Author Tags: Doukhobors

Christian idealists from Transcaucasia (Russia) known as the Doukhobors first arrived en masse in Canada in 1899. They had adopted the derogatory label Doukhobors, meaning 'spirit wrestlers', in reference to their devout ascetic beliefs and their refusal to bear arms for the Russian Czar. Their transatlantic voyages at the turn of the century were partially financed by novelist Leo Tolstoy, who corresponded with their spiritual leader Peter the Lordly (Peter Vasilievitch Verigin), exiled in Siberia. In his private writing, Verigin had expressed some fanciful theories or 'fantasies' that were reproduced in Letters of the Doukhobor Leader Peter V. Verigin in 1901, edited by Vladimir Bonch-Bruevich. For instance, Verigin had written in 1896, "We maintain that education destroys the inclination to greet people, also schools corrupt the morals of children, and thirdly all things through which education is actualized are obtained through great hardships, therefore, to participate in the subjugation of people in any form must be avoided." Upon their arrival on the Canadian prairies, some Doukhobors chose to adopt Verigin's theorizing as precepts, particularly his notion that Doukhobors must seek "primitive conditions ... and a spiritual stature lost by Adam and Eve." When some older radicals embraced Peter the Lordly's slogan "the sons of God shall never be the slaves of corruption", a splinter group known as Svobodniki (Freedomites), or the 'Sons of Freedom', released their farm animals from servitude and marched in the nude to exhibit their Adamite simplicity. Verigin had advised in 1896, "Bread is already plentiful; all that is necessary is to less greedy... Humanity is omnivorous, and unfortunately eats for pleasure rather than need... If people want to become Christians they should gradually cease physical labour and preach the Gospel... I propose that people would gradually get used to physical nakedness..." In 1902, approximately 3,000 Doukhobors staged a trek in Saskatchewan with the slogan "we are in search of Christ the bridegroom," only to be stopped by police.

When Peter the Lordly arrived in Canada in November of 1902, the Sons of Freedom were disappointed with his moderate leadership. Eleven schools were burned to the ground in 1921 and 1922. Some Doukhobors burned their own clothes. To further assert their innocent affinity with God, nude marches were held, resulting in many arrests. Despite their criticisms of Peter the Lordly and mainstream Doukhobors, most of the uncompromising Freedomite minority followed the Orthodox exodus to British Columbia when the sect relocated to communal farms in the Kootenays. Further unrest ensued in 1926 when Peter the Lordly was mysteriously killed when the railway coach in which he was riding was dynamited. The culprits were never caught. Peter the Lordly's grandiose tomb (by Doukhobor standards) was bombed for many years afterwards.

When Verigin's son Peter Petrovich Verigin arrived in 1927 to fill the leadership void, he was eager to unite the Orthodox Doukobours with the Independents who had made concessions with Canadian materialism and the Sons of Freedom--who had not. He characterized the Freedomites as scouts for the Doukhobours, as leaders, but the Freedomites eventually resented his efforts to control dissidence and dubbed him Peter the Purger. With the onset of the Depression, many Doukhobours had to find work outside their own communities in order to help pay for their communally owned lands. The efforts of the Orthodox majority to excommunicate or purge non-paying Doukhobors widened the schism with the Sons of Freedom who proclaimed, "Land is God's gift. It should not be an object of trade." The overall community decided non-payers (Freedomites) could be allotted a special settlement area known as Krestova. When the Orthodox community evicted 200 non-paying Orthodox members, almost half the village of Glade, the ousted members marched towards Brilliant, supplemented by some Sons of Freedom. The police blocked the road and nudism ensued. More arrests followed. By 1932 more than 700 Doukhobors were incarcerated behind 20-ft. barbed wire fences on the otherwise deserted Piers Island off the coast of B.C., sentenced to three-year terms for nudism. All Doukobours were denied the right to vote from 1931 until 1956.

With the death of Verigin II in 1939, the Doukhobors became increasing fractured around John Verigin (a moderate), Louis Popoff ('Tsar of Heaven'), John Lebedoff, Michael Orekoff and Michael Verigin ('Michael the Archangel') who formed his own Union of Christ faction. Civil unrest continued. A $300,000 jar factory was destroyed in 1943. At the decaying Freedomite village of Krestova, 23 miles west of Nelson, paint was considered evil. There was no electricity, no telephones. Michael the Archangel led an exodus to a new Union of Christ colony at Hilliers, 35 miles northwest of Nanaimo, in 1946, but he died in a Vancouver hospital in 1951. Johnny Verigin, clad in his pajamas, was pulled from his house on April 19, 1950, and forced to watch as 36 Freedomites burned down his home. John Lebedoff had his own plan to relocate Doukhobors to Turkey. By 1950, bombings, dynamite and arson had resulted in millions of dollars worth of property damage. In a the Cold War era of fear-mongering and McCarthyism, it didn't help that Doukhobours could easily be misconstrued as communists. To stem the spread of terrorism, Attorney General Gordon Wismer would soon implement a plan to confiscate Doukhobor children from their parents.

That's the backdrop for the entrance of Stefan Stanley Sorokin into British Columbia in the spring of 1950. Sorokin was not a Doukhobor but he had learned some Doukhobor psalms from some Independents in Saskatchewan following his arrival in Canada on a Displaced Persons' quota in 1949. After ten months as a farm labourer near Oshawa, Ontario, unable to speak English, he had drifted west with his home-made harp, a bearded mystery man in the mold of the Pied Piper, first settling in Krestova. Born in Russia, he had previous religious affiliations with the Plymouth Brethren, Lutherans and Seventh Day Adventists. Sorokin claimed he had been incarcerated in a German concentration camp for five years, persecuted for his religious beliefs. A somewhat slippery character, he is credited with a fantastical tale of resurrection in the form of a memoir, written and published in Russian, entitled Tri dnia i tri nochi v zagrobnoi zhizni (Crescent Valley, B.C., 1950) [Three days and three nights in the afterlife]. This work was issued under a pseudonym, then later translated into English by Michael Cassidyne in 2004, without crediting Sorokin.

As civil disobedience increased, Sorokin spoke against violence. Preaching peaceful reconciliation, Sorokin visited the many Doukhobor nudists and arsonists who were imprisoned in Oakalla and the Kootenay jail at Nelson. He was proclaimed the new leader of all Sons of Freedom on August 17, 1950. To obviate the overcrowding in prisons, some 395 Freedomites who were convicted only on charges of nudism were granted federal amnesty in September of 1950, after signing pledges of obedience to Canadian law. Grateful for their release, some of the approximately 2,500 Freedomites pooled their funds to provide Sorokin with the luxury of a car, but he did not immediately receive any salary as their leader, nor did he accept special accommodation. His influence soon waned. In 1962, 274 'terrorist' acts of civil disobedience were linked to the Sons of Freedom. A Great Trek of protestors marched to Vancouver in 1963 to protest the incarceration of dissidents and hunger strikers in prison.

By the turn of the century, there were approximately 15,000 Doukhobors living in British Columbia--very few of whom were Freedomites.


Tri dnia i tri nochi v zagrobnoi zhizni (Crescent Valley, B.C., 1950) [Three days and three nights in the afterlife].

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2005] "Doukhobors"