by Alexey Ivanovich Popov
Alexey Ivanovich Popov was born February 8, 1876 in the province of Elizavetpol, Russia, in the village of Novo-Troitskoye. At the age of two, he and his family, together with a sizeable group of Doukhobors immigrated to the territory known as Kars near the Turkish border. There, they founded the village of Spasovka, where Alexey remained until manhood. Many years later, he recounted his Doukhobor childhood in his memoirs, written in 1953 but published posthumously. The following excerpt, reproduced by permission from Chapter One of “Autobiography of a Siberian Exile” (Trans. Eli A. Popoff. Kelowna: 2006), chronicles the first fourteen years of Alexey’s life and provides a wealth of insight into Doukhobor life, events and beliefs, especially with respect to the upbringing and education of Doukhobor children in the Caucasus, Russia the 1880’s.
I, Alexey Ivanovich Popov, was a son of religious parents. They were a poor, peasant family of Doukhobor faith. I was born on February 25, 1877 in the Doukhobor village of Troitskoye in the Russian Gubernia of Elizavetpol, which is situated on the southern side of the Caucasus Mountains in Southern Russia. My father was Ivan Semyonovich Popov and my mother was Anna Semyonovna Popov (Androsov). They were humble, poor peasants who made their living as tillers of the soil. They were staunch in their Doukhobor faith and devout believers in their spiritual Doukhobor leaders. As true followers of their faith my parents migrated to Canada in 1899 with the Doukhobor mass migration of that time. Here in Canada, all the days of their lives they belonged to the Doukhobor group known as the Sons of Freedom. Both of them spent considerable periods of time in Canadian prisons and endured various forms of beatings and other persecution, but they did not change their beliefs to the very end of their lives. They passed away at different times; both are buried at the same cemetery in British Columbia. In their family they had seven children – three sons and four daughters. I was their third child.
Alexei Ivanovich Popov as an adult, c. 1915.
Recollections of what my mother told me:
When my mother gave birth to me, she had a very hard time and remained ill and in bed for months after my birth. It was my father who looked after all the farm chores as well as most of the household duties. Mother told me that I was a very quiet child. Very seldom did anyone hear me cry. During her illness my mother did not have any milk in her breasts to feed me. She was also not able to get out of bed and prepare any baby food for me. As was a common practice at that time among the Doukhobors, all the mothers who were breastfeeding their children in the immediate neighbourhood took turns and came to our house to feed me. Each came at their allotted time to feed me. At the same time when they came to feed me, each of the mothers would do some of the housework and look after some of my mother’s needs. This went on up to the time that I reached two years of age.
After two years of age:
Some of the following that I write about, it seems to me that I remember it myself, but it is possible that some of it may have been told to me by my mother, when I was still a child of eight or nine years of age. I remember that I was a healthy child and remember how I walked with steady feet all over the yard, but the events that went on in the family household at that time I do not seem to recall.
The first thing I remember is that on the south, sunny side of our house, right against the wall, the ashes from our Russian bake oven were always placed in a pile. In the summer this pile got very dry. I loved to play on it and sometimes would even fall asleep, half covered in the ashes. Sometimes I would sleep here till I woke up, and sometimes someone would carry me inside the house while I was still asleep. When I was two and a half years old, I was strong enough to roam around the whole yard and even outside the yard. At one time after it was past the noon hour of twelve o’clock, my mother decided to pay a visit to the nearby shallow river where the village women placed their flax straw to soak in preparation for the next stage to be made into fiber for spinning and weaving. This was a yearly practice that was done in the fall of every year. I was allowed to go with my mother for this visit. Shortly after we had already passed the outskirts of the village, I had my first sight of a large prairie jackrabbit. He had been lying in the grass, till we came quite close to him. Suddenly he raised himself and turning towards the nearby mountain, he ran with a brisk jump towards this mountain. The mountain was a landmark in the area that was called “Troitskiy Shpeel” (shpeel means a peak or spire).
After a short while we arrived at the river. The spot chosen here was a curve in the river with a very slow flowing current. The bottom was covered with a coarse gravel with scattered round and flat rocks. The depth of the water was from 6 to 18 inches. Between the scattered rocks it was excellent to place the flax or hemp straw for soaking. These bundles of straw would then have the river rocks placed on top of them. This was done so that the current would not carry away the straw and so that the direct sun would not shine upon it. When we came to this spot my mother took off her shoes and waded into the water. She reached into the water and took out a handful of straw. She rubbed it between her hands for a while and then put it back. Apparently it was not yet ready to take out. At this same spot, a little further up river, we saw that there was another Doukhobor woman who had come to examine her material. She was also finished with her examination, so we started going back to our village together – this lady and my mother, and me following them. On our way home we did not see any other wild life. Arriving at the outskirts of our village I noticed that the sun was now setting over that same mountain, “Troitskiy Shpeel”, towards which the jackrabbit had scampered.
When we came home, mother went to milk the cows, but as for me, I felt so tired from the walk of about four miles that I immediately climbed up onto the space above the Russian bake oven where it was always warm. Feeling warm all over, I fell asleep almost at once. And it was here that I slept throughout the whole evening and night and right through the early morning. It was never the practice of my mother to wake a child to feed him the evening meal, or to move him once he was comfortably asleep. She always said – once a child is comfortably sleeping in the evening, let him be. Missing the meal won’t hurt him as much as disturbing his peaceful sleep.
In the morning I got up from my place of sleep before my other siblings got out of bed and at once told my mother that I was hungry. Mother immediately poured some milk into the earthenware dish, along with some small chunks of leftover wheat bread. I took out of the cupboard one of the hand-carved wooden spoons and heartily ate what my mother had set before me.
Being only two and a half years old, none of the household or yard chores had yet been allocated to me, and so my daily life went on as with all other children in the quiet peaceful life of our agrarian village. At this age I was already quite articulate in my speaking. Although I did not have too broad a vocabulary, this was being added to from day to day.
As usual, I was always interested in what my father did as his village work routine. It was about three weeks after the visit to the river with my mother that my father brought home on a hayrack wagon the flax and hemp straw that had been soaking in the river. He carefully placed it under a roof to dry. After a period of drying, mother would go to the shed and take small bundles of the straw and with wooden tools she would work days on end beating the straw till it would separate into fibrous strands. The straw would be thrown aside for use in making fuel bricks, and the semi-clean fiber would be taken into the house. During the long winter evenings, in a special corner of the house both mother and father would keep on tramping this semi-clean fiber with their bare feet. Every once in a while they would take this mass outside to shake out the straw from it. When this mass was reasonably clean, mother would then card it piece by piece with special hand carders. Now this fluffy mass was ready handful by handful to be spun into yarn on the home made spinning wheel. In the evening mother would spin while father would be tramping the semi-cleaned flax fiber in the corner. During the daytime mother would work with the wooden tools outside, doing the first stage of the straw separation. In the evenings my father would continue the cleaning process of tramping by foot in the corner of the house that what mother had prepared outside, while mother would be carding or spinning in another corner of the living room. This kind of work continued up until about the month of February. At this time all of the cleaning, carding and spinning should be completed. Now the spun yarn had to be made into linen and hemp cloth in a process that was very fascinating to me as a child. As I grew older the process became clearer to me, but it is still quite hard to explain step by step how the yarn eventually became a very durable linen, hemp or wool material used for sewing the clothes that were worn by all the Doukhobors. All this was done in the living rooms of almost every Doukhobor family in the village.
The spun yarn was rolled into large balls. The place for preparing the yarn for its required width of usually about two feet was chosen along the longest wall of the living room. After a rotating walk around the set up pegs on a raised bench, the resulting unrolling of the large balls of yarn into a long pattern was ready to go into the set up loom for weaving. The loom itself was an intricate homemade wooden construction that a woman had to sit at. Working with her hands to put a cross thread through the two-foot wide yarn on the rollers, and using her feet to move the thing along was an art exclusive mostly to Doukhobor women. The work of weaving on the loom to make these two-foot wide and of various lengths materials or rugs went on into the months of March, April and even May. When it became warm enough in the spring to do this, then the women would take these rugs, which were still quite coarse, to the river again. There they are again soaked in the water and then spread out on the green grass to dry in the sun. As soon as they are dry, they are again soaked and again spread out in the sun. This process softens them, and also makes them become whiter. From this material the women then sew what the family requires. From the purer and softer white material they sew women’s clothes. Some of the coarser material is coloured, usually blue, and men’s pants are sewn from it, and also some women’s work clothing. The women do all their sewing by hand, and use their own, finer linen thread. A lot of clothing material was made from sheep’s wool. The process of preparing wool into yarn for spinning and weaving was a bit different and a lot of wool yarn was used for knitting.
All of this work with flax and hemp straw and sheep’s wool was done in the wintertime, and most of it was done by the Doukhobor women residing at this time in the Doukhobor villages of the Caucasus area in southern Russia. In the summer, during haying season, these same women worked side by side with the men. The men with hand scythes would be cutting the hay, while the women, with hand rakes made of wood, would be raking the hay into little piles, which they referred to as “miniature stacks”. At harvest time the women together with the men, using hand scythes would harvest the grain, tying the grain stalks into sheaves that they would later thresh together. Threshing of the grain was also done by hand by both men and women.
Besides helping the men in the fields, Doukhobor women also planted large vegetable gardens, which they looked after from spring till fall using hand tools. Every Doukhobor family had cows, which the women milked by hand. They also looked after the sheep and it was the women’s job to shear the wool from them every spring. Every family raised chickens, ducks and geese and the women looked after these as well. Of course it was the women’s duty to cook, to sew, to wash clothes, clean house and do all other family chores including the bringing up of children. Among all of these responsibilities the women still found time to go and pick the abundant wild flowers of the Caucasus area. They also picked herbs for their own medicinal use, as well as for sale.
One other very important responsibility of Doukhobor women was that they had to pass on the Doukhobor life-concept to the children by teaching them to know from memory Doukhobor psalms, wherein was contained the aspects of the Doukhobor faith. When a child was still quite young, the mother taught them the psalms only for reciting purposes. As the child grew older, the mother was required to see that the child would start learning the melody of each psalm. This was in order that the child could participate in mass prayer meetings, which were based on the reading and singing of psalms. The melody for Doukhobor psalms was very intricate and not easy to learn, even if you were growing up as a Doukhobor. For most outsiders the melody of Doukhobor psalms is very hard to understand and almost impossible to sing in the same soul stirring way.
When I was two years and eight months old my mother taught me one short psalm, which was specially composed for children. It was easy to read and I learned to read it quite fluently. It started with: “Lord, give us your blessing.” “Thou art my God and I am your slave. You will not desert me, and I will not ever leave you” and ended with “Honour and Praise to our God”. This psalm I learned to read from memory while we still lived in the house where I was born in the village of Troitskoye (Elizavetpol Gubernia).
In the spring of the year 1880 a sizable group of Doukhobors including our villagers and also from the neighbouring village of Spasovka of our Gubernia of Elizavetpol, decided to move to the Kars area of the Gubernia of Tiflis. The distance to cover was about two hundred and fifty plus Russian “Versti” (about 150 miles). My parents decided to make this move with the group. Being merely three years old at this time, I was not too aware of the hardships of this trip. I only remember the convoy of covered wagons following one another and slowly making their way along wagon trail roads, which were often muddy and soft. The wagons were heavily loaded and sometimes got bogged down in the mud so that the team hitched to the wagon would not be able to pull the wagon out. I remember cases where all the wagons would stop and they would hitch teams from other wagons at the head of those stuck. After pulling out the stuck wagon, the whole convoy would then proceed. On the third day of our journey our convoy had to cross a river. Its depth was from one to three and a half feet. Its width was about three hundred feet and it was quite fast flowing. My father was driving a four-horse team hitched to our wagon and it appears that he had moved a bit to one side of the regular track where it was safe to cross. There was a huge unseen rock in the water that stopped the wagon and the horses could not move it. Many men from the other wagons immediately came to the rescue. They waded into the water, and finding out what the problem was, they placed themselves at the wheels and at the back of the wagon and helped to get the wagon over the rock and safely to the other side.
A sample page from Alexey’s handwritten memoirs of 1953, painstakingly translated by his son Eli A. Popoff in 2006.
At the other side of the river, all of the convoy stopped for a meal, to rest and to feed the horses. Feed for the horses was not being hauled because the wagons were overly full with all the household and other belongings that were being transported to the new place of abode. So the horses were fed merely with the local grass that they grazed and any fresh hay that could be cut on the way. The early spring green grass was not very nutritious for the horses. They weakened day by day, and so the journey was longer than it should have been. What added to the hardships was that there was much rain during this trip –making the roads wet and soggy. The wagon wheels kept sinking up to four inches – making ruts as they proceeded. Because of all this the convoy used to make as little as fifteen versti, and at the most 30 versti of travel per day (a “versta” is approximately one kilometre. – Ten kilometres is approximately 6 miles). It was fortunate for the whole convoy that the climate of this Caucasus area was reasonable during the spring. While there were times of very heavy rainfall making puddles three or four inches deep on the roads, within the same hour the sun would come out and in a short time the water would all disappear. The rain did not bother the people or their belongings because all of the wagons were well covered with good frames covered with durable canvass. The food brought along for the trip was very simple. Basically everyone had sacks full of “sookhari” or twice baked bread chunks, made from whole wheat. They had a supply of potatoes, millet grain and salted chunks of sheep’s fat. The road from Elizavetpol to the Kars area was very hilly and rocky and there was a considerable amount of forest growth all around. The territory that was being crossed was all Crown Land and therefore it was permissible to let the horses graze at every stop that was made. We children always rode in the comfort of the covered wagons, where we also slept every night. All of the men usually walked behind or beside the wagons. They did not have to drive the horses most of the time as the Caucasus horses were better trained to keep to the trails, than the Canadian horses that we have had to use. It was only once in a while when a steep hill would appear ahead that the drivers would sit down on the driver’s seat to urge and steer the horses.
In the evenings when the convoy was camping for the night, the men would gather in groups and join in light hearted discussions and usually sang joyous hymns and songs. The women would be cooking the evening meal and tending to the children’s needs. In general this migration from one area to another had its hardships, but there were also joyful times. Throughout the whole trip there was not a single occasion of misfortune or trauma to any family in the whole convoy.
In the latter part of April, our convoy reached its destination. My parents chose to settle in the village named “Spasovka” in the District of Arganov about 40 “Versti” east of the City of Kars in what was referred to as “Karsskaya Oblast” or the region of Kars in the Gubernia (or province) of Tiflis. The village of Spasovka was situated in a unique location. From the west side there was a huge long mountain. On the north, east and south sides, the river “Karsina” made a huge bend. Along the south west side and along the mountain there flowed a smaller unnamed river, which always had warm water in it. On frosty days of the winter months there was always a vapor of steam above it. At the southeast end of our village location these two rivers joined together and they flowed out of our valley in a southeasterly direction between two tall mountains of rock, which formed a gorge at this point.
Both these rivers had an abundance of fish. However these fish were of a small common variety and could not be compared to the special fish that we came to know in far eastern parts of Russia, in Siberia, province of Yakutsk.
In this, our new village of Spasovka, my parents did not have to build their new home to live in. This was because there were two parties of Doukhobors that had already moved here from our province. With one of these parties, my grandfather Semyon Leontievich Popov came here before us. These parties that had come here before us, by mutual agreement, had already allocated exactly how the village would be built. They had measured out equal lots in a long line with homes to be built facing each other. One side of the line would have the houses with the rear facing eastward, and the other side would have their rear facing westward. In the centre was a wide street running from north to south. The total length of this street was about one and one quarter “versti” (about ¾ of a mile). After all the lots were marked out and numbered – each family drew lots for the one that would be theirs.
Part of these lots covered a territory that once had the remains of a small Turkish village. This territory still had the skeletons of five Turkish dwelling homes that were not totally deteriorated. These dwellings all had the same shape and style. The structure was all under one roof and quite low to the ground level. The roof was made from turf. Each had two doors on the long side of the structure. One door led into the structures most spacious division, which had four separate divisions and was used to house the farm animals and the poultry. The other door, at the other end, led into the division where the family was to live. One of these structures still remained on the lot that grandfather drew as his allocated lot. When my parents arrived at this newly pioneered village, my grandfather greeted us at the front of this building, and this is where we settled in to live.
The first essential chore that had to be done here was to go to the place and dig the special clay, from which bricks could be made. After drying and processing the bricks, these would then be laid in proper formation to make the brick oven for baking and cooking. I remember my father and grandfather at work making the bricks, while mother was busy washing up all the clothes from the trip and doing other cleaning. From these very first days I remember my older brother and sister and myself climbing the low roofed dwelling of ours and walking all over the long roof.
Because grandfather had come here earlier, he had done some essential work that every homeowner had to do here at this time. He had tilled some of our allotted soil and sowed some barley. He did complain that the Turkish people who lived here had apparently used the soil continually for many years and he feared that the crop would be very poor. We did not have any choice at this time, so in the latter days of the month of April, we, as all others – planted our gardens, each on the allotted lots, which were also very much worked over before us.
At this time I was just three years and two months old and so all of the responsibilities of this first pioneering year did not affect me. All the responsibilities rested on the shoulders of our parents. As for us, children, free of worldly responsibilities, as soon as summer warmth came around, we headed in groups to the shallow warm river that was really right in our back yard.
There for days at a time we sat in the warm waters of the river taking hourly outings to stretch out on the warm sand of the beach. Because there were no schools in this new area where we settled, the children that came to the river ranged from two to nine years. The parents felt safe to allow the children to come here, because the river was shallow and slow flowing. The shore was not deep set, but just about even with the land’s surface and the river bottom was firm and solid. This was why all the children of our village spent all the sunny days at this river shore. In the evenings the parents always insisted that all children spend a certain amount of time learning from memory the prayers of the Doukhobors, which were called psalms. When I was four years old I learned my second psalm, which read as follows:
Lord, Give Us Thy Blessing
Let us all tearfully reflect on all the daily workings of our lives. Verily speaks to us our Lord with entreaty: “You my male servants and maid servants, devout Christians, do not forget to be faithful to God, and He will not forget you in the end time to come. In our present day, the times are very trying. We are being judged and persecuted. There has been born an evil anti-Christ. He has sent forth his evil oppressors out into the whole world. There is no place to hide for my faithful followers, neither in the mountains, nor in the caves, nor in the distant barren places. My faithful followers have to live in exile and suffer persecution for keeping to the word of God and for manifesting the teachings of Jesus Christ. But you my faithful followers rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven.
Our God be praised.
Because my age group of children was not yet allocated any responsibilities, we continued to spend all our time at our favorite spot by the river. We would go there day after day. The only time we were not there was when we would see a dark cloud coming over the horizon and rumbling of thunder would be heard. At such times we would race to where the nearest covered wagons were parked and hide under their cover. For the first season, families continued to live in their covered wagons while the houses were being built. The last parties were all still living in their covered wagons. My parents were very fortunate to have the frames of the five Turkish huts that were on their allotted plot. We were sheltered in them during the first trying years. All the other families next to us were all hurrying to get their houses built. The construction of houses in this area was very simple. The walls were built from the slabs of unhewn gray rock that was freely available at the nearby foothills of the mountains. In between went layers of mixed clay mortar, which was also readily available at various spots of the valley. There was no visible forest anywhere nearby so wood was only used for window frames and doorjambs. For the roof some round poles were used sparsely, on which were laid split flat slabs of stone. On this base, plain soil was heaped, and this method was used for every roof of every building in the village. All the buildings had similar rock walls. Our village of Spasovka had 86 family residences. Each and every residence was similarly built and there was not a single wooden roofed building in the whole village.
With this form of construction, not counting the labor the cost of the buildings was very minimal. For a residence to house a family of ten with livestock from 25 to 30 head, the cost of constructing a residence would be from five to ten rubles. This expense goes specifically for the cost of glass and any ironware that was required for the buildings. It also covered anything that was needed for the large Russian oven assembled out of hand-made bricks. This oven served for all the kitchen cooking, bread baking, as well as supplying heat in the winter months. The construction of these buildings was the prime occupation of each and every family in these first years of settlement. All of the needed materials for this type of construction was readily available nearby. The forms of rock and stone slabs were all around you to the fullest of your hearts desire. There were mountains of clay for your mortar and brick baking. Water was abundant from the two rivers in the valley. The biggest detriment was the lack of forest nearby. The closest place for cutting any timber was 50 Versti away. Although there was one good thing about the timber, and that was, that for all our new settlers the state allowed a given amount for free. However to transport this timber was very difficult. In the first place there was still a shortage of horses in the first years and there was no supply of any kind of grain to feed the horses in this long and arduous journey. Even though throughout the Kavkaz Mountains there were always patches of good grass, this was not good enough to give strength for the horses to pull these heavy loads of timber for such long distances. Besides all this, horsepower was needed at home for hauling the rocks and for tilling the soil. The roads that were used to get to the timber belt were not kept up by anyone. Although the trails were somewhat packed down, the continuous summer rains would make them muddy and difficult for any kind of transportation. It was because of all of this that lumber was of the highest value in all of our villages.
There never was any talk of a sawmill to be constructed because the logs brought here were few and far between. For the absolutely essential boards the logs were cut by hand with long crosscut saws. Those families that did not have two grown men got together in pairs with other families. Since this was not an occupation that was practiced often, some of the boards that were cut were very uneven. These were the tasks that were performed by all the grown ups of the village throughout the spring, summer and fall. In the fall the gathering in of the crops took precedence over all. The first crops were very poor as these were sewn on lands that the Turkish people had been farming for many years and new land had not yet been prepared. Our children’s summer occupation that we loved best of all was our time spent by the river. Nevertheless there were times when we would go to the spots where the families were mixing the clay for mortar for the buildings. Here we would roll our own little balls of clay for our own kind of play. Sometimes we would dry them, but sometimes we would throw them at each other while they were still raw and wet. The object was to dodge them, as they hurt quite considerably. Sometimes one of the clay balls would hit a grown up person, at which time we would all be chased away. A chase from one place did not usually stop us. We would just go to another place further away where the same clay mixing was going on. Our group eventually earned the name of “mischief makers.”
When it was time for harvest all of our barefooted gang was broken up. Each went to their own family group in readiness to be taken to the fields together with the elders. Only those children stayed at home where there was an elder staying behind to allocate to them the home chores that had to be done.
Harvesting the grain at that time was very simple. The men cut down the standing grain with hand scythes, and the women raked it into small neat piles called “Kopitsi”. Then the men using special thin poles about 10 feet long, and sticking them under the pile from two sides, they would lift and carry this pile to a central place where a neat small stack would be made. This stack would be left that way till all the cutting down of the grain would be finished.
The children’s responsibility was to see that not a blade with a head of kernels in it would be left lying in the field. We would gather these individually and tie them into little sheaves with the spare straw stems. Every child would place his little sheaves separately into neat piles. These sheaves would then be taken home in the evening, where we would give them into caretaking of the parents and receive their praise according to how diligently they had worked and how many sheaves were made up. The parents kept these little sheaves separately and allowed them to be threshed separately. With the grain that resulted, the children were allowed to trade it with the local traveling merchants for goodies like apples, plums or grapes, either fresh or dried.
After the harvesting of the grain in the fields is completed, the families individually, if large families, and sometimes together with others, if small – prepare a special spot for threshing. A sizable smooth surfaced place is chosen. First it is wetted down with water and tall grass or straw is scattered loosely on it. A horse is then hitched to a special wooden roller with pegs in it, and with a rider horseback on the horse, drives back and forth on this patch until the straw is tramped in and the whole base is quite firm and solid. After this has dried, the excess straw is swept off and the reaped grain is then spread on this firm base which is called a “Katok” and the same wooden roller is hauled across, over and over until the kernels are all freed from the heads. When the men feel that all the kernels are free from the straw, they gather the straw with forks and take it away, piling it into stacks for feed. The grain is shoveled to the centre of the “Katok” and more unthreshed wheat or whatever grain is being threshed is spread around. Then the roller and the horse again commence their threshing process. After the men feel that there is about 50 or 60 “poodi” of grain (one “pood” is 40 pounds) in the centre of the “Katok”, the threshing process is halted. Now they take shovels and throw the grain into the air against the wind – thus separating the chaff from the kernels, as it is light and the wind blows it away. If there are any pieces of solid matter like dried mud chunks or small rocks – these are later removed by hand made screens.
All this harvesting work was carried out by the elders. In the meantime we children see how the elders are throwing the wheat and chaff into the wind, develop our own form of make believe. We gather in the street where there is loose dirt and make piles of it in the centre. Then cupping our hands we throw it into the air, just to see which way it blows. Because there are up to ten of us in a group, we create a regular dust storm in which you can hardly see our bodies. In the morning when we get together, all have different colored clothes. In the evening all our clothes are a dark gray. All around our eyes, nose and mouth there is a layer of black dust. We no longer look like children but like knights in black armor. In the event that we have a rainfall and the streets have puddles, we begin by racing through them, and then wrestling and before you know it we begin to go our separate and march home like fishermen coming home, wet and soggy.
It wasn’t always that we children got away with our naughty frolicking. Often either an elder man or an older woman would catch us doing something naughty and they would get after us with a willow switch, and without paying attention as to who belonged to which family, would give each one of us a good wallop on the back and chase us to our individual homes. Most of the time we were on the watch for any approaching elder, and when catching sight of one, we would immediately scatter and hide. There never was any thought of standing up to any older person of your own or any other village. If ever any child would answer harshly to any older person, he would be severely punished by his own parents at home. This meant that no child could do any mischief in any part of the village without immediately answering to any elder around. Even if he got away from the elder on the spot, he knew what he would get at home, when his mischief and disrespect of elders would be reported to his parents. This kind of upbringing allowed the Doukhobors to live in peace and harmony in their large extended families, and in their tightly knit villages. Every parent trusted their neighbouring parents to do the right thing when dealing with children’s pranks. Parents always trusted the elders’ assessment of an irresponsible occurrence, rather than the version given by a guilty teen-ager. There were no schools in our village and at most the literacy rate of the whole village was no more than 5 percent. Yet the whole village kept strictly to the above disciplinary guidelines without any exceptions.
With the oncoming colder weather, after all the fall work was done, our children’s group gallivanting came to an end. Because of general lack of warm winter clothing, most of us children now became confined to their homes. Staying at home, all we could do was think about all of the things we had done this past summer, and plan for the coming spring and summers escapades and the new things we might come up with.
During the fall and winter time of short days and long nights, because the children had no place to play and no responsibilities to fulfill and were having time on their hands, it became the duty of every parent and grandparent to teach them the prayers and psalms that contained the life-concept of the Doukhobors. These were passed on from generation to generation and were learned from memory. Families that had four or five children above four years of age, had them, every day, lined up in a row and made to recite from memory the psalms they already knew, and then separately, each one would be taught additional psalms. Up to a given age these psalms would be taught only for recitation. Later the melody of these psalms would be taught as well. In this particular winter I learned from memory my third psalm, whose contents was as follows:
“Lord, Give Us Thy Blessing”
“From the beginning of time and till now, the Lord God calleth to His faithful children: “Come to me my dear children, come to me my most dear ones. I have prepared for you the Kingdom of Heaven. Do not fear to forsake your father, your mother nor all of your race and lineage in the physical sense, but give reverence to me your heavenly Father in spirit. And the faithful children turn to Him in prayer – Oh Lord, our dear Lord it is so difficult for us to enter into your heavenly kingdom. All the pathways have gates of steel, and at the gates there stand fierce and unjust guards. And the Lord speaketh to them and sayeth: “Do not be fearful my children, do not be fearful my dear ones. I am the powerful wrestler that shall go forward before you. I shall break down all their gates of steel and I shall disperse their fierce guards. And then I shall lead you into my kingdom of heaven, where all shall reign with me as witnessed to by the God of Jacob.”
“Our God be praised”
During the winters male children under the age of 12 years had no responsibilities, so their day-to-day routine was always the same and the winters felt long. In regard to the girls it was a bit different. Beginning from the age of seven, the mothers began teaching them how to knit from the woolen yarn and even simple patching. Those families that had smaller babies, the girls were trained to take care of them. The girls were also taught to clean the floors as well as help their mothers with the washing of dishes. After the girls reach 12 years of age the mothers began to train them how to spin simple, thicker yarn for mitts and working stockings. All the spinning in our area of Kars province was done from sheep’s wool. Some sheep had been brought from our Elizavetpol province because there, most villagers had large herds of sheep. Some long horned cattle were also brought here from Elizavetpol, and these were used for milk from the very beginning of our new settlement.
When the frosts came in late fall, all work on construction was stopped. This was because in order to lay the stone walls it required mortar from the brown clay mixture. This mixture had to be handled with bare hands, and of course later this would get frozen and without a proper drying process this mortar would fall apart in the warm summer weather. Thus ,for the men folk there was less to do. All they had to do was look after cattle, horses and sheep, and in the homes they would patch the leather harness gear, repair worn boots or sew new ones. At times they would tan woolen sheepskins and sew them for wearing as short fur coats. Wood working shops did not exist here because wood was so hard to get. It was not even possible to haul logs from the forest in the wintertime. The roads were not passable. A blacksmith shop was very rare, as only a few essentials for household use or construction were ever made in the village blacksmith. There was nowhere in this area where men could go and do work for others, so in the year there were five months where the men, also, were tied to doing household and barnyard chores, the barn being part of the residence.
All the men’s main work of working the land, sowing, harvesting, and construction work could only be done in the spring and summer, so during the long winter evenings, the men – like the children spent a lot of time learning the Doukhobor psalms. This was done not only in their own homes. They also gathered in groups in neighbour’s homes. They not only read the psalms, but also in groups, sang them. On Sundays there were large gatherings for prayer meetings. At these prayer meetings everyone participated by each reading a psalm. The Doukhobors never had any special person for leading prayer services. Each and everyone participated with the reading and with the singing. That is why the children were taught from a very young age. It was always expected that each person would read a different psalm. And so if a group of one hundred gathered, the elders would be obliged to know just about that many psalms. The Doukhobors read their psalms, their prayers to God, not with the intent of absolving themselves from sin, but they read them for their own enlightenment as to how they should lead their lives. Each and every psalm had some explanation about the living spirit of the teachings of Jesus Christ. This is why the Doukhobors referred to their collection of psalms as the “Living Book”.
When a person has within his memory many Doukhobor psalms, no matter where he is, or what his circumstances are, he always has with him the instructional words contained in the psalms. No one can take them away from him, and having them always within the innermost sanctions of his being for his guidance, no one can sidetrack him, or change his deep seated and deeply rooted faith. This then, was one of the main reasons that the Doukhobors were not so concerned about grammar schools or other forms of academic learning. Their first concern was to instruct their children with the “Living Book”, their religious and moral, ethical, instructional psalms. In addition to all this the Doukhobors believed that their spiritual psalms were their own unique and bona fide life-concepts that no outsider had tampered with. Keeping firmly to the concepts contained in their psalms, the Doukhobors could safely withstand any foreign or alien influences. Their feelings were that any outside grammar teaching could still contain influences that were alien to Doukhobor thought and would infringe on or tend to obscure pure and untainted Doukhobor teachings.
During this first winter, with its short days and long nights was spent with even greater emphasis placed on spiritual aspects and the learning of psalms by both children and elders. I remember this first winter starting to turn towards spring because in February 25th of the year 1881 I became 4 years old. I really was not too aware of how good a crop we had this past year, or what other hardships my parents went through, because at my age this was not within my realm of comprehension. I do remember that the house (Saklya) that we lived in was warm and comfortable. The walls were about four feet thick. The rock walls were double layered. The rocks were laid in clay mortar in two columns, and in between the space was filled with common soil. The roof had round rafters – pine logs twelve to fourteen inches in diameter, on which were placed flat slabs of rock, a few inches in thickness. On these slabs straw was placed and then about twelve to fourteen inches of soil. There were only two windows and one door. The doorway entrance was a corridor with walls about 10 feet thick, and having a door at each end of the corridor. With only the two windows and a doored corridor entrance, the inside of the house was cozy and warm. I do not remember ever feeling cold or uncomfortable throughout the whole winter. It was only later in my life that I began experiencing a longing for the warm sunny days of summer.
Spring did come, and at the end of March the snow began to melt. It was wonderful. For just as soon as a bare spot of earth showed up, there immediately green tufts of grass started to show. By about April 10th the snow was all gone and a vaporous fog started to rise from the soil. Soon the soil warmed up and everywhere green grass appeared. Right after this, the earliest white flowers of the “maslyonka” plant, a variety of buttercups began to dot the green prairie land. These buttercups in their roots had a large kernel, the size of a peanut, which was edible. There we were in groups, armed with a special wooden rod sharpened at the end like a little shovel scampering all over the prairie meadow digging these peanuts to eat right there and to bring some home. This daily occupation of ours lasted till about the 5th of May. After this the white flowers would wither and fly away. Then there was no way you could spot the buttercup plant in the lush green grass, and besides that the peanut seed itself would get to be coarse and hard and not edible anymore. And so, for a time our children’s groups would be left without too much to do except wait for the warm sunny days to come, when we again could go to our favorite river beach to swim and bask in the warm sun. The last year’s pastime was to be repeated again this year, until such time as our parents would begin the harvest season and again get us to pick up all the loosely fallen grain.
This was the routine for all of us children, and this is what occupied my time when I was five and six years old. When I became seven years of age, that winter my parents taught me several more lengthy psalms. I remember that spring when the snow melted more rapidly and the streets were full of puddles and little creeks. Here was something new – to build little dikes and canals and float little hand made boats and make imaginary turning mills on the flowing rivulets. After this came the season of digging the buttercup roots and when that finished a new phase of my childhood development came about. My older brother Nikolay made a fish hook out of an old needle. He attached a length of string to the homemade hook and gave me my first instructions on how to catch the little fish that abounded in the same river that we loved to swim in. He showed me where to dig for the long, red earthworms, how to store them in an empty can with some earth in it, and how to attach them in short pieces for baiting the hook. He showed me how to lower the hook into the water and then patiently wait till a fish starts jerking on the line. This shallow river that we swam in seemed to have millions of these little fish. They were the size of Canadian perch and resembled them in appearance. And so, along with all other boys that were seven and eight years old this became another pastime with which we were occupied.
The little fish were very plentiful in the river, and if a boy struck a good spot he could catch from 50 to 75 of them in one day’s outing. The caught fish would be kept in a screened cage in the water. When these were brought home, the mothers would merely clean the innards and then fry them whole. When the fish was fried for some time they are smothered in a mixture of dough that is made quite thin, and then the whole mass is baked in the oven. This kind of fish in pastry, served as a very special delicacy for all of us children. It also substantially added to our dietary supplies, as in our first years in this new settlement food was not too plentiful. In our particular family this was even more so.
Alexey’s parents, Anna and Ivan Popov, c. 1915. Ivan was a very large man whereas Anna was diminutive. In this photo, Ivan is sitting while Anna is standing.
When our family was coming from our village in the province of Elizavetpol we had brought with us 4 cows. In the fall of 1882 three of these cows were stolen. On one night that fall a group of thieves came and from the far side of the barn they took apart a part of the stone wall and led the three cows away. Even with the help of the whole village, we were never able to track down the culprits or to find out where three of our best cows disappeared. From that time on, our dairy products were far more limited than in other families. Our daily food was bread made from whole-wheat flour with soup, which was made basically of potatoes and coarsely ground wheat. Borshch had potatoes and cabbage plus a large tablespoon of thick cream. Into both soup and borshch, for our family of six people, one small tablespoon of butter was added.
Therefore, the small perch that I caught with the homemade fishing tackle was a very welcome addition to our meager food supply. It was a change, it was very tasty and it cost nothing. Up to seven years of age, no outside family responsibilities were designated to me. I was still allowed to go and dig the buttercup peanuts. But when their season came to an end I was given a more serious responsibility. Most families had flocks of geese. This particular spring my mother was able to successfully hatch 48 goslings, in addition to the five older geese that we owned – making 53 in all. As soon as they grew up a bit and got trained to keep to their own flock, because of shortage of home feed, the flock had to be herded out to pasture in the meadow and also to the same river where we went swimming. The river was shallow and quiet flowing and posed no danger for the geese. In places along its banks there was a lot of lush green grass which both the older geese and the young goslings loved to feed on. Besides this, when they would plunge into the river there were all kinds of bugs that lived in the quiet eddies, and the geese young and old feasted on them. With this range free feeding, the young geese developed in leaps and bounds. My job was to keep them together, both on the range and in the water from 7 o’clock in the morning until 9 o’clock in the evening. After 9 o’clock I would herd the geese home where they had special housing under a solid roof with solid locking doors. It was not possible to leave the geese free overnight because there had been occasions when the large gray wolves which roamed the mountainside would sometimes come down into the village at night and kill some geese and drag them away for eating later.
In the daytimes there had not been any occasion that the wolves would come to the riverside. There were a few occasions when stray dogs would come there but they could be frightened away. On rare occasions there were serious hailstorms and some of the little goslings would be seriously hurt or even killed. Apart from these rare times of worry, we young children that looked after the geese felt free and happy. We often had time to swim in the river ourselves and lie on the shore. Sometimes we even did some fishing. The flocks of geese also enjoyed these free-range outings. At times when they would have a good feeding quickly, they would also stretch out on the sand and lie sleeping. Other times they would swim in the deeper water and then lazily stay in the shallow eddies snapping at the bugs that swam there. There were odd times when one flock of geese would get mixed up with another flock and coming home we would have different counts. To avoid disputes every family had their own markings on the feet of the geese. Some cut slits in the goose toe webs. Others cut one nail off, either, the left or right foot. All were different. And so checking the markings each family claimed their separated goslings. I do not remember that there were ever any serious disputes.
This work of pasturing geese continues from the first of June until the fifth of September when the harvest season commences. At this time the geese are not pastured at the river anymore, but they are brought out into the harvest fields where they methodically go through the harvested field and pick up every head of grain that fell aside from the main stacks. Some families who had the proper utensils brought out water for the geese into the fields and so the geese remain in the field from dawn to dark. Feeding on grain, the geese accumulated a considerable amount of fat. Thus, at home they are grain fed for no more than 2 weeks and then they are sold. The summer’s pasturing of the geese was not a troublesome one for the children. It was rather enjoyable, because the hours of work were not too exact. Morning or evening the timing could be one hour earlier or one hour later. There was however one hardship. Being bare legged all the time proved to have its disadvantages. Wetting your feet about every hour, and then being in the hot sand and sun eventually made all the skin rough, which later would have cracks appear and even open sores. The sores would bleed and be very painful. There was no medicine for this. The only thing that helped was to cover all your legs with black Caucasian oil. The oil seemed to protect the skin and going in and out of the water did not affect the skin as much.
Pasturing the geese at harvest time was more arduous. This was because the grain fields were sometimes one, two or three “Versti” from the home residence. During some hot days in the fall it would not be possible to herd the geese for such distances. This then required the young lad to get up before sunrise, and while the dew was still on the grass to get the geese into the fields and have them already fed before herding them to the river for water. In the evening it was the same problem. While the sun was still high it was too hot for the geese to trek from the river to the fields. They would get hot, open their mouths and lie down without going any farther. You could only start them from the river when the sun was already quite low. By the time they would get themselves fed it would already be getting dark. This created considerable hardships for a boy only seven years of age. Also the weather in the fall was not always calm. Sometimes it rained heavily. Other times a wind storm would come up and you would have to be fighting dust and wind against which even the geese did not want to go. There were times when the older people in the village felt that they had to come and help the young boys to bring the geese home on one or another turbulent evening. They would holler into the night and children would answer in the high-spirited children’s voices. The one saving grace for us children was that we never went in separate groups. Most of the time we had four or five groups of boys following each other, especially after dark. Each was looking after his own herd of geese. Being in a group gave us some comfort. At times, however, it used to get so dark that each of us seemed to be totally alone. All of us were quite well aware of the fact that the huge gray wolves were always not too far away from the grain fields. Thoughts of the wolves always brought a cold shudder down one’s spine.
In my eight and ninth year I did not get any additional responsibilities. There still were no schools in the village. So in the summers I herded geese and in the winters I added to my knowledge of psalms.
When I became 10 years of age I was given another responsibility. Now I had to begin herding sheep. Looking after sheep had its own season. This was from the middle of March till the tenth of June. At this time the sheep were having their lambs and the lambs had to be trained near to and around home, to stay with the herd.
After the 10th of June all the sheep in the village are brought together into one or two large herds. Specially trained Tartar herdsmen are hired, who take the sheep into the hills and graze them on especially rented crown land. They keep them here till about the fifteenth of October, and sometimes even till November 10th. They then bring the herds back to the village and every owner starts taking care of his own little group. They are pastured in and around the village till the time of the first big snowfall. Those owners who have over a hundred sheep pasture them individually. Those that have 20 to 45 usually group together and either hire a person as herdsman or take turns in herding.
All sheep have their own kind of markings. Their markings are on their ears with either one or two cuts or piercing. Herding sheep was one of my favorite responsibilities. There were many groups of boys. During dry weather and no wind, the sheep grazed quietly and the boys would organize some games. In this way, the days would go by quickly. The games could be different each time. One of the games played the oftenest was called “Na v shapki” or beat the cap. This was done by each one throwing his herding stick as far as he could. Whichever stick landed the closest, the owner would have to take off his cap and throw it in the same direction. All the boys were then permitted to run and beat this cap with their sticks a certain amount of times and then again throw their sticks. This could go on all day, and it did happen that some of the less lucky boys would have their caps beaten into shreds and come home bareheaded. To hide his shame this boy would keep his herd out till it was completely dark and then bring them home.
Sketch of merino sheep kept by the Doukhobors by Russian painter, Vasily Vereshchagin during his visit to Elizavetpol in 1863.
There was only one particular drawback in herding sheep, and that was the rainy weather. There were times when it would rain several days in a row. When it was this wet the sheep would not graze quietly but kept running around uncomfortably. For these rainy days we boys had a special garment, which was called a “Bashlik.” It was a kind of large vest that had no sleeves but did have a special parka that pulled over your head from the back. These vests were made from sheep’s wool, tightly knit and well pounded. These vests did not let the rainwater through to your body, but if it rained all day these would become so soaked and heavy that your shoulders felt like you were carrying unwieldy weights of steel that seemed to get heavier every step you took. Carrying this amount of weight from morning until evening was quite a trauma for an eight or nine year old. It was that much harder to carry this weight because the soil beneath your feet was all muddy and sticky. Some evenings it was real torture to drag one foot after another on the last stretch home and when you finally got to bed your legs would continue to feel the pain.
There was another hardship herding sheep in the spring and that was their giving birth to lambs right in the distant field where you had led them. If this were one or two lambs, you would be obliged to carry them home. If it there were more than two new born lambs, you would go to the nearest hilltop and holler at the top of your voice until someone in or near the village would hear and they would come to help.
The most frequent trauma in herding sheep in the summer was this matter of getting soaking wet, which was sometimes followed by a cold wind. There were times when one remained shuddering throughout the whole day. One other fear that always seemed to hover over you when you came closer to the mountains with your herd was the fact that you knew that the mountains abounded with large gray wolves. During my time there was never an occurrence of a pack of wolves attacking a herd of sheep. In the two years that I herded sheep there was only one occurrence of my actually seeing a large gray wolf lurking nearby. There were other older boys that let out loud shouts and the wolf disappeared into the mountains. As for myself I stood petrified and motionless for about half an hour. I was not able to move my feet. It seemed that my whole bloodstream was frozen.
There was one other occurrence that happened to me with one of my older and rather feeble sheep. This happened at the beginning of the month of December when the first snow covered most of our low-level pasture ground. About one quarter of a “versta” from our home there was a gorge through which flowed a larger river named “Karsina Reka”. This gorge stretched for about eight “versti” and three of these “versti” was in the territory of land that was allocated to our village. This gorge had banks of different elevations. Some places the height was about three times the height of prairie grain elevators, other places this elevation was lower. Most places the distance from one side to the other was about 160 feet. The river was not too wide, and it ran through the centre. At one side of the river there was the general road that ran through along the gorge, and at the other side the distance between the river and its mountainous bank varied. In places it came right to the river’s edge and in other places there were ledges of various heights, which contained luscious green grass. From the warmth of the river water there was no snow on these ledges. At places these ledges led to level pieces of land, and at other places they led directly into steep and very rocky mountainous territory. On some of these ledges even horses or cattle could graze. On others only the sheep, being more agile, could safely graze. And so in the first part of the winter, I took my sheep to these ledges. I directed my sheep to a lower ledge, which had very luscious grass on it, but the descent to it was quite steep. Going down, the sheep managed very well, but having smoothed the path going down, when I was ready to chase them back up they found it very slippery and difficult. I had to help practically every sheep to scamper up and onto more level territory. It came to the last one, a heavy older sheep that wasn’t very agile anymore. She just could not make it to the upper ledge, and with all the strength that I could muster I just couldn’t get her out of this lower ledge. It was getting dark and I had to make a quick decision. If I left her loose, she could conceivably scamper out of here later and wander into the mountains where the wolves would most certainly get her. Each of us boys had our slings for throwing stones and so I decided to use that string. I tied all four feet of the sheep as firmly as I could and left her there lying at the foot of the ledge. In the morning we would come with my father and rescue her.
I came home with the rest of the herd later than usual. When my parents asked why I was so late, I explained what happened with that one old sheep. Sheep at that time were valued from two and a half to four dollars each. To me that seemed not such a great deal. However, my parents were so upset with this possible loss that they hardly slept all night. They prayed and grieved and mother even went out into the night to carry out some kind of an ancient witchcraft ritual. She took an axe and plunged it into the ground in the middle of the road, and if everyone went around it without knocking it down, this would denote that the sheep would be safe.
In the very early morning, before dawn, my father and I went to the place where I had left the sheep. The spot was empty but there were signs of struggling. Looking further around and below, we found the dead sheep in a clump of brush. She had kept beating and turning until she fell and rolled among rocks. The whole carcass was so beat up; we could not even salvage the sheep’s skin. The loss of this sheep was a subject of grief to my parents for a long time to come. When spring came my parents did not fail to mention to me – you see that sheep would now have brought us two lambs. It was so hard for me to understand why it was that my parents were so overly concerned with this loss of one old sheep. Was it just grief for a material loss, or was it fear of loss of self-sufficiency, and possible want in the future? It was probably the latter, because we scarcely ever had anything in abundance. However in my childhood immaturity I thought that how could it be that my parents seemed to value the sheep more than they cared about me and my anguish. They continually mentioned that the sheep would have brought two lambs, and that she always fed them so well, and that her wool was of the finest quality. It was long and soft and it produced the finest of yarn. All these rebukes about my fault for this loss kept on for a whole year. For a nine-year-old child these parental rebukes about the loss of a mere older sheep gave me severe mental depression. I kept being sore at heart. At the same time it was a very indelible lesson to me to always be more careful in the future.
When I was in a more self-pitying mood I would think to myself – of course my action in getting the sheep to this luscious green ledge was not done for any kind of self-gratification. I had done this out of pity and love for the sheep. I well knew that they would be half hungry treading over grounds that were already eaten bare, but here I was directing them to a ledge of luscious green grass where not a single foot had trod, – a place you just didn’t want to leave from. And then I would reason again – true enough the thoughts came to me that if I did not take advantage of this ledge today – others would discover it tomorrow! And then of course our elders were always praising the boys that were more alert than others, and I did have the thoughts that when the elders found out that I had discovered and used this ledge for my herd before anyone else – they would say, aha, that Popov youngster finds ledges that even older herders failed to discover! And so really – this was the thought that made me venture to that steep but luscious ledge. Instead of receiving this kind of praise, it turned out that in the end I received an unforgettable lesson to be more careful rather than being more daring. Had I brought home the sheep that evening even half hungry, their suffering would have been minimal. No one would have been able to assess exactly how much was in their stomachs. My parents would have been at peace, and there would have been no rebukes to me in the future. With those thoughts of getting praise and commendations, I probably would have become unnecessarily proud and to think too much of myself. This event of the loss of a sheep brought out in me deeper thoughts of the wisdom of being careful in all matters. Not the least of this was that it is wise to be careful in material matters insofar as one’s welfare sometimes depended on saving every hair that was needed to keep the family self-sustainable.
Traumatic events be they as they were, time did not stand still. On the 25th of February 1887 I became ten years old. In this winter, after the loss of the sheep, I was more studious than before and learned a lot of new psalms. As usual there were no other particular responsibilities for young boys in these winter months. There were only the few times of warmer sunny weather when the parents would allow me to take the sheep for a drink at the river, the same river where we always swam. With the spring break we still went digging for the buttercup peanuts, but even before their season was over there was an additional responsibility given to boys our age with the beginning of the spring planting of grain.
The sowing of grain was done by hand. We did not know any other way, except using a special sack with two straps over the shoulder. The sack was open in the front and from here the sower would take the seed into his hand and scatter it fan wise. About 65 to 80 pounds of seed is placed into the sack. The opening of the sack appears under the left arm and with the right arm the sower takes fistful of seed. He scatters the seed from left to right measured by his steps. When he puts his left foot forward he fills his fist with seed. When he steps forward with his right foot he scatters the seed. This is done by the elders in the family. This job was done by my father. He scattered the seed onto the ploughed land. After this it was essential to pull harrows over the land so that the scattered seed would be covered by soil in order that the birds would not pick it up and in order for the seed to properly germinate and sprout. This part of harrowing was done quite uniquely and probably different from other places in the world. The harrows themselves were constructed right at home. The spikes that were driven into the frame of the harrow were made of dried, firm wood. Each separate frame was made for one horse to be hitched to it and drag it. Each horse would have a young boy driver. If the family did not have a boy, girls also could be seated horseback on the horse. One track of the harrow was not enough to properly cover the seed, and so it was most usual to have four horses hitched to four separate frames that would follow one after the other. Only the front horse had to have a driver. The other horses were just tied to the back end of the harrow. And so in my eleventh year I was entrusted with being the driver of the front horse. The other three followed my trail one after the other. This job was not one that required any amount of physical labour, but it did have its own peculiar difficulties. The driver of the lead horse had the responsibility of traversing the field in a straight line. Keeping this line straight was important, because on the return trip the boy had to make sure that he wasn’t going over the same trail twice, as well as he had to be sure that he was leaving no spaces uncovered.
It was always the same problem. The horses usually walked slowly and carefully. At this time of the spring the sun was usually quite warm, and so the gentle swaying of the horse, and the warm sun never failed to make the young driver start dozing. In this half asleep mood it was usually quite hard to keep your line straight. This brought about the fact that you either wandered over territory that was already covered, or also you left some uncovered spaces. What would happen was that when an elder came to check on the work, he would have a double job of getting the line straight and also having no spaces left uncovered. This slowed down the whole process of completing the harrowing of a given field that was already sowed.
In all our villages the land was divided into long narrow plots seeded on a three-year rotation basis. All the families usually worked their allotted plots at the same time. At times there were up to 50 families in the fields at the same time. When the elders would complete the sowing of a given field they would gather together in group discussions awaiting the completion of harrowing. When they felt that the young boys should by now have completed the harrowing, they would go out to the fields to check matters out. Quite often there would be poorly harrowed plots, and the elder who found such a state, would have to then take over the lead horse and correct the poor job. Sometimes, just about the whole field would have to be done over. Where the job had been ably looked after by the young driver – his elders would already start moving to another plot, and the one who had dozed on his horse and made a mess would then get serious lectures from his elders. Some very irresponsible youngsters were sometimes even punished. Thus it would happen, when horses are unhitched for noon feeding, those boys who had everything in order would be jolly and would get together and have fun amongst themselves. The unfortunate ones whose fields were poorly done would get lectures from their elders, and all of the other boys would be ribbing them about how sloppy their work turned out. Not only would the boys receive lectures from their immediate elders, other elders would also pipe in. This sometimes happened to me. Other elders would have their say – admonishing me: “How come Alyoshka, you worked so sloppily that your father had to spend so much time correcting all your errors? At this rate, if you keep up such irresponsibility – no one will ever want you for a husband, and you will never get married”
At our age this seemed to be such a dire prediction. To add to this, if one received the elders’ lectures several times throughout the spring season, you would never hear the end of this from all of your peers and friends for the whole summer. Of course the age we were, and the warm spring sun and the swaying horse were all part of the natural make-up of things. It was really not such a major sin to doze – but it was really hard to take all the consequences of this dozing. And so this simple responsibility of driving the lead horse in harrowing the fields proved to be its own kind of a painful chore.
Seeding operations are completed by about April 20th. Land is not worked again until June 10th. This gives the working animals a rest of about one month and twenty days. During this rest time I had to lead the horses out for grazing in the pasture. In the free pasture land, the horses had to be hobbled on their front feet. If a horse was exceedingly frisky he would have to be hobbled on a third back leg as well. When the horses would be all hobbled they would be allowed to graze on their own. This was the job that every boy of the village was occupied with. The pasture was common to all the villagers and so all of us boys would get together for games throughout the whole day – as the horses could not wander away too far while they were hobbled. Some of the boys who weren’t too enthusiastic to play –would catch up on their sleep that they lost in the spring. The games we played were simple. One was called “V Tsoorki” and another was called “V Doochki”. Rarely did we play ball, and sometimes the younger boys played riding horses near the river and then we would go swimming. Some of us would take this opportunity to catch fish. Pasturing horses during the rainy season was not as troublesome as with pasturing sheep. Horses did not really get upset with the rain. They either continued grazing – or would just stand quietly in one place. As for us children, we would also stay upright quietly or rest on some jutting stone outcrop, which were plentiful in our area. The only problem with horse pasturing during rainy weather was the form of hobble that was used. If the hobble was made of leather, the rain did not affect it, but if the hobble was made of rope – it would tighten when wet, and it was very difficult to get it undone when the horses would have to be herded home. Sometimes a boy would have to take his horses home all the long way from the pasture while they remained hobbled. This was a slow process and such a boy would come home a lot later.
Picture of Alexey as a young man with unidentified woman in exile in Siberia, c. 1903.
Some of the times the horses would not be herded home every night. At such times all of the horses would be brought together in a large herd where designated elders would watch over them all of the night. The elders of 15 to 30 men, who would divide into groups of four taking several shifts through each night. There were also times when the younger children would take designated horses to the village homes for work that was needed to be done in the gardens or other work within the village structure. When all of the village work would be finished, then all the horses would be divided into two or three large herds watched over by two men to each herd in the daytime and by one additional man coming in from the villages for night time watching. This general overall system continued up to June 10th.
At this time the horses would all be brought back to each individual household for preparing the land that was left as summer fallow land, that is, the land that is left for resting for one year. The plowing of these fields had its own particular routine. To each plow there were hitched from six to eight pairs of horses. The front pair had a boy rider in the ages of from ten to thirteen. Every other pair also had a rider. It was the work of these riders to guide his own pair of horses, and also see that the pair ahead of you was pulling its share. Each boy thus had to look after four horses. This meant that in the morning he would have to put on the harness onto the horses, bring them and hitch them into their proper places and then keep them moving in their proper direction following the furrow that was made. At the proper noontime, the horses would have to be unhitched, unharnessed and allowed to graze in a special field of grass left nearby. They would also have to be taken down to the river for their drink of water. All this would have to be repeated in the evening. The land that was being plowed had been already grazed and well trampled by the village cattle. The plots where the horses had to be allowed to graze were nearby. None of the stock were allowed to graze here since the year before and therefore the grass was lush and plentiful for the working teams of horses.
As I became a ten-year-old boy, it was my job to look after 4 horses. Keep them harnessed when needed, unharnessed and fed at given times, and led to water as designated. Getting the horses to water was a chore in itself, as the fields for plowing were sometimes two to three “Versti” from the river. This entire fallow plowing time proved to be exceedingly hard and trying for me as a ten year old. This was especially hard during the night routine. At 8 o’clock in the evening you had to bring the horses to the place where they were to graze, hobble them and then lie down to get some much-needed sleep. The total of your clothing for the night would be one additional light, longer length semi-raincoat. At 12 o’clock midnight you had to get up and unhobble the horses and take them for their drink at the river. You had to bring them back, hobble them again, and then again lie down to sleep. At 5o’clock in the morning you had to get up, bring in the horses, unhobble them and lead them to the workplace. During the times when it remained dry, this job, although quite hard, was still bearable. However, when the rain kept coming all night it became a real nightmare. At times you would wake up and find yourself lying in a puddle of water – as in the night it was not always easy to spot a higher piece of ground for taking your nap. This torturous spring responsibility continued each year for a period of from 28 to 34 days.
The length of time depended on whether there was more or less fallow land, and also on whether there was more or less of a rainy spell. In some years the weather was cool, and not too much rain. In other years you had spells of intense heat and also many days of wet weather. Of course when it became obvious that conditions were too extreme and hard for the young boys – there was always the fact that there was one elder, the plowman for every group of three or four boys. It was his responsibility to see that the boys were reasonably looked after. This elder was always free to catch up on his sleep during the noon break, which lasted for three hours. But during the nighttime he also took four horses and went with the young boys when they took the horses for their grazing period. He always had the boys sleeping near him and would wake them when they had to take the horses for their drink at the river, and also when they had to take them in the morning to the field which was being plowed. In the nighttime he would help the boys get on their horses to ride to the river, and on the way there would often holler to the boys by name – in case one or another of them would begin to doze while riding and perhaps allow the horse to veer away from the others and head for home instead of the river.
During the time of fallow plowing all the boys remained under the rule and instructions of the one elder designated for their group. He was the one that told them how to look after all the harness gear, how to handle the horses, when to take the breaks and so on. This elder was given the authority to discipline any boy in his group. If need be, he had the right to even use the same whip, that was used on the horses, for punishing a disobedient or irresponsible boy. There was one time that I, when I was 12 years old received a snap of the whip for being too lippy. Our elder was a distant relative by the name of Jacob Voykin. He gave me a sharp snap, that made my pants wet. The wet was not from blood! This Jacob Voykin was the elder in our group, which was made up from several families. Because you needed 12 to 16 horses for each plow, and some families did not have that many horses, it was the custom to get several families together who then shared one plow. The plows were of heavy wood construction. The only steel on the plow was the share and the cutting disc that went ahead of it. There was only one share to the plow and it threw a furrow of about 14 inches. The soil was quite heavy and it required from 12 to 16 horses to pull it fast enough to throw a proper furrow. It was with this one plow that all the land had to be tilled to supply several families with a living. Sometimes the total of these families would be twenty or more souls. All the sustenance of these 20 souls would have to be derived from the produce of their allotted plot of land. Where there were this many souls to their allotted plot, most of the time they barely had enough produce to keep themselves and their stock for the ensuing year. Others, whose families had not grown since the past allotment was made, but who had the horsepower, were fortunate enough to have some produce for sale. Some of these more fortunate families were able to rent land from the nearby peasant Tartars and always had some produce for sale. Renting land was very favorable here as after three years of giving shares to the owner – the lessee could claim ownership of the land.
I spent four years of my life doing the routines that I explained, from the age of 10 to 14 years of age, to help the family till the land for their sustenance. Despite the fact that these years remain in my memory as very trying and hard times during this growing period up of my life, I do not remember getting sick at any time in spite of the many times of being wet, cold and tired. My physical health remained at a good level and I have no bad memories of this particular period of my life.
Cover of Alexey Ivanovich Popov’s “Autobiography of a Siberian Exile”.
Alexey Ivanovich Popov lived with his parents in Spasovka, Kars until the age of 21, when he received his call-up for conscript service in the Russian army. He refused to perform military training, as the taking of human life ran contrary to his Doukhobor faith and beliefs. For this, in 1898, he, together with other young Doukhobor conscripts, was exiled to Yakutsk Siberia for a term of 18 years. In 1905 a Manifesto of Amnesty was issued by Russian Emperor Nikolai II, thus granting the Doukhobor exiles in Siberia their freedom. Soon thereafter, Alexey and his new bride Katerina immigrated to Canada to join their Doukhobor brethren who had arrived some six years earlier. Alexey lived for a time in the Doukhobor Community, but soon became an Independent Doukhobor, taking out a homestead at Blaine Lake, Saskatchewan, where he lived and farmed until his death on August 14, 1955.
To order copies of Alexey’s fascinating life story, “Autobiography of a Siberian Exile” along with various other informative Doukhobor publications written by his son, Eli A. Popoff, contact: The Birches Publishing, Box 730, Grand Forks, British Columbia, V0H 1H0, Tel: (250) 442-5397, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.