Ryktheu is from a remote Northern village, near Alaska
Yuri Rytkheu wrote stories that reflected the perspective of thousands of years of human evolution compressed over the course of his lifetime. Rural Alaskans will find much to appreciate in his books, because so many elders here have had a similar life experience. The English translations below are described below in approximately the order in which they were first written, in order to show some of his evolution as a writer. Because most of his translated works in English are from earlier in his career, you’ll find When the Whales Leave, the featured book of this post and a most profound integration of Rytkheu’s vast cultural experiences across time, farther down on this page.
Rytkheu was born in 1930 in Uelen. This village sits on a barrier spit of land on the tip of the far northeastern Chukchi peninsula, just over sixty miles from Alaska, across the Bering Strait. As one of Russia’s foremost Indigenous authors, Rytkheu was generous with his stories about how the rise of the U.S.S.R. uniquely impacted remote Indigenous communities of his home region. His perspective evolved over the course of his lifetime through shifting world events.
In Floating Coast, Bathsheba Demuth noted that during Rytkheu’s childhood, the Soviets brought electrification and “a man cut a hole in the roof of his family’s yaranga and attached a lightbulb, making real part of Lenin’s dictum that communism was Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country. It was a childhood, Rytkheu wrote later, ‘lived simultaneously . . . in many different times’.”
After attending school in his village, Rytkheu went on to Leningrad University. By the age of 25, Rytkheu was a student of philology who had translated some of Byron’s poems into Chukchi for inclusion in an anthology for his community, and written the book below. His works were already being published in Russian, English and other languages around the world. Throughout his career as a writer and translator, Rytkheu wrote in both Chukchi and Russian and translated many works from Russian to Chukchi.
Stories from Chukotka
Stories from Chukotka is a short story cycle, in which each story stands alone but also builds, and connects, one upon another. The stories are organized around people connected to his home community of Morning collective farm in Chukotka. Rytkheu weaves together northern hunting traditions, Bolshevik principles, and modern education with humor, grace, and wonder. Racism is pointed out gently and effectively (without ever using the word) during a trans-Siberian rail trip, building cross-cultural respect. When bad weather strands Alaskans on the Chukotka side of the Bering Strait, old friendships are rekindled and celebrated. An aging storyteller who recites entire novels from the memory of his daughter reading them aloud, decides to learn to read late in life. A young ne’er-do-well gets stuck on an ice floe for days, and survives: this coming-of-age tale for both this individual, as well as for the Leninist version of communism, is a meditation on kindness, community, and the ways that technology were incorporated into traditional activities.
This last story, “The Fate of a Man,” is particularly important as it conveys an intimate experience of being lost at sea on an ice floe for several days, a frequent occurrence throughout history in the North. The story gives a range of perspectives on the ways such events have influenced individuals and communities through both the experiences of disappearance and loss, and through the cross-cultural interactions when individuals have traveled long distances and survived and in some cases, returned home years later. While such experiences are diverse, and an important part of oral history teachings in the North, (see our review of Menadelook), I’ve not seen any other examples of such intimate writing about the experience of being stranded on an ice floe, particularly not by someone from an Indigenous Northern community.
As a short story cycle, reading Stories from Chukotka feels like the way a newcomer gets acquainted with a rural community, wherein understanding personalities and characters develops gradually over time, and in the process, quirks and responses to situations become more predictable, humorous, and mature.
The lead photo above, of Rytkheu as a young man, is from inside the back dustcover of this book, Stories from Chukotka. Rytkheu (or Ritkheyu on this cover) first wrote Stories from Chukotka in Chukchi. Later, it was translated into Russian, English, and many other languages around the world. Stories from Chukotka was translated by David Fry and published in English in 1956 by Lawrence and Wishart as one of 11 in a Library of Contemporary Soviet Novels, and is out of print, but available through various booksellers if you look for it online.
Old Memyl Laughs Last
Four of the thirteen stories contained in Stories from Chukotka, including “The Fate of a Man,” are packaged in another out-of-print volume by Rytkheu, Old Memyl Laughs Last. This book is not dated, but was probably issued around the same time as Stories from Chukotka. It was translated by D. Rottenberg and published by the Foreign Languages Publishing House of Moscow, as part of a Library of Soviet Short Stories. This volume and story selection is more clearly oriented toward promoting the successes of the U.S.S.R. Cover art, inside wrappers, and painting of the author on the frontispiece lend art to the stories it contains. Also out of print.
Eloquent translations by Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse
Although Rythkheu was a prolific writer, relatively few of his works have been translated into English. Rytkheu had hoped that Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse would make his works ‘sing’ in English, and she has arguably succeeded, with all three translations so far. Chavasse coordinated with Rytkheu on translating his earliest work, A Dream in Polar Fog (©1968 in Russian, ©2005 English translation, published by Archipelago Books). He then passed away in 2008. Chavasse next translated The Chukchi Bible, one of Rytkheu’s last books, (©2000 in Russian, ©2011 English translation, also published by Archipelago Books). Most recently, she translated When the Whales Leave (©1975 in Russian, ©2019 English translation, published by Milkweed Editions). All three of Chavasse’s translations are in print.
A Dream in Polar Fog
“People who live in cold climes must keep warm by kindness”
Rytkheu wrote A Dream in Polar Fog about the arrival of a white man, John, in the early 1900s to their traditional community on the north coast of Russia. John suffers an accident involving both hands after the ship he is traveling on is trapped by ice. The ship’s captain negotiates with Orvo, a local Chukchi who knows some English, to have John brought by dogsled to a hospital in Anadyr’, many miles away. Trust is fragile, and John is terrified. Once away from his shipmates, his initial fear, and general mistrust between he and the other Chukchi who do not speak English, intensifies until a crisis event early in the story. He remains with the Chukchi, gradually coming to recognize them not only as human beings, but as morally prescient. Through these events as well as through his descriptions of hunting and putting up walrus and other sea mammals, Rytkheu explores complex emotional, cultural, spiritual, and linguistic negotiations.
Metamorphoses of story characters
John’s emotional and spiritual evolution develops through the seasonal cycles of his day-to-day life with the Chukchi. This flow is punctuated by interactions with a few other white men, through which John realizes the gravity of his responsibility to bridge cultures. Over the story’s span of eight years, several of the primary characters undergo metamorphosis. The complexity of both the Chukchi and white men, are a strength of this work; none is completely good nor completely evil. Clearly a book about men, the women in this story are cast as supporting characters and lack dimension. Their power and influence over John’s life, however, is foundational to the magic of this story.
A Dream in Polar Fog was written earlier in Rytkheu’s writing career, and reflects the era in which it was written. There is more than a small nod to the risks of capitalism to traditional ways of life. The Soviet political worldview comes through in John’s vilification of the trader, Mr. Carpenter. This plot element is understandable, given that the cultures of Indigenous people the world over still struggle to survive the impact of treasure seekers. Over time, Rytkheu’s attitudes evolved and his writing developed a more nuanced critique of the impact of the outside world on his community.
When the Whales Leave
On March 10, 2020, almost exactly 90 years after Rytkheu was born, Milkweed Editions quietly released When the Whales Leave. This stunning, elegiacal creation story from the Chukotka Peninsula illuminates the connections between Indigenous cultures across Alaska and the circumpolar North with its attention to details of history and ecology.
Rytkheu first wrote this short, novella-length fable in 1975. Milkweed Editions had planned to publish this English translation by Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse in fall of 2019, but postponed the publication date to allow for an introduction to be written by Gretel Erhlich. In addition to the introduction, the translator’s note at the end offers rich personal and historical perspective. Ultimately, and perhaps unfortunately, the book’s release was overshadowed by the initial rise of COVID19.
Do not let this book’s understated cover and arrival into the world fool you. When the Whales Leave deserves a place on the shelves of every library in the North–as well as serious consideration for young adult reading lists in educational settings across the North.
In When the Whales Leave, Rytkheu weaves life’s great mysteries through sensuous descriptions of sky, sea, ice, wind, tundra, animals, hunting, cooking, sewing, and eating. In the beginning, the first human discovers separateness, and Great Love unites her with a whale, begetting future generations. This origin story guides human moral behavior for many generations. Over time, gratitude and humility toward other life is forgotten. The lure of human agency becomes too compelling, leading to the ultimate fall. There is both universality, and irony, here, in Rytkheu’s use of Old Testament themes.
Ice, tundra, skin
Ice shapes the land in the North and defines much of life there, and translator Chavasse made ample use of available archives to get the details right. In her note to the reader, she references the extensive online Encyclopedia Arctica and its “Glossary of Snow, Ice, and Permafrost Terms.” Chavasse also put the same care into details of the landscape, and it’s refreshing to read about the moss, lichen, and cloudberries that are so much a part of the permafrost tundra. For a generation of readers whose knowledge of the land and sea is more dilute than when Rytkheu was a boy, the detailed descriptions of skinning animals and making boats are gifts across time and language.
This book “presents itself as a rare amalgam of widely different genres: the European novel, biblical texts and the etiological myth of an indigenous (sic) people.” (Mørch, The chronotype of the primordial). In bringing his rich heritage of oral traditions and ecological knowledge to western written literature, Rytkheu has produced a work of enduring wisdom for this, and future generations of the North, to maintain ties with the wisdom of their ancestors.
The Chukchi Bible: Rytkheu’s last book
As Rytkheu grew older along with the world around him, his works reflected a less enamored view of Soviet realities in the North. Rytkheu is the most renown of Indigenous writers from Russia and was ultimately a critic of not just Soviet, but also other impacts of ‘civilization’ on Indigenous ways of life. His later works dive further into his culture’s cosmology, bringing forward oral traditions through written form, to a wider, younger audience, paralleling the rapid changes of his own culture. The Chukchi Bible was published first in German in 2000. It reflects his later, more nuanced view, of both Soviet and American policy that he developed over a lifetime of travel throughout the world and through multiple eras in time. The Chukchi Bible provides much more detail about the early development of different cultures and land-based economies in the region, as well as more recent stories about the World’s Fair in Chicago, told through the eyes of Rytkheu’s grandfather, the last shaman of Uelen. Epic in scope, the book traverses hundreds, if not thousands of years of human and cultural changes, and equally as many miles as characters travel around the world and somehow manage to return home.
In “Kakot’s Numbers,” Kakot, who has recently lost his wife to disease, is taken aboard ship by explorer John Amundsen as a ship’s cook. A Chukchi who has not learned to read, he is particularly fascinated by the numbers written in a ledger which he perceives have a different purpose than words. Thus, he is taught to count. Kakot’s increasing obsession with counting mounts through the story, distracting him from his grief yet drawing him to the edges of madness. Resolution of this obsession becomes a commentary on the impact of modern institutions on traditional cultures. There’s a lot to unpack here, about both the introduction of Western-style numerical thinking to Indigenous cultures and the way such thinking impacts us all.
“Kakot’s Numbers” is an earlier short story that appears in English as the last selection in the The Way of Kinship: An Anthology of Native Siberian Literature, (University of Minnesota Press, 2010, translated and edited by Alexander Vaschenko and Claude Clayton Smith, with a foreword by N. Scott Momaday). Written and published in Russian shortly after A Dream in Polar Fog, in 1970, I’ve included “Kakot’s Numbers” at the end of this post for a few reasons, not just because it is part of an anthology of other rich stories of Indigenous Siberians.
Vashenko and Smith describe this as one of Rytkheu’s best short stories, noting “It has been continuously reprinted ever since and remade into a novel, The Magic Numbers (1986), perhaps the best among Rytkheu’s pieces.” Like When the Whales Leave, Kakot’s Numbers is allegorical, bridges time, and works on many levels. While it integrates Rytkheu’s vast experiences of human history, and offers valuable lessons on grief and madness that are accessible for anyone, the story is all the more meaningful for those who recognize that even a skill so seemingly basic as counting, involves a not entirely benign, recent imposition of a worldview on time and relationships. The novel, The Magic Numbers has not been translated into English.
Rytkheu’s work in the classroom
Both A Dream in Polar Fog and When the Whales Leave would be excellent resources for classroom instruction. However, Rytkheu’s depiction of relations between men and girls in The Chukchi Bible, while perhaps historically accurate, normalize sexual violence in such a way as to warrant caution to any reader. It’s a book best read by mature audiences, who can more easily discuss these aspects of the history in the context of understanding more about Rytkheu, and the Chukchi peninsula, through reading his other work first. The entire book, Stories from Chukotka, is an enjoyable read; for the classroom, “The Fate of a Man” seems particularly well-suited for youth of Alaska’s Western and Northern coastal communities, while “Ten Days in the Train” could generate poignant discussions among older students around implicit biases, across time and continents. “Kakot’s Numbers” offers a starting place for discussing allegory and village students might find it a starting place to relate to elders’ stories of the last century. From an anthropological and historical perspective, it’s important to note that some elements of The Chukchi Bible stories will be familiar not only to far northwestern Alaskans, but also to Interior Alaskan Athabascans, highlighting the ancientness of connections among circumpolar cultures.
Representation matters: Writing and cultural exchange across the circumpolar North
All works by Yuri Rytkheu that are still in print in English deserve to be available in rural Alaskan libraries, as well as his earlier works, if you can obtain them. Because children are required to attend school, where written language provides the dominant form of storytelling, rural Alaskan youth need access to literature which reflects their history and experiences. Especially for Bering Strait and North Slope communities, his works are appropriate (with exception noted above) and relevant for high school classrooms, and will likely prompt some interesting discussions.
More . . .
To read more about When the Whales Leave, see Bathsheba Demuth’s review in Orion Magazine, which provides greater historical context, as well as Gretel Erhlich’s review in LitHub. For a broader understanding of the book in the context of world literature, the article by Auden Mørch referenced above, The Chronotype of the Primordial: Yuri Rytkheu’s When the Whales Leave is a great read.
To read more about other books of the Bering Strait region, see also our reviews of Floating Coast, Disappearing Earth, and Menadelook.
The stunning photos in this post are from contemporary Chukotka, including photos of active whaling and walrus hunting. They are used with permission. To see more images of contemporary life in Chukotka and other areas of Eastern Siberia, visit the photo galleries at Andrey Shapran’s website.
Bringing all of this back home to Alaska, have a listen to Coffee and Quaq’s podcast posted late in 2020, “Alaska Natives on the Front Line: Hunting and Whaling Practices.” In it, whalers from Utqiagvik discuss contemporary whaling in Alaska, including adaptations to hunting traditions secondary to climate change, including the use of both sealskin boats and aluminum boats.
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Author Yuri Rytkheu
To read more about Yuri Rytkheu and see a list of his works, including many that have not been translated into English, see his Wikipedia page.
Translator Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse
Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse, translator from Russian, now lives in London with her family. She was born in Belarus, and lived for a time in the United States. She attended Vassar, Oxford, and University College, London. She has translated the above works by Yuri Rytkheu, as well as multiple other Russian writers. She is also head of rights at Unbound.
To learn more about her perspective on these translations, read this interview, “Making It Sing: A Conversation with Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse, Translator of Yuri Rytkheu’s ‘When the Whales Leave‘.”