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Homes for Dukhobors

Slava Bohu, The Story of the Dukhobors
By J. F. C. Wright.
New York: Farrar and Rinehart. 438 pages. $3.50.

Nu (as the author would say), this is a highly entertaining account of what the Dukhobors did, or declined to do, in Caucasia and Canada. Although the first chapters dealing with the history of the movement are anything but dull, the real fun starts when the bearded babes have been shipped to the remote wood selected for them by hopeful humanitarians. King Lear and his Fool lost on a Heath, the Little White Cows in “South Wind,” Northern fairy tales, the glamorous, albeit fast, colors of modern journalism—such are some of the various impressions and associadons suggested by Mr. Wright’s work.

The exact recipe (a litde flogging and lots of Siberia) which the Russian government used in trying to cure a remarkably obstinate sect of its aversion for military service was doubtless a nauseating affair; but when another, more patient, state saw its own laws ignored by those difficult people and solemnly herded them into air-condidoned prisons, persecudon remained persecution from the Dukhobor point of view. Indeed, they must have preferred the ispravnik to the sheriff, as a sock on the jaw must have conveyed a plainer mode of martyrdom than did the unintelligible exigences of a foreign police force.

A queer flaw in the morality of a movement cannot help affecting its faith in some queer way, and in the Dukhobors’ case there was a Haw, which Mr. Wright defines very neatly. It is one thing to refuse obedience to the state because “we have no master except God”; but the situation is entirely different when this assertion is a deliberate falsehood. For there was a definite man behind God, and that man was Peter Verigin.

The secret of this leadership was kept with remarkable care and success. Verigin, an exile in Siberia, happened to come across the teachings of Tolstoy and, without acknowledging his sources, infused a few Tolstoyan ideas into the sermons he sent to his distant flock. Tolstoy, who was quite unaware of Verigin’s existence, experienced a pleasant shock when casual contact with some Dukhobors revealed the amazing fact that his own views were being naively professed by ignorant muzhiks. Without Tolstoy’s help, the exodus to Canada would hardly have taken place. There were among the Dukhobors, to be sure, many fine fellows and stanch Christians; but when one reads of their childish behavior and futile feuds, one feels somehow that the whole trend of the movement would have been, historically far more important had not that initial cunning (inspired by practical purposes) subtly corrupted its core.

Such passages as the descriptions of the voyage and of stark-naked Russians flaunting God’s white uniforms in the shocked silence of Main Street, are very vividly done; so is the picture of Verigin Jr., who succeeded to the Dukhobor throne after his father had been killed by an anonymous bomb, and who was far more interested in the last syllable of his name than in religious matters.

An irritating feature of the book is Mr. Wright’s dismal trick of sticking in Russian words, all of which are misspelled or misplaced, or ridiculously wrong. It is always rather perilous for a writer to try to toy with a foreign idiom. I like to recall the case of the famous Russian writer Herzen who, living in Putney and knowing very little English, illustrated a brilliant essay on the Britisher’s innate contempt for poverty by the unfortunate remark that the worst invective commonly heard in London streets was the word “beggar.”