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Fieldwork in Siberia

Rescuing men's spirit


I did my fieldwork among Sakha (Yakut), a Turkic-speaking people in northeastern Siberia, whose traditional occupation is breeding cattle and horses. Since the late 1990s, Sakha intelligentsia have coopted some ordinary farmers in mounting a programme to revive a native cattle breed which was almost totally assimilated under Soviet cross-breeding programmes. “Just as marriages with Russians nearly put us on the brink of extinction,” – I was routinely told. In the discourse surrounding these attempts, they construe an ideal lifeworld in which they symbolically compensate for their life vulnerabilites. For example, Sakha bulls are praised to have greater sexual prowess than 'Russian' (nuuccha) ones or 'newcomers' (kelii), and Sakha cows to only mate with bulls of their own breed. These metaphors speak to the disempowerment of Sakha men, which was triggered with the dissolution of Soviet collective farms and was subsequently aggravated by the inflow of male migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus against whom Sakha men find themselves 'uncompetitive' in both labour and marriage market. In these photographs I attempt to show how Sakha cope with this anxiety both in their actual human world and its bovine alternative.

Poster boy for nationalist virility

A Sakha bull called Mossoottuur and his favourite cow from his harem. Influenced by urban intellectuals, the farmer Nikolay switched to the native breed several years ago by castrating his non-Sakha bulls and keeping Mossoottuur as the only stud bull in his herd. Nikolay said Mossoottuur was 'a fine stud' who easily outfighted other studs in the village and had numerous calves far beyond his homestead. Similarly, some Sakha politicians and businessmen have advocated that they, too, should have multiple wives to increase and 'Sakhaise' the human stock.



Singing from the same hymn sheet

Photo 2
I took this photograph during the ritual of 'men's algys (blessing)' in the capital Yakutsk. These rituals consist of a collective prayer followed by the feeding of a fire by a shaman and are held weekly free of charge for men of all ages. The emphasis on the importance of faith is what makes the organisers of these rituals to stand out from the various other men’s movements that have mushroomed in recent years. Despite the diversity of foci, they all share a common goal which is to (re)empower themselves (er djonu beghyurgeteeri).




Masculising the iconic folk dance

Photo 3.
The ohuokhai is a circle dance performed at the summer solstice, to welcome the sun at a key moment in the Arctic year. It is a core symbol of Sakha identity and has passed through numerous vicissitudes, being suppressed in the early Soviet period, then coopted to glorify socialism, then developed spiritually under the religious revival of the 1990s.  Up till now, both men and women have danced together in the same circle. But here, the Sakha men’s movement has created a new version called syur ohuokhaia which is danced exclusively by men and is believed to strengthen their spirit (syur). I was told that, 'in the past, Sakha men danced it before hunting or entering a war with other peoples'.