The Sami of Russia fight to save their language and their traditions – photo report | Russia

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Jhe Sami of Russia lost their nomadic autonomy with the rise of Soviet power in the 1920s. Forced to trade nature; reindeer herding and fishing on the tundra, for living in tenements and working on collective farms called collective farms. They were forbidden to speak their language or wear traditional clothing, and their numbers dwindled as a result. Today there are 1,500 Sami in Russia, and only 200 are able to speak the language.

In the rural village of Lovozero, in the hinterland of Murmansk on Russia’s Kola Peninsula, local Sami are taking urgent steps to safeguard their culture and traditions. A young Sami musician and activist has compiled a dictionary to preserve the intricacies of his family’s language, while the community sets up masterclasses to share skills passed down from generation to generation. During this time, they are adapting to modernity and the difficulties associated with global warming in the Arctic region, which has caused temperatures to rise 15°C above average during the summer months.

Roman, a 35-year-old activist, learned the Sami language in two years to write a dictionary of the Kildin dialect to fill in the gaps in phonetics. But the transcription of certain sounds is still not officially recognized, which hinders the spread of the language and causes difficulties for the authors of children’s books.

Uliana knits a decoration for her uncle's neighbour's cat, Baba Luba

Uliana Galk comes from a long line of reindeer herders in Chalmny-varre, an officially non-existent village whose name roughly translates to “the eyes of the forest”, which she visits in the summer. It was closed by the Soviets in the 1960s to relocate the community, and has been largely successful: her grandmother is the only year-round resident, while the remaining four houses are left empty.

Uliana likes to manage the boat during the summer holidays with her uncle in the village of Chalmny-varre
Elena Yakovleva, Uliana's aunt, prepares her drum to perform a ritual in front of a sacred stone in the Sami mini-village she has rebuilt for tourists
  • Elena Yakovleva, Uliana’s aunt, prepares her drum to perform a ritual in front of a sacred stone in the Sami mini-village she has rebuilt for tourists.

Uliana’s aunt inherited the drum from her brother, who was a true shaman – a community long threatened with death and destroyed property, hunted down by the Russian Orthodox Church and then by the Soviets.

In the Ponoï river, Uliana catches a pike for dinner

Fishing is a traditional activity for the Sami, but now they have to ask permission. On the Kola Peninsula, fishing is only allowed in specific places and for residents who do not earn any income from the activity. Obtaining a permit is seen as too cumbersome and bureaucratic for the Sami, believing it goes against their rights as an indigenous people.

Uliana puts water on a stone with Sami pictograms, dating from the 2nd millennium BC, in the village of Chalmny-varre
  • Uliana puts water on a stone with Sami pictograms, dating from the 2nd millennium BC, in the village of Chalmny-varre.

The ancient stone depicts silhouettes of people and animals, such as reindeer. There used to be a second stone with pictographs, but it was removed for display in the National Museum of Lovozero.

Vladimir Galkin, Uliana's father

Valdimir celebrates his birthday on June 12, the same day as Russia’s National Day. However, this year it also coincides with the Sami Summer Games which take place in mid-June. The Sami flag is still hoisted in Lovozero, except today, as the Russian administration considers the raising of a regional flag on this day to be a separatist act. Vladimir installed both flags in his yard as a sign of his dual culture.

Vladimir's sister shows an old photo of her aunt Anna, Piotr's sister
Uliana is dressed as the Japanese character Deidara in her apartment in Lovozero.  She scrolls through her new mobile phone connected to a loudspeaker she received from her parents as a New Year's present
  • Vladimir’s aunt with a friend who wears the chamchoura, a summer headdress reserved for married Sami. Right; Uliana is dressed as the Japanese character Deidara in her apartment in Lovozero. She scrolls through her new cell phone connected to a speakerphone she received from her parents as a New Year’s gift.

After Valdimir’s aunt Anna passed away in 2019, her children donated the chambhura at the Museum of History, Culture and Life of Kola Sami, Lovozero.

In Russia, gifts are given on the New Year, so Christmas, which is celebrated on January 7, can retain all its Orthodox religious value. The Orthodox religion came to the Kola Peninsula in the second half of the 16th century, imposed on the Sami by the Tsarist Russian state.

Uliana participates in the Sami Summer Games by jumping over reindeer skins in front of the National Center of Sami Culture during Child Protection Day celebrations in Russia on June 1
Three young girls chat at a Sami music festival while sipping shots of Pepsi in the town of Olenegorsk, Murmansk region
Reindeer herder Igor Chuprov speeds on his sled past residential buildings in the village of Lovozero

Formerly semi-nomadic, the Sami community is largely represented in this rural settlement of 3,000 inhabitants.

Uliana's grandfather, Piotr Galkin, is a Sami reindeer herder, like her father

Dressed in a traditional reindeer skin outfit, Piotrr descends the stairs of his apartment building on his way to Prazdnik Severa (the Northern Festival), which takes place every year at the end of March. For a long time, he participated in reindeer driving competitions, but at 93, his health no longer allows him to drive. He is one of the last hereditary reindeer herders of the Sami ethnic group in Russia.

Valentina Sovkina sifts through the press clippings she has archived about the culture of her people

Valentina is a former director of the Sami radio, and former president of the Sami parliament of the Kola peninsula, she also wants to raise awareness about global warming.

Elena Yakovleva, Uliana's aunt, walks her reindeer along Kola Bay near her Sami mini-village, which she has rebuilt for tourists
  • Elena Yakovleva, Uliana’s aunt, walks her reindeer along Kola Bay near her Sami mini-village, which she has rebuilt for tourists.

The Gazprom Aurora Borealis drilling rig in the Kola Bay, seen in the background above, was moored in the roadstead opposite Murmansk. He had traveled from the Vladivostok region in eastern Russia to the Cape of Good Hope in the west of the country, but had been unable to take the ice-choked northern sea route, nor the canal of Suez, due to its size of 34,000 tons.

Nina visits Varzino, where she was born in the 1930s

Every year, Nina goes to the cemetery where her parents were buried to maintain the graves and lay flowers for her ancestors. For a week in the summer, members of the Afanasyev family make a pilgrimage to Varzino, which is known as the oldest summer camp of the Semiostrovsk Sami, near the mouth of the Varzina. By 1913 the site had 107 Sami, as well as a chapel, emerging as a permanent village for the Sami until the late 1930s. Between 1936 and 1938 the Sami were victims of political repression. In 1968, the village and the collective farm were dismantled by the Soviets and the majority of the inhabitants resettled in Lovozero.

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