My Russian Ancestors

by Koozma J. Tarasoff, July 2005
Submitted to Green and White Alumni Magazine, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
As we celebrate the Saskatchewan centenary in 2005, let us recall the role played by our pioneers who plowed the soil, built the railroad, and established settlements across the country. One of these groups, the Russian Doukhobors, migrated to Western Canada in 1899 and literally opened the West as they built some 90 villages in three areas of what is now Saskatchewan: Pelly-Kamsack, Verigin-Canora-Buchanan, and Blaine Lake-Langham-Saskatoon.

When men were away on hired jobs, women built villages and at times hitched themselves to single-furrow ploughs in order to plant the first gardens and provide food for the table. Without their efforts, starvation could have been their fate. Elders joined in as did the children. Before long, brick factories were built along with sawmills and flourmills; later, when two-thirds of the group moved to British Columbia, their fruit farms and jam factories provided the best jam in the country. It was a cooperative effort, the kind that no one in North America had seen before.

My grandparents were part of that migration. Eventually they settled in the Pakrovka village near the North Saskatchewan River west of the town of Langham. My dad John and mother Anastasia (who arrived in Canada from Russia in 1926) set up a farm in the isolated Eagle Creek district amidst trees and creeks, deer and coyotes, and countless birds. Here I was born in 1932. Residing eight kilometers from the main telephone line was no problem. Dad used his ingenuity to build a barbed-wire fence line to connect with my Grandparent’s place. As well he created a wind-powered system to bring electricity to the house and the outbuildings.

Because the closest public school was too far away, my brother John and I stayed with Baba and Deda the first years as we walked to Henrietta School nearby. Later we walked, drove bicycles, rode horse back, or traveled in winter by horse-drawn-toboggan to Eagle Creek School located five kilometers away. While brother John became a farmer, I chose the academic route which meant that the family had to move to Saskatoon in the early 1940s to support me.

Saskatoon was a haven for all of us. Dad, brother, uncle and grandfather built their own houses while still remaining close to the soil by being 'suitcase farmers'. I took my education at the Technical Collegiate Institute before going on to the University of Saskatchewan in 1953 where I spent five wonderful years of liberal education in the arts and sciences. Here and in the city I also experienced rich extracurricular activities including gymnastics, basketball, baseball, football, as a reporter for The Sheaf, as actor in the local drama club, and as organizer of thought-provoking panel discussions and a Russian choral group.

I recall attending a night class on the history of ideas by Dr. Robert Paton, the classical philosophy professor who stretched our minds to think about our fascinating world. His Socratic approach even interested my father who with only four grades of schooling was attracted to join me in attending this course by a first-class world thinker.

Studies at the University in Saskatoon also stimulated me to explore my Russian heritage. For over four years, I edited and published The Inquirer the first Doukhobor publication in the English language. When I attended a Unitarian meeting in Saskatoon in the 1950s, prominent lawyer Peter G. Makaroff, one of the Doukhobor pioneers, was guest speaker. Peter spoke about the Doukhobors, the peace movement, and the similarities to the Unitarians. I recall vividly that Peter told the audience that his mother was illiterate, yet she had a heart of gold.

'I gained my pacifism from my mother's breast,' Peter Makaroff said. What a nice metaphor! I, too, gained much of my pacifism from my parents. My mother only had three months of English school, yet she was, as with Peter's Mom, a person with a heart of gold. Her hands like that of many other Doukhobor women were gifted; they were able to create exquisite designs for attractive clothing and adornments.

Peter was an outstanding pioneer who was the first Slavic university graduate from a university in western Canada. He received his Bachelor of Laws degree from the University of Saskatchewan in 1918. For 50 years he served as a prominent lawyer defending many unusual legal cases. In 1935 he defended the on-to-Ottawa trekkers, one of whom was killed by police in Regina.

In the city, I got to know other pioneers who gave spirit to the province in its glory as the Land of the Living Skies. Artist Bill Perehudoff and his wife Dorothy Knowles along with their artistic daughters sketched and painted the prairie landscape like no one before. When my first book was published in 1969, Bill was the chief artist for Modern Press who laid out the text, but also contributed sketches of arms burnings and other historic views that gave texture to the Russian Doukhobor heritage.

Near 20th Street and Avenue J South there once resided “Saskatoon Masha” who owned a rooming house where rural Doukhobor visitors often stayed during their first visits to the city. Masha Asiuk was a generous woman who invited all to visit her. For newcomers to the city, this hospitality was gratefully accepted.

 In Saskatoon, too, I recall the mid-1950s when the local community had gained enough strength and built its own Community Centre as well as an exact replica of an old Doukhobor pioneer home made of sod and wood. The local Doukhobors also established a set of brick ovens at the yearly Industrial Exhibition where thousands of freshly-baked loaves of bread were sold to hungry visitors at the Saskatoon Ex. The bread facility became a permanent institution which has helped the public see the Doukhobors as people of hospitality, cleanliness, creativity, love, nonviolence, and peace.

I moved away from Saskatoon in the early 1960s, worked as an anthropologist and ethnographer with the provincial government in Saskatchewan and the federal government in Winnipeg and Ottawa. In 1979 when the government closed its Rural Development section where I was working last, I became a consultant, photographer, and fulltime writer. In my travels abroad and my frequent trips across the country, Western Canada and Saskatchewan in particular drew me back to the place of my birth, the pioneers who paved the way to a civilized society, and the spirit that continues to pervade a friendly and creative peoples. I am proud to have lived in the province and to have graduated from the University of Saskatchewan. Bravo to all those people who nurtured me through the years and accepted me as part of the rich multicultural fabric that today gives Canada beauty, innovation, strength, and order. 

About the Author:

Koozma J. Tarasoff was born on a farm northwest of Saskatoon and is author of more than 12 books on Doukhobors, multiculturalism, East-West bridge-building, rural development, and Natives. See his website for details: His most recent book Spirit Wrestlers: Doukhobor Pioneers' Strategies for Living (Ottawa: Legas and Spirit Wrestlers Publishing, 2002) brings together some 50 years of research; with 700 select images and a multi-media CD-ROM, this is a unique historic source for researchers, educators, and the general public. Many of his research materials are housed in the Saskatchewan Archives in Saskatoon. His Tarasoff Photo Collection on Doukhobor History with an annotated user guide is located in the Provincial Archives, Victoria, BC.

Excerpt: Literary Lives
by David Hutton

Green and White Alumni Magazine
, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Fall 2005, Pages 8-9

A popular science fiction novelist, the creator of CBC’s Street Legal, a renowned wine writer, and a leading authority on the Doukhobors all share common starting points to their prolific careers: an ink stained room in the basement of Saskatchewan Hall.

The Sheaf office in South Saskatchewan Hall was like a second home for Douglas Hill (BA’56), William Deverell (LLB’63), John Schreiner (BA’58), and Koozma Tarasoff (BA’57), who were on the staff of the student newspaper during the 1955/56 school year. They’ve all since gone on to remarkable literary success, publishing more than 100 books combined, and look back fondly on their time at The Sheaf where they honed their craft and found fellowship among an ultracreative group of student writers.

Koozma Tarasoff also found a niche writing non-fiction after his days at The Sheaf. He has written, edited, and translated nine books on the Doukhobors in Canada. While writing news for The Sheaf, Tarasoff also edited The Inquirer, a monthly publication about the Doukhobors, from his attic. Tarasoff now boasts a collection of 50,000 photos of Doukhobor life and has work on display at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa.

“I suppose the smell of the printers ink was a direct road to my interest in writing and publishing,” concludes Tarasoff of his time at The Sheaf. “I learned most by reading and doing.”