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Logics, Stakes and Limits of Cultural Heritage Transmission in China, Russia and Mongolia

Cultural heritage management in the Altai Republic. Discrepancies regarding human remains

La gestion du patrimoine culturel en République de l’Altaï : divergences de vues sur la question des restes humains
Clément Jacquemoud

Résumés

Tout comme le corps de Lénine n’était pas le sien mais celui de la révolution d’Octobre, à qui appartient la momie d’Ukok ? Dans la République de l’Altaï (Sibérie du Sud), la muséification de la momie révèle les enjeux identitaires, politiques et économiques sous-jacents à la gestion unilatérale du patrimoine culturel. Cet article explore comment le musée et la momie sont devenus les dépositaires de multiples convictions religieuses, et comment ils sont employés pour légitimer des discours politiques et culturels polarisés qui interrogent le décalage entre les identités propres et attribuées.

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Texte intégral

A mummy hit the headliner

  • 1 The term kurgan is originally a Turkic word.
  • 2 For more information about the discovery process by Russian archaeologists, see Polos’mak 2001, 201 (...)
  • 3 Gazprom is a multinational energy corporation, the number one exploiter and global exporter of natu (...)

1Deep in the Altai mountains in July 1993, in the nature reserve “Quiet Zone of Ukok” which is part of the UNESCO-protected area “Golden Mountains of Altai”, a team of Russian archaeologists from the Russian Academy of Sciences unearthed the mummy of a young woman trapped in the ice, from a kurgan1 (tumulus, or burial mound) dating to the Scythian period (5th century BCE). Her extraordinary state of conservation makes it one of the most remarkable discoveries of the late 20th century in Russia. The body was then transferred to Novosibirsk to be studied2. In 2012, the mummy was returned to the Altai Republic. Since then, it lies in the brand-new A. V. Anohin National Museum in Gorno-Altaisk, whose renovation has been specially financed by the state-backed joint stock energy company Gazprom3 to house the human remains.

Figure 1. Landscape of the Ukok Plateau and the Kosh-Agach District, Altai Republic, 2011

Figure 1. Landscape of the Ukok Plateau and the Kosh-Agach District, Altai Republic, 2011

© Clément Jacquemoud

Figure 2. Landscape of the Kosh-Agach District in winter, Altai Republic, 2011

Figure 2. Landscape of the Kosh-Agach District in winter, Altai Republic, 2011

© Clément Jacquemoud

2This museumification, that is to say the consideration of the mummy as a heritage object, its setup in a supposedly lay and politically neutral institution (in this case the A. V. Anohin National Museum) for conservation, transmission and, eventually, exhibition, raises numerous issues. According to Patin, human remains “hold a key position, at the intersection of the fields of heritage, of the funereal, or corporeity and science” (2016, p. 14). They are “invested with emotions, between fear, repugnance and voyeurism” (Roland 2016, p. 47), which provide them a powerful symbolism and make them strong narrative supports. Earlier, Verdery analysed how dead bodies, in the post-socialist transition of the 1990s, serve as particularly powerful symbols in periods of great changes, and how this phenomenon has helped to rethink national histories (Verdery 1999). Therefore, any exhibition of this kind of “symbolic operator” that connects the past and the present (Davallon 2007), proposes a specific interpretation that requires deconstruction. Considering this museumification as a form of heritagisation, I wish then to “demonstrate the ‘socially built’ character of an object perceived by common sense as intrinsically granted by a timeless and universal value” (Heinich 2009, p. 9). I also aim to explore the struggles between the different entities that claim the dead body, and the agency that this corpse gained in a post-Soviet context. I understand here the concept of agency according to Gell’s terminology, as the capacity of action in an agent/patient relationship (Gell 1998, p. 22). Indeed, I argue that despite its status as a heritage object, the mummy is considered by many inhabitants of the Altai Republic, especially the Indigenous Altaians, as an entity with supernatural abilities. Consequently, the living act in response to these assumed capacities for action. The recent museumification of the mummy also revealed the contradictory opinions of the Indigenous inhabitants, their religious specialists and political leaders. The mummy comes from a geographical site whose heritage value is, both informally and institutionally, acknowledged: locally, Altaian people attribute a sacred character to it, and at the federal (Russian) and international (via UNESCO) levels, it is a protected area. Therefore, the human remain can be considered and, as we shall see, is treated, as a heritage object itself. According to Bondaz et al. (2012), heritagisations are “complex processes of selection and requalification that include more or less shared values by different actors”. Along with identifying the multiplicity of meanings that the different actors attribute to this act, this article aims to unravel the power relations between them. Indeed, connecting a multinational gas company to a local museum, and local identities to economic rationales, the mummy’s repatriation shows a complex interlacing of power issues that need to be analysed. Hence the questions: the body being a strong identity marker (Cadot 2009, p. 85), what are the identity stakes in the repatriation of the mummy? What are the politico-economic objectives of the different actors behind the heritagisation of the human remains? Answering these questions concerning “dead-body politics” (Verdery 1999), or “necropolitics” (Bernstein 2011, 2013), will highlight the social, political, and economical stakes intertwined within this heritagisation. The analysis of the museumification of the mummy is also likely to reveal to what extent the logics of heritagisation in the Altai Republic are intrinsically rooted in a religious perception of the territory, and how the museum, its pious atmosphere and the mummy’s body have become the repositories for the political, economic, religious and identity convictions of all the parties involved. In other words, my point can be formulated as follows: insofar as Indigenous identity is built on a strong relationship to the ethnic territory in the perspective of the Soviet construction of nationalities, the mummy, as an emanation of this space, becomes an emblem for the Altaians. The National Museum, as a cultural institution inherited from the Soviet period and where these human remains are kept, condenses this identity into a heterotopia, in the Foucauldian sense of a realised space of the Altaian utopia.

3In order to apprehend these rationales, I propose first to resituate heritage issues in the Russian context. Then I will explore the way the mummy came to integrate the “traditional” system of representations (or worldview) of the Indigenous peoples of the Altai Republic. Later, I will examine what is at stake in the political and economic local situation regarding these human remains and explain why heritagisation has given rise to tensions. Finally, I will consider the choices made in the museum staging of the mummy, what they are meant to refer to, and how they contribute to presenting the museum as a sacred place.

  • 4 All data are from the 2010 Census.
  • 5 In the Russian Federation, Indigenous groups with fewer than 50 000 individuals are characterised a (...)
  • 6 In 1924, Stalin, as a People’s Commissar for Nationalities in Lenin’s government, managed to impose (...)
  • 7 Concerning the term “Indigenous”, I rely on the official translation of the Russian expression kore (...)

4Before we begin our analysis, we must mention that an archaeological discovery with such an international impact could not fail to have a local impact. Numerous researchers specialising in the Altai, mostly from European Russia or Western countries, have already dealt with or discussed this issue (Broz 2009; Doronin 2016; Halemba 2008; Maslov 2006; Pimenova 2019, 2021; Plets 2016; Plets et al. 2011, 2013). A critical analysis of most of their interpretations has recently been carried out by the Altaian ethnologist N. Tadina (2020). The author reduces the scope of these interpretations and emphasises the need to be familiar with the Indigenous system of representations and language. Her article, which was discovered after ours was written, has many points in common with it, although the conclusions are different. This is also the reason why a few words must also be said about the people involved in the study and the methodology. Our article draws on participant observations made in the Altai Republic since 2005. This administrative division of the Russian Federation in South Siberia is the home of the Altaians (Ru. altaitsy). Altaians represent about a third of the republic’s total population, which also includes a majority of Russians (60%), and a minority of Kazakhs (6%). Five Turkic-language ethnic groups have constituted that composite people since the Soviet period (Potapov 1953, pp. 5-7). The Altai-kizhi (who number about 67 3814 and are considered the Altaians proper) and the Telengits (3 712 individuals) were traditionally nomadic herders and have been gradually settled. They live in the villages of the southern steppes and are fairly close culturally to their Mongol neighbours. Residing in the villages of the dense northern forests are the Tubalar (1 965 people), the Chelkans (1 181), and the Kumandins (2 892), ancient groups that lived primarily from hunting, gathering and fishing5. Soon after the October Revolution, these different Turkic-speaking ethnic groups were merged to constitute the Altaian narodnost’ (Ru. “nationality” or “people”)6. In this article, the term “Altaians” refers to the individuals belonging to the subgroups of the Altai-kizhi and Telengits, and I employ alternatively the adjectives “Indigenous” or “native” in order to characterise them7.

5During the years 2010, 2011 and 2014, and summer fieldwork in 2007, 2012, 2015 and 2017, I had the opportunity to observe the haggling, rumours, and enthusiasm for the mummy due to its imminent return to the Altai Republic. I was also able to conduct fieldwork right after its repatriation. I conducted several interviews (on site and remotely via WhatsApp after my return to France) with different actors involved in museumification, and in the projects more or less linked to this process. I observed to which extent this heritagisation was, and still is, at many different levels, a sensitive topic.

The heritage question in Russia: at distance from the international organisations

  • 8 Among many others: Bendix et al. 2013; Bodolec & Obringer 2020; Bortolotto 2011; Bondaz et al. 2012 (...)
  • 9 A geopark is a “territory with a particular geological heritage and with a sustainable territorial (...)
  • 10 UNESCO 1998a, http://whc.unesco.org/en/decisions/2740; 1998b, https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/768/.
  • 11 For a brief overview on the history of museums in general, and in particular ethnographic museums, (...)
  • 12 Some of these areas were already protected under the rule of the Tsar (as, for instance, the Altai (...)
  • 13 For instance, “Folkloristic heritage of mountainous Altai” (Ru. Fol’klornoe nasledie Gornogo Altaia(...)

6Recent research on the heritage question is flourishing, a situation that led N. Heinich to speak about “heritage inflation” (Heinich 2009, p. 15). Most often, issues analysed in publications concern the stakes raised by the recognition of certain practices as World Heritage by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), and show the discrepancies of perceptions of this process by the different concerned actors8. Despite the fact that the Ukok Plateau, from which the mummy was unearthed, is inscribed on the World Heritage List, and that a large part of the Kosh-Agach District (from which Ukok Plateau is part) is now included in a geopark9, the situation observed in this article has less concern with the eventual local adaptation of UNESCO’s decisions than with “dead-body politics” (Verdery 1999). Here is the reason: in October 1988, the Soviet Union ratified the World Heritage Convention. In 1990, the country nominated the first properties to be considered for inscription on the World Heritage List. In 1998, the “Golden Mountains of Altai” were inscribed on the World Heritage List10. Later, the Russian Federation did not ratify the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (2003). However, heritage (Ru. nasledie), here understood as a conservation and transmission practice in the broadest sense of the term, is not a recent concern in Russia. The first occurrence of such a practice in this country dates from 1714, with the establishment of the Kunstkamera in Saint Petersburg, Peter the Great’s cabinet of curiosities which became the first museum in Russia (Chistov et al. 2004). Museumification continued during the Tsarist and Soviet regimes, the latter encouraging the creation of “local history museums” (Ru. kraevedcheskie muzei). Most of these museums appeared in the first decades of the October Revolution and owe their existence to local enthusiasts who tried to rescue objects of historical value from destroyed temples, looted estates and private collections. During the Soviet period, especially in regions with large ethnic minorities, these museums became repositories of the material and spiritual elements of local cultures11. During the same historical period, the institutional power designated many “natural” areas to be protected12. Simultaneously, several attempts occurred to “preserve” the cultural practices of the Indigenous peoples of Russia, while they were, especially during the Soviet period, in reality managed by rulers according to the doctrine “National in form, Socialist in content” (Lane 1981). As such, many traditional rites of the native peoples were transformed in national holidays that glorified their inclusion into the Soviet system. Concerning the Indigenous peoples, numerous publications, edited locally13, testify of the concern about the preservation of their practices. That is to say that in Russia, heritagisation is not achieved through international organisations, but rather through local institutions (administrations, universities, research centres or museums). As such, the social values of heritagisation observed in this article do not matter with the stakes that usually merge by technical and scientific recognition of certain practices as World Heritage by UNESCO. Rather, it aims to analyse the processual dimension of heritagisation in Altai, the political issues that condition its use and the singular meanings that it takes on according to the civil society. As such, this study is in the line of older historical works that had already shown how the heritage project had frequently developed within the framework of the construction of the nation-state, in Europe and beyond, well before the global imposition of this idea via the policies of UNESCO.

The mummy within the Altaian worldview

A plurality of “souls” and the post-mortem fate of individuals

  • 14 It should be noted that almost each Altaian person has shamans among her/his ancestors whose they c (...)

7As mentioned above, the Altai Republic is home to five ethnic groups gathered under the name of “Altaians”. These Indigenous groups “do see themselves as a community through […] a set of common attitudes and practices towards the Altai Mountains” (Halemba 2006, p. 18). According to the Altaian people, the surrounding world is populated by spiritual entities, with which the religious specialists (Alt. neme biler ulus, litt. “people who know something”) can negotiate through collective rites and individual healing rituals to serve their community (their clan once). The main of these specialists is the shaman (Alt. kam), whose ritual abilities are said to be due to his/her election by the spirits of deceased shamans (Alt. tös), and to an inherited “essence” (Alt. uk)14.

Figure 3. Map of the Altai Republic, showing the localisation of the different ethnic groups and the Ukok Princess’ kurgan

Figure 3. Map of the Altai Republic, showing the localisation of the different ethnic groups and the Ukok Princess’ kurgan

© Helder Da Silva (first published in Jacquemoud 2015). Courtesy of the Musée Barbier-Mueller

  • 15 In the Altaian (and more broadly South Siberian) traditional worldview, things can also be inhabite (...)
  • 16 According to Anohin (1924, pp. 6, 20), the “harmful spirits [Alt. üzüt] are souls of the dead”, whi (...)

8Included in this shamanism is the idea of the duality of living beings. This duality is made manifest by the supposed presence of several “entities” (“souls”) that reside in the bodies of living beings15. When an individual dies, it is necessary to attend carefully to the future of his or her “souls”, as death is seen as a transition. For the Altaians, as for many other native peoples in Eurasia (Delaplace 2008; D’iakonova 1975; Møller Kristensen 2014), funerals are thus important ceremonies to separate the “souls” from the body and guide “them” to the world of the dead. This departure of the “souls” must be done in the proper manner: the deceased must not turn into a maleficent spirit, one that attempts to appropriate or feed on the “souls” of the living16. Moreover, with time, he becomes a protective ancestor, a transition where, according to Cadot, “notion of individuality and memory tend to disappear through neantisation” (2009, p. 86).

On the danger of disturbing the dead, or the mummy’s revenge

  • 17 According to Marco Polo (Hambis 1955, p. 81), the Altai was considered a necropolis for the great c (...)
  • 18 To avoid such consequences, a decree was promulgated in 1997 by the State Assembly of the Altai Rep (...)

9The souls of the dead that are not properly escorted are thought to wander in quest of the “souls” of the living and can make them sick or even kill them. Harmful deaths (people drowned or dead in a car accident for instance) are supposed to especially produce this kind of hungry souls and are particularly feared. It also is for this reason that the Altaians consider cemeteries and burial places like kurgans a danger. By the way, the abundance of the latter throughout the Altai tends to turn it into a huge cemetery17. Some local Indigenous people believe that the burial mounds, once opened during archaeological excavations, serve as passageways for the harmful entities coming from the world “below”. In this respect, caves in Altai were described to me several times as the “mouths of the earth” (Alt. t’er oozy). That perception can be linked to the expressions found in the epics: “mouth of the earth below” (Alt. t’er taamynyŋ oozy), or “jaws of hell”, according to Baskakov and Toshchakova (2005, p. 137), an opening in the ground through which the hero reaches the world of his enemy. In the sensationalist documentary “Revenge of the Altai Princess” (Sidorov 2006), the ritual specialist A. Kine portrays the mummy as a “guard of that type of door” (see at the 21st min). Moreover, while archaeologists return home without concern for the consequences of their digs for the locals, it is up to the latter to handle potentially harmful consequences of their activities18. If that is certainly the case for the mummy, this case is not unique nor recent. When K. F. von Ledebour carried out the first scientific excavations of kurgans in Altai in 1826, he reported that native clan members accused him of disturbing the “peace of their fathers” (Ledebour et al. 1993, p. 99). In this contemporary case, the Altaians face an additional problem: not only do they find themselves with an opening in the ground to the world below, but they also have to deal with the body of a dead woman, which is supposed to have disappeared and been forgotten for millennia!

Figure 4. Pazyryk kurgans, Ulagan District, Altai Republic, 2011

Figure 4. Pazyryk kurgans, Ulagan District, Altai Republic, 2011

Soviet archaeologists S. I. Rudenko and M. P. Griaznov, who have carried out archaeological excavations there between 1929 and 1949, already found mummies in these burial mounds. The mummies now rest in the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg

© Clément Jacquemoud

  • 19 A picture with H. Clinton in front of the mummy in 1997 can be seen at https://www.gorno-altaisk.in (...)
  • 20 Shown on the main state channel, the film was criticised for a lack of professionalism on the part (...)

10Since its exhumation in 1993 and its transfer to Novosibirsk, many Altaian ritual specialists and laypersons have claimed to be in contact with the dead woman’s “spirit” (Alt. körmös/süne), which demands to be returned to Altai, at the risk of cataclysms. Among the more or less fabulous accounts, relayed (or fabricated) by the press, can be mentioned the crash of the helicopter that transported the mummy to Novosibirsk (an emergency landing in fact), and the death of the archaeologists who participated in the exhumation. A decade later, in 2003, an earthquake ravaged the village of Bel’tir. Then severe weather and waves of suicides struck the region (figs 5 and 6). It is possible to add to these ailments attributed to the mummy the events that affected Russia (the Russian constitutional crisis in 1993, the first Chechen War in 1994, and more recently, the war in Ukraine: Anonym 2014a) or other countries (Hillary Clinton’s defeat at the United States presidential election in 2016 is said to be due to her visit to the mummy in Novosibirsk twenty years earlier, when she was first lady, cf. Klikushin 201719). The interpretation given to these ailments sounds like the “curse of the Pharaohs” (Maslov 2006; Halemba 2008). In the Russian esoteric movement, the film “Revenge of the Altai Princess” (see above) plays on these representations20.

Figure 5. A poster posted in 2014 on a Gorno-Altaisk street calling for the reburial of the mummy, Altai Republic

Figure 5. A poster posted in 2014 on a Gorno-Altaisk street calling for the reburial of the mummy, Altai Republic

Translation: “Every day without a grave is a mockery! Just like the fake exhibition! Return the body to the earth immediately!”

© Clément Jacquemoud

Figure 6. A poster posted in 2014 on a Gorno-Altaisk street listing the cataclysms supposedly caused by the exhumed mummy, Altai Republic

Figure 6. A poster posted in 2014 on a Gorno-Altaisk street listing the cataclysms supposedly caused by the exhumed mummy, Altai Republic

Translation: “Three predictions have already come true. Waiting for the advent of the fourth will be fatal for us! Earth – earthquake / Water – floods (May) / Air – hurricanes (June) / Fire – war (September?)”

© Clément Jacquemoud

11More and more people report having been visited by the mummy in their dreams, asking to be reburied properly in the Ukok Plateau. These events give the mummy an individuality that was supposed to have been dissolved by time, and contributes to reinscribing it in a cultural memory. The individualisation process tends to credit the human remains with a certain agency (Gell 1998). In other words, the mummy potentially has the capacity to influence humans’ lives and, which is more worrying, negatively. This is the reason why Altaian ritual specialists have, in turn, increased the fervour of their demands of repatriation towards authorities.

12It should be noted that the request for repatriation concerned only the mummy of the young woman, not the male mummies discovered in the Pazyryk tumuli in the first half of the 20th century and in that of Veh-Kal’dzhin II in 1995. An informant justifies the difference in treatment by the mystery surrounding the social role of the young woman, which is open to all kinds of (over-)interpretations, and by what was done to her when she was discovered (video showing how archaeologists thawed her out with boiling water). And she was unearthed at an opportune moment in history, when the Altaians wanted to show their particular identity among the different ethnic groups of southern Siberia. It is also likely that a female mummy caused more of a stir than the discovery of a male.

The Nation’s ancestor

  • 21 For more details on the subject, see Broz 2009.
  • 22 The process is a little bit different, but Kazakh families, living in Altai for generations, are al (...)
  • 23 The lack of sovereignty felt by Indigenous peoples of Siberia on their own territories, and the str (...)

13A further representation was grafted onto the mummy. According to Indigenous worldview, Altaian identity is grounded in a special relationship to the territory: “the Altaians and the Altai are so tightly bound up that at times they cannot be considered as ontologically separate entities” (Halemba 2006, p. 75). This is partly due to the legacy of the Soviet period which, within the evolutionist perspective of the ethnos theory exposed earlier, attached ethnic groups to a territory. Such a representation makes contemporary Altaians descendants of the region’s former inhabitants21. From this Soviet conception of ethnogenesis the mummy, emerging from the Altaian soil, is considered as Altaian (Halemba 2008, pp. 284, 295). Her exhumation and transfer to the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography in Novosibirsk thus represent a rupture between the mummy and the Republic’s territory22. Given that rupture was brought about by non-Altaians, the feeling of dispossession among the native people was coupled with the conviction of not enjoying any real power of decision-making over their republic, and over their destiny23.

14The multiplicity of names given to the mummy reflects the desire of some Altaians to appropriate it (Cadot 2009, p. 83). Among others, she is called “Altai Princess”, “Ukok Princess”, “Amazonka” (Ru. the Amazon), “Ak Kadyn” (Alt. the White Lady), “Kan Bala” (Alt. the Child King), and “Ochy Bala” (Alt. Little Sister, from the Altaian epic of the same name [Gatsak et al. 1997]). These designations attribute all sorts of qualities to the mummy, in accordance with the Altaian assessment of values: heroic horsewoman and knight, chief and protector, shamaness, and so forth (fig. 7).

Figure 7. Reconstitution of a Scythian woman in the mummy’s mausoleum, inside the A. V. Anohin National Museum, Gorno-Altaisk, Altai Republic

Figure 7. Reconstitution of a Scythian woman in the mummy’s mausoleum, inside the A. V. Anohin National Museum, Gorno-Altaisk, Altai Republic

Note that the female character holds a branch of juniper, a plant used in shamanic rituals. Associated to the stuffed eagle, this indirectly gives the status of a religious specialist to the mummy

© R. Erkinova. Courtesy of the A. V. Anohin National Museum

  • 24 N. Polos’mak ventures some hypotheses about the woman, who was of unusual height (2001, pp. 275-277 (...)
  • 25 It is noticeable that archaeologist N. Polos’mak, in her recent publications about the discovery of (...)
  • 26 See also the film that retraces the reconstitution of the mummy’s bust by Swiss preparator M. Nyffe (...)

15Since its discovery twenty-five years ago, a “post-mortem biography” has been attributed to the mummy. These appellations give the “Ice Maiden” a completely different biography relative to the time she was alive, of which little is actually known (Doronin 2016, p. 75)24. In so doing, the mummy is transformed from an archaeological find into a cultural subject. Human remains become an entity with values that justify their specific treatment. Although analyses have revealed that the mummy was Indo-European and not genetically related to contemporary natives (Broz 2009, p. 50; Halemba 2008, p. 295; Plets et al. 2013, p. 79)25, these personality traits contribute to elevating the mummy to the rank of “the Altaian nation’s ancestor”. For instance, in the film “Revenge of the Altai Princess, director of the A. V. Anohin National Museum in Gorno-Altaisk R. Erkinova, says: “we see [the mummy] as our ancestor” (in Russian, my zhe eë shchitaem svoei praroditel’nitsei, see at the 43rd min). Altaian ritual specialist A. Kine expressed his opposition to the excavation in these words: “When the Russian archaeologists will exhume [the bodies of] their mothers and will present [them] to me, I will tell them that they can dig [in Altai]” (ibid., 29 min 15)26.

  • 27 During the Soviet period, people and journalists were seeking “truth” (note that the term translate (...)

16The invention of ancestors by a social group to define indigeneity is not an uncommon occurrence in heritage processes. Imagined kinship which, as we have seen, dates from the first excavations in Altai (Ledebour et al. 1993, p. 99), contributes to establishing biological link between buried bodies and the living. Establishing such a genetic continuum can be apprehended as a means to divert an official discourse emanating from structures of power and presented as “truth”, a particularly controversial notion in the post-Soviet context27. This form of “bricolages” (Lévi-Strauss 1968) emerges as strategies of resistance (Scott 2009) to authority, with which it can be difficult to negotiate.

Local and international stakes of repatriation

For the sake of unity or… Lenin mirrored

  • 28 Cf. Anonym 2012. In August 2014, Altaian religious specialist A. Kine proposed me to accompany him (...)

17When the mummy was repatriated in 2012 to the State Museum of Gorno-Altaisk, religious specialists, some of them considered as shamans, participated in the welcoming ceremony. Because of their presence, the ritual gestures performed (invocations, blessings, milk sprinkling, etc.), and the arrival of the body in a coffin, the event can be read as the funeral of a relative in the Altaian tradition that reinforced the mummy’s “ancestor” status. As Geshiere argues, “burial may be taken as the ‘ultimate test of belonging’” (2005, in Stepputat 2014a, p. 7). According to a middle-aged female informant (D. I., WhatsApp interview, 2021), Altaian religious specialists had to act this way as, we have seen, the dead body was potentially harmful and may cause disasters. The fact that the latter did not cease after the repatriation (floods and hailstorm in 2014, see fig. 6) is said to be due to “improperly conducted funerals”. This is the reason why those who demanded the mummy’s return then petitioned that it be reburied on the Ukok Plateau, where it comes from and where they routinely perform rituals to appease the deceased spirit28. Beyond the representations associated with the mummy, its return to Altai raises both local and international issues.

Figure 8. Unveiling of the signatures of the petition asking for the reburial of the mummy on the Ukok Plateau, Gorno-Altaisk, 6 October 2014

Figure 8. Unveiling of the signatures of the petition asking for the reburial of the mummy on the Ukok Plateau, Gorno-Altaisk, 6 October 2014

© Clément Jacquemoud

  • 29 See note 5.

18For local politicians and especially Indigenous ones, the mummy is seen as a potential unifying factor, as some dead bodies helped to recast national histories elsewhere (Verdery 1999). Since the fall of the USSR, the cohesion of the Altaians as a “people” (see earlier) is perceived as the guarantor of the republic’s “autonomous” status within the Russian Federation (Halemba 2003). However, it has been challenged by identity politics and claims of different subgroups29. The question of the common denominator that will allow the Altaians to lay the foundations for a national identity therefore arose.

  • 30 From an interview with A. Arjakovsky on France Culture (2018).

19According to historian A. Arjakovsky, first President of Russia B. Eltsin (1991-1999) would have said by the end of the 1990s that “a national ideology is needed to set up the Russian nation”, and V. Putin would find it in the Orthodox Church30. During the 1990s, Altaians were also in search of such an ideology. Studies have shown that religion could not play this unifying role (Broz 2009, 2011; Halemba 2003, 2006; Jacquemoud 2017). The mummy surfaced at the right time. Lévi-Strauss, following Sharp’s analysis in The Savage Mind, distinguishes commemorative or historical rites from mourning rites (1968, pp. 236-237). He argues that the former “recreate the sacred and beneficial atmosphere of mythical times, […] mirroring its protagonists and their great deeds, [while the latter, as an inverse procedure], assure the conversion of men who are no longer living men into ancestors” (id.). Interestingly, the mummy’s funerals combined these two perspectives. Transporting the present into the past, and at the same time the past into the present, the ritual, reflecting the society’s investment, caused what Houseman and Severi call a “ritual condensation of normally mutually exclusive relationships” (2009, p. 208). Such a configuration enhanced the character of ancestor of the dead body, and at the same time the feeling of unity both with the latter and within the Indigenous society itself.

  • 31 A similar interpretation was suggested by D. Maslov (2006).
  • 32 See also the reconstitution of the mummy’s clothing in the film “The Horsewoman of Ukok” (Barhatova (...)
  • 33 For example, on the occasion of the museum night (website of the A. V. Anohin National Museum of th (...)
  • 34 Many museums or institutions around the world can be considered as heterotopias. Regarding China, I (...)

20From a political point of view, the mummy itself also symbolises this unity albeit seemingly31. Compared to Lenin’s Mausoleum on Red Square, and its embalmed resident, that had become one of the strongest elements of the system of Soviet rites and representations (Ingerflom & Kondratieva 1999), the mummy of the “Altai Princess” came to symbolise the heart of Altaian territory. Altaian people are proud to exhibit reproductions of the artefacts discovered in the kurgan. Local stylists create fashion collections based on the mummy’s felt clothes, and some Indigenous artists producing worldwide present themselves as Altai Princesses (fig. 9)32. In addition, shows of this “ethnic fashion” are regularly held in the museum33. The museum, in that configuration, figures as a kind of heterotopia, in the Foucauldian sense of “real places, effective places, places drawn in the institution itself of the society, and that figure as sorts of counter-spaces, as sorts of actually achieved utopias, in which all other real spaces that one can find inside culture are at the same time represented, contested and inverted” (Foucault [1984] 2004, p. 15)34. The museum becomes a place that Indigenous people want because it brings together the main elements of their ethnic identity. Paradoxically, they do not fully want it because it emanates from political decisions taken without their consent and contains relics considered dangerous.

Figure 9. Reconstitution of the mummy’s costume by Indigenous fashion designer V. Saksaeva in a fashion show, Gorno-Altaisk, Altai Republic, 2011

Figure 9. Reconstitution of the mummy’s costume by Indigenous fashion designer V. Saksaeva in a fashion show, Gorno-Altaisk, Altai Republic, 2011

© Clément Jacquemoud. Courtesy of V. Saksaeva

  • 35 On Lenin, see the interview with A. Iurchak (Iurchak et al. 2016) and Iurchak 2013. The situation i (...)

21Now visitors, mainly Russian and foreign tourists, come to pay tribute to the human remains in a museum turned into a place of pilgrimage, just as people used to visit Lenin. The mummy’s body contributes to representing Altai in a similar way that Lenin’s harked back to the USSR. The mummy thus became the territory’s token of unity and independence that distinguishes its singularity vis-à-vis its neighbours (other regions of Russia, such as Republics of Khakassia and Tuva). The resemblance does not end there. Just as Lenin was the “grandfather” of all the Soviets, the mummy, “ancestralised”, has in appearance become a “grandmother” for all Altaians. Finally, the preservation treatment of the mummy was provided by the special institute in charge of Lenin’s body in Moscow. Ultimately, almost one century after Lenin’s mummification, and ten years after the mummy’s return to Altai, the problematic associated with the future of the human remains is the same: in both cases, no one really knows what to do with the body, whether it should be buried or not, nor where and how35.

22This thorny situation seems to be Russia’s fate. According to Bernstein, this political use of dead bodies is defined both “as controlling mortality and as related to the activity and discourses around dead bodies” (Bernstein 2011, p. 624). Drawing on this issue, Borneman relies on Marx, who wrote “in the introduction to Capital that ‘the tradition of the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living’” (Borneman 2014, p. 236). But for him, “the communist leaders were unable to govern the dead. Rather they placed themselves inside the nightmare of the dead generations by disappearing the dead imperial family, mummifying the body of Lenin, and cremating and officially deeming as ungrievable – even in the private sphere – the millions who suffered death because of the regime” (Stepputat 2014b, p. 28; Borneman 2014, pp. 236-237). Indeed, while eviscerating the material remnants of the Tsarist regime (physical bodies, among other symbols), the communist leaders preserved the memory of the October Revolution by mummifying Lenin’s body (Borneman 2014, p. 236).

  • 36 Dashi-Dorzho Itigelov died in 1927.
  • 37 It is also possible to quote B. Bartók’s reburial in Hungary in 1988.

23Earlier, Verdery (1999) already noted that, in a period of political transformation, the corpses of political leaders and cultural heroes accrued certain powers leading to a struggle over appropriating those powers, and to the exhumation and displacement of their bodies. As strong identity markers (Cadot 2009, p. 85), dead bodies are a key component for nationalistic purposes. Examples of such “necropolitics” (Bernstein 2011) are numerous in post-socialist countries: the exhumed body of the last head lama (Hambo Lama) from the time of the Russian Empire in 2002, the Buryat Dashi-Dorzho Itigelov36, has also been exposed in a glass case at the Ivolginsk monastery in Buryatia. That of Bishop Inochentie Micu, the Transylvanian priest of the 18th century, long buried in Rome, was returned to Romania for reburial in 199737. Alongside with the Altai Princess’ case, the exhibition and/or reburial of dead bodies can be understood as a means of controlling the construction of a kinship ideology, essential to the formation of a national identity.

In the name of the economy, or the mummy at the heart of local and geopolitical issues

  • 38 Tourism is one of the government’s priorities for the socio-economic development of the region unti (...)
  • 39 In 2021, over 2 million visitors came to the region (website of the Government of the Altai Republi (...)
  • 40 Unlike many other regions of Russia during the Soviet period, Altai had no industries on its territ (...)
  • 41 Many fairs and exhibitions on Siberian traditions are regularly organised throughout the Russian Fe (...)

24Local people’s demands regarding the mummy’s reburial on the Ukok Plateau mask economic and geostrategic issues of international dimensions. The mummy’s repatriation in the Altai Republic goes along with the strong involvement of the local, as well as federal administrative structures in the promotion of tourism. This activity is locally advertised as the only way for the region to become less dependent on Moscow’s subsidies38. It should be kept in mind that the aim of the policy currently in place at the highest echelons of the Russian Federation is also to instil the desire in Russian tourists to travel in their own country (which at the same time entails holding onto capital and stimulating the local economy)39. The focus is on the ecologically preserved environment of the Altai Mountains40, and goes along with the promotion of outdoor leisure (skiing, mountaineering, rafting and other water sports, thermalism, etc.). Cultural activities are not left out: the Festival of Altaian cultures El Oyin, which takes place every two years in a different district of the Republic, is the local showcase of Indigenous traditions. Those perceived to be the most “authentic” and original are also advertised far beyond the borders of the region41. In other words, at a time when questions are being raised, especially about increased tourism in the republic, the games perceived as traditional and Altaian, along with throat singing, “sell well” to passing through.

  • 42 Numerous tourist camps (Ru. turbaza) along the Katun River schedule a weekly visit to the museum, a (...)

25The mummy’s repatriation in the Altai Republic is at the heart of this politics. The visit of the museum and its mausoleum is likely to strike the visitors42, especially those who travelled to Altai filled with New Age representations of the territory, in the same way as participation in a shamanic ritual. The “meeting” with the dead body will become one of the lasting memories the numerous tourists take home.

  • 43 The idea of such a project was launched in 2006 (Anonym 2006).
  • 44 A 3-volume edition of the research materials of these studies was published in 2016 (Derevianko 201 (...)
  • 45 In August 2018, the President of the Russian Federation decided an alternative route that will pass (...)

26International geopolitical issues are also at stake. Until the official abandonment of the project in 2019, gas company Gazprom planned to construct a major pipeline through Altai to China (“Power of Siberia-2”), which would cross the international border in the Ukok Plateau43. During the years 2011-2012, I observed in the Kosh-Agach region how archaeologists of the Russian Academy of Sciences commissioned by the gas company conducted preventive studies of the hundreds of archaeological monuments the pipeline will pass by44. Irremediable damage on this UNESCO-protected area, considered as a sacred landscape by the Altaian people, rich in permafrost and endangered fauna and flora, led to vehement criticism in the Altai Republic as well as in Russia and beyond its borders45.

27Alongside with the renovation of the museum and the mummy’s return, the gas company has financed many other projects in the Altai Republic, like the reconstruction of the local airport, roads, sports facilities and schools (Anonym 2007; Plets 2016, p. 373). Before entering the subterranean hall where the Altai Princess is stored, all visitors must pass through a room displaying Gazprom’s achievements. The latter can be apprehended as a way to buy “social peace” in Altai. As Plets (et al.) states: “Through facilitating the return of the Altai Princess, Gazprom aimed to resolve Altai’s most important symbolic conflict and ultimately gain more credibility and approval. While Gazprom has no intrinsic attachment to regional archaeological heritage, its officials value the significance of heritage to the Indigenous people, as a type of capital that when exchanged enables it to pursue construction plans” (Plets et al. 2013, p. 84). Elsewhere, the same author asserts: “Compared to prior opposition to large construction processes in the Altai Republic (i.e., dam), Gazprom was successful in challenging existing value systems and undercutting political opposition to the project using culture” (2016, p. 379). In that sense, the repatriation to the Altai Republic of the mummy of the Ukok Princess (or Altai Princess) and, what is more, in a brand-new museum, can be interpreted in several ways: on the one hand, it responds (for a part) to the Altaians’ requests, and stresses ethnic identity; on the other, it pleases the federal and local governments, since the mummy is becoming a featured tourist attraction.

28M. Godelier, drawing on M. Mauss’s approach on the “gift”, argues that “to give is always to keep something of the giver in the given thing”. Thus, gifts figure as “inalienable but alienated things” (2007, pp. 87-88). In a traditional Altaian society, where gift plays a fundamental role, where “things” are seen as carrying an essence (spirit or soul) of their previous owner, the mummy and the museum can be apprehended as remaining to Gazprom. If, as suggests N. Heinich (2009), heritagisation is “to retain to transmit”, then the perception of “given-but-not” of the museumification is also retained and transmitted. Although antireligious, the Soviet society was extremely ritualistic and symbolic (Lane 1981). Such “given-but-not” symbols (the museum and the mummy) reinforce the feeling of continuity with the Soviet period, and the impression of dispossession of their sovereignty and destiny by the Altaians. If at first glance two worldviews (capitalist and traditional shamanic) seem to be in tension in the museumification, the analysis reveals that the stakes remain the same (effective and symbolic takeover on a territory) and can be seen under the same prism by the different actors.

Staging issues: from a lay sanctuary to a temple

  • 46 Such an impression was also determined by K. Pimenova (2019, p. 277, 2021). According to the author (...)

29After the exploration of the institutional dimension of the staging or, in other words, the culture-economical stakes that gravitate around the museum, let us now explore its technical dimension, and the kind of effect it is likely to produce on the public. Davallon and Flon suggest (2013) that the staging of the museum is an interpretative dispositive that produces meanings for the public. The staging of the mummy in the National Museum, conceived by local archaeologist and curator S. Kireev, clearly creates the impression that you are entering a subterranean kurgan (tumulus), imagined as a sacred place46. Visitors have to descend to the basement via a black marble staircase to the sound of muffled music and subdued lighting. The tomb at the time of the death of the mummy is reproduced and can be admired from both up and side. Then, walking next to a giant mural reproduction of one of the mummy’s tattoos, the visitors discover, in a niche in the wall, the mummy huddled in a refrigerated glass sarcophagus and concealed under a black veil (figs 10-12).

Figure 10. The mausoleum inside the A. V. Anohin National Museum, Gorno-Altaisk, Altai Republic

Figure 10. The mausoleum inside the A. V. Anohin National Museum, Gorno-Altaisk, Altai Republic

© R. Erkinova. Courtesy of the A. V. Anohin National Museum

Figure 11. The reconstitution of the mummy’s tomb in the mausoleum, inside the A. V. Anohin National Museum, Gorno-Altaisk, Altai Republic, 2014

Figure 11. The reconstitution of the mummy’s tomb in the mausoleum, inside the A. V. Anohin National Museum, Gorno-Altaisk, Altai Republic, 2014

© Clément Jacquemoud. Courtesy of the A. V. Anohin National Museum

Figure 12. Visitors looking at the mummy under a black veil in a niche in the mausoleum, inside the A. V. Anohin National Museum, Gorno-Altaisk, Altai Republic, 2014

Figure 12. Visitors looking at the mummy under a black veil in a niche in the mausoleum, inside the A. V. Anohin National Museum, Gorno-Altaisk, Altai Republic, 2014

© Clément Jacquemoud. Courtesy of the A. V. Anohin National Museum

30Diving thus in the scenery, the visitors find themselves adopting a posture of respect toward the place. Although there are no strict rules concerning the visitor’s behaviour, as for Lenin’s Mausoleum, the place is ambiguous: the former Soviet museum seems no longer to be a museum, but neither does the place aspire to be explicitly religious like a temple, although some hints lead to interpret it in religious terms.

31Altaian people are not keen on spending time in the museum. That is the reason why most visitors are tourists from other regions of Russia and from abroad, whose visit to the museum is often included in the tour. Most of my native informants have never actually visited the museum and assured me that they never would. Among the few who have done so, even rarer are those who entered the mausoleum. Many Altaians told me that they were afraid to see the mummy in their dreams, and that they even thought this part of the museum was closed to the public and that access was only for VIPs. It is widely known in Altai that some museum staff members said they heard the mummy crying and asking to be reburied. For the Indigenous visitors who entered the mausoleum in my company, I observed how, in their pious attitude, they did not even glance at the sarcophagus where the mummy lies. As K. Pimenova also noticed, visitors in general are inclined to perform a ritual gesture in the mausoleum (small offerings, verbal formulas…) (2021, pp. 259-261). According to her, museum employees encourage these expressions of ritual creativity (ibid., p. 267). The staging aimed at recreating the conditions of the burial is, of course, illusory, but the museographic showcase thus created enhances and engages the respect for the piece on display. It allows the object to be connected to a chronological, geographical and cultural context, while the emotional impact is neither tempered nor rationalised, leaving the public with some room for interpretation encouraged by the staff. The museum becomes then a permissive space where counternarratives and contradictory practices are deployed.

  • 47 See Bulgakova’s article in this volume for comparable behaviours among the Nanai.

32However, Indigenous people’s dedicated attitude towards the museum is not only due to the presence of the Altai Princess. Many shamanic artefacts are stored or displayed in the institution. People tell stories about these spiritually charged objects causing misfortunes to those who collected them47. Altaians prefer to stay away from the museum, and entering the place with such thoughts in mind is therefore for them a religious experience, a kind of ritual.

Figure 13. The mummy unveiled in its stylised sarcophagus, inside the A. V. Anohin National Museum, Gorno-Altaisk, Altai Republic

Figure 13. The mummy unveiled in its stylised sarcophagus, inside the A. V. Anohin National Museum, Gorno-Altaisk, Altai Republic

© R. Erkinova. Courtesy of the A. V. Anohin National Museum

  • 48 For instance, Russian and French scholars I travelled with to Altai in summer 2017 were authorised (...)

33Unlike Lenin, the mummy, under its black veil, eludes the gaze of visitors. The body remains can only be contemplated during the waxing moon, a period considered as beneficial according to the traditional Altaian worldview, or by a privileged few48. There is an interaction between what is shown and what is hidden in the central space. Houseman (2012) argued that dissimulation is for a great part responsible for the success of the ritual. The rite of passage (through the world of death) reaches its maximum effect with the exit and return to daylight into the souvenir shop.

34With such an end that plunges back into the contemporary world, the tour proposed by the museum is also open to question. As mentioned before, the room mentioning Gazprom’s achievements in the Altai Republic is located just before the mausoleum. One can note that this room could have been placed everywhere else in the museum, more logically by the entrance, to underline that the refurbishment of the museum and the mummy’s return are due to the gas company. In the current conditions, wouldn’t it be logical to apprehend this room as a metaphor for the liminal part, in Turner’s terms (1969), of a ritual, where key elements of a society (its rules and hierarchy) are put into play and negated? Here, the status of museum of the place would be negated, while the space would be sacralised.

Figure 14. The A. V. Anohin National Museum in Gorno-Altaisk, Altai Republic

Figure 14. The A. V. Anohin National Museum in Gorno-Altaisk, Altai Republic

© Clément Jacquemoud

35Stepputat asserts that mortuary rituals “represent the purification of the soul/spirit and the ‘alchemy’ that transforms death into fertility as a ‘gift’ of the authorities (Bloch and Parry 1982, p. 41), which, as Kaufman and Morgan note, in the same movement ‘sacralises authority’ (2005)” (2014b, p. 22). During the tour in Gazprom’s room, artefacts and photographs of Alexander Berdnikov, former president of the Altai Republic, and Alexei Miller, Gazprom’s CEO, are exposed with the same respect due to Orthodox icons from the 15th century. Within such a configuration, shouldn’t the Altai Princess, the local tsar and the oligarch (patriarch of the capitalist religion) be considered as a newly worshipped Trinity, of which the museum has become the temple? It would echo with the “new Trinity of the post-Soviet times: marketization, privatization and democratization” (Verdery 2000). The question remains open.

Conclusion

36As L. Cadot asserts, “the understanding of the [cultural] values attributed at the moment of heritage recognition must be at the centre of the reflection in that they constitute the very justification for entry to the museum” (2009, p. 85). The analysis of the mummy’s return to Altai reveals some of the facets of the system of representation of the region’s Indigenous inhabitants, particularly concerning the afterlife of dead persons, but it also shows that this heritagisation conceals many contemporary political, economic, and geostrategic issues of the globalised world. The repatriation of the remains of the “Altai Princess” has made it possible to defuse the polemics surrounding local socio-political questions. The spectacular public “funerals” organised for this return aimed at cutting ties with a problematic past. In a Soviet approach of ethnogenesis, the dead body turned then into a “revealing” of Altaian identity that overcomes religious divisions and transcends the aspirations of unity that emanates from the central government. It can also be perceived as a catalyst in distinguishing the Altai within the other Turkic-speaking groups of the Siberian post-Soviet space.

  • 49 Since 1990, the Kremlin and the Red Square, and consequently Lenin’s Mausoleum, are part of UNESCO (...)

37However, according to Russian heritage laws the Ukok Princess’ mummy, as Lenin’s, cannot be re-inhumed49. We observed that, by indirect means, the dead body plays an important role in the legitimation (and sacralisation) of authority. This “necropolitical affair” did not only revise the past, it also gave new meaning to the political community in a moment of crisis, and reordered the claims for the cultural sovereignty and legitimacy over the Altaian territory within the Russian Federation. In the end, it can be situated within the continuity of Soviet politics, where archaeological activities serve both for cultural and political purposes as well as for economic development. In such a perspective, that repatriation shows that the relations the native people maintain with the territory and its resources are suggested to that population by top officials of the Russian Federal State.

38The museum is, in that configuration, a powerful political instrument. As such, it figures as a kind of heterotopia. The museum, filled with a multiplicity of representations (a place for knowledge concerning the region, but also a religious space in the town centre for many of its non-Indigenous visitors), fits perfectly into local development policy, which seeks to make tourism the region’s primary economic resource. A glance at the mummy will become one of the lasting memories the tourist takes home, as it was with Lenin’s body during the Soviet period. And the effect is the same, a sense of unity: unity of all the Altaians, unity of the Altaians and Russia. It is particularly obvious that Altai belongs to the Russian Federation when it is repositioned on the geopolitical and economic chessboard of the contemporary world.

39The act of repatriation also appears central to contemporary dynamics of an ethical order, concerning the return of patrimonial cultural goods to the ethnic groups from which they were taken. Viewed within a broader perspective, these goods are catalysts for the “relational ethics” (Wastiau 2019) that some countries now feel to have the obligation to envision vis-à-vis the native peoples living on their territory. In fact, if ethnic groups think they do not have a say in the exploration of the riches of their territory, the lack of transparency and the underlying issues with respect to restitution can only increase that impression of dispossession. In the case of Altai, the different forms taken by the Indigenous people’s appropriation of the mummy appear to be among the many attempts to resist the stranglehold of the Russian federal state. The repatriation then contributes to illustrate what agitates and makes Russia today, and to which extent the post-Soviet state continues to be saturated with specific political values.

Acknowledgements

40My thanks to Jean-Luc Lambert (École Pratique des Hautes Études, Paris) for his proofreading of an earlier version of this article. I am also grateful to Anne Dalles, Pascale-Marie Milan, Yann Borjon-Privé and the anonymous proofreaders for their sensible advice. Thanks also to Rimma Erkinova, director of the A. V. Anohin National Museum in Gorno-Altaisk, for having kindly provided me with the photographs, and Helder Da Silva for the map.

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Notes

1 The term kurgan is originally a Turkic word.

2 For more information about the discovery process by Russian archaeologists, see Polos’mak 2001, 2015 and Polos’mak & Barkova 2005.

3 Gazprom is a multinational energy corporation, the number one exploiter and global exporter of natural gas. It is closely controlled by the Russian state, which owns most of its stock. The contracts signed by the company mirror certain political decisions.

4 All data are from the 2010 Census.

5 In the Russian Federation, Indigenous groups with fewer than 50 000 individuals are characterised as “indigenous small-numbered peoples of the Russian Federation”. As such, they are qualified for rights, privileges and state support earmarked for Indigenous peoples (Donahoe et al. 2008). In the Altai Republic, Telengits, Tubalars, Chelkans and Kumandins are granted such a status, while the Altai-kizhi are not, as they are too numerous. This disequilibrium between the communities led to tensions (ibid.; Halemba 2006).

6 In 1924, Stalin, as a People’s Commissar for Nationalities in Lenin’s government, managed to impose his tripartite evolutionary paradigm of ethnic communities (plemia [“tribe”], narodnost’ [“nationality” or “people”] and natsiia [“nation”]) (Donahoe et al. 2008, pp. 995-997; Hirsch 2005, Chapters 1 and 2). During the 1930s, in line with the Soviet ethnogenesis conceptions of ethnicity, the term ethnos was imposed. This concept is defined “as a historically formed community of people possessing common, relatively stable specific features of [language, territory and] culture, as well as being aware of their unity and difference from other similar communities” (Bromley 1971, pp. 49-50). As such, archaeological activities functioned as a basis for establishing nationalities in a territory (Mihailov 2013). For more information about this process during the first years of the Soviet era, see Chichlo 1987; Donahoe et al. 2008 and Hirsch 2005. After World War II, Soviet ethnography would become the study of ethnos (Hirsch 2005, p. 197). After the fall of the Soviet Union, the official denomination of Indigenous peoples of the Russian Federation changed from narodnosti to narody (Donahoe et al. 2008, p. 997).

7 Concerning the term “Indigenous”, I rely on the official translation of the Russian expression korennye narody (litt. “root people”) as “Indigenous peoples” (see also Donahoe et al. 2008, p. 997), independently from the meanings international agencies such as UNESCO associate to the word. Current characterisation of Indigenous peoples in the Russian Federation comes from the application of the ethnos theory during the first years of the Soviet regime.

8 Among many others: Bendix et al. 2013; Bodolec & Obringer 2020; Bortolotto 2011; Bondaz et al. 2012; Drouin 2006; Givre & Regnault 2015; Hertz & Chappaz-Wirthner 2012; Jeudy 1990.

9 A geopark is a “territory with a particular geological heritage and with a sustainable territorial development strategy” (Frey et al. 2001, quoted by Mc Keever & Zouros 2005, p. 275). As such, the considered sites represent an earth science interest, and the protection and use of their geological heritage goes along with the promotion of the economic well-being of the people who live there. Since 2015, members of the Global Geoparks Network are officially designated by UNESCO. Creation of the Geopark “Altai” officially started in 2014, after a delegation from Geopark “Bauges” (France) came to the republic to meet with local policy-makers.

10 UNESCO 1998a, http://whc.unesco.org/en/decisions/2740; 1998b, https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/768/.

11 For a brief overview on the history of museums in general, and in particular ethnographic museums, see Carmignani 2003.

12 Some of these areas were already protected under the rule of the Tsar (as, for instance, the Altai area, which was part of the Tsar’s cabinet) and were, as such, inaccessible. Alongside with some cities, some natural areas were forbidden during the Soviet period (and still are). The question remains as to whether this ban was intended to conceal secret government activities, or to preserve natural landscapes.

13 For instance, “Folkloristic heritage of mountainous Altai” (Ru. Fol’klornoe nasledie Gornogo Altaia, 1989).

14 It should be noted that almost each Altaian person has shamans among her/his ancestors whose they can claim to be heirs (Anohin 1924, p. 23). It is also important to know that the quality of shaman is nowadays attributed to a person by laymen, and that these laymen rarely agree among themselves, hence the profusion of so-called “charlatans”.

15 In the Altaian (and more broadly South Siberian) traditional worldview, things can also be inhabited by entities.

16 According to Anohin (1924, pp. 6, 20), the “harmful spirits [Alt. üzüt] are souls of the dead”, which arose from the transformation of the “soul”, the süne in particular (Alt. süneziniŋ üzüdü). The körmös spirits, derived from körünmös, “invisible”, or from Ormuzd (Ahura Mazda, according to Radlov, quoted by Malov in Anohin 1924, p. 21), also arose from “souls” of the dead, though which soul is not specified, and can be considered harmful (Alt. t’aman körmöstör). See Jacquemoud 2015 for more extensive information about the conduct of funerals in Altai.

17 According to Marco Polo (Hambis 1955, p. 81), the Altai was considered a necropolis for the great chiefs of the conquering peoples of Central and Northern Asia (notably the descendants of Chinggis Khan). According to Roux (1963, pp. 152-153), their remains were brought back and buried in Altai sometimes several months after their death thousands of kilometres away. Ak Alakha (Ak Alaha) kurgans on the Ukok plateau, where the mummy of the “Altai Princess” laid, and Pazyryk kurgans, are both located far from the communication routes of the time. Roux specifies that the funerals of Köl Tegin and Bilgä qaghan (8th century) took place on dates far removed from those of their deaths, and that this is an attested way of doing things (Roux 1962, pp. 207, 221; 1963, pp. 153, 157-159) [quoted from a note in Jacquemoud & Borjon-Privé 2018, p. 205]. About these deferred burials (sometimes more than a year after death), see also Francfort et al. 2000, p. 788.

18 To avoid such consequences, a decree was promulgated in 1997 by the State Assembly of the Altai Republic that prohibited archaeological excavations in the Kosh-Agach District. Later, the moratorium was denounced by federal heritage laws, but such activities are still complicated in Altai (Plets et al. 2013, p. 78). The problem remains the same with open-air festivals or religious rituals that are not conducted in the proper manner. Such a perception can be discerned regarding the national festival El Oiyn (the “People’s Games”). The festivities, occurring in a valley with a lot of tumuli, are said to disturb the dead and to be the cause of the flood that inexorably strikes the event. The festival is accused of bringing many ills upon the village residents (suicides, poor harvests, epizootics). As A. Halemba writes: “It is left to the discretion of the local people to purify the place after the festival and deal with the possible outcomes” (2006, p. 185).

19 A picture with H. Clinton in front of the mummy in 1997 can be seen at https://www.gorno-altaisk.info/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/323770_n.jpg (Anonym 1997).

20 Shown on the main state channel, the film was criticised for a lack of professionalism on the part of the filmmakers (Plotnikov 2006).

21 For more details on the subject, see Broz 2009.

22 The process is a little bit different, but Kazakh families, living in Altai for generations, are also considered by some Altaian natives as “belonging to the Altai” and, as such, as Indigenous. Thus, those who answered the President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev’s call to return to their “historical homeland” in eastern Kazakhstan after the fall of the USSR, were then accused of having betrayed the Altai (Halemba 2006, p. 40).

23 The lack of sovereignty felt by Indigenous peoples of Siberia on their own territories, and the strategies they employ to deal with this situation, have been explored, among other authors, by C. Humphrey (2004).

24 N. Polos’mak ventures some hypotheses about the woman, who was of unusual height (2001, pp. 275-277).

25 It is noticeable that archaeologist N. Polos’mak, in her recent publications about the discovery of the mummy (2001; Polos’mak & Barkova 2005), never mentions herself that the human remains are not genetically related to contemporary Altaians. She even shows pictures of reconstitutions of Pazyryk costumes by contemporary Altaians, thereby implicitly giving credit to the belief in an ethnic, if not genetic, continuity. On the contrary, in a first article on the discovery translated into French, she clearly mentions that the mummy is of Europoid type (Polosmak & Francfort 1991, pp. 8-9).

26 See also the film that retraces the reconstitution of the mummy’s bust by Swiss preparator M. Nyffenegger (undated). It should be noted that the excavation of ancient burial mounds did not come about with archaeology. The first record of the activities of Russian raiding parties (Ru. bugrovshchiki) who brought back kilos of gold from the kurgans dates from 1670 (Schiltz [1991] 2001, p. 29).

27 During the Soviet period, people and journalists were seeking “truth” (note that the term translates into Russian by istina and pravda, the latter was the name of the official newspaper of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union). According to N. Roudakova, post-Soviet society did not lose “its taste for truth”, but “journalism began to be framed as political prostitution (ʻthe second oldest professionʼ)” (2017, p. 8). The situation is not exclusive to the contemporary Russian Federation and led to the merging of the concept of “post-truth era”. As such, the situation in Altai can be enlightened regarding those of the Romanov family’s remains. Despite the canonisation as saints of the members of the Tsarist family in 2000, the Russian Orthodox Church did not officially recognise the authenticity of “Ekaterinburg remains” (the two missing bodies were discovered 16 years later). According to Russian anthropologist J. Kormina, “this situation of uncertainty opens doors for creating conspiracy theories and other mythologies in which the Soviet past is re-imagined in all ways possible” (from a conference at GSRL-Paris on 14 November 2018).

28 Cf. Anonym 2012. In August 2014, Altaian religious specialist A. Kine proposed me to accompany him to perform a soothing ritual on the Ukok Plateau (unfortunately, I was not able to attend). One month later, the same specialist circulated a petition to demand the reburial of the mummy on the Ukok Plateau. A gathering took place on October 6 on the central square of the capital, Gorno-Altaisk. Originally, a young horsewoman dressed in white was supposed to portray the mummy’s spirit. In the end, a film with a 3-D reconstitution of the mummy was shown instead, while a banner with the signatures on the petition was unfurled (see also Anonym 2014b).

29 See note 5.

30 From an interview with A. Arjakovsky on France Culture (2018).

31 A similar interpretation was suggested by D. Maslov (2006).

32 See also the reconstitution of the mummy’s clothing in the film “The Horsewoman of Ukok” (Barhatova, undated).

33 For example, on the occasion of the museum night (website of the A. V. Anohin National Museum of the Altai Republic).

34 Many museums or institutions around the world can be considered as heterotopias. Regarding China, I refer to A. Névot’s work on the China pavilion at Expo 2010 (2014).

35 On Lenin, see the interview with A. Iurchak (Iurchak et al. 2016) and Iurchak 2013. The situation in the Altai Republic is thus different from the return of other human remains, which were buried after being repatriated (the restitution of bones to Australia, the return of the Venus Hottentot and Maori heads for instance).

36 Dashi-Dorzho Itigelov died in 1927.

37 It is also possible to quote B. Bartók’s reburial in Hungary in 1988.

38 Tourism is one of the government’s priorities for the socio-economic development of the region until 2035 (website of the Government of the Altai Republic: https://altai-republic.ru/tourism/development/, and for instance: https://altai-republic.ru/news_lent/news-archive/37997/?sphrase_id=38261075, both accessed on 7 June 2022).

39 In 2021, over 2 million visitors came to the region (website of the Government of the Altai Republic). Most of them come from large cities in neighbouring regions (Barnaul and Biisk in Altai Krai, and Novosibirsk). Furthermore, according to my informants, between 2020 and 2023, the recent Covid 19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, the closure of the Russian federal borders and the desire to have a pied-à-terre outside the big cities have led to a 300 % increase in property prices in and around the capital of the Altai Republic Gorno-Altaisk, and along the Katun River (Chemal District). This latter location is the main tourist destination of the Republic, whose first infrastructures date from the Soviet period. Tourism in this area consists mainly of renting a bungalow and preparing barbecues. The Russian term for this form of tourism is otdyh, while the word turizm refers to trekking for several days in the mountains (see Broz & Habeck 2015).

40 Unlike many other regions of Russia during the Soviet period, Altai had no industries on its territory.

41 Many fairs and exhibitions on Siberian traditions are regularly organised throughout the Russian Federation. The Ministry of Tourism of the Altai Republic also participates in numerous international exhibitions (website of the Government of the Altai Republic, see note 38).

42 Numerous tourist camps (Ru. turbaza) along the Katun River schedule a weekly visit to the museum, and the mummy, which received major media coverage throughout Russia after it was linked to the 2004 earthquakes, tops the list of the relics to be seen.

43 The idea of such a project was launched in 2006 (Anonym 2006).

44 A 3-volume edition of the research materials of these studies was published in 2016 (Derevianko 2016).

45 In August 2018, the President of the Russian Federation decided an alternative route that will pass by Mongolia. The State Party officially confirmed this decision on 19 January 2019 (UNESCO 2019, pp. 37-40). Greenpeace nowadays boasts of the results of its campaign (see website of Greenpeace Russian Federation). Throughout Russia, the project was also considered opening Altai’s Doors to China. The opening of a chair in Chinese at Gorno-Altaisk State University, and the already intense scholarly and commercial exchanges with the Middle Kingdom, contribute to right-wing parties, which rely on the presence of Chinese workers in the Russian Far-East to distil this fear. In Altaian legends, Chinese people are generally considered as the worst enemy, whose eruption in Altai will provoke a worldwide chaos (Doronine 2018). Does that portend the impending opening of the borders? Anyway, this situation and eschatological worldview serve nowadays as a useful warning for those of the Altaians who are engaged in the national revival.

46 Such an impression was also determined by K. Pimenova (2019, p. 277, 2021). According to the author (2021), in the first round of discussions, “the possibility of displaying the mummy to the visitors involved Altaian elders and high-ranked politicians from the Ministry of culture of the Altai Republic”, and it finally was concluded by a refusal. Since then, as we shall see below, the situation has evolved.

47 See Bulgakova’s article in this volume for comparable behaviours among the Nanai.

48 For instance, Russian and French scholars I travelled with to Altai in summer 2017 were authorised to see the body despite unfavourable conditions (waning moon of each month).

49 Since 1990, the Kremlin and the Red Square, and consequently Lenin’s Mausoleum, are part of UNESCO World Heritage List. However, the question of whether Lenin’s body is also part of this heritage set remains open. Bills have been tabled to rebury the body, but all have been rejected. The decision on the reburial depends on the President of the Russian Federation, who has so far opposed it. From a similar perspective to the one developed here, it is rumoured that Russian shamans have decreed that once Lenin is buried, everything will be better in the country.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. Landscape of the Ukok Plateau and the Kosh-Agach District, Altai Republic, 2011
Crédits © Clément Jacquemoud
URL http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/emscat/docannexe/image/6215/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 603k
Titre Figure 2. Landscape of the Kosh-Agach District in winter, Altai Republic, 2011
Crédits © Clément Jacquemoud
URL http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/emscat/docannexe/image/6215/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 524k
Titre Figure 3. Map of the Altai Republic, showing the localisation of the different ethnic groups and the Ukok Princess’ kurgan
Crédits © Helder Da Silva (first published in Jacquemoud 2015). Courtesy of the Musée Barbier-Mueller
URL http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/emscat/docannexe/image/6215/img-3.png
Fichier image/png, 426k
Titre Figure 4. Pazyryk kurgans, Ulagan District, Altai Republic, 2011
Légende Soviet archaeologists S. I. Rudenko and M. P. Griaznov, who have carried out archaeological excavations there between 1929 and 1949, already found mummies in these burial mounds. The mummies now rest in the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg
Crédits © Clément Jacquemoud
URL http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/emscat/docannexe/image/6215/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 337k
Titre Figure 5. A poster posted in 2014 on a Gorno-Altaisk street calling for the reburial of the mummy, Altai Republic
Légende Translation: “Every day without a grave is a mockery! Just like the fake exhibition! Return the body to the earth immediately!”
Crédits © Clément Jacquemoud
URL http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/emscat/docannexe/image/6215/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 487k
Titre Figure 6. A poster posted in 2014 on a Gorno-Altaisk street listing the cataclysms supposedly caused by the exhumed mummy, Altai Republic
Légende Translation: “Three predictions have already come true. Waiting for the advent of the fourth will be fatal for us! Earth – earthquake / Water – floods (May) / Air – hurricanes (June) / Fire – war (September?)”
Crédits © Clément Jacquemoud
URL http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/emscat/docannexe/image/6215/img-6.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 551k
Titre Figure 7. Reconstitution of a Scythian woman in the mummy’s mausoleum, inside the A. V. Anohin National Museum, Gorno-Altaisk, Altai Republic
Légende Note that the female character holds a branch of juniper, a plant used in shamanic rituals. Associated to the stuffed eagle, this indirectly gives the status of a religious specialist to the mummy
Crédits © R. Erkinova. Courtesy of the A. V. Anohin National Museum
URL http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/emscat/docannexe/image/6215/img-7.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 354k
Titre Figure 8. Unveiling of the signatures of the petition asking for the reburial of the mummy on the Ukok Plateau, Gorno-Altaisk, 6 October 2014
Crédits © Clément Jacquemoud
URL http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/emscat/docannexe/image/6215/img-8.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 412k
Titre Figure 9. Reconstitution of the mummy’s costume by Indigenous fashion designer V. Saksaeva in a fashion show, Gorno-Altaisk, Altai Republic, 2011
Crédits © Clément Jacquemoud. Courtesy of V. Saksaeva
URL http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/emscat/docannexe/image/6215/img-9.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 401k
Titre Figure 10. The mausoleum inside the A. V. Anohin National Museum, Gorno-Altaisk, Altai Republic
Crédits © R. Erkinova. Courtesy of the A. V. Anohin National Museum
URL http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/emscat/docannexe/image/6215/img-10.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 363k
Titre Figure 11. The reconstitution of the mummy’s tomb in the mausoleum, inside the A. V. Anohin National Museum, Gorno-Altaisk, Altai Republic, 2014
Crédits © Clément Jacquemoud. Courtesy of the A. V. Anohin National Museum
URL http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/emscat/docannexe/image/6215/img-11.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 387k
Titre Figure 12. Visitors looking at the mummy under a black veil in a niche in the mausoleum, inside the A. V. Anohin National Museum, Gorno-Altaisk, Altai Republic, 2014
Crédits © Clément Jacquemoud. Courtesy of the A. V. Anohin National Museum
URL http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/emscat/docannexe/image/6215/img-12.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 412k
Titre Figure 13. The mummy unveiled in its stylised sarcophagus, inside the A. V. Anohin National Museum, Gorno-Altaisk, Altai Republic
Crédits © R. Erkinova. Courtesy of the A. V. Anohin National Museum
URL http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/emscat/docannexe/image/6215/img-13.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 237k
Titre Figure 14. The A. V. Anohin National Museum in Gorno-Altaisk, Altai Republic
Crédits © Clément Jacquemoud
URL http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/emscat/docannexe/image/6215/img-14.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 426k
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Référence électronique

Clément Jacquemoud, « Cultural heritage management in the Altai Republic. Discrepancies regarding human remains »Études mongoles et sibériennes, centrasiatiques et tibétaines [En ligne], 54 | 2023, mis en ligne le 06 juin 2023, consulté le 15 juin 2024. URL : http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/emscat/6215 ; DOI : https://0-doi-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/10.4000/emscat.6215

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Auteur

Clément Jacquemoud

Clément Jacquemoud (PhD 2017) is a Teaching and Research Fellow at the École Pratique des Hautes Études – PSL Research University (Paris, France), laboratory Groupe Sociétés, Religions, Laïcités (UMR EPHE-CNRS 8582). He works since 2005 with the Indigenous Turkic-speaking groups of the Altai Republic (South Siberia, Russian Federation). His research focuses on the religious transformations that occurred since the fall of the USSR, on women’s practices, and on the role of epic poetry in the construction of the Altaian identity. He published a monograph about the Altaian people (Barbier-Mueller/Somogy, 2015, in both English and French).
clement.jacquemoud@gmail.com

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