English translation from the official periodical of RAIPON “Мир коренных народов - живая арктика” (Indigenous Peoples’ World - Living Arctic) No. 13, 2003

“Asphalt Koryaks”: How this problem came about and who is to sort it out

Olga Murashko

More than once has M.B. Mashkovtsev, Governor of Kamchatka Oblast, pronounced resolutions against “the asphalt Koryaks”. And yet again I have received word from several Kamchatkan friends about another of M.B. Mashkovtsev’s recurrent appearances on the subject, this time on television. I quote it word for word:

“Live broadcast of the “Prichal” television company featuring the Governor of Kamchatka Oblast, M.B. Mashkovtsev on April 21, 2003 (rebroadcast on April 26, 2003).

A telephone call comes in to the TV studio with a question about fishing quotas for indigenous people residing in Petropavlovsk.

M.B. Mashkovtsev’s answer: “There will be no superiority based on blood for receiving quotas (limits) as long as I am your Governor. I have already said this, probably a hundred times. Because the asphalt Koryaks who have worked all their lives as policemen, bus drivers, teachers and now, all of a sudden, have remembered that somewhere in their lineage is a Koryak and therefore say ‘let me lead a traditional way of life in town’ -- this is nothing but profiteering from one’s ethnic origin.

The Koryaks who live there… not Koryaks, another nationality of ours is there… in the Bystrinskiy district, they indeed lead a traditional way of life, they set up nomad camps, pitch their chums, drive dog sledges and subsist only on what they get from the forest. That’s to whom we shall give as much as they need to lead a traditional way of life.

I have seen dozens of companies, when I was still a deputy, that had a Koryak as a stand-in-chairman, often not even knowing of what or where he was a chairman. They took his passport, gave him a crate of vodka, and that was it. While the real owners of the company were gangsters from Peter, I mean, Saint Petersburg gangsters. And this was formally for the benefit of the ethnic groups. We’ll tolerate nothing of the kind any more. As to personal consumption, including the townsfolk, representatives of the local population are allotted 50 kilograms (of fish) per person. That is to say, we allot 50 kilograms per inhabitant in the regions and villages. The townsfolk will get 30 kilograms each. This fish will be caught by the fisheries and these plants will distribute the catch among the population”.

How well pronounced are the Governor’s care for and knowledge about indigenous peoples of the region he’s been entrusted to look after in this statement! He failed to remember even the name of “another nationality of ours… in the Bystrinskiy district” – the Evens.

Generosity was displayed as well. In one of his phrases there is a promise “to give as much as they need for a traditional way of life”, while another phrase makes this promise definite: “that is to say, we allot 50 kilograms per inhabitant in the regions and villages”. On the other hand, vivid impressions of the soap opera “Petersburg Gangsters” and novels by Ilf and Petrov helped the Governor to create a loathsome criminal picture out of the life of the indigenous peoples of his region and, by so doing, to “play down” the problem of indigenous peoples’ access to traditional natural resources.

But let’s sort the things out one by one. Does the Kamchatkan Governor understand who and what he is talking about when he declares: “the fact that the asphalt Koryaks who have worked all their life as militiamen, bus drivers, teachers and now, all of a sudden, have realised that once there was a Koryak grandmother in their family and, therefore say ‘let me lead a traditional way of life in town’ -- this is nothing but profiteering from one’s ethnic origin”?

Firstly, by no means have all the Koryaks, Itelmens, Evens, or Kamchadals residing in town “worked as policemen, bus drivers, teachers”. The majority of indigenous peoples’ representatives residing in town are unemployed.

Secondly, they have not “all of a sudden” remembered their ethnic origin. They have always remembered it, especially when their native villages were abolished without their consent and they were banished to a obscurity.

Governor Mashkovtsev is a Communist, and, therefore, we might rightfully recall Kamchatka’s Soviet past. The 1926 census registered 122 villages with more than 11,000 indigenous inhabitants within Kamchatka Oblast. There were only 70 indigenous residents in the town of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy at the time. According to the “More precise list of districts and dense settlements inhabited by indigenous less-numerous peoples of the North” for 1998 there were only 22 such villages left in Kamchatka Oblast.

Out of 13,201 Northern peoples, 5,912 reside in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy and Yelizovskiy district. The majority of them found themselves in towns and suburbs as a result of the CPSU policy of consolidating rural settlements into larger units, which ended up as the hasty shutting down of the majority of villages without giving any particular thought to what would become of the fishermen, hunters, teachers, doctors, doctors’ assistants and the rest of the villagers.

Those who still remember those 40-year old resettlement operations shudder with horror and bitterness recalling how, for example, prior to the 7th of November (which apparently had to be done in time for the Party bosses to make their Revolution Day holiday report) they were driven out of their native houses, not allowed even to take down their window curtains, to gather up their meager possessions or their stores of fish for the winter, and took them away to a new locality. According to statistical data, the greatest number of suicides among the Kamchatka indigenous population occurred during the 1960s and 1970s.

That is how the “asphalt Koryaks” came to be, forcibly resettled from their native lands, people maladapted to urban life, so hated and despised by Governor Mashkovtsev. These people have retained throughout their lifetime a love for their native rivers and a yearning for their former life. They have passed these feelings on to their children.

They have also passed on the inherent bent for catching and eating fish, you won’t drive out of them for two generations. I visited Kamchatka in 1979 for the first time and I still remember how astonished I was to see the dwellings of the Northern peoples within the town precincts permeated with the smell of fish from the garlands of dried salmon hanging right in their living rooms.

There were other ways to end up in town. People came to study, to get medical treatment, were inducted into the army; and not everybody managed to gather enough money and strength to travel back.

Later, at the beginning of the perestroyka, they were enticed by the state programme to revive the previously closed villages. They were enticed, but not given any money to come back, while the villages by that time had already been destroyed and looted. The descendants of these resettled indigenous peoples residing in town now have the highest rates of unemployment, mortality and morbidity.

Why, then, doesn’t it come into the Governor’s head that it is the duty of the region’s top official to carry out a programme to provide the descendants of indigenous peoples, who have against their will found themselves on the asphalt, with education and job opportunities, or to secure the possibility of carrying out traditional subsistence activities for those willing to do so? Doesn’t the Governor understand that it is not through the fault of indigenous peoples that “Petersburg gangsters” make use of the indigenous peoples’ rights? The weakness of legislation and judicial power is to blame. And in every region that is in such a situation, blame can be placed on the top official – the Governor.

It is a great pity that the Governor has enough resoluteness only to make accusatory speeches against those for whom Kamchatka has been and remain their only motherland, but, thanks to many generations of bosses like Governor Mashkovtsev, she has become for them an evil stepmother who, in the person of the authorities insults them and turns them out.

It is true that some indigenous peoples have managed to get adjusted to urban life and acquire a profession and a job. And some of them have learned how to defend their own kith and kin. They deserve honor and praise for this. And it is exactly upon the heads of these people, known to the Governor, that he brings down his wrath. One can count on one hand such people, and perhaps for them personally the free fish and the right to fish are not that important, but the Governor should not forget about thousands of other people residing below the poverty level in the city and on the outskirts of towns, forced out of the hunting and fishing business by incomers. It should not be forgotten that they have been turned into a lumpen proletariat owing to ruthless interference in their life, interference lasting for centuries already, owing to the fact that they were forcibly pushed aside from and are still being pushed aside from the traditional way of life, occupations, culture. We are all to blame, including myself, for what has happened to indigenous peoples. It was not they who came to our house, it was we who came to theirs, violating our own rule: “Every land has its law, and every corn has its chaff”.

The problem of “asphalt aborigines” exists everywhere in the world. And in every country it is handled differently. Primary attention is paid to the task of providing indigenous peoples with education and jobs. To do so, programmes are elaborated and special funds are set up to finance these programmes. There are other programmes and money for those who have so far remained on the land of their ancestors and preserved their traditional culture. And not only in countries like the United States or Canada, whose immigrant population came from overseas comparatively recently – as many centuries ago as the Russians came to Siberia. In Scandinavian countries where the European population forced the Saami to the North almost two thousand years ago, the dominating European population, nevertheless, recognises the Saami’s rights, and the states accept it as their duty to finance the Saami Parliaments, and development programmes for Saami culture and traditional subsistence activities.

In Russia, though, this problem is not being dealt with and is not even discussed: everyone is bad off, and there is no money. Yes, for some reason the government has no money for its people. But shouldn’t we have our conscience? Every one of us a personal conscience. The kind of conscience which should not allow such statements like the one above, especially when made by officials live on the air.