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?

6 thoughts on “Oral history, European Nenets

  1. This is a comment from Roza Laptander from the field from Yamal:
    “I did some recordings with old people and also asked their children about what do they know about their family history and later asked their grandchildren. The picture is so different in Yamal than among the European Nentsy. It seems that grandchildren do not know so much, maybe it can due to language loss? I have collected most stories in Nenets and now try to work on them. About nostalgia: I do not think that people in Yamal have so much nostalgia. They used to say that it was much easier to live in Soviet times, but they were too much limited in many things. Now Nenets people have more rights and more freedom, but they have to survive by themselves in under the conditions of wild Russian rules.

  2. Thank you Roza.
    I think the language argument doesn’t really work here. But see our previous discussion with Daria on the languages here in the blog (https://arcticanthropology.org/2012/01/11/sec-seminar/). The European Nentsy have almost completely switched to Russian language, and still Stephan’s work (as well as my earlier) seems to suggest that knowledge travels across languages! We could explore the topic of historical interest and cultural heritage a bit more when we work with younger people. My impression in the Yamal northern tundra was that there is a high interest among the grandchildren in these things. Remember our conversations in ‘Vengo-city’ and earlier at Yarkolana’s place.
    With the nostalgia, it is I think specific to Stephan’s entry on Nenets grandmothers in the city: they remember with nostalgia the times before they moved away from the tundra or the village. Living in the city, they look back to their younger years in the tundra with nostalgia. We would probably find such people in Salekhard, Murmansk, Rovaniemi etc too.

  3. Stephan Dudeck

    Of course we should take nostalgia seriously and avoid the false opposition of objective historical truth and subjective false memory. If we want seriously deal with oral history this would be obviously the wrong approach. Nostalgia is first of all a way of adding an emotional (and sometimes moral) evaluation to the told history. Often it’s connected with something I would call preliminary a meta-story of decline. It exist also the opposite: a meta-story of progress. In most of the cases here in the North the stories of progress are intertwined with nostalgia. To make the picture even more complicated I would insist, that there is not only one nostalgia, but a whole bunch of emotional evaluations of the past that are summed up by the label nostalgia. There is bitter-sweet nostalgia and a melancholic one, nostalgia linked to longing, grieve and even anger.
    One of the questions I try to solve now is, why some people seem to be much more into giving these kind of evaluations and other not. Some of my interviewees told me in a very neutral and unemotional way about their past and other went immediately in nostalgic recollections.
    The self-evaluation of competence for giving emotional and moral evaluations seems to be a factor. I have the suspicion that gender, education, age and living in the tundra or the settlement plays a role here.

  4. Stephan Dudeck

    The other big theme you opened up for discussion here is how knowledge is transmitted with words, things and practices.
    I always keep in mind that to communicate means always also to keep silence about certain things and to prevent the transmission of knowledge. The old ladies I interviewed told me that they don’t remember much of the things their fathers were telling about during their childhood because they were send away when the elders gathered. It’s not a place for small children to listen they were told. Probably it was already the time when people experienced political repression and were afraid of the inability of the children to keep secrets. Probably these were traditional age and gender boundaries that separated young girls and old men. But exclusion produced sometimes so much curiosity that it had the opposite effect and enhanced the acquisition of knowledge instead of prohibiting it.
    The old ladies complained not only about the old days but also about present time in the settlement, when youngsters gather among themselves and send the elders away when they are discussing important things. The agency of the young generation to determine the rules of communication grew very fast and now the elders feel excluded. The old ladies in Naryan Mar are visiting special courses to learn to write short messages on their mobile phones now.

    1. fstammle

      Very deep relevant points raised here! I think as researchers we can also ask ourselves how we can contribute to feeding historical perceptions, heritage and memories in to new ways of communication. Maybe these are a possible vehicle to unearth young people’s interest and curiosity for their own history?

  5. Fascinating discussion – I don’t know much in detail about the peoples discussed but am very interested in the Russian and other Northern peoples generally so am following with interest and learning more!

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