Our Seventieth Youth Festival – What Does it Mean?
Guest Editorial by D. E. (Jim) Popoff
In recent decades, Doukhobors in Canada have marked many anniversaries, including three historic Centennials. It may not resonate quite like a Centenary, but 70 consecutive Youth Festivals, our annual Doukhobor cultural extravaganza, are indeed a rare and special accomplishment! Try and find any type of annual multicultural festival in Canada that has continued this long, much less a multi-day affair that is staged by one of Canada’s smallest ethnic minorities!
It’s great that our iconic Doukhobor event has contributed to Canada’s multi-cultural mosaic, but what have the Festivals meant to us – the people who’ve actually organized and participated in these events? Why were the Festivals organized in the first place? What was the intended purpose? How well has that purpose been served?
To answer those questions, let’s take a quick look at the context of 70 years ago. Doukhobors had just undergone three major traumas – demise of the CCUB communal enterprise, death of the leader, Peter P. Verigin-Chistyakov, and Canada’s involvement in World War ll. In response, most mainstream Doukhobors converged into the new USCC organization, initiated by P.P. Verigin just prior to his death. However, for centuries, Doukhobors had lived in an all-encompassing lifestyle and now they had left the material and economic aspects to individual choice, and were striving to maintain the spiritual and cultural aspects within the new USCC framework. They quickly realized that a whole spectrum of new institutions and innovative approaches would be required – among other measures, the 1940s saw the rise of Sunday Schools and Russian Schools for children, a weekly periodical (our ISKRA!), and a reinvigorated youth movement, the USCC Union of Youth.
New formats were introduced: the first performing choirs, regular evening youth meetings with specific activities – choral singing, oratory, drama, literary skills and moral temperance groups. By 1948, these efforts culminated in the first Youth Festival, a showcase of the spiritual and “culturally enlightening activity” carried on throughout the year. It was hoped that the Festivals would provide motivation for these activities, as well as an annual venue for spiritual, cultural and social interaction among youth of the Kootenay-Boundary and elsewhere..
A quick glance over the decades shows just how dramatically those initial intentions succeeded! Some of the highlights: Without the communal lifestyle, Doukhobor elders feared the loss of the orally transmitted culture and traditions. Psalm-singing was already in serious decline, and many hymns and folk-songs were in danger of being lost. John J. Verigin urged the Youth Council to implement specific requirements for all Festival participants. As noted in Marion Demosky’s retrospective in the last ISKRA, each participating youth group or choir was required to learn one traditional psalm, two hymns and a folksong, as well as solos, duets, etc. They also had to include a speech on a relevant topic, and were encouraged to prepare skits and fullscale dramas. These general guidelines have continued to this day, and what a powerful role they have played in maintaining our traditional culture throughout these decades, not to mention the wealth of experience and accomplishment that has been gained by thousands of youthful participants from three or four generations of Doukhobors!
In fact, the initial vision for the Festivals was very soon exceeded! In the ensuing decades of the USCC’s “Golden Age”, the Annual Youth Festival became a virtual Mecca, for Doukhobor youth and all generations of Doukhobors, from across Canada and beyond. It attracted guests and visiting participants, from related groups like Molokans and Quakers, other Russian Canadians, and many local, regional, national and international dignitaries, peace activists, scholars and other representatives. World class stage artists from the USSR and other countries contributed to many Festival programs. Doukhobors and non-Doukhobors alike have experienced the manifestation of Doukhobor hospitality and brotherhood, and all aspects of our identity, from life-concepts to choral traditions and spiritual ritual, culinary arts and textile skills, wood-crafting and visual arts, photography, writing and publishing. Festivals have encompassed special events, such as Centre, Interpretive Society and Bridge Restoration openings, as well as workshops and psalm studies. Program booklets became an integral component, and when Festivals designated annual themes, the program booklets focused on these and became “collector item” showcases of talent in
themselves, colourfully documenting youth activity over the years. For decades a group of dedicated volunteers has diligently recorded all events on video – a work of love and devotion that has virtually immortalized this glorious cultural era! . .
The Festivals have gained even more significance as the venue for the annual “State of the Union” address featured in the Sunday afternoon segment of the program. For over half a century, the late USCC Honourary Chairman John J. Verigin presented his inspiring yearly public summary of the current state of Doukhobor affairs, skillfully interweaving – in his inimitable, extemporaneous and dynamic oratorical fashion – recommendations and occasional exhortations for the constructive guidance of community activities and aspirations. Today, our USCC Executive Director JJ Verigin very skillfully continues in that worthy tradition.
The annual festivities have also included less formal aspects, such as sports and recreational activities. A softball “play-off” has been a perennial favourite, and in recent decades, “Family Funticipaction” Mondays have featured fun and games for all ages. Huge evening parties (usually around campfires at outdoor locations, such as the famed “flats”, in Grand Forks, Ootischenia or Pass Creek) have fueled social interaction, where springtime ambience, exuberant sing-songs, and carefree camaraderie of youth have generated numerous lifetime friendships, and even many romances and marriages – ensuring the continuity of a Doukhobor identity for all these decades.
The Festival has become an almost addictive annual immersion in the total Doukhobor experience, without which it’s difficult to even conceive of a continuing Doukhobor community! Virtually all those reading these words will be able to recall their own personal experience (repeated over many years) of rehearsals and other preparations, travel arrangements, hosting and being hosted, the excitement of “stepping out” before appreciative, over-capacity audiences, the sheer euphoria of joining voice with hundreds in a harmonious and powerful congregational a cappella rendition of the Saturday Evening “closing song”, the exaltation of being one of hundreds of all ages in a profound communion of souls in the Sunday morning moleniye (made even more rapturous when outdoors!), the sheer exhilaration of the standing ovation at finale time, in the deep collective satisfaction of a job well done – the whole irreplaceable cavalcade of colourful events,
sounds, smells, the intimately familiar ethnic ambience – “our people”, our way of life!
These individual and collective experiences have enabled us not only to overcome the challenges we’ve faced as Doukhobors, but to thrive and to persevere, against all odds, in the assertion of our identity, ideals and principles. This single enterprise, our Annual Youth Festival, has become a towering Doukhobor institution that has helped to ensure that even today, in noticeably diminished numbers, with most of our younger generations scattered across the globe, we still gather annually, and our young people still sing and speak for peace, proudly proclaim their identity, their reverence for the sacrifices of their ancestors, and their continued commitment to their priceless Doukhobor heritage! And now, their voices are literally heard around the planet, compliments of the Internet! . .
THIS is the meaning of our 70th Festival! And, we can all be rightfully proud of this historic accomplishment! Let us celebrate this anniversary event in the spirit of that praiseworthy attainment, and in the joy of our continuing efforts to collectively pursue such worthwhile goals!
At the same time, let us heed the call of rapidly changing times, and address the troubling indications of dwindling results in our signature Doukhobor cultural event. Among other growing symptoms, one particular statistic should be sufficient to focus our attention: in earlier decades, the vast majority of the hundreds of participants at the Festivals were in the prescribed youth category aged 15 to 30 years; recent years have seen increasingly smaller numbers of participants, and now they mainly consist of those we used to call “elders” . . .
Therefore, let us all again reinvigorate ourselves, as did our generations of the 1940s, and, in the spirit of this year’s Festival theme, “Celebrating 70 years! A journey for peace, past, present and future”, let us manifest the creative energy and dedication that we still carry in our Doukhobor souls, and let us search out and implement the appropriate innovative approaches that will enable our authentic Doukhobor identity to survive and thrive for many more generations to come!
And, as we are doing so, all together, both young and young at heart, we will be carried along by the heavenly harmonies, crowds of bright young faces, and all the other glorious sights and sounds of all those Festivals, that will forever resound in our hearts