Editor’s note: The following blog post is part one of a two-part series looking at the history and influence of Doukhobors in Alberta.
East of the Crowsnest Pass, nestled within the small community of Lundbreck, sits a simple white building clad in asbestos shingles and covered with metal roof. The structure looks utilitarian and spare; it could easily be mistaken for the kind of modest community halls one occasionally sees in Alberta’s small towns. While the building is almost entirely non-descript, the history that it embodies is extraordinarily rich.
The history of the Alberta Doukhobors is an essential chapter in the story of one of the largest experiments in communal living in North America. Approximately 7,500 Doukhobors came to Canada in 1899, at the time it was the largest mass migration in the country’s history. In stark contrast, at a 2018 meeting of Doukhobors in British Columbia, a grim question was posed: will there be any Doukhobors active in their faith by 2030? Between their noteworthy arrival at the end of the nineteenth century and their dwindling membership today, the Doukhobors have lived a tumultuous and compelling experience in Canada. This post attempts to explore the vision and roots of the Doukhobor community, and their early experiences in Canada.
The origins of the Doukhobor community are difficult to trace. A Russian peasant people bound together by an oral culture, the Doukhobors left little record of their early history. It appears likely that the Doukhobors emerged during the religiously turbulent seventeenth century in Russia, when reforms to the Russian Orthodox Church lead to the establishment of a number of dissident religious communities. Whatever their roots, by the late 1700s the Doukhobors had coalesced into a distinct Christian religious community with views that were considered both religiously heretical and politically subversive. Like reformist groups in other Christian traditions, the Doukhobors believed that modern churches had become corrupt and strayed from the primitive simplicity of Christianity. They rejected outright the elaborate hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox church and its ornate liturgical life, including the priesthood, sacraments, the Bible and the veneration of icons.
In its place, the Doukhobors created a form of community worship centred on simple gatherings known as molenie. The faithful would assemble around bread, salt and water – the elemental sources of life – and sing from the Living Book, an orally-transmitted body of psalms and hymns conveying the essence of the Doukhobor faith. At the core of their belief was an ardent conviction in the immanent and vibrant presence of God in each human being, as well as the sacredness of the created world. From these simple tenets, the fundamentals of religious dogma and practice flowed organically and were embodied in the community dedication to the practices of “toil and peaceful life,” including communal living, pacifism, and vegetarianism. The Doukhobors’ religious commitments shaped their political worldview, which was deeply distrustful of bureaucratic processes and secular institutions, both of which they viewed as instruments in service of inherently militaristic civil governments. The Doukhobors refused to swear oaths on the ground that God was their sole authority, and would not register births for fear that such accountings could be used in future military conscription. They were also deeply suspicious of state-provided education.
Not surprisingly, given their views on both church and state, the Doukhobors were routinely subjected to harsh treatment in Imperial Russia. In fact, the Doukhobors derive their name from a slur made against them by a church authority. In 1785, a Russian Orthodox archbishop disdainfully labelled the community “Doukhobortsi” or “Spirit-Wrestlers”, implying that in opposing the state church, they wrestled against the Holy Spirit. The Doukhobors embraced the slander against them, and argued that they were indeed Spirit-Wrestlers – wrestling in accordance with, and on behalf of, the Spirit of God and against evil. The archbishop’s comment was reflective of the generally low view of the Doukhobors among both church and state hierarchies, and foretold the brutal treatment they would endure. During periods of intense persecution, they faced violence, exile, imprisonment, coerced conversion and death. Remarkably, in spite of their persecution, the Doukhobors found ways to survive and thrive. In fact, harsh measures often resulted in the Doukhobors deepening and more fiercely committing to their religious commitments.
In the 1890s, the conflict between the Doukhobor’s belief in pacifism and the state’s demand for military service culminated in one of the defining moments of their history, known as the Burning of Arms. In 1895, inspired by Peter “the Lordly” Verigin, the Doukhobor leader in exile in Siberia, thousands of Doukhobors in three villages in the Transcaucasus region piled up their weapons and lit them on fire. The Burning of Arms, as the event came to be known, was a powerful symbolic act testifying to the Doukhobors’ fervent pacifism and rejection of state militarism. The response was predictably savage. Cossacks descended upon the Doukhobor villages, and intense violence, forced exile, and dispossession of property followed. It seemed plausible that state actions could snuff out the Doukhobor community entirely.
Faced with what seemed an existential threat, the Doukhobors were aided by a number of sympathetic individuals and groups. Leo Tolstoy, the famed Russian author, was fascinated by the Doukhobor’s primitive Christianity, and saw it as a model of true religion. Tolstoy wrote correspondence far and wide imploring others to assist the Doukhobors, and contributed the proceeds of his final novel, Resurrection, to helping the community emigrate from Russia. The Quakers shared with the Doukhobors an egalitarian view of human society and a commitment to pacifism, and were also strongly supportive of the community during and after their exodus from Russia. Canadian intellectuals and Russian radicals also helped. In 1898, following intense lobbying, Tsar Nicholas II provided permission for the Doukhobors to leave Russia.
Given the Doukhobor’s proven success as agriculturalists, and the Canadian government’s desire to populate the Dominion’s vast prairie with farmers, it is perhaps not surprising that Minister of the Interior Clifford Sifton was supportive of transplanting the Doukhobors into western Canada. After initially exploring Cyprus as a possible destination for the community, Doukhobors and their supporters settled on Canada as their new home. They were granted a formal exemption from military service, and negotiated arrangements with respect to matters like the communal holding of land. Roughly 7,500 Doukhobors arrived in 1899 and most settled in several villages north of Yorkton, Saskatchewan. More would follow in 1902, including Peter “the Lordly” Verigin, the Doukhobor leader living in exile in Siberia, who was granted special dispensation to leave Russia and join his flock.
With a large population now having to settle in an entirely alien society and environment, the early years in Canada were particularly difficult for the Doukhobors. The men took extra work as railway and farm labourers as women and children endeavoured to clear the land. Individuals and organizations supportive of the Doukhobors also offered support.
The natural difficulties inherent in establishing large-scale agricultural communities were not the Doukhobors’ only challenges. Fissures had begun to appear within the villages. Most Doukhobors remained committed to communal ownership of land and the maintenance of a respectful – and uncontroversial – distance from their non-Doukhobor neighbours. This majority would come to be known as the Community Doukhobors. There were other Doukhobors – known as Independents – who had elected to take an oath of allegiance to the Queen and to file for individual homesteads. There were also those Doukhobors, later called the Sons of Freedom, whose enthusiasm resulted in dramatic and, to some Canadians, disturbing displays of religious zeal. For instance, in the fall of 1902, several hundred Doukhobors became consumed with the belief that some great revelation was at hand – possibly the return of Christ to the earth – and they began to march across the bitter cold of the prairies in hope of encountering the divine. While the marchers were eventually returned to their settlements, the event was a media sensation, and led to concern among some Canadians about the fanaticism of the recent arrivals. These community factions posed enormous challenges for Peter Verigin, who was compelled to strike a fine balance between his faith’s religious convictions and the accommodations demanded by his community’s new political and cultural context.
The first significant rupture in the Canadian community occurred in 1907, and the consequences would reverberate throughout Doukhobor history in Canada. Frank Oliver has become Minister of the Interior in 1905, and his view of immigrant groups like the Doukhobors contrasted with that of his predecessor, Clifford Sifton. Whereas Sifton viewed the Doukhobors as hardy and experienced agriculturalists who would help build Canada by converting the western prairies into productive farmland, Oliver’s saw them as culturally regressive and incapable of adopting the modes of civilized life appropriate to the Dominion. Oliver made clear to Verigin that whatever verbal promises Minister Sifton had made regarding the Doukhobors’ ability to hold land communally were not binding. In 1906, Oliver appointed Reverend John McDougall to a commission to assess the situation of Doukhobor land holdings in Saskatchewan. McDougall determined that communal holding of lands was incompatible with Canadian law, and that the Doukhobors would have to take an oath of allegiance to the Crown and apply for individual homesteads or be dispossessed of their lands.
While some chose to comply with the government’s demands, most did not, and in 1907, the majority of Doukhobor lands were released for claim by other homesteaders. The decision exacerbated existing tensions. The ranks of Independent Doukhobors grew. At the same time, the loss of their land reinforced some Doukhobors’ suspicion of earthly authority and bolstered their commitment to an uncompromised religious vision and lifestyle. Deeply disappointed, Verigin looked for a new home for the Community Doukhobors. He chose to move most of his people to the interior of British Columbia and purchased a large swath of land there, where he hoped his community would be permitted to practice their faith in peace.
In part two, we will explore Doukhobor’s Alberta history, and the internal and external tensions that led to the dissolution of the community. It will also illuminate some contemporary efforts to honour the Doukhobor’s vision of simple, peaceful living and to commemorate their history in Alberta.
Written by: Matthew Wangler, Executive Director, Historic Resources Management Branch