"Toil and Peaceful Life"

The Doukhobors or Dukhobors are a religious group that formed in Russia in the 18th century. The original Doukhobors were peasant farmers who espoused a communal, radically democratic, egalitarian society. They rejected outward symbols of Christianity such as a priesthood, the sacraments, and churches as places of worship. The Doukhobors continue to believe that each individual is capable of reaching divine wisdom. The only symbols they commonly recognize are those of basic human needs and hospitality: bread, salt, and water, on the table at all important Doukhobor events. Rather than reading from the Bible, the Doukhobors communally sing a cappella songs and psalms.

As they rejected the authority of church and state, they weren't too popular with religious and secular authorities in Russia, who considered them heretics. Originally calling themselves Christians of the Universal Brotherhood, their Orthodox opponents gave them a new label which has stuck: Doukhobortsi or dukhobortsy, Russian for spirit wrestlers. Catherine the Great persecuted them, and her grandson Alexander I persuaded or forced the Doukhobors - and other dissenter groups like the Mennonites - to settle near the Sea of Azov, where they built farming communities which flourished. However, the Doukhobors angered the state by refusing conscription, and were forcibly evicted and moved further east in 1840. The same thing happened in 1887, and in the persecution that followed their leader, Peter Veregin, was exiled to Siberia. In 1895 they again refused conscription and burned their arms; this protest has been called the first organized pacifist group protest in modern history, and is still celebrated by Doukhobors today.

Happily, they found an ally in Leo Tolstoy, who helped over 7000 of them to move to Canada between 1898 and 1899; docking in Halifax, they travelled west to what is now Saskatchewan, on the Canadian prairies. Veregin too was allowed to emigrate. These frugal and industrious people established thriving farming communities and built their own roads and irrigation projects. Spreading to British Columbia, the Doukhobors played a small but important role in the settlement of western Canada.

In Canada the Doukhobors did not always have an easy time of it. In retaliation for their refusal to swear allegiance to the British crown, they have had large portions of their land expropriated by the Canadian government. There were disputes with neighbours too which have sometimes led to violence. The preferred method of protest, though, has remained passive resistance: at one point the Doukhobors staged a series of nudist strikes against the government. Internally, sects fought over the question of communal land ownership, and one radical sect, the Sons of Freedom, stressed asceticism and nudism.

In 1924 Peter Veregin was killed by a bomb and his son of the same name came from Russia to lead the Doukhobors. Before his death in 1939 he counselled them to abandon communalism and adopt Canadian lifeways. In 1945 the Union of the Dukhobors of Canada was founded; the Sons of Freedom declared their independence from that group soon after, and internal schisms remain. In the 1950 the Canadian government, following a practice they had adopted with First Nations people, removed Doukhobor children from their communities to be fostered with mainstream families and schooled in the state system. More recently the state has backed off from trying to destroy the Doukhobor culture, and today there are about 35,000 Doukhobors in Canada and a similar number in Russia.

www.doukhobor-homepage.com/index.html www.civilization.ca/cultur/doukhobors/dou01eng.html

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