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23 April 2012

Why at least one Chukcha prefers to speak English rather than Russian

The organisers did a splendid job. The problem was the guests:
notice how few of them have the courtesy even to watch the dancers
To the Civic Chamber in Miusskaya Square for the launch of an exhibition of photographs of the Chukchi people from the Chukotka peninsula, the easterlimost extremity of Russia, which overlooks the Bering Strait. The Chukchi are the legendary reindeer-followers whose province was governed until quite recently by Roman Abramovich, the well-to-do London-based football enthusiast who was notoriously once a friend of Boris Berezovsky.
     Abramovich claims to have spent nearly 1% of his personal fortune—which may soon be shrinking if Berezovsky's case against him in London goes the wrong way—on improving conditions for the Chukchi. Since money cannot help an itinerant reindeer-herder, it must be assumed that this cash went to modernise conditions for those Chukchi that Stalin forcibly collectivised in the late 1930s and who have been living a Soviet-style, urbanised existence ever since.
     The exhibition stressed the rural rather than the urban element in Chukchi life, as was consistent with the tone of the remarks from the Russian government official opening the exhibition. He said it was part of an initiative to promote ethno-tourism in Russia.
     The reception was enlivened by a troupe of Chukchi dancers who gave a splendid show, singing, swinging and thumping their drums which were not unlike Irish borans. When I talked to one of them afterwards, I started by apologising for the fact that I was going to have to speak in Russian as Chukchi was “not one of my languages”. He replied in English—which rather neatly put me in my place, while tactfully putting the whole event in context at the same time.
     Two things stood out from our conversation. First, despite Stalin, the Chukchi still practice shamanism. Secondly, because of Stalin (as it were) it still takes a month to arrange the paperwork for anyone who wants to visit this fascinating-sounding area. Why? Because the Chukotka peninsula is on the Russian “frontier” and therefore a “strategic area”. There are military bases there, apparently.
     OMG. Can there be anything more pathetic? Imagine having to take a month getting permission from various bureaucrats if you, as a serious ethno-tourist, wished to visit California on the American “frontier”, where there are also military bases, or the Hebrides, on the Scottish “frontier”, or almost anywhere in the world where there is sea or soldiers.
     No wonder my Chukchi friend preferred to speak English rather than the language of the country which prevents his people having free and easy contact with the civilised world.


  1. I agree, that person should have free and easy access to civilized world (and uncivilized as well).

    But civilized world is not so keen to welcome just any person. Do you know how long does it take to get visa to Great Britain for Russian citizen? How long is a queue to Embassy? How many documents should this citizen provide? And how long does it take for Embassy to make a decision? All process can take a month or two on my unprepared guess.


  2. You are quite right about the difficulties of visiting Britain. The difference with Chukotka is that it is part of Russia, yet Russians (and foreigners already with visas to Russia) have as much difficulty getting there (arguably more) as they would getting permission to visit London.