The Primitive Anarchist
Illegal Ink (Vandalism Series 2/3)
“All governments are in equal measure good and evil. The best ideal is anarchy.”
– Leo Tolstoy
U.S.C.C. Union of Youth Doukhobor Choir
“Расскажу я всем живущим”
(“I Shall Tell All Living People”)
The Sons of Freedom
Originally published on Instagram
January 24, 2023
On January 24, 1926 — exactly 97 years ago today — Eugene O’Neill’s play The Hairy Ape had its Russian premiere at the Moscow Kamerny Theatre. The work, a brutal exploration of alienation in the Industrial Age, is sometimes held up by anarcho-primitivists who propose disengaging from modernity in favour of a return to more primeval ways of living. “Re-wilding,” they call it, noting that hierarchical societies and formal institutions of government are relatively nascent constructs in the scope of human history. Think what you will of it, but their vision is idyllic, not the sensational bogeyman anarchy of the Black Hand, old Hollywood scare flicks or the Sex Pistols. The anarchist anthropologist Harold Barclay (no anarcho-primitivist, it should be noted) summed up the sentiment neatly when he wrote, “Ten thousand years ago, everyone was an anarchist.”
Eugene O’Neill identified as an anarchist himself, but he was a decidedly modernist one. He has been called the first great American dramatist and the father of American theatre. It was he who introduced a new realism to the American stage, which he did after coming under the spell of the three seminal figures of modern theatre in Europe at the end of the 19th century: Henrik Ibsen of Norway; August Strindberg of Sweden; and that giant of Russian writers, Anton Chekhov.
Chekov’s influence on O’Neill, enormous as it was, owes a lot to happenstance. When Chekhov’s first major play, The Seagull, premiered in St. Petersburg in 1896, the production was so poorly received (“The theatre breathed malice, the air was compressed with hatred,” he would later say), that the playwright hid backstage while the audience booed. Soon after, he made up his mind to never write another play again. As luck would have it, however, the work found a champion in Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, a towering figure in the Russian theater world of the day.
In 1898, Nemirovich-Danchenko and an adventurous theatre director named Konstantin Stanislavski established the Moscow Art Theatre with an aim to revolutionize the staid, melodramatic Russian theatre of the time. The two of them somehow convinced Chekhov to allow their fledgling company to stage a second production of The Seagull, and under their direction, the play was a smash. Russian theatre critic Konstantin Rudnitsky called it "one of the greatest events in the history of Russian theatre and one of the greatest new developments in the history of world drama." So began an illustrious association between Chekov and the Moscow Art Theatre that would continue until the playwright’s death in 1904. Chekhov would go on to pen his theatrical masterpieces Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard for the theatre, which was by then Moscow’s preeminent playhouse.
Not long before he died, Chekhov made a hugely consequential contribution to the craft of acting by introducing Nemirovich-Danchenko and Stanislavski to a young autodidact and anarchist named Leopold Sulerzhitsky.
Sulerzhitsky was an erudite vagabond who had dropped out of the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture a few years earlier after one of his classmates had introduced him to her father, who was Leo Tolstoy. The young student and the elderly writer became fast friends. Sulerzhitsky soon adopted Tolstoy’s philosophies of Christian anarchism (based on the belief that the only authority to which Christians are ultimately answerable is God), pacifism and vegetarianism, and he devoted himself with great gusto to the cause of the Tolstoy movement. In 1896, he was arrested and briefly imprisoned for refusing to take the oath of allegiance to the Czar during military call up. After his release from detention, he quit art school, developed an interest in the theater (which he saw as a useful vehicle for the dissemination of Tolstoyan principles), versed himself in Far Eastern religion and — at Tolstoy’s request — travelled to the Americas.
Once back in Russia, Sulerzhitsky published a collection of diaries that made him a cause célèbre and a fixture among Moscow’s arts circles. This is what brought him into Chekhov’s orbit.
At the Moscow Art Theatre, Sulerzhitsky became Stanislavski’s personal assistant, and in time the two men developed a complex and innovative pedagogical approach to theatrical performance that they called the “Stanislavski System.” A studio was established for the purpose of workshopping actors in the system, and it was Sulerzhitsky who ran it. All readers, whether they’ve heard of the system or not, have seen it in action. It was the basis for method acting, which gained international prominence through early practitioners like Stella Adler, Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean. Robert DeNiro, Kate Winslet and Daniel Day-Lewis are adherents; so was William Bendix, who studied Stanislavski’s techniques under Cheryl Crawford at the Theater Guild in New York before going on to star in the 1944 movie adaptation of The Hairy Ape.
Much of The Hairy Ape takes place aboard a transatlantic ocean liner. The same is true of Sulerzhitsky’s diaries, which were published nineteen years prior to O’Neill’s play.
Here’s the background:
In the late 1800s, Tolstoy, Sulerzhitsky, and the prominent Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin were immersed in an effort to facilitate the emigration of 7,500 Christian dissidents called Doukhobors out of Czarist Russia. The Doukhobors were troublemakers from the peasantry who had been persecuted by the church and state for over 100 years. The maltreatment wasn’t especially surprising. The Doukhobors, fiercely religious, conducted themselves according to anarchist principles similar to Tolstoy’s. Believing that the spirit of God is present in all sentient beings, and that the body is its own church, they rejected the existence of any power mightier than the spirit within. The authority of priests or Czars meant nothing to them. They lived communally and ascetically, eschewing industrialization; they refused membership in the Russian Orthodox Church and renounced the Bible in favour of group prayer and hymn singing; they were uncooperative when it came to registering marriages or births with local officials, and they openly defied military conscription on the basis that visiting violence against another human being is tantamount to visiting violence against God; they practiced vegetarianism for the same reason. Given all this, they were subject to constant harassment by church and government officials. Things turned especially ugly in 1895 after 7000 Doukhobors in the Russian Caucasus made bonfires of weapons they’d been issued as part of a government attempt at conscription. The incident, called the “Burning of the Arms,” was met with violent reprisals that included beatings, arrests and exile.
As hostility toward the Doukhobors intensified, Tolstoyans and Quakers intervened, eventually negotiating a mass emigration to Canada. The Canadian government, eager for homesteaders, promised free land and agreed to two conditions laid out by the Doukhobors: that they be exempt from military service, and that they be permitted to own the allotted land collectively. The Quakers chartered four steamships in Liverpool to transport the émigrés, and Tolstoy donated the proceeds of his last novel, Resurrection, to help finance the exodus.
When the final arrangements were in place, Tolstoy asked Sulerzhitsky to accompany the first boatload of Doukhobors to Canada. Together with 2100 Doukhobors, Sulerzhitsky set sail on December 10, 1898 aboard the S.S. Lake Huron from the port of Batoumi in the Black Sea to Atlantic Canada. To Amerika with the Doukhobors is his detailed, day-by-day account of the voyage. It’s engrossing reading, full of all the trepidation and hope you’d expect on board an immigrant ship of the era.
Things for the Doukhobors wouldn’t go as well as hoped. After settling in the Canadian prairies, the provincial government of Saskatchewan reneged on the assurance of collective land ownership and demanded that homesteads be registered. Authorities also insisted that Doukhobor children attend English schools, which many in the community opposed. The broken promise and the clash of culture eventually led the Doukhobors west across the Rocky Mountains to the province of British Columbia. Despite the establishment of several successful communal settlements there, trouble just wouldn’t leave the Doukhobors alone. There were new hassles over questions of land and school registration, as well as hostility from settlers who had already established themselves in the area. A small breakaway group of Doukhobors left for northern California. Another — this one a much larger hardline sect calling itself the Freedomites (also known as the Sons of Freedom) — turned militant. In the the 1920s, the Freedomites began to publicly burn money and property, stage disruptive parades in the nude and wage campaigns of arson and bombings against both government and Doukhobor interests. The Doukhobors’ spiritual leader, Peter “Lordly” Verigin, was assassinated in a train bombing in 1924 that also killed several other prominent passengers, including a member of the provincial legislature. The old dream of an idyllic anarchy would eventually be upset by the agents of bureaucracy and chaos.
But that would all occur over time in an unknown future. For the moment, as we see in the pages of Sulerzhitsky’s diaries, it’s the dream that prevails.
The S.S. Huron arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia on January 10, 1899. After quarantining in the mouth of Halifax Harbour, the ship sailed on to St. John, New Brunswick. There, the passengers disembarked, ready to board trains bound for the prairies and the promise of better days.
Among those who walked down the gangplank were my paternal great-grandparents.
When they set foot on dry land, it was January 24, 1899.
When all 7,500 Doukhobors had arrived in Canada, they constituted the largest mass immigration into North America at the time.
It’s estimated that there are currently 20,000-40,000 people of Doukhobor descent living in Canada, and a smattering in the US; fewer than 3000 of these claim “Doukhobor” as a religious affiliation. An estimated 30,000 people of Doukhobor heritage still live in Russia and neighbouring countries. In Russia, fewer than 50 people consider themselves to be religiously Doukhobor today.
The Sons of Freedom have all but vanished. This is also true of the 1980s post-punk band from Vancouver, British Columbia, that sensationally went by the same name.
The Doukhobors who migrated from Canada to California assimilated into American culture within a generation or two. My father was born into a secular household of lapsed Doukhobor parents in the Sacramento Valley.
I guess it goes without saying that I am not an anarcho-primitivist. Maybe, like Eugene O’Neill once said of himself, I’m a philosophical anarchist. I certainly subscribe to the old-time Doukoubor principles of non-violence and compassion, if for not altogether religious reasons. I do not eat animals. I may or may not have spray-painted a few walls in my wild youth.
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