The Last Shaman

The Chukchi Bible

by Yuri Rytkheu, translated from the Russian by Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse
Archipelago, 362 pp., $16.00 (paper)
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Staffan Widstrand/Corbis
The Chukchi people hunting walruses and whales; ivory tusk engraving from the village museum in Uelen, the easternmost settlement in Russia and Eurasia

Even among the dwindling populace of today’s Siberia, the numbers of the Chukchi people barely signify: a mere 15,000, of whom many still follow a threatened life as reindeer herders and maritime hunters. Several thousand years before Russia’s expansion in the seventeenth century, their Mongoloid ancestors spread into Siberia’s remote northeast. They were notoriously independent. An eighteenth-century map inscribes their enormous territory “Chooktchi natio ferocissima et bellicosa, Russorum inimica,” and long after other Siberian tribespeople were paying the tsar an annual tribute in furs and tusks, the Chukchi refused.

Only with forced Soviet collectivization did their way of life change. Then they found themselves numbered among Stalin’s malye narody, the “little people” whose culture was considered so thin or nonexistent that they might evolve unimpeded from Stone Age savages to Homo Sovieticus.

A notable byproduct of this redundant hope—and arguably the foremost writer to emerge from the minority peoples of Russia’s far north—was the writer Yuri Rytkheu, who died in 2008. His life was a controversial one, apparently betraying—then returning to—his native roots. Now his The Chukchi Bible, just published in English, reads like a last, ringing testament to his people: a reworking of their myths, their history, and his own ancestry, in a poetic act of reclamation.

Rytkheu was born in 1930 in the village of Uelen, at the easternmost tip of Eurasia, by the Bering Straits. His hard early life included spells as a cook’s skivvy, stevedore, trapper, and whale fisherman, experiences that were to feed into his fiction. After the local publication of his first articles and stories, he entered Leningrad University, and in 1954 was accepted into the time-serving Writers’ Union. In all he was to write at least five notable novels, several volumes of short stories, and an autobiographical trilogy.

For his earlier books, there are those who never forgave him. His slavish pursuit of the Party line and open repudiation of his people’s traditions are embarrassingly manifest in works that celebrate the (nonexistent) transformation of his native Chukotka into a Soviet paradigm. After a few years as a journalist in the Siberian town of Magadan, he opted for comfort and increasing fame in Leningrad, and there, by and large, he remained.

But by the late 1970s, as the slow literary thaw continued, he started to write differently. Perhaps influenced by the derevenshchiki, the “village writers” who turned for their values to the unspoiled countryside, he began to extol precisely the Chukchi oral culture that he had once repudiated. Now, in this final book, The Chukchi Bible, he has written a full-blooded tribute to his people’s past, and it is easy to imagine it a last act of personal contrition.

The Chukchi Bible is divided into two unequal parts. The first and smaller, subtitled “From the …

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