The Doukhobors of B.C., Part Two: From Cyprus to Saskatchewan

[continued from Part One]

Conditions for the Doukhobors in Russia had deteriorated to the point where some observers wondered if they might not all die out. Russian authorities clamped down on any news reports but they could not stop the foreign press from reporting atrocity. And atrocities there were. Elderly Doukhobors interviewed in 1975 could remember terrible things:

The whipping began. A grave-like hole is dug so one can lay down even with the ground. As soon as it was dug they took him and laid him down full length with his back facing up. Fine. And then they started flogging, one, two, three, and so on, one after another. The rods were such, with thorns. [Branches of acacia]. The rods had such big thorns. And then when he strikes he doesn’t lift it right away. He strikes and then he drags it down the whole back, these thorns. He drags it it down and the blood runs out after. Then he is lifted out and they start flogging another. And so they would continue whipping, by so many lashes, fifteen at first, then by twenty and then thirty lashes. And then when they have finished flogging… They lift him up: “Get up and walk,” but he already can’t walk. His legs won’t hold him up.     [Marfoonya Pavlovna Osochoff, b. 1882]

That was punishment for refusing to serve in the Army. The whipping would last days. About three hundred men were being treated so or had been sent into prison. Meanwhile, the main group of Doukhobors had been herded into several villages in the mountains of Georgia. They were not allowed to buy land nor to work, though sympathetic locals did pay small amounts for jobs done and even assigned some garden patches to the Doukhobors. People began dying in the mountains, of malnutrition, of cold, of disease. Mass murder may not have been official policy but it was the practical result of czarist practice.

Leo Tolstoy, 1900

Although the authorities tried to keep outsiders away, Tolstoyan Russians and foreign Quakers managed to witness the terrible conditions in Georgia and publicized them in the foreign press. Meanwhile, other Russians were appalled at the spectacle. One man, a landowning minor noble, came under the spell of the Doukhobors and became a pacifist and gave away his land to his tenants. He was sent into exile in the Caucasus but managed to contact Tolstoy who took up his case. There were other sympathetic Russians sent into penal exile, enough so that the authorities thought the place they were incarcerated was too close to the Doukhobors and removed them to Latvia, at the other end of Russia.

During this time Peter Verigin was still imprisoned in Siberia. He wrote directly to the Czarina, appealing on the basis of Christianity and the suffering of women and children. In his letter, Verigin said that the Doukhobors were willing to pay taxes to the Czar but not to serve in the Army. He asked that they be settled on the Russian frontier, all together, where they would work for Russia. Or, he said, let us emigrate.

Tolstoy had written a letter to the London Times describing the Doukhobor difficulties that attracted a great deal of attention. Articles and pamphlets describing the persecution of Russian Christians were written and distributed by Quakers and other groups. Suddenly, surprisingly, Czar Nicholas II announced that the Doukhobors could not remain in Russia if they would not serve in the Army, but that he would allow them to emigrate.

Now those who had wanted to assist the group had to find a destination and gather financing for this exodus. Funds were raised among the Quakers and the Doukhobors contributed what they could. Tolstoy, who had renounced fiction, wrote his first novel in twenty-five years, Resurrection, and dedicated the proceeds to the Doukhobors. But there was still the question of where to send these people.  Manchuria was suggested, and Sinjiang, and Texas, but the place that was immediately available was Cyprus. So, in early 1898, an advance group of about 1100 Doukhobors arrived on that island, which was under British rule.

Cyprus. Athlassa farm, 1899

The place allotted the Doukhobors in Cyprus was hot, dry, and full of thistles except where it was marshy and full of mosquitoes. Initial enthusiasm gave way to despair as the group found farming difficult and malaria decimated the settlers. It was obvious that Cyprus wasn’t working out but where else could they go?

The anarchist Peter Kropotkin had visited Canada in1897 and been favorably impressed by the farm settlements of Mennonites in Saskatchewan. He was familiar with the Doukhobor situation and had visited the Caucasus villages. Now Kropotkin went to the Tolstoyan group that was handling emigration and gave them glowing reports of Canada.

Aylmer Maude, circa 1930 (

A group of Doukhobors accompanied by Tolstoyan Aylmer Maude set out to investigate. Talks were held with Clifford Sifton, Minister for the Interior, and executives of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Both Sifton and the CPR wished to settle the vast Canadian prairie and were quite open to Doukhobor immigration. Aylmer and the others stressed three conditions on behalf of the Doukhobors: no compulsory military service, land to be granted in large blocs so that the Doukhobors could live as a community, no interference with internal Doukhobor affairs particularly in terms of religious instruction and education. This last condition is particularly worth noting in light of the later difficulties of Doukhobors in Canada. Sifton replied that the Doukhobors would fall under the provisions of the Militia Act that exempted Mennonites and other groups from military service, that land would be granted in blocs, and that there should be no difficulty on the rest since religious instruction was not compulsory in Canada nor was education of children required on the frontier. Marriages had to be registered but, otherwise, there was to be no interference with community custom. Aylmer Maude was enthused: “Canada is as free as any country in the world,” he wrote Tolstoy. The CPR promised free rail travel and everything seemed set. There was only one point that was overlooked: the homestead provisions required that those taking up land had to give an oath of allegiance to Canada. At the time, the Canadians did not understand the importance of this provision and the Russians were unaware of it. Aylmer Maude either ignored or was ignorant of this thorn among the roses.

Doukhobors sailing for Canada, 1899

So the first batch of two thousand immigrants left Russia on the steamer Lake Huron. It was October and the new Canadians spent the winter in facilities provided near Winnipeg. The bounty of $5 a head usually paid to organizers of immigrant groups was reserved into a fund for the Doukhobors that was used for such expenses as were not covered by the Immigration Ministry or the CPR. After some searching, Maude’s committee had located three tracts of land near Yorkton, Saskatchewan. Although all the Doukhobors would not be in the same place as was promised, still it was thought they would be close enough.

Food and some livestock was purchased from the general fund and, in February, the young men set out with Canadian carpenters to set up a living space for the others. Meanwhile, another shipload of 2000 Doukhobors was en route. In April, the settlers on Cyprus were brought over and a fourth contingent of Doukhobors from the Russian colonies. Altogether about 7300 people immigrated but there were still hundreds left in prison or Siberia, like Peter Verigin.

The first shipload of Doukhobors arrives in Halifax.

Peter Verigin had sent instructions on how the communities were to be organized: each family was to have its own house, horse, and cow, but increase in the herds would be owned communally. Likewise, the land itself was to be community property.

Doukhobors arrive outside Yorkton, 1899

The new settlers set to with a will. They built large shelters from birch trees as temporary housing for those who followed. These were replaced with houses made of mud brick, a technique learned by the Doukhobors in the Caucasus. Iron bars and hides were purchased from the general fund and men began making tools and harness. Quakers gifted the Doukhobor women with 300 spinning wheels. Food was scarce that first year and berries made up much of the diet. Horses were not plentiful so gangs of men and women sometimes pulled the plows. All this labor paid off and, in the summer of 1900, the Doukhobors were pleased with their new home.

When spring came we were taken to Yorkton. There was still snow. We went in sleighs. There we made a shed from logs, a long one. Plastered it inside and out. Boarded up the floor and everyone slept in a row. We spent the winter there. Near our shed, where we lived, we ploughed. I see it like today. About twelve pairs hitched up. There was a long rope. Now you’d be on that side and I’d be on this side. You would put a gunny sack on your shoulder, And you pull this rope and one old man holds the plough. And we ploughed and planted. The wheat was so good. Of course it was new soil and it rained  regularly. [Vasyl Vasilevich Holoboff, b. 1883]

In 1902, Peter Verigin was finally released from his Siberian captivity and allowed to emigrate to Saskatchewan. Immediately he brought the settlements onto strict communal lines.

When Peter Lordly came then the community would get so many pounds of butter and bring it and get everyone together and distribute it. And sugar also in this manner. Flour was brought in, too. It was during Peter Lordly’s time that our own flour mills started being built. And so at the time of Peter Lordly we settled and lived and it was a good happy time.  [Vasya Nikolaevich Chernoff, b.1886]

Women plowing. Photo from 1901 made into a postcard 1908. The Doukhobors as novelty act.


What games there were. Such activities that you couldn’t wait for Sunday. Softball and then… the young boys started playing soccer, team against team. My God, but it was funny. It was a good, merry life. [Vasya Nikolaevich Chernoff, b.1886]

When we got a bit older, seventeen or eighteen years of age, girls, friends of the same age and Sundays, in the summer time, we had a flat field there and so we would go out and play either softball or “whom do you grieve for?” For “whom do you grieve for?” there would be a group of boys and girls standing in a circle. They start. One boy would step away from the group and call out: “I’m grieving! I’m grieving!” The group asks: “For whom?” And then he’s supposed to name her. Then she starts running around the circle and he’s supposed to catch her before she gets back to her place. And so this was your girl then if you caught her. The girls were so fast then.
 [Aleksei Ivanov Makortoff, b. 1891]

But all was not sweetness and light. In the two years before Verigin’s return as leader, problems with Canadians and divisions amongst the Doukhobors themselves had arisen. Doukhobors are not necessarilly the easiest people to get along with. In the first place, they are individuals with their own individual temperaments, not all “plaster saints” as Aylmer Maude admitted later. Second, these were members of a millenarian sect that had been persecuted for years. During this time the group had developed certain methods in dealing with outsiders that included obfuscation and out right lying, that meant never showing your thoughts completely and always reserving your options in dealing with strangers. Herbert Archer was only one of the long-time friends of the Doukhobors who became disillusioned. “Self-centered, self-righteous, and intolerant” he called them in a letter to Maude.

Still, Doukhobors rose to the occasion when required. When an Irish neighbor kicked a Doukhobor boy to death, the community requested that the authorities write him a letter informing him of the nature of his crime. They wished no vengeance or legal justice, they assumed that the man would be tortured enough by his own guilt.

But some of the group broke with principle by hoarding wealth and keeping private property. When Tolstoy heard of this he wrote the settlers and explained to them that private property could only be held through violence, that whether it was defended by the state or the individual, private property went hand in hand with violence. Tolstoy’s letter was upsetting to the Doukhobors. They recognized him as a benefactor and agent in obtaining their escape from Russia, and to this day revere him and the novel he wrote for them, though few have read it. Still, some continued to amass property. When the Doukhobors were poor and persecuted, they sought solace in a zealous expression of their beliefs. But when things were going well, they tended to relax the strictures of their faith.

Other Doukhobors, roused by the publication of some of Peter the Lordly’s letters, erupted in a millenarian outburst before his arrival in Canada. They freed all their livestock and gave away all their money to whatever government officials they could find. Then they went on a strange march across the prairie winding up, cold and starving, in Minnedosa. This behavior was disturbing to both settled Doukhobors, their non-Doukhobor neighbors, and those Quakers and Tolstoyans who had tried to help them.

There was friction between the Doukhobors and the authorities over bureaucratic issues — census, marriage registration, tax payments, and so on. Some of these problems were created by a non-Doukhobor member of the community who wrote to newspapers abroad describing the tyranny, as he thought it, of Canada. The Romanovs were amused. Petitions were issued demanding this and that. Essentially, the Doukhobors wanted an independent state within the state, one that they compared to Indian reserves. The government could have met the Doukhobors part way in this matter– it isn’t as though frontier society was all that dependent on official paper — but the agitation had created a fair amount of anti-Doukhobor sentiment. Clifford Sifton let matters slide while local officials kept upping the ante by demanding that individuals file for their property. This was a violation of the terms by which the Doukhobors had entered Canada which stated that they could own large sections as a group. And it disturbed the Doukhobors who thought this the equivalent of swearing an oath.

In early 1903, Sifton tried to defuse the growing problem by telling the Doukhobors that they could own the land as a community but that individuals would still have to register of file for ownership. Whether or not that was a coherent policy, it was one which inflamed the Doukhobors who thought they were being flim-flammed. Meanwhile, in late 1902, Peter Verigin returned.

Verigin quickly assessed the situation and met with Canadian officials in January, 1903. There, Verigin learned that there was a three-year grace period before oaths of allegiance would have to be sworn. Verigin brought together his people and the Canadian authorities and worked out an agreement whereby the land was to be kept in common and individuals were not to be fussed over filing papers. The matter of oath-taking was put off. Communal ownership was the important point,Verigin shrugged, the oath-taking was a formality. Probably, he thought, formalities could always be avoided. If not, there were other ways. Verigin bought outright a plot of land where he raised a small village. This was his base as he ruled over the Doukhobors. Because he had bought it, there would never be any question of oath-swearing to keep it.

Those Doukhobors who had set free their livestock and given away their money the previous autumn had thought they were following his directives. Now they were puzzled by his actions. Some of these had taken to wandering amongst the Doukhobor villages where they preached and prophesised. These were called Svobodniki, “Freedomites”, and were later to become known as Sons of Freedom. The Freedomites came to believe that Verigin’s letters had expressed his true thinking and that his words now meant the opposite of what he was saying. This “say the opposite” thinking was later to become a crucial part of the British Columbia disturbances.

Freedomite march in Saskatchewan. 1903?

The Freedomites decided to demonstrate their beliefs to the other Doukhobors and stripped naked, as free from possessions as Adam and Eve, and marched through the villages. They ate leaves and grass like their animal brothers and begged others to follow them. There were fifty-two of the marchers when they ran into Peter Verigin who was driving his carriage. The Freedomites demanded that Verigin free his horse. Peter the Lordly refused. The Freedomites, of course, thought he meant the opposite so they unharnessed the animal and set it loose. They marched on down the road while Verigin sent word to the next village to stop them. There the naked marchers were whipped with willow switches until their legs bled. Women and children were removed from the march but the men continued on.

That night, as the temperature dropped, the Freedomite men huddled together for warmth. Other Doukhobors, clad in  sheepskin coats, gathered around and embraced them to keep the men from freezing. The next morning, when no one was found frozen, a miracle was proclaimed and the Freedomites marched on.

The Mounties had been tracking the progress of the march. The Freedomites were left alone while on the Doukhobor lands but as they approached Yorkton, the marchers were stopped. A crowd of about a hundred people swarmed out of Yorkton and forcibly clothed the Freedomites. The Doukhobors who were used to the communal nudity of the steam baths were surprised by the prudish reaction of the townspeople, but it was something they did not forget.

The Freedomites were jailed and, according to their own statements, mistreated. Eventually they were released. Ten immediately went to the communal farm and, announcing that science was Satanism, tried to wreck a tractor and a thresher. They set fire to the thresher’s canvas cover — the first act of Doukhobor arson in Canada. Verigin went to the authorities and asked that the men be arrested and charged. The authorities tried to dissuade him, warning that the courts would take the matter seriously. Verigin insisted and six men were sentenced to three years each for arson. Later, when Verigin was asked to write a letter of support so that the men could be released early, he refused.

Freedomite agitation quieted for a time but now Verigin faced a new problem: the last prisoners held in Siberia had been released and came to Canada along with Peter the Lordly’s divorced first wife, Evdokia; his adult son, Peter Petrovich, later to be called Chistiakov, “the Purger”; and small grandson, Peter, later to be called Iastrebov, “the Hawk”. This was not a happy meeting. Evdokia and her family, the Kotelnikovs, hated Peter Lordly and they had influenced Peter Petrovich to feel the same way. After six months, Verigin’s relatives returned to Russia.

The ex-prisoners were another problem. They had formed independent, heretical opinions while in prison and now seemed about to become the nucleus of a new schism. Peter Verigin ordered the communities to have nothing to do with the new-comers and cast them out if they dissented. Facing starvation, the former prisoners drifted away.

Having solved, for the moment, the problems within his own camp, Peter the Lordly now came back into conflict with the goverment. Sifton, who had been reluctant to force a showdown, was succeeded as Minister by Frank Oliver, who took a hard-nose attitude toward the Doukhobors. Between 1906 and 1907 he announced that each of the agreed points – on communal land ownership, on marriage registration, and on education – was no longer in effect. Furthermore, the three years grace of swearing an oath of allegiance was up.

In the midst of this growing problem Peter Verigin decided to go back to Russia for a visit. Probably he saw that the end of the Sakatchewan venture was in sight and was sounding out the possibility of a return to Russia. Along the way he examined California as a possible place to settle (the Molokai had gone there). Neither of these panned out and, in 1908, as the Canadian government began seizing Doukhobor land in Sakatchewan for non-compliance with the Homestead Act, Peter the Lordly crossed the Rockies to take a look at British Columbia.

[Part Three to follow]

 The Doukhobors, George Woodcock and Ivan Avakumovic. Out of print, look for a used paperback.
 Toil and Peaceful Life: Portraits of Doukhobors, Marjorie Maloff and Peter Ogloff, Sound Heritage, Volume VI, #4, Provincial Archives of British Columbia, Victoria. (Source for the quoted sections above.)

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8 comments on “The Doukhobors of B.C., Part Two: From Cyprus to Saskatchewan

  1. nursemyra says:

    those whippings….. how appalling

  2. From: Blog Review by Koozma J. Tarasoff : The Doukhobors of B.C. — a 5-part history with errors
    Culpepper correctly points out that some religious wandering zealots began to preach and prophesize amongst the early Doukhobor villages; they became known as ‘Svobodniki’, and ‘Freedomites’, and later as ‘Sons of Freedom’. These people essentially separated themselves from the Doukhobors as a whole, especially in British Columbia, when they became a secret society where meanings of words became a code for something else.

    Like that of yellow journalism, the author seems to prefer the select sensational stories of extremists to sell his story and his books. He also prefers to superfluously use ‘Peter Lordly’ Verigin instead of the generic term Peter V. Verigin. The ‘Lordly’ term suggests sectarian thinking rather than that of the social movement.

    Misspelled Molokan again, in last paragraph — ‘… (the Molokai had gone there) ….’ This particular misspelling is is a rare blunder. Molokai is a Hawaiian island.

    • mikulpepper says:

      Mr. Tarasoff seems to imply that the Freedomites wandered into Doukhobor settlements from somewhere else. The fact is, the Freedomite faction arose from within the Doukhobors. As to “essentially separated”, I’m not certain what Tarasoff means. The Freedomites lived within the Doukhobor communities.
      “Sectarian thinking” vs. “social movement”. Yes, the Doukhobors were indeed a sect with sectarian thinking. Sects may be involved in social movements, but to try to limit Doukhoborism to a social movement is to ignore its essential religious character.
      The “sensational stories” are critical to the friction between the government and this sect. It is important to note that the Doukhobor leadership used the Freedomites and their methods in their struggles with outside forces, as I note in the next part.

  3. [...] Sons of Freedom). Originally refugees from religious persecution in czarist Russia, the Doukhobors settled in Canada in the late 1800s and lived somewhat communally, but they differed among themselves as to how much communalism was [...]

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