Oral history, European Nenets

Stephan Dudeck greets us from his fieldsite in the European Nenets Autonomous Okrug, North West Russia. He is there for starting the ORHELIA project life history work. He has put some great impressions and a very nice first round of oral history work on his own blog. Congratulations! Just quickly two things: I remember that I met the baptist guy on the boat from Nel’min Nos to Naryan Mar, and he was showing me photographs of the Yamb-to Nenets reindeer nomads burning sacred sledges. I’ll never forget the feeling of shock that I had when I saw that, and an almost paralysed mental condition when I heard his answer on my question if they the baptists told them to burn their own religious heritage. His answer was “no, we don’t force them to do that, they come themselves and ask us ‘what should we do with our idols and sledges now that we have your new religion?’ and we said if they want to be safe and not fall victim to the old devils then they should get rid of them, but it’s their choice”. Can you imagine? As an anthropologist interested in studying and experiencing religious diversity on our planet, I only thought how on earth could that be stopped. Even more happy I am to hear from you Stephan that the baptists are not very successful in the malozemel’skaya tundra. When I was there around 2005 there weren’t either.
The other thing about oral history, and old women in Naryan-Mar and Nel’min Nos. You were saying you were going to find out ‘how much truth’ is in the nostalgia that they have for the bygone days in the malozmel’skaya tundra. I was wondering where do we as anthropologists take the justification to determine what the truth is? Isn’t it particularly important for us in life history fieldwork to take what people say at face-value and honour their perception of their lifeline? Of course I agree that it is important to cross check events and find out how they were perceived by others, and how did official history present them. It is particularly interesting to find out how knowledge possibly ‘nostalgifies’ as it is passed down the generations, for example when these babushki tell their stories to their grandchildren. But can we say that one perception is more true than the other?