Sunday, March 31, 2019

The Last Ket Singer Dies, Taking with Him a Unique Tradition

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 30 – Aleksandr Kotusov, the only remaining representative of his numerically small nation, the Kets, who knew perfectly the unique language of his people and could sing its songs, died of cancer in the north of Krasnoyarsk Kray, despite efforts by Russian scholars to collect money for his treatment.

            They were able to collect 45,000 rubles (750 US dollars) from people in Russia and around the world who were troubled by the fact that Kostusov was not able to afford medicines, was being kept in a hospital far from his home, and was the last of a dying nation. (For background, see

            This effort, led by Yuliya Galyamina of Moscow State University, allowed Kotusov to go back to his native village for his last weeks of life even though there was no palliative care available there and thus die with dignity among surroundings he was familiar with rather than in “the concrete jungles” of a city (

            Unfortunately, the cancer had progressed too far; and Kostusov has now died – and with him a unique window into a world that scholars have rushed to preserve but one that without a native speaker will inevitably disappear (

            Nikita Petrov, an anthropologist at Moscow’s Russian Academy of Economics and State Service, was one of those scholars. He first visited the region where the remaining Kets live – there are about 1500 of them but only ten still speak their native language perfectly – and met Kotusov, the very last who still sang the songs that held that people together.   

            Petrov told Sibreal portal journalist Svetlana Khustik that Kotusov was truly remarkable and deserved to be put in “a red book” of human beings if such were ever to be created. The Ket singer did not drink, a style of life that kept him alive because the Kets genetically lack resistance to alcohol.

            What makes the passing of Kotusov so tragic is that there are so few Ket speakers left. The youngest are in their 60s. And no younger ones are appearing. Ket is taught in the local school, but the teachers themselves don’t know the language well themselves; and the children don’t see why they should study Ket since no one speaks it anymore.

            Petrov puts the situation in the clearest possible terms for Russians: “Simply imagine,” he says, “that sometime we will have alive the last veteran of the Great Fatherland War. What relationship should we have toward him?  And that is what Kostusov was,” the last of a world that soon will be no more. 

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