Analysis of Peter Veregin's death on new website

On April 27, 2006 at 10 a.m., I helped launch the Doukhbor history module for the Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History website, at the University of Victoria, BC — "Explosion on the Kettle Valley Line: The Death of Peter Verigin"

I was honoured to submit information for the website:
Below are my brief remarks at the dedication ceremony followed by 16 photos with my captions, and historic interpretation. Click on photos to ENLARGE.

Also see 2 photos on the B.C. Lieutenant Governor's website.

Official photos by Dr. Merna Forster, Deptarement of History, University of Victoria, P.O. Box 3045, Victoria, BC  V8W 3P4. All rights reserved.
The website was well publicized:

The Significance of Peter V. Verigin

As charismatic leader of the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood, Peter V. Verigin made two major achievements in his 22 years in Canada.

One, he united some 5000 members of his party in a manner that postponed the assimilation of his group in the midst of a British-based colonialist country that believed in kings and queens, the military forces, and the bottom line of capitalistic economy. 

Two, he headed the most successful communal business in North America in the early part of the 1900s. This included the construction of over 60 one-street Russian villages in Saskatchewan and Alberta, several commercial brick factories, some 80 two-story houses in the interior of British Columbia, flourmills, sawmills, cattle, horse and grain farms, and orchards that reputedly produced the best jam in Canada. With the enormous advantage of a cooperative enterprise, the group was able to quickly leave horse, oxen and human power for steam tractors, binders and combines. As well the members were able to get contract work in constructing railway beds and highways at good prices. (Don’t forget — these people came to Canada with practically nothing.) Culturally, Peter V. Verigin’s influence allowed for the preservation of the Russian language, singing, costumes, and architecture. 

His death in an unsolved tragedy in 1924 was shocking. Some 7,000 people including many non-Doukhobors came out to pay him respects.
The episode focuses on the Doukhobors who in the 1900s posed a threat to North American capitalism. Because of their success, neighbors got jealous and sought government assistance in curtailing Doukhobor ingenuity resulting in two major land losses in 1907 ($11 million or $222,000 US in today’s value) and 1938 ($6 million or $121,000 US in today’s value). The extremists known as Sons of Freedom or zealots took advantage of the Doukhobor name for their own purposes as did the media.
 
Having arrived in Canada from Russian exile in 1902, Verigin was looked on by many as a martyr for a cause — almost as a God. There were a growing number of Doukhobors who were leaving the commune as independent farmers. They saw Verigin as elitist, dictatorial and one who transgressed the principle of equality. And there were extremists with an anarchistic spirit who were not satisfied with their new land and the pressures to purchase land individually. Verigin tried unsuccessfully to unite all. Also he did not encourage public school education for fear of assimilation and losing control of the group. The Independents continued to prosper on their own merits even as Verigin sought to exclude them from membership in the Doukhobor family. 

In our current age of fear and power politics, it is important to keep independent thought alive and well. The opening of the Unsolved Mysteries module is an opportunity to question our common sense and test things out in our own experience. As inquiring students and scholars, our task is to deepen our focus and explore all the possible questions and facts concerning the mysterious tragic explosion of 1924. Enjoy the Socratic quest!
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West Coast Doukhobor Choir (singers from 2 choirs),
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West Coast Doukhobor Choir.
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West Coast Doukhobor Choir. See another photo.
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Remarks by MC Dr. S. Martin Taylor, Vice-Pres. Research, University of Victoria.
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The Honourable Iona Campagnola, Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia spoke and raised the curtain on the new website.
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Close-up of high school students who stimulated the need for this unique history project.
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Display of posters and laptops.
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Dr. John Lutz (History Dept., University of Victoria), Co-director of the Mysteries Project, described the innovative resources featured in the new version.
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View of audience observing the screen with images from the world wide web.
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Dr. Larry Hannant (Adjunct, History Dept., University of Victoria), Research Director for the Verigin Mystery, introduced the project.
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Remarks on the significance of Peter V. Verigin by Koozma J. Tarasoff (Doukhobor scholar, Ottawa).
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Special guests (l to r): Dr. S. Martin Taylor, Vice-President Research, University of Victoria; Dr. John Lutz, History Dept., Co-director of the Project; Dr. Merna Forster, Project Executive Dir., History Dept.; The Honourable Iona Campagnola, Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia; Koozma J. Tarasoff, Doukhobor scholar, Ottawa; Dr. Larry Hannant, Adjunct Professor of History, Research Director for the Verigin Mystery; The Hon. Campagnola’s escort.
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Koozma J. Tarasoff presents his latest book on the Doukhobors to the Honourable Iona Campagnola, Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia.
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Students make use of the new technology.
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Project Team, professors and graduate students, including 3 Doukhobors: (far left) Koozma J. Tarasoff; (3rd from left) Heather Gleboff, grad. student, Senior Editor; (far right) Andrei Bondoreff, grad. student researcher.
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Three Doukhobor women at the Reception.

The Mysterious Death of Doukhobor Leader
Peter V. Verigin in 1924

For the Canadian History Website on Great Unsolved Mysteries
launched on April 27, 2006

An Interpretation by Koozma J. Tarasoff.

The place was an isolated rocky mountain road one mile from Farron, British Columbia. The time was 12:55 a.m., the 29th of October, 1924. The great steam train came to a sudden halt as its First Class Coach burst into flames. This doomed Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) Coach on Train 11 carried 21 passengers including two Sikhs, a new Member of the Legislative Assembly for Grand Forks — John McKie, and several Doukhobors with their leader Peter V. Verigin.

The explosion was horrific. It ripped off the roof of the Coach, took out one side, and greatly damaged the other, as a fire soon consumed the remains. Nine people were injured and nine were killed some beyond recognition. Many of their parts were scattered on the lightly snowy ground of the railway bed.

For the history buff, this horror has all the elements of a classic Agatha Christie mystery. There were bodies and there were motives. For over 80 years, neither the CPR nor the police have come close to solving it. Many of its records were removed from public view until recently. With your Sherlock Holme's cloak and your inquiring attitude, let's unravel some of the key elements of this almost century-old mystery.

The media has mainly focussed on one victim: the 65-year-old Peter V. Verigin, the charismatic President of the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood (CCUB), a group of Russian dissidents known as the Doukhobors. As these 'Spirit-Wrestlers' arrived in British Columbia in 1908, they formed several communal settlements in the Kootenay and Boundary districts. With their co-operative and hard work ethic, the Doukhobors created the most successful communal enterprise in North America.

Because of their belief in the Spirit of God Within, Doukhobors refused to participate in war. For the same reason, they considered themselves spiritual in the sense of doing good, and saw no need for an intermediary church. In British Columbia, they successfully lobbied against military training in public schools, but encountered problems with the school curriculum. Peter Verigin feared education would prepare his flock to become cannon fodder.

Fear of citizenship was the main reason why Verigin brought his followers to the wilderness of British Columbia from the Saskatchewan prairies where the group had initially settled as new migrants from Russia in 1899. Peter arrived in Canada in 1902 following 15 years of exile in Siberia for his role as leader of the dissidents in the Caucasus.

Mixed farming, flourmills, and brick factories allowed the enterprise to prosper in Saskatchewan, but problems arose when a new Minister of the Interior (Frank Oliver) reneged Canada's promise of allowing communal settlement. An ultimatum in June 1907 was pitched in terms of becoming citizens and signing for land individually. Reverend John McDougall, who earlier cajoled the Indians to sign its treaties, was hired to visit the villages — and he recommended their breakup. Two-thirds of the Doukhobors obeyed Verigin and moved to the interior of B.C. where private ownership allowed for temporary internal control. One third of the group remained in Saskatchewan and signed for their Homesteads; they became Independents because they did not share Verigin's dictates and saw room for individual initiative.

In the 1920s the mood of the country was a fear of Communism, when foreigners were suspect, and when repressive laws such as the 1914 Community Regulation Act in B.C. allowed for draconian invasion of communal groups. Also it led to the denial of the voting by the Doukhobors, Hutterites, and Mennonites. In 1938, the Doukhobor Community enterprise lost $6 million of its assets for failure to pay a debt of $300,000 — which the BC Government paid for and then broke up the communal real estate with vengeance.

The Russian Doukhobor pioneering experience in Canada in the early 1900s was a laboratory for accommodation and conflict. They accommodated when they learned the English language and culture, built villages and businesses, but clashed when they successfully competed with Western businesses and political interests. Peter V. Verigin, as chief CEO of the Doukhobor commune, had a love hate-relationship in Canada.

Most, but not all, of the Doukhobors saw Verigin as a great spiritual martyr, teacher, reformer and builder. Their self-sufficient communal structure allowed for the development of their own sawmills, their own brick factories, elevators to store grain and flour mills to grind them, factories for the processing of fruits and jams, and their own wholesale and retail stores for storage and distribution. At the same time, one-third of the Doukhobors rejected Verigin's 'spiritual' status as being illegitimate; and while these Independents fully retained the core pacifism of the group, they sought a more democratic organization, yet accommodated as best they could through education and businesses in Saskatchewan where the provincial administrators were more tolerant to the multicultural mix of new migrants.

The government of the day in British Columbia was more centralists of the colonial British type. It stepped up the demands that the Community Doukhobors must attend government schools and become assimilated into the narrow nationalism and patriotism of its militaristic curriculum. At the same time, local merchants and businessmen petitioned the government that the Doukhobor communal structure was a threat to the established order of things and was an unwanted element in the area. Moreover, the veteran soldiers opposed the Doukhobors as a whole because, as total pacifists, they did not take part wars. One of the branches in B.C. petitioned the government to take away all the lands held by the Doukhobor Community and give them over to returned soldiers. Thankfully this did not take place.

When the tragic death of the head of the Doukhobor commune did take place in 1924, the event crystallized the feelings of love-hate in western Canada. For over two-thirds of the Doukhobors, Peter Verigin was the main source of inspiration to them and their way of life. Its members interpreted the violent death as a tragedy probably caused by some government conspiracy to get rid of their head. They recalled the 1907 breach of faith in Saskatchewan when the new Minister of the Interior changed the rules of the game and disallowed communal ownership. Now, with the death of their leader, they were more suspicious than ever on the motives of provincial administrators. The local businessmen were glad to have forcefully eliminated a competitor in their midst. For local Doukhobors, however, it became obvious that merchants could not be trusted because their bottom-line was primarily to win at all costs even if it meant wiping out a competitor.

After the tragic explosion, Peter V. Verigin became a rocky precipice in Brilliant, B.C. The monument had the stature of a site for a king and in no way resembled the simple grave of their mentor Lev N. Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana. The special status, like an icon, contradicted the Doukhobor notion of equality — and this action began to enlarge the gap between the Community people and the Independents.
For the Doukhobors, Verigin's death marked the decline of the Community enterprise. The fear of assimilation accelerated as zealotry began to rise. Zealots, with their extremist agenda, began to hijack the Doukhobor name by claiming to speak for the whole. Main stream Doukhobors were embarrassed by their violent and sensationalistic ways which was not part of the Doukhobor way; some even changed their names. With no central head to look after the enterprise, the economy began to suffer as monies spent were at times not transparent and justifiable, and advice from experts was not listened to. The Community membership declined sharply in the 1930s.

The impact of the explosion on Canadian society had a negative effect on the Doukhobors. The authorities and the CPR withheld the police documents for 50 years indicating a hidden suspicion about the whole affair. The media, in turn, continued to create its own social opinion by hijacking the information as if they were the source of all the truth. In the 1960s, sensational writer Simma Holt wrote about the Doukhobors as if they were zealots and Communists in disguise. At the end of the 1930s, the government broke up the Community enterprise and took away Doukhobor lands worth $6 million in British Columbia. Later, in the 1950s, B.C. authorities forcibly took away 170 children from their parents for failure to send their children to school, thereby creating the infamous New Denver School. The public was shocked by the explosion, as it was by the acts of terrorism that periodically swept the idyllic Kootenays of B.C., yet in the end many people were happy that the crucible of assimilation was working in grinding out the impurities within.

The bad feelings persisted for many generations, right up to the present time. Especially, the clash of interests has had a direct bearing on the nature of democracy. How healthy is an avowed democratic state, when it does not allow dissent? Would it not have been useful for North American capitalism to allow communal structures to compete with it? The grand experiment would have shown that society could be enriched when capitalistic and communal enterprises work together. Is that not so? Instead, today many people believe that these two structures are incompatible. Here, then, was a lost opportunity to learn from the wisdom of East-West bridgebuilding in creating a better world.

It was in this paranoiac atmosphere that the October 1924 explosion took place. The motives include:
  1. Initially the CPR was suspected that Pintsch gas used in lighting the coaches exploded. Yet reportedly the gas tanks underneath were intact.

  2. Some passengers may have carried dynamite or nitroglycerin in their luggage.

  3. A common belief was that an incendiary device was deliberately brought in to kill someone. This was the 'alarm clock' thesis attributed to Metro Grishen, alias Metgren, who had a connection to Soviet Russia. Motives: The unpredictable Peter's son Peter P. Verigin hated his father and sought to avenge him for divorcing his mother; as well, the Bolsheviks had reason to get rid of Peter because he was constantly criticizing their ways and beliefs.

  4. Some zealots opposed assimilation and materialism in Canada.Verigin was blamed.

  5. The Government did not like foreigners, especially pacifists. It paid an assassin to stop their organizations.

  6. Wife Anastasia Golubova was jealous of the new lovers of her husband (17-year-old Maria Strelaeff died at Verigin's side on this tragic night).

  7. Peter V. Verigin may have committed suicide because the community had problems with the Education Department as well as with its economic operations. Hence, Verigin devised a scheme to show that he was indeed a great leader who was murdered by the government, or by some radical faction. When he died, a procession of 7000 paid tribute to him. There were two banners, one in Russian, and one in English, proclaiming 'Toil and Peaceful Life, Peter Lordly' (Verigin). A biography was read and it praised him as Christ-Saviour from Heavenly Father'. Peter was buried on the high rocky bluff overlooking the entire colony at Brilliant. In effect, this was a shrine that transgressed the Doukhobor tenant of equality. It was idol worship that Doukhobors had rejected centuries back.

  8. The explosion was meant for John McKie, the newly-elected provincial member for Grand Forks who was on his way to attend the first session of the Legislature in Victoria. This loss allowed for the Liberals to gain a majority of one.

  9. Local and area businesses in the Kootenays and Oregon were not happy with the communal enterprise of the Doukhobors which they considered to be in competition with the dominant capitalistic structure of the West.

  10. The US- KKK did it. It was rumoured that Peter V. Verigin was on his way to Oregon to purchase land for the CCUB community. This happened to take place at the height of the Ku Klux Klan when local papers in Oregon glared headlines 'Keep Douks Out'. In 1923, Peter V. Verigin in fact purchased 800 acres and established one village in Lane County, Oregon. See photo and maps below. The fear was that he may move the entire commune down there.

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                  to ENLARGEDukhobar Road sign, 7 miles west of Eugene, Oregon. Peter P. Verigin sold this property because he was not interested in pursuing a remote colony there, but some Doukhobors stayed in Oregon. See "Doukhobors in the 1930 United States Federal Census" by Jonathan Kalmaloff showing 21 housholds at 10 locations in 6 adjacent counties in the state of Oregon, USA. This photo was taken facing northeast at the southwest intersection of Crow and Dukhobar Roads, where Dukhobar Road runs straight north and south. Photo by Larry A. Ewashen, Director of the Doukhbor Village Museum, Summer 2005. Click on photo for larger view.


References
  1. Steve Lapshinoff. Documentary Report on the Death of Peter V. Verigin, et al. in a train explosion near Farron, British Columbia in 1924 (Published privately, 1993). Most of the documents came from the Nelson Daily News as well as from police and CPR records.
  2. Brian Juriloff. "A Legal History of 'Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood - 1899-1942". Some Legal Problems of the Doukhobors in Canada. April 1978. Legal History Seminar for Professor Sanders, UBC, Vancouver, BC, April 1978.
  3. Koozma J. Tarasoff. Spirit Wrestlers: Doukhobor Pioneers' Strategies for Living (Ottawa, 2002). A comprehensive overview of the Doukhobors. www.spirit-wrestlers.com
  4. Records of the Kootenay Committee on Intergroup Relations.
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