The Soul Expressive Heritage of The Doukhobors –


Russian Group Singing – by Eli Popoff


From the USCC Festival Program Booklet, May 21-22, 2005


It has been truly stated that the soul of a Russian person has a certain degree of the Orient reflected in it. This is most noticeable in the manner and intensity of a Russian’s appreciation and expression of music. Although nearly every person on earth appreciates music, it seems that the saying of the most venerated sage of China – Confucius, that “As speech is the expression of the mind, music is the expression of the soul”, finds one of its most classic exemplifications in the cultural heritage of the Russian people.


To the Doukhobors, this heritage, with the centuries of formulative evolvement that go away back, to before historically recorded times, has centralized on mass and group singing. Many traditions have come and gone, but group singing in its own unique style and manner has been remarkably preserved throughout the ages. What is more, there seems to be a distinct desire on the part of the younger generation to continue this preservation.


Doukhobor singing is basically divided into three distinct categories. The first and oldest is psalm singing. Psalms, in reality are prayers, which at their origin were learned by memorizing them orally, since literacy was quite uncommon among the peasantry of Russia. Most of them were formulated during the time of the breakaway from the Greek Orthodox Church in the eighteenth century. The mode of singing them is absolutely unique and not preserved, in any similarity, anywhere else in the world today. The origin of their long drawn out, sorrowful, somewhat melancholy melody goes back to the time of the persecutions of the early Christians. The words of one psalm, steeped in oral tradition, take their origin back to St. John the apostle and claim that Christ Himself gave melodies to psalms of David which were based on ancient Israelite melodies depicting their ever-persecuted, ever wandering lot. One cannot help but state that the singing of psalms, particularly when rendered be older, mature Doukhobor people, most definitely conveys, even to a casual listener, the fact that this melody originated amidst suffering and persecution.


Some lightly relegated their origin to the ancient ritual of the chanting of funeral dirges. And no doubt, some element of this may have crept in during the many solemn, sometimes multiple funerals of the many early Christian martyrs. However, taken in their total wholeness there is much more to them than merely sorrow, sadness or notes of melancholy. There are psalms conveying obeisance to a higher power, and there are beseeching psalms of entreaty. There are those that are pacifying and those that express exaltation. In general, it is quite clear that the psalms were preserved on a religious basis and throughout the ages could only have been preserved among the minorities who were oppressed and persecuted. Similar melodies had been preserved among those factions of the Russian Orthodox Church who favored a more or less ascetic, self-denying church body. But, with the evolvement of church power and material wealth, the Orthodox Church became more a hierarchical, administrative body, rather than a persecuted spreader of the gospel, and eventually this form of singing became lost to the church.


It is noteworthy that in every era of Doukhobor evolvement, of which we have a reasonable true oral, as well as written record, we find that within the group there were always one or more very highly talented singers who sparked, as it were, the impetus to preserve and pass on this unique heritage of singing of future generations.


During the first large group settlement in the Milky Waters area of the Crimea during the years 1800 to 1820, in one of the first groups there arrived a former church father by the name of Bazilewaski. He had broken with the church because of its too worldly involvement in material wealth and autocracy.


He was very learned in all the oral traditions of the church but his particular field was music and he was a near genius in his singing ability. Together with the recognized leader of the continually increasing Doukhobor settlement, Saveli Kapustin, they perfected and elevated the singing of psalms to one of the highest levels that this culture has ever seen among the Doukhobors.


Another outstanding singer that came to the Milky Waters Doukhobor colony in its early stages of settlement was Edom Saburayev. He had been a slave in the courtyard of Catherine the Great, but had gained his freedom by the kind intercession of a Hungarian Count who by chance had heard him singing informally. In the Doukhobor colony, Kapustin so liked the tender canary like voice of Saburayev that he called him our songbird – “Solovey”. His descendants henceforth kept the surname Soloveoff.


It must herein be noted that in breaking away from the church and all its rituals, symbols and ceremonials, the Doukhobors also placed the instrumental playing of music, in connection with prayer worship to God, as something to be abstained from. They claimed it was not only unnecessary, but in their interpretations it was an artificial gesture that did not bring you closer to God but in actual fact hampered your true expression of the soul.


“Does a nightingale or a canary need musical accompaniment to enhance its naturally melodious inspirational expression?” – was the statement of these fathers of Doukhobor psalm singing. Along with this was the original aversion to the use of any books with words or notes to lean on to while singing. This, they also claimed, hampered your expression. For although the bulk of the Doukhobors at this time were illiterates, still, this was not the main reason why all psalm reading and psalm singing was done from memory. The main reason was to not tie part of your mind to a visual aid, but to have everything already within your memory. This then would allow you the greatest amount of freedom for expression of your innermost self.


After their many decades of various forms of persecution and exile, it was the feeling of thankfulness for peace at last, and the natural exuberance in the successful establishment of their colony in the very fertile and climatically ideal area of the Crimea, coupled with the fact that they did have in their midst very highly endowed masters of the art, that all helped Doukhobor prayer-worship psalm singing at this time, as above stated, to attain an unbelievably high level. It has been recorded that when the Emperor Alexander First officially visited the Doukhobor colony in Crimea in May of 1818, he attended one of their prayer meetings. The Doukhobor singing so affected him, he reportedly had remarked to the empress, that were it not for his feeling of responsibility to the state, he would have preferred to live the simple life of the Doukhobors and worship with them in their simple but soul-stirring way.


With the passing of Alexander the First, the tolerance towards the Doukhobors ended. Because of the continued trek from all over Russia, particularly of Cossacks of military call-up age from the Don area who came to join the Doukhobor colony, the Tsarist government, under various alleged pretexts, in 1841 exiled the Doukhobors from their Crimean paradise to the cold, short-seasoned wet mountain area of Trans-Caucasia.


Harsh as the establishment of living in Trans-Caucasia proved to be, this did not lessen the Doukhobor attachment to singing. The first years had their sad and sorrowful side to them, but later in the 1870s and 1880s, during the time when the very much esteemed lady – Lukeria Kalmakova was leader of the Doukhobors, the singing of the Doukhobors took a very much more exuberant turn. Lukeria Kalmakova continually made yearly rounds of all the different Doukhobor villages, which were at this time fairly well established in three separate regions, several hundred miles apart from each other. During her visits, no one worked. First there was a prayer meeting to welcome her, but later this would lead to a mass outdoor picnic which would eventually have joyful mass singing. In contrast to the prayer-worship singing, this would have merrier folk songs included. And, although the songs that were popular at this time had a somewhat drawn out melody, they nevertheless were more light-hearted in context as well as in expression. Some were composed by themselves; some were part of the rich Russian heritage of peasant and folk songs.


With the passing of Lukeria Kalmakova in 1886, Doukhobor evolvement took a more serious turn in that under the leadership of Peter Vasilievitch Verigin they commenced their witness for Pacifism and non-compliance of military service, which had begun to be enforced at this time in Trans-Caucasia. During this time the singing of psalms came into distinct prominence main. There were many singers still alive who had been with the school of singing of Kapustin’s original group in the Crimean area. These were brought to the fore in every village and around them centered the core of the singing of the whole village. There were no designated choirs. The whole congregation of each individual village gathered together for their Morning Prayer worship. Usually, this was every Sunday morning before sunrise. And, with the more talented experienced singers taking the central positions, the whole assembled congregation sang.


There was, at this time a group of talented male singers, who perhaps received a certain amount of especial prestige. These were a dozen or so men of middle age who had sometimes accompanied Lukeria Kalmakova on her visits to the various villages. They were all close associates and friends of her late husband Peter Ilarionvitch Kalmakov. He had actually chosen them as his associates for their singing abilities. They continued their singing association after his death and often visited with Lukeria. There were originally about two dozen of them. The people jokingly referred to them later, as Lukeria’s ‘Cossacks’ . Most of them later, became close friends and associates of Peter Vasilievitch Verigin. Their more pronounced style of singing continued to leave its effects on all Doukhobor singing even after Lukeria passed away and members of this group did not convene together anymore, for each continued to sing with their own village from where they originally came, and were generally looked upon as authorities in singing.


One of the outstanding singing authorities of this era was Peter V Verigin’s childhood chum and close associate throughout all his life – Ivan Evseyevitch Konkin. His father Evsey was a talented singer who was still of the old school of Kapustin’s era. Often at their home, group gatherings were held for establishing a new melody or reconstructing the melody of some particularly hard-to-sing psalm which was being discarded because of some lost, hard to render part. Lukeria’s ‘Cossacks’ had sometimes gathered here for rehearsals when Ivan Evseyevitch was still a young man. Having a remarkable voice himself, he certainly grew up in an atmosphere which exposed him to the best in the singing heritage of the Doukhobors. It was said of Ivan Evseyevitch Konkin, that he knew the melody to every psalm, hymn and song that the Doukhobors had collectively in their repertoires, and could actually render them in any given part of bass, lead, soprano or tenor. What was more; he could even imitate a woman’s voice in any of the above parts. As the Doukhobors sang at this time from 150 to 200 different psalms and some of the psalms required about 10 minutes of melody for about half a dozen words, one could imagine that the ability of Doukhobor singers like Ivan Evseyevitch Konkin, who never was able to read a musical note in his life, bordered on something really wondrous or incredible. During this era of the last quarter of the nineteenth century, some hymns and songs did make their appearance among Doukhobor singing, but they were not numerous and their melody mostly remained the long drawn out style. The influence of they style and melody of the psalms remained clearly evident


With the Doukhobor migration to Canada, and the first quarter of our twentieth century, quite a decided trend of additional evolvement becomes noticeable. Even though psalm singing continued to be the basic singing in prayer worship and Ivan Konkin with a picked group of singers was the undisputed authority on Doukhobor singing, the singing of hymns received much wider prominence and on the lighter occasions of informal assemblies, folk songs were getting to be quite widely accepted. Peter Vasilievitch Verigin himself composed quite a number of hymns and usually the picked group of singers gave them the melody. Many of these are prominent to this day. Several hymns were composed by Peter Egorovitch Diachkov commemorating Doukhobor martyrdom in Russia which he himself had been part of. Some hymns were taken over from Russian Evangelical Christians whose prominent poet and singer was Ivan Stepanovitch Prokhanov However, all the hymns taken over from other Christian denominations were first approved by Peter V. Verigin and Ivan E. Konkin, who sometimes even substituted some words which had too much of a church flavor to them. Although the general melodies of taken over hymns were not changed, the slower, more rounded out method of singing altered the actual singing to such an extent, that it was hardly possible for a Doukhobor group to sing together with a church choir, even if they were singing the same hymn.


With the passing of Peter V Verigin in 1924 and Ivan E. Konkin in 1925, Doukhobor singing continued its pattern of evolvement in Canada in its own unique manner. Peter P. Verigin, son of the elder Peter V. Verigin, arrived from Russia to Canada in 1927. Among other things, he placed a high priority on the preservation of all the Russian cultural heritage of the Doukhobors, – the Russian language itself, the singing, drama, handicrafts, etc. by organized Russian schools, libraries, youth groups for singing and discussions, public speaking, writing, etc. For help in all this work he had brought with himself from Geneva, Switzerland – Pavel Ivanovitch Birukov – one of L.N. Tolstoy’s close associates and his secretary for many years. From the Doukhobors themselves, in his central committee he appointed Gabriel Vasilievitch Vereshchagin as general director of all cultural education of the youth.


Gabriel Vereshchagin was a talented singer as well as a speaker. He had composed quite a number of hymns, which were widely sung; the most prominent one being the ballad of the historical exile to Siberia of the young Doukhobors who refused military service in Russia in 1895.


During this period of Peter P. Verigin’s rejuvenation of the Russian cultural heritage of the Doukhobors, the singing of hymns was given a high priority among young people’s group activities. During this era many new hymns came into being. Of the older people, born at the turn of the century, one of the most prominent hymn composers was Ivan Fyodorovitch Sysoev. He actually composed about two hundred hymns, of which about 50 or 60 are in wide usage to the present time. Others of the older age group who contributed additional new hymns were Larion W. Strukoff, Samuel Gritchin and Ivan Ivanovitch Planidin. Gritchin and Planidin were talented singers who had spent many years with Ivan Evseyevitch Konkin in singing training. Their main basic singing was still the singing of psalms and their rendering of hymns was still based on the old ornate style of interwoven continuity that is nearly impossible to copy into notes.


There were, however, several younger people in the youth groups who advanced along the style set by Sysoev of more rhythmic, more pronounced expression of the melody which came somewhat nearer to the international style of religious rendering of hymns. The most notable of these were George Dergousoff and Fred F. Chutskoff, both of them very active, in the 1930s, youth group at Verigin, Sask. Both of these while in their early twenties, composed quite a number of hymns, which are in quite wide usage today. George M. Dergousoff was also a talented singer and he composed several of the few songs that originated from among the Doukhobors.


It was during the first few years of activity, when Pavel Ivanovitch Birukov was actively helping Gabriel Vereshchagin in the cultural work of the youth that many hymns of Tolstoyan outlooks composed by his close associates came into usage among the Doukhobors. Most of them were composed by Tolstoy’s close friend and colleague Ivan Ivanovitch Gorbunov- Posadov. These hymns definitely had been committed to musical notes, but nevertheless, when taken over by the Doukhobors, they underwent a certain degree of adaptation the general Doukhobor style of singing.


In an overall general appraisal, however, one can come to the conclusion that the era of Peter P. Verigin-Chistiakov with the Vereshchagin, Sysoev trend, brought about the advent of hymn singing into more prominence that the singing of psalms. The singing of folk songs also received a place in the cultural work of the youth and also attained a prominence hitherto unheard of. This was one of the most significant developments in the singing of the Doukhobors since their original formation.


With the passing of Peter P. Verigin in 1939 the trend of Doukhobor singing remained static for quite some time. Although it must be stated that the loss of a revered leader and the immediate ensuing unsettled years of World War II brought out a certain revival of singing of psalms, old hymns and a generally older style of singing. And this trend was maintained by the older singers like Ivan Ivanovitch Planidin and Samuel Gritchen for a number of years. In the 1940s, we have the Doukhobor youth groups rejuvenated again with the help of John J. Verigin, grandson of the deceased Peter P. Verigin-Chistiakov, upon whom fell the task of literally performing the role of head of the main Doukhobor society – The Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ. John Verigin, while counseling all singing groups to preserve the unique style of traditional Doukhobor singing, nevertheless favored a more articulate, pronounced mode of singing which blended more with the times we were living in. In 1945 under the active initiative of William E. Kootnekoff, a male choir of about fifteen members was originated. Their aim was to arouse interest among the youth in the great singing heritage that existed among the Doukhobors. They chose lively hymns that exemplified more exuberance than strains that were melancholy, and after considerable rehearsals and practice they presented them at youth meetings and also staged planned concerts of hymns and folk song singing. Some older folks lightheartedly referred to them as resembling the singing ‘Cossacks’ of Lukeria Kalmakova’s time in the 1870s. At this time there were about 20 Doukhobor youth branches in existence in British Columbia. Because most of the orchard, farm and lumbering industry work was at this time seasonal, youth cultural work, accordingly, was done mainly in the fall and winter months when the youth were at home and had free time. While being a member of the Council of the Union of Youth, it was William Kootnekoff that suggested heaving a yearly Youth Festival each spring at the end of the cultural season of work, in order that each branch would be able to present the fruits of their seasons efforts. The first Festival was held in Grand Forks in 1947 and proved to be so successful that in immediately established as a yearly feature of youth cultural work.


Other youth choirs, apart from the youth branches, were formed. These also performed at the Festivals. Another young person who worked very broadly with all the cultural work of the youth and organized one of the first youth choirs was Paul G. Samsonoff. He was one of the more able singers and scholars of Gabriel Vereshchagin. He composed several hymns, some of which are in wide use at present.
In 1960, John Verigin’s mother – Anna Markova came to Canada from the USSR. She was a talented singer and brought many new hymns and songs with herself. Her style of singing had a little stronger tendency of preservation of the older, more ornate, style of singing and this proved more acceptable to old and young alike. During the first several years of her life here, she was on a continual round of choir practices, youth branch cultural work, Sunday school children lessons and singing, and her imprint on the evolvement of Doukhobor singing in the past decade was quite momentous.


This is where the present state of evolvement is at. There is the concerted effort of attempting to preserve the traditional psalm singing, although the mastering of this art in its real true manner among the young people is in the decline. There is the reasonably well preserved singing of Doukhobor hymns that while keeping in a way the Doukhobors own unique style of singing from the soul, without notes, music or a conductor, is however to a certain extent blended with a more modern tempo of singing; and there is a greater prominence that ever before given to folk songs as also the advent of modern Russian songs like “Midnight in Moscow” and others that are being taken over from modern Russian recordings. a song that has proven exceedingly popular, composed by a member of the first formed male choir – Ignace P. Makaeff, is entitled “Life is Worth Living, While We are Singing”. One verse of it has been translated into English and French and it has proved to be the biggest hit in an organized Doukhobor choir trip to the USSR in 1966, also a number in the repertoire of the Doukhobor Centennial Choir which performed at Montreal Expo in 1967.


Whether Doukhobor singing shall continue to keep its distinct uniqueness continually in the future is a matter of conjecture, but it does seem to be so interwoven with all their traditions, habits, character and life-concepts that everything points to the fact that this rich heritage will be preserved in its own way for a long time to come