Doukhobors and Unitarians

A talk by Koozma J. Tarasoff, January 7, 2007
At the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Ottawa, Ontario Canada

The audience was attentive. I made three presentations: a story on Doukhobor women plowing, a reading of my poem on Tolstoy, and this talk on Doukhobors and Unitarians.
In preparing this talk, I was impressed by the closeness of the principles of Unitarians and Doukhobors. Scholars say that the roots of Unitarianism were sown in 1568 in Poland as ‘a breakaway group from the Reformed Church’ (Friesen, 1995: 233).

A Russian scholar has recently concluded that Doukhobors ‘may trace their origin to the Protestant teachings and dissident ideas of the seventeenth century, widely circulated in the territories of the Polish Republic and popular among Ukrainian Orthodox writers’ (Inikova, 2000: 18).

For Doukhobors, other sources point to the Bogomils in the 1200s as predecessors to the Doukhobors in spirit (Tarasoff, 2002:376) and the Raskol or Big Split in the Russian Orthodox Church in the mid-1600s. ‘The extreme left wing split of Patriarch Nikon’s reforms was characterized by a group that disposed entirely with priests and church trappings. They argued that God exists in spirit and truth; that man is his own church; and that there is no need for priests at all’ (Tarasoff, 411). 

Both Unitarians and the Doukhobors were originally considered ‘heretics’; that is people whose beliefs or practices were contrary to the orthodox doctrine of the Christian Church. Doukhobors have also been known as the ‘plakun trava’ — as people having the ability to flow against the current of the prevailing water. Like Socrates of old, both arose as thorns in society.

Remarkable also is the fact that both believe that Jesus was only human, that the essence of God is love. They reject the notion of heaven and hell, the Trinity as well as the infallibility of the Bible. Both are primarily moral and ethical as opposed to being doctrinal, biblical or evangelistic. 

The name Doukhobor did not appear until 1786 (Inikova, 2000: 2). It was coined by Archbishop Nikofor of Slovenia from the Russian word ‘Dukhoborets’ meaning Spirit Wrestler. It was used in derision against the Russian heretics, but by the beginning of the 1800s was adopted by the Doukhobors as best describing themselves. For them the Spirit of God dwells in each individual and is practically synonymous with love, beauty, and justice. It is similar or identical to what the Society of Friends or Quakers call the ‘Light Within’. 

From this Spirit of inner worth and dignity stems the notion that it is wrong to kill another human being. For in so doing, you kill the abode of God. This notion has been a moral compass for them for over two centuries by their refusal to bear arms against another human being. Their goal is to create a nonkilling society.

Their 1895 two acts of defiance against militarism has been a profound inspiration for them up to the present time. First, on Easter of that year, Matvey Lebedev and ten other Doukhobors threw down their firearms while training in the Elizavetpol reserve battalion in the Caucasus region of southern Russia, stating that war and Christianity are incompatible. The result was that the dissidents were sent to disciplinary battalion and exile along with 60 other Doukhobor young men in active service who followed their example (Tarasoff, 2002: 262-263). 

Secondly, on midnight of June 28-29 (Old Style; new style is 11-12 July), 7000 Doukhobors in three districts of the Caucasus set ablaze piles of their own rifles (mostly government issues), pistols and swords in the first mass protest in history against war and militarism. The Tsarist government perceived this as treason and its response was swift and severe with beatings, floggings and exile. Lev Tolstoy, the most popular Russian writer and philosopher of the day, received word from his followers of the gravity of the situation. He penned an ‘Appeal for Help’, completed his book Resurrection [or, The Awakening (1899)] and helped 7500 Russian dissidents to come to Western Canada in 1899. These were the most persecuted, about one-third of the whole.

In the face of mainstream assimilation and secularization, these Canadian citizens (some 40,000 today mostly in Western Canada) have survived remarkably well. Their sobranies (gatherings of people for spiritual, social, and business purposes) in community homes or rented facilities still persist in places such as Saskatoon and Verigin, Saskatchewan, Calgary in Alberta, and Castlegar, Grand Forks, Vancouver, Victoria, Kelowna, Salmo, and Creston, in British Columbia. [See maps.] Unique a cappella singing can be heard in these homes or on CDs. Two heritage villages and museums in Saskatchewan and British Columbia serve as focal points for the annual Peace Day commemorating the 1895 arms burning in Russia. An Annual Youth Festival brings thousands of visitors each May to the Castlegar district of BC. A bilingual Russian and English journal Iskra in British Columbia has been in existence since the early 1940s. The Dove is a more recent journal that is published in Saskatchewan. Several websites provide an outreach for the Doukhobors. As an expression of their inner values, Canadian Doukhobors continue to take part in peace gatherings, they support petitions for nonviolent actions, help children of Chernobyl by inviting them into their homes and provide them with healthful time to heal themselves, and they have built a retreat facility in northern British Columbia for cultural, family, peace and nonviolent gatherings. 

Significant is the fact that Doukhobors see themselves as bridge-builders between the East and the West whether during the Cold War and at present. As photojournalist I represented them at the XXII Olympics in Moscow in 1980, and helped show the value of the Olympic movement to world understanding and peacemaking. In the mid-1990s, the Canadian Museum of Civilization mounted a major exhibit on this very small group because of their unique qualities of providing hope to an ailing planet. And in September 2005, Canadian Doukhobors in cooperation with Russian people opened a joint bakery-restaurant and communications complex on the site of the Lev Tolstoy Yasnaya Polyana in the Tula province three hours south of Moscow.
A talk about the Doukhobors would not be complete without a look at some of the misconceptions of the group since their Russian ancestors arrived on Canadian soil in 1899.  In my latest book, I have included an Appendix called ‘Popular Myths and Fallacies About the Doukhobors’ (Tarasoff, 2002: 379-384).  You may also see the article on my website ( under Excerpts

In my talk here, I have time to highlight only two of the ten myths. During the coffee break you may wish to pursue the rest or other issues if you wish. 

The first myth I would like to highlight concerns a popular notion that Doukhobors are a sect or a cult. Originally, people calling themselves ‘Spirit Wrestlers’ tended to isolate themselves from the world, and in that sense could have been characterized as a sect. However, after the courageous 1895 Burning of Arms event in Russia, the group transformed itself into a social movement by taking concerted action directed at changing the patterns and institutions of the existing society. Parallel to the Doukhobors, Lev N. Tolstoy was always expanding his horizon towards universal brotherhood and sisterhood. He warned us against the dangerous sentiment of patriotism that he defined as ‘the preference for one’s own country or nation above the country or nation of any one else’. The sentiment he regarded as immoral because it violates the golden rule of trying to benefit ones self-interest at the expense of others.

The second myth that I would like to dispel is one that concerns nudity, burnings and bombings. A small minority of zealots (popularly known as ‘Sons of Freedom’) has done these things for various reasons such as attracting attention to their cause, but this behavior has nothing to do with the Doukhobor movement. In fact, most Doukhobors believe that the moment one participates in an act of violence; he or she ceases to be a Doukhobor. Yet the media has perpetrated this myth for over 100 years because sensationalism sells papers and makes money for the owners. It has been especially frustrating, because in a real sense, both the media as well as the zealots have hijacked the Doukhobor name. 

In conclusion, I would like to return to the early dissident roots of Doukhobors and Unitarians as well as to kindred ones such as those of Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. in their search for human truths and what I would like to call as the creation of a nonkilling global society. Recently, Dr.Glenn D. Paige, professor emeritus of political science, University of Hawaii, and the founder and president of the nonprofit Center for Global Nonviolence in Honolulu, has encapsulated these ideas in a book Nonkilling Global Political Science (Paige, 2002). I invite you to revisit these profound pioneering roots of wisdom and discover how they might change the health of our community and our planet. 


INIKOVA, Svetlana, ‘Spiritual origins and the beginnings of Doukhobor history’, in Andrew Donskov, John Woodsworth and Chad Gaffield, The Doukhobor Centenary in Canada. A multi-disciplinary perspective on their unity and diversity (Ottawa: Slavic Research Group at the University of Ottawa, 2000). Also posted on Jonathon Kalmakoff’s Doukhobor Genealogy Website:

FRIESEN, John W. Pick One. A User-Friendly Guide to Religion (Calgary: Detselig Enterprises, 1995).

PAIGE, Glenn D. Nonkilling Global Political Science (Honolulu: Center for Global Nonviolence, 2002).  See website The book has been translated into 24 languages and published in 10 to date, and is available free for downloading on the web.

TARASOFF, Koozma J.  Spirit Wrestlers: Doukhobor Pioneers’ Strategies for Living (Ottawa: Legas Publishing and Spirit Wrestlers Publishing, 2002). Myths are posted on the website:

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