Russia hard times a boon to native peoples


Standing among huge rocks at the burial site of her ancestors at what is known as Russia's Stonehenge, shaman Tatiana Kobezhnikova tears off an offering of bread to appease the spirits as the sun goes down.

Crowned by a feather headdress, she pounds a skin drum under the watchful eyes of two feral dogs who guard the site.

Well-dressed politicians from across Siberia approach reverentially, asking to be blessed. She obliges, eyes closed, and holding her fists up, she makes a silent wish.

"More and more people are coming to me," says Ms. Kobezhnikova afterward, nibbling meat pies and sweets laid out on top of the car in a post-ceremony feast. "I think it is because of economic turmoil. People seek comfort in traditions when all else fails."

Shamanism and ancient forms of worship are on the rise among Russia's indigenous people, as the full force of the economic crisis takes hold. Jobless, hungry, and cold, increasing numbers are turning to old customs. It is a trend that extends from this area on the steppes near the border with Mongolia - filled with 30,000 prehistoric burial sites - to the Far East across the Bering Sea from Alaska.

Native people are hunting and fishing like their ancestors because food is so costly. Others are spurning expensive medicine and taking herbal cures instead. For others, the revival of ancient ways is part of a cultural rebirth under way since 1991, when the collapse of the Soviet Union allowed more religious tolerance.

"The movement is picking up pace," says Evdokyia Gayer, a former parliamentarian and one of Russia's leading indigenous activists. There are 38 officially recognized indigenous groups in Russia, 14 of which live in the Siberian Far East. Many are the descendants of nomadic hunters who followed mammoths across Siberia when ice sheets melted thousands of years ago.

They somehow preserved their language and worship practices despite the Soviet policy of relocating people from their homelands and discouraging religion and minority tongues.

At the fishing hamlet of Sikatschi-Alan, near the border with China 5,000 miles east of Moscow, a group of women from different aboriginal groups met recently to discuss coordinating a national movement. The mayor, Nina Druzhnina, took the visitors to see rocks carved with mask and animal designs 15,000 years old.

Running her hand along a boulder submerged by the rising waters of the Amur River, she drew a parallel with lost customs. "Twenty years ago they built a dam which flooded the river and the carvings went under water. It's like our children. They don't want to talk our language with their grandmothers because they are teased by their Russian classmates," she says. "But despite this, the new generation is beginning to embrace its heritage."

Standing by the shore, Ms. Gayer muses about the similarities with native Americans and southern African bushmen, who are also struggling to find a balance between preserving traditional practices and joining the the fast-paced world of the Internet and mobile phones. She frequently flies across Russia's 11 time zones in her struggle to protect fishing quotas, sable hunting grounds, and aboriginal homelands. "We'd like to set up craft and archaeological centers that would draw tourists," Gayer says. "But the main obstacle is a lack of money."

Raisa Andreitseva-Pionka is among those trying to keep her Udegue heritage alive. She says for years she resisted becoming a shaman like her mother, until a vision 15 years ago told her that this was her calling. The former hairdresser now devotes herself to traditional healing and teaching the young their grandparents' language. She is also studying for a law degree so that she can better defend her people's rights.

"I don't appeal to our people to live in tents without electricity or television sets," she says. "But we should raise the young generation with pride in our customs."

At Sikatschi-Alan's school, Ms. Adreitseva-Pionka was inspired by a display showing amulets, shaman's mirrors, bells to ward off evil spirits, and a century-old embroidered wedding dress. "We should do this in our village, too," she says of the display.

In honor of the guests, schoolgirls perform a traditional Nanai dance. They turn off the techno-rap blaring from their tape player and change from tight sweaters and miniskirts into fish-skin outfits. Then they solemnly dance, imitating the movements of seals, salmon, and bears under the watchful eye of an old Nanai woman.

"That's the way," she murmurs approvingly from the audience, during a particularly graceful turn. "That's the way it's done."

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