2018.03 Lukas Allemann. Testimonies about boarding schools among indigenous people in Russia’s North

Allemann, Lukas — researcher, M.A., PhD candidate, Arctic Center, University of Lapland

Original publication at Arctic anthropology blog:

In this contribution, which will be mainly in Russian, I want to give the floor to the numerous voices about boarding schools among indigenous people in Russia and the former Soviet Union, which I have collected during the past years during my oral history research. The discussed period is mainly the 1960s to 1980s.

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Национальная школа-интернат в Ловозеро

This is complementary material to my research articles on the oral history of boarding schools (references below) and to a discussion on facebook, which I came across recently. To this day, in Russia there have been far less public discussions on the past of residential schooling among indigenous children than in Canada, Alaska and the Nordic countries. The mentioned discussion on facebook, which gathered over one hundred reactions and thirty comments within the first three days, shows, however, that there is a need to sort out the matter.

There seems not to be a demand for a discourse coined by the concept of “survivance”, contrary to for instance Canada. Such a terminology would seem inadequate to most former pupils in Russia as it would preclude the widespread recollections on the positive sides of the system. But this doesn’t mean there is no demand for talking about those schools, which heavily changed the lives of individuals and communities to this day. In my research in Lovozero, Murmansk Region, North-West Russia (also known as Russian Lapland) one of the most negative aspects of the Soviet boarding school system among indigenous children was the local, so-calledremedial school for mentally disabled children, which officially had no ethnic dimension whatsoever. It existed from 1970 to 1994. The bigger school though in the village was the native boarding school, which was opened in 1959 and closed a few years ago. This was a general school with some additional elements focusing on (mostly visual and material) features of the local indigenous cultures. This latter type of schools was designed for healthy children. During my oral history research, I found out that there were many wrong appointments to the remedial school among indigenous children due to their lower level of knowledge of the majority language and culture (more information on this in my articles, see references below). However, as this was a qualitative case study in a spatially limited area and there is no other research on those schools, I had difficulties in assessing how widespread this practice was across the whole, immense Soviet North. The timely discussion on facebook gave me an answer. The initial post was about one such school in Russia’s Far East, and it triggered a cascade of comments and accounts on exactly such schools and such practices in many different places of Russia’s North.

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Overall, evaluations by former pupils of the boarding school system in Russia’s and the Soviet Union’s North tend to be highly ambivalent: people often praise the boarding schools for the chances they offered to climb the ladder of Soviet society, become doctors, teachers, engineers. They also express feelings of gratitude and affection towards many of their former educators for their devotion and efforts to lower a child’s stress of being far from home. At the same time, pupils inveigh against the system and parts of the staff for stigmatising their social and ethnic background, pushing for assimilation and having contributed to destroy traditional livelihoods and indigenous languages. Many children encountered psychological violence, up to being sent  to psychiatric hospitals as a punishment, and for some the schools meant social exclusion and deprivation.

As a contribution to this uncovering process, I want to give here a direct voice to the numerous people whom I have interviewed in Russian Lapland. They stem from former pupils, most of them with an indigenous background (Sami) but also from one Russian woman. One of the quoted interlocutors was the director of the remedial school, interestingly Sami herself, which in itself is an illustrative example of the social mobility offered by the Soviet educational system. The following testimonies are predominantly about the remedial school in the 1970s and 80s and thus reflect one of the darkest sides of the boarding school system. An important caveat to keep in mind, however, is that they have been chosen from a big range of boarding school recollections in Russia’s North, which in their entirety contain a vivid mix of recollections on both the positive and the negative sides of the system.

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Национальная школа-интернат в Ловозере

The transcription style is a compromise between readability and closeness to the original speech. Though I do not use here any scientific transcription system, a few things should be kept in mind: Interrupted or seemingly incoherent sentences are rendered without editing because they reflect the “jumping” of thoughts during the emotionally intense process of recollection. Colloquial expressions and cursing are rendered without filtering. Bold font means loud speech, three dots indicate that a sentence has not been finished. I anonymised the identities of the interlocutors and changed all names in the text.

With these quotations I want to give credit first of all to my interlocutors. I hope that these original voices can contribute to further developing a discussion in Russia about the past of those schools and the consequences they had. This is why interview texts here are rendered in Russian, the original language of the conversations.

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Национальная школа-интернат в Ловозере

Text in Russian:

Original publication at Arctic anthropology blog:


Boarding schools, education, Lovozero, Sami, Murmansk, Lukas-Allemann, Ловозеро, Саами

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