Under Archangel Verigin, the Doukhobor "wife-sharing” colony at Hillier, B. C, is out to create heaven on earth
THE REV. H. P. DAVIDSON, 63, is a tall and wiry man of God with earnest blue eyes, an earnest voice and a strong, earnest handshake. He also possesses an enquiring mind. He still takes summer courses at university to broaden his viewpoint, and to help him understand a world more bedeviled now than ever by crass and pagan philosophies.
One fine summer day this year Mr. Davidson set forth on a mission of discovery. As minister of St. Stephen’s United Church in the pleasant summerresort. town of Qualicum Beach on Vancouver Island he had n job to do. He had to find out if it was really true, as headlined so disturbingly in the press, that those Doukhohors in the nearby village of Hillier were pract icing “wife sharing,” communal sex and “free love.”
Accompanied by a friend, Mr. Davidson drove six miles over bumpy roads to Hillier. Unchallenged, they entered the buHhy 320-acre settlement where a small group of men, women and children with Russian names had arrived quietly a year before from inland British Columbia and established “The Spiritual Community of Christ.”
The grey-haired minister stated his business to the first person they met, a patriarchal elder with faded eyes. The old man bowed gravely, shook his head.
Then a young, vigorous farmer stepped forward and smiled. “I speak English,” he said. “You want ask questions. Better you see Joe.”
He led them to a sunlit cottage where presently they found themselves deep in discussion of humanity’s oldest, most intimate problems with a tough-minded, tenderhearted young philosopher in overalls, Joseph E. Podovinikoff.
Yes, Joe told them politely, it was true that he
and his neighbors had set up a society of “communal living on a 100% free basis.”
Yes, there was complete freedom between the sexes.
“But,” he added with much firmness, “there are no gross motives in our endeavor. This talk about ‘swapping of wives’ is sheer misrepresentation of fact. Our aim is purity of body, purity of soul. We regard communal relations and the abolition of all private property as the highest plane of human life.”
After that, the colloquy grew more heated. When questioned later, neither Mr. Davidson nor Joe Podovinikoff would outline in detail the course of the conversation.
Young Mr. Podovinikoff, who speaks both Russian and English with the fire and eloquence of an Old Testament prophet, admitted that he and the clergyman had “locked horns.” He added sombrely, “We have a traditional inherent distrust of the ministerial gentry. If they cannot come down from their high authoritative heaven and meet us on common ground as common Christian folk, then we are at a loss how to assume our way.”
Said Mr. Davidson, who is chairman of the Evangelism and Social Service Committee of the B. C. Conference of the United Church of Canada: “I am deeply concerned over the implications of this philosophy in our midst. The sex code of these people violates the Christian concept of family life. Yet none of us holds any bitterness toward them. There is no hostility. We want to be neighbors; we want to help them. We are
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not trying to banish them from Vancouver Island.”
Earnestly, the minister added, “I feel that what they need most is to be educated, to be taught real Christianity—and that this is a challenge to all of us. Other than that, my only reaction is one of sincere pity for a group of apparently honest people who have been misled.”
In an effort to examine both sides of the Hillier controversy, this writer later spent several days visiting the Spritual Community of Christ. I talked freely with its members and with their non-Doukhobor neighbors on the southeastern slopes of Vancouver Island, 35 miles north of Nanaimo.
They’re a Happy People
This is what I found:
1. The community consists of only 65 persons—24 men, 20 women, 21 children. Half of the adults are middleaged or older. Some of the younger ones have had public-school education and the children have a school of their own, but most of the Elder3 are illiterate. They live in nine cottages on a half section of heavily wooded land, which they are laboriously clearing. They pay taxes. They collectively own two trucks, four horses, nine cows, two dogs and three cats—and they want a bulldozer.
2. Eventually they hope to sell enough fruit and vegetables to become
completely self-sustaining. At present almost their whole income, aside from small savings which they have pooled, is the wages of five of their men, who work on the nearby 1,000-acre farm of H. R. MacMillan of Vancouver, Canada’s timber king.
3. Their leader is 6 ft. 2 in., 250-lb. Michael (“the Archangel”) Verigin, 64, a former Vancouver rooming-house operator. Although they call him “Mike” and treat him with no special deference in ordinary relationships, they seriously consider him a divinely ordained messenger who will lead them to “the new Kingdom of Heaven on earth.” Joe Podovinikoff, 34, is the Archangel’s spare-time secretary and chief spokesman.
4. They regard private ownership, whether of furniture or of husbands and wives, as the “altar of Satan,” the source of the world’s w'oes. Their society is based on “a communal system of life in accordance with the creed of the Apostlesand the Primitive Church.”
5. They are respected by their neighbors. No one questions their sincerity and integrity. No one seems worried about the possibility of sexual promiscuity and a constant carnival of lust. No one who spends even a few hours with them could suspect them of evilmindedness.
6. They are the happiest-looking people I have ever seen.
Ivan Walker, an affable Briton who talks like George Formby, ran a postoffice and general store for many years at Hillier’s Crossing, on the outskirts of the colony, until he sold out recently. Said he, while his wife and their hired girl nodded strong assent:
“They’re grand people and fine neighbors. They’re spotlessly clean: you could eat off their floors.
“Another thing 1 like about them is the way they treat their children— with real kindness and affection. Mind you, every couple tries to treat everybody else’s kids just the way they do their own. And the kids themselves— you never saw a nicer, politer, cleaner bunch of youngsters.”
No More “My,” “Mine”
Ben Hughes is editor of the Comox Argus at Courtenay, 40 miles north of Hillier. He told me the first news of the Doukhobors’ arrival on Vancouver Island “came as an absolute thunderclap to all of us.” Later, however, the impression had spread that the new settlers were “a pretty decent sort of people.” Despite this, said Mr. Hughes, many of the islanders were still anxious that the colony not be allowed to grow indefinitely and thus become a possible source of unrest in the district. He had received and published many letters from readers about the Hillier colony. Without exception their tone was tolerant and friendly.
Recently, in a momentous “Open Letter” to the Christian world, the Elders of the Spiritual Community of Christ swore that they had moved to Vancouver Island “not to transgress the law, but to fulfill it.”
“Our aim is to prove that all the uncleanliness of the world, the murders, rapes, divorces, separations, diseases, insanities, infidelity and all the other misfortunes of Man—including war— can only be removed when the head of that old serpent shall be extirpated: that false god, the Devil, whose n;sme is Mammon, his foundation the principle of private ownership.
“This can be done only through consciousness of divine power, by people who voluntarily enter into a life of selfabnegation and disciplinary subjugation of the flesh to the will of the Spirit.”
One of the younger men in the com-
munity explained it less mystically.
“We don’t use the words ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ here any more,” he said. “Or anyway we’re gradually breaking away from them. What we’re mainly trying to do is to wipe out all traces of the old ‘me, my, mine’ attitude. We believe very strongly that no man or woman has the right to call any other person ‘mine.’
“What we practice here is not ‘free love’ in the w'orldly sense at all. To us, freedom means discipline—that is, self - discipline, both spritual and physical. Most of those reporters who flocked in here some time ago didn’t mention that w’e are all under a vow of continence. There have been no children born among us for almost two years. And we’ve never had a case of venereal disease.
“At the same time, we admit freely that it has not been easy for us to adopt communal relations.
“Many of us were already married, with families, before we joined the Spiritual Community. We must constantly fight the remaining traces of selfishness within our hearts and minds. These ancient human barriers cannot be broken down overnight. It will have to be a gradual process.”
No Marriage, No Divorce
One man in his mid-thirties told me the vow of sexual abstinence is of three years’ duration. It ends late this year for several who joined the Spiritual Community at its inauguration.
“But that doesn’t mean we will then start jumping around from bed to bed as soon as the three years are up,” he added solemnly. “It won’t mean all controls are off. Instead we will continue to practice self-discipline and to seek purity of heart as faithfully as possible.”
This same man acknowledged readily that during the past year he had slept once each with three other women of the colony besides his pre-Hillier wife, who still lives with him and their children.
“But I didn’t have intercours** with them. Instead, we accepted each experience as a further opportunity to strengthen our wills and to make our hearts pure like those of little children.”
In the simplest terms, the institutions of marriage and divorce do not exist in the Spiritual Community. Doukhobors on the B. C. mainland get “married” by mutual consent and the consent of both sets of parents. There are no clergymen (“We are all ministers”) and no wedding services— merely a public announcement by both parties. At Hillier, there is not even that.
If John and Mary and their children have been living together in one house, and Andrew and Alice and their children in another, John and Alice may start living together at any time if they both freely consent to it, and the same goes for Mary and Andrew. In either ease, the former mate has no right to object.
That is the theory. In practice, almost all the adults in the Spiritual Community still live monogamously with their pre-Hillier mates. The older people, such as John and Anna Zarubin, respectively 82 and 86, make no effort to drep the words “husband” and “wife.” They act just like any other old married couple.
Canadian law does not recognize most Doukhobor “marriages,” except a few which were officially registered with the authorities.
The Hillierites do not regard communal sex as adultery. They insist that their approach to it is on the loftiest moral basis; that the sex function is by its nature divine but has been per-
verted by mankind into some thing gross and animalistic. No orthodox clergyman could be more vehement than young Joe Podovinikoff in denouncing promiscuity, moral laxity and the cynical breaking of sacred covenants.
Nor do they deny (he power and passion which can distinguish one man’s love for one woman, whether in a communal society or under ordinary marriage rules. Said one Hillier man, with such force and feeling that his sincerity could not possibly be doubted:
“I love the woman I live w'ith—call her my ‘wife,’ call her what you wish. I love her with my heart and my soul and my body. I have no longing for anv other woman in the world. I would gladly give my life, if necessary, to prove my love for her. But what if 1 found that in order to bring her happiness I had to offer her, not my life, but—another man. Wouldn’t, that demand an even greater love on my part? I think so.”
Peter Verigin’s People
To grasp the roots of this simple credo, it is necessary to know something of the turbulent history of the pacifistic Doukhobors, of whom there are about 17,000 in Canada, including 7,000 in B. C.
They originated in Russia among the serfs of Muscovy in the 17th century. The name “Doukhobor” means “spirit wrestler.” Generations of persecution failed to weaken their ardor. Stubbornly they refused to bear arms in the Russian army, because they believed then —as they do now—that all war is murder, the unforgivable sin. In semiexile they were harried from place to place in the Czar’s empire. Finally, in 1898, Moscow decided they’d be less trouble if allowed to seek freedom elsewhere.
At that time Canada, only 31 years after Confederation, needed settlers badly. She offered the Doukhobors asylum, exemption from military service, and 450,000 acres of rolling prairie land.
Two thousand Doukhobors arrived at Halifax in the freighter Lake Huron on Jan. 24, 1899. Another 5,000 came a year later, including a seven-year-old hoy named Michael Verigin whom the Hillierites crowned this year as “Michael the Archangel.”
First Doukhobor leader in Canada was Peter Vasilivich (“the Lordly”) Verigin, fourth cousin of Michael. A limpid-eyed, persuasive, bearded giant who wore white Russian shirts and English morning coats, Peter the Lordly was in Siberian exile for a time but. was released in 1902 and immediately joined his flock near Yorkton, Sask.
In 1909 the first B. C. contingent settled at Brilliant, near Nelson. There were troublemakers among them, but everywhere the Doukhobors worked hard and prospered.
Gradually, however, radical factions appeared. Most notorious of these were the “Sons of Freedom,” who believed in dramatizing their scorn of man-made authority. There were school burnings. There were nude parades, “to symbolize the equality of all men in the eyes of Cod.” Hundreds of Doukhobors were jailed.
On Oct. 29, 1924, old Peter the Lordly was blown to Kingdom Come in the mysterious and still-unsolved bombing cf a CPR day coach near Farron, 58 miles east of Nelson. Eight others died with him, including a member of the B. C. legislature, John A. Mackie.
Since then, Peter’s rock-hewn sepulchre on a mountain shelf overlooking the Columbia River at Brilliant has been bombed or otherwise desecrated
on several occasions—most recently on July 21 this year.
Peter the Lordly was succeeded in 1927 by his son, Peter Petrovich Verigin. A complex personality, a giant like his father, Peter II was a fearsome curser, a mighty man with his fists, fond of beer and poker and arguments. He called himself Chestiakov cr Chistiakoff, meaning “the Purger.” Today, eight years after his death, he is still the Purger to Michael the Archangel and his fellow Elders at Hillier.
Persecution in the Kootenays
Since the Purger’s death at Saskatoon in 1939 at the age of 53, there has been no nationally recognized Doukhobor chief in Canada. His son, Peter III, supposedly leads the sect’s remnants in the Soviet Union, a precarious habitat for any group opposing military duty.
The Purger’s grandson, John J. Verigin, 24, is the head of a Doukhobor colony at Brilliant known as “The Union of the Spiritual Communities of Christ.” Despite the similarity in names, this group is repudiated as “materialist” by the Hillier settlers.
The Hillierites, in fact, recently renounced the name “Doukhobor” altogether. (It still slips out, from long habit, in their conversation.) “We are members,” they announced in their Open Letter, “of the Spiritual Community of Christ, which is a universal body, belonging to no particularchurch, sect, organization or party on earth. It belongs to Christ alone, and Christ is in Heaven with God.”
Joe Podovinikoff says the birth pangs of the Spiritual Community of Christ were suffered in 1944. The Elders conducted a historic 40-day session and decided that the great majority of Doukhobors had gradually deserted the true ideals of Peter the Lordly.
Says Joe, his pale-blue eyes shining with conviction, “We found the root of all the world’s evil, not in the outer world, but in the private inner temple where all evil rages and the altar of Satan is hidden. In other words, private ownership!”
The Elders therefore urged upon all Doukhobors the abandonment of public stripping and of all other “antagonistic activities” against the outside world, and the adoption of an austere program of self-discovery and purification.
The Elders began their co-operative life right in the midst of the Sons of Freedom, at Krestova in the Kootenays.
In May, 1946, enemies burned down a Spiritual Community building. They stripped the clothes from the broad back of Michael the Archangel, beat him, pinioned his arms and subjected him to other indignities which he now never discusses with outsiders.
A few weeks later, the first five
home-seeking pioneers arrived at Hillier. They were Michael Verigin, Kuzma Nazaroff, Joe Podovinikoff, and two middle-aged women, Dora Berikoff and Polly Samarodin.
Florence, Joe’s attractive and sunnytempered 32-year-old “wife,” joined them after two days. They have two children: Natalie, 10, and Joe, 5.
“We’d had our eye on Vancouver Island for some time,” one of the Elders told me. “The soil is pretty good. There’s water. There’s a railway close by. There’s a postoffice. The people are good neighbors. We’ve never had any trouble here and we don’t expect to.”
Joe Podovinikoff phrases it more poetically: “It remains up to us to turn this little corner of the globe into a centre or nucleus from which shall spread the seeds for the liberation of the whole earth . . . This island, we are convinced, has been providentially reserved for this great mission.”
They Dislike Bolshevism
The Elders, however, are quick to point out that the community is strictly nonpolitical.
“None need fear,” says their Open Letter to the world, “that any influences of disloyalty may arise to existing governments, regardless of what party is in power.”
Specifically, they detest Bolshevism. Many of them know by heart some remarks made on that subject in 1934 by Peter the Purger:
“Around you, nose the spies of the Comintern . . . The aim of the Bolsheviks is to reduce people to the level of animals and deliver them into the hands of the Devil. The Doukhobor ideal is spirituality, while Bolshevism is materialism reduced to its extremest level and the complete renunciation of all spirituality.”
For their 320 Hillier acres and the weary buildings that stood there, Michael and his flock pooled their cash and paid $20,000 to the impoverished farmers who’d been trying to clear and cultivate the semiwilderness.
The rambling wooden cottages at Hillier are plainly, almost humbly, furnished. But they are comfortable and flawlessly clean. They are strewn over the whole 320 acres.
Up to now, each house shelters two or three “families” (they haven’t yet. found an English substitute for a word they’re trying to banish from their lives). Each woman considers herself “mother” to all the children under her roof and to all the others in the community. Except for inherited resemblances, it is impossible to sort out the blood relatives in any large gathering.
One young mother admitted ruefully that this was “a real struggle, an awful struggle” for her.
“The old selfishness within me keeps welling up. But I’m fighting it. And every time I conquer it I’m happy.”
Next summer should see the colonists well on the road toward selfsupport. Thus far they are selling only a few fruits and vegetables to immediate neighbors, but the future holds rich marketing possibilities. They are growing strawberries, raspberries, loganberries, apples, pears, cherries and plums, and all the ordinary kinds of common vegetables. In one year they have planted 325 fruit trees of all varieties, 6,000 roots of strawberries and 3,000 of raspberries.
All the work of the settlement is shared. The women, even the old ones, work in the fields with the men, although their usual tasks are cooking,
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washing and housekeeping. Nearly everyone is up and busy by 6 a.m. After supper, 12 hours later, they are free to do what they wish, except for immediate essential duties. Most of them are asleep before 10.
Eating any form of flesh, including fish and poultry, is strictly forbidden. Bui eggs and milk are consumed with relish, and the colonists are fond of fruit and vegetables.
The Hillierites advocate temperance in the use of alcohol. But they believe its moderate use is not harmful “if taken as medicine or tonic.” After their colony is better established they plan to make their own wine.
Tobacco is totally taboo, especially for young women.
Also banned are cosmetics and short skirts. They are considered synthetic stimulants to sexual desires. The women and girls wear long, wide skirts and bind their braided hair in attractive kerchiefs. Few of the women could be called pretty by Canadian standards, and their contours call to mind an old Doukhobor cradle prayer: “God send her plumpness and beauty will come of itself.”
The Hillier colony has its own school, taught by Helen Derhousoflf, 32, a widow with four children. She teaches 16 children in both Russ;an and English. Subjects include reading, writing, arithmetic and spelling and the “groundwork” is laid for later studies in hygiene, physiology, geography and history.
Archangel in a Sweater
Michael the Archangel, leader of the island heaven, is a big, massive Russian with a calm, strong face, closecropped grey hair, and a voice like the rumble of kettledrums.
At his own coronation, Verigin wore a heavy sweater and a faded open-neck shirt. He stood bareheaded throughout the sunrise ceremony. Then he donned an old straw hat and ambled with great bearlike strides into the community’s brand-new kitchen and dining hall to preside at the first communal breakfast. This was the menu:
Borsch, whole-wheat bread with fresh creamery butter, cornflakes and other prepared cereals, raspberries and thick cream, plums, corn syrup, pears, luscious freshly baked fig rolls, doughnuts, strawberry jelly, rice pudding with raisins, milk, coffee.
Verigin speaks English slowly and with difficulty. Wlnm he addresses his followers in Russian it is easy to sense the rude strength and ardor of his discourse, the deep effect on his hearers. Yet there is an utter lack of any servility in their personal attitude toward him—or to anyone else. They hold up their heads like men.
Most of the repercussions of their original “wife-sharing” publicity saddened and angered the Elders. In one respect, however, t hey were pleasurably surprised. From all over the world mail came-—from Australia, Africa, Palestine, India, Austria, Italy, England, Switzerland, and dozens of points in Canada and the United States. Of the first 60 letters received, 15 expressed interest in joining the community. Eight applied outright for immediate membership.
Only one of their correspondents was frankly carnal-minded. An ex-soldier in hospital wrote that he was all in favor of communal sex, and he went into lip-smacking detail.
Joe’s long - jawed, stubborn face darkened as he told me about it.
“We didn’t even bother to answer,” he said. “The man’s own words condemned him more harshly than could any of ours.” it;