To America with the Doukhobors

Description

215 pages
Contains Illustrations
$13.00
ISBN 0-88977-025-5

Year

1982

Contributor

Translated by Michael Kalmakoff

Maria H. Krisztinkovich is a retired University of British Columbia
senior library assistant.

Review

M. Kalmakoff, now a British Columbian Doukhobor, has rendered a great service to Canadians by making Sulerzhitsky’s travel book available. About the earliest arrival of the Doukhobors in America there is not much information. It was Sulerzhitsky’s lot “to take an active part in this migration during which I sometimes kept a diary in the form of brief notes of all that happened around me” (p. 29). He published his notes, entitled in Russian V Ameriku s dukhoborami, in 1905, in Tsarist Russia.

Sulerzhitsky’s interest was the stage, but before he could take his place in the Moscow theatre, he was swept into the political dissent of the time. Introduced to Tolstoy, he embraced Tolstoy’s doctrine enthusiastically and became a conscientious objector, for which he was briefly banned to central Asia. In 1898 Tolstoy persuaded Sulerzhitsky to expedite the migration of the Doukhobors, a task that he took up with great competence. After he finished helping the settlers in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, he returned to Russia, busying himself with the publishing of Tolstoy’s banned works and of revolutionary pamphlets (p. 19).

His diary covering the Doukhobors’ journey from Batoum to Canada is somewhat sketchy, yet, as M. Mealing rightly remarks in the introduction, “all scholars must welcome this detailed resource encompassing a crucial period in the histories of the Doukhobors and of the Canadian Prairies” (p. 21). In the reviewer’s opinion, part of the work could well be included in school books for the description it gives of pioneering in Canadian territory. Sulerzhitsky traces the difficulties the settlers encountered in the cities of Brandon and Winnipeg. We follow the route on the Manitoba Northwest Railroad to the primitive boarding house at Cowan, the last station on the railroad line. The squatters’ life — with its hunger, lack of shelter and of basic necessities, without farm equipment, animals, or wagons — was hard enough without the added complication that the Doukhobors were vegetarians in a country where wild game was abundantly available. Sulerzhitsky assisted the people at the Northern and Southern Settlements, Fort Pelly, Yorkton, etc. He witnessed the Doukhobors, together with English, Galicians, and Cree Indians, labouring on the railroad line. All in all, the author was indispensable in organizing the transport of 4,500 Doukhobors to Canada. He later joined the other Tolstoyans at the Assiniboia settlements.

In this reviewer’s view, the most interesting reading is the author’s reporting of some Doukhobor conferences, where he watched with deep interest how rules were being hammered out for the governing of the Doukhobors’ future communistic lifestyle. Several important insights can be gained from this work: the role of international pressure groups such as Tolstoyans, Quakers, etc.; the dissemination of ideas through novels written by Tolstoy; and the adaptation of these very ideas by groups with quite opposite convictions. The nefarious effects of these ideas are best analyzed by A. Maude in A Peculiar People (New York: AMS Press, 1904; see p. 321).

Sulerzhitsky’s diary evokes the climate in Eastern Europe, which was clamouring for social change. We are in the fortunate position, 85 years later, to see how utopian dreams turn sour when faced with the realities of harsh conditions. The laws of the prairies commanded one thing, the doctrines of armchair revolutionaries, another. The price was inhuman suffering, afflicting mainly women and children. In this struggle, a third party of foreign advisors could take advantage, and the stage was being set for conflict with the host country. One might wish to be able to savour the literary beauties of this admirable book in the original Russian, but, as it is, the translation is adequate. Perhaps, even inadvertently, the translator has given the pathetic conversation of peasants a certain authenticity, owing to the perhaps unavoidable woodenness of the English translation.

Citation

Sulerzhitsky, L.A., “To America with the Doukhobors,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 23, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/38947.