Peter Verigin – history
Peter Vasilievich Verigin was born into a world of contradictions and lived his life in the same way. He was the child of an elite family among a group of dissidents whose religious principles appeared to favor equality among all people. And throughout his life he would exercise the power of an aristocrat among a largely-rural people who lived by his motto of “Toil and Peaceful Life.”
Both his father and mother could trace their ancestry to early founders and leaders of the Doukhobors. At the time of his birth on June 29, 1859 the Doukhobors had for two decades been banished by the Russian government to the Caucasus region of southern Russia.
In 1864, Peter’s cousin, Peter Kalmykov, the acknowledged Doukhobor leader, died, and control of the community fell to Kalmykov’s widow, Lukeria. Verigin was noticed by Lukeria and marked for leadership. About 1881 Lukeria learned of his 1879 marriage to Evdokia Kotelnikova. Lukeria, herself just age 40, ordered the marriage annulled and took the young man into her home to groom him to be head of the Spirit Wrestlers.
Lukeria Kalmykova died, childless, on December 15, 1886. A struggle over who would succeed her broke out. On the one hand were Lukeria’s brothers; on the other was Lukeria’s sentimental favorite, Peter Verigin. To many Doukhobors, Verigin was the obvious choice. He was handsome, powerfully built and self-assured, known even then as “Sergeant-Major Verigin.” Unlike most Doukhobors, he had at least an elementary education. Although himself from a prominent family, he appealed to the ordinary Doukhobors and succeeded in securing the allegiance of a majority, called the “Large Party.” However, Lukeria’s brothers convinced tsarist officials (perhaps through bribery) that Verigin represented a menace to the Russian government. In 1887 he was arrested and sent into internal exile. Over the course of the next 15 years he would live far removed from the Doukhobors, in various parts of northern Russia and Siberia.
Isolated from his flock, Verigin read Count Leo Tolstoy, the celebrated Russian novelist, vegetarian and pacifist. Verigin was deeply impressed by Tolstoy’s ideas, and this both revived his own Doukhobor principles and caused him to introduce new ones. He reemphasized pacifism and urged the Doukhobors to abstain from eating meat and using tobacco and alcohol. The Doukhobors who thereafter supported Verigin followed his lead and also adopted his maxim “Toil and Peaceful Life.”
The Doukhobors’ most famous declaration of pacifism, the mass burning of arms on Verigin’s birthday in 1895, demonstrated their adherence to Verigin and their resistance to Tsar Nicholas II. It also brought renewed persecution from the Russian state and attention to them from Leo Tolstoy, the Tolstoyans and international pacifists like the Quakers. This dramatic act of defiance propelled Verigin and the Doukhobors onto an international stage. And in clearing the way for 7500 of Verigin’s followers to migrate to Canada, Verigin’s own passage to Canada was also set into motion.
In December 1902, when Verigin arrived in the new land, the Canadian government clearly hoped that he would discipline the Doukhobors. The public demand for such restraint was evident following a march of 1700 Doukhobors in October 1902. Responding to reports that Verigin was making his way to Canada from Siberian exile, the Doukhobors set out to “meet Christ,” tramping over a prairie landscape that was rapidly descending into winter. Local newspaper headlines screamed “Crazy Doukhobors Altogether Beyond Control.” Well into Manitoba, the North West Mounted Police put them onto trains and sent them back to their villages.
Verigin himself would find that while many saw him as Christ, some of his followers were beyond even his control. This was demonstrated in May 1903 with another outburst. Over fifty Doukhobors paraded from village to village attempting to convince their fellows to join in a second trek to “seek the new way.” But this time they took matters further and stripped naked to show their disdain for worldly possessions. Outside of the town of Yorkton, Saskatchewan, police and townsfolk stopped, forcibly dressed and jailed them. A small section of this group also burned part of a Doukhobor commune’s machine for binding hay bales. This was a protest, they said, against the commune’s modernization and accommodation with the modern world. Verigin was nothing more than a “machine man,” they declared. These Doukhobor zealots, known later as svobodniki, or Freedomites, would remain a thorn in Verigin’s side.
These challengers, however, were a minority among the Doukhobors. By most Doukhobors, Verigin was held in high esteem and treated like royalty. To celebrate his arrival in Canada, for instance, the Doukhobors renamed the village of Peterpevshe, meaning “suffering” and called it Otradno, meaning “joy.” There they constructed a grand community home, built in the style of the Doukhobor Orphan’s Homes in Russia. At this home he set up, under the authority of his aged mother, a choir of young women. On his trips to scattered villages he was accompanied by this choir, singing songs and hymns from the Living Book. Among the entourage was a blue-eyed brunette, Anastasia Holobova, who was 17 when Verigin arrived from Russia. She quickly became his favorite, and was obviously proud of it. Soon he would make her his constant companion who accompanied him on trips through Canada and the United States and whom he called his wife. Marriage was an informal process among the Doukhobors; although there was no official ceremony uniting the two, Anastasia would remain by his side until his death.
From 1905 to 1907 a rising demand for land in the Canadian west induced the new Minister of the Interior, Frank Oliver, to question the Doukhobors’ hold on the lands the federal government had reserved for them. His reasoning was that they refused to register their lands as individual families and become naturalized citizens, as required by the Dominion Lands Act. Doukhobors resisted this partly because it required them to take an oath of allegiance to the crown. Whether Verigin would have been able to prevent the massive land seizure that occurred is uncertain, but in any case he did not have the opportunity to try. From October 1906 to February 1907, in the midst of the crisis, Verigin absented himself to Russia, claiming he was investigating a possible mass return to Russia. Nothing came of the Russian venture, but Verigin was away when the Canadian government took most of the land that had been set aside for the Doukhobors. Of the 773,000 acres (313,000 hectares) of land allocated to the Community Doukhobors, they retained only the part they had cultivated, 123,000 acres (50,000 hectares). Other homesteaders and Independent Doukhobors (who had broken from the communal system to take their own land) claimed the balance.
This was a bitter, lasting blow to the Doukhobors, who thereafter would claim that the government of Canada owed them $11,000,000. And it might have broken a less determined leader. But with characteristic energy, Verigin and two of his lieutenants left Saskatchewan seeking to purchase land, so that they would not fall afoul of government regulations again. In 1908, en route to view land in Oregon and California, Verigin visited the Kootenay and Boundary districts of southeastern British Columbia. There, impressed with the climate, he purchased over 6,000 hectares of land and would steadily add more. Over the course of the next five years, five thousand Community Doukhobors moved from Saskatchewan, planted orchards, built sawmills, a brick-making plant and a jam factory. Through hard work and extremely simple living, by the 1920s, ninety communal villages had taken root in B.C. Verigin saw this “Second Community” as the perfect opportunity to build a more utopian communal structure – people living together, sharing work, food and possessions in a moneyless economy.
While this second commune raised hopes for a reinvigorated Doukhobor way of life, it also raised problems. It was now a far-flung empire. Traveling by horse carriage or sleigh before 1907, Verigin could frequently journey to the 60 villages scattered throughout Saskatchewan. But with an empire stretching from Saskatchewan to B.C., overseeing local operations required considerable train travel. A Doukhobor village in the Slocan Valley of British Columbia, for instance, might see Lordly once a year. Maintaining such a realm required powerful local managers, who became an elite in themselves. The modern ways on which this commune survived were also irritants to those svobodniki who were uneasy with the growing materialism among the Doukhobors. And no less important, Verigin now found himself confronting a much more hostile population and government in B.C.
Aside from the economic conflicts, disagreements over the education of Doukhobor children in public schools continued to simmer and would return to a boil in 1922. By the second decade of the 20th century nativism was exerting greater influence in Canada. One expression of it was the demand that minority children attend public schools. Politicians, educators and much of the mainstream population saw education as the means to transform immigrants into Canadians. From 1912 to his death, the government in B.C. and Verigin performed a complex dance. Sometimes it saw one side advancing and the other retreating; at other times they achieved a stationary pose resulting from temporary compromise. Most dangerously, there were times when one side pushed and the other pushed back. The final two years of Verigin’s life were marked by the last type of interaction. Fines and jail sentences were imposed on Doukhobors who did not send their children to public schools. This was followed by nude demonstrations at schools and burning of several of them. Tensions mounted, both between the Doukhobors and the government and citizens of B.C. and among the Doukhobors themselves. People at the time asked whether Verigin was the cause of the friction. Today we must also ask if he was the victim of it.
Verigin’s legacy was as full of contradictions as his life. On the thousands of hectares of land scattered over three provinces, Lordly had constructed an enclave of communalism that contained at least three diverse threads. One was the feudalism out of which the Doukhobors had sprung, an agricultural system in which lords exercised near-total local power. A second thread was the primitive communalism that had given hope to the Russian populists (Narodniks) in the 1870s that Russian peasants were fundamentally socialist, hope that caused the Narodniki to believe that the rural mir could be the base for a larger socialist society. The third constituent element of Verigin’s empire was based upon the need to survive in a competitive capitalist environment. It required the use of modern machinery and business techniques. It was this enterprise that put the fear of extinction into the hearts of his small-capitalist farm neighbors in Saskatchewan and B.C. Little wonder, that Verigin might have enemies.
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