Exiles on Main Street

In the 1890s a religious group fled persecution in Russia and moved to Canada. David Orkin tracks down their descendants in British Columbia

Anyone who drives around North America soon becomes accustomed to signs at the entrance to towns making claims of varying degrees of grandiosity: for example "The World's Doodle Soup Capital" (Bradford, Tennessee), "The Friendliest Ghost Town in Alaska" (Hyder) and "The Center of the Universe" (Fremont, Washington). So when driving through pleasant pastoral country in the south of Canada's British Columbia, I was not surprised to come across a sign reading "Welcome to Grand Forks (Population 4,200). Famous for Sunshine and Borscht."

Anyone who drives around North America soon becomes accustomed to signs at the entrance to towns making claims of varying degrees of grandiosity: for example "The World's Doodle Soup Capital" (Bradford, Tennessee), "The Friendliest Ghost Town in Alaska" (Hyder) and "The Center of the Universe" (Fremont, Washington). So when driving through pleasant pastoral country in the south of Canada's British Columbia, I was not surprised to come across a sign reading "Welcome to Grand Forks (Population 4,200). Famous for Sunshine and Borscht."

The sky was heavily overcast. I guessed that was just bad luck: but what was the connection with the Russian speciality of borscht - cold beetroot soup? On the way into town I passed several businesses with Russian names, and a restaurant with a big cartoon Cossack outside. I headed for the town's chamber of commerce and enlightenment.

The story I was told concerned the Doukhobors. This term literally means "spirit wrestlers". They were a splinter group that broke away from the Russian Orthodox Church after reforms in the 17th and 18th centuries. Refusing ritual worship, they were seen as heretics by the organised church and became isolated from mainstream society.

The Doukhobors maintain that they wrestle with, and for, the Spirit of God. They base their religious philosophy on two commandments: first, "Recognize and love God - the spiritual Force of Goodness and Creativity - with all thy heart, mind and soul". Second, "Love thy neighbor as thyself".

They believe that God's law is manifested through loving attitudes between people. Accordingly, they are devout pacifists, against militarism and all forms of violence on the basis that "War is incompatible with Christianity". In 1895, they refused to serve in the Russian military and burned all their weapons. Persecuted for their beliefs, they sought exile. This was far from straightforward. Just as in the Soviet Union, merely wanting to leave wasn't enough. But the Doukhobors came to the attention of the writer Leo Tolstoy. The author of War and Peace felt a special kinship with them as many of their beliefs were in tune with his perception of spiritual and social order. Hearing of their plight, Tolstoy launched an appeal which pressured the Tsarist government to allow the Doukhobors to leave Russia.

Once permission was granted, money was needed. Once again, Tolstoy was the benefactor. The writer only organised more appeals. And even though he had vowed not to write any more novels, he hurried to complete Resurrection in order to donate the proceeds from the book's sale to the Doukhobor Relocation Fund.

Many possibilities were considered for the exiles' new home: Texas, Turkestan, Manchuria, Hawaii, Brazil, Syria, Egypt and Central America. All were discounted for one reason or another. Only Cyprus was available as an immediate refuge outside Russia, and over 1,100 Doukhobors left their homes for temporary exile there in 1898. A year later, two vessels took more than 7,000 on a four-week sea voyage from Batumi on the Black Sea to eastern Canada. Once ashore they headed west to Saskatchewan by rail. Here the Doukhobors established a communal lifestyle which has sometimes been referred to as their "Golden Age". Their agrarian communal society, similar in some respects to those of the Amish and the Hutterites, was a glowing tribute to their slogan of "Toil and Peaceful Life". It provided near-total self-sufficiency for their simple needs. Canada's government was initially sympathetic to them, providing "free" land, and enacting a clause so they could live communally (the Doukhobors did not believe in individual land ownership). But in 1906 a new Minister of the Interior introduced changes to the homesteading regulations, which threatened the Doukhobor community. As a result, between 1908 to 1912, thousands of Doukhobors headed further west. They followed their leader, Peter V Verigin, to Grand Forks in the West Kootenays in British Columbia.

Incorporated in 1897, Grand Forks is close to the United States border and 320 miles east of Vancouver. Many heritage homes still stand along residential streets and there are some period buildings in the downtown core. Some of the redbrick structures built by the Doukhobors in the early years of their settlement are still scattered throughout the farmlands of West Grand Forks.

Those who made the journey included a splinter group of militants, the "Svobodniki" or "Sons of Freedom". Angered by what they saw as the broken promises of their Canadian hosts, they forgot about pacifism and were willing to use both civil disobedience and violence to further their cause. In later years this group became notorious for bombings and arson attacks in the Kootenays - and, curiously, for nude marches.

During the next 15 years the Doukhobors developed large communal enterprises, such as jam and honey factories, brickworks and a sawmill. On 29 October 1924, Peter V Verigin was killed in a mysterious railway bombing for which the culprits were never identified.

The unexplained death of their leader, followed shortly by the Great Depression, were two of the many factors that disrupted the Doukhobors' communal lifestyle. As the years passed, intermarriage and assimilation have weakened the community's identity. Yet Russian is still taught in many of the area's schools, and on the menu at the Grand Forks Hotel Restaurant you'll see borscht, pyrahi (pastry tarts), nalesniki (pancakes) and galooptsi (cabbage rolls). Don't expect beef stroganoff or chicken kiev: Doukhobors are vegetarian. A couple of blocks away the Borscht Bowl boasts Russian, Mexican and West Canadian cuisine.

The town's Doukhobor heritage sites may or may not be open - funds are hard to come by. They include the Mountainview Doukhobor Museum, three miles north-west, with original 1910 buildings and artefacts. The Fructova Heritage Center occupies a 1929 school, and houses the Doukhobor Historical Society.

Continue on Highway 3 to Castlegar (population 7,300) where the Kootenay meets the mighty Columbia river, and you find another location where the Doukhobor settled after their move west. The town's motto - "the best dam city in the world" - celebrates the nine nearby dams, and does not hint at any Russian links. Yet it is also a better place to find "Doukhoborabilia" than Grand Forks.

Castlegar's Doukhobor Village Museum aims to represent Doukhobor culture and lifestyle as it evolved in the region between 1908 and 1938. You can see a wood-fired sauna, clothing made from home-made linen, hemp and wool, and original hand-made farm tools. There is also a fine statue of Leo Tolstoy, the benefactor of the Doukhobor exiles.

Nearby, the Doukhobor suspension bridge was built by hand in 1913. You can also find the tomb of the charismatic Peter V Verigin. On an island, the Russian Orthodox Chapel House was built by Alexander Feodorovitch Zuckerberg, a Tolstoyan who came to Castlegar to teach Doukhobor children.

You might think that knocking back a shot of vodka would be an appropriate way to bid farewell to this little bit of Russia. But take heed of a popular Doukhobor saying: "Avoid drunkenness as you would Hades. The abstemious live healthily and in continuous well-being".

SURVIVAL KIT

GETTING THERE

The nearest substantial city to Grand Forks is Spokane, across the US border in Washington, but there are no direct flights from the UK. The best approach is to fly to Vancouver; see the news story on page 11 for details of good-value flights this summer.

Grand Forks is halfway between Vancouver and Calgary. The old Canadian Pacific railway lines to and through the city have been converted into hiking and mountain-biking trails. In their stead, a direct Greyhound bus (001 800 661 8747; www.greyhound.ca) takes nine hours from Vancouver for a fare of C$164 (£70).

STAYING THERE

Grand Forks has one "chain" property, the Ramada Limited Grand Forks on Central Avenue (001 250 442 2127; www.raad.com). For more character try a B&B such as The White House at 1350 73rd Avenue (001 250 442 8481).

MORE INFORMATION

Contact the City of Grand Forks (001 250 442 8266; www.city.grandforks.bc.ca).

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