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The Predicament of Chukotka's Indigenous Movement: Post-Soviet Activism in the Russian Far North

The Predicament of Chukotka's Indigenous Movement: Post-Soviet Activism in the Russian Far North

by Patty A. Gray

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This is the first ethnography of the Russian North to focus on post-Soviet relations of domination between an indigenous minority and a non-indigenous majority in an urban setting. Patty Gray charts the political transformation in Chukotka as its administration sought to represent itself as "democratic" while becoming ever more repressive, especially toward the


This is the first ethnography of the Russian North to focus on post-Soviet relations of domination between an indigenous minority and a non-indigenous majority in an urban setting. Patty Gray charts the political transformation in Chukotka as its administration sought to represent itself as "democratic" while becoming ever more repressive, especially toward the indigenous population. The "predicament" refers to how the nascent indigenous movement was prepared to address Soviet-style domination, and instead was confronted with this "new Russian" style.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"This outstanding study will have lasting appeal to a very broad readership."
Peter Jordan, Slavic Review

"Patty Gray's ethnography of political activism among 1990s Chukotkan indigenous peoples is an excellent discussion of these real lives, neatly articulating the connections among anthropology, sociology, and political science while remaining very much an anthropological ethnography (a very good thing)." - Alexander D. King, University of Aberdeen

"Scholars and students of the Russian North should read this eye-opening account of Chukotka's geopolitics, history, economics and culture because the Russian North could play a vital cultural and economic for the Far East and Alaska. Finally, the case study is worth comparing with the plight of Native Americans in the United States of America." - Jane E. Knox- Voina Bowdoin College

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Cambridge University Press
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The Predicament of Chukotka's Indigenous Movement
Cambridge University Press
0521823463 - The Predicament of Chukotka's Indigenous Movement - Post-Soviet Activism in the Russian Far North - by Patty A. Gray


Little Kevyngevyt lay snuggled on a walrus skin next to her mother, who was sewing a pair of sealskin boots for one of her brothers by the light of a whale-oil lamp. The reindeer-skin tent was calm and quiet except for the sound of the sinewy thread being pulled through the tough skin. Suddenly she heard her father's voice call sharply from outside, "Aoow!" Her mother immediately got up and went out of the inner room to peer outside of the tent; then she came back in, filled a ladle with water, and stepped outside again. Kevyngevyt toddled after her and saw her father coming toward them with a freshly killed seal on a sled. She watched as her mother walked over to the seal, bent down, and poured the water into the seal's lifeless mouth.

Kevyngevyt's father looked over and saw the little girl's wide eyes. "Our guest is thirsty after his long ordeal," he said with a smile. "We must honor this fine guest, so he will tell all his kinfolk that we are decent people, and treat visitors properly!" Kevyngevyt looked at the seal; it did not move, and its eyes did not blink. Her mother and father stood looking down at it, and they seemed very pleased.

Later, when the seal had been skinned and its meat divided into many parts, Kevyngevyt's father called his neighbors over and began to give them portions of the meat. Kevyngevyt squatted next to her father as he handed out portion after portion, until less than half of the seal meat was left. This did not seem right; didn't her father kill this seal himself? Why should he not get to keep most of it? Kevyngevyt's father saw her furrowed brow and said, "Little bird, it's always better to keep a little bit less than you give away. If you don't share, the seals will stop coming. They don't like to socialize with stingy people."



THE SOVIET PERIOD has been widely reported as a time when indigenous peoples in the Russian North were so badly mistreated through the process of "building socialism" that their cultures were nearly destroyed. While the Soviet regime has certainly earned its criticism, it does not follow that the elimination of that regime automatically improved the lives of Russia's indigenous peoples. In the 1990s, Russia was presumably making a "transition" to a democratic, market-oriented society that was supposed to create a new "civil society" that would bring a better life for all. This was of course an oversimplification (seen in the clarity of twenty-twenty hindsight), and many of the changes that took place actually created greater restrictions and hardships for many people, especially indigenous peoples. Rather than simply taking those hardships as given (with a sigh and a sad shake of the head), this book documents them and analyzes the underlying social and political conditions that created them.

The research initially undertaken for this book in 1995-61 began with the hypothesis that Chukotka's indigenous peoples were beginning to redress past wrongs through the new phenomenon of indigenous activism in Russia, a phenomenon assisted through the contact of indigenous peoples in Russia with established indigenous advocacy organizations outside of Russia. This has certainly become a fair depiction of the situation taking shape after the turn of the twenty-first century. However, in the 1990s, largely as a result of transformations in political organization in Russia that partially shifted control from the center to the regions and changed the face of the local administration, indigenous activists in Chukotka found themselves in a predicament. They were not fulfilling their original optimistic goal of improving the status of indigenous peoples in relation to the (post-) Soviet state, as well as having their unique rights and interests recognized. This book ethnographically explores why and how this happened, while making reference to wider political processes in Russia and the work of indigenous activists in national and international contexts.

This is not just a book about indigenous activism; it is also an ethnography of a place, Chukotka - a place that has rarely been explored in American scholarly work, and has been presented only through a very partial lens in Russian and Soviet scholarly work. It is an attempt to situate a specific phenomenon - indigenous activism - within a very "thick" description of a specific place and time - Chukotka during the 1990s. The book's focus is further narrowed to emphasize urban Chukotka, specifically its capital city of Anadyr', and when the book does draw upon rural examples, these all come from Chukotka's western tundra region (while nearly all previous work on Chukotka in English has focused on its eastern coastal area, that is, the Chukotka Peninsula). This book is concerned more with characterizing the phenomenon of indigenous activism in this limited place and time than on analyzing in-depth indigenous activism as activism per se. As a matter of course, this work also maps out some of the changes in the regions of post-Soviet Russia outside of Moscow - "beyond the monolith," as one book phrases it (Stavrakis et al. 1997) - and affords a look at the effects of rapid social, political, and economic change.

Gwich'in Niintsyaa and the Raising of Consciousness

When I came upon the scene in Anadyr' in the fall of 1995, it was during a lull in the post-Soviet momentum of reform. At first glance, it seemed to me that there was almost no political awareness among the indigenous population in Chukotka. My first hint that there indeed was political awareness came when I learned of an apparently watershed event that took place a month after my arrival. One of my incomer consultees, Anastasia Zinkevich, had long been an environmentalist, and she had recently visited Alaska and returned with a copy of a video she had received from some acquaintances she made in an environmental group there. The video, titled Gwich'in Niintsyaa, was made by members of the Gwich'in people of Arctic Village, in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge of Alaska. The focus of the video was a 1988 gathering of Gwich'in peoples called by their chiefs, the first such gathering in one hundred years. The motivation for the gathering was the news of impending oil development on Gwich'in land, which threatened the fragile calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd. The Gwich'in relied heavily on this herd for subsistence and, moreover, the caribou carried significant symbolic meaning for the Gwich'in people. The gathering sparked the Gwich'in people's struggle to defend their land and their rights on it against the state and the large oil companies wishing to develop it.2

Anastasia, who was a supporter of indigenous self-determination (uncommon among Chukotkan incomers), thought the video would have relevance for a Chukotkan audience - especially since the governor of Chukotka, Aleksandr Nazarov, was at the time negotiating the sale of oil drilling rights in the region. She suggested to Sofia Rybachenko, a Chukchi who produced Chukchi-language programming for local television, that the video could be broadcast during her program with a Russian-dubbed translation that Anastasia herself would record. Anastasia had some difficulty convincing Sofia, since her first response, after viewing the video, was that local indigenous viewers would be too depressed when they saw how hard life was for indigenous peoples in rural Alaska. Indigenous Chukotkans had been traveling to urban Alaska since 1989 and had brought back stories of the wonderful, comparatively affluent life of Native Alaskans. These stories were in great contrast to the official Soviet version of how life was for indigenous peoples under U.S. rule, perpetuated in part by the popular stories of the Chukchi writer Iurii Rytkheu, and had given indigenous Chukotkans great hope that reform in Russia would bring them a similar kind of life.3 Sofia was reluctant to burst their bubble, so to speak, with this video, but Anastasia persisted and persuaded Sofia, and her program presented the video.

Immediately after the video aired, the television station was flooded with telephone calls about the video. Indigenous Chukotkans had been deeply moved by it. "These people are just like us! This film is about us!" was Anastasia's paraphrase of the viewers' comments. She said that what most impressed viewers was the way the Gwich'in seemed to be unintimidated by anyone or anything, much unlike indigenous Chukotkans. People demanded that the television station show the video again. Anastasia said that no other television program in recent memory had triggered such a response, especially not from indigenous viewers. A few days later I mentioned the video to Marina Peliave, a graduate student at the research institute where I was based. I told her I had heard that a lot of people had called in after seeing it. "Including me," she said, with a curt nod of her head. I asked Marina what had impressed her about the video. She replied that these people, the Gwich'in, realized that they could fight for their rights, and that they did not have to just sit back and tolerate being treated as if they did not matter. This video about indigenous activism in Alaska seemed to have struck a chord of resonance with indigenous Chukotkans like nothing else had before.

This became a general pattern that I observed regarding indigenous activism in Chukotka: a general inertia punctuated by watershed events that consolidated the awareness of more and more indigenous Chukotkans, events that told them they really were being poorly treated and that they might be able to do something about it. The video made indigenous Chukotkans realize not only that their own situation was similar to that of indigenous peoples in another country, but that those people felt justified to fight back publicly, without being deterred by their small numbers in the face of the government and the oil barons. It served to draw a line in the sand that goaded indigenous Chukotkans into a confrontation, if not directly with authorities or opposing groups, then at least with their own consciousness of their marginal position in Chukotkan society. For a generation raised in a Soviet society that constantly told them how much that state had done to advance the standing of every nationality large or small, that told them they were perhaps the most special of all because they had traveled so much farther than anyone else just to "catch up" in their social development and should therefore be the most grateful of all peoples, this awakened consciousness was perhaps revolutionary enough.

Three Events

The indigenous community of Anadyr' was small and close-knit. I attended or heard about countless small, informal indigenous social gatherings, and there were also frequent large-scale gatherings organized on a more or less informal basis by indigenous organizations. This community was not a seamless entity, however. Aside from the occupational and ethnic divisions it reflected (coastal versus tundra peoples, sea mammal hunting versus reindeer herding peoples, Chukchis versus Eskimos versus Evens, and so on), there were also class distinctions - one could clearly distinguish an indigenous working class from an indigenous intelligentsia. Moreover, different segments of indigenous society at times seemed to blend together with analogous segments of nonindigenous society - for example, white-collar indigenous Chukotkans and incomers could be found working side by side in administrative offices. Intermarriage, especially among the female indigenous intelligentsia, meant that indigenous Chukotkans often bore Russian or Ukrainian surnames.

Nevertheless, the sense that Chukotka's indigenous peoples comprised a single community was quite palpable. Since they came from villages all over Chukotka, the indigenous residents of Anadyr' were woven into kinship networks that extended beyond the city, much as Nancy Fogel-Chance has shown for Iñupiat in Anchorage (Fogel-Chance 1993), and Ann Fienup-Riordan for Alaskan Yup'iks in Anchorage (Fienup-Riordan 2000). They continued to identify strongly with their villages of origin, and they waged a kind of friendly competition as each touted the merits of his or her own natal village. However, greater emphasis was placed on integration - in general, I sensed that the Anadyr' indigenous community was proud of its diversity, and the fact that everyone came from a different village merely emphasized their unity as indigenous peoples of Chukotka.

In this chapter, I focus on showing the Anadyr' indigenous community in action as it responded to the changing political situation in Chukotka. The showing of the video Gwich'in Niintsyaa was a relatively quiet event. During my year in Chukotka, three other events occurred that I gradually came to recognize as major landmarks in terms of defining indigenous Chukotkans' understanding of their growing disenfranchisement in relation to the dominant nonindigenous population. One involved the closing of an indigenous meeting house, thus effectively shrinking the physical space that indigenous Chukotkans had to call their own; the second involved the closing of an indigenous newspaper, thus shrinking their space to represent themselves in public media; and the third involved the blockage of an indigenous candidate from running in the gubernatorial election under the endorsement of the indigenous peoples' association, thus shrinking the indigenous population's presence in the social space of politics.

These events were not cataclysmic; rather, each unfolded slowly over the course of several weeks or even months. I refer to these three occurrences as "epitomizing events" because, through their gradual unfolding in a limited context, key issues and conflicts emerged that revealed how different social groups in Anadyr', in a broader context, perceived the social space they occupied and the proper way to share that space. These events are not micro phenomena that somehow magically communicate the macro. Rather, they serve to place the key issues of concern to Chukotka's indigenous population in sharp relief. They are somewhat like the "critical events" that Veena Das isolates and analyzes for India in that after these events, "new modes of action came into being which redefined traditional categories" (Das 1995:6). The impact in Chukotka may have been more subtle, but these events remain, nonetheless, significant. Each of the events had roots tracing back several years prior to my arrival in Chukotka, but they each came to a head during my first research trip from October 1995 to December 1996.

Event One: The Gutted Iaranga

When I first arrived in Anadyr' in October 1995, a gaily painted green and yellow two-story house stood at the end of the street I lived on. It was obviously a public building, because tacked to the front of it was the obligatory plaque revealing its name: Tsentr Narodnoi Kul'tury, or Center for Folk Culture. It was also obviously different from other public buildings, because while most plaques were very official looking with their shiny black surfaces and gold lettering, this sign was colorfully hand-painted and embellished with capering reindeer figures. Despite its official name, I learned that the building was known affectionately in the indigenous community as the Iaranga. Iaranga (plural: iarangi) is the Chukchi word for the tentlike structure sewn from reindeer skins that virtually all Chukchis used as a dwelling until the 1930s, when Soviet organizers began to implement a program of resettling indigenous Chukotkans into Russian-style wooden houses.

Even in the 1990s, Chukchis in many parts of the region lived in iarangi when they were in the tundra, since it was the dwelling best suited to the mobility required by a reindeer pasturing lifestyle. In Soviet parlance, the iaranga, along with fur clothing and the Chukchi language, was one of the key traits of the "national" culture of the Chukchi that defined them as Chukchis. It was also a space that Russians considered filthy, intolerably smoky, and ultimately unfit for civilized human habitation. However, to the Chukchis I interviewed, the iaranga carried a very different meaning than this. Without exception, indigenous Chukotkans reminisced about the iaranga as the warm and comforting family home of their childhood. It was the place where they curled up on soft reindeer skins alongside other family members and shared meals, stories, and songs. It was a structure that always turned out lopsided when anyone else but mom tried to put it together. When indigenous Chukotkans called this run-down little building in Anadyr' the Iaranga, they were reappropriating an otherwise very Russian space as something quintessentially indigenous, and evoking the place - the tundra - where they felt most themselves and in control of their lives.

Founded only three years earlier and given its name affectionately by local Chukchi activist and politician Vladimir Etylin (who was at that time chair of the Chukotka Regional Soviet of People's Deputies), the Iaranga quickly became a meeting place for members of all the indigenous groups in Anadyr', including Chukchis, Eskimos, Evens, and Lamuts. Sofia described to me at length and with obvious pleasure of recall the kinds of activities that went on within its walls. Sofia was herself a member of a folk theater troupe called Enmen (Chukchi for "so it was" a phrase that typically begins Chukchi-language folktales much as "once upon a time" begins English-language ones), which frequently performed in the Iaranga. She said that "evenings" (vecherinki) were held in the building every Friday night, and these were open to all who wished to come (nonindigenous as well as indigenous) to see performances of indigenous song, dance, and drama. The evenings would start at 7:00 P.M., would sometimes continue until midnight, and were always well attended. "It was simply entertaining for us to go there," said Sofia. There were times when only indigenous Chukotkans would attend in a more intimate gathering; for example, her folk theater performed stories in Chukchi language that interested only those who could understand the language. Indigenous children would come to learn sewing reindeer skins or traditional singing styles. The indigenous sobriety movement also used the building for its seminars.

Although this appeared to be the most sanctified of indigenous spaces within Anadyr', the laranga was nevertheless a space allotted to the indigenous population by the Russian-dominated administration, and was maintained within given parameters. The Center for Folk Culture was the official branch of the regional Department of Culture that dealt with indigenous traditional culture. Center employees had their offices in the House of Culture, a large and impressive building across from the regional administration building. The Iaranga was considered a "city club" where traditional cultural events could be staged, and according to one of the Center's employees, these were originally planned to occur once a month (Timchenko 1995). But by popular demand, the club was used every week, primarily for indigenous evenings. Thus the Iaranga became a space where members of the indigenous community could come and interact in their native language.

© Cambridge University Press

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