Monday, 11 July 2016

First meeting with the village, the Yukagir tribe, and local cockroaches, Kolyma, July 1997 (Voyage to Siberia part 3)

July 1997, X and I had just arrived in the village by boat, on a dodgy engine. See here and here for previous 2 posts. We were having tea, served with bread, butter and moose meat, in a little hut, that, Rosa was explaining to me, was their summer house, and we were to live in their apartment - one of the two-storey buildings in the village.

Our host, Kolya, was clearly thoroughly disreputable: a swindler and a crook. And his sister Rosa didn’t seem to be entirely straight either. Kolya, once Mayor, was no longer the most powerful man in this tiny, under-provisioned and dwindling village. However his connection with foreigners was clearly a major source of cachet, and profit. And it was one of the reasons that the present mayor, Prokopieff, was not friendly towards us - he was a sworn enemy of Kolya the swindler.

After tea, Rosa took X and our to our lodgings and we had a chance to see the village. The main drag was no more than a wide track, lined by houses, generously spaced apart. They were mostly typical village houses of the kind you find all over Russia - made from thick, rounded wooden beams, padded with moss, and with some wooden fretwork around the windows. There were a few variations of the single storey houses - with porches -  that served as the village club, the shop and the telegraf (post office and telephone exchange), and there were, two 2-storey apartment buildings. At the end of the village, furthest from the river, was the graveyard - but no church. At the other end, nearest the river, was Kolya and Rosa’s summer house, and another little wooden house, slightly set back from the line of the village, made of gleaming golden freshly hewn pine planks. This was Dyadya Kolya’s house. He lived on the edge of the settlement in all senses - but more of him later. 

There were about 110 souls in the village, two of which, according to their 'Alma' or shaman, were purportedly ‘pure’ Yukagirs, of the Yukagir tribe. There were a further half dozen or so half Yukagirs. However, the majority of the village identified themselves as Yukagir, even though they were a mixture of Yakutians (the biggest ethnic group in Yakutia-Sakha), Russians and mixed race. The Yukagir were one of many tribes in Yakutia that were settled by the Soviets in the 1930s-50s, in effect continuing the work of Russian colonisers, who had commenced colonising in Siberia in the 17th century. 

Cheerful looking Yukagir Alma (shaman) photographed in 1902
There was no wikipedia at the time of our journey there. Now, to my amazement, I can google ‘Yukagir’ and find out the following: “The Yukaghir are one of the oldest peoples in North-Eastern Asia. Originally they lived over a huge territory from Lake Baikal to the Arctic Ocean. By the time of the first encounter with Russians, Yukaghir were divided into twelve tribes with around 9,000 people.” I also now know that we were staying with the ‘Odul’ Yukagirs, one of the three Yukagir villages. Odul means ‘mighty’. In the 2002 census, out of the 1,509 Yukagirs, 21 identified themselves as Odul, there are many other smaller groupings within the Yukagirs. 

Yukagirs photographed  in 1905
The Yukagirs were always one of the smallest tribes, and dwindled fast under the yoke of the Russians - losing almost half their people by the end of the 17th Century, to smallpox, and early death. In ‘A History of the Peoples of Siberia, Russia’s North Asian Colony 1681-1990’, James Forsyth writes: “Of all the Siberian peoples, the sedentary Yukagirs seem to have been he least able to defend themselves from the Russian invaders. Once their previous way of life had been disrupted and they had been made destitute by ruthless depredation, they were simply absorbed by the Russians - the women as concubines, the men as auxiliary soldiers. The degree of racial mixing between Russian men and Yukagir women was particularly high, so that a population of halfbreeds was established - one of many local mixed strains which were subsequently absorbed into the Russian population of Siberia. Smallpox, apparently unknown before the advent of the Russians, also took a particularly heavy toll among the Yukagirs in several epidemics between 1657 and 1694. By the end of the seventeenth century the total number of Yukagirs had been reduced by 44 per cent to only some 2,500 people.”*

Like most of the indigenous peoples in the Far East, the Yukagir were small and swarthy with slanting eyes and dark hair. Extraordinarily, their language, that was only written down until 1940, has no similarity to any other language in the Far East, and yet, I was told by X, is of a family with Finnish, to the great confusion of anthropologists and linguists. In the years before my trip there, some anthropologists had been working with the village and reviving the language and traditions. More of that later, but I am interested to see now, that the number of those claiming Yukagir as their first language according to the 2002 census, is on the rise

Rosa showed us to our apartment - where she and Kolya and Kolya’s wife lived during the winter months. It consisted of: a hallway where the peeing bucket was, 2 bedrooms that opened off the hallway, and a kitchen. I rejoiced to see that I was to have my own bedroom.

Within half an hour of arriving that afternoon, and beginning to unpack my rucksack, we had a visit from Matvei. Matvei was a 7 year old with a round face and sparkling mischievous eyes, who lived next door with his grandfather Ivan, a trapper, a fierce grandmother, and several brothers. Matvei wanted to play. His expert subject was cockroaches. One of the first facts he told me was that when people moved house in the village, for example from their winter residences to their summer residences, the cockroaches would follow in a single file queue, in order to remain close to the heat and damp that humans generate. 

Matvei began picking over my things and asking questions about where I lived and how long I was here for and what my name was and how old I was and if I had brother and sisters or grandparents and if I had any sweets for him. He alighted on my Nurofen - he had seen the advert on telly. He immediately put his hand to his head and said ‘ouch, I have a headache.’ I was utterly charmed by this playful, open-hearted little boy. The next cockroach fact he told me (cockroaches clearly played a large part in his life) was that at night he and his friends, for a game, put cockroaches in each others’ ears and you could only then get them out by pouring heated oil into your ear drum. He collapsed on the floor laughing at his own story. Then he began pointing out cockroaches moving about the room at that very moment - ‘that one’s got babies on its back - hundreds and hundreds of them! Eeek! Oh and that’s a big one, maybe quite old, I’m going to catch it and show you! If you flip it on its back it can’t get up - hahahaha!’

There was a bright red home-made cloth mosquito net over my bed, tucked firmly around the single mattress. It had a panel of mosquito netting that let the light in. I soon discovered that the mosquito net was mainly for the cockroaches. I woke up half way through that first night and, entering the kitchen, I could see, in the dusky midnight Siberian twilight, that the floor was dark. When I turned on the light, the black, that turned out to be a blanket of cockroaches, receded like a wave. They retreated with a great whoosh - through cracks and crevices to their secret crawling worlds.



  1. Oooh - cockroaches! I'm fine with most creepy crawlies, including snakes and spiders (once had a tarantula in my room in Mexico!) but cockroaches are something else. I think it's the way they scuttle... The black tide in the kitchen would have finished me off! What an adventure you had, and how tough you were!
    Matvei must be around 26 now. I wonder what he's doing and where life has taken him!

  2. Hi Fortuna - sorry I didn't see this message, didn't have my notifications on (duh!)... Thanks for the comment. I wasn't tough, there was just no choice! Yes, darling Matvei. I hope he didn't start drinking like so many others - he was an amazing little boy.

  3. Hi Fortuna - sorry I didn't see this message, didn't have my notifications on (duh!)... Thanks for the comment. I wasn't tough, there was just no choice! Yes, darling Matvei. I hope he didn't start drinking like so many others - he was an amazing little boy.