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Culture

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

Most Canadian Doukhobors are bilingual, speaking English as the language of business and a southern Russian dialect mixed with elements of central Russian, Belorusan, Ukrainian, and English within the community. In the extended family, knowledge of the heritage language was kept alive by the grandmother, who read psalms to the children at bedtime. Today, elders in the community express a concern about a loss of Russian among their youth, swept along by the forces of English-language education, competition for good grades, and the anti-Soviet propaganda of the Cold War. Books in Russian and in translation have helped to preserve the language and culture. The most notable is that of Vladimir Bonch-Bruevich, a Russian ethnographer who in 1899–1900 recorded traditional folklore among the new immigrants to Canada and published the Zhivotnaia kniga Dukhobortsev (Doukhobor Book of Life, 1909). A collection of over three hundred psalms, as well as parables, verses, and forms of greetings, it constitutes the musical and literary heritage of the Doukhobors.

A cappella singing has continued as the dominant mode of cultural expression. Singing of the psalms is characterized by long, drawn-out passages using staggered breathing. Although occasionally based on biblical models, the psalms were composed by the Doukhobors themselves or inherited from proto-Doukhobor groups that had broken away from the Russian Orthodox Church, some as early as the fifteenth century. Because of their archaic wording and difficult tempo, the psalms are gradually giving way to hymns and folk songs, which employ a faster tempo. Historical hymns deal with specific events in tsarist Russia, such as the 1895 burning of firearms, the persecution that followed, the migration, and the Doukhobor martyrs. Contemporary ones reflect social ideals and events among the Doukhobors in Canada.

During the past fifty years, many choral groups have sprung up, especially among the community Doukhobors but also among the independents of Saskatchewan and Alberta and the zealots of British Columbia. These groups have visited communities throughout North America, and over seventy albums and cassettes have been recorded. Choirs have participated in numerous events such as a tour of the Soviet Union in 1966, Expo 67 in Montreal, the Seattle world’s fair in 1974, the opening of the British Columbia legislature that year and of the United Nations in 1982, a centennial tour of North America and Russia in 1995, and a youth festival in Cuba in 1997. The use of folk-song collections from the former Soviet Union has helped Doukhobors to preserve their knowledge of Russian. Hymn books and musical scores are not used, except by some choirs in Saskatchewan. The choirs also do not have conductors, although a member of each group serves as director. Objection to the use of musical instruments was finally abandoned in the early 1970s when a piano was brought into a Doukhobor community centre for the use of a visiting Russian artist. Today, several groups have included guitars, accordions, and saxophones on their recordings, but musical instruments are still barred from religious meetings. Dancing was also traditionally frowned upon but is now practised by many young people.

There is a saying that every second Doukhobor is a writer, an allusion to the fact that members of the community have an inborn habit of philosophizing about life. Among the earliest scholars was Alex P. Harshenin, who in 1974 wrote a doctoral thesis on the Doukhobor language. Nina Olson studied the movement from an anthropological point of view, and from 1925 to 1992 Nick N. Kalmakoff collected, printed, and hand bound editions of traditional hymns and songs. Nicholas Zbitnoff, a Saskatchewan-born doctor who practised medicine in Ukiah, California, for many years, photographed Doukhobors and collected their family histories throughout his life.

Peter N. Maloff and William A. Soukoreff of British Columbia have produced folk histories in Russian, while Saskatchewan-born Eli A. Popoff has written many stories and several novels in Russian and English. The most prominent editor in the community, Peter P. Legebokoff, was responsible for the journal Iskra from 1952 to 1973. Ivan Sysoev, who composed more than a thousand hymns and poems in the Russian language, is the best example of a Doukhobor poet. With the exception of some productions in the 1930s, a radio script in the 1950s, and the occasional play, Doukhobors have not created many dramatic works. A multimedia presentation by the community in Saskatchewan in the 1970s, which incorporated songs, slides, acting, and narration, was an innovation. Alberta-born Larry A. Ewashen, known as both a playwright and a film-maker, wrote a play about the burning of firearms for the hundredth anniversary of this event in 1995. The most prominent Doukhobor artists are painters Frederick Nicholas Loveroff and Bill Perehudoff and sculptor William Koochin.

Among the publications catering to the Doukhobor community is Iskra, which today is issued twice a month as a bilingual journal of the USCC. Through its pages, readers are informed about their history, heritage, and current cultural activities. A radio program in Russian, which ran from 1970 to 1996 on the CKGF station in Grand Forks, was produced, directed, and narrated by singers Fred and Luba Rezansoff and their friends. Broadcast six days a week, it lasted for ten minutes; the first half was devoted to local and international news and the second to singing. The purpose was to keep the Russian language alive and to inform listeners about events in the homeland and the rest of the world. Doukhobor elders especially benefited from this program, which helped to dispel misconceptions about the community by providing a positive image of its activities. Though the program ceased on Fred Rezansoff’s death in 1996, plans are currently under way for the Russian-American Broadcasting Company of New York to provide a Russian-language radio and television service in Canada.

Other aspects of Doukhobor culture are influenced by the surrounding North American society. For example, the English language is gradually creeping into Sunday religious meetings in Saskatoon. To counter this development, the local society has a program of Rus-sianlanguage instruction. Cultural festivals, family gatherings, and a growing interest in genealogy are indications of a renewed interest in roots. The celebration of Doukhobor Peace Day on 29 June unites all members of the community around the central issue of pacifism, while Declaration Day, held in British Columbia on the first Sunday in August, is a reaffirmation of Doukhobor beliefs. Panel discussions and symposia serve similar functions.

Clothing, food, and crafts are also forms of cultural expression. For choral performances, women often wear blouses, skirts, and platoks (kerchiefs) adapted from traditional Russian forms. Food grown in their own gardens is shared with friends and relatives in the form of such traditional dishes as lapshevnik (noodle loaf), borshch (cabbage soup), pirogi (filled with vegetable or fruit), lapsha (noodle soup), vareniki (cottage cheese or fruit dumplings), and blintsi (pancakes). Only a few members of the community are vegetarians, but a reverence for life remains a deep-seated value for all. Some women still knit socks, produce handmade rugs, or embroider distinctive Slavic designs, and men continue to make wooden ladles, sugar bowls, and spinning wheels. Modern medicine is fully supported in the community, but a few older Doukhobors rely on folk cures, prayers, and incantations. The use of bone-setters, steam baths, and heat are popular, particularly among the older generation.

Leisure was not a concept known to early Doukhobors since people were not supposed to be idle. In the early communes, before the introduction of modern farm machinery, members sang while they worked in the fields; the same practice was to be found in the village courtyards in British Columbia during the 1920s. Work and leisure thus formed an integrated whole. Among the independent Doukhobors, soccer, baseball, hockey, curling, and swimming were popular recreations. Every Sunday in the village of Pokrovka northwest of Saskatoon, for example, young and old came out to play baseball, “Russian bats,” and softball. From such outings evolved baseball teams that toured the province and participated in sports days. Notable sports figures have emerged from both the independent and community groups: Peter Knight, a world champion bronco rider in the 1930s; Jon-Lee Kootnekoff, an Olympic basketball player and coach in the 1960s; Ron Cherkas, who distinguished himself as a player with the Canadian Football League a decade later; Debbie Brill, a world champion high jumper in late 1970s and early 1980s; and Tim Cheveldae, a National Hockey League goalie in the 1980s.