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Russian Canadians


In Canada, the term Russian refers to people of diverse origin. It may include: first-generation immigrants or their descendants from the country of Russia according to its present-day borders; people of Russian ethnicity, or people who identify as Russian from what are today the Baltic countries, Belarus, and Ukraine; distinct Christian religious groups such as the Doukhobors and Old Believers; and Jews from Russia and from the western parts of the former Soviet Union (Belarus, Lithuania, Ukraine, Moldova) who identify as Russian.

The reason for this diversity of origin is related to the particular nature of the Russian homeland. In a sense, there are two Russian homelands. One is the present-day state of Russia, which includes within its borders the vast majority of ethnic Russians. The second homeland refers to territories that are beyond Russia proper but that were once part of the pre-World War I Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union. This entry deals primarily with ethnic Russian immigrants and their descendants from Russia and from the western territories of the former Russian Empire and Soviet Union/

Ever since the second half of the nineteenth century, Russia has been territorially the largest country in the world, stretching from the plains of eastern Europe across central Asia and Siberia as far as the shores of the Pacific Ocean. Thus, Russia has for centuries straddled both Europe and Asia, two continents that on Russian soil have traditionally been divided by the Ural Mountains. The Russians who live on both sides of the Urals are numerically the largest of the Slavic peoples, and like other East Slavs (Belarusans and Ukrainians) they use the Cyrillic alphabet and traditionally have been adherents of Eastern Christianity, in particular Orthodoxy.

Much of European Russia west of the Urals was part of a medieval state known as Kievan Rus’, which existed from the late ninth century to the thirteenth century. During the Kievan period, Orthodox Christianity reached Russia and that religion was to remain intimately connected (at least until the twentieth century) with whatever state or culture developed on Russian territory. It was in the northern part of Kievan Rus’, in a land called the Duchy of Muscovy, that the birth of a specifically Russian state is to be found. The state-building process began in the late thirteenth century, when the Duchy of Muscovy slowly began to consolidate its power and then expand its territory. The expansion proved to be phenomenal so that, by the eighteenth century, the rapidly growing state included lands along the Baltic Sea, all of Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova as well as large parts of Poland. The country’s borders also moved eastward into Siberia, a vast land whose annexation, together with that of central Asia and the Caucasus region in the nineteenth century, brought Russia to the shores of the Pacific Ocean and Alaska.

As the country grew, it also changed its name. The Duchy became the Tsardom of Muscovy and then, in 1721, the Russian Empire. Throughout these many centuries, Muscovy/Russia functioned as a centralized state ruled by autocratic leaders whose titles changed as their power and influence grew. The grand dukes became the tsars of Muscovy, who in turn became emperors of the Russian Empire. Although the rulers of the empire were formally called emperors (imperator), they were popularly referred to as tsars or tsarinas. Despite its territorial expansion and military power, the Russian Empire remained an economically backward agricultural country. The vast majority of the population consisted of poor peasants (only liberated from serfdom in 1861) and underpaid factory workers whose numbers gradually increased following the early stages of industrialization that began in the 1880s.

Russia participated in World War I on the side of the Entente, but the costs of the conflict were too much for its weak socio-economic structure to bear. Social unrest led to revolution in 1917. In March the tsarist government collapsed, and in November a second revolution took place led by a political party known as the Bolsheviks and headed by a revolutionary named Vladimir Lenin. The Bolshevik Revolution was opposed by a significant portion of the population. The result was a civil war that lasted from 1918 to 1921 and caused the displacement and emigration abroad of tens of thousands of people. In the end, the Bolsheviks were victorious, and in late 1922 they created a new state known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or, for short, the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union consisted of several national republics, the largest of which was the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic. The Soviet Union was smaller than the former Russian Empire, and many people who identified as Russians now found themselves living in the neighbouring, newly independent Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) and in Poland (“western” Belarus, Volhynia, Galicia).

Led by the Bolshevik party, the Soviet Union set out to become the world’s first Communist state. The Soviet system was characterized by a one-party dictatorship and a centralized command economy that nationalized all industry and collectivized agriculture. The Bolshevik party led by Lenin and his successor Josef Stalin also hoped to export the Soviet-style Communist form of government abroad. Since many other countries feared such revolutions, they refused to recognize Bolshevik rule, with the result that the Soviet Union was for nearly twenty years isolated from the rest of the world community.

Isolation came to an end during World War II, when the Soviet Union joined the Allied Powers (United States, Great Britain, China, France) in the struggle against Nazi Germany and Japan. Following the Allied victory, the Soviets emerged alongside the United States as one of the two most powerful countries in the world. For nearly the next half-century, the world was divided between two camps: the “free” or capitalist West led by the United States, and the “revolutionary” or Communist East led by the Soviet Union.

By the 1980s, the centralized economic and political system of the Soviet Union was unable to function effectively. In 1985 a new Communist leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, tried desperately to reform the system, but failed. He did set in motion, however, a new “revolution,” bringing such enormous changes that by late 1991 the very Soviet Union disappeared as a country. In its place, each of the former Soviet republics became independent countries. Among the new countries is Russia.

The first Russians to visit what is now Canada were fur traders operating off the west coast in the 1790s and a few officers with the British navy in Halifax at about the same time. But bound to their native soil by serfdom, poverty, custom, and legal prohibitions, Russians seldom emigrated until the end of the nineteenth century. Thereafter they left in four waves or stages: the period between the 1890s and 1914, when most of those who departed were Russian Jews; from 1919 to 1939, known later as the “old” emigration, when White Russians fled the country after the Revolution; the “new” emigration of displaced persons in the ten years following World War II; and the period from the 1970s to the present under the more relaxed rules of later Soviet governments and the almost complete cessation of restrictions since 1991.

In the nineteenth century the primary interest of Canadian officials was in agricultural settlers who would people the western prairies. Since the majority of immigrants to the New World headed for the United States, which was better known and reputedly offered greater opportunities, most early immigrants from Russia entered the country in groups through colonization schemes, such as the Mennonites who settled in Saskatchewan in the 1870s and the Doukhobors, who arrived two decades later. In the early 1890s a few ethnic Russians found work in industries in Montreal, Toronto, Windsor, Timmins, Winnipeg, Vancouver, and Victoria. Intending to remain only until they had enough money to return home and buy land, they went from job to job, putting down no roots.

In 1899 W.R. Preston, inspector of Canadian immigration agencies in Europe, visited Russia to try to direct to Canada some of the emigrants from the southern part of the country, particularly the Molokans, who were leaving in large numbers, and Germans, descendants of colonists who had settled in southern Russia and Ukraine in the eighteenth century. For years, he noted, a large stream of the latter had emigrated from the Odessa district to the United States, principally to the Dakotas. Preston wanted to divert some of their numbers to Canada by acquainting potential immigrants with conditions in this country. Since Russian law did not permit the promotion of emigration he proposed “more active and systematic propaganda ... through the steamship agent at Odessa.”

The persistent efforts by the Canadian government to attract emigrants from European Russia were accompanied by an equally determined attempt to hold back Russians from Siberia, central Asia, and the Caucasus regions. Siberia was said to be a penal colony from which immigrants “of the criminal class” might come, and in any case such immigrants were “unskilled.” To discourage them, newcomers from Asian parts of Russia had to have $200 in hand on arrival, whereas those from European Russia had to have only $25. Most of those who emigrated before World War II were poor peasants and agricultural workers from the southwestern part of the Russian Empire: Volhynia, Belarus, and eastern Poland. Although listed as Russians on imperial passports, they were probably Ukrainians or Belarusans. Since immigration officials recorded arrivals only by country of origin, it is not possible now to distinguish between the various ethnic groups.

The Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05 and the extensive disturbances that followed until 1907 temporarily halted emigration from Russia. However, some of the mutineers on the battleship Potemkin in 1905 had to flee to other countries, and several came to Canada. During World War I the flow of immigrants from Russia again ceased, and, after the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917, there was even a reverse movement as some individuals returned to take part in the formation of the new Soviet state. As a result of the Revolution and the defeat and evacuation of the White armies after the civil war, thousands of refugees were forced to seek havens in Turkey and various European countries. Others fled eastward across Siberia and settled in China (Manchuria). All were desperately in need of food and shelter and the means to emigrate further.

At the time there was no precedent for the mass relief of political refugees, and the Canadian government, like those of other countries, was reluctant to bring in potential additional charges on the public purse when the world economy was in a post-war slump. The preference of the Canadian immigration service for men willing to work as farm labourers, loggers, and miners militated against Russian intellectuals, and most members of this class settled elsewhere. However, a few did come to Canada and managed to establish themselves in their professions, among them Leonid I. Strakhovsky, who pioneered Slavic studies at the University of Toronto, Boris P. Babkin, a gastroenterologist at Dalhousie and McGill universities, the family of Count Paul Ignatieff, the last minister of education under Tsar Nicholas II, and Paraskeva Clark, a well-known artist.

The refugees in Europe were gradually dispersed and integrated in various countries, but the situation of those in Manchuria and coastal cities in China remained acute. The Canadian government was at first indifferent to their plight. Therefore, the Salvation Army, the Young Men’s Christian Association, and other organizations and various private individuals in Canada, including the Methodist pastor R.E. Fairbairn, the Russian Orthodox priest V. Gindlin, Prince Alexander Golitzin, and Captain Robert MacGrath, persistently petitioned it to relax the regulations and allow the immigration of Russians from China. Officials finally consented, but the immigration department required that each Russian have $400 cash and agree to work in agriculture for two years after arrival. It turned down a request that heads of households be allowed to seek employment in the cities where their families had settled. The arrival of Russians in groups was considered unacceptable; thus the immigration of several hundred Cossacks who wanted to settle in British Columbia in an agricultural colony was rejected.

In Manchuria, Colonel Orest Dmitrievich Dournovo, formerly of the Russian imperial army and highly esteemed as an organizer, strove to comply with Canadian regulations. After months of negotiations, Ottawa approved visas for a group of thirty families. Dournovo chose Old Believers because of their experience in agriculture. He himself accompanied the first group, who arrived in Vancouver on 16 June 1924 on the Empress of Russia and were settled in Wetaskiwin, Alberta. Between that year and 1926, sixty-three families, accounting for about 625 people, the majority of whom had been screened by Dournovo and his assistants in Harbin, China, came to Canada. The last group of eleven families left China in July 1928, and they too were established in Alberta. Other groups arrived under different auspices, and a few immigrants in this period came as individuals.

The Depression caused the flow of newcomers to drop sharply, and during World War II it ceased almost entirely. Official statistics record a mere 426 immigrants to Canada from the Soviet Union between 1929 and 1945, and it is unlikely that more than a third of those were Russians. At the end of the war, over eight million displaced persons were living in hundreds of camps in Germany and central Europe under the charge of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency (UNRRA). The Canadian government had already foreseen that the cessation of hostilities would usher in a period of expanded immigration and had begun to formulate a new immigration policy. Advocates of a restrictive, carefully controlled approach at first were in the ascendancy, but a growing number of business leaders, the media, and ethnic associations were anxious to sponsor people from the camps. Anti-Soviet representations to Parliament urged that the displaced persons be accepted as political refugees; pro-Soviet supporters on the other hand thought that they should be returned to their countries of origin to assist in the post-war reconstruction. Eventually, advocates of a more liberal policy prevailed. Thus, at the conclusion of the war, Canada became one of the first non-European countries to receive refugees from Europe.

As a result of the change in government policy, the first individuals classified as Russians began to arrive soon after the war in what became known as the “new” immigration. In contrast to those of the “old” immigration that had followed World War I, some of these newcomers were émigrés who had fled Russia after the Revolution and the defeat of the White armies and been dispersed throughout western Europe, the Far East, and Africa. Now they were refugees for a second time. Others were members of a younger generation who had been born or brought up outside Russia. Some had adopted the language and culture of the country in which they were educated and no longer regarded Russian as their mother tongue. A third group, who had grown up in the Slavic countries of Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria, had been able to preserve their language and tradition and hence displayed a greater sense of national identity and a stronger desire to adhere to Russian culture than did the immigrants from other countries.

A larger element were former Soviet citizens. Some, the so-called ostovtsy, or workers from the east, were predominantly young people who had been transported during World War II by the Nazis from the occupied area of the Soviet Union to work in Germany’s industry and agriculture. Others were civilians who had fled west as the German armies retreated in fear that the Stalinist government would brand them collaborators. Still others were prisoners of war who, in order to avoid starvation in German camps, had joined the Russian Liberation Army or were Vlasovites (Vlasovtsy), that is, Cossacks and members of other units who had donned German uniforms and who may have been commanded by the former Soviet General, Andrei Vlasov.

In compliance with the Yalta agreement, displaced persons who were Soviet citizens had to return to the U.S.S.R. Many believed the promises of Soviet agents and did so voluntarily. Others, including the Cossacks and Vlasovites, who had fought against the Red Army, were forcibly handed over by the Allied authorities. Word soon spread that families were separated at the border and all were treated as “enemies of the people.” Officers of the Vlasovites and Cossacks were executed, and the rank and file received twenty-year sentences in labour camps. Thousands of Soviet citizens therefore changed their identities, passing themselves off as Poles, Galician Ukrainians previously under Polish rule, Germans, or White Russians of the post-1917 period. Some, without papers, tried to hide in the many camps for refugees in West Germany.

Forcible repatriation ended in 1947 with the beginning of the Cold War. In July that year UNRRA was replaced by the newly established International Refugee Organization (IRO), which took over custody of about two million displaced persons, including those still living in camps. Others, who feared repatriation, continued to hide behind a German identity and avoid all refugee agencies. The so-called hard core did not qualify for emigration or IRO assistance because of illness, especially tuberculosis, criminal records (even for minor offences), or old age, but the rules would later be relaxed. For most of the refugees, life in Germany was only temporary, and they sought to migrate to countries not devastated by the war, where they would be far from the threat of repatriation.

Canada was one of the first non-European countries to extend a tangible form of assistance. Between July 1947 and February 1952, it contributed over $18 million to the IRO fund. In March 1947 the Canadian government opened the door to displaced persons and refugees, so that the following year 125,414 would arrive. How many of these were Russians cannot be estimated with any accuracy because of the number who professed other nationalities. Following the announcement of the new policy by Prime Minister Mackenzie King, the immigration department created agencies whose officers were assigned to camps in Europe and the Middle and Far East. Canada accepted refugees in two categories: as groups and as individuals sponsored by a close relative or prospective employer.

By the early 1960s, most of the individuals displaced by the war had been resettled. Immigration from the Soviet Union was still negligible, but a few Russian seamen jumped ship in Canadian ports and were given asylum, and some Soviet artists defected, as the ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov did in 1974 while on tour in western Canada. In the 1970s, the Soviet government began to allow citizens of the Jewish faith to emigrate. Some went to Israel, but others chose Canada and other countries of the West. Most recent of all are those immigrants who have arrived since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. The role of these newcomers is yet to be determined. Many of them, who are highly qualified in trades or professions, appear likely to integrate quickly into Canadian society.

Whether they landed at Halifax or Vancouver or came via New York State or the Dakotas, most early Russian arrivals in Canada faced the same difficulties as other immigrants. Families who had come to homestead had to possess $25 to show to the immigration authorities, most of which went for railway fares. The train journey took several days in so-called colonial cars. Passengers slept on bare boards, and there were no eating facilities, except at the stations, where prices were high. When the newcomers arrived in Winnipeg, the women and children were housed in the immigration building, sometimes for two or three weeks, while formalities relating to the homestead were completed. The families then journeyed again by train and finally by wagon to a destination in the bush perhaps thirty or forty kilometres from the nearest railway line. The homesteads, which were assigned under the Dominion Lands Act, were conditional on the settler putting 12 hectares under cultivation within a year. The first winter was always the hardest. Families lived in primitive conditions, and the children frequently did not survive.

As well, settlers faced language problems; according to the 1916 census, several thousand Russians and Ukrainians in each of the prairie provinces did not speak English. A very few who had business or family connections abroad and arrived with sufficient funds were able to establish themselves with relative ease, but the majority who came in the early 1920s had a difficult time. The chief source of employment was railway construction, for which the newcomers provided cheap labour. Sometimes German Jews or Mennonites who had immigrated earlier assisted the newcomers, but a few individuals were said to have prospered at their expense. Many single men were penniless and had to spend long years eking out an existence in the woods and coal mines or on farms. Without community, some had little or no contact with other Russians for years. They also experienced loneliness if they moved to the cities, and many drank and got into trouble. Their situation improved only with the development of social and cultural facilities.

Those who settled in cities were concentrated around the churches. Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver became and remain the main Russian centres in Canada. Elsewhere communities have been much smaller or nonexistent. There are relatively few Russians in Canada today, and their numbers are declining. The census of 1941 listed 83,708 individuals, making them the thirteenth among the country’s ethnic groups, while thirty years later only 64,425 were reported. Of that figure, 12 percent were over sixty-five years of age, the highest proportion in any group, while only 22 percent were under fifteen, the second lowest. The census of 1991 reported 38,220 single-origin and 120,630 multiple-origin Russians in Canada, for a total of 158,850. Given the ageing population scattered across the country, chiefly in urban areas, the Russians of Canada seem destined to early assimilation.

Most of the Russians who came to Canada at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century were economic immigrants from peasant backgrounds looking for jobs or land and were suited only for employment in agriculture. Among east Europeans as a whole in Canada, 0.9 percent had skilled jobs and 30 percent were unskilled labourers. There were a few administrators or professionals, but scarcely any white-collar workers.

For members of the first generation, life in the new land was harsh wherever they settled. Since most knew no English, they were able to obtain only low-paying jobs. They farmed the virgin prairie or toiled in mining, lumbering, and industry. Working long hours and living in inadequate conditions, they faced unemployment in hard times and were discriminated against. They were therefore susceptible to attempts to establish unions, which were lacking in most occupations. In pre–World War I Canada this activity brought strong resistance from employers, who sometimes retaliated with lockouts and the use of strike-breakers.

By contrast, immigrants who arrived after World War II found the way much easier. European refugees screened by the IRO were housed at one of two hostels operated by the immigration service of the Department of Labour, one, primarily for single men, at Ajax, Ontario, and the other at Saint-Paul-l’Ermite, east of Montreal, which housed five hundred men, women, and children while the adults awaited work assignments. Classes in English were provided for the adults and primary schooling for the children. Families left behind in Europe could be sent for as soon as the men found jobs. These were usually in the bush during the winter and in factories and mines in the summer. Single women readily found work as domestics.

Political activity among Russians in Canada has been concerned primarily with the fate of the homeland rather than with public life in the new country. The ideological spectrum of pre-1917 Russia ranged from monarchists on the far right through liberal constitutional democrats, socialist revolutionaries, and social democrats to anarchists on the far left. Among the early immigrants to Canada were supporters of such groups, but most newcomers were apolitical. Some hoped to stay and build a new life, others merely to save enough money so that they could return home, buy land, and settle down. Only a small number were already politicized. Most of these had socialist leanings and had taken part in the 1905 revolution or escaped from Siberian exile. They saw Canada as a place in which socialist objectives would be achieved by tested methods. They were aided in recruiting for their cause by resentment among workers over low pay, long hours, and frequent unemployment and also by the hostility that met any attempt to organize in order to improve working conditions or address grievances.

Usually a small immigrant community in an industrial centre would form around a church, which would soon be followed independently by a club started for social or political ends. Immigrants in Toronto in 1910 formed a club and a year later a library where they could meet and hold discussions; in 1913 they established a Russian Progressive Club. Lectures and debates soon made it a centre for Russians of many political views. In Montreal about twenty-five Russian socialist revolutionaries formed a discussion circle in 1910. This organization lasted until 1917, when more radical members, calling themselves maximalists, withdrew. The remainder, led by a priest of the local Orthodox church and the prerevolutionary Russian consul, carried on until 1920, when the group was renamed the Russian-Slavic Society. It dwindled, was revived as the Progressive Society, and then died. The maximalists, about four hundred people comprising Russians, Ukrainians, Poles, Latvians, Jews, and other groups, in 1919 had formed a society for technical aid to Russia. The organization offered courses for tractor drivers, automobile mechanics, and woodworkers to people who wished to return to what was by then Soviet Russia. It also gave literary classes and collected funds for famine relief in the Volga region. Collecting for such a purpose was illegal, and one club member was twice arrested. In 1921 two parties left for Russia with $50,000 and agricultural machinery to form communal farms.

A Russian Progressive Club with about twenty members was formed in Winnipeg in 1913. At first it was apparently hindered by its leadership, said to be “intelligentsia, of high class, playing at being revolutionaries”; however, after these individuals moved to the United States the following year, the club flourished. Members published several issues of a monthly newspaper, Rabochii narod (Working People; Winnipeg, 1918), which gained subscribers in various cities but also drew the attention of the police. In 1919, during the Winnipeg General Strike, the library was raided and the paper shut down. Several members of the club had to go into hiding. Two years later the group campaigned for famine relief in the Volga region and started a society for technical aid for Russia.

Russians in Timmins and Cochrane, in northern Ontario, together with a group of Belarusans from Grodno province, in 1916 formed an organization of socialist revolutionaries. Two years later, at a mass meeting an anarchist spoke about the Russian (Bolshevik) Revolution. Soon all the members of the organization had been arrested, and several received jail sentences. The most active members of the group subsequently returned to Russia and founded a collective farm in Tambov province. As a result, the Timmins group broke up, and some members joined a Ukrainian workers’ organization.

The first Russian immigrants to Nova Scotia, all from Bessarabia, who worked in the steel smelter at Sydney for 14 cents an hour, formed a club in 1916 and built a church the following year. In 1918 many of the workers began to return to Russia, and the group declined. By 1921 it had only about thirty members, but that year it managed to collect $400 for famine relief in the Volga region. The organization took an active part in the general strike of steel workers and miners in 1923. When the strike was crushed, many of the participants were blacklisted and had to look for work elsewhere.

Russian workers in Vancouver had organized a library in 1909 and a Russian Progressive Club later. It lasted until 1918, when police raided the building and arrested twenty-four men. There was talk of deporting them to Vladivostok, then under White control, but, after protests by Canadian workers that they would suffer certain death, eighteen were given jail sentences and the others freed. A society for technical aid for Russia was organized in 1922. It functioned for two years, at which point it was no longer considered necessary. From that time until 1930 there was no secular organization in Vancouver. Instead, an Orthodox church established in 1926 became the centre of community activity.

Maxim Gorky Russian workers’ clubs were founded in many Canadian cities in 1930, chiefly by immigrants who had come from eastern Poland in the preceding decade. (Today many of these individuals would probably consider themselves Ukrainian or Belarusan rather than Russian.) Aimed at organizing Russian and eastern European workers in Canadian cities, the clubs at once became active in the labour movement. Their newspaper, the Kanadskii gudok (Canadian Factory Whistle; Toronto, 1931–40), circulated among all the clubs. Its task, as stated in an editorial, was “to bring together and organize the Russian proletarians in Canada who are under the influence of anarchic and White Guard elements.” By contrast, it would demonstrate the achievements of workers in the Soviet Union.

In November 1930 the Russian workers’ clubs held their first national congress. Thereafter such events were organized almost every year, usually in Winnipeg, to discuss issues of the day: unemployment insurance, deportations, the government’s work camps for the unemployed (described as “slave labour camps”), “police terror” in Montreal, clashes of workers with police at Cochrane, Ontario, in 1932 and at Corbin, Alberta, four years later, and the seventeen club members who had joined the International Brigade and been killed in the Spanish Civil War. Efforts were made to attract “progressive elements” among the Doukhobors and the Russian Orthodox Church. In those Depression days, the issues were real enough, but the effect of the discussions would have been negligible. Both the Kanadskii gudok newspaper and the clubs echoed the viewpoint of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union, and even the annual congresses attempted to duplicate what had seemed to work in the homeland.

After the Hitler-Stalin pact of September 1939, both the newspaper and the clubs continued to criticize Canadian government policy, but their attitude was now considered subversive. In April the following year the government forbade publication of Kanadskii gudok and two months later outlawed the Russian workers’ and farmers’ clubs, along with other Communist and fascist organizations. In place of Kanadskii gudok there appeared a mimeographed magazine, Vremia (Time; Kamsack, Sask., 1940–41), but in June 1941 the editor and publisher were arrested under the War Measures Act and sentenced to a year in prison for publishing an anti-war magazine. Another mimeographed magazine, Gudok (Whistle; Toronto, 1940–41), was distributed in several towns the previous October. It proclaimed that the war was imperialist in nature and that the governments of British prime minister Neville Chamberlain and French statesman Édouard Daladier wanted to turn the conflict into a general struggle against the Soviet Union. Although the magazine was published in Toronto, no arrests were ever made.

Everything changed in June 1941. Following the German invasion, the Soviet Union suddenly became the ally of the western powers, and Russian Canadians could now be considered patriots. In November Kanadskii gudok reappeared as the Vestnik (Herald; Toronto, 1941–45), and former club members began to establish activist groups that subsequently founded the Russian Committee to Help the Motherland (RCHM). Several such committees were set up to collect funds and send them to the Soviet Union and to attempt to unite Russians and other Slavs in Canada in support of the homeland. At a general congress of the RCHM in 1942, the Federation of Russian Canadians (FRC) was founded, but even at its height membership in the organization accounted for only about 3.5 percent of the Russian-Canadian population. In 1946, like its cohort the Communist Party of Canada, the FRC lost much prestige and membership following revelations made at spy trials after the defection of Soviet cipher clerk Igor Gouzenko. The break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 was another major blow to FRC supporters. The Vestnik changed from the partisan journal of earlier years to a more readable publication, but financial problems caused it to cease in May 1995.

The organizations formed by adherents of other political views lacked the activist ideology of the Russian workers’ clubs or the Federation of Russian Canadians, their popular base, or the inspiration of purported achievements in the Soviet Union. Their activities have therefore been mainly social and cultural. United solely by their opposition to the Soviet Union and their desire for a democratic Russia, the groups have had memberships ranging from a small number to several hundred, drawn usually from a single generation; all have proved ephemeral. They include the Union of Monarchists, the Russian All-Military Union of Veterans of the Russian Civil War, the Kronstadt Group, the Union for Struggle for the Liberation of the Peoples of Russia (SBONR), and the National Labour Alliance (NTS). The last, born in Europe in the 1930s and opposing the Communist doctrines of class struggle and the dictatorship of the proletariat with its own doctrine of solidarism, has attempted to unite all members of society and has proved somewhat more durable. Although after World War II the NTS had members in many countries, including Canada, it is now confined largely to Europe. With the fall of communism in 1991, all political organizations dedicated to its overthrow became superfluous, and no new ones have risen to take their place. Neither are there any groups wishing to “restore” Russia to the boundaries of the former Soviet Union.

Among ethnic Russians in Canada, differences in family life derive from class, place of origin, and whether the individual emigrated before or after the Revolution. Prior to 1917 the Orthodox Church played a major role at all levels of society. Almost all children were christened and received traditional names, such as those of saints of the church or prophets in the Old Testament. After the Revolution, association with the church was unsafe, and christening, if performed at all, had to be in secret. However, the few Russians who immigrated to Canada during the Soviet regime often reverted to Orthodox Christianity and had their children baptized. As well, after the Revolution any celebration of an engagement and the wedding ceremony itself were perfunctory, but among immigrants most marriages are consecrated by church ritual. Funeral ceremonies vary by region but as much as possible are also performed in the church. Special dishes of rice, fruit, and raisins, from which everyone takes a handful, are brought to the memorial service, and everyone holds a lighted candle. A printed prayer on a small band of paper is placed across the forehead of the deceased.

In the family a man does not wash dishes or do the laundry, even with a machine. The woman was traditionally regarded as inferior, an attitude that has been carried over into the present. However, Russia has had a long history of remarkable women. As a proverb states, “The man is the head, and the woman is the neck that turns the head.” Children are cherished but are expected to respect their elders and be obedient. Punishment depends on the offence, and although a disobedient child may be grabbed by the ear or spanked, contrary to modern Western practice, he or she would not be sent to bed without supper, thus being deprived of food.

Wherever Russians gather, they usually try to organize a library, an after-hours school for their children, and musical or literary evenings that feature the work of composers such as Tchaikovsky, Mousorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov or Russian literary giants such as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Turgenev. They also cherish Russian folklore, proverbs, customs, art, and costumes. In Canada, however, cultural activity has been hampered by class differences and the distances between major centres. The urge to retain the national identity has been strongest among the first generation, and after a period in which cultural activity has waned, each new wave of immigrants has revived interest in the Russian heritage.

In Montreal, which has one of the oldest Russian communities in Canada, a cultural-educational society affiliated with the Church of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul was formed in 1923. It sponsored concerts, social evenings, and lectures, staged performances of the Russian classics, and established a library. A similar organization was started in Toronto in 1950 to unite Russians living in the area, regardless of their church affiliation. The society formed a library and in 1973 acquired a larger building, changing its name to the Russian Cultural Aid Society. As of the mid-1990s it is still active and publishes a journal originally called Edinenie (Unity) and later titled Russkoe slovo v Kanade (Russian Word in Canada; Toronto, 1951– ). As well as these cultural organizations, the Society for Aid to New Canadians, established in Montreal in 1949, provided Russian-language schools, dancing and singing groups, sports teams, and summer camps and scouting for post–World War II immigrants and their families. However, by the 1970s most of these activities had disappeared.

The Russian Centre of British Columbia, later renamed the Russian Social Centre, was established in Vancouver in 1956. As the founding generation died or moved away, the centre declined, but it was reorganized some years later. In 1973, when the Russian population of Ottawa had reached several hundred, the A.P. Chekhov Society was founded. The association’s activities, partly supported by the multiculturalism directorate of the Department of the Secretary of State, included a library, lectures, concerts, language courses, social evenings, an annual ball, and a volume of essays on Russians in Canada. Unfortunately, interest in the work of the society declined, and it was dissolved in 1983. Recent immigrants, disillusioned refugees from a country that did not provide for them, see no advantage in perpetuating their traditional culture.

Russians have always had great respect for literacy and education. Some immigrants, out of nostalgia for the old country, have tried to delay the assimilation of their offspring in the new environment by organizing after-hours schools, musical recitals, and other educational and cultural activities in which their offspring would mingle with fellow Russians. As a result of being thus shielded, some children knew little English when they went to school and experienced hardship and even disciplinary problems. Other parents, who were more practical, have required their families to speak Russian at home but have not hindered their using English beyond its boundaries, especially when participating in non-Russian activities. Still others, usually with less education, have made no attempt to foster a knowledge of the language. As a result, their children have probably lost their mother tongue more quickly. The efforts of the older generation to preserve traditional values and instil esteem for the homeland, however well meant, have usually failed. The after-hours schools, relying on volunteer help for instruction, have usually been unsuccessful because of the limited means available and declining interest. Only a little of the first generation’s language and customs has carried over to the second generation, and virtually nothing is handed down to the third.

Unlike most other groups, Russian immigrants to Canada have developed little in the way of community life, and to the extent that it has existed, it has been fostered by the Orthodox churches. Even so, class or occupation, educational level, the time of immigration – that is, whether of the “old,” “new,” or newest immigrations – or latterly church factionalism have divided the group. Newspapers and magazines intended to bridge these gaps and promote unity have been unsuccessful because of the community’s scattered nature, the limited number of potential readers, and a shortage of funds. The closest that Russian immigrants have ever come to unified action was during World War II, when, for a time, sympathy for the inhabitants of the homeland transcended their differences.

No single element has done more to shape the national character of Russians, whether at home or abroad, than the Russian Orthodox Church. Sometimes criticized by foreigners as unduly ritualistic, its elaborate ceremonies are engrained in the individual from childhood. Every house has its icon corner, sometimes with a lighted candle, before which the visitor will pause to make the sign of the cross. An elaborate cycle of religious holidays is observed, including the holiest, Easter, and Epiphany, Annunciation, Palm Sunday, Ascension, Assumption, and Christmas, a number of fasts, particularly Lent, and many saints’ days. One’s own name day, which commemorates the saint after whom one is called, is also observed. The sacraments include baptism, chrismation, penance, confession, communion, matrimony, unction, and ordination. Wherever Russians have settled, no matter how poor they were, a place of worship has been prepared. Newly arrived families will clean out a garage, shed, cellar, or corner of a room and install the appropriate decorations. If it is economically possible, a church is built or another building converted. Each church has an inner sanctum, symbolic of Heaven, gates that offer the congregation a glimpse of the afterworld, an iconostasis, and an altar. Besides its primary religious purpose, the church usually serves as a community centre, and frequently a school is organized to teach children to read and write in Russian.

The history of the Russian Orthodox Church in North America dates from 1794, when a mission was established at Kodiak, Alaska, to minister to the first Russian settlers and to native Alaskans. By 1916 the church administered over 350 parishes on the continent and had about a half-million parishioners. As the sole Eastern Orthodox church in North America, it served the spiritual needs of the various East Slavic peoples (Russians, Belarusans, Carpatho-Rusyns, Ukrainians) as well as Greeks and South Slavs who had fled religious persecutions in the Ottoman Empire. Schools were established in Seattle and Minneapolis, and Orthodox priests began to visit the immigrants in Canada. Many of the newcomers eventually pooled their resources and built their own chapels and churches. By 1906 at least twenty Russian Orthodox churches had been erected in communities in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. The Holy Trinity Cathedral in Winnipeg had been consecrated two years earlier by Bishop Tikhon of Alaska.

Alexander was the first Orthodox bishop appointed in Canada when he was elevated to that rank in Winnipeg in 1916. At the time there were about 150 Russian Orthodox parishes in his eparchy. They were served by a dozen or so travelling priests and missionaries, who periodically visited the local communities to hold divine service and perform other church rites. The early years of the twentieth century were the high point of the Russian Orthodox Church in western Canada. Thereafter, as parishioners died, moved away, or were outnumbered by new arrivals of other denominations, many parishes were taken over by different faiths or abandoned. During World War I a shortage of priests and missionaries prevented the appointment of permanent pastors even for the larger congregations. This situation drew the attention of other religious organizations and sects, who began proselytizing among the Slavic immigrants. In the cities, the Orthodox population came under the influence of Catholic and Protestant welfare organizations. The churches benefited from the arrival in Canada in the 1920s of the post-revolution wave of newcomers from Russia, the so-called White immigration. For these people, who had lost their homeland, the Russian Orthodox Church held a particular significance as a symbol of spiritual, national, and cultural survival. New churches opened in Montreal, Quebec City, Toronto, and other urban centres. Overall, however, the continuing shortage of Orthodox clergy and active proselytizing by other Canadian churches caused a substantial reduction in the number of parishes, which by 1926 had fallen to sixty-five.

At this time, the church was plagued by jurisdictional disputes. In Russia the Bolshevik regime and the civil war of 1917–20 had disrupted communications between the patriarch and central administration and the many peripheral eparchies. Tikhon, elected to head the church in 1918, issued a decree two years later that authorized the establishment of local administrations where necessary. A “church administration of southwest Russia” was created that was later evacuated to Constantinople (Istanbul) and then to Yugoslavia. In August 1922 it was reorganized as a synod of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad (the Synod Abroad). From the end of the civil war to the beginning of World War II, the Synod Abroad managed, with limited resources, to look after Russians scattered all over the free world, but internal conflicts and splits left its existence doubtful. By 1939 there were three jurisdictions of the Russian Orthodox Church in Canada: the Synod Abroad, the North American church (the Metropolitan), and the so-called Edmonton diocese, which remained jurisdictionally subordinate to the patriarch in Moscow.

World War II sharpened the internal conflicts within the Russian Orthodox Church. German-Soviet hostilities aroused hope among some exiles that Soviet rule would be overthrown and a new regime established in Russia. Other expatriates, who regarded the government as the protector of the Russian people against a cruel foe, became imbued with active Soviet patriotism. Members of the Orthodox clergy were to be found in both camps. Russian “committees for assistance to the homeland” were formed in Montreal, Toronto, and other cities. Besides their purely humanitarian function, they developed cultural, political, and educational activities in which several churches participated. The founders of the committees, seeking to unite immigrants under one body, organized a convention in Toronto in May 1942. It voted to combine all activities within one association, the Federation of Russian Canadians. Particular attention was given to enlisting the Orthodox churches in the activities of the new organization. When the second convention of the federation met in November two years later, it included ten delegates who were Doukhobors and seven from Orthodox churches. With the end of the war, however, interest in such activities diminished. Foreseeing a new period of activity in Russian Orthodox parishes in Canada, the representatives of the church left the organization.

All the Russian immigrants who arrived after the war were anti-Communists. For most of them the Orthodox Church represented the only source of moral strength on which they could count in their new homeland, and they contributed significantly to a revival of activities. Nevertheless, internal conflicts increased. In 1943, in order to rally the support of the Russian people, Stalin had granted the Orthodox Church the right to “elect” a patriarch. The synod of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad refused to recognize the canonical legitimacy of the new patriarch in Moscow because it regarded him as an instrument of the Soviet government and the Communist Party. However, the American church and the west European diocese established communications with the Moscow Patriarchate. In 1970, after negotiating with Moscow, the church in the United States secured its independence as the Orthodox Church in America (OCA). Hence, Russians of the Orthodox faith in Canada were now under three jurisdictions. Twenty-two parishes, mostly in Alberta and Saskatchewan, remained under the direction of the Edmonton diocese of the Moscow patriarchate, two were within the OCA, and the rest were part of the Synod Abroad, which claimed to represent the only true Orthodox Church. It did not recognize the church of the Moscow Patriarchate in Russia and it refused to have dealings with the OCA because of its connection, however slight, with Moscow.

During the half-century since World War II, the situation within the church has remained unchanged. Voices have been raised urging reunification, but this has not occurred. Indeed, it is doubtful if union would in fact result in any change except on paper. For the indefinite future, the disunity of the church appears to be permanent, with the resultant duplication of congregations, churches, services, centres, community activities, and clerical and lay personnel.

Except during World War II, when leftists and some representatives of moderate groups combined to carry out relief measures for the people of Russia, the lack of a unified community has minimized contacts by Russians in Canada as a group with other ethnic communities. As a whole, for both men and women, the trend has been to acculturation and assimilation. Russian immigrants of distinct religious orientations, such as the Doukhobors, Old Believers, and Hutterites, have maintained their identities in spite of internal dissent and government opposition. However, other Russian Canadians – disparate, divided, and easily assimilated – have never formed a nationwide community and locally have had little activity in common except where strong Orthodox church congregations have been formed, as in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver. There has therefore been no effort or need to maintain community boundaries. The children of Russian immigrants have attended public schools, in which peer pressure has hastened assimilation, and have intermarried with other Canadians. Except in the memories of men and women of the older generation, the homeland plays only a small and diminishing role for those of Russian descent in Canada.

For general background on conditions in Russia before and during the four periods of emigration abroad, see Nicholas v. Riasanovsky, A History of Russia, 5th ed. (New York, 1993). Two works provide detailed accounts of the post–1917 White Russian emigrants and their attempts to create new lives in several countries worldwide, although with only a few references to North America: W. Chapin Huntington, The Homesick Million: Russia-out-of Russia (Boston, 1933), and Marc Raeff, Russia Abroad: A Cultural History of the Russian Emigration, 1919–1939 (New York and Oxford, U.K. 1990).

There is abundant, although scattered, material on the Russians in Canada. Of particular use is T.F. Jeletzky, ed., Russian Canadians: Their Past and Present (Ottawa, 1983), a collection of essays by Russian émigrés which contains much information on various periods of immigration and immigrant organizations, churches, and political trends. A valuable work though one with a strongly Communist perspective is Grigorii Okulevich, Russkie v Kanade: istoriia russkikh raboche-farmerskikh klubov imeni M. Gor’kogo (1930–1940), Federatsii Russkikh Kanadtsev (1941–1952) (Russians in Canada: History of the M. Gorkii Russian Farmer-Worker Clubs [1930– 1940] and the Federation of Russian Canadians [1941– 1952]; Toronto, 1952). This volume contains information based on the author’s personal experiences, extensive research, and interviews.

Memoir material is abundant but difficult to locate and includes volumes like Maria von Rosenbach, Family Kaleidoscope: From Russia to Canada (North Vancouver, B.C., c. 1971), a memoir based in large part on the reminiscences of the author’s ninety-three-year-old mother. It is a detailed account of family origins, life in Russia before 1917, crossing Siberia, life in China, and immigration and settlement in Alberta, Canada. There is much on the author’s father, Orest Dimitrievich Dournovo, a military man and religious philosopher, with the last few pages devoted to his organization of immigration parties from China to Alberta.

There are also travel accounts by Soviet travellers or immigrants to Canada who returned to Russia; one such is Oleg Aleksandrovich Feofanov, Schast’e v kredit: ocherki o kanade (Happiness on Credit: Sketches of Canada; Moscow, 1966).

A variety of article-length studies are available which provide information about various aspects of Russian-Canadian history. Settlement in a particular region of Canada is discussed in Koozma J. Tarasoff, “Russians of the Greater Vancouver Area,” in Slavs in Canada, vol.1, (Edmonton, 1966) 138–47. A.P. Ignatieff, “Reflections on the Integration [of Russian immigrants to Canada] by an Engineer of Russian Origin,” Slavs in Canada, vol.2 (Toronto, 1968) 45–50, talks about adaptation to a new environment. Andrew Bell, “The Art of Paraskeva Clark,” Canadian Art, vol.5, no.2 (1947–48) 80–83, provides some insight into the life and work of a Russian-Canadian artist.

Two newspapers are important as original sources for the study of Russians in North America: Novoe russkoe slovo (New Russian word; New York, 1921– ), and Russkaia zhizn’ (Russian Life; San Francisco, 1921– ).

Archives are essential for research on Russian Canadians in particular because of the lack of published studies. The National Archives of Canada contains more than a century of official correspondence regarding immigration and settlement in the collection known as RG 76. It also contains thousands of Imperial Russian passports that formerly belonged to Russian immigrants to Canada. These found their way to Ottawa from the National Archives of the United States where they had been deposited after the closure of the Imperial Russian Embassy in Ottawa. The Russian Center, San Francisco, contains a vast collection of private papers of deceased émigrés who settled in that city. These collections include émigré newspapers, correspondence, and other material, but for the most part the material is unsorted. The Bakhmetieff Archive at Columbia University contains an even greater collection of émigré materials, rendered more accessible by finding aids.

Toronto's Russian community and WWII veterans celebrate V-Day

The Doukhobors
Their History in Russia and Their Migration to Canada by Joseph Elkintons (1903) (pdf)


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