Lost and Found Children in the Arctic Wilderness Moving On, Moving Forward

in Sibirica
View More View Less
  • 1 Yeoju Technical Institute in Tashkent, Uzbekistan nkhokholova@gmail.com

Abstract

The article does not investigate the reason behind the recurring cases of missing children and young adults in the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia) and does not offer an explanation for this phenomenon. Instead, it interprets this occurrence as a symptom of the oppressive histories and realities for indigenous groups residing on the territory of this part of the Russian Federation. Although the reasons for children going missing might seem obvious—the vast uninhabited territory of the region and poor infrastructure—the article argues that these cases of missing children are the result and evidence of neglect on behalf of parents and the state. The contributive value of this article is to voice the current precarious situation in the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia) under the “brotherhood” of the New Russians’ oligarchy and the way that communal cultural practices of the indigenous peoples of Yakutia resist this form of oppressive practice and the possibility of going missing, or extinct.

It is customary in remote parts of Russia, like the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), to hear of people being reported lost and missing, as the region is a vast and scarcely populated territory with poorly developed infrastructure. During the summer, iagodniki (berry pickers) sometimes disappear in the depth of forests after encountering bears or even escaped criminals. In winter months icy roads are often the cause of fatal accidents; car engines often give up in the middle of their routes, exhausted from moving in the freezing temperatures of negative 60 degrees Celsius and colder. As a rule, if people go missing in the region, they rarely find their way back. However, there have been two cases with happy endings that attracted the world's media attention. These are the miraculous stories of the survival of Karina Chikitova in 2016 and of Kerecheene Tuprina in 2018. The first story is that of four-year-old Karina, who was rescued after being missing for twelve days in the Olekma taiga. Although she was mentally and physically malnourished, she turned up intact. The second case involves the courageous and risky travel of the young Kerecheene into the misty white abyss of the remote northern Anabar tundra. She was saved by the customary tradition of reindeer herders of leaving rations of food and fuel in small huts for other fellow herders-travelers and hunters, and also by the power of modern technologies: Instagram and phone calls.

The Sakha Republic is the largest national republic of the Russian Federation, with an area as large as India but with a population half that of Slovenia. It is ethnically mixed, with a current majority Sakha (Yakut) population. Russians form a significant minority, though their numbers have decreased rapidly since the Soviet disintegration. The Sakha Republic is also home to other indigenous communities such as Chukchis, Dolgans, Evens, Evenks, and Yukagirs, and over one hundred other nationalities as diverse as Swedes and Chinese. Russian settlers erroneously referred to the Sakha people as Yakuts, which replaced the original name, Sakha, following the disintegration of the USSR. The Sakha people are a Turkic nomadic group believed to have migrated from Central Asia in and around the eighth to twelfth centuries. The republic also has a significant Slavic population, which includes the Russian “old timers” (starozhyli)—the descendants of fur trappers, Cossacks, prospectors, traders, and priests. Russia's eastward expansion began in the mid- to late-sixteenth century under Ivan the Terrible. Subsequently, in 1632, a fort was built on the Lena River, which developed into Yakutsk, the modern-day capital of the Sakha Republic.

The Yakut Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was formed by the Soviets in 1922. The abundance of natural resources and industrialization in the area attracted settlers from central Russia and Ukraine, especially in the 1960s and 1970s. The settlers changed the population dynamics of the republic, minoritizing the Sakha people in their own land. Moscow monopolized the rich natural resources of the region, and under the Soviets, Sakha remained one of the most economically backward republics of the Soviet Union. In the wake of the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Sakha declared itself a sovereign state on September 27, 1990, but did not renounce its incorporation from the Russian Federation.

I argue that the ongoing that even have become customary cases involving lost and found children in Yakutia reveals the generational layers of social trauma and neglect among indigenous communities in Russia.1 These stories are symptomatic of the political abuse experienced by the indigenous peoples of the Russian North at the hands of the recurring founding fathers of the nation and the “bigger white brothers.” These stories represent loss and revitalization, as well as broader patterns of “neglect,” which are not only interpersonal but political, in which the Sakha Republic is a neglected child in the Russian Federation. Although Yakutia has never been a liability for the Russian state—it has always been self-sufficient and underrepresented—the ideological beliefs and sanitizing practices that undergird the discourse of the “elder white brother” (belyi starshii brat) have depicted it as a savage region in need of educating and fitting into the age of industrial modernity.2 Due to forced modernization, an array of certain inconsistencies in infrastructure were established, and numerous social problems—from issues of self-identification to occupational opportunities—plague certain social groups in Yakutia. The disruption of state support and planned development of traditional industries, together with a spontaneous transition to a market economy had a massive impact on indigenous peoples of the North in the Sakha Republic—much of the problem boils down to unsystematic use and penniless sales of raw materials from the northern mining sites and fields.3 Combined with a lack of a culture of environmental sustainability at the level of the state, we see environmental degradation, the pollution and poisoning of rivers and lakes, the waterlogging of pasture, fishing and hunting areas, that is an artificial narrowing of habitat during the industrial development of the territories of the indigenous peoples (Crate 2009). Finally, there has been a deepening of social differentiation between the city and the village in connection with the destruction of the communal agricultural enterprises, the bankruptcy of peasant farms and nomadic tribal communities, spurred on by economic activities not based on real calculation.

The Sakha Republic is currently and gradually experiencing a collapse of the network of the industrial and social infrastructure of settlements, including transport, resulting in real and clandestine unemployment (Baisheva 2012: 57). Having lost many of the traditional mechanisms of life and unable to get involved in the process of industrialization of society, many indigenous communities subsist within a typically marginal way of life, in which the “fragments” of ethnic consciousness are intertwined with hastily acquired “values” of urban lifestyles. The extreme demographic situation among northern minorities is due not only to a decrease in the birth rate, natural growth but also to an increase in mortality that has been noted over the 1980s and 90s past several decades (see Poelzer and Fondahl 1997). It is likely that the reasons for the increase in infant and child mortality are disturbances in the ecological balance of the environment, a decrease in the standard of living of the indigenous population, and a marginal moral and psychological sense of self and living arrangement of the indigenous population (Baisheva 2012: 152).

To provide one example to illustrate the precision of these practices of “educating and sanitizing,” I noted identical accounts repeated by many of my interviewees, who mentioned that in Yakutsk in the 1980s, indigenous peoples would be frowned upon and even attacked for wearing reindeer boots (“unty”) and speaking Sakha. Even now, wearing reindeer boots inside offices or in other formal spaces of employment or social engagement is considered to be demonstrating disrespect to others or confirming that wearing unty makes one a country bumpkin (d'erebas, mambet). It goes hand in hand with othering when applied to the indigenous people who primarily are attached to the rural lifestyle—they are thought of as inferior because they live off herding cattle or reindeer, and therefore by default smell like domestic stock. Thus, they are uneducated, backward, and unclean. As Ulturgasheva (2020) explains in her article “Indigenous Youth, Gender and Domestic Violence in the Russian Sub-Arctic,” the process of othering can “take a form of straightforward and open bullying, or it is disguised as micro-hostility, e.g., unintentional social exclusion,” a result of the sense of superiority over the indigenous groups from the rural Sakha Republic.

This illustration of bullying based on one's origins further questions the relations and responsibilities of the superior “elder white brother” and its inferiors. The works of cultural theorists such as Mabro (2009), Bhabha (2012), Said (1978), and Fanon (2020) explain that the mechanisms of othering behind the sense of superiority of one race over another, and how it drove the imperial conquests and spread of its politics and laws.4 Said's foundational work for post-colonial and imperialism studies Orientalism (1978) reveals that the imperialists often use the demeaning, effeminizing tactics and attitudes projected on the subject of their conquest as a seal—a completion of domination. There is an emphasis in the imperialist/colonialist discourse on the “about to be colonized” and “colonized” subject's physical fragility, on their shorter stature and their inability to pronounce certain consonants, presenting the other as naive and childish, and therefore, harmless. During the time of the USSR, as periodicals such as Druzhba Narodov (1939) demonstrated, it is used to be the mentioning of peoples of the Soviet republics in the precedence of racial “seniority,” for example, going from Russian to Ukrainian to Armenian, from the senior superior brother to the inferior. The story of Dersu Uzala—a Nanai hunter featured on-screen by Agasi Babayan in 1961 and by Akira Kurosawa in 1975—is a good example to illustrate the sentiments of the Russian imperialists toward the indigenous groups of the vast Russian Empire. In the story, Dersu, an indigenous man, who is helpful to the crew of the regional ethnographic expedition, is featured as naive and small as a child, with a certain speech impediment. Thus, in examining the elder-younger brother trope, I examine this power relation based on seniority discourse theoretically and literally to draw attention from the opposite angle, from the fragile misrepresented child in the face of outside conditioning forces and aggression.

Perhaps these stories of lost and found children are not as powerful and immense as the rape of women in Belarus, Holocaust survival stories, and the stories of the Holodomor, but they are similar in the struggle of resistance against the more cannibalistic inclinations of humans where stronger dominates the weaker. These are the stories of neglect on a political scale, as well as on a smaller domestic, familial scale. Furthermore, these stories represent the interplay between the conditions of being lost and being found within socio-psychological discourses. Being lost in nature indicates danger and unfamiliarity (nature, of course, was “sanitized” by imperialist Soviet practices). To highlight this, I apply the theories of purity and danger proposed by Mary Douglas (1966) and crossing the limen by Arnold Van Gennep (1909). The latter is contextually relevant as both of the girls’ stories pertain to transformation following an unnatural/supernatural experience, wherein the body and mind of the neophytes are tested. As Van Gennep notes, “the life of an individual, regardless of the type of society, consists in passing successively from one age to another and from one occupation to another” ([1909] 2019: 3). Van Gennep's work—on diverse rites such as ceremonies of birth, childhood, social puberty, betrothal, marriage, pregnancy, fatherhood, funerals, and initiation into religious societies—was further developed by anthropologist Victor Turner (1969) and form the basis to most contemporary analyses of age-related rites. Alternately, Douglas's idea of the fertile realm of disorder (containing dirt and danger) is pertinent for my analysis in terms of both the unconscious state of mind of the heroines when lost and roaming the wilderness and in terms of vocalizing the realities of their lives through their thought processes.5 In an attempt to provide approximate closeness to explaining a unique Sakha phenomenon known as turuk, I use Lacanian concept of the Real (Golan 2018; Lacan and Fink 2007), in which conscious processing of the circumstances and surroundings in the situation such as being lost is taken over by the unconscious. This works as a protective shield preventing the mind from overstressing, hyperventilating, and overthinking, but allowing a response to the occurrences in the present moment, without anticipating the next step and expecting and imagining the future, which is yet to come and happen. Finally, to provide a grasp of the sense of community that is both imagined and real in the post-Soviet Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), I discuss concepts from Svetlana Boym's (1994 and Benedict Anderson's ([1983] 2016) seminal works. I believe that addressing and drawing attention to these cases of missing children and analyzing their narratives can contribute to renewing and reshaping the cultural identity of the marginalized people of the Russian Arctic, resulting in a healthier future.

The Narratives

The first story discussing a missing child was published in 2015 in Russian. In “12 Days in Taiga,” Victoria Gabysheva writes about the loss and recovery of four-year-old Karina Chikitova. The second story about survival in the Arctic tundra pertains to Kerecheene Tuprina and was written by Liubov Gotovtseva in the Sakha language. Her book, Big Sister, We Are Alive, was published in 2019. Both publications appropriated a new communal myth in the region and represented a new field of literature, and thus should be studied as examples of voices from the vast and remote Sakha Republic that can contribute to postcolonial Arctic regional studies. The narratives could also potentially allow the indigenous peoples of the Russian North and the new inhabitants of the Arctic region to claim their place in the global cultural and literary studies canon. This article focuses on these two stories for their subject matter—these accounts of survival and internal migration could promote awareness about the local communities, and the importance of taking responsibility for one another among future generations.

Although the cases represent stories of child abandonment, they also pertain to survival and are, therefore, accounts of redemption with happy endings, where the children are poised for better lives and promising futures. The stories are illustrative of post-Soviet social change and pose several questions of paramount importance in the region, such as environmental issues and the relationship between internal migration and intercultural imbalance. Furthermore, they speak to a larger symbolic narrative of the region itself being a “neglected child,” where the head of the Sakha Republic, Aisen Sergeevich Nikolaev (2018–), has been accused of absenteeism and spending state funds on travel and stays in Moscow.6

Whereas the first president of the sovereign republic, Mikhail Nikolayev, was able to protect the territorial integrity of Yakutia with Boris Yeltsin's approval, his successors followed a different path, losing their constitutional independence and renouncing their regional power to handle the disbursement of natural resources. In 2009, under orders from the present President of Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, Russia's constitutional court demanded the removal of the term “sovereignty” from the constitution of Russia's eleven autonomous republics and oblasts. Although the republics and their parliaments briefly resisted this move, the Sakha Republic decided to give in under President Vyacheslav Shtyrov. In a joint statement, Shtyrov and his parliament speaker, Vitaly Basygysov, declared that “subjects of the Russian Federation are not eligible to have sovereignty, since the federation as a whole has it” (RFERL 2009).

The stories of lost and found children in Yakutia's rural regions are symbolic of the future of these communities and the transformation of their cultural identity. The two stories chosen for this article are based on real events, although they contain fragments of folklore, which is revealed in elements emphasizing a connection with nature as well as tropes of the natural against the supernatural. Written by local journalists and containing few fictional elements, they are recounted narratives that reverberate with the oral storytelling tradition innate to the region. The accounts often involve surreal psychedelic travels between worlds and depict negotiation between humanity and nature.

The questions that drive this argument are as follows: Can these recurring cases of lost and found children be considered symptomatic of a void that represents a lack of communal decay among indigenous people in Yakutia? Does nature interfere with prompting the people of Yakutia to return to their roots and steer them away from the constructed identity imposed on them by their present-day rulers (including Russian oligarchs, their wives, Instagram bloggers from Moscow, and their cohort)? Furthermore, both stories described here have happy endings, prompting the repeated question: What helped these children survive?

The answer to that last question may lie in traditions of communal care as well as in a meditative mode of consciousness. Anthropological studies indicate communal reciprocity in the behavior of Evenki hunters as “informal” arrangements and subversive activities (Anderson 1998).7 For example, in the case of Kerecheene Tuprina, the reindeer herders’ yurt had a stash of stale but edible dry food in the form of buckwheat and tea (Gotovtseva 2018: 33–34). The rescue team sent to search for the Tuprin family on snowmobiles and a helicopter also reflected the importance of community effort (Gotovtseva 2018: 43–46). Karina's survival story also contains an episode where she sees a bear and remembers her grandmother's words:

Suddenly, in the bluish fog in front of Karina stood a large shaggy block. “Oh, Bear Grandpa!” thought Karina, not at all surprised. When she used to accompany her grandmother to the island to pick wild onions, her grandmother had taught her: “When you see a bear, do not be afraid and do not run.” Karina did not run and remained motionless, although she could clearly feel through the dust that someone was watching her. She eventually fell asleep. (Gabysheva 2015: 40)

Her grandmother's words saved Karina's life and reflect a tradition of inter-generational passing of knowledge in the community, thus serving as evidence of communal support and reciprocity.

Turuk as a Capacity for Survival

Indigenous peoples of Yakutia define turuk as a specific mode of consciousness characterized by an altered, meditative state of mind: “Yakuts use the term turuk to mean an altered state of consciousness. Turukka kiiri—‘falling into a trance or ecstasy’” (Bravina 2018: 100). It is similar to a shamanistic trance, where an individual's perception of reality is subdued, and the inner primordial consciousness of somatic processes takes over the emotional state.8 The Western equivalent of this state of mind is the Lacanian term, the Real. Lacan defines this state as a realm similar to animal consciousness (Hotchkiss 1997: 44–96). It is a domain where structured and metaphorical language has no reach; it is a state in which one is only aware of the need. It allowed them to bypass the emotions connected to being lost and simply focus on survival. Perhaps it is this state that made the girls immune to panic and despair.

A closer reading of these semi-biographical survival accounts reveals that both girls, as part of their survival process, fell into the realm of sensory knowledge, following sounds and smells; they perceived themselves and their surroundings through movement and breathing. The fact that the girls survived and are presently mentally healthy is evidence of their ability to access turuk. Both stories are based on interviews with the heroines by the journalists Victoria Gabysheva and Liubov Gotovtseva and contain firsthand emotions and perceptions of the realities and experiences endured by the girls. Their stories indicate a specific stream of consciousness that blocks reality and allows the mind to float back and forth, permitting the heroines of these survival accounts to dream-walk, which is often encountered in other Sakha stories and folklore.

These girls’ stories represent the interplay between purity and danger, where the danger of being lost in nature is a prerequisite for renewal and transformation. In this interpretation, the girls are representative of their communities. Their stories constitute modern myths, as they are exemplary reminders of the rites of passage and the necessity of transformation that can allow the indigenous community to have a future that includes accepting dirt and danger as representative of their origins. To understand the way these cases are perceived in Yakutia, one could consider the explanation provided by a local academic about the way communal myths function and what they represent. In her work Ethno-Social Adaptation and Survival of the Indigenous People of Yakutia (2012), the local sociologist Baisheva states that myths of the indigenous people of Yakutia were created and formed as exemplars of survival; they were not fantastic accounts resulting from the exalted states of mass cultural imaginings and attempts to explain the forces of nature. Baisheva claims that these northern indigenous myths have a didactic mission and function as practical survival manuals for future generations of the population in the social landscape of the Arctic.

The imperialist Soviet rule sanitized the “savages” of Yakutia by forcing them to abandon their language and feel ashamed of their cultural identity, spiritual and ontological beliefs, and physical appearance. These sanitizing measures also resulted in neglect; those I interviewed in 2019 remembered stories of parents rejecting their children in the deserted countryside for looking little too “native” or if they came from marginalized homes. Sidorova and Rockhill (2016: 42–46) in their article for Sibirica “Family on the Edge”, state that the social trend among young women is to marry well and therefore to pave the way for oneself to an easy and glamorous life. Unfortunately, the lack of sexual education and proper traditional dogmas, as suggest my personal observations and my interviewees testify, result in early pregnancies—the children of these early pregnancies are often unwanted as they were unplanned (from my conversations with the artist Nikolai Chochasov, and the leading gynecologist of the National Center of Medicine and Research in Yakutsk, Marina Khokholova, Ob.Gyn., M.D., interviews conducted in Spring of 2018). It is the question for the specialists in the field of genetics under which circumstances any recessive European gene survives or dissipates, but the “pretty girls” of mixed blood often end up being estranged from their more indigenous darker-looking offspring in their quest for a better match in life. (In my case, as well as others in my family, and many of my female friends had been disliked and scolded by their taller, fairer-looking mothers for our shorter and darker appearances and statures.)

The Girls’ Narratives

It is important to note that both of these stories pertain to children who belong to minority groups of the region. Karina is Evenki from Olëkminskii ulus, in the southern part of the Sakha Republic, while Kerecheene is Dolgan from Anabar, in the far north of the Republic. Their communities developed as a result of centuries of deconstruction of their ancestors’ nomadic lives, where even the relatively happier living standards of Soviet times did not lead to the demarginalization of their families. Their families may be middle class by some accounts but are also identified as dysfunctional by a majority of sources.

Karina Chikitova

Karina's story resonated throughout Yakutia and beyond in 2016. It was recorded and broadcasted via social and informational media channels and even inspired members of Yakutsk's creative community to record Karina's adventure in fiction and art. It is a truly miraculous story of a four-year-old who was found alive after roaming the forest along the shore of the fast-flowing Biriuk River in the Olëkminskii ulus for twelve days. Karina was found in mentally sound condition, although dehydrated and malnourished. This unfortunate event with a happy ending led Karina to the necessary attention and help she needed and brought stability and security into her life. She went from being a neglected child with obscure prospects living in a remote village to residing in Yakutsk and attending the renowned ballet school, the A. and N. Poselskii State School of Choreography.

Karina quickly became a modern symbol of courage and resilience, reflected in a newly installed monument in the vicinity of Yakutsk airport by the sculptor Nikolai Chochasov, and her image inspired a mural by a Mexican street art artist Drako Rodriguez. The story of Karina's survival and rescue is miraculous but also painfully realistic; it reveals the problems in Yakutia's remote villages, including child neglect, unstable households and a lack of efficient infrastructure due to a fractured state.9 Karina's mother was twenty-one at the time, unemployed and single, and Karina had been left in the care of her maternal grandmother. According to Gabysheva's telling, getting lost began as a happy adventure for Karina, as in Astrid Lindgren or Gerald Durrell's stories. The reality was that a four-year-old child had wandered off in pursuit of a dog after being left alone in an unsecured home in the village of Olom, which only had three homes and eight elderly residents at the time. Karina usually lived in the nearby village of Kiyachchi with her mother and attended kindergarten, but would often spend time in Olom with her maternal grandparents in the summer (Gabysheva 2015: 3).

Although this article's heroines are identified as representatives of ethnic minority groups, they also symbolize the collective neglect of all young inhabitants in remote Russian villages. Karina's understanding of her compromised living conditions is revealed in her daydream-like state on the seventh day of her wandering when she sees a deer's antlers lying on the shore of the river. They remind her of New Year's Eve and her father, who had given her a plush teddy bear following holiday tradition: “Daddy gave her a teddy bear … It would have been better if he came back and settled down with his daughter and her mother” (Gabysheva 2015: 64).

This example of a child's visual mental associative processing, which takes a reader from an elk's antlers to a plush teddy bear and then to pondering how the family's domestic situation, could have been better shows the realistic mindset of this particular little girl. This example also reveals the new tendency of parenting in Yakutia today that was discussed by those I interviewed, where upbringing is substituted by bribing through material goods (Interviewee Agrafena #3). The clarity and maturity of Karina's thought process follow her rite of passage, where she encounters her ancestor, a shaman woman, in her dream-like state. The woman comes to Karina in half-dream and in her half-reality state, after Karina is staring, in tears and despair, at a strange raised cabin carved and arranged in the manner of Baba Yaga's hut. This “hut” is an arangas, a specific shamanistic burial where the dead shaman's body, instead of being buried in the grave, is elevated toward the sky. A woman appears to Karina and tells her about their female shamanistic lineage, educating the lost child from the broken home about the truth of her female ancestors, rewiring the girl, and setting her up for a new path in life.

As mentioned, Karina now lives in Yakutsk. Her life-threatening journey ultimately led her to a new, better life because of intervention. However, when people who interacted with Karina, such as one of my interviewees (Nikolai #1), are asked to comment on this “miraculous story,” they do not seem to share any positive excitement. Instead, they find the story to be sad and wish such stories would not be repeated, hoping that this story acts as a cautionary tale for careless parents. Their sobering statements give the story a function of a fairy tale, translating it into a modern myth that stresses the need for community awareness and love.

Kerecheene Tuprina

Kerecheene Tuprina's journey similarly reveals problems in her region in the Far North. These problems include regional isolation from the capital city, poverty, alcoholism among the inhabitants, and disappearing indigenous lifeways. In October 2018, Kerecheene was lost in the snowy wide empty spaces of the tundra, although not alone; she was with her father and his friend. They got lost on their way back to their home village. The path was familiar and predictable, but their snowmobile was diverted from the path, and they eventually got lost. Inappropriately dressed for the weather and without food, they nonetheless miraculously survived for six days and nights before being rescued. They owe their rescue in part to indigenous reindeer herders’ traditional ways of survival and in part to technological tools, as Kerecheene's twin sister Keskileene was also able to reach out for help via Instagram. The lost members found wood and food in one of the reindeer herders’ huts, where they were able to shelter and recuperate for a few days. The wood and food were part of a local custom among hunters and reindeer herders to always leave behind provisions and fuel for possible wanderers in need.

One of Kerecheene's memories depicted in the book relates her previous experience at the Yakutsk airport, drawing the reader's attention to the story of her despair in the face of state-imposed rules and regulations:

Due to the remoteness of the location and the underdeveloped and neglected infrastructure, the northerners learned to live in conditions of reciprocity. Given that the flights are scheduled to fly once a week, Anabyr's people help each other transport goods and send parcels. There was even a case when Kerecheene was required to take a newborn baby to the birthplace of his parents before social services could place him in the state-run orphanage. However, that day, the airport employee, who was having a bad day at work, refused to hear Kerecheene's pleas. Kerecheene lost her breath and started crying. She wept of despair and helplessness, with her tears falling on the smooth and white surface of the airport's floor. (Gotovtseva 2018: 17)

This episode, while short, is representative of several layers in the struggle for survival among Yakutia's indigenous people. Communal reciprocity helped these indigenous peoples survive the severe climate, harsh living conditions, sprawled out settlements, and overall isolation from sources of trade and progress. It also helped them survive imperial and Soviet state-imposed policing and ideology. People in the northern Sakha Republic, for the most part, preserved their communal ways of hunting through harvesting berries and mushrooms and took care of each other, even sharing food and information in defiance of laws and imposed policies. The newborn child's relatives, whose travel arrangements Kerecheene was trying to negotiate, were counting on the communal help they were accustomed to back home in their village.

Children as Symbols of the Future in Modern Myths

However terrible the experience, a lost child brings a community together. Mark Froud writes that “the loss of a child is always a traumatic terrifying event … for the entire communal experience because we see in children our future” (2017: 34). If a horrifying event takes the life of a child, it is a personal menace to the future (Froud 2017). Since a community's children are symbols of the future, these stories of lost and found children thus implicitly raise questions about the future of the region as a whole. The two stories discussed in this paper thus become communal myths and serve as reminders of the importance of skills lost by the community, their communal needs, and the necessity of relearning such skills.

Western tradition considers the study of children and childhood as a premise for the study of human development. The development of the idea of childhood in Western thought is linked to the concept of selfhood and the psychology of memory. Thus, the study of a child's development becomes a prerequisite for understanding the modern human (Froud 2017: 76–81). Generally, in Christian tradition and later European tradition, from works such as St. Augustine's Confessions, Grimm's Fairy Tales, and Rousseau's Emile to Freudian psychoanalysis, the child is situated at the core of the conceptualization of modern man. By contrast, in Sakha indigenous storytelling and literary traditions children are not extensively spoken of or seen and occupy the territory of sacred invisibility. This is perhaps because a newborn child's life used to be fragile, and the joy occasioned by its birth was sometimes short-lived.10 This changed during the Soviet period, as revealed in other Sakha works of literature. Semi-autobiographical works of writers from this period, such as Vasilii Iakovlev (who wrote under pseudonym: Dalan (2018)) and Ivan Gogolev (2005), reveal the harsh realities of being a child in Yakutia during times of struggle, on the cusp of the civil wars that led to the establishment of the new Soviet Republic. Thus, it is perhaps taboo that these stories of lost children also disclose their family's private lives, revealing the worrying conditions and circumstances under which the children got lost.

The understanding of modern myths as “common places” can be drawn from Svetlana Boym's Common Places: Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia. She defines myths as shared memories or a common cultural event: “mythologies are cultural common places, recurrent narratives that are perceived as natural in a given culture but in fact were naturalized and their historical, political, or literary origins forgotten or disguised. Myths are discernable in a variety of literary and historical texts as well as in everyday practices. Myths are sites of a shared cultural memory, of communal identification and affection; and while they shaped the national imagination” (Boym 1994: 11). Boym identifies and traces the origin of common places to sites of common cultural exchange in Hellenistic Greece: philosophers’ stone tablets on which they would inscribe their poems and thoughts for the rest of the community to read and share. She develops her discourse on the basis of such tangible markers of communal shared experiences like kommunalkas (communal apartments, as a part of Lenin's social reforms), burials, sites of historical events, love poems, and songs. The stories of these lost and found children have newly earned their place in communal sentiment and imagination. They are not just symbolic but have also been materialized as monuments representing the region's communal identity.

Conclusion

Having reflected on the individual narratives of Karina and Kerecheene, I return to the broader notion of how the Republic may be seen as a neglected child. Both girls are representatives of indigenous peoples—Karina's family are Olekma Evenks, whereas the Tuprin family represent Dolgan traditions and experience—who were historically considered to be nomads and reindeer herders. Modern Russia is expected to provide everyone with equal opportunity, and one is entitled to government support if one is a member of an ethnic minority.11 Yet living conditions in the republic's northern regions are alarming. Kerecheene Tuprina's story is not directly an outcome of neglect or a particular social problem. Nevertheless, the location in which her story unfolded and the usual route she and her father took in their journey reflects the current difficulties of living in the northern parts of the Sakha Republic, where the lack of reliable public transportation and functional infrastructure is well known.

Neglectful treatment of the villagers, a lack of allocated resources for families in need, and a lack of education are also evident in Karina's story. These incongruities in circumstances that led to the young heroines being lost stem from the reformatory decisions and actions of people in power that did not take into consideration the unique lifestyles of the people who had suddenly become Soviet subjects. This remains the case today: the indigenous people of the Russian North are still regarded as “savages” and wildlings, and their lifestyles are seen as backward and counterproductive.

The population growth rate in rural Yakutia was considered to be more or less stable by the beginning of the 2000s. However, it was later observed that social groups from the far northern industrial areas of the Republic were leaving their places of habitation in larger numbers than those in and around the central agricultural regions closer to the capital. Although not about a physical kind of external, urban-rural migration, Karina's and Kerecheene's experiences are stories of a situational “internal” migration which, out of sheer luck, ends happily for them. When discussing the feminization of migration, Deshingkar and Grimm state that community migration is a “livelihood because it allowed them to bypass the emotions connected to being lost and simply focus on survival strategy for poor groups across the world and not just a response to shocks” and “poverty and physical mobility have always been interrelated” (2015: 6–8). Both girls began their journeys from one life situation to another not with active and conscious intent to physically relocate or escape poverty but rather through the liminal experience of being lost and found that they arrive at a new place in life. Their stories can be interpreted as an adaptation strategy or a response to both the shock of being lost but also the instability present in their lives. Overall, the survival stories of lost and found children, with their physical and metaphorical movement, can be translated and preserved as a form of new mythic narratives that contribute to postcolonial cultural and anthropological accounts from this part of the world.

Further to this, Karina and Kerecheene's stories are important as they contain a message to communities in Yakutia. As Benedict Anderson ([1983] 2016: 7) states, “communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined.” This point infers that even members of the smallest communities might have an insufficient tangible understanding of what their fellow members look or sound like. The girls’ stories, in their creation of a mythic “common place” (Boym 1994), help those who hear them and read them to better imagine the lives of fellow members and perhaps better face the issues that they all share.

Notes

1

This article is informed by my interviewees, who are people I love and have known for many years; due to their occupations, they have access to the different social strata of Yakutia. These sources preferred to remain anonymous, and so most of the names are either not mentioned or changed—they value their places of employment and have children that they take care of and provide with unconditional love.

2

It has been recognized that the northern nomadic groups are not people of aimless journeys, as they had been depicted in the past, but are rather peoples with historical trauma who have been extraordinarily constrained by state policies and of unique traditional ways of living (Baisheva 2012: 13).

3

For more on the history and impacts of diamond mining in the region, see Tichotsky (2000).

4

For further discussion, see Back and Solomos.

5

Douglas states that “order implies restriction; from all possible materials, a limited selection has been made and from all possible relations a limited set has been used. So disorder by implication is unlimited, no pattern has been realised in it, but its potential for patterning is indefinite. This is why, though we seek to create order, we do not simply condemn disorder. We recognise that it is destructive to existing patterns; also that it has potentiality. It symbolises both danger and power. Ritual recognises the potency of disorder. In the disorder of the mind, in dreams, faints and frenzies, ritual expects to find powers and truths which cannot be reached by conscious effort” (1966: 95).

6

The “true” opinions of the people and their dissatisfaction with their Il Darkhan (darkhan means “leader” in Yakut) can be retrieved from the public discussion forums on Ykt.ru: https://news.ykt.ru/article/111024?gotop.news and https://joker.ykt.ru/2020/11/12/aysen-nikolaev-hudshiy-glava-regiona-na-vsem-dalnem-vostoke.html?gotop.joker. Aisen Sergeevich Nikolaev is often referred to as “tourist” as for he is an avid traveler and enjoys posting pictures of his travels on social media.

7

Anderson ([1983] 2016) states that informal arrangements and subversive acts helped Evenki hunters overcome Soviet land regulations and prevented the complete abolishment of traditional practices and knowledge.

8

The characteristics of the state of turuk include bifurcation of the space of consciousness (associated with interhemispheric thinking), change in sensations (body temperature, sensitivity, etc.), mobilization of the psychophysical processes of the body (performing complex tricks and withstanding great physical exertion)] (Kondakov 1999: 93).

9

The name Olëkminskii ulus has its roots in the Evenki word Olokhune, meaning “a region or a nest of squirrels.” Olëkminskii ulus is primarily populated by an ethnically mixed group of people. Owing to its long history of gold mining and mild climate, the region saw several generations of newcomers from the mainland, who mixed with the local population of Evenks by taking them in as houseworkers and cohabitating freely with the local women. Brothels also contributed to the population growth in the town of Olëkminsk. The region was known for its trade in gold, horses, and women. Perhaps its historically temporary and free unions between men and women made this ulus notorious for unstable households and women of ill repute.

10

According to the ethnographer Daria Sapalova (2010), Yakuts and Kyrgyz have similar superstitions regarding raising children. For example, to trick evil spirits that are believed to haunt and claim the soul of children, they never praise the child and often hesitate to call out the child's name. Families often fake kidnappings to confuse these demons.

11

According to article 164 of the Federal Law on the Protection of Rights of the Russian Ethnic Minorities: “This Federal Law, in accordance with the Constitution of the Russian Federation, generally recognized principles and norms of international law and international treaties of the Russian Federation, establishes the legal basis for guarantees of the original socio-economic and cultural development of the indigenous peoples of the Russian Federation, the protection of their original habitat, traditional way of life, and economic activity, and crafts” (as amended by Federal Law No. 164-FZ dated 27.06.2018).

References

  • Anderson, Benedict. [1983] 2016. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins of Spread of Nationalism. London, UK., New York, USA, Verso.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Anderson, David. 1998. “Property as a way of knowing on Evenki lands in Arctic Siberia.” In Property Relations: Renewing the Anthropological Tradition, ed. C. M. Hann, 6467. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Babayan, Agasi, Yoichi Matsue, Nikolai Sizov, and V. K. Arseniev. Starring: Kasym Zhakibayev Dersu Uzala. U.S.S.R.: Tsentrnauchfil'm, 1961.

  • Back, Les, and John Solomos. 2020. Theories of Race and Racism: A Reader. London: Routledge.

  • Baisheva, S. 2012. Ethnosocial Adaptation of the Indigenous Peoples of the North Republic of Sakha (Iakutia). Novosibirsk: Nauka.

  • Bhabha, Homi K. 2012. The Location of Culture. Brantford, Ont.: W. Ross MacDonald School Resource Services Library.

  • Bravina, R. 2018. Shamans Are Chosen Ones of Heaven and Ghosts. Iakutsk: Bichik.

  • Boym, S. 1994. Common Places. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  • Crate, Susan. 2009. “Viliu Sakha of Subarctic Russia and their struggle for environmental justice.” In Environmental Justice and Sustainability in the Former Soviet Union, ed. Julian Agyeman and Yelena Ogneva-Himmelberger, 189214. Cambridge: MIT Press.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Deshingkar, Priya, and Sven Grimm.2005. Internal Migration and Development: a Global Perspective. Geneva, Switzerland: International Organization for Migration.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Douglas, M. 1966. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

  • Fanon, Frantz. 2020. Black Skin, White Masks. London: Penguin Classics.

  • Froud, M. 2017. The Lost Child in Literature and Culture. Gorsham, UK: Palgrave.

  • Gabysheva, V. 2015. 12 Days in Taiga. Iakutsk: Bichik.

  • Gogolev, Ivan. 2005. Khara Kytalyk [The black crane]. Iakutsk: Bichik.

  • Golan, R. 2018. “Phantasy—from Freud to Lacan and from Lacan to the artist.” In Loving Psychoanalysis, ed. Communication Crafts, 3545. 3rd Edition. New York: Routledge.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gotovtseva, L. 2018. Sister, We are Alive! Iakutsk: Bichik.

  • Hotchkiss, B. J. 1997. Nature's Nurture: Imagining the Wild Child in the Nineteenth Century. Sacramento: University of California, Davis.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kondakov, V. 1999. Shamanism Is an Ancient Culture and Religion. Iakutsk: Poligraphist.

  • Kurosawa, Akira, Gerald J. Rappoport, Nagibin Iurii, Asakaju Nakai, Yuri Gantman, Fyodor Dobronravov, Isaac Shwarts, and V. K. Arseniev. Dersu Uzala. U.S.S.R.: Mosfil'm, 1975.

  • Lacan, Jacques, and Bruce Fink. 2007. Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English. New York: W.W. Norton.

  • Mabro, Judy. 2009. Veiled Half-Truths: Western Travellers’ Perceptions of Middle Eastern Women. London: I.B. Tauris.

  • Poelzer, Greg, and Gail Fondahl. 1997. “Indigenous peoples of the Russian North.” Cultural Survival Quarterly 21 (3): 3033.

  • RFERL (Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty). 2009. “Russian region removes ‘sovereignty’ from constitution.” June 2018, https://www.rferl.org/a/Russian_Region_Removes_Sovereignty_From_Constitution/1757505.html.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Said, Edward. 1978. Orientalism. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

  • Sapalova, D 2010. “Iakuty and kiyrgyzy: ethnokul'turnye paralleli i osobennosti. [Iakuts and Kyrgyz: ethnocultural parallels and distinctions]. PhD diss., Dal'nevostochnyii Gosudarstvennyi

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sidorova, Lena, and Elena Khlinovskaya Rockhill. 2016. “Family on the edge: Neblagopoluchnaia family and the state in Iakutsk and Magadan, Russian Federation.” Sibirica 15 (3): 3163.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Tichotsky, John. 2000. Russia's Diamond Colony: The Republic of Sakha. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic.

  • Turner, Victor Witter. 2011. The ritual process: structure and anti-structure. New York: Aldine Transaction.

  • Ulturgasheva, Anastasia. 2020. “Indigenous youth, gender and domestic violence in the Russian Sub-Arctic.” Arctic Gender Equality Network. https://arcticgenderequality.network/gea-times/2020/4/2/indigenous-youth-gender-and-domestic-violence-in-the-russian-sub-arctic.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • V Yakutske postaviat pamiatnik devochke, provedshehi 11 dnei v taiga.” 2014. Rossiiskaia gazeta, August 21. https://rg.ru/2014/08/21/karina.html.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Van Gennep, Arnold. [1909] 2019. The Rites of Passage. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  • Yakovlev, Vasiliy (Dalan). 2018. Tulaiakh Ogho [Orphan]. Iakutsk: Bichik.

Contributor Notes

Natalya Khokholova, PhD, is associate professor of humanities at the Yeoju Technical Institute in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. She is also an examination assessment specialist for the Quality Assurance Board. She is the author of articles on the financial adventures of characters of the nineteenth-century Russian novels, the matters of gender in Soviet film, and Sergei Eisenstein's aesthetics. Email: nkhokholova@gmail.com

Sibirica

Interdisciplinary Journal of Siberian Studies

  • Anderson, Benedict. [1983] 2016. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins of Spread of Nationalism. London, UK., New York, USA, Verso.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Anderson, David. 1998. “Property as a way of knowing on Evenki lands in Arctic Siberia.” In Property Relations: Renewing the Anthropological Tradition, ed. C. M. Hann, 6467. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Babayan, Agasi, Yoichi Matsue, Nikolai Sizov, and V. K. Arseniev. Starring: Kasym Zhakibayev Dersu Uzala. U.S.S.R.: Tsentrnauchfil'm, 1961.

  • Back, Les, and John Solomos. 2020. Theories of Race and Racism: A Reader. London: Routledge.

  • Baisheva, S. 2012. Ethnosocial Adaptation of the Indigenous Peoples of the North Republic of Sakha (Iakutia). Novosibirsk: Nauka.

  • Bhabha, Homi K. 2012. The Location of Culture. Brantford, Ont.: W. Ross MacDonald School Resource Services Library.

  • Bravina, R. 2018. Shamans Are Chosen Ones of Heaven and Ghosts. Iakutsk: Bichik.

  • Boym, S. 1994. Common Places. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  • Crate, Susan. 2009. “Viliu Sakha of Subarctic Russia and their struggle for environmental justice.” In Environmental Justice and Sustainability in the Former Soviet Union, ed. Julian Agyeman and Yelena Ogneva-Himmelberger, 189214. Cambridge: MIT Press.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Deshingkar, Priya, and Sven Grimm.2005. Internal Migration and Development: a Global Perspective. Geneva, Switzerland: International Organization for Migration.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Douglas, M. 1966. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

  • Fanon, Frantz. 2020. Black Skin, White Masks. London: Penguin Classics.

  • Froud, M. 2017. The Lost Child in Literature and Culture. Gorsham, UK: Palgrave.

  • Gabysheva, V. 2015. 12 Days in Taiga. Iakutsk: Bichik.

  • Gogolev, Ivan. 2005. Khara Kytalyk [The black crane]. Iakutsk: Bichik.

  • Golan, R. 2018. “Phantasy—from Freud to Lacan and from Lacan to the artist.” In Loving Psychoanalysis, ed. Communication Crafts, 3545. 3rd Edition. New York: Routledge.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gotovtseva, L. 2018. Sister, We are Alive! Iakutsk: Bichik.

  • Hotchkiss, B. J. 1997. Nature's Nurture: Imagining the Wild Child in the Nineteenth Century. Sacramento: University of California, Davis.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kondakov, V. 1999. Shamanism Is an Ancient Culture and Religion. Iakutsk: Poligraphist.

  • Kurosawa, Akira, Gerald J. Rappoport, Nagibin Iurii, Asakaju Nakai, Yuri Gantman, Fyodor Dobronravov, Isaac Shwarts, and V. K. Arseniev. Dersu Uzala. U.S.S.R.: Mosfil'm, 1975.

  • Lacan, Jacques, and Bruce Fink. 2007. Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English. New York: W.W. Norton.

  • Mabro, Judy. 2009. Veiled Half-Truths: Western Travellers’ Perceptions of Middle Eastern Women. London: I.B. Tauris.

  • Poelzer, Greg, and Gail Fondahl. 1997. “Indigenous peoples of the Russian North.” Cultural Survival Quarterly 21 (3): 3033.

  • RFERL (Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty). 2009. “Russian region removes ‘sovereignty’ from constitution.” June 2018, https://www.rferl.org/a/Russian_Region_Removes_Sovereignty_From_Constitution/1757505.html.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Said, Edward. 1978. Orientalism. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

  • Sapalova, D 2010. “Iakuty and kiyrgyzy: ethnokul'turnye paralleli i osobennosti. [Iakuts and Kyrgyz: ethnocultural parallels and distinctions]. PhD diss., Dal'nevostochnyii Gosudarstvennyi

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sidorova, Lena, and Elena Khlinovskaya Rockhill. 2016. “Family on the edge: Neblagopoluchnaia family and the state in Iakutsk and Magadan, Russian Federation.” Sibirica 15 (3): 3163.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Tichotsky, John. 2000. Russia's Diamond Colony: The Republic of Sakha. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic.

  • Turner, Victor Witter. 2011. The ritual process: structure and anti-structure. New York: Aldine Transaction.

  • Ulturgasheva, Anastasia. 2020. “Indigenous youth, gender and domestic violence in the Russian Sub-Arctic.” Arctic Gender Equality Network. https://arcticgenderequality.network/gea-times/2020/4/2/indigenous-youth-gender-and-domestic-violence-in-the-russian-sub-arctic.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • V Yakutske postaviat pamiatnik devochke, provedshehi 11 dnei v taiga.” 2014. Rossiiskaia gazeta, August 21. https://rg.ru/2014/08/21/karina.html.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Van Gennep, Arnold. [1909] 2019. The Rites of Passage. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  • Yakovlev, Vasiliy (Dalan). 2018. Tulaiakh Ogho [Orphan]. Iakutsk: Bichik.

Metrics

All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 0 0 0
Full Text Views 216 216 61
PDF Downloads 137 137 24