Book Review by Koozma J. Tarasoff

Ottawa, Ontario. February 2006.

Andrew Donskov. Leo Tolstoy and the Canadian Doukhobors: an historic relationship. Ottawa: Slavic Research Group at the University of Ottawa with Centre for Research on Canadian-Russian Relations at Carleton University, 2005. xiv+473 pp. ISBN 0-88927-320-0. Softcover. $25.00. Order from Penumbra Press, P.O.Box 940, Manotick, Ontario K4M 1A8.  

This book can be searched for snipetts on Google Books.


Dr. ANDREW A. DONSKOV is a specialist on Tolstoy and author of many books and articles dealing with nineteenth-century Russian literature. He is Distinguished University Professor and Director of the Slavic Research Group at the University of Ottawa. Just lately he has been appointed to the Editorial Board responsible for the Academic Edition of L.N. Tolstoy’s Complete Collected Works in 100 volumes.

As well, Dr. Donskov is no stranger to Doukhobor studies. He has edited a variety of collections of archival materials on this topic. In the present work, Dr. Donskov has brought together a number of unpublished documents, complemented by guest essays, oral interviews and questionnaires and has traced the evolving relationship between one of Russia’s greatest writers and the people known as Doukhobors, to whom he was of kindred spirit, lending his moral and financial support to their emigration to Canada in 1899.

Today the 40,000 Canadian Doukhobors, 500 in the USA and 40,000 in the former Soviet Union can learn much about themselves especially in relation to their mentor Lev N. Tolstoy. Their similarities and differences are highlighted here like never before.

The commonality of Tolstoy and the Doukhobors relates to a discussion of spiritual matters: man’s relationship to God, the love of humanity, the meaning of life, and the unity of people. Like that of the nonviolence ideas of Gandhi (whom Tolstoy influenced) and Martin Luther King, Jr., these are Big issues that can inspire one to seek the High Ground. Getting rid of the institution of militarism and war was one of the biggest issues that these two pioneers – Tolstoy and the Doukhobors – have faced. Indeed Tolstoy in 1897 recommended that the First Peace Prize to go to the Doukhobors. The  recommendation was not heeded by the authorities. Yet the war-peace issue remains today as relevant as it was in 1895 when the Doukhobors burnt their firearms on the highlands of Transcaucasia.

Tolstoy’s ‘unity of people’ quest and life-long aim is similar to the Doukhobors’ quest for bridge-building and universal brotherhood. While this may seem utopian, unity of people is a practical necessity for the creation of a peaceful world order. We either learn to live together as friends with differences or else we will die together as enemies. The choice is clear.

Tolstoy’s over-riding concern was to do good. His one goal was justice and well being of all people. He looked at the seeds of moral growth, education and development as the way to the future. His best description is coined in his deepest insight into human behaviour: ‘Where love is, there too is God’.

Andrew Donskov’s survey of Doukhobors in Canada today found many ideas shared by their ancestors and Tolstoy: the rejection of violence, the unity of people, doing good, peaceful labour, respect for every living thing and Brotherhood on Earth. These ideas are passed on through the families, many of whom have read that Tolstoy financed and morally supported the migration of their Russian ancestors to Canada. In 1897 in his Appeal for Help, Tolstoy was so impressed by these dissidents because he saw in them the ‘growth of that seed planted by Christ 1800 years ago’. For him, they were ‘people of the 25th Century’ – far ahead of their times. All of this today remains as a shining legacy for the future of the Doukhobor movement.

Alberta artist Jan Kabatoff wrote how the legacy of Tolstoy has inspired her and others to bring about an awakening. ‘The days of sectarianism and alienation has given way’, she writes, ‘to a socially active and practical relationship within the Doukhobor community and with the world at large’. This includes her own work, the journalistic work in Iskra, the Annual Youth Festivals, choral singing, the bread-baking project in Saskatoon, the travels abroad, the proliferation of Doukhobor web pages and books, and the opening in September 2005 of the joint Canadian Doukhobor and Russian project – the Café/Bakery/Communications complex in Tolstoy’s Yasnaya Polyana, Tula, Russia.

British Columbia folk historian Eli A. Popoff reveals how Tolstoy’s help affected his own ancestral Popoff history in Russia. In 1895, during the events leading up to the Burning of Arms event, his father Aleksei Ivanovich Popov received his conscription notice and eventually was sent off to exile in Siberia. During the later years of his stay in Siberia, Eli’s father met and married Katerina Timofeevna Mokronosova who came from another dissident group called the Brotherhood of the Righteous. 

After their release in 1905, the Siberians settled in the Blaine Lake district of Saskatchewan. For Eli, the knowledge of ‘Dedushka’ Tolstoys’ contribution to saving the Doukhobors from extinction provides inspiration to today’s Doukhobors to keep their spirit alive for future generations.

Saskatchewan-born writer now living in Ottawa, Ontario,  Koozma J. Tarasoff, pointed out that Lev Tolstoy’s free-thinking legacy, especially as inspired by The Kingdom of God is within you, allows for Doukhobors today to ‘bravely explore the significance of this revolutionary concept on their lives. They can dispel the popular orthodox notion of God in the sky and search instead for this spirit in their hearts and minds as well as in their deeds.’

The fifteen-year correspondence between Tolstoy and Peter V. Verigin, leader of the Community Doukhobors who spent 15 years in Siberian exile reveals a mutual sense of love and respect between the two, as well as some disagreements. In 1895, for example, Tolstoy wrote a letter to Peter V. Verigin concerning the value of books and communications. This was in response to Verigin who stubbornly argued against books and instead opted for oral communications.

Another area of discussion concerned ownership of land. In 1900 Tolstoy wrote that personal property is ‘incompatible’ with Christianity. Why? Because one has to defend this property through violence. However, Tolstoy was always willing to learn from life itself. He admits the difficulty of adhering to such an ethic and appeals to conscience and reason by urging people to find a way around them. Unlike the extremisms of some of his followers such as Vladimir Chertkov who was in exile in England and served as his publicist, Tolstoy favoured a more flexible approach to registering for individual land-holdings as well as births and deaths in their communities. For example, the move from Saskatchewan to British Columbia in 1908 may not have been necessary if Verigin and the Doukhobors heeded Tolstoy’s advice. A way could have been found to register for the land and then bring the individual holdings into one large co-operative commune.

Still another area of disagreement was that of the notion of cosmology. Tolstoy rejected the Doukhobors’ tendency to take the perception of God beyond the rational into the realm of the mystical and superstitious. For Tolstoy, superstition should not be encouraged. Nor in his opinion should one succumb to the blind faith of sectarianism, but instead should seek a unity movement that encompasses the whole world of humankind. As reviewer, I believe it is a myth to label the Doukhobors today as a sect.  After the 1895 arms burning manifestation to the world, the notion of sect gave way to a social movement. That is how Doukhobors today prefer to be known. Their evolution through time and space has changed their perspective which is now more in keeping with Tolstoy’s world view.

For the benefit of the readers, a number of archival documents are included. First there are two chapters of Sergey Tolstoy’s diary describing the preparation of the Doukhobor emigration from the Caucasus and his journey escorting them by train from Halifax to Winnipeg. Next come excerpts from Sofia Andreevna Tolstoy’s memoirs and diaries. These are followed by Sofia’s correspondence with other individuals dealing with the Doukhobor emigration. Finally, a four-part Appendix comprises a Timeline of significant events in Doukhobor history, a tabular listing of Tolstoy’s letters, a list of Sergey Tolstoy’s publications, and a copy of the bilingual questionnaire sent to Canadian Doukhobors.

In sum, Dr. Andrew Donskov has provided us with a handy up-to-date useful volume on the life and times affecting the relationship of Lev Tolstoy and the Doukhobors. The discourse on sectarianism, pacifism, communal sharing, and the search for truth should be useful not only for literary specialists but also for scholars and students in a variety of disciplines as well as for members of the Doukhobor community. Here, then, is a masterful presentation about a literary giant (Lev Tolstoy) and a small dissident Russian peasant group (the Doukhobors) in their search for spiritual growth and development. We are all indebted to Dr. Donskov for making these rich materials available to the wider world. The values raised here are important for the survival of our planet.

More by Koozma J. Tarasoff

What Lev N. Tolstoy means to me and the Doukhobors, pages 233-237. — Excerpt from this book

Tolstoy and the Doukhobors, a paper presented at the First Global Nonkilling Leadership Forum, Hawaii, November 1-4, 2007.