Darya Apahonchich: No Exit?

you must die“You must die.” ∴ “Wicked Russia.” Downtown Petersburg, May 6, 2018

Darya Apahonchich
Facebook
June 15, 2018

My father died two years ago; my mom, a year and a half ago. Both of them were fifty-nine. They worked their whole lives, my mom a little longer. She taught physical therapy and physical education. Dad was a military man and volcanologist. He went into business after perestroika.

I don’t want to generalize, but they had very different, very complicated lives. They did not communicate with each other for the last twenty years. But they had one thing in common: they did not think in terms of the future. They did not look forward to anything. They did not dream of traveling. They did not plan to move house or look for better housing. They did not want new friends. They did not pursue hobbies. They never got the hang of computers. (Although Dad used them, he did not like them at all.)

One another annoying but important thing was that they drank a lot. When they were on binges, they would turn into people who could not care less whether there was a future or not. In the aftermath of their binges, they would experience an agonizing sense of guilt.

I find it horribly painful to write this, but it is not only my family’s story. It is the story of many families in Russia.

When we cannot choose our own reality, we do not think in terms of the future. Along with poverty and helplessness, we learn the important lesson that we cannot change anything, and all that awaits us is death.

I have always asked myself whether anything would have been different if my parents had more money and opportunities. When it comes to alcoholism, I don’t know. Maybe nothing would have changed. As far as despair was concerned, maybe they would have made a difference.

The new retirement age in Russia will be sixty-three for women, and sixty-five for men. The government has been instituting this reform hastily, while people are watching the World Cup.

Photo and translation by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Ms. Apahonchich for her kind permission to translate and publish her piece on this website.

Last Address: Nikolai Yushkevich

last address-nikolai yushkevichHere lived Nikolai Ignatyevich Yushkevich, clerk. Born 1900. Arrested 23 October 1937. Shot 10 November 1937. Exonerated 1957.

Last Address Foundation
45 Tavricheskaya Street, St. Petersburg
April 8, 2018

The Shulgin Tenement House, named after its proprietor, is situated at the corner of Tavricheskaya Street and Tavrichesky Alley. The house was built in 1914, designed by architects Vladimir Upatchev and Mikhail von Wilken in the neoclassicist Art Nouveau style, then popular in Petersburg.

We know that, during the Great Terror, twelve residents of the house were shot on trumped-up charges. Among them was Nikolai Ignatyevich Yushkevich, who lived in the house with his wife and two sons.

Yushkevich was born in 1900 in Vilna Province. He had a primary education. He joined the Party in 1924.

As his wife Maria recalled, “My husband finished four grades of school in 1914 and, since he cane from a family of poor peasants, he had to quit school and work on the farm. In 1917, he left for the city to earn money.”

24_20180406171639YushkFrom May 1917 till his arrest, Yushevich worked at the Main Waterworks Station (Vodokanal) in Petrograd-Leningrad, where he served as an unskilled laborer, a woodcutter, and then a coalman, machinist, and electrician. His last post was head of the supply department. Acccording to a record in the Vodokanal Archives, Yushkevich was “dismissed due to his arrest.”

The arrest took place on October 23, 1937. On November 3, the Vodokanal employee was sentenced to death.

According to the indictment, Yushkevich “was a member of a counterrevolutionary espionage and sabotage organization, into which he had been recruited by Polish intelligence agent V.S. Tomashevich, who had tasked him with collecting intelligence and planning acts of sabotage.”

The NKVD investigators likewise noted that “the espionage information had to do with the structure and location of the city’s water main, and supplies and storage sites of poisonous substances.”

That was not enough for the NKVD officers, however, so they dreamed up the notion that Yushkevich had, supposedly, “accepted the assignment of carrying out acts of sabotage by poisoning the water supplied to the populace during wartime.”

The death sentence was carried out on November 10, 1937. Yushkevich was thirty-seven. He was survived by his wife, Maria, and two sons, six-year-old Boris and two-year-old Vladimir.

In 1942, the Yushkevich family was administratively exiled from Leningrad.

“The authorities insisted on evacuating us, but I refused,” Maria later recalled. “Mother was seriously ill and could not be moved. But the NKVD investigator forced me, since my husband had been arrested. On March 31, 1942, the children and I were forced to leave Leningrad. Mom died two days later. Our group of Leningraders arrived in the Vyselki District of Krasnodar Territory. The family was sent to the Dzerzhinsky Collective Farm. […] In 1945, I returned to my hometown on a summons issued by the Leningrad City Council of Workers’ Deputies, but I was refused a residence permit, since my husband was under arrest. […] I did not want the children to face incidents of mistrust in their lives and work due to their father’s arrest. Since I did not believe my husband was guilty, I kept everything from the children. However, there were incidents. My eldest son was expelled from vocational college […] and refused admission to university.”

The room where the family had lived before their exile from Leningrad in 1942 had been occupied by a secret police officer.

Maria Yushkevich regularly wrote letters and complaints to various authorities in her attempt to find out what had happened to her arrested husband.

“In 1938, [I wrote] to Vyshinsky, in 1939, to Beria, in 1940, to the Central Administration of Prison Camps (Gulag) in Moscow, and later, to Khrushchev.”

The family archives contains a document from the Leningrad City Prosecutor’s Office about a review of the case in 1940. The family received the notification only in 1957, when the decision to fully exonerate Yushkevich had been made.

The decision in the 1940 review contains the following passage: “The verdict against N.I. Yushkevich should be considered correct. […] His activities as a spy and saboteur were wholly corroborated by his personal confession.”

The Shulgin Tenement House at 45 Tavricheskaya Street in St. Petersburg. Photo by Natalya Shkuryonok

Before Yushkevich was exonerated in 1957, the authorities replied to his family’s inquiries in various ways. Maria later recalled one such reply.

“‘The case is not subject to review, since N.I. Yushkevich is an enemy of the people, convicted by a special collegium under Article 58 and sentenced to ten years [in a prison camp] without the right to correspondence.’ [They wrote] that my husband would never come back and insisted I remarry. In 1940, I received a reply claiming my husband was alive and well, and that he was in the northern camps without the right to correspondence. […] In 1955, after I sent an inquiry about my husband’s plight to the head of the Gulag at the Interior Ministry, I was informed my husband had gone missing in action during the war.”

As the Military Tribunal of the Belorussian Military District determined when reviewing the case in 1956–1957, “The charge was not based on objectively corroborated testimony. The baselessness of the charge against Yushkevich was established during an supplementary review of the case. Yushkevich was not involved in the case of Tomashevich, who had allegedly recruited the former. There is no compromising information about Yushkevich in the relevant archival agencies. Former NKVD officers Altwarg and Perelmutter, involved in investigating the case, were convicted of falsifying cases under investigation.”

Thanks to Dmitri Evmenov and Jenya Kulakova for the heads-up. Photo and translation by the Russian Reader

Alexei Gastev: How to Work

i_001

“How to Work. The ABCs of Work. Central Institute of Labor.”

Since circumstances were such I had to work all day yesterday instead of whooping it up in the streets with my fellow workers, I thought I would share with you the secret of my success as a dematerialized, anonymous laborer of the invisible front. // TRR

_____________________________

Alexei Gastev
How to Work

Whether we are working at a desk in an office, filing something with a file in a metalwork shop or, finally, ploughing a piece of land, we must impart discipline to our labour and gradually make it a habit.

These are the first basic rules for all work.
  1. Before taking on a job, you must think it all the way through. You must think it over in such a way that a model of the finished job and the whole order of work methods has taken final shape in your head. If you cannot think everything through, think over the major stages, and think through the first stages of the work thoroughly.
  2. Do not undertake a job until all the tools and equipment you need for the job have been readied.
  3. There should be nothing superfluous at your work station (machine, workbench, table, floor, piece of land) that would cause you to bang into it, fuss about, and stop to look for the right thing among things you do not need.
  4. All tools and equipment must be laid out in a definite order established once and for all so everything can be found without thinking.
  5. You should never undertake a job abruptly and immediately. Do not take off working, but ease into the job little by little. The head and body will then diverge and start functioning. If you jump into the work, you will soon be your own undoing and botch the job. After an abrupt initial burst of energy, the worker soon fades, experiencing fatigue and spoiling the job.
  6. You must sometimes put your shoulder to the wheel, either to cope with something out of the ordinary or take on something in common, as a team. In such cases, you should not immediately go all out, but first get yourself settled. You must tune the whole mind and body, recharge yourself. Next, you must test yourself a bit, feel out the strength required, and only then put your shoulder to the wheel.
  7. You should work as smoothly as possible, avoiding ebbs and flows. Working impulsively and fitfully spoils both the individual and the job.
  8. Your body’s posture while working must be such that you feel comfortable working while at the same time strength is not expended on the utterly unnecessary tasking of keeping the body on its feet. If possible, you should work sitting down. If you cannot sit, keep your legs apart. To keep a leg you have put forward or shifted to the side in place, you must arrange to secure it.
  9. You must rest while working. During hard work, you need to relax more often and, if possible, sit down. Rest breaks are less frequent during easy work, but evenly spaced.
  10. While working you should not drink tea or eat. Drink in extreme cases only to quench your thirst. Nor should you smoke. It is better to smoke during work breaks rather than when you are working.
  11. If the work hits an impasse, do not get worked up, but take a break, get a grip on yourself, and slowly ease yourself back into the work. You should even deliberately slow down to sustain yourself.
  12. During the job itself, especially when things have reached an impasse, you should interrupt the work, put your work station in order, sweep away the rubbish, and take up the work again little by little albeit smoothly.
  13. When working, you should not break away from the work for other matters, except for those neccessary to the job itself.
  14. There is a very bad habit of showing work right after it has been successfully performed. In this case, you should definitely bite the bullet, as they say, get used to your success, and dampen your satisfaction by internalizing it. Otherwise, if you fail in the future, your will shall be poisoned and the work will disgust you.
  15. In the case of complete failure, you must regard the matter lightheartedly and not be upset, start again, as if for the first time, and behave as indicated in Rule No. 11.
  16. After finishing the job, you must clean everything up, including the work, your tools, and your work station. Put everything in a certain place so that when you start work again you can find everything and the work itself does not become unpleasant.

Source: Alexei Gastev, How to Work (1920). Translated by the Russian Reader. Illustration courtesy of ruslit.traumlibrary.net

Vladimir Mayakovsky, “Zigzags in the Evening”

astral plane.jpg

Vladimir Mayakovsky
Zigzags in the Evening

The windows shattered the city’s colossal hell
Into minuscule light-sucking hellets
The cars cavorted like rust-colored devils
Horns exploding in the ear like rockets

And under the sign for herring from Kerch
An oldster, run over, groped for his glasses
And wept when amid the evening’s lurch
A tram threw up its pupils at a dash

While in the holes of skyscrapers where ore blazed
And tunnels were piled by the iron of trains
The aeroplane yelled crashing into the place
Where the injured sun’s eye drained

And finally balling up the blankets of gaslights
Loved out the night was drunken and a mess
While somewhere beyond the suns of streets
Hobbled the moon flabby and utterly useless

Photo and translation by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrades Stas and Lena for the heads-up. Originally published in the Futurist anthology Milk of Mares (Moscow: Gileya, 1914), the poem was later republished in a slightly different rendering, featuring punctuation marks, as “The City’s Colossal Hell.”

 

Karelian Historian Yuri Dmitriev Acquitted of Trumped-Up Charges

333Yuri Dmitriev. Photo by Gleb Yarovoi. Courtesy of 7X7

Court Acquits Karelian Historian Yuri Dmitriev of Pornography Charges
Anna Yarovaya
7X7
March 5, 2018

In Petrozavodsk, Judge Marina Nosova acquitted Yuri Dmitriev, head of Memorial Karelia and a historian of the Great Terror, of charges he had produced pornography involving images of minors.

The judge acquitted Mr. Dmitriev on the charges of manufacturing pornographic matter depicting minors and committing nonviolent acts of sexual abuse. On the charge of illegal possession of a firearm, the judge sentenced Mr. Dmitriev to two years and six months of police supervision. Deducting the time Mr. Dmitriev already spent in the Petrozavodsk Remand Prison, he will be under police supervision for three months. During this time, he will have to report to a parole officer periodically.

Defense attorney Viktor Anufriev commented on the court’s decision.

“Yesterday, the media quoted the president’s statement that judges who failed to uphold the law should look for other jobs. Today’s verdict is confirmation the president’s statement was heeded. Yuri Alexeyevich has been acquitted on nearly all counts. The court awarded him the right to vindication and compensation for pain and suffering. He was convicted of possessing part of a smoothbore gun and sentenced to two years and six months of police supervision, meaning he must report to the parole inspector twice a month. He spent one year, one month, and fifteen days in police custody. One day in custody is equal to two days of community service, meaning he has already served two years and three months of his sentence,” said Mr. Anufriev.

Yan Rachinsky, chair of the International Memorial Society, came to Petrozavodsk for the reading of the verdict.

“It’s a completely outrageous case. When a man like this, the champion of a cause, is accused of god knows what, the accusation cannot be real. My natural reaction is to do what I can to voice my solidarity. Solidarity takes various shapes. But today is the day of the verdict. I have been more worried about the plight of a specific person than how it has affected Memorial. This is much more important. But yes, of course, various contemptible means of mass disinformation have glommed onto the story. What can you do? You cannot force anyone to be honest,” said Mr. Rachinsky.

Like the entire trial, the verdict was announced in closed chambers. [Verdicts must be read out in open court according to Russian law—TRR.] Before the hearing, court bailiffs blocked the hallway, and reporters, friends, and Mr. Dmitriev’s supporters were unable to approach the courtroom doors the entire time.

Mr. Dmitriev was detained on December 13, 2016. According to police investigators, he had photographed his foster daughter while she was naked. The historian’s defense counsel claimed the photos were part of a diary, charting the girl’s health, that Mr. Dmitriev kept for children’s protection services because his foster daughter was abnormally thin. Court-appointed experts corroborated these claims.

Mr. Dmitriev’s trial in Petrozavodsk City Court commenced on June 1, 2017. The case was heard in closed chambers. Mr. Dmitriev was charged under three articles of the Russian Federal Criminal Code: Article 242.2 (production of pornographic matter depicting minors), Article 135 (nonviolent sexual abuse), and Article 222 (illegal possession of a firearm).

During the investigation, the photographs in question were subjected to two forensic examinations. The first examination deemed the photographs pornographic. The second examination, on the contrary, found no traces of pornography in them.

On January 22, 2018, the Serbsky Institute performed a psychiatric examination of Mr. Dmitriev, for which purpose the historian was transported under armed guard to Moscow. On February 27, 2018, the court announced Mr. Dmitriev had been deemed mentally healthy.

On January 27, 2018, Mr. Dmitriev was released from remand prison on his own recognizance. In the first interview he granted after his release, he spoke of life in prison and his plans to finish a book.

On March 20, 2018, Petrozavodsk City Prosecutor Yelena Askerova asked the court to sentence Mr. Dmitriev to nine years in a maximum security penal colony. On March 22, 2018, Mr. Anufriev said the Dmitriev case was a mockery of the historian’s foster daughter. A series of solo pickets in support of Mr. Dmitriev took place in Petrozavodsk on March 25 and March 26, 2018.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Read my previous coverage of the Dmitriev case.

 

Vladislav Inozemtsev: Russia Has Stopped Making Sense

DSCN5158The west would do as well to try and engage these inebriated young Russians in meaningful dialogue as their erratic, spiteful government.

Vladislav Inozemtsev
Sanctions Forever
Snob
March 30, 2018

The recent simultaneous expulsion of 139 Russian diplomats from 24 countries is an extraordinary event, especially if you consider it was undertaken not in response to provocations against these countries themselves, but as a token of solidarity with Great Britain, which has accused Russia of attempting to murder the former intelligence agent Sergei Skripal on English soil with a chemical weapon.

The current fad is to describe what is happening as a new cold war. I noted long ago that Russia’s changed attitude to the world fit this definition well. However, events might have gone even farther or, to be more precise, in a different direction.

The west was extremely concerned about what happened in Ukraine in 2014–2015. Along with Putin’s speeches in Munich and Bucharest in 2007 and 2008, the five-day war in Georgia, Moscow’s attempts to strengthen its authority in the former Soviet Union and cultivate friendships with certain Central European leaders, Russia’s aggressive actions jibed well with previous views. The responses proposed seemed clear as well: containment, aid to allies, competition and rivalry on the global periphery. Putin was routinely described as someone who understood only zero-sum games. One side’s loss was always a win for the other side.

However, since the mid 2010s, the circumstances have changed dramatically, although it was hard to notice it immediately. Russia’s meddling in the US presidential election (no matter whether it impacted the outcome or not), its flirtation with European ultra-righwingers, its open support of war criminals like Assad, and the state terror unleashed against opponents of the regime and people whom Putin and his retinue have deemed “traitors” are all indications not only of the fact that the Kremlin has ceased to play by any rules whatsoever. More important, Moscow has seemingly ceased to take its own good into account when it makes certain moves.

What did the Kremlin gain by sullying the 2016 US presidential election? If we speak of Russia per se, nothing was gained whatsoever. Whoever had won the election without our meddling, the relations between our countries would certainly not be worse than they are now. The only consequences have been a supercharging of American politics and aggravation of internecine battles within the Washington establishment. What has Moscow gained by financing and supporting anti-European forces? Apparently, a similar destabilization. It is telltale that if this destabilization does become a reality, Russia will gain nothing from it. The EU will not crumble, but it will become less functional, and pro-European forces will only find it is easier to prove their argument that the countries of Europe must rally less for some particular purpose and more against a particular enemy. Even if pro-Putin forces achieve local victories here and there, it will not alter the overall picture. The greater part of Europe will become increasingly anti-Russian. What has Putin gained by murdering, apparently, over a dozen of his personal enemies in the UK, people who had long ago been stripped of any opportunity to harm Russia? He has turned our country into an international outcast, which no one wants.

The west’s reaction, as exemplified by the expulsion of Russian diplomats, points to a new reality, consisting primarily in the fact that Russia has finally stopped making sense to the world, nor should it surprise anyone. It really is unclear what Putin wants right now. Does he want to become dictator of his own country, wiping out even the semblance of democracy? The west would not prevent him from doing this in any way. Does he want to resurrect the Soviet Union? Go crazy, only it is far from a fact the khans and beys of Central Asia want the same thing, given that Moscow has so far not been terribly successful at achieving genuine integration with these countries. (Ukraine is a special case, but even here it would make more sense to negotiate with the Ukrainian people, not with Brussels and Washington.) Does he want to launder the money stolen in Russia in Europe and various offshore companies? I have not heard anything in the news about Russian funds and property being seized by foreign authorities. Since Russia has stopped making sense, the west has sent signals and hints Putin should settle down. They do not necessarily want him to become less anti-western, only more rational. They want him come down to earth and engage in lawlessness, if possible, only at home.

The Kremlin has feigned it cannot make sense of these signals. It prefers to act in keeping with the tactic of symmetrical response. However, what was normal during the real Cold War strikes observers as abnormal nowadays. In the 1970s, members of the Central Committee did not own villas in the south of France and did not stash their money in banks registered in Luxembourg and Delaware. Soviet enterprises were not owned by companies up to their necks in debt in the west. By hook or by crook, Soviet home industry supplied the populace with nearly all the bare necessities, and what it could not supply was obtained from the Soviet Union’s Eastern European satellities. Everything has changed since then. Russia is much more vulnerable to European economic sanctions than US nuclear missiles.

Symmetrical responses were productive when the parties were motivated by clearly defined interests. When one side is motivated by garden-variety resentment, such responses are counterproductive. Moscow assumes its bluff has been called, although the west’s signal contains a different message: there is nothing to discuss with the Kremlin. Moreover, the process no longer seems like fun to anyone. Given the circumstances, what is the point of having embassies in hostile countries that outnumber the diplomatic missions of their most trusted friends?

As for the parallels that suggest themselves when we contemplate the Kremlin’s latest steps, they do not resemble the actions of Khrushchev and Brezhnev. They are more reminiscent of the Stalin era’s experiments. The Soviet secret services eliminated the revolution’s enemies abroad, while the Kremlin categorically demanded the German communists not form a coalition with the Social Democrats in the face of the Nazi threat.  The Kremlin imagined maximum destablization of the democratic countries would cause them to collapse and help establish the universal reign of the proletariat. History, however, proved this policy was erroneous. No one suffered more from the collapse of the Weimar Republic than the Soviet Union. If European integration fails, Russia is not likely to benefit, either. Were we not thrilled about the Brexit vote not so long ago? Did we not believe a more independent Great Britain would deal a blow to the Eurocrats? The only problem is that for now it is rather more obvious the UK’s increased independence has strengthened its resolve to deal with Moscow, while Europe (and not only Europe) has been inclined to support the supposed renegade.

Summing up, I can only repeat my longstanding assumption that the sanctions against Russia are virtually permanent. Instead of contemplating events in a rational manner, weighing the pros and cons, and taking decisions aimed at reducing tension, Russia has continued to engage in provocations, lies, and dodges. (In Soviet times, the Party’s leaders had the good sense to maintain dialogue with the west on economic and other issues even at the height of the arms race.) The west finds it difficult to respond with force, nor does anyone want to respond with force, so the tokens of growing contempt will keep manifesting themselves over and over again. Russia should be ready for this. Or it should begin to change, although, apparently, it is pointless to expect this.

Thanks to Alexander Morozov for the heads-up. Translation and photo by the Russian Reader

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