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Last Updated: 07/18/2014
Tolstoy at the Mir Centre for Peace—the Long Tradition
Myler Wilkinson

Myler Wilkinson describes some of the fascinating history behind the Mir Center for Peace in British Columbia, Canada, particularly in terms of the impact of Leo Tolstoy and the Russian Doukhobor pacifists who settled the area in what was one of the largest and most significant utopian experiments in North American history.

Tolstoy’s statue stands on a bluff with his back turned to the Columbia River staring back at the museum buildings of the Doukhobor Heritage Centre. A little way further up the river—not far from the confluence of the Kootenay and Columbia rivers—and still visible from where Tolstoy stands—one can see a two story weathered red brick building surrounded by heritage orchards. Until 15 years ago this was a remnant of one of the largest communal, pacifist experiments in North American history—the Doukhobors, or spirit wrestlers, in exile from Russia, began arriving in the Kootenay region from 1908. Soon they had settled thousands of acres of land, and the red brick communal homes, which came to symbolize their vision of peace, began to dot the landscape from Grand Forks in the west, to Castlegar and the Slocan Valley in the east.

The Doukhobor communal life style came to an end just prior to WWII; by the mid 1960s a new community College had inherited the lands at the confluence of the Kootenay and Columbia. Today, there is just one original red brick communal house surviving on the bluff near Selkirk College; but the old orchards that dot the landscape are a living reminder of Doukhobor belief—pacifism, agrarian communism, vegetarianism, radical utopianism.

In 1999 this last derelict brick home was given a new name and took on a new vision of peace for the future. Now under the care of Selkirk College, the building became known as: Mir Centre for Peace, meaning “peace, community, world.” Its foundational vision expressed in the words: “understanding and building cultures of peace.”

Although Tolstoy’s statue is a kilometer away and does not look directly back at the Mir Centre, the great man’s spiritual vision still directly sustains the Mir Centre for Peace—he too believed in the generative power, the necessary link between community, world, and peace.

In fact, Tolstoy was the single person most responsible for the Doukhobors, a people of exile, finding a new home in Canada. This story began seriously in 1895 with an event known as the Burning of the Arms—the Doukhobors then collectively living in southern Russia were under extreme pressure to enter the Tsarist military and to swear allegiance to worldly political authority. On the night of June 28/29 Doukhobors in several villages gathered their weapons, placed them in large pyres and—in an act which still reverberates in history—burned them as symbolic rejection against all forms of unjust worldly authority and violence.

Immediately Doukhobors were marked as apostates within the Russian state and severe punishments began, leading to mass imprisonment; this is where Tolstoy enters their lives. The great Russian writer had come to believe that the Doukhobors were a people of god, living in peace and practising a simple agrarian communism he could only dream of. He wrote letters to the London Times outlining their plight and then he decided to finish his last novel—Resurrection—and donate all the royalties to aid the Doukhobors in their emigration to Canada. He never lost touch with these people and sent assistants to help them in their settlement, first on the Canadian prairies and then in the Kootenay region of British Columbia beginning in 1908.

To this day, Doukhobors feel a special bond with Tolstoy and maintain ongoing ties to his estate in Russia—Yasnaya Polyana. And Tolstoy’s statue—on the bluff above the Columbia river—still gazes out on traditional Doukhobor lands.

The red brick Doukhobor communal home just up the river, and located on Selkirk College grounds, underwent transformation and found new life in 2007 when it became the Mir Centre for Peace. Its foundations in peace are based on a long tradition which includes the Doukhobors and Tolstoy, and also Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Their voices are still very much alive in the Kootenays—in a peace studies program at Selkirk College, a Mir lecture series which has brought speakers of world stature to the Kootenays, summer institutes which examine subjects such as transformative justice, contemplative pedagogy, and traditional beliefs and practises of indigenous peoples.

And still Tolstoy’s role remains special, his gaze firmly fixed on the Doukhobors and their future. Just inside the front door of the Mir Centre for Peace there is a small room which looks out on the former communal lands of the Doukhobors. On the wall there are two pictures—one of Tolstoy in 1864 at the time he had finished War and Peace and the other of the Russian writer and philosopher in the first decade of the twentieth century—not long after he had helped the Doukhobors come to Canada.

In both images the eyes are piercing, reminding all who see them that there is a tradition of genius at the foundation of the Mir building; Tolstoy’s eyes remind us, too, that to work for peace is an act of both will and spirit; a road that once travelled never ends. . . .

Dr Myler Wilkinson is Co-Founder of the Mir Centre for Peace, Selkirk College, Canada. He is the author of many books and articles including The Dark Mirror: American Literary Response to Russia.