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New podcast shines a light on rural BC Doukhobor community, cult leader’s legacy

A new podcast shines a light on an ethno-religious group that called British Columbia’s Kootenay region home for more than a century, and the legacy of their leader, who died in what has been described as one of Canada’s greatest unsolved mysteries.

In May, the Columbia Basin Trust and Kootenay Mountain Culture Magazine launched Headwaters: Stories from the Sourcea podcast celebrating the region.

Produced by former CBC reporter Bob Keating and moderated by magazine editor Mitchell Scott, Upstream has released four episodes so far, including one on the Doukhoborsa religious community originating from Russia.

The Doukhobors dissented from the Russian Orthodox Church in the 18th century, rejecting organized religion while retaining its Christian teachings, according to the Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ (USCC), the largest Doukhobor organization in Canada.

Later, under the encouragement of leader Peter Vasilevich Verigin, they also adopted a communal lifestyle, abstaining from tobacco and alcohol, and practiced vegetarianism and pacifism – opposition to war and violence.

According to the USCC, approximately 30,000 Doukhobors live in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, the Kootenay and Okanagan regions, as well as in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

‘A tragedy’

The episode explores an event that “upended” the community’s way of life: the death of Verigin, a Russian-born philosopher and activist who became the leader of the Doukhobors in the late 19th century.

According to the USCC, state persecution spurred the migration of more than 7,000 Doukhobors from Russia to Canada, where they would be free to practice their religion. From 1898 to 1899 they emigrated with the support of novelist Leo Tolstoy and the Religious Society of Friends, also known as Quakers, and mostly settled in Saskatchewan.

Young Doukhobors at Blaine Lake, Sask., photographed in 1930. More than 7,000 Doukhobors migrated to Canada from Russia in the late 19th century, mostly settling in Saskatchewan. (Library and Archives Canada)

Later, Verigin led about 6,000 Doukhobors to British Columbia, where they built community villages in Grand Forks and Castlegar.

On October 29, 1924, Verigin and eight other passengers, including Grand Forks-Greenwood MP John McKie, were killed when a train exploded along the Canadian Pacific Railway’s Kettle Valley line.

“It was a tragedy,” said Verigin’s great-great-grandson and USCC executive director John J. Verigin Jr.

“It destabilized the Dukhobor community in Canada…it was a difficult time.”

The cause of the explosion remains unknown and the incident has been described as one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in Canadian history.

In the podcast, Verigin Jr. recounts pilgrimages to a monument honoring Peter Verigin in Farron, British Columbia, about 45 kilometers northeast of Grand Forks.

“When we were kids, we used to walk over here and we had a little prayer service in the morning,” he said.

After Verigin’s death, his descendants took over the role of spiritual leader of the Doukhobors. His son, Peter Petrovich Verigin, founded USCC in 1938.

“An interesting historical figure”

Greg Nesteroff, a Castlegar journalist born into a Doukhobor family, has written extensively about the community and contributed to the podcast’s reporting.

Now 45, Nesteroff says he didn’t hear about Verigin in school, but his parents told him stories about the Doukhobor leader.

“He was an interesting historical figure to me,” Nesteroff said, adding that it would be interesting for schools across the province to add Doukhobor history, including Verigin’s legacy, to their curriculum.

Greg Nesteroff, left, and John J. Verigin Jr., pictured Oct. 21 near the monument honoring Peter Verigin. Nesteroff says he always considered the Verigin a great historical figure. (Bob Keating)

The episode also tells the story of Mary Braun, a member of a Doukhobor faction called the Sons of Freedom, who became known for her public protests by setting fires and demonstrating naked. Braun was sentenced to six years in prison in 2001 for burning down a satellite building of Selkirk College in Castlegar.

It also introduces Kalesnikoff, a Doukhobor family forestry business.

LISTEN | Mitchell Scott and Greg Nesteroff on the Upstream podcast

Radio West9:57Reporters from the Kootenays have produced a new podcast featuring an episode on one of the bloodiest unsolved crimes in Canadian history

Reporters from the Kootenays have produced a new podcast featuring an episode on one of the bloodiest unsolved crimes in Canadian history

“[The Doukhobors] have a long history far longer than any of us,” said Keating, who covered Braun’s trial as Nelson’s CBC correspondent.

“There are a lot of newcomers to the Kootenays [that] I’m not sure I really know the whole story, so there’s a lot of reason to accept it.”

Verigin Jr. says the USCC is also discussing plans to commemorate the centennial in 2024 of his great-great-grandfather’s death.

episodes of the Upstream podcast will be released every Wednesday.