The ethnic groups in Russia are diverse with rich and varied cultural practices, dress and lives. A common theme which bonds them together is their belief that the air, land and water are sacred, and nature is the source of life. They are connected to the earth in a spiritual sense, many continuing a traditional nomadic way of life, as their ancestors did.
Indigenous People of Russia
There are over 100 different ethnic groups in Russia, of which around 40% are legally protected as indigenous peoples. For a group to be legally protected they must; uphold traditional ways of life, have less than 50,000 people and inhabit specific remote regions of the country. One such region is the Arctic circle in Siberia, where I visited to attend the Bolshoi Argish Festival to learn more about the lives and traditions of these ethnic groups. The ethnic groups that still lead nomadic or semi nomadic lives in Taimyr Peninsula are; Dolgans, Nenets, Nganasans, Enets and Evenks. They roam across the tundra, building their chums where they settle and rely on hunting or herding reindeer for a living.It sounds such a romantic lifestyle, moving where nature takes them, eschewing the traps of modern society and living a simple life in the same way their ancestors did. However, the reality of surviving in such harsh climates is much grittier than that. It involves a significant amount of ingenuity, resilience and sense of community. When speaking to an older lady from the Nganasan group, she told us that they have a saying that “nobody can survive the tundra alone.” This speaks volumes for the sense of community fostered in indigenous cultures that is invaluable to their way of life. Indigenous people are only a tiny percentage of Russia’s population, around 0.2% to be precise, yet they inhabit over 60% of Russia’s territory. This illustrates just how vast Russia is, there are large regions with no infrastructure where only ethnic groups inhabit the land. Some of the ethnic groups have such small populations that they could be considered endangered. The smallest of the indigenous groups is the Enets, of which there are around only 350 people as members. There are several factors which are creating a decline in the number of members of ethnic groups. The primary reason is younger people are moving away to cities for education or employment and not returning.
The ethnic groups in Russia are incredibly diverse, with each group having their own individual beliefs, practices, language and culture. They all have unique traditional dress, which has evolved to meet their specific needs. Each group will also have a unique set up for their chum, much like we would decorate our homes to our own style. The groups also have unique traditions and rituals that they follow. Therefore, it’s very difficult to give a complete overview of the cultures, as they all differ.With all of this in mind, there are many similar characteristics from each groups’ cultures. They are mostly nomadic or semi nomadic people whose traditional homes are comprised of Chums that they build in each location. Their traditional lifestyle is based on hunting, gathering, fishing and reindeer herding. The indigenous people use natural resources, there is no excessive waste and they will find a way to utilize every part of their provisions. For example, reindeer are incredibly important to many groups’ way of life, they use them for transport, they eat the meat, they will also use the skin for warmth – be that in clothes, shoes or their chums. The Enets even use the bones and skin for musical instruments which entertain them and are used in rituals. After gaining an understanding of how ethnic groups use their resources, I’ve come to see this as an incredibly sustainable way of life. They respect and look after their belongings and animals, as they are vital for their survival in such a harsh climate. Many of the groups practice animism which is evident in their folklore and legends. They believe that there are three worlds; one above us, earth and one below. There are shamans who perform rituals to connect their groups with the three worlds to allow their ancestors to guide them. I came to understand that these rituals are at risk of becoming endangered, as older shamans are passing away without their family members taking their place. This is also partially because only men can take on the role of Shaman for a group and it is seen as a large responsibility. We were very fortunate to watch a performance of ‘Dreams of the White Land’ at the Norilsk Polar Drama Theatre which beautifully demonstrated through dance, music and narration in indigenous languages these beliefs and how indigenous people view their place on earth. It was a moving performance which highlighted how ethnic groups see their past and future linked through the three worlds and their connection to their ancestors. I truly believe this traditional practice needs to be preserved for future generations as it is at the heart of the culture of many of the ethnic groups.I feel incredibly lucky to have the wonderful experience of being invited into the Chums of each ethnic group at the Bolshoi Argish Festival. The festival is an opportunity for the indigenous people to share their culture and gives us an insight into their traditional way of life. Before we entered any of the chums, we all took part in a shamanic welcome, there was dancing and music alongside local delicacies and drinks. We had to ring a bell and walk across a reindeer skin with our eyes closed for good luck (I hope it worked!). Once we huddled inside of the Dolgan’s chum, away from the blistering cold and enjoying the warmth of the fire. We were greeted with a welcome ritual, they burned a special blend of leaves and chanted whilst walking around our group to envelop us in the smoke. I think this was to protect us from bad spirits and it felt incredibly special to be involved in such a traditional activity. Over the morning, we were welcomed into the chums for each of the ethnic groups including Dolgans, Nenets, Nganasans, Enets and Evenks. It was fascinating to see the differences between each group; their chums were set up with slight differences and their traditional dress varied greatly. I have to admit, I was most fond of the Nganasans’ traditional clothing, it was so incredibly ornate and beautifully made – they said that their outwear can last for decades! It’s not only their homes and clothing that differs, each group gave us an insight into their traditional pastimes. The Nganasans sang us through a folk story with puppets and they had games they had sculpted from reindeer bones. The Dolgans showed us how to use a jaw harp – it’s much more difficult to master than you would imagine! Finally, the Enets had several children from their group perform traditional music for us, it was incredible. I was so happy to see younger generations embracing traditions from their ancestors and having fun with it. My videos from this moment in the Enets chum make me smile so much. It’s interesting to see that all the groups have a unique take on how best to entertain yourself out on the tundra. FYI – you can see all of my videos from this trip on my Instagram, including the incredibly special moments shared with the indigenous groups. I’ve made a highlight of my stories called ‘Norilsk, Arctic’ that you can find on my profile.
The Future of Ethnic Groups in Taimyr Peninsula
Having the opportunity to speak to members of each group and ask them about their lives was so insightful. They were very keen to open up about their beliefs, traditions and experiences of living in the Arctic. They want to share their traditional culture and offer people a better understanding of their way of life. Older members of the group are particularly passionate about keeping their cultures alive. They can see that their culture is at risk of being lost forever if they do not make efforts to preserve it and promote through their younger generations. Undoubtedly, the indigenous people face many obstacles that threaten their traditional way of life and endanger their unique cultures. Currently only around 10% of Russia’s ethnic groups live a nomadic or semi nomadic lifestyle, compared to 30 years ago where 70% did. Today, members of indigenous cultures are assimilating into Russian culture, with more of the younger members settling in towns and cities away from their families where it is easier to find work. In addition to this, when we were speaking to the older members of the indigenous groups, they agreed that they have witnessed a real change in the environment over the years. Living in the Taimyr peninsula guarantees extreme weather – they have winter for around nine months in a year! However, they said that they have observed changes in the climate that impact their livelihoods. When the seasons are evolving and becoming less predictable it makes it harder for them to care for their livestock and manage their resources.There are numerous languages which belong to indigenous groups in Russia and yet over 100 of them are endangered. With the proliferation of Russian language throughout these groups, I’d say education and sparking an interest in indigenous languages in younger generations is the only way to preserve them. Projects like the performance of ‘Dreams of a White Land’ incorporating indigenous languages is a fantastic way to educate through art and keep these languages alive. Whilst I can’t blame the younger generations for pursuing opportunities available to them, I think it would be a tragedy for these fascinating cultures to be lost forever. Although the challenges the ethnic people of Russia are facing are severe, they have already proven they are able to survive in difficult environments and prosper. They are extremely adaptable and resilient as a community – finding great inspiration in their culture and guidance from their ancestors. I truly hope that the indigenous people in Taimyr peninsula can fuse the benefits of modern life including improved health services and education with their traditional values to maintain their incredibly unique and intriguing cultures.
The indigenous people spoke about the idea of encouraging tourism to preserve their culture and generate a new source of income. I think responsible and sustainable tourism would be of huge benefit to these groups. Having had the rare opportunity to spend time with these groups in their chums, learning about their nomadic lifestyle, trying their local delicacies, enjoying their music and company I had an amazing experience and can imagine many people would love to do the same – especially out on the tundra! I believe this would need government support as many of these indigenous people live in remote regions with little infrastructure and the nearest city being closed to foreigners will limit their options for tourism.
I’m hopeful for the future of indigenous groups and hope they are able to forge a new path for their people, whilst maintaining a traditional way of life. For now, the Bolshoi Argish Festival is a great start to engaging more people with the indigenous cultures.I would love to return to the Far North of Russia and see these groups in the tundra and explore this naturally beautiful region.
Did you know anything about the Ethnic Groups in the Arctic? Let me know your thoughts.
Disclaimer: This trip was organised by FusionNow and I’m so thankful for the amazing experience.