Doukhobors - History and Cultural Relations

Doukhobors originated in the Russian Raskol, or Schism of the 1650s, but did not become a distinct sect until the early 1700s. During the eighteenth century they were persecuted by both church and state as schismatics and pacifists. They developed a principle of spiritual leadership, which by the 1800s tended to be hereditary. Under the reign of Czar Alexander I, persecutions ended and they were granted land in the Crimea, where they developed a structured social system. Persecutions resumed within a generation and the Doukhobors were moved east of the Black Sea, where they again prospered until the Russo-Japanese War, when persecution intensified during a religious revitalization marked by the Burning of Arms (c. June 24, 1895). Leo Tolstoy worked for their relief, and the Society of Friends in London, Philadelphia, and Toronto supported emigration to Canada through 1899 for the most committed third of the Doukhobor population.

The Doukhobor homesteaded in hamlets on reserved lands in what is now east-central Saskatchewan. They established the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood (CCUB) , developed both out of great need for cooperative enterprise and upon doctrine charted by their spiritual leader, Peter Gospodnie (Lordly) Verigin, still in exile in Russia until 1904. With a land rush and changes in federal government attitudes, the Doukhobors' refusal to complete their Homesteading by swearing the oath of allegiance resulted in the loss of their lands and of their improvements as well.

Most migrated to the West Kootenay region in British Columbia between 1907 and 1912, once pioneers had begun the construction of novel community villages. The inhabitants farmed root, field, and orchard crops and produced their own food, clothing, and furnishings. During this period two major subsects appeared. About a third of the Doukhobors drifted out of the community organization and Homesteaded independently; they were given the name of "Farmali" (Farmers), or Independents, and they are the largest subsect today. In 1902 a small group took literally a letter of Peter Gospodnie that speculated on the natural life of ideal Christians: seeing the CCUB as a secularizing of Doukhobor society, they withdrew from the community, preaching extreme views. They were named "Svobodniki" (Freedomites).

Between 1912 and 1929 the economic functions of the CCUB were successful, if not markedly so, but the whole Community was shocked when, in late 1924, Peter Gospodnie and other passengers died when a still-unexplained explosion destroyed the railroad car in which he was riding from Brilliant, B.C., to Grand Forks, B.C. The event deeply scarred Doukhobor views of their new country and compounded their historic fear of secular governments. Not until three years later did Gospodnie's son Peter Chistiakov (Purger) travel from Russia to Canada to take control of the CCUB. Intending Doukhobor reunification, he organized a blanket structure, the Society of Named Doukhobors, which in 1934 produced the Declaration, an important manifesto. With the depression of 1929 the CCUB'S mortgages were called, and between 1938 and 1940 the Doukhobors lost their land and improvements through foreclosures involving a balance of no more than $310,000 owed on an estimated $6 million in property. Peter Chistiakov died at this time. The provincial government paid off the greater part of the debt and seized the Doukhobors' lands and improvements.

Shortly after Peter's arrival, the Freedomite group had grown from about seventy to about twelve hundred Individuals, and took the name "Sini Svobodi" (Sons of Freedom). From the 1910s through the 1930s they demonstrated, sometimes violently, against their brethren, the CCUB, the government, and the Canadian Pacific Railway. These acts increased in the 1940s in the wake of the collapse of the CCUB, the death of Peter Chistiakov, the loss of his son Peter Iastrabov (Hawk) Verigin in Russia, and the onset of World War II. Peter Chistiakov's grandson, John J. Verigin, who Despite adulation never took up the title of spiritual leader, became secretary and eventually honorary chairman of the Society of Named Doukhobors, which changed its name to Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ in the early 1940s. In 1949, Stephan Sorokin, a Russian Baptist, arrived in Canada and displaced John Lebedoff as the Pastor of the Sons of Freedom. Over the next twenty years, Sorokin's policies and teaching, and repeated incarcerations, gradually ended the protests and most of them took up the new organizational title of members of the Christian Community and Brotherhood of Reformed Doukhobors, or Reformed. By 1964 the provincial government had sold back all the seized land, though imprisoned Sons of Freedom were excluded from the deal. This small group returned to political protest, which Finally ended in the early 1980s through the mediation efforts of members of the regional community.

Over the past twenty years, Doukhobors in Saskatchewan and the West Kootenays have revitalized their culture through the construction of local museums, new diversefunction community halls, and publication of songs and hymns and a bimonthly bilingual journal, Iskra (the Spark) ; choirs from all groups have frequently taken part in regional and provincial events. Cultural exchanges with the USSR have been arranged, and a number of publications, journals, and recordings produced. Doukhobors continue to integrate themselves effectively into Canadian society, even though they eschew the notion of assimilation.

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John D.
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Aug 23, 2012 @ 8:20 pm
When I was about 10 years old (1962 or so) I lived in the North Okanagan. It was at the time the Sons of Freedom were very active with their burning and bombing activities. Dennis Williams, a very good friend of my parents, was at that time the editor of the Trail Daily News. He arrived at our home one day with a car load of people including John Lebedoff, four middle aged women and a little boy who was a few years younger than I. I remember being told that the four women were John Lebedoff's "wives". Whether it was true or not I don't know but I certainly was fascinated by this information. The group stayed at our home overnight and I remember the adults were up until about 5 o'clock in the morning (in a home that was invariably in bed by 10) listening to the women sing hymms. The next day they packed up and off they went. I remember later learing that John Lebedoff had been implicated in some burning or bombing activity (burning down the Kresova post office??) and was sent to jail. It was quite the experience for a 10 year old.

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