Gold, spirits and dead rivers: How the Shors, Khakas and Teleuts fell hostage to the wealth of their native lands
Alexandra Gaganova and Ilya Cheberin
This essay is part of a collaborative project between the Russia Program and Perito, an online media platform on culture and territories. Through a series of translated interviews and essays, we introduce Perito's content on Russia and Russia's minorities to English-speaking audiences.
For many years now, indigenous peoples in the Kemerovo Oblast and Khakassia have been fighting industrial corporations. The Shors, Khakas and Teleuts have become hostages to the wealth held within their ancestral lands: coal and gold.

Miners and prospectors have blocked off the forests with fences, yellow water replete with dead fish runs downstream, and indigenous sacred land is being blasted and turned into quarries. Communities, shamans, officials, and even one of the main Turkic goddesses have been drawn into the conflict. Residents of villages in the taiga are faced with a choice: defend their traditional way of life without compromise or make a deal with the industrialists. The consequences of either option remain unforeseen.

This multi-layered conflict was the subject of the podcast The Three Woes of the Shaman (U Shamana Tri Bedy), one of the best narrative podcasts of the last six months (as of March 2023), according to the editors of Perito. Its creators, Aleksandra Gaganova and Ilya Cheberin, traveled to Mountain Shoria, a Siberian region at the junction of the Sayan and Altai mountains, and brought back dozens of hours of conversations they had with the people there. Ilya and Aleksandra spoke with us about how they came up with the podcast idea, its main characters, and what was left out of the eight-episode season.

Gaganova and Cheberin are the founders of the “Gonzo Ethnographic Society” Chernozyom—an association of journalists, documentarians and artists who create projects based on their travels and research. See Chernozyom’s website or Telegram channel for projects with Novaya Gazeta, 7x7, the Gulag Museum and others.

We sat down with the hosts of the fascinating narrative podcast, The Three Woes of the Shaman, to learn about their expedition. [The following essay is a slightly shortened version of the original text in Russian]
Cover image of The Three Woes of the Shaman podcast.
Shamanic opposition

The idea for the podcast The Three Woes of the Shaman came after a member of our team rewatched Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke — a well-known anime that tells a tale of demons, gods and heroes of the forest who fight back against the city people cutting down their forests to gain access to iron ore. Someone joked that it wasn’t even fantasy, but an actual reality for the native people of Siberia. We started to discuss what the plot of the anime would look like in a Russian context. Eventually we started taking it seriously, then decided to find similar stories in the news and make a documentary.

We stumbled across a long document written by environmental activists on coal mines, Shor shamans and a strange ritual. The author wrote about how in March 2020, on the outskirts of the city of Myski, not far from the Kiyzassky open-pit coal mine (a mountain quarry intended for the development of a coal deposit), Shors held their traditional celebration of the spring equinox, Chyl-Pazhi. Usually two fires are lit, one for feeding the spirits and one for burning chalam — ribbons with knots tied in them. This is how the Shors rid themselves of all evil. But this time, the shamans also burned a plastic toy excavator as a form of protest against coal companies, whose open-pit mines destroy Shor villages in the taiga.

A month after the ceremony, as reported by one Kemerovo activist, news spread across the region that billionaire Dmitry Bosov, owner of the Sibanthracite company (which owns the Kiyzassky mine), had shot himself in his mansion near Moscow. To make it even more convincing, the author embedded a Youtube video of a toy excavator burning with unsettling music in the background.

Journalists discovered that on the evening of the incident, Bosov had been on edge, firing employees, taking out large loans and preparing assets for sale, so the role that shamanic forces played may have been greatly exaggerated (or, on the contrary, were the cause of his woe. Who knows?). But we also dug up other details of the Shors’ struggle against mining companies, and they proved even more fantastical.

A test of character

Our first guide through Khakassia was Olga Domozhakova, an activist trying to save an ancient cedar grove from being cut down by another industrial company. It turned out that in addition to activism, Domozhakova organizes shamanic expeditions, not for tourists or pilgrims, but for those who are looking for a mentor and healer. Not everyone gets to visit with the shamans. Domozhakova hears the problems of those who come to her and decides how sincere they are in their request. If they pass her test, she helps them contact the right shaman.

This is not snobbery or elitism, but caution. For many years, the shamans were literally hunted down. First they were killed by missionaries coming to baptize them into the Orthodoxy, then they were shot down by the NKVD, and in the 1990s many of them simply couldn’t bear the experience and drank themselves to death. There are very few real shamans left, so they must be protected, and they themselves shy away from pressing interviews and idle curiosity. The “shamans” with tambourines we see on TV or performing for tourists are simply costumed entertainers, as the locals say.

Before Domozhakova agreed to share her contacts, she hopped on a Zoom call with us to test our “adequacy” and “understanding of moral and ethical standards,” as she put it. Evidently, we passed — we were able to record our podcast, where you can hear the voices of the people she introduced to us. True, none of them were shamans. Evidently, Domozhakova decided that they weren’t essential for our purposes.

But we did manage to record an interview with the niece of the last remaining kaichi, Chyltys Tannagasheva. She is perhaps the most famous modern Shor singer performing songs in her native language.
Kaichi are storytellers of heroic legends who used to wander through Shoria in olden times. The epics were relayed through throat singing, with performances sometimes lasting up to nine hours. Kaichi had incredible memory and would sometimes go into a trance while singing, in which they communicated with spirits and traveled through the world of ancient god-heroes. The Shors believe that the kaichi were no less powerful than shamans, because the spirits themselves spoke using their voices. When a kaichi launched into a new tale, no one knew what it would be about or how it would end — each song was dictated “from the other side.” Anyone, man or woman, could become a storyteller. The spirit of the throat song visited them in a dream and showed their chosen one what instrument they would perform with. Usually, it was a kai-komus — a Shor musical instrument resembling a dombra. The last kaichi, who lived in the 1970s and 1980s, were no longer able to communicate with spirits. These were the descendants of the first legendary storytellers. One such kaichi was Vladimir Tannagashev, Chyltys’s uncle, and thanks to him, much of the Shor epic canon was preserved — he left behind 44 legends.
It turns out that Chyltys produces CDs with money from the Kiyzassky coal mine — the very same mine that the shamans oppose. The singer actively performs at city festivals, openings of children's playgrounds and outdoor sports areas, also built with funds from coal mines. It is common practice for the industrial companies to support the culture of the Shors whose land they mine. But the price of this support proves exceedingly high.

Viacheslav Krechetov, a documentarian from Myski and our second guide, has been reporting on the harm that industrial corporations cause to the taiga and local residents for many years. He does so by both making films on the subject and writing reports to environmental organizations. Krechetov has become an invaluable door into the closed Shor community, which is distrustful of outsiders, especially journalists.

We went on the expedition during Maslenitsa, and Krechetov used the occasion to introduce us to a man who would become an important character in our podcast — a Shor whose daughter had to leave the country due to harrassment by coal mining corporations. Krechetov invited the man over for pancakes as a friend, where we, a couple of ethnographers interested in Shor culture, just happened to be. We talked about early Shor culture, forest and river spirits, and Kashkachaks — grimy cannibals who stole children to eat in forest hideouts somewhere in the vicinity of Myski (which, apparently, is completely true, as historians and ethnographers later affirmed!).

This allowed us to smoothly steer the conversation towards coal mining and unobtrusively ask about the tragedy that had befallen our subjects native village and others like it.

Bargaining for Spiritual Centers

Mezhdurechensk is a small city neighboring Myski in the Kemerovo Oblast. Many Shors who were forced to leave their village in the taiga now live there. Just 70 kilometers from the city are the Shor villages of Orton, Il’iinka, Uchas and Trekhrech’e. In 2021, prospectors arrived in search of gold. While exploring the mineral deposits, they dug up the land the indigenous population had been farming for years and trashed it with construction waste. Then they polluted the surrounding rivers — the only available local source of fresh water. Fish disappeared from the reservoirs, which hit the Shor fishing industry hard. The animals were pushed deeper into the forest by the roar of the industrial machines and crowds of workers, causing local hunters to suffer.

That makes it all the more interesting to learn that one of the gold mining companies, PAI-CHER 2, sponsors traditional hunting competitions. At these events, which are sort of trap-setting biathlons, it’s possible to win a snowmobile, which are both expensive and a very necessary means of transport for Shor hunters in the taiga.

These hunting competitions help Shor communities determine whose men are stronger, more dexterous, and more resilient. The marathon consists of five stages throughout the mountainous, rugged taiga: shooting a gun, setting traps, climbing to the top of the mountain, coming back down, and lighting a fire below a taut string of twine until it burns through. Only then do competitors cross the finish line. The Shors ski approximately four kilometers with the help of a kayk — a paddle-like object. Hunters use it both as a ski pole and to get out from under snow drifts or ice.

PAI-CHER 2 likely has nothing to do with the environmental damage being done in Orton, Il’inka, and neighboring villages, and we can’t accuse them without good reason. But gold mining in the Kemerovo region and Khakassia, where the Shors live, is carried out on such a large scale and by so many artels that one is skeptical of any gold miners.

Businessmen create and register companies in neighboring regions, open new branches, and buy several dozen exploration licenses in different areas. This creates bureaucratic confusion, which makes it difficult to try to prove that toxic substances entered the local river from this particular site, and not from a neighboring one owned by another company.
Why do gold mining cooperatives sponsor Shor hunting competitions? According to the law, even after receiving mining authorizations in Moscow, industrialists cannot begin work on the land of indigenous residents without their permission. To achieve this agreement, they make deals with the locals: “You give the go-ahead, and in return you receive money, food and firewood; we fund sports and hold children’s parties for you.” There are a lot of different variations. But industrialists are not always honest and don’t always keep their promises.

The Khakassia Prospectors Artel, LLC received consent to mine for gold in the village of Nikolaevka when it stated that it would provide electricity to the village and build a road. We arrived in the village late in the evening and saw the quarry a few hundred meters from residential buildings. But we had to leave the car at the entrance to the village and walk through snowdrifts in pitch black — neither lamp posts nor a clear road had been constructed in Nikolaevka.

Negotiating with coal mines and gold mining cooperatives is a controversial topic that has divided the Shor community. In every place the industrialists had touched, where the damage they caused was obvious, we nonetheless met supporters among the indigenous population. Whether or not to trust coal and gold mines is a big question with an indefinite answer. The same company can invest in projects to build infrastructure and preserve the Shor culture, while at the same time destroying the conditions necessary for their traditional way of life.

In Mezhdurechensk, we had a conversation with a teacher. She spoke bitterly about the horrors that industrialists had brought and accused them of destroying the native village of Il’inka. And then she proudly showed off her new Shor language textbooks. The flyleaf stated that they were published with money from the Kiizasskii coal mine. This mine is located very close to the village of Kazas, where unknown felons set fire to the houses of Shors who refused to sell their land for coal mining.

Another Shor man we know is building a spiritual center, children’s playgrounds, and setting up trading stalls where local grandmothers can sell wild plants. He created a charitable foundation for his public work, which receives funding from the same mine. In exchange for this help, he acts on behalf of the indigenous people in transactions with coal mines when they need to obtain permission from the Shors. In a conversation with us, he did not hide the fact that he understands how mines affect the environment and threaten the population. He simply believes that nothing can be done about this and it is better to at least gain something from the industrialists, rather than simply tilting at windmills.

Hunters without compromise

From Mezhdurechensk, we took a train further east, to the border with Khakassia. To get to the village of Neozhidannyi (lit. “Unexpected” in Russian), we get off at the station near the village of Balyksa. There we are met by our next guide, a Russian man who was born among the indigenous people, married a Shor woman and, together with her and her relatives, created a tribal community with the sole purpose of bolstering their rights when confronting gold mines. He says that Russians and Shors never quarreled in the village; on the contrary, they always went to the taiga together and helped each other with public maintenance tasks.

In his red Lada Niva, he drives us past the snow-covered hills to the village. Sometimes he stops to show us the prospectors' plots. The forest at the foot of the mountains is pitted with quarries, and a barely visible smoke rises from metal huts at the bottom. “Now,” says our guide, “in winter, the quarry isn’t as visible, you need to come when the snow begins to melt.” Then, the rivers will run with dirty yellow water.

We spent a whole day visiting the houses of local residents and talking with their families. In Neozhidannyi, the local mine has been producing gold since tsarist times. But in the 1990s, the mine was sold and the equipment was dismantled for scrap. There were no more jobs, and the indigenous people had to return to the traditional way of life: hunting and collecting cedar cones. This is hard work, but it wards off starvation, and even allows them to earn money. That’s why now, when corporations come to the village, the locals do not trust them and don’t give their consent for working the land.

“I used to do seasonal work. Worked at a mine in the summer, went to the taiga for the season. I’ve spent a lot of time living in the taiga,” said one long-time resident of Balyska.

“For just a few months at a time?”
“No, why? I have a snowmobile. I’ll come home after two or three weeks. I’ll go to the bathhouse, stock up on groceries and leave again. My life is mainly the taiga.”

He only stopped hunting within the last three years, as he was recovering from surgery. He was diagnosed with cancer, and is not the first villager to receive that diagnosis. Locals blame the chemicals flowing into the rivers from the mines.
For hunters, cedar cone collectors, and others who have spent a lot of time in the taiga, the efforts of fellow tribesmen to build spiritual centers and playgrounds seem insufficient. After all, what they gave up in exchange was clean drinking water, usable fields and a place to graze their cows. And employees of mining companies often block the roads that locals use to travel between the taiga and the city. The Artel’s plan to build a facility for processing wild plants makes the Shors laugh — first, the industrialists tell the locals their crafts are so “last-century” and that this is no way to live, and then they’re building a factory to make money selling berries and wild garlic to China.

Don’t shoot without warning

The life of a Shor is closely connected to the taiga. It’s actually better to say Taiga, with a capital “T.” Because for them this is not just a forest, not just a source of firewood or berries, not just a place for hunting, but something much larger. Shors are always breathless when talking about the taiga. All our interview interlocutor shied away when we asked them about life in the forest collecting wild plants, and the tales they have from chasing wild beasts. They reacted this way because their answers almost certainly entailed a conversation about the spirits and otherworldly forces living in the taiga. And they didn’t know how a stranger might react to these tales, which are extremely important for Shors. They wouldn’t want people thinking they’re crazy, after all.

The locals have a mythological mindset — everything around them is inhabited by guardian spirits. Tag-ezi is the spirit of the taiga and mountains (in the Kemerovo region there is mountainous terrain covered with taiga, so one is inseparable from the other), Su-ezi is the spirit of water, Ot-ezi is the spirit of fire. Every tree, every animal and almost every thing has its own ezi. If you don’t know how to act around them, you might get killed in the forest, or even in your own home. For example, here’s one valuable lifehack from the Shors in Neozhidannyi: don’t forget to thoroughly shake yourself off after returning from the forest, otherwise you will bring home spirits that will scurry off to the corners of the house and strangle the whole family at night.

One place you definitely won’t drive the spirits away from is the “zimnik,” or small cabin used by hunters during their long expeditions into the taiga. The most haunted cabins are those in which a hunter who has died left his things behind — a mug, a blanket, a knife. As soon as darkness falls, you’ll feel a presence and the objects will start to rattle. One person we spoke to told us about how a tin mug flew into his forehead, while another was taught to always spend the night with a knife at the head of the bed and a gun under his working hand. But there’s a caveat: if someone knocks on the door at night or you feel like something is about to enter, never shoot immediately. First shout: “If you are a man, come in, if you are a spirit, I will shoot through the door.” And wait for an answer. There’s a reason for the rule: hunters have been known to actually shoot through the door, and it isn’t always a rogue spirit they hit.

In Neozhidannyi, we were told of one case in which the shot had actually hit its intended target. In the 1990s, a shaman got into a fight with a hunter in a nearby village. After this skirmish, the hunter realized that he had to be careful, as he was just about to go into the taiga to hunt. Just in case, he loaded the gun with a long pin charmed to ward off evil spirits, and went into the forest. At night, a dark shadow fell across his cabin. The hunter immediately grabbed the gun and fired. The shadow vanished on the spot. In the morning he ran back to the village, immediately went to the shaman, and found him with a bandaged hand.

“Was it you who came to me in the night?”
“It was.”
“Were you trying to kill me?”
”Yes.” And the hunter shot the shaman.
“It’s true, the man later served time for murder,” nodded the Shor man telling us the story.

Of course, not all ezi are hostile. Some help hunters or come into the village just to people-watch, perhaps reliving memories from when they were alive. The Shor man who gave the advice to shake off the spirits at the threshold, told us a story about one time when his father asked him to fetch water for the horses. As he approached the river, he saw a tall white figure coming down from the mountains. In the light of the moon, the pale man crossed the river and moved through the village. All the dogs became quiet and hid, not even daring to bark at the stranger. The spirit simply sailed down the street and disappeared into the taiga. This is when he realized that it was an ezi.
A Shor family in urban dress. 1913
In Neozhidannyi, we met another Shor who claimed to have prophetic dreams. His father was an experienced hunter and taught his son to interpret dreams in order to know whether they would have good luck in the taiga or not.We recorded everything from the Shor dream book that we could, and have compiled it here for you:

Swearing. When a Shor’s mother or sister shouts at him in a dream, it means he will have no luck on the hunt. He should wake up in the morning and return home.

Money. It’s important to note whether it was banknotes or coins. Paper money is lucky and a sign of a successful hunt, but small change does not bode well.

Vodka. Alcohol predicts imminent death. The night before his father’s death, our Shor guide dreamt of him drinking vodka in a faceted glass.

A herd of horses. If you were driving horses or heard the clamber of hooves in your dreams, run quickly to the hunt — there should be sables nearby.

The dead. Being pursued by the living dead means that you will meet a bear while hunting the next day. Stay alert.

Land of conspicuous antiquities

From Neozhidannyi, we made a roadtrip to Abakan. There, in the Minusinsk Basin, in the ancient bed of the Yenisei River, lies the unique Koibal Steppe, a place seemingly nature-made for farming. Here, both the climate and the landscape are temperate enough that livestock can be grazed almost all year round. High winds blow away the snow and prevent snowdrifts from forming, so it is easy for animals to find food, even in winter.

In Abakan, we met with residents of the steppe and activists who are trying to prevent it from being destroyed by the coal mines that arrived a few years ago.

In our podcast we discuss the problems faced by Shors and Khakas, or more precisely, the Koibals, a Khakas clan living in the Koibal Steppe. The Shors and Khakas are two related Turkic-speaking peoples with quite similar cultures. Their folklore and mythology intersect, and local tales even contain stories about the relationship between the two peoples. Among the Shors, for example, the Khakas are cannibals who threaten to eat entire Shor villages. And in Khakass legends, Shor shamans steal the souls of steppe children.

Soviet bureaucracy added to the confusion: passport officers registered some Shors as Khakassians, and they weren’t entirely offended by it. One of our main subjects told us how he himself hid his own ancestry, because many Shors faced problems when entering a university or getting a job. As a team we decided (and I hope this comparison will not offend anyone) that in a fantasy world, the Shors and Khakassians would be related, but different, like forest elves and steppe elves.

The steppe is not entirely smooth. The landscape is made jagged by the huge number of mounds and idols, which are called stone women. The pillars reach up to three meters high and are likely covered in ritual etchings. They were carved by the Okunevo people, a tribe with a wild imagination who, according to scientists, lived in the Minusinsk Basin around 2600 BC. More than 30,000 such archaeological sites have been found within the republic. Local Khakas have grown up playing around these ancient artifacts, herding cattle, and simply living their lives.

Because of these artifacts, coal mines cannot officially dig quarries in the Koibal Steppe as soon as they receive a license. They are obliged to first order an survey so that archaeologists can excavate and preserve the monuments. This slows down corporate schemes, and sometimes even prevents them altogether. So, when the Koibals tell us: “Our dead will protect us,” they’re not speaking in the abstract, but referring to very real legislation.
Tomb Raiding with Laura Croft

While working on our episodes about the Koibal Steppe, we were a little disappointed by the historical monuments, which is probably typical for residents of Central Russia. We imagined an ancient burial ground, some artifact of a vanished civilization, and it seemed fair that a treasure like that shouldn’t be left to decay in the ground, but should be preserved by archaeologists, studied and displayed in a museum.

Inhabitants of the Koibal Steppe see things entirely differently. In their minds, they have a strong connection with those buried in the mounds. Khakassians perceive burial grounds as a completely ordinary element of the steppe landscape, something that is and will always be, and treat mounds with deep respect. Even if they are very ancient, the residents of the nearest settlement treat it like their grandmother’s grave. The locals don’t see archeologists as their friends, because “they hide behind rescue work, but in the end they drag our heritage down into the basements of museums.” Scientists are called “grave diggers” and are considered the accomplices of the coal mines.

“They seem to have a good public image, like Indiana Jones and Laura Croft, ‘yeah, we’re coming in and ruining everything, digging up burial mounds.’ But the monument is destroyed forever. It won’t be there anymore. It’s a burial ground with its own genetic history, its own internal logic. Maybe you could afford to sell a million tons less coal and leave us our monument?” Stanislav Ugdyzhekov PhD of History and associate professor of the Sayano-Shushenski branch of the Siberian Federal University, explains the position of steppe residents.
We had no idea about this point of conflict. We assumed that since archaeologists preserve monuments, they should be on the same side as the local residents, and that their commentary would only enrich our project. We tried to contact them for several months. Only Igor Kyzlasov, leading researcher at the Department of Medieval Archeology at the Institute of Archeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, responded. He refused to talk much, explaining that the Koibal Steppe was a sore spot for him, an old wound he did not want to reopen. However, he admitted that he considers archaeologists the only force capable of preserving at least some part of the Minusinsk Basin.
A Khakas woman feeds the Okunevo stone woman, whose veneration may be associated with Ymai (1930s).
Captured by dragons in Mordor

The Koibal Steppe is home to an area known as Mayrykh. The Koibals believe that this name is translated into Russian as “The Bosom of the Goddess Ymai.” This is one of the main goddesses in the Turkic mythology. Nearby there is a mountain that bears her name. In Khakas legends, when a woman could not give birth to a child, the shaman flew on a tambourine to this mountain where Ymai lived, surrounded by souls of children and animals, and tried to negotiate with her to allow the child to be born. A kind of ancient shamanic IVF. If you couldn’t convince the goddess, then you could steal the soul of a newborn from another family. The shamans created an entire black market, allowing failed parents to “order” children.

The Mayrykhsky coal mine was established in the “Bosom of Ymai”. In 2019, Chinese dry coal preparation plants were purchased for the open-pit mine. They were placed on the territory at first as an experiment, and when considered successful, they were left to stand.

The facilities dry the coal using a strong stream of hot air, thus increasing the value of the final product. In the process, small particles of rock are ejected high into the air in a column of black smoke. Looking at the gaping hole in the landscape surrounding the coal mine, it’s hard not to think of Mordor.

The model name of these Chinese facilities, “Dragon,” only adds fuel to the fire. Thus, a new legend is born in the Koibal steppe. Locals say: “Ymai was captured by dragons.”

The elders are all doomsayers: the spirits won’t leave things like this, there are troubled times ahead. In recent years, fires have become more frequent in the steppe, water levels are changing, and the air is growing more polluted. Local mystics explain the climate crisis as nothing more than Ymai's anger.
  • Alexandra Gaganova

    Independent researcher
  • Ilya Cheberin

    Independent researcher
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