From the Irish Times, August 10, 2004

Endangered languages and lost worlds of Russia: The EU is helping to drag native languages across Russia back from the brink,
writes Daniel McLaughlin in Kyrlyk

Roman says his hands have cured the sick, and his mind's eye has found people who have disappeared in the remote valleys and rushing rivers of the Altai mountains. But he admits that his powers are weak. Sitting in a tent in the village of Kyrlyk, Roman says he simply guards the tools of his mother's mystic trade. She is the real thing, he insists, a genuine shaman, able to send her spirit to commune with the dead in search of secrets craved by the supplicants who seek her help.

Locals say her clients include even the president of the Altai Republic, a region where Russia, Kazakhstan, China and Mongolia collide and where, in the name of progress, Moscow has long tried to destroy native languages and customs like shamanism.

Now, thousands of miles east of Brussels, the European Union is helping drag Russia's indigenous cultures back from the brink of extinction, and reverse a trend that has destroyed ancient communities across Siberia, from the Arctic to Central Asia. The native people of the Altai have always believed in shamans' ability to enlist help from the spirit world to cure ailments, strike down enemies and peer into the future.But their trances, smoke-wreathed rituals and herbalism were anathema to an atheist Soviet system that strove to drive out superstition with modernity, by collectivising and industrialising the world's largest country and steam-rollering the Russian language through schools to crush native tongues.

Millions of indigenous Siberians were driven off their land into towns and, as old settlements withered under the wheel of Sovietisation, so did the ties that bound them to ancestors who were usually nomadic hunters and herders. "Lots of our people died in the second World War and then, when they returned, the officials said our villages couldn't survive. They shut them down, people were moved on, and they simply disappeared into Russian society," said Mr Vladimir Danilov. "We had been cattle herders for generations, and in the city we just became cleaners and street sweepers and began drinking. Our spirit was destroyed and we had broken the law of our ancestors by leaving their graves unguarded."

In the town of Biisk, close to where the Altai region meets the wilder Altai Republic, Mr Danilov (76) listens to a few youngsters speak haltingly in their language. They say they want to preserve their tongue, but it is rarely spoken at home now in a province where the vast majority are Russian, and the last shaman died decades ago. From here in Central Asia, to the Far North and the Pacific coast, the natives have a tenuous grip on their homelands.

The government wants to relocate hundreds of thousands of people from remote areas to provincial cities, and stop spending scarce resources on inhospitable regions that the Soviet Union opened up in the hunt for oil and metals. In the Chukotka region close to Alaska, governor Roman Abramovich - better known as the owner of Chelsea Football Club - runs a similar scheme of his own. At the same time, he is paying indigenous Chukchi reindeer herders their first wage in years, and animal numbers are growing again, easing a little the hardship of their nomadic life.

The native people of the Far East, close to where Russia meets North Korea, are also struggling, after decades of pressure to assimilate from Soviet powers that coveted the wild region's huge timber and mineral wealth. In the Altai region, where Siberian forest peters out into farmland and gentle hills, the Soviets almost achieved their task. The Altai language is dying there, and centuries-old beliefs and customs could disappear in the next decade.

But as the road rises south into the Altai Republic, something revives.Roadside springs are draped with rags and scattered with coins, prayer offerings to benevolent spirits. In the valleys, broad Mongol faces outnumber Russia, and the Turkic tongue drowns out the language introduced by Tsarist forces. It is here that professors from Novosibirsk search for talented youngsters to study at their university, on the condition that they return to their mountain villages with their acquired skills, and pass them on in the language of the Altai.

The European Union has devoted more than E750,000 to the project, which aims to give young indigenous people in several Siberian regions a quality higher education without forcing them to abandon their homeland and its traditions. The scheme has brought computers and the Internet to villages hundreds of miles from the nearest town, and helps fund the production of newspapers and textbooks in Altaian. "Cultural diversity is one of the core values of the EU," said Mr Guillermo Martinez Erades, who monitors the project as part of his work as co-ordinator for the European Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights. "If Russia develops greater respect for its minorities, it will encourage peace and stability here and so make the country a better neighbour and partner
for the EU."

In Kyrlyk, a dusty village some 2,500 miles southeast of his base at the European Commission's Moscow office, Mr Martinez Erades sees the project at work. Ms Olga Kurtugashova (26) was born here, but is now preparing to study in Germany for a few months and is completing her course at university in Novosibirsk. Altaian is her mother tongue, and she follows many of the customs of her ancestors, but knows her people must connect with the wider world if they are to survive.

"Russian opens doors, and so does education. But your own language and traditions are your roots. If you lose those, you lose yourself."