Reviews

The main interest of this paper is to draw attention on a neglected area of scientific research. It comments on various actions recorded mainly among native peoples of Western Siberia considered as performed in reaction to repression and collectivisation by the Soviet power during the 1930s.  The author starts from the specificity of the Soviet regime as a colonial power:  Its ideology was marked out by atheism; therefore religion was the main target of repression.  This starting point leads the author to focus on the religious aspects of the events such as the Yamal Nenets uprising of 1934 and that known as the “Kazym War” implying the Khants and Forest Nenets from 1931 to 1934.  He argues that many of these events (mass killing of reindeer, murder of a Russian “agitbrigade”) were sacrificial ceremonies and implied shamans’ agency.  Wondering whether they can be interpreted as “revitalistic,” he replies by suggesting that, as tokens of revitalisation, they were organised religious responses to extreme survival problems (p. 239).  On the other hand, he notes, in conclusion, that such an extensive holding of sacrificial ceremonies was exceptional in the ritual life of these peoples and forced upon by the Soviet policy.

The argument seems to reflect an overestimation of the “sacrificial” character of most of these events, namely of the mass killing of reindeer, which was mainly aimed at avoiding their collectivisation.  The author provides no detailed analysis of how the procedure could be interpreted as properly “sacrificial”—a notion which is given no definition either.  While the use of this notion seems appropriate in the case of the collective protest against the Soviet culture base close to the Kazym River and the forcing of native children into the boarding school there in 1931, the term pory (used in some Russian sources) is not (p. 238); in Khant language, it is usually reserved for mere offerings, blood sacrifice being jir.  As to the killing of the four members of the Russian delegation sent to settle the case of fishermen who had violated the taboo of fishing in Lake Num-To, it is certainly ritual (they were throttled as would be sacrificial reindeer) and religious (as a reaction to taboo violation), but can it for all that be labelled a “sacrifice”?  This is the only mention of a human sacrifice, the author writes.  On the other hand, he notes that the process of decision-making had been quite unusual among the Khants and he gives no reply to the objection mentioned in note 7 that “killing the violator cannot solve the problem because a soul of a dead person is more dangerous than the person [. . .] when alive.”

There seems to be also an overestimation of the implication of shamans in these uprisings.  The Soviet sources of that time were inclined to call “shamans” all kinds of ritual specialists, just the way they were inclined to “kulaks” (owners of big flocks), both types being ideologically pre-condemned.  More generally, the author’s position about what is religion is not clear.  He starts with Eliade’s radical distinction between the sacred and the profane, then more or less explicitly assumes that the native peoples’ every day life was formerly permeated with religion since most activities were accompanied by rituals, and finally promotes the idea that the reactions described reflected a “religious revival,” as if it were a specific domain.

Roberte Hamayon, EPHE, Paris
CER: I-5.1.C-409