13th Gwangju Biennale — Minds Rising Spirits Tuning

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Portrait of the Father as a Dead Salmon: The Sexual Socialism of Chukotka and the Russian Far East

By Iaroslav Volovod & Valentin Diaconov

Once upon a time, Kuikineku, a sly trickster in Chukotka’s eponymous cycle of fairy tales, went to the beach. There he found a log and carved himself a mother out of it, then walked along the beach a little further and found a dead salmon, perfect material for a father. “The moment he created his mother and father, all his male parts fell off and Kuikineku turned into a beautiful woman. His mother took all that fell off and made a needle bag with two little bells,” relates the anonymous storyteller. After some time, Kuikineku became bored of being a woman, so he put on his trousers and attached the needle bag with bells back where his penis and testicles once were.1 Kuikineku, the Indigenous anti-Oedipus, is representative of sexual practices in precolonial Chukotka. This story was published in a 1958 compilation, a slim volume with an introduction that posits the complete assimilation of the Chukchee and other tribes of the region into Socialism. The “exploiters” from overseas (the Americans) as well as those nearby (the shamans) are finally banished, and progress—in the form of a settler economy—is established. The introduction does not acknowledge the transgender switch of this and other of the tales. Just as well, because explanation of Kuikineku’s ease of transition would have had to include a note on shamanic practices, which frequently involved transsexual metamorphoses. By the end of the 1940s, however, it was virtually impossible to become a shaman through rituals because of the suppression of all forms of native religion and spirituality. This repression has led to mental illnesses and suicide among those who still hear the calling.2

Zoya Gemauge, “Seal Woman”, 1987, State Museum of Oriental Art, Moscow, © The State Museum of Oriental Art. Male seal abducts a Chukchi woman, the hunter’s wife. The abductee becomes a seal and lives underwater with her new mate while the Chukchi hunter searches for her. Eventually the hunter kills the male seal and reunites with his wife.

The sexual and geographic landscapes of Chukotka and the Russian Far East were both more visible before the land was declared part of Soviet Russia in 1920. As Siberia was a site of political exile, there exists an abundance of fascinating resources on the Far East’s pre-revolutionary history. In the late 1890s, a large number of former academics and students active in political struggle against the Russian Crown and imperialism were cast into this outpost of the czarist prison empire, along with many other political dissidents and members of the cultural elite. More often than not Jewish, these inquisitive minds found themselves in a position of doubled social negation—political and racial. This situation led these thinkers to recognize the peoples of Siberia and the Russian Far East as independent political actors, and to address their subjectivities with a seriousness that was lacking in most previous ethnographic or general factual accounts of the region. This understanding was bolstered by the fact that both the peoples of the Far East and the Jews were grouped in the judicial category of inorodtsy (legal aliens, literally “of another genus”) by the imperial administration, which stripped many of their rights. Shedding this legal alien status to gain full citizenship was however a different process for Siberian tribes than for Jews, the former having to settle and enter the city guilds, and the latter, even if already settled, having to convert to Orthodox Christianity. While not quite political solidarity, the effort that Socialist Jewish exiles put in to understand the Chukchee, Koryaks, Yukaghir, Eskimo, and other Siberian groups provides a bridge to both postcolonial theory from the 1960s onward and the current moment, when certain branches of anti-capitalist thought take up Indigenous autonomies and struggles as examples. It is also worth noting that the contemporary art and academic worlds, while Western-centric, tend to be milieus of elite nomadism, which find their less privileged mirror in the traditional wandering or forced displacement of Indigenous or migrant communities. 

Most prominent among these sudden anthropologists were Vladimir and Sofia Bogoraz, Lev Shternberg, and Vladimir and Dina Iokhelson, who were poised between their own position of exile and their unblinking regard of the local people, which bordered on exoticization. Working with the Nivkh on the island of Sakhalin, Shternberg found in their settlements the matrilineal kinship on which Friedrich Engels’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884) was based.3 Living among the Koryak on the island of Kamchatka, Iokhelson participated in shamanic rituals and wrote incisively on the role of trance, noting that in such rituals, “things visible and imaginary are confounded.”4 Bogoraz was the first to describe in detail the Chukchee kinship structure based on sharing female partners and becoming “comrade-in-wife,” a network of sexual relationships that was stronger and far more important than blood relations. Although neither of them dedicated special articles to the question of Indigenous sexualities, their findings, alongside earlier reports by the Empire’s colonial officers, are summarized in Russian ethnographer Alexander Maximov’s classic article “Gender Metamorphosis” (1912). Here one finds the whole spectrum of Indigenous queer practices. The first reports of homosexuality, gender-queerness, and cross-dressing among the Chukchee and other Far Eastern tribes go back as far as 1755. All the observers who mention homosexual relationships underline the fact that these are not in any way stigmatized, although admittedly the level of acceptance varies. This can be observed in an earlier version of the legend of Kuikineku that opens this essay, one transcribed by Iokhelson, in which a Koryak man, Big Raven, transforms his genitals into a bag (former scrotum), needle bag (testicles), and thimble (penis). (S)he leaves her/his Koryak brethren to live as a woman among the Chukchee fishermen, likely because they are more accepting, and on the coast, (s)he wards off all suitors until a transformed woman, with a penis fashioned from a stone hammer, comes to seek her/his attention.5

“Congo Art Works: Popular Painting”, installation view, Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow, 2017, Photo: Ivan Erofeev, © Garage Museum of Contemporary Art. In 2017, Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow presented “Congo Art Works: Popular Painting”, a survey of Congolese art over the last fifty years, developed by the Royal Museum for Central Africa (RMCA), Tervuren in collaboration with BOZAR, Brussels, and curated by Bambi Ceuppens and Sammy Baloji. In order to connect the exhibition and its exploration of colonialism and the post-colonial condition to the Russian context, curators Valentin Diaconov and Iaroslav Volovod developed a show within a show, which examined the art of Chukotka, a region in the Far East of the country that became part of the Soviet Union shortly after the October Revolution. 

Iokhelson, Bogoraz, and other anthropologists explain tales and practices such as this through panpsychism, a belief in the consciousness of all individualized matter, and a fear of spirits that promotes cross-dressing in order that evil ghosts do not recognize the person and so do not harm them. Other spirits, kelet, are in charge of changing gender and often operate as connectors between the spirit world and the prospective shaman. Most of the information on queer lives from Bogoraz’s survey of the Chukchee is published in his chapter on shamanism, but confining queer behaviors to the category of religious affect and ritual does not fully represent the commitment to such transformations described in detail by these researchers. Bogoraz provides the most thorough description of queer Chukchee, having stayed with a same-sex couple for several nights:

Tiluwgi was young, somewhere around thirty-five, tall and well-built. His big coarse hands had no trace of femininity. I lived in his tent for two days and had all the opportunities to observe his physical qualities closely—they were completely male. But he was adamant in his refusal to be examined thoroughly. His husband, Yatgyrgyn, wanting to get the money I promised him, tried to change Tiluwgi’s mind, but after several unsuccessful attempts ‘the wife’ shut him up with a threatening glance. … [Yatgyrgyn] expressed sadness that Tiluwgi is still physically male, but hoped that in time, with kelet’s help, he will become a real ‘soft human’ like those that existed many ages ago. After this transformation his genitals would also change. Tiluwgi’s face, framed by braids, … stood out among other male faces, even with a shadow over the upper lip. … His habits and penchants were completely female. He was so shy that when I asked something improper his cheeks flushed with a deep red.6

Bogoraz had seen many other “soft humans,” but did not encounter transgender males, relating several secondhand reports about women who lived as men (and, notably, who did not practice shamanism). Shamanic powers, however, were bestowed in an act with the qualities of a sexual power play, where female spirits frequently had the upper hand. Shternberg recorded an account of an ayami, a spirit that teaches healing practices, coming to a future shaman in a dream and all but blackmailing him into a sexual and spiritual relationship: “If you will not obey me, so much the worse for you,” the ayami says to the man. “I shall kill you.”7 Command of life and death is tied here to seduction, and this is not exclusive to the Russian Far East. The Old Testament’s Book of Jeremiah gives a comparable example in the opening lines of the prophet’s complaint: “You seduced me, Lord, and I let myself be seduced.”8 

Along with crossing between sites of Eros to exist beyond cisgender, the Chukchee were masters of their own deaths, and so had a very different life expectancy to what the administrative policies of either the Russian Empire or the U.S.S.R. afforded. Bogoraz was first to describe how frequent suicide was as a way out of sickness and poverty. Later, when the Soviet administration tried to forcibly settle the Chukchee in collective farms, suicide became a political act of resistance.9 The Chukchee’s remarkable command of death continued even when suicide was deemed unacceptable in wider society. In a chapter on folk songs in a collective monograph from 1987, one anthropologist relates the story of Suglyagin, a hunter from the late 1940s, who could not escape a snowstorm and slowly froze in an exposed field. As he was losing life, he composed an improvised chant: “Sulheny [the hunter’s Indigenous name] can’t walk, can’t walk. No legs, no arms. Well then I’ll fly. Sulheny arrived. We are full of joy.” The last part of the song describes Suglyagin coming home after having been found by his friends. Singing the song to his wife and children was his last action, and he died shortly after.10

“Congo Art Works: Popular Painting”, installation view, Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow, 2017, Photo: Ivan Erofeev, © Garage Museum of Contemporary Art.

It is possible to consider these practices not in terms of being conditioned by Freudian bourgeois drives, but as easy alignments with desire. At around the same time as the exiled Russian anthropologists were making their observations of the Chukchee, Freud was theorizing the sexual desires of European man in relation to the Greek tragedy of Oedipus. A scarcity of objects—and therefore fixations conditioned by consumerism—made the peoples of the Far East much less likely to use things as mere props in their domestic dramas. Objects were rare: things became active, had agency, could not stay inanimate. This is not to say that there was no material inequality before the Soviet administration took over Chukotka. Bogoraz, along with other socialist observers, always attentive to the make-up of society, recorded poorer Chukchee pandering to richer members of the tribe by carrying out small chores to ingratiate themselves with the local oligarch. There was also notable disparity in endowing creatures and objects with personhood. All things in contact with the spirit world were considered sentient. (Bogoraz relates one memorable example: a tale of the excrement of an evil spirit come to life.) Most animals and plants were also considered to have equal minds, and could enter into sexual and social unions with humans. Notable exceptions were deer and walruses, which had no rights in the Chukchee’s moral universe, unlike whales or foxes. The personhood of animals and plants did not depend on whether they were the basis of local economies. Sometimes animals could both be objectified and retain their subjectivity, as in a fairy tale about a seal who was made into a lamp while continuing to communicate with other animals and humans. Bogoraz reports that the birch tree was seen to be neutral and so was treated unceremoniously. Throughout these tales, it is clear that what was construed by the civilizing missions of the Russian Empire and the U.S.S.R. as a struggle with nature was for the Chukchee a form of respectful inaction. 

Little remains of all these forms of sexual and biopolitical creativity in terms of visual or textual evidence after the 1930s. Moreover, indigenous kinship between man and animal was almost the only type of non-heteronormative relationship to be widely depicted by Chukotka’s artists, who carved scenes of local life on walrus tusks. Carving first appeared in the form of souvenir additions to trade deals with Russian and American sailors. Intricate scenes show the Chukchee’s familiarity with manga, which had been prominent since the mid-1800s in Japan. It is possible that manga prints ended up in Chukotka via sailors, but there is no evidence of this as paper quickly deteriorates in the weather conditions of the region. In the 1930s, tusk carving was subsumed under the Soviet artistic unions that controlled art-making, yet some artists still found a way to convey anti-imperialist messages, depicting comrades who had killed themselves or disguising anti-Russian folk stories as animal fairy tales.

Whether in the 1840s or one century later, colonial rule was remarkably consistent, with important conceptual links between modes of governance. According to Johann Gottlieb Georgi, author of Geographisch-physikalische und naturhistorische Beschreibung des Russischen Reichs (A physical and natural history description of the Russian Empire, published in Germany between 1797 and 1802), the range of peoples in the Russian Empire represent “the World in all the stages of transition to the modern World, refined and enriched by needs.”11 Georgi discerned three of these stages, the first being hunting and gathering; the second, nomadic shepherding; and the last represented by agriculture, which spread from “early cultivation to complete perfection.”12 One might think that the October Revolution of 1917 would end the incessant progressivism of world history scholars and policy makers—and it did, albeit for a limited time. At first, policy makers, inspired by the active representatives of pre-revolutionary socialist anthropology, decided that most peoples of the Russian Far East live in a classless society, where whole populations can be thought of as one exploited class. In an introduction to Bogaraz’s aforementioned book on the Chukchee, published in Russian in 1934 after several American editions, the author had to adapt to the times and exchange his previous Progressivist outlook for something more aligned with revolutionary sympathies with the Empire’s victims. His view now was that the Chukchee constituted an example of “primitive communism,” a hypothesis that had already been put forward by Lev Shternberg more than twenty years previously. Bogoraz underlined the concept of “comradeship” as crucial to the Chukchee’s way of life, giving examples not only of the group marriages of “comrades-in-wives,” but also of the custom of calling dogs and smoking pipes “comrades-in-boredom.”13

By the mid-1920s, Stalin’s tactics in Siberia and the Far East were seemingly designed to prove historian and philosopher Oswald Spengler’s global pessimism right. “Hard as the half-developed Socialism of today is fighting against expansion,” Spengler wrote in the 1922 edition of The Decline of the West, “one day it will become arch-expansionist with all the vehemence of destiny.”14 “Vehemence” is an apt word to describe the relentless search for bourgeois exploiters during the Stalin years. “At the time of the ‘intensification of the class struggle’ one had to find class enemies or face the risk of becoming one,”15 historian Yuri Slezkine wryly notes. The Soviet power was set on destroying nomadic ways of life and turning all Far Eastern peoples into collective farmers, while another prominent Socialist exile, Sergey Mitskevich, pronounced these projects “crackpot bureaucratic scheming … laughable enough under tsarist regime.”16 Journalist and researcher Vitaly Zadorin, based in and around Chukotka since the 1950s, noted that the 1960s were the era of the Soviet Union’s last significant effort to redraw social maps of the region through transforming nomads into settlers. “Many have thought that new settlements can concentrate the nomadic population, create a distinct social infrastructure, and free the people from the struggle for survival,” writes Zadorin in an overview of the U.S.S.R.’s post-war policies.17 However by the mid-1980s, life expectancy among the settled part of the Indigenous population was forty-two to forty-four years old, even lower than that of the pastoralists.18 The 1990s were a time of extreme poverty and separatist movements. At present, thanks to large-scale private investment in the region during the 2000s, several Indigenous practices (such as whale hunting and shamanic ritual) are preserved, while non-heteronormative relationships are largely kept hidden, as the current Russian “law on gay propaganda” dictates. Soviet progressivism in the end placed the nuclear heterosexual family as an obligatory stage of societal evolution, so that queer, more fluid alternatives are mostly consigned to historic reports.

1Skazki Chuckotki (Fairy Tales of Chukotka), ed. O.E. Baboshina (Moscow: Gospolitizdat, 1958), 96–97.

2Valentina Kharitonova, Shamany bez bubna” (Shamans without drums), Vostochnaya Kollektsia (Summer 2003), 130.

3Anna Sirina & Tatiana Roon, “Lev Iakovlevich Shternberg: At the Outset of Soviet Ethnography,” in Jochelson, Bogoras and Shternberg: A Scientific Exploration of Northeastern Siberia and the Shaping of Soviet Ethnography, ed. Erich Kasten (Fürstenberg/Havel: Kulturstiftung Sibirien, 2018), 213.

4The Jesup North Pacific Expedition. Memoir of the American Museum of Natural History, Vol. IX: The Yukaghir and the Yukaghirized Tungus, ed. Franz Boas (New York: American Museum of Natural History, 1908); cited in Patricia Rieff Anawalt, Shamanic Regalia in the Far North (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2014), 40.

5Alexander Maximov, Etnograficheskie trudy (Ethnographic studies), (Yekaterinburg: Yurait, 2019), 169.

6V.G. Bogoraz, The Chukchee, Vol. II (Leningrad: Izdatel’stvo Glavsevmorputy, 1939), 97.

7Lev Shternberg, Evolutsia religioznyh verovanii (The Evolution of religious belief), (Yekaterinburg: Yurait, 2018), 168. English translation: Will Roscoe, Jesus and the Shamanic Tradition of Same-Sex Love (San Francisco: Suspect Thought Press, 2004), 136.

8Jeremiah, 20: 7–18, New American Bible, Revised Edition.

9Yuri Slezkine, Arctic Mirrors: Russia and the Small Peoples of the North (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994), 235.

10Istoria i kultura chuckchei. Istoriko-etnographicheskie ocherki (History and culture of the Chukchee. Historic and ethnographic essays), ed. A.I. Krushanov (Leningrad: Nauka, 1987), 237.

11Johann Gottlieb Georgi, Opisanie vseh obitayuschikh v Rossiiskom gosudarstve narodov (St. Petersburg: 1799), vii–x; cited in Slezkine, Arctic Mirrors, 56.


13Bogoraz, The Chukchee, Vol I, xvi.

14Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West. Form and Actuality (New York: A.A. Knopf, 1926), 37.

15Slezkine, Arctic Mirrors, 192.

16Ibid., 191.

17V.I. Zadorin,Iz istorii pohoda chuckchei v kommunism i obratno” (A short history of the Chukchee’s march towards Communism and back) in Tropoyu Bogoraza (The Path of Bogoras), (Moscow: Nasledie/GEOS, 2008), 127–29. With this “many,” the author is presumably referring to the metropolitan party elites.



Iaroslav Volovod (b. 1991, Murmansk) is a curator at the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art and a member of the Board of Experts of the Moscow International Biennale for Young Art. He graduated from the Oriental Faculty of St. Petersburg State University and received a master’s degree in curatorial studies from a joint program shared between Bard College, New York, and St. Petersburg State University. He has received training from the Central Institute of Hindi, New Delhi, and Heidelberg University, Germany. His curatorial projects at Garage include exhibitions and commissions with Sammy Baloji, Tarek Atoui, Yoko Ono, Zhanna Kadyrova, Marie Louise Ekman, Rasheed Araeen, Sissel Tolaas, and Tomás Saraceno, among others.

Valentin Diaconov (b. 1980, Moscow) is a critic and curator at the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow. He holds a PhD in cultural studies and teaches art writing in the Higher School of Economics. His curatorial projects include “Detective” (2014, Moscow Museum of Modern Art), “Laughter in the Gallery” (2015, Na Shabolovke Gallery), “Chukotka: Art of the Northern Colony” (with Iaroslav Volovod, in the framework of “Congo Art Works”, curated by Bambi Ceuppens and Sammi Baloji, 2017, Garage), “The Fabric of Felicity” (with Iaroslav Volovod and Katya Lazareva, 2018, Garage).