In early March, in the early days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I received an anonymous letter, signed by its authors with single initials, J and L. It was an appeal for support and to maintain channels of dialogue from artists and cultural workers in Yakutia, in far north-eastern Siberia. I could guess from the initials who the letter was from, but the necessity of removing their names was chilling nevertheless. ‘The ongoing colonisation of indigenous territories within Russia has manifested itself in the silencing of anticolonial voices that were already struggling to fight to be seen and heard, both in the local and the global contexts. As cultural actors that have been engaged in social, cultural and community-based practices, we are finding ourselves disoriented and uncertain about the future existence of our communities.’ Russia has 85 official regions, and only four of them – Mariy El, Yamal, Sakha (Yakutia) and Khabarovsky – voted in opposition to the current regime during the 2021 State Duma elections. Since then, Vladimir Putin’s regime has intensified censorship and strengthened authoritarian power, so the communities in these and other colonised regions across Siberia are feeling more precarious than ever. The letter continues: ‘We, the community of indigenous cultural actors and artists, feel the need to address the lasting consequences we will be facing not only as the residents of this country but also as the colonised people who reside in the vulnerable geopolitical location – the Arctic […] we feel the urgent need to create a safer space to voice our concerns and truths.’
The secondary suffering from the war on Ukraine, through global food shortages, is now widely and urgently anticipated. Yet the longer-term, vastly more widespread suffering that will be caused is largely out of mind. ‘There are no spirits in this land / Maar wat heb je gedaan? (But what have you done?) / Did you cut all your trees? / Did you poison your waters? / Did you kill all your animals? / Did you cut all your trees? / Did you poison your water? / Did you kill all your animals? / There are no spirits in this land.’ Buryat artist, Natalia Papaeva, rhythmically repeated these ominous lines in my studio in the Netherlands while moving from standing to kneeling to lying, gradually losing her breath, during a chilling performance staged on a standard pale blue patterned woollen blanket ubiquitous in the former USSR. Despite the intimacy of the performance, there was a chasm between us in Europe and her deep connection with her precarious homeland of Buryatia, a Siberian region south of Yakutia that borders Mongolia. In the opening chapter of Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, Anna Tsing writes that the ‘anthropogenic landscapes are also haunted by imagined futures’, because, she argues, ‘We are willing to turn things into rubble, destroy atmospheres, sell out companion species in exchange for dreamworlds of progress.’ The fragile Siberian landscape is a brutal example. According to UN estimates, there could be anywhere between 25 million to one billion environmental migrants over the next 30 years. As Tania Bruguera concluded in her 2011 International Migrant Manifesto, ‘We witness how fear creates boundaries, how boundaries create hate and how hate only serves the oppressors.’ Isolation prevents the possibility of dialogue about one the world’s most urgent environments for planetary ecological futures, inevitably facilitating the further extraction of natural resources from the land and, in doing so, further perpetuates the feedback loop of insatiable global consumption and the consequent thawing of this frozen land.
Last year, M sent me photos throughout the summer of the orange skies above her hometown, the smoke-filled atmosphere signalling Yakutian land on fire. Behind the filmic awe of these images lay the terrifyingly real apocalyptic processes tearing through the region. Yakutia, like most of Siberia, is underlain by permafrost; a degrading, fragile land. Covering almost a quarter of the total land mass of the northern hemisphere, it accounts for nearly half of all organic carbon stored in the planet’s soil. Permafrost temperatures are rising at a much faster rate than the temperature of the air in the Arctic: hundreds of thousands of years of accumulated organic matter, until now suspended in deep-freeze, is thawing at a terrifying rate, releasing vast quantities of previously trapped carbon and methane into the atmosphere. Like many indigenous lands, Siberia is rich with natural resources; secreted in its sprawling expanse are large reserves of oil, gas, coal, diamonds, gold, silver, tin, tungsten and many other materials. Deforestation, mining and other extractions scar the lands, perpetuating the impact of the warming airs as they expose chasms and open vast craters into its frozen depths below. While Siberians live on the front line of this human-made environmental catastrophe, the permafrost’s degradation will be a tipping point for all our futures.
In Ideas to Postpone the End of the World, writer, philosopher and activist Ailton Krenak writes, ‘For a long time, we have been alienated from the organism to which we belong – the Earth. So much that we began to think of Earth and humanity as two separate entities.’ Both the anonymous letter and Krenak’s statement force us to consider a difficult question: how can we think as planetary beings when we see acute immediate suffering caused by nation-state politics? It also poses a more direct question: how can we pre-emptively feel the urgency of suffering that is just around the corner but not yet so palpably visible to us? It sadly echoes the exasperation of many Ukrainians, who over the past eight years have warned of the horrors that are now playing out, as well as those who have been calling for environmental action since at least the 1960s. ‘There is often a significant disjuncture’, Susan Schuppli said at a recent cross-arts climate conference, ‘between what people already know through information that is continuously communicated to them by the scientific community and how they choose to act in response to such knowledge.’ What role can the arts play to bridge the gap between knowledge of coming disasters and feeling its real urgency in order to enact change in social behaviours and trigger action before the suffering plays out before our eyes?
Throughout human history, the processes of colonisation often feature campaigns to decouple locals from their relationship with the landscape; hierarchical structured doctrines, formed through a combination of religion, language, culture, and social and political structures, are deployed to wrench colonised peoples from their cultural and environmental roots. Yakutian indigenous communities are historically mainly nomadic hunters or reindeer herders, while some are seal hunters or fishers, but since the Cossack’s conquest of Siberia during the 16th and 17th centuries and subsequently through the Russian Empire, numerous genocides and expulsions, the destruction of ecosystems and a refusal of land rights have all-but extinguished this way of life. This process was drastically accelerated during the Soviet era, when nomadic and tribal life was condemned through forced education, resettlement programmes and imprisonments, ripping communities from their ways of being. To this day, none of this has ever been recognised by the state. After the collapse of the USSR some changes began to appear, making it possible to provide space for cultural revitalisation through aspects of law, education and community work; yet the decolonial work that appeared in ex-Soviet countries across eastern Europe failed to emerge in the Russian Federation; as decolonial theorist and writer Madina Tlostanova asserts, ‘no postcolonial or much less decolonial revisionist models have been allowed […] theorists, politicians, and activists have been cut off from the use of any such potentially dissident tools’. Each Autumn, M’s hometown’s anniversary is a reminder of this ‘silenced collective wound’, what she describes as ‘390 years of ambiguous relationships, avoided topics and complicated politics of place’. Recent years have nevertheless seen some movement away from the previous isolation in the global context: indigenous cinema started to gain more visibility; new art centres have been established with varying degrees of autonomy; and cross-cultural dialogues of cultural workers and practitioners in Moscow, Saint Petersburg and elsewhere have started to build bridges of exchange.
In the Yakutia, grassroot endeavours, such as the arts and educational initiative ArtLaboratory*Yakutsk, hold in-situ happenings that build networks of solidarity with indigenous populations internationally. In the international art world there has been in recent years a turn to indigenous knowledges and futures, but this has predominantly focused on those communities across the Americas and Oceania, though more recently the Sami has started offering the possibility of a much-sought international platform for Siberia’s artistic voices and communities. Few, however, have made it through to the western hegemonic cultural circles (speaking with Siberian colleagues, they could count on one hand their artist peers operating internationally), but as J and L write, ‘seeds of hope were starting to emerge in the context of critical action and visibility’.
The invasion of Ukraine, however, violently pulled the rug from under these internationally minded Siberian artists, with numerous voices suddenly expunged. Blanket sanctions and reactions which led to a refusal to collaborate with Russia suddenly erased the nuance of identities beyond nation-state citizenship; indigenous peoples of Yakutia – Chukchi, Even, Evenks, Yukaghir, Dolgan and Sakha – were suddenly no more than the ‘Russian’ of their violently imposed citizenship. As first-hand experience, the British Foreign Office has suspended financial support of all cultural projects made in collaboration with Russian state-funded organisations and banned any British Council funded projects being launched. The ban seems to have been over-enacted upon, including the withdrawal of funding and sanctioning of a programme that I have been curating, Deep Ecologies, with artists and contributors from across Siberia about the permafrost. Unlike tropical rainforests or deep oceans, this geological frozen expanse rarely appears in the visual imagination, both locally or internationally, yet it is one of the most vulnerable and pivotal environments on our planet. The Deep Ecologies project sought to enliven the imagination of those from afar with this largely impenetrable and unknown expanse, yet one which we are innately implicated and entangled with. The programme featured interlinking commissions and conversations with 34 participants: artists, scientists and thinkers, both those whose lives are embedded in the land across Siberia and those tracing their implicit entanglement in the land from afar. The programme, for the time being, is on hold, awaiting a decision on an indefinite timeline from the UK Foreign Office. M and her peers relay similar experiences of institutions revoking invitations or simply going quiet, no longer continuing conversations; they suspect that these institutions fear the danger of being seen as ‘war machine supporters’.
Blanket sanctions and reactionary actions refusing collaborations with Russia suddenly erased the nuance of identities beyond nation-state citizenship; Chukchi, Even, Evenk, Yukaghir, Dolgan or Sakha were suddenly no more than the ‘Russian’ of their violently imposed citizenship.
Yakutia-based colleagues in other fields have been faced with a sudden wall of indirect censorship too, with conferences demanding payment for participation when international payments are impossible from Russia. Permafrost hydrologist and Deep Ecologies contributor Nikita Tanaev tells me of the difficulty of attending a conference in France to present some of his most urgent data on permafrost degradation: there are now few visa appointments at the French embassy in Moscow, which adds to the difficultly for those living a six-hour flight away. The cultural workers’ letter continues: ‘We find ourselves in the position of being erased, both by our “country” and the global world that is now culturally cancelling any forms of connections with indigenous peoples in Russia. International dialogue is much needed especially during such critical times for human history.’ In private messages, M requests that when institutions ‘cut off ties with us or ban our presence, please acknowledge that you are contributing to colonial action, silencing people who, in their homeland, never had a right to freely speak up their uncomfortable truths, continuous concerns, dreams for the present and the future.’
To talk of the ecological is inevitably political, and it is ever more poignant in contexts, such as Siberia, where precarity is multifaceted. Protagonists who have continued to articulate a voice for the protection of the land, however, are now leaving en masse, extending the silencing of the region. Rodion Sulyandziga (director of the Centre for the Support of Indigenous Peoples of the North) has argued that the people of Siberia, ‘are living in very severe climatic conditions … So for us land rights and access to biodiversity is critical’. Russia did not support the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2007, and Sulyandziga, a vocal advocate for indigenous land rights in Russia internationally, has continued to advocate for work to be done to bridge the gap between international climate policies and indigenous and localised realities. As part of Deep Ecologies we had planned to produce a podcast with Sulyandziga in conversation with artist and activist Carolina Caycado; from seemingly very different contexts, both call out the ever-evolving forms of colonial exploitation and devastation of lands as well as the capital-driven pollution and extraction of environments and the communities (human and non-human) that depend on them. But the funding was withdrawn before we had the chance, and Sulyandziga fled Russia soon after the invasion, fearing for the safety of his children and grandchildren. He has since been largely uncontactable. Of the ArtLaboratory*Yakutsk collective, some have already left Russia, relocating to Georgia or Armenia, some are considering moving to Europe, while others are already returning from elsewhere; there is among the group an uneasy feeling of being unsettled, of not knowing where one should be – geographically – in order to continue to work with integrity. In Siberia, while some are relocating over political pressures, others are being forced to move simply because many of the big employers in the region (mostly from the IT sphere, on which many of the artists, activists and cultural workers are dependent on for their day-jobs) have relocated to Kazakhstan and Thailand, taking their jobs and staff with them. International partners from Korea, Japan, Canada and elsewhere, who had been vital to the scientific work in the region, have pulled their funding and withdrawn their staff from collaborative projects. This exodus puts further pressure on those left behind: those with international connections or with friends who have moved abroad are viewed with suspicion in the eyes of the state. M tells me of two recent trials where such connections have influenced the hearings against the defendant, and subsequently, through association, she and her peers have been under open surveillance as a further act of intimidation. I invited M to join me so we could present our case to the British Council, but for her this was out of the question. It is now too problematic to be part of international networks; having official meetings outside the country or even to be friends with those who migrate to other countries can lead to authorities viewing you as a ‘foreign agent’.
Near the Arctic town of Chersky, in the extreme north-east of Yakutia, permafrost soils of the Pleistocene Park nature reserve defrost into a putrid decomposing sludge that washes away in streams, revealing ancient bones as well as viruses and microbial communities. In a series of as yet unpublished letters as part of the stalled Deep Ecologies programme, Shezad Dawood corresponded with ecologist Nikita Zimov, co-director of the reserve. Both fathers to three daughters, in his opening letter Shezad reaches out to Nikita in parental solidarity, addressing the complexity of navigating possibilities of action and agency from afar. Since the 1980s, Nikita and his father, geophysicist Sergey Zimov, monitoring shifts in the carbon cycle, methane fluxes and permafrost soils, have devoted themselves to this rewilding project in an attempt slow the permafrost from further degradation, and ultimately to provide a blueprint to hopefully reverse global warming. ‘I want turn this ecological desert into something good and useful,’ Nikita writes, ‘restoring it to its state before humans.’ In another series of letters, Buryat shaman Galina, based near the ancient Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater lake in the world by volume, writes, ‘Time is a living substance with its own past, present, and future. It flows faster now: in the past, the descendants would often pay for human sins, while today one pays for his sins during his lifetime.’ With one worldview embedded in the scientific and the other in the spiritual, both Zimov and Galina are actively absorbed in the ecologies they live within, finding allegiances in its entangled pasts to care holistically for future generations, both human and non-human. Handwritten and illustrated with line drawings, these letters travelled between London, Chersky and Baikal as an intimate exchange over vast expanses of land, ecologies, lives and experiences, opening up a space of possibilities in the shared collective imagination. The correspondence – facilitated by my collaborator for the Deep Ecologies programme, Timur Zolotoev, chief editor at Strelka Mag, himself indigenous from Buryatia – abruptly ended when war broke out. On 28 February, a few days after the invasion, Strelka Institute announced in a public statement that it had suspended its operations indefinitely: ‘We consider it impermissible to carry on business as usual in the present situation while lives in Ukraine are being lost.’ The team was subsequently disbanded and the letter conversations abruptly severed, a gesture which brought to the fore the fragility of the shared imaginations that they evoked.
Art must play a vital role in bridging the chasm between global public knowledge of climate change and the lack of behavioural change: art can provide the emotive understanding of this information, to really be able to feel the urgencies.
Russia’s violent disregard of civil rights since the invasion of Ukraine has given rise to a movement of protest articulated in minority indigenous languages: voicing dissent whilst also reclaiming independent identity. Anti-war images have been circulated online by artists and activists, such as those in Chuvash by Polina Osipova, in Buryat by Yumzhana Sui, in Kalmyk by Kristá Dobr and those in Udmurt by Palad’d’a Bashurova. There are more than 135 languages spoken among the almost 200 distinct nationalities that live across Russia’s wide expanse; the overwhelming majority of these are considered critically endangered or vulnerable. Herta Muller once wrote that ‘each language has different eyes sitting amongst its words’: language holds worldviews, and for those whose survival is wrapped up in one’s ability to articulate the violence, precarities and threats that their land and context holds, language is vital for imagining alternatives to the hegemonic status quo.
Sakha artist Alena Vinokurova grew up in a village four day’s drive from Yakutia’s capital, Yakutsk, nestled on the remote northern edges of the Kolyma River. As with many of Siberia’s remote villages built on rapidly depleting natural reserves, dwindling opportunities and increasingly perilous landscapes, it slips from clarity in the collective imagination as its inhabitants move to the cities. ærystıьla, written in the former script for the Sakha language (transliterated as Örüstyla and translated as ‘language of the river’), is the title of her Vinokurova’s film, also commissioned as part of the currently sanctioned Deep Ecologies project. The film ventures into the fractured dreamlike space that remains in the collective memory of remote northern landscapes with their shifting lands and rivers. As the artist’s imagery tentatively slips just below and just above the land’s surface, ærystıьla tests the edges of the Orto Doidu – the earthly land of sentient creatures within the Sakha belief system, Aar Ajyy. Seeking a practice of reworlding, Vinokurova reclaims animistic cosmologies of previous generations, holding on to a kinship with the local Sakha ecologies that have largely slipped from contemporary life. Borrowing her broken words from a 1919 primary school textbook, the names of animals and birds are depicted in the original Sakha writing system. Based on the Latin alphabet, the script was used only for a short time in the early 20th century; by the early 1940s, in an act of homogenisation and suppression of cultural difference, the Soviet Union had officially transferred to the orthodox Cyrillic alphabet more than 100 of the unofficial minority languages spoken across the country. Evoking the inseparability of the environment, personal memories and social relations with animate and inanimate beings, ærystıьla draws attention to the power to linguistically articulate this entanglement unaffectedly, re-enlivening the disappearing landscapes of Yakutia and its non-human communities with the poetic, precariously remembered remnants of the Örüstyla script. Wishing to reactivate the original script of her mother tongue, Vinokurova commissioned the production of a digital typeface. Always intended to be presented alongside the film as an open-access downloadable font as an act of colonial subversion during its making in early 2022, it’s new – more urgent – context since Russia’s war on Ukraine is a potent act of resistance and reclamation of indigenous, non-Russian identity.
The thawing of the permafrost landscape – and the subsequent precarity of its inhabitants, human and non-human – is undoubtedly the direct consequence of historical and present day colonial-capitalist practices, with their insatiable extraction-without-consequences approach to territories. The violent uprooting of populations (human, animal and plant life) and the manipulation of ecological balances have pushed the planet to provide resources more rapidly and in vaster quantities than it naturally can. European colonisers in Australia were dubbed by some aborigines as ‘the future eaters’ because they consumed in abundance from the land without replenishing it, bereft of foresight. Among the landscapes destroyed by climate change, we, the ‘future eaters’, no longer need to be physically present in the land, instead we destroy futures through the capital flows that extract from the land, and pollute and warm our single planetary biosphere. We – all of us – are imprinted on the permafrost’s degrading surface.
Influenced by Lygia Clark’s work, Brazilian psychoanalyst Suely Rolnik, in her seminal lecture Micropolitical Conceptual Tools for Decolonizing the Unconscious (Notes on Caring and Repairing Life), likens the contemporary world to a Mobius strip defined by intensive interactions between two sides of reality, where neutrality is impossible. She describes the world/every world as a ‘topological-relational surface made of bodies of all kinds [not only human] in diverse and variable connections’ defined by a separation but innate interdependence between ‘forms’ and ‘forces’. This has two powerful readings within the Siberian context. First, it debunks the perception that realities can be contained within nation-state borders; economics and politics somehow imagined as independent of entangled global ecologies and planetary futures. Belief in the fiction of nation-state borders produces those same borders as a physical reality. Likewise, blanket sanctions against collaboration with those who are perceived by their colonisers as ‘Russian’ supports this fiction and brings about its reality. Second, if, viewed via Rolnik’s reading of Clarke’s mobius strip, the world’s realities can be reimagined through gestural actions that destabilise perceptions, art must play a vital role in bridging the chasm between global public knowledge of climate change and the lack of behavioural change: art can provide the emotive understanding of this information, to really be able to feel the urgencies. For those artists and cultural practitioners living across Siberia, its land, planetary ecology, colonialism and identity are all inseparable.
In her essay ‘Speaking Earth to a World in Reverse’, Katia Garcia-Anton writes of the almost 400 million indigenous people on the globe today that, ‘divided by borders they may be, but their collective epistemological density soars above those imposed frontiers. Despite colonial efforts to suppress them, indigenous epistemologies in all their diversity are a collective force of survivance’ where colonisation, and thus erasure of ecologies and homelands, will only cease when the inter-substantiation between bodies, land and waters is acknowledged and ‘thus the interrelated sovereignty of bodies, land and waters’.
Cultural rights are meaningless without land rights. Environmental injustice has two simultaneous offenders: those directly polluting lands and those indirectly by their actions that affect the global biome. In recognising only nation-state sovereignty we create a context where only the former is held to account. Climate change doesn’t stop at the border. Blanket sanctions not only support Russia’s continuing colonial violence towards Siberian indigenous communities and ecologies, but also perpetuate western colonial and capitalist violence and strategies of erasure. We, as cultural workers, must instead insist on asserting the sovereign rights and voices of ‘bodies, land and waters’.