Russian Yeti stalkers
July 21, 2015 | 3 comments
Image Credit: Philippe Semeria
As he bathed in a rural river, the young Russian boy from Orjol was alarmed to find that a strange red haired woman was in his vicinity. As an adult Ivan Turgenev, the world famous Russian novelist related this memory to the French author Guy de Maupassant. He described the woman as a `female gorilla`.
Jump forward almost two hundred years. Three schoolboys play in the wilds near the town of Leninsk-Kuznetsk in the Kemerovo region of Siberia. It is as well that they had taken a video camera along with them because what happened next, on this day in January 21st 2013, bears a resemblance to Turgenev’s ordeal. What happened next is that they saw something in a nearby wooded area rise up on two legs – something human-like but hairy. As the witnesses took off they yelled curses – a fact for which they were later pulled up for by their school.
The North American Bigfoot and the Himalayan yeti are global names. But we see and hear rather less of a similar creature that puts in appearances in the world’s largest country. The first printed mention of the `Snyeshni chelovek`, or snowman, seems to have occurred in 1908. Since then it has been a feature of life in the Kusbass and Kemerovo regions in Siberia, the Urals, and the Novgorod and Kirov regions. In recent times it has also been making incursions into areas within the Moscow region, such as the Solnechnogorsk District (Moscow Times, September 18th 2014).
In fact, fireside tales of wood goblins are of much older lineage. Many ethnic groups within the Russian Federation speak of man-like hairy menaces. The Komi people whisper of the Vors, the Bashkir the Pilsen and the Khanti-Mansisk the Leski.
Several hundred kilometres to the South East of Moscow you can find Tartastan, where much of the population comprise of Tatar people, a Turkic ethnicity. Their own `forest ghost` is called shurale [Shoo-rah-leh]. This is so embedded in their culture that a much staged ballet of theirs, by Farid Yarrulin, is just called Shurale, and in turn it was inspired by a poem by their national scribe Gabdullah Tukay.
That this folklore crosses the rubicon into news reportage, however, should be evident from an item from the village of Ibragimova in the southern Urals from 1913. The locals captured and killed a wild man who was preying on the local domestic animals. When the police checked out the corpse they detailed a black haired body with no forehead, a pronounced brow and red eyes. The locals called him Shurale. (Studeingruppe Primates).
Responding to the challenge.
It would take accounts of the yeti from mountaineers who had scaled the Himalayas to goad the Soviet Academy of Sciences to take the matter seriously. The respected social scientist and historian Boris Porshnev (1905 -1972) headed an expedition to the Pamirs to seek physical proof of these, as he called them `relict paleonthropes,` in the late fifties.
They did not return with enough to sway the pragmatic Kruschev regime. Porshnev was allowed to print 180 copies of his thesis. This proposed that the smoke behind the fire was an `intermediate link` in human origins, a Neanderthal.
Even without official backing this model propelled snowman interest forward for the next couple of decades. Jeanne-Marie Koffman, a French-Russian researcher had conducted extensive interviews with people who had seen the Alma – the Mongolian word for wild-man. In 1966 she showed the Royal Geographical Society an identikit picture that she had drawn up based on these accounts. The audience was struck by how much it resembled an artist’s impression of a Neanderthal that had recently been projected from fossilised remains.
Pundits and press.
In spite of such apparent confirmations, only a small band of enthusiasts from the post-war generation would keep the interest in the snowman alive. Whilst many of them came from a hard science background (engineering for example) they proselytised outside the corridors of any official academies. They were spurred on by the craze for hiking which existed in the Soviet sixties. Theirs was a shadowy life of cataloguing sightings in self-published journals, of photographing footprints and artefacts and making periodic appeals for backing, but their self-taught English allowed them to reach out to their brethren overseas.
The best qualified of all of them is Professor Valentine Sapunov of St Petersburg: the press likes to refer to him as a `boffin` owing to his post as an organic chemist. He led a team to a village area in the Novgorod region of north-western Russia. Their mission: to follow up on reposts of snowmen in the area, including of snowman families, going back to the sixties. In the monthly magazine Incredible Legendary Evidence (The Yeti of Malaya Vishera No 57March 2012) Sapunov tells of elaborate folk tales of `wild eyed wonders` which came from the Finno-Ugric tribes who lived there in the 6th Century. This time the expedition only returned with pictures of claw marks on trees – and an inexplicable sense of dread.
The English speaking Dmitri Bayanov is another leading light. This Humanities graduate, and originator of the term `hominology` was the editor of the treatise In the Steps of the Russian Snowman (1997), the first English language book devoted to the subject and one published on his own label Crypto-Logos. Nowadays he seems to live in semi-retirement, spending most of his time in his dacha outside Moscow. Then another is Michael Trachtengerts, a former plant engineer and self styled `free researcher on `hominology and human origin`. He has his own dual language website dedicated to the Almas.
A relative newcomer to the scene, albeit of the same generation, is Andrei Stroganoff. A member of closed online community of Researchers and Witnesses, he takes a particular interest in scouting around Anomalous Zones. He is a hiking buff who continues to head out despite having broken his back in two places. He has caused waves by stumbling upon unidentified scratchings on a tree trunk in the Zeloinigrad region of Moscow where the snowman has been reported (Moscow Times, September 18th 2014).
It is, however, Igor Burtsev who has inherited the mantle of being the ambassador for the Russian snowman. This former social scientist with the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow still gets around in his mid-seventies. Only last year he embarked on a 1,730 kilometre journey to spend time with a multiple witness in Miss in the Urals region of Chelyabinsk.
The kiosks of Russian towns sell a colour tabloid weekly called Anomali Novosti (Anomalous News). For the most part this applies itself to lurid write-ups on UFO bases on Mars and demonic hauntings. The snowman does get a look in though.
Issue No.9, from February of this year, carried a bulletin titled `Marks surface of Yeti Activity`. This concerned the Kirov region in the west of the Ural Mountains. Later the same year issue No. 51 there was mention of the same region – with yeti infants having been seen there.
In March 2013 a Russian made TV documentary called `Life Themes` broadcast an episode on `Forest Monsters`. The show proposed that the snowmen were some kind of non-technological branch of humanity. Burtsev was one of the talking heads.
It has been Burtsev who has done the most to ensure that the snowman has an international profile. In fact he is something of a celebrity in North America. This year he was invited by Jim Sharman of the Michigan Bigfoot Research Association to speak at a venue on Omegaw County. Forty people turned up to the event.
He first set foot there in 2004 when he went to interview Janice Carter, the multiple Bigfoot witness, in Tennessee. Then he went to New York University in 2006 where a skull in his possession was examined. 2011 found him touring Georgia, Alabama, Missouri, and then onto British Columbia where he met up with the famous Sasquatch advocate John Green and Bob Gimlin, who (with Patterson) was involved in filming the much debated footage of a Bigfoot.
These charm offensives, as expensive and time consuming as they have been, have reaped rewards. That same year delegates from as far and wide as the USA, Mongolia, Sweden, Canada, Estonia, China and Russia descended on Tashtagol in the Kemerovo region of south-western Siberia. They were lured to this three day yeti conference by the news that sightings among the three million strong residents there had risen 300 per cent since 1990 (Bainton, p-p360).
It is the indefatigable commitment to their quest which stands out among the remaining yeti enthusiasts of the Russian Federation. Having remained steadfast through the indifference and official disapproval of the Soviet era, they now survive in a time – strapped environment where people only want sensationalist simplifications.
This generation are now in their seventies and Eighties. What younger blood there is tends to be drawn for the most part from organisations such as Kosmopoisk, which is a UFO research group. This is significant. Burtsev himself, while keeping a distance from talk of extraterrestrials, has embraced a New Age cultish branch of bigfootery from the states. This approach no longer sees the phenomenon as a corporeal left over man-beast but as something more parapsychological, and intelligent. Porshnev might well be spinning in his grave.
The North American Bigfoot fad is becoming ever more overwrought and extravagant and Moscow research is overshadowed by it all.
Bourtsev and Stroganoff have a long term strategy to address this problem. It is a typical Russian style one. They intend to appeal to Mr Putin himself to set up a centre concerned with snowman study. It is not clear that such an approach is likely to work in these recessionary times for Russia.
They might get some succour from the words of Professor Bryan Sykes. This Oxford University geneticist has just published a long awaited study on man-like ape legends the world over, called The Nature of the Beast. It is sceptical on the whole issue. Notwithstanding that, he told the Mail Online:
`Bigfoot has many people trying to find it. But I suppose either the yeti or Alma/Almasty which live in inaccessible and very thinly populated regions are the most likely` (4th April, 2015).
Bainton, Roy The Mammoth Book of Unexplained Phenomena: Astonishing Anomalies, Unknown Dimensions, Panic and Paranoia (London: Constable & Robinson, 2013).
Bayanov, Dmitri In the Steps of the Russian Snowman (Moscow: Crypto-Logos, 1996)
Shackley, Myra Wildman: Yeti, Sasquatch and the Neanderthal Enigma (London: Thames & Hudson, 1983)
Moscow Times, September 18th 2014
`Fortean Times` FT 298March 2013
Studiengruppe Primates (www.sgr-primates.de/news.html)
The Tatar Gazette (http://tatar.yuldash.com/eng.index.html)
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