A Pacifist Sect From Russia Is Shaken by War, and Modernity

When he grew up among the Doukhobors, a pacifist religious group who emigrated to Canada from tsarist Russia, JJ Verigin would sometimes arrive home from school to find a naked old woman trying to burn down her family’s house.

One attempt, in 1969, was successful, complained Mr. Verigin, 67, who recently narrated the episode. The blaze destroyed valuable family artifacts, including correspondence between his great-grandfather, a prominent Doukhobor leader, and the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, an early admirer of Doukhobor’s pacifism and Christian morality.

Old ladies, Mr. Verigin explained, was part of a small, radical splinter group within Doukhobor who periodically stripped buildings and burned buildings to protest land ownership and what they perceived as excessive materialism. Some of those accused of arson had other motives, he said: deportation to Mother Russia.

These days, with the Ukraine war raging, most Doukhobor no longer aspire to return to Russia, said Verigin, who headed Canada’s largest Doukhobor organization and studied in Moscow in 1979. grabbed the headlines in Canada and polarizing Doukhobor, is also a thing of the past, he stressed.

“Passifism is at the heart of what it means to be a Doukhobor, and the war in Ukraine has put an end to any lingering desire to return to Russia,” said Verigin, executive director of The United Spiritual Community of Christ. “We feel the emotions of our brothers and sisters in Ukraine because we are also facing repression in Russia.”

In the 18th century, Doukhobor (the name comes from a Russian phrase meaning “spirit wrestler”) rejected icon veneration of the Russian Orthodox Church. They also refused to serve in the imperial military; in 1895, thousands of Doukhobor soldiers burned their weapons, leading to the group’s violent suppression and exile.

Tolstoy devotes royalties to his novel “Resurrectionto help finance Doukhobor’s transit to Canada, and in 1899, more than 7,500 emigrated to Saskatchewan to help farm the Canadian prairies. By 1908, the majority had resettled in the rural mountain areas of southern British Columbia, in sleepy farming and factory towns such as Castlegar and Grand Forks.

An estimated 30,000 people of Doukhobor descent live in Canada, and for decades they lived as hermit, communal lives reminiscent of Quakers or Mennonites, though suffused by Russian culture and traditions. Historically, many were vegetarians and avoided alcohol. Their motto: “Work hard and live in peace.”

Many Doukhobors in Canada still speak Russian among themselves; sending their children to Russian-language schools; singing Russian hymns at weekly spiritual gatherings; bathe in a Russian steam bath; and eat traditional dishes like borsch.

But Doukhobor’s lifestyle has been buffeted by mixed marriages, the allure of city life, and younger generations more attracted to TikTok than to Tolstoy. Today, Doukhobor is a doctor, professor, lawyer, professional athlete, and in at least one case, a transvestite.

“Assimilation is a challenge to our way of life,” said Mr. Verigin.

At a recent choir practice at the Doukhobor cultural center, Jasmine Popoff, 34, a purple-haired nurse, led the choir in a rousing version of Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah” — in Russian — followed by a passionate English rendition of Queen’s “Someone to love.”

“As Doukhobor, it is important for our culture to thrive so we can sustain it,” said Ms. Popoff.

As the discussion turned to war during a rehearsal break, choir members of all ages said they rejected the authoritarianism and militarism of Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin. “I don’t feel any connection to Mother Russia because Russia is not our mother,” said singer Kelly Poznikoff.

Mr Verigin said that, due to anger over the Ukrainian conflict, several Doukhobors had in recent months been denied service at local shops in Castlegar.

In the past, prejudice against Doukhobor in Canada has been fanned by an extremist splinter group, the Sons of Freedom, which in the 1920s began marching in naked protests and burning public buildings and homes. Group members oppose property ownership and public schools for their children. In the 1950s, dozens of their children sent by force to a government boarding school.

Among the last radicals was Mary Braun, who in 2001, at the age of 81 sentenced to six years in prison after burning down a community college building in British Columbia. Prior to her sentencing, Ms. Braun disrobed in court. He previously performed many fasts and started a small fire in the courtroom.

Nadja Kolesnikoff, a yoga instructor raised in a Sons of Freedom family, said she was distraught at age 5 when her paternal grandmother burned down her own house and was imprisoned for three years.

“We were supposed to work together as a community,” he said. “I never asked him why he did it.”

But Ms. Kolesnikoff said her upbringing was also empowering. The family used kerosene lamps and stored vegetables and fruit underground in winter. Luxury is frowned upon.

“I taught myself, and to this day I feel there is nothing I couldn’t do,” he said by phone from Costa Rica, where he now lives.

At the Doukhobor Discovery Center in Castlegar, the museum’s director, Ryan Dutchak, said several Doukhobors over the past decades have changed their last names to Russian-sounding ones out of fear of ostracism. In the 2021 Canadian census, only 1,675 people identified as Doukhobor.

“Being a stigma has pushed some people away,” he said.

The elders said preserving the Russian language held the key to the group’s survival.

On a recent Thursday, dozens of Doukhobors gathered for a spiritual gathering. Dressed in colorful scarves, blouses, skirts and aprons, the women sat to one side across from the men. On the table lay a loaf of bread, salt and a jug of water, traditional symbols of Doukhobor’s hospitality.

“Gospodi blagoslovi” — God grant us your blessing — they said before singing the Our Father in melodious Russian.

Standing outside his classroom at an elementary school in Castlegar, Ernie Verigin, a Russian teacher, acknowledged the challenges in preserving the Doukhobor faith. “The younger generation wants quick fixes, but spirituality is a lifelong process,” he said. “It’s hard to compete when my 14 year old daughter is on Instagram and Facebook.”

The Canadian, Russian, and Doukhobor identity rivalries can be tricky.

AJ Roberts, 21, a video game designer in Vancouver who grew up in Castlegar, laments his rusty Russian. But he learned to make borscht himself, even though his mother brought him many jars every time she visited.

“I’m proud to be Canadian, but I don’t shy away from saying I’m Doukhobor,” he said. “Because of the war, I am more embarrassed to say that I have a Russian background.”

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