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John’s Believe It Or Not… December 22nd

* 1902 – Peter Verigin arrives in Yorkton to lead the Doukhobors after 15 years in Siberian exile. * 1956 First gorilla born in captivity. * 1849 Dostoevsky reprieved at last minute. * 1894 Dreyfus affair begins in France. * 1971 Waldheim elected U.N. secretary-general.

Alfred Dreyfus (

It’s Friday! TGIF! Did You Know…

* 1902 – Peter Verigin arrives in Yorkton to lead the Doukhobors after 15 years in Siberian exile.

Emerging as the recognized leader of the Christian sect after an internal power struggle, Verigin was banished by Russian authorities to Siberia for some 15 years, but retained influence over his followers from afar.

After serving his punishment, Verigin left Russia to lead the group of expert farmers who had come to Canada having themselves been exiled by the czars to regions such as the Caucasus and what is now Georgia, owing to their anti-establishment beliefs.

Under Verigin’s leadership the resolutely pacifist Doukhobors — who rejected organized religious rituals and state interference, inspired by the Quakers, the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy and others — settled a wide region across the Prairies using collective agriculture practices.

But though his deeply spiritual followers called him “Lordly,” Verigin did not have it all his own way; some dissenters in the Doukhobor ranks wished to take their own paths economically, with some preferring more primitive practices and customs to his well-organized methods.

Although the Canadian government had left the pacifists exempt from conscription and their settlements had been granted with relative ease, such favorable arrangements were later annulled when many Doukhobors refused to pledge an oath of allegiance to the Crown.

With prior agreements in what had become Saskatchewan now torn up, in 1908 Verigin led a 6,000-strong group of Doukhobors west to B.C., where a well-established collective settlement lasted until his death in a railway explosion in 1924.

Today, estimates on the numbers of modern-day descendants of the Doukhobors’ in Canada range from 20,000 to 30,000.

Doukhobors arrive outside Yorkton, 1899
Doukhobors arrive outside Yorkton, 1899

* 1956 First gorilla born in captivity.

On this day in 1956, a baby gorilla named Colo enters the world at the Columbus Zoo in Ohio, becoming the first-ever gorilla born in captivity. Weighing in at approximately 4 pounds, Colo, a western lowland gorilla whose name was a combination of Columbus and Ohio, was the daughter of Millie and Mac, two gorillas captured in French Cameroon, Africa, who were brought to the Columbus Zoo in 1951. Before Colo’s birth, gorillas found at zoos were caught in the wild, often by brutal means. In order to capture a gorilla when it was young and therefore still small enough to handle, hunters frequently had to kill the gorilla’s parents and other family members.

Gorillas are peaceful, intelligent animals, native to Africa, who live in small groups led by one adult male, known as a silverback. There are three subspecies of gorilla: western lowland, eastern lowland, and mountain. The subspecies are similar and the majority of gorillas in captivity are western lowland. Gorillas are vegetarians whose only natural enemy is the humans who hunt them. On average, a gorilla lives to 35 years in the wild and 50 years in captivity.

At the time Colo was born, captive gorillas often never learned parenting skills from their own parents in the wild, so the Columbus Zoo built her a nursery and she was reared by zookeepers. In the years since Colo’s arrival, zookeepers have developed habitats that simulate a gorilla’s natural environment and many captive-born gorillas are now raised by their mothers. In situations where this doesn’t work, zoos have created surrogacy programs, in which the infants are briefly cared for by humans and then handed over to other gorillas to raise.

Colo, who generated enormous public interest and is still alive today, went on to become a mother, grandmother, and in 1996, a great-grandmother to Timu, the first surviving infant gorilla conceived by artificial insemination. Timu gave birth to her first baby in 2003.

Today, there are approximately 750 gorillas in captivity around the world and an estimated 100,000 lowland gorillas (and far fewer mountain gorillas) remaining in the wild. Most zoos are active in captive breeding programs and have agreed not to buy gorillas born in the wild. Since Colo’s birth, 30 gorillas have been born at the Columbus Zoo alone.

Dec 22, 1956: First gorilla born in captivity.
Dec 22, 1956: First gorilla born in captivity. (

* 1849 Dostoevsky reprieved at last minute.

On this day, writer Fyodor Dostoevsky is led before a firing squad and prepared for execution. He had been convicted and sentenced to death on November 16 for allegedly taking part in anti-government activities. However, at the last moment, he was reprieved and sent into exile.

Dostoevsky’s father was a doctor at Moscow’s Hospital for the Poor, where he grew rich enough to by land and serfs. After his father’s death, Dostoevsky, who suffered from epilepsy, studied military engineering and became a civil servant while secretly writing novels. His first, Poor People, and his second, The Double, were both published in 1846–the first was a hit, the second a failure.

On December 22, 1849, Dostoevsky was led before the firing squad but received a last-minute reprieve and was sent to a Siberian labor camp, where he worked for four years. He was released in 1854 and worked as a soldier on the Mongolian frontier. He married a widow and finally returned to Russia in 1859. The following year, he founded a magazine, and two years after that he journeyed to Europe for the first time.

In 1864 and 1865, his wife and his brother died, the magazine folded, and Dostoevsky found himself deeply in debt, which he exacerbated by gambling.

In 1866, he published Crime and Punishment, one of his most popular works. In 1867, he married a stenographer, and the couple fled to Europe to escape his creditors. His novel The Possessed (1872) was successful, and the couple returned to St. Petersburg. He published The Brothers Karamazov in 1880 to immediate success, but died a year later.

The experience with the firing squad and the years of incarceration did not stop Dostoevsky from writing.
The experience with the firing squad and the years of incarceration did not stop Dostoevsky from writing. (The Verma Post)

* 1894 Dreyfus affair begins in France.

French officer Alfred Dreyfus [Featured Image above] is convicted of treason by a military court-martial and sentenced to life in prison for his alleged crime of passing military secrets to the Germans. The Jewish artillery captain, convicted on flimsy evidence in a highly irregular trial, began his life sentence on the notorious Devil’s Island Prison in French Guyana four months later.

The Dreyfus case demonstrated the anti-Semitism permeating France’s military and, because many praised the ruling, in France in general. Interest in the case lapsed until 1896 when evidence was disclosed that implicated French Major Ferdinand Esterhazy as the guilty party. The army attempted to suppress this information, but a national uproar ensued, and the military had no choice but to put Esterhazy on trial. A court-martial was held in January 1898, and Esterhazy was acquitted within an hour.

In response, the French novelist Émile Zola published an open letter entitled “J’Accuse” on the front page of the Aurore, which accused the judges of being under the thumb of the military. By the evening, 200,000 copies had been sold. One month later, Zola was sentenced to jail for libel but managed to escape to England. Meanwhile, out of the scandal a perilous national division was born, in which nationalists and members of the Catholic Church supported the military, while republicans, socialists, and advocates of religious freedom lined up to defend Dreyfus.

In 1898, Major Hubert Henry, discoverer of the original letter attributed to Dreyfus, admitted that he had forged much of the evidence against Dreyfus and then Henry committed suicide. Soon afterward, Esterhazy fled the country. The military was forced to order a new court-martial for Dreyfus. In 1899, he was found guilty in another show trial and sentenced to 10 years in prison. However, a new French administration pardoned him, and in 1906 the supreme court of appeals overturned his conviction. The debacle of the Dreyfus affair brought about greater liberalization in France, a reduction in the power of the military, and a formal separation of church and state.

Political Cartoon: PSST...! The Dreyfus Affair was a "scandal" resulting in political and social implications for Europe
The Dreyfus Affair was a “scandal” resulting in political and social implications for Europe

* 1971 Waldheim elected U.N. secretary-general.

The United Nations General Assembly votes to ratify the U.N. Security Council’s nomination of Austrian diplomat Kurt Waldheim to lead the U.N. Waldheim went on to serve two terms as head of the world body, leaving the post in 1982.

In 1986, during a campaign for the Austrian presidency, documents were uncovered revealing that he had served as an intelligence officer in German army units that had committed war atrocities in the Balkans during World War II. Waldheim, who had previously claimed that he spent much of the war in Vienna, admitted that he had lied about his wartime record but denied any knowledge of atrocities. He went on to win the Austria presidency despite the allegations but became an international pariah.

After the annexation of his country by Nazi Germany in 1938, Waldheim was conscripted into the German army and served on the Russian front until 1941, when he was wounded. Waldheim claimed that he spent the rest of the war studying law in Vienna, but it is now known that he was an interpreter and intelligence officer for German army units stationed in Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia and Greece from 1943 and 1945. Waldheim’s units engaged in brutal reprisals against Yugoslav partisans and civilians and deported most of the Jewish population of Salonika, Greece, to Nazi death camps. There is no evidence that he personally killed, tortured, or deported anyone, but he did provide the logistical and intelligence support that enabled others to do so. He won praise and promotion from his Nazi superiors, and evidence indicates that on one occasion he ordered a group of prisoners shot.

After World War II, Waldheim returned to Austria and entered the diplomatic service. He led Austria’s first delegation to the United Nations in 1955 and served as the Austrian ambassador to Canada in the late 1950s. He then worked in the Austrian Foreign Ministry and in 1964 became his country’s permanent representative to the U.N. In 1968, he became minister of foreign affairs in the Austrian government and in 1970 returned to the U.N. as permanent representative. In 1971, he was an unsuccessful candidate for Austria’s presidency, a largely ceremonial post, on the conservative People’s Party ticket. In December 1971, he was chosen by the U.N. Security Council to be U.N. secretary-general, and on December 22 the General Assembly approved the nomination.

As head of the United Nations, Waldheim was an efficient but not particularly dynamic world leader. He made visits to Cyprus and the Middle East to help resolve conflicts there and coordinated a massive relief effort to Bangladesh, devastated by war and natural disaster. In 1976, he was reelected. During his second tenure as head of the U.N., he attempted, with little success, to end the Iran-Iraq War and the Sino-Vietnam War and to gain the release of American hostages in Iran. In 1981, a third term was blocked by a Chinese veto.

In 1986, Waldheim ran for Austria’s presidency again, but the campaign was heavily tainted by reports of his possible participation in war crimes during World War II. Waldheim admitted that, contrary to earlier statements he had made about his past, he had indeed served in the Balkans during the war but denied any knowledge of atrocities. This denial, contradicted by the evidence, was evidently acceptable enough for the Austrian electorate, and in June 1986 they voted to make him Austrian president.

Waldheim’s tenure as Austrian head of state was marked by a period of international isolation for the country, and he chose not to run for reelection in 1992. In 1987, the United States barred him from entering the country as a private citizen because of his war record. Details of the investigative report that the U.S. Justice Department used in making this decision were first made public in 1994, implicating Waldheim with a far greater involvement in war-time atrocities than was previously suspected.

Kurt Waldheim
Kurt Waldheim

Today’s Sources: 

* Canadian History Timeline – Canada’s Historical Chronology

* Regina Leader Post                                          

* This Day In History – What Happened Today                                      

Author: John Fioravanti

I'm a retired History teacher (35 years), husband, father of three, grandfather of three. My wife, Anne, and I became business partners in December 2013 and launched our own publishing company, Fiora Books (, to publish my books. We have been married since 1973 and hope our joint business venture will be as successful as our marriage.

16 thoughts on “John’s Believe It Or Not… December 22nd”

        1. Our daughter dragged us down here as a Christmas gift with 4 day’s notice! It’s 27 C here and -11 C at home! We feel very lucky! Thanks, Christy!

          Liked by 1 person

            1. Yes, she is, and yes, we are! We had just 5 days to prepare. We knew they were going to Mexico, but dragging us along was the surprise. Blessings! Thanks, Christy!

              Liked by 1 person

    1. I remember when teaching the WWI unit, these people played a large role in the Western protests against the Conscription Bill of 1918. It really tore the country apart – and all for nothing. Very few conscripts saw the front lines before the war ended in 1918. Thanks, Gwen.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. So many wild chimps and gorillas (and monkeys, sloths, bears) are horrendously killed so that the babies can be taken into captivity. It is simply terrible. As we wipe out natural populations all we will be left with are the vestiges left in zoos. It saddens me immensely.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. City zoos should all be closed down. Creating wildlife preserves where people can drive through to see animals in a natural habitat is a better answer. We have something like this about 45 minutes from my home called The African Lion Safari. Here’s the link: It’s not a perfect answer, but it’s better than the traditional zoo. Thanks, Opher.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. When you read about the rampant anti-Semitism in the Western world prior to WWII, it is very easy to understand why no governments were bothered by Nazi policies until it turned into genocide.

      As I used to tell my students in my class, prejudice is present in any joke that belittles a particular group and starts us down the slippery slope to discrimination and genocide. “But it’s just a joke, sir!” I responded, “Okay, retell that joke by removing any identifier that ties the joke’s character(s) to a particular gender or group. Is it still funny? No? I rest my case.”

      I remember as a child there were a series of jokes going around that featured “a little moron”. Then there were the blonde jokes and the jokes that featured Jews, Waps (Italians), etc. Humor masking prejudice. Time to get off my soapbox! Thanks, Bob!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, the Nazis never would have gained power had not Europe been gripped by anti-Semitism. Of course, the other primary cause was the terrible economic conditions which resulted from the Versailles Treaty and the worldwide Great Depression.

        And yes, there is an amorphous line between humor and prejudice. Being of Italian ancestry, I’ve been subjected to many years of W.O.P. (abbreviation for “Without Papers”) jokes. For me personally, though, I never felt disrespected nor was angered. Had I been born Jewish or black, however, I probably wouldn’t have been so tolerant.

        Liked by 1 person

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