With the Doukhobors to Canada

by Vera Mikhailovna Velichkina

Vera Mikhailovna Velichkina (1868-1918) was the daughter of a Moscow clerical family. In 1891, she broke out of the family circle to join Tolstoyans organizing famine relief among the starving peasants of Central Russia. In 1892, she immigrated to Switzerland where she studied medicine and met her future husband, Marxist revolutionary Vladimir Dmitryevich Bonch-Bruevich. They remained abroad until 1899, when Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy asked them to escort the fourth boatload of Doukhobors to Canada. To this end, Velichkina and Bonch-Bruevich (along with several other sympathizers) sailed from England aboard the SS Lake Huron to pick up the Doukhobors at Batoum. They disembarked at Constantinople to buy provisions for the sea crossing while the ship continued to Batoum. They rejoined the ship as it passed through Constantinople on its way to Canada with the Doukhobors on board. The crossing, their quarantine on Grosse Ile near Quebec City and the rail journey across Canada to Manitoba are described in detail by Velichkina in a series of three articles published in the Russian paper “Russkie Vedomosti” in May 1900. The English translation of this valuable historical material is reproduced by permission from Woodsworth, John, Ed. and Trans., “Russian Roots & Canadian Wings, Russian Archival Documents on the Doukhobor Emigration to Canada” Canada/Russian Series. Vol. I. (Toronto: Penumbra Press, 1999).

I. At Sea

On the morning of the 3rd (15th) of May [1899] we finally received word that our ship, the Lake Huron, was approaching Constantinople. We had spent the past ten days in Constantinople buying provisions for the ship, and the long wait in this dirty Asian metropolis was terribly annoying, all the more so since we so much wanted to see the Doukhobors as soon as possible and begin our work with them. I was awfully glad when we went to the English consulate and saw there our captain and doctor and our other companions with whom we had spent two weeks en route to Constantinople.

Doukhobor sympathizer Vera Mikhailovna Velichkina (1868-1918. Koozma J. Tarasoff Collection, No. 533.

Approaching the Lake Huron by launch, we could see from some distance away that it was full of people. Upon boarding the ship, I felt a bit disoriented at first from being surrounded by so many people. Everyone had crowded onto the decks to have a look at the huge city spread out along the shore. Little boats pressed in all around the ship, from which all sorts of merchants carried on a shouting dialogue with the Doukhobors.

First of all I got acquainted with my colleague, field-nurse Efrosinya Dmitryevna Khiryakova (1859-1938). She had already accompanied the second boatload, and consequently was much more experienced than I in this matter. I must admit the first few days I was quite thrown by all the various inconveniences of the ship. For example, we had to prepare medicines not on a table but on a bed, which we both had trouble reaching, and so forth.

Apart from that, instead of relying on the ship’s pharmacy alone, she had equipped herself with various medicines and medical instruments from Russia, which turned out to be a wise decision. She showed me all our ‘treasures’. The ship’s pharmacy depressed me – it was so dirty, confining and ill-equipped.

Besides the two of us, there were two other escorts aboard: Vladimir Dmytrevich Bonch-Bruevich (1873-1955) and Alexander Nikolayevich Konshin (1867-1912), along with a fifteen-year-old boy [Sasha Bodyansky], being sent by his father with us to America. We at once seconded him to be our assistant. His duties included seeing to the proper ventilation of the holds, which he carried out most properly.

After looking over the ship I went to the upper deck to get acquainted and talk with the Doukhobors. I was immediately surrounded by women asking questions. One very old woman who, as I found out later, already had a great-great–grandson, invited me to sit down and have dinner with them, but of course I wasn’t able to do that right there and then.

We left Constantinople toward evening.

The next day Efrosinya Dmitryevna Khiryakova and I set off on a medical inspection tour of the ship. She had already learnt her way around on the leg of the trip from Batoum to Constantinople, and pointed out to me the people that were ill. We got along rather well with the English doctor. At first he did hardly any work at all, and it was only during the second half of the crossing that he caught on to our example and set about his work in earnest. He made no inspection tours of his own and came down only when I told him that someone was seriously ill.

Initially we had a conflict with him over the medications and the bandaging materials. He wore me out with his long diatribes on medical practice aboard ship and how to deal with ‘this class of people’. He especially protested against the treatment of chronic illnesses. But what should one do about all these chronic sores when the voyage was going to go on for twenty-eight days? One could not, in fact, leave them unbandaged. He kept asking me to listen to him as a ‘senior colleague’: ‘If you constantly respond to every complaint, this class of people will make you their slaves. And what will happen when you go under yourselves – then they’ll all be without your help’, and so on.

Notwithstanding all these reservations, we did have access to anything that was to be found on the ship, and were quite free to go about our work. There was an unusually large number of chronically ill people aboard, since the other parties [on the previous ships] had been reluctant to take them with them, as they were travelling in the wintertime when the seas were rough.

There were a lot of old men in particular in our party. Initially, of course, there were not many acutely ill, although dysentery began rather early [in the voyage]. It did not take on any threatening character on the ship. The drinking water-the most important issue on a sea voyage-was always satisfactory.

Doukhobors aboard SS Lake Huron, 1899. BC Archives, Koozma J. Tarasoff Collection, C-01448.

During the first few days, until I had got used to the ship, Efrosinya Dmitryevna and I made our inspection rounds together twice a day – morning and night. We checked those who were ill, and carried with us everything essential for first aid (cognac, liquid ammonia and a few other medications), noted down any who were weak and needed a better diet, and looked into the various other needs of the Doukhobors. We either brought the prescribed medicines ourselves later, or the patients’ relatives came to the clinic for them. Our young assistant looked after the distribution of milk, eggs, coffee, lemons etc. After the morning tour we busied ourselves in the clinic up until the mid-day meal, after which we would bandage patients with chronic sores. By and by, to save time, we began making our rounds separately, dividing the ship into two parts. Our patients were increasing in number and time was something to be treasured.

Not long afterward a minor incident occurred, after which our doctor significantly softened his attitude toward the Doukhobors and stopped arguing over their medication. Once, while Efrosinya Dmitryevna and I were bandaging one seriously ill woman, he came into the cabin to see her. Earlier he had tried to persuade us to change the bandages less frequently, as she was not going to get better in any case, and she required a lot of time and bandaging materials. But the poor woman told us that without the bandages she suffered terribly. Her whole leg from top to bottom was infected with tuberculosis… Her lungs, too, were seriously infected, so that we had little hope of keeping her alive to the end of the trip, and in fact she passed on a few days after our arrival in Canada.

No sooner had the doctor begun to expound on the need to save bandaging material than the patient suddenly grasped his arm, and, pointing at her heart, kept repeating: Khoroshii, Khoroshii! [Good, good!] She very much wanted to tell him herself how much she appreciated his kindness and the good he had done for her. The doctor, of course, did not understand and turned to me. I explained what was going on. As it happened, I had sent her a jar of preserves that very morning, and she thought it had come from him, and wanted to thank him herself. I did not attempt to explain the misunderstanding to her, as I always wanted to establish good relations with the staff, and told the doctor that I would send her other things in his name. The doctor was completely bewildered and embarrassed and ran off. A few minutes later he returned and brought us new bandaging materials, splendid and soft.

This comic incident happened during a time when we were isolating patients. There were quite a few among the Doukhobors who suffered from Caucasian fever, and the doctor was so afraid of any kind of infection that he endeavored to put anyone with a high temperature into immediate isolation. The Doukhobors had no understanding of why contagiously ill patients should be isolated. They did not raise a protest; they simply did not understand.

At one point the doctor discovered a healthy eighteen-year-old lad with a slight temperature and decided to isolate him in the hospital cabin. His wife, whom he had only recently married, had absolutely no wish to leave her husband in the cabin alone. At first the doctor was quite unwilling to allow her to stay with him on the grounds that she would be taking up an extra patient bed. After long negotiations, I suggested that if all the beds were occupied, she could lie on the floor… Finally the doctor agreed.

The doctor staunchly defended the sanctity of his hospital cabins. When I came back to see the isolated patient an hour later, I found, to my horror, a whole crowd of female visitors in his cabin. The next day our patient seemed quite well and the doctor, after seeing him and checking his temperature, decided to release him. We went to the cabin (as an interpreter, I always accompanied the doctor) and found there neither the patient nor his wife; in their place we found his sister sitting there with her baby. She responded to our query by saying: ‘It’s all right – I’m part of their family’. We looked at one another and burst out laughing.

Two babies were born during the voyage – a boy and a girl. The girl was born first, and the crew asked that the ship’s name be attached to hers. Accordingly, I called her Anna-Hurona. Good weather prevailed for almost the whole time. There was little rocking, and then only crossing the ocean. The Doukhobors were a little afraid of the ocean; it always seemed that a storm might blow up such as the storms they heard about in letters from the first party (we were the fourth boatload) and that they would be rocked to pieces.

Doukhobors aboard SS Lake Huron, 1899. BC Archives, Koozma J. Tarasoff Collection, C-01434.

We started across the ocean and nothing terrible happened. Many were ill, but not from seasickness. Our workload kept increasing, however, so that we had scarcely any time to talk with the Doukhobors or read to them, as we had expected. If we happened to catch a free moment here and there, most of the time we would gather around Petr Verigin’s elderly mother, upon whom the Doukhobors bestowed special care and respect. She was always surrounded by the more intelligent Doukhobors, who would tell us about their lives, about their plans for the future, and sing or recite their psalms. For our part we would read this dear woman letters from her sons, which she never tired of hearing.

Upon arising in the morning on the ninth day out, we were greeted by the sad news that a five-year-old girl had died. I was astounded, as I had not known a single seriously ill child on the ship. It turned out that this girl had been completely paralyzed with an abnormal skull, and had been close to death for some time, to the point where her parents no longer asked for help for her but only awaited her final passing from day to day. This was the first death on the ship, not counting the death of a mentally-ill girl who had been brought aboard in a terminal state and died a few hours after our departure from Batoum.

The girl was buried that afternoon. The weather was splendid and clear, the sea was completely calm. The Doukhobors had been singing over her from early morning, and a sense of hopelessness permeated their monotone singing. The Doukhobors took it very hard when someone died on the ship – it was sad for them to cast their loved ones into the sea, where no one would ever know their graves. As a rule, they react to death very calmly.

It was a solemn moment when the father himself took his deceased daughter into his arms to cast her into the sea. Her mother walked behind, all in tears. All the Doukhobors sang. They let her down gradually on a rope to the water’s surface, and then, still singing psalms, calmly lowered her into the sea. One of the Doukhobors stepped forward and began to recite a psalm in a clear, distinct voice. Then voices were once more raised in song. At this point the child’s mother herself tearfully recited a prayer. This was followed by still more singing-now no longer about death – and the clear blue Mediterranean sky reflecting the dark azure of the waves – all this, it seemed, was speaking only of eternal, deathless life and reconciliation with earthly death. The heavy feeling of oppression had been lifted from the heart. At the end of the ceremony the father bowed to those around him and thanked them for their compassion.

Six people altogether died on the voyage. In addition to the two already mentioned, there was a very elderly lady (an epileptic), and then another elderly lady who had been ill for a long time with liver-disease. She was an amazingly bright individual; I knew her and looked after her meals. She died very suddenly, for on the morning of the same day she was feeling so good that she even wanted to go up on deck. Her husband felt devastated by her death, and even I went under and spent a whole day lying in bed in my cabin. The next to die was the lady with tuberculosis of the leg, whom I mentioned earlier. And toward the very end of the voyage, just as we were approaching Canada, a seven-year-old boy passed on with a serious case of pneumonia.

Toward the end of the journey we began smallpox vaccinations. Right at this time a little girl took sick; her temperature was constantly above normal. The Doukhobors, understandably, suspected an infection, all the more so since rumours were going round of smallpox on the ship. The Doukhobors didn’t come to us – they greatly feared a quarantine, since, under the terms of the ship’s charter, it would cost them dearly. And any delay in their journey would be very unpleasant for them, as they were in a hurry to get established on their sites.

The first to express her suspicions was Efrosinya Dmitryevna Khiryakova – the girl was her patient. I told the doctor, since isolation of contagiously ill patients came under his jurisdiction and he bore official responsibility for the spread of disease. The doctor, who was busy with the smallpox vaccinations, did not pay much attention to our assertions, and only as we approached the quarantine site did he isolate the patient. Both he and I realized that we were dealing with a mild form of actual smallpox. But he told me he was not completely sure, and asked me to pass that information on, and to tell the mother it was chicken-pox.

Launch approaching Doukhobors aboard SS Lake Huron, 1899. BC Archives, Koozma J. Tarasoff Collection, C-01516.

During these last days before arriving [at Quebec] one of my patients, a child, was dying of pneumonia. I left the rest of the ship in the hands of my kind and experienced colleague and devoted almost my whole time to the poor boy. The people’s health began to improve a little, now that we had crossed the ocean. The child died that evening, on the eve of our arrival. To the great comfort of his mother and family, he was not cast into the sea, but brought to the island where the quarantine was set up. We sailed in not with the yellow flag, which would have signalled trouble, but with the ordinary ship’s flag.

Some time after the quarantine inspectors boarded the ship, our doctor approached me and asked me to say, if I were questioned, that the girl had just taken ill the day before yesterday. I did not wish to lie, but neither did I want to put the doctor in an awkward position, so I did not leave my cabin. But one of our escorts, Alexander Nikolayevich Konshin, told the chief quarantine inspector what her mother had said, that the girl had taken ill nine days ago. This was most unpleasant for the ship’s doctor. The smallpox was immediately ascertained, of course, and a state of quarantine was declared. They took the girl and her mother away to hospital on a small quarantine boat. But before this they took my young patient to the cemetery. This was our first gift to Canada. The smallpox was the second.

We were all almost completely convinced that there were other cases of smallpox on board, carefully hidden by the Doukhobors. There was no longer any reason to hide them: the ship was to be detained in any case, no matter how many sick people there were. We went to see the elderly Verigina and asked her to use her influence to have all the cases of smallpox brought to us. And in fact this was done. It turned out that there were thirteen cases of smallpox among the Doukhobors. But (oh God!) what a frightful appearance was presented by two little girls that were brought to us! The smallpox had already covered half their bodies, and they had been covered up with clothing in that condition for nine days so they wouldn’t be seen. After that six sailors had fallen ill. Fortunately, no one died from the smallpox, and no new cases appeared during the quarantine.

They began taking people onto the island, starting with the sick [children] and their fathers and mothers. The quarantine boat was obliged to make many trips to and fro. Efrosinya Dmitryevna Khiryakova was taken along with the patients.

We were vaccinated at this time, along with all the officers. Then began the disembarkation and the transfer of both passengers and baggage to the quarantine site. The whole procedure took four days, as the operation had to be halted on occasion for more than half a day because the rough water prevented the little boat from approaching the Lake Huron. These days were frightfully exhausting for us, and so I breathed a sigh of relief as I left the Lake Huron with the last party, hoping to get a bit of rest in quarantine. The crew stayed on board, intending to wait out the quarantine period on the ship.

Toward the end I had some rather serious disputes with the doctor and the captain regarding the smallpox. They began sharply criticizing the Doukhobors for hiding the ones who were sick. I was so depressed at hearing their blistering – and for the most part unjust – attacks on the Doukhobors, whom I had grown quite attached to during the voyage, that I was unable to restrain myself and started defending them. I said that in a situation like this it would be difficult to blame anyone in particular, but if anybody were to blame, it would be [any] doctors who allowed such a disease to spread. In this case I myself did not hold the English doctor morally responsible, since he was not able to enter into direct communication with the Doukhobors. That left just me; but I had never taken upon myself any administrative or police duties and therefore did not hold myself responsible for the smallpox, except in the sense that I had not sufficiently earned the Doukhobors’ trust that they themselves would tell me about their diseases. For this I was prepared to take full responsibility, and, if necessary, to say so in print.

The captain and the doctor were very embarrassed, and began apologizing for their harshness toward the Doukhobors. They told me they would certainly not allow me to take sole responsibility for the smallpox, but would willingly share it with me. We parted on the best of terms.

II.    In Quarantine

The quarantine where we were to spend twenty-one days was situated on a rather large island named Grosse lle (about 4 miles [approx. 6.5 km] long), lying at the mouth of the St-Lawrence River, about 35 kilometers from Quebec City. What a paradise it seemed to us after the ship! Even before disembarking we admired the picturesque group of Doukhobor women and children who had gone to the island first and who had spread themselves out along the shore to wash all their clothing and underwear in the water – finally, fresh water! The little children took great delight in playing and running through the grass around their mothers.

Pier at Grosse Ile, Quebec. It was here where Vera M. Velichkina and the 2,286 Doukhobors aboard the SS Lake Huron disembarked for quarantine. Library and Archives Canada PA-046795.

In the meantime a ceremonial welcome awaited our party in Quebec. Representatives of earlier Doukhobor emigrants had come, along with delegates from the Philadelphia Quaker committee. But they were not allowed to meet with us. Three Doukhobors came to see us in quarantine and stayed with our party for the whole month, while the Quakers sent a welcoming letter to Grosse Ile, expressing fervent brotherly sympathy and concluding with the following words:

As we said earlier, we wanted to meet you upon arrival here, and let you know, as representatives of the religious Society of Friends, about the sympathy the Society feels toward you and to express our Society’s compassion for your trials and losses, and to do as much as lies within our power to help you with your needs. Not being allowed to see you at the moment, we commit you to the Lord’s keeping, believing that He will make all things work together for good to them that love and honour Him, and that He will be praised through the patience in tribulations shown by those who are His children…

‘Your friends: Joseph Elkinton, William Evans.’

The Doukhobors responded to the Quakers with a letter of their own, which reads in part:

The Lord save you, dear brethren, for the love [you have shown] by corning to meet us as your brethren of faith in Christ, and by laying down your life for your brother and your neighbour. May you be recompensed in a measure overflowing with heavenly and earthly gifts from the omnipotent hand of the heavenly Father. … We ask the same Lord and all kind people to forgive us our iniquities by which we have hurt innocent people through our intemperance and our uncertainty. And we ask you, dear friends, to convey our heartfelt greeting to all the brothers and sisters living in Philadelphia in the United States who believe in Christ, the Saviour of our souls.

‘With love from the Christians of Universal Brotherhood now in quarantine on Grosse Ile, and members of this Community: Semen Chernov, Pavel Planidin, Semen Vereshchagin.

Part of the island, about a kilometre square, had been sectioned off for the ship’s passengers. At the other end of the island was a general hospital and the smallpox dormitory. Most of the island was covered with a splendid forest. In the middle of it stood the employees’ houses and the house of the quarantine director, Dr. Martineau. At our end of the island there were eight large, bright dormitories and a fairly spacious old kitchen, which was not being used as in addition to that there was a new kitchen with well-appointed stoves and pantries. Besides the kitchen, the Doukhobors could use the bakery to make bread and in one of the dormitories there was even tap water, and bath-tubs.

Those escorting the party and the ship’s crew were housed in a splendid large building called an hotel, which was divided, like the ship, into first and second classes, with rooms appointed in the fashion of ships’ cabins. At first the crew hoped that they could spend the quarantine period on the ship itself, but this proved inconvenient, and a few days after us they moved in. This rather restricted the Doukhobors, since they were no longer able to freely come and see us in this building.

About twenty paces from the hotel were the quarters of the sergeant who ran this part of the island, and next door to them was a small room where smallpox vaccinations were administered. Next came the disinfection chambers, and beyond that was the cabin of an English physican, Dr. Church, whose whole job was the inspection of ships.

Quarantine hotel at Grosse Ile, Quebec. Library and Archives Canada C-079029.

There was no pharmacy nor walk-in clinic on this part of the island, nor was there any doctor to service them, since it was assumed that all serious cases of illness would be treated at the hospital. During the quarantine I became convinced even more than on the ship of how important it was to equip one’s self with all kinds of medications and instruments.

Upon my arrival on the island, I went to see the chief physician of the district, Dr. Montizambert, suggesting that I carry on my work during the quarantine. He was very happy [about this] and said that everyone would gladly help me if I needed it.

As to the medications, I was obliged to go see our quarantine director, Dr. Martineau. I immediately made up a list of required medications and bandaging materials – a rather modest list – and while my requests were never directly refused, what I got was either not delivered on time, or delivered in such small quantities or in such a disordered state that I have never, anywhere, suffered so much from a lack of medicines as on Grosse Ile. I had, for example, [to deal with] a multitude of minor surgical cases – bums, cuts etc., and in response to my request for bandaging materials I received a huge quantity of cotton batten and only three bandages. Then several people showed up with a rash; I prescribed sulphuric ointment, and they sent me two ounces… During the second half of our stay in quarantine I began ordering medicines from Quebec myself, but this did not happen often.

The individual smallpox vaccinations began right from the first day the Doukhobors began setting foot on the island. No official interpreter had yet been brought in; [Alexander Nikolayevich] Konshin. had his hands full looking after the Doukhobors’ living arrangements, and so right from that very first morning I offered to help the quarantine doctors in this work. […]

After the vaccinations the quarantine doctors made their daily rounds of all the dormitories, seeing to it that sanitary regulations were being observed and watching for the appearance of new cases of smallpox, which, thankfully, didn’t happen.

Then a curious incident took place. The quarantine authorities were not quite sure that the Doukhobors’ escorts had not taken part in covering up the smallpox on the ship. At one point Montizambert expressed his doubt to Konshin, adding, half-jokingly, that this was subject to a fine of 800 dollars and six months in prison. Konshin told that to the Doukhobors. Then on one of my rounds I found in one of the dormitories a very lively meeting taking place. I asked what was going on.

‘Yes, haven’t you heard, Vera Mikhailovna, about the trouble that has befallen us?’ replied Pavel Planidin, one of the most influential Doukhobors in the party. The doctors say that because of us, because of our mistake, our escorts may be put in prison. We cannot allow that to happen, and we have got together and want to go to see the doctors. We’ll tell them to take all of us instead of the escorts, since they didn’t have anything to do with it. If we wish to hide (some-thing), nobody, not even the doctors, no matter how much they inspect the dormitories, will ever find anything.’ And in fact they followed through on their intention and spoke about this to Montizambert.

But the main activity of the quarantine doctors was, of course, the disinfection of all the baggage and the ship itself. They really had a lot of trouble doing this. Those accompanying the ship were also obliged to expend no little energy convincing the Doukhobors that this was essential, and that without disinfection of their baggage they would not be allowed to leave the island. Our party had brought a fair number of possessions with them, including reminders of their previous days of wealth, and the Doukhobors greatly feared that this would all be spoilt by the disinfection. There were many doubts, questions and negotiations at first, but then little by little the matter was resolved, the Doukhobors became convinced that everything would remain safe and unharmed, and not only did they calm down themselves, but they also tried to write letters to calm the fears of those who were in hospital. The latter, for their part, also wrote cheerful letters [back] to their relatives to the effect that nothing was been taken away from them or burnt, as they had previously supposed, but that on the contrary, their needs were being well looked after and the food was splendid. In fairness to the quarantine personnel, it must be said that they were actually very attentive and careful with the Doukhobors’ baggage. […]

Baggage already disinfected was identified by labels with the sign of a red cross. Here another misunderstanding arose. The Doukhobors were greatly troubled upon seeing the crosses and asked that a different sign be used. They apparently took these crosses as a violation of their religious beliefs. One of our escorts, Bonch-Bruevich went to see Montizambert and asked him to resolve the misunderstanding in some way. He replied that [the inspectors] were obliged to attach this label, but that if the Doukhobors didn’t like it they could scrape it off. The Doukhobors soon realized that there was no attempt to violate their beliefs here.

Doukhobors having a meal while in quarantine, 1899. BC Archives, Koozma J. Tarasoff Collection C-01485.

I myself took no part in the disinfection and didn’t even have time to observe it… After receiving patients I made my rounds of the dormitories. I was almost never able to complete this before lunch, and so continued with it after lunch. Later, if there were no serious cases to attend to, I would go to my cabin to rest for a couple of hours, prepare medications and talk things over with my colleagues. Then before supper I would once again open the doors of my clinic, and make a second tour of the dormitories in the evening. But I doubt I was able to follow this schedule to the letter much of the time, especially when there was a lot of work.

My evening reception hours began stretching to almost 11 o’clock at night, so I tried to get in the second tour of the day somewhat earlier. When there were more serious cases, I would have to visit the more distant dormitories as often as three or four times a day. Often secondary activity -writing letters for the Doukhobors, mediating as an interpreter between them and the Canadians -would take [time] away from my purely medical work. I tried to avoid such activity as much as possible during the quarantine, since in addition to [Alexander Nikolayevich] Konshin, who had a good command of both English and French, we did have an official interpreter.

But the Doukhobors knew that I too spoke the language that was foreign to them, and they often turned to me for help in this.

Before long an epidemic of dysentery broke out on the island. It turned out that at one end of the island, not far from two dormitories which stood some distance off to one side, was an old blocked-off well, alongside a huge abandoned cemetery containing the graves of some 3,500 people who died on this island from cholera and smallpox in the 1840s.!! To avoid going further afield – i.e., to the river – the Doukhobors in these dormitories unblocked the well without telling anyone and began drawing drinking water from it. The quarantine guards noticed it two days later, but the dysentery had already managed to infect almost all the residents of these dormitories and spread even further. At one point there were so many people ill that it seemed that there were scarcely any healthy people left.

Even in that desperate situation I was constantly lacking the [needed] medicines… True, there were few fatal cases. Altogether we lost seven people during the quarantine. Five very old people died – one of them from dysentery, the rest simply of old age, without getting sick. Then a small child died of lung inflammation, and one middle-aged man from dysentery.

Finally Dr. Church offered to help me in all cases where there were complications. He was a very good, experienced physician who was really a great help and support for me at this difficult time. Sometimes during the worst weather and in the middle of the night he would go with me without a word of complaint, and I felt much calmer in the presence of such an experienced senior colleague. […]

At this time in the dormitory furthest away a child became sick with inflammation of the lungs, which required very careful attention. My own condition was such that upon seeing me, Montizambert at once suggested the hospital. He insisted that I send all the dangerously ill patients there. I objected, saying the Doukhobors would be most reluctant to agree to that. But he continued insisting, saying that I could no longer go on working in my condition, that I would faint from fatigue. ‘Qu ‘allons-nousfaire, si vous crevez de fatigue?’ [‘how are we going to make it, if you die of fatigue?’] he would say.

In the end Montizambert persuaded me to tell the Doukhobors that this was his order. Of course I realized that in the large, splendid hospital they would receive a hundred times better care than from me.

I selected three to be transferred: an old man, who was lying in the kitchen, the child with inflammation of the lungs, who had taken ill just the day before, and Larion Tarasov, who had a typhoid form of dysentery. As I had expected, they all agreed very reluctantly. And I felt sorry to send them away, simply wanting to save myself extra work. But on that same day [Efrosinya Dmitryevna] Khiryakova. was released from the smallpox dormitory and after disinfection she set about taking care of these patients in the hospital.

Grosse Ile with quarantine buildings in foreground. Library and Archives Canada C-079030.

The day went quietly, but the following night I was awakened and called to the telephone. Usually our telephone made the voices sound muffled during the day, but they were clear at night-time, and I heard Khiryakova’s voice distinctly telling me that Larion Tarasov had passed on, the child after him, and soon the old man would die. The relatives had to be notified.

These three deaths all at once were a sudden shock to me. I had to go to work as soon as day broke, but my former cheerfulness and energy were gone, and I was very glad when, after the old man’s death, Khiryakova returned to us and was able to share the load. I must admit that during these latter days of our quarantine I was quite willing to let her take care of the whole task of receiving patients. In the meantime the epidemic had subsided.

The quarantine itself was finally lifted, the doctors withdrew, but our party still remained on the island, as the trains that were to take us to the north-west were not yet ready, because of some national holiday the Canadians were celebrating. The Doukhobors were terribly bored and anxious to get out to their sites as quickly as possible. Finally a small ship was hired which was able to take our party to Quebec, one group at a time.

Again we went with the last party, having seen all the Doukhobors aboard. As they passed through a gate onto the ship, they had to hand in their certificates showing that they had been vaccinated and had taken a bath. Dr. Martineau carefully looked each one in the face as they walked by, so as not to let pass anyone with smallpox. We were obliged to be present at this inspection to resolve any misunderstandings that might arise.

The procedure did not pass without a few comic scenes. One woman, for example, had a child in tow whose face was covered in freckles, and Martineau looked at him suspiciously. Noticing this, the woman explained: ‘Konopatyi on [he is speckled/freckled], understand? Konopatyi!’ Of course neither Martineau nor even the interpreter understood the word konopatyi, and even I didn’t catch on at first. ‘Ko-no-PA–tyi!’ the woman repeated. General consternation.

Finally, after all the concerns and alarms, the last group ceremoniously thanked the doctors and boarded the boat, and we went along too. I must admit I felt a tinge of sadness at leaving the island, where I had done so much work and gone through so much for my patients, all the more so since I myself now had no idea where I was going, for how long, and what would be awaiting me in this new and unfamiliar land.

III. To Winnipeg

Ever so quietly, in a hushed silence, the last group of Doukhobors sailed into Quebec harbour at sunset time.

‘Why so quiet?’ asked the brethren who had come earlier, with some annoyance. It is the Doukhobors’ custom to approach the shores of a new homeland with psalm-singing, but our group had somehow forgotten about that, probably tired out from the day-to-day anticipation of our departure.

They had not even thrown the gangplank across when my colleague Efrosinya Dmitryevna Khiryakova and I were snatched off the ship over the railing. The Canadians were in a hurry to get acquainted with those escorting the Doukhobors.

Port of Quebec where the Doukhobors aboard the SS Lake Huron disembarked in 1899. Library and Archives Canada PA-031895.

The new arrivals were met by a Mr. P. Doyle – a government immigration agent – and a Mrs. Cornille, a middle-aged woman in charge of all arriving immigrant women and children, along with Mr. Elkinton, a man of senior years with a very kind face, wearing a traditional Quaker costume, who had come as a representative of the Philadelphia Quakers.

We went at once to the immigration facility, where Mrs. Cornille wanted to show us how she had accommodated the Doukhobors that had come earlier. The immigration facility was a rather large two-storey building. On the lower floor the Doukhobors were accommodated in a huge, clean hall with electric lighting. Two large rooms on the upper floor were also placed at their disposal, along with several individual rooms where Mrs. Cornille took the sick and infirm, [so that they would be] further away from the noise and bustle. We too were allotted rooms here. The whole building was surrounded with an awning, which also sheltered a crowd of Doukhobors. This was where the trains came in.

By the time we arrived, the third train loaded with Doukhobors was already waiting to depart. The whole space under the awning was filled with the sound of cheerful voices bidding good-bye. They would not be parting for long; they had nothing but bright hopes for the future; the ocean, the smallpox and all the troubles and sorrows of the trip were behind them, and a very happy mood prevailed on the railway platform.

But it was not long before we had occasion once more to despair. It had been expected that the Doukhobors would set out for the north-west on one train after another, as usual. But then they were detained several more days in quarantine as the railway coaches were not ready. Now it turned out that there weren’t enough coaches. The fourth train was delayed until the next day. And the last party was obliged to stay five whole days at Quebec, expecting their train literally hour by hour, day and night.

There were six trains all told. [Alexander Nikolayevich] Konshin left with the first train to get everything ready at our destination. After a couple of days Efrosinya Dmitryevna Khiryakova left us – we saw her off on her way back to St-Petersburg. Bonch-Bruevich and I went with the last train.

These days of waiting – right at the doorstep of the railway station, it could be said – were exhausting. The government did not let any outsiders into the immigration building except with an immigration agent’s permission, to keep the Doukhobors from losing their money. It soon became necessary, however, to limit the Doukhobors’ access to the city, as a result of several misunderstandings that occurred – a lot of them, still unfamiliar with Canadian coins, were being cheated out of their money in the city; two of them were almost run over by an electric tram, and so on. In addition, the Doukhobors bought a great deal of fruit, most of it spoilt, and the dysentery which had all but disappeared in the quarantine blew up again. But this time those who fell prey to the illness were healthy youths, and they didn’t have too much trouble coping with it,

It is only fair to say that the immigration agents – the senior agent Doyle in particular – were extremely attentive even to the most insignificant needs of the Doukhobors. The kind old gentleman stopped to chat with each woman and answer each one’s questions, calling me over to serve as an interpreter. He spent the whole day making the rounds of the immigration building, barely stopping for a bite to eat. Doyle took care of all our requests at once and was exceptionally attentive.

I had rather little to do here in the way of actual medical work, but there were more things to be taken care of than ever. The official interpreter departed with one of the trains, and I was left as the only intermediary between the Doukhobors and the Canadians. Apart from the purely business matters, there were many visitors whose curiosity needed satisfying. One wanted to know about the Doukhobors’ religion; another was interested in their crafts and wanted to buy some kind of souvenir; a third wished to ask about their trip. Bored as they were from the long wait, the Doukhobors themselves were not averse to chatting with this visitor or that. I was constantly besieged with all sorts of questions. At this time I was able to make a few acquaintances that served me well in my subsequent experience.

Immigration buildings, Quebec City, Quebec, c. 1899. Library and Archives Canada PA-020858.

The boarding of the trains was splendidly organized by Bonch-Bruevich. Each family knew ahead of time which coach to look for, and the actual boarding took but a few minutes. There were still some arrangements that needed to made for the baggage, however. And so, when the next-to-the-last train was about to depart, I was standing with Doyle in the doorway of the baggage-car, translating his instructions to the Doukhobors, when we noticed some commotion in the immigration hall. Thereupon a couple of Doukhobors came running up to me and said:

‘The Minister’s arrived, sister, he’s asking for you!’ There was nothing to do but to leave the loading of the baggage-car and go see ‘the Minister’.

It turned out that the President of the Parliament [sic!] had arrived with an entourage to meet the Doukhobors. I had occasion to show him my patients, and then to talk more about the Doukhobors, their beliefs and customs, etc. At this point in one of the upper rooms the Doukhobors were preparing a ceremonial reception for him- including a prayer service. Upon our arrival there, the president was greeted with psalm-singing. When this was over, he addressed the Doukhobors with words of welcome, saying on behalf of the Canadian people how glad he was to see them in his country, wished them a successful establishment in their new homeland, and promised to do everything he could to make all traces of the trials they had suffered disappear as quickly as possible.

The Doukhobors, for their part, in simple, warm phrases thanked the Canadians for accepting them in their midst, and the president personally for taking the trouble to come and meet them. After the speeches the Doukhobors continued to sing and recite their psalms, and I conveyed the content of their songs to him in a half-whisper. The president stayed more than an hour with the Doukhobors, but at last the ceremony was over and the train could get underway. We went a little way on it ourselves to count the number of passengers, and then a carriage took us back [to the immigration facility].

I was sincerely happy at the outing, as up until that time I had not once been out of the immigration building. Later I managed to get some free time to myself and have a look around the city. The Canadian doctors suggested I take a look at the university in Quebec.

Quebec is an old-fashioned, ugly city with dirty narrow streets. But I was impressed by the university. It is a relatively small building on some back street or lane. Besides the university itself, the building also houses an art gallery and a museum. The small, old classrooms are appointed with plain wooden floors. The academic library is still of miniscule proportions, so that you completely forget you are at a university.

‘And here is the chemistry laboratory for the Faculty of Medicine’, a young doctor who had just graduated observed with pride. ‘The laboratory was just opened last year.’ ‘How did you get along before without a laboratory?’ ‘Only with theory; we didn’t do any practical work.’

In one of the largest and most decorated rooms stands the tomb of Bishop Laval; it was thanks to his efforts that the university was opened. The influence of the Catholic clergy is noticeable all throughout southeastern Canada. In Quebec itself almost half the city belongs to various Catholic orders.

Immigration buildings near train station in Quebec City, Quebec, c. 1899. Library and Archives Canada C-061968.

But to get back to the Doukhobors. In the last group, who were to be going with us, we separated out all those who were penniless, who couldn’t even afford to buy bread for the trip – 178 people. They were provided with bread, tea, sugar, cheese, and salt to take on the train, and even milk for the children. During their stay in Quebec, all the little children also received milk. Before leaving, Elkinton, the Quaker, gave money to Mrs. Cornille to provide as much milk for the children as they wanted. Someone sent clothing for the youngsters, as well as wild strawberries.

The Cornille woman herself reacted to the Doukhobors very warmly; before the trains departed she wanted to treat the children to candy. But she did this rather awkwardly. After gathering all the children together, she tossed the candies from a little bag out into the crowd. The youngsters all scrambled at once to pick them up, and naturally the little ones got hurt.

The Doukhobors took great offence at this type of amusement. The elders called me over and asked me to tell Mrs. Cornille that they thought it was simply a mockery that ‘our children could get smothered just trying to get a little candy. And besides, what if they started fighting each other over it?’ To avoid offending the kind old lady, I refrained from conveying the sharp tone of their words, but for the rest of the candy distribution we lined up the children and put the littlest ones in front.

At long last our train arrived. We boarded quickly, took along all the provisions we would need for the three day’s journey and set off for the Far West. I felt sad at leaving these two kind senior people, Mr. Doyle and Mrs. Cornille, who were so good to work with and who treated the Doukhobors so warmly.

‘May God grant you [the opportunity] to get some rest, at least along the way!’ were their parting words to me.

I doubt that settlers anywhere travel as comfortably as in Canada. In the first place, all the coaches are sleeping-cars, and each person has a fine, comfortable place to sleep. The benches are soft, covered in oilcloth. The train has two stoves, on which the Doukhobors were able to cook hot food for themselves, and there was always enough water for washing and drinking.

It took us three days and nights to get to Winnipeg, stopping for no more than a quarter of an hour at only the major stations! At these stops we were very alert to make sure that none of the Doukhobors got left behind at the station. Two lads travelling on one of the previous trains were left behind when they got carried away gathering strawberries.

In the middle of the train there was a storage-car where all the foodstuffs procured for the journey were kept, as well as all sorts of dishes – cups, spoons, even towels, brooms etc. This coach also had a room for the immigration agent accompanying the train. The agent who travelled with us was so kind and attentive both toward the Doukhobors and toward us that in spite of my ill health my memories of this trip are most pleasant ones.

In my section I again set up a dispensary and received patients. True, there were not very many of them; nevertheless, every day a few people would come to me for bandaging, and while it was difficult enough to cope with this on the ship during the rocking, on the train it was practically impossible.

Doukhobors en route to Western Canada, 1899. BC Archives, Koozma J. Tarasoff Collection C-01512.

Every morning all of us escorting the train would gather in the storage-car and hand out foodstuffs for the day. Then an enormously-built and amazingly kindhearted Doukhobor by the name of Semen Zybin would pick up a large pail, and armed with a little mug, we would go with him through all the coaches and give out milk to the children.

The Doukhobors, for their part, also tried to pay as much attention as possible both to us and to the kind ‘train conductor’, and the amazed Englishman would find on his table dried bread-crusts, or a baked potato, or something like that. One time a lad who was passing by our section stopped at our table and took out of his tunic three hot potatoes. ‘This is for you,’ he said, handing me one of them; another was given to Bonch-Bruevich; ‘and this one’s for him’ – nodding in the direction of the conductor’s car.

Thus we arrived calmly and peacefully at the station in Selkirk, thirty miles [50 km] from Winnipeg. Here, half a kilometre from the station, was a large dormitory, where the majority of our party was obliged to stay until their chosen elders had procured the land.

We arrived at Selkirk early in the morning. For some reason we were not expected to arrive on this particular day, and no one was on hand to meet our group. The station [platform] was crowded with Doukhobors, but these were supposed to go right away to Winnipeg. The station quickly emptied, our train was parked on a siding, and we found ourselves in the middle of a field, with no idea where to go or who we should turn to [for help].

Our ‘conductor’ was deeply offended by this lack of attention. Each party was usually met by immigration officials with wagons to carry the remaining provisions, the sick, and the Doukhobors’ escorts. On this occasion the provisions had to simply be piled up on the grass, and I, together with Bonch-Bruevich, set off in the direction of the dormitories to get one of the attendants to go and greet the party.

It was a bad beginning, and our subsequent experiences in real life showed us that here in the Far West, away from the eyes of the world, the Doukhobors were not treated with the same sincere interest as they had been up to now. The time for gracious words and ceremonial greetings was over – it was time to get themselves established, and not infrequently struggle against unfair treatment toward the Doukhobors, unacquainted as they were with the language and the customs of the country.


Unlike the other Doukhobor sympathizers who soon returned abroad, Vera Mikhailovich Velichkina and Vladimir Dmitryevich Bonch-Bruevich decided to stay with the new immigrants in Canada right through the winter of 1899-1900, giving them physical and moral support in their trials of getting established in their adoptive homeland. In the North Colony village of Mikhailovka, Velichkina set up a hospital, clinic and pharmacy through which she administered medical aid to the Doukhobors. She also assisted in Bonch-Bruevich’s ethnographic research among the Doukhobors, interviewing elders and writing down their oral traditional psalms, hymns and sayings. In spring of 1900, Velichkina and Bonch-Bruevich returned to Switzerland where they were married. Thereafter, they became active in the Russian revolutionary movement, collaborated with Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and published Bolshevik propaganda material. After the February Revolution in 1917, Velichkina and Bonch-Bruevich returned to Russia where they held a number of ministerial posts in the Soviet Government. Prior to her death in 1918, she headed the People’s Commissariat for School Health and Hygiene, was a member of the Board of the People’s Commissariat for Health and was Lenin’s personal physician.

About the Publication

The book in which the above article appears, Russian Roots & Canadian Wings, Russian Archival Documents on the Doukhobor Emigration to Canada (Toronto: Penumbra Press, 1999) is a volume of 48 documents collected in 1895-1902 by the Department of Police of the Imperial Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs and recently made available by the State Archives of the Russian Federation (GARF), presented in English translation by John Woodsworth with informative annotations. These documents include: internal police memos on the Doukhobors and their supporters, the Tolstoyans; letters written by Doukhobors and Tolstoyans, intercepted by government agents; and two series of first-hand accounts of the journey from the Caucasus to the Canadian prairies published in Russian newspapers of the day. Copies of all these documents were procured in Russia by archivist George Bolotenko for Carleton University’s Centre for Research on Canadian-Russian Relations.

To order copies of Russian Roots & Canadian Wings, Russian Archival Documents on the Doukhobor Emigration to Canadacontact the publisher Penumbra Press at: Box 940, Manotick, Ontario, K4M 1A8, Tel: (613) 692-5590 or visit its website at: http://www.penumbrapress.com.