Koryaks

[Sarah Argodale]

Russia’s eastward expansion accumulated numerous ethnic groups, including those residing on the Kamchatka peninsula, which touches the Bering Sea. Of the nomadic groups that live in this area, the Koryaks were one of the most difficult to exert control over. The Tsarist Russians launched numerous raids, and forced the Koryaks to pay tribute through the threat of direct violence (Slezkine, 19) The resources in this area made the Russian struggles worthwhile from a purely economic view. The indifference felt by the Tsarist Empire towards the Koryak culture protected them from any undue influence. This attitude slowly changed during the Enlightenment era as more attention was paid to Koryak assimilation with the Russain Empire. By the time the Soviets came to power, the policy towards the Koryaks and other northern tribes had become one of complete Russification (“Koryaks”).

For imperial Russia, the Enlightenment ushered in a period wherein Tsarists leaders hoped to match European progress. In order to reform Russia as a European state, the tsars needed to foster development in the ‘inferior’ northern regions. This primarily involved converting the Koryaks and other groups to Orthodoxy (Slezkine, 47). The Tsarist government also encouraged colonization to the northern areas, as another method of developing the ethnic groups. Unfortunately, the policies of conversion and immigration did not completely incorporate the Koryaks within the Russian Empire. There remained a distinct separation from those living in this region, and those who remained in Russia’s center (Slezkine, 114). Early communist policies would more aggressively assimilate the Koyraks, at the expensive of their individual culture for a greater Soviet identity.

The Soviets were the first to extensively study the cultures of the northern region. At the beginning of the 1930s Soviet ethnographers catalogued the various languages and practices of indigenous populations as part of a greater attempt to help modernize the underdeveloped parts of the Soviet Union. The Koryaks were seen as a backward people that needed the support of Russia to fully develop. This modernization, according to the Soviet government, required an influx of a large Russian labor force in the area. It was believed that the Koryaks could not progress without outside assistance (Slezkine, 271). This Russian immigration diluted the Koryak population to such a degree that, according to a 2002 national census, the Koryak Autonomous Okrug consisted of 50.6% Russians and only 26.7% Koryaks (“World Directory…”). The Soviet era marked the start of the disappearance of Koryak culture from the landscape, and its replacement by the Russian culture.

Despite this process of assimilation, historians have been able to collect some data on the traditional Koryak culture. Part of the Chukotko-Kamchatkan family, the Koryaks share similarities with the neighboring Chukchis and Itel’men (Slezkine, 2). The name ‘Kor’ means reindeer, a designation utilized by neighboring tribes and subsequently adopted by Russian settlers. The Koryaks, however, refer to themselves in two ways. The nomadic peoples were called chavchu (‘reindeer rearers’), while the settled peoples were known as nymylan (‘resident)’ (“Koryaks”).

The Koryak language belongs to the Paleoasiatic group, and has close ties to the language spoken by the Chukchi. It consists of several dialects, the most common is Chavchuven, as well as Paren, Itkan, Apukin, Palan, Karagin, and Kamen. This large variety of dialects has made widespread language instruction difficult in the region. In the 1930s, Chavchuven was selected as the main language and used in school instruction and in literary circles (“Koryak Language”). Unfortunately, the Communist period’s reliance on Russian for administrative and cultural purposes, along with the frequent intermarrying, has lowered the presence of Koryak speakers (“Koryak”). Recently collected data indicates a slow decline of native Koryak speakers, from 69.6% in 1979 to 52.4% in 1989. This decline in spoken Koryak is contrasted by the increase in those identifying themselves as native Russian speakers, 46.8% in 1989 (“Koryak Language”).

Koryak, like many other Siberian languages, is rapidly becoming endangered. If current statistics continue, it is likely that Koryak will disappear from the local lexicon. Fortunately, there has been a recent desire to preserve the language. In 1990, the Koryaks joined with several other ethnic groups to form the Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia, and Far East. This organization was created to promote the preservation of these communities’ cultures and to represent their interests to the central Russian government (Russian Association…). Additionally, the Koryaks are using local methods are also being used to preserve the language. Newspapers and television programs disseminate Koryak to the populace. Still, the numerous Koryak dialects make preservation difficult, and many are not optimistic about its future (Koryak Net).

The resource-rich lands of the North and Siberia made these lands desirable to Tsarist Russia as well as to the present post-Soviet government. Preserving an ancient culture and its ethnographic history was never a priority, as different administrations discovered new methods for using the region for their own needs. The Koryaks have begun the slow process of turning back these centuries of exploitation, and have achieved limited success. Their situation resembles that of many other Siberian or Northern groups that were supplanted by Russian incursion. Renewed nationalist interest helps prolong the existence of these ethnicities, but they remain dangerously close to extinction. The current state of the Koryak language and its culture reveals the ease with which entire civilizations can quickly lose their historical traditions.

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Works consulted

  • “The Koryaks,” http://www.eki.ee/books/redbook/koryaks.shtml.
  • “The Koryak Language,” Endangered Languages of Indigenous Peoples of Siberia, http://lingsib.unesco.ru/en/languages/koryak.shtml.htm.
  • Koryak Net, http://www.koryaks.net/.
  • Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia, and Far East, http://www.raipon.org/RAIPON/tabid/302/Default.aspx.
  • “World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples – Russian Federation : Koryaks,” Refworld, Minority Rights Group International, http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/topic,463af2212,49709e922,49749cbcc,0.html.
  • Yuri Slezkine, Arctic Mirrors: Russia and the Small Peoples of the North (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), 19.

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