Three-year-old Nikifor Andriev stood on Canadian soil. He was overwhelmed with all the activity around him. The big steam engine of the train was still huffing and puffing. He could smell the dust that the recent rainfall had raised. People were shouting in English. At least he was beside his brother and, nearby, his family. His mother, Elena, was holding his one-year-old sister, Valentina. She was crying, perhaps because her diaper needed changing or because she was hungry. His father, Phillip, was holding the shoulder of Akim, Nikifor’s older brother. His grandpa, Gregori, was standing with Nikifor’s uncles, Vasili and Ivan, and their families, and his Aunt Lucaria and her family. The Andriev and Sidorov families and the other Russians were posing for a picture in front of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) passenger car that had transported them from Vancouver.
Nikifor, like the other children present, had few thoughts in mind aside from feeling that his winter coat was making him uncomfortable in the muggy, rainy, June afternoon. He was hungry, and he was also upset at being jostled for the picture. The rest of the group, also in winter apparel, stood rather grim-faced. Perhaps it was their weariness from travel, or maybe they had thoughts of the past, or, more likely, their future. In any case, smiles were few, and frowns born of anxiety were plentiful.
Their journey had begun several weeks earlier in Harbin, China. A CPR agent and former Russian military man in the Imperial Russian Army, Colonel Orest Dournovo, had organized this first group of 116 Russian refugees to go to Canada. First, they had traveled by rail from Harbin to the coastal city of Dalian, China. There they boarded the ship Harbin Maru, which was bound for Yokohama, Japan. Yokohama had just experienced a devastating earthquake. They had little time to survey the damage, because the Canadian Pacific Royal Mail steamship Empress of Russia was ready for boarding. It still had to put into Kobe for one last stop before crossing the Pacific Ocean. They crossed the Pacific in steerage class, which confined men to one side of the ship and women on the other, separated by a canvas wall.
Upon arrival in Vancouver on June 16, 1924, they were subject to review by Canadian Immigration and medical officials over the next two days. Another CPR agent, Mr. Sewell, acted as their intermediary, given their limited knowledge of the English language. He expedited their immigration reviews, arranged for medicals, and organized their transfer from the ship to the train. When the train drew into Wetaskiwin, Alberta, the Ladies Auxiliary of the Kiwanis Club offered the group a welcome luncheon, a photo to mark the significance of their landing in Canada, and transportation to their new homesteads in Homeglen
Gregori’s mind was likely racing, with thoughts of the past haunting him. He thought to himself, “Everything and everyone is so different here. Can I trust these officials? Have Luka and I made the right choice for our families? We have committed our family to Canada. My dear God, we place our futures in your loving hands.” He was sixty-eight years old. His life had begun in Staraya, Russa, approximately six hundred kilometres northwest of Moscow. His father, Andrei, was probably an indentured serf during his lifetime. While Gregori’s upbringing was harsh, as the years went by, his life improved. Serfdom ended in 1861. He married a woman named Irena, and they had five children before her untimely passing in 1903.
In 1905, Luka Sidorov, Gregori’s lifelong friend, had returned home to Novgorod (north of Staraya), from the Russo–Japanese war. Luka spoke of the fine soil he saw when in the Amur Valley, Siberia, on his way back from the war. The Andriev and Sidorov families weighed the pros and cons of moving to the East. It was decided that Gregori, Luka, and Luka’s brother Afanasi would be part of an advance party to travel across the country to survey the potential for moving the families to the East. They returned triumphantly, extolling the virtues of a move to Eastern Russia. Gregori recalls telling his family, “Luka, Afanasi, and I want a better life for our families. Let us leave our old lives in Novgorod and start a new life in the east.”
In a coincidental turn of serendipitous events, Tsar Nicholas the Second was anxious to turn the tide of negative public opinion after losing the war to the Japanese. Pyotr Stolypin, prime minster of the Russian Empire under the tsar from 1906 to 1911, implemented a policy to open the country’s vast resources and ease densities in the urban centres. Each family who agreed to move to farmland in the Amur Valley would receive on average sixteen and one-half hectares of land, a small subsidy, exemption from some taxes, and farming advice from state agencies. Gregori took this opportunity to move his family east on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Word-of-mouth accounts indicated that Gregori and Phillip, and Phillip’s brothers Vasili, Ivan, and Larivon, were each allocated land in the Amur Valley. “Along with the land, they were exempt from paying taxes for five years, were given one cow, one horse and one hundred rubles for start-up costs.
From serf to landowner! Life had improved for some who chose to move with the times. In his early fifties, Gregori had his family around him, his farm established, and a new life. Unexpectedly, after approximately seven good years of farming, the First World War began.