By Sarah Bennett

Of all of the obscure elements of Canadian culture, one of the strangest is the Doukhobor, a pacifist Christian sect who protest au naturale.

Technically speaking, Doukhobors are Russian; a Christian sect whose origins go back to at least the 18th century, they were run out of Russia as one tsar after another pushed them further into the countryside, and eventually out of the country itself, due to their unconventional beliefs, i.e., rejecting the government, Russian Orthodox priests, church rituals, Jesus, etc. Basically, they’re like proto-Quakers, but without the meeting houses and oats, and with an extreme fondness for singing. And nudity.

A Doukhobor protest in 1903, in Saskatchewan, in the nude.

My introduction to Doukhobors was through my father, the Canadian, who would always describe someone without clothes as “naked as a Doukhobor.” Since my father is not just Canadian but also wacky, my family had no way of knowing during the pre-wiki-era if Doukhobors were a real thing, or if he’d read about them in a Phillip K. Dick book and then mentally transplanted from a fictional futuristic hellscape to the plains of Canada, or if his father had told him about them during his many years of being unbelievably senile. Even if my father were a completely credible source, it’s hard to believe that in one of the coldest parts of Canada there existed a religious sect that didn’t like to wear any clothes.

In the post-wiki era, however, my father was (somewhat) redeemed, because Doukhobors do exist and are known to get naked, but they’re not exactly a nudist colony in Saskatoon. A large number of Doukhobors came to Canada when they were exiled at the start of the 20th century, but their radical policies didn’t entirely jibe in their new home, either. A small group broke off to protest oppressive Canadian laws, like those that prohibit group ownership of land, by taking their clothes of and setting stuff on fire. Because of the upstart group’s “naked parades,” the Canadian Parliament outlawed public nudity in 1932.

An old illustration of Skoptsy leading the fixed'n'faithful.

The singing part of Doukhobor culture was revealed to me in Alina Simone’s excellent memoir/essay collection, You Must Go And Win, about the struggling singer/songwriter’s complicated relationship with her craft, her future, and her homeland in Ukraine (her family emigrated to the US when she was a toddler). During one of her many frustrating tours, she read about the Skopsy, a contemporary religious sect who believed in spirituality through song, even if showing dedication meant becoming, well, whatever “castrati” is in Russian.

Not only did the Doukhobors share the Skopsy’s love of song (but, lucky for them, not their love of castration), they had all--skopsy, Doukhobor, and Simone--been exiled from the same place. She became fascinated with the Doukhobor and obsessed with finding them and joining them in song. For her, that was after reading about them once in a book; I had heard about them my whole childhood, but couldn’t bother to look at Wikipedia until my father said our waitress looked “naked as a doukhobor” and I happened to have a smartphone. Now the Doukhobors are yet another insane Canadian thing that I think all Americans, not just me and Alina Simone, should know about.