R.I.P. Alice Munro (1931 – 2024)

“Compared to Anton Chekhov for her peerless short stories for which she won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013, Alice Munro (left) has died.FULL STORY

 

The outsider

Peter Maloff, a noted Doukhobor in his time, travelled the world to meet other pacifists and vegetarians while staying true to himself.

May 01st, 2024

Doukhobor peace activist, Peter Maloff, and his wife Lusha Maloff.

Peter’s granddaughter, Vera Maloff, revisits his memoirs to shed light on Peter’s experiences growing up in the Canadian Doukhobor community, meeting influential people in the pacifist movement and his time in a cooperative freedom colony in Oregon.


By Tom Hawthorn

A son of the Canadian prairie, Peter Maloff (1900 – 1971) was born with wanderlust. After taking an apprenticeship with a printer in San Francisco at the age of 15, he heard the great Caruso sing, thrilled to the violin of Fritz Kreisler, marveled at prima ballerina Anna Pavlova’s “dying swan” dance. He then went on the bum, joining hobos in catching freight trains in California. In time, Maloff would travel the world visiting fellow pacifists and vegetarians.

For all the masters he saw and heard, though, Maloff was most affected emotionally by the singing of ten members of the Sons of Freedom, a splinter group of the Doukhobors, as they eased their burden of pushing and pulling a cart on rutted roads without benefit of horses or oxen by singing ancient hymns in their native Russian.

“I was under the spell of their singing,” he wrote in a memoir, now published by Caitlin Press, “and I felt these people represented something really great. But exactly what this greatness was, I could not understand.”

Pete’s granddaughter, Vera Maloff. Photo by Tamara Terry.

Maloff became a noted Doukhobor figure who wrote an extensive history of the group’s time in Canada. In They Called Him a Radical, his granddaughter, Vera Maloff, intersperses Pete’s memoir with her own observations and reflections on researching his background, making this a living history. The result is a fascinating look at a fractious community whose contributions to British Columbia have been more often overshadowed by disputes with authorities.

Facing persecution in Czarist Russia and in conflict with the Orthodox Church, some 7,500 members of the community moved en masse to Canada with the promise of free land and an exemption from military service. The first 2,100 arrived in 1899 aboard the three-masted ship Lake Huron before settling in the North-West Territories (the correct spelling for the area when it included Saskatchewan, Manitoba and large parts of the North, until 1906) in what is now Saskatchewan, where Pete Maloff was born a year later. He had fond memories of early life in a Doukhobor community.

“Communally, we ploughed, mowed hay, made bricks and prepared food,” he wrote. “Everywhere there was turbulent large-scale productivity of community effort. Music, that is, choir singing, spread out to the very horizon wherever people lived. Civilization was far away and we grew up and developed in these primitive, idyllic surroundings.”

The Russian-speaking Christians were soon in conflict with officials. As pacifists, they refused military service. A few years after their arrival, the federal government insisted homesteads had to be registered individually, not collectively, meaning the Doukhobors would also have to swear allegiance to the Crown, including taking up arms.

Peter Verigin, known by some of his followers as The Lordly, led followers to British Columbia, where some, including Maloff’s parents, lived apart as Independent Doukhobors.

“Even in my earliest days,” Maloff wrote, “I felt an extreme aversion to all cruelty, licentiousness and other moral decadence into which those who had left the community had begun to fall. In this category were my own parents.”

Peter Maloff leading a peaceful protest in Nelson against land taxes going to military 1929.

At the same time, a splinter group of radical orthodox believers, known as the Sons of Freedom, burned their own homes and possessions, as well as those of others. In 1924, Verigin was killed when his railcar exploded. Whether the incident was an accident or, more likely, assassination is debated to this day, as is the identity of any possible perpetrator. Soon after, police and armed vigilantes in the Kootenays seized Doukhobor property, beginning several decades of strife.

Maloff published a pamphlet in 1950 during a period of turbulence. He wrote: “It seems to me that this policy of assimilation, especially when done by violence, coercion and intimidation, is one of the chief causes of Doukhobor unrest.”

The Sons of Freedom engaged in further acts of arson and bombings, as well as such civil disobedience as nude protests. In the 1950s, the Social Credit provincial government forcibly removed children from their parents and communities. Some were kept in a former sanitorium where they were only allowed to meet adult relatives through a chain-link fence. Earlier this year, premier David Eby apologized for the British Columbia government’s action.

Maloff was a thinker and a questioner, not simply a follower. He balked at restrictions on his personal philosophic and religious explorations.

“Sometimes Peter Vasilievich [Verigin] and the community appeared to me to be the realization of world brotherhood, the highest symbol,” he wrote, “but at other times the community appeared to me to be a spiritual prison where one was obliged to obey orders and where even the shadow of freedom was absent.”

World peace was Maloff’s cause, which he pursued from his home in Thrums, a hamlet along the Kootenay River. After selling rare pieces of Doukhobor literature to the library at the University of British Columbia, he used the proceeds to finance a trip to visit several far-flung correspondents.

He would die at 71, sitting beside his wife Lusha on a bus while traveling to visit a friend in the United States, his wanderlust sated only by death.

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In 1929, Maloff was one of several Doukhobor men who led a peaceful march through the streets of Nelson to protest the use of tax money to purchase armaments. The marchers were hosed down by the fire department, and the leaders, including Maloff, were sentenced to six months of hard labour at Oakalla. Later, while under house arrest, he wrote this memoir, so wonderfully placed in context by granddaughter Vera Maloff, the author of Our Backs Warmed by the Sun: Memories of a Doukhobor Life (Caitlin Press, 2021), an insightful collection of reminiscences, social history and oral history.

Last October, Vera joined other Doukhobors in reciting prayers and singing hymns and psalms in honour of Peter Verigin, a memorial service conducted now for 99 consecutive years. A series of monthly lectures are being held at the Brilliant Cultural Centre and streamed online to mark the pending centenary.

The history told in They Called Him a Radical is part of a story not yet concluded. 9781773861340

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Tom Hawthorn’s most recent book is The Years Canadians Lost Their Minds and Found Their Country: The Centennial of 1967 (Douglas & McIntyre, 2017).

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