This post is part 3 of 5 about my trip this summer (August, 2021) with my oldest son to a part of Russia and a people of Russia that were completely foreign to me until now. One of the blessings of knowing Russian is how many people speak it as a second language – over a hundred nationalities, comprising about 20% of the population of Russia. (Slightly related trivia: Russian is the second most used language online.) So though I was traveling to a truly foreign land, I could interact with people with ease.
Nine of our 10 days were spent among the Nenets people group, so most of my discussion here will be about them. Linguistically, (for those of you curious, which I am), the Nenets comprise the largest and best preserved of the Samoedic group of languages, a branch of the Uralic languages, the best known family of which is the Finno-Ugric group (Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian), which is altogether not in the Indo-European family. There are about 45,000 Nenets as of the last count, but less than half of them speak Nenets because of a problem that came up frequently in my visits – boarding schools. More below on this….
There is so much emphasis these days in missions on things like the so-called “10/40 Window,” where most of the world’s population is concentrated, and on urban missions, and on movements. But in these priorities, we can never forget God’s heart for the one sheep who is separated from the rest. This exactly is the call of God on Igor Bogomol’s life as he described it to me. And in order to see and experience something of his ministry to these people was the real purpose of our trip. Igor has been making a trip of 10-14 days a few times a year to build relationships with and share the Good News of Christ with the Nenets and the Khanty for over 20 years.
So there is no other place to start my discussion except by recognizing and honoring the tremendous effort, and even sacrifice that Igor has made to be faithful to Jesus. Whether we were in the city, the village, or in the tundra, I was amazed to see how many people Igor knew. I jokingly told him once that it seemed that he could probably draw a genealogical chart of the community since he seemed to know so many people and how they were related to each other. I say this as a testimony to how much time he has spent just building relationships and trust, even though he does not live there. One’s stereotype of an evangelist is the kind who just talks and doesn’t listen and invest in people. That is not Igor. I think these pictures will tell you all you need to know….
Now for our story. After traveling The Road for over eight hours, we arrived at the 68th parallel into the town of Laborovaya. “Town” is probably too strong a term; maybe “outpost” fits better. There were only about 20 homes there.
Kerith and I had to keep wondering about how the town sustained itself. There is no industry. There are no businesses or stores (one minor exception below). There is a school, a helipad, which usually doubles as a soccer field (see the pic above of Igor, second row, center). The nicest home in town is the “mayor’s.” We stayed with the family who is apparently the richest. They have a bunch of vehicles, including large trucks, small trucks, a van, and a tank for getting around the terrain. It was their son, Grisha, who taxied us from the city. “Rich,” however, does not mean even as much as indoor plumbing. They had huge barrels of water in the house from which to draw for putting in a basin for the sinks. Igor said they also had a much better outhouse than the one where he was staying, so he came to our house for the privilege of squatting over their open hole.
Their story is most instructive. The dad, Prokopy (an old Russian name I’d never heard of before; He is Nenet, but few of them use Nenet names any more, and his wife Anna, of German descent, had been in dire straights many years ago, alcoholics, depressed, poor, and without hope or meaning in life. Igor led them to faith in Christ, and their transformation was dramatic. They stopped drinking immediately, found purpose, and have since built up a family business of somehow creatively using all those vehicles for everything from taxi service to road work, to other construction work. And since they go so often to the city, they buy food there and now have the only “grocery store” in town, which is just a tiny room at the back of their house with a few basics, naturally at a cost much greater than in the city.
Perhaps because of such extreme isolation, however, Igor feels that their faith has never taken deep roots. By isolation I mean that there are no other believers in town, there is no internet, and the only church in town is run by the mayor, who doubles as a shaman, so it’s really not Christian at all. I observed a peaceful family that gets along well with love between them, but puzzled me about their situation is how hard it was to interact with them. The extent of their hospitality was telling me I could serve myself, and they only once offered me a meal. They never initiated conversation, never invited me to tea, to the point that I was getting uncomfortable, though I would try to initiate conversation with them. Eventually it got so that Kerith and I decided to leave when we found out that Igor’s hostess would take us in. When I told Prokopy and Anna, separately, that we were leaving so as to not trouble them any more, they took it in stride and offered not even polite protest. I never got a chance to get a picture with them for this reason. I just have their grandson drawing in my diary.
Our other hostess, Irina Yegorovna, on the other hand, was an amazing person who also became instrumental in our other trips into the tundra as a cultural guide and fascinating conversationalist. I love this picture of her (left), not only because of the shot itself, but I took it when she was pontificating about the problems befalling the Nenets because of now four generations of kids who get sent to the boarding schools, of which she was herself an early victim.
The issue is that the Soviets started encouraging sending the native kids to boarding schools (called “internaty”) supposedly to combat illiteracy. What happens is that upon reaching school age, kids are sent away for the school year. We met such kids in our travels. As Irina pointed out, the cost of taking them away from their parents and their culture is far greater than whatever they receive. They don’t end up having any job they could not have gotten otherwise. But they lose a sense of home, a connection to their culture and history, and end up like orphans, depressed and drunk. We met just such types and saw the effects ourselves (see below).
Irina credits her own leaving (she called it “abandoning”) her mother and the nomadic life with having gone to boarding school. One story she told us was harrowing. It seems in kindergarten back in the 1950’s her teacher was drunk one day and poured the kids kerosene to drink. Somehow the others figured out that it was less than desirable to take in, except for Irina. As a result they had to air lift her, and she spent several months in the hospital, though she probably should not have survived.
A detour to now describe Irina’s house because we thought it was cool. It was clearly the oldest house in town, but when we asked her if it was true, she told us it was the newest. This made no sense until we understood that she meant that it was the newest of the original homes, as the town was established in the 30’s during Stalin’s collectivization era.
After we moved, we saw why Igor was not eager (!) to use Irina’s outhouse. It had somewhat fallen into disrepair over the years, to put it mildly, since the walls were gone altogether, and was somewhat precariously placed on the side of a hill, held up by a wire. But, dad bern if she doesn’t have the best view from which to poop of anyone I know.
Irina’s house was also the last house in town geographically. These two shots show how the town is all on a long spit:
Beyond Irina’s house was the graveyard, notable for two things. First, all the graves are Orthodox, but then you also see all these sleighs around. Well, it turns out the Nenets have a concept of holy sleighs. I guess it’s sort of a way of shipping the deceased off to happy reindeer herding grounds. So there’s a lot of syncretism with them. More on their religion in the 5th post.
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