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Feature Story December 11, 2002
Not Dead Yet
By Jake Rudnitsky Browse author Email
Page 7 of 7
They are ignorant about urban life -- Stas has never been anywhere bigger than Tynda, which is enough to overwhelm his senses -- but they have an unbelievable understanding of the taiga's ecosystem.

They also seem to be satisfied with where they are. Even the Yevenks who get into a university almost always return to the taiga. Many of them don't graduate because of homesickness.

Again in contrast to Russians, they don't just live there because they can't escape; Yevenks actually choose to live where they do.

Stas' material aspirations are telling. If he had money, he only wants two things: $1000 for eye surgery in Moscow so that he could hunt without glasses and a jeep so that his family wouldn't be dependent on others to get to and from the taiga.

The one exception to my sweeping praise of the Yevenks is what happens when they drink heavily. The few Yevenks I saw stumbling through Ust Nukzhe on an extended binge had lost any resemblance to humans. I remember Native Americans in Minneapolis getting that same look, eyes rolled back in their skulls and literally foaming at the mouth. But I blame that on genetics.

I have always had an adversarial relationship with nature. I never made it past the Cub Scouts. It rained on the one miserable night I ever tried camping out in the wild, on an upstate New York mountain the summer after my senior year. The next day, while driving home, I fell asleep at the wheel on Rt. 90 and my car did a 540-degree donut.

I also always hated New Age zombies who walk around barefoot and idolize Native Americans for their harmonious views of nature. Their faux spiritualism and romanticizing of the noble savage strikes me as the worst possible humiliation that Native Americans could suffer. Not only did we exterminate them and give the survivors a few barren scrapes of land, but then some spoiled middle class brats had the gall to run around in moccasins and say to the alcoholic trailer trash remains, "Hey, you guys were, like, totally right and we were totally wrong."

Yet, in spite of that (or maybe because of it), I found myself completely convinced of the Yevenks' righteousness. Whereas Native American culture was destroyed and turned into kitsch, the Yevenks have managed to preserve their culture up till now and aren't showing any signs of caving.

The modern Yevenk bears little relation to the pictures of natives in anthropology textbooks and PBS specials, but the basic principles of Yevenk life in the taiga are still upheld. When they leave a campground, there is virtually nothing to show that people were living there. They kill whatever is necessary to survive and no more. In short, they see themselves as part of the taiga rather than separate and above it. They never leave camp without an axe and a box of matches and, with that, they can survive even a night without shelter or supplies.

The most admirable thing about Yevenk life, for me, was that they don't seem to have any drive to gain power. The Yevenks I lived with were not stupid -- they know that Krapevin is robbing them blind -- and yet they don't take action to help themselves. When I first heard about this, their passivity really pissed me off. How can they not want to seize control of their affairs so that assholes like him couldn't exploit them? It's as though it never occurred to them that a Yevenk could get an education, throw Krapevin out of office and make the kolkhoz honest.

But then I realized that if they started thinking like that, they'd be compromising the very thing that makes them so admirable. The amazing thing is that they've managed to reject power for so long. At the risk of sounding paternalistic, the best thing that could happen to them is that an honest Russian took the helm of the kolkhoz. Because it sucks that they're getting shafted, but not as much as if they stopped being themselves.

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