Monday, March 21, 2011

Window on Eurasia: National Districts of Russian North, Born in Violence, Now Face a Sad End, Local Writer Suggests

Paul Goble

Staunton, March 21 – Moscow’s drive to amalgamate the autonomous districts that some of the numerically small peoples of the Russian North have has prompted one writer there to recall that these peoples actively and violently resisted Soviet ethnic engineering in the 1920s and 1930s, an implicit warning that at least some of them might mount a similar resistance now.

Writing in ”Nyar”yana vynder,” a newspaper in the Nenets Autonomous District, Irina Khanzerova notes that Yamalo-Nenets and Khanty-Mansiisk autonomous districts last year marked their 80th anniversaries, often with tears because “no one knows” whether they will have the chance to celebrate any future ones (

And precisely because of these doubts about the future, she writes, people are again reflecting “about the past and -- what is the main thing -- the future of the Northern autonomies” as these small and isolated communities seek to answer the question “what is the dawning day preparing for us?”

Describing her article as being about “a path from the past into the past,” Khanzerova notes at after 1917, the Soviet authorities created national districts in order to “ease the task of administration” by a profess of divide and rule and thus assist the communists in their efforts to do away with the traditional way of life of the peoples of the North.

But this “process of ‘dividing up,’” the Nenets journalist continues, “did not take place without resistance despite what we are told. Across the territories of the numerically small peoples broke out a wave of uprisings,” as the various peoples attempted to defend their way of life against the outsiders.

Consequently, Khanzerova argues, “no one today has the right to assert that the establishment of national districts in the near Arctic tundra took place quietly and happily and that the peoples living on the borderlands of a great state only awaited the coming of the new power.” Instead, “the new ‘happy autonomy’ was built on the bones of our grandfathers.”

She surveys the history of resistance in four of these districts: the Khanty-Mansiisk AO which was created in 1930 and still exists, the Evenk AO which was created in 1932 and disbanded in 2007, the Dolgan-Nenets AO which existed from 1931 to 2007, and the Chukotka AO which was established in 1930 but faces an uncertain future.

In the Khanty and Mansi areas, the population, who were earlier called Ostyaks, did not accept Soviet power, and the Mansi writer Yeremey Aypin notes that “in the folklore of the Siberian peoples in the 1920s appeared many legends and stories celebrating the former taiga life” as “better and freer” than the one the Soviets imposed.

In 1934, Khanzerova recounts, the Ob Khanty refused to meet their labor norms. Their children were seized and confined in Soviet orphanages, and many disappeared into the taiga. But in one district town, the NKVD surrounded and shot “approximately 300 people,” apparently a small fraction of the total number of executions there.

Soviet efforts to create an Event district took almost a decade because of local resistance. After Moscow called for that, a group of 60 Evenks seized the port of Ayan, thereby acquiring “a large quantity” of arms. And they were forced out only when the GPU dispatched one of its most notorious punitive detachments.

In 1932, a rising took place in Chumikan, After its defeat and in protest against Soviet efforts to regulate their lives, a group of Evenks left the RSFSR for China. Those who remained were subsequently shot as Chinese “spies.” Today, Khanzerova notes, “there are some 30,000 Evenks” in the Chinese district of Hingan.

When Soviet power arrived in the Taymyr, it immediately set about creating the GULAG. After an ethnographer talked about the shamans as “brakes” on the development of the Soviet system, “the ‘builders of a new world’ arrested all shamans and their assistance” and had them shot. Later 500 of their supporters were sent into the GULAG as punishment.

Chukotka, because of its enormous size and small population, was not subjected to full Sovietization until somewhat later. As a result, resistance took place not so much in the 1920s as in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1949, for example, Khanzerova writes, there was an uprising among the Chukchi but it was quickly suppressed.

To prevent a repetition, the Soviets carried out another form of ethnic engineering: they introduced detachments of Ukrainians, Jews, Belarusians and ethnic Russians from Novgorod and Pskov oblasts to overwhelm the local population, reducing it to a minority on its own land from time immemorial.

Thus, Khanzerova concludes, “nowhere in the northern expanses of Russia did the establishment of autonomous national districts take place peacefully and without blood.” Instead, that experiment organized by Moscow cost these peoples dearly. Now that Moscow is making new plans, few expect things to be different.

“Just how long the last of the Mohicans -- the Nenets AO, the Yamano-Nenets AO, the Khanty-Mansiisk AO, and the Chukotka AO -- will remain is something that today only the supreme power can say,” the Nenets writer says. “And its position [on this question] unfortunately is well known to us.”

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