Shors Singing Again in Siberia

ReutersRufina Aponkina, left, and her husband, Leonid, looking at photographs at home in the village of Chuvashka.
CHUVASHKA, Kemerovo Region — When Olga Tannagasheva starts to sing, her gentle voice transforms into a bassy growl designed to invoke otherworldly spirits.

Tannagasheva, one of Russia's 14,000 remaining Shors, also wants to communicate with modern Russians. Performing under the pseudonym Chyltys — meaning "star" in the Shor language — in blue, red and gold silks and a three-pointed hat, Tannagasheva's style of throat-singing is popular with epic performers that draw on shamanist traditions. In Shor culture, such epic songs could last for several days.

"Whenever I travel, people ask me: 'Who are the Shors?'" she said. "They think we come from China!"

Denis Sinyakov / Reuters
A dog wandering down a street in Chuvashka in the Kemerovo region.
The Shors are descended from various Turkic tribes that migrated to the mountains of southwest Siberia from Central Asia. They had no unified identity until the mid-19th century, when the tribes, skilled horsemen and hunters, amalgamated.

Nicknamed the Blacksmith Tatars for their talent in fashioning tools from local iron deposits, they were granted their own mountain region — Gornaya Shoria — in 1926. Thirteen years later, Soviet leader Josef Stalin scrubbed it from the map.

"It was the policy of our government, of Stalin. Nobody ever explained this decision or apologized to us," said Nadezhda Pechenina, director of the Shor information center.

The natural resources that once defined the Shors were also responsible for their downfall. Stalin flooded the region with other nationalities to exploit rich iron ore and coal seams for the steel mills that still dominate the city of Novokuznetsk.

"There was an entire period of Russification," said Gennady Kostochakov, a lecturer at the Shor language faculty in Novokuznetsk's teaching academy. "The incoming urban population was all Russian-speaking, even though they were of different nationalities."

Denis Sinyakov / Reuters
A national Shors ensemble preparing for rehearsal in Novokuznetsk.
About 11,500 Shors, over 80 percent of the group, live today in this part of Kemerovo region, 3,000 kilometers from Moscow. Most live in the mountain town of Tashtagol.

Industrial towns, like coal-mining Mezhdurechensk, have swallowed up many of the original villages, but 90 small settlements remain where over half the residents are Shors.

Chuvashka is one such settlement.

"This was once purely a Shor village. My grandmother didn't even speak any Russian," Leonid Aponkin, a retired engineer, said inside his snowbound wooden cottage. "They started teaching only in Russian and banned use of the Shor language."

The Aponkin family album includes portraits on Red Square and Sochi's Black Sea coast, revealing how the Aponkins assimilated into Soviet society before retiring to their home village.

But it is also telling that they left their homeland to find work. The depletion of alluvial gold in the rivers and the collapse of state industrial holdings have contributed to unemployment rates of 95 percent in remote Shor villages.

"Our living standards are the lowest in the region. Scholars consider our demographic situation to be critical," said Pechenina, also a former deputy in the Kemerovo administration.

The Shors were originally shamanists. Now, many are Russian Orthodox Christians first and foremost. The epic songs are enduring fragments of the culture, often accompanied by a two-stringed wooden instrument known as the kai-komus.

Carole Pegg, a musician and lecturer at Cambridge University, said epic performance traditionally offers a way for the narrator to reach beyond the living world.

"It's not speaking and it's not singing. It's a particular sound that is designed to communicate with other levels of the universe — spirits and the epic heroes," said Pegg, an expert on Inner Asian music who has lived in neighboring Altai region. "It's a sound that is produced for a reason. It opens up pathways to other levels of reality and that enables the epic performer to then travel to those other levels."