As we have seen, it was the railway which brought the world fame to the Nanai tribes fishing and hunting in archaic circumstances along the Amur and its tributaries. To the construction of the Trans-Siberian railway arrived from the east Henry W. Jackson who made the first photos of them, and on the completed railway arrived from the west the Russian ethnographers, among whom Vladimir Arsenev, whose book and the movies made of it – 1961 Babayan, 1975 Kurosawa – made familiar at least one Nanai, Dersu Uzala to most moviegoers. However, in the former Soviet Union and “the friendly countries” they became really popular not through Jackson’s never published photos, neither through the film of Kurosawa, but due to a story book published in 1975 with the title Tales of the Amur.
In fact, we should be grateful to the railway also for the book, since its author was born in Chita, its illustrator in Khabarovsk as descendants of railroad building engineers; their work was combined in Vladivostok, and both were inspired by the archaic culture of the Nanais living in the arch of the railway between these three cities.
Dmitry Nagishkin (Chita 1909 – 1961 Riga) studied electrical engineering, but from 1929 he worked as a journalist and illustrator for local papers, while he was more and more fascinated by the then still living Nanai folk culture. He published the tales collected among them for the first time in 1945 with the title Kid Chokcho, followed in 1946 by the Tales of the Amur and in 1949 by the Courageous Azmun. He himself considered as the peak of his literary work not these, but the historical novel Bonivur’s heart, written between 1944 and 1953 on the Far Eastern heroes of the civil war, the “partisans of the Amur”, also remembered in an extremely popular song. This novel, however, is hardly remembered by anyone, despite the fact that in 1969 they still made a film of it.
The ethos of the new world brought by the partisans of the Amur nevertheless infiltrated also into the Tales of the Amur. The last piece in the book is an apocryphal folk tale, beginning as “It did not happen much ago”, on the encounter of two heroes, the powerful Kile Bambo and the even more powerful Ivan the Russian, who enter into eternal friendship, they expel together the Manchu – i.e. Chinese – landlords oppressing the Nanais, teach the Nanais to agriculture, and liberate them from every superstition of shaman cults. A beautiful tale, indeed.
The illustrator of the volume, Gennady Pavlishin was born in Khabarovsk where he lives even now. He studied at the Art School of Vladivostok. There he was fascinated by the folk art of the local tribes, as well as by the motifs of local archeological findings and early petroglyphs. He illustrated a number of ethnographic and archeological publications, but the world fame was brought to him by the illustrations of the Tales of the Amur, published again in 1975 in Kabarovsk, on which he combined the style of the Russian Art Nouveau, Bilibin and Roerich, with the motifs of the archaic art of the Amur. The book won the grand prize at the Bratislava International Biennale of Children’s Books, and several “friendly countries” published it in translation. It has been an extremely popular book in the Soviet Union, and many bloggers recall it with nostalgia from their childhood. Pavlishin was elected a honorary citizen of the city of Vladivostok in 1993.
The railway brought to the Nanais not only fame, but at the same time also the end of their culture. The Nanais living to the south of the Amur were transported by train into labor camps after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1935. By the end of the war barely three hundred of them survived. Today, called 赫哲 hèzhé, they are considered one of the 55 ethnic minorities of China, but the young people already do not speak their language. The traditional way of life of those living to the north, in Soviet territory was swept off by the kolkhozes introduced in the 1930s, and its continuation was made impossible by the industrial pollution destroying the fish population of the Amur. “There is no work here. The government gives people $30 per month. This is no life. The only work here is to find vodka”, says one of the last old men. Among the twelve thousand Nanais living in Russia only a couple of old people speak the language any more. The glorious world of the Nanai heroes and shamans, just as that of the Apaches and Mohicans, lives on in a book.