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Community Life

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Doukhobors/Koozma J. Tarasoff

In the homeland, life in the commune was based on self-sufficiency, both economical and social. The village assembly, composed of heads of households, met frequently, usually on the first day of the week, to discuss the affairs of the community. A starista, or elder, was selected whose duty corresponded to that of a chairman or speaker. Any contact with the outside world took place in the orphans’ home and was made by the leader of the day, together with the starista. Because the commune was a self-contained unit, there was no need for the sort of organizations common in industrial society. Women wove cloth and made the clothes. Men manufactured shoes, harnesses, and all kinds of farm implements. There were meetings (sobranies) at which women and men participated equally in the decision making.

The Doukhobor vision of God’s presence within each individual envisaged a society without an established class structure – priesthood, bureaucracy, or aristocracy. At the same time, a contradiction arose in the late 1770s when Ilarion Pobirokhin had proclaimed himself Christ and claimed that his divinity had been passed down from the time of the apostles. His successors accepted this aberration as a way to institutionalize their power, a theocracy brought to Canada by the Verigin family. It resulted in splits between those who supported the Verigins’ divine leadership (the community Doukhobors) and those who opposed it (the independent Doukhobors). All today agree on the values of pacifism and non-violence and the use of a cappella singing, and reject the church, the priesthood, and the Bible, but the sharing of power based on a spiritual or an elected leadership has been the principal cause of internal divisions throughout the past century.

When the first Doukhobors arrived in Canada in the 1890s, they encountered a hierarchical society in which those of British origin were at the top and newly arrived European and Asian immigrants at the bottom. They resented this class system, which resembled that of tsarist Russia. Initially, the newcomers worked at such tasks as cutting lumber at thirty cents a day, below the going rate. But they soon became more competitive in their business relations. The frontier society encouraged individualistically minded members to leave the commune and strike out on their own. Signing for homesteads, they became landowners. They sent their children to public schools, and some eventually became lawyers, doctors, engineers, and teachers. Still staunch pacifists, the independents formed their own organization on democratic principles to protect their rights, but during World War I they had to stave off attempts by Peter V. Verigin to persuade the government to take away their exemption from military service.

His son, Peter Petrovich Verigin, in 1928 tried to placate the independent Doukhobors, as well as non-Doukhobors, by organizing the Society of Named Doukhobors and adopting a declaration of principles. It stated that the community Doukhobors believed in one leader, Jesus Christ, who was the son of God, that its members did not recognize any political party, and that they did not vote in elections. The Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ (USCC), the organization formed in 1938 to succeed both the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood and the Society of Named Doukhobors of Canada, has since adopted this document as its own. The “spiritual-divine” style of leadership has gradually declined in favour of a democratically elected model. In 1961 the current USCC leader, John J. Verigin, was elected its honourary chairman.

The USCC, representing the community Doukhobors, remains the main organization in Canada. It possesses the largest resources, including community centres in Grand Forks and Brilliant, an elected executive committee, four standing committees on peace and the environment, the future, lifestyle planning, and migration, and a youth and women’s organization active throughout the interior of British Columbia. Among its projects are annual youth festivals in May characterized by traditional singing, speeches, and sports, a Sunday school program for pre-schoolers, school picnics, youth sports days, an outdoor picnic on Declaration Day in August, an annual family retreat, an in-house bilingual publication, Iskra (Spark; Brilliant, B.C., Grand Forks, N.D., 1943–), and a video club. A new residence, Sirotskii Dom, was built for the leader in Grand Forks in 1993. The paid-up membership totals one thousand, but the organization has many more supporters. It favours a spiritual leadership in a democratic cloak, a low poklon (bowing ritual) in the religious service, and the use of the Russian language.

The independent Doukhobors make up the second major group. They originally formed part of a more broadly based organization, the Union of Doukhobors of Canada, which was established in 1945 with eight thousand members. However, two years later the community Doukhobors withdrew. Today the independents are organized as the Canadian Doukhobor Society, with a current paid-up membership of 300 but endorsed by many more. Its headquarters are in Creston, British Columbia. The organization, which uses both the Russian and English languages, is oriented to moral issues and pacifism but rejects the 1928 declaration and the concept of spiritual leadership. Its members are involved in the peace and disarmament movement and closely work with the USCC in these activities, as well as in cultural programs such as the youth festivals. The organization owns no community centres and has no standing committees, but it commemorates Doukhobor Peace Day on 29 June, publishes a newsletter, and maintains a homepage on the World-Wide Web. Also, it established a joint research committee that between 1974 and the early 1980s held a number of symposia on the Doukhobor movement. These gatherings brought together some four hundred people from all sectors each month and served as a medium for community education.

The third group is composed of those formerly called the Sons of Freedom; within the community, they are commonly referred to as zealots, or svobodniki. Their organization, the Christian Community and Brotherhood of Reformed Doukhobors, was led by a non-Doukhobor, Stephen S. Sorokin, until his death in 1984; today, it is longer viable, with only several dozen members. In the 1990s those willing to associate with or be categorized as Sons of Freedom has greatly diminished in number. The core group mainly resides in the isolated community of Novoe Poselka (New Settlement), near Krestova, British Columbia. In 1995 one-half of the community refused to pay taxes, an action that produced tension with local authorities. It publishes a monthly newsletter, Istina (Truth), whose editor, a carpenter by trade, also builds coffins and conducts funerals at a fraction of the commercial rate.

Local and regional organizations have provided continuity for the Doukhobor movement. Each one has a women’s group, whose members generally look after hospitality for the sobranies, as well as for weddings, funerals, seminars, concerts, and other events. The Saskatoon Doukhobor Society, one of the largest of the local groups, has been in existence since 1955. It owns a community centre, publishes a newsletter, and has an adult executive, a woman’s group, and a choir. Among its activities are Russian-language instruction, the translation of Russian hymns into English, and a week-long bread-baking project at the annual Saskatoon Industrial Exhibition. The Doukhobor Society of Saskatchewan was established in 1989 to unite the scattered communities of Pelly, Kamsack, Verigin, Canora, Watson, Blaine Lake, Langham, and Saskatoon. The United Doukhobors of Alberta is based at Cowley, where Michael M. Verigin has served as secretary-treasurer since 1974. A small community centre is located nearby in Lundbreck; today, it is used infrequently because most of the members have moved to Calgary and other urban centres. In that city there is a Nifty 50s Seniors Club, while Kelowna and Creston have cultural associations.

Doukhobor youth have also contributed to group maintenance and revival. The Saskatoon Doukhobor Student Group in the 1950s organized a series of informative panel discussions about the movement and supported the first English-language Doukhobor publication, a monthly called the Inquirer (Saskatoon, 1954– 58). Thirteen members participated in the 1957 World Festival of Youth and Students in Moscow. The Doukhobor Youth National Executive Council, which was in existence from 1968 to 1974, sought unsuccessfully to unite all Doukhobor factions into one union. Its efforts did lead to the creation of an English-language youth magazine, Mir (Peace; Vancouver, 1973–81), and was sponsored by the Union of Young Doukhobors of Vancouver (UYD). In Castlegar young people founded a non-partisan Doukhobor Cultural Association in 1968 with the goal of a “step-by-step approach to unity.” Although it has fewer than fifty members, the association has been active into the 1990s in arranging workshops, seminars, sports days, picnics, and fund-raising drives. A centennial project (commemmorating one hundred years of Doukhobor history in Canada) is the construction by 1999 of a retreat complex at Whatshan Lake, British Columbia, for individuals and families “who embrace a philosophy ... [based] on the principle of universal kinship and the pursuit of peace through non-violent means. It also administers a low-income housing project for senior citizens in Castlegar sponsored by the Doukhobor Benevolent Society, which is involved in a similar project in Vancouver. A conference held in Saskatoon in December 1989 brought together community, independent, and zealot young people from British Columbia and Saskatchewan in discussion and included an impromptu concert that cut across group boundaries. The conference was followed by youth workshops in western Canada that had as their theme “Discoveries in Doukhoborism.”

Non-sectarianism was also the goal of the UYD, organized in 1968 by a group of young people, most of whom were attending post-secondary educational institutions in the area. The association has helped to preserve the cultural and social traditions of the Doukhobors by holding concerts, participating in the Canadian Folk Society concerts, performing in churches, on television, and at the Federation of Russian Canadians centre, and holding handicraft bazaars to raise money. Its choir has performed at the annual Doukhobor youth festivals in Castlegar and during the Montreal Olympics in 1976, and has made three successful concert tours of the interior of British Columbia. At its twentieth anniversary festivities in 1988, some 150 UYD alumni and their families gathered for a four-day summer camp that featured singing, games, and discussions. Since then, such camps have become an annual tradition.

Belonging to any of these organizations does not guarantee that one is a Doukhobor. But those who do belong demonstrate through their deeds the Doukhobor values of non-violence, love, hospitality, cooperation, and justice. The Doukhobor centennial in 1995 brought together all factions to celebrate the spirit of 1895, when their ancestors burnt their firearms in affirmation of the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.”