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).

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
News
Kelly Osbourne will play a flight attendant in Sharknado 2
people
News
A bartender serves beers
news
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig and Rory Kinnear film Spectre in London
film
Life and Style
The finale at Dolce and Gabbana autumn/winter 2015
fashion
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Car Sales Executive - OTE £36,000

    £12500 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This established Knaresborough ...

    Beverley James: Accounts Payable

    £23,000: Beverley James: Do you have a background in hospitality and are you l...

    Recruitment Genius: Cleaning Manager - York and Bradford

    £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The post holder is a key member of the V...

    Recruitment Genius: Vehicle Breakdown Recovery Drivers

    £18000 - £28800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Vehicle Breakdown Recovery Driv...

    Day In a Page

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?