Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Shaman Who Stood His Ground against Russia’s Oil Companies

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 30 – Sergey Kechimov, a Khant reindeer herder and shaman, has been charged with threatening Russian oil workers with a gun when their work appeared certain to contaminate the holy lake of which he is the guardian.  He is now at risk of a lengthy jail sentence, according to a write up on Snob.ru (snob.ru/profile/29449/blog/94445).

            In what appears to be almost a scene from Edward Topol’s now-classic novel, “Red Snow,” and something that is certain to attract broader notice at this time of mounting environmental disasters in the Russian Federation, the shaman’s actions and the Russian authorities’ response are indicative of a growing problem there.

            As Mariya Favorskaya writes, the shaman has lived next to Lake Imlor his entire life and protected it as best he can for the numerous other Khants who come there to conduct the rites of their animist faith. But now, that lake is under threat from Russia’s oil industry which “year after year” has come closer to this ancient but surviving world.

            What the oil workers have brought, the Snob.ru journalist says, is “toxic contamination, trash, and fires.” They’ve destroyed the pastures of the reindeer, and most local people have retreated from the onslaught of new workers who have come to develop the Surgut area’s oil industry and others who have followed in their wake.

            But Sergey has decided to remain to protect the lake against the oilmen and the poachers. He is the last person living on its shores, and he takes his responsibilities to nature and his gods very seriously, Favorskaya reports.  Last September, he shot a dog that came with some oilmen and befouled the lake.

            That was the beginning of the shaman’s real problems.  Several days later, some officials appeared and demanded that he sign a document in Russian, a language he speaks poorly and almost cannot read. Then it turned out that by signing, he had acknowledged threatening to shoot the oilmen and steal money from them.

            For his action and admission, he is now threatened with two years in prison when his case comes up for a hearing on August 17.  Local people believe, Favorskaya says, that the oil workers simply want to use this case to intimidate the Khants and then take all of their land away from them.

            Kechimov has a public defender who promises to protest the entire proceeding because Sergeyy was never shown the charges translated into his own language. Meanwhile, the local Ob-Igor peoples webpage is seeking to mobilize support: 93 percent of its visitors support Kechimov against the oilmen (vk.com/mooun.hmao?w=wall-17147709_3601%2Fall).

            The oil and gas company he’s up against, Surgutneftegaz, has big plans for Lake Imlor. It estimates that under the lake itself are more than a million tons of oil, and it has no intention of losing access to that even if it has to destroy the focus of local culture and the life of the Khant shaman.

            There have been oil leaks from the firm already, but worse, the company has built roads in a place where until a few years ago, there were none. As a result, poachers, hunters and fishermen have all arrived and left destruction behind, showing absolutely no respect for the taboos around the lake.

            Under Russian law, of course, the Khants don’t own the lake, although it has been designated a natural preserve. Instead, because all oil and gas is state property, Moscow can hand it over to the oil company and clearly intends to do just that. The shaman’s attempt to stand his ground is thus likely to fail, and he probably will be railroaded into prison.

            And thus will be destroyed yet another important cultural site in the Russian Federation, all in the name of feeding the export pipelines and enriching those around Vladimir Putin.

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