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CZ.com | Articles | Neither War Nor Silence

Neither War Nor Silence
By Carolyn Zonailo

Tribal leaders say that you are responsible for future generations
because you are the ancestors of the future.
          −Jamie Sams and David Carson

My ancestors chose neither war nor silence. Their course of action was to rebel against the powers of both organized religion and the state, with little guidance except their own intuition and sense of universal human dignity. The people I am descended from decided, in the 1700s and 1800s in Russia, to live with conscience, take a stand against war, and follow a singular path. They separated from the Russian Orthodox Church, an enormously powerful institution in those times. They refused to swear allegiance to, or take up military service for, the Czarist state. Truly, to turn away from the values of the Orthodox Church and their duties towards the Czar was an incredibly brave, fool-hardy, courageous and unique action for the people of my heritage to undertake.

These people I am descended from are called Doukhobors. The term was coined by Archbishop Ambrosius of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1785. He called these religious dissidents "doukho-bortsi", or Spirit Wrestlers. What was originally intended as a derogatory term was then appropriated by my ancestors to identify themselves. The Spirit Wrestlers are a Christian-type sect; they are not Christians per se. theirs is more a philosophy of life, or a religious philosophy. Doukhobors believe in the spiritual power of love, rather than in any form of violence. They do not have a transcendent belief. The Doukhobors believe that "God is a word. God is spirit. God is love. Where there is love, there is God."

Given the above description of who my ancestors are, it doesn't take much imagination to realize that the Doukhobors did not make themselves popular with the powers that controlled Russia in the later part of the nineteenth century. Doukhobors were originally from many different regions of Russia, as well as from various social levels. The majority of Doukhobors were, however, landed peasants who farmed and worked their own land. There were also Doukhobors who were from the professional classes, such as lawyers. But because they were dissidents, the state began to take away their land and money, and to group together Doukhobors from many different areas of the country. The Doukhobors faced increasing persecution and by the final decade of the 1800s most Spirit Wrestlers were exiled farther and farther away. They ended up in the remote mountainous region of the Caucasus−obviously a terrain not well suited to the Doukhobors' communal, agrarian lifestyle which characterized them by this time. The Czarist state and the Orthodox Church refrained from outright killing these troublesome dissenters, but by gathering them together, taking away their land and resources, and locating them where they couldn't farm and sustain themselves, the attempt was to silence them.

Under mounting persecution, the Doukhobors held to their ideas of love rather than violence; equality between genders; and their own inner spiritual connection with God rather than through the intermediaries of the Orthodox Church. Against all odds, the Spirit Wrestlers maintained their identity and philosophy of life. They continued to refuse to take the oath of allegiance to the Czar; they would not serve military duty, which included taking up firearms, going to war, and killing fellow humans. "The story of the Doukhobors is an inspirational one of hardship and perseverance, determination and faith…" (The Canora Courier, 2009).

Painting by Terry McLean. Photo by Karl Hardt. Doukhobor-museum.org
Painting by Terry McLean.
Photo by Karl Hardt.
Doukhobor-museum.org

On June 29, 1895, about 7,000 Spirit Wrestlers burned their weapons in a decisive demonstration of pacifism. In effect, the Burning of Guns in Russia probably became the world's first Peace Rally. The Doukhobors took this concrete and highly visible action to make their point that to kill another person is to kill the spirit of God within that individual. This collective act of defiance brought harsh and severe oppression from the Czarist state and Orthodox religious authorities. The story goes that the Cossack soldiers on horseback were ordered to ride into the crowd of Doukhobors in an attempt to kill men, women and children, but the horses reared up and would not proceed. Many of the dissenting men were then exiled to Siberia.

Finally, the beliefs of the Doukhobors and their condition of extreme persecution in Russia came to international attention. The great writer Leo Tolstoy took an avid interest in the group. He adopted their philosophy, much to the chagrin of his wife. He wrote his final novel, Resurrection, in order to raise the funds to relocate the Doukhobors outside Russia. With the help of Tolstoy and international humanitarians, negotiations were taken up with other countries in order to find political asylum for the Doukhobors. Canada was chosen as the country where they would be relocated, because it offered the best terms and was in need of such people to help clear and farm its western regions. Land in what was then the Northwest Territories and is now northern Saskatchewan was put aside for the Doukhobors' communal use—and 7,500 Doukhobors emigrated in 1899, the largest en masse immigration in Canadian history. Today, in 2009, the Doukhobors have been living in Canada for 110 years. Their slogan has continued to be: "Toil and Peaceful Life." There are currently about 40,000 descendants of the original Doukhobors in Canada, and a similar number in Russia, as not every Doukhobor came to Canada in 1899. Spirit Wrestlers continue to strive for a world without war.

Once in Canada, maintaining their refusal to take up military service, plus their continuing resistance to institutionalized religion and imposed rules of society, caused the Spirit Wrestlers to face ongoing persecution. The Doukhobors' history in Canada is a complex one. What they call "The Schism" occurred when roughly half the Doukhobors who came in 1899 stayed in Saskatchewan, while the other half made "the trek" to the interior of British Columbia, settling in the beautiful west Kootenay region in 1908. Some of the problems the Doukhobors have encountered in Canada include the question of communal versus individual land deeds. The original negotiation regarding this was rescinded by the Canadian government. The Schism was a result of Saskatchewan's refusal to allow the communal land deeds to stay in effect. Doukhobors also refused during war times to send their children to public schools, resulting in many of their children being taken away from their families and forced into government-run residential schools. The above examples are only a sampling of ways in which the Doukhobors have continued to undergo hardship in upholding their philosophy of life, including systemic discrimination from police and authorities.

In Canada there were some Doukhobors who lived in communal settlements; some who were independent; and some of a radical nature called Sons of Freedom. Doukhobors were never formally vegetarian, although some espoused it. The Doukhobors predate Gandhi in their expression of non-violent resistance. The Sons of Freedom originated a unique method of civil disobedience−which was that of stripping off their clothing during public demonstrations and in court when put on trial. However, the Spirit Wrestlers belief in love, pacifism, individual spirituality, gender and social equality remains an important philosophical stance. These ideas, though radical at the time of their inception, have increasingly become relevant in today's global culture.

I include two poems with this essay. The first is about the war in Afghanistan; and the second is about murder and destruction at the hands of Islamist militant terrorists. The first poem is a way of talking about the repressive regime of the Taliban, who espouse an ideology that is not traditional to Afghanistan. The Taliban enforced their own form of extreme fundamentalism. Taliban ideology is not only fanatical in its fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, it is misogynist, violent, and oppressive. When the Taliban took over Afghanistan they banned any form of music and they forbade women from reading. The Taliban stopped all schooling for girls; forced women to stay in the home; and used sports centres for public killings of Afghan citizens. Recently, as the Taliban moved into parts of Pakistan, more than one million people left their homes and suffered being displaced, rather than be forced to live under the severe oppression and persecution brought upon them by the Taliban.

The second poem was written one year ago, almost to the day. After the terrorist killings in Mumbai, I asked myself the question, "What kind of man could carry out such murder?" Later, on the verge of sleep, I was surprised to find myself writing a direct answer to this question in the form of a poem. I am completing this essay as the world remembers the horror of November 26, 2008, in Mumbai, India. The city was held in a state of terror for three days, after ten gunmen killed 166 people. Only one of these militants who murdered people is still alive to face trial. These men took their orders from Islamist fanatics located in Pakistan. Both of the poems included with this essay are new, unpublished works from a manuscript in progress entitled The Cosmic Tree.

Can/Can/Caliban
         Ban/Ban/Taliban

Of course we can not dance
    we can not listen to music
we are not allowed to play
    a musical instrument.

There is a severe ban
on laughter, smiling, love,
    hope, learning, thinking.

So many simple, human
    pleasures forbidden,
not allowed−Taliban/ban
    Caliban−remember? Do
we remember? The beauty
earth offers, when a garden
grows, sweet scent of lily
    on the tender, evening air?

How have we managed to live
    all these many centuries
when we listened to music?
    When we danced with joy?

When we lived in the peace
    of our own, private thoughts?
When we walked streets where flowers
    grew, and smiled at children
playing the games children play?

How did the human race survive
the sensuality of young women?
    Beautiful and colourful saris,
sandaled feet and long, braided hair?
Imagine history without Cleopatra
    or Greek myth without Aphrodite?

Music, song, dance, celebration,
    fascination with the radiance
nature offers, with human beauty,
joy an instinctual part of living−
    can, can Caliban,
ban even the bard of poetry?

I believe in the women
    who endure, who teach
their daughters under threat
    of rape, destruction, and death.

I am dancing a dance
    of pure sensual pleasure,
    offering joy, offering love−
please−keep teaching the girls
to read, write, think, and most of all−
    to dream a myriad of wonderful
        possibilities they can accomplish.

Terrorist, Mumbai 2008

What kind of man
decides to kill another,
an innocent other−
when he could decide
to create, rather than destroy.
Think of the many opportunities
for creation−he could begin
by making love
to a woman he cares for
and conceive a baby−
an entirely unique, new
human. He could gather seeds
and plant a garden, weed,
water it, watch it grow,
harvest fruit, vegetables, admire
the beauty of flowers.
He could take his two hands
and hold tools in them,
build a house, a building,
a bridge. He could sculpt,
paint, draw, design
with those same two hands;
he could hold a musical
instrument and play music,
give pleasure and joy
to those listening. He could
use his mind to invent
a narrative, write a story,
educate young children,
examine the mysteries of life.
He could sew a shoe
so that someone could walk
a longer distance, in comfort.
He could solve a mathematical
equation, conduct an experiment,
peruse the stars and sky above.
With his hands he could perform
surgical operations, save
another's life, cure an illness.

So many ways to create
with the basic hands, mind,
heart of an individual
given the resolve to make
and not destroy,
given the desire to give
rather than take,
given a love for living
rather than an intent for killing.
I cannot believe
that a man can hold
both love and killing,
love and murder,
love and destruction
in himself at the same time.
If a man kills
another, an innocent,
that man loves no one,
not even himself, his wife,
his children, his parents,
his god or his religion.
That man is enthralled
with the power of his own killing−
his whole aim is to destroy,
there is no room left
for any other purpose;
that man obliterates
love, the desire to create
so that nothing−only
nothing−is left, not even
his own soul, not even
the dignity of death,
no belief in anyone
or anything
or any god
only nothing. Nothing.

Carolyn Zonailo has published eleven books of poetry and several chapbooks. Born in Vancouver, BC, Zonailo received her M.A. in literature from Simon Fraser University, where her papers are now archived in Special Collections and Rare Books at the W.A.C. Bennett Library. CZ has long been active with literary small press publishing, foundingCaitlin Press in Vancouver in 1977 and co-founding Coracle Press in Montreal in 2000.

 
 
CZ.com | Articles | Neither War Nor Silence
 
 
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