09 February 2019

An outsider’s view of the Evenks’ long struggle

There is a ‘white’ historiography, a ‘red’ historiography, and a history of the people that more often than not cuts against the grain of both. Having just finished the book Gaining Ground? by Gail Fondahl, which attempts a ‘bottom-up’ view of land-use issues from the perspective of the Evenki people of Siberia who were among the accidental hosts and mission of Saint Innocent of Irkutsk, it seems that this truism holds up rather well, at least in some regards.

Reading about the current Evenki struggles to revive their culture in the face of the very logic of colonialism is not easy, particularly when set against the backdrop of the political history of their western neighbours. The Evenkil, who hunt and trap and herd reindeer (for transportation and milk, not for meat), have lived a hard existence on what may be termed marginal territory for a very long time. The contacts between Tsarist Russia and the Evenk people were far from wholly friendly – the Cossacks as they moved eastward during the 1600s took hostages to enforce the Tsarist tax policy which demanded from the head of every Evenki clan a certain percentage of the furs that they trapped. At the same time, apart from the occasional swindler, rogue trapper or squatter, the Tsarist government largely left Evenki land claims alone – under the guise of a kind of protective paternalism. The Evenkil were seen as ‘backwards’ and in need of enlightenment – in particular by the Westernising monarchs Peter and Catherine. One exception seems to have been during a miniature gold rush in the late 19th century that brought Russians and Koreans flooding into traditional Evenki lands – and the Tsarist government more often than not supported the prospectors over the indigenous people.

Even so, it is interesting to read how Gail Fondahl narrates the Evenki reception of the Revolution. For the most part, the Evenkil regarded the war between the ‘reds’ and the ‘whites’ as having little to do with them and little impact on their lives. Evenk hunters welcomed ‘Mr Soviet’ when he replaced the local ‘white’ Russian traders, since Mr Soviet gave them better bids on the furs they trapped and lower prices on guns, ammunition and other equipment. (More importantly, at first ‘Mr Soviet’ kept his word when he made a deal and didn’t try to cheat them.) And when Russian Communist party apparatchiks arrived in Evenk households and described the revolution and its aims to them, most Evenkil politely paid attention and shrugged their shoulders: largely because the way Marxism was described sounded to Evenki ears like the way they had been living all along. Here Fondahl describes a fictionalised Evenki family hearing out a Soviet party apparatchik for the first time:
When Anna was almost a teenager, Tyan and Basuk were visited by a man who explained that Soviet power ruled, and that they should join a collective. Tyan and Basuk had a hard time making out where this fellow was coming from; he seemed pleasant enough and brought tea and candy. He also brought several pamphlets with red print, which he said he wanted them to be able to read. Tyan knew how to sign his name; this man said they should both attend literacy school. He also asked if Basuk, Tyan, Tyan’s family (father and mother, and older brother and his family), with whom they nomadised would collectivise. When it turned out that all he wanted was for them to continue doing what they had always done, but call themselves the “Sable Collective”, they saw little harm and agreed.
Indeed, it’s telling that Fondahl uses the traditional Russian word obshchina (that is to say, the patriarchal-syndicalist peasant commune so idealised by the Slavophils) to describe the communal life of the Evenki people prior to contact with the Russians. Apart from the herds (reindeer often belonging to a single family or family member), it was the traditional Evenki way to share everything communally: land, water, meat, furs, medicines, supplies, storehouses or labazy. What is interesting, however, is that Fondahl sees more continuity than disruption between late Tsarist policy and early Soviet policy. For the most part, the early Soviets (including Stalin in his first few years) simply seem to have left the Evenkil alone – though the attitude of the Soviets to the Evenkil was still one of condescending paternalism and a desire to ‘rationalise’ the ‘backward’ Siberian natives. It was only when collectivisation, sedentarisation and political repression began being carried out more forcibly and aggressively – in the 1940’s and 1950’s – that the Soviets began to show their more savage face to the Evenkil. The Evenkil were hit particularly brutally by all three policies, such that the Evenki population was reduced from 38,800 in 1926 to 24,150 in 1959. (There are 38,400 Evenkil living in Russia today.)

Even stranger is the history of ‘privatisation’ in the Evenki lands. The alienation of Evenki lands from the traditional obshchina did not happen all at once under Eltsin. Soviet policy beginning under Brezhnev, in particular the transitions away from the early-Soviet kolkhoz, was responsible for the breakup of the obshchina and the imposition of individual tenure over traditionally-Evenki lands. (As often as not, this individual tenure also meant the leasing of Evenki hunting grounds to individual non-Evenks: Russians, Ukrainians, Tatars and Poles.) The Evenks themselves were increasingly force-sedentarised into townships and villages under late Soviet rule. Ironically, Evenki women found themselves far better-suited to advocate themselves under the late Soviet government: both because they had been sedentary longer and better understood Russian psychology, and because they had fewer hurdles to jump through to lay claim to their ancestral lands under glasnost.

The infamous 1990s made things at once better and worse. The ‘better’ part would seem obvious: liberalisation of the laws allowed (at least on paper) the Evenkil to advocate for themselves without fear of repression. But from an œconomic perspective, most Evenkil – poor, landless, often dependent on now-defunct government-run stores for supplies – were at this point ill-equipped to deal either with the post-Soviet bureaucracy, or with the overall atmosphere of shock-therapy privatisation that was so utterly alien to their (both traditional and the Sovietised) way of life and thinking. The fall of the Soviet Union coincided with massive rises in alcoholism, delinquency and suicide – the same as for their Russian brethren – but also with a certain degree of hope that perhaps things could return to the way they had been. It has been an uphill struggle, however. The Russian government under Eltsin, though it was eager to get the photo-ops that came with a European-style ‘liberalisation’, in practice was not particularly sympathetic to Evenkil claims to their ancestral lands – and certainly not amenable to the restoration of traditional patriarchal-communal land tenure as had been the case under the obshchinas.

The Evenkil who present themselves in Gail Fondahl’s book have, therefore, a very complicated view of the history of their neighbours – one that doesn’t lend itself to the easy black-and-white characterisations of Russia (or the Soviet Union) that seem to be so pervasive in the West. They have little reason to love any of the previous governments, but they do have a slightly more-sympathetic view of the older obshchina and kolkhoz systems under which they were basically left to themselves and had a better œconomic situation overall. In the modern day, the challenges of the Evenks in Russia involve trying to restore some of the elements of the Soviet kolkhoz that have since been abandoned, advocating for better environmental protections and using the more liberal legal atmosphere in Russia to attain some status for their cultural rights (particularly as those rights pertain to their old œconomic livelihoods such as hunting, fishing and reindeer herding). As such, many Evenks tend to be sympathetic to the left-leaning ‘loyal opposition’ Just Russia party, which makes a point of supporting and advocating for the œconomic needs of Russia’s indigenous peoples at the local level.

Again, though, it is still of immense interest to me that the obshchina as a method of social organisation with its own inner reason, is not necessarily unique to the Russians or to the Slavs but indeed is also claimed by the Evenkil themselves. One of my big questions is – and this is where Dr Fondahl’s book leaves me somewhat in the dark – was the terminology of the obshchina a Russian way of describing traditional communal Evenki life by analogy to the way of life of the Russian free peasantry? Or was it instead an Evenki method of describing their social organisation to outsiders – particularly to the Russians, who along with the Chinese and the Koreans were their most significant neighbours for the first two hundred years of contact? If the latter is true, particularly: the Evenkil themselves may be an important witness for the social-political ideals of the Orthodox Church in the world, for the realisation of sobornost’ as conceived of by the Slavophils. And if that is true, other indigenous peoples with similar and analogous inward principles of life, are equally important to us: not as mere missionary projects; certainly not as passive recipients of Western largesse; but instead as living natural-law witnesses to the love and unity of Christ we Orthodox Christians still struggle to embody in the world.

In this respect, the research work of Sergei Mikhailovich Shirokogoroff – the White Russian and the sociologist specialising in the Evenkil and the Manchus who was mentor to the great Fei Xiaotong 費孝通, father of Chinese sociology and one-time head of the Democratic League – would seem to be of the utmost importance.

This is something I look forward to reading myself. I beg my readers’ pardon in advance for what may appear to be mystical or theosophical speculation, but it is deeply, deeply intriguing to me that the populist political-poetic impulse that led to a revaluation of Qu Yuan 屈原 by Wen Yiduo 聞一多 as tapping into a subaltern vein that hearkened back to the elder, ‘rustic’ shamanistic practices of the ancient Chinese, should be matched on the scholarly, sociological side by an equal impulse to locate the deep roots of Chinese culture in the social psychology of the ‘Tungus. There is some truth in the deep heart of Chinese antiquity that seems to have fired the imaginations of both Fei Xiaotong and Wen Yiduo; and that same communal truth, essentially Christian in form and content, in the depths of Slavic antiquity seems to have fired those of Khomyakov and the later Russian populists. And somehow, the Evenkil seem to be standing astride that truth, worthier in an infinite degree than the gold beneath their feet sought by the Russians and the Koreans.

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