Power in places and politics in Altai

Agnieszka Halemba

Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge
Paper presented at the Fourth Nordic Conference on the Anthropology of Post-Socialism, Copenhagen, April 2002


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The regions which went through a "state of socialist development" were influenced by the main characteristics of socialist economy, ideology and practices in many different ways. This variety of influences has to be taken into account by all social scientist, who deal with post-socialist situations, but maybe especially by social anthropologists, for whom holistic analysis forms an important part of the definition of the research enterprise. This sort of analysis includes looking at human societies in a way, which avoids as much as it is possible division of the social life onto clear-cut components, such as religion, economy, kinship or ethnic identity. In this paper I attempt at applying such a holistic approach through a study of basic concepts, which underline thinking and practice in a particular area. I believe that the notion of "power" is a good entrance point here, if we take into account that the ways in which people apply and relate to it in various places can differ significantly.

In the introduction to this workshop the convenors say that in all kinds of societies "power is omnipresent, often feared, respected and worshipped, and powerlessness can be morally humiliating and physically crushing". In this paper I reflect on the concept of power on the example of the Telengits, a group of the Altaians living in the Republic of Altai in the Russian Federation. I show the situation where power is firmly located in places, but at the same time, movement is one of the main characteristics of the Telengit way of life. Hence, there is a constant anxiety concerning an understanding of power as a source of effective authority and decision-making, and, on the other hand, mobility, which can be and can act as a source of change and an escape from fixed authorities. This anxiety can be also understood though two concepts of knowledge: one as a corpus of things to be known, and the other as a process of understanding, which can be ever neither certain nor finished. In the Telengit case these two concepts of knowledge can be shown on the example of two, among many other, kinds of spiritual specialists: lamas and shamans. Both these kinds of knowledge can be powerful and hold some kind of authority. Still, I argue that they are qualitatively different and their powerfulness has different reasons.

I begin with an exploration of a key concept of "masterhood" (ee), which is crucial in understanding the way in which the Telengot relate to places. The concept of ee - "masterhood", is found widely throughout Inner Asia, among both Turkic and Mongolian-speaking peoples. The Telengits say: eelü jok neme jok, which means: there is nothing without ee.

In the literature ee is most often explained as a "master" or a "host" of a particular place. The Telengit idea is very similar to the Daur concept of ejin as described by Caroline Humphrey [1996]. In both cases, the notion is applied at several levels. It can relate to spiritual entities like the masters of mountains, lakes or rivers. The term is also used to describe people: e.g., both the host of the house, the Emperor and powerful political leaders such as Stalin. Generally, the idea of ee allows people to talk about the inner or concealed power of entities and to create relationships with them.

The Telengit concept of ee can be understood through such notions as "power" and "spiritual energy". Telengits use this concept commonly while talking about the ee of particular places or the Altai as a whole. Nevertheless, they also use this term in different contexts and they can explain it in relation to many phenomena. For example, eelü means "with ee". Eelü jer - a place with ee. Eelü ooru - means an illness, which has to be treated by the shaman. It means an illness that cannot be treated in hospital as it has a non-biological cause, which means that some action on the part of spiritual beings was involved in its appearance. This word can be used while describing the ee of particular places (each of them can be also referred to as altaidyŋ eezi), but it also means just any "masters", "hosts" or "spiritual beings".

When asked about kizhiniŋ eezi - ee of a person, Telengits answered on two levels. On one level, they said that a person is eezi him/herself, as a person is an ee of his/her house, his/her herds, and other belongings. On another level, they answered that a human being has an ee. However, this ee is not a separate entity or a further form of a human soul in addition to süne, tyn or jula(1). To acknowledge that a human being is eelü is to say that s/he has a kind of spiritual energy or power. For some people süne (a form of soul) is an expression of kizhiniŋ eezi. Others pointed to jaiachy (a spiritual being that is a kind of personal guardian) as a representation of ee. As jaiachy can be imagined in anthropomorphic, zoomorphic or in other forms (e.g., as a light or a sparkle), it brings us closer to the concept of jerdiŋ eezi - eezi of a place that can also take on an anthropomorphic or zoomorphic image.

Jerdiŋ eezi and Altaidyŋ eezi are both metonyms, as they stand for a whole and a part at the same time. Jer in Altaian means the earth, a country or a place. Altai may mean the Altai Mountains in geographical terms, or if it is used in a local context it can mean a particular place. As Svetlana Tyukhteneva [1995] writes, in the contemporary Altaian language one can use the word altai as a substitute for such terms as, e.g.: yurt, house, village, district, country or the world of the dead. In this sense, it means "the place" and hence one can equate the image of Altaidyŋ eezi with that of Jerdyŋ eezi. Jerdyŋ eezi may be seen as the master of a particular place, or of all the motherland (Altai). In this sense, the expressions Altaidyŋ eezi and Jerdyŋ eezi can be used interchangeably and are often applied in this way by the Telengits. For the sake of clarity, I will only use the term Altaidyŋ eezi below. I will analyse this expression, which will give me the opportunity not only to discuss its internal structure but also its relation to another crucial notion - Altai Kudai.

Altaidyŋ eezi as a master spirit of all Altai may manifest itself in an anthropo- or zoomorphic form. People discuss the characteristics of Altaidyŋ eezi as gender or even nationality. Some people say that at present, since all the people in Altai were so Russified, Altaidyŋ eezi must also be Russian. Most often Altaidyŋ eezi is imagined in the way similar to the White Old Man, a personage well known in Inner Asia as the lord of mountains and rivers [Heissig, 1980]. He can kubulyp - transform himself into the form of a fox, a deer or some other animal. However, although there are stories about the characteristics of Altaidyŋ eezi, people seem to understand and perceive it rather as a kind of spiritual energy, which is important through its very existence regardless of the form it takes.

Altaidyŋ eezi as the master of a particular place is imagined most often by Telengits as a young and unmarried girl, although there are male and female eeler of all ages. Each significant place is eelü, but only some of the eeler (plural) take a form that is known to people. There are more stories concerning eeler of particular places than about Altaidyŋ eezi as the host of all Altai. The eezi of a particular place can be katu or jymzhak - hard or soft. It is difficult to live in a katu eelü place, cattle do not flourish there and the weather is unpredictable and capricious. A jymzhak eelü place is welcoming to people. There is a gender division here as most of the female eeler are soft and most of the male eeler are hard.

As Altaidyŋ eezi may be seen either as singular/general or as plural/particular, it does not play a straightforward, unifying role in the context of the contemporary Altaian nation. A cult of mountains in general and a cult of Altai in particular are indeed recognisable phenomena, which link all Altaians together as a group. Nevertheless, the image of Altaidyŋ eezi can easily be interpreted in particular contexts without reference to Altai as a whole. Altaidyŋ eezi is at the same time one and many. The everyday interpretations of this notion change constantly from a unifying image of Altaidyŋ eezi as the Master of Altai to images of every single Altaidyŋ eezi - the master of a particular place.

The notion of Altai Kudai refers to the power or energy in places in a very different way. I argue that, although the expression Altai Kudai could be encountered in Altai long time ago and it relates to a particular territory, it has gained enormous significance only in recent decades [see Muytueva 1990]. I believe that the supplementing of the older image of Altaidyŋ eezi by an image of Altai Kudai is directly related to processes of institutionalisation and attempts at forming a common national identity among the Altaians. While Altaidyŋ eezi is changeable and constantly shifting between a part and a whole, Altai Kudai tends to be seen as one and immutable.

Kudai in the Altaian language means "a deity". In the past the plural usage of this word (kudailar) was common and can also be sporadically encountered nowadays. Sometimes it is also used in relation to natural objects and phenomena, such as Sun Kudai, Moon Kudai, and Mountain Kudai. Nonetheless, at present a monotheistic understanding of this word prevails, which can be interpreted as a result of the influence of Christianity [Humphrey 1996; Potapov 1990]. In the 19th century the Orthodox missionaries adopted this word as an Altaian equivalent of "God" in their Altaian translations of the Bible and prayers. Nowadays, when people say "Kudai" they mean one God. Sentences such as "Religions are varied but there is one Kudai", or "There is one Kudai in the Sky" have become commonplace.

Although kudai is an old term, the concept of Altai Kudai is new both in terms of timing and of meaning. Altai Kudai is unique and refers to the Altai as a whole. It does not have a plural form. I believe that the emergence of this concept reflects a trend towards straightforward unification, which can be encountered nowadays in Altai and is related to post-socialist changes in the structures of political power in the Russian Federation. Particularly, it is related to the concept of a nation, understood as a group united by common characteristics such as religion, language, territory, history and political leaders. This is in this context where the notion of Altai Kudai gains its significance and, as I argue, substantially influences the way in which power and authority are conceived. The emergence of this concept also shows that all the cults of particular mountains connected with particular clans or territories, which are confirmed for Altai in older literature [Potapov 1946; Tokarev 1936; Anokhin 1994 (1924)], have been nowadays gradually replaced or appended by a more general cult of Altai.

Unity, which is implied through the notion of Altai Kudai, has a different quality from unity, which can be to some extent encountered in the image of Altaidyŋ eezi. The notion of Altai Kudai implies a unity that cannot be localised. It unifies explicitly and without any reference to possible differentiation. While both ee and eeler are actively used in contemporary discourse, the notion of kudailar fails to be an active part of it. Kudai in its singular form is left on its own, with a clearly unifying intent. Hence, although both notions (Altaidyŋ eezi and Altai Kudai) imply certain (although different) kinds of unity, only the first notion also has a dimension of diversity as a significant component.

The books about Inner Asian and Siberian cosmology commonly represent a universe divided into three main parts, usually called the Upper, Middle and Lower Worlds [Sagalaev, 1990; Potapov 1990; L'vova, 1988]. Each of them is inhabited and the Middle World is the home of living people. The Upper World is most commonly equated with the Sky and the Lower World with the nether world. The emergence of a notion of Altai Kudai gives an opportunity to re-interpret this classical division.

I have stated above that people say: "There is one Kudai in the Sky". However, for the same people this Kudai is specifically Altai Kudai. According to the grammar of Turkic languages, Altai Kudai can be translated both as Altai the God and the God of Altai. It means that the division between the Upper and the Middle Worlds is blurred. For the Telengits, Altai is Kudai. They do not separate a transcendent God from their object of worship in the Middle World - Altai. One has to remember that Altai is a mountainous region and mountains were perceived as providing a possible link between the three worlds of classical Siberian and Inner Asian cosmology. Nevertheless, the new notion of Altai Kudai suggests that the Upper and the Lower worlds are no longer separated - with the object of worship (Altai Kudai) being here and there simultaneously. The notion of Altai Kudai shows that transcendence and immanence may be aspects of the same phenomenon.

There is another dimension to the interesting relationship between Altaidyŋ eezi and Altai Kudai. Both expressions are present in contemporary discourse, and yet they occupy different positions. Altai Kudai is understood both as Altai (the place), which is worshipped, as well as the transcendent and unreachable God of Altai. Although Altai Kudai is responsible for the welfare of the people and can be addressed with prayers, he is not actually supposed to come and take offerings. His gender is never questioned and he is not imagined in anthropo- or zoomorphic form. Altai Kudai is Altai, although it is at the same time in the Sky. Altai and Kudai are inseparable. I would translate Altai Kudai as Altai the God with all the implications inherent in linking a transcendent entity with an immanent one.

Altaidyŋ eezi is also responsible for the welfare of people and can be addressed with prayers. However, the relation with him/her is much more concrete and practical. There are people who can talk to him/her and listen to his/her replies. S/he is thought to literally come and take offerings if they are properly prepared. S/he represents the power of Altai as a whole and as a particular place. This power can take a particular form, which enables people to have human-like relations with places. S/he can also change - s/he can become katu or jymzhak i.e. malevolent or benevolent to people.

I think that Altai Kudai should be understood through the image of Altai itself as a God, with magnificence, power, impressiveness and influence on people's lives, which is intrinsic to its features as a place, landscape and territory. Altaidyŋ Eezi is still the Master of Altai, but is nowadays perceived rather in the form of unshaped energy that fills everything and makes everything alive, than in the form of an anthropomorphic image.

The Telengits interact with a landscape full of energies, which are realised as eeler. These energies influence the lives of people, their decisions about settling down, their choice of pastures or their choice of a spouse. Elsewhere [Halemba 2001] I described how living on opposite banks of a river (Ada-Ene jaŋy division) influences the well-being of a person and how a particular village as a place affects the quality of life. Landscape is an active participant of people's lives. As Caroline Humphrey [1995] writes, landscape is not pre-reflective and spontaneous. It recognises human choices and agencies and reacts on them. One has to be very careful while moving and living in the landscape. Any unnecessary intervention is likely to cause a response from the place. Travelling through the landscape must be undertaken with thought and care. However, travelling is necessary as it is a mode of acquiring knowledge both in a metaphorical and a literal sense.

I argue that the way in which the Telengits travel through the landscape and the way in which they use the notions directly related to places (as analysed above Altaidyŋ eezi and Altai Kudai) encompasses many ideas present on more difficult to immediately recognise levels of their experience. I argue that the travel itself, noticing various points on the way and a leisurely manner of movement, are as important, or more important, than the ultimate destination.

It is crucial to notice that the influence of eeler and landscape, although powerful, is not determinative. Eeler can be bargained with, talked to and they can substantially change themselves (kubulyp, or become katu or jymzhak). Their power is real and important but they do not hold an ultimate authority, which is fixed and "ready to hand". They influence lives of people, they are important agents in decision making, but they are in a constant process of change. You can never know for sure how they are, who they are and how they will influence you. I believe that an important part of their power lies precisely in this lack of determinism and predictability. Still, they are not like a capricious ruler, who keeps his servant in obedience by changes of moods and contradictory orders. The eeler are the movement itself, they are a change. It is why among the Telengits travel and movement through landscape is seen as the most appropriate way of understanding what their way of life is about.

This is also how the shamans are. The practice of shamans is often referred to and understood as "a way" or "a path" [cf. Humphrey 1995]. They deal with spiritual entities and manage some of them, but they never do it in the determinative way. They have complex relationships with their spirit helpers, who can in some cases turn against them. More importantly, their decisions and advice are not always taken into consideration by their clients. The relations between shamans and people, who seek their advice, are also complex. They do not hold this kind of effective authority, which is often thought to be the case for religious practitioners in institutionalised religions. People trust some shamans, while they disregard other ones and the relationship is structured in an individual way. I believe that this is related to the way in which shamans are supposed to know the spiritual entities. Their knowledge is never certain, as it comprise in essence a constant process of understanding the changeable spiritual reality. In this context, kam (shaman) whose activities and conclusions are not questioned is preposterous. It is vital for shamans to be flexible and open to mediation. The anxiety and fear a shaman causes is an index of his/her relation to the potentially dangerous worlds of spirits, but hie/her position is not the one of unquestionable authority. Moreover, in the case of shamans the content of knowledge is less important than the way in which it was achieved and the activities of a shaman are a process, which is interesting and thrilling to observe and comment on. The Telengits seem to relish anxiety about the outcomes of rituals and shamanic practices. They enjoy the process of arguing, coming into consensus and challenging yet again. Rigid knowledge is not alive anymore, it lies in front of the people as an immovable force, which might be effective, valued or useful, but it ceases to be pleasurable.

This is how the knowledge of lamas is perceived, which could be linked to the way in which a concept of Altai Kudai is present in the Telengit context. Lamas (called in Altai nama) were in the 18th and 19th centuries visitors to Altai from outside. Although there might have also been some Telengit and Altaian people, who received some sort of training in Buddhist monasteries in Mongolia or Tibet. Currently, as Buddhism is a religion supported in recent years by some of the Altaian intellectuals, lamas of various schools are frequent visitors in the Republic. From a Telengit perspective, lama's knowledge is not questionable. It is written down, formal and stabilised. There is an authority of Buddhist church behind it. In this sense it is authoritative, as it is the content of this knowledge that is important. The Telengits often refer to a nama's books as a source of cultural stability and homogeneity. They see in this written knowledge a source of authority that is not questionable. Esteem for namalar and their books is big and the written knowledge in sudur is perceived as being complete.

However, although the Telengits see written knowledge as a potential source of authority, which is desirable in certain situations there is a price to be paid for this stability and assurance. Written knowledge ceases to be an individually mediated process, but instead it turns into a corpus, accessible to anyone with appropriate skills, which can be learned. It is no longer about sensual abilities, mediation and interpretation, as in the case of shamans. At the same time, although potentially very effective, it is somehow less impressive. In the Telengit context, while authority is inherent in stability, power is a trait of a flexible and contestable process of knowing. Being a kam is a more difficult task than being a nama, but it is also a more interesting and more challenging one. The way of the shaman is about direct experience through senses and about an immediate exposure to the potentially dangerous world of spirits. It is highly valued, as it is flexible, it can be bargained upon and challenged. Written knowledge is authoritative but it is no longer stimulating as it cannot be both challenged and sustained at the same time. Dealing with spirits is not about a fixed structure of knowledge, but about a process of understanding, bargaining, exchanging and mediating. While nama can know future events, which are written in his books, or medicines capable of fighting the most serious diseases, he is not at ease with the world(s) of spirits. In the Telengit perception, his opinion is a final verdict and cannot be questioned. There is the authority of secure knowledge behind it, which can be checked as it is written down. Still in the context of the world(s) of spirits, a shaman's way of knowing is structurally the most appropriate.

For our discussion it is important to see that something or someone can be powerful in many different ways. Both shamans and lamas are powerful, both Altaidyŋ eezi and Altai Kudai are relevant for people's lives, but their power is not the same. How is it relevant for contemporary, post-socialist situation in the Republic of Altai?

There is a set of dispositions, which are dominant in the realm of Telengit spiritual life. It is nevertheless evident that in the world lived in by the Telengits, there are various paradigms active simultaneously. It may be said that the habitus of the Telengits encompasses several sets of dispositions, which are in dialectical relation with each other. If we use the theory advanced in the work of Pierre Bourdieu [1990; 1993] and his terminology, it would mean that rather than talking about one field of doxy within which orthodoxy and heterodoxy compete, we would assume that the field of lived experience is composed entirely of heterodoxies, which become more or less dominant at any given time. The separation of particular heterodoxies is useful for the sake of the argument and possible because they are based on different paradigms that can be traced in practice. Although, in real life situations, there is a constant interplay of heterodoxies, in order to understand the workings of cognition in any particular situation it is necessary to theoretically separate them as ideal types.

While movement, process, creation of individual ways of dealing with landscape and spiritual matters form a basis of the Telengit way of living in places, there is also another set of dispositions, that is closer to the way in which such notion as Altai Kudai exists and the way in which lamas operate. In this case, power is based not on the flexibility, adaptability and individual sensual encounter, but on the tendency towards institutionalisation, finalisation, stabilisation and effective authority. This other set of dispositions is closely related to the contemporary processes of nation building, which is based on the idea and requirement for explicit unity. I believe that it is significant that the phenomena (Altai Kudai, lamas) which are related to this set of dispositions are relative newcomers in Altai and are viewed as such by the Telengits.

It is important to note that both lamas (as representatives of Buddhism) and Altai Kudai (as a concept) have recently gained a privileged status in the efforts of Altaian intellectuals, trying to develop a unifying ideological basis for the Altaian nation. In my research (which I carried out between 1993 and 2000) I could follow a clear shift from the interest and explicit use in national ideology concepts related to activity of shamans and a notion of eeler - masters of places, towards focus on Buddhism and a notion of Altai Kudai. I believe that among other reasons this shift is linked to the two different forms of powerfulness which can be encountered on one hand in the notion of Altaidyŋ eezi and shamans as juxtaposed with Altai Kudai and namas. While discussions concerning the Altaian culture, religion and future of Altaian nation initially focused on the concepts and personages which formed an active part of people's lives, they gradually shifted towards concepts and personages, who were better fitted structurally for the anticipated need of the emerging political unit. Although powerful entities may be conceived in many different ways, not all of them can stay in a front line in the context of modern nation state.


1. For further discussion on these terms see [Baskakov 1993; Halemba 2001].