Taking the Cure

How a group of British Columbian anarchists inspired democracy in Russia

Aleksandr Yakovlev (far right) with Pierre Trudeau During the 1970s / Image provided by the Estate of Aleksandr Yakovlev

It stands as one of the more unusual turning points of the Cold War, thanks mostly to the surprise appearance of several naked middle-aged women. It began with a plasterer named Peter Voykin driving his 1970 Ford Meteor toward the local community centre in Castlegar, in the Kootenay mountains of southeastern British Columbia, on the Saturday before Victoria Day in 1980. As a Doukhobor, a member of a sect of Christian anarchists who settled in the Kootenays after fleeing Russia in the 1890s, Voykin was a vegetarian and a pacifist who championed an ethic of communal living and sharing.

For most of the previous four decades, the Doukhobors had been harassed by a zealous splinter group, the Sons of Freedom, which had mastered several idiosyncratic refinements to the art of the political protest, including placard-and chant-filled parades in which many demonstrated without clothes. To punctuate these naked parades, the Freedomites also employed arson and firebombing, often targeting community centres and homes belonging to the main group of “orthodox” Doukhobors.

The latest issue in this version of the Hatfield-McCoy feud was the Doukhobors’ newly forged ties with Russia, a response to their creeping cultural assimilation after almost a century in Canada. The orthodox group was investigating the possibility of a mass migration to their homeland, and to help establish the necessary ties they had invited the highest-ranking member of the Soviet Union in Canada, Ambassador Aleksandr N. Yakovlev, to Castlegar, to attend the annual youth festival, the highlight of the Doukhobor calendar.

On the Saturday in question, Voykin was driving Yakovlev to the opening of the festival. They were heading for the peninsula where the Kootenay River meets the Columbia, the site of the local community centre, when Voykin spied something he’d hoped not to see: a small group of Freedomite protesters. As soon as they saw the car, they held up signs accusing the orthodox Doukhobors of ties with the kgb. Other placards told Ambassador Yakovlev to go back to Ottawa. Half a dozen of the elder women were stark naked.

It was a potentially disastrous moment during an already troubled time for the Doukhobors. But it turned out Voykin needn’t have worried. The ambassador had long since become immune to political protest. Yakovlev’s encounter with the naked protesters was simply an unconventional beginning to a visit that would, as it turned out, alter the fate of the Soviet Union.

Russia has lurched away from autocracy several times since the 1917 revolution — during Vladimir Lenin’s New Economic Policy in the 1920s, Nikita Khrushchev’s thaw in the late ’50s and early ’60s, and, most famously, the heady perestroika period, which began with Mikhail Gorbachev’s assumption of power in 1985 and concluded with the evaporation of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991. Given current events in Russia — increasing Kremlin control of the economy, constriction of press freedoms and other civil liberties — perestroika seems today like a charming anachronism, an episode of misguided idealism.

The period remains important, however, because it brought Russia as close as it has ever come to functioning, full-blown democracy. Nearly two decades on, academics have come to realize the integral role played by Gorbachev’s strategic adviser — Yakovlev, who is now referred to as the “architect of perestroika” for his behind-the-scenes influence. The former ambassador to Canada was particularly crucial to the press freedoms known as glasnost, which exposed the corruption and inefficiency of Soviet Russia. David Remnick, the current editor of the New Yorker and the winner of a Pulitzer Prize for his book Lenin’s Tomb, called him “Gorbachev’s good angel.”

If the West is searching for ways to steer an increasingly autocratic Russia back toward functioning democracy, then Yakovlev’s story is a useful case study. And in that case study, one of the pivotal but least understood periods is the decade he spent in Ottawa. As the author of a biography of Yakovlev, I’d set out to understand the man’s ideological journey from anti-Western autocrat to the most potent force for freedom and democracy ever to walk the halls of the Kremlin. I thought his story might provide hints on how to deal with today’s Russian leaders. But as my book deadline approached, there was one aspect of Yakovlev’s story I failed to understand. In his memoirs, he describes the onset in 1978 of a severe depression that was complicated, as the years passed, by an increasingly rancorous Cold War. Then, suddenly, the funk disappeared.

Yakovlev hints at the cure in a compilation of his perestroika-related writings. The first entry is a twenty-nine-page history he wrote about the Doukhobors, whom he credited with reawakening his pride in his Russian heritage, the first step on his path to perestroika. But he was frustratingly vague about the catalyst for his turn-around. How, exactly, had this shrinking sect of Christian anarchists salved his depression, and set him on that path? To learn the answer, I would have to retrace his path in the Kootenays.

Aleksandr Yakovlev was born in Soviet Russia in 1923, to peasants who raised him in a series of rural villages among the treed hills and valleys near the headwaters of the Volga River. His father was a forester; his mother raised Aleksandr and three daughters while also tending to the family’s garden and livestock.

Yakovlev was seventeen when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, forcing him to go to war. Less than a year into his service, he led an attack against the Nazis in a marsh near Leningrad. He was shot by four bullets. The wounds left him with a fused left knee, reduced hearing and eyesight, and fragments in his chest that caused him pain throughout his life. His distinguished war service won him a medal, and set off a remarkable ascent that saw him running the party’s Department of Agitation and Propaganda — the entire Soviet media, essentially — while still only in his forties. Yakovlev was also a highly regarded speech writer, crafting the words of General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, among others.

He participated in his share of injustice, including the oversight of propaganda efforts in support of the violent suppression of the 1968 Prague Spring. But within the upper ranks of the Communist Party, he was also waging a war to open up the Soviet Union, for example by allowing citizens to openly criticize the state. He frequently leveraged his connections to Brezhnev and other politburo members to prevent censors from banning articles in publications such as Novy Mir, the literary journal that first published Solzhenitsyn.

By 1972, Yakovlev had grown so disgusted with the increasingly power-hungry Soviet leadership that he published a long article criticizing the romanticization of the country’s pre-revolutionary past, one of the Communist Party’s most hypocritical policies. The stunt led to his demotion to ambassador and banishment to the Cold War backwater of Ottawa. He took over the Soviet embassy in July 1973.

At first, Yakovlev was inspired by Canada, which struck him as one of the world’s few healthy, functioning democracies, particularly when compared with its southern neighbour, which was reeling from Watergate and Vietnam. As ambassador, he developed friendships with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and the charismatic founder of McDonald’s of Canada, George Cohon, who dreamt of opening the first Western fast-food franchise behind the Iron Curtain. Excited by the prospect of improving his home country, Yakovlev wrote long memos to Moscow crammed with ideas from Canadian life — particularly its approaches to agriculture.

But by the end of the 1970s, Yakovlev had again grown discouraged. His missives had gone unheeded, and Brezhnev had become an embarrassment — a sleeping-pill-addicted stroke victim who often drifted off during official appearances. Amid the resulting leadership vacuum, Moscow spent billions on the military and ignored the rest of the country, causing massive food shortages that required the expenditure of additional billions to import grain from the West.

Back home, Yakovlev’s brethren justified their tactics by insisting that the Russian people required autocratic rule. This line, still used by some to justify the Putin/Medvedev autocracy, holds that Russians have a strength of character that allows them to do remarkable things, such as single-handedly fighting off the “Nazi menace” in the Second World War. This line of thinking has an unfortunate corollary, however: the Russian strength of character also prevents the nation’s citizens from responsibly using the sorts of freedoms enjoyed in the West.

Yakovlev was one of the few in the Communist Party to reject such arguments. He thought Russia would only improve if the police state were lifted. But his hope waned still further when he learned that the Soviets were equipping silos in Eastern Europe with easily transportable nuclear missiles called SS-20s, each armed with three independently targetable warheads. Then, on Christmas Day 1979, Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan.

As the official representative of the Soviet Union in Canada, Yakovlev was forced to confront the West’s response to these moves. He’d grown accustomed to blaming America for the Cold War’s most provocative strategies, but his own country was now inching the world closer to nuclear war. He describes this dark period in his memoirs:

You make yourself out to be an active, smiling man, but in actuality you are being moved by some inner clockwork spring that is independent of your true state of mind. Life loses its creative source, moves ahead as if in automatic drive. Healthy curiosity about people and events disappears. More and more frequently, my head was filled with bitter thoughts that my life was already behind me, while my country more and more perceptibly was becoming petrified and rapidly was falling behind world development. And I could see no new day dawning.

At around the same time, Yakovlev began hearing about an unusual community of Russian émigrés known as the Doukhobors. The group was receiving frequent mention in the media, thanks to the conflict with the Freedomites in British Columbia. It was then that the honorary chairman of the orthodox sect, John J. Verigin Sr., contacted him to request a meeting.

Even a nondescript town of strip malls and parking lots like Castlegar, home to the cultural centre of the Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ (as the Doukhobors are formally known), improves when surrounded by mountain peaks and orchards, pastures and forest. The Doukhobors took a circuitous path to this inland paradise.

Details of the group’s earliest days are obscure because of the illiteracy of nearly all of its original members, but according to the scholars George Woodcock and Ivan Avakumovic, the Doukhobor religion probably began as a response to Russian Orthodox teachings, taking root in rural Ukraine and then spreading to southern Russia. The first recorded use of the Doukhobor designation dates from 1785, when an Orthodox archbishop used the term, which translates loosely as “spirit wrestlers,” to indicate that the Doukhobors were fighting against the Holy Spirit. The sect soon reappropriated the name, taking it to mean that they were filled with the spirit of God as they wrestled their oppressors.

The central belief held by the Doukhobors is that the Holy Spirit is present in everyone. To know the will of God, one need only look inward. Priests, churches, icons, and sacraments all get in the way of an individual’s relationship with God. The Doukhobors eliminated these, and also severed their relationships with outside institutions such as the military and ruling governments. Members were strict pacifists and vegetarians, and the most zealous eschewed ties to material possessions, sharing their homes, land, and food with anyone who asked.

In turn-of-the-nineteenth-century Russia, replete as it was with subversives, the utopian anarchism of the Doukhobors attracted its share of admirers, among them the writer Leo Tolstoy. But the government was constantly jailing the group’s leaders and threatening its members with death.

An early Doukhobor leader known as Lushechka prophesied that the group would flourish in a land outside of Russia, then eventually return to the motherland. The first part of her prediction came true in 1895, after Russia’s new czar, Nicholas II, ordered his subjects to swear an oath of allegiance and instituted mandatory conscription for Russian men. Faced with the prospect of prison, many Doukhobors decided to leave the country. To fund their resettlement plan, Tolstoy donated the proceeds from his final major work, the novel Resurrection, and gathered money from other wealthy Russians. The British Society of Friends (the Quakers) contributed the remainder.

The group decided to go to Canada after word came from the prominent Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin that he’d encountered well-run Mennonite settlements in the vast emptiness of the Canadian prairies. An advance party travelled to the young country, securing from the Canadian government a promise that the group wouldn’t have to serve in the military. “The case seems to be,” one of the scouts concluded, “that Canada is as free as any country in the world.”

In 1898 and ‘99, the freighters Lake Huron and Lake Superior transported approximately 7,400 Doukhobors to Canada’s shores. The group went first to Saskatchewan and Alberta, but ran into trouble with provincial governments within a decade, so they packed up their experiment in anarchist socialism and moved to British Columbia’s southeastern interior. Repression persisted, however. Other Canadians resented Doukhobor antipathy toward institutions such as taxation, which led to fines and jail sentences. The Sons of Freedom were born in response.

Missing their homeland, the Doukhobors took steps to secure their ties to their Russian heritage. Successive generations taught their children to speak and read Russian, passing along old folk songs and fairy tales. Many wore traditional peasant dress during prayer services. But the BC government, in an effort to assimilate the Doukhobors, began taking the group’s children and educated them in residential schools, with the usual results. Many adults, meanwhile, were locked up in specially built prisons. Amid this mistreatment, many Doukhobors recalled Lushechka’s prophecy, prompting John Verigin to make inquiries in Russia about a return. It was in this period, the latter years of the 1970s, that he walked into Yakovlev’s office and invited him to the youth festival.

Normally, Yakovlev would have been too busy to accept. But the war in Afghanistan had limited diplomatic contact between the ussr and Canada, and he found himself with little to do. “I’ll come,” he told Verigin, “but I don’t want to stay in a hotel while I’m there. I want to stay with the people from your community. I want to see the way your people live.”

On the day they arrived in the Kootenays, Yakovlev, his wife, and his granddaughter rolled into Peter and Lucy Voykin’s gravel driveway in a shiny new Cadillac Seville coupe driven by one of Yakovlev’s advisers. Neither of the Voykins had so much as finished high school, and it would have been natural for them to have been intimidated hosting a man like Yakovlev, a high-ranking diplomat with a Ph.D. in foreign policy. But Yakovlev had insisted on not receiving special treatment, so once everyone had made their introductions the Voykins tried to go about their normal routine.

One morning that first weekend, Peter showed Yakovlev around his family’s one-hectare plot of land, set in a mountain valley above Castlegar. Voykin told the ambassador that his family grew most of their fruits and vegetables in their small garden. When the harvest was bountiful, they canned or otherwise preserved their extra produce, according to the Doukhobor ethic of self-sustenance. At one point, Voykin noticed that Yakovlev’s attention was wandering. He followed the ambassador’s gaze and saw that Yakovlev appeared to be entranced by a wooden staff tipped with a wicked-looking blade — the scythe Voykin used to tame the unfarmed areas of his lot.

He watched as Yakovlev settled his hands expertly onto the tool’s shaft, the way a long-retired clean-up hitter might heft the white ash of a baseball bat. There was a patch of clover nearby. With Voykin’s assent, Yakovlev began to attack the unruly brush. After a minute, he stopped, regarded his handiwork, and nodded. “You have to put your shoulder into it,” Yakovlev said, handing back the scythe. The ambassador explained that he had grown up wielding similar tools while working on his parents’ plot in the foothills of the Upper Volga.

Later that day, Yakovlev heard Lucy comment on a little bird in the yard. She called the creature a ptushachka rather than the more common ptitsa — the equivalent of calling a car a horseless carriage. Yakovlev marvelled that he hadn’t heard the term since he was a young boy. A few hours on, Lucy noticed the ambassador scrutinizing her as she moulded dough for piroshki. “You do that,” he said, nodding toward the dough, “just like my mother.” It was apparent that he felt at home.

Most days, Yakovlev set off with Peter Voykin and John Verigin to learn about the Doukhobor way of life. They toured apple orchards and visited traditional homesteads — typically a pair of stately redbrick homes linked by a rectangular single-storey building that served as both dormitory and workshop. The structures, historically the group’s primary dwellings, had once housed up to fifty community members at a time, everyone living and farming together. It was not so different from the way Yakovlev had grown up, with his mother and father often sharing their house with his grandfather, his uncles, and their families.

Yakovlev had moments in the Kootenays as enchanting as any he’d experienced. Toward the end of the youth festival, after a prayer service and some choral singing, the community gathered on the lawn beside the meeting hall. The babushkas and pastel-coloured blouses and skirts worn by hundreds of young Doukhobor women stood out brilliantly against the greens and browns of the surrounding forest. Younger members served fruit to their elders. Everyone spoke Russian. In this mountain valley set deep in the BC wilderness, the homesick Soviet ambassador had discovered a community just like the one he knew as a child.

It must have been an enormous surprise for Yakovlev to find in the Canadian Rockies a small community of Russian émigrés who lived a lifestyle so similar to that of his youth. But as the deadline approached for me to submit my biography of him, I still didn’t understand how this encounter could have pulled him from his depression, nor how it inspired him to accomplish what he did.

So last December, I went to the Kootenays, where I stayed with J.J. Verigin Jr., the executive director of the Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ, and the heir of John Verigin. The Doukhobors’ de facto leader turned out to be anything but what I had expected. Though he is fifty-two years old, he had the fashion sense and speaking style of a Whistler snowboarder, as well as the same up-for-anything, non-judgmental vibe. Within ten minutes of my arrival at his home in the Kootenay town of Grand Forks, we were sharing a beer, and within ten more we were headed for a concert at a local hall. I expected a traditional choir recital; instead, I found myself watching the legendary Vancouver punk outfit d.o.a.

When the show had ended, our ears still buzzing from d.o.a. ‘s machine-gun kick drumming, Verigin brought me to a home on the outskirts of Grand Forks, where a dozen of his friends were partying with the band. This was not quite the bacchanal it might once have been. d.o.a. leader Joe Keithley still wears his hair dyed blond, but less out of youthful rebellion, one suspects, than a desire to obscure his grey hair. After three decades of punk rock, he’s in his early fifties, and known as much for his politics as his music. Beers in hand, Verigin and Keithley traded observations on the Iraq war and the machinations of Vancouver’s city council.

As the night wrapped up, Keithley let slip that the band’s tour van was having mechanical problems — something that might prevent them from attending their next gig at a snow-boarding competition in Fernie. Verigin and his friends immediately began burning through their cellphone minutes, trying to track down someone in the region who would be able to fix the band’s van at the crack of dawn.

I saw something in that moment. Until then, I had lumped the Doukhobors in with ultra-conservative sects like the Amish and the Mennonites. But Verigin and the rest of the Kootenay Doukhobors were anything but conservative. After more than a century in Canada, they retained their communitarian sensibilities, and their anti-authoritarian, anarchist vibe. They were far more comfortable alongside counter-culture legends like Joe Keithley than buggy-riding Christian conservatives.

Only then did I understand why this exiled but proudly Russian sect of socialist anarchists had the influence on Yakovlev that it did. The Doukhobors were a living rebuttal to the theory that Russia requires a strongman. Yakovlev must have seen them as an example of the way Russians might have lived, had they not been stifled by the corruption and inefficiency of the Communist Party. In a series of mountain valleys in the BC interior, the future architect of perestroika encountered a community of proudly Russian people who convinced him that his countrymen could thrive in an atmosphere of freedom and democracy. Indeed, in his memoirs, Yakovlev had written:

They are amazing people — hard-working, open, courteous . . . They believe with complete sincerity that only moral principles will save mankind from moral collapse . . . These stubborn people, though at times naïve in their misconceptions, have sustained through all their ordeals an uncompromising attitude toward deception, hypocrisy, and violence, along with an unbending rejection of militarism.

The evening before I was to fly home, I ate dinner at the home of the Popoff family, who serve as the Doukhobors’ poet-historians. Eli Popoff ‘s novel Tanya is one of the few representations of the Doukhobor way of life in fiction, and his son, Jim, was the longtime editor of the group’s publication, Iskra. Dorothy Popoff, Eli’s wife, and Jim’s wife, Lillian, had prepared a feast of borscht and piroshki. Over a table set with cloth napkins, lace doilies, and crystal, we spoke of the parallels between the Doukhobors and Yakovlev — both pacifists and exiles, both ardent about social justice and personal freedom.

As we ate, Dorothy revealed that she had been present at the climactic moment of Yakovlev’s visit with the Doukhobors. In 1980, she was one of two women on the Doukhobors’ executive committee, which invited Yakovlev to a meeting on Victoria Day in a wood-panelled conference room in the basement of the community centre. There, the Doukhobors requested Yakovlev’s help in arranging a return to Russia.

The ambassador’s answer demonstrated his frustration with the realities of the Soviet Union and his admiration of the Doukhobor way of life. “There is so much land in Russia, and so much black earth,” he said. “We shouldn’t be buying wheat from Canada. We should be growing so much grain ourselves that we export it to help the rest of the world.” He told them he was impressed with their pride in their heritage and their considerable work ethic. He thought the Soviet Union would benefit from their presence. “Russia would do well to have as hardworking a people as the Doukhobors among its citizens,” he said. “I will help you.” Unfortunately, he didn’t have much pull in Moscow at the time. All he could do was to increase the number of artistic and academic exchanges between the Doukhobors and Russia.

Years later, after Yakovlev had become Gorbachev’s right-hand man, Verigin Sr. and other Doukhobors made the journey to Moscow. They met Yakovlev in his office, right next to the general secretary’s, where he once again pledged his full support. To encourage the migration, he promised to arrange a five-year ban on taxation. But then history intervened. The Soviet state collapsed in the aftermath of an August 1991 coup, and the situation in Russia grew so unstable that few Doukhobors still wanted to move.

The years since have been difficult for the community. John Verigin, who worked to arrange the Doukhobors’ return, is descending into the darkness of dementia. His son, J. J., presides over a membership that has been shrinking due to assimilation. These days, the BC community numbers between 1,000 and 2,000 active members, a precipitous drop from the 7,400 who first made the journey to Canada.

The Doukhobors had hoped Yakovlev would help them return to their homeland. Instead, the help went the other way around. As it faces the possibility of extinction, this shrinking group of anarchists can perhaps take solace in its influence on Yakovlev — in having pulled him from his depression, restored his faith in the benevolence of the Russian character, and, ultimately, in having helped bring their shared homeland to the brink of democracy.

Christopher Shulgan