“To bring forth out of the treasure things new and old…”
Autumn 2017 Newsletter on the Khakas project

Galina, a member of IBT’s Khakas Bible translation and audio recording team began her story: “In the past, this is how the Khakas funerals looked. The body of the deceased relative stayed at home, and his relatives called for a khaidzhi (singer of heroic ballads). The khaidzhi accompanied himself on a seven-stringed national musical instrument, called the chatkhan. This instrument is a matter of pride for the Khakas because we are the only Asian people who managed to preserve this instrument through the ages, though in antiquity it had been common for all Asians. So the khaidzhi sat down at the head of the deceased and started to sing heroic ballads to him or her in order to help the soul as it transitioned to the other world. People gathered around and listened attentively. When they heard something funny, everybody laughed; when they heard tragic episodes, they showed sympathy for the heroes of the ballad; in any case, the audience would always comment on the narrative in some way. Nobody was supposed to show grief and shed tears at the funeral because the departed was “returning to his true home.” There is even a special expression for this in the Khakas language. The ultimate send-off for a person should be in manner worthy of the fact that this person had earlier come to our earth and was now departing it. Death is a very important event in one’s life!”

Listening to Galina, I was especially impressed by this last phrase, which at first glance seemed to be an oxymoron. She said it casually, as something taken for granted, not as the fruit of lengthy philosophic reflections. Indeed, she sounded very Christian. To hear such a maxim from the translator of the Gospels would not have been surprising but for the fact that she drew this wisdom not from the Gospel, but from ancient Khakas pagan traditions. Could it be that “death as an important event of life” was something intrinsic to the worldview of her pagan forefathers and still preserved in the Khakas culture and her own outlook on life, though this has been utterly lost by contemporary Western “post-Christian” society?

Galina continued: “We lost our funeral tradition during the atheistic Soviet period, and there is a huge need for creating something new in order to consecrate the moment of departure from life. There are no khaidzhi now. People do not know how to see off their deceased relatives. I heard the story of an old woman from a distant village who was invited to a funeral to recite Gospel texts in Russian. She did it in a chaotic manner, incorrectly and without any understanding of the meaning, just because people wanted to hear something religious. It looked like a magic ritual and produced a miserable impression… The first translations of Gospel fragments into Khakas by Russian Orthodox missionary Shtygashev appeared before the Russian Revolution of 1917, but after the revolution these texts could not be further promulgated for obvious reasons. Thus, our people are quite aware of the Gospel. There are Khakas people who start coming to church, but they hardly understand the Gospel in Russian, especially people in the villages. When we offered our Gospel audio recordings to the radio channel, we first did it very discreetly. It was Easter time, and we combined several fragments about the Resurrection of Christ from all the four Gospels, and offered this text. It was accepted with great enthusiasm, and the speakers on the radio program were very happy that they could talk about Easter and illustrate their announcement with a proper text on the topic. Afterwards, they promised that the audio recordings of the Gospels would be aired on all radio programs chapter by chapter till the end of all 4 Gospels. In reality, these Gospel programs stopped after Matthew. On the radio they didn’t understand why the same events should be repeated in 4 different ways. They asked for “continuation” instead. Modern consciousness is more accustomed to the genre of serials… I objected that so far we don’t have the audio recordings of Acts or the Epistles, and our partners on the radio immediately got me to promise that they would be the first to get further audio recordings if and when we produce them.”

“As for the traditional Khakas religion, it is also being revived. And one of the symbols of our “national soul” is one of my good acquaintances, a well-known Khakas singer. She is of quite a venerable age now. At the peak of her glory, in the Soviet times, her voice became famous not only in Khakassia, or even in the Soviet Union at large, but all over the world. Even during those atheistic times this amazing woman had fervent faith in our ancestors. She made libations to our ancestors and announced that she felt their presence. As we had very good close relations, many years ago I invited her to take part in the field testing of Gospel texts. She worked with our team for a day, but on our way back she took me aside and said, ‘Please, Galina, do not be offended, I do respect you a lot, but I will not come for the second time to do this work. This is not our faith. My mission is to revive the soul of my people and to venerate our ancestors’. She was devoted to her faith, and that episode did not ruin our warm relations.

I had another encounter with her one winter when I invited her to a TV-viewers conference in a very distant village. We planned a concert after our main program in order to make the event vivid and memorable for the villagers. She and her singing partner were never paid any money for such concerts. Now, winter frosts in Khakassia can be very strong, down to -30 degrees centigrade or even colder. It was one of those frosty winters. We used to call village club directors beforehand so that they could heat the club building thoroughly the day before and hang up the posters announcing our visit. That particular time the director was somewhat negligent and when we arrived, there were no posters at all, and the inside of the club building was covered with frost. We managed to gather just a few elderly women from the neighbouring houses. All of them were sitting wrapped in fur coats, and we too spoke to them in our coats on. When we finished, the time for the concert came. And this internationally famous singer, the ‘golden voice’ of Khakassia, stepped onto the stage in a turquoise-coloured silk gown and sang for those few elderly women for quite a long time, giving of herself completely in each song… When I asked her afterwards how she could tolerate such a frost and why she didn’t stay in her fur coat, she answered simply, “These are our grandmothers, whom I deeply respect. In this gown I sang for the Belgian royal family. Our grandmothers are worthy of seeing the same thing that the royal family saw.”  

“When the New Testament in Khakas was published I gave this book to her as a present, in spite of that time with the field testing. Somehow I had confidence in her. And I was not deceived in my intuition. So many years passed. We met again recently, and one of the first things that my friend, who is almost 80 now, told me was, “Do you remember the book that you gave me, Galina? I want you to know that I do read this book!” And she quoted from the Gospels abundantly. For me this was very significant. She is the embodied soul of Khakassia for many, and if at this new stage of her life she starts thinking of what it will really mean for her “to go to one’s true home,” then this book, the New Testament, will surely become truly useful for many more people of my land.”

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