The Doukhobors are a group of Russian language-speaking religious dissenters who migrated
to Canada in 1899. Today there are between 30,000 and 40,000 Doukhobors in Canada, and
another 30,000 in Russia. They had been persecuted in tsarist Russia for their religious
beliefs, which included the conviction that pacifism and non-compliance with militarism is
essential to Christian practice because the law of God is greater than the laws of a
secular state. These convictions culminated in the 1895 Burning of Arms in Russia, when
Doukhobors destroyed their weapons and refused, despite tsarist persecutions, to serve in
the Russian army. This protest might have been the first organized pacifist group protest
in modern history.
The Doukhobors practice a form of Christianity and believe that Jesus Christ is a
spiritually advanced teacher and example to others. They also believe that people are
capable of divine reason and can spiritually develop without the help of intermediaries.
For them, therefore, there is no need for priests, religious ceremonies, spiritual symbols
or temples of worship, although there have been leaders among the Doukhobors who have
exercised considerable authority. The only symbols Doukhobors commonly recognize are those
of bread, salt and water, the basic elements needed to sustain life. These are on a
table at all Doukhobor meetings and important events.
The Doukhobors have at times participated in communal living and, like the Mennonite,
Quaker and Hutterite groups, in the practices of pacificism, hard work and simplicity in
all things. One of their slogans, coined by one of their leaders, Peter V. Verigin,
summarizes this belief as "Toil and Peaceful Life." Instead of dependence
on a written book such as the Bible, the Doukhobors sing a capella psalms,
spiritual songs and hymns in Russian at their prayer meetings and gatherings. These
are sometimes based on the psalms of the Old Testament, but others were composed by
Doukhobors from the eighteenth century onward. Other psalms and hymns are about
Doukhobor history and beliefs. Together, these psalms, hymns and spiritual songs are
called "Zhivotnaya Kniga," or in English, The Living Book.
Because many of their members originally only recognized the authority of God before
recognizing the authority of the secular state, the Doukhobors did not always experience
peaceful life, although as peasants and migrants they certainly knew about toil.
Tsarist governments in Russia kept Doukhobors on the move for more than a century to the
furthest reaches of the Russian empire, and the persecution that Doukhobors endured in
Russia just before coming to Canada was severe. In Canada, a series of difficulties
led to conflict with Canadian authorities which twice left Doukhobors without the land
they worked hard to develop: once in Saskatchewan, and once in the Kootenay region
of British Columbia.
Today, most Doukhobors do not live communally, although many of the most active of them
still live in the Kootenays and do participate in Doukhobor organizations and groups.
Doukhobor women breaking sod in Saskatchewan in the early
days of settlement when farm animals were not available