TEN MONTHS after Russian author Leo Tolstoy delivered his letter on behalf of my ancestors, the first of four ships carrying the Orthodox Church dissenters set sail for Halifax, Nova Scotia from the Russian Black Sea port of Batum. Over a month later they arrived carrying high hopes of at last realising a communal utopia in a welcoming country. By 1902, 8000 Doukhobor refugees were in Canada, making it the largest single mass migration in the country’s history.
But, even the best laid plans can go sideways.
While there are many reasons for the failed communal utopia, one reason stands out above all: A small fanatical group called the Sons of Freedom would splinter from the Doukhobors. By the 1950s their acts of protest in British Columbia would thrust them into frenzied, hostile conflict with authorities. Branded as terrorists, hundreds of Sons of Freedom — including my grandfather — would be imprisoned. Propelled into an unwanted national spotlight, the Doukhobor community in BC became fractured.
I was reminded of Tolstoy’s letter when I glanced at my travel companion, Andrea, reading the back of my copy of Tolstoy’s final novel, Resurrection, which she’d found in the glove box.
We were driving on Highway 3 several hours east of Vancouver. Mist obscured the crowns of fir trees lining either side of the road as we curved our way up and down high mountain passes en route to my hometown of Castlegar, British Columbia, in the province’s West Kootenay region — Doukhobor country.
“Tolstoy donated the sales of that book to help fund the Doukhobor emigration to Canada,” I told her.
“Really? Nice of him,” she said.
I thought of my ancestors forced to leave their homes in the Caucasus region (present-day Georgia, northern Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and southern Russia), embarking on an arduous trans-Atlantic journey in a rusty, overcrowded cattle ship to a strange new land. Not everyone survived. Media images flashed through my mind of Syrian refugees packed into inflatable boats, of parents clutching their children on a long march through Europe, suffering unimaginable loss in a desperate bid for survival.
“Yeah, very nice of him,” I replied.
Andrea asked me what the deal was with the Doukhobors. Did I identify as one? Having lived a few years in Nelson, 45km east of Castlegar, she had a cursory understanding of the sect.
“Yes. It’s complicated,” I replied.
I explained that the Russian word ‘Doukhobor’ translated as ‘Spirit Wrestler.’ That Doukhobors often traced their origin to the 17th century, when an army deserter-turned-wandering-holy-man named Danil Filippov sought enlightenment as a cave dweller along the shores of the Volga River. There, he began preaching what eventually informed the core of Doukhobor belief: The bible is not to be interpreted literally; one doesn’t need a priest to commune with the spirit, or God, which exists in every living thing; and war is obscene.
Of course, this didn’t sit well back in Tsarist Russia. The Doukhobors and their spiritual leaders became despised equally by church and state. Especially in the wake of the mass burning of their weapons in public, as an anti-war protest in 1895.
The authoritarian boot was planted firmly on the Doukhobor neck. The result? Banishment of the sect to remote, impoverished regions of the Russian empire, imprisonment in Siberia for the leaders, and instances of torture and death for the followers. Exile was the only option. Thanks in part to the campaigning and fundraising efforts of our patron, Leo Tolstoy (as well as British and American Quakers), my ancestors secured a new home in Canada. There a peaceful, spiritual, communal-living utopia was within reach.
“But, somehow the bliss never lasts,” I said. “Blemishes inevitably appear.”
“What happened?” Andrea asked.
My cell phone rang. It was my mother. By now we’d made our snaking climb up from the floor of the Okanagan Valley and the desert town of Osoyoos. Dry scrubland gave way to grassy plateau as we crested Anarchist Summit. My mom wanted to know if she should buy me a ticket for Festival that weekend. I hadn’t been to the annual celebration of Doukhobor culture and heritage in over a decade.
I usually only thought about being a Doukhobor on drives home, or when a friend pointed me out as being one to one of their friends, like one would point out a roadside attraction, or a novelty item in a souvenir shop.
I wanted to go to Festival, to hum along with the men’s choir singing the powerfully sweeping Song of the Volga Boatmen, to reconnect with my community. I wanted to. And a part of me didn’t. I could hear the disappointment in my mom’s voice when I told her not to bother, that I probably wouldn’t be staying long anyway.
I continued describing the multiple reasons for the fall of the Doukhobor Eden. Initially granted homestead titles in Saskatchewan, the first blows came between 1905 and 1907 when my ancestors refused to individually register their communal land or swear oaths of allegiance to the Queen. They wouldn’t bow to a tsar or empress, as the Canadian government well knew, so why the hell would they to a queen? The government went back on its word and stripped the Doukhobors of their titles, effectively evicting them from their flourishing communal villages.
“Same shit, different country,” I said to Andrea. “The seed of mutual mistrust was sewn.”
I went on to outline how a second communal experiment was undertaken in British Columbia’s West Kootenay region throughout the next three decades. Around 1923, the radical Sons Of Freedom (aka Freedomites) emerged onto the national stage. Their numerous acts of spiritually-motivated terrorism over 50-plus years would prove to be the biggest blow to the utopian dream of the Doukhobors, although other contributors included the assassination of Doukhobor leader Peter V. Verigin (to this day unsolved), the Great Depression, deeply suspicious governments, unsympathetic financial institutions, and societal prejudice.
WE WERE NOW descending into the Kettle Valley and the town of Grand Forks, the gateway to Doukhobor country. On the other side of the gulley sat the ruins of an early 20th century communal Doukhobor village. I pointed it out to Andrea. Two 2-story wood and brick main houses connected by workshops for making tools, furniture, and farm equipment. With each passing year, its state of collapse had deepened.
The ghost village brought back a memory: I was eight-years-old, barefoot, playing in the yard with my Tonka trucks in the early morning. Across the road I noticed black smoke rising from an elder’s house. I dropped my toys, ran into my parents’ bedroom, yelling.
“There’s smoke coming out of Babushka Markova’s house!”
A look of confusion crossed my mother’s face as she sat up in bed.
“And I think I saw flames!” I continued.
She finally understood. “Oh my God, Fred,” she said to my dad. “Svobodniki! Sons of Freedom!”
The next day I was in Babushka Markova’s kitchen. I’d come alone to see her. The walls were charred black. The thick, unyielding smell of smoke scared me silent and deeply saddened me. She sliced me an orange, called me kotyik (little cat), and assured me she’d be okay.
“You alright?” Andrea asked.
“Yeah, yeah, sure…just thinking,” I replied. My grip on the steering wheel had tightened.
“Why’d the Sons of Freedom burn shit?” Andrea asked.
“Initially their aim was to reinvigorate traditional Doukhobor values,” I answered. “To protest government interference in their lives, to warn Doukhobors of the soul-sucking power of materialistic capitalist culture. I guess they thought marching in the nude, torching their possessions, and burning down their own homes was the best way to say, ‘wake up, owning lots of stuff isn’t important!'”
“Holy. What freaks! Kind of cool,” Andrea said.
“When a fanatical minority of the Freedomites started setting fire to schools, government property, and the homes of Doukhobors they judged to be excessively materialistic, things turned uncool really fast,” I replied.
I described how the RCMP (Canada’s national police) raided a Freedomite village, snatched nearly 200 children aged 7 to 15, and imprisoned them for years in a former WWII Japanese internment camp in New Denver, BC. This pissed the Sons of Freedom off. Once released, and now fully marginalised and disenfranchised, many unleashed their anger and pain at having been denied family and culture — in some cases having suffered mental, physical, and sexual abuse — with a sustained campaign of terror–bombing hydroelectric towers and railway bridges, and torching more schools and homes. Two Freedomites accidentally blew themselves up.
“Initially the Canadian government and a sensationalist media didn’t care to differentiate between the peaceful Doukhobors and the actions of the Sons Of Freedom,” I said. “When eventually they did, it was too late. The damage was done.”
TWO DAYS earlier in Vancouver, I was having breakfast with an old high school friend at Sophie’s Cosmic Café on West 4th. A conversation on the other side of the low dividing wall caught our attention.
“You’re from Saskatchewan? I’ve never been,” a woman said. “Isn’t that where Doukhobors are from?”
My friend, who knows I’m a Doukhobor, stopped chewing. He looked at me in a way that said ‘this ought to be good.’
“Yeah, you’re right, yeah, there’s a bunch there,” a man replied.
They continued eating. I assumed their Doukhobor discussion had faded. Turned out it was just the preamble to the kicker.
“Doukhobors are the ones that used to burn their daughters at the stake, right?” the woman asked.
I reflexively spit-sprayed orange juice back into my glass at this. My friend was grinning. I hung my head and shook it. Why?
“Weren’t they terrorists too?” she added for good measure.
“Umm, yeah, nude terrorists, I think… yeah, that’s them,” the man replied.
I was torn. On one hand, I wished I could un-hear their conversation and shrink away. On the other, I felt an urgent need to set the record straight. Their dignity depended on it.
I stood up and poked my head over the divider. They both looked to be in their early 20s. She wore a white, University of British Columbia hoodie and her hair was up in a ponytail. He wore a backwards baseball cap.
“Hi, excuse me. I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation. I…um…I’m a Doukhobor,” I said, patting my chest.
“Ohhh really? Cooool,” the young woman said.
“Yeah. Listen, I’m not from Saskatchewan, I’m from here in BC where, actually, the majority of Doukhobors live, and here’s the thing,” I continued, “there’s a lot of recorded history of the Doukhobors and I thought you should know, while the Sons Of Freedom Doukhobors burned…things…nowhere is there evidence of any Doukhobor ever burning anyone on a stake. Ever.”
They stared at me blankly, jaws agape. I was about to sit back down when the woman spoke again.
“Ohhhh weiiiiird, sorry,” she said. “I must’ve been thinking of…”
“…Mennonites!” the guy interjected, pointing at me as if he’d nailed it.
“Or was it the Amish or something like that?” the woman asked.
“Nope. Perhaps you’re thinking of witches?” I said. “In the 16th century. They were burned at the stake. Mass hysteria type thing.” With that I sat down and continued eating my breakfast.
“Man, it’s been what, 30 years since any Freedomite lit anything on fire?” my friend asked, chuckling. “And people still say that weird shit?”
It stung. But if it was an aunt or my grandfather, or the descendant of a Sons of Freedom sitting in my place, the overheard conversation might have reopened wounds, eliciting deep shame and anger. I thought of Canada’s indigenous people, their horrific residential school experiences and centuries of marginalization and mistreatment.
I also considered how terrible it would be for Doukhobors — for me — if the extremist Sons of Freedom were terrorizing in today’s climate. Worse still if we weren’t white and with Christian roots.
“IS THAT an Indian Reservation?” Andrea asked, pointing across the Kettle River to a tiny village of clapboard shacks and mobile homes.
We were 13km east of Grand Forks, an hour from my hometown.
“No, it’s called Gilpin,’ I said. “It’s a Sons of Freedom settlement. My dad lived there as a boy.”
I decided to share some personal history with my passenger.
I told her that when I was a boy my dad took me to Gilpin. He hadn’t been there in decades. I remembered a pot-holed dirt road running through the village, shanty homes on either side, the occasional babushka stooped over tending a garden, old rusting cars being swallowed by wild grass.
My dad recounted the time police stopped his father there, en route to join a Sons of Freedom protest march. For nothing more than that he was arrested on the spot and shipped off to prison for three years. His mother divorced his father and moved to Vancouver. He and his sister were left in the care of relatives.
After falling in love and marrying my mother, having my two older brothers, and seeing his father incarcerated, the Freedomites’ fanatical beliefs became unacceptable to my dad and he completely abandoned their cause.
Before leaving Gilpin he took me to a rustic house perched on the edge of the riverbank. Greeting us with hugs at the door was a lady with long blonde braids.
Her home was sparsely furnished. She added a log to her wood-burning stove, then served us kvass — cold cucumber soup. I hesitated at first then asked in Russian if she was one of the people that set houses on fire. My father scolded me. She chuckled, though. “Nyet, no,” she said, stroking my head.
AFTER A seven hour drive I’d arrived at my family home in Brilliant, at the foot of Mount Sentinel on the outskirts of Castlegar. Following an enjoyable, fattening dinner of creamy, vegetarian Doukhobor borscht and perogies slathered in butter, I told my mom I changed my mind, that I’d stay a while. I asked her if it wasn’t too late to get a ticket for Festival.
Post-script: Gradually the Sons of Freedom’s acts of protest and terrorism died out. The last reported incident occurred in 2001 when then 81-year-old Mary Braun was convicted of arson for attempting to burn down a school building. Bad blood generated for over 50 years between the Sons of Freedom and the rest of the Doukhobor clan has largely been put to rest. In 2004, Sons of Freedom who, as children, had been imprisoned for their parent’s beliefs and actions, sought a formal apology from the BC government. They received a ‘statement of regret’ instead. Today there are an estimated 75,000 people of Doukhobor heritage living in Canada, the US, Russia, and the southern Caucasus region (12,000 Doukhobors in 1899 chose not to emigrate on the condition they would accept military conscription).