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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

The natives of northern Asia in the post-Communist era

Roberte N. Hamayon

Texte intégral

1February 2003

2Unlike other regions of the world today, northern Asia, home to the steppe, taiga and tundra, seems to be sheltered from upheaval. Let us take the example of the native people of Siberia: the end of the Soviet regime and the change in the market economy occurred with relative apathy (apart from the anti-Russian incidents of violence in Touva). The vast area of northern Asia is hardly talked about. So does this mean that it is not involved in globalisation? Far from it. It has remained closed and isolated for so long that the feeling of discovery prevails for those who enter or leave the region. Even if tourism were to increase in northern Asia, it would be because of journalists, militant ecologists or “New Age” travellers. Yet, although travelling abroad is now possible for the people of northern Asia, it is only accessible to a select group, such as the singers and dancers of troupes invited to perform on tours around the world. Nevertheless, an “Arctic belt” has been established: the “small communities of the north” visited their “distant cousins” in America to learn how to defend their territorial rights and claim their share of natural wealth. Their current situation is that of a complex compromise between “keeping traditions” and shifting towards modernity as fully-fledged people. A mixture of the two distinct concepts can be seen in neighbouring regions regardless of their political situation, be it the national minority or an ethnic group within an independent republic in the Russian Federation, a titular ethnic group within a republic having become independent during the fall of the Soviet Union or an already officially independent State, such as Mongolia.

3The concept of “returning to tradition” has been a major theme since 1990 amongst all those to whom the context enables the awakening or reawakening of nationalism. Gone are the days of eradicating customs, of condemning religions and having to conform to the Homo sovieticus model, living in humiliation and in a world full of constraints. People could be themselves once again. Old ideas and habits continued under the glaze imposed by the aforementioned regime, partly in secret and partly altered, and many thought that these idea remained intact and loyal to themselves beneath the flow of successive instructions. Certain ideas and habits resurfaced as soon as the possibility of re-establishing them opened up, but it quickly turned out that memories alone were not enough, and doubt soon prevailed over the opportunity of to go back to them. This was happening across the board.

4When the collective economy and automatic salary ended, it forced a number of people to resort to the nomadic lifestyle of the hunters and breeders, similar to their grandfathers before them. However, the organisation of work within the Kolkhozes and Sovkhozes amongst others has led to a loss of know-how, which once enabled comparative autarchy. A general education has offered women professional training and they are therefore dissuaded from returning to this way of life with their children. A divide has appeared between rural and urban areas, between old and new values, between men resorting to the old way of life and women with qualifications, and between the two claims of “authenticity” and city intellectuals appearing as those in favour of “traditions”.

5The people of Siberia, who did not have their own State before the Russian colonisation and integration into the USSR, do not have a form of national identity. Not long ago, they claimed to be Touvan, Koriak or Evenk and Soviet at the same time, but such a plurality of identity is not possible anymore when one is only called “Russian”. A suitable model of identity must be made for them, by taking advantage of the restored religious freedom. As former Shamanists, the people of Siberia were more or less converted to orthodox Christianity, Buddhism or Islam a long time ago, before being subjected to atheist propaganda. So which religion were they to follow? Confronted with this problem, the inventiveness of the elites to resolve this matter was extraordinary. The elites of populations such as the Bouriates or the Yakoutes are part of independent republics (without being the majority there) and are the most strongly motivated in exercising their creativity. In fact, local Russians politically and demographically dominate these republics and each republic forges a new identity on a territorial basis, in relation to the main ethnic group. Thus, the Yakout intellectuals firstly adopted Shamanism as the national religion, coming up with a doctrine that was based upon that which was described by Russian observers at the end of the 19th century. In Bouratia, Geser, the most famous and epic of all heroes was chosen as a national cultural emblem (similar to Manas in Kyrgyzstan when it became independent). This was enabled through academic support, the creation of a specific ministerial department, institutions, publications and festivities in Geser’s honour. Nevertheless, none of these symbolic constructs managed to gain the people’s support. Similarly, we are also seeing new attempts emerging, such as tengriaanstvo in Khakassia, Kyrgyzstan and Yakuti. This recent term follows classical Tengriism, based on the Turkish-Mongol Tengri word, “heaven”. It stems from the concept of “mandate of heaven”, used in medieval times by the empires of the steppes to found their legitimacy. Historians have interpreted this “sky” as a supreme religious reference although it was not considered a god and directly worshipped.

6Nowadays, implementing this ancient concept means equipping political unity with religious legitimisation. A form of Tengrianstvo has recently appeared in Mongolia, superimposing itself onto the unifying figure of Genghis Khan, who has dominating the symbolic life of the nation since 1990, and which relishes to become a cult that would combine elements of Shamanism and Buddhism. Constant themes can be observed, which recall former Soviet ways in terms of the creativity deployed for (re) constructing ethnic or national identity, but otherwise adapted to other ideals: the experimental character of innovations, which stimulates their quick succession and their elaborate ritual processes intended to make these innovations well-known, not to mention the practice of commemoration that enables history to be reconstructed. It appears to play an important role in this simultaneous “return to tradition” and modernisation process. Shamanism has given rise to “mystical tourism”, which appeals to Westerners and which is seen locally in various forms (neo-Shamanism in a Western form and urban, nationalist Shamanism). It is in line with liberalism, based on a private initiative that encourages, through the mechanisms that it implements, the emergence of the individual as a subject in these societies.

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