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Biography 24.1 (2001) 226-241

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Doukhobor Autobiography As Witness Narrative

Julie Rak

For many writers who belong to minority groups, autobiography has come to operate as a field where issues about ethnic identity, group memory, and minority subjectivity can be addressed. Anne E. Goldman's call in Take My Word "for a wider autobiographical field" that can "describe a wider spectrum of the ways and means by which people in the twentieth century speak themselves into existence" (ix) recognizes how this mixing of autobiographical forms has resulted in a new position for autobiographical writing as a way in which minority identities can be negotiated. To help describe how the appropriation of autobiography within minority discourses can result in a different form of autobiographical representation, I want to present a new term called "witness narrative," and I want to place it in relation to autobiography theory. Then I will use a text by Doukhobor Gregorii Soukerov as a witness narrative, and I will connect that to what I call the Doukhobor diasporic imaginary, which I read as a set of tropes developed by Doukhobors so that they can construct their own history and their own way of relating knowledge about that history.

The situation of the Doukhobors is ideal for a consideration of alternate autobiographical forms as technologies of identity construction because Doukhobor subjectivity is collective, is deliberately oppositional to mainstream discourse, and is formed with reference to a type of embodied mysticism rather than to psychologized notions of the unconscious and the conscious mind found in Western discourses of the self. The Doukhobors are a Russian-speaking religious sectarian group which has existed in Russia since the seventeenth century.1 The name "Doukhobor" means "Spirit Wrestler." It was originally given to this group by the Russian Orthodox Church, who saw them as wrestling against the spirit of God--that is, against the church as an institution. The Doukhobors adapted the name to mean that they [End Page 226] struggled against institutionalized religion in God's favor. The Doukhobors rejected all forms of religious or state authority, because they believed that all people were created in God's image, and that all people are by definition equal. This meant that they did not recognize state or religious authorities, and that they were pacifists, because for them, one cannot kill God's image bearer. During the late nineteenth century they also became vegetarians who lived communally, and they embraced a lifestyle based on work and simplicity. Instead of using sacred scriptures, Doukhobors sing a capella psalms and spiritual songs they have composed themselves, which provide them with spiritual instruction and education about their history. These are called zhivotnaia kniga, or the Living Book. Strictly speaking, the Living Book is not a text, but is only enacted when it is sung or recited by Doukhobors, a feature which marks the importance of the body as sacred transmitter of oral traditions in Doukhobor culture. 2

In 1895, the Doukhobors decided to protest the Russian czar's use of conscription by burning all of their weapons, while Doukhobors in the army refused to serve any longer. This protest is now called The Burning of Arms. It could be the first mass pacifist protest in recorded history. The Burning of Arms brought severe czarist persecution to the Doukhobors. Leo Tolstoy and his followers heard of this, and worked with English Quakers to get the Doukhobors out of Russia and to Canada in 1899. This migration of more than 7,500 people was the single largest mass migration in Canadian history. But the Doukhobors' anti-institutional and anti-patriotic views, their pacifism and commitment to communal living and landholding, and their desire to have their children educated in Russian without a pro-war school curriculum, proved to be difficult for English Canadians to accept. As a result, the Doukhobors lost their lands twice: once in Saskatchewan in 1905 and once in British Columbia in 1938, where they had run the largest and most successful communal enterprise in North America to date. In British Columbia particularly, the Doukhobors were the focus of xenophobic...


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