For many, the Doukhobor story is a sensational one: arson, nudity and civil disobedience once made headlines. But it isn’t the whole story. In Our Backs Warmed by the Sun: Memories of a Doukhobor Life (Caitlin Press, 2020), author Vera Maloff, through the stories of her mother, Elizabeth, shares her family’s history, the struggles of living a pacifist, agrarian life in a world with opposing values.
“At this time many around the world are speaking out against racism and brutality,” says Maloff.
“This story about my family and my Doukhobor people is about how they stood up for justice and peace in their time through nonviolent actions, despite governmental and societal retribution.
The Doukhobors — both the Sons of Freedom and moderate sects — led anti-military protests throughout the early 1900s, harboured draft dodgers in the 60s, and stood up for their beliefs. In response they were hosed down, arrested, and jailed. As a child, Elizabeth and her family were interned in an abandoned logging camp while their father served time in Oakalla Prison for charges related to a peaceful protest.
Later, Elizabeth and other children were institutionalized — one of a series of Canadian government efforts in assimilation.
In writing the book, Maloff says she “gained a deep respect and empathy for members of my family and an understanding of the difficult road they tread. Their lives and the lives of us, their children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren were molded by the choices they made.”
Tracing the Doukhobor movement from Russia, Our Backs Warmed by the Sun explores the spiritual influence of its leaders, providing integral context to a significant historical movement that spanned six decades.
Maloff does not shy away from the controversial actions of the Sons of Freedom in the darkest days of bombings and arson, or the toll on families and communities, probing with a historian’s curiosity and a daughter’s tenderness.
It was difficult to write about, admits Maloff.
“Sharing those dark moments was at times painful for [my mother and my aunts], especially when they had been blocking grief and agony for years," she said.
"They did so with dignity, without regret or blame. I hope I have done their memories justice.”
The Doukhobors are a Spiritual Christian religious group of Russian origin. There are an estimated 65,000 people of Doukhobor descent living in Canada today. Yet, in the 2011 Census, only 2,290 indicated Doukhobor as their religion.
The Doukhobors faced persecution particularly for their pacifist objections to military service and in February 1898, the Russian Tsar granted permission to the Doukhobor group of conscientious objectors to leave Russia. Approximately 8,780 Doukhobors emigrated to Canada from 1899–1930. The original settlement of Doukhobor colonies took place in the Northwest Territories (which would become Saskatchewan in 1905).
Approximately 5,000 settlers left Saskatchewan to live in British Columbia between 1908–1911. However, the Government of Canada did not uphold their guarantees to the Doukhobor community and tensions emerged between the government and the Doukhobors as well as within the community itself.
Vera Maloff was raised in the Kootenay valley of British Columbia. Her writing, including the new memoir, reflects the influence of her Doukhobor grandparents, who were active in the peace movement. After retiring from a career in teaching, Vera began to record family stories passed down from generations.
“I hope that readers will develop an understanding of the diversity of Doukhobor lives and go beyond the bizarre news reports that have dominated Doukhobor topics in the past,” says Maloff. “I hope they can understand the passion that drove my grandfather, to act on his conscience, even when sacrificing the best interests of his family.”
Koozma J. Tarasoff, an ethnographer, writer, and peace activist, who knew Peter N. Maloff, wrote, “Granddaughter Vera retraces his turbulent life through manuscripts, newspapers, and interviews with family members and others — giving us a picture of what it was like for him and his family and friends to go against the grain. For those who dare to actively work for peace and truth, this is a book for you.”