The Doukhobors

It’s amazing what you can learn by randomly surfing through Youtube. Today I was once again presented with the uncomfortable truth that there is a heck of a lot that I don’t know. It’s also an exciting truth, because I love it when my horizons are broadened, and there’s a world of potential out there.

I think it’s fairly safe to say that most Americans don’t give much thought to Canadians, our neighbors to the north. If you did a random survey, I bet most of us couldn’t name a single Canadian politician, or list more than two Canadian provinces. That’s pretty pathetic.

Our lack of knowledge becomes even more laughable when we tentatively dip our toes into Canadian history. Yup. They have a history, too.

Which brings me to the Doukhobors, a group of people that I didn’t even know existed until today. The average Canadian would probably be shocked by this gap in my knowledge given the fact that they have had a fairly significant impact on the Canadian cultural landscape, but there you have it. Some consider some of the Doukhobors to be Canada’s first terrorists.

My introduction to the Doukhobors was a very interesting documentary called Lost Childhood: Russian Doukhobors or Sons of Freedom. From there I was hooked and wanted to know more. I then watched a documentary entitled My Doukhobor Cousins.

A gross oversimplification is that the Doukhobors are a Christian sect that believes in pacifism, communal living, and very little government. They refuse to take oaths of allegiance, resist registering births, and eschew public education.

While in Russia, the Doukhobors burned their guns and refused military service. This did not sit well with the Csar, and they were displaced. This would not be the last time the Doukhobors were driven from their land.

In 1899, six thousand of them emigrated to Canada. Leo Tolstoy, a long-time supporter of this movement, used the royalties from one of his books and paid about half of their relocation expenses.

But Canadians were always suspicious of the communal living and refusal of public education, so this group did not assimilate well. In 1907 Canada took more than 1/3 of their land back because they refused to register it in the name of individuals rather than groups.

This caused the Doukhobors to split into three groups: those who wanted to give up communal ownership of land, those who wanted to remain true to their beliefs, and the radical Sons of Freedom.

The Sons of Freedom would stage passive protest marches. Unfortunately they chose to do so in the nude. Their message was, “You’ve taken everything else from us, so why not take our clothes, too?”

Because of this shocking turn of events, Canada criminalized nudity in 1932, bringing with it a three year prison sentence. Over the years more than 300 Sons of Freedom Doukhobors served time.

This further radicalized the Sons of Freedom, and they began resorting to arson, even against their fellow Doukhobors, and bombings. This flew in the face of their pacifist origins.

In an effort to make them “good Canadians”, in 1953, 174 children of the Sons of Freedom were snatched and forced to live in a school surrounded by a fence that was basically a prison compound. For 6 years, these children only got to see their parents once every two weeks, and only then through the prison fence. They were beaten if they spoke Russian, so much of their cultural identity was lost.

This further radicalized their parents (and the students themselves when they became adults) and accelerated the arson and bombings. But these violent protests seem to have petered out in the 1970’s, and as the Doukhobor community ages, it is also shrinking.

While I do have a problem with the concept of no education, the rest of the original Doukhobor lifestyle seems relatively harmless to me. It could be argued that their radicalization was a result of government meddling. The Canadian Doukhobor history could be studied as a lesson in how to avoid creating domestic terrorism.

I love learning new things! It’s just sad when those new things are so tragic.

Doukhobors

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