Who Are The Doukhobors?
from the USCC Publication – “The Doukhobors in Canada, 1974”
In 1785, Archbishop Ambrosius of the Russian Orthodox Church, in an effort to identify as heretics a group of dissident Russian peasants, referred to them as “Doukho-bortsi”. The term literally means spirit wrestlers — and the priest intended it as a derogatory label meaning that these people were struggling against the Holy Spirit. The Doukhobors adopted the name, but gave their own interpretation to it, saying: “We are Spirit Wrestlers because we wrestle with and for the Spirit of God”. By this they meant that in struggling for a better life they would use only the spiritual power of love, rather than any form of violence or coercion.
Thus the Doukhobors acquired their name although they had already existed as a group for some time. Earlier, they had been called “Ikonobortsi” (ikon wrestlers) because of their renunciation of the Russian Orthodox Church ritual of worshipping ikons. “Why should we bow to a wooden ikon?” they asked. “Let us rather bow to each other, thus recognizing the Spirit of God which dwells in each of us.”
The Doukhobors base their religious philosophy on the “Law of God” which consists of two commandments: firstly, “Recognize and love God — the spiritual Force of Goodness and Creativity — with all thy heart, mind and soul”; and secondly, “Love thy neighbour as thyself”. “What is God?” they are asked. The Doukhobors answer: “God is a word, God is a spirit, God is love.” “What is a soul?” “The soul of a person is the reflection of God’s spirit in that person. Where there is love between people, that is where God dwells.”
The Doukhobors understand Jesus Christ to have been born, to have lived and died, in the flesh. His Soul exists unto eternity; He arose in spirit, and continues to arise in those people who follow His teachings, not in word, but in deed. The Doukhobors believe that Jesus, both in His teachings and His life, showed that the true meaning and purpose of life is to fulfill God’s law. They believe that God’s law is manifested through loving attitudes between people. The attainment of such attitudes, in the true sense, would mean the renunciation of all violence and war and the attainment of a life of peace and goodwill, a true “heaven on earth”.
The Doukhobors were always interested in a practical common sense religion which could help people to live a contented, happy life on earth. Their history is marked by efforts to bring their beliefs into practice in everyday life. In this context, Doukhoborism can more accurately be called a way of life, or a social movement, rather than a religion. This is especially true because, in living together as a group for several centuries, the Doukhobors developed many unique cultural customs and traditions.
Possibly their highest development and moral achievement was produced by the Doukhobors at the end of the 19th century. Inspired by the high ideals and dynamic leadership of Peter Vasilievitch Verigin, the Doukhobors made great progressive strides in the development of the practical moral and ethical aspects of their life-style. Aspiring to pacifism, they made a decisive stand against militarism and all forms of violence. In 1895 they burned all of the arms and weapons which they possessed, as a symbolic act marking their total renunciation of the taking of life. Believing that the killing of animals also brutalized the human sensibilities they resolved henceforth to abstain from the consumption of animal flesh as food. The habits of alcohol and tobacco were rejected because they serve to harm the human body, created by God to be pure and respected.
The Doukhobor stand against killing met with harsh oppression on the part of Czarist State and Church authorities, and the Doukhobors were tortured and exiled under extremely arduous conditions, with the total loss of all normal freedom and privileges. Many people died. Suffering of such proportions attracted world-wide attention, and with the help of humanitarians such as Leo Tolstoy and the Society of Friends (Quakers), the Doukhobors were able to emigrate to Canada — “a home away from home, a haven and a refuge”.
In Canada, the Doukhobors, established a communal life-style which has sometimes been referred to as their “Golden Age”. Their agrarian communal society (in some respects similar to those of the Amish and the Hutterites) was a glowing tribute to their slogan of “Toil and Peaceful Life”. The day to day process of working together for everyone’s benefit was a living embodiment of the Christian ethic “Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you”. At the same time, it provided nearly total self-sufficiency for their simple needs.
The virtually Utopian concepts achieved by the Doukhobor community undoubtedly inspired the observation in the Encyclopeadia Britannica. This describes the Doukhobors as “industrious and abstemious in their lives and, when living up to the standard of their faith, present one of the nearest approaches to the realization of the Christian ideal which has ever been attained”.
The death of their leader and the Great Economic Depression made it more difficult for the Doukhobors to maintain the high standards of their faith. A combination of complex factors, internal and external economic and cultural pressures, eventually brought about a discontinuation of the communal life-style. The Doukhobors entered into a period of transition which continues to this day.
The transition is essentially one from a unique, rural, ethnic, pre-industrial life-style to the conventional day-to-day existence of the average North American, in the midst of a fast-paced, technological and urban-oriented society. It consists of a process of adapting to changing conditions, while still retaining fundamental values and beliefs. Whereas for centuries the Doukhobors were illiterate, in the span of a generation or so they have gained access to the highest levels of formal education, and in a language and culture totally different from that in which their whole way of life originated. The stresses of this transitionary period have resulted in a variety of changes. In the case of a small number of people this has resulted in a bizarre and tragic behavior completely incompatible with Doukhobor ideals of non-violence and pacifism.
Fortunately, the vast majority of Doukhobors in Canada were able to avoid these kinds of pitfalls, largely because of the foresight of the second leader of the Doukhobors in Canada, Peter Petrovitch Verigin. In the years of the decline of the communal structures, he counselled young Doukhobors to acquire all of the positive, constructive aspects of knowledge and skills which were offered through formal education, while at the same time retaining their valuable heritage. The combination of the best influences from these two sources would prepare them for a life as truly responsible citizens of the world.
Peter P. Verigin’s initiative brought most of the former community members together in a new organization, the Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ (U.S.C.C.). Also known as the Orthodox Doukhobors, this group has been instrumental in maintaining the thread of Doukhobor cultural activity until the present day. Youth activities, in particular, have gained new prominence, with the introduction of Sunday Prayer meetings, Russian language classes, and youth activity groups. Annual youth festivals held each spring have been a focal point of cultural activity for 27 consecutive years. The Honorary Chairman of the U.S.C.C., John J. Verigin has led the efforts of the members to achieve a relationship of mutual understanding, respect, and friendship with the society around them; so as not to assimilate into cultural oblivion, but to integrate and live in harmony as part of Canada’s multi-cultural mosaic.
Thus, the Doukhobor cultural identity has endured until now, and in recent years, with the advent of a new generation of young people, aware of their destiny, it shows all the signs of a healthy, vigorous future. Instead of abandoning their cultural inheritance, the Doukhobors, in applying traditional concepts to their everyday lives, are striving to be in harmony with modern conditions. In maintaining the language and culture of their origin, they have grown to appreciate their advantages in achieving bilingual or even multi-lingual status. In a world which is faced with a multitude of technological and ecological problems, they have gained a new respect for the simple, self-sufficient, and ecologically sound traditional life-style of their forbears.
And, most of all, in a world constantly threatened by outbreaks of violence large and small, Doukhobor youth stand fast by the precious heritage of eternal Truth which they inherited. “The welfare of the whole world is not worth the life of one child” is a Doukhobor slogan with passionate meaning in every Doukhobor’s heart. And, changing times notwithstanding, Doukhobors everywhere, are continuing to strive — along with like-minded people all over the world — for a world where killing and war would be unknown and we would all be one loving human family, a “Brotherhood of Man under the Fatherhood of God”.
by D. E. (Jim) Popoff