The Doukhobors on Cyprus

by Pavel Ivanovich Biryukov

Following the Burning of Arms in 1895, the Doukhobors in Russia were severely persecuted by Tsarist authorities. Thousands were exiled to remote, unhealthy regions where many perished from famine, disease and exhaustion. Their situation became untenable. In March 1898, after several years of letter-writing campaigns, the Doukhobors gained permission to leave their homeland. In choosing a suitable place for settlement, they were guided and assisted by Leo Tolstoy, Russian and English Tolstoyans and the Society of Friends (Quakers) in England who gathered funds for their departure. After considering Texas, Turkistan and Manchuria, the Doukhobors finally selected the island of Cyprus, which was part of the British Empire at the time. Despite reports brought by Doukhobor scouts of poor soil and a hot climate, once the decision was made, resettlement of the Doukhobors on the island proceeded quickly. The first group of 1,126 arrived there in August 1898. Tolstoyan writer Pavel I. Biryukov (1860-1931) joined them to help coordinate their settlement. His observations were published in the journal article “Dukhobory na Kiprie” [The Doukhobors on Cyprus] in ‘Svobodnoe slovo’ (Purleigh, England), No. 2, 1899: 22-55 and republished in his book “Dukhobortsy: sbornik statei, vospominanii, pisem i drugikh documentov” [The Doukhobors: collected articles, reminiscences, letters and other documents] (St. Petersburg: I.N. Kushnerev, 1908). Over a century later, this rare historic manuscript is made available for the first time in English in this Doukhobor Genealogy Website exclusive. Translated from the original Russian by Jack McIntosh.  Afterword by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

On the 19th of August, 1898 (n.s.), an event of great importance in the history of the Russian people took place: 1,126 Russian Doukhobor peasants left Russia irrevocably.

Readers know from the preceding chapter how difficult it was for them to live in Russia.

Apart from separate cases of exile that began as far back as 1886, more than 4,000 Doukhobors were brought to ruin and evicted from their homes in July 1895 and scattered among Georgian villages, where after three years they had lost approximately 1,000 persons who died from various illnesses and had run through the remainder of whatever belongings they had managed to hold onto at the time of their exile.

Pavel Ivanovich Biryukov (1860-1931).

Throughout those three years the authorities in the Caucasus had tried to crush the persistence of the Doukhobors in their religious requirements and, finally acceding to their petition, the government decided upon a most extreme measure – it permitted the separately resettled Doukhobors to emigrate from Russia without the right to return to their motherland.

Up to that time this measure, this concession, had seemed so unlikely that neither the Doukhobors themselves nor especially their neighbours in the Caucasus, right up to the last minute when the steamship sailed, did not believe it would happen. The distrust of the natives of the Caucasus in such a comparatively humane solution of the Doukhobor problem spread to such an extent that, as Doukhobors have told me, their Caucasian acquaintances who were seeing them off were urging them to the very last minute not to go, not to fall for this trap. They were assured that this solution of having them set sail was nothing but a death sentence by sinking. “As soon as you are off shore and still within cannon range,” said the far-seeing Caucasians, “the steamer crew will stay in the boat, throw you onto the steamship, and from the shore they’ll fire a cannonball and sink all of you.”

However, the ship was not sunk, and all 1,126 Doukhobors safely disembarked on the island of Cyprus on the 26th of August.

Many may find it strange that the Doukhobors moved to Cyprus. I am unable to provide a good explanation of the main reason for this project. Although I was not even sympathetic to it, I was not in a position to criticize it severely, as for various reasons I was far from the resettlement arrangements until events themselves drew me into the affair.

As I observe life in Cyprus now, I can say that the thought of permanent settlement of the Doukhobors in Cyprus, if such an idea was actually entertained, could only have occurred to a person entirely unfamiliar with Cyprus or someone understanding nothing about the living conditions of the Russian peasant.

Similar thoughts had been expressed previously, but the resettlement proceeded so quickly that Cyprus was a sad necessity. The two Doukhobors [Ivan Ivin and Petr Makhortov] who had been sent to Cyprus to meet the first party found it unsuitable for settlement, but neither their telegram nor their letter could halt the onrushing current, and the out-migration of the first party went on as if of its own accord.

I feel guilty that I, among others, yielding to the influence of the Doukhobor representatives who had related to us the dire predicament of their brethren, insisted on their immediate departure, which possibly brought about this mass movement, whereas in the beginning it had been proposed to move them out gradually in small parties; then, probably, the consequences of the out-migration would not have been so deadly.

People who are locked into a room, knowing that they are unable to open the door, in spite of the calamitousness of their situation, will inevitably strive for a better arrangement within the walls of that room; and conversely, people who have been locked in a room and have arranged for themselves a tolerable life there, will undoubtedly at the first opening of the doors rush into the free space, abandoning the relative comfort of the room and preferring the unknown of future freedom. Similarly also the Doukhobors, exhausted under the yoke of their three-year administrative supervision and having received permission to leave Russia, could scarcely contain their burst of enthusiasm and at the first sign of encouragement on our part they began to collect their passports and head for Batum.

When they were still in Batum, a new complication arose, one not foreseen by the leaders of the resettlement – the guarantee demanded by the English government of the island of Cyprus of 250 rubles a head ensuring a two-year sojourn here in addition to return travel to the homeland. The sum required was not readily available; moreover, more than 1,000 Doukhobors were assembled in Batum and were put up there in an encampment awaiting resolution of their fate.

For those of us taking part in the resettlement arrangements who were living in England, this was a very difficult and worrisome time. We felt an enormous responsibility for these 1,000 lives and the almost palpable impossibility of helping them get out of this virtually unbearable situation.

After fresh negotiations with the government of Cyprus, a guarantee of up to 150 rubles a person was added, and at last an opportunity emerged to make up the lacking portion of the monetary guarantee through the auspices of persons enjoying the confidence of the English government. Due credit should go to the energy with which the Quaker Committee to Aid the Suffering and its subsection – the Doukhobor Committee – acted. In three days part of the money was collected (50,000 rubles), part of the guarantee amounting to 165,000 rubles and permission was obtained for the Doukhobors to land on Cyprus.

Now, after 51 burials already performed on Cyprus and another unknown number about to occur, one would like to think that perhaps it would have been better if that guarantee had not been collected and permission to land on Cyprus had not been obtained. However, at the time there was real rejoicing, and as soon as the telegram was received announcing that the Doukhobors had set off for Cyprus, I got ready to travel there to meet them and offer assistance in getting them settled.

The doubts that are arising now that the result obtained by such strenuous efforts was not the best are also confirmed by the fact that, judging from the accounts of the Doukhobors themselves, at the time of our intense activity in England, they were not idle either in Batum.

Long accustomed to independent living, as soon as they arrived in Batum, having found out from the English consul the size of the required guarantee, they prudently decided to look for another solution; some of them discussed the possibility of crossing the Turkish frontier, others, more energetically aspiring to the West, engaged in talks with an agent of Messageries Maritimes [a French steamship line] and had already chartered two steamships which undertook to deliver them to Marseilles, with the right to live there three months, at a cost of fourteen rubles a head. On the eve of the day when on of these steamers was due to sail to Marseilles, the telegram arrived from England saying that the guarantee had been collected and permission granted to travel to Cyprus. That telegram decided matters. “If it had not been for that telegram,” several Doukhobors told me, “we would already be in Canada.” And in fact, who knows what turn events would have taken? Some of the Doukhobors might have found work on the docks of Marseilles, while some might have moved on farther, and the 50,000 ruble sum collected, so unproductively wasted here, might have been used by that party for the crossing to Canada.

However, what is done already cannot be undone, and as the fates decree, we are living, falling ill and dying on Cyprus.

II.

As a consequence of the inconvenient schedule of the steamship, I was unsuccessful in meeting the Doukhobors during their disembarkation. I arrived in Cyprus three days after their arrival, that is, on the 29th of August.

When it arrives at the city of Larnaca, the ship stops rather far from shore. As soon as the ship dropped anchor and I surveyed the distant shore and pier, I noticed right away to the right of the pier a cluster of tents and people standing around and walking among them. I aimed a telescope their way and recognized Doukhobors standing in groups on the shore, in white shirts and blue trousers and in their special cut of Cossack peaked caps.

I began to press the boatman, who was bringing my things, and soon, along with my associates in this affair, the [Quaker] Englishman [Wilson] Sturge, we drove up to the pier. In a few minutes I was running to find my Doukhobor friends. They turned out to be in quarantine.

The “Quarantine Office” is a rather large courtyard enclosed within a high fence on the side facing the sea and is located at the outskirts of the city. One side consists of sheds adapted for living space. The Doukhobors were housed partly in these sheds, where they soon set up bunks, and partly in 60 tents pitched quite close together in the courtyard.

When I walked up to the gates of the quarantine, I found them locked. Fortunately, there was a small window with enough space for me to stick my head through and even exchange kisses with my friend, the Doukhobor Vasily Andreyevich Potapov. We had not seen one another for three years. I found him much changed; he had lost weight and aged in that time. Three years of exile had taken its toll. But in his spirit, of course, he had grown still stronger, more clear thinking and more serene.

The Doukhobor Vasily Andreyevich Potapov. BC Archives, Koozma J. Tarasoff Collection, C-01491.

We exchanged greetings and bows, and the very latest information on our mutual wellbeing. Soon after my arrival they began to bring provisions and bread and began to pass it in through the quarantine guard; Potapov was diverted to attend to these matters, and I, after having a word with others, also turned away and set out for the hotel to figure out with my associates how to proceed further. I acknowledge that penetrating through the joy of meeting there was something bitter and unexpected – that lock on the gates, that violence with which the Doukhobors were met during their first step in a free land.

To be completely candid, I admit to yet another feeling I experienced when I caught sight of the Doukhobor encampment on the shore. That feeling may be roughly expressed in the words: “Oh oh, so this is how it is for them here!” Although I had been aware that the Doukhobors would have to land in Cyprus, I was still vaguely hoping that perhaps something would prevent that and they would not end up here. Often I suppressed that feeling and said to myself: “well, Cyprus – why not? I really don’t know the island. Maybe things will be fine here: a warm climate, humane English governance, the proximity of Russia,” and so on. But that feeling of foreboding mixed with hope again broke through and was upsetting my plans.

Now that I had seen the Doukhobors who were already here, I had renewed energy and confidence in Cyprus and a desire to use all my powers to find everything good here, and perhaps under the influence of this urge, or perhaps simply under the spell of the achieved goal and imminent rest after the long journey, I spent that evening somehow especially happy, I feasted my eyes on the moon and the sea and enjoyed the mediocre orchestra playing in the café on the quay; I had an excellent sleep and awoke with great hopes.

The next day the senior doctor once again called in at the quarantine courtyard, for some reason counted the men, women and children again and then allowed me to enter the quarantine so that I could see and exchange greetings with all who were there. Toward evening the governor granted permission to open the quarantine, and the Doukhobors themselves walked into the city for provisions. Their knowledge of the Tatar language proved very useful, as the local Turkish tongue is similar to Tatar, and many of the Doukhobors began to make themselves understood by the local inhabitants.

The governor gave permission for the Doukhobors to remain in quarantine for no more than three weeks. But it would have been impossible for them to remain there any longer than that. The station courtyard and the buildings around it faced directly southward, and by midday the heat grew so intense that even the healthiest could hardly stand it.

One of my associates in this enterprise, [Arthur] St. John [an English Tolstoyan], who had already been living on the island and been actively engaged in studying it, found outside the city a place for the temporary stationing of the Doukhobors – a government-owned orchard with a nearby spring supplying enough water. The government, upon request, provided enough sanitary necessities along with restrictions that prevented the Doukhobors from making use of the orchard.

Fortunately, on the first day of our presence in Larnaca, news came that the farm we were renting, the Athalassa chiflik [farm], in the local parlance, could be occupied the very next day.

Sturge and St. John set out early in the morning the next day to take possession of the farm, while I remained with the Doukhobors to accompany the first party to their place of residence.

Over those two days I spent most of my time with the Doukhobors in the quarantine. In my conversations with them I tried to explain to them the reason for their landing on Cyprus; although they knew this in general terms, I was trying to make their situation better understood and freely accepted, suggesting to them that although Cyprus indeed was an unavoidable way out of their predicament, it would be up to them to choose whether it would be a permanent place of residence or a temporary location. From the very outset, I found in them a reasonable attitude toward this question. Nobody prejudged the issue, because sitting within the four walls of the quarantine and strolling only around the bazaar, it was impossible to decide on a final resolution. Many were attracted by the low prices of the fruit, especially grapes, a pound of which could be bought for less than a kopeck, tomatoes, eggplant and other green vegetables. This showed them that green vegetables and fruit grow here in abundance. Others were frightened by the locals telling them about the absence of water and lumber; all this for the time being merely gave them material for discussion of the issue, but they were far from a decision. In the first few days the decision leaned more on the positive side, so that the liberated Doukhobors already began to consider the possibility of freeing others of their brethren who remained in the Caucasus, and their opinion is reflected in my correspondence those first few days.

The health situation in the quarantine, in spite of the confined quarters, seemed satisfactory; at least, there were no complaints and the doctor’s medical inspection was reassuring.

The death of Timofey Makeyev, one of the brethren, on the day of arrival, did not spoil this mood among either the Doukhobors or the doctors, and everyone unanimously took this to be the outcome of a long illness, apparently consumption, which had been afflicting him for several years.

At the Quarantine Office, those who had not been exposed to smallpox were vaccinated. To me, the senior doctor expressed amazement at the civilized nature and modesty of the Doukhobors, who were not resisting all these manipulations.

Finally the day was set for the dispatch of the first party to Athalassa, around 280 persons, and after midday we began to load the hired oxcarts with baggage, tents, and the elderly, weak, and small children. At about four o’clock everything was ready, and a wagon train consisting of forty-two oxcarts set off on the road toward Nicosia, the main administrative centre of the island.

I remained in Larnaca for another two hours and around six o’clock left on a mule to catch up with the wagon train accompanied by the Turkish policeman placed at my disposal by the obliging governor of Larnaca in the event of possible misunderstandings.

I caught up with the last oxcart after approximately 9 or 10 versts [an Imperial Russian unit of measure equal to 1.0668 km] and passed ahead along the wagon train, overtaking carts and men and women moving along on foot. The sun had already set, but it had not gotten dark. The clear southern moon was shining almost as brightly as the sun. The wagon train stretched for several versts, and it took me a long time to overtake the first oxcart.

Bullock wagons on the road from Larnaca to Nicosia, Cyprus along which Doukhobors travelled en route to Athalassa in late 1898. BC Archives, Koozma J. Tarasoff Collection.

From Larnaca to Nicosia along the main road was 26 English miles, that is, 39 versts. Athalassa is situated not far from the main road, on the left side, three miles short of Nicosia.

I caught up to the first oxcarts half way along the road where they had already stopped for a rest by a coach house yard or “dukhan” in Tatar, or simply “khana” in the local language. The rest of the carts caught up and were arranged to allow the oxen to feed. After a three-hour stop, the first oxcarts again headed out and at around four o’clock in the morning arrived safely in Athalassa.

One by one the carts began to draw up, unload, and were set up in an encampment down below beyond the garden near the stream flowing there. With extraordinary eagerness, the children and old women hurried to the stream. The children began to play and splash around in it, and the grandmothers began to scoop up water, boil it, and do washing. In Larnaca the lack of fresh water had made itself felt, and there had not always been enough for washing. Now they were glad to have plenty of it.

Around 8 o’clock the last oxcart drew up. The move had been completed with complete success. Tents were pitched, fires lit, and life began in full swing in the new location.

Athalassa chiflik is regarded as one of the favorable locations on Cyprus in terms of agriculture. Sufficient water supply, well-managed fruit orchards, with date-palms, fig, orange, lemon, olive and mulberry trees, gardens with various young green vegetables, several tracts with young plantings of olive and mulberry trees and around 500 dessiatines [an Imperial Russian unit of measure equal to 1.0925 hectares] of good arable land. Farm buildings in good shape, house with 5-6 rooms, a barn and granaries. All this was rented from the Eastern and Colonial Association for 200 pounds a year, i.e. 2000 rubles.

Mention of the Eastern and Colonial Association leaves me with an unpleasant sensation. I am little acquainted with the activities of this company and its members, but I know one thing, that for everything they were selling to us, for all the services they were rendering, we paid very dearly, yet at the same time, with every sale made or service rendered, they were making out that they were very sympathetic to us and were doing good deeds.

Toward evening, as soon as the newly-arrived party had to some extent come to grips with their situation in the new location, I headed back to Larnaca on my mule, this time without the police escort, whom I had already let go that morning.

The party that had arrived in Athalassa were all from the one village, Efremovka. For three years they had lived in disorder and now they were reunited in their new location. Right away they came up with the idea, with my support, of building a village right here and calling it Efremovka. That is how it was both in Tavria Province and also in the Caucasus; so also it should be here. Everybody was emboldened in spirit and full of hope. There were several who had fallen ill, and they were sympathetic to them, but they said that this was inevitable and that it was a good thing that up to now they had managed despite the difficulties of the journey. I left for Larnaca, traveled all night, got a little lost when I arrived in the city and only at 3 a.m. reached the hotel, very tired from the long, unaccustomed trip, but content with what had been accomplished.

Although the move to Athalassa had generally been comparatively successful, one circumstance threw a dark shadow that left a bad impression on me and my friends. The Athalassa area was rented by Armenians and the land had been worked half and half by some neighbouring inhabitants. Our arrival had upset all this, and the renters living on the farm, the foreman and the workers were obliged to leave before we arrived. Some of them had left previously, but others were still just starting to get ready in our presence, and we saw how they loaded up their little donkeys with various goods and chattels and left for somewhere else. This situation struck the Doukhobors unpleasantly as well. At the first expression of dissatisfaction with their position, they told me: “Why take land away from others? We were not seeking that. We heard that there is plenty of land not belonging to anybody, government land – that is the kind we need. But to drive away a man who worked and fed himself here – that is not Christian.” Unfortunately, regardless of their wishes, we repeated that un-Christian act many times over.

III.

The next day I got up early and hurried to the quarantine, where more than 800 Doukhobors remained.

After the first party left there was a little more room; there was now an opportunity to walk between the tents and distinguish faces, and I endeavored to become acquainted with them and remember those I had already seen back in the Caucasus.

I related to them how settlement had gone in Athalassa and what I had found there, approximately how much land and other benefits, and right there we decided at a general council that it would be possible to send another party of about 250 to Athalassa, as there is enough land there, it was constricted standing around in the quarantine, and in the near future the purchase of new land was not to be counted on. But since to carry out this measure it was still necessary to have the agreement of my associates Sturge and St. John, it was decided to wait for their return from Nicosia, where they had remained to inspect farms offered for purchase.

As soon as our arrival became known, offers of farms for sale poured in. However, the price for them nevertheless rose, as everybody wanted to take advantage of this good opportunity to sell assets that had lain idle for a long time. We knew this and were not rushing to make purchases. The Doukhobors understood this well themselves and were in no hurry, but on the contrary, urged one another to take their time. But when they discovered what was being paid in Athalassa for cattle and associated goods, they were aghast and began to say that it would be better for them to spend the winter in Athalassa if only not to have to make such unprofitable deals.

They decided to wait for Sturge, and for the time being it was thought better to spend time in the quarantine. But the cramped conditions in quarantine soon made themselves felt. The number of sick people rose and two more children died, a boy of six and a little girl four years old.

I remember how the death of that boy hit me. Previously I had not seen dead bodies among the Doukhobors and had not heard their funereal singing. In the morning I walked to the quarantine and heard singing in one corner of the courtyard. I was interested to find out who they were and what they were singing, and I went over in that direction. There a small shed stood, put together with boards, in which two or three Doukhobor families were housed. The closer I came, the more clearly I could make out the singing and my heart grew ever heavier. I knew that generally speaking, the tunes of Doukhobor psalms are doleful, and I was not paying enough attention to this melancholy feeling when I carelessly went into the shed and stopped at the threshold. There sitting in a circle were several men and women with sad faces and slowly, with long drawn out words and slight bobbing of their heads, they were singing a psalm. On a bench in their midst lay on his back with his little legs stretched out, a fine-looking young boy, his face white with a waxy transparency, in a clean new Doukhobor costume. Tears came to my eyes, but I held back, bowed to the people seated there and withdrew.

This was the first death I had seen in Cyprus, and it made a very strong impression on me. When I saw that dead boy, some inner voice told me: “Well, now, see here, it’s only the beginning!”

A day later, the little girl also died. These two deaths alarmed the doctors too. After the girl’s death, the local governor called me in and said with a stern and serious expression that according to the report of the sanitation inspector, sanitary conditions among the Doukhobors were very bad, he was afraid of an epidemic, and he asked me to take immediate action to improve the situation.

At the same time he added that after consulting with the sanitation inspector, he decided to suggest to me either to rent houses in the city and house the Doukhobors in them, or to rent one building and set it up as a hospital in which to keep the sick ones who could not be treated in the camp. I heard him out, and as I could not and would not make all these arrangements on my own, I summoned Sturge by telegram and went to inform the Doukhobors of this. They silently heard what I had to say, without protest, but in fact the news of a hospital being set up seemed to bother them more than the news of expected deaths.

View of the island of Cyprus, c. 1898.

During these days in quarantine, there was another occurrence that somewhat darkened our then still very optimistic mood and at the same time served to bring me still closer to these people.

When I returned from Athalassa and walked into the quarantine, two elderly Doukhobor men approached me and said that they wanted to ask me what to do. “One of our lads has been indulging in wine, we’re very much ashamed, we are not thinking of him or ourselves, but what are we to do with him?” Of course I was surprised by this, and could not find anything to say, and we decided that we needed to collect our thoughts and talk about this. Soon thereafter, the next morning, it seems, the governor invited me to his quarters and told me that one of the Doukhobors had got drunk, began a brawl, and had been taken in to the police station, where he had spent the night. “If you would like to see him, I can give you a pass.” I took it and went to the police station. Admittedly, I was much grieved by this unexpected scandal. An occurrence that is so common among ordinary people was looked upon by the Doukhobors of this party as a crime. It was precisely the commonplace nature of this situation that more than anything else both weighed heavily on me and angered me, because it provided a pretext for any shortsighted person who did not know them well to say: “you see, this shows there is nothing special about them,” which of course my associate Sturge, who always kept himself rather aloof from the Doukhobors, did not miss the opportunity to say. As soon as he found out about it, he immediately said: “Alors ils ne sont pas meilleurs que les autres!” [“So, they are no better than others!”]

However, because I knew that they are beaucoup meilleurs que les autres [much better than others], I was not put off and went to rescue the wretch. I found him sitting under a tree in the courtyard of the police station. The “brawling lad” turned out to be an old fellow about 50 years old; his swollen red face, teary eyes and uncertain, trembling movement betrayed him to be a man suffering from the effects of hard drinking. The police obligingly released him upon my initial request, on my recognizance, and I led him back to the quarantine. This unfortunate fellow already was expressing great repentance for what he had done, and regret for bringing shame on the community, but it was clear that although he acknowledged all this, he could not guarantee that it would not happen again. I took him back to quarantine and delivered him into the hands of several elders who had come to meet me. They surrounded him and began to tell him off for his misdemeanor. He bowed, begged forgiveness, and did not know what to do. That evening a council gathered.

From conversations with several persons with whom I was more closely acquainted, I found out that Nikolai Borisov – that was the name of the ailing old fellow – had already been suffering for a long time, about ten years, from heavy drinking and had even taken treatment for it. From time to time, sometimes for months at a stretch he had remained sober, but then fell back into the old habit. Such behaviour on his part once forced the Doukhobors during their exile at one of their councils to expel him from the community. As was the custom, he was given his portion and some money and asked to live on his own; in his grief he began to carouse even more, drank up everything in sight and showed up to implore the community in the name of Christ for refuge; from that time on they have not driven him out. Several times they advised him to return to his former associates, that is, to move back with the Small Party, but he did not want to hear of it. They advised him not to leave the Caucasus, and did not even obtain a ticket for him, but he sneaked onto the steamship, and they did not spot him until the ship was en route.

“What are we to do with him?” the elders said to me, “a lost soul, not one of us, but what are we to do about it? Just one person, but he is shaming a thousand, and not just a thousand, but all three thousand plus – just one person, but nonetheless it is painful.” Some advised him to head back to the Caucasus; at times he himself even agreed to this, but nobody could bring himself to act on this.

I did not want to venture advice, worried about my influence on one side or the other, and especially on the side of repressive measures, as I had heard from some of the Doukhobors that they felt ashamed, in particular, to face us friends who were assisting them. “With you,” the Doukhobors told me, “it is not so embarrassing, we regard you as one of our own, but with the Quaker it is very shameful: he is writing to his own people – what are they going to think!” I was very worried that they would repeat the previous expulsion, and thus nevertheless decided to go to the council, there to express not my own opinion, but that of Christ as to the guilty party. I came and read out to them two passages from the Gospels: one about the judgment of the sinful woman, and the other, the words of Caiaphas to the effect that it is better for one man to die rather than the whole nation perish; after reading that and explaining why I had read it out, I withdrew. The council decided to be patient for a while, but if he himself asks for it, to give him the fare for his return to the Caucasus.

It was touching to see the concern with which they discussed this problem and their struggle between community pride and compassion, and how the latter won out in the end.

The governor displayed a rather benevolent attitude to all this. He told me that it was a great pity that this had happened, and that it could affect the general impression. But when I pointed out that, surely, this was one man in a thousand, he agreed that this occurrence was extremely exceptional. I asked him what would happen if 1000 workers in the city of of Larnaca were to find themselves in the same predicament as the Doukhobors, i.e. without work but given a secure existence. Without hesitation, he replied: “They would all be getting drunk!” Then he asked me what I would do with this man. Sensing indecisiveness in my answer, he decided to answer for me, pointing to a tree near where we were standing, and made a gesture with his hand at his throat, adding “hang him!” and at that he burst out laughing. This was his little joke just for my benefit, as he knew what my firm beliefs were.

When he found out about this episode, Sturge, as I mentioned already, remained most upset and the next morning, after heading for the quarantine and gathering a small circle of elders around him, he spoke to them in Russian, saying that if the Doukhobors continue to engage in drunkenness, the Quakers will terminate their assistance. At that the Doukhobors kept silent.

IV.

Meanwhile, with the arrival of Sturge the question of sending a second party to Athalassa was definitely resolved. It was decided to do this as soon as possible, and already the next day was designated for sending the first half of the second party, and the remainder the day after that. I divided the party in two, having experienced the inconvenience of moving a very large oxcart train.

This time I could not accompany the party, as I had been drawn away by another matter.

On the day of departure of the second part of the second group, we went with Sturge and the Doukhobor Vasily Potapov to Kouklia, one of the farms belonging to the Eastern Association to discuss working on a half and half basis.

When we returned to Larnaca from Kouklia, I learned that the second part of the second group had already set off. There was now more room in the quarantine, and both we and the Doukhobors were glad at the hope that we would get by without a hospital.

In principle, the Doukhobors themselves were not against a hospital, but they did not want to incur major expenses. Having endured many different illnesses, they were already accustomed to doctors in the Caucasus and were not afraid of them. But they had already become aware back there that doctors are “expensive”; “they would even like to charge less,” one Doukhobor told me, “but they cannot, because they are not supposed to in accordance with their science.” It is that “expensive” science that the Doukhobors much fear, knowing the monetary cost, as they know both how to earn it and how to renounce it.

Our journey to Kouklia had a significant result. We were successful in concluding an agreement with the director of the Eastern Association according to which he took on 10 Doukhobor families as workers going halves on conditions that, although they were not even profitable, were not excessively onerous. The company provided cattle, implements, partial housing and materials for construction of the housing shortfall. The Doukhobors were obliged with these materials to build enough dwellings, to cultivate as much as they were able the fields and at harvest time, to return to the owner the seed and after paying the government tax, they would receive half of the remaining harvest. Hay would be left for the owner for feeding the oxen.

One advantage of settling the Doukhobors there was that there was flowing water and land suitable for gardening, which the director agreed to make available to the Doukhobors for 10 shillings a donum [Cypriot field measure equal to approximately 1/12 of a Russian dessiatine], that is, approximately 60 rubles per dessiatine annually. For Cyprus this price was very moderate, as water there is very expensive.

This settlement, although temporary, as the Doukhobors had no intention of living permanently as sharecroppers, would have been one of the most successful, as here the Doukhobors without great expense could have begun at once to work productively, had it not been for the fever spreading in that place. When the company was inviting the Doukhobors to go there, we were warned that this place is not as healthy as Pergamos. Everyone was saying that Pergamos was healthy (comparatively). At this they added that, of course, if certain precautions were taken, to live and work in Kouklia would be very good. All this the Doukhobors also were aware of, and the desire to begin work as soon as possible overcame their apprehension about disease, and the agreement was concluded. When the Doukhobors arrived and started work, the administrator who sympathized with the Doukhobors, an Armenian who speaks Turkish and French, expressed to me his satisfaction, as he had noticed that the Doukhobor women work alongside the men. “This augurs well for success,” he told me, “Armenians here have not been successful, because their women do not work and so when the men got sick, the work was suspended. With you, I can see, that will not happen: when the men get sick, the women will work.”

From these words I could see that disease was already assumed to be an inevitable fact of life. But the Doukhobors by this time did not want to retreat, and were hoping they could cope with the fever. But in fact within those two months they all came down with it. Although only the two children died, they all had a sickly, exhausted appearance and were already thinking that by spring they would have to leave for Pergamos, and if they would have to stay in Cyprus in the spring, they expected to get to Kouklia only long enough to get some work, and the residents of Pergamos promised to help them with this.

On the same trip we looked over the chiflik of Pergamos and in a few days it was decided to purchase it.

Some of the Doukhobors headed there right away and also to Kouklia.

About one hundred persons still remained in the quarantine. Those who remained were the ones who did not have tents and were living in barns, as there was no accommodation prepared in Pergamos and it would take several days to make the rundown Turkish houses there suitable for habitation.

Pergamos indeed turned out to be a most healthy place, by virtue of its elevation, and the fresh water available from several wells there. Its shortcomings were that there was no flowing water there and it would be necessary to make substantial expenditures on irrigation of the land. In addition, the relative lightness of the soil, i.e. its low fertility and finally and most important, there were only about 40 dessiatines in all, an area of land far from sufficient to feed the 460 persons living there. Having confirmed the healthfulness of this place, I pressed for the settlement there of all the rest, especially because it was possible to find more land to rent in the vicinity.

The last shortcoming, the small amount of land, turned to their advantage after it was decided that the Doukhobors would not remain in Cyprus. As I already mentioned, that part of the group, about 200 persons, was still in the quarantine. They were the most patient ones, but even they, barely able to stand sitting around , agreed to go to Pergamos and spend the nights there under the open sky, “covering themselves a little with something” – anything to get away from the quarantine with which they were so fed up. Taking advantage of a free evening, I went to visit them in the quarantine to read and chat with them. That evening was one of the best I spent in Cyprus.

I read out for them the article “Doukhobory v nachale XIX stoletiia” [“Doukhobors at the beginning of the 19th century” – a late 19th century reprint of the 1805 article “Nekotorye cherty ob obshchestve Dukhobortsev” [“Several Characteristics of Doukhobor Society”]]. It turned out to be unknown to them and they were amazed at the faithfulness of its rendering of the essence of their doctrine, social structure and history.

In confirmation of the truth of what was written, they recited for me several psalms on which the instructional part of that article was based. Those psalms are beautiful and aroused in all of us a good and serious frame of mind, and for a long time we conversed amicably, recalling previous times of persecution and comparing them with those of the present. Little by little the conversation moved to the present state of affairs in Cyprus, and here in candid conversation for the first time I heard and clearly understood the already firmly formed opinion of the Doukhobors that it was impossible for them to live in Cyprus for long. This opinion had hardened, influenced by their gradually growing familiarity with Cyprus. To be sure, as far as I could gather from general conversations with them, the thought of living in Cyprus had never been to their taste. However, as prudent people, they had not been able to reject Cyprus sight unseen and, trusting people who had rendered them brotherly assistance, they had decided to try even Cyprus, especially in the absence of any other more definite proposal.

Cypriots gathering straw for animal feed, c. 1898.

But the resettlement of the Doukhobors had been conceived by them in terms of a particular plan and with conditions they had clearly expressed in their petition to the Empress and in Petr Verigin’s letter to her. They petitioned for the opportunity to settle all together in one place where they could engage in their characteristic toil. Their striving to find a place to settle is similar to that of the people of the Bible to find the promised land and to establish there the Kingdom of God in accordance with the teachings of Christ. I often noticed them expressing this idea in my conversations with them. As they spoke of their firm resolve to die for the truth, they not infrequently confessed to me this human weakness: “Of course,” they said, “we would go that far, to the death if need be, we have decided to withstand everything, even unto eternal life, but we all want to see how we can all live together, we all want to fulfill everything and live as a Christian community should.”

It is hard to condemn these people for this their “great” weakness, and few there are, I believe, who, knowing this, would not wish to help them in this.

The more they got to know Cyprus, the more clearly they could see that this dream was not destined to be realized here.

From information gathered from various sources, it turned out that although it was possible to find in Cyprus the quantity of land needed to settle the whole community, in the first place it would have to be purchased for a very high price (100 rubles a dessiatine or more), and in the second place, it would be scattered all over the island in small pieces, which of course would be extremely inconvenient for communal farming. Moreover, from questioning of local residents they found out that the living and working conditions on the island were to such an extent the opposite of what they were used to, that their main strength – their farming knowledge gained over the ages – would count for nothing. It would mean working in the winter and hiding from the heat in the summertime. Housing, clothing, food, labour, i.e. the sum total of their farming existence would have to be different; everything would have to be learned anew. It was obvious that they would not have enough to eat for long; the prospect was that they would have to depend for their sustenance on kind people – this would be all right, but is this really necessary and is there really nowhere that their toil is needed and where they can receive a decent return so that they can be proud of their labour? Added to this: the unbearable heat for seven or eight months, accompanied by fever, dysentery, and often, death.

From the local inhabitants they discovered that there had already been several attempts to settle foreigners on the island. The English had brought in Hindus; other nationalities, Circassians, Maltese, Armenians and Jews, had come, and all this had ended in disease, death, and the departure of the survivors.

All of this led them to conclude that Cyprus was no good for them, and I could not help but agree with them.

Soon, in about two days, the remaining party headed for Pergamos and at last the quarantine, to the general relief of both the Doukhobors and the local authorities, was vacant, after which, in accordance with all the regulations of “the expensive science,” they covered it over with lime.

V.

Having finished with Pergamos and Kouklia, I set off to call on the folk at Athalassa. I had not seen them for about ten days. The 560 people who were settled in Athalassa were stretched out in an encampment extending about one verst. About 100 of them had been placed in a house belonging to the estate, while the ones living in tents had decided to build themselves huts. In the first days of the settlement of the first party in Athalassa, plans for construction were very ambitious; they decided to recreate the whole village of Efremovka, for which they selected a good location on a hill. But by the time of my second arrival the mood had changed here as well. In Athalassa, all the time the heat was especially palpable. The farm itself was located in a hollow that acted like a convex mirror collecting the sun’s rays in an area shielded from the wind.

Several Doukhobors told me the same thing I had already heard in quarantine; I assembled some of the elders to hear out their opinion more thoroughly, suggesting to them that they write of this to England, which they did. After making some arrangements for provisions, I returned again to Larnaca, and from there set out for Pergamos and Kouklia.

By that time the Doukhobors had received a letter from the Quakers in England. Here is the full text:

“Dear friends,

We are glad to know that after many obstacles and difficulties, you have safely arrived in Cyprus.

Our heartfelt wish is that with the Lord’s blessing you will be able on the island to build a habitation for yourselves and your children; and we have no doubt on that score, as by virtue of your patient staying-power and industriousness with which you excelled in your previous life you will be able to establish yourselves well, and here you will be free from government compulsion that would force you to do what is contrary to your conscience.

May it be possible for you in your new habitation to preserve your conscience pure of sin before God and man.

We were very glad and grateful for the opportunity to take part in the cause of your liberation and to extend to you the hand of brotherly assistance.

Although we are foreign to you in language and nationality, we are nevertheless united with you in the doctrine which forbids both us and you from any war, as that is against the teaching and example of the One who preached peace.

We have heard from those who are acquainted with your past history that your life was imbued with fear of God, honest love of toil and a brotherly disposition to one another, and we felt we could be so bold as to offer the government of Cyprus the large monetary guarantee that they, not without reason, had demanded of us before granting permission for you to settle on the island so that you would not be a burden, either to the government or to the other residents.

We feel that we can rely on you to make the best of the conditions under which you, by the will of God, are now settled.

We have wanted every step of our participation in your destiny to be guided by the Spirit of Truth, and we are confident that you also are basing all your actions on that spirit.

Therefore both you and we can trust that your resettlement in Cyprus is in accord with God’s will and will be a blessing for you.

We strongly desire that your brothers in Russia will also be able to depart from there. Together with your other friends, we shall pursue that goal.

Your example and the boldness with which you will be able to demonstrate in your striving to improve your new living conditions will also very much assist our efforts in this matter.

We are sending this letter by the hand of our friend and brother Wilson Sturge, who is now among you, and to whom we ask you to give brotherly attention and cooperation. With a greeting of Christian love we remain, your brothers.

For the Committee appointed by the English Society of Friends for Assistance to the Doukhobors, signed

John Bellows (secretary). Friends Community House London

2nd day of the 9th month, 1898.”

This letter was read out by me in all three colonies, of course.

In Pergamos I met with the same generally held opinion. I read to them the Quakers’ letter and suggested that they send a reply, which I wrote myself at their request, virtually at their dictation, only editing their thoughts; their letter appears below.

They greeted the Quakers’ letter with touching gratitude, in spite of the total discord between its content and the actual state of affairs. The letter described the Doukhobor settlement in Cyprus as a blessing from God, whereas they were merely enduring it as yet another painful trial. Here is their reply:

Larnaca, Cyprus. 20.9.98
To the Friends – Quakers from the Doukhobors living in Pergamos and Kouklia.

“Firstly, brothers, we bring you profound gratitude, such as we do not know how to express, for your brotherly concern for us and your assistance.

Secondly, we wish to explain to you our predicament and request that you not discontinue your help.

As our brethren Ivin and Makhortov previously explained to you, life for us here is very difficult, and it is most unlikely that we will be able to stay here long.

Our chief concern is for us to be all together as a whole community, but this is impossible here because there is little suitable cheap land here, and if we were to buy expensive land, for the same amount of money we could travel over to America and Canada, which attracts us with its wide open spaces and a climate that is similar to that in which we lived in the Caucasus for 50 years.

Even if it were possible for all our brethren to settle here, we dread the hot climate, which is similar to that which we suffered from in exile and where, out of 4,000 persons, about 1,000 of us already died.

Here eight persons have already died, and many are ill with the same diseases we had in exile: fever, dysentery, eye diseases and blindness.

In one location where it is healthier, the soil is worse – stony and with little water; where the soil is fertile, that is where the diseases are. Ten of our families have taken up sharecropping in the Kouklia estate, which belongs to the Eastern Company.

It might even turn out all right for us here, but our predecessors, Armenians who lived here, all came down sick to the last man, and we expect the same thing.

Moreover, even at the more elevated places the heat can be unbearable, and we came here while it was not yet the hottest time of year.

Taking everything into consideration, we can see that there is no life for us here; we will not flourish here, but wither.

So therefore, we fervently implore you not to enter into large expenditures on establishing us here, but if at all possible to move us from here to a place more suitable for living. As we have heard, Canada is such a place. And with patience and in submission to God’s will we shall await our turn, until with the aid of our friends we shall succeed in joining our brethren.

We are aware that many of our brethren yet remain in the Caucasus under severe repression and without means of subsistence, and our first request is for them. And we hope that our friends will not forget about us here either and will relieve our situation.

We very much are afraid of distressing you with this letter, but we want to tell you the whole truth and frankly express our opinion so as not to be later held to account before you and before God. —

We also thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your letter that we received and read. May the Lord save you.

On behalf of the whole commune, [signed]:

Vasily Potapov, Grigory Glebov, Fyodor Zhmaev, Vasily Popov, Vasily Razinkin, Pavel Popov, Petro Lobyntsev.”

This decision, firmly supported by all the Doukhobors and reinforced more and more with each passing day by the course of events, significantly changed their attitude toward the tasks facing them in Cyprus.

It was decided to get settled temporarily, while striving to do everything as cheaply as possible in order to save as much money as they could for the journey to Canada, from which they had already begun to receive favourable reports about the large amount of free land, about concessions offered by the Canadian government to settlers, about wage levels, and so on. The main barrier to an immediate move was, as was reported from England, that there is no money for the voyage, and that which is now being collected has to go toward the resettlement of the remaining 2000 persons presently in exile in the Caucasus; thus the turn of the Cyprus Doukhobors will not come soon.

Athalassa farm in Cyprus occupied by Doukhobors in 1899. BC Archives, Koozma J. Tarasoff Collection.

All these considerations led to the decision, come what may, to spend the winter in Cyprus, and so it was necessary to build houses. In Pergamos, just as in Athalassa, at first they were planning for a large village, but when they realized the impossibility of a durable settlement, they decided to build at minimal expense, as much as possible making use of what remained intact in the ruins of an old Turkish settlement. Getting to work, they began to plaster walls, reinforce collapsed ceilings, dig out debris, and within two or three days several families were already living in the houses, while others continued the work.

That is how life began in all three settlements.

This is how I organized my time: my main lodging was in Larnaca. I myself spent a good deal of time traveling back and forth. I would head for one end of the island, for example, to Pergamos and Kouklia for two or three days, hen return to Larnaca and have a good rest – timing these rest periods to coincide with days when mail arrived or was dispatched. Then I would set out for the other end to Athalassa, and after three days or so return again to Larnaca, and after taking care of whatever matters were necessary in that city, head once more for Pergamos and Kouklia. My visits to the colonies I also tried to coordinate with visits there by the doctors, after which it fell to me to dispense prescribed medicine and carry out some instructions from the doctor. In addition to matters concerning provisions and concerns about buildings, one of my main activities, appreciated most of all by the Doukhobors, was reading letters received by post, and sometimes articles from periodicals and booklets. This took up a lot of time, because one letter or article would have to be read out about ten times, as it was impossible to read it to many at once, yet everyone wanted to know what they said.

Often, after reading and conversation about the topic of what had been read, one of the older Doukhobors would begin to tell about the olden days. I had no time to write them down, but I heard a lot of interesting things; something of what I heard I shall try to bring forth in another place.

Little by little they began to set about their agricultural work. They began first in Athalassa, as the farm there was in full operation. Then in Kouklia, where everything was also almost ready for work. Last of all in Pergamos, as there it was necessary to start all over with cattle, feed, and equipment.

VI.

Little by little life was being put in order, and all would have been fine, but they all had decided to wait for spring and their turn to leave; they were especially energized by news that the “Gorskie”, that is, the ones who had remained scattered in Gori Uezd were preparing to depart, that enough money had been collected for their migration, a steamer hired, and their departure was immanent. As the remaining parties of Elisavetpol and Kars Doukhobors could travel on their own account, it would appear that it was now the Cyprus Doukhobors’ turn; they breathed sighs of relief when they heard this news and said: “Perchance the Lord is not lacking in mercy, and they are going to shift us out of here.”

All would have been well, say I, had it not been for the illness and death that had begun to afflict the Doukhobors when they were still in the quarantine and had intensified after their resettlement in the different locations in the colonies.

The cause of all the illness, as was clearly understood by the Doukhobors themselves, from the old to the young, and was clearly recognized also by me and everyone else who saw the ailing and dying, was the unbearably hot climate of Cyprus.

That the reason for all the illness was the local conditions can be easily seen from the fact that they all came down with them, to an even greater extent those who had not been ill in the Caucasus. But those who had already been sick previously – the weak, children, old men and women – were dying. The nature of these diseases is local and the time of their occurrence, the period of intensified infection, corresponds to the time and period of intensified infection of the local diseases.

Of course, these illnesses and deaths, in spite of the steadfast and steady patience of the Doukhobors, could not but affect their attitude toward Cyprus and their general morale.

Although they did believe those who told them that with the onset of winter, these illnesses would cease or at least subside, they also knew that the hot weather would return, along with renewed illness and that terrible debilitating heat, mosquitoes and the slack time of summer unemployment; all this loomed before them and compelled them to implore people they regarded as brothers to help them extricate themselves from this predicament.

Nevertheless, work continued at its own pace. Building work went on simultaneously in all three colonies. Building projects were completed earliest in Kouklia; there were few there and it was only necessary to buy boards for doors, windows and tables, and beams for the lintels. The rest of the materials belonged to the Company and was on site.

In Athalassa, house construction was somewhat delayed because, owing to its remoteness, I could not get there often, and lumber was delivered there later.

However, toward the end of October, construction was completed in all three colonies, the matter of provisions had been dealt with, and to the great satisfaction of everyone, diseases had even begun to abate as the heat diminished.

My personal affairs were calling me to other tasks, and seeing that my presence in Cyprus was no longer necessary, I decided to leave, especially in view of the arrival of one more Russian [Evangelical Christian] friend of the Doukhobors, Ivan Stepanovich Prokhanov, who had energetically gone into action.

By the time I left, we counted 51 dead and around a hundred sick.

As they bid me farewell, the Doukhobors begged me to use all of my powers to find ways for them to leave Cyprus (“certainly try, as you yourself know best,” they said.)

And I left them with this hope.

I gained very much from those three months with the Doukhobors. Aside from personal satisfaction from associating with such people, I was glad to have been able to examine this community up close and see it in all its variety of types and characters. I saw true heroes who have endured torture, such as Ivan Baev, who had received over a hundred lashes at the time of the Cossack execution, who with a good-natured smile related how he had been entirely unable to stand after that punishment.

“My head was in a fog, and I couldn’t feel anything. It’s as if I had neither spine nor legs; I couldn’t control one arm, but only had feeling in my chest and one arm,” he said. Then there is Egor Khodykin, who suffered for a long time from similar torture and yet has maintained up to this time a clear, firm Christian consciousness. Among them I also saw weak persons, suffering, at times even grumbling, but who have kept holding on with all their might to others and who have not lost one of the principal Doukhobor virtues – their sense of human dignity.

I saw the serious, stern faces of mothers burying their children, who answered words of condolence and sympathy in this way: “There is nothing for it, we have gone this far, we will put up with it for God, for the truth.”

Squalid conditions in a typical Cypriot peasant home, c. 1898.

I also observed simple, bustling, superstitious peasant women uttering a spell “against fire” while at the same time instructing their children in the very highest of Christian truths.

As I became acquainted with them, I saw that this whole – at first glance ignorant – mass has its own history, its own martyrs for the truth and freedom, its own heroes and prophets whose stories are passed on from generation to generation for edification. All this together leaves an impression of a kind of unconquerable strength that is so precious that any unproductive waste of it summons a painful response in the heart of any person who knows them.

If the Doukhobors obtain little of worth from Cyprus, it is true that Cyprus will receive a lot from them. In my presence religious debates have already begun, and, as might have been expected, Greek Orthodox Christians regard Doukhobors as heretics and often break off these discussions, fearing enticement. The Moslem Turks, on the other hand, openly sympathize with them, mentioning only the difficulty of fulfilling their religious ideals. But both the former and the latter look upon them kindly and respectfully, and the presence of the Doukhobors in Cyprus cannot vanish without a trace.

November 10, 1898
P. Biryukov
Larnaca, Cyprus

Afterword

As noted in Biryukov’s account, when the Doukhobors landed on Cyprus on August 26, 1898 aboard the French steamship Le Douro, everything seemed quite promising. The Mediterranean island was beautiful, and the fertile land, lush vegetation and seaside climate reminded the Doukhobors of their ancient home at Molochnye Vody (Milky Waters). At first sight, the only disadvantage was the lack of buildings.

Following a sojourn of several weeks in quarantine at Larnaca, parties of Doukhobors were settled at Athalassa, Kouklia and Pergamos. In each of these places, the Doukhobors proceeded to build small agricultural villages, constructing homes of Caucasus-style mud bricks and preparing the soil for planting vegetables.

By fall, however, it became clear that the Doukhobor resettlement was not working out by any means as well as the Tolstoyans and Quakers had hoped. Various disagreements had developed among the Doukhobors about the value and extent of communal versus individual farming. They indulged in endless debates about social and economic issues. Lack of leadership and adjustment to the new, unfamiliar physical environment also took its toll on any potential Doukhobor success.

According to some writers, the Russian Tolstoyans such as Biryukov who joined the Doukhobors on Cyprus, despite their best intentions, seem to have to have done very little more than spread discontent among the settlers by complaining about the conditions on the island, and lose their heads in the disorganization all around them.

As a consequence, neither housing nor farming went ahead as quickly as they should have done. Many Doukhobors continued to live in damp tents pitched in marshy spots infested with mosquitoes; those who did live in houses were forced to exist in extremely crowded and unsanitary conditions. These poor living conditions and a limited diet (vegetables were not ready for consumption for months after planting, milk was available only in condensed form, and eating meat was against religious requirements) combined with the impure water and unendurable climate of the locality caused outbreaks of serious illness among the weakest of the Doukhobor settlers. Two months after the arrival in Cyprus, the first two deaths occurred. Many others lingered in a sick and weakened state. In the months that followed, 108 Doukhobors perished from famine, disease and exhaustion. This was an even higher mortality rate than the Doukhobors had experienced while in exile in the Caucasus following the Burning of Arms.

The hopes with which the Doukhobors had come were slowly dissipated, and their discontent with Cyprus was increased by the urgings of Biryukov and other Russian sympathizers who, having in the first place hastened their settlement on the island, now pressed on them the need to leave Cyprus as the only hope of evading extinction. Finally, the news reached them that the Doukhobors remaining in Russia had decided on a new destination, a place where the climate was more like that of their homeland. Any will that the Doukhobors ever felt to succeed on Cyprus was now finally dissipated, and they had no other thought than to join the emigration to Canada.

Finally, on April 27, 1899, the Doukhobors boarded the steamship Lake Superior to cross the Atlantic to Canada where their brethren awaited them, thus ending their unsuccessful settlement experiment on Cyprus.

For More Information

For more information about the short-lived Doukhobor settlement experiment on Cyprus in 1898-1899, the factors leading to its establishment and the reasons for its ultimate failure, see: A Courteous and Well-Conducted Community by Carla King and With the Doukhobors on Cyprus by Ivan Stepanovich Prokhanov.

The British Columbia Community Regulation Act

by Koozma J. Tarasoff

The following article concerns the notorious anti-Doukhobor British Columbia Community Regulation Act (British Columbia Statutes, 1914, Chap. II, pp. 65-68), a notorious anti-Doukhobor Act which violates the Canadian Charter of  Rights and Freedoms. This discriminatory legislation is still on the books.

The British Columbia Community Regulation Act defines Community members as anyone “living under communal or tribal conditions” and holds each member responsible for the registration of births, marriages and deaths in the community, for regular school attendance of all community children between the ages of seven and fourteen, and for compliance with the Health Act. Conviction for an offense under this Act allows for the seizure of goods and chattels of the Community for the offenses of its members. Proof of membership is arbitrary and blatantly discriminatory:

“It shall be sufficient proof that a person is a member of a community if it be shown on the oath of one witness that such person has been found in, upon, or about lands in the Province which are occupied by two or more persons under tribal or communal conditions of family life and residence in this Province.” (British Columbia, Community Regulation Act, 19l4: 65).

In March 4, 1914, the (then) Attorney General William Bowser introduced the Act to deal with unruly Community and zealot Doukhobors in British Columbia (see Tarasoff, K.J., Plakun Trava: The Doukhobors, 1982: pp. 123-129). Later, in December 1922, the authorities fined eight parents of Community Doukhobors for failure to send their children to school regularly. When the fines were not paid, Provincial Police Inspector W.R. Dunwoody issued distress warrants using the said Act. The incorporation of the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood in 1917 now allowed the seizure of Community property, whereas in 19l5 it had not been technically community property. A quantity of property was seized, but before it could be sold, the Community paid the amount due and made arrangements for students to return to classes.

In the early 1920s, a number of Doukhobor schools in the interior of British Columbia were destroyed by arson. The last school was burnt in February 1925, following the committal to jail of two parents for failure to send their children to school. In reaction, a boycott occurred and more parents refused to send their children to school. The Grand Forks magistrate levied fines totaling $4,500 on 35 parents whose children failed to appear in school. Inspector Dunwoody led a force on horseback of 10 constables and 100 citizens who forced their way into Community warehouses at Grand Forks and seized lumber, supplies and office equipment. The goods were sold for $3,360 but Community Doukhobors claimed the loss to be $25,000. The action seemed to be effective. The Community paid the remaining fines and children began returning to classes. And by the summer of 1925 Doukhobor carpenters were busy rebuilding the schools that had been destroyed. A temporary truce had been reached.

For many years I have wondered what has happened to that notorious Act which today goes against the Charter of Canada. This past week, Dr. John McLaren, a distinquished Law professor at the University of Victoria responded to my request. He wrote as follows:

“I was surprised to hear that the Community Regulation Act, 1914 might still be in force, but my inquiries and those of our Reference Librarian suggest that that is the case. The last printed version of the Act in the BC statutes is in the Revised Statutes of 1960. Thereafter, there were no recorded changes to it through to 1979 when it disappears from the Revised Statutes of that year. However, it was not repealed either by specific legislation for that purpose or by the Statute Revision Act which is passed when the statutes undergo formal revision and directs what happens to statutes previously in force. Any statute mentioned in the previous revision or passed since (e.g. since 1960) is repealed where the new revision (e.g. 1979) contains an act covering the same subject matter. The problem with the CR Act is that it is not mentioned in the 1979 Revised Statutes. Presumably then it remains in force, as not repealed. There is no mention of the Act in the most recent Revised Statutes of 1996. Moreover, it does not appear in the index of statutes in force in the annual volumes of statutes produced each year (not since the 1979 volume).

I am puzzled that the Act is still in force it would have escaped the attention of those in the Attorney General¹s department responsible for making provincial legislation jibe with the Charter. If I am right and it is still technically in force (perhaps forgotten) then perhaps we need to let them know that they have a secret cuckoo in their nest and suggest that they formally repeal it.”

Indeed, it is time now to formally write the B.C. Attorney General with a request that the Community Regulation Act be repealed as being not only anti-Doukhobor, but also not in tune with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This can best be done through the Doukhobor Unity Committee. Let’s act now!

To contact the B.C. Attorney General with your concerns about the Community Regulation Act, please write to: Attorney General Geoff Plant, Box 9044, Station Provincial Government, Victoria, British Columbia, V8V 1X4 or email the Attorney General.

Brilliant Jam Factory was Thriving Industry

by William M. Rozinkin

Among the many communal enterprises of the Doukhobor Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood (CCUB), the most remembered is their Kootenay-Columbia (K-C) Preserving Works Jam Factory in Brilliant, British Columbia. Purchased in Nelson in 1911 and relocated to Brilliant in 1915, it was an important industrial asset of the CCUB, processing the berries and fruit grown in its vast communal orchards. At its peak in 1934, the factory had a jam pack of 35,000 cases. Following the demise of the CCUB in 1937-1938, the jam factory was taken over by the British Columbia government. In 1943, it was destroyed by arson. The following article by Kootenay resident and historian William M. Rozinkin (1923-2007) recalls the thriving industry of the Brilliant jam factory. Reproduced by permission from the Nelson Daily News (June 9, 1967).

When the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood purchased 15,320 acres of land in B.C. interior in 1907, it launched a development program that spread throughout the Kootenay-Boundary regions. Besides some cultivated areas in Grand Forks all the rest were heavily forested and many inaccessible.

The Doukhobors, headed by Peter Lordly Verigin, faced hard pioneer work. By 1911, the communities pushed back the forests and planted 51,000 fruit trees and were building residential villages, roads, ferries and sawmills. By 1914, over 3,000 acres were under orchards and hundreds of acres planted with strawberries, raspberries and other berries. Fields of vegetables and grain were also producing abundant crops as irrigation systems began operating. More land was acquired.

With the expanding supply of fruit and berries, the CCUB purchased the Kootenay Jam Co. factory in Nelson in 1911, whose label proudly stated, “By Special Appointment, Perveyors to H.E. the Governor-General.” The factory was located on Front Street in the building later occupied by National Fruit Co.

Sorting apples at Brilliant, BC, circa 1920. British Columbia Archives C-01535.

Following the purchase, the factory became known as the Kootenay-Columbia Preserving Works, producers of the KC Brand products. It operated on the location for five years with six jam making kettles.

In a letter dated March 4, 1915, Mr. Verigin informed the Nelson Board of Trade that the CCUB had decided to relocate the factory from Nelson to Brilliant to be near the large plantations that supplied the factory. Besides freight costs, shipping time was also delaying the processing of berries when they were at their best, he said.

At that time the prairies were purchasing 50 per cent of their fruit from the U.S.A., 35 per cent from Ontario, and only 15 per cent from B.C.

When the KC operations began in 1911, the factory’s business amounted to $25,000, with the manufacture of 70 tons. Ninety two tons were produced in 1912 and the following year, 177 tons.

Immediately after the factory went into production at Brilliant in 1915, Mr. Verigin’s progressive policy promoted the construction of a plant for the manufacture of tin cans needed for jam distribution. In the first operating season of 1916, 150,000 cans were made.

The new jam factory now had 12 special jam-making copper kettles that operated to full capacity processing berries the same day they were received. The strict grading of incoming berries and fruit, together with supervised cleanliness, had far-reaching effects. Nothing else was used besides pure cane sugar and berries in the old English recipe introduced to the K-C operation by Harry Beach in 1911. All jam found a ready market.

With the construction of extensive irrigation systems and with an additional 1000 acres of fruit trees added by 1919, the agricultural development leaped forward, and the $100,000 factory worked at full capacity.

The K-C Preserving Works was the pride of the communities,” recalled William J. Soukoreff of Thrums. “The reputable quality of its products was known in Canada and in the U.S.A.”

Mr. Soukoreff worked from 1915 to 1928 in the offices of the CCUB and its other business holdings, the K-C Fuel Supply in Trail, Salmo Valley Lumber and Pole Col, Slocan Valley Lumber CO., and at the K-C offices in Brilliant. The CCUB also maintained businesses in Nelson and others in Brand Forks, and on the prairies. He went to work in the sales division of the factory in 1928, and recalled his successful business relations with western wholesalers and chain store establishments. Every major city in western Canada was a customer for K-C Brand jam.

The community also maintained two tomato canning plants, one in Brilliant and the other in Grand Forks. While a lot of canned tomatoes were used at home, up to 14 freight car loads were also shipped annually from Brilliant, where tomato canning facilities were located in the jam factory.

In August 1934, Mr. Soukoreff returned home from a sales trip east with orders for 18 car loads of jam from that single trip! “Favorable prairie crop conditions had a direct effect on fruit sales,” he said. Although times were hard, the 18 cars were sold at highest prices.

Doukhobor Jam Factory at Brilliant, BC, circa 1930. British Columbia Archives D-06930.

The same year the factory had a jam pack of 35,000 cases. This included 10,000 cases of strawberry jam that led in popularity, followed by plum and raspberry. Each case consisted of 12 four-pound cans of jam.

During the depression years, the combination of strawberry-apple jam appealed to the bargain-hunting housewife. It was during those years that unemployed persons picked huckleberries and made better than average wages selling them to the factory. About 2,000 cases of huckleberry jam were made in one season, and it was K-C who first introduced this jam to the prairies. Its demand was great.

Mr. Soukoreff recalled that the largest jam pack was the year after Peter Chistiakov Verigin arrived to head the community and doubled the production facilities of the K-C factory. With 24 jam-making kettles in operation, thousands of cases were loaded into 70 freight cars for eastern markets. “The largest obstacle to our sales on the prairies were the freight rates that favored the eastern producers,” he said.

Many old-timers still recall the hundreds of wagons loaded with berries and fruit that streamed to the packing sheds and factory during the summer and fall. They came from Ootischenia, Brilliant, Shoreacres, Robson, Pass Creek, Glade, and Slocan Valley. Grand Forks made heavy rail shipments.

Not only the Doukhobor communities supplied the factory. Farmers from Slocan Valley and others living along Kootenay Lake as far as Creston brought their berries by truck, while others shipped by railway.

Visitors were common at the factory, as they came to view the making of the “best jam they ever tasted”. When the Gyro Club District No. 8 held their convention in Nelson in August, 1935, they toured and had a banquet in the K-C factory. Making the trip were 170 Gyros and Gyrettes, in 42 cars. E.A. Mann, former Nelson club president, recalled the occasion. “It was a big hit with the Gyros,” he said. “The Doukhobor hospitality and cleanliness was most impressive. And their jam was good too!” The club was guided through the factory by John J. Sherbinin, business manager; Peter P. Zibin, jam maker and supervisor, and Joseph P. Shukin, executive director. For a gift each lady was given a four-pound can of jam.

The visitors saw the kettles in operation, activated by steam heat and looked after by an attendant. After the jam was cooked it was poured into smaller copper pots that were placed on wheeled “turtles” and taken to the cooler. Here the temperature was reduced and the jam received final skimming. It was then taken to the tables where it was ladled out into the sterilized cans. The protective special covering was placed on the cold contents and the can sealed with the lid. These cans were moved to the lower floor on the elevator, where labels were affixed on each can designating the contents. They were then placed in cases for shipment.

Most visitors were fascinated by the cherry-pitter and other machinery in the operation that was capable of producing up to 1,055 cans of jam per hour and produced up to 43,000 cases annually.

Among those who worked many years at the factory was Peter P. Zibin, under whose watchful supervision jam was made from 1915 to 1935. William J. Makaeff succeeded him. At peak season the factory employed up to 60 persons.

Office and staff of the Doukhobor Jam Factory at Brilliant, BC, circa 1925. British Columbia Archives C-01593.

In operating the K-C factory and other enterprises the Doukhobor communities tried to establish economic wellbeing for all its members, and where the aged, the orphaned, the widowed and the crippled also had food, clothing and shelter. During those years there was no welfare assistance to the needy, and this practice was a continuation of Doukhobor tradition.

Under the guidance of Lordly Verigin (head and organizer), all capital was turned into development of field and factory that formed the material foundation for this society that had a penniless beginning. When funds were needed for large projects, the executive office borrowed.

The rapid growth and strict religion of the Doukhobor community at times brought considerable suspicion, misunderstanding and disfavour.

In 1924, the year Mr. Verigin was killed in an unsolved train bombing, the CCUB holdings were valued at $6 ½ million, with $1 million owing.

A packing plant’s executive member also escaped death four years later when a speeding auto fired five shots at him near Castlegar. There were no arrests.

Peter Chistiakov Verigin arrived in 1927 and continued in his father’s post. In 10 years under his administration, the CCUB repaid $1 ½ million on loans and expanded manufacturing plants, built new ones, added acreages, settlements, etc. amounting to $1 million. Despite the depression of the 30’s, that caused membership to drop 43 per cent, and the attacking terrorism (total terrorist losses amounted to $1 ½ million), he reduced the debt to $319,276. In 1939 this amounted to 4 per cent of the value of community property. But it led to bankruptcy, foreclosure and ruin of the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood enterprises.

Four years after Peter Chistiakov Verigin died in 1939 the Brilliant factory was destroyed by terrorists. Its replacement value was $300,000. Besides valuable equipment and large stocks of tin cans, this “largest industrial building of its kind in the interior” also had its own electric lighting plant. It had been taken over by the B.C. government following finance companies’ mortgage foreclosure. It was insured.

Another jam factory was constructed in Grand Forks in 1935. It was also destroyed by terrorists in the same year, bringing a loss of $75,000.

The CCUB has been replaced by the Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ as the major Doukhobor organization. It was organized by Peter Chistiakov Verigin in 1938.

 

For More Information

For more information on the Doukhobors’ Kootenay-Columbia Preserving Works jam enterprise in Nelson, British Columbia, see the article, The Doukhobor Jam Factory in Nelson, British Columbia by Greg Nesteroff.

Doukhobors in the Boundary

by Vera Novokshonoff, Lucy Reibin & Marion Obedkoff

Woven into the fabric that is Grand Forks are many different nationalities, and, with their personalities, their skills and their culture, they have enhanced “the Boundary” and given to this city a character all its own. Of all these nationalities, the Doukhobors, by their very numbers and distinctive culture have had a more profound effect on the character and life of the community than any other group. The following article by Vera Novokshonoff (Kanigan), Lucy Reibin (Plotnikoff) and Marion Obedkoff (Grummett) outlines the history and settlement of the Doukhobors at Grand Forks in the Boundary region of British Columbia. Reproduced by permission from Boundary Historical Society, Report Nos. 3 and 4, 1964.

Historical Background

The Doukhobors comprise a large percentage of the population in the Boundary District. A religious sect of Russian origin, their history dates back some 300 years. Encyclopedia Britannica has this to say of their religious background:

“The name Doukhobor was given by the Russian Orthodox clergy to a community of non-conformist peasants. The word signifies “spirit-fighters” and was intended by the priesthood to convey that they fight against the Spirit of God, but the Doukhobors themselves accepted it as signifying that they fight, not against, but for and with the Spirit. The foundation of the Doukhobors’ teaching consists in the belief that the Spirit of God is present in the soul of man, and directs him by its word within him. They understand the coming of Christ in the flesh, His works, teaching and sufferings, in a spiritual sense. The whole teaching of the Doukhobors’ is penetrated with the Gospel spirit of love; worshipping God in the spirit, they affirm that the outward Church and all that is performed in it and concerns it has no importance for them; the Church is where two or three are gathered gather, i.e. united in the name of Christ.”

“They hold all people equal and brethren. Obedience to Government authorities they do not consider binding upon them in those cases when the demands of the authorities are in conflict with their conscience; while in all that not infringe what they regard as the will of God they willingly fulfill. They consider killing, violence and in general all relations to living beings not based on love as opposed to their conscience and to the will of God. They are industrious and abstemious in their lives, and living up to the standard of their faith present one of the nearest approaches to the realization of the Christian ideal which has been attained. In many ways they have a close resemblance to the Quakers.”

Their renunciation of rituals of the Russian Orthodox Church, as worshipping man-made images or ikons brought upon them persecution by Church and state in Tsarist Russia. This was intensified by their refusal of military service. Influential humanitarians, particularly the famous writer Tolstoy and the Society of Friends in England interceded in their behalf, and arrangements were finally made and some 7500 Doukhobor immigrants came to Canada in 1899, settling in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

Group of Doukhobor immigrants aboard the SS Lake Superior, 1899. British Columbia Archives E-07233.

Subsequently, a majority of them refused to comply with the swearing of the oath of allegiance under the Homestead Act, and lost their lands which they had worked on. These were taken away from them. They then decided to move to move to British Columbia, where by purchasing land, instead of accepting grants, they avoided the necessity of swearing to swear the oath of allegiance. They settled predominantly in the West Kootenay and Boundary Districts.

Arrival in Grand Forks

Land was purchased in 1909 by their leader Peter Lordly Verigin. John Sherbinin, Sr., who in later years established Boundary Sawmills Ltd., was his interpreter at the time. John Sherbinin learned the English language in Swan River, Manitoba where he worked in a store the year these people came into Canada. Another associate during the purchasing was Nick S. Zeboroff.

The purchases consisted of the Coryell Ranch (the site of the Brick Yard) from the Coryell family; Murray Creek (presently Outlook) which was open range; the Vaughan Ranch (at the foot of Spencer Hill) from the Vaughans; 4th of July Creek (Spencer) from Hoffman; and the Collins place from H. W. Collins. This involved a total of 4,182 acres.

In March 1909, 12 men came over to Grand Forks by train, with two women accompanying to cook for them. These people amongst the Doukhobors were known as postniki, ones who wished to be abstemious to the point of not eating butter to eliminate the necessity of keeping cows, which would lead to having to sell calves for butchering.

The first group managed to house themselves in rough dwellings that were on the property. Until the warm weather opened up, they were occupied cleaning things up on the place. Another group of 14 came in April.

Industries

They put up a small sawmill just below the site of the present Doukhobor cemetery, and started to produce rough lumber (there was no planer) for the construction of their communal dwellings. Later, when a factory was established a brick siding was put on these buildings.

Logs were cut in the vicinity and were brought to the mill on horse-drawn dollies. In the winter sleighs replaced the dollies. Soon as the supply of logs was exhausted on the place, the sawmill would be moved to another suitable location. William Fofonoff was the sawyer; Alex A. Wishloff, the engineer and Philip P. Stoochnoff, the fireman.

Orchards

The same year, spring of 1909, they planted fruit trees – apples, pears, Italian prunes, cherries, and other plants, such as currants, gooseberries, raspberries, etc. George C. Zebroff and Andrew J. Gritchen were in charge of the orchards. The wives and families of the men-folk came over in the summer of 1909, to join in the communal effort.

Brick Plant

Production of bricks began the same year (1909) beside the clay pit where the Coryells had run a small plant. The same crude machinery was used. Horses supplied the power to turn the clay mixer. Bricks one at a time, were taken by hand and put in rows to dry, which took two weeks. They were put in a pile leaving air space between each brick, old bricks piled around them and covered with clay so there would be no air space. A big fire was built on both sides to burn until the bricks got red hot. Air was let in from the top to make the fire burn stronger. This went on for about a month and had to be under constant watch to make sure the fire did not get too hot for the bricks to melt, nor too cold for them to turn black. After this process, the bricks were put under a roof for further drying.

Doukhobor community brick factory at Grand Forks, BC, circa 1920. British Columbia Archives C-01714.

As early as 1910, the workers produced 22 to 24 thousand bricks a day. Even at that slow pace, 2 million bricks were produced during the summer. William Razinkin was the original man in charge. Later on, Mike Demoskoff and John Gritchen were prominent in the making of bricks. In time, machinery replaced horse-power, and the operation was put on a more efficient and productive basis. Bricks from the plant were widely sold. Their good quality established a wide and well known reputation.

Flour Mill

The Flour Mill was put up in 1910, with two men handling its operation. Wheat, grown in the valley, was brought to the mill and milled by grinding on a large stone without refining or discarding anything in the process. Bread made of this flour was dark, but very healthy. William Fofonoff (the original sawyer) was the miller, later replaced by his brother Peter. In 1917-18 production of linseed oil was started at the flour mill. This became a favourite product with the Doukhobor people. They were and still are particularly fond of using it with sauerkraut.

Development

The work of the first settlers that came in 1909-10 was to prepare living quarters and other primary facilities for those that were to follow. The lumber produced by the first sawmill was used in building communal dwellings, the first of which was built in 1910 near the site of the Flour Mill just below the present Doukhobor cemetery at Sion, formerly known as Fruktova.

Also in 1909, work was started on building an irrigation pipeline. A trench 2 to 3 feet deep was dug from First of July Creek to Sion following a line above the roadbed of the Great Northern Railway, and pipes were laid extending for about 2 miles to bring water to the newly planted orchards and gardens. A few years later when the Great Northern dismantled the railway track, the pipes were relocated to follow the road bed and enlarged to 6 inches in diameter to carry more water. Later another pipeline was built to supply homes with drinking water, taken from a creek running halfway up the mountain at Sion. Water was also piped at the Outlook settlement for drinking as well as for irrigation purposes.

In 1911-12 there followed more Doukhobor settlers with their families, so that by 1913 there were approximately 1000 souls living in the vicinity of Grand Forks.

With more people, the work of development progressed more rapidly. In those years there were built approximately 24 large communal dwellings by the newcomers. At the same time, the planted trees started to bear fruit, so that besides supplying the local needs, fruit was also shipped to other markets. A fruit packing plant was built in 1920. In those years a total of 120 to 130 carloads of fruit – apples, pears, prunes, etc. were shipped annually to outside markets, as well as some berries such as strawberries, black currants, raspberries, etc.

Doukhobor community blacksmith, Grand Forks, BC, circa 1920. British Columbia Archives C-01735.

The lumbering industry also expanded, sawmill operations were extended, tracts of timber stands taken and worked, so that about half of the men were employed in the lumbering industry. At that time most of the heavy work such as plowing and cultivating the land was done by horses, for which purpose every communal village had a team of excellent work horses, hay and feed for which were grown on communal lands.

Altogether the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood Ltd., to which the first Doukhobor settlers belonged, notwithstanding the fact that they lost their lands in Saskatchewan and had to go heavily into debt to buy land and other necessities, by dint of hard work and frugal living had built a thriving economy in the first two score years of life in Grand Forks, which continued to grow and increase in value.

It was still growing when in 1935 a canning factory was built to process tomatoes and other small fruits such as strawberries and raspberries. Unfortunately, this factory was burned down in the same year. Then came years of economic depression, starting in 1929 and continuing for a decade which had a serious effect on the economy and which was one of the reasons that brought the foreclosure on the mortgages held by financial companies, The Sun Life Assurance Co. and The National Trust Co. and the subsequent buying of the land by the Government of British Columbia to prevent mass evictions.

We deem it proper to return back and look on some other facets of Doukhobor life.

Communal Way of Life

At the head was the central administration under the leadership of Peter Lordly Verigin. The people were split up into villages represented by the large apartment-like houses, where from about 35 to 40 members resided. Each village operated separately, with particular tasks assigned to its members. Where necessary, the men were sent out to earn money outside the community, while the rest including the older folk, women and children had to do the work at home. In charge of each village was an appointed “Elder.” All the members contributed to the community according to their capacity, and were doled out equal portions according to their needs. In other words, you put into the community what you earned or produced, and received in equal measure with the rest of the members, what you required. Concentration was on a pure and simple life, without luxuries.

A policy of austerity was in effect both for spiritual and economic reasons. During the wartime in 1914, children were not fed any bread and ate a thick noodle soup instead. The rest of the folk were on a frugal diet of mamalyha made of beans, peas and wheat cooked together. At the time the Community had food in abundance, but it was not indulged in out of compassion for the suffering by the rest of the world.

Housing

A regular .pattern persisted in the building of homes. The main floor of the two storey brick houses contained the large communal kitchen and social centre or living room; the bedrooms were upstairs. In the kitchen, a long table or two stood alongside the windows with a special table for the children. The stove was in about the centre of the room, and there would also be a brick Dutch oven. The living room was used for occasions like a marriage, prayer meetings, singing group, a funeral or for visitors. Adjacent to the large brick house, there was a U-shaped unit of one floor rooms. These provided room for the older folk to sleep in, as well as washing and storage facilities.

Doukhobor community home, Grand Forks, BC. British Columbia Archives C-01729.

Meals

For each large communal house, two women, interchanging weekly had to do the cooking, and the baking of the large round loaves of bread in the Dutch oven. Children ate at a separate table from the adults. Four persons ate out of the same bowl using wooden spoons. This may sound unsanitary, but the fact remains that in those years there were few illnesses among the people and they were very healthy.

After everyone sat down at the table, a hymn would be sung. After saying grace, everyone would eat quietly, without making a racket with the utensils or idle chatter.

The most well-known Doukhobor dish is borshch – a type of vegetable soup. Other dishes were rice soup; cereal made from wheat; cooked halooshki, (dumplings in soup); blintsi (a sort of pancake); vinigret (a salad of beets, apples, beans, dilled cucumbers and sauerkraut); kvas (grated cucumbers and green onions thinned with water); vegetables and fruit. Tomatoes and cucumbers (as well as cabbage for sauerkraut) were salted in big crocks for winter use. Bread was dried, (like crumpets) for eating with rice soup. The main beverage was a fruit juice made from dried apples, prunes and other fruit.

Prayer Meetings

Prayer meetings in the early years were held early in the morning (before breakfast) on Sundays, as well as on some other days. It was the custom then to attend prayer meetings attired in homemade linen clothes, and in the summer months barefoot. Persons entering the meeting greeted the congregation with the words: “Glory to God!” To which those gathered replied: “We glorify and thank God for His grace!” At the meeting the women stood on the right side and the men on the left; in the center between them stood a table on which bread, salt and water was placed. Each person recited a psalm standing before the table. After recitations three psalms were sung and the Lord’s Prayer was said, the end of which all present bowed touching the ground, and said that they bow to God, His Son, Christ and the Holy Ghost. There followed the singing of hymns and discussion on any important matter that happened to come up.

In later years with the coming of Peter P. Chistiakov Verigin, the form of the prayer meeting reverted back to that practiced by Doukhobors in Russia in times past, as follows: On entering the meeting hall, a person greeted those present with the words “Glorious God is praised”, and the congregation answered: “Great is the name of the Lord and His glory is throughout the world.” Some of the men, women as well as children recited psalms, after which the congregation sang psalms at which time the second man in the first row came up to the first man, they clasped each other’s hand and bowed to each other two times, then kissed each other and bowed once more, then the second man turned and bowed to the women and they bowed in reply. After a number of men performed this ritual, which denoted their reverence for the spirit of the divine life that is part of man, their forgiveness and love for each other, the women performed the same ritual of reverent bowing. This being accomplished, a man stepped out near the table and recited the Lord’s Prayer, at the conclusion of which he said: “Here we kneel in reverence to Father, Son and the Holy Ghost,” and the congregation bowed to the ground. The reciter then said: “Christ has arisen,” and the congregation answered: “In Truth He has arisen.” The second time they bowed to the ground they said: “Eternal memory to Witnesses of Truth.” The third time they bowed saying: “God grant the living good health, forgive us and strengthen us in Your ways.” After this a few hymns were sung and time was devoted to discussions on matters of social and spiritual significance.

Weddings

When a young couple decided to get married, the boy, along with his parents, went to the girl’s house to ask her parents for the hand of their daughter.

In the ceremony that followed, everyone read prayers and then someone would read the Lord’s Prayer. The parents gave the couple their blessing and wished them luck. Then the couple kissed both his and her parents and bowed to their feet.

Doukhobor women haying on community land, Grand Forks, BC, circa 1920. British Columbia Archives C-01721.

The wedding took place two or three days later, for there were no engagement parties or rings given. The bride gathered her belongings together with the bedding and tied them up in a bundle (there were no hope chests at that time).

On the wedding day, the groom, along with his parents, went on a horse and buggy after the bride and her parents. When they arrived at the groom’s place, everyone exchanged greetings and wished the couple luck. Only the 30 to 40 members who lived in the big house, where the lived, attended the wedding. The food served was the same as a Sunday dinner. There was borshchplove, and atvar (a beverage made out of fruit). The clothes which the bride and groom wore were their best Sunday clothes.

Funerals

The dead were not taken to a mortician but were bathed and dressed at home. The coffin was also made at home. People came during the daytime as well as in the evening to share the grief with the mourning family. Prayers and psalms were sung in honour of the dead person. There were no dinner lunches served as there are now.

The dead were buried two and a half days after they died. On the next day the family and close relatives went to the grave to pay their respects to the dead. They sang hymns and other songs.

After a period of six weeks, the friends and relatives gathered once more at the grave in memory of the dead person. Once again they read prayers sang hymns. This ritual was repeated after a year was up.

Education

No special outfits were worn by the children when they went to school. Both boys and girls up to twelve years of age wore a dress-like garment. They wore no shoes and had nothing on their heads. The school age was limited to the age of 12 years, so very few children went to school; mostly boys.

Each district had a school to which the children had to walk. During the winter months, the children were taken on sledges pulled by horses.

The children were taught reading, writing, grammar and some arithmetic. They only went as far as grade five or six. Due to the fact that the children were always speaking Russian, and often had to stay away from school in order to help at home, their progress in English school was quite slow.

One of the first schools called “Carson School” was built close to where the Hill View Store is presently located. Later there was a school built at Fruktova.

At home the children were taught to read and write in Russian.

Skills and Crafts: The Process of Making Linen Cloth from Flax

The flax seeds were planted very closely together, in the Spring time. When the seeds were ripe, the whole plant was pulled out and tied into bundles. These bundles were set upright, in the sunny fields, so that they would dry thoroughly. Wooden clubs were used to thresh the flax so that all the seeds fell out.

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

The stocks were then soaked in water for about two weeks. When the stocks were saturated with water, they were put into bundles and once again dried in the sun. Then, the stocks were put into a block of wood (that had been hollowed out), and were threshed by a large wooden hammer to soften the cellulose. They were then put through home-made combs dividing the stock into thin fibres (by now, all the waste materials had fallen off). The thin fibres were put through a spinning wheel and put tightly on a wooden roll. After the yarn was taken off the wooden roll, it was put into a solution of hot water and flax seed in order to make the yarn slippery. It was wrung, pounded and hung out to dry. When it was dry, the yarns were separated and put on a home-made machine for weaving. There were about 30 yards in one weaving. The cloth was then ready for bleaching.

White ash (taken from burnt weeds and sunflower stems) was gathered and put into boiling water. After this solution stood for a while, it was strained through a canvas sheet. The cloth was placed in that solution and stayed there for two days. A thorough washing was given to the cloth after it was taken out of the solution; and it was placed in the sun to dry. When the cloth had dried, it was placed on a wooden roller used for ironing, and pounded with a flat stick which resembled a scrub board. Then the cloth was ready to be used for sewing.

After the sheep had been sheared, the wool was washed, dried and combed with home-made combs. It was then spun into a yarn on a spinning wheel. The yarn was placed in a paste made out of hot water and flour. After the yarn was dried, it was put on a home-made weaving machine. The cloth was washed with soap and water in a process of preshrinking. It could be dyed with different colours. The woolen yarn was also used to knit stockings, mittens and sweaters.

Other Skills and Handicrafts

The women busied themselves with other handicrafts such as embroidering, and crocheting various pieces. The men carved wooden spoons, salt and pepper shakers and various pieces of furniture. They also made spinning wheels as well as different of machines for weaving cloth. Harnesses were made out of leather, which was bought in bulk. There were shoemakers who made fine quality shoe of leather.

Conclusion

It seems proper to note that in October of 1924 the Doukhobor Community was bereaved by the tragic loss of Peter Lordly Verigin, who was killed in a deliberately set explosion of a passenger car in a C.P.R. train while on his way from Brilliant to Grand Forks. The explosion occurred just after the train left the station at Farron, B.C. He was an outstanding personality and gave leadership in the spiritual as well as the economic life of the Community, which deeply felt the loss of their revered leader. His place as the leader of the Doukhobors was taken by his son, Peter P. Chistiakov Verigin, who came to Canada in October, 1927 and who died in February, 1939.

Doukhobor farm near Grand Forks, BC, circa 1930. British Columbia Archives C-02659.

After it became evident that the lands and property of the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood would be foreclosed by the companies holding mortgages, he re-organized the Community under the new name of the Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ, to which belong most of the Doukhobors living at present in Grand Forks. The name of Peter Petrovich Chistiakov Verigin is still revered by his followers.

The members of the Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ, while living on an individual basis are still favour of establishing a communal or co-operative way of life. At the present time, they have in Grand Forks a large cooperative store and a service garage under the name of Sunshine Valley Co-op Society.

This brings to a close this short summary of the history of the Doukhobor people in the Grand Forks and Boundary area.

View Grand Forks, British Columbia Doukhobor Villages, 1909-1939 in a larger map

The Doukhobors’ Place in Canadian History

by Andrei Bondoreff

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

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

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

Crowd of Doukhobors first set foot on Canadian soil, 1899

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

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

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

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

Doukhobor women pulling plow on Canadian prairies, c. 1899

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doukhobor workers in boiler room, CCUB factory.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mounted Police and the Doukhobors in Saskatchewan, 1899-1909

by Carl Betke

With the arrival of the Doukhobors on the Canadian Prairies, the North West Mounted Police were assigned to assist the immigrant settlers in adjusting to their new environment. In doing so, they were expected to demonstrate tolerance towards the settlers’ diverse habits so long as they proved to be successful agricultural producers. In documenting Mounted Police confrontations with the Doukhobors during their first decade in Canada, from 1899 to 1909, historian Carl Betke demonstrates that the disruptive activities of a minority of the Doukhobor immigrants were handled very gently by the force in order to assure the agricultural production of a massive number of effective farmers. Reproduced by permission from Saskatchewan History (27, 1974, No. 1).

After the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885, settlement in the prairie lands of western Canada increased gradually and the Indian and Metis population came to be regarded as a lessening threat to agricultural development. In the Canadian House of Commons critics of the government began to insist on reductions in the size of the North West Mounted Police force. In answer Sir John A. Macdonald, though he admitted that the previous principal purpose of the force, “to protect the few struggling settlers who were going in there from Indian outrages,” might now have ceased to exist, contended that the police were still required to keep the peace. He alluded to the influx from below the border of “people with all kinds of habits” including raiding, stealing of cattle and smuggling of liquor. His listeners, however, were not long satisfied, for what sort of advertisement was Macdonald’s description for intending immigrants? Every increase in western immigration and settlement ought to reduce the need for a special police force.

Full dress mounted parade by members of the North-West Mounted Police, Calgary, Alberta, c. 1901. Library and Archives Canada PA-202180.

Some reductions were made in the size of the force but, even before the accession of the Laurier government, a new justification of the North West Mounted Police was developed. From the early 1890’s until the advent of the first World War, supporters of the force argued that increasing settlement required greater distribution of the police to perform new services for the struggling pioneers. Besides protecting property and watching the normally docile Indians, the police were now required to take responsibilities for prairie fire prevention and suppression, quarantine enforcement during times of epidemic and quarantine enforcement at the border to prevent the spread of contagious animal diseases. As the North West Mounted Police Comptroller at Ottawa, Fred White, remarked in 1903, ” ‘Police’ is almost a misnomer . . .” But, White assured Laurier, should their services be administered separately by the different government departments, not only would the cost rise but the country would be deprived of the presence of a disciplined force ready for instant mobilization.

Importance was now attached to those police duties which increased the “comfort and security of the settler” who was unaccustomed to the pioneer life and required not only information but also assistance, even to find stray animals. The police often provided relief to destitute farmers or those overcome by winter conditions. New patrol procedures initiated in the late 1880’s, while intended to prevent crime by circulating police officers visibly throughout the countryside, were in fact used to watch over a remarkable range of pioneer activity:

In each District a number of small Detachments are placed at convenient points, each, immediately under a non-Commissioned Officer, or senior Constable. These detachments patrol all the time, and carry patrol slips with remark columns, which are signed by all the settlers they call upon, and every week each of these detachments send in their slips, with a report on the state of the country, crops, crime, settlers coming in and stock they bring, disease, if any, among stock; Indians seen, etc., etc…

The police often encountered the immigrants as early as at their first disembarkation from the train: the police would even sometimes drive them “over the most desirable districts for settlement,” providing not only transport but also “cooking utensils, and giving advice and information.” In special cases the police were asked to supply transportation to foreign immigration promoters: one Berliner was driven “to see the German colonists near Regina, who have made the best progress in farming, as he proposes to take letters from them to further his work in Europe.” Once settlers were established countless police reports on their progress were submitted to the offices of the Commissioner and the Comptroller, for referral to the appropriate officials should action seem necessary.

Instructions to patrolmen emphasized that reports should include fairly detailed information about the agricultural progress of the settlers but they did not normally require comment about the ethnic background of the settlers. Among patrolmen it was common, nevertheless, to identify ethnic groups in reports, so that the relative suitability of different groups was thus incidentally compared. One report, for example, stated that:

the majority of the settlers who are in reduced circumstances are Austria-Hungarians, Bulgarians, Romanians and Russian-Germans from the Black Sea District, but few of whom appear to have brought a single dollar with them into the Country. With the British and German settlers it is otherwise.

While the British, American, Scandinavian and German settlers were generally believed superior acquisitions, other groups distinguished themselves with the police by their unacceptable behaviour. In police reports it is difficult clearly to distinguish personal antipathies to “foreign” elements from legitimate careful judgments of the limits of their agricultural suitability. Ultimately, however, the most important criterion of a settler’s merit was the measure of his self-sufficiency and prosperity, despite any patrolman’s private feelings about a group. So, for example, early doubtful expressions about the desirability of the “unclean” Galician settlers were eventually replaced by grudging approval of their productive success. In fact the police were often called upon to produce reports to counteract sweeping condemnations levelled at the “Galicians” by fellow settlers. Similarly, a distaste for allegedly isolationist habits among Mennonites was overridden by evidence of obvious agricultural ability. On the other hand, disapproval (sometimes accompanied by overtones of personal prejudice) of certain Belgian, French and Jewish colonies in police reports was never reversed, at least in part because those colonies quickly proved to be economic failures.

In only two outstanding cases did alien habits threaten to overshadow productive expertise in importance. In the Mormon example, police attention to the settlers’ supposed polygamous propensities was discontinued in order that Canada might reap the benefits of their irrigation experiments; in the Doukhobor example, the Canadian government waited in vain for disturbances to subside, repeatedly pointing out their remarkable farming progress. In these situations, in which the police sense of outrage was not matched by that of the government, we see most clearly that the police were meant to minimize alien social variables while maximizing agricultural expertise in their evaluations of immigrants. They were to assist the settlers in adjusting to the new environment.

A constable of the North-West Mounted Police, c. 1890. Library and Archives Canada PA-122660.

By describing a most extreme case, the following account of Mounted Police confrontations with Doukhobors in Saskatchewan illustrates the tolerance with which settlers of diverse habits were treated as long as the majority proved to be successful farm producers. One must keep in mind that Doukhobor demonstrations never involved a majority of the Doukhobor settlers and that, as a rule, the demonstrators did not employ violent tactics. The police were not, that is to say, confronted with anything like a Doukhobor “uprising”. It is remarkable, nevertheless, that despite some animosity on the part of neighbouring settlers and despite the limits to which police patience was occasionally driven, the demonstrators received exceptionally benign treatment. Much more serious aberrations would have to have been displayed to undermine the Canadian government’s determination to fill the west with good farmers.

Doukhobor immigrants to the North-West Territories began arriving at Winnipeg on January 27, 1899; by September, 7,427 Doukhobors had entered the area. 1,472 of them shortly established themselves on the North Saskatchewan river west of Carlton near Battleford; 1,404 settled in the “Thunder Hill” or “North” colony on the border of Manitoba and the Territories, and the largest group, some 4,478, located in the vicinity of Yorkton. Occasionally the North West Mounted Police would refer to members of the last group as “Cyprus” Doukhobors because about a quarter of them had been temporarily situated in Cyprus. Canadian officials had accepted from Russia’s Count Tolstoy and other Russian and English patrons recommendations of the moral uprightness and agricultural ability of the “Russian Quakers”. Upon their arrival even their appearance fostered great expectations:

. . . their fine physical appearance . . . coupled with the not less important fact that they are skillful agriculturalists, thrifty and moral in character, affords good grounds for congratulations to those who have been instrumental in their coming to this country, especially when it is considered that this has been brought about without incurring any expenditure of public moneys, other than about the amount usually paid in the form of bonuses for continental emigrants.

The police found much to admire in the Doukhobor pioneer operations. They showed unique skills in breaking horses, constructing ovens of “home-made sun-dried bricks” and building clean and sturdy though dark houses and stables of sod, mud and logs. They were orderly, quiet, well-organized, “patient, industrious and self-supporting;” the women proved equal to the men in strength and skill at manual labour and attended to household duties besides. From the Yorkton area nearly seven hundred Doukhobor men left to work for wages during the first summer, principally at railway construction. Some of the women supplemented their income as domestic servants. It was true that the police learned of one case of collective “indecent exposure”, that many were slow to depart from their vegetarian principles and that “their communistic way” would prevent them from quickly assimilating Canadian customs, but no objections had been noticed to the announcements which the police made to various Doukhobor assemblies about the ordinances relating to prairie fires, game regulations, registration of births and deaths and control of contagious diseases. The signs in general were of peaceful and successful adaptation to western Canadian life. The greatest excitement was provided by the efforts of California land agents and speculators to lure several hundred Doukhobor families to California, efforts vigorously and successfully resisted by Canadian Immigration officials. They were not willing to give up so easily a people as productive as the Doukhobors were showing themselves to be.

Doukhobor family, Saskatchewan, c. 1903. Glenbow Archives NA-2878-15

But it soon became evident that not all of the Doukhobors were happy with the laws requiring individual registration of land holdings and registration of the births, marriages and deaths among their people. These requirements evidently violated an ingrained Doukhobor tradition to submit to no human authority. The federal government officials, according to one recent analysis, had three alternatives open to them: they might immediately have insisted on total compliance with the laws (but the cause of the “Russian Quakers” was popular abroad and, to a degree, in Canada), or they might have effected a clear special set of compromises with the laws for the Doukhobors. Instead, they elected to follow a third course, evading the issue and hoping that the conflicting demands of the Doukhobors and the State would work themselves out without any irrevocable government intercession. Officials were optimistic “that as they come to appreciate the benefits of Canadian laws and customs, the prejudice will gradually disappear, and they will gladly comply with the requirements of the government. ” It was a plausible course of inaction, but it left the Mounted Police to oversee the “gradual” but turbulent transition stage. There was no set strategy for such an operation and Christen Junget (later Assistant Commissioner Junget), the North West Mounted Police Commanding Officer at Yorkton in those years, recalled in his retirement that Mounted Police policy with respect to the troublesome Doukhobors in his district amounted to the single catchphrase: “Leave it for Junget.”

Some remarks of Clifford Sifton, Minister of the Interior, illustrate the ambiguity of the police role in relation to the Doukhobors. On February 15, 1902 two delegates from the Thunder Hill colony presented to Sifton the Doukhobor claims for communal exemption from registration of land tenure, births, deaths and marriages. In the manner of a teacher setting school boys straight, Sifton suggested that if the Doukhobors would simply get on with registering their homesteads individually they would be permitted to live and work together in village communities and would not be compelled to fulfill homestead requirements individually. Aside from that concession, though, Canadian laws (which, Sifton was sure, had proven universally beneficial) would be “carried out in every case without fear” by “the strong hand of the law which protects you and your families from danger . . .” Of course, the Doukhobors were to rest assured that the officials of his department would “willingly do no injury to your conscience or your principles.” Perhaps this position, which required the police to be simultaneously not only the “strong hand of the law” but also sympathetic to unique Doukhobor principles, justified the police in referring to the Doukhobors as “Sifton’s pets”.

A massive Doukhobor demonstration took place in the fall of 1902. The recruits, most of whom came from the villages just to the north of Yorkton, undertook a somewhat undirected march. This phenomenon has been attributed to a combination of factors arising from the adjustments necessary for the Doukhobors to live in this new setting and from the erratic leadership of Peter Verigin. In the first place, the pressure to have the Doukhobors register their land individually exacerbated divisions within the Doukhobor communities. Those inclined to obey the law were joined, in the eyes of zealous traditionalists, with those heretics who had worked on the railways and adopted other such non-Doukhobor habits as wearing “English” clothes and eating meat. In addition, though, the entrenchment of the traditionalists were strengthened by their desire to please Peter Verigin upon his expected imminent arrival among them: Verigin had been sending fancifully philosophical letters condemning the use of cattle in such a paradise of easily cultivated vegetation and speculating about the benefit to the brain of “solar heat” in some haven “near the sun.” Thus, mystical Doukhobor claims to be searching for this kind of hot paradise during their marches were joined to that desire of some to embarrass the government and force concessions to their demands on the issues of land and personal registration.

At first Corporal Junget registered some alarm. On October 22, 1902 he reported that there had recently been considerable missionary movement amongst them. From the Kamsack and Assiniboine villages they have walked in bands of several hundred (men and women) visiting other villages holding meetings and trying to make converts to their very extreme and somewhat dangerous views.

Doukhobor pilgrims leaving Yorkton to evangelize the world, 1902.  Note the mounted escort of N.W.M.P. special constables in the upper left foreground. Library and Archives Canada C014077.

But the march was soon recognized to be non-violent and Junget’s concern changed:

. . . the Doukhobors themselves are quite harmless, but they carry no provisions with them whatever, and their number increasing every day, it will be impossible for them to find shelter and food in the villages they go through, and no doubt many of the women and children will perish if a snow storm sets in. I have reported the above to the different officials of the Department of Interior up here …

North West Mounted Police Commissioner Perry detailed Inspectors D’A. E. Strickland and J. 0. Wilson with a party of men to afford protection to settlers along the Doukhobors’ way if the need should arise and to give any assistance Interior Department officials might ask. When the marchers reached Yorkton on October 28 the enormity of the situation appalled Junget: there were about 1,800 of these “Doukhobors seized by religious mania” for whom shelter had to be found and special guards posted to prevent disturbances in the town. The “pilgrims” were judged “peaceful and law-abiding” but “the immediate assistance of three or four constables is required to assist Dominion officials in their treatment of the people and for patrolling of abandoned villages” to “protect property.” Perry sent the desired four constables and wired Comptroller White in Ottawa for instructions, but was advised only to continue assistance to the Immigration officials.’ Colonization Agent C. W. Speers posted a “public notice” warning that all persons interfering with or appropriating any property of the marching Doukhobors “without legal right” or without giving notice to Inspector Strickland or his officer in charge would be prosecuted according to the law.

Efforts to disperse the missionaries back to their villages failed; the Doukhobors determined on October 29 to push on in a south-easterly direction. On November 2 Speers asked Inspector Strickland for a police escort to accompany the “pilgrims” in order “to prevent any inconvenience or annoyance to the other inhabitants of the Country, and avoid as far as possible, any breach of the Peace or collision which would be likely to result in violence.” On November 4 an officer and twenty non-commissioned officers and constables were placed under instructions from the Superintendent of Immigration, Frank Pedley. As this force travelled to catch up with the marching Doukhobors, a comical incident illustrated the extent to which the Department of the Interior (and, therefore, the police) were willing to take care of the stubborn “fanatics”. “We came to Birtle, Manitoba,” recalled Junget later,

and we heard that they were short of diapers. 1 told Jim Spalding to go to the departmental store and buy up a lot. And he blew up: “I didn’t join the Force to buy diapers for Doukhobors!”

Nevertheless, the diapers had to be obtained: Junget bought them himself.

Wintry conditions were setting in; it was decided the zealots should be stalled at Minnedosa, Manitoba, then returned to Yorkton and thence to their homes. At noon on Sunday, November 9 the wanderers were located in the Minnedosa rink with a Mounted Police guard at the door. At 5:00 p.m. a special train arrived to take them back to Yorkton but, upon leaving the rink, some 200 of the Doukhobors seemed determined to resume once more their eastward journey. Inspector Wilson’s report indicated only that “a few of the leaders” offered resistance “and had to be carried. About one hundred would get in a bunch and lock their arms and then bunches had to be broken up. which took considerable time.” The Yorkton Enterprise, however, provided a more graphic description: after the Doukhobors’ way had been blocked by the townspeople,

Agent Speers grabbed a fussy pilgrim by the arm and proceeded with him toward the cars, at the same time saying the others must follow. Some seemed inclined to do so, seeing which the spectators encouraged their wavering inclinations by vigorous means. Many of them, when seized by the arm, walked quietly to the cars, and were there received by the policemen in charge and placed in the cars. Others required vigorous application of Manitoba muscle, in the form of shoves and pushes, to make them at all inclined to obey the voice of authority. Others, resisting stubbornly all attempts to guide them in the desired direction, were unceremoniously downed by the more athletic of the spectators, and bodily carried to the train.

Once this minority was aboard, the others, who had remained in the rink observing the disturbance, resignedly followed and there were no further incidents during the train trip back to Yorkton. From Yorkton they were the next day escorted on their final foot journey to their villages; some had just thirty miles to walk, others as far as Swan River. The presence of crowds of spectators encouraged the Swan River men to hold back for a mile or two but they too soon followed the police lead, in fact developed a readiness to “do anything” for the police, as it was “snowing very hard and cold.” One escorting patrolman found it “very difficult to get information from the Doukhobors, as very few of them could or would speak English,” but they “all seemed to pay the greatest respect to the police, and at all times during the trip would do anything you told them to do.” Moreover, they were “a very clean people, their houses, stables, etc., being far ahead of the majority of settlers that I have seen in the country.”

The Doukhobor pilgrims carrying their helpless on their trek, 1902.  Library and Archives Canada C009784.

It subsequently became North West Mounted Police policy to “arrange for patrols to visit their [Doukhobor] villages occasionally, and keep an eye on them generally.” If pilgrimages occurred police were directed to assist Immigration officials “towards persuading these people to remain at their villages.” Coincidentally Peter Verigin’s impressive arrival at Yorkton in late December, 1902 convinced most officials that their troubles with the Doukhobors were at an end. Whether, as Junget originally thought, Verigin controlled and quieted the majority of the pilgrims, or the police patrols created the entire effect despite Verigin, in any case no further mass wanderings occurred. Instead the police were involved with fragmentary groups of two or three dozen demonstrators who began to develop some highly embarrassing tactics. The first report of nudity came at the end of November, 1902 from the Rosthern area in Battleford district. The Doukhobors in question were evidently naked at their own meetings, not particularly in revolt, but Commissioner Perry thought it opened “a very large question as to our treatment of the Doukhobors.” Clearly they were “not conforming to the laws of the country,” but Perry hesitated to enforce them without specific authority from the Interior Department, “as in all cases of infractions of the law it is on account of their religious belief.” No such specific instructions were forthcoming.

Soon the demonstrations and the nudity coincided; it is to be suspected that the curiosity and discomfiture with which certain police officers investigated meeting-house nudity simply demonstrated to the Doukhobors how effective public nudity might be. Enterprising newspaper and private photographers then increased the temptation by “offering inducements” to encourage Doukhobors to pose in a nude state. Heading off a march by a group of determined nudists took some ingenuity. One naive young constable in the Battleford district was forced to desperate measures:

I told a Doukhobor girl to tell the others that if they would stop and not march, but get their picture taken I would send it to the papers. They stopped and asked me to stand alongside of them. I told the photographer not to show the photograph or plate to anybody until I had seen it. … It was my intention to destroy the plate. …

Needless to say, his trust in the photographer was misplaced: information about the circulation of a photograph of nude Doukhobors flanked by a strapping North West Mounted Police constable reached Inspector Parker at Saskatoon by way of a Toronto Globe reporter who saw a copy in Moose Jaw. Constable Melanson was found guilty of disgraceful conduct, fined $5.00 and sentenced to one month’s imprisonment with hard labour. Two weeks later the Commissioner was still sending out confidential letters trying to retrieve circulating copies of that photograph.

Punishment of nude pilgrims refusing to be dispersed to their homes was never very effective. They would be charged under the Vagrancy Act for indecent exposure and incarcerated in the Regina jail for several months. In jail, however, they were no less uncooperative than outside, refusing to eat regularly, carrying vegetarianism to the extremes of eating grass and refusing to work. Sifton believed it useless to flog them or to apply other normal disciplinary measures; surely a period of time on a frugal diet of bread and water with minimal special attention would bring them around. Rather than to free them all at the same time, the policy was to release them in “batches”.

By 1905 the Interior Department concluded that the Doukhobors had been in the country too long to remain in the position of special wards of the government; the Deputy Minister announced that henceforth they should be treated “exactly as other members of the community.” The police took that to mean much more harshly than previously and were delighted to see a Yorkton magistrate recommend that the men in a marching party apprehended in August, 1905 should be committed to Brandon Asylum. Unfortunately the North West Territorial Government refused to send the men to the Asylum, doubting that they were in fact insane. The police expressed disappointment: “if we are permitted to deal with them with a firm hand,” thought Comptroller White, “they will soon become reconciled to obedience to the laws of the country.”

But Junget did not consider this occasional restlessness “to be any trouble compared with what may arise between the Community and Non-Community Doukhobors,” that is, between those who wished to keep to the traditional communal style of life and those who wished to register their own homesteads. By February, 1905 Junget had lost all faith in Peter Verigin; he now believed Verigin’s influence to be instrumental in inciting dedicated “Community” Doukhobors to intimidate and even occasionally to assault prospective independent Doukhobor settlers, particularly in the northern villages near the Swan River. The police strength in Yorkton sub-district was increased to permit a strong detachment at Kamsack for constant patrol of the troubled area, evidently with good calming effect. The most worrisome villages were those near Fort Pelly, where the police kept anxious watch in order to try to prevent recurring incidence of “Community” Doukhobors taking forceable possession of or burning down the houses of “Independent” Doukhobors.

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

In April, 1906 the Interior Department inaugurated special investigations in areas of Doukhobor concentration of “unpatented homesteads entered for prior to September 1, 1905.” The purpose was to have all entries of Doukhobors in the community cancelled and then to ask the displaced Doukhobors to indicate their intention to become British subjects and conduct semi-regular homestead operations. If they did not re-enter the homesteads before May 1, 1907 they were to be placed on “reserves” of fifteen acres of land per occupant, the vacated lands to be opened for homestead application. Communities on non-registered land were no longer to be tolerated; the new Minister of the Interior, Frank Oliver, wanted them treated as any other squatters, to be served notices to vacate by the police. This news alone caused great excitement in the Fort Pelly area in early 1907; the tension was increased by orders to the police to put an end to the traditional illegal cutting of timber in that area and to seize the timber already cut. Further confusing the Doukhobors, Verigin had left them to their own devices since late 1906. The Fort Pelly police detachment expected another pilgrimage in the spring; Junget fretted that, as usual, “I presume we can do nothing with these people except watch their movements closely.” He worried that “the Doukhobor fanatics who have been repeatedly sent to prison from here” were once more gathering together, numbering near sixty in March. He would have liked to round up the leaders and have them “given the limit under the vagrancy act,” but was permitted only to give his detachments orders “if it should come to the worst to have them shut up in some uninhabited village and placed under guard.”

Constable Ross, N.W.M.P. holds this crowd in Yorkton, Saskatchewan during the 1907 Doukhobor homestead rush. Library and Archives Canada PA-022246.

The police presence seems to have delayed the group’s journeys’ meanwhile Junget was occupied with the land rush which resulted from the opening of Doukhobor lands in May. He had “never experienced a meaner job,” he wrote, than that of preserving order in the struggle for position at the land office in Yorkton. Then there was the associated problem of removing resistant “squatter” Community Doukhobors near Yorkton, an operation also necessary to some extent in the Prince Albert district. No sooner were the difficulties of these transfers cleared away than the anticipated pilgrimage from the Fort Pelly and Swan River areas got underway, triggered by the final dispossession. Over seventy strong, these Doukhobors proceeded in July in an easterly direction, rapidly passing from the jurisdiction of the Royal North West Mounted Police.

It was not long before they were back. Wintering at Fort William, they thoroughly alienated the populace of Ontario and were shipped by the Ontario government to Yorkton in late April, 1908. Junget, still having his troubles with the occasional local case of assault by Community Doukhobors on their independent neighbours, was in no mood to welcome them. The “seventy-one religiously demented Doukhobors, vagrants, consisting of men, women and children” were “absolutely destitute, have no homes to go to, most of them are nude and committing indecent acts already,” he reported. Verigin was typically unwilling to help and Junget, once the police did manage to get them off the train, struggling and disrobing, could not get any room for them at the Immigration Hall. He was ordered to see that they did not suffer or walk the streets nude; a disgruntled Junget would have preferred to send the worst of them “to a lunatic Asylum, and [have] the remainder of them charged with vagrancy, and . . . divided up between [sic] the different jails throughout the province.” The townspeople continued to resist Junget’s efforts to find lodging for the Doukhobors, but he finally succeeded in securing the Exhibition Building of the Agricultural Society and in having the naked Doukhobors carried in one by one. On May 18 they were moved, in the 1:00 a.m. stillness, to a house just outside the town.

The Saskatchewan government rejected Junget’s suggestion to commit the “worst” eighteen men and ten women to Brandon Asylum and the other thirty-one adults to jail as vagrants. Saskatchewan jails did not have the room and idea of such a concentration of Doukhobors in Brandon Asylum was not likely to appeal to the Manitoba government. Instead, on June 5 the Doukhobors were placed, again by a pre-dawn surprise manoeuvre, in a compound featuring a seven foot board fence three miles from Orcadia. An attempt to separate the men and women was soon abandoned; simply to prevent them from breaking out proved to require fifteen to twenty constables. Junget’s suggestion to remove eleven leaders in a body to await proceedings in a guard house, thus defusing the risk of an uprising in the enclosure, was evidently followed. The result, though, was unexpected: the remaining group went on a hunger strike, the adults preventing the children from eating. The children were removed, but the starvation continued, raising the spectre of embarrassing deaths in the compound. The police were therefore greatly relieved when Verigin was finally induced to take charge of the children and use his influence to bring the hunger strike to an end. The Doukhobors became sufficiently orderly that the camp was broken up in September.

Six men and six women identified as the “worst” ringleaders had in July been sentenced to six months in jail pending further proceedings. Junget would still have liked to see all of them incarcerated in Brandon Asylum and the rest of party jailed in order to avoid recurrences of the march but only four of the men were sent to Brandon, one by one to avoid too great a collective shock to their followers, and the others were released. This precipitated a re-congregation in an abandoned Doukhobor village; there followed continual reports that they intended marching to Brandon to demand the release of their leaders. A constable was placed on constant watch. Although he once had to bury a corpse left by the nude “fanatics” to decompose in the sun, his presence seemed to prevent any march. By the end of the summer some of them were departing from tradition to look for work.

At this time Verigin’s plans to locate a true Doukhobor community in the Kootenay area of British Columbia were maturing and a new chapter would soon be inaugurated in the history of relations between the Mounted Police and the Doukhobors. On the prairies the disruptive activities of a minority of the Doukhobor immigrants had been handled very gently in order to assure the agricultural production of a massive number of effective farmers. The police had been asked repeatedly to forego punitive measures to let the new settlers find their way to an acceptable mode of behaviour.

Group of Doukhobor pilgrims followed by small boys, Kamsack, Saskatchewan, c. 1909. Glenbow Archives NA-2878-17

The police did not act out of personal sympathy for the demonstrators. One may search Mounted Police records in vain for information which will lead to at least understanding of the motivations of the discontented Doukhobors. Police reports referred repeatedly to “Doukhobors seized by religious mania”, “fanatics”, “religiously demented Doukhobors” and “lunatics”; the police did not begin to exercise the considerable patience necessary to discover explanations for the Doukhobors’ unusual behaviour. Total lack of perception only increased police irritability, particularly when the activities of a small band of Doukhobors could command the attention of nearly a like number of policemen. Responsibility for the nature of the Mounted Police response to the Doukhobors rests elsewhere: with the federal government.

It is true that 1906 had marked a change in federal government policy: Doukhobors ignoring prescribed homesteading regulations were thereafter to be treated more harshly. It must be remembered, however, that those refusing to re-enter for homesteads according to the letter of the law were not quite summarily evicted: they were conceded reserves of land, even though this was at the inadequate rate of fifteen acres per occupant. The police, moreover, received no revised instructions for disbanding the ensuing Doukhobor march more roughly than they had preceding ones. Nor did that march involve massive numbers of recalcitrants reacting against harsh police treatment.

The very fact that so few Doukhobors (less than one percent of the Doukhobor population of Saskatchewan) participated in that final demonstration, despite its genesis as a result of what might easily have been described as a treacherous reversal of government policy, is significant. It sustains the argument that the peculiar indecisive course prescribed for the Mounted Police in this situation was justified. Nearly 2,000 had participated in the first march in 1902; it is remarkable that only a handful found sufficient reason to demonstrate thereafter. The police themselves apparently provided no cause. The adjustment of the great majority of the Doukhobors to peaceful agricultural pursuits represented a gratifying conclusion to the efforts of the Mounted Police and the government that directed them. That the policy they had enacted was not altogether successful would be proven in British Columbia, not in Saskatchewan.

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.

The Dukhobortsy and Religious Persecution in Russia

by John Ashworth

The following lecture was delivered in April 1900 by John Ashworth at the Society of Friends (Quakers) Meeting House in Manchester, England. Reproduced from the pages of ISKRA No.1870 (Grand Forks: U.S.C.C., March 24, 1999), this article sets out the beliefs, practices, history and persecution of the Doukhobors in Russia, and follows their early settlement in the Canadian West.

In bringing this subject into notice I am anxious to awaken an interest on behalf of the sectarian churches in the vast country of Russia, more especially of the Dukhobortsy (Doukhobors) who are suffering in various ways for not worshipping after the manner of the State Religion, known as the Greek (Russian Orthodox) Church. The history of the Doukhobors brings home to members of the Society of Friends what our forefathers suffered in the days of George Fox, in the time of the Irish rebellion, and during the American War.

The religious communities that have suffered and are suffering persecution at the hands of the Government are principally the Baptists, Stundists, Molokans, and Dukhobortsy.

The Baptists, only a few years ago, were permitted to have full freedom for worship in their own places, but this freedom is now restricted to the Province of Livonia, Riga being their chief centre. It is only within this district that they are permitted to erect Meeting Houses. Some of their pastors are undergoing imprisonment for converting members of the Greek Church to their doctrines; and are obliged to send their children to the Orthodox schools.

The Stundists hold similar views to the Baptists. They are not allowed to have their own churches, and they are liable to imprisonment if three of them assemble for worship; they therefore attach themselves to the Baptists that they may take part in their services. Both these are allowed the Bible and hymn books, but they are not permitted to read or receive any religious literature.

The Molokans are Methodists, and they do not believe in war, and they also are not allowed to have any books. These people are scattered in different parts of Russia but mostly in the Caucasus, in order to prevent them from meeting together, yet in spite of these precautions their principles spread.

Lastly, the Dukhobortsy or “Spirit Wrestlers”. These people were first heard of about 150 years ago, and at the end of the last century or the beginning of the present their doctrines had become so clearly defined, and the number of their followers had so greatly increased, that the Government and the Greek Church considered their creed to be peculiarly obnoxious. They therefore subjected them to cruel persecution.

Doukhobor villagers

The foundation of the Spirit Wrestlers’ teaching consists in the belief that the Spirit of God is present in the soul of man, and directs him by its word within him. They understand the coming of Christ in the flesh, His works, teachings, and sufferings, in a spiritual sense. The object of the sufferings of Christ, in their view, was to give us an example of suffering for truth. Christ continues to suffer in them even now, when they do not live in accordance with the behest and spirit of His teaching. The whole teaching of the Spirit Wrestlers is penetrated with the gospel spirit of love.

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

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

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

The Spirit Wrestlers found their mutual relations and their relations to other people – and not only to people, but to all living creatures – exclusively on love; and, therefore, they hold all people equal, brethren. They extend this idea of equality also to the Government authorities; obedience to whom they do not consider binding upon them in those cases where the demands of these authorities are in conflict with their conscience, while in all that does not infringe what they regard as the will of God, they willingly fulfill the desires of the authorities. They consider murder, violence, and in general all relations to living things not based no love, as opposed to their conscience, and to the will of God. 

Such are the beliefs for which the Spirit Wrestlers have long endured such persecutions. Yet it may be said of them that they are industrious and abstemious, always truthful in their speech, for they account all lying as a great sin.

The Emperor Alexander I, on the 9th of December, 1816, expressed himself in one of his prescripts as follows:

“All the measures of severity exhausted upon the Spirit Wrestlers during the 30 years up to 1801, not only did not destroy that sect, but more and more multiplied the number of its adherents.”

His Majesty, wishing to isolate them, graciously allowed them to emigrate from the Provinces of Tambov and Ekaterinoslav (where they flourished) to the so-called Milky Waters in the Tauride (Tavria) Province.

In the reign of Nicholas I, severe persecutions befell them, especially for not bearing arms. Between 1850 and 1850 they were transported to the extreme borders of the Caucasus, where being always confronted with hills men, it was thought they must of necessity protect their property and families by force of arms, and would thus have to renounce their convictions. Moreover, the so-called Wet Mountains, appointed for their settlement, had a severe climate, standing, as they did, 5,000 feet above the sea level. Barley grew with difficulty and crops were often destroyed by frost.

Others of these Spirit Wrestlers were transported to the wild, unhealthy and uncultivated district of Elizavetpol, where it was thought the wild frontier tribes would probably exterminate them. Instead of that, they won the friendship of the hill tribes, and enjoyed a half a century of prosperity and peace, although in the first instance they suffered to some extent through the depredations of the inhabitants, because they carried out their principles of non-resistance.

In 1887, when Universal Military Conscription was introduced into the Transcaucasus, many of the Spirit Wrestlers, through the snare which comes with increase of worldly goods, became lax in their religious views and joined the army. This indifference continued until 1895, when Peter Verigin, whom the Doukhobors now look up to as their leader, was the means of creating a revival amongst them, and bringing them back to the faith of their fathers, and to their old custom of total abstinence from all intoxicants and tobacco. They voluntarily divided their property, in order to do away with the distinctions between rich and poor, and again they strictly insisted on the doctrine of non-resistance to violence.

The Russian Government felt that Peter Verigin would be better removed, especially as the conscription was again being introduced into the Caucasus. He was banished to Lapland, but afterwards transferred to Obdorsk, in Siberia, in order that he might be more completely cut off from his people.

In carrying out this spirit of non-resistance, however, they felt that so long as anyone possessed arms, it was difficult to keep from using them, when robbers came to steal a horse or a cow. So to remove temptation and to give proof of their principles to the Government, they resolved to destroy their arms. This decision was unitedly carried out in the three districts on the night of June 28th, 1895. In the Kars district, all passed off quietly. In the Elizavetpol district, the authorities made it an excuse for arresting 40 of them under a plea that it was a rebellion against army service. The people in the villages of Goreloye in the Tiflis district fared still worse. There a large assembly of men and women gathered at night for the purpose of burning their arms; they continued singing psalms till the bonfire had burned low, and the day had begun to dawn. Just then two regiments of Cossacks arrived on the scene, and were ordered to charge upon the defenseless crowd, without even ascertaining the cause of the gathering. They flogged the men and women with heavy whips, until the Doukhobors’ faces were cut and their clothes covered with blood.

No one was tried for this, and no one was punished, nor has any explanation or apology been offered to them. The Government in St. Petersburg depend for information upon the local authorities, who were the very people who sanctioned this crime. The newspapers dare not report such disgraceful scenes, in fact they are forbidden to do so.

Vladimir Chertkov, Paul Biryukov and Ivan Tregubov (Tolstoyans sympathetic to the Doukhobors) went to St. Petersburg to plead before the Emperor on behalf of these suffering people. Instead of seeing him they were banished without trial and without being allowed to make the matter public.

Instead of the perpetrators of these crimes being punished, Cossacks were quartered in the villages of the Doukhobors, and there insulted the women, beat the men, and stole their property. Four thousand (Tiflis Doukhobors) were obliged to abandon their houses and sell their well cultivated lands at a few days notice, and were banished to unhealthy districts where nearly 1,000 perished in the next three years, from want, disease and ill-treatment.

It may be interesting at this juncture to show, from the following discourse between a Judge and one of the Doukhobors, that some of the authorities had a tender place in their hearts.

To the conscription of the year 1895, in the district town of Dushet, there were summoned seven of the Spirit Wrestlers who were exiled to the Gory district. They were all entitled to exemption owing to domestic circumstances. They obeyed the summons, but declined to draw lots, and the village alderman was told to draw for them. A report was drawn up of their refusal, and they were sent home again. The judge determined that they were to appear before the Court on the 14th of November, and served them with notices to do so on the spot.

They appeared at the Court at 9 a.m. The Judge said, “Are you the men who refused to draw lots?” “We are” replied the Doukhobors. “And why do you refuse?” asked the Judge.

Glagolev: “Because we do not wish to enter the military service, knowing beforehand that such service is against our conscience, and we prefer to live according to our conscience, and not in opposition to it. Although by the military law we are entitled to exemption, we would not draw lots because we did not wish to have any share in a business which is contrary to the will of God and to our conscience.”

The Judge: “The term of service is now short: you can soon get it over and go home again. Then they will not drag you from court to court, and from prison to prison.”

Glagolev: “Mr. Judge, we do not value our bodies. The only thing of importance to us is that our conscience should be clear. We cannot act contrary to the will of God. And it is no light matter to be a soldier, and to kill a man directly you are told. God has once for all impressed on the heart of each man, “Thou shalt not kill.” A Christian will not only not learn how to kill, but will never allow one of God’s creatures to be beaten.”

Then said the Judge, “But nevertheless, we cannot do without soldiers and war, because both you and others have a little property, and some people are quite rich; and if we had no armies and no soldiers, then evil men and thieves would come, and would plunder us, and with no army we could no defend ourselves.”

Then Glagolev replied, “You know, Mr. Judge, that it is written in the Gospels, “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth.” We have obeyed this injunction, and will hold to it, and therefore shall have not need of defending anything. Why, ask yourself, Mr. Judge, how we can keep our money when our brothers might need it? We are commanded to help our neighbours, so that we cannot find rest in our souls when we see them in want. Christ when He was on earth taught that we should “feed the hungry, give shoes to those who have none, and share with those who are needy.”

Then the Judge began to enquire into our circumstances, and asked how we were getting on, and how the country suited us, all about the distraint, and the Cossacks striking the women and old men, and their outraging the young women, and expressed great astonishment that soldiers whose duty it was to protect us, could turn themselves into brigands and murderers.

Then said Glagolev, “We see from this, Mr. Judge, that an army does not in the least exist for the protection of our own interests, but in order that our savings may be spent on armaments, and is no use in the world but to cause misery, outrage and murder.”

Then the Judge, who had listened to it all attentively, was greatly moved and distressed by all the cruelties which had been practiced on the Spirit Wrestlers. He condemned them, in virtue of some section or other of the Code, to a fine of three roubles, and himself advised them not to pay it.

He talked a great deal more to us, and questioned us, and said, as he dismissed us, “Hold fast to that commandment of the Lord’s.”

We went to the inn to dine, and see our friends, and before we had any dinner, the Judge came to see us, and brought us two roubles, in case we had nothing to eat. We endeavored to decline the money, saying, “We do not want it. Thank God, today we shall have enough.” But he begged us to accept it as the offering of a pure heart, and made in sincerity, and then we took it, as from a brother, and after thanking him, and bidding him farewell, went away. He showed us where he lived, expressed a wish to know more of us, and begged us to come and talk with him.

Ultimately, the Russian Government, perhaps realizing that persecution would not turn the Doukhobors from their faith, granted them permission to emigrate. They were assisted in this emigration by the Society of Friends (Quakers) in England. One colony was sent to Cyprus, where the climate proved unsuitable. Finally arrangements were made with the Canadian Government for each male over 18 years of age to have a grant of 160 acres of land in (the North-West Territories), together with a loan of one dollar per head.

In the first half of 1899, over 6,000 emigrated to Manitoba, Assiniboia and Saskatchewan – and in the Spring it was found necessary to transport the Cyprus Colony to Canada also, as many of them were suffering from fever – this bringing up the total number of Doukhobors in Canada to about 7,400.

The Russian Government apparently showed great forethought in the manner in which they carried out the persecution, by arresting the leaders and foremost men and banishing them to Siberia. At the present time 110 have been thus cruelly snatched away from their families and people, and are still in exile.

In the Autumn of last year (1899) I had occasion to visit Canada on business, when, through the kindness of the Deputy Minister of the Interior, whom I met at Ottawa, arrangements were made for my paying a visit to some Doukhobor Settlements. Upon arriving at Winnipeg, Mr. McCreary, the Immigration Commissioner, passed me forward to Mr. Crerar, the Government Agent at Yorkton, who provided me with a two horse rig, and an interpreter by the name of Captain Arthur St. John, a retired military officer, and who had become a follower of Tolstoy.

Yorkton is a town of about 600 inhabitants, at the terminus of the branch line, which is 270 miles Northwest of Winnipeg. It takes from 8:30 in the morning to about 10 o’clock at night to cover this distance.

On my journey between Winnipeg and Yorkton I got into a conversation with a contractor who was on his way to the latter place to engage 500 Doukhobors to work on the railway at $1.75 per day. He spoke well of them and thought them steady workmen. At the same time he stated that many objections were raised against foreigners being brought into the district.

On the bright, frosty morning of the 25th of October, accompanied by Arthur St. John, I drove 15 miles over the prairie to Whitesand. There we stayed the night with a Friend (Quaker) of the name of Alfred Hutchison, an Ackworth scholar, formerly of Wellingborough, England. At an early hour in the morning, we crossed Whitesand River, drove over the prairie and along the south east side of Good Spirit or Devil’s Lake, till we reached the South Colony of Doukhobors. We stopped to exchange salutations at the first two villages. I shall always remember my first impression of a Doukhobor village on that beautiful, frosty morning. A picturesque group of quaintly built chalet like houses, made of logs with turf roofs. The sides were coated with clay plaster and presented a uniform appearance. In the centre of the main room was a large oven, 5 feet square, which served the purpose of heating the hut and cooking the food. Everything showed most careful workmanship. The habits of personal cleanliness, acquired in their old country, were continued here, for it was noticeable that one of the first buildings put up was a Russian bath.

Doukhobor village

We were sorry to hear that these villagers were obliged to remove in the Spring, owing to their having planted themselves too near former settlers, and also because the land was not good enough to produce sufficient food for the needs of so many.

We next visited the villages on Paterson Lake, where the people seemed more contented and comfortable. They expressed their gratitude for what Friends (Quakers) had done in bringing them to Canada. After the usual salutations, we drove about two miles north to a ranch run by some Scotch people, Mr. and Mrs. Buchanan, who made us welcome for the night. A surveying camp was near, and the leader came and spent two hours with us. Although we were right on the prairie, thirty miles away from any town, yet so many people were gathered together that quite a pleasant evening was spent. Mr. and Mrs. Buchanan spoke highly of the Doukhobors for their honesty and faithfulness. A Doukhobor worked on their farm and they sent him the following day with his team to help the Surveyors to change their camp to twenty miles off. The women are very clever with the needle, as specimens of their handiwork showed.

After a pleasant evening, a good night’s rest, and farewell greetings, we continued our journey over the prairie to the next villages. At one time, owing to a frosty mist, we lost our trail trying to make a short cut. Fortunately, we came across some lumber men at a stream, who put us on the track, and soon we struck Williams’ ranch. Here we stopped for refreshment and to rest our horses. These farmers had also a Doukhobor working for them. Mrs. Williams told us she could trust the Doukhobors when left with herself and children, while she did not feel nearly so safe with the untrustworthy Galician settlers. As evening was approaching, we hastened to the next village, and arrived as the sun was setting.

Here we spent the night in a Doukhobor hut. I had a long conversation with the leaders of the village, through Arthur St. John. They chanted some of their psalms to us, after which we had supper of dark brown, sour bread, tea in glasses, potatoes sliced and baked in oil, which we ate according to their custom with our fingers; then a kind of soup made of macaroni, for which they provided home-made wooden spoons.

Arthur St. John, on leaving me that night, instructed a Doukhobor to accompany me on the morrow. He then walked through the night, 18 miles over the prairies to the next village.

Before retiring for the night, I endeavored to amuse the girls and boys by teaching them simple English words, and I was well repaid by their quickness in learning. After a comfortable night’s rest and a breakfast similar to the supper aforesaid, several Doukhobors escorted me some distance in the beautiful morning. We drove 18 miles over the prairie to the next village, which after some difficulty we reached about 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Here we had another Russian meal, and after a friendly greeting drove to the last village on my tour. I found many poor people here, suffering more or less from the Cyprus fever.

Arthur St. John walked back to the village I had just left, whilst I drove across Dead Horse Creek to Kamsack Post Office, where I put up for the night in such accommodation as could be had. We slept in a loft; I on an old-fashioned bed, the driver in rugs on the floor and the Doukhobor boy on the kitchen floor.

The next day we drove back to Yorkton, a distance of 40 miles, arriving there about 10 o’clock at night. The last eight miles over the prairie was by brilliant starlight.

It is difficult to state clearly what the Doukhobor belief is, especially when we bear in mind that these people are what we should call illiterate. They have no written history, and what knowledge they have is handed down orally from father to son. Upon entering a meeting the custom is for the men to greet each other by bowing three times and kissing one another, and the women to do the same to each other. At the commencement, each one says a prayer. The three bows and kisses are intended to signify the cleansing of the body and the repulsion of pride; they take each other’s hands as a sign of union and love, kindly expression, good understanding, and the sense of a God revered in their souls.

During t he meetings, one after another recites the prayers he knows; they sing psalms together and explain to each other the Word of God. As almost all are illiterate, and therefore without books, all this is done from memory. They have no priests in the ordinary sense of the word; they acknowledge as priest the one just, holy, true Christ, uplifted above sinners higher than the heavens; He is their sole teacher. Thus at their meetings they hear the Word of God from each other; each one may express what he knows or feels for the benefit of his brethren; the women are not excluded from this, for, as they say, women also have understanding, and light is in understanding. They pray either standing or sitting, as the case may be. At the end of the meeting, they again kiss each other thrice as at the beginning, and then the brethren return home.

In visiting the villages of the Doukhobors one cannot help noticing that “the power that Christianity in its truest sense has of civilizing, in our acceptance of the word, is made manifest in this instance. These people, deprived of even the few necessities of life common to the children of the soil, hunted from pillar to post, made to herd like the beasts of the field, beaten, ill-treated, mother separated from their children and wives from their husbands, are today the most polite, orderly people it is possible to imagine. The villages they are building testify to the powers of organization and inherent orderliness of the people; the results of self-discipline are apparent in the people as a unit, and the very core of their religious convictions is self-restraint.

The absence of anything like noisiness or excitability strikes one the instant one moves about among the villages. The very children are curiously quiet and gentle in their mode of play, and they are miniatures of their elders in more than their picturesque costume. The quiet dignity noticeable comes from the best possible influence, the parents having apparently little trouble in training their children, other than by the example of their own quiet and industrious lives. 

There is something unutterably pathetic to those who live in this wrangling, noisy world of the nineteenth century to see the women and children of the Dukhobortsy quietly and silently bearing with a great patience the load that is laid upon their shoulders. The innate dignity of the women and their uncomplaining, untiring patience have perhaps been the reason that they have had strength given them to endure to the end trials that their magnificent physique could not alone have enabled them to withstand. They are a great people – that is undeniable; and while they are the children of the soil, they are the aristocracy of the soil, people who, to use Ruskin’s words, have found that “all true art is sacred, and in all hand labour there is something of divineness.” Their hand labour is marvelous, from the finest embroidery to the building and plastering of their houses.

Whatever we may think about the religion of the Doukhobors, we have here at the end of the nineteenth century an object lesson of what these people have suffered for conscience sake in endeavoring according to their light to advance the cause of truth and righteousness in the earth.

Well may we ask ourselves the question, “What should we do under similar circumstances?” Should we also stand true to the dictates of Christ our Master? It might be said in reply, “There is no fear of such a state of things happening in this country.” Let us pause and consider. The times are ominous. Militarism is apparently becoming rampant. Even professing representatives of the Gospel of Christ have declared a man to be a coward who attempted to carry out the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount. God forbid that His people should forsake Him in their hour of trial.

Notes

John Ashworth was a member of the Society of Friends Doukhobor Committee, a Quaker body formed in England in 1897 to help the Doukhobors emigrate from Russia, and thereafter, to assist in their settlement in Canada.  His visit to the Doukhobor settlements in Canada in Autumn of 1899 – the subject of the above article – was his first of several such visits. For an account of his subsequent visit to the Doukhobors in April of 1901, see his account entitled Visit to the Saskatchewan District Doukhobors, 1901.

Doukhobors in Alberta

by Michael M. Verigin

The following is an excerpt from an address given by Michael M. Verigin at the Doukhobor Centennial Celebration held in Calgary, Alberta on April 3, 1999. It contains an excellent historic summary of the Doukhobor settlement in Alberta. Reproduced from the pages of ISKRA magazine, No. 1875 (Grand Forks: U.S.C.C., June 16, 1999

Dear Brothers & Sisters, Boys and Girls:

As I stand here before you today, and see so many of our Brethren who had to travel so many miles from far away, from Saskatchewan and British Columbia, to come here to Calgary, I couldn’t help but think, how much different everything would have been, if things had turned out as planned 100 years ago.

Before moving to Canada from Russia, the Doukhobors first sent delegates to look at suitable land and location. Two delegates came, Ivan Ivin and Peter Makortoff, with their wives and children, and (to assist them with the inspection of lands) Prince Dmitry Hilkoff and Aylmer Maude, arriving in Ottawa on September 12, 1898.

The first locality inspected was near Edmonton. A most promising location was found not far from Beaver Hill Lake, 276,480 acres or 12 townships of 36 square miles each, where the whole Doukhobor community could have been settled. But after returning to Ottawa to finalize the plans, these arrangements were upset and the Doukhobors were not allowed to settled here in Alberta and had to look for land elsewhere. As we all know now, they settled in Saskatchewan, and after the land loss in 1907, more than half moved into the Interior of British Columbia.

Prior to acquiring lands in British Columbia, Peter Lordly Verigin, in July of 1907, inspected lands in southern Alberta, especially in the vicinity of Lethbridge and Raymond, where he made inquiries into the various processes connected with the sugar beet industry.

In 1911, the census reported that there were 45 Doukhobors in Alberta. These were men who’d come from Saskatchewan to break prairie sod with oxen, for a British farming company near Suffield. In 1912, again about 100 workers came to work on Lake McGregor Dam near Milo.

In the summer of 1915, the first land was bought for permanent settlement, in the Cowley/Lundbreck area of south-western Alberta. Additional land was bought in the vicinity, in 1916 and 1917 and, at its peak, the CCUB in Alberta had close to 13,500 acres, with 300 members living in 13 small settlements (Bogatoi RodnikBozhiya MilostBozhiya SeloGradovaya DolinaKrasivaya DolinaSibirStupnikovo Selo, etc).  

Doukhobor Community Flour Mill, Lundbreck, Alberta c. 1916.

They soon built a large elevator in Cowley, and elevator and a flour mill in Lundbreck. They were raising over 300 head of horses, 9 of which were pedigreed mares, 7 purebred Percheron stallions, one of which was valued at $5,000. Nearly 400 head of shorthorn cattle and 5 purebred bulls. Every year, the Community threshed close to 100,000 bushels of grain.

In 1917, Peter Lordly Verigin rented for the CCUB, three sections of land from James McGregor, near Queenstown, in the Vulcan area, on a crop share basis. Since there were no grain elevators nearby, grain had to be hauled to Cluny, a distance of nearly 15 miles, where the nearest post office was located. After the tragic death of Peter Verigin in 1924, this land was then rented by Paul Planidin and sons for a short while and eventually bought by them.

In 1926, 1 3/4 sections of land was bought by Anastasia Holoboff, or Anastasia Lord’s as she was more commonly known, and her followers, near Shouldice, also in the Vulcan area. The settlement was known as the Lordly Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood, and was independent of all other Doukhobor villages in western Canada. The village consisted of 26 homes constructed in keeping with the pattern used in Russia and Saskatchewan, a main street with houses on both sides. On the south side, the far end of the street, was a large Prayer Home. Nearby was a spring, which supplied water for all the village needs, and was also piped to the far north end, to a CPR water tower and railway siding, which was named “Anastasia” in honour of Anastasia Lords. Here too, close by, was the village cemetery, and on the north-west side a large horse barn and blacksmith shop. On the north-end, was the school, with grades from 1 to 8.

The village had a population of 165 members who were involved in farming. And although this was choice farm land, there was an insufficient amount of it owned by the community, and it became necessary for many members to work outside the village to supplement their income.

In the mid 1920’s, at about the same time as the communal settlement of Anastasia Lords was being established, other Doukhobor settlers, mainly from Saskatchewan, were moving into the area and setting up independent farms. In a few short years, there were as many independent Doukhobors living in the area, mainly near Shouldice, Queenstown, Mossleigh and Arrowwood, as there were in the communal village.

The census reports indicate that in 1931 there was a total of 786 Doukhobors reported for Alberta, 297 in the Cowley/Lundbreck area, 391 in the Mossleigh/Shouldice area, and 98 in other parts of the province.

In 1938, because of a debt of less than 4% of the total value of the CCUB in the three western provinces, the mortgage companies foreclosed, and the communal enterprise of the Doukhobors came to an end. The Shouldice colony too, with shortage of land and several poor crop years, came to an end in the mid 1940’s. Those who remained, and did not move away, bought farms individually in the area.

Anastasia’s village, Shouldice district, Alberta, 1938.  Glenbow Archives PA-3563-3.

In 1953, the Doukhobors in the Shouldice, Mossleigh and Arrowwood locality built a Prayer Home near Mossleigh and registered their society as the United Doukhobors of Mossleigh and District. In the same year, the Doukhobors of Cowley and Lundbreck also began building a new Prayer Home at Lundbreck, which they registered as the United Doukhobors of Alberta, Cowley-Lundbreck.

Today, there are very few Doukhobors living in these two areas, as very few of the descendents of these original settlers remained in farming. The majority chose white collar professions and left for the cities. The greatest concentration of Doukhobors in this province is in this city, Calgary. There is also a considerable number in Edmonton and Lethbridge and, no doubt, some in practically every town in this province.

This year, the Doukhobors are commemorating 100 years since their arrival from Russia to Canada. Many Centennial celebrations will be taking place in Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia. This celebration here today, is the first in Alberta, and we are very pleased that so many have come to join us. Later in the year, we hope to have a commemorative gathering in the Shouldice-Arrowwood area and at Cowley-Lundbreck.

Brothers and Sister, Boys and Girls: In this very historical year for our Doukhobors people, let us all try our very best to create more unity amongst ourselves, let us forget our petty differences, if we have any, and by applying the Golden Rule in our everyday life, of loving thy neighbour and Toil and Peaceful Life, with God’s help, we will make this 1999 Centennial year, a year that we, our neighbours, our children and grandchildren will be proud to remember in the years to come.

Michael M. Verigin
Calgary, Alberta
April 3, 1999 

Early Doukhobor Experience on the Canadian Prairies

by Jeremy Adelman

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

I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VII

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

VIII

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Doukhobors in 1904

by Patricia L. McCormick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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