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A Pacifist Sect From Russia Is Shaken by War, and Modernity

When he was growing up among the Doukhobors, a pacifist religious group that emigrated to Canada from Tsarist Russia, J.J. Verigin would sometimes arrive home from school to find naked elderly women trying to burn down his family’s house.

One attempt, in 1969, succeeded, lamented Mr. Verigin, 67, who recently recounted the episode. A blaze destroyed precious family artifacts, including correspondence between his great-great-grandfather, a prominent Doukhobor leader, and the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, an early admirer of the Doukhobors’ pacifism and Christian morality.

The elderly women, Mr. Verigin explained, were part of a small and radical splinter group within the Doukhobors who periodically stripped naked and lit buildings on fire to protest land ownership and what they viewed as excessive materialism. Some among those charged with arson had another motive, he said: getting deported to Mother Russia.

These days, with the Ukraine war raging, most Doukhobors no longer aspire to return to Russia, said Mr. Verigin, who leads the largest Doukhobor organization in Canada, and studied in Moscow in 1979. The fires, which for years grabbed headlines in Canada, and polarized the Doukhobors, are also a thing of the past, he stressed.

“Pacifism is at the core of what it means to be a Doukhobor, and the war in Ukraine has ended any residual desire that remained to return to Russia,” said Mr. Verigin, the executive director of the Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ. “We feel the emotions of our Ukrainian brothers and sisters because we, too, have faced repression in Russia.”

In the 18th century, the Doukhobors (the name comes from a Russian phrase meaning “spirit wrestlers”) rejected the icon worship of the Russian Orthodox Church. They also resisted serving in the imperial military; in 1895, thousands of Doukhobor soldiers set fire to their weapons, which led to the group’s violent suppression and exile.

Tolstoy devoted royalties from his novel “Resurrection” to help finance the Doukhobors’ transit to Canada, and in 1899, more than 7,500 emigrated to what became Saskatchewan to help farm the Canadian prairies. In 1908, the majority resettled in the rural mountainous region in southern British Columbia, in sleepy farming and mill towns like Castlegar and Grand Forks.

An estimated 30,000 people of Doukhobor descent reside in Canada, and for decades they lived ascetic, communal lives reminiscent of the Quakers or Mennonites, though suffused with Russian culture and traditions. Historically, many were vegetarian and shunned alcohol. Their motto: “Toil and peaceful life.”

Many Doukhobors in Canada still speak Russian among themselves; send their children to Russian-language schools; sing Russian hymns at weekly spiritual meetings; bathe in Russian-style steam baths; and eat traditional dishes like borscht.

But the Doukhobor way of life has been buffeted by intermarriage, the allure of city life and a younger generation drawn more to TikTok than Tolstoy. Today, Doukhobors are doctors, university professors, lawyers, professional athletes and, in at least one case, a drag queen.

“Assimilation is a challenge to our way of life,” Mr. Verigin said.

At a recent choir practice at a Doukhobor cultural center, Jasmine Popoff, 34, a nurse with purple hair, led her choir in a rousing version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” — in Russian — followed by a spirited rendition in English of Queen’s “Somebody to Love.”

“As Doukhobors, it’s important that our culture evolves so that we keep it going,” Ms. Popoff said.

As the discussion turned to the war during a rehearsal break, choir members of all ages said they rejected the authoritarianism and militarism of Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin. “I don’t feel any connection to Mother Russia because Russia isn’t our mother,” said one singer, Kelly Poznikoff.

Mr. Verigin said that, because of anger over the Ukraine conflict, several Doukhobors in recent months had been denied service in local shops in Castlegar.

In the past, prejudice against the Doukhobors in Canada has been fanned by the extremist splinter group, the Sons of Freedom, which in the 1920s began marching in nude protests and torching public buildings and homes. Members of the group opposed property ownership and public schooling for their children. In the 1950s, dozens of their children were forcibly sent to government boarding schools.

Among the last of the radicals was Mary Braun, who in 2001, at age 81, was sentenced to six years in prison after setting fire to a community college building in British Columbia. Before her sentencing Ms. Braun disrobed in court. She had previously gone on numerous fasts and lit small fires in courtrooms.

Nadja Kolesnikoff, a yoga instructor who grew up in a Sons of Freedom household, said she had been confused at age 5 when her paternal grandmother burned down her own house and was jailed for three years.

“We were supposed to be pulling together as a community,” she said. “I never asked her why she did it.”

But Ms. Kolesnikoff said her upbringing was also empowering. Her family used kerosene lamps and stored vegetables and fruits underground in winter. Luxuries were frowned upon.

“I learned to be self-sufficient, and to this day I feel there is nothing I can’t do,” she said by phone from Costa Rica, where she now lives.

At the Doukhobor Discovery Center in Castlegar, the museum director, Ryan Dutchak, said that some Doukhobors over the past decades had changed their Russian-sounding last names for fear of being ostracized. In Canada’s 2021 census, only 1,675 people identified as Doukhobors.

“Being stigmatized has pushed some people away,” he said.

Elders say preserving the Russian language holds the key to the group’s survival.

On a recent Thursday, dozens of Doukhobors gathered for a spiritual meeting. Wearing colorful kerchiefs, blouses, skirts and aprons, the women sat on one side across from the men. On a table lay a loaf of bread, salt and a pitcher of water, traditional symbols of Doukhobor hospitality.

“Gospodi blagoslovi” — Lord grant us your blessing — they said before singing the Lord’s Prayer in melodious Russian.

Standing at the front of his classroom at an elementary school in Castlegar, Ernie Verigin, a Russian teacher, acknowledged the challenges in preserving the Doukhobor faith. “The younger generation wants a quick fix, but spirituality is a lifelong process,” he said. “It’s hard to compete when my 14-year-old daughter is on Instagram and Facebook.”

The competing pulls of Canadian, Russian and Doukhobor identity can be complicated.

AJ Roberts, 21, a video game designer in Vancouver who grew up in Castlegar, regretted that his Russian was rusty. But he is learning to make his own borscht, even if his mother brings him many jars on every visit.

“I am proud to be Canadian but I don’t shy away from saying I am Doukhobor,” he said. “Because of the war, I am more ashamed of saying I have a Russian background.”

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Mohammad SHiblu

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