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Russia: Altaians Celebrate Cultural Freedom In Siberia

The native people of the Altai Republic in southwest Siberia are enjoying a cultural revival after centuries of assimilation and repression under the Russian empire and the Soviet Union. Lily Hyde reports for RFE/RL from a local celebration of cultural traditions.

Kosh-Agach, Russia; 7 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- It's nighttime, and stars are shining through the holes in the roof of the ail, an Altai yurt (tent dwelling). Arzhan Kezerekov is demonstrating the different styles of throat-singing, a kind of singing unique to the Russian Siberian republics of Altai and Tuva.

Kezerekov is only 23 years old, but he is already one of Altai's foremost storytellers (skazitel). In addition to folksongs, he can sing the Altai heroic epic, an ancient poem which takes many nights to perform in full -- Altaians boast it is longer than the Indian epic, Mahabarata. But a true storyteller, Kezerekov explains, is not only responsible for remembering the oral traditions of the Altaians. He also communicates with the spirits that govern the Altai religion and can work good or harm through his music.

Most Altai storytellers -- along with the republic's shamans, artists and local leaders -- disappeared in the 1930s under Soviet repression. That was followed by a long period of deliberate cultural assimilation imposed by Moscow. But since the end of the 1980s, Altaians have been devoting much of their energy to reviving their culture before it is too late.

The Turkic-speaking Altaians make up only about 30 percent of the population of the republic. Altai has been a part of Russia since the 18th century, and many Altaians converted to Orthodox Christianity and married Russians.

So it's not surprising the Altai national revival is lagging far behind similar revivals in neighboring Tuva and Kazakhstan, with whom the Altaians have much in common culturally. In Tuva, for example, throat-singing is taught in special schools and Tuvan throat singers have traveled all over the world on tour.

But Altai singers and musicians are self-taught, while storytellers usually inherit their skills from a relative. Some Altaians say this has kept the tradition pure, claiming that Altai throat-singing is closer to its original form. Others say this means Altai traditional music is simply unsophisticated.

Mikhail Chubulchin is a member of the folk ensemble Charas, which he says was founded to try and develop folk music from its present primitive form.

"Our people don't play national instruments, or typically they are self-taught and unprofessional. They play the accordion, or play and sing very primitively. We are trying to widen the use of national instruments. When we play they listen with interest, but generally our people, Altaians, are not yet really engaged in their national music. It's linked with their economic difficulties. Kazakhs, for example, have their national pride and ambition, practically each one from childhood plays on his own instrument, the Kazakh domra. That doesn't happen here. We want young people to listen, if they listen maybe they'll like it and will want to play."

Charas and singer Kezerekov were among the hundreds of singers and musicians performing at a national cultural festival, El Oyin, last month. The traditional summer festival, whose name translates as "national games," was a milestone in the revival of Altai culture when it was first celebrated nationally in 1988.

Before then, the festival had been celebrated throughout the republic -- but only on a local level. According to one of El Oyin's original organizers, Aleksandr Selbikov, when the first festival was held nationally many were doubtful that it could succeed.

"There was a lack of faith. People thought it would only be a place for drunks to gather -- that was the attitude. It was still the Soviet era, and many were afraid that if we held this festival, if we gathered together, they'd say we were nationalists."

In fact, El Oyin -- now held every two years in a different part of Altai -- did give birth to a whole new national consciousness. Altai's 10 regions have different dialects and cultural traditions, but the festival gave them a chance to unite in a great celebration of national sport, music, costume, and food. Selbikov says:

"After the first El Oyin, the whole Altaian social-political movement started. People saw that it was possible to gather together, walk, enjoy themselves, voice opinions and knowledge. And after that they started to gather together and started to found social organizations. I think the significance of El Oyin, especially the first one, is very great. It revived the feeling, the understanding that there is such a people as the Altaians."

El Oyin has also led to the founding of national sports clubs and music groups such as Charas throughout the republic. Twelve years after it began, the two-day festival this year included horse races, a local kind of wrestling called Kuresh, yak-lifting competitions and parades, concerts of new, young singers and dancers, and even fashion shows based on national costumes. Some 20,000 people traveled to the republic's furthest southern corner, on the border with Mongolia -- a bleakly beautiful steppe-land plagued by mosquitoes -- simply to demonstrate that Altai culture is alive and thriving.