Exploring the Arctic at Venice International University

Scholars, indigenous activists and students from both sides of the Atlantic (or Pacific?) met at the small Venetian island of San Servolo from 14th to 19th of January 2018. I am reporting here as part of a group of three professors and five students from Russia who attended the international graduate seminar “Northern Territories and Indigenous Peoples: Comparative perspectives”.  Almost 40 participants from Canada and the US, from Italy, Belgium, Germany and Russia attend the event at Venice International University.

Maria Momzikova from the EUSP presenting her research (Photo Julia Kovyrshina)

“The crucial thing is the way one can inhabit space. We do not have the chance to evaluate space in the same way in the North of Russia and Canada with their vast territories and sparse population. Old labyrinth-like Venice taught me to be satisfied with a tiny imagination of possibilities of life in the era of global warming, among the melting ice.” Anastasia Karaseva from Saint Petersburg.

A. Karaseva with the blog-author on the Rialto bridge (Photo Julia Kovyrshina)

It might seem strange to travel to Venice in January to discuss the Arctic. There might be few places on earth that seem to be less similar to each other – Venice being a densely populated small island and the Arctic as a place including different continents whose borders and populations are even difficult if not impossible to define clearly. Also in historical terms – when the star of Venice was already declining, the Arctic just started to appear on the maps of geographers. Interesting connections start to evolve: one of the early geographical atlases “Ptolemy’s Geographiae Universae” edited by Giovanni Antonio Magini and printed 1596 in Venice by Heredes Simoni Galignani presents already maps of the Arctic. Among them, a description of Siberia called Tartariae Imperium. Venetian glass was popular at that time in Russia and reached the new established Arctic towns like Mangazeya. The hunger for northern goods fuelled the expansion of trade routes into the Arctic since the middle ages and provoked the time of explorations of the 17th and 18th centuries – when the hegemony in trade for Venice was already over.

20180117-_MG_1217And of course both the Arctic and Venice suffer from exotization being inundated with cliché and imagination. For the outside world they are the source of and endless stream of kitsch but also of the uncanny and demonic that is haunting the unconscious like in Hugo Pratt’s comic “Corto Maltese: In Siberia”. It might not be the best idea to start in Venice and go on a journey to Siberia in order to collect all exotic clichés and stereotypes. It might be more productive to make the reverse journey from the ‘periphery’ and try to take a sober look at the ability of both places to enchant imaginations but also to look at the social relations and power configurations behind them.

An unconscious reminiscence of “Don’t Look Now”

The program of the Graduate Seminar interestingly united quite diverse anthropological schools. The main group was formed by researchers from Canadian universities and the National Institute of Scientific Research (INRS) as a cooperation with the DIALOG- Aboriginal Peoples Research and Knowledge Network. The seminar constituted for them the 14th edition of the Nomadic University intensive training program.

The island of San Servolo with the Venice International University campus (Photo Julia Kovyrshina)

Another research tradition was present through researchers from Russia in particular from the High School of Economics and the European University at Saint Petersburg. Every of this schools represent different histories and developed different methodological approaches. They even differ in their view on the relations of indigenous peoples and other inhabitants of the Arctic. To look at social problems from the perspective of trauma and healing for instance is very unusual for researchers from Russia as it is for North-Americans to look at white people not as settlers. But research grounded in fieldwork dealing with everyday life of local inhabitants is easily understandable for scholars working in different parts and historic traditions in the Arctic.

Place of pilgrimage for Russians in Venice (Photo Julia Kovyrshina)

The main target group were PhD and master students from North America, Asia and several European countries doing research mostly on and with indigenous groups. Among the teachers were indigenous activists as well. To understand the different languages of academic disciplines and schools and to detect overlapping and differences might have been the most fruitful exercise during the seminar. A lot of discussion of course as always during scientific events happened at the corridor talk at coffee breaks, receptions and during the free time. Maybe even the town added some transcendental notes to the atmosphere of the seminar as one of the Russian participants put it. One of the Canadian participants told one of the students from Venice at the first session, when she admired the view over the lagoon from the window of the lecture hall: “It’s a shame to read the papers in this weather!” to which the Venetian student replied, “I live here – it’s a shame to study in Venice”.

View from the window of the lecture hall over the lagoon (Photo Julia Kovyrshina)


Karina Lukin’s defense of her dissertation on the Nenets of Kolguev Island

Members of the Anthropological Research Group of the Arctic Centre Rovaniemi Florian Stammler, Roza Laptander, Nina Messhtyb and Stephan Dudeck took part in the defense of Karina Lukin’s dissertation at the University of Helsinki on 10 December 2011.

She published her dissertation under the titel “Elämän ja entisyyden maisemat – Kolgujev nenetsien arjessa, muistelussa ja kerronnassa” (Landscapes of the Living and of Bygone Days. Kolguyev in the Everyday Life, Recollection and Narration of the Nenets) and had done her research among the Nenets living on a vast island of approximately five thousand square kilometres in the Barents Sea of North Russia above the Arctic Circle.

Lukin’s dissertation is of special interest and value to the upcoming ORHELIA project because of the extensive use of oral history methodology and material in her research and because ORHELIA shares its interest in Nenets of the European part of North Russia. The ORHELIA delegation was therefore especially pleased to have the possibility to hold a meeting with Karina Lukin on the day before her defense. We discussed the plans to collect oral history with the European Nenets and shared our methodological considerations.

Research of the Nenets’ oral traditions was up to this point often preoccupied with the most conservative genres of Nenets’ folklore and with mythology that contains less information on the recent history of the indigenous groups but Karina focused on oral traditions that are nowadays transmitted in Russian language and thus stay outside the attention of traditional folklore.

She shared with us her considerations about the fieldwork ethics and her ways out of the dilemma that some information about historical events, the story tellers, and their personal evaluation of events is important to share with the wider public and some is not and should remain private or anonymous. We also discussed the question of the relationship of form and context of oral recollections and how important the performative aspect, the social context of storytelling, and the audience as a co-producer of the story are for an understanding of oral history.

The Nenets’ conceptions of place and landscape on Kolguev Island were in the centre of Lukin’s work. She revealed an internal Nenets’ system of evaluation and relation to the places on the Island that is distinctive and sometimes diametrically opposed to the concepts of the Russian population living on the coast or coming to the island for trading. The Nenets have a different perspective on the centre –periphery relationship building their relationship to geography around a spiritual and moral centre in the tundra that is opposed to the spatial organisation of state administration. These alternative views on the geography that are kept private seem to resemble in a way James Scott’s “hidden transcripts” (“Domination and the arts of resistance” 1990) as prerequisites for resistance against the colonization process. But the relationship of innovations and views coming from the outside and internal and traditional Nenets values and practices are more complicated, as two of Lukin’s examples show. She was able to record stories about the planned establishment of ethno-art sculptures on the highest mountain of the Island that despite of their recognition of the ethnic aspect met tacit resistance from the local population because the Nenets’ concept of sacred landscape is opposed to the European one of the display of art. In another example she presents stories about orthodox Christian chapels that were built by the Nenets’ religious specialists, so called shamans, where they organized religious services according to Nenets traditions.

Both examples of self-determined reaction to outside concepts reveal that dichotomies, quite common in the scientific discourse, like the tradition- modernity antagonism as well as the centre-periphery opposition do not capture the Nenets’ reality well. The question of the allocation of agency, sovereignty or autonomy over processes of change, adaptation, or innovation seem thus crucial for the understanding of the Nenets’ reaction to the colonization process.

In addition, we had some exchange with the opponents of the defense, Eva Toulouze from Paris and Tartu Universities and Jarkko Niemi from Tampere University. Both have worked with the Nenets and are involved in recent research that is related to our project. Fresh from the press Eva Toulouze donated us a new version of her bilingual book “Triptyques” with poems and stories of the Forest Nenet writer Jurij Vella, a longstanding friend of some of us.