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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


The Nanai People of the Amur River
Text and photos by Piers Gladstone

At the village of Sikachi-Alyan, 40km downstream from Khabarovsk on the banks of the fast-flowing Amur River, a collection of 11th century BC petroglyphs (rock carvings) on basalt boulders lie in the traditional territory of one of the Amur region’s indigenous cultures, the Nanai. Like many indigenous cultures around the world, the Nanai’s way of life has been under constant threat from the modern, industrial world that has grown up around it.

A young Nanai girl standing outside her house in Sikachi-Alyan

The 70km drive from Khabarovsk to The Museum of the Indigenous Culture of the Amur River, close to the village of Sikachi- Alyan, is devastatingly beautiful. Cabbage fields flank the road, dotted with bending figures attending their crops. Lush rolling hills and forests set a backdrop for the scene, while meandering rivers make their way leisurely across the landscape. Every conceivable shade of green is vibrantly on display wherever the eye travels, occasionally dotted with specks of orange of wild lilies growing by the side of the road.

I drink tea and wait at The Museum of the Indigenous Culture of the Amur River for Dimitry Aktanko, the Nanai village elder and my guide, to get his ancient Ural motorcycle and sidecar push started. We go along a bumpy track down to the river’s edge, the two metal milk pails in his sidecar clanking loudly with every bump. Dimitry parks his bike and makes for an old tin boat with virtually no paint left on it – an equally old outboard engine attached to its back. “In recent years our people have come under a lot of pressure because of the tremendous amounts of logging,” Dimitry explains while preparing the boat. “We have lost our traditional places for hunting,” he continues, “and now there are very few fish left for us in this river.” Recent tests on the water of the Amur River revealed it contains dangerously high levels of chemicals, oil and copper.

Dmitry and Volodya prepare the boat to head up-stream

Hunting and fishing were an integral part of the Nanai way of life. The Nanai traditionally lived in isolated villages scattered alongside a 600km stretch of the Amur River and its tributaries in Russia and in China which sits on the opposite bank of the Amur. There are now less than 10,000 Nanai in Russia and approximately 4,000 in China.

The Nanai used to wear clothes and shoes made from fish skins and were known also as the “fish skin people”. In 1858 the entire left bank of the Amur River, which had formerly been part of China, was claimed as Russian and a long process of colonization began. Until the end of the 19th century the Nanai bartered and lived close to nature. In the late summer and early autumn months they would fish for salmon in the rivers, with the whole community involved in the process of catching, preserving and storing the fish. Groups of men would head out into the forests on long hunting trips for furs during the winter, while in spring and early summer they would hunt for meat. Summers would see the communities living in tipi-like tents or circular huts made from birch bark, and in winter people would live in dugouts. This life ended soon after the revolution however.

By the 20th century the majority of Nanai had been forced from their traditional hunting and fshing grounds. The collectivised farming of the 1930s kolkhozes put yet further pressure on the Nanai. “The process of our culture dying out started in the 1930s,” Dimitry explains as he carries a jerry can of fuel to the boat. “My grandfather had four brothers in the 1930s, one of whom was deported to Sakhalin Island. Then they were practicing a traditional life. My grandfather was a local judge among the Nanai people. The Soviets came and asked him why he was not a communist and had not joined the kolkhoz. So he too was sent to Sakhalin. The village started to really die out in the 1960s with the enlargement of the kolkhoz,” he says with no trace of emotion on his weather-beaten face.


Dmitry at the helm of his metal boat

Arrival at Gasya, site of the 11th century BC petroglyphs

Once the boat is prepared, Dimitry introduces Volodya, a young man in his early twenties dressed in the ubiquitous Adidas sportswear of Russia’s provincial youth. He is to take me a kilometer upriver to the site of a collection of 11th century BC petroglyphs carved on basalt rocks. I climb into the tin boat and Volodya pushes us out from the shore with one oar before lowering the outboard and pulling hard on the cord to start it. Nothing happens. He pulls again. Nothing. We start to drift out into the fast fl owing river. A hydrofoil that looks like some strange insect passes us by, bound for the Chinese town of Fuyuan as Volodya repeatedly tries to start the engine before giving up and rowing us back to shore, where we are met by Dimitry. “Did you bring vodka for the spirits?” he asks. “You must bring vodka and cigarettes as a gift for the spirits at the rocks.” I have no vodka, only cigarettes, which is apparently the reason why the engine won’t start. After several attempts Dimitry manages to get the ancient engine to splutter and cough into life in a cloud of smoke. We head off upstream, still with no vodka.

Volodya leads me over some boulders and through the reeds on the bank of the river pointing out the large rocks that have carvings on them. Some have strange human faces on them, others animals and fish, some recognizable others not. I carefully place some cigarettes by the carvings to appease the spirits and hopefully ensure a safe journey back to Sikachi-Alyan. Soon Dimitry joins us. “Russian people came in the early nineties in boats and took at least half of the rocks with pictures on them,” he says with a shake of his head. I imagine some oligarch reclining in his mansion with some of the rocks scattered liberally around his garden. “As children we would come to this place because we were interested in the rocks,” Dimitry says, “but then we grew up. Usually we do not visit this place. It is called Gasyan, but I cannot remember what it means. Maybe our babushka knows. We will ask her when we return to the village.” The Nanai are a shamanistic culture and sites such as Gasyan once played an important role in their daily lives. But, like most of their culture, this aspect too has faded. “There is no shaman here. They were from an older generation and they all died. The last one in 1973.”

Dmitry’s daughter and babushka at home

Dmitry’s house in Sikachi-Alyan

Dimitry invites me to his house to meet his babushka. It is a single-story clapboard and corrugated iron affair with an old rotting Lada sitting in front of it with weeds growing out of the wheel arches and radiator. Dimitry’s 9 year-old daughter Nadia is sitting on its roof playing with a centipede she has found. We find his 77 year-old babushka round the back, sitting in the late afternoon sun, regally dressed in embroidered traditional clothing. Dimitry asks her if she knows what the meaning of Gasyan is, but she cannot remember either. “We hardly have our own language now. The language is dying because our education has been in Russian,” Dimitry says rather apologetically. Of the 315 residents of Sikachi-Alyan, it seems that only the babushka and two other elderly residents still speak Nanai fluently. The younger generation only speaks Russian.

Language however is the least of their concerns. Like most marginalized communities, the lack of work and poor healthcare are the main issues on people’s minds. Dimitry is the eldest man in the village. He is 50 years old. The average life expectancy of a man in Russia is 58. “There is no future for the Nanai,” Dimitry states bluntly. “There is no work here. The government gives people $30 per month. This is no life. The only work here is to find vodka.” This, plus the fact that the river on which the Nanai rely on for fish has at times been horrendously polluted and this perhaps explains the shockingly young mortality rate of the male inhabitants of the village. In 1989, the water of the Amur up-river in the city of Komsomolsk contained 13 times the amount of phenols permissible, five times the amount of oil products and 40 times more copper than is considered safe.

The strange shaped animals and faces of Gasya’s petroglyphs

I leave Sikachi-Alyan and head back to Khabarovsk with a heavy heart, knowing that in less than a generation the last remnants of the Nanai culture that I have just seen will almost certainly have been lost forever.

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