The ‘Spirit Wrestling’ Doukhobors – Tracing a Russian Religious Sect’s Journey through the Caucasus to Canada
The preserved suspension bride bridge built by the Doukhobor people in Brilliant, British Columbia, 1913. Image: cmh2315fl/CC BY-NC 2.0.
It all started with an extra finger. Before the 1650s, many Russian Christians made the sign of the cross using the two middle fingers of the right hand. However, in 1653, Nikon, the Patriarch of Moscow, declared that three fingers should be used rather than two. Many refused to accept this and became dissenters known as ‘Old Believers.’ Such a refusal was more than a detail. Some thought that through this change, they would lose their connection with God and got around the clause by cutting off their fingers. For these folks, the Patriarch of Moscow was “the antichrist” and the Tsar his “demonic accomplice” – fighting talk that was never likely to win them friends and influence. Indeed they were brutally persecuted, some burning themselves to death in their churches rather than adjust their faith practice. For those that survived in scattered exile, the situation of oppression improved somewhat under Catherine the Great (reigned 1762-1796), who realized that these folks’ excellent work ethic was a bonus for the state. By this stage, a wildly varying spectrum of views had grown up amongst the widely separated groups, which would develop into a series of old believer sects.
Seeing an unbroken continuity between the material and the spiritual, they rejected any forms of control between people and were therefore inclined towards communal systems of management and ownership.
One of these, initially calling themselves “The People of God,” was the Doukhobors. That name, meaning ‘Spirit Wrestlers’, was originally given to them as a derisive taunt (as those who wrestled against the true spirit of God) but later adopted with a twist – that they were wrestling the spirit FOR God. Doukhobors considered icons idolatrous, using just the ‘life symbols’ (bread and salt) as motifs of faith. Priests were rejected as simply getting in the way of direct communication between God and humankind. Seeing an unbroken continuity between the material and the spiritual, they rejected any forms of control between people and were therefore inclined towards communal systems of management and ownership.
Exodus to the Caucasus
In 1802 many Doukhobors (and other dissenter groups) were given settlement rights along the Molochnaya River (remembered in Doukhobor culture as the “Milky Waters”), near the Azov Sea in Ukraine’s Tavria region. Many disparate communities coalesced there over the following 20 years, but yet again, in 1841, another period of banishment came. Some 5000 left Tavria undertaking a perilous three-month horse-and-wagon trip to the Caucasus. Many headed to the Akhalkalaki region of Georgia, where the best-known group settled around the village of Gorelovka near the Armenian border. Around a thousand were allocated land in the foothills of western Azerbaijan, where they were built the sizeable village of Slavyanka, now better known for its mineral water. However, it was here in 1859 that a certain Pyotr (Peter) Verigin was born following a ‘divine sign’ of a shooting star that mirrors the Biblical nativity. Verigin would go on to become a controversial spiritual leader, issuing ever more bizarre commandments that continued by letter even after he had been exiled as a troublemaker to Siberia.
Around a thousand were allocated land in the foothills of western Azerbaijan, where they were built the sizeable village of Slavyanka, now better known for its mineral water.
At Verigin’s postal prodding in 1895, a large number of Slavyanka and Gorelevka Dukhabours declared themselves pacifist and symbolically burned their guns. This was accompanied by a refusal to swear an oath of allegiance (and military service) to the new Tsar Nicholas II. Seen as treasonous, the result was punishment by Russia’s Cossack forces, who drove the offenders off their land. Destitute and homeless, many of the community would probably have perished but for the campaign spearheaded by pacifist-minded followers of Leo Tolstoy who had met Verigin in exile. The great writer himself was so moved by what he saw as the simple, honest spirituality of the people and their worldly plight that he raised global awareness via anonymous letters to the London Times.
In 1899, four chartered steamers brought over 7000 Caucasian Doukhobors to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where they were put on trains and crossed Canada to an area of what’s now Saskatchewan - allocated for their use by the Canadian authorities.
These letters helped organize a rescue fund. In 1899, four chartered steamers brought over 7000 Caucasian Doukhobors to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where they were put on trains and crossed Canada to an area of what’s now Saskatchewan - allocated for their use by the Canadian authorities. Once released, Verigin (now nicknamed “the Lordly”) joined them in 1902. However, in 1906 the regional government started demanding that individuals register land titles - reneging on its original promise that the Doukhobors would be allowed to maintain collective ownership of land. Furthermore, to register, they would need to become British-Canadian subjects, leading once again to the problem of taking an oath of allegiance. These tricky decisions resulted in a three-way split in the community. Many decided to follow Verigin west between 1908 and 1912 in what has been described as “one of the largest organized internal migrations in Canadian history.” Their new home was on the Kootenay River of southern British Columbia, where they started a ferry to link their settlements around Castlegar, replacing that system in 1913 with a remarkable suspension bridge (now preserved).
Doukhobor women ploughing a field in Saskatchewan. Image: University of Alberta Libraries/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
The most radical breakaway group – fighting cultural assimilation and perceived materialism – was a small faction calling themselves The Sons of Freedom. Refusing to put their children into the Canadian educational system, this group became notorious for their protests which included turning up to meetings naked: the basis for the 1960s song Do as the Doukhobors Do, later re-recorded by social activist Pete Seeger.
Where are they now?
Many Doukhabor families continued living in Slavyanka until the late 1980s. The vast majority left Azerbaijan around the time of the fall of the USSR in 1991, but a few older folks are reportedly still living there, and central Slavyanka retains several classic Russian-style cottages.
The communities survived the various anti-religious purges of the Soviet era with much suffering despite holding a philosophy that might have seemed an almost perfect match for classic communism.
Many of the Georgian Doukhabors returned to Russia in the early 1920s, settling in the Rostov area. Philip Marsden (as he recorded in his 1998 book The Spirit Wrestlers) found many still living in Rostov in the 1990s. The communities survived the various anti-religious purges of the Soviet era with much suffering despite holding a philosophy that might have seemed an almost perfect match for classic communism. Marsden also made a daring flit across war-torn Ossetia to reach Gorelevka, where more Doukhabors continue to live. Though their number has diminished from around 2000 in the late Soviet period to a few dozen today, several recent films have documented what appears to be an ageing but still active Doukhobor community. Now doubling as a Doukhobor museum, the village prayer house reportedly still holds traditional gatherings each Sunday evening.
An image of a traditional Doukhobor prayer house, still standing. Image: Trevor Pritchard/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
In Canada, the Doukhobor communities have also diminished significantly in the past decades. As recently as 1976, CBC documentary films, The Living Book and Toil and Peaceful Life showed communities of Canadian Doukhobors still speaking Russian amongst themselves. Still, now most families speak English at home and live in more archetypally nuclear family units – if retaining a sense of Doukhobor heritage. Most of the Kootenay region’s Doukhobor villages have lost their distinctive feel, but the remarkable Brilliant Suspension Bridge, built by Doukhobors in 1913, has been preserved while at nearby Castlegar, ten traditional buildings on as many acres have been preserved as a Doukhobor Discovery Centre where there’s also an orchard, Tolstoy statue and over 1600 artifacts donated by the local community. And at the Doukhobor’s first Canadian home, another series of culturally significant buildings have been preserved at Veregin, Saskatchewan – the now dis-established village named, if misspelled, for Peter’ The Lordly’ Verigin.
A postcard of Peter Verigin’s tomb, the former leader of the Doukhobor movement, in Brilliant, British Columbia. Image: blizzy63/CC PDM 1.0
If you’re interested in reading further about all things Doukhobor, it’s hard to beat the reading list on Doukhobor.org.