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Harriman Expedition Retraced


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David Koester

The Historical Dynamics of Politics, Culture and Social Life in the Russian Far East

The area in Russia known as the Far East has been inhabited for at least the last 14,000 years. A diverse panoply of cultures spans a range of environments from bounteous salmon habitat to extreme arctic tundra to harsh but sea-mammal rich coastlines. During the period since the world at large has known about the region its various peoples have seen numerous changes. Since contact, the important periods have been (1) the imperial period of conquest, fur collection and commercial exploitation, (2) the Soviet period of forced economic and social changes and (3) indigenous cultural revitalization and the post-Soviet collapse.

During the early period of conquest, the peoples of the Russian Far East were treated harshly. There were two primary reasons for this. On the one hand, the fur collecting emissaries of the tsar were hardened figures working on the basis of years of experience in conquest. Hostage-taking, for instance, had become a standard practice for extracting fur payments. Many reports to the tsar were about the dutiful care "tax collectors" took in seeing that their official hostages were neither abused nor allowed to die. On the other hand, the further from Moscow, the more the "representatives" of the crown took liberties both in the process of collection and in what was done with the furs once collected. Bickering, fighting and complaints to the tsar about fellow conquerors were common. Local populations suffered much from this infighting, though they could sometimes turn it to their advantage. The fur tax system had to be adapted somewhat as the empire reached the coast, where sea mammal hunting was far more prevalent than hunting of fur-bearing animals. Local hunters at the same time were forced to turn part of their subsistence activity to hunting of fur-bearers.


In the 1930s language texts were created for languages of many minorities of Siberia and the Far East. This text was created by A. S. Forshtein, a language teacher in the village of Chaplino.
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Fur and sea mammal hunting remained important during the Soviet era. What changed were patterns of living and working. The Soviet government felt obligated to help the "primitive" peoples of the North and Far East move swiftly past capitalism to socialism. The route to socialism lay through the routines of industrialized economic activity. Instead of functioning within family units, hunters and herders were reorganized into brigades. For this they received pay, usually in goods from the general store. New educational opportunities had both benefits and drawbacks. The benefits were that many students were able to get a higher education and use that back in their home or other Chukotkan village.

The negative effects were that children were often taken from their homes for study in boarding schools. Language loss took place as a result of Russian-only policies in the classroom. Parents often complained as well that their school-bound children would not learn the toughness that it took to survive in arctic and subarctic environments. Moreover, many families suffered from the Stalinist repressions. For others, the greatest disruption in their lives occurred with the closing of villages. The Soviet government sought to make the delivery of government services more efficient. Dispersed villages were closed and the labor force was concentrated in new Soviet micro-cities. These new miniature cities had electricity, radio, telephone, television; post offices, cultural and recreational centers, well-built schools, state stores with consumer goods and some apartment buildings had centralized heating and running water. They were, however, highly dependent on the central government for their functioning. They were not appropriate for traditional subsistence living.


native house

Typical house in Native villages built during the Soviet era in the Russian Far East. (Photo by David Koester).
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Displacement and dependency became the critical aspects of life after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Knowledge of cultural practices adapted to life in the harsh environments of northeast Russia had waned. Young people were no longer living in surroundings familiar to their parents and grandparents. They learned nothing of subsistence in formalized schooling. People were equipped to live in villages with electricity, to hunt with snowmobiles and motorboats, to wear manufactured clothing. They were used to receiving salaries, buying necessities at state-stocked village stores and receiving medical care from state-funded and state-supplied clinics. When the state went away, village services disappeared. Villagers were left to make do in a surreal environment of Soviet economic plans with no infrastructure to fulfill the plan.

eskimo children

Much cultural revitalization activity was started with children in mind. These children are from the Far East village of Achai-Vaem. (Photo by Aleksandr Diakov).
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The collapse came just as indigenous groups throughout Siberia and the Far East were beginning to see the opportunity to take cultural revitalization into their own hands . Native organizations formed all over the Russian North in the early 1990s. Schools reinstated language programs and attempts were made to reinhabit closed villages. After the collapse, however, the Native organizations quickly became human rights organizations, fighting for local resource rights, receipt of pay for work done and basic services. As one Native leader put it, under these conditions, neglect by the government can be seen as a form of ethnocide.




For information on the Harriman Retraced Expedition e-mail: harriman2001@science.smith.edu

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