Cornerstones: Orthodox Russians in Toronto

[Краеугольные камни: Православные русские в Торонто]

Written by Tyson Brown

Outside Russia and New York City, Toronto has the largest population of people of Russian descent. A majority of that population arrived after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, but the origins of the community date back to perhaps the late-19th century. The stories of Torontonians of Russian descent reflect the complexity of their homeland, a vast geographical area encompassing many diverse cultural groups.

Dance group at Kalinka at Russian school from Christ the Saviour Church, 1974. MHSO Collection, RUS-0857-1

Documentation of the presence of Orthodox Russians in Canada prior to the 20th century is limited, as the Canadian government did not allow people to identify themselves as Russian in census questions, classifying them simply as “Eastern European”. By the beginning of the 20th century, however, a small community of Orthodox Russians had settled in Toronto. In 1915, they established the city’s first Russian Orthodox Church, Christ the Saviour, on Dupont Street.

Just a few years after its formation, the congregation of the Christ the Saviour Russian Orthodox Church was torn apart by events in Russia. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 changed the world, ending the Tsarist monarchy in Russia, moving the region into further decades of political and economic turbulence, and creating a perceived threat to capitalist, democratic countries, including Canada. With other western nations, Canada responded to stamp out the possibility of a communist revolution here, and sent troops to Russia in 1918 to fight the revolution. Immigration from Russia to Canada slowed to a trickle.

Masthead of Toronto Russian Newspaper, 1941. MHSO Collection

The small Russian community already in Toronto could hardly avoid taking sides in the revolution that rocked its homeland. Christ the Saviour’s congregation was riddled with intense disagreements that left it badly divided. The remaining congregation could no longer afford the church building, and its doors were closed. An Anglican chapel housed some Russian Orthodox services for a time, while other worshippers attended a Bulgarian Macedonian Orthodox church. Eventually the community rented space in a building at 55 Spadina Avenue, just south of King Street. By 1930, the congregation had re-organized and raised enough money to move into a new location on Glen Morris Street, further north off of Spadina Avenue. This church would become the focus of social and cultural life for the Russian Orthodox community in Toronto.

The next wave of Russian immigrants arrived after the Second World War. Numerous Russians who had been displaced throughout Europe chose to emigrate, and many came to Canada to work as loggers, farm laborers and miners in rural areas. Educated professionals settled in cities like Toronto. Leonard Starkhosky, for one, established the Slavic Studies Department at the University of Toronto. George Ignatieff, former minister of education under the tsar, also came to Toronto, as did Olga Romanov, daughter of former tsar, Nikolas Romanov.

The Russian Cultural Aid Society was formed in 1950 to assist these new immigrants, and alongside the church, it became an important centre for the growing community. Christ the Saviour Russian Orthodox Church moved to a new location on Manning Street and the Beth Jacob Synagogue on Henry Street was acquired by the post-war congregation of Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church and converted to meet its needs. For members of the Russian community in Toronto, the Orthodox Church served as an important symbol of their national identity and culture, providing a link to the homeland while helping them navigate their new surroundings.

Metropolitan Platon consecrates Christ the Saviour Russian Orthodox Church Cathedral, 1930. MHSO Collection, RUS-0001

By the 1960s and continuing until the 1980s, migration from Russia declined as Communist governments there made it more and more difficult for citizens to leave. With the collapse of the Soviet Union though, the stage was set for large-scale emigration and the resulting expansion of the Russian Diaspora in cities like Toronto. In the 1990s, Russian churches, associations and organizations that were established as part of the primary waves of settlement helped receive the largest wave of Russian migrants to arrive in this city. The area around the intersection of Jane Street and Steeles Avenue West in North York became an important receiving area. The community of new arrivals there created new institutions, including newspapers and organizations for the expression of traditional Russian art, music, theatre and dance. Given the restrictions on the church during the Communist period, this new wave was less inclined to religion, but the Orthodox faith still played an important role in the community.

Rooted in more than 100 years of history, the Russian community in Toronto is today fully entrenched in the historical narrative of our city.

Sources

Vladimir Handera, ‘The Russian Orthodox Church in Toronto’, Polyphony (Summer, 1984), Pg. 83-85.
Mark Stokoe and Rev. Leonid Kishkovsky, Orthodox Christians in North America 1794-1994, (Orthodox Christian Publications, 1995)
http://www.multiculturalcanada.ca/Encyclopedia/A-Z/r3
http://thecanadianencyclopedia.com/articles/russians

Heritage Toronto is pleased to acknowledge the support of the Government of Ontario, through the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, for this project.

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