Cornell University Press

Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer on Galvanizing Nostalgia? Indigeneity and Sovereignty in Siberia

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Incursions of Russia or its proxies into Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan have shown that the geopolitical territories of the former Soviet Union are far from stable, and their boundaries are continually being tested. 

While these high profile hot spots are in the news, republics left within the legally defined Federation of Russia are less well publicized.  Could President Putin’s current belligerence in part be diversionary, a ploy to unite Russia’s diverse multiethnic peoples against manufactured outside enemies? Domestic political instability, poverty and ecological discontent are growing, with enormous yet varied ramifications depending on the region inside Russia. The country’s vast Far Eastern territories, disproportionately influenced by climate change, hold important keys to its wealth, future development, and stability.  Yet precisely these regions are among the least understood.

My book exposes Russia’s contradictions and multiple civilizational solidarities by comparing three republics of the Siberian Far East. Analysis highlights the viewpoints of individuals and groups living in the Sakha Republic (Yakutia), Buryatia and Tyva (Tuva). I explore local conditions and social change, on the basis of long-term engaged anthropology fieldwork with Indigenous peoples.

Regions of Russia

The term “Indigenous” in the context of Russia is problematic, since Russian law defines its “Native” (korennye, from ‘rooted’) peoples as only “small-numbered” (under 50,000), while United Nations definitions incorporate larger non-state ethnonational groups with long-recognized homelands, such as the Sakha, Buryat and Tyvans of the Siberian Far East.  Recognition as Indigenous and as peoples with their own republics is advantageous.

As the Soviet Union came apart, national aspirations of republic peoples living within Russia’s boundaries were satisfied to uneven degrees with various bilateral treaties. Two Chechnya wars in the North Caucasus put chills on any premature dreams of secession by republic leaders. Instead, partial sovereignty claims within a federation built on historically unequal homelands resulted in a system of ad hoc negotiations, and patterns of decentralization and recentralization.  When President Putin came to power, the nested sovereignties that provided potential building blocks for post-Soviet sociopolitical and cultural revitalization became increasingly precarious.  Could Russia fall apart, or would it be held together yet again by repression?

Such difficult questions require historical perspectives and contingent, conditional analyses.  A major theme to emerge from fieldwork in all three republics was nostalgia for the past, but that nostalgia was variable, targeted to different time periods for various purposes.  Some define nostalgia as a sense of sorrowful yearning that evokes passivity or memories of lost Soviet-period youth.  However, just as various forms of sovereignty and identity can co-exist, so can different kinds of nostalgia.  When ethnonational leaders tap into longing for civilizational and political solidarities that existed before the Soviet period, they can be galvanizing and inspiring.  For many Sakha, Buryat and Tyvans, a presumed golden age when their languages and pre-Christian spirituality flourished has become worth recovering selectively. 

Cultural and political renewal is nourished by horizontal interconnections among the Turkic and Mongolic groups featured in this book.  While cultural ties bypassing Moscow have been under-funded, they have increased in intensity and diversity in the twenty-first century.  Film and art festivals, youth camps, pilgrimages to sacred sites, and Eurasianist ideologies have thrived across the historically variable borders of the republics. Alarm about forest fires, floods and other ecological disasters has brought people together as well, creating networks for civic society activism.

Demonstrations have become risky, with Russian opposition leaders like Alexei Navalny and his followers being jailed or declared “foreign agents.” Fear of arrest has caused protest movement organizers to disperse responsibilities and curtail activities. Yet, after a spiritual epiphany, a Sakha ‘warrior shaman’ Alexander Gabyshev rose to public prominence in 2018-20 by calling President Putin an authoritarian demon. Critiquing Russia’s corrupt, impoverished and unequal society, he became a voice of civic conscience.  His march on Moscow from Yakutsk via Buryatia accumulated numerous multiethnic followers.  Arrested several times, he was incarcerated in 2021 in a Novosibirsk psychiatric clinic, subject to an involuntary drug regime, and restricted visitation. His treatment spotlights Russia’s human rights failures, especially the terrifying Soviet era tactic of declaring critics psychotic. A 2022 bard-like pop video in the Sakha language has made Alexander a legend; his followers are hoping he will be neither martyred nor forgotten.  Amid speculation about his legitimacy as a spiritual leader, including in the international press, a major question remains as to why President Putin and his powerful Russian Orthodox elites find him threatening.

Russia’s valiant opposition and multiethnic composition are significant because they reveal fault lines in Russian society.  President Putin’s insecurities magnify the importance of all political opposition, creating vortexes of violence in the name of stability. Opposition mobilization, ranging from secular to religious, and Russian to non-Russian, has been mostly reformist and non-secessionist. Protests, based on hopes for cultural, personal and societal dignity, have centered on such diverse issues as local environmental causes, election fraud, and unjust arrests. This book puts concerns of Siberians on the map of international awareness.

Featured photo: Yakutsk. Parade celebrating Day of Republic statehood. Photo by HalanTul.

Cover image of Galvanizing Nostalgia?
Read more about this book.

Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer is a Faculty Fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center and cofounder of Georgetown University’s Indigenous Studies Working Group. She is the editor of Anthropology and Archeology of Eurasia and the author of Shamans, Spirituality, and Cultural Revitalization and The Tenacity of Ethnicity.

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