Kathryn Graber is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Central Eurasian Studies at IU Bloomington. Her research interests lie in media and language in post-Soviet Eurasia, primarily in Mongolia, Russia, and Siberia. She has been working in Buryatia, Siberia since 2005.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself; about the path that led to your interest in Siberian studies? How did you develop an interest in the Buryats specifically?
I’m an example of why undergraduate study abroad is so important. I’m from a small town in Missouri and although my parents were very well-educated, I had nearly no international experience. Before study abroad, I had been to Mexico once on a shopping trip. After seeing a Russian folk choir performance in my small town, I developed an interest in Russian culture and, in college, I joined a Russian folk choir called Golosá, literally “voices”—just for fun, not for any academic reason. Golosá draws materials from Old Believers, a group of people who live east of Lake Baikal and who migrated from Poland to Russia under Catherine the Great. These people speak Russian and appear Russian, but have a distinct style of singing that has been studied at great length by ethnomusicologists.
In 2001, I was an undergraduate and had just finished a summer semester studying Russian in St. Petersburg when I traveled to Siberia for the first time with my choir. I was so surprised to see that it was a multi-ethnic and multilinguistic place. It seems naive now, but then I had the impression from studying Russian that all Russians were blonde-haired and blue-eyed and that they all spoke and were Russian.
In Siberia, a choir member’s wife was Buryat. I never expected that I would end up studying Buryats in Siberia. I had been previously interested in multilingualism in South Africa after studying abroad there (I, like, really took advantage of study abroad programs in college), after taking compelling courses in anthropology and linguistics under Susan Gal and Jerry Sadock, among others, at the University of Chicago. The view that language could be studied separately from culture, one that is presented in many approaches to linguistics, was lacking something. Linguistic anthropology, on the other hand, considers language and culture as inseparable—a view that made sense to me. As an undergraduate, I learned that the monoglot situation in which I had been raised is not the global norm, but the global exception. It is far more “natural” for humans to be multilingual; to know and use three or four or more languages, in part or with complete proficiency.
Although I still follow studies of multilingualism in South Africa, it was ultimately Siberia, not Africa, which sparked the most interest in me. The Buryat woman I had met among the Old Believers intrigued me. So, like a good undergraduate, I went to the University of Chicago library. There wasn’t much available in English (most of the resources were in Russian) but I did find one book, Caroline Humphrey’s Marx went Away but Karl Stayed Behind, about a collective farm in Buryatia. Later, after some career detours through law and advertising, I decided I wanted to go to graduate school in linguistic anthropology. Because I knew I wanted to study multilingualism and I knew there was this dearth of research in Siberia, I proposed doctoral work on Buryatia. I didn’t know if it would even be feasible, but I was fortunate to have chosen a people who turned out to be very welcoming and interested in having a foreign researcher working with them.
If I’m someone who knows little to nothing about Siberia, how might you introduce it to me? Why do you think Siberian studies is important?
Sibir’, in Russian, has scope from the Urals to the Lake Baikal region. Anything east of that is the Russian Far East. The scope of the word “Siberia” in English is bigger—it stretches all the way from the Urals to the ocean. In general, it is often forgotten that most Russians live in provinces outside of European Russia. History, sociology, political science, and even anthropology as disciplines have traditionally focused more on Moscow and St. Petersburg as centers of political power—but there is an abundance of arguments as to why Siberia is a place worthy of equal global attention.
First off, Siberia and the global north in general are becoming more and more important in policy discussions because of the natural resources there which are just beginning to be exposed by the melting of the Arctic. There are many new opportunities for exploration and resource extraction. China, the United States, Canada, Russia, and Greenland are all major players in the “race for the North.” Siberia will continue to become more geopolitically important in the near future.
Second, there is a historical interest in Siberia from Europeans and Asians, where it is thought of as an important and unknown origin point for various groups of people. There are Native Americans in North America who want to learn more about Siberian peoples because of the physical ice-age land bridge connection between Asia and North America. There are also citizens of Hungary, Estonia, and Finland who want to know more about the Finno-Ugric peoples who came west into Europe. Although some of these claims are based in exclusive narratives of nation and can be harmful, Siberia is a site for the exploration of the imagination of these other European, Asian, and North American origins. Siberia is a site for reconstruction—both genetic and linguistic. One of our recent PhDs, Leland Rogers, wrote a dissertation on the genetic prehistory of the Mongols that included material from Siberia, for instance, and there are arguments for the origins of Chinggis Khan in Buryatia. There are also a number of ethnic groups in Europe today who have their linguistic origins in Siberia.
Importantly—and this is the main reason I am interested in it as a linguistic and cultural anthropologist—Siberia has been the locus of the world’s greatest social experiments. It’s a great place to study the social effects of, for instance, huge dam projects, collectivization, large-scale mining and resource extraction, de-collectivization, privatization, Socialism, and post-Socialism.
Lastly, Siberia is a blank spot on the map for outsiders. As scholars, we know little about it. Americans and Russians have the capacity to understand each other in terms of frontier expansion, as Siberia has functioned as a frontier from the perspective of Russian settlers—and as a homeland, from the perspective of indigenous Siberians—analogous to those of North American experience. There are a great many opportunities for exploration and collaboration.
What type of perspective does linguistic anthropology and the anthropology of media offer to the study of Siberia? What does it offer the people there?
Native Siberians are often concerned about language shift (in which a community shifts from speaking mostly one language to speaking mostly another) and cultural maintenance. Linguistic anthropology can suggest strategies for language revitalization for those who are interested. It also exposes categories of indigeneity, national language, native language, and ethnic autonomy that are very different than those categories one can find in North America or elsewhere in the world, given Siberia’s unique history. Siberia offers correctives and reasons to interrogate those categories. In studies of the role that media play in language revitalization, for instance, scholars have long assumed that providing media in a minority language will stave off language shift. But this hasn’t done the trick in Buryatia, where the state funds daily media like newspapers and television in the Buryat language but the language is rapidly receding from public life anyway. In part this is because Buryat media promote an idealized Buryat speech that is nearly impossible to live up to when a growing number of Buryat speakers are more comfortable in Russian. Speaking Buryat has been central to maintaining political autonomy to the extent that they have, so the political stakes are high—really, too high after centuries of Buryats being told both explicitly and implicitly to speak Russian instead. This is the subject of my book, forthcoming from Cornell University Press next year.
As another example, I recently worked on a joint project in Ulan-Ude with Justine Quijada and Eric Stephen on Buryat shamanism. There we found shamanistic practice to be a site for language revitalization and preservation, a topic many Buryats themselves are interested in. In general, I try to pick research topics that will help people in Buryatia. There are other excellent sociolinguistic studies of education and childhood bilingualism in Buryatia, and I specifically focused in on Buryat-language media because I was interested in what happens in adulthood—and because no one else was doing it. There are very few linguistic anthropologists working in Siberia. (A few notable ones are Jenanne Ferguson at the University of Nevada, Reno, and Alex King at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania.) When I can, I also participate in conferences in Siberia and present on central work from American linguistic anthropology that I think will be helpful to Russian colleagues, in order to make it accessible in Russian. I am always happy to find funders willing and excited to take part in research in a part of Russia that people know little about.
Can you tell me a bit about the Siberian Studies Network at IU?
The Siberian studies initiative was spearheaded by Tatiana Saburova, myself, and Russell Valentino. [It is a key part of the Russian Studies Workshop, a program we developed at IU thanks to a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York for strengthening Russian studies.] Last October (2018) at the IU Gateway Office in Berlin, we held a conference titled Siberia: Infrastructure and Environment. It allowed Russian, American, and European scholars from the social sciences and humanities to connect. Scholars of anthropology, history, literature, and sociology came to work on a topic in common, to advance Siberian studies and to support junior scholars and graduate students. We received so many excellent applications that we expanded the conference to three days, and were still able to be selective. The panels were very coherent and I was especially pleased with the bilingual format we created, wherein conference participants could choose to participate in Russian or English and assume everyone understood both, which also encouraged a collaborative, collegial environment (as opposed to everyone feeling pressed to present in English as some kind of de facto “language of science,” which is problematic for all sorts of reasons). Berlin was a great place for us to meet not only because it is a great city(!), but because it can serve as a bridge for scholars from the Unites States and from Russia. I am quite comfortable saying that Indiana University is one of the very few centers outside of Russia for Siberian studies. The Siberian Studies Network is partly here to strengthen IU’s connection to overseas scholars and to maintain that global presence as a Siberian studies hub.
For students and scholars already working or interested in the region, do you have any Siberia-specific field tips?
Lots of Russians in western cities will try to tell you what Siberia is like. Listen to what they have to say so you can understand the urban, imperial projection of Siberia. I’ve been told that I will “surely die” in Siberia, and that there are bears walking the streets. There are Russian tales that Siberians have no heads, that they just have mouths on the tops of their shoulders. I was even told once, by a museum official, that Ulan-Ude was not in Russia, but in Mongolia. I had to convince her to give me entrance by showing her the word, in big letters, RUSSIA, on my visa. European Russians are often wildly misinformed about Siberia. Listen to all these stories of misinformation, as they convey how cultural conceptions of Siberia travel—or don’t.
As always, keep your eyes and ears open, play dumb, and ask questions even when you think you know the answers. Enjoy the banya (Russian bathouse). They are particularly nice in Siberia, and everyone has one in the villages.
Also, because of the current political climate in Russia, it would be prudent to have a second potential field site!
Is there anything else you would like to say?
In 2001 when I looked at a map of Siberia, I saw huge blank spaces that my elders could tell me nothing about. Students should never be afraid to rush into that big blank spot on the map.