Wednesday, July 1, 2020

‘Does the US Want to Tear Off Chukchi Land from Russia?’

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 29 – Chukotka is the furthest region from Moscow still within the borders of the Russian Federation and is known to most Russians and others as well if at all primarily because of the Chukchi jokes that some Russians used in Soviet times to make fun of the absurdities of that system or to express their own racist attitudes toward minority peoples.

            In the last few years, these anecdotes have been making a comeback, and Andrey Filimonov of the SibReal portal reports a new Chukchi joke, one he suggests is not only “clever” but “important” for what it says about the members of that nationality and its past as well as about Russians and their future (

            According to the story, “the following results were obtained during a sociological survey of the residents of Chukotka: five percent support the president, ten percent don’t, but 85 percent ask “who is this president you are talking about?”

            The indigenous population of that land across the Bering Strait from Alaska and about as far from Moscow as you can get without being in another country call themselves not Chukchis – that is an outside imposition but dyg’o ravetd’ap or “real people.” There are fewer than 16,000 of them and they’re divided between whale hunters and reindeer herders.

            But they have always valued their independence. They resisted the expansion of the Russian Empire so mightily that Catherine the Great decided they were too far away and of too little importance for her to continue to spend so much money to try to enforce Russian laws there. Instead, she decreed that they could obey what they wanted and pay what they wanted.

            “After the Civil War,” Filimonov says, “communist agitators appeared who explained to the local population that ‘the revolution had freed them from centuries of tsarist oppression.’ But that propagandistic device didn’t work with the Chukchis – they never felt oppressed and did not understand why they must be grateful to Lenin and Stalin.”

            Told that they would now be free to organize their own lives, the Chukchis responded reasonably “Perhaps Lenin doesn’t know that we have organized our own life always?” Among the evidence for that is the role of shamans, trade with Americans, and a knowledge of English among many Chukchis even in Soviet times.

            “Until the start of the 20th century, the journalist continues, “Chukchis living on the coast were beyond any Russian sphere of influence. Many of them spoke English. They used the American system of measurements in feet and miles and also the Gregorian calendar.” And some had relatives in San Francisco. They had no interest in being viewed as “a backward people.”

            Contacts between the Chukchi and Alaska continued until after World War II when as a result of the Cold War, Moscow finally closed them down.

            Now in what is definitely not a Chukchi joke, a Russian nationalist commentator, Dmitry Minin, says that the Americans having launched efforts in Greenland to pull that Arctic island away from Denmark are now making plans to do something similar with Chukotka and pull it away from Russia (

            Minin says that in approaching Chukotka, “American strategists hope to use the example of Greenland to promote opposition attitudes among the local population. For example, residents of the Russian peninsula may be encouraged to demand an elevation of their state status to something more an an autonomous district.”

            “And even if nothing comes of that, it could create the occasion for accusing Russia of new repressions and ‘the violation of the rights of indigenous peoples’ up to sanctions against the use of the Northern Sea Route,” Minin continues. 

            The Americans are certain to use the 2009 declaration of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference that the Inuit are “a single people” represented by the ICC and have all the rights of all other nations, including the right to territorial self-determination. But the US, Minin says,  isn’t limiting itself to that: it is pushing ideas that some Russians are foolishly supporting.

            For more than a century, Russian and American writers have talked about the possibility of building a railroad bridge across the Bering Straits and connecting the two continents. Some Russians are enthusiastic about that idea now, seeing it as a way to attract enormous American capital investment.

            What these Russians do not understand, the commentator says, is that such investment will come with strings attached; and some of those strings may be used to pull Chukotka away from Russia.  Moscow may not be able to block Washington from fishing in such troubled waters, but it can take the game into America’s streets given what is going on there now. 

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