God’s Dancing Lessons

Notes on survival in Siberia

Painting by Arnaqu Ashevak
Arnaqu Ashevak, Town Ravens, 2003, stonecut, 71 x 56 cm (Cape Dorset).

Flying low over the golden conifers in the magical early evening light, the delta of the Ob River sure looks like Canada’s Mackenzie. “Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God,” Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Cat’s Cradle. It’s that delightful credo that leads me to the Arctic coast of Siberian Russia, to Salekhard, a town of 37,000 souls sitting precisely on the Arctic Circle.

It’s September 2006, and I’ve been invited to the obscure Northern Travelling Film Festival to screen and discuss two of my Arctic films and to share stories and experiences with Siberians and other Nordic filmmakers, to shake hands with our northern neighbours.

Farley Mowat used to remind us that the Arctic is more than a place, it’s a state of mind—one that Canadians and Russians particularly share. In Mao’s China they used to say that women hold up “the other half of the sky.” Well, Canadians and Russians share the same lofty polar sky, wonder at the same northern lights, and touch each other spiritually along a lengthy, icebound border over the pole. We share a lot with Russians. Like Canada’s Arctic, where oil, gas, and minerals are abundant, Russia’s Arctic is also rich in oil and gas. As we touch down and taxi to the sparkling new steel and glass igloo-inspired terminal building, I see rows of Mi-8 helicopters and satellite, microwave, and Cold War-vintage “early warning” stations—the Soviet Union’s version of the dew Line.

I’m the only Canadian filmmaker invited to the film festival this year. It was started in 2000 by award-winning Russian ethnologist and filmmaker Andrei Golovnev and his dynamic sister, Marina Yuzhaninova. They wanted to bring together filmmakers, ethnographers, and anthropologists from polar nations to share ideas and to work together on projects of mutual interest. In fact, there are two film festivals happening in this small town simultaneously—a Russian-only festival of anthropological films and the “travelling festival.” In 2004, the prize for “best enlightening” film in the Russian-only event had the dramatic title Domestication of Tiny Deers. It’s going to be a bizarre few days.

I’m curious to find out if there are parallels in our Arctic experiences or lessons we can learn from each other; to explore links between Siberia’s aboriginal people and Canada’s Inuit; and to see if we could share a strategy on how to deal with exploding oil and gas development here and in Arctic Canada.

I expected Salekhard, which is a three-hour flight northeast of Moscow, to be a bustling boom town like Fort McMurray. But as filmmakers from Russia, Finland, Sweden, Iceland, and Denmark board the buses downtown, I find a 400-year-old village that’s prosperous but by no means bursting out of control.

Over 20 percent of Russia’s proven natural gas reserves—10.4 trillion cubic metres—have been found beneath the Yamal Peninsula, just to the north of here. And they’ve found a lot of oil, too. So, in contrast to the rest of economically and socially challenged Russia, where youth unemployment is rampant, the people of Salekhard and the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Region are doing very well. Five years ago the town was made up of one- and two-storey clapboard houses. Now there’s a group of tall hotels and office buildings, numerous traffic lights, even a mosque. The fancy Arctica Hotel was built by Albertans. Road and housing construction attracts Turkish labourers, leaving the highly paid oil and gas jobs for Russians.

Local politicians call Yamal the “energy heart” of the country. Many here predict that the region will be the economic saviour of post-Soviet Russia. Former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson paid a visit some years ago, and photos of her trip grace a glossy economic-development brochure. But unlike Fort McMurray, which is overrun with trucks sporting Big Oil insignia, Salekhard doesn’t feel like an occupied town. Though the multinational Schlumberger deals with oil equipment infrastructure and there are joint ventures with Shell, BP, and others to market the gas to Europe, Russia’s national energy company, oao Gazprom, owns and operates the wells and pipelines. Here, a national energy program is alive and well.

While Yamal has huge untapped pools of natural gas, its muskeg, lakes, and rivers are also home to the world’s largest reindeer herd, 600,000 strong. Many of the Nenets, the aboriginal people of Yamal, still live a nomadic life, following and harvesting reindeer. During Stalin’s reign, herders were forced to move to collectivized farms, but they have now returned to their traditional life. Khabaecha Yanungad, a Nenet elder who sports a jaunty white moustache and edits the local newspaper, tells me that the reindeer are not just animals to be harvested, they are central to his people’s perception of the world. Their word for reindeer means “giving life.” Canada’s aboriginal people haven’t lived a nomadic life for quite some time, but the Inuit and Dene share Yanungad’s deep concern that wells and pipelines may destroy their traditional beliefs.

A Russian anthropologist tells me that he encountered a group of Nenet herders crossing a distant and remote river. He asked if they needed anything. “No,” they replied, “we have everything we need.”

The festival kicks off in a large, well-equipped theatre with a spectacular music and dance performance by native people in bright red dresses. This is the internationally famous Salekhard dance group, Syra-Sev. They play skin drums, wear large antlers, and sing beautifully. It’s great to feel such love for life in a place where, during the Soviet period, thousands of troublemakers were sent to languish in forced labour camps or to rot and die. (Siberia is still a place where outsiders are sent. A short distance from Salekhard sits the infamous Kharp Prison Colony, where Platon Lebedev was imprisoned. He was the business associate of former Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once touted as the richest man in Russia, who is imprisoned further east.)

As the festival unspools, I’m surprised to find that unlike Canada’s native peoples, who are active in film and have created significant TV networks, there is no active production among the Nenets. The films here from Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and, of course, Russia are less commercial, much slower-paced, and more spiritual and whimsical than what we’re used to seeing in Canada. Smartly dressed schoolchildren sit politely and clap enthusiastically.

One night, a group of us decide to seek out Salekhard’s best restaurant. A thirty-minute walk through muddy, empty streets leads us to a restaurant and disco bar perched on stilts on a bridge over the Poluy River, one of the tributaries of the Ob. It’s getting colder and starting to snow. By the time we arrive, the kitchen is closed, but Marina, the festival’s director, persuades them to reopen for us. “She has more power than President Putin,” someone says. We eat a delicious pan-fried local whitefish, muksun, washed down by Baltika 7. (Baltika beer comes in ten varieties: Baltika 0 is non-alcoholic, 3 is comparable to typical Canadian lagers, and 9 will knock you over.) Leggy, bored girls prance about on the mirrored dance floor to a pounding Russian disco beat—the worst of world music.

As we dine, I’m told that the average Russian male’s life expectancy is late fifties. A fatty and starchy diet, alcoholism, work and traffic accidents, and a high murder rate are listed as the causes. A respected government bank regulator is gunned down in Moscow while we’re there, reminiscent of the contract shootings of Yeltsin’s decade. Russia’s 141 million population is declining; many leave for Europe and North America each year.

At Salekhard’s beautiful and busy new airport terminal, I run into a twenty-five-year-old computer engineer. Dmitry is an avid reader of Jack London’s Arctic stories, and his uncle, a software designer, lives in Toronto’s Greektown along the Danforth. Dmitry met his wife, Katrina, in Salekhard two years ago. She’s a lawyer for one of the oil companies, so they moved to Moscow and now live in Russia’s Silicon Valley, in Zelenograd, the Green City. Taking his two years of compulsory military service in Kursk, Dmitry saw some of his military buddies die in Chechnya. “The politicians sit in big rooms in Moscow,” says Dmitry, “while twenty-year-old Russian boys die for causes they don’t believe in.” Too familiar.

Painting by Ohotaq Mikkigak
Ohotaq Mikkigak, The Walking Heads, 2004, etching & aquatint, 80 x 80 cm (Cape Dorset).

Driving downtown from Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport, I’m told that half the cars on the crowded streets are now imported. Though still ubiquitous, there are fewer and fewer rusty old Ladas. On the city’s outskirts, a stylized tank trap marks the furthest advance of the Nazi army in 1941. Like other Russian war memorials, it’s now used as a backdrop for rather strange wedding portraits. A brand-new massive blue-and-yellow ikea store dominates the nearby mall.

I seek out a Canadian journalist friend. He’s been dealing with his depressed cat and is happy to go out. He takes me to a popular microbrew pub, Glavpivtorg, for some pickled herring, chicken Kiev, beer, and a weird liquor made from horseradish and vodka. A hard-driving rock ’n’ roll band led by a bald singer in a bright red shirt and black cowboy hat bangs out Beatles, Elvis, and Chubby Checker favourites. Whole families and kids do the twist and what looks like the jitterbug. When the band sings, “I don’t care too much for money/Money can’t buy me love,” my friend quips that the irony is that all they want is money.

In search of more excitement and more beer, we stumble down the sidewalk past the former kgb (now fsb) headquarters and come upon the Shield and Sword, the former private club of kgb officers, now a restaurant and bar. The walls are festooned with portraits of kgb officials, including Putin, Yuri Andropov, and the notorious Lavrenti Beria. kgb uniforms, flags, medals, and other memorabilia are on display. The place should be a museum. There aren’t many customers, but a beautiful blond bartender in a crisp white shirt pours us a couple of delicious local beers.

My journalist friend wants to do a series on who killed the ussr. It’s a good question. One gets the sense that while everything has changed since perestroika, many feel that in fact very little has changed. Everyone I ask seems to hate Gorbachev, the darling of the West. While Russia is still the world’s largest country, the former ussr has lost a quarter of its territory, and many older people feel they have lost much of their self-respect and national pride. The polite manager finally asks us to leave and starts turning out the lights. I ask if I can take a few photos of the memorabilia-covered walls. The manager hesitates, so I tell him that during World War II my father ran the intelligence training school for the Canadian military in Aldershot, England. The lights come back on.

As in Salekhard, where nomadic reindeer herders coexist with oil and gas workers, the ironies of the new Russia are everywhere in Moscow. When Madonna gave a concert in September 2006, it was loudly protested by the Christian establishment, which wanted her to drop the religious symbols from her act and later demanded that the concert be banned outright. (The show went ahead without changes.)

A reverential statue of Ivan Fedorov, who in 1564 printed the first Russian book, now stands next to a Ferrari dealership. Right around the corner, not far from the Kremlin Wall and a hulking stone sculpture of Karl Marx, is millionaires’ row—Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent stores. On the way back to my hotel, I wander through one of the many extraordinary Moscow subway stations; this one honours the heroes of the 1917 revolution. Passersby touch the well-worn nose on a bronze statue of a patriotic dog for good luck; off in the corner, teenagers are shooting up.

Kurt Vonnegut’s “dancing lessons,” I have learned from this rather bizarre trip, are all about survival. The extraordinary survival of the Nenets, despite the shrinking, ever-globalized world, bears strange parallels to the survival of Canada’s Inuvialuit and Inuit, who were almost decimated several times by European and “southern” diseases like TB. And there’s the survival of the Nenets’ distinct language and culture, and in Canada of the Inuit language, Inuktitut, despite the culturally devastating onslaught of commercial television. Beyond Siberia, there’s the survival of a unique Russian identity and pride, despite so many political upheavals and competing ideologies. In a way, this parallels the survival and transformation of Canada and Canadian identity, despite our sleeping with an elephant. I guess ultimately it’s about an ability and willingness to adapt without surrendering our core values. It’s about the strength of the human spirit, especially the strong northern spirit we share.

Peter Raymont