THE DOUKS-B.C.'S HOLY TERRORISTS------
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The Douks—B. C/s Holy Terrorists
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At the same time 20 Sons from the city of Grand Forks, to the south, were sentenced on a single day to a total of 127 years’ imprisonment for fire raiding.
One of the most tragic and confusing aspects of the Doukhobor problem is that the great majority of the followers of this 300-year-old “religion” are peaceful and industrious citizens. Careless and misleading newspaper stories, however, have often given the whole group the label of its violent minority.
There are about 10,000 Doukhobors in British Columbia. For general purposes they can be split in three groups: (1) Five thousand members
of the Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ; (2) 3,000 Independents integrated into the non-Doukhobor community; (3) 2,000 Sons of Freedom. Only the latter group causes any trouble, and within the 2,000 a mere 300 ringleaders are believed to have been able to convince their illiterate, superstitious following that the burnings and bombings are rightly done in the service of Christ.
(The Sons are so inconsistent they can label their terroristic acts the “work of the devil” while at the same time they maintain that “Christ willed it.”)
Not only are most of the Douks law-abiding and industrious, they are also the greatest sufferers at the hands of the Sons of Freedom. The fanatics accuse their brethren of back-sliding, and, in 1947 for instance, went on a fire rampage destroying almost every building in the peaceful-Doukhobor village of Shoreacres.
Fires, dynamiting and nude parading have always been the pattern of the Sons of Freedom. Schools are their prime target. They refuse to allow their children to be educated because they see schools as simply training grounds for future soldiers. And pacifism is perhaps their deepest belief. Fifty-two Kootenay schools have been put to the torch since 1923, most of them completely destroyed.
But for various other fantastic reasons the Sons have also burned and dynamited houses, stores, community halls, flour and lumber mills, bridges, warehouses, canneries, loaded boxcars, factories and even a business block and a hospital.
Guards at the Bridges
The Krestova home of John Lebedov, himself a prominent Son of Freedom, was burned because John had taken unto himself three wives and two typewriters, one English and one Russian. That, the Sons ruled, made John’s home a brothel and a parliament —and the Sons are against both.
A provincial police constable was tipped off before Lebedov’s home was burned. When he arrived in Krestova a crowd of 200 Sons was milling about the house. Four of them, including a man named George Barisov, were stark naked.
“Who’s going to do this, George?” the constable asked.
“Us who are disrobed,” said George.
“Whereupon,” the constable recalls, “nearly all of them disrobed and burned the house down ... I sent 13 up for that.” One of the 13 was George Barisov, who was sentenced to seven
Now John Lebedov has four wives, and who should the fourth wife be but Grace Barisov, wife of George. And, according to John and Grace, George
is happy about this marital arrangement. What will happen when he is freed? “As God wills,” says Grace, but she thinks George will join “the
In November last year the Sons switched their attack to the nonDoukhobor community by making three dynamite assaults on the rightof-way of the Canadian Pacific’s Kettle Valley railway. The Kettle Valley line runs through the heart of Doukhobor country on its way from Medicine Hat to Vancouver.
The last of the railway blasts ripped a six-foot gap in the right-of-way on a dangerous blind curve three miles west of Nelson, major city of the Kootenays. Just six minutes earlier a freight train had rumbled safely over the spot.
For railroading Nelson this was cutting things too fine. Trainmen voted not to go out on their runs unless extra police were brought in to guard every bridge, day and night. The Nelson Board of Trade, long an advocate of violent action to tame the terrorists, wired the federal and provincial governments: “Undesirable
local action will be taken if responsible authorities do not act at once.”
Clearly the Board of Trade meant vigilante action. The Nelson Daily News, in reporting the meeting, quoted one speaker (unnamed because he feared reprisals) as saying, “This has got to end. If we have to get out and guard the bridges ourselves and shoot a couple of them, let’s do it.”
The Provincial Government, which seldom faces up to the Doukhobor problem until a crisis arises, flew police reinforcements into the Kootenays. With them they brought tear gas. “We anticipated vigilante outbreaks,” a sergeant told me. The RCMP contributed 10 special investigators. Bridges were guarded, the trains ran, and, for the time being, the citizens of Nelson were placated.
Together the Provincial and Federal Governments appointed Provincial Police Commissioner John Shirras and Col. F. J. Mead, former Deputy Commissioner of the RCMP, to study the problem and to recommend a possible solution.
As a result of their study, three Sons of Freedom leaders were arrested in late January on charges covering violence, dynamiting and arson. The three were John Lebedov, he of the many wives; Michael (“The Archangel”) Verigin, leader of a radical Doukhobor colony at Hilliers on Vancouver Island, and Joe Podovinikov, the “Archangel’s” secretary.
The offenses with which they were charged dated back to 1946 and 1947. Among them was “encouraging them (Doukhobors) to assemble when nude in a public place, whether alone or in public . . . and . . . encouraging and agreeing to commit adultery and share husbands and wives.”
Further recommendations of Col. Mead and Commissioner Shirras had not been published at the time of writing but it was believed that one
outcome might be the exiling of several hundred Sons of Freedom to “rehabilitation centres” in remote sections of the province. Also, children of these fanatics would be taken from their parents and an attempt made to educate them out of their strange beliefs. Special legislation—a seditious communities act—was also envisaged.
A surprising development has been taking place within Sons of Freedom ranks. Many arsonists, protected for years by strict secrecy, are trudging through snow to provincial police offices in Nelson to confess their crimes and, as they put it, “to repent and to ask forgiveness.”
In the same spirit more than 100 Sons from all over the Kootenays gathered in Krestova late in December for the express purpose of assuring Commissioner Shirras that the “black work” was at an end. In making the pledge the Sons kneeled and bowed their heads to the floor. When Shirras and his retinue had departed a woman demanded of the others, “Why did you grovel before the bulls?”
Tampering With a Tomb
In spite of the validity of the confessions police are sceptical of the Sons’ peace pledge for they know the Sons are as inconsistent as they are fanatical and they have the unfortunate case of Peter Swetlishkov to prove it.
It was Swetlishkov, a 38-year-old Saskatchewan-born Son of Freedom, latterly of Krestova, who really began (he present trend toward confession in October 1947. Voluntarily he came before a Royal Commission enquiring into Doukhobor affairs and disclosed that since 1929 he had participated in 25 acts of vandalism in Saskatchewan and British Columbia.
The biggest job Swetlishkov confessed to was the bombing in 1943 of a $150,000 jam factory at Brilliant, a peaceful Doukhobor settlement near Krestova. The plant, which had been seized for debt by the Provincial Government, was completely destroyed. Police were never able to pin the job on anyone.
In what was obviously a sincere, but premature, speech to the Royal Commissioner Judge Harry Sullivan, Swetlishkov said, “. . . the day of repentance is here.”
But Easter Sunday, 1949, found Peter Swetlishkov out on another dynamiting job, again at Brilliant. As had been done at least eight times before by Sons of Freedom, Swetlishkov and four accomplices dynamited the tomb of Peter (“The Lordly”) Verigin and of his son, Peter (“The Purger”) Verigin. The tomb, once an impressive monument to the two dead Doukhobor leaders, has been blasted so often it is now nothing but a reinforced concrete slab. The Sons blow up the tomb because “our ancestors destroyed the pagan idols and images.”
(Peter, “the Lordly,” Verigin was the leader of almost all Doukhobors in Russia and, later, in Canada after their
migration here in 1899. They believed he was Christ and that mantle fell also on his obscene, grafting, hard-drinking and poker-playing son, the self-styled “Peter the Purger.”)
A week after bombing the tomi/ Swetlishkov and two other Sons used dynamite and beer bottles filled with gasoline to completely destroy a brandnew $85,000 school at Tarrys, near Nelson, the night before it was to open.
Swetlishkov hid out for more than two weeks, then Sons of Freedom informed police he would surrender. By arrangement, Constable Walter Martin waited by a bridge near Krestova while 100 Sons prayed in that strange village before the sacred bread, water and salt (spilling the water on a table to “chase away the devils”). Then, singing mournful Russian hymns, they marched up to Martin and handed over Swetlishkov.
Charged with destroying the jam factory, the Verigin tomb and the Tarrys school, Swetlishkov was convicted on all counts. Seven other Sons, who had been arrested as his accomplices, were also found guilty on one or more of the charges.
Mr. Justice A. M. Manson, of Vancouver, who presided at the trials, had once given a Doukhobor life for arson. In Nelson, where these trials were held, people expected him to impose heavy sentences. But, instead, he tried what the Nelson Daily News described as a new “tactic of mercy and understanding (to solve) a vexing problem where force and imprisonment have proven futile . . .”
Two of the arsonists, Anton Kolesnikov, who helped destroy the jam factory, and Paul Popov, who bombed the tomb, ?were freed on five-year suspended sentences. The others, including Swetlishkov, were remanded a whole year, till May, 1950, for sentence.
The futility of imprisoning the Sons of Freedom must naturally have been obvious to the judge. Over the years hundreds have been jailed and yet the problem remains unsolved. The fact is, imprisonment of the fanatics has usually touched off a bizarre chain reaction, which, during one outburst of nudism, forced the government to construct a special Doukhobor penitentiary. This happened in 1932.
Peter Verigin, a chronic liar, had been jailed in Saskatchewan for perjury. In the Kootenays Sons of Freedom staged a nude parade in protest and were promptly arrested. In retaliation more fanatics disrobed. They, too, were arrested. So it continued until eventually the authorities had 600 convicted nudists on their hands and nowhere to put them. Hastily a penitentiary was built on a small Pacific Island. This was Piers Island Penitentiary, off Sidney, Vancouver Island.
Apart from the futility of imprisoning the Sons Mr. Justice Manson had a more positive idea in mind when he freed Kolesnikov and Popov; he expected them to go among the Sons to agitate for peace and to persuade other arsonists to confess.
The present stream of confessions and the Krestova peace pledge are the first practical results of Kolesnikov’s and Popov’s missionary work. Yet, less than a month after the Krestova pledge was made, three Sons of Freedom from the Kootenays were arrested on Vancouver Island and charged with conspiracy. Police believed they were planning to set fire to the Archangel Mike’s colony at Hillier.
This colony, founded in 1946 by Doukhobors mainly from Krestova, is another weird offshoot of Sons of Freedom fanaticism. There 180 Doukhobors live in true communal bliss,
sharing everything, including husbands and wives.
Mike Verigin (no relation to the other Verigins) is almost a dead ringer for Oliver Hardy of the comedy team, Laurel and Hardy. Among the Sons of Freedom Mike has long been known as “the Archangel.” Archangel or not, he is known to Judge Harry Sullivan as the “illiterate former owner-operator of a boardinghouse of ill repute at Vancouver.” That’s how Judge Sullivan describes Mike in his Royal Commission report.
At Sons of Freedom trials, as well as before Judge Sullivan, Mike Verigin has several times been accused of being the evil genius behind the terrorism. He has steadfastly denied inspiring or taking part in any acts of terrorism.
How did the Sons of Freedom get started on their terror tactics? What are their roots and their beliefs?
Their story really begins in 17thcentury Russia when Archbishop Nikon provoked a religious controversy and a great schism in the Russian Orthodox Church by introducing a “reformed” prayer book. The Doukhobors (or “Spirit Wrestlers”) were one of the many dissenting sects to emerge from the controversy.
They believed that each man should be guided by the “voice of God within.” Priests, ritual and external sacraments were considered barriers between God and man. They refused to recognize the authority of state or church.
Today the Sons of Freedom say, “We can serve only one master, who is our Father in Heaven . . . We are not citizens of any country in this world and we are not the subjects of any earthly king. We abide by only one law, as expounded by our teacher, Jesus Christ.” So the Sons do not pay taxes, register births, deaths or marriages or even recognize the authority of the judges who jail them.
Split and Split Again
From the beginning the Doukhobors refused steadfastly to bear arms because the Lord commands, “Thou shalt not kill.” When flogged by the Cossacks they turned the other cheek.
This refusal to serve militarism is the one important belief of an elastic creed that has remained constant with all Doukhobors throughout their 300year history. The original Doukhobor settlers were guaranteed military exemption for themselves and their descendants by the Canadian Government. In both wars they were exempt from conscription.
Modem Doukhobor history begins with the ascension to leadership in 1886 of Peter Vasilivich Verigin. From Siberian exile he issued a decree that reverberates in the Kootenays today, though in a perverse way he never intended. This was his order that on Peter’s Day (June 29) 1895 every rifle, scimitar, sword and long knife owned by a Doukhobor should be burned. In great fires the weapons were burned.
Infuriated Cossacks retaliated with fearful brutality and the Doukhobors were driven to their last Russian exile in the Caucasian Mountains. A campaign, headed by novelist Leo Tolstoy, who saw in the Doukhobors “the resurrection of Christ Himself,” forced Czar Nicholas II to grant them permission to migrate to Canada.
In four groups 7,000 Doukhobors arrived in Canada in 1899. They settled in three colonies on 270,480 acres of Saskatchewan homestead land and tried to fashion a communal society. Soon they split into three factions: independents, who opposed
communal ownership; orthodox or community Doukhobors; and the radical Sons of God (now Sons of Freedom).
Because they refused to sign individually for their land and also to take an oath of allegiance to the crown most of the Douks lost title to their farms. “Swear allegiance and they will put you in the army,” they counseled one another. (A thousand Independents signed, kept their land.)
So in 1909 Peter “the Lordly,” who had arrived in Canada late in 1902, led his true believers on a new exodus to British Columbia, where they set about buying land outright so that they would not have to swear allegiance.
In B. C. the sect began to split again as orthodox Doukhobors settled down, worked hard, began to slip into Canadianism. At the height of their prosperity communally owned property was worth $3 millions.
Then, on October 29, 1924, Peter “the Lordly” was killed in the mysterious and still unsolved bombing of a CPR day coach near Farron, 56 miles east of Nelson. Eight others, including a member of the provincial legislature, died with him. (The Sons of Freedom maintain that Peter was murdered by a harsh government.)
Three years later his son, Peter Petrovich, arrived in Canada and, as the new leader, proceeded to undermine the sect spiritually and financially. Since his death at 53 in Saskatoon in 1939 the Doukhobors have had no generally recognized leader.
From out of the welter of sensational reports of nude parading of men and women, wholesale arson and railway dynamiting that come to mind whenever the word “Douks” is mentioned, comes the sane and sensible voice of the leader of the major Doukhobor group, the Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ. It is the voice of John J. Verigin, 27, nephew by blood and grandson by adoption of “Peter the Purger.”
From his group’s headquarters at Brilliant, John Verigin stated: “We
have to suffer under the stigma of this terrorism which is attributed to us under the name ‘Doukhobor.’ But that’s not all. We are not only accused unjustly of being responsible for this terrorism, but it is we who have suffered the greatest financial loss. Our factory, our meeting halls, our library and our homes have been destroyed by these crazy fanatics.”
Tears come to the eyes of old John Bloodov, of Brilliant, when he says, “At 13 I was hitched to a plow in Saskatchewan. All my life I have worked hard. Now I am being associated with bandits. It is heartbreaking.”
What does the future hold for the Doukhobors? For the orthodox it most likely holds eventual assimilation over a long period into the general social and economic life of the community around them. (During the depression they abandoned communal living.) And as orthodox Doukhobors tend to become Independents, assimilation of the Independents is apt also to progress to a greater degree. Undoubtedly, the last tenet of their faith to be relinquished will be their pacifism, if indeed it is ever relinquished.
The future of the Sons of Freedom must be determined for them by the government. Everyone agrees that the final solution lies in education, but how to educate them when they refuse to send their children to school and, in fact, bum down the schools?
One answer may be to corral their leaders.
Royal Commissioner Harry Sullivan concluded that Sons of Freedom terrorism was due in part to “. . . the woik of certain agitators who prey upon their simple, credulous countrymen for power or money, or perhaps both.”
Would banishing these agitators put out the fires, or set new ones? ★