Hot Water

A Female Pensioner in the Nizhny Tagil Area Invited Neighbors to Tell a National TV Channel about Their Village’s Problems: Now She Will Be Tried for Holding an Unauthorized Protest Rally
Mezhdu strok
22 August 2018

A 63-year-old resident of the village of Pokrovskoye in the Gornouralsky Urban District warned neighbors a TV news crew would be coming to cover utilities problems in the village. She now faces a court hearing, charged with holding a public event without the consent of the authorities.

ms-72790-8Irina Kutsenok. Photo courtesy of Mezhdu strok

Due to a hot water outage in the village that had lasted two months, pensioner Irina Kutsenok turned to the news program Vesti Ural for help. When she found out a news crew would be coming to the village on August 1, she posted announcements about their visit in the entryways of residential buildings, asking villagers to come and speak to the news crew. Subsequently, the head of the village council filed a complaint against Kutsenok with the prosecutor’s office, accusing her of “organizing a public event  without filing a notification in the prescribed manner,” a violation of Article 20.2 Part 2 of the Russian Federal Administrative Offenses Code.

“The water was turned off on June 1. The council said it would be off for a mere two weeks, but two months had passed since then. I then contacted Vesti Ural. They had helped us last year with garbage removal. After a segment aired on their program, the council started picking up the garbage. The people at Vesti Ural said they would send a news crew on August 1, and on July 31 I posted flyers in the entryways of residential buildings saying regional reporters were coming to cover the hot water outage so residents would know about it. At the bottom of the flyer, I wrote, ‘Residents should meet outside the club.’ But the editors at Vesti Ural told me the crew would not be coming, because the council had promised them that on August 3 our hot water would be turned on,” Kutsenok told Mezhdu strok.

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Irina Kutsenok’s flyer, announcing an upcoming visit by a news crew from the program Vesti Ural and asking village residents to gather outside the village club at twelve noon on August 1 to speak with the reporters about ongoing problems with the village’s hot water supply. Courtesy of Mezhdu strok

According to Kutsenok, the flyers were taken down almost immediately, on August 1. They were replaced with leaflets claiming water pressure tests would be conducted in the village on August 3.

Nevertheless, Kutsenok went to the village club on August 1 in case residents of Pokrovskoye had questions about the hot water outage. She was met there by Marina Selskaya, head of the Pokrovskoye village council, and Alla Semyonova, a member of the Gornouralsky City Duma.

“They yelled at me, accusing me of holding an unauthorized meeting. Later, it transpired Selskaya had also filed charges against me with the prosecutor’s office, accusing me of organizing and holding  a public event without notifying the council, of organizing protest rallies. Subsequently, the neighborhood beat cop came to my house and informed me I had to go to court. But I hadn’t made any speeches anywhere, nor had the TV reporters shown up. This means I am going to court for turning to the media, to a TV news program for help. What, now we don’t have the right to turn to the media, either, and we should be fined if we do turn to them? I just wanted to give our council a little nudge. I cannot get them to do anything about the water, preventive medical exams or metering devices for utilities. How much can a person take?” asked an outraged Kutsenok.

The magistrate of Sverdlovsk Region’s Suburban District will hear the charges against Kutsenok on August 30. Article 20.2 Part 2 of the Administrative Offenses Codes stipulates a fine of up to 30,000 rubles [approx. 380 euros] or up to fifty hours of community service.

UPDATE. After this article was published, the press service of the Sverdlovsk Region Prosecutor’s Office informed Mezhdu strok the charges against Kutsenok had not been filed with them, but with the police.

Thanks to OVD Info for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

“They Are Trying to Destroy Us for Daring to Speak Up”

“They Are Trying to Destroy Us for Daring to Speak Up”
Rural Pensioners Threatened with Fines for Rally against Police Inaction in Investigating Fatal Road Accident
Nadezhda Andreyeva
Novaya Gazeta
August 4, 2018

Residents of the village of Tersa in Saratov Region’s Volsk District have sent an open letter to the president asking him to take charge of investigating road accident in which 30-year-old Alexander Lopasteysky was killed. According to the letter’s authors, the local police have tried to cover up a crime. A criminal case has not yet been opened, although the fatal accident occurred more than two months ago. Over three hundred people, every tenth resident of the village, signed the letter. The residents then held an assembly where they discussed the inaction of law enforcement agencies. The police immediately sprang into action—but not to investigate the accident. The next night, the police made the rounds of the village, threatening residents with huge fines for attending an unauthorized public event. 

“To: The Kremlin, Moscow. From: Your Voters”
Railroad Street has never been paved or lighted. On the side of the road stands a black metal cross, fenced off with a chain.

“We didn’t bother to attach a plaque. Everyone knows who it’s for anyway.”

In the early hours of May 28, 2018, 30-year-old Tersa resident Alexander Lopasteysky died here while riding a motorcycle. According to his relatives, he was knocked off his bike and run over by Alexander Letov, driving a VAZ 2108 car.

Alexander Lopasteysky. Photo by Matvei Flyazhnikov for Novaya Gazeta

An investigation of the fatal road accident was not opened. Villagers claim an investigator from the district Interior Ministry office came to Tersa to question witnesses forty-two days after the accident.

“The police probably thought they could dillydally, and the collective farmers would forget the whole thing,” argues Tersa resident Viktor Konstantinovich.

“I can’t say the police have been paid off. They have just been negligent in this case. A man accidentally fell off a motorcycle and died through his own fault. It’s convenient. They don’t have to make any effort,” says Valentina Vasilyevna, mother of the dead man, shuffling through photos of her son.

Lopasteysky’s relatives wrote to the district council and prosecutor’s office, asking them to take charge of the investigation. They received formal but meaningless replies to their requests. The only thing left to do was write the president.

“To: The Kremlin, Moscow. From: Your voters in the village of Tersa, Volsk District,” reads the opening of their appeal to the president, which was signed by over three hundred residents of the village, whose total population is approximately three thousand.

As the letter’s authors note, “There has been an attempt to cover the crime up, since Letov’s father is an officer in the Volsk District Police.”

Dream’s Backyard
The shop Dream is in the middle of the village, a one-storey brick box crowned with a tall wooden attic. Manufactured goods are through the door on the right, while groceries are through the door on the left.  Dream’s backyard was the site of the “unauthorized public event” at nine in the evening on a Sunday.

“The entire village waited for the investigation to begin. We were patient for two months. We sent letters to all the relevant authorities. What was left for us to do? People said we should raise a ruckus,” says Lyudmila Lopasteyskaya, the dead man’s sister.


Lyudmila Lopasteyskaya, Alexei Lopasteysky’s sister. Photo by Matvei Flyazhnikov for Novaya Gazeta

On the social media website Odnoklassniki [“Classmates”], Lyudmila asked everyone concerned about the tragedy to meet by the entrance to the village shop. Around one hundred people came.

Half a dozen police officers from Volsk also came to the meeting, including one armed with a video  camera.

“They said it was forbidden to gather near the porch, that it was a public place. We went into the backyard. We wanted to find out what stage the investigation was at. But the police commander from Volsk turned his back on us and chewed out Lyudmila,” recounts pensioner Lydia Nikolayevna, a former schoolteacher.

“I said to him, ‘You’re treating people with disrespect, turn around and face us. He wouldn’t tell us his name. He only ordered the cameraman to film everyone who opened their mouths and told the other officers to write down people’s license plate numbers,” says pensioner Nadezhda Ivanovna, a former college employee.

People dispersed after village council head Vyacheslav Mokhov promised he would go with the dead man’s relatives to meet with the district police chief.

The next day, five Tersans went to Volsk.

“We were allowed to enter the police building in twos. Alexander’s daughter and the village head went in, then Alexander’s friends. I wanted to go last. But the police said to me, ‘No, that’s enough,'” says Valentina Vasilyevna.


Dream, the village shop. Photo by Matvei Flyazhnikov for Novaya Gazeta

“We told them what evidence had been seen at the accident site. But the police weren’t really interested. They kept asking whether the village council had authorized the protest rally, and why the shop owners had agreed to let us in,” Viktor Konstantinovich recounts.

A 20,000 Ruble Fine on an 8,000 Ruble Pension
The police returned to the village a day later.

“They made the rounds of the houses yesterday and the day before yesterday. It was our village beat cop and some officers from Volsk. They knocked on the doors of old women at eleven, eleven-thirty at night. They told people to come outside, shoved papers in their faces, and told them to sign them. They told my wife that by six in the morning they had to get the signatures of the people who had gone to the meeting,” say Viktor Konstantinovich.

He nervously twirls a phone in his hands.

“Dont mention my surname in the newspaper,” he adds.

“He didn’t even get out of the car. I asked where he’d got my name and address. That stopped him short,” recounts Nadezhda Ivanovna.

“He said fines for protest rallies range from 10,000 to 20,000 rubles. My monthly pension is 8,000 rubles. I worked as a lab assistant for thirty-nine years. I spend my entire pension on the gas and light bills, and medicines. We’re frightened.”

“The police are not protecting us. On the contrary, they are destroying us for daring to speak up. Don’t take a picture of me. I have a grandson I’m raising.”

The village beat cop served Lopeystskaya with a notice of initiation of administrative proceedings under Article 20.2 of the Administrative Offenses Code (“Violation of the Rules for Holding a Public Event”), as filed “against an unknown person,” along with an official warning from the Interior Ministry’s district office.

The police informed Lopeystskaya that “in case of a public event, planned by you in the village of Tersa, you could face administrative and criminal sanctions.”

The warning was followed by list of six articles from the Administrative Offenses Code and Criminal Code, including the article that stipulates “organization of an extremist community” as a felony.


A box marked “Information about Incidents of Corruption” at the local police department. Photo by Matvei Flyazhnikov for Novaya Gazeta

The neighborhood police precinct is in the village council  building. It is quiet and hot in the hallway, and flies are buzzing. The beat cop’s office hours are glued to a window: two hours on Tuesdays and  Saturdays, one hour on Fridays.

I call the mobile phone listed there.

“There was an unauthorized protest rally on my beat, ninety-seven people. I’ve been ordered to gather evidence,” says Lieutenant Alexander Bakanov.

Lieutenant Bakanov does not specify who gave the orders and why. He cuts the conversation short.

The village council head’s office. A United Russia party flag covers the window on the right. Photo by Matvei Flyazhnikov for Novaya Gazeta

The door to the office of village council head Vyacheslav Mokhov is open. A blue United Russia party flag covers a crack in a window. There are framed photos of the president, the region’s governor, and the district head on the wall. The Volsk coat of arms features a sleeping bear.

The ladies in the office next door chime in unison that the boss has left the village.

“He’s gone to Volsk. No, he’s gone to Shikhany.”

Pointing at each other, they argue about who should replace Mokhov when he is out of the office.

Mokhov hangs up on me twice, but then he arrives at the office anyway.

“Don’t you photograph me. I’m scared of everything. This thing can be spun the wrong way,” he says.

“That was the first unauthorized protest rally in the Volsk District ever,” he adds, lowering his voice.

P.S. The press’s attention to this story has been reflected in the surprising speed with which local law enforcement has reacted. While this issue was going to press, a criminal case was opened under Criminal Code Article 264 (“Violation of Traffic Rules”), and the Volsk District Court placed Alexander Letov under house arrest. Volsk District Deputy Prosecutor Andrei Shevchenko refused to comment on the case when asked by Novaya Gazeta.

Meanwhile, the Volsk District Court has begun hearing the matter of Lyudmila Lopasteyskaya’s alleged violation of Article 20.2 of the Administrative Offenses Code. The Tersans summoned to testify have told the court that what happened was not a protest rally, but a meeting of villagers concerned about the tragedy. The next court hearing in the case has been scheduled for August 9.

Thanks to Valentin Urusov for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

The Happy Chooks of Ryazan

You never know what scam will be visited on your weary head when you buy a cartoon of eggs from the Dixie supermarket. When the country’s reigning tyrant instituted reverse sanctions against the infidels of the west in 2015, all imported dairy products, eggs, and lots of other produce disappeared from the shelves, prompting a shameless wave of newly hatched brands made to look as if they had been produced in Finland and other straunge strondes.

Now that the triumph of the will known as import substitution has filled some of the yawning gaps on the shelves, the new three-card monte in the Russian food industry involves imitating “corporate responsibility” and “best practices.”

I happened upon a sterling specimen the other day, again after buying eggs at the Dixie in our neighbourhood. I opened the carton to find this message from the producers.

okskoye-1“Oksky Eggs: Delicious and Fresh. Dear Friends! I offer you a product that my children, acqaintances, friends and, of course, I myself enjoy eating. I guarantee that we monitor the entire production process at Oksky Eggs. I promise I will always be in touch. I will be attentive and responsive to all your messages. Whatever the issue, write to me at my personal email address: 0076@okskoe.com. Ivan Grishkov, Commercial Director, Oksky Poultry Farm JSC.”

Sounds nifty, eh? It gets better when turn the little slip of paper over.

okskoye-2
“PRODUCER’S GUARANTEE. Each egg is stamped with the production date, the number of the henhouse, and the poultry farm’s trademark seal. [Producer] [Category of egg] [Production date (date and month)] [Henhouse number]. || Oksky Eggs: Delicious and Fresh. Oksky Poultry Farm JSC, 390540, Russia, [Ryazan Region], Ryazan District, Village of Oksky. Tel.: (4912) 51-22-62. Email: sbit@okskoe.com. Website: www.okskaya-ptf.ru.”

A farmboy myself, I have no wish to malign my brother and sister Russian farmers. So, I should point out that the three Oksky Eggs left in our fridge are indeed stamped as advertised.

DSCN0022.jpg

The rubber hits the road, however, when you take a gander at the poultry farm’s slick website, where you are treated to this tear-jerking video about the happy lives led by the chooks at Oksky Poultry Farm.

It’s a veritable vision of the good life, isn’t it?

oksky-the good life

oksky-anoshina

At the end of this accidental disco anthem to cruel and unusual hen exploitation, a woman identified as “Yelena Anoshina, poultry barns supervisor,” reading from cue cards, says, “A modern electronic system generates the most comfortable conditions for the birds. It makes sure they are fed and watered. And I am personally responsible for this.”

I can only imagine the dialogue that would ensue if an enlightened consumer or, god forbid, a animal rights advocate tried to call Mr. Grishkov and Ms. Anoshina on their imitation of “corporate responsibility” and “modern poultry farming.”

The kicker, however, is that you will find these half-hearted attempts at instituting customer friendliness and gesturing in the direction of best (western) practices all over corporate Russia these days. Of course, you are more likely to find real friendliness and good quality in a mom-and-pop Uzbek dive or even a hipster coffeehouse, but oddly enough the impulse to do things better and shed the shabbiness and sheer meanness of the “Soviet consumerist hell” (Joseph Brodsky’s phrase) actually shapes the behavior of the mostly younger and early middle-aged people working in places like banks and certain government offices as well.

The only problem is the Russian ruling elite still wants to keep kicking rank-and-file Russians in the teeth on a daily basis, so the rules, regulations, red tape, and imperatives of the resurgent post-Soviet surveillance state and the kleptocratic oligarchy running the country mostly reduce the natural kindness and gentleness of these pleasant, soft-spoken cogs in the machine to naught. {TRR}

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Diskoteka Avariya (Accident Discotheque), “Disco Superstar” (2001)

 

Opinion Leaders Are Losers

The other day, I closed my Facebook accounts and pages, I hope for good.

Part of the reason I closed them was that a New York City writer whose books and opinions I admire greatly, and who has a huge following on Facebook, wrote a mean-spirited and divisive post on Facebook condemning “the Heartland,” meaning the middle part of the United States.

She labeled the place “heartless” and “dangerous” on the basis of her cursory perusal of an “interactive” map of the 2016 US presidential election results, published in the New York Times.

While the map she cited is certainly worth studying and full of surprises, I imagine the writer saw only red, literally and figuratively, and blew a fuse.

I doubted out loud, in the comments, whether the writer knew much about the “heartless, dangerous” Heartland. On the contrary, I know a great deal about it, since I was born and grew up there.

She did not respond to my petty, eminently ignorable objections nor did most of her thousands of self-satisfied, bien-pensant followers, certain that the “heartless, dangerous” (and completely imaginary) “Heartland” had irrevocably damaged their beautiful souls and beautiful lives in Clintonia.

But as reporter Issie Lapowsky and map expert Ken Field argue in an article published on July 26 by WIRED (“Is the US Leaning Red or Blue? It All Depends on Your Map”), there are maps, and then there are maps. For example, there is this map, devised by Mr. Field.

Dasymetric-Dot-Density-wKen Field, “Presidential election 2016: dasymetric dot density.” Courtesy of WIRED

To Field, there’s no such thing as a totally comprehensive map, but he says, “Some are more truthful than others.” The so-called dasymetric dot density map is one of them. The term “dasymetric” refers to a map that accounts for population density in a given area. Instead of filling an entire state or county with the color red or blue to indicate which party won, Field uses red and blue dots to represent every vote that was cast. On this particular map from 2016, there are roughly 135 million dots. Then, rather than distributing the dots evenly around a county, he distributes them proportionally according to where people actually live, based on the US government’s National Land Cover Database. That’s to avoid placing lots of dots in, say, the middle of a forest, and to account for dense population in cities.

Taken together, Field says, these methods offer a far more detailed illustration of voter turnout than, say, the map in Yingst’s tweet. That map uses different shades of red and blue to indicate whether candidates won by a wide or slim margin. But by completely coloring in all the counties, it gives counties where only a few hundred votes were cast the same visual weight as counties where hundreds of thousands of votes were cast. So, the map looks red. But on the dasymetric dot density map, it’s the blue that stands out, conveying the difference between the popular vote, which Clinton won, and the electoral college vote, which Trump won.

Why do I bring this sad business up on a website dealing with “news and views from the other Russias”?

Over the last several years, I have been fighting a similarly invidious myth about Russia and Russians. To wit, Vladimir Putin is incredibly popular, as conclusively shown, allegedly, by dicey “public opinion polls” and rigged elections, and his “base” is in the “Russian heartlands,” which are, apparently, just as “heartless” and “dangerous” and stupid as the US “Heartland,” and similarly prone to throw their electoral weight behind a tyrant, unlike, we are meant to imagine, the smart sets in Russia’s two capitals, Moscow and Petersburg.

I have been at great pains to show a discursive apparatus I have dubbed the “pollocracy” produces the results that both Putin’s quasi-fascist supporters and faux-liberal detractors need to cling to their respective security blankets. In the case of the so-called liberals, the security blanket consists in the notion that the world’s largest country is largely inhabited by woefully ignorant yahoos who have laid waste to any chance at building a democracy in the Motherland. As viewed by their opponents, the fake “patriots” in Putin’s camp, the same heartland yahoos are the country’s “pious,” “conservative” core and the source of the Putin’s ruling elite’s self-produced mandate to rule the country till kingdom come and particularly badly.

Seventy percent of why I do this website is to show that Russia actually consists of lots of other Russians and lots of other Russias that belie the dodgy “findings” of pollsters and the lazy clichés reproduced ad nauseam by Russian and international reporters, “Russia experts” (nearly all of them resident somewhere other than Russia), politicos, and spin doctors to prove a self-serving conclusion they arrived at long ago without bothering to find out whether it was true or not.

It’s not true. Just as it is emphatically not true the US “Heartland” is “heartless” and “dangerous.” Or maybe it and its mythical Russian counterpart, the “Russian heartlands,” are heartless and dangerous part of the time, but not all of the time and everywhere and on the part of every single woman, child, man, dog, and cat who live there. Nor, vice versa, are the alleged oases of high intellect and liberalism where pollsters, reporters, and opinion leaders (such as the well-known New York writer who, railing and trembling like the Prophet Jeremiah, condemned the place where I was born and grew up to the fires of hell) congregate, cities like New York, Los Angeles, Moscow, and Petersburg, utterly free of meanness, menace, vice, crime, bad governance, popular indifference, ignorance, and support for tyrants.

What does this have to do with abandoning Facebook? First, I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to produce a quasi blog there that would complement and promote this website. Since I am nobody, however, more or less nobody was interested in what I wrote.

They did, however, hang on every word written by people like the New York writer, who, having achieved a modicum of fame, felt no compunction about compounding a rank prejudice about a huge part of her own country and all the people who live there.

So, I have found Facebook an incredibly dispiriting place to try get out my word, a word very few of my so-called friends, real and virtual, wanted to hear, much more wanted to share and spread with their own friends.

Second, the continuing crackdown on bloggers and social media users in Russia has meant that fewer and fewer Russians are willing to write anything interesting on Facebook and its Russian ripoff, VK. Judging by my own real friends, more and more of them have either been observing total radio silence or retreating into the little cubbyholes known as Telegram channels, where they are invisible and inaudible to all the world except their own clique. Since one important feature on this website has been translations of the pithy, thought-provoking things Russian activists and just plain Russians have posted publicly on Facebook and other social media, I was left staring at a once-overflowing well going drier by the minute.

Third, WordPress gives its bloggers some crude but decent tools to see where their readers are finding out about their blogs and blog posts. Over the last two years, as my readership here as continued to climb, the share of those readers who were turned onto my website or particular posts through Facebook has shrunk, meaning that my own friends, real and virtual, have been less likely to share my posts with their friends than complete strangers have been to look up Russia-related topics on the internet and find their way here.

So, rather than continue to pine for support from actually hostile liberal and leftist opinion leaders whose only interest in my Facebook posts and blog posts was to scavenge them for news and ideas they would instantly pass off as their own thoughts and finds without crediting me, I have decided to live without them in order to more fully embrace you, my anonymous, ever more numerous, faithful readers.

In any case, this website will continue to be promoted on Twitter, Google+, Tumblr, and Ello, as before, so it is not as if I am doing a disappearing act. I just wanted to stop pretending I had friends in places where I did not have them. {TRR}

 

Pig Farming in Leningrad Region Today

свиноферма

Kebab Fans Should Come to the Rescue: Idavang Kicks off Construction of Pig Farm in Leningrad Region with ₽3.7 Billion Price Tag
Yekaterina Fomicheva
Delovoi Peterburg
June 18, 2018

This week Idavang Group will begin construction of a pig farm in Leningrad Region with  a ₽3.7 billion price tag. The new facility will help the company increase pork production by thirty percent.

The new facility is designed to accommodate 55,000 pigs at any one time and produce 12,000 tons of pork live weight. The facility will include twenty-six hog houses, a feed production unit, a feed warehouse, and other buildings. Seven of the hog houses will be put into operation next years, and the facility will achieve its full capacity by 2024. The project’s overall price tag is ₽3.7 billion [approx. €50.3 million]. The payback period is fifteen years.

Subsidies Helped
As sources at Idavang Group explained to us, the project became possible after the Russian Agriculture Ministry approved a subsidy for paying interest on the loan the company planned to take to build the facility. The ₽1.6 billion loan was disbursed in April.

Late last year, Idavang floated €85 million of priority secured bonds on European financial markets. Part of the proceeds from sales of the bonds could be used on building the facility, which will be in the Luga District.

Idavang Group is a subsidiary of Idavang A/S, a Danish company that owns pig farms in Russia and Latvia. The company has a pig farm in Leningrad Region’s Tosno District that produces 20,000 tons of pork annually, as well as a farm in Pskov Region that produces 10,000 tons of pork per year.

Excessively Cheap Meat
Market insiders say that circumstances are not favorable for expanding production.

“We’ve been seeing a glut of pork on the market, and only the major companies, which have their own feed supply, have been doing well,” says Andrei Krylov, director general of Dawn Plus LLC.

According to Mr. Krylov, players planning to expand expect they can oust small producers who do not have their feed production facilities from the market. For example, Pulkovo Agroholding, which does not have its own feed supply, has now filed for bankruptcy.

“We have been stepping up the production of feed. We have 3,500 hectares in Oryol Region and 1,000 hectares in Kaluga Region where we grow grain. In addition, last year we launched a feed production facility in Kaluga Region,” Mr. Krylov adds.

Other experts also say the market is glutted. Last year, Russia produced 3.3 million tons of pork. Domestic companies meet only 97% of the total demand for pork, says Lyubov Burdiyenko, an analyst at Emeat Information and Analysis Agency.

According to Ms. Burdiyenko, pork prices began to rise in April after a decline at the beginning of the year. The price rise was due to the onset of the summer cottage and kebab cookout season.

However, wholesale prices in April were ₽168 [approx. €2.30] a kilo on the half carcass. This is three percent lower than in April 2016. Producers have been operating on the verge of profitability, the analysts note.

Translated by the Russian Reader. This post is dedicated to my father, a retired pig farmer, on the occasion of yesterday’s Father’s Day holiday. He taught me everything I know about pigs and farming, and many, many other things as well. Photo courtesy of Fermok.Ru.

Annals of Import Substitution: Got Milk?

Perhaps one of the big reasons the post-embargo Russian dairy industry has failed to achieve “total important substitution,” not mentioned in the otherwise comprehensive article, below, has been its penchant for gulling Russian consumers. Among the gullible is your correspondent, who was moved by the label on this milk carton (“Honest Natural Cow Milk […] from an Ecologically Pure District of Bashkiria”) to buy it the other day. My boon companion, however, immediately pointed out what the side of the carton revealed. In this case, “Honest Bashkir Natural Cow Milk” was actually reconstituted milk powder (“изготовлено из молока нормализованного”), not real milk. Since the embargo set in, every Russian has also encountered literally tons of fake cheese in the shops. Chockablock with palm oil, not milk, and sporting European sounding monikers to make them more attractive to “discerning consumers,” this fake cheese has generated massive popular distrust in domestically produced cheese and other dairy products. TRR

Why Import Substitution Has Failed in the Dairy Industry 
Despite the Produce Embargo, Milk Production Has Declined, Dairy Products Have Become More Expensive, and Demand Has Fallen
Yekaterina Burlakova
Vedomosti
January 22, 2018

“I’ve seen it myself, touched it with my own hands. The country is currently constructing three cheese factories with the capacity to produce fifty, sixty, and seventy tons daily, and in five years we will have forgotten the problem [the shortage of domestically produced cheese] altogether!” Russian agriculture minister Alexander Tkachov said recently, sharing his optimistic plans. “Let’s recall pork, vegetable oil, sugar, vegetables, and fruit. We also imported all this produce. We were seriously dependent.”

Tkachov and his colleagues never tire of talking of how the produce embargo, imposed by Russia in August 2014 on the United States, the EU, Norway, Canada, and Australia, has helped Russian farmers. Greenhouses have been built, orchards have been planted, and so on.

But import substitution has not taken hold in the dairy industry. Milk production has declined, dairy products have become more expensive, and demand for them has fallen off. Why has this happened?

Russia provides itself with only 75% of the dairy products it consumes; the rest is imported, mainly from Belaruas. However, Russia has always suffered shortages of domestically produced raw milk. But the circumstances have worsened. According to Soyuzmoloko, the Russian national dairy producers union, the production of raw milk decreased by two percent to 30.7 million tons between 2006 and 2016.

It is a complex and costly business, says a spokesperson for a dairy company. Vegetable production shows a profit after seven or eight years; fruit production, after four or five. Dairy plants take much longer to show a profit. According to different estimates, it takes between ten and fifteen years to put them in the black. Many potential investors are scared off by such figures, but our source said what the dairy industry needed were serious, long-term investments.

Indeed, the dairy business is considered complicated due to the long time it takes to see a return on investment, says Stefan Duerr, director general of EkoNiva, Russia’s largest milk producer. It generally takes three years to build a dairy plant and put it on line. Dairy production also requires considerable working capital: cows give milk only from the age of three. You have to prepare you own feed, and for that you need land: an average of about three hectares per cow, says Duerr. Pig breeders and poultry farmers have it much easier, since they can buy readymade feed.

Over the past four years, the price of raw milk has increased by about 60% to 25 rubles per kilo, says Artyom Belov, director general of Soyuzmoloko. This occurred after the ruble declined, and demand from processors increased. Yet the net price of milk has decreased after the ruble’s recovery. Belov is certain this makes dairy farming more attractive to investors. In his opinion, state support is also vital. In 2017, compensation of capital expenditures grew from 20% to 30%, while soft loans have been granted at an interest rate of up to 5%.

Investors Have Doubts
Investors still have doubts, however, For example, Rusagro’s principle owner Vadim Moshkovich recently announced he was willing to invest one billion dollars in milk and dairy production. But a decision on the project has not yet been made, says a spokesperson for the agricultural holding company.

“Dairy cow breeding really is a complicated business with a long-term return on investment, even taking subsidies into account. However much we cite the discounted return on investment model, seven years, which is mentioned in the press, we just cannot pull it off in Russia,” he says, raising his hands in dismay.

The processing and production of value-added products is needed to make the project viable. Total vertical integration—from feed production to the manufacturing of dairy products—is thus necessary, he argues.

Other investors have also spoken of possible investments in mega projects. Alexei Bogachov, a minority shareholder in the Magnit grocery store chain, has promised to invest 20 million rubles in a partnership with Rusagro. Miratorg has promised to invest $400 million, while Thailand’s Charoen Pokphand Group has promised to invest one billion dollars. In reality, only Vietnam’s TH Group has launched new, large-scale raw milk production facilities. Last year, the company began construction on dairy farms in Kaluga Region and Moscow Region that will accommodate approximately 40,000 head of dairy cows, and it recently announced plans to build farms in the Maritime Territory. It intends to invest $2.7 billion over the next ten years.

If circumstances on the market do not change, and milk prices do not go down, Belov forecasts it will be possible fully satisfy Russia’s milk needs in ten years. For the time being, processers deal with the milk shortage in different ways. For example, Oleg Sirota, founder of the cheese company Russian Parmesan, will soon bring his own dairy farm on line.  In turn, in order to insure stable supplies of milk, the French company Danone has invested in milk production in Tyumen Region in partnership with Naum Babayev’s Damate Group. The cost of the entire project is 5.6 billion rubles, but Danone’s share of the costs has not been disclosed. According to the agreement between Danone and Damate, all the milk produced at the facility will be sent to the Danone plant for eight years.

The Embargo’s Impact
“We saw that European producers with much lower prices would not arrive the next day, and we realized we could make long-term plans, that we had to invest in domestic production,” said Alexei Martynenko, owner of Umalat, a company that produces brined cheeses.

Almost as soon as the embargo was imposed, Martynenko gave up the day-to-day management of a feed production business and set about vigorously developing Umalat.

“I realized that if I didn’t change anything right away, we would sleep through the chance to grow the company,” he noted.

Many businessmen decided to tackle cheese immediately after imposition of the embargo, which among other things banned the import of cheese from the European Union to Russia. In 2016, according to Nielsen, Umalat was Russia’s leading manufacturer of sulguni, and took third place in the manufacture of mozarella and mascarpone. Since 2014, production at Umalat has doubled to 5,000 tons annually, says Rustem Mustafin, the company’s marketing director.

“The import substitution program and imposition of the embargo came in handy. We would have grown without them, but the growth would probably have been less considerable,” Mustafin continues.

However, the embargo’s impact wore off quite quickly, since it was immediately followed by a substantial downturn in household incomes, he stresses.

Sirota launched cheese production in the summer of 2015. Currrently, he produces semi-solid and hard cheeses, which retail for 800 rubles to 1,600 rubles per kilo. His cheesery’s first batch of parmesan will mature in August, when the embargo will celebrate its fourth anniversary. Currently, Sirota produces 400 kilograms per day. In 2018, he plans to ratchet production up to two tons per day.

Russian manufacturers have been most successful in producing hard and semi-hard varieties such as Russian, Dutch, and Altai, says Andrei Golubkov, a spokesman for Abzuk Vkusa [ABC of Taste], a Russian gourmet grocery store chain. There are also high-quality producers of brie, camambert, mozarella, and burrata. But the supply of good-quality ripened hard cheeses is still limited. The chain now mainly sells hard cheeses from Switzerland, which was not included in the embargo, and the South American countries, says Golubkov. Expensive Russian cheeses account for about 10% of all sales in terms of money and about 5% in terms of volume, Soyuzmoloko’s Belov says.

If the embargo is lifted, many businessmen involved in the manufacture of milk and cheese will be ruined, argues Sirota.

“Even if we could compete in terms of quality, we could not compete in terms of cost. The price of milk in Germany is currently around 20 rubles [per kilo], while it is 34 rubles in Russia,” says Sirota. [According to the industry website clal.it, the price of raw milk in Germany in November 2017 was 38.97 euros per 100 kilograms or approximately 27 rubles per kilo—TRR.]

Milk in Germany costs less due to cheap loans and government subsidies. In Russia, on the contrary, loans are short-term and expensive: they fall due between five and seven years. Investors have not yet managed to launch production, but the money has to be returned. There is always a shortage of good-quality milk for reprocessing. It takes 14 kilos of milk to make one kilo of cheese. Moreover, the highest grade of milk is required to ensure the desired quality of cheese.

Mustafin says Umalat is not afraid the sanctions will be lifted, however. The company has been vigorously promoting its brands, has found its customers, and has produceed cheeses that are better than their imported counterparts.

From Milk to Macaroni
Meanwhile, the consumption of dairy products has decreased by 5% from September 2016 to September 2017, according to Nielsen. Sales of kefir experienced the largest drop: 8.4%. Sales of sterilized milk fell by 7%, yogurt, by 5.8%, and cottage cheese, by 5%. For the first time in recent years, there has been a drop in the consumption of such traditional Russian dairy products as milk, smetana (sour cream), tvorog (cottage cheese), tvorozhki (quark), and ryazhenka (fermented baked milk), notes Anastasia Jafarova, director of customer relations in the department of sales and servicing of consumer panels at GfK Rus, a market research company. Perhaps the main reason is an increase in the average price by 10.4%, explains Jafarova. Price rises have mainly been due to the price rise of the raw material, i.e., the milk supplied by farmers, says a spokesperson at PepsiCo. In addition, a spokesperson for Danone cites other causes. Under the Plato road tolls system, the tolls imposed on heavy cargo vehicles rose by 25% in April 2017, and excise taxes on fuels rose by more than 8%. The decreased demand for dairy products has also been due to a decline in household incomes over the past few years, argues Belov.

The fact that people have started to skimp even on ordinary milk says they are likely to switch to cheaper products, notes Marina Balabanova, Danone’s regional vice-president for corporate relations in Russia and the CIS. This could be macaroni, cereals or other products, she speculates. As never before, Russians are rational in their spending and try to redistribute their expenses as efficiently as possible, says Jafarova. This testifies to the relative adapation to a protracted crisis on the part of Russians.

Agricultural minister Tkachov has also admitted that import substitution has not occurred in the dairy industry. He wrote about it in response to an official query from Communist Party MP Valery Rashkin. Although imports have dropped by 1.9 million tons since 2013, the production of milk has grown only by 1.4 million tons. The minister wrote that the demand for imported dairy products was currently 7.5 million tons. At a production growth rate of three percent annually, total import substitution would take at least nine to ten years. But work is currently underway to increase state support, which would reduce this period to five to six years, Tkachov hopes.

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“How the Consumption of Dairy Products Has Fallen (from June 2016 to June 2017, in percentages). Cheese spread and smoked cheese: –6. Quark: –5. Milk: –4. Yogurt drinks:–4. Firm yogurt: –4. Sour cream: –2. Cottage cheese: –2. Source: GfK Russia.” Infographic courtesy of Vedomosti

We Consume Too Little
A person needs to eat at least three dairy products per day. Eighty percent of the daily recommended intake of calcium is thus supplied. According to Soyuzmoloko, calcium is absorbed most easily this way. Their argument is backed up by the Federal Nutrition and Biotechnology Research Center and the Russian Osteoporosis Association. The Russian Health Ministry recommends individuals consume at least 325 kilos of dairy products annually. But we are far from achieving these norms: individual annual consumption of dairy products was 233 kilos in 2016. However, a top executive at a Russian agricultural holding company argues these claims are a bluff. In Soviet times, there were meat shortages, so dairy products were consumed as the primary source of protein. Circumstances have now changed. Russia now produces enough of its own poultry and pork at affordable prices. So there is simply no longer the need to eat so many dairy products, he explains.

Translated by the Russian Reader

UPDATE!

Up to 25% of Cheese in Russia Is Fake, Smuggled From Ukraine — Watchdog
Moscow Times
January 25, 2018

Up to a quarter of ‘cheese products’ sold in Russia were produced in Ukraine, circumventing Moscow’s embargo on food imports, according to Russia’s state agricultural watchdog.

Russia placed restrictions on food imports, including dairy, from countries that enacted sanctions against Moscow after its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. The embargo has been a boon for domestic Russian producers, but consumers have complained about a proliferation of “fake cheese” — dairy products made with milk-substitutes.

Up to 300,000 tonnes of Ukrainian cheese products are entering Russia every year after being repackaged in Belarus, Russia’s agricultural watchdog Rosselkhoznadzor spokeswoman Yulia Melano told the RBC business portal Tuesday.

“In all likelihood, we’re talking about the legalization of Ukrainian cheese or protein and fat products through Belarus,” reads a letter written by Rosselkhoznadzor head Sergei Dankvert that was obtained by RBC.

The Ukrainian ‘cheese products’ mostly consist of vegetable oils, rather than dairy, and are imported via Belarus under the guise of Macedonian or Iranian cheese, according to the letter.

Cheese-like products could account for more than half of all cheeses sold in Russia, Andrei Karpov, the executive director of the Association of Retail Trade Companies (AKORT), was cited as saying by RBC.

Rosselkhoznadzor does not yet regulate cheese products, which are made almost entirely out of milk substitutes, and does not officially track its imports.

Thanks to Mark Teeter for the heads-up

Every Tree in the Forest Would Understand You

Every Tree in the Forest Would Understand You
Anastasia Lotareva
Takie Dela
August 11, 2017

In Russia, there are six people left who can tell tales, sing songs, and simply converse in one of the world’s most ancient languages.

The dialects of the Selkup language are unique. For example, they have retained semantic stress (that is, stress that changes the meanings of words). It was inherited from Proto-Samoyedic, the language spoken in Siberia before our era. Researchers from around the world study the Selkup dialects, and Russian linguists recently were awarded an unprecedented grant to research them. If the language of the southern Selkups disappears before scholars are able to record it, what the language has preserved for thousands of years will disappear forever. 

“God got paradise, the Devil got Narym Territory,” laughs an elderly mustached man as he tosses another heavy bag on board the speedboat or kaeski. The boat is moored directly to the shore, since there is no dock. It is loaded with food, parcels, and medicines, as well as children.

“He’s going to his grandma’s. You see that he doesn’t forget to get off at Shpalozavod.”

There are no strangers here at all. The first mate, who sells tickets printed back in Soviet times, regards us with suspicion.

“May I ask where you’re going? To Narym? Whatever for?”

“We’re writing an article about the Selkups.”

“Ah . . . More researchers going to see our Ostyaks.”

He closes the door to the deck. It is strictly forbidden to go on deck when the boat is under speed: the weather is poor, and the boat is badly buffeted. In short order, the small craft jumps right into the middle of the Ob River. On the right is the taiga, on the left is the taiga. For several hours and many kilometers there is nothing but the taiga.

Like Sverdlov and Stalin
There are now less than fifty indigenous minorities in Russia. The list of these peoples was approved at the beginning of the twenty-first century, and it has been constantly revised downward. The Selkups are relatively numerous. There are a few thousand of them in Tyumen Region, fifty in Krasnoyarsk Territory, and nearly two thousand in northern Tomsk Region, where Narym is located. The term Selkup emerged and gradually came into usage in the 1930s. Previously, the names Ostyak and Ostyak-Samoyed were used. They are still used in ordinary, non-scholarly language, and sometimes they seep into official documents. The Selkups tend to call themselves Ostyaks.

Narym. This building was the police station before the revolution. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

The Selkups have been divided the last three hundred years or so. There are the northern Selkups, who live along the Taz and Turukhan Rivers, and there are the southern Selkups, the Narym Selkups, who live in the middle basin of the Ob River. They have different folkways, now nearly erased by time and assimilation, and different dialects. If Selkups speak their native tongues, southerners would not understand northerners. Only they do not speak it. The Selkups started to disappear and assimilate as early as the nineteenth century, and the language retreated when the Selkups settled in Russian villages. Their secretive, forest way of life came to an end.

“An airplane flew to Narym once a week, and ships would arrive daily, not just one, like nowadays, but many. But now we’re like Stalin and Sverdlov, like Sverdlov and Stalin. Hey, young folks, do you know who Stalin is?” a female fellow passenger asks us.

Narym was a free land. In the sixteenth century, it was ruled by the Skewbald Horde, a group of four hundred Selkups, according to the written sources, or five million, as a beautiful brochure published by the local authorities claims. The horde was led by Prince Vonya, an ally of Kuchum Khan, ruler of the Khanate of Sibir. Battered by Cossack detachments and tsarist military governors, the khanate fell. The Skewbald Horde surrendered only after construction of Narym Fortress in the late sixteenth century.

A street in Narym. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

Narym was no longer a free land. Common criminals and enemies of the regime were exiled there, including the Decembrist Nikolai Mozgalevsky, the Latvian communist Jānis Pieče, the Bolsheviks Yakovlev, Shishkov, and Tomsky, and Stalin and Sverdlov, the latter along with his youngest brother. The political prisoners were not guarded very closely, and many of them managed to escape. Stalin, for example, spent only forty-one days of a five-year exile in Narym before grabbing a steamer to Tomsk and traveling from there to Switzerland, where he resumed his revolutionary career.

Little People
“You Russians distort everything. Ostyakh is not what Selkups called themselves, but what the Khanty called them. It means ‘here I am.’ Or take nyar’m, ‘marsh’ in Selkup. But no, you turn it into Narym.”

We are told this by Ludmila Shadrina, a Narym Selkup and former elementary school teacher.

Ludmila Shadrina. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

Ludmila walks quickly, almost at a run, over the boardwalks that do the work of sidewalks in Narym. It is late and quite cold. The museum, which contains three rooms on political exiles and one room on the Selkups, closed much earlier in the day, but Ludmila has agreed with the people who run it to open it for us.

“Not all Selkups like it when people come and interrogate them.”

“But you like it?”

“My cow has been waiting for over an hour to be milked, and yet I’m running around here. But I realize we have to tell people about ourselves.”

I ask Ludmila why this is necessary.

“Because we exist,” Ludmila says.

In front of the little house of the peasant Alexeyev, where Stalin was quartered, is a karamo, a Selkup dugout. The house is authentic, but the karamo is a reconstruction: the Selkups ceased living in them in the early twentieth century. However, Ludmila says her nephew builds the very same dugouts when he hunts sables. Selkups still also build lean-tos, sheds mounted on piles to keep rodents from pilfering victuals.

Dugout at Narym Museum. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

Exhibits at Narym Museum. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

Ludmila, whose Selkup father died young, grew up in a small Selkup village with her Russian mother. All traces of the traditional way of life had vanished. The village was dying.

“Dad took me fishing with him,” says Ludmila. “What can you say? He was an Ostyak and fished well. We were still eating dried fish several years after his death. He was ill and that’s why he took me along. He thought if he kicked the bucket, then at least I, a living soul, would go find people and tell them where his body was. When Dad felt weak, he would lie on the sand, half asleep, half breathing. I would lie next to him, gazing at the forest, at all the bugs. The trees would sway, but what was beyond the trees? Bears? People? I was frightened.”

Ludmila takes us to her sister Raisa’s house, telling us on the way that bears have become more frequent in Narym in the past year. Тhey snatch cows, stroll down the street, and rip dogs to shreds. If people guard one side of the village, they will infiltrate it from the other side. Ludmila feared them as a little girl and still fears them as an adult. Bears are inventive, cagey animals. The surrounding area is chockablock with them.

When she greets us at the door, Raisa suggests “freezing” us, that is, getting out cold fish, so-called chush, cut into large rings.

“Do you go far to fish?”

“We fish right here on the creek.”

The “creek” is Raisa’s name for the Ob, Russia’s longest river.

Narym. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

Neither Raisa nor Ludmila speaks Selkup. They know only certain words.

“It wasn’t the done thing. Yeah, the old people spoke Selkup. We understood them, but replied in Russian, especially after going to boarding school.”

All the children from the tiny Selkup villages were not sent to a regular school in nearby towns, but to special Selkup schools many kilometers away. They were part of the special welfare system for the indigenous minorities of the Russian North, a system crowned by the Institute of the Peoples of the North, which still functions in St. Petersburg. During the impoverished postwar period, the boarding schools provided their young charges with everything from food to clothing. Being sent to such a boarding school was considered good fortune and a privilege. But this same privilege almost completely destroyed the Selkup language and eroded ethnic self-identity. The children would come back home speaking Russian, but more seriously, they no longer wanted to living in the small, impoverished Selkup villages.

Narym. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

Narym. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

I ask Ludmila and Raisa whether they liked boarding school. They answered yes without hesitating. Nourishing food, good clothes, and friends, with many of whom they are still in touch.

A minute later, however, Raisa adds something.

“The boarding school influenced us. We got used to getting ourselves out of scrapes. We worked and we studied, and our parents helped us. But our own children are not independent. They are softer. They cannot do the things we did. I always told myself when I had a child I would not give it away to anyone. This is probably because of the boarding school.”

Boarding school students were teased, but Raisa remembers this without malice.

“Well yeah, we were teased, of course, and people said we drank a lot, that we were poor and narrow-minded. Only certain people would get stuck on this, and I would put my arms on my hips and say, ‘Yeah, I’m an Ostyak. What of it?!’ They didn’t know what to say.”

According to Ludmila, many of her fellow villagers are embarrassed of their ethnicity and identify themselves as Russians.

“Then the neighbors say to them, ‘You have passed yourselves off as Russians, but what you going to do with your Ostyak mug? We’re forest people, little people. Everything gives us away, including our faces and figures.”

The Last Native Speaker
Parabel, the district center, is a large, rich village, founded in the seventeenth century on the site of several old Russian settlements. Nowadays, major oil and natural gas pipelines run through it. Gazprom runs a compressor platform and oil pumping station in the village, and so its freshly paved streets are filled with foreign-made cars, and the rooms in certain hotels are never vacant, because there are many business travelers. There is a cinema, a cultural center, and a large museum, which has grown over the nearly thirty years since the Soviet Union’s collapse from a small in-school museum to a large-scale history and ethnography museum.

“When the Selkups organized themselves, culture got involved. What did you expect?” Irina Fokina, head of the local culture department explains. “They said it to me just like that: ‘Irina Petrovna, the time has come to deal with the small peoples.'”

“Did you know anything about the Selkups before this?”

“When I was at school, we didn’t know any Selkups. The Ostyaks, on the other hand, lived with us, and they were sometimes spoken of poorly,” Fokina falters, choosing her words carefully.

Irina Korobeinikova is the last native speaker of a rare Selkup dialect. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

“They called us ‘second class,'” laconically notes Irina Korobeinikova, the last native speaker of the Narym dialect of Selkup and the person who launched the southern Selkup renaissance.

The notion of a “native speaker” is a quite broad concept, a concept with numerous gradations, ranging from people who remember a few words of their native language from childhood to those who converse with household members in their native language as adults. There are no such people left among the Selkups. Irina speaks Selkup fluently and publishes fairy tales and legends in her native tongue, but as reverse translations. First, she recalls a story or reads a Russian transcription of it, as recorded by ethnographers, and only then does she translate it into Selkup. Her children do not know the language. Even her brother, who grew up with her and has heard his fill of Selkup, converses with his sister in Russian.

“But why doesn’t he want to speak his native language?”

“He says he doesn’t want to and that’s that. Who can say?”

Irina spoke only Selkup until the age of seven, mainly with her grandmother, who raised her six grandchildren. Grandmother hunted and fished. Irina’s mother was also a good hunter. She and her sister would bring in two thousand squirrels per season and turn them over to the Soviet state in return for fabric to make a dress or a cashmere scarf. Did the Russian women hunt? Irina says she cannot recall such a thing. It was a purely Selkup practice.

“Did you call yourself Selkups?”

“We called ourselves chomilkups, forest people. Mom and Dad were identified as Ostyaks in their internal Soviet passports, while I was identified as a Selkup. By the way, when I went to the first Congress of Indigenous Minorities, in Kolpashevo, I raised this question when the head of the passport office spoke. I was indignant. Am I not related to Mom and Dad? I was told the academic world had settled on it. This was how our people were now called.”

Irina’s grassroots activism kicked off during perestroika.

“The authorities really supported us then.”

Korobeinikova recalls with pleasure the Congress of Indigenous Minorities of the North, this time held in Moscow, and meeting Mikhail Gorbachev.

Parabel. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

The place in Parabel where the speedboats to Narym dock. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

“The Yakuts and I went up to him. He had only recently been elected. We congratulated him. He shook our hands, and what soft hands he had. He had only ever held pens and papers in them, not shovels, as we had.”

The Soviet Union’s collapse opened borders, and foreign linguists came to see the Selkups. Irina shows me the first Selkup-Russian dictionary, published in Hungary. She tells me about a trip to Hamburg, where she was invited to translate texts in Selkup, written down by German scholars way back in the late nineteenth century. When I see a photograph of a jolly Japanese woman, dressed in a reconstructed Selkup costume, I cannot stand it anymore.

Hungarians, Germans, and Japanese. Why do the Selkups matter so much to them?

Irina smiles subtly and says, “That is because we’re so interesting.”

Happy People
“One of them just left. She was writing down everything. Either researchers are showing up or Irina comes. They sit down with their laptops and off they go. How did you do this? How did you do that?”

Illarion Ivanovich Izhenbin, a Belomorkanal cigarette dangling from his mouth, pumps the tire on his granddaughter’s bike. He lives in a two-storey stone house. There is a nest in the entryway: five swallow chicks protrude from it. Illarion says it’s a good omen, but the chicks are too loud. Sometimes you can hear them in his flat.

Illarion Izhenbin. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

“Are you tired of talking with researchers?”

“Would that I could remember something. I have lived among Selkups my whole life. When I go fishing, and it’s quiet and there is no one else round, I look at things and translate them silently. What are the Selkup words for stars, moon, and water? I spoke only Selkup until 1957. Do you know Selkup’s distinguishing trait? It has no foul language.”

“How did people curse?”

Homo tat! is the most you can say. It means ‘I’m sick of you,’ ‘Go to hell,’ ‘Don’t hang around here.'”

Illarion was also raised by his grandmother. His father was burned to death in a tank near the Reichstag four days before the Second World War ended, while his mother constantly worked in the fishing fleet of small Selkup village. As a boy, he fashioned arrowheads from tin cans, hunted with a bow, set traps, and fished.

“Granny taught me so well that if you left me in the wild with a knife and matches, I could survive,” he says. “She also always told me to look backwards, between my ears, to make sure there were no animals or bad men behind me. The taiga is not evil, but you can’t say the same thing about men.”

Illarion still goes out hunting, but he brings almost nothing back.

“When I catch sight of a squirrel or chipmunk and take aim, I feel sorry for them. After all, I converse with them. If I kill them, with whom will I converse? We are always asked what constitutes our identity, and it is bound up with hunting and fishing. So now my identity has left me, because I almost never kill animals.”

Illarion’s internal passport lists him as Russian, while his military service card identifies him as Ostyak.

“They came up with these Selkups of yours only when Khrushchev ascended the throne,” he says.

“How were Ostyaks treated?”

“Ostyaks were respected everywhere. I have been through the mill, but I was and always will be an Ostyak. When I meet old acquaintances at the police station, they say, ‘Illarion, for the things you were sent down for, you wouldn’t get three days in jail in our day and age.’ I went to prison camp six times.”

“Did the people in prison know you were an Ostyak?”

“Until I was fifty that was my nickname: Ostyak. Afterwards, they started calling me Grandpa. It means my life is over.”

The docks in Parabel. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

Izhenbin recalls visits by researchers from the University of Vienna and the University of Budapest. There have been lots of Germans.

“I got such a kick from one professor. He and I went fishing. He got himself muddy from head to toe, pulled out some crap half a palm long from the river, and said, ‘Wonderful!’ Do you know what that means in English? The little fish is excellent. Then I took him out to pick pine nuts, and after that we made fish soup and drank vodka. He told me that for him to spend a day like that at home, he would have to work for a whole year, but we live this way all the time. We are happy people.”

Every Tree in the Forest, Every Fish in the River
“There’s a lot of terra incognita in researching Selkups in general and Selkup culture in particular, but you reporters always ask the same questions,” says Grigory Korotkikh, displeased. “For example, why did I, a Russian, take up the study of the Selkup language, and what is written on my t-shirt?”

The slogan on his t-shirt reads, “Every tree in the forest, every fish in the river would understand you if you spoke Selkup.”

Grigory, who is 17, grew up in Seversk, a closed city not far from Tomsk, but we meet in Moscow, where he is attending a linguistics camp.

“I had tried learning different languages of the indigenous minorities of the North. It’s just that I was able to making a living connection with the southern Selkups,” says Korotkikh.

Grigory stresses he is primarily interested in the academic, linguistic aspect, but he almost immediately interrupts himself to say nothing has been done for the Selkup people. There are no books in Selkup, and the language has not been studied in a centralized way.

“We publish academic articles, but only for each other, for other researchers. It means nothing to the Selkups themselves,” he says excitedly. “The Selkups may, in fact, be happy to study their own language, but they have no means to do so.”

Grigory is the Seversk representative of the grassroots organization Kolta-Kup, which promotes the interests of the indigenous peoples of the North. His colleagues predict a big future for him in grassroots activism. There is a lot of work to be done. Local officials say the right things to indigenous peoples, but in practice they are treated as colorful ethnographic attractions, entertainment for tourists, and a means of reporting to higher-ups that the officials have been solving the problems of the local populace. Activists have not even been able to get a full-time position of Selkup language teacher established in the schools. Ludmila Shadrina in Narym and Irina Korobeinikova in Parabel ran their Selkup language and culture clubs at their own behest.

Non-Russian Languages
Tomsk is a university town. When you drive down the city’s main boulevard, still called Lenin Avenue, you pass Tomsk Polytechnic University, Tomsk University of Control Systems and Radio Electronics, and Tomsk State University. Nadezhda Fedotova, a linguist at TSU, tells me how Tomsk and Moscow scholars managed to get the first academic mega grant in the field of linguistics, thus becoming part of an unprecedented program for financing university-level research in Russia.

The linguists’ overarching goal, which they stated in the application for the mega grant, is to describe the languages of Southern Siberia as fully as possible. Andrei Dulzon, a Soviet linguist, ethnologist, and archaeologist, began tackling the problem in the mid twentieth century. Exiled to Tomsk in 1941 as an ethnic German, Dulzon had lost everything from the ability to work in his profession to his unique card catalogue of dialects. In 1943, he was enlisted to work in the mines, but a year later the authorities relented and allowed the researcher to work at the Tomsk Pedagogical Institute. Dulzon had specialized in German dialects in Moscow, but in Tomsk he took up a new area of research, the indigenous peoples of Siberia, and carried out a revolution in the field. He encouraged archaeologists to excavate Siberian burial mounds, and he organized regular ethnographic and linguistic expeditions that collected so much raw data it is still being processed.

Nadezhda Fedotova, researcher at Tomsk State University’s Linguistic Anthropology Lab.  Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

“Our ethnologist colleagues in Tomsk had already won a mega grant, and the tradition of researching minority languages has been a good one,” says Fedotova, “so it was decided to set up a linguistic anthropology lab here under the direction of Anna Dybo. And there she is!”

A corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the linguist and Turkologist Anna Dybo rides her bike toward the university library, which houses the lab. It is eight in the evening, but no one is planning to go home, despite the fact the linguists had to attend continuing education lectures all day.

According to Dybo, the lab currently employs seventy people: its funding is incomparable to any research group in the west. The most expensive line item in its budget are the expeditions to meet with native speakers of minority languages, but a lot of money is also spent on processing the data they collect and publishing it in the shape of huge dictionaries and text corpora. A text corpus is a gigantic structured set of texts, selected and processed according to certain rules, which is used to study a language, test statistical hypotheses, and validate linguistic rules. For all this to work, programmers and linguists must engage in a nonstop collaboration. At first, they worked for the sheer joy of it, but nowadays Russian technical designs are a product willingly purchased in the west. In addition to processing material that has already been collected, computer technology is used in field work, for example, a system that catches the way a person perceives a spoken word by tracking certain eye movements.

“Did you know the Selkups have a word meaning all colors at once?” asks Yulia Normanskaya, doctor of philology and head of the university’s Uralic languages department. “Green, blue, yellow, gray . . . Simply put, in their language, grass, the sky, and dandelions are the same color. When you ask them to translate it into Russian, they imagine it as one color.”

Yulia Normanskaya, senior researcher at Tomsk State University’s Linguistic Anthropology Lab. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

Normanskaya got interested in minority languages in her youth after she learned her ancestors had translated the Gospels into the Chuvash language. Consequently, nearly all of them were shot during the Revolution.

“In the late nineteenth century, the Russian Orthodox Church set up a Translation Commission to publish books in non-Russian languages,” she explains. “The primary aim was to spread the Word of God among minorities, but they published not only liturgical literature but also dictionaries and children’s tales.”

There were also medical brochures, e.g. “On Cholera,” “On Trachoma,” and there were moral tracts. Many of these publications have been lost irretrievably, although some have been preserved at the Russian National Library in St. Petersburg. Another set was unexpectedly discovered in Finland. Normanskaya was looking through the card catalogue at the Helsinki Library [sic] and found information there about the publications of the Translation Commission. The booklets were simply lying in boxes, unsorted. No one had been making use of them or done any research on them. The find included three large books in Selkup, among them a complete translation of the Old and New Testaments, although the received opinion was that alphabets had been devised for the vast majority of indigenous peoples, including the Selkups, in the 1930s under Stalin. In Soviet times, the books of the Translation Commission were discussed pejoratively and accused of being primitive. However, by working with modern native speakers of minority languages, researchers have shown that, in fact, the books were a quite accurate record of the living languages.

“When you compare a map of native speakers of minority languages in the early twentieth century with the current map, the impression is, of course, completely catastrophic,” says Normanskaya. “Even when Dulzon was active, there were dozens of villages where people spoke only Selkup. Currently, there are six people who can tell tales, sing songs, and generally speak the central and southern dialects.”

Statuettes in the park at Tomsk State University. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitysn/Takie Dela

The Selkup dialects are unique. For example, they have retained semantic stress (that is, stress that changes the meanings of words). It was inherited from Proto-Samoyedic, the language spoken in Siberia before our era.

“On the one hand, we see an impoverished daily life in which people barely speak their native tongue, and many are ashamed to admit they are Selkups. On the other hand, we find a unique language that has retained ancient features over the millennia, a language that converts into Enets, Nganasan, and other geographically remote languages with mathematical accuracy,” says Normanskaya.

If the language of the southern Selkups disappears, and researchers do not record it in time, what has been passed down through the centuries and preserved in the language for thousands of years will remain unknown forever.

“But if we described these dialects,” adds Normanskaya, “it would be one more proof that languages change in an amazingly systematic way. By converting words from one language into another according to mathematically exact rules, we can restore the pronunciation of the Siberian languages that existed before our era.”

I ask Normanskaya whether we should preserve a language if people do not want to speak it. Norman smiles and, instead of answering my question, recounts how the Soviet linguist Valentin Rassadin invented the Tofa alphabet in 1988. At the time, the Tofas themselved did not converse in their native tongue at all. In the 1990s, actvists in the Tofalar ethnic movement got the Tofa language, as written in Rassadin’s alphabet, on the curriculum of schools and kindergartens, and currently there are whole villages that speak Tofa. The Tofalars consider the linguist Rassadin a national hero.

Translated by the Russian Reader