The Hand of Tolstoy in Canada

This article is linked to the Appendices of my new novel, ‘The Kissing Fence’ (Caitlin Press, 2020).

In 1899 the first of 7500 Russian immigrants arrived in Canada with the help of Leo Tolstoy.  They were known as Doukhobors, or ‘Spirit Wrestlers’, who resisted the Orthodox Church in Russia, believing the spirit of God had to be alive in the hearts of people rather than being inert, locked in the icons, scriptures and costume of a high church.  They were vegetarian, communal people, and pacifists, who refused to fight in the Ottoman-Russian wars of the late nineteenth century.  Tolstoy had, with others, negotiated their departure from the Black Sea port of Batumi, Transcaucasia, now Georgia, to what became the province of Saskatchewan in central Canada.  He gave all the proceeds of his last novel ‘Resurrection’, also published in 1899, to this cause, believing the Doukhobors to be enlightened and undeserving of the persecution they experienced in Russia.   His contribution was 23% of the total cost of the migration.  He tried to enhance his contribution in 1901 when he got word that he was being considered for an inaugural Nobel Prize.  He immediately wrote to the committee and asked that the award be given to the Doukhobors who had done far more than him in the name of Peace.  Neither Tolstoy nor the Doukhobors received the award.

Tolstoy arranged for the ships bringing the Doukhobors to the east coast of Canada to have trusted friends and family travelling on them, helping, taking notes and travelling on with the new immigrants into the interior. He asked his eldest son, Sergei, to accompany them on the Lake Superior into Halifax and beyond.  The travellers were already in a poor condition on departing Batumi, and riddled with disease on arrival in Canada. Ten had died on the first boat to reach Canada.  They must have suffered further on the journey to their new home in Saskatchewan, a distance of between 1600 and 2000 miles, although they had food donated by American Quakers and the San Francisco Society of Friends.

Even after the successful emigration of the Doukhobors Tolstoy’s support of them was constant.  He had maintained correspondence with Peter Verigin, their leader exiled in Siberia, since December 1895.  He offered spiritual and philosophical guidance to him, which found its way into Verigin’s letters to Canada.  Verigin was determined to enhance his mentor’s support, taking Tolstoy’s ideas to the absurd with elaborate pseudo-intellectual argument.  At one point he suggests that reading and writing is undesirable as it destroys the pleasure of personal encounters.  Later he advises abandoning work, as birds do not need to cultivate food or sell their labor in order to be sated, so why should humans need to work?  The faithful did not have the education to question the premise of these arguments and sometimes took the guidance as literal instruction.  In any case, other ‘Tolstoyans’ who pressed Verigin’s views on the Doukhobors enhanced the authority of these messages.  For example, Vladimir and Anna Chertkov, using their “Free Word” publishing house and journal in England, provided books, publications of letters, and other support for the radical settlers in Canada.  The faithful were overwhelmed with this credibility and could not see past issues such as the bureaucracy of land ownership in Canada. They seemed determined to be so uncompromising as to loose the land they had been granted.  Tolstoy had written to the Doukhobors in Canada warning them of the evils of land ownership, but it was not his last communication on the subject.

Tolstoy wrote to Verigin in January 1902, and to the Chertkovs in April of that year to discourage the settlers from throwing their lives into turmoil by following the literal guidance they had been offered and failing to settle the land ownership issue, but it was too late.  The settlers were in a confused and divided state.  In 1902 the radicals gave their money away, abandoned their animals and any equipment made of leather, and began walking and living off the land or by the generosity of those they passed.  They walked to greet their leader, Peter Verigin, on his arrival in Canada going from village to village collecting more families as they went, until 1500-2000 people had assembled.  Tolstoy could not bring himself to disagree with spiritual aspiration of these people, and said so. 

In October of 1902, after 16 years, Verigin was released from exile and immediately went to visit Tolstoy before travelling to Canada that same year.  He arrived in Canada in December 1902.  His first task was to settle the community.  To do this he advised his people to return to the land and the husbandry they had abandon and wrote to Tolstoy to tell him what had been done.  They obeyed, but many were discontent and some were reluctant to return to the ‘corruption’ inherent in possessions.  In 1903 there was another ‘trek’ in protest of their spiritual direction, this time featuring nude protestors.

In 1905, the year Saskatchewan became a separate province of Canada, Frank Oliver replaced Clifford Sifton in the Federal Government and disavowed the agreement that had been made with the settlers.  He insisted that Doukhobors accept conventional citizenship, or the land they were granted and had developed would be taken from them.  There was dismay among the Doukhobors.  So troubled were they that Peter Verigin led a delegation of six Doukhobors to Russia in 1906, where the 1905 Revolution had established the promise of greater religious tolerance.  They were considering returning there and must have been taken seriously as they were received by Peter Stolypin, the Russian Prime Minister, and other ministers.  They were offered land in the south of Siberia and conditions were agreed, including not having to do military service.  Nicholas II provided explicit support for the plan.  However attractive the offer, Verigin felt his people were better off in Canada even if they could not stay in Saskatchewan.  The delegation returned in 1907.  

It is difficult to see how this access and support in Russia could have been arranged without powerful sponsorship from someone, and perhaps Count Tolstoy, whose public status continued to rise, provided it.  Verigin met with Tolstoy for the last time on that trip in late December 1906. Perhaps it was Tolstoy’s foresight of what might happen to the course of revolutionary Russia that swung the balance for Verigin.  On his return to Saskatchewan there was division among his people.  Two thirds, about 5000, of the settlers had no desire to accede to the demands of the newly enforced Dominion Land Act (1872) (also known as the Homestead Act).  This required them to register as individual tenants of the 160 acres of land granted to each homesteader, and be individually responsible for ‘proving-up’ their ownership by cultivating at least 40% of the land and building a permanent dwelling, within three years.  However the Doukhobors worked their combined land communally, in accordance with their traditions and agreement with the Government.  Many homesteads had no dwelling as they lived communally.  There was also a belief that confirming individual ownership of homesteads required an oath or allegiance to the King, which they could not do.  In fact this belief was in error, but it seems no one understood this until decades later.

Verigin would have had to ask his people to go against the beliefs he had nurtured, himself being guided by the teachings of Tolstoy. Consequently two thirds of his people, abandoned farms, factories and mills, and moved to British Columbia between 1908 and 1913, where they continue to live.  Their time there has been challenging and noted for internal division, although reconciliation within that community is in progress.  

Learning of this division between the ‘modern’ Doukhobors in Saskatchewan and the orthodox Doukhobors setting off for BC must have both dismayed Tolstoy and made him proud of the determination of Verigin and his followers to hold to their communal values.  It is unknown if Tolstoy was inspired by this in choosing to set out on a pilgrimage of his own in 1910.  His wife had become intolerant of his teachings and the tension in their relationship grew.  He signed over the copyright of all his literary works to her in 1909 and in 1910, in the middle of the night after concluding his wife was spying on him, left her and their children suddenly and without preparation.  He wanted to avoid the attention that his growing popularity attracted and began travelling, incognito, with a physician friend.

The emotion of that moment aside, there is a powerful symbolism in Tolstoy dispensing with the comforts of home and wealth.  In the early days of the Canadian settlement, Doukhobors had done just this, several times.  They would begin walking, in large numbers, in the prairies of Canada.  By any conventional measure it was misguided, some would say it was irresponsible, but it has a meaning that can be traced back to Tolstoy’s influence on Peter Verigin and his communications to the Doukhobors in Canada.  In part it was protest at the Canadians for reneging on the original agreement and, in part, it was a display of faith.  It enacted the faith that God will provide.  Without possessions they were not tethered to earthly values.  Without clothes you are without disguise, humble, naked before God.  Doukhobors aspired to this simplicity but struggled to interpret the guidance of their absent leader, Peter Verigin and the towering intellectual influence of Tolstoy on him. 

Tolstoy’s offers an analysis of what happens without this humility in the novel Resurrection (1899).  A nobleman becomes remorseful of his selfishness and the impact he has had on a young woman.  He seeks redemption, in part by giving away his wealth and abandoning his houses to his servants.  He then follows the difficult journey of this woman and encounters numerous examples of injustice that he had previously overlooked.  He comes to understand how the structure of society renders injustice both justified and invisible.  It is interesting to note that he was writing Resurrection at the same time as negotiating with the Russian, Canadian and Doukhobor leadership for their transport to Canada.  These were two monumental tasks and it is difficult to envisage them not becoming intertwined in the mind of Tolstoy.  We know his wife Sophia lamented, in her personal journal, that all he could think of were Resurrection and the Doukhobors.

Tolstoy finally acts on his own analysis, and lead character of Resurrection, in giving away his wealth and setting off on a pilgrimage, perhaps to emulate the people whose spirit inspired him and whose values he had influenced.  It could be said that finally his life imitated his art.  Whatever his purpose, it did not last long.  Tolstoy died two months into the pilgrimage at Astapovo Railway station on the 7th November 1910.  However, his influence in Canada, and especially in the south-east corner of British Columbia, known as the Kootenays, has lasted more than one hundred years.  

Tolstoy was not the only influence on the Doukhobors and Frank Oliver’s betrayal of them was not the single event that explains all of what happened to that community.  However Tolstoy, even if unwittingly, strengthened Doukhobor resistance in Canada by fortifying the ideology expressed through Peter Verigin in exile. Frank Oliver’s influence was more direct.  His action was the decisive event in setting them on a path of division and conflict, the reverberations of which continue to be felt.

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