“Before the Snow” – A documentary about Siberian people published online

The film by Christian Vagt features three important indigenous leaders and story tellers from the Khanty and Forest Nenets communities of Western Siberia – Josif Kechimov, Yuri Vella and Agrafena Pesikova. It is a short documentary filmed in 2007 in the West Siberian Taiga about indigenous concepts of their relationship with ghosts and the danger of inappropriate behaviour towards them.

Before_the_Snow_Poster

Josif Kechimov talks about the relationship to the dead and the tragic consequences of encounters with unburied deceased relatives. Against the background of oil development, forced resettlements and the spread of Christian missionizing among his people – and his feelings of danger for the forest live of Khanty reindeer herders and decline of traditions grow.

Juri Vella tells a Forest Nenets tale about the encounter with a supernatural and threatening inhabitant of an abandoned human settlement.  Hunter‘s stories have never a single message or meaning. Yuri Vella leaves it to the listeners to make their conclusions. What to do though if an understanding of the cultural context is missing?

Agrafena Pesikova sends a clear message addressed to the people intruding into the life of the indigenous reindeer herders and hunters.  The interests and interpretations of these people are based on their European and Christian preconceptions. They are not able to understand without careful and respectful interaction with local people. The lesson outsiders can learn from indigenous ghost stories is that distance, silence, and restraint from direct interaction should be part of respectful behaviour. Only if they are able to listen the right way though might they be able to grasp the message.

The film confirms my hypothesis that the indigenous Khanty and Nenets ways of dealing with supernatural beings, the deceased, and animals shape the way of interaction with other strangers be it bureaucrats, anthropologists, oil companies or tourists. The behaviour that is expected from outsiders, the respectful distance needed to avoid conflict and the tragic consequences of inappropriate contact are similar. In the face of the experience of difference, ghost stories teach what respect and disrespect mean.

A German version can be found here:

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In Memory of a Great Teacher

Yuri Vella left this world on the 12th of September 2013

Yuri Vella

Yuri Vella

Almost exactly 20 years ago three German students of anthropology get off a helicopter in the middle of the Western Siberian forest tundra, over 100 km from the next settlement. They see a little wooden hut and a couple with two small kids is approaching them. Nobody told this people that they will have guests and the guests did not met the hosts before.  In the village the students were told the day before that the poet and reindeer herder Yuri Vella lives far away and there is neither road nor transport to his campsite. They decided already to give up their plan to visit Yuri Vella when out of a sudden a helicopter appeared.

I was one of these students. This was the moment when I met for the first time the men who should become my most influential teacher of anthropology and whose forest camp became for me a second home.

Reflections of Yuri and me in his well

Reflections of Yuri and me in his well.

Recently a friend asked me what I learned from him in the first place and while thinking about an answer I discovered that it is really hard to say. The reason is that it reached from the most practical things like how to light a fire in the in the forest to the most theoretical ones like how to understand human-animal relationships.

Yuri Vella was born at the 12th of March 1948 in the nomad camp of Kyli Aivaseda not far from the village of Varyogan. The village was the place the nomadic reindeer herders from the Agan river basin were supposed to settle down. Here he went to school, here he was appointed as the head of the village administration for a short period, and here he established the open air museum, where he saved traditional buildings and objects from the forest settlements destroyed by the oil industry.

At his 60

At his 60th Birthday

The forest lifestyle of the Nenets and Khanty fishermen, hunters and reindeer herders, which was under thread by the ruthless oil-development became his most important issue from the perestroika times on. He worked himself as a hunter in the area his grandfather used to hunt on and later he decided to establish a reindeer herd and to live permanently on the territory where I met him in 1993.

At the beginning of the 90ies he organised demonstrations of the local people against the ruthless actions of the oil companies that destroyed not only the settlements, the sacred places and cemeteries of the Khanty and Forest Nenets but poisoned the river and swamps with oil and contaminated the air with the gas they burned. At this time he also understood that there is more that get lost than just the environment. The language, the knowledge, the values of a lifestyle that is based on a respectful relationship between animals, people, and forces that are more powerful than humans started to disappear. He decided to make his own live and his own settlement in the forest a place where people could learn about these things. He made himself a living example, which could teach not only his family members and relatives but also all people interested, be it school children from the oil-town or foreign anthropologists.

Yuri Vella

Yuri Vella

I think this congruence of words and deeds was the most impressive feature of Yuri Vella. False politeness and strategic submissiveness were completely foreign to him. I was impressed by the degree of autonomy he claimed not only in his thinking but also for his lifestyle. He seemed to be free from all the conventions of modern live and social prestige and decided himself about the values he accepted from the traditions of his Nenets ancestors and of European cultural heritage.

I had the luck to be introduced by him to some of the elders that where still deeply rooted in the values and traditions of the forest life – Oleg Aivaseda, Valjoma Aivaseda, Oisia Iusi and Egor Kazamkin. Nowadays, when I work with Nenets elders I often feel that it is due to Yuri Vella that I learned to listen, to be patient, to provide the feeling that their knowledge will be in competent and respectful hands.

1993

1993

Here I think I learned as well the most important theoretical lesson in a very practical way. While building the winter hut or the reindeer fence he would mix very practical teaching with reflections about spiritual forces and political circumstances. He told about the threat of the oil industry for the reindeer, about the spiritual landscape of ancestral tradition and about the ways how to orientate oneself without compass and map in the landscape in almost one sentence. My well build hierarchies of knowledge were tumbling down. I understood that there are no authorities the legitimacy of knowledge is based on. His mixture of pragmatism, firmness in principles, and personal experience skipped all hierarchies of scientific, empirical, indigenous, and spiritual knowledge. His writings and his poetry are a proof of his disregard towards established knowledge forms. They mix poetry and prose, science and the traditional spirituality with always a social and political agenda and are not afraid of very personal statements about love and human relationships. To write a poem, to build a wooden sledge or a block house, to organise a protest against an oil-company or to establish a forest school for reindeer herders children this were all not separated projects but rooted in one live that centred around the coexistence of men, forest and reindeer.

I could tell what I learned about indigenous storytelling, about the role of reindeer in Nenets and Khanty culture, about indigenous spirituality, about gender relations and the differences between Nenets and Khanty people. To elaborate on it would go far beyond the frame of an internet blog and some of it, like the ways to deal with forces more powerful than men, I cannot share with an anonymous public.

I will just tell a little bit what I learned about politics, about the possibility to influence the actions of much more powerful institutions and discourses that influence ones live. His political thinking developed in the conflict between indigenous people and oil companies. He saw its deeper historical roots in different relationships to the land and its resources between state bureaucrats, oil-workers and reindeer herders. His way of political engagement was again a very personal one. Instead of searching for a place in established political institutions he chooses to defend his own small ancestral territory from the destructive development by the oil company LUKOIL. He tried to be the David against Goliath and to use the weapons of the weak. He was very much aware of his lack of power in terms of economic weight. Oil companies were able within a growing nationalistic discourse to present their interest in profit at any cost as a national interest of Russia. The only chance in this situation was to use all means of symbolic politics, to make politics not with money and influence but with words, pictures, and art. Without building up broad alliances with media, scientists, social and ecological organisations even over cultural and political differences he would have not been able to fight this uneven struggle. It required certain skills to navigate between principles and compromises and often he was calling himself the “clever Nenets” if he again found a way out of what seemed to be a dead end. He refused to give up his reindeer pastures for payments by the oil companies and managed to stay uncorrupted in contrast to a lot of other indigenous politicians which could not stand the pressure of the oil-lobby or powerful political parties. He was able to keep his own sovereignty, the inner freedom. He gave me the certainty that if one builds up a respectful relationship with nature and other humans one can skip all social conventions and should be not afraid of power, politicians, oil companies or other somehow influential people. I learned from him the meaning of respect, the meaning of silence, what it means to see.

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70 years after Mandalada – the Nenets movement against collectivization in the tundra

One of the biggest tragedies for the Nenets nation happened on 21th June 1943 in the Polar Ural Mountains. Officially Mandalada is known as the struggle of this little tundra nation against new Soviet empire rules. It was heavily suppressed by soviet authorities. It is often referred to as a Nenets uprising. Unofficially – people just tried to survive during that time. It was their reaction against authorities who started to confiscate their last belongings during World War II. How would they survive the winter in the arctic tundra without clothes, food and reindeer?

Near Polar Ural, Yamal,  Western Siberia.

Near Polar Ural. Photo R. Laptander

Therefore people tried to hide with their families in the open tundra and survive this way the pressure of the communist regime. There was a small group of people who were prepared to resist local authorities in case they would take rigorous measures against their families. Soldiers where sent against this people and tried to arrest the men. The Nenets had no means to resist and had to give up after a short skirmish. 36 men were arrested and their belongings confiscated forcing their families to starve and to search for help near the settlements. Most of the arrested men died in prison or on the way to the prison camps.

N. Khudi. His father was among this Mandalada people.

N. Khudi’s father was among the Mandalada people in the Polar Ural Mountains. He tried to hide this fact during all his life. Photo. R. Laptander

It is a pity that there are not so many people left who could tell us about this part of Nenets history. For a long time it was almost a taboo among the Nenets to talk about the time of collectivization. The Mandalada was really a turning point in Nenets history which changed cardinally their relationship to the state authorities.

While doing oral history interviews I was very much surprised that the memories about this movement are still alive among the elder generation of Nenets. Once an old man told me he read in one Russian journal that nobody could tell anymore about what really had happened because all eyewitnesses of the events are dead already. This old Nenets wanted to correct that statement and prove that there are still memories about the Mandalada. People keep them in their collective historical memory. I could tell a lot about the superficial adaptation of Nenets to the Soviet regime, but in reality it has a tragic background. Of course it helped people to integrate into the Soviet regime and society.

Slowly life in the tundra became more or less stable and prosperous again. People tried to forget the Mandalada tragedy and the people who suffered. They even stopped to talk about them. By this way Nenets probably tried to hide their pain. Maybe it was an act of self-defense from the shock, bewilderment, confusion, and fear that this could happen, and that no one is ever protected from the harsh and cruel wheel of the state policy. During my oral history work on the Yamal tundra I managed to collect these stories. It was an acknowledgement of the fact that even if people try to forget their trauma, they have to live with it for a long time and this historical trauma can cause social problems in their communities.

A longer Russian version of this article is available at http://priuralye.ucoz.ru/news/mandalada_70_let_spustja/2013-09-06-1680 and http://www.yasavey.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=678:-70-&catid=67:2013-09-16-09-03-55

More information in English  http://www.academia.edu/479640/Two_Wars_in_Conflict_Resistance_among_Nenets_Reindeer_Herders_in_the_1940s_2005_

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Oral History workshop, 23-24 September 2013, Rovaniemi

Everybody with a serious interest is invited to the following event:

Workshop “Intangible oral culturalheritage: documentation, archiving and preservation techniques” Organised by the ORHELIA project team & anthropology research team Arctic Centre, University of Lapland, Rovaniemi, Finland

Venue: Arctic Centre, University of Lapland, Arktikum Building, Pohjoisranta 4, Thule meeting room, 1st floor, take the door up the stairs right after the main entrance into the building.

The blind elder Piotr Khudi with his family just before crossing Bovanenkovo gas deposit, Yamal Peninsula

The blind elder Piotr Khudi with his family just before crossing Bovanenkovo gas deposit, Yamal Peninsula

The anthropology team members interested in oral history are thrilled to get a visit by linguist Michael Riessler from Freiburg, Germany, and Anna Afanasieva from the Barents Institute in Kirkenes, Norway, to join us for a 1.5 day workshop where we explore different ways and best practices of data management, preservation and processing in oral history and sociolinguistics. We will also use this opportunity to think about ways of cooperating with Riessler’s documentation project initatives, as well as for updating each other and anybody who is interested about our recent fieldwork  all over the European and Russian Arctic. That fieldwork report session will be on Tuesday before lunch, 24 September. A detailed programme of the workshop can be found HERE.

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‘Thinking by Hands’: Designers’ Field Trip to Yamal

Hello everybody,

In this post I would like to share briefly yet another pile of work in the field of ‘Arctic-based’ design research. My personal fascination with mobility of Arctic nomads, coupled with professional interest in experimentation in the field of design education have recently resulted into the project “Visualizing Arctic Mobility”, funded by Finnish Cultural Foundation and Ella & Georg Erhnrooth Foundation. The central part of this project was a field trip to remote indigenous settlements of Yamal as a form of outdoor artistic practice for art/design students from Finland and Russia. The aim was to deliver new exercises and learning materials as well as new forms of presenting research findings, i.e. in addition to verbal the findings will be further presented through film, drawings and paintings. 

Who

Our team consisted of six people: apart from me as a team leader, there were

–        three BA students from the Department of Industrial Design, Ural State Academy of Architecture and Arts, Ekaterinburg, Russia: Tonya Belyaeva, Ilya Polyanskikh and Radmir Gelmutdinov;

–        A graphic and textile artist/Illustrator and doctoral student from the Department of Design, Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture, Helsinki, Finland, Marjukka Vuorisalo; and

–        A former trainee of the University of Lapland, currently a videographer in Film Production Company Joulupukki TV Nuno Escudeiro.

Our team:  The top row: Ilya, Svetlana, Tonya and Radmir; The bottom row: Nuno and Marjukka

Our team. The top row: Ilya, Svetlana, Tonya and Radmir; the bottom row: Nuno and Marjukka

Of course, such amount of participants is rather big for an expedition with the ethnographic focus. I must admit we were not mobile and flexible at all: it was pretty difficult to engage with the community and, consequently, to immerse deeply into their daily life. On the other hand, however, it was fruitful in terms of variety of ‘thinking hands’, i.e. drawing skills and techniques as well as artistic visions.

What

All the drawing exercises are divided into three main groups:

–        ‘surface drawings’, i.e. those to present visible reality (an artist/photographer’s observation);

–        ‘analytic/surgery drawings’, i.e. those to reflect upon skills and technologies involved (design/engineering analysis); and

–        ‘unveiling drawings’, i.e. those to reveal the immaterial ‘soul’ of things (artistic imagination)

During the expedition per se, the focus was on making observational drawings: from paintings of surrounding landscapes (though of minor importance), and, of most importance, portraits of people and their belongings. It was critical to draw not ‘an average Nenets sledge’, but the narta of a particular craftsman made at a certain place with certain conditions.

In the women's world: Marjukka and Tonya are making sketches in the chum

In the women’s world: Marjukka and Tonya are making sketches inside the chum

The Narta Day: studying embodied mobility

The Narta Day: studying embodied mobility

Our personal approach (let’s call it ‘the way of visually connecting a product with its maker/owner’) brings the artistic (emotional) vision into the ‘dry’ process of data gathering. In other words, ‘living’ hand drawings will help us further to understand how indigenous craftsmen produce ‘living’ things, in their multiple essences – from physical to spiritual. 

Preliminary results: observational drawings (Photo by L. Kelchina)

Preliminary results: observational drawings (Photo by L. Kelchina)

The work is now moving to the next stage, i.e. to analytical drawings. The first public exhibition is expected to be in December, at Aalto University, Helsinki. I will keep you posted about the progress, and meanwhile, would love to hear any questions, comments and suggestions.

P.S. Many thanks to Lidia Kelchina, the Department of Indigenous Small Peoples of the North, YaNAO, and to Yury Novopoltsev, ‘Yamal Tour’, for the organizational support and invaluable help during our adventurous trip.

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Barentsburg: Place names (Svalbard fieldwork, June 2013)

Anna Stammler-Gossmann

Soviet spirit

My next stop in the Svalbard archipelago is the tiny Russian settlement of Barentsburg. How many people are living here is hard to say. The number of residents may change by the end of June and August, when an airplane from Moscow lands in Longyearbyen airport. It may bring 100 workers and take some back to Moscow. ‘I tell the tourists that there are 200 people here, my colleague may operate with different figures, tells one of the local tourists guides. Tourists have around 1,5 hours here to admire a ‘Soviet relict frozen in time’, ‘a perfectly preserved slice of a country that no longer exists’. This time is enough to have a look at the rusty Soviet heritage, buy some souvenirs and send an ‘I was there’ postcard, which will be sent with the same boat by which you arrived here.

To make the site more appealing to Western tourists the local administration decided two years ago to place an old “Our goal is communism” banner in the central square instead of the not so exotic ‘Barentsburg’ banner. It is a good accessory to the statue of Lenin, which looms over the settlement.

barentsburg-lenin-Anna

Lenin: ‘Our goal is communism’, photo: Anna Stammler-Gossmann

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The ’Svalbardianers’ community of Longyearbyen: coming and going …and maybe coming back (Svalbard fieldwork, June 2013)

Anna Stammler-Gossmann

Diversified community.

Everybody here is an outsider, but as my conversation partner in the most popular café tells me, ‘there are still status values: how long have you been living here? How far did you go? Maybe it is also about your polar bear story’. She knows everyone in the café (tourists excluded): ‘the group over there are mining workers, who are shift workers, but do not leave to the mainland when they are off their shift. They are commuting every day between Longyearbyen and the coal mine and have the most highly respected status. They are also the financially wealthiest ones here’. From time to time she greets people, who are passing by, mainly women: ‘The community is changing and the gender balance as well. It is not only a male dominated community anymore’. In the statistics I can see that, for example, permanent part-time positions are occupied more by women (This is Svalbard. 2012. What the figures say. Oslo: Statistics Norway, p.12). In the café and on the streets I see many young mothers with kids. There are 3 kindergardens and one school. Still, according to the Svalbard statistics (This is Svalbard 2012: 10) nearly six out of ten residents’ adults are men.

sval_longyearbyen-Anna

Longyearbyen: mining town, photo Anna Stammler-Gossmann Continue reading

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