Uncle Ivan Remembered

by Charlie Chernoff

The following is an excerpt from the recently printed family history book compiled and edited by Charlie Chernoff.  The book, entitled “Chernoff Family History – Evstafy Branch”, is a collection of memoirs, family stories and genealogical information about his Chernoff Doukhobor ancestors.  Mr. Chernoff writes about his recollection and perception of memorable incidents, relationships and personalities while growing up in the Village of Veregin, Saskatchewan in the Thirties and Forties.  Here, Mr. Chernoff recalls “Uncle Ivan”, a larger-than-life individual whose personality, accomplishments, appearance and actions left a lasting impression on one young Doukhobor boy. 

Uncle Ivan was not a bloodline uncle, in fact he was not a bloodline relative at all. His wife Dunya was a distant relative to my mother but distance mattered little in Doukhobor family relationships. It seems that distant relatives were as warmly received as close relatives. And so it was then that I was introduced to Dunya as Kuzka (diminutive of Kuzma, my Russian name) and she was introduced to me as “auntie”. Her husband Ivan then became “uncle” Ivan and from that first meeting on I was expected to address him as uncle and if referring to him in family conversation refer to him as uncle Ivan.

Author’s mother in Veregin, Saskatchewan, 1918.

This was one of the wonderful traditions of the Doukhobor way of life; distant relatives were auntie and uncle to children. Since nearly every family in a village was related in some way or another to every other family in the same and nearby villages, children had dozens and dozens of aunts and uncles. I remember my children visiting a distant, distant relative who by tradition was aunt Mary and by tradition she received our children as warmly as if they were her own grandchildren. Whenever we visited her home she would greet the children with the warmest glee imaginable then scurry off to some hiding place to bring out some candy treats. What a wonderful tradition! The children in the community were looked after by all adults (since, it seemed, they were in some distant way related) which led to warmness, harmony and safety.

Now uncle Ivan was no ordinary individual. As a young Doukhobor he was home schooled to read and write formal Russian besides speaking “Doukhobor” Russian. I better explain that there was a peculiar tradition invoked when one conversed locally because one spoke Doukhobor Russian which had its own idioms, its own inflections and its own cadence. It was not heavy with the hard “G” and harsh “R”. Many words carried the soft “H” and softer “R” that is common in the Ukrainian spoken tongue. Doukhobor Russian was accompanied by obvious gesticulations and body language which often conveyed an important message while words spoken were few. A good example is the phrase “von mahnul i pashol“.  This meant that the individual waved his arm downwards from the elbow to the palm and left, meaning he disagreed and was not going to indulge in further conversation and went his way. 

Uncle Ivan was a voracious reader, so his Russian vocabulary was much richer than the regular Doukhobor. He also wrote fluent formal Russian. It is peculiar again, that although Doukhobors conversed in Doukhobor Russian they wrote in proper and fluent Russian even though their vocabulary might be limited. I remember how impressed many of the community people were because Uncle Ivan was one of the few persons they ever met who had read and studied the New Testament. My mother had a book of the New Testament in Russian but she read only parts of it and did not study it but simply enjoyed the metaphors.

Uncle Ivan enjoyed addressing sobranias, which were meetings or prayer assemblies. Since he had an extended vocabulary he was able to wow the crowd. He was not shy so he got a lot of practice at public speaking and since his speeches were non-controversial nor demeaning the crowd enjoyed his deliveries. Dad says that one day uncle Ivan was particularly wound up and reached for many uncommon, extraordinary Russian words and phrases to make his point. The crowd was entranced and gave him a standing ovation. Later Dad was talking to Victor, a Russian gentleman with a formal Russian education who had chosen to live near the Doukhobors. Victor remarked that uncle Ivan had delivered a rousing speech but that many of the bigger, flowery words were definitely the wrong words to use. No matter the crowd loved it.

Uncle Ivan was also an accomplished artisan. When the combined communal prayer home and Peter V. Verigin residence was being constructed in Veregin he was the individual who designed and fabricated the ornamental sheet metal scroll work that adorns the upper part of the balconies. A masterful job.

The Dom at Veregin, Saskatchewan, 1935.

Uncle Ivan was a mainstay in the CCUB (the early communal organization of the Canadian Doukhobors) during its formative years. He served this organization in several capacities but over time his confidence in the continued ability of the communal enterprise to survive as a productive, vibrant, commercially successful co-operative waned so when the Communal Doukhobors and Peter V. Verigin moved to BC uncle Ivan chose to become an Independent Doukhobor and stay behind as a farmer near Veregin.

Uncle Ivan had many great qualities but he had one weakness. He enjoyed too much the “bottled devil” and visited him too often. But even when he had too much of the wrong kind of spirit in him he remained calm and demure and loving. He would always refer to his wife as his Kosha, meaning “kitten”.

To this day I vividly remember one afternoon, in late fall after the harvest was in, when uncle Ivan came ambling towards our store, a bit awkwardly, from the direction of the beer parlor. He had enjoyed an afternoon of visiting the bottled devil and had taken leave not because his thirst was quenched but because he had run out of money. He turned into our store and since it was late and everyone else had left he begged my father to fill the grocery order that his Kosha had sent with him. To fill it now but to delay payment until some time when he came into some money. Since my Dad had suffered the self same affliction years earlier he recognized that a fellow squanderer needed to be assisted without argument. As Dad began to pack the few essentials into a bag he asked me to lock the store and pull the shades.

Author as a child in Veregin, 1937.

Having done this my chores at the store were completed for the day so I retreated to our living quarters that adjoined the store. I went to my room upstairs to work on my homework. It was a couple of hours later that I came downstairs to see if Mom had supper ready. She informed me that supper was indeed ready for the table and I was to see what was delaying Dad in the store. I opened the door from the living quarters into the store only to find both my Dad and uncle Ivan bawling their eyes out. My dad had spent those couple of hours convincing uncle Ivan that his drinking was only lowering his stature amongst the community residents, distancing his sons from him and that it was a totally selfish behavior and unfair to his Kosha.  I cleared my throat and spoke up announcing supper. This gave both of them the opportunity to dry their eyes and exchange hugs and then I let uncle Ivan out the store door with his groceries.

Uncle Ivan never drank again.

In fact one day Uncle Ivan whilst in one of his expansive moods declared “Ehhh! Nikolai if I had an enemy and he were antagonizing me I would be moved to place a curse on his soul and the nature of the curse would be that he become an alcoholic”. Dad agreed this would work, then added that if he had an enemy and was being antagonized he would wish the proprietorship of a small general store upon him.

At another time I asked Dad how long it took uncle Ivan to complete work on the forty ornamental sheet metal panels. Dad replied that he had no idea but that it must have been a long time since all the ornamental perforations were cut out with a hammer and cold chisel. After some cogitation I continued with the comment that it must have been awful boring. Dad replied that he did not think so because uncle Ivan kept his companion nearby.

When I inquired as to what he meant about his companion. Dad painted this scenario – uncle Ivan would carry his tools to the shade of some trees bordering the property then drag the sheet metal under a tree settle down comfortably and commence to chisel out the perforations. Periodically he would check the landscape to make sure that no women were about then reach for his companion and take a good long pull from the jar of homebrew. Apparently this kept him going all day long with nary a complaint.

Another day after uncle Ivan had visited with us at the store and left I remarked to Dad what a decent and friendly and wise individual he was. Dad said that uncle Ivan took great pride in being known as a caring, loving individual of unquestioned integrity. Then he commenced to tell me that there were widespread rumors amongst the Independent Doukhobors that some community fund raised monies had been siphoned off never to surface again. It seems that because of uncle Ivan’s undisputed integrity and power of persuasion he was often sent alone to collect money for some project or other. There were no receipts issued nor any lists made of the exact sum given by each individual so it would have been easy to “skim” the pot. Uncle Ivan had heard stories of collected funds being skimmed more then once so, as a counterclaim, he had proudly announced to Dad that he never stole a cent. Well, he took some for a jar of homebrew now and then but that he regarded to be an “operating expense”.

Railway station and elevators at Veregin, Saskatchewan, 1935.

I learned one of life’s grandest lessons from uncle Ivan. One cold day he was warming himself near the store stove when a young, recently married man came in for groceries. Spotting Ivan the “Elder Doukhobor” sitting near the stove he sauntered over and confided that he had a family problem and maybe Ivan would hear him out and give him some advice. Uncle Ivan was not in a habit of turning anybody down so he replied that he had time to hear him out to see if he could help. The young man told a story of a running conflict with his new in-laws, that they were meddling in his and his new wife’s affairs. He said that he did not want to distance himself from them nor offend his new wife but that he needed more breathing room. Uncle Ivan waited until the young man had calmed down some then he commenced to ask questions. I was listening in without appearing to be listening in. Uncle Ivan’s question’s seemed to have little to no thread to them. They were sort of a shotgun approach to the specific problem. The young man would answer every question with considerable elucidation. After quite a number of these, pointless to my mind, questions the young man suddenly cried out, “That is it! That is what I must do!”, and he began pumping uncle Ivan’s hand and thanking him for the great advice he had given him. Of course, uncle Ivan had not given any advice at all, he had only asked questions to help define the problem. Once the problem was well defined, the young man immediately saw how it ought to be solved. Uncle Ivan’s contribution had nothing to do with offering a solution but had everything to do with defining the problem. I guess it is a technique that was often used by the elders of the Doukhobor community.

Many years later after I had worked in industry for a number of years and had been appointed supervisor of a software programming group I would often be sought out by an employee who wanted advice on how to handle a personal problem. I would recall the serious interest uncle Ivan would show in a fellow’s problem so I would try to emulate the same serious interest and then begin to define the problem by asking the employee questions. Once the problem was well defined every employee I counseled suddenly said thank you for the advice that will certainly work. No specific advice was ever given!

The Chernoff family home near Veregin, Saskatchewan as it appears today.

Aunt Dunya, Ivan’s Kosha, was also a community activist. Dunya was a practicing mid-wife who participated in the delivery of many babies for Doukhobor families who asked for her services. The Doukhobor tradition was to have mid-wives trained in the art and science of delivering newborns because they were not comfortable with outside interference even doctors. Now this was not academic training but apprenticeship type training where ladies who showed interest in providing the service worked as assistants with experienced mid-wives. Through observation and discussion and hands on practice the helpers moved on to become trusted mid-wives. We have already alluded to community specialists such as artisans but in addition there were architects, carpenters, harness makers, dental technicians, bone setters and so on. But none was as important as a mid-wife. After all, mid-wives dealt with situations which could easily escalate into life and death situations. It was an awesome responsibility for a lady to take on a mid-wife role because she knew that the “expecting” family realized that they were entrusting the mother-to-be and the child-to-be into her hands. Any miscalculation or lapse of concentration could result in the death of mother or child or both. It took an individual of uncommon resolve and self confidence with nerves of steel yet displaying outward tenderness to successfully fulfill the mid-wife role. Dunya helped deliver babies into the 1940’s. My cousin Timofey was delivered by Dunya in the early ’40’s in the family bedroom with nothing more then helpers, hot water from the kitchen, plenty of clean towels and a boundless supply of tenderness and comfort.

Uncle Ivan and his beloved Kosha are gone now. I can only regret that I did not take the time to interview him about the early days of the CCUB. Why didn’t I plumb the depths of his philosophy of life or his understanding of the Doukhobor way of life? I am certain he would have had wise contributions to make on these and other subjects because he thought deep, he thought clearly and he thought often. Also I can imagine what interesting experiences I could have recorded that Dunya had encountered in her role as a community benefactor.

As my Dad would say. I would like to kick my own behind if only I could reach.