Alexsandr I. Pika - Obituary

Aleksandr. I. Pika - An Obituary


Igor Krupnik, Arctic Studies Center, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.

Aleksandr (Sasha) I. Pika, 44, Russian oultural antropologist at the Center for Demography and Human Ecology in Moscow died in a boat accident with three American colleagues and five native people on September 7th, 1995, near Provideniia Bay, Siberia. Born in Ussuriisk, in the Russian Far east Region, on January 1, 1951, Pika was a specialist in indigenous people of the Russian Arctic and is known for his pioneer contributions on current health status, demography, and vital statistics of the native Siberian populations.

Pika graduated from Moscow State University ln 1977 and got his Ph.D in Ethnography (Cultural Anthropology) at Moscow State in 1982. For four years (1978-1981) he worked at the Department of Boreal Forest Subsistence at the Moscow-based research Institute of Land Conservation and Game Preserves. After 1981, he joined a small group of Russian demographers and health workers who launched a research and data-collecting program focused upon native Siberian people under subsequent umbrella agencies:

Sasha's main research field was social change, traditional subsistence, and modern transformations among native people of Northern Russia. Trained as a 'classical' Soviet ethnographer to focus on social evolutionism, historicism, and material culture, he moved off quickly to the very edge of modern studies in Russian natives' cultural and demographical survival. The demographic group that Pika joined in 1981, actually was not allowed to produce any serious publication for years. It was only following the political "thaw" of the late 180s that granted Pika and his colleagues new options to present their data to the academic and general public. When published, Pika's articles on the dreadful status of native Siberians produced immense public and international response. These included Soviet Union: The Big Problems of Small Ethnic Groups, with Boris Prokhorov, (reprinted in 1989 in IWGIA NEWSLETTER (no. 57) ; and Small Peoples of the North: From 'Primitive Communism' to the 'Real Socialism'(in Russian), among others.

For the last fifteen years of his life, Sasha Pika traveled extensively across the Russian Arctic collecting native statistical records and building (together with his colleagues, Boris Prokhorov, Dmitrii Bogoyavlenski, Lydia Tereeenteva, and others) an outstanding databank on vital statistics of all the Russian Arctic minorities. He made his own field work among certain native groups such as the Nenets, Khanty, and Mansi people of West Siberia as well as Chukchi, Koryak, and Siberian Eskimo of the Russian Far East. The scope of that experience is well illustrated in one of his recent western publications, The Spacial-Temporial Dynamic of Violent Death among the Native Peoples of Northern Russia [Arctic Anthropology, 1993, 30(2)]. Pika and his associates thus became the most obvious partners for an NSF-sponsored project on native family transitions and social change in Alaska and Northeast Siberia that Sasha co-chaired with Steve McNabb since 1993.

In the late 1980s, Sasha Pika emerged as one of the most outspoken Russian anthropologists involved in the Siberian Native movement for land rights and self-determination. He published extensively on those and related issues and served as one of the leading experts on Siberian minority people at various governmental panels and parlimentary hearings. In 1994, he co-edited with Boris Prokhorov a pioneer monograph titled Neotraditionalism in the Russian North: Ethnic Revival of the Arctic Minority People and the State Regional Policies (published in Moscow, in Russian). In 1993, he became a Russian Coordinator for the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), an Indigenous Rights NGO based in Copenhagen. Thanks to Sasha's energy, several key international documents related to native self-determination were translated and disseminated in Russia. His death created a gap in Russian anthropological expertise and political activism on behalf of the Siberian minority that will be very hard to cover.

Apart from modem studies, one of Sasha's special pursuits was in history of early-Soviet ethnographic research in Siberia, particularly on the Yamal Peninsula. One of his papers based on old memoirs, archival documents, and diaries unveiled the tragic death of Natalya Kotovshchikova, a young Russian ethnographer who died of scorbut on the northern tip od Yamal Peninsula in 1929 (see: New Data on the History of the First Soviet Ethnographic Expedition on the Yamal Peninsula (1928-1929), Sovetskala etnografia , 1989 (6) (in Russian). His major contribution was in editing and publishing a voluime of diaries and field reports of Vladimir Evladov, the leader of the Yamal Land inventory of 1928-29 [Across the Tundras of Yamal and Toward Belyi Island, Tyumen 1992 (in Russian). Sasha also recovered an impressive collection of historical photographs made by Evladov during his Yamal trip. With a grant from the "Living Yamal" Program of the Arctic Studies Center of the Smithsonian Institution, he worked on making a moving photo exhibit out of these old negatives to be displayed in towns and native villages of the Yamal Nenets area. This exhibit, "Yamal 1928-29: The Land of Memory," that we are anxious to bring to the people of Yamal, will now be dedicated to the lasting memory of Sasha himself.

Sasha was beloved by his Russian colleagues and western Arctic specialists who streamed to Russia and Siberia in the 1990s. Open, friendly, fluent in English and always eager for cooperation, he quickly became a natural leader and a mediator in a burgeoning network of contacts between Russian Siberian anthropologists and their Western colleagues. To all his friends, Sasha illustrated a gift that is still short in Russia, an 'American-type personality,' with his friendly smile, unbeaten optimism, and outstanding energy and personal resources.

Sasha Pika is survived by his wife, Tatyana, and two sons, Cyrill and Andrew. Since his body was unaccounted in the accident, he is still officially reported in Russia as 'missing.' Hence, his family cannot apply for a state compensation for the loss of a provider. A memorial fund to provide assistance to Sasha's family has been established at the Arctic Studies Center (MRC-112, Smithsonian Institution, Wahington D.C. 20560). Gifts may be made by mailing a check paytable to: Arctic Studies Center, Sasha Pika Memorial Fund.

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