Kalyeena Makortoff (left) and her grandfather Peter Savinkoff, who was a member of the Sons of Freedom Doukhobors. Photo courtesy of Kalyeena Makortoff

COLUMN: Doukhobors faced divisions and reconciliation

Kalyeena Makortoff writes about her grandfather’s role in Doukhobor history

March was meant to be uneventful.

I knew my grandfather, Peter Savinkoff, wasn’t doing too well. He’d recently had a heart attack and needed surgery, but was too weak to see it through. Doctors said it was just a matter of time, but no one could answer how long.

He’d had a tough year, and losing his home to a fire in Gilpin last summer heaped extra strain on his health. But my dyeda (Russian for grandfather) seemed to have nine lives, and I was optimistic I’d see him in a few months when I flew in from London for my annual visit home.

The call came on a Monday, around 7 p.m. I was still at work and filing my last article for the day when my mom rang to tell me dyeda had landed back in hospital. There was nothing more the doctors could do but keep him comfortable, so he was moved straight from the emergency ward into palliative care where he’d spend his final days.

The next 24 hours were a blur, and I was half-way through getting ready for work when I finally broke down and realized I needed to get home, fast. By midday I was on a plane to Kelowna, and hoping that in the flurry of packing and rushing to Heathrow, I gave my dad the right arrival time.

I finally made it to my dyeda at Boundary Hospital that evening to a dimly lit room, bustling with family. I still remember my dyeda propping himself up to hug me and that alone was worth the trip.

I wouldn’t leave the room for three days, and it was rarely empty. To be completely honest, I never really took my dyeda to be very sociable, but I felt proven wrong by the steady stream of friends and family coming to say goodbye. Even more travelled from across the Kootenays to pay their respects after he passed away, to the point where there was only standing room at the Grand Forks Funeral Home a couple days later.

My mom and aunt organised a slightly altered, but otherwise traditional, Doukhobor send-off and were incredibly grateful to have the psalm singers and JJ Verigin, the executive director of the Doukhobor organization Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ, join us that morning.

Now I need to explain why those last two details are important, and how one man’s funeral came to symbolize so much for the Doukhobor community. Even as late as the 1990s, few would have imagined that JJ would end up speaking at my dyeda’s funeral – a point JJ himself made in a speech that morning. But it’s a sign that divisions across the community have started to heal.

My dyeda was a well-known and active member of the radically leaning Sons of Freedom Doukhobors throughout his life, a factor that usually put him at odds with the more mainstream and moderate USCC, and the independent Doukhobors as well.

It would take more than a column to explain how tensions between the USCC and Sons of Freedom arose and played out over the past century. The details are complex and the wounds, for many, are still raw.

But put simply, many USCC members resented the backlash they suffered from the wider Canadian community as a result of the protest tactics of the Sons of Freedom, which involved nudity, arson and in some cases bombings (aimed at structures, not people, mind you). Some also feared their own homes or businesses would be targets.

Members of the Sons of Freedom, meanwhile, felt they were living closer to the true ideals of Doukhoborism and that their brethren had strayed from the anti-materialist path they were meant to follow. The group also refused to own land, register births, deaths or marriages or send their children to state schooling – partly in fear of military indoctrination.

The latter led to one of the most traumatic events in recent Doukhobor history, namely the forced removal of Sons of Freedom children from their families in the 1950s. My dyeda was among them, having been hunted down for at least two years by police and thrown into residential school in New Denver by the age of seven.

Survivors of that institution were deeply affected. Some adopted extremist views after they were released following the school’s closure in 1959. Others turned to substance abuse, became alcoholics, lost marriages or died early. My dyeda turned 71 in December.

At the funeral, JJ explained that my grandfather, like many others who suffered through the experience, were victims. And that trauma permeated throughout the community in the decades that followed, which were tumultuous to say the least. There was even a period in the 1970s when Sons of Freedom Doukhobors weren’t allowed in USCC prayer halls.

But the seeds of reconciliation were planted in the 1990s, when Doukhobors celebrated 100 years in Canada and launched cross-country dialogue about the state of the community. It also came at a time when Sons of Freedom activity was starting to slow down.

JJ recalled a point in the early 2000s when my dyeda asked to meet with JJ’s father, who at the time was head of the USCC. At that meeting, my dyeda asked for forgiveness, and was told by JJ Verigin senior that forgiveness goes both ways, and asked for it in return.

Now, I myself have a foot in both the USCC and Sons of Freedom communities, with the Makortoffs from the former and the Savinkoffs from the latter. I grew up in Gilpin in the 1990s and took part in USCC Sunday schools and a string of youth choirs. And I can honestly say I’ve never seen the level of integration we’re seeing now.

But that reconciliation has come at a crossroads for the Doukhobors, who are now grappling with the community’s future as local numbers dwindle. And I’m part of the problem: young people are moving away for school, jobs and are starting families far away from Grand Forks and the Kootenays where our Doukhobor communities are rooted. So there’s an aspect of necessity too, of needing to join forces so we can all together figure out what’s next.

But as JJ said: reconciliation is an ongoing process. There is usually an identifiable beginning but never an end point. It needs ongoing forgiveness, compassion and love to take root in order to grow to its full potential.

It may have taken a lifetime, a death and a funeral for that lesson to become so clear but I know my dyeda would have been proud to know he played a part.

Kalyeena Makortoff is a journalist in London, England.

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Peter Savinkoff is seen here as a child with his mother Lucy. Photo courtesy of Kalyeena Makortoff

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