Tuesday, 21 February 2012

A tale of two villages- the fate Russia's native peoples

Extracts from the remnants of the language of the Nanai people in Russia's far east.

I arrived at the village around mid morning. The snow was deep, the sun bright and the wind sharp. Inside the village hall a group of children and teachers had gathered and proceeded to serenade me with their traditional folk songs. These people are called the Nanai, or Nanaitsi as most Russians call them. They inhabit eastern Siberia, also called Russia's far east, and were here long before the Russians or the Chinese to the south sent their first expeditions here hundreds of years ago.

Decades of imperial rule by Russia and then the Soviet Union has seen their culture atrophy. Native peoples all over Russia have seen their traditions waste away. Cultural missions by the Russian and Soviet states to try and record and even help maintain these native ways simply weren't compatible with the simultaneous desire to spread Russian/Soviet culture and industrialise. The result is that, like the dances and songs presented to me it's very hard to tell what is genuine time honoured Nanai tradition and what is essentially a mock up, a caricature of a culture that never existed. The dances and music were nevertheless beautiful and some of the village teachers there, both Nanai and Russian, were keen to teach the children the orgins of the sounds that came from their instruments, which represented the qualities of forest animals.

Centuries ago when the Chinese stumbled upon the Nanai and similar tribes they called them the ‘fish-skin tartars’. Some of them still know how to make shoes and clothes from fish skin. One local, eighty year old Mikhail Bildey, who was busy cutting up some fish in his house, waxed lyrical about the usefulness of fish. "Clothes made from fish skin," he said, "protect against the wind and keep out water. Fish make up a large part of our diet and are wonderful at treating ailments like stomach trouble as well." The village was by no means rich but seemed well enough kept. The school children were polite, motivated and lively.

Mikhail Bildey chopping up some fish for supper.

There was a tacit acceptance that, except mostly for posterity and to keep in touch with their roots, the Nanai culture was largely gone. One example was sixteen year old Nadia Pasara. She performed a dance of the drums with her friends, spiralling and circling with them round the village hall as they beat their loud, tambourine type instruments. She explained afterwards how she enjoyed coming to the centre to learn about her Nanai heritage and perform. But that was enough for her. "My parents don't observe any Nanai rituals at home although they're happy for me to come and dance here." At home though, Nadia is a modern Russian. She watches TV and listens to music, currently it's Korean hip hop.

Nadia and her fellow villagers represent a relatively smooth path that some native communities have taken into modern times. We might lament their loss of independence as a people, but they have done far better than some others in Russia’s Far East.   

The village of Datta is huddled up near the snowy coast of Russia’s Khabarovsk region. Khabarovsk itself is over a day away to the west by train. The nearest settlement is the burgeoning port of Vanino twenty minutes drive away down the coast. Stray dogs pad the snowy streets past tumbled down houses. As I walk down a street, I'm struck by the contrast with Nanai villages. They were basic, yes, but whereas their garden fences are simple wooden ones, at least they stand upright. Here they lay about at various angles of collapse. Windows were smashed. Many houses were deserted. The largest building in Datta, a two story concrete construction supposed to have become a school and cultural centre had clearly stood for a long time as an unfinished shell.

A typical sight in Datta. A tumbled down house littered with rubbish.

The people who live in Datta seem afflicted by the same malaise as the houses. It's one of the last villages left of the 'Orich' people. They were pre-Russian hunters and fishermen as well. But decades of Soviet influence has all but destroyed them as a people. There are now just a few hundreds Oriches left. There used to be upwards of ten fishing boats operating out of this village. Now they lay rusting on the shore. Alcoholism here is rife, as is unemployment.

Datta's fishing fleet, once subsidised by the Soviet state, now lays in ruins.
Oxana Punadinka lives with her unemployed husband and her two children near the shore. She complained that her house was falling apart. It was hard to know how much her and her family had done to keep the place repaired but inside huge cracks were running across the walls and ceiling, the central stove had packed up and the windows were at lopsided angles. She said she wanted repairs to the house to be made by the local government, free schooling and food deliveries. When I asked why her husband hadn't found work she said there was none. When it was suggested that the nearby town wasn't so far away she said the bus fare to Vanino was too expensive and shrugged in resignation.

Oxana Punadinka's kitchen. She seemed a kind and loving mother but when she showed us her pantry there seemed hardly enough food to last the month let alone the winter.
Next I found Olga Kostaseva, who was walking around the ruined boats near the grey waters which were close to icing over. She was a security guard here she said. Like Oxana she is an Orich. She laments the state of her village. "Most of the children drop out of school very quickly," she explained, "there's nothing to do here so they just hang around and get into bad habits. Smoking, drinking. Some kids start smoking here at age 6."

Olga Kostaseva. She guards the village's boats, but I couldn't help thinking there might be more pressing uses for her time.
Others told similar stoires. No employment, no education, just a bit of recreational angling, alcoholism and a culture of dependence on the state. So who's fault is all it this?  Lyubov Varshavskaya is a local ethnologist who has studied and tried to preserve the Orich language and has been to Datta many times. She thinks it all started with the well intentioned efforts of the state. "We provided them so much because we wanted to integrate them into soviet society, but instead we made them dependent." Many Orich children were sent away to special schools in Soviet times. People here say that was where they initially had everything handed to them on a plate, including their first taste for alcohol. But, Lyubov goes on, "nowadays the state simply doesn't have the money to support these communities like that. They've tried to educate these people and get them into work. They need to help themselves but the're not willing to do it."

The view of Lyudmila Bisyanka, the oldest member of the village, is even more bleak. Her grandfather was the last Grand Shaman here. She tells of how he was hugely respected, set Orich codes of conduct and mediated in disputes. But there has been no figure here like him since he died decades ago. Although Lyudmila lives in a clean, well kept house very different from the others, she ends by saying of her fellow Oriches, "they've given up. They don't want to live a decent life any more."

Lyudmila Bisyanka. She seemed stoical about it all, resigned to her village's decline.
One comment really brought home to me the tragic irony of the situation. This once proud fishing village which had lived off the fruits of the sea since time immemorial, and which Soviet and Russian authorities hoped could take fishing here on into the industrial age, now has 50 kilograms of fish delivered to it every day by the local government, an exasperated official told me. Most think the time to preserve the Orich as an independent people has long passed. Now it seems the very time for this village to find a path like the Nanai and escape this cycle of destruction is itself running out.


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