseed are nothing to boast of.

Sketch of Doukhobor merino sheep, Vereshchagin, Autobiographical Sketches.

The Dukhobortsy in the village of Slavyanka, with 205 houses, have about 7,000 head of cattle. Their horned cattle, a cross between the native and the Black Sea breeds, have a splendid appearance. Their sheep, too, which they call shpanki, and which probably come from Spain or the south of France, deserve notice: their wool fetches from eight to nine rubles the pud, while the natives in the neighbourhood only get three, four or five rubles for theirs.

It is evident that the Dukhobortsy are thriving; it is only of their neighbours that they complain. About these neighbours – ie. the Tatars and the Armenians – they express themselves in very severe terms.

The only difference between them is that the Tatars have recourse to robbery and murder, while the Armenians deceive you and cheat you on every opportunity. There is no end to their tales of robbery and murder.

“It is only since the arrival of the new governor of the district,” say the Dukhobortsy, “that we have begun to live in any tolerable manner; before that we had no chance against the Tatars. They robbed us in open day; they would seize you, bind your hands behind your back, and hold a dagger to your throat while others drove off the cattle. It is useless to think of getting satisfaction or appealing to the law; if you do, you are summoned before the court from your work just when the day is worth a ruble, and have to go into the town merely to learn that the thieves have not been discovered. “So sign this paper, little brother, so that we may have no more charges brought on this score.” And there the matter ends. When you undertake a journey, your friends do not know whether they will ever see you again; and if you come back safe from even the shortest excursion you say, “The Lord be praised!” If a night passes quietly, without a single theft being committed, we all thank God and think, “Perhaps we shall get through the day too without any misadventure.”

Afterword

On August 10, 1865, while en route from the town of Shusha to the town of Kazakh in Elizavetpol province, Vereshchagin passed through the Doukhobor village of Slavyanka. He stopped there for several days, during which time he conversed with his Doukhobor hosts, visited their homes, sketched a number of subjects and scenes, and observed their state of affairs and way of life.

The Russian painter found a population of 600 male Doukhobors living in 205 households in Slavyanka in 1865. Presumably, there was comparable number of female Doukhobors living there at the time.

Vereshchagin noted that the mountain lowlands of Slavyanka had a temperate climate and fertile soil with trees and vegetation in abundance. Having arrived there from Tavria twenty years earlier, the Doukhobors, through hard work and diligence, had adapted to their surroundings and become “thriving” and “prosperous”. Their homes were finely decorated and extraordinarily clean. They built flour mills (sketched by Vereshchagin), kept an abundance of beehives, maintained a herd of 7,000 cattle as well as extensive herds of sheep (sketched by Vereshchagin), planted sizeable grain fields, pasturage and market gardens, and operated oil presses. They also engaged in the cartage trade (their wagons were sketched by Vereshchagin) and marketed their surplus grain (oats, wheat, barley, buckwheat, linseed, hemp, millet and spelt), vegetables (potatoes and corn) and honey as well as yarn and linen cloth. Indeed, the Doukhobor settlement of Slavyanka was “so well built and arranged as to be an object of envy” of all their neighbours.  Few, if any, would have cared to return to Central Russia from whence they came.

The Doukhobors complained only of their neighbours – the native Tatars and Armenians – who treated them with great cruelty, constantly robbing them and sometimes going to the length of murder. Until recently, the local Tsarist administration had proven ineffective in protecting the Doukhobors; however, under the new district governor, peace and order had begun to prevail.

Vereshchagin made note of the distinctive form of Doukhobor dress, which he was told was a “genuine Russian costume” yet was not found anywhere else in Russia. The men (sketched by Vereschagin) wore white shirts, stuck soldier-wise into their long and broad trousers, with a short, embroidered jacket with a stand-up collar, and caps with broad peaks. The women (sketched by Vereshchagin) wore ordinary Russian dress, but had a unique head-dress shaped like a sugar loaf, with a kerchief tied round it with the ends hanging down.

The Russian painter wrote approvingly of the Doukhobors’ simple, honest way of life as well as their general morality, noting that acts of theft and cheating were virtually unheard of. He noted, however, that the Doukhobors’ growing material prosperity had resulted in a softening of their religious principles. For instance, they were more obedient to Tsarist authorities than they had been in past generations. They had also abandoned their strict prohibitions against drinking, smoking and swearing. They recited their prayers by rote, with little understanding of their spiritual meaning, and when asked to explain them, gave only obscure answers. Moreover, some of the prayers, handed down orally over the generations, had been so corrupted “as to make the most ridiculous nonsense”; this was no doubt exacerbated by the systemic illiteracy among the Doukhobors, who kept no books or records.

Vereshchagin gave a concise summary of Doukhobor religious philosophy, which rejected church institutions, sacraments, sacred books, icons, saints and clergy in favour of a simple, individual-based religion founded on egalitarianism, love and compassion. He noted the Doukhobor belief in the indwelling of God in every person, as well as their figurative, rather than literal, interpretation of the Trinity – God the Father – memory; God the Son – understanding; God the Holy Ghost – will.

Vereshchagin described the Doukhobor form of worship in extensive detail. On Sundays, the service was held in a peasant’s house. The men stood on one side of the room and the women on the other. They repeated their prayers in turn, correcting each other when one made a mistake. After a considerable time, the congregation went outside into the courtyard, where the men again took their places on one side, and the women on the other. An elder stood at the head of the men, who then led the congregation in singing. The sad, melancholy strains of the Doukhobor psalms made a profound impression. After some time, the congregation then formed a semicircle, bowing and kissing each other, the men passing along the men’s ranks, and the women doing the same on their side, all the while continuing their singing. Once this was finished, the service is over and the congregation returned to their homes.

Vereshchagin’s impressions of the Doukhobors, through his writings and sketches, are among the few rare sources of detailed published information about them in the two decades following their settlement in the Caucasus. As such, his work is a valuable contribution to our understanding of this little-known, little-document period of their history.

As for Vereshchagin himself, he returned to the Paris Salon in 1866 to exhibit his very first drawing, which, quite fittingly, was “Doukhobors Chanting their Psalms”. The next year, he accompanied the Russian military expedition to Turkestan, where he was granted the rank of ensign and was awarded the Cross of St. George for his heroism at the siege of Samarkand. He was an indefatigable traveler, returning to St. Petersburg in late 1868, to Paris in 1869, back to St. Petersburg later in the year, and then back to Turkestan at the end 1869 via Siberia. In 1871, he established an atelier in Munich, and made a sole exhibition of his works at the Crystal Palace in London in 1873. He made another exhibition of his works in St. Petersburg in 1874. Later that year, he departed for an extensive tour of the Himalayas, India and Tibet, returning to Paris in 1876. With the start of the Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878), Vereshchagin left Paris and returned to active service with the Imperial Russian Army. Thereafter, he settled at Munich, where he produced a series of sensational works aimed at promoting peace through representing the horrors of war. In 1882-1883, he again traveled to India, followed by Syria and Palestine in 1884. Vereshchagin was in the Far East during the First Sino-Japanese War, with the American troops in the Philippines, and with the Russian troops in Manchuria. During the Russo-Japanese War, he he sailed aboard the Russian flagship, Petropavlovsk, which on April 13, 1904, struck two mines and sank, taking down with it most of the crew including Vereshchagin.

Remarkably, almost eighty years later, there were still Doukhobors alive who were able to recall Vereschagin’s visit to Slavyanka. In his book, Dukhobortsi: Ikh Istoria, Zhizn I Borba (Regehr, North Kildonan, 1948), Doukhobor historian and philosopher Peter N. Maloff (1900-1970) retells his grandmother Malasha I. Maloff’s (1856-1943) recollections about the Russian artist’s visit to her village:

Many years later, a little before her death, I was reading her a booklet by a well-known writer, V.V. Vereshchagin, under the title of “Doukhobors and Molokans’.  As she listened, she suddenly became transported with delight, as though she recalled something from the distant past.  “My god!” she exclaimed, “this happened at our home, in Slavyanka.  Right after [actually, before] the Turkish war, my father-in-law brought him from Ganzha, a clean, attractive gentleman he was.  He stayed with us for several days.  He heard some Doukhobors singing at our neighbours’ at a funeral and said: “I would like to hear some more of your singing.”  Then the melodious Agafonovs took him to their home and, gathering the Slavyanka choir together, sang for him for several days.  We had real singers there: Mavrunya and Masha Strelyaev, the Nichvolodovs, the Konkins and many others. Heavens!  Who ever thought that he was going to write a book about us.

Today, over twelve sketches of the Doukhobors, drawn by Vasily Vasil’evich Vereshchagin in 1865, are kept at the Tretyakov State Gallery in Moscow, Russia.

To read more, search, download, save and print a full PDF copy of “Vassili Verestchagin: Painter-Soldier-Traveller, Autobiographical Sketches”  by Vasily Vasilyevich Vereshchagin (F.H. Peters, trans., London: Bentley, 1887), visit the Google Book Search digital database.