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dave obee Doukhobors provide the scoop on life in Russia

By Dave Obee

It always pays to learn about the conditions faced by our ancestors -- and sometimes, that information will come from unexpected sources.

In early 1925, Sam Semenoff spent three months back in his native Russia, observing the conditions being faced by farmers there. His goal was to determine whether it would be worth it for Doukhobors in Canada to return to Russia after a quarter-century in North America. His conclusion: No, emphatically.

Semenoff gave an account of his trip to a newspaper reporter in Canada, and that reporter's story was sent across the land. It appeared in several newspapers.

On June 4, 1925, Canadians were given a quick assessment of life in Soviet Russia -- an assessment that would prove to be quite accurate.

Here is the story, as it appeared in the Victoria Daily Times:

Doukhobors wish to come to Canada
Doukhobor of Saskatchewan saw some during visit to Russia

Saskatoon, June 4 -- Thoroughly disillusioned with regard to conditions in Soviet Russia, Sam Semenoff of Kinley, Sask., is back on the prairies after a three months' trip, which he took as representative of 100 Doukhobor families, former residents of Russia, who contemplated returning there.

Mr. Semenoff had the advantage of meeting practically all the heads of the Soviet government at Moscow, and in addition was privileged to spend a month with the peasantry in villages, a privilege not extended ordinarily to foreign investigators.

"I do not know what action the people who sent me will take after I have made my report, but I will never leave Canada to make my home in Russia under such conditions as I saw," said Mr. Semenoff.

Two Doukhobor representatives had visited Russia two or three years ago on the same mission as Mr. Semenoff and had brought back glowing accounts if the beauty of the country, its fertility and the freedom accorded the people. Mr. Semenoff's mission as to see if this report was correct, and if it was still advisable to migrate.

In the southern part of the country, along the Don River, he found the land all that it had been described: Much of it better than in Western Canada -- black loam nine feet deep and level. Sometimes good water was difficult to get, but beyond those natural advantages, little favorable could be said.

The system of land tenure was intolerable, and was largely responsible for the peasants being on the verge of starvation. In the cities lawlessness was rampant, industry was practically dead and the commercial life of the country at a low ebb.

It was when he got out among the peasantry that Mr. Semenoff obtained a true picture of agricultural life in Russia today. The farmers had no chance to make a living. They had no votes, only Communists having the franchise, and were unable to exercise any influence on the government to improve their conditions.

Mr. Semenoff was shown beautiful land, virgin prairie, once the property of the gentry, which he and his people could obtain. But though there were millions of acres of such lands, all the government would grant was a life interest in seven and half acres per head, counting each member of the family.

No definite parcel would be allotted, a different parcel in the same district would be given them each year. This was the system on which those now engaged in agriculture occupied the land.

This obviously objectionable system, Mr. Semenoff declared, reflected itself in the mode of living of the peasants. Their diet for the most part was coarse bread and water. The season had been dry last year and the potato crop failed.

In addition to the bread, they made soup by boiling cabbage, rice or wheat with water. It contained no meat or fat of any kind.

The children were mere skeletons in one village, the people he had once know were so emaciated he did not recognize them.

He found the Doukhobors he visited anxious to migrate to Canada. These were not community Doukhobors, but ordinary independent farmers, interested in the education of their children and of an altogether progressive type. Needless to say, he remarked, there were no schools there.

Mr. Semenoff found the Russian government anxious to buy horses in Canada.

Posted July 22, 2007


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