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Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer, Georgetown University

Glocalization and Cultural Revitalization in Siberia and Beyond

essay in honor of Sergei A. Arutiunov

Conundrums: Global and Local

            In the mid-1990s, I took a photograph of a smiling, beautiful Sakha (Yakut) girl standing in the courtyard of a Siberian village homestead nuzzling a white horse with a motorcycle nearby.  Sergei Arutiunov loved it and I should have given him the photo years ago.  This essay is my metaphorical gift to him taking up the themes we both saw in that image.  The white horse, symbol of Sakha cultural pride and ancient Turkic nomadic tradition, coexisted in the courtyard with a shiny new motorcycle.  They had iconic value well beyond their function, but their value together with a young girl representing the hope of a new generation became an index of glocalization. The old and new coexist together in our glocal world a world where the ambiguities of modernization have reached remote Siberian villages in the form of computer games, and where the dynamics of cultural identity, multiple levels of identity, and situational identities are all in interaction with each other.1

            For many years, well before it was fashionable, Sergei Arutiunovs work on the interrelations of language and culture has been especially illustrative of these complex ambiguities, rather than of clashes of civilization. He has also been able to render nuanced and understandable those processes of cultural change, frightening for indigenous peoples and the scholars in solidarity with them, that are sometimes framed by others in more categorical terms,  that  whole cultures are dying out.  In his recent text Kulturnaia Antropologiia (with Svetlana I. Ryzhakova) he titles one chapter the adaptive meaning of cultural polymorphism, and asks Why do languages and ethnoses and various forms of human communities continue to exist - despite considerable devastating prophesies of their inevitable merging [slianii]?  He answers that together with globalization we see today tendencies toward cultural demarcation...2

Contexts: Temporal and Cultural

            Here is a poignant insight from an indigenous thinker struggling with similar tensions:

If our last really strong Nenets shaman was living as a young man now, just think of the possibilities that would be open to him, to develop his spiritual and intellectual potential.

[Galina Pavlovna Khariutchi, Nenets folklorist, to M. M. Balzer, June 2003, Omsk] This quote captures a combination of melancholy for lost ancestors united with hope for rekindling spirituality in new ways in the post-Soviet period. The shaman in the quote died several years ago. Each generation remakes its own traditions, as Galina and her famous husband Sergei Khariutchi (2003) understand.  Theirs is a jet-set nomadic, multiethnic, international family, for they have a Canadian son-in-law.  But Galina also made clear a sense of impending menace that could harm the gains, political, social and cultural, that Nenets have made in the post-Soviet period.  She explained: We have special deer who are not sacrificed but are let alone, to guard sacred places, to be preserved, honored.  I was there, in my home territory in 1996 when a terrible sickness overtook these deer, not really domestic but let free.  Even the sacred deer were falling ill and dying everywhere.  The elders took this as a terrible sign, that the herds were infected, and might not be able to survive at all.  We did frantic rituals to save them.

            What can save indigenous cultures based on these reindeer?  Or is this not an appropriate question?  Michael Blake (2000) has argued for Rights for People, Not for Cultures and indeed implications of trendy anthropology and globalization theories suggest we should not conceptualize or worry about preserving whole cultures wholesale.  Arjun Appadurai (1996; 2000) suggests using the adjectival form cultural as more informative than discussing Culture as a reified object to be saved or destroyed.  These days, indigenous peoples are not just frozen images in museums: often they are advisers, or running the museums or creating tourist bases to showcase their culture, as the Nenets poet Anna Nerkagi (1996) has done.

            To some extent, the academic debates about Culture miss a larger concern: stimulating conditions for group rights as well as individual rights.  Laws developed in the Federation of [multiethnic] Rossiia, beginning with a 1992 Yelstin decree, then the 1993 Constitution (article 69), plus a 1997 project requiring ethnological expertise for development programs, and extending to a more narrow 2001 law protecting territories of traditional land use provide some limited legal underpinnings for stimulating group cultural rights.  RAIPON and the ethnologist Olga Murashko (2003) have been active and somewhat successful in these legal efforts, though the struggle continues and is often bogged down in potentially corrupt court proceedings.  A Russian colleague Olga Balalaeva has helped write a nuanced Khanty-Mansi law on protection of sacred sites, after contributing to their law on folklore and language and compiling an atlas of Ugrian sacred lands (Balalaeva and Wiget 1999).  Some gains have been made on local levels with indigenous activism, and by training the expanding indigenous intelligentsia as folklorists, sociologists, and, recently, as has happened with Native American communities, lawyers.3

            This leads to the troubling and complex issue of education.  Soviet legacies of compulsory education brought literacy but also the well-known demise of indigenous languages (compare Arutiunov 1989; Vakhtin 1994; Kasten 1998).  By the end of the Soviet period, of approximately 35,000 Nentsy, 77% spoke their native language.  While their numbers today have increased to 41,302, the 2002 census did not consistently record language use. About 80% speak Nentsy today, constituting the most positive case within West Siberia.  Percentages of mother tongue language retention are lower for the smaller groups.  Thus the Khanty numbered 23,000 in 1989, with 61% speaking their native language.  In 2002, Khanty numbered 28,678 with fewer than 65% speaking their native language.  The Mansi were 8,500 in 1989, with 37% speaking Mansi.  By 2002, Mansi numbered 11,432 and less than 40% retained the Mansi language.  The less assimilated Selkup of Krasnoselkup raion have had a better rate of language retention but total less than 5,000 today.  In the Far Eastern Sakha Republic, indigenous minorities (Evenk [Tungus], Even [Lamut] and Yukagir [Odul]) have increased modestly and their native language use has declined slightly less sharply than in other areas.  In 2002, they numbered 35,527, 19,071 and 1,509 respectively within Rossiia.  The larger more dominant Sakha [Yakut] have been in a better position to stimulate linguistic and cultural resurgence, numbering 443,852 by 2002 (a 16% increase over 1989 figures) and constituting approximately 40% of their republic (Balzer 2004).  But they too worry about Russification.

            Language statistics only begin to reveal the valid concerns of the indigenous intelligentsia regarding threats to cultural vitality.  While the days of punishment for speaking ones Native language in a residential school (similar to Canadian and North American experience) are over, other more subtle problems exist.4    A school program to encourage indigenous anthropology, with active elder participation, in Khanty-Mansi okrug was curtailed for lack of funding.  Battles over culturally based benevolent spirit teaching in the Sakha Republic have resulted in cut-backs of indigenous programs.  New Federation-wide textbook standardization programs again threaten to create homogenization of local histories and knowledge.  The 2006 program sponsored by the Russian Orthodox Church called Fundamentals of Russian Culture must be considered in this context of increasing standardization.

            A deeper problem exists in contrasting ways of thinking and knowledge acquisition, between traditional styles of active, spiritually attuned learning and more passive text-based learning.  This goes to the heart of shamanic ways of knowing, of tapping intuition.  Some Khanty and Sakha friends argue that Soviet and post-Soviet education ruins this intuitive capacity by its emphasis on logic and objectivity.  A quote from a Khanty leader is illustrative:

            In childhood I had a gift of being able to find lost objects.  I found Papas watch in the snow.  He had come home without it and was upset.  I dreamed where it was and we found it.  Another time I found a cow and a calf.  We had lost the mama while she was calving, and I dreamed where they were.  Then I lost this talent.  I became too involved in getting 5s [As] in school and learned how to think European style.  I lost my sense of depth, of connectedness to Khanty culture.  But I never really got deep into Russian.  At least my dreams Russian-style are very superficial. [Anonymous by request, from dialogue 1991.]

            In adult life, this Khanty intellectual has begun to cure using dreams, to the point where she has managed to banish a tumor from her own body. Doctors thought I had a tumor and then could not find it.  A month before, I had gone into the same deep, multileveled worlds, dreaming as I had as a child.  And I think it was when I was in that state, I cured myself.  In modern terms, maybe I used bioenergy on myself.  I do not know.  In Khanty terms, I turned into a god.  Or rather, I used a spirit helper to help me find my way; [shyly and hesitantly] I dreamed that I ran in the image of a bear.

            This compelling passage helps to partially explain why revivals of bear ceremonies in Yugrian communities have been so powerful, meaningful and exuberant in the post-Soviet period, having survived considerable repression (see also Glavatskaia 2001, 2005).  It provides a glimpse into the psychological background behind continuities in reincarnation-oriented soul beliefs that help some Khanty think of themselves as a separate people with special cultural values worth preserving.  The ironies are not lost on Yugrian leaders, when some of their cultural festivals are sponsored with local Russian administration and energy company financing.

            A clear implication behind cultural revitalization movements is that loss of valuable traditional ways of perceiving and communicating through indigenous languages impoverish our twenty-first century global cultural fund.  Like biodiversity arguments, arguments about the importance of linguistic diversity can be made for their own sake, that cultural diversity itself is a virtue.  But a further step in defending the significance of relatively remote and poorly understood indigenous languages is to delve into the drama and substance of their rituals, songs and tales. This should be done with permission, and with careful listening to those Siberian thinkers who assure us: We are not disappearing from the face of the earth. [Yuri Vella Aivaseda, poet and activist, 1996, quoted in Balzer 1999:146].

            Revitalization movements are often responses to compelling, conscious ideas of internal social reform as well as to pressure from external social oppression.  Many political, social and religious movements have revitalization potential, despite differing manifestations and end results.  Whether called revolutionary, messianic, nativistic, vitalizing or revitalizing, the psychological-functional vocabulary used to describe such movements often implies mass-level spiritual crisis-easing related to cultural rebirth.  Single theories stressing objective material causes, charismatic leadership, widespread psychological depression, or relative depression rarely do such movements justice.   Older theories reflecting concepts of holistic cultural integration and disintegration have been superceded by more nuanced acknowledgment of the chaotic expansion of individual and group potentials (compare Shirokogoroff 1935; Wallace 1972; Arutiunov 1989; Fox 1995).

            Some of the healer-shamans currently working in the Sakha Republic are trying to create communities of faith beyond what they can accomplish in quiet, sometimes secret, individual healing sessions.  Among them are the famed urban elder-historian and founder of the Association of Folk Medicine Vladimir Kondakov, and a middle-aged healer named Klavdia Maksimova, or Saiyyna (Spring, Renewal), also practicing in the capital with her own healing center.  Saiyyna consistently makes the case for special Sakha conditions of spirituality, based on the "Triad of Cosmos-Person-Land." She argues, convincingly for many urban Sakha longing to return to their roots: "This land, the medicinal herbs, the food, the water, this wonderful Nature of ours, is what gives us our special energy."5

            Some Sakha, striving for collective spiritual solidarity and pride at a national level, have imbued projects like the annual national festival Yhyak as well as a new shamanic temple, Archie Diete (House of Purification) with meaning beyond political symbolism.  Whether called shamanism or neo-shamanism, shamanic or animistic, folk-urban religion or benevolent spirit teaching, nature worship or ancestor worship, such faith-based striving links indigenous Siberian peoples to spiritual revitalization trends throughout the world.6

Conclusions without Resolutions

            Indigenous individuals and groups are changing in sometimes unexpected directions.  We cannot presume to decide for them the best conditions for their survival in tundra, taiga, forest, village, town and city contexts.  Some go among all of these, and, with education, have no intention of giving up the advantages of urban life. Ideas of  neotraditionalism, valid when they come from indigenous groups themselves and not romantic outsiders, should not be used as an excuse to curtail basic services bringing indigenous children to improved residence schools (hopefully, with Native teachers, and in more convenient places), enabling regular helicopter transport for trade and communication, and emergency medical care to reindeer breeders and fish camps (Pika 1999; Vorobev 2004).  Life expectancy statistics for indigenous peoples of the Far North, at 45 years of age, are a scandal that requires urgent attention (Abriutina 2001, 2003).  Energy company subsidies and designated taxes to responsive local governments could help take care of some of these basic needs, with more active indigenous community participation, not just appointments of token leaders onto development committees.

            Self-rule as an unfunded mandate does not work in Rossiias nominally federal system any more than it works in the United States or Canada.  A relatively better solution in a pragmatic context of post-Soviet binds would be the increased participation of indigenous leaders in energy development decisions, for example as the Inuit have negotiated over many years of imperfect bargaining for the Canadian territory Nunavut (glossed as our land) and its neighboring regions (compare Fondahl 1998; Dahl, Hicks and Jull 2000; Tishkov 2004).

            For indigenous leaders, advocacy means engaging with various levels of bureaucracy and risking personal and community reputations for cultural authenticity. This tension between authenticity and activism is acknowledged by the Harvard-based organization Cultural Survival (Dean and Levi 2003) and by interpreters of Native cultural controversies such as Mike Brown (2003).  Individuals and groups are more or less "indigenous," depending on their interethnic histories.  Conditions for constructing self-esteem and liberal ethnonationalism range widely inside the off-balanced "matrioshka doll" of Rossiia (see also Kolstø 2000). Without some level of land-based self-rule, if only at the obshchina (community) level, indigenous groups do not flourish.

            Siberians with their own titular republic homelands, such as the Sakha Republic, Buryatia, Khakasia, Altai, and Tuva (Tyva), have fared far better in cultural revitalization projects than groups with lesser political status.  Groups without any ethnic-based territory, such as the Ket and Yukagir, or diasporas, such as Mansi outside the Khanty-Mansi okrug, or Evenki outside the Evenki districts of Krasnoyarsk and Buryatia, have been in the most precarious positions.  But they too find their best identity-building, mobilization options at the local level. While ethnic diasporas are often explicitly political, their basis for cultural demands such as special school programs is weak and by definition dispersed (see also Arutiunov 2002).

            We can now return, with a somewhat more jaundiced eye, to the issues our photograph of the Sakha girl with horse and motorcycle raised.  Her chances for juggling multiple means of transport and multiple cultural identities in a peaceful multiethnic world are by no means guaranteed.  Even within the relatively rich Sakha Republic, will she be given appropriate opportunities for education, leadership and self-determination?  Will globalization force her to become one of the indigenous elites who simply internalize the logics of the market in an awkward cycle of repeating previous leaders post-colonial mistakes, as Louisa Steur (2005: 174) suggests?  Will she prefer an escape into provincialism and xenophobia, retreating to past traditions that are no longer viable?  Or will more positive synergistic dynamics of glocalization create new, culturally and politically revitalizing, roads for her to explore?  Even if Sergei Arutiunov does not know these answers, he has at least given us many creative ways to think about these increasingly multi-layered and entwined contexts and questions.  As he notes (Arutiunov 2005: 26): ... Far from all globalization (universalization, internationalization, etc.) is good and not all parochialization (localization, localism, provincialism) is bad.  In general, these processes or categories should not be given axiological significance.  Together they form the general dialectical process of glocalization, in which, as in metabolic processes, absorption, transformation, and secretion are inextricably connected components.  In practice, the process includes both extreme globalist and cosmopolitan elements and elements oriented in equally uncompromising fashion toward localist patriotism. 


I am grateful to Siberian friends and colleagues for help and insights, especially to my friends and colleagues in the Sakha, Even, Evenk, Yukagir, Khanty, Mansi, Nenets, Chukchi and Nivkh intelligentsia. I thank Elza Bair-Goutchinova for giving me the excuse to rethink some of my previous articles in light of Sergei A. Arutiunovs enormous contribution to our field (globally and glocally).  I thank Sergei A. Arutiunov and Natalia L. Zhukovskaia for inspiration, friendship and hospitality. I am indebted to Georgetown University, the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX), the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), Yakutsk University, the Academy of Sciences Institute of Languages, Literature and History in Yakutsk (AN IIaLI, now the Humanities Institute), the Sakha Republic Ministry of Culture, and to the Kennan Institute of the Smithsonian's Wilson Center for fieldwork and/or research support. 


1. Sergei A. Arutiunov (2005) used this term in an article on language. Glocalization is a felicitous neologism first introduced in the 1990s by the British sociologist Roland Robertson.  He picked it up from a term first popular among Japanese businessmen.  Implications of the term subsequently were explored by Zygmunt Bauman and many others.  It is used in the globalization literature to express tendencies combined and in tension with each other concerning expanding influence of global trends into local communities at the same time that local identities and cultural revitalizing are stimulated.  The result can be a synergistic, multileveled revitalization or a greater turn toward defensive provincialism, depending on local conditions or particular leaders.  See Roland Robertson, Jan Aart Scholte, eds. (2007); Kilminster and Varcoe (1995).

2. S. A. Arutiunov and S. I. Ryzhakova (2004: 129).  See also Chatterjee (1993); Duara (1996).

3. Vice President of RAIPON Mikhail Todyshev, a notable example of this important trend, explains that indigenous Siberian lawyers have increased to over twenty, but very few are pursuing careers in public service, defending indigenous rights(personal communication April, 2004). The President of the Museum of American Indians, Richard West, is a lawyer whose work reforming tax legislation for Native Americans has provided a lasting legacy, in addition to his founding role in establishing the museum.  See also Novikova (2004); Ssorin-Chaikov (2003).

4. See Bloch (2004) on the complexity of the history of residential schools for Siberian minorities.  The power of folklore language in general and for the Nenets case is argued by Pushkareva (2004).  See also Kasten (1998); Krauss (1991); Vakhtin (1994). On the interrelationship of language and thought, see Sapir (1970).  For an impressive project to record Siberian languages, see the website of Andrey Filtchenko  http://www.policy.hu/  .

5.  See Saiyyna (2000). I visited Saiyynas group curing, blessing and creativity-stimulation sessions in 1995, 2000, 2003.  Her claims for special Sakha energies derived from Nature are similar (though not identical) to those of Kondakov (1997, 1999) and Edei Dora (Protopopova 1999). For context, see Sakha scholars Kolodesnikov (2000); Vinokurova (1994, 1999); Romanova (1994, 1997).  Ethnographer Ekaterina Romanova was active in making the annual Yhyakh ceremonies into a republic-wide national holiday.

6.  Compare Lindquist (2006); Csordas (2002); Niezen (2000); Humphrey (2002); Kendall (1996, 2000); Balzer (1997, 2003, 2004); Pentakainen (1997); Atkinson (1992); Vitebsky (2005).


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