|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.|
|Datta's fishing fleet, once subsidised by the Soviet state, now lays in ruins.|
|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.|
|Olga Kostaseva. She guards the village's boats, but I couldn't help thinking there might be more pressing uses for her time.|
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.|