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 Ancient Legends,” starts with a retelling of the Chukchi creation myths: how the world sprang from the droppings of a passing raven, and how light was created by the persistent pecking of a snow bunting at the vault of the sky. Men are the offspring of the first woman with a whale, and their fall from innocence happens when a hunter first kills one of his whale brethren. Thereafter, too, the immemorial landbridge between Siberia and Alaska vanishes.
The Chukchi call themselves Luoravetlan, “True Humans,” and they assembled a legendary genealogy around the first hero of Uelen, whose raid on the neighboring Inuit inaugurates the capture of women and the custom of exogamy. Among such personalized stories—perhaps marking a shift in historic practice—a crucial moment occurs when the hero Mlakoran induces his sea-hunting clansmen to rustle the reindeer of their herder cousins inland. But the “four-footed food” that he introduces to his people does not flourish. (Reindeer are notoriously difficult to tend.) Moreover the plague-spreading rekken goblins, ever waiting, drive their tiny sledges into Uelen, decimating the village. For all this, its shamans demand the sacrifice of Mlakoran. Only when the hero ritually impales himself on the spear held by his infant daughter does peace return to the settlement.
Then legend gives way to history. The iron-bearing Cossacks (whom the Chukchi call “hairmouths”) break in with the Western seventeenth century. At first there is peaceful trade, but soon the Russians’ rapacity for walrus tusks and furs brings angry skirmishes, then open war. Often the Cossacks ally themselves with other tribespeople. But the Chukchi hold their own, and in 1778 become the only northern natives to force the Russians to a treaty, safeguarding for a while the independence of their homeland.
Rytkheu’s approach to the past gives priority to the oral legacy ignored by conventional historians. “It’s possible that what I know about Ancient Times will not tally with so-called historical facts,” he writes in his brief introduction.
And in this I am happy to disagree with the scholars. First of all, how can they be so certain of their version of events if they have never heard the lengthy evening-time stories of the famed tellers of tales…? Why do they give more credit to the garbled version of some Cossack, who could not tell a Chukcha or an Eskimo from a tundra beast, than to the tidings carried to us through the ages by the native people…?
In fact this romantic rehabilitation can only go so far. He himself employs standard history where he must. The oral tales, he knows, are full of unlikely victories (and hideous tortures). Their function is as much to create history as to convey it.
But in all accounts the approach of the hairmouths grows ever more ominous for the natives. The Cossacks trade not only in knives, tea, and beads, but in lethal vodka. Their hunger for sables, walrus tusks, and whalebone remains unassuaged, and the illumination of Europe’s city streets depends fatally on whale blubber oil. By the nineteenth century American and even British whalers are intruding into the Bering Straits, the bottleneck for the great migrating whale herds. Each of their ships, in the eyes of Rytkheu’s sea-hunters, “looked like a wooden island with great white wings.” Within a few decades the multitudinous Greenland and baleen herds would be decimated.
But the second, greater section of The Chukchi Bible—and its purposeful heart—describes the life of the author’s grandfather, the shaman Mletkin. It is through the shaman’s experience that Rytkheu traces the passage of Chukchi culture through the pressures and dangers of a profoundly alien West.
He subtitles this section “From the New Legends,” and here the boundary where fact ends and fictional embroidery begins becomes increasingly blurred. Rytkheu never names his sources. But in his introduction disdaining conventional history, he writes:
Much that is known about my ancestors…has been saved in human memory, like all of our distant past, passing from one generation to the next as part of an oral tradition…. In order to re-create it, I—like the storytellers of Ancient Times that came before me—must marshal not just memory but imagination.
For he is working toward the recovery of his people’s lore not through scholarly reconstruction, but through poetic empathy, and the “New Legends” of his subtitle are consciously self-recreated. Like the old bards themselves, he has appointed himself not only the curator of his people’s past, but its spiritual replenisher.
The legends, he knows, are rarely any longer literally believed. Generations of Russian education have intervened. The language of the early stories was very spare—a kind of oral shorthand. Its native audience listened to it knowledgeably, and little needed to be explained. But Rytkheu is starting from scratch, supplying thought, emotion, meaning in a fictive technique that may belong more to the West than to the Chukchi.
The story of his grandfather Mletkin, born in 1868, is saturated in color and detail. It is here that the novel (for a novel it largely is) coheres into a kind of native bildungsroman. Mletkin becomes the chosen successor of his shaman grandfather, but agonizes at his own lack of gifts. When delegated to preside over his people’s annual walrus hunt, his invocations fail; the hunters reach the breeding grounds to find the walruses already annihilated (perhaps by Cossacks), and his grandfather exiles the shattered Mletkin from the village until the youth can divine the “Outer Powers.”
During his long, painful banishment Mletkin falls in with a man whose work Rytkheu himself used and admired: the anthropologist Vladimir Bogoraz, exiled under Stalin to Siberia and busy accumulating priceless data on the lives and culture of the Chukchi. (Bogoraz’s work is still the primary source for them.) This is the start of Mletkin’s education in other beliefs and languages, but by the time he returns to Uelen he has received the visions and voices of the Outer Powers, and is ready to succeed his grandfather. Frail now, the old man asks that his grandson spear him to death (among the Chukchi the old often chose suicide) and Mletkin becomes shaman, “a stranger among his own people,” as others saw him, gifted with foresight and healing.
The image of the shaman as a primitive spirit-raiser, recovering souls by unearthly flight through the netherworld, is carefully avoided here: “He had had no more visions. Yet more and more, he sensed a burgeoning acuteness of hearing and sight, as though his entire body were becoming an exposed nerve….” He refuses to wear his grandfather’s greasy robes of jangling ornaments—the kind that could invest shamans with an eerie magic—and hunted and trapped like his fellows. He even extends uneasy hospitality to Orthodox missionaries who set up a makeshift altar, hoping to convert the village, and later sees them courteously on their way, commiserating comically at their failure.
Rytkheu stays true to his technique—practiced in other novels—of fusing an actual past with a fictional one, and his narrative is anchored by specific dates. In July 1897, Mletkin leaves the village. Driven by an overwhelming restlessness and curiosity, he enlists on an American whaler, the Belvedere, that carries him to San Francisco then north to Alaska. The journey teaches him firsthand the callousness of trade and the bitter impact of vodka, and as the crew winters at Port Clarence he suffers the death of his black friend Nelson when the Belvedere goes up in flames.
By another twist of fate he next encounters the anthropologist Aleš Hrdlička, who entices him to become a live exhibit in the global village of the Chicago World’s Fair. With increasing reluctance and anger, he performs shamanic rituals to a gawping America, then sets out to console the sister of his dead friend Nelson. A torrid affair ensues, and sudden regret. When at last he returns to Uelen after four years, he finds it decimated by plague, and his parents dead.
Years earlier Mletkin had become engaged to a woman in a distant settlement, a woman he has not forgotten. But during his long absence she has married. Mletkin takes her husband aside, and kills him in a knife duel. Then he returns to Uelen with the widow and her infant son, and marries her.
For a time, all is peaceful. Then the intrusion of foreigners—they are Bolsheviks now—becomes more threatening. Schoolteachers arrive to teach Marxism-Leninism; the whaleboats are requisitioned as common property; the rich and the shamans are formally condemned.
“All these new things have appeared, and our people have changed [an old man laments]. What will become of our grandchildren?… What songs will they be singing?”
…They would be slaves to unearned truths; they would be a wholly different people, whose only resemblance to their ancestors would be a physical one. And how could one view this as anything less than a bloodless genocide of a nation?
Mletkin, in the end, is shot in the back by a half-sympathetic commissar.
The narrative style of this saga—where the primitive is in constant collision with a predatory or uncomprehending West—ironically reflects its subject matter, for Rytkheu is himself half shaped by the colonizing culture. The Chukchi Bible, devoted as it is to the resurrection of a pure past, is vivid with the customs and mores of its tribal world, and its characters share something of the supposed simplicity of primitive heroes. Yet their actions are couched in the novelistic language of another nation—Rytkheu became familiar with the Russian classics at Leningrad University—and the narrative gaze veers between that of empathy and that of an outsider. Stylistically, too, the juxtaposition of an archaic and colloquial vocabulary may signify less a translator’s awkwardness than the writer’s split heritage.
The importance of The Chukchi Bible, in its author’s eyes, derives from its success (or failure) in giving voice to a half-vanished world, and it is rich in the texture and detail of past lives. The practices of whale hunting and the rituals of naming or suicide are lovingly recorded alongside the items of old trade and the intricacies of old dress (the overshirts made from deer culled in autumn, the waterproof trousers of nerpa sealskin, the insoles of tundra grass pressed between boot and stocking), and a host of incidentals leave their mark: the sledge runners thinly iced from a water bottle for easier gliding, the sonorous Inuit tambourines—fashioned from stretched walrus stomach—that carry for miles across the ice floes.
In this animist world, the relationship to beasts is pervasive and intimate. Nau herself, mother of the Chukchi people, “did not yet think of herself as a creature apart from the animals that surrounded her” nor even from the tundra plants or clouds. The killing of any animal is circumscribed by ritual; a reindeer can be given as a gift, but never sold; mice and spiders must be placated. Even recently the anthropologist Anna Kerttula, visiting the Chukchi, was summoned by a grandmother who ritually painted her with the blood—the spirit—of a slain reindeer:
I asked, “What does this mean?” The old woman gave me an incredulous look and said, “You are a reindeer.” Then as she pointed to the blood streaks on my body and clothing she began to recite the parts of the reindeer—“antlers, eyes, nose, mouth, throat, hoofs, and vagina.” At that moment I was indeed—a reindeer.*
In Rytkheu’s giant feat of reimagining, the gulf between two cultures is sometimes conveyed through a kind of confused innocence in his characters, whose reactions can be more incisive than comprehending. The endless tax of sable pelts leveled by the tsar on the tribespeople touches them with wonder: Why is the Russian emperor always so cold? And the visiting Orthodox priests astonish the Chukchi. The churches have bells “larger than any deer could wear” (they are rung, surely, “to wake up the sleeping Russian god”) and around each of the heads of the painted saints on icons shone “that peculiar rainbow that comes with the autumn fog, when a sudden warm gust blows in from the tundra…. Yet the divine faces were not happy ones.”
As for Mletkin, arriving in the trolley-threaded streets of San Francisco, he
tried to keep a distance not just from the walls of the tall stone houses, in case of falling debris, but from the middle of the road, too, where a house with windows and doors stuffed full of people hurtled down two endless, shining metal strips at a frightful speed. Whenever the house came to a stop, some people would clamber out and others would get in.
An ancient, blind Chukchi, alerted to his host’s Victrola phonograph, suddenly perks up:
I’ve run my hands up and down this music box, yet still I don’t know what it looks like as a whole. On the one hand, it’s like a bird with a long, sleek neck, and then the neck widens, as though turning into a wide maw. Then there’s the little bird’s head with its needle beak, which scratches at the disc that goes round and round atop the box. But how the voice and the music are made, I can’t even imagine, and it’s the impossibility of seeing—of even imagining—these new things, that gives me no peace….
If the characters in The Chukchi Bible are sometimes wooden—Mletkin himself verges on the Noble Savage—this stems in part from the author’s desire to dignify and remythologize his people. Their oral tradition, he insists, is “characterised by soaring imagination and deep wisdom”—but its recorded myths also seem permeated by grotesque actions and obscene spirits. By idealizing the Chukchi, of course, Rytkheu may render them personally colorless. Emotional ties, especially, come across as synthetic and one-dimensional. His young brides are always bashful and devoted, their young suitors ardently yearning.
“Love between two Luoravetlan,” he writes, “has no words. It is silent and beautiful, like falling darkness over a deer herder’s camp, a shimmering night of aurora flares, the night of myriad stars that pale beside a dazzling moon.”
This, of course, is the language of myth, which may arise, ironically, not only from native nostalgia but from a long-established Russian tradition in thinking and writing of Siberia. As early as tsarist times the great hinterland was considered not only a place where all the viral waste of the empire—criminal, sectarian, dissident—could be banished and expunged, but also as a site of primal purity, uncontaminated by the decadence of European Russia. Peasants even imagined it the site of Belovodye, their Promised Land.
In the Soviet years, despite everything, this populist concept of Siberia as a pure land continued. (Its name is probably a conflation of the Tartar sibir, “sleeping land,” and the Mongolian siber, “beautiful, pure.”) Writers such as Viktor Astaf’ev, Valentin Rasputin, and Leonid Borodin, reacting against the intrusion of industry, perceived this hinterland as a haven of Slavic tradition. Often these “village writers” turned for inspiration to their rural childhood, so that an idyllic countryside (and infancy) shone against adult disillusion.
Rytkheu was not immune to this wave of nostalgia. He was writing in Russian, after all, and for a largely Russian readership. A Soviet gulf separated him from his shaman grandfather, and sometimes, while straining to bridge it, he is the prey of Western concepts. Invocations to “the glorious beauty of nature” and “oneness with nature,” for instance, strike the reader less as a native way of describing experience than an echo of European Romanticism. The idealizing of the Chukchi, too, is mirrored by the countervailing banality of those who try to convert them. The language of the Orthodox evangelists and of the crusading Bolsheviks alike is imbued with the platitudinous rhetoric expected of their kind, without any nuance that might render them more real.
Shortly before his murder by a Soviet official, Mletkin, Rytkheu’s last shaman, officiates at the naming of his grandson. The ceremony is of crucial import. The chosen name will endow the child with something of the knowledge and experience of the ancestors who bore it before him, and symbolically return them to the tribe:
Such was the old custom: after a certain number of generations, in order that the memory of the past did not dissipate in the mist of times long gone, a new arrival into this world was given an ancestral name, as though marking him out as a beacon link in the chain which future generations could use to peer back at the past.
On the vital naming day, an amulet of carved walrus tusk is suspended in the ceremonial lodge—a winged shape, incised with shamanic symbols. If the correct name is announced, the circling talisman will magically incline toward the babe-in-arms.
The child’s Sovietized parents have wanted to name him Lenin, but the shaman has refused. Instead, one by one, he calls aloud the names of prestigious ancestors. But the amulet goes on rotating in an unchanging circle. It is as if the gods have deserted the shaman. Then, in despair, he gives his grandson the name Rytkheu, which means “Unknown”: a recognition that the future may be moving away from them all.