Tribes and Dialects
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In the early 1930s, Vladimir Bogoraz wrote an ABC-book for the Chukchi language and called it The Red Book. Unfortunately, the ensuing 60 years have brought the Chukchi -- and many other nations -- to a deplorable position of being candidates for the pages of another Red Book, the one usually associated with rare plants and animals. The necessity of a book detailing endangered peoples has been recognized for some time, though mostly in the form of rhetorical questions musing whether the time has really come for the Mordvins, for example, or for all the minorities of Siberia, or of the whole former Soviet Union, to be entered in a Red Book. The present volume represents the first major attempt to draw public attention to those peoples whose existence is truly marked by the threat of extinction. The public at large may have heard at least something of the Khatyn mass murder and of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, but there is still little awareness of an even greater crime of Russian chauvinism: veiled with slogans promising everybody a brighter future, this chauvinism has been working methodically towards the elimination of ethnic entities and cultures. This is a crime against the whole of humanity.
Setting out to compile such a book, one first has to define the conditions under which a people could be classified as an endangered people. The cultural revolution and the gigantic economic projects have inflicted serious damage on all national cultures, the Russians included, by severing their roots, forcing enormous crowds to migrate from place to place, and tearing the life-web of cultural contacts between generations. In laying down their criteria of selection the authors of this book decided to include only those peoples who
These criteria disqualify those peoples already extinct (like the Meryans, Motors and Koibals) as well as those whose main territory lies elsewhere (like the Germans and Koreans). The other criteria are less strictly observed, particularly in regard to the population. A combination of several features were generally to be considered, some of which tended to show mutual correlation (for example, scattered settlement and being in the minority on their own territory, or lack of vernacular schooling and poor competence in their mother tongue). As a result, the final decision on inclusion was usually based on our assessment of the general situation rather than on individual criterion. Of the 96 peoples on the original list, the book now contains data on only 85. In several cases a decision had to be made whether a possible entry was indeed a separate nation or simply a dialect group (for example, the Solons were treated as part of the Evenks, but the Khufis and the Roshanis separately). In some cases it was impossible to find any written material at all (the Modern Assyrians are one example). There were also some exceptions made due to other circumstances: the Karelians were included (unlike other nations having their own autonomous republic) out of consideration for the rapidly diminishing proportion they make up in the population of their own ancient aboriginal territory, and also because of their extremely unfavourable demographic and linguistic situation.
The Soviet Union was, until recently, a huge place, which, unfortunately, made it impossible for the authors to bear eye-witness to the situation of every single ethnic group included in this book. This volume then, cannot claim to contain the whole and absolute truth, rather, it may be the opening part of a long-term research project. We truly hope that the forthcoming issues will be excluded from future editions, either for a joyous or a sad reason.
The Red Book of the Peoples of the Russian Empire is being compiled in complicated times: the borders and names of administrative units are changing, the whole national doctrine of the central power is being reconsidered, and entire nations are awakening from apathy. By the time you read this book some of the above processes will have led to new and perhaps unexpected developments that may shed new light on the story of some of the included peoples. It was not the authors' aim to foretell future developments but just to attempt to characterize the situation of the endangered peoples living in the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s.
The changing times are also reflected in the title of the book. What was begun as a description of the peoples living in the Soviet empire has become an overview of nationalities who have -- throughout centuries -- been living in the Russian empire, the Soviet period being but one period in the history of Russian expansion.
What is especially valuable about this book is that it discusses different manifestations of Russian and Soviet national policies and their impact on peoples of very different cultures. The detrimental effects of sovietization are illustrated on civilized nations with their own well-established literary traditions (like the Ingrians) as well as on people living in their natural state (like the Saame Lapps of the Kola peninsula). Entries show that the disappearance of a people can be slow and relatively smooth (as with the metamorphosis of the Itelmens into the Kamchadals), but also sudden and all the more brutal (the Siberian Eskimo). Usually, a clear point or period of breakdown can be discerned. The turning-point tends to be especially noticeable in the case of primitive peoples as their self-image differs from that of nations with a literary tradition. The identity of a primitive tribe can be extinguished by the mere destruction of their natural environment, entailing no open display of hostility.
The national policy of the Soviet government can be divided into two major phases. The first phase began with the establishment of Soviet power (the time differed from place to place) and ended in the mid-1930s. The second phase lasted until very recently. The nature of the first phase is somewhat contradictory as the recognition of small nations and a certain encouragement of their self-consciousness proceeded in parallel with collectivization and the heavy repressions known as "class struggle". For most of the Red Book peoples collectivization meant forced settlement. In addition, former economic systems were dissolved by a liquidation of small villages and households. Economy being an inseparable part of culture, this was an initial step in the ruination of national cultures. Collectivization was accompanied by a centralization of the economy which began alienating people from their work and environment, separated them from nature, and made them dependent on centrally apportioned supplies. At the same time it should be appreciated what was done for the development of literacy among small peoples. Many languages received their own newly devised writing systems. These were based on the Latin alphabet as pending "World Revolution" even Russian was intended to be transferred to Roman letters.
Towards the end of the 1930s the situation changed radically. The Stalinist regime abandoned the least pretences of adherence to the principles of freedom and equality, and embarked on a course of blatant russification. National writing systems were either replaced by the Cyrillic alphabet or cast into disuse. Local intellectuals were dispersed and killed. For many nations the final blow was dealt by World War II. In the post-war period, most of the minor nations suffered from the lack of vernacular schooling and letters. Their habitats were flooded with (mostly Russian) migrants. At the same time, official propaganda constantly intensified its efforts to depict Russians as the chosen people who would lead the whole world into Communism. This, together with the obvious political supremacy of the Russians, led several minor peoples to develop inferiority complexes to the extent that they denied their own nationality.
The migrant influx was resisted only by those peoples protected by forbidding (mostly Caucasian) mountains and a traditionally militant mentality. The insufficiency of a severe climate as sole protector is proved by the sad fate of the Nganasans.
Surpassing both alphabetic somersaults and ideological hammering, it was the destruction of local economies that had the most destructive effect on Soviet minority peoples. Wasteful exploitation has ruined the frail tundra environment of the North as well as the orchards of the South, it has forced hundreds of thousands of people to engage in work that suits neither their abilities nor habits, nor even their understanding of the world. It has forced some nomadic tribes to settle, and, vice versa, it has led hordes of migrants to previously rationally tended tundra, forests and valleys. In Central Asia people suffocate on cotton, the northerners are plagued by the mineral resources discovered on their lands (cf diamond prospecting in Kimberley or rubber plantations on the Amazon). Public concern has been aroused by the condition of the rain forests but it is high time to begin paying some attention to the tundra of northern Eurasia, too. The preservation of minor nations is not a mere caprice of nostalgically-minded scholars, it is a vital issue. What is meant is not a formal preservation, where a nation is termed 'alive' when there are about 20,000 speakers of the language left. Rather, a nation is alive when the national economy, social organization and culture constitute a whole. This in its turn means that all the manifestations and forms of national life are in compliance or, at least, in the process of adaptation with the imperatives inherent in that particular culture. Viewed in those terms almost all the peoples in this book have ceased to be nations and have instead become just groups of people sharing some ethnic peculiarities -- be they linguistic, anthropological or customary. The Chukchi are no longer Chukchi if some force other than nature should cut them off from whale and walrus hunting. Divorced from their natural mode of life, their traditional dress, (fairy) tales and (traditional) wisdom lose much of their meaning.
To a certain extent a mutilated culture can be cured. Limited damage sustained over a short period may be healed by the culture itself if the conditions are favourable. There are possibly several nations that would find their feet again if they were immediately allowed to resume their as yet unforgotten traditional lifestyle. In a number of cases, however, this would require the departure of migrants from their lands, the shut-down of derricks and an end to pollution. Obviously this is not going to happen in a day and much special attention would be required. However, it is conceivable that even oil-wells could be operated without causing too much pollution and without creating impassable obstacles to the path of reindeer.
This is not to say that the sole path for small nations is straight back to the 19th century or earlier. A modern snowmobile fits the Arctic way of life just fine. However, the nations must be given a chance. Unfortunately, it is also quite evident that for many minor nations the capacity for cultural reintegration has been exhausted. Instead of assimilating new phenomena within their own traditions they have to take them over as they come. This breeds tension, conflicts, hopelessness and indifference towards oneself as well as towards the environment. Those are the bitter, yet unavoidable, fruits of the Soviet national policy.
This book is the result of a joint effort between historians and linguists. The differences in the academic backgrounds of the authors are reflected in slight differences in emphasis between the entries. As there was no strict or uniform format the entries also differ slightly in length, factual density and style. Nevertheless, the authors have sought to provide for every included people, characteristic data on their population, native language status, and the proportion they form among the inhabitants of their own territory. Unfortunately, it has proved extremely difficult in most cases to discover the present-day situation. Where possible the percentage of those competent in their mother tongue is given, not the total number of the speakers of the language. The number of speakers of Nenets, for example, has long surpassed the number of the Nenets people, whereas the number of Liv speakers has always been smaller than that of the Livonians.
The articles are arranged alphabetically notwithstanding the possible close linguistic or territorial proximity of the peoples in question. In highlighting the damaged spheres of life and the imminent dangers the authors' aim has not been to merely form a catalogue of destruction, rather, the aim has been to provide a comprehensive picture of every single ethnic group and its typical lifestyle. There is an article on each nation, plus a general section on the peoples of the Pamirs. A general survey was considered for the Dagestan peoples, but the idea was abandoned, because Dagestan is also home to many nationalities whose existence is not in jeopardy, unlike the Pamir region where all native peoples are in danger.
The idea for The Red Book of the Peoples of the Russian Empire was launched by Toomas NIIMANN, who contacted the authors and raised funds. The authors are grateful for his inspiring interest and material support.
October 31, 1991