Quakers and the Doukhobors
Seldom has the relationship between the Quakers and a group they have tried to help been more fraught or – on both sides – more controversial than that with the Russian dissident sect, the Doukhobors (also spelt Dukhobors).
Like Quakers, the Doukhobors’ name (in Russian, ‘Spirit Wrestlers’) had been imposed mockingly. Quakers shared the Doukhobors’ commitment to pacifism, and also their rejection of oaths, outward sacraments and a priesthood. However, the Dukhobors also believed that they knew how to establish the Kingdom of God on Earth, which repeatedly brought them into conflict with the authorities in whichever country they settled. They sought to live independently of government, often refusing to pay taxes or to send their children to school. Their opposition to slavery at times extended to refusing to use iron tools (because of the conditions in which the iron was mined), or to use domestic animals (because animals should not be enslaved either).
In the early 19th century, under Tsar Alexander I, the Doukhobors had been encouraged to settle in the south of Russia, where Quakers Stephen Grellet and William Allen encountered them in 1819. At the time, membership of any church other than the established Russian Orthodox Church was illegal, but the Doukhobors were tolerated and were granted exemption from conscription. However in the 1840s, under Nicholas I, the majority were transported to penal colonies in the Caucasus. In 1887, their exemption from conscription was withdrawn and their leader, Peter Verigin, was banished.
In 1895, the Doukhobors staged a series of mass protests, setting fire to weapons to signal their opposition to war. Cossack soldiers disrupted the final protest, flogging the participants, arresting the leaders and pillaging the settlements. Dukhobor supporters, including the author, Leo Tolstoy, appealed for help to London Quakers.
Initially, they were reluctant to give any support. However, reports of persecution continued and in 1898, word came that they might be permitted to emigrate. A number of destinations were suggested, in particular Canada and Cyprus.
When the colonial government in Cyprus demanded £15 a head to guarantee their support, Quaker John Bellows managed to raise the sum in a matter of days, contributing more than £4,600 out of his own pocket. In 1898, the first 1,100 Dukhobors set out for Cyprus. But Illness soon plagued the new arrivals, and they petitioned to be allowed to transfer to Canada.
The Quakers chartered two vessels to carry the Doukhobors from Russia to Canada during 1898/99, picking up the group from Cyprus on their final voyage. Altogether, 7,363 Doukhobors came to Canada – the largest single group of immigrants ever to arrive in North America. They were given title to 600 square miles in northern Saskatchewan. Ill-prepared for the harsh winter of 1899, the group survived largely through the support of American Quaker Joseph Elkington and Canadian Quaker Eliza Varney.
Disputes soon arose with the authorities over the Doukhobors’ desire to farm their land communally and their refusal to send their children to school. The government began to repossess some of the land they had ceded to the Doukhobors.
In 1903, Peter Verigin was released from exile and allowed to travel to Canada. Under his leadership, a second wave of migration began, to the milder climate of British Columbia.
Following Verigin’s death, the group splintered into three factions – one that largely assimilated, one that sought to remain true to guiding principles – and an extreme sect known as the Sons of Freedom, who became notorious for nude protests and for acts of arson.
In the 1950s, the government of British Columbia turned to the Quakers, in light of their earlier relationship with the Dukhobors, to act as intermediaries in an increasingly difficult relationship. Experienced peace builder and senior AFSC staff member, Emmett Gulley, took up the role.
Gulley had some early successes brokering compromise. However, in 1953, the government instituted a policy of forcibly removing children from their families in order to send them to residential schools. The Dukhobors blamed Gulley and the Quakers for this betrayal of trust. The ensuing row profoundly shook both the AFSC and the CFSC.
By the late 20th century, relations had been largely repaired and the two groups worked together to lobby the Canadian government for a ban on land mines. On their website, Doukhubors describe themselves today as aspiring to preserve their traditional values, whilst also being proud Canadian citizens.