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Language for dreams and farewells

Credits Neseine Translation: Tatiana Bonch June 04 2024

I was visiting my relatives. My aunt gave me a farewell present of reindeer tongues, a wonderful gift, as they are very tasty and not frequently seen on Nenets tables. I thought it was very symbolic and could be seen as a parting message or a sign. Actually, in my life I need at least two more languages to feel comfortable in the world: the Nenets and the English. Though if I were to fantasize, I would also like to learn the language of animals and language of the spirits, and German and Sámi.

When you eat reindeer tongue, you should cut off its tip, as it is not worth eating if you don’t want people gossiping about you. The last time my mum fed it to our cat, she said: “Let people talk about you.” It is certainly hard to say anything bad about it. I imagine people discussing its beautiful fur, furry paws and yellow eyes.

Among the Nenets people I am not considered fully Nenets. Sometimes they even call me “Lutsa”, which means “Russian.” I have been thinking about this word for a while. I and those like me, Nenets, Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Tatars, Bashkirs, Armenians, and people of many other nations, are apparently ”Lutsa”. I wondered why Tundra Nenets considered us Russians, when we are not Russian either?

Later I realized that the meaning of this word is closer to “those who bear the imperial code: they understand Russian language and absorb Russian laws and traditions, those who are able to adapt to living outside the tundra but would not survive in a nomadic camp.” It is the denomination for the people who live in villages and towns, since for example, for Khanty people, the Nenets have another word. Though I wonder, would I be a ”Lutsa” if I knew the Nenets language? I’d more likely know it if I just lived in the tundra and was more immersed in the culture. Therefore, the language is a marker demonstrating how familiar I am with our life.

I don’t speak my native language and for a while it was embarrassing for me. But why is it that I don’t know it t?

My mum didn’t teach me the Nenets, because I was born with a heart defect and spent a lot of time in hospitals with Russian speaking doctors. She was scared that I wouldn’t be able to explain myself to them at some crucial moment, or that they would treat me worse because of my alienness. Later they tried to teach us the language in childcare. During sleep hour, Nenets kids were gathered in a small group and led to a secret room through the long hallways, while other children were sleeping. It seemed like a conspiracy, something you were forbidden to talk about. It looked to me as if we did something criminal, something shameful. Nenets words didn’t stay in my head, I forgot everything by the time of the next lesson. But I enjoyed counting in Nenets. I remember how I made my mum listen to me many times while I counted numbers, how in a childcare canteen I went around a table reciting the numbers loudly, how I counted all things around.

Looking back at it I think I indeed found a different language in the world of numbers which was truly interesting to me. I was passionate about mathematics and even before I started school, I tried to figure out its principles. I took part in mathematical Olympiads during high school and was good at algebra and geometry. I was creative with them and solved the problems in my own, not standard ways, so my answers were often different from the ones, from the textbooks. I often made stupid errors due to my carelessness. I think it was because particular cases were not interesting for me, but I liked to use formulas, rules and principles, and I liked to break them even more, turn them around, or figure out new ways.

Speaking of childcare times, studying my native language was difficult for me. There was also a certainty from somewhere that anything Nenets was shameful, something you needed to hide. As if there was something deeply wrong with who we were. I still don’t understand how this feeling could appear in little children of four and five years old. It seems, we couldn’t get it at home, as the generation of our parents lived in the tundra before going to school which they were forced to leave their camps to do. Were they ashamed of being who they were? I don’t know but I understand that they tried to teach us Russian so that we could get a better life, so that no one would mock us, so that we would not feel ashamed of being non-Russian, which is considered savagery and something primitive in our region.


I’ve asked my relatives, what is the state of our language now? Some say that even people living in the tundra try to speak Russian with their kids, so that they won’t have problems in boarding schools and in their future lives in general.[1] This seems to show a glimpse of the future without the nomadism. Sometimes they share feelings of being expelled from the tundra. Some of them are making plans for what to do when it’s impossible to live by reindeer herding.

I asked a young Nenets writer during a public meeting in a library: what is the language you prefer to write your texts in? He answered that he preferred to write in Russian, though maintaining the same style as in Nenets. Can we assume that our language survives even when it disappears if its style and grammar logic remain, seen through another language? I haven’t lived in the tundra, a lot of things are difficult for me there, I don’t enjoy my time and I am constantly cold. But I still feel sad when I think about it disappearing. Honestly, I hardly thought about the Nenets language until I met other native people who studied and restored their language and worried about it. I always thought it was not the most important problem in the context of my nation. Because we are few, and the farther away you are from home, the fewer Nenets people are around. When I meet some of us far away from home, I don’t care at all how well they know the language.

I myself always felt awkward in front of those speaking Nenets, in which I can’t even pronounce the words correctly. It has always felt as if I couldn’t learn it. I’ve also met Nenets people who shamed me for not knowing the language or condemned me simply for the projects I was doing. They said that our people shouldn’t behave like that.

My generation appears to be something incomprehensible, thrown away, lost culturally and linguistically. But let me come back to the main topic here: usually the most important problem for the Nenets people is our pure existence and survival. Because Russian gas and oil companies seize the lands where my ancestors roamed around, the companies poison nature, and our ancestral places become uninhabitable. They introduce rules that restrict the freedom of movement of the nomads. The ecology deteriorates because of the industrial enterprises, and valuable species of animals and fish that the Nenets were hunting in the past, are extincted. It is so strange for me that these companies, on the one hand, destroy the conditions in which the people’s lives are possible, and on the other hand, sponsor the programs of restoring and reviving what they are destroying. Then they accuse us of losing our culture, despite them creating so many opportunities. This is such a false logic, as if they cut off a person’s legs, then create conditions for them to walk, and then give the person responsibility for the fact that they don’t have legs. The changes happening now will fundamentally change the culture. What it will lead to, and whether the culture survives in the tundra, only time will tell.

Previously, I felt ashamed I was not a “true” Nenets person who knows the native language and the customs of the tundra. Then one day I understood that we shouldn’t necessarily apply additional efforts to be considered Nenets. That it’s enough just to be a person. What is important, is our subjectivity, our rights and our self-determination, whereas all other characteristics, as it turned out, were just imposed by the state to make it easier for them to allocate us into a group: here I’m talking about the paragraph in the Constitution of the Russian Federation which directly defines the Indigenous Peoples of the North. According to this paragraph, we should be born and live in a unique specific place, speak our native language and live a traditional style of life. It seems as if you make one step to the right and one step to the left, you are no longer a person of your native culture. But why should we be Nenets in only one possible way? Why do some other people decide for us who we should be? I want us to have a choice for ourselves. I want to be interested in our culture of my own will, not because this is a demand from the institution of power. When I learned this definition, I was outraged from inside, and decided in the wake of the rebellion: even though I don’t know my native language, I am still a Nenets! And I will live the life I want, not the life I am entitled to by the decision of the Russian government!

I also propose to move it from the zone of personal responsibility into a global area: was there an opportunity for us to become those exemplary indigenous people as determined by the Russian law? Did we have an opportunity to choose to study the native language at school? Did we have an opportunity not to be embarrassed of speaking with an accent and feel normal not knowing perfect Russian? Could our parents and grandparents be sure that their children and grandchildren wouldn’t be lost in this world if they were not fluent in Russian?


When I read about someone’s experience with their native language I realize that I was spared the shame of communicating in my native language, because I never knew it. But I’ve noticed that people don’t like when Nenets people speak with an accent or don’t speak Russian well. This is as if a person was stupid or deaf. I often saw officials in state institutions speaking rudely to those who didn’t understand Russian well enough.

Adding to that I was never ashamed of being from a village when I was in children’s holiday camps. On the contrary, I didn’t understand why town children were so strange, and their values confused me. I was surprised that their appearance was important to them, that they worried about who had newer phones and computers, and were so dismissive of the indigenous people’s cultures. It was a rare occasion for us to become friends, and this didn’t bother me.

Though once, when I was a grown up already, I talked about Yamal and its indigenous people with my friend, who is Yamal herself. She told me that Nenets are useless savages and Russians should have let them die out, because they were just parasites eating up the country’s resources. It turned out she hadn’t realized I was the same Nenets person she was talking about because I didn’t live in the tundra and I looked like a “a civilized person”. I was stunned, and our friendship ended.

After graduation, I tried to learn the language in university. The teacher was a young Russian woman who almost never practiced the language. She was fascinated with the language but approached it from a philological point of view, and talked exclusively about diphthongs, digraphs etc. By the tenth minute of the class, my eyes began drooping, and I decided to not attend them anymore, because it seemed a waste of time to me. This is how I got the impression that studying Nenets language was a boring process nobody needed. Also I don’t like when academics write about our language: it smells of mortal cold.

In my childhood, I didn’t think Nenets language would be useful in real life. But when I grew up I discovered why I felt so strange during reunions with my tundra’s relatives. It turned out, they communicate to each other and to my mum in the native language and my brain apparently rejected this fact due to the hostility towards Nenets that was spread in the village. Now I feel sorry that my relationships with my relatives could be closer and warmer, if only I knew my own native language.


When I was a little girl, I liked my grandmother’s visits. We never spoke the same language, but anyway found ways of communication. Most of all I liked to sleep next to her. Maybe there, in our dreams, we met each other and she told me something that I forgot as soon as I woke up. I imagined one day I would learn the language and would be able to talk to her. But the years passed, first grandma left the tundra, then she fell ill and laid unconscious, then she died. I have never learned the language. But who knows, maybe she still comes to me in my dreams, and I forget it as soon as I open my eyes.

[1] I would like to clarify that I am a Nenets person who grew up in a village. But in our region, there are people who were born and lived in the tundra until going to school, then they were taken from tundra to boarding schools. But this is another story, quite different from mine, and I would like it to be visible too.

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