Yesterday’s Memories, Today’s Discourses: The Struggle of the Russian Sámi to Construct a Meaningful Past1

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The Gender Rift

To go there [to the tundra], to live and work there for somebody, to cook there for somebody, I’m not ready to do that. They asked me [to work there] when my husband started working there [at the sovkhoz as a herder]. They tried to persuade me: “Let’s go to the tundra, you will be close to your husband.” “And what about the children,” I asked. “Well, they will be at the boarding school.” But

I said, “No, the kids have to be with their mom.” So, that’s why the tundra simply isn’t for me. I was already used to [living in the settlement] (Interview of a mid-aged Sámi woman by the author, Murmansk Region, 2013).

The deep rupture between worldviews within the Russian Sámi society is also marked by a notable gender division. This gender division has several roots, originating both from local and countrywide factors. It is a phenomenon present throughout the Soviet North and has been aptly named “gender shift” by Povoroznyuk et al. (2010; see the whole issue of this journal volume, which is completely dedicated to the gender shift in the Russian North), showing that this gender separation has been a dynamic process. In Russian Lapland, this division had already begun before the revolution through growing contacts with the Russian and the Komi cultures (Konstantinov 2015:161). The Komi way of herding, which already included a stronger gender separation than among many other Northern peoples, formed the foundations for the Soviet forms of reindeer economy (Habeck 2005:207; Povoroznyuk et al. 2010:17–18). Ultimately, the gender division was enforced through sedentarization/urbanization (Slezkine 1994:187–303), which had already begun in the 1930s and was pushed through with the policy of amalgamation (ukrupnenie) of the rural sectors of Soviet economy in the 1950s (Postanovleniie TsK KPSS i Soveta Ministrov SSSR ot 16 Marta 1957 G. “O merakh po dal’neishemu razvitiiu ekonomiki i kul’tury narodnostei Severa,” 1968). Among all Northern indigenous peoples of the Soviet Union, sedentarization had been accomplished to the fullest degree and at the earliest among the Sámi (Bogoiavlenskii 1985). Already Anokhin (1963:264) saw the contrast between the nomadic living of the head of the family and the sedentary life of all other family members as the main contradiction of the contemporary life of Soviet Sámi.

The gender separation meant that the families were allocated an apartment and the children sent to school in an urban setting, mostly Lovozero, whereas the working place, mostly for men, remained in the tundra. For traditionally tundra-connected people, private and professional lives were since then territorially separated. This split led to a general devaluation of traditional occupations. When having children of school age, many mothers, having the possibility to do so, preferred to stay near them in the village, taking

a job in an urban setting. This understandable wish of mothers was congruent with the goals of Soviet policies: to “civilize” Northern indigenous people by sedentarizing them, to eradicate certain classes and the patrilineal clan as backward forms of social organization, and to replace subsistence economy by more rationalized and productive forms (concerning pre-Soviet patrilineal structures among Eastern Sámi, see Kuchinskii 2008:138– 146). In this new, rationalized world, life in the tundra was to be lived only for professional reasons, which means only by male herders and few female housekeepers, and only in shifts. People not related to these activities were to be employed in other jobs in the settlement (Balakshin 1985; Lashov 1985). As a consequence, typical village occupations like cook, teacher, librarian, bookkeeper, shop seller, and others were taken over mostly by women. This process of defeminization of the land was accomplished in Russian Lapland, as well as in many other places of the Russian North, during the 1970s. By that time, the relationship of indigenous women both to their men and to their land had been completely reshaped.

Their concept of home and hearth had undergone a significant shift towards urban comfort. The men had to leave for the tundra without their women, and also today the tundra of Russian Lapland is, with only a few exceptions, a women-free space (cf. Vitebsky 2002; Vitebsky and Wolfe 2001; concerning analogous gendered consequences of collectivization in central rural Russia, see Olson and Adonyeva 2013:74–75).

In the wake of these socioeconomic changes, exogamy became an important factor. Again, having the choice, women often preferred to keep the achieved urban comfort and marry one of the many priezzhye (up to 90% of all marriages between 1975 and 1985, according to Bogoiav-

lenskii 1985), while Sámi men remained very often unmarried. By 1989, around 60% of all Sámi men in the Lovozero District were unmarried (Vatonena 1988:3; similar developments took place also

elsewhere in the Soviet North, see for example Vitebsky 2002,2010; Vitebsky and Wolfe 2001).

Within the next generation (now the middle one) this development has been accentuated by the boarding school, where girls were generally much better pupils than boys. Boys were often skiving off, much more often held responsible for offenses, and often left school after the basic compulsory schooling period. Here, I will give only a very sketchy explanation for this gendered performance discrepancy, a topic that would certainly deserve

a separate paper. Besides other literature, which again shows that this gender discrepancy already at school level is a phenomenon throughout the Russian North (Bartels and Bartels 1998, 1995; Bloch 2004; Konstantinov 2015:155–159), there is evidence from my interviews as well as from archived statistics. For example, according to a

report of the Commission on Juvenile Affairs of the Lovozero District, in the second quarter of 1974, ten of a total of 12 offenses by minors were committed by boys (Otchet o rabote komissii po delam nesovershennoletnikh pri Lovozerskom Raiispolkome 1974). The proportions are similar in all quarterly reports of that time. As leisure activities were organized by the schools in so-called circles, there was a channeling based not on coercion but on the socially defined gender roles inherent to the majority culture values transmitted by the educational system from the earliest childhood:

Education in the family, in which young boys play with mechanical toys, and girls with dolls, characteristic of mainstream Russian society, has tended to influence both indigenous Sami family educational practices and those of related para-

indigenous communities (Konstantinov 2015:158).

According to many of my interviewees, among the teenagers, the girls attended social activities, art or folklore circles, whereas the boys were more engaged in sports or in the circle Young Reindeer Herder (Iunyi olenevod), if not skiving off. Thus, girls were pushed towards more intellectual activities, usually performed within urban boundaries, and boys towards more physical activities in the tundra. These boundaries were never completely or officially impermeable to the other sex, but the numbers speak for themselves: In 1981–1982, the Faculty of the Peoples of the North at the Herzen Institute had 240 students, of which only about

25 were men (Bartels and Bartels 1995:63), which is even higher than the countrywide gendered distribution of pedagogical and other social professions (Koval 1995). Relying on the notebooks of a teacher at the Lovozero boarding school, Konstantinov (2015:89) states:

A major problem for the school was that such children continued to see their parents. This breach of administrative discipline could not be eradicated. It appears that school and other local authorities alike did everything possible for Internat children to stay “this side,” as it were, of the town-tundra rift, tundra being equated . . . with alcoholism and general absence from social life and “culture.”15

While the girls were “automatically”—i.e., according to the existing gender roles of the majority society in which they received their education— encouraged and thus more able to achieve success within this system, boys had much more difficulties in adapting. This resulted (and continues to result) in an often dismissive attitude by the boys and later grown-up men to social, intellectual, and political work, which is considered as effeminate. More often than not, men confine themselves to the tundra, be it for work or just during their spare time, as a place far from vague talk (cf. Konstantinov 2015:66–95). This could be, in former times, the Soviet ideological talk or, today, the new Western need-and-misery discourse on topics like traditionalism and revivalism. All in all, men were less resilient than women when it came to adapting to the urbanization of everyday life, but they kept a much stronger connection to the land. Women’s resilience, by contrast, was greater in the new urbanized life introduced by the state, but they lost to a greater extent their ability to live in and interact with the land. “Those who are viewed as resilient in one social and geographical space may be vulnerable in another,” as it was aptly phrased by Ulturgasheva et al. (2014:748) commenting on a strikingly similar situation among Siberian Eveny. These differences in resilience can be explained by the gendered values of the majority society people were shaped in.

It follows that not many Sámi men live in activist lifeworlds or take on activist viewpoints. As a tendency, the elder ones have rather sovkhoist views, whereas younger ones often have a pronounced “devil-may-care” attitude. On the other side, the activist lifeworld is a predominantly female sphere. This firm place of the women in the Sámi society corresponds more to a countrywide tendency: Within “the strongly gendered professional divisions in Soviet (and post-Soviet) society, the so-called ‘ideological sphere’ has a strongly female profile in its lower and middle-level tiers” (Konstantinov 2015:91–92; cf. Overland and Berg-Nordlie 2012:99). Coming back to the contemporary ideological activist-sovkhoist opposition, this explains why the share of women in the “ideological talk” of need and misery is so high compared to the proportion of men—in the realm of Sámi ethnopolitics, women have occupied not only the lower and middle levels of ideological production but also the upper level. They thus firmly dominate the activist side of the activist-sovkhoist opposition described in this article. The historical explanation of this female-dominated leadership

might sound paradoxical to most Western actors engaged in the need-and-misery discourse about Russian Sámi: their partners in Russia, almost exclusively women, have gained their abilities to engage in such a discourse thanks to their Soviet education and careers. The roles they were assigned by Soviet society in their private and

professional lives evoked an association of socially defined female values and official values that included notions of tidiness, moral order, and “culture” in general (Olson and Adonyeva 2013:311; Ries 1997:71–72, 81), which, in turn, were connected to the topos of village/town/city.

In this system of values, the men and the land were marginalized, and rural men—in this case, Sámi men—experienced a downward social movement (cf. Vitebsky and Wolfe 2001:93). The marginalization of men has a long history rooted in the beginnings of collectivization throughout the Soviet Union when men as household leaders were usually more often blamed as exploiters than their women and other household members. From the very start of the revolution, rural men usually had a harder time getting on good terms with Soviet power, while women were more often victimized and thus made natural allies of the Soviet liberators (Massell 1974; Olson and Adonyeva 2013:56; Slezkine 1992:66). These are the main underlying reasons for what superficially looks

like a lesser ability of indigenous men to cope with social upheavals in the Soviet North, compared with indigenous women.

Women, as Vitebsky (2010) puts it, are now mothers and wives only in the village, and most do not wish any more to live in the tundra, nor do they have any commitments to a tundra-connected life. On the one hand, they say it is simply too cold and uncomfortable out there, and, on the other hand, life there is perceived as uncultured (nekul’turnaia) and uncivilized (netsivilizovannaia). These two concepts “lie at the heart of the Soviet ideal of how one should live, and persist into post-Soviet consciousness. The continuum from wild to civilized, from wilderness to village to city, is reflected in all aspects of conduct, dress, and comfort” (Vitebsky 2010:42). Thus, there are two causal strings, which explain the higher social status of women among the relocated Sámi: higher

social status within the imposed framework of new social values here clearly met a practical appreciation of everyday comfort, which only the town was able to offer (e.g., gas, electricity, sewage). In this sense, bringing “culture” (understood as “civilization”; see Anderson 1996) to the people has been a productive rather than a repressive effect of power, as Volkov (2000:215) interprets in a Foucauldian manner, which increased the appeal of Soviet power. It also explains why the women became more often or just more active activists: having focused on an urbanized life with a corresponding educational and professional curriculum, they are more used to verbal communication as practiced in settlements (versus the rather wordless communication in the tundra).

Village girls say that they could not imagine marrying a herder, because of their lack of conversation: Television and magazine portray life as a torrent of words and easily revealed passions. . . . To them, the men’s communication with animals, rivers and mountains which make much speech unnecessary seems maladaptive. Rather than a talent, it is now interpreted as a deficiency (Vitebsky 2010:42).

That is also why for me, as an oral history researcher in Eastern Lapland, it has always been much easier to speak with women.

The Siyt Rift

One day I was approached by a woman, I don’t know exactly who she was, but she was one of the locals: “You are not one of us [vy ne nasha],” she said, and I answered: “No, I’m not and will never be! I have to live here because our people have been resettled here by force, you see? We’ve never lived here before and never ate your whitefish. We used to eat salmon instead, so shut up” (Interview of an elderly Sámi woman by the author, Murmansk Region, 2013).

In regard to Siberian indigenous settlements, Gray et al. (2003:204) have noted that “many ‘communities’ in Siberia . . . were created relatively recently and artificially (during the forced relocations of the 1960s, or even later, during the destruction of the state farms in the early 1990s).” Exactly the same applies to Russian Lapland. Western and Western-influenced literature often disregards an important set of fault lines across the Russian Sámi society resulting from exactly those relocations.

Although deploring the relocations is a prominent feature of the need-and-misery discourse, an important heritage from the prerelocation social organization is completely left out of sight within the Western idea of a primordial, pre-Soviet unitary Sámi “community”: the spiritual and emotional place attachment to the original siyts, the Sámi local communities. A good definition of the siyt is given by Kuchinskii (2008:96, translated by author):

The siyt is: 1) a socially important center; 2) a community of people, interconnected by kinship, culture, religion, husbandry, and history; 3) self-identification; 4) from a historical point of view, a nature compound (also in a religious sense), to which the life of many generations of the same community can be connected.

The siyt as a social institution in many ways was remarkably stable for about 400 years (cf. Kuchinskii 2008:134–138, 145–146, 182–186).

Land is in Western juridical terms mostly associated with property. A further very important dimension in local interpretations of land is one of associations, memories, and kinship (Vitebsky 2002:182). Many interviews have shown that the place attachment of people to their siyts of origin did not just evaporate together with their elimination in the 20th century and the following creation of new “communities” through relocations (Afanasyeva 2013; Allemann 2013; Gutsol et al.

2007). My collected biographical narratives reveal that the defunct siyts have remained an important identity marker to this day (see quotation at the beginning of this section). The sample of interviews collected so far indicates that one could speak even today of several communities depending upon the former siyt from which somebody originates.

Here, generational and territorial rifts are interconnected: On the one hand, there is the fact that the original siyts have been disbanded and people relocated due to Soviet policies. This upheaval led to the destruction of many cultural

features. For example, living together in bigger settlements without regard to the former siyt borders rather accelerated the loss of the different Sámi languages because Russian (and in some cases Komi) became the interethnic and intraethnic lingua franca (Overland and Berg-Nordlie 2012:60). This situation is most visible in Lovozero, which for centuries had been an average-size Sámi siyt, but had become mainly Komi dominated since their immigration to the Kola Peninsula at the end of the 19th century. Due to the relocations, since the 1960–1970s, the high interethnic Sámi/Komi/ Nenets/Soviet-incomers differentiation of the vast lands of the Kola Peninsula has been concentrated in the tiny territory of Lovozero. It became the “capital city” of the Russian Sámi, with the biggest number of them living there. But at the same time, in absolute numbers, they were behind the Komi and the Soviet-time incomers population of the village.16,17 Maybe for this reason too, even today the older and middle generations still feel a strong place attachment to their old siyts. In a village like Lovozero, where, according to my sets of interviews, in the aftermath of the relocations there was a shortage of jobs, housing, and other resources, this attachment to the former siyts created loyalties and rivalries reaching far behind what short-time visitors to Russian Lapland would generally have a clue about.

On the other hand, being “crammed into this sack called Lovozero” (interview of an elderly Sámi person by author, Murmansk Region, 2008), created the basis for a certain community feeling among the ethnopoliticians of the first days with disregard of the old siyt borders—but only to a certain degree and when motivated by certain interests. In the middle generation, place attachment to the siyts (directed inwards) and pan-Russian–Sámi community construction (directed outwards) exist side by side. The memory about the former siyts is kept alive somewhat artificially in an attempt to rediscover or recreate the past: there are regular group trips to those places, thanks to the considerable efforts of some ethnopolitical activists, which include procuring access permissions from the authorities and chartering a ship.

In the younger generation of those self-identifying as Sámi, place attachment to the siyts has become much weaker. Here, a new, more unified Russian Sámi identity is replacing the century-old siyt-attached identities.

The different siyt attachments are not directly interwoven with the opposition between activist and sovkhoist worldviews, and they are not much used as an instrument within the need-and-misery discourse. But it has been an important fault line, in particular among the older generations, when suddenly people had to live together who used to live in distinct communities far away from each other, meeting only for trade or intermarriage. The slow fading away of the siyt rift due to the weakening attachment to the siyts among the younger generation happens in favor of a strengthened pan-Sámi identity. This may result in attaining more cohesion and less internal conflict within the next generation of ethnopolitical activists.

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