Plakun Trava: The Doukhobors

Description

271 pages
Contains Illustrations, Bibliography
$45.00
ISBN 0-920046-05-3

Year

1982

Contributor

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

Review

The Doukhobor author was a most welcome student in British Columbia. At the University he produced a three-volume thesis, entitled In Search of Brotherhood (Vancouver: University of British Columbia, 1963), which revealed the existence of a wealth of original documents “... for the person interested in beginning a study of the Doukhobors.” First-hand objective information was badly needed indeed, in a province where the newspapers often carried headlines about violent acts of the sect, particularly during the years from 1954 to 1958 (S. Holt, Terror in the Name of God, Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1964). Tarasoff’s thesis failed to give satisfactory explanation for the depredations by Doukhobors, but at least the “interested person” could learn that there are more than one kind of Doukhobor. To make Canadians distinguish between “fanatics and rank and file Doukhobors” was the aim of the author in his article in Canadian Dimension (June 1963, p. 23) where he gave an “insider’s” view on the violent faction, whom he called “zealots” in order to dissociate their name from law-abiding Doukhobors. In his Pictorial History of the Doukhobor’s (Saskatoon: Western Producer, 1969), Tarasoff gave a positive perspective of the Doukhobors, for it became increasingly necessary to explain that even the rank and file are not identical, as they consist of Orthodox Doukhobors living communally in British Columbia, and of the Independents on the Canadian prairies. To make it understandable why these violent acts are committed by one visible group and inspired by another mysterious group (which refuses to claim responsibility) was a task that he as an insider could not tackle objectively. This task was undertaken by the Library of the University of British Columbia, by means of a compilation of more than 1,200 titles of literature, A Doukhobor Bibliography (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Library, 1968-1972). Since it was no longer possible to ignore a reference bibliography that lists international authorities and that is based on the Library’s rich collection of original files, nor to bypass the book of two historians, George Woodcock and Ivan Avakumovic, The Doukhobors (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1968), Tarasoff made another attempt to bring enlightenment into this tangled phenomenon with his present work, entitled Plakun Trava, which translates as “a grass that can float against the current of the water.” He purports to present Doukhoborism primarily as a social movement (p. xiv) and to analyze its ideology for religious and political content.

With his Master’s degree in anthropology and sociology, he seems to be eminently qualified to write, at last, a scholarly work about this Russian sect. The author did not live among the communistic zealots and Orthodox, but came from among the Independent Doukhobors of Saskatchewan. He was a civil servant in Ottawa until 1970; in 1979 he took up writing as a fulltime career. In order to write the definitive work on Doukhoborism, which might even claim a role among teaching textbooks, he applied for and received a grant from the government of Canada Multicultural Program and the Saskatchewan Ministry for Culture and Youth. Help from all factions of Doukhobors poured in, even from those whose views were not shared by the author.

Thus, Plakun Trava was produced in a circumspect, diplomatic style, in order to evade the pitfalls of the debt toward his many helpers. Furthermore, with some scholarly window-dressing (notes, appendices, glossary, topographical and biographical names, chronology of events, bibliography and photographic credits), he succeeded in concealing the biases of both himself and his friends. The latter can rejoice that this book tells the story in a way Doukhobors would wish to have it. It can be placed in the hands of their youth and on the shelves of their elderly. We all can rejoice about an array of memorable photographs that are now irrevocably in print — that is, no longer prone to “self destruction.” The excellent captions of the pictures are veritable mini-histories and form a shortcut to the text. These old photos are precious, not on account of their being unique or different from pictures of other peasant groups settling this vast empty land, but for illustrating their motto, “toil and peaceful life,” a life led by all immigrants of whatever creed or racial origin.

Another welcome part of the book is the chapter “Connections.” This is new material, showing the Russian connection of the past and the role the Soviet Union is playing in Doukhobor life at present. The author deplores the concern of the RCMP over this connection. He feels that Doukhobors are neutral among Russian Orthodox people of Canada and the Federation of Russian Canadians, a subject the author already tackled in his self-published earlier work, “Russians of the Greater Vancouver Area” (Saskatchewan, 1965; pamphlet at UBC’s “Doukhobor File”). Most welcome is the chapter “Extension,” which is a survey of Doukhobors settled in the Soviet Union and other foreign countries. We can be grateful for the facts and for their clear presentation by means of several maps.

Less successful is the author’s effort to convince Canadians of the “raison d’être” of Doukhoborism. Although Tolstoy is often cited (“... for he admired them as primitive Christians,” p. 31), English Quakers heard from the mouth of an elder that Doukhobors “... did not believe in the Scriptures and that Jesus Christ was only a good man” (p. 8). They see no contradiction in calling themselves either “Christian Community” or “Spiritual Communities of Christ.” Photographs show well-armed Doukhobors as “bodyguards during leader’s travels to the various villages” (p. 18), and show them later “combining their efforts with peacemakers” (p. 181). One leader is quoted that Doukhobors are reasoning individuals, therefore they do not need church and government; yet on p. 110, we also learn that the communistic system included a procedure of extorting money from the members. Those who earned money and would not give it to the leader were “individualists,” a threat to the community. The disciplinary sessions (p. 111) are described as a technique of dealing with laxity in the community. Employed against women and children, these measures were in stark contrast to their traditional tenet not to exploit even horses or cattle.

As to the religious principles, Plakun Trava tries to be diplomatic, calling Doukhoborism a social rather than a religious movement — and rightly, because even their name, “Spirit Wrestlers,” which elevated them to a religious sect, was given to them by Ambrosius, Archbishop of Ekaterinoslav (1785), saving them the trouble of defining themselves. Their tenets in the Russian language, which they passed on by oral tradition, were formulated for them by a writer, O. Novitskii, Doukhobortsakh (Kiev, 1832). Without educated outsiders, such as Tolstoy, and a long list of international anarchists, who put ideas and words in the leaders’ mouths, they would not have had a philosophy. The author is right in saying that this is a social movement, yet he does not see that behind it is only the stubborn “nyet” of a simple people wanting nothing but toil, a peaceful life, and to be left alone. The author does not admit that this is probably the wish of many people who nevertheless cannot afford to live without others; therefore, he cannot convince the Canadian reader that a simple “nyet” is a philosophy, on that it is a courageous attitude of “individuals who go against the stream in their struggle for peace and universal brotherhood” (p. v). James Mayor, author of My Windows on the Street of the World (London: Dent, 1923; see v. 2, p. 1-37), who helped the Doukhobors to come to Canada and who knew them well, concluded “that simplicity may be defined as the art of ignoring complexity, and thus transferring to others the burden of its problems.” The author asks (p. 216) the question, “Is Canadian society sufficiently ‘free’ to allow a minority such as Doukhobors to pursue their ideological goals?” If Doukhobor ideology is genuine, how does the author explain that their ideas were borrowed over the centuries from Herrnhuters, Pietists, Mennonites, Quakers, Free Masons, Communists, Anarchists, Antimilitarists — though always with a delay and adapted to the place, to the era, and to their interest? Spokesmen of many historic social reform movements discovered the Doukhobors, but as a rule abandoned them. Now that religious ideas are no longer useful, the “social movement” will want “to free the individual from the church, the state, and other corporate bodies” (p. xiv). Their confused “arrière garde-ism” will hardly make Doukhobors “serve as an example and a light to a troubled, materialistic age” (p. 240). The book continues: “Perhaps one day Doukhobor ideals will yet emerge triumphant, clothed in some more widely acceptable name” (p. 240). The author and his Doukhobor brothers will not see that floating with fashionable trends is not floating against the current of the water, but simply becoming flotsam.

Citation

Tarasoff, Koozma J., “Plakun Trava: The Doukhobors,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 23, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/38948.