Spirit Wrestlers: Doukhobor
Pioneers’ Strategies for Living (2002): 193-196.
A Passionate Medical Doctor and Keen Photographer
full life as lived by Dr. Nicholas Feodorich Zbitnoff (1902-1987) is
characterized by hard work, creativity, caring, nonviolence, intensity
and dedication to one's profession, and an interest in one's roots.
Nicholas was born in the Doukhobor Malaya Goreloe [Small Gorelovka] Village
Lake, Saskatchewan to parents who came from Russia on the first
shipload of Doulkhobors in 1899. Nicholas began his first education in
a Quaker one-room school at Petrovka. Later he went
to the University
of Saskatchewan where he received his BA in 1924 and then to the
University of Chicago where he graduated with a medical degree in 1933.
After practicing medicine for 52 years, he closed his Clay Street
Office in Ukiah, California
where the local hospital dedicated a lounge
in his honour He was a frequent traveler with his wife Doris
As ethnographer, I had the privilege of doing a tape-recorded interview with this distinguished doctor in 1978 (1). In 1990 his surviving children, Igor, Maxim, Tamara, and Anna invited me to the original home in Ukiah for a pomenki or memorial commemorating the lives and times of Doris and Nicholas Zbitnoff. Relatives from across the USA came to the commemoration and generally stayed for two full days. This included the Monaghan and Zimmerman families that stem from the mother's side of the family. The Monaghans came from Chicago where Dr. Zbitnoff first met his wife. We ate borshch and pancakes, watched slides from Dr. Zbitnoffs huge collection, and exchanged reminiscences of the deceased. See 194 photos below.
Harley Hayes, an old friend of Dr. Zbitnoff, told us how he first met the doctor in 1946 around the time that he was Head Photographer with the U.S. Government Service. When Nicholas bought the first 35-mm reflex camera, Harley followed suit and got one too. The two shared photography as a life-long passion. Harley taught Nicholas some of the fine points of photography because Harley was in charge of a prestigious photographic institution and therefore learned from his colleagues. See 194 photos below.
Nicholas revered Nature so much that it was a metaphor for his philosophy of life. He didn't speak of God as such for he didn't believe in the concept of God as heaven and hell or as anthropomorphic. Igor, his son, says that his father once told him to cultivate an interest in gardening. The gardening metaphor of planting, nurturing, and tenderly looking after your growth was a metaphor that the Doctor used over and over again with his patients.
Paradoxically, shortly before he died, Dr. Zbitnoff broke his leg when he climbed a fruit tree to prune that one last branch. He survived, but one year later he died.
Harley recalls visiting Nicholas in his darkroom where he often spent rime towards the early hours of the morning. On one such occasion, Harley noticed some slugs on the floor. He advised Nicholas to get rid of these pests. Apparently Nick responded by gently gathering the slugs into a container, taking them to the river's edge, and dumping them into the water to allow them to pursue the rest of their natural lives.
On another occasion, Nicholas apologized for stepping on the moss between the floorboards. He did not wish to hurt any living thing, human or otherwise. This was consistent with his ancestors who in 1895 burnt their firearms in a public demonstration to the world that violence and wars must cease once and for all.
Nicholas was critical of drunkenness, laziness and ignorance. A deputy sheriff who had befriended Nicholas tells the story of having to wrestle a violent and drunken man and take him into custody. He had handcuffs on when they brought him to jail where he tripped and cut his forehead. They called the hospital to say they would be bringing a prisoner in to get sewn up and heard that Dr. Zbitnoff was on call. The reaction of one of the officers was, 'Oh no, he hates cops'. They brought the prisoner to the hospital and had him strapped to a table where the doctor took a close look. Still fighting all the way, the prisoner spit a glob of phlegm on Nicholas's face. Without missing a beat the nurse handed him a towel. Rather than wipe his face, he stuffed the towel in the prisoner's mouth, then proceeded to sew up the wound without any local anesthetic.
Those who did not wish to take the effort to get educated also received criticism from Dr. Zbitnoff. For him, 'education was light to carry, yet was a powerful instrument of understanding and development in life'. The story of his going to the University of Saskatchewan was that of his stepfather and mother hitching up a wagon to a horse and driving him to Saskatoon and dumping him off there.
On politics, Nicholas was critical of hawkish and narrow politicians. Instead, in a socialist manner, he espoused the need for society to look after all of its members. All citizens ought to have full access to the fruits of its resources. The weak ought to be protected from the whims and rapacious actions of the strong.
In contrast, Harley was a classic capitalist. He believed in the free market system as the one that best provides livelihood for Americans.
This socialist/capitalist mix provided for some active and heated discussions on the appropriate political role of government in the affairs of its citizenry. The two politically opposed friends spent hours discussing politics, religion, photography and life. Sometimes this took place at Harley's residence. Other times it was in the Zbitnoff household or perhaps in Dr. Z's medical office. Dr. Zbitnoff would schedule appointments for his friend at the end of the day in order that they could pursue their favorite pastime, that of good discussion.
While Harley was never persuaded to the socialist cause, he says that he is now much more appreciative of that side of politics and overall received a better-balanced view of the socialist/capitalist spectrum. He thanks Nicholas for sharing this viewpoint with him.
There was indeed a close Doukhobor connection. Nicholas was educated at university, yet he was humble enough not to forget his Doukhobor background and his modest family roots. His family came from the Kars area of Turkey, which at the time was part of the Russian Empire. Each summer, as the opportunity allowed it, he would take his wife and children on a car trip to his home area in Blaine Lake, Saskatchewan. On the way back, he would usually stop at the Saskatchewan Doukhobor settlements in Buchanan and Kamsack, as well as points in British Columbia. Often he captured his relatives on black and white film. His home and darkroom were full of visual examples of his visits to the prairies — except that he usually failed to label these images for future generations. I found this out when I sought to identify some of his prints. See 194 photos below.
Also Nicholas pursued his interest in recording Doukhobor Family Trees. On many occasions, he took his Uher reel-to-reel tape recorder and interviewed Doukhobors on tape. He corresponded with relatives and friends, often seeking detailed information on their family connections. This data he added to his growing files. In addition he regularly read the Doukhobor publication Iskra, and therein gathered further information on family trees. His real object was to collect the definitive Doukhobor Family Tree Collection in North America.
Shortly after he died, the Mormons from Salt Lake City Archives came to see his wife and spent eight days copying his voluminous Family Tree records. This important resource is now housed in the Mormon Archives and is available to people seeking their family connections. (2)
Harley Hayes described Nicholas Zbitnoff as 'an excellent doctor'. He was often known to visit his patients at home at all times of the day or night. It didn't matter whether they were rich or poor, he treated them equally as best he could. His appointments were often generalities: 'come in tomorrow afternoon, he would say. He didn't keep an appointment book. Sometimes people would have to wait for hours to see him. And if he felt the discussion was relevant or the person needed to hear his views, a five-minute visit could easily take 45 minutes or more.
Nicholas Zbitnoff practiced medicine for 52 years, 44 of them in Ukiah. His helping attitude endeared him to his community. Known to his patients as 'Dr. Z' he was a familiar figure at all the local hospitals, but especially at Mendocino Community Hospital, where he served for a time as Chief of Staff at the request of the Board of Supervisors. He also stepped in several times to keep the hospital and outpatient clinic open, and worked in the clinic until 1982. In 1985, at the age of 83, Dr. Zbitnoff closed his Clay Street office and retired from the medical profession. In July of that year, Mendocino Community Hospital officials honored Zbitnoff for his years of service to the community by dedicating their newly constructed lounge to him. Zbitnoff was a member of the American Medical Association and the local medical society. He was a man who combined his social, political and professional lives in his medical practice.
A local photographer in Ukiah, who was present at the commemoration, described Nicholas Zbitnoff as 'a rare photographer. He forgot the technology of filming, but instead focused on the subject before him. In doing this, he had total rapport with the subject.' The results showed in his photographic efforts. The portraits had a special quality about them — a quality of direct relationship. And that is what made his portraits so 'special', according to this local photographer. See 194 photos below.
The children tell me that their father began his photographic interest first using 8 man movie film. When this medium faded, Nicholas immediately switched to coloured slides and his collection of thousands of items extends from 1949 to 1983. These included images of not only his Doukhobor visits, but also his worldwide trips across North America, Europe, Middle East, USSR, China, and South America. Later, in the 1960s, he took an interest in black and white photography and the examples in the Zbitnoff household attest to this, ass; well as the large stacks of photographs stored in his darkroom. He used a variety of cameras, most of which were still housed in a closet in his residence. These included a Leica, Pentax, Nikon, Reflex and others. With tripod, a light meter, and various lenses, he preferred using natural light. ses, he preferred using natural light.
Nicholas especially enjoyed taking photos of flowers and sunsets. There are hundreds of examples of these in his collection. When daughter Tamara and her husband Clive Adams established their Emandel Farm (3) on the River at Willits, California, Dr. Z was there often capturing images of the family and views of the scenery. In his heart, he wished to protect the natural resources of our earth and its beauty.
Their parents have influenced all the surviving Zbitnoff children. Igor (a theoretical physicist and educator) as the oldest in the family, was the first one to visit the Soviet Union. This occurred in 1961 when the US Government invited its best students to get to know the Soviet stranger. Igor was part of a US college group that visited Moscow, Kiev, and Leningrad, in what was essentially a fact-finding tour. Unfortunately, the Cold War set in and created many negative stereotypes about the Soviet people, only later to be officially mitigated with the Gorbachev-Bush Summit. (4)
In 1995 Tamara and Anna joined Igor and his brother Maxim (5) (who calls himself a 'latter day spirit wrestler' and works in construction to support his spirit wrestling habit) in a commemorative trip to Western Canada to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Burning of Arms in Tsarist Russia. Maxim produced an especially designed T-shirt commemorating the event which he took with him and distributed his message to the world. Namely:
'The Spirit Wrestlers in three settlements of Transcaucasia burned their weapons because they argued there is a spark of love, beauty and God in every person; therefore, it is wrong to kill another human being. For them, a human being is not an enemy, but a neighbour in the process of becoming a friend.' If their father was alive, he would have fully approved of their bridge-building trip to Canada. For Dr. Nicholas Zbitnoff the way to peace is showing it in personal non-violent action and commitment.
Following one of his trips to Asia Minor where he brushed over the ruins of past civilizations and sought traces of the Doukhobor philosophy, he wrote:
'... When one asks "What does one want of life?", the answers may be many, but by far and large, one would not want their life threatened nor would it be right to threaten others. Hence, do onto others as one would want others to do onto you. If this is understandable, one does not have to invoke any kinds of beliefs or declarations...' (23rd June 1978).
Later, in a letter to the editor of Iskra (8th September 1981: 18), he elaborated this further:
' Our youth need not worry what will happen to Doukhoborism. It is universal and couched in different words. It is within you that what you wish it to be. "To do unto others as you would wish others do onto you". If we in our daily life can carry out this simple precept, "Doukhoborism" will continue in the hearts of Mankind.'
Dr. Nicholas F. Zbitnoff, self-photograph, July 1970, Ukiah, California, USA.
Right: Anna Zbitnoff of Ukiah and her sister Tamara Adams of Willits, California, USA reminisce while looking through slides taken by their father the late Dr Nicholas Zbitnoff.
Dr. Nicholas F. Zbitnoff shows slides at his home.
The good Doctor in his study.
Lapshinoff Family History by Jonathan Kalmakoff. Search for "Nikolai Zbitnoff" for his location in the family tree
Memories of Blaine Lake and Area, by Dr. Nikolas Zbitnoff. 17 of his photos.