Field Notes – Strong Beliefs: A Doukhobor Life in British Columbia

I owe my introduction to the Sons of Freedom Gilpin Community to Anya Soroka of Grand Forks, British Columbia. Anya is a young playwright of Doukhobor descent, who, overhearing my conversation with another resident of Grand Forks about the ethnic make-up of the area, introduced herself, and offered to take me to Gilpin.

Anya explained a bit of the history of the Doukhobors, and of the Sons of Freedom, or Freedomites. (“Svobodniki” in Russian.) I left Gilpin realizing that I had only scratched the surface of what there is to know about the various communities of Doukhobors and their descendants, and I apologize in advance if these notes are overly simplistic, because it is clear that the story of these people in Canada is both extremely rich, and full of controversy.

The Doukhobor movement goes back to 17th century Russia, and was a rural movement whose adherents believed that God was present in every individual, and that the church hierarchy, with its clergy and rituals, was therefore superfluous. They also rejected secular government.
In the late 1800’s, the community ran further afoul of the Russian government by ignoring conscription laws, by refusing to register births and deaths, and, in protest, by burning their weapons. They were finally, in 1897, allowed to emigrate. Leo Tolstoy, among other wealthy sympathizers, paid for their passage to Canada. They were settled primarily in Saskatchewan, where they established communal settlements.

By the early 1900’s, the Doukhabors had split into three main groups, with the Sons of Freedom adhering most strictly to the tenets of their ancestors (as Pauline Berekoff often refers to), and to the writings of their leader, Peter Verigin. Among those tenets is the strongly held belief (again referenced by Pauline) that individuals should not own property. In response to pressure on the part of the Canadian government to register their births and deaths, pay taxes, and enroll their children in school, the Freedomites launched a series of mass protests that included both nudity and arson. When Pauline speaks of ‘sacrificing our homes,’ this is what she is referring to.

The Sons of Freedom represent only a small number of Canadian Doukhobors, and Anya Soroka and her family are not affiliated with the Gilpin community. However, it was clear watching Anya and Polya (Pauline) converse, that there was a deep bond of mutual respect, and a sense of shared history and traditions.

After I had finished my interview, Pauline took me to her garden, fenced high to keep out the whitetail deer that are extremely numerous along the Kettle River. Even though I was traveling, she insisted that I share some of the bounty of her garden, where she was growing potatoes, cabbage, onions, lettuce, beets, carrots, kale, parsley, peas, beans, celery and cucumbers. (Doukhobors are traditionally vegetarian, by the way.)

“Of course our tradition is borscht,” Polya told me. “We use beets and carrots and potatoes and cabbage. And celery. I wish you could taste it.”

Pauline apologized for not having the energy to spend more time in her garden, though it looked beautiful to me. She told me she has a serious illness. I look forward to my next visit to Gilpin, and to learning more about the way of life of Pauline Berekoff and her community. Maybe I’ll get a chance to try borscht, Sons of Freedom-style.

(Below are some English language Doukhobor songs I found in the Canadian Journal of Traditional Music)

We are marching, we are marching,
And no force can stop us now:
All united, all united
In the name of Doukhobors;
And we know our cause must prosper,
And we sing aloud in joy,
For the Angel, for the Angel
Of the Lord goes on before.
Let my people go, let my people go, Saith the Lord of Hosts: let my people go!
} twice
We are marching, brothers, marching,
With our women and our babes.
The nation watches, the nation watches,
Watches with a sense of awe.
Our forefathers are with us,
And we know we cannot fail,
For the Angel, for the Angel
Of the Lord goes on before.
We are marching with no weapons
Save our faith and trust in God
And his mercy, and his mercy
For the suff’ring and the poor.
The road is nearly, nearly ended,
O Doukhobors, take heart;
For the Angel, for the Angel
Of the Lord goes on before.

All men are brothers, all men are brothers;
We’ll join into one great clan,
Ever determined, ever undaunted,
Fulfilling always God’s great plan.
One for all and all for one,
Brotherly union, never alone.
All men are brothers, all men are brothers;
We’ll join into one great clan,
Ever determined, ever undaunted
Fulfilling always God’s great pian.

Our brothers’ blood, we will not spill;
Enough of wars and all destruction;
Our aim: restore the land to till.
Unite, all brothers and all sisters:
Why should we kill ourselves by war?
Arouse the sleeping from their vision,
And tell them what we’re struggling for.
Why should we slave for these extorters,
And gather millions by the score?

To unite for the causes of yore;
Our forefathers all lived in Russia, 2
And again it brings us to the fore.
Against churches, and kings, and all armies,
They did wrestle without any doubt;
Against bloodshed and endless betrayal,
And the falsehoods the priests (dinned out?).
Unto death, they stood staunchly and firmly,
And were true to the Good of their name,
Flinching not before torture and prison;
Then to Canada bravely they came. 2
Many years we have sojourned, Dear Brethren,
In a land that is foreign and cold, –
And your people stifi have no conception
Of the truth that we strive to uphold. 2
Our life here is not for excesses,
But for bringing of life from above;
Let Humanity be as one family,
On the basis of freedom and love.