The Doukhobors of B.C., Part Four: Chaos

[Part One, Part Two, Part Three]

When Peter Petrovich received the call to come to Canada, he was already the most important Doukhobor leader in the Soviet Union. The Bolshevik government wanted to placate Soviet minorities — they already had a civil war going on — and took a hands-off policy toward the Doukhobors. Peter Petrovich requested and received permission to move some settlers up into the Don region and also re-occupied the Milk River area. The Caucasus Doukhobors were doing well, but as always with Doukhobors, prosperity had diminished their reliance on traditional principles. Georgia was wracked by civil war and the Doukhobors there were in a very troubled state.

Peter Chistiakoff

Peter sent his mother, Evdokia, divorced first wife of Peter the Lordly, back to Canada while he toured the other Doukhobor settlements. At a great sobranie on the Don he indicated to thousands of followers that his purpose was to unite all Doukhobors everywhere. Peter Petrovich had a vision of himself leading a great nation of people.

But Peter’s delay in getting to Canada caused problems. The Community was terribly divided. The arsons of 1924 had continued after Peter the Lordly’s death right into 1925. The Community was splitting into factions and the Freedomites, who numbered a hundred or fewer in1924, began picking up adherents. The end of the material world was at hand and an earthly paradise was to come. Those who believed cast aside their possessions and marched and sang with the Freedomites.

One action of Peter Petrovich’s was very important. He sent back word to the Community that there was nothing wrong with education, that Doukhobors should embrace it as a valuable force for good. Doukhobor professors would educate the world, he said. This inclined Canadian authorities to a friendly attitude, at least for the time being, and they put up no objections to Peter Petrovich entering the country. Also, the school burnings stopped after the arrival of the message — at least for a time.

Peter Chistiakoff greeted at Brilliant, 1927

Another difficulty for the Community was the serious debt that they owed, about a million and a quarter dollars. Of course the Community had assets, too, maybe $7 Million in total, and income, but the Committee lacked Peter the Lordly’s knack of handling deficit finance. As bills came due, they panicked and obtained a loan for $350000 from the National Trust (Bank of Commerce) and the Sun Life Insurance company. Every single piece of unencumbered Doukhobor property, from the jam factory to individual farms, was pledged as security.

When Peter Petrovich finally arrived in 1927 and met with members of the Committee in a New York hotel room, he was horrified at the debt. He demanded to see the books but the Committee had not brought them. Peter exploded in rage and accused them of theft. This was the Community’s first encounter with this man’s volatile nature.

The group travelled on. Peter spent time in Saskatchewan visiting every single Doukhobor group there, including Independents and a breakaway village at Blaine Lake. Addressing a large crowd at Verigin he said that he had come to purge the sect of its backsliding ways and all the splinter groups must return to the main group. “I have come to separate the light from the darkness,” he said. It was this speech that caused him to be called Peter Chistiakoff — Peter the Purger — ever after.

Peter Chistiakoff finally arrived in British Columbia in late 1927, three years after Peter the Lordly’s death. He called a meeting of elders in Trail at the Cominco plant and informed them that the Community was now to be organized along new lines.  There was to be a Supreme Council of Community Economics (Peter was obviously familiar with Bolshevik terms) to run the affairs of the Christian Community of  Universal Brotherhood, Ltd., Peter the Lordly’s corporate enterprise. Then he re-introduced money into the Doukhobor scheme. From this time forward, all Doukhobors would pay an assessment to the Society. Those occupying Community land would pay rent, the large farms in Saskatchewan would pay an assessment on their acreage, and so on. This was a serious break with the past but it also reflected the new reality — the Doukhobors needed cash to meet their debts. Everything they owned was entailed as collateral on debt. The only unencumbered asset was the labor of the Doukhobor men and the assessments would force them to find work outside for wages that would be used to pay down the debt.

For the next ten years, Peter Chistiakoff spent all of his time trying to obtain money, an activity that became much more difficult with the onset of the Great Depression. Some of this went to support his lifestyle which was, by Doukhobor standards, extravagant, but hundreds of thousands went to service the Community’s debts.

Peter Chistiakoff was a difficult man, a heavy drinker given to explosions of temper. When his followers questioned his behavior, Peter the Purger fell back on the line used by the Kalmakoff leaders in the Caucasus: he was only demonstrating to them what they should not do, “Do as I say, not as I do.” This placated some but division among the Doukhobors increased.

In June 1928, at Kamsack, Saskatchewan, Peter attacked the problem of unity. Instead of the Community of Universal Brotherhood, they would henceforth be callled the Society of Named Doukhobors. (The intent, I think, was to unite everyone self-identifying as Doukhobor, regardless of whether they were Independent, Community, Freedomite, or were living outside Doukhobor areas.) Doukhobors should send their children to school and cooperate with the various registrations required by government. The Independent Doukhobors were willing to meet the requirements of the Canadian and provincial goverments, but the Freedomites were another matter.

Peter the Purger called the Freedomites his “ringing bells”. Presumably their ringing was to warn of danger to Doukhobor spiritual values. The Freedomites considered that they had a special place among Doukhobors and remained aloof from the Society. Furthermore, they thought that they understood Peter’s meaning to be the opposite of his words. This Opposite Speak notion had been circulating among the Doukhobors for many years and possibly developed from the habit of lying to outsiders. Now, when Peter ordered Doukhobors to send their children to school, the Freedomites interpreted this to mean the opposite and began burning schools once again. Nude marches soon followed.

Sensationalism in the name of journalism. The Doukhobors as pornography.

The Freedomites had leaders but their organization was based on revelation and their actions on the spontaniety of members. A leader could organize a nude march, but one might occur spontaneously as well. Likewise, the “black work” of arsonists and bombers might reflect the wishes of leadership or be the independent action of a few. This point was never understood by authorities who attempted in vain for years to shut down the secret conspiracy’s leaders. Actually, there was nothing secret about it, but non-Doukhobors didn’t understand the language and terms being used.

Even though Peter the Lordly and Peter the Purger both claimed that Freedomite actions had nothing to do with them, both had used the group and its methods to further their own agendas. Peter the Lordly and his Council was involved with arson in 1924 and Peter threatened the provincial government with nude marches at a time when there were very few Freedomites. Likewise, Peter Chistiakoff used Freedomite disruption to break up difficult meetings where he was being questioned a bit too closely or as an instrument to help him with his own clashes with authority over public drunkeness and fighting. Knowing this, it is a bit easier to understand Opposite Speak.

Peter Chistiakoff launched a number of fund-raising schemes. There was the gradual fleecing of an American land speculator who meant to sell worthless Mexican property to the Doukhobors, for instance. That episode eventually wound up with Chistiakoff being charged with fraud. A judge found that the American had gambled with his eyes open and added court costs to the money he had already given Peter Chistiakoff. Most of that, however, went into the pockets of lawyers.

In 1929, Peter Chistiakoff came up with a grand scheme to utilize the savings of Independent Doukhobors. He claimed that he had a vision of a white horse that was coming to lead the Doukhobors into that promised land where they would find Paradise. The thing is, this horse fed not upon hay, but on dollar bills. Doukhobors must contribute to the fund that would take them away from their troubles. After all, once this world ended Canadian dollars would be so much waste paper. The Freedomites received this vision with joy, ending a series of nude marches to spread the word. Other Doukhobor factions were more cautious but eventually, over a half million dollars was collected for the White Horse fund.

Those trying to determine to what degree Peter Chistiakoff defrauded his followers have been stymied by the incredible mess that make up the Doukhobor accounts. Peter the Purger claimed that he had his own method of bookkeeping, a Doukhobor method, that was used by the Supreme Council and by individual Doukhobor businesses over the next half century. The system is incomprehensible to non-Doukhobors but does not seem complete nonsense. The manner in which Peter Chistiakoff utilized the White Horse funds might shed some light on his methods. First, Peter treated the funds as a personal loan to himself. Second, he re-loaned the money to the corporation at 6% interest — the Sun Life/Bank of Commerce debt was at 7.5%, so there was a little wiggle room to pay it down. From the interest he received, Peter Chistiakoff began repaying the Independent Doukhobors. Somewhere in that series of transactions, I think, lies the core of Doukhobor bookkeeping practice.

But Peter Chistiakoff also kept a large chunk of the cash for himself. At least $50000 went into his own pocket over a three year period at the beginning of the Depression. Meanwhile, he sought other avenues for raising money. In Saskatchewan, some farmers had begun selling their now-registered holdings. Chistiakoff demanded a certain kickback from these sales and, in 1931, engaged in a dispute with a Saskatchewan Doukhobor over $1000 that Chistiakoff said he owed. When the man refused to pay, Peter Chistiakoff took him to court. When the judgement went against him, Peter accused the man of perjury. The subsequent trial landed Peter himself a three-year prison term for perjury. There were nude protest marches in B.C. and Sakatchewan.

Now it was the turn of federal authorities to react stupidly. The government passed legislation making nude demonstrations a federal crime punishable by three years in prison. (By contrast a public obscene act was punishable by six months in jail.) The three year term meant that those convicted would do time in a federal prison. A shot at martyrdom was very welcome to Freedomites and the marches increased. More than six hundred Doukhobors were arrested and charged under the new legislation. A special facility was constructed on Piers Island, off the tip of Vancouver Island, and the Doukhobors were incarcerated there. More than three hundred children were also taken into custody. Some of these went into orphanages, others into reform schools or other juvenile detention facilities. While their parents were basking in the glory of martyrdom, the children were growing up bitter and angry.

Doukhobor family under arrest in Nelson, 1932

Now the federal government of R.B. Bennett did another very stupid thing. Deciding that Peter Chistiakoff was the evil genius behind the nude marches, they commuted his sentence and released him from jail after eighteen months, then served him with a federal deportation order from the Ministry of Immigration. Peter was transported to Halifax, where he was to be shipped to the Soviet Union. Doukhobors and others got wind of this and, at the last minute, Peter Chistiakoff was saved by the Nova Scotia Supreme Court from what would certainly been confinement in a Soviet gulag. The Bennett government was much criticized and embarrassed.

Peter the Purger returned to British Columbia, his behavior becoming ever more erratic. He was involved in beer parlor fights in Nelson and, once, tried to run another car off the road while returning to the Community lands. He engaged in lawsuits against other Doukhobors, always over money and, though he sometimes won, his prestige was declining. Not only did Independents begin leaving the organization, but many ceased affiliation with any group and assimilated into Canadian society. Others, many others, joined with the Freedomites.

John J. Veregin as a boy, his mother, Anna, and grandmother Evdokia. Saskatchewan, 1928

In 1937, the Community financial house of cards collapsed and the corporation was forced into bankruptcy for failure to pay, two years in a row, the $12000 annual installment on the Grand Forks part of the debt. The following year, Sun Life and the Bank of Commerce (operating as National Trust) obtained orders allowing them to seize all of the property secured by their loan, which is to say, just about everything owned by the Community. When the books were tallied up, these two creditors were owed a little over $300000. For all his chicanery, Peter Chistiakov had paid down the Community debt by more than $700000. In addition he had paid $500000 in interest to creditors and more than $300000 in taxes. The value of Community assets had fallen during the Depression and was probably now only three or four million dollars. Sun Life and the Bank of Commerce auctioned off farm equipment and industrial machinery for very small amounts of money. When they came to sell the property, however, the provincial government stepped in and bought all the Community lands for a little less than $300000, which, with the euipment auctions, satisfied the outstanding debts to Sun and the Bank of Commerce. For a debt  of $300000, a payment of $24000, $4 Million in property was gone. So far as Doukhobors were concerned, this was history repeating itself. Their land had been stolen in Saskatchewan, now it was stolen in British Columbia.

Meanwhile, Peter Chistiakoff’s health was failing and, in early 1939 he died of cancer. His son, Peter Iastrebov, was somewhere in the Soviet Union. Attempts to reconnect with Russian Doukhobors had failed in 1931 and emissaries from Canada were warned not to try to come back to their old lands by Tolstoyan and other allies still in the country. The Doukhobor communities that Peter Chistiakoff had toured before his return to Canada had largely been broken up as the Doukhobors were considered peasant capitalists by Stalin’s regime. Some had been removed to prisons or camps, some had renounced their faith, some were killed.

In Canada there was one possible successor to Peter the Purger, his grandson, John J. Verigin, who had come over to Canada as a small child and who was now eighteen years old. But so long as Peter Iastrebov remained as a possible leader, John Verigin was not accepted by many Doukhobors.

John J. Verigin by Peter Chistiakoff’s coffin, 1938

One of Peter Chistiakoff’s last acts was to dissolve the bankrupt Union of Brotherhood and announce yet another Doukhobor group, the Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ. There was still the Society of Independent Doukhobors and, of course, the Freedomites.

Above the Slocan River, on a piece of Community land that was not of good farming quality, is the village of Krestova. Over the years, Freedomites leaving the Community moved there. When the Piers Island prisoners were released, those from the Kootenay area went to Krestova. Those from Grand Forks established a village above the Kettle Valley at a place called Gilpin. These were to be the centers of Freedomite activity in the coming years.

The school burnings of the 1920s caused the province to attempt construction of fire-proof schools. In 1930, the fire-proof school at Glade was blown up with dynamite. The following year, Peter the Lordly’s tomb and monument were dynamited — not for the last time. Over the next five years about 150 incidents of arson or dynamiting took place. Most of this was directed against Doukhobor property. Freedomite houses in Krestova were frequently burned and the practice became common of throwing one’s own clothes into the blazing house — all possessions gone in the pure moment. This practice was instituted by those Freedomites who burned down Peter the Lordly’s house in 1924.

The outbreak of war in 1939 brought a brief reunion of Doukhobor factions. For a time all arson and demonstrations ceased. Then, in 1943, Mackenzie King mentioned having the Doukhobors register under the Selective Service Act. At a large meeting between a government representitive and the USCC, the young John J. Verigin announced that the answer was “No!” The government’s man remarked later that 3500 people shouting “No” were very loud indeed. That night, Freedomites torched the old jam factory at Brilliant. The government backed off.

Unconscripted young men formed a valuable labor pool just as they had done in the First World War. And, with the Community lands fallen into disrepair, these men needed work. They provided funds for those still back on the old lands but also began to move into mainstream Canadian life.

The USCC and the Society of Independent Doukhobors united briefly, but parted ways with the coming of peace in 1945. Meanwhile, a number of leaders arose to attempt taking over the group. There had been many pretenders to the leadership since the death of Peter the Lordly. Anastasia Golubova led a breakaway group that settled in Alberta. A man calling himself Paul, Czar of Heaven, who wore a crown of oranges arose among the Freedomites of Krestova. He was followed by the visionary Michael Orekoff, called Michael the Archangel. Another from the Krestova group was John Lebedeff who surrounded himself with a group of helpful women. Lebedeff claimed that he bore a secret message — it was assumed that the message was from Peter Iastrebov.

Michael the Archangel

All these leaders failed. Anastasia’s strangeness led to starvation among her followers who deserted her, all except a single woman who stayed on until Anastasia’s death in 1965. The Czar of Heaven was arrested in Nelson in 1944, wearing nothing except his crown of oranges. He died in prison under unexplained circumstances. Michael the Archangel was chased out of Krestova by Lebedeff’s followers and set up a community in Hilliers on Vancouver Island. He and Lebedeff were arrested and charged in the early 50s. Michael the Archangel was awaiting a new trial on appeal after his original conviction when he suffered a massive stroke and died in1951. Lebedeff served three years. He was a factor in all the subsequent events but never again a power. He wound up in the 1980s living in a trailer in Wynndel, B.C., still attended by two Doukhobor women. The most successful pretender was Stefan Sorokin.

Sorokin, a non-Doukhobor, was a worldly vagabond con man. At various times in his life he had been Orthodox Christian, Lutheran, a member of the Plymouth Brethren, a Seventh-Day Adventist, and a Baptist. He knew how to speak in religious terms and in 1949 discovered the Saskatchewan Doukhobors. He lived among them, learned the terminology of their particular beliefs and then proceeded to British Columbia where he established himself in Krestova. Other would-be leaders had proceeded by way of a vision, but Sorokin managed to convince the Freedomites that he was Peter Iastrebov himself. He never claimed directly that this was so, but he also never denied it. Peter the Lordly had used similar methods when asked whether or not he was Christ. And Jesus, according to the Gospels, used amibiguous terms to refer to his own divinity. So this was a well-worn path. Lebedeff, who said he was waiting for a messenger, tried to turn Sorokin’s appearance to his own advantage, but only wound up lending credence to Sorokin.

Stefan Sorokin

Sorokin soon attracted a following. Lebedeff attempted to join forces, but Sorokin cut him out. When he had obtained leadership of the Freedomites, Sorokin announced that a new land was waiting for the faithful — in South America. He squeezed as much cash as he could from the group and flew to Uruguay. There, he bought property near Montevideo and settled down. Donations from those in B.C. allowed him to live in the style to which he was accustomed. He visited B.C. once or twice in the following years as we will see.

Over the years between the end of the War and Sorokin’s leaving, there were a number of well-meaning attempts to solve the ongoing difficulties with the Doukhobors and to end the Freedomite arson and dynamitings. Judge Sullivan led a Royal Commission that saw several witnesses openly admitting to setting fires or placing bombs. The Judge was horrified at the level of disinterest in Law and the Commission came up with nothing substantive in the way of reccomendations. Two retired cops, F.J. Mead of the RCMP and John Shirras of the B.C. Provincial Police accepted a mission to go to the Doukhobors and find out just what could be done. The two met with Freedomites and others and concluded that the Doukhobors would not tell them anything except what they wanted to hear. Both had been involved in Doukhobor matters for years before their retirement. Discussing the problem between themselves, they decided that a new kind of investigation was in order — one that tried to determine just who the Doukhobors were and what they wanted. Only then could the differences with government be rightly understood. So another commission — not a Royal one this time, as it was felt that might be off-putting — was instituted. Commissioners included Hugh Herbison, a member of the Quaker community at Argenta, and various scholars. This Doukhobor Research Committee was chaired by UBC prof Harry Hawthorn. The resulting report was vital in establishing the principle that, whatever the problems, the Doukobors were people with real grievances and desires to live a life not so different from anyone else. The report stressed patience and forebearance.

Under the influence of the Report, Sorokin persuaded a number of Doukhobors in prison to sign a promise not to engage in illegalities and achieved their release. For a moment, it seemed as though there might be peace. But when Sorokin left, the leaderless Freedomites commenced a new series of actions.

Under Sorokin’s guidance, the Freedomites had reorganized as the Christian Brotherhood and Brotherhood of Reformed Doukhobors (Sons of Freedom). Now the Reformed Doukhobors began a series of bombings, arsons, and nude marches with, so far as I can tell, no immediate purpose. Later, individuals would state that they felt the urge to “do something”. They went to someone they thought might have some knowledge of methods and were given, perhaps, some dynamite and guidance to a target. Other times, people simply set fire to a place. Some Doukhobors seem to have been intimidated into burning. There are certainly instances where individuals removed all of their belongings, or even the windows and door frames, to set aside when they burned down their house.

It had become obvious that what the Freedomites were up to ran against the grain of the pacifism that was the main plank of the Doukhobor platform. In 1944, during one of the many raids on Peter the Lordly’s tomb, Freedomites shot and wounded a Community watchman. And bombing is an indiscriminate act that is violent in and of itself. No matter what anyone says, there is no such thing as a smart bomb. Even arson presents problems as it did in 1945 when a woman was burned to death when Freedomites fired her house.

The Social Credit Party was elected with an absolute majority in 1952. The Socreds, splintered from the Conservatives, were determined to show law and order credentials in spite of the Hawthorne recommendations. When Freedomites torched what buildings they could find left standing in Krestova in 1953 and then moved down to Perry’s Siding, awaiting whatever the next action would turn out to be, the RCMP was detailed to watch them. Then, when nothing much happened, the police moved in anyway and arrested all of the adults. The children were taken into care, as it is called when children are forcibly removed from their families. These were the first of the New Denver Survivors whose case has just been argued before the Human Rights Tribunal.

Confrontation at Perry’s Siding, 1953

This arrest, and others that followed, sent a number of men into prison in the Lower Mainland and the women to Kingston, one of the few federal women’s facilities in Canada. These achieved martyrdom, of course, and the women later received fame from feminist hagiographers who claimed that they had trained other prisoners in the art of civil disobedience. Another picture might be painted from interviews filmed in the 1990s when daughters asked mothers, how could you let this happen to us? How could you let your children be incarcerated this way?

The provincial government was certainly willing to apply all the pain necessary to destroy what they saw as a menace and the Freedomites were willing to be martyred. When the province announced that all children must go to school and that the law would be enforced, Freedomite parents resolved to keep their children out of school. The result was that “D” squads from the RCMP would raid homes looking for truant children. One, interviewed years later on CBC radio, described how his mother had hidden him in the jam cellar under the pantry. A policeman, looking for him, had banged the floorboards with an iron bar, listening for the sound of a hollow space beneath. Suddenly the bar broke through the floor right by the boy’s head and he cried out in fear. It was hard to tell whether the imminent danger or the thought that he might have betrayed his parents burdened the boy more, years later.

Mary Malakoff and John Lebedeff

In 1959, some women spoke out. They were allowed to visit their children in detention at New Denver, once a week. They could touch fingers through the wire, maybe sneak in some cake or other treat, but this was not enough. Mary Malakoff stood up at a Freedomite meeting and said:

Where is Sorokin? If he is our leader, why is he not here to help us?…I am not crazy but I cannot stand it any more. Lots of people don’t know what to do. Russia won’t accept us the way we are. We’ve been fighting for sixty years. We want freedom, freedom on this earth… Children. We want our children. They take our children. That’s no good. …I don’t blame the police. It is he goverment. It is the law. Oh, I don’t know what it is…

Mary was denounced as a Lebedeff supporter and maybe she was but she was only one of many women to speak out at this time. Mary Malakoff organized a woman’s committe which threw out representatives of Sorokin’s Fraternal Council. This group then went before Magistrate William Evans, who had become the chief judge on Doukhobor matters. They affirmed on bread and salt that they would send their children to school and, two days later, the children were released. Soon, all the children were released from confinement in New Denver as their parents promised to send them to school.

Doukhobor children photographed through the wire at New Denver

Mary Malakoff suffered for her outspoken defiance. She was beaten more than once and finally, in 1961, was committed to a mental hospital.

Anna Markova (circled), in front of her are son John J. Verigin and Mother, Evdokia, 1928

Meanwhile, Anna Markova, mother of John J. Verigin and daughter of Peter Chistiakoff had come to Canada. After twelve years in the gulags she made use of the Khruschev thaw to come live with her son.She looked at Sorokin’s photograph and stated that he was not her brother, Peter Iastrebov. In fact, what evidence there is shows that Peter Iastrebov had died in a camp years before. Anna was not welcomed by the Freedomites. At one meeting they tried to strip her by force — stripping now having become akin to a sacrament amongst the Freedomites. Nor was she the only person personally attacked by Sorokin’s faction. A Quaker, Emmet Gulley, who had aided the Doukhobors over the years, dared to question an aspect of Sorokin’s rule. He was attacked in the streets of Nelson, beaten, and stripped. (Let it be said here: of all the people preaching peace in this story, the Quakers were the most understanding, the most steadfast, and the most resolute.)

Sorokin visited his followers at this time and may have fomented the attacks on Anna Markova and helped inspire other Freedomite actions but he was soon safe back in Uruguay. He had determined that even Anna Markova’s testimony and the evidence obtained in 1958 that Peter Iastrebov was dead would not deter the Freedomites from following him and, of course, sending him cash.

Things continued to get worse: there was an attempt to set fire to the Nelson Courthouse (though it was so amateurish that some claimed it was never meant to actually happen), the Greyhound bus station in Nelson was blown up, a serious inconvenience to locals who used to store parcels in the lockers while they shopped; a young Doukhobor man, one who had spent seven years in New Denver, died when the bomb he was carrying went off prematurely; finally, there was the Riondel bombing.

The mine at Riondel was one of the last remaining from the days when Nelson was a silver boomtown. It had become more and more difficult to bring out paying ore and the miners worked deep underground, well below the water level of Kootenay Lake. Pumps kept the mine dry and these were powered by a transmission line across Kootenay Lake. In March, 1962, a group of Freedomites brought more than 250 pounds of dynamite across Kootenay Lake on the ferry. There, another team affixed charges to the tower above the mine. The dynamite was old and starting to sweat, one of the participants later said. Everyone was worried that it might go up too soon. The dynamite — far too much for the job — was triggered and the tower went down. Meanwhile, deep underground the lights went out. Miners stood in the dark hoping that auxiliary pumps would cut in while the water crept up past their ankles. Finally, after auxillary power was restored, the miners walked out, met, and decided to march on Krestova, burn it down, and shoot any Doukhobor who tried to stop them. Fear of insurrection caused schools to shut down and, across the Kootenays, joyous children walked home chanting, “Douk, Douk, Douk, Douk of Earl.”

The bombings had increased in part because of a shift in circumstances. The seized Community property that had been bought by the province was offered back to the Doukhobors to purchase in 1958. The Freedomites opposed any sale until Magistrate Evans wrote to Sorokin and got him to send a message to his followers to allow the sale to go on. Most of the prospective buyers were members of the USCC, which remains the organization that represents most Doukhobors. Now the Freedomites had lost every battle. The only thing they had gained was martyrdom. There was nothing left to fight for.

In early 1962, right after the Riondel bombing, the RCMP conducted a sweep and arrested every single member of the Freedomite Fraternal Council. These were taken back to New Westminister, tried, convicted, and sentenced to terms at Mountain Prison in Agassiz.

About 100 Doukhobors were incarcerated at Aggassiz in 1962 when Big Fanny Storgeoff decided to march to their aid. She led a large group of Doukhobors 450 miles to the prison where they set up tents and stayed until all inside were released, some years later. In the meantime, the march drew off energy, and proximity to Vancouver meant that many young Doukhobors were introduced to urban ways and dropped out of the movement.

The march was the last major Freedomite action. There were occasional arsons over the next while, fewer and fewer as the years went on until, by the late 1970s, there was only one team of arsonists still operating: three women who tried to set fire to various structures including John J. Verigin’s home (several times). They were sent to prison often and then their friends would get them out. They were getting old and seemed set in a pattern of achieving success through arson. Conditions of their release invariably included that they have no access to matches. One of these, 81 year-old Mary Braun, burned down a building near Selkirk College in Castlegar in 2001. Her lawyer and others begged for leniency because of her age. The judge however noted the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York that had taken place a month before and sentenced her to six years in prison as a deterrent to terrorists everywhere. No one mentioned that the building, being used as a library by the college, that Mary Braun burned had once stood in New Denver and housed children seized from their homes.

Here is one answer to the New Denver Survivors who ask for an explanation of government actions. Fear. Fear of terrorism, as expressed by Mary Braun’s judge; fear of difference as expressed by the “white people” who demanded provincial action to remove the Doukhobors; fear purposely engendered by Freedomites and encouraged, at times, by other leaders; fear exploited by politicians on both sides among their followers. It is a very foolish act to make a stronger entity fearful. It is foolish to become fearful of a weak group. It was a great crime for the federal government of Canada and the provincial government of British Columbia to violate basic human and legal rights. It was a sin for Doukhobor groups to turn their own people, particularly children, into targets for law enforcement. Now, I think, there is little remedy except to learn from this terrible, shameful story.

[A few notes and afterthoughts here.]


The Doukhobors, George Woodcock and Ivan Avakumovic, this fine study ends in 1962 and needs some addenda. Most of all it needs to be reprinted.
Terror in the Name of God, Simma Holt. The Vancouver Sun reporter came up with a book worthy of any tabloid interested in sensationalism. But Holt’s book also has some useful details. She is, after all, the only person to actually visit Sorokin in Uruguay and interview him.
Several excellent documentaries on various elements of this problem have been made, particularly by the Canadian National Film Board, whose incomprehensible website does not lend to searches. Nevertheless, subjects have included mothers and daughters discussing the New Denver incarcerations and a close examination of Freedomite activities including interviews with both bombers and police.
The Doukhobors of British Columbia by Harry Hawthorn is the 1952 publication of the Doukhobor Report Committee. This, like the Blakemore Report cited in Part Three, should be digitized and made freely available on-line.
There are a number of good websites: The Doukhobor Discovery Center, the USCC siteKoozma Tarasoff’s blog, and, for instance and a little googling will bring them up.


7 comments on “The Doukhobors of B.C., Part Four: Chaos

  1. nursemyra says:

    What fascinating names those Peters had

  2. From: Blog Review by Koozma J. Tarasoff : The Doukhobors of B.C. — a 5-part history with errors
    In this section, Mr. Culpepper grossly mixes up Doukhobors and ‘Sons of Freedom’ in their various forms. He fails to reveal who is the real referent or who is the cause of burnings and bombings. “Chaos” is presented in its place, but it is not an accurate history he glanced at.

    Eight of the 12 photos shown are about ‘Sons of Freedom’, but three incorrectly state ‘Doukhobor’ in the captions instead of zealots, ‘Sons of Freedom, or Freedomites’. Some of these same photos appeared in his hometown newspaper the Nelson Star in January with the correct caption of ‘Sons of Freedom’:

    — Book cover: Sensationalism in the name of journalism. The Doukhobors as pornography.
    — Doukhobor family under arrest in Nelson, 1932
    — Doukhobor children photographed through the wire at New Denver

    Following his ignorance of the difference between ‘sect’ and ‘social movement’, Culpepper continues his use of ‘Lordly’ title for Peter V. Verigin and then fully uses ‘Peter Chistiakoff the Purger’ for Peter P. Verigin. These titles reveal the author’s bias towards sectarianism (which in my analysis has ceased to function amongst the genuine Doukhobor movement). He also gives credence to the secret society codes of what he terms as ‘the Opposite Speak notion’. ‘Do as I say, not as I do.’ This was done by some zealots or ‘Sons of Freedom’, not by Doukhobors!

    In fact, Culpepper speculates that both Peter V. Verigin and Peter P. Verigin used the zealots and their methods ‘for their own agendas’. No footnotes were provided here (in fact there were only three footnotes at the very end of the whole work). Hence, the reader is not able to determine what may or may not be hearsay. This is an important sensitive point that needs a reference. For details see my article: The “Sons of Freedom” — a Flashback to 1956 (21 Aug 2009).

    Towards the end, the author states that the non-Doukhobor ‘con’ man S.S. Sorokin ‘persuaded a number of Doukhobors in prison to sign a promise not to engage in illegalities’ and this resulted in their release. Sorokin addressed a group of zealots but not Doukhobors. The author continuously mixed them up.

    The author incorrectly claims that the 1962 march from the Kootenays to the BC coast was ‘the last Doukhobor action’. In fact, only a group of zealots or ‘Sons of Freedom’ marched to Agassiz (incorrectly spelled as ‘Aggassiz’). Mary Braun, the 81-year-old arsonist, was an active extremist zealot, but not a Doukhobor.

    • mikulpepper says:

      Mr. Tarasoff wishes very much to separate Freedomites from Doukhobors. I have tried to present the Freedomites as one faction within the much-divided Doukhobors. The government of B.C., rightly or wrongly, referred to the entire group of Doukhobors and it is the government’s actions that are the object of the Human Rights Tribunal case which, as stated at the beginning and the end of the posts, calls for an explanation.
      It is a fact that Peter V. Verigin threatened the government with nude demonstrations. It is a fact that Peter P. Verigin used Freedomites (his “ringing bells”) to break up meetings where he was being called to account. This is described in Woodcock and Avakumovic’s The Doukhobors which is my primary source for Doukhobor history. Most important, the school burnings that began in 1923 were carried out by Doukhobors belonging to all factions, including elders and Community council members, as some of these stated. That last link was also given in the post. It goes directly to one example of Doukhobor testimony on this subject.
      The statement that Sorokin addressed only zealots in prison and not Doukhobors is Tarasoff’s way of saying that only Freedomites were in prison and that they are not Doukhobors. It is not for Mr. Tarasoff to sort people into or out of this group, much as he would like to. Mary Braun called herself a Doukhobor and those who knew her, both members of the USCC and non-affiliated independents who self-identify as Doukhobor, also called her that.
      I appreciate the spelling correction.

      • Jim Jacobson says:

        Mr. Tarasoff’s position on Sons of Freedom has been well known for years and is rooted in his desire to whitewash the history of Doukhobors. The reality is, Sons of Freedom came and recruited from the larger Doukhobor community. They lived up to Doukhobor values much more than than community Doukhobors or Independents did and kept it this way for longer (a few still do). They have been rightly treated by P.V. and P.P. Verigin as most passionate and most true of the Doukhobors. Verigins addressed Sons as their most thruthful followers and used Sons in that role on a number of occasions.

        Verigins only started to distance themselves from Sons and excommunicate them, when the situation backfired at Verigins, for Verigins themselves have not been living up to Doukhobors values that they have been preaching and have attracted Sons wrath on themselves.

      • mikulpepper says:

        Whether or not they shared the same values, the Freedomites came from the mass of Doukhobors. By claiming that they were not Doukhobor, Mr. Tarasoff is arrogating the right to accept or reject people from this group based on his own notions of Doukhoborism.

  3. […] One: Russia”; “Part Two: From Cyprus to Saskatchewan”; “Part Three: British Columbia”; “Part Four: Chaos”, Shrine of Dreams, February […]

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