Taking the Cure

How a group of British Columbian anarchists inspired democracy in Russia
It stands as one of the more unusual turning points of the Cold War, thanks mostly to the surprise appearance of several naked middle-aged women. It began with a plasterer named Peter Voykin driving his 1970 Ford Meteor toward the local community centre in Castlegar, in the Kootenay mountains of southeastern British Columbia, on the Saturday before Victoria Day in 1980. As a Doukhobor, a member of a sect of Christian anarchists who settled in the Kootenays after fleeing Russia in the 1890s, Voykin was a vegetarian and a pacifist who championed an ethic of communal living and sharing.

For most of the previous four decades, the Doukhobors had been harassed by a zealous splinter group, the Sons of Freedom, which had mastered several idiosyncratic refinements to the art of the political protest, including placard-and chant-filled parades in which many demonstrated without clothes. To punctuate these naked parades, the Freedomites also employed arson and firebombing, often targeting community centres and homes belonging to the main group of “orthodox” Doukhobors.

The latest issue in this version of the Hatfield-McCoy feud was the Doukhobors’ newly forged ties with Russia, a response to their creeping cultural assimilation after almost a century in Canada. The orthodox group was investigating the possibility of a mass migration to their homeland, and to help establish the necessary ties they had invited the highest-ranking member of the Soviet Union in Canada, Ambassador Aleksandr N. Yakovlev, to Castlegar, to attend the annual youth festival, the highlight of the Doukhobor calendar.

On the Saturday in question, Voykin was driving Yakovlev to the opening of the festival. They were heading for the peninsula where the Kootenay River meets the Columbia, the site of the local community centre, when Voykin spied something he’d hoped not to see: a small group of Freedomite protesters. As soon as they saw the car, they held up signs accusing the orthodox Doukhobors of ties with the kgb. Other placards told Ambassador Yakovlev to go back to Ottawa. Half a dozen of the elder women were stark naked.

It was a potentially disastrous moment during an already troubled time for the Doukhobors. But it turned out Voykin needn’t have worried. The ambassador had long since become immune to political protest. Yakovlev’s encounter with the naked protesters was simply an unconventional beginning to a visit that would, as it turned out, alter the fate of the Soviet Union.

Russia has lurched away from autocracy several times since the 1917 revolution — during Vladimir Lenin’s New Economic Policy in the 1920s, Nikita Khrushchev’s thaw in the late ’50s and early ’60s, and, most famously, the heady perestroika period, which began with Mikhail Gorbachev’s assumption of power in 1985 and concluded with the evaporation of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991. Given current events in Russia — increasing Kremlin control of the economy, constriction of press freedoms and other civil liberties — perestroika seems today like a charming anachronism, an episode of misguided idealism.

The period remains important, however, because it brought Russia as close as it has ever come to functioning, full-blown democracy. Nearly two decades on, academics have come to realize the integral role played by Gorbachev’s strategic adviser — Yakovlev, who is now referred to as the “architect of perestroika” for his behind-the-scenes influence. The former ambassador to Canada was particularly crucial to the press freedoms known as glasnost, which exposed the corruption and inefficiency of Soviet Russia. David Remnick, the current editor of the New Yorker and the winner of a Pulitzer Prize for his book Lenin’s Tomb, called him “Gorbachev’s good angel.”

If the West is searching for ways to steer an increasingly autocratic Russia back toward functioning democracy, then Yakovlev’s story is a useful case study. And in that case study, one of the pivotal but least understood periods is the decade he spent in Ottawa. As the author of a biography of Yakovlev, I’d set out to understand the man’s ideological journey from anti-Western autocrat to the most potent force for freedom and democracy ever to walk the halls of the Kremlin. I thought his story might provide hints on how to deal with today’s Russian leaders. But as my book deadline approached, there was one aspect of Yakovlev’s story I failed to understand. In his memoirs, he describes the onset in 1978 of a severe depression that was complicated, as the years passed, by an increasingly rancorous Cold War. Then, suddenly, the funk disappeared.

Yakovlev hints at the cure in a compilation of his perestroika-related writings. The first entry is a twenty-nine-page history he wrote about the Doukhobors, whom he credited with reawakening his pride in his Russian heritage, the first step on his path to perestroika. But he was frustratingly vague about the catalyst for his turn-around. How, exactly, had this shrinking sect of Christian anarchists salved his depression, and set him on that path? To learn the answer, I would have to retrace his path in the Kootenays.

Aleksandr Yakovlev was born in Soviet Russia in 1923, to peasants who raised him in a series of rural villages among the treed hills and valleys near the headwaters of the Volga River. His father was a forester; his mother raised Aleksandr and three daughters while also tending to the family’s garden and livestock.

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9 comment(s)

Peter H. PetersMay 12, 2008 08:36 EST

To Editor:

I found this to be a most interesting article. I wonder what happened to the Doukhobor community that made the cultural transition to assimilation possible so swiftly. Is the former ambassador Yakovlev till alive and if so where is he today? Facinating!

Peter H. Peters
610-1712 Portage Avenue
Winnipeg, MB

Ev VoykinJune 01, 2008 00:12 EST

In my view, Mr. Shulgan has captured the very essence of faith most Doukhobors hold close to their hearts, and regardless of assimulation and drop in active members, there are thousands more of us who still maintain our beliefs, faith and heritage in our lives - regardless of where we may be living.

This is without question, one of the best articles I've read in decades on the Doukhobors - on the positive yet humble ways in which Doukhobors have impacted those throughout the world in our way of life, heritage and beliefs which we value so closely to our hearts.

In the last paragraph, Mr. Shulgan writes, "restored his faith in the benevolence of the Russian character". I know for me, your article 'reinforces in me, my neverending faith in the benevolence of my Doukhobor heritage'.

I remember when Mr. Yakovlev came to the Kootenays, and had the opportunity to meet him, along with my husband of two years, who is Mr. Voykin's nephew. It is wonderful to see this article on his trip and the impact it had on him - as in the family we all know what incredible hosts Peter and Lucy are.

LauraJune 01, 2008 11:30 EST

Very interesting article. The Doukhobor movement is still going on. Many of the Doukhobors and their descendents are participating in peace walks, communications, blogs and have a magazine,and web site which is assessible and read by the world population.

With the computer, every part of the world is assessible and maybe, someday, people will read and wake up to a better life and realize that toil and peaceful life is the answer.

JohnJune 03, 2008 23:52 EST

This is very interesting. It might as well be interesting for the readers to eventually learn, (when the book is published) how a Canadian Doukhobor laid the foundation for the concept of multiculturalism and the eventual interculturalization that it is leading to in Canada.

Also, it was a Canadian Doukhobor who wrote the legal wording that is used to ban smoking in Canada.

As well, it was a Doukhobor who empowered the teaching of ethics to science students at UBC.

It was act of a BC Doukhobor that united the west and the east into the Canadian Peace Alliance.

It also was a Doukhobor who wrote a new, (more inspiring), anthem for Canada.

Yes, Doukhobors have enjoyed the pleasure of being instrumental in social engineering which is and will continue to help all Canadians, (through interculturalization) realize a new warless civilization.

I have fortune and pleasure of knowing when and how it was all done. In time, it will all be revealed.

Stephan SamoyloffJune 05, 2008 09:11 EST

Thanks for a very interesting article, with an interesting point of view. I and many of my friends benefited from the cultural exchanges with the Soviet Union you mentioned. Thanks especially for presenting the position of the majority of peaceful, law abiding Doukhobors, rather then painting us all with the radical brush of the minority as has been done in most other coverage.

V McNeilJune 07, 2008 10:54 EST

Does anyone know if Yakovlev is still alive?

From this very brief article it seems that his views were slanted in the same direction as Tolstoy's.

It all comes down to the spirit of the person and their desire to share this spirituality with others. Spirituality and a spiritual community is so very difficult to attain and the Doukhabours at one time were successful with this. Of late their spirituality has dimmed and the finger pointed in part to asimilation in Canada. This justification is at odds when viewed in the context of other groups who's spirituality continues to thrive in Canada with assimilation.

True spirituality needs to be strengthened in the Douhabours in order to continue to catch the spirit of others like Yakovlev (and combat the Doukhabours declining numbers).

John WoodsworthJune 20, 2008 19:18 EST

Ottawa, 20/6/08

As a Russian-English translator who has compiled, edited and/or translated a number of books and articles on the Doukhobors, I found Mr Shulgan's article most insightful. On my several visits to the Doukhobors, I was impressed with the considerable fluency many of them still have in Russian, even those of the third or fourth generation in Canada. This was particularly evident during a meeting with Tolstoy's great-great-grandson from Russia, Vladimir Il'ich Tolstoy, whose meeting with the Doukhobor executive (conducted entirely in Russian) I was able to attend. And the Doukhobors' philosophy and way of life have been all these years very much along the lines of Leo Tolstoy. See the book "Leo Tolstoy and the Canadian Doukhobors: an historic relationship" written by Andrew Donskov, the Director of the Slavic Research Group at the Univ. of Ottawa, with whom I have the privilege of working.

I might also mention that the community lifestyle, involving a close connection with the land, as Shulgan describes Yakovlev's discovery among the Canadian Doukhobors, is also reflected in another back-to-the-land movement popular in Russia today, thanks to nine books comprising the Ringing Cedars Series by Vladimir Megré. People are getting together to set up communities of their own 'family domains', where they are rediscovering an ages-old relationship of humanity to the land. The Series is now available in English translation - see http://www.ringingcedars.com - and I have heard of readers in the western world who are now following suit. In several talks and papers, I have taken note of the parallels between this movement and the Doukhobors, especially as related to the ideas they share in common with Tolstoy.

So the Canadian Doukhobors, at least those not completely absorbed into mainstream Canadian culture, may still be seen today as being on the cutting edge of a trend that will help many rise above dependence on oil, technology and a harmful exploitation of natural resources and rediscover an underlying humanity that finds satisfaction in living in harmony with nature instead of working against it.

Patricia KhanJuly 02, 2008 18:58 EST

I met Koozma Tarasoff and his family and some of his friends in Ottawa and through him learnt about the Doukhobors. They have such strong spiritual values and a great sense of community.

One Thanksgiving, when I lived in Guyana,South America, I was asked to give a brief presentation on some aspect of Canadian life. I chose to talk about this wonderful group and it was of great interest to all present.

Koozma's book: The Spirit Wrestlers is a wonderful tribute to the Doukhobors. Check out his website for more information http://www.spirit-wrestlers.com/
Patricia Khan
Trinidad and Tobago

Rachel RilkoffOctober 29, 2008 16:14 EST

Thank you for the beautiful and interesting article. In the last few years I have reconnected with my Doukhobor heritage (my grandparents grew up traditionally, but raised their children more or less outside of the community) and it has been a wonderful, inspiring experience. Coincidently, I renewed this connection in Victoria BC, through the Victoria Doukhobor Choir, which was started by Eli Popoff's grandson, Johnny, among others. Attending the youth festival with this choir is something I would like my own children to experience.

You can hear some of our music here:

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