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Pacifism and Anastasia's Doukhobor Village

 

by John W. Friesen

 

Following the death of Peter "Lordly" Verigin in 1924, his companion Anastasia F. Holuboff (1885-1965) was recognized by several hundred Doukhobors as his successor. The majority of Community Doukhobors, however, proclaimed Verigin's son Peter "Chistiakov" Verigin as their leader. Disappointed, Anastasia and her followers broke away from the Community and in 1926 moved to the Shouldice district of Alberta where they established a break-away village. The following article by John W. Friesen, reproduced by permission from Alberta History (41(1) 1993), recounts Anastasia's communal experiment in social, geographical and economic isolation. A combination of factors, including leadership style, internal dissension, land shortages and crop failures led to the eventual dissolution of the village in 1943.

 


 

The Doukhobor belief in pacifism originates from a conviction that every creature of God has a right to life. Doukhobors are fundamentally Russian in origin, and their beginnings were formalized in 1785 when a Russian Orthodox Archbishop named Ambrosius, called them "Doukhobortsi" or "Spirit Wrestlers." He argued that their protestations against the state church were tantamount to fighting against the Spirit of God. The Doukhobors adopted the name, insisting that their interpretation of a living faith required a constant "wrestling in the Spirit." Their orally-perpetuated belief system evolved, rather than being formally articulated, and consisted of communalism, pacifism to the extent of being vegetarians, an hereditary system of selecting leadership, a complete rejection of the written word, and a rejection of all forms of institutionalized religion including the priesthood. Doukhobors believe that each individual has a "Divine Spark" within them which entitles them to equality in the community and a right to life.

Doukhobor origins in Canada go back to 1899 when 7,500 souls immigrated from Russia and settled on the Saskatchewan-Manitoba border west of Winnipeg. During this time Canada was actively recruiting immigrants through the office of Clifford Sifton, Minister of the Interior, and from 1890 to 1914, settlers from many parts of Europe and the United States took advantage of the generous invitation to receive title to free land. The Doukhobors established their first homes in the Kamsack-Yorkton district of Saskatchewan and built a series of 61 communal villages under one managing body. Four of the villages were temporary sites and 57 became functional. For a few years all went well, but the Canadian government became uneasy about the communal governance of the settlements and took steps to dismantle the organization.
 

Anastasia Holoboff (1885-1965). Photo courtesy Koozma J. Tarasoff.


After attacks by the Federal government and strong local community opposition to their communalism, the Doukhobors relocated to British Columbia in 1907. Their refusal to register communal property individually meant that their Saskatchewan lands were confiscated and assigned to incoming settlers. Their refusal cost them a total of 258,880 acres, of which 49,429 were cultivated. It was a boon for new immigrants to occupy lands already tilled, and in the frenzy of settlement no one paid much attention to Doukhobors.
 

As a token concession, the government made some of the lands available to the Doukhobors as a reserve, on the basis of fifteen acres per person. A total of 236 Doukhobors opted for individual land registration and thus became known as "Independent Doukhobors." A smaller, more aggressive faction objected to their treatment and staged a public protest against the "militarism" of the government in the form of a march. Thereafter, they became known as the "Sons of Freedom."

In British Columbia, Doukhobor life took on an entirely different format. Grain farming and cattle-raising were replaced by fruit-growing and the operation of sawmills, a brick factory and two jam factories. Some of the men worked for non-Doukhobor neighbours and contributed their earnings to the community - the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood (CCUB) - through their leader, Peter V. Verigin. New homes were built comprising a total of 90 villages, each containing one or two large houses, each accommodating 30 to 50 people.

In 1915, an Alberta base was added to the CCUB. Verigin saw the advantage of establishing an Alberta "depot" to provide grain and flour to British Columbia members who in turn would furnish garden produce and other supplies to the Alberta farmers. He purchased 12,000 acres of farmland in the Cowley-Lundbreck area and placed three hundred people on the land. Verigin also supervised the building of a flour mill and two elevators.

The Alberta connection functioned effectively until the dissolution of the CCUB. There were occasional incidents of protest against the Alberta Doukhobors during the years following the First World War because of their pacifism, but for the most part there was little disruption of life in the community over such matters.

The CCUB was dismantled in 1938 due to a sudden and unprovoked bank foreclosure on the organization. Although the community had nearly $8 million worth of property, two business firms - National Trust and the Sun Life Assurance Company - held a series of demand notes worth four per cent of their total worth, or $319,276. The notes were called and the British Columbia Supreme Court allowed foreclosure action to commence. The way was then clear for the British Columbia government to take title to Doukhobor lands and properties. When the CCUB was dismantled, some lands were sold to Doukhobor adherents on a crop-share basis and the rest were liquidated to pay off the bank debt. The story of the foreclosure is a blot on Canadian history.
 

Residents of Anastasia's village: Polly Verigin, Dunya Anutooshkin (seated) and Nastya Verigin, c. 1927.


On October 24, 1924, the revered leader of the CCUB, Peter the Lordly, died in a mysterious train explosion when he was travelling to Grand Forks. A much respected man, Peter the Lordly virtually ran the CCUB single-handedly, even though a board of trustees legally existed.

It is a Doukhobor custom that when a leader dies there is a six-week period of mourning. When the mourning is over the community reconvenes and a new leader is elected. After Peter the Lordly's death, his longtime female companion, Anastasia Holuboff, wanted to be the next leader but she was defeated. Instead, the congregation chose Peter's son, Peter Petrovich Verigin, who was living in Russia. He was subsequently contacted and moved to Canada to take over the CCUB. Anastasia was deeply offended; after all, it was she who had lived and travelled with Peter the Lordly for twenty years and she knew all of his teachings.

She reacted to the rejection by forming a breakaway group called "The Lordly Christian Community of Christian Brotherhood" and in 1926 she moved to Alberta. Anastasia purchased 1,120 acres of land near Shouldice and subsequently supervised the building of the first homes. From a small beginning, the village population eventually peaked at 165 souls with twenty-six separate homes on site.

From the very beginning, Anastasia's village functioned quite differently from other Doukhobor settlements. Always there was an element of uncertainty about its stability and an atmosphere of mistrust prevailed. Administratively, Anastasia was never Peter Verigin's equal, so she was constantly working to keep the community together. She lacked the dignity with which Verigin had carried himself, and she never gained the measure of respect that he had commanded.

Anastasia's method of governance was to insist on respect from her villagers. On moving into the village, each resident was asked to sign a membership form with the following rules called, "Principal Points of the Doukhobor Religion": Doukhobors do not have mortiferous firearms; do not kill animals for food; do not use intoxicating liquors; and do not smoke or chew tobacco.

Anastasia's governance style revealed itself in numerous other day-to-day affairs as well. One former village resident suggested that when the first garden produce of the season was brought in, Anastasia insisted that she be the first to partake of it. She also saw herself as the principal spiritual resource for the village and personally took to teaching Doukhobor philosophy and community regulations to the children. She gathered her young charges together in the early hours of the morning and taught them to sing Doukhobor psalms and memorize the main tenets of Doukhobor ideology. Herself once a member of Peter Verigin's travelling choirs, she placed considerable stress on music. She also decried materialism and militarism and originated a series of strict regulations in this regard.
 

This large barn served the whole community at Anastasia's village. It was built in 1927 and is still in use.  Photo by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.


She was known to mete out lengthy sermons to offenders who often escaped her diatribes simply by leaving the scene.

Following Peter the Lordly's example, Anastasia originally purchased the farmlands for her settlement in her own name. Verigin said he would do this for the protection of the community when they first migrated to British Columbia, and true to his word, he did set up a board of directors for the CCUB and eventually turned all properties over to the organization. Anastasia also established a board of directors (consisting of three members) but she never signed the lands over to her community. Thus at her death there was a legal question about ownership. The actual village site and surrounding farmland were willed to her niece (recently deceased) who, along with her husband, maintained the village buildings and grounds to the present. Although resident in British Columbia, they spent summers at the village site to undertake maintenance work.

Anastasia's board of directors was elected for one year terms and were primarily charged with looking after agricultural activities. Despite many attempts to live according to the spirit of brotherly love extolled by Doukhobors, there were frequent disputes (even fist-fights) among members of the village and Anastasia was not always able to successfully intervene. As a result there were frequent departures as people moved to more desirable places. When this happened, in most cases they forfeited their goods to the village and left with only the clothes on their backs. Some demanded a share of the goods and argued until some kind of settlement was made. This constant turmoil reflected badly on Anastasia's abilities as leader and did little to maintain the morale of the membership or attract other Orthodox Doukhobors to the settlement. It also reflected poorly on a community allegedly bound by the principles of rationality which was to result in respect for one another by living in harmony. Despite this, the community became skilled at growing garden produce and contracted with members of the nearby Blackfoot Indian Reserve to trade these for coal supplies. They also obtained permission to do berry-picking on the reserve.

Doukhobor pacifism was internally put to the test when Anastasia appointed a close friend of hers, Wasyl (William) Androsoff, to run the village farm. The irritation caused by the appointment increased when Androsoff refused to move to the village. In addition, he and his brother, Ivan, also used community machinery to farm their own land. At William's death, Ivan (also called John), took over farming operations until Anastasia's passing. Her brother Michael is also reported to have helped with farming operations and as a reward Anastasia signed a quarter section of land over to him.

In some ways, Anastasia's village was a communal experiment in isolation. It was an isolation from social interchange, and an isolation of economics and belief. In the first instance, village members were encouraged to have little to do with outsiders even though a certain amount of trade went on with neighbours. Also, when times were tough, Anastasia assigned certain men to work for neighbouring farmers. When work was done a strict reporting of activities away from the village to Anastasia was required. The philosophy of "them and us" was adhered to, which meant that everyone outside the village was considered an outsider - including other Doukhobors. Since Anastasia's group was considered a renegade faction by mainline orthodoxy, there was an unspoken regulation about having too much to do with them. There were exchange visits between Anastasia's people and those in the Alberta settlements near Lundbreck, but these were intermittent and basically social in nature.

Non-Doukhobor neighbours who still reside near the former village tell of sitting listening to Doukhobor singing emanating from the village. It was a beautiful and haunting sound, but carried a message of social distance in philosophy and practice. It was certainly difficult to operationalize the principle of loving one's brother if social isolation was awarded such prime billing.



 

There is no indication that members of Anastasia's village experienced public censure because of their pacifism during the period of the Second World War. On a national scale there were many Doukhobors who resisted participation in any alternative service program such as that yielded to by the Mennonites and Hutterites. Although some Doukhobor leaders in Saskatchewan tried to cooperate with the government push for alternative service, many young men resisted and at one time nearly 100 of them spent four months in prison in Prince Albert. In British Columbia, resistance was much more pronounced and the Sons of Freedom particularly gained press for staging public demonstrations. Inexperienced with this kind of upheaval, government officials tried to downplay the problem. Countless meetings were held and finally it was agreed that the Doukhobors should be disfranchised. On November 2, 1944, a form of taxation for Doukhobors was devised with monies derived therefrom going to the Red Cross. With the war nearly over, the proposal received endorsation by the majority of Doukhobors and additional conflict was defused. In evaluating the entire episode, one would have to praise government officials for their patience, dedication and long suffering in trying to accommodate Doukhobor beliefs.

Besides the question of the quality of administration in Anastasia's village was the matter of institutional connection. With only limited social and economic ties to the local community, residents of the village also functioned with memories of having been forced to leave the membership of mainline orthodoxy when they sided with Anastasia after Peter the Lordly's death. Combined with Anastasia's inability to run a tight ship, this lack of institutional affiliation created an island community in an alien society and its demise was almost certain from the beginning. After all, who in Alberta, in a period of wartime, could really become concerned about the inner struggles of a remote pacifist, communal, renegade, Russian-derived group of people? Without vital connections, the experiment could not last.

When the Doukhobors first came to Canada they were seen as a very appealing kind of immigrant. They knew how to farm, they promised not to engage in any acts of civil disobedience, and they asked for little from the Canadian people. As time went on, however, a very negative image of Doukhobors evolved, partially brought on by the "leave us alone" philosophy of the Doukhobors themselves and Canadian suspicions of their pacifist, communal lifestyle. It did not help that the militant Sons of Freedom faction which originated after the seizure of Saskatchewan lands received so much publicity. In their zeal to discourage a growing materialism among their orthodox counterparts they sometimes engaged in acts of civil disobedience and violence to make a point. They set fire to buildings to illustrate the fleeting security of material goods. They burned schools in order to express their disdain for public education which they saw as part of the process of yielding to the Canadian value system of materialism, consumerism and militarism.

Undoubtedly the apparent inconsistency between what was promulgated as pacifist ideology, and demonstrated in acts of aggression (even if only against one's own colleagues), drew little public support for the Doukhobor cause. An even more isolated and eccentric experiment (such as Anastasia's village), would almost certainly be bypassed or stretch Canadian tolerance to its very limits.

Sources contend that the village never formally died; instead it simply dwindled away. By 1945, only Anastasia and her companion, Fedosia Verigin, remained on site. They lived alone there until 1960 when they moved to Calgary and spent their summers at the site. Anastasia died on November 24, 1965, and Fedosia on October 26, 1981. They are buried side by side in the cemetery located at the north end of the village.
 

Anastasia's original house (and attached bath house). The structure is still standing.  Photo by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.


Physical reminders of the former village structure are numerous and include Anastasia's original house (and attached bath-house), her newer home (built in the 1950s), a big barn and grain bin, the prayer home, and a several other buildings. Memories of life in the village also remain, locked in the inner recesses of the hearts of older Doukhobors who were once a part of this experience.

 


 

About the Author

 

John W. Friesen is an ordained clergyman of the United Church of Canada. He is Minister of Morley United Church near Calgary, Alberta. He also holds a joint appointment as Professor in the Faculty of Education and the Faculty of Communication and Culture at the University of Calgary. He has published several articles on the Doukhobors. His book with Michael M. Verigin, The Community Doukhobors, A People in Transition (Borealis Press, 1996) is a detailed examination of the history of the Doukhobors in Alberta.