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Meeting the Teliooti

Novokuznetsk, Siberia, Central Russia.

In central Russia, four hundred kilometers south east of Novosibirsk, lies a mellow and haunted city; typically Siberian in it’s undiscovered nature. On the banks of the Tome river, and in the foreground of the Altai Mountains, Novokuznetsk is the city born of Irmak’s 17th century dream, the place which held Dostoeyovsky captive in his days of gaol, later witnessed his marriage, and now plays host to Russia’s greatest metallurgy factory.

A city of 600,000, Novokuznetsk is a mere township by gargantuan Siberian standards. To a New Zealander from a small rural community such as myself, it is a towering megalopolis, the same size as my country’s capital. In fact, I found my perceptions of space were stretched with violent suddenness, upon my arrival in Russia. Not only were the distances incomprehensible, but also the scale of the soviet architecture and engineering seemed to have been endreamed by creatures of another planet – very large, cumbersome creatures.

Slowly adapting to Siberian ways however, I have discovered the secret of life in Siberia lies not in a person’s hardiness, but in how well s/he is prepared. ” Endurance of the Siberian winter is not determined by a mans strength, but by the size of his coat.” (Siberian proverb.) And the same applies to the distance and scale of this country. The Siberians concept of space is simply different – a drive of a few hundred kilometers is a mere potter down the road – a few thousand is a good healthy Sunday drive – anything more entitles one to a bottle of vodka or two, for company.

Siberians are hardy yes, but above all adaptable.

However, arriving in Novokuznetsk, I was presented with a question – What if the people here are crafty and adaptable, but simply have no money for a coat? How large does few hundred kilometers become, without a car?

For despite its typically post-soviet appearance and history, Novokuznetsk is unique. Inside its apartment blocks and surrounding its suburbs live one of Russia’s smallest nationalities, the Teliooti.

Three hundred Teliooti live in the city and three thousand in the entire Kuzbass region: together with the Shortsch, the smallest ethnic group in Russia, they are the only minority races in the area. This fact alone makes them unique and intriguing. They have a language, an outlook and a system of beliefs different to any other in the world. When one considers the understanding we all could gain (from a humanitarian and anthropological perspective) from the preserved ideology and traditions of such a culture, one realizes the attention such people deserve – or in the least the support to live fulfilling lives and develop their own ways of learning and sharing.

Russia has around forty minority races held within its vast girth, living in isolated groups, generally in the far reaches of Siberia. However their population sizes, such as the 3,300 of the Teliooti, have kept them mostly in the dark, suppressed and without means to find a strong voice. The past attempts of the Russian government to deal with this voice, when it does arise, have been sporadic and at times destructive and the projects put in place when prompted by foreign organizations and governments have been ill thought out and inconsistent. Many Russians are now aware of the sad situation of ethnic children, taken from their native villages to city institutions to be taught in a white Russian system, left marooned afterward: unable to return to their village as the traditional ways of living and hunting and even the language of their families are alien to them, yet unable also to adapt to city life. The discrimination and resulting ostracism is acceptable and accepted, for the average population of non-ethnics. The Teliooti population in the Kuzbass region is a vivid example of the oppressive situation in which many of these minority groups live.

During my stay in Novokuznetsk I was introduced to Vladimir Ilyich, the President of the Public Association for Teliooti People, and a strong activist for aboriginal rights. As the democratically selected leader he took his position with seriousness and determination, and having recently returned from a human rights conference in Geneva, he had a grave comprehension of the difficulty of the situation of his people.

To share this with me, he took me to the village of Teliooti, on the outskirts of the city, in an industrial area bordered with enormous factories. Although shaky trees surrounded the village smoke was billowing into the air beyond, and the Sunday morning was sooty, grimed. A few groups were standing, drinking beer and vodka, but despite its population of 100 the village seemed empty as we approached on the muddy road. A kilometer or so ago the real road had stopped, and this was more like a rough track, not sealed and without metal, which ran between lines of lopsided cottages. The materials on these cottages were rough, the walls, gates and fences in disrepair, rotting – in one spot only was a new house being built, uneven logs being thatched together with cement and leather straps; new prosperity as the owner had a job in the city.

I asked Vladimir about the other inhabitants, as we began walking along the track around the small community. I wondered what they did – in a village of twenty-seven families, which received no funding or attention from national or regional governments – how did they survive? With great difficulty, he said, life is a daily, instable struggle. Many Teliooti people are inactive, unemployed, and alcoholism is rampant The village’s state of isolation intensifies this stasis, and with no public transport at all running from the community, the possibility of finding work is even slimmer. Some of the inhabitants carry produce into the city to sell in the farmer markets, or work in neighboring factories. The children go to school in the city, walking the three kilometers every day – a tiresome effort in summer, usually impossible in winter. In fact for the six or more months of harsh Siberian winter this village would be dormant, cut off with a poor road and no transport, if it wasn’t for the fact there is no shop and no inflow of products of any sort, only what the inhabitants themselves bring in. Cold water is taken from Kalotsi, shared public pipelines, in the street, and heated over wood fires. There is no sewerage system and the area is already very poor ecologically, the result of pollution from the nearby factories.

Vladimir was joined by his uncle, a soft older man, who told me about the other journalists and occasional local council representatives who had come, made photos and promises, and left. There was interest – people tried to spread awareness, but as he explained bitterly, nothing had ever happened after these visits.

Had the situation become worse in recent years? I asked. Both Vladimir and his uncle agreed – things had seemed better under the Soviet regime. There had been a school in the village for example, and a trained Teliooti teacher. The government effectively enforced active laws; laws that stated minority races must have a means to keep their language alive, and a means to education in their own culture. In the University of Novokuznetsk a department of ethnic minorities was established in the faculty of Theology, to educate minority teachers.

And now? And now the school was collapsing and although it was still stated in Russian law that minority races must have a means to keep their language alive and such a faculty of minority races must exist, it had not received attention or interest for many years. The University was not prompted by the government to train specialists and any funding received was directed to what the university administration deemed as more acute areas of deprivation. A deeper problem had resulted – as there were no longer trained language specialists or teachers there was now no real awareness from native students. The younger generations no longer found inspiration in their own culture – the activities of modern Siberian society took the place of the telling of traditional stories and the practice of their own religion. Very few young people now spoke their native Teliooti language.

When I asked Vladimir if the current government had made any attempts to ease the problem, his mouth set in a grim line and he stared roughly ahead. They have made laws he said, a whole contingent of them. But not one has been acted upon. By law, children of ethnic minorities must have unlimited access to universities and institutions of learning, without having to pass entrance examinations. Yet rarely a Teliooti child has the opportunity to study in Novokuznetsk, and if so it is through her/his own funding and initiative they gain entrance to the university.

Russian law also states that land which historically belongs to an ethnic minority must be returned to that minority, and a traditional style of life be guaranteed. Grants and pensions must be paid to all minorities. Yet the Teliooti receive no governmental money whatsoever, and several times the local council has made treats of taking their land or moving their village elsewhere.

Vladimir told me these laws had been devised solely to appease foreign organizations and human rights groups, and if they served any purpose it was that of showing the unawareness and disinterest of Russian governmental bodies, on all levels.

As we drove back along the muddy track the Teliooti village receded, faded, and then disappeared completely. Ahead of us the urban planning of Novokuznetsk rose, taking command of the entire gray scene, of my thoughts. I closed my eyes and firm images of faces, of smiling eyes, of creases and folds of warm skin, filled my vision. I was uncertain of their realness. Further into the city, as the rows of socialist realism closed in, I felt I had only these stark faces and sharp memories to assure me of this peoples existence, of their survival.

Theirs is a situation mirrored by hundreds of thousands of aboriginal communities around the world, but this fact only makes their position seem more desperate, crueler. A nation that historically belongs to this area, a village that has existed in one spot – framed by nature, framed by peasant plots, and today framed by factories – for over five hundred years, now does not have the basic necessities to live. Because of government inaction the Teliooti, and countless other ethnic minorities throughout Siberia, are in decline. Slowly they are decreasing in numbers, their languages are dying and their traditions and religious beliefs are weakening.

It is a case of having the adaptability, craftiness and knowledge needed to endure and prosper in Siberia, yet having so many factors against them, and so little help from those who can give it, that all such strength is swept away by a harsh reality. They simply don’t have enough money for a coat, and the three-kilometer walk to school every day is a very long way.

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