Quakers and Doukhobors: Common Ground and Crossing Paths
Perhaps it was inevitable that Quakers and the Doukhobors of Russia would cross paths somewhere in history. Both groups share a belief in pacifism and the existence of God's spirit within each person. They also share a history of persecution for their beliefs and are commonly known by names that started out as derogatory. When the Doukhobors ran into difficulties with their government in Russia and later in Canada, assistance came from London and Philadelphia Friends and later from the American Friends Service Committee. This is the story of what took place.
The name Doukhobormeans "spirit wrestler" and was a term of derision used by Russian Archbishop Ambrosius in 1785 to describe this group of religious dissenters who organized in opposition to the Russian Orthodox Church. Their communal lifestyle, refusal to participate in war, and spiritual beliefs were at odds with the Church and Russian authorities. After they suffered decades of persecution and hardship, they were granted asylum by Czar Alexander I, and their numbers began to grow. This was short-lived, and, in the mid-1800s, Nicholas I ordered thousands of Doukhobors to be driven into exile. Other Doukhobors set aside their pacifism and took up arms.
They were called back to their faith in the late 1800s by Peter Verigin, a Doukhobor himself, who urged them to lay down their arms. Many deserted the military service, and a renewed commitment to pacifism emerged. In the dead of night on July 25, 1895, the Doukhobors gathered and burned all their arms. The government retaliated, exiling many leaders, imprisoning hundreds of people, and forcing the rest to migrate toward the Black Sea. Many died from disease, the hardship of the march, or imprisonment. Finally, they received permission to leave the country and promised never to return.
London and Philadelphia yearly meetings were aware of the Doukhobors' persecution. These Friends, assisted by Leo Tolstoy, negotiated with the Canadian government, which allocated land for the Doukhobors in Saskatchewan. They were brought over by boat to establish new settlements, but trouble soon followed. Their principles would not allow them to swear an oath of allegiance, which was necessary to become citizens. Nor would they pay taxes or send their children to school. Canada took back half their land and gave it to other settlers to homestead. They were rescued by Peter Verigin. After fifteen years of exile in Siberia, he emigrated to Canada and bought several thousand acres in British Colombia for new settlements.
The AFSC and the Doukhobors came into contact in 1918 when the AFSC was one year old and was asked to administer relief, to be collected by the Doukhobors in Canada, for war-torn Russia. It soon became apparent that Doukhobor settlements were still suffering from past persecution and forced migration. Plus, a new generation was pushing for education and assimilation, while the older generation wished to maintain their cultural and religious heritage. By the mid-1930s, the community began to break into factions.
One large group tried to remain true to pacifism and communal living and slowly assimilate into Canadian life, paying their taxes, and sending their children to school. Another group called themselves the Independents and broke away to assimilate more rapidly, living as individuals, and owning private property. A small remaining group called themselves the Sons of Freedom and felt the others were heretics. They became noisy and rebellious, refused to send their children to school, and resisted paying taxes.
In the 1940s, the Sons of Freedom burned the homes of those they wished to convert, as well as their own, to demonstrate the fragility of the material world and send a warning to other Doukhobors. When the government stepped in, they burned government buildings and bombed railways. To demonstrate the "naked truth" and purity of their position, they disrobed before groups of government officials or in other public forums, stopping all communication and getting arrested. The prisons swelled with Sons of Freedom dissidents serving terms for terrorist activities and public nudity. More peaceful communities of Doukhobors were stigmatized and suffered heavy-handed government policies to quell such rebellious activities.
The Canadian government, remembering the connection between Quakers and Doukhobors, asked the AFSC for assistance. Emmett Gulley, director of AFSC's Pacific Northwest Regional Office, visited the Doukhobor communities and reported that the AFSC might be able to mediate and help the Sons of Freedom see value in educating their children and existing peacefully with their government and each other. In June 1950, he was assigned to carry out this work, and he spent two years in Canada on behalf of the AFSC.
Unfortunately, in 1953 the Canadian government pressed the issue of compulsory education, removing children from noncompliant families from their homes and sending them to boarding schools. The resulting furor set off protests by the Sons of Freedom, as well as by Canadian and U.S. Friends, who received flyers pleading for assistance. This was fueled by reports about runaway children being tracked with dogs and of undernourished, shabbily dressed children housed in cold living quarters. Despite the outcries of abuse, later proved unfounded, nearly 175 children of the Sons of Freedom were educated. Thereafter, many resisters voluntarily sent their children to school.
Meanwhile, the government improved its treatment of Doukhobors, restoring their vote, legalizing their marriages, and enacting legislation that enabled them to recover much of their land. The Doukhobors' relations with their neighbors improved, and all but a small number of their children received educations. These "about faces" by the Canadian government policies may not have taken place were it not for Friends. The Quakers, due to their own history of persecution, resistance, and the stigma they carried of being "peculiar," perhaps understood better than anyone the heart and conviction behind the practices and actions of this small religious community.
Researched and written by Joan Lowe