Chukchis in Russian jokes and in history

Oct 9, 2014 by

[This post was originally published in March 2012]


Anyone familiar with the contemporary Russian humorous folklore (jokelore, or in Russian anekdoty) knows that one of the most popular series of such jokes revolves around the Chukchis, the native people of Chukotka, the most remote northeast corner of Russia. These jokes, especially popular in 1990s and 2000s, fit the international genre of ethnic stupidity jokes, discussed by Christie Davies in Jokes and their Relation to Society and Ethnic Humor Around the World. In these jokes, Chukchis are depicted as primitive, uncivilized, and simple-minded, but clever in a naïve kind of way. Their adaptation to the cold climate and the harsh conditions of their environment also features prominently. Here is one example (most jokes below are found in Emil Draitser’s Taking penguins to the movies: ethnic humor in Russia):

A Chukchi has bought himself a refrigerator. They ask him:

“What do you need a fridge for? It’s so cold in the tundra?”

“It’s minus 40 [both Celsius and Fahrenheit] outside the yaranga [traditional style home], and in the fridge only minus four [Celsius; 25 degrees Fahrenheit] – I will warm up inside!”

However, such jokes are more revealing of the Russians’ own xenophobia and – as we shall see below – lack of basic knowledge of the Chukchi lifestyle and beliefs than of any real peculiarities of the Chukchis themselves.

The simultaneously ignorant and arrogant attitude towards the Chukchis permeates not only the Russian jokelore, but the whole relationship between the two peoples during the Soviet period. Already in the early years of the Communist regime, the Russian Revolution was explained to the peoples of the Far Northeast – the Koryaks, Evens, Eskimos, Aleuts, and the Chukchis – in extremely simplistic and explicitly paternalistic terms. James Forsyth in his A History of the Peoples of Siberia cites a proclamation that was conveyed to these indigenous groups (p. 265-266):

There were bad people in Russia. They killed and robbed many other people; they wanted to become rich that way…. Then the poor folk got together, took up weapons and started driving out the bad people… A terrible war began. The people suffered. … But the poor folk defeated the bad ones… All working people gathered together and created a strong Soviet republic. … The government of the Soviet republic now consists of the best people chosen by the whole nation. It will be to you like a father to a son, but you too must obey laws and obligations.  … You will find out when you may hunt fur animals and when you must not, so that the animals will multiply. …


As can be seen from this quote, the Bolsheviks completely disregarded the obvious fact that the Chukchis have been what Spencer Wells calls “wonders of adaptation”: over thousands of years they have “developed a lifestyle that allows them to exist in an environment of unimaginable harshness”, a landscape of “an other-worldly tundra, covered in snow and frost from September to June” (Spencer Wells, The Journey of Man, p. 134). Being heavily dependent on the few animal species that survive in such an environment – reindeer, seals, dogs, polar bears, and fish – the Chukchis developed a keen understanding of these animals and their lifecycles. What could the Russians, coming from an entirely different ecosystem, possibly tell them that the Chukchis did not already know? Attempts at collectivizing the Chukchis and imposing a more centralized system on them during the 1930s proved extremely unsuccessful. Russian jokes that feature Chukchis interacting not only with polar bears, reindeer, and marine mammals, but also with penguins, which are confined to the southern hemisphere (see the Wikipedia map on the left), expose an extreme degree of geographical and biological illiteracy:

A Chukchi brings a pickup truck full of penguins to a city. At a street intersection, he asks a traffic cop:

“Hey, do you know where I can take these penguins?”

“Where? What do you mean – where? Take them to the zoo.”

“Good idea,” says the Chukchi and whizzes away towards the zoo.

After a while the traffic cop sees the Chukchi again. His pickup is still full of penguins.

“Hey,” asks the cop. “What happened? Didn’t you take them to the zoo?”

“I did,” says the Chukchi. “And now I’m taking them to the movies.”

Soviet propaganda that was translated literally from Russian often led to profound misunderstandings, which in turn could become fodder for ethnic jokes.   An example comes from a story told by a Russian teacher working in a nomad school for the Chukchis in 1932 (cited in I.S. Vdovin’s Priroda i chelovek v religioznykh predstavleniyakh narodov Sibiri i Severa, pp. 235-236):

I [the Russian teacher] said that all over our country the new life had now been established… as a result of the revolution led by Lenin.

While the Russians used the phrase “new life” to refer to the Soviet regime, for the Chukchis it had an inherently mystical significance since its meaning covered not only ‘way of life’ or ‘existence’, but also ‘deity’. This identification of the leaders of the Communist Party with supernatural forces puts the following Russian joke in a completely different light:

A Chukchi returned home from the Communist Party Congress:

“I attended the Congress. They accepted the new program. They said: ‘Everything for man, everything for the benefit of Man!’ And this Chukchi saw this Man with his own eyes. He was right there, in the Presidium.”

Not only were the Russians ignorant about the Chukchi belief system and their natural environment, buy they also failed to understand the ethnic composition of the Chukchis people.

The word Chukchi comes from the Russian work Chukcha, which derives from the Chukchi word chauchu meaning ‘rich in reindeer’. Chauchu, in turn, was used by the so-called Reindeer Chukchis to distinguish themselves from the Maritime Chukchis, called anqallyt (‘the sea people’). The indigenous name for a member of the Chukchi ethnic group as a whole is Luoravetlan (literally ‘true person’). The two groups have had distinct habitats and lifestyles. The Reindeer Chukchis are a nomadic people who live in the inland tundra region with herds of reindeer. The Maritime Chukchis are sedentary, living primarily from sea-mammal hunting, much like the Eskimos. In the Russian jokelore, however, the distinction is blurred:

A reindeer herder Chukchi is sitting by the edge of the coastal cliffs, counting his harnessed together reindeer falling of the cliff into the ocean, one after another: one, two, three… A passing-by Russian geologist asks him: “What’s going on?” To which the Chukchi responds meditatively: “A tendency, however!”*

The failure to understand the differences between the Reindeer Chukchis and the Maritime Chukchis is responsible in part for the lack of success of the Soviet collectivization program in Chukotka. While the Russians established nearly equal number of collectives (totaling about 40) for the two Chukchi groups – reindeer herders and sea-mammal hunters – the success rate of the collectivization for the two groups was quite different. The so-called “cooperative grazing associations” formed among the Reindeer Chukchis by 1933 were embraced by only 3% of the population, as compared with the 60% collectivization rate of the coastal people. By 1939, about 95% of the coastal Chukchi people had enrolled in Soviet collectives, but the percentage of collectivized reindeer nomads had increased only to 11%. Almost 90% of all reindeer were still privately owned as late as 1941. The great majority of Reindeer Chukchis remained entirely outside the collective system, turning their backs on the benefits of modern civilization offered by the Russians and adhering to the traditional ways of nomadic life.


The paternalistic attitude depicting Chukchis as stupid, naïve, and child-like pervades not only Russian humorous folklore and early Soviet propaganda. Consider, for example, the Russian 1966 film “The Chief of Chukotka”, a comedy set in 1922. A patriotic young man is sent by the Revolutionary Committee to Chukotka, where he intends to spread ideas of justice and equality among the natives, but as it happens, he learns instead the local capitalist ways and starts a profitable fur trade with American, Japanese, and other merchants. In the film, the Chukchis are presented as a peaceful people. In one scene, they refuse to shoot at the enemies of the Soviet regime, saying that “arctic fox we shoot, people no”. However, in reality Chukchis were noted among other Arctic groups such as Koryaks and Eskimos as formidable warriors. Even barter and trade encounters between the Chukchis and their neighbors often ended in bloody duels, which were conducted on a piece of walrus skin, smeared with blubber, stretched over ground and nailed down by sharp bone fragments or stones. The goal of the dueling fighters was to throw the opponent onto those sharp bone or stone pieces, often with fatal results. The wars between the Chukchis and their southern neighbors the Koryaks, which continued well into the eighteenth century even in the face of the Russian menace, are recounted in the historical records. The Chukchis used bows and arrows, poisoning their arrowheads with plant toxins. Pieces of walrus and sea-lion skins were used to make defense shields that looked like tortoise shells (see image on the left). However, the bravest Chukchi warriors were expected to forego such a clumsy, heavy, and inconvenient armor.

This fearsome nature of the Chukchis was not lost on the Russians, who waged a sanguinary war against them for 120 years without success. The encounter between the two peoples began in 1640s, when the Russian Cossacks first reached the Kolyma and Anadyr rivers.  Contact at first was rather limited, mostly because the Chukchis were poor in fur, the main desire of the early Russians adventurers. Fighting flared up around 1700 when the Russians began operating in the Kamchatka Peninsula and needed to protect their communication lines from the Chukchis and Koryaks. Four expeditions were sent out in the first decade of the eighteenth century, resulting in considerable bloodshed but little success. The Russians renewed their efforts under the command of Major Dmitry Pavlutsky, who adopted brutal tactics of killing Chukchi men, driving off their reindeer, and capturing women and children to be sold as slaves. Pavlutsky was only too happy to follow orders from Saint Petersburg that the Chukchis and Koryaks were to be “totally extirpated” (in Russian, iskorenit’ vovse). However, the genocidal war proved difficult carry out, as the Chukchis defended themselves bravely. Prisoners of war killed each other, preferring death to slavery.

The war continued throughout 1750s, despite Pavlutsky’s death March 1747; according to several sources, the Chukchi kept his head as a trophy for many years. Only with Catherine the Great’s ascension to the throne in 1762 did the policy change. It became clear to some Siberian officials that savage attacks served merely to arouse the warlike spirit of the Chukchis. Moreover, maintaining the fort at Anadyrsk had cost the Russians over a million rubles, while the profit from the area amounted to less than thirty thousand rubles. The fort in Anadyrsk and the forcible gathering of tribute were therefore abandoned in 1764. The Chukchis, no longer provoked, began to trade peacefully with the Russians. The following episode further illustrates how clueless the Russian authorities in Saint Petersburg were about the Chukchis and their mode of life: to inform foreign ships that Chukotka belonged to the Russian Empire, huge imperial coats-of-arms were sent to the region in 1788, and the Chukchis were ordered to fasten them to trees along the coast. Alas, the authorities in the capital had no idea that Chukotka had no trees.

The “end of the world” nature of Chukotka – as well as its role as in the Soviet prison camp system – became the crux of the following Soviet-era joke:

Two Chukchis are sitting on a beach and fishing. One of them says:

“Wanna hear a political joke?”

“No. They might exile us.”

But now and again, the Chukchi of the jokelore take an opportunity to retaliate on the Russians:

The Soviet Army test fire an SS-20 missile and lose track of it as it goes into the vast northern tundra. They drive a jeep up there to try to find it. “Hello”, they call out to a passing Chukchi. “Did you happen to see a big, flaming stick cross the sky?”

“No”, replies the Chukchi. “I saw some birds, a plane, a helicopter, and an SS-20 missile… but no big flaming stick.”




* Curiously, these Russian jokes fairly accurately reflect certain linguistic peculiarities of the Chukchi language, such as its reliance on evidential particles (cf. Aikhenvald & Dixon, Studies in evidentiality, p. 300). Such particles indicate whether something is known via direct visual evidence, via hearsay, or via indirect inference. This peculiarity of the Chukchi language translates into the jokelore Chukchi’s overuse of the Russian word odnako, meaning literally ‘however’, but used in contexts where this Russian word makes no sense as such.




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