Childhood Memories

by Alexey Ivanovich Popov

Alexey Ivanovich Popov was born February 8, 1876 in the province of Elizavetpol, Russia, in the village of Novo-Troitskoye. At the age of two, he and his family, together with a sizeable group of Doukhobors immigrated to the territory known as Kars near the Turkish border. There, they founded the village of Spasovka, where Alexey remained until manhood. Many years later, he recounted his Doukhobor childhood in his memoirs, written in 1953 but published posthumously. The following excerpt, reproduced by permission from Chapter One of “Autobiography of a Siberian Exile” (Trans. Eli A. Popoff. Kelowna: 2006), chronicles the first fourteen years of Alexey’s life and provides a wealth of insight into Doukhobor life, events and beliefs, especially with respect to the upbringing and education of Doukhobor children in the Caucasus, Russia the 1880’s.

I, Alexey Ivanovich Popov, was a son of religious parents. They were a poor, peasant family of Doukhobor faith. I was born on February 25, 1877 in the Doukhobor village of Troitskoye in the Russian Gubernia of Elizavetpol, which is situated on the southern side of the Caucasus Mountains in Southern Russia. My father was Ivan Semyonovich Popov and my mother was Anna Semyonovna Popov (Androsov). They were humble, poor peasants who made their living as tillers of the soil. They were staunch in their Doukhobor faith and devout believers in their spiritual Doukhobor leaders. As true followers of their faith my parents migrated to Canada in 1899 with the Doukhobor mass migration of that time. Here in Canada, all the days of their lives they belonged to the Doukhobor group known as the Sons of Freedom. Both of them spent considerable periods of time in Canadian prisons and endured various forms of beatings and other persecution, but they did not change their beliefs to the very end of their lives. They passed away at different times; both are buried at the same cemetery in British Columbia. In their family they had seven children – three sons and four daughters. I was their third child.

Alexei Ivanovich Popov as an adult, c. 1915.

Recollections of what my mother told me:

When my mother gave birth to me, she had a very hard time and remained ill and in bed for months after my birth. It was my father who looked after all the farm chores as well as most of the household duties. Mother told me that I was a very quiet child. Very seldom did anyone hear me cry. During her illness my mother did not have any milk in her breasts to feed me. She was also not able to get out of bed and prepare any baby food for me. As was a common practice at that time among the Doukhobors, all the mothers who were breastfeeding their children in the immediate neighbourhood took turns and came to our house to feed me. Each came at their allotted time to feed me. At the same time when they came to feed me, each of the mothers would do some of the housework and look after some of my mother’s needs. This went on up to the time that I reached two years of age.

After two years of age:

Some of the following that I write about, it seems to me that I remember it myself, but it is possible that some of it may have been told to me by my mother, when I was still a child of eight or nine years of age. I remember that I was a healthy child and remember how I walked with steady feet all over the yard, but the events that went on in the family household at that time I do not seem to recall.

The first thing I remember is that on the south, sunny side of our house, right against the wall, the ashes from our Russian bake oven were always placed in a pile. In the summer this pile got very dry. I loved to play on it and sometimes would even fall asleep, half covered in the ashes. Sometimes I would sleep here till I woke up, and sometimes someone would carry me inside the house while I was still asleep. When I was two and a half years old, I was strong enough to roam around the whole yard and even outside the yard. At one time after it was past the noon hour of twelve o’clock, my mother decided to pay a visit to the nearby shallow river where the village women placed their flax straw to soak in preparation for the next stage to be made into fiber for spinning and weaving. This was a yearly practice that was done in the fall of every year. I was allowed to go with my mother for this visit. Shortly after we had already passed the outskirts of the village, I had my first sight of a large prairie jackrabbit. He had been lying in the grass, till we came quite close to him. Suddenly he raised himself and turning towards the nearby mountain, he ran with a brisk jump towards this mountain. The mountain was a landmark in the area that was called “Troitskiy Shpeel” (shpeel means a peak or spire).

After a short while we arrived at the river. The spot chosen here was a curve in the river with a very slow flowing current. The bottom was covered with a coarse gravel with scattered round and flat rocks. The depth of the water was from 6 to 18 inches. Between the scattered rocks it was excellent to place the flax or hemp straw for soaking. These bundles of straw would then have the river rocks placed on top of them. This was done so that the current would not carry away the straw and so that the direct sun would not shine upon it. When we came to this spot my mother took off her shoes and waded into the water. She reached into the water and took out a handful of straw. She rubbed it between her hands for a while and then put it back. Apparently it was not yet ready to take out. At this same spot, a little further up river, we saw that there was another Doukhobor woman who had come to examine her material. She was also finished with her examination, so we started going back to our village together – this lady and my mother, and me following them. On our way home we did not see any other wild life. Arriving at the outskirts of our village I noticed that the sun was now setting over that same mountain, “Troitskiy Shpeel”, towards which the jackrabbit had scampered.

When we came home, mother went to milk the cows, but as for me, I felt so tired from the walk of about four miles that I immediately climbed up onto the space above the Russian bake oven where it was always warm. Feeling warm all over, I fell asleep almost at once. And it was here that I slept throughout the whole evening and night and right through the early morning. It was never the practice of my mother to wake a child to feed him the evening meal, or to move him once he was comfortably asleep. She always said – once a child is comfortably sleeping in the evening, let him be. Missing the meal won’t hurt him as much as disturbing his peaceful sleep.

In the morning I got up from my place of sleep before my other siblings got out of bed and at once told my mother that I was hungry. Mother immediately poured some milk into the earthenware dish, along with some small chunks of leftover wheat bread. I took out of the cupboard one of the hand-carved wooden spoons and heartily ate what my mother had set before me.

Being only two and a half years old, none of the household or yard chores had yet been allocated to me, and so my daily life went on as with all other children in the quiet peaceful life of our agrarian village. At this age I was already quite articulate in my speaking. Although I did not have too broad a vocabulary, this was being added to from day to day.

As usual, I was always interested in what my father did as his village work routine. It was about three weeks after the visit to the river with my mother that my father brought home on a hayrack wagon the flax and hemp straw that had been soaking in the river. He carefully placed it under a roof to dry. After a period of drying, mother would go to the shed and take small bundles of the straw and with wooden tools she would work days on end beating the straw till it would separate into fibrous strands. The straw would be thrown aside for use in making fuel bricks, and the semi-clean fiber would be taken into the house. During the long winter evenings, in a special corner of the house both mother and father would keep on tramping this semi-clean fiber with their bare feet. Every once in a while they would take this mass outside to shake out the straw from it. When this mass was reasonably clean, mother would then card it piece by piece with special hand carders. Now this fluffy mass was ready handful by handful to be spun into yarn on the home made spinning wheel. In the evening mother would spin while father would be tramping the semi-cleaned flax fiber in the corner. During the daytime mother would work with the wooden tools outside, doing the first stage of the straw separation. In the evenings my father would continue the cleaning process of tramping by foot in the corner of the house that what mother had prepared outside, while mother would be carding or spinning in another corner of the living room. This kind of work continued up until about the month of February. At this time all of the cleaning, carding and spinning should be completed. Now the spun yarn had to be made into linen and hemp cloth in a process that was very fascinating to me as a child. As I grew older the process became clearer to me, but it is still quite hard to explain step by step how the yarn eventually became a very durable linen, hemp or wool material used for sewing the clothes that were worn by all the Doukhobors. All this was done in the living rooms of almost every Doukhobor family in the village.

The spun yarn was rolled into large balls. The place for preparing the yarn for its required width of usually about two feet was chosen along the longest wall of the living room. After a rotating walk around the set up pegs on a raised bench, the resulting unrolling of the large balls of yarn into a long pattern was ready to go into the set up loom for weaving. The loom itself was an intricate homemade wooden construction that a woman had to sit at. Working with her hands to put a cross thread through the two-foot wide yarn on the rollers, and using her feet to move the thing along was an art exclusive mostly to Doukhobor women. The work of weaving on the loom to make these two-foot wide and of various lengths materials or rugs went on into the months of March, April and even May. When it became warm enough in the spring to do this, then the women would take these rugs, which were still quite coarse, to the river again. There they are again soaked in the water and then spread out on the green grass to dry in the sun. As soon as they are dry, they are again soaked and again spread out in the sun. This process softens them, and also makes them become whiter. From this material the women then sew what the family requires. From the purer and softer white material they sew women’s clothes. Some of the coarser material is coloured, usually blue, and men’s pants are sewn from it, and also some women’s work clothing. The women do all their sewing by hand, and use their own, finer linen thread. A lot of clothing material was made from sheep’s wool. The process of preparing wool into yarn for spinning and weaving was a bit different and a lot of wool yarn was used for knitting.

All of this work with flax and hemp straw and sheep’s wool was done in the wintertime, and most of it was done by the Doukhobor women residing at this time in the Doukhobor villages of the Caucasus area in southern Russia. In the summer, during haying season, these same women worked side by side with the men. The men with hand scythes would be cutting the hay, while the women, with hand rakes made of wood, would be raking the hay into little piles, which they referred to as “miniature stacks”. At harvest time the women together with the men, using hand scythes would harvest the grain, tying the grain stalks into sheaves that they would later thresh together. Threshing of the grain was also done by hand by both men and women.

Besides helping the men in the fields, Doukhobor women also planted large vegetable gardens, which they looked after from spring till fall using hand tools. Every Doukhobor family had cows, which the women milked by hand. They also looked after the sheep and it was the women’s job to shear the wool from them every spring. Every family raised chickens, ducks and geese and the women looked after these as well. Of course it was the women’s duty to cook, to sew, to wash clothes, clean house and do all other family chores including the bringing up of children. Among all of these responsibilities the women still found time to go and pick the abundant wild flowers of the Caucasus area. They also picked herbs for their own medicinal use, as well as for sale.

One other very important responsibility of Doukhobor women was that they had to pass on the Doukhobor life-concept to the children by teaching them to know from memory Doukhobor psalms, wherein was contained the aspects of the Doukhobor faith. When a child was still quite young, the mother taught them the psalms only for reciting purposes. As the child grew older, the mother was required to see that the child would start learning the melody of each psalm. This was in order that the child could participate in mass prayer meetings, which were based on the reading and singing of psalms. The melody for Doukhobor psalms was very intricate and not easy to learn, even if you were growing up as a Doukhobor. For most outsiders the melody of Doukhobor psalms is very hard to understand and almost impossible to sing in the same soul stirring way.

When I was two years and eight months old my mother taught me one short psalm, which was specially composed for children. It was easy to read and I learned to read it quite fluently. It started with: “Lord, give us your blessing.” “Thou art my God and I am your slave. You will not desert me, and I will not ever leave you” and ended with “Honour and Praise to our God”. This psalm I learned to read from memory while we still lived in the house where I was born in the village of Troitskoye (Elizavetpol Gubernia).

In the spring of the year 1880 a sizable group of Doukhobors including our villagers and also from the neighbouring village of Spasovka of our Gubernia of Elizavetpol, decided to move to the Kars area of the Gubernia of Tiflis. The distance to cover was about two hundred and fifty plus Russian “Versti” (about 150 miles). My parents decided to make this move with the group. Being merely three years old at this time, I was not too aware of the hardships of this trip. I only remember the convoy of covered wagons following one another and slowly making their way along wagon trail roads, which were often muddy and soft. The wagons were heavily loaded and sometimes got bogged down in the mud so that the team hitched to the wagon would not be able to pull the wagon out. I remember cases where all the wagons would stop and they would hitch teams from other wagons at the head of those stuck. After pulling out the stuck wagon, the whole convoy would then proceed. On the third day of our journey our convoy had to cross a river. Its depth was from one to three and a half feet. Its width was about three hundred feet and it was quite fast flowing. My father was driving a four-horse team hitched to our wagon and it appears that he had moved a bit to one side of the regular track where it was safe to cross. There was a huge unseen rock in the water that stopped the wagon and the horses could not move it. Many men from the other wagons immediately came to the rescue. They waded into the water, and finding out what the problem was, they placed themselves at the wheels and at the back of the wagon and helped to get the wagon over the rock and safely to the other side.

A sample page from Alexey’s handwritten memoirs of 1953, painstakingly translated by his son Eli A. Popoff in 2006.

At the other side of the river, all of the convoy stopped for a meal, to rest and to feed the horses. Feed for the horses was not being hauled because the wagons were overly full with all the household and other belongings that were being transported to the new place of abode. So the horses were fed merely with the local grass that they grazed and any fresh hay that could be cut on the way. The early spring green grass was not very nutritious for the horses. They weakened day by day, and so the journey was longer than it should have been. What added to the hardships was that there was much rain during this trip –making the roads wet and soggy. The wagon wheels kept sinking up to four inches – making ruts as they proceeded. Because of all this the convoy used to make as little as fifteen versti, and at the most 30 versti of travel per day (a “versta” is approximately one kilometre. – Ten kilometres is approximately 6 miles). It was fortunate for the whole convoy that the climate of this Caucasus area was reasonable during the spring. While there were times of very heavy rainfall making puddles three or four inches deep on the roads, within the same hour the sun would come out and in a short time the water would all disappear. The rain did not bother the people or their belongings because all of the wagons were well covered with good frames covered with durable canvass. The food brought along for the trip was very simple. Basically everyone had sacks full of “sookhari” or twice baked bread chunks, made from whole wheat. They had a supply of potatoes, millet grain and salted chunks of sheep’s fat. The road from Elizavetpol to the Kars area was very hilly and rocky and there was a considerable amount of forest growth all around. The territory that was being crossed was all Crown Land and therefore it was permissible to let the horses graze at every stop that was made. We children always rode in the comfort of the covered wagons, where we also slept every night. All of the men usually walked behind or beside the wagons. They did not have to drive the horses most of the time as the Caucasus horses were better trained to keep to the trails, than the Canadian horses that we have had to use. It was only once in a while when a steep hill would appear ahead that the drivers would sit down on the driver’s seat to urge and steer the horses.

In the evenings when the convoy was camping for the night, the men would gather in groups and join in light hearted discussions and usually sang joyous hymns and songs. The women would be cooking the evening meal and tending to the children’s needs. In general this migration from one area to another had its hardships, but there were also joyful times. Throughout the whole trip there was not a single occasion of misfortune or trauma to any family in the whole convoy.

In the latter part of April, our convoy reached its destination. My parents chose to settle in the village named “Spasovka” in the District of Arganov about 40 “Versti” east of the City of Kars in what was referred to as “Karsskaya Oblast” or the region of Kars in the Gubernia (or province) of Tiflis. The village of Spasovka was situated in a unique location. From the west side there was a huge long mountain. On the north, east and south sides, the river “Karsina” made a huge bend. Along the south west side and along the mountain there flowed a smaller unnamed river, which always had warm water in it. On frosty days of the winter months there was always a vapor of steam above it. At the southeast end of our village location these two rivers joined together and they flowed out of our valley in a southeasterly direction between two tall mountains of rock, which formed a gorge at this point.

Both these rivers had an abundance of fish. However these fish were of a small common variety and could not be compared to the special fish that we came to know in far eastern parts of Russia, in Siberia, province of Yakutsk.

In this, our new village of Spasovka, my parents did not have to build their new home to live in. This was because there were two parties of Doukhobors that had already moved here from our province. With one of these parties, my grandfather Semyon Leontievich Popov came here before us. These parties that had come here before us, by mutual agreement, had already allocated exactly how the village would be built. They had measured out equal lots in a long line with homes to be built facing each other. One side of the line would have the houses with the rear facing eastward, and the other side would have their rear facing westward. In the centre was a wide street running from north to south. The total length of this street was about one and one quarter “versti” (about ¾ of a mile). After all the lots were marked out and numbered – each family drew lots for the one that would be theirs.

Part of these lots covered a territory that once had the remains of a small Turkish village. This territory still had the skeletons of five Turkish dwelling homes that were not totally deteriorated. These dwellings all had the same shape and style. The structure was all under one roof and quite low to the ground level. The roof was made from turf. Each had two doors on the long side of the structure. One door led into the structures most spacious division, which had four separate divisions and was used to house the farm animals and the poultry. The other door, at the other end, led into the division where the family was to live. One of these structures still remained on the lot that grandfather drew as his allocated lot. When my parents arrived at this newly pioneered village, my grandfather greeted us at the front of this building, and this is where we settled in to live.

The first essential chore that had to be done here was to go to the place and dig the special clay, from which bricks could be made. After drying and processing the bricks, these would then be laid in proper formation to make the brick oven for baking and cooking. I remember my father and grandfather at work making the bricks, while mother was busy washing up all the clothes from the trip and doing other cleaning. From these very first days I remember my older brother and sister and myself climbing the low roofed dwelling of ours and walking all over the long roof.

Because grandfather had come here earlier, he had done some essential work that every homeowner had to do here at this time. He had tilled some of our allotted soil and sowed some barley. He did complain that the Turkish people who lived here had apparently used the soil continually for many years and he feared that the crop would be very poor. We did not have any choice at this time, so in the latter days of the month of April, we, as all others – planted our gardens, each on the allotted lots, which were also very much worked over before us.

At this time I was just three years and two months old and so all of the responsibilities of this first pioneering year did not affect me. All the responsibilities rested on the shoulders of our parents. As for us, children, free of worldly responsibilities, as soon as summer warmth came around, we headed in groups to the shallow warm river that was really right in our back yard.

There for days at a time we sat in the warm waters of the river taking hourly outings to stretch out on the warm sand of the beach. Because there were no schools in this new area where we settled, the children that came to the river ranged from two to nine years. The parents felt safe to allow the children to come here, because the river was shallow and slow flowing. The shore was not deep set, but just about even with the land’s surface and the river bottom was firm and solid. This was why all the children of our village spent all the sunny days at this river shore. In the evenings the parents always insisted that all children spend a certain amount of time learning from memory the prayers of the Doukhobors, which were called psalms. When I was four years old I learned my second psalm, which read as follows:

Lord, Give Us Thy Blessing

Let us all tearfully reflect on all the daily workings of our lives. Verily speaks to us our Lord with entreaty: “You my male servants and maid servants, devout Christians, do not forget to be faithful to God, and He will not forget you in the end time to come. In our present day, the times are very trying. We are being judged and persecuted. There has been born an evil anti-Christ. He has sent forth his evil oppressors out into the whole world. There is no place to hide for my faithful followers, neither in the mountains, nor in the caves, nor in the distant barren places. My faithful followers have to live in exile and suffer persecution for keeping to the word of God and for manifesting the teachings of Jesus Christ. But you my faithful followers rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven.

Our God be praised.

Because my age group of children was not yet allocated any responsibilities, we continued to spend all our time at our favorite spot by the river. We would go there day after day. The only time we were not there was when we would see a dark cloud coming over the horizon and rumbling of thunder would be heard. At such times we would race to where the nearest covered wagons were parked and hide under their cover. For the first season, families continued to live in their covered wagons while the houses were being built. The last parties were all still living in their covered wagons. My parents were very fortunate to have the frames of the five Turkish huts that were on their allotted plot. We were sheltered in them during the first trying years. All the other families next to us were all hurrying to get their houses built. The construction of houses in this area was very simple. The walls were built from the slabs of unhewn gray rock that was freely available at the nearby foothills of the mountains. In between went layers of mixed clay mortar, which was also readily available at various spots of the valley. There was no visible forest anywhere nearby so wood was only used for window frames and doorjambs. For the roof some round poles were used sparsely, on which were laid split flat slabs of stone. On this base, plain soil was heaped, and this method was used for every roof of every building in the village. All the buildings had similar rock walls. Our village of Spasovka had 86 family residences. Each and every residence was similarly built and there was not a single wooden roofed building in the whole village.

With this form of construction, not counting the labor the cost of the buildings was very minimal. For a residence to house a family of ten with livestock from 25 to 30 head, the cost of constructing a residence would be from five to ten rubles. This expense goes specifically for the cost of glass and any ironware that was required for the buildings. It also covered anything that was needed for the large Russian oven assembled out of hand-made bricks. This oven served for all the kitchen cooking, bread baking, as well as supplying heat in the winter months. The construction of these buildings was the prime occupation of each and every family in these first years of settlement. All of the needed materials for this type of construction was readily available nearby. The forms of rock and stone slabs were all around you to the fullest of your hearts desire. There were mountains of clay for your mortar and brick baking. Water was abundant from the two rivers in the valley. The biggest detriment was the lack of forest nearby. The closest place for cutting any timber was 50 Versti away. Although there was one good thing about the timber, and that was, that for all our new settlers the state allowed a given amount for free. However to transport this timber was very difficult. In the first place there was still a shortage of horses in the first years and there was no supply of any kind of grain to feed the horses in this long and arduous journey. Even though throughout the Kavkaz Mountains there were always patches of good grass, this was not good enough to give strength for the horses to pull these heavy loads of timber for such long distances. Besides all this, horsepower was needed at home for hauling the rocks and for tilling the soil. The roads that were used to get to the timber belt were not kept up by anyone. Although the trails were somewhat packed down, the continuous summer rains would make them muddy and difficult for any kind of transportation. It was because of all of this that lumber was of the highest value in all of our villages.

There never was any talk of a sawmill to be constructed because the logs brought here were few and far between. For the absolutely essential boards the logs were cut by hand with long crosscut saws. Those families that did not have two grown men got together in pairs with other families. Since this was not an occupation that was practiced often, some of the boards that were cut were very uneven. These were the tasks that were performed by all the grown ups of the village throughout the spring, summer and fall. In the fall the gathering in of the crops took precedence over all. The first crops were very poor as these were sewn on lands that the Turkish people had been farming for many years and new land had not yet been prepared. Our children’s summer occupation that we loved best of all was our time spent by the river. Nevertheless there were times when we would go to the spots where the families were mixing the clay for mortar for the buildings. Here we would roll our own little balls of clay for our own kind of play. Sometimes we would dry them, but sometimes we would throw them at each other while they were still raw and wet. The object was to dodge them, as they hurt quite considerably. Sometimes one of the clay balls would hit a grown up person, at which time we would all be chased away. A chase from one place did not usually stop us. We would just go to another place further away where the same clay mixing was going on. Our group eventually earned the name of “mischief makers.”

When it was time for harvest all of our barefooted gang was broken up. Each went to their own family group in readiness to be taken to the fields together with the elders. Only those children stayed at home where there was an elder staying behind to allocate to them the home chores that had to be done.

Harvesting the grain at that time was very simple. The men cut down the standing grain with hand scythes, and the women raked it into small neat piles called “Kopitsi”. Then the men using special thin poles about 10 feet long, and sticking them under the pile from two sides, they would lift and carry this pile to a central place where a neat small stack would be made. This stack would be left that way till all the cutting down of the grain would be finished.

The children’s responsibility was to see that not a blade with a head of kernels in it would be left lying in the field. We would gather these individually and tie them into little sheaves with the spare straw stems. Every child would place his little sheaves separately into neat piles. These sheaves would then be taken home in the evening, where we would give them into caretaking of the parents and receive their praise according to how diligently they had worked and how many sheaves were made up. The parents kept these little sheaves separately and allowed them to be threshed separately. With the grain that resulted, the children were allowed to trade it with the local traveling merchants for goodies like apples, plums or grapes, either fresh or dried.

After the harvesting of the grain in the fields is completed, the families individually, if large families, and sometimes together with others, if small – prepare a special spot for threshing. A sizable smooth surfaced place is chosen. First it is wetted down with water and tall grass or straw is scattered loosely on it. A horse is then hitched to a special wooden roller with pegs in it, and with a rider horseback on the horse, drives back and forth on this patch until the straw is tramped in and the whole base is quite firm and solid. After this has dried, the excess straw is swept off and the reaped grain is then spread on this firm base which is called a “Katok” and the same wooden roller is hauled across, over and over until the kernels are all freed from the heads. When the men feel that all the kernels are free from the straw, they gather the straw with forks and take it away, piling it into stacks for feed. The grain is shoveled to the centre of the “Katok” and more unthreshed wheat or whatever grain is being threshed is spread around. Then the roller and the horse again commence their threshing process. After the men feel that there is about 50 or 60 “poodi” of grain (one “pood” is 40 pounds) in the centre of the “Katok”, the threshing process is halted. Now they take shovels and throw the grain into the air against the wind – thus separating the chaff from the kernels, as it is light and the wind blows it away. If there are any pieces of solid matter like dried mud chunks or small rocks – these are later removed by hand made screens.

All this harvesting work was carried out by the elders. In the meantime we children see how the elders are throwing the wheat and chaff into the wind, develop our own form of make believe. We gather in the street where there is loose dirt and make piles of it in the centre. Then cupping our hands we throw it into the air, just to see which way it blows. Because there are up to ten of us in a group, we create a regular dust storm in which you can hardly see our bodies. In the morning when we get together, all have different colored clothes. In the evening all our clothes are a dark gray. All around our eyes, nose and mouth there is a layer of black dust. We no longer look like children but like knights in black armor. In the event that we have a rainfall and the streets have puddles, we begin by racing through them, and then wrestling and before you know it we begin to go our separate and march home like fishermen coming home, wet and soggy.

It wasn’t always that we children got away with our naughty frolicking. Often either an elder man or an older woman would catch us doing something naughty and they would get after us with a willow switch, and without paying attention as to who belonged to which family, would give each one of us a good wallop on the back and chase us to our individual homes. Most of the time we were on the watch for any approaching elder, and when catching sight of one, we would immediately scatter and hide. There never was any thought of standing up to any older person of your own or any other village. If ever any child would answer harshly to any older person, he would be severely punished by his own parents at home. This meant that no child could do any mischief in any part of the village without immediately answering to any elder around. Even if he got away from the elder on the spot, he knew what he would get at home, when his mischief and disrespect of elders would be reported to his parents. This kind of upbringing allowed the Doukhobors to live in peace and harmony in their large extended families, and in their tightly knit villages. Every parent trusted their neighbouring parents to do the right thing when dealing with children’s pranks. Parents always trusted the elders’ assessment of an irresponsible occurrence, rather than the version given by a guilty teen-ager. There were no schools in our village and at most the literacy rate of the whole village was no more than 5 percent. Yet the whole village kept strictly to the above disciplinary guidelines without any exceptions.

With the oncoming colder weather, after all the fall work was done, our children’s group gallivanting came to an end. Because of general lack of warm winter clothing, most of us children now became confined to their homes. Staying at home, all we could do was think about all of the things we had done this past summer, and plan for the coming spring and summers escapades and the new things we might come up with.

During the fall and winter time of short days and long nights, because the children had no place to play and no responsibilities to fulfill and were having time on their hands, it became the duty of every parent and grandparent to teach them the prayers and psalms that contained the life-concept of the Doukhobors. These were passed on from generation to generation and were learned from memory. Families that had four or five children above four years of age, had them, every day, lined up in a row and made to recite from memory the psalms they already knew, and then separately, each one would be taught additional psalms. Up to a given age these psalms would be taught only for recitation. Later the melody of these psalms would be taught as well. In this particular winter I learned from memory my third psalm, whose contents was as follows:

“Lord, Give Us Thy Blessing”

“From the beginning of time and till now, the Lord God calleth to His faithful children: “Come to me my dear children, come to me my most dear ones. I have prepared for you the Kingdom of Heaven. Do not fear to forsake your father, your mother nor all of your race and lineage in the physical sense, but give reverence to me your heavenly Father in spirit. And the faithful children turn to Him in prayer – Oh Lord, our dear Lord it is so difficult for us to enter into your heavenly kingdom. All the pathways have gates of steel, and at the gates there stand fierce and unjust guards. And the Lord speaketh to them and sayeth: “Do not be fearful my children, do not be fearful my dear ones. I am the powerful wrestler that shall go forward before you. I shall break down all their gates of steel and I shall disperse their fierce guards. And then I shall lead you into my kingdom of heaven, where all shall reign with me as witnessed to by the God of Jacob.”

“Our God be praised”

During the winters male children under the age of 12 years had no responsibilities, so their day-to-day routine was always the same and the winters felt long. In regard to the girls it was a bit different. Beginning from the age of seven, the mothers began teaching them how to knit from the woolen yarn and even simple patching. Those families that had smaller babies, the girls were trained to take care of them. The girls were also taught to clean the floors as well as help their mothers with the washing of dishes. After the girls reach 12 years of age the mothers began to train them how to spin simple, thicker yarn for mitts and working stockings. All the spinning in our area of Kars province was done from sheep’s wool. Some sheep had been brought from our Elizavetpol province because there, most villagers had large herds of sheep. Some long horned cattle were also brought here from Elizavetpol, and these were used for milk from the very beginning of our new settlement.

When the frosts came in late fall, all work on construction was stopped. This was because in order to lay the stone walls it required mortar from the brown clay mixture. This mixture had to be handled with bare hands, and of course later this would get frozen and without a proper drying process this mortar would fall apart in the warm summer weather. Thus ,for the men folk there was less to do. All they had to do was look after cattle, horses and sheep, and in the homes they would patch the leather harness gear, repair worn boots or sew new ones. At times they would tan woolen sheepskins and sew them for wearing as short fur coats. Wood working shops did not exist here because wood was so hard to get. It was not even possible to haul logs from the forest in the wintertime. The roads were not passable. A blacksmith shop was very rare, as only a few essentials for household use or construction were ever made in the village blacksmith. There was nowhere in this area where men could go and do work for others, so in the year there were five months where the men, also, were tied to doing household and barnyard chores, the barn being part of the residence.

All the men’s main work of working the land, sowing, harvesting, and construction work could only be done in the spring and summer, so during the long winter evenings, the men – like the children spent a lot of time learning the Doukhobor psalms. This was done not only in their own homes. They also gathered in groups in neighbour’s homes. They not only read the psalms, but also in groups, sang them. On Sundays there were large gatherings for prayer meetings. At these prayer meetings everyone participated by each reading a psalm. The Doukhobors never had any special person for leading prayer services. Each and everyone participated with the reading and with the singing. That is why the children were taught from a very young age. It was always expected that each person would read a different psalm. And so if a group of one hundred gathered, the elders would be obliged to know just about that many psalms. The Doukhobors read their psalms, their prayers to God, not with the intent of absolving themselves from sin, but they read them for their own enlightenment as to how they should lead their lives. Each and every psalm had some explanation about the living spirit of the teachings of Jesus Christ. This is why the Doukhobors referred to their collection of psalms as the “Living Book”.

When a person has within his memory many Doukhobor psalms, no matter where he is, or what his circumstances are, he always has with him the instructional words contained in the psalms. No one can take them away from him, and having them always within the innermost sanctions of his being for his guidance, no one can sidetrack him, or change his deep seated and deeply rooted faith. This then, was one of the main reasons that the Doukhobors were not so concerned about grammar schools or other forms of academic learning. Their first concern was to instruct their children with the “Living Book”, their religious and moral, ethical, instructional psalms. In addition to all this the Doukhobors believed that their spiritual psalms were their own unique and bona fide life-concepts that no outsider had tampered with. Keeping firmly to the concepts contained in their psalms, the Doukhobors could safely withstand any foreign or alien influences. Their feelings were that any outside grammar teaching could still contain influences that were alien to Doukhobor thought and would infringe on or tend to obscure pure and untainted Doukhobor teachings.

During this first winter, with its short days and long nights was spent with even greater emphasis placed on spiritual aspects and the learning of psalms by both children and elders. I remember this first winter starting to turn towards spring because in February 25th of the year 1881 I became 4 years old. I really was not too aware of how good a crop we had this past year, or what other hardships my parents went through, because at my age this was not within my realm of comprehension. I do remember that the house (Saklya) that we lived in was warm and comfortable. The walls were about four feet thick. The rock walls were double layered. The rocks were laid in clay mortar in two columns, and in between the space was filled with common soil. The roof had round rafters – pine logs twelve to fourteen inches in diameter, on which were placed flat slabs of rock, a few inches in thickness. On these slabs straw was placed and then about twelve to fourteen inches of soil. There were only two windows and one door. The doorway entrance was a corridor with walls about 10 feet thick, and having a door at each end of the corridor. With only the two windows and a doored corridor entrance, the inside of the house was cozy and warm. I do not remember ever feeling cold or uncomfortable throughout the whole winter. It was only later in my life that I began experiencing a longing for the warm sunny days of summer.

Spring did come, and at the end of March the snow began to melt. It was wonderful. For just as soon as a bare spot of earth showed up, there immediately green tufts of grass started to show. By about April 10th the snow was all gone and a vaporous fog started to rise from the soil. Soon the soil warmed up and everywhere green grass appeared. Right after this, the earliest white flowers of the “maslyonka” plant, a variety of buttercups began to dot the green prairie land. These buttercups in their roots had a large kernel, the size of a peanut, which was edible. There we were in groups, armed with a special wooden rod sharpened at the end like a little shovel scampering all over the prairie meadow digging these peanuts to eat right there and to bring some home. This daily occupation of ours lasted till about the 5th of May. After this the white flowers would wither and fly away. Then there was no way you could spot the buttercup plant in the lush green grass, and besides that the peanut seed itself would get to be coarse and hard and not edible anymore. And so, for a time our children’s groups would be left without too much to do except wait for the warm sunny days to come, when we again could go to our favorite river beach to swim and bask in the warm sun. The last year’s pastime was to be repeated again this year, until such time as our parents would begin the harvest season and again get us to pick up all the loosely fallen grain.

This was the routine for all of us children, and this is what occupied my time when I was five and six years old. When I became seven years of age, that winter my parents taught me several more lengthy psalms. I remember that spring when the snow melted more rapidly and the streets were full of puddles and little creeks. Here was something new – to build little dikes and canals and float little hand made boats and make imaginary turning mills on the flowing rivulets. After this came the season of digging the buttercup roots and when that finished a new phase of my childhood development came about. My older brother Nikolay made a fish hook out of an old needle. He attached a length of string to the homemade hook and gave me my first instructions on how to catch the little fish that abounded in the same river that we loved to swim in. He showed me where to dig for the long, red earthworms, how to store them in an empty can with some earth in it, and how to attach them in short pieces for baiting the hook. He showed me how to lower the hook into the water and then patiently wait till a fish starts jerking on the line. This shallow river that we swam in seemed to have millions of these little fish. They were the size of Canadian perch and resembled them in appearance. And so, along with all other boys that were seven and eight years old this became another pastime with which we were occupied.

The little fish were very plentiful in the river, and if a boy struck a good spot he could catch from 50 to 75 of them in one day’s outing. The caught fish would be kept in a screened cage in the water. When these were brought home, the mothers would merely clean the innards and then fry them whole. When the fish was fried for some time they are smothered in a mixture of dough that is made quite thin, and then the whole mass is baked in the oven. This kind of fish in pastry, served as a very special delicacy for all of us children. It also substantially added to our dietary supplies, as in our first years in this new settlement food was not too plentiful. In our particular family this was even more so.

Alexey’s parents, Anna and Ivan Popov, c. 1915. Ivan was a very large man whereas Anna was diminutive. In this photo, Ivan is sitting while Anna is standing.

When our family was coming from our village in the province of Elizavetpol we had brought with us 4 cows. In the fall of 1882 three of these cows were stolen. On one night that fall a group of thieves came and from the far side of the barn they took apart a part of the stone wall and led the three cows away. Even with the help of the whole village, we were never able to track down the culprits or to find out where three of our best cows disappeared. From that time on, our dairy products were far more limited than in other families. Our daily food was bread made from whole-wheat flour with soup, which was made basically of potatoes and coarsely ground wheat. Borshch had potatoes and cabbage plus a large tablespoon of thick cream. Into both soup and borshch, for our family of six people, one small tablespoon of butter was added.

Therefore, the small perch that I caught with the homemade fishing tackle was a very welcome addition to our meager food supply. It was a change, it was very tasty and it cost nothing. Up to seven years of age, no outside family responsibilities were designated to me. I was still allowed to go and dig the buttercup peanuts. But when their season came to an end I was given a more serious responsibility. Most families had flocks of geese. This particular spring my mother was able to successfully hatch 48 goslings, in addition to the five older geese that we owned – making 53 in all. As soon as they grew up a bit and got trained to keep to their own flock, because of shortage of home feed, the flock had to be herded out to pasture in the meadow and also to the same river where we went swimming. The river was shallow and quiet flowing and posed no danger for the geese. In places along its banks there was a lot of lush green grass which both the older geese and the young goslings loved to feed on. Besides this, when they would plunge into the river there were all kinds of bugs that lived in the quiet eddies, and the geese young and old feasted on them. With this range free feeding, the young geese developed in leaps and bounds. My job was to keep them together, both on the range and in the water from 7 o’clock in the morning until 9 o’clock in the evening. After 9 o’clock I would herd the geese home where they had special housing under a solid roof with solid locking doors. It was not possible to leave the geese free overnight because there had been occasions when the large gray wolves which roamed the mountainside would sometimes come down into the village at night and kill some geese and drag them away for eating later.

In the daytimes there had not been any occasion that the wolves would come to the riverside. There were a few occasions when stray dogs would come there but they could be frightened away. On rare occasions there were serious hailstorms and some of the little goslings would be seriously hurt or even killed. Apart from these rare times of worry, we young children that looked after the geese felt free and happy. We often had time to swim in the river ourselves and lie on the shore. Sometimes we even did some fishing. The flocks of geese also enjoyed these free-range outings. At times when they would have a good feeding quickly, they would also stretch out on the sand and lie sleeping. Other times they would swim in the deeper water and then lazily stay in the shallow eddies snapping at the bugs that swam there. There were odd times when one flock of geese would get mixed up with another flock and coming home we would have different counts. To avoid disputes every family had their own markings on the feet of the geese. Some cut slits in the goose toe webs. Others cut one nail off, either, the left or right foot. All were different. And so checking the markings each family claimed their separated goslings. I do not remember that there were ever any serious disputes.

This work of pasturing geese continues from the first of June until the fifth of September when the harvest season commences. At this time the geese are not pastured at the river anymore, but they are brought out into the harvest fields where they methodically go through the harvested field and pick up every head of grain that fell aside from the main stacks. Some families who had the proper utensils brought out water for the geese into the fields and so the geese remain in the field from dawn to dark. Feeding on grain, the geese accumulated a considerable amount of fat. Thus, at home they are grain fed for no more than 2 weeks and then they are sold. The summer’s pasturing of the geese was not a troublesome one for the children. It was rather enjoyable, because the hours of work were not too exact. Morning or evening the timing could be one hour earlier or one hour later. There was however one hardship. Being bare legged all the time proved to have its disadvantages. Wetting your feet about every hour, and then being in the hot sand and sun eventually made all the skin rough, which later would have cracks appear and even open sores. The sores would bleed and be very painful. There was no medicine for this. The only thing that helped was to cover all your legs with black Caucasian oil. The oil seemed to protect the skin and going in and out of the water did not affect the skin as much.

Pasturing the geese at harvest time was more arduous. This was because the grain fields were sometimes one, two or three “Versti” from the home residence. During some hot days in the fall it would not be possible to herd the geese for such distances. This then required the young lad to get up before sunrise, and while the dew was still on the grass to get the geese into the fields and have them already fed before herding them to the river for water. In the evening it was the same problem. While the sun was still high it was too hot for the geese to trek from the river to the fields. They would get hot, open their mouths and lie down without going any farther. You could only start them from the river when the sun was already quite low. By the time they would get themselves fed it would already be getting dark. This created considerable hardships for a boy only seven years of age. Also the weather in the fall was not always calm. Sometimes it rained heavily. Other times a wind storm would come up and you would have to be fighting dust and wind against which even the geese did not want to go. There were times when the older people in the village felt that they had to come and help the young boys to bring the geese home on one or another turbulent evening. They would holler into the night and children would answer in the high-spirited children’s voices. The one saving grace for us children was that we never went in separate groups. Most of the time we had four or five groups of boys following each other, especially after dark. Each was looking after his own herd of geese. Being in a group gave us some comfort. At times, however, it used to get so dark that each of us seemed to be totally alone. All of us were quite well aware of the fact that the huge gray wolves were always not too far away from the grain fields. Thoughts of the wolves always brought a cold shudder down one’s spine.

In my eight and ninth year I did not get any additional responsibilities. There still were no schools in the village. So in the summers I herded geese and in the winters I added to my knowledge of psalms.

When I became 10 years of age I was given another responsibility. Now I had to begin herding sheep. Looking after sheep had its own season. This was from the middle of March till the tenth of June. At this time the sheep were having their lambs and the lambs had to be trained near to and around home, to stay with the herd.

After the 10th of June all the sheep in the village are brought together into one or two large herds. Specially trained Tartar herdsmen are hired, who take the sheep into the hills and graze them on especially rented crown land. They keep them here till about the fifteenth of October, and sometimes even till November 10th. They then bring the herds back to the village and every owner starts taking care of his own little group. They are pastured in and around the village till the time of the first big snowfall. Those owners who have over a hundred sheep pasture them individually. Those that have 20 to 45 usually group together and either hire a person as herdsman or take turns in herding.

All sheep have their own kind of markings. Their markings are on their ears with either one or two cuts or piercing. Herding sheep was one of my favorite responsibilities. There were many groups of boys. During dry weather and no wind, the sheep grazed quietly and the boys would organize some games. In this way, the days would go by quickly. The games could be different each time. One of the games played the oftenest was called “Na v shapki” or beat the cap. This was done by each one throwing his herding stick as far as he could. Whichever stick landed the closest, the owner would have to take off his cap and throw it in the same direction. All the boys were then permitted to run and beat this cap with their sticks a certain amount of times and then again throw their sticks. This could go on all day, and it did happen that some of the less lucky boys would have their caps beaten into shreds and come home bareheaded. To hide his shame this boy would keep his herd out till it was completely dark and then bring them home.

Sketch of merino sheep kept by the Doukhobors by Russian painter, Vasily Vereshchagin during his visit to Elizavetpol in 1863.

There was only one particular drawback in herding sheep, and that was the rainy weather. There were times when it would rain several days in a row. When it was this wet the sheep would not graze quietly but kept running around uncomfortably. For these rainy days we boys had a special garment, which was called a “Bashlik.” It was a kind of large vest that had no sleeves but did have a special parka that pulled over your head from the back. These vests were made from sheep’s wool, tightly knit and well pounded. These vests did not let the rainwater through to your body, but if it rained all day these would become so soaked and heavy that your shoulders felt like you were carrying unwieldy weights of steel that seemed to get heavier every step you took. Carrying this amount of weight from morning until evening was quite a trauma for an eight or nine year old. It was that much harder to carry this weight because the soil beneath your feet was all muddy and sticky. Some evenings it was real torture to drag one foot after another on the last stretch home and when you finally got to bed your legs would continue to feel the pain.

There was another hardship herding sheep in the spring and that was their giving birth to lambs right in the distant field where you had led them. If this were one or two lambs, you would be obliged to carry them home. If it there were more than two new born lambs, you would go to the nearest hilltop and holler at the top of your voice until someone in or near the village would hear and they would come to help.

The most frequent trauma in herding sheep in the summer was this matter of getting soaking wet, which was sometimes followed by a cold wind. There were times when one remained shuddering throughout the whole day. One other fear that always seemed to hover over you when you came closer to the mountains with your herd was the fact that you knew that the mountains abounded with large gray wolves. During my time there was never an occurrence of a pack of wolves attacking a herd of sheep. In the two years that I herded sheep there was only one occurrence of my actually seeing a large gray wolf lurking nearby. There were other older boys that let out loud shouts and the wolf disappeared into the mountains. As for myself I stood petrified and motionless for about half an hour. I was not able to move my feet. It seemed that my whole bloodstream was frozen.

There was one other occurrence that happened to me with one of my older and rather feeble sheep. This happened at the beginning of the month of December when the first snow covered most of our low-level pasture ground. About one quarter of a “versta” from our home there was a gorge through which flowed a larger river named “Karsina Reka”. This gorge stretched for about eight “versti” and three of these “versti” was in the territory of land that was allocated to our village. This gorge had banks of different elevations. Some places the height was about three times the height of prairie grain elevators, other places this elevation was lower. Most places the distance from one side to the other was about 160 feet. The river was not too wide, and it ran through the centre. At one side of the river there was the general road that ran through along the gorge, and at the other side the distance between the river and its mountainous bank varied. In places it came right to the river’s edge and in other places there were ledges of various heights, which contained luscious green grass. From the warmth of the river water there was no snow on these ledges. At places these ledges led to level pieces of land, and at other places they led directly into steep and very rocky mountainous territory. On some of these ledges even horses or cattle could graze. On others only the sheep, being more agile, could safely graze. And so in the first part of the winter, I took my sheep to these ledges. I directed my sheep to a lower ledge, which had very luscious grass on it, but the descent to it was quite steep. Going down, the sheep managed very well, but having smoothed the path going down, when I was ready to chase them back up they found it very slippery and difficult. I had to help practically every sheep to scamper up and onto more level territory. It came to the last one, a heavy older sheep that wasn’t very agile anymore. She just could not make it to the upper ledge, and with all the strength that I could muster I just couldn’t get her out of this lower ledge. It was getting dark and I had to make a quick decision. If I left her loose, she could conceivably scamper out of here later and wander into the mountains where the wolves would most certainly get her. Each of us boys had our slings for throwing stones and so I decided to use that string. I tied all four feet of the sheep as firmly as I could and left her there lying at the foot of the ledge. In the morning we would come with my father and rescue her.

I came home with the rest of the herd later than usual. When my parents asked why I was so late, I explained what happened with that one old sheep. Sheep at that time were valued from two and a half to four dollars each. To me that seemed not such a great deal. However, my parents were so upset with this possible loss that they hardly slept all night. They prayed and grieved and mother even went out into the night to carry out some kind of an ancient witchcraft ritual. She took an axe and plunged it into the ground in the middle of the road, and if everyone went around it without knocking it down, this would denote that the sheep would be safe.

In the very early morning, before dawn, my father and I went to the place where I had left the sheep. The spot was empty but there were signs of struggling. Looking further around and below, we found the dead sheep in a clump of brush. She had kept beating and turning until she fell and rolled among rocks. The whole carcass was so beat up; we could not even salvage the sheep’s skin. The loss of this sheep was a subject of grief to my parents for a long time to come. When spring came my parents did not fail to mention to me – you see that sheep would now have brought us two lambs. It was so hard for me to understand why it was that my parents were so overly concerned with this loss of one old sheep. Was it just grief for a material loss, or was it fear of loss of self-sufficiency, and possible want in the future? It was probably the latter, because we scarcely ever had anything in abundance. However in my childhood immaturity I thought that how could it be that my parents seemed to value the sheep more than they cared about me and my anguish. They continually mentioned that the sheep would have brought two lambs, and that she always fed them so well, and that her wool was of the finest quality. It was long and soft and it produced the finest of yarn. All these rebukes about my fault for this loss kept on for a whole year. For a nine-year-old child these parental rebukes about the loss of a mere older sheep gave me severe mental depression. I kept being sore at heart. At the same time it was a very indelible lesson to me to always be more careful in the future.

When I was in a more self-pitying mood I would think to myself – of course my action in getting the sheep to this luscious green ledge was not done for any kind of self-gratification. I had done this out of pity and love for the sheep. I well knew that they would be half hungry treading over grounds that were already eaten bare, but here I was directing them to a ledge of luscious green grass where not a single foot had trod, – a place you just didn’t want to leave from. And then I would reason again – true enough the thoughts came to me that if I did not take advantage of this ledge today – others would discover it tomorrow! And then of course our elders were always praising the boys that were more alert than others, and I did have the thoughts that when the elders found out that I had discovered and used this ledge for my herd before anyone else – they would say, aha, that Popov youngster finds ledges that even older herders failed to discover! And so really – this was the thought that made me venture to that steep but luscious ledge. Instead of receiving this kind of praise, it turned out that in the end I received an unforgettable lesson to be more careful rather than being more daring. Had I brought home the sheep that evening even half hungry, their suffering would have been minimal. No one would have been able to assess exactly how much was in their stomachs. My parents would have been at peace, and there would have been no rebukes to me in the future. With those thoughts of getting praise and commendations, I probably would have become unnecessarily proud and to think too much of myself. This event of the loss of a sheep brought out in me deeper thoughts of the wisdom of being careful in all matters. Not the least of this was that it is wise to be careful in material matters insofar as one’s welfare sometimes depended on saving every hair that was needed to keep the family self-sustainable.

Traumatic events be they as they were, time did not stand still. On the 25th of February 1887 I became ten years old. In this winter, after the loss of the sheep, I was more studious than before and learned a lot of new psalms. As usual there were no other particular responsibilities for young boys in these winter months. There were only the few times of warmer sunny weather when the parents would allow me to take the sheep for a drink at the river, the same river where we always swam. With the spring break we still went digging for the buttercup peanuts, but even before their season was over there was an additional responsibility given to boys our age with the beginning of the spring planting of grain.

The sowing of grain was done by hand. We did not know any other way, except using a special sack with two straps over the shoulder. The sack was open in the front and from here the sower would take the seed into his hand and scatter it fan wise. About 65 to 80 pounds of seed is placed into the sack. The opening of the sack appears under the left arm and with the right arm the sower takes fistful of seed. He scatters the seed from left to right measured by his steps. When he puts his left foot forward he fills his fist with seed. When he steps forward with his right foot he scatters the seed. This is done by the elders in the family. This job was done by my father. He scattered the seed onto the ploughed land. After this it was essential to pull harrows over the land so that the scattered seed would be covered by soil in order that the birds would not pick it up and in order for the seed to properly germinate and sprout. This part of harrowing was done quite uniquely and probably different from other places in the world. The harrows themselves were constructed right at home. The spikes that were driven into the frame of the harrow were made of dried, firm wood. Each separate frame was made for one horse to be hitched to it and drag it. Each horse would have a young boy driver. If the family did not have a boy, girls also could be seated horseback on the horse. One track of the harrow was not enough to properly cover the seed, and so it was most usual to have four horses hitched to four separate frames that would follow one after the other. Only the front horse had to have a driver. The other horses were just tied to the back end of the harrow. And so in my eleventh year I was entrusted with being the driver of the front horse. The other three followed my trail one after the other. This job was not one that required any amount of physical labour, but it did have its own peculiar difficulties. The driver of the lead horse had the responsibility of traversing the field in a straight line. Keeping this line straight was important, because on the return trip the boy had to make sure that he wasn’t going over the same trail twice, as well as he had to be sure that he was leaving no spaces uncovered.

It was always the same problem. The horses usually walked slowly and carefully. At this time of the spring the sun was usually quite warm, and so the gentle swaying of the horse, and the warm sun never failed to make the young driver start dozing. In this half asleep mood it was usually quite hard to keep your line straight. This brought about the fact that you either wandered over territory that was already covered, or also you left some uncovered spaces. What would happen was that when an elder came to check on the work, he would have a double job of getting the line straight and also having no spaces left uncovered. This slowed down the whole process of completing the harrowing of a given field that was already sowed.

In all our villages the land was divided into long narrow plots seeded on a three-year rotation basis. All the families usually worked their allotted plots at the same time. At times there were up to 50 families in the fields at the same time. When the elders would complete the sowing of a given field they would gather together in group discussions awaiting the completion of harrowing. When they felt that the young boys should by now have completed the harrowing, they would go out to the fields to check matters out. Quite often there would be poorly harrowed plots, and the elder who found such a state, would have to then take over the lead horse and correct the poor job. Sometimes, just about the whole field would have to be done over. Where the job had been ably looked after by the young driver – his elders would already start moving to another plot, and the one who had dozed on his horse and made a mess would then get serious lectures from his elders. Some very irresponsible youngsters were sometimes even punished. Thus it would happen, when horses are unhitched for noon feeding, those boys who had everything in order would be jolly and would get together and have fun amongst themselves. The unfortunate ones whose fields were poorly done would get lectures from their elders, and all of the other boys would be ribbing them about how sloppy their work turned out. Not only would the boys receive lectures from their immediate elders, other elders would also pipe in. This sometimes happened to me. Other elders would have their say – admonishing me: “How come Alyoshka, you worked so sloppily that your father had to spend so much time correcting all your errors? At this rate, if you keep up such irresponsibility – no one will ever want you for a husband, and you will never get married”

At our age this seemed to be such a dire prediction. To add to this, if one received the elders’ lectures several times throughout the spring season, you would never hear the end of this from all of your peers and friends for the whole summer. Of course the age we were, and the warm spring sun and the swaying horse were all part of the natural make-up of things. It was really not such a major sin to doze – but it was really hard to take all the consequences of this dozing. And so this simple responsibility of driving the lead horse in harrowing the fields proved to be its own kind of a painful chore.

Seeding operations are completed by about April 20th. Land is not worked again until June 10th. This gives the working animals a rest of about one month and twenty days. During this rest time I had to lead the horses out for grazing in the pasture. In the free pasture land, the horses had to be hobbled on their front feet. If a horse was exceedingly frisky he would have to be hobbled on a third back leg as well. When the horses would be all hobbled they would be allowed to graze on their own. This was the job that every boy of the village was occupied with. The pasture was common to all the villagers and so all of us boys would get together for games throughout the whole day – as the horses could not wander away too far while they were hobbled. Some of the boys who weren’t too enthusiastic to play –would catch up on their sleep that they lost in the spring. The games we played were simple. One was called “V Tsoorki” and another was called “V Doochki”. Rarely did we play ball, and sometimes the younger boys played riding horses near the river and then we would go swimming. Some of us would take this opportunity to catch fish. Pasturing horses during the rainy season was not as troublesome as with pasturing sheep. Horses did not really get upset with the rain. They either continued grazing – or would just stand quietly in one place. As for us children, we would also stay upright quietly or rest on some jutting stone outcrop, which were plentiful in our area. The only problem with horse pasturing during rainy weather was the form of hobble that was used. If the hobble was made of leather, the rain did not affect it, but if the hobble was made of rope – it would tighten when wet, and it was very difficult to get it undone when the horses would have to be herded home. Sometimes a boy would have to take his horses home all the long way from the pasture while they remained hobbled. This was a slow process and such a boy would come home a lot later.

Picture of Alexey as a young man with unidentified woman in exile in Siberia, c. 1903.

Some of the times the horses would not be herded home every night. At such times all of the horses would be brought together in a large herd where designated elders would watch over them all of the night. The elders of 15 to 30 men, who would divide into groups of four taking several shifts through each night. There were also times when the younger children would take designated horses to the village homes for work that was needed to be done in the gardens or other work within the village structure. When all of the village work would be finished, then all the horses would be divided into two or three large herds watched over by two men to each herd in the daytime and by one additional man coming in from the villages for night time watching. This general overall system continued up to June 10th.

At this time the horses would all be brought back to each individual household for preparing the land that was left as summer fallow land, that is, the land that is left for resting for one year. The plowing of these fields had its own particular routine. To each plow there were hitched from six to eight pairs of horses. The front pair had a boy rider in the ages of from ten to thirteen. Every other pair also had a rider. It was the work of these riders to guide his own pair of horses, and also see that the pair ahead of you was pulling its share. Each boy thus had to look after four horses. This meant that in the morning he would have to put on the harness onto the horses, bring them and hitch them into their proper places and then keep them moving in their proper direction following the furrow that was made. At the proper noontime, the horses would have to be unhitched, unharnessed and allowed to graze in a special field of grass left nearby. They would also have to be taken down to the river for their drink of water. All this would have to be repeated in the evening. The land that was being plowed had been already grazed and well trampled by the village cattle. The plots where the horses had to be allowed to graze were nearby. None of the stock were allowed to graze here since the year before and therefore the grass was lush and plentiful for the working teams of horses.

As I became a ten-year-old boy, it was my job to look after 4 horses. Keep them harnessed when needed, unharnessed and fed at given times, and led to water as designated. Getting the horses to water was a chore in itself, as the fields for plowing were sometimes two to three “Versti” from the river. This entire fallow plowing time proved to be exceedingly hard and trying for me as a ten year old. This was especially hard during the night routine. At 8 o’clock in the evening you had to bring the horses to the place where they were to graze, hobble them and then lie down to get some much-needed sleep. The total of your clothing for the night would be one additional light, longer length semi-raincoat. At 12 o’clock midnight you had to get up and unhobble the horses and take them for their drink at the river. You had to bring them back, hobble them again, and then again lie down to sleep. At 5o’clock in the morning you had to get up, bring in the horses, unhobble them and lead them to the workplace. During the times when it remained dry, this job, although quite hard, was still bearable. However, when the rain kept coming all night it became a real nightmare. At times you would wake up and find yourself lying in a puddle of water – as in the night it was not always easy to spot a higher piece of ground for taking your nap. This torturous spring responsibility continued each year for a period of from 28 to 34 days.

The length of time depended on whether there was more or less fallow land, and also on whether there was more or less of a rainy spell. In some years the weather was cool, and not too much rain. In other years you had spells of intense heat and also many days of wet weather. Of course when it became obvious that conditions were too extreme and hard for the young boys – there was always the fact that there was one elder, the plowman for every group of three or four boys. It was his responsibility to see that the boys were reasonably looked after. This elder was always free to catch up on his sleep during the noon break, which lasted for three hours. But during the nighttime he also took four horses and went with the young boys when they took the horses for their grazing period. He always had the boys sleeping near him and would wake them when they had to take the horses for their drink at the river, and also when they had to take them in the morning to the field which was being plowed. In the nighttime he would help the boys get on their horses to ride to the river, and on the way there would often holler to the boys by name – in case one or another of them would begin to doze while riding and perhaps allow the horse to veer away from the others and head for home instead of the river.

During the time of fallow plowing all the boys remained under the rule and instructions of the one elder designated for their group. He was the one that told them how to look after all the harness gear, how to handle the horses, when to take the breaks and so on. This elder was given the authority to discipline any boy in his group. If need be, he had the right to even use the same whip, that was used on the horses, for punishing a disobedient or irresponsible boy. There was one time that I, when I was 12 years old received a snap of the whip for being too lippy. Our elder was a distant relative by the name of Jacob Voykin. He gave me a sharp snap, that made my pants wet. The wet was not from blood! This Jacob Voykin was the elder in our group, which was made up from several families. Because you needed 12 to 16 horses for each plow, and some families did not have that many horses, it was the custom to get several families together who then shared one plow. The plows were of heavy wood construction. The only steel on the plow was the share and the cutting disc that went ahead of it. There was only one share to the plow and it threw a furrow of about 14 inches. The soil was quite heavy and it required from 12 to 16 horses to pull it fast enough to throw a proper furrow. It was with this one plow that all the land had to be tilled to supply several families with a living. Sometimes the total of these families would be twenty or more souls. All the sustenance of these 20 souls would have to be derived from the produce of their allotted plot of land. Where there were this many souls to their allotted plot, most of the time they barely had enough produce to keep themselves and their stock for the ensuing year. Others, whose families had not grown since the past allotment was made, but who had the horsepower, were fortunate enough to have some produce for sale. Some of these more fortunate families were able to rent land from the nearby peasant Tartars and always had some produce for sale. Renting land was very favorable here as after three years of giving shares to the owner – the lessee could claim ownership of the land.

I spent four years of my life doing the routines that I explained, from the age of 10 to 14 years of age, to help the family till the land for their sustenance. Despite the fact that these years remain in my memory as very trying and hard times during this growing period up of my life, I do not remember getting sick at any time in spite of the many times of being wet, cold and tired. My physical health remained at a good level and I have no bad memories of this particular period of my life.

Afterword

   Cover of Alexey Ivanovich Popov’s “Autobiography of a Siberian Exile”.

Alexey Ivanovich Popov lived with his parents in Spasovka, Kars until the age of 21, when he received his call-up for conscript service in the Russian army. He refused to perform military training, as the taking of human life ran contrary to his Doukhobor faith and beliefs. For this, in 1898, he, together with other young Doukhobor conscripts, was exiled to Yakutsk Siberia for a term of 18 years. In 1905 a Manifesto of Amnesty was issued by Russian Emperor Nikolai II, thus granting the Doukhobor exiles in Siberia their freedom. Soon thereafter, Alexey and his new bride Katerina immigrated to Canada to join their Doukhobor brethren who had arrived some six years earlier. Alexey lived for a time in the Doukhobor Community, but soon became an Independent Doukhobor, taking out a homestead at Blaine Lake, Saskatchewan, where he lived and farmed until his death on August 14, 1955.

To order copies of Alexey’s fascinating life story, “Autobiography of a Siberian Exile” along with various other informative Doukhobor publications written by his son, Eli A. Popoff, contact: The Birches Publishing, Box 730, Grand Forks, British Columbia, V0H 1H0, Tel: (250) 442-5397, email: birchespublishing@shaw.ca.

Refusal of Military Service

by Gregory F. Vanin

The following is a letter from Doukhobor Gregory F. Vanin to Russian ethnographer Vladimir D. Bonch-Breuvich outlining Vanin’s experience as a young military conscript during the “Burning of Arms” in Russia in 1895. Translated by George Stushnoff and reproduced from the pages of The Dove magazine, Volume 32 (Saskatoon: October 1996), this article is a dramatic and powerful account of the torture and incarceration of Doukhobor conscripts who refused military service as conscientious objectors.

Dear brother Vladimir Dmitrovich,

I will attempt to write about my denial of military service in Russia. I feel the younger generation needs to know that part of our history. This has been written about in the past, but not by me, and the writings were not complete historically and they were not factual. I have now become an old man 74 years of age and all this happened a long time ago – hard to remember it all, where and what happened to me. Nevertheless, I will try to write whatever I can recall, which may be brief but true.

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

I will begin when the Doukhobors burnt their weapons in 1895 when I participated in this bloody work at the age of 21. I was already married and it so happened that I also participated in the bloody execution by Cossack whips when Esaul (Cossack Commander) Praga gave his orders in the village of Bogdanovka, to the right and to the left, day and night, sparing no one.

Then they immediately deported us to the village of Goriski where I spent only one and a half months till three military men arrived taking me away without my relatives knowing whereto. They brought me to the Goriski military disciplinary battalion and at this time brought three of my friends here, Shcherbinin, Kinyakin, Makhortov; so we became four and we were told there that our lot was drawn by an elder at the Akhalkalak district and we were required to report for service and so we were to be examined and measured.

We asked them why measure us because we will not serve. Then they forcefully undressed us and did what they had to with us and told us that they will send us to the Ekaterinodarski Vanapski reserve battalion where we will be forced to serve.

They did not allow us to bid farewell to our families and sent us away by convoy. When they brought us there they immediately placed us in different companies. Kinyakin and I into the second company, Shcherbinin into the third company and Makhortov into the first company. For me and Kinyakin, the Sergeant Major at once ordered us to take off our clothes and put on soldiers uniforms. We reply that we would not wear uniforms, we would not even serve. Then they forcefully took off our clothes, put on the uniforms and cut our hair. It was already evening, at nine o’clock the Sergeant Major commanded a prayer service, we sang the Lord’s Prayer, then we were shown our beds where we must sleep. 

We slept the night and in the morning the whole company arose at the same time and went outside for their duties. The two of us remained seated on our beds on one lower bunk and since our own clothing was still with us we put it on and remained sitting. We noticed the Sergeant Major coming straight toward us and laughingly says to us: “What, are you boys ready to go home?” We remain quietly seated, he looks at us and goes away. Then returning abruptly he tells us boys to follow him, the company Commander wants us in his office. We came, he was sitting; we stopped and stood. The commander rose up, looked us over and tells the Sergeant to go and bring the uniforms. Immediately he brought them and laid them in front of us. Then the Commander orders: “Vanin, put on the uniform!” I replied I will not wear the uniform and I will not serve. He started scolding me with bad words and cries at me with all his might, “I will knock your head off” while he pulls a knife out of its sheath and for a long time he shouted at me, stamping his feet on the floor while I stood motionless. Then he turns to Kinyakin and orders him: “Kinyakin, put on the uniform.” He also replied that he will not wear and will not serve. Then he got even angrier and scolded us for a long time but did not hit us, and we didn’t put on the uniforms. Eventually he asked us why we didn’t want to serve our Sovereign. We answered because he teaches people to kill but Christ forbid the killing of people. We believe in Christ and the Sixth Commandment says not to kill.

Saying nothing to us he sat at the table, wrote something and ordered the Sergeant Major to take us away and lock us up in a dark cell and no food but bread and water. He led us away and locked us up. Then after three days they brought Shcherbinin and Makhortov and locked them up. Shcherbinin sat in a row with me and we were able to converse quietly. The prison had a small opening and I heard him groaning, and then he began to explain how they tortured him, forcing him to do gymnastics and to run but he didn’t want to do these and would fall to the ground. They would trample him with their feet, kick him, pressed their knees into him and dropped him over a wooden bar. The uncommissioned officers were horribly nasty to him and from that time he became sick, something inside was injured. But Makhortov was not beaten and we sat in the jail cells for almost a month when they brought here another ten of our young friends from the Kars and Elizavetpol region in 1896 and they were no longer allocated to companies but put us all together in a military jail and through a military court ordered us to proceed under a convoy to a disciplinary battalion.

When they brought us there they locked us up in a stronghold that was guarded both inside and outside both day and night. Sometime before us, Lebedev’s party which had been serving but then refused, were already here in jail and each had already received by 30 lashes with thorny rods, and were forced to learn the ways of war.

They then allocated our group into companies and I, once again, remained here with another friend Chevildeev in the third company. Here, they handled us quite differently, forcefully dressing us in torn and all patched uniforms, took away our own clothing and showed us where we will be sleeping. In the morning two companies woke up and went outside to perform their duties and we two also dressed up and stood in the cell. Shortly an elderly company Commander came straight towards us; with a wide and long beard, appearing very scary, he was called Akinchits. Approaching us, without saying anything, instantly he cried out: “Chevildeev, stand straight, raise your nose”. Poking me with his boot, he yells: “Vanin, hold your head higher, raise your shoulders” while hitting me on the chin. Then he questions us, if we will serve our Sovereign. We replied no, we will not, so he didn’t ask us anything else but turned to the Sergeant Major and directed him to bring the executioners here, while telling us to come into the corridor. 

We went and stood there, noticing two executioners carrying several bunches of thorny branches, bound together in bundles of five – which always are soaked in barrels of water so that they would not break up. Also four soldiers were coming who were going to hold us and two soldiers with guns. The executioners took their coats off, rolled up their sleeves, took into their hands by a bundle of branches – awaiting the command. Then the Commander ordered the soldiers: “first lay down Chevildeev” but to me he said: “but Vanin, you must stand here and watch”. Then the soldiers took Chevildeev and laid him down on the cement floor face down, his hands tied behind his back. Pulled his pants down, revealed his buttocks, sat down on him, two on his head and two on his legs. One soldier with a gun stood at the head and the other at the feet, holding their guns in readiness. The executioners stood one on each side. The Commander then told the Sergeant Major: ” count the lashes, there must be 30 lashes”. He, himself turned away, and walked off a distance, not being able to look upon such a bloody scene. The Sergeant Major in command cried out to begin. And the branches began to whistle in the air. The first one swung to the left, then to the right, then with all his might he struck at the naked flesh, then the other, from the other side, in similar manner with all his might, beating rather occasionally. Blood squirted in all directions, the back, turning blue, began to swell. After that they locked him up in a cold prison cell, this happened in wintertime.

Russian Prison Warden and Guard, c. 1890. Photo by John Foster Fraser.

I stood motionless, paralyzed with fear and looked upon this bloody pitiful scene, while my heart was dying from the horror. Then the Commander approached saying: “Well Vanin, you got scared. You will now serve”. I replied with a trembling voice, “No I will not”. Then he ordered: “Lay this one down too”. I stood motionless, paralyzed with fear and looked upon this bloody pitiful scene, while my heart was dying from the horror. Then the Commander approached saying: “Well Vanin, you got scared. You will now serve”. I replied with a trembling voice, “No I will not”. Then he ordered: “Lay this one down too”. They lay me down the same way and gave me also thirty lashes, hot as fire. Then they lifted me up and started putting my pants on, they would not come on, barely came on, sticking to my bloody flesh. And in the same way they locked me also in the cold prison.

It was like that for all of us that were in that battalion, practically all of us were beaten with the thorny branches in the same way. Except that some got more, some less. And in that battalion there was a church and the priest also fulfilled his disciplinary role by inducing us forcefully so that we would attend their church to pray to God, that our ancestors had already rejected several hundred years ago.

Twice a day, morning and evening, all imprisoned soldiers had to attend church. There were four companies and each company had by 10 Doukhobor boys in it. The commanders marched the soldiers to church, all the soldiers went but we stood still. The priest explained to us that if we called ourselves Christians then we must attend his church. Then the secondary officers and the soldiers would grab us and drag us, while we would cling unto trees that grew there and they couldn’t tear us away, so they would beat our hands with belts, sabers, knives. And so goes the struggle throughout the whole battalion, until they drag us into church, then we stand there doing nothing while they all got down on their knees we just stood. Then the priest would walk through putting the incense under our noses, but we would wave the smoke away with our caps, while he would stare at us in anger.

My God, if you had only seen, dear brother Vladimir Dmitrovich, what they did to us there, even forced us to mix clay (manure). Crawled up to our bellies, made bricks and different other kinds of jobs. We were vegetarians, did not eat meat, but they would not allow such food that we could use. Told us to devour from the same pot that the soldiers eat. So we would come for dinner or supper, sit at the table, put a piece of wormy rye bread into our pockets, go back to the prison and eat it with water, and that’s how we survived. We were so worn out and sick with chicken blindness from a lack of food, barely staying alive. When the first Lebedov party of Doukhobors arrived at the disciplinary battalion, General Maslov didn’t want to have them tortured with thorns but wanted to exile them at once to Siberia. However the local administration – Sub-General Morgunov, Doctor Preobrazhenski and priest Stepanovski and others did not want to exile immediately to Siberia, kept us all in jail and tortured us for a year and a half. They wanted us to give into everything and force us to serve and so we were left barely alive but refused to give in. One of our friends, Mikhail Shcherbinin died there in the disciplinary battalion from the beatings. They allowed us to bury him, so we buried him in Doukhobor tradition. Then they exiled us to (Yakutsk) Siberia for 18 years.

Now the continuation of our history and our experiences in Siberia will be written by others. I am now concluding the writing of my version. Our remaining friends, who struggled for the truth in the disciplinary battalion, are very few, almost all of them have departed into life everlasting.

Your brother,

Gregory F. Vanin
Veregin, Saskatchewan, Canada
April 15, 1947

My Beautiful Sons – Why Did You Have to Die?

My Beautiful Sons – Why Did You Have to Die?

by Akim A. Fominov

In the 1890’s, hundreds of young Doukhobor men endured persecution and suffering as a result of their refusal to perform military service. The following is a true, first person account of Doukhobor Akimushka A. Fominov’s visits to where his two sons were exiled for denouncing military service and surrendering their army tickets. Reproduced by permission from the pages of ISKRA Nos. 1915-1916 (Grand Forks: U.S.C.C., 2001) it features the struggles and tragedies that occurred during that time. Recorded by William A. Faminow. Translated by Vera Kanigan

I

After surrendering their army tickets and denouncing military service because of their newly declared pacifist beliefs, Vanya (Ivan) Fominov and Grisha (Grigory) Gorkov were first arrested and then placed in prison in the Kars Region. Soon thereafter, they were led on foot to Tiflis where they were exiled to the Tartar villages close to a place called Agdash.

On the way to Agdash, the military horsemen herded them 40 kilometers on foot, attempting to cover this distance in one day. The young men were humble and obedient, walking diligently. It was very hot, and they got extremely sunburned and thirsty. Coming upon a creek by the road, they drank with great zeal – they were unaware that the water was not suitable for drinking. When they had arrived at the designated place of the wealthy Becka (officer who looked after exiled people) it would not have been too bad, as he gave them adequate quarters; however, shortly after, they both turned very ill. They wrote to the Fominov family and explained their situation. I, Akimushka Fominov (Ivan’s father), decided to secretly go to visit them.

When I arrived, I tried to make them as comfortable as possible and looked after their needs before returning home. After some time, they wrote once again, telling me that their illnesses had continued, and indeed, gotten worse. This time I invited my daughter-in-law Masha (Ivan’s wife) to accompany me.

When we got off at the last train station, we were supposed to walk another 40 verst (kilometers) on foot. Here I asked my daughter-in-law to dress in a man’s attire, as the road was very remote, frightening and open to all kinds of occurrences. This precaution of ours was very wise as two Tartars happened to catch up to us on horseback, and with suspicion, asked us many questions.

By the time we arrived at the young men’s living quarters, the sun had already set. Grisha Gorkov sat beside the house leaning against the wall, apparently feeling very sick and not even noticing us until we came up very close. As we walked closer, the thought went through our heads, “God, why are you young people suffering here, as you have not done any evil to anyone in the world?”

My son Vanya was in the house and he looked a bit more cheerful. We did not waste much time in pleasantries but immediately tended to the tasks at hand. I went to see the Becka and took from him a kettle and started to heat water for a bath as they had been eaten up by lice. First of all we bathed Grisha and then Vanya and then we boiled their clothes to get rid of the lice.

In the morning Grisha looked more cheerful and asked me if I could arrange to move him to another village – Kietkeshen. This village was eight or nine kilometers from Agdash and they had good water and a more tolerable climate. In that village were two more exiled young Doukhobors – Feodor Ivanovich and Nikolai Vasilievich Tikhonov. I went to address this request to the Becka. He agreed and sent a Tartar on a bullock-cart to transfer Grisha and his belongings. I went with Grisha and helped him settle in with the Tikhonovs and then returned to my son and daughter-in-law. We discussed with my son that we needed to return home, so we proceeded to arrange our return trip. But Vanya’s health had not improved, and he asked us not to leave him alone. His wife, Masha, decided to stay with him for the winter while I returned home. I agreed to come for her in the early spring. 

Burning of Arms, June 29, 1895. Painting by Terry McLean.

When I came back to the village on February 25th, I spent some time with Vanya and Masha and then walked to visit Grisha Gorkov. Grisha appeared a bit more cheerful this time, but both Grisha and our son Vanya’s health was not very encouraging. When March came, we decided to travel home to the Kars Region. Vanya became very despondent but said: “Once you have decided, do not delay your plans: I will accompany you to Agdash.”

I then went and asked the Becka if he would allow for such a plan. The Becka agreed and even gave us a horse for Vanya to ride on. When we woke up in the morning, preparing for our return trip, Vanya appeared very ill. He hardly ate anything for breakfast, drinking only half a cup of tea. We started to talk about postponing our trip, but Vanya would not agree to this, and we proceeded on our journey.

Vanya rode horseback, and we walked on foot. By the time we arrived at Agdash, our young man turned worse, swaying on the horse, and when we helped him off the horse, he lay down and was unable to walk on his own. We were unable to leave him alone, so I decided to find temporary living quarters. I was unable to find anything. The only place where there was vacancy was in a small hut where a single woman, a Kazonian Tartar, resided. She agreed to allow us to lay Vanya on her porch providing that Vanya’s wife would look after him, as to leave a single man with her would be viewed questionably by the surrounding residents. She made a living by doing laundry in the region, and if people would hold her in suspicion, her source of income could cease. 

We were glad even with this porch, laid Vanya there, and then I proceeded to find the village doctors. They prescribed medicine that did not help at all, so we decided to transport Vanya back to the Tartar village of Agdash. To our good fortune at this time, a Tartar from his village was here on a bullock cart. For three rubles, he agreed to take Vanya, cautioning us that he would travel very slowly, as that is how his buffalo are accustomed, and he did not want to ruin them. 

After travelling all night, we arrived in the morning. My ill son had turned worse and passed away on the second evening. I went to tell the Becka about what had happened. He sympathized and asked, “What are your plans now?” I replied that we want to bury him according to our own tradition, and therefore, needed to make a coffin.  He gave us some boards and sent a Tartar somewhere for the tools. He also sent another rider to Kietkeshen to get the Tikhonov cousins to come and help with the burial.  The rider returned quickly and said that half way to the village he met up with a messenger from Kietkeshen, sent to inform us that Grisha Gorkov had died as well – he was on his way to tell us that we should go there to help with that burial! 

We buried my son on our own. Even though the tools were not adequate, somehow we were able to cut the boards and nail the coffin together. The Tartars dug out a grave at the place where we requested. The police officer came, offered his sympathy, wished him to enter God’s Heavenly Kingdom, and left. With the help of the Tartars, we lowered the coffin into the grave and covered the body with dirt, while I said a prayer for my dear son: “Please accept his innocent soul into Your Everlasting Abode, as this sacrifice was offered for the adherence to the great commandment, “Thou Shalt Not Kill…” 

Upon returning to our quarters, I asked my daughter-in-law to assemble the clothes and belongings in order so that I could go to Kietkeshen to see if they buried Grisha Gorkov. When I had arrived and asked the Tikhonovs about Grisha, I was told that Grisha had died the same morning; and unbeknownst to me at the time, at the same hour and at the same minute as our son Vanya. I stayed a while at the Tikhonovs, then gathered Grisha’s belongings and returned to my flat.

When we got ready for our return trip home, we realized that we had too many items for us to carry and went to the district police officer to request permission to give us a ride. He did not allow us to take Grisha’s clothes, as according to the law, they were required to be returned by mail. When I objected, he said: “Aren’t you satisfied with all that I have allowed already?” My orders from my superiors were not to permit you to even make contact, but you were here and even lived here. If the authorities learn this, I will be fired from my position! I need to feed myself!”

I did not pursue my request any further, but thanked him for all of his concessions and left. Without Grisha’s belongings, we were able to proceed on foot. On the way, we stopped at the Becka’s quarters. His Matushka almost cried at Masha’s leaving because she had been a big help to her while looking after her husband Ivan.

When we arrived at Agdash, we realized that we didn’t have enough money to go by train. To our good fortune, however, Molokan carriers were travelling to Alexandropol and they agreed to take us along. On the way, they stopped in their village, Voskresenovka right on Sunday. We all attended moleniye (prayer service) together. These were the steadfast Molokans. They were not jumpers. Their Father Superior read the psalm: “Listen, King of Everlasting Glory.”

When we arrived with the Molokan at the town where we were supposed to get off, and we started to give them the promised 1 1/2 rubles, he took into consideration our hardship and did not accept any payment. We thanked him sincerely from the bottom of our hearts and bade him farewell.

From the town we traveled home with our neighbour. Our relatives gathered to meet us but all we brought with us was unbearable pain. Everyone who came cried and expressed their sorrow for Vanya. Only his very own mother, and my wife, did not shed a single tear, but paced around the house, whispering and praying to God…

II

My son, Fedya, for refusal to serve in the army along with others, was sent to the disciplinary battalion at the Ekaterinogradskiy prison. We received a letter from him that they were badly beaten for the second time; that is, they were whipped with birch rods. Military officers were trying to change their minds about serving in the army, and we heard that they decided to obey by using some of the firearms.

For that reason, I decided to travel and find out for myself how they were and what was being done to them, as many elders, both men and women, begged me to go there as soon as possible. They said that I had a son there and I would be allowed to speak to him. I decided not to put this off, gathered my belongings, bade farewell to my family and went on my journey. I travelled with my neighbour as far as the town of Aleksandropol and immediately came to the post office and asked the postmaster when the mail would be leaving. He told me that in a 1/2 hour it will leave to Delezan and that I can go with the driver in the wagon. I was happy with this arrangement.

I sat down and we left on our way. When we arrived at the train station, I got on board and traveled to the city of Tiflis. There, I had a chance to see many brethren (Kholodenskiye). They were dispersed among the Georgian villages. I had an opportunity to speak to several of them, and I learned that with the majority of them, their situation was very dismal.

I continued my trek further, from here to Dushet, travelling by train. From Dushet I traveled on the letter-carrying horses, over the Kazbetskiye mountains to Vladikavkaz, then by train to Prakhladnoe. From there, I went by horseback to Ekateringradskoye station, where the prison was located and where my son Fedya was being held in the disciplinary battalion. In the station there lived mainly Leninskiye Cossacks. I entered my former quarters where I had once previously stayed.

Group of Russian Prisoners with Heads Half-Shaven, circa 1890’s Photo by John Foster Fraser.

The proprietors welcomed me pleasantly and said: ” So, Starichok (“Elder”), have you come to visit your lads?” I replied that, yes, I want to see them. They said: “This is the situation, old man, that we need to tell you. Please do something about your lads. Ask them to serve in the army like everyone else, or ask the authorities not to punish them so harshly, or approach the Tsar himself so that he could arrange some sort of lenience or pardon. Just a short while ago they were so harshly beaten and tortured that they screamed and cried with inhumane sounds. It is getting to the point where it is impossible for us to stay here, as their cries break our hearts. At this station reside five hundred families, and the last time nearly all of us moved three kilometers away just so that we couldn’t hear their heartbreaking screams…” I replied that I’ve come here for that very reason, to speak to the lads and the authorities. At this time I went to the fortress.

From a distance, I noticed that six people sat on the roof of a new building, which was part of the prison stronghold. They were covering the roof. I walked up closer to the gate of the fortress and saw a soldier walking away, carrying a garbage pail. Behind him was a corporal. I walked up closer and started to greet them loudly. “Good day, countryman! Are any of our Doukhobors here?” The sentry man answered: “Certainly not!”

Apparently, those who were on the roof heard me and when I looked up, I noticed that there were only five of them, as one of them had already left. He ran and climbed along the wall of the fortress and started to greet me. It was Lukyan Fedorovich Novokshonov. He immediately started to say: “Akimushka, I beg you, please leave from here immediately. Do not even show yourself to the officials. They are extremely angry right now. The other day they tortured us almost to the point of death. We barely survived. They told us that if any of your hometown people come here for a visit, we will also rip a strip out of them and will deport them home like convicts. ” I gave him some money and said that it is to share with those in need. He jumped off the wall and ran away from me. I looked up and there he was, once again, sitting on the roof in his own place. Obviously, he was afraid of being noticed.

He frightened me so much that I stood still for a long time, contemplating my next step. What should I do now? Should I listen to Lukyan and return home? But everyone would gather and ask me: “How are the lads, what is with them?” I would have to tell them that someone warned me not to show myself to the officials for they would tear me apart, and therefore, I was too afraid to stay. What will my people say then? The lads are so young and are enduring such extreme torture -“for whom and for what? For our common cause, and you, old man, are running away?” I thought to myself, “let them flog and cut me up in small pieces, but I must speak with them in person.”

It was Friday evening. I went back to my quarters and almost all night thought about my situation. How could I arrange it so that the officials would not suspect me and catch me?

On Saturday morning I woke up, washed myself, prayed to God and then went to the fortress, thinking that I may see one of the lads. I stayed quite a while, not too far from the gate of the fortress and not seeing anyone walk out. I checked around from another wall, thinking that someone may be there. In one place were a group of soldiers. I walked closer to them and noticed that they were digging dirt. I didn’t know for what purpose. Two officials walked up to me, very quickly, and immediately started to say: “Did you know Mikhail Shcherbinin?” I answered that although I did not know him personally, my son had written me about him, stating that he was ill. They replied, pointing: “Do you see those black gates, that is a cemetery. Remember, he will be there soon! Do you know Fominov and Malakhov? We will build them coffins as well for they are very stubborn. But in this group, (pointing to someone), one of your Doukhobors, since he came to this battalion, has not received even one whipping.”

He stood there smiling and I thought to myself, “Fominov is my own son, and you are such hypocrites, you want to take one to the cemetery, and for the others, you wish to build coffins, and the other one is laughing.” Then I spoke up: “Aren’t you afraid to punish innocent people? You should fear God,” They replied: “Here no one speaks of God, they only say hit and whip… We simply obey our commands.”

I did not continue this conversation and went back to my place. As I was walking, I thought to myself -”as if no one speaks about God?” Here, in this fortress, stands a church, one that is called “Orthodox”. Our lads were forcefully driven there, that is, as if they had strayed from God’s path. Where should there be more conversations about God than in this church? At that point, a thought came to me to enter this church and there, hopefully, see my lads, but I couldn’t figure out the way to get inside.

I approached the store to buy some bread. It was possible to buy some good bread there, as well as watermelons. Several area villagers were also in the store. I started to ask them whether they attend the prison church. They answered yes, some of them do attend. I said that I wanted to attend the church but had no idea as to the procedure. They suggested that tomorrow was Sunday and when others start to assemble, that I could join them and walk inside. I went back to my room and didn’t go anywhere else. I lay down to sleep early, but couldn’t sleep as I kept thinking about how to attend the church and how I could see my son. I woke up way before dawn, washed up and went to the fortress. There I stopped and stood and waited for the people to arrive.

It seemed to me that I stood and waited there the whole night. Finally, the church bell tolled and I thought that now people would assemble. I waited and waited but no one came…

Then the bell tolled a second time and still no one came. When daylight arrived, the third bell tolled and I saw one family corning. I walked up to them, thinking that I could walk in with them, but when we walked to the gate, there stood the sentry soldier. He opened the gate, let them in and yelled at me: “You! Stand there! Where are you going?” I answered that I wanted to attend the church service. He said that he could not let me through until he consults the sergeant major. He went to confer with the sergeant as I stood thinking: here I wanted to walk through so that I wouldn’t be noticed, but the sentry went straight to the major, who would order the soldiers to put me in jail. But, so be it, if it is God’s will. I will not run away!

During the time I was waiting, more people assembled. At last the sentry came, opened the door, allowed others through and also told me to enter. I walked with the other residents, thinking, wherever they stand in church, I will stand with them. We entered. The plain folk stood on the left and the soldiers stood on the right. Everyone looked at the priest who waved the censer and read something. When he would say “Amen”, the soldiers knelt on their knees and our boys remained standing. Doing so, I was able to see the boys, and my son Fedya, but they kept looking straight ahead, not even glancing to the side. I thought to myself, you poor soldiers, you are under strict discipline, even in church. I started to think of a way to move closer to the front, so that the lads could notice me for the moleniye would end soon. They would be taken to the back and they wouldn’t even know that I was here. I started to slowly and inconspicuously move forward.

I hardly moved a half-meter when an officer on duty called out from the back: “Leave the church at once! You came here not to view the church, but to see your lads.” I begged his forgiveness and said that I simply was not aware of their procedures, that when we have visitors at our moleniye, we do not restrict their movement, nor do we tell people where to look or not to look. He once again sternly warned me that in their church, they have their own rules and that I should follow their procedures. I promised to do so, and he left me alone. As a result of this argument, our lads clearly recognized me, and when the church service concluded, and the soldiers left, our boys came over to me, walked by, greeted me, and said, “Thank God, we are still alive!” My son rushed up to me, said that he was okay, and continued walking after the others, not stopping for a moment. I went outside and looked sadly upon them and thought – “I sure have heard lots about God, and was almost beaten on the neck! I didn’t even have a chance to get a good look at my son because they were driven away. What sort of a place is this Russian Orthodox Church?”

I stood and glanced around. I noticed that I was not too far away from a large house where a man in an overcoat was pacing on the balcony. At that moment the sergeant major came up to me, and simultaneously, I heard a loud voice blare out from somewhere near the balcony: “Well, old man, do you want to see your son now or after dinner?” I realized then that I had not remained unnoticed. I thought to myself, “Let whatever happens, happen. I am already in their hands!” and replied, “If possible, right now.” The sergeant major said: “Okay, I will relay this to the colonel.” 

The colonel turned out to be the fellow pacing on the balcony, and I overheard him say that a Doukhobor from the Kars region had come and wanted to meet with his son Fedya Fominov. I noticed the colonel waving to me to join him. I came forward, removed my hat, bowed, and said, “The best of health, Gospodin Colonel,” and then placed my hat back on and stood still. At first, he harshly reproached me: “You come here for a visit and then simply confuse your children! Not too long ago an old grey-haired elder like you came from the Kazbetski mountains and do you know what happened? The boys had just started to settle down here and had begun to finally serve, but the old man knocked them off the path of reason, confused them, and they, once again, refused to take up arms! We whipped and ripped strips out of them that they will never forget! Do you know that this is a correctional prison, that not only your lads, but if an angel from heaven were here we would have to make him serve. And you, old man, refuse to submit to authority and the Tsar. You and all your people have been dispersed over all of the Kazbetski Mountains!” 

Russian Prison Warden and Guard, c. 1890. >Photo by John Foster Fraser.

I turned to him and said “Gospodin Colonel, we are not against obeying the will of God, but we are against that which contradicts His will.” Here the colonel started pacing even faster on the balcony, almost running. He walked over to me and hollered: “Tell me, what here is against the will of God?” I noticed that he was very angry, so I decided not to answer, thinking that in this case, silence was the best answer. For quite a while he continued to pace the balcony, cursing and calling me all kinds of names, then he ceased and became calmer. He stopped pacing, turned towards us and addressed the sergeant major: “Go with him and let him meet his son for one hour.” We hadn’t walked more than five steps when he yelled for us to come back. I felt shivers down my spine, thinking that he had changed his mind and would now put me in jail. As we got closer to him he turned to the sergeant major and said: “Let him visit for two hours, one hour is too little. After all, the old man traveled a long distance and the trip cost him money.”

We went to the area where visitors were allowed. The sergeant major told me to wait there while he went to bring my son. Soon after, my son arrived, accompanied by three soldiers. They took us to another room and set us side by side on a bench. One soldier sat beside me and the other sat beside Fedya. The third soldier stood across from us, glancing quite often at his clock. They were instructed to listen to our conversation. In fact, we couldn’t talk about anything confidential. My son simply asked a few questions about news from home and I answered. As soon as the two hours were up, the soldiers got up and led my son away, and I stood for a long time with tears in my eyes, watching as they left. I felt so sorry for the poor lad. All of our boys looked very beaten, and with inadequate nutrition, they had become mere shadows of men.

The thought occurred to me to go to the colonel and ask him where I could purchase a few things to treat our lads. I walked up to his home. The sentry informed him of my coming and he walked outside. I thanked him for allowing me a visit with my son, and then I asked him: “Gospodin Colonel, allow me please to buy some bread and watermelon to treat all of the lads.”

“Absolutely not. I have everything here – bread, borshch, meat, and kasha, and if your lads do not wish to eat these things, that is not my business,” he replied. With this, he concluded his conversation with me, and I walked away from the jail with great sorrow and grief. I thought – “What authorities, they are whipping and beating our sons and won’t even allow us to treat them with bread!”

I went to my quarters, had breakfast and lunch at the same time and then sat down, thinking about what I should do next. Since it was impossible during my visit to discuss the most important issue, I decided to try get a secret meeting with my son. During the last two times I had been within the prison, I noticed that one sergeant major by the name of Zaitsev often left the jail for one reason or another. I decided to go, watch him more closely, and hopefully, talk to him. I walked up to the prison wall, and to my good fortune, he soon came out. Immediately, I went and started to speak to him directly. “Gospodin Zaitsev, could you please arrange a secret meeting for me with my son Fedya A. Fominov?” “If you will give me a ruble, then I will,” he answered. I agreed and we arranged to meet in a large new building in the early morning.

That night I hardly slept, praying that our meeting would pass safely. When I arrived that morning, the non-commissioned officer was already waiting for me with new plans, for the colonel had ordered the new building to be plastered, and therefore, it would not be possible to have the meeting there. He took me to a far corner of the prison grounds where tall weeds grew. He told me to pick some and make a wall so that I would not be seen and then went to go get my son. I made the wall and sat down waiting. Some cattle were grazing nearby and some of the cows came up towards me. At this point I started to worry, thinking that the soldiers would come for the cattle and see me. Here, I would get caught! They would whip and exile me. And that was almost exactly what happened…

A soldier came for the cattle, but because he was deep in thought, he did not pay any attention to me, took the cattle and chased them away, shouting at them to leave. Soon, the non-commissioned officer came, bringing Fedya and Kuzma Pugachev. We exchanged greetings as necessary and then I started to talk. “Before I left home. I met with Vasya Obetkov and he said that if I had a chance to meet with you, that I should advise you if I can. Since it is very difficult to bear the torture of this disciplinary battalion. You lads should concede. When everyone is returned to their own regions, then again they could refuse military service. There in their own regions they will not be subjected to such torture.” 

The lads answered that this plan would not work, as no one is released until they have served their entire sentence in the disciplinary battalion. Then I answered them: “If so, then stick to your convictions, as you are the first detachment (the vanguard) of our people. If you change your direction, the rest of us will surely be shipped through this battalion.” They answered that in spite of the hardships, they would endure suffering as long as they would have the strength.

I further started to tell the lads that when I was getting ready to come here many of the elders wanted details as to the reason why many of our young men were backing down and serving. Somewhere they had heard that one Russian man had been flogged to death, but that he never conceded to them; but none of our lads had, as of yet, died from the flogging. 

When I told our boys about this, both in unison started crying like small children. “We could endure almost everything from the flogging. The pain is unbearable at first, but afterwards, the body becomes wooden and a person loses all feeling. At this point the doctors’ assistants pay closer attention as to how much you can endure. When they see that a person is close to death, they cease the flogging. They rip the meat off your back, then put your clothes back on. They drag you to the punishment cell, pushing you there like an unfortunate animal. In this cell there is no bed and no bench. The floor is cold cement, and one can only lie on the stomach. The clothing freezes, turning to wood. For food, they bring a piece of bread and water. When the wounds heal a bit, the commanders come and tell you to now accept military service, and if you don’t, tomorrow you will be flogged twice as hard. At this point, one, not having any more strength, agrees, telling them, I will pick up a rifle, but we pretend it is just a stick when we agree to serve, and under no circumstances will we kill anything or anyone.

They continued, stating that even if angels from heaven were to come here, they would not be able to endure the punishment and would submit to military service. They told me that if I were to arrive home safely, I should ask the elders to take the brushwood which they use to light a fire and imagine themselves being whipped, as the lads are here. I asked them about those who had totally agreed to serve in the same way as the soldiers. They answered that even though their situation was already unbearable, that this has made it even more difficult. At this point the non-commissioned officer rushed in and told the lads to hurry, it was necessary to go to the colonel. They left with him, and I left the fortress. When I came to my living quarters, I had breakfast, packed my belongings, bade farewell to the proprietors and left on my return home.

I arrived home safely, passed on regards to my family and shared all about my visit in detail. When all the rest of our people assembled, I explained what the lads had told me and passed on regards to their families. Soon after my trip, Nikola Chevildeev went to the disciplinary battalion as well. His son Kiryusha was there. During his time there, a new agreement was made in regards to the imprisoned Doukhobors. A decision was reached that would have all the Doukhobors who were refusing to serve in the military, sent to the Yakutsk Oblast for eighteen years. Therefore, Nikolasha Chevildeev accompanied the lads to Vladikavkaz. The boys were driven further, but Nikolasha returned home.

On the trip to Siberia, our son Fedya had mailed a very sad letter home. “My dear parents, father Akimushka and mother Polyusha, sister-in-law Masha and your son Petya, my dear wife, Anyuta, as well as my children Mavrunya and Malasha, brother Vasya and your wife Tanya, and also my sisters, Hanya and Marfunya, all of our dear Fominov family combined.” 

Siberian Prisoners Starting Up-Country, circa 1890’s. Photo by John Foster Fraser.

“At this time I wish to tell you about myself and about our present life here. My health is very poor. From day to day I feel as if I am drying up like the cut grass in a meadow.”

“What stands before us is a very long walk. Some people say it is more than a thousand verst. We must walk 35-40 verst a day, and when we arrive at the station, they send us to a convicts’ building which is infested by many different insects, especially bed bugs. We must sleep right on the floor, but the bed bugs eat at us all night, not giving us any peace. We have to get up early in the morning and proceed on the trip once again. When I get up and start to dress, my feet are so swollen that I am barely able to pull on my boots, but we must walk another 40 verst.”

“When I lag behind the group the soldiers walk up to me and start to nudge me with the nose of their rifles. They aren’t the ones to blame though. Those to blame are the higher authorities that do not give us more transport carts. The carts are only given to the convicts who are shackled. But even amongst the shackled convicts, there are kind people. When I start to get weak, almost falling down on the road, someone from the group of prisoners gets down off the cart, walks up to me and says, “well brother, I see that you are exhausted. Go to the cart and sit in my place, rest, and I will walk in your place.” Such people support me, and if it weren’t for them, I would long ago have been left alone on the road.”

“My dear family, I beg you, don’t worry about me and don’t feel sorry for me. Even though this trip is extremely difficult, I do not complain, nor am I sorry. Yes, I cannot com plain, for I chose this path myself. After all, our Lord Jesus Christ took the cross and carried it on His back to Golgotha: “He who wants to follow Me, take My cross and follow Me.” On this cross He was crucified. We must also continue without complaining, and with God’s help, we will reach our destination. If something should happen to me on this trip, then this will be the will of our Lord in Heaven. With this I will end my letter. I send you all my love, warm kisses and hugs. Your son, husband, father and brother. Feodor A. Fominov.

III

Following after Fedya’s letter were several other accounts about our ill son and his friend.

Misha V. Arishchenkov’s Account

“When we were brought to the town of Yakutsk we bought ourselves some warm clothes, especially good, warm valenki (boots made out of felt). From Yakutsk we had to go further north to the place where we were to serve our 18 year sentence. We arrived at our destination and occupied an abandoned yurta (nomad’s hut). It was very cold, and the windows were all iced up. There were approximately thirty of us. We installed some glass windows, and with difficulty, built a Russian kiln for baking bread in the middle of the hut. Beside the kiln, we set up a bed for our sick friend, Fedya Fominov, and for the rest of us we set up nari (plank beds). In order to sleep, we would lay down with our heads towards the center of the hut and our feet towards the wall. We always slept in our valenki. The weather was fiercely cold and the nomad’s hut was so poor, that by morning, our valenki were frozen to the wall…”

Grisha Sukharev’s Account

“My responsibility was to look after our ill friend. Near him, I tied a belt to the crossbar of the hut. This was done so that when I went elsewhere, and Feodor needed to sit up or turn on his other side, he took hold of the belt, and although with great difficulty, he slowly turned himself over. After the winter was over, Fedya spoke gravely to us: “Brothers, tovarishchi (comrades) I want to ask you to please take me back to the town of Yakutsk, to the hospital. Even though I feel that I will not survive, I wish to at least free your hands as there is enough for you to take care of in order to survive. You must go and earn your daily bread without having to also care for me. There, in the hospital, it may be easier for me…”

Narrative of Seoma S. Usachev

“I chose to go with our sick tovarishch to Yakutsk and take him to the hospital. With difficulty we brought Fedya to the river and set up a tent. I stayed to look after him: We waited for the ship to arrive. On this particular river, the steamboat comes only once throughout the whole summer. Apparently, the boat was in Nelkan picking up winter tea brought from China on the backs of deer. We had to wait a long time. At one point Fedya said: “Seoma, tovarishch, are you here?” I replied that I was. He called me forward and said: “Please look at my side, there is something soft. ” I opened his shirt and saw a lump as huge as my fist. I got scared and explained that the situation was not very good. He turned and said: “if you have a knife, try and cut it off.” I started to carefully cut it off, ask- ing him if ithurt. He said that he didn’t feel any pain. When I finished I carefully cleaned the area and bandaged it up. It was a chunk of old, black blood. Fedya had been unmercifully beaten in the disciplinary battalion. His sergeant-major was strong, almost the same size as Fedya, and was an extremely angry man. He would often beat Fedya with his fists, on his cheeks, on his head, on his side. He also beat him with a stump of wood or with the butt of his rifle. His last beating was the most injurious, when he was beaten with an ammunition belt filled with shells on the back of his head, and both of his ears were severely scarred. They were always pussing. Almost all of his skin hung from his bones.”

Group of Doukhobor Exiles in Yakutsk, Siberia, circa 1904

“I wanted to look after Fedya until his bodily existence came to an end. However, to my regret, before the arrival of our ship, a man from our work party walked up to us and told us that he was also ill, and was going to Yakutsk and could take Fedya with him. I did not argue with him.”

“When they arrived in Yakutsk, he placed Fedya in the hospital, but he did not consider it necessary to constantly visit him and Fedya was left alone. Soon afterwards, a few middle-aged Doukhobors, exiled from Elizavetpol (including several brothers of Peter “Lordly” Verigin) arrived in Yakutsk. Petrunya Dimovsky, a middle-aged man, exiled for incitement, was also placed in the hospital because of his illness. He was not altogether bedridden, and at times, looked in on Fedya Fominov. When Fedya became even more tired and exhausted, Petrunya asked him: “What is with you, brother Fedya, how do you feel?”

“I feel that I will soon die and return to my Heavenly Father…”, replied Fedya. “What should be done about your clothing – should it be returned to your family?” asked Petrunya. “No, my family has everything, give it away here amongst the poor,” further stated Fedya. And so, on the 20th of August, 1897, in the Yakutsk hospital, one of our Doukhobor martyr’s earthly existence came to an end.”

IV

When we received a letter and learned about our son’s death, all of us grieved and mourned for him. Only his own mother did not shed a single tear, but prayed to God, so that the Lord would receive her son in his everlasting abode. She considered crying a sin, and said that her sons went to share the suffering of our Lord Jesus Christ. However, after the sorrowful news, she stayed in bed for a whole week -“and how could she not lie in bed, when two of her sons died at the height of their youth, both in the same year?”

Our eldest son, Vanya, passed away in the Georgian villages in March at the age of twenty-six, and our middle son, Fedya, passed away in the Yakutsk Region in August at the age of twenty-four. Their families never saw them again. Their mother (and my wife) lived very well with her daughters-in-law. They looked upon her like their own mother, and she considered them like her own daughters. When they remarried and took her grandchildren with them, only then did our mother cry out loud, repeating, “Only now do I see that my devout family is torn apart!” She had three daughters-in-law. For many years they lived together and never spoke a harsh word to each other. They always tried to live a happy, Christian life.

Doukhobor History of the Lundbreck-Cowley Area of Alberta

by Margaret Salekin

In 1915-1917, the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood (CCUB) purchased 13,500 acres of land in the Lundbreck and Cowley areas of Alberta. There, in the foothills of the Rockies, they planted extensive grain fields, raised large livestock herds and established thirteen communal villages as well as a flourmill, two elevators, central storehouse, prayer home, blacksmith shops, granaries and barns. Following the demise of the CCUB in 1937-1938, the lands were sold and the villages were dismantled. A number of Doukhobor families, however, chose to remain in the area as farmers, where they continued to practice their faith and culture. The following article, reproduced by permission from ISKRA Nos. 2034-2036 (Brilliant: USCC, 2010), examines the history of Doukhobor settlement and life in the area, through the experiences of the Konkin family.

On March 11th, 2010, the Doukhobor Prayer Home in Lundbreck, AB was designated as a Provincial Historic Resource. Today, the Prayer Home stands as a reminder of a once thriving Doukhobor community that worked and developed the land in the Lundbreck-Cowley area of south western Alberta.

How did this community come into existence? Let us follow the development through the experiences of the Harry Konkin family.

Harry and Nastia Konkin with their four daughters near Lundbreck, AB c. 1915.

Some years after the migration of the Doukhobors from Saskatchewan to British Columbia, it was realized that land needed to be bought for grain growing and raising horses. The grain was needed for milling and for feed. The horses were needed for the community in BC where they were used for logging, etc. Land was chosen in the Cowley and Lundbreck area of Alberta. In 1915, fourteen workers and their families made the move from BC. Some of the first settlers were Samuel Verigin, Vanya Ewashen, Misha Maloff, Fedya Sookochoff, Vasya Zibin and their families. The first land that was purchased was nine miles north of Lundbreck and it was given the name Bogatoi Rodnik. This is where the Harry Konkin family eventually settled. In 1916, more men were added to the workforce: Vanya Ribalkin, George Maloff and sons, George and Samuel Kalmakoff, Michael Salekin and family, Cecil N. Maloff and others. Peter Lordly Verigin also approached Harry Konkin, who was a horse trainer and asked him to gather his family and other dependable people who were capable of working with horses to relocate to south western Alberta. Steam engines, grain separators (threshing machines) and ploughs were purchased. Oxen, cows and horses were acquired.

CCUB steam engines – “Doukhobor Plow Horses” – at Cowley, AB, c. 1925.

Approximately, 10,000 acres were bought in Lundbreck and Cowley. Another 2,000 acres were purchased a couple of years later. Thirteen villages were established: four in Lundbreck, five in Cowley and four others in the vicinity. Some of the villages and names of some of the people who lived there were:

  • Bogatoi Rodnik – Verigin, Ewashen, Maloff, Sookochoff, Zibin
  • Lundbreck – Hoobanoff, Konkin
  • Stoopnikoff Village – Stoopnikoff, Parakin
  • Ribalkin Village – Ribalkin, Faminoff, Maloff, Ozeroff
  • Faminoff Village – Paul Faminoff with his three sons, Fred, Joe and Sam
  • Gradovaya Dolina – Kabatoff, Kooznetsoff, Verigin
  • Sibir – Vishloff, Konkin, Shkuratoff, Sookochoff
  • Cowley – Vishloff, Hoobanoff, Kalmakoff, Konkin, Potapoff
  • Bozhiya Milost – Verigin, Negraeff
  • Maloff Village – Maloff, Sookochoff
  • Village east of Cowley – Maloff, Babakaeff, Vishloff
  • Bozhiya Celo – Ewashen, Bojey, Kooznetsoff, Barisenkoff, Stoopnikoff, Larin, Shkuratoff

The community also built a flour mill in Lundbreck and grain elevators in both Cowley and Lundbreck. A house was built for Peter Lordly Verigin in Cowley that he used when he visited the community and checked on the farming operation. This building was also used as the headquarters for the community. A Community home was also located on the same street. The community which grew to 360 people prospered until the break-up of the CCUB in 1938. The community hall was then dismantled.

CCUB flour mill at Lundbreck, AB. Relocated there from Pincher Creek in 1922, it was operated until its destruction in 1936.

In the late 1930’s, some families left the CCUB and began to work for themselves. Some found employment with the CPR while others rented land that they farmed. After the demise of the CCUB in 1938, the number of Doukhobors in the Lundbreck-Cowley area decreased by a third. Most of these people moved to British Columbia to be part of the larger group living there.

The National Trust Co. made the Alberta members responsible for over $91,000 of the CCUB debt. Assessments were made of the various lands to total the indebtedness. In many cases the member took possession of the land that he was already residing on, making payments and eventually obtaining a clear title as a private owner. Payment for the land was made on a one-third crop share basis as the members did not have cash. They were given ten years to clear the debt, which they all did.

Doukhobor village of Bogatoy Rodnik north of Lundbreck, AB which two son-in-laws of the Konkin’s – Peter M. Salekin and Anton W. Mushta – purchased in 1938.

By this time, all of Harry and Nastia Konkin’s daughters had married. Their youngest child, a son Harry, passed away at the young age of twenty-four. Two brothers-in-law, Peter M. Salekin and Anton W. Mushta, husbands of Helen and Emma, bought Bogatoi Rodnik, the farm where they had been living. Their mother-in-law Nastia, who was now a widow, lived there with them. The oldest daughter Mary and her husband Alex F. Vishloff bought communal land near Cowley and their youngest daughter Ann and her husband Mike S. Verigin bought communal land further east. Their other daughter Nastia and her husband Nick A. Shkuratoff bought communal land west of Bogatoi Rodnik. The Shkuratoff family later relocated to the Slocan Valley of BC.

Along with the farming, the two brothers-in-law, Peter and Anton went to work in the coal mines of the Crowsnest Pass to help pay for the land. This additional income allowed them to occasionally buy such luxury items as corn flakes and peanut butter for their families. Large fields of potatoes were also planted. After the harvest, sacks of potatoes were sold door to door on weekends, in the mining communities of the Crowsnest Pass.

Alex F. and Mary H. (nee Konkin) Vishloff, Lundbreck, AB. Nastia H. (nee Konkin) and Nick A. Shkuratoff, Lundbreck, AB.

When the sons in the two families were old enough to work with their fathers, it became evident that more land was needed to sustain the two families. The Mushta family sold their share to the Salekin family and bought a farm east of Lundbreck. For a number of years, they retained some land for pasture at Bogatoi Rodnik.

The people in the Lundbreck and Cowley areas continued to uphold their Doukhobor religion and culture. A Russian school existed for a couple of years. An organization for the youth was established. Petrov Dyen was commemorated annually with picnics at Bogatoi Rodnik, near the Castle River at Bozhaya Dolina or on the South Fork River between Pincher Creek and Cowley.

Helen H. (nee Konkin) and Peter M. Salekin, Lundbreck, AB. Emma H. (nee Konkin) and Anton W. Mushta and son Peter.

Sobraniye were held in individual homes. Visiting choirs from BC and other guests were always welcomed. Choir presentations were held in the local community hall. Rent had to be paid for the use of the community hall and private homes often became crowded and their location, at times, was inconvenient. It was decided that they needed to build a dom for their own use. Fundraisers were held. The women held raffles where prizes included a homemade wool blanket and rugs that were made on the loom. Suppers, such as vereniki feeds, were held. All the ingredients for the suppers and the items for the raffles were donated. Construction commenced in 1953 with the men working as volunteers.

On August 22nd, 1955, a meeting, chaired by Peter C. Maloff, was held at the Peter M. Salekin farm at Bogatoi Rodnik. It was decided by all those present to register their organization as the United Doukhobors of Alberta Lundbreck-Cowley. The first chairman was Steve S. Faminow and the secretary-treasurer was William S. Kabatoff. The first trustees were Alex A. Vishloff,

Peter C. Maloff and Mike S. Faminow.

Ann H. (nee Konkin) and Mike S. Verigin, Lundbreck, AB.

Though it was not entirely completed, the dom was first used in 1955 for the funeral of Paul N. Potapoff, who served as the manager of the CCUB in that area.

Once again, in the 1950s and 1960s, the number of Doukhobors living in the Lundbreck-Cowley area continued to decline. The older generation was aging. In some families, sons or daughters were taking over the farming operations. Others began to leave the family farms to either further their education or to obtain employment in the cities.

This trend was evident in the Salekin family. Peter and Helen’s oldest sons, Mike and Harry continued to farm together with their parents. Additional land was acquired south of Lundbreck and Mike and his wife, Mary moved to this farm but they continued to farm as one unit. They began to do custom work to help pay for the land and the farm machinery. Eggs, cream and butter were also sold. Larry, the youngest son in the family, had always helped with the farm work but upon graduation from high school, he pursued post-secondary education and obtained a teaching degree in Lethbridge.

Aerial view of Bogatoy Rodnik taken in the early 1960’s.

Larry and I were married in 1970. We lived at the Bogatoye (as it was fondly referred to) for a few months after our marriage and I had the opportunity to learn some of its history from Larry’s parents. I enjoyed listening to my Mother-in-law’s stories of her experiences. She moved south of Lundbreck to live with her husband’s parents once she was married. The Salekin family lived there with the Parakin, Semenoff and other families. Their two oldest sons were born there. The young family then moved to Bogatoi Rodnik. By this time, another house had been built there by the Doukhobors. This house was referred to as the “blue” house while the original house was referred to as the “yellow” house as that was its colour at the time of purchase. Each of these houses was home to 50-55 people. Mother-in-law talked of taking her weekly turns at preparing meals for all who lived in the house, milking cows, working in the large gardens, etc. She also explained how an area of the house, bedroom, referred to as the hornitsa, that consisted of a sitting room and a bedroom, was used only by Peter Lordly Verigin and later by Peter P Verigin (Chistiakov) during their visits to the area. In the 1950s when John J and Laura P Verigin toured the area with a choir, the Salekin family was pleased to welcome them into their home to see where the elder Verigins had stayed.

In 1971, Peter and Helen sold the farm to Mike and Harry. They moved to Grand Forks, BC to spend their retirement years living near their daughter, Vera and her husband, Pat Semenoff. They joined the USCC organization. Good health allowed them to enjoy and participate in various events and functions. For a number of years, Helen was able to participate in the Ladies Organization (cooking groups).

The two brothers continued to farm for three more years. In 1974, after almost sixty years (1915-1974) of Doukhobor ownership, the farm was sold.

Cousins Nick N. Shkuratoff and Harry P. Salekin taken in front of the barn at Bogatoy Rodnik. Note the hand-carved shingles on the front of barn.

Today, the original house that had been bought with the land in 1915 and the large barn, with room for up to fifty horses, which had been built by the Doukhobors, are still in use and are still in good condition. There is an interesting fact to note. The house had been ordered from the Eaton’s catalogue in the late 1800s by the original owner of the land, a Mr Terril. Such houses are called Eaton’s houses. The second house was dismantled in the early 1940s. The last of the former CCUB land in the Lundbreck area was sold in the early 1990s by the sons of Jack and Mabel Semenoff. Mabel was a granddaughter to Harry and Nastia Konkin and the daughter of Anton and Emma Mushta. The flour mill once stood on the land that was sold by Vince. Terry sold his land which had once been part of the Faminoff village. A small amount former CCUB land in the Cowley area is stilled owned by Maloff descendants.

During its 50+ year history, the Dom was used for many occasions. Moleniye, sobraniye, funeral services and even a couple of wedding showers were held there. To this day, the Dom has never been used for a wedding. In 1994-1995, the Voices for Peace Choir held practices there. Meetings of the CCUB Trust Fund Board were held there when it was Alberta’s turn to host the delegates. Council of Doukhobors in Canada (Unity) meetings were held in Lundbreck because of its central location between BC and Saskatchewan. Guests were always welcomed and many meals were served. With the decline in the membership came the decline in the usage of the Dom. The commemoration of Petrov Dyen continues to be observed annually at the end of June. The Dom is available for use whenever it is required. Today out of a membership of about twenty-five, four members live in the area – Michael M Verigin of Cowley who served for many years as the secretary-treasurer of the United Doukhobors of Alberta, Mary Stoochnoff of Lundbreck, William G Maloff and Helen Juroloff of Hillcrest. They are grandchildren or great grandchildren of the original Doukhobors that came to the area.

The United Doukhobors of Alberta Prayer Home in Lundbreck, AB.

Many of the descendants of Harry and Nastia Konkin, who were life-long members and strong supporters of the CCUB, continue to be contributing and active members in the Doukhobor community. Many, living in Kelowna, Grand Forks, the Kootenays and here in Alberta, are members of the USCC, the organization that succeeded the CCUB.

A highway sign had been erected in 1974 just west of Cowley to give recognition to the contribution made by the Doukhobors to the area.

Now, with its Provincial Historic Resource designation, the Prayer Home in Lundbreck will continue to be a place of welcome and may its presence in the community continue to tell the story of the Doukhobors and their contributions in the Lundbreck-Cowley areas…

I extend my gratitude to Michael M Verigin and Peter A Mushta for providing and confirming some of the historic information. I trust that this article will provide a better understanding of this often forgotten and sometimes misunderstood, piece of Doukhobor history.

View Cowley-Lundbreck, Alberta Doukhobor Villages, 1915-1939 in a larger map.

Report of the General Meeting of the Doukhobor Community held in Otradnoe Village, October 13, 1912

Manitoba Free Press

During the first decades of the twentieth century, the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood was governed by general meetings that were held each year to receive the annual report and financial statement prepared by the representative committee and to vote on various matters of policy and practice brought before them. These gatherings were typically attended by two delegates from each village, the administrators in charge of community affairs and the leader Peter “Lordly” Verigin. The following is a rare extant report of the general meeting of the Doukhobor Community held at Otradnoe village, Saskatchewan, on October 13, 1912, published as “A Letter to Christ’s Community from Peter Verigin” in the Manitoba Free Press, December 5, 1912. It provides remarkable insight into the administrative matters of the day, including the fall harvest, the marketing of grain through Community elevators, the British Columbia resettlement, the exchange of goods between Saskatchewan and British Columbia, and the transfer of Community property into the leader’s name.

Glory to the Lord

Dear Brothers and Sisters: – I am advising you, that on the thirteenth day of October, in Village Otradnoe, a Meeting was held; one man and one woman from each village attending.

FIRST- The Meeting was opened by repeating “The Lord’s Prayer.” The main purpose of this Meeting was to bring thanks to the Lord, for all successful life of the Doukhobors’ Community and especially for the abundant crop this year. The seeding of grain was late and in view of plenty of rain, during the summer, there was a possibility of the grain becoming frosted. In the summer the Meeting consisted of Doukhobors, all those who could come to Village Otradnoe, bringing a general prayer to the Father of the Universe, in regard to the conservation of the crop, from the frost. Now the Lord manifestly created miracles by the prayers of Christ’s Community and up until the fifteenth day of September there was no frost, and all the crop was saved. Whereas, usually in Saskatchewan, the first frost arrives somewhere about the twenty-third, twenty-fifth or twenty-eighth of August. We bring hearty thanks to our Heavenly Father for His donation to us and manifold kindnesses. Glory and Glory to Lord and God.

SECOND – The Meeting decided that all grain must be sold through our Community Office. Also that all outside earned money should, as soon as possible, be delivered to the office, this to be devoted to the payments on land in British Columbia and other expenses in emigration to British Columbia.

THIRD – The Meeting decided that all the oxen from the villages be sold and horses used instead, these horses to be taken from the Community Ranch. It was further decided that, in the Fall all the young horses should be taken from the Ranch to the villages to be broken, and although they are only young, by the Spring they would be ready to use with the plow on stubble, and also with harrow.

FOURTH – The horses belonging to the British Columbia people, and which were left in Saskatchewan, were distributed through the different villages for working purposes in these villages, and must be figured in the share of this year’s crop. For the horses’ service, the British Columbia people should receive in this regard, one-third of a share of the crop.

FIFTH – The Meeting decided to inform all our people of the Thunderhill Branch Villages, that are called the North Colony, that no seeding of the crop on their land should be done by them this coming Spring, for next Summer they will all be removed to British Columbia. However, the land of the South Colony should be once more seeded and the crop taken off. In the Spring all the horses of the North Colony branch should be brought to the South Colony branch to help in the work.

SIXTH – A Report was submitted, that our British Columbia people had this year received an abundant crop of all things: vegetables, hay, grain and fruits. This had aroused the envy of strangers, and complaints would arise that the Doukhobors were not bringing any advantages to the surrounding settlers, and information has been given, that the Doukhobors are not fulfilling the Canadian Laws.

In order to make an enquiry the British Columbia Government sent their Commissioner, who found that it was very clear that the Doukhobors did not desire to have their children taught in schools, for the schools, as a. rule, teach children to be warlike; second they learn swindling, that is usufruct, by the labour of strangers in life; and third bringing up children to disrespect their parents. The Doukhobor Society in British Columbia sent a letter to the Minister of the Interior at Ottawa; copies of this letter will be sent through the villages, in the near future.

By Christ’s teachings the children must be enlightened by the Word of God. Christ said “I have placed God’s Law in your hearts, Go and preach the gospel by word, to all people.”

SEVENTH – The Meeting decided that the surplus wheat of this year’s crop in Saskatchewan must not be sold but retained for British Columbia requirements; this wheat would be purchased from the villages.

EIGHTH – A carload of apples was shipped from the Doukhobor Society in British Columbia, as a gift to all Brothers and Sisters in Saskatchewan. All Brothers and Sisters must come to Verigin, while the weather is warm, and received the correct share of these apples. When you come for the apples you must bring a statement of the persons living in your village. For each nursing child one-half share would be given.

NINTH – The Meeting decided that all Community property, land and etc., the right of which according to the Canadian laws, must be entered in writing, should be transferred to the name of Peter V. Verigin, as representative of Christ’s Community and Trustee for Doukhobor Society in Canada.

We must give thanks, Brothers and Sisters, and bow to the ground, to the Lord and God, for all His grace and kindness to us.

Your brother in Christ,

PETER

Notes

The Community was formally a democracy in which the general meeting was the supreme governance authority. However, in practice, while Peter “Lordly” Verigin’s formal powers were small, his real influence was immense. This was due, not only to his position as hereditary leader, but to his powerful personality, superior education and intellectual prowess. Resolutions at the annual general meetings never went contrary to his advice, and during the twelve months that elapsed between meetings, he and his advisors acted as an executive with sweeping powers to make almost any decision on behalf of the Community.

Note that unlike several published reports of general meetings of the Doukhobor Community, the 1912 report does not include a financial statement.

For more information on the general meetings and accounts of the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood, see the 1904 Report1906 Report and the 1910 Report of the General Meeting of the Doukhobor Community.

The Kylemore Doukhobor Colony

by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff

The Kylemore Colony was a Doukhobor communal settlement established by the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood in the Kylemore district of Saskatchewan between 1918 and 1938. Numbering 300 people at its peak, the self-sufficient agricultural colony was organized on the principles of common ownership and the Doukhobor faith. While its existence is generally known, remarkably little has been documented about its history. The following article, compiled from a wealth of published and unpublished sources, examines the Kylemore Colony in rich, descriptive detail from its settlement and early development, communal life and organization, to the eventual demise of the Community and break-up of the colony.

Introduction

In the early 1900’s, the main body of Doukhobors in Canada, under the charismatic leadership of Peter Vasil’evich Verigin (1859-1924), known as Gospodnyi (the “Lordly”), formed themselves into the spiritual, social and economic organization known as the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood (CCUB). It was organized on a communal basis, according to the precepts of the Doukhobor faith, under the close supervision and direction of Verigin.

By 1918, the CCUB was at the height of material achievement as an industrial, agricultural, forestry and trading enterprise in Western Canada. It was incorporated under a Dominion charter with a capitalized value of over $1,000,000.00, although its total assets were estimated at several times that figure. It had landholdings in British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan totaling over 50,000 acres on which were built numerous communal villages, sawmills, brickworks, jam factories, canning and fruit-packing plants, trading stores, flour mills, grain elevators, irrigation systems, reservoirs, roads and bridges, along with extensive cultivated crops, orchards and gardens. Underpinning the success of the organization was a membership of 6,000 adult Doukhobors (5,000 in British Columbia and 1,000 in Alberta and Saskatchewan) who provided a large, readily-mobilized pool of free, willing labour, guided by the slogan “Toil and Peaceful Life”.

Group of CCUB Doukhobors at Veregin, SK, c.1918. At the time, the CCUB was at the height of material achievement as an industrial, agricultural, forestry and trading enterprise. Photo courtesy National Doukhobor Heritage Village.

Verigin’s overall strategy at this time was to ensure that the CCUB became self-sufficient in agricultural production, while at the same time developing a variety of means to earn cash to fund its operations. Under this plan, grain grown by Doukhobors on the Prairies would be exchanged for fruit and timber produced by Doukhobor settlements in British Columbia. The surplus would be sold to the outside world, where wartime shortages and high prices provided profitable markets for the wheat, lumber, bricks, fruit and other outputs of the communal enterprise. In order to carry out this strategy, however, it was necessary for the CCUB to acquire additional wheat-growing land on the Prairies.

The Kylemore Purchase

To this end, the CCUB acquired a block of eighteen square miles of land, or the equivalent of half a township, in the Kylemore district of Saskatchewan in 1918. The land was acquired in three transactions. First, the CCUB leased 640 acres of Hudson’s Bay Company land (Section 8 in Township 33, Range 12, West of the Second Meridian) on April 1, 1918. The CCUB then leased an additional 109 acres of land (Legal Subdivision 8 of SE ¼ of Section 9 and Legal Subdivision 5 and 12 of the W ½ of Section 10 in Township 33, Range 12, West of the Second Meridian) from the Department of the Interior. Finally, on May 7, 1918, the CCUB purchased 10,613 acres of land (Sections 1-5, 7, 9-12, N ½ of Section 6 and S ½ of Sections 13-18 in Township 33, and Sections 32-36 in Township 34, Range 12, West of the Second Meridian) from the Chicago-based Fishing Lake Land and Farm Co. Ltd. under an agreement for sale for $265,343.00.

Taken together, these acquisitions provided the CCUB with a total landholding of 11,362 acres in the Kylemore district. Only 607 acres of the land was broken at the time – the rest was covered in dense trees and scrub. For this reason, the CCUB acquired the land for substantially less than developed agricultural land in other areas.

Doukhobor work crew clearing land at Kylemore, SK, 1920. At the time of purchase, the colony was covered in dense trees and scrub. Photo courtesy Koozma J. Tarasoff.

At the same time, the land lay adjacent to the Canadian National Railway, which provided essential transportation access. This was a key component of Verigin’s strategy to ship agricultural and industrial goods between Doukhobor settlements and to market.

Perhaps most importantly, the ‘Kylemore Colony’ formed a large, contiguous block of land that was semi-isolated and largely self-contained, where the Doukhobors could speak their own language, practice their religion and culture, and follow their distinctive form of communal organization, separate and apart from the larger Canadian society.

Early Development and Settlement

From the outset, the colony at Kylemore was established according to the carefully laid out plans of the CCUB leadership. On June 14, 1918, just weeks after the land acquisition, CCUB General Manager Michael W. Cazakoff outlined these plans in an interview with the Manitoba Free Press while in Winnipeg, Manitoba to purchase equipment for the new colony. He declared that the majority of the lands would be dedicated to grain growing, being ideally suited for that purpose, while the lighter, south-easterly lands adjacent to Fishing Lake would be reserved for livestock-raising. There would be a settlement of families on each section. There would also be a store, in which fruit shipped from the Doukhobor settlements in British Columbia would be distributed within the colony and sold publicly. Finally, an elevator would be built through which the Doukhobors in Kylemore would ship wheat to the British Columbia settlements and market their surplus and that of their neighbours.

A group of Doukhobor workers enjoys a break near Kylemore, SK, 1920. Photo No. 208 courtesy ISKRA.

The development of the colony occurred over a period of several years. Beginning in 1918, and for each summer thereafter until 1924, work crews of 65 or more Doukhobor men from British Columbia and elsewhere in Saskatchewan arrived in Kylemore to clear the land and erect buildings. Temporary tent camps were set up on Section 10 for their accommodation. To carry out this work, the main CCUB settlement at Veregin, 70 miles to the east, supplied them with six steam engines and sixty teams of horses.

Land-clearing and breaking began at the northern end of the colony along the Canadian National Railway and slowly advanced to the southern end. This backbreaking work began at sunup and ended after sundown. First, the trees were cut, then the workers used pick axes to grub the stumps. After, workers came with teams of horses and steam engines to pull out the roots and break the land with the plough. The broken land was then sown into crop the following spring. Over 1,600 acres of land were developed in this manner in 1918 alone. Thereafter, Doukhobor work crews cleared and broke an additional five hundred acres of land each year.

The first permanent village in the colony was established in 1918 on Section 9 at the former residence of W.H. McKinnon, one of the prior landowners. This ornate, eight-room, two-story wood frame structure with lumber siding was the only dwelling on the land when the CCUB purchased it. There, between 1918 and 1921, the CCUB also constructed a large central meeting house for colony members and a gornitsa (special guest quarters) where Peter V. Verigin could stay when he visited the area.

The McKinnon home west of Kylemore, SK. Built in c.1910, the large, ornate home was the only structure on the land when the CCUB purchased it in 1918. It formed part of the Chernoff Village, the first village in the colony. It was destroyed by fire in 1924. Remembering Times.

Doukhobor work crews constructed eight additional villages on Sections 6, 7, 9, 10, 31 and 33, approximately two per year, from 1919 to 1924. These were a variation of the village design used by the Doukhobors in British Columbia and consisted of a single 26’ x 26’ two-story dwelling of wood frame construction on a concrete foundation. The exceptions were two villages on Sections 9 and 31 that had twin structures. These multi-family communal doms (dwellings) were constructed using timber shipped from the CCUB sawmills in the Kootenays. Six were clad in brick supplied from the CCUB brickworks at Veregin. The remainder had cedar shake siding shipped from the Kootenay settlements. Each had a hip roof and verandah clad with cedar shakes. All had large cellars for the storage of foodstuffs.

Each village had a large barn for housing draft horses and milking cows along with numerous outbuildings including stables, sheds, granaries, chicken coops, a kuznitsa (blacksmith shop), banya (bath-house) and peche (clay oven). At least two villages had large ledniks (ice cellars) dug for cold storage. Each had a large garden plot for growing vegetables and fruit.

Unnamed twin-dom village constructed by the CCUB adjacent to the Canadian National Railway at Kylemore, SK in c.1919. Photo courtesy John J. Trofimenkoff.

As work crews completed each village, CCUB families began arriving in Kylemore to take up permanent residence in them. The first families to arrive were those of Peter S. Chernoff from Veregin, Saskatchewan and Vasily V. Solovaeff from Prekrasnoye, British Columbia in 1918. They were followed by a number of families from the Kootenays each year between 1919 and 1924. These included the families of Ivan and Michael S. Arishenkoff, Ignat A. Arishenkoff, Nikolai D. Bedinoff, Ivan V. Chernoff, Ivan I. Fofonoff, Ivan P. Hoolaeff, Ivan F. Hoodikoff, Ivan V. and Vasily I. Kazakoff, Vasily V. and Nikolai N. Konkin, Grigory N. Kanigan, Peter and Ivan S. Malikoff, Kuzma V. Kolesnikoff, Alex I. and Vasily V. Makortoff, Dmitry I., Nikolai N. and Ivan A. Malakoff, Andrew P. and Trofim W. Markin, Vasily A. Morozoff, Nikolai N. Ogloff, Peter A. Osachoff, Kuzma S. and Alex I. Pereverseff, Ivan V. and Peter, Semyon and Grigory S. Popoff, Ivan A. Postnikoff, Fyodor K. and Ivan I. Samsonoff, Ivan F. Sysoev, Ivan and Nikolai P. Sheloff, Pavel V. Planidin and Evdokim A. Sherbinin. According to oral tradition, each family was hand-picked by Peter V. Verigin to help develop the colony.

As the colony took shape, the CCUB undertook the task of constructing a large grain elevator on Section 9 along the Canadian National Railway. Beginning in 1918, work crews constructed a 120,000 bushel capacity elevator of wood crib construction on a concrete foundation. It was approximately 45’ x 60’ wide and 75’ high with a pyramidal roof and a centrally located pyramidal-roofed cupola. At the time it was completed in 1920, it was the largest elevator in Saskatchewan. Thereafter, the Kylemore Colony began receiving, storing and shipping grain in bulk quantities to the Doukhobor settlements in British Columbia and to markets elsewhere.

Doukhobor work crew constructing grain elevator at Kylemore, 1919. Photo courtesy Peter and Agnes Malekoff.

The CCUB also began construction of a large trading store and warehouse on Section 9 along the rail line in 1918. The three-story structure was built of wood frame construction with a full concrete basement. It had cedar shake siding. It was 60’ x 36’ with a gambrel roof and two 20’ lean-tos. It was completed in 1922. The storefront was located at the north end of the main floor, where fruit, produce and other merchandise from the Doukhobor settlements in British Columbia were distributed to the colony families as required and the surplus sold to the public, while the south end of the main floor and the basement were utilized as a warehouse. It is known that Pavel V. Planidin managed the store from 1922 to 1925 and Nikolai N. Ogloff from 1928 to 1935.

By 1924, the Kylemore Colony was thriving and prosperous, with approximately 250 Doukhobor men, women and children. It had a herd of 500 cattle, 1000 sheep and 30 horses. Over 4,000 acres of land was now under cultivation, producing substantial quantities of grain. A sizeable acreage was also devoted to pasture. The community elevator and store were now in full operation. Peter V. Verigin’s plans for the colony had begun to bear fruit.

CCUB communal structures adjacent to the Canadian National Railway at Kylemore, SK, c.1924. (l-r) CCUB grain elevator, CCUB trading store, and unnamed twin-dom village. Photo courtesy Koozma J. Tarasoff.

The Kelvington Annex

Even as the development of the Kylemore Colony was underway, Peter V. Verigin had planned its expansion in the outlying area. In August of 1921, the CCUB purchased an additional 8,000 acres of land (Sections 3, 7, 9, 15, 17-19, 21, 27, 31 and 33, W ½ and SE ¼ of Section 5, E ½ of Section 25, all in Township 27, Range 12, West of the Second Meridian) in the Kelvington district, twenty miles to the north. It was acquired from the Winnipeg-based Canada West Security Corporation under an agreement for sale.

The ‘Kelvington Annex’ was unbroken at the time of purchase and was covered in trees and scrub, making it cheaper and more affordable than developed land in other districts. Unlike the Kylemore Colony, it did not form a contiguous block, but was segregated into separate section parcels interspersed among non-Doukhobor landholdings. However, it lay adjacent to the Canadian National Railway’s proposed Thunderhill Branch Line extension from Kelvington to Prince Albert, which, once built, would enhance its property value and provide strategic rail access.

Doukhobor work crew clearing land by hand near Kylemore, SK, c. 1924. Photo courtesy William W. Kanigan.

The Kelvington Annex was administered as an offshoot of the Kylemore Colony. It was primarily used for summer pasturage for the colony’s horse herd, although some land-clearing and grain-growing did occur. No villages were constructed there; however, single-family dwellings were built on Sections 18 and 27 to house four families permanently stationed there. Other families were rotated from Kylemore to Kelvington on a temporary basis over summer to tend the communal horse herd, during which time they lived in tents.

Community Life and Organization under Peter V. Verigin: 1918-1924

During the era of Peter V. Verigin, the Kylemore Colony was comprised of nine (unnamed) villages containing family groupings of four to six extended families per village. All the villages in the colony were organized as one commune.

Doukhobor family at Kylemore, SK, 1920. (l-r) Mabel, Tanya, Peter, John, Peter A., Helen G., and Mike Chernoff in their chore cloths. Seems Like Only Yesterday.

The CCUB central office coordinated the agricultural and commercial operations of the colony, carried out all transactions on its behalf, managed its finances through a common treasury and provided for the daily needs of its members. This was managed out of the CCUB headquarters in Veregin, Saskatchewan. A manager elected by the members administered the day-to-day affairs of the colony and acted as an intermediary authority between the central office and colony members. It is known that in 1925, the Manager of the Kylemore Colony was Dmitry I. Malakoff and from 1926 to 1928, Nikolai I. Cazakoff. Major decisions affecting the colony were introduced at a sobraniye (general meeting) of all members where everyone could have a voice.

The CCUB owned all of the colony’s land, buildings, machinery, tools and livestock. These were distributed among the villages of the colony, so that each village possessed its own teams of horses, wagons, implements and other resources necessary to farm the acreage allocated to it. All the grain was delivered to the CCUB elevator and traded under its name, as was all stock and merchandise shipped to the CCUB store. Indeed, all proceeds from the output of the colony went to the central office.

CCUB General Manager Michael W. Cazakoff (right) inspects communal draft horses with Vasily V. Soloveoff (left) near Kylemore, SK, c.1924. Photo No. 273 courtesy ISKRA.

Individual members were expected to contribute their labour to the operation of the colony and pay an annual levy to the central office, which was mainly paid in-kind through labour rather than cash. They received no income for communal work, and when they found it necessary to work outside the colony, their earnings were deposited directly with the central office or collected by the Manager of the colony. Hence, few members of the colony actually handled money. Within this moneyless system, the colony provided for all the essential needs of its members, such as food, shelter, clothing and other supplies.

Daily life in the Kylemore Colony revolved around the cycles of the farming year. In spring, the women and men worked together in the fields sowing crops. Afterwards, in summer, they laboured to clear and break additional land. The women also dug seneca root, the sale of which was an important source of revenue for the colony. Later in summer, haying and stooking was performed by both men and women. At harvest time, the men threshed while the women prepared meals and did chores. In late fall, the men got up before sunrise, took packed lunches and traveled south toward Fishing Lake to cut wood. They would cut enough to last the colony for the whole winter and the surplus was sold locally. The days that followed were spent sawing and splitting the wood into “stove-sized” pieces. During winter, the men worked in the villages or sought outside employment. The women, elderly and children maintained the household and performed yard chores.

Doukhobors at Kanigan Village near Kylemore, SK winnow grain to remove chaff. Photo courtesy William W. Kanigan.

The colony was almost entirely self-sufficient in food production. Colony members grew potatoes, cabbages, tomatoes and other vegetables in their large gardens. This was supplemented by fruit, jams and preserves supplied from the Doukhobor settlements in British Columbia. Wild berries, nuts and mushrooms were also picked locally. Milk, cream, cheese and butter were obtained from the community cattle herd. As they kept chickens they also had a fresh supply of eggs. Meat was unnecessary as colony members were strict vegetarians. Flour was produced from the wheat they grew, which was hauled by horse and wagon 18 miles south to Foam Lake to be ground and milled. Only sugar, salt, raisins, rice and a few other staples were purchased outside the colony by the men.

The colonists also manufactured most of their own cloths, tools and furniture. The women sheared wool from the communal sheep herd which they then washed, carded, spun and wove to make cloth and yarn. They were expert in sewing, knitting, crocheting, weaving, quilt and mattress making and other handicrafts. The men produced furniture, tools and equipment and performed shoe repair, harness-making, blacksmithing, horse-shoeing and other skilled tasks.

Peter Chernoff and John Soloveoff mounted on horseback on the prairie near Kylemore, SK, c.1920. Photo No. 207 courtesy ISKRA.

While there were few opportunities for leisure, colony members still found time to enjoy the natural beauty and recreation opportunities at Fishing Lake during the hot summer months. There, at a scenic lug (meadow) on the north shore of the lake, Doukhobors throughout the colony gathered to celebrate Petrov Den’ (Peters Day), hold outdoor meetings and enjoy picnics, swimming and rafting.

A mainstay of spiritual life in the colony was the moleniye (prayer meeting) held each Sunday. According to oral tradition, each village initially conducted its own moleniye; however, over time, a number of villages joined together for this occasion. This was a time when the members of the colony abandoned their work and gathered for hours to pray, discuss spiritual matters and sing psalms. There were reputedly many exceptional singers in the colony, and the psalm singing inspired the people and reinforced their religious faith and values for the ensuing week.

A gathering of Doukhobor children at Kanigan Village near Kylemore, SK, c. 1924. Photo courtesy William W. Kanigan.

A special highlight was when Peter V. Verigin visited the Kylemore Colony to meet with the members, hear their concerns and inspect their progress. This was a joyous occasion accompanied by special celebrations, meetings and meals. It is known that Verigin made at least two such trips to Kylemore in the summer of 1921 and the fall of 1924, and probably several more.

On the whole, life in the colony at this time was characterized, not only by hard work and sacrifice, but by simple, peaceful living in an atmosphere of happiness, comfort and harmony. This way of life is poignantly described in the historical novel Tanya, by Doukhobor writer Eli A. Popoff, which is based on the remarkable true story of Tanya Arishenkoff, the central character, who lived in the colony from 1919 until its demise.

Doukhobor shepherds tend communal sheep flock at Kylemore, SK, c.1924. Photo courtesy National Doukhobor Heritage Village.

Death of Peter V. Verigin and Aftermath

Disaster struck the Kylemore Colony in May of 1924 when one of the villages on Section 9 was destroyed in an accidental fire. This included the village dom, central meeting house, the gornitsa where Peter V. Verigin stayed and other outbuildings. During this same period, the dom at another village on Section 9 also burned to the ground.

However, these events paled in comparison to the sudden death of Verigin in October of 1924 in a mysterious train explosion at Farron, British Columbia. His passing was a devastating blow to the membership of the CCUB, who revered him as their guide, counselor and protector. The entire Doukhobor Community was thrown into shock and mourning, and the Kylemore Colony was no exception.

Leaderless and directionless, the Doukhobors at Kylemore carried on essential tasks, such as grain growing and store and elevator operations, but postponed decisions on most important issues until a replacement leader could be appointed who would help them decide. For example, the construction of village buildings to replace those which had burnt on Section 9 was suspended. The CCUB organization went into a period of slow stagnation and decline.

Larion Malakoff mounted on horseback in front of Malakoff Village dom near Kylemore, SK, c.1924. Photo courtesy Fred J. Chernoff.

With financial difficulties mounting, the Directors of the CCUB decided to consolidate their debts with one creditor. The Community negotiated a loan for $350,000.00 with the National Trust Company, representing the Canadian Bank of Commerce, in December of 1925. To secure this loan, the National Trust Company obtained a blanket mortgage on all of the land and buildings on which no other creditors held liens. This meant that everything owned by the CCUB would now be encumbered with debt, including the lands of the Kylemore Colony.

Arrival of Peter P. Verigin and Reorganization

It was several years before Verigin’s son, Peter Petrovich Verigin, known as Chistiakov (the “Cleanser” or “Purger”), was able to come to Canada and assume the leadership of the CCUB. His arrival in September of 1927 was greeted by his followers with tremendous enthusiasm, who hoped for a rejuvenation of the ailing CCUB communal structure.

On his first of many visits to the Kylemore colony, Peter P. Verigin impressed his followers as a forceful, eloquent orator and a persuasive, dynamic and brilliant organizer. He declared his immediate goals to be to free the CCUB from it burden of debt and to unite the various factions of Doukhobors in Canada. Seeing and hearing him speak, the Kylemore Doukhobors firmly believed that his objectives would be achieved.

The family of Peter P. Verigin seen here at the Chernoff Village near Kylemore, SK in 1928 (l-r) John J. Verigin (his grandson), Anna F. Verigin (his wife) and Evdokia G. Verigin (his mother). Photo No. 303 courtesy ISKRA.

Almost immediately, Peter P. Verigin reorganized the CCUB on a new basis to encourage greater self-reliance, industry and diligence among its members and to foster a renewed interest in the soil and in the welfare of the commune. To this end, he decentralized the CCUB, made life less rigidly communal, and reduced the size of each commune to a new unit known as the ‘Family’, which in Saskatchewan was comprised of 25 persons.

The Kylemore Colony land, buildings, machinery, tools and livestock were redistributed to each Family to farm communally. Each Family was granted broad autonomy over its agricultural operations and business transactions. An annual assessment was still paid to the CCUB central office. However, any excess revenue from the land or from outside earnings, over and above the annual assessment, was retained by the Family. A Starshina (Elder), elected by its members, managed the day-to-day affairs of each Family. It is known that in 1928, these were: Ivan N. Konkin, Nikolai P. Popoff, Ivan I. Samsonoff, Vasily V. Solovaeff, Ivan V. Chernenkoff, Alexei I. Pereverseff, Ivan V. Popoff, Vasily A. Morozoff, Semyon S. Popoff, Ivan A. Posnikoff, Peter S. Chernoff, Grigory N. Kanigan and Ivan P. Sheloff.

John V. Soloveoff stands beside a white stallion that had belonged to Doukhobor leader Peter V. Verigin at the newly-formed Arishenkoff Village near Kylemore, SK, c. 1928. Photo No. 229 courtesy ISKRA.

The system of buying and selling was introduced into all aspects of relations between the CCUB central office and the Families or branch communes, as well as between individual members. Individual Doukhobors were now permitted to handle money. Thus, money transactions replaced the unwieldy barter system of earlier years.

In total, 13 Families of 25 persons (comprising one to two extended families) were set up in the Kylemore Colony in 1928. Each Family was allocated a section of land in the colony on which to live and farm. Where a village already existed on a section, it was given to the Family assigned to that section; where there was none, a new village was built for the Family placed on that section.

Accordingly, six existing villages on Sections 7, 9, 4 and 10 (thereafter known as Popoff Village, Malakoff Village, Chernoff Village, Sheloff Village, Kazakoff Village and Kanigan Village) were reassigned to Families. Three existing (unnamed) villages on Sections 6, 9 and 31 were either moved to new locations or dismantled and the materials used to build new villages elsewhere. Seven new villages (thereafter known as Chernenkoff Village, Pereverseff Village, Hoodekoff Village, Konkin Village, Makortoff Village, Samsonoff Village and Arishenkoff Village) were built for Families on Sections 2, 3, 5, 32-35. These new villages differed from the earlier villages in that they were comprised of small, single-family residences built of wood frame construction with cedar shake siding.

Vasily V. Soloveoff stands beside a Belgian draft horse at the newly-formed Arishenkoff Village near Kylemore, SK, c. 1928.  Note the communal barn under construction in foreground. Photo No. 228 courtesy ISKRA.

This reorganization resulted in changes to nearly every household in the Kylemore Colony. Consequently, throughout the summer of 1928, there was much moving to and fro, and wagons piled high with goods and chattels were continually driving in one direction or another as families relocated to their new villages. It was at this time also that the CCUB families stationed at the Kelvington Annex relocated to the Kylemore Colony, where they were incorporated into Family branch communes.

In addition to the Families, which maintained a direct connection with the CCUB central office, a provincial branch of the CCUB was set up in Saskatchewan to operate business enterprises in the various areas, including the grain elevator and trading store at Kylemore. These were now run on a wholly cash basis. The CCUB trading store now purchased the fruit it received from British Columbia and sold it to colony members, although it no longer enjoyed a trade monopoly among them. The CCUB elevator maintained a buying monopoly over all the surplus grain grown in the colony, however, it was now purchased from each Family and sold to British Columbia.

Early threshing outfit owned by the CCUB at Kylemore, SK, c. 1928. Photo courtesy William W. Kanigan.

Community Life Under Peter P. Verigin: 1927-1931

The reorganization of the Kylemore Colony was accompanied by three main developments during the early years of Peter P. Verigin’s leadership. First, there was an expansion and consolidation of the capital assets of the colony to increase earning potential and reduce the CCUB’s massive debt. Second, colonists joined a new umbrella organization, the Society of Named Doukhobors, aimed at the unification of the main Doukhobor factions in Canada. Third, new emphasis was placed on education as the Doukhobor youth of the colony were enrolled in local schools. These developments are discussed below in greater detail.

Capital Expansion and Consolidation

The years 1928 to 1931 saw a noteworthy expansion, improvement and consolidation of CCUB capital assets in the Kylemore Colony. Buildings were erected for new villages to the value of $13,000.00. As well, leased lands (640 acres from the Hudson’s Bay Company and 109 acres from the Department of Indian Affairs) were purchased outright for $16,264.60. Also, the balance owing on the 10,613 acres purchased from the Fishing Lake Land and Farm Co. Ltd. was paid in full. Finally, land-clearing activity was redoubled in order to increase agricultural production and earnings.

New Chernoff Village dom completed in 1928 to replace the original destroyed by fire in 1924. Note the collection of machinery of that era. Seems Like Only Yesterday.

At the same time, the CCUB raised money by allowing some of its Prairie members to opt out of the communal system and buy or lease its land. To this end, 3,000 acres of hitherto-undeveloped land in the Kelvington Annex was leased or sold under agreements for sale to CCUB members. These included the families of Peter J. Goolaeff, Peter A. Morozoff, John J. and Peter J. Kanigan, Simeon A. Horkoff, Harry N. and Trofim N. Kanigan, Fred W. Antifaeff, Mike W. and Wasyl W. Bloodoff, George F. and John F. Kazakoff, Nick W. Pepin, Wasyl L. Shukin and Wasyl A. Juravloff.

Statistical data from 1931 illustrates the extent of CCUB property in the Kylemore Colony at this time. The landholdings totalled 11,774.60 acres, valued at $316,724.85. Another 4,945.23 acres of land was held in the Kelvington Annex, assessed at $87,174.62. The investment in buildings on the farm land, including houses, barns and other structures, was valued at $47,900.00. The store and warehouse along with the grain elevator were appraised at an additional $29,000.00. The investment in livestock – which included 240 working horses and 130 milking cows – was valued at $42,500.00. Finally, the investment in farm machinery was assessed at $18,500.00. Thus, the total valuation of the Kylemore Colony’s capital assets in 1931 was $541,799.47 – over half a million dollars – two years into the Great Depression.

Communal barn and horse stable at the Arishenkoff Village, one of the new villages formed in 1928 near Kylemore, SK following the reorganization of the CCUB by Peter P. Verigin. Photo No. 274 courtesy ISKRA.

Unity

Upon his arrival in Canada, all of the main Doukhobor factions – the CCUB, the Independents and the Sons of Freedom – acknowledged Peter P. Verigin as their spiritual leader. He made it his avowed purpose to heal the divisions between the groups and reestablish unity among all Doukhobors living in Canada.

To this end, in June of 1928, Verigin formed a new, all-embracing organization, the Society of Named Doukhobors of Canada, for the purpose of uniting his followers. Through a series of conferences attended by delegates from the CCUB and Independent Doukhobor settlements, the Society, under Verigin’s leadership and direction, promoted a policy of non-violence, the teachings of Christ, marriage based on love, acceptance of public education, the accurate registration of births, deaths and marriages, the peaceful resolution of disputes among members by the Society’s executive, the automatic expulsion of members who committed crimes, and more.

Doukhobor maidens at Kylemore, SK, 1927 (l-r) Milly W. Konkin, Polly W. Konkin and Mary Makortoff. Photo courtesy William W. Kanigan.

For their part, the Kylemore colonists readily participated in the new organization, joining en masse, paying regular membership dues, sending delegates (Alexei I. Hoodekoff in 1934 and Havrila N. Kanigan in 1937) to its conferences and implementing its resolutions. By December of 1930, there were 150 male and 148 female members of the Society of Named Doukhobors of Canada from Kylemore.

Education

From the outset of his leadership, Peter P. Verigin emphasized the importance of public education among his followers. The education of their children in English schools, and the establishment of their own Russian schools and libraries, he declared, would begin a new era for Doukhobors in Canada. His views towards education were actively promoted through the Society of Named Doukhobors of Canada.

Group of Doukhobor schoolchildren in front of North Kylemore School, 1941. Photo courtesy William W. Kanigan.

As members of the Society, the Kylemore colonists were now committed to accept education, and from 1928 onward, began enrolling their children in Kylemore School in the hamlet of Kylemore. In 1929, the school was destroyed in a suspicious fire when a group of Sons of Freedom visited the area and classes were held in the CCUB trading store until a new school was built the same year. By 1936, Doukhobor student enrollment increased to such an extent that a second school was opened at the south end of the colony. The older school became known as the ‘North Kylemore School’ and the newer one the ‘South Kylemore School’. Colony youth also attended Russian language classes in the evenings.

South Kylemore School, c. 1936. Back row (l-r): Fred Hoolaeff, Nick Ogloff, George Arishenkoff, John Hoolaeff, Helen Morozoff, Helen Makortoff, Lucy Makortoff. Middle row: Mike Arishenkoff, Peter Arishenkoff, Bill Samsonoff, Peter Konkin, Peter Pereverzoff, Mary Hoodekoff, Donalda Mawhinney (teacher), John Cazakoff. Front row: Alex Pereverzoff Bill Morozoff, Larry Hoodekoff, Alex Hoolaeff, Mac Pereverzoff, Doris Hoodekoff, Bill Konkin, Annette Hoodekoff, Mary Konkin, Mary Pereverzoff, Nellie Makortoff. Front: Beverly Broley (teacher’s niece). Remembering Times.

Demise of the CCUB

The twelve years of Peter P. Verigin’s leadership from 1927 to 1939 saw a number of remarkable accomplishments. However, despite his concerted efforts, the Doukhobor leader was unable to eliminate the massive CCUB debt (although he did reduce this debt by over half), nor bring about a lasting unity with other Doukhobor groups (the Society of Named Doukhobors collapsed in 1937). At the same time, his irregular character and actions eroded the enthusiasm and confidence of the CCUB membership, whose zeal for utopian communal living was already in decline.

When the Great Depression struck in the Thirties, the financial situation of the CCUB deteriorated rapidly because all the communal property was mortgaged and no further loans could be negotiated due to lack of collateral. With no credit, and with membership and cash income falling rapidly, Verigin attempted to sell off CCUB assets to raise the necessary capital to enable the corporation to continue to operate, and at the same time, to stave off the ever-increasing demands of its creditors.

Front page of the Winnipeg Free Press, October 18, 1934 announcing the sale of CCUB holdings in Saskatchewan.

To this end, in October of 1934, Peter P. Verigin publicly announced that the CCUB would be selling its entire holdings – land, stock, equipment and elevators – in the districts of Kylemore, Kelvington and Veregin, Saskatchewan. This represented the wholesale liquidation of all CCUB capital assets in the province. A similar announcement was made in April of 1935. Later that month, some Saskatchewan members of the CCUB were served with notices to vacate their villages and lands. These events were met with shock and disbelief by the Saskatchewan members, who had not been consulted.

Reputedly, several offers to purchase the Kylemore lands were made to the CCUB central office in Brilliant, British Columbia; however, no sale ever materialized. Nevertheless, in April of 1936, the Saskatchewan branch of the CCUB sold the elevator at Kylemore to James Richardson. The CCUB trading store in Kylemore was closed later that year. In light of these events, all the Kylemore colonists could do was wait in anticipation of a better tomorrow. But for the CCUB, prosperity never returned.

CCUB elevator in Kylemore. When completed in 1920, it was the largest in Saskatchewan. It was sold in 1936 to J. Richardson and resold  to the Pioneer Grain Company, which operated it until 1990. Wadena News.

By 1937, a combination of complex factors, including the Great Depression, financial mismanagement, diminishing revenues, a declining membership base, mounting debts, depredations against communal property, and government assimilation efforts, all unhelped by Verigin’s increasingly erratic leadership style, led to the eventual (and arguably, inevitable) bankruptcy of the CCUB. The following year, in 1938, the National Trust Company foreclosed on its mortgage over the CCUB lands and chattels in Kylemore, Kelvington and elsewhere. Thereafter, the CCUB ceased to exist as a corporate entity.

Break-Up of the Colony

Following the bankruptcy and foreclosure of the CCUB, the Doukhobors living in Kylemore were faced with a difficult dilemma: either join the majority of their brethren in British Columbia or else remain in Saskatchewan as independent farmers. Many of them were already middle-aged, and to begin a new life with nothing, dependent only on themselves, with no Community to fall back on, must have been daunting prospect.

William W. Kanigan and his mother doing chores on their farm near Kylemore, SK, c.1940.  Photo courtesy William W. Kanigan.

About a third of the Kylemore Doukhobors immediately moved to British Columbia in 1938 to be part of the larger group living there. Numerous others followed the move to British Columbia during the War Years (1939-1945) to avoid the military call-up. Still others decided to abandon their old way of life altogether, take their few possessions and depart into the world unknown.

Approximately a third of the Kylemore Doukhobors chose to repurchase their lands from the National Trust Company in 1938 under agreements for sale. Payment was made on a one-third crop share basis, as the Doukhobors had little or no cash. They took possession of their land, moved in village structures (dwellings, barns, stables, etc.) or utilized existing ones on the land, and purchased on credit the necessary horses, implements and equipment to set up their own farming practices. Fortunately, there were prosperous years in the Forties, and within ten years of independent farming, all the Doukhobors obtained clear title to their land and many acquired additional land, modern vehicles and machinery for their farms.

Social gathering of Kylemore Doukhobors, c. 1947. Photo courtesy Peter and Agnes Malekoff.

While most Doukhobors stayed on as farmers, several established stores and business in Kylemore. In the Thirties, William M. Fudikuf owned a general store in Kylemore, selling everything from groceries and furniture, to cream separators and machinery. In the late Forties, Peter G. Kanigan ran a blacksmith shop, general store and gas pumps. Finally, in the Fifties, Louis L. Osachoff operated a general store in the hamlet.

Those families who remained in Kylemore continued to uphold their Doukhobor faith and culture. In the Forties, they formed the Kylemore Doukhobor Society, which became their main religious and social organization. Moleniye (prayer meetings) and children’s Sunday school classes were held weekly at the Sunderland School. Petrov Den’ (Peters Day) was commemorated annually with picnics at Fishing Lake. A local choir was organized, and visiting choirs from British Columbia and elsewhere in Saskatchewan were always welcomed. In 1954, the Society purchased the former South Kylemore School and moved it into Kylemore for use as a ‘prayer home’ or meeting house. The Society remained active until the Nineties, when, due to an aging and dwindling congregation, it was dissolved. About six Doukhobor families remain in the Kylemore district today.

Kylemore Doukhobors holding moleniye prayer service, 1959.  Photo courtesy William W. Kanigan.

Conclusion

Today, there are few physical reminders of the CCUB colony at Kylemore. An abandoned two-story village dom stands on the north side of the No. 5 Highway, a silent sentinel of the communal past, while at least two smaller village dwellings can be found nearby. The concrete foundations of other village doms, barns and reservoirs dot the surrounding countryside. Many of the original Doukhobor colonists lay at rest in God’s Blessing Cemetery, still in active use. Recently, a stream running through the former colony was christened Blahoslovenie (Blessing) Creek in their memory.

A more enduring legacy of the Kylemore Colony is its living one. For today, the descendants of the original 300 colonists, who surely number in the hundreds if not thousands, can be found throughout Saskatchewan, British Columbia and the rest of Canada. They continue to preserve the memory of these pioneering Spirit Wrestlers.

The Chernoff Village dom (originally two stories) still stands west of Kylemore, SK. Photo by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

A dwelling from the Arishenkoff Village, shrouded in vines south of Kylemore, SK. Photo by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

Bibliography

  • British Columbia. Report of Royal Commission on matters relating to the sect of Doukhobors in the province of British Columbia, 1912 (Victoria, King’s Printer: 1913, p. 58).
  • Dawson, Carl A., Group Settlement: Ethnic Communities in Western Canada (The Macmillan Company of Canada Limited, 1936).
  • Friesen, John W. and Michael M. Verigin, The Community Doukhobors: A People in Transition (Ottawa: Borealis Press, 1996).
  • Gooliaff, Cecil, Lawrence Kalmakoff, Randy Konkin, Jennifer Osachoff, Wally Vanin, Doukhobors of Saskatchewan: Past, Present and Future (November 1972).
  • Hawthorn, Harry (ed.), The Doukhobors of British Columbia (Vancouver: University of British Columbia, 1955).
  • Hudson’s Bay Archives, File No. RG1/21/7.
  • Kalmakoff, Jonathan J. Field research notes for Kylemore district; July 2003; June 2008.
  • Kalmakoff, Jonathan J., Society of Named Doukhobors of Canada, 1930 Saskatchewan Membership List (Regina: 2002).
  • Kelvington Historical Society, Tears Toil and Triumph, Story of Kelvington and District (Kelvington: 1980).
  • Kuroki History Book Committee, Seems Like Only Yesterday, 1892-1980: The History of Kuroki and District (Kuroki: 1980).
  • Lapshinoff, Steve, Society of Named Doukhobors of Canada, 1937 Membership List (Crescent Valley: self published, 2001).
  • Lethbridge Herald, “Doukhobors Reorganize Community Life” (April 4, 1928).
  • Library and Archives Canada, RG10, Indian Affairs, Volume 6707, Reel C-8077.
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  • Snesarev, Vladimir N. (Harry W. Trevor), The Doukhobors in British Columbia (University of British Columbia Publication, Department of Agriculture, 1931).
  • Sysoev, Theodore I. Correspondence with Jonathan J. Kalmakoff, November 8, 2008.
  • Tarasoff, Koozma, J., Plakun Trava (Grand Forks: Mir Publication Society, 1982).
  • Veregin, Nora. Personal interview with Jonathan J. Kalmakoff, August 1, 2008.
  • Wadena Herald, “Doukhobors to Stay: Veregin Closes Deal for 10,000 Acres of Prairie Land” (June 27, 1918).
  • Wadena History Book Committee, Remembering Times: Wadena and Area Dating Back to 1882 (2 vols.) (Wadena: 1992).
  • Winnipeg Free Press, “Doukhobor Group Will Resist Any Attempt to Evict Them from Farms” (April 27, 1935).
  • Winnipeg Free Press, “Doukhobors Are Leaving Sask.” (October 18, 1934).
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  • Woodcock, George & Ivan Avakumovic, The Doukhobors (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Limited, 1977).

View Kylemore, Saskatchewan Doukhobor Villages, 1918-1938 in a larger map

An earlier version of this article was published in a compilation by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff and Anne Sanderson entitled Their Story in the Wadena News from July 9 to August 20, 2008. That compilation received a first place award for Best Saskatchewan Cultural Story of the Year at the Saskatchewan Weekly Newspaper Association’s 2009 Better Newspaper Competition Premier Awards.

This article was subsequently reproduced by permission in:

Early Doukhobor Experience on the Canadian Prairies

by Jeremy Adelman

The prairie frontier is usually seen as an open society. Yet as historian and scholar Jeremy Adelman contends, the settlement of over 7,000 Doukhobors asks us seriously to challenge this view. Despite an agreement between Dominion authorities and Doukhobor leaders to respect the claims of the refugees regarding the pattern of land tenure, protection was slowly rescinded. Under pressure from non-Doukhobor settlers and fueled by the conviction that independent ownership by male homesteaders was the best way to effect colonization of the west, the government withdrew land from the Doukhobor reserves. In response, Doukhobors who wanted to preserve community-based proprietorship fled the prairies. In the following article, reproduced by permission from the Journal of Canadian Studies (1990-91, Vol 25, No. 4), Adelman redresses the view that Canada’s first attempt at coordinated refugee settlement ended in failure because of the “fanaticism” and “zealotry” of the Doukhobors; rather it was a disaster, largely due to cultural insensitivity.

I

In early 1899, having fled Czarist Russia, some 7,400 Doukhobors arrived in North-West Canada. Under the rule of Nicholas II they were forced into exile in the Caucasus region, but even internal exile within the Czarist empire did not exempt them from official military conscription. As pacifists they refused to bear arms for the State. Their leaders were exiled again, to Siberia, while devout followers were forced to eke out a living in adverse circumstances. Constant persecution made escape from Russia their only option. The need to find a new home became evident by the mid-1890s. Count Leo Tolstoy then took up the cause of the Doukhobors. Seeing an affinity with his own pacifism and Christian anarchism, Tolstoy set out to find a suitable place for the dispirited refugees. After a failed attempt to resettle some of them in Cyprus, Tolstoy and his followers learned of the vacant Canadian prairies. A quick exchange of letters started a process which would see many thousands embark on the first refugee venture to Canada and one of the largest single voluntary group settlement schemes in Canadian history. It ended in disaster.

Our interest in the fate of the Doukhobors addresses various themes in Canadian historiography. The experience on the prairies reveals much about the cultural intolerance of the supposedly open-frontier society. The episode also saw the region’s police forces deployed for the first time in systematic repression of an ethnic minority. But our concern here is primarily with the clash between a group seeking to preserve its traditional form of property relations based on collective ownership and a State intent on populating the frontier with independent, owner-occupant farmers. The confrontation exposed the ideological substance of the homestead model so long eulogized as forward-looking and progressive.

Friends of the Doukhobors, 1899.  Standing (l-r) Sergei L. Tolstoi, Anna de Carousa, Leo A. Soulerjitsky. Seated (l-r) Sasha Satz, Prince Hilkov, W.R. McCreary, Mary Robetz. Library and Archives Canada C018131.

In portraying the struggle between Doukhobors and the State as one over land ownership, my purpose is also to redress an ingrained view of the Russian refugees as “fanatics” or “zealots.” This view is especially proffered in a popular, controversial book by a Vancouver Sun journalist, Simma Holt. Holt argued that the Doukhobors were the masters of their own fate: their failure to integrate and their determination to ward off outside influences alienated them from an otherwise benevolent Canadian society. The author’s case is full of distortions, and it is not helped by the penchant to use sources without offering citations. Therefore, it is worthwhile to try to set the record straight about the Doukhobors, who are otherwise noted mainly for their nudism and atavism.

This essay also redresses a second problem. The failure of Doukhobor settlements on the prairies is usually explained either through Doukhobor misunderstanding of the land laws, compounded by eccentric behaviour, or, as in the case of works by Doukhobors themselves, by glossing over the problem. One exception is the work of Koozma Tarasoff, who does attempt to explain the source of discord and rightly distills the problem to the conflict over land. But Tarasoff does not study the episode within the context of State-promoted development of the West. Consequently, the conflict is not seen by him as a clash of models of economic development.

In the last few years of the century, the settlement of the prairies was still disappointingly slow. The Dominion Lands Act, passed in 1872, was designed to attract farmers to free parcels of land. Transcontinental railways had reached into the prairies since the early 1880s. But settlers still refused to come. Tolstoy’s plea to help the Doukhobors came to the attention of Clifford Sifton in late 1898. The energetic Minister of the Interior found the proposal to settle such a large group of potential farmers from Russia attractive and he acceded.

The Doukhobors, however, were not, and could not be, typical homesteading farmers. Sifton’s concern was not with the past plight of the refugees, but with their potential role in populating the prairies. Dominion authorities seemed willing to protect traditional religious custom and belief. However, the identity of the Doukhobors also included the tradition of collective ownership of property. Under pressure from Czarist authorities, Peter Verigin, the spiritual leader for most Doukhobors, urged his followers to reconsolidate their meagre holdings into common units and abolish private property. Many obeyed. Verigin advocated a “highly ascetic” world-view reminiscent of the creed followed in the early nineteenth century called the “New Doukhoborism.” The “New Doukhobors” were especially singled out by Czarist authorities. It remains unclear whether collective ownership was indeed a “traditional” mode of proprietary relations for the Doukhobors. As George Woodcock and Ivan Avakumovic argue, collectivization was often a measure taken by this ethnic minority to protect its identity when under siege by a dominant State; it was also a means to ensure group cohesion in moments of acute internal fragmentation.

Collective land ownership was the nub of the discord between the Doukhobors and the Canadian State: although officials were eager to see staple-producers populate the grasslands, which was why the refugees were offered land in the first place, these same officials would not countenance a system of property relations which did not cohere with the homestead model.

II

In the summer of 1898, the anarchist Prince Kropotkin contacted James Mavor, then professor of Political Economy and Constitutional History at the University of Toronto and Canada’s leading social scientist of the day. Working in conjunction with a group of Tolstoy’s followers in Britain, Prince Kropotkin was responding to a personal suggestion made by Tolstoy that the prairies be considered as a possible refuge. In his appeal for help for the Doukhobor cause, Kropotkin argued that settlement on the prairies could only proceed if three conditions were granted: that the pacifists be exempt from military service; that the internal organization (principally educational matters) of the sect not be interfered with; and that lands be allocated to the Doukhobors in block reserves so that they could till the soil collectively.

Mavor was converted to the cause and contacted Clifford Sifton, spelling out the Doukhobor plight and making clear the conditions under which they would agree to come to Canada. The government agreed to the conditions. On October 25,1898, James Smart, Deputy Minister of the Interior, wrote Aylmer Maude, the Doukhobors’ main advocate in England, to inform him that the Ministry was especially willing to help the Doukhobors.

According to Doukhobor belief, all land belonged to God: no single individual could claim rights to the exclusion of any other individual. Exclusive proprietary claims were avoided since decisions about the use of land were vested in village elders who represented collective interests. Absolute collective proprietary rights seldom obtained; to a great extent individual Doukhobors had enjoyed exclusive privileges while in Russia. But in times of acute need or scarcity of resources, villagization of property was reinstituted. Tolstoyans and Doukhobor leaders wanted to maintain the collective hold on land as a means of preserving the group’s identity in the New World.

Making Doukhobor proprietary beliefs fit with the Canadian legal system was not easy. The 1872 Lands Act provided for the allocation of 160 acre, quarter-section lots for an administrative fee of $10. Initially a homesteader was required to “file for entry” (register his claim), occupy his land at least six months of the year for three years, and break a certain portion of that land. After three years, if the farmer could demonstrate fulfilment of the criteria, he would be awarded his “patent” (title) to the homestead. The Act encouraged the allocation of land to modest producers who wanted to cultivate their crops on an individual basis. Given these stipulations, how were the Doukhobors to be allocated land communally?

Last night camp before arriving at Yorkton, Saskatchewan, 1899.  Library and Archives Canada C-008889.

Sifton and Smart came up with a solution. Doukhobor military and educational demands were met entirely. Regarding land, Doukhobors were required to file for entry individually for quarter-section lots, but were not required to meet the criteria
normally demanded of homesteaders: they did not have to live on the individual quarter-section and till that specific lot. They were allowed to live in villages and “to do an equivalent quantity of work on any part of the township they took up, thus facilitating their communal arrangements.”

This seemed a sensible arrangement. By filing individually, Doukhobors could expect the government to defend their claims, but they were not required to abide by the stipulations which enforced individual division of the territory. However, there were several flaws in this arrangement. First, the Lands Act included a stipulation that title or patent could only be earned if the applicant swore allegiance to the Crown. If this provision was not waived, and in this case it was not, the government could be accused of conferring special treatment on the Russian refugees. Swearing allegiance to anything but God was a direct infringement of Doukhobor beliefs. Second, and most importantly, there was no clear guarantee that the terms for the filing for entry would also apply to the receipt of patent. Filing for entry only ensured that the applicant would be given the exclusive right to till the land during the three-year “proving-up” period. Even if the Doukhobors fulfilled all the requirements of the compromise, there was no guarantee that the same conditions would obtain when they applied for their title several years later. In other words, they would be allowed to cultivate collectively in order to file for entry, but would collective cultivation allow them to receive their absolute title after the proving-up period? Nothing of this was mentioned in the compromise. Perhaps the government gambled on the hope that eventually the Doukhobors would abandon village life and till the land in severally before the three years had elapsed. The thoughts of the government in this case are unknown to us, but whatever the consideration Sifton did not seem concerned that requirements for entry and for receipt of patent were inconsistent. This oversight proved costly.

Leopold Sulerzhitsky, Tolstoy’s personal envoy who helped coordinate the initial establishment of Doukhobor villages on the prairies, counted the Doukhobors by reference to the regions they came from in the Caucasus. He estimated that 1,600 Doukhobors came from the Elizabetpol region; 3,000 from the Kars district; and 2,140 from Tiflis province (sometimes referred to as the Wet Mountain region); another 1,126 had been relocated in Cyprus. Those from Elizabetpol and Kars were better off than those from Tiflis; the Cyprus refugees were the worst off.

The Wet Mountaineers were the first to arrive, in January 1899; the last shipload, from Cyprus and Kars, arrived in June. Lands had already been set aside for the new arrivals. With the support of the Dominion Lands agents in the North West, Aylmer Maude chose three tracts in the districts of Saskatchewan and Assiniboia.” The two major colonies were located near Yorkton: the North Colony, seventy miles north of Yorkton, encompassed six townships (216 square miles); while the South Colony, thirty miles north of Yorkton, included fifteen townships (540 square miles). The Yorkton colonies were “reserve” lands. According to the agreement struck with the Dominion government to stimulate railway construction, the Canadian Pacific Railway had been granted all odd-numbered sections in arable tracts (amounting to a total grant of 25 million acres). The CPR now ceded their claim, thus allowing the Doukhobors to settle on both odd and even numbered sections. The same concession was not made for the third colony near Prince Albert, where the Doukhobors were allocated twenty townships. Here they were allowed to take up only the even numbered sections, and it was not long before non-Doukhobors bought the odd-numbered sections from the CPR. This mingling of Doukhobors and non-Doukhobors was one of the features which distinguished the Prince Albert Colony from the colonies of the Yorkton area.

The colonies also differed in the groups of Doukhobors represented. The North Colony included mainly Wet Mountaineers previously exiled in Georgia and noted for their impoverishment; the South Colony was a mixture of exiles from Elizabetpol and some Kars, as well as Wet Mountaineers previously exiled in Cyprus; and the Prince Albert Colony was populated mostly by prosperous Kars. Difference in group representation in part explains the different behaviour patterns in each colony: Prince Albert colonists, as a result of their mingling and their comparative wealth, more readily accepted Dominion regulations, while the North colonists were the most uncompromising.

III

By June 1899 communities were beginning to form, and Doukhobors began to move out of their barracks in order to build villages. The first year — a difficult one — was made somewhat more tolerable by donations: English Quakers provided $1,400; the Tolstoyan community in Purleigh, England sent $5,000; and Tolstoy himself gave $17,000. The Doukhobors put together $16,500 out of their own pockets. The Canadian government contributed another $35,000, which normally was paid as a bonus to shipping agents. In a matter of months these funds were exhausted, and the settlers still had not made even the most elementary purchases of livestock, agricultural machinery, or building materials. Additional money was raised among American Quakers and by the Dominion Council of Women. James Mavor began negotiations with Massey-Harris, the agricultural implement manufacturer, to provide ploughs and harrows on credit. But these united efforts were not sufficient. In mid-May William McCreary, the Dominion Colonization Agent in charge of the Doukhobors, wrote a confidential letter to Smart warning of the real danger that if the crops were not put in (which was likely given the handful of old walking-ploughs at their disposal) the Doukhobors would surely starve over the winter.

An early Doukhobor village with houses and animal shelters constructed of prairie sod, 1900.  Library and Archives Canada C-008890.

In July the elders of the sect appealed to the government for a loan. The government was put in an awkward position: it could only issue credit on the security of land; since their titles had not yet been granted, the Doukhobors were technically landless. The government pondered the issue, but in November a decision had still not been made. Herbert Archer, a Doukhobor sympathizer, wrote Sulerzhitsky from Ottawa informing him that no loan could be issued until all entries were filed: “The loan is still in the cloudy, unsatisfactory region of hopes and fears,” Archer confessed. In the end, the Canadian government offered $20,000 at eight percent, on the condition that the settlers file for entry. The offer was turned down by the Doukhobors, partly because the need for funds had passed, and partly out of reluctance to be pressured by the State. The episode was an indication of future complications.

The first summer was bad, but in order to make up for the shortage of funds male Doukhobors “worked out” in sawmills, threshing gangs, and construction companies. Mostly they worked for the railways. One contractor was so pleased with his economical Doukhobor workers that he wrote to the Department of the Interior, praising them as “crackerjacks, and superior to any other class of foreign settlers I know of.” The income earned, an average of 50-60 cents per day, was pooled in a common account and used by the colonies to make appropriate investments.

While the men worked out, the women “worked in.” They built the houses and schools. They also broke the prairie sod. With the scarcity of draught animals, women were called upon to pull rudimentary walking ploughs by hand. One observer noted that “all people except very old and young works very hard. They pull plough theiself — 24 men or women in every. Somebody works with spade.” Women were often admired by outsiders for their toil: William McCreary wrote Prince Hilkoff, another Russian notable who had taken up the Doukhobor cause, that the progress of the enterprise rested on the shoulders of its women folk. A contemporary article entitled “The Doukhobor Woman” claimed that “she has muscles instead of curves,” and that, when angered, Doukhobor women act like “infuriated Amazons.” To this day, photographs of Doukhobors portray women drawing ploughs in gangs of sixteen as testimony to either exploitation by men or sectarian atavism. In fact, the only recorded incidents of hand-pulled ploughing occurred during the summer of 1899 when machinery and livestock were not available.

During the winter of 1899-1900, roaming officials reported back to Winnipeg and Ottawa with stories of widespread disease, some cases of hunger, and general demoralization. The men continued to work on the railways, but their income bought only the bare necessities. The deprivation of the first year was to reinforce the collective nature of the enterprise. The Doukhobors could aspire to nothing more than self-sufficiency. Unable to buy implements, they made their own; unable to buy clothes, they made their own with the spinning and sewing machines donated by the Dominion Council of Women. The scarcity of resources at the early stages made pooling indispensable. Collectivization was also reinforced by the nature of outside assistance. Donors gave money to centralized committees who accordingly made spending decisions. Few Doukhobors would want to forgo the benefits of these handouts — a potential loss which village elders held over the heads of would-be individualists. One obvious exception was the Prince Albert Colony: because the Kars had more funds available for investment, they filed for entry individually and homesteaded in the same way as non-Doukhobors.

IV

In the North and South Colonies, poverty and Peter Verigin’s message (though he was still in exile in Siberia) tipped the scales in favour of collective property ownership. But this was not unanimously approved. As early as July 1899, some members of the Yorkton colonies began expressing a wish to till their own quarter-sections.

The division was especially clear in the South Colony where well-off Elizabetpol Doukhobors were mixed with the Wet Mountaineers, the former wishing to detach themselves from the latter with whom they were forced to share assets. Less debate occurred in the North Colony where all the impoverished Wet Mountaineers endorsed collective enterprise. Leopold Sulerzhitsky attended the first meeting, held on July 16, 1899, to address the issue. The discussion, which saw wealthier Doukhobors arguing with the poorer, was profound and endless. Unable to reach a common agreement, the elders went back to their villages where they took up the issue on their own. Some, especially those in the North Colony, voted to keep all holdings together; others did not. Thirteen of the North Colony villages even experimented with a common exchequer. During that first summer most Doukhobors were caught up in an internal debate about how to organize their settlements. It did not help that many of their leaders, including Verigin, were still trapped in Siberia. They were unable to arrive at a common solution and the divisions remained. So while it is fair to say that penury reinforced collectivization, it is also true that the divisions would have been considerably worse if poverty had not been an issue.

When Sulerzhitsky and Archer were commissioned by the government to draw up a map of each village, the elders asked that the land be identified as belonging to villages, and that individual quarter-sections not be itemized. Prince Hilkoff, who was overseeing settlement efforts in Yorkton, wrote to Deputy Minister Smart and specifically asked that lands only be identified in township units (36 sections). The cartographers turned to the government. In reply, the Department of the Interior insisted that a quarter-section be identified by the name of the Doukhobor who filed for entry on that lot, but that the land on which the village was built need not be registered as homesteads. The Doukhobor elders were “saddened” but did not protest. Sulerzhitsky left the finished maps for the Dominion surveyor and registrar, but the officials did not arrive. In the meantime, the Doukhobors discussed the problem over the winter, and by the spring of 1900 they were less willing to tolerate what they considered to be incursions on their collective way of life.

Doukhobors plowing, North Colony, 1905.  Library and Archives Canada A021179.

That winter was tough, but the return of good weather brought promise of better times. However, imminent prosperity generated more problems. Better-off villagers wanted out. Aylmer Maude, who was closely involved in establishing the villages, observed the discord. He believed that most Doukhobors wanted to hold their land individually, but that early scarcity, and directives from Peter Verigin dating from the early 1890s, prevented more rapid disintegration of the collectivity. The biggest obstacle to individual homesteading was “that it was evident… that the communist villages generally prospered more rapidly than individualist villages.” Collective villages proved a highly successful way of organizing production given scarce resources. Increasing prosperity revealed the internal fissures within communities. Village elders struggled to maintain the collectivity, first to avoid material deprivation, then increasingly to smooth over the cracks. The pressure to dismantle collective villages came from within as well as without.

In June, the Trustees of the Community of Universal Brotherhood (the umbrella group of elders) posted notices in villages proclaiming strong opposition to enforcement of homestead regulations. Through the summer of 1900, the government debated what to do. Its position gradually became clearer. The Deputy Minister of the Interior wrote to Aylmer Maude and spelled out the official line: “It will be necessary for the Doukhobors to make individual homestead entries, in accordance with the Dominion Lands regulation, but upon getting their patents there will be nothing to prevent them from conveying their lands in one common trust. They will thus be able to carry out their ideas with regard to community of property without requiring any alteration to our rules.” The government thus made it clear that titles to Doukhobor land would only be guaranteed individually: not only did entries have to be filed individually, but patent would be issued individually. The latter had not been spelled out in Sifton’s initial compromise with the Doukhobors. Doukhobor leaders feared that, by allowing community members to receive individual title, nothing could prevent them from seceding from their village while maintaining rights over their quarter-section. In the words of James Mavor, “the old peasant feeling came out. The only way to oppose the oppression of the Govt. was for the community to hold together.” Agitation in the communities, rumours, declarations by leaders, and especially the antics of a non-Doukhobor anarchist, A.M. Bodianskii, prompted the government to harden and enforce its position. In the spring of 1901, the Commissioner of Crown Lands posted notices advising that lands within the reserves which had not been filed for individually by May 1, 1902 would be thrown open to non-Doukhobor homesteaders. This notice, together with a lack of diplomatic negotiation, had the effect of a bombshell.

By the end of 1901, the debate within and without the communities reached a fever pitch. In February 1902, Clifford Sifton wrote an open letter to the Doukhobors to prevent any doubts about official policy and to try to heal some of the wounds of mistrust and Doukhobor feeling of betrayal. Sifton stressed for the first time the threat of pressure by non-Doukhobor homesteaders: if titles were not registered individually according to the Dominion Lands Act, federal land agents would have “no power to prevent these strangers or any other person from taking the land.” The Doukhobors had to make individual entry, and serve the proving-up period, as Sifton told the refugees, “for your own protection against outsiders.” Sifton reiterated the deadline, but by May 1 so few Doukhobors had filed their homesteads at the Lands Office that the deadline was waived.

At the request of the government, Joseph Elkinton, a Quaker from Philadelphia. who helped organize relief efforts funded by the American Society of Friends, agreed to try to explain the land laws to the Doukhobors. The Dominion Colonization Agent, C.W. Speers, wrote his Commissioner that Elkinton’s efforts induced more Doukhobors to take an interest in homesteading. Elkinton personally considered official efforts well intentioned, but he could not understand why the government insisted on seeing the Lands Act fulfilled to the letter: “no great harm could result from granting the Doukhobors the privilege of possessing their lands in common.” When Elkinton wrote his book on the Doukhobors in late 1902 and early 1903, he feared that the debate over land would be the ruin of the Doukhobor villages.

The tension and uncertainty mounted through the summer of 1902. In October a group of Doukhobors embarked on the first of a series of “pilgrimages.” Thousands abandoned their villages and marched, with children but without provisions, to Yorkton and beyond. This demonstration brought the Doukhobor plight to the attention of the entire country; all across Canada people discussed this strange peasant march towards Winnipeg. It proved to be a turning point in the popular image of the Russian refugees. Once considered the victims of Czarist oppression in need of help, they were now increasingly characterized as “fanatics.” While they explained their pilgrimage in messianic and spiritual terms appropriate to their world view, there was little doubt as to the source of the problem. As far as the Land Agent for the Yorkton area, Hugh Harley, was concerned, the pilgrimage was just the first outburst of frustration created by official pressure to file individually for land.

Coincidentally, Peter Verigin, the Doukhobors’ spiritual leader, was released from Siberian exile in the autumn of 1902. Dominion officials awaited his arrival in suspense: they hoped that a strong hand would bring the unruly refugees under control. They expected Verigin to recognize the wisdom of abiding by the Lands Act, for even as late as April 1903 only 596 entries were registered in the North Colony, while 874 were registered in the South Colony.

Verigin’s task was not easy. Taking up the issue in early 1903, he decided that entering for land should be considered a mere formality in the spirit of the agreement of 1898. Doukhobors should file for entry, but should nonetheless treat land as the common property of the community. Like Sifton before him, Verigin used the grace period before patent to delay a lasting solution: the conflict over who should hold ownership titles once the time for patent came was still not resolved. Verigin’s apparent compromise only temporarily restored a semblance of peace.

Doukhobor pilgrims leaving Yorkton to evangelize the world, 1902.  Library and Archives Canada C014077.

Respite from the tension allowed Verigin to initiate a process of large-scale material expansion. Through extensive borrowing, soliciting of donations, and the pooling of earnings from “working out,” Doukhobors accumulated large investment funds. In 1903 alone, their earnings from “working out” brought in $215,000. They made heavy investments. The Immigration Commissioner counted 4 grist mills, 3 sawmills, 8 steam threshers, and 2 steam ploughs in 1904, at a time when few homesteaders operated mammoth steam engines to pull gang-ploughs. In August 1903, the Doukhobors bought 4 more steam threshers and 500 horses (300 in a single day). While investigating for the British Board of Trade, James Mavor found signs of intense investment: in the North Colony (population 1,369) he counted 54 horses, 16 ploughs, and 18 wagons, while among Kars colonists (population 1,442) he counted 88 horses, 28 ploughs and 34 wagons. Evidently the days of penury were past, but the disparity between the richer Kars and the North Colonists persisted.

Verigin tried to calm the “fanatics,” but his success was limited. In May 1903 rumours circulated about another pilgrimage. The government was increasingly aware of the bad press which roaming “fanatics” brought upon an administration keen to be viewed as smoothly bringing about prairie prosperity. On May 11, James Smart asked the North West Mounted Police to begin regular patrols in the villages. Referring to spontaneous pilgrimages, Smart claimed that the presence of red tunics would “give the people the impression that we do not intend to allow anything more of this kind, and no doubt it will also give them respect for the authority of the police.”

The move backfired. The presence of police only reminded Doukhobors of the oppression suffered at the hands of Czarist police. They resisted by stepping up their protests. When the police solicited the help of Verigin, he explained that he was helpless to control the zealots in his sect. Verigin must have recognized the pointlessness of condoning police patrols in villages. Two weeks after Smart’s request, the first Doukhobors were arrested for plotting a demonstration. Twenty-six men were picked up. One man, who refused to comply with the order, stripped in full view of onlookers. For his pathetic act he was immediately charged with indecent exposure and sentenced to four months in prison without trial.

One nude demonstration had been held before May 1903. The gesture was meant to signify Doukhobor rejection of material possessions. Such naked marches through the countryside were rites performed only by the “fanatical” Sons of Freedom group to bring believers in closer contact with God. The arrests changed the nature of the rite from one of worship to one of defiance of authority. Thereafter, Doukhobors stripped regularly. Upon the sight of an approaching police patrol whole groups would undress. Displays of nudity, sometimes on the streets of Yorkton or smaller towns, terrified authorities. Pilgrimages were bad enough, but naked processions created a sensation in the Victorian press. Whatever charity was left in the government quickly vanished and the arrests were stepped up.

Confrontation sometimes brought comic incidents. In one case a patrolling officer stumbled upon a group of women who promptly changed to their “prayer meeting attire” by dropping their clothing in a heap beside them. As the young officer tried to talk the women into redonning their clothes, a photographer arrived on the scene. They struck a deal: the women promised to get dressed if the officer would have his photograph taken beside the naked women. The hapless mountie agreed, and when the scandalous photograph hit the front pages of prairie newspapers, the Prime Minister ordered the head of the NWMP to explain. The plates of the photo were chased down and destroyed, and the officer was fined $5 and sentenced to a month of hard labour.

As if police-Doukhobor relations had not soured enough, the villages came under assault from non-Doukhobor settlers. The prosperity of the Doukhobors, the filling in of land elsewhere on the prairies, and the construction of the Canadian Northern Railway, and later the CPR’s North-Western line, brought the region to the attention of prospective non-Doukhobor homesteaders. Land around the reserves was being taken up; the villages were no longer isolated in the way their creators had wanted. Through Peter Verigin’s efforts, the Doukhobors had filed for entry on about half the total land allotted to them. This left a sizeable area vacant, but also beyond the legal claim of land-hungry settlers. Letters began to arrive at Land Offices in Yorkton and Winnipeg complaining of favours accorded to the “fanatics.” One prominent Winnipeg correspondent slammed the government’s treatment of “Sifton’s pets”: “The main question in settling up the vast west is not so much to run in a horde of people as it is to get the right class of people. Settlers are to a large extent born and not made, if I may use the term, and the Doukhobor as he is today in the neighbourhood of Yorkton does not come up to the lowest qualification of a settler.” Pressure mounted as neighbouring settlers coveted the unoccupied Doukhobor lands. The government felt the need to deal with the unruly, albeit prospering, refugees.

VI

In December 1904 the government revoked the original agreement and redefined Doukhobor lands as those falling within the territory which had been filed for entry. This measure aimed to allow homesteaders to develop unoccupied land. This it did. Hundreds of squatters quickly took up lots. In 1905 the Territories became the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta. In the same year Clifford Sifton, architect of the flawed Doukhobor settlement compromise, quit the Liberal cabinet over the language provisions of the new provinces. He was replaced by Edmonton MP Frank Oliver, an irascible champion of the quarter-section homesteader. As the prairie economy took off, the fate of the Doukhobors was sealed. They were no longer seen as necessary in populating the vacant land. They certainly no longer induced the pathos of the government.

Communal harvesting, c. 1910.  The women ride the binders and the women stook. Library and Archives Canada C-009787.

The North West Mounted Police, not accustomed to mass arrests and systematic containment of non-native or non-Metis ethnic minorities, asked the Minister of the Interior for guidelines. The new Deputy Minister, Cory, instructed the Comptroller, Fred White, to defend Doukhobors and other settlers who took up quarter-sections. The police should desist from protecting the collective rights invoked by village elders: “As you are aware, they are living on the communal plan, but most of them have now taken up homesteads, and as they have been over seven years in the country it is felt that they should not be considered as wards of the Government any longer. I think if your police should merely see that they are protected in their personal rights, … the matter will be settled quite satisfactorily.”

The police and the Ministry did more, however, than just rescind an earlier commitment to protect the community. They openly encouraged individual Doukhobors to leave the community and take up homesteads elsewhere. This was the last straw for Peter Verigin, who had hitherto helped quell unrest. By speaking out against the police and in favour of collective property as the only true Doukhobor economy, he fired up his followers. Fred White became alarmed by the turn of events. Writing to the Minister, he confessed that “at one time we were anxious to have Peter Verigin arrive from Russia. It now looks as if we shall be compelled to take drastic measures to repress him.”

The concept of property relations was the wedge which, by 1904, divided the Doukhobors into three general factions: the wealthier “Independents” concentrated in the Prince Albert Colony, with some in the South Colony; Community or traditional Doukhobors, taken mainly from Tiflis and Elizabetpol emigres, concentrated in both the North and South Colonies; and the Sons of Freedom concentrated in the Yorkton Colonies. The latter took a much more militant stance in the ensuing conflict with the government. There was also a class dimension to the fissures: wealthier Doukhobors, it seems, were more disposed to accept government rulings and to go the route of the “Independents.” Where Peter Verigin’s allegiances lay is not clear, though they were most likely linked with the Community Doukhobors.

It is impossible to estimate how many Doukhobors sympathized one way or the other with Verigin. No observers were impartial, and certainly official reporting inflated the numbers who dissented from Verigin’s preachings. Corporal Junget, the officer in charge of the Yorkton battalion, reported on the open confrontation between those whom he called “Community” and “non-Community” Doukhobors. Some members asked for permission to withdraw from the community, but they wanted to take with them their share of what was by now a considerable amount of capital tied up in land, machinery and livestock. Dissenters were reported stealing away from the villages in wagons loaded with animals and implements, heading for the nearest police or land office to file for entry on land elsewhere. They were sometimes caught en route by “Community” Doukhobors. Roadside battles were fought with axes and pitchforks, and local police officers on occasion had injured Doukhobors stumble into their station after encounters with their brethren-foe.

Repression intensified during the summer of 1905. After a demonstration in Yorkton, the now promoted Sergeant Junget condemned sixteen male Doukhobors as “lunatics.” He ordered their wives to return to their villages and shipped the “criminals” to the Brandon Insane Asylum. According to the Medical Superintendent of the Asylum, the Doukhobors were not “insane”; they were merely “religious fanatics.” The Asylum was no place for them. In one of its last acts, the North West Assembly refused to commit the sixteen to the Asylum and they were discharged. Junget responded by sending a party of officers after the sixteen and re-arrested them on vagrancy charges and sentenced them himself to six months in the Regina gaol. Throughout the summer Junget had his officers chase down uncooperative Doukhobors. Dozens spent nights in prison. In the autumn, several interned Doukhobors went on a hunger strike to bring attention to the official treatment inflicted on them. By this time they had few supporters outside the community: the Canadian press played up the confrontation with headlines of “Demented Lunatics” and “Religious Fanatics.” In November, despite attempts to force-feed the strikers, one of them died of starvation.

VII

The death of this hunger-striker made it clear that the government could not hope to alter the situation with the carrot of a quarter-section of land and the stick of a night in gaol. Not only was it costly in human terms (the demonstrations continued through the winter of 1905-06), but settlers in the area were calling for the removal of the Doukhobors and the opening of their tracts for homesteading. Frank Oliver, as Minister, was inclined to oblige.

Not only had the reserves been abolished, which opened unoccupied tracts to non-Doukhobors, but in 1906 squatters also began to occupy land for which the Doukhobors had filed for entry under the compromise reached with Sifton. About half the sections in the reserves had actually been claimed, but under the agreement, Doukhobors were not required to cultivate a portion of the quarter-section, as stipulated by the terms of the Lands Act. Instead they could cultivate an equal portion elsewhere in the collective, say, closer to the village. Squatters refused to accept these terms: untilled land, in their eyes, meant that the Doukhobors were not living up to the terms required of all settlers. These quarter-sections were up for grabs and the government was reluctant to defend the rightful claimants, the Doukhobors.

Doukhobor village group in Saskatchewan, c. 1905. British Columbia Archives D-01139.

Nervous about possible confrontations between non-Doukhobors and Doukhobors, the police did what they could to keep them apart. In one incident, a group of Doukhobors went to Yorkton while the town was celebrating a summer fair. When the Doukhobors entered the town, they were said to have attracted the attention of the townspeople with their “singing and queer actions.” To prevent the Doukhobors from “interfering with the sports … it was decided by the Town authorities to run them in.” No criminal offence had been committed so the Doukhobors were charged under a town by-law. They were held in custody for several days and then released — “the object” of this authoritarian exercise, in the words of the commanding officer, “being merely to keep them away from the public and not injure the town during the Fair.” Officer Junget expected that eventually he would have to “take action against the whole outfit… and have them deported either to prison or [the] Lunatic Asylum.” Later, in July, another sixteen were arrested for “parading around town… at times in a semi-nude condition….” They served six months in the Regina gaol.

The situation did not improve. In late 1906 Oliver commissioned the Reverend John McDougall to report on the problem and to propose a solution. In what must be one of the most scandalous official reports submitted to a responsible government, McDougall called for a hard line. He reminded the Minister of the great strides made by the prairie economy. Amongst other things,

… everywhere land values have appreciated in rich measure and prices for land are from $200 to $500 more than they were five or six years since. Alongside of and in some instance cutting right through the midst of this development have been large areas of land known as “the Doukhobor Reserves,” and omnipresent in the minds of settlers and business men and transport officials was this stupendous lot of reserve land constituting as it has a most serious block impediment to the natural and righteous growth of the country.

McDougall celebrated the Anglo-Saxon settler and excoriated the disturbingly unconventional refugees from Russia. The former developed the country, the latter did not. To make matters worse, the Doukhobors openly contravened the law and then made unreasonable demands on the State to uphold special privileges. McDougall paid no heed to Sifton’s agreement or the reminders of non-Doukhobors like Herbert Archer that the Dominion government had made a deal with the Doukhobors. McDougall rested his case on the juridical point of the Doukhobors’ refusal to swear the oath of allegiance. To be sure, Sifton had overlooked this aspect of the Lands Act as a precondition to the receipt of patent. Doukhobors would not swear their allegiance to the Crown because they felt their only allegiance was to God.

Using this pretext, argued McDougall, they should be stripped of their land except for the belts around the villages. Accordingly, Doukhobors were to be granted fifteen acres per person. With a population of 7,853 “Communist Doukhobors,” the settlements would be left with 117,795 acres; they were thus to be dispossessed of 303,360 acres (they had already lost half of what the Reserves originally comprised in 1904). Oliver chose to implement the McDougall recommendations.

In a letter to James Mavor, Herbert Archer acknowledged the stickiness of the problem: “Squatters began to appear on the unimproved land. The Doukhobors tried to evict them & revolvers were produced. A state of violent anarchy threatened. And the squatters rightly charged the Government with protecting Doukhobor illegalities.” Archer was not entirely opposed to the McDougall solution. He thought it might bring peace to the region. But it didn’t. Furious, Mavor wrote the Prime Minister on behalf of the Doukhobors, explaining the long story of the Doukhobor settlement and appealing for a more sympathetic solution, though agreeing in principle that the Sifton compromise was entirely untenable. Laurier replied, saying he would give Mavor’s appeal due consideration and confer with his Minister of the Interior. In the meantime, Laurier received a memorandum from a member of the McDougall Commission, E.L. Cash, accusing the Doukhobors of occupying “the very best land in Saskatchewan,” and of being “foreigners” uninterested in the welfare of the Dominion or the Empire:

I would suggest… that these people should be given a fair chance to become Canadian Citizens, and cultivate their individual 1/4 sections. If it were an American Settler, and he refused to do this, his land would be cancelled without further consideration; then why should the Doukhobor be placed on a higher level than the American, who certainly would make more desirable citizens than the Russians…? If they refuse the offer made to them by the Government, they should receive only such an allowance of land as will be necessary for their subsistence.

The Prime Minister and the Minister of the Interior, fully cognizant of the history of the Doukhobors in Canada and the provisions made for them under the agreement struck by Sifton, and also aware of their material advances, decided to restrict their claim to fifteen acres per Doukhobor. Perhaps this decision was affected by the wave of squatters who seized unoccupied Doukhobor land in January, and was adopted in order to avoid a dangerous situation. In February John McDougall, now Commissioner for Investigation of Doukhobor Claims, posted notices giving Doukhobors three months to pledge allegiance. Those wanting to acquire quarter-sections more than three miles from the village had to show intent to abide by the terms of the Lands Act. Otherwise, they could only claim title to village land: fifteen acres per person.

Doukhobor land rush in Yorkton, 1907. Library and Archives Canada PA-022232.

In a last ditch effort to save their land, the Doukhobors sent a delegation to Ottawa to meet with Oliver. The exchange was testimony to Oliver’s determination to distance himself from Sifton’s original deal:


Doukhobors: The Doukhobors made entries in accordance with the agreement which the Government made before they came from Russia.

Oliver: I cannot tell them [the squatters] that the Doukhobors are holding land in accordance with an agreement made before they came from Russia because that is not true.

Doukhobors: We think it would be true because if the Doukhobors had not had such a promise they would not have come to this country. If the Government of Canada had suggested before the Doukhobors left Russia that this would not be carried out, they are sure they would not have come at all.

Oliver: If the Doukhobors had suggested the same terms which you suggest now, the Government would have said they could not come on those terms.

Mavor, in anger, wrote Oliver and accused him of stealing Doukhobor land with this “thoroughly unwise action.” Oliver merely observed that the Doukhobors failed “to live up to the technical requirements of settlers.” Mavor felt impelled to write to those who had contributed so much in aid of the Doukhobors in the early years: Elkinton, Vladimir Tchertkoff, Prince Kropotkin. To his friend Kropotkin, he wrote that Canada should no longer be considered a place for the settlement of Russian emigres: “Why not try the Argentine?”

Matters soon came to a head. Verigin wrote Mavor in April appealing for help. To complicate matters, the community had invested a great deal of money in machinery and livestock with the expectation of having more than a mere fifteen acres each. The debt-load was worringly high, and Verigin asked Mavor whether the machinery ought to be sold given the reduced size of their tracts. In June, the Doukhobor lands were thrown open for settlers. The day before the Land Office was due to open its doors, prospective homesteaders began lining up outside at 9:00 a.m. Policemen were stationed in the queue to keep the peace and prevent the over-anxious from queue jumping. Violence was narrowly avoided during the night, but the next day saw a rampage at the Land Office such as had never been seen before on the prairies.

VIII

Almost a decade after the Doukhobors had begun to flee their exiled homes in the Caucasus, they once again began to contemplate leaving the homes they had created on the Canadian prairies. Not all of them were dissatisfied. The so-called “Independent Doukhobors” had taken up quarter-sections and were prospering. The numbers who did so are not known, though Herbert Archer estimated that between 12.5 and 15 percent split from the collective. Woodcock and Avakumovic estimate that there were over 1,000 Independents.

The new solution did not quell Doukhobor protests. In July, 35 “fanatics” started a march to Winnipeg, thus setting off another round of demonstrations and arrests which lasted well into 1908. In May 1908, 31 men, 29 women, and 16 children started another trek. When apprehended by the police, they stripped. They were promptly arrested and sent to the Brandon Asylum, though the police report failed to say whether the children were also deemed insane. In July a whole village went on a hunger strike: a dozen were arrested and the village elders were packed off to the Asylum.

In the Spring of 1908, having selected a site in remotest British Columbia, Verigin began moving his followers to their new home. Those who remained continued their protests to the last. In July 1909, residents of the village of Hledebarnie set out on a protest march. They continued to give the North West Mounted Police trouble until they were relocated in 1912. By 1914 the Doukhobors had lost 2,300 quarter-sections upon which they had filed entry — 368,000 acres of improved land valued at $11,000,000. By moving to British Columbia, they also left behind sixty villages, complete with stores, roads, telephone lines, and trees. The Doukhobors estimated their total losses to be $ 11,400,000.

The Doukhobor experience on the Prairies sheds light on the extent to which the police were deployed by the State to put down an ethnic minority choosing to live with an alternative pattern of property relations. If the Mounties were often seen by destitute homesteaders as primitive social workers, as Carl Betke has argued, their relations with the Doukhobors demonstrate that there were very clear limits to their charity.

More seriously, there is a tradition of writing about the homestead model which celebrates its visionary and progressive accomplishments. A vacant land, save for the occasional native or Metis, was to be colonized, and the Lands Act of 1872 provided the framework. Homesteading, as it was envisaged in North America, was a specific process of agricultural settlement rooted in a clearly individualist heritage of agrarian practice. The law was meant to enshrine the process of settlement by private property owners. It served to exclude any other variation, including village-based agriculture. Since then, historians have often written as if homesteading was the only path to agrarian development.

Consequently, many historians have thus far accepted individual homesteading as the “necessary” approach to settlement simply because no other existed. Although alternatives were not explored, this does not mean they did not exist. Politics, more often than not, seals off alternatives. In the case of the Doukhobors on the prairies, officials at the very highest level of political authority chose not to tolerate the alternative structure of property relations. As a result, they broke an obviously badly drafted agreement, and instead denied the refugees their legal and economic rights.

The Doukhobors in 1904

by Patricia L. McCormick

The early years of Doukhobor settlement in Canada were turbulent and emotional.  But by 1904, much of the dissension and disorder of the early years, caused by lack of leadership, the fear of governmental interference and the activities of radicals within the sect had been replaced by a firm sense of purpose under the leadership of Peter “Lordly” Verigin.  The following article by Patricia L. McCormick, reproduced from Saskatchewan History (31, 1978, No. 1) outlines how in 1904, under Verigin’s leadership, the traditional Doukhobor qualities of thrift, industry, self-discipline and hospitality were concentrated on building a thriving community with good and modem equipment and enough stock and necessities to give them hope for a more comfortable life in the villages and an economic surplus for the community as a whole. By the end of 1904, however, this spirit of hope was again lost.

In 1899, over 7000 Doukhobor settlers arrived in Canada and travelled overland to the Districts of Assiniboia and Saskatchewan. The Doukhobors had been living in exile in the Caucasus for over half a century, but renewed political harassment and religious intolerance prompted them once again to seek a new home. Canadian officials were at the same time anxious to settle the vast prairie with experienced farmers, and quickly acceded to the Doukhobors request for reserved land, the right to live in villages and exemption from military duty. These concessions to the Doukhobors were similar to the terms granted to the Mennonites when they formed their reserves in Manitoba in 1874 and 1876, and in Saskatchewan in 1895.

The four boatloads of Doukhobors which arrived in Canada in the spring and summer of 1899 were directed to three separate reserves: the North Colony or Thunder Hill Reserve; the South Colony, with its Devil’s Lake annex to the west; and the distant Prince Albert or Saskatchewan Reserve. The North and South Reserves were both situated in the Yorkton area, and they came to form the core of Doukhobor settlement in the Territories.

The first group of settlers to arrive in the North-West travelled to the Thunder Hill or North Colony, and settled mainly near the Swan River valley. These people came from the Wet Mountains in the Caucasus. They were poor and their fares to Canada had been subsidized by the federal government. The second boatload of Doukhobors came from the Elizavetpol and Kars regions of the Caucasus. They settled in the South Colony, particularly in the Devil’s Lake annex. These settlers were relatively prosperous; they brought many of their belongings from the Caucasus, and most of them paid their own fares. The third boatload, however, brought to Canada Doukhobors who had already spent a distressing year in Cyprus, due to an ill-advised re-settlement scheme. These families, who were destitute and in poor health, settled in the main South Colony. In July 1899, the last group, made up of well-to-do Kars Doukhobors, arrived in the Canadian west. They were directed to the Prince Albert Reserve, situated along the banks of the North Saskatchewan River between the Elbow and Blame Lake. The geographical isolation of this colony from the main body of Doukhobors in the Yorkton area emphasized, from the very beginning, their desire for cultural and spiritual independence.

When the Doukhobors started to organize their new settlements, they adhered rigorously to instructions issued by Peter Verigin from exile in Siberia. They were to establish small villages composed of 40 families, and situated two to four miles apart; maintain communal production and distribution of all goods; try to keep self-sufficient and isolated from other groups; and, in their personal habits, be abstemious and rigidly vegetarian. To begin with, most of his disciples conformed to these strictures, but there was a rapid falling off of enthusiasm. As Maude noted:

Now in Canada, the time had come to live a ‘Christian’ life, and to show the advantages of communism over individualism. The various forms their attempt took, and the continual drift from communism towards individualism that occurred as a result of practical experience, until Verigin arrived and established a communist despotism based partly on moral coercion, furnish an interesting study.

It is not surprising, given the origins of the various groups, that the colonies which held most tenaciously to a communistic form of life were the main South Colony and the Thunder Hill or North Colony, where the poorer Doukhobors lived. Most villages attempted various compromises between the two extremes. However, two settlements, the Devil’s Lake annex of the South Colony and the Prince Albert colony, showed rampant individualism. Herbert Archer, a Quaker, estimated in August 1900 that in the Prince Albert colony only one village in ten was communistic.

When Peter Verigin arrived in the Yorkton colonies in December 1902, his immediate objective was to crush the individualistic tendencies of the Doukhobors and to re-impose communism on the more recalcitrant communities by moral and economic force. His success was dramatic. Most villages returned to a communistic organization, although pockets of disaffection with Verigin’s rule remained in the Prince Albert and Devil’s Lake colonies. When Mavor visited the colonies in 1904, at a time when defections from communal village life were few, he estimated that non-community Doukhobors numbered only one-fifth of the total.

Verigin, nonetheless, decided to cut his losses and early in 1904, he concentrated his attention on the South and Thunder Hill colonies where the “truest” Doukhobors lived. It was there that he demonstrated his flair for organization and his shrewdness in business and financial matters. Under the strict control of the Committee of three, made up of Verigin, Zibarov and Planidin, all aspects of the Yorkton colonies were supervised, and the economy was shored up by keen management.

In the accounts for 1903, presented at Nadezhda in the South Colony on February 28, 1904, Verigin itemized his purchases: 4 portable steam engines and 2 traction engines with threshing machines; 2 saw mills (to be driven by the steam engines); 50 binders; 32 mowers; 45 disc harrows; 20 seeders; 16 wagons; 109 ploughs; 234 sections of harrows; 12 fanning mills; and 152 sleighs. In addition to the equipment, Verigin also bought 370 horses for $36,765.00 and sheep for $1,461.00.

Although one of the avowed aims of the community was self-sufficiency, it is evident from the accounts that many goods still needed to be imported, either from Yorkton or Winnipeg. Almost $30,000 was spent on dry goods, and wheat, oats and flour cost the colonies $9,720. Other bulk items, such as leather goods, salt, coal oil, glass, sugar, tea, wool and soap were also purchased, although there was some debate at the meeting that they should abstain from such luxuries as tea and sugar in 1904.

Doukhobors plowing, North Colony, 1905.  Library and Archives Canada A021179.

The Doukhobors, then, started the year 1904 with firm leadership, good and modem equipment and enough stock and necessities to give them hope for a more comfortable life in the villages and an economic surplus for the community as a whole. And, according to the minutes of the meeting, Verigin was deeply preoccupied with plans for future improvements and purchases. The Doukhobors resolved to set up a brickyard so that the log and sod houses might be replaced by brick structures. Verigin proposed to buy a hundred milk cows, more seed drills and 2000 puds (i.e. a traditional unit of weight in Russia equal to 16.38 kg) of wool for homespun cloth. He wanted to construct a new saw mill for each of the North and South colonies and to build a large warehouse near Verigin on the new main line of the Canadian Northern Railway. The Doukhobors also decided to build their own roads in the future and to permit no schools on the reserves unless they themselves wished to establish them.

Although ambitious, these plans turned out to be realistic. In 1904 a brick-making machine was bought and set up near good clay in section 26, township 35, range 30, W.I. A hundred purebred Ayrshire cattle were purchased so that the Doukhobors might vary their vegetarian diet with more dairy products. In the summer they bought a steam-plough, and Mavor reported that it was used on the reserve that autumn. In July 1904, C. W. Speers, an official of the Department of the Interior, observed that there were ten miles of graded road in the Yorkton district reserves and 20,000 acres of crop “looking excellent”. He also stated that:

They intend to cultivate a large area next to the railway and go extensively into wheat-raising … They have every material want supplied and excellent equipment for their work in their district. There is an air of prosperity among the people and great promise for the present year.

When the 1904 crop was finally in, the Doukhobors enjoyed for the first time in Canada a small grain surplus. The statistics for the Yorkton reserves were as follows:

  South Colony Devil’s Lake Annex North Colony
wheat 40,261 bushels 10,317 bushels 17,085 bushels
oats 49,948 bushels 12,131 bushels 16,569 bushels
barley 23,396 bushels 5,646 bushels 10,673 bushels
flax 3,584 bushels 895 bushels 975 bushels

In a letter to Alex Moffat, dated January 17, 1905, however, Verigin lamented the fact that the Doukhobors were unable to sell their wheat, which they offered at 85 cents to 40 cents a bushel, depending on the grade. And of the 17,000 pounds of seneca root gathered by the women of the reserves in 1904, only 4,000 pounds had been sold for the small sum of $2,600. This letter underlines the precarious financial position that confronted Verigin. His attempt at deficit financing depended on a great increase in the production of grains and the sale of grains and the sale of agricultural surpluses outside the reserves. At this stage he was helped by the money brought into the colonies by men who worked as navvies grading railways, as mill-hands and as harvesters on neighboring farms. But, as Mavor cautioned in his Report, “It is clear that when external earnings diminish, as after the construction of the railways they must, the exports will have to be increased, or their external purchases diminished.”

The population of the three Doukhobor colonies in 1904, according to Mavor, was between 8,000 and 8,500. Most of the Doukhobors lived in villages, and each village accommodated an average of 40 families or 200 persons. Not surprisingly, though, the sizes of the villages varied. In a list of villages in the Yorkton reserves drawn up by C. W. Speers, only 7 of the 45 villages conformed to the ideal size. In the Prince Albert colony the largest village was Spasovka with 190 inhabitants; the smallest of the 13 villages was Uspenie with 65 inhabitants. The average population for the 13 villages in the Prince Albert reserve was only 115, but there the Doukhobors were allowed to settle only on even-numbered sections, and their density was thus lower than in the Yorkton reserves where they had been granted both odd- and even-numbered sections.

The villages in the Doukhobor reserves were laid out in the Strassendorf pattern, so familiar then in the Mennonite settlements, with a wide central street lined with shade trees and houses aligned perpendicular to the street. A visitor to the South Colony in October 1904 brought back a detailed description of a Doukhobor village and the interior of a Doukhobor house:

The houses of this village were all built of small logs, roofed with poles and sod. They were neatly plastered with clay, and I was told that this work was done by the ‘girls’. Some of the buildings were whitewashed, and then looked very well. All the houses were set back fifty or so [feet] from the fence bounding the road, but these spaces were not used as gardens, though perhaps that was the intention.

When the visitor entered a Doukhobor house, he found everything “spotlessly clean”. The entry room was bare of furniture. The living room measured approximately twenty feet square, and in the middle of it was a post which supported the roof. The log walls and roof poles were plastered with clay.

The floor was also of clay mixed with straw, and perfectly level and smooth. The big clay box-stove was built in one comer, but the door for feeding the wood into it was in the other room… Around three sides ran a bench – one side very wide, forming a bedstead on which two beds were made up covered with patchwork quilts… Above the bench, half way to the ceiling, the wall was covered with newspapers.

In the Yorkton reserves the major departure from the existing Mennonite model of village settlement was the central location of communal facilities such as granaries, stables and, in some cases, prayer homes. In contrast to the individual houses, these buildings were usually aligned parallel to the central street and situated on larger lots. In October 1904, the visitor observed the men of the village thatching the barn roof, which projected over the ends of the structure by five or six feet. The bam itself was built of logs and the exterior plastered with clay. It was set back 200 yards from the road, and the large stable had room for nine teams.

I was told that there were eight teams in the village, which was a small one of only thirty-five families. All the animals were in splendid condition, showing good care. They were of no one breed, but all large and shapely, good general purpose horses.

James Mavor noted another characteristic structure of Doukhobor villages, small bath houses, or saunas, built behind the homes.

In the Prince Albert or Saskatchewan colony many Doukhobors farmed individually on their own quarter-section. Where the farmers lived in villages and farmed individually, there was no sharing of common implements, nor was the crop divided up according to need. Their independence was also reflected in their houses. They adopted the traditional house-bam combination, a one-story structure aligned perpendicular to the central street. In addition to his own house and stable, each farmer had a granary on his own property. As a result, there were few communal buildings in the Prince Albert villages, and no prayer homes.

Village of Vosnesenya, North Colony, c. 1904.  Library and Archives Canada C-000683.

Sgt. Major Schoof, who visited two Doukhobor villages in the Saskatchewan reserve in June 1904 remarked, “Their houses are so perfectly weather tight and withal thoroughly clean,” and added that the gardens were “flourishing with all kinds of vegetables” and that “He enjoyed the luxury of a Turkish bath, one of which is built in each village with a competent assistant in attendance.”

In many ways the village life was attractive and admirably suited to the rigors of pioneer life on the prairies. The needs of the old or the sick were always taken care of by close neighbours and by the communal distribution of goods and produce. Mavor described, somewhat romantically, a summer scene in a Doukhobor village.

Men and women worked in the fields together, and they adhered to the pleasant Russian custom of marching in groups from the village to the scene of their labour, singing as they went. The earliest risers began to patrol the village street singing a hymn to the rising sun, and their voices aroused the others. When the band was completed, the workers marched away, their voices gradually becoming more distant. They returned in the evening in the same manner.

Even though 1904 was probably one of the more constructive years in Doukhobor history, there were portents of future confrontations with the federal government and of strong dissension within the community itself. Early in 1904 Peter Verigin started to prepare for some of the problems which were to emerge from the Department of the Interior’s inconsistent interpretations of the Homestead regulations as they pertained to the Doukhobors. In March or April, Verigin bought 13 square miles of land from a land company for $10,000, and three quarter-sections of partly improved land for $360.

His seeming prescience was confirmed by government action on December 15, 1904. In flagrant disregard of promises given to the Doukhobors by Sifton, the government served notice that only 180,000 acres of the 722,000 acres in the reserves had been legally taken up, and that the balance would subsequently be disposed of by the government to new settlers. The Saskatchewan Herald reported that the land office in Battleford was “besieged” when the Prince Albert Doukhobor reserve was opened up: “Some 60 entries were made, several of the applicants having waited outside the office several hours in order to put in their claim.”

With the extension of the Canadian Northern line past Buchanan, in the Devil’s Lake annex, in the autumn of 1904, the Assiniboia colonists also began to feel hostility and public pressure from the new settlers pouring into the area. The isolation the Doukhobors had sought and cultivated was irretrievably lost. This external pressure only exacerbated the resentment building within the communities of the so-called “true” Doukhobors for their more independently minded brothers. These they ostracized from the community and called “No-Doukhobors”. Early in 1905 Verigin urged all his loyal followers in the Prince Albert colony to come to the Yorkton reserves. The siege mentality which characterized the Doukhobor settlements on the prairies for the next three years was just beginning.

The history of Doukhobor settlement in the North-West was turbulent and emotional. But by 1904 much of the dissension and disorder of the early years, caused by lack of leadership, the fear of governmental interference and the activities of radicals within the sect had been replaced by a firm sense of purpose. There were, of course, occasional outbursts of frustration and fanaticism, but the years 1903-1904 represented a time of relative order and harmony in the colonies.

Under Verigin’s leadership all the traditional Doukhobor qualities of thrift, industry, self-discipline and hospitality were concentrated on building a thriving community. James Mavor’s observation in the spring of 1904 was that: “The people were in good spirits, and … adjusting themselves cheerfully to the country and the climate.” By the end of 1904 that spirit of optimism was again lost.

This article originally appeared in the pages of Saskatchewan History, an award-winning magazine dedicated to encouraging both readers and writers to explore the province’s history. Published by the Saskatchewan Archives since 1948, it is the pre-eminent source of information and narration about Saskatchewan’s unique heritage.  For more information, visit Saskatchewan History online at: http://www.saskarchives.com/web/history.html.