Monday, October 27, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Some Chukchis Are No Longer Offended by Chukchi Jokes

Paul Goble

Vienna, October 27 – For decades, Russians have told jokes about the Chukchis, a numerically small and geographically distant nation, anecdotes that sometimes made fun of what Russians think is the backwardness of this people but that quite often were the occasion for laughter at Russian society more generally.
A classical example of the former kind is the story of a young Chukchi who comes to enroll in the Moscow Institute of Literature where it is discovered that he has not read anything, a finding to which the Chukchi responds that he did not come to that institute to be a reader but rather to be a writer.
And an equally classical example of the latter involves an exchange by two Chukchis sitting on the shores of the Bering Straits opposite Alaska in their native land in which one asks the other whether he would like to hear a political joke, the latter worries that the rulers in Moscow won’t like that, and the former asks rhetorically, “Where are they going to send us?”
Most people would assume that the 15,000 Chukchis themselves would be offended by the former but perhaps delighted by the way in which they have become a symbol of the way in which clever people throughout Russia view their regime and the possibilities of getting around its constraints.
But according to “Gazeta,” at least some Chukchis are not offended by even those anecdotes that most non-Chukchis would assume anyone would take umbrage at, viewing them as a perhaps unintended recognition by others of the uniqueness of Chukchi culture and of the cleverness of their nation (
Galina Nutykeu, a Chukchi from Alkatvaam, told the Moscow paper’s Vadim Dubnov that in many Chukchi jokes that Russians tell “we at first glance look naïve or even stupid. But if you think about it this is simply the reverse side of what no one sees: we are clever,” an observation that reflects a fundamental reality of Chukchi life.
Like many other peoples around the world, the Chukchis use several names, some of which they keep secret, not so much to deceive people as to “deceive fate” and “lay a false trail not only from the actual bearer of the name but also from other members of the community” lest the evil spirits move against them too.
That sense of a double world, one that is shown to others and another that is kept concealed, is also reflected in the nature of the shamans who do not so much reveal secrets as maintain them and who are thus unwilling to identify themselves as such. Indeed, Dubnov writes, “if someone says he is a shaman, and he is certainly not one.”
And consequently, Dubnov continues, anecdotes about the Chukchis, according to both Chukchis and those living among them with whom the Moscow journalist talked, have the same purpose, apparently pointing to one aspect of reality while in fact far more successfully concealing a second and more important one.
This has helped them to remain apart from others, including Russian officials and different ethnic groups who have come to Chukotka, intermarrying with both but managing to keep their society separate and apart, largely regulating it on their own rather than allowing outsiders to control them.
For the Chukchi, there is in society and in the world of the spirit “two worlds that do not intersect and there is a barrier [in each case] which cannot be crossed.” That understanding and the reality that for the Chukchi, Russia is just as mysterious and far away as Alaska, Canada or the United States have helped them to survive as a community.
If the anecdotes about them help to set them apart, Dubnov writes, then, they too play a positive role. Chukotka is their world, it is separate and understandable, and everything else is an abstract place of shadows in which Orenburg and Zanzibar are equally far away” and incomprehensible.
Given this Chukchi understanding of the nature of reality, the ultimate Chukchi joke almost certainly is not on the Chukchis themselves but rather on the Russians and others who through either ignorance or arrogance assume they can dismiss this unique nation with anecdotes that reflect their own situations more than that of the Chukchis.

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