The Doukhobors’ Place in Canadian History

by Andrei Bondoreff

As Doukhobors, what is our place in Canadian history?  Traditional Canadian history has focused almost exclusively on the story of the two founding groups – English and French Canadians.  The stories of minority groups, their accomplishments and contributions as nation-builders, often receive scant attention.  However, as writer and historian Andrei Bondoreff contends, the Doukhobors’ place in Canadian history is exciting, dynamic and above all else, important.  Reproduced by permission from ISKRA No.1959 (June 16, 2004), his article reminds us that our history is vital and relevant, not only to ourselves, but to the nation as a whole.

Understanding Canadian history is a lot like trying to figure out where you are in Disney land: unless you have a good map, it’s easy to get lost in the pleasantry and endless activity. You end up wandering about being inundated with gaiety and cheer, whimsically caring about little more than superficial characters, and animated voices singing sprightly songs. You go from one little blithesome, contrived experience to another in a sort of drunken satisfaction oblivious to the multitude of problems that are rife throughout the park, but which are covered up seamlessly by an efficient, clever and cunning corporation. So it is with Canadian history. In elementary, high school, and survey university course curricula, dominant culture has woven a smiley, amusing little plastic narrative meant to inculcate Canadian folk with pride and patriotism in a national story which conveniently ignores the contributions and activities of most minorities who have been an important part of the Canadian experience.

Canada’s historical narrative is basically the story of two groups – English and French Canadians – rolling merrily along building a country with the odd disagreement or tiff over French/English language rights or some other grave issue, with an odd trans-continental railroad thrown in for leavening, a pressing war Canada had to rush into for bite, or to add some sugar, a sports event that defined an era. Minorities hardly exist in this narrative. Their accomplishments and contributions are barely given a yawn, thus relegating them to the realm of insignificance. Reading standard Canadian history, you’d think that nobody but French, Scots and English did anything of any value or interest in Canada. Minorities are a by-line, assuming the role of the eclectic or quirky relative that is rarely introduced, or the irritating mother-in-law stuffed in the attack. English and French Canadians ran the Canadian nation-building show so they have determined that they should get all the limelight and accolades.

Crowd of Doukhobors first set foot on Canadian soil, 1899

By propagating such a whitewash of history, dominant Anglo-French Canadian culture has furthered its assimilative agenda: telling everyone that its history is everyone’s history and that to truly be Canadian is to be like them. Simply put, anyone outside dominant Anglo-French Canadian culture is on the outside looking in, staggering about in a malaise of alienation estranged from the Canadian historical experience.

Doukhobors are proud of their history, and rightly so. But few Doukhobors ever examine their place in a broader context. It is easy to consider Doukhobors in the following way: a determinedly pious and peaceful group of iconoclastic agrarians who challenged the Russian Tsarist state and the Orthodox Church, and after being persecuted for their steadfast “treasonous” defiance of the Czarist system, were given refuge in a welcoming Canada to escape persecution. In a superficial way, this is basically correct, but it doesn’t go far enough to explaining who Doukhobors are and what they have meant to Canada. It doesn’t give enough colour or context to the story.

Doukhobors weren’t given refuge in Canada for benevolent reasons. Immigration officials executing immigration policy weren’t selfless, righteous souls committed to virtuous acts. Many authors including Mariana Valverde in her book The Age of Light Soap and Water: Moral Reform in English Canada, 1885-1925 detail how the Canadian government had an immigration policy predicated upon a hierarchy of “desirable” immigrants with race as a determining factor. At the top of this pyramid were Anglo-Saxon’s or British descendant-white Americans, then as a sloppy-second. Northern Europeans, followed by Western Europeans, Central Europeans, Eastern Europeans and Jews. Blacks and Asians didn’t cut the mustard at all and were encouraged to stay home. There were discriminatory legal measures instituted at the end of the 19th century through the first part of the 20th century such as Continuous Journey Legislation which prohibited immigrants whose voyage stopped at a destination between the originating embarkation point and Canada, thus limiting all Asians; head taxes and other laws controlled undesirable immigration. Doukhobors, as Eastern Europeans at the bottom end of the desirability totem pole, didn’t take on an aura of popularity until immigration levels slowed to a trickle near the end of the 19th century.

Doukhobors came into the picture within the context of nation-building, as being efficient tools in the Canadian political elite’s determined plan to settle the West. Many people often fail to grasp the macro picture of Doukhobors and their relationship to the expansion and growth of the Canadian state.

Doukhobor women pulling plow on Canadian prairies, c. 1899

Historian John Leonard Taylor writes that, “in 1867, three colonies of British North America united to form the Dominion of Canada. Compared to its present size, the new dominion was very small, from the very beginning, however, its founders had plans for expansion.” Canada sought to expand west, however, the land on the prairies was rugged and wild, the climate was forbidding and there was the inconvenience of Native peoples who inhabited the region. Canada, employed tangible political maneuvers to expanded west by surreptitiously taking control of the Northwest in 1870 from the Hudson’s Bay Company; passing the Dominion Lands Act in 1872 granting a quarter section, 160 acres, of free land for a 10 dollar registration fee conditional upon three years residence; concluding treaties with Native peoples and extinguishing their title to the land; and finally, formulating a National Policy which, among other things, called for white settlement of the West. Immigration became the vehicle for Imperial expansion.

Yes, it may come as a shock, but Canada was an imperial power in the age of imperialism when European countries were on a world-wide mugging spree, pocketing land and resources wherever they could. In the quintessentially Canadian way, imperial expansion was undertaken in a cost-effective, tactful manner rather than the American model which saw fierce and bloody Indian wars. This is the spot where Doukhobors among other pioneers fit. But we must look deeper at this Imperial expansion, at its ideology because it had a profound impact on Doukhobors and their functioning in Canada.

Canadian imperialism was oriented towards liberalism emphasizing ideas of liberty and protection of private property. Even though the two concepts fundamentally contradict one another, this was of little concern to English-Canadian elites who formulated imperial policy. Imperialism and liberalism don’t mix because the former is predicated upon imposing ones will on another which violates the fundamental idea of liberalism or freedom to allow people to believe or do what they want. Nobody has the right to impose his or her will or values on someone else.

Clifford Sifton, Minister for the Interior, had stated that his idea of an ideal settler was “a stalwart peasant in a sheepskin coat, born on the soil, whose forebears have been fanners for ten generations, with a stout wife and a half-a-dozen children, is good quality.” Doukhobors, were steely tough, resourceful, self-sufficient and industrious white pioneers with a deeply rooted understanding of farming, and more than a few stout wives and children for the offering. The Canadian Government accepted the Doukhobors because of what the Doukhobors could do for Canada. Canada wanted white settlers to be the vehicles of development west, within this context the Doukhobors would do nicely because they were the epitome of tough, enterprising pioneers. The same can not be said of many of the pioneers serenaded in Canadian history. While Doukhobors set up shop on the prairies and lived in earthen hollows or sod huts, while the women pulled plows and the men helped build railways slogging through swamps and bogs for minimal pay, many English immigrants (not all) were enticed to colonize the prairies with the promise of pre-constructed homesteads – beautiful and cozy homes and pre-tilled land.

Canada, a country that professed to embrace liberal freedoms and had vast lands open for cultivation, seemed well suited to the Doukhobors’ wishes to farm and practise their religion unmolested. The Government, desperate to kick-start stalled immigration on the prairies, hastily, gave clearance for the Doukhobors to come, but, never (in my research) made three important aspects of its policies clear to the Doukhobors: firstly, that the government would openly and aggressively pursue a policy of assimilation towards them; secondly, that lands given to Doukhobors would be given at the expense of Plains Native peoples; and thirdly, that the Doukhobors’ collectivism would be incompatible with the Canadian Government’s vision of individualistic homestead farming on the prairies.

The third point is extremely contradictory and problematic because the government pursued colonial expansion into the western prairies in order to impose a system of economic individualism, utilizing a group that embraced collectivism and for whom private property was largely anathema. And people actually wonder why the Government/Doukhobors relationship has been testy and filled with squabbles, quibbles and quarrels. The Government’s entire policy towards the Doukhobors was predicated upon the idea that the Doukhobors would eventually assimilate and embrace individualism, private property and laissez-faire economics. The Canadian Government was woefully ignorant of the fact that Doukhobors had struggled against the Russian Government’s imperious assimilative efforts since Doukhoborism’s beginnings, and that this struggle had actually brought this feisty determined group the cohesion and strength that formed the basis of their identity, and their culture. When the government used the Doukhobors, and vigorously pursued assimilationist policies, it failed to recognize that Doukhobors were prone to enthusiastic and passionate questioning of authority and were possessed of great fortitude. Steadfast resistance to the coercive power of the Canadian state is certainly an important legacy of Doukhoborism in Canada, and few ethnic groups have pursued it with such vigour.

These homesteaders are waiting for a Dominion Lands Office to open the quarter-section homesteads on the Doukhobor reserves in Saskatchewan. The federal government’s cancellation of the Doukhobor entries led to an American-style land rush, one of the few witnessed in western Canada.

Harsh Russian assimilative measures against the Doukhobors were an important part of Doukhobor Russian history and anyone with even a passing understanding of Doukhoborism would know this, yet the Canadian government in its blissful ignorance thought it could succeed where Russian measures failed. Eventually, Canada would employ many of the same methods of assimilation such as seizing children from parents for forced assimilation. These are, however, peripheral issues in the mostly jolly Canadian grand historical narrative.

When unmolested, Doukhobors through hard work, perseverance and determination succeeded in prospering on the prairies. The establishment of infrastructure such as ferries and roads helped build the Canadian nation. Doukhobors created an economy out of rocks, trees, mud and seed. They built large communities with exotic architectural masterpieces of architecture in the heart of the desolate alien prairie. The Doukhobors were the epitome of the bull-dog grit and stoic spirit of romanticized early pioneers.

Doukhobors were also, the original environmentalists, being vegetarians, composters, using natural “organic” herbal remedies and cures as well as utilizing sustainable development before such words existed in the English language. Non-Doukhobor settlers would often seek-out the Doukhobors for medical help because no hospitals existed for homesteaders on the forbidding, lonely prairie. Before her death, one elderly English lady recounted how her life was saved and good-looks preserved by Doukhobor medical help after she was kicked in the face by a horse as a young girl.

Few people truly appreciate how arduous life on the prairies was. The most laborious task most people have today in their suburban enclaves is landscaping their front yard and planting a juniper bush or two. They curse as they pull out a weed that ought not to be strangling their geraniums, grumble about weed killer not working on dandelions, and sneer at crab grass. Imagine living in a foreign land, in a harsh untamed wilderness with miles upon miles of flat, raw, hard, gangly soil, fogs of sinister mosquitoes, horrible black flies the size of bull frogs and strangling extremes of heat and cold.

The Doukhobors with their tenacity and fortitude took the bit between the teeth and doggedly got down to business constructing order and beauty from the ferocity of the savage wild. They slogged, muscled, strained and pained to survive and prosper on an unforgiving land. They were creative, industrious and resourceful, sowing the land through brute, hell-fire, gut-wrenching determination. And those were just the women.

The Doukhobors established a successful communal model of farming which was a dangerous precedent for Canadian authorities because it was not what the elites of Canada had in mind for developing an economy. Even though communal farming in pioneering days was quite practical, eliminating the loneliness of homestead life, promoting group cohesion, and uniting labour and resources for a common good; it also, however, effectively insulated the group from the outside world. For Canadian authorities this was unacceptable and policies enforcing individual registration and requiring allegiance to the Crown were stubbornly pursued precisely because authorities knew it was so contentious with the Doukhobors: to accept individualism and the King would be to compromise Doukhobor principles.

The authorities and Doukhobors both knew that the two issues represented the top of the hill to the slippery slope of assimilation; the government had added impetus to apply pressure on the Doukhobors because the concerns of increasing numbers of land-hungry settlers, pouring into Saskatchewan seeking Doukhobor lands, trumped the concerns of the politically mute “Sifton’s Pets.” Once John Oliver assumed Sifton’s portfolio, the Doukhobors were seen as expendable, the gloves came off and the government was eager to do an “extreme make-over” of Doukhobor communal living. The Doukhobors had legitimate fears about individual registration threatening the cohesion of the group, and understandably felt it could lead to the destruction of the community — a community which was all these struggling immigrants had in their foreign land, and which they had come to Canada to preserve. Nevertheless, the government giveth, and it taketh away as it has done with so many groups in history such as Natives, Japanese and Ukrainians to name a few.

The requisitioning of huge swaths of Doukhobor lands worth millions dollars, is a particularly dark chapter of Canadian history that has gone mostly unmentioned in mainstream textbooks because it represents one of the more unromantic episodes of Canadian history.

In case you think the Canadian government only targeted the Doukhobors’ communal farming enterprises, think again. Native peoples on the prairies, who embraced communalism just like the Doukhobors, established communal farming ventures after signing treaties with the government of Canada (which is a complex issue itself). These Native peoples saw their ventures assailed and ultimately destroyed by repressive government policies. Venerable historian Sarah Carter in her book Lost Harvests details how the Canadian government subverted Native communal farming because, as with Doukhobors, communalism was an impediment to assimilation. In both cases, the Doukhobors and the Natives’ ways of living didn’t fit the Canadian Government’s particular brand of liberal ideology.

Doukhobor workers in boiler room, CCUB factory.

Doukhobors, never ones to lie on the canvas for the full ten count regardless of the beating, picked themselves up and many moved on to the Kootenays. They established the CCUB as one of the largest communal experiments in North American history. The contribution to the Kootenay economy with the construction of saw mills, jam factories, brick factories, bridges, roads and irrigation systems was tremendous, even though in 1922 politicians such as MLA J.W. Jones derisively spoke about the “unique problem” that groups such as the “Chinese and Doukhobors” presented to BC. The government would again play a part in toppling the Doukhobors’ second large-scale communal venture.

After Vancouver’s Japanese community was brutally liquidated and interned throughout the Kootenays during World War Two, Doukhobors helped many Japanese overcome starvation by delivering food. When many citizens in the surrounding community were overtly hostile and ignored the Japanese, Doukhobors and Japanese had friendly interactions organizing baseball games and other events.

Traditional Canadian history glosses over how the Government of Canada coerced many minority groups into forced labour. Few people know how the Ukrainians were interned behind barbed-wire fences during World War One, and were forced to work as veritable slave labour in the construction of roads, railways and national parks. Few people know that the infrastructure for Banff national park was largely built by interned Ukrainians. Few people also know how Doukhobor men worked in forced labour camps during World War Two building the nations road system as “alternate service.” Canada benefited from the forced toil of many minority groups such as the Doukhobors, yet these minority groups who, taken together aren’t much of a minority, receive little recognition in the story of the building of Canada.

In Canadian history, Doukhobors have not been neutral observers or an obscure quiet lot. The yin/yang and stark dichotomies in Doukhoborism represent a fascinating aspect of Canadian history. Doukhobors, on one hand, have been paragons of pacifism and proud purveyors of peace. Few groups in Canadian history have mounted the sustained and determined effort that Doukhobors have in pursuing disarmament. Doukhoborism possessed of its own heaven, has also been possessed of its own hell, with a small minority of its community engaged in the most sustained terrorism in North American history. There is no neutrality, no blandness to Doukhoborism in Canada. Doukhobors have had animated spiritual leaders, mystery, intrigue, conspiracy and superstition the likes of which could be a screenplay writer’s dream.

If one travels to a foreign country and is asked to name aspects of uniquely Canadian culture one is forced to pause, think and then rattle off maple syrup, hockey, “eh” at the end of a sentence, and Mounties. These examples of Canadian culture are amusing enough, but aren’t nearly as profound as examples that one could give to a similar question articulated with regards to Doukhobor culture. Doukhobors have unique humour, dialect, clothing, rhymes, songs, games, religion, food, woodwork, architecture etc. In this context, the aforementioned Doukhobor history is actually Canadian history that has never been given a chance to enter the realm of mainstream history. Canadian history should be the egalitarian tale of numerous ethnic groups living together in relative harmony contributing their own unique personality to a grand national drama. Instead Doukhobors occupy the fringe, along with so many other ethnic groups.

Peter Lordly Verigin (centre) with crowd of Community (CCUB) Doukhobors, c. 1920’s. Photo courtesy Simon Fraser University Doukhobor Collection.

The Doukhobors place in Canadian history is exciting, dynamic and above all important. Unlike so many people alienated in society, unsure of where they came from or what their roots are, every Doukhobor has a storied past. When you have a rich history, but it’s not the history of dominant culture, it’s easy to take it for granted or even to turn your back on it; however, in your quest to gain whatever it is you seek, you have actually succeeded in losing yourself. If getting lost is your “thing,” forget your past. The price of this is tremendous, and its impact is measurable only to each person left alone to face and contemplate their genealogical and cultural destruction. Remember the tales your grandmothers and grandfathers tell. They will become important and relevant when you least expect it.

Conversation Between the Rector of Alexander Nevsky Seminary and Three Kharkov Dukhobortsy, 1792

Translated by Robert Pinkerton

In 1792, a deputation of three Doukhobors from Kharkov – Mikhail Shchirev, Anikei and Timofey Sukharev – was sent to the Governor-General of that province, ostensibly to petition for protection from persecution and harassment by local authorities, clergy and their Orthodox neighbours. They were summarily arrested and sent to the Alexander Nevsky Seminary in St. Petersburg. There they were admonished and persuaded to recant their faith, to no avail. The following is a record of their “conversation” with the rector of the seminary, Archimandrite Innokenty (Dubravitsky), contained in a May 12, 1792 letter from Gavriil (Petrov), Metropolitan of Novgorod and St. Petersburg to the Governor-General of Kharkov. This invaluable historic material contains one of the earliest recorded accounts of the Doukhobor religious doctrine. Reproduced from Robert Pinkerton, “Russia: or, Miscellaneous Observations on the Past and Present State of that Country and its Inhabitants” (London: Seeley and Sons, 1833). Afterword by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

Letter from the Metropolitan of Novgorod and St. Petersburg to the Governor-General of Kharkov


Mikhail Shchirev, Anikei and Timofey Sukharev sent by your Excellency from the vicinity of Kharkov have been admonished by Innokenty, rector of the Nevsky Seminary and Archimandrite. The conversation which took place between them I forward to you, along with this letter.

I knew this sect as early as 1768. I then admonished them, and succeeded in turning several to the Church; but on their returning home, they again fell into their former errors. Since I became Archbishop of St. Petersburg, I have also spoken to some of the Don Cossacks; but they remained obstinate. Their obstinacy is founded on enthusiasm: all the demonstration which is presented to them they despise, saying that “God is present in their souls, and He instructs them: – how then shall they hearken to a man?” They have such exalted ideas of their own holiness, that they respect that man only in whom they see the image of God; that is, perfect holiness. They say that every one of them may be a prophet or an apostle; and therefore they are zealous propagators of their own sect. They make the Sacraments consist only in a spiritual reception of them, and therefore reject infant baptism. The opinions held by them not only establish equality, but also exclude the distinction of ruler and subject: such opinions are therefore the more dangerous, because they may become attractive to the peasantry. The truth of this Germany has experienced. Their origin is to be sought for among the Anabaptists or Quakers. I know the course of their opinions; and we can have no hope that they will desist from spreading abroad this evil.

These are my thoughts, which I have considered it my duty to communicate to your Excellency.

With sincere respect,

Metropolitan of Novgorod and St. Petersburg
May 12, 1792

Conversation Between the Rector of Alexander Nevsky Seminary and Three Kharkov Dukhobortsy

Conversation between Innokenty, Archimandrite and Rector of Alexander Nevsky Seminary in St. Petersburg and three Doukhobors from Kharkov province – Mikhail Shchirev, Anikei and Timofey Sukharev, May 1792.

Archimandrite: By what means are you come into this state, that people confine you as men dangerous to society?

Dukhobortsy: By the malice of our persecutors.

Archimandrite: What is the cause of their persecuting you?

Dukhobortsy: Because it is said that all who will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.

Archimandrite: Whom do you call your persecutors?

Dukhobortsy: Those who threw me into prison, and bound me in fetters.

Archimandrite: How dare you, in this way, speak evil of the established Government, founded and acting on principles of Christian piety? Which deprives none of their liberty, except such as are disturbers of the public peace and prosperity.

Dukhobortsy: There is no higher Governor than God, who rules over the hearts of kings and men : but God does not bind in fetters; neither does he command those to be persecuted who will not give His glory to another, and who live in peace, and in perfect love and mutual service to each other.

Archimandrite: What does that signify, “Who will not give his glory unto another”? – To whom other?

Dukhobortsy: Read the Second Commandment, and you will know.

Archimandrite: I perceive, then, that you mean to throw censure on those who bow before the images of the Saviour and of His holy ones?

Dukhobortsy: He has placed his image in our souls. Again, it is that those who worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth.

Archimandrite: From this it is evident, that you have brought yourself into your present condition, by falling into error; by misunderstanding the nature of piety, and entertaining opinions hurtful to the common faith and to your country.

Dukhobortsy: It is not true.

Archimandrite: How, then? Do you not err, when you think that there are “powers that be” which exist in opposition to the will of God; whereas there is no power but of God? Or that Government, which is appointed to restrain and correct the disobedient and unruly, persecutes piety; “whereas he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil”?

Dukhobortsy: What evil do we do? None.

Archimandrite: Do you not hurt the faith by your false reasoning concerning her holy ordinances, and by your blind zeal against God; like the Jews of old, whose zeal was not according to knowledge?

Dukhobortsy: Let knowledge remain with you! Only do not molest us, who live in peace, pay the taxes, do harm to no one, and respect and obey earthly governments.

Archimandrite: But perhaps your paying the taxes, harming no one, and obeying earthly governments, is only the effect of necessity, and of the weakness of your power; while your peace and love respect those only who are of your own opinion.

Dukhobortsy: Construe our words as you choose.

Archimandrite: At least, it is far from being disagreeable to you, I suppose, to behold your society increasing!

Dukhobortsy: We desire good unto all men, and that all may be saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth.

Archimandrite: Leave off your studied secrecy, and evasive and dubious answers. Explain and reveal to me your opinions candidly, like men who have nothing in view but to discover truth.

Dukhobortsy: I understand you; for that same Spirit of Truth which enlightens us in things respecting faith and life, assists us also to discern affectation and deceit in every man. Nevertheless, in order to get rid of your importunity, and with boldness to preach the true faith, I shall answer your questions as I am able.

Archimandrite: By what way – by the assistance of others, or by the use of your own reasoning powers only, did you obtain this Spirit of Truth?

Dukhobortsy: He is near our heart, and therefore no assistance is necessary. A sincere desire and ardent prayers are alone requisite.

Archimandrite: At least, you ground your opinions on the word of God, do you not?

Dukhobortsy: I do ground myself on it.

Archimandrite: But the word of God teaches us, that God has committed the true faith, and the dispensing of his ordinances, and of instruction in piety, to certain persons, chosen and ordained for this purpose: “According to the grace of God given unto me,” says St. Paul, “as a wise master-builder I have laid the foundation.”

Dukhobortsy: True: and such were our deputies who were sent hither in 1767 and 1769. But what did the spirit of persecution and of wrath do to them? Some were taken for soldiers; others were sent into exile.

Archimandrite: You doubtless intend, by these deputies, some well-meaning people like yourself?

Dukhobortsy: Yes.

Archimandrite: But you, and people like you, though well-meaning, cannot be either ministers or teachers of the holy faith.

Dukhobortsy: Why not?

Archimandrite: Because a Church cannot be established by individual authority; as is manifest from 1 Cor. iii. 5. Secondly, because special talents and gifts from above are requisite, “to make us able ministers of the New Testament:” 2 Cor. iii. 6. And, thirdly, it is absolutely necessary to this lawful and gracious calling, that we possess that ordination which hath remained in the holy Church from the times of the Apostles; as it is said: “And he gave some Apostles, and some Prophets, and some Evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ:” Ephes. iv. 2.

Dukhobortsy: There is no other calling to this office required, than that which crieth in our hearts: neither doth our learning consist in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but in “demonstration of the Spirit and of power.” Are the gifts which you require such as to be able to gabble Latin?

Archimandrite: You do not understand the Holy Scriptures; and this is the source of all your errors. The Apostle, in the words quoted by you, does not reject the talents and gifts of acquired knowledge, but contrasts the doctrines of Jesus Christ with the wisdom of the heathen, which was in repute at that time. And that the calling of pastors and teachers always depended on the Church by which they were chosen, is manifest from the very history of those pastors and teachers of the Church who are eternally glorified.

Dukhobortsy: What Holy Scriptures? What Church? What do you mean by Holy Scriptures?

Archimandrite: Did not you yourself say that you founded your opinions on the word of God? That is what I mean by the Holy Scriptures.

Dukhobortsy: The word of God is spiritual, and immaterial; it can be written on nothing but on the heart and spirit.

Archimandrite: Yet when the Saviour saith, “Search the Scriptures,” and gives us the reason of this command – “for in them ye think ye have eternal life,” – can He really understand thereby any thing else than the written word of God? This is the treasure which He himself hath entrusted to his holy Churchy as the unalterable rule of faith and life.

Dukhobortsy: And what do you call a church?

Archimandrite: An assembly of believers in Jesus Christ, governed by pastors according to regulations founded on the word of God, and partakers of the ordinances of faith.

Dukhobortsy: Not so: there is but one Pastor, Jesus Christ, who laid down his life for the sheep: and one Church, holy, apostolical, spiritual, invisible, of which it is said, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them;” in which no worship is paid to any material object; where those only are teachers who live virtuous lives; where the word of God is obeyed in the heart, on which it descends like dew upon the fleece, and out of which it flows as from a spring in the midst of the mountains; where there are no such noisy, ostentatious, offensive, and idolatrous meetings and vain ceremonies as with you; no drunken and insulting pastors and teachers like yours; nor such evil dispositions and corruptions as among you.

Archimandrite: You have here mixed up many things together: let us consider them one by one.

First, that the Saviour Christ is the only chief Pastor and Head of the Church, is a truth: for He hath founded it by His own merits under His Almighty providence it exists, is guarded and protected; and “the gates of hell shall never prevail against it.” Spiritually, Christ is united to it; for “behold! I am with you, even to the end of the world:” and by the power of His grace He helpeth the prayers petitions of believers. But it does not seem good to the wisdom and majesty of God, that all, without distinction, should be engaged in the external state and service of the Church, which is so closely united to the internal; and therefore, from the very first ages, this has been committed unto worthy pastors and teachers, “as stewards of the mysteries of God.”

Secondly, I said that the external state of the Church is very closely united to the internal. Certainly it is so. Who does not know how powerfully the passions and the flesh work in us, both to good and evil, according to the nature of the object presented to them? We have need to recruit the efforts of our minds by such salutary aids; and to stir up the expiring flame of piety within us, by memorials of the goodness of God, and of the example of holy men. Here is the whole of what you so improperly style “material and idolatrous worship”. So long as we are united to matter, that is, to the body, we can never reach that pure and inward spiritual worship of God which the holy angels present unto Him, or such as that of the eternally-glorified saints; and on this account, when God requires that we should worship Him in spirit and in truth, it is to warn us against shameful hypocrisy, or other dispositions of mind not corresponding with our external worship.

Thirdly, with respect to the scandalous lives of some pastors, they can never harm the essence of faith; for that is not the cause of their bad conduct. And that their irregularities can never excuse those who on this account leave the Church and despise her doctrine, is witnessed by the Saviour Himself, in his discourse with the Pharisees: “The Scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat,” saith he: “all therefore, whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works; for they say, and do not.” Moreover, Christian humility should have deterred you from judging so rashly concerning general corruption and evil dispositions. But I have purposely not yet answered several of your expressions, such as “idolatrous meetings and vain ceremonies,” that I might first ask you what you mean by them?

Dukhobortsy: You may conjecture that yourself.

Archimandrite: Well: do not even you show becoming respect for the characters of those, who have been distinguished for holiness, and after death glorified by God, as patterns of faith and virtue ?

Dukhobortsy: Where and whom hath God thus glorified?

Archimandrite: Are the names of Chrysostom, Gregory the Great, and such like, unknown to you?

Dukhobortsy: I know them.

Archimandrite: What do you think of them”?

Dukhobortsy: What do I think? – Why, they were men!

Archimandrite: But holy men, whose faith and lives were agreeable to God; and on this account they are miraculously glorified from above.

Dukhobortsy: Well, let us suppose so.

Archimandrite: Now it is to them that the Church is indebted for all those offices and ceremonies, which you denominate “idolatrous” and “vain”; and the worship of images has been declared not to be sinful by the Council of the Holy Fathers; – how then will you make this agree with your views?

Dukhobortsy: I know not. I only know that hell will be filled with priests and deacons, and unjust judges. As for me, I will worship God as he instructs me.

Archimandrite: But can you, without danger, depend upon yourself? Are you not afraid, that sometimes you may mistake your own opinions, and even foolish imaginations, for Divine inspiration?

Dukhobortsy: How? To prevent this, reason is given unto us. I know what is good, and what is bad.

Archimandrite: A poor dependence! With the best reason, sometimes, good appears to be evil, and evil to be good.

Dukhobortsy: I will pray to God: He will send His word” – and God never deceives.

Archimandrite: True, God never deceives: but you deceive yourself, assuring yourself of that, on His part, which never took place.

Dukhobortsy: God does not reject the prayers of believers.

Archimandrite: Believers – true: those requests which are agreeable to the law of faith. Divine Wisdom will not reject: but “ye ask and receive not, because ye ask amiss.” For this purpose hath He given us the Book of his divine word, that in it we may behold His will, and that our petitions may be directed according to it. But it is vain to expect in the present day miraculous and immediate inspirations, without sufficient cause, particularly such as are unworthy of Him: and to pretend to such inspirations and revelations, is very hurtful to society, and therefore ought to be checked.

Dukhobortsy: But to me they appear to be very useful, salutary, and worthy of acceptation.

Archimandrite: What? To break off from the society of your countrymen, though united with you by the same laws and the same articles of faith, and to introduce strange doctrines, and laws of your own making? To begin to expound the doctrines of the Gospel without the aid of an enlightened education, disregarding the advice of such men as are most versed and experienced in those things; and out of your own head, to found upon all this a separate society? Is it not also to rise against your country, when you refuse to serve it where the sanctity of an oath is required? Should not the simple command of the higher powers be sufficient to unite you with others to defend your country, your fellow-citizens, and your faith?


Archimandrite: Why do you make no answer to this?

Dukhobortsy: There is nothing to say. I am not so loquacious as you, neither have I need of it.

Archimandrite: But do you not see, at least, whither your blind zeal is leading you, and that you deserve to suffer much more than all that has yet befallen you? – We look for your repentance and amendment.

Dukhobortsy: Do what you choose with us: we are happy to suffer for the faith: this is no new thing. Did you ever hear the old story?

Archimandrite: Tell me, I pray you, what story?

Dukhobortsy: “A certain man planted a vineyard, and set a hedge about it, and dug a place for the winefat, and built a tower, and let it out to husbandmen, and went into a far country. And at the season he sent to the husbandmen a servant, that he might receive from the husbandmen of the fruit of the vineyard. And they caught him, and beat him, and sent him away empty. . . . And again he sent another; and him they killed, and many others; beating some, and killing some. Having yet therefore one son, his well-beloved, he sent him also last unto them, saying, They will reverence my son. But those husbandmen said among themselves, This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance shall be ours. And they took him, and killed him, and cast him out of the vineyard. What shall therefore the Lord of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the husbandmen, and will give the vineyard unto others:” Mark xii. 1 – 9. Now I have done with you.

Archimandrite: At least, answer me this: How can it be reconciled, that you reject the Holy Scriptures, and at the same time endeavour to support yourself upon them?

Dukhobortsy: Argue as you will. I have spoken what was necessary, and shall not say another word.


The “Conversation” of 1792 is one of the earliest recorded accounts of the Doukhobors and demonstrates that they were already well established as a sect in Kharkov province, having sent previous deputations to state authorities as early as 1767 and 1769.

At the time of the “Conversation”, the Doukhobors of Kharkov province were outwardly characterized by their peaceful living, payment of taxes and their respect and adherence to the state. At the same time, they had “broken off from their countrymen” and formed their own society, with “laws and doctrines of their own making” based on the “Spirit of Truth”. The Doukhobors had already formed a distinct identity as a people set apart, within whom the “image of God” resided, in contrast to the “vain and idolatrous” Orthodox. This trait made the Doukhobors “zealous propagators” of their sect, reflected in the fact that their numbers in Kharkov were rapidly on the rise.

It is clear from the “Conversation” that persecution was “no new thing” to the Kharkov Doukhobors. Their belief system, compounded by their refusal to attend church, swear oaths or perform military service in defense of their country, invariably led to conflicts with local officials, clergy and their Orthodox neighbours. Previous deputations in 1767 and 1769 had been imprisoned and admonished by state authorities, after which some were taken for soldiers while others were sent into exile. The present deputation had ostensibly been sent to plead for protection from this “spirit of persecution and of wrath”.  For this, they, too, were imprisoned. The discrimination and maltreatment they suffered does not appear to have deterred the sect, however, and even in the midst of admonishment at the Alexander Nevsky Seminary, the three Doukhobors were “happy to suffer for the faith”.

Throughout the “Conversation”, the Kharkov Doukhobors showed a marked reluctance to discuss and explain their doctrines, sidestepping some questions, and refusing to answer others altogether. For this, the Archimandrite accused them of “studied secrecy” and “evasive answers”. Their reticence regarding their beliefs is understandable, however, given that in Russia at the time outside inquiries as to their faith were, in general, mere preliminaries to banishment and imprisonment. At the very least, such inquiries occasioned ridicule and derision.

At the same time, the Doukhobors adopted a decidedly defiant tone in response to questions raised by the Archimandrite; stubbornly resisting his theological arguments, showing a “boldness to preach the true faith”, and at times, displaying open contempt and derision for their captor and interrogator. Inherent in their bearing and response is the Doukhobor rejection of ecclesiastical and state authority, since “there is no higher Governor than God”. At the same time, their fearlessness in the face of official punishment and sanction can be ascribed to the Doukhobor axiom “fear not, but trust in God”.

For all of their reticence and stubbornness, however, the three Doukhobors from Kharkov provide us with one of the earliest statements of the Doukhobor faith, setting out, briefly and simply, in their own words, the basis of their beliefs, which can be summarized as: the belief that the spirit of God can be found in the soul of every man; worship of God in spirit and in truth; and in the rejection of all external rites, sacraments, dogma and ecclesiastic hierarchy and authority.

At the end of the admonishment, the Archimandrite demanded that the Doukhobors repent and amend their “erroneous beliefs”. Not surprisingly, the Doukhobors refused. The available records are silent as to their fate. In all likelihood, they remained imprisoned or were exiled, like many of their brethren during this intense period of persecution.

To read more, search, download, save and print a full PDF copy of “Russia: or, Miscellaneous Observations on the Past and Present State of that Country and its Inhabitants”  by Robert Pinkerton (London: Seeley and Sons, 1833), visit the Google Book Search digital database.

Appeal For Help

by Vladimir G. Chertkov, Pavel I. Biryukov & Ivan M. Tregubov

Vladimir Grigorievich Chertkov (1854-1936), Pavel Ivanovich Biryukov (1860-1931) and Ivan Mikhailovich Tregubov were Tolstoyan writers who supported the Doukhobor cause of pacifism. Their appeal, “Pomogite: Obrashchenie k Obshchestvu po Povodu Gonenii na Kavkazskikh Dukhoborov” (London: 1896) helped publicize the persecution of the Doukhobors in the Caucasus. The following excerpt is taken from the English translation, “Appeal for Help” (London: 1897).

A terrible cruelty is now being perpetrated in the Caucasus. More than four thousand people are suffering and dying from hunger, disease, exhaustion, blows, tortures, and other persecutions at the hands of the Russian authorities.

These suffering people are the Doukhobors (or “Spirit Wrestlers” as the word means) of the Caucasus. They are enduring persecution, because their religious convictions do not allow them to fulfil those demands of the State which are connected, directly or indirectly, with the killing of, or violence to, their fellow man.

Brief and fragmentary notices of these remarkable people have not infrequently appeared of late in the Russian and foreign press. But all that has been published in the Russian newspapers has been either too short, or in a mutilated form – whether intentionally, unintentionally, or as a concession to the requirements of the Russian censor; while what has been printed abroad is, unfortunately, little accessible to the Russian public. Hence it is that we consider it our duty in this Appeal to give a general view of the events that are now taking place, and a brief sketch of the circumstances which preceded them

Vladimir G. Chertkov (1854-1936)

The Doukhobors first appeared in the middle of last century. By the end of the last century or the beginning of the present (ie. 19th century) their doctrine had become so clearly defined, and the number of their followers had so greatly increased, that the Government and the Church, considering this sect to be peculiarly obnoxious, started a cruel persecution. 

The foundation of the Doukhobors’ teaching consists in the belief that the Spirit of God is present in the soul of man, and directs him by its word within him.

They understand the coming of Christ in the flesh, His works, teachings, and sufferings, in a spiritual sense. The object of the sufferings of Christ in their view, was to give us an example of suffering for truth. Christ continues to suffer in us even now, when we do not live in accordance with the behest and spirit of His teaching. The whole teaching of the Doukhobors is penetrated with the gospel spirit of love.

Worshipping God in the spirit, the Doukhobors affirm that the outward Church and all that is performed in it and concerns it has no importance for them. The Church is where two or three are gathered together, unitedin the name of Christ.

They pray inwardly at all times; while, on fixed days (corresponding for convenience to the Orthodox holy days), they assemble for prayer meetings, at which they read prayers and sing hymns, or psalms as they call them, and greet each other fraternally with low bows, thereby acknowledging every man as a bearer of the Divine Spirit.

The teaching of the Doukhobors is founded on tradition. This tradition is called among them the Book of Life because it lives in their memory and hearts. It consists of psalms, partly formed out of the contents of the Old and New Testaments, partly composed independently.

The Doukhobors found alike their mutual relations and their relations to other people – and not only to people, but to all living creatures – exclusively on love; and therefor, they hold all people equal brethren. They extend this idea of equality also to the Government authorities; obedience to whom they do not consider binding upon them in those cases when the demands of these authorities are in conflict with their conscience; while, in all that does not infringe what they regard as the will of God, they willingly fulfil the desire of the authorities.

They consider murder, violence, and in general all relations to living beings not based on love, as opposed to their conscience, and to the will of God. The Doukhobors are industrious and abstemious in their lives, and always truthful in their speech, accounting all lying a great sin. Such, in their most general character, are the beliefs for which the Doukhobors have long endured cruel persecution.

The Emperor Alexander I, in one of his prescripts concerning the Doukhobors, dated the 9th December, 1816, expressed himself as follows: “All the measures of severity exhausted upon the Spirit Wrestlers during the thirty years up to 1801, not only did not destroy this sect, but more and more multiplied the number of its adherents.” And therefor he proposed more humane treatment of them. But, notwithstanding this desire of the Emperor, the persecutions did not cease. 

Under Nicholas I, they were particularly enforced, and by his command, in the years ’40 and ’50 the Doukhobors were all banished from the government of Taurus (Tavria) where they were formerly settled, to Transcaucasia, near the Turkish frontier. “The utility of this measure is evident,” says a previous resolution of the Committee of Ministers of the 6th February, 1826, “they (the Doukhobors) being transported to the extreme borders of the Caucasus, and being always confronted by the hillsmen, must of necessity protect their property and families by force of arms,” ie. they would have to renounce their convictions. Moreover the place appointed for their settlement, the so-called Wet Mountains, was one (situated in what is now the Akhalkalak district of the Tiflis government) having a severe climate, standing 5,000 feet above the sea level, in which barley grows with difficulty, and where the crops are often destroyed by frost. Others of the Doukhobors were planted in the present government of Elizavetpol.

But neither the severe climate nor the neighbourhood of wild and warlike hillsmen shook the faith of the Doukhobors, who, in the course of the half century they passed in the Wet Mountains, transformed this wilderness into flourishing colonies, and continued to lived the same Christian and laborious life they had lived before. But, as nearly always happens with people, the temptation of the wealth which they attained to in the Caucasus weakened their moral force, and little by little they began to depart somewhat from the requirements of their belief.

But, while temporarily departing, in the external relations of life, from the claims of their conscience, they did not, in their inner consciousness, renounce the basis of their beliefs; and therefor, as soon as events happened among them which disturbed their outward tranquility, the religious spirit which had guided their fathers immediately revived within them.

In 1887, universal military service was introduced in the Caucasus; and even those for whom it was formerly (in consideration of their religious convictions) replaced by other service or by banishment, were called upon to serve. This measure took the Doukhobors unawares, and at first they outwardly submitted to it; but they never in their consciences renounced the belief that war is a great sin, and they exhorted their sons taken as recruits, though they submitted to the various regulations of the service, never to make actual use of their arms. Nevertheless, the introduction of the conscription among people who considered every murder and act of violence against their fellow men to be a sin, greatly alarmed them, and caused them to think over the degree to which they had departed from their belief.

At the same time, in consequence of an illegal decision of the Government departments and officials, the right to the possession of the public property of the Doukhobors (valued at half a million roubles) passed from the community to one of their members, who, for his own personal advantage, had betrayed the public interest. This called forth the protest of the majority of the Doukhobors against this individual and his party, who hd thus become possessed of the public property, and against the corrupt local administration which had been bribed to give an unjust decision in the case.

When, besides this, several representatives of the majority, and among them the manager (ie. Peter Vasilievich Verigin) elected to administrate the communal property, were banished to the government of Archangel, this awakening assumed a very definite character.

The majority of the Doukhobors (about twelve thousand in number) resolved to hold fast to the traditions left them by their fathers. They renounced tobacco, wine, meat, and every kind of excess, divided up all their property (thus supplying the needs of those who were then in want), and they collected a new public fund. In connection with this return to a strictly Christian life, they also renounced all participation in acts of violence, and therefor refused military service.

The Burning of Arms, 1895. Painting by Terry McLean.

In confirmation of the sincerity of their decision not to use violence even for their own defence, in the summer of 1895, the Doukhobors of the “Great Party” as they were called, burnt all their arms which they, like all the inhabitants of the Caucasus, kept for their protection, and those who were in the army refused to continue service. By general resolution, they fixed on the night of 28th June for the purpose of burning their arms, which were their own property and therefor at their absolute disposal. This holocaust was accompanied by the singing of psalms, and was carried out simultaneously in three places, namely, in the governments of Tiflis and Elizavetpol and in the territory of Kars. In the latter district it passed off without interference; in the government of Elizavetpol it resulted in the imprisonment of forty Doukhobors, who are still in confinement; while in the government of Tiflis the action taken by the local administration resulted in the perpetration by the troops of a senseless, unprovoked, and incredibly savage attack on those defenceless people, and in their cruel ill treatment.

The Burning of Arms in the Tiflis government was appointed to take place near the village of Goreloe, inhabited by Doukhobors belonging to the “Small Party” in whose hands was the public property they had appropriated. This party having learnt the intention of the “Great Party” to burn their weapons, were either afraid of such an assembly, or wished to slander them, and informed the authorities that the Doukhobors of the “Great Party” were devising a rising and preparing to make an armed attack upon the village of Goreloe. The local authorities, then, without verifying the truth of this information, ordered out the Cossacks and infantry to the place of the imaginary riot. The Cossacks arrived at the place of assembly of the Doukhobors in the morning, when the bonfire, which had destroyed their arms, was already burning out, and they made two cavalry attacks upon these men and women, who had voluntarily disarmed themselves and were singing hymns, and the troops beat them with their whips in the most inhuman manner.

After this, a whole series of persecutions was commenced against all the Doukhobors belonging to the “Great Party”. First of all, the troops called out were quartered “in execution” on the Doukhobors’ settlements, ie. the property and the inhabitants themselves of these settlements were placed at the disposal of the officers, soldiers, and Cossacks quartered in these villages. Their property was plundered, and the inhabitants themselves were insulted and maltreated in every way, while the women were flogged with whips and some of them violated. The men, numbering about three hundred, who had refused active service, were thrown into prison or sent to a penal battalion.

Afterwards, more than four hundred families of Doukhobors in Akhalkalak were torn from their prosperous holdings and splendidly cultivated land, and after the forced sale, for a mere trifle, of their property, they were banished from the Akhalkalak district to four other districts of the Tiflis government, and scattered among the Georgian villages, from one to five families to each village, and there abandoned to their fate.

As early as last autumn, epidemics such as fevers, typhus, diphtheria, and dysentery, appeared among the Doukhobors (scattered as above stated), with the result that the mortality increased largely, especially among the children. The Doukhobors had been exiled from a cold mountain climate and settled in the hot Caucasian valleys, where even the natives suffered from fevers; and consequently nearly all the Doukhobors are sick, partly because (not having dwellings of their own) they are huddled together in hired quarters; but chiefly because they lack means of subsistence.

Their only earnings are from daily labour among the population amidst whom they have been thrown, and beyond the bounds of whose villages they are not allowed to go. But these earnings are very small, the more so that the native population suffered this year both from a bad harvest and from inundations. Those who are settled near the railway pick up something by working there, and share the wages they get with the rest. But this is only a drop in the ocean of their common want.

The material position of the Doukhobors is getting worse and worse every day. The exiles have no other food than bread, and sometimes there is a lack of even this. Already among the majority of them certain eye diseases, which are the sure harbingers of scurvy, have appeared.

In one place of exile situated in the Signak district, 106 deaths occurred among 100 families (about 1,000 people) settled there. In the Gory district, 147 deaths occurred among 190 families. In the Tionet district, 83 deaths occurred among 100 families. In the Dushet district, 20 deaths occurred among 72 families. Almost all are suffering from diseases, and disease and mortality are constantly increasing. 

Besides these deaths there have been others (due to actual violence) among the Doukhobors in prison and in the penal battalion. The first to die in this way, in July 1895, was Kirill Konkin, the cause of death being blows received as corporal punishment. He died on the road, before reaching the place of his exile, in a state of hallucination, which commenced while he was being flogged. Next, in August 1896, died Mikhail Shcherbinin in the Ekaterinograd penal battalion, tortured to death by flogging, and by being thrown with violence over the wooden horse in the gymnasium. Among those confined in the prisons many have already died. Some of them, while dying, were locked up in separate rooms, and neither their fellow prisoners, nor parents, wives and children who had come to bid them farewell, were allowed even to enter the room while the dying lay alone and helpless. More deaths are to be expected both among the population suffering from want in exile and in the prisons.

The Doukhobors themselves do not ask for help – neither those who are in exile with their families, famished, and with starving and sick children, nor those who are being slowly but surely tortured to death in the prisons. They die without uttering a single cry for help, knowing why and for what they suffer. But we, who see these sufferings, and know about them, cannot remain unmoved.

But how to help them?

There are only two means to help people persecuted for faith’s sake. One consists in the fulfilment of the Christian commandment, to welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned, and feed the hungry, which is prescribed to us both by our own hearts and by the Gospel; the other consists in appealing to the persecutors, both to those who prescribe the persecutions and to those who allow them to take place when they might stop them; and also to those who, without sympathizing with the persecutions, participate in them and become their means – appealing by laying bare before these persecutors the sin, the cruelty, and the folly of their acts.

Having been in a position sooner than others to know what has here been set forth, we appeal alike to Russians and to non Russians to help our brethren in their present sore distress, both with money offerings to relieve the sufferings of the aged, sick, and children, and by raising their voices on behalf of the persecuted.

The most important and grateful means of expressing sympathy with the persecuted, and of softening the hearts of the persecutors, would be personally to visit the victims, in order to see with one’s own eyes what is being done with them now, and to make the truth about them generally known.

The expression of sympathy is dear to the Doukhobors, because although they do not ask for help, they yet have no greater joy than to see the manifestation of love and pity to them on the part of others – of that same love for the sake of which these martyrs are sacrificing their lives.

The making publicly known of the truth about the Doukhobors is important, because it cannot be that the Russian State authorities really desire to exterminate these people by the inexorable demand from them of that which their conscience does not allow them to do, and the ceaseless persecution and torture of them on this account. There is probably here some misunderstanding, and therefor it is that the promulgation of the truth which may remove this is specially important.


Editorial Note

The above appeal attained its purpose by drawing the attention both of the public and of the higher authorities to the persecution of the Doukhobors by the local authorities of the Caucasus. But for the three friends who signed it, the result was their banishment. Two of them, Biryukov and Tregubov, were exiled to small towns in the Baltic provinces; while Chertkov was given the choice between the same sentence and being altogether exiled from Russia. He chose the latter as affording him the possibility of helping, from abroad in England, his persecuted friends, which would have been impossible under the conditions of strict police supervision under which those banished within Russia had to live – JJK.

Pacifism and Anastasia’s Doukhobor Village

by John W. Friesen

Following the death of Peter “Lordly” Verigin in 1924, his companion Anastasia F. Holuboff (1885-1965) was recognized by several hundred Doukhobors as his successor. The majority of Community Doukhobors, however, proclaimed Verigin’s son Peter “Chistiakov” Verigin as their leader. Disappointed, Anastasia and her followers broke away from the Community and in 1926 moved to the Shouldice district of Alberta where they established a break-away village. The following article by John W. Friesen, reproduced by permission from Alberta History (41(1) 1993), recounts Anastasia’s communal experiment in social, geographical and economic isolation. A combination of factors, including leadership style, internal dissension, land shortages and crop failures led to the eventual dissolution of the village in 1943.

The Doukhobor belief in pacifism originates from a conviction that every creature of God has a right to life. Doukhobors are fundamentally Russian in origin, and their beginnings were formalized in 1785 when a Russian Orthodox Archbishop named Ambrosius, called them “Doukhobortsi” or “Spirit Wrestlers.” He argued that their protestations against the state church were tantamount to fighting against the Spirit of God. The Doukhobors adopted the name, insisting that their interpretation of a living faith required a constant “wrestling in the Spirit.” Their orally-perpetuated belief system evolved, rather than being formally articulated, and consisted of communalism, pacifism to the extent of being vegetarians, an hereditary system of selecting leadership, a complete rejection of the written word, and a rejection of all forms of institutionalized religion including the priesthood. Doukhobors believe that each individual has a “Divine Spark” within them which entitles them to equality in the community and a right to life.

Doukhobor origins in Canada go back to 1899 when 7,500 souls immigrated from Russia and settled on the Saskatchewan-Manitoba border west of Winnipeg. During this time Canada was actively recruiting immigrants through the office of Clifford Sifton, Minister of the Interior, and from 1890 to 1914, settlers from many parts of Europe and the United States took advantage of the generous invitation to receive title to free land. The Doukhobors established their first homes in the Kamsack-Yorkton district of Saskatchewan and built a series of 61 communal villages under one managing body. Four of the villages were temporary sites and 57 became functional. For a few years all went well, but the Canadian government became uneasy about the communal governance of the settlements and took steps to dismantle the organization.

Anastasia Holoboff (1885-1965). Photo courtesy Koozma J. Tarasoff.

After attacks by the Federal government and strong local community opposition to their communalism, the Doukhobors relocated to British Columbia in 1907. Their refusal to register communal property individually meant that their Saskatchewan lands were confiscated and assigned to incoming settlers. Their refusal cost them a total of 258,880 acres, of which 49,429 were cultivated. It was a boon for new immigrants to occupy lands already tilled, and in the frenzy of settlement no one paid much attention to Doukhobors.

As a token concession, the government made some of the lands available to the Doukhobors as a reserve, on the basis of fifteen acres per person. A total of 236 Doukhobors opted for individual land registration and thus became known as “Independent Doukhobors.” A smaller, more aggressive faction objected to their treatment and staged a public protest against the “militarism” of the government in the form of a march. Thereafter, they became known as the “Sons of Freedom.”

In British Columbia, Doukhobor life took on an entirely different format. Grain farming and cattle-raising were replaced by fruit-growing and the operation of sawmills, a brick factory and two jam factories. Some of the men worked for non-Doukhobor neighbours and contributed their earnings to the community – the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood (CCUB) – through their leader, Peter V. Verigin. New homes were built comprising a total of 90 villages, each containing one or two large houses, each accommodating 30 to 50 people.

In 1915, an Alberta base was added to the CCUB. Verigin saw the advantage of establishing an Alberta “depot” to provide grain and flour to British Columbia members who in turn would furnish garden produce and other supplies to the Alberta farmers. He purchased 12,000 acres of farmland in the Cowley-Lundbreck area and placed three hundred people on the land. Verigin also supervised the building of a flour mill and two elevators.

The Alberta connection functioned effectively until the dissolution of the CCUB. There were occasional incidents of protest against the Alberta Doukhobors during the years following the First World War because of their pacifism, but for the most part there was little disruption of life in the community over such matters.

The CCUB was dismantled in 1938 due to a sudden and unprovoked bank foreclosure on the organization. Although the community had nearly $8 million worth of property, two business firms – National Trust and the Sun Life Assurance Company – held a series of demand notes worth four per cent of their total worth, or $319,276. The notes were called and the British Columbia Supreme Court allowed foreclosure action to commence. The way was then clear for the British Columbia government to take title to Doukhobor lands and properties. When the CCUB was dismantled, some lands were sold to Doukhobor adherents on a crop-share basis and the rest were liquidated to pay off the bank debt. The story of the foreclosure is a blot on Canadian history.

Residents of Anastasia’s village: Polly Verigin, Dunya Anutooshkin (seated) and Nastya Verigin, c. 1927.

On October 24, 1924, the revered leader of the CCUB, Peter the Lordly, died in a mysterious train explosion when he was travelling to Grand Forks. A much respected man, Peter the Lordly virtually ran the CCUB single-handedly, even though a board of trustees legally existed.

It is a Doukhobor custom that when a leader dies there is a six-week period of mourning. When the mourning is over the community reconvenes and a new leader is elected. After Peter the Lordly’s death, his longtime female companion, Anastasia Holuboff, wanted to be the next leader but she was defeated. Instead, the congregation chose Peter’s son, Peter Petrovich Verigin, who was living in Russia. He was subsequently contacted and moved to Canada to take over the CCUB. Anastasia was deeply offended; after all, it was she who had lived and travelled with Peter the Lordly for twenty years and she knew all of his teachings.

She reacted to the rejection by forming a breakaway group called “The Lordly Christian Community of Christian Brotherhood” and in 1926 she moved to Alberta. Anastasia purchased 1,120 acres of land near Shouldice and subsequently supervised the building of the first homes. From a small beginning, the village population eventually peaked at 165 souls with twenty-six separate homes on site.

From the very beginning, Anastasia’s village functioned quite differently from other Doukhobor settlements. Always there was an element of uncertainty about its stability and an atmosphere of mistrust prevailed. Administratively, Anastasia was never Peter Verigin’s equal, so she was constantly working to keep the community together. She lacked the dignity with which Verigin had carried himself, and she never gained the measure of respect that he had commanded.

Anastasia’s method of governance was to insist on respect from her villagers. On moving into the village, each resident was asked to sign a membership form with the following rules called, “Principal Points of the Doukhobor Religion”: Doukhobors do not have mortiferous firearms; do not kill animals for food; do not use intoxicating liquors; and do not smoke or chew tobacco.

Anastasia’s governance style revealed itself in numerous other day-to-day affairs as well. One former village resident suggested that when the first garden produce of the season was brought in, Anastasia insisted that she be the first to partake of it. She also saw herself as the principal spiritual resource for the village and personally took to teaching Doukhobor philosophy and community regulations to the children. She gathered her young charges together in the early hours of the morning and taught them to sing Doukhobor psalms and memorize the main tenets of Doukhobor ideology. Herself once a member of Peter Verigin’s travelling choirs, she placed considerable stress on music. She also decried materialism and militarism and originated a series of strict regulations in this regard.

This large barn served the whole community at Anastasia’s village. It was built in 1927 and is still in use.  Photo by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

She was known to mete out lengthy sermons to offenders who often escaped her diatribes simply by leaving the scene.

Following Peter the Lordly’s example, Anastasia originally purchased the farmlands for her settlement in her own name. Verigin said he would do this for the protection of the community when they first migrated to British Columbia, and true to his word, he did set up a board of directors for the CCUB and eventually turned all properties over to the organization. Anastasia also established a board of directors (consisting of three members) but she never signed the lands over to her community. Thus at her death there was a legal question about ownership. The actual village site and surrounding farmland were willed to her niece (recently deceased) who, along with her husband, maintained the village buildings and grounds to the present. Although resident in British Columbia, they spent summers at the village site to undertake maintenance work.

Anastasia’s board of directors was elected for one year terms and were primarily charged with looking after agricultural activities. Despite many attempts to live according to the spirit of brotherly love extolled by Doukhobors, there were frequent disputes (even fist-fights) among members of the village and Anastasia was not always able to successfully intervene. As a result there were frequent departures as people moved to more desirable places. When this happened, in most cases they forfeited their goods to the village and left with only the clothes on their backs. Some demanded a share of the goods and argued until some kind of settlement was made. This constant turmoil reflected badly on Anastasia’s abilities as leader and did little to maintain the morale of the membership or attract other Orthodox Doukhobors to the settlement. It also reflected poorly on a community allegedly bound by the principles of rationality which was to result in respect for one another by living in harmony. Despite this, the community became skilled at growing garden produce and contracted with members of the nearby Blackfoot Indian Reserve to trade these for coal supplies. They also obtained permission to do berry-picking on the reserve.

Doukhobor pacifism was internally put to the test when Anastasia appointed a close friend of hers, Wasyl (William) Androsoff, to run the village farm. The irritation caused by the appointment increased when Androsoff refused to move to the village. In addition, he and his brother, Ivan, also used community machinery to farm their own land. At William’s death, Ivan (also called John), took over farming operations until Anastasia’s passing. Her brother Michael is also reported to have helped with farming operations and as a reward Anastasia signed a quarter section of land over to him.

In some ways, Anastasia’s village was a communal experiment in isolation. It was an isolation from social interchange, and an isolation of economics and belief. In the first instance, village members were encouraged to have little to do with outsiders even though a certain amount of trade went on with neighbours. Also, when times were tough, Anastasia assigned certain men to work for neighbouring farmers. When work was done a strict reporting of activities away from the village to Anastasia was required. The philosophy of “them and us” was adhered to, which meant that everyone outside the village was considered an outsider – including other Doukhobors. Since Anastasia’s group was considered a renegade faction by mainline orthodoxy, there was an unspoken regulation about having too much to do with them. There were exchange visits between Anastasia’s people and those in the Alberta settlements near Lundbreck, but these were intermittent and basically social in nature.

Non-Doukhobor neighbours who still reside near the former village tell of sitting listening to Doukhobor singing emanating from the village. It was a beautiful and haunting sound, but carried a message of social distance in philosophy and practice. It was certainly difficult to operationalize the principle of loving one’s brother if social isolation was awarded such prime billing.

There is no indication that members of Anastasia’s village experienced public censure because of their pacifism during the period of the Second World War. On a national scale there were many Doukhobors who resisted participation in any alternative service program such as that yielded to by the Mennonites and Hutterites. Although some Doukhobor leaders in Saskatchewan tried to cooperate with the government push for alternative service, many young men resisted and at one time nearly 100 of them spent four months in prison in Prince Albert. In British Columbia, resistance was much more pronounced and the Sons of Freedom particularly gained press for staging public demonstrations. Inexperienced with this kind of upheaval, government officials tried to downplay the problem. Countless meetings were held and finally it was agreed that the Doukhobors should be disfranchised. On November 2, 1944, a form of taxation for Doukhobors was devised with monies derived therefrom going to the Red Cross. With the war nearly over, the proposal received endorsation by the majority of Doukhobors and additional conflict was defused. In evaluating the entire episode, one would have to praise government officials for their patience, dedication and long suffering in trying to accommodate Doukhobor beliefs.

Besides the question of the quality of administration in Anastasia’s village was the matter of institutional connection. With only limited social and economic ties to the local community, residents of the village also functioned with memories of having been forced to leave the membership of mainline orthodoxy when they sided with Anastasia after Peter the Lordly’s death. Combined with Anastasia’s inability to run a tight ship, this lack of institutional affiliation created an island community in an alien society and its demise was almost certain from the beginning. After all, who in Alberta, in a period of wartime, could really become concerned about the inner struggles of a remote pacifist, communal, renegade, Russian-derived group of people? Without vital connections, the experiment could not last.

When the Doukhobors first came to Canada they were seen as a very appealing kind of immigrant. They knew how to farm, they promised not to engage in any acts of civil disobedience, and they asked for little from the Canadian people. As time went on, however, a very negative image of Doukhobors evolved, partially brought on by the “leave us alone” philosophy of the Doukhobors themselves and Canadian suspicions of their pacifist, communal lifestyle. It did not help that the militant Sons of Freedom faction which originated after the seizure of Saskatchewan lands received so much publicity. In their zeal to discourage a growing materialism among their orthodox counterparts they sometimes engaged in acts of civil disobedience and violence to make a point. They set fire to buildings to illustrate the fleeting security of material goods. They burned schools in order to express their disdain for public education which they saw as part of the process of yielding to the Canadian value system of materialism, consumerism and militarism.

Undoubtedly the apparent inconsistency between what was promulgated as pacifist ideology, and demonstrated in acts of aggression (even if only against one’s own colleagues), drew little public support for the Doukhobor cause. An even more isolated and eccentric experiment (such as Anastasia’s village), would almost certainly be bypassed or stretch Canadian tolerance to its very limits.

Sources contend that the village never formally died; instead it simply dwindled away. By 1945, only Anastasia and her companion, Fedosia Verigin, remained on site. They lived alone there until 1960 when they moved to Calgary and spent their summers at the site. Anastasia died on November 24, 1965, and Fedosia on October 26, 1981. They are buried side by side in the cemetery located at the north end of the village.

Anastasia’s original house (and attached bath house). The structure is still standing.  Photo by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

Physical reminders of the former village structure are numerous and include Anastasia’s original house (and attached bath-house), her newer home (built in the 1950s), a big barn and grain bin, the prayer home, and a several other buildings. Memories of life in the village also remain, locked in the inner recesses of the hearts of older Doukhobors who were once a part of this experience.

About the Author

John W. Friesen is an ordained clergyman of the United Church of Canada. He is Minister of Morley United Church near Calgary, Alberta. He also holds a joint appointment as Professor in the Faculty of Education and the Faculty of Communication and Culture at the University of Calgary. He has published several articles on the Doukhobors. His book with Michael M. Verigin, The Community Doukhobors, A People in Transition (Borealis Press, 1996) is a detailed examination of the history of the Doukhobors in Alberta.