Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Chukchi: a people who would not submit

Alexander Dolinin, author of Against Destiny

(print ISBN 9781601641731, Adobe ebook ISBN 9781601643261, Kindle ISBN 9781601643278, Sony ISBN 9781601643285)

The colonization of Siberia and North America followed roughly the same pattern: the European settlers built for themselves a better, freer and more prosperous life at the expense of the subjugated aboriginals, who were territorially as well as culturally displaced. There was however one Siberian aboriginal nationality that was not subjugated and fully incorporated into Russia until well into the 20th century: the Chukchi.

This small nationality, which historically numbered between 8,000 and 15,000 people, inhabits the extreme north-east of Siberia, roughly from the lower Kolyma river in the west to the Bering Strait in the east and from the Arctic coast in the north to the Anadyr River valley in the south. The Chukchi belong to the so-called Paleoasiatic peoples, the most ancient population of north Asia, to which probably the ancestors of American natives also belong. In appearance too, the Chukchi resemble North American Indians more than people of Mongolian or Chinese stock. By the time the Russians came, they lived, like most other north Siberian aboriginals, by raising reindeer herds, each of which numbered many hundreds or even thousands of deer.

From the mid-17th century to modern times, the Russians failed to subdue the Chukchi. By using tactics from both conventional and guerilla warfare and by taking advantage of their superior knowledge of their rugged land, they defeated many Russian government units and settlers’ militias. Like the Prairie Indians of the American West, they bothered Russian settlers with raids. Catherine the Great of Russia even signed a decree authorising their total extermination. She sent a military expedition, headed by Major Pavlutsky, remembered in Chukchi folklore as the most cruel of the Russian officers who fought them. Like its predecessors, the Pavlutsky expedition was beaten, and Pavlutsky perished; according to Chukchi narratives, he was captured and brutally executed. The genocidal order of the empress was never implemented, because of the vastness of the mountains, tundra and woodlands, which provided shelter not only to small guerrilla groups but even to whole tribes, and because of the Chukchi’s acquisition of fire-arms, probably from European traders via the North Pacific.

By the beginning of the 19th century, the Russian imperial government was finally forced to make peace with the recalcitrant people. It recognized their independence, and until the very end of the imperial period they, unlike other Siberian aboriginals, did not pay tribute to the imperial treasury and lived by their millennia-old customary laws. In return, Russians got the right to trade and build settlements in Chukotka. This situation persisted not only until the 1917 revolution, but for more than a decade after it. During the Russian civil war (1917-1923), some units of Whites from time to time came to Chukotka and tried to plunder Chukchi, but were repulsed. The Red Army units that arrived later in this period also did not interfere with the traditional Chukchi lifestyle and customary law.

Drastic change came only in the early 1930s with the start of collectivization. The Siberian Soviet authorities successfully imposed collective farms and the Soviet system in general on the previously fiercely independent people. For the first time in history, they could not resist the conquerors. Unlike Russian forces of earlier periods, these invaders were armed with machine guns, armoured vehicles and a few air squadrons. From the 1930s on, the Chukchi shared the fate of other rural Soviet people, Russian and non-Russian alike: forced collectivization, internal exile or labour camps for many, execution of others (particularly all shamans), work on Soviet construction projects. Their children, like many native children in Canada, were forcibly sent to boarding schools, with similar widespread abuse by school authorities. However, a few graduates of these boarding schools rose to prominent positions in Soviet society. The best known is the famous writer Yuri Rytkheu, whose writings are widely read throughout the former USSR and have been translated into European languages.

In the post-Soviet Russia of the 2000s, Chukotka, the most remote region of this country, paradoxically became, under the governorship of the ex-business magnate Roman Abramovich, one of its most prosperous regions, comparable to Moscow and the oil-rich regions of Western Siberia. This prosperity resulted from the successful management of the businessman-governor, who skilfully ran the regional economy and who used his government connections to negotiate a share of profits for the region from its mineral resources. Thus the ancient aboriginal people now enjoy a level of prosperity unknown in any previous period, whether pre-contact, imperial or Soviet.

Siberia and North America: parallel histories of exploration, conquest and settlement

Alexander Dolinin, author of Against Destiny

(print ISBN 9781601641731, Adobe ebook ISBN 9781601643261, Kindle ISBN 9781601643278, Sony ISBN 9781601643285)

The exploration, conquest and settlement of Siberia by Russians from the late 16th century on was in many respects similar to the exploration, conquest and settlement of North America by West Europeans (Dutch, English, French, Spanish).

Siberia too was explored and conquered by people moving, exploring and settling of their own free will, in search of a better life. Most settlers in Siberia were fleeing from serfdom, which was established in European Russia in the 16th and 17th centuries. In much the same way, the British American colonies were settled largely by English ex-peasants who had been dispossessed by the Enclosures.

Like European settlers in North America, Russian settlers in Siberia within a century or so outnumbered the local aboriginal population. As in North America, the progress of Russian colonization meant eventual conquest, subjugation and to a great extent displacement of the aboriginals by various means: outright conquest through warfare, treaties signed by aboriginal chiefs or elders under the strong effects of alcohol, forcing chiefs, elders and their tribes and communities into heavy debts. But colonization also meant coexistence, trade and integration with the aboriginals, including a considerable number of mixed marriages and liaisons, with mixed-race offspring as a result.

In both Siberia and North America, the process of colonization brought about the decline of aboriginal society through wars, European diseases, alcoholism and other causes. At the same time many aboriginals managed to take advantage of such products of the settlers’ civilization as iron tools and firearms. For the settlers, colonization of the new frontiers brought significant improvement in their quality of life, freedom from feudal or bureaucratic oppression, and material prosperity that they could not dream of in their mother country. Siberians even tended to be bigger, stronger and healthier than the peasants of European Russia, who lived in bondage.

In short, the process of colonization of Siberia and North America followed roughly the same pattern: the European settlers built for themselves a better, freer and more prosperous life at the expense of the subjugated aboriginals, who were territorially as well as culturally displaced.

There was however one exception in Siberia to this general pattern. I will talk about this exception in my next posting.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Escapes: getaways and breakaways

Alexander Dolinin, author of Against Destiny

(print ISBN 9781601641731, Adobe ebook ISBN 9781601643261, Kindle ISBN 9781601643278, Sony ISBN 9781601643285)

In modern English the word ‘escape’ has many meanings. Along with an escape from bondage, imprisonment or captivity, it may mean just a nice vacation somewhere in Mexico, the Caribbean, the Canary Islands or some other part of the world. There is a Toronto travel agency called “Escape Tours”. And there is even a car model “Ford Escape”. This meaning probably involves the idea of an escape from the hard chores of everyday live, work, etc. The escape is only temporary, with a clear plan to return.

But this is not an original meaning. Initially the term involved a person who was subjected to the ordeal of imprisonment, captivity, slavery or bondage and who chose to challenge his fate rather than submit to it. In this case certainly there is no thought of ever going back, where in the best case the escapee would face punishment and return to the former captivity or bondage. In the worst case the returned escapee would face death, often a very painful one, as with escapees from 20th century Nazi or Soviet concentration camps or, earlier, runaways from especially brutal slave-masters. Reaching the desired destination far beyond the reach of the pursuers was the ultimate goal and desired outcome.

In Russia and in the American South, where for centuries up to half of the population were in bondage, the motive of escaping slavery or serfdom became an integral part of popular culture, oral tradition and much of literature. As we know, in 19th century US there was a whole organization named the “Underground Railway” which provided support for fugitive black slaves on their way to Canada, where they became the ancestors of some present-day Black Canadians. In Russia most of the original colonists of the Don river region, Siberia and other remote regions were actually runaway serfs. The Cossacks of Don, Kuban’, Urals and numerous regions of Siberia are their descendants. In Central America and Caribbean there were also large settlements of runaway slaves known as Maroons. The best documentary work about runaway Black slaves is Daniel Hill’s “The Freedom Seekers”, while the best modern fiction book is Lawrence Hill’s “The Book of Negroes”.

One of the hardest places to escape from is a concentration camp or maximum security prison, where the inmates are under almost constant surveillance. Nevertheless some inmates managed to escape even from there. Thus, Giacomo Casanova, the most famous womanizer in history, was detained in the Venetian doge’s personal dungeon for a year and managed to escape. About 130 Nazi concentration camp inmates also succeeded in escaping from their camps, outsmarting their guards and the camp administration. No one knows how many labour camp inmates in the Stalinist USSR escaped. Such escapes are described in some chapters of Solzhenitsyn’s “Gulag Archipelago”. So far as far as I know there has been no fiction written about them. My novel Against Destiny seems to be the first piece of fiction about a successful escape from a Soviet labour camp.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A few words about cats

Alexander Dolinin, author of Against Destiny

(print ISBN 9781601641731, Adobe ebook ISBN 9781601643261, Kindle ISBN 9781601643278, Sony ISBN 9781601643285)

I love cats. There is certain charm in them that one can hardly deny. I like dogs as well, unlike so many people who like only either one or the other. For me both are our little brothers, or as some call them “our furry friends”. I would not mind having a dog, except that I would have problems getting up at 6:00 a.m. to give my dog a walkout, or having an evening walkout as an absolute must. With cats it is much easier, just giving him/her food and water and cleaning the litter once in a while, and always enjoying stroking the silky fur. One acquaintance of mine, also a writer, used to say that a cat is an ideal pet for a writer, because a cat is less demanding than a dog and eats up your rejection sheets. And there is one thing about cats that few people would deny - all cats are beautiful, there are practically no ugly ones among them (unlike us humans, or dogs). I understand that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But that is how I feel about cats.

Many people believe that cats, unlike dogs, feel no loyalty and emotional attachment to their masters. I think it’s not just grossly exaggerated, but completely not true - at least all my cats were emotionally attached to me, not less than I to them.

As we know (I mean those of us who still read), cats were considered holy creatures in ancient Egypt. One would immediately assume that it’s probably because of their role in guarding crops from mice and rats. True. But I think there was another reason as well - cats look young throughout their lives. And this for people of traditional cultures might look like a sign of divinity - they imagined their gods perpetually young. The life of a cat was sacred for ancient Egyptians. There was one incident somewhere around the first century A.D., when Egypt was already a province of the Roman Empire. A drunken Roman soldier killed a cat and was beaten to death by a crowd of Egyptians, which was, by Roman law, a terrible crime. But the soldier’s superior was a wise man. While giving his killed subordinate an honourable burial (as was proper for a good and loyal Roman soldier), he told his fellow soldiers that the man paid with his life for insulting the gods of the land, and that others should learn a lesson and avoid sacrilege. No-one was punished for this death.

I have had four cats in my life, including the present one, Sonya, whom I inherited from my ex-girlfriend. One prominent general had different periods in his life marked by different horses: from the very first horse with whom he, still a kid, learned to ride, to the last one whom he rode in his old age and who eventually carried his body to the cemetery. I guess periods of my life would be marked by the cats I live with.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Writing about the Nazi Holocaust and about Stalin’s terror

By Alexander Dolinin, author of Against Destiny

(print ISBN 9781601641731, Adobe ebook ISBN 9781601643261, Kindle ISBN 9781601643278, Sony ISBN 9781601643285)

Nazi holocaust and Stalin’s terror are the greatest massive crimes against humanity in the last century. The first took the lives of 6 million Jews within 6 years, the other, by reliable estimates, about 20 million Soviet citizens (and an uncertain number of foreigners) of various national and class background within a quarter of a century. From a logical point of view the second deserves as much historical memory and representation as the first. However in reality that is not the case. More so, most of our contemporaries do not even see a connection between Hitler and Stalin and, while preserving active memory of the Holocaust, prefer to forget Stalinist terror. I think there are two factors which can explain this.

First, the Nazi regime was vanquished and completely dismantled. All its archives and other materials were made publicly available. Besides, Auschwitz and Dachau were taken over by enemy troops, and what was happening there became public terrifying knowledge (though even in this case there are Holocaust deniers). Nothing like that happened in post-Soviet Russia. The KGB archives were opened only partially and in the mid-90's were closed again. No surprise - many people in authority at that time were former Soviet officials, who for understandable reasons were not interested in complete disclosure of the dark parts of Soviet history. Around then the campaign for so-called “national reconciliation and concord” started under the motto “not everything was bad”. This attitude reached its peak in recent years under the Putin-Medvedev government. It made it known to the international community that it would regard the mere comparison between Nazism and Communism as an act of hostility towards Russia, which most of the Western public prefers not to engage in. There are notable exceptions, for example Gulag: a History by Anne Applebaum and Lenin, Stalin and Hitler: The Age of Social Catastrophe by Robert Gallately.

Secondly, there was a difference in the strength of the struggle to prevent historical amnesia towards the particular tragic events. The Western Jewish community, with the support and understanding of the majority of the people, did its best, and is still doing its best, to prevent the Holocaust from being forgiven or forgotten–and rightly so. Alas, there is no equally powerful pressure with regard to the GULAG. The “Memorial” society, which is trying to describe and document Stalin’s terror, is practically marginalized by the contemporary Russian establishment.

It looks like it is proper time for novelists to explore the subject and say their word. I tried to do this in Against Destiny, whose main characters got under the wheel of history in Stalin’s time, but dared to fight back.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Alexander Dolinin: One name, two people

Alexander Dolinin, author of Against Destiny

(print ISBN 9781601641731, Adobe ebook ISBN 9781601643261, Kindle ISBN 9781601643278, SonyISBN 9781601643285)

Some clarification has to be made. There appears on the Web one name “Alexander Dolinin”, but it refers to two different persons. One is myself (Alexander Dolinin, author of Against Destiny, published by Kunati), a beginner in the world of fiction. The other is a well-known literary critic, author of numerous books on Russian and English literature, a professor of Slavistics in an American university. The coincidence of names though is not quite coincidental. We happen to be biological cousins. Actually we even met once (not that I remember the event) - he was already in university, I was still in diapers. Cousinship explains the commonality of surnames. As for the given names, he was already “Alexander” when I was born. But my maternal grandfather wanted me, his first male grandchild, to be named after his brother who died during World War II. Alexander (the First) was consulted, and he did not express any objections. Me, I was even never asked. History plays tricks sometimes.

Monday, October 26, 2009

History and historical novels

Alexander Dolinin, author of Against Destiny

(print ISBN 9781601641731, Adobe ebook ISBN 9781601643261, Kindle ISBN 9781601643278, Sony ISBN 9781601643285)

History and historical novels are two different, and at the same time closely linked, ways of describing the past. They have one thing in common: both are attempts (with different degree of success) to describe what happened in the past. But they differ in a lot in ways and methods of doing it.

History deals with the general description of different historical periods and major events that took place in one period or another. In “classical” history, the main characters are rulers, ministers, governors, generals and other “biggies”, who were behind these major events or played important role in them. In newer history , for example in the Annales approach, the emphasis shifts to analysis of social issues of the society, its cultural patterns , and the specifics of life of diverse social groups under certain historical conditions.

Usually history deals either with well-known facts or, in case the truth is not well known or there is contradictory evidence about it, with hypothesizing about what probably happened. Ordinary individuals with their lives, destinies and sentiments rarely get mentioned in history. This is not surprising. There is very little evidence about them (only some parish church records about births, marriages and deaths or court records about sentences passed to this or that person, or in later days memoirs and diaries). Lack of personal information is the inevitable limitation of history.

One thing that can at least to some extent fill this gap is the historical novel. Like history, the historical novel deals with “interesting” historical periods and major historical events. But unlike the former it makes all these events seen through the eyes of individual humans. It portrays the effect of historical events and/or major historical processes on the lives of various individuals of different backgrounds, different ages, different characters and different psychological types. Within historical novels these characters live, trying to build their lives or, in the critical situations, just to survive. Some benefit from historical events and/or processes, while others lose, so to say “get under the wheel of history”, as in the cases of British enclosures or Soviet collectivization. Some of the losers submit, while others choose to fight their fates. Sometimes an important historical figure can be one of the characters of a novel. But even in this case the attention of the novelist is on presenting that person as a human being who, like any other person, faces the big historical event, and feels, thinks and acts in response. In historical novels (unlike history) the author’s fantasy and imagination are completely legitimate. They allow us to fill the gaps in our knowledge about certain period and events. They also allow the author (as an individual) to express his own perception of what was happening and his own interpretation of events.

So I think one can claim that history and historical novels complement each other in the understanding of historical events.