In 1785 Archbishop Ambrosius of the Russian Orthodox Church derisively called a group of religious dissidents "Doukho-bortsi". The term means Spirit Wrestlers - he was insinuating that they were struggling against the Spirit of God as interpreted by the Russian Orthodox Church.
They replied: "We are Spirit Wrestlers because we wrestle with and for the Spirit of God against those things which are evil." In seeking human perfection they would use only the spiritual power of love rather than coercive violence, based on the scriptural admonishment: Resist not evil.
Their religious philosophy was based on two commandments: "Recognize and love God with all thy heart, mind and soul," and, "Love thy neighbour as thyself."
"What is God?" they are asked. "God is a word, God is spirit, God is love. Where there is love, there is God."
"What is a soul?" "The soul is the reflection of God's spirit in a person, it returns to its source after earthly life is over."
How was Jesus resurrected? Metaphorically, not physically: "Jesus was resurrected in the hearts of righteous people and continues to be resurrected to this day in those who follow his teachings."
Under the inspired leadership of Peter V. Verigin [primus inter pares, the first among equals] the Doukhobors made a decisive stand against militarism. "War is incompatible with Christianity". On June 29, 1895, 7000 Doukhobors destroyed their weapons in a resounding demonstration of pacifism - to kill another being is to kill God since the spirit of God dwells within each person.
This resulted in cruel punishments by the Czarist State and Church and this extreme persecution attracted sympathetic attention from humanitarians Lev Tolstoy and his publisher, Vladimir Chertkov and their colleagues.
With the aid of James Mavor, Professor of Economics at the University of Toronto, arrangements were made with Clifford Sifton, Minister of the Interior, and 7,500 Doukhobors were invited to settle in the North West Territories in 1899.
Their agrarian communal society was a glowing tribute to their slogan "Toil and Peaceful Life." By 1902, they had created over 60 villages, and were cultivating over 257,000 acres.
They had settled this area on the promise of ‘land in a bloc', but in 1907, draconian Frank Oliver, new Minister of the Interior replacing the sympathetic Clifford Sifton, abruptly cancelled their homestead entries. The enforcement of the Homestead Act became the order of the day; each eligible occupant must register and cultivate 160 acres individually, swear the oath of allegiance, and pay the registration fee.
Faced with the destruction of their communal life style and reluctant to swear the oath which stipulated a willingness and obligation to do battle, exemption from the military had been another immigration condition, the majority elected to give up their hard won homesteads in an effort to preserve their lifestyle precepts. Peter Verigin, Chairman of the Doukhobor Trading Company, made a shrewd purchase on their behalf in British Columbia with the idea that once they owned their own properties, they could continue to live and work communally and not be obligated with the oath.
Between 1908 and 1913, 5,000 Doukhobors settled in the area that became the city of Castlegar. Peter V. Verigin named the resettlement area Dolina Ootishenie, the Valley of Consolation. Near Brilliant, the original settlement so named after the sparkling waters, they built the famous suspension bridge in 1913, now a National Historic Monument.
Brilliant is the confluence of the Kootenay - Columbia Rivers and it became a major centre for the their initial purchase of 14,000 acres. The properties soon expanded into the Grand Forks area, as well as Saskatchewan and Alberta. The Doukhobor commune, incorporated as the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood in 1917 with a capital investment of $1,000,000 soon operated 71,600 acres of improved land in the three western provinces, along with a host of supporting industries.
The unexpected, violent death of their leader, Peter V. Verigin in 1924 in a seemingly planned train bomb explosion, heralded the following destruction of the communal system. Although his son came from Russia to take over the chairmanship in 1927, his erratic efforts at saving the corporation from the onslaught of the credit and mortgage companies in the depths of the great depression were not successful. Based on a debt of $300,000 interest on a loan, foreclosure began on the entire holdings in 1937. The government of BC settled with the trust companies for $280,000. and thus became owners; then proceeded to liquidate all resources in order to ‘recoup their investment'. Or was it to insure that the commune could not resurrect itself? The properties that were taken were worth over $10,000,000! Doukhobors who wished to remain in their previously owned villages were now required to pay rent to the BC government.
In time, as economic opportunities improved; some left the villages to find jobs, some migrated to other areas, others inter-married and assimilated. Some remaining, mostly older folk subsisting on their gardens, had no where to go. By 1961, communal life ended in no uncertain fashion when a new decree proclaimed that the land would now be sold. Those intending to remain must purchase the property they lived on.
Evictions followed. A few were able to buy the homes they had previously held in common. Others, philosophically opposed to land ownership, moved elsewhere. Villages were dismantled for building materials and orchards cleared for residential developments. A few communal residences in the 90 villages were converted to single family dwellings. A few radicals attempted to revive their communal lifestyle without success.
Collectors swooped in like vultures and eagerly purchased priceless heirlooms; rugs, fine home crafted furniture, spinning wheels, cedar chests, often from gullible elders who had no idea of the value of the items. The entire artifact body of an entire culture began to appear in chic salons in Vancouver, Toronto, Los Angeles and New York. One upscale antique store in Vancouver sold exclusively Doukhobor and Mennonite home craft items.
Seeing all remnants of the culture disappearing, the Kootenay Doukhobor Historical Society was hastily formed in 1967, first among its objectives: ‘The building of a communal house as the first stage in the reconstruction of a complete village'.
A second objective was: ‘The collection and restoration of furniture, clothing, tools and handicrafts to furnish the house and preserve articles of Doukhobor culture'.
Today, one of the features of a visit to the Kootenays is the meticulous reconstruction of the Doukhobor Village in Castlegar on the site of the original purchase in 1908.
Since a modest opening in 1971 with one communal house, the present Doukhobor Village Museum has become home to thousands of donated artifacts, and today's facility is a complete village consisting of ten buildings and its own irrigation and water system as well as an on site restaurant serving traditional Doukhobor vegetarian food.
Through word of mouth advertising, and promotion including a web site and appearances in film documentaries, the Doukhobor Discovery Centre has attracted world wide attention. A recent guest book includes visitors from seventy-three countries, ranging from Azerbaijan to New Zealand.
With increasing support from local institutions, and an emphasis on heritage and scholarship through attractive visual displays, an array of publications, films and Doukhobor crafts and prints as well as a yearly calendar, the DDC continues to serve an increasing tourist audience, as well as accommodating researchers.
Although the communal life style is history, Doukhobor principals remain. Today, Doukhobors actively maintain prayer meetings, Russian language classes, various publications and Internet sites. Feature events include the annual Brilliant May Festival now held for over fifty years; and the Peter's Day commemoration of the Arms Burning observed yearly by all Doukhobors since 1895. In addition, there are other special events such as talent shows, fund raisers for worthy causes, special dinners and participation in peace groups and other benevolent endeavours based on the theme of pacifism and harmonious interaction with the environment.
Larry A. Ewashen
For further information about British Columbia Doukhobors, see http://larrysdesk.ca/index.htm