Russia’s indigenous heartland

My friend, the Ecuadorian anthropologist José Salcedo, a researcher of shamanic cultures and civilisational crises, had a dream: he wanted to get to know the ancestral Siberian cultures and be able to compare their oral creation myths and healing ceremonies with those of the indigenous peoples of America, to confirm his hypothesis of the commonality of their roots since it is known that the ancient inhabitants of Siberia were the first to cross the Bering Strait.

Thousands of years before the birth of the Russian-Danish seafarer Vitus Jonassen Bering, who ‘discovered’ these lands and the seas between Asia and America, the region had long been explored and inhabited by other human beings. It is even known that the word ‘shaman’ is also of Siberian origin, and that part of the enormous diversity and wisdom of the spiritualities of the American peoples is an inheritance of the ancient cultures hidden among the mountains of Russian Asia.

The journeys through Ecuador we made with José were dreamlike. Apart from the unforgettable forays into the culture and spirituality of its peoples, who continue to inhabit the worlds between the mountains and jungles, he shared his understanding of the history of humanity and the future paths to be explored. We talked about the most beautiful and the craziest things. He loved this word, ‘spirituality’, which seemed a bit corny to me, probably because of my own prejudices, so on the endless paths through the forests and along the rivers we discussed it. José believed in the spirituality of the Andes and their waters and snows, in the times of their telluric energies, and in the human being as part of the universe and guardian of the balance between the worlds. In Siberia, according to him, humanity was waiting for one of the most important keys to open the door to the future.

We were just beginning to prepare for José’s trip to Russia when we received sad news from Ecuador. He and his mother died at the beginning of the covid pandemic, disastrously managed by the government of Lenín Moreno, the same government that handed Assange over to his executioners and did not create the necessary health infrastructure to prevent the number of deaths in the country. Now I can also reveal the secret that José himself and his friends, many years before, when they worked for Rafael Correa’s government, had an important role in the initiative to give Julian Assange asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

These days, when the crisis of our entire civilisation is so evident and its current epicentre, not by chance, is on Russia’s borders, I need to review some of the issues we discussed and others (and there are many more) that remain to be discussed with José; memories are confused with the imagined and the dreamed.

Russia is a multi-ethnic formation, unique among large countries. Unlike the states of America and Europe, the huge part of its population, represented by more than 190 ethnic groups, is not a product of migration from outside, but are indigenous peoples who have long historical roots in their territories and are closely tied to the culture of the land. Even those who ethnically define themselves as Russians, and who now represent a little over 80% of the country’s population, are the product of a mixture of various Slavic peoples and different Mongol and Turkic groups who for centuries invaded lands that are now part of Russia.

Interestingly, although the most populated part of Russia geographically corresponds to the European continent, Russians always spoke of ‘Europe’ as an external territory, to the west of their borders, never felt European and even, despite centuries-old Eurocentric myths among their elites, perceived Europe as the source of various conquering invasions, from Napoleon to Hitler.

That is why Russia never created the typical dichotomy that American countries have between ‘Western civilisation’ and ‘indigenous cultures’. Russians have never come to feel Western and the religious aspect was not, as in America, a destructive or oppressive factor. Despite the dominance of the Orthodox Christian religion since the time of the Tsarist empire, the cultures of other Muslim and Buddhist peoples have never been converted or assimilated by force, and a great diversity of faiths is now maintained from region to region. The history of Russian relations with other indigenous cultures in its vast territory is not idyllic and is full of conflicts and contradictions, but it has never involved massacres or policies of forced ‘civilisation’. In Soviet times, dozens of its people gained writing in their languages and access to education and health care, giving rise to the first generations of great Russian indigenous intellectuals, scientists, writers, artists and statesmen.

One of the main reasons why in Russia it was possible to build the first socialist state in history was the communitarian tradition that existed in the Russian peasant world and made possible the affirmation of collective values over individualistic values.

The analysis of the great Russian philosopher of the beginning of the last century, Nikolai Berdiayev, is very interesting, explaining one of the reasons for the lack of development of individuality in Russian life: “The Russian people wanted to live in the warmth of collectivity, they wanted to dissolve in the element of the earth, in the womb of their mother. Chivalry forged the cult of individual dignity and honour, tempered the personality. Russian history did not create this tempering of personality. The Byzantine Orthodox religion was mixed in Russia with Russian paganism. Hence the presence of this Dionysian pagan spirit that the Byzantine Orthodox religion did not have. “Russian Orthodoxy is not so much the religion of Christ as the religion of the Virgin, the religion of the Mother-Earth; of the feminine divinity that illuminates the daily life of men”, wrote the philosopher. At this stage of total crisis of the present civilisation, one of the hopes lies in the wisdom of our people. A meeting between our indigenous Russian and Latin American cultures, as my friend José dreamt of, would be a very important step.

Oleg Yasinsky