A.Kh. Girfanova

Saint-Petersburg State University

The Present Day Situation of the Udege and Oroch Languages

Ginfanova, Albina Khakimovna

I have been studying the Manchu-Tungus languages for a quarter of the century. During this time a series articles summarizing the situation of the Oroch and Udege languages (including those published in «Красная книга» (“Red Book”) of languages of the USSR and Russia, in «Языки Российской Федерации» (“The Languages of Russian Federation”, etc.)). They provide a rather detailed description of the sociolinguistic situation of Udege and Oroch languages, as being dramatic at the moment (see the materials of the Round Table). I would like to share my experience connected with “academic” and official “administrative” approaches to numerically small peoples practiced nowadays. The distinctive feature of these peoples is their tradition of survival in extreme climatic conditions as contrasted to the feeble adaptation to the “market” competition, mainly, due to the traditions of collectivism and mutual aid inherent to them.

Several years ago I managed to publish educational «Словарь» (“Dictionary”) and «Грамматические таблицы» (“Grammatical Tables”) of the Udege language aimed for the use in high school («Орочский словарь» (“Oroch Dictionary”) is still in print). On my trip to Khabarovsk and Vladivostok connected with the studies of V.K. Arsenyev archival materials on Udege and Oroch languages, I decided to request information on the fate of the educational manuals redacted by me. In Khabarovsk Committee of Education I was provided with clear information on the distribution of the copies of the both publications. Most of the copies were sent to Gvasyuginskaya high school named by Lazo, Khabarovskiy Region. However, since in this case the schools mentioned are not considered national, there are neither qualified teachers of the “native” language nor developed educational methodical programs found in Udege communities. Volunteer teachers, possessing basic skills and background knowledge, provide extracurricular teaching of Udege. As far as the situation unfolds, the authors of school manuals themselves have to develop curricula, publish, advertise and distribute their works, while immediately teaching at schools. Such researchers of the mid-30s of the last century as E.R. Shneider worked in a similar situation, although, in the context of the state publishing and educational policy implemented at that time.

Beside objective obstacles, it should be stressed that the “academic” approach to the endangered languages is, unfortunately, characterized by as certain orientation at the state of affairs with the focus on rather personal, nearly absurd ambitions, than on the needs and interests of living people. There are projects supporting ideas, as near as museum conservation of the language and culture of numerically small peoples, not to mention underestimated level of their self-consciousness. In linguistic literature, describing present day ethnolinguistic case studies, such definitions as, for instance, “language death”, “semi-command of the language”, “language shift”, etc. are often found. They presuppose that the loss of the “native” language (many languages of numerically small peoples can be hardly described in these terms) is equal almost to the loss of individual identity.

It should be noted that these peoples themselves have a right to choose this or that language (and culture) and that identity of representatives of numerically small peoples is dependant on not only and merely on the language chosen, but rather on the level and quality of education obtained including the knowledge of their historical past. In the context of the gradual shift to the fee-based education (especially, in the sphere of higher education) the Udege loose the access to it; considering their growing interest to their own history, the existing special literature can hardly be described as available to the public.

The mentioned above, unfortunately, also pertains to some educational editions. The employees of Khabarovsk Department of the affairs of indigenous numerically small peoples of the North (established within the regional Committee of nature management) proudly demonstrate Udege ABS book published in Khabarovsk, which, in fact, is a model edition, considering the work of the illustrator (Y. Dunskiy) and its polygraphic quality. However, Udege themselves have an ironical attitude to it, as I found out. The alphabet imposed on the author (a native speaker, but not a linguist) is, unfortunately, based on subjective “academic” assessment of Udege phonetics. It was developed by M.D. Simonov, a researcher of Novosibirsk Branch of RAS whose academic legacy deserves the highest degree of appreciation.

The neglect expressed to the scientific tradition which have been formed for decades in the process of the development of writing of numerically small peoples of Russia. The former largest center of Altaic languages is the division (later - department) of Altaic languages of LB IL (Leningrad Department of the Institute of Linguistics) of Academy of Sciences of RAS (present ILS (Institute of Linguistic Studies) of RAS), where the alphabets for all Manchu-Tungus languages have been developed and tested, including Udege with the Cyrillic-based alphabet suggested by E.R. Shnaider and edited by O.P. Sunik, according to morphological indices. Conditioned by different factors, this alphabet has been practically unclaimed. The matter may, certainly, be concerned with the choice between the Leningrad (St. Petersburg) school of Altaic studies, presently extinct [1], and, for instance, Novosibirsk school.

Books and, especially, textbooks aimed at the support and development of the culture of any people (including numerically small one) should, first of all, be appropriate, the term which can not be applied to Khabarovsk ABC book. In a result, expensive edition has become “the thing created for its own sake” – beautiful but useless.

It should be stressed that the trust expressed to scientists even by those officials who try, within the limits of the possible, to help numerically small peoples, but are not obliged to know the particulars of linguistics, ethnography and pedagogics, requires from scientists themselves not self-assertion, abstract theorization or orientation at the state of affairs, following the principle “get what you desire”, but rather reciprocal desire to help these peoples to preserve their historical heritage. It’s not only languages and traditional cultures themselves which are found on the brink of extinction – these are people having the same kind of consciousness as bearers of more prosperous cultures, characterized by the same individual differences and opportunities, which depend, primarily, on socio-economic conditions. In Khabarovsk Region the understanding of this seems to be coming.

In Vladivostok, the capital of Primorskiy Region we witnessed an opposite and, unfortunately, more typical situation. This is a place where more Udege live, as compared to Khabarovskiy Region, along with Nanai, Taz and other representatives of numerically small peoples, but where there is no official structure (committee, department, etc.) which would deal with their problems (such department existed before perestroika).

In the department of education they could not understand my demands at all. In a while, after the start of the conversation a “required” paper was found and the head of the department was glad to read the account based on the report of one district center (where almost all Udege and Nanai population lives) that 4 (four) copies of the ABC books and 26 copies of Nivkhi textbook were received for the whole district, considering the fact that not a single Nivkhi lives in the district! In response to my bewilderment an argument was suggested that the people at the local level know better what they need, and, finally, I was invited to examine the issues I was interested in myself and not to bother this “glorious” department. During my next visit to the same department (in 2002) I found almost all the edition of «Картинный орочский словарь» (“Illustrated Oroch Dictionary”) there, whereas Oroch are represented only on the territory of Khabarovsk Region. The director of the Udege school in Krasniy Yar village once complained that Nanai textbooks, which, naturally, had never been ordered of excepted, were sent to their school. In a result, we, few specialists in the languages of numerically small peoples of Siberia and the Far East, are working in vain (let alone the fact, that most often we do our work on the “voluntary basis”), spending our time and efforts on compilation of textbooks and on attempts to publish them which in the final end are successfully accumulated in different unexpected places.

It is not individual officials of an individual department in an individual district, but rather the prevailing indifference of local authorities to interests, needs and aspirations of indigenous numerically small peoples, along with others, that present the problem. However, these are the peoples, in contrast to Russians, Ukrainians and representatives of other peoples, living in Siberia, the North and the Far East, who have no place to migrate (this is another urgent problem of the Far East territories). With the changed taiga and increased people’s demands, they can never become “forest people” again. The science per se is not able to meet these vitally important demands – it can only study the remnants of the passing away languages and ethnographic “survivals”.

Here is the citation from the thesis on the socio-economic conditions of Udege written by historian A.F. Startsev: “The collapse of the national economy in the years of the post-soviet crisis had a negative impact of the family budget of all Udege population, excluding some individuals occupying key posts in the governmental bodies. The most of the aboriginal population drags out a miserable existence due to the lack of jobs in national settlements”. The author thinks that in order to solve social, every day life and economic problems of aboriginals, “the economic crisis in the country and the regions should be liquidated” [2].

Book «Бикин. Тайга и люди» (“Bikin. Taiga and People”) by Alexander Panichev, a Far East geographer, geologist, ecologist is full of heartache. The author provides a detailed description of the essence of “Bikin problem”, necessity of preservation of, probably, the last primeval forest on our country’s territory. A.M. Panichev states the fact that “the hope for the solidarity of the Udege, honesty of officials, intellectual power of science, help of ecological public have not succeeded. The Udege are rather few in number, officials are, mainly, corrupt, the contemporary science is in deep crisis and the efforts of ecologists are scattered on a number of other natural objects requiring protection. There is only one hope left – for the realization of “Bikin problem” by the public” [3].

The natural complex of the Bikin Valley (a largest tributary of Ussuri River) is an invaluable heritage of Russia, an object preserved almost in the primeval condition is endangered with industrial destruction for the sake of gaining a profit by a small group of oligarchs.

Biological region of Sikhote-Alin can be related to a number of priceless pieces of biosphere. Exclusively rich geological and bio-informational resources are concentrated there on the genetic, population, ecosystemic and geosystemic levels. In decades of thousand years a border between the Subarctic and Subtropical natural climatic zones has been lying here resulting in the formation of contrasting bio-complexes. The cedar tree grows beside the vine and the cork tree, the ginseng, the elk neighbors the turtle, the black bear, the Ussiri tiger, the leopard, rare bird species inhabiting this area. The main water flow of all the mountainous area of Sikhote-Alin as well as a significant percent of Ussuri water flow is formed and regulated here.

The first struggle for taiga in the 1990s when all Udege population, few in number, stood up for its protection resulted in the creation of the “Association of indigenous numerically small peoples of Primorskiy Region” – its initiatives were caught up by scientists, writers, journalists. However, the existing problem can be successfully settled in favor of the nature and health of the majority of population of Primorie only by “raising the general public for protection of Bikin. Today it is the only, we can say, the last chance and opportunity to change the situation”, - concludes A.M. Panichev (ibidem: 119).

In spite of the existing regulation, not a single territory of traditional land use has been created in the region until today, which led to the logical gap between the special regulations of the forest use and unsettled status of such a territory. Udege need taiga in order to preserve themselves as a people. The aboriginal group of Udege, Oroch and Nanai has been a social component of Bikin basin ecosystem for several hundreds of years. Their subsistence has been based on the system of nature management characterized by collective type of production with the elements of natural economy, clan perception of natural resources as expressed in the attitude to the land ownership, to the priority of kinship ties within a community (ibidem: 114). An appearing trend of destruction of former value system of the aboriginal population (mainly, of youth), detached from the nature both from internal and external points of view is stressed as a disturbing factor. A social stratum of people depending on logging has been formed.

In conclusion, going far from the linguistic aspect of the fate of Bikin taiga, it should only be stated that at the present moment Udege people is left adrift, rightless and defenseless. There is no any transport communication with three Udege villages (one in Khabarovskiy Region, two – in Primorskiy Region), where the problem of energy supply is urgent, regular connection with district and regional centers is lacking, medical service is almost non-existent, the unemployment level is high, which is caused by sharply decreased access of graduates of village schools to the vocational and higher education and the youth is left, at best, unsettled. This is happening at the background of, practically, absent social policy aimed at increased living standards of people. The positive trends that would change the situation have not been fully revealed yet.


  1. The whole presentation could be based on the following phrase: two years ago the author, the only specialist in Udege language in the country was fired from the Altaic department of ILI of RAS living out the rest of its days, abandoned by researchers and later abolished, in spite of the position of a scientific researcher successfully acquired three months before the department’s abolishment (I am the author of the only thesis of C. Sc. devoted to Udege language, written and defended in this country, 70 publications, including 5 monographs on the mentioned above Udege language). [ back ]
  2. Старцев А.Ф. Проблемы этнокультурного развития удэгейцев во второй половине XIX – XX вв. Автореф. … докт. дисс. Владивосток, 2002. С. 38 –39. [ back ]
  3. Паничев А.М. Бикин: Тайга и люди. Владивосток, 2005. С. 5. [ back ]

Translated into English by O.A. Povoroznyuk

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