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Negotiated Memory: Doukhobor Autobiographical Discourse

By Julie Rak

November 4, 2013

Review By Myler Wilkinson

In Negotiated Memory: Doukhobor Autobiographical Discourse) Julie Rak refers to Doukhobors as “bad subjects,” drawing on a concept formulated by Louis Althusser to describe a people who “resist the institutions, laws, and beliefs that would make them into ‘good’ immigrants and docile citizens” as well as who refuse “to recognize the terms of recognition” that would lead to cultural assimilation. She goes on to argue that “bad subjects cannot be treated as people who have histories and knowledges of their own because the history of the bad subject cannot be recounted or written inside of the State,” and she wonders how it was that Doukhobors, one of the perennial “bad subjects” of Canadian cultural history, began to use “a discourse of the ‘good subject’ – like autobiography.” 

Certainly the history of the Doukhobors may be subsumed under a state definition of bad subjectivity, whether in Russia (rejecting the national church, refusing to serve in the Tsarist army, burning firearms to protest militarism) or in Canada (espousing a millenarian faith that stands in direct contrast to liberal, materialist society, refusing to swear allegiance to the Queen, and insisting upon living a communal, pacifist lifestyle). The very word “Doukhobor” – “spirit wrestler” – carries an intense dialectic of social exclusion and rejection measured against a recalcitrant sense of heroic personhood within communal society. 

Rak moves from the concept of “bad subjectivity” – a political category – to the idea of autobiography as a negotiated space of personhood, a resistance to dominant social discourse, what might be understood as the resistant self, or selves, of Doukhobor history. She links this resistant self of Doukhobor experience to the recurrent historical motif of Plakun Trava, a Russian water plant that “defines itself by the current it grows against,” a subjectivity that seeks narratives of identity in order to resist prevailing social forces of conformity. Rak’s implicit idea throughout is that, historically, to be a Doukhobor has been to suffer for a belief in social otherness, an alternative spiritual existence that critiques dominant materialist ideology. Doukhobor narratives of self have claimed the realm of suffering as a sign of individual and collective health. Rak says that “the very act of entering autobiographical terrain [is] an attempt to negotiate what will be remembered about Doukhobor history as well as what position Doukhobors will have in Canada both now and in the future.” 

This is the intellectual heart of Rak’s book; an early chapter deals at length with the history of autobiographical theory (mentioning names such as Lejeune, Olney, Roy Pascal, and Sidonie Smith). Rak proceeds from this overview of academic theory (which, to her credit, she questions as a valid approach to Doukhobor experience of self and community) to a detailed examination of Doukhobor history and belief (a chapter that is notable both for its clarity and its lack of theoretical apparatus). The middle section o£ Negotiated Memory is taken up with the diaspora of Doukhobors from Russia to Canada. Rak argues that this forced homelessness is coupled with the Russian concept of Vechnaiia Pamit and what she calls the “diasporic imaginary, which the Doukhobors translate as eternal memory and eternal consciousness in the Kingdom of Heaven after death … This oral tradition forms the sacred language of migration, resistance, and suffering also found, or referred to, in Doukhobors’ written autobiographical productions.” 

The concluding chapters of Negotiated Memory explore at length actual autobiographical narratives not of literary artists but, rather, of people who have just emerged into literacy and who often express themselves in unique hybridized narratives, relatively unconstrained by dominant rhetorical models. There is much worthwhile (and little-known) research material in these final pages – extended examinations of self-narratives by people such as Vasily Popoff, Cecil Maloff, Gregory Soukorev, Nick Arishenkoff, Cecil Koochin, Vanya Bayoff, Helen Popoff, and, perhaps most important, Anna Markova. Rak makes the intriguing point that, in the period between 1930 and 1960, a wealth of autobiographical writing came from a segment of the Doukhobor community that one might think the least likely to have produced it: the Sons of Freedom. She examines hybrid narratives from people such as Mike E. Chernenkoff, Alexander Efanow, Fred Davidoff, and Peter Malloff, casting some light onto the little known, and often misunderstood, thoughts of this radical subgroup of the Doukhobor family. 

At the conclusion of Negotiated Memory, I found myself thinking not only about what Rak says concerning the politics of autobiography and of the writers she includes but also about those others who remain silent. I wondered about a writer such as Kathryn Solovyova, who once responded to the question “What is your autobiography?” with the answer “You must read my poems” (poems that, arguably, are the finest by a living Doukhobor artist); or of a postmodernist such as Denis Denisoff, whose novel Dog Years explores not only the Chernobyl disaster but also young Doukhobors in Ukraine coming to terms with the politics of sexual difference; or even Vi Plotnikoff, whose book Head Cook at Weddings and Funerals contains the recurring character of Ana, arguably a mask for the author’s extended imaginative autobiography. Perhaps what these questions prove is only that autobiography, as a genre, is notoriously slippery (or that these writers may be the subjects of another kind of book). What Rak has written is a serious and worthwhile addition to our understanding of the way a marginalized people struggles, against all those social currents that would silence them, to find and honour a collective autobiographical voice.