Eugene Dubnov

THE EVENKI

1.

I owe my penetration into the enigma of the Evenki to the following comrades: comrade Rusalka who set me the task of giving a talk on the theory of evolution; the author of the article on evolution in the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia (and likewise to the authors of various other articles and ethnological monographs which I read); assistant lecturer Abramkina and my fellow students Sinelnikov, Vladimirov, Abrikosov and Yosio Sato. I am also indebted to Engels-Marx and Grandpa Lenin who clarified completely for me the profound ontological significance of the Evenki phenomenon in history and its implications for not only the destinies of the Party and Government but all our people and mankind as a whole.

But let me not anticipate. It all began like this. I had been preparing the talk which I was to give at the next seminar on the history of Marxism-Leninism. In this talk Oktyabrina Ivanovna Rusalka, assistant lecturer in our Faculty of Philosophical Sciences, had directed me to refute the fallacies of western reactionary pseudo-philosophers concerning the so-called divine origin of evolution. I decided, for a start, to acquaint myself with the general outlines of the subject and the bibliography appended to the relevant article in the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia.

But turning over the pages of the 48th volume in my search for an article on evolution, I came across, on page 294, an article on the Evenki.

The word "Evenki" in itself caught my attention immediately. The thing is, before comrade Rusalka - she of the fiery-red hair and inflammatory glance - had persuaded me to transfer to the Faculty of Philosophy, I had been studying in the Faculty of Foreign Languages where I was particularly interested in Celtic philology. Indeed, the very title of my dissertation there was "Some still unsolved problems of Old and Middle Welsh in the light of Celtic mythology, considered with reference to the class struggle, forces of production and industrial relations." (I hope it's not too immodest to mention here that this opuscule of mine, although in many ways half-baked undergraduate work, was immediately published in the journal Problems of Linguistic Science; moreover, it was through it that the Rector of the University, the Party Representative and comrades from an organisation well-known for its concern for education, showed a special interest in me and designated Oktyabrina Ivanovna to direct my destiny).

And so, armed with a not-insignificant array of philological apercus, I straightaway began to ponder the etymology of the word "Evenki."

Isn't there - I asked myself - a direct connection with the well-known Addanc of the Lake, the Black Serpent of the Carn in the Welsh mythological tales? (Of course, the double "d" in Welsh represents a voiced "th" sound, and this in Russian could easily become a "v.") And the further I read the article in the Encyclopaedia, the more carried away I became with the subject under discussion.

How is it, thought I, that such a remarkable people, whose very name, originating as it did in Celtic antiquity, bears witness to their deep roots and wide folk-wanderings, should still remain so little studied in our country? I, for example, had known virtually nothing about them till I by chance came across this article.

The religion of the Evenki - I read on - was shamanism, and the word "shaman" itself came into Russian from the Evenki language: the Evenki, therefore, had made their contribution to our language and literature. In the 19th century almost all the Evenki living in the Russian territory became nominally Christian: this, too, was all very right and proper, being historically progressive in relation to shamanism. The use of the Latin alphabet was introduced among them in 1931 and was replaced in 1936 by the Cyrillic alphabet: that is to say, the Evenki people rejected western orthography, having decided for themselves, in the words of Bogdan Khmeltitsky, the 17th century Ukrainian leader, "forever with Russia, forever with the Russian people!" The fact that the noun in the Evenki language has 13 cases evinces the astonishing creativity of that people, whilst the multiplicity of the alternative names for the Evenki (e.g. Tungus, Orochen, Kile, Lamut, etc.) demonstrates their wide diffusion and ethnic diversity.

But gradually I began to ask myself: why should one people need so many names? Would it be such a good thing, after all? Wouldn't it create confusion when one had to fill in the "nationality" entry in official papers? Moreover, might it not be possible that this very wealth of nomenclature was aimed at misleading the relevant authorities? For instance, supposing a decree were to be issued forbidding the Evenki to leave their own Evenki Autonomous Region. "What are you doing in Moscow instead of being on the banks of the Nizhnyaya Tunguska - by all tokens you would seem to be an Evenk!" - "No, I'm not an Evenk: I've even got it written down in my passport: I'm an Orochen!" Or else: in response to the wishes of the Evenki proletariat, peasantry and intelligentsia, it has been decided to allow the Evenki people to engage in permanent voluntary labour on the construction of a Magadan-Warsaw pipeline. "And you - why are you engaged in hare-coursing instead of voluntarily labouring on the pipeline?" - "Because I'm a Tungus: here is my passport, see for yourself." You know what that sort of thing could lead to! Yes, there is something definitely fishy about it. And what does such a seemingly backward people want so many cases to its noun for when even we Russians get along perfectly well with no more than six, while the so-called developed western nations, such as the English, have two at most? All this cannot fail to make one think. And, what's more, isn't it odd that first of all the Evenki adopted the Latin alphabet and a mere five years later switched to the Cyrillic? Obviously they were waiting to see which way the wind blew: by 1936 it had become clear to everyone that the Soviet State was here to stay, and even the Entente countries had ceased to hope for the success of an armed intervention. But were not these very countries, in 1931, wooing the Evenki with their Latin alphabet in order to create a fifth column? And if one were to dig deeper into history, might one not find that the adoption itself by the Evenki of Orthodox Christianity, as well as the infiltration of cult words from their language into Russian, represented a subtle attempt at a long-range subversive activity?

Forgetting all my projected talk on evolution, I went straight from the faculty library to the Leninka and spent the rest of the day there until the Library closed. By that time my first vague surmises had been completely confirmed (my intuition never deceives me - and later on the Kremlin comrade himself was to say that I possessed a good ideological nose). There was no possible room for doubt: the Evenki, a people unusually gifted and destined for great things, had taken a wrong turning.

The rest of the week I devoted to a thorough preparation for my talk which was due to be delivered in the third period on Monday morning.

The first period was devoted to language laboratory. It was during this that I came to understand the direct link between the supposedly far-off Evenki tribe and our own colleagues who are all around us every minute of the day. This discovery I made towards the end of the lesson, while Bella Izrailevna Abramkina, our teacher, was correcting Sinelnikov: "It's not `boss' but `both'; it's not `puss' but `purse.'" All of a sudden, I noticed a strange resemblance between pupil and teacher. There could be no doubt of it - the author of that anthropological article I'd read was quite right when he stated that "their features are so characteristic that an experienced observer would almost always recognise an Evenk."

I extracted from my bag a thick exercise book with the notes I had been taking in the Lenin Library and started to compare the description of the typical Evenki physiognomy with that of Abramkina and Sinelnikov.

"Hair and eye colour dark" - correct. "Eyes remarkably expressive" - that tallied too. "Nose rather large, with quivering nostrils" - just so. "Lips frequently thick" - yes, indeed!

"Tolya," I whispered to Sinelnikov when he sat down, "admit it, I won't tell anybody, you are an Evenk, aren't you?"

He became extremely agitated, turned crimson and began to stammer in reply.

"I'm... n-nothing of the sort... my identity card shows me as R-russian."

"All right, all right," I calmed him down, "so Russian you are - forever with Russia, forever with the Russian people, as the saying goes - what has it to do with me - I merely asked out of curiosity."

But things were becoming clear to me, and I decided to scrutinise closely my fellow students and teachers with a view to their possible Evenki connections.

In the very beginning of the next period - an introductory lecture on Psychology given by the Head of Department, Leontyev, himself - I noticed something happening on either side of me.

To my right, Yosio Sato, scion of the Japanese proletariat, was taking an object from his pocket and presenting it to Yuri Vladimirov. It was a piece of foreign chewing gum. To my left Valeri Abrikosov was eagerly watching them, obviously hoping for a bit too. As the gum disappeared into Vladimirov's mouth, Abrikosov whispered me to find out if Sato hadn't got one more bit. With an apologetic smile Yosio said that this was his last. Then Abrikosov asked me to see if Vladimirov wouldn't let him a go when he'd finished chewing. I passed the message on, and Vladimirov nodded in assent. This kind of toadying to western consumer goods cut me to the quick, and I was just about to tell Abrikosov off very sternly when, as if for the first time, I noticed his hair. I might have guessed! - I reproached myself, as this phrase flashed into my memory: "curly-haired Evenki not infrequently occur."

"What would your nationality be, Valera?" I asked tactfully.

Like Sinelnikov before him, he became distinctly flustered and started to mutter something about "fascist inquisitions." Having done with him, I turned to look at Yuri Vladimirov.

With Vladimirov I wasn't at all sure: his nose had every appearance of being snub, his hair seemed smooth and of a chestnut colour, his cheekbones looked prominent, and his eyes gave the impression of being of a light hue, too. But having had a closer look at his hands, I noticed the thick dark hairs protruding from under his cuffs. Such excessive hirsuteness in a supposedly native-born Russian struck me as anomalous, and my lips, of their own accord, silently mouthed: "body hair seems to be luxuriant."

"Listen here, Yura," I leaned towards him and pointed to his wrists. "See how hairy you are - aren't you an Evenk - or half a one at least?"

"Wouldn't be surprised!" he was forced to admit, taking the gum out of his mouth and passing it on through me to Abrikosov.

Satisfied now, I began to scrutinise the Head of the Department's typically Slav features - and then it came to me that he was saying some very odd things.

"It should be clear to all of us that thought by its very nature is non-material!" opined Leontyev, pacing up and down in front of the class. "But in that case, just what is it? And how can non-material thought be the product of the material brain?"

"Yura," I turned to Vladimirov, "what is he saying things like that for? He'll get a rocket - and quite right too!"

"Oh no, he won't," Vladimirov replied. "He's got a name, and, besides, he's an old man, his eccentricities will be overlooked."

Everything now fell into place. It was a conspiracy. They, these Evenki, having misdirected their inventive powers in an ideologically erroneous way, had also drawn in other, purely Russian people like Leontyev - and who knows who else besides! This they must have done in order the better to conceal their ethnic ambitions, the better to act the shaman in our midst, the better to impose their cult on us and recruit for it ever fresh neophites.

History itself had assigned me the task of unmasking them - and had given me, in my forthcoming talk at the seminar, an exceptionally favourable opportunity.

"A talk on the place of Evolutionary Theory in Marxist-Leninist doctrine will be given by Nikanor Khoroborenko," announced Oktyabrina Ivanovna, and I came up to the table without any papers or notes.

"Comrades," I began, "I would like first of all to speak my mind on the question of nationality. There are among us comrades belonging to a tribe whose homeland is somewhere else. I will name no names - everybody knows who they are, and here not even what is entered as their nationality on their identity cards will help them. By now each one of you should have understood what people I am talking about, and I won't drop any further hints. We, comrades, must make sure that the teleological forces of this people shall be directed creatively rather than destructively. It is with deep concern that I am obliged to reveal that representatives of the aforementioned nation are, under our very noses, endeavouring to curry favour with the west, appearing in the role of cosmopolitan peddlers of a way of life alien to us and in general attempting to bring into our frame of ideas their existentially subversive activity. Furthermore, they have already succeeded in winning over some of us - and even some of our teachers, who have become, as we all witnessed only a few minutes ago, the involuntary carriers of their shamanism. And, speaking of evolution - the subject about which I have been assigned to talk by comrade Rusalka - we all know, comrades, that ontogenesis recapitulates philogenesis, but is it clear to every one of us that ethnically, too, nations evolve in a cosmogonic manner? I ask each of you here present to look into your hearts and examine them in the light of the national standard of ethnogenesis."

I paused and turned to Oktyabrina Ivanovna.

"And you, comrade Rusalka, with your, as it would outwardly seem, ideologically opulent body, ask yourself whether its depths do not serve as a receptacle and conductor for the ideas of a people who have betrayed what the so-called comrade Leontyev might call their psychocratic essence!"

And would you believe me, the moment that I said this, Oktyabrina Ivanovna wrang her hands, gave a little whimper and ran out of the room.

"This is the end of my talk," I said and, without looking at anybody, calmly returned to my seat.

After this, events began to develop at a really phenomenal rate.

Vladimirov had hardly had the time to say "Bravo!" when the door of the classroom opened and in walked our Party representative.

"Comrade Khoroborenko," he said, "can I have a word with you."

2.

A car stood by the faculty entrance. Out of it stepped an officer and saluted me. "Colonel Evenkov," he said, "detailed to transport you."

He turned to our Party Representative and uttered a strange word which sounded like "munnukan." The Party Representative clicked his heels and replied, in the same crisp military way: "pagluk." After this he gave me a fatherly pat on the shoulder and went back into the faculty building.

I could not see where we were going, because the curtains of the car windows were drawn, but from the general direction and short duration of the journey I made a guess.

And again my intuition did not let me down. The sentries at the Kremlin gates stood to attention and saluted, their eyes bulging with respect. And when we came to the grand staircase, who should be running down it but comrade Rusalka, all beaming with happiness and stretching out her hand. But I noticed that she was dressed rather oddly - in a grey tight-fitting costume with ears and a little tail.

"Here he is, our hero," she said, "quick, you're expected!" - and already she was leading me by the hand up the stairs.

At the massive cedarwood doors she halted, looked herself over, adjusted her ears and tail, and knocked.

"Welcome," from within came a voice which I immediately recognised: it belonged to the head of that same organisation well-known for its concern for education which I have already mentioned. I had often heard that voice on the radio.

And no sooner had we entered the huge salon than the owner of the voice himself came towards us, dressed in the same grey tight-fitting costume as Oktyabrina, only with bigger ears and a fluffier tail.

"We have been watching you, comrade Khoroborenko, for some time," he said, "and your ideological acumen has made a very good impression on us. The fact that you on your own, without anybody's assistance, have discovered the Evenki phenomenon and penetrated to the heart of it, speaks for itself. The Party and Government, following my recommendation, have appointed you to the post of Evenkologist General of the Soviet Union. Comrade Rusalka, from now on exclusively at your disposal, in a minute will acquaint you with our Kremlin wild-life sanctuary. Are there any questions you want to ask?"

"If I may make so bold, comrade Kremlin-comrade," I hazarded, "I would like to ask about two unfamiliar words which Colonel Evenkov and our Party Representative exchanged and which comrade Rusalka likewise uttered just as we came in."

"Comrade Khoroborenko, open your exercise book at the very beginning of its third section, where at 17.16 hours on Tuesday last, in the Lenin Library, you copied out a quotation from a book by General Dragunsky entitled The Evenki."

I took the exercise book out of my briefcase, found the right page and read there: "The hare (`munnukan,' `pagluk') was hunted mainly by the Evenki who dwelt around the headwaters of the Nizhnyaya Tunguska..."

"Is everything clear now?"

"Almost," I said, " but why the hare, of all creatures?"

"To this question you will shortly receive a reply," he smiled and led Oktyabrina and me up to a curtained wall. As soon as we approached it, the curtains parted, revealing large glass doors and beyond them open fields, gardens and woods.

Oktyabrina again took me by the hand, and we went out through the doors to the top of a staircase, at the bottom of which a woodland track began.

And then, all of a sudden, a few yards ahead, a hare jumped out of the bushes, skipped onto the pathway and stopped, as though waiting for us.

We came up to it. "Well, who is this?" asked Oktyabrina.

I gave the hare a closer look, and its face seemed familiar - especially the beard and the moustache. "Give me a clue," I begged her.

"This is Friedrich Karlovich," she prompted, and I completed the name gleefully: "Marx-Engels!"

She wagged a roguish finger at me, and the hare likewise shook its head, half in jest, half in reproach. I had another look at its beard and corrected myself: "Engels-Marx!" It smiled benignly, made a gesture of greeting with a fore paw and said: "When your youth and inexperience, comrade Khoroborenko, are taken into account, your initial confusion is forgivable. We also know what brought you here - and your comrade-superiors have done the correct thing in directing you to the Socialist Classics. Allow me, then, to quote an excerpt from my letter to Karl Friedrichovich on the Evenki question, written in May 1853: `The Evenki are essentially a small nomad tribe, and it is now clear to me that the so-called sacred writings of the Evenki are nothing more than the record of their ancient tribal traditions, modified by the early separation of the Evenki from their ethnically related neighbours.' And apart from this, as I wrote in my letter to an unknown correspondent on April, 19, 1890, `we owe too much to the Evenki. To say nothing of Heine and Borne, Marx was of pure Evenki stock; Lassalle was an Evenk. Many of our best people are Evenki. My friend Victor Adler who is at present in a Vienna prison paying for his devotion to the cause of the proletariat, Eduard Bernstein, editor of the London Sozial-Demokrat, Paul Singer, one of the best men in the Reichstag - people of whose friendship I am proud, are all Evenki! Have I not been turned into an Evenk myself by the baiting of the press?"

He paused and gave me a quizzical look.

"Of course you have!" I hastened to reply, and only at that point did the meaning of what had been said begin to dawn on me.

"Then, that is to say that both you, Friedrich Karlovich, and you, Karl Friedrichovich, are..." I muttered with a faltering tongue. But the creature did not stay to listen: it gave a leap and a bound and vanished into the tall grasses.

"Come back!" I shouted, but answer was there none.

"What is going on here, comrade Rusalka, and where have the Socialist Classics hopped away to?" I asked querulously.

"Now, now," she smiled her enigmatic smile and waggled her ears, "come and you shall see."

And indeed, the moment we got to that spot where the hare had vanished into the grass, it jumped out again - and there it was, on the path in front of us.

"Comrade Engels-Marx!" I was overjoyed. "So you're back!"

"Have a closer look," said Oktyabrina, "and stop making mistakes - or you'll go ideologically blind."

Of course - it came to me in a flash - to whom else could this twinkle in the eye, this bald pate and this little pointed beard belong!

"Grandpa Lenin," I whispered with awe.

"He it is, in his very person, Vladimir Ilyich," Oktyabrina confirmed, proud of my achievement, while Grandpa was already proclaiming in the voice of a railway station announcer: "Citizens Evenki leaving for the Middle East! Your train `Moscow - Siberia' is waiting at the platform."

My bewildered look must have struck him as comic, for he burst out laughing.

"Don't worry, comrade Khoroborenko, you'll understand eventually. As early as 1903 I wrote that `unity betwen the Evenki and non-Evenki proletariat is necessary for a successful struggle against anti-Evenkism, that despicable attempt of the exploiting classes to exacerbate racial particularism.'"

He paused and asked: "Any questions?"

Feeling diffident, I glanced at Oktyabrina - but she nodded encouragement.

"If I may presume, Vladimir Ilyich, I would like to know why all the comrades here look so... not your usual selves but as if you were hares?"

"Hasn't this been explained to you yet? Don't the words `munnukan' and `pagluk' mean anything to you?"

"They are the Evenki names for the hare," I said. "But the direct connection between them and your masquerade costume - if I may so term it - still escapes me."

His eyes twinkled still more.

"Tell me now, comrade Nikanor - I can call you by your fist name, can't I? - which Evenki tribes hunted the hare - whose territory marched with theirs?"

"Why," I immediately recalled the notes in my exercise book, "their neighbours were the Russians on the Nizhnyaya Tunguska."

"And on what other river?"

"Excuse me, I'll just look it up, I've got it all written down" - I hastily produced my exercise book and read out: "hunted mainly by the Evenki who dwelt around the headwaters of the Nizhnyaya Tunguska and the Lena."

"There you are, you know it yourself. And what's my alias?"

"Comrade Lenin!"

"That is the connection. I adopted this alias in memory of my Evenki mother who hailed from the headwaters of the Lena."

"So you, comrade Ulyanov-Lenin, are yourself half-Evenki," I blurted out. "And Marx is an Evenk, and Engels has been turned into an Evenk by the press!"

But he was already far away, full pelt, only his little fluffy scut flashing among the ripened ears of corn.

Everything swirled in front of my eyes, my legs gave way, and I collapsed onto the path, having involuntarily (this is the last thing that I remember) butted comrade Rusalka in the stomach with my head.

3.

At present I am resting, recuperating and waiting till the international situation changes for the better. Oktyabrina Ivanovna, dressed as a nurse, visits me twice a week and asks me how I'm feeling. Once a month she takes me to see the Kremlin comrade who himself wears, on these occasions, a doctor's white gown. He asks me whether I've met any more hares lately, whether I am thinking a lot about the Classics of Marxism-Leninism or about the Evenki and whether I dream about the rivers Lena and Nizhnyaya Tunguska. If I happen to ask him or Oktyabrina Ivanovna when I shall be able to take up my post of Evenkologist General, they change the subject and begin talking about the weather or nature.

In fact, I haven't met any more hares, although I take a stroll around the grounds every day. As far as I can tell, I am quite alone in this Kremlin wild-life sanctuary: although sometimes I seem to see around me the silhouettes of people, they vanish into thin air before I have time to come up to them.

My room is sunny, the food is good and rich in vitamin content, and my sheets are changed regularly.

My own explanation for this peculiar alteration in my fortunes and in the behaviour of Oktyabrina Ivanovna and the Kremlin comrade goes like this. They must from the start have overestimated my psychological resilience, failing to foresee the traumatic effect my conversations with Engels-Marx and Grandpa Lenin would have on me. Moreover, the international situation has become graver. This was made clear to me from a copy of a newspaper left as if accidentally by Oktyabrina Ivanovna and open at the foreign news page. Reading there an article about the whipping up of tension in the Middle East, I could not fail to recall Vladimir Ilyich's words about the Evenki supposedly leaving for that area. I haven't yet completely got everything straight, but one thing is clear to me: we cannot afford to let our Evenki out until the situation there stabilizes. In the meantime, as Vladimir Ilyich prophetically indicated, all our Evenki migrants shall be gathered together and returned to their own Autonomous Region.

I don't lose hope nor let my spirits become dejected. I am confident that my post is waiting for me, and as soon as I have fully recovered and the international situation has improved I shall be called upon. One day comrade Rusalka before my very eyes will tear off her fancy dress - and underneath her silly nurse's cap will be those familiar ears, and underneath her uniform, all the rest of the hare costume. And the Kremlin comrade to whom she will conduct me, in his turn, will stop pretending to be a doctor but will instead show me his silky little scut and say: "Pagluk-munnukan, your time has arrived, comrade Khoroborenko, the Evenki question can wait no longer."

Translated from the Russian by John Heath-Stubbs and the author

Broadcast on BBC Radio 3
Published in:
Massachusetts Review XXXII-3,
anthology Leviathan 3 47-2 Tallahassee, Florida/Madison, Wisconsin, 2002