Spirit Wrestlers of Southern Russia

by Maria Kolesnikova

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tselina region, Rostov Oblast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Museum of Doukhobor Culture and Worship

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

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

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

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

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

The oldest surviving Doukhobor house in Petrovka.

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

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

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

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

The other women at the meeting hiss in protest.

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

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

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

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

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

Oral History

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

A traditional Doukhobor bow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breaking Ground in Spasovka and Uspenie

by Deanna Konkin

Deanna Konkin (1946-) is an elementary school teacher and organic gardener in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Her parents and sister reside on the family farm located near the original site of Spasovka Doukhobor Village. On occasions she returns to the farm, gazes across the fields and wonders what life was like in the village many years ago. She is a collector of Doukhobor memorabilia and books and is very interested in singing. The highlight of her singing career was in 1995 when she participated in the Voices for Peace Choir. Deanna enjoys and is skilled in the crafts of her ancestry, in needlepoint, embroidery, crocheting and knitting. Her ambition is to learn the art of linen-making, draw-work, weaving, embroidering, fringing of Doukhobor shawls, as well as other native crafts before they are forgotten. In the following article, reproduced by permission from Koozma Tarasoff’s “Spirit Wrestlers: Doukhobor Pioneers’ Strategies for Living” (Ottawa: Legas Publishing, 2002), she writes about the early days on the Saskatchewan prairies and the stories of her grandparents.

The Doukhobors from the Kars area in Russia settled in Spasovka Doukhobor Village. It was located in the block of land known as the Prince Albert Colony or the Duck Lake settlement, across the North Saskatchewan River and southwest of Duck Lake, Saskatchewan. The village was 14 miles southwest, on Section 14, Township 45, Range 5, West 3rd M. Of the Colony, it was the largest village with 47 households and a population of 217. The town of Blaine Lake was 14 miles [22.5 km] southwest. All that remains today is the unmarked graveyard on a hill with a lone tree growing on it.

The people who lived there went by such names as Stupnikoff, Konkin, Podovelnikoff, Demoskoff, Pepin, Perepelkin, Kabatoff, Shukin, Holuboff, Rebalkin, Maloff, Savinkoff, Tarasoff, Berikoff, Popoff, Babakaiff, Osachoff, Chernoff, and Hoodekoff.

Many villagers would go to Prince Albert via Duck Lake to find work and earn their daily bread. The men worked on construction such as building brick office buildings and dwellings, while the women washed clothes. My grandfather, Andrei Vasilyevich Konkin and his brother Ivan sought work in Prince Albert. Once they caught a ride in a boxcar filled with lumber at the time when the train derailed and they were pinned underneath. Luckily a conductor saw them and came to their rescue, saving them from serious injuries.

Some members of Spasovka village near Blaine Lake, Saskatchewan. These include Andrew Konkin (back row, second from the left) and his brother John (5th from the left) as well as respected elder Vasily Konkin (2nd row, 10th person from the left holding baby), 1906.

My grandfather Vasil Konkin who lived in this village was a spiritual and religious man. It was not uncommon for him to go on foot to the Uspenie Doukhobor Village some 20 miles [32 km] away. He would disrobe under the trees, walk out onto the street and preach to the villagers about Doukhobor beliefs, brotherhood, love, and the evils of materialism. All was witnessed by my grandmother Nastia Salikin (later Boulanoff). As young 10-year-olds, she and her two friends, Masha Selivanova (Kalesnikoff, later Mrs Alex Cheveldayoff) and Polya Katelnikova (later Mrs Pete A. Rebin), witnessed the disrobing, saying to themselves: ‘Vot Konkin svobodnik pribil’ (“the Konkin Son of Freedom has arrived”).

My great, great grandfather Nicholai Stupnikoff also lived in Spasovka. He was a psychic who could on numerous occasions foretell the future. One interesting episode took place back in Russia. A distraught man came to him and told him that the Tatars had stolen his mare. Nicholai replied: ‘Be patient, soon two horses will come to your home’. This man did as he was told. Sure enough, before long his mare returned home followed by a beautiful, frisky colt.

Fedia Salikin, circa 1900

My great grandfather Fedia Salikin lived in Uspenie Village. As the first pioneers in the area, he and his family lived in avuls (dugouts) on the bank of the North Saskatchewan River.

Fedia was a devout Doukhobor who suffered greatly for his beliefs in Russia. He and Aleksei Rebin were shackled together following the mass arms burning protest. As they walked to prison, the shackles kept unbuckling and falling off. The Tatars who were escorting them saw what happened and hollered Allah! Allah! Superstitiously they believed this was some kind of incantation at work, especially when this happened three times. Finally, the commander of the troop said: ‘If you give your word that you won’t run away, you can carry your shackles’. And so they did.

In prison, Fedia and two of his friends were ordered to put on army uniforms. They refused and took their clothes off and remained this way for three days. This was in the middle of winter. A soldier came and told them that they would be shot outside by a firing squad if they did not obey. A general arrived just in time to prevent the bloodshed. The three men were led back to prison and given winter clothing. They were told they had to be sentenced first, but they never were sentenced and eventually were set free with the others.

From Uspenie, Fedia and his family moved to Verigin, Saskatchewan where he was appointed as a miller, milling wheat into flour for the Doukhobor Community (the CCUB or the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood).

When the Doukhobors began the move to British Columbia in 1908, Peter V. Verigin asked Fedia to stay and make flour and send it to the Community in BC. Instead, because of his strong faith in the leader, Fedia joined his brethren in the move west. He did not want to stay behind because he believed that he would never hear from his Doukhobor friends and relatives again. He told the leader, ‘Peter, I want to toil more’. So he and his wife Avdotia (Dunia) packed up and moved to Blagodatnoe [Blueberry Creek] BC. There he, along with others, cut heavy timbers, extracted stumps and rock in order to make way for an abundant orchard and fertile farming land.

Fedias oldest daughter Nastia (my grandmother) and her husband (my grandfather), Fyodor Andreivich Boulanoff, later moved back to Saskatchewan. The damp mountain climate and the lack of food did not agree with my grandfather’s health. First they settled in the village of Pokrovka in the Langham area. When the people in the village began to farm independently, Fyodor and Nastia and their family settled on a rented farm. They heard about good land being for sale in the Blaine Lake district and moved there. Here they felled trees, gathered roots, and prepared the soil for tilling.

My grandmother worked alongside my grandfather. She was a fully liberated woman in her time. Besides helping with the fieldwork and barnyard chores, she also was a skilled seamstress, having done the sewing for the Doukhobor Community in BC as well as for her family. An avid gardener, she grew beautiful, bountiful gardens, the excess of which she sold to neighboring towns and cities. She passed her gardening skills and love of gardening to her family and their families. She was skilled in many crafts. One of these was growing her own flax, processing it, and spinning it into yarn to be later knitted or crocheted into doilies. She also spun wool into yarn, dyed it, and knitted it into warm mittens, socks, scarves and sweaters. In addition to her excellent homemaking abilities, she managed to keep up her melodious singing, teaching her children and anyone interested to sing psalms and hymns. One could hear her golden voice carrying high above the rest when she sang at sobranias and funerals. Peter V. Verigin once remarked to her, ‘Budet truba vo ves svet, i budesh tipet’ vo ves svet’ [There will be a pipe that will carry its sound throughout all the world and you will sing to all the world]. Many years later this prophecy was fulfilled. Grandmother and her family sang at local amateur shows on radio in the 1940s. Many people listened and enjoyed their delightful a cappella sounds.

My grandfather, Fyodor, was a devoted farmer. He was one of the first to grow hull-less oats in the Blaine Lake area. He also grew wheat, barley and rye. When he lived in the Langham area, Doukhobor parents asked him to teach their youth to read and write in Russian. Years later, many of his former students approached him and thanked him for teaching them so well. He also was a captivating storyteller. He had a great talent for remembering stories he had read and was able to retell them as everyone sat around and listened in awe.

At this time I wish to extend a tribute to all my ancestors for their beliefs, struggles, and sacrifices. May they have eternal rest and peace in God’s Heavenly Kingdom.

The Pavlovtsy

by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff

The Pavlovtsy were a group of peasant sectarians primarily from Pavlovka and surrounding villages in the Sumy district of Kharkov province that arose in 1886. Professing Stundist and Tolstoyan beliefs, they were above all influenced by the teaching of Prince Dmitry Alexandrovich Khilkov (1858-1914). Their religious views brought the Pavlovtsy into frequent conflict with church and state authorities. They maintained close ties with the Doukhobors in the Caucasus with whom they shared much in common. From 1899 to 1912, over 40 Pavlovtsy belonging to the Dudchenko, Ol’khovik, Matveyenko, Surzhik, Tverdokhleb, Turchin, Prokopenko, Koshcheyenko, Eremenko, Sukhochev, Teterenko and Sereda families settled among the Doukhobors in the Kamsack district of Saskatchewan. Those Pavlovtsy remaining in Kharkov suffered persecution and exile. The following timeline by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff outlines the history of the Pavlovtsy and their overlapping connections with the Stundist, Tolstoyan and Doukhobor religious movements.

1860s

 

German Baptist missionaries hold Bible studies and prayer meetings in South Russia, attracting many local Russian peasants to their faith. Since the Bible meetings are often one hour in length, these converts are called “Stundists” after the German word stunde for “hour”. By the 1870s, Stundism, characterized by evangelism, Bible study, good works, egalitarianism, pacifism and a rejection of the Orthodox Church, spreads rapidly across South Russia. 

Prince Dmitry A. Khilkov (1858-1914)

1877-1878

Prince Dmitry Alexandrovich Khilkov, Lt. Col. of the Guard leads a Kuban Cossack regiment during the Russo-Turkish War. He undergoes a profound spiritual crisis after killing a Turk in combat. He is quartered in Doukhobor villages on the Caucasian Front. Having come to abhor violence, he is impressed by the Doukhobors’ pacifism and humanity. He concludes that Doukhobor beliefs and practices are closer to the teachings of Christ than the beliefs of the Orthodox Church.

1884

Greatly influenced by Doukhobor teaching, Khilkov relinquishes his military career and returns to the family estate at Pavlovka in Kharkov province to put his new-found ideals into practice. From 1884 to 1886, he distributes his 1160 acre estate among the village peasants, retaining a 19 acre plot for himself. He proceeds to live and work as one of the peasants. At first highly suspicious of his intentions, the peasants are won over by his integrity and genuine desire to do them good. Neighbouring landowners are alarmed by Khilkov’s sympathy for the peasants and interference on their behalf in local disputes. Khilkov gains the reputation of one who “lives fully in accordance with the Gospel and who often quarrels with priests”. Following Khilkov’s example, several peasants cease to attend Orthodox Church and return their icons to the priests, saying that they are no longer needed.

1886

Khilkov makes the acquaintance of Count Leo N. Tolstoy whose writings on spiritual Christianity, pacifism and non-resistance to evil make him a kindred spirit. While Khilkov has come to his views independently of Tolstoy, he is now widely regarded as a Tolstoyan. Impressed by Khilkov’s example, other Tolstoyans arrive at Pavlovka to live and work among the peasants. One of these  is Semyon P. Prokopenko, a young barrister’s assistant in Sumy who leaves to work the land as a peasant. Others include brothers Mitrofan and Ivan S. Dudchenko, landowners in Sumy who redistribute their lands and leave to live among the peasants.  

  

1886-1890

Through Khilkov, Tolstoyan literature is widely distributed in the locality. There is already a strong body of Stundists in the area, who readily receive Tolstoy’s works as valuable spiritual reading. Professing an admixture of Stundist and Tolstoyan beliefs, the peasant sectarians of Pavlovka and outlying villages such as Rechki, Yastrebennoye, Postolni and others, become known as the Pavlovtsy

1890 March

Civil and ecclesiastical authorities view Khilkov’s influence as a threat to the established order. Khilkov is summoned before the Governor of Kharkov and informed that his presence in the country can no longer be tolerated and that he should move to the city. Refusing to oblige, he is threatened with exile for inciting the peasants and fomenting revolution. An official investigation charges Khilkov and twenty Pavlovtsy peasants with “falling away from Orthodoxy”. 

1891 July

The Pavlovtsy are placed under strict police surveillance. Ivan S. Dudchenko living in Pavlovka and Ivan V. Ol’khovik of Rechki are identified as peasant leaders. Anti-Pavlovtsy placards and pamphlets are widely distributed in the locality. Orthodox missionary work among the Pavlovtsy intensifies. 

Pavlovtsy leaders Nikolai I. Dudchenko (standing) and his father Ivan S. Dudchenko (sitting), Kharkov, c.1893

1892 February

Khilkov is exiled to the Caucasus for five years for spreading “anti-religious propaganda”. He settles in Bashkichet in Tiflis province where he again encounters Doukhobors. Several Tolstoyans including Semyon P. Prokopenko and Nikolai I. Dudchenko follow Khilkov into voluntary exile in 1893. Prokopenko, Dudchenko and those who are not exiles travel widely, circulating forbidden Tolstoyan literature among the Doukhobors. Local authorities are gravely concerned about the effect of Tolstoy’s “anarchical and seditious doctrines” on the Doukhobors, who are already in a state of religious and social unrest.

1894 July

A State decree outlaws Stundism as a “particularly dangerous sect” and bans all Stundist meetings. From this time onwards, the Pavlovtsy in Kharkov are subject to every kind of harassment: meetings are broken up and participants physically abused and fined, they are not permitted to visit one another or work together nor are they permitted to be employed. In September, four leading Pavlovtsy are exiled to Vologda. In November, sixty Pavlovtsy families refuse to swear the oath of allegiance to the new Tsar, Nicholas II.

1895 Easter

Sixty Doukhobor military conscripts are imprisoned, tortured and exiled for refusing to bear arms. In June, Doukhobor settlements in the Caucasus demonstrate pacifism by burning firearms. Local authorities respond with beatings and exile of 4,600 Doukhobor civilians. Moreover, three hundred Doukhobor military reservists are exiled for turning in their service papers. Khilkov writes to Tolstoy about the Doukhobor “Burning of Arms” and the brutal repression by local authorities. Shocked by the atrocities, Tolstoy initiates an international campaign to aid the persecuted Doukhobors. 

Count Leo N. Tolstoy (1828-1910)

1895 October

Pavlovtsy military recruit Petr V. Ol’khovik of Rechki refuses to bear arms, following the Doukhobor example. On route to exile in Siberia, he converts Kiril A. Sereda, a soldier from a neighbouring village in his escort. They settle in Yakutsk among Doukhobors exiled from the Caucasus for refusing military service. Several more Pavlovtsy refuse military service the following year in 1896.

1896

Authorities in the Caucasus blame Tolstoyan “agitators” for the growing militancy of the Doukhobors. For his involvement, Khilkov is transferred to a new place of exile in Estonia under much stricter conditions. 

1896 August

Pavlovtsy peasants Ignaty V. Ol’khovik, Anton Tverdokhleb, Yakov Surzhik, Mitrofan M. Matveyenko and Osip Turchin of Rechki are exiled to Warsaw province for three years. This follows an unsuccessful attempt to banish them in 1894 which failed because the village assembly was not empowered to pass a sentence of banishment on religious grounds.

1897

The Letters from the Peasant Petr Vasilyevich Olkhovik are published in London by Tolstoyan Vladimir Chertkov. The “Letters” outline Ol’khovik’s and Sereda’s refusal of military service “to fulfill Christ’s teaching” and are widely circulated among Russian pacifists and religious dissenters.

Rechki peasant Mefody K. Matveyenko

1897 August

 A State decree outlaws Tolstoyism as a “particularly dangerous sect”. As both Stundists and Tolstoyans, the Pavlovtsy find themselves in an impossible situation, outlawed on two counts.

1898 May

Khilkov is permitted to settle abroad in England and thereafter acts as one of the chief agents in the resettlement of the Doukhobors in Canada. He leaves for Canada in August and travels extensively, seeking out the best sites for settlement, liaising with government officials and accompanying the immigrants to their new homes, a task which occupies a whole year. 

1898

Ethnographer V.D. Bonch-Bruevich writes under pseudonym Ol’khovsky, probably coined from the name of Pavlovtsy exile Petr V. Ol’khovik. He assists the Tolstoyans in coordinating the mass resettlement of Doukhobors from Russia. He sails to Canada with the Doukhobors in 1899 and spends a year among them recording their oral tradition, psalms and folklore. Following his return to Russia, he maintains ongoing ties with Stundists, Tolstoyans and Doukhobors.

1899 January

Restrictions placed on the Pavlovtsy have become so severe that their condition is likened to solitary confinement. In these circumstances, the only hope seems to be to follow the Doukhobors’ example and emigrate. Thirty-eight Pavlovtsy families petition the Governor of Kharkov for permission to emigrate. Writing from Switzerland, Khilkov advises them to put off their departure until the following spring, but concedes they may be immediately better off in Canada, free from police harassment. Khilkov writes to Tolstoy, outlining cost of trip to Canada and recommending a route through Libau – Hull – Liverpool – Canada. Tolstoy is opposed to the emigration, believing that it is better for them as Christians to endure hardship than to flee from it. Undeterred, the Pavlovtsy begin their preparations, selling their land and possessions.

1899 June

Pavlovtsy Semyon P. Prokopenko and family sail to Canada with the Doukhobors aboard the SS Lake Huron. They settle in the Doukhobor village of Kamenka in the Kamsack district of Saskatchewan.

1899 July

A State decree allows Pavlovtsy to emigrate to Canada. Permission is granted under the same conditions as the Doukhobors: no conscription-age men can go; emigrants must pay their own way; and they are not allowed to return – under penalty of exile to remote areas. By March 1900, the State reverses its position: only those not eligible at all for military service – old men, women and children – are allowed to leave. Tolstoyans attempting to assist the Pavlovtsy emigrate are threatened with imprisonment. The mass emigration of Pavlovtsy does not materialize, however, there are still some individual emigrations.

S.S. Palatia passengers at Ellis Island, New York in 1899. Anton Tverdokhleb is lying in the extreme right of the first row. Ignaty Ol’khovik is sitting directly behind in the second row. Yakov Surzhik is standing second from the right in the fourth row.

1899 July

Pavlovtsy exiles Ignaty I. Ol’khovik, Anton Tverdokhleb and Yakov Surzhik emigrate to Canada directly from exile in Warsaw province. They sail aboard the SS Palatia via Hamburg and New York. They settle in the Doukhobor village of Kamenka, Saskatchewan. 

1899 July – September

Pavlovtsy Evgeny Sukhochev of Pavlovka emigrates to Canada and settles in the Doukhobor village of Kamenka, Saskatchewan. There he establishes a school in his house for the Doukhobor children of the village.

1899 September

Pavlovtsy exiles Mefody K. Matveyenko and Osip Turchin along with Tolstoyan Alexander Bodyansky emigrate to Canada. They sail aboard the SS Vancouver via Liverpool and Quebec. They settle in the Doukhobor village of Kamenka, Saskatchewan. Bodyansky assists in the settlement of the Doukhobors on the Canadian prairies. 

1900 January-March

The Pavlovtsy settlers in Kamenka keep a large library of religious and philosophical books. It is a rarity among the Doukhobors and becomes a highly prized source of information, knowledge and inspiration. One such book, “The Golden Grains”,is given to Ivan F. Sysoev, a child from the neighbouring village of Nikolayevka.  This gift of literacy enables Sysoev to learn to read and inspires him to later become one of the greatest Doukhobor poets in Canada. As well, the Sysoev family, being excellent singers, compose melodies to the poems contained in the book which become popular throughout the Doukhobor villages.

1900 June

Ignaty Ol’khovik, Anton Tverdokhleb, Yakov Surzhik, Osip Turchin, Evgeny Sukhochev and thirteen Doukhobors appear in the US Federal Census at Squaw Valley, Siskiyou County, California.  They obtain work there as woodcutters for extra income, returning to Saskatchewan later that year.

1901 March

Pavlovtsy Semyon P. Prokopenko, Ignaty I. Ol’khovik and five unnamed “brethren” (probably Tverdokhleb, Surzhik, Turchin, Matveyenko and Sukhochev) appear in the Canada census residing in the Doukhobor village of Kamenka, Saskatchewan.

1901 September

A party of 13 Pavlovtsy immigrants – the wives and children of Matveyenko, Turchin, Ol’khovik and Tverdokhleb emigrate to Canada.  They sail aboard the SS Lake Megantic via Liverpool and Quebec. Reunited with their husbands and fathers, they settle in the Doukhobor village of Kamenka, Saskatchewan.

1901 September

Pavlovtsy Nikolai I. Dudchenko emigrates to Canada. He sails aboard the SS Parisian via Liverpool and Quebec. He settles in the Doukhobor village of Kamenka, Saskatchewan.

1901 September

The Pavlovtsy remaining in Kharkov fall under the influence of radical Stundist preacher Moisei Todosienko who proclaims the imminence of the Last Day when all authority will be overthrown and the Kingdom of God established. Three hundred Pavlovtsy in a state of religious excitement destroy an Orthodox school and church in Pavlovka. Confronted by police and Orthodox villagers, one is killed and many are severely beaten. The Pavlovka district is sealed off and placed under a strict police regime. In January 1902, sixty-eight Pavlovtsy are put on trial. Severe sentences are handed down: four are given prison terms while forty-five are exiled to hard labour in Vladivostok, Siberia for periods of up to fifteen years. 

1902 June

Pavlovtsy exile Mitrofan M. Matveyenko emigrates to Canada. He sails aboard the SS Parisian via Liverpool and Quebec. He reunites with his family and settles in the Doukhobor village of Kamenka, Saskatchewan.  

1902 August

Pavlovtsy peasant Ivan N. Sereda of Rechki emigrates to Canada. He sails aboard the SS Tunisian via Liverpool and Quebec. He first settles in the Doukhobor village of Kamenka, Saskatchewan where he changes his name to Sardoff. He later travels to North Dakota and California as a labourer, eventually homesteading in Wainright, Alberta in 1907.

1901-1903

Nikolai I. Dudchenko and Semyon P. Prokopenko write to Khilkov and Bonch-Breuvich from Saskatchewan. The Pavlovtsy immigrants provide rare, detailed, critical descriptions of Doukhobor village settlement, interrelations, economic organization, etc.

1904 January

Leo Tolstoy writes to Doukhobor leader Peter V. Verigin in Saskatchewan about the plight of the Pavlovtsy remaining in Kharkov, a “deeply religious people suffering on account of a momentary distraction”. In February, Verigin sends Tolstoy five hundred roubles on behalf of the Doukhobors to assist the Pavlovtsy “who have been condemned to penal servitude for refusal of military service”.

1904-1905

The Pavlovtsy settlers in Saskatchewan – the Dudchenko, Matveyenko, Ol’khovik, Surzhik, Tverdokhleb, Turchin and Prokopenko families – take up individual homesteads in the district south of Kamsack. They obtain loans from the Doukhobor community to purchase supplies, equipment, etc.

Ignaty V. Ol’khovik family, Kamsack district, Saskatchewan c. 1914

1905 August

Pavlovtsy exile Petr V. Ol’khovik, Kiril A. Sereda and 182 Doukhobors arrive in Canada from Siberia aboard the SS Southwark. Sereda settles among the Independent Doukhobors of the Pelly district of Saskatchewan. Ol’khovik settles with a group of “Yakutian” Doukhobors in Brandon, Manitoba.

1906 April

Pavlovtsy settler Anna I. Ol’khovik marries Doukhobor Nikolai M. Antifaeff in Swan River, Manitoba. The wedding is performed by Methodist clergyman Rev. John E. Lane and is the first Doukhobor marriage consecrated in accordance with Canadian law.

1907 February

The Pavlovtsy settlers establish the Charkoff School District No. 1738 south of Kamsack, named after their home province. The Pavlovtsy settlers also establish a cemetery for their “Russian settlement”. 

1907 September

The Petr V. Ol’khovik family, along with forty “Yakutian” Doukhobors resettle to Los Angeles, California.  One year later, the Ol’khovik family permanently resettles in Vancouver, British Columbia. 

1909 January

Pavlovtsy peasant Osip A. Teterenko of Rechki sails to Canada aboard the SS Laura via Hamburg and New York. He settles in the Kamsack district of Saskatchewan. Upon his arrival he changes his name to Tetoff.

1911 July

Pavlovtsy Spiridon E. Koshcheyenko and family of Pavlovka sails to Canada aboard the SS Ausonia via Southampton. They had been exiled for ten years in Vladivostok, Siberia for their part in the Pavlovtsy uprisings of 1901. They settle in the Kamsack district of Saskatchewan.

1912

Pavlovtsy settler Kiril M. Matveyenko marries Doukhobor Tanya L. Lebedoff in the Kamsack district in a traditional Doukhobor wedding ceremony.

1912 July

Pavlovtsy Ivan S. Dudchenko and family of Pavlovka sails to Canada aboard the SS Teutonic via Liverpool. They had been exiled for ten years in Vladivostok, Siberia for their part in the Pavlovtsy uprisings of 1901. They settle in the Kamsack district of Saskatchewan.

1912 August

Pavlovtsy peasant Anton I. Eremenko of Postolni sails to Canada aboard the SS Teutonic via Liverpool. He settles in the Kamsack district of Saskatchewan. Upon his arrival he changes his name to Eremenkoff.

1912 November

Anton Tverdokhleb resettles in Musselshell County, Montana, USA. Soon after he changes his name to Hardbread.

Gravesite of Nikolai I. Dudchenko (1868-1916). Inscription reads:  “His Religion – Tolstoy”. Courtesy Koozma J. Tarasoff.

1916 January

Nikolai I. Dudchenko dies in a train accident. Nicholas Street in the Town of Kamsack is named in his honour. Articulate, literate and fluent in English, Dudchenko acted as spokesman and representative of the tiny Pavlovtsy settlement in Saskatchewan.

1918

Disillusioned with life in Canada, the families of Ivan S. Dudchenko, Semyon P. Prokopenko and Spiridon E. Koshcheyenko return to Russia. They initially settle in Ussurisk in the Russian Far East.

1918 December

The Kiril A. Sereda family appears in the Independent Doukhobor census residing in Kamsack, Saskatchewan.

1924 May

The family of Osip Turchin resettles to Detroit, Michigan, USA.

1926

The Petr V. Ol’khovik family along with forty Independent Doukhobor families resettle on a collective farm near Melitopol, Ukraine. Their aim is to help their Motherland establish the new life following the Revolution. In 1928, the young men receive calls to serve in the army following the institution of universal military service in the Soviet Union. Being pacifists, the families refuse military service and return to Canada in 1928.

Petr V. Ol’khovik family, Melitopol, Ukraine c. 1926

1930 December

The families of Kiril A. Sereda and Kiril M. Matveyenko appear in the Named Doukhobors of Canada membership list residing in Kamsack, Saskatchewan.

1937 May

The family of Kiril M. Matveyenko appears in the Named Doukhobors of Canada membership list residing in Kamsack, Saskatchewan.

1939 November

The family of Mitrofan M. Matveyenko appears in the Kamsack Doukhobor Society membership list.

Bibliography

  • Camfield, Graham P. “Aleksandr Khilkov: the Bolshevik Prince”. Unpublished article manuscript.
  • Camfield, Graham P. “From Tolstoyan to Terrorist: The Revolutionary Career of Prince D.A. Khilkov, 1900-1905” in Revolutionary Russia (London: Frank Cass, Vol. 12, No. 1, June 1999, pp. 1-43).
  • Camfield, Graham P.  Prince D. A. Khilkov: a Biography. Unpublished manuscript, British Library of Political and Economic Science.
  • Camfield, Graham P. “The Pavlovtsy of Khar’kov Province, 1886-1905: Harmless Sectarians or Dangerous Rebels?” in The Slavonic and East European Review (London: The Modern Humanities Research Association for the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, Vol. 68, No. 4, October 1990, pp. 692-717).
  • Chertkov, Vladimir, Pis’ma Petra Vasilevicha Ol’khovika, Krestianina Kharkovskoi Gubernii, Otkhazavshagosa ot Voinskoi Povinnosti v 1895 godu (London, 1897).
  • Donskov, Andrew (ed), Leo Tolstoy – Peter Verigin Correspondence (Ottawa: Legas 1995).
  • Gusev, N. N. “Pavlovtsy”, Ch.1, Russkaia Mysl’, No.7, 1907, pp.40-71.
  • Inikova, Svetlana A., History of the Doukhobors in V.D. Bonch-Breuvich’s Archives (1886-1950’s) (Ottawa: Legas Publishing, 1999).
  • Klibanov, A.I. History of Religious Sectarianism in Russia (1860s-1917) (Toronto: Pergamon Press, 1982).
  • Manitoba Free Press, “Swan River Wedding” (April 6, 1906).
  • Spinning Stories: A Woven History, Kamsack, Togo, Veregin, Runnymede, Cote. (Kamsack: Kamsack History Book Committee, 1988).
  • Woodcock, George and Ivan Avakumovic, The Doukhobors (Ottawa: Carleton Library, 1977).
  • Woodsworth, John, Russian Archival Documents on Canada: The Doukhobors: 1895-1943, Annotated, Cross-referenced and Summarized. Catalogue No. 2 (Ottawa: Carleton University, 1996).

Special thanks to Graham P. Camfield, Assistant Librarian of the British Library of Political and Economic Science in London England for his invaluable help and for generously sharing his unpublished manuscript material on the Pavlovtsy. This is a work in progress. If readers have any additional information with respect to the Pavlovtsy settlers in Saskatchewan and their descendants, please email the authorJonathan Kalmakoff.

Doukhobors: An Endangered Species

by Dr. John I. Postnikoff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doukhobor Leader Peter “Lordly” Verigin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russian – the traditional language.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forced Doukhobor Schooling in British Columbia

by William Janzen

Historically, Doukhobors had not emphasized formal education. They were concerned that schools would lead their children away from their community life and religious ideals. Also, their view of ‘the God within’ made it less important. Despite these views, in Saskatchewan, the entry of Doukhobors into the public school system went relatively smoothly, in part due to its localized nature, the leniency of civil servants in enforcing attendance requirements, and the openness of the largely Independent Doukhobor population towards education. In British Columbia, however, the Doukhobors’ stronger communalism and greater hesitancy about the larger society, combined with the rigid approach of the provincial government, produced dramatically different results. The following article by William Janzen examines the forced schooling of Doukhobors in British Columbia. Reproduced by permission from his book, “Limits on Liberty, The Experience of Mennonite, Hutterite and Doukhobor Communities in Canada” (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990), it examines three distinct periods: 1909-1913, 1914-1927 and 1927-1959.

1909-1913: Acceptance, Rejection, and a Commission of Inquiry

The story of the Doukhobors and public schools in British Columbia is complex. Virtually all the Doukhobors who moved there belonged to the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood. As such they had both a stronger communalism and a greater hesitancy about the larger society. The approach of the provincial government was different, too. British Columbia had had a public school system since the 1870s. It even had an attendance requirement, though it applied only to children aged 7-12, and only if they lived within three miles of a school accessible by public roads. Also, the system operated under a central Council of Public Instruction with relatively little scope for local boards. This circumstance tended to bring school issues into the arena of provincial politics even though it might have been possible to resolve them locally.

The Doukhobors’ first contact with British Columbia’s school system came soon after they arrived in 1909. By 1910, some who lived close to public schools discovered that their children were expected to attend. They then complied without complaint. In 1911 the school district of Grand Forks built the Carson school near Doukhobor lands to accommodate more Doukhobor children. Soon thereafter the Doukhobors, who were quickly becoming established in their new settlements, built a school right on their land near Brilliant. It opened in 1912 as an official public school with an all-Doukhobor board and an enrolment of forty-eight pupils. The teacher, Beulah Clarke Darlington, spoke highly of the Doukhobors and of the experience in general. In a letter to a local newspaper she stated: ‘It is a relief to find people with no pretense who are willing to work with their hands, and who show, by the wonderful development of that country, that they are capable of working with their brains as well; who are content with simple pleasures and who keep a right outlook on life because they are not striving after wealth or trying to attain a position in society which is worthless when procured.’ The Doukhobors were very pleased with Darlington as a teacher. They planned to expand class-room facilities for the coming year and encouraged Darlington to bring some of her friends also to serve as teachers.

Then, suddenly, there was an interruption. The schoolchildren were withdrawn, not to return until four years later. A major reason was the arrest of five Doukhobors who had been sentenced to three months in prison for failing to register a death. The chief constable for the Grand Forks area met with Peter V. Verigin and was informed that the Doukhobors, at a large meeting, had decided not to register births, deaths, and marriages even though the law required it. When the constable reported this information to the attorney-general he was told: ‘You may inform Mr. Verigin … that the laws of British Columbia must be obeyed … and … will be strictly carried out, without any favour being shown to him and members of his Society.’ The Doukhobors then sent a letter, dated 16 July 1912, addressed to ‘The Government of British Columbia,’ to explain their position. They said: ‘We believe that the favourable adorable power is ruling all the world and endeavour to be written in eternal life book, and propose ourselves obligation to live quietly and to employ honest labour on the earth, so as to get substance. All the human race registration we calculate unnecessary. We can say, briefly, our religion confines on two commandments to be gentle and to employ agriculture.’

Doukhobor children in flax field, Grand Forks, BC, circa 1920. British Columbia Archives C-01745.

The public, which at first had welcomed the Doukhobors for contributing to the economic development of the area, now became more critical. Newspapers pointed out that they were not taking the oath and that they were not co-operating fully with the 1911 census. Local citizens expressed concern that the Doukhobors were becoming numerous, that they might ‘swamp the community,’ and ‘that it would be impossible for them to be assimilated.’ In response, the Conservative government led by Premier Richard McBride appointed a royal commission to make a broad inquiry. The person chosen for the task was William Blackmore, a newspaper editor from the nearby town of Nelson.

When Blackmore came to the Doukhobor community, later in 1912, he was welcomed in an elaborate way. The Doukhobors showed him their orchards, sawmills, and other prospering enterprises, and talked of their plans for further development. They also invited him to their religious assembly, where the children sang for him. In one such ceremony, a young boy stepped forward and said: ‘We’ve been attending school during the eleven weeks it was in session, but we no longer wish to go to school again, because the teacher, though very kind, belonged to the people who had put our friends in prison.’ Blackmore stayed with the Doukhobors for almost four months and held long public hearings. He also made a trip to their settlements on the prairies. At the end he produced a report that was extensive and remarkably sympathetic to the Doukhobors but it did not relieve them from the responsibility of abiding by the established laws of the province.

Regarding their refusal to register births, deaths, and marriages, Blackmore stated: ‘They will not register because they desire to remain unmolested in their communal life. They want no interference, as they call it, which means no intrusion of any kind. They claim that birth and death are the acts of God, and call for no cognizance on the part of man; and as to marriage, they take the high ground that it is purely a matter between the contracting parties.’ Blackmore also found that the Doukhobors feared that registration would somehow lead to military service. In their own words they said: ‘The registration intimately… tied …with religious faith … we wish to be citizens of all the world, and do not wish to register our children in the Royal Crown Government books … We are not refusing to give knowledge of increase or decrease of our Doukhobor Community people in ten or five years once. But to enter in your register books we will never do it. Because we calculate we are already registered in the Book of Life before Him the Founder, which is called Eternity.’

Regarding public schools, Blackmore found that the Doukhobors were concerned that ‘education was likely to make the children discontented with the life of cultivation of the soil followed by their parents,’ and ‘separate the children from their parents and from the customs and habits of the Community.’ He reported further that the women had said that ‘among them crime was unknown, and that, whereas among educated people poverty existed, no Doukhobor ever suffered for want of food or clothing; so … while the laws spoken of were needed for other people, they did not think they were required among the Doukhobors.’

In a statement of their own, the Doukhobors listed three reasons for their objection to the public schools:

1) The school education teaches and prepares the people, that is children, to military service, where shed harmless blood of the people altogether uselessly. The most well educated people consider this dreadfully sinful such business as war, lawful. We consider this great sin.

2) The school teaching at the present time had reached only to expedience for the easy profit, thieves, cheaters, and to large exploitation working-class laborious on the earth. And we ourselves belong to working-class people and we try by the path of honest labour, so we may reap the necessary maintenance, and to this we adopt our children to learn at wide school of Eternal Nature.

3) The school teaching separates all the people on the earth. Just as soon as the person reached read and write education, then, within a short time leaves his parents and relations and undertakes unreturnable journey on all kinds of speculation, depravity and murder life. And never think of this duty, respecting his parents and elder-ones, but he looks opposite, turning themselves, enslaving of the people, for theirs own licentious and insatiableness gluttony … educated people, swallow down all the national peoples … the people suffer from not having land even a piece of daily bread … we distinctly understand instruction of Christ, we holding on to Community life and we calculate all the people on earth are our brothers.

These three objections — that education in public schools leads to militarism, that it is not practical, and that it alienates people from one another, thus militating against community life — were to be referred to again and again in the following half-century as the controversy continued.

In his report, Blackmore spoke positively of how the Doukhobors themselves provided for the education of their children:

It must not, however, be supposed that, because this misguided people refuse elementary education for their children, they do not give them the best home training.

The children are intelligent, respective, and observant. The home life is almost ideal. They are taught all the cardinal virtues with which most of us, as children, we acquainted, but which are now too often regarded as old-fashioned — such as obedience, reverence, industry, and thrift; and it is not a little to the credit of their parents to find that the chief objection that they entertain to education is the fear that secular teaching may undermine the religious spirit.

Blackmore also praised their capability as agriculturalists, their irrigation system, their large orchards, and the other enterprises that they, as the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood, had collectively developed. Blackmore stated:

It is not out of place at this point to comment on the wonderful success that has attended the fruit-growing operations of the Doukhobors. To them it was a new industry. They had never been engaged in it before coming to British Columbia. Yet, today, if you were to go through their orchards, you would find that they are the cleanest, the best-kept, the heaviest-cropped of any in the district…

In addition … the Doukhobors have manifested a spirit of enterprise at Brilliant by putting in a splendid concrete reservoir capable of holding 1,000,000 gallons of water, and from this reservoir the water is being piped all over the Settlement. It is to be used both for domestic purposes and irrigation.

The reservoir will be supplied partially from a creek in the mountains, and partially by an immense pumping plant which the Doukhobors have erected … on the banks of the Kootenay River. This is the largest pumping plant in British Columbia …

Besides the farming industry, the Doukhobors have established sawmills on all their properties, which are used chiefly to convert the timber into building material …They have also a good brick-making works at Grand Forks, which is producing a high-class brick, commanding a ready sale. This brick is being used in the new Government Buildings at Grand Forks, which is a fair testimony as to its quality.

While recommending that the Doukhobors should be required to obey provincial laws, Blackmore cautioned against ‘drastic steps … to force their immediate compliance,’ stating that ‘persecution is fuel to the flames of fanaticism. Withdraw the fuel, and the fire will die out.’ He suggested a policy of ‘patience with the people’ and ‘pressure on their leaders’ and that, ‘if it is found necessary to resort to prosecution and conviction ensues, it is desirable that the punishment should take the form of fines rather than imprisonment.’ Prison sentences, he felt, might nurture a martyrdom complex. He also recommended that to facilitate the registration of births, deaths, and marriages, a member of the Doukhobor Community be appointed as a sub-registrar. And to facilitate matters in the schools he said that ‘Russian teachers could be employed in conjunction with Canadian teachers, and that the curriculum be modified so as to include only elementary subjects.’ He also suggested that a permanent Doukhobor agent be appointed to serve somewhat like an Indian agent.

Most of Blackmore’s observations and recommendations were such that a mutually satisfactory compromise might have developed. But the Doukhobors’ disposition towards a compromise was drastically set back because, at the very end of the report, Blackmore recommended that their exemption from military service be cancelled. This suggestion was most upsetting to the Doukhobors. They had questioned Blackmore about the possibility of war between Britain and Germany, about the probability of Canadian involvement, and about the status of their exemption. Now they felt confirmed in their suspicion that there was a connection between registration, school attendance, and military service.

1914-1927: Pressing Community Doukhobors to Accept Schools

While Blackmore’s final recommendation disappointed the Doukhobors, the generally moderate tone of his report disappointed the authorities. Supported by local citizens, officials soon discarded his counsel for patience. They rejected a Doukhobor offer that for vital statistics, they check the Community’s records. The public wanted compliance with the existing law; to gain evidence for prosecutions they exhumed bodies and raided a village. Naturally, this approach was upsetting to the Doukhobors. Regarding the schools, the Doukhobors were now also concerned about a recently introduced program of military drills and rifle shooting. The Department of Education had started the program in order to foster ‘the spirit of patriotism in the boys, leading them to realize that the first duty of every citizen is to be prepared to defend his country.’

Early in 1914, when Doukhobor children were still not in school, the government prepared itself for an unusual course of action. It enacted the Community Regulation Act, which made the Doukhobor Community, that is, the CCUB, liable for an infraction committed by any member. The act referred particularly to infractions relating to vital statistics, school attendance, and the Health Act. It authorized officials to seize, without warrant, the goods and chattels of the Community in order to cover fines not paid by individuals. In one sense, holding the Community liable was understandable. The Doukhobors, as individuals, had little property while as a Community they had a sizeable amount. Nevertheless, as a form of collective punishment this law was a departure from Canada’s tradition of justice. More seriously, the law defined a Community member as any person who, on the oath of one witness, had been found on or about Community lands. This meant that even if the Community expelled trouble-making individuals, which it did on occasion, it could still be liable for the actions of such individuals. Obviously, the Community was extremely vulnerable.

As the authorities became more threatening, some Doukhobors, apparently against the advice of Peter V. Verigin, responded with a threat of their own. They sent a long list of grievances to Attorney-General Bowser and then said: ‘The [Community] Doukhobors, of whom there are six thousand members, are planning beforehand in this case, to all take off what clothes still remaining on them after the plunder they have been subjected to in Saskatchewan, take them and throw them into the faces of your officials in Nelson and Grand Forks, and leave themselves stark naked on the very street of the town. This will be a good illustration to show the attitude taken by the government officials in regards to Doukhobors.’ The attorney-general replied that if the clothes came off the law against indecent exposure would be enforced.

As the confrontation became increasingly intense several non-Doukhobors tried to intervene. Blackmore continued to counsel moderation in the columns of his newspaper. A lawyer from the town of Nelson wrote to the attorney-general: ‘I contend that the Grand Forks people are not playing the game square as far as these people are concerned. They welcomed them to their midst and took their money for the land, and now, when they have made a success of agriculture in that district, they want to drive them out.’ A CPR superintendent urged the government to seek a compromise so as to avoid ‘injury to the religious convictions of the Doukhobors.’ A.E. Miller, inspector of schools, was cautious, too. He predicted that ‘any attempt to enforce attendance will be met with opposition.’ Others, however, supported the action of the government. A group of Quakers from Pennsylvania who had earlier supported the Doukhobors now said: ‘The sooner the Commune is broken up, the sooner will be real progress amongst these simple, misled people.’

For a time the trends pointed towards a harsh confrontation. A.E. Miller was instructed to warn the Doukhobors that ‘the refusal to comply with the requirements as to education would mean the breaking up of their community.’ In August 1915 the attorney-general issued instructions to enforce the Community Regulations Act. At that point, however, certain technical obstacles were noticed. The property, until 1917, was registered in the name of Peter V. Verigin, not in the name of the Community. Also, school attendance was compulsory only if people lived within three miles of a school, accessible by a public road. Most roads in the Doukhobor settlements were private.

Before these legalities could be tested a compromise was reached. On 20 September 1915 the attorney-general promised a delegation of Doukhobors that no military training would be forced upon their children and that they would be excused from religious exercises. The Doukhobors in turn promised that their children would return to both the Carson and the Brilliant public schools. As a result, a period of co-operation followed. The Doukhobors built nine additional public schools although these were administered not by local boards but by an official trustee appointed by the government. At one point, in the 1920-1 school year, the enrolment rose to 414, which was more than 80 per cent of those eligible, although attendance was little more than 50 per cent. Inspector Miller, following a policy of caution and patience, did not press for full attendance.

This co-operation lasted for several years, but soon after the First World War there were strains related to the Doukhobors’ exemption from military service and to their prosperity. In February 1919 a meeting of returned soldiers in Nelson demanded that all Doukhobors be deported to Russia and that their lands be given to veterans. A meeting of citizens declared its support for the veterans and at one point twelve ex-soldiers went to Verigin to force their demands upon him. Apparently Verigin then signed an agreement to turn over the Doukhobor lands to the Soldiers’ Settlement Board but a few days later he wired Arthur Meighen, the minister of the Interior, that he had signed under duress. Meighen, the Conservative who according to George Woodcock ‘consistently proved fairer to the Doukhobors than his Liberal predecessor Frank Oliver,’ ruled that the Soldiers’ Settlement Board had no right to carry out expropriations.

Group of Doukhobor schoolchildren at Brilliant, BC, circa 1920. British Columbia Archives D-01929.

The soldiers’ claim to the land was thus nullified but the general criticism of the Doukhobors continued, leading some Doukhobors to withdraw their children from school. However, a 1920 amendment to the Public Schools Act broadened the compulsory attendance provisions and authorized the construction of schools on the lands of the Doukhobor Community and at its expense. Also, Inspector A.E. Miller, under whose patient supervision things had worked reasonably well, was replaced by E.G. Daniels, who began to press for better attendance. In December 1922, the Grand Forks school board took legal action against eight cases of truancy. Fines were imposed and when they were not paid, some CCUB property, meaning Doukhobor Community property, was seized. However, before it could be sold, Community officials intervened and paid the fines.

In April 1923, Inspector Daniels pressed further. Fines of $50 each were levied on six parents. When they were slow in paying, a large truck, used by the Community for farm work, was seized. Again the Community paid the fines. But soon after, in May 1923, a school building was destroyed by fire. In the months that followed a total of nine schools in the Brilliant area were destroyed, the burnings in each case coinciding with an attempt on the part of the police to seize property in payment of fines.

The burning of schools was a relatively new type of action on the part of the Doukhobors. There were some acts of civil disobedience in their history, and a few times some Doukhobors had destroyed property as a way of witnessing against materialism. However, this more widespread destruction of property was a departure from their tradition. It also created a new dynamic among the Doukhobors. Those who committed these acts were a very small minority. Verigin and other Community leaders publicly declared that the Community as a whole had nothing to do with the burnings and that many of their children were still attending school. At one inquiry a teacher of a burned school testified that the Community Doukhobors had, ‘instead of burning schools, been guarding them and that the destruction has been the work of a small but fanatical element among them.’ The authorities, however, did little to apprehend the guilty individuals. Instead, they followed the orientation of the Community Regulation Act and held the Doukhobor Community liable for the depredations.

While dissociating themselves from the acts of destruction, the Doukhobor Community leaders also charged that School Inspector Daniels was using undue compulsion in pressing for attendance. They warned that if the prosecutions continued, they would not be able to guarantee the safety of other schools. In a letter to the minister of Education, dated 17 May 1923, the Doukhobors said:

It is apparent that the government is only seeking an excuse to create a quarrel with the Doukhobors, on the basis of the school issue.

Doukhobors are fanatics — so the English say, but what can we term the action of Mr.
Daniels? This is more than fanaticism. What compels them to take such measures when the school question is so favourable, and the people are living peacefully, working and cultivating their own holdings … You are only expert at ruining peaceful residents and plundering the proletariat…

There is a saying: ‘One fool can roll a stone off a mountain top into a river, but ten wise men, try as they may cannot take it up again”. Mr. Daniels rolled this stone down, although it’s not yet of very large proportions. He too must salvage it from the nether regions before it is too late.

The tension continued and in April 1924 Verigin’s own house was destroyed. He then appealed to the premier for protection and offered to provide the names of the twenty to thirty arsonists. To his surprise, there was little interest in his offer. The government, instead of seeking to apprehend the guilty individuals, levied special taxes on the Doukhobor Community in order to pay for destroyed property. On 24 October 1924, in an even more drastic event, Peter V. Verigin was killed in a train explosion, along with eight other people. The reason for the accident was never established. Many blamed the ‘fanatical’ Doukhobors but some Doukhobors thought that the Canadian government had killed him just as Russian governments had exiled their earlier leaders.

It was a traumatic time for the Doukhobors. The authorities continued to enforce the law with prosecutions, fines, and the seizure of Community property. Before long most of the Doukhobor children who had been in school were withdrawn. In April 1925, a police inspector, 10 deputies, and 100 citizens forced their way into Community warehouses and seized $20,000 worth of goods, according to the Community’s estimate. This response was unusually severe. But then, suddenly, things changed. Peter P. Verigin, the new Doukhobor leader, who would soon be coming from Russia, sent word that ‘all children should be sent to school and no protests held until he arrived.’ The Doukhobors complied and a three-year calm followed.

In summer 1925 the Doukhobor Community built five new schools and in the next few years it erected several more. When Peter P. Verigin arrived in September 1927 he said he wanted the Doukhobors to have the best possible education while retaining their religious faith. He also had plans to set up private Doukhobor schools. To assist in this matter he had brought along Paul Biriukov, a friend of Tolstoy. Provincial authorities, however, turned down the private school proposal so the effort was redirected into Russian-language classes after regular school hours, and into choirs and other cultural activities. Peter P. Verigin’s acceptance of public schools settled the question for a majority of the Community Doukhobors. Those who were not persuaded gradually became known as the Sons of Freedom.

1927-1959: Forcing School on the ‘Sons of Freedom’ Doukhobors

When Peter P. Verigin arrived in 1927, the Sons of Freedom numbered only a few hundred. Indeed, they were not a fully distinct group, However, their activities and their numbers were about to increase. In January 1929, when most Doukhobor children were in school, this group withdrew its children and announced that they would not be returning. This event resulted in ten arrests, which in turn led to a nude demonstration. Verigin who, in an earlier appeal for unity, had described the Sons of Freedom as ‘the ringing bells who cleared the way for the movement’ now disowned and denounced them. In a press release to newspapers dated 6 February 1929, he stated: ‘Please take notice that the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood, Limited, had nothing to do and will never have any connection with these people and with their dirty insolent violence, and all their stupid, childish actions, such as unclothing to the skin … these persons do not belong to the membership of the Community. The Community is not taking any responsibility for their actions materially or morally and moreover the Community refuses to consider such persons as brothers and to have any connections with them.’

In March 1929, the Sons of Freedom issued a letter addressed to ‘the Executives of all Countries: Judges, Government Inspectors, Police and all other servants of man-made laws,’ which stated:

The time has come to reveal… why we reject the Government schools and their orders. We are conscious of our history, and denote it by saying that Christ was the first Doukhobor. We are the direct Spiritual descendants of the Apostles of Christ and his followers, the so-called Christian martyrs of this time. It was the same kind of Government as the Canadian, that crucified Christ two thousand years ago … Take our Government school education; people are so hypnotized by it that they do not see that its results are demoralizing. The present Government schools are nurseries of militarism and capitalism … If there are men to be found among educated people like George B. Shaw, Tolstoy, Tagore, Gandhi, and many others, these men received enlightenment through Spiritual Regeneration, heeding the voice of Christ, and if such men are to be given honour, it was not attained by college education. Our whole history is marked by cruel persecutions by the churches, governments and capitalists. These persecutions are on account of our loyalty to Christ’s teaching and our uncompromising refusal to submit to any Authority but God’s.

In summer 1929 there were numerous acts of property destruction. In most instances it was property used by the Community Doukhobors. On 29 June three schools that the Community Doukhobors had built in 1925 were burned. In August three more schools, a flour mill, and a warehouse belonging to the group were destroyed. When two men were arrested, demonstrations involving nudity followed. As a result fifty-five men and forty-nine women were convicted for indecent exposure. Their sentence was six months at the Oakalla Prison Farm in New Westminster. It was the first mass imprisonment. Some of the prisoners’ children were held in custodial care by the province until the parents were released.

In February 1930 those who had been imprisoned were released but they now found that they were no longer accepted as members of the Doukhobor Community. They were expelled. But some Doukhobors in the ‘branch communes,’ especially in the poorer ones, welcomed them. This action led Verigin to withdraw all loyal Community Doukhobors from those areas, thus creating a more complete separation between the Sons of Freedom and the Community Doukhobors. This separation, however, did not prevent the acts of property destruction. However, to the consternation of the Community Doukhobors, the police were still not eager to apprehend the guilty individuals or to protect the community’s property. Peter P. Verigin now complained: ‘The police are standing and looking… what is the use of building schools when they are burning and dynamiting them faster than we can build them.’ The Community Doukhobors wanted the Sons of Freedom removed from their property and offered to pay the cost of a government investigation into the problems. The government instead continued with its policy of holding the Community liable for the destruction of property while arresting individuals who participated in nude demonstrations.

The provincial authorities were strengthened when the federal government, in August 1931, changed the Criminal Code so as to provide ‘a mandatory penalty of three years’ imprisonment for nudity in a public place.’ Because prison terms longer than two years are served in federal penitentiaries, the three-year penalty brought some financial relief to the provincial government. It also helped provincial politicians to project an image of ‘getting tough’ on the Doukhobors. However, lengthening the prison term was not effective as a deterrent to the nudity problem. The demonstrators wanted to make a religious witness, and the longer imprisonment could only enhance the martyrdom they sought. Instead of the demonstrations diminishing, they became larger. One participant later spoke of them in this way: ‘You see the (zealots) refused to pay their taxes, refused to comply with the ownership regulations; they just refused … and had written a kind of appeal to everyone to the effect that the time had arrived when we must take this ownership from Caesar and give it back to God … It was a wonderful sight. I doubt if this planet had ever seen anything like it… It was a protest against land ownership and all ownership — against the Caesar’s injustice that he has taken the cosmic property into his own hands.’

In spring 1932, in a second mass imprisonment, approximately 600 men and women were convicted for nudity and given three-year prison sentences, to be served on Pier’s Island, forty miles from Victoria, where special facilities had been erected. As the train carrying the convicts departed from the Kootenay Valley, the Doukhobors sang the hymns of their martyred forefathers. For them it was a spiritual pilgrimage.

Doukhobor Penitentiary on Piers Island, BC, 1934. British Columbia Archives G-00058.

No less significant than the imprisonment of the parents was the placement of their 365 children in orphanages and industrial schools in Vancouver and Victoria. Clearly, the children had to be cared for while their parents were in prison but the authorities also hoped that by exposing the children to a new environment their attitudes would change. It turned out that the children did not stay the full term. After one year, when a delegation of Independent and Community Doukhobors approached authorities with an offer of taking the Sons of Freedom children into their homes, it was accepted on the condition that they would attend public school. When the parents were released, between October 1934 and July 1935, the children were reunited with them. But it appears that few attitudes had changed. A 1947 study found ‘that some of these children are actively participating in the quasi-anarchistic activities of the present day.’

In the following years the school situation continued to be a public concern. An inspectors’ report for 1935/6 stated: ‘In the community schools and in those schools in which there is a major proportion of Doukhobors, no great progress has been made in Canadianizing this people. The persistence of the Doukhobors in maintaining their identity as such and in resisting Canadian influence is as strong as ever. While the children seem to be happy at school, they quit at the earliest possible date and at the present time there are many of school age who, supported by their parents, are defiantly absenting themselves from school.’

In 1939 the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation suggested that real Canadian homes ‘radiating the best in our Canadian mode of life’ be placed among the Doukhobors in order to help them to establish intimate contacts with ‘lovable Canadians’ and thus overcome their prejudice. Two years later, the Teachers’ Federation stated that ‘the supervision and administration of all Doukhobor schools should be vested in a single official, a trained and experienced educator of vision, initiative and wide sympathies, whose contacts with the Doukhobors will justify affection and confidence, and that it would be part of wisdom to entrust such a man with authority to adjust the curriculum.’ Some years later the federation recommended that teachers for the schools among the Doukhobors be chosen with special care, that they be given a wide liberty to adapt the curriculum to the needs of the Doukhobors, and that attendance be enforced consistently but only with fines and not with prison sentences.

For most of the Second World War period, 1939—45, the Sons of Freedom were relatively quiet. The attacks on the property of the Doukhobor Community ceased in 1938 when that body went into formal bankruptcy, having suffered from the depression, poor management, and government unwillingness to let the Community benefit from programs set up to assist industries affected by the depression. With this collapse, the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood (CCUB) was renamed the Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ (USCC). But the war and the disappearance of much Community Doukhobor property as a target did not keep the Sons of Freedom quiet for long. In 1944, there was a demonstration in which ‘women’s clothes and jewelry were burnt as symbols of the vanity of modern civilization.’ Soon after, the house of John J. Verigin, who had succeeded Peter P. Verigin as leader of the Community Doukhobors, was burned. From then until 1947 there were over 100 acts of destruction. Most of these were directed against other Doukhobors as a protest against their prosperity and materialism but some involved public property, including a CPR station, a bridge, and schools. The USCC condemned the destruction and John J. Verigin publicly asked for police protection for his followers.

To deal with the continuing problem, the government of British Columbia, in September 1947, appointed Judge H. Sullivan to conduct an inquiry. In the public hearings that followed, one person confessed to having committed twenty-five acts of vandalism in the preceding twelve years, the largest being the 1943 burning of the $400,000 jam factory at Brilliant, long owned by the Community Doukhobors but taken over by the government in 1939. This person explained: I believe that this was necessary to wake up our brothers from materialism, which is the main source of patriotism.’ One person wrote to Sullivan that ‘schools, forced upon the Doukhobors by the government, were destroyed by fire because schools are propagators of a false conception of civilization, patronizing the beast, militarism.’ Others came to the hearings and created ‘an epidemic of true and false confessions, of accusations and counter-accusations that brought an atmosphere of pseudo-religious hysteria into the courtrooms.’ After four months of hearings Judge Sullivan was exasperated. He felt it was useless to continue ‘until the crazy people are put in the mental asylum and the criminals locked up in the penitentiary.’ As for Doukhobor children, they should be educated with a view toward assimilation, he said. His brief recommendations did not, however, lead to a program of action.

Meanwhile, the nude demonstrations and acts of property destruction continued. In summer 1950, over 400 Sons of Freedom were in jail for nudity and arson. By now another commission was at work. The president of the University of British Columbia had agreed, at the request of the attorney-general, to assemble a group of social scientists for a more thorough study. Chaired by anthropologist H.B. Hawthorn, the study lasted two years and involved twelve researchers. Their lengthy report, like the Blackmore report of 1912, showed considerable sympathy and respect for the Doukhobors but called also for compliance with the laws. As a matter of strategy, it recommended ‘a balance of pressures and inducements.’ Claudia Lewis, one of the social scientists engaged in the study, advised against removing children from their parents. Instead, schooling should be made more acceptable to the Doukhobors. She suggested that Doukhobors be included on local boards, that the practices of saluting the flag and singing patriotic songs be discontinued, that some teaching of the Russian language and music be included, that the reading program be modified to include excerpts from Tolstoy, and that some aspects of the social studies program be changed, too. Notwithstanding these proposals for change, the report did not rule out prosecution as a way of dealing with cases of habitual truancy.

As with the moderate Blackmore report of 1911, the Hawthorn report was not followed, at least not immediately. The government that had commissioned the study was defeated in the 1952 election. The Social Credit party that came to power was in a minority situation at first, so in 1953 it went back to the people to get a majority. In doing so, ‘getting tough with the Doukhobors’ became a priority. The Social Credit party received the desired majority and, on 9 September 1953, 148 Doukhobor adults were arrested and imprisoned for parading nude near a school. They were taken to Vancouver in a train that had been especially prepared for them. There, the next day, a court was convened in a community hall and all those arrested were sentenced to three years at the Oakalla prison.

In addition, 104 children were loaded into buses and taken to New Denver, an old mining town, where the buildings of an old sanitorium served as their dormitory. The dormitory was surrounded by a high wire fence and the government invoked the Children’s Protection Act to make them wards of the Provincial Superintendent of Child Welfare. Occasional police raids on Sons of Freedom settlements brought in more children. In one such raid, seventy police officers entered the small village of Krestova before dawn and seized forty children. According to one mother’s account:

On January 18th [1955] at eight o’clock, in the morning my little son awoke me and come to lie down beside me as though he knew it would be the last time. Then all of a sudden we heard a loud banging on the door, we thought it would break. Three RCMP officers came in and went straight to the bed waving the clubs in their hands in front of me and my child, and they said: ‘How old is the boy?’ We told them he is only six years old. The boy started to cry and begged us not to take him, but they said: ‘Get him dressed or we’ll take him in his underwear.’ So, I dressed my little son for the last time, and he was taken from us who is not even school age. Only a mother who has gone through the same thing will know what it means to have the dearest ones taken from her.

A total of 170 children passed through the institution in its six-year history. They attended the regular public school in the town of New Denver, while evening and weekends were spent in the dormitory. Parents were allowed to visit their children two Sundays per month but they had to procure special passes. In protest most chose to see their children through the fence outside.

Understandably, the New Denver project attracted considerable controversy. Civil libertarians protested the brutality of a government that would separate children from parents in this way. Journalists wrote numerous stories about it. One reported on the death of a Doukhobor woman found hanging from a beam in her home. A nearby note from her nine-year-old daughter at New Denver said: ‘Mommy, I am lonesome for you – come and visit me. I love you. Goodbye.’

The government also publicized its point of view. It stated that it was ‘the birthright and privilege of every Canadian child to receive an education’ and that because the Sons of Freedom refused to send their children to school, the government had no alternative. It pointed out also that of the 12,500 Doukhobors in the province only about 2500 belonged to the Sons of Freedom group and that of these only about forty-six families continued to refuse to send their children to school.

For their part, the Sons of Freedom lodged a complaint with the United Nations under the Genocide Convention, which condemns the forcible transfer of children from one group to another. They also, in 1957, challenged the government’s action in the courts, arguing that the question was one of freedom of religion. However, Judge Sidney Smith did not accept that argument. In what became known as the Perepolkin case, he said:

I, for my part, cannot feel that in this case there is any religious element involved in the true legal sense. It seems to me that religion is one thing: a code of ethics, another, a code of manners, another. To seek the exact dividing line between them is perhaps perilous but I absolutely reject the contention that any group of tenets that some sect decides to proclaim form part of its religion thereby necessarily takes on a religious colour. I turn to the affidavit relied on by the appellants:… the objection to public schools is that they interpret history so as to glorify, justify, and tolerate intentional taking of human and animal life or teach or suggest the usefulness of human institutions which have been or can be put to such purposes … that public schools ‘expose their children to materialistic influences and ideals’… that Doukhobors object to education on secular matters being separated from education on spiritual matters.

This clearly to my mind involves the claim that a religious sect may make rules for the conduct of any part of human activities and that these rules thereby become … part of that sect’s religion. This cannot be so

At one point during the six-year detention of children some thirty Doukhobor women went to see Dr Campbell, British Columbia’s deputy minister of Education. Campbell told them that if they would agree to send their children to school, they would be returned. ‘We can’t change the laws of the country,’ he explained. The Doukhobor women replied:

‘We can’t change the laws of God either,’ The other Doukhobors, even though they had often sought to dissociate themselves from the Sons of Freedom, were sympathetic to them in this situation. They, too, appealed to the government but without success. Eventually, in 1959, when the parents appeared before a judge in Nelson and promised that their children would attend the regular public school, the children were returned to their homes.

Visiting Day between a wire fence for a Sons of Freedom Doukhobor schoolgirl and her parents at New Denver, BC, circa 1950.  www.newdenversurvivors.tk.

This Doukhobor encounter on education stands out for its length and its harshness. Essentially, the British Columbia government forced the Doukhobors to comply with its regulations. Some observers have argued that the government had no alternative, that the ongoing destruction of property, belonging either to the government or to other Doukhobors, reflected a way of life that, though religiously based, was prone to violence and simply could not be accommodated, and that it was natural to look to education – forced if necessary – as a long-term solution.

A closer analysis shows, however, that there could have been significant accommodations at a number of points. The government could have accepted the 1912 Doukhobor offer to take information about vital statistics from the Community’s record books and not exhumed bodies. It could have pursued the individual arsonists much more vigorously and focused less on those engaged in nude demonstrations. It could have removed military drills, flag-saluting ceremonies, and other activities from the schools much earlier. It could have incorporated Russian-language classes, Tolstoyan literature, Doukhobor music, and certain Doukhobor concerns about the teaching of history into the curriculum. It could have continued the lenient policy of Inspector A.E. Miller and not pressed for full attendance. It could have followed the moderate course recommended by Blackmore in 1912, by the Teachers’ Federation in 1939, and by the Hawthorn Committee in 1952. The government could have given the Doukhobors a broader educational liberty. Repeatedly, it chose not to do so. Ewart P. Reid wrote in 1932 that ‘much of the Doukhobor opposition to public schools arose not because of school per se … but because of the course content and methodology employed. Many of these difficulties arose because of the educational theories and practices … dividing children into grades, or using military drill … competitive tests and comparative grading … teaching history with military and political orientations, and refusing to allow the teaching of Russian did nothing to make schools more palatable, even to the Independent Doukhobors.’

The government’s policy of pressing ahead without making accommodations divided the Doukhobors, making their experience similar to that of the Mennonites. Some yielded, albeit reluctantly, while others became more determined in their resistance. Unlike the conservative Mennonites, the Doukhobors did not emigrate, though they did consider this option. Instead, they simply withheld their children from the public schools. Some engaged in nude demonstrations and a small number, probably no more than 200, destroyed buildings and other property. Regarding the underlying reasons for this behaviour, one analyst wrote in 1973 that ‘while Freedomite nude parades and destruction of Community property may have been attempts to convert Independents and Community members, incendiary attacks on schools and other non-Doukhobor property were clearly a response to attempts to enforce registration laws and compulsory education … They reacted … against what they viewed as an attempt to destroy their way of life and the faith of their children … also against the Independent and Community members’ acceptance of the forces of acculturation.’ According to this interpretation the violence was, at least to a large extent, the result of the provincial government’s refusal to accommodate a distinctive Doukhobor way of life.

In probing the reasons for the British Columbia government’s refusal to accommodate the Doukhobors there, certain similarities to developments affecting Mennonites and Doukhobors on the prairies emerge. Like the early settlers on the prairies there, the Doukhobors of British Columbia were appreciated for their contribution to the economy when they first arrived. But when the primary concern shifted from the frontier economy to social development there was no longer as much room for non-conforming groups. Also, as on the prairies, when the authorities pressed for social integration they defined religion in narrow terms and liberty on an individual basis. The narrow definition of religion in British Columbia is indicated most clearly in the Perepolkin case where it is suggested that the schooling of children is not a religious matter. The individualistic interpretation of liberty was indicated when the government defended the New Denver forced-schooling effort by saying, essentially, that the future liberty of the Doukhobor children required it.

Other explanatory factors lie in characteristics peculiar to British Columbia. Its educational structure was unusually centralized. Local school units had relatively little authority. Hence, developments in one locality could be used by politicians at the provincial level to project a ‘get-tough’ image. Also, the British Columbia educational system was unusually uniform. Unlike most other provinces, it had never had to accommodate a French-Catholic minority. Further, the approach of holding the Doukhobor Community liable for infractions committed by individuals was most unusual. It meant that law-enforcement agencies could impose fines and other punitive actions against the Community instead of looking for the guilty individuals. Community leaders were willing to help the police in identifying the individuals but the authorities showed little interest in their offers of assistance. The resulting atmosphere was poisonous, both among Doukhobors and between the government and those Doukhobors who wanted to be law abiding. If the Doukhobors could be treated as a community for purposes of liability, should they not also have been treated as a community for purposes of rights?

To say that the government of British Columbia could have been much more accommodating is not to say that accommodation would have solved all the problems. It must be conceded that there were some unusual and difficult elements among the Doukhobors. The actions by some Doukhobors to destroy the property of others, as a way of protesting against materialism and alleged departure from a true Doukhobor way of life, were a serious and persistent problem. It was probably necessary for the government to use some coercive measures in dealing with these developments but if it had granted the Doukhobors a broader educational liberty earlier on, the coercion required would probably have been much less.

Porto Rico

In 1929, nine year old Elizabeth P. Maloff belonged to a family of Independent Doukhobors living in Thrums, British Columbia.  They were sympathetic to the views of the Svobodniki (“Freedomite” or “Sons of Freedom”) Doukhobors who lived in a squatter camp on the edge of their settlement. When her family joined one of their mass protests against militarism and capitalism, they were swept up in a series of sensational events that would forever change their lives.  They marched to South Slocan, where a number of protestors were arrested for indecent exposure and sentenced to Oakalla prison. The rest marched on to Nelson, where they set up a makeshift camp on the city outskirts. When the protestors refused police orders to disperse, the leaders, including Elizabeth’s father, were arrested for obstruction of justice and sentenced to Oakalla prison. The remaining protestors, including Elizabeth, her mother and siblings, were held, without arrest, in Nelson provincial prison, then transported to Porto Rico, an isolated, abandoned, barely habitable logging camp, where they were forcibly confined, without trial, until the following year. Eighty years later, Elizabeth shared these events with her family for the first time. Her story, recorded by her daughter Vera, recounts the reasons for the protests, now blurred by the passage of time, and the little-known, largely forgotten internment at Porto Rico. Reproduced by permission of the author. Foreword and Afterword by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

It all started in 1929 in Thrums where I live. The old Svobodniki Doukhobors lived here behind George Popoff’s place in a community against the mountain. That summer, my six year old brother and I, then nine, sat on our front porch and watched as the Svobodniki walked along the road in Thrums with banners declaring “Land should not be bought or sold. Land belongs to God alone.” “People must not pay taxes for land. Taxes support war.” I could feel their energy and fervour. They were inspired and joyous to be speaking out about their beliefs. There was such a commotion all along the road. My parents sympathized and didn’t pay their taxes either, and so our land was taken away. Like the Svobodniki, my parents were also against an education that promoted militarism and capitalism.

Freedomite camp on the outskirts of Nelson, British Columbia to protest the arrest and jailing of 112 of their brethren for indecent exposure, September 1929.  Photo courtesy Koozma J. Tarasoff Collection.

To begin with I really wanted to go to school. The school was right here, almost in our front yard and everyone walked by on their way to school. All my playmates went and I dreamt of going to school, I was so enthusiastic, but my parents said that school taught about war. The students had to sing for the king and queen, and they said that is why we had all these wars. So mother explained, “Leeza, you can learn with your brother at home. I’ll teach you. We have some school books with lots of stories. ” I started to read and write, and I still remember that funny story, The Little Red Hen, about the chicken that did all the work and there was no help from anybody. Mother said that the chicken was like her. She was trying to wake us up so we would help her more. Mom was a good teacher. She was strict with us. Dad said that mom would make a very good nurse or a teacher, but he didn’t have those capabilities. But then we had so many visitors. People came to ask Dad for help writing letters and making signs. The old Svobodniki said that all books needed to be burnt because they were not from God but written by man. Dad loved books and had quite a collection, so he was always afraid, especially when Nastya Zarubina came around, that they would burn his books. When those Svobodniki came around, dad didn’t have the heart to send them away, but first he made sure he hid all the books. So it didn’t quite turn out; it was hard to learn with so much disturbance all the time. I had to understand these things.

You know, we had just started to live a little better. Dad worked in the Okanagan in the spring and made a little money. Mother would write letters to dad, a quick letter so that dad would feel better. She would say that she was managing and all the children were okay. I would run to the post office. Charlie Johnson owned the Thrums store and post office and he would already be carrying mail to the train station. He said, “You run quickly and get a stamp from the post office and then catch up to me. You are a fast runner.” His wife would sell me the stamp – three cents for a stamp, imagine all that trouble just for three cents, and then I would run after Mr. Johnson. Charlie Johnson was a returned soldier from World War I. His feet were damaged in the war so he limped quite badly. He said that he could have bought all the land in Thrums for taxes when people weren’t paying, but he didn’t because he understood what the rallies and protests were about. He supported them and gave people credit when they didn’t have any money for groceries. Each person paid him back, he said.

Everyone gathered to protest on the old road in South Slocan. There was a prophecy that a big war was coming and there was a saying, “You have to feed the dogs before you go hunting, so that they will follow you.” People believed that this meant they had to let the government know that Doukhobours would not participate in any war effort – they wouldn’t pay taxes that go toward war or teach their children about patriotism and fighting for one’s country. My family was there – my mom, dad, grandfather, grandmother, my brother Pete, and the twins, Luba and John, who were just a year old. I was nine years old. There were many other families too. Right away, though, the police came with trucks and busses and arrested many men and women, including dad and grandfather. We were left with mom and there were other kids with their moms. We didn’t know what to do. We were scared.

Then a strong group of Doukhobor supporters joined us. A friend of mine, Varyusha came. Her family had driven from Grand Forks and stayed in our house in Thrums on their way. It was like that then, friends would drop in, eat, stay overnight without question. Everyone was like family. When they arrived in South Slocan there was such jubilation. We had support and were energized. Mom was too, she was full of inspiration. She said we were doing the right thing, supporting all those taken away to prison. We started on a march, a pokhod [“campaign”] to Nelson to protest the jailing. On the way, we stayed overnight in a barn in Bonnington. I was so tired that I didn’t even notice where I slept. When I woke up I saw that I had been sleeping on rocks.

We got to Nelson the next day. I wanted to see my dad and grandfather, but the police herded us toward the zhuzhlitsa, a slag heap from the coal burning trains. Dad, grandfather and all those people arrested were sent to jail in Oakalla. We camped for three weeks next to that zhuzhlitsa. People brought food and the men set up tents for sleeping though many slept outside. For cooking, there was a big pot over a fire. The cook, Pavel Skripnik was a friend of Dad’s. He was from the Ukraine and educated as a priest, but he supported the Doukhobor cause. He was tall and thin, and so kind and caring. We would line up with our bowls and he would ladle some soup into them. Mother was respected and Paranya Voykin and Mr. Pereverzoff helped with the twins. Mr. Pereverzoff always carried Luba – she barely walked yet. I also felt responsible for my brothers and sister and was always keeping an eye out for them. There was no place to get clean and it was so dusty, but we children didn’t care about that; we ran around and played together. There were a lot of friends. People would come and go, but we stayed because dad and grandfather were in jail.

Then the police rounded us up and the women and all of us children were moved into the Salvation Army building. We were scared, remembering what happened to grandfather and dad. The people there gave us a little soup and we all slept together huddled on the floor. After about four days, police took us to Porto Rico, a logging camp up in the mountains close to Ymir. The men were there already. It’s funny I don’t remember how we got there. When you try to forget something, not all the memories come back right away.

The Maloff family at Porto Rico, October 1929.  (l-r) Elizabeth, John, Lusha, Luba and Peter. Photo courtesy Vera Malloff. 

When we first got to Porto Rico, I was wondering how we could live there. Porto Rico had been a large sawmill owned by the Doukhobors, but it was abandoned when the trees were all cut down. There was a big old barn, kitchen area and some bunk houses, but many of the buildings were starting to fall down and there were no doors or windows on them. That first night everyone slept together on the floor of what I think had been the eating area of that camp. The men had a lot of work to do so we could live there. Porto Rico was in a rainy, snowy area. It got very cold in the winter.

We were lucky. George Nazaroff prepared a room in the bunk house for his family – made it a little more weather proof, found fire wood, built bunk beds; but he gave the space to mom because he respected our dad a lot and since dad wasn’t there for us, he helped us out. There was a pot belly stove in our room – the police brought us some stoves. My brother Pete and I slept together on one bunk, just on the boards, and mom with the babies on another, so they would keep warmer, but we still woke up to frost on our blankets. The men did the cooking and everyone shared. Mom would go to the kitchen and bring back some soup for us. But there wasn’t much.

George Nazaroff organized a school. Though he wasn’t trained to teach, he became the teacher. And he was good. Every morning, he would sit everyone down and make sure everyone would be very quiet and listen. There were lots of children, but he controlled everyone and made sure we were peaceful. He was a peaceful guy himself and it didn’t matter how disturbed everyone was, he was calm. We didn’t have books, paper or pencils, so we learned our prayers and sang psalms and songs. Our homework was to memorize a prayer for the next day.

I remember Mr. Nazaroff and his family well. He was a heavier man and his wife was a small, thin woman. His daughter, Grace – Hrunya, was two years older than me, but her hair was still in braids like mine, with hair a little darker than my blond. Later we would talk about what happened and she reminded me how their dad helped us out and gave us their room. Sam – Syomka was the same age as me and boy, was he rambunctious and he liked to tease. We each had a different prayer or song to remember and he would often copy me and memorize what I was supposed to memorize, just for a trick. Mary, the youngest was a baby.

We came to Porto Rico at the end of September and at first it was fairly warm. We played tag and the older boys built a raft that they used to cross the creek, pushing it back and forth with long poles. Us girls stood on the bank and watched. It seemed like so much fun. Sometimes they invited us to stand on the raft and take a trip across the creek. I only got a chance to do that once. I had to help mom with the twins. We had a picture taken there. Mom got all of us organized and sitting down on a bench. The photographer, Mike Voykin was just learning how to use the camera, so we would be sitting there and he would say, “Just a minute, I have to fix something.” It was hard to keep the twins still, but finally he took the picture.

At first we were allowed visitors. Friends and relatives came all the way from Grand Forks. They brought us food and we greeted them with such joy. Then the police told us that we couldn’t have any more company. They had set up a blockade on the road to the camp with policemen stopping everybody. However, my Uncle Nick got through somehow. He asked everyone he knew in Ootishenia to give food, blankets, clothing or he said that “they will all perish.” So he filled his truck up with a huge load and came. Everyone was surprised he got through the police blockade. He teased us “Here you are you devils. Eat or you will perish like rats.” He was kind hearted, but liked to tease. He had to leave quickly though or he wouldn’t be able to get back out. I think that grandmother left with him, because after he left, she was gone too.

And then the snow came. There was so much snow it almost piled up to the roofs. The nights were so cold and long. Mom would go to the kitchen and bring us some food and we ate huddled together. Maybe people got together in the evenings, I don’t know, we stayed in our room. Luba and John were still young so we couldn’t leave them alone.

We got through that winter, and then people began to be allowed to leave. My mother’s brother, John Hoodicoff came to pick us up and we came home. There was still a lot of snow in Porto Rico when we left, but in Thrums it was early spring. It was already planting time. Mom said we had to plant a garden so that we would have food. Dad came home later in that spring.

I heard that they found three graves by the logging camp and some people know who died, but I was a child, nine years old and I don’t remember that. What happened to me is that I always tried to block that life out, but gradually it is coming back. The main thing is that I pulled through everything.

I often asked Dad why we had to have such a hard life, why he had to be so outspoken all the time and why he had go to jail. As a child, he told me that we could have had an easier life, but he spoke out against war so there wouldn’t be any cripples, no orphans, so that children would have their dads, that there must be a better way. But there was a price to pay.

………………….

This is my mother’s story. My mother, Elizabeth, is now in her nineties. The family did not know about her Porto Rico internment until recently when we found pictures of the men, women and children camped in Nelson and she began to tell us what happened when she was nine years old. In the eighty years that have passed, the reasons for the protests of the time have become blurred and the internment in the isolated, barely habitable logging camp, Porto Rico is something that few remember and many would rather forget.

Little is known about the internment of Doukhobor men, women and children in Porto Rico, so wishing to learn more I investigated the local newspapers of the time. The headline of a local newspaper, Rossland Miner of September 5, 1929 read “DOUKHOBORS JAILED WHEN TAKE TO NUDE [sic]” The reporter gave a description of arrests made August 30 of Doukhobors in South Slocan. The situation began with the police demanding the Doukhobors deliver four men who had previously “paraded nude” along the highway in South Slocan, but quickly became a struggle as the arrests were made of one hundred twenty eight Doukhobor men and women. The police officers were previously prepared.

Starting from Nelson in cars and busses of all descriptions commandeered for the purpose, the 60 special constables under the leadership of six provincial police officers drove quickly out to a point around a bend in the road about 100 yards from the South Slocan tennis courts where the fanatics were encamped. There they stopped while Inspector Cruikshank and other officers went on ahead to make the arrest of the four Doukhobors charged with indecent exposure. Sergeant Gammon explained (to the special police force) that they were required to stop any attempt made by the fanatics to prevent the arrest of their fellows and to arrest any of the Doukhobors who were stripped or started to strip. They were to arm themselves with switches and use them on any stripped members of the sect or those who showed fight….

Plying their switches viciously and dragging screaming Doukhoburs along the ground, the police officers went to work, to bring the crowd over to waiting busses, cars and trucks….

After about an hour all the Doukhobors were herded over to the trucks and nobody was left on the former camping site but some of the younger women most of whom did not disrobe, with the children.”

Subsequently the September 12, 1929 Rossland Miner headlines were:

“OKALLA [sic] JAIL TO BE FILLED WITH DOUKS. One Hundred and four were given six months for indecent exposure.” The protesters were tried five at a time with the judge saying, ‘I feel that it is time you people had a lesson.’ Speaking through an interpreter, he continued,’ Tell them they have had a fair trial….They will receive the full term imposed by the act for this offense, six months with hard labour.’….When one man protested that he was not satisfied with the trial, the magistrate commented ‘I feel it is a waste of time to explain matters to you.’ ”

It is known that some of the Svobodniki Doukhobor sect used nudity to attract attention to their message, declaring “If you will take everything from us, and do not let us live by our beliefs, then take our clothes also. We will stand before you naked in the world, but solid in our values.” Their message was often lost when the nudity was sensationalized and it became a way to incarcerate many, and to silence the protests. The effect of this nudity and subsequent imprisonment traumatized not only the children, men and women who survived Porto Rico , and the prisoners, who spent that winter in the infamous Oakalla jail doing time with hard labour, and but also suppressed the voices of a generation of Doukhobors like my mother or conversely helped create a radical movement of Svobodniki Doukhobors that over the next few years proceeded to get more extreme in their reactions to government repression.

Freedomite camp on the outskirts of Nelson, British Columbia, September 1929. Note the zhuzhlitsa (slag pile) in the background. Photo courtesy Vera Maloff.

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Afterword

Few published accounts exist of the events which led to the arrest and imprisonment of 120 Svobodniki (“Freedomite” or “Sons of Freedom”) Doukhobors at Oakalla Prison and the internment of 236 of their brethren at Porto Rico in 1929. The following is a brief summary of those events, compiled from newspaper and other archival sources.

In the late 1920’s, a number ofFreedomitefamilies, evicted from their homes in Brilliant, Glade, and elsewhere in the Kootenays by the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood, established a squatter camp on the edge of Thrums, an Independent Doukhobor settlement. On August 29, 1929, 356 of them staged a march to protest the recent jailing of Paul Vatkin for what they considered to be false arrest on charges of arson and, at the same time, took the opportunity to speak out against public education that promoted militarism and capitalism. They were joined by a number of Independent Doukhobors sympathetic to their cause.

When the protesters reached South Slocan, they were confronted by six provincial police officers and 60 special constables, who arrived there from Nelson to make the arrest of four of their brethren charged with indecent exposure. In the disruption that followed, a number of the protesters publicly disrobed. The police arrested 112 protesters and transported them by truck to the provincial prison in Nelson. On September 7, 1929, 104 of the adults were convicted of indecent exposure and sentenced to six months imprisonment. On September 11, 1929, they boarded a special train which transported them to Essondale near New Westminster, from which they were taken by bus to Oakalla Prison to serve their sentences. Eight children arrested with their parents were, because of being under age, committed to the care of the Superintendent of Neglected Children and placed in institutional shelters in Vancouver.

In the meantime, the remaining 244 Freedomiteswho had not been arrested at South Slocan marched on to Nelson to protest the jailing of their brethren. When they arrived there on August 30, 1929, they were escorted by provincial police to the railway tracks on the southern outskirts of the city, where they established a makeshift tent camp near a slag heap (zhuzhlitsa) from the coal burning trains. They remained there for three weeks.

On September 21, 1929, provincial police arrived at the Zhuzhlitsa camp and ordered the Freedomitesto move. They refused to do so, claiming that they had no homes to go to. A physical clash occurred when eight of the Freedomite leaders, whom the police first took in hand, resisted arrest. After these men were subdued and arrested, they were taken to the provincial prison in Nelson; then on September 26, 1929, they were convicted of obstruction of justice and sentenced to hard labour at Oakalla Prison.  The remaining 200 Freedomite adults were confined, without arrest, in the provincial prison while 36 of their children were taken to the Salvation Army barracks; then on September 25, 1929, all 236 were transported by provincial police in busses and trucks to Porto Rico.

Porto Rico was a former Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood lumber camp situated some 15 miles south of Nelson. It had been abandoned in 1926 after it had been logged out and a forest fire destroyed the remaining timber stands. Following the mass arrests and confinements in Nelson, Doukhobor leader Peter Petrovich Verigin “offered” the camp to provincial authorities as a permanent habitat for the landless Freedomites. Provincial authorities seized the opportunity to forcibly confine the large group of radicals at the camp, without trial. Hence, it became an internment camp.

When the Freedomites arrived at the camp, they picked out living quarters from among the camp buildings, which consisted of a large sawmill, a big barn, kitchen area and several bunk houses. The majority of the buildings were windowless and doorless, and the men immediately set to work to repair their future homes to protect them against the ongoing winter, and to build basic furniture. The Freedomites eventually settled into life at the isolated, barely habitable camp.  The men did the cooking and cutting lumber for firewood, while the women cleaned and looked after the children. Everything was shared.  The provincial government supplied pot bellied stoves, along with some basic rations; however, there was a general shortage of food and supplies. These privations were alleviated, at least in part, by the supply of food, blankets and clothing by Independent and Community Doukhobors sympathetic to their plight. The provincial police maintained a blockade at the entrance to control access to and from the camp.

Despite the harsh conditions, hundreds of radical Doukhobors from Saskatchewan, Alberta and the United States voluntarily drifted into the camp, in a show of solidarity with the internees, so that by November 24, 1929, the number of Freedomites at Porto Rico had swelled to 537 persons. 

The following year, on June 27, 1930, the Freedomites forcibly confined at Porto Rico were released from the camp and permitted to make their way, under police escort, through Nelson, back to their former homes in Thrums, Brilliant, Glade and elsewhere. However, 117 of the Freedomites who voluntarily arrived at Porto Rico remained there until May 3, 1932, when they finally abandoned the camp to stage a protest march in Nelson.

Elizabeth P. Maloff’s autobiographical story, as recorded by her daughter Vera, recalls these events from the perspective of a nine-year old Doukhobor girl. Her father, Peter N. Maloff, was a prominent Independent Doukhobor (and later a historian and self-styled philosopher of the movement) who sympathized with the Freedomite stance on public education and taxes. Inspired by their energy and fervour, the Maloff family joined one of the Freedomite protests against militarism and capitalism in 1929. When they were met by police at South Slocan, Elizabeth’s grandfather was one of the protestors arrested for indecent exposure and sentenced to Oakalla prison. When the rest of the family marched to Nelson and encamped there, her father was one of the leaders arrested for obstruction of justice and sentenced to Oakalla prison. Elizabeth, her mother, grandmother, and three young siblings, along with 236 others, were first incarcerated, without arrest, in Nelson provincial prison, then interned, without trial, at Porto Rico. Her narrative is one of the few first-person accounts which exists about this obscure and little-known chapter of Doukhobor history, making it a valuable addition to our knowledge of the period.

The story of Porto Rico is also important from a broader Canadian perspective. If “internment” is defined as the confinement of people, commonly in large groups, without arrest or trial, for preventative or political reasons (as opposed to “imprisonment” which is confinement as punishment for a crime), then there can be little dispute that the Sons of Freedom Doukhobors at Porto Rico, British Columbia in 1929 were subjected to interment at the hands of the Canadian state. Canadian history is replete with examples of internment: during the First and Second World Wars, internment camps were established on Canadian soil for enemy prisons of war, as well as for civilian enemy aliens, including Austro-Hungarian immigrants in 1916-1918, Italian nationals in 1940-1945, Japanese nationals in 1942-1945, and even Canadian citizens and Jewish citizens of England considered to be ‘fascist’ or ‘disloyal’. What is remarkable, however, is that virtually every Canadian example of internment took place during wartime. The story of the Sons of Freedom Doukhobors at Porto Rico, in sharp contrast, is one of the only occurrences of civilian internment during peacetime in modern Canadian history.

For a comprehensive listing of Freedomite Doukhobors arrested and incarcerated as a result of the 1929 protest march, see: Index of Sons of Freedom Inmates at Oakalla Prison Farm, Burnaby by Steve Lapshinoff. For an inventory of Freedomites forcibly interned (along with those voluntarily encamped) at Porto Rico in 1929-1930, see: Index of Sons of Freedom Camped at Porto Rico by Steve Lapshinoff. For a list of Freedomite burials at Porto Rico see: Porto Rico Doukhobor Cemetery by Lawrna Myers and Nick Kootnikoff.

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View Porto Rico in a larger map

On January 18, 2013, Vera Maloff received a First Place award in the category of Adult Creative Non-Fiction for her story, Porto Rico at the 2012 Kootenay Literary Competition held at Nelson, British Columbia. The competition is hosted by the Kootenay Writers Society, a non-profit society dedicated to promoting, supporting and encouraging all writers in the Kootenay region of British Columbia. Vera’s work was published in the KLC anthology, Revolution.

Petrofka

by Alex J. Bayoff

In his later years, Alex J. Bayoff (1906-1989) wrote down his memories of growing up in the Doukhobor village of Petrofka near Blaine Lake, Saskatchewan. In clear, simple and sincere style, he depicts the life and times of the village in the context of his family experience.  Originally written as a memoir for family and friends, it is now published for a wider internet audience, by special permission of the family, in this Doukhobor Genealogy Website exclusive.  Readers will enjoy the rich details and vivid memories of the early years of Doukhobor pioneer settlement on the Prairies. Edited by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

Author’s Note

After filling our stomachs with a sumptuous supper at the home of Nick and Mary Trofimenkoff, we sat around at the card table for an evening of cards. Conversation drifted from one subject to another. Somehow we started talking about the early Doukhobor villages and I mentioned a few happenings in the village of Petrofka. They seemed to have interested Nick, so he suggested that I write an article about Petrofka. After carrying that idea in my mind, it seemed that the Bayoff family had something to do about it in a small way. Since that was the case, my good wife Daisy suggested that I write a small history of the Bayoffs while Dad was still around, so he could relate the events first hand. I agreed to that.

The facts related in my article are mostly from the memory of Dad, and what I heard previously from Grandpa Dmitry, my Mother and later from my own experience. The story is a true story to the best of my knowledge. Nothing has been added or exaggerated. I have written as I have heard it told to me or as I have experienced it. Also nothing has been taken away to make the story more presentable. I therefore must say in advance that some passages of the story may be looked upon as vulgar. I tried to relate things as it happened, nothing taken away. Therefore if I have offended any of the readers, I humbly apologize. I must thank Samuel Postnikoff and Peter P. Makaroff in relating some of the happenings that I had overlooked.

Early in the spring of 1899 a convoy of wagons left Novo-Troitskoye (Kars province – ed.) in Trans-Caucasia to the nearest railroad station. Seven families left the peaceful village, a home of some 50 families. The train would take them to Batum, a port city on the Black Sea, and then to Canada. It was a sad occasion for the families that were left behind, and a sadder occasion, yet full of hope for the 7 families, all packed and going on a new unknown adventure, leaving their homes and most of their belongings with those who stayed behind. The Bayoff family was one of the seven. Dad was 11 years old. There was his Grandfather Grigory Vasilyevich, who was quite old, yet not too old to be the boss of the family, with full control of the money and how it was to be spent. Next in control were Dad’s Father and Mother, Dmitry and Lukeria. The rest of the family, Uncle Gavril and Aunt Anna were younger than Dad. As I have mentioned before, Dad was 11 years old, not old enough to remember everything and could be too young and have missed some valuable information.

The wagons were loaded with the most necessary articles, such as bedding and clothing, some dishes, etc., and a good supply of dried bread and homemade cheese. They figured they could live on dried bread and cheese and water. They left everything else behind, which was a heart-breaking farewell; leaving a comfortable home, agricultural tools or implements, cattle, sheep, horses, but mostly friends and relatives. There was singing of hymns and a lot of praying, a lot of kisses and a lot of tears. So was the parting with the village of Novo-Troitskoye and friends as the wagons began to move.

Port of Batum, embarkation point for Doukhobor immigrants. British Columbia Archives C-01560.

Dad’s Aunt and her husband, Petro Katasonov, acquired all of the Bayoff property and belongings and drove the wagon with the Bayoffs and their trip supplies to the railroad station. Since there were seven families leaving the village, there must have been seven wagons. It took the best part of two days on the road before they arrived at Erzurum, where they would board a freight train. Sitting on their bundles of belongings, it was far from comfortable, but with a lot of hymns and prayers, they arrived at Batum where they met with the rest of the Doukhobors. There were about 2,000 gathered from most of the Doukhobor villages, meeting in Batum.

A British freighter unloaded a ship load of cattle, and was waiting to pick up the 2,000 Doukhobors. You can only imagine the condition of the ship after the cattle were unloaded. That was to be their home for the next 28 days. They saw a lot of work to be done before they could board the ship. No time was to be wasted. They buckled down, cleaned up every part of the ship, scrubbed everything until the ship looked and smelled as if it had never had cattle on it. They then started the carpentry work. In about two weeks of hard work, the ship was ready. Bunks, tables, benches, dining area, wash rooms, etc. were ready. The crew of the ship Lake Huron was impressed by the workmanship and cleanliness of the Doukhobors, and they were very cooperative in every way they could be. The Doukhobors then wasted no time in boarding the ship.

So with singing of hymns and a lot of praying the ship began to move. The ship stopped in Constantinople for supplies. They were advised to take care of some of their supplies, so the men went and bought as much of the fruit and other items as they thought they may need. Certain items were provided: bread, sugar and hot water. There were rumors that the bread and sugar were provided by the Quakers. There were two Quakers on the boat, one of them was Mr. Elkinton, the other Dad did not remember.

It was pleasant going on the Mediterranean Sea. Sailing was quite smooth as most of the time the shore line could be seen, and the towns and cities as they passed by. As soon as the ship passed Gibraltar, things began to change. The land disappeared and the ship began to roll. The going was slow. They could see smoke in the distance behind them; that smoke turned out to be a ship which would catch up to them, then leave them behind with its smoke disappearing in the distance ahead of them. There were many ships passing them in a similar manner.

Some people began to get sea sick. A lot of the older people spent most of their time in bed, getting up only to have a bite to eat and wash up.

Although the ship rolled violently, Dad says he enjoyed the ride. He said it did not bother him, and he spent most of the day on deck with the young people. However, things were not without trouble; one old man died and had to be buried at sea. Dad well remembers that incident. They put the body in a sack or perhaps wrapped it in a sheet, tied a stone to him and slid him overboard, with their customary funeral by singing and prayer, Somehow the stone worked loose from the body and the body came to the surface. The ship did not stop, and with singing of hymns they watched the body disappear in the distance. Most of the Atlantic was rough. When it wasn’t rough it was foggy, the fog horns blowing a deafening roar, signaling other vessels, should there be any, so as not to collide.

Port of View of Gibraltar from SS Lake Huron, bringing a group of Doukhobors to Canada, 1899. Library and Archive Canada PA-022228.

Eventually word was passed that land would be in sight soon. What a relief! The rolling of the ship began to ease. The older people began to get out of their bunks. What a joy, they were nearly there! They were nearing the Gulf of St. Lawrence when as if by magic everyone perked up, some crying, some laughing, and most everyone praying to God that they were arriving safely. In due time they saw the outline of land, and the buildings began to take shape. That was Halifax.

On arrival at Halifax, they prayed, thanking the Lord for their safe arrival. After going through mountainous waves and fog, it must have been with the help of some divine power that they arrived safe and in good health. Later they learned that the same ship, the Lake Huron, after loading a cargo of lumber destined for England, broke up in the Atlantic Ocean and sank. They were convinced more than ever that the Lord had saved them for the future.

From Halifax, they were taken to an island which they called Quarantine (Grosse Ile, Quebec – ed.). After strict examination, they were pronounced free from any contagious disease, and physically in very good shape. The examining physicians admitted that they never had seen such a healthy group of immigrants as the Doukhobors. After the word was passed ahead, about the cleanliness of the people, the officials mingled quite freely with the Doukhobors and tried to be as helpful as possible. They were then taken to Quebec City by boat. After a rest period they were escorted to the train which was a far cry from the freight cars of Russia. They arrived in Selkirk (Manitoba – ed.) where the Government of the North West Territories equipped the Military Barracks with food and lodging. Here they rested and went shopping, buying whatever they could take without too much trouble. The people were then given a choice as to where they wanted to go. The choices were Prince Albert district or Yorkton. A large portion chose Prince Albert and the events will be described about the Prince Albert group.

At Selkirk the Bayoffs and Popoffs (Makaroffs) bought two horses and a wagon each. There were others, but Dad does not remember who they were. The train stopped at Duck Lake and that was their destination as far as the train ride was concerned. The wagons were loaded with freight and other belongings. Only the very old and weak rode. The rest walked behind the wagons. Those who had no wagons were not left behind. Tents must have been bought in Selkirk, as they certainly were put to use. There were rains and bad weather that spring. The (North Saskatchewan – ed.) river crossing was by Carlton Ferry. Getting out of the river valley, there were hills to cross, and in some cases they had to double up the teams to haul a load at a time.

The party had now reached a hill, called Crown Hill, about four or five miles west of the present Village of Marcelin, which also is adjacent to Windsor Lake School area. This is as far as they could go together, as this was the place from which they spread out to locate their villages. Five groups chose to be near the river: Spasovka (River Hill) was the most northerly; going south Slavyanka, then Uspeniye, then Terpeniye and most southerly Petrofka (Petrovka – ed.). The Haralowka (Gorelovka – ed.) group did not want to go too far, so they located a few miles south of Crown Hill. Pozirayevka and Troitskoye were some distance west of the river.

The Bayoffs and Popoffs (Makaroffs) chose Petrofka. Of course, as will be seen, there were a lot of others in the group, but the story deals mostly with the Bayoff family, with mention of others from the same village,

Doukhobor women digging drainage for a new settlement in the West. British Columbia Archives C-01369.

The elders, my great grandfather was one of them, chose a place about 5 miles south of present Petrofka (Golovinka – ed.). After scouting around, they decided that the brooks were not good enough, so they retraced their steps back north where the brooks seemed much better. In fact one of the brooks (Petrofka Spring – ed.) later became the choice of the present Petrofka picnic grounds, just north of the bridge. That same brook runs through grandfather’s land, just below the picnic grounds.

The location of the village had now been decided upon. Now the big task was erecting buildings. As a temporary measure some people dug into the bank of a hill, making a cave, where they had temporary shelter. Grandfather Dmitry and the boys, my Dad and Uncle Gabriel were very young but helpful. They built a shack and were reasonably comfortable.

My Great-Grandfather Grigory was not satisfied with Petrofka, so the three of them, Grandfather, Great-Grandfather and Dad went south to the vicinity of Borden. They scouted a bit and chose an area which could have been where the present village of Langham is located. They acquired the proper papers for homestead purposes. Grandfather and Dad spent one summer there and did a good piece of breaking. They began to miss their friends they left behind in Petrofka so they packed up and came back to Petrofka.

Now came the task of building. Not all had horses or wagons, so those who had horses and wagons had to help haul logs for the buildings for others. Grandfather worked hard. I do not know how long it took to build. I have lived in that house, which was quite large with several rooms and it had built-in bunks and benches all around the wall. It was a log house, but had a large cellar, an attic and a shingle roof. Although they had only four horses to start with, the barn had room for eight, then there were cows, chickens and ducks. A good well was in the yard. As Dad and Uncle Gabriel grew up and Aunt Anna was getting to be a big girl they had to build another house on the same property, as privacy had to be respected. I also remember a shop was built for blacksmithing. I have seen them shoe horses. Later that shop was used by transient immigrants, Russians who were good smiths and worked there, paying Grandfather a small percentage for the use of the shop and tools. The Bayoff place was like a station, as a lot of Russian newcomers made it their stopping place. Grandfather built two trestles on top of which they would place a log, with one man on top and one on the ground pulling a long saw for sawing planks, beams and joists. The newcomers were happy to earn some money and then move on to look for a place to settle. I have been told, and later witnessed myself, that the homes of Nikolai and Mavra Postnikoff and Styopa Esakin were always open for transients, and there were plenty of them passing through Petrofka. Petrofka was their resting place.

Petrofka established itself fairly fast, after the officials showed them where to start building. The houses sprang up fast. I would not be surprised that some of the houses could have been built from the Bayoff man-powered sawing of planks. The villagers were allowed to measure up their lots. They got together and staked out every lot before the building of their homes. Later came the surveyors who were surprised to see that all the houses were properly placed on their respective lots.

There were a lot of problems. Most of the families acquired horses or oxen. The nearest store was at Borden and that was far away, especially for oxen. Besides they were too busy with field work. The animals were overworked and needed rest. The next town was Rosthern, 22 miles, but crossing the river created a problem. They acquired a boat so they now could cross the river. Not too often, but it did happen, that they walked to Rosthern, and brought their supplies on their backs. Even sacks of flour were brought in that way. They say necessity is the mother of invention. We had some very inventive and capable people in Petrofka. Dad tells me one such man was one of the inventors, or a better word, improviser. This man was John Strelioff. I knew him too as I often played with his son, also called John,

Going for flour in the Rosthern district of Saskatchewan, 1899. British Columbia Archives C-01355.

This man wanted to improve the river crossing. Instead of oars he devised a paddle wheel attached to the boat, and put a crank onto it. According to Bad, by cranking the paddle wheel they could, cross the river in half the time. That was very welcome and worked just fine, but he still had to walk to Rosthern and carry supplies on his back. So he improvised the wheel barrow by using a very large wheel. Dad does not remember where the wheel came from, but the diameter of the wheel was about 4 feet. That made pushing it with a load quite easy, as that size of a wheel rolled easily over small obstructions. John Strelioff actually pushed that barrow to Rosthern and brought a lot more supplies that way instead of carrying them on his back. He also made a bicycle. He used 2 wheels from spinning wheels, made sprockets from a spade and made a chain with links shaped from wire. The bicycle actually worked, but as far as Bad remembers there was no talk of it ever being used to go to Rosthern.

Soon the ferry (Petrofka Ferry – ed.) appeared. Everybody was happy. They could drive to Rosthern by team and wagon. Then buggies appeared which provided a little more speed and comfort. Conditions further improved when Waldheim appeared. It was only 8 miles then. The railroad made it possible to take trips to Saskatoon. Soon after, a grocery and confectionary store opened up, owned by Mr. Eagleson, who also had the Post Office with the title of Petrofka. Petrofka was a fast-growing village so the government, to keep peace among our people, empowered one of the early English speaking citizens as a judge; so we actually had a judge in our village. Dad does not remember the name of the judge, however he did not stay long as there were no disputes, no fights – in other words the judge had nothing to do so he left.

Events were moving rapidly. People became more settled. Russian and Ukrainian immigrants came in larger numbers, stopping in Petrofka to rest and consider their next move. The Bayoffs, Postnikoffs, Makaroffs and Esakins housed a lot of these people. They were all good people. In exchange for their keep they would work a few days sawing planks or work in a blacksmith shop. The shop was kept busy by sharpening plowshares and other iron work. Some of these nice people decided to stay on in our village and became one of us. They married our Doukhobor girls and settled down with them. Just to mention two of them, Peter Dobroluboff married a Kousnitsoff girl, and Stanislav Lostowski married Elizabeth Mitin, a widow.

With the never ending task of survival, with very little money, the building and seeing that there be enough money to feed and clothe the family, the task seemed insurmountable; yet against odds, there was time for socializing, such as it was. Most of them had not experienced the more extravagant upper level of social living, so there was no complaint. They would gather at the neighbor’s house for a talk or a singsong if they were in the mood. That went on when the people moved on to their homesteads, perhaps with a little more enthusiasm, because of the distance between them. Grandpa bought the school house, and had lots of room for visitors; Grandma (Lusha) Lukeria would always provide lunch. Quite often we would go to visit Grandpa and Grandma.

On one occasion, when we arrived at Grandpa’s, we found that we were not the only visitors. There were Salikins. Grandpa and Grandma were very close friends with Tanya and Nicholas. Philip Gulioff was also there. Tanya was a very likable woman, very sociable and usually the life of the party. Philip had a chair by the cupboard. He reached out his hand and began tapping on a tin dishpan. Pretty soon there developed a rhythm to his tapping. Tanya did not waste any time, jumped up, and executed a few graceful steps, approached Grandma, and said, ”come on Lusha, lets show them like we used to when we were young.” Grandma was reluctant at first, but then Philip began tapping with more lively music, at least to them and to me that was music. Philip increased the volume and gusto. It must have been hard for Grandma to resist. There was their chance to live again their young days in Russia. They began to move, and what a performance, their aprons swinging, their hands and arms gracefully swinging, their feet moving gracefully. They moved in a semi circular motion. They were so smooth; they were actually floating, using their arms and hands as in ballet. It did not mean too me much then, but as I think about it, I still can picture that dance. I have seen some ballet dancing, but I have not seen anything so smooth. If you have seen the Russian skaters, then you will see what I mean. They danced apart, but their movement of arms and hands were in perfect unison. You could almost say that the Russian peasants were born with a certain amount of ballet in them.

Grandpa Dmitry and Grandma Lusha Bayoff, Blaine Lake, Saskatchewan.

Lusha and Tanya were grandmothers, but really they at that time were young women even if they were Grandmothers. That was the first time I had seen Grandma Bayoff act this way. Everyone enjoyed themselves. It was a very pleasant visit. The Salikins visited them often, but I have not heard of Grandma and Tanya performing again. Perhaps Philip was not around.

Our young people grew up fast, and with the help of these Russian people soon a football team was formed (soccer ball). Every Sunday there were football games. I remember seeing them play. Dad was a goalkeeper. They even took part in Rosthern Sports day and nearly won one game. They blame the loss on the party the night before.

The first few years during the period of orientation life was hard, especially when one had to carry flour from Rosthern on their backs. So the elders of Petrofka and the other villages decided to build a flour mill. The Petrofka elders, including my Great Grandfather Grigory, foresaw the possibility of a water-driven wheel for supplying the power, and that was one reason they retraced their steps back north and settled at the present sight. It was closer to the creek. This creek (Radouga Creek – ed.) running through Uncle Paul Makaroff’s farm was the ideal location for the mill. It being centrally located between Petrofka and Terpeniye and Troitskoye, although other villages co-operated. The mill was located near Timothy Vereschagin’s home, not far from the present Brookhill School. To create a large enough water head, they dug by hand roughly two miles, more or less, a channel diverting the flow to create a high enough waterfall. They had done a wonderful job, a civil engineering job. It is surprising what necessity can do. The mill was built and put to work. The flow of water was enough to make the mill operational. The capacity of the mill was large enough to supply the need of the community. According to Dad, the mill produced very good flour. Dad does not remember how many years the mill worked, but he remembers that, supposedly, government men came along, removed the grinding stone, and gave them orders not to build another mill, but to buy flour as the other citizens did. If it was the government, I think it was very inconsiderate of them. The mill was destroyed, but the evidence is still there. I well remember, when I went to Makaroff’s to swim with Pete and Joe, the channel was still evident, although in a very deteriorated condition.

There was another mill built, whether before the destruction of the Petrofka mill or later, Dad does not remember. This other mill was built in the village of Troitskoye. It was a steam powered mill. The engine was a stationary one, but on wheels and had to be pulled by horses. Dad remembers one incident during the construction of this mill. There was a Chernoff who seemed to have been in charge of the job. A very capable and meticulous man, whose motto was perfection, for which he took pride and credit. As the story goes, on one occasion he observed that one worker had not been too accurate with his work, so he called out to this worker “this does not look too good, how did you level it”. The worker replied “I have leveled it by eye”. Chernoff was not satisfied; he called, “s— on your eye, use the level”. The order must have been carried out, as the mill was constructed, and produced very good flour. This also did not last long. To the sorrow of the people it was dismantled just like the Petrofka mill, supposedly by government men. Who knows?

We had some very strong men in Petrofka. The river that brought in logs used to flood at times, the large logs being two feet in diameter. To get them out of the river and drag them to shore required a lot of strength. Dad mentions one man, Pete Padowski. I remember him. He was a quiet man, yet a big man. He would drag the log over the bank to where the wagon stood. People asked him why he did not use the oxen. He answered that if he could not drag it over the bank the oxen certainly could not. Besides he saved the oxen to pull the wagon. Later on when the people began to buy cars, Padowski bought a car, and this I saw myself, to change a tire he called his wife to set the block under the axle, as he lifted the car by hand, without a jack.

Doukhobor house, Saskatchewan Colony, c. 1902. Glenbow Archives NA-949-102.

Grandfather Dmitry, with the help of Dad and Uncle Gabriel (Gavril – ed.), built the two houses, the necessary barns, dug a well and built a bath house. According to Dad, it was the second bath house in the village. So it was used by a lot of villagers. The custom was that the women go first to take a bath. They came in a group, as many as the bath house could hold, until all the women had their bath, so some were undressing as some were bathing, as all of them could not get in at once. As the rumor goes Grandpa was there bringing in water, etc., and seeing that the women had everything for their bath. He even washed some of the ladies backs to hurry the process. The first bathhouse was built on Reban’s lot, and was used as a community bathhouse. Families took turns to heat and supply water. Each family provided their own hazel nut brooms for steaming themselves and supplied their own soap.

Well, going back to Grandfather, helping the ladies was not the only good deed he did. He was some sort of a doctor. Usually Sundays, sometimes a visitor would come from another village to have Grandfather let blood. That I have witnessed myself. Grandma would roll up the person’s sleeve, tie a towel on the arm to have a vein stand out, while Grandpa opened up a little black box and produced small gadget which he called a lancet. After setting the gadget, he asked Grandma to hold a can. Pretty soon I heard a little click and I saw blood running out while Grandma caught the blood with the can. I don’t know whether it cured the person of the ailment, but all I know is I got pretty sick watching it. I know that Grandpa never charged anyone for this.

Another person worthy of mention was Mavra (Mavrunya) Postnikoff, wife of the ferryman, Nikolai, nicknamed Starchik. This good woman performed marvelously as a midwife, making deliveries in a large community. As far as I know, her record was that all the babies she delivered have lived. I and brother Pete are credited to her work.

As I have mentioned before, there were two Quakers on the boat. They must have evaluated the Doukhobors from every possible angle. The conclusion must have been in our favor as shortly after the villagers got themselves established, or caught up with the necessary housing, the Quakers contacted our elders and others of the village asking if Petrofka would like to have a school. The majority of the people agreed that it would be desirable to do a little learning at this time, being in a new country. That proved to the Quakers that we were a progressive people and wanted to better ourselves. The buildings were shipped from the U.S. pre-fabricated. The school had two classrooms and the teacherage was a two-story house. Mr. and Mrs. Wood and their daughter must have been the first teachers. Mr. Wood took the adults and Miss Wood the children. Russian classes and singing were given by Herman Fast, the father-in-law of our Mrs. Fast (Mavrunya), her husband being Nicholas Fast. I started in that school before I was five years old. By then there were two other teachers, Miss Martin and Miss Moore. They changed the teachers every year or two. It is understandable that the teachers needed a change, as a Doukhobor village with people who did not speak English does not provide much social life for a teacher. This school was used until the municipality was created, at which time the Government built a new Petrofka school, No. 23, about a mile north of the village.

The Quaker school attracted people from other villages, hoping for some learning. Dad mentions that at this time the housing situation became quite critical, as most of the homes were built just for their own families. Dad said he went as high as grade 3, but Mother said she used up one short pencil. She liked school and advanced quite rapidly, but her girl friends started to call her a “Professor”, so she quit and got married.

As Mothers are, my Mother was a kind-hearted, capable woman. She visualized that education was helpful in many ways, so she started my and Pete’s schooling at home. She instructed us in the Russian language. As I have mentioned before, she attended Russian classes taught by Herman Fast. She must have studied hard because she knew enough to give us a start in our studies. By the time we were 5 years old, both Pete and I knew how to read and write Russian.

Doukhobor village gathering, Saskatchewan Colony, c. 1902.

This Quaker built and sponsored school is credited with giving Dr. Nicholas Zbitnoff, presently of Ukiah, California, his start in schooling. With a lot of courage and fortitude, a lot of hard work and hard times, Dr. Zbitnoff became one of the most respected medical practitioners and surgeons. His education began in Petrofka.

I started English School at the village with my teacher being Miss Moore or Miss Martin. I was somewhere between four and five years old. I was given a slate and a slate pencil. I took this slate with me to the new Petrofka School north of the village. I think slates were used for the first year or two. We had a bottle of water on our desks and a clean rag to wash and dry our slates. We could not wash our slate until the teacher checked our work, thus checking our mistakes if any. The transition to paper was quite rapid. It was more convenient, and not so messy. Sometimes I feel that I should have kept on with the slate. Perhaps I would have been a smarter person.

As human nature goes, our people at times were subjected to ridicule. One such incident worthy of mention happened while a few of our boys were hired during threshing to pitch bundles, or haul sheaves, as a few dollars earned was quite helpful. This was across the river on one of the German families’ threshing outfits. The German people were hospitable. In spite of their good nature and friendliness, there were one or two young boys who were picking on one of our quietest boys. This chap was William L. Strelioff. They could not get him riled up, as he would ignore their picking on him. He would just move away from them. They must have made their minds up to see how much he could take. They did the meanest thing that could happen. One of them piddled into William’s cap. This made our boys very angry. Alyosha Rebin, Paul and Pete Rebin’s father shouted loudly, “We cannot take that, grab your forks and follow me. We must stop that once and for all times”. Alyosha was not a very big man, perhaps 140 pounds, but what he lacked in size, he made up in courage. There were only 3 or 4 of our boys, so with pitch forks in hand they followed Alyosha. The local boys did not feel like giving ground at first, but then changed their minds when Alyosha layed his fork across the back of one of them. They turned and ran with our boys after them, branding two or more of the local boys. The threshing was stopped for that day. The owner of the machine called the police who took everyone to Rosthern. Court was held. What a sight! The branded boys took their shirts off to show the 3 beautiful marks on their backs made by three-pronged pitch forks. The judge charged each one of our boys and the local boys $7.00, told the local boys not to use our boys’ caps for that purpose and told our boys not to use pitch forks for fighting. Dad was one of the pitch fork gladiators. Threshing resumed the next morning. If there was hostility, they did not show it. There was no bad language used and even more friendly relationship prevailed. Threshing season ended without further incident.

As time marched on, changes began to take place. People of Petrofka began to acquire land, mostly around the village. Since most of us had barns by now, they would drive their horses to their farms to work for the day and come back to the village for the night. I used to watch them come home in the evenings about sundown, driving their teams of four horses. To me it was a beautiful sight. Later on, one by one, they moved out of the village completely and started all over on their farms. However, the village did not diminish in size for awhile, as new arrivals had it nice to occupy the vacated buildings. Sundays the farmers would come to the village, either to visit, or just to see their friends and relatives and to play a game of ball, (hilki) or football. As the second generation grew up, bicycles and even cars began to appear. The children enjoyed going to the store to buy candy. Then there was the Post Office. As the older generation became too occupied with their farming, and building, football suffered. The younger generation became interested in baseball. Young people of the other villages began to visit Petrofka just to play and drink some cider at the store. Blaine Lake came into existence, so there was another team to play against. I believe it was in the early twenties that Petrofka had a sports day of their own. There were teams from across the river as well as from Blaine Lake. Big Pete Padowski was at the gate collecting admission to the grounds.

Father John Bayoff holding Alex, Dunya (John’s wife), Gabriel Bayoff. Seated are Dmitry and Lusha Bayoff with Anna Bayoff standing beside her.

The original store keeper, the Eaglesons, moved out because of schooling for their children. The store was then moved to Nick Makaroff’s house with Nick Postnikoff running it. The Post Office remained in Petrofka until most of the villagers moved out to their farms. Then the Post Office was moved 5 or 4 miles west of the village, but still keeping the name. Later when Nick Makaroff went to his farm, he took his store with him. Nick Postnikoff went with the store and stayed there until he died. They also had the Post Office called Radouga. Alex (Lioxia) Strelioff then opened a store in Makaroff’s house for a while, and then moved his store to Robin’s barn, running the store until he died. After that Paul Voykin opened up the store on his farm, 3 miles west of the village.

Sports were not the only hobbies. We also had some very talented people as well as strong and inventive people that I have mentioned before. Petrofka was always famous for its singers. I do not remember too much of the older people, but the younger generation really got the reputation. Under the direction of Samuel Postnikoff, who also was a very good singer, being a soloist at times, he produced a choir from our country boys and their wives that was outstanding in performance. Another cousin of mine, Edward Postnikoff was an outstanding member of the choir taking solo parts at times. I believe they were the nicest group of young boys and ladies that I have heard at that time. They entertained civic organizations in Saskatoon as well as performing on C.F.Q.C. radio.

We also had very prominent people in their respective ways. Fred Lovroff (Postnikoff) through hardship and perseverance became one of the famous artists of that time. His exhibits were shown in most of the important art displays in many countries. Later, Samuel’s daughter, Jeannette, became very prominent in her painting of live art. Our cousin Fred Post (Postnikoff) is another Petrofka product whose paintings of scenery could rank with the best. Another person was my Uncle Peter Makaroff, who became the first lawyer from Petrofka. He was also the first school teacher of the country Petrofka school which I attended. He must have played an important part in the history of Saskatoon, as there was a street named after him. The family of Mike and Grunya Postnikoff were instrumental in having a street named after them. However, the next generation produced a lot of professional people, not only from Petrofka but from most of the other villages as well. There were teachers, doctors, lawyers, accountants, druggists, engineers, dentists, etc.

In a lighter vein, Petrofka even had a pool room, only one table. I do not know how long it was in business or how it faired, as I was too young to realize what it was. It lasted only a few years.

We also had comedians. At this time I will relate one of the many occurrences. It happened one evening when a load of supplies, etc., came in from Rosthern. Naturally wine was one of the items brought in. Then a party had to take place, which was in Nickolai Popoff’s place, a brother of Grandfather Makaroff. As the party was in progress, the host, Nickolai Popoff revealed some important conclusions. Evidently he witnessed one of the bread and wine acts, a religious ceremony in a Mennonite church. There was a plate of bread broken into small pieces and a small jigger of wine. These were passed around the congregation and whoever wished to take part took a piece of bread and wet their lips with the wine. He mentioned how the people were misled, and that a sip of wine would entitle them to a place in heaven. He went on to say that here we drink it by the gallon and even then we are not sure if we be qualified for a place in heaven.

As the municipal school opened up, the school in the village closed up. Grandpa Bayoff bought the school and moved it to his homestead, about a mile north of the village. George Strelioff bought the teacherage and moved it about half a mile north of the village. Besides the house and other buildings in the village, Grandpa Makaroff built a two-story house on the outskirts of the village. Rebins also built their house on the northern outskirts of the village. All others had their farms, some close to and some not so close to the village. Dad built our house about 2 miles north of the village and Uncle Gabriel, still further north.

Pete and Alex Bayoff in the village of Petrofka, c. 1910.

Aunt Anna, who became Mrs. George Postnikoff, moved quite away south west of the village. Eventually every family moved out. Paul Voykin opened a store on his farm about three miles west of the village. The Petrofka Post Office was also moved to a farm west of the village. Sometime later Eli Gulioff opened a store and a barber shop close to the ferry.

So now the Petrofka Bridge carries the name of the once hustling and very active hamlet full of happiness, hard times and good times and some sorrowful. This has been blown away as if by a gust of wind, leaving only the spiritual members of Petrofka’s graveyard to remind us of its existence. Petrofka as well as other villages have done their duty and served their purpose in providing a link between those who came ahead and the new immigrants, keeping them together and helping one another to settle themselves for a new life in a new and strange country. That purpose had been accomplished. At this point it’s worthy of mention, Dad’s saying that we should be grateful to the good Queen Victoria for accepting us, and to our far-seeing elders who had enough courage to organize this move. Also we shouldn’t forget the help we received from Count Leo Tolstoy and the Quakers, and last but not least, to honour our ancestors who, through extreme hardship, brought us into this country where we so far have lived in harmony with other peoples of various races and religions.

We were then settled on the farm, north of the village, building, working the land, raising stock and poultry and gardening. Most of the Sundays we went to the village to mingle with friends and relatives and to see if there was any mail. In a few years of struggle, which included a lot of land clearing, we suddenly found ourselves solvent. The buildings were up, the implements paid for, the mares in foal and the cows heavy with calf. There were a few dollars put away under the mattress. As Dad wanted to increase the horsepower so that we could have two outfits of four animals, he thought he had a bargain on mules. So he bought a team. That is when you have to test your nerves.

They stopped working whenever they felt like it and would not move, no matter what, until they decided to. Something like our present unions, only the unions were justified in going on strike. Who knows, maybe the mules were justified. Dad could not figure that out so he traded them in on a new wagon and a nice new shiny buggy.

Life on the farm was a lot of hard work, as all of our people experienced. We had to do without things that we would have liked. Pete and I were too young to be of much help except to bring the cows from the pasture at milking time. Mother would go out in the field with Dad, who was either fencing or clearing land. One of the quarters had a lot of bush. I have seen Mother drive a team (of horses – ed.) hooked to a tree or bush, while Dad was swinging the axe to chop the roots. In the evening came milking time and supper making, and at bed time Mother would help us wash our feet, as Pete and I went bare footed a lot. Our poor Mothers, how they worked!

Then there were embarrassing times too. Mother tells of one incident when a Mounted Policeman drove into the field where Mother was plowing. She was wearing Dad’s overalls over her dress. The Policeman asked if she was a man or a woman and said “if you are a woman you better pull those overalls off”. Being scared, Mother complied. I do not remember her saying anything, whether she put them on again when the Policeman left.

Doukhobors threshing the grain harvest. Library and Archives Canada PA-022242.

Our yard was about a mile and a half from the bush, approaching the river and at that time it seemed as if it were full of coyotes. Some evenings they become quite musical. It seemed as though they had a whole choir. There were tenors, basses and sopranos. It was not uncommon to see a coyote come into the yard in broad daylight and grab a chicken.

As I have mentioned before, we had acquired a new buggy. The best way to train a horse is to do it when they are two years old. The only suitable horse we had then was a nice two year old stallion. He was quite gentle and well behaved. We used to hitch him up to the new buggy to go to the village for the mail. So one Sunday we took him to the neighboring church. At that time most of the driving was done by horse and buggy, so there were a lot of horses tied to the fence posts. Dad tied our young stallion next to the other horses and we all went into church. During the sermon we were attracted by the shrieking of horses. Dad went out and saw our young horse trying to be playful. Dad immediately moved him over away from the other horses and made sure that he tied him securely. The church service continued then without further interruption.

People as a whole were getting more affluent, so a change was forthcoming. Our neighbors bought a car. Then, as there were a few dollars under the mattress, brother Pete asked Dad to buy a car since the neighbors had one and Pete wanted to be equal. Dad did not want to rush into such an expense and so said, “No, we are not ready for it.” Pete began to cry as he was only 4 years old. Wiping his eyes and whimpering, he said the neighbors had a car so must we. Dad drew his attention to the fact he was small and could not do the work like the neighbors did, and because they had a big family, could earn a lot of money. At this point Pete, still crying, said, “What is keeping you from having a big family?” Dad and Mom took notice of that remark, especially coming from a four year old. After a little deliberation, they took the easy way out and bought a brand new Gray-Dort car.

In 1914 came the war. Dad, as well as other young men was called up, including Uncle Pete Makaroff who had just finished law school. I have heard that while pleading the case of the Doukhobors, Uncle was handled pretty rough by the police. A temporary release was obtained, due to the fact that the crops would soon be ready to harvest. They decided that our boys would be able to harvest the crops. Our people, seeing the seriousness of the situation, organized a meeting on the day of St. Peter and St. Paul, for prayer and to decide what to do. They agreed to send 5 or 4 men to Ottawa to plead our case. This meeting was held on the farm of Uncle Nicholas Makaroff, and was initiated as the first meeting in Saskatchewan in memory of the one held in Russia when they gathered all the firearms and burned them. That was on the day of St. Peter and St. Paul. In the District of Blaine Lake, as far as I know, these prayer meetings were held every year after that. This at times became a very large occasion, sometimes lasting two days. We had visitors from California and other parts of the U.S.A. to help bring back the memory of the first meeting in Russia for the burning of the firearms. Molokans were frequent visitors. At least on one occasion we had visitors from the Quakers.

As mentioned before, at the first historic meeting in Saskatchewan, they agreed to send a delegation to Ottawa. I do not remember if the delegates were elected or volunteered. They were Uncle Nick Makaroff, George Strelioff and the others I do not remember, but could have been from the district of Yorkton. These delegates did a good job convincing the government that we were let into Canada for the development of the North-West Territories. Documents showed that the good Queen Victoria exempted us from military service for 99 years. We were not bothered any more until the Second World War of 1939. At that time, our young men eligible for military service were exempt from it again, provided they did manual work in work camps. One of the camps was located just north of Prince Albert. They allowed one senior person to be with the boys to see that the boys behaved and that they were not abused. Pete was practicing dentistry in Meadow Lake. As he was the only dentist for a large territory, reaching from Meadow Lake all the way to Lenningrad, they decided to let him stay, but he had to pay a portion of his earnings to the war effort.

Group of Doukhobor girls, Blaine Lake, Saskatchewan, 1930. Library and Archives Canada PA-022240.

Now going back to 1918, the First World War came to an end November 11, 1918. Then the Spanish influenza came along. There were only a few people who did not get sick. I do not remember if Grandpa was sick or not. I remember that I was the last one of our family to get it. While I was able to move around, Grandpa would come and we would take the car to visit some sick neighbors. I was 11 years old, just old enough to think I knew a lot. However, I was lucky enough not to get caught by the police. They rode through the country quite frequently.

The two quarter sections of land that we owned were not adjacent to one another. This created inconvenience in moving machinery from one place to another and being a whole day away from home we also had to carry food and water for the midday feeding of the horses. My parents saw a chance to buy a half-section together and so they made a deal with Eli Strelioff, who at that time had an agreement of sale with a Mr. Smith of New York. Dad took over that agreement of sale and so we moved to about three miles south of Marcelin, and about 15 miles from our Petrofka home. The Petrofka property was sold to William Postnikoff who acquired the home quarter; and the other to Fred Dargin. It was in the spring of 1919.

To me at the time it seemed unfair; we had just settled properly at the Petrofka farm and then we had to start from scratch again. Moving is bad enough if you have some place to move to, but on the new farm there was a small 10′ X 12’ shack, one granary, no barn, and as the saying goes, “no nothing”.

Dad and Mother must have had extra strong intestinal fortitude. I had just turned 12 and pitched in with all my might. I missed three years school. It was hard work. We had to put up an addition to the shack, dig a well, build a barn, a chicken house and a workshop. There was more bush than we would have liked, so every spare day we were in the bush. I was old enough to handle a team, while Dad swung the axe.

The first crop, 1919, looked very good, but when we started cutting it, it was so full of rust that you could hardly see the horses in front of you. The yield was very poor. One of Dad’s best friends and neighbors in the village, Pete Reban, insisted that he would like to come all that way to thresh. It was not for the money, but to see where we were. It was a happy occasion in spite of the poor crop year. The two friends, Dad and “Uncle Pete” (we called him Uncle, as Dad and he were so close) had a real pow-wow. Paul was there too and we enjoyed his wit and humor.

There were bad and good years, plus hard work. It was very discouraging. It was hard to hit the right time to sell grain, due to changing markets. On top of that, we had to pay 20 cents exchange on American money. However, we buckled down and in 1925 we had a very good crop. The prices for grain were good. We paid up for the land, bought a new car, a Chrysler Sedan, built a new house and barn, bought another half section of land and were back in debt. Then the Depression began to spread. I started University and Pete, after trying University, switched to Normal School. He taught our home school, Gillies, for six years for $400.00 a year, for which he had to do the janitor work also. That $400.00 he turned over to the family. It was very welcome. Crop failure and quotas did not help any. Seeing no future in teaching, Pete started University again, and in 1940 graduated from the Northwestern University in Chicago and began his practice of Dentistry in Meadow Lake in 1940. He is still there at the time of writing this article, enjoying his retirement, after more than 40 years of practice. He still does work, if you can catch him at home, and he enjoys it. He still attends dental seminars and other dental meetings. He says once a dentist you want to keep abreast of new developments for the sake of knowing.

Group of young Doukhobors, Blaine Lake, Saskatchewan, 1930. Library and Archives Canada C-008888.

As for myself, I too got fed up with the Depression, and went to Minneapolis, where I got my Bachelors Degree in Civil Engineering; at the same time did a year of research work for a Masters Degree in Hydraulics. There were no jobs there either – very discouraging. I got a job in a hardware wholesale at a salary of $18.00 per week. Then I fell in love and got married to Mary Rogich. I moved into Mary’s home. She lived with her Mother and brother. Mary’s Mother was a wonderful woman, kind-hearted and very generous. After about a year I realized that I was not making any headway and I did not feel like sponging on the good nature of Mary’s Mother. Jobs in engineering or other types were non-existent. You got some sort of consideration if you joined the army. That was not for me. In the fall, I persuaded Mary to come to the farm with me. We would not have to pay rent, and at the same time have the best food that nature can give us. Besides I had an interest in the farm. Then when times got better, I could get an engineering job and we could try our luck at it. Mary was a city girl and could not see her way to become a farmer’s wife. It was my duty to provide for my family, and I could not do it for the year we tried in the city. So I decided to stay on the farm and at the same time keep my equity in the farm; she decided to go back to her Mother. It was hard on both of us. We loved one another, but as we have found out, people cannot live on love alone. It was harder on Mary as her Mother was a widow, and. it was Mary’s duty to be with her, or near her. Mary was a wonderful wife, but somehow the conditions were against us. The Thirties were rolling on, so was the Depression, so it would be foolish for me to quit farming to look for another job. I tried.

I concluded that the Depression and hard times was 90% responsible for the breaking up of this my family. We were not the only victims of the Depression. Banks went broke and people lost all their belongings. Many committed suicide. The first job I got was in 1939 when I managed to get on the crew for building a boiler for the Saskatchewan Power Commission. That job paid 25 cents an hour. I lived in the Barry Hotel, ate out and managed to bring some money home.

Then the war broke out and in 1940 I joined the M & C Aviation Co. to design aircraft parts. After the war was over I could get ten jobs. I worked for Underwood and McLellan for several years, then took time out to build four houses in Saskatoon. Just prior to this time I received word that I was divorced from Mary. Then in a few years I re-married Daisy Sawley, who helped me build the four houses. I then went back to surveying, working for Webb and Webster for a few years more. Mother died in 1962. That knocked the energy out of me, so I retired from my engineering work.

Two good things resulted in my varied life. One is that Mary gave us a wonderful Daughter whom we love very much. This is partly the cause of me writing this article, as our Daughter knows very little of my background. The other good thing that happened was when I met Daisy. It is surprising how much can be accomplished when two people pull together. Diana, our Daughter comes to visit us quite often. Daisy and Diana get along very well, so well that I sometimes feel jealous, but I am happy that they get along so well. We thank Mary, Diana’s Mother, from the bottom of our hearts for giving us such a wonderful Daughter.

It would be inconsiderate of me not to mention the help and advice of my loving wife. She gave me encouragement, help and support in writing this article. . She is a true Christian and a Good Samaritan. When Mother was sick, she took her into our home, and looked after her. Now we have Dad, who is harder to look after, Daisy does not complain, and takes things as they come.

There are only three old Bayoff’s left. There will be no more Bayoff’s of this dynasty to carry on. The branch of Uncle Gabriel’s dynasty was terminated when Fred died, leaving three ladies, Olga, Anne and Elsie. If they do have children, they will not carry the name. Of Dad’s, mine and Pete’s branch, most likely Diana will be stuck with writing the last chapter of our dynasty. God Bless her and give her good health and strength, and I hope she is happy being in the family. We also thank Edward and Mary Postnikoff from the bottom of our hearts for taking care of Grandpa Dmitry in his last days, and taking care of his funeral in the best of Doukhobor traditions. Thank you Edward and Mary.

Labor Day of 1983, we went to Manitou Beach (Watrous, Saskatchewan – ed.) for a swim in the pool, as it was closing for the season. Dad enjoyed himself very much. He stayed in the pool for three hours. When he got out he said, “Goodbye pool, I will never see you again”. The pool buildings burned down early that fall and Dad died March 30, 1984.

I am now the official old man (starichok or “elder” – ed.) of my family, even though I do not feel that old. It is just the honorary recognition I must accept.

Alex Bayoff,

Saskatoon, SK., May 1985

Grandmother Berikoff: A Special Gift

by Natalie Voykin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grandmother Berikoff in her later years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bill and Natalie Voykin with grandchildren, 1990.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter G. Makaroff, QC, Canada’s First Doukhobor Lawyer

by William H. McConnell

Peter G. Makaroff (1895-1970) came to Canada as a young boy with the Doukhobor migration in 1899. At that time, he could speak no English, but in less than twenty years, he became the first Doukhobor ever to graduate from a post-secondary educational institution. He went on to become one of Canada’s outstanding lawyers as well as a noted peacemaker and humanitarian. Throughout his life, he cherished his ties with his Russian culture, Doukhobor heritage and pacifist roots. He was a model to many Doukhobors as an educated, courageous and intelligent professional who was willing to help the underdog locally, nationally and internationally. The following article by William H. McConnell, reproduced by permission from Saskatchewan History (44, 1992, No. 3), traces the life and career of this Doukhobor role model who was always at his best working uphill against apparently impossible odds.

Peter G. Makaroff, whose family came to Canada with the first wave of Doukhobor immigration in 1899, was a pioneer in more ways than one. Brought to Canada from Transcaucasia at age five, with six brothers and sisters, after graduation in law from the University of Saskatchewan in 1918, he became the world’s first Doukhobor lawyer. He was the first member of his religion to serve on the University’s Board of Governors and to preside over the Saskatchewan Labour Relations Board. In addition to his distinguished record of public service, he was also the founding member of one of Saskatoon’s principal law firms.

Peter’s father, Gregory, found communal life in the Doukhobor colony, which was ruled so strictly by Peter V. Verigin, to be oppressive and left to become an independent farmer. The migration of such dissidents gained momentum with more than a thousand “Independents” residing in the Prince Albert district shortly after 1908. While they still adhered to the main tenets of their faith, and continued to be fervent pacifists, the Independents rejected the authoritarian governmental structure of their leaders and abandoned the communal way of life. In 1916 the Society of Independent Doukhobors was organized with Peter soon becoming secretary of the new group. “Without adopting any of the pretensions of the leaders,” a leading work declares of the younger Makaroff, “he became the intellectual guide to those Doukhobors who had chosen the path of opposition to Peter Verigin but were not prepared to abandon entirely their loyalties to the sect.”

Doukhobor children brought to Pennsylvania by the Quakers in 1902 for education. Peter Markaroff appears in the front centre (with cap). Swarthmore College Collection.

 
As an independent farmer in the Blaine Lake district of Saskatchewan, Gregory Makaroff sent his children to the German-English Academy (later Rosthern Junior College) at Rosthern, which was located about twenty-five miles distant from the farm. Peter’s early inspiration came from one of his teachers, Professor Michael Sherbinin, a Russian nobleman from St. Petersburg, fluent in several languages, from another teacher, Ella Martin, a Presbyterian, from George McCraney, Liberal MP for Rosthern, and from Sir Wilfrid Laurier, who was both prime minister and a distinguished lawyer. The Quakers (a community of whom resided near Borden) provided financial assistance for the education of young Doukhobors, and Peter was sent to Philadelphia to continue his schooling among them, later enrolling in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Saskatchewan. By that time Peter Verigin had taken half of the original Doukhobor community in Saskatchewan to the Kootenay area of British Columbia where he had bought 15,000 acres of land.

But who were the Doukhobors of whom the Makaroffs were members? There was no formal ministry nor sacraments within the Doukhobor religion, which broke away from the Russian Orthodox Church in the early eighteenth century. Adherents held that God dwelt within all his children, and that formal communion, preaching or prayers were unnecessary. One writer has described their religion as follows:

The Doukhobors were a priestless religious group, whose faith centred on the belief that every man carried within him the Divine Spark of the Holy Spirit. The Doukhobors were pacifists who believed that each person was a temple of the Holy Spirit. The destruction of human life was therefore regarded as a grievous sin. Their belief in the presence of the Holy Spirit led to their reliance on expressions of the Spirit (prophecies, worshipful praise and song) rather than on the written word. By the 1800s, a heritage of psalms and prayers, called the Living Book, was passed on orally from generation to generation.

With women and men separated by a central aisle in their unadorned meeting houses, believers would make simple professions of faith, much as the Quakers did elsewhere, along with reciting psalms and singing hymns. When Peter Makaroffs family and others destroyed their firearms in 1895, refused to be conscripted into the Army and resolved never to go to war, they experienced ostracism and persecution. The pacifistic character of the religion, emphasizing non-violence and universal brotherhood, brought them into collision with the Russian Orthodox Church and the Tsarist bureaucracy. The demands of the faith presented a hard test to many Doukhobors and not all of them remained steadfast, with some relapsing into the Russian mainstream.

The elder Verigin, a man of impressive charm and presence, known to his flock as “Peter the Lordly,” succeeded his mentor, Lukeria V. Kalmykova, as leader of the Doukhobors on her death in 1886. The military conscription policy, which was so contrary to their principles, having been introduced more than a decade earlier in Russia proper, was unexpectedly extended to the Caucasus region in 1887. In the same year, Verigin was exiled to Shenkursk, Siberia, where he met with other refugees and was deeply influenced by Leo Tolstoy’s philosophical anarchism, which was infused with a vein of non-doctrinal Christian pacifism very similar to that of the Doukhobors. Verigin increasingly promoted Tolstoyan tenets among his followers, advocating “non-resistance to evil,” and enjoining them not to swear oaths, eat meat, drink, smoke, or submit to military conscription.

After further persecution, the Tsarist government finally gave the Doukhobors permission to emigrate to Canada, in which they were assisted by royalties from their benefactor, Leo Tolstoy, derived from the sale of his novel, Resurrection, published in 1898. The Russian authorities admonished them that they, alone, would be responsible for their travelling expenses, that those (including Peter Verigin) who had been exiled to Siberia, or who had been called up for military service should finish their terms before leaving, and warned them that if they returned they would be banished to Siberia. The Canadian government, which was then implementing the “Sifton immigration policy” to populate the West, was grateful to receive as immigrants such hardworking agricultural settlers and as a concession to their religious scruples passed an Order-in-Council and a consequential statutory provision exempting them from future military service.

Some 7,500 Doukhobors then congregated at the Georgian port of Batum, departing for Canada in four shiploads over a seven-month period, the first immigrants embarking on the S.S. Lake Huron in late December, 1898. The fare to Winnipeg was twenty-two dollars for each passenger. After the arduous transits to Halifax and Saint John, New Brunswick, the new arrivals went overland to colonies in the Yorkton area of Assiniboia and the Duck Lake area of Saskatchewan, to a reservation of homestead land having an aggregate total of 773,400 acres. Their leader, Peter V. Verigin, arrived in Canada only on 16 December 1902, after completing nearly sixteen years of Siberian exile.

Because of the young Makaroff’s command of Russian, he was frequently in demand as a translator in Saskatchewan courts, which served a polyglot community arriving in the province before the First World War. Once, when Judge J.A. McClean of the Battleford District Court refused to allow a Doukhobor to take an oath, allegedly because the sect was not Christian and did not believe in the Bible, Makaroff, who was present, jumped to his feet and, proclaiming himself to be a Doukhobor, asserted that his co-religionists were indeed Christians, and that although it was against their principles to swear oaths, the witness could make an affirmation if allowed to do so. McClean sternly admonished Makaroff to sit down, asking him to speak to him after the court adjourned. Afterwards the judge spoke very softly and kindly to the young man, admitting that he personally knew few Doukhobors and encouraging Peter to become a lawyer to promote better understanding. Makaroff did study law at the University of Saskatchewan, graduating in 1918. He helped to defray expenses by waiting on tables in the residences, and participated extensively in athletics. He also got to know well another law student and future prime minister, John Diefenbaker, who graduated one year later. The two remained friendly although their political philosophies diverged sharply as time wore on. Another acquaintance, Helen Marshall, a non-Doukhobor who graduated in arts and science in the same year that Makaroff graduated in law, two years later became his wife.

Peter Makaroff in University of Saskatchewan football uniform, 1916. Saskatchewan Archives Board, S-B6510.

Prior to his death, Judge McClean had given instructions that his extensive law library be sold to his young acquaintance, as a result of which Makaroff acquired a valuable reference library for five hundred dollars. He began his professional practice in the Canada Building in Saskatoon in July, 1918, and was soon taking cases to the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court of Canada. A year later he was joined by Arthur L. Bates, the firm practicing under the style of Makaroff and Bates until the Second World War period.

Because of the Doukhobors’ preference for a simple life close to nature and their aversion to “worldly” education and the learned professions, Makaroff’s admission to the Bar was unprecedented in his religious community and he was sometimes described as the first certified professional in the sect’s two hundred and fifty year history. Far from this estranging him from his fellow believers, he was admired by most Doukhobors for his educational qualifications and marked legal abilities, and they often turned to him for advice, especially during recurrent crises. Although his legal practice was a cosmopolitan one, he always sought to help his own community whenever he could and was only the first of many Doukhobors to attend the University of Saskatchewan.

In one of his earlier cases, Prescesky v. Can. Nor. Ry., decided in 1923, Makaroff’s talent for cross-examination was apparent. His client, a young farmer, had been run down by the defendant’s locomotive at a level railway crossing, with counsel for the railway arguing that the train had given the required signal for such crossings – two long and two short blasts of the whistle with continuous ringing of the bell for each crossing – before the accident took place. Makaroff’s client was non-suited at the first trial, but the Supreme Court of Canada ordered a new trial at which the sole point in contention was whether the requisite warning had been given. Railway counsel from Winnipeg sought to reinforce his already-strong evidence by calling the section foreman’s wife, who claimed that she could survey from her back porch railway track for a distance of four miles, including the site of the accident. Makaroff did not believe that she had actually seen the accident, and proceeded to cross-examine on that assumption. His strategy was risky, however, and could backfire, since if he were mistaken she might take the opportunity to further confirm her evidence. Makaroff decided to test her on the critical question:

Q. You say you actually stood there and heard the whistle blow four times, from the time it passed your cottage until it stopped at the accident?

A. Yes, I did.

Q. Once for each crossing?

A. Sure, that’s just what I said.

Q. You mean you heard four blasts?

A. That is right.

Q. One blast for each of the four crossings?

A. Yes, that’s exactly what I said. That’s just what I heard.

The young counsel for the plaintiff then saw the jury smile and whisper to each other. His successful client later moved from Saskatoon to Vancouver, where he entered commercial life and acquired a substantial fortune.

In the early days of Makaroff’s legal career, public opinion in the province was often intolerant of immigrants of Central and East European origin, and in this respect the Law Society was no different from other organizations. On 30 June 1930, for example, Luseland barrister Frank E. Jaenicke wrote Makaroff referring to a recent entry in the Law Society Gazette stating, “efforts should be made to limit those entering the legal profession to persons of British extraction.” Mr. Jaenicke added that most of the names of those reprimanded or struck off the rolls for non-ethical conduct were of non-British origin, and he suspected that “most of the Benchers were Tories.” Makaroff replied that “at the Bar Convention here the same matter was brought up by [former Dean of Law Arthur] Moxon, seconded by [Stewart] McKercher, but before the motion was put, Mr. [H. E.] Sampson, who was the only Bencher present, got up on his feet, and tendered a very lame apology for the action of the Benchers. He gave the assurance that everything possible would be done… to correct the unfavourable impression.” A weakened motion was then passed by the Bar convention urging rectification of the matter as soon as possible.” Later in the same letter Makaroff added “… I do not give a penny for the attitude of the members of the profession towards me, but I do object to that spirit or sentiment being shared by the judiciary, which undoubtedly will be, unless something happens in the immediate future to check the tendency” In a further letter he mentioned the need for more “broad-minded and tolerant” Benchers, suggesting that more influence might be exerted by lawyers of like mind to elect such Benchers at the next Law Society election.

The Canadian authorities became increasingly critical of a small breakaway sect, the Sons of Freedom, which had formed soon after the Doukhobors arrived in Canada and the activities of which were not representative of a substantial majority of the members of the religion:

However exotic the more violent actions of the Sons of Freedom, the zealot wing of the Doukhobors, may appear to us, it is sobering to reflect that none of these extreme types of behaviour—nudism, arson, dynamiting—was part of the Doukhobor pattern of life before the sect reached Canada. Fire-raisers and nude paraders have never represented more than a small majority of an otherwise peaceful (indeed pacifist) community, anxious only to live according to its own beliefs.

In practice, however, nice logical distinctions between the mainstream Doukhobor movement and the Sons of Freedom were not always made. The peaceful majority were often confused by the public with their more zealous coreligionists, and suffered persecution along with the minority.

With the election of Conservative leader, Dr. J.T.M. Anderson, to the premiership in 1929, increasing strife developed between the Saskatchewan government and the local Doukhobor community. Between 1929 and 1931, twenty-five Saskatchewan schools were burned in Doukhobor areas around Kamsack and Canora, resulting in some arrests and imprisonments. Coincident with the arson and civil disobedience, plummeting world wheat prices adversely affected the communal economy, creating a mood of demoralization among Doukhobors which tended to increase the unrest.

In October 1924, the life of the elder Verigin had come to an untimely end when he and eight others were blown up in a railway carriage near Grand Forks, British Columbia. The mystery of his death has never been solved. Difficult adjustments were necessary after the arrival of Verigin’s son, Peter P. Verigin, from the USSR in 1927. The new leader was described by Makaroff as something of an enigma:

“…No one was sure whether he was a saint or devil or just a plain madman. He was very brilliant. He had a tremendous memory, but at the same time I think he was really a psychopath. From the day he arrived from Russia he became involved in one litigation after another. He was in and out of jail for assaults, for creating disturbances, for what not. He was quite an alcoholic and when under the influence of liquor he was absolutely beyond control. His headquarters were at Verigin near Yorkton. He became so rowdy when staying in one hotel after another that he would be chucked out of there and not allowed to come back, so he goes to work and builds his own hotel. He wasn’t there on more than one occasion before he was prohibited from going back into his own hotel.”

Dr. Anderson and Conservative Prime Minister, R.B. Bennett, were persuaded that Peter P. Verigin was the source of much of the trouble affecting the Doukhobors and decided to take action. In 1932 Verigin had been sentenced to eighteen months in the Prince Albert penitentiary for perjury and tampering with a witness in a disputed land sale agreement the previous year. They decided to spirit him out of Canada with the least publicity possible.

Neither Bennett nor Anderson had much sympathy for immigrants of non-British origin, particularly those who might be tinged with “radical sympathies” or were deemed to have engaged in political agitation against the state. Enacted by Borden’s Union Government during the Red Scare of 1919, section 98 of the Criminal Code visited with up to twenty years’ imprisonment members of vaguely-defined “unlawful associations,” one of whose purposes was to bring about political change by unlawful means. Pursuant to Bennett’s policy “of having ‘no truck nor trade’ with the Soviet Union, and placing an ‘iron heel’ on Socialism and Communism,” the notorious trial of the Toronto Communists (several of whom had Slavic names) was held in November 1931, with the above provision being described by McGill law professor, Frank R. Scott, as “unequalled in the history of Canada and probably any British country for centuries past,” for its permanent restriction of civil liberties. One of the first acts of the succeeding Mackenzie King administration, in fact, was to repeal the egregious section 98.

Among other illiberal acts, Prime Minister Bennett had also amended the Criminal Code to raise the penalty for parading while nude to three years’ imprisonment, a measure obviously aimed at the Doukhobors, and amended the Dominion Franchise Act in 1934 so as to deprive Doukhobors in British Columbia of the right to vote in federal elections. For his part, in 1929-1930, Premier Anderson advised the federal government that further Russian and Mennonite immigration into the province was not wanted, adding that he “doubted if these 5,000 people really were starving outside the gates of Moscow,” as claimed. His government also abolished the use of the French language in grade one of the public schools. It was in this era that the Ku Klux Klan was active in Saskatchewan, with the premier extolling the value of “British” immigration and institutions, a point which the Klan made in a less refined manner.

Thus, Bennett and Anderson being in accord in the final days of January, 1933, two plainclothes agents from Ottawa arrived in Prince Albert, showed the warden a document pardoning Verigin, and whisked the latter swiftly and silently away to Halifax. Anderson and Bennett obviously wished to speed the Doukhobor leader out of the country before his followers and legal counsel could intervene on his behalf.

This ploy almost succeeded. By chance, however, the Prince Albert correspondent of the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix learned of the impending deportation and telephoned her city editor, who in turn telephoned a startled Makaroff; when the latter spoke to Verigin’s subordinates they were insistent that no effort or expense be spared to save their leader from deportation.

Neither Prime Minister Bennett nor the immigration authorities would accede to Makaroff’s request to hold Verigin in Winnipeg so that he could interview his client. With time elapsing quickly, the situation was becoming desperate. Makaroff then embarked on a bold chase. He took the train to Winnipeg and then travelled by air to Minneapolis, Chicago, New York and Boston. Finding that there were no flights between Boston and Halifax, he chartered a small private plane which took off at three o’clock in the morning of the day that Verigin was to be deported, flying over the Bay of Fundy without instruments. The pilot flew at a high altitude in order to avoid the treacherous downdrafts in the area and, fortunately, the flight proceeded without incident.

Russian postcard sent to John G. Bondoreff by S. Reibin and Peter Makaroff written in flight, 2 February 1933. “In view of the fact that Petyushka will be sent off the morning of 4 February and in order to see him before deportation, [we]…are flying at 130 miles per hour…” Saskatchewan Archives Board, S-A292.

Makaroff arrived in Halifax on Saturday morning shortly before the S.S. Montcalm was scheduled to depart with Verigin for Russia. He met with a frigid reception when he was brought to Verigin’s cell. Since Verigin had previously threatened to end his life, Makaroff approached the interview with some uneasiness. The Doukhobor chieftain did not appear surprised at seeing his former counsel with two other Doukhobors, but as Peter Makaroff described the encounter later to John G. Bondoreff, one of the leader’s aides: “The minute he saw the three of us as he entered the room, he immediately swung around and ran back to his cell. The officer in charge came back and said that he would not see the other two at all but wanted to speak to me.”

Because of Verigin’s death threat, Makaroff was surprised by his relatively cordial behavior towards him. He attributed Verigin’s “frequently offensive and insulting attitude” towards those around him to his hopelessness at remaining in the country, noting particularly his incivility towards Lionel Ryan, one of Makaroff’s Halifax agents.

At first Verigin advised Makaroff that he wanted no help at all, cursing all those responsible for the belated legal intervention. There was, moreover, little time to confer. It was already eleven o’clock and the Court House, where habeas corpus proceedings (ie. proceedings to determine whether a prisoner has been imprisoned lawfully) were to be instituted, was to close in two hours. In these difficult circumstances, Makaroff was able to have the hearing deferred until late February. There was at least a reprieve!

When his counsel asked Verigin whether, in lieu of deportation, he would prefer to go back to Prince Albert to finish the remainder of his jail sentence, he was met with “a long line of profanity to the effect that he had no fear of Canadian jails whatsoever. I interpreted that as instructions to do all I could to save him and told him I would do that. He pretended not to care, but his appearance contradicted his pretence.” Following this exchange, Makaroff related that Verigin “gave me every cooperation… to present his case before the Court,” adding, however, “… it would be impossible to describe in any detail his many insane tantrums… during our month’s stay there”

After these rather equivocal instructions to counsel, Makaroff applied for habeas corpus on his client’s behalf. Much of the argument before Mr. Justice Mellish centred around the instrument dated 20 January 1933, and signed by the Governor-General, Lord Bessborough, which read in part: “He is to be deported to Russia when released from custody… .” The relevant section of the Immigration Act, however, provided that an inmate could be deported only after his sentence or term of imprisonment “has expired,” and Mellish held that Verigin’s sentence had not “expired” within the meaning of that section. Roughly half of Verigin’s sentence had still to run and “he has the right if he chooses to take the limit of time allowed him before deportation…. If the prisoner is pardoned conditionally he has the right to refuse the pardon if he is unwilling to accept the conditions. If the prisoner has been pardoned (and I do not think he could be discharged from prison except in exercise of the power of pardon) he cannot in my opinion be deported.” Since Verigin had been unlawfully detained, Mellish ordered that his petition be granted and that he be released from custody.

Had the case been heard a few weeks later it is probable that the results would have been different. Verigin was a very fortunate man. One month after Mellish’s decision, the Supreme Court of Canada decided, contrary to the Nova Scotia judgment, that the prerogative of mercy could be exercised by the Crown to release a prisoner without his consent prior to the termination of his sentence. After such a pardon, moreover, his sentence could be considered to have “expired,” enabling the government to deport him under the statutory provision applying in Verigin’s case. Since the Supreme Court decision would bind all lower courts throughout Canada, had it been in effect during the Halifax proceedings, Mellish would have been constrained to decide the case against Verigin. Four months later, in Winnipeg, the federal authorities again attempted to deport Verigin, but they were frustrated this time because the local court found that, whatever statutory provisions might apply, there had not been a “fair hearing.” The government certainly seemed determined to get rid of the Doukhobor leader.

Because Makaroff was not a member of the Nova Scotia Bar, he had to engage two Halifax agents, J.J. Power, K.C., and Lionel Ryan, to present his client’s case in the local forum. He had dictated some of the affidavits over the telephone to them while en route to Halifax, and had planned much of the legal strategy. By agreement, Power was to have received a fee of five hundred dollars, but when the case was won he increased the amount, having Verigin arrested for debt under the archaic law of capias (used in England in Dickens’ time to send indigents to debtors’ prison) so that he would not abscond without settling accounts. Verigin perceived things differently. “God, through the instrumentality of Judge Mellish, released me from jail, only to be re-arrested and lodged back in jail by my own lawyer, Peter Makaroff. Send me $10,000 immediately in order to extricate me from the toils of the law again.” On learning that his ruse was detected, Verigin began railing once more. Makaroff then left town, catching up with Verigin in Winnipeg where the latter apologized to him.

Reflecting wryly about the case some years later, Makaroff recalled that he had received his appointment as King’s Counsel in 1932 from the Anderson government in part for his efforts at quelling some of the more rambunctious antics of the Sons of Freedom Doukhobors. His victory in Halifax spoke well of the solicitude of the Canadian justice system for a member of an unpoular minority. Nevertheless, he sometimes wondered what Anderson and Bennett really thought about his return of Verigin to the province in 1933. He was able to see the comic as well as the more serious aspects of the transcontinental chase involving one of the world’s most colorful religious personalities. Because of the high drama of the incident, it attracted much interest in the international press.

Another series of trials of roughly the same vintage, in which Makaroff served as defence counsel, occurred after the Regina riot of 1 July 1935. The riot was the culminating episode of the On-to-Ottawa trek by a trainload of unemployed young men proceeding to the national capital to seek the help of the Conservative prime minister. When R.B. Bennett ordered the trek halted at Regina, the RCMP attempted to clear the trekkers out of Market Square, resulting in an ugly confrontation and a clash between the police and the militants with one death, much loss of property and many injuries.

In the climate of antagonism towards “political agitators” in mid-Depression times, public sympathy was clearly on the side of “law and order.” When the trekkers were put individually on trial, Makaroff was called in as defence counsel, later enlisting Emmett M. Hall, Q.C., of Saskatoon (a future Supreme Court of Canada judge) to assist with the defence. Makaroff’s assessment of the accuseds’ prospects was bleak: “The whole atmosphere was charged with hostility against the prisoners and there was slight hope of freeing any of them. Nevertheless, we fought every case all the way as they came up.” Hall later said that he and Makaroff “were pretty well isolated as far as the Regina Bar was concerned.”

Chaos during the Regina Riot, 1935. City of Regina Photograph Collection.

The legal combination of Democratic Socialist and Red Tory did all they could, however, for their beleaguered and unpopular clients. Makaroff was threatened with contempt-of-court on several occasions by the presiding judge, Mr. Justice J.F.L. Embury, when he compared the climactic assembly of trekkers in Market Square to discuss their survival with a meeting of bank directors. “Who do you think would be on trial today,” he typically asked the juries, “if the police violently and without any warning broke into a bank boardroom and clobbered the heads of the directors as they did the trekkers on trial before you?” This invocation of the spectre of class warfare and the solicitude of the police and courts for the property-owning elite, of course, was more likely to appeal to a Marxist seminar than to a right-wing judge and jurors apprehensive for their lives and property. Most of the trekkers received sentences in Prince Albert provincial jail, and many of them frankly welcomed the prospect of regular meals and accommodation, however meagre, over looking for non-existent jobs on the outside.

Coming from a Doukhobor background with its communal ethic of mutual help and sharing, especially in times of economic adversity, it is understandable that Makaroff would be attracted to the more radical wing of the Progressive party in the 1920s and to the Farmer-Labour, CCF and NDP parties in later decades. He did not agree with every policy of these left-leaning movements, however, and as a pacifist supported CCF leader, J.S. Woodsworth, in his opposition to Canada’s participation in war in 1939, a position that the mainstream CCF rejected. In one ofWoodsworth’s letters to Makaroff coinciding with the onset of the Second World War, the CCF leader enclosed a copy of the United College perodical, Vox, with an article by him containing a sentiment they would both share: “For me the teachings of Jesus are absolutely irreconcilable with the advocacy of war.” Peter disdained alike fascism and Communism, but manifested on the international plane a Tolstoyan stance of non-resistance to evil.

Peter’s first foray into politics was as a Farmer-Labour candidate in the Shellbrook constituency in the Saskatchewan provincial election of 1934. When such a staunch Conservative as North Battleford lawyer Ariel F. Sallows wrote to congratulate him on his nomination, adding that if he were beaten he hoped it would be by a Tory, Makaroff replied, “if my defeat is dependent on the realization of your hope, then I am as good as elected.” He was prescient in this case, since although he lost to a Liberal, he secured many more votes than his Conservative opponent. In this mid-Depression election he unavailingly trained his guns on the bankers and financial magnates who were impoverishing ordinary people by imposing extortionate interest rates and foreclosing mort­gages, declaring that there was no difference between the two older parties which always supported the economic establishment.

Makaroff’s only successful campaign for public office resulted in his single term on Saskatoon City Council in 1939-1940. Here, as always, he stressed the need for helping the less privileged sector of society. In a multilingual community having many immigrant families of Central and East European origin, he told Council that something should be done to amend the Old Age Pensions Act, which debarred those not speaking English or French from receiving pensions – thirteen such persons were on local relief rolls, he added. There was also an animated exchange between him and other aldermen when Council voted to abolish the Clothing Relief Bureau which supplied used clothing to those in need. One applicant, Makaroff said, was refused suitable clothing by the Bureau in which to bury his wife. He could wrap a scarf around her neck, he was told by the Bureau official, and in an enclosed coffin it was not necessary to have anything below that. “If that conversation took place it’s awful.” Alderman Caswell expostulated. “I don’t think it took place.” City Commissioner Andrew Leslie replied. “Well the woman was buried today,” said Makaroff, “and I can get an affidavit from the man any day I want it.”

Of overriding concern to Doukhobors, Mennonites, and pacifists generally was Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s national plebiscite on 27 April 1942 in which he sought to be released from his pre-war pledge not to impose conscription on Canadians for compulsory overseas service. While Makaroff did not play a prominent part in the plebiscite debate, he used whatever influence he had on the “no” side. The plebiscite resulted in a lopsided 71.2 per cent majority in Quebec against releasing King from his undertaking, but in an over all Canadian majority of 63.7 per cent in favour of doing so. In Saskatoon, for example, where the pro-conscription vote was considerably higher than the national average, the “yes” majority amounted to 88.9 per cent of those voting. Accordingly, the ever-wary prime minister did nothing for two further years, and when his government finally did impose conscription for overseas service in 1944, it precipitated a national crisis. It is of some interest that in the Saskatoon region, where Makaroff s activities were centred, former University President Walter C. Murray was campaign chairman on the “yes” side, and Dean Fred Cronkite of the law school was a zone chairman.

An important wartime activity of Makaroff was advising Doukhobors on the intricacies of the National War Services Regulations, 1940 and similar laws and regulations. Since the Doukhobors had come to Canada originally under the Order-in-Council of 6 December 1898, exempting them from military service, they appeared prima facie not to be subject to the above Regulations. However, the matter was not entirely free from doubt. While section 18(1) of the Regulations exempted those professing “conscientious objections” for religious reasons, the onus fell on whomever claimed the benefit of the clause to provide their eligibility. Because Doukhobors were not expressly exempted from service in the Regulations, Makaroff had doubts about whether or not it applied, and told those asking, “… to be perfectly sure my advice is to comply with this provision of the act.” The Deputy Minister of National War Services, T.C. Davis, who conferred often with Makaroff, emphasized that to be eligible for exemption as a Doukhobor an applicant should be either a person referred to in the Order-in-Council of 1898, or the descendant of such a person; because of the Doukhobors’ objection to swearing oaths, however, an unsworn declaration in their case would be acceptable. A Doukhobor dentist from Canora was concerned about how his claim for exemption would be perceived: “If I register with the Doukhobors, as I know I should, will it not affect my professional position?” An engineer wondered about whether he was technically a British subject. Makaroff had many queries to answer.

A poignant sidelight is offered in a post-war letter that Makaroff addressed to conscientious objectors in the Rosthern federal by-election of 1948, when he ran as a CCF candidate:

“No doubt you still have a very clear memory of your unhappy days in the conscientious objector camp at Waskesiu during the last War. If so you will remember my son Robert who spent the winter and part of the summer there with you. Robert has since finished his medical course and is now a doctor at University Hospital in Edmonton, where he graduated about eighteen months ago.”

The letter emphasized the need for preventing another global war in the era of atomic weapons. Both Makaroff’s son, Robert, and daughter, Barbara, later developed flourishing medical practices.

In the wartime election of 26 March 1940, Makaroff was a CCF candidate in the federal riding of Rosthern, where there was a large Mennonite population, but he lost to Liberal Walter Tucker. Among speakers supporting him were University of Saskatchewan English professor and party activist, Carlyle King, and M.J. Coldwell, who in 1942 was to become leader of the CCF. Although Woodsworth was re-elected in Winnipeg North Centre in 1940, those who shared the pacifist sentiments of their ailing leader were rapidly losing ground and on 20 July 1940, Makaroff sent a letter to the provincial CCF convention in Regina resigning as the First Vice-President of the provincial party because he disagreed with the party’s endorsement of the war: “… By conviction I am a lifelong pacifist.” he said, “From childhood I have been steeped in the faith that it was against the will and example of the Prince of Peace for man to engage in the wholesale slaughter of his fellow man, including helpless innocent children, at the command of a superior officer.”

Doukhobor Conscientious Objectors’ camp at Montreal Lake, Saskatchewan, 1941. Saskatchewan Archives Board, S-B5475.

Although the rank-and-file of the party strongly endorsed the war effort, there was considerable understanding for Woodsworth’s and Makaroff’s pacifist position, and reconciliation when he again ran unsuccessfully in Rosthern in the 1948 by-election. He attributed his loss in the 1948 contest to Prince Albert merchant and farmer, W.A. Boucher, to “insufficient time and effort on my part;” other factors were poor organization and distribution of literature with the result that “at least six meetings were complete flops or had to be cancelled altogether.” He also charged that Liberals such as Jimmy Gardiner or Walter Tucker (who was vacating the Rosthern seat to become provincial Liberal leader) were intimidating voters by threatening to cut off family allowances and crop failure bonuses if Makaroff won. Overall, Makaroff’s record in the electoral arena was not good, but he often had to fight against the tide in difficult constituencies and he never seemed reluctant to undertake an uphill battle.

Makaroff was heartened in 1944 by the election of Tommy Douglas of the CCF as Premier of Saskatchewan and by the new government’s promotion of an array of social services including hospital insurance. Peter was an active proponent of publicly-funded medicine which he advocated in an article in the local newspaper: “It is obvious that individual or group insurance is not the answer for Saskatchewan to this urgent and perplexing problem, since nearly one-half of our people are penniless on attaining the age of sixty-five and the average family’s income is probably lower today than it was in 1936 when it was $577.” Makaroff strongly approved of Saskatchewan’s pioneering efforts in this area, including Canada’s first medicare plan as implemented by the governments of T.C. Douglas and Woodrow Lloyd in 1961-1962.

Peter’s appointment to the University’s Board of Governors after the War was strenuously opposed by the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire, a resolution of which sharply criticized him as being “widely known throughout Saskatchewan for extreme pacifist views and for opposition to Canada’s active participation in the war.” The same resolution criticized his son Robert for seeking military exemption. Another of Makaroff’s appointments was as chairman of the Saskatch­ewan Labour Relations Board in which capacity he presided with ability over the Board for more than a decade, having served as counsel at first instance for employees claiming to have been wrongfully dismissed in the celebrated John East case, which established that the provincially-appointed Board was not usurping the functions of a superior court and was validly constituted.

In 1948 when the Judicial Committee in London was still Canada’s highest court, Makaroff represented Saskatchewan in an appeal in England challenging the CPR’s exemption from taxation within provincial boundaries. The provincial argument was, in part, that the constitutional incapacity to tax detracted from the postulated equality of the provinces, but Their Lordships decided against the province, finding that there was no paradigm of exact provincial equality in the Canadian Constitution. Was it purely fortuitous that the Canadian Parliament abolished overseas appeals in the following year?

Peter Makaroff addresses crowd at the dedication of Petrofka Ferry as a Saskatchewan Historic Site, 1959. Photo courtesy Koozma J. Tarasoff.

Throughout the 1950s Makaroff continued his extensive law practice as the Sons of Freedom Doukhobors, particularly in British Columbia, carried on their protests against various government measures. At the climax of one series of demonstrations in 1962, Independent Liberal Senator Donald Cameron suggested that the B.C. Sons of Freedom be placed on a reservation on one of the Queen Charlotte Islands and provided with vocational and agricultural training “to rescue them from their maladjustment.” In replying to Senator Cameron, Makaroff objected to his description of the Sons of Freedom as Doukhobors—”they have nothing to do with the Doukhobor faith,” but showed otherwise keen interest in his proposal. “Your thought that with suitable help and encouragement they might be established somewhere as a self-supporting community to live decently and in peace on some island,” he wrote the legislator, “or say, in the Peace River Region, accords with my views and deserves, I feel, a most serious consideration by the authorities concerned.” Since the Senator’s appointment was from Alberta, there could have been some irony in Makaroff’s suggestion that the Sons of Freedom be settled in the Peace River district.

When Roger Carter was one of the younger partners in Makaroff’s firm he recalls an occasion during which the latter was arguing a difficult case before Mr. Justice C.S. Davis in Prince Albert, and was ordered by the judge to desist
from broaching a certain matter which Makaroff considered to be crucial. When he persisted, nevertheless, he was fined $500 for contempt-of-court by Davis, whereupon he reached for his wallet in his back pocket, asking the judge whether he wanted the amount “in cash or in kind” The incident occurred during Diefenbaker’s term of office as prime minister, and when his fellow law student of thirty-five years ago called at the prime minister’s railway carriage, Diefenbaker noticeably warmed to Peter when he learned of what had happened earlier in the day. Diefenbaker and Davis were old foes, once having had a roundhouse fight in the Prince Albert court house.

In the early 1960s the style of Peter’s firm was Makaroff, Carter, Surtees and Sherstobitoff, but his partners, while maintaining their highest regard for him, gradually left for other pursuits. Carter went on to a professorship at the law school in Saskatoon, taking graduate work at Michigan and serving as Dean of Law from 1968 to 1974. Carter was also a founder of the University’s Native Law Centre in 1973, receiving an honorary doctorate from Queen’s in recognition of this accomplishment. Another colleague, Leslie A. Surtees, left to become a magistrate in Swift Current. Nicholas Sherstobitoff remained with the firm longer, and after an extensive practice in labour and administrative law was appointed to the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal in the early 1980s, becoming the highest ranking Doukhobor on any Canadian court. Like Makaroff, he had also presided earlier over the Saskatchewan Labour Relations Board.

Until his death in 1971, true to his Doukhobor principles, Makaroff sought to promote international peace and goodwill through his membership in organizations like the World Federalists. He strongly supported Bill Sherstobitoff (the father of the above judge) when he sent a telegram on 19 May 1963, on behalf of the Doukhobor Society of Saskatoon, urging the Canadian government and parliamentarians not to acquire nuclear weapons. The Pearson government had changed its position in this issue, and later in the year did accept Bomarc missiles at RCAF bases at North Bay, Ontario, and La Macaza, Quebec. To the end of his life Makaroff continued to be esteemed for his steadfast adherence to principle, sometimes at considerable personal cost, and had the respect of many persons of goodwill who did not share those principles.

Peter Makaroff (far right) attending the International Meeting for Peace at the Manitoba-North Dakota border, 1966. Photo courtesy Koozma J. Tarasoff.

A person of strong idealism and great intellectual vigour, Peter Makaroff was a natural leader of the Independent Doukhobor movement. He achieved great distinction in his chosen profession. While he was strongly committed to traditional Doukhobor values of non-violence and brotherhood, he was not so much inclined, perhaps, to engage in Doukhobor religious services on a regular basis. For him the Doukhobor tradition was more something to be lived on a day-to-day basis, and its ideals of pacifism and sharing were also to be pursued m the political forum. He was admired by many of his fellow Doukhobors because of his valued professional counsel and activities, with one of his main services to his community being the rescue of Peter P. Verigin from deportation in 1933. He also reached out into the broader community and made friends in diverse sectors. The first Doukhobor graduate of the provincial university, he blazed a trail that many younger members of his religion followed later. It was very fitting that after his death in 1971 his ashes were strewn in the Petrovka area on the North Saskatchewan River where the Makaroffs had made their first Canadian home some seven decades earlier.

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.

Piers Island: The Doukhobor Period, 1932-1935

by A. Harold Skolrood

In 1928-1930, demonstrations and depredations on the part of the Sons of Freedom had reached a fevered pitch in Canada. Their growing activity provoked the Canadian government to punitive action. In 1931, it amended the Criminal Code making public nudity punishable by three years’ imprisonment. As a deterrent, however, the new penalty proved useless. The Freedomites were not ordinary peace-breakers; they were religious fanatics; and less than a year after the new law was passed, there were greater nude demonstrations than ever before. In May of 1932, mass parades led to the arrests of almost a thousand men, women and children in Nelson, British Columbia. Canadian authorities were then faced with the problem of finding penitentiary room for the convicted Sons of Freedom and making provision for their children. To this end, it was decided to establish a special penal colony for the Freedomites on Piers Island in the Strait of Georgia off Vancouver Island. The following is a detailed historical account of the internment of the Sons of Freedom on Piers Island from 1932 to 1935, reproduced by permission from “Piers Island: A Brief History of the Island and its People, 1886, 1993 (Lethbridge: Paramount Printers, 1995) by A. Harold Skolrood. While clearly written from the perspective of the Canadian Government, his account is not wholly unsympathetic to the plight of the Sons of Freedom, and provides fresh historical information on their incarceration. Postscript by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

Arrest and Conviction

In the fall of 1932, the sound of mournful hymn singing began to punctuate the stillness of the evening on Piers Island. The disruption of island serenity came from Doukhobors confined in a federal penitentiary built on the island in the summer of 1932. Some five hundred and forty-six Sons of Freedom, Doukhobor men and women, had been convicted of nude parading in the Kootenay region of British Columbia. Under a 1931 amendment to the Criminal Code, nude parading had become an indictable offense with a mandatory three year sentence.

Sons of Freedom hold open air sobranya meeting, Nelson, British Columbia, 1928. British Columbia Archives C-01407.

Towards the end of April, 1932, (Sons of Freedom) Doukhobors converged on the Village of Thrums three miles east of Brilliant. There in an apple orchard, on a bright day in May, a hundred men and women disrobed. They were soon arrested and taken to Nelson to face charges. Shortly thereafter they were joined by an additional two hundred and fifty four charged for disrobing. Small clusters of twos and threes continued to be arrested until the barbed wire compound at Nelson was soon teaming with well over six hundred Doukhobors living in tents and temporary buildings. The Federal Department of Justice faced two problems with the apprehension and conviction of the Doukhobors: where should the adult convicts be confined and what should be done with their children? The British Columbia penitentiary at New Westminster was not equipped to handle an additional six hundred inmates. These people were not the common type of criminal since their only crime was appearing nude in a society that frowned upon nudity in public places. Although they pleaded guilty, many insisted they had only broken a man-made law not God’s law. As one elderly lady is reported to have said: She was not naked, she was married to Christ and had worn the bridal clothes.

While a permanent site was being sought, temporary accommodations were acquired at Oakalla Prison Farm in Burnaby. The Doukhobors were loaded into Canadian Pacific Railway coaches and taken the five hundred miles to Burnaby, there to be segregated into two wings of the prison. A few militant leaders were assigned to cells, but the majority slept on mattresses on the floor. The confinement at Oakalla provided a brief respite for the Department of Justice while it decided upon a more permanent location. A prison specifically built to serve the needs of this peculiar lot of convicts during their three-year incarceration was deemed to be the most judicious course of action.

The second problem confronting the Department of Justice was what to do with the Doukhobor children. They had paraded nude with their parents. One option open to the government was to consider them neglected children as defined under the Infants Act of the Province of British Columbia. They would then become wards of the B.C. Government under the direction of the Superintendent of Neglected Children. Upon their release from prison, parents could apply to the Court to be reinstated as guardians of their children. Parents could be required to give satisfactory evidence of their ability to resume parental responsibility.

Oakalla Prison Farm, Burnaby, British Columbia. Sons of Freedom were incarcerated here from April to August 1932 until remanded to Piers Island.

Instead the government chose to maintain the children on a non-ward basis, thus maintaining a legal responsibility between parents and their children. In other words, the government would take care of the children without formal intervention from the courts. This also avoided a court appearance for the children. However, this course of action was not without its difficulties. Since the children had not been legally assigned away from the parents, parental consent was needed before medical aid could be given to sick children. Initially many parents would not give their consent for medical treatment to be given to their sick children. Agreement was finally reached in this regard.

Arrangements for care of the children fell largely upon the shoulders of the Children’s Aid Society of Vancouver. Infants remained in jail with their mothers until they reached the age of six months. The Children’s Aid Society accepted responsibility for one hundred and nineteen children ranging in age from two months to twelve years. These children were placed in approved foster homes. The response to newspaper publicity was overwhelming, hundreds of families volunteered to take the children. In an effort to maintain family ties, brothers and sisters were placed together in a home. In general, placements in foster homes worked out well. It was necessary to change placements in only thirty instances. These changes were necessitated by the needs of some children to be with siblings, ill health of the foster mother or simply a request for a change from one foster mother to another.

Institutional care was arranged for a great many other children. Seventy-five children, ages three to nine years, were accommodated at the British Columbia Protestant Orphan’s Home in Victoria, the Loyal Protestant Home in New Westminster and the Alexandra Orphanage in Vancouver. In addition, the Provincial Industrial School for Girls took seventy-five girls and the Provincial Industrial School for Boys accepted nine-two boys. Children in these institutions ranged in age from seven to eighteen years. Private institutions received a weekly maintenance rate of $4.00 per week per child until June, 1933. It was then reduced to $3.50 per week or 51.42 cents per diem per child.

Hooper (Hooper, Ronald H.C. “Custodial Care of Doukhobor Children in British Columbia” in Hawthorn, Harry B. The Doukhobors of British Columbia (University of British Columbia, 1955)) applauds the welfare personnel of the federal government for their efforts to maintain family ties of the Doukhobor children in their custody. With advanced permission, family friends could visit the children, provided the parents of the children concerned agreed. In addition, arrangements were made to permit official delegates from the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood to enter the institutions on the authority of the Superintendent of Neglected Children, provided the parents did not object.

Freedomite camp near Nelson, British Columbia, 1929.

Efforts were made to keep parents informed on the welfare of their children. An example cited by Hooper, showed that from September 18, 1932, to April 16, 1933, the seventy-five girls in the Provincial Industrial Schools sent out a total of 1,164 letters and received 900 in reply from friends and relatives. Authorities were taxed by the heavy burden of translation and censorship apart from providing information on children who were unable or unwilling to write. For a time after June 12, 1932, Doukhobors were instructed to use English to lessen the burden on translators; however, this did not last long, and on July 21, 1932, Doukhobors were again permitted to use Russian in their correspondence. After January, 1933, monthly progress reports on each child were sent to parents in prisons in addition to letters and reports of illness.

In his analysis of the Doukhobor experiment in handling the children of the convicts, Hooper concludes:

The institutions and agency were successful in countering many negativistic feelings that resulted from the separation of families, and in preventing the experience from becoming damaging to the children’s emotional development. However, it was not within the scope of their activities to attempt a re-education program, which, if successful would have resulted only in emotional conflicts when the families were reunited. The children would have been torn between their desire to conform to the wishes and beliefs of their parents and their newly acquired ideologies.

Selection of the Prison Site

Once the Doukhobors had been apprehended and convicted, what then was to be done with them? The 1932 arrest was the largest arrest that had ever been made in Canada. The existing space at both the Federal Penitentiary in New Westminster and the Provincial Oakalla Prison Farm was insufficient to accommodate such a large number of people.

Furthermore, the convicted group was almost equally divided between male and female. Initially some thought was given to separate locations.

A minimum security prison in an area relatively isolated seemed to be in keeping with the passive nature of the potential inmates. They were considered a pacifist, non-violent people in spite of their fire bombing tactics. Zubek (Zubek, John P. and Patricia A. Solberg, Doukhobors at War (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1952)) commented:

Their errors are omissions, not commission. They fail to dress; they fail to send their children to school; they fail to register; but they have shown no physical violence.

Warden H. W. Cooper defined their passive resistance as:

a persistent and general policy of obstruction coupled with an obstinate and outwardly stolid refusal to do anything they were told to do.

It occurred to the Federal Department of Justice that an ideal minimum security prison could be built at minimum cost on one of the Gulf Islands in the coastal waters of British Columbia. Working in cooperation, The Federal Penitentiary Service, the Federal Department of Public Works and the Provincial Attorney General considered a number of possibilities. Among them, D’Arcy Island, half the size of Piers and a former leper colony, and Sidney Island were possible sites. Although D’Arcy Island, seven miles from Sidney town, had been declared safe by the federal health authorities there still lingered certain fears of the prevalence of the disease. It was heavily wooded and would have to be cleared and wells dug. A wharf was needed, and besides it had no telephone communication and little cultivated land. Sidney Island was rejected because of the expense required to prepare it and it had the potential for disagreement between private and public interest on the island.

After due consideration, Piers Island was selected because it offered a degree of isolation, yet was accessible to Vancouver Island, being three miles from Sidney, twenty-five miles from Victoria by boat and through Swartz Bay twenty-one miles by road. The shoreline on the southeast offered little obstacle for building a wharf. Furthermore some 40 acres had been cleared. There was ample water available, a proven fact from past occupancy and the intermittent farming that had occurred on the island. D’Arcy Island was to be held in abeyance for use at a later date should more space be required.

Acquisition by Expropriation

Negotiations between the Harvey family (then-owners of the island) and the Government of Canada failed to produce a satisfactory rental agreement. The government considered the asking fee excessive, and moved to acquire the island through expropriation proceedings. The federal government had the power under the 1927 Penitentiary Act, Chapter 24, Section 9, to expropriate for purposes of “a public work” of Canada a tract of land for use as a penitentiary. A proclamation to this effect was published in the Canada Gazette, September 24, 1933. When Piers Island was declared a penitentiary site, it was declared so within the Province of British Columbia under the authority of the Penitentiary Act.

This Act had some later significance in terms of the care and maintenance of the incarcerated Doukhobors’ children.

Piers Island was expropriated June 16, 1932, for a period of five years ending June 15, 1937. The penitentiary boundaries were defined as:

those certain parcels or tract of land situate, lying and being on the Province of British Columbia in the vicinity of Saanich Peninsula and known and described as Piers Island and those islands adjacent thereto, namely, Hood Island, Arbutus Island, Spit Island, Shute Reef and Peck Reef.

The expropriation order granted the federal government the right to cut and use the trees for maintenance of the penitentiary. At the expiration of the lease, the government would remove from the island buildings and other “erections and fixtures” as part of the penitentiary. The annual rental fee was fixed by the government at $420. The Exchequer Court of Canada did not concur and increased the fee to $1,400 per annum to a total of $7,000. Payment was made in two installments each year, before June 16th and December 16th, in the amount of $700 each plus 5% interest on each installment.

Plan of Piers Island, British Columbia. Note the Doukhobor penitentiary was located on ten acres in the northwest corner of the island, off of Satellite Channel.

At the time of expropriation, the market value of the 141.7 ha (241 acre) island was set at $50,000. Two parcels of land, 14.9-16.2 ha (35-40 acres) in total had been cleared, but one parcel was rapidly reverting to its natural state, while approximately thirty-five acres had been cultivated for many years, some of which was subsequently cultivated by the penitentiary authorities.

Dissatisfied with the deal imposed on them by the federal government, the Harvey estate appealed their case to the Supreme Court of Canada which began hearing on the case April 24, 1934. Cornelius Hawkins O’Halloran, who had been appointed a trustee of the Harvey Trust on July 27, 1928, acted on behalf of the Harvey interests.

The Defendant (O’Halloran) presented a well documented case in support of his claim for greater compensation for the use of the island by the Federal Government. Witnesses for both sides were queried in a mild and gentle manner on the past, present and future of Piers Island in terms of its potential with respect to:

the nature of the soil;
the vegetation – types of trees, the numbers cut and where;
the suitability of mooring bays;
the industries such as farming and logging;
the future of the island as a game reserve and as recreational property.

The appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada was lost. The Judgment of the Exchequer Court of Canada was upheld. In his summary statement at the end of the 255 page Proceedings document, which reads like a description of a cricket match in its detail, the Chief Justice reviewed each argument of the Defendant and offered an explanation for his refutation of each. He concluded that although the Defendant’s claims for compensation appear “unduly extravagant and excessive” the Defendant should be reimbursed for his court costs.

The Compounds

Any work incentive program during the depths of the Depression that created useful work for some of the unemployed was welcomed. CM Dickie, M.P. for Nanaimo and the Islands, quickly announced the bulk of the labour force for the prison including tradesmen, would come from his riding and the contiguous areas of Oak Bay and Saanich. Hundreds of applications were received for work on the site and for positions as guards. The situation was rife for political favoritism and patronage. One official, W. O. Wallace, stated:

“that the fact of a man not belonging to the political party of which I am an adherent, shall not debar him from securing employment on the undertaking.”

Doukhobor penitentiary at Piers Island, British Columbia, 1934.  Note the signage on the supply wharf adjacent to the prison site. BC Archives G-00606.

Thirty-five percent of the 40-50 jobs were given to unemployed returned soldiers. The rate of pay was 40 cents per hour with a board allowance of $22 per month. In keeping with the frugality dictated by economic stringency of the day, the federal government did not intend, so it said, to be extravagant in providing the inmates at Piers with luxurious accommodation in which to languish away their time. W.C. Fatt, Acting Superintendent of Penitentiaries, advised Warden H.W. Cooper:

that no extravagance whatever must be exercised in the erection of shelters and quarters on Piers Island.

Authorization for construction was given on June 15, 1932, with building to start June 28th. T.W. Fuller was the architect, J. G. Drinkwater the engineer, and F. N. Ross the construction foreman. By November, when the first contingent of male prisoners arrived aboard the S. S. Princess Mary, the Department of Public Works had hammered together some six hundred fifty thousand feet of rough ship lap and tar paper which they obtained from Sidney Mills Limited, into sixteen buildings, eight of which were dormitories, four in each compound. Located on ten acres in the northwest corner of the island, the buildings were on foundation of wooden trestles set on concrete footings and were heated by wood burning stoves. Heated tanks provided hot water for showers and tubs. Building and yards were lit with naphtha mantle lamps.

Womens’ Compound (left facing south), Piers Island Penitentiary. Courtesy Steve Lapshinoff Collection.

The two almost identical compounds were erected 91.5 M (300 ft.) apart. Besides the dormitories, each compound contained store rooms, guardrooms and mess, offices, kitchen and dining room, hospital ward, laundry, and bathing room. A root house was located under dormitory No. 1 in the men’s compound. The men’s compound was a 183 M (600 ft.) square, while the women’s compound enclosure measured 109.8 M (360 ft.) x 155.4 M (444 ft.). A 4.25 M (14 ft.) barbed wire fence, with a three strand 45.7 cm. (18 in.) apron along the top, encircled each compound. Entrance to each compound was through a wooden gate reinforced with steel mesh, wide enough for a motor truck to enter, and was opened by a lever which a guard operated from a platform above. The officer’s quarters were in a building north of the men’s compound and the matron’s quarters were likewise located south of the women’s compound. Wooden sidewalks connected the various buildings.

Dormitory wings led off a single corridor so that one guard was able to patrol an entire dormitory. The men slept on double tiered bunk beds and the women on single cots. Both men and women were grouped according to age and assigned to specific dormitories.

Fresh water from as many as eight wells supplied the penitentiary. Gasoline driven pumps were used to fill the 113,650 litres (25,000 gallons) stave tank which provided pressure for the water system. Regular reports from the Superintendent of Penitentiaries indicated an adequate supply of fresh water.

Womens’ Compound (right facing south), Piers Island Penitentiary. Courtesy Steve Lapshinoff Collection.

Dormitories were equipped with flush toilets that utilized sea water. Because of the corrosive nature of sea water, the short period of time the penitentiary was expected to be in operation, and the extra expense to install, septic tanks seemed “unjustifiable at this time”. Consequently, raw sewage went directly into ceramic clay tile lines. The pressure tank was filled twice daily with sea water. Two separate sewer systems, the men’s – known as the western system – and the women’s – the eastern system – discharged their putrid effluence into separate bays below the low water mark. Each sewer outlet terminated in 91.5 M (300 ft.) of extra heavy 20.32 cm. (8 inch) cast iron pipe and two cast iron 45 degree elbows. They were anchored to the rocks. Regular inspection of the beaches did not always report positive results. Tidal action often brought back to the beach excreta from the sewer outlets. Engineer reports frequently noted the objectionable nature of sewer outlets near the shoreline. Depending upon the direction of the wind, at low tide the malodorous condition of the beach was something less than fragrant.

A supply route to the off-island communities was via 106.7 M. (350 ft.) walkway that led from the prison site to a 12.2 M (40 ft.) x 18.3 M (60 ft.) wharf built by the James MacDonald Construction Company for a low bid of $4217.28. Additional floats were installed for smaller craft. The M.V. Narsapur was the service boat to the penitentiary. The S.S. Princess Mary also made regular stops at the wharf as did the coastal ferry, Cy Peck, which ran between Swartz Bay and Fulford Harbor. Piling from that wharf still exist today.

Easily discernible signs, 3.6 M. (12 ft.) x 1.8 M (6 ft.) warned passersby against trespassing or mooring within 91.5 M (300 ft.) of the shore. The whole prison was under 24 hour surveillance, which meant that if the Doukhobors had any aspirations to escape, they probably would not have been able to get out of the enclosure, let alone off the island.

“For Doukhobors”; showing entrance wharf to Piers Island Penitentiary. Sketch by Lindley Crease, August 27, 1933. BC Archives G-00606.

Doukhobors As Prisoners

Who were the prisoners? How did they behave in prison? The Depression and their gradual estrangement from the support of the larger Doukhobor community weakened their economic power and moved many Sons of Freedom Doukhobors close to destitution. While many were landless, having abandoned their farms, others arrived in prison with varying sums of money sewn within their clothing.

Records indicate that the number in prison at any one time varied. Of the 570 confined in 1933, 231 were born in Russia. The prison population on Piers Island included husbands, wives, parents and grandparents bonded together by a set of religious beliefs. Never before had prison officials in Canada had such a diversified group of prisoners. Chart I shows a breakdown according to age. Chart II indicates the conjugal state and sex of the prisoners.

Chart I: Ages of Prisoners in Custody at Piers Island
Fiscal Year Under 20 20-30 30-40 40-50 50-60 Over 60 Total
1933 31 168 97 92 66 116 570
1934 29 153 90 88 63 108 531

Canada Yearbook, 1933, p. 1035

Chart II: Conjugal State and Sex of Prisoners at Piers Island
Fiscal Year Single Married Widowed Divorced Total Male Female
1933 88 435 43 4 570 292 278
1934 78 409 40 4 531 264 267

Canada Yearbook, 1933, p. 1035

The first group of 20 male prisoners arrived August 11, 1932. Successive groups in allotments of 30 arrived when the construction of facilities permitted their reception and accommodation. By December 22nd a total of 299 male prisoners had arrived.

The first female group of 48 arrived on a cold, foggy, wet November 7th and continued to arrive in groups varying from 27 to 48 until December 27th for a total of 280, making a grand total of 579 prisoners.

Upon their arrival, the Warden explained to the prisoners that prison life demanded prisoners perform various tasks. Prisoners were divided into groups or “gangs” of fifteen to twenty for kitchen work, general rough work and to do any specific tasks that might emerge. Apart from the cooking and handling of meat, which was done by a Chinese cook and his mess boy, the Doukhobors prepared meals from the kitchen stores. Kitchen gangs were rotated every fourteen days in the male prison and every four days in the female prison. General rough work included cutting and bringing in the wood from a plentiful supply available. Stores that arrived regularly at the wharf had to be transported to the kitchen and shore house.

Mens’ Compound (left facing south), Piers Island Penitentiary. Courtesy Steve Lapshinoff Collection.

When they arrived at the prison the Doukhobors were expected to live by the cardinal principle, “all for one and one for all.” From the outset they began open defiance of authority. They vowed “never to lift hand or foot to perform any work throughout their period of incarceration. They argued that they had been brought there against their will by the government and would do no work whatever until the government gave them ‘freedom’, which to them “meant free land without taxation and without responsibility or obedience to any form of government.”

It was not long before the first confrontation occurred and the “cold war” began. They refused to bring in any wood. Night after night they walked up and down the dormitories swinging their arms to keep warm, but the guards refused to move. When the cold had reached an unbearable point one young Doukhobor went out and brought in an armful of chopped wood. Capitulation from the rest soon followed and the dormitories were quickly heated.

The Doukhobor practice of non-cooperation or passive resistance se presented a challenge to prison officials. The prevailing practice of the day in a penitentiary where people were sent for punishment, not rehabilitation, was to use physical coercion to enforce obedience and compliance with prison rules. A number of punishments were considered applicable to the situation, but few were actually carried out. Punishments authorized by the penitentiary regulations were of no avail. It was useless to deprive prisoners of smoking, if they didn’t smoke. A restrictive diet had little effect on people who voluntarily restricted their diet to vegetables. Among the punishments tried when prisoners refused to submit to prison rules were: bread and water diet, isolation, remission forfeited, infliction of the paddle, loss of privilege, shackled, probation extended, reprimand, warnings and change of work. One penitentiary report indicated that for the year 1933-34, out of a total prison population of 531, 274 received punishment. No women in that year received any punishment. The hunger strike was a frequent protest technique, even though they never completely fasted, but would take oatmeal and water and on occasion would take only water. When the latter was threatened to be denied, they would stop the hunger strike as promptly as they had started.

Mens’ Compound (right facing south), Piers Island Penitentiary. Courtesy Steve Lapshinoff Collection.

Since many of the standard authorized punishments were inappropriate for this non-violent, non-participating group of prisoners, the Warden had to resort to his own ingenuity in getting compliance from the prisoners. He reasoned that because the imprisoned Doukhobors felt somewhat akin to earlier persecuted Christians in their perceived martyrdom, they would be disappointed in not receiving the anticipated physical abuse. He would use the Doukhobors’ own weapon of “passive resistance and quiet obstruction” against them. He instructed his staff to ignore outbursts of disobedient behavior, and not to lay a hand on them. No physical coercion would be used at any time and he warned that any guard who struck a prisoner would be dismissed immediately.

The women also engaged in “passive resistance” to the normal process of prison living. At first they refused to wash their clothes in the washroom, but when assured that it was their privilege to remain dirty, their traditional Doukhobor practice of cleanliness overcame their obstinacy. It wasn’t long before their dormitories were competing with one another for exclusive use of the washroom. One day per week was allotted each dormitory for doing laundry.

Disrobing within the prison was not a common practice of protest. However, on one occasion, several older women disrobed. As dinner time approached, a frustrated matron rushed into the Warden’s office seeking advice as to what should be done to prevent them from appearing nude at the dinner table. The Warden’s reply was “let them,” since they were trying a number of socially unacceptable techniques in prison. That evening a dozen or so were nude, while the rest remained dressed. The staff went about their business in a nonchalant manner. The anticipated order to dress did not come; instead the staff acted as though nothing unusual was happening. Dressed and undressed Doukhobor women stonily ate their meal. No sympathy stripping occurred and the next morning all were dressed. Subsequently some individual attempts were tried, but they too were ignored and the practice ceased entirely. One observer noted that an infestation of yellow jacket wasps probably was the major deterrent to disrobing, at least in the summer.

Other techniques employed by female prisoners to annoy their matrons included screaming in unison, refusing to stand still while the count was being taken, refusing to scrub the floors of their dining hall and dormitories, tearing numbers off their clothing and refusing to sew them on again. Like their male counterparts, the female prisoners would stop a protest as abruptly as they started it. A persistent activity among both male and female prisoners was singing. Both groups sang over their laundry tubs and while doing their handicrafts and other work. At times they sounded content and happy, other times mournful wails reached banshee proportions when mothers expressed a longing for their children. Often the total prison population would join the chorus of voices and when they reached their crescendo, their baleful singing could be heard on Knapp and neighboring islands. When aided by the wind, they could be heard as far away as Sidney and various communities on Vancouver Island.

Group of Sons of Freedom Doukhobor women at Nelson Gaol await departure to Piers Island, September, 1932. Courtesy Steve Lapshinoff Collection.

Singing was a means of communication between the men’s and women’s compound. Since no prison rules existed against singing, a group in either compound might begin to chant in their native Russian. Others in both compounds would join the chorus. After a few lines, they would substitute for the original word, parodies improvised for the occasion and without missing a note, they would switch from item to item conveying any news that had reached them to husbands, wives, relatives and friends. The recipients in turn would answer with advice, consolation or more news. Sometimes the total group would form a mass chorus ridiculing their guards and matrons or complaining about their treatment and inevitable persecution by the government and its agents. What amazed the guards was the way their weird songs were often sung with rich voices in perfect harmony.

Their singing would penetrate the most obscure corner of the island frustrating the staff. Ignoring them seemed to be useless, but only the continued insistence of the Warden kept the guards and matrons from interfering. The staff had no choice but to be patient and tolerate it.

Prison routine was the same in both compounds. The day began a 6:30 a.m. when the “kitchen gang” was led into the kitchen to prepare breakfast. As the Doukhobors were vegetarians, vegetables were central to each meal. Borsch made from uncooked rolled oats, mixed with beet and shredded cabbage was a popular dish even for breakfast. Vegetable were eaten either cooked or raw. Cabbage, carrots, onions and potatoe along with a variety of dried fruits, apples, prunes, apricots and raisin produced solid fare each day.

The male prisoners cultivated a vegetable garden and engaged in blacksmithing, shoe making and repair, carpentry, book and magazine binding. They also made tables and benches, wove baskets and made wooden knives and forks and ornaments. The women engaged in making dresses, night gowns, pants, petticoats, pillow slips, shawls and shirt male and female slippers, socks (male), and stockings (female). The would often decorate their drab prison garb with frills made from unravelling pieces of left over cloth, carefully tying the ends together to make thread, then crocheting this thread into lace collars and cuffs. Knitting needles were made from wire and string from unraveled flour sacks, salvaged from the kitchen. They would knit socks and mitts for themselves and the male prisoners. Some revenue was realized from such articles as baskets, magazine stands and walking canes.

Prison officials were cognizant of maintaining good sanitary conditions in prison. Dr. Watson from Kings Daughters’ Hospital in Duncan paid routine weekly visits. He regularly inspected all facilities that included dormitories, laundry, washrooms and dining halls for both staff and prisoners, and filed a written report. In addition he saw individuals requiring particular medical attention.

Sons of Freedom Doukhobor girls in Nelson awaiting relocation, May 1932. Simon Fraser University Doukhobor Collection, E.H. Patterson Materials.

Although Doukhobors were opposed to doctors and medicine, many men and women clambered to stand in the medical parade, perhaps for no other reason than for something to do. Diagnosis was difficult as medical histories were hard to obtain because the patients were more interested in questioning the doctor about their ailments, than they were in divulging their medical history. They attributed most of their current ailments to their imprisonment and harsh persecution. Prisoners requiring hospital treatment were accommodated at the Kings Daughters’ Hospital in Duncan, B. C. Three mothers delivered healthy babies in the Duncan hospital. After six months the children were placed in foster homes by the Vancouver Children’s Aid Society. Speculation abounds as to how they became pregnant while in a segregated prison, but the facts nullify the speculation as the three were pregnant when they entered prison. Contact with the men was limited to conversation during one half hour visitation period Sunday afternoon and that was from behind a short fence, three feet back from the main fence of the female prisoner compound against which the women stood while a guard strolled back and forth between them.

Throughout their period of confinement they continued to resist authority and argued over small details, but as prison routine became established, their behavior was less erratic and volatile, still the least provocation could produce a work stoppage or a hunger strike. Notwithstanding, the Superintendent of Penitentiaries reported in his Annual Report, March 1934,

that a marked change is noticeable in the attitude of these convicts. There are indications of a slight change in their habits of life, and their resistance to rules and regulations has been partially overcome.

Release from Prison

Although the Doukhobors had been sentenced to three years, none actually served the full time. The Depression had placed a drain on government expenditures; consequently, any cost savings that could be effected were utilized, with the result being the authorities were willing to release prisoners before their sentences had expired. Releases were done on a flexible basis beginning in the first summer of confinement when two pregnant women were released. Both objected to leaving.

They insisted they had been sentenced to three years like the rest of their “brothers and sisters” and they wished to stay with them. Cooperative prisoners received six days “time off per month. Some were released early because they appeared to be good prospects to return to normal living. Initially inmates were released in ones, two, and from time to time, threes. Released groups increased in size as June 1935 approached. By the time the prison closed in June 1935, about thirty men were left to be transferred to the New Westminster penitentiary for completion of their sentences.

Sons of Freedom Doukhobor children in Nelson awaiting relocation, May 1932. Simon Fraser University Doukhobor Collection, E.H. Patterson Materials.

Reunion with their children was for many a heart wrenching experience. Children had grown and changed because of the environment they had lived in for some time, and parents likewise had aged and changed. Problems of recognition and verification produced some uneasy moments for both children and parents.

The supervision of the reunion of families was done by a government appointed committee consisting of John Sherbin(in), representing the Doukhobors, F.F. Payne, publisher of the Nelson Daily News, representing the public and David Brankin, Superintendent of the Provincial Industrial School for Boys, Port Coquitlam, representing the government.

Reaction to their confinement experience varied. A rather humorous incident occurred when a group of Doukhobors were waiting, unguarded, for transportation back to the mainland.

He was a tall man, six feet six inches, ‘two ax handles across the shoulders and with the stolidity of Paul Bunyan’s ox Babe. In response to a question as to how he had been treated in prison, and had there been any brutality, the big Doukhobor smiled shyly and said, ‘No Doukhobor had tried to escape. What was the use?’ And as for brutality — and he leaned over and reached out, grabbing a five foot ten inch man nearby. This man was no weakling. The big Doukhobor held his victim by the back of the collar, slowly raised him off the ground, and with one hand held him wiggling there, and with a sweet smile said, ‘How could we rebel? We had men like this for our guards.’ The contempt in his voice, and the sarcasm in his laughter after dropping the guard was biting, onlookers tell.

The penal authorities had no plans for rehabilitation after the inmates were released. Rehabilitation expenses were kept to a minimum: prisoners were given a complete outfit of clothing, a railway ticket home and ten dollars in pocket money. Aside from these bare necessities, the ex-prisoners were destitute. They had nothing to go home to as they owned no property and what they had prior to their incarceration, including their homes, had been taken over by their community.

Sons of Freedom Doukhobor girls at Industrial School in Victoria, September, 1932. Courtesy Steve Lapshinoff Collection.

The Federal Government, for its part, felt it had completed its work. The Doukhobors had been punished and it was up to them to return to a normal life as best they could. In response to a question from M.P. Thomas Reid of New Westminster as to what action the federal government planned to take regarding the release of prisoners from Piers Island, the Minister of Justice, the Honorable Hugh Guthrie, stated that apart from transportation and $10.00, the federal government had no further responsibility. He said,

the hope is now that having served their prison terms, they may not be in future guilty of the offenses of which they were formerly guilty and for which they had served their time.

When the Sons of Freedom Doukhobors were released, other Doukhobor communities refused to have anything to do with them. They would take the children, but not the adults. They were viewed as ex-convicts, who in the eyes of Doukhobor leader, Peter Verigin, Jr., had not yet completed their full sentence, and were still the responsibility of the government.

Those originally from the Kootenay and Slocan valleys went to Krestova and attempted to begin a new life on arid and unproductive soil. Others originally from the Kettle Valley, were disembarked at Grand Forks and escorted by police to some government owned wasteland overlooking the Kettle River, where they built shacks and prepared geometrically shaped gardens. Their community beside the Great Northern Railway tracks became known as Gilpin.

The Doukhobor episode was at the height of the Depression. The government’s hurried disposal of the “Doukhobor” issue was understandable as it increasingly came under criticism for its “million dollar Doukhobor policy’. For example, it was criticized for spending 57 cents a day or $17.50 per month to support Doukhobor children while unemployed parents in society at large received $2.50 per month for child support. The total cost was estimated at 3 million dollars.

Was the cost worth what was accomplished? Did the government have any alternatives in dealing with a fanatical group such as the Sons of Freedom Doukhobors, whose initial crime was directed against other Doukhobors? It has been suggested by Woodcock and Avakumovic in their book entitled, The Doukhobors that:

“The expedient of Piers Island was successful as a means of temporarily removing the Sons of Freedom from the environment of the Kootenays, where their activities had further angered their neighbors and provoked new threats of vigilante action, but their attitudes were unchanged, in fact, their resolve to disobey the state was enhanced by a consciousness of martyrdom achieved at comparatively little personal discomfort, and a further chapter of grievance was added to the boring book of their complaints against Canadian society.”

The wish expressed by Justice Minister Hugh Guthrie failed to become a reality in subsequent years. In 1950, the federal government again built a special prison at Agassiz, B. C. to accommodate some four hundred Sons of Freedom Doukhobors, mostly men. The relatively few women involved were sent to the Federal penitentiary at Kingston, Ontario. In more recent times, a reduction in their destructive and demonstrative activities along with less media coverage has made the public less aware of them, but conflict among rival groups still remains volatile.

Sons of Freedom Doukhobor boys at Industrial School in Victoria, September, 1932. Courtesy Steve Lapshinoff Collection.

Staff

A staff list for August 10, 1933, showed a total of 59 staff members in charge of a prison population of 556. The majority of the guards, matrons, and other personnel hired for prison duty were recruited on Vancouver Island for a term of employment lasting the duration of the prison sentence given to the Doukhobors. Eight officers from New Westminster Penitentiary were transferred to Piers Island. Along with assistance from a number of R.C.M.P. officers, they established the prison. The preliminary training of staff detailed the job requirements and provided information on the peculiar nature of the prisoners. After one month probation, a new recruit was given a uniform of soft blue cloth. The winter uniform was made of wool. Beyond that, it was on the job training. The military routine used to organize and handle staff demanded rigorous physical and mental discipline which at times was strict to the point of severity and had to be executed fairly. Mental discipline was the only weapon against boredom. It, along with great patience, did not prevent the large turnover of staff.

Warden H. W. Cooper and his administrative staff at the New Westminster Penitentiary were responsible for the administration of the Piers Island Prison. Deputy Warden was L. Goss until December 27, 1933, when he was relieved by Deputy Warden I. A. Poirier, from the St. Vincent de Paul Penitentiary. Ill health soon forced Poirier to relinquish the post on March 12, 1934, then, Deputy Warden L. Goss again assumed responsibility for the prison.

The work day was divided into two shifts: 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m and 6:00 p.m to 7:00 a.m. Officers were assigned to various dormitories and work places such as kitchen, laundry, dormitory and so forth. Guards and matrons ate in the same building, but at different tables. Initially guards received four days off a month, but this was later changed to one day a week. They went off duty in the evening and returned for work the next evening. Off duty staff left the island. Guards received a salary of $90 per month along with daily board and clothing.

Sons of Freedom Doukhobor boys at Industrial School in Victoria, September, 1932. Courtesy Steve Lapshinoff Collection.

Since a policy of no physical force was to be used, guards and matrons had to exhibit considerable patience in dealing with the idiosyncratic behaviour of their prisoners. This could take a variety of forms in the course of a day, including sudden outbursts of shouting, singing, work slow down and work stoppage, argumentation or fasting. But, despite these annoyances, there were amusing incidents, which for the guards, at least, broke the monotony and injected a little levity into an otherwise boring situation.

According to a former guard, staff did learn to speak some colloquial Doukhobor language. One word coined by the guards to refer to the prisoners was “Nits”, the English version of the Russian word “Nyet” meaning “No” – a word that was central to Doukhobor behaviour.

Once the sentence had been served and prisoners discharged, the guards and matrons were discharged. For a couple of years, at least, work at the penitentiary did allow some people a departure from the ranks of the unemployed for a short time during the depression.

Removal of Buildings

The leasehold interest the federal government acquired June 16, 1932, of Piers Island was for a period of five years terminating June 15, 1937. Since the last contingent of prisoners left at the end of March, 1935, the federal government no longer had a use for the island property. Negotiations were conducted with Mr. Robert D. Harvey for the return of the property to the Harvey estate. He was invited to inspect the island and submit a statement of compensation under the terms of the original contract. The federal government had its own evaluation done of the facilities and equipment. Its capital expenditure had been $108,983.47, but a report from the Chief Engineer, W.S. Lawson, estimated the value of salvageable materials to be $16,600, which penitentiary officials felt was far in excess of any damage done by constructing roads, cutting trees and piling gravel on cleared portions of the island.

Piers Island as it appears today. Note the cleared area in the northwest corner of the island is the site of the former penitentiary.

The buildings were not worth the expense to move them anywhere, but if left would be an expense to the owner and detriment to the property,

One suggestion, that if the site was left intact, it would make a more than adequately equipped summer camp resort for such groups as the Y.W.C.A., Y.M.C.A., Boy Scouts and Girl Guides or perhaps even a summer hotel.

A settlement was reached with the Harvey estate that included the balance of rental due under the terms of the original agreement, compensation for trees cut including the 270 recorded in the “tree book” and those cut haphazardly and not recorded and provincial taxes payable once the federal government relinquished its control of the island.

The restoration agreement left intact the wharf and landing and two fully serviced buildings, H-l (officers’ building) and H-2 (matrons’ building). All other buildings were to be removed, wells capped, and equipment sent by scow at a cost of $250 to the New Westminster Penitentiary for use or storage.

Until the demolition work and restoration was completed, a caretaking staff of nine was left on the island to protect the property against fire or depredations by any persons. The staff included “Acting Deputy Warden, B.S. MacDonald, an acting engineer, a clerk, storekeeper, a guard in charge of a team of horses, an engineer with license to navigate the “M.V. Narsapur”, an assistant for the “M.V. Narsapur”, and one cook. The “M.V. Narsapur”, like the tons of other salvageable material from the Piers Island prison, was taken to the New Westminster penitentiary for disposal. The remaining stable was eventually dismantled and the lumber used by some of the first cottage like H. K. Gann, who built his guest cottage out of it.

Postscript

According to the official government account outlined above, the Piers Island Penitentiary warden instructed his staff not to use physical force on the Doukhobors prisoners. However, it is important to note that surviving Doukhobor accounts allege gross abuses of the Piers Island prisoners.

For example, in an open letter published by the Fraternal Council of the Union of Christian Communities & Brotherhood of Reformed Doukhobors in 1953 (Perepelkin, Hadikin, and Jmaeiff 1953, 12-15), it is alleged that nursing mothers interned at Piers Island had their babies taken away from them to be cared for by prison staff. Less than two weeks later, when the parents were allowed to see the babies, they appeared undernourished and neglected. Two or three days later, prison officials informed the parents that three of the babies had died. They were the children of Mr. and Mrs. Fred Babakaeff, Mr. and Mrs. Fred Shlakoff and Mr. and Mrs. Fred Postnikoff. The parents blamed the government for the death of the babies.

Additional oral accounts allege that the male Doukhobor prisoners were physically beaten by the Piers Island Penitentiary staff while the children of the Doukhobor prisoners placed in the Industrial Schools were abused and mistreated – JJK.

View a list of Sons of Freedom interned at Piers Island Penitentiary. This index contains the surname, name, sex, age, place of arrest, remand prison, place of conviction and comments for each of 556 Sons of Freedom Doukhobors incarcerated at Piers Island Penitentiary, British Columbia between 1932-1935.  View a list of 357 Sons of Freedom children, whose parents were interned at Piers Island Penitentiary, British Columbia, and who were placed by the government with Independent and Community Doukhobor families between 1933 and 1935 for foster care.

Read an account of a 2008 excursion to Piers Island by Dr. Gunter Schaarschmid  of the University of Victoria to visit some of the physical features left from the penitentiary camp site, including photos.

About this Book

Piers Island, A Brief History of the Island and its People, 1886-1993 by A. Harold Skolrood (1928-2003) is a 150-page soft-cover book published by Paramount Printers (ISBN 0-9680476-0-2).  A comprehensive local history book about Piers Island, British Columbia, including detailed information regarding its: location and nature; early settlement; the Doukhobor period, 1932-1935; the cottage era; transportation and communication; governance; the Piers Island fire department; the Piers Island water system; island living; maps and more. For more information or to order copies of this informative book, contact the late author’s representatives at: hiskol@shaw.ca.