More on Ninilchik.

Five years ago I posted about a dialect of Russian spoken in the Alaskan village of Ninilchik; here‘s an interview with Mira Bergelson, professor of linguistics at Moscow University, that gives some background and continues the story:

Andrei was making his survey of the Upper Kuskokwim language [in 1997], when, suddenly, we were approached by activists from the settlement of Ninilchik. They were descendants of the very first settlers.

The people were a bit older than us — the generation that had already stopped speaking Russian themselves, but remembered how Russian was still spoken when they were kids.

Russian, and everything connected with Russia, is a cultural legacy for them. And, just as there’s huge interest among native peoples in many parts of America in their own history, these people, too, want to preserve their legacy.

The people desperately wanted to capture the language, because they realized that it was dying out.

They asked us if we could compile a dictionary of their language. […] This was our first expedition; and then, for a number of years, we had to put the project on hold. In the mid-2000s, one of the advocates of recording the cultural heritage of Ninilchik, Wayne Leman — who is a specialist in the Cheyenne language — picked up the task of collecting the vocabulary of Ninilchik Russian. […]

In October 2012, we were able to return to Ninilchik and double-check almost the entire dictionary. Now, if only we can secure some time “in the field,” then we will be able to complete the dictionary project. It will be a multimedia dictionary, including photographs and sound. […]

The thing here is that the Ninilchik language existed — and continues to exist — over a very small area, in just one village. When Russia sold Alaska to the U.S. in 1867, the village became cut off for 20 years; not a single ship entered the Cook Inlet.

The village population never exceeded two or three hundred people. That’s very few people. It’s here where individual differences become massively important. […]

The pronunciation norms in one family could differ from those in another, simply because, in one family, the man, who began a family with a local woman, might have been from one part of Russia, while, in another family, the man might have been from some other part of Russia. There was a large influence of bilingual Alutiq northern peoples too.

But the only language in the settlement of Ninilchik for 80 years — until the English-speaking school was opened — was Russian.

I love this kind of thing. Thanks for the link, Dan!


  1. I’ve heard this story. Ninilchik is a fascinating place. A good place to go clamming. I’ve never spoken Russian with the locals there, but I have with the Old Believers; they have their own variations as well.

  2. You’re most welcome, Steve. Am enjoying your blog!

  3. We spoke with the prayer leader in Ninilchik’s Russian Orthodox Church – the priest was out fishing, this being the salmon season. She said that “grandparents still spoke Russian” & that the contracted employees of the Russian American Co., when their contract term ended, we entitles to relocation home at company’s expenses. Some married local women and oped to receive company’s help with settlement in Alaska, instead, Supposedly the company selected Ninilchik site for these retired workers because abundant clamming and other nearby resources made life much easier for the older people.

    The bilingual grave markers are something to watch to. In Russian: “Упокой Господи душу раба твоего…” In English (much shorter): “Gone fishing”.

    Yes, and just for a note, the Old Order Russians in Kenai are actually quite recent transplants from Washington State, by the way of Brazil and Harbin.

  4. So where is the stress placed in Ninilchik? And what is the Russian word for métis/mestizo when referring to people of mixed Russian/Native descent, if any?

  5. The Republic of Alyaska, just one universe away. Japan took it from Russia in 1905, but it became independent in 1954, still very Russian but by no means SNORist (the right-wing analogue of Bolshevism). See also its neighbor, the People’s Ecotopic Republic of Oregon, where they mostly speak North American English but write it in the Cyrillic alphabet.

  6. NiNILchik. And no I don’t think there are common terms for Native-Russian mixed ancestry people. In fact there isn’t a common word for Native Siberians, is that right?

  7. J. W. Brewer says

    “Creole” seems to be either the standard term or at least a quite common alternative in English-language sources for the offspring/descendents of unions between Russians and Alaskan indigenes. I don’t know that it corresponds to any fixed term in Russian, though.

    According to some googling, the present pastor of the Orthodox parish in Ninilchik is the only currently-active priest who is a member of the Dena’ina ethnic group (historically the only speakers of an Athabaskan language who lived on the coast rather than inland). That’s not inconsistent with him also being partially of Russian/Creole descent, of course, as lots of Alaskans have mixed ancestry these days.

    It is apparently quite common in the more rural village parishes of Orthodox Alaska for the Liturgy to be served irregularly during the summer on account of the priest often being off hunting/fishing with the rest of the menfolk. The bishop before the current one found this practice scandalously lax and tried to stamp it out, which alas proved to be one of a series of incidents that alienated such a high percentage of relevant constituencies in the diocese that he was ultimately pressured into early retirement.

  8. So the bishop was found to be scandalously strict and was stamped out, eh? Que le den por el saco al obispo, as Monsignor Quixote says.

  9. “Creole” seems to be either the standard term or at least a quite common alternative in English-language sources for the offspring/descendents of unions between Russians and Alaskan indigenes. I don’t know that it corresponds to any fixed term in Russian, though

    I checked the better-known Native Arctic and Siberian Creole groups in Russia – the Kamchadals, the Indigirschiks, even my own ancestors the Pomors who have been discussed at LH before – in search of a common uniting term. Apparently they may be referred, collectively, as Starozhily [of certain localities]. Only the word doesn’t mean Mestizo, it just means “locals” ~~ long-time inhabitants, and it used in many other contexts too (whenever someone lived or even worked somewhere for many years, one may be called a starozhil, as opposed to a newcomer)

    The “local Siberian” Russian groups speak Russian (sometimes archaic or lightly Creolized) and are Orthodox Christian (usually mainstream but sometimes Old Order, and almost always with the elements of native syncretism). Other notable “Starozhily” groups include Commander Islanders and the Pohodchans. Other historically attested Arctics Creole Russian groups on Yana and Olenyok Rivers got assimilated back into the native Yakut and Evenk peoples.

  10. PS – the Russian dialect of Ninil’chik feels surprisingly modern … maybe it should be given that the village is barely a century and a half old (compared to the Arctic Russian dialects of Taymyr and Yakutia which date back to the post-Mangazeya explorations era of 1630s-1640s, and which ended up in isolation by the turn of XVIIth century with the demise of East-West trades routes in the Russian Arctics).

    In fact some of the non-normative Russian words in Ninilchik are pretty much alive in contemporary slang. Like kumpol (cupola, figuratively forehead) or nyushka which, according to Ninilchik lexicon, stands for “tits” (and indeed, googling нюшка brings up lots of bare breasts images; the word is thought to be a Gallicism, <= Fr. nue)

  11. Trond Engen says

    googling нюшка brings up lots of bare breasts images

    Googling anything brings up lots of bare breasts images.

  12. marie-lucie says

    Creole : I don’t know much about Russian-Alaskan history but I have seen the word Creole used historically in writing for local people of mixed ethnicity in the area.

    Dena’ina ethnic group (historically the only speakers of an Athabaskan language who lived on the coast rather than inland)

    Is this right about the Dena’ina? As far as I know, historically that coastal group was the Tsetsaut, whose language was recorded by Boas in 1894 from some of the last surviving members of the group, then living as refugees among the Nisga’a, who had defeated them.

    Trond: Googling anything brings up lots of bare breasts images.

    Anything? it does not to me.

  13. J. W. Brewer says

    m-l, the source I was relying on may have meant “only” in an Alaska-specific context and not focused on who was where further south; also I guess “coast” is a bit ambiguous since the Dena’ina’s historical territory was along the shore of Cook Inlet but I believe some distance in from the open ocean.

  14. marie-lucie says

    JWB, I guess you are right. The Tsetsaut were just about at the (present) border between Alaska and BC.

  15. What a wonderful story. Mira Bergelson is on facebook and it’s her birthday today (1 April.) I’ve just sent her a link to this post.

  16. Speaking of fb, have you noticed the names of Ninilchik-based fishing boats on the photo I added? There are dozens more boats like that moored in Ninilchik harbor, with Russian words and place-names taken to christen them – probably the most poignant reminder of a surviving connection between this quaint village with a beautiful hillside church and the language it no longer speaks, Russian language.

  17. marie-lucie says

    I was delighted to see a picture of Ninilchik and its harbour on Facebook, although I could not see the names of the boats.

  18. Yes, thanks, I can see Volga and Baikal. Where the photos from?

  19. On another shot, I could see a “Matros”. And as I recall, there were dozens more of Russian names. The registration ports are listed on the sterns and from my other 2009 Kenai Peninsula trip photos it’s clear that not all the boats are locally registered in Ninilchik – some were from as far North as Clam Gulch and as far South as Homer – but those had standard English names. The bigger question about the boats’ pedigrees is that I don’t know where Nikolaevsk fishermen moor their boats. The Nikolaevsk Russian Old Believers are pretty much all in the fisheries business despite the fact that their town is like 10 miles inland. It is their newly-won prosperity which, in the eyes of the splinter Old Order Russians in around Kachemak, endangers the Nikolaevskite faith and culture (we visited Nikolaevsk several times and the sense of loss of Russian language by the younger generation there was palpable; the Russian course in the local grade school is helping but it’s sort of like, Russian as a Second Language class). Anyway, obviously the Russians of Nikolaevsk don’t have a local harbor. The nearest shoreline village of Anchor Point doesn’t have boat facilities either. So it’s fully possible that the “Russian” boats in Ninilchik belong to the Russians of Nikolaevsk, 30 miles away. I tried to research this online and couldn’t find anything handy…

  20. marie-lucie says

    There is another tiny remnant of Russian times just at the BC border, in the town of Hyder, Alaska, tucked away between the mountains and the sea. To go there you need to drive to the town of Stewart, BC, past the border station, and then you are in Hyder. When I first went to Hyder (in 1978), the “downtown area” had two bars side by side, a few houses, and a tiny, tiny little Orthodox church, which appeared well kept up. You could look through the windows and see the altar, benches etc. In contrast, most houses looked like they had been built without regard to any building codes. I heard that many of the inhabitants were American outlaws. Since they could not legally go anywhere else in the US, the police was not bothering to chase after them. I went back in the 1990’s and the town was bigger, with several motels (open only in the summer). The bars were still there, and I think that the little church had become a little museum. The locals had probably taken advantage of the fact that the town of Stewart had practically died after the closure of a copper mine which formerly employed most of the inhabitants, so tourist facilities had a chance to prosper on the Alaska side of the border. Hyder had always been a popular attraction for the adventurous, being at the very end of the road, with no other practical means of access, even by boat. The bars, looking like they dated from the Gold Rush, their walls covered with old bills from every nation nailed to the walls, were famous for their superstrong drink with which unsuspecting tourists became “hyderized”. I suppose that most of these features still exist today, and that the tiny little church is still looked after.

  21. Marie-Lucie, but what’s the Russian connection there, in Hyder?

  22. When I first went to Hyder (in 1978), the “downtown area” had two bars side by side, a few houses, and a tiny, tiny little Orthodox church, which appeared well kept up.

    Interesting! Today the little church belongs to the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church of the North America, and it seems to have been that way since about 1990. Which diocese might have run it before, I couldn’t figure it out. The town is younger than the Klondike Rush, but not by much, there has been much mining around even as early as in 1910s.

  23. J. W. Brewer says

    That particular “Ukrainian” jurisdiction appears to be a tiny splinter of uncertain/dubious antecedents and canonicity (there are many such groups, often with a greater presence on the internet than in the flesh-and-blood world — the unfortunate 20th century travails of the more mainstream/legitimate Ukrainian groups mean that the word “Ukrainian” sometimes ends up in the grandiose-sounding names of dodgier micro-jurisdictions the proprietors of which are not necessarily of Ukrainian ethnicity – although of course one can’t rule out the possibility that a particular such micro-jurisdiction is run by people who are perfectly nice/sincere but just eccentric), but Dmitry is correct that that does raise the question of who may have originally built and/or previously used the same structure.

    There are some Orthodox parishes in places in Alaska that had not yet been settled before Russian sovereignty ended (e.g. in Juneau), but OTOH there is apparently no Orthodox church in e.g. Ketchikan because there was never enough of an Orthodox population there. To the extent there was once a much larger boomtown population around Hyder and the adjacent parts of BC, I suppose it could have come from any number of places and included elements of all sorts of ethnoreligious backgrounds. I am not certain about this but think I have read in various sources that the Russian missionaries originally made little headway with the Tlingit, who were thus still mostly pagan as of 1867, but that subsequently a meaningful fraction of the Tlingit became Orthodox as a less assimilation-oriented alternative than what was on offer from the Catholic and Protestant missionaries that had arrived under American auspices (especially once some tipping point had been reached where not converting to *some* flavor of Christianity was no longer viewed as a viable option). I don’t know whether any such Tlingit converts or their children might have been part of the boom-era population of the Hyder area.

  24. marie-lucie says

    Sashura, Hyder must be almost the Southernmost place in Alaska, and obviously there must have been some Russians there at one time in order for an Orthodox church to have been built. There is a Wikipedia page on Hyder, but it does not mention much about its early history. Perhaps some Russians (or, maybe more likely, Russianized natives) came to work in the local mines during the heyday of such mines.

    The page shows a picture of Hyder, presumably a recent one but hardly changed from the time of my first visit there. I have a postcard I bought in the 90’s, showing the “downtown” area just beyond the picture. It shows no people, only a black bear leisurely crossing the street.

  25. marie-lucie says

    JWB, I read your comment after I had posted mine. What you say about the Tlingit vs the missionaries sounds right. According to what I have read, the Orthodox missionaries were very beneficial to the Aleuts and Tlingit as opposed to the earlier Russian fur seekers, but after the Alaska purchase the Americans behaved very differently from the Russians, so it made sense that even the then unconverted natives would gather around the still present Orthodox priests, now de-linked from any government. Alaskans bearing Russian names (both first and last) are usually of whole or partial native ancestry.

  26. Stefan Holm says

    @Dmitry Pruss: ‘On another shot, I could see a “Matros”. And as I recall, there were dozens more of Russian names’.

    I can’t resist the temptation to give the Swedish Academy’s Wordbook’s etymology on ‘matros’ (in my approximate translation):

    [cf. Ger. matrose, older Eng. matross; from Dutch matroos, converted from Fr. matelot, from OFr. matenot, probably from a not attested middle Dutch *maatgenot, middle high Ger. mazgenoze, Icel. mǫtunautr; (cf. mat = Sw ‘food’) and corresponding to Ger. genosse, comrade; literally ‘food comrade’, referring to the teams of feeding into which the crew of a ship was divided.]

    So ‘matros’ was most probably borrowed into Russian during the years of Петр Великий (Pyotr Velikiy, Peter the Great). I remember the word from studying Russian in my teen ages. In our text book there was a passage from the autobiography of the poet Евгений Евтушенко (Yevgeniy Yevtushenko), author of the mighty poem Бабий Яр (Babiy Yar – among the best I’ve ever read in both Russian and in its Swedish translation).

    However, he wrote that the street where he grew up was called Матроска тишина (Matroskaya tishyna, ‘The sailor’s silence’). I remember thinking: what a wonderful name of such a trivial thing as a street. And of course, I like everybody else, wondered why the stress was moved from the first syllable in тихий (tikhiy, silent) to the last in тишина (silence)…

  27. JWB – yes, the tiny Hyder Church styles itself as the Seat of the Archdiocese of Alaska and the Whole of NW US, and is subordinate to a splinter Orthodox group in Cleveland (and as far as I can tell it is the Cleveland group’s only outpost outside of their home base). The Clevelanders have supposedly obtained their Tomos of Autocephaly from the controversial Metropolitan John of Ternopil prior to his death in 1994, but only organized themselves in 1996. The church in Hyder chartered as a US non-profit in 1997

  28. Marie-Lucie, thanks

  29. marie-lucie says

    The Wikipedia page for Hyder breaks down the population (less than 100) into many categories, but not by religion.

  30. Stefan – here’s one of LH’s best pieces on Russian Silence.

    The Matrosskaya Tishina (Матросская Тишина) street is one of the more peculiar Moscow street-names. The grandiose square courtyard XVIII c. building to which the street owes the first half of its name still stands there at the SW corner of Matrossky (Seaman’s) Bridge over River Yauza. It was a Navy sail factory at first, and then, after the factory has been closed, Catherine the Great’s Almsouse for the Indigent Sailors (Матросская богадельня). Nowadays it houses the main campus of a technical university.

    The second, “Silence” part of the name is harder to explain. Almost every sources cited the same anachronistic factoid, that supposedly Peter I forbade noisy carriages from using the street, lest they disturb the retired sailors (even though the retired seamen didn’t move in until decades after Peter the Great’s death).

    In any case, the name’s tenor has already shifted from weird to plain spooky by the late 1700s, when the little street housed a jail, a lunatic asylum, and a maimed-sailors house. Two+ centuries on, the triad still includes the jail (Federal Pretrial Detention Jail # 1, colloquially known as Matrosskaya Tishina Jail), the psychiatric hospital – both at the same locations – but instead of the sailors’ almshouse, there is a TB infirmary.

  31. m.-l., by law, the US census does not collect data on religious affiliation.

  32. These things tend to work out over time. Historically, it takes the Ecumenical Patriarchate about thirty years to recognize even a fairly uncontested declaration of autocephaly, and here there are two soi-disant autocephalous churches and one autonomous (i.e. still Russian Orthodox) church on Ukrainian soil alone, never mind the bits and bobs in the rest of the world. It’s a lot like becoming an adult, at least in the U.S.; you start to act like one, and people eventually treat you as one, with your parents often last in line. Or for that matter becoming an independent country, at least when there isn’t a civil war.

  33. marie-lucie says

    Y : I guess the author(s) of the article just copied everything they could from the census data. However, someone having independent information might have provided extra data.

  34. J. W. Brewer says

    After many decades of difficulties, the larger factions of Ukrainian Orthodox in the U.S. and Canada all finally got themselves united into jurisdictions (I think one for each side of the border) of generally accepted canonicity under the authority of the E.P. by sometime in the mid 1990’s. Outside of that united group will remain a certain small number of probably well-intentioned hardliners/rigorists who did not like the terms of the union, and a possibly larger number (spread out over many individually tiny groups) of flakes, fantasists, self-promoters, or worse. That the diaspora got its act together at more or less the same time as the Church back in newly-independent Ukraine was (for understandable if regrettable reasons) factionalizing into rival jurisdictions is just one of those historical ironies, although it may have created a situation in the Old Country in which bishops of some of the smaller factions over there were imprudently willing to consecrate what seemed like potential allies from the diaspora without adequate quality control.

  35. Old Believers, Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, Ecumenical Patriarchate and just plain ol’ Orthodox. How about the Frozen Chosen?

  36. J.W. Brewer says

    Paul’s nominee is not as hardcore as in Fairbanks, which claims to be the world’s northernmost synagogue (there is one in Norway that comes in second but is farther north than Anchorage). Wikipedia says the southernmost synagogue is in Dunedin, N.Z., the long-term consequences of the unfortunate events of the 1490’s apparently having resulted in a synagogue-free Tierra del Fuego. (I just the other day came upon a nice internet slideshow about places of worship in Antarctica, which has seven churches — two of which are Orthodox — but zero synagogues.)

  37. Trond Engen says

    Det Mosaiske Trossamfunn i Trondheim. The caption says “The world’s northernmost synagogue”. Well, that’s a matter of degree.

  38. Of degrees, rather.

  39. Trond Engen says

    Give me some latitude.

  40. Trond Engen says

    Also, it’s 63*26’N v. 64*51′ N. When the difference is less than 1,5*, it’s a singular matter.

    (And where the heck do I find the degree sign on this piece of iWare?)

  41. Here’s one: °

  42. David Marjanović says

    a meaningful fraction of the Tlingit became Orthodox as a less assimilation-oriented alternative than what was on offer from the Catholic and Protestant missionaries that had arrived under American auspices (especially once some tipping point had been reached where not converting to *some* flavor of Christianity was no longer viewed as a viable option).

    I’m immediately reminded of how the Khazar empire became Jewish.

    And of course, I like everybody else, wondered why the stress was moved from the first syllable in тихий (tikhiy, silent) to the last in тишина (silence)…

    You could also say it hasn’t moved at all, it has stayed on the 2nd-to-last syllable.

  43. Except that the last does not really count as the 2nd-to-last.

  44. JWB: Nonetheless, even non-schismatic North American Orthodoxy is still pretty well fractionated. I make the list to be Albanian/EP, Albanian/OCA, Antiochan, Bulgarian, Bulgarian/OCA, Carpatho-Rusyn/EP, Greek/EP, Romanian, Romanian/OCA, Russian/Moscow, Russian/ROCOR, Russian/OCA, Ukrainian/EP, Serbian. (The OCA is a hybrid church, mostly but not entirely Russian; Moscow considers it autocephalous but the EP does not agree.) The old Jerusalem Patriarchate churches are now under the EP, and the old Alexandrian ones apparently no longer exist. Compare the simplicity of Africa, where all Orthodox jurisdictions are administered by the Patriarchy of Alexandria.

  45. Don’t forget Antioch!

  46. the simplicity of Africa, where all Orthodox jurisdictions are administered by the Patriarchy of Alexandria.

    Yup, and when their poor-as-churchmice brethren the Ethiopians couldn’t pay the rates at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the Copts sided with the Armenians, the Greeks and the Latins. Today the Ethiopian area of the church is confined to a hut on the roof. (I think the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch at one time had a foothold there too.)

  47. David Marjanović says

    Except that the last does not really count as the 2nd-to-last.

    *looks again*

    …Wow. Russian stress is so unpredictable that evidently I failed to believe my eyes. Sorry. There’s a shift there that I can’t explain away.

  48. J.W. Brewer says

    John Cowan was simplifying Africa by excluding the Copts/Ethopians/Eritreans, who are all non-Chalcedonian miaphysites and thus Not Truly Orthodox despite the fact that they typically use “Orthodox” (in English translation) as part of their self-identification. The total number of clergy and laity harmoniously overseen on the continent by the (Chalcedonian) Patriarchate of Alexandria is tiny in comparison to the miaphysite footprint there.

    The U.S. situation is substantially less fractious-in-practice than it used to be, although one can still cobble up quite a long list of separate (or sort-of-separate – there are some lumping-v-splitting choices to be made here) jurisdictions like JC did. And one could make his list a bit longer, especially if one eirenically treated some of the canonically irregular (but w/o being crackpot) groups he left off as “non-schismatic” despite certain irregularities in their status, which I tend to think would be the right thing to do, especially as many of the groups on the list were themselves in an irregular status within living memory. One thing his list leaves out is the fairly recent (perhaps not yet documented by wikipedia?) phenomenon of a handful of Georgian congregations springing up in the U.S. which I believe (w/o being entirely certain) are somehow under the authority of their Mother Church back in the Caucasus rather than being under some other jurisdiction with a more formalized U.S. infrastructure. I think the Georgians may still be doing it sort of ad hoc rather than creating a diocese-like structure for the U.S. presence, but that might come with time.

  49. Or as they say in the koinobion, those are not the Orthodox you are looking for.

  50. Rudolf TomaŽič says

    Regarding origin and meaning of formerly published word “nyushka”, I could say that according to my slavic and indoeuropean ear, it should come from “nose” engl. or slovenian “nos”.
    In our old yugoslav slang I could warn someone: “You shall get a blow upon your nyushka !”

    Regards Rudi

  51. Would love to more about the language. For instance, what changes from Modern Russian? I read about “hardening” the vowels at the beginning of the word, such as azyk instead of yazyk, but what else is different?


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