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Born in Canada, they sing in the Russian dialect of their grandparents

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A Doukhobor festival in Castlegar, British Columbia. For hundreds of years, the Doukhobors' oral cultural was enshrined in songs and prayers.

A Doukhobor festival in Castlegar, British Columbia, is shown here. For hundreds of years, the Doukhobors' oral cultural has been preserved in song and prayer.

Credit:

Alina Simone

Pacifism isn’t exactly the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Russia today.

But 400 years ago, a group of Christian anarchists known as the Doukhobors, swore off fighting and broke off from the wealthy, and often corrupt, Russian Orthodox church. The Tsars, not traditionally fans of those who refuse to fight their wars, persecuted the followers of the Doukhobor belief system. Finally, in 1899, a large group of Doukhbors were able to leave Russia and resettle in Canada.

I visited the Doukhobor community of Castlegar, British Columbia, for The World in Words podcast. Arriving at the airport, it almost feels as though you’ve mysteriously crossed the ocean and touched down in Russia, or at least some alternative version of it.

The airport coffee shop serves tarts with various fillings called “pyrahi” — and borsht. Traditional Doukhobor borsht. Just across the street, lies the Doukhobor Discovery Center, where you can walk through the kind of sprawling, brick communal home the Doukhobors once lived in.

The Doukhobor Discovery Center in Castlegar, British Columbia.

This is a snapshot of the Doukhobor Discovery Center in Castlegar, British Columbia. 

Credit:

Alina Simone

In the middle of it all stands a statue of Leo Tolstoy, donated by Russia. Tolstoy helped pay the group's passage to Canada.

In Russian, the word Doukhobors translates to the “Spirit Wrestlers.” In the west they were known as the “Russian Quakers” — even though they weren’t Quakers. After centuries of persecution by the Russian Tsar, the Doukhobors came to Canada from parts of the Russian empire, hoping to preserve their religion, pacifist philosophy and their communal lifestyle — farming together and living together.

The Canadian government put an end to that communal living experiment decades ago, banning the communal ownership of land and turning the Doukhobors into Canadian citizens. Today, they have embraced the trappings of the modern world — iPhones, Netflix, puffy jackets — but the language they used to speak, is slowly turning into an antique. Less a part of the conversation, than a conversation piece.

“I know one of our favorites, and we all laugh about it, is 'Hellocha,'" says Lisa Poznikoff, the Discovery Center’s administrator. “We greet each other with a big smile, a grin and we say, 'Hellocha!' Basically it's slang, but it gets included in the dialect.”

Volunteers greet people at the door of a Doukhobor cultural center in Castlegar for the 63rd annual Union of Youth Festival.

Volunteers greet people at the door of a Doukhobor cultural center in Castlegar for the 63rd annual Union of Youth Festival.

Credit:

Alina Simone

The Russian that the Doukhobors started off speaking in the 1600s became a kind of linguistic lint roller, picking up diverse influences as they were exiled to places like Ukraine, Georgia and Turkey. The language almost becomes a story of their exile, which you can read in phrases like “very good” — dyuzhe khorosho, which combines the words “very” in Ukrainian and “good” in Russian.

Poznikoff grew up speaking Doukhobor Russian, but lost it later, she says. “As a preteen, I wasn't interested in learning the Russian again. I'm making friends, socializing, things like that, so I just didn't pick it up again.”

It’s a familiar story: Children of the modern era aren’t interested in old-world languages. But language is essential to the Doukhobors’ oral culture; their Bible, history, constitution and pacifist philosophy are enshrined in hundreds of songs and prayers.

Canada was supposed to be the Doukhobors' final refuge, but the government grew increasingly suspicious of the Doukhobor’s communal culture, their refusal to fight for Canada and their Slavic roots — especially during the Cold War. The communal Doukhobor residence here at the Discovery Center in Castlegar is actually a replica. The real villages all burned down decades ago.

Some were torched intentionally in protest, by members of a radical Doukhobor sect after their children were seized by Canadian Mounties and sent off to be forcibly assimilated at a boarding school hundreds of miles away.

As Poznikoff explains, “They held the children there, just like they did to the native children, some of them for seven years, never permitted to go home.”

Preparing refreshments at the Union of Youth Festival.

A woman prepares refreshments at the Union of Youth Festival.

Credit:

Alina Simone

Even for those who remained, like Flo Hadkin, a Doukhobor who went to school in Castlegar during the '50s, the language began to disappear. “We were not allowed to speak Russian language,” Flo tells me. “If the teacher found out, or she heard us speaking in Russian, you would get punished.”

By the 1960s, with the number of native Doukhobor speakers in steep decline, a group of concerned parents lobbied the local school board to add Russian to the district curriculum. And they won. But they also faced a dilemma: What kind of Russian to teach? The Doukhobor dialect — or the standard Russian spoken in the country their great-grandparents had fled?

“It was a conscious choice, by the committees to bring in contemporary, standard Russian,” says Pete Evdokimoff, a former local Russian teacher. “I don't get as much use out of my Doukhobor dialect as contemporary standard Russian. I just don't. Doukhobors on whole, except for maybe the odd one, have realized that we're no longer living in a bubble.”

They saw themselves as part of Russia’s far-flung diaspora, and re-established links with their homeland. Even though they hadn’t been able to get along with the Tsar, they found support among the Soviets. And from the 1960s to the 1980s, they received the majority of their teaching materials from Communist Russia. That’s not all, says Evdokimoff.

“Because of the positive cultural ties with the old Soviet Union ... a lot of young people were allowed to go and study contemporary standard Russian coming out of our community, at a time when it was difficult for the average scholar to go to Russia,” he adds.

Some of those young people have gone on to become teachers in the local Russian bilingual program.

Fifteen-year-old Anika Cheveldave, a fifth-generation Doukhobor, has been studying in the program since kindergarten, which surprises other Canadian kids.

“They'll be like, 'What?!? Your school does Russian class?'” she laughs. “People who live near here only expect there to be English and French. And so when they hear they offer Russian, they're like, ‘That's kinda cool!’”

There are, however, scholars who question whether one can really be a Doukhobor without understanding the dialect (even though much Doukhobor doctrine has been translated into English). And there are others who fear that it’s just not enough:  That the Doukhobor preteens will, in the end, choose socializing over learning Russian — of whatever form.

Evdokimoff believes language was never the thing binding the Doukhobors together. It was all about their credo: Toil and Peaceful Life. “The bond was the faith,” says Evdokimoff, “and the cultural ties.”

And on the day I visited the Doukhobor prayer home for their 69th annual youth festival, the place was bustling: Men in suits and women in kerchiefs, piling tables high with vegetarian dishes. Granted, many were older, but word was a new family in town — non-Doukhobors, non-Russian speakers — had just asked to join the congregation.

At the turn of the last century in America, the Jews arrived with their Yiddish, the Italians with their Italian, the list goes on. Today, how many of those kids still speak those languages? But here in Castlegar, 116 years later, the Doukhobors are still singing their language. For now, at least.

Podcast contents

00:00 Once upon a time...

1:55 The Doubhokors nude protests....

2:15 ....inspire a protest song. 

3:00 Their choral music.

5:12 Hellocha! 

5:35 A linguistic lint-roller.

7:45 Canadian assaults on Doukhobor culture.

10:55 "The bond was the faith."

13:10 Don't forget to review us at iTunes or wherever you listen to your podcasts. Thanks!

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With support from the National Endowment for the Humanities

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