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

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PRE-PRINT VERSION of Allemann, Lukas. 2017. “Yesterday’s Memories, Today’s Discourses: The Struggle of the Russian Sámi to Construct a Meaningful Past.” Arctic Anthropology 54 (1):1–21.

Yesterday’s Memories, Today’s Discourses:

The Struggle of the Russian Sámi to Construct a Meaningful Past1

Lukas Allemann

Abstract. When new discourses appear, they can cause a certain pressure to search for new meaning of past actions and therefore even change recollection. During a period of discursive transition, these processes of memory evolution can cause serious social rifts. These insights from oral history theories are applied in this paper to the Sámi people in Russia, who all too of- ten are seen by outsiders as a homogeneous community. I seek to correct this distorted image by analyzing the several interconnected rifts crisscrossing the Russian Sámi society. The following social fault lines are identified: the generational, the gender, the siyt, and the Lovozero-and-the- rest rifts, as well as a rift of worldviews, which I describe through two conceptual poles called “activists” and “sovkhoists.” Thus, the article contributes to raising awareness about the po- tentially differing interests of the individuals who constitute what is usually called the Russian Sámi “community” and increasing the critical distance of outsiders towards generalizing claims about “the” Russian Sámi.

“History is an invention which reality supplies with raw materials. It is not, however, an arbitrary invention, and the interest it arouses is rooted

in the interests of the teller,” writes Alessandro Portelli, citing Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s (1972) novel, The Brief Summer of Anarchy. He adds: “This is why ‘wrong’ tales are so very valuable.

They allow us to recognize the interests of the tellers” (Portelli 1991:2, italics added). During my fieldwork among Sámi people in Russian Lapland,2 I found many examples illustrating this

statement, which is of eminent importance in this paper.

In the case of the Russian Sámi, I need to especially stress the fact that I speak about the interests of each individual teller. These interests are the key to understand why a person “regards certain assertions as true, certain values and norms as right and certain experiences as truthful” (Gerbel and Sieder 1988:207, translated by the author). It may seem obvious that each individual has his or her own interests, but it has to be underlined here, because all too often in the “Western”3 discourse about the Russian Sámi, they appear as one community with unitary interests (see Berg-Nordlie 2011 for an according media analysis on this topic). However, the stories I have listened to throughout Russian Lapland—which means both in the frequently visited settlement of Lovozero

as well as in the more “pristine” areas—show that there is no such thing as one consolidated Russian Sámi community representing a certain set of

interests, as imagined by the dominating discourse on this “community.” As has been noticed earlier, in Russian Lapland we can meet

very complex perceptions of past and present. . . . A specific research on the topic, with more serious engagement with theoretical contributions on the sphere of historical memory (well developed in anthropology) can bring a more profound analysis (Vladimirova 2006:222).

In this article, this is what I am endeavoring to do.

Grouping people according to ethnic or national boundaries—in our case both together— does not mean that there actually is such a homogeneous group as a substantial thing-in-the-world (Brubaker 2002). Gray et al. (2003:205) point at the same problem in relation to Siberian indigenous minorities:

At issue here is the concept of collaborating with communities, which has become very popular with funding agencies. But does one really collaborate with a community or with individuals in a community? Any community will contain diverse interests.
Indeed, also among the Eastern Sámi instead of a community we rather have a kaleidoscope of heterogeneous views on the present and the past, which determine how people act. These

different views and even worldviews reflect the several, partially overlapping fault lines dividing the around 1,600 people4 usually grouped under the common category of Russian Sámi. While the problem of seeing them as a community has been addressed earlier (Konstantinov 2015:18, 34;

Vladimirova 2006:69–70, 2011:103), no systematic attempt at breaking up the supposed community into the ruptures dividing it has been undertaken so far. The goal of this paper is to describe these rifts and thus—borrowing Benedict Anderson’s (1983) famous term—deconstruct the “imagined community” of the Russian Sámi. Those rifts are not new insights per se, as the quoted literature

in each section shows, but I wish here to give an amalgamated overview with the goal to counteract the idea of community and to contribute to a more fine-grained view of the Russian Sámi today. Furthermore, the understanding of these fault lines has become a crucial element in my broader oral history research about the Soviet past of the Russian Sámi because it helps to explain the mechanisms of selection of stories researchers are told about the Soviet past and the ways in which they are told. What follows, is an attempt to categorize several fault lines running through the Russian Sámi society. Namely, the rift of worldviews, which is a rather ideological rift characterized by different answers in the quest for a “Golden Age”: the generational rift; the gender rift; the siyt rift;5 and the Lovozero-and-the-rest rift. These categorizations are highly conceptual and are not in any way to be seen as absolute. Rather, they are subfields of identifications, which, combined in different constellations, reveal different patterns of social affiliations, divergent opinions and varying intentions of the interlocutors.

In many ways inspired by Ries’s (1997) study Russian Talk, my wider goal, then, is to offer a set of categories that helps to better grasp, on the one hand, cultural meanings and discursive structures among the Russian Sámi, and, on the other, the social and political sources and resonances of those underlying meanings and structures.

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