Although I am still in my mid-thirties I am often struck by how much the world has changed in my lifetime. For instance, I remember when it was acceptable to make jokes about stupid Irishmen on British TV. Indeed, when I was a child there was a ‘comedian’ named Jimmy Cricket, who was a professional ‘stupid Irishman’. He regularly appeared on TV, gibbering like an idiot, encouraging Britons to laugh at the supposedly witless imbeciles inhabiting the island next door.
Alas for Jimmy’s career, changes were afoot in British culture and within 20 years the country had become a world leader in the sphere of post-modern speech crime. These days, cracking a gag about the Irish tap dancer who fell in the sink is to commit career suicide. Stereotypes persist, of course, but people are afraid to vocalize them lest they be socially ostracized or face criminal penalties. Whether fear induced hypocrisy is an improvement over honest ignorance I’ll let the reader decide.
In Russia many of the speech/thought taboos we accept as a fact of life in Western Europe and America simply do not exist. Feminism, one of the most sacred of cows in the pantheon of post 60s values is openly ridiculed; I don’t think I’ve ever met a Russian woman who defined herself as a feminist. Hostility towards ‘blackasses’ from the Caucasus is at times openly expressed by politicians. And former Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov feared no political backlash whenever he sent in riot police to beat gay rights activists over the head; on the contrary, he knew Russian Orthodox grannies would coo with delight from the sidelines. And in Russia too they still have ‘Irish’ jokes, albeit about an indigenous people living in the Arctic Circle, the Chukchi, who are similarly characterized as impossibly thick.
I don’t remember the details of the many Chukchi jokes I’ve been told over the years, although the traumatic sense-memory of their severe unfunniness lingers. I do however recall the profound offence I witnessed on a Russian colleague’s face when a co-worker called her a ‘Chukchi’. ‘The poor old Chukchi,’ I thought, ‘What did they ever do to deserve that kind of reaction?’ After all it can’t have been much fun living for millennia in the Arctic Circle, and in the 90s it was even worse than usual as what little infrastructure there was in their home republic Chukotka collapsed as corrupt politicians made off with all the cash.
Thus the Chukchi were known to me only as the butt of bad gags until Roman Abramovich became governor of the region in 1999. I thought he was doing it to guarantee himself immunity from criminal prosecution, but over the years he actually did a lot of good work. He funded schools and hospitals and paid state workers far higher rates than they earned in neighboring republics. I remember travelling in the Siberian region of Khakassia and listening to my taxi driver grumble bitterly about the comparatively easy life of the Chukchi. Occasionally a BBC reporter would travel to Anadyr, the capital, and file a silly story about Chukchi carving Abramovich’s face onto walrus tusks, while living in terror of the day his term expired. And indeed his term did expire, and with it died the Chukchi’s novelty value as a news story for foreigners, so I can’t tell you what happened next.
Recently however I read a fascinating book called The Chukchi Bible which pretty much erased all that froth from my memory. Its author, Yuri Rytkheu, is the grandson of a Chukchi shaman and emerged as a soviet writer in the 1950s, just as all the minorities of the Soviet Union were being supplied with miniature literary canons of their own. To judge by The Chukchi Bible’s contents however, Rytkheu was never much of a believer in dialectical materialism. The tone of the book is elegiac; he brilliantly reconstructs the myths and legends and family history his grandfather told him, while simultaneously mourning the demise of a way of life that came to an abrupt halt with the advent of the Bolsheviks.
I read Rytkheu’s book over a very long period, so that I might have time to absorb all the details of the lost, remote, vanished world that he was describing. Aside from the creation myth at the beginning (the world was pooped into existence by a big crow, a profound existential metaphor if ever I saw one) it was almost all unknown to me. Reading it, I was reminded of what a rich and complex place the world is; how the obscure can be illuminating; and how even the most remote and marginal peoples have their dignity, their history, and things to teach us.
And all the crap racist gags or speech laws in the world can’t alter that fact.