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A personality on a planetary scale: remembering Viktoria Petrasheva

The scholar devoted her life to the Indigenous peoples of the North Pacific in Russia, voicing their rights to live where they have for centuries

Tatiana Degai George Finlay Ramsay
19 March 2021, 12.00am
Viktoria Petrasheva
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Image: George Finlay Ramsay

Dr Viktoria Petrasheva, Vika to friends and family, was a song of a human being.

A formidable culture bearer and elegant myth teller of the Itelmen, the first people of Kamchatka, a peninsula in the Russian far east, Petrasheva devoted her life to the Indigenous peoples of the North Pacific, studying and preserving their history, culture and traditional way of life. On 28 January, at the age of 78, this world-renowned scholar died at her home in Kamchatka.

Petrasheva’s house in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky was a shrine and museum to family and cultures of the Pacific North, and was often abuzz with activity around cultural revitalisation. Family friend and journalist Emma Kinas noted that it was often hard to find Vika at home, but even harder to find her at home alone. When visiting the peninsula for fieldwork, Russian and international academics – archaeologists, anthropologists, ethnographers, linguists – would frequently stay in her spare mezzanine bed.

“She always had guests, something incredibly tasty was being prepared,” the Kamchatka Post noted in their obituary, “and the children were making merry noise, the stove in a small bathhouse was heated, and there were amazing stories about travel, people and new discoveries at the ready.”

Petrasheva’s mother, Tatiana, was a postal worker, who delivered by dog sled on the west coast of Kamchatka. One evening in 1942 when returning home from work, she was forced to stop as she had gone into labour. Thus Viktoria Petrasheva was born in a dog sled in the tundra along the shore of the Sea of Okhotsk.

“The Itelmen language was still alive, stories and fairy tales from the lips of old people with a very strong memory sounded in it,” Petrasheva said when speaking about her early life in 1940s Kamchatka in an interview.

“The main occupations of the men were hunting and fishing. Little by little, they planted turnips and potatoes. They kept cows and horses on farms. There was no electricity, people also had almost no money, barter flourished. Men on dog sleds covered great distances, travelling north to Chukotka and south to Petropavlovsk to donate furs and buy food.”

The Stalinist repressions immensely influenced the destiny of her kin and of the entire Itelmen nation – the original people of Kamchatka

Upheaval and trauma, however, beset her early life. When she was four, Petrasheva’s family were forced to flee their ancestral village of Utkholok. They were accused of being enemies of the Soviet state and suspected of being Japanese spies – merely for being Indigenous.

As she recalled, a soldier came into their house with the words: “Tatiana, you need to pack up and leave the village immediately.” The next thing Petrasheva remembered was sitting on the soldier’s shoulders, looking at his cloak flapping out behind him.

The Stalinist repressions immensely influenced the destiny of her kin and of the entire Itelmen nation – the original people of Kamchatka. Before colonisation in the 17th century by the Cossacks, the Itelmen inhabited much of the peninsula.

Their language belongs to the Chukchi-Kamchatka language group, and like many Northern Pacific peoples, the Itelmen have a trickster Raven god, Kutkh. Today, the Itelmen language is severely endangered, with only a few living fluent speakers, all over 80. It is a fishing community that heavily depends on salmon and smelt fish.

Due to cultural repression, Petrasheva was denied her mother tongue: she did not grow up speaking or hearing her native language. “In the early 1950s, the consolidation of national villages throughout Kamchatka began, tribal settlements were closed, and the features of national culture were erased and disappeared from everyday life very quickly,” she recalled.

After the departure from her birth village, Petrasheva did not hear Itelmen speech. Her mother would not use the language at home or with friends. That was when intergenerational transmission of the language and traditional knowledge stopped in her family.

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Image: Family archive

As a testament to her enormously strong character and brilliant intelligence, Petrasheva nonetheless managed to pursue a career in academia. In the late 1970s, she wrote her doctoral thesis on the traditional ways of life of the peoples of the Northern Pacific region at Moscow State University, cleverly framing it through Marxist theory.

Despite the many major political upheavals in Russia from the mid-20th century to the present day, Petrasheva was able to bring Indigenous visions and worldviews into academia through her skilful narrations, impressing listeners regardless of their education and status. Indeed, the Arctic Center of the University of Northern Iowa has decided to establish an international award in her honour - for young Indigenous scholars who pursue research that fosters the well-being of their communities.

In the 1980s, Petrasheva was one of the founders of the Council of Itelmens of Kamchatka’s Tkhsanom (‘dawn’ in Itelmen) – the first Indigenous NGO in Russia. She became the first president of the Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North of the Kamchatka Region and in the early 2000s went on to establish the Northern People’s Academy at the Kamchatka State University of Vitus Bering. She initiated and inspired many Indigenous-run initiatives across Kamchatka, which continue to move cultural revitalisation and sustainability of the remote Northern communities forward. Petrasheva was always full of ideas – so many that she kept multiple desks in her home so she could always be near one to write an idea down – and would often advise community members, scholars or policymakers.

As well as being a great scholar, Petrasheva was an enthusiast, storyteller, traveller, alpinist and teacher, beloved mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. She scaled many of Russia’s volcanoes and mountains, and only ceased climbing when a fall led to her breaking her leg.

Petrasheva spoke out for the inalienable right of indigenous people to live and flourish where they have for millennia, warning of the dangers of overfishing and greedy exploitation of land

In recent years, she devoted herself to studying the cultural landscapes of the Itelmens, the sustainability of coastal communities and legends about volcanoes. Petrasheva was convinced that circumpolar culture is valuable for all mankind, because it was created over many centuries in extreme-cold conditions. The people of the north have accumulated tremendous experience and skill to not only survive but live comfortably (both physically and psychologically) in difficult conditions: “Look how the northerners live,” said Petrasheva, “smiling [and] hospitable, ready to share the latest news.” And she herself was the prime example.

Viktoria Petrasheva’s voice has never been more important, and will continue to reverberate for a long time to come. (Crucially, her eldest granddaughter Tatiana Degai, one of the authors, will continue Petrasheva’s work, researching volcanoes and the peoples of the North Pacific.)

Petrasheva spoke out for the inalienable right of indigenous people to live and flourish where they have for millennia, warning of the dangers of overfishing and greedy exploitation of land. She embodied the profound necessity for myths that express how humans are intertwined with nature and place.

When asked how it felt to tell stories that her ancestors may have told tens of thousands of years ago, Petrasheva said: “This is the reason to be alive.”

Based on an article by Emma Kinas originally published in Kamchatka Post.

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