ISSN: 2158-7051





ISSUE NO. 6 ( 2017/1 )






Choral music in Doukhobor rituals and community life in Saskatchewan, Canada


Veronika Makarova*





This paper outlines the categories of Doukhobor choral singing in Saskatchewan, Canada, describes the venues and the manner of performance of the Doukhobor traditional spiritual music  and demonstrates its role in the religious ceremony and in the community life.  


Key Words: Choral singing in Saskatchewan, traditional spiritual music, religious ceremony.




Canadian Doukhobors are a religious, ethnic and cultural minority residing mostly in British Columbia (about 3000). A smaller group of Doukhobors reside in Saskatchewan (450, according to Census Canada 2001). These “peculiar people” (Maude, 1904) are the descendents of about 7500 Doukhobors from Russia, who immigrated to Canada in 1899 in order to avoid religious persecutions and military draft (Tarasoff, 1982).

Once in Canada, they initially settled in the Districts of Assiniboia and Saskatchewan (modern Saskatchewan). In 1905-1907 the Canadian government revoked the land initially given to the Doukhobors, following which the majority of Doukhobors left for BC, but a smaller group of them remained in Saskatchewan (Tarasoff, 1982).

Doukhoborism has been described as not only a religion, but also as “a way of life based on Christian and Christian-like principles” (Peacock, 1966: 10). The most important feature of Doukhoborism is its pacifism. Doukhobors refuse military service and extend the commandment “not to kill” to animals, hence their vegetarianism. Another important characteristic of the Doukhobor religion is that its followers reject “all the paraphernalia of the established churches – the dogmas, the rituals, the priesthood, the far-flung empires of temporal power… For them, the world itself is a church where ideally each man is his own priest leading a life of service and dedication to mankind” (Peacock, 1966, 10). The Doukhobor religious principles and way of life are encoded in their singing tradition.


Doukhobor singing and its studies


Although in modern times, small amounts of instrumental music may be occasionally heard in some Doukhobor community events, by tradition, Doukhobors did not play any musical instruments. They have become famous for the “unusual and beautiful style” (Peacock, 1966, p 11) of their singing and “high degree of contrapunctal and harmonic sophistication” (Peacock, 1966, p 12). They sang spontaneously whenever they would get together, very rarely in solo, sometimes in duos, trios, quartets and groups. However, their most famous musical genre is choral singing practiced during worship:  “the act of singing en masse is regarded as the musical expression or extension of their basic philosophy of brotherhood and communal cooperation. Music is the all-pervading mystique of Doukhobor life” (Peacock, 1966, p 11).

The original genre of Doukobor ritual and community music is singing in groups (choirs). Only choir performances were traditionally available during prayer services. Nowadays, choir performances of hymns and songs are still the most common genre, followed by group (trios, quartets) and duos performances of lyrical songs. Solos are rare, since togetherness is the central concept of the Doukhobor religion reflected in their singing. Solo singing performances do happen in modern Doukhobor prayer services and at communal events, but these are mostly performances of non-Doukhobor pieces. There are interesting exceptions, however. In 2015, a member of Saskatoon Doukhobor community wrote original lyrics and composed a song on the subject of Doukhobor history. It was sung by the author a few times at prayer services in 2015-2016.   

So far very few researchers have addressed the subject of Doukhobor choral singing. A significant body of the texts of Doukhobor psalms were collected by a Russian anthropologist Bonch-Bruevitch in early 1900s (Bonch-Bruevitch, 1909). Early history of research of Doukhobor choral music is described in Klymaz (1993). The first music notations of Doukhobor singing were created by Anna K. Chertkova(1910), and Evgeniia E. Lineva (Lineva, 1912; Klymaz, 1993). In early 1960-s, in BC, Kenneth Peacock recorded over 250 Doukhobor psalms, hymns and folksongs, and suggested a classification of the genres of Doukhobor music (Peacock, 1966). Doukhobor psalmody was investigated in its connection to Doukobor culture in Mealing (1972 and 1989). Shirley Perry (1992), analyzed and provided music notation for 45 melodies of Doukhobor psalms and songs. Her research included the analysis of tone set, meter, scale and range; of the intervallic and rhythmic specialties, tempo, the performance time, form and cadence notes, the final note, opening melodic outline, and of the singing range (Perry, 1992).


Categories of Doukhobor music


While Perry (1992) classifies the Doukhobor music into “the Psalms, the Old Verses and the Spiritual Songs”, a more detailed classification is provided in Peacock (1966), who differentiates between psalms, early hymns, sectarian hymns, historical hymns, contemporary hymns, folksongs and miscellaneous songs (Peacock, 1966, pp 11-12). The classification adopted in this paper (the original classification by the researcher) suggests that Doukhobor music can be best divided into“ psalms”, “hymns,” and “songs.” The latter category consists of “folk songs” and “composer songs.” The author’s classification is based on the Doukhobor Russian language tradition that differentiates between “psalms, spiritual songs, and songs” (псалмы, духовные песни и песни (Chernov & Chernov)).

Psalms (Псалмы) constitute “the oldest body of literature and music in the Doukhobor tradition” (Peacock, 1966, p 11). The psalms contain the religious teachings of the Doukhobors passed over generations in an oral tradition. The whole body of psalms is known as the “Book of Life.” Some community members referred to them as a “living monument” and “Doukhobor university” (Rak, 2004). Almost 400 of Doukhobor psalms were recorded in the beginning of the 20th century by a Russian anthropologist Vladimir Bonch-Bruevich and compiled by him into “Животная книга Духоборцев” (The Doukhobor Book of Life). The total number of Doukhobor psalms in existence in early 20th century must have been at least twice as high. Many of Doukhobor psalms are of Doukhobor composition, some of them are retold stories from the Bible (mostly New Testament). The psalms could be recited as well as sung. The singing of the psalms was extremely slow. One syllable was extended to multiple music notes. For example, five initial words of a psalm “Пение псалмов душам нашим украшение” [Тhe signing of psalms beautifies our souls] provided in Peacock’s music notation (1966) stretch over 67 music notes (9 book pages of notation). According to Peacock, the style of singing with one syllable extended over so many melody notes indicates an origin in very old medieval music and is an indicator that the Doukhobor psalms are“ at least 1000 years old” (1966, p. 16).

While Peacock explains the stretching of the psalm text syllables over many notes by the medieval origin of the psalms, Perry (1992, p. 60) provides a different explanation with reference to Laura Hoolaef, an experienced Psalm singer from BC, according to whom “the extra syllables initially were used to disguise the text and thus prevent the religious and political authorities from being able to understand the meaning of the words and thereby avoid persecution.” A similar explanation was obtained by the researcher during an interview of a Doukhobor consultant originally from Saskatchewan.

This ancient style of singing did not prove to be viable in the modern society with the ever-increasing speed of information exchange. Already in 1960-s, of a few hundred psalms in the Book of Life, only about 75 were still used in BC (Peacock, 1966). Today, in British Columbia, only about 30 psalms are still rehearsed and recited (Psalmist Project). An interesting attempt of creating a new psalm was undertaken by a Doukhobor youth group in BC in the last decade. In Saskatchewan, the researcher counted only the texts of 6 psalms recited in religious services between 2011-2015, but no psalms are any longer sung in Saskatchewan. A Saskatchewan consultant informed the researcher that psalms were still sung during Doukhobor services in Blaine Lake in 1950-s-1960s, when she was a child, but that they were so extremely long and boring for children to listen to that they could hardly wait until the psalms were over. Both in BC and in Saskatchewan, the singing of the psalms first got reduced in the number of the psalms performed, then only the first few words of the psalms were sung and the rest was recited. While in BC a few shorter psalms or the first lines of some psalms are still occasionally sung during services, in Saskatchewan, the signing of the psalms has been completely discontinued. All the other categories of Doukhobor signing described below are still performed in Saskatchewan.

In Doukhobor terminology, psalms (псалмы) stand separately, whereas the rest of music and their lyrics were traditionally referred to as “stikhi” or “stishki” (a word in standard Russian referring to poems). Stikhi can be split into two major subcategories: hymns and songs, the terms used by Saskatchewan Doukhobors while talking in English. In Russian, this subdivision is rendered as “spiritual songs” and “(folk) songs” (Chernov & Chernov).

Hymns (Духовные стихи) are songs with strong spiritual content, but they do not have the religious value of a psalm, since their lyrics are more conversational, and their melodies are more pronounced. While it is possible to identify a few subcategories of hymns according to their origins, I group them all in one major category, as in some cases, the origin is completely obscure or hard to establish. However, the subcategories of hymns as outlined in Peacock, 1966 can be described as follows.Early Hymns are the oldest hymns composed by the Doukhobors in Russia. They are somewhat similar to psalms, but are not as slow, and “have more sophisticated harmony and more symmetrically organized melodic and textual materials” (Peacock, 1966, p.11). Sectarian Hymns are identified by Peacock (1966) as shared with other Christian sects, such as Russian Baptist, and Mennonites. An evidence of the fact that the Doukhobors did share some hymns with other Slavic Christian sects and had some degree of awareness about this was discovered by the researcher in the archives of a Doukhobor from Kamsack area. The archive (a part of the University of Saskatchewan Doukhobor Special Collection currently under development by the researcher) contains a small book which is an Evangelist collection of hymns and religious writings entitled “Гимны и духовные песнопения”(Hymns and spiritual singing, 1956). The title page of the book has an inscription written by a Kamsack Doukhobor and dated 3 January 1966: “Here there is a poem (stikh) “Mighty Christ was crying bitterly” (stikh 72 page 40), this and many other stikhi from here are sung by the Doukhobors.” Molokans should definitely be added to the list of religious groups sharing some hymns with the Doukhobors, since Perry (1992) reports finding one Doukhobor hymn in common with the Molokan Sionskij Pesennik (Songbook of Zion). The mutual “borrowings” of religious songs are easily explained by the fact that all the above sects shared with the Doukhobors the exile area around the Molochnaja river(modern Ukraine) in the 19th century. The geographic proximity and some doctrine similarities (renouncing the Orthodox church, pacifism) prompted the cultural exchange that continued into late 20th century with the Doukhbor visits to Molokans in Argentina and USA (from the researcher’s interviews with Saskatchewan Doukhobor consultants). Despite sharing the lyrics of these hymns with other denominations, Doukhobors tend to apply some modifications to melodies and they get “stamped with the unique Doukhobor style of singing” (Peacock, 1966, p 12). Historical Hymns were created in late 19th and 20th centuries to commemorate important events in Doukhobor history, such as the Burning of the Firearms conducted by the Doukhobors during their exile to the Caucasus mountains on June 29, 1895 as a symbol of their refusal to serve in the army (Peacock, 1966). Contemporary Hymns were composed in Canada. In most cases, their authors are known. According to an estimate by Peacock (1966), about half of the contemporary hymns were created by the Doukhobor poet and hymnist Ivan Sysoev (Sysoev, 1975; Kolesnikoff & Kolesnikoff, 1980). Peter Verigin (the most revered Doukhobor leader after their arrival in Canada) also composed a few hymns.

Folksongs (песни) are also a part of the traditional Doukhobor repertoire. Most of them are of Russian and some – of Ukrainian origin. Among them are such famous Russian folk songs as “По Дону гуляет, Однозвучно гремит колокольчик, Слети к нам тихий вечер [Kosack walks along the Don river, The Bell is ringing monotonously, Fly down to us, peaceful evening]”, and others.

Songs by Russian and Soviet composers (песни) were heard by the Doukhobors on records or via performing choirs and song groups from the Soviet Union who visited Canadian Doukhobors. In particular, according to Saskatchewan Doukhobor consultants, the Red Army Choir frequented Saskatchewan in the 50-s and 60-s.   

Interestingly, the last two categories of songs may undergo serious melodic transformation in the Saskatchewan Doukhobor tradition, even if the original records and music notation can be obtained. It is not clear to the researcher what determines the degree of melodic transformation. For example, in the performances by Saskatchewan Doukhobor choirs, “По Дону гуляет” is preserved in the original melody, as it can be heard from Russian choirs; “Слети к нам тихий вечер” is slightly modified, but the overall melody is still recognizable, whereas the melody of one of the most famous Soviet songs “Катюша [Katjusha]” was so strongly changed in the performances by Kamsack choir, that if sung without lyrics, it would likely not be recognized by a Russian listener. The researcher called upon to join the performance of Kamsack and Saskatoon Doukhobor choir in June 2012, could sing along easily a few Doukhobor songs she heard before, but failed to join in the singing of “Katjusha”, as the melody was so radically different in the Doukhobor performance.


The performances of Doukhobor music in Saskatchewan


In the province of Saskatchewan, Doukhobor singing is performed during Doukhobor religious events and ceremonies, such as prayer services in Saskatoon, Blaine Lake, Veregin, Canora and Kamsack (the towns where either regular or occasional Doukhobor prayer services are still conducted), during cultural events organized by the Doukhobor community (e.g., festivals in the National Doukhobor Heritage Village in Veregin), as well as during cultural events, such as Christmas Interconfessional Choir performances.

Two major compilations of the lyrics of Doukhobor hymns and songs are Markova & Legebokoff (1978) and Kalmakoff (1991), although earlier hand-written and typed collections can still be found in Doukhobor families (e.g., Chernov & Chernov).  Only Kalmakoff (1991) collection is in current use in Saskatchewan by those Doukhobors who can read Russian. The rest use a recent English transliteration of some selected hymns and songs from Kalmakoff (1991) published by the Doukhobor Cultural Society (The Doukhobor Cultural Society Book of Hymns 2011).

Between 2011 and 2015, the researcher observed over 60 prayer services in Saskatchewan. These observations indicate that on the average, between five and seven stikhi (hymns and songs) are performed during one service. The total number of different stikhi performed during a year is about 30. The most popular stikhi with the highest frequencies of performance in services are 111 Дорогие минуты/Dorogije minuty (8), 96 Я верю час придет желанный/Ja verju chas pridjot zhelannyj (5), 197 Как счастливы эти люди/ Kak schastlivy eti ljudi (4) and 402 Все дружней в ряды сомкнемся/Vse druzhnej v rjady somknjomsja (4). The numbers of stikhi provided here are their numbers in Kalmakov (1991) and Doukhobor Cultural Society Book of Hymns (2011); numbers in brackets are the frequencies of performance in observed services. Number 200 Мы окончили собранью/My okonchili sobranju is performed in the end of every prayer service, and its frequency is therefore not provided here. Качаясь на волнах эфира/ Каchajasj na volnax efira (“The Song of Peace” with lyrics composed by a famous Russian poet Anna Akhmatova) is also sung in the end of most prayer services in Saskatoon Prayer Home.

The numbers of the stikhi (according to Kalmakoff 1991; the same numbers are also retained in the Doukhobor Cultural Society Book of Hymns, 2011) are called out loud by the elder responsible for the organization of the given Saskatoon prayer service before each stikh is started, so that the choir members know what to sing, and the rest of the congregation could follow with their songbooks. In Saskatoon prayer home, in addition to calling out, the numbers of the songs used in each service can be written before the beginning of the service on a whiteboard.

By tradition, the signing was passed over generations in practice. In modern Saskatchewan, with the diminished opportunities for communal practice due to the dwindling numbers of the Doukhobors, the community members are encouraged to practice the stikhi by listening to the CDs with Saskatchewan Centennial Choir records, and follow the texts in English transliterations. Regular choir practices are nevertheless still taking place.


Specific cultural features of the choir performances


In Doukhobor choirs, men and women are sitting or standing on the opposite sides facing each other. Doukhobor choirs have no conductors. By tradition, in order to set a song at a particular tonality and pitch height and ensure everybody is starting at the same time, one of the choir members volunteers in advance to provide the “запев” [start] which roughly corresponds to about a couple of rhythmic units. The volunteer starts the song solo and roughly on about the third rhythmic beat (often corresponding to the third stressed syllable of the lyrics) the rest of the choir joins in with polyphonic singing.  

In Saskatchewan, choir members sit while singing, but the choir members as well as the audience are required to stand up for the performance of the Lord’s Prayer and of the “Sleep On, Battle Eagles” (Спите, орлы боевые). The latter hymn commemorates the sacrifices of the heroic Doukhobor forefathers as well as the sufferings of the Doukhobor people.

In the end of each hymn, men and women in the choir bow to each other and the Holy Spirit. There is no bowing after the songs because of their secular content.

Doukhobors came to Canada from different parts of Russia, and for a while they kept some regional differences in their singing. Even nowadays, traces of these distinctions are still heard among the performances of Canora, Saskatoon and Blaine Lake choirs. For example, while performing the same pieces, Canora choir’s tempo is much slower than that of Saskatoon choir.


The religious and social role of Doukhobor singing


The tradition of Doukhobor singing goes back through centuries and “continues to unite all Doukhobors today with beauty, culture, and spirit” (Tarasoff, 2011). As shown above, Doukhobor singing is an important part of the Doukhobor religious ceremonies. Doukhobors have no written doctrines, they were not supposed to read the Gospel or the Bible. All their beliefs were imbedded in the psalms and hymns. Singing of/listening to the psalms was believed to be not only a way of receiving spiritual and moral guidance, but it was a way of establishing the communion with God. According to a Doukhobor psalm (text cited in Peacock, 1966, p 29): “The signing of psalms beautifies our souls, brings the angels to our help, drives away the darkness, creates holiness, strengthens the mind of man, effaces sin. It is like the grace of saints: augments faith, hope, love. As with sunlight it illuminates, so with water it cleanses; as with fire it scorches, so with holy oil it anoints. It shames the devil; it reveals God.” With the disappearance of psalms from Doukhobor services in Saskatchewan, the same function of “soul beautification” is performed by the hymns. In interviews and personal conversations with the researcher, many Saskatchewan Doukhobors commented on the spiritual and elevating effect of the Doukhobor hymns. According to one of the Doukhobor elders and community leaders Bill Kalmakoff, “Singing keeps community together” (Doukhobors: Keeping tradition alive on the prairies 2011). This unifying function of the Doukhobor singing is echoed by Mealing (1989): “the psalms affirm unity in the Doukhobor community,… they create a model of wholeness for the community and its members.” Doukhobors from remote parts of Saskatchewan where services are no longer conducted come to Saskatoon Prayer Home to experience the prayer services and listen to the singing. Despite some differences in the religious practice and culture of the Doukhobors of Saskatchewan, BC and Alberta, they all feel united in singing of the hymns and songs.

Doukhobor hymns and songs also work as a part of the collective memory to store the events of the past and episodes from Doukhobor history. Julia Rak points out the prominence of the ideas of “home” and “suffering” found in Doukhobor psalms  (Rak,  2004, p 58).  The Doukhobors “have suffered and have been broken in various ways for their meddling with the Claims of power  (Mealing, 1989), and these sufferings are reflected and sublimated via the choral singing, and in this way they perform a healing function: “ I find Doukhobor psalms to be beautiful, to be powerful intellectual and literary statements; to be, indeed, tools for certain kinds of healing” (Mealing, 1989).

Singing is so central to the Doukhobor religion and way of life that even the concerns of the Doukhobors about the discontinuation of their cultural traditions are focused on the singing: the youth are criticized by one Doukhobor woman for having “no songs to sing, no stories to tell” (Rak, 2004, p 64).

Doukhobor singing is also one of the most important tools and motivators of the maintenance of the Russian language in the Doukhoor community of Saskatchewan. A few Doukhobor community members pointed out in their interviews and personal communication with the researcher that they were motivated to learn or keep up their Russian to be able to sing or understand the meaning of the Doukhobor hymns and songs. The largest body of Russian language used in Saskatchewan in Doukhobor community services is contained in the choral singing, and very little Russian is used in other parts of the service and community life (Makarova, 2012a,b; Makarova et.al., 2011).

Singing is also well known (along with bread baking) as one of the signature attributes of the Doukhobor culture. During the visit of Queen Elizabeth to Canada in 1987, she listened to the performance by the Doukhobor Choir in Veregin (National Doukhobor Heritage Village).


The maintenance of the Doukhobor singing tradition in Saskatchewan


Doukhobor singing is such an intrinsic part of the Doukhobor way of life, mode of thinking and religious practice, that it will most certainly remain in the families of Doukhobor descendants as long as any traces of Doukhobor identity still exist in Canada. This is the part of Doukhobor culture that has shown the strongest resistance against acculturalization. In Saskatoon, even those Doukhobors who do not speak or understand Russian enjoy listening to or singing the Doukhobor choral music. Choirs practice regularly and perform at every Doukhobor service and public event, as well as participate in various cultural festivities. Some Doukhobor choir members with no command of Russian display an enormous dedication by learning a considerable repertoire in what for them is essentially a foreign language they do not understand. The Doukhobors who do speak Russian take the time and patience to translate and explain the meaning of the lyrics to the choir members without the command of Russian. Choir rehearsals observed by the researcher in 2011-15 are filled with the spirit of love, comradery and reverence for the past.

A somewhat different way was chosen by the Doukhobors from Blain Lake who preferred to translate the words of the hymns into English, and sing them in English since late 20th century.

In early 21st century, Saskatchewan Doukhobor choirs had many more members than in present. Centennial and Saskatoon Doukhobor Choirs produced multiple CDs of their performances. Choirs from Saskatchewan travelled to BC to perform and received reciprocal visits from BC choirs. Currently, because of the dwindling numbers of the Doukhobors in Saskatchewan, the level of their choir activities is lower, but the level of the dedication of the few remaining choir members remains high. For example, in the summer of 2012, Saskatoon Doukhobor Choir had additional practices in order to prepare for a trip to Krestova, BC, scheduled for October 2012.


Preserving the past and looking into the future


Some of Peacock’s (1966) recordings as well as hundreds of other choir records have been recently restored and converted into digital form within the framework of the Psalmist project in the Doukhobor Discovery Center, Castelgar (The Psalmist project). Besides the storage of old records, The Psalmist Project also collects and digitizes psalms and hymns still practiced by modern Doukhobors.

In Saskatchewan, there are also efforts made to preserve the cultural heritage of the Doukhobor community. The project conducted by the community members and the researcher is aimed at gathering old 20th century records (on magnetic tape and cassettes) of Doukhobor choirs performing in Saskatchewan, and converting these records into digital form. Eight magnetic tapes with Doukhobor speech and sound records were donated by Karen Dagenais, whose parents Sam and Vera Cheveldayoff made those records in 1950s-1960s. The second goal of the project is recording currently conducted Doukhobor services. All these records will be stored in the Doukhobor Special Collection of the University of Saskatchewan library currently under development by the researcher.




The tradition of Doukhobor signing goes back through centuries and “continues to unite all Doukhobors today with beauty, culture, and spirit” (Tarasoff, 2011). Doukhobor singing is a way to establish connection with God, it is an essential part of religious ceremonies, it is a way of life, and the most celebrated Doukhobor art. Choral singing helps to draw public attention to the Doukhobor community, it is an important motivator and tool in the Russian language maintenance. It plays a role in maintaining the community memory of the Doukhobors. Despite the diminishing numbers of the Doukhobors in Saskatchewan, the choral singing tradition is still carried on and efforts are made to preserve it for future generations.




I would like to express my enormous gratitude to my brothers and sisters Saskatchewan Doukhobors for their open-mindedness, hospitality and for the opportunity to observe their ritual practice and join their singing.

Низкий поклон вам, братья и сестры, Духоборцы Саскачевана!

The author is grateful to Karen Dagenais for donating the Doukhobor records made by her parents Sam and Vera Cheveldayoff.

Special thanks go to Larry Ewashen for his encouragement, comments on the manuscript as well as providing the reference to Chernov & Chernov collection of Doukhobor psalms, hymns and songs.




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*Veronika Makarova - Chair, Interdisciplinary Linguistics Program, Department of Religion and Culture, University of Saskatchewan, 9 Campus Drive , Saskatoon, Saskatchewan Canada, postal code: S7N 5A5 Tel: 1-306-9665641. e-mail: v.makarova@usask.ca