Notes from the Altai Republic

During summer 2015, Milan Simic spent four weeks in South Siberia, conducting research on the Altai language. Simic is a doctoral candidate in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Languages and Cultures of Asia and a teaching assistant in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature. As part of his dissertation research, Simic examined the history of the Altai language and its dialects. Altai is a Turkic language spoken in South Siberia, primarily in Russia’s Altai Republic. Only about 70,000 of the roughly 200,000 citizens of the Altai Republic are native Altai speakers, Simic estimates.

“What you have in South Siberia is a very unique mix of different languages and dialects,” Simic observes. Six Altai dialects have emerged due to the geographic proximity of various languages. “Turkic languages such as Altai, Tuvan and Khakas have long been spoken next to and exposed to Mongolian, Samoyedic and finally Russian influences,” Simic explains.

Simic in front of the Korbu Waterfall, Teletskoye Lake
Simic in front of the Korbu Waterfall, Teletskoye Lake

Simic conducted archival research on the history of Altai and the development of its dialects. The oldest dialect of Altai was used to spread Christianity, beginning with translations of Christian texts in the 1830s. In the Altai Republic, this dialect shares with Russian the designation of an official language. But other Altai dialects, which do not enjoy such official status, are steadily fading. Simic found native speakers very enthusiastic about his research, because they understand its importance to preserving their language and culture. “Altai people are excited to share their knowledge. They realize it is difficult to maintain the minority dialects, which don’t receive as much support from the [Russian] State,” Simic explains. As such, native speakers welcome foreign researchers like Simic who are interested in bolstering Altai dialects.

Simic’s summer research was funded by the Center for Russia, East Europe and Central Asia (CREECA). In summer 2015, CREECA provided grants to ten UW doctoral candidates for overseas field research. Simic emphasizes the importance of being able to travel abroad for research such as his, explaining, “People are so much more valuable than books, or even emails. One is able to make much better human connections and gain greater insights when studying the research topic in person.”

Since his return, Simic has been filtering through Altai texts he found during his archival research. He hopes to return to the Altai Republic in the future to conduct more formal interviews of native speakers. During his time in the Altai Republic, Simic sent a series of updates to his faculty advisor Uli Schamiloglu, professor of Turkic and Central Eurasian studies in the Department of Languages and Cultures of Asia. The messages summarize Simic’s research abroad, conveying some of the challenges of place-based research and how the right set of circumstances can converge to open new lines of inquiry.

Teletskoye Lake, called Altyn-Köl (“Golden Lake”) in Altai
Teletskoye Lake, called Altyn-Köl (“Golden Lake”) in Altai. Photo credit: Milan Simic.

Friday, June 19, 2015

I’m leaving for Barnaul on the 28th, and plan to stay there for a day or two in order to visit the Altai Regional Universal Scientific Library. Then on July 1 I’ll continue to Gorno-Altaisk, where I’ve arranged to meet the faculty and students at the Faculty of Altai Studies and Turkic Languages who will be in town during the summer. In the meantime, I plan to visit the National Library, as well as the Altaic Institute and the National Museum, which all seem to hold valuable sources. I gave up on the idea of visiting Novosibirsk because their department chair informed me that they’ll complete their fieldwork by the second week of June after which most faculty will go on leave for the summer. It would also take a very long time to travel by bus from there to Gorno-Altaisk and back, and I hope not to run out of money as it is.

Greetings and best wishes from Belgrade, Milan

Gorno-Altaisk, capital of the Altai Republic
Gorno-Altaisk, capital of the Altai Republic. Photo credit: Milan Simic.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Greetings from Gorno-Altaisk! I’ve been here since last Wednesday, but occasionally I still have to pinch myself to believe I am really here. Last week I spent two days in Barnaul. I went to the library I had mentioned earlier, where I found an old Altai “bukvar” and a grammar from the 19th century. Other than that, I saw many interesting things in local museums, but even there everyone basically told me that Gorno-Altaisk is the place to go if I want to learn about the language and culture.

So, as planned, I got on the bus, and some four and a half hours later, I found myself in this magical land. Don’t get me wrong, Gorno-Altaisk is a very small and underdeveloped town. But the nature surrounding it… I would say it is like Switzerland, but that just doesn’t cut it! One thing that struck me immediately is that, wherever I went, I could hear people speaking this language that sounded a lot like Kazakh. Of course, as you’ve probably guessed, it’s Altai-kizhi or the official language of the Altai Republic. There are bilingual signs on all government buildings, and unlike in Barnaul, Russians really appear to be in the minority here.

I still have to see the National Museum, but I did meet the faculty and students from the university and they invited me to spend the graduation weekend with them at the Altyn-Köl (Teletskoe Lake) which I naturally accepted. All of them speak Altai-kizhi fluently (with some regional differences), and the instruction in school is apparently also conducted in their native tongue. So while they chatted among themselves I sat listening and kept asking them different questions, doing my best to figure out what they’re saying. For them I think it was also interesting, because they’ve never met anyone from my part of the world, and therefore wanted to share things about their culture. I also met some locals who spoke the Tuba dialect, and need I say, enjoyed the clean air, water and entirely wild nature throughout the weekend.

Upon our return, I went to the Altaic Institute and met the head of their linguistic department; we agreed to meet again later this week. One thing that is starting to bother me is that most books, even the recent publications they showed me so far, cannot be purchased anywhere. Therefore, I started asking for electronic copies and PDFs, and hopefully, with assistance from the staff at the National Library, I will manage to collect more stuff in the coming days. Today, I plan to go down south to the town of Onguday, and take a look at the Runic inscriptions and kurgans they’ve discovered in the area. There’s a conference this weekend entitled Nature and Culture Without Borders that is part of an ongoing project between American and Russian universities, and I’ve been invited to attend. Then next week there’s another conference, focusing on Turkic languages and literature, which I also plan to visit.

That’s all for now, best wishes from the Altai Republic, Milan

Simic (far left, second from top) at Nature and Culture Without Borders conference
Simic (far left, second from top) at Nature and Culture Without Borders conference

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

As previously mentioned, last Tuesday I decided to travel to the town of Onguday, two and a half hours south of here, and stayed for two days in the village called Karakol with relatives of the Dean of the Department of Altai Studies, Mila and Gennady Oinchinov. I really can’t tell you what impressed me more – the incredible, untouched nature surrounding their home, the “ayıl” (basically a wooden yurt) in their front yard where they spend the summer, or the fact that they speak their language all of the time. While Gennady and his son mostly asked me questions about politics and such, Mila, who studied at the same [department] years ago while it was still just a native language program, really did her best to teach me the language and explain every single thing that came up about their daily life, culture and religion. If I am ever to come back to the Altai, these are the people I want to spend more time with. They were just incredibly useful “informants.” I also went to see some petroglyphs in the neighboring village Bichiktu-Boom and an “undiscovered” Runic inscription near the abandoned kolkhoz that looked suspiciously recent.

One day after my return, I went again to Teletskoe Lake for that Nature and Culture Without Borders conference I had mentioned earlier. There I met a bunch of young and old Altai speakers who were very pleased to hear I am interested in their language and culture, and were happy to share all sorts of stories. During one of the workshops about the issues related to the upbringing of Altai children and the use of their mother tongue in everyday life, I had the chance to hear them speak about various customs and traditions they fear may be lost if the new generations forget them.

Among other things I’ve done since my last email was the visit to the amazing National Museum of the Altai Republic. I completely agree with all the reviews I read – it is by far the best museum I’ve seen here up to this point, probably the best in this part of Russia too. I am actually considering going there again, just so that I can take another look at some portions of the exhibit and take more pictures. I also met some of the master’s students at the [department] who are from other Turkic republics, and had a really nice, long conversation with a girl from Tuva who is working on comparison of Tuvan and Altai proverbs. I used the pleasant and hot weather yesterday to travel to Chemal, a small village about two hours south, where there’s a female monastery on the island in the middle of the river Katun.

Tomorrow, that other conference is taking place at the university, and I think after that, everyone who hasn’t already done so will go on their summer recess, so I plan to slowly wrap up my time here.

Best wishes to you and your family! Milan

Karakol, Onguday
Karakol, Onguday. Photo credit: Milan Simic

Sunday, August 2, 2015

I’m back in Belgrade now! I’m letting the whole Altai experience sink in, and have to admit I am still finding it hard to believe that I actually traveled and spent four weeks so, so far from home.

During my last week in Gorno-Altaisk, I visited the conference I had mentioned. To be honest, it wasn’t exactly well organized, so I actually almost missed the whole thing because they told me it would be held in one place (National Theater), while in fact everyone was meeting at a totally different part of campus. Luckily I found them, and was able to attend part of the morning and the entire afternoon session. There were participants from all parts of the Turkic world, as well as Korea, but since they divided participants into three groups (history, folklore and language & literature), each at a separate part of campus, I could only attend the language portion, and missed meeting your friends from Tatarstan since all the guests went to Teletskoe Lake the next day.

I met several other faculty members from Gorno-Altaisk University, and managed to see the linguist from the Institute several times. Back in Barnaul, I visited their Museum of Local Lore, which I now realize is the Soviet version of the new National Museum in Gorno-Altaisk that I wrote to you about last time. The exhibitions follow the same pattern, except that the one in Barnaul is very old and shabby, and still covers Altai Krai and Altai Republic as one unit. On the other hand, it has a lot more to offer about the Soviet influence in the region. Barnaul in general feels like a very prosperous place, there is construction everywhere, and the old downtown area is slowly being replaced by “modern” high-rises, similar to those in Astana. But compared to Gorno-Altaisk, I have to say, Altai people and their culture are nearly invisible in Barnaul.

So that’s all for now. Thank you again for your help in making this trip possible! It was one of those things in life that one can never ever forget.