CASTLEGAR, B.C. – Tucked into the green valleys of southeast British Columbia, a handful of century-old brick houses are mute witness to an old way of life.
Once these were home to Doukhobors, Christian pacifists who fled the religious persecution of Russia’s 19th-century czars and ended up in this far corner of Canada.
About 6,000 Doukhobors settled here, near the communities of Castlegar and Grand Forks, in the early 1900s and established dozens of tiny villages where they lived communally.
They made bricks and built their houses; cleared the forest and planted fruit trees; broke sod and grew their vegetables; spun wool from sheep into modest, plain clothing.
For decades, the valleys across the border north of Spokane echoed to the sound of the Doukhobors’ Russian language and plaintive singing of hymns and psalms.
Fast-forward to the 21st century. For a casual visitor, the Doukhobor heritage isn’t immediately obvious. The communal villages long ago dissolved, with many of the brick houses torn down for their sturdy building material.
North America’s estimated 30,000 Doukhobors – most of whom live in British Columbia – now blend into Canadian society.
Yet the cultural heritage endures, if you take the time to look beneath the surface.
In the small towns of Grand Forks and Castlegar, vinyl-table cafes serve borscht (the traditional Russian beet soup) and rib-sticking pierogi (a savory dumpling).
School kids chat in Russian, thanks to language-immersion programs in public schools. Russian surnames abound, such as Davidoff and Popoff, with half or more of the people in some communities of Doukhobor heritage.
You might see older women wearing the traditional headscarf or, if you’re lucky, hear a Doukhobor choir singing, a cappella, in Russian.
For a visitor, though, the best way to get a taste of Doukhobor heritage is at one of the museums in the region.
On a spring driving trip in southeast British Columbia, I wandered from ski resorts to old mining towns, from hot springs in the forest to Nelson, the surprisingly cosmopolitan hub of what’s called the West Kootenay region.
The town of about 10,000 is blessed with lovingly preserved 19th-century buildings, comfortable hotels, good restaurants and a countercultural/outdoorsy vibe.
Being a big fan of small-town museums, I also ended up at the Doukhobor Discovery Center in the nearby town of Castlegar. The museum is a reconstructed Doukhobor village showing what life was like in the early 1900s.
Tall brick houses, with narrow windows and broad porches, perch on a bluff above the Columbia River. Each such house would have been an extended-family home to dozens of men, women and children.
For curator Larry Ewashen, the museum has been a labor of love for 17 years and a way to connect to his Doukhobor heritage.
Walking through one of the houses, 70-year-old Ewashen points out the kitchen’s traditional clay and brick oven; the wood table for simple meals; rows of small bedrooms upstairs sparely furnished with handmade wooden beds and stools.
A few handwoven rugs, some almost a century old, hang on the walls; rugs were traditional presents for newlyweds.
In the museum’s second house is a timeline of historic photos, from 19th-century Doukhobor communities of Russia and Georgia to early days in Canada and modern times.
One photo, from the Doukhobors’ first days in Canada’s prairies before they moved to B.C., shows a line of women in long dresses and headscarves pulling a plow through a field.
Life was always austere for the Doukhobors – the name means “spirit wrestlers” – who emerged in Russia in the 1700s as dissidents from the Russian Orthodox Church, renouncing the church hierarchy, rituals and icon worship. They shunned meat (many remain vegetarians), alcohol and smoking.
Those who settled in British Columbia in the early 1900s worked in the fields, in a jam-making factory or brick factory that the industrious Doukhobors established near Castlegar.
Outside authority, both of church and state, traditionally was disdained. As pacifists, Doukhobors refused military service.
Their Christian services are held with no ostentation and no clergy; Doukhobors sing psalms and hymns or say their own prayers by a table set with bread, salt and water, representing the simplest staffs of life.
“The Doukhobors believe the spirit of God lives in people. They won’t bow to icons; they bow to each other,” said Ewashen.
While Doukhobors sought a peaceful and secluded life, they sometimes clashed with the outside world. Thousands of men burned their weapons in an anti-military protest in Russia in 1895, touching off tensions that eventually led to the mass exodus to Canada.
The 19th-century Russian novelist and philosopher Leo Tolstoy championed the Doukhobors and helped pay their way to Canada; a statue of Tolstoy stands behind the museum in Castlegar.
In Canada, the Doukhobors found both peace and persecution – and internal clashes.
Peter Verigin, who led them to British Columbia in the early 1900s, was killed in a still unsolved bombing of a train near Castlegar in 1924; he’s buried a few miles from the museum.
The Sons of Freedom, a small radical Doukhobor offshoot, vaulted into the headlines in the 1950s and 1960s. They opposed taxes, schooling, private property and all government authority.
Some burned down their own houses – and firebombed those of mainstream Doukhobors – and marched naked to protest materialistic life.
Intense reconciliation efforts helped the protests wane by the 1970s, and Doukhobors continued to reunite and reclaim their heritage.
Nowadays the Doukhobor Discovery Centre fosters cultural pride through its displays and activities, from special exhibits and festivals to a community garden.
Local herbalist Netta Zeberoff is developing a garden, like that her Doukhobor ancestors would have tended, and making traditional Doukhobor herbal medicines and salves.
“There’s a revival of heritage,” said Ewashen. “Pacifism, holistic living, ecology – all those are ideas Doukhobors have been talking about for hundreds of years. Now they’re more important than ever.”