Russia’s Sami fight to save their language and traditions – photo essay

·6 min read

The Sami of Russia lost their nomadic autonomy with the rise of Soviet power in the 1920s. Forced to swap nature; reindeer herding and fishing in the tundra, for life in apartment blocks and work on collective farms known as kolkhozes. They were prohibited from speaking their language or wearing traditional clothes, and their numbers depleted as a result. Today, there are 1,500 Samis in Russia, and only 200 are able to speak the language.

In the rural village of Lovozero, in the hinterland of Murmansk on Russia’s Kola Peninsula, local Sami are taking urgent action to safeguard their culture and traditions. One young Sami musician and activist has compiled a dictionary to preserve the intricacies of his family’s language, while the community sets upmasterclassesto share skills that have been passed down through the generations. All the while they’re adapting to modernity and the difficulties that come with global warming in the Arctic region that has led to temperatures rising by 15°C above average in the summer months.

  • Sami activist Roman Yakovlev.

Thrity-five-year-old activist Roman learned the Sami language in two years to write a dictionary of the Kildin dialect to fill in the gaps in phonetics. But the transcription of certain sounds has still not been officially recognised, which hinders the spread of the language and causes difficulties for authors of children’s books.

  • Uliana loves doing things by hand and knits a decoration for the cat of her uncle’s house neighbour, Baba Luba.

Uliana Galkincomes from a long line of reindeer herders in Chalmny-varre, an officially non-existent village whose name roughly translates to “eyes of the forest”, which she visits in the summer. It was closed by the Soviets in the 1960s to displace the community, and was largely successful: her grandmother is the only year-round resident, while the four remaining houses are left empty.

  • Uliana loves to manage the boat during summer holidays at her uncle’s at Chalmny-varre village.

  • Elena Yakovleva, Uliana’s aunt, prepares her drum to perform a ritual in front of a sacred stone in the Sami mini-village that she has reconstructed for tourists.

Uliana’s aunt inherited the drum from her brother, who was a real shaman – a community that has long been threatened with death and their possessions destroyed, hunted down by the Russian Orthodox church and then by the Soviets.

  • In the Ponoï river, Uliana catches a pike for dinner.

Fishing is a traditional activity for the Sami, but now they have to ask permission. On the Kola Peninsula, fishing is allowed only in specific places, and for residents who do not gain an income from the activity. Obtaining a permit is considered too tediousand bureaucratic for the Sami, believing it goes against their rights as an indigenous people.

  • Uliana puts water on a stone with Sami pictograms, dating from the second millennium BC, at Chalmny-varre village.

The ancient stone depicts silhouettes of people and animals, such as reindeer. There used to be a second stone with pictograms , but it was removed to be exhibited in the National Museum of Lovozero.

  • Vladimir Galkin, Uliana’s father.

Valdimir celebrates his birthday on 12 June, the same day as Russia’s National Day. However, this year, it also coincides with the Sami Summer Games that take place in mid-June. The Sami flag is always raised in Lovozero, except today, because the Russian administration consider the raising of a regional flag on that day to be a separatist act. Vladimir installed the two flags in his yard as a sign of his dual culture.

  • Vladmir’s aunt with a friend who wears the chamchoura, a summer headdress reserved for married Sami. Right; Uliana is disguised as the Japanese character Deidara in her apartment in Lovozero. She scrolls on her new mobile phone that’s connected to a speaker that she received from her parents as a New Year’s gift.

After Valdimir’s aunt Anna died in 2019, her children donated the chambhura to the Museum of Kola Sami History, Culture and Life, Lovozero.

In Russia, gifts are given at New Year, so Christmas, which is celebrated on 7 January, can retain all its Orthodox religious value. The Orthodox religion arrived on the Kola Peninsula in the second half of the 16th century, imposed on the Sami by the Tsarist Russian state.

  • Uliana participates in the Sami Summer Games by jumping over reindeer skins in front of the National Centre for Sami Culture during Child Protection Day celebrations in Russia on 1 June.

  • Three young girls chat at a Sami music festival, while sipping Pepsi in the Murmansk region town of Olenegorsk.

  • Reindeer herder Igor Chuprov speeds on his sled past residential buildings in the village of Lovozero. He has just taken part in a reindeer driving competition during Prazdnik Severa (the festival of the North).

Formerly semi-nomadic, the Sami community is largely represented in this rural colony of 3,000 inhabitants.

  • Uliana’s grandfather Piotr Galkin is a Sami reindeer herder, like his father.

Dressed in a traditional reindeer skin outfit, Piotrr descends the stairs of his building to go to Prazdnik Severa (the festival of the North), which takes place every year at the end of March. For a long time, he participated in reindeer driving competitions, but at 93, his health no longer allows him to drive. He is one of the last hereditary reindeer herders of the Sami ethnic group in Russia.

  • Valentina Sovkina sifts through press clippings she has archived about the culture of her people.

Valentina is a former director of the Sami radio, and former president of the Sami parliament of the Kola Peninsula, she also wants to raise public awareness of global warming.

  • Elena Yakovleva, Uliana’s aunt, walks her reindeer along Kola Bay near her Sami mini-village, which she has reconstructed for tourists.

The Gazprom Aurora Borealis drilling rig in Kola Bay, seen in the background above, was moored in the roadstead opposite Murmansk. It had travelled from the Vladivostok region in eastern Russiato the Cape of Good Hope in the west of the countrybut could not take the northern sea route obstructed by ice, nor the Suez Canal, because of its 34,000-ton size.

  • Nina visits Varzino, where she was born in the 1930s.

Every year, Nina visits the cemetery where her parents were buried to maintain the graves and lay flowers for her ancestors. For a week in the summer, members of the Afanasyev family make a pilgrimage to Varzino, which is known as the oldest summer camp of the Semiostrovsk Sami, near the mouth of the Varzina.In 1913, the site had 107 Sami, as well as a chapel, emerging as a permanent village for the Samis until the late 1930s. Between 1936-38, the Sami were victims of political repression. In 1968, the village and the collective farm were dismantled by the Soviets, and the majority of the inhabitants resettled in Lovozero.

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