by William A. Soukeroff
The Freedomite (Svobodniki or Sons of Freedom) Doukhobors began as a small, radical movement to reinvigorate the faith, restore traditional Doukhobor values and protest the sale of land, education, citizenship and registration of vital statistics. They would achieve infamy through civil disobedience, nude marches and burnings. Reproduced from Vestnik (April 8, 11 and 15, 1959), the following article by William A. Soukeroff examines the history and influences of the Freedomite movement. It was written as an attempt to educate the Canadian public about the Freedomites at a time characterized by sensationalistic, one-sided and misrepresentative news coverage of the movement. Translated by Steve Lapshinoff.
The problem of the Freedomites of British Columbia is an important link with the forceful abduction of their children and their plans of migration to the “Motherland”. It has attracted the attention of the Canadian public. Many sincerely sympathize with their plight, would like to understand them and help them, and to lessen the burden of their bitter fate. But to the many who are unfamiliar with the history of the Doukhobor movement and the conception of the Freedomites amongst them, the problem does not seem to fall into any sort of logic.
It appears to me that no logical solution to this problem can be found, not knowing how the Freedomite movement was conceived among the Doukhobors, from whence came their views on life, misled if you will. This question cannot be resolved superficially.
The religious Doukhobor sect has been in existence for over 200 years. It had periods of calm and of revivals. When they were not bothered by the authorities, the Doukhobors lived quietly and peacefully, but the moment that the authorities began to press them, there would be spurts of uprising amongst them. This is the way it was in the Transcaucasia. The refusal of military service by the Doukhobors and later the persecution of them by the government brought out the uprisings.
Religious movements often go to the extremes and fall under the absolute influence of the strongest individual in its’ midst. These extremes often surface through ideas and aspirations to adhere steadfastly to given goals, not withstanding any agreements, laws or rights of other people. With these beliefs, the Doukhobors migrated to Canada.
There was a split among the Doukhobors within the very first years in Canada. It seems that a community proclaiming universal Brotherhood would be the more united but life and ideas, like words and deeds often do not go hand in hand.
Part of the Doukhobors became attracted to private ownership in Canada and immediately began to obtain separate lots of land and to live individually. The larger part (of Doukhobors) strived to live in accordance with their religious beliefs – communally. Doukhobors always had leaders. They listened to their teachings and were guided by their advice. Peter Vasilyevich Verigin was in exile in Siberia and was unable to migrate to Canada with the Doukhobors. After a few years in Canada without a leader, many became “Free thinkers” and introduced new ideas into the Doukhobor midst.
In the material sense, during the first years in Canada, the Doukhobors encountered severe hardships as a natural occurrence. An insignificant number of respected elders did not want to accept this reality, insisting that Doukhobors pay more attention to their spiritual rather than material, i.e. strive toward spiritual attainment rather than worry about material comfort.
In 1901 Doukhobors received a book “Letters of the Doukhobor leader Peter V. Verigin”, released under the editorship of Vladimir Bonch-Bruevich, his introductory article and with a forward by V. and A. Tchertkov.
These “Letters”, gave the Doukhobors the opportunity to get more acquainted with the philosophies and outlook of their leader. While in exile Peter V. held wide communications with many friends and sympathizers of the Doukhobors, and most importantly with people closely associated with Lev Nickolaevich Tolstoy. In these letters, Peter V. often emphasized that his expressed views appear as “Fantasies” or “Theories”. It could be said with confidence that he did not in any way think that these “Theories” and “Fantasies” would be accepted by the Doukhobors as precepts in their life. As in one of his letters of this collection (letter # 17) dated November 41h, 1896, from the village of Obdorsk to Nickolai Trofimovich Ezumchenko, he wrote the following:
I would like to see education as well as any written communication of course, dropped altogether as a trial period for a couple of years. This is, as yet only a thought, a product of fantasy. For example, our society’s old age views of education are reprehensible, and we have very few educated people amongst us. The few, if any, are self-taught. We maintain that education destroys the inclination to greet people, also, schools corrupt the morals of children, and thirdly all things through which education is actualized are obtained through great hardships, therefore, to participate in the subjugation of people in any form must be avoided.
In spite of the fact that this was not written to the Doukhobors but to an outsider, the opinion of his “theory” later manifested in the Freedomite way of life. From this is seen, that many views of the Freedomites have direct connection to these same philosophies.
In the same letter Peter Vasilyevich continues:
In my theory or understanding, in essence the order of composition should be: to drop physical labour one by one and go out to teach peace and charity which coincides with temperance. Bread is already plentiful; all that is necessary is to be less greedy. The soil, already depleted by man, would rest and replenish itself. I do not even foresee human suffering should they subject to such a theory, because by eating in moderation there would be enough (food) for a hundred years. Humanity is omnivorous, and unfortunately eats for pleasure rather than need. In a hundred years the earth would have enough time to completely recover and go back to its’ original state. And humanity would attain spiritual growth along with a natural earthly paradise, (which Adam and Eye had lost).
Further in this letter he directly states:
If people want to become Christians they should gradually cease physical labour and preach the Gospel (that is Christ).
In this letter Peter Vasilyevich brings forth arguments, which the Freedomites later attempted to fully apply to their way of life:
… That the Apostles and Christ wore clothing and ate bread is natural because both were plentiful and it should be said that Christ and Apostles could not suddenly go naked. I speak of their achievements. I propose that people would gradually get used to physical nakedness – spiritual nakedness is much more sad. Having worn out his clothing and having eaten up one’s bread, mankind would come to the condition of which I spoke earlier. I am told that all people cannot live as Christ and the Apostles did, bit I will say that this must not sway us, for I believe that all can.
These very deliberations which Peter Vasilyevich himself called “products of fantasy” became the foundation for a small group of the elderly, who sought to make manifest this fantasy into reality, and who came to the point of asceticism.
From there “theories” it can be supposed emanates the relentless struggle of the Freedomites against education, with their preaching of the New Testament and their “experiments” in practicing nudity which evoked extreme feelings of prejudice against them from the Canadian public.
The largest trek of the Freedomites (up to 3,000 people), to spread the Gospel, took place in 1902 in Saskatchewan under the slogan of “we are in search of Christ the bridegroom”. In this manner, almost immediately, from the very first years of the settlement of the Doukhobors in Canada, the Freedomites attracted attention of all the Canadian public and the government. The trek was stopped by the police in 1902. The participants were returned home and spared desertion and freezing. In November of 1902 Peter Vasilyevich Verigin arrived in Canada from Siberia. He placated the disturbed Doukhobors and advised them to begin rebuilding their lives.
The trek of 1902.
The community began to get involved with livestock and all other community inventory and life was restored to order. But in several villages the older people began to doubt and to deliberate “Petushka” (this is what they called their leader) is totally violating Christian teachings. After all he himself professed that animals are our lesser brethren, and one cannot oppress them. We preach full freedom to all life, but what sort of freedom is it for horses when they are harnessed? This is not a Christian act.” etc….
Yet the believers in the leader will always find justification for his act saying, “Petushka is only fooling the Englishmen with his doings and is only avoiding harassment from the government but he is not a betrayer of Christianity. We will not worry about this. Let him do his job and we will do ours. This is only a test from God.”
The whole Freedomite movement, right up to the death of Peter Vasilyevich numbered not more than 200, striving to live the simplest life and subjecting themselves to self-denial and testing their endurance for the accomplishment of the goal of self perfection.
The community with Verigin at its’ head always rejected the Freedomites, and as a result they lived out of the community most of the time. At the time, their eccentricities did not bother the surrounding communities and they had little conflict with the authorities.
In 1921 and 1922, suddenly school buildings burst into flames. Eleven schools were burned. The Doukhobor community was against schools for a long time, but later accepted them on the condition that children will attend schools only to the age of 12. From that time the situation between the Doukhobors and the authorities intensified. The orthodox blamed the Freedomites for the burning of schools, although there were no individuals directly accused. The authorities were unable to find the guilty. In 1924 Peter Vasilyevich was killed by an explosion in a railway coach, by which he was travelling. The Doukhobors are deeply convinced that he was murdered by a bomb by outside evildoers, but this crime was never solved.
The Doukhobors ceased to allow their children to school in protest of this act. The authorities used repressive measures against the Doukhobors for this step, confiscating their belongings, etc. At this time a delegation from the community traveled to Russia to invite Peter Petrovich Verigin, the son of Peter Vasilyevich to come to Canada to head the Doukhobors.
With great impatience the Doukhobors awaited the arrival of a leader. In the end, in the year of 1927, P. P. Verigin arrived in Canada. Immediately in the Doukhobor midst there was a feeling of rejuvenation.
Upon his arrival, the Freedomite movement broadened in character. (In his first speech, P. P. Verigin appealed to the Doukhobors to unite and ordered the Freedomites to drop their fanaticism.) In his second speech, concerning the movement of the three groups, the Orthodox, the farmers Independents, and the Freedomites. He named the Freedomites, “the Named Doukhobors”. “Freedomites, he said, are called good for nothing, insane, etc. etc., but that is harsh and not true. For Christ, they are none other than the ringing of a bell awakening us. The Freedomites are our Doukhobor scouts; these are the true servants of Christ. Amidst the Freedomites, there are certain individuals, (just as in other groups) who, with their unreasonable actions, strive to blacken these glorious workers, who are on God’s path. I am appealing to them and asking these liars who work with the spirit of Satan, to leave the ranks of these pure Freedomites.” He finished his speech with the following: “The Named Doukhobors, consisting of three indivisible but different levels of growth and emanation: firstly – Freedomites “Scouts”, secondly -center Community, and third – the rear, these are the so-called Independents.”
The bringing forth of the Freedomites to the first place by P. P. Verigin, gave a start to an even bigger growth of the Freedomite movement. However, the 1930’s economic crisis also contributed to the growth of this movement. The crisis had a hard impact on the community. Many of the community members had to go outside the community in order to find work to pay the debt for the community lands. During the crisis year’s jobs could not be found. The Canadian workers traveled from one end of the country to another on freight cars, but could not find jobs anywhere. Under these circumstances the community could not function for very long. The directors of the community started court proceedings against their own non-paying members. Some members were removed from the community for not paying dues. In the end, the (court) authorities refused to forcefully remove the community members from their land. Many community members proclaimed the slogan of “Land is God’s gift. It should not be an object of trade,” and declared themselves the Sons of Freedom. Yet in the early 1930’s there appeared placards on the community lands, with a similar slogan. The Freedomites went from village to village and proclaimed, “(We will) forget the taxes and interests. We will put schools out of our minds.”
In the end, after long discussions with the authorities, an agreement was reached that the community would allot a separate region of land where all the non-payers (Freedomites) must settle. This was done. The Freedomites were allotted an area, now known to all as “Krestova”. Many former orthodox made their way to this Krestova, considered as the Freedomite center yet then, and looked upon by all as a leper colony.
Krestova became a haven to many independents as well, from Saskatchewan and Alberta, ruined by the depression.
In 1932, the community began to forcefully oust some 200 members, orthodox – almost half the population of the village of Glade. Being evicted, instead of going to Krestova, they left all their belongings along the side of the road and marched to Brilliant, the center of the Christian Communities. Other Freedomites began to join their trek, as well as Doukhobors having nothing in common with Freedomites except the wish to help the protest of the ousted members from their homes, which they had built themselves. The protesters never reached Brilliant. The police blocked the road and requested that they return home. But they had been forcibly evicted from their homes and did not want to go to Krestova. In protest, taking an example from the Freedomites, they disrobed.
Freedomite camp near Nelson, British Columbia, 1929.
Thrums, where the marchers were stopped, became the center of public attention. The police arrested the nude and took them to the Nelson jail. But sympathizers of the evicted, arriving in Thrums and seeing the police also disrobed. They were then loaded onto police buses. Near Nelson appeared an encampment of tents, where the protesters were temporarily kept.
Among several hundred Doukhobor protests grew spontaneously against accumulated grievances, deprivations and disagreements of existing order.
In the end the B.C. Government allotted Piers Island, located in the Pacific Ocean near Vancouver, where close to 900 people were sentenced to 3 years for nudism.
At this time Peter P. Verigin was sentenced to 3 years of imprisonment in Saskatchewan and newspaper harassment began against all Doukhobors demanding Verigin’s deportation from Canada. While these two circumstances had nothing in common, the arrest of Verigin had an impact on the Doukhobors in Piers Island: through their imprisonment they tried to share the fate of their leader. The Freedomite children were forcibly taken away from their parents and placed in foster homes around the Vancouver area. Several infants died of neglect. Then a Special Commission of people sympathetic with the Doukhobors was formed, who decided to take the children from the foster homes and place them with Doukhobor families. In our settlement, families including ours took several children to our homes. The children were frightened and didn’t know where their parents were or why they were forced to live among strangers. This had a psychological effect on them.
On completion of 3 years imprisonment, on Piers Island, they returned to their homes (if they had any) – but the majority settled in Krestova. On this manner, people of different outlooks and beliefs were gathered in Krestova. Not surprising then, that media, sociologists and other learned people can’t find one goal or one philosophy among the Freedomites. Many do not understand why the Freedomites reject English Schools, as they see many adequately educated amongst them. By their rejection, they reveal their struggles and protests not only against schools but also against all wrongs in accordance with their beliefs of contemporary living.
As I indicated above, the Economic crisis of the 1930’s had a ponderous effect on the community. At that time, on top of the economic crisis, the community also suffered a loss as a result of the burning of community property. Orthodox, as well as surrounding communities blamed the Freedomites for the burnings, and as a result, there developed extremely acute antagonism. The community was right to defend their interests as they felt that their possessions were threatened. This led to a growth in numbers of “Non-payers” of community dues, who joined the Freedomites. As a result, in 1936-38, the community lost all their properties because of non-payment of dues. With their land lost, their community possessions sold by the courts for next to nothing, brought out not only the dissatisfaction amongst the remaining Orthodox, but was also the reason for the expansion among the ranks of the Freedomites. Many of the Orthodox realized that the Freedomites were correct in their struggle against the laws of private ownership of land, decided to join their ranks.
The Second World War also brought out turmoil among the Freedomites. Notwithstanding the fact that the Doukhobors were legally exempt from military service, the military authorities distributed call-up papers to the young Doukhobors for medical examinations. During talks with Doukhobor representatives, the military authorities indicated that these call-ups were a mere formality, and that no Doukhobor would be forced to serve in the army. Different groups settled this matter with the authorities in their own way. In British Columbia this matter was left without consequences, but in Saskatchewan several young Doukhobors took substitute labour.
Then in connection with the war, the country put into effect the registration of the populace of Canada. Many Doukhobors, not only the Freedomites refused to register considering this to be subject to military laws of the country. Almost all the Freedomites refused to register and were again imprisoned. Therefore, Freedomites according to religious convictions, always protested against all government measures contrary to their beliefs.
Analysing the question of the Freedomite movement, one cannot refute the fact that the disturbance in their midst, their protests and strife, their disagreements with the set order of present day living comes from deep, even through distracted convictions of inherent Russian sectarianism.
Sectarianism in my opinion, portrays the condition of a person newly awakened from a long spiritual sleep and not yet fully alert to his surroundings. Consequently, sectarianism often had the appearance of deformity.
Although I do not share Freedomite views upon the persistent struggle against education and assimilation, I do however believe that the movement of the Freedomites cannot be judged superficially and cannot be resolved in a forceful manner. The Canadian government cannot understand the persistence of the Freedomites. To the government, every person living in Canada must firstly be a good citizen and it looks upon him as its’ subject. Concerning the convictions and beliefs of the citizen, for this there are known existing laws and all beliefs and convictions of the people, must fit into this category on the same level of convictions of all the citizens.
The government cannot seem to take into consideration this spirit that was instilled into the Doukhobors over several generations. This open, free, fleetingly turbulent spirit that does not bow to anyone and with which all great warriors and reformers of humanity distinguished themselves.
The Canadian government and the Doukhobors are two opposite poles. For the Freedomites the Canadian government represents all Kings, Princes, Kaisers, Pharaohs, Emperors, Roman Popes, Archbishops, Patriarchs, wars and military generals. Among the Freedomites you will find Diagnoses and Pythagoras’s, Jan Husses, Luthers and other reformers and philosophers, also among them are Razins and Pugachevs.
From this kind of element, a separate group was formed called the Sons of Freedom and it was not without reason they were called “radicals”. Because many Doukhobors, upon migration to Canada, began to disagree under the influence of Canadian “freedom”, the group gathered in strength. The struggle against evil is a thorny path. In the Transcaucasus, the Doukhobors overcame great trials and tribulations and upon migration to Canada, many decided to “rest”. This “rest”, was the cause of dissension. Many, not only “rested”, but also were enticed by a more luxurious way of life. They accepted Canadian citizenship, accepted and purchased individual lots of land separate from the community. They bought automobiles, luxury furniture and began to accumulate money. But among the Doukhobors, there were people who did not succumb to this enticement, fought against it and became objects of persecution even from their own brethren. These are the kind of people the Freedomites were.
No matter how we judge them or disagree on methods of battle or their understandings, we all must acknowledge that the Freedomites did not sell out to the dollar system, nor succumb to the temptations of private ownership and did not stray from their beliefs.
Many Doukhobors would call Freedomites rebels, do not know what they want themselves. Let this be so. But Doukhobors who renounced the Orthodox Church and consequently military service were also rebels. There was also a division among the Doukhobors, yet in the Transcaucasus with their struggle against military service, some of the Doukhobors were also called “rebels”, and “traitors”. If the Freedomites did not practice nudism, one would not be able to distinguish them from Doukhobors of past generations who fought against churches and militarism. It is true that in the past, Doukhobor struggle had a specific and clear goal that which was shared by many elders of that time. The Freedomites now protest against the Canadian system in general and continue in their struggle against government schools and against assimilation with this system and to many this struggle seems foreign and incomprehensible.
What astonishes many is this persistence to follow their convictions and under no circumstances stray from them.
The government is at fault in that it tries with any means including the application of force to convert these people into its citizens.
Many people, wanting to decipher the Freedomite problem, attribute their persistence to fantasy or political propaganda and do not want to acknowledge the fact that the Freedomites can think for themselves, that these simple people are capable of having some sort of ideas or principals.
Freedomite house burning, 1950s.
The Commission on Doukhobor affairs, attempting to settle the conflict between the Freedomites and the government, invited a representative of the American, Quakers, Emmett Gulley, to Canada. Confident that this representative of an influential, religious organization related in spirit to the Doukhobors will influence them. But the outlook and methods of this representative appeared unacceptable to the Freedomites and he was unable to reconcile them with Canadian realities.
Many propose that the Freedomites need a strong spiritual leader, one who can influence them and persuade them to a different way of thinking. But this leader will have to share their views; otherwise they will not acknowledge him. Aside from this, it seems to me that the Freedomites are gradually beginning to drift away from leadership. Their independent decision to begin planning a move to the Soviet Union is witness to this. In the Freedomite midst, there have been discussions of migration to the motherland for quite some time. One of their leaders, a certain Displaced Person, Stephan Sorokin attempted to dissuade them from migrating, and even went as far as slandering against the Soviet Union. In the end, he too was convinced that the idea of returning to the Motherland, among the Freedomites was not simply by chance, not a fleeting vision, but a totally normal and even unavoidable inclination of people, torn from their own people, tradition, and from their birth place, and finally, he gave his agreement.
Speaking of Freedomite intentions to migrate to the motherland raises the question of how they will accept Soviet authority. In the condition of being unable to answer this question authoritatively, I can however only say that the Freedomites are faced with a choice: either to renounce their conviction here in Canada and to change to a superficial, formal way of performing their rituals, and to reconcile with that against which they struggle, as was done by the majority of Doukhobors; or reconcile and rebuild their lives in a new place, the Soviet Russia. Verification to this is the fact that the Freedomites cannot find an empire anywhere that would allow complete freedom; such as they understand it for man. After all, they could have found it possible to assimilate with the Russian people and to build a decent way of life, depicting their world outlook. The Freedomite delegation, having visited the Soviet Union in connection with the business of migrating there, could find nothing contradictory to their ideology, in Soviet culture or way of life. The basis of their ideology fully coincides with the ideas of Socialism and more important is abolition of private property in the Soviet Union. Their slogan of “Land should not be an object of trade” is protected by law and fully practised in life, in the Soviet Union. Let the Freedomites form their convictions about private ownership through Christian teaching. The fact remains, that in the Soviet Union they can live in agreement with this conviction, and not break the law of taught socialism, which exists in their former motherland.
To the Canadian authorities, the migration of the Freedomites comes as a convenience to rid themselves of these obstinate and restless people, who will not succumb to assimilation.
On the basis of all the above said, the reader may form the impression that I am defending the Freedomites and their method of fighting. This is definitely not the issue. It is possible for one not share these or other convictions, but one should attempt to understand them. If the Freedomites refuse to act against their conscience, against their convictions, if they renounce being a Doukhobor through word, but defend the right to live in harmony through their beliefs, for this they will answer themselves. I consider it unjust to judge people on the surface and say that the Freedomites are willful because of some whim or that they want to spite the Canadian government. It is doubtful that such people exist who would, on a whim, or from a desire to spite, would agree to suffer such hardships that the Freedomites suffer, to the extent of losing their children. Some attribute the Freedomites to excessive fanaticism. It could be said that no religion is free from fanaticism. Religious fanatics are not only those who profess the New Testament in word only. But if all churchgoers and in general all religious people professing Christianity began to do that which the New Testament teaches, they would all be considered fanatics.