"The Influence of Church Translations..."


by Anatolii Alekseev Burtsev
Professor of Philology, Sakha State University, Yakutsk

"Symposium at Oxford University/Edinburgh University"

"St Innocent Veniaminov, Symposium, Oxford University, Pembroke College, University of Edinburgh, Arctic, Orthodox Faith, Alaska, Yakutia, Russia, Moscow, Alaskan Native Culture"

"Papers presented at symposia held at Oxford University and at the University of Edinburgh in April 1997 on the work of St Innocent Veniaminov in the Russian Far East and Alaska."



Christian Identities in the Arctic

Papers presented for the Bicentennial of the Birth of St Innokentii Veniaminov


"In the beginning was the Word." This well?known biblical verse is too often used outside its context and without the continuation: "and the Word was with God." The life of St Innokentii was devoted to the realization of this idea; and the second part of the verse—"the Word was with God"—indicates the labour in the holy mission of Archbishop Innokentii (Veniaminov) who brought so many people to God.

Today as a result of what we may call de?politicization or de?ideologization, we have been able to return to an understanding of literature that is reflected in Veniaminov's labour. Since peristroika began, we have been able to assess the role of Christianity in general and of the Orthodox Church in particular in the establishment and the development of Yakut literature. During the Soviet period, the formal propaganda asserted that the Yakuts had received a written language only after the October Revolution and that Yakut literature appeared in the 20th century. Today as the process of de?politicization occurs through all spheres of public life and as we reject that false, artful concept as an adjunct to ideology, it is necessary for us to review some questions that appeared to have been answered definitively.

First of all, our study involves the preconditions for the development of Yakut literature. Earlier it was taught that classic Russian literature was in the main the fundamental precondition for the foundation of Yakut literature. Other sources were overlooked. Our own deep folkloric sources were undervalued; although folklore ?? proverbs, tongue?twisters, sayings, ritual poetry, folk songs and fairy tales, shaman meditations, historical traditions and legends ?? comprised much of the basis of Yakut literature. Another and indeed a very special and vital source in the preconditioning derives from the Russian Orthodox Church.

The Christianization of the native peoples of Yakutia began just after Yakutia joined Russia in the middle of the 17th century. Although the expansion of Orthodoxy was an important part of the colonial policy of the tsarist government, the Church's missionary work itself had a progressive momentum. The process of Christianization not only led to the extending and developing of cooperative relationships between native residents and Orthodox new?comers, it also facilitated the appearance of a written language and the spreading of literacy.

Churches were built, parish schools were opened, natives were trained to become priests, and divine liturgical books were translated into the Yakut language. Thus by 1917, there were more than 300 churches and chapels with a staff of approximately 1500 clergy in the Yakut oblast. The first ecclesiastical school was opened in 1735 in Yakutsk within the Spassky Monastery. Ten boys, between 7 and 15 years old, including six Yakut boys, were enrolled in the first year. They became the initial Yakut missionaries. The most famous of them was Archpriest George, mundanely Grigorii Sleptsov. He organized a field church; and with cross in hand, he walked the breadth of Yakutia and turned 70 thousand people to Christianity, according to E.S. Shishigin. For this labour, he became famous as "the Yakut apostle" and the "enlightener of all Yakuts".

The first religious book in the Yakut language, "Prayers, the Creed, and the Divine Commandments," was published in 1812 in Irkutsk. Seven years later, the "Brief Catechism" with the Yakut alphabet was published there. It is supposed that the translator of this catechism and compiler of this alphabet was the priest Georgii Popov. The alphabet was one of the first, and therefore had a number of defects: it was based entirely on the Russian alphabet but some the Russian letters (for example, those representing the sounds v, sh, ts, shch) do not exist in the Yakut language at all; while diphthongs, long vowels and some specific sounds that do exist were not taken into account. Nevertheless, this alphabet attributed to Georgii Popov played an important role in spreading Christian ideas through Yakutia.

Subsequently, during the years of his own ministry in Yakutia from 1853 to 1860, as we know, Archbishop Innokentii contributed greatly to the expansion of Christian ideas and to the development of education in this northern region. In 1855, from his initiative, the committee for the translation of sacred and divine liturgical books into the Yakut language was founded in Yakutsk. The chairman of this commendation was Archpriest Dmitrii Khitrov, appointed on Veniaminov's recommendation. Serving in Yakutia for a long forty?three years, Khitrov was a brilliant expert on the region, the local traditions and customs, and the culture and language of the Yakuts, as well as being an author of a number of scholarly works. At Veniaminov's request, he compiled a Yakut language grammar. The Right Reverend himself initiated the translation of the main book into the Yakut language, the Gospels; and the Russian writer Ivan Goncharov was an eyewitness to this selfless labour, as explained by our colleague E.S. Shishigin.

In 1857, Dmitrii Khitrov was sent by Archbishop Innokentii to Moscow and St Petersburg to see to publication the translations of the Holy Writ and the "Short Grammar of the YakutLanguage" [etc., as explained from the National Library by E.P. Gulayeva]. Through two years of fruitful labour, he saw eight church books and the grammar in the Yakut language brought to publication.

The translation and publication of church literature allowed Archbishop Innokentii to realize a dream: to hold church services in the Yakut language; and on the 19th of July 1859 in the Troitskii Cathedral of Yakutsk, the Divine Liturgy was celebrated in the language of the Sakha people for the first time.

There is evidence that, before his formal appointment to Yakutsk, Innokentii Veniaminov had travelled extensively throughout the oblast, as he was interested in the mode of life of the Yakut people, their customs, religion, folklore. During these travels, he learned the Yakut language and could speak with the local people. In 1852 in his memorandum to the Governor?General of Irkutsk Count N.N. Muraviev?Amurskii, Archbishop Innokentii reported that the Yakut language was predominant in the oblast, spoken not only by the other northern ethnicities who had lost their own native languages but even by Russians who had settled in the region. It seems that this circumstance prompted Veniaminov to insist that the priests in the oblast should learn the Yakut language. Furthermore under Veniaminov's influence, Vice?Governor Grigoriev issued an order that all civil officials ought to learn the Yakut language.

The activity of Archbishop Innokentii, especially the translations of religious books and the organization of services in the Yakut language, as well as the deep analysis of the use of this language throughout the oblast, promoted a strengthening of the prestige of the Yakut language. Thus the basis and preconditions were laid for the rise of Yakut literature.

These translations of liturgical texts into the Yakut language cannot be seen as something apart from and alien to the wider context in which they were accomplished. The generic relationship of Christianity with primitive religions in general has been indicated by, for instance, the British ethnologist James Fraser, author of the fundamental work in this field Folklore in the Old Testament (1918, Russian translation 1931). The Yakut scientist, ethnographer and folklorist Gavriil V. Ksenofontov (1888?1938) focused on "Shamanism and Christianity", and discovered a number of parallels and coincidences between stories in the Old Testament on the one hand and shaman myths and rituals of Siberian nations on the other hand. For example, the Yakut legends about the forefather Omogoi?bai and the patriarch Ellay, who arrived by river raft into the land that later became known as Yakutia, was employed to work by Omogoi, then married one of the elder's daughters, the beautiful Nika Harakhsyn and the ugly but hard?working An Chynai; reminded Ksenofontov of the biblical story about the patriarch Jacob with the beautiful Rachel and the unpretentious Leah.

In any case, the classic biblical commandments for kindness, love towards mankind, and compassion were laid upon a basis that had been well?prepared by the folkloric?mythological consciousness of the Yakut nation. Not occasionally but often in Yakut literature, rich traditions of tolerance were developed. Indeed, they were laid down by the first Yakut authors. In particular in the writings of A. Kulakovskii, we may see integral if implicit philosophical studies about the proper way of a man's life, the basis of which consists of the ideal of toleration. This is expressed in a succinct conceptual form in his verse from "Benediction in an Old Way" where he wrote: "Damnation like an echo answers by blood; Benediction like an echo answers by love." In his poem "The Dream of a Shaman" (1910), A. Kulakovskii simultaneously with Vladimir Vernadskii came to an awareness of an indissoluble integrity, or integral unity, of all earthly and cosmic spheres. In effect, he anticipated what is now being called "a new way of thinking" about the close mutual connections between the microcosm of man and the macrocosm of the world with its material and spiritual factors, economic policy, culture and morality, past, present and future.

A splendid poet A. Sofronov, whose legacy is being perceived today at the level of world poetry of a Silver Age, also thought first?of?all not by social and political categories but by those common to all mankind and nations. At first sight, a lyrical personality such as A. Sofronov might appear to be a figure of "escapism" who locks himself inside his own ego during a period of catastrophes and conflicts. But the fact is that the poet's lyrical hero expresses the qualities of frankness, good?will, tolerance: traditional characteristics of the Sakha national mentality.

A. Kulakovskii in his free translation from Lermontov "The Oath of a Demon" (1908) and A. Sofronov is his poem "Angel and Devil" (1914), both appealled to a classic biblical theme as they created an image of Satan in which demonic traits joined with the look of the antagonist Bogatyr "Abasy" from the Yakut heroic epic "Olonkho". In contrast, the Angel is a bearer of the idea of kindness and light.

In the mid?1930s, when the cult of personality had already become established and the repressions had begun, P. Oyunskii wrote the story "Solomon the Wise." This Yakut writer applied a biblical figurativeness to promote the joy for life, happiness and love, that illustrates indirectly his opposition against the anti?democratic and anti?human regime. Another Yakut poet, Ivan Arbita, referred to himself as an "apostle," a confessor of "love," "wisdom" and "penance".

Thus biblical images and reminiscences came into the works of Yakut authors; and for this, they shall retain their traditional philosophical?artistic stature.

Archbishop Innokentii (Veniaminov) stood at one of the most vital sources; and furthermore thanks to his initiative, an important precedent was set for the translation of world literature into the Yakut language. Following his example, after a long period during which the veins were strengthened, the first Yakut writers began to pump some healthy blood from other world literature through the capillaries of their own translations. For example, one of the founders of Yakut literature, P. Oyunskii clearly declared the necessity to capture all the cultural legacy of past epoches through translations, including those of Shakespeare and Pushkin, Goethe and Byron, Dickens and Balsac, Rolland and Wells. Today, British literature occupies one the most predominant places due to the number of works translated, alongside translations from French, American, Chinese and German. Some of these translations were accomplished by Sakha poets and writers, in particular: Shakespeare's sonnets and Burns' poems by Semeon Rufov; Shakespeare's tragedies "Hamlet" and "Macbeth" by Savva Tarasov; Defoe's novel Robinson Crusoe by Dmitrii Kirillin; Kipling's fairy tales by Grigorii Tarskii. Currently a new full translation of the Bible is being done by the well known writer Nikolai Luginov, with assistance from a professional translator, Aita Shaposnikova.

The significance of the translation of church books, and the personal contribution by Innokentii Veniaminov, for the development of Yakut culture is of no doubt today. Moreover, our understanding of our participation in the unity of world culture, thus in the unity of mankind, is based on the works and the labour of such eminent figures as St Innokentii.

During the Middle Ages of European history, the Bible alongside the classical Greek tradition played an important role in the appearance of European literature. Similarly in the next millennium, the biblical texts now translated into the Yakut language, and these alongside the creative oral traditions of the Sakha nation and the classics of Russian literature, became the preconditions in fact for the appearance of Yakut literature.

Today on the eve of the third millennium, and under conditions of a more complicated world, literature can promote a deeper communication and a mutual understanding among all mankind. St Innokentii contributed greatly to such an understanding through literature—and also of literature. Indeed: "In the beginning was the Word."