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Doukhobor Identity and Canadian Assimilation in Bill Stenson's "Svoboda"

This is an essay I'm extremely proud of. Stenson's Svoboda wasn't on the syllabus for my Trans-National Literature class at uni but I wanted to explore my Russian heritage so much I arranged to do so with my lecturer. She was only too happy to let me deviate from the course content as she found the novel and my family history fit perfectly with the theme of the class. This was a very rewarding project.

Doukhobor Identity and Canadian Assimilation in Bill Stenson’s Svoboda
By Nadia Kuftinoff

The Doukhobors are a relatively unheard of religious sect in the British Isles. I only have any knowledge of them because my father was raised in a Doukhobor community in a remote town in southern Canada. He left when he was sixteen, and though the Doukhobors do not have strict rules to follow, he abandoned such principles like vegetarianism and abstaining from alcohol or smoking. He assimilated gently into being more of a Canadian than a Doukhobor and is probably one of the only members of his community to migrate to England, where he has lived for the past thirty years.
Despite being a long way from his original home and far from being a practicing Doukhobor, he still remembers and respects his heritage and identifies with his full-blooded Russian ethnicity. His story is similar to one presented in Bill Stenson’s novel Svoboda, about a boy growing up in a Doukhobor village but gradually adapting to a more Canadian way of life. I intend to look at the theme of identity within this novel in close relation to the history of the Doukhobors.
According to George Woodcock and Ivan Avakumovic, who wrote a definitive chronicle of the Doukhobors in 1968, the Doukhobors first appeared during the eighteenth century, and were given the title of ‘doukhobor’ by Archbishop Amvrosii Serebrennikov of Ekaterinoslave in 1785. The term translates as ‘spirit wrestler’ and was originally meant as a negative connotation, as though members of the sect were against the Holy Ghost (Woodcock, P. 19). They are Christians, but differ greatly from the Russian Orthodox Church. There are no Doukhobor priests, nor churches. They reject the bible as “the ultimate source of inspiration” (Woodcock, P. 19) because, as Elina Thorsteinson noted in The Mississippi Valley Historical Review in 1917, the Doukhobors were “for the most part illiterate, [and] attached scarcely any importance to [the Bible] except those portions which had passed into the chants or psalms, learned by heart and recited at their meetings. To this unwritten collection of psalms, preserved in their memories, they apply the expression ‘The Living Book’” (Thorsteinson, P. 5). As H.B Hawthorn explained in his article for the American Journal of Sociology in 1956, “A central core of Doukhobor beliefs was based on the assumption that direct revelation guided each person. Thus there was no need for church organisation, for government, or for force.” (P. 3) Doukhobor meetings are in fact very similar to those of the Quakers, when persons present speak if they feel God is telling them to.
Tsar Nicholas I was a lot less tolerant of the Doukhobors than Alexander before him, who let the Doukhobors live in relative ease. To the Doukhobors, he was “a just man who acted under the inspiration of God” (Woodcock, P. 35) and relocated many Doukhobors to Milky Waters – a region which today is now part of southern Ukraine. He did this not because he especially favoured the Doukhobors but so they could be “left to flourish in their own eccentric beliefs without infecting the rest of the Russian population” (Woodcock, P. 36). When Nicholas I became tsar, he decided to force Doukhobors into military service and their distant, exiled leader, Peter ‘The Lordly’ Verigin, instructed his followers in 1895 to burn their weapons and refuse service for two reasons: Doukhobors are pacifists and do not believe in taking another human life under any circumstance and did not recognise the authority of the government.
This instance, and many others, eventually led to the start of the persecution of the Doukhobors. They were keen to leave Russia and Russia, in turn, was more than happy to get rid of them and they were give permission to leave in March 1898 “on condition that they should go at their own expense” (Thorsteinson, P. 18). Leo Tolstoy himself used money he made with his novel Resurrection to help financially support the mass migration to Canada, and Quakers from the Society of Friends in England helped raise funds to not only aid with the migration, but as a loan for farming equipment, livestock and seeds.

There are varying degrees of assimilation with many integral characters in Svoboda (which translates as ‘liberty’ or ‘freedom’). At the start of the novel, we see central character Vasili hiding in his house from police who take him to school in the neighbouring town. Education became compulsory for the Doukhobors though most of them were wary of state education for fear it might brainwash their children into becoming patriotic Canadians thus destroying their community and culture with one concentrated attack on the youngest generation.
Vasili is taught to read and write in English at school. We see Vasili say “One day I will come back and blow this place up” in Russian and whereas he would normally be beaten as punishment, his teacher makes him write I will not talk Russian in school, and no garlic a thousand times (Stenson, P.84). This is clearly a rebellion against forced assimilation, and what’s interesting to note is Vasili’s threat to destroy the school with explosives. My brief summary of the history of the Doukhobors only skims the surface of the events that occurred in Russia, and it wasn’t until they settled originally in the prairies of Canada that the Freedomites, or Sons of Freedom, started to emerge. As protest against materialism, the Sons of Freedom would march naked through the streets and took to arson, blowing up schools built under instruction by the government to enforce education amongst Doukhobor children. It was only the Sons of Freedom who actively fought back in a manner that was frowned upon. There were so many rifts within the Doukhobors concerning recognition of leaders, the communistic style of the community and the constant search for paradise on earth that the shunning of the Sons of Freedom was one of the few things that united all the Doukhobors in Canada. They identified themselves as true Doukhobors (as did all the fragmented settlements) and created a very distinct image for themselves and taking it to extreme measures. They were rejected by the Doukhobors but still identified themselves as such, and continued to practice the religion but would often partake in meetings in the nude.
Stenson’s novel begins in 1949 where a young Vasili, the central focus of the novel, is imitating his step-father George, a renowned Sons of Freedom radical. He’s made a small explosive with a jam jar and gasoline which accidently explodes.
Later in the novel, we see Vasili reject a proposition of arson at his high school by an old acquaintance from his hometown: “I can’t help you burn down the school. I go this school and it’s part of my future.” (Stenson, P. 170). Vasili has accepted education as means to further his opportunities in life outside of the community, whereas a member of the Sons of Freedom would say “The person who has submitted to higher education is a truly insane animal” (Hawthorn, P. 4).

Vasili’s mother Anuta undergoes her own transformation from a housewife to the breadwinner of the family. Though the process starts as a necessity it develops into something enjoyable though it’s not always easy: “This is what it had come down to: taking lessons from her son on how to survive in a rapidly changing world” (Stenson, P. 204). There are two significant turning points for Anuta. One is leaving the community to work in a store to help support her son and father. It is no uncommon thing for a Doukhobor woman to work as we see in this image:

What we see here are Doukhobor women ploughing in Saskatchewan in 1899, the first summer the Doukhobors lived in Canada. It would be a while before all the settlements had horses or livestock. For Anuta to not only leave the community but secure a job in a store and earn money for her own family was unheard of. Exile from a Doukhobor settlement was considered the most severe punishment for a crime, and to willingly leave was to essentially turn her back on her culture.
We also see Anuta eventually engage in a romantic relationship with her boss, Jim Sellers, and the family relocates to his house where he lives with his mother. It is not mentioned if they ever get married, but if this were the case, it would be Anuta’s first legal marriage ceremony. Her two previous husbands who both died were not registered. This was the same for the Doukhobors in tsarist Russia. A simple ceremony would be held but there would be no official documentation of the event. Anuta, like Vasili, doesn’t consciously wish to abandon the community but finds it difficult to remain a part of it when her son shows an interest in going to university. Even a traditional Doukhobor life had to change dramatically eventually. At one time, up to thirty families would live in large communal houses that had separate family rooms and a large kitchen. My grandmother lived in one such house in Trail. When my father was born, the family moved to Grand Forks. She too had to adapt for the sake of her children.

The only character who doesn’t make the full transgression from a Doukhobor to a Canadian way of life is Anuta’s father, Alexay. It is however questionable how loyal a Doukhobor he was in regards to respecting their leader, as he explains to Vasili: “[…] Peter P. Verigin came from Russia to be our leader. I watched him just like you know how to watch the brightest star in the sky, and I didn’t like what I saw. […] He drank, smoked and gambled the community’s money away […] he told his followers to ‘Judge me not by my actions. Pay attention to my words’.” (Stenson, P. 49 – 50). Alexay is displaying the traits of an Independent Doukhobor. These Doukhobors abandoned the use of communal land, communal living and rejected the leader. This happened in 1907 and it wasn’t until 1928 did the controversial Peter ‘The Purger’ Verigin assumed leadership in Canada after his father was killed in a freak accident when a train he was travelling on exploded. It is still a mystery as to who carried out the fatal attack, though my father was lead to believe it was down to the Sons of Freedom.
The Independent Doukhobors did not abandon their religion. If we are to assume Alexay was such a Doukhobor, it seems fitting. Throughout the novel he recites psalms and reminds Vasili of Doukhobor values. For example, when telling the story of the men who were tortured by Cossacks because they refused military conscription during the Burning of Arms in 1895, he says “There have been many sacrifices . That’s what your people stand for, Vasili. Toil and peaceful life. This is what it means.” (Stenson P. 27). This was a slogan that Peter ‘The Lordly’ Verigin invented and would become the chorus of a hymn also featured in the novel:

Toil and peaceful life, toil and peaceful life
With God as our Father, every man as our brother
Let us toil and have a peaceful life
(Stenson, P. 81)

It appears that Alexay is the only character in the book who still truly identifies himself as a Doukhobor. The number of self-identified Doukhobors in Canada has dramatically reduced. According to the USCC (Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ), around 7,500 Doukhobors came to Canada. Dr. John I. Postnikoff recorded the largest numbers of Doukhobors in recent history was in 1941 with total members tallying 16,898. This is a dizzying figure compared to the 2001 Canadian census where it was discovered only 3,800 people distinguish themselves as Doukhobors. The assimilation process in Svoboda may just have been underway but it is evident many people like Vasili and Anuta would eventually leave the religion and communities forever.

Vasili does, however, pay homage to his Doukhobor heritage openly at one point in the novel. This is when Vasili is asked to speak to his fellow students at high school encouraging them to apply for a Peace Through Non-Violence conference at the University of British Columbia (Stenson, P. 210). For the speech, he arranges salt, water and bread on a table. These are presented at Doukhobor meetings as they symbolise the basic essentials of life. He addresses the assembly about the importance of attending the conference and why attaining peace through non-violent acts is so crucial from the perspective of a Doukhobor (Stenson, P. 213 – 215). My grandmother passed down to me a similar speech made by honorary chairman of the Doukhobors John J. Verigin delivered at a disarmament conference at the University of Ottawa in 1981 entitled Farewell to (Nuclear) Arms: Prospects for World Disarmament, Prospects for War (a full transcription and scans of the original document are available at . The conference was in conjunction with Operation Dismantle, which the Canadian Encyclopaedia describes as a “nonprofit, nonpartisan organization whose goal was to bring the pressure of international public opinion to bear on national governments to negotiate an end to the nuclear arms race” founded in 1977. Operation Dismantle would lead several unsuccessful coalitions before disbanding in 1989.
Verigin’s speech, a Victor Hugo quote, An Idea Whose Time has Come, addresses the issue of worldwide nuclear disarmament and to strive for global peace. Svoboda was published in 2007 so it could be a fair assumption to make that Stenson was aware of this conference and chose to reflect upon it in his novel. Throughout the speech, Verigin heavily emphasises he is speaking on behalf of the Doukhobors but at one point does recognise them as Canadians: “Let me just add, that as Canadians of Russian Descent, we, the Doukhobors, would be proud to see this great and bountiful country of Canada be at the forefront, in this great movement for the salvation of all mankind” (Verigin, P. 7). This demonstrates at that time, Doukhobors acknowledged themselves as Canadian but placed most emphasis on their heritage and religion. There was in fact still an ideology that the Doukhobors would return to Russia. Woodcock states “[…] they still like to think of themselves as Russian, in culture if not in citizenship. […] Those who lose the language and the feeling of identification with Russia become mere Canadians. […] though they may never depart from Canada, the fading vision of the great return will continue to haunt them” (Woodcock, P. 360 – 361). My father, who left the community in the early 1970s, confirms that even then, the general mindset was that the Doukhobors should return to Russia (it may be also worthy to note the Sons of Freedom were still active around this time). It appears that the Doukhobors are struggling to maintain different identities simultaneously: that of Russians (in citizenship), Russian Doukhobors (in practice) and Canadian Doukhobors (what they became) whilst also trying not to become mere Canadians, so clinging onto the Russian aspect of their roots fervently. It’s the argument of identity – do you identify with your citizenship or your genetics? I have dual nationality so technically I am British and Canadian, though I have no Canadian blood. My genetic make-up is a quarter English, a quarter Irish, and half Russian. My argument is yes I am British/Canadian, but predominantly Russian by blood. With an extremely Russian Doukhobor name (Nadia being the Westernised word for Nadezhda, meaning ‘hope’ and Kuftinoff a traditional Doukhobor name from the word Kufta meaning ‘hoarfrost’ – frozen dew drops) I heavily identify with my family origins. I have a second cousin that married into the Verigin family, so even have a connection to the leaders of the Doukhobors. It would appear this is not unusual for those of Doukhobor descent, for strong identification, though at one point, Verigin’s speech calls for unification for peace, “regardless of colour, or nationality, East or West, Russian-speaking or English-speaking” (Verigin, P. 7), casting aside identity altogether, demonstrating how identity is not the most important issue with what he is discussing, though still prominent.
Vasili’s speech is integral to Svoboda because it shows though he has left the community and will continue his life as a Canadian, he has not forgotten the lessons he was taught at a young age. Perhaps he won’t fully identify himself as a Canadian Doukhobor but a Canadian with Doukhobor heritage, loosely preserving his culture. All religious sects will at one time undergo changes from their traditional ways of life to adapt to the contemporary society, though for the Doukhobors, the adamant followers, may be lost forever within the first fifty years of the twenty-first century.

To conclude, Svoboda is a solid representation of Doukhobors assimilating into Canadian society whilst conscious about neglecting their religious beliefs and community. At first, Vasili and Anuta wish to stay within the community despite the Sons of Freedom making their difficult and resisting state education, but come to realise education and outside employment will further their future prospects in a way remaining within the community can not. Though they essentially become Canadians, they are forever driven by the values of the Doukhobors and will never forget the people they came from, or indeed their Russian heritage. Perhaps they could’ve lived quite happily within the community for the rest of their lives, but chose to leave and find a different way of life for themselves. It is unlikely they will ever return to their people but will always maintain some identity of a Doukhobor in their actions, abstinence from meat or smoking, or their toil for a peaceful life.


Canadian census (2001) available at: (Accessed: 27 March 2011)

Canadian Encyclopedia, Operation Dismantle. Available at: (Accessed: 27 March 2011)

Hawthorn, H.B. (1956) ‘A Test of Simmel on the Secret Society: The Doukhobors of British Columbia.’ The American Journal of Sociology, 62(1). Available at: (Accessed: 27 March 2011)

Kalmakoff, J.J, ‘Origin and Meaning of Doukhobor Surnames’. Available at: (Accessed: 27th March 2011)

Postnikoff, J.I. (1978) ‘Doukhobors: An Endangered Species.’ MIR Publication Society, 16. Available at: (Accessed: 27 March 2011)

Stenson, B (2007) Svoboda Canada: Thistledown Press

Thorsteinson, E. (1917) ‘The Doukhobors in Canada.’ The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 4(1). Available at: (Accessed: 27 March 2011)

USCC, About the Doukhobors. Available at: (Accessed: 27 March 2011)

Verigin, J. J (1981) An Idea Whose Time has Come. Available at:

Woodcock, George and Avakumovic, I (1968) The Doukhobors London: Faber and Faber


Doukhobor women ploughing, near Swan River, Saskatchewan, 1899. Provincial Archives of Alberta. Available at:

Grade awarded - First.
Tags: essay

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