Canada: Taming the Spirit Wrestlers

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For more than three years, the village of Krestova in British Columbia's bleak, windswept Kootenay 'hills lay empty as a ghost town. Winter snows blanketed the black hulls of bathtubs, the skeletons of old beds, the charred frames of burnt-out houses. Wolves loped where the valleys once ran fat with cattle, and local ranchers gave the town a wide berth. Then, last week, life returned to Krestova (which in Russian means "City of the Cross"). A band of burly, hard-eyed men and women with thick Russian accents trickled back to the Kootenays. The Doukhobors were coming home.

Disdain for the Flesh. Until 1962, Krestova had been the ramshackle capital of the "Sons of Freedom," a fanatical sect of some 3,000 religious anarchists and a constant headache to the Canadian government. The Freedomites are part of a Russian nonconformist movement called the Doukhobors (literally "spirit wrestlers"), who came to Canada in 1899 and now number some 14,000 strong. Believing that man owes his only allegiance to God, the Freedomites are violently defiant of all "worldly" authority, including the Canadian government. To show their disdain for things of the flesh (and reveal a lot of their own at the same time), the Freedomites periodically set fire to their shacks, then stripped to the buff and hurled their clothing into the flames. But then, under the leadership of a hot-eyed fanatic named Peter Lordly Verigin, self-appointed "Son" Stefan Sorokin, and a 240-lb. stripper called "Big Fanny" Storgoff, the Freedomite flames turned outward.

Rebelling against Canadian efforts to make them pay taxes, relinquish their squatters' rights and send their children to school, the Freedomites embarked on a career of terrorism. During the past 40 years, they have been held accountable for 1,112 "depredations" ranging from blowing up power pylons and railroad bridges to planting ingenious booby traps in cigarette packs, which are then dropped in non-Doukhobor towns. All told, the Freedomite terrorists have caused $20 million in damage and taken 20 lives.

Naked Siege. The violence reached a peak in 1961, when Freedomite leaders raised community tempers to boiling point by blaming the Canadian government for the murder of Peter Lordly—an event that took place back in 1924. Bombs rocked every lonely mountain town from Nelson (pop. 35,000) to New Denver (pop. 564), and finally the Royal Canadian Mounted Police cracked down. A special Mountie D-squad (for Doukhobor) swarmed through the Kootenays, setting up roadblocks, searching Freedomite homes and cars for bomb components, finally arresting some 120 hard-core Freedomite terrorists. The prisoners were given terms of up to ten years in British Columbia's prison at Agassiz—a fireproof clink that prevented the Freedomites from taking their usual route to freedom (burning down the jail).

The prisoners' families retaliated in typical Freedomite fashion. They stripped, set fire to their houses in Krestova and nearby Goose Creek, then marched off to Agassiz and laid naked siege to the prison.

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