Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Family History Through the Alphabet – S is for …

S is for … Spirit Wrestlers.

In 1786, Archbishop Nikifor referred to a group of people who had broken away from the Russian Orthodox Church as dukhobortsy or “spirit wrestlers”.[1]  It signified “those who wrestled against the spirit of the church and God”; it was meant as an insult.[2]  This sect, living on the fringes of the Russian Empire in what is now Ukraine, embraced the name a few years later, but changed its meaning to signify those who “wrestle with the spirit of truth”.[3]

The Spirit Wrestlers were pacifist Christians whose spiritual origins date back to the mid-1600s when reforms were introduced in the Russian Orthodox Church.[4]  They rejected formal, organized religion, including the sacraments and the priesthood. The Doukhobors were persecuted by the government for their beliefs and forced into exile in far-flung regions of the Empire throughout the 17th – 19th centuries.

With the financial backing of Leo Tolstoy (through sales of his novel Resurrection) and the intervention of others like the Society of Friends (Quakers), approximately 7,500 Doukhobors (descendants of the original "Spirit Wrestlers") left Russia for Canada in 1898 and 1899. Smaller groups continued to arrive until the early 1930s.[5]  Today, there are about 40,000 Doukhobors in Canada, living mostly in the provinces of Saskatchewan and British Columbia.[6]


1. Svetlana A. Inikova, “Spiritual Origins and the Beginnings of Doukhobor History”, in The Doukhobor Centenary in Canada, Andrew Donskov, John Woodsworth and Chad Gaffield, editors (Ottawa: Slavic Research Group, University of Ottawa, 2000), p. 2, note 6. Other sources give a different year (1785) and a different archbishop (Ambrosius). See, for example, Koozma J. Tarasoff, Spirit Wrestlers: Doukhobor Pioneers’ Strategies for Living (Ottawa: Spirit Wrestlers Publishing, 2002), p. 1, and, John Woodsworth, compiler, Russian Roots & Canadian Wings (Penumbra Press, 1999), p. 11, note 1.

2. Tarasoff, Spirit Wrestlers, p. 1.

3. Tarasoff, Spirit Wrestlers, p. 1.

4. Tarasoff, Spirit Wrestlers, p. 1.

5. Jonathan J. Kalmakoff, “Index to Doukhobor Ship Passenger Lists”, Doukhobor Genealogy Website (http://www.doukhobor.org/Shiplists.htm : accessed 14 September 2012).

6. Tarasoff, Spirit Wrestlers, p. ix.

Copyright © 2012, Yvonne Demoskoff.


  1. Wow, what a topic. I really am learning a lot about history around the world though all the bloggers in the Alphabet Challenge, yours included ;-)

  2. Thanks so much for commenting on my post; it's much appreciated. I'm learning a bit more about Australia by visiting your amazing site!

  3. I like how they turned what was an insult into something positive. That's an intriguing background to their migration story too. Thanks for sharing.

    1. The Spirit Wrestlers (Doukhobors) were certainly a hardy group who didn't let the negatives rule their lives. I'm glad I shared, Pauleen.

  4. Thankkyou for this post. I have learned something interesting that I did not know. That's the most wonderful thing about blogs.

  5. You're welcome, Sharn. I'm glad I took the plunge and starting blogging!