the Irish Times, August 10, 2004
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
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.
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."