Thursday, 22 April 2021

Review: Our Backs Warmed by the Sun

Book: Vera Maloff. Our Backs Warmed by the Sun: Memories of a Doukhobor Life (Halfmoon Bay, BC: Caitlin Press, 2020), 263 pp. ISBN 9781773860398.

Peter N. Maloff, 1939; and book cover.

The main hero, Peter Nikolaevich Maloff (1900-1971), was a Canadian Independent Doukhobor, a free thinker, an enthralling emotional speaker, a devout vegetarian, and one who was deeply concerned with humanity’s problems of exploitation, militarism and wars. He shared the Doukhobor historic mission of stopping wars and working to create a good society.

The author Vera Maloff (left) of Shoreacres, British Columbia, Canada, is Peter’s granddaughter. After retiring from a career in teaching, Vera began to record family stories passed down from generation to generation. Through Peter’s self-published book, interviews with her mother Elizabeth (daughter of Peter), historic photos, and news clippings, Vera recreates some of the life of her grandfather Peter whom she adores.

Peter Maloff was born in Saskatchewan to parents who witnessed the 1895 Arms Burning event in Tsarist Russia, which marked the Doukhobor community for life as a group that proclaimed to the world that humanity needs to get rid of militarism and wars once and for all.

In 1913, young Peter moved with his parents to establish the communal koloniya svobody (sovereign, or freedom colony) near Peoria, Oregon,* USA for three years. (Kolony svobody,* The Doukhboor Gazetteer). There he entered high school and developed a keen interest in working towards a war-less world where equality reigns, behaviour would be nonviolent, and caring for neighbours would be the Golden Rule that was taught by Jesus Christ and other religious figures in history.

The commune dissolved in 3 years and the Maloff family went to San Francisco, California, for 9 months where they mingled with Molokane and other sectarians from Russia. Peter learned journalism and Russian grammar by assisting Russian publisher Anton P. Cherbak (Щербаков), and meeting many educated Orthodox Russian immigrants in the city.

About 1918 Maloff returned to Canada and settled among like-minded pacifist relatives in the Thrums area of British Columbia along the Kootenay River north of Castlegar. The community was independent in thinking with a few zealot Freedomite families living nearby that did not easily fit into the orthodoxy of the Community Doukhobors, who were known up to 1938 as the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood (C.C.U.B.).

The book title describes their field work in the hot sun tending to their vegetables and fruit trees. They sold their produce at markets in Nelson and Trail. They also had a horse or two, a cow, a goat and chickens. Most were vegetarians.

The book title describes their field work in the hot sun tending to their vegetables and fruit trees. They sold their produce at markets in Nelson and Trail. They also had a horse or two, a cow, a goat and chickens. Most were vegetarians.

In the early 1930s, Peter became very sympathetic to the zealot cause of striving for equality, in being against private property and some objection to public education. However, when the zealots began to burn and bomb homes and public property and used nudity as a way to gain public attention, Peter opposed this terrorism. However, he was arrested for joining a march in sympathy to the cause, and was jailed for three years in Oakalla prison. His own home was threatened with arson and some of his books were burnt.

The biggest impact on Peter’s life as well as on the livelihood of the Doukhobor community was during World War II when Peter spoke out against militarism and wars. He refused to register for the Draft and was arrested, jailed, tortured, and threatened to be sent to a mental asylum and exiled in Canada in the early 1940s to an isolated two-room primitive isolated cottage near Blewett, about 23 km northeast of Thrums. His health was broken and it took several years to regain his strength.

In 1948, Peter published a collection of Russian articles some he wrote, many he collected that he thought would be of interest to Doukhobors. The 600+ page book, often cited in literature about Doukhobors, was never published in English, except for three articles listed below, bottom.

Author Vera wrote about this neglected eyesore in Canadian history through the voice of Peter’s daughter Elizabeth (Vera's mother) who was given the task of periodically visiting her father in exile bringing him essential food for his survival. The book reads well. Vera acknowledges the professional help of editor Anne DeGrace, who generously and skillfully prepared the manuscript for the final publishing form. Teamwork worked!

The book provides a good view of life among a close community group of pacifists with perspectives on values for survival, a passion for truth and justice, peace activism, conscientious objections, upbringing in the family, marriage traditions, land ownership, market gardening, visits to Dr. Bernard Jensen’s ranch in Escondido, California, and more. Vera’s mother Elizabeth (or Leeza) is a centenarian who with probing by Vera reveals the many facets of life of a struggling family showing what it means to be an active Doukhobor in the 20th century and beyond.

I was annoyed by the folksy English spelling of several Russian words, two of which were repeated by book reviewer Ron Verzuh. In my opinion these Russian words should have been properly transliterated according to the Library of Congress, or Oxford University Press standards — borshch (soup : not borsh, or borscht), pirogi (pierogi, filled tarts, turnovers, knish : not peerahee), and lekharka (female healer : not lyeekarka). (See more examples in: New Doukhobor Song Book, with CDs, May 28, 2013.)

Overall, this is a good read on the Doukhobors illustrated by excellent historic images, with special attention to Peter N. Maloff, the brave soul who has suffered for the cause of humanity. His truth was welcomed, but long overlooked by the general public. His granddaughter Vera has done a good turn by giving a voice to a nonkilling hero. Bolshoe spasibo, Vera. Many thanks!

If Peter Maloff was alive today, he would no doubt extend his anti-militarism call to include climate change, universal health care and drug programs for all, as well as urging all of us to make war a crime against humanity. Bolshoe spasibo (A big thank you), Peter! You were a visionary.

Fun fact: Maloff Spring*, Thrums, B.C. was named after Peter N. Malloff who first filed for a permit to use the water in 1956.

* 3 links to the Doukhobor Genealogy Website, by Jonathan Kalmakoff.


1 comment:

  1. Dr. Filip Vanzhov, N.D.22 April 2021 at 18:14

    The book is very good reading and i am looking forward to Vera writing more as there is a bigger story here.
    Thank you Vera and Leeza.