by F. Mark Mealing
When Russian Doukhobors emigrated to Canada, they brought ideological and folklife traditions that generated the distinctive character of their architecture. The following article by F. Mark Mealing Ph.D., adapted and reproduced by permission from Canadian Ethnic Studies (XVI, 3, 84), describes and comments upon the five distinctive periods of architectural forms of which we have a record: Russian, Saskatchewan Community Village, British Columbia Communal Structures, Transition and Present. The earlier forms are characterized by Plain ornamental style and communally-oriented function; the recent forms reflect, in their variety, the impact of social forces including internal division and external pressures of politics, economics and acculturation.
The Doukhobors, a pacifist sect, arose in Russia, most likely during the Raskol or Orthodox Schism (1652). Their theology and resultant political views generated the most bitter opposition from Church and State, resulting in discrimination and often the harshest persecution through the late seventeenth, eighteenth, and portions of the nineteenth centuries. Tsar Alexander I granted a measure of peace with settlement land in the Milky Waters (Molochnye Vody) region of the Crimea in 1801; but after his death persecution was renewed and the Doukhobor communities were exiled to the Caucasus. Increased pressures, then religious revitalization, and in response punishments and abuses rationalized emigration as a tactic of social survival. This emigration was aided by Tolstoyans, Populists, and the London and Philadelphia Yearly Meetings of the Society of Friends, and brought the most devout Doukhobors to Canada, starting in 1899. The Doukhobors took up homestead land in Saskatchewan; but the majority, newly organized into a commune, the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood (CCUB), lost the land between 1905 and 1907, probably as a joint result of misunderstanding, some intransigence on the part of the Doukhobors, and the ethically imperfect policies of the Secretary of the Interior’s Ministry of the period. The CCUB purchased land in the West Kootenay region of British Columbia and operated there for a generation; when to its unremarkable financial and administrative weaknesses were added the hostility of the provincial government and the upheaval of the 1929 Depression, the communal enterprise collapsed. For the next twenty years, its one-time members and the dissident Sons of Freedom sub-sect worked slowly and sometimes violently through a period of social and economic disaster. In the early 1960s, individuals began to repurchase the land on which they had been squatting; since this repurchase, a modest social flowering has occurred and the use by the Sons of Freedom of techniques of violent political action has been diminished.
Doukhobors have borne a great deal of pressure and dislocation over the life of their society so far; one impact of these forces has been the selection of plain functions for architecture. Consider the implications of these excerpts “From the General Principles of the CCUB,” dating from the 1890s in Russia:
10. It is held that the life of mankind is communal, upheld through the strength of moral law, for which (this) rule serves: “Whatever I do not want for myself, that I should not wish for others.”
Plain and communal living styles – analogous to Western experiments, including those of Anabaptist sectarians – are encapsulated here. The results for Architecture were a marked antipathy to the usual Russian peasant tradition of richly applied ornament, and a primarily communal function for buildings until the collapse of the CCUB and the hegemony of Western economic patterns. Applied ornament is replaced by a severe but evident concern with simple line, texture and colour; communal usage is evidenced in massive industrial installations and in multiple-family dwellings of replicated pattern.
Coincidences of leadership, technological change and history made the CCUB experiment in Canada perhaps the most highly developed and integrated experiment the Doukhobors have achieved to date. The dissident Sons of Freedom early adopted a very modest approach to housing, building small cabins, often of salvage materials (and, in the period 1930-1965, often burned by their owners or others); their zealous anti-materialist views were often visited upon other Doukhobors by some members. A third discrete grouping, the Independents, left the commune during the Homestead crisis in Saskatchewan, and rapidly integrated into Western lifestyle, adopting the architecture of their neighbours.
This brief survey of Doukhobor structures is limited by time and opportunity to five major phases: (1) Russian Villages; (2) CCUB Community Villages of Saskatchewan; (3) CCUB installations in British Columbia (which set the style for those developed also in Saskatchewan and Alberta); (4) buildings of the Collapse period; (5) Present styles.
Little data survive from the early period in Russia; most significant is the single illustration, from Baron von Haxthausen’s “Studien…” depicting Terpenie, the village of the leader Savely Kapustin, after 1818 [Fig. 1].
Figure 1. Sketch of Terpeniye village, Tavria province, Russia by Baron Von Haxthausen, 1843. Note the row of dwellings and outbuildings along wide central street. Note Sirotsky Dom (Orphans Home) in background.
The administrative site is enclosed in the background. The middle-distance four-roomed ‘Guesthouse’ and the second-story porch adorning the “Village House” (r. foreground) are elements that appear again in recent Canadian structures. No one has been able to explain adequately to me the Three Babas, the wooden pillars in the centre of the administrative section.
Figure 2. Sketch of Lukeria’s Besedka (Summer Pavilion) by H. F.B. Lynch.
A few photographs survive of buildings in the Caucasus region, including long, low homes and one rather ornate residence for the leader Lukeria Kalmikova [Fig. 2].
b. Saskatchewan Community Villages
The CCUB villages in Saskatchewan were laid out according to a standard plan. Forty homes, each with its own garden lot and dairy barn, were set astride a wide avenue and divided by a short street, terminated by community buildings (warehouses, bathhouse, etc.) at one end and a small park at the other. A settled village, Khristianovka [Fig. 3], shows growing saplings on the avenue, developed gardens (sunflowers grown for ornament and seed in yard at right), and a neighbourly grouping in the street.
Figure 3. Khristianovka Village, Saskatchewan, circa 1903. British Columbia Archives, Tarasoff Collection.
Figure 4. Women and children placing turf on Doukhobor house at Petrovka, Saskatchewan. British Columbia Archives E-09610.
At least three distinctive house types were employed. The single house in Petrovka [Fig. 4] with its perimeter porch and full loft, accommodates probably two brothers and their families. Construction is of mud-plaster, probably over small logs, with a thatched roof. A house in Veregin [Fig. 5] varies in its low, flat-ridged sod roof supported by purlins and supplemented by a side-length pent-roof; its garden is fenced by a hedge. Another house from Verigin [Fig. 6] appears essentially identical with the previous example, but a taller thatched roof is present, as is a small rack with “found” ornate tree limb uprights.
Figure 5. House, Veregin, Saskatchewan, circa 1911. Library and Archives Canada C-057053.
Figure 6. Houses, Veregin, Saskatchewan, circa 1903. Library and Archives Canada A-019333.
After the bulk of the CCUB members moved to British Columbia in 1908-1912, most of the villages fell rapidly into disuse and dilapidation, and today only a few isolated ruins remain, although a handful of buildings are under restoration at Verigin, Sask. In their time, these villages represented the transplantation of a traditional plan that reflected certain Russian cultural traits: use of wood and mud-plaster in construction, the rectilinear organization of buildings across a central avenue (appropriate to a structured commune), and a general ideal of equality.
c. The CCUB in British Columbia
When the CCUB reestablished itself in the far West, in the isolated interior of British Columbia, its structures were more insular, more tightly organized, and innovative in physical design. The range of structures expanded, extending between small outbuildings to large industrial complexes. Families were accommodated in private dormitories, but ate, worked and worshipped together in standardized village groupings. Many persons, but not all, laboured in community enterprises, and at certain dates, all who could gathered for major festival celebrations. Thus there was a temporal and spatial flow between village and complex. Planning extended to the largest blocks of land, upon which villages were located on carefully related sites.
1. The Community Village
Between 1908 and 1912, some 5,550 souls were settled in perhaps 90 villages in nine major regional areas (Brilliant, Ootischenie, Champion Creek, Pass Creek, Shoreacres, Glade, Krestova, and three sections of Grand Forks). Their unique design has been ascribed to Peter V. Verigin, the spiritual leader of the period; it has been suggested elsewhere that the Big House design resembles Russian Mennonite examples, which may be true of facade but is in no way true of the interior plan. The typical village was composed of two “Big Houses’, their floor plans mirror-imaged, backed by a U-shaped Annex or “Apartment,” and the placement of these units produced a quiet, enfolding courtyard. Where transportation was direct, Big Houses were clad in community-manufactured brick, otherwise in unpainted clapboard siding. Behind the Annex was located a small Barn for horse and dairy cow and, further yet, a large laundry/banya (steam-bathhouse). Hotbeds, herbs, and potherbs were placed immediately south or west of each Village, which further sat upon about 100 acres of land and was responsible for agricultural production therefrom. The Big House included on the main floor an Assembly room in the front, used for worship; an L-shaped kitchen/refectory in the rear; and eight private family dormitories on the next floor, typically occupied by two single persons of the same sex or a young married couple. Elders and larger married families occupied the larger individual Annex rooms.
Figure 7. Community Village at Brilliant, British Columbia, 1973. Courtyard view shows Annex L, Big House L. British Columbia Archives I-06198.
Oral sources state that after an initial village was constructed above Brilliant, measurements were simply copied manually for all subsequent villages, those in Grand Forks tending to be only two to three inches larger overall. Deviance from the standard plan is extremely rare; the number of ornamental roof ventilation dormers varies from 0 to 4; one village in Shoreacres has the porch extended on two sides and a lean-to rear room added; a village at Brilliant possessed a sunken lower story used for storage, shoemaking and basketry; another in Grand Forks had a large fruit storage warehouse on site. Those few villages that survived the ideological troubles of the 1940s and early 1950s, intervening vandalism and neglect, and the acculturated demolition and construction of the past twenty years, are generally occupied by single families [Fig. 7.]. While the buildings are plain in design, an austere decoration and proportion saves them from aesthetic mediocrity. The most conspicuous decorative elements are the gross placement of the buildings in the landscape, typically on the rims of glacial benches facing adjacent rivers or creeks; and minor finish details, including nonfunctional curved archways, uniform interior paint schemes (colours of choice being chocolate brown, dark green, ochre red and middle blue on woodwork, and whitewash tinted with laundry blueing), and handcrafted furnishings.
2. Institutional Structures of the CCUB
Figure 8. Industrial Centre, Brilliant, British Columbia, 1924. British Columbia Archives A-08913.
The major industrial and administrative centre of the CCUB was the Jam Factory complex at Brilliant, on the Kettle Valley Line of the CPR. Here were located sawmills, the famous Kootenay-Columbia Preserving Works, a grain elevator, office and warehouse buildings, a residence and retreat for the leader, and several community villages [Fig. 8]. In several other parts of the West Kootenay, a number of remarkable buildings were erected, of which the jewel was perhaps the Glade Community Hall [Fig. 9], with its gambrel roof, second-story porch – all of elegant proportions. Also noteworthy was the duma’et (retreat) built for Peter V. Verigin near what is now the site of his tomb [Fig. 10]. Regrettably, none of these buildings now survive.
Figure 9. Community Hall, Glade, British Columbia, circa 1929. Library and Archives Canada A-019841.
Figure 10. Dumaet or retreat home of Peter V. Verigin on bluffs above Brilliant, British Columbia, circa 1915. British Columbia Archives, Tarasoff Collection.
Another large CCUB complex was located at Verigin, Sask., with administrative buildings, grain elevators, and warehouses, etc., of which one magnificent example, the Leader’s Office and Residence, survives and functions as a museum [Fig. 11].
Figure 11. Sirotsky Dom (Orphans Home), Veregin, Saskatchewan, circa 1918. The remarkable porch ornamentation, identical with that of Figure 9, was executed by Ivan Mahonin; the upper tracery is in cut tin. British Columbia Archives C-06513.
While these sites were physically planned to support the economic life of the CCUB, they were occasionally used for major community assemblies. It is clear from this use, however, that Commune administrators and members held their material and ideological lives to be perfectly integrated – at least ideally, if not always in fact. In those cases in which the assembly was pointedly outside the complex, it was never far distant.
When the CCUB moved to British Columbia, it purchased land outright, but used a deficit loan system of mortgages to finance its development. To pay off these debts, most male Community members worked for a portion of the year off their land, which the women then maintained, and their salaries serviced the loans. The burden of the loan system, the alienation imposed by outside work, and the hostility of the western Canadian establishment combined in the Depression to crush the CCUB. The National Trust and Sun Life corporations purchased the mortgages and began foreclosure proceedings, but the CCUB contested financial distressal in the Provincial courts on the basis that it was composed of farm workers, and had paid off the bulk of its debts. The B.C. Supreme Court judged that the CCUB was a corporation and not an individual within the meaning of the Farmer’s Protection Act, and upheld the foreclosure; consequently, on an outstanding debt of about $260,000, the CCUB was foreclosed on approximately six million dollars of capital, plus improvements, goods on hand, stock and implements. The B.C. Provincial Cabinet immediately paid off this balance and acquired trusteeship, allowing Doukhobors to squat in their villages at nominal tax “rentals,” but the means of controlling their economy was lost or beyond control.
Figure 12. Big House, Grand Forks, British Columbia, now derelict.
The massive blow to the economic and social structures, the very spirit of the community, resulted in almost a generation of aimlessness, anomie and violence. Zealots and criminals fired villages and industrial buildings: dispirited occupants neglected and could not afford maintenance; villages were slowly abandoned, and littered about with lean-to’s, shoddily converted into one- or two-family dwellings [Fig. 12]. People now built small one-family houses in various styles, some preserving the old “Russian” second-level porch in the West Kootenay region.
The slow development of plain transitional housing is also evident in the materials, style and relative placement of houses in nearby Thrums. The Sons of Freedom occupied, then burned, the Villages of Krestova; here they periodically erected small houses laid out in traditional Russian village plan, which were periodically burned when their owners purged themselves of materialism, or when criminal elements bent on manipulation of community politics felt the need for terrorist action.
Figure 14. A banya (steam house) in Krestova, British Columbia.
Even under such pressures, some Doukhobors did not give up their plain but perceptive aesthetic. This is well illustrated by two examples: the little banya or steam-bathhouse in Krestova [Fig. 13], perfectly proportioned and located in an orchard, on a bank, before a row of alders; or the row of farm-house and outbuildings in Glade [Fig. 14], placed with a clear sense of spatial rhythm.
Figure 14. Glade, British Columbia, 1966. British Columbia Archives, Tarasoff Collection.
Several currents are presently to be observed: many Sons of Freedom maintain the small, Plain dwellings they developed during the 1930s, as in this recent view from Krestova’s Lower Village [Fig. 15]. Most Doukhobors now live in owner-constructed houses which, to meet CMHC (Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation) requirements, follow commercial designs which can be epitomized as Western Contractor-built style. Between these extremes occur a fair range of housing, from more-or-less restored Community Village homes to slowly enlarged and expanded single dwellings and the universal folk-housing of the latter twentieth century, mobile homes. Two not-quite-conflicting values are expressed in this society: a taste for the idealism of traditional plainness (illustrated in the last illustration by about a decade’s delay between completion of the hall and painting of the exterior), and a need to demonstrate success by the majority culture’s standards—which enjoin conformity to those standards.
Figure 15. Modern house, Krestova, British Columbia.
Contemporary community buildings include commercial buildings, entirely adaptive to Western standards and styles, and the Community hall. These are usually small halls with stages, commonly one-story high with a basement kitchen/refectory, of extreme plain style and finish. They still serve the dual functions of earlier times: religious and community meetings with their sacred and less-sacred characteristics; the hall at Pass Creek is typical. Exceptions include two large-scale halls in Grand Forks [Fig. 16] and Brilliant, contemporary structures of technically elaborate design.
Figure 16. Community Hall, Grand Forks, British Columbia.
The Doukhobors who arrived in Canada brought with them the resources of eastern European peasantry modified by the unique ideals of their sectarian faith. They established functional building styles displaying an aptness for technology and demonstrating an aesthetic ideal of plain style and the social and religious ideals of communal life. Early settlement in Saskatchewan was characterized by the recreation of the traditional Russian village. With the loss of their land and removal to British Columbia, a wholly novel material expression of the social ideal of communalism arose, drawing equally upon Russian and Northern American traditions, and upon the innovative community village complex. When the CCUB collapsed under internal and external pressures, the ethnic community suffered great distress. Architecture became individualized and expressed two needs: simple survival coupled with the plain tradition; and vindication through an achievement ethic dictated by the majority culture’s models.
Several lines of development for the future are apparent. The idealistic minority continues to build small, plain houses, and conventionally-styled homes also proliferate in the region. The “mobile home” has become excessively visible over the past ten years, but it is presently difficult to judge the varying impacts of human need, shoddy construction, community pressure, personal taste and the other intangibles that will determine this device’s prevalence. Community buildings tend to austere design and finish, although the most recently constructed are technically ambitious and highly adapted to the choral musical performance that is at the heart of Doukhobor tradition.
The Doukhobor community in Saskatchewan blends solidly into the multiethnic makeup of that province. British Columbia has had a much less tolerant history, and Doukhobors there are still recovering from a generation of experiencing inferior status, retreat from the visions and trials of the past and adaptation to the pressures of the present. A tiny handful of zealots among the Sons of Freedom agitate for repudiation of modern materialism, while the province’s economic and political climate challenges the real social achievements of the majority of Doukhobors. For many years the Doukhobors of the province have been in a constructive transition: now the rest of its population joins them in the hopes and fears that attend an uncompleted experiment.