Saturday, April 22, 2017

As Their Lives Worsen in the Russian North, the Nentsy Recall Their ‘Holy Wars’ against Moscow

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 22 – The Nentsy, a numerically small people in the Russian North -- there are some 45,000 of them --whose traditional way of life is threatened by global warming and the activities of Russian oil companies and whose standard of living is threatened by the Russian crisis, are recalling the “holy wars” they conducted against Moscow during Soviet times.

            The Nentsy, led by their shamans, fought against the imposition of Soviet power in the 1920s, against forced collectivization and against other efforts to suppress them.  Soviet forces defeated them soundly but unlike in the case of case of many other peoples who resisted, Moscow did not deport them.

            That is because there was no more distant place to send the Nenys: their homeland, the Yamal peninsula, in fact means in their language “the end of the earth” (  And both that isolation and their earlier defeats have largely prevented them from speaking out or being heard.

                But now are indications that is beginning to change: the Nentsy are complaining about what Moscow is doing to them via petitions to Vladimir Putin and letters to Russian commentators; and at least some of them are looking back to the times when, with arms in their hands, they fought against Soviet power.

            In January of this year, Nentsy activists sent a letter to Putin complaining about how bad things have become, but the Kremlin leader didn’t respond and instead sent their petition back to the Arkhangelsk governor whose domain includes the Nenets autonomous district and who is the source of many of their difficulties.

            The authors have now sent a copy of their petition to Maksim Kalashnikov, a Kremlin critic, who has been surveying the situation in various parts of the Russian Federation.  Entitling his article, “Worse than a Colony,” the Russian commentator both reproduces the Nenets petition to Putin and summarizes it (

            The Nentsy say that Moscow has been telling them since 2006 that they are important because “Russia must not lose the Arctic.”  Kalashnikov says that those who said that are “idiots” because Russia has “already lost it” because Moscow by its policies has been destroying the economy of the region.

            “Just consider,” he writes, the Nentsy occupy “a region which is an important part of the Northern Sea Route and a source of the oil and gas that ‘feeds’ the Russian elite.  On my honor,” Kalashnikov continues, “any Portuguese or Britisher would treat his colonies overseas better” than Moscow is treating the peoples of the North.

            The Nentsy clearly agree and say that their situation is getting worse: the government is cutting back spending on everything but itself – and after cutting teachers’ salaries, the governor advised them to start trying to grow their own food.  Almost all the factories have been closed down or sold off to Muscovites, and the people have no hope of a better future.

            More seriously, a report has appeared suggesting that some Nentsy are now recalling their armed resistance against Soviet power, resistance that they refer to in their own language as Mandalada, a word which means “a group of warriors” or “a gathering of armed people” (

                Between the early 1920s when Soviet power was established in their homeland and World War II when Moscow ceased to provide them with food, the Nentsy launched as many as four Mandaladas, forcing Moscow to dispatch large detachments of secret police groups to suppress the Nentsy with violence. 

            Not surprisingly, the Soviet authorities did everything they could to wipe this page of popular resistance out of the history of the Nenets people, but Russian scholars acknowledge that the people nonetheless remember; and their stories have been gathered by ethnographers between 1991 and 2010. Since that time, the scholars haven’t written, but the Nentsy haven’t forgotten.

            “In the oral folklore” of the Nentsy, Russian visitors says, “up to the present one can hear  stories about the Mandaladas which have become transformed into myths and legends.” Now that the Nentsy have been driven to despair once again, it is not impossible that they will play an even more important role model for the future.

No comments:

Post a Comment