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Shor Cling To Way Of Life, Language In Siberia

Ust Anzas is one of dozens of villages in the region of Gornaya Shoria that the estimated 15,000 Shor call home.

A phone booth, that rarely works, is about the only sign of modern life to be found in Ust Anzas, a remote village in Siberia's Kemerovo Oblast.

The Shor, an ethnic Turkic minority, live in isolation here, nestled amid the Abakan Range mountains and seemingly endless forests along the shores of the Mras-Su River.

Cut off from roads, central heating, and with nearly no electricity, let alone the Internet, the Shor in Ust Anzas live off the land much like their ancestors have for centuries.

Ust Anzas is one of dozens of villages in the region of Gornaya Shoria that the estimated 15,000 Shor call home.

They cling to their traditional way of life, handcuffed by restrictions imposed by Moscow on hunting and fishing after much of their homeland was designated a national park in 1989.

Despite efforts to revive their endangered language since the collapse of the Soviet Union, not more than 5,000 Shor can actually speak their native tongue today.

"When I visit my parents and say something in Russian, they get angry and yell: 'Why are you speaking Russian? Speak Shor!'" says Natalya Moiseyeva, who, born and raised in Ust Anzas, returned there after retiring.

Like others, Moiseyeva claims many of today's generation show little interest in their language. "While we knew the language well, our kids are barely able to speak it. And they teach Shor language at the boarding school," Moiseyeva explains.

"There was only Russian when I went to school. The school in Ust Anzas was closed in the mid-1990s. Since then, kids from Ust Anzas have been living and studying at the boarding school in Tashtagol. My grandson is 12 and only knows a few words in Shor: knife -- pichak, bread -- kalash, water -- suu."

Natalya Moiseyeva
Natalya Moiseyeva

Tatyana Torchakova works in Ust Anzas at the local post office, which doubles as a shop selling groceries and sundries. "I rarely speak with my husband in Shor. Usually only when we want to hide something from our daughter," she says before suggesting that the language is nevertheless becoming more widespread.

"Before, it was a bit strange to go into a store in [the administrative center of] Tashtagol and speak in Shor. But now you meet a friend and start speaking in Shor as if it's normal. More people are talking about the rebirth of the language. People have simply stopped being afraid to speak it."

Can Shor Be Revived?

Shor was first written with a Cyrillic alphabet introduced by Christian missionaries in the middle of the 19th century. After a number of changes, the modern Shor alphabet is written in another modified Cyrillic alphabet.

In 2005, to highlight the endangered status of the language, Gennady Kostochakov published a book of poems in Shor, titled I Am The Last Shor Poet.

Today, the language is taught at the Novokuznetsk branch of Kemerovo State University.

There is little interest in the language among locals, one man says.
There is little interest in the language among locals, one man says.

Despite some signs of a Shor language revival, some in Ust Anzas aren't convinced.

Vyacheslav Kiskorov, who works at the local library, says books are rarely checked out, and among those that are few are in the Shor language. "Most interest in the language comes from linguists. There is no interest in the language in the village. The people themselves are to blame. My daughter Alina already knows the Shor language well, sings songs, and performs during festivals," Kiskorov says.

Drowning In Red Tape

Rather than language issues, Fedor Kydymayev, the head of the village administration, appears more concerned with the restrictions placed on those living in Ust Anzas and other villages inside the Shor National Park.

"Before, we were able to burn and plow the land so we could plant. Now, because of the national park we can't. I plant potatoes in the village now, but earlier we planted them in the taiga," Kydymayev laments. "At any moment they can come and fine you; for carrying a weapon, for [fishing] nets," he says. "The taiga, you can't go there, can't cut [timber] there."

Russian legislation enshrines the right of national minorities to live according to their traditional ways. But Kydymayev says that ensuring those rights comes with lots of red tape.

"Everything affecting life in the village needs to be approved. And getting that done is difficult. You need to bring in engineers to measure the land, then documents are drawn up," he says. "A lot of people here don't have a lot of money because there's no work. Some turn to stealing to get by."

He says that at least one especially exorbitant fine took the ultimate toll. "That fines are handed out can be seen everywhere. For example, everyone knows that you now can't cut down cedars. After being fined hundreds of thousands of rubles, one local man was so devastated he hanged himself."

Fedor Kydymayev says the Shor are still hunters.
Fedor Kydymayev says the Shor are still hunters.

But Kydymayev, who has struggled with alcoholism like many others in the region, says the Shor come from strong stock. "We can live here without jobs," he says. "For people from the city it's wild here, how the Shor live. There's no work, nothing, they go everywhere on foot. But you need to understand that we are truly hunters. We can walk many kilometers in a day, our bodies are capable of that."

The Shor get their spiritual strength from a nearby mountain peak, explains 80-year-old Robert Chromov, a chronicler of local history. "Farther in the distance, Aigan rises. On this mountaintop shamans fed the mountain spirits with moonshine," he explains, hinting at the role shamanism, or nature worship, played and still plays in the region.

Little Changes For Shor

While still holding its spiritual allure, others head to Aigan today for more practical purposes: a strong mobile-phone signal to the outside world, Torchakova explains. "I go to Aigan. There you can get some kind of signal. Aigan is our sacred mountain. I head there and make phone calls," she says.

Torchakova has time for such sojourns as things are rarely busy back at the post office. "Most of the people come in when they deliver pension payments. There are no bank cards, no Internet here," she says.

"We have 23 pensioners living here. Pensioners not only from Ust Anzas, but neighboring villages come here," Torchakova says. "They come mainly by boat, on horses, and, in the winter, on skis."

Mobility becomes sluggish as the muds that come in the fall and spring with the winter thaw and summer rains, making what roads there are impassible. During those times, traveling greater distances in the region is done by helicopter.

Zoya Topakova gets around on horseback.
Zoya Topakova gets around on horseback.

Zoya Topakova, who lives in neighboring Kizek, 4 kilometers from Ust Anzas, uses a horse to get around as she's done for most of her life, much of it marked by hardship and struggle.

"I didn't even finish the first grade. My father was taken off to the war, in 1941. There was nothing to eat, nothing to wear, and that's why I didn't study. My mother raised me," she says as her grandson Vyacheslav stands nearby.

Topakova is a bit unsure on her feet, using a cane to get around. But in the saddle it's a different story. Even at her age, she seems almost agile, her balance perfect. Ask a Shor though, and they'll simply say it just comes naturally.

Written by Tony Wesolowsky based on reporting by RFE/RL's Ideal.Reality
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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.