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Teleuts - The Hidden People In Siberia


Copyright © Melody Nixon 2002

RD3 Kaitaia
New Zealand

First posted: December 28, 2002; Last edited: September 22, 2005

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 Tom 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 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 man's 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 not 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 Teleuts.

According to local statistics 300 Teleuts live in the city and 3,000 in the entire Kuzbass (also known as Kemerovo) region: together with the Shortzs, the smallest ethnic group in Russia, they are the only minority races in this area, surrounding the Tom river. 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 and thirty one of these indigenous groups live in the territories of Siberia and the Altai. Although most of the populations differ in their origin, language and culture, they are united by their common lifestyles; hunting, fishing, reindeer-breeding and herding, traditional occupations which are linked to their nomadic, or previously nomadic ways of living; low population densities; and a contemporary situation of poverty and suppression.

Several of these aboriginal groups are on the brink of extinction, due to the high mortality and forced assimilation resulting from a lack of governmental attention. Their population sizes, such as the 3,300 of the Teleuts, have kept them mostly in the dark, oppressed and without means to find a strong voice. The past attempts of the Russian government to deal with this voice, when it has arisen, have been sporadic and at times destructive and the assimilation 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 Teleut population in the Kuzbass region is a vivid example of the daily struggle in which many of these minority groups live.

Of the three main groups which define native Siberian peoples, the Uralic, Altaic and Paleo-Siberian, the Teleuts belong to the second, the Altaic, or Altai-Kizhi (Kizhi meaning ‘people’ in Altaic.). This group is divided again into Northern and Southern Altaic, and the Teleuts, referred to as White Kalmyks historically, are members of the Southern Altaic. Included in this category are the Maimalars (of the valley of the river Maima), the Telengits, (of the valley of the river Chu), the Telesses or Telosses, and the Ulan Kizhis, all of whom belong to the Asiatic and south-Siberian type of the Mongoloid race.

The Northern Altaic on the other had, are less Mongoloid. They exhibit some European traits and anthropologically they belong to the Uralic race. At times some scholars have associated the Southern Altai Teleuts with a group called the Bachat Teleuts, and the Kuzbass Teleut are often referred to under this name, or as Bachatsky Teleuts. But the Bachat Teleuts consider themselves a separate ethnos – shown by the fact they do not use an Altai language as a standard form of communication. These Bachat Teleuts are sometimes associated with the Siberian Tatars, who do not all belong to a unified ethnic group.

As applies to many of the Siberian native peoples, Teleut is not a self designated name. Traditionally names were taken depending on the peoples locality – Tom Kizhi (translated literally as ‘Tom residents of the village Teleuts’,) Tomdor (as the Teleuts of the village of Sredny Teleut call themselves,) Telengit and Payatar - are examples of those employed by Teleuts. The effect of Russian officialdom in the 17th century is also evident in the contemporary usage of the name Tadar, ‘The Tartar’, a term used by officials from the 17th to 19th century, politically covering all ‘Turkic’ peoples in Russia, but anthropologically incorrect. Today it is adopted by many Southern Altaic and Siberian native peoples to refer to themselves whilst conversing with Russian people. However, interestingly, when Teleuts converse with each other in their mother tongue they use the name Telenet.

Having spent time researching these people, but finding little practical information, I was thrilled when during my stay in Novokuznetsk I was introduced to Vladimir Ilyich, the President of the Public Association for Teleut People, and a strong activist for aboriginal rights. As the Hidden Teleuts democratically selected leader of the peoples only communal organisation, 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 Teleut, on the outskirts of Novokuznetsk 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 Teleut 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 neighbouring 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.

Vladmir Ilyich and the Public Association of Teleut People cited their total population as 3,300 recognised Teleuts living in Siberia in 2002. The only official census carried out in recent years was the 1989 Soviet Census, which enumerated 2,594 residents of Teleut origin in Russia. According to research made by the anthropologist D.A.Funk (from his paper ‘On The Problem of Defining an Independent Ethos of the Bachatsky Teleuts’) during the same year, around 1,900 of those Teleuts were living in the countryside at that time.

This shows a strong trend over the last decade of urban to rural migration, combined with possible population expansion, although this may be due to intermarriage, assimilation and a less strict definition of what it means to be ‘Teleut’.

In the village, Vladimir was joined by his uncle, a soft older man, who was also active in the fight for aboriginal rights. He told me about the many 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.

Vladimir and his uncle, and the inhabitants of the village seemed to me a mild people, unimposing. As their Mongoloid features might suggest – a wide noseband, wide, long orthognant face, heavy dark features and narrow inclined forehead – traits which, according to craniological analysis made by G.F.Debets and V.P.Alexeev [____., 1948; ____ _._., 1960; 1963] show close links to Shortzs people of the region – the Teleuts claim that they arrived from the south, during a mass migration of Mongol and Turkic tribes. However the exact period of their arrival is difficult to define. After the collapse of the Siberian Empire in the 16th century all native tribes became members of the Russian Federation, followed by a penetration of Russian troops into Siberia and several fortresses being founded in the Tom river region.

At this time, in the first half of the 17th century, Teleut tribes were found to already be living in the Upper-tom Kuznetsk area of what is now the Kuzbass region. However there is still very much debate from scientists and historians as to the origins of the Teleuts, and indeed all Siberian native peoples. There has been some confusion as native Altaic peoples speak languages which are closely related to Turkic. However it is now believed this is not due to their origins and they were settled in Siberia long before the waves of Mongol and Turkic tribes.

It has been proposed that the first people lived in Siberia during the Upper Paleolithic period, as early as 45,000-40,000 BC. Archaeological evidence indicates that the settlement of Siberia was a long and complex process with migrations possibly originating from southern Russia and eastern Europe, Central Asia, and Mongolia. There is also evidence that cultural ties were established between the populations of western Siberia and eastern Europe as early as the Neolithic period, and archeological findings of later periods show bonds between the populations of Siberia and the ancient civilizations to the West and South. Events in the history of the southern part of Siberia, such as the movements of the Huns, the formation of the Turkic kaganate, and the campaigns of Genghis Khan, also affected the regions ethnographic map.

The debate around these facts is ongoing and currently a team of Russian and American scientists are studying the DNA of indigenous Siberian peoples in an attempt to decipher these first complex movements. Therefore it is believed the currently spoken Turkic languages are derived from the mixed waves of Turkic speaking nomads who, beginning 2000 years ago, have populated the Altai area and integrated with the native inhabitants.

Back in the village of Teleut, I asked Vladmir and his uncle if the Teleuts situation had become worse in recent years. 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 Teleut 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 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 Teleut 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 Teleuts receive no governmental money whatsoever, and several times the local council has made threats 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 Teleut 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, crueller. 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 Teleuts, and countless other ethnic minorities throughout Siberia, are in decline. Slowly their languages are dying, their young are migrating and their traditions and religious beliefs are weakening.

Relative to the large area of the region they occupy, native Siberian populations represent one of the least studied groups in the world. The only extensive or conclusive anthropological studies undertaken with regards to the Teleuts and southern Siberian native peoples were those made by A.I.Yarkho in 1924-1927. Although conducted 75 years ago, his studies form today’s base of knowledge on the subject.

As my brief visit showed me, a factor of urgency surrounds such investigations, because of the threat of lost ethnic identity is so real. For the Teleuts, it’s 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.

Resources and Parallel Works:

V.M.Kimeev and V.V.Eroshov, ‘The Aboriginal Peoples of Kuzbass.’ Drawing attention to two essays; “Ethnopolitical Processes” with a section on Teleuts; and “Metamorphoses of Ethnic and Self-identification (with the Teleuts as a case study)” by E.P.Batyanova. Review of Material’naia kul’tura bachatskikh teleutov [Material Culture of the Bachat Teleuts] and Dukhovnaia kul’tura teleutov [Teleut Spiritual Culture], Dmitrii Katsiuba, Central Asiatic Journal 43/1 (1999):9-10. Harrasowitz: Wiesbaden. Artic Studies Centre

Michael Hammer and Tatiana Karafet – study of Siberian DNA. Contact: Michael Hammer, Ph.D., Laboratory of Molecular Systematics and Evolution, Dept. EEB, Biosciences West, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ 85721

Historical encyclopaedia: HYPERLINK ""

D.A.Funk: Studies of Teleut population: HYPERLINK ""

For further information contact:
The Institute of Archaelogy and Ethnography
of the Siberian Branch,
Russian Academy of Science
Lavrent’eva Ave 17
Novosibirsk 630090

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