Sleeping on Graveyards: Traveling through 300 Years of Khakass History

Article excerpt

In the summer of 1720, Tsar Peter I dispatched the German explorer Daniel Gottlieb Messerschmidt to carry out a "physical description" of Siberia, to "discover all manner of rarities and pharmaceutical substances: grasses, flowers, roots and seeds." He was also tasked with investigating the fauna. His charge was not restricted by length or region, and so he ended up traveling Siberia for seven years, from Tobolsk to Lake Baikal. His findings were collected in a 10-volume encyclopedia, "Survey of Siberia." Included in this monumental work is a description of what many consider to be Russia's first scientific archaeological survey.

The focus of Messerschmidt's archaeology was Khakassia, in south-central Siberia. Through this, Messerschmidt brought Khakassia world fame as an "archaeological Mecca."

Yet Khakassia is not just for archaeologists. The Siberian explorer Semyon Remezov, who visited the region about the same time as Messerschmidt, described Khakassia this way: "A fertile land, rich in vegetables and livestock, lacking nothing, except for honey and grapes ... More than anywhere else on Earth, there are countless open spaces and rare wild animals. And traders freely import and export. There are countless large and midsized rivers, lakes and ponds. Fish in abundance, numerous and easily-caught. Ores, gold, silver, copper, tin, steel and every sort of beautiful pigment for silk and precious stone ..."

FIVE THOUSAND YEARS AGO, the ancestors of the Khakass arrived in Southern Siberia along with the Huns. Over the millennia, they mixed bloodlines with numerous Turkic tribes (see box, page 55). While the modern Khakass nationality emerged relatively recently--in the 17th and 18th centuries--their cultural foundations have changed little from ancient times, such that it can be said that the Khakass have lived on the territory of modern Khakassia for some 2000 years.

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Today, Khakassia is sufficiently Russified that in many ways it seems, on the surface, to differ little from the rest of Siberia. But then you begin to notice the graveyards. Along roads ... next to villages ... everywhere there are ancient graveyards marked with gravestones. And whether you come across them in the morning, amidst a pastoral landscape filled with grazing cattle and frolicking children, or whether it is in the evening with a descending fog and thickening gloom--straight out of Tolkien, they are always a surprising sight. Perhaps even a frightening one. People live day in and day out atop these graveyards, sleeping on them at night and rising in them each morning ... and they see nothing surprising in this.

Perhaps this is because Khakassia is really the East. Or at least a crossroads to the East: caravan trails once passed through here to and from Mongolia, China, Tibet and India. Thus, the locals have always had different views on graveyards from Europeans.

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The Khakass were also pagan-animists for thousands of years. And, according to their beliefs, spirits ruled over all things. Every piece of the landscape had special spirits responsible for it. Mountain spirits presided over the mountains, river spirits over the river, taigezi over the taiga. Spirits could be good or evil, peaceful or vengeful. And death was only a formal transition from one world to another. What is more, the graveyards were ruled by the ancestral spirits--in other words, the spirits of one's own people. Thus, a graveyard was a good, light and comfortable place.

A real Khakass will therefore calmly pass the night atop a graveyard. Yet he will not spend a night in an abandoned home for any price. This is because every home has its own spirit--a domovoy. It lives in a special wooden block (in Russian, a churka), accepting various tributes and petitions from the home's residents. It behaves properly as long as there are people living in the house. …