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Canada's Strange Russian Sect

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Doukhobors broke away from the Eastern Orthodox Church in Russia and were persecuted for their beliefs. They became a nuisance to both the state and the church and everybody was happy to see them emigrate to Canada. They settled mostly in Saskatchewan but their difficulties with authorities travelled with them to their new home.

Doukhobors in Canada in 1902.

Doukhobors in Canada in 1902.

Doukhobor Beliefs

The beginning of Doukhobor faith is difficult to identify but there are some traces of the 17th century peasant turned preacher Danilo Filipov in their teaching. Filipov rebelled against the Orthodox Church and famously tossed his Bible into the Volga River.

Doukhobors rejected the church liturgy just as Filipov had and espoused pacificism. Their core teaching is that God resides in each individual rather than in an organized church hierarchy. Their church observances were not written down but passed along orally

They lived in communal villages and rejected all forms of materialism, searching for lives of simplicity. Sylvan Kolesnikov was the first leader of the sect. He argued that “external symbols and rituals are not necessary to religious faith, and introduced bread, salt, and water to replace traditional church icons. A loaf of bread, a bowl of salt, and a jug of water have been used at Doukhobor prayer meetings ever since, as symbols to represent basic human needs, as well as the virtues of hospitality” (doukhobor-museum.org).

They endured two centuries of oppression as heretics with exile to Siberia and being sentenced to hard labour. In 1785, a Russian archbishop called them “dukho-borets” meaning Spirit Wrestlers. It was intended to be an insult, but the Doukhobors seized on it and interpreted it to mean “Wrestlers for and with the Spirit.”

Tsar Nicholas I banned Doukhobors from holding prayer meetings and tried to force them to assimilate into the wider society and to convert to the Orthodox Church; the tsar also conscripted them into the army.

The Doukhobors reacted with protests including in 1895 when 7,000 of them burned their weapons. The Canadian Encyclopedia notes that what came to be called “The Burning of Arms” “may have been the first pacifist protest in modern times.” But, it led to beatings and exiles.

The Doukhobors Emigrate

The novelist Leo Tolstoy took a deep interest in the Doukhobors because many of their ideas aligned with his own. In 1896, he wrote an article entitled “The Persecution of Christians in Russia” that was published in the Times of London. The world was alerted to the plight of the sect and people started making donations to them; Tolstoy gave them the royalties to his book Resurrection.

In 1896, the Russian government was happy to give the Doukhobors permission to leave the country. Various places, such as Egypt, Brazil, and Texas were considered for settlement but, with the help of the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin, the Doukhobors decided on Canada. Kropotkin had seen Mennonites doing well in the Canadian Prairies and thought the Doukhobors would also prosper.

The Canadian government was seeking peasant farmers with strong backs to settle the land and the Doukhobors fit the bill. The government agreed they could hold Crown land in common rather than taking individual title to it. So, in 1899, 7,500 Doukhobors sailed from Russia to settle in land set aside for them in Saskatchewan.

But, by 1901, they were in conflict with authorities. The Canadian government changed its mind about land title and said the Doukhobors could not hold farms in common. With their long-standing objection to infringement on their community, most members of the sect refused to swear an oath of allegiance to Canada. The cost of adherence to their beliefs was the loss of their land for many.

In 1908, about 5,000 Doukhobors left Saskatchewan to take up land in the Kootenay Valley of southeastern British Columbia. Under the leadership of Peter Verigin, they bought land that was privately owned and so avoided the oath of allegiance that was required for taking up Crown land.

Doukhobor women hitched to a plough to break the Prairie sod in 1899.

Doukhobor women hitched to a plough to break the Prairie sod in 1899.

The Sons of Freedom

In the 1920s, a radical splinter group formed, aiming to put a halt to the absorption of their culture into the wider society. They strongly opposed the education system, which they saw as an instrument designed to assimilate their children, and they feared that materialism was creeping into their communities. Also, they refused to accept that governments had any authority over the way they chose to live their lives.

Their protests against these grievances took the form of setting buildings on fire, often their own, and holding nude demonstrations. The continued trouble-making cost many of them their liberty as they went to prison and some Sons of Freedom families had their children taken away from them.

The Canadian Encyclopedia reports that the children were “schooled in a compound, a former tuberculosis sanatorium, in New Denver, B.C. Some were held there for up to six years, but eventually the mothers of these children agreed to send their children to public schools, and the children were released. By the 1980s, fanatical activism had died down.”

Although they formed a small minority of the sect, the Sons of Freedom came to represent all Doukhobors in the minds of the general public. This was resented by the peaceable Doukhobors who just wanted to be left alone to live their lives according to their values. Interestingly, The Doukhobor Museum makes no mention of the Sons of Freedom.

Decline of the Doukhobor Sect

The Great Depression dealt a heavy blow to the colonies in British Columbia and many lost their land to foreclosure. There was a lot of internal squabbling within the sect and families started to drift away.

As the BBC reports “Doukhobor villages were gradually disbanded and their inhabitants assimilated into Canadian culture. There are said to be between 20,000 and 30,000 Doukhobors in Canada today, although only around one-tenth follow the spiritual practices.”

There are several efforts aimed at reviving the cultural heritage, particularly through choirs and festivals. However, except for a tiny number, the tradition of communal living is a thing of the past.

Bonus Factoids

  • Doukhobors do not practice baptism.
  • Peter Verigin, the early leader of the Doukhobors in Canada was known in the community as “The Lordly.”
  • Veregin was assassinated in a train explosion in October 1924 in British Columbia. His murder has never been solved.
Peter Verigin.

Peter Verigin.

Sources

  • “Doukhobor History.” doukhobor-museum.org, undated
  • “Canada's Little-Known Russian Sect.” Brendan Sainsbury, BBC, June 24, 2021.
  • “Doukhobors.” Julie Rak and George Woodcock, The Canadian Encyclopedia, February 26, 2019.
  • “Are Doukhobors Dying out? In Rural B.C., a Sect Tries to Stop Their Faith from Fading away.” Violetta Kryak, Globe and Mail, September 10, 2018.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on July 13, 2021:

Interestly enough. People when they break away from a known faith seems to have a hard time. Thanks.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on July 13, 2021:

What a fascinating account of the Doukhobors and their beliefs and history! I had never previously heard of them.

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