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

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The Lovozero-and-the-Rest Rift

As I already stated, activist viewpoints are not only adopted by people directly engaged in Sámi activism, and I already spoke about generational and gender differences in the distribution of activist and sovkhoist worldviews. But the activist-sovkhoist opposition also expresses itself in a territorial fault line, which I call the Lovozero-and-the-rest rift. During my extensive conversations with people in different localities of Russian Lapland, I noticed that the share of interviewees offering activist perspectives in their stories is above average in the Eastern Sámi “capital” of Lovozero, compared to other towns, villages, or the tundra.

I argue that the discourse of need and misery has soaked through to this “over-researched” town to a much greater extent than to other settlements that have seen less attention by visitors during the past quarter of a century. By tendency, in conversations with Lovozerians, positively perceived moments of the Soviet time are faded out more often than in the average of all my interviews. To put it in a somewhat blunt manner, the typical Sámi interlocutor of Lovozero already knows what the average visitor wants to hear. Elderly ladies— the most accessible interview partners besides the ethnopolitical activists themselves, because,

being pensioners, they are at home for most of the time—have often developed an ability to present in their accounts those aspects they think the short-term visitor wants to hear. This inclination has two causes. First, the visitors themselves—not only researchers but also activists, civil servants, journalists, filmmakers, photographers, travelers— contribute to this situation. They visit Lovozero mostly for only a few days and, having retrieved their preliminary knowledge about the region from need-and-misery-discourse-influenced sources, generally ask similar, suggestive questions. I remember well myself being caught in this trap during my first visits and can see it regularly on the examples of other visitors. Second, the ethnopolitical activists, having their homes mostly

in Lovozero and Murmansk, can transmit their views to other Sámi people both in private talks and in public Sámi happenings. These events take place mainly in Lovozero and Murmansk. At the same time, Lovozerians often have reservations about visitors asking questions, just because there have already been so many visitors asking similar questions. Because of this, by tendency, narrative interviews at a very intimate level require more relationship building with Lovozero inhabitants compared to other settlements of Russian Lapland having enjoyed less attention by visitors.

A present-day situation or goal can be greatly legitimized by the construction of the past in

the “right way.” In the case of the need-and-misery discourse, which implies a successful act of total victimization, this construction is achieved through the creation of a Soviet-Russian continuity of oppression, which finally serves the goal of obtaining whatever support for whatever kinds of activities of an ethnopolitical agenda. Talking about community leaders in his own fieldwork among Eveny in the northern Sakha Republic, Vitebsky (2010:47–48) speaks of a “rhetoric of extinction (‘we are dying people’) which . . . can be taken

as an extreme expression of a lack of agency.” An example of such an extreme victimization in

Lovozero is the characterization of Soviet times as genocide against the Sámi. Having been told about this supposed genocide by one of the most well-known abroad Sámi politicians in Lovozero (personal correspondence by email, 2014), I was not surprised to read the same statement in the Eastern Sámi Atlas’s short overview of Sámi history during the Soviet period (Mustonen 2011:84–100). The mere brevity of the part dedicated to the Soviet times within this voluminous compendium is a good testimony of the superficial knowledge on the Soviet history of Russian Sámi. This superficiality became self-perpetuating thanks to the reciprocal exchange between visitors and people representing activist perspectives in the realm of the need-and-misery discourse. Having accepted the need-and-misery discourse more than elsewhere, many Sámi inhabitants of Lovozero consciously or unconsciously contribute to the “need and miserization” of views on the Soviet past by telling the stories to visitors, for which there is most demand. This happens in Lovozero more than in other smaller settlements, which are much less visited, and also more than in Murmansk, where Sámi activism is less present in everyday life due to the mere size of the city’s overall population.


Deconstructing the imagined “community” of the Russian Sámi has been a central goal of this paper. We have seen that the adaptation to discourses plays a vital role in the evolution of such constructions or even in the production of illusions.

I have tried to show that one important discourse both about and among the Russian Sámi people is the current need-and-misery discourse. It was

developed out of the interplay between ideological changes since the late Soviet times and the views on these processes in the neighboring Nordic countries.

The ideological change, which started in the 1980s and came of age with the implosion of the Soviet empire, has led to the waning of old barriers, or rather guard rails, and in many ways

widened the perspectives of people. However, also new guard rails appeared. Narratives continue to be influenced both by older values and frames and by newer ones as well. This tendency is natural,

as their total absence would mean a vacuum of experiences, opinions, and discourses. To assume this, would be as void as the famous claim of the “End of History” (Fukuyama 1989) at the end of the Cold War.

Returning to the very beginning of this article, to Portelli’s statement about the interests of the teller, I would like, first of all, to emphasize that there are two sorts of tellers: me—the author of this paper—and my interlocutors whom I was listening to during my research. The simple fact that we all—both researchers and witnesses—are children of our time influences the questions, perspectives, and motivations on both sides (Gerbel and Sieder 1988:193). In this contribution, the focus was on my informants’ views and interests. The broad and vague word “interests” contains notions like intentions, motivations, goals, and dreams, in short: meaning. I assume that it lies in the nature of humankind that behavior is embedded in a quest for meaningfulness (Goffman 1955; Haumann 2006). Using the example of the Russian Sámi society and the need-and-misery discourse, I have shown that

We need to take into consideration the “social context” of memory, the interaction, and communication of a person with his or her environment. Over long periods of time a myth, a certain image can be constructed, that enters into the common memory of a society, takes root and shapes the way this society sees itself (Haumann 2006:46, translated by the author).

I have described that the Russian Sámi society does not refer to one common myth or interpretation pattern. There are two main interpretational strings followed by Russian Sámi people in their narratives. I called them the activist and the sovkhoist worldviews. In their pure form, they are nothing more than scholarly conceptualized instruments of interpretation, theoretical entities, whereas in practice they are altered and mixed to various degrees depending on the topic, audience, and setting.

Activist viewpoints are more often met among people involved in ethnopolitics, younger people in general (those who primarily identify themselves as Sámi), and individuals in Lovozero in general, a settlement that has been the focus of ethnic revival and material aid projects, research and public attention from outside much more than other part of Russian Lapland. The activist worldview, which has been very much influenced by the need-and-misery discourse, implicitly refers to a Golden Age somewhere in an indefinite, prerevolutionary and precolonialist past when there was an idealized, undisturbed community. In this worldview, between the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia, there is a continuity of oppression. The main drawback of such views is that generalizing, superficial, and often wrong assumptions about the past are becoming more and more standard knowledge. Depending on the goals and perspective one has, a maybe positive effect of these stances is that they have significantly contributed to Sámi identity building and a pronounced ethnic self-consciousness in the past roughly 25 years. In this view, there is some probability that exactly the generalizations of the need-and-misery discourse will have the power to build a new generation of a more unified Sámi leadership, which is less caught in the highly fragmented kaleidoscope of the different fault lines described in this article and conflicts resulting from them.

Sovkhoist stances are, by tendency, more widespread among elder and rural people. In this worldview, the referential Golden Age is situated in the Soviet past, among Russian Sámi mostly in the relatively stable 1970s. The sovkhoist discourse emphasizes collectiveness, discipline, and a well-

functioning rule from above as the main advantages of that time compared to contemporary times, which are associated with disorder, greed, and the rule of the strongest and boldest, all due to excessive pluralism and individualism (cf. Vladimirova 2006:66). As has been shown by several scholars, these are attitudes that can be commonly met throughout other post-Soviet regions as well. Also, many people associate these negative aspects with Sámi ethnopolitical activism. I therefore assume that a less quarreling, stronger, more unified, and more transparent ethnopolitical leadership would be very much appreciated by those people and thus reduce the general distance between those poles.

The two worldviews—sovkhoist and activist—are often combined or altered. They can be present in the narratives of one-and-the-same person, and they express themselves in combination with a crisscross of other fault lines within the Russian Sámi society, some of which I have outlined here: the generational, the gender, the Lovozero-and-the-rest, and the siyt rifts. Both

worldviews are lamenting about the contemporary time, but about different aspects of it. While sovkhoist viewpoints lament the greed and excessive individualism of today, in activist accounts the oppression by forces from outside is in the main focus of the lament. Depending on the topic to be complained about, one interlocutor in one conversation can express sovkhoist and activist stances. The different focuses of lament deploy different functions: sovkhoist’s lament fosters a stronger leadership, stronger collective values, less individualism, and less “democracy”—the latter being associated with chaos (Anderson 1996; Konstantinov 2015:24, 264–266; Vladimirova 2014:34–35); activist’s lament fosters an increased pan-Sámi identity and self-consciousness.

The analysis of the different fault lines fragmenting the Eastern Sámi society led me to two main conclusions about scholarly work at the crossroads of oral history and anthropology.

Firstly, when collecting biographical narratives, a broad selection of interlocutors is essential. The problem I see when it comes to choosing interviewees is that very often researchers rely on the help of local partners. It is evident that these gatekeepers will very likely come from already existing relationships. In the case of the Russian Sámi, these relationships usually emerge from some form of Sámi activism. It is only natural that, in their efforts to establish the right contacts between the visitors and the locals, these partners with activist background will propose people who in

one way or the other are already connected to them and hence are somehow involved in their activities or organizations or at least are recipients of their activities. This tendency creates a preselection according to certain implicit criteria of ideological closeness (Burawoy 1998:23). Exactly this is the trap into which many visitors fall when coming to Russian Lapland—which they all too often equate with Lovozero—with the aim of producing something about the Russian Sámi. Thus, they absorb a prevalence of activist viewpoints and—again unconsciously, as is the case with “ordinary,” not explicitly ethnopolitically active Sámi people in Lovozero—give additional impetus to the need-

and-misery discourse once they are back home. If in the beginning of this paper I was talking about the export of the raw materials for the need-and-misery discourse from Russian Lapland to the Nordic countries, and a subsequent reimport of the ready discourse back to Russian Lapland, the situation described here would be a third stage in this process and equate to a reexport from Russia back to the Nordic countries. The discourse commutes between the borders, as the people involved in it do.

One solution to the problem of preselected interlocutors is to ensure having plenty of time in the field—which journalists, filmmakers, activists, and civil servants, but also historians and other scholars often do not have or do not regard as needed—and to begin to build up a “parallel” network of contacts. In our long-term research project, my fellow researchers and I met people all over the Russian and Finnish North who were not recommended to us by people close to ethnopolitical activism. Only through lengthy stays did we begin to meet people whom the typical mediators would just neglect or who were regarded by them as nonrecommendable (or rather “better-not-to-recommend”)—just because, in the eyes of these mediators, they would have “nothing to tell” to us researchers, or they might even tell the “wrong” tales, using Portelli’s words again.

A second solution is that scholars must be especially aware of understanding correctly and not succumbing to the often-sweeping simplifications of the need-and-misery discourse. An additional pitfall is that not only in the need-and-misery discourse about the Eastern Sámi but also in the academic tradition of everyday history the oppression of ordinary people has been a strong strand. “An anti-bourgeois attitude in everyday history led in the 1970s and 1980s to the situation that ‘small people’ were permanently seen as dominated

and oppressed. The search for resistance among these ‘small people’ became almost an obsession” (Obertreis 2004:15–16, translated by the author). Interestingly enough, the present-day need-and-misery discourse on the Russian Sámi also sees the Russian Sámi as a permanently oppressed group, but with the significant difference that there is no search for signs of resistance—they are predominantly seen as downtrodden victims, passive nonagents. This perspective is, in my view, an inherent incongruity of this discourse: either there was resistance or people did not perceive themselves as oppressed; both variants are excluded

by the need-and-misery discourse. However, both attitudes were indeed there, as described in detail by Konstantinov (2015). Also, my corpus of interviews and archival materials indicates that by far not all Russian Sámi perceived themselves as “downtrodden victims” at the time.18

In any case, we must oppose both activist and sovkhoist worldviews as everyday interpretation patterns to our epistemological vigilance, or, in Cruikshank’s (1998:49) words: “We need to concern ourselves with the social conditions under which . . . knowledge becomes defined, produced, reproduced, and distributed (or repressed and eliminated) in struggles for legitimacy.” When it comes to Sámi activism, influenced by the Western need-and-misery discourse and with the goal to obtain whatever support, this “ideological talk”

is often exaggerating the badness of the past and contemporary situation of the Russian Sámi. In this form, it should be understood as a political instrument, and in this quality, it can be legitimate. By contrast, in sovkhoist storytelling, the many shortcomings of life in Soviet times remain often concealed through the simple opposition to the contemporary era, which in this worldview is perceived as even worse. However, as oral historians, we accept that the stories we hear about the past, be they from activist, sovkhoist or whatever voices,

are not the past itself because there is no such thing as a single, objective truth. Concluding with Bakhtin’s (1984) famous term, this polyphony of voices is an inherent advantage of oral history, which lays bare different interests and motivation patterns.

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