For some Doukhobors, Russia


These days, says Peter V. Verigin's great-grandson, they will by treated right


Doukhobor leaders in Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia chose the night of June 28, 1895, to impress upon Tsar Nicholas II their opposition to his conscription policy. Under cover of dark, wagons rumbled through the villages and were filled with guns, swords and knives, according to a plan devised by leader Peter V. Verigin, then locked away in a tsarist prison. At the stroke of midnight the carts were doused with kerosene and set ablaze, while the peace-loving brethren quietly prayed as at any of their meetings, called in Russian sobraniya. Their present-day descendants in western Canada still use that term, but last month at a sobraniya in southern British Columbia they had a rather different purpose in mind. John J. Verigin, great-grandson of Peter V., was asking them to consider moving back to the Soviet Union.


He has in mind an area of southern Siberia the size of the Prairie provinces, near the city of Barnaul, 220 miles north of the Mongolian border. The Doukhobors do not feel that even Canada's present multicultural mosaic suits them. Says Mr. Verigin, an Order of Canada member: "We find it's more difficult than ever to retain the Russian language and our culture, customs and traditions."


They've been defending their traditions under varying Canadian circumstances since 1899. After four years of state-led persecution sparked by the bonfires, Russian novelist and fellow pacifist Leo Tolstoy appealed to the Tsar to allow them to leave for Canada. That year approximately 7,500 (about one-third of the Russian total) left for Saskatchewan.


True to anti-government Doukhobor form, however, strife soon ensued. Ottawa insisted that they swear allegiance to the king, as required by the Homestead Act, to hold title to land. This looked too much like a first step to Canadian military service, from which they had been promised exemption; they refused, and were in turn refused Saskatchewan land. The Doukhobors, whose motto is "toil and peaceful life," moved on to British Columbia.


There they lived communally in the West Kootenays area, founding sawmills, mixed farms and a popular jam factory. But in 1938 the banks foreclosed; the sect lost $6 million in land and improvements. Comments scholar Mark Mealing of Castlegar's Selkirk College: "The Doukhobors were able to pay the banks all but $280,000. Had the provincial government come up with that money, they would eventually have paid it back." The Doukhobors haven't forgotten, he says. "Bitterness remains over their treatment then."


They became squatters on the land, from which nobody attempted to evict them. Outbursts of arson (mostly their own property and public utilities) were becoming endemic. The Doukhobors were venting fury about the property situation, and against government insistence on public schooling for their children. When they kept the kids home, parents were jailed and the children put in school anyhow. Those also were the days of the nude parades, featuring disrobed male and female protesters. By 1964, almost all the land had been sold back to individual Doukhobors and the school question had been more or less agreeably settled.


After the demise of the commune (60 villages at its peak), the community splintered, four distinct groups emerging. The smallest (currently 80 members) but most notorious are the Sons of Freedom. Centred in Crestova and Gilpin, the Sons claimed responsibility for over 400 arsons and bombings, mostly in the 1940s. The Reformed Freedomites (2,500 members) formed in the mid-1950s in the same area. Members of the Doukhobor Society of Canada are independents who refuse to appoint leaders and live mostly in Saskatchewan. The biggest B.C. group is the Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ (USCC), located predominately in the West Kootenays and Lower Fraser Valley with small communities in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Its head: honorary chairman John J. Verigin, initiator of the Soviet proposal.


Why the move at this time? Older Doukhobors remember a prophecy of one of their 19th-century Russian leaders, Lukeria Kalmikoffa, Mr. Verigin says. "She predicted that they would be forced to leave Russia for another land, where they'd become affluent but from which they would have to return." University of British Columbia Professor Victor Sokolov says the ascetic Doukhobors fear for the next generation. "They want to preserve their young from the pleasures and comforts of modern life," he observes.


Dr. Mealing agrees. "Though their attitudes toward materialism and pacifism haven't altered since the turn of the century, their repudiation of tobacco, alcohol and meat has weakened." Many USCC members have given in on this. One great compromise with North American ways: weddings that feature dancing and musical instruments.


"Assimilation threatens to swallow us up," says Mr. Verigin. Then too, there are still the Sons of Freedom. Since their inception in the Depression years they have accused the USCC of being too materialistic. Physical attacks on property have been few lately, but nobody knows if and when they will resume. "Things have quieted down," he says, "but we still have to retain guards at our community centres and insurance is sky-high."


TWO OF THE MOST ACTIVE Sons, Mary Braun, 69, and Tina Zmaeff, 65, have just been paroled from B.C.'s Matsqui Institution although (or because) they managed to frequently incinerate their prison bedding. ("We've gone through a lot of sheets," one jailer noted.) The two grandmothers were convicted of a string of community arsons; they served most of their sentences, 14 and 10 years respectively. On parole two years ago they set fire to the West Freuktova Doukhobor Museum in Grand Forks; Sons of Freedom believe museums imply that Doukhobor life is dead.


Some skeptics warn of dangers ahead in the Soviet Union too. "I think the Doukhobors are rather naive about it all," says UBC's Sokolov. "The heavy-metal rock, the television, the radio is there too." He wonders what the immigrants will do about the U.S.S.R.'s compulsory military service and the scientific atheism of its state schools. Leader Verigin counters that Soviet officials have assured them their beliefs will be respected.


Ottawa Doukhobor author Koozma Tarasoff says that such a move would also be "an international statement" on peace, however. Leader Verigin concurs: "We appreciate hearing Mr. Gorbachev talk of turning swords into ploughshares." He strongly criticizes the United States for its "stranglehold over the world," while noting with apparent pride that the U.S.S.R. has become its military equal.


Mr. Verigin won't predict how many might go. Maybe one person, he says, maybe 30,000. Mr. Tarasoff suggests a few hundred as a likely figure. "It won't be a decision taken lightly," he says, "because it would be an admission that Canadian society has failed."


Glenn Kubish

Western Report, May 8, 1989, pp. 36-37