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ETHNONYMS: Bozhi Ludi (People of God), Svobodniki (Freedomites), Sini Svobodi (Sons of Freedom)


Identification. Canadian Doukhobors, an ethnic-confessional group, originated in seventeenth-century Russia. Their distinctive belief is in the moral primacy of the Voice of God within the self; hence they are pacifists, refusing to take human life and thus extinguish the divine Voice. They first named themselves "Bozhi Ludi" (People of God), but Orthodox clergy labeled them "Dukhoborfsy" (Spirit Wrestlers) about 1785. They are presently divided into four related subsects: Community Doukhobors, Independents, Reformed, and Freedomites. They identify themselves by specific styles of worship and musical performance; by the ritual and social use of a Russian dialect; by vegetarian diet including "traditional" foods; by pacifist ideals; by at least the endorsement of communal ideals; and by the motto Trud i Mirnaia zhizn' "Toil and Peaceful Life."

Location. Doukhobors first settled near Yorkton in east-central Saskatchewan, shortly moved to the West Kootenay region of southeastern British Columbia, and later set up Villages in the Pincher Creek region of southwestern Alberta. They have since expanded into the lower Fraser valley region and the Vancouver area; some live elsewhere. In the West Kootenay region, many Doukhobors dwell near their original communal villages, but elsewhere they choose their homes where they want. The only community institution still found everywhere is the Molenie Dom, "prayer home" or "Community hall."

Demography. The 6,747 Doukhobors who arrived in Canada, mostly in 1899, increased to about 25,000. About 9,000 live primarily in the Yorkton area. At least 10,000 live in the West Kootenay region, and another 4,000 or so in the lower Fraser valley and the Vancouver area. Perhaps 1,000 more live in other parts of Canada, particularly in the Pincher Creek region of southwestern Alberta, the prairie capitals, and Toronto. A few families also live in rural parts of Washington and Oregon in the United States, and a few have settled in San Francisco and Los Angeles since the 1910s, but maintain some contact with their British Columbia congeners. A few individuals and families have emigrated from Russia between the turn of the century and the 1950s. While the topic of a return to Russia has been discussed by Community Doukhobors since World War I, none has returned Permanently.

Linguistic Affiliation. Most Canadian Doukhobors are bilingual, speaking a moderately accented English as the business language and a fairly strong Russian dialect (including a number of Ukrainian and other loan words) in the Community. Doukhobor Psalms are in a more archaic dialect nearer in structure to Old Church Slavonic. Most people in their forties or younger are fluent in English and some young People speak little Russian. Although loan words occur Occasionally, their lexicon is too fluid to suggest permanency. Macaronic speech is not unusual in community contexts. The community expresses concern over the loss of Russian among their youth and supports local Russian-language programs in the school system. There is an ongoing debate regarding the religious importance of Russian, as most elders hold that the religion cannot be expressed in any other language.

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.


Doukhobors in Russia were primarily peasant farmers, though some exercised professional skills. In the Saskatchewan and British Columbia communes they usually farmed, though some men were carpenters and joiners, shoemakers, blacksmiths, harnessmakers, and so on; and women not only cooked and farmed but wove, embroidered, and made clothing. To pay the mortgages in British Columbia, many men went out of the communal villages to work on railroad section gangs, highway construction and maintenance, and in the forest industry. When the CCUB collapsed, many remained in the forest industry or drifted into related trades, taking work as builders or suppliers of building materials. By the 1950s, Doukhobors were retail merchants, teachers, and nurses; by the 1960s, some had entered legal, medical, journalistic, and academic professions. Independent Doukhobors had already entered the mainstream economy, some reaching the professional level by the 1930s. Sons of Freedom either took mostly working-class positions or depended on their vegetable Gardens and some welfare for subsistence. Most Doukhobors not living within cities buffer themselves economically by maintaining large vegetable gardens; these represent some of the most intensive noncommercial horticulture on the continent. Much is eaten, almost as much may be contributed to Community events, and a further amount is given to neighbors, friends, and guests. During the community period, all labor was divided reasonably between men and women, though the latter did fairly heavy work. Since World War II, patterns have come to resemble those in the majority culture. Elders tend to remain active and productive as long as possible, conditioned by the community motto: "Toil and Peaceful Life."

Kinship, Marriage and Family

Kinship. Canadian Doukhobor kinship patterns are Typical of North American society, except that family status, connections, and history are a significant component of Individual status in community settlement and political patterns. This is probably a heritage of Russian village life.

Marriage. Doukhobor marriage traditions are unclear Before the late eighteenth century, when there was a period of significant informal rites and free choice among young People. Through the nineteenth century and into the early years of Canadian settlement, arranged marriages became the norm, with individual choice now the norm. Doukhobor marriage rites are oral with a variety of verbal rituals and Community recognition of a union. Such marriages were not recognized in British Columbia until the late 1950s, and many injustices resulted. Marriages with non-Doukhobors have occurred since earliest times in Canada, increasing significantly since the 1940s. By the 1960s, ritual practices were North American to a marked degree. Today, traditional practices are used for marriage within the community and for joint rituals for intermarriages.

Socialization. During the communal period, there was broad resistance to public schooling, which was seen as assimilative at best and a tool of the Antichrist at worst. In the 1920s some public schools were burned, but after provincial government reprisals the community gradually accepted and then embraced public education. Freedomites resisted until the 1950s, when such draconian measures as the forcible placement of their children in an isolated fenced school broke resistance. Today only a couple of families conduct home education, while most Freedomites and Reformed find the public schools tolerable if not beneficial. Socialization always began within the family, where children have their highest value. In the 1930s a Sunday school movement was begun which continues to the present. In the 1950s, the uscc sponsored Russian-language classes in the community, usually after hours in local schools. In the last decade, local school districts have introduced Russian language and immersion classes into the general curriculum.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization and Conflict. Doukhobors began as active sectarians, and persecution inured them to the maintenance of unity though the same forces from time to time cast up dissidents who sought (and seek) the establishment of their own regimes, not always unsuccessfully. Shortly after Doukhobors arrived in Canada, the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood came into being, the offspring of vision and necessity. Within six months individual families began to drift away, to become the Independents, many of whom now adhere to the Canadian Society of Doukhobors. The Freedomites first appeared in 1902, became the Sons of Freedom about 1928, and evolved into their leading faction, the Christian Community and Brotherhood of Reformed Doukhobors in the 1960s, splitting off the new Freedomites in 1974. Peter Chistiakov's umbrella organization, the Society of Named Doukhobors, survived the collapse of the CCUB and changed its name in the early 1940s to the Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ. The debates and disputes Between these organizations have been many, various, and sometimes bitter. External response has included vigilantism, police action, repressive legislation, royal commissions, and, more recently and less ineffectively, a standing consultative and mediative forum, the Kootenay Committee on Intergroup Relations. This structure, begun in 1979 and meeting irregularly since then, assembles representatives of the Doukhobor groups, provincial and federal agency officials, and local community resource people under the chairmanship of a very senior administrator of the attorney-general's ministry.

Political Organization. Doukhobors held the Russian state to be the Antichristthat is, both religious and secular arms opposed to the Doukhobor spiritual vision. Toleration under Czar Alexander I only threw the usual practices of the Russian government into darker shadow. When governments in Canada were perceived to have betrayed Doukhobor hopes, the traditional view was reinforced by the British Columbia government's action to deprive Doukhobors (and others) of the voting franchise in the 1930s. At this point, Community Doukhobors formally repudiated involvement in anything above local government (which they perceived as a legitimate community-housekeeping function). Although the restoration of the franchise after World War II helped matters, the policy remains in place. Community Doukhobors do give strong verbal and some material support to the United Nations in its global and local forms, and have Recently strongly reinforced their involvement in various arms of the North American pacifist movement. They also make pacifism a primary theme in their communications with Soviet institutions.

Social Control. During the communal period, contact with outside agencies was avoided as far as possible, and the spiritual leader and his lieutenants arbitrated a wide range of issues, occasionally beating offenders. Today, conflicts are usually handled conventionally, the ancient practices of comment, gossip, public debate, advice of elders, and spirited shouting matches followed by honest tolerance if not reconciliation being preferred to police and the courts.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Doukhobors' central belief is in the presence of God in each conscious person, obviating the need for scriptures, priests, prelates, liturgy, churches, and church paraphernalia, which Doukhobors perceive as unnecessary if not traps of Satan. Nevertheless, they worship corporately in a formal manner, refer to biblical scripture though not always accurately, and possess a magnificent repertoire of sacred music. The religious revitalization of the 1980s introduced some puritan values: alcohol and tobacco, formerly tolerated, were proscribed, and because animals cannot be held to be devoid of consciousness, vegetarianism also became obligatory. These strictures are today more preached than performed, though the vegetarian practice survives most strongly, partly as an ethnic marker. Today, the Doukhobor community is marked by a remarkably broad range of belief, ranging from near-fundamentalism to abstract and universalist deism and agnosticism.

Religious Practitioners. Despite the egalitarian implications of Doukhobor spirituality, various social forces of the 1700s confirmed for most the role of the spiritual leader, the individual in whom the presence of God, most honored, is most manifest. Though it is now a commonplace that "the time of spiritual leaders is past," both John Verigin and in his day Stephan Sorokin certainly have attracted expectations and obligations from those followers who doubt that the time is over. In the conduct of worship, though, even the most Respected figures may do no more than occupy a conspicuous position; spoken and sung prayers are begun by respected elders and immediately carried by the congregation. In the home, women are most likely to take spiritual roles, though any individual may choose profound meditation, usually through silently reviewed Doukhobor psalms.

Ceremonies. All Doukhobor ritual is related to Molenie (prayer), the usual title of Sunday morning worship, which, briefly, consists of formal greetings, the recitation and singing of Doukhobor psalms, the kiss of peace, the singing of hymns, and final greetings. This is usually followed by the Sobrania (community meeting), a less formal discussion period. Funeral rites conflate the recitation and singing of psalms and hymns; festival occasions greatly expand the singing of hymns and include traditional secular songs on days other than Sunday and doctrinal addresses. All Doukhobors observe the remembrance of the Burning of Arms, usually on or about June 28, the Day of Saints Peter and Paul; Christmas; and Easter. Community Doukhobors add a number of festivals, including the Peminki (commemoration) for Peter Gospodnie and Peter Chistiakov Verigin, Declaration Day in August, and the youth and Sunday school festivals in May and June. Reformed Doukhobors have also celebrated Sorokin's birthday, November 27, but now observe his commemoration, November 15. These events are all sacred in character, although there is occasion for secular performance. Community choirs appear in large and diverse numbers and perform traditional music; visitors come from the region and farther, and regional and foreign dignitaries may be present. These are times of profound cultural expression and unification.

Arts. The primary mode of Doukhobor expression is music, and here they are remarkable, preserving the most complex folk tradition of oral polyphony known, that of their psalms. A high percentageabout 17 percentof the Population are competent choral performers. A hymn tradition is extremely lively, incorporating both Doukhobor and adapted tune and song texts. Musical instruments are used, but are barred from sacred performance. Many women still embroider distinctive Slavic designs; and older men may follow custom by carving wooden spoons, not only as trade curios but as a mark of continuing productivity. Weaving and joinery were significant and admirable during the community period but have since declined.

Medicine. Most Doukhobors use the conventional medical system, though there is a preference for access to masseurs, chiropractors, naturopaths, and similar schools emphasizing prophylaxis, as well as an old connection with the health-food tradition. Some elders also still preserve a folkhealing tradition using "healing psalms" and related practices, with reliable evidence given of their effectiveness.

Death and Afterlife. Here views tend to be conventional and correspond to the balance of religious views, ranging from understandings typical of the European Protestant tradition to broadly (and vaguely) universalist agnosticism. Traditional texts integrate conventional ideas of heaven and hell with the affirmation that these states are present rather than future. In practice, burial is followed by a six-week (when the soul is presumed to have left the vicinity of the corpse) and subsequently annual Peminki at the gravesite.


Bonch-Breuvich, Vladimir (1954). Zhivotnaiia kniga Dukhobortsev. [From the Book of Life of the Doukhobors]. Winnipeg, Manitoba: Regehr's Printing. Reprint of 1909 Petrograd edition.

Hawthorne, Harry B., ed. (1955). The Doukhobors of British Columbia. Vancouver: University of British Columbia.

Legebokoff, P., and Anna Markova, eds. (1978). Psalmy, stikhn' pesni. [Psalms, hymns, songs]. Grand Forks, B.C.: U.S.C.C.

Mealing, F. Mark (1972). "Ou r People's Way: A Study of Doukhobor Hymnody and Folklife." Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania.

Tarasoff, Koozma (1977). Traditional Doukhobor Folkways. National Museum of Man, CCFCS Mercury Series, no. 20. Ottawa, Ontario.

Tarasoff, Koozma (1982). Plakun Trava: The Doukhobors. Grand Forks, B.C.: Mir Publishing Society.

Woodcock, George, and I. Avakumovic (1968). The Doukhobors. Toronto, Ontario: Oxford University Press.



views updated Jun 11 2018


Doubkhobors, or Spirit Wrestlers, originated in the 18th century in Kharkov and the villages of the Dnieper, Russia; in 1898 members of this mystical sect began migrating to Canada. When groups of Russian peasants rejected the authority of the Russian Orthodox Church, they appealed to the authority of the "inner light" in much the same way as do the Quakers (see friends, religious soci ety of). They spurned priests, ritual, sacraments, oaths, icons, and military service. Refusal to bear arms brought them into conflict with the czar's government as well as with the established church. Despite their appeal to the individual conscience, the Doukhobors have allowed themselves to be ruled by a series of authoritarian and often dissolute spiritual leaders. They believe that the soul of Christ reappears in living beings or Messiahs. Saveli Kapustin became their first acknowledged leader in 1790. His son, Vasili Kalmikoff, and his grandson, Illarion Kalmikoff, inherited leadership of the sect, but both were alcoholics. The Doukhobors were finally banished to the Wet Mountains of the Caucasus.

Peter Vasilivich Verigin, a later Messiah, decided to lead his people out of Russia. Encouraged by Leo Tolstoy and aided by the English Quakers, he settled most of his followers in Saskatchewan, Canada, and later led them to British Columbia. He was assassinated in 1924. The Doukhobors split into several sects. The estimated 2,000 Sons of Freedom form the most radical branch; they engage in arson and nudism to protest the policies of the Canadian government. The Doukhobors reject the doctrine of the Trinity and baptism. They teach that Jesus was simply a wise man. They look to neither the Bible nor the church for religious authority. Doukhobors practice vegetarianism. Their altars hold only a pitcher of water, a dish of salt, and a loaf of bread. After a series of legal and economic setbacks from the 1930s1960s, including the loss of land in Saskatchewan, arson, and forced assimilation, the Doukhobors regrouped and regained their vitality from the 1980s onward.

Bibliography: Doukhobor Research Committee, The Doukhobors of British Columbia, ed. h. b. hawthorn (Vancouver 1955). j. f. c. wright, Slava Bohu: The Story of the Dukhobors (New York 1940).

[w. j. whalen/eds.]


views updated May 29 2018

Doukhobors (Russ.). ‘Spirit-fighters’, a Russian sect of unknown origin, which seems to have appeared among peasants in the district of Kharkov, moving later to the Caucasus. They called themselves ‘the People of God’, and were called by their opponents ‘doukhobors’, i.e. spirit wrestlers. Its members believe in one God manifested in the human soul in memory (Father), reason (Son), and will (Holy Spirit), have an adoptionist (adoptionism) understanding of Christ, believe in transmigration of the human soul, and adopt an allegorical understanding of the scriptures and Christian dogmas. They found sympathy from Tolstoy, who, with the Quakers, arranged for most of them (c.8,000) to emigrate to Cyprus and Canada at the end of the 19th cent., where most survive—few only in Russia.

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