The Doukhobors of B.C., Part One: Russia

In 1953, the newly elected government of W.A.C. Bennett began a series of actions aimed at forcing the Doukhobor people of British Columbia to assimilate. Among these actions was the seizing of children who were not attending regular provincial schools and placing them in official care at a facility in New Denver, previously a TB sanatorium and, before that, home to interned Japanese during World War II. This seizing of children from families who refused to send their children to the provincial schools continued until 1959 when all children were released back into the care of their parents.

In 1999, the B.C. Ombudsman issued a public report, Righting the Wrong, that called for an apology, an explanation, and compensation for those affected. A group called New Denver Survivors was formed to push for these remedies. In 2004, the Liberal government of the day issued a statement of regret. The Survivors pushed for more and currently have a case before the BC Human Rights Tribunal. All evidence in the proceedings has been given and a ruling will be made. The Tribunal does have the authority to award compensation.

So we have Regret, if not Apology, and the possibility of Compensation, but what of the third element of the Ombudsman’s report: an Explanation. Doukhobors had engaged in resistance to the Canadian and B.C. governments that included arson and dynamitings — what were they after? Who are the Doukhobors?

According to an amalgam of legend and history, the Doukhobor religion arose in the frontier area of Imperial Russia in the 18th Century. One place mentioned is Kharkov, in the Ukraine, where it is said that an ex-soldier settled among the locals and gained prominence as one who settled local disputes and guided village pursuits. The soldier also had his own version of Christianity which emphasized Brotherhood. He is said to have been a pacifist. Some have tried to cobble together an explanation that has the soldier a pacifist deserter, rather than a non-commissioned officer as the original story has him, but nothing concrete can really be said about him. It might be worth noting here that another Doukhobor legend has a royal prince as founder, though no candidate for that role can be found among the Romanov family.

18th Century Russia produced a number of non-Orthodox faiths. The reforms of Nikon in the previous century had resulted in a schism with many Old Believers refusing to follow the new dictates — crossing oneself with three fingers instead of two, processions to move counterclockwise instead of clockwise, and other such that, in retrospect seem better left alone, at least to this non-Orthodox non-Believer.  This is not to say that the Doukhobors were Old Believers, rather that dissension in the Church abetted turmoil among Russian Christians.

One person involved in the formation of many new sects was a Russian army deserter named Danielo Filippov. He may be the source of the Doukhobor legendary founder story. At any rate, Filippov is remembered in a Doukhobor hymn and parts of his teachings seem to have influenced Doukhobor beliefs. He rejected the Bible as a record of bygone days and instead preached that individuals are the source of a Living Book transcribed by the holy spirit (not necessarilly the triune Holy Spirit).

Doukhobor family, circa 1890s

The Doukhobors originally called themselves the People of God, implying that other sects were not. The positive part of their beliefs was that each individual contained a divine spark, a part of an overarching holy spirit, within. Later, when outsiders called them Spirit-Wrestlers, they accepted the new name, saying that they were wrestling with or for the Spirit within, not against the Holy Spirit. Otherwise, Doukhbor tenets are mainly negative: no Bible or other holy book or writings, no liturgy, no priesthood, and, importantly, no violence. It is this last that brought the Doukhobors into conflict with the Czar.

The Doukhobors were left alone while they remained in the Ukraine but, toward the end of the 18th Century, a leader named Pobhirokin led the group to the Tambov Province, south and east of Moscow, and a village named Goreloye. Pobhirokin instituted a policy of communal ownership amongst the Doukhobors, which probably difffered little from that practiced in many free peasant (not serf) communities. He also formed the community into a theocracy with himself at the head and appointed a group of twelve “death-bearing angels” to enforce his rule. This led to a split amongst the Doukhobors, many of who left to join the Molokai, another pacifist sect. Other Russians found an authoritarian theocracy to their liking, however, and Doukhoborism spread south to the Don River Cossacks and into the Caucasus.

This attracted the attention of Czarist authorities who investigated the new sect. In 1790 Pobhirokin was seized and sent into exile in Siberia. Other Doukhobors suffered the same fate over the next few years but everywhere they went they made converts. The government then began a search for new ways to control the Doukhobors. This was to be a continuing theme over the next two centuries in several countries. The Doukhobors rejected secular authority and thereby continually came into conflict with it.

For a little while conflict abated as the reforming Czar, Alexander I, came into power. He decided that the best answer to the problem of dissident sects was to settle them on the Russian frontier where they could practice their beliefs without disturbing areas already accepting the Orthodox Church. So the Doukhobors were removed to the Milky River area of the Crimea recently wrested from the Tartars. The Mennonites were already there, the Molokai would come a little later. The three groups disliked one another but the Doukhobors adopted many Mennonite secular practices, including farming techniques that were successful. Their new center was named Goreloye.

The settlement at Goreloka

Alexander I was remembered by Doukhobors as a kind and generous man, but after his death, things changed for the worse under the harsh Nicholas I. Orthodox Church leaders wanted to bring the sect to heel and local governors felt they could run a more efficient province without them. By 1825 immigration to the Crimea was halted. Now there were 4000 or so Doukhobors by the Milky River and a few hundred in Siberia. A large number, possibly thousands, were scattered in other areas of Russia, but these soon merged with the general society.

During their stay by the Milky River, the Doukhobors gave up communal living and several wealthy families rose to a kind of local aristocracy. The Doukhobors were formerly known to be temperate with alcohol but developed a reputation as drinkers. Finally, a great scandal erupted when leaders were accused of using young girls sexually and murdering those who opposed them. A five-year investigation by Czarist authorities concluded that possibly twenty-two people had been murdered but the report itself has been lost and there is no telling what kind of evidence supported this conclusion.

The Doukhobors were removed once again, this time to a mountainous area in the Caucasus. Many of the well to do stayed behind at the Milky River and became absorbed into Russian society. Conditions were harsh in the Caucasus at the new village of Goreloye — the third of that name — and the people survived by herding animals — they were not yet vegetarians. They were not entirely pacifist, either, and found some battles with local villagers in the mountains. Eventually, things settled down for them a bit. A new reform-minded czar, Alexander II, and the opening of some rich lowlands helped the group to prosper. And, for the first time in many years, they had an effective leader.

Doukhobor society has always had its leaders. If a man had enough of the spirit immanent in his person, then he was considered a living Christ. One such Christ at a time was the rule and usually this person had to come from a family identified with the leadership.Some leaders were quiet shepherds of the flock, some were incompetent drunkards, some were strong individuals with some vision of their people’s best hopes. Peter Kalmakov was strong and effective. He was little interested in spiritual matters and spent much of his time hunting and drinking. When his followers questioned his behavior, Peter came up with a formula that other leaders were to use: Christ is above sin and must sometimes demonstrate what not to do as well as the righteous life. Peter was childless and when his followers clamored around his death bed asking for a successor, Peter pointed out his young wife, Lukeria. “I leave you the little cuckoo.”

The Doukhobors were not used to female leaders but Lukeria was no ordinary woman. She had stood up to her husband and fought back against his drunken beatings and, in time, won his respect. She proved to be an important leader for the Doukhobors who enjoyed their greatest prosperity under her rule. This settlement of Doukhobors probably contained twenty thousand people in the 1880s.

Doukhobor children in the Caucasus, 1895

Lukeria’s greatest test came in 1877 when she was visited by a Russian marshall who wanted to campaign against the Turks over the mountains. He needed horses and drovers. He gave Lukeria two options: one, Russia would buy the horses they needed and pay the Doukhobor drovers for their services, or, two, the Doukhobors would be reclassified as Russian citizens rather than penal colonists which would mean that they were subject to conscription. The marshall would then conscript the drovers he required and take the horses he needed. Lukeria recognized an offer she couldn’t refuse, even though aiding a military column ran against very basic Doukhobor principles. The mission was a success and the Doukhobors profited from it but the event caused much dissension in the community.

As Lukeria aged, the question of succession began to occupy her. Eventually she selected a young man, Peter Verigin, to be leader after her death. Lukeria began instructing and training him. Meanwhile, other prominent Doukhobor families were promoting their own candidates. In 1886 Lukeria died and Peter Verigin began gathering support. Very soon his opponents realized that he had the majority of the community on his side and then did a very un-Doukhobor thing: they appealed to the government for help. A case was lodged against Verigin and police came to the community. After the period of mourning for Lukeria was done, the two factions confronted one another by her grave. One of the men prostrated himself before Peter Verigin and called on others to do the same. About seventy percent of the crowd did so, according to witnesses, the remainder backed their own candidate. This split was to remain permanent in the Russian settlement from this time forward. Still, Peter Verigin was hailed as the new leader. Immediately, the police advanced and arrested him.

Peter Verigin, circa 1900 (Canadian Encyclopedia)

Once again, an authoritarian czar, Alexander III, ruled Russia. The secret police kept a close watch on the Doukhobors. Conscription was to be enforced against them. Although Peter Verigin avoided prosecution under the original charges brought by his opponents, he was soon exiled on charges of aiding draft-resisters. His captivity in Siberia was not all that harsh — his followers brought him money and he was able to buy decent food for himself and other prisoners. Moreover, in prison Verigin came into contact with other dissidents including pacifist followers of Tolstoy. He listened carefully to new ideas and began formulating a new direction for the Doukhobors.

The split between Verigin’s group and the smaller faction was also one between the poor and the wealthy amongst the Doukhobors. The poor faction closed themselves off from outsiders and listened only to the words of Peter Verigin as they were brought back from Siberia. Lukeria had prophesied that she would be followed by a leader that would take the Doukhobors back into righteousness and more and more it seemed that Peter Verigin was that leader. When word arrived from Siberia that Verigin opposed alcohol, tobacco, and meat-eating, these became tenets of the group that followed him. Some, who did not wish to become vegetarians, broke away. As Verigin’s pronouncements increased, so those who would not follow his leadership were winnowed out until only hardcore faithful were left — faithful, that is, to Verigin as the living Christ.

The new czar, Nicholas II, ordered that everyone swear an oath of allegiance to him. This was meant to discover who was disloyal and un-Russian. Peter Verigin refused the oath. He said that oaths were wrong and that his only allegiance was to God. At first the authorities threatened Verigin with flogging but they must have reflected that this would only make him appear more Christ-like and decided instead to ship him far away from the Caucasus where he could not communicate with his people. Peter Verigin foresaw this, however, and prepared a message to the Doukhobors that was to be kept secret until the last minute. First, said Peter, oaths were wrong and not to be sworn. Second, there was to be no aid or assistance to war or killing. Anyone conscripted who was in the Army had to leave it. No one else could submit to conscription. Finally, on June 29, 1895, the Doukhobors were to gather all of of their weapons together in a pile and burn them. This last was to be kept very secret.

Meanwhile, as Verigin was transported to his new place of exile, his path crossed that of Tolstoy, who was anxious to meet him. The authorities were anxious that no such meeting take place. Tolstoy did manage to meet and speak with some of the emissaries who were carrying Peter Verigin’s message back to the Caucasus. They were evasive when speaking to him, as Doukhobors generally were with outsiders, and Tolstoy formed the notion that this was a leaderless group, a paradigm of natural peasant anarchism. There have been many instances of people projecting their own values and ideals onto the Doukhobors and this was to be one of the most important. Years later, when Tolstoy and Verigin finally met, Tolstoy was disappointed in the man.

On Easter, 1895, those Doukhobors who had been inducted into the Army told their officers that they could no longer serve. They were thrown into punishment units where they were beaten — at least one man died of these beatings. Altogether there were about sixty Doukhobors in the Czar’s army. All followed Verigin though a few backslid under the constant pressure. They were told that they would be executed and taken out in front of a firing squad, then were told they would be reprieved if they went back into the Army. None did. Cossacks rode among them swinging swords at their faces. None flinched. These methods, similar to those once used against the young Doestoevsky, were reported, with considerable exaggeration, in the world press.

Then, on June 29, the Doukhobors commenced the Burning of the Arms, an event still celebrated today. The different villages in the Caucasus had each their own method but essentially what every village did was to pile up all of their weapons, still loaded in most cases, douse them with kerosene and set them afire. The gathered Doukhobors sang hymns while the flames rose and the muskets went off. When the authorities reached the bonfire, the young men of the village handed in their military reserve papers. In several places that was all that happened but at others Doukhobors were arrested. At Orlovka, things took a more serious turn. The governor sent Cossacks to the bonfire who demanded that the people accompany them to explain to the governor what was going on. The Cossacks were told that the Doukhobors were praying and, that if the governor wished to speak to them, he should come there. After all, they were many and he was only one. This infuriated the local governor who ordered the Cossacks into action. They whipped and beat the Doukhobors and herded them before the governor who demanded that they remove their hats in his presence. Some had already lost their hats under Cossack knouts, the others simply ignored the request. Once again, they were beaten. At least one man died. The governor had them driven further along the road and demanded that they submit to his orders. The crowd responded that they could only follow his orders if they agreed with their conscience. Then the young men came forward and laid their military reserve papers at his feet. The governor completely lost his head and ordered the Cossacks to fire into the crowd but one of his entourage intervened and prevented a general massacre.

Burning of the Arms reenactment, Saskatchewan, 2008

The authorities were alarmed at the events of July 29 and began a series of measures to break resistance among the Doukhobors. Men were flogged and beaten. Those who refused military service were imprisoned. Those who refused to swear allegiance to the czar were transported yet again, this time to Georgia. There the authorities refused to provide them with land or to allow them to work for wages. Only the kindness of some of their neighbors saved the Doukhobors from mass starvation. Even so, many died during this period. A message was sent to Peter Verigin telling him of the events and he replied to his people, reminding them of Christ’s suffering. “The body may break,” he said, “But the spirit is invulnerable.”

News of these happenings were widely reported and now the Doukhobors were to begin a new chapter in their long and difficult history.

[Part Two to follow]

The Doukhobors, by George Woodcock and Ivan Avakumovic is the main source for this early history. Out of print, the paperback edition may be available from used booksellers.
Toil and A Simple Life, published by the BC Museum’s Sound Heritage program (vol. VI, #4) contains oral history from Doukhobors whose memories go back to the Causasus.
A Russian ethnographer, Vladimir Bonch-Bruevich travelled amongst the Doukhobors in Russia and, later, in Canada. Most of his work is not available in English though some portions have been translated by Svetlana Inikova and Koozma Tarasoff. See, for instance, Doukhobor Incantations Through the Centuries (ISBN 896031-04-8).
Aylmer Maude, secretary to Tolstoy, wrote A Peculiar People about the Doukhobors. Available on-line for free.

6 comments on “The Doukhobors of B.C., Part One: Russia

  1. From: Blog Review by Koozma J. Tarasoff : The Doukhobors of B.C. — a 5-part history with errors
    The author Culpepper began this series with a false context by lumping Doukhobors with the zealot factions and associating both with nudity, arson and dynamiting. This is inaccurate and presents a false history.

    Since he does not write with citations or footnotes referencing his information, it’s often difficult to determine the source and the authenticity of the errors.

    Culpepper jumps back a century to report outdated history as if it is current — that Doukhobors are a ‘sect’, that their tenets are ‘negative’, that they are a ‘theocracy’. He failed to report the up-to-date modern history of the past half century. It is long overdue when popular writers and scholars finally bring the history up to date.

    The misspelling of Molokans as ‘Molokai’ is a remarkably rare blunder. This is an island in Hawaii.

    Culpepper perpetuates old myths. The history of the Milky Waters scandal of murder and sexual abuse was a government and church set-up to provide an excuse to exile the Doukhobors to the Caucasus in the early 1800s. See “Afterward” at the end of: A visit to the Dukhobortsy, 1843 (Doukhobor Genealogy Website); and John Roy Staples, Cross-cultural encounters on the Ukrainian steppe: Settling the Molochna basin, 1783-1861 (University of Toronto Press, Jun 20, 2003) 253 pages.

    The notion that Peter V. Verigin was ‘a living Christ’ is narrow, and not a current interpretation of leadership in the Doukhobor movement.

    The photo of Peter V. Verigin in England was taken in 1902, not 1900.

    1895 ‘Burning of Arms’ took place at three sites in the Caucasus, and not in ‘each’ of the ‘different villages in the Caucasus’ as stated. This was a pioneering Doukhobor act that offered an alternative to war as the ‘slavery of our times’. See maps at : Historic 1895 Burning of Guns Descriptions: Selections and translations.

    • mikulpepper says:

      I have corresponded with Mr. Tarasoff on this matter. I have great respect for his scholarship and his opinions, but there is a problem between us that, I think, is not easilly resolved. Tarasoff wants a separation between Doukhobors and Freedomites since he does not wish the former tagged with sins of the latter. The Freedomites came from within the sect of Doukhobors; that is their origin and they were acknowledged as Doukhobors by both Peter V. Verigin and Peter Chistiakov. I do not understand why Tarasoff is opposed to looking at the history of this group. I do not think that is the same as reporting it as happening today. The object, stated in this post and reiterated in the fifth of the series, was to find an explanation for the seizing of children in the Slocan in the 1950s. This explanation, along with an apology and compensation, is a demand of the New Denver Survivors Group. Since we are looking at actions that took place more than half a century ago, I think an historic stance is justified.
      It is not a myth that the Russian government investigated allegations of murder at the Milky River. Whether or not any murders take place is open to question but that was, as Tarasoff points out, the reason for the group’s removal to the Caucasus.
      Whether or not current Doukhobor thought regards the leader as a living Christ, that seems to have been the case in the 19th and early 20th Century.
      I am grateful for the other corrections.
      Mr. Tarasoff continues his objections after each of the other parts and I will respond to them there.

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