The Doukhobor: A Community Race in Canada

by Victoria Hayward and Edith S. Watson

In 1918, writer Victoria Hayward (1876-1958) and photographer Edith S. Watson (1861-1943) received permission from Peter ‘Lordly’ Verigin to visit the Doukhobors in their communes in Saskatchewan and British Columbia.  The women spent much of the next three summers with them in 1918, 1919 and 1920.  They shared the Doukhobor way of life and recorded that life, through written word and photograph.  Afterwards, the traveling companions published an account of their experiences in the book, “Romantic Canada” (Toronto: Macmillan Company of Canada, Ltd., 1922). The following excerpt contains their observations about Doukhobor communal life.  The accompanying photographs are reproduced by permission from “Romantic Canada”; from “Working Light: The Wandering Life of Photographer Edith S. Watson” by Frances Rooney (Carleton University Press: 1996); and the Nellie Voykin private collection.  Together, they capture glimpses of the Doukhobors rarely seen by the outside world.

In the Russian Doukhobor settlements of Saskatchewan, Manitoba and British Columbia, the Canadian West houses the Community-life of a curious religious sect. Through them it may be said that Canada is perhaps the only country in the world outside Russia having a very intimate living, human-interest acquaintance with the Slav on the land the only country presenting an opportunity to study him in his daily life. And what pictures this life does make! Not even Old Russia has just such pictures, for although the Doukhobor is Russian the religion of these peasants in British Columbia gives them a certain distinction and grace of their own, shearing the elements of coarseness from even ordinarily coarse work. Indeed a rare dignity attends the individual Doukhobor as it attends the transaction of all work and all business involving the people of one “village” with those of another.

In a Community door yard, Brilliant, BC, c. 1919.  Photo by Edith S. Watson, Romantic Canada.

As religion is the foundation on which the very existence of these people is laid; as it was religion which brought them into existence as a separate people; as it was the source of all their difficulties with the government of the Czars, and as it was the immediate motive which brought them to Canada “the Promised Land” some twenty years ago, it is necessary here very briefly to touch upon the chief item of the Doukhobor Faith. And this can best be done by giving an example.

Romance seems to have reached idealism indeed when one of these peasants here on the uplands of a British Columbia valley meeting another on the highway, lifts his hat and makes a ceremonial bow a bow arresting and almost Eastern in its slow dignity. The habitant of Quebec is hardly so solemn in making his obeisance to the roadside calvary. Yet these men are in a hurry, too. Work presses.

Questioning them as to this ceremonial greeting brought out the fact that the Doukhobor believes first of all that Jesus is actually a living presence, alive in every human being! All other articles of the Faith it appears are merely the natural sequence of this condition. One man bows to the Christ-spirit in the other, rather than to the man himself. He bows in reality exactly as the habitant, man or boy does to the beautiful thing that is symbolized by the roadside Cross. Life is a Universal brotherhood, to the Doukhobor hence the Community idea in which all share alike. Peasants often lay hold of many elemental facts and ideas of religion and holy things as to which other people are, for some reason, more timid. There is the world-famous example of the peasant rendering of the “Passion”, at Oberamergau [Germany].

The Doukhobor community owns a large commercial jam factory, but each housewife likes to make her own jam and dry her own fruit, BC, c. 1919.  Photo by Edith S. Watson, Working Light.

The Doukhobor talks about Jesus with the sweet simplicity of a child. A swift shade of surprise, as quickly gone, flits across the gentle face of any of them that you question as to how they get along without such institutions as poor-houses, old peoples’ homes, asylums, jails, etc. They tell you the idea of “the Spirit of Jesus in all men”, simply lived, prevents all the sins of the Decalogue and so renders these institutions unnecessary. For this reason, they explain, they object to military service because they believe that in killing a man they are killing Jesus. They go even further, claiming that even the taking of animal life for food is contrary to the spirit of God, and therefore sinful ; so that they are vegetarian not because they think vegetables more wholesome, but because they know meat and fish can only be achieved by the destruction of a life. In this matter their belief is carried out to the letter. Some of the old folk even now find it difficult to kill flies. And it was only after a long time and many inroads on the precious grain that they could be induced to kill rats and gophers.

Legally the Doukhobors have now exchanged the name “Doukhobor” for a name in English. They call themselves in all business dealings “The Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood Ltd”. “Doukhobor” is, strictly speaking, their religious name, only.

Peter ‘Lordly’ Verigin instructs group of BC Doukhobor men who arrived in Verigin, SK to assist with the harvest. Photo by Edith S. Watson, Working Light.

Neighbors however will always call them “The Douks.” Brilliant, Grand Forks and Verigin, their three outstanding settlements, are worth in the neighborhood of five million dollars; and approximately eight to ten thousand persons abide in these settlements, the largest successful “Community” settlement in the world. Its success, as against many another attempt at Utopia that has failed, is undoubtedly due to the fact that it is founded on a basis of simple religious faith rather than either a colonization scheme or a business trust.

In the settlements, the houses are set up in groups of twos. Local wit aptly calls these “the twins”. The Doukhobors themselves call these groups “villages”. Each village contains anywhere from thirty to fifty people who are apportioned a certain amount of land for culture. The women in these villages take a hand in all work, at home and in the fields.

An apple paring bee, Brilliant, BC, c. 1919.  Photo by Edith S. Watson, Working Light.

Stepping through the big Russian gateway into one of the yards, or all of them, reveals an almost interminable series of tableaux of heroic significance. Women with sieves in hand play them, full of seed, millet, etc., above their heads as dancing-girls the tambourine, in an effort to scatter the chaff on the breeze. Under their feet tarpaulin is spread to receive the grain or the seeds. From some doorway an old woman appears, with a broom of dried twigs, and brushes up a circle or a corner whereon to lay a mat. Laying aside the broom, she disappears around some corner to return with voluminous apron stuffed with beans in the pod. Sitting down on the mat she begins to belabour the beans with a billet of wood. Thus the shelling is accomplished. Two women appear carrying a plank between them. Presently they come again with a tub of apples already cut, and these they carefully spread to dry on the plank already brought. A mother appears out of a door, plotok (kerchief) on her head, a cup in hand, and begins to feed from the cup a little boy, with bread-and-milk, in which there is a dash of mustard. Other women are picking over tomatoes on the porch-floor. The cook for the week appears in the doorway of the great community-kitchen, seeking a momentary rest for her eyes, so long centred on her pots and pans with their contents, in the life and scenes going on in the yard. In the sun an old grandfather warms himself as he amuses his old age with making wooden spoons. Over there, two boys with their heads together are making a pair of nut-crackers by hammering two long wire nails into shape. Everywhere, there are flowers.

When the tasks in the yard are completed the women repair to the fields; or, on other days the field work comes first.

Polly Kanigan holding daughter Nellie, c. 1919.  Photo by Edith S. Watson, Nellie Voykin Collection.

Note stamp mark of Edith S. Watson on back of photo. Nellie Voykin Collection.

Here is a group of women in a field of sunflowers, some passing from plant to plant plucking the seed-discs into their aprons and carrying them to a group of women and children sitting about a big mat. This scene resembles some religious festival, the women and girls with white plotoks on their heads and sticks in their hands beating, on the reverse side of the seed-plate and the seeds falling, like a rain, in a drift on the old tarpaulin.

Sunflowers seeds are the peanuts of this people, unaccustomed, as they are, to candy. Shy children met on the highways, overcoming their shyness, and falling into step by your side, offer you little handfuls of sunflower-seeds drawn from their stuffed pockets.

And when men or women go on long journeys afoot they always take with them a supply of these seeds to munch by the way. As one chats with the sunflower harvesters, the bright figures of the clover-seed gatherers flit in the upland-climbing clover fields; and among the leafy green on the mile-stretching orchards of plum, apple and peach are to be seen the carts, the pickers and the boxers all working together like bees in a hive.

Doukhobor children lending a hand at watering the garden, Brilliant, BC, c. 1919. (l-r) Masha (nee Kanigan) Jmaeff, Nellie (nee Kanigan) Voykin. Photo by Edith S. Watson, Nellie Voykin Collection.

Note stamp mark of Edith S. Watson on back of photo. Nellie Voykin Collection.

Everywhere children accompany their elders, naturally imitating with their tiny fingers the tasks of the larger hand. Thus, quite easily, the children learn, and, learning, look upon work as pleasurable. A Doukhobor child is seldom or never told to do any especial task. They simply fall in, of their own accord. The Douks are very gentle with their children and a child is as free to speak, and is listened to with as much courtesy, as an elder. This applies in “church” as well as in the daily life.

The flowers growing everywhere in the dooryards and in every little pocket of soil here and there on the edges of the orchards and flanking the vegetable gardens, are explained, when one happens on the bee-hives in some sheltered nook of more or less every “village”. The Doukhobors place honey on the market and it is a stand-by on the home tables.

The interior of the “twins” presents no fewer pictures than the yards and the fields. The kitchen and the living room occupy all of the ground-floor. The kitchen is always a large room. In the middle of it stands an enormous brick oven wherein are baked innumerable loaves of brown bread. These loaves are always round and, for size, put to shame the “big loaf” of Quebec. After the bread is done, the pans are lined with straw, and, filled with fruit, are replaced in the cavernous mouth till the oven is full. Thus pears and apples are dried for the home-table. The dining-table is a long board resembling a giant carpenter’s bench and painted an art-red, standing across one end of the big room. Long benches serve the big table in lieu of chairs.

Doukhobor communal village, Brilliant, BC, c. 1919.  Photo by Edith S. Watson, Working Light.

The chief stand-by on the Doukhobor menu, as seems to be the custom with peasants everywhere, is soup. In this respect one is carried back to the habitant table of Quebec. But here the soup is solely vegetable, fat being supplied by butter which makes this Russian borsch more delicate in flavour than la soupe of the habitant. Butter is the one Doukhobor extravagance.

Pancakes, with jam or honey, boiled millet-and-butter, sliced cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, big slices of the Russian brown bread, all sorts of vegetable pies, beets, carrots, cheese, little triangles blanketed in a pastry of millet or a mixture of brown flour and white, make up one of these vegetable meals, all being completed by unlimited draughts of Russian tea sweetened and flavoured with raspberry or black-currant jam. The women take turns at the cooking, a week at a time, and as there are usually six or seven women in each village, no woman is worn-out at the stove, but each has a six-week interval before the wheel of time brings her turn round again.

In this time her spare moments are filled with knitting, making rugs for her room, spinning and weaving, and embroidering her own or her children’s plotoks or kerchiefs. The Doukhobor women are especially clever at all work of this kind, showing exquisite taste in the selection and blending of colours in their rug-making. Occasionally one of the older women brings out to show you, a Turkish rug which she wove, in conjunction with a Turkish woman, at the time, when, by the Czar’s decree they were banished to the wild parts of Southern Russia bordering on Turkey; in the hope, perhaps, that the Turks would put them to the sword. Instead, it seems the women of each side took to making rugs together.

Domesticity. Photo by Edith S. Watson, Romantic Canada.

In the threshing of straw into a fine powder, to help-out in feeding horses and cattle, a peculiar kind of instrument is used, consisting of a board, its under-side teethed with sharp stones. This instrument the Doukhobor men tell you they learned how to make from the Turkish men, so it is evident that the men of both sides fraternized, as well as the women. It seems strange indeed to happen on these things in Western Canada, until we remember that Romance knows no political or racial boundaries; that there is a great sisterhood in spinning and weaving, in embroidery, in rug-making, and in home-making everywhere.

No phase of this Community life is more Russian or Tolstoyan in appearance than the great threshing-floor, in the centre of the Settlement, at Brilliant, B.C.

The action of threshing is like that of a chariot-race, with the driver on board the drags, and the horses racing in pairs, one behind the other, round and round the large, circular earthen floor, in which the dust of the flying chaff arises and half conceals horse and driver, passing in a whirl. Ten minutes of this and the man in charge signals a halt. Each horse is then given a bucket of water and a new driver takes the place of the old. These drivers are usually mere boys, entering into the race with all a boy’s excitement in the sport.

Doukhobor women winnowing, Brilliant, BC, c. 1919.  Photo by Edith S. Watson, Romantic Canada.

While the horses are resting, the older men come out with pitchforks made from forked branches cut in the woods, and shake up the chaff, the heavier wheat falling to the bottom. After the race has gone on for several hours or until all the grain has escaped from its tiny straw-sack, these men pitch the chaff to one side, and the wheat is swept up and carried off in the big carts, to store in the community-granary till it goes to mill.

Early in the morning of a Sunday when daylight still leaves the shadows deep under the fruit-trees in the orchard, and the grass is wet and the air full of the dewy freshness that only melts with the sun, the Doukhobors may be seen a figure or two at a time stepping lightly under the apple-trees, clad in their homespun suits of bleached linen, the men in their Russian blouses and bareheaded, the women in full skirts, and tight “bodies” with snowy plotoks on their heads, all barefooted, all converging upon the church. Inside, gravely bowing, the men range down one side of the empty
room and the women line up on the other. In the centre of the aisle between, stands a table always supplied with a little dish of salt, a loaf of bread, and a jug of water, the three elements that are the Trinity of life. In season, these three simple elements are supplemented by offerings of a plate of the most perfect specimens of tomatoes, a plate of the finest peaches, another of the largest plums, a full-grown watermelon, and a bunch of asters. This dash of colour against the simple purity of the white linen suits of the congregation is indeed effective.

Masha Kanigan at her spinning wheel, c. 1919.  Photo by Edith S. Watson, Nellie Voykin Collection.

Note stamp mark of Edith S. Watson on back of photo. Nellie Voykin Collection.

The Doukhobors are very fond of singing, and this carries one back to the daily life in the “villages”. For at almost every meal the Doukhobors, in addition to saying a solemn “grace”, end the meal with the singing of old religious chants. At the evening meal in particular the singing is never omitted. It is worth while going among these people just to listen to this sweet community part-singing gathering in volume as it goes rolling through the miles of the “Valley of Consolation” caught up from village to village, and borne away on the romantic wings of the dusk enfolding the mountains, the rushing river and the orchards.

The garments of linen worn as the ceremonial dress at these early Sunday morning services, are the offering upon the altar, as it were, of the epic of flax. The Doukhobor women though “Doukhobor” in religion are Russians in their knowledge of flax. This knowledge is their own special contribution to Canada. Other wheat-wizards there are, other masters of mixed-farming, other specialists in stock, others who would find them children at the fishing. Perhaps no Doukhobor has ever been a sailor, (because this is a strictly earth-loving people) but nowhere else in Canada is the complete story of flax, from the seed to wearing of the woven linen, to be come upon, without moving outside a settlement! Flax knowledge is the Doukhobors’ gift to Canada but up to this time, apparently, there has been no attempt to employ these people as

Pulling flax, Verigin, SK, c. 1919.  Photo by Edith S. Watson, Working Light.

In the fields at Verigin one comes upon the figure of a woman stooping over and seizing in her strong hands a full handful of the tall plants. These she pulls and ties with a twist of green into a sheaf. “Flax must be pulled”, she tells you. In response to inquiry as to the quality and length of the fibre in this Canadian flax, she raises herself to rest awhile, and drawing a wisp through her fingers says half-reminiscently “Oh, good, vera good. Vera long fibre.”

The British Columbia woman “rets” her flax in the river. And she keeps the swift current from running away with her precious plants, by weighing them down with the rounded river-stones, the smoothed product of the ice-age. These smooth stones serve the Indian-woman as pestles for the stump-mortar wherein she grinds her corn, and this Russian woman turns them to service for anchoring her flax, as though they were made to order. A week or ten days and the flax, now clear of all wood-fibre, is given the final washing and then carried up the steep bank of the river to sway in the wind, the while it dries on some “village” clothes-line. After this it comes into the hands of the heckler and the spinner, in every odd moment between drying fruit, picking beans, winnowing seeds, gathering aprons full of ripened millet and the thousand and one tasks the hand finds to do on these almost self-supporting farms.

Washing flax in the Columbia, Brilliant, BC, c. 1919.  Photo by Edith S. Watson, Romantic Canada.

The spinning-wheel is as common in every household here as in Quebec. Indeed, in the big yards, one often happens on several women at their wheels, while indoors, other women are sitting at the big handmade loom that their husbands have concocted of the B. C. cedar log. The Russian flax-wheel appears smaller than the wheel of de laine in Quebec. But its whirr and blurr of action is no less musical and rapid, and its measure of spun thread as long. The only difference between the spinners of the East and West is that the Russian woman spins flax and her habitant sister wool.

The Doukhobor woman is also a spinner of wool but as yet the keeping of sheep on the Doukheries is in its infancy.

The Russian woman’s flax-wheel is light so that she can easily take it under her arm, spinning here or there, as she wishes, indoor or out. In the heat of the midsummer day, when work in the fields is only pursued early in the morning or in the late afternoon, you find her spinning in her bedroom or on the porch. Or she sits out of doors among the flowers abloom in her dooryard enjoying the blossoms and the shade thrown by peach-trees laden boughs bending, a symphony in fruit, to lay themselves across the heart of their Earth-mother. Indoors, the blur of the flying shuttle hums a minor accompaniment to the song of the bees busily planing from flower to flower, gathering up the nectar, that, as honey, is later to come to home tables. Then some morning the bolt of linen is finished, the linen that will, with ordinary care, long outlive the women whose industry has brought it into being.


For more Doukhobor writings and photos by Victoria Hayward and Edith S. Watson, see Doukhobor Farms Supply All Needs, reproduced from their 1919 newspaper article (Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, November 22, 1919) which examines the agricultural self-sufficiency of the Doukhobor community in British Columbia and Saskatchewan.

Special thanks to Corinne Postnikoff of Castlegar, British Columbia for locating and submitting the Nellie Voykin collection of Edith S. Watson prints.