The single greatest compliment that can still be paid to the Doukhobors and their descendants is that they were, and still are, overall a hard working, industrious people, who are peaceful and community-minded by nature. They were incredibly successful farmers who lived communally, ancestrally originating north of the Black Sea. They were a practical, observant, and systematic people – always crucial characteristics of farmers – who led an orderly life centred on peaceful, structured village life. I ask you, What is not to like?
Today it is hard to fully appreciate just how radical their lives lived by these standards were.
Slavic people historically lived profoundly nomadic ways. Roaming Indo-European tribalism historically dominated from what is now Mongolia to central Europe and from north of the Himalayas to the Arctic ocean; here there was no lasting city-state. This nomadism was challenged early on and regionally by the rise of highly organized political city-empires: Babylonian, Assyrian, Greek, Roman. Formalized religious practises in each of these were their cultural handmaids. The region that was home to the Doukhobors repeatedly shifted politically under the control of various empires throughout history and was dubiously Christianized between 800 and 1200 C.E. Following the east-west schism in Christianity in 1054 C.E. the region became increasingly controlled by Orthodoxy as it married itself to the antecedents of the Russian Empire. The rise of the first united Eastern Slavic kingdom began in 882 C.E., the Kievan Rus. Its rise was interrupted by the invasion of Genghis Khan from 1237 – 1240 C.E., and then became fully consolidated by the systemic establishment of the Russian Caesars begun by Ivan IV in 1547 C.E. and completed by Peter the Great in 1721 C.E..
Books about the Doukhobors invariably say something trite about the obscurity of their historical origins. This could not be further from the truth. Historically anthropologists dealt with hard evidence; what could not be held in the hand was dismissed as speculative. Rita Kleinhart’s adage was standard: The question is always a question of trace. What remains of what does not remain? But more sophisticated models now exist. Feeding what exists back into larger historical matrices naturally juxtaposes other facts making a bigger picture crystal clear…a black box that without any knowledge of its internal workings, inputs and outputs can fully account for a culture’s characteristics. In this case, the Doukobor mind becomes better understood once the inputs and outputs become clear.
The thinking and character of the Doukhobors who fled Russia and immigrated to Canada in 1899 were severely shaped by these historical factors: destabilization by nomadic culture, imperialism of empire culture, militaristic conquest, institutionalized religion, destruction and taxation of crops, forced conscription, the rise of a city-state sponsored culture centres of empire, culturally standardized notions of good-taste and fair-play, removal of populations from the land to cities.
Some of the formal Doukhobor influences that can be documented include: Russian Orthodox Bishop Nikon’s vicious condemnation of priestless religion in the 1600’s, the 1700’s teachings of Danilo Filippov who was a military deserter and student of the Bible and Orthodox liturgy who lived in a nearby cave and tried to teach these to these peasants but who threw them into the Volga river claiming them to be useless, the mocking of Doukhobors by the Orthodox church as Spirit Wrestlers in the 1800’s (which is the literal translation of the word Doukhobor, which they in typical fashion flipped into a positive moniker), their massive burning of government-issued arms on June 28, 1895, and fragmenting their leadership into a diaspora/exile.
Rejecting the spiritual authority of the Church and the secular authority of the Czar, the Universal Christian Brotherhood’s insistence that each person could hear the voice of God, that pacifism was the true nature of people, and that communalism best allowed the practical expression of brotherly love, literally placed them at the precipice of annihilation by the late 1800’s if it had not been for two recent inventions, the telegraph and the railroad. The former allowed their impending doom at the hands of the Russian government/military to be disseminated quickly and widely, and the later allowed delegations of Quakers to get to them and document their plight before it was too late. Leo Tolstoy , convinced that they were evolutionally naturally pacifists (which turned out not to be the case) organized and funded their emigration. And in 1899, 7,400 of them arrived on Canadian shores, offered asylum and free land to homestead on the yet-to-be colonized Canadian western steppes by the money-hungry Canadian government who was looking for industrious, seasoned farmers to do the work. They found these attributes in these people. But ironically, the very things that made Doukobors most suited to this role also spelled their doom twenty years later.
It would have been these peasant people arriving from a persecuted diaspora in Russia whom the French peasant Peter Maurin would have encountered and visited with and laboured alongside when he went looking for work after his own failure homesteading as an individual in Saskatchewan in the first decade of the 1900’s.