Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Struggle To Restore Lost Cultural Ties

Watching various national groups in Russia - Cossacks, Buryats, Yakuts, Mordovians, ethnic Germans, exiled Ingushetians and dozens of others - rediscover their cultural heritage has been one of the most gratifying themes to run through my Russian travels. I have written dozens of stories along these lines.

But it has also been painful to see the tortured process this rebirth has taken. To watch a nation fumble with books to learn what should have been inherited as a birthright is to bear witness to the extent to which its connection with the past has been broken by Soviet-era repression.

For all the national festivals, the colorful costumes, the native songs, language and art, these much-touted national revivals are, for now, little more than adults playing dress-up.

I came across this legacy of loss most recently in the Altai mountains, located 3, 700 kilometers east of Moscow on the border with China and Mongolia. I have been interested in the region for some time as an intriguing melting pot of Cossacks, Old Believers, Turks and the native Altai people. Visiting a dozen villages in the region last week, I was scarcely able to tell the towns apart.

In the Old Believer village of Verkhny Uimon, I asked a resident where I could find the church.

"It burnt down a long time ago", she said. "We never rebuilt it".

In the Cossack village of Tyungur, set dramatically on a grassy knoll between snow-capped peaks and the Katun River, I found a monument to 75 Red Army soldiers killed by the White Army (i. e. Cossacks) in 1922. It was like a cruel Soviet-era joke, yet no one had bothered to take it down.

In the village of Inya, an Altai woman told me about a group of Altai teenagers who went to Istanbul to learn about their national heritage. I checked it out and learned that the children were Turkish. I wondered if she knew the difference.

"If you ask simple Altai person about his culture, he won't know", a curator at the Altai People's Museum in the regional capital of Gorno-Altai told me.

That point was driven home to me in the Altai village of Yaloman, population 500, located deep in the Altai mountains. Related to the Mongolians and the Buryats, the Altai people's language and dress has a strong oriental flair, but their religion - distinct from their Buddhist neighbors - was Shamanism.

In Yaloman, I sat in the yurt - a wood version of the traditional Altai nomadic home - of local Mikhail Chiibunov and discussed what I called "the return of the Altai people". The expression seemed to surprise him. At the end of our talk, I asked him about an Altai national holiday being celebrated that day in a nearby town.

"First I have heard of it", he said.