The Doukhobors or Doukhabors, earlier Dukhobortsy are a Christian group of Russian origin. The Doukhobors were one of the sects—later defined as a religious philosophy, ethnic group, social movement, or simply a ‘way of life’—known generically as Spiritual Christianity. There were numerous Russian groups considered “spiritual Christians.” The only common denominator among them is that they rejected the trappings of traditional religion. Starting no later than the eighteenth century, they rejected secular government, the Russian Orthodox priests, icons, all church ritual, the Bible as the supreme source of divine revelation and the divinity of Jesus. They “believe that Jesus Christ is a spiritually advanced teacher and example to others. They also believe that people are capable of divine reason and can spiritually develop without the help of intermediaries…. The only symbols Doukhobors commonly recognize are those of bread, salt and water, the basic elements needed to sustain life. These are on a table at all Doukhobor meetings and important events.
Their Pacifist beliefs and desire to avoid government interference in their life led to an exodus of the majority of the group from the Russian Empire to Canada at the close of the nineteenth century. However, their interaction with the Canadian authorities was anything but peaceful.
Assimilated to a various extent into the Canadian mainstream, the modern descendants of the first Canadian Doukhobors continue to live in south-eastern British Columbia, southern Alberta and Saskatchewan. Today, the estimated population of Doukhobors in North America is over 20,000, with 15,000 in Canada and about 5,000 in the USA.
Early days – Ukraine and southern Russia
The origin of the Doukhobor movement dates to seventeenth and eighteenth century Russian Empire. Believing in God’s presence in every human being, they considered clergy and rituals unnecessary. Their rejection of secular government, the Russian Orthodox priests, icons, all church ritual, the Bible as the supreme source of divine revelation, and the divinity of Jesus elicited negative response from the government and the established church, as attested by the 1734 Russian Government edict issued against ikonobortsy (Iconoclasts).
The first known Doukhobor leader, in 1755-1775, was Siluan (Silvan) Kolesnikov (Russian: Силуан Колесников), originating from the village of Nikolskoye in Yekaterinoslav Governorate in what’s today south-central Ukraine. He was thought to be a well-read person, familiar with the works of Western mystics, such as Karl von Eckartshausen and Louis Claude de Saint-Martin.
The early Doukhobors called themselves “God’s People” or simply “Christians.” Their modern name, first in the form Doukhobortsy (Russian: Духоборцы, Dukhobortsy, ‘Spirit wrestlers’) is thought to have been first used in 1785 or 1786 by Ambrosius, the Archbishop of Yekaterinoslav or his predecessor, Nikifor (Nikephoros Theotokis) The archbishops intent was to mock them as heretics fighting against the Holy Ghost (Spirit; Russian: Святой Дух, Svyatoy Dukh); but later (around the beginning of the nineteenth century, according to S.A. Inikova) the dissenters picked the name, usually in a shorter form, Doukhobory (Russian: Духоборы, Dukhobory), implying that they are fighting not against, but along with the Spirit.
As pacifists, the Doukhobors also ardently rejected the institutions of militarism and wars. For these reasons, the Doukhobors were harshly repressed in Imperial Russia. Both the tsarist state and church authorities were involved in the persecution of these dissidents, as well as taking away their normal freedoms.
The first known use of the spelling Doukhobor is attested in a government edict of 1799, exiling 90 of them to Finland (presumably, Vyborg area, which was already part of Russian Empire at the time) for their anti-war propaganda.
In 1802, Tsar Alexander I encouraged resettlement of religious minorities to the so-called ‘Milky Waters’ (Molochnye Vody): the region of Molochnaya River (around Melitopol in contemporary southern Ukraine). This was motivated by the desire to quickly populate the rich steppelands on the north shore of the Black and Azov Seas, and to prevent the “heretics” from contaminating the population of the heartland with their ideas. Many Doukhobors, as well as Mennonites from Prussia, took up on the Tsar’s offer, coming to the Molochnaya from various provinces of the Empire over the next 20 years.
As Nicholas I replaced Alexander, he issued a decree (February 6, 1826), intending to force assimilation of the Doukhobors by means of military conscription, prohibiting their meetings, and encouraging conversions to the established church. On October 20, 1830, another decree followed, specifying that all able-bodied members of dissenting religious groups engaged in propaganda against the established church should be conscripted and sent to the Russian army in the Caucasus, while those not capable of military service, as well as their women and children, should be resettled in Russia’s recently acquired Transcaucasian provinces. It is reported that, among other dissenters, some 5000 Doukhobors were resettled to Georgia between 1841 and 1845. The Akhalkalaki uyezd (district) of the Tiflis (Tbilisi) Governorate (in Georgia’s region of Samtskhe-Javakheti) was chosen as the main place of their settlement. Doukhobor villages with Russian names appeared there: Gorelovka, Rodionovka, Yefremovka, Orlovka, Spasskoye (Dubovka), Troitskoye, and Bogdanovka (now renamed Ninotsminda). Later on, other groups of Doukhobors—resettled by the government, or migrating to Transcaucasia by their own accord—settled in other neighboring areas, including the Borchaly uyezd of Tiflis Governorate (in today’s Georgia) and the Kedabek uyezd of Elisabethpol (Ganja) Governorate (in the north-west of today’s Republic of Azerbaijan).
After Russia’s conquest of Kars and the Treaty of San Stefano of 1878, some Dukhobors from Tiflis and Elisabethpol Governorates moved to the Zarushat and Shuragel uyezds of the newly created Kars Oblast (north-east of Kars in today’s Republic of Turkey).
The leader of the main group of Doukhobors that arrived to Transcaucasia from the Ukraine in 1841 was Illarion Kalmykov (Russian: Илларион Калмыков). He died in the same year, and was succeeded as the community leader by his son, Peter Kalmykov (? – 1864). After Peter Kalmykov’s death in 1864, his widow Lukerya Vasilyevna Gubanova (? – December 15, 1886; (Russian: Лукерья Васильевна Губанова); also known as Kalmykova, by her husband’s surname) took his leadership position.
The Kalmykov dynasty resided in the village of Gorelovka, one of Doukhobor communities in Georgia. (Shown on one of J. Kalmakoff’s maps.. Lukerya (Lukeria) was respected by the provincial authorities, who had to cooperate with the Doukhobors on various matters. The number of Doukhbors in the Transcaucasia reached 20,000 by the time of her death in 1886. By that time, the Doukhobors of the region had become vegetarian, and become aware of Leo Tolstoy’s philosophy, which they found quite similar with their traditional teachings.
The religious revival and the crises
The death of “Queen Lukerya,” who had no children, was followed by a leadership crisis. Lukerya’s own plan was for leadership to pass after her death to her assistant, Peter Vasilevich Verigin. However, only part of the community (“the Large Party”; Russian: Большая сторона Bolshaya Storona) accepted him as the leader; others, known as “the Small Party” (Малая сторона Malaya Storona), sided with Lukerya’s brother Michael Gubanov and the village elder, Aleksei Zubkov.
While the Large Party was a majority, the Small Party had the support of the older members of the community and the local authorities. So on January 26, 1887, at the community service where the new leader was to be acclaimed, the police walked in and arrested Verigin. He was to spend the next 16 years in exile in Russia’s Far North; some of his associates were sent to exile as well. The Large Party Doukhobors continued to consider him their spiritual leader and to communicate with him, by mail and via delegates who traveled to see him in Obdorsk, Siberia.
At the same time, the government applied greater pressure to enforce Doukhobors’ compliance with the laws and regulations that they found vexatious, such as registering marriages and births, contributing grain to state emergency funds, or swearing oaths of allegiance. Even worse, the universal military conscription that had been introduced in most of Russian Empire, was now (in 1887) imposed in its Transcaucasian provinces as well. While the Small Party people would cooperate with the state, the Large Party, wounded by the arrest of Verigin and other leaders, and inspired by his letters from exile, only felt strengthened in their desire to abide in the righteousness of their faith. They stopped using tobacco and alcohol, divided their property equally between the members of the community, and resolved to adhere to the principles of non-violence. They would not want to swear the oath of allegiance required by the new Czar Nicholas II in 1894.
To avoid the temptation to use the weapons they possessed, even in an emergency (say, to resist a robber), the Doukhobors of the three Governorates of Transcaucasia made the decision to destroy them. As the Doukhobors assembled to burn their weapons in the night of on June 28/29 (July 10/11, Gregorian Calendar) 1895, with the singing of psalms and spiritual songs, arrests and beatings by government’s Cossacks followed. Soon, Cossacks were billeted in many of the Large Party Doukhobors’ villages, and over 4000 of their original residents were dispersed through villages in other parts of Georgia. Many of those died of starvation and exposure.
Migration to Canada
Persecution was unsuccessful in coercing the Doukhobors comply with the conscription laws. The entire affair proved an embarrassment in front of international public opinion, so the Russian government agreed in 1897 to let the Doukhobors leave the country, subject to a number of conditions. The emigrants were required to:
- never return;
- migrate at their own expense;
- community leaders currently held in prison or in exile in Siberia had to serve the balance of their sentences before they could leave the country.
Some of the emigrants went first to Cyprus, but the climate there did not suit them. Meanwhile, the rest of the community chose Canada for its isolation, peacefulness, and the fact that the Canadian government welcomed them. Around 6000 migrated there in the first half of 1899, settling on the land granted to them by the government in what is today Manitoba and Saskatchewan. More people, including the Cyprus colony, joined later that year, bringing the total count to 7,400–about one-third of the total Doukhobor population in Transcaucasia. Several smaller groups, directly from Transcaucasia or from various places of exile, joined the main body of the migrants in later years. Among these late-comers were some 110 leaders of the community that were in prisons or in exile in Siberia as of 1899; they had to serve their term of punishment before they could join their people in Canada.
The Doukhobors’ passage across the Atlantic Ocean was largely paid for by Quakers and Tolstoyans, who sympathized with their plight. Leo Tolstoy arranged for the royalties from his novel, Resurrection, (1899) his short story Father Sergius (written between 1890-1898), (Father Sergei,) and some other works, to go to the migration fund. He also raised money from wealthy friends. In the end, his efforts provided half of the immigration fund, about 30,000 rubles.
The anarchist Peter Kropotkin and James Mavor, a professor of the political economy at the University of Toronto, also helped the migrants.
On the Prairies of Canada
In accordance with the Dominion Lands Act of 1872, Canadian government would grant 160 acres (0.65 km²) of land, for a nominal fee of $10, to any male homesteader able to establish a working farm on that land within three years. Living on single-family homesteads would not fit Doukhobors’ communitarian tradition. Fortunately, the Act contained the so-called Hamlet Clause, adopted some 15 years earlier to accommodate other communitarian groups such as Mennonites, which would allow the beneficiaries of the Act to live not on the actual land grant, but in a village (“hamlet”) within 3 miles (4.8 km) from their land. This would allow the Doukhobors to establish a communal life style, similar to the Hutterites.
Even more importantly, in late 1898 the Canadian Government passed Section 21 of the Dominion Military Act, exempting the Doukhobors from military service.
The land for the Doukhobor immigrants, in the total amount of 773,400 acres (3,130 km²), was granted in three “block settlement” areas (“reserves”), plus an “annex,” within what was to soon become the Province of Saskatchewan:
- The North Colony, also known as the “Thunder Hill Colony” or “Swan River Colony,” in the Pelly and Arran districts of Saskatchewan. It became home to 2,400 Doukhobors from Tiflis Governorate, who established 20 villages on 69,000 acres (280 km²) of the land grant.
- The South Colony, also known as the “Whitesand Colony” of “Yorkton Colony,” in the Canora, Veregin and Kamsack districts of Saskatchewan. Some 3,500 Doukhobors from Tiflis Governorate, Elisabethpol Governorate, and Kars Oblast, settled there in 30 villages on 215,010 acres (870.1 km²) of land grant.
- The Good Spirit Lake Annex, in the Buchanan district of Saskatchewan, received 1,000 Doukhobors from Elisabethpol Governorate and Kars Oblast, Russia, who settled there in eight villages on 168,930 acres (683.6 km²) of land grant. The annex was along the Good Spirit River, flowing into Good Spirit Lake (previously known as Devil’s Lake).
- The Saskatchewan Colony, also known as the “Rosthern colony”, “Prince Albert Colony” or “Duck Lake Colony,” was located along the North Saskatchewan River in the Langham and Blaine Lake districts of Saskatchewan, north-west of Saskatoon. 1500 Doukhobors from Kars Oblast settled there in 13 villages on 324,800 acres (1,314 km²) of land grant.
Geographically, North and South Colonies, as well as Good Spirit Lake Annex (Devil’s Lake Annex, to non-believers) were around Yorkton, not far from the border with today’s Manitoba; the Saskatchewan (Rosthern) Colony, was located north-west of Saskatoon, quite a distance from the other three “reserves.”
At the time of settlement (1899), all four “reserves” were located in the Northwest Territories: Saskathewan (Rosthern) Colony in the territories’ provisional District of Saskatchewan, North Reserve, straddling the border of Saskatchewan and Assiniboia districts, and the other two entirely in Assiniboia. After creation of the Province of Saskatchewan in 1905, all reserves were located within that province.
On the lands granted to them in the prairies, the settlers established villages along the same lines as back in the old country. Some of the new villages were given the same Russian names as the settlers home villages in Transcaucasia (Spasovka, Large and Small Gorelovka, Slavianka etc); others were given more abstract, “spiritual” names, not common in Russia: “Uspeniye” (‘Dormition’), “Terpeniye” (‘Patience’), “Bogomdannoye” (‘Given by God’), “Osvobozhdeniye” (‘Liberation’).
The settlers found Saskatchewan winters much harsher than those in Transcaucasia, and were particularly disappointed that the climate was not as suitable for growing fruits and vegetables. Many of the men found it necessary to take non-farm jobs, especially in railway construction, while the women stayed behind to till the land.
Due to Doukhobors’ aversion to private ownership in land, Petr Verigin (who had served his sentence and was able to come to Canada in 1902) managed to have land registered in the name of the community. But by 1906, the Dominion Government, in the person of Frank Oliver, the Minister of Interior, started requiring registration of the land in the name of individuals owners. Many Doukhobors’ refused, resulting the Crown reclaiming more than a third (258,880 acres) of Doukhobor lands.
Oliver also posed another vexing issue when he required them to become naturalized citizens. The previous minister’s had given assurances before the Doukhbors arrival to Canada that they would not be required to swear an Oath of Allegiance to the Crown, which was against their principles. These problems led to a new crisis just a decade after the conscription crisis in Russia.
The crisis resulted in a three-way split of the Doukhobor community in Canada:
- The edinolichniki (‘Independents’), who constituted by 1907 some ten percent of the Canadian Doukhobors. They maintained their religion, but abandoned communal ownership of land, rejecting hereditary leadership and communal living as non-essential to their religion.
- The largest group—the Community Doukhobors—continued to be loyal to their spiritual leader, Peter V. Verigin. They formed an organization known as Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood (CCUB).
- The more radical Sons of Freedom group (also called the “Svobodniki” or “Freedomites”), which emerged in 1903, embraced Verigin’s writings in a more zealous manner than did even the CCUB.
The Independents were a group most easily integrating into the Canadian capitalist society. They had no problem with registering their land groups, and largely remained in Saskatchewan. It was they who, much later on (in 1939) finally rejected the authority of Peter Verigin’s great-grandson, John J. Verigin.
In British Columbia
To take his followers away from the corrupting influence of non-Doukhobors and Edinolichniki (‘individual owners’) Doukhobors, and to find better conditions for agriculture, Verigin, starting in 1908, bought large tracts of land in south-eastern British Columbia. His first purchase were near the US border around Grand Forks. Later, he acquired large tracts of land further east, in the Slocan Valley around Castlegar. Between 1908 and 1912, some 8,000 people moved to these British Columbia lands from Saskatchewan, to continue their communal way of living. In the milder climate of British Columbia, the settlers were able to plant fruit trees, and within a few years became renowned as orchardists and producers of fruit preserves.
As the Community Doukhobors left Saskatchewan, the “reserves” there were closed by 1918.
The Sons of Freedom, meanwhile, responded to the Doukhobors conflict with the Canadian policy by mass nudity and arson as a means of protesting against a host of complaints against the Canadian government and society, including materialism, the land seizure by the government, compulsory education in government schools and, later on, Verigin’s supposed assassination. This led to many confrontations with the Canadian government and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (continuing into the 1970s).
Peter V. Verigin was killed in a still-unsolved Canadian Pacific Railway train explosion on October 29, 1924 near Farron, between Castlegar and Grand Forks, British Columbia. The government initially (during investigation) had stated the crime was perpetrated by people within the Doukhobor community, while the Doukhobors suspected Canadian government involvement. To date, it is still unknown who is responsible for the bombing. Thus, while the Doukhobors were initially welcomed by the Canadian government, this assassination controversy, as well as Doukhobor beliefs regarding communal living and child education, among other beliefs, created an air of mistrust between government authorities and Doukhobors which would last for decades.
Peter V. Verigin was succeeded as the leader of the Community Doukhobors by his son, Peter P. Verigin, who arrived from the Soviet Union in 1928. He became known as Peter the Purger, and worked to smooth the relations between the Community Doukhobors and the larger Canadian society. His policies, seen by the radical (or zealous) Sons of Freedom as ungodly and assimilationist, were answered by increasing protests on the part of the latter. The Sons of Freedom would burn the Community Doukhobors’ property, and organize more nude parades.
The Canadian Parliament responded in 1932 by criminalizing public nudity. Over the years, over 300 radical Doukhobor men and women were arrested for this offense, which typically carried a three-year prison sentence.
In 1947-1948, Sullivan’s Royal Commission investigated arsons and bombing attacks in British Columbia, and recommended a number of measures intended to integrate the Doukhobors into the Canadian society, notably through the participation of their children in public education. Around that time, the provincial government entered into direct negotiations with the Freedomite leadership.
W. A. C. Bennett’s Social Credit government, which came to power in 1952, took a harder stance against the “Doukhobor Problem.” In 1953, 150 children of the Sons of Freedom were forcible interned by the government agents in a residential school in New Denver, British Columbia.
Abuse of the interned children was later alleged, and a formal apology demanded. The BC government made an official Statement of Regret that satisfied some, but not all. The Canadian Federal government still has not apologized for its role in the removal of children from their homes, saying that it is not responsible for actions taken by the government in place 50 years ago.
Many of the independent and community Doukhobors believed that the Freedomites violated the central Doukhobor principle of nonviolence (with arson and bombing) and therefore did not deserve to be called Doukhobors. However, rifts generated during the twentieth century between the Sons of Freedom and Community and Independent Doukhobors were later largely laid to rest.
After the departure of the more zealous and non-compromising Doukhobors and many community leaders to Canada at the close of the nineteenth century, the Doukhobor groups staying within the Russian Empire entered a period of decline. By 1905, hardly any Doukhobors remained in Elisabethpol Governorate (Azerbaijan); the former Doukhobor villages now were mostly populated by Baptists. Elsewhere, many Doukhobors joined other dissenter sects, such as Molokans or Stundists.
Those that remained Doukhobors had to submit to the state. Few protested against the military service: for example, out of 837 Russian Court Martial cases against conscientious objectors recorded between the beginning of World War I and April 1, 1917, only 16 were for Doukhobor defendants–none of those hailed from the Transcaucasian provinces.
In 1921-1923, Verigin’s son arranged the resettlement of 4000 Doukhobors from the Ninotsminda (Bogdanovka) district in south Georgia into Rostov Oblast in southern Russia and other 500 into Zaporizhia Oblast in the Ukraine.
The Soviet reforms affected greatly the life of the Doukhobors both in their old villages in Georgia and in the new settlement areas in Russian and Ukraine. The state anti-religious campaigns resulted in the suppression of Doukhobor religious tradition, and the loss of books and archival records. A number of religious leaders were arrested or exiled: for example, 18 people were exiled from Gorelovka alone in 1930. On the other hand, Communists’ imposition of collective farming did not go against the grain of the Doukhobor way of life. The industrious Doukhobors made their collective farms prosperous, specializing e.g. in cheese-making.
Of the Doukhobor communities in the USSR, those in the south Georgia were the most sheltered from the outside influence, both because of the sheer geographical isolation in the mountainous terrain, and due to their location in an area near the international border, and concomitant travel restrictions for outsiders.
Today an estimated 20,000-40,000 people of Doukhobor heritage live in Canada, some 4000 of them claiming “Doukhobor” as their religious affiliation. Perhaps another 30,000 live in Russia and neighboring countries. About 5000 live in the U.S. along the northernmost parts of the US-Canada border.
CCUB, the organization Orthodox Doukhobors or Community Doukhobors, was succeeded by Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ, formed by Peter P. Verigin (son of Peter V. Verigin) in 1938. The largest and most active Doukhobor organization, it is headquartered in Grand Forks, British Columbia.
During Canada 2001 Census, 3,800 persons in Canada (of which, 2,940 in British Columbia, 200 in Alberta, 465 in Saskatchewan, and 155 in Ontario) identified their religious affiliation as “Doukhobor.” As the age distribution shows, the proportion of older people among these self-identified Doukhobors is higher than among the general population:
E.g., 28 percent of the self-identified Doukhobors in 2001 were aged over 65 (i.e., born before 1936), as compared to 12 percent of the entire population of Canadian respondents. The aging of the denomination is accompanied by the shrinking of its size, starting in the 1960s:
Self-identified Doukhobor population
Of course, the number of Canadians sharing Doukhobor heritage is much higher than the number of those who actually consider oneself a member of this religion. Doukhobor researchers made estimates from “over 20,000” people “from [Doukhobor] stock” in Canada (Postnikoff, 1977) to over 40,000 Doukhobors by “a wider definition of religion, ethnicity, way of life, and social movement” (Tarasoff, 2002).
The Canadian Doukhobors no longer live communally. Their prayer meetings and gatherings are dominated by the singing of a cappella psalms, hymns and spiritual songs in Russian. Doukhobors do not practice baptism. They reject several items considered orthodox among Christian churches, including church organization and liturgy, the inspiration of the Scriptures, the literal interpretation of resurrection, the literal interpretation of the Trinity, and the literal interpretation of heaven and hell. Some avoid the use of alcohol, tobacco, and animal products for food, and involvement in partisan politics. Doukhobors believe in the goodness of man and reject the idea of original sin.
The religious philosophy of the Doukhobors is based on the ten commandments and the Golden Rule, “Love God with all thy heart, mind and soul” and “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” The Doukhobors have several important slogans. One of the most popular, “Toil and Peaceful Life,” was coined by Peter V. Verigin.
Georgia and Russia
Since the late 1980s, many of the Doukhobors of Georgia started emigrating to Russia. Various groups moved to Tula Oblast, Rostov Oblast, Stavropol Krai, and elsewhere. After the independence of Georgia, many villages with Russian names received Georgian names; for example, Bogdanovka became Ninotsminda and Troitskoe became Sameba. According to various estimated, in Ninotsminda District, the Doukhobor population fell from around 4000 in 1979 to 3,000-3,500 in 1989 and not much more than 700 in 2006. In Dmanisi district, from around 700 Doukhobors living there in 1979, no more than 50 seemed to remain by the mid-2000s. Those who do remain are mostly older people, since it is the younger generation who found it easier to move to Russia. The Doukhobor community of Gorelovka (in Ninotsminda District), the former “capital” of the Kalmykov family, is thought to be the best preserved in all post-Soviet countries.
Heritage: Historical sites and museums
The sites of Community Doukhobors’ headquarters in Veregin, Saskatchewan were designated in 2006 a National Historic Site of Canada, under the name “Doukhobors at Veregin.”
A Doukhobor museum, currently known as “Doukhobor Discovery Center” (formerly, “Doukhobor Village Museum”) operates in Castlegar, British Columbia. It contains over a thousand artifacts representing the arts, crafts, and daily life of the Doukhobors of the Kootenays in 1908-1938.
Although most of the early Doukhobor village structures in British Columbia have vanished or been significantly remodeled by later users, a part of Makortoff Village outside of Grand Forks, British Columbia has been preserved as a museum by Peter Gritchen, who purchased the property in 1971 and opened it as the Mountain View Doukhobor Museum on June 16, 1972. The future of the site became uncertain after his death in 2000. But, in cooperation with a coalition of the local organizations and concerned citizens, the historical site, known as Hardy Mountain Doukhobor Village, was purchased The Land Conservancy of British Columbia in March 2004, while the museum collection was acquired by the Boundary Museum Society and loaned to TLC for display.
The Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa has a collection of Doukhobor-related items as well. A special exhibition there was run in 1998-1999 to mark the centennial anniversary of the Doukhobor arrival in Canada.