The Doukhobors’ Protests Made the Public Look Twice

I hope I don’t seem to be trivializing the horrors of the current explosion of violence in the Ukraine but seeing the flames on TV reminded me of the protests the Doukhobors staged while I was in Canada.  It seemed to me that whenever the government did anything – or contemplated doing anything – that offended them, the Doukhobors stripped naked and gathered quietly in some public place.

No Molotov cocktails. No blazing rubber tires. No gunfire. Just a group of naked people standing around.

And no violent repression by “the authorities.”

The Doukhobors were from the Ukraine, a religious sect composed of mostly rural folk. Their naked bodies were what you would expect, some young, some old, some attractive, others not so much. One very attractive young lady made the front page of the Globe & Mail in the early Sixties, making history in the process. Back then, naked ladies did not appear on the front pages of national newspapers. The photo showed only her back,  but still…

I don’t know how well their protests worked politically, but – as you might imagine – they attracted quite a lot of media attention.  And isn’t that what protests – even terrorism – are all about? Attracting attention?

I understand the Doukhobors fled the Ukraine in the early 1900s to seek refuge in Canada, and they certainly found a far more tolerant environment there.  For centuries they had been persecuted by the Russian Orthodox Church and the Czars because of their religious views and pacifist policies. In Canada, they could settle in the vast prairies (and later in British Columbia) , free to establish their communities and practice their religion without government interference.

Early on, the authorities treated naked protests quite sternly. In 1931, for example, 118 Doukhobors were arrested and sentenced to three years each for public nudity.  And nude protesters were still being arrested in the early 1950s.

But by the time I immigrated to Canada from Jamaica in the mid-1950s, the Criminal Code had been amended to exempt Doukhobor-related “parading.” They could still be charged with mischief or indecency, but, if my memory can be trusted, law enforcement types were more likely to lend their coats to protesters than to arrest them.

By and large, Canadians are not easily shocked, and the naked Doukhobors were usually greeted with amused tolerance during my time there.

I moved to Florida 35 years ago, so I don’t know whether the Doukhobors are still protesting in their unusual way. I imagine that by now they have been absorbed into the Canadian mainstream and no longer stand around naked when they are offended.

But of this I am confident, they enjoy the freedom to practice their religion and stage peaceful protests secure in the knowledge that Canadian authorities would never send troops to disperse them. Even if they aren’t wearing any clothes.

(Photo shows a Doukhobor protest in 1919.)

Click for some Doukhobor history.

Click for the tragic situation in the Ukraine.