Oct 26, 2015

The story of a unique Christian sect - the Doukhobors

SYD ALBRIGHT/Special to The Press 
Coeur d'Alene Press
October 25, 2015

Just north of the Idaho border in British Columbia, the towns of Castlegar and Grand Forks are home to many Doukhobors, a very unusual community of Christians founded in Russia centuries ago, but migrated to North America in 1899.

They believe in a simple form of religion based on the Golden Rule — “Love they neighbor as thyself,” and “Love God with all they heart, mind and soul.” They also stand by the Ten Commandments, but Peter V. Verigin, one of their early leaders summed up their goal with the motto “Toil and Peaceful Life.”

The Doukhobors did not mind the agrarian toil that defined their labors, but anguished that their lives were anything but “peaceful.” From the days of the Czars to the Communists, they suffered persecution in Russia. It was in Canada that they found freedom at the dawn of the 20th century. But even there, conflict arose between church and state.

One splinter group called the Sons of Freedom protested government interference in their lives by parading through the streets totally naked.

Doukhobor beginnings go back to the 1700s when a group of Russian Christians rejected the contemporary Russian Orthodox Church and opposed the oppressive Czarist government. Their first real leader was Siluan (Silvan) Kolesnikov from Ukraine.

His followers considered themselves “God’s People” or “Christians,” but called themselves “Doukhobors,” meaning “spirit wrestlers.” But the Orthodox archbishop called them “heretics.”

The Doukhobors developed not only as a religious and ideological group, but also as an ethnic one — like a separate nation — with its own customs and traditions, and economic, cultural and political infrastructure.

They considered the Russian Orthodox Church’s veneration of icons as idolatry, and used only bread, water and salt for their own symbolism. They rejected church rituals, governance and priesthood as unnecessary.

How do the Doukhobors differ from other Christian denominations? They reject the concept of original sin, baptism, church organization, church liturgy, the Divine inspiration of scripture, and mainstream Christian interpretation of the Resurrection, the Trinity, heaven and hell.

They reject the inerrancy of the Bible, Jesus’ miracles, and spiritual salvation requiring being “born again.”

A Doukhobor source claims, “The Bible scriptures can be considered to be inspired of God, but no more so than any other written work of great dedication or inspiration, be it other great religious texts, such as the Tao Te Ching, Bhagavad-Gita, Upanishads, Koran, etc. or the inspiring writings of many great teachers and leaders such as Gibran, Thoreau, Tolstoy, Gandhi, Martin Luther King,

Helena Blavatsky, Helen Caldicott, Eckhart Tolle and countless others.”

Doukhobor leader Verigin instructed his people to stop using tobacco and alcohol, to share their property equally among members of the community, practice non-violence, and to refuse to serve in the military or swear an oath of alliance — as demanded by Czar Nicholas II. Also, refrain from eating animal products — as well as stay out of politics. (Today, church sources admit that this is changing with the times.)

But their troubles with government authorities began much earlier.

As pacifists, the Doukhobors opposed czarist militarism under Czar Alexander I, which unsurprisingly brought a heavy hammer down on them by both the government and the Church.

In 1799, 90 Doukhobors were rounded up and exiled to Finland (then part of Russia) for spreading anti-war propaganda. That was just the beginning. Soon more of them were invited to move to the southern Ukraine around the Crimea on the shores of the Black Sea and Sea of Azov, hoping it would protect the rest of Russia from their “heretical ways.”

The soil in that area was rich, which appealed to the agrarian Doukhobors, and over the next 20 years, many accepted the invitation to move, as did many Mennonites from Prussia.

Orthodox Church opposition continued however, accusing the Doukhobors of “fighting the Holy Spirit,” but they countered by saying they were “fighting not against, but along with the Holy Spirit.”

More obstacles plagued the Doukhobors when Nicholas I succeeded his older brother Alexander in 1825. He loved the military, fancy uniforms and glittering parades — and he had an army of a million men. However, their equipment was outdated and Russian was clearly outclassed by Britain and France that had smaller manpower but better technology. Russian horses were well trained for parades but hopeless in battle.

None of this appealed to the Doukhobors who were farmers and pacifists. Then Nicholas invoked conscription. Nicholas saw himself as “a paternal autocrat ruling his people by whatever means necessary,” according to one commentary. The Doukhobors didn’t think it very paternal to be forced into the military.

Throughout the second half of the 1800s, tension with the Doukhobors continued to grow. What were their beliefs that caused this opposition apart from rejecting church rituals and icons and warfare?

One source said, “They came to believe that the Bible alone, as a supreme source, was not enough to reach divine revelation, and that doctrinal conflicts can interfere with their faith. Their goal was to internalize the living spirit of God so that God’s spirit would be revealed within each individual.”

During the 1880s, there was a leadership crisis that caused dissention among the Doukhobors and they split into the “Large Party” and the “Small Party.” Both sides resisted forced military service, registering birth and marriage certificates with the state, and swearing oaths of allegiance.

In 1895, the night of “the Burning of the Arms” took place in which the Large Party in three Doukhobor villages gathered their guns, swords and knives and burned them — an event still commemorated. That infuriated the government and resulted in arrests and beatings. Cossacks took over Doukhobor homes and exiled the owners to remote villages.

The beleaguered sect appealed to the czar’s wife Empress Alexandra for help. In 1898, with support from famed classics writer Leo Tolstoy and British and American Quakers, the government allowed the Doukhobors to leave for Canada. About 7,500 did, and were greeted by the Canadian Government granting them land in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and exempting them from military service.

Even Peter Verigin left for Saskatchewan in 1902, after 16 years in exile. He and his descendants have been leaders of the Doukhobors in North America ever since.

Life in Canada started off well, but then a hassle erupted with the government over Homestead Act requirements to swear allegiance to the king to hold title to land. The Doukhobors refused and in 1908, some 6,000 abandoned their communal villages and a quarter million acres of land they had carefully cultivated in Saskatchewan and moved to British Columbia.

In Kootenay County, B.C., they built 80 communal villages on purchased land and started again, becoming known for their fruit trees and preserves.

Verigin urged his farmers to free their “brethren” — the animals — and pull their wagons and plows themselves.

A small group Sons of Freedom emerged to battle Canadian authorities over multiple issues, including public education of their children, and mandatory military service, previously exempted. Disregarding traditional pacifist tradition and showing disdain of material possessions, they burned their own and other Doukhobor homes, public buildings and rail lines, bridges and schools, doffed their clothes and marched naked down the streets.

Many were arrested and imprisoned in a special penal colony on Piers Island, off Vancouver Island, while some had their children taken and confined in a prison-like setting. “It was between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. and Elsie Ericson’s mother had just begun lighting the stove when four RCMP officers barged into their tiny wooden home in the village of Krestova, B.C.,” one report said.

“The child jumped out of bed and hid under it, only to be dragged out by their feet. Elsie and her brother spent the next four years in what she said felt like a jail. They were housed with nearly 200 other in a residential school in Denver, B.C.”

Today, the Doukhobors no longer live communally and have blended into the communities around them, but still practice their faith in simple services where they sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs a capella in Russian, believing in the mantra of an early leader who said that “You judge a flower by its scent, an apple by its taste, and a Christian by his deeds.”

Syd Albright is a writer and journalist living in Post Falls. Contact him at silverflix@roadrunner.com.

Where are they now?

Modern descendants of the first Canadian Doukhobors continue to live where their ancestors settled in south-eastern British Columbia, southern Alberta and Saskatchewan. Today, the estimated population of practicing and cultural Doukhobors in North America is 40,000 in Canada and 5,000 in the United States.

Recipe for Doukhobor borscht soup…

  • 1 large onion
  • 1 quart (1.13 litres) canned whole tomatoes
  • 1 medium carrot, grated
  • 1 medium carrot, diced
  • 1 small beet, grated
  • 6 medium potatoes
  • 1 cup celery, diced
  • 1/2 lb (1 cup) butter
  • 1 cup whipping cream
  • 1 green pepper, chopped
  • 1 medium head of cabbage, shredded
  • salt and pepper
  • 2 tbsp dill leaves (I prefer a big handful of chopped, fresh dill instead)

How to prepare Doukhobor borscht: http://www.thelifenostalgic.com/how-to-make-delicious-doukhobor-borscht/

Split from other churches…

“Traditionally, Doukhobors have considered themselves far removed from the views and practices of the large establishment Christian Churches, beginning with the Russian Orthodox Church that they historically split away from, and including the Roman Catholic Church and most of the larger Protestant Churches.”
— USCC Doukhobors

The Doukhobors do NOT believe that…

“…Jesus died for our sins; that His martyr death serves as some kind of ‘ransom’ for the salvation of others. For Doukhobors this is a fundamental betrayal of the very essence of His teachings, which emphasize each person’s individual responsibility for emulating Jesus, living according to the Golden Rule, and earning one’s own ‘salvation’ through the good deeds of one’s life.”
— USCC Doukhobors

Further information on Doukhobors…

Can be found at Doukhobor website: http://www.usccdoukhobors.org

Mysterious death of the leader…

Early in morning of Oct. 29, 1924, an explosion on the remote Kettle Valley Line at Fallon in southeastern British Columbia ripped apart Canadian Pacific Railroad Car 1586, killing Peter Vasilievich Verigin, the 65-year-old Doukhobor spiritual leader, his 17-year-old female companion and seven others. The mystery of whether the explosion was an assassination or accident remains unsolved.

From Canada to the U.S.…

National Archives records show hundreds of Doukhobors leaving Canada for Washington, Oregon and California between 1917 and 1924. Many passed through Idaho at Eastport and Porthill.


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