Koozma J. Tarasoff 's New Book

Spirit Wrestlers:

Doukhobor Pioneers' Strategies for Living

ISKRA — April 27, 2005 — No 1969 — Pages 22-23
The Doukhobors, especially since their emigration from Russia to Canada in 1899, have been the subject of numerous studies by writers both within and outside the movement, and one may well be skeptical as to the need (or yet another one. Yet the very diversity of this unique people, which have grown considerably in numbers over the past hundred years in their new homeland, means that the wealth of information, insights and practical pointers they have to share with the world on how to live a good life in harmony with their fellow Earth-dwellers is far from being exhausted. And Koozma J. Tarasoff's long-awaited monumental volume, Doukhobor Pioneers' Strategies for Living (in both print and CD formal) is living proof that a rich harvest may still be drawn from exploration of this wealth and its description in book form.

 Tarasoff's experience as a writer, ethnographer and historian, has been both long and prolific, dating back to his production of the Inquirer magazine during his student days at the University of Saskatchewan in the early 1950s. In additon to his seminal work on the Doukhohors, Plakun Trava, which appeared in 1982, he has authored, compiled, co-edited and guest-edited a number of valuable studies on this significant group of Slavs and their often misrepresented contribution to the Canadian cultural mosaic. Whether or not Strategies for Living turns out to be the culmination of his professional career or simply a stepping-stone to even further achievements, Doukhohors — as, indeed, Canadians as a whole — can only welcome this priceless behind-the-scenes look at what the Doukhobor movement is all about in the context of Western-Canadian society.

It would not be incorrect to say that the Doukhobors (at least in Canada) are generally perceived as a religious movement — indeed, as Iskra readers well know, worship of God according to ones individual conscience is at the very heart of Doukhobor beliefs. But, as Tarasoff points out at the beginning of his first chapter, "Overview" the overall picture is considerably greater in scope: "Although comprising elements of religion and a distinct way of life, Doukhobors might best be described as a social movement characterized by love, human goodness, and justice" (p. 1, my italics).

The description of the Doukhobors as a social movement more or less sets the tone for the whole volume. Only two of the forty pages in the author's "Overview" (Chapter I) are devoted to religious faith. Other topics include: Doukhobor origins and migration, community and economic life, family and kinship, culture and education, inter-group relations and group maintenance, as well as suggestions for further reading (the latter a prelude to the more extensive bibliography included at the end of the book). The section on "intergroup relations" turned out to be especially informative.

The bulk of the volume, however, Tarasoff devotes to a host of individual Doukhobors themselves, profiling some two hundred of them in his 360-pagc-long Chapter II: "Personalities that have made a difference" Some of these 108 vignettes have been authored by guest-writers close to the personalities described (although it is not readily apparent in every case just who wrote what). Most of them are devoted to individual personalities from many, many walks of life, but interspersed with these are several thematic groupings, each featuring a number of individuals of similar profession or, on occasion, a family — e.g. profiles of Doukhobor artists ("Communicating in form and colour", pp. 69-78), singers ("A cornucopia of singing talent from the heart", pp. 81-89), and the literarily talented Popoff family ("A family of writers and cultural contributors", pp. 120-126). The family category also includes Tarasoff's own evaluation of some of the more controversial aspects of succeeding generations of Doukhobor leaders in the section "The Verigin leadership revisited" (pp. 272-280). Two non-Doukhobor scholars who have undertaken significant studies of the Doukhobors are also included: Alexander Klibanov (pp. 150-151) and Kenneth Peacock (pp. 214-216).

These profiles are amply illustrated by an impressive array of black-and-white and colour photographs from the author's vast collection, many of them taken by Tarasoff himself (he can justifiably include ‘photographer’ among his professional hats), along with a number of masterful drawings by Vladimir Gubanov, an artist from Russia who spent four months capturing on paper the likeness of his fellow-Doukhobors in Western Canada (profiled on pp. 223-225). The reader will also find several examples of Doukhohor poetry (in both Russian and English).     
Seventy-two additional illustrations comprise Tarasoff's "Pictorial essay" on the Doukhobors in Chapter III — beginning with old pictures of Doukhobor families in Russia in (the 1880s and 1890s and going all the way up to the 1999 Centenary celebrations in the Kootenays. Some of the more interesting photos show Doukhobors at work on their pioneer farms and in community enterprises on the Canadian prairies, including a rare shot of Peter V. Verigin's secretary, Michael Cazakoff, seated at his office desk in 1906 (p. 339).

A natural question for the potential reader of this volume might be: What is the relevance of this particular book for twenty-first-century Doukhobor or non-Doukhobor Canadians? Tarasoff takes pains to give a specific answer to this question in his eighteen-page Chapter IV, grandly entitled: "Wisdom of the ages" Here he explains how the various Doukhobor "strategies for living" worked out by those he has profiled can be applied to an array of human values and endeavours in the modern age — a kind of 'legacy' of the centuries-old Doukhobor movement for the twenty-first century. The specific values selected include (among others): peace, the work ethic, co-operation, creativity and inventiveness, along with bridge-building between individuals and cultures.

In addition to these four chapters. Tarasoff offers a three-part Appendix of materials drawn from other sources, followed by a bibliography, and topped off by an index, a list of maps and illustrations and two pages of photo-credits. The first item in the Appendix is another attempt by the author to show the relevance of the profiles earlier in the book to the present-day world. In fact, it is an elaboration of a contribution he first made in 1999 to an Open Forum on "Doukhobors at the threshold of the 21st century" — held as part of an international conference at the University of Ottawa on "The Doukhobor Centenary in Canada" (see: A. Donskov, Woodsworth, C. Gaffield, The Doukhobor Centenary in Canada, Ottawa, 2000, p. 231) — in which he exposed ten "popular fallacies about the Doukhobors", from myths about their pacifism to the role of the Sons of Freedom zealots. The other two items in the Appendix are expanded and updated versions of Tarasoff's "Glossary" and Timeline", which originally appeared in his Plakun Trava (Grand Forks, B.C.: Mir Publication Society, 1982).

Whatever disappointments greeted this reviewer in going through the book and CD were basically technical in nature — e.g., the many typographical errors, the occasionally confusing positioning of the photos mixed in with the text, the fact that the CD-ROM text was not searchable electronically, the missing signature from Andrew Donskov's Foreword in the electronic version. It is hoped that these deficiencies will be remedied in any subsequent editions.

Technical difficulties aside, it must be acknowledged that Strategies for Living is a first-class example of a personal, subjective approach by a leading ethnographer to a comprehensive description in words and pictures of a particular people — a description very much infused with the author's own feelings on a subject he is intimately connected with. This is not to say, however, that he ignores the controversial aspects of Doukhoborism or shies away from discussing the sometimes contradictory viewpoints on the Doukhobors from both outside and inside the movement — these he handles and handles well, in a spirit of openness and enquiry, before balancing them with his own views on the particular issue at hand.

All of which makes Koozma Tarasoff's Strategies for Living an excellent read, and well worth the purchase, either as a valuable reference-book on an important part of our nation's history or as a highly entertaining account of the lives of some of the more interesting representatives of its vast multi-cultural heritage.

—  John Woodsworth     
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