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Russia: Efforts Failing To Preserve Evenks' Nomadic Way Of Life (Part 1)

  • Jolyon Naegele

Russia's second-largest oil company, Yukos, has launched a massive investment project in the Evenk Autonomous Okrug in central Siberia to drill and pump crude oil. In the first of a three-part series, RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele looks at the impact that a century of modernization has had on the indigenous population of some 8,000 Evenks, who suffer from crippling poverty, rampant alcoholism, and the disappearance of their nomadic traditions.

Prague, 6 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Across Siberia, small, traditionally nomadic ethnic groups have been fighting a losing battle for decades, if not centuries, against encroaching Russian settlement and the ensuing pressures of assimilation, economic development, and alcoholism.

The collapse of the Soviet Union a decade ago resulted in new hardships as cradle-to-grave socialism gave way to dog-eat-dog Wild East capitalism.

A case in point is one of Russia's least-developed regions, Evenkia, a vast area of 767,600 square kilometers, nearly as large as Turkey, inhabited by some 20,000 people -- 8,000 of them Evenks. The remainder are settlers from elsewhere in Russia who arrived in several waves -- the first with the founding of the settlement of Vanavara in 1921.

During the economic upheavals in Russia during the 1990s, many residents left the region for more populated districts far to the south, leaving behind a decimated, formerly nomadic population no longer able to survive in the taiga and devastated by rampant alcoholism.

Pavlina Brzakova is a Czech doctoral candidate in anthropology at Prague's Charles University who has made seven solo expeditions to Evenkia during the past decade. She has been witness to a disappearing way of life, recording the last shamans and traditional singers, interviewing the last nomadic reindeer herders and collecting, translating, and publishing folk tales.

"These are the last few, small families who succeeded in maintaining a herd [through Soviet times] or won back possession of their herds after the collapse of the sovkhozes and kolkhozes [state and collective farms]. There are fewer and fewer such families," Brzakova says. "A program supporting nomads was established in 1991 but soon collapsed when they realized that the oldest generation was dying out -- mainly people who are no longer able to live in the taiga and can no longer take care of themselves."

A center was set up for the elderly at Vanavara to care for former nomads too old and infirm to rough it in the taiga. But the nomads inevitably experienced depression and alcoholism.

There have been a variety of attempts to encourage Evenks and other small, northern peoples in Siberia to return to a nomadic way of life, with mixed results. Brzakova says the Evenk generation that, theoretically, would be able to return to the region's original nomadic way of life no longer has the experience to do so.

Starting in the 1930s, 24-hour-a-day nursery schools and boarding schools were established so that the parents could lead a nomadic life and watch over the herds. Meanwhile, their children were educated by Russian teachers and began to speak Russian, not Evenk. After a while, they were no longer able to communicate in any language other than Russian.

"Since they've been living in a village, are sedentary and have gone through the whole system of boarding schools until adulthood, they are not capable of orienting themselves in the taiga," Brzakova says. "They haven't even any basic know-how about how to look after the herd [or] what it means to be a nomad. At best, they are able during hunting season to catch fur-bearing animals. That's all they are capable of. And so they spend all summer in the village doing nothing -- at the most fishing and drinking vodka."

Nevertheless, Brzakova says the idea of nomadism is receiving considerable publicity: "Now, within the framework of national revival [among northern nomadic peoples], handbooks on nomadic life are being published. There's a lot of interest all across Siberia in these. These books have been a great success. But of course there's the question of what practical effect they will have. Everyone is buying them, and everyone has the tendency to return to being a nomad because of pressures from the difficult economic situation. They are aware that if they don't look after themselves, no one else will either."

From 1993 to 1994, local authorities made herds of reindeer available. Whoever wanted to raise the reindeer would receive a subsidy in the form of fodder. Evenks would claim a herd, Brzakova says, but not bother to build fences. Inevitably, the herd would wander off, or else the owners would slaughter the herd for food. As a result, Brzakova says a return to a nomadic way of life has proven difficult in all but a few cases, mainly in the area around Tura and Baikit.

As Brzakova puts it, "Basically, the nomadic way of life is all but gone, and it appears that attempts to revive it are not succeeding because these attempts are too artificial and people don't really want to" return to the taiga.

Yet, the Czech anthropologist notes, even amid the despondency and alcoholism, there appears a growing sense of national identity among the Evenks.

"The Evenks only began expressing themselves [nationally] in the last two years, possibly at the urging of the Yakuts in the [neighboring] Sakha Republic, because the contacts are very close, even though traditionally they were enemies," Brzakova says. "But all the same, the fact that the Yakuts are advancing and are organizing all sorts of conferences, it seems that they are having an effect on the Evenks because they are in close proximity to each other and participate in these conferences and are trying to express themselves as a nation."

But Brzakova notes the wide dispersion of Evenks across northeastern Asia is a handicap: "The Evenks are spread out from the Yenisei [River] eastwards across all of Siberia. Those who live in the Evenk Autonomous Okrug number 8,000, but in total there are about 29,000 Evenks. Ten thousand of them live in China, and 4,000 live in Mongolia. So they really are spread out, which is to their great disadvantage because they have fallen victim to assimilation, in contrast to the Yakuts, who are concentrated in their Republic of Sakha or Buryats and who have their own territory. Where they are more compact, they are capable of resisting assimilation and acculturation. In these places, they are more nationalistic [toward the local Russian population]. They won't let Russians work as civil servants and the tendencies for [national] revival are stronger."

Evenkia now has its own anthem, called "Hymn of Native Evenkia." The first stanza, which we heard sung in Russian by Evenk pop singer Oleg Chapogir, goes like this:

"May peace shine over native Evenkia,/ Over our beautiful, raw country,/ May the power of the new Russia strengthen,/ Fraternally bound by a common fate forever,/ Evenkia my Evenkia, hope and pride of the nation,/ Evenkia my Evenkia, its riches and our freedom!"

Brzakova describes the recording, if not the lyrics, as a valiant effort, considering the conditions under which it was made -- in a homemade, one-man studio in the Evenk central settlement of Tura. The recording is now available on cassette. Brzakova says it has been a tremendous success with local residents.

Brzakova says the "Evenks want the Evenk Autonomous Okrug to be Evenk." However, she says Evenk nationalism is not expressed in terms of violence but rather in an interest in gaining positions in the local administration -- and in the development of a fledgling Evenk intelligentsia.

In addition to publishing a bilingual newspaper, "Evenkiiskaya Zhizn" (Evenk Life), Evenks in the okrug capital, Tura, have published an Evenk grammar book, a songbook, a cookbook, a dictionary of Evenk names, and a catalog of Evenk artists.

Brzakova says: "What sort of people are in the Evenk intelligentsia? There aren't many university-educated people among them. Within the framework of the national revival, these people are largely the offspring of parents who were nomads, and they remember this, but they don't live in the taiga. Simply put, there is a kind of deep sympathy. They feel the need to look for their roots, and so they try, for example, to compose songs, even if Evenk songs were originally improvised. They sang what they saw around themselves."

Brzakova recorded one of Evenkia's last shamans, Nona Tarpushanok, singing in her sleep inside her "choom," or tepee, in August 1993, four months before her granddaughter allegedly killed her in a drunken argument. It is an epic tale of men going off into the taiga to hunt.

Brzakova acknowledges that the chances of the Evenk intelligentsia helping the region find a way out of its dire economic situation are "very small." But she says young Evenks do represent a certain hope for the future. The old nomadic world is probably gone forever, so they must become accustomed to the contemporary world.

"They will have to learn to accept responsibility for their decisions." In Soviet days, someone else always assumed responsibility. Now, she says, most Evenks do not know how to deal with the new conditions. They do not understand that living somewhere and having electricity all cost money. They are unable to evaluate their work, or to plan. Instead she says, they live from day to day.

Thus, Brzakova says, it is hardly surprising when the Russian oil company Yukos, which is building up its operations in the Evenk district, says it is unable to find suitable Evenks to hire. But, she warns, "We just can't chase them back into the forest."

Brzakova concedes that in tracking the decline and transformation of the Evenks, she herself has amassed knowledge of benefit to the Evenks.

"I'd say that a chapter is now closing for me personally. I feel that there is nothing left there to examine. But, of course, there is still a bond of sorts with them, because when a person travels back and forth over 10 years -- seven trips usually lasting four months each, the last one lasted two months -- there is a certain emotional bond with the people there. So, of course, while there won't be any more anthropological research, I don't think that this was my last trip there."

Amid the current Evenk national revival, Brzakova's collection of Evenk folk tales, called "Goromomo Gorolo" (Long, Long Ago), originally published in Prague, has recently been issued in an expanded edition in Siberia.

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