Friday, June 21, 2019

The Soviets Fought Shamanism – and Lost

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 21 – Many Russian and Western scholars have studied Soviet efforts to destroy organized religion and spread atheism in the Soviet population, but far fewer have focused on the steps Soviet officials took to wipe out shamanism, the traditional faith of many peoples in Siberia and the Russian Far East.

            But Moscow’s efforts in that regard are instructive both to the extent that they paralleled what the communists did to more conventionally structured faiths and even more to the extent they failed because the Soviets did not understand what they were up against and could not deal with a religious practice lacking the kind of organization they could take over and subvert.

            On the Russkaya semerka portal, historian Kristina Rudich traces the history of Soviet efforts against shamanism. She notes that in the 1920s, the Soviets relied largely on anti-religious propaganda via print media when it came to shamanism, generally oblivious to the fact that few shamans or their followers were literate (

            This literature did have an impact, however. It sent a message to local officials that Moscow wanted shamanism wiped out, and they translated these written sources into oral presentations including attacks on shamans as “oppressors,” “epileptic mystics,” “psychopaths,” and spreaders of venereal diseases.

            These propaganda efforts were followed by the confiscation of shamanistic dress and equipment and the punishment of shamans for specific actions such as sacrifice.  Local officials frequently claimed that they had wiped out shamanism, only to show that they hadn’t by reporting subsequent to such reports that they were still fighting it.

            In the 1930, the Soviets shifted from propaganda to direct repression. During collectivization, shamans were suppressed and often shot as harmful elements. They were deprived of their voting rights and thus excluded from most benefits. And these repressive actions were extended to the relatives of shamans and even their followers.

            At that time, Rudich continues, “party officials maintained a listing of all practicing shamans” in their area, “and any increase in their number was treated as something that did not speak well for local leaders.” That of course opened the way to falsification especially because some local officials were followers of shamans themselves.

            Stalin’s Great Terror in 1937 made the situation of the shamans still worse. In 1937, Nivkh and Ulchi shamans were executed as “’Japanese spies,’” the historian says.  All shamanistic practices were banned, all clothing and cult materials were confiscated, and while some were put in museums, most were simply destroyed.

            All this reduced the number of shamans – or at least the number practicing in public. In 1924, there were 71 shamans registered in Khakasia. By the 1930s, 25 of them were exiled, and three were shot for “’counter-revolutionary activity.’” When the remainder were later let out of the GULAG, they had to commit to not engaging in shamanistic activity.

            Some may have fallen away, but most simply went underground, although few of them passed on their knowledge and skills to their children at least in Khakasia. In the Far East, Rudich reports, “the tradition was preserved better – Nanay shamans in Khabarovsk kray as before conducted their rituals,” albeit secretly.

            During Khrushchev’s anti-religious campaign, shamans continued to be fined for their activities; but the fight against shamanism increasingly became a formality. The authorities in effect gave up fighting something they could not possibly take over.  And the shamans were thus able to reemerge after 1991 when “all restriction on their activity were removed.”

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