Thursday, September 22, 2011

How Spirit Wrestlers Came To Canada Russian Doukhobors Universal Brotherhood Christians

By Delevan L. Pierson.

A distinguished American missionary editor tells us all about a most remarkable sect, whose members, persecuted in Russia, recently emigrated to Canada. They eat no meat, have property in common, and offer no resistance to violence. The men refused to serve in the Russian army; hence the persecution. That the Spirit Wrestlers are a brave and hardy race will be evident from the remarkable photo showing the team of women dragging the plough.

It is not an uncommon sight, in some parts of Europe, to see women harnessed with dogs, and drawing carts or canal boats; but it may seem strange that in Christian Canada women drag the plough without even the help of a beast of burden. These women are Doukhoburs, thousands of whom have been driven from Russia by perse­cution, and have been welcomed in Western Canada, where they have been given land and other help to enable them to make a living.

Now, why were these peo­ple driven from their homes in the Caucasus? Because the Government of the Czar­ - author of the Peace Confer­ence -- would not allow them to live up to their belief in "Peace at any price." For a century and a half these Douk­hobors (" Spirit-Wrestlers"), as they are called, have been subject to terrible persecution because of their peace-loving nature and their persistent refusal to take up arms against their fellow men. Five thousand of them are still in exile in Siberia, and seven thousand others have sought refuge in Western Canada.

They call themselves "Universal Brotherhood Christians"; and the sect first appeared about 150 years ago in South Russia. They believe in taking literally the Bible commands to "Love your enemies" and "Resist not evil"; and from the first they have suffered much persecu­tion from the religious and political rulers of Russia. Alexander 1 allowed them to settle on the shore of the Azof Sea; but Nicholas 1 in 1840 banished them to Trans­Caucasia, where it was thought the wild frontier tribes would probably exter­minate them. There, however, they won the friendship of the hill tribes, and enjoyed half a century of pros­perity and peace.

The man whom the Douk­hobors now look up to as their leader is Peter Verigin. In his younger days he is said to have been rather wild, for con­scription had not as yet been introduced to the Caucasus, and as the Spirit­ Wrestlers waxed fat, they forgot the precepts of their fathers, and smoked, drank strong drink, accumulated private property, dis­cussed their religion only as a matter of intel­lectual interest, and eased their consciences by much charity. Then up rose Peter Verigin, who set himself energetically to work to revive the old faith and customs of the Doukhobors. He and they returned to vegetarianism and total abstin­ence from intoxicants and tobacco. They re­divided their property voluntarily, so as to do away with the distinctions between rich and poor, and again, they began to insist on the strict doctrine of non-resistance to violence. The Imperial Russian Government felt that Peter Verigin would be better removed, espe­cially as the conscription was then being introduced into the Caucasus. He was therefore, about twelve years ago, banished to Lapland, but was afterwards transferred to Obdorsk, in the north of Siberia, in order that he might be more completely cut off from his people.

The Doukhobors, however, did not abstain from trying to establish communication with Verigin even at that distance. They also dispatched one of their number to visit him. After many weeks of travelling, this Doukhobor reached the last post town before Obdorsk. Here he had to change reindeers, and while he was resting he was visited by a man, who questioned him as to his destination and the object of his journey. The Doukhobor told no lies: but suspecting that he had to do with an emissary of the police, as soon as the visit was over he made haste to get fresh reindeers harnessed to his sledge, and pushed on quickly to Obdorsk. He reached his destination safely, saw Peter Verigin, had some conversation with him, and delivered letters. But their interview had not lasted very long before the police arrived in pursuit of the traveler, and sent him back again to the Caucasus. Some time later the same Doukhobor was again dispatched on the same errand. His mission was now more difficult than before. The police supervision of the Doukhobors had become stricter, and the police in the north had been warned to keep a stricter watch over Verigin.

But somehow or other the Doukhobor finally reached Moscow, where he consulted friends as to the best mode of procedure. He was advised that it was useless to attempt the direct road to Obdorsk, which he had travelled before. The only thing for him, therefore, was to travel to Archangel, and then, drive eastward, with rein­deers, many hundreds of miles till he reached Obdorsk from that side. He set out, but at Archangel was arrested and ordered back to the Caucasus. The police furnished him with a passport marked with instructions that he was to be allowed to travel nowhere but towards his own village. With this pass he was sent from one police post to another. Before he had gone far, however, he found that the name of his obscure Caucasian village was not familiar to the police officers into whose hands he had passed, and he availed himself of this to turn his face eastward and push on once more toward Obdorsk, using his pass, when necessary, as a, proof that his journey was sanctioned by the police. In this manner he made his way almost to Verigin's place of exile almost, but not quite. He was once more arrested; and this time the police took care of him till he reached the Caucasus.

It is customary for the inhabitants of the Caucasus to possess arms, and during their period of prosperity the Doukhobors owned weapons to protect them from bandits. When they again began to practice non-resistance, however, they felt that so long as one possessed weapons it was difficult to keep from using them when robbers came to steal a horse or cow. So to remove temptation and to prove their principles to the Government, they resolved to destroy their arms. This decision was carried out simultaneously in the three districts they inhabited on the night of the 28th of June, 1895. In the Kars district the affair passed off quietly. In the Government of Elesavetpol, however, the authorities made it an excuse for arresting forty Doukhobors under the plea that this was rebellion against army service. But it was in the Government of Tiflis that they fared the worst. There a large assembly of men and women gathered at night to burn their arms, meanwhile singing psalms. The bonfire was already burning low, and the day, had begun to dawn, when two Cossack regiments arrived on the scene and were ordered to charge the defenceless crowd. They set about flogging men and women indiscriminately with whips, and they kept it up until they had worn out their lashes and the Doukhobors' faces and clothes were covered with blood.

Why this was done nobody seems to know. No one was tried for it, and no one was punished; nor has any apology or explanation ever been offered to the Doukhobors. The authorities in St. Petersburg depend for their information on the local authorities who committed this blunder or perpetrated this crime. The newspapers have strict instructions not to make any reference to such matters; and three friends of Count Leo Tolstoi, Vladimir Tchertkoff, Paul Birnkoff, and Ivan Tregonboff - who went to St. Petersburg with a carefully worded statement of what had occurred, and who wished to see the Emperor about it, were banished without trial and without even being allowed to make the matter public.

More amazing still, punishment fell, not upon those who had done the wrong, but on those who had suffered it unresistingly. Cossacks were quartered on their village, and there insulted the women, beat the men, and stole property. Four thousand people had to abandon their homes, sell their cultivated lands at a few days' notice, and be scattered in banishment to unhealthy districts, where about a thousand of them perished in three years from want, disease, or ill-treatment.

A middle-aged woman thus describes some of the milder forms of abuse to which they were subjected by Cossacks: "Four of us women were going from Spaski to Bogdeanooka, and on the road we were overtaken by a hundred Cossacks, who brought us into Bogdeanooka. They there placed us in a coach house, and led us one by one into the yard. There they stripped us, and flogged our bare bodies so that you could not count the strokes. Two of them held us and four flogged. Three of us stood through it, but one they dragged about so that she could not stand."

Twelve Doukhobors who were in the Russian army refused to serve longer, and were condemned to join a penal battalion. A year later they were so emaciated that they could scarcely be recognized. On one occasion they "were laid down, and on each side of them were stationed drunken men, who began to flog them with thorny rods like ferocious wild beasts." Each received thirty strokes. Three of these men are still in the penal battalion, while the other nine were sent to Siberia, where some have died. The situation became more and more unbearable for the Doukhobors, and many vain attempts were made to secure concessions from the Govern­ment.

Finally, in 1897 the Empress Maria, mother of the present Czar, visited the Caucasus and learned about their character and condition. She brought the matter to the attention of the Czar, and on February 21st, 1898, per­mission was given to those not already liable to military service to leave the country. The permission came none too soon. Out of one company of 4,000, who had been driven from their homes, 800 had died in two years and a half. Friends in England and elsewhere came to their assistance, and set to work to help them choose a place for their future home. Where should they go? Already the fame of their industry and honesty had travelled abroad, and France, the Argentine Republic, Brazil, the United States, and other countries were anxious to secure them as settlers. One colony went to Cyprus, but found the climate unsuitable. Finally their attention was directed to Canada, and Alymer Maude visited the Dominion and secured the promise of land in Manitoba and an allowance of one dollar per head for the settlers.

The shiploads of Doukhobors began to come to their new homes early in January, 1899, over 2,000 at a time; and now there are over 7,000 of these strange and interesting people settled in Manitoba. The welcome given to the first contingent was overpowering in its cordiality. When they arrived they were the topic of conversation all over Canada. Reporters met them as soon as they appeared off Halifax, and accompanied them from there to St. John, N.B. A salute of artillery greeted them at the port and crowds blackened the quays. The railway journey was a triumphal procession, the Doukhobors holding a reception to the citizens at every stopping place. The impression they created was most favorable; their cleanliness was praised, as though foreign immigrants were expected to be dirty; their splendid physique and picturesque costumes were admired, and their politeness extolled.

Until the severity of the winter moderated, and accommodation could be made ready in the Colonies, the Doukhobors were lodged in Government shelters at various points - Winni­peg, Portage la Prairie, Brandon, Yorkton, and Dauphin. Some of the men went out at once to help erect houses on the land, whilst the rest settled down in their quarters. Some got jobs at wood splitting and the like, but for the most part shoemaking, whittling wooden spoons and forks (in great demand as souvenirs), and, for the women, cooking, cleaning, and needlework occupied their time.

At Winnipeg a woman organized an English class, which was a great success, the Doukhobor children proving apt scholars, and eager to learn.

When the snow disappeared at the latter end of March plowing and digging the land were in full swing. There were more plows than teams to draw them, so the Doukhobors, women as well as men, hitched themselves to ploughs and broke the sod. In some cases the plow was manned entirely by women, some twenty of them uniting their strength to get it along. Those not plowing dug the ground with spades or attended to other necessary work.

All the Canadians who have had personal dealings with the Doukhobors speak highly of them. The Cana­dian axe-men who helped in building the temporary log houses, working with the Doukhobors some six or seven weeks, have noth­ing but good to say of them - their industry, good humor, and their brother­liness to one another. A Scotch Canadian lumber­man - foreman in charge of one of the two parties was enthusiastic in his praise; they were, he said, good, Christian people, such as he had never seen be­fore, and he trusted they would not be corrupted by too much contact with other settlers.

An interpreter employed by the Dominion Govern­ment, after being with the Doukhobors since they arrived in the North West, has decided to settle per­manently near them. And a doctor on one of the boats which brought them out felt so drawn towards them that he resigned his position in order to volunteer his services for a few months in exchange for bare living expenses.

The power that Christianity in its truest sense has of civilizing is made manifest in this instance. These people, deprived of even the few necessaries of life common to the children of the soil; hunted from pillar to post, made to herd like beasts of the field, beaten, ill ­treated, and mothers separated from their children and wives from their husbands, are today the most polite, orderly people it is possible to imagine. The village they are building testify to the powers of organization and inherent orderliness of the people. The results of self-discipline are apparent in the people as a whole, and the very core of their religious conviction is self-restraint.

The absence of anything like noisiness or excitability strikes one the instant one moves about among the villages. The very children are curiously quiet and gentle in their mode of play, and they are miniatures of their elders in more than their picturesque costume.

There is something unutterably pathetic to those who live in this wrangling, noisy world of the nineteenth century to see women and children of the Doukhobors quietly and silently bearing with a great patience the load that is laid upon their shoulders.

Their hard labor is marvelous, and varies in kind from the finest embroidery to the building and plastering of houses.

Most of the men are obliged to leave home to earn money, and the women help the few men left in the village to build the houses, and not only tread the mortar and use their hands as trowels, but actually cart the logs themselves, drawing them for miles with the aid of two simple little wooden wheels, no bigger than those of a child's go-cart. The earth for the mortar, too, was carried on their backs in baskets woven of willow, or huge platters hewn out of logs, the water being carried at times for half a mile in two buckets hewn like the platters out of trunks of trees, and bung at the end of a long sap­ling. A deep trench was dug, and by the edge sat a score of women less strong than their Spartan sisters, chopping, with a rude hatchet, hay or grass, to mix with the water in the trench or pit. Bucket after bucket of water was poured in from the primitive wooden pails, while six women with skirts kilted. up nearly to their waists trod the mortar as smooth as paste. Another gang of women carried it in wooden troughs to the houses, where six or eight others plastered the logs both inside and out with the cold clay paste.

The neatness of the work was astonishing, for while in some cases logs large enough to build a log house were to be found, in others they had to be woven out of coarse willow branches; the upright posts alone being of sufficient strength to support the roofs of sods (two layers), laid on with a neatness and pre­cision seldom seen. The walls of the houses themselves were not only stuffed with clay, but presented, both inside and out, as smooth a surface as if the trowel of a first-rate plasterer had been at work. In many cases these people had neither tools nor nails, and yet the carpentering work of the interior of the houses is a marvel of ingenuity. Their great oven molded out of clay, always presented a symmetrical appearance, which the appellation "mud oven" does not convey. They are built close to the entrance, and occupy a space of about 5ft. square. There are always three or four niches which are used to keep things warm and act as tiny cupboards; while the flat top, about 4ft. from the roof, is occupied on cold days by the old grand dame, with her never-idle knitting needles. Close to her perhaps swings the curious cradle, covered with a curtain drawn close round it, and containing a chubby baby in real swaddling clothes, and looking for all the world like a parcel tied up with broad ribbons.

We are convinced that the history of this interesting and unique people has only just begun. Russia's loss is Canada's gain. The Spirit-Wrestlers have now a chance to show the stuff that is in them.

The following appeared in the daily papers recently: "So well have the Doukhobors, the Russian Quakers, prospered in Canada, that of the money advanced to them by the Govern­ment, to buy machinery and implements, they have returned 80 per cent. in less than a year."

Originally published in the Wide World Magazine.  April 1900.
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

If you enjoy reading Digital History Project - Consider making a donation today. Every dollar donated will help us publish more articles and illustrations.

With your help we can turn this site into a real look at History - Past, Present, and Future.

All donations over $100 will be acknowledged on our Donor Thank-you page, unless we are specifically notified not to list you.


Donation Amount