British Columbia Novelist Explores Doukhobor Life

Book Review by Koozma J. Tarasoff. — October 6, 2007. All rights reserved
Bill Stenson. Svoboda. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan: Thistledown Press Ltd., 2007. 292 pp.
ISBN 978-1-897235-30-0.  $18.95.

Also: E-mail from Larry A. Ewashen, and Bill Stenson
 "Unit Lessons Plan for Svoboda by Bill Stenson"
Review by Robert J. Wiersema in 2 newspapers
Bill Stenson writes and teaches in Victoria, BC, and is co-founder and co-editor of the Claremont Review. In preparing for this first novel, he contacted me and other Doukhobors in 2003 and obtained my latest book. Our correspondence began. I was impressed by Stenson’s relentless search for truth prisimed through Doukhobor culture. Here is an example of an email in December 2nd of that year:

      ‘Thank you, Koozma, for your quick response. I really appreciate it. I have your latest book and there’s a story to it. It’s a gem, by the way. An absolute bible for my novel project.

      ‘Last year I had to head off to Africa. My wife and I did not stay as long as the three years we intended, and I am now back in B.C. For my going away present, my family gave me a copy of your wonderful book. My brother had heard about it on the radio and knew I was beginning a novel set in the Kootenays during the 50’s. They checked every bookstore in Victoria — and there are a lot of them, but couldn’t find it. They phoned your publisher who said he would courier them one, but it would cost an extra $30 for the service. My sister thanked him for the thought but felt this then put the book out of her price range. Your publisher [Dr. Leonard Sbrocchi of Legas], after hearing my use for the book, sent it free of charge. Amazing. I have read most of it twice and I have read many other books on the Doukhobors, several of yours. I have visited the Kootenays twice and been to the museum in Castlegar and have had the chance to talk briefly with J.J. Verigin. I also talked to some of his references by phone.

      ‘I have a great deal of respect for the Doukhobor people and what they have been through. It is a puzzling past. I hope my novel, once finished, does justice to the story.’

Three years later, as reviewer it is refreshing to find an author who actively uses his eyes and ears as well as his heart and soul in doing his home work on a very sensitive and complicated topic: the Doukhobors. The result is a story with incredible narrative power.

Growing up in the 1950s, the hero of the novel Vasili Saprikin knows that being a Doukhobor in the Kootenay region of British Columbia is no easy matter. He faced the slurs of outsiders for being different. He overcame the earlier history of protests and imprisonments for burnings, bombings and nudity as an aberration by extremist zealots.  He spent several years in the New Denver residential school as a child inmate because some of his relatives opposed Canadian schooling. But from this experience he learned the value of inquiry and personal responsibility — qualities that guaranteed him a viable future as a pacifist and a thinking citizen of the world.

Vasili’s deda. Alexay Barikoff, was five years old when the Doukhobors burnt their firearms in Russia in 1895. He managed to come to Saskatchewan on the first shipload of Doukhobors in January 1899 and later moved to BC. Deda taught him the art of carving, story telling, and supported him as a renaissance man of learning and vision. He never had any public schooling, but had a wealth of wisdom which he gladly conveyed in the Russian language. In one of his many stories, Alexay says:

      ‘Vasili, I’m proud to be a Doukhobor myself. I have never set off a bomb or burned a house down. I’ve never paraded nude in public….

      ‘So you should have nothing but good feelings in your heart when you think of being a Doukhobor. The people who did these things are not real Doukhobors. The last thing we stand for is violence and destruction or property. If someone from Poland comes to this country and robs a store and they put him in jail, would you think that is the way Polish people behave?’

      Of course not. 

Grandfather Saprikin reminded his grandson that Doukhobor people were ahead of their time. Tolstoy once said the Doukhobors were the people of the 25th century. Vasili remembered that lesson when attending the Nelson High School; his Social Studies teacher encouraged him to talk to the school assembly on the forthcoming Peace Through Non-violence Conference to be held at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. His talk was classic Doukhobor, a speech that resonates equally today with the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

      ‘Some of you know me. My name is Vasili Saprikin. This is my first year at this school so I don’t know everyone. I am a Doukhobor. There are thirty-seven Doukhobors in this room with me right now. I am not speaking to you on behalf of other Doukhobors. What I have to say comes from me, Vasili. I want to explain to you why I think this meeting is important.

      ‘On the table beside me are bread, salt and water. It is a Doukhobor custom to have these things at every important meeting because they symbolize our common humanity. We all need bread, salt and water and I believe we all need to think about what we can do to ensure our future. Every person in this room is afraid of what might happen to our world. Most of the time we go about our business and hope the leaders of the powerful nations know what they are doing. But we all think about what could happen and we have a right to be fearful….

      ‘If you think the solution to the world’s problems is more violence and killing, I respect your right to your opinion but I do not agree with it. Our history books give many examples of wars that have been waged and the hundreds of thousands of people who have died in these wars. What is rarely mentioned in our history books are the wars that did not take place. There could easily have been many more wars in our history, but they didn’t happen because there were people around who did something to prevent them. I want to be one of these people. And that’s why I will hand this short essay into Mr. Hughson [his teacher] and hope I get picked to attend the conference at U.B.C. Some adults say students like us are too young to concern themselves with such matters, but I don’t think this is true at all. More of the future belongs to us than to our parents and it’s time we did something to protect it. Thank you for listening’ (pp. 213-215). 

Vasili was given a standing ovation and a delegation of eleven students including Vasili and Mr. Hughson eventually were chosen and went to Vancouver. Many in the audience helped with the fundraising and raved about the trip to UBC with small-town pride. The power of one in cooperation with others speaks volumes.

Vasili’s father died when he was only one year old. This traumatic event forced his mother Anuta to work hard and become self-sufficient. After the New Denver School experience and the move from the Doukhobor settlements to the city of Nelson, Anuta worked in a local store. With her creativity and innovation, she rose in the ranks to that of manager. Eventually she married Jim Sellers the owner. The theme of Svoboda (freedom) is interwoven throughout this epic story. Vasili walks in the shadow of the past, but acts in the light of the future. What happened in the end to deda, the man of wisdom, is a cliff hanger. This is a good read! 

True to his sensitivity to the topic, Bill Stenson launched his book by featuring the Vancouver Island Doukhobor Choir in performance as well as the serving of Doukhobor borshch.  It was a celebration and a tribute to the culture of these people.

Also see Rick Stiebel’s book review: Langford novelist explores B.C.’s Doukhobor culture, by Rick Stiebel, News staff, Gold Stream Gazette, Sept. 28, 2007.
Click to ENLARGE
Cover painting 'Spirit Wrestlers' by Paul Morin. It was originally commissioned by the Canadian Museum of Civillization for the exhibition on 'The Doukhobors: "Spirit Wrestlers"' which ran 1996 – 1998.

The book launched Saturday, September 29, 2007 (7pm-9pm) at the Fairfield United Church, 1303 Fairfield Rd, Victoria BC ...
120 people attended 'a cultural event beginning with a performance by the Vancouver Island Doukhobor Choir and ending with an opportunity to try some traditional Doukhobor borscht' [sic: borshch]. Book News, by Sandra Millard. Vancouver International Writers & Readers Festival. Vol. 2 No. 49, Sept. 24, 2007.

Teachers Download:

Unit Lessons Plan for Svoboda by Bill Stenson

Suggestions are designed for a three week Unit in English 11 and can be adapted to suit various levels of ability. (4-page MS-Word.DOC)

Review by Robert J. Wiersema:

Doukhobor novel does more than tell a good story —  Vancouver Sun January 5, 2008

Liberty exacts a price from every newcomerEdmonton Journal — January 27, 2008


From:  Larry A. Ewashen <>
Sent: Sunday, October 7, 2007
To: "Koozma Tarasoff" <>
Subject: Svoboda

Hi Koozma,

I hope you are well. This week I received a book in the mail called SVOBODA.

ON THE COVER WAS YOUR APPROBATION ABOUT HOW IT CAUGHT THE SPRIT with powerful narrative. Knowing your reservation about the Sons of Freedom, I was somewhat dismayed. It centers the entire Doukhobor movement onto the Sons, full of bomb making, Red Rooster and factual local inaccuracies. Once again, there seems to be no distinction between the Doukhobors and the abhorrent Sons. I am surprised that you would be endorsing this book.

The author also acknowledges my 'assistance' in this book, and while he may have been here at the museum, I don't recall being interviewed by him.

I am surprised by your apparent sponsorship of this tome, we will certainly not be selling it here. Do we really want to continue publicizing this unfortunate lapse in the Doukhoobr principles of non violence? I am bewildered by your endorsement.

Larry A. Ewashen, Curator & General Manager
The Doukhobor Discovery Centre
112 Heritage Way, Castlegar V1N 4M5

From: "tarasoff" <>
Sent: Tuesday, October 9, 2007
Subject: re: Svoboda

Hi Larry:

Thanks for your email.

From your remarks, one would almost get the impression that we have read a different work.  Are  you sure that you have read the book from cover to cover? I have, and I have a different impression from your own. The author portrayed the Doukhobors in a most positive way, I would say, and not as you have charged.  Larry, please re-read this most fascinating and sensitive novel.

Remember this is a book of fiction, although it roughly follows the history of the Doukhobors.  If you read the book carefully, you cannot help but find that there is real differentiation between Doukhobors and the zealots. This is seen from the example given in my review about the quote on the zealots not being real Doukhobors. The issue of nonviolence is confirmed by another quote that I made in the review in reference to the Nonviolence Conference speech by the hero. I am sure that you will agree that the speech was classic Doukhobor. Both of these quotes were very significant.

Moreover, the fact that the Victoria Doukhobors sang at the book launch as well as the fact that the author and his family went out of its way to prepare borshch for some 120 visitors speaks volumes.

I am still wondering if we both have read the same book called Svoboda?

Best wishes,

From: Bill Stenson <>
Sent: Monday, October 8, 2007
Subject: Re: Congratulations!

Koozma, this is wonderful.  I appreciate your considering my novel so highly. I wanted to tell a story that involved the Doukhobor people and if others now see them in a positive light it is because my research suggested this should be the case. The social studies teacher's name is Mr. Hughson. Spelling issue. To quote a previous email, there's a story there too. The Mr. Hughson in the novel is not far off a Hugh Herbison, a social studies teacher who taught my brother.  I was fortunate enough to meet the man (who lives in Argenta now) and I have sent him a copy of the novel. He was getting on when I met him and I hope he is alive to read the novel.
The Vancouver Island Doukhobor Choir was more than I could have imagined. I met them all two weeks before the event, so I knew they would be good. The impact they had on the audience was overwhelming.  People came up to me for days later and confirmed that something special had happened in the room.  Their music truly touched the hearts of every single member of the audience and I wished you had been there. A lady I once taught with, but who has since moved on to a private school, was in attendance and told me as soon as they started singing she started crying and she couldn't stop until the choir was finished. It was really something.
My wife, Susan, and my sister who also met you when you came to Victoria, helped me prepare the borsch. We made a lot of it and got rave reviews. I used a traditional Doukhobor recipe, of course. Not everyone had some, but I know from the "bun count" that 120 people had some. It was a great and just what I had planned:  not a book launch, but a cultural event.
Thanks for your support and for drawing attention to my novel on your website. I know one school in B.C. that has indicated they will be teaching this novel at the Grade 11 level. I hope more will follow.
Spasibo !

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Teachers Download:

Unit Lessons Plan for Svoboda by Bill Stenson

Suggestions are designed for a three week Unit in English 11 and can be adapted to suit various levels of ability. (4-page MS-Word.DOC)