Language Legacy

Legacy of Language Spans 100 Years

Our Russian Language, a Personal Perspective – by Vera Kanigan


The Russian language has been proudly maintained in Canada by members of the Canadian Doukhobor community, albeit with varying degrees of success, for the last 100 years. Doukhobors have always regarded the knowledge of Russian as an essential requirement to gain a better understanding of our history, our spiritual beliefs, and our Doukhobor “life-concept”. In many Doukhobor families, the Russian language was used, and usually required, to learn and interpret psalms, hymns and speeches. Although today nearly all Doukhobors in Canada are literate in English and much of their material has been translated, they still acknowledge Russian as a treasured family legacy because of its close link to our culture and our origins.


Today, after 100 years in an English-speaking country we can still listen to the lyrics of Russian music played on our recorded CDs and tapes and many of our bookshelves contain literary works of well-known Russian writers such as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Krilov and Lermontov.


We also value the work of many of our Doukhobor literary contributors such as Eli Popoff, Koozma Tarasoff, Natalie Voykin, Violet Plotnikoff and others. Any time I converse with my grandsons, our conversations are always in Russian. We read stories, learn to recite psalms and sing special children’s hymns, all in Russian.


Dedication, persistence and commitment to an ideal were key factors in preserving the Russian element in our midst to the current day. How was such a survival possible? Primarily because each generation knowingly understood and acknowledged its necessity, but consciously accepted change as well. In my own generation, our extended family life-style was certainly conducive to learning the language of my ancestors because several generations lived in close proximity in small group settlements or villages and there were ample opportunities for Russian conversation.


In the first few decades of this century, Russian was initially the primary or first language of Canadian Doukhobor children until the time they started to attend public school. As our children began to attend public school classes, however, where English was the primary spoken and written language, it became apparent that extra measures were required to help preserve our own heritage language. As a result, in the late 1930s, Peter (Chistiakov) Verigin, our community leader at the time, implemented a self-administered program of Russian language instruction in what became known as the “After-School” Program. Mr.Stephan N. Petko, from the former U.S.S.R., was eventually employed in the early 1950s, as the official director of the Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ Russian School Program. I have fond memories of my own experiences attending these classes and working my way through the various phases of this system. Some 800 students between the ages of eight and sixteen attended these evening classes twice weekly with great interest and enthusiasm. Upon completion of this program, we were also offered an opportunity to attend teaching seminars that would enable us to teach others.


Mr.Petko, as director and head teacher, with his firm but charismatic and out-going personality, inspired many of his young students. In addition to Russian language instruction, he enriched our classes with colourful lessons in Russian history, geography and Russian literature, with an emphasis on pre-Revolutionary Russian writers such as Leo Tolstoy. Our appreciation and reverence for our heritage language that we aquired at that time, later served as a foundation and spring-board for our encouragement of Russian language instruction within our public school system in later years to come.


Another Generation, a New Idea

Each new decade, however, brought with it additional new ideas and opportunities. Between the 1960s and the 1980s, through USCC contacts and friendships with our motherland, such an opportunity materialized in the form of a relationship with the Russian friend-ship organization, Society Rodina. This society offered compatriots from abroad the privilege of attending the Pushkin Foreign Languages Institute as well as other educational institutions in the former Soviet Union to study Russian. After graduating from secondary school, many young students from the Kootenays seized this opportunity, including our son who chose to study at the Pushkin Institute. Although the experience of studying abroad has presented us with a good opportunity to preserve and improve our command of the Russian language, it has also consequently unfortunately contributed to the gradual attrition of the traditionally close-knit character of our Doukhobor community.


Russian Immersion Emerges

After the 1970s, Canadian heightened enthusiasm for multiculturalism presented additional avenues for ethnic minorities to preserve their language. French Immersion classes were becoming common in Western Canada, serving as a model for other aspiring ethnic minorites. Local school districts in the Kootenay-Boundary regions of British Columbia began to warm up to Doukhobor initiatives for integrating Russian language instruction in their own public schools systems. At first, all of our local schools offered Russian to students only from Grade 8 onwards. Educators initially emphasized the importance of first learning English in the earlier grades, then introducing a second language at a later time. Today, after many years of research, study and negotiation with school boards and educators, the benefits of teaching a second language at a much earlier age became apparent.


A bilingual Russian language program now exists throughout most of the area schools in our local school districts. In addition to most schools offering a few hours of Russian each day, Castlegar’s Twin Rivers School offers a unique opportunity to all those interested, where children are enrolled into either Russian or French Immersion starting right from Kindergarten. In fact, a child in School District No. 20 (Kootenay-Columbia) may receive Russian right from Kindergarten to Grade 12.


When I spoke to Paul Phipps, the principal of the Twin Rivers School, he remarked that Twin Rivers is a very unique school, one of a kind in all of North America!


In our effort to preserve our heritage language, we have explored many avenues, some of which have at times brought surprising outcomes and changed the face of our community. Today, decendants of our generation can be found all over the world. Some of them speak other languages in addition to Russian and English. However, I believe that most sincerely value their heritage, and many speak in Russian to their children and teach them to recite Doukhobor psalms and hymns.


From the Grand Forks Gazette and Castlegar Sun Supplement – Doukhobor Centenary, May 19, 1999