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.

Folk Furniture of Canada’s Doukhobors

by John Fleming and Michael Rowan

When the Doukhobors arrived in Western Canada in the late nineteenth century, the folk furniture they created reflected the traditional forms, construction methods and decorative motifs of Russia. A systematic comparison of their Canadian furniture to Russian pieces reveals the extent to which geography and Canadian society affected how the Doukhobors adopted and adapted these elements in their new environment, while at the same time retaining familiar forms and practices. The following article examines the issues of tradition, adaptation and innovation in the folk furniture of Canada’s Doukhobors. Reproduced by permission from The Magazine ANTIQUES (March 2007). Photos by James Chambers.

In recent years, an influx of folk furniture imported from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, northern Russia, in particular, has made it easier to compare the pieces made by Russian immigrants after their arrival in North American with examples that demonstrate the original context, in which the forms, construction methods, and decorative motifs were born. This comparative approach also addresses the perennial issues of tradition, adaptation and innovation in the transfer of these elements from the old world to the new.

Figure 1. Frame, Blewitt, British Columbia, early twentieth century. Spruce, overpaint removed to reveal original red, blue, yellow and green; height 20 1/4, width 16 inches.

This article is an attempt to systematically examine the furniture made by one group of Russian immigrants, the Doukhobors, who settled in the Canadian West and compare it to Russian pieces. But to understand and interpret the objects the Doukhobors made, and the context in which these people began as a nonconforming religious sect, we must first return to their origins in eighteenth century Russia and their arrival in Canada at the end of the nineteenth century.

Figure 2. Cupboard, North Colony near Chelan, Saskatchewan, early twentieth century. Pine, overpainted in light green, yellow and red, the latter probably original color; height 79, width 38 1/2, depth 21 1/2 inches. Canadian Museum of Civilization.

On January 20, 1899, the SS Lake Huron, thirty days out of Batum on the Black Sea arrived off Halifax, Nova Scotia, and its passengers disembarked the following day at Lawlor’s Island for quarantine inspection. The ship then proceeded onto Saint John, New Brunswick, where the settlers started their train trip west to Winnipeg in Manitoba and beyond. At Winnipeg, one group of men was sent ahead to begin preparations for the construction of houses and other necessary buildings. In the four months that followed, three other shiploads of immigrants arrived in Canada, bringing the total number of Doukhobors to about seventy-five hundred. James Mavor (1854-1925), a professor of economics at the University of Toronto and supporter of Doukhobor immigration to Canada, recorded on May 21, 1899: “At a station in the prairie last night, there was an American Indian in his native costume and with red paint or colour on his cheeks; also a crowd of Galicians who were coming in on the train, and a few Doukhobors: a very strange throng indeed.” This “strange throng” anticipated in microcosm the mix of ethnic identities that settled the Canadian prairies and British Columbia in the years that followed. The Europeans’ arrival was facilitated by the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1885. With the exception of a few individuals, and various Doukhobor internal exiles held in Russia, Doukhobor immigration to Canada ended in about 1905.

Figure 3. Storage box, Saskatchewan, early twentieth century. Pine with original painted decoration; height 13 1/2, length 20, depth 16 inches.

The origins and evolution of this religious reform movement in the eighteenth century were based on a sweeping double rejection of organized and dogmatic forms of religion and external secular authority. This radical stance brought the group into immediate conflict with the Russian Orthodox Church and of course with the Russian czarist government. In terms of spiritual belief and the ways in which that belief is practiced, the Doukhobors refused the external material manifestations and practices of the Orthodox Church, including the preeminence given to the Bible and the historical Christ. In 1785, Archbishop Ambrosius of Ekaterinoslav first used the term Dukho-borets (spirit wrestlers) to describe these outsiders who struggled against the spirit of Christ. The Doukhobors gave this pejorative designation a positive turn by declaring that it should mean those who wrestle with rather than against the spirit of Christ. The Doukhobors abandoned iconography, church buildings, artifacts, ritual and the priestly class in a radical return to what they saw as the principles of early Christianity. They proclaimed God to be indwelling – that is, present within each person – thus making both priests and churches irrelevant to the spiritual life of the community. Similarly, printed biblical texts were replaced in Doukhobor social and religious life by their own oral psalms and hymns. Recounting his experiences crossing the Atlantic twice with the Doukhobors bound for Canada in 1899, Leopold Antonovich Sulerzhitsky (1872-1916) wrote:

The majority of the Doukhobors are convinced, to this date, that their psalms represent something original, having nothing in common with printed gospel. It seems to them that the unperverted teaching of Jesus Christ can be learned only from their psalms…The Doukhobors never wrote down these psalms. They are passed on orally from generation to generation and are preserved only in the memory.

Figure 4. Storage chest, probably Russian, late nineteenth century, found in British Columbia. Pine, iron hardware, original paint; height 23 1/2, length 41 3/4, depth 27 1/4 inches. Canadian Museum of Civilization.

The formalism and the authority of the czarist empire were equally repugnant to the Doukhobors, who tried to avoid bureaucratic intervention in their lives by refusing to register births, deaths, marriages, and, in particular, by steadfastly opposing military service. The implicit egalitarianism inherent in this rejection of authority, the assertion of personal freedom, and the beliefs of the presence of God in every individual and that all men are brothers attacked the very bases upon which church and state were founded, and caused the Doukhobors more than two centuries of official persecution.

Figure 5. Cupboard, northern Russia, late nineteenth century. Pine and spruce with original faux-bois graining and commercial cast-metal pulls; height 68 1/4, width 50, depth 20 inches. The cornice is missing.

As repression of the Doukhobors became more and more severe, a number of outside people stepped in to find a solution. Among the most important and influential was Count Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), who found in Doukhobor belief many parallels with his own anarchistic and pacifistic views, as well as a living embodiment of early Christian communism. According to Sulerzhitsky, Tolstoy, “[m]aking an exception to his rule not to take royalties for his publications….sold his novel Resurrection for the benefit of the Doukhobors.”  In advocating the Doukhobors’ immigration to Canada as a solution to their repression at home, Mavor, in Toronto, wrote to James Allan Smart (b. 1858), deputy minister of the Interior, on October 19, 1898: “I should mention also that their idea that they may as well be frozen to death in Canada as flogged to death by the Cossacks, is natural enough.”

Figure 6. Cupboard, Vologda region, Russia, c. 1900. Pine and spruce with original red and polychrome painted decoration; height 75, width 53 1/2, depth 19 1/2 inches.

As so many immigrants to North America before the Doukhobors had discovered, the promise of a new land and a new life brought with it struggle and hardship and official persecution and support in unequal measures. The only possessions most new arrivals brought with them appear to have been trunks or chests containing clothing, domestic items, and tools – a fragile visual and material bridge between departure from home and arrival in North America, or, more specifically, in the case of the Doukhobors, from the Russian steppes to the Canadian prairies. The chests’ materials, construction, proportions, and profile, colors and finish, decorative motifs, and overall aesthetic constitute a framework for analyzing the ways in which geography and Canadian society affected how the Doukhobors adopted and adapted these elements in their new environment. At the same time, the reassuring presence of familiar forms and practices provided them with a stabilizing psychological underpinning.

Some elements require extensive considerations while others are simple and straight-forward. The woods used, for example, were similar and vary little in physical composition. Pine, spruce, and birch were all commonly used in Canada and Russia, but Russian pine and spruce have more well-defined graining and greater weight than their North American counter-parts, facts that are further accentuated in a constructed state by the thickness of the planks used in Russia.

Figure 7. Cupboard, Saskatchewan, early twentieth century. Pine with original blue and green paint; height 77 1/4, width 42, depth 21 inches.

Like the materials, construction techniques are, with some variations, closely related in the Russian and Canadian pieces. In accordance with centuries’ old traditions of good joinery, mortise-and-tenon techniques prevail in cupboards and tables, while dovetailed construction predominates in boxes of all sizes. Unlike the furniture made by the Doukhobors in the Canadian West, however, Russian pieces often use visible through- tenon joints and cupboards have vertical tongue-and groove joinery and horizontal backboards, while analogous North American forms employ blind tenons and vertically nailed backboards. With few exceptions, most nails used on Russian furniture have cross-hatched heads, while those used by the Doukhobors in Canada do not.

In contrast to the material similarity between traditional Russian folk pieces and those of the Canadian Doukhobors, the decoration on the two types, differs greatly. The range of colors employed was similarly broad in both places, but the decorative application and the motifs used are distinct and constitute defining characteristics. Our examination and analysis will be limited to three categories of furniture –cupboards, boxes, and tables– since few imported chairs, benches, beds, and small domestic pieces from Russia are available for comparative purposes at present.

Figure 8. Mirror, Blaine Lake, Saskatchewan, early twentieth century, once owned by the Popoff family. Pine with old brown paint over red stain and inner gesso frame with cream-color paint; height 20, width 12 inches.

Cupboards constituted a major item in the domestic interior and were therefore more subject to decorative elaboration. Generally of imposing size and proportion, cupboards in the Russian tradition are broad, deep, and relatively low in height, probably reflecting low ceilings and modest living spaces (See Fig. 5). Although often constructed in one piece, they appear as two-part storage units, of balanced proportions, usually with fielded rectilinear panels that convey a sense of solidity and stability and a certain heaviness. Russian cupboards were frequently fastened to the walls and further integrated with the architecture of a room by having painted and decorated surfaces that echoed that of the wainscoting, moldings, door and window frames.

Russian cupboards with multiple outlined panels, such as the one in Figure 6, seem to call for further decorative elements, perhaps a lingering reflection of traditional methods of icon production, in which several artisans were responsible for the decoration of a single object, a practice that encouraged a proliferation of visual effects. The roses, tulips, and other floral ornaments that embellish panels are treated in an iconic manner that emphasizes centrality and focus; another hand may well have applied the field colors and trompe-l’oeil graining that serve as background. The background color on most Russian cupboards ranges from shades of red-brown to orange, and is sometimes painted to imitate graining.

In contrast, the paint on Canadian Doukhobor cupboards is plain and simple. It invariably emphasizes the composition of the whole by making the component parts clear – cornice, top section, waist, lower doors, base and foot (See Figs. 2 and 7). Doukhobor cupboards have single color fields, often outlined by another color in such combinations as blue and green, yellow and green, pink and green, or orange and green, with the darker color applied to moldings, cornices, and other edges. While floors, walls, and interior trim were almost always white or neutral in color in Doukhobor houses in Canada, in rural interiors in some regions of Russia such as Vologda bright colors and often repeated motifs were used to create a blended effect between furniture, walls, and paneling.

Figure 9. Table, northern Russia, late nineteenth century. Pine with original paint; height 29, width 64 1/2, depth 30 inches.

Doukhobor cupboards, including hanging versions, occasionally have carved and shaped profiles. A few familiar animals such as horses and birds sometimes appear as silhouettes on cornices (See Fig. 2) but seldom appear elsewhere. In contrast, flowers and foliate imagery are common painted motifs on Russian cupboards and chests (See Fig. 4) along with symbolic animals : “lions, Bereginy (Slavic – Spirits of Nature) and other creatures….were often painted on cupboard doors, large storage chests, and even the floors.

The boxes the Doukhobors brought from Russia at the end of the nineteenth century, probably as dower chests, and ready-made traveling trunks, were frequently embellished with painted geometric motifs, particularly pinwheels and circles. As symbols, circle related motifs have long been associated with mythologies of the sun and predate the religious icons of Christianity as they are usually understood.

On Russian boxes, where they appeared often, these motifs are well-developed, opulent, and generally fill all the space available (see Fig. 14). On Doukhobor boxes made in Canada, however, decorative elements were less insistently used, and were more restrained; they contained fewer colors; and generally consist of fewer motifs, both floral and geometric, which are disposed singly or in simple symmetrical and bilateral arrangements against a single color colored ground (See Figs. 3 and 13). This is the geometry of the pagan mythologies of the natural world and the vocabulary world of folk, rather than the symbolic language of Christian iconography that prevailed in Russia at the time.

Figure 10. Table and chair, Buchanan, Saskatchewan, c. 1910. Pine; height 30 1/2, width 42 3/4, depth 28 3/4 inches. Chair: pine and birch with original painted decoration; height 35 1/2, width 14 1/2, depth 16 1/4 inches.

The physical properties and the structure of the boxes made in North America and Russia are analogous; both use similar woods, mortise and tenon construction, and dovetailed corners. As on cupboards, the structural components, such as the moldings, around the lid or at the foot function as both protective and decorative devices in both countries, but on Doukhobor boxes a dark color normally contrasts with the field color, adding a further decorative element to the field (See Fig. 3).

Gennadi Blinov, in a book about Russian folk style figurines, identifies red, red-orange, and variants as the essential field colors of the Russian decorative palette and describes their perpetual qualities in psychological terms: “Red is an extremely active colour, strongly affecting human emotions and endowed with highly decorative properties.”  By emphasizing the emotional content of color and its decorative force, Blinov unexpectedly touched on the essentials of most Doukhobor painted furniture, which bypasses the emblematic use of color.

The final form we wish to discuss are tables. As objects around which domestic and social interactions are repeated day after day, tables play a basic role in the aesthetics of everyday existence in both Russia and Canada during this period. Russian tables are solid and block-like (See Fig. 11). It is no accident that they are almost exclusively plain or painted simply with several colors, reflecting through color and the control of the planimetric structure an unconscious preference for a two-dimensional iconic focus and a disinterest in the decorative potential of edges, curvilinear profiles, and the three-dimensional irregularities of the natural world. Doukhobor tables, on the other hand, often have carved and cutout skirts that emphasize three-dimensional effects and their sculptural nature, with positive and negative spaces creating a dynamic tension (See Fig.12) Despite these differences, both Russian tables and Doukhobor ones have turned legs that suggest their common origin. Alexander and Barbara Pronin point out that the furniture made by carpenters in Russia mirrors architectural forms and observe that the rounded legs of the tables resemble in miniature the pillars on the porches of some dwellings.  The same can be said for the correspondence between Canadian Doukhobor table legs and some pillars on some Doukhobor houses in British Columbia.

The distinction between carved, and cut-out, as opposed to painted decoration is, we think, related to certain perceptual values and beliefs. The long and widespread tradition of icons in Russia depends essentially on painted decoration of a flat surface, and is thus an aesthetic based on symbolic representation. As iconoclasts, the Doukhobors, perhaps unconsciously, distanced themselves from this technique by translating the pictorial tradition into carved three-dimensional decoration and by transforming the widespread presence of icons in Russian culture into the sculpted vegetable forms of the natural world, coincident with their own beliefs and the vegetarianism that many of them practiced. In the representation of the animate world of humans, animals and vegetables, stylized forms predominate on Russian pieces, while in Canadian-made Doukhobor furniture, the three-dimensionality of carved decoration and of cutout profiles and pierced and cutaway surfaces creates patterns of depth and overlap in a dynamic, spatial exchange. The minimal use of geometric motifs and the emphasis on vegetable imagery in the North American context accounts, at least in part, for the evacuation of the symbolic meaning and religious implication that was inherent in the iconlike painted and framed flower forms and geometric shapes of traditional Doukhobor objects. In other words, the decoration of Russian pieces is associated with a strong pictorial tradition of iconographic and emblematic origin, while Canadian Doukhobor furniture associates ornamentation with structural elements – such as cutout, sculpted, or pierced aprons or the carved elements found on cupboard cornices – enhanced through patterns of contrasting color and a minimal use of motifs. Incidentally, the infrequent use of representational motifs by the Doukhobors may be related to their long exile in the Caucasus, where Islamic custom eschewed figural decoration.

Figure 13. Storage box, Yorkton area, Saskatchewan, late nineteenth century. Pine with original painted decoration; height 24 3/4, width 39 1/2, depth 26 3/4 inches.

In summary, the Doukhobor’ rejection in the eighteenth century of both the Russian state and the Orthodox Church marked the beginning of a search for a utopian ideal of simplicity, expressed by the term, “Toil and peaceful life, ” a motto that continues to circulate widely within the community. The symbolism attached to figures and other imagery from the Russian tradition gradually lost its relevance in the decoration of objects as a result of the Doukhobors’ minimization of religious ritual, rejection of iconography, and absence of a sacred book, along with the hardships of their daily lives during their early years in a new land. In Russia, however, the religious traditions of Orthodoxy continued to influence the decorative embellishments of domestic life.

Like most folk cultures transported to North America from earlier European sources, traditional forms persisted at the physical level of everyday existence and the production of domestic objects necessary to support daily activities. At the same time, the traditional forms and decorations of household objects, utensils and tools were usually simplified, motifs more sparingly used, often emptied of iconic and emblematic meaning. Some of this attenuated decorative expression was no doubt also due to the new conditions of life imposed by a strange environment and the influences of an unfamiliar social culture that exerted through commercial channels and differing physical preferences a growing pressure to adapt and conform to new visual models.

Figure 14. Storage box, northern Russia, late nineteenth century. Pine with original painted decoration; height 13, width 29, depth 19 3/4 inches.

For More Information

For more information on this subject, see Folk Furniture of Canada’s Doukhobors, Hutterites, Mennonites and Ukrainians (2004, University of Alberta Press) by John Fleming and Michael Rowan. With over 100 color photographs, this informative book offers a stunning visual record of the culture and values of these four ethno-cultural groups. Authors John Fleming and Michael Rowan take an interpretive approach to the importance of folk furniture and its intimate ties to people’s systems of values and beliefs. Photographer James Chambers beautifully captures both representative and exceptional artifacts, from large furniture items such as storage chests, benches, cradles, and tables, to small kitchen items including spoons, bread-boxes, and cookie cutters. The extensive text provides descriptive, analytical, and interpretive dimensions to these rare artifacts. The descriptions lead into further analysis and interpretation of the physical characteristics of the furniture—focusing on material, form, style, and colour—and the influences of each of the ethnic groups in these particular areas. To order copies of Folk Furniture of Canada’s Doukhobors, Hutterites, Mennonites, and Ukrainians (ISBN 0-88864-4183), contact the University of Alberta Press