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Doukhobor culture and migration to Canada

[ Doukhobors on board ship to Canada 1899, Unknown, Doukhobor Discovery Centre, Castlegar, B.C. 114 ]

Today, the Doukhobors are known in Canada because of their history of pacifism, which is based on their Christian principles. The communal economic and social structure that marked the first 40 years of their time in this country is another of their distinguishing features. They are often referred to as a community, suggesting that they are one culture. The axiom that is most closely identified with them is “Toil and peaceful life.”

Examining Doukhobor history, however, reveals that some of these essential characteristics were relatively recently grafted onto their culture. Rather than one people, the Doukhobors have long been internally divided. Toil they have and toil they do. But a peaceful life – either among themselves or in their relations with non-Doukhobors – has often eluded them. In these tensions we may see clues to the death of the Doukhobor leader Peter V. Verigin.

The Roman Catholic Church had its Martin Luther, John Calvin and other dissenters who ushered in the Protestant Reformation early in the 16th century. So, too, in Russia, the Russian Orthodox Church was challenged by critics. In the 17th century, one group of them, the “Old Believers,” rejected the elaborate hierarchy of the Orthodox Church and opted instead for spiritual simplicity. They dismissed the need for the clergy and favored simple religious rituals.

Leaders associated with what would become Doukhoborism emerged in southern Russia in the early 18th century. Doukhobors contended that each person had a spark of god within. This suggested that each person was equal to another. Since each person has a spark of god, to kill a person was akin to killing god. These dissenters also rejected the Russian Orthodox Church’s focus on icons, pictorial representations of a religious figure such as Christ, Mary or a saint. This was a form of idol worship, they argued. Their rituals were performed in front of more earthly symbols – bread, salt and water. Early Doukhobor leaders also introduced the idea of a “Living Book” of oral psalms and songs, to replace the Bible. As a written document, the Bible was seen as untrustworthy, reflecting Russian peasants’ suspicion of writing, officialdom and formal education.

About 1785 an Orthodox Church archbishop coined the phrase “Dukho-borets” to refer to those considered to be heretics, meaning that they struggled against the holy spirit. But the Doukhobors turned this to mean that they were the true “spirit wrestlers” or holy people.

Since the Russian Orthodox Church was allied with a repressive tsarist political system, these religious dissenters found that they faced both religious and political persecution. By the early 19th century, peasants and others who were identified as Doukhobors were forcibly relocated to territories bordering on the rapidly-expanding Russian empire. Over the course of the 19th century, Doukhobors were relocated twice, ending in the mountainous Caucasus region between the Black and Caspian Seas.

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