Friday, May 27, 2016

A Real ‘War of Civilizations’ Breaking Out in Russian Far North over God’s Lake

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 27 – “In the depths of the Siberian taiga, a war between two civilizations has broken out. Blood has flowed. And its course involves both cleverness and big money,” according to a report by two “Novaya gazeta” journalists who spent a week on the frontlines between the indigenous population and Russian energy companies.

            In an 8500-word heavily illustrated article, Elena Kostyuchenko and Yury Kozyrev note that the fights between the indigenous population and the oil companies has prompted people on both sides to recall the revolt of the Khanty and Mansi against Soviet power in the 1930s, a revolt that claimed many lives on both sides (

                The current conflict arose because a shaman guarding a lake sacred to the Khanty and Mansi peoples killed the dog of two Russian oil workers when the latter were engaged in poaching and when the dog threatened to foul the lake. The shaman has been charged with attempted murder. For background, see

            AsKostyuchenko and Kozyrev note, “the Khanty and the forest Nenets are two closely related peoples, and practically every local resident speaks two languages, with young people also speaking Russian.” Russian oil workers are given advice on how to deal with the local people, but sometimes in their rush to develop oil, they ignore what they are told.

            Numto Lake, which in the local languages means God’s Lake, is the sacred residence of the goddess Kazym.  When Russian workers violated its precincts, not only those immediately involved were outraged, but thanks to the attention of Greenpeace, others were as well, with 34,000 sending messages to the authorities.

             As a result, what the Russian officials have sought to dismiss as a “everyday” problem has become an interethnic or even “civilizational” clash. Things have only gotten worse because the Russian side has issued a report on the situation at the lake without its authors having even visited it or talked to those involved.

            This Russian high-handedness, justified by the authorities because of the importance of oil, has led ever more people in the region to think about the times when the Khanty, Mansi, and forest Nenets revolted against Soviet power in defense of their national cultures, their shamans and their way of life.

            “In tsarist times,” the two Moscow journalists write, “the local Nentsy and Khanty practically did not interact with Russians … but in the 1930s, the Bolsheviks decided to set up a cultural center to enlighten the dark native people. As a result, the shamans and kulaks lost the right to vote,” and the government set quotas on fishing and reindeer herding.

            Anyone who resisted “the new order” was deprived of his rifle, something that in the forest conditions meant “death from hunger or from a beast.” And in the 1930s, the Soviets crossed another line: they began taking fish from God’s Lake, just as the Russians now want to take oil from its bottom.

            In 1933, the shamans led a revolt; and the Soviet authorities sent in people to parlay with them. The shamans had them arrested, sent a list of demands intended to protect local cultures, and then announced that “God has demanded the death of the Russians.” The latter were duly executed.

            In response, the Soviets sent in OGPU soldiers and “a full-scale cleansing” of the population began. Because of the absence of roads, the older members of the community recall, the Soviets used airplanes and bombs. The Soviet soldiers shot at least 11 and incarcerated the rest in the GULAG.

            (The most detailed study of that revolt which pitted local peoples led by shamans against the representatives of Stalin’s repressive apparatus is provided by O.D. Yernykhova in her 212-page study, The Kazymov Revolt of Khanty-Mansiisk (in Russian, 2nd edition, 2010), the full text of which is available online at http://www.оуипиир.рф/sites/default/files/docs/75-1198.pdf).

            That local people should be talking about that experience among themselves and to Russians says a great deal about how desperate they feel and how willing they are to consider actions which even if they proved suicidal could create serious problems for the Russian oil companies and the Russian state.

            (For those who would like to think about what such a revolt of a numerically small people of the North driven to the edge by Russian policies, see Edward Topol’s Red Snow, a 1986 dystopian novel about exactly such a development.)

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