Growing up among the Doukhobor, a pacifist religious group who emigrated to Canada from Tsarist Russia, JJ Verigin would sometimes come home from school to find naked old women trying to burn down his family’s house.
One attempt in 1969 was successful, complains Mr Verigin, 67, who recently recounted the episode. A fire destroyed valuable family artefacts, including correspondence between her great-great grandfather, a prominent Doukhobor leader, and the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, an early admirer of Doukhobor pacifism and Christian morality.
The elderly women, Mr Verigin explained, were part of a small and radical splinter group within the Doukhobor who periodically stripped naked and set buildings on fire to protest land tenure and what they saw as excessive materialism. Some of those accused of arson had another motive, he said: to be deported to Mother Russia.
These days, with the war in Ukraine raging, most Doukhobors no longer aspire to return to Russia, said Verigin, who leads the largest Doukhobor organization in Canada and studied in Moscow in 1979. The fires, which For years title grasped‘s in Canada and polarized the Doukhobors, are also a thing of the past, he stressed.
“Pacifism is at the heart of what it means to be a Doukhobor, and the war in Ukraine ended any lingering desire to return to Russia,” said Verigin, executive director of the Union of the Spiritual Communities of Christ. “We feel the emotions of our Ukrainian brothers and sisters as we too have faced repression in Russia.”
In the 18th century, the Doukhobors (the name comes from a Russian phrase meaning “spirit fighters”) rejected the icon worship of the Russian Orthodox Church. They also withstood service in the Imperial Army; In 1895, thousands of Doukhobor soldiers set fire to their weapons, which led to the group’s violent suppression and exile.
Tolstoy dedicated the royalties from his novel “resurrectionto help finance the transit of the Doukhobors to Canada, and in 1899 more than 7,500 emigrated to what became Saskatchewan to help farm the Canadian prairies. By 1908, most settled in the rural uplands of southern British Columbia, in sleepy agricultural and industrial towns like Castlegar and Grand Forks.
An estimated 30,000 people of Doukhobor ancestry reside in Canada and for decades have lived ascetic and communal lives reminiscent of Quakers or Mennonites, albeit suffused with Russian culture and traditions. Historically, many were vegetarians and avoided alcohol. Their motto: “Toil and peaceful life”.
Many Doukhobors in Canada still speak Russian to each other; send their children to Russian-language schools; singing Russian hymns at weekly spiritual meetings; bathe in Russian-style steam rooms; and eat traditional dishes such as borsch.
But Doukhobor’s lifestyle has been affected by intermarriage, the glamor of city life and a younger generation more attracted to TikTok than Tolstoy. Today the Doukhobors are doctors, professors, lawyers, professional athletes and, in at least one case, drag queens.
“Assimilation is a challenge to our way of life,” Verigin said.
During a recent choral practice at a cultural center in Doukhobor, Jasmine Popoff, 34, a nurse with purple hair, led her choir in a rousing version of “Hallelujah” — in Russian — followed by a lively English rendition of Queen’s “Someone to love.”
“As Doukhobors, it’s important that our culture evolves so that we continue,” Ms. Popoff said.
When the discussion turned to the war during a rehearsal break, chorus members of all ages said they rejected the authoritarianism and militarism of Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin. “I don’t feel any connection to Mother Russia because Russia is not our mother,” said a singer, Kelly Poznikoff.
Mr Verigin said that due to anger over the Ukrainian conflict, several Doukhobors have been denied service in local Castlegar shops in recent months.
In the past, prejudice against Doukhobors in Canada has been fueled by the extremist splinter group, the Sons of Liberty, who began marching in naked protests and torching public buildings and homes in the 1920s. Members of the group opposed ownership of property and public education for their children. By the 1950s, dozens of their children were forcibly sent to government colleges.
Among the last radicals was Mary Braun, who in 2001, aged 81, was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment after setting fire to a community college building in British Columbia. Prior to her sentencing, Ms. Braun undressed in court. She had previously made numerous fasts and lit small fires in courtrooms.
Nadja Kolesnikoff, a yoga instructor who grew up in a Sons of Liberty household, said she was confused at age 5 when her paternal grandmother burned down her own house and was jailed for three years.
“We had to come together as a community,” she said. “I never asked her why she did it.”
But Ms Kolesnikoff said her upbringing was also encouraging. Her family used kerosene lamps and stored fruits and vegetables underground in the winter. Luxuries were frowned upon.
“I learned to be self-sufficient, and to this day I still feel like there’s nothing I can’t do,” she said by phone from Costa Rica, where she now lives.
At the Doukhobor Discovery Center in Castlegar, the director of the museum, Ryan Dutchak, said some Doukhobors have changed their Russian-sounding surnames in recent decades out of fear of ostracization. In Canada’s 2021 census, only 1,675 people identified as Doukhobors.
“Being stigmatized has alienated some people,” she said.
The elders say that preserving the Russian language is the key to the group’s survival.
On a recent Thursday, dozens of Doukhobors gathered for a spiritual gathering. Wearing colorful kerchiefs, blouses, skirts and aprons, the women sat to one side facing the men. On a table lay a loaf of bread, salt and a jug of water, traditional symbols of Doukhobor hospitality.
“Gospodi blagoslovi” – Lord, give us your blessing – they said before singing the Lord’s Prayer in melodious Russian.
Standing before his class at a Castlegar primary school, Ernie Verigin, a Russian teacher, acknowledged the difficulties in preserving the Doukhobor faith. “The younger generation wants a quick fix, but spirituality is a lifelong process,” he said. “It’s hard to compete when my 14-year-old daughter is on Instagram and Facebook.”
The competing attractions of Canadian, Russian and Doukhobor identities can be tricky.
AJ Roberts, 21, a game designer in Vancouver who grew up in Castlegar, regrets his Russian is rusty. But he’s learning how to make his own borscht, even though his mother brings him lots of jars on every visit.
“I’m proud to be Canadian, but I’m not afraid to say I’m Doukhobor,” she said. “Because of the war, I am more ashamed to say that I have Russian ancestry.”