Map of Russian Federation

Map of Russian Federation

The Amur River Basin

The Amur 
The Amur river flows 4,444 km from the mountains of north eastern China to the Sea of Okhotsk and has historically served as an artery along which peoples moved and traded, exchanging goods as well as traditions and ways of life, and connecting the Pacific coast with the Siberian inland. For 1,000 miles, the Amur currently forms the border between China and Russia. Indeed, this is a region where peoples from China and Central Asia brought agriculture, animal husbandry, metal ware and pottery to the Siberian borderlands.

The lower basin of the
Amur river valley is located in Khabarovskiy Krai and is the fourth largest river basin in the world. This region is not considered to be part of Siberia - it has a monsoon climate, and instead of the Siberian coniferous taiga, fir and spruce forests gradually mix in with larch, birch and aspen. Summer temperatures vary between 25 to 30C and sometimes soar to 35C. In winter the average temperature is -15C. The forests of the Amur are home to the Himalayan Black Bear, the Amur Tiger, the Far Eastern forest wildcat, and several rare and endangered birds such as the white backed albatross.

Across the narrow
Tatar Strait, Sakhalin island has a similar monsoon climate. Nearly 2/3 of Sakhalin is mountainous, and the northern part of the island is swampy and covered with taiga. In the central and southern parts of the island the mountains are covered with fir and birch forests and home to bear, marten, wolverine, sable, squirrel and deer. There are two mud volcanoes on the island and many thousands of rivers, streams and lakes.

Many empires have fought to incorporate the
Amur river basin into their lands, including ancient Manchu-Tungu kingdoms such as the Bohai Kingdom (698-926), China and Russia. The Chinese made several attempts to conquer the Amur delta during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Massive military expeditions were sent to the Lower Amur in 1411 and 1433; thousands of soldiers and officers, doctors, architects, scribes, sculptors, tile-makers, and masons were sent to colonise the region, but the Chinese were unable to maintain possession of the area and the peoples living on the Lower Amur and Sakhalin remained independent right up to the 16th century.

Russian exploration of present day Khabarovskiy Krai began with the expeditions of the Cossack Ivan Moskvitin (1639-43) along the
Sea of Japan and with the Amur river surveys between 1645 and 1689. In 1651 Yerofey Khabarov founded a fort on the left bank of the Amur which became the administrative center of the region. This fort only existed until 1689 when by a treaty between Russia and Manchuria the region became part of China. In 1858, two centuries later, it was returned to Russia. Sakhalin Island became a penal settlement inTsarist Russia. It was occupied by the Japanese in 1904-05 and 1920-25. Currently, a major oil exploration project is underway on the island.

Tungusic Peoples
The native peoples of the lower Amur valley were historically a mixture of various tribes who, except for the Nivkh, spoke closely related Tungusic languages. There are a dozen or so Tungusic languages, spoken in
Russia, China and Mongolia. This language family is obscure, and even linguists have limited knowledge about them and the Tungusic peoples. The only Tungusic people that have entered the historical discourse in the West are the Manchu, who founded the Qing dynasty in China in the 17th century and ruled till the beginning of the 20th century. In Russia, the Evenk and the Even, the Nanai, Ulchi, Udege, Orochi, and Negidal, speak Tungusic languages. All these languages are expected to become extinct within a generation or two.

Today the Tungusic peoples of the Amur region are known as the Nanai, the Ulchi, the Udege, the Orochi, and the Negidal. Some Nanai and Orochi live on the Chinese side of the Amur.

The film Dersu Uzala by Kurasawa, based on the autobiographical book by Vladimir Arsenyev, portrays the friendship between a Russian officer exploring Khabarovskiy Krai at the beginning of the 20th century and a Nanai, or Goldi, hunter called Dersu Uzala. The film and the book describe Dersu as a great man, who saves Arsenyev and his men from freezing to death and starving.

This portrayal of the Nanai man has some features in common with the description by Martin Sauer, secretary of the Billings Expedition, of the Tungus he encounters on the way from
Yakutsk to the Okhotsk Sea at the end of the 18th century. The Tungus he met were probably Evens, who, like the Nanai, speak a Tungusic language. To some extent Sauer’s picture of the Tungus bears the marks of an idealised picture of a ‘noble savage’. Sauer was “enchanted with the manly activity of my guides, their independence, and contentment. Satisfied with the limited productions of nature, where nature itself seems to forbid the approach of mankind, their astonishing fortitude, keeping in full force every lively sensation of the mind, and surmounting all difficulties, until they obtain the interesting object of their pursuit, inspired me with an ardent desire to participate in their dangers and delights. I pronounce them "Great Nature's happy commoners."

Sauer says that the Tungus "wander over an amazing extent of ground....constantly on the look-out for animals of the case. They seldom reside more than six days in one place, but remove their tents, [and] leave their supplies of dried fish and berries, in large boxes built on trees or poles, for the benefit of themselves and their tribes in travelling during the winter. They seem callous to the effects of heat or cold; their tents are covered with shamoy [reindeer hide] or the inner bark of the birch, which they render as pliable as leather, by rolling it up, and keeping it for sometime in the steam of boiling water and smoke. Their winter dress is the skin of the deer, or wild sheep, dressed with the hair on; a breast-piece of the same, which ties round the neck, and reaches down to the waist, widening towards the bottom, and neatly ornamented with embroidery and beads; pantaloons of the same materials, which also furnish them with short stocking, and boots of the legs of reindeer with the hair outward; a fur cap and cloves. Their summer dress only differs in being simple leather without the hair. They are religious observers of their word, punctual and exact in traffic. They commonly hunt with the bow and arrow, but some have rifle-barrelled guns. They do not like to bury their dead, but place the body, dressed in its best apparel, in a strong box, and suspend it between two trees. They allow polygamy; but the first wife is the chief, and is attended by the rest. The ceremony of marriage is a simple purchase of a girl from her father; from 20 to 100 deer are given, or the bridegroom works a stated time for the benefit of the bride's father. They are rather below the middle size, and extremely active; have lively smiling countenances, with small eyes; and both sexes are great lovers of brandy. I asked my Tungoose, why they had not settled places of residence? They answered, that they knew no greater curse than to live in one place, like a Russian, or Yakut, where filth accumulates, and fills the habitation with stench and disease. 

The Nanai
The native peoples of the Amur basin traditionally led nomadic or semi-nomadic lives, and fished and hunted. The Nanai fished in the Amur valley in the summer and lived in camps near a river in huts often made of birch bark. In the winter they moved, using dogs and sometimes horses to haul their belongings, and settled in the forest, where they hunted. In the winter camps the houses were generally semi underground dugouts. Some Nanai houses were inspired by Chinese architecture, made of clay and twigs where the smoke of clay stoves would pass under sleeping bunks and escape up a tall chimney beside the house. Later, after contact with the Russians, the Nanai also began to build Russian style log houses. Their clothes and shoes were generally made of fish skin (and fur in winter) and intricately embroidered in a style influenced by Chinese and Manchu designs. Like the Chinese, the men shaved their foreheads and pulled back the rest of the hair in a pigtail. The Nanai mainly ate fish, but in some villages in the
Upper Amur, due to Chinese influence, there was limited agriculture and animal husbandry. The Nanai also learned from the Chinese the skills of metalworking.

In traditional Nanai society the relationship between man and nature was seen as being governed by a law of reflection or a 'boomerang effect'. Centuries of observations led the Nanais to the conclusion that by inflicting harm on nature, one inevitably inflicts harm on oneself. This is an expression of a typically animistic worldview, which is based on the fundamental principle that everything around us is living, or animate. Many philosophies and religions make a distinction between man, on the one hand, as a creature with a soul, and animals and the natural environment, on the other hand, as creatures or phenomena devoid of souls or spirits. The animistic worldview, however, perceives the relationship between man and nature as one of equality and reciprocity. All creatures and phenomena are perceived to have spirits and the spiritual world is, like the physical world, complex. It follows that the animist has a deep respect for the environment. To kill animals and destroy trees in order to obtain food, clothing and fire is not seen as contrary or harmful to nature. However, senseless waste of natural resources is seen as dangerous as it angers the spirits. Spirits can be helpful to human beings in various life situations but if human activities anger them, they can also be destructive.

Common to all the Amur peoples and indeed all the indigenous peoples of
Siberia and the Russian Far East was the practice of shamanism. One of the functions of the shaman is to communicate with the spirits. The shaman uses various techniques – drumming, dancing, sometimes narcotics - to induce a trance. The shaman’s spirit leaves his or her body and enters into the spirit world. Another important function of the shaman is that of a healer who can cure illnesses. Mircea Eliade, who wrote about shamanism in the 1950s, describes shamanism as a particular magical specialty. It is a trance during which the shaman’s soul leaves the body and ascends to the sky or descends to the underworld, aided in this journey by helping spirits, whom he or she is able to control. It is not a religion, in fact it co-exists with a number of religions, rather it is a form of mysticism. The shaman is the great specialist in the human soul – the larger part of religious life takes place without the shaman – and is needed to deal with sickness, death, and anything to do with the human soul.[1]

Certain cosmological beliefs typically accompany shamanism, such as the belief that the world is constructed on a series of levels, the middle one being the earth, which is located between an upper (good) level and a lower underworld. Often there is also a belief in (but generally no worship of) one supreme creator spiritual being. Shamanic philosophy also draws a close connection between the natural environment and the inner state of a person’s being. The lifestyle of the peoples who traditionally practised shamanism was such that it required them to grasp all the detail of the natural environment in order to survive. Their knowledge about the natural environment was extensive. They believed that the spiritual world was as complex as, and in a sense a mirror image of the physical world. Their efforts to grasp the details of the inner, or spiritual environment can therefore be seen as a logical corollary of their profound knowledge and understanding of the physical, or natural world.

In the
Soviet Union of the 1930s efforts were made to eradicate shamanism, and shamans were often persecuted. They were arrested and imprisoned, often tortured, and sometimes executed or deported, at the orders of the NKVD. In most cases, however, the authorities did not succeed in completely eradicating the shamanistic practices. The Nanai tell how local young people who had been educated within the Soviet system sometimes co-operated with the authorities in the fight against shamanism. In the 1930s some of these young people became very afraid as many of them fell ill with various illnesses, both physical and mental, which some believed were a punishment imposed on them by the spirits. Some of these young people looked up the shamans they had previously denounced and asked for help.[2]

The lifestyles of the Negidal, the Orochi, the Udege and the Ulchi were similar to that of the Nanai, with some variations. For the Ulchi, the main occupation was fishing, and their lifestyle was a rather settled one. Fish was the main food, which was also fed to the dogs, kept in large numbers for draught work. Hunting for furs was an additional occupation which yielded an income -- sables especially. For sables, some Ulchi went hunting on the
island of Sakhalin, where some eventually settled. They also hunted sea mammals in the Tatar Straits. Some of the Negidal lived mainly by fishing and in settled villages, whereas others, like the Nanai, also hunted and led semi-nomadic lives. Though the Negidals lived far from the coast they sometimes travelled to the Sea of Okhotsk to hunt for sea mammals and birds. The Orochi lived in the coastal regions and also hunted sea mammals. Unlike other Amur peoples, fishing played a less important part in the life of the Udeghe, whose home is the unique Ussuri taiga, where the subtropics encounter the sub-Arctic. The Ussuri taiga is located in the north of Primorski Krai, south of Khabarovski Krai. Unlike their neighbours, the Udeghes' way of life was closely connected with the forest and hunting, which necessitated a more mobile lifestyle. In spite of their nomadic life the Udeghes did not raise reindeer, a fact which distinctly separated them from many other taiga peoples. They hunted mainly to get furs and meat, but also to get antlers which they sold to the Chinese, who also bought from them the root of the ginseng which grows in the Ussuri taiga.


The Nivkh
The Nivkh are the only non-Tungusic native people of the region. Many linguists believe that the Nivkh are the oldest of all the peoples currently living in the Lower Amur and on Sakhalin island. Their language is generally held to be a language isolate, which means it is unrelated to any currently spoken language. Historically, they have remained independent from China and the Manchu, whilst at the same time trading and maintaining cultural relations with both, and Nivkh folk culture and crafts shows significant Chinese and Manchu influences (e.g. in architecture, clothing, food).

Like the other peoples of the Amur region, the Nivkh were traditionally fishers and hunters. In summer, they lived in huts near salmon spawning rivers, and in winter they built dugouts in the forest, where they hunted. Like the other peoples, they used dogs to haul their belongings. The coastal people also hunted sea mammals, especially seals. The Nivkhs fished in canoes made of hollowed out logs, decorated with intricate artwork. They were skilled wood and metalworkers, using imported Chinese and Japanese carving tools. They made elaborate inlaid weapons and armour from scraps of iron obtained through trade and used intricately carved wooden tableware - spoons, scoops and troughs. Traditionally their ceremonial clothing included elaborately embroidered robes made of Chinese silk.

A Nivkh creation myth tells that there was initially only water and no land at all. A duck swam over the water. When the time came for her to give birth, she saw that her eggs would sink if she laid them on the water, so she pulled out her own fluff and made a nest of it. Her babies grew up strong and healthy and in their own time made more nests for their own babies. Gradually there got to be so many nests that they joined together and formed an island, which is how the earth began. First grass began to grow on the island and then trees. As their leaves and needles fell, the island grew bigger, and then sap came from the larch tree. When its drops struck the ground they turned into people--the Nivkh, and therefore the Nivkh are called the sons of the larch. Their skin is reddish, like the larch. Their neighbours, the Orok, who have white skin, are said to have come from the pine tree[3].

In the Uttermost East by Charles Hawes published in 1903 is an ‘account of investigations among the natives and Russian Conscripts of the
Island of Sakhalin’. The author describes the summer and winter houses of the Nivkh, or Gilyak, as they were called at the time by Russians. Both types of houses have a hole in the roof to let in air and light. In winter, they live in the forests where they hunt. The winter houses are dugouts made of timber and bark and the entrance is through a tunnel. The author finds them cosy. In the summer the Nivkh live near rivers where they fish and their houses, made of timber and bark, are built on stilts, and resemble Swiss chalets. Hawes says the Nivkh wear clothes made of fish skin in summer and of fur and sealskin in winter.

Hawes talks a lot about love and marriage among the Nivkh and notes that wives are purchased and often betrothed very young, although they are free to divorce. The ‘modesty’ of women is important, and sisters and brothers are not allowed to talk to each other once they reach puberty. Love, the author says, seems to be an important issue, about which there are many Nivkh songs. One such song is about a young couple who decide to commit suicide together because the girl is betrothed to another man. It is believed, the author explains, that if they die together, the couple will be together in the next world. But the boy does not kill himself, and the restless spirit of the poor girl laments that men are such liars!

Another famous traveller to
Sakhalin was Chekhov, who left Moscow in 1890 and spent three months on Sakhalin, interviewing several thousand prisoners. His research recording his findings in The Island of Sakhalin (1893-4), where among other things he described the brutal beatings of male and female prisoners making such an impression on the Russian public that it helped to bring about the abolition of corporeal punishment in Russia. Chekhov finds the Amur and ‘extraordinarily interesting and unusual region. It seethes with life […] it is beautiful, with vast open spaces and freedom […and] the banks of the river are so wild, so unusual and so luxuriant.’[4]

About the Nivkh, Chekhov says they are ‘a wonderful and cheerful people’, and that they are ‘polite, and do not permit an arrogant attitude toward people. […] Because of their unusual sociability and mobility, the Gilyaks long ago succeeded in having relations with all their neighbouring peoples, and so it is almost impossible to find a pure-blooded Gilyak without Mongol, Tungus or Ainu elements. […] Gilyaks have no respect for family seniority. A father does not believe he is senior to his son, and a son does not respect his father, but lives as he pleases. An old mother has no more authority in the yurt than a teenage daughter. The male members of a family are equal to one another, and if you treat Gilyaks to vodka, it must also be served to the very youngest males.’[5]

The Soviet regime brought substantial changes to the way of life of the indigenous peoples of this region, particularly the introduction of forced collectivization. The system of winter and summer housing, developed to maximize the benefits of local resources, was abandoned. People were forced to become agricultural labourers. Nivkh fishermen believed that hurting the earth (i.e., ploughing) was a sin and tried to resist collectivization and resettlement, to no avail. In the 1950s and 60s, small settlements were united into large, multi-ethnic units, forcing assimilation. Nowadays people live in mixed villages and towns in Russian type houses and lead ‘russified’ lifestyles, communicating in Russian, and it is believed the native languages of the region will become extinct within one or two generations.

[1] Mircea Eliade, Shamanism, Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, 1951
[2] Bulgakova, Nanai Shamans under Double Oppression
[3] Retold from Vladimir Sangi, Pesn' o nivkhakh. Moscow: Sovremennik, 1989
[4] Anton Chekhov, A Journey to the End of the Russian Empire, pp. 26, 30, Penguin Books 2007
[5] Ibid, p. 86