Plakun-Trava, strategies for living, and negotiated memory: Two recent publications on the Doukhobor Social Movement

by Dr. Günter Schaarschmidt — Book Reviews, The Social Science Journal 43 (2006) 503-512.

Spirit Wrestlers: Doukhobor Pioneers' Strategies for Living
Koozma J. Tarasoff; Ottawa: LEGAS/Spirit Wrestlers Publishing. 2002. xvi. 480 pages. Cloth (CD-ROM. Ottawa: Spirit Wrestlers Publishmg,2003).

Negotiated Memory: Doukhobor Autobiographical Discourse
Julie Rak; Vancouver. Toronto: LJBC Press, 2004, vi-xvi. 165 pages

At first sight, the two publications under review seem quite dissimilar in scope, methodology, and format to be considered together in one review. Tarasoff’s work (henceforth SW) is an abundantly illustrated encyclopedic publication with no claim to theorizing, while Rak’s volume (henceforth NW) is designed as a case study with a unified theoretical basis, a limited subject matter, and only three illustrations. The two works, however, share a common theme. viz.. story-telling, such as biographies (Tarasoff) and autobiographies (Rak; and, to a lesser extent, Tarasoff) as means to devise strategies for living and passing on traditions.

In his earlier, similarly encyclopedic, publication Koozma Tarasoff likened the Doukhobors lo what is known in Russian as plakun-trava “hypericum;” i.e., an ancient grass that “can float against the current of the water” (Tarasoff, 1982. p. xi). In the more than 20-year interval, the emphasis in SW has shifted more towards rediscovering the Doukhobors’ wisdom and contribution to society, especially since these have been largely obscured in Canada and elsewhere due to the media’s concentration on extremist tendencies of the movement.

Tarasoff’s SW consists of four chapters that make up roughly four fifths of the volume; an appendix; an extensive bibliography; an index combining personal names, place-names. titles, and other concepts; a list of maps and illustrations; and a list of photo credits. Chapter I presents a historical overview of the Doukhobors, starting from their origins in the middle of the 17th century as a social movement with anti-Church and anti-State as well as strongly pacifist principles to their present-day concentrated settlements in Canada (mainly in the provinces of British Columbia and Saskatchewan). This chapter is an updated version of Tarasoff’s chapter in The Encyclopedia of Canada’s Peoples (Magocsi. 1999. pp. 422-435), an item that incidentally, does not figure anywhere in the bibliography of. SW There are subchapters on remaining Doukhobor settlements in Russia, on Doukhobors in the USA. and on the various facets of Doukhobor social life.

Chapter 11. the longest chapter (about 300 pages), consists entirely of stories, most of them related by the author, but many are first-person narratives, i.e., autobiographies. They range from a teacher’s account of how the Russian language made its way into the curriculum of the school system in the interior of British Columbia and a description of how a Doukhobor entrepreneur in Cuba (“Fidel Castro’s special Canadian friend”) built a tourist business to a portrait of world champion high jumper Debbie Brill and of the “most talented and prolific” Doukhobor poet of the 19th century, Ivan Sysoev. The sum total of these stones is indeed testimony to Doukhobor “personalities that have made a difference” (41).

Chapter III begins on p. 336, not on p. 352, as the table of contents indicates. This chapter consists of photographs with brief legends and is thus appropriately entitled “a pictorial essay.” The photographs (about half of them in color) are a beautiful illustration of some of the highlights of Doukhobor history from the 1880s to the mid-1990s.

Chapter IV, entitled “Wisdom of the Ages.” is designed to highlight the 10 central Doukhobor values. There is an asterisk in the text presumably pointing to a footnote concerning these values but unfortunately the footnote dad not make it into the final printing process. However the subchapter headings list these 10 values: peace (non violence); work; co-operation; creativity and inventiveness; cleanliness; singing from the soul; sharing and hospitality; bridge-building; the spirit within; and roots for survival (in a free market society).

The chapter entitled “Appendix” has a varied contents: an expanded version of a paper presented earlier by the author at a conference and published in a one-paragraph summary in the proceedings of that conference (Donskov, Woodsworlh, and Gaffield, 1999, p. 231), doing away with 10 myths (or fallacies) concerning the Doukhobors: a glossary of general terms and abbreviations of Doukhobor place-names as well as of personal names; a fundamental Doukhobor psalm Bud’ blagochestiv “Be Devout,” given in English translation on p. 410 (not listed in the table of contents): and a chronological listing of significant events in Doukhobor history from 1652 to 2003.

As contrasted with the razmakh, to use a descriptive Russian term that encompasses both English “scope” and “imagination” of Tarasoff’s work. Julie Rak’s Negotiated Memories is considerably narrower in scope and more focused. Furthermore, while SW is a popular-scientific work that requires little or no academic background, NM is a scientific investigation that does require at least some academic background in the held of discourse analysis in order to fully understand the process of theory formulation and testing. The latter applies first and foremost to the theoretical chapter (Chapter 2) while the remaining chapters can be read profitably by the layperson.

Rak’s NM begins with a concise introduction that outlines the basic theory and content of the book. Taking a parallel from Tarasoff (1982), Rak maintains that plakun trava “can be recast as a figure that marks the work of identity negotiation and preservation in Doukhobor autobiographical discourse, which defines itself by working against the prevailing discursive current” (xvi).

Without losing sight of her subject, viz., Doukhobor autobiographical discourse, the author examines the various views and approaches in discourse analysis in Chapter I (“Beyond Auto-Bio-Graphe: Autobiography and Alternative Identities”). Whenever a particular approach seems suitable for the Doukhobor situation, the author will place a “bookmark” in the reader’s mind, the subject to be elaborated on in later chapters. This chapter is not compulsory reading for those interested in Doukhobor autobiographical discourse, and the subsequent chapters can be understood without difficulty by the non-initiated reader. This reviewer found the chapter to be very rewarding reading because of the kinds of questions that have been. and are being asked in the held of discourse analysis.

Chapter 2 (“Doukhobor Beliefs and Historical Moments”) presents the Doukhobor belief system as laid down in the Living Book (Zhivotnaja Kniha).(1) In addition, this chapter leads the reader through 220 years of Doukhobor history from the year of the first mentioning of the name dukhohor “spirit wrestler,” to our days, i.e., the time of impending wholesale assimilation. The author ends this chapter in the hope that the Doukhohors’ efforts in recording and publicizing autobiographical narratives in Russian and English “may contribute to new ways for Doukhobor identity to be figured” (54). Perhaps a better word here may be “reconfigured” as it is much more likely that the assimilation to the dominant anglophone culture will result in a new identity of English speakers with rituals quite distinct from Doukhobor culture of the past two or three centuries (see also Schaarschmidt. 2005, pp. 147-14S).

In Chapters 3 and 4. Julie Rak presents the actual data for her investigation, viz., written and oral autobiographies, respectively. In Chapter 3, she resorts to the concept of “eternal memory” (Russian: vechnaja pamjat’) as characterized in Psalm No. 355 from the Living Book: “eternal memory be to our righteous forefathers who were buried as the true Doukhobors” (61) (see footnote 1). The concept of vechnaja pamjat’as embedded in Doukhobor psalms, hymns, and the stories told by elders is said to be equivalent to the “sacred memory of migration experiences that are enacted again and again as part of the ‘diasporic imaginary’ when they are told, recited, or sung” (62). In her analysis of the written texts, the author sees the reflection of Doukhobor identity in narratives of “suffering, resistance to oppression, and commitment to peace” (83). She also emphasizes that the healing process is still being worked out, and that the language of the texts is far from homogeneous. The oral narratives analyzed in NM pose a challenge to established definitions of autobiographical writing, especially with respect to its linearity and self-directedness. Julie Rak’s analysis of both written and oral Doukhobor autobiographical and quasi-autobiographical texts will form a lasting contribution to Doukhoborism scholarship and to discourse analysis in general. The only problem with Chapters 3 and 4 is one of organization: there is a lack of subchapters with a concomitant grouping of the narratives either in terms of type or of content. This lack of subcategorization will make the reading of these two chapters repetitive and seemingly lacking a “red thread.”

Julie Rak devotes Chapter 5 to “Freedomite Autobiography.” The “freedomites” a.k.a. “sons of freedom” a.k.a. “zealots” often serve as pars pro toto when one mentions the term “Doukhobor” to Canadians. The Freedomites (Russian svobodniki} are a small group concentrated in a marginal geographic region in the West Kootenay district but they have been very vocal and violent in their protests (arson, bombings, nudity). And yet, there are main members of the group that have excelled in artistic expression. Tarasoff’s SW devotes several pages to a few of them (93-98), and it is very fitting that Rak’s NM should devote an entire chapter to their diaries and autobiographies.

In summary as was noted above, Tarasoff’s SW could have benefited from editing, e.g. there are references to the wrong pages — Piers Island in the Index refers to pp. 425-426 when in fact it is found on pp. 426-427; furthermore, the name of the island is given incorrectly as Pier’s Island on p. 477. In turn, Rak’s NM is a bit weak in the transliteration of Russian word’s; fortunately, she does not give too many of them. There is no question, however, that both works are very timely and relevant in a period of transition from a language maintenance of 60% to an estimated 30% within the next two or three generations, resulting in a shift in the variability of text types with concomitant Anglicization of large segments of Doukhobor cultural life. There are many voices among the Doukhohors that call for a return to the essentials of the movement and the elaboration of a plan for the future. However, as the readers’ forum in the Doukhobor monthly Iskra shows, the Doukhobor community is not going to accept a prescriptive approach: as one of the readers’ responses indicates, the “Doukhobor future is already here [italics] … perhaps it is our young people” (Iskra, p. 8). The authors of the two books under review seem to come to the same conclusion, whether it is Koozma Tarasoff’s programmatic-prescriptive “the necessity of preserving our roots must not he lost sight of” (378). Or Julie Rak’s analytical-descriptive “younger Doukhohors [refiguring] their own identities” (53).

  1. Julie Rak will no doubt encounter a lot of criticism for her phonetic spelling of “memory” as pamit. This is exactly the way Doukhobors pronounce this word in their dialect. The present reviewer would be more inclined to accept this spelling if the author had been consistent in the rendering of other Doukhobor phrases, such as Zhivotnaja Kniha (“Living Book”), which she renders in the Standard Russian form Zhivotiaja Kinga. It is also not clear to us why vechnaiia has two i’s in her representation when Doukhobor Russian has only the ending —aja here. But such linguistic details do not affect the overall value of the book.

Tarasoff, K. .J. (1982). Plakun Trava — The Doukhobors. Grand Forks, BC: Mir Publication Society (CD-ROM, Ottawa: Spirit Wrestlers Publishing. 2000).

Donskov, A., Woodsworth, .J., & Gaffield, C. (Eds.). (1999). The Doukhobor Centenary in Canada. Proceedings of a conference held at the University of Ottawa, 22-24 October 1999. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Slavic Research Group.

Iskra. (2005, June 29). Voice of the Doukhobors (No. 1971, pp. 3-10). Grand Forks, BC: The Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ.

Magocsi and P. R. (Ed.). (1999). Encyclopedia of Canada’s Peoples. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Schaarschmidt, G. (2005). Four norms — One culture: Doukhobor Russian in Canada. In R. Muhr (Ed.). Standardvariationen und Sprachideologien in verschiedenen Sprachkulturen der Welt  (pp. 137-150) (Standard variations and language ideologies in different language cultures around the world). Wien: Peter Lang Verlag.

Günter Schaarschmidt, Emeritus
Department of Germanic and Russian Studies, University of Victoria.
POR 3045STN CSC. Victoria, BC. Canada V8W 3P4
E-mail address:
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