IN JANUARY 1899, A PACIFIST RELIGIOUS GROUP FLEEING PERSECUTION IN RUSSIA, EMIGRATED TO CANADA. ALMOST FORTEAN IN THEIR REJECTION OF ANY KIND OF AUTHORITY – THEY PROVED A THORN IN THE SIDE OF THE LOCAL GOVERNMENT. AUTHOR IAN MORFITT INVESTIGATES. (From Fortean Times 119)
[In January 1989], 8,000 Doukhobors from the port of Batum on the Black Sea settled in Canada in pursuit of a higher level of spiritual life. As they disembarked from the immigrant ship SS Lake Huron, each one hoped this was the Promised Land.
But the transition for this pre-industrial, rural, Russian Christian sect was not easy; their concepts of pacifism, animal rights and anti-materialism split the Doukhobor community into three factions. The most active of these was the ‘Sons of Freedom’, whose millennial zeal manifested itself in now-legendary nude marches and acts of violence that ran counter to their fundamental tenet of non-violence.
The need for strong spiritual leadership existed from the sect’s earliest days in Russia. Leaders who had visions or who received ‘visitations’ emerged according to a hereditary principal. The most influential of all was Peter Vasilievitch Verigin – known as Peter the Lordly – in the late nineteenth century.
Verigin’s influence held them together when, in an attempt to force to submit to Czarist state control, the Doukhobors were exiled to Siberia. It was under his direction that Doukhobors destroyed their arms in huge bonfires in a mass refusal to serve in the military in 1895.
Corresponding with Leo Tolstoy – whose admiration of Doukhobor ideals prompted him to become their greatest champion – Verigin saw the need to find a land where his people could live uncontaminated by a violent, selfish and materialistic society.
Verigin wrote that an earthly paradise was only possible by a return to “primitive conditions … and a spiritual stature lost by Adam and Eve.” Labour would be only in Christ’s service, currency returned to the Caesars that devised them, animals freed from enslavement. Metal objects were to be rejected because mining “tortured” people to obtain ore and food could be raised in abundance by solar heat. A new exodus was required to a land closer to the sun and closer to God.
Although some of Verigin’s phraseology sounds like half-baked religious philosophy, he was simply rejecting what he saw as the greedy exploitation of man and nature. He longed for a world without violence, where food was plentiful and neither man nor beast would suffer. “Plenty of corn exists, if only avarice were diminished,” he wrote. “The earth freed from the violence of human hands would abound with all that is ordained for it.”Ironically, a century on, this view is gaining more and more currency in western cultures.
A large segment – known as the ‘Independents’ – had already turned away from the communal Doukhobor lifestyle to run their farms on an individual basis. The first serious fracturing of the community was inspired, unwittingly, but the writings of Peter the Lordly himself, which were never intended to be read by his largely illiterate followers.
Embracing Verigin’s slogan “the sons of God shall never be the slaves of corruption”, a religious fervour took hold of another group. Releasing their livestock into the woods, the zealots hitched themselves to wagons when taking their produce to market. When hundreds marched barefoot and singing to preach to the unconverted, they burned leather and fur in ritual bonfires and discarded metal tools.
When Verigin arrived in Canada in 1903, the radicals were disappointed by his lack of commitment to their cause. In renewed zeal, they called themselves Svobodniki (Freedomites) or the ‘Sons of Freedom’ (SOF). Inspired by Verigin’s writings, they again took to the road to preach, only this time they marched in the nude, “in the manner of the first Adam and Eve”.
On their way to “destroy the throne of Satan”, the group chanced upon Verigin himself and forcibly freed the horse from his trap. But their march was intercepted by nearby villagers. Beaten and bleeding, they huddled together overnight exposed to the elements. Later, one recalled with amazement: “We remained naked and it was really wonderful to us that in such a wind we were not frozen. Those who stood guard over us publicly announced that the cold that came on was a very great cold, but not one of the naked was frozen.”
Marching on toward Yorkton, Saskatchewan, clothed but eating grass and leaves like their fellow animals, the SOF stripped before entering town. They were arrested and convicted of indecent exposure. Refusing to be bound over to keep the peace, they served jail terms before being returned to their home villages.
The peace was not to last long. Nakedness was a step closer to holiness, but there were other impediments to holy life, including technology. Zealots destroyed a wheat field with a roller, and the purifying powers of fire were applied to farm machinery.
The next march saw the SOF in long blue gowns and wide-brimmed straw hats chanting and denouncing the impure life and the moderate Peter the Lordly. They rented a house in Fort William for a New Year’s parade and marched naked through its snow-covered streets. Rounded up by police, they were taken back to the house where they sat naked on the floor around communal piles of fruit and nuts. A ceremonial burning of clothes in spring and more nude walkabouts resulted in further arrests and prison terms.
The communal Doukhobor life in Saskatchewan was brought to an end by the loss of the ‘Independents’ and government pressure to register their land. Having resolutely refused to acknowledge authority in any form since arriving in Canada – including sending their children to school and registering births, marriages and homestead property rights – the Doukhobors were officially dispossessed of their lands.
Peter the Lordly, lured by the promise of the lush fruit-growing valleys of British Columbia, used communal funds to purchase land where his people could relocate. The first prairie community, largely comprising Orthodox Doukhobors who still recognised the hereditary leadership of Verigin, were joined by the SOF.
Despite this new beginning, the SOF continued their nude marches – once acts of faith but increasingly becoming acts of protest. In 1922, under pressure from local to authorities to educate their children and adhere to laws, the SOF burned nine schools to the ground. In an attempt to liberate him from the contamination of material goods, Verigin’s own home was put to the torch as the SOF fuelled the fire with their own clothes.
Peter the Lordly’s regular denunciation of the SOF exacted the ultimate price when a train he was travelling in was dynamited in 1926. His death marked the first usage of this new form of protest. After much jockeying for position by heirs apparent, the mantle of leadership was assumed by his grandson Peter Petrovich Verigin. In aiming to unite Independent, Orthodox and SOF Doukhobors, his attempts to drive out the divisive forces earned him the title of Peter the Purger.
The Depression put paid to the promise of a better life for the Doukhobor community as repossession of property left them landless yet again. Frustration and increasing interference by authorities led once more to mass nude demonstrations.
Stripping and singing and torching of public and Doukhobor-owned buildings demonstrated their renunciation of the ways of the outside world. Pacifism gave way to other forms of protest called “black work”, lauded by many SOF. The greatest of Doukhobor taboos – violence – had become, paradoxically, a method to purge threatening influences.
Their belief that schools were a primary contaminating influence of schools led to an escalation of school burnings. “The cause of all this is the SCHOOL with its wrong orientation, thrusting sadism upon the youthful generation,” a SOF manifesto claimed. “Especially when a person partakes of higher education, or attends military academies, does he become a truly insane animal.”
Nude parents trying to physically remove their children from government schools were arrested and imprisoned. New schools, built to replace those destroyed, met the same fate within months of opening. Hundreds now joined the nude parades.
After the death of Peter the Purger and his unifying leadership, various leaders attempted to fill the vacuum. His son, John Verigin, was seen as too moderate for many SOF. Some turned to Louis Popoff – the self-styled ‘Tsar of Heaven’, known for his tendency to stride about in white robes and a crown of ripe oranges. John Lebedoff – respected in the hereditary tradition as a descendant of the first man to refuse military service in Russia in 1893 – also commanded a following. Michael Orekoff presented his credentials as a distant cousin of Peter the Lordly who had been visited by the Archangel Michael, and soon adopted the moniker of Michael the Archangel himself.
The government increased the indecent exposure penalty from six months to three years and conducted further mass trials but this served only to increase the frequency and numbers involved in nude protests. By May 1932 over 700 were incarcerated in a newly-built detention camp surrounded by 20 ft high barbed wire fences on a deserted island off the mainland coast of British Columbia.
The SOF were undeterred; in the following two years there were a further 153 acts of arson. As dynamitings and burnings of homes continued apace in the BC interior, government commission attempted to unravel the workings of destructive members of the community. Inevitably, a confession from one SOF member soon triggered a flurry of other confessions, accusations and counter-accusations that lasted into the Fifties.
Starved for strong leadership, much of the community turned to the exotic Stefan Sorokin who, like a latter-day Pied Piper, arrived in 1950 strumming his home-made harp and singing psalms he learned from Independent Doukhobors in Saskatchewan. A non-Doukhobor, he had escaped his native Russia and wandered for over twenty years, during which time he joined the Plymouth Brethren, Lutherans and Seventh Day Adventists.
During his short time in the community he toured settlements promoting an end to the “black work” and negotiated the release of 400 arsonists from prison. Stressing the need to find a new Promised Land, he took freely donated money for the search and settled on Uruguay.
Of the approximately 2,500 SOF Doukhobors, it was estimated that only 800 were involved in any real controversy and a mere 200 in the more violent practices. When the government, determined to find a lasting solution, made minor concessions to Doukhobor lifestyle, Sorokin encouraged his followers to drop their more controversial practices. While most of the SOF agreed, the most radical and fundamental believers waged the last and most violent campaign in 1962 involving 274 burnings and terrorist acts.
Train tracks and a massive electrical power pylon joined the list of targets of the SOF, who continued to torch their own and their neighbour’s homes. Despite the attacks over decades, death was never the intent and rarely occurred. The curious combination of nudity and burnings were always the preferred means of resisting outside influence.
In their study of the Doukhobors, George Woodcock and Ivan Avakumovic described the effect: “The exciting break of fire as a kerosene-soaked house burst into flame, [and] the deep thud of exploding dynamite, carried an irresistible excitement. Fire had become its own end, a passion that excited some of the arsonists to the point of orgasm.”
In all the manifestations of protest and religious mania, it is difficult to envisage one more bizarre than ranks of nude arsonists ejaculating into the night air as the flames leap higher and higher to the glory of God.
The community as a whole remained scarred for years after. Despite the fact that less than a tenth of the SOF were ever involved in the most extreme activities, the bulk of the SOF and the Orthodox and Independent Doukhobors were, and would continue to be, identified by outsiders as members of the same faction.
By 1962, the difficulties of assimilating into a foreign culture while steadfastly holding to fundamental beliefs had run their course. The ingrained distrust of authority, bred by a fear of persecution, was finally overcome by the necessity of having to confront the outside world. Ironically it was education that defeated the old ignorance that promoted a slavish adherence to pseudo-religious acts of faith.
Today the Doukhobors continue to espouse their philosophy of non-violence and now maintain links with similar groups throughout the world. On a web site home page, a single sentence refers to the extremism of a few members of past Doukhobors. It is no wonder they wish to forget their most troubled time.
Further reading: Aylmer Maude, A Peculiar People: The Doukhobors (1904). Harry B. Hawthorn, The Doukhobors of British Columbia (1955). George Woodcock and Ivan Avakumovic, The Doukhobors (1968).