Claude Smith on Yuri Vaella: Poet of the Taiga Nenets

Yuri Vaella, from West Siberia, is of the taiga Nenets people, who, during the Russian Civil War (1918-1921), migrated south from their historical home in the tundra to the taiga forests. There they adopted the culture of the indigenous Khanty “reindeer people.” Vaella, born three decades after this migration, was first taught the oral tradition in his village by his grandmother, but later attended a boarding school, worked as a carpenter for the Soviet army, and studied creative writing at the Moscow State Literary University. When he began to publish poetry, stories, and sketches in the late 1980s, he wrote in both Russian and his family’s Nenets language. Today Vaella, a reindeer owner, spends most of his time at the ancestral deer-camps and works to preserve the Nenets’ way of life.

Vaella's writing offers an ethnographic glimpse into the reindeer people. One poem, “The Song of an Agan Dweller” pays homage to the Bear as the source of material culture: “I’ll pick up the arrow/ that missed its target/ and notch a new one./ I’ll shoot the taiga beast/ that runs from me./ He’ll fall, covered with bloody snow./ From the beast that fell, my worn-out boots were sewn./ From the beast that fell,/ my worn-out fur coat was sewn./ From the beast that fell,/my worn out mittens were sewn.”

Not surprisingly, his poetry has also delved into the clash between this heritage and the present. His poem “Watching TV” is about a television set an uncle brings into his choom or tipi. While the extended family gathers “to marvel at this new wonder,” the grandfather “sits in shadows/Cradling his chin,” preoccupied by “two carcasses of beheaded reindeer” lost from a nearby camp. In another poem, “At the Bus Stop”, set in Moscow, the speaker reads from bits of newspaper ads:


“Urgent exchange…”


“Needed: 3-bedroom apartment…”

The poem concludes:

Can it come to that?

One day where the reindeer paths cross

My clansmen will implore:

“Family split, Exchanging tipis.”

“Alcoholic husband,

Swapping families.”

“Quarrel with son-in-law,

Changing clans.”

Between the extremes of ancient myths and dismal contemporary observations, lie lyrics in which Vaella records the true beauty of his way of life, as in “Song of the Reindeer Breeder”:

I’d like to be a raindrop

And adorn your eyelashes.



I’d like to be a snowflake

And rest on your fur collar,

Afraid to touch the warmth of your neck.



And when you rush along in a sledge

And the snowy expanses sing to you,

I’d like to be a smile, lighting your face.



Vaella’s championing of the Taiga culture extends naturally to the Nenets language, which has given us the word parka. Nenets is a minority language with its number of speakers in the thousands and its vitality will require its continued use by young people. But newer generations are increasingly turning to larger, more global languages such as Russian. When Vaella visited the United States in 2010, he took his message to the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico with two Khanty writers. There Vaella discussed the importance of Native languages in world poetry.

To a young Native American poet who writes in English, ignoring his own language, Vaella said: “You know, ten thousand years ago in our civilization any person who could speak in measured words was considered a genius. Five thousand years ago every poet was considered a genius. A thousand years ago only one in ten poets could consider himself a genius. Today, in the literatures of all the Great Languages, it is difficult to find a single genius. That’s because the poetical possibilities of the Great Languages are almost used up. It has become more difficult to find new, fresh, unused poetic imagery. Today our oral languages, which have only recently been put into writing, can introduce to humanity fresh poetic images, a fresh poetic worldview, the new poetic Word.”

At an IAIA joint poetry reading, Sherwin Bitsui read a poem that consisted of a repetition of the word water in his Navajo tongue:

to’ to’ to’ to’ to’ to’ to’

In response, Vaella said he found himself expressing the same idea silently in the Nenets’ language:

vi’ vi’ vi’ vi’ vi’ vi’ vi’

“Then,” he said, “I pronounced it in Russian [voda], again silently, and it became clear to me that in our obscure languages the sound resembles drops of water, trickling over the stones and pouring over the roots of trees.”

During his own reading, Vaella offered a friendly parody of Bitsui’s poem, in the Khanty language of his wife:

yink, yink, yink, yink, yink, yink, yink

When asked about the kinship between Native Americans and Native Siberians, Vaella said, “Let’s leave the genetic tests to the scholars. The ethnographers and linguists, when comparing languages, often get entangled in borrowed words. Thus we writers must look for the relationships in Words.

“I think that the true relationship among the peoples speaking various languages lies in Poetry, not in individual words or lines, but beyond words and lines, where the poet hides his most sacred material, or chooses to reveal a bit of his mysterious and sacred self, comprehensible only to elevated souls, irrespective of nationality. Let us communicate on this level!”

Yuri Vaella's poetry and prose appears most recently in English in The Way of Kinship: An Anthology of Native Siberian Literature (University of Minnesota Press, 2010), edited and translated by Alexander Vaschenko and Claude Clayton Smith, with a foreword by N. Scott Momaday.