Canadian News

Return of the torch and the flesh

Thomas Hopkins January 8 1979
Canadian News

Return of the torch and the flesh

Thomas Hopkins January 8 1979

Return of the torch and the flesh

British Columbia

In Nelson, it was a scene both tragic and familiar. Marilyn Stoochinoff, 26, attractive and wearing glasses tinted modishly blue, sat half-naked in the prisoners’ dock spitting abuse in Russian at the back of departing B.C. Provincial Court Judge D.M. McDonald. Shaken by sobs, she turned toward a gallery of 100 fellow Doukhobors, Sons of Freedom supporters, some also naked, and stammered, “First we watched this happen to our parents. Now our children must watch it happen to us. When will someone help us?” With that, sheriff’s officers threw a cloth coat around her bare shoulders, picked her up in her chair and carried her, along with four co-defendants, through the snow of a sub-zero British Columbia night to begin serving ninemonth sentences (though one defendant got two years less a day) for torching the mobile home of Reform Doukhobor leader Stefan Sorokin.

It was all as startling for the nonchalance with which it was greeted by court officials and sheriffs as for the nudity of the five female defendants. But it was neither Stoochinoff’s disrobing nor her outburst that shocked the south-central B.C. town. Rather, it was an earlier statement by co-defendant Olga Hoodichoff, 27, who charged that the five had been ordered to burn Sorokin’s home by the respected John J. Verigin, 57, Sorokin’s rival, 1976 winner of the Order of Canada and honorary chairman of the Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ (USCC) repre-

senting some 5,000 orthodox Doukhobors in B.C. The instruction was allegedly delivered by a messenger who threatened the women with a sevengeneration curse if they did not comply—a curse whose existence was later accepted, perhaps for the first time in Canadian jurisprudence, as a mitigating factor in levying sentence by Mr. Justice McDonald.

Charges of outside influence in Doukhobor Sons of Freedom arson forays had been reported as early as 1972, but the new round rocked the clannish Doukhobor world when, in quick succession after the Dec. 15 allegation, B.C. Attorney-General Garde Gardom ordered an inquiry into Doukhobor affairs; Verigin was arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit arson in the Sorokin affair and in three other cases; and the USCC community centre was raided and all tax, donation and insurance records were seized by the RCMP. It was a rapid series of events that some observers view as a turning point in the often-bewildering history of Canadian Doukhobor communities. Until recently, the outbursts of arson, bombings and public nudity in southern B.C. in the 1950s and early 1960s had been blamed on the fanatically purist Sons of Freedom, a splinter group from the orthodox Doukhobors. They were allegedly led— often from his then-residence in Uruguay—by the Russian immigrant Stefan Sorokin, now 77, whose Mephistophelian goatee and shadowy background had supported the idea of Sons of Freedom malfeasance.

Closer examination indicates that the seemingly monolithic Sons of Freedom have dwindled to a mere handful of perhaps 50 living in Gilpin outside Grand Forks on the U.S. border, 88 miles southwest of Nelson, with the bulk of the former Freedomites, “old arsonists” as they refer to themselves, now grouped around Sorokin under a new banner of Christian Community and Brotherhood of Reformed Doukhobors. As a sect, they are now virtually indistinguishable from orthodox Doukhobors and remain based in Krestova, 20 miles outside of Nelson where, last week, Sorokin and several of his followers talked to Maclean ’s.

Sorokin’s mobile home has been repaired (cost: $7,000) and from behind the dining-room table, cluttered with olives, nuts and brandy snifters, burly John Ostrikoff, 47, who once served 12 years for arson, recalled a 1974 incident when a messenger issued an order backed by the threat of a curse to some of Krestova’s women to burn 40 newly built homes. It was only when the secret was accidentally revealed that the Krestova men prevented the inferno. The Crown now alleges in four arson cases in the past four years, including

the May 19 attack on Sorokin’s home and the September, 1977, burning of Verigin’s USCC community centre in Grand Forks, that Verigin himself conspired to commit the crimes. Verigin calls that “an absurd lie” and he is naturally backed by a confused and angry USCC executive which for years has organized cultural events, exchanges and symposiums to try to erase the clinging stigma of burnings. “We have labored for 30 years under this confusion between us and the Freedomites,” says Bill Kootnekoff, USCC chairman, “and now the courts allow them to go naked while they arrest our honorary chairman.” Pleads Executive Secretary John Semenoff, “Why would Mr. Verigin burn down the community hall we all worked so hard to build? It makes no sense.”

The new case and the spate of recent burnings after a five-year period of relative calm are merely the latest fireworks in the long, Jobian history of the Doukhobors (literally, “spirit-wrestlers”)—peasants, iconoclasts, vegetarians and pacifists who broke with the Russian Orthodox Church in the 18th century. The fissure and the refusal to recognize the authority of the secular state led to a series of exiles throughout Russia culminating in the flight to Canada in 1898. They settled in Saskatchewan under John J. Verigin’s greatgrandfather, Peter (the Lordly)Verigin. Some 6,000 Doukhobors moved to B.C. for climatic and political reasons in 1908, establishing a communal farming enterprise in the valleys around Grand Forks and Castlegar. However, as commerce became more prosperous, the old

anti-government, vegetarian and antimaterialistic ways became eroded and the purist Sons of Freedom rebelled, lashing out at backsliding orthodox brethren and at mortgage companies and governments that confiscated their land in the Depression and forced their children to go to public schools. Rebel-

lions escalated into ritual burnings, partitioning of families and noisy, naked trials punctuated by sonorous Russian hymns. The result, in 1962, was the construction of a $300,000, flameproof mountain prison in Agassiz, in the Fraser Valley outside Vancouver, to house the floating population of some 100 Sons of Freedom. In protest, in 1963, some 1,300 Freedomites burned 200 of their own West Kootenay homes in six weeks and trucked, often nude, to Agassiz where they set up a shantytown (now abandoned) around the prison.

When Sorokin returned to Canada from Uruguay in 1969, he gathered the shaken former inmates into the Reformed Doukhobors. The rift between the Sons of Freedom, past and present, and the orthodox wing remains bitter and deep, with the USCC refusing to recognize the reformists, terming them “a malicious group of fanatics.” For his part, Sorokin chuckled in his dining room and called Verigin several names of his own.

With flamboyant Vancouver lawyer Harry Rankin as Verigin’s attorney, the arson conspiracy trial (also charged are two other Russian-Canadian men on at least one of the counts) promises to be prolonged. Preliminary hearings are scheduled for next week. At best, they do not bode well for the already shattered image of the Doukhobor people. Were, then, the Doukhobors, as some members would have it, put on this earth to suffer? USCC Chairman Bill Kootnekoff, summoned a weak smile, slowly shook his head and replied: “I don’t know. I don’t know.” *

Thomas Hopkins